Low Midnight Page 55

“I never like to say mere rumor. But I will say this: I have good reason to believe that the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii was instigated by magic. The volcano was naturally ready to erupt, of course—but the ultimate trigger was not natural.”

“Good heavens,” Amelia wrote, both honest reaction and conversational filler. “That’s extraordinary. That raises so many questions, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, but I don’t believe that’s the problem you’re working on, is it?”

Amelia’s mind had gone off in a dozen different directions, to other natural disasters that might have been caused by magic, to the reasons someone might have wanted to cause Vesuvius to erupt—revenge against the city? An overblown assassination attempt? An accident? Cormac pulled her back to the conversation at hand.

Amelia replied, “I’m currently investigating two deaths. At least one of them involved a duel between two men known to use magic. In both cases, men known to be powerful magicians were struck dead with no evidence of being attacked, injured, or any usual offensive magic being used against them.”

The next reply didn’t come immediately. Cormac went to the fridge for a beer, took his time crossing the four feet back to the table, while Amelia seethed with impatience.

An answer waited: “In magical duels, the magician who wins is often not the one with the most powerful offense, but the one with the strongest defense. Look to see how their opponents were shielded. My apologies, I have to go now, but I’m sure we’ll talk again. I look forward to our next exchange.”

A defense strong enough to kill. Wasn’t unheard of. Thoughtful, Cormac leaned back in his chair.

This person is brilliant, Amelia said, gushing. I wonder who he is? Or she? My goodness, I think I’m blushing.

He refrained from asking how she could blush without a body. “You ask who he is, we’ll have to tell who we are.”

Not necessarily. But if we lie to him about who we are, then there’s no reason to believe he’ll tell the truth about who he is. Oh, this anonymity is so useful, but terribly frustrating, isn’t it? I’ll have to look into using my scrying spells, but who knows if they’ll even work on e-mail. Though I did know someone who attempted to cast spells via telegraph, as an experiment. With ambiguous results, unfortunately, but I wonder if the technique could be adapted.

He decided it was time to go to bed, before she went off on another research jag. Maybe she’d even stop talking long enough for him to actually fall asleep.

I’m not that bad.

He didn’t credit that with an answer.

*   *   *

HE LAY in bed for a long time the next morning, thinking.

Again, he was in the meadow, and Amelia was again pacing. Cormac wondered if he could lean up against a nearbytree trunk, close his eyes, and go to sleep inside the half-dreaming world of their minds. He hadn’t slept well, waking up every hour or so with some new thought, Amelia probing him with some conjecture about Kuzniak, Crane, the other Kuzniak, and how they were all connected. He thought it could wait until morning; she didn’t. Finally, he’d given in. But he still wanted to sleep.

“If Kuzniak killed Crane in the manner the stories about it say, the evidence of it ought to be in his book. But there’s nothing!”

“It’s not a very thorough book.”

“Yes, I’ve seen that. If the young Milo learned all his magic from it, it’s no wonder he ended up dead. There must be another book. Another source from which he acquired his knowledge. Something.”

“Or we’ve missed something,” Cormac said.

“I haven’t missed anything, I don’t miss things.”

Amelia had studied the book over and over. She’d deciphered the handwriting, figured out abbreviations, copied the whole thing into her own book. Cormac agreed, she probably hadn’t missed anything.

Then the solution wasn’t in the writing. He sat up.

Amelia came toward him. “Cormac, what is it? You’ve thought of something, I can see the look in your eyes—”

He shook his head, shook away the meadow, and sat up in bed, swinging his legs to the floor. Sun came in through the cheap blinds, casting light over the clutter in the place that was so much easier to ignore at night.

Kuzniak’s book was in the lockbox where Amelia kept the most valuable—or dangerous—of the artifacts they’d collected. He went to get it off the set of makeshift shelves on the far wall, pulled it out, ignored her when she complained that he left the box open. Sat back and flipped through it, looking at everything but the writing. Feeling along the pages, the spine, the covers; holding the pages up to the light, up to his nose. Smelled like paper. A little bit musty, like an attic.

He found it in the very back, between the last page and the back cover. The last few pages of the thing were blank, like Kuzniak hadn’t had a chance to fill them all, so they hadn’t gotten this far in their reading. He held the inside back cover to the light, ran his thumb over it, and found the imprint—the shape of a Maltese cross a couple of inches wide, pressed into the endpapers. Once upon a time, someone had stored something here, enclosed inside the book.

“Look at that,” he murmured, knowing full well that Amelia was seeing everything he did. The shape had an irregularity at the top, maybe a ring, but there didn’t seem to be a chain running through it. It looked like a piece of jewelry, some kind of metal pendant or amulet. And it had to have been kept in here a long time to make this kind of an imprint.

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