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Is this shipment of antiques stolen?
Sidney Weston kept the question locked behind her lips as she glanced from her boss, Carl Peterbalm, to the wooden packing crates that sat on the floor of her office.
Peterbalm was a short man in his mid-forties, with small, beady eyes, fleshy lips, and thinning hair. Not a very attractive package, especially accompanied by the garlic smell of his breath.
He was standing nearby, his arms folded across his ample middle, waiting for her to bring out more of the items he'd acquired from a French dealer who got his stock from God knew where. Wishing the crates weren't so deep, she leaned into one of the containers to get another antique, aware of Carl's hot gaze on her ass and legs.
On her worst days, she suspected that he'd hired her because he liked to show her off to clients and pretend they were having an affair.
As distasteful as that thought was, she needed the salary he provided, so she'd have to wait until she got another job before she went after him for sexual harassment.
She clutched the newspaper-wrapped object in her hand, then ordered herself to relax as she carefully peeled off the paper to find a delicate Limoges pitcher, which she set beside the Louis XIV clock and solid silver altar candlestick that she'd already unwrapped.
She'd been working as a research assistant, secretary and gofer at Peterbalm Associates for eighteen months, and she longed to tell Mr. Grabby Hands to go to hell. Really, she wanted to open her own shop, where she'd have an appealing mixture of affordable collectibles and expensive antiques.
But for now, that was just a dream. She was still paying off the college loans that hadallowed her to get a degree in fine arts at the University of Maryland.
When she turned, her breast brushed against his arm, which he'd positioned right where she would collide with him when she went back for more pieces from the shipment.
"Sorry," he said, the insecurity dripping from his voice. Biting back a sharp retort, she reached into the carton and brought out another antique. Through the paper she felt a rectangular object. With the wrapping still on, she couldn't see the thing, but she felt the hairs on the backs of her arms stand up. Whatever she was holding, she suddenly wanted to put it back into the shipping container.
Instead, she clenched her teeth and started to unwrap it. As she pulled away the paper, she saw a wooden box with elaborate carvings of vines, flowers, animals and moons. When her hand touched the wood, her fingers tingled. Setting the box down abruptly on the table, she took a couple of steps back. Even from a few feet away, the thing seemed to exude a kind of invisible power that she had never felt before.
Behind her, Carl sucked in a sharp breath. Did he feel something too?
"What?" she asked.
He waited a beat before saying, "I just remembered that I'm late for an appointment." He swept his arm toward the wooden crates. "I want you to finish unpacking the shipment today, and enter everything in the computer file."
She flicked her eyes toward the time stamp at the bottom of her computer screen. It was already four in the afternoon. To finish on time, she'd have to work overtime, and she knew from past experience that Carl Peterbalm was unlikely to pay her for the extra hours.
"That may take awhile," she murmured.
"You can clock in an extra hour," he said.
"Thank you," she answered.
When he left the room and marched down the hall, Sidney breathed out a little sigh.
She knew Carl was still trying to prove to his father that he could do better on his own than by joining the family business. No doubt he'd ordered this shipment from some under-the-table source, and now he'd left her with the result.
Still, she could work a lot faster without him breathing down her neck.
She glanced at the clock again. At this hour, the rest of the staff had probably had already gone home, which added to her uneasy feeling.
Ordering herself to settle down, she got up and locked the door. Then she returned to inventory the shipment.
It wasn't going to be a simple task. In addition to listing each item, she also had to write a description, which might require some research on the Web or in the reference books that lined the shelves above the computer table.
She unwrapped a couple more pieces from the shipment, setting them on the table. Then, almost against her own will, her hand was drawn back to the wooden box. When she touched it, she felt the same tingling sensation she'd experienced before, as though it had an electric current running through it.
No, it was more than that. Somehow she felt the tingling inside her head.As if it was getting into her mind.
Stop it, she ordered. You're letting your imagination run away with you.
Still, she knew the chest had to be something extraordinary.
And it had come in a cut-rate shipment from France? Not likely.
She stroked her finger over the carved surface that had become nicked and scarred over the years, then gently traced the curve of a three-quarter moon before picking up the box and holding it near her ear. Did she detect a faint buzzing, or was it her imagination? She shook the box and heard a faint rattling sound, like someone had locked a piece of plastic inside.
What was in there anyway? And how did you open it? As far as she could see, it had no obvious lid. It must be like one of those Oriental puzzle boxes where you had to press a sequence of places on the surface to make panels slide to one side or the other.
She fiddled with the chest for a few minutes, but she couldn't locate any hidden panels.
Maybe she was wrong. Maybe whoever had made the thing had intended it to just be a paperweight.
She didn't believe that, but perhaps she could get some help from an expert. She started to reach for the phone, then drew her hand back. Carl was a real cheap-skate who had a limited calling plan and monitored the phone records. He'd complain if she made a personal call on his dime. So she dug her cell phone out of her purse, then dialed Sabrina Cassidy.
Sabrina ran the lobby shop at 43 Light Street, a downtown office building with a close-knit community of friends and coworkers.
Her store carried the usual sundries that people who worked in the building might need, but she also had a charming selection of antiques and gift items.
Sidney had done an internship with her during her senior year at Maryland, and they'd become good friends. Through Sabrina she'd also met a lot of the other people from the Light Street address.
Sabrina answered on the second ring. "Lobby Shop." "I'm glad I reached you." "Sidney! You sound…upset. What's wrong? Do you have a problem?"
"Well, I'm stuck at the office with a big shipment of antiques from France. I've got to write up an inventory, and I was hoping you could tell me something about one of the pieces."
"What have you got?
"A carved box. It's very old, and it looks like it came from India or maybe China."
In as much detail as possible, she described the box, leaving out the part about the electric sensation, because she felt embarrassed to admit her strange reaction.
"And there's no obvious way to open it?" Sabrina asked. "No."
Her friend was silent for a moment. "I…"
"From your description, it might be associated with an ancient religious cult."
"The Moon Priests. They flourished on the Indian subcontinent almost two thousand years ago. Also in mainland Greece. At one time they were a powerful force in the world."
"But not now?"
"I thought they died out."
Sidney felt a shiver travel over her skin. She'd thought the box was old. It sounded like her estimate was off by a millennium.
"The Moon Priests were reputed to have magical— or mystical—powers."
The comment made the hairs on her arm stir again. To banish the feeling, she laughed. "Well, a lot of religions make that claim. You could go back to Moses and the burning bush."
"Right." Sabrina cleared her throat. "I'd like to see the box."
Sidney thought about the request. She was sure that Carl wouldn't like someone else looking at his shipment. But Carl wasn't here now.
"Can you come tonight?"
"I wish I could, but Dan is taking me to dinner. We've been trying to find the time to get together for weeks."
Sabrina had met her husband when she was a murder suspect and he was a State's Attorney. Since then, he'd given up his government job and gone to work for the Light Street Foundation, helping people who couldn't afford the usual legal fees.
"What about early tomorrow morning, before my boss gets in?"
"Thanks. I'd like that."
Knowing that she'd better get to work if she didn't want to spend the night at the office, Sidney ended the call, then turned back to the shipment.
She understood herself pretty well, and she knew that filling a computer file with information would make her feel better. So she reached for the Limoges pitcher. She'd studied French china in one of her senior classes, and she could describe and date the piece without using a reference book.
She'd just entered the information when the screen and the cursor froze.
"Lord, no!" she muttered as she tried to move the cursor. When nothing happened, she was forced to press the Control-Alt-Delete keys. A box came up on the left side of the screen, telling her that the program was not responding and she would lose all data she'd entered if she chose to terminate the program.
Since she'd only recorded one item, maybe the best thing to do was to start over. She pressed the cancel keys again, but instead of just losing the program, the computer shut itself off.
Panic shot through her. "Not now," she pleaded as she tried to reboot.
But the machine wouldn't come back on.
With an unsteady hand, she reached for the Rolodex on her desk. She used her cell phone to dial Luke McMillan, the guy who had sold Carl the desktop and still serviced it. As she listened to it ring, she murmured a little prayer under her breath. "Please, God. Please, let him answer," she repeated over and over. On the fifth ring, she heard his voice.
"Thank you God," she breathed.
He laughed. "I sound that good?"
"Luke, I need you. I'm in the middle of an inventory project, and my computer's crapped out."
"Okay. I just finished a job downtown, and I'm in my car. I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
"I owe you."
He paused for a moment, then asked, "What?"
"Get me up and running again, and we'll talk about it," she said. In truth, she was thinking that maybe this would be the push Luke needed to ask her out. He was so damn cute with his shaggy dark hair and that sexy cleft in his chin. But he'd always struck her as a study in contrasts. He was so confident when it came to his job and so shy around her.
She hated to admit how much she liked him, even to herself.
Still, she couldn't squelch a feeling of anticipation as she got up and unlocked the door that she'd locked a few minutes ago. While she was up, she made a quick trip to the ladies' room where she used the facilities, then combed her blond hair and put on some fresh lipstick.
"Going out on a date?" Betty Custer asked as she came out of the other stall. Betty worked down the hall for a trucking company. A petite redhead, she was a few years older than Sidney, and they'd gotten to know each other.
"I wish," Sidney answered. "Carl has me stuck here for the evening." "You're not putting on lipstick for Carl, are you?" Betty asked as she washed her hands.
Sidney flushed. "Luke McMillan is coming by." When Sidney had casually mentioned Luke before, Betty had revealed that she'd gone to school with him. So Sidney had pressed her for information and found out a lot about him. Luke hadn't been shy around the girls in school. Sidney was sure he liked her, so why did he keep hanging back?
"Did he finally ask you out?" Betty asked.
Sidney inspected her appearance in the mirror. Not too bad for a woman who'd been at work all day. "No, but maybe I can push him over the edge tonight."