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‘No!’ I shrieked.

Both the Ipsissimus and Maidmont glanced up. They saw us – but they also carried on walking. No, no, no, no, no! Round the corner of the building and out of their sight – but visible to me – was a ladder. If the pair of them took just four or five more steps they’d walk right underneath it. If there is an omen that is destined to screw up your day, your week, your month and quite possibly your entire life, it is walking under a ladder.

Freaking out in a manner most unusual for me, I flapped my arms. Winter stopped and stared at me, mystified. But then he’d never understood superstitions and the power they really held.

Realising that something was wrong, the Ipsissimus did exactly the opposite to what I wanted and sped up to find out what the problem was. Time slowed around me, like in a Hollywood movie when you know the hero is in mortal danger. Reminding myself to breathe, I lifted both hands and concentrated. This needed to be one of the fastest spells I’d ever cast but I couldn’t afford for it to be sloppy.

‘Ivy?’ Winter began.

From behind, Brutus let out a yowl and barrelled towards the two men. At least he recognised the danger. As I flicked out a double-handed rune, Brutus bounded towards the ladder. Almost simultaneously, my spell toppled it as Brutus also smashed into it. There was a loud clatter as the offending object hit the path. Praise be – that was a close-run thing. I doubled over, breathing hard.

Maidmont spotted the ladder and started to hyperventilate whilst the Ipsissimus definitely appeared concerned. Winter just looked a bit puzzled. ‘What’s wrong? Is someone there? Is there a problem?’ he asked.

Jeez. I gasped, trying to catch my breath. ‘Ladder,’ I wheezed.

‘Huh?’ There was a pause. ‘Oh.’

I twisted my head towards him in time to catch his beautiful blue eyes rolling in amusement and exasperation. ‘It’s just a superstition.’

I managed to straighten up, although my breathing still wasn’t back to normal. ‘It’s not just a superstition, Rafe!’ I shook my head and jogged over to Maidmont and the Ipsissimus. At this rate, I’d give myself an aneurysm.

‘How can you let ladders onto this campus?’ I yelled, admonishing the Ipsissimus. ‘And who the hell would leave one lying around like this?’ I swung my head from side to side as if expecting a ninja assassin to appear at any second.

Ipsissimus Collings didn’t look particularly happy but he wasn’t panicking either. ‘There are renovations taking place. We’ve recruited a non-witch construction firm. One of them must have left the ladder here by accident. I’ll have words with them. It won’t happen again.’

I was tempted to continue yelling at him to press home the potential consequences of such death traps in the Order headquarters. Given the circumstances of our visit, however, there were probably more important things to talk about. Brutus, almost as shaken as I was, leapt into my arms. I stroked him, as much to calm myself as to calm my cat.

‘We need to talk about Blackbeard,’ Winter said. ‘There have been some developments with our investigation.’

The Ipsissimus nodded. ‘Excellent. We have some new information too, although I’m not sure how helpful it will be. We should move inside for some privacy.’ He looked around. ‘And so that we’re not in any further danger from construction equipment cursing us to eternity.’

Maidmont looked ready to turn tail and run screaming for the hills. I didn’t blame him; I was tempted to jump on his back and demand a piggyback to the same place. Instead, I stroked Brutus a bit more and remembered to breathe.

‘Sure,’ I said, the epitome of casual behaviour. In fact, if anyone looked up ‘relaxed’ in the dictionary, my photo would be right there. Nobody would be able to tell that I was actually quaking in my boots. ‘That sounds fabulous.’

Winter patted my hand. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘The nasty ladder has fallen down and can’t hurt you any more. We’re all perfectly safe. You don’t have to panic.’

Darn it.

Rather than take us up to his office, the Ipsissimus led us towards a small room on the ground floor of his building. No wonder renovations were underway around the Order; we were in the room that time forgot. It was cramped and, quite possibly, dustier than the top shelf in my bedroom that I couldn’t see over so I never cleaned it. One side of the room was crammed full of books, most of which probably hadn’t been opened in decades. The other side was filled with the strangest examples of taxidermy I’d ever seen.

‘Is that a stuffed deer?’ I asked.

The Ipsissimus didn’t look up. ‘Yes.’

‘With floppy rabbit ears?’

‘Hare,’ Winter interjected helpfully.

‘My favourite is the cat,’ Maidmont said.

I looked round. ‘The one with the horn?’

He nodded cheerfully.

I stared at the three of them. Still in my arms, Brutus growled. ‘What the hell is this place? Have you lot been experimenting with magically spliced animals?’

The Ipsissimus waved a hand dismissively. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. These were all completed post-mortem, and not even by a witch.’

‘They were donated,’ Maidmont said. ‘Along with a generous annual stipend on the proviso that the collection is on display.’

I didn’t care how generous the stipend was, these things were damned creepy. ‘That winged bear is staring at me.’ I bent down to Brutus. ‘Kill,’ I whispered to him. ‘Kill the bear.’ I released him onto the floor with a gentle nudge in the bear’s direction. Brutus threw me a baleful look and darted under the table to avoid the creature’s glassy-eyed gaze. I shuffled over to Winter and hunkered down next to him. He was a bigger target.

‘So,’ the Ipsissimus said, settling back into an ornate mahogany chair with flea-ridden velvet cushions. ‘What exactly have you discovered?’

Winter spoke clearly and succinctly, outlining everything we’d found out so far from Clare Rees, her family and Professor Wiggins. As he spoke, it occurred to me that none of it was good.

The Ipsissimus pursed his lips. ‘I’ve been back here for several hours. I’ve had reports from Human Resources regarding Rees and her coven’s application for admission to the Order. I have to say, there’s not much information. Their application was received two months ago and background checks and initial interviews with friends and family members were started.’

Two months ago. By that point they were all already dead.

‘Is there any record of the coven’s interviews?’ Winter asked.

‘That’s the only interesting part. They were due to take part next week. They’ve been delayed because apparently the coven is away on a meditation holiday to improve their magic.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘About the holiday? We received a letter from them. It is how we usually communicate, Ms Wilde. Email and telephone are too unreliable and dangerous with all the magic around here, so we rely on the old-fashioned methods of posted letters or face-to-face communication. It’s why so many people consider us dinosaurs. But you can learn so much more from someone’s facial expressions or penmanship than you can from an emoticon.’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘Really? And what did you learn from the penmanship of seven dead witches?’

He grimaced. ‘Alas, all the letters we received were typed. The police have taken them away to check for fingerprints but the only prints that have appeared so far belong to our own staff.’

That figured. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess all you Order geeks are kind of screwed.’

Winter winced at my turn of phrase but the Ipsissimus seemed amused. ‘Why do you say that?’

I shrugged. ‘It’s obvious, isn’t it? Blackbeard hates witches but loves killing. He massacred an entire coven but has drawn out the process of disposing of their remains so that he can savour each and every death. But the coven’s murders are still only a means to an end. That’s why he’s stepped up his timetable for scattering their ashes – he has a date.’

I jabbed a finger at the Ipsissimus. ‘He’s coming here. His end game is to come to the Order and murder again and he’s used Clare’s coven to gain admittance. That’s why he’s had all their letters redirected. He doesn’t want their postcards as trophies, he wants to use their identities to sneak into the Order. He’s honed his skills with a group of weak, non-Order witches so he can step up and make a move against the big boys.’ I paused. ‘In other words you. It’s why he’s kept his murders so quiet. He’s saving up everything for one grand finale.’

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