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‘Man, that felt good.’ I examined my hands. ‘I hadn’t realised how much I needed magic until I couldn’t use it.’

A faint smile crossed the Ipsissimus’s face. ‘Yet you did not hesitate to deny yourself that which you so desperately desired. You are to be commended, Ms Wilde.’ He looked me up and down. ‘Perhaps Adeptus Exemptus Winter is rubbing off on you in ways both seen and unseen. It is obvious that you are affecting him.’

‘You keep calling him that,’ I said. ‘But he’s not in the Order, Ipsissimus. He’s no longer Adeptus Exemptus.’

‘He will change his mind.’

I shook my head. I wasn’t so sure about that.

The Ipsissimus leaned towards me. ‘We need him to change his mind. He is vital, Ms Wilde. To everything.’

‘I don’t understand.’

He pursed his lips. ‘The recent events in Scotland have forced me to reassess many things. I need to stop pussyfooting around and ensure I have an appropriate successor in place. I did not believe Raphael was ready for that role, but the way he left the Order behind because of his loyalty to you…’

Whoa there. I held up my hands. ‘Don’t bring me into this. He left on his own terms.’

‘Ms Wilde, until you came along he lived, breathed and ate the Order. Many of our witches do. But to be Ipsissimus is to take on board heavy responsibilities. Without a strong and steady network and a life outside work, it is impossible to succeed. The pressure is too great. And that is not all. If one is wholly absorbed in the Order, one can lose sight of the bigger picture. Now that Raphael Winter – Adeptus Exemptus Raphael Winter – has you, he possesses that bigger picture.’

I felt uncomfortable at having this conversation without Winter present. The Ipsissimus kept on dangling juicier and juicier carrots in his bid to get Winter to return but somehow I didn’t think Winter would give two hoots about what was on offer. All the same, my curiosity got the better of me. ‘But you’ve said it yourself. He’s Adeptus Exemptus and that’s only Second Level. There have to be at least a couple of hundred witches who are ranked higher than Rafe.’

‘Two hundred and thirty-three, to be exact,’ he said. ‘Most of whom are tied to their specialisms and who are unable to see the wood for the trees. Adeptus Exemptus Winter has already proved he can manage upwards as well as down. You have more magical talent than he does, after all. His ego doesn’t interfere with that fact and he is more than capable of getting the best out of you.’

‘I’m one person, Ipsissimus Collings, and I’m in love with him. He gets a lot of leeway as far as I’m concerned. The Order, however, is thousands of people, most of whom probably hate him for being better than they are and for leaving when he could have stayed. Rafe doesn’t want it.’

The Ipsissimus’s answering gaze was frank and earnest. ‘And maybe that’s why he should have it. He has already shown he has more integrity than ambition. Besides, I’m hardly at death’s door. There is plenty of time for Raphael to take the necessary examinations and move up the hierarchy.’

‘Not if Raphael doesn’t want to,’ said Winter from the doorway. He looked pissed off. I wasn’t really surprised. ‘What exactly is it going to take for you to leave me alone?’

‘Come back,’ the Ipsissimus entreated. ‘Just think about all the good you could do.’ He reached inside his coat pocket and drew out a scroll.

I sucked in a breath. The last time the Ipsissimus had given me a scroll, it had been an incantation which had almost caused my death.

Winter’s expression was flat. ‘What is that?’

‘The paperwork that will bring you back in, Raphael. Your promotion. And more. I’ve already signed it. All you have to do is add your name and we can forget everything that has happened in the past. It’s time to move on.’

Winter crossed his arms. ‘No. I don’t know how many times you expect me to say the same thing.’

‘You belong in the Order. You know you do. You thrive on what we can offer you.’

‘I’m doing just fine.’

The Ipsissimus took a step forward. ‘As far as this investigation goes, you have no place in it,’ he said gently. ‘Because you’re on the outside. You’re not in the Order and you’re not in the police. I could force you to stay away from anything related to this Blackbeard fellow.’

‘Try it,’ Winter growled.

‘But that’s just it! I don’t want to do that. We need your expertise, Raphael. We want you on our side. But you know as well as I do that there will be more doors open if you are in the Order – and more doors slammed in your face now that you are not. There is only so much I can do. Return to the fold and you can take charge of this. You can find Blackbeard and bring him to justice. You can second Ms Wilde to your team and have the might and power of the Order behind you. You know it makes sense.’

Winter crossed his arms over his chest. Despite – or perhaps because of – his anger, he looked incredibly sexy. I’d happily have jumped him right then. Maybe I should have kicked the Ipsissimus back out to his car.

‘You need Ivy’s ability to talk to the dead,’ Winter snapped. ‘You don’t need me.’

‘You’re wrong about that. If you think things in the Order should change then tell us and we can look at implementing those changes. You know this is right. You know your place is with us.’

‘I’m not staying away from the Order because I’m sulking or because I want you to make me a better offer,’ Winter said. ‘I can do just as much good on the outside as I can on the inside. Except on the outside there will be less bureaucracy and less chance that innocent people will be hurt in the hunt for your supposed greater good. There’s nothing wrong with independence.’

Even I could see that the Ipsissimus was growing desperate. ‘We’re all on the same team.’

‘Good,’ Winter declared. ‘So let’s work together and find Blackbeard. We’ll get justice for the Dorset coven and we can do it by working together. I just won’t have that piece of paper stating I’m in the Order.’

The Ipsissimus splayed out his hands in defeat. ‘Do I have any choice?’

Winter shrugged his wide shoulders. ‘I suppose not.’

‘Then that will have to do.’ The Ipsissimus gave us both a benevolent smile. But even I could hear the unsaid ‘for now’, which was tagged on the end of that sentence.

Chapter Ten

Clare Rees lived – or had lived – in a nondescript little terraced house in the picturesque town of Weymouth in Dorset. We found it with no trouble and, even more helpfully, just as we reached the door Clare herself reappeared, gazing morosely at the pavement. ‘They don’t care,’ she said.

I looked at her askance. ‘Who?’

‘My family,’ she said. ‘My family don’t care that I’ve gone. They’re just getting on with their lives as if nothing’s happened. My mum is still helping out at the Salvation Army, my dad is still going to all his local darts matches with his drinking buddies. They’re laughing and joking. They don’t care. My sister, the person who I was closest to in the whole world, is planning a round-the-world trip for three months. She’s not seen me since May and yet she doesn’t care. No one’s so much as mentioned my name. It’s like I don’t exist. What the hell is going on?’

By now Winter was getting used to my sudden silences as I listened to my phantom friends. He stopped and waited while I gave Clare a sympathetic look. I could well understand what she was going through. When I die, I expect copious weeping. In fact, not just weeping but renting of clothes and gnashing of teeth. I want my funeral to take place in Westminster Abbey and to include at least two renditions of Tragedy – the Steps version and the Bee Gees one. While I lounge back in final rest, everyone else can do the hard work. I will demand elaborate outfits with lacy black veils for both the men and the women. Maybe I’ll force my remaining family members to perform a contemporary dance number to express their dismay at my passing. Considering how often I seem to be close to death these days, this is probably something I should sort out. I ought to make a will and make my last wishes clear. Tomorrow. Or maybe the day after. Next week at the absolute latest. It is important to be prepared, after all.

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