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A low growl reverberated from deep within his throat. I crossed my arms. He wasn’t giving an inch. ‘Foo…’

‘Fine,’ I snapped, interrupting him. Sometimes the path of least resistance is the best. I opened the cupboard, selected a different flavour and presented it to him. I received the tiniest purr in response. Rolling my eyes, I got rid of the first lot of food and gave him the second. Then I stomped to the phone to order myself a pizza.

Chapter Two

It would be nice to think that the rest of my week improved but things only went from bad to worse. It’s fair to say that if I’d appreciated how bad life was about to get, I would never ever have emerged from my duvet on Friday.

Even with Brutus perched on my chest repeating his mantra for breakfast, I was tempted to pull the cover over my head. It was so snug and warm. Unless I got up and threw him out of the window, however, it was clear I wouldn’t get any peace and quiet. I could have done that but it wouldn’t have been worth the hassle afterwards. Not that Brutus would have hurt himself; he’s only used up two of his nine lives so far, which I reckon is pretty good for a cat of his age and temperament. But given that the time I accidentally stepped on his tail caused seven full days of feline hatred, where I was afraid to open any of the doors in my own damned flat, I dreaded to think what I’d receive in return for giving him flying lessons.

‘I’m getting up,’ I told him. ‘In two minutes.’

‘Food.’

‘Quit it.’

I tried to relax once more; it wasn’t hard. I was drifting back into the wonderful land of snuggly slumber when a paw, with claws outstretched just enough to rake my skin, scraped along my cheek. I opened one eye. I suspected that Brutus had waited the exact two minutes that I’d promised.

‘Food.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’

Sighing, I stuck one foot out from under the duvet. It was freezing. I yanked it back and moaned. Brutus went for my face again but I dodged his attentions by smothering my head into the soft pillow.

I could do this. On the count of three.

One.

Two.

Three.

I didn’t move. Gritting my teeth, I steeled myself and tried again. This time I sprang upwards and darted for my dressing gown hanging on the bedroom door. I wrapped it round me and ran, wondering why I lived in a flat which had beautifully polished parquet floors that were bloody freezing under my feet rather than inch-thick pile carpet. Where the arse were my slippers?

Hopping from foot to foot, I nipped into the kitchen and flipped on the kettle before opening the cupboard that housed the small boiler. I peered at it. It was still there; it hadn’t blown up in the middle of the night. So why, in the name of all that was icy and unpleasant, wasn’t it working?

I thumped it a couple of times. There was an odd gurgle but, other than that, nothing seemed to be happening. I wrinkled my nose and tried to think. I knew various runes for starting fires but I’d never had occasion to use them and somehow I didn’t think setting my own home alight would be wise.

I grabbed a bowl for Brutus and poured out some dry cat food that I knew he liked, then made myself a mug of tea. I warmed my frozen fingers round it while I considered my options. The trouble with magic is that it involves ancient skills and knowledge which have very little to do with technology. When it comes to the mystical arts and twenty-first century advances, it’s always best to work on the premise that never the twain shall meet. If they do, you can expect explosions and violent death and the very real possibility that you’ll be engulfed in a hailstorm made up of shards of glass and hornet stings.

I pondered my options. As I’d told that good Samaritan yesterday, some things are best left to the professionals. I glanced outside. Eve would have already left for her trip up north, which meant I could vamoose over to her place, check on her cat, call a plumber and wait in the warmth. Sounded like a damn good plan to me. I nodded wisely to myself; go me.

Brutus butted his head against my shin and I crouched down to scratch behind his ears. ‘It’s cold here,’ I told him, rather unnecessarily. ‘I’m going to Eve’s to feed Harold and wait for help to arrive. Right now, a Saint Bernard with emergency rum rations would be particularly appreciated. You’re welcome to come with me if you want.’

He flung a disdainful look in my direction. He’d never said anything but I had the distinct impression that he considered Harold – or rather Harold Fitzwilliam Duxworthy the Third, to give Eve’s familiar his true title (witches enjoy long titles and lines of heritage) – was beneath him. He abandoned my bid to stroke him in favour of turning round and presenting me with his arse, before sauntering off to find a morning sunbeam. I checked the clock. Okay: afternoon sunbeam. But only just. Still, I felt guilty for grousing at Brutus when he’d clearly been very patient before waking me up.

‘I’m sorry!’ I called out. ‘I hadn’t realised the time.’

There wasn’t an answer. I shrugged. Without wasting any more time or body heat, I grabbed Eve’s keys and shoved my feet into a pair of wellies, which I’d bought last year as part of a misguided and impulsive plan to go foraging for herbs. The boots had lain unattended in the same corner ever since.

Hugging my dressing gown closer, I nipped out into the shared corridor. Fortunately, no one else was around; the last thing I wanted was the good-looking guy at number twenty-three to see me wandering around with a shabby dressing gown and bed hair, even if it might have given me an effective opening to encourage him round to inspect my own bed. I darted to Eve’s place, quickly unlocked the door and hopped inside.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been round to her flat. I’d looked after Harold on a few other occasions when she’d been away for work and had once ventured there for a party she put on to impress her boss. Alas, I inadvertently mistook him for one of the local binmen who serve this building and always have a cheery smile and a kind word. When I asked him how the rubbish business was going, he assumed I belonged to one of the many witch-hating chapters and looked ready to throttle me. I apologised profusely but the situation was only compounded when Eve appeared to smooth things over and introduced me. Of course, he recognised my name. It might have been years since I had anything to do with the Order but apparently I was still mud as far as the upper echelons of the Second and Third Levels were concerned. Whatever.

Every time I was in Eve’s flat, I was struck by how clean everything was. I’d have known if she paid someone to do her dusting for her. It was possible she’d mastered a complicated series of runes that enabled her to use magic to keep the place spick and span but I suspected that she used nothing more than elbow grease. The poor woman needed to get out more.

‘Harold,’ I called. ‘Harold! It’s Ivy from down the hall.’

The cat didn’t answer. Perhaps I was being too familiar with the familiar. I tried again. ‘Harold Fitzwilliam Duxworthy the Third? Are you there?’

There was a faint meow from the living room. My brow furrowed slightly. I followed the noise, pushing open the door in time to see a small brown shape dart at full speed across the coffee table. A heartbeat later Harold flew after it, knocking over several black candles and what had to be a year’s supply of enchanted bee pollen across Eve’s spotless floor. I sucked in a pained breath; I knew how much that stuff cost. Then I sneezed three times in quick succession and grimaced.

‘Sneeze on Friday, sneeze for woe,’ I muttered to myself. That didn’t bode well.

Leaving the pollen for now, I edged round the table to try and find Harold and discover what he’d been chasing. He was squeezed into the gap between the wall and the sofa, staring fixedly with huge pupils at something underneath it. I grabbed him and received a yowl and a vicious scratch for my efforts. I tossed him into the kitchen and locked the door then hunkered down on all fours and peered under the sofa. From the gloom in the corner, I could make out a tiny twitching nose and quivering whiskers. A mouse.

I pulled back. Huh. Although Eve had said she was doing well at Myomancy, it seemed likely that the little creature was scampering around and causing havoc not because her flat had a nest of rodents but because she was using him to hone her skills. I tapped my mouth thoughtfully. It was a long time since I’d practised the art of reading rodent behaviour; I wondered whether I could still do it.

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