Tarquin frowned and held up his index finger. ‘First of all, I don’t talk to the applicants themselves. My task is far more important than that. I talk to their families, that way one can get to the heart of the matter whether they have enough talent to join the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment.’
I pressed my lips together. Don’t smirk. Don’t smirk. Don’t smirk.
‘Secondly,’ he said, ‘the notes I pass on are taken very seriously. I have been told that, if it were not for my recommendations, Human Resources would not have the faintest idea whether to allow entrance or not.’
Tarquin had never really understood sarcasm. I nodded as if to agree with him; I could keep a straight face if the situation demanded it. ‘So you visited the Rees family in Weymouth in Dorset to find out about Clare and whether she had the ability to become an Order witch?’
‘Yep. Her and the other members of her coven. Seven of them. It took bloody ages but,’ he said with a sidelong look at Winter, ‘when it comes to the Order, there’s nothing I’m not prepared to do. I am now, and will for ever be, fully motivated and dedicated to the Order’s cause. Only the worthiest and most hard-working witches are like that.’
‘Indeed,’ Winter murmured. ‘And only the worthiest and most hard-working witches avoid pointless self-aggrandisement.’
Tarquin frowned. ‘Self what?’
I interrupted hastily. ‘Never mind. So if I have this right,’ I said, ‘Clare Rees and the rest of her coven applied to become Order witches and it was your job to vet them.’
‘And,’ I pressed, ‘if your recommendation is positive, what happens next? What’s the next step?’
‘They enter the Order, of course.’
Winter’s lip curled. ‘Just like that?’
‘The applicants aren’t interviewed or tested or anything?’
‘Oh. Sure, yeah, that happens.’
I could hear Winter’s teeth grinding from a foot away. He obviously never worked anywhere near HR when he was in the Order. ‘Go on. Explain how that works.’
Tarquin looked confused. ‘I don’t know. That’s not my remit.’
‘You have no interest in or curiosity about the rest of the process?’ Winter’s voice dripped with disdain.
Tarquin leaned over. ‘Not. My. Job.’
I put a hand on Winter’s arm. Just because he wanted to know everything about the Order Departments he’d been in didn’t mean everyone was like that.
‘Anyway,’ Tarquin continued, ‘I should get on. I’m a very busy and important person these days. It’s lucky you caught me, to be honest. I don’t always have time for conversations with civilians.’ As he glanced at Winter, his implication was clear. Where Tarquin once did everything he could to bow and scrape and get into Winter’s good books, now that Winter wasn’t in the Order Tarquin couldn’t care less what he thought.
Because I could, I repeated my earlier rune and this time I put a little more effort into it. Tarquin’s eyes widened and his hands dropped, scrabbling at his trousers. His cheeks began to turn red. ‘I have to go,’ he said in a high-pitched rush. He spun round and headed back into his flat as if hell itself were after him.
As soon as Tarquin’s door closed, Winter turned to me. ‘What exactly did you do to him?’
I shrugged. ‘Nothing.’
I grinned. ‘Okay, I may have performed a small spell which I developed for some of the more gropey taxi customers.’
Winter’s eyes darkened at the idea that I’d been forced to drive around men whose octopus arms and pinching fingers had caused me grief. ‘What’s the spell?’ he asked, his jaw tight.
My smile grew. ‘Let’s just say that it can make you feel rather uncomfortable in the groin area.’ Winter frowned so I elaborated. ‘It constricts your underwear until…’
He held up his hands and winced. ‘I get the picture.’ He glanced at me. ‘Don’t ever do that to me.’
‘I won’t. But I’ve developed other spells that are less uncomfortable and more – pleasurable. I’ve never really had cause to practise them on anyone. Perhaps you would be willing to be a guinea pig?’
A deep growl emanated from Winter’s chest and he reached for my hand, squeezing my fingers. ‘That sounds like the sort of test I would enjoy.’
I snorted. ‘You’re Raphael Winter. Is there any kind of test you don’t enjoy?’
He considered. ‘My sister used to make me take tests to find out what kind of fairy-tale prince I was most like, or how many children and wives I would end up with. I didn’t enjoy those very much.’
Tarquin’s door re-opened and he stuck his head out. ‘I’m Prince Charming,’ he yelled. ‘You can’t have that one.’ The door closed again.
Winter and I exchanged looks. ‘I beg to differ,’ I whispered.
He smiled. Unfortunately, the moment had passed and both of us knew it. ‘Let’s try out those spells some other time,’ he said.
‘It’s a date.’ I sighed. A future date, when we didn’t have serial killers to worry about. ‘Just what the hell is going on? Clare was adamant that she didn’t want anything to do with the Order and neither did her coven. If the others had put in an application to join up, she would have mentioned it. She made a point of saying that her magic wasn’t strong enough and that she hated the Order. This has got to be Blackbeard’s doing. But to what end? What is he really up to? Is he…’ My voice trailed off.
‘Trying to find a way to sneak into the Order himself?’ Winter finished for me. ‘It does sound like it, doesn’t it?’
‘We know he hates witches,’ I said softly. ‘If that’s what he’s trying to do, it’s not because he wants to make new friends.’
We shared a look of mutual dismay. ‘No,’ Winter agreed. ‘It’s definitely not.’
It didn’t take a genius to realise that Eve hadn’t imagined the smell. I didn’t even have to open my front door to notice the reek – and there was no denying what it was.
Winter glanced at me. ‘Is that…?’
‘Cat pee?’ I opened the door to fully appreciate the eye-watering effect. ‘Oh, yes.’
He looked embarrassed. ‘I’m so sorry. Princess Parma Periwinkle is never normally like that.’
‘Don’t apologise. I’d lay money on this all being down to Brutus.’
For a moment Winter looked puzzled then his face cleared. ‘The phone call earlier. This is what you were on about.’
I nodded grimly. Yeah. Talk about rubbing your nose in it.
Princess was nowhere to be seen. Brutus, however, was sitting on the windowsill and staring outside. I marched over. ‘What gives?’
He didn’t so much as twitch.
‘Brutus,’ I said, in my best stern voice, ‘why have you been peeing in here?’
‘I’m so sorry, Ivy!’ Eve appeared in the doorway. She was dressed in overalls and holding a spray bottle. ‘I’ve gone through a litre of this stuff trying to get rid of the smell and clean it all up but I can’t seem to find it all. Poor Brutus has really gone to town.’
My eyebrows flew up. Poor Brutus? ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t feel too sorry for him. He knew exactly what he was doing.’ I glared at his back. He still didn’t turn around but I was fairly certain that there was a whisker quiver. He was probably suppressing a feline belly laugh.
‘He obviously missed you.’
‘We were only away for one night,’ I pointed out. ‘And he had you.’
‘And Princess Parma Periwinkle,’ Winter added.
‘All the same…’
‘Don’t worry about it, Eve,’ I told her. ‘It was very kind of you to try and clean up but I’ll sort this out.’ I looked around. ‘You could have used magic, you know.’
She seemed taken aback. ‘But that would have been a waste of energy.’
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