Not exactly inconspicuous. But he had to play the role of the buyer for an affluent American financier.

He pushed through the door to the auction house. The lobby was pure Scandinavian design, meaning a total lack thereof: bleached wood, glass partitions, and little else. The only furniture was a bony sculptural chair positioned next to a side table the size of a postage stamp. It held up a single potted orchid. Its reedlike stem supported an anemic brown and pink blossom.

The doorman tapped his cigarette into the plant's pot and stepped toward Gray with a sour expression.

Gray reached to a pocket and pulled out his invitation. It had required wiring a quarter-million-dollar deposit into the house's fund, a guarantee that the buyer had the wherewithal to attend such an exclusive event.

The doorman checked his invitation, nodded, and strode over to a velvet rope that closed off a wide set of stairs that led to the lower level. He unhitched the rope and waved Gray through.

At the bottom of the stairs, a set of swinging doors opened into the main bidding floor. A pair of guards flanked the entrance. One held a metal-detecting wand. Gray allowed himself to be searched, arms out. He noted the video cameras posted to either side of the threshold. Security was snug. Once he was cleared, the other guard buzzed a button and pulled open the door.

The murmur of voices flowed out to him. He recognized Italian, Dutch,

French, Arabic, and English. It seemed all the world had shown up for the auction.

Gray entered. A few glances were made in his direction, but most attention remained focused on the glass cases that lined the walls. Employees of the auction house, dressed in identical black attire, stood behind the counter, like at a jewelry store. They wore white gloves and helped patrons view the objects up for bid.

A string quartet played softly in one corner. A few servers circulated, offering tall glasses of champagne to the guests.

Gray checked in at a neighboring desk and was given a numbered paddle. He moved farther inside. A handful of patrons had already taken their seats. Gray spotted the pair of latecomers who had held up the auction, the pale young man and woman, the silent-movie stars. They sat in the front row. A paddle rested on the woman's lap. The man leaned over and whispered in his partner's ear. It was a strangely intimate gesture, perhaps enhanced by the woman's arched neck, long and lithe, tilted as if awaiting a kiss.

Her eyes flicked to Gray as he moved down the center aisle. Her gaze flowed over him and away.

No recognition.

Gray continued his own search, reaching the front of the room with its raised stage and podium. He turned in a slow circle. He saw no outward threat to his presence.

He also saw no sign of Fiona.

Where was she?

He edged to one of the glass cases and wandered down the far side. His ears were half tuned to the conversations around him. He walked past an attendant lifting and gently resting a bulky leather-bound book atop the display case for a portly gentleman. The interested party leaned close, a pair of spectacles resting at the tip of his nose.

Gray noted the particular book.

A treatise on butterflies with hand-drawn plates, circa 1884.

He continued down the aisle. Once near the door again, he found himself confronted by the dowdy woman he had filmed earlier. She was holding out a small white envelope. Gray accepted it, even before he wondered what it could be. The woman seemed disinterested in anything further and wandered away.

Gray's me I led a hint of perfume on the envelope.

Strange.

He used a thumbnail to break the seal and pulled out a folded piece of stationery, expensive from its watermark. A short note was neatly written.

EVEN THE GUILD KNOWS BETTER THAN TO STRAY TOO NEAR THIS FLAME. WATCH YOUR BACK. KISSES.

The note was unsigned. But at the bottom, inked in crimson, was the symbol of a small curled dragon. Gray's other hand wandered to his neck, where a matching dragon hung in silver, a gift from a competitor.

Seichan.

She was an operative for the Guild, a shady cartel of terrorist cells that had crossed paths with Sigma Force in the past. Gray felt the hairs on his neck stand on end. He turned and searched the room. The dowdy woman who had handed him the note had vanished.

He glanced again at the note.

A warning.

Better late than never…

But at least the Guild was taking a pass here. That is, if Seichan could be believed…

Actually Gray was willing to take her at her word.

Honor among thieves and all that.

A commotion drew his attention toward the rear of the room.

A tall gentleman swept onto the bidding floor through a back door.

Resplendent in a tuxedo, he was the esteemed Mr. Ergenschein himself, acting as auctioneer. He palmed his oiled black hair into place—clearly a dye job. Across his cadaverous features, a smile was fixed on his face, as if pasted from a book.

The reason for his clear discomfort followed behind. Or rather was being led by a guard who had a hand clamped on her upper arm.

Fiona.

Her face was flushed. Her lips set in a line of dread, bled of color.

Furious.

Gray headed toward them.

Ergenschein strode off to the side. He carried an object wrapped in a soft unbleached chamois. He stepped over to the main display case near the front. It had been empty before. One of the staff unlocked the cabinet. Ergenschein gently unwrapped the object and settled it into the case.

Noting Gray's approach, the auctioneer brushed his hands together and stepped over to meet him, allowing his palms to come to rest as if in prayer. Behind him, the cabinet was locked by an attendant.

Gray noted the addition to the case.

The Darwin Bible.

Fiona's eyes widened when she spotted Gray.

He ignored her and confronted Ergenschein. "Is there a problem here?"

"Of course not, sir. The young lady's being escorted out. She has no invitation to this auction."

Gray took out his own card. "I believe I'm allowed a guest in attendance." He held out his other hand for Fiona. "I'm glad to see she's already here. I was held up on a conference call with my buyer. I approached the young Ms. Neal earlier today to inquire about a private sale. One item in particular."

Gray nodded to the Darwin Bible.

Ergenschein's entire body sighed with feigned sadness. "A tragedy. About the fire. But I'm afraid that Grette Neal signed her lot to the auction house. Without a countermand from her estate's barrister, I'm afraid the lot must be put up for auction. That is the law."

Fiona tugged on the guard's arm, murder in her eyes.

Ergenschein seemed oblivious of her. "I'm afraid you'll have to bid yourself, sir. My apologies, but my hands are tied."

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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