We both ordered ice water and she departed, wiggling furiously.


Crest grimaced.

"A sudden change of attitude?" I asked.

"I detest incompetence. She works in a restaurant that serves Latino cuisine. She should at least know how the names are pronounced. But then she probably does the best she can." He looked around. "I must say, this isn't a place to promote quiet conversations."

"You have a problem with my taste?"

"Yes, I do," he said.

I shrugged.

"You are quite... hostile." He did not say it in a confrontational way. Instead, his voice held quiet amusement.

"Was I supposed to pick a quiet place, tastefully decorated and private, that would promote intimate conversation?"

"Well, I thought you might."

"Why? You blackmailed me into lunch, so I thought I might at least enjoy the food."

He tried a different line of attack. "I've never come across anyone like you."

"Good thing, too. People like me don't like it when you try walking over them. They might break your legs."

"Could you actually do it?" He was grinning. Was he flirting with me?

"Do what?"

"Break my legs."

"Yes, under the right circumstances."

"I have a brown belt in karate," he said. I decided that he found my tough woman persona amusing. "I might put up a fight."

This was actually fun. I gave him a full blast of my psychotic smile and said, "Brown belt? That's impressive. But you have to remember, I break legs for a living while you..."

"Fix noses?" he put in.

"No, I was going to say stitch up corpses, but you're right, 'fix noses' would've made a much better retort."

We grinned at each other across the table.

Grace arrived right on cue, holding two platters. She set them in front of us and was called away before she could blind Crest with another toothy smile.

"The food's wonderful," he said after the first two bites.

And cheap, too. I raised my eyebrow at him, meaning I told you so.

"I'll stop trying to impress you if you promise not to break my legs," he suggested.

"Alright, where did you learn to speak Spanish?"

"From my father," he said. "He spoke six languages fluently and understood who knows how many. He was an anthropologist of the old kind. We spent two years at Temple Mayor in Mexico."

I arched an eyebrow, took a bottle of hot sauce shaped like a stylized figurine, and put it in front of him.

"Tlaloc," he said. "God of rain."

I smiled at him. "So tell me about the temple."

"It was hot and dusty." He told me about his father, who tried to understand people long gone, about climbing the countless steps to the top of the temple, where twin shrines stared at the world, about falling asleep under the bottomless sky by the carved temple walls and dreaming of nightmarish priests. Somehow his voice overcame the noise of the restaurant, muting the conversations of other patrons to subdued white noise. It was so remarkable that I would have sworn there was magic in it, except that I felt no power coming from him. Perhaps it was magic, but of that special human kind - magic born of human charm and conversation, which I too often discounted.

He talked while I listened to his pleasant voice and watched him. There was something very comforting about him, and I was not sure if it was his easy manner or his complete immunity to my scowling. He was funny without trying to joke, intelligent without trying to sound erudite, and he made it plain he expected nothing.

The lunch stretched on and then suddenly it was close to one thirty and time for me to go.

"I had a great time," he said. "But then I talked the whole time, so I suppose that's obvious. You should've shut me up."

"I enjoyed listening to you."

He scowled at me, disbelieving, and warned, "Next time it will be your turn to talk."

"Next time?"

"Would you go to dinner with me?"

"I would," I found myself saying.

"Tonight?" he asked, his eyes hopeful.

"I'll try," I promised and actually intended to do so. "Call me around six." I gave him my address in case the magic knocked the phone out.

I insisted on paying my half of the lunch and declined an offer to be walked to my car. The day I needed an escort was the day I'd turn my saber over to someone who knew what to do with it.

"MR. NATARAJA WOULD BE DELIGHTED TO SPEAK with you," a cultured male voice informed me through the phone. "However, his schedule is extremely busy for the next month."

I sighed, tapping my nails on Greg's kitchen table. "I'm sorry I didn't catch your name..."

"Charles Cole."

"I tell you what, Charles, get Rowena on the line for me now, and I won't tell Nataraja that you've tried to stonewall the Order-appointed investigator he's been waiting for."

There was silence and then Charles said in a slightly strained voice, "One moment, please."

I waited by the phone, very pleased with myself. There was a click, and Rowena's flawless voice said, "Kate, my deepest apologies. What an unfortunate misunderstanding."

Score one for me. "No offense taken," I told her. I could afford to be gracious. "I was notified that Nataraja would like to speak to me."

"Indeed. Unfortunately, he's in the field. If he knew of your intention to visit, he would have postponed. He will be back this evening and I would be indebted to you if you could meet with us later, let's say at two tonight?"

Score one for Rowena. "No problem."

"Thank you, Kate," she said.

We said good-byes and hung up. She had a way of subtly turning every conversation personal, as if the matter discussed was vital to her and any refusal of her request would injure her. It worked both ways - when you agreed to something, she acted as if you did her a great personal favor. It was an art I would have loved to learn. Unfortunately I had neither time nor patience to spare.

Unsure what to do next, I tapped my fingernails on the table. Until I got my interview with Corwin, I could not eliminate him as a suspect and I had no other suspects so far. Maybe if I annoyed Nataraja enough, he would supply me with other leads, but it wouldn't happen until tonight, which left twelve empty hours. I looked around the apartment. It had lost its immaculate air. There was dust on the windowsill, and several dishes sat in the sink. I pushed myself free of the chair and started looking for the broom, rags, and bleach. Come to think of it, a nap wouldn't hurt either. I had a long night to look forward to.

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