‘Okay,’ she said slowly, obviously unwilling to deny the invalid her request. I could get used to this. ‘Give me a minute.’
When she returned with Harold in her arms, Winter reappeared holding two mugs of tea. ‘I’ve brewed it for four and a half minutes,’ he announced. ‘I think that is the optimum time for the perfect cup.’
I gave him an amused glance. He was clearly prepared to do just about anything to occupy himself. Despite my efforts to teach him, he wouldn’t learn the joy of simply doing nothing. Winter had to be busy.
Brutus woke up for long enough to give Harold a glare, while Princess Parma Periwinkle let out a small kittenish miaow of happiness at his appearance. Harold leapt down to the floor, ambled over to Princess and touched his nose to hers. Like her, he avoided going anywhere near the old lady. As far as scientific experiments went, it was hardly watertight but it certainly gave me food for thought.
Ten seconds later, Brutus decided that enough was enough. He charged off the windowsill towards Harold, claws outstretched. Princess fled for cover – and they all made sure they didn’t go anywhere near the woman. My flat wasn’t tiny but neither was it palatial; it wasn't easy to avoid an entire corner of it unless you were really trying. The fact that none of the cats went near my hallucination had to mean something.
Harold beat a hasty retreat. When Brutus was satisfied that he wasn’t returning, he leapt onto the coffee table and gave himself a smug lick. ‘Food?’ he enquired.
‘I’ll get you something,’ Winter said, bounding into the kitchen. I nibbled my bottom lip. Winter might be driving me nuts but I reckoned I wasn’t clinically insane after all. Good to know.
I’ve never quite understood people who aren’t good patients. I am an excellent patient. You want to bring me hot lemon with honey? Thank you very much. Mop my brow? Please, go ahead. Spoon-feed me? Well, if you insist. All the same, when I finally felt strong enough to go outside on my own, I felt like I’d been granted a new lease of life. I’d persuaded Winter that it was time for him to head up north and face the music with his own family over his resignation from the Order. As for me, I knew exactly where I was heading and who to ask for answers.
It felt strange arriving at the Order Headquarters and knowing that I wouldn’t see Winter while I was here. My skin itched at the thought that I was doing something behind his back by being here. However, I comforted myself that if I told him there was a creepy dead lady hanging around my flat he’d be even more determined to treat me like cut-glass and be even more stressed out. Work relaxed Winter and right now he had no work to do. Relaxing relaxed me. If I came clean, there was also the possibility that he’d lock me up in an insane asylum. Frankly, I wouldn’t blame him.
I parked round the back of the library building, hiding my taxi behind a large bus, and skirted the long way round to the main entrance. Normally I would have ignored all the traffic rules and stopped on the yellow lines out front, but I didn’t want to bump into anyone who might know me. And, even though the footage of Enchantment which involved me had been suppressed by a court order, I knew that virtually every witch in the country would recognise my face. I supposed that was what happened when you saved half of the Highlands of Scotland from zombies. All in a day’s work … or something like that.
I kept my head down, ignoring the people moving around me. Fortunately, the constant drizzle meant that I didn’t look out of place; everyone else was rushing to get to their destination rather than looking at passers-by. I dodged out of the way of a group of red robes, narrowly avoided a ginger cat patiently waiting for its owner – and almost smacked into a tall man standing in the middle of the path.
‘One should be more circumspect,’ he barked.
‘Sorry,’ I muttered.
‘Look at me when I’m talking to you!’
Involuntarily, I raised my head. The oddest-looking man was glaring at me. His irises were a strange yellow colour, more like a cat’s than a human’s. Perhaps he had a bad case of jaundice. I glanced at his long white bushy beard and his drooping moustache. His eyebrows were so bushy and unkempt that I reckoned I could probably plait them. There was also something familiar about him, as if I’d met him before.
‘What are you staring at?’ he snapped.
Jeez. One minute he wanted me to look at him and the next he was complaining about it. ‘Chill,’ I said.
‘It seems rather temperate to me, despite the rain.’ He folded his arms. ‘I need you to listen. This is most important. You…’
The library doors opened and a group of witches came out, giggling among themselves. They were clearly Neophytes who hadn’t yet learned that to be part of the Order you have to be serious and sombre at all times and on all occasions. One had purple hair, one had blue hair, while the third was completely bald with a tattooed broomstick on the back of her skull.
The glowering man let out a small shriek. ‘Heathens!’
I glanced back at him – but he was no longer there. I spun round. Where the hell had he gone? He’d been right in front of me yet now the path was empty. A shiver descended through my body and a phantom surge of pain rose up to match it. Swallowing hard, I darted round the small group and into the library. This was not looking good at all.
The one saving grace was that at least it was warm and dry inside. I eyed the front desk, not recognising the witch behind it. The easy thing would have been to ask her where Philip Maidmont was; unfortunately, this wasn’t a day for taking the easy way out. I avoided her gaze and swerved right, hoping I’d find Maidmont without too much trouble. The library was huge and I didn’t want to traipse around it for hours.
I heaved myself up the first set of stairs, scanning round for the nervous librarian. There was a reverent hush across the entire place, as if speaking in a normal tone of voice would invoke untold horrors. I craned my neck upwards, spotting the ceremonial gold sceptre that Winter and I had recovered from the sewer below the basement. Although it was now back in a protective casing and no doubt had several spells round it, I hoped someone had thought to disinfect it thoroughly as well.
I dragged my eyes away and continued to look around. I was pleased to note that there was now a guard outside the heavy door to the Cypher Manuscript room. Yes, he looked beyond bored and, as I watched, he picked his nose, examined whatever sticky green snot he’d snagged then ate it, but at least there was someone there. The Order were proving they could learn from their mistakes. Then I shook myself. What the hell did I care what the Order did?
I was just about to turn left towards the study carrels, in the hope that I might find Maidmont in the quietest part of the quiet library, when a figure carrying a towering stack of books tottered round the far corner. Their face was obscured by the books but something about the shuffling gait made me think I’d found my man. I ambled over and cleared my throat. ‘Philip?’
There was a small squeak. Philip Maidmont jerked in surprise, sending the books flying in all directions. A young woman appeared from nowhere. The skin was peeling off half of her face, revealing charred flesh and the flash of white bone underneath. Oh God. She tutted in irritation while I hastily looked away and focused on Maidmont. ‘Hi.’
‘Ivy!’ He reached over and enveloped me in a warm hug. ‘It’s so good to see you! But should you be out and about? You look so pale. It’s almost as if you’ve seen a ghost.’
Ha. Ha. Ha. I gave a weak laugh and quickly bent down to pick up the books for him before anyone decided to come and help. Then I took the librarian’s elbow and steered him away to a sheltered corner.
‘I’m doing well,’ I told him. I risked a glance back. The scary half-faced woman had vanished. Breathing deeply, I swallowed and wasted no time in getting to the point. This place was seriously creeping me out. ‘But I need a bit of help.’
Maidmont’s eyes widened. ‘Of course! I’ll do anything you want. You’ve become a bit of a hero around here. It would be my honour to help you. Although,’ he added anxiously, ‘you don’t want me to set fire to anything again, do you?’