Winter reappeared, the keys jangling in his hand.
‘Long story,’ I called out, bolting back to the car. We could still catch up to Blackbeard. We could still do this. Winter unlocked the doors and we leapt inside as if the fires of hell were after us. ‘I really want to get this bastard.’
Winter nodded. ‘You and me both.’
When we limped back into the pub after two fruitless hours of driving around narrow, dark roads and scrutinising country tracks and village side streets, a crowd of happy customers turned to stare at us. I wasn’t surprised; I was caked in dried blood and Winter looked as if he were about to murder someone. If only. I stalked up to the bar and, without being asked, the barman poured me a shot of vodka. I downed it in one.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘You looked like you needed it.’ He paused. ‘Should I get the kitchen to re-heat your stew?’
The last thing I felt right now was hungry and I was ready to politely decline but Winter was more sensible. ‘That would be great,’ he said. He took my elbow and drew me over to a small table, away from the rest of the punters.
I flopped down and dropped my head into my hands. ‘We had him, Rafe. He was right here. I could have stopped him. If I’d used magic…’
‘It was just as well that you didn’t,’ he growled. ‘Anything could have happened. Besides, I had every opportunity, too. I was sure that spell had smacked right into him but…’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘I don’t get it.’
‘Maybe you were tired,’ I suggested gently. ‘It’s been a long day. We drove all the way here from Oxford then tramped across those moors in the driving rain. And you used magic out there to keep us warm.’
He shook his head vehemently. ‘No. I know myself and I know when I’ve reached the point of exhaustion where my magic will fail. I wasn’t anywhere near that point.’ He drummed his fingers against the wooden table and cursed loudly enough to upset an elderly couple enjoying a quiet sherry. Winter murmured a brief apology and looked at me. ‘Maybe he’s a witch too and he’d set up some kind of warding spell. It would have to be a damn powerful one to withstand the magic I flung at him but it wouldn’t have been impossible.’
I wrinkled my nose. ‘No, I already told you. He hates witches. It was about the only time I saw any emotion in his expression. Anyway, the reason he didn’t kill me is because he assumed I wasn’t a witch because I didn’t use magic against him when I could have.’
‘So his motive is that he’s a witch-hater. That’s why he murdered that coven.’ Winter sighed. ‘The question is, why did he go for them? Order witches are more establishment. Surely someone who despises magic would be more inclined to hit out at us than at a non-Order group.’
I chose not to comment on his use of the word ‘us’. This wasn’t really the time. ‘Non-Order covens are weak by their very nature. Maybe he was testing the water and he’s going to move on to other targets in the future.’ I grimaced. It was just a theory; it didn’t have to be true.
Winter met my eyes and we shared a moment of quiet horror. ‘I can’t believe he got away.’ His voice was quiet. ‘I can’t believe that our strongest weapon against him was knowing about him and where he’d be in the future, and we’ve fucked that up. He won’t come back here again.’ He sighed. ‘I had him, Ivy. I’m sure of it.’
I put my hand over his. ‘I believe you.’ I paused then said, ‘I think there’s more going on here than we realise. We’ll get to the bottom of it. We won’t let this bastard stay free for long.’
Winter’s fingers entwined with mine and he squeezed them briefly as if in thanks. ‘It’ll be my fault if someone else dies. If he kills again, that blood will be on my hands as much as on his.’
‘That’s not true and you know it. Besides, I was there too. I had more time and I didn’t stop him any more than you did. We both screwed up.’
The waitress appeared at the open doorway. I gestured silence to Winter and we both waited while she put two bowls of hotpot in front of us. The fragrant smell reminded me that a while ago I’d been really hungry. My stomach gurgled. There you go. I grabbed a spoon, ready to dive in.
As the waitress smiled, blushing at Winter’s murmur of appreciation and the crinkle in his sexy blue eyes, I caught sight of an old man leaning on a stick and looking confused. The waitress passed right through him as she departed. The old man barely noticed; I pretended not to. At the very least I was going to enjoy the return of my appetite. I’d worry about ghosts and witches and serial killers later.
Unfortunately, the old ghost seemed to have other ideas. ‘You!’ He finally spotted me and stomped over towards us, which was no mean feat considering he was hovering about an inch off the floor. ‘What did you do?’
I looked into Winter’s face and smiled, then took a slurp of stew. The potato was tender and the faint hint of rosemary, combined with the way the meat almost melted in my mouth, was orgasmic. I was going to enjoy this. I was not going to pay the damn ghost any attention. Not until I’d finished eating.
‘I’m talking to you! You did something! I was here and then I wasn’t here. It wasn’t my choice, something made me leave.’ His eyes flicked suspiciously from side to side. ‘Except I don’t know where I left to.’
I took another mouthful. ‘Mmm. This is delicious.’
The ghost snapped his attention back to me, his expression shifting from confusion to hatred. ‘You’re deliberately taunting me!’ he hissed. ‘You know I can’t eat. You know I can’t taste anything. That stew was my grandmother’s recipe, it’s been passed down for generations and you’re using it to make me feel inferior. Well, wait until you’ve been dead for fifty years, Missy! Wait until you’re trapped on this plane and you have to watch idiots treat your family inn like some kind of despicable bawdy establishment. It was bad enough when they used to allow members of the public to get on stage and sing. Now they let people like you inside!’
‘I hate karaoke too,’ I mumbled through another delicious mouthful.
Winter glanced at me. ‘Ghost?’
‘Yeah. He’s pissed off. They’re all pissed off.’
‘Pissed off?’ the man shrieked. ‘Pissed off? I’ll show you pissed off.’ He leapt onto the table between Winter and myself.
‘Go away,’ I told him. ‘I’ll talk to you when I’ve finished my dinner.’ I checked the clock on the wall. ‘Twenty minutes. If you’ve been here for fifty years, I’m sure you’ve learned something about the art of patience. You can wait that long.’
‘Oh, I’ve learnt plenty about patience, Missy,’ the ghost sneered. ‘Mostly that it’s over-rated. Don’t worry though. I know how to get you to finish up quickly.’ He started unbuttoning his trousers.
I sighed. ‘If you think that mooning at me is going to put me off my food, you underestimate how many hairy bottoms I’ve seen in my time. The only one that could ever keep me from my food belongs to the man sitting opposite me. Your ugly arse isn’t going to work.’
He snorted. ‘You lack imagination.’ He took out a flaccid, pale penis, directed in downwards and, with what I could only describe as a contented sigh, began to pee.
I slowly put down my spoon and pushed back my chair. There was a ghost standing on the table in front of me and pissing into my food. Admittedly, it was ghost pee. It wouldn’t taste of anything – it probably didn’t even exist. Not in any real sense anyway. All the same, the scabby plonker had achieved what he wanted. I no longer wanted to eat a thing.
‘What’s wrong, Ivy?’
‘Nothing.’ I crossed my arms and glared at the ghost.
‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ Winter said.
‘It’s not you I’m looking at.’
The ghost smiled. ‘I’ve got your attention now, haven’t I?’
‘Do yourself up,’ I snapped. ‘If you want to talk, damn well talk.’
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