I counted to twenty, giving Winter time to get to the spot he wanted. Then I followed on my tippy-toes. I wanted to see him jump with shock when I confronted him.
Pushing open the door as quietly as possible, I headed inside the HR building. I was getting to know the layout after the number of times I’d been here in the last few days. I veered round Rebecca the receptionist’s desk and into the large office space. Now that it was almost entirely empty, there was a rather tragic air about it.
A small light wavered above Winter’s head from the far corner. Records. Aha. Treading lightly, I went towards him. He was busy opening drawers so I was able to get right up behind him. When I was less than a foot away, I stopped and grinned. I was hoping for a small scream when I announced my presence.
‘Don’t just stand there, Ivy,’ Winter snapped. ‘Come and help me search.’
I jerked several inches upwards. The plonker. The absolute plonker. ‘You knew I was here? All along?’
‘Of course.’ He still didn’t turn around, intent as he was on pulling out files, examining the names and dropping them again. ‘Who else would be impatient enough to set a fire in the library because they didn’t want to wait for everyone to finish work?’
I bristled slightly. ‘I didn’t set the fire. Maidmont did.’
Winter finally glanced at me. ‘You drew that poor librarian into your scheming?’
I drew myself up. ‘Scheming? Scheming? You’re the one who’s been scheming, mister!’
He looked exasperated. ‘I didn’t want you here, that’s true,’ he admitted. ‘But when I saw you loitering around outside, I knew you’d end up with me so the entire venture to exclude you was pointless.’
I tried to banish the small knot of hurt in my chest and put my hands on my hips. ‘You found a way round the binding.’
‘Don’t get excited,’ he growled. ‘It’s only temporary.’
‘So I could come here and investigate without any nasty side-effects.’
‘Is that what I am?’ I spat. ‘A nasty side-effect?’
His sapphire-blue eyes blinked in surprise. ‘I was referring to the binding’s side-effects, not you.’ Winter sighed. ‘I don’t believe that Oscar Marsh is the witch we’re looking for, despite the evidence to the contrary. If I’m right, the real culprit is not only clever but also very dangerous. You let a First Level witch beat you with a spell that wouldn’t have fooled a Neophyte earlier today. I didn’t want to risk you getting hurt, so it seemed prudent to make use of the temporary block on the binding.’ His expression grew rueful. ‘I should have known better than to think you’d be fooled. I suppose I hoped that you’d take advantage of the opportunity to loll around at home in peace and quiet.’
‘I threw that damn fight,’ I snapped. ‘That would have been obvious if you knew anything about me. I didn’t want to spend the next hundred days fighting off challengers.’
‘How was I supposed to know that? Why didn’t you tell me that you lost deliberately?’
I looked down. ‘I didn’t want you to think badly of me. I mean, I know you think I’m a lazy arse.’ I paused. ‘I am a lazy arse but I didn’t want you to think I was like that. Even if I am.’
Winter’s gaze softened. ‘You’re not as lazy as you think you are. You’re here, after all.’
‘You’re not as stuck-up and strait-laced as I thought you were,’ I said grudgingly.
‘I’m stuck-up and strait-laced enough not to set the library on fire just to gain a few extra hours.’
‘Oh, shut up. Maidmont has things under control.’ I grinned. ‘Besides, it’s just as well I’m here. You’re looking in the wrong place. Tarquin’s already been through these files with a fine tooth-comb.’
Winter’s eyebrows shot up. ‘And you believe him?’ he asked.
‘In this, I do. He wants to give off the appearance of being a good little boy witch. If Marsh’s file was discovered later down the back of one of these cabinets, Tarquin would feel the heat. He won’t want any more fingers pointing in his direction. He’s on shaky ground as it is, given what he did to Eve.’
Winter cocked his head. ‘What did he do to Eve?’
I’d forgotten that he didn’t know that little titbit. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘It’s not relevant to this.’
He let it go. ‘If Marsh’s file isn’t here and it’s not at Diall’s house, I have no idea where it could be. It may contain vital information. If we can work out why Marsh was used as the patsy for the theft and the murder, we have a good chance of finding the real bastard who did all this.’
‘It’s obvious why Marsh was fingered,’ I argued. ‘He’s in no position to fight back. He’s clearly not doing very well for himself and there aren’t many people who’ll vouch for him, given his many indiscretions. Whoever took Volume 9 has returned it because either they can’t access the magic or they’ve got what they wanted from it.’
‘That’s as may be,’ Winter responded. ‘But it doesn’t help us get any closer to the truth. It can’t be a coincidence that Marsh’s file has gone missing. Whoever has it is our prime suspect but that doesn’t necessarily help us right now.’
I met his eyes and I had a sudden epiphany: Winter had all the answers. He just wanted me to come to the same conclusion. I didn’t have the evidence that he was so fond of but maybe he realised that evidence wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Not when Oscar Marsh was currently languishing on the basis of theoretically concrete evidence.
‘We’re in HR for a reason,’ I said softly. ‘While we can reasonably believe that it was Diall who used his magic to steal the sceptre and then the Cypher Manuscript, because he would have enough magic ability for both, he’s not the worst witch in this scenario. Someone murdered him and took the Manuscript for themselves. We know that Diall often helped to elevate witches to high positions for which they were not always suited. Maybe one of those particular witches took against him. Perhaps Diall was laying on too much pressure to do his bidding.’ I shrugged. ‘Perhaps they just didn’t like him.’
Winter drew out a neatly folded piece of paper from his pocket. ‘It took some time,’ he said, ‘but here are the names of everyone who was promoted with Diall’s vote. There are twenty-three names.’
I whistled. ‘That’s quite a lot. Not an insurmountable number to investigate but it will still take time.’
‘Indeed. And if the Manuscript has turned up because our culprit has already absorbed all the magic, then we need to hurry before they make their move.’
‘This is too easy.’
Amusement flashed across Winter’s features. ‘Is it?’
I rolled my eyes. ‘I told you from the start: Adeptus Price is the bastard we’re looking for.’
‘Actually, your first suggestion was the Ipsissimus. And your reasoning for Price was that he wore slip-on shoes.’
‘I didn’t directly accuse the Ipsissimus,’ I pointed out. ‘Not really. And I had other reasons for naming Price. It’s clearer now. Whoever murdered Diall knew where he lived and what wards he had in place at his home. As Head of HR, Price would have had access to that information. He’s clearly not very good at his job either. His staff despise him. So chances are, he’s one of those witches on your list.’
Winter neither denied nor acknowledged my theory. I ploughed on. ‘Tarquin gave him an alibi when we visited by saying that he’d been with Practicus Lee. But Tarquin probably just saw it on his calendar. He wouldn’t have been at the meeting with them. Price could have cancelled it without anyone knowing. And with his knowledge of the witches in the Order, Price would also have been aware of Marsh’s shortcomings. He was probably on the disciplinary board after Marsh’s other misdemeanours. Price knew that Oscar Marsh would make the perfect scapegoat.’
‘There’s no proof,’ Winter said. ‘If Price took Volume 9, he doesn’t have it now. We do. And if he killed Diall, there won’t necessarily be a trail of blood proving it.’
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