Bern slowly ran a hand through his hair. In the mirror, his reflection followed him.
The light in this room was dim and yellowish, which gave his borrowed crisp white shirt a strange tinge. He inhaled slowly to a count of five in an effort to calm his stomach. It didn't work. No matter how much he steeled himself, Nevada was still going to be livid when she spotted him here. It had all made a lot of sense that morning. Now that he was actually about to crash a party, though, he couldn't remember why he'd agreed to do this.
Behind him, Rogan cleared his throat. "I think you look presentable. We'll be fashionably late if we enter now." The corner of his mouth was turned up. Bern thought he looked more eager than happy.
He turned around and nodded. It was too late to go back now. "I'm ready."
Rogan nodded. "Then let's go."
That morning, suits and gowns had been the last thing on Nevada's mind. She'd missed the chance to eat breakfast with most of the family by the time she'd dragged herself downstairs, still wearing the t-shirt and sweatpants she'd slept in. So it surprised her to see Bern sitting at the table when she came into the kitchen. The microwave clock said it was after 8:30.
She walked over and ruffled his hair on her way to the fridge. "Don't you have class this morning?"
Bern looked up from his cereal. "My professor sent us an email. He's at home dealing with a busted water pipe. We're supposed to do an online module instead."
In the corner her phone vibrated softly. Nevada ignored it in favor of digging through the fridge for anything she could heat up for breakfast. After half a minute the phone went quiet again, which meant that had been an actual call, not just a text message. She collected eggs, cheese, and the scraps of a green pepper before backing away from the fridge and shutting the door with her knee. All of it had gone into the frying pan before her cousin said anything. She had to give him credit for his restraint.
"You left your phone down here overnight," he said. She hummed in answer. "I plugged it to charge."
"The screen lit up when I did," he added. Nevada flipped her omelet and kept her eyes on the frying pan. Bern would get to his question eventually. There was no use trying to speed him up. "It said you had missed a call and three text messages from Rogan."
"Only three?" She raised her eyebrows. "I expected him to be more impatient when I didn't answer the first one."
Bern stirred his cereal. "If there's something you need me to look into, I can do it," he said, spoon clinking against the side of his bowl. "I won't tell anybody."
"No. Please don't worry, Bern." Last night she'd known it was a dumb idea to leave the phone downstairs instead of putting it on silent, but it was a lot more satisfying to physically walk away from Rogan than to mute him. "We're not arguing, I just don't want to talk to him." She took breakfast and her phone over to the table, reluctantly placing it between her and her cousin. "If it was actually important, he would have shown up by now."
Bern looked sideways at her. "Do you want him to come here?"
Her mouth was full so she couldn't answer him right away, which was probably for the best. She'd spent no little amount of time convincing her family that she wanted nothing more to do with Rogan. Next to Grandma Frida, who just ignored everything Nevada said, it seemed like her cousin was the least swayed. It made her uneasy, but she hadn't figured out how to broach the subject with him yet.
Bern still seemed to be willing to give Rogan way more slack than she was comfortable with. Probably because even though he'd fucked up majorly in her books, he'd been -- or appeared to be -- kind to the rest of them, especially Bern, and had engineered things so Bug had gifted Bern all of that equipment as well. And sure, it had worked, but she hadn't forgiven Rogan for placing Bern in harm's way just to push her into breaking through her magical boundaries. Nevada was ignoring Rogan's messages because she didn't want to talk to him, yes, but she also didn't want him to get involved with her family again. The longer she could keep everyone apart, the better.
When her phone rang a few minutes later, her first instinct was to turn it face down and let it go to voice mail again. Except, this time, it was Augustine Montgomery's name on the screen. She and Bern exchanged a look as she swept the phone up. "Hello?"
"Nevada," he said. "Are you free this evening?"
"That depends on what you're asking about," Nevada said. She laid down her fork and hit the speaker button so Bern could listen in. If it was a job, she would want him to know the details anyway. "Do you have a case for us?"
"In a manner of speaking. Specifically, I am attending a charity gala this evening." His voice was slightly hushed. The muffled sound of a crowd in the background spiked and then faded as he moved away. "I would like to contract you -- at slightly higher than your standard rate, given the nature of the work -- to accompany me."
Silence stretched between them. Bern looked baffled, and the tips of his ears had gone red. Nevada inhaled while counting to three and said, as calmly as she could, "Excuse me?"
"MII will be bidding on a few specific items in the auction portion." If Augustine had heard the surprise in her voice he didn't seem to think he was anything he might have said. He continued on at a brisk pace. It was hard to tell without being able to see him, but Nevada got the impression that he was on edge. "Beforehand, I will endeavor to speak with the persons involved in authenticating the items. The contract would cover you attending the entire gala, but I would most need your opinion on the … trustworthiness of the experts." He paused, too briefly for her to comment, and added, "MII would of course provide your attire for the night."
Nevada frowned at the phone. "You want me to tell you whether the experts aren't confident in the authenticity of the items," she said. Augustine confirmed and went silent, waiting for her response. "That tells me you suspect bribery or fraud. Do you also suspect this might go to hell if certain things are revealed as fakes?"
"I have no interest in dramatic revelations," he said, flatly. Her powers didn't work on the phone, but she had the sense he was telling the truth. Public spectacles didn't suit him. "We would simply refrain from placing a winning bid."
She looked up at her cousin, who shrugged. He started to say something, but his own phone rang. He glanced at the screen and stood up to take it out of the room, leaving her to finish the conversation alone. That was enough of a comment for her. With a click, she took Augustine off speaker.
It was definitely an unusual job, and not a service she'd like to provide for Augustine often, but it seemed straightforward enough. High society parties in Houston were less dangerous than a lot of the places work took her. It would be a quick paycheck, which wouldn't mean nothing, either. Plus… She sighed as she realized she was talking herself into it. Plus, she thought, it might be smart to do something easy that would get her a point or two with Augustine. Using her magic for MII was something she was reluctant to do, but this was small, and it wouldn't harm anyone else.
"Email a contract, I'll get it back to you soon. Where and when do you need me?"
Bern hoped he was able to keep his face blank when he saw who was calling. Nevada didn't seem to react, but his heart thumped in his chest as he pushed back from the kitchen table. He cupped his phone in his palm until he was in the hallway, and then he walked as quickly as he could to the stairwell without making his footsteps too loud. "This is Bern," he said, climbing the stairs and calculating how far he need to go through their home to get out of earshot. If Nevada kept busy with Augustine for the next few minutes, he would be fine partway down the hall.
"How is your day going?"
He paused mid-step. "Um. Fine."
"You sound unsure," Mad Rogan said. There was no background noise to the call. Belatedly, Bern thought it might be a good idea to try to get a fix on where Rogan was calling from. In case it was, like, their driveway. He adjusted his course and headed to the Hut. "Is something happening? A particularly trying investigation?"
"No." He hesitated as he stepped into the Hut, then forced himself to sit down and hook his phone up to the computer. With the setup Bug had gifted him, tracking a signal would be easy. "I guess I just wasn't expecting you to ask about me."
"Why would I call if I wasn't going to ask about you?"
"Because Nevada is ignoring you," Bern said before he could think better of it. He winced at the silence on the other end of the line. On one of his screens, the program he used for locating cell and internet signals had started up. It was scanning the general Houston area and taking a little longer to narrow things down than he would've expected.
By the time he realized that Rogan might have some kind of blocker in place, he was speaking again. "I take it that means there's no pressing emergency keeping her from the phone," he drawled. Bern sank down in his seat a little. He wondered if Nevada would accept I didn't mean to make it worse. "If I leave a message with you, would you be so kind to pass it along to your cousin? It's time-sensitive and I don't really have the space today to come by myself."
"I think she's going to be busy tonight." He tried adding a few things to the tracking program, to see if he could confirm at least the general area of town Rogan was in, but nothing. He shut it down and switched over to his email. Augustine had already sent an email and PDF attachment about his gig to the main Baylor Investigative Agency account.
"I can pay more than whatever your client is paying," Rogan said, emphasizing the your just slightly. Bern hit print on the contract from MII. "If necessary, I can pay a licensed investigator of my own to step in and cover whatever Nevada had planned for this evening."
The contract was short, simple. Bern flipped to the back page to double-check that Augustine had actually increased the rate of pay for a one-night job. He had, more than Bern had expected, which he thought Nevada would be happy about. "Nevada doesn't switch jobs once she starts them," he said, collecting the papers. Then he paused. "Unless somebody is about to die. Is it life-threatening?" When Rogan made a thoughtful sound, Bern, sighed and reminded him, "She'll be able to tell if you lied when you meet up."
"Matters other than life and death can still be important," Rogan said. "Could you put Nevada on the phone now?"
"She's on the phone."
"She's--" Rogan paused. "Is she speaking with Augustine Montgomery?"
Bern looked at his phone, then the contract, and then his phone again. "How did you do that?"
"Because," Rogan said, his voice thinning into ice, "we're at the same location, and he excused himself from the group several minutes ago."
This was not good. They were probably both at some pre-party planning shit. Did rich people go drinking at each other's houses before a party? Was that a thing? There was still no sound coming from the other end of the line, either, but suddenly all Bern could picture was Rogan prowling the halls of some wealthy old lady's house looking for Augustine and starting a fight in the middle of a bunch of priceless works of art. Which Nevada would overhear from her own cell phone.
He rolled the contract up in one hand and left the Hut, walking back toward the house and the kitchen. He needed to figure out how to hang up without Rogan ending up on their front step. If he could manage that much, maybe Nevada wouldn't even be that mad. "I have to go now," he said, which was not the smoothest excuse he'd ever given but did have the benefit of being true. "Sorry we couldn't help."
"Wait. Actually, you can help."
"I didn't say Nevada. I said you."
Shit. "I'm not actually a licensed investigator," he reminded Rogan. All he could think of were ways Nevada was going to kill him when she found him talking to Mad fucking Rogan. And making it worse. "No offense, but I don't think I would be any help, anyway. I'm not magical."
Rogan laughed. "I don't need magic. I need a distraction. I can pay you. And you will be helping a good cause. I'm going to guess that Augustine did not enlighten either one of you about what he intends to bid on tonight."
Which, unfortunately, was true, and also enough to slow Bern to a complete halt while Rogan described two items -- artifacts, really -- that he wanted to bid on. Or more importantly, that he did not want House Montgomery to win. Rogan had been mostly right. It wasn't a matter of life or death, right now. But it could be in time.
Nevada had put on the shimmery, ankle-length gown she'd been presented with -- and which probably cost as much as her car was worth -- but refused to be set down in a chair for hair and makeup. There had been too many bottles full of things she couldn't identify, and the palette the makeup artist waved at her had been way too pale for her skin tone anyway. So instead she had her own makeup on and had simply pinned her hair up with something sufficiently glittery enough to be distracting.
She had to admit the dress fit well and the heels made her legs look amazing. It almost made up for the few people who didn't seem convinced when Augustine introduced her as, "Ms. Baylor, a colleague with particular interest in early research documents."
To his credit he didn't indulge any of the prolonged looks at her with additional information. He also kept his hands to himself, except to touch her elbow to call her attention to particular items or warn her that someone was approaching. That may have been Prime manners for a public setting or it may have been because he knew she'd stomp the thin heels of her shoes through his foot if he put his hand anywhere else, but either way, she was glad for it.
When he'd described the party to her, she hadn't pictured it like this. An auction, in her mind, was when a group of people sat in a big square in front of a stage. Then someone brought out items and everyone held perfectly still unless they wanted to bid. Apparently that part would come later. In the meantime there were glass cases dotted around the room with small cards below describing each item. The cards also noted the lot numbers. If any of the ones they'd walked past so far were something Augustine wanted to bid on, he hadn't mentioned it.
For now people were mingling, eating appetizers, and drinking a suspiciously large amount of champagne. Nevada was still holding onto her first glass like a shield. She didn't drink on the job, but a waiter materialized with a tray of drinks the moment anyone finished theirs, and she wanted to hold them at bay.
At one point an older woman who greeted Augustine by kissing each side of his face briefly touched her shoulder. Augustine introduced her as Marguerite. "That color looks lovely on you, my dear. Such a rich emerald. Wherever did you get it?"
"Clara, of course," Augustine said, rescuing her from blurting I don't know, someone just handed it to me and shoved me into a bathroom to change.
Marguerite laughed like they were sharing a private joke. When she touched Augustine's shoulder she let her hand linger. "So tell me, darling, have you had a chance yet to choose what you would like to take home?' She smiled slowly. "Would you perhaps be interested in purchasing something for your colleague?"
"I'm trying not to rush. Ms. Baylor is here to assist my selections," he said, nodding at her. Nevada decided to smile and nod back. It was easier than trying to fake what an actual consultant might say in this situation. Marguerite seemed more interested in the fine material of his black suit than Nevada's opinion, anyway. "I understand that the auction house engaged your services to amass this collection. I suppose you have your own favorites."
Nevada had to hand it to him. Augustine's glamour was locked down tight tonight -- his suit looked as crisp as when he'd first put on his jacket, his hair was sharp enough to cut, and his glasses hadn't caught a glare of light once sine they'd entered the room. But it looked like half of the people in the ballroom had one enchantment or another on them. No, Augustine stood out because he was being genuinely charming. And he charmed his friend into walking them across the room to look at a set of books, each resting on a small stand inside a single glass case. The cards said that they were separate lots despite the fact that they had apparently been written by the same person.
"I convinced them to display these together. The respective owners are unhappy about the competition, but I say, whoever obtains one will need the other," she said, keeping her voice low. She had a smug, satisfied expression on her face now. "The books have been separated for a century. No one who can afford one will walk off without the other."
"I can see how that would be difficult," Augustine said.
He managed to only look at the books from the corner of his eye. But he'd briefly cupped her elbow in his hand when they'd approached, and Nevada was supposed to be some kind of document expert, so she leaned down to examine them more closely while Augustine and Marguerite talked about who else was at the party.
She couldn't see anything particularly special about them. The covers were matching blue leather, although one was definitely more tattered than the other. There was a scorch march on the corner of that one. The cards didn't explain, and at a risk of looking stupid, Nevada asked, "Have there been restoration attempts on this one?"
"Oh of course. I myself was able to remove most of a significant stain on one of the center illustrations," Marguerite said. She picked up her chin, preening. "It will of course never be returned to pristine condition, but when you give a research tome to a soldier for safekeeping, what can you expect? We're lucky it doesn't have a bullet in it."
Her magic didn't click. If the book wasn't real, Marguerite was fooled. Nevada waited until she'd left and she and Augustine had drifted to the edge of the crowd to tell him so. "What do you want with a pastor's family's Civil War journals, anyway?"
"My second major was in history," Augustine said, blandly.
Nevada's magic didn't click then either, but there was no one looking at her, so she felt free to roll her eyes. If he wanted to push it off, fine. It would come up eventually, even if that was when the auctioneer described the books in more detail. "Okay. One other question, and please actually answer this one: How much of an illusion did you put on me tonight? Could I have just worn jeans?"
He actually looked offended at the thought. "I simply altered the color of your dress and changed a few of your features." One of his eyebrows went up. "I thought you might appreciate the anonymity. People are aware of a certain Ms. Baylor who completed some significantly public work for MII this year."
She waved off the reference to Adam Pierce. "You should have warned me. What if Marguerite complimented my green dress and I'd said--" Her whole body froze for a moment and then she slowly lowered her arm. "Don't turn around. Did you know that Mad Rogan was going to be here tonight?"
Augustine's perfect face creased in a small grimace. "We both toured the space earlier, during a private preshow for a few of the auction items." When Nevada glared at him, he sighed and sipped his champagne. "He appeared bored. I didn't think he would actually come. If he tries to bother us, I will handle it."
Across the room, Rogan turned, revealing someone standing behind him.
Nevada shoved her half-empty glass into Augustine's free hand.
Bern was relieved that Rogan did most of the talking once they arrived at the gala. He never pictured Rogan as someone who was especially talkative, but the man managed to steer most of their conversations into a corner where whoever had approached them just started talking about theirselves. Sometimes he didn't even introduce Bern. When he did, he simply said, "This is Bern. His cousin is busy, so I'm looking after him." Nobody asked for Bern's last name, or whether he went to school, or what he did for a living. That was probably a good thing, because he hadn't thought of anything to say if someone did ask.
Everyone was far too interested in Rogan -- or at least, telling the man all about themselves. More than once Bern looked at Rogan from the corner of his eye and got a smirk in return. No one else ever seemed to catch that look. Or if they did, maybe they thought Rogan was laughing at something they had said.
He took one sip of the champagne he'd been handed and no more after that. It tasted chemical. Rogan was the only person he saw who didn't take a glass and wasn't continually offered one. Once, when they were walking to a portrait hanging on the wall and no one was trailing them, Bern asked, "What would happen if I just put my glass down on top of that statue?"
Rogan had chuckled. "I think a few alarms might go off. Do you want to try?"
"No." He clutched the drink a little tighter and tried to listen to a woman from the auction house tell them why they wanted to buy the portrait later that night. He had to work not to choke when she suggested Rogan gift it to him as his companion. She hadn't asked Bern's last name or anything else about him, either.
Rogan listened to her spiel with a bored expression and then shrugged. "I suppose I'm not much of an art critic. I would prefer to examine the rest of the collection on my own, thank you." The woman paused, then nodded and walked off, already calling out to someone else.
"Does everyone here think you're my sugar daddy?" Bern muttered, putting a couple extra inches between them. The back of his neck was burning.
"People don't bother asking questions when they can make assumptions." Rogan grinned at him when he groaned. "No one will look for you unless we do something scandalous. Besides, all the pictures released from tonight will have been staged."
Bern pictured Arabella or Lina -- or worse, Leon -- finding gossip about Mad Rogan showing off a young college student at a fancy fundraiser. He suddenly felt like that sip of champagne had been about three glasses' worth. "Is it almost time to go?" he asked, sighing when Rogan laughed again.
He followed Bern over to the nearest waiter, who kind of skeptically took Bern's champagne and let him get away without another. The edge of the room had benches set up, and Bern headed toward one of them, ignoring Rogan following a step behind. Even the shoes he had on were on loan and they were starting to pinch his feet. He could never find his own way back to the small room on a lower floor of the building where Rogan had greeted him and left him alone to change, but he did wish he'd brought his own dress shoes with him. Probably no one would have noticed.
Halfway to the benches, Rogan stopped next to a display, and Bern turned around to see what he was staring at. It was the first thing Rogan had paused for that someone hadn't specifically called their attention to. And it was… a pen?
When Bern stepped up to the case, which was about as big as a football, all it held was a black fountain pen lying on its side. The card on the side of the case said that the pen was from the Civil War era, suspected to have been used in the Lockland Journals, but being sold separately due to the unique nature of the Lockland estate. "What does that mean?"
"Two of Reverend Lockland's journals remain. They were handed down through opposite ends of the family tree," Rogan explained. He was still staring at the pen. "He kept one, which was eventually given to a great-granddaughter, and gave the other to a son who had been in the Union army. The story is a bit misleading -- the books were purchased before the war, but completed a couple of decades after." He moved around the side of the case to get a different angle on what was still, to Bern, just a fountain pen. "Now both branches of the family are in need of a little cash flow."
"Why would any of these people want Civil War artifacts?"
Rogan looked up at him. Bern shifted his weight uncomfortably. "Do you remember exactly what I said that we were here to prevent Montgomery from obtaining research into immortality?"
"You said--" Bern stopped, looked at the pen, and then back up. "I thought it was going to be something ancient. Like the thing Adam found."
"Multiple researchers have confirmed that the beginning of the first Lockland journal was penned in 1860, and the last page of the second in 1940. The good reverend was forty-five in 1860."
Rogan stepped away from the case holding the pen and began circling the edge of the room. Bern had to squeeze himself past a few people to keep up without shoving anyone over. It was easy to do that kind of math in his head. Reverend Lockland would have been 125 years old in 1940.
"But he gave it to his son. If the family was researching immortality…"
"As much as handwriting analysis can be said to be science," Rogan drawled, "it appears likely that the first page and the last were written by the same hand. Without any shakes that might be suspected of a supercentenarian who grew up in an era not famed for its medical care."
Bern looked around the room. It didn't seem to him like anyone felt like the secret to immortality was going to be up for sale in the next twenty minutes. And he wasn't an expert, but he had taken more than one history class at college so far, and something like that would've been a whole chapter. "I've never heard of this."
Rogan shrugged. "It's hard to swallow for most people. Nothing has ever been confirmed, of course. The majority of the journals are encoded, and there have been forgeries. There was one on display at the Houghton Library at Harvard."
"Is that why you wanted Nevada to come with you? To figure out if these are forgeries too?"
They came to an abrupt halt, and Bern bumped into Rogan accidentally. He started to apologize, trying to look around to see what had caught them short, when a hand wrapped around his upper arm. Startled, he reflexively whipped around and had his hand shoving a woman's before he realized he was pushing someone wearing what might be a dress worth the same as his car. Her eyes were narrowed and her nails were digging into his sleeve. She looked like she was about to bite someone's head off.
"Bern, you are going to go home right now," she said, in Nevada's voice.
"Is Augustine ashamed of you, Nevada?" Mad Rogan asked.
Nevada ignored him. Or, wait, no, that wasn't satisfying. Nevada surreptitiously flipped him off, keeping her hand low between them so no one else could see, and looked away from Rogan when he laughed darkly at her. In her grip, her cousin was squirming. There had been shock on his face when he'd first turned around. It had sharpened into horror when she'd spoken, so at least she knew that her voice was the same. She suspected Rogan would've known who she was even if Augustine had managed to disguise her voice too. He'd probably encouraged Augustine to do this kind of thing in college.
She pulled Bern away from him and marched him over to the side of the room. Rogan followed, a smirk blooming on his face when Augustine approached them from the crowd. He'd gotten rid of the champagne glasses by then. His face was calm, but his eyes were lit up, and he stopped just short of shoving into Rogan.
"What the actual hell are you doing here?" Nevada hissed at her cousin. She wasn't going acknowledge either of the men at their sides until she had this handled. Bern had gone pale. "What were you thinking? This was a simple job, Bern, you can't take a competing gig with--"
Rogan leaned in over her shoulder. "Bern is here as my guest."
"He's not even paying you?" Nevada asked, somehow even more irritated than before. If she absolutely had to deal with Rogan tonight, something should be coming from it. Bern opened his mouth and she groaned softly. "This is why he stopped calling me."
"Did you really think I'd given up?"
"This is highly inappropriate," Augustine said. He sounded like he was saying it for the sake of having something to say. He gestured at Bern, but he was glaring at Mad Rogan. "Connor, I can't believe you thought that bringing a minor into this situation--"
"I'm nineteen," Bern protested. He squeaked when Nevada tightened her grip on his arm.
Augustine didn't pause. "--was even remotely a good decision. If you wanted to hire the Baylor Investigative Agency to assist you tonight, you should have planned further ahead. Are you that desperate?"
The smile faded from Rogan's face. Nevada tried not to shiver at the cold look that settled into his eyes. She pulled Bern a little closer, and her cousin didn't resist. "I did call before you thought to, Montgomery, but it seems like my messages were lost before delivery." He did look at her then, and she refused to look away. Part of her hoped that Augustine was still project a face on top of her own, and that it looked as pissed as she felt, and not worried about whether Rogan was slipping into a mood where he might start breaking things.
"Both of you shut up," she snapped. Augustine looked affronted. Rogan just pressed his lips together. He wouldn't stop staring at her, and his eyes had gone cold. She took a deep breath and turned back to her cousin. "Bern, you need to go home. Mom and Grandma Frida are going to ask us why we were both out tonight. What were you going to tell them?"
Bern looked down. "I took my backpack with me and said I was going to the library." He hesitated, then clenched his jaw. When he looked back up his gray eyes had gone steely. "But when Rogan called, he said Augustine didn't tell us everything. The books--"
"Of course Augustine didn't tell us everything!" Nevada muttered. She inhaled deeply when he made a noise of protest. "I didn't expect him to. I made a decision to take this case based on the relative chance of danger, which I assessed to be very low before you walked in on Rogan's arm."
Rogan tilted his head to one side. "Is that a threat, Nevada?" He sounded excited.
She held up one hand, not even bothering to tell him to shut up again. This was Code Red level damage control. "If you were concerned for my safety, you should have told me, not teamed up with someone to watch from the sidelines. We work together, Bern."
"I'm sorry," Bern said, quietly. He did look contrite. Or, well, he looked miserable, but on Bern that meant he had absorbed what he'd done and was imagining all the ways it could have gone worse. Nevada squeezed his arm gently and let her hand fall. He shook his head. "But the books might be research into immortality. I thought that was important. I know, I should have told you, but it sounded important enough for me to be here."
Nevada stared at him for a moment. Then she looked up at Rogan, who was still staring at her. Then she turned around and looked at Augustine, whose face was a complete blank. "The books are research into immortality?"
"They've never been confirmed," Augustine said. "If they are real, and that is still a substantial question, and if Reverend Lockland was not a hack obsessed with creating nonsense ciphers, they might simply be research into extending a lifespan already enhanced by an innate level of magic."
"That's unbelievably reassuring," Nevada said.
"I can have your cousin escorted home in a car," Augustine added.
"He's my guest." Rogan stepped closer, so his chest brushed her back, and Nevada just managed not to jump.
"Also, I drove myself."
Around them, conversation grew quiet for a moment and then picked back up as the crowd began to filter towards the auction area. Augustine watched them leaving. She shook her head to herself. If she tried to leave now, she'd be in violation of the contract she'd signed. And given that her opinion on the relative danger of this job still stood as low, she knew she would chew herself up for skipping out on the paycheck.
She put her hand on Bern's arm. "Sit next to me. When the auction is over, I'm going to call you a cab." It wasn't that she didn't trust Troy -- she hadn't seen him since the Adam Pierce case ended -- but she knew that his loyalty to Rogan was far too high for her tastes. Right now, she didn't want anyone talking him up to her cousin.
"Does that mean you'll stay to complete the job?" Augustine asked.
She could feel Rogan tense up behind her. She gave Augustine the biggest, fakest smile she could manage. "Of course."
The Lockland Estate items were in the second-to-last group of things being auctioned off. Nevada had been so tense when they sat down that her arms had been rigid at her sides, but by the time the fourth portrait of an old dead white guy had been sold off, she was starting to get bored, and she'd leaned back in her chair. Next to her, Bern was trying not to fidget. Rogan was sitting at Bern's side, and Augustine was simmering at Nevada's.
Frankly she didn't care about either of the Primes as long as they behaved themselves. The auction wasn't quite what she'd imagined: people held up paddles with numbers if they wanted to bid, so no one was completely still, but there was very little whispering in the crowd. Two seats wasn't a lot of space but she had to hope it would be enough distance to keep either Rogan or Augustine from shit-talking the other.
When the first Lockland journal finally came up for bidding, Augustine kept his arms crossed. Rogan waited until the price had risen to twenty-five thousand dollars -- Nevada tried not to think about what she could spend that on -- before adding his own bid. The price inched up slowly after that.
She glanced sideways at Augustine. "Aren't you going to bid?" she murmured.
"I'll let Rogan shake off this person," he said, softly. He kept his hands crossed until the bidding hit thirty-two thousand. The woman Rogan had been trying to outbid threw her hands up in a showy shrug and leaned back in her chair to watch the rest of the show. Augustine raised the price to an even forty.
Rogan made an amused sound in the back of his throat. "Really?"
"If you still want it, raise your bid, Connor."
It got up to seventy-five before Augustine gestured to the auctioneer that he was done. The edges of his smile were brittle. He gave Nevada a tiny shrug when she looked at him, and he didn't react when Connor leaned forward to look him up and down with raised eyebrows. "Are you sure you're okay, Pancakes?"
"You need to get a hobby, Rogan."
When the auctioneer finished describing the second journal, he opened the price at thirty thousand -- twice what the first one had been opened at. He looked directly at their set of seats in the middle of the crowd, and Nevada tried not to look around as people turned to see what was going to happen. For a moment it was just nothing -- neither of the Primes moved.
Then Augustine said, "Eighty thousand," and rolled his eyes when Rogan laughed.
"Are you kidding? A hundred thousand," Rogan countered.
"Doesn't Montgomery have a budget?"
Augustine turned to face Rogan for the first time since they'd sat down. "If you want to stay in the race, Connor, I suggest you bid."
A lot of people were staring now. Up front, Marguerite was looking pleased, but on other people's faces Nevada just saw bafflement or laughter. If anyone else thought there was a chance that these particular journals were the real deal, they weren't making a sound. She was starting to get the feeling that Rogan didn't even believe it. His bids took on an undercurrent of amusement. Unfortunately, she could recognize that tenor in his voice. Augustine looked calm, but she could hear the tension in his words, too.
Bern choked when Rogan summarily ended the bidding by jumping the figure up to a cool five hundred thousand. Nevada tried not to gape at him. She could hear people openly giggling. If she'd had any actual investment in this, she thought her face might have been turning red. Rogan just smiled as his item was carried off the stage and the net piece from the Lockland estate was brought on.
He made a generous, sweeping gesture with his bidding paddle turned face-down. "You can have this, Pancakes."
"How kind of you." There was more giggling as Augustine bought a fountain pen for thirteen thousand dollars.
"Do you really need me to stay through dinner?"
Augustine paused. She'd waited to walk up to him until he was done signing something the auction house had given him. Either a money transfer or the promise of one, she guessed. Someone had actually taken Rogan into a back room to sign his own documents. Troy had appeared from a stairwell to take Bern downstairs and retrieve his things. Nevada had suggested he take a few extra minutes and change back into his own clothes, so Rogan wouldn't have an excuse to come by the house later.
Finally, Augustine shook his head. "I am in no further need of your expertise this evening. If you don't wish to stay, you don't need to."
She glanced back at the corner of the room, but Bern hadn't reappeared. She put one hand on her hip. "Are you going to tell me why you and Rogan were fighting over something that -- despite Marguerite’s confidence -- is probably worthless junk?" she asked. He shrugged and she shook her head. "It can't even have been worth it to goad Rogan into parting with the money. It's not enough for him to have noticed."
"No, this was pocket change," Augustine agreed. She hadn't really been looking for a comment that dismissive of more money than she would make in ten years, but okay. "I'm not convinced that Rogan believes there might actually be something to the journals, though now that he has them, he'll surely devote people to the project. But even with both of them, it could take a lifetime for a team to crack the cipher. Better people have tried."
Nevada rolled this over in her head. Before she could speak, someone from the auction house returned and handed Augustine a small black case. He opened it for her benefit. The fountain pen was nestled inside.
"I hope it was worth it," she said.
Augustine picked up the pen and handed her the case. She took it without thinking, then gasped reflexively when he snapped the pen in half.
"You spent thirteen thousand dollars just to--"
He held one hand up, palm out, and pulled a blank sliver of paper out of one of the broken fragments of the pen. It was old and stained with time, and as he turned it over in his hands, it stayed resolutely blank. They both stared at it in silence for a moment before he put the pen and paper back in the case and tucked it inside his jacket.
"What the hell was that?"
Augustine shrugged. "It is either a blank piece of paper, or a paper heavily enchanted with early and-or forgotten illusion magic." At the look on her face, he touched the spot where he'd hidden the pen case. "If a key to the cipher exists -- if the cipher is not nonsense -- then a family predisposed to extended life may have had access to talents which would allow them to hide it."
"But if this was the Civil War, even the middle of the Civil War, the Osiris Serum wouldn't have been distributed to a reverend’s family. It was barely being handed out to top military officials."
The corner of his mouth turned up. It may have been the first genuine smile he'd shown all night. "Probably not. But we are both aware that there were pieces of magic in this world before the Osiris Serum."
That, she had no answer to.
He gently touched her elbow, turning her in the direction of the exit. She could see Troy waiting by the door. He nodded at her and thumbed down, which she guessed meant that Bern was waiting for her to say goodbye. Augustine leaned in and murmured into her ear, "Thank you for your assistance tonight, Nevada."
For the lack of anything better, she answered, "You're welcome."
By the time they got outside the illusion had fallen off her dress. It looked champagne-colored in the dark parking lot. For one last walk, Nevada tried to enjoy the smooth fabric sliding against her legs. In the morning she would need to drive back to MII and return the dress, shoes, and jewelry. For now, she could spend a moment pretending she wouldn't need to.
Bern held the passenger door of his car open for her. He'd parked far enough away that his car hadn't been taken by the valet. "Nevada," he said, haltingly. "Are you … Are you worried? About what's going to happen with the Lockland things?"
She ruffled his hair, which him smile slightly. "If any of it is real, I think we have at least a few decades before they can do anything with it."
"So I fucked up, but at least I fucked up with something that isn't about to explode?"
"I mean, if you want to put it that way." She paused before getting into the car. "Bern, don't beat yourself up about this. Yeah, I'm mad, but I just--" She sighed and looked back at the building where the gala was being held. It was a burst of light in an otherwise darkened corner of town. "I don't want Mad Rogan entrenched in our life."
Bern shut the door behind her and climbed into the driver's seat without saying anything. Nevada leaned back in her chair, wondering whether it was worth it to stop for food on the way home or not. She couldn't blame Bern for asking if she was worried. The whole thing was unsettling and strange. She squinted as Bern started the car up and headed out to the exit of the parking lot. The streetlights made strips of glare and shadow over them.
She was probably more disturbed than her cousin by the simple fact that, as a Prime, it was nothing to drop so much money on what might boil down to nothing but an attempt to annoy somebody you didn't get along with. That was the world Rogan had offered to bring her into. That was the life he said he wanted for them.
That was the man stepping out of the dark to stand in front of their car.
Bern hit the brakes and they both jerked forward against their seat belts.
Rogan didn't pause. He walked to the car, nodded at Bern in the driver's seat, and crossed around to the passenger window. Nevada gaped at him through the glass. After a moment, he knocked at the window. Bern used the driver controls to lower it so Rogan could rest his arm on the door and lean in to smile at them. He smelled like champagne, which Nevada tried not to notice at the same time she was noticing it.
"You didn't say goodbye," he said, running his eyes over Nevada. She put her fists in her lap and he looked back up at her face. "I don't know why Montgomery bothered with that illusion."
"He was protecting my privacy," she said, crispy. In the corner of her eye Bern gripped the steering wheel tight with both hands. She reached forward to lay her hand on Rogan's wrist, which made his smile deepen. "We're going to go home now. Thank you for never trying to get involved with my family behind my back ever again."
Rogan shrugged. "I can't make any promises. Your family can make their own decisions."
Nevada leaned over, close to his face, and watched his eyes widen. He was holding very still. "Rogan?"
Neither of them moved. Nevada could feel her pulse in her hand, still resting on Rogan's wrist. She could shove him back, but probably not very far. Then his expression changed. She didn't react fast enough to pull away before he was pressing a chaste kiss to her mouth. She didn't even have time to adjust to the sudden heat rolling off him before he'd taken several steps backwards.
While she stared at him, speechless, he gave them a deep nod. "Goodnight, Nevada."
Bern pulled into the street before she could think of a response.