I grimaced. ‘Yeah. I think so.’
Winter reached into Blackbeard’s bag and pulled out an urn. He waved it at me. I gave a brief nod of acknowledgment and returned my attention to the woman. ‘You were in a coven. In Dorset.’
She stared at me. ‘Were you the one following us?’ Before I could reply, she answered her own question. ‘No,’ she said. ‘That would have been him, wouldn’t it? The one who did this to me. To us.’
This wasn’t an enjoyable conversation but I had to continue. ‘You were awake? When he killed you?’
Her fingers went up to her neck where there was an ugly wound. ‘I was first,’ she whispered, ‘and he was clumsy. I came to as my life was ebbing away and I saw what he did to the others.’ She looked around. ‘Where are they?’
‘Three are in a place not far from here called Wistman’s Wood. Three are probably still with the man who killed you. He’s been dumping your coven’s ashes one by one, every time there’s a new moon. Wistman’s Wood is an old pagan forest and your companions there cannot leave. We don’t know whether that’s deliberate on the part of your murderer or not.’
I glanced back at Winter. If my theory about Blackbeard’s ability to avoid all magic was true, it was certainly possible that he was aware of the strange properties of Wistman’s Wood and had chosen it specifically.
‘Tonight is a new moon?’ she asked.
I shook my head. ‘No. We think he was planning to leave your remains in the wood with the others, but we don’t know why he’s not waited until the moon turns when he always has before.’
‘He’s bored,’ she said softly. ‘He needs more.’
She smiled sadly. ‘I wasn’t just a witch. I trained as a psychologist too. I didn’t work with murderers but they were part of my studies. He has a taste for killing now and he wants to keep going. He’s drawn out disposing of our remains because he thought it would prolong his enjoyment, but he’s realised it’s not enough. He’s moved his schedule up. He’s going to get rid of all of us as quickly as possible so that he can move on to a new target.’
Her voice was so matter-of-fact that it sent a chill down my spine. ‘It’s possible that he’s targeting witches,’ I told her. ‘He doesn’t seem to like them. And it’s possible he can nullify any spells thrown his way.’
She considered this. ‘That makes sense,’ she nodded. ‘Timothy was the second one to die. He had herbs with him for protection because he was more convinced than the rest of us that we were being followed. He used them to set up a ward before we started chanting.’ She raised a shoulder. ‘Obviously the herbs didn’t work.’
I absorbed her words with a faintly sick feeling. ‘Why did he think he was being followed?’
‘He’d had strange messages. Threats, that kind of thing.’
I sucked in a breath. Timothy hadn’t been one of the coven members at Wistman’s Wood but if he had evidence that might tell us more about Blackbeard, I had to find out more from him. I swung back to Winter. He was still holding the duffel bag but he’d abandoned rummaging through its contents in favour of watching me. I wasn’t sure how much he could glean from what was going on.
‘Are there any other urns there?’ I asked.
‘No. There’s just the one. There’s a name on it,’ he added, ‘if that’s helpful.’
‘I’m Clare Rees,’ the woman said.
I checked with Winter. ‘Clare Rees?’ I asked.
‘It was our custom to perform coven spells in ceremonial robes,’ Clare said. She gestured at herself and I realised she was wearing exactly the same outfit as the three others from her coven. ‘There aren’t any pockets. In any case, we tend to leave all real-life objects at home. Karen was convinced that they would interfere with the magic.’
In other words, she didn’t have any ID on her when she’d died but Blackbeard had still known exactly who she was.
‘She cursed us, didn’t she?’ Clare said. ‘Karen, I mean.’
I tried to demur. ‘It wasn’t really your coven she was cursing. She just wanted to make sure that your murderer receives the justice he deserves.’
‘Funny that we’re the ones who are suffering,’ Clare commented. ‘I can feel it, you know. It’s like a block. My body is being tugged away but something’s preventing it from going. I can’t see it but I can feel it. It’s all around me.’ Her shoulders drooped. ‘It’s awful. There was so much I still wanted to do. I never travelled. I always wanted to visit South America but now I’ll never get the chance. I was going to tell Mike at work what I really thought of him but I was too scared. I was going to learn how to fly.’ Her voice fell to a whisper. ‘I’ll never do any of that.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Never had an apology felt so inadequate.
‘It’s not your fault.’
I watched her for a moment or two. ‘We can take your ashes to the wood so you can be with the others. Blackbeard, the man who killed you, cremated you somehow. I guess it made it easier to transport your bodies.’
I scratched my neck. ‘That’s what I’ve christened him. He checked in under the name Nicholas Remy but we don’t know if that’s his real name. It could—’
‘It’s not.’ I glanced at her askance and she explained. ‘Nicholas Remy is the name of an old French witch hunter from the sixteenth century.’
I sucked in a breath. Well, that made a kind of sense.
Clare got to her feet. ‘I’d appreciate it if you could give my remains to my parents,’ she said. ‘I have no desire to be trapped with the others in an ancient forest. They were bad enough when they were alive. I can’t begin to imagine how annoying they’ll be now they’re dead.’
She had a point. ‘We can do that,’ I promised.
‘Thank you. I’m going to leave now. I want to find my family. My real family. I want to find out if they’re alright.’
I nodded and watched her dissipate into nothingness. I hoped for her sake that everything was alright. It would be torture if her family were suffering and she could do nothing but watch.
Winter strode over and put his arms round me. ‘Are you okay? You’re shaking all over.’
‘I’m fine.’ I ran a hand through my hair. ‘This is just so hard.’ I met his eyes. ‘I don’t want to be the only person in the world who can talk to ghosts, Rafe. I can’t cope with this kind of responsibility. It should be someone else.’
‘You’re stronger than you know, Ivy Wilde,’ he murmured in my ear. ‘And I’ll be with you every step of the way.’
I leaned into him, taking a moment to enjoy his closeness. I had a horrible feeling I was going to need all the comfort I could get.
If this had been a normal kind of day, driving to the arse end of the country to tramp around soggy moorland, converse with dead witches and almost catch a bearded serial killer would have resulted in a good night’s sleep. There again, if this had been a normal day, I wouldn’t have left my sofa for anything more than a choccie biscuit – and even then I probably could have inveigled Winter into getting it for me. I might have had to put up with him presenting it on a lace doily, followed by him passing judgment when I ate not one biscuit but twenty, but it would still have been better than this.
It was rare that anything prevented me from sleeping; the last time I suffered from a bout of insomnia was around the time Billy Smythe stole my Barbie and set her hair alight and I couldn’t decide between turning him into a Barbie himself or making him my personal slave. I think that was when I decided that I was going to do everything I could to avoid letting life’s travails stress me out, whether they involved mutilated Barbies or not.
The bed was comfortable and Winter was his usual warm, snuggly self. He didn’t snore and he didn’t hog the bedcovers. His feet were toasty warm. There weren’t any ghosts in the vicinity chatting to me and trying to keep me awake. Brutus wasn’t even there, pawing at my face and demanding attention. So why the hell couldn’t I sleep?
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