‘Who is it?’ Bethany asked, peering at me through the dim light. ‘Who’s the culprit? I can’t believe someone would dare to steal such power. It had to be a Second Level witch, right? Otherwise it’s just not plausible.’
‘I wouldn’t believe everything you hear,’ I said. ‘Gossip is unreliable.’
Weathers’ expression dimmed slightly. ‘They’re not Second Level?’
I wagged my finger at him. ‘I didn’t say that, now did I?’
Rebecca flashed me an unexpected smile. It was the first time I’d seen her look happy. ‘You’re funny,’ she burbled. ‘The truth always comes out in the end. He’ll finally get what’s coming to him.’
I wondered how much she actually knew. How did she know it was a man who was in custody? All the same, I had better things to do than shoot the breeze. ‘Indeed.’ I smiled at them to indicate that I needed to move on. They understood, sidestepping out of my way and murmuring farewells. I breathed out. I probably ought to watch where I was going.
I continued until I reached the now-familiar squat structure of Human Resources. A few lights were still on inside and some red robes were visible through the windows. I wandered round, trying to not be too conspicuous but probably failing miserably. A few of the faces inside were familiar but I didn’t know them well. Even brown-nosing Tarquin appeared to have disappeared for the evening.
‘Well, Ivy,’ I muttered to myself, ‘this was a really smart idea. You could be snuggled up at home. Instead, you’re lurking behind a tree in the dark.’ Winter might not be here. For all I knew, he had a hot date and didn’t want me to know about it. Except, I reminded myself, he wouldn’t have needed a block on the binding if he were just going out for dinner.
It didn’t look as if the last remaining HR witches were leaving for home any time soon and I wasn’t going to hang around all night. I had to find a way to get rid of the lot of them without arousing suspicion. I considered and discarded several ideas. I needed all of them out of the building – and to ensure that no one came back. I could spring a leak and use water to drive them out but they’d probably send for maintenance to repair it before the morning. I’d avoid the sappy HR witches and run into burlier ones. I could call up, pretend to be from another department and invite them all out for a drink and a pizza but unless the food and drink materialised – and all the HR plonkers appreciated being sociable and fell for such a ploy – that wouldn’t work either.
A fat droplet of rain fell from the sky and landed on the tip of my nose. Great. Now I was going to get soaked. Again. I cast my gaze upwards, eyeing the ominous clouds that were obscuring the sliver of moon. As I did so, I caught sight of the library, towering above the other buildings. I smiled to myself. I had just the thing.
Whistling, I put my hands in my pockets and strolled towards it. It would be open for a few hours yet. Maidmont had told me that they didn’t shut until ten so getting in wouldn’t be a problem.
I didn’t want to spend time and energy of my own so, instead of sneaking around when I entered the library, I made a beeline for a librarian re-shelving books in the far corner of the ground floor.
He jumped half a foot in the air; he’d been so preoccupied with his task that he hadn’t heard me approach. ‘Ms … Ms Wilde,’ he stammered. ‘Good to see you.’ He looked over my shoulder as if expecting Winter to materialise. I hastily grabbed his attention before there were any awkward questions that I wouldn’t be able to answer.
‘We need your help,’ I said briskly.
The librarian’s eyes widened and I saw a flash of glee that his services were still required. Perhaps he had a secret ambition to be a spy. I could use that. ‘But I thought the missing Manuscript had been recovered,’ he said.
‘Oh, it has.’ I leant in closer and lowered my voice to indicate that we were co-conspirators. ‘But we don’t think that the real culprit has been identified yet.’
Maidmont bit his bottom lip. ‘I checked the Cypher logbooks,’ he murmured in a hushed tone to match my own. ‘Oscar Marsh has never once been in to view the Cypher Manuscripts.’ He raised his eyebrows meaningfully. ‘Not once.’
I tapped the side of my nose. Maidmont immediately understood. ‘I won’t say a word,’ he promised. ‘What can I do?’
‘There’s a missing personnel file,’ I told him. ‘Oscar Marsh’s.’
Maidmont looked even more excited. ‘Isn’t it at HR?’
‘Well,’ I whispered, ‘that’s just the thing.’ A couple of young witches walked by. I stopped talking and took Maidmont’s elbow, steering him away to a quieter corner. ‘The file should be at HR but HR promise it’s not there. In fact, they’re not being very helpful at all. I need to get in there and see if they’re telling the truth.’
He was horrified. ‘You think an entire department is working against you?’
‘No, it’s probably just one or two people. But,’ I added ominously, ‘you can never know for sure.’
‘How can I help?’ he breathed.
‘Time is of the essence.’ Because I didn’t want to wait around in the cold all night until the building was vacated. ‘We’re talking about an innocent man being in custody.’
Maidmont nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, yes.’
‘I need…’ I paused and backtracked ‘…we need to gain immediate access to the HR building. We can’t wait until every single witch leaves. We need a way to get them out of there so we can search it properly. The only way to do that is—’ I held my breath before finishing my sentence for dramatic effect. It worked.
‘What?’ Maidmont asked. ‘What? Tell me!’
‘A fire,’ I finished. ‘A fire at the library.’
I could probably have asked for just about anything and Philip Maidmont would have given it to me but fire in his beloved library was a step too far. He drew back and gazed at me, horrified. ‘Never,’ he whispered. ‘It’s not worth it.’
Darn it. ‘You don’t understand,’ I said quickly. ‘I’m not asking for anything to be put in danger. All you need is a small fire for the magical wards to be engaged, right?’
He agreed warily. ‘Right.’
‘There’s a basement below us. Clear a space in the middle and set one or two old bits of cardboard alight. Everyone who’s left in any of the Order buildings will come running. The fire will already be out by the time they get here but they won’t know that.’
Maidmont was appeased – but only just. ‘What’s to stop them from returning to their own buildings when they realise it’s nothing serious?’ he asked.
‘You,’ I said simply. ‘You’re going to have to put on the show of your life, Philip. We’re counting on you. You tell them that, with the events of the last few days, you’re too nervous to leave the library unattended. You need all the remaining witches to stay overnight to make sure all these precious books and manuscripts and documents are safe.’
‘They’ll never fall for that.’
I put my hand on his shoulder. ‘They will if you’re convincing enough. They’ve just learned that we almost lost an entire Volume of the Cyphers, Phil. No-one will want to be the only witch not dedicated enough to keep watch all night. It wouldn’t look good on their CVs.’
‘Trust me.’ I smiled. ‘This will work.’
I’d barely made it back to the shadows around the HR building when the screeching began. Watching the witches inside, I noted a moment of frozen shock before they all sprinted for the door, hurling themselves at the library. I gave myself a pat on the back then I waited a little bit longer. For once, my patience was rewarded.
Not long after everyone had gone, robes flapping in breeze, a dark figure peeled away from the corner of the building. I’d have recognised that straight-backed march anywhere. Winter strode forward, pausing once to glance towards the library. I held my breath and hoped he’d realise that there were more than enough bodies heading in that direction to deal with whatever might – or might not – be happening, and that he’d stay on course. When he continued towards the front doors of HR, I knew he’d made the right decision. I gave a little jig. He thought he could pull the wool over my eyes but he was wrong. No one outsmarted me unless I wanted them to. Apart from Brutus. And maybe the Ipsissimus. Okay, and several others. Tonight, however, I was in charge.
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