‘You know him?’
‘I know of him. Everyone knows of him. How come you don’t?’
‘Because I don’t pay attention to what the Order does. You know that, Iqbal.’
‘I know you said that. I just thought…’
‘What? That I say I don’t care about them but really I stalk them at every opportunity?’
I rolled my eyes. ‘I’m a pretty uncomplicated person. What you see is what you get.’ Secrets take time and energy. Most of the time, at least. There was one glaring exception to that rule but I’d put it behind me long ago. ‘Anyway, what I want to know is—’
‘—is whether there’s a way to break the binding before the first hundred days are up. I can look into it but it’s probably an ancient spell and we both know they’re the toughest ones to crack. The good news is I’ve got all the right books lying around here.’
I beamed. ‘Brill.’
‘Bear in mind,’ he cautioned, ‘that this sort of spell sounds like it’s been drawn right out of the Cyphers. In that scenario…’
‘I get it,’ I said. The Cypher Manuscripts are the Bible as far as the Order are concerned. The magic written on their pages is stronger than you’ll find anywhere else. It is essentially primeval; it is enchantment in its rawest form. Fortunately, however, its power is rarely harnessed. Even Second Level Order members have to petition to be allowed access to even one dusty yellowing Cypher page. And I’d heard there were thousands. There was no way that the Order had gone to those lengths for a binding spell, no matter how much they wanted to keep Winter in line. ‘If Cypher magic was used, then all bets are off.’
‘Agreed.’ Iqbal paused. ‘So what do I get in return for helping you?’
Arse. ‘Joy in your heart.’
‘Not enough, Ivy. I need more.’
I scrunched up my face. ‘What do you want?’
Iqbal didn’t hesitate. ‘Karaoke.’
I could virtually hear him grin. ‘Minimum of two hours. At least three songs from you, one of which must be a duet with me.’
‘There must be something else. My life savings? My first-born? Anything?’
‘Those are my terms.’
Damn him. ‘No rap.’ My mouth didn’t work that fast.
‘And no Sonny and Cher for the duet.’
‘Fine.’ He sounded smug. That had me worried but what choice did I have?
‘Okay. Find the information I need and I’ll do karaoke,’ I said reluctantly.
‘I’m already on it.’
I hesitated then said, ‘Before you go, is there anything in particular I should know about Winter?’
Iqbal was silent for a moment. Finally he spoke. ‘Watch your step. That man is on a mission to rise to the top of the Order and he’ll do almost anything to get there. He was brought up as an army brat in a non-magical family. His father is some military big shot and Raphael was expected to follow in Daddy’s footsteps until his magic showed itself. The family no doubt expects him to rise up the Order ranks as quickly as he would have risen in the army. He’s not a Department Head like most others of his rank but that’s because he knows the fastest way to the top is through Arcane Branch. He’s prepared to bide his time. At least, that’s what the word on the street is.’
I didn’t like the sound of that at all. Ambition always makes me feel rather queasy. ‘Thanks, darling,’ I said. I hung up.
I’d done everything I could for now. Yawning, I rested my head on the arm of the sofa. One of these days I was going to train Brutus to make me mugs of tea. And do the washing up afterwards.
‘Brutus!’ I called. ‘Come here, you bugger, and show me how to catnap again.’
He padded into the room and jumped onto the coffee table. That was strange – he normally ignored me when I shouted.
‘Problem.’ His whiskers quivered.
‘Problem with what?’
Honestly, he was more trouble than he was worth sometimes. ‘If you’re not going to elaborate…’
He lifted his head and stared at a high point on the wall behind me. Either I was being haunted or there was a spider. Brutus hates spiders.
‘You’re not going to let it go, are you?’ I pulled myself upright. ‘There’s nothing there, Brutus. Not even a cobweb. And behind the wall there’s nothing because that’s Eve’s flat.’ Then I froze. Brutus looked at me as if to suggest that I was incredibly dim-witted but I was finally beginning to understand. ‘Is it Harold?’ I demanded. Damn it, Eve would be devastated if anything happened to him while she was away.
Brutus started to wash his face. I grimaced and swung to my feet. That was clearly all I was going to get out of him; I’d have to see what was wrong for myself.
I pressed my ear against the wall. There was a dull thud from the other side. Someone was definitely in there; the question was who.
If Eve weren’t a witch, with her own specially pre-prepared magical wards (considered vital for anyone in the Order, even though they’re nothing more than a drain of energy and useless against non-magical invasions), I’d simply have cast a rune or two to work out who was in her flat. I wouldn’t have even had to open my front door. Alas, I knew my magic couldn’t penetrate her spells. I’d have to do this the old-fashioned way.
Cursing under my breath, I went into my Spare Room of Doom, so-called because it has become a dumping ground for everything I don’t need and now resembles a hell cave filled with mini-mountains of un-ironed clothes, random boxes and goodness-only-knows-what. Maybe, I thought hopefully, by the time I’d found what I needed, Eve’s visitor would have already vanished.
Poking underneath a pile of wrinkled blankets, I found my old canister of pepper spray, purchased for me by a well-meaning friend who’d been concerned that working as a taxi driver was an open invitation to be raped and dismembered, not necessarily in that order. Nah. I tossed it to one side in favour of a slightly smelly navy anorak and battered baseball cap. Then, at the last minute, I spotted an old ID badge from my short-lived, post-Order stint as a receptionist at a large pharmaceutical company. I grabbed it and pinned it to my chest, using a scarf to obscure most of the lettering. Once I was satisfied, I picked up the nearest cardboard box and headed out, whistling.
I ambled down the corridor, pausing when I reached Eve’s door. The low murmur of voices reached my ears: there was more than one would-be burglar. That didn’t bode well. Shifting the box in my arms, I raised my hand and knocked.
The voices immediately hushed. I knocked again. I couldn’t be arsed kicking down the door and attacking, especially when I was outnumbered and the people I hurt could be Eve’s long-lost brothers. Although if my ploy didn’t work, it would probably come to that.
Fortunately, whoever was inside was smart enough to know that I’d heard them and that pretending not to be there wouldn’t work. Unfortunately for them, they weren’t as smart as they thought.
The door opened and a dark-haired woman appeared. She was wearing jeans and a smart blouse and looked to be in her early thirties – and she was no one I’d ever seen before. I pasted on a suitably bored expression. ‘Eve Harrington?’
Liar. Suddenly granted silent permission to hurt her, I smiled. ‘I’ve got a delivery for you.’
She glanced at the box and held out her hands for it. ‘Thanks.’
I kept hold of it. ‘I need you to sign.’ I shrugged amiably. ‘The company insists. I’ve lost my pen though – at my last drop-off, the guy kept it. Can you believe it?’ I shook my head. ‘I didn’t realise until I was halfway here. Honestly, you have no idea how many pens I go through in a month.’
Fake Eve stared at me. ‘That … sucks,’ she said finally.
‘Yeah,’ I agreed. ‘But I can’t leave without a signature. Do you have a pen inside?’
Her eyes shifted. I reckoned she was debating between her desire to say no and get rid of me as quickly as possible and her curiosity about what goodies she could nick from Eve’s delivery. Fortunately, the latter won. ‘Give me a minute.’
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