I opened my eyes to grab my glass and take another glug. It was halfway to my mouth when my eyes fell on a man who’d just made his way to the other end of the bar. A bushy black beard, a bald head, pockmarked skin and a skull-shaped earring. And dead black eyes. Neither Karen nor Amy had mentioned his eyes. I froze, unable to move. He felt my gaze and glanced over, stiffening when he caught my expression.
‘The hotpot won’t be long,’ the barman said cheerfully. ‘I’ve set up a table for you in the corner.’
I put the glass down slowly and tried to look casual but I had the horrible feeling that it was already too late and I’d given myself away. I forced my lips to curve upwards in a smile. ‘That’s great,’ I managed. ‘Thank you.’
Arse. Arse. Arse. Keeping Blackbeard in my peripheral vision, I glanced towards the stairs. Come on, Winter. Bloody come on.
‘So you walked to Wistman’s Wood?’ the barman enquired.
‘Yes,’ I whispered. I couldn’t have sounded guiltier if I tried. Summoning every particle of my being, I pulled back my shoulders and smiled harder. ‘I love hiking. Especially in the rain. It makes me feel so much closer to nature, you know?’
The barman looked amused but I could still feel Blackbeard watching me. I had to do better. If only I could have cast a spell without worrying about the consequences. Damn Maidmont for not being fluent in archaic bloody Latin. Damn me for not checking out sooner why I was seeing ghosts. Most of all, damn bastard Blackbeard for showing up when I least expected it. It had been a reasonable assumption to think that he didn’t live anywhere near here and this was nothing more than a convenient dumping ground because it was so remote. After all, the coven had been killed in Dorset which was a few hours’ drive away.
‘I don’t mean to be rude,’ the barman grinned, ‘but you don’t strike me as the type of person who spends a lot of time in the great outdoors.’
Using the opening to shrug off suspicion, I laughed and raised my voice so that Blackbeard would hear me. ‘Well, I’m a taxi driver by trade,’ I said. Not a witch. Never a witch. I don’t know anything about witches. Only maps and one-way streets. ‘I spend more time driving than I do walking. That’s why it’s so great to be able to have a break somewhere here with my, er, husband.’
Out of the corner of my eye, it seemed like Blackbeard was starting to relax again. My terror slowly dissipated, to be replaced by a sense of euphoria. We were going to nab him two weeks early. Talk about fortuitous. I thought back to see I’d missed any good fortune omens but I couldn’t remember any. I was still ecstatic, however. Capturing a serial killer three hours after you learned of their existence is about as good as it gets.
Schooling my face into a careful mask to hide my glee, I babbled away to drive away any last vestiges of suspicion that Blackbeard might possess. ‘I’ll admit,’ I said, ‘that we didn’t spend very long in the wood itself. The weather was pretty atrocious. It’s a lovely place, though. I’d like to come back one day. Preferably in summer.’
‘Yeah,’ the barman agreed. ‘It can be a bit bleak at this time of year.’
I nodded. When Blackbeard crooked his finger at the barman to ask for another drink, I gave a long, silent sigh of relief. There should be plenty of time for Winter to get down here. In fact, what I could do was make noises about nipping up to tell him to get a move on then I could tell him in person before he came down. Not that Winter’s expression would give him away as mine almost had; he did stoic and bland better than anyone else I knew.
I was just about to slide off the stool when a fresh-faced young woman with a jauntily swinging ponytail wandered in. ‘Jerry,’ she said to the barman, ‘do you know where the couple in room two are? They have a phone call. I’ve tried ringing up but there’s no answer and I thought they might be here instead.’
He turned and grinned at me. ‘One of them is right there.’
The woman smiled at me. ‘There’s a man on the phone for you. He says he’s calling on behalf of the Ipsissimus and that he’s looking for Adeptus Exemptus Winter. He’s called Tarpaulin Vol-au-vent.’ She paused. ‘Or something like that.’
I stopped breathing. Blackbeard’s head snapped in my direction and his gaze was hard and unyielding. Think, Ivy. Bloody think.
I tried to laugh. ‘That’s my brother. He’s such an idiot. He likes pretending that we’re in the Order because my husband knows a couple of card tricks.’ The words tripped out of my mouth. That was good, right? That was believable? ‘He also likes using stupid names because he thinks it’s funny. He’s not really called Tarpaulin Vol-au-vent. His name is Joe Smith.’
The smile left her eyes. She clearly thought I either possessed an IQ similar to the temperature outside or I was pulling her leg for my own amusement. ‘Yeah, okay. Shall I send the call up to your room or do you want to take it here?’
I couldn’t let Blackbeard out of my sight now. ‘Here is fine,’ I chirped.
She nodded and the barman reached over for an old-fashioned phone, placing it in front of me.
‘I’ll just go back and press the right button to transfer the call,’ she said. ‘I should have known the man was joking. He said you were both to be treated like royalty because you were highly talented witches who could commune with the dead and were about to bring down a serial killer.’ She laughed politely, albeit without humour. ‘It did seem a bit too far-fetched. As if you’d get either witches or serial killers hanging out here!’
Blackbeard was already standing up. He really was immense; he towered over everyone else. I couldn’t stop myself from looking at him this time. His fists were curled into tight balls and I could make out the faint lines of a tattoo across his knuckles. No wonder he’d managed to murder the entire Dorset coven with such ease – everything about him suggested brute power. And hatred. The ice-cold venom emanating from his every pore – which was completely directed at me – was utterly terrifying.
I reached for the phone and lifted the receiver to my ear. ‘Hello? Joe, are you there?’ I don’t know why I was continuing with the fiction. It was obviously pointless.
‘Hi, Ivy! It’s Tarquin, not Joe. I don’t know who Joe is.’ There was a pause. ‘Is he in the Order? Is he someone I should know?’
Blackbeard released the tension in one of his large hands, flexed his fingers and reached into his back pocket. If he pulled out a knife or, worse, a gun, then I’d have no choice but to cast a spell. I couldn’t let this bastard hurt more innocent people. I’d have to pray that I wasn’t turning into a necromancer and that, even if there was collateral damage, it could be contained.
‘Joe,’ I said into the phone, ‘are you calling because you have some news for me?’ For example, news that I can happily use as much magic as I want to? Because if there was ever a time to let all my witchy skills come to the fore, this was it.
‘I told you,’ Tarquin said, with confusion colouring his voice, ‘it’s Tarquin. Tarquin Villeneuve. Your ex-boyfriend and lover. Your current neighbour. The blond-haired boy wonder who’s set to become the youngest Order Department Head in history.’
Not if I cut him up into little pieces and fed him to Brutus. I tried very hard not to grit my teeth and appear relaxed. Come on, Winter, I prayed. Bloody come on.
‘So you’ve said,’ I murmured into the receiver. ‘Why don’t you tell me why you’re calling? Is Mother alright?’
Tarquin really wasn’t the sharpest witch in the West. I weighed up my options. I could cast a spell – well, several spells – and bring Blackbeard to the floor. He’d kill no more witches, Order or otherwise, and the world would be a far safer place. Not to mention that all those ghosts might live in peace for a while. But if I did that, I might also let loose all that blacker-than-black magic that might be residing deep inside me. Hundreds could suffer, thousands even. But that was the worst-case scenario. Nothing might happen at all.
The alternative was that Blackbeard would be free. Free to kill again. Free to cause disaster and mayhem. The seven witches he’d already murdered would continue to be trapped here. There might even be more than that one coven. I had no way of knowing.
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