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He chuckled and patted me on the shoulder then headed out, leaving me to follow. I gazed at his back in confusion. Since when was Adeptus Exemptus Raphael Winter the chuckling type?

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Winter dropped me outside my block of flats; apparently he no longer felt the need to stay around me. When I’d suggested now would be a good time to release Bell End and Alice into the welcoming hands of either the Order or the police, he had demurred, telling me to wait until tomorrow. That wasn’t like him either. I stood on the pavement as he took off, wondering what I was missing.

I went inside and checked on my trussed-up pair. Feeling a bit sorry for them, I gave them a chance to stretch out their limbs. Both appeared too dejected to try to escape; whether that was as a result of Diall’s death or their prolonged incarceration, I had no idea.

Harold, for his part, seemed perfectly content. As I was leaving, he wedged himself next to Alice with a throbbing purr. Fickle creature, although not as fickle as Princess Parma Periwinkle. She was nowhere in sight. She was probably like her owner and had gone off to hunt for her own food because getting it out of a packet or a tin was too easy. Or she’d decided she didn’t like it here and had headed off home. Whatever.

I took a long hot shower. When I emerged, Brutus was staring at me. ‘Food.’

‘Yeah, yeah.’ I reached down and scratched under his chin. He nipped my fingers with his teeth.

‘Food.’

The phone started to ring. Offering him a helpless smile, I went to answer it. ‘This is Ivy.’

‘Ivy! Thank goodness you answered! I’ve been trying to get hold of you but you never seem to be in.’

We were both well aware of how out of character this was. ‘Hi, Eve. Things are … good. Harold is fine. I’m fine. More to the point, how are you?’

‘Brilliant!’ I could hear the joy in her voice. ‘We’re just about finished up here. I thought I’d screwed things up because the Order sent two other witches but they’ve been a great help so I’ll be home tomorrow. I can’t wait to see my little munchkin.’

I hoped she was referring to Harold rather than me. ‘That’s great news.’ I hesitated. ‘Did these other two witches say anything about what was happening back in Oxford?’ What I really wanted to know was whether she knew that I’d taken her coveted spot.

‘No, not much,’ she answered cheerfully.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Obviously she’d find out what had happened sooner or later but it was the sort of news I’d prefer to break in person. ‘What time do you think you’ll be back?’ I asked

‘Mid-afternoon, I reckon. Are you sure everything’s okay?’

‘Yes, yes. Just … come and see me before you do anything else, will you?’

Her voice immediately filled with suspicion. ‘Why?’

‘Nothing serious.’ It wasn’t life threatening anyway. ‘I just want a quick chat.’

She let out a gasp. ‘You want to talk to me about coming running, don’t you?’

Er… ‘Yeah,’ I said unconvincingly. ‘That’s it.’ I couldn’t believe she really thought that but I’d go with it if allayed her fears until I could speak to her.

‘Fooooooood!’ Brutus howled, patently pissed off at the length of our chat.

‘I’d better go,’ I said. ‘Brutus is getting annoyed.’

Eve laughed. ‘So I hear. See you soon!’

I winced and put down the phone. Eve was a good person. I hoped she wouldn’t be too hurt when she found out what had been happening.

I gave Brutus some of his favourite tuna and shuffled over to the sofa, plonking myself down with a happy sigh. ‘Hello, my old friend,’ I said aloud. ‘It’s been too long.’ I was almost convinced that the sofa groaned in delighted response.

Laying down my head and stretching out, I closed my eyes. Then I opened them again. I grimaced and turned onto my side, reaching for the remote. I flicked on the television and scanned through my recordings for the latest episode of Enchantment. The familiar theme music filled the room. I muted it and sat up straight.

Brutus sauntered in the room, licking his lips. ‘Hey bitch.’

‘Something’s not right,’ I told him. He jumped onto my lap and I stroked his ears. ‘I should leave well alone. That would be the smart thing.’ I glanced down at him. ‘Right?’

‘Where man?’ Brutus enquired, obviously referring to Winter.

Where man, indeed. I chewed my bottom lip then reached for the phone once more. ‘Hi, Iqbal,’ I said, when he picked up.

‘Ivy! How’s tricks? Do you have that ossombe root yet? I’m looking forward to my karaoke session.’

My mind flashed to Diall’s little jar secreted in my bathroom cabinet. ‘That’s not why I’m calling,’ I prevaricated. For whatever reason, I still wasn’t quite ready to separate myself from Winter. ‘I want to know about that other way around the binding.’ I thought of the strange smell that I suspected had been clinging to Winter, not Oscar Marsh. ‘Herbal methods. You mentioned some kind of temporary hold last time we spoke.’

‘Yeah, yeah. You’re getting that desperate, are you? Winter must be a right bastard to work with.’

‘Mmm. He’s not so bad.’

Iqbal laughed. ‘Damned by faint praise.’

I screwed up my nose. I hadn’t meant it like that. ‘The temporary thing?’ I prodded.

‘Yeah, hang on a minute. I’ve got it written down here somewhere.’ I heard Iqbal shuffling some papers and then he came back on the line. ‘Here we go. Culver’s root. It’s traditionally used in purification spells but I came across several references that suggested it would work on your binding too. It won’t last long though, and the effects wear down quickly as the binding reacts against it.’

At least this was a herb I’d heard of, even if only vaguely. ‘What does it smell like?’ I asked.

‘It’s musty and fairly odorous,’ he replied. ‘I suppose it’s similar to dried moss.’

I didn’t know what dried moss smelled like but I bet that it was similar to the whiff I’d caught when I was in the van with Marsh and close to Winter. I felt an odd tightening in my chest. I was supposed to be the one who was straining against the bonds of the binding, not Winter. Why was he so keen to keep me away? Actually, I had a fairly good idea why but, for once, I’d take Winter’s own advice and wait until I had more evidence.

‘Thanks, Iq,’ I said distantly. He murmured a response and I hung up.

Brutus had started clawing my thighs with sharp little jabs. ‘There’s no point getting comfortable,’ I told him.

His ears twitched and he swung his head round towards me. ‘Out?’ he enquired. ‘Again?’

I sighed. ‘Again.’ Goodness only knew why; I should be doing as I’d been told and vegging out on my sofa. But Winter might need my help, whether he wanted it or not. ‘If you thought that someone was being set up, where would you look for proof that they were innocent?’ I asked.

Brutus blinked at me. I gently nudged him off my lap and stood up. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘That’s what I was thinking too.’

Chapter Twenty-Two

By the time I got back to the Order, the sun had gone down. I left my taxi on a double yellow line – it was close to where I wanted to be and I was unlikely to block anyone in at this time of night – and picked my way through the shadows and between the dark buildings. I tried to remain hidden; I didn’t want to bump into Winter until I was ready. I was so intent on looking for him that I almost collided with another group of witches walking in the opposite direction.

‘Hey, it’s Ivy Wilde!’

I smiled at Weathers, the receptionist from Geomancy, and glanced at his other two companions, Bethany the tea lady and Rebecca, the unfriendly receptionist from HR. ‘How’s it going?’

Weathers was grinning from ear to ear. ‘Brilliant! How about you? I hear you’ve charged someone with stealing one of the Cypher Manuscript volumes.’ He shook his head. ‘I can’t believe someone would be so audacious as to nick one.’

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