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EXCERPTS

The Witches of Dark Root (Excerpt)

 

Prologue: Magic Man

 

Miss Sasha’s Magick Shoppe, Dark Root, Oregon

February, 2005

 

The shop was cold and dimly lit, musty and confining.

A spider web had attached itself to the archway that separated the main room from the back and I ducked each time I passed beneath it, not bothering to sweep it down. Shelves lined every wall of Mother’s Magick shop, displaying the hundreds of candles, masks, figurines, and baubles that made Miss Sasha’s the most popular attraction in all of Dark Root.

While the oddities fascinated tourists, I hardly noticed them anymore as I went about my work.  I hardly noticed anything anymore, except the clock that ticked down the minutes until I was released from my daily servitude.

“Excuse me,” said a woman who had been meandering near the book section for the last hour. “Where is your restroom?”

I responded by opening the front door.

She looked like she was going to protest but decided against it. My apathy for the shop was notorious. She would probably lodge a complaint with my mother instead.

“You need to order more peppermint,” my sister Eve said, emerging from the back room and sucking on a piece of candy.   “We’ve been out for almost a week.”

“You order it,” I responded.

If she was going to eat the supplies, she could order them as well.

Eve launched into a series of reasons why I should perform the task––I was practically a boy and therefore, better at math, I had no social life and thus had far more time for work, etc. I was about to tell her that it wouldn’t bother me if we ran out of everything, that the whole place could implode for all I cared, when a crystal figurine on a low shelf caught my eye. It was an owl, an ugly thing with eyes that bulged and a beak that hooked. I wasn’t sure who had ordered it but I was certain it would never find a buyer.

“Bet I beat you out of this town,” I said, tapping its beak.

A losing bet, I realized. It had wings. I didn’t even have a car.

I checked the clock again––five minutes ‘til closing time––and glanced around the shop. It wasn’t as clean as my mother would have wanted, but then again my mother wasn’t here.

“I say we call it done,” I said, tossing my apron on the counter.

“Maggie, come take a look.”

Eve stood by the window. Her fingers twitched as she pointed to a man I had never seen before, seated by the window in Delilah’s Deli across the street.

“Who is he?” she asked. “I don’t recognize him.”

I moved to get a better view, nudging her out of the way. “Well, he isn’t from around here.”

Eve clucked her tongue. Of course, he wasn’t from around here. His sophisticated clothing identified him as a city person, not a man who spent much time slinking around a small town in Central Oregon.

“He’s handsome,” she said and I silently agreed. Though it was getting dark I could still make out his thick mane of wavy brown hair and the strong line of his jaw. He was leaning forward, talking to a gaunt young man who hung on his every word.

“We have to find out what he’s doing here,” Eve said. “It’s just not natural.” Though the town festered with tourists during the fall months when we held the Haunted Dark Root Festival, it was rare to see anyone arrive after November and before May.

“Probably just passing through on his way to Salem or Portland. Blew out a tire or had to use the bathroom.”

“You have no imagination.”

Eve chattered on about how he was probably a famous Hollywood producer. She couldn’t allow anyone a normal life; she always reached for the dramatic.

But she was right. There was something special about the stranger. He had an energy that popped and sparkled.

As if he knew he was being watched, he turned in our direction. Eve ducked but I held my position, staring back. His eyes were as grey and stormy as the Oregon coastline. He knew things…secrets and mysteries.

I felt jolted awake after a long sleep.

“We should bring him over.” Eve’s dark eyes flashed as she pushed a step-stool across the floor to gather oils and vials from the top shelf. Next, she collected an assortment of herbs from bins beneath the counter. “…Candles. I need purple candles.”

Like a fly to a spider, I thought as I watched her. She was driven when she had a mission, not the same dreamy girl who stared out the window all day talking about the life she was missing out on while she ignored customers.

“We could just walk across the street and talk to him,” I said, moving away from the window.

“Just because you’re too good for magic, doesn’t mean some of us don’t respect the craft.”

“I never said I was against magic.”

“Just practicing it. We can’t all be Wilders, you know?” Eve placed her stack onto the counter and arranged the objects into neat piles.

I felt my face redden. Wilder was a slang word, used to describe a witch who had no control over her magic. The light above us flickered.

Besides,” Eve grinned, as if she had said nothing wrong. “This is far more fun. Now, where’s the book?” She scanned the room for our mother’s spell book.

I shrugged. If she wanted to lure a man here against his will that was her business, but I wasn’t going to help.

“Here it is!” She held up a small, leather-bound journal in her hands. It was a rare book, Mother claimed, filled with spells and incantations that would have been lost to time were they not carefully preserved on these pages. As a result, only Mother’s direct descendants could remove the book from her store without suffering a terrible curse.

What the curse was, nobody knew, but Miss Sasha’s magick was formidable, and no one in Dark Root wanted to risk it.

Eve went to work creating a concoction of vanilla, rose petals and thyme, hardly glancing at the open book beside her. She had probably committed her man-luring spell to heart.

“Wouldn’t it be exciting if we fell in love and he took me away from this horrible town? Now that Merry is gone, there’s nothing to keep me here.”

I felt a dagger in my heart at the mention of our older sister’s name. Merry had left three years ago to marry some guy she barely knew and nothing had been the same since.

“You really think you’re going to get out of here before me?” I asked.

“Someone’s got to take care of Mom. Besides,” Eve looked at the clock on the far wall then back to me, “I have to get out of here. I’m going to be a famous actress one day. A psychic told me.”

I snorted, peeking out the window again. The curtains to Delilah’s Deli were shut now, indicating that the cafe was closed. I glanced up and down the street, hoping to see a sign of him or his car, but the street was empty. “Even if your spell does work and you get him to wander over here, what makes you think he’s going to fall in love with you?”

“The travel spell is only part of it,” she said. “One sip of my special tea and he’ll treat me like the goddess I am.” Eve retreated into the back room, returning with a white porcelain cup and matching teapot. “You might not have dreams, Maggie, but I do. God forbid that three years from now when I’m your age, I’m still working as a sales girl in this dump.” She dropped her apron on the floor and kicked it under the counter.

Without warning the door opened, startling us both.

The stranger entered, removing his grey felt hat. He looked around the shop, taking it in. I glanced at Eve, wondering how her travel spell could have worked so quickly.

She shrugged in response.

“Well, hello there,” she said, regaining her composure “Our shop is closed but we were just making tea. You are welcome to join us.” She slinked towards the man, offering him the teacup.

The stranger blinked uncertainly, declining the tea with a wave of his hand. He strode past my sister and stood before me.

“Actually,” he said, staring at me with mystical eyes. “Maggie Maddock, I’m here for you.”

 

****

Excerpt from Black in White (Quentin Black Mysteries #1)

Two

FIRST INTERVIEW

 

HE LOOKED ME over when I walked in.

Unlike a lot of people I’d interviewed in this room, suspects and witnesses alike, he didn’t hide his appraisal. He also didn’t do anything to try and get me on his side––like smile, or make his body language more accommodating or submissive.

He didn’t try to intimidate me either, at least not that I noticed.

Again, the predominant emotion I saw in his assessment remained impatience.

He seemed, more than anything, to assume I was here to waste his time, too.

At the same time, I got the sense there was more there––more in relation to me specifically, I mean. Nothing sexual, at least I didn’t think so.

What that “more” was exactly, I had absolutely no theories at that point.

Maybe I simply wasn’t what––or who––he’d expected.

Maybe my appearance threw him.

I’m used to that, to a degree. I’m tall for a woman, almost five-nine. My mom was Native American, like I said, and from one of the plains tribes that actually had some real height on them. I’m not sure what our dad was, since I never met any of his family, but he was tall too. I’d gotten hints of his bone structure, along with my mom’s. I also got his light-hazel eyes, which people tell me are striking on me but were positively riveting on my father. My mom joked once she could have fallen in love with my father from his eyes alone.

The rest of me was my mother, according to my aunts. Straight black hair, full mouth, my sense of humor, even my curves, which were slightly less curvy from the martial arts classes, but not fully absent either.

In other words, even under all of my professional armor, I’m definitely female.

I can’t exactly hide it, even in suits and with my hair tied tightly back.

For my part, I didn’t bother to smile at him either, or do any of the usual heavy-handed shrink things to try and convince him I was “on his side” or even particularly friendly towards him. Right off, I got the feeling that those kinds of tactics wouldn’t work on this guy.

He would see right through them.

Worse, trying it would probably cause him to dismiss me, too.

So yeah, I approached him assuming he was a psychopath.

Of course, the technical term these days, at least according to the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (or “DSM” as we shrink-types called it) is “Anti-Social Personality Disorder” or ASPD. Those of us who work in forensic psych know a lot of the specific signs that go with this diagnosis––as well as ways to pick out the truly dangerous ones––but generally, there’s a longer sussing-out period involved.

The most dangerous types were harder to spot.

Often highly intelligent, deeply manipulative, glibly charming, uninterested in other people and totally unwilling to acknowledge the individual rights of anyone apart from themselves, the more dangerous individuals with anti-social personality disorder were masters at evading detection by psychs who couldn’t see past the veneer.

Narcissistic bordering on grandiose. Inflated sense of their own entitlement. Zero compunction about manipulating others. Generally lacking the capacity for love. Generally lacking the ability to feel shame or remorse. They either experienced only shallow emotions or feigned emotion altogether. They had a constant need for stimulation…

Well, you get the idea.

Truthfully, I doubted this guy would talk to me any more than he would talk to the cops.

Well, unless he decided I could help him in some way, or perhaps entertain him…since “short attention span” was often a big issue for the average psychopath. Or perhaps he would treat me differently because he wanted a female audience instead of a male one; I was reasonably certain that only male cops had been tried on him so far.

Either way, I strongly suspected I wouldn’t win him over by trying to play him for a fool, at least not right out of the gate.

I seated myself in the metal folding chair across the table from him.

I did my own quick once-over of the room, even though I’d been in here a few dozen times already––reminding myself of the location of the cameras, looking at the four corners out of habit. My eyes glanced down to where the suspect’s ankles had been cuffed, not only to one another but to metal rings in the floor. His wrist cuffs were also chained to his waist, as well as to those same rings in the floor.

Glen already assured me that the range of the chains wouldn’t allow him to reach me as long as I stayed in the chair.

Still, he’d warned me not to get any closer.

I didn’t need to be told twice. The guy looked a lot bigger from in here.

He also looked significantly more muscular.

Leaning back in the hard, metal seat, I watched those gold, cat-like eyes flicker over me. They didn’t pause anywhere for long, much less conduct one of those lecherous, lingering appraisals some convicts did in an attempt to unsettle me.

I sensed a methodicalness to his stare, instead.

That unnerved me a little, truthfully, maybe because it surprised me.

Even for a psychopath, that kind of focus was rare. Usually other people just weren’t that interesting to them.

Then again, captivity may have changed that for him, too.

My eyes took in his appearance for the second time that day, lingering on the strangely high cheekbones still colored with smears of dried blood. I saw flakes of that blood on the surface of the table too, from where it had been rubbed off by his metal cuffs.

Wincing, I glanced up to find him staring at me once more, his gold eyes bordering on thoughtful as they took in my face.

When he didn’t break the silence after a few seconds more, I leaned back more deliberately, crossing my legs in the dark-blue pantsuit I wore.

“So,” I said, sighing. “You don’t want to talk to anyone.”

I didn’t bother to state it as a question.

The man’s eyes flickered back to my face, specifically to my eyes.

After a pause, I saw a faint smile tease the edges of his lips.

“I doubt my words would be very convincing,” he said.

I must have jumped a little in my chair, but he pretended not to notice.

“…Covered in blood,” he continued, motioning with one cuffed hand, likely as much as he could, given the restraints. Still, something in the odd grace of the gesture struck me, causing me to follow it with my eyes. “…Picked up near the scene of the crime. And you have witnesses, too, I suspect? Or did those three little girls decide it wasn’t worth getting in trouble with their parents by calling the police in the wee hours of dawn?”

His words surprised me.

More, the longer he spoke.

Not only because he said them, but because they came out with a clipped, sharp accuracy and cadence. They wore the barest trace of an accent too, although it was one I couldn’t identify. His manner of speech certainly implied a greater than average amount of education.

“In any case,” the man said, leaning back so that the chains clanked at his ankles and on the table. “…I imagine I lack credibility, wouldn’t you say, doc?”

I heard murmurings of surprise through my earpiece, too.

Apparently, I’d already gotten more out of him than any of them had.

I smoothed my expression without trying to hide my own surprise. Instead, I watched him openly, letting him see me do it.

“Doc,” I said.

At his widening smile, I returned it, adding a touch of wry humor and raising an eyebrow.

“You think I am a doctor?”

“Aren’t you?” he said at once. “Military, too, I suspect. Once upon a time. I saw you checking the corners. You’ve carried a gun…haven’t you, doc? Maybe you even carry one now.” He glanced around him ruefully. “Not in here, of course.”

I shifted in my chair, not answering him.

“Aren’t you a doctor?” he prompted.

“Depends on who you ask,” I said drily, sighing a little.

Without taking my eyes off his, I leaned to the side somewhat, resting my arm on the back of the folding chair.

“Psychiatrist then,” he said, adjusting his posture as well, a perhaps intentional replication of the old psychology trick of imitating the poses of those you want to confide in you. “Or psychologist…only a real one, with a PhD. So perhaps it was a criminal psych ward where you honed your paranoia, not the military. You could be a social worker too, I suppose…although I have my doubts. You have too much of a clinical air about you, not enough of that needy, do-gooder type of saccharin that the softer arts tend to attract.” His smile sharpened. “I would say dentist, but under the circumstances…”

Again that eloquent gesture of his fingers, this time indicating the room.

“…I am thinking that is not likely.”

“I’m a psychologist,” I told him easily. “Right in one.”

“So you are here to assess me, then?” he said. “Or are they hoping the presence of an attractive female would send me frothing and panting? Get me to show my true colors? Shall I start screaming ‘Die Bitch!’ to satisfy those watching through the glass?”

I smiled again, unintentionally that time.

“If you want,” I told him, muting the smile. “Do you want me to die?”

“Not particularly,” he said.

“Really? Why not?” I said.

“I think you’re the first person I’ve seen here with an IQ above that of a balding ape. Although that one inspector…he’s got a bit of that base, instinctive kind of intellect. Only a bit, mind you. You know who I mean. Joe Handsome.”

“It’s Nick, actually,” I said, smiling in spite of myself.

“Ah, he’s a friend of yours, then?”

“Not a special friend, if that’s what you mean.”

“I didn’t, but it’s interesting information to have. Clearly the topic has come up between you, or you wouldn’t have bothered to qualify it.”

I shook my head, unimpressed with this last, and letting him see that, too.

“Really?” I said. “You’re going there?”

“Going where?”

“Discredit the female by making some disparaging reference to her sexuality? Dismiss her as an equal by highlighting her value or lack thereof as a sexual object?”

“I profoundly apologize,” he said, giving me a startled look. The surprise I could see in those almond eyes may have been mocking me, but it looked genuine. “…My comments certainly weren’t meant to be disparaging. I have no intention of resorting to such cheap tricks, doctor, simply to feel I’ve ‘outwitted’ you. Sadly, my ego won’t permit it.” Pausing, he added, “Would it help you to know I get sex on a regular basis too? I don’t know that it would demean me in your eyes or if it would come off as bragging…in any case, I did not bring up your own sexuality as anything other than a personal curiosity.”

I tilted my head, still smiling, but letting my puzzlement show.

“Why are you talking to me at all?” I asked finally.

“Why shouldn’t I talk to you?” he said. “I’ve already told you that you’re the first person to walk in here that I thought might be worth my attempting to communicate.”

“Because I’m female?” I said.

“Because you seem to be less of a fool than the rest of them,” he corrected me at once.

“But you said Nick had a mind?”

“I said he had a mind of sorts. Not the same thing at all. Although, given the nature of his intellect, he has undoubtedly chosen the right profession for himself.”

I smiled again. “I’m sure that will be quite a relief for him.”

I heard laughter in the earpiece that time, right before Nick spoke up.

“See if he’ll tell you his name,” he said to me.

“Certainly, if you really want to know,” the suspect said, before I could voice the question aloud. “My name is Black. Quentin Black. Middle initial, R.”

I stared at him, still recovering from the fact that he’d seemingly heard Nick give me an instruction through the earpiece.

Clearly, he wanted me to know he’d heard it, too.

“You heard that?” I said to him.

“Good ear, yes?” he said. Smiling, he gave me a more cryptic, yet borderline predatory look. “Less good with you, however. Significantly less good.”

He paused, studying my face with eyes full of meaning.

I almost got the sense he was waiting for me to reply…or maybe just to react. When I didn’t, he leaned back in the chair, making another of those graceful, flowing gestures with his hand.

“I find that…fascinating, doc. Quite intriguing. Perhaps that is crossing a boundary with you again, however? To mention that?”

I paused on his words, then decided to dismiss them.

“Is that a real name?” I said. “Quentin Black. That doesn’t sound real. It sounds fake.”

“Real is all subjective, is it not?”

“So it’s not real, then?”

“Depends on what you mean.”

“Is it your legal name?”

“Again, depends on what you mean.”

“I mean, could you look it up in a database and actually get a hit somewhere?”

“How would I know that?” he said, making an innocent gesture with his hands, again within the limits of the metal cuffs.

Realizing I wasn’t going to get any more from him on that line of questioning, I changed direction. “What does the ‘R’ stand for?” I said.

“Rayne.”

“Quentin Rayne Black?” I repeated back to him, still not hiding my disbelief.

“Would you believe me if I said my parents had a sense of whimsy?” he asked me.

“No,” I said.

“Would you believe that I do, then?”

I snorted a laugh, in spite of myself. I heard it echoed through the earpiece, although I heard a few curses coming from that direction, too.

I shook my head at the suspect himself, but less in a “no” that time.

“Yes,” I conceded finally. “So it is a made-up name, then?”

The man calling himself Quentin Black only returned my smile. His eyes once again looked shrewd, less thoughtful and more openly calculating.

Even so, his weird comment about “listening” came back to me.

Truthfully, he was looking at me as if he were listening very hard.

The thought made me slightly nervous.

Especially since I’d been doing the same to him from inside the observation booth.

Seeing the intelligence there, I found myself regrouping mentally as the silence stretched, reminding myself who and what I was dealing with. The fact that he’d nearly made me forget that in our back and forth of the last few moments was unnerving on its own.

I found myself looking him over deliberately, for the second time since I’d left the glass-enclosed booth behind the one-way mirror. I fought to reconcile his physical presence with the words I’d heard come out of that well-formed mouth.  The two things, his physicality and his manner of speaking, didn’t really fit at all, at least not from my previous experience in these kinds of interviews.

The all-black clothing, the dense, rock-like muscles I could see under that blood-soaked shirt, the expensive leather shoes, the expensive watch, the ethnically-ambiguous but somehow feral-looking face…nothing about him really fit, from his made-up name to his wryly humorous quipping with me.

I found myself staring at that strange, somehow animal-evoking face with its abnormally high cheekbones and almond eyes, and wondered who in the hell this guy really was.

“Where are you from, Quentin?” I asked, voicing at least part of my puzzlement.

He shook his head though, that smile back to playing with the edges of his lips.

“You don’t want to tell me that?” I said.

“No,” he said. “…Clearly, I don’t.”

“What do you do for a living?” I said, trying again. “Do you have a job of some kind, Quentin? Some area of expertise you’d like to share?”

That time, he rolled his eyes openly.

Before I could respond to his obvious disdain, he let out an audible and impatient sigh.

“You’re not going to resort to shrink games on me now, are you, doc?” he said, giving me another of those more penetrating stares. “…Not so soon in our new friendship? I haven’t intimidated you already, have I?” At my silence, his voice grew bored. “The constant repetition of my given name. The clinical yet polite peppering of questions in an attempt to quietly undermine my sense of autonomy here…”

“Fine.” I held up both of my palms in a gesture of surrender. “What do you want to talk about, Mr. Black? Do you want to tell me what you were doing at the Palace of Fine Arts earlier this morning?”

“Not here,” he said cryptically, smiling at me again.

I frowned, glancing around the gunmetal gray room.

“Somewhere else, then?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “For all of your questions, doc. Including the ones I wouldn’t answer before.”

I gave him another puzzled smile. “I hate to tell you, Mr. Black, but you’re not likely to be anyplace that is significantly different from this room anytime soon. Not in terms of a non-institutional setting…if that’s what you’re driving at.”

“It must certainly appear that way to you, yes,” he said, raising his chained wrists for emphasis and glancing around the room with those gold eyes. “…But perhaps you are mistaken in that, doc. Perhaps you’ll find that we can speak in a much more comfortable setting, just the two of us…and in not too long a time.”

I narrowed my gaze at him.

It didn’t sound like a threat, at least not coming from him. But the words themselves could definitely have been construed as one.

I gave him a wry smile. “You think so, huh?”

I do, a voice said clearly in my mind. I do think so, doc.

I jumped, violently.

Truthfully, I almost lost my balance in the chair.

“Miri?” Nick asked in my ear. “Miri? Are you okay?”

For a long-feeling few seconds I only stared at Black, breathing harder.

I could feel as much as see him watching me react. He smiled, lifting the bare corners of that sculpted mouth. Then he shrugged, his expression smoothing.

“Perhaps you’ll accept a raincheck on that particular discussion, doc?” he said. “…After I’ve finished my business here?”

It unnerved me, hearing him use the nickname yet again. I knew it wasn’t exactly an original thing to call someone in my line of work, but it still struck me as deliberate.

I fought the other thing out of my mind, sure I must have imagined it.

Even so, the smile on my face grew strained.

“Okay,” I said. “You pick the topic, then. For today I mean…pre-raincheck.”

Quentin Black smiled, leaning back deliberately in the bolted, metal chair.

“No,” he said, after assessing me again with those strangely animal eyes. “No, I think we’re done for now, doc. It was my very great pleasure to meet you, however.”

I pursed my lips. “You don’t want to talk to me anymore?” I said.

I want to talk to you so badly I can fucking taste it, that same voice said in my mind, making me jump again, but less violently that time. My breath stopped, locking in my chest as the voice rose even more clearly. But not here, doc. Not here. Patience. And believe me when I say I am speaking to myself in this, even more than I am to you…

I could only sit there, breathing, staring at him.

Those gold eyes never wavered.

When I didn’t move after a few more seconds, or speak, he smiled.

Do they know what you are, doc? Does that handsome cop in the next room have any idea why it is that you are so very, very good at your job? Or how you managed to keep him alive that time in Afghanistan…?

My chest clenched more.

It hurt now, like a fist had reached inside me, squeezing my heart.

The voice fell silent.

The man in front of me looked at me, his expression close to expectant. Then he gazed pointedly down at my engagement ring.

Does anyone know about you, doc? Anyone at all?

My throat closed as he raised his eyes back to mine.

Those gold flecked irises studied my face, watching my reaction.

I can’t hear you, the voice said next, flickering with a tinge of frustration. I cannot hear you at all…but I know from your face that you hear me, doc. That shield of yours is damned strong. I confess, it’s positively turning me on at this point…but it also makes me very curious. Were you ever ranked, sister? If so, I would love to know at what level…

Another smile ghosted his lips, even as a curl of heat slid through my lower abdomen, one that didn’t feel like it originated from me, at least not entirely.

It made my face flush hot, even as my thighs clenched together in reflex.

I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours… the voice said, softer.

My throat tightened, choking me with a caught swallow.

Still, he didn’t say anything aloud.

We’ll talk more later, doc, I heard in my mind, softer still. I have so many, many questions. So many things I’d like to discuss. But I really do not wish to do any of that here…not with them watching us. They are wondering at this silence as it is. You must try to speak to me again, doc, before your handsome cop decides there is a problem. Before he and his meat-headed partner make an issue of it…

I blinked again, my heart now slamming against my ribs.

But he wasn’t looking at me now.

As I watched, Quentin Rayne Black lapsed back into the bored, stone-faced man I’d glimpsed through the window before I’d entered the room.

I’d finally managed to clear my throat.

Clenching my hands together in my lap, conscious of how clammy they felt, I kept my voice carefully polite.

“Do you want to tell me about the body in the park, Mr. Black?” I said.

Nothing. Silence.

“Mr. Black?” I said, hearing the slight tremble in my voice. “Did you kill that woman? Did you pose her in that wedding dress?”

He didn’t look up from where he stared down between his cuffed hands.

I tried again, asking the same thing a few different ways.

But nothing I said in those next fifteen or so minutes appeared to reach him. I tried being friendly, annoying, disdainful, mocking. I belittled his intellect…even threw out a few offers to deal, along with some not-so-veiled threats. Nothing.

I got nothing.

In fact, I doubt I penetrated the veneer of that thoughtful, somehow puzzle-solving stare he aimed at the empty surface of the metal table.

Clearly, I’d been dismissed.

 


 

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