Phone Call to Lilith about Rhys:
In part because the book ran so long, I had to get rid of some of the places where Maggi and Someone Else discuss things the reader already knows happened. Here's one of those situations:
Since it was the middle of the night back in the States, I phoned my cousin Lilith, outside of Bristol.
"I think I'm dangerously close to seducing a priest," I said, when Lili picked up the phone.
"Really? Does he have information you need?"
"No, he's just really nice, and we've been spending too much time with each other these last couple of days, all but bathing in adrenaline. And he's really sexy. God, it's seems like such a waste. I mean...."
Now I felt guilty, both about taking the Lord's name in vain and about the sentiment. People's life choices deserve respect. Especially a calling like the priesthood. But....
Some of us humans aren't meant be alone indefinitely. His arms around me had felt so very good.
"Lose your train of thought, Luv?" teased Lili. "Tell me what's happened so far, and Mother Lilith will help."
"We slept together."
At her surprised mew, have scandalized and half delighted, I realized how that sounded. "No, we didn't have sex. We spent the night in the same place--long story--and when we woke up we were cuddling. Unconsciously, sure, but I feel awful!"
"Oh dear," she said. "Not good?"
"The cuddling felt wonderful. It's the aftermath that feels awful."
"Awful as in that sick, morning-after, what-have-I-done feeling? Or awful as in it's-over-and-you-may-never-love-again awful?"
"Yes. But only marginally the second. What do I do?"
"It depends on what you want next. If you want to have a passionate, forbidden affair, you keep going with the temptation angle. It's serving you well so far, right?"
"Very funny," I sighed.
"But if, as I suspect, you cannot stand the guilt and wouldn't want a man who would turn his back on his life's values just for a piece of tail, even if it is yours, then just act the way you generally have ever since you met Satan. Which is, of course, the entirety of your dating life."
"You know full well what I mean. Projecting Don't even bother, I'm taken vibes. As if you're already married and can't bother noticing other men."
"That's not true!"
"Ever," she added.
"First of all, Lex isn't Satan." Though I'd noticed he hadn't called me back yet. Jerk. "And second, I have so looked at other men. I've even dated them."
"How many other men have you slept with?"
"You talk as if sleeping around is a badge of mental health, when you of all people know that a lot of women just aren't built that way." Lilith has a Masters in gender studies. We're a very academic family.
"Which is why I worry," she said. "So--not anybody, then?"
"Yes. I have."
"And you didn't tell me?"
"I was embarrassed. It didn't turn out so well." The man had been perfectly nice, and we'd even had some chemistry but nowhere near enough for me to have gotten naked with him. I'd rushed things. It turned out uncomfortable and disappointing. I didn't repeat the experience.
"But you told someone, didn't you?" The amused teasing had left her voice, replaced by something more heartfelt. "That's not the sort of thing you should keep to yourself, Maggikins. You talked to a friend, right?"
"Yeah. I called a friend for a ride home." At two in the morning. In the rain.
Long silence. Then she said, "You didn't."
"Look, none of this has anything to do with Rhys and I."
"Oh, thank heavens. I thought you'd called Alexander Stuart."
"I did. Rhys is the priest I may be accidentally seducing."
At that, Lilith laughed. "You certainly don't do things by halves, do you? The devil on one shoulder and, apparently, an angel on the other."
NICER LEX AT THE COMITATUS PARTY
This was my first version of the manor-party scene, before I ralized that Lex would be a lot more angry about not knowing such a major part of Maggi's life. You can see that he's a lot sweeter and more helful here. But comforting though sweet-Lex can be, I decided edgy-Lex was a lot more fun...
Just about then, a familiar presence stepped close enough to warm my back, leaned over my shoulder, and a familiar voice murmured in my ear, "Welcome to the shark tank, chum."
* * *
I was so stunned to realize that I was surrounded by Comitatusor was that Comitati?that I didn't even speak until Lex had already kissed my cheek and drawn me out onto the floor, into a slow dance.
Speaking took thought. Dancing, especially with Lex, could be done on instinct.
To my growing annoyance, he looked as good as I did tonight. In a tall, debonair, literally born-to-wear-a-tuxedo way. There should be a rule that sharks be ugly.
By time we'd survived half a Gershwin piece with nobody attacking me, I had recovered enough to hiss, "What have you done?"
"Me?" Lex's eyes widened with feigned innocence as he smoothly turned me. The man knew how to lead, confident and totally in control, and my only two choices were to go along with it or stop dancing. I was too curious, and I'd come too far, to stop dancing. Yet. "Lately?"
I knew better than say the C-word around here; there's a reason secret societies don't get caps or matching T-shirts. But, "You brought me behind enemy lines."
"Actually, no," he murmured. "I sent you an invitation behind enemy lines. You came of your own free will. You look fantastic, by the way. I mean, you've always looked fantastic, but there's been something new about you this week, something powerful."
Good. "But why here? Why tonight?"
"You wanted to talk. I'm doing the meals-and-meetings thing all week. This party was it for my free time." Lex's brown gaze brushed down me, then back up, rich with admiration and what. Longing? "And I haven't seen you in full war paint for awhile. I've missed it."
This time I said it. "Good. And?"
He leaned very near my ear. "And what you're asking is serious, more serious than you may know. I can't do it lightly."
"So this was some kind of test?"
"More like a challenge. One you've met. It's not an ambush," Lex protested quietly, never losing our rhythm. "You're safe. You're with me."
"Bullshit." Deliberately not looking toward the watcher from Fontevrault, I whispered, "First, I still can't completely trust you. Second, there are people here who have threatened to kill me."
He frowned in the light of the chandeliers. "Are you sure? You recognize them?"
"I recognize their eyes. I sense the rest. That's become enough, lately."
He scanned the crowd over my shoulder, solemn in the chandelier light. His fingers, on my spine, continued to guide me with him to the orchestral music, and his other hand squeezed mine. "So this, um, item that you called about must be seriously important to you."
Somehow, it seemed blasphemous to say Duh to a man in a tuxedo. But I wanted to. "I'm here, aren't I?"
"Yes, and you're either an idiot, or even braver than I always thought you were. Look like you're into me."
I said, "What?"
Lex said, "Like you want to come to bed with me."
"Now you're the one who's got to be joking."
"I need a good reason to take you up to my room."
"Except that I'm not going up to your room."
Lex sighed. "I thought you might want privacy to talk, and to check the information I've gotten for you, but if you'd rather just dance."
The music segued into a Rodgers and Hammerstein piece that we both used to like, and we eased into a waltz. Dancing with Lex didn't suck, not even in a shark tank.
The Melusine Grail.
Fine. I rose onto my toes long enough to nibble his ear lobe. Even over the horn section I heard his sharp intake of breath. I whispered, against his neck, "If you're playing with me, Alexander, I will hurt you so badly."
He said, "No, you won't."
So this time I bit his ear. Just hard enough not to draw blood.
"Ow!" Lex jerked back, eyes widening down at me, and several other dancers glanced at us in concern.
"Oops," I said innocently.
Lex forced an all-is-well smile toward our onlookers and returned his leading hand to my back. Warily. He looked affronted.
When I nosed up his clean-shaven throat again, I could feel his shoulder and neck muscles tense. This time, though, I just licked his earlobe. I tried not to feel guilty about the bite. It's not like I'd even broken skin.
"I have had a week, Lex," I warned, low, into the collar of his tux. "Do. Not. Push. Me."
"I don't even know who you are anymore." He sounded as affronted as he looked.
"Join the club." And speaking of which. "Don't you have to pretend you're into me, too?"
His fingertips slid slowly, seductively down my spine, hitting at least three major charkas en route and seriously interesting a fourth before sliding into the back of my gown, onto the bare curve of my hip. So we would have lost points in a ballroom competition. "Who's pretending?"
Why did his touch have to feel so good on my skin, warm and dry, even now? I said, "You'd better be, because we're not getting back together."
"Oh darn. And these last few days have been such great fun for me."
What the hell did he have to be angry about? And howmmmcould my body react so happily to him, when the rest of me was screaming to get out of there?
Wasn't familiarity supposed to breed contempt?
"Just so long as we have that straight," I whispered, close to his lips, in what I hoped looked like love talk. Over his shoulder, I saw Phil do a double-take upon finally noticing us. I can't read lips, but he said something that looked a lot like, Oh, crap.
Lex's family hadn't liked me much even before all this business about the Melusine Grail began. Had they known I was a Grailkeeper all along? Was that part of the problem?
"Into you, yes. More than that, a little less of late," Lex assured me.
I swayed closer against him, to test just how much fun he was having. My belly, and lower, met the firming interest I'd expected to find there. "You don't seem to be suffering too badly."
"First," he said, "Cleavage. And secondknowing nothing's going to come of it? Hardly. How about we just get this done with and go our"
I shut him up with my tongue as I pressed my mouth to his, flaring my gloved fingers into his hair, all but pasting myself against the front of him.
I felt him shudder in resistance, then give up and pull me harder against him. More important, he began to dance me out of the gallery, toward the main foyer where I'd seen a sweeping staircase.
We didn't stop kissing.
Lex's leading had gone to hell; he bumped us right into another couple. I kissed his attempt at an apology away, starting to smile satisfied triumph against his mouth. Then his seeking hand, already inside the back of my dress to the wrist, slid over the curve of my breastand I bumped into somebody by myself.
I didn't even manage the rest of the apology before Lex had drawn me out of the gallery and back into his embrace.
At least we were convincing. The closer anyone looked, the more convincing we would be. Escaping the main party to head upstairs together felt seductively familiar; we'd done it more than once, over our dating history. But this time, of course, there was no lovemaking waiting for us by time we reached Lex's private guestroom.
Who knows? Maybe that's why we stopped to kiss more often than usual, en route, instead of just making a hand-in-hand run for it. Deep, delicious kisses. Practiced, but not stale; never stale. The need to put on a good front made for a convenient excuse.
As if we still meant so much more to each other than we did. Safety. Acceptance. A future.
It might have been sad, had I bothered to think about it. I wasn't thinking. I was just luxuriating in touch and taste and feeling and scent.
"This is it," Lex panted, after two or three flights of stairs and a long hallway. I rolled away from him, using the brace of the wall behind me to help reorient myself, while he unlocked the door to his room and snapped on the lights.
I made sure to sit in a solitary, upholstered chair instead of the love seat. My body thrummed with the need to return to the kissing, the touching, the continuation of it all. But my body would just have to deal. I was here for a reason, and that reason wasn't committing physical and emotional hara-kiri just for another taste of Lex Stuart.
My only real solace was that he seemed to be in a similar condition.
"About the" I started to say.
Lex held up a hand, silencing me, and drew something that looked like a small remote control from his pocket. He turned a full circle with it. There were no TV's or stereos in the room, just his laptop computer and portable printer sitting beside the contents of his briefcase, on the antique writing desk. Whatever it was, it wasn't a remote control.
"Bug detector," he said, when he finished and noticed me staring. "Here. Happy birthday."
He tossed it to me, rather than coming close. I caught it easily, despite my slick, elbow-length gloves. My birthday had passed some time ago, but I turned it in my hand, curious.
Lex sat on the bed, leaning forward, clasping his hands between his knees. "So tell me about this chalice."
He'd used a similar posture on the lower bunk, back at the hostel. Naked. It took me a moment to shake off those memories not that him in a tuxedo made for a poor distraction, either. Especially not with the feel of its fabric still imprinted on my palms, my cheek.
To buy time, I asked, "Why would you think someone's bugged your room?"
"I've become increasingly paranoid, over the last few weeks." He reached onto his bed table, picked up what had just looked like a scrap of junk, and used his fingernail to flip some kind of switch.
Immediately, the bug detector in my hand began to flash and beep.
He switched the little thing off, and tossed it to me as well. "It's no good without the receiver, and I only have suspicions about where that is. What's going on, Maggi? What have you gotten yourself into?"
"Gotten myself into?" I studied the little bug, which looked as much like a piece off of a cell phone's hands-free headset as anything. On an afterthought, I pulled up my skirts far enough to access the tiny holster-purse on my thigh, and dropped in it and the bug detector, along with the set-on-silent cell phone I'd brought with me. "You're the one who's been shopping out of the espionage catalog!"
"Maybe, but we aren't here to talk about me." He was watching my leg too closely, so I smoothed my skirts back down. "We did that in Paris. It turned out really well, too, don't you think?"
Damn, he was sounding pissy tonight. "Considering how little I know about your role in all this, I'd rather not share my secrets."
He arched a brow. "I thought you didn't take any oath of secrecy."
"I didn't. But I'm not stupid, either." That's why we don't need oaths. We trust each other not to be stupid.
Lex closed his eyes as if to steel himself, took a deep breath. Then he opened them. "What you're asking me to help you with is big, Maggi."
"And you can't do it lightly. You said that. But I've met your little challenge, so just tell me where the auction is, and you can wash your hands of me."
"It's not that easy, and even that much help" He shook his head. "It could have consequences we can't even imagine, not either one of us. I can't help just because I love you, this time. I need to believe it's the right thing, need to be able to argue that it's the right thing, and you're the only person who can convince me of that."
There he went with his the right thing business. And who did he mean to argue this to? But what I found myself arguing was, "Don't say you love me."
He got up, went to the window. I was just as glad he wasn't on the bed. "I didn't." But he sounded like a little boy, caught with the cookies. "Not exactly."
"Because even if you do, it can't matter anymore. You bugged my apartment, Lex."
He set his jaw, stuffed a hand in his tuxedo pocket, and said nothing at all. No apologies. No justifications. No more pleas for me to trust him. And maybe he was right in that. Maybe we'd said everything we could on that front.
I just wished he didn't look so lost. Stubborn, and really well cut, but lost. I wished he hadn't mentioned.
"Your idea of the right thing isn't always mine," I said.
"No kidding," he said. Not a question.
Oh, hell. I'd believed from the beginning that goddess worship was about trusting other people. Secrets were about hierarchy, and information was about partnership. At least sometimes. At least a little. Of course I had to draw a line somewherebut did it have to be at the speak-not-a-word level the Comitatus would have demanded?
I would just tell him as little as possible, as little as I needed to convince him. "You know that, historically speaking, people were once goddess worshippers, right?"
"That's the theory," he said at his soft reflection in the window, non-committal. His view overlooked the back of the manor home, so there were no bright lights blazing in at us. "It's your idea of a utopia, when women ruled the world, right?"
"I'm not saying that. Women may not have ruled the world. But men didn't control everything, either."
He arched a questioning look at me. As if either one gender or the other had to be in charge. Period. Could he not even conceive of anything else?
I continued the lesson, "Then, as Europe and England became more patriarchal, the goddess worshippers had to go underground. At that time, they hid a sacred cup."
No way would I confirm there was more than one.
Lex said, "A cup. Why?"
"Because they used it to worship the goddess. Melusine, and they didn't want it profaned."
"Melusine the mermaid who used to be a water goddess, like the Lady of the Lake."
Sometimes, his memory scares me. "My aunt and I think that, over the centuries, the magic of her being a goddess was slowly redefined to make her a fairy. Less heretical, that way."
"Mustn't be heretical." That part, Lex just murmured. But he asked me, flat out, "What's that got to do with your necklace? The one you aren't wearing tonight. What's it got to do with the hereditary feminists?"
I inhaled and then exhaled deeply, trying to access my inner Melusine. How much did he need to know, for me to get his help?
Surprisingly, I realized that he might need to know this whether he helped or not.
"Apparently, my ancestors, on my mother's side, used to be priestesses of Melusine. Back in the Middle Ages."
Lex thumped gently back against the wall, as if he'd slowly lost his balance. Then he straightened, moved back to the bed. "And you know that? For sure?"
"Are you asking if I can prove it? Or just if I know it?"
He sat, nodding some kind of stunned approval at how I'd answered. "If you know it."
"With every cell in my body."
"That's incredible," he said. "I've always thought there was something special about you, but I never dreamed that youthat there might be a legitimate tradition. You've always been lousy at keeping secrets."
He was right. I didn't like secrets. Just add that onto the pile of reasons we'd kept breaking up. I could never imagine marrying him without telling him about the Grailkeepersthe way my mother had told my dadand on some level I'd known I couldn't tell him. At the time, I'd thought it would be because he wouldn't believe me.
Instead, he was excited by it?
He asked, "Your ancestors actually kept information about this over the centuries?"
"What you mean documents?"
"Or rituals, or creeds, or, well secrets?"
I shook my head.
He looked confused. "But why remember at all, then?"
What a guy thing to say. If we didn't have something that could be measured or quantified or utilized, why bother?
"All that got passed down was a riddle," I said. "Hints about where the Melusine chalice was hidden."
"Then why haven't any of you dug it up until now?"
"Because it was supposed to stay hidden."
Now he really looked confused. "Then what's?"
"The point was that we knew it was out there, safe. Somewhere. Once a certain group of men started breaking into mine and my aunt's offices, and stealing our notes, we knew it wasn't safe anymore. I had to get it before they could. And I did, and it was everything you could imagine. But then."
"Then someone stole it from you." Lex wove and unwove his fingers. "Probably because you're so trusting, right?"
"You can't go through he world distrusting everyone," I warned.
He looked at me for a long moment, then shrugged. "Maybe not," he said, still staring. "Maybe not."
"Look," I said. "I'm sorry I had to involve you, but I was desperate. If you can just tell me"
Then his pager went off.
LONGER, TALKIER POST-PARTY DRIVE
Here's an example of how I can go on and on with a conversation that reveals interesting research. Aren't you glad I shortened it for the final draft?
Lil, driving again, shook her head in continued denial. "You can't possibly believe that Alexander Stuart is a direct descendent of Jesus Christ."
"Of course I don't believe it," said Rhys, beside her in the passenger seat. We'd switched out. I was now in the backwhere I fit better than him anywayon the excuse of needing to lie down.
It wasn't just an excuse.
Lex had so very many faults. But he'd always seemed, well sane. I'd once cherished that illusion about myself, toothat I was sane. But some of thisa special bloodline, if not necessarily that of Jesussure made sense!
Lil said, "That's what it sounded like."
"I'm saying the Comitatus may believe he's a direct descendent of Jesus Christ," clarified Rhys.
"So he has a God complex. Why am I not surprised? Let's just call that one reason #7, shall we?"
I said from the back. "The Sangreal doesn't have to actually link to Jesus to be important, here."
Lily said, "You keep using that word. Sangreal. Isn't that just another word for the holy grail?"
"Sometimes," said Rhys. "As in, saint grail. But it may also mean sang real, or royal blood. It could stand not for a cup, but a lineage."
"Jesus's lineage," insisted Lil, still understandably doubtful. "Or so these people believe."
I said, "It's true that some people speculate that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and that she later came to France with their children."
"I'm against that one, FYI," said Rhys.
"But," I continued, "There are also theories that his line could have continued through a brother or another male relative. Considering how very Christian medieval Europe became, it's possible all that 'related to Jesus himself' business was just code for how special the bloodline was."
"But why would it be special, if not for Jesus?"
Rhys said, "The line supposedly goes back to some of the earliest Sumerian kings, thousands of years BC."
I said, "Or space aliens. At least one theory connects them to space aliens."
Compared to that, the Jesus theory wasn't so unusual. "But not to goddesses?" challenged Lil. "Powerful men would rather claim E.T. as an ancestor than accept the truth of ancient goddess cultures? Quel surprise."
"Actually" said Rhys and I at the same time.
He said, "Ladies first."
"Actually," I said, "some theorists see the Sangreal tradition as worshipping the divine feminine. Which doesn't fit the idea that the Comitatus is formed around it but is still destroying goddess grails Rhys, are you certain?"
"Certain? No," he admitted. "This could be one madman's ramblings; how do you cross reference something like this? And even if it's legitimate information, there are symbols beside each name that I haven't figured out. But the earlier names all fit Sangreal legend. Do you suppose Alexander Stuart could be at the head of the Sangreal but not part of the Comitatus?"
I wished it were true, even if the presence of yet a third secret society between us pushed good sense. But the men from Fontevrault were Comitatus, and they'd been at the party. Lex had known Rene de Bouillon. Lex had said, She's not getting the cup.
I set my jaw, pretty sure. "I don't think so."
"What do you mean by names that fit the Sangreal legend?" asked Lil.
"If you believe the conspiracy theorists, the royal houses of several major countries in Europe once descended from the Grail Kings," said Rhys. "The Merovingian kings in France, before they were deposed by the Carolingians. The Pendragons in England"
"WaitPendragons? King Arthur?"
Rhys said, "When you think Holy Grail, don't you usually think of Arthur? One source even includes Robin Hood."
I said, "And the Stuarts, in Scotland?"
"It's not so great a stretch," said Rhys. "If you remember your history lessons, the name used to be spelled with a W, until they aligned themselves so closely to France."
"That making a difference because.?" Asked Lil.
"No W in Old French," I reminded her. "But that makes a difference to their place in the Sangreal because?"
"Because their name is so close to steward," said Rhys. "The Grail tradition is supposedly about stewardship, the king being in service to the land and his people."
I sat up in the back seat. "Oh really?"
Lil snorted. "So now Lex is a king?"
Rhys shrugged. "If James II hadn't been deposed for his Catholic sympathies, who can say?"
"Tell me more about this stewardship," I said. "Something drives the Sangreal tradition other than blood?"
"From what I've read," said Rhys, "the Grail Code is about a utopian style of leadership. The responsibility that comes with power. Service to one's people."
"That so doesn't sound like the Comitatus we know and despise."
"Perhaps the ideal has been perverted over the years. Perhaps it became a survival-of-the-fittest kind of power game. The Grail Code includes leadership by those most fit to hold it, which is why the lineage becomes so complex well, that and the fact that even one couple can result in thousands of descendents if enough millennia pass."
"Maybe" I stared out the window at darkened England, wanting to figure out something new but my focus was weakening. My week had been too full.
We were within an hour from Lil's, so somewhere out there in the darkness, far beyond these particular highway lights lay Stonehenge and Glastonbury Abbey the tor that may have once been the magical island of Avalon.
King Arthur's stomping grounds, for sure. Back in the seventh grade, when Lex and I first did our joint reports on Camelot, we discussed the stories the way some kids talk about their favorite games. Later, we sometimes sent each other greeting cards showing medieval knights or ladies. During one engagement, we'd talked about having our wedding at the Cloisters. During another, we'd joked about flying to Vegas and getting married at The Excalibur. The legends, complete with words like chivalry and honor, had seemed to mean something to Lex. I would have sworn it.
Which one of us had changed the most, that I would no longer swear it?
Lil said nothing, but Rhys turned awkwardly in the passenger seat. "Maybe what, Maggi?"
"I was just thinking that a code which has lasted thousands of years must still have some true followers," I said slowly. "I was just wondering what kind of a person it would take to see remnants of their potential and put them back on course."
Lil said, "Someone who doesn't send hitmen after his ex-girlfriends?"
"I'm not saying he's a good guy," I protested. And I wasn't. Too much had happened. "I'm just saying, things might be a lot more complicated than he's let us know."
Rhys said, "Excuse me who are we talking about again?"
I said, "Lex" while Lil said, "Satan."
Rhys nodded. "Do you suppose we'll meet up with him in New York?"
As if Lex were some kind of movie star.
I thought of what he'd told me about the auction, and not getting in without him. Hopefully he was lying, but "I'm afraid we might."
"Excellent," said Rhys.
This was going to be weird.
ARRIVING AT AUCTION IN NYC:
Originally, I was going to have an actual auction scene, with a bunch of people in one place bidding for the Melusine Grail. But for one thing, the book was going way too long. For another, the more I read about auctions, the more it seemed likely that this would be done with a great deal more privacy. I love the direction the story took once I moved the auction to the "virtual" world at Lex's apartment, giving Lex and Maggi more alone time. But before that version, there was this one--with a surprise addition at the end. This is also part of the version of the book in which Rhys was still a priest--an Anglican priest. I'm glad I changed that, too....
I sensed her--the grail--as soon as we got out of the cab, down the block from the address on Lex's e-mail. The sensation felt it felt kind of like landing in New York had. It felt like homecoming.
I was beginning to realize that a lot of the magic surrounding my goddess grail worked that way subtle, and everyday, easy to miss, and yet all the more powerful for its ability to blend into the world around it.
The Melusine Grail was here, and waiting for me.
It took everything I had not to make a run for it. But not everyone was coming with me.
Lil and my friend Sofie Douglas, currently in plainclothes, were there as backup. I'd called Sofie the night beforeFridayand she'd driven into the city this morning. She was excited to help save one of the cups her grammy had told her about, and I felt far better about splitting into two camps if nobody ended up alone.
Not with Comitatus still lurking anywhere.
"Don't worry about us lot," said Lil, who looked particularly pregnant this morning and who carried her laptop case. "We'll find a café with Internet connections while we're waiting. It's always possible that Mum's raised a few thousand more for us, since we left the hotel."
Her mum, a professional fundraiser and a lifetime Grailkeeper, had so far collected a staggering seven-hundred-thousand dollars. Not investments, donations. All from people, mostly women, who were willing to gamble on the possibility of increasing womanpower. And all on another woman's word that it was even marginally possible.
This could never have happened even fifty years ago, before so many women were well-enough employed to have that kind of mad money. And it could never have happened if some of them weren't willing to take wild, emotionally-driven investment risks that many male investors will not the risk of being wrong, of being foolish, of having lost, all gambled on the possibility that it could be wonderful.
At least we would have tried. The cashier's check in my pocket felt like a magical totem. Talk about womanpower!
I said, "I'll call you if I think a little more could make a difference. It's possible that everything we've got is just chump change, in there."
Hello. We were standing in front of some of the priciest real estate in Manhattan.
"But it's also possible that nobody will recognize its real worth," Rhys reminded me. "We know that it's the Melusine Grail. To everyone else, it may simply be an alabaster goblet with pretty pictures."
"And if the prices on ebay and those art auction sites are any indication," said Lil, "prices on antiquities are nowhere near as steep as we'd feared."
I had a feeling the prices on ebay weren't a valid indication at all. But I didn't want to jinx us with too much negative thinking. And even if some of those ebay prices would be more accurate multiplied by ten we might still make it.
If we could get in.
While Lil and Sofie headed one direction, to find a good place to wait things out, Rhys and I made our way to the high-rise apartment building listed as the sale's address. I kept the sense of the chalice inside me, comforting me, assuring me that whatever it took, I would find a way in.
I wasn't ready for the doorman to ask, as we stopped by him, "You folks here for the art sale?"
"Yes," said Rhys.
The doorman moved the rope that barred the entrance. "Just take the elevator, press the button marked PH."
We walked right in.
"That was too easy," murmured Rhys, halfway across the building's marble-floored lobby. "What if we'd been the antiquities police?"
I concentrated on looking sophisticated and worldly and rich, at least as far as the elevator. I pressed PHfor Penthouse.
After the doors slid shut, Rhys added, "I suppose it could be a trap."
Me, I was savoring the nearness of the grail. "Nothing we can do about it if it isunless you want to get out on a lower floor. No!" I protested, at Rhys's dark look. "I don't mean that as an insult. But it might be smarter if both of us don't walk into an ambush."
Rhys continued to stare at me.
I sighed. "So I suppose if I have the right to choose to risk my life, you do too, huh?"
He noddedand then it was too late. We were arriving on the Penthouse Level.
The doors slid open. I tensed only to be met by piano music and the murmur of polite, cultured voices. Suspicious, I stepped into an incredibly beautiful penthouse suite which had clearly been set up for an art sale.
Several artificial walls stood to protect the real ones, with paintings hung along them. Pedestals were set all around both the living room and the dining room that it opened into, holding smaller objects d'art. Perhaps two dozen people mingled, and looked, and ate hors d'oeuvres off of what looked to be hand-thrown ceramic serving trays. And beyond it all, just past the pianist at his grande, a procession of floor-to-ceiling windows showing off Central Park.
It was absolutely beautiful.
I didn't see the grail anywhere.
"Welcome!" The man who approached us opened his arms wide for a hugfirst from Rhys and only then from me. "New faces; I love meeting new collectors at my little parties. So." His hands splayed out on both sides, to indicate the pieces. "I'm Shane SmithI know, I know, the name doesn't fit, but taking a nom de plume when one doesn't even write is so pretentious, don't you think? I'd rather use my pretentiousness points elsewhere!" He laughed, a bright, scattered sound. Then he stopped laughing. "This is my humble home, and these are our latest collection of treasures, for my special friends to see. And you are?"
He cocked his head, somehow appearing both excited and skeptical at the same time. I had the feeling that if we didn't pass some silent test, Shane Smith had a much bigger friend lurking around here who would gladly see us out.
Unsure what that test might be, I went with honesty. "I'm Maggi Sanger, and this is my friend Rhys Pritchard."
"Rhys Rhys Rhys," chanted Shane. "Are you really a priest, or do you just like role-playing?"
"I'm really a priest. I'm not buying, obviously. I'm here with Maggi."
Shane clapped his hands together in front of his mouth. "I don't know what's more delightful, that accent, or how surprised Lex Stuart will be to see you."
"Mr. Stuart is here?" asked Rhys, still high on the whole part-of-the-Sangreal idea.
"Oh, not yet. But he let me know to expect only Ms. Sanger, so I assumed they were back together."
"We aren't," I said firmly.
Shane giggled. "Help yourself to the snacks and look around; most of these items are really quite impressive, though I'll admit, a few I agreed to represent simply because I'm such a soft touch. What's a man to do?"
"Mr. Smith," I said.
"Shane. Please. Like in that delicious gunfighter movie with Alan Ladd."
I smiled. "Shane? I'm here for one piece in particular"
With a single swat of his hand through the air, he silenced me. "Plenty of time to talk business when everyone gets here! Mingle, enjoy yourselves."
He patted us each on the shoulder and moved on to his next schmoozing victims.
Rhys said, "Let's get a drink. I have the sudden urge for something like whiskey, or scotch straight up."
"Something manly?" I asked, leading the way to the penthouse's kitchen where a bartender was set up.
His nod was rueful.
The next hour was an exercise in frustration. Rhys and I, drinks in hand, looked at the different pieces of art and chatted with different guests, but learned very little except this:
The Melusine chalice was nowhere in sight.
Shane Smith had excellent artistic tastes, both in his home and his artwork, and was in fact a legitimate art broker.
Every piece in this room was, in fact, in the Grailkeepers' price range, the starting cost being five thousand dollars and the highest priced piece in the room selling for seventy-five-thousand.
And every piece on display had a corresponding notebook full of paperwork about where it came from and what it cost, sometimes with photographs and photocopies of centuries old bills of sale.
Thatand Shane's much bigger friend was posted outside the hallway to what I assumed was the bedroom half of the apartment. When I tried to walk casually by, he stepped in front of me and shook his head.
He was dressed in a very nice suit and, though balding, had the lower part of his hair braided into a tail, and he smelled faintly of expensive cologne.
"I'm just looking for the ladies room," I told him, trying to go around him again, but he blocked my way and pointed behind me.
"Off the kitchen," he said.
And that was that.
"So you figure it's somewhere behind those doors," translated Rhys quietly, when I told him the story.
"Yes, for all the good it does for us. I mean, if I had to I suppose I could go out a window and try to find a ledge"
"No," said Rhys sternly.
"It can't be that windy out."
"We are forty floors up. No. I will narc on you to Shane before I let you risk yourself that way."
"Well I wont' have to if we can just buy it. But I'm trying to think of backup plans."
"Nothing that includes youanyone, really, but especially youand a forty-story drop. No artifact is worth that risk. I'm serious."
I could see he was. I was also serious about getting the grail. My impatience to see it, to rescue it, wound through me like a spring, its palpable nearness only increasing my need.
Buy it, I reminded myself. That's why we'd raised the money. It wasn't fair that anybody, especially Catrina Dauvergne of the Cluny, would get money for selling something that wasn't theirs but a lot of things in this world weren't fair. At least we'd have the grail back.
And I wanted it back.
I could hardly think of anything else.
At least, not until the elevator doors slid open and Lex stepped into the penthouse apartmentwith one Catrina Dauvergne on his arm.