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A woman put her head round the door. ‘I apologise, Ipsissimus,’ she said. She didn’t look in the slightest bit sorry. I already liked her. ‘But there’s a witch here to see Adeptus Exemptus Winter. A Practicus Smythe. He says it’s an emergency and he won’t take no for an answer.’

Winter’s face shuttered. The Ipsissimus frowned and gestured to the woman to let him in. A moment later, a bespectacled witch shuffled in. He was wearing a red robe and looked as skinny and pale as most Order witches. There was also a distinct aura of panic about him. I examined him more closely. There were a few odd stains around the cuffs of his robe. It was difficult to tell for sure given the robe’s colour but I had a horrible feeling I knew what they were.

Smythe bowed several times then shuffled his feet and twitched. ‘I’m so sorry, I wouldn’t have bothered you if it weren’t important. I was told to bring in Adeptus Diall for questioning.’ He was doing everything he could to distance himself from responsibility. It was a tactic I knew well.

‘And?’

He licked his lips. ‘Maybe I should talk to Adeptus Winter on his own?’

‘Is that a question?’ the Ipsissimus snapped. ‘Because the answer is no. Tell us what the problem is.’

Smythe took a shaky breath. ‘Well, I went to Adeptus Exemptus Diall’s home as instructed. Not just me, there were three of us from the Arcane office.’

Dread snaked its way down my spine.

‘And?’

Smythe seemed to shrink into himself. ‘He’s dead. Diall, I mean. It looks like he’s been stabbed.’

***

During most of the journey to Diall’s home, Winter was silent. His face was a grim mask and the stiff way he held himself showed his tension. Truthfully, I felt same way. Maybe Diall had died whilst trying to master the more dangerous Cypher spells but I somehow doubted the Manuscripts rose up and shoved a knife into his heart.

‘How are you doing?’ Winter asked, as we pulled into a wide, leafy driveway leading up to Diall’s house.

My fingers plucked at my sleeve. ‘I’m drying off,’ I said. ‘So that’s something.’

‘I meant are you going to be able to cope with what’s about to happen?’

I knew he was referring to seeing Diall’s corpse. I might watch a lot of crime shows on television but real dead bodies would be far more gruesome and chilling than their fictional counterparts. Clever make-up on a breathing actor was one thing; a very dead witch was something else entirely.

‘What’s the alternative?’ I asked softly. ‘You have to go and check Diall’s body. The binding means that I have to investigate with you. I’ll have to cope.’

‘If it’s going to be too much, I can get a verbal report from one of the other Arcane Branch members. We can proceed without viewing the body.’

Winter really was concerned about me. Given how seriously he took his job and how vital this investigation was, I was touched. ‘I’ll manage.’ I ran my tongue around my mouth. I could probably do with a stiff whisky first, though. ‘How many dead bodies have you had to deal with?’

‘Too many. A while back I worked with the police on Arcane secondment. There’s a lot of misery in this world, Ivy. Why do you think I do what I do?’

This wasn’t the time for blithe remarks so I simply nodded and looked out of the window. Diall’s place was nice.

We got out of the car and walked up to the couple standing at the entrance – one policeman and one witch. This was murder; there was no chance that the Order could avoid involving the coppers, but I had a feeling that the red robes were going to take the lead.

The witch bobbed her head at Winter and murmured his name to the policeman. It was clear from the curious flicker in her eyes that she recognised me. She knew enough to keep her mouth shut. This wasn’t the time for gossip or pointless questions.

My foot was barely over the threshold when I smelled it. If I thought I knew what death smelled like, I’d been sorely mistaken. Diall probably hadn’t been dead for long and still the reek was overpowering. The sewer had been a rose garden compared to the sour, faeces-ridden stench that now confronted me.

There were Arcane Branch witches all over the place. They acknowledged Winter and ignored me. That was fine. We weren’t even in the same room as Diall’s corpse yet and already I felt like throwing up. Holding a conversation with anyone, even just saying my name, seemed like a step too far.

I breathed in through my mouth. I could do this; I didn’t want Winter to think I was a complete wuss – even if I was.

We were directed into the kitchen. It was a cook’s delight, with a marble-topped island, copper pans hanging from the ceiling in a neat row and a view out towards the sunny garden. It would have been a beautiful room if it weren’t for the dead body lying askew on the tiled floor. Winter walked over to him and knelt down. I told myself not to start heaving and edged over to join him, although I remained standing and wrapped my arms round my body.

There was no doubt what had killed Diall: the large kitchen knife protruding from his chest was a dead giveaway. There was an incredible amount of blood splattered over the pristine kitchen cabinets as well as pooling underneath the body. Diall’s hands lay by his side; he was not clutching the knife as I might have expected. His head lay to the side but I could still see the scream on his face. And his eyes were wide open.

I gulped and took a step back. Focus on Winter, I told myself. He’s the expert here.

I watched as he examined Diall. He didn’t touch the body but his eyes roved over every aspect of it. He paused as he looked at the mortal wound and studied the knife from all angles. He also took his time over Diall’s face until I wondered whether he was willing the corpse to open its mouth and start speaking.

‘I don’t suppose you know necromancy?’ a plain-clothes police officer enquired, half-jokingly.

Half the witches in the room sighed. I guess they got asked that a lot. Yes, necromancy was theoretically possible but no one in living memory had been able to master it. It was well known that even just attempting necromancy could consume a person, body and soul if you didn’t get it right. Ironically, I was fairly certain that the ability was described at length in the Cypher Manuscripts. Not in the missing Volume 9, though.

Winter merely grunted. He stood up and circled the body a few times, making sure he didn’t tread on any vital piece of evidence. When he was done, he beckoned the police officer. ‘The murder weapon,’ he said. ‘Is it from here?’

The officer nodded. ‘As far as we can tell. There’s a missing knife from the block on the counter.’

So we could assume that this wasn’t a premeditated murder; it had been the result of circumstance – unless the killer knew Diall’s kitchen well and had planned to use one of Diall’s own knives against him.

‘Was he married?’ My voice was weak and thready, barely audible to anyone but Winter. I cleared my throat and tried again. ‘Adeptus Diall,’ I said. ‘Was he married? Did he have a partner?’ Most murders were committed by someone the victim was already close to. Considering the circumstances, it was unlikely that a jealous spouse had done this to him but it was worth asking.

The police officer shook his head. ‘Divorced. We checked on his ex-wife. She’s been living in Spain for the past three years. We’re sending the local police round to her villa but we think we can rule her out.’ He glanced at me. ‘She’s not one of yours.’ Probably not a witch then. That was unusual but not necessarily suspect.

‘Have we uncovered anything?’ Winter asked, addressing the other witches.

The nearest one shook his head. ‘Unsurprisingly Adeptus Exemptus Diall had strong wards in place. No spell we can use will work here.’

Typical. Bloody Order witches and their desire for security. It seemed to bite them all back in the end.

‘There are no fingerprints except for those of Mr Diall and his housekeeper,’ the policeman said.

‘Adeptus Exemptus Diall,’ Winter growled.

I rolled my eyes. Even now, he remained a stickler for Order protocol. While the policeman bristled, I jumped in to fill the gap. ‘Has anyone found any, um, papers?’

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