I wrinkled my nose. Shrugging, I put plan B into action and indicated right when I should have gone left. Despite his earlier warning, it took Price a few moments to realise what I’d done. I was already down a darkened street and heading in the opposite direction out of town when it finally dawned on him that we weren’t going to his home.
‘Hey!’ he protested, sitting forward. ‘I told you, no funny business! Where are we?’
‘Taking a short cut,’ I said cheerfully, watching him in the mirror. On this road and at this time of night, it was unlikely I’d have to worry about oncoming traffic. I needed to keep my eyes on my new captive.
Price blinked. ‘You’re a woman?’
‘You only just noticed?’ Not that I should be surprised, given what I already knew of the man.
He stared at the back of my head then into the mirror at my reflection. ‘I know you,’ he said slowly.
‘Yes. You do.’ I smiled.
His eyes shifted and he started to reach into his pocket. Taking one hand off the steering wheel, I drew a rune that made his seatbelt tighten. It yanked him backwards, constricting his movements. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he screamed. ‘Let me go!’ He jerked wildly against the belt, panic guiding his movements. With his hands still free, he belatedly realised that he could still cast a spell against me. The fingers on his right hand began to draw, a sluggish rune designed to hurt. I responded by magicking up a barrier, which his spell fell against uselessly. His mouth dropped open. ‘What the hell was that?’
‘Something I’ve been working on for a while,’ I told him. In truth, I hadn’t been sure it would work against higher-level spells. Price really had been promoted beyond his abilities. My barrier wouldn’t hold against another spell, though, regardless of how weak it was. He didn’t need to know that. ‘Try anything again,’ I threatened, ‘and you’ll be sorry.’
Fear flared in his eyes and he did nothing to disguise it. ‘Let me out! Stop this car and let me out, you bitch!’
‘What is it with the word bitch?’ I enquired.
Price was too busy screaming to hear me. ‘Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!’
Good grief. Even Bell End and Alice were less annoying than this and they’d been trussed up for days. ‘Are you scared?’ I asked softly. ‘Because you should be.’
I’d hardly done anything but Price’s fear was increasing. I was more used to being an object of derision than creating terror these days. It worried me slightly that I enjoyed it.
Price started babbling away nonsensically to himself. To my surprise, he didn’t attempt another spell; it was as if he’d already given up – and that was what disturbed me the most. I liked to think that if I were taken hostage I’d fight until my dying breath. Other than his incessant mumbles, Price seemed no longer willing to try.
I’d just reached my destination when a new pair of headlights swung into the road behind me. I glanced at them in the rear-view mirror; I reckoned Winter had caught up to us. That gave me about thirty seconds. Okay dokey. I pulled up, turned off the engine and, ignoring Price’s terrified whimper, got out of the car before hauling him out.
‘You’ve been a sneaky little bastard,’ I hissed in his face, keeping hold of his collar to stop him running away. It was lucky he was a scrawny fellow; I didn’t fancy my chances of trying this on anyone my own size – or larger.
He moaned. ‘Let me go. I’ve not done anything.’
I nearly laughed in his face. ‘Oh yes, you have. I know everything. Poor Oscar. Why did you choose him to be the fall guy?’ I asked. ‘What did he ever do to you?’
Price’s expression fell even further. ‘Who … who’s Oscar Marsh?’
I tutted. ‘Marsh? Is that his last name? I didn’t mention it.’
Too late, Price realised his mistake and did his best to backtrack. ‘Yes, you did!’ he burst out. ‘You were looking for his file the other day! You said his name then.’ Darn it. He was right. Then he swallowed, his nervousness betraying him.
I lowered my voice until it was dangerously soft, mimicking Winter when he was truly pissed off. Hey, if it worked for him then I’d give it a shot. Besides, Winter was already pulling up and I was out of time. ‘Why did you murder Diall? Was it so you could steal the Cypher Manuscript from him?’
Price swung his head towards Winter’s car, obviously praying this was someone who would rescue him from the mad blonde witch who’d kidnapped him. Winter, however, merely got out of his car and crossed his arms over his broad chest. His headlights illuminated both Price and me. When he stepped forward into the light and Price realised who he was, his shoulders sagged in defeat. ‘It was an accident,’ he mumbled. ‘I didn’t mean to do it.’
Triumph coursed through me. ‘Go on,’ I said, keeping my voice even although it was difficult not to fist pump the air.
‘I went to him to ask for help. I’d found the Cypher Manuscript in my drawer but I hadn’t put it there, I swear! I’d never have taken it. But when I realised what it was, I knew no one would believe me. I begged Diall to do something. At first he told me he’d look into it but then nothing happened. He didn’t do anything. You lot were crawling over everything and Diall had left me hanging. It was only a matter of time before I was fingered. So I went to see him again. He told me it was too late, I’d been an idiot and the smartest thing I could do was to come clean. All he worried about was himself and how this would reflect badly on him,’ Price said helplessly. ‘He said he’d made a mistake helping me to get this job, that I was going to screw it up after everything he’d done for me. He didn’t want anyone looking into my files too closely because they’d incriminate him. He told me that I had to confess to taking the Manuscript to save everyone else. He never cared about me! He only ever cared about himself!’
I stared at Price. Everything he’d said sounded like the truth. He was too anxious and panicked and it seemed like he wanted to get it all off his chest. Had he really been set up from the start? If so, by whom?
‘What did you do with the Manuscript?’
He dropped his head again, the picture of misery. ‘I planted it in Oscar Marsh’s desk. He’s a drunk and an idiot. Diall had complained about him often enough so I knew he’d be perfect. If someone was going to blame me then I’d blame someone else. I burnt one page, went to his house and left a fragment there for someone to find.’ He stared with wild, writhing eyes. ‘It was only because I didn’t have a choice! There was no other way out! You’d never have believed me if I’d told you the truth.’
‘Did you kill Adeptus Exemptus Diall because you didn’t have a choice?’ Winter asked so quietly that it took a moment for his word to register.
Price gazed back at him. ‘It was an accident! When I told him I wouldn’t confess to something I hadn’t done, he tried to arrest me! He was going to use a spell against me and turn me in so I grabbed his knife to try and hold him off. I didn’t mean it to hurt him.’
‘It didn’t hurt him, Price,’ Winter said. ‘You hurt him. You killed him.’
Price dropped to his knees and started to sob. ‘I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. Oh God, please help me.’ His shoulders started to shake and he covered his face with his hands, unable to say another word.
Winter had no sympathy. He reached into his car and drew out a set of handcuffs. ‘Adeptus Major Price,’ he intoned. ‘You are under arrest by proclamation of the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment. Any attempt to use magic to provoke, conceal or avoid taking responsibility for your actions will be held against you, regardless of your guilt or innocence. You are entitled to legal representation and to apply to the non-magical courts for consideration.’ He snapped the cuffs round Price’s wrists and pulled him up to his feet. Then he glanced at me. I gave him a smug smile. Yeah, I’d solved Diall’s murder.
In your face, Order Boy. In. Your. Face.
Winter drove Price back to the Order headquarters in his car while I followed. It was probably just as well the poor murdering witch didn’t have to travel with me because I turned up the music so it was blaring out deafeningly. Yeah, it was the middle of the night but so what? I’d just solved a murder. I deserved it. Of course, that didn’t stop Winter glowering at me when we finally arrived back at the Arcane Branch building.
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