I held up my hand. ‘But,’ I said softly, ‘if he has Oscar Marsh’s personnel file we’re halfway there. We just need to find it.’ I waited for a beat. ‘Or hang around and wait until Price uses his new magic skills to take over the world and become our ruler.’
Winter smiled. ‘Let’s not do that, then.’
‘Good idea.’ I straightened. ‘And you don’t need to shut me out or try and protect me, Rafe. I can look after myself. I reckon I’m more of a help to you than a hindrance.’
His smile dropped and he regarded me seriously. ‘You’re right – on both counts.’ He leant towards me until I could feel his breath on my skin. ‘Price’s name is on the list. And I didn’t take him seriously as a suspect until you mentioned him the first time around.’
I grinned smugly into his blue eyes. ‘See?’ I said. ‘Slip-on shoes.’
We abandoned the fruitless search of the filing cabinets and headed for Price’s office. While it was unlikely that there would be anything there, given its public nature and how often Price was out of the office, it seemed prudent to run a close eye over everything he had squirrelled away.
Although I’d been in here once before, my focus on that occasion was Tarquin and the poor woman he was currently stringing along. This time I paid more attention to my surroundings. There wasn’t a whole lot to look at: Price wasn’t exactly a clutterbug. His desk had an empty tray, a single sharp-nibbed pencil and a notepad lying on the top. There wasn’t even a photo of any loved ones. Every drawer was locked.
I picked up the notepad and grinned. ‘I’ve always wanted to do this.’ I grabbed the pencil and shaded over the first white page. ‘Wait for it,’ I said. ‘Wait for it…’ I peered at the faint letters that had revealed themselves. ‘Ah ha!’
Winter leant across me to take a look, affording me another whiff of the culver’s root he had secreted about his person. ‘You know, you can lose the magic herbs now.’
‘I’ll keep them for a while. I like knowing you’re here of your own volition,’ he said in my ear.
A small thrill went through me. What was wrong with me these days? The Order was clearly rubbing off in ways that were most uncharacteristic. I quickly pointed at the paper. ‘He’s written a note to himself. Look.’
Winter looked more closely. ‘Milk. Bread. Washing-up liquid. Hardly the magic bullet we’re looking for.’
‘Yeah, but it worked! Without using any magic at all, I can now read exactly what’s going on in his life. It’s like I’m Nancy Drew.’
‘Go you,’ he murmured. He moved away and crouched down by the desk. ‘Warded. If can I get the right herbs to open this…’
I sketched out my old reliable spell for him and all three drawers popped open. ‘There you go.’ I curtsied. ‘You’re welcome.’
Winter turned and stared at me. ‘You just opened that.’
Well, duh. ‘Yeah.’
‘But it’s warded.’
Puzzled, I put my hands on my hips. ‘Not very strongly.’
‘Show me that rune.’
His tone brooked no argument. I shrugged; it was no skin off my nose. I re-sketched the rune, this time aiming for the final locked drawer on the other side of the desk. It burst open, banging into Winter’s leg. He didn’t move, however; he just watched my hands. ‘That’s not a known rune.’
‘You know all the runes?’
‘I have an almost eidetic memory, Ivy. I’ve trained myself to remember. That is not a rune I’ve ever seen before.’
This line of questioning was becoming uncomfortable. ‘So? I developed it on my own.’
He took a step towards me. ‘‘Do you have any idea how unusual that is?’
I sighed. ‘Only because the Order sticks to tradition and traditional runes.’
‘No. They stick to traditional runes because it’s incredibly difficult to create new ones. There’s an entire research and development department dedicated to the art and even they only manage a new rune once every few months.’ Something indefinable glinted in his eyes. ‘I think I’m beginning to understand you properly now.’
I didn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about. ‘I’m not a thief,’ I began. ‘I don’t go around breaking and entering. It’s just a rune I developed to help me in case I lose my house keys.’
He held up his hands. ‘Don’t get all defensive.’
‘Don’t get all enigmatic. What do you mean, you understand me now?’
‘You could have fought harder against your expulsion. Yes, your boyfriend has friends in high places but if you’d shouted louder, people would have listened. You didn’t though. You wanted to be expelled.’
My mouth dropped open. ‘What? At the time I bloody didn’t.’
He was watching me like a hawk. ‘Maybe not consciously.’ He dropped his voice. ‘You were bored.’
I was beginning to get irritated. ‘So? Being a Neophyte isn’t exactly exciting. I’m sure you remember that with your specially trained memory.’
‘I loved every minute.’ He still hadn’t taken his eyes off of me. ‘It’s lazy-genius syndrome.’
‘You’re unpredictable. Life doesn’t stimulate you enough so you all but give up on it. The Order moves too slowly for someone of your abilities so it was probably a relief when they kicked you out. It’s more common than you realise; lots of clever people end up checking out. It’s a defined psychological syndrome.’
‘Yeah,’ I said sarcastically. ‘I’m a genius. That’s why I drive a taxi for a living.’
He came closer. ‘You have a high need for cognitive stimulation. Others won’t provide it for you. Most jobs won’t either. So you fall back on the one person you can trust – yourself.’ He smiled. ‘But you’re enjoying this job. You’re stimulated now.’
I tilted my face up to his. ‘Well,’ I drawled, ‘you are standing very close.’
‘Joke all you like. I’m speaking the truth and you know it.’ He moved back.
‘If I were a genius,’ I declared too loudly, ‘I’d already have the smoking gun to put Adeptus Price away for life.’
‘Well then, we should get on and find it.’ Winter turned away and started rummaging through the top drawer.
I watched him for a moment, unwilling to acknowledge that he might be right with his daft theory, then I shrugged. Winter could analyse me all he wanted; it was a free country. I didn’t have to pay him any attention when he did it.
I left him to rifle through Price’s desk and turned to the filing cabinet. Perversely, it wasn’t locked. Of course: it was vital to lock your desk and keep sticky fingers away from your pens and pencils but when it came to confidential files, anyone could nab them. I rolled my eyes. Price might be a murderer and thief but he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box.
I ran my finger along the files and whistled when I spotted one labelled ‘Cypher’. Ah ha. I slid it out and flipped it open, just as Winter stepped back onto my toe. I yelped and dropped the file. ‘Jeez!’
‘I should think so,’ I grumbled. ‘Everyone knows muscle weighs more than fat and you weigh a ton.’
He smiled at my backhanded compliment. I knelt down to scoop up the file, angling my face upwards at Winter’s body as I did so. Perhaps there was something to working out at the gym. Not for me, naturally. But for him. Definitely for him.
I grabbed a sheet of paper that had scooted under the desk, stretching my fingers to reach it. As I did so, my attention was caught by something. ‘Winter,’ I said slowly.
‘I prefer it when you call me Rafe,’ he murmured.
‘Stop nattering,’ I tutted. ‘Come and look at this.’ I pointed to the underside of the desk. He hunkered down beside me and followed my finger, exhaling loudly when he saw the file taped there. ‘Do you think…’ I began.
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