‘I cannot believe it!’ shrieked a high-pitched female voice. It shocked me so much that I jerked and spilled tea all over myself. I leapt up. It was scalding.
Sophia’s eyes widened and she dashed over with a cloth. ‘Is something the matter?’
The ghost glared at her. ‘I’ll say something’s the matter! That’s the best china! What are you doing giving this gerrl the best china?’
Winter watched me, fascination lighting his eyes. ‘Who is it, Ivy? Who do you see?’
His mother dabbed at my front while the ghost put her hands on her hips. ‘Well, that’s hardly going to help, is it?’ She tutted. Of course; where there was a ghost, there was bound to be tutting. ‘My name is Hetty, for his information.’
I licked my lips. ‘Uh, a woman called Hetty.’
Sophia stopped what she was doing and stared at me. ‘Great-aunt Hetty?’
Winter coughed. ‘Recently, Ivy has discovered that she can communicate with the dead.’
‘And she’s talking to Hetty?’ Sophia’s gaze swung from Winter back to me again. ‘You’re talking to Hetty?’
Hetty herself rolled her eyes. ‘She never was the brightest gerrl.’
George looked mildly interested. ‘Fascinating.’
Sophia started to back away very, very slowly. ‘I don’t believe it,’ she whispered.
‘Tell that gerrl that she should believe it. I’ve been haunting her for years. I know everything there is to know about her. I’ll give away all her secrets.’ Hetty smacked her lips with self-satisfaction. ‘I know what happened at the Pickwick.’
I patted myself down to get rid of the remaining dregs of tea. ‘It’s lovely to meet you, Hetty. But this really isn’t the time.’
‘Not the time?’ Hetty flounced. ‘You’re supposed to help me pass over, gerrl!’
‘Apparently there’s a queue.’
She glared at me. ‘I’m practically family. I should be given special treatment.’
‘Come and find me later,’ I told her. I couldn’t cope with the expression on Winter’s mum’s face for much longer. She either thought I was making all this up for some underhand reason of my own or I was someone to be avoided at all costs.
Hetty opened her mouth to speak. I drew myself up and gave her my best icy glare. ‘Come and find me later,’ I repeated. ‘Or I will never help another ghost pass over ever again.’ I almost meant it. Hetty, no longer quite the lady she was pretending to be, spat in my direction and disappeared. I breathed out. ‘She’s gone,’ I said to no one in particular.
Sophia stared at me. ‘What did she say?’
Uh… ‘She wasn’t very impressed that you’d given me the best china. And she called me gerrl a lot.’ I made an attempt to roll my rs in the same way as Hetty.
Sophia breathed out. From the look in her eyes, she was starting to believe me. ‘She did that a lot. Did she say anything else? Why is she here?’
Winter took over, briefly explaining the situation whereby ghosts wanted my help in clearing the curses that were holding them here. George, apparently already bored, nudged Brutus out of the way and got up to pour his own tea.
‘I never met the woman,’ he said to me in a shrugged aside. ‘She died before I came on the scene.’ He seemed unperturbed by all this. Maybe that was what came of a lifetime in the army; after a while nothing shocked you any more.
Sophia looked back at me. ‘Did she say anything else?’
I wondered if she really wanted to know. I shrugged. It was hard to believe that Winter’s mother could have any skeletons in her closet to worry about. ‘She said she knew your secrets and all about Pickwick.’ I shrugged. ‘That was about it.’
Sophia’s brow creased. ‘Pickwick? I don’t have the faintest idea what that is.’
George chuckled. ‘It’s not a what. It’s a where.’
She shook her head. ‘I still don’t…’ Her expression changed. ‘Oh.’ She sneaked a look at Winter.
‘What?’ he asked. ‘What’s Pickwick?’
‘The Pickwick Inn to be precise,’ George boomed, while his wife started blushing. ‘I was on leave. Only had a few days before I was due out again and we were determined to make the most of it, weren’t we, dear?’
Sophia choked slightly. ‘I don’t think this is the best time for this conversation. Maybe I should get out the baby photos.’ She gave me a desperate glance. ‘You’d like to see those, wouldn’t you? I have a wonderful photo of Raphael in the most adorable little dungarees—’
‘You were conceived there,’ George said, choosing not to hear a single word that Sophia had said. She briefly closed her eyes while Winter’s mouth dropped open. ‘We weren’t quite married at the time so we checked in as Mr and Mrs Smith. We thought we were being very clever.’ He glanced at me. ‘Those were the times we lived in. Things are much better for lovebirds like you two these days. It’s a very different world.’ His eyes dropped to my stomach. ‘When is your baby due?’
Sophia gasped in horror while Winter began to cough. Even Brutus seemed to be laughing his feline head off. I didn’t smile, however; I just stared at him.
‘Didn’t mean to offend you,’ George said. A little voice in the back of my head told me he was telling the truth. Whatever. The chill was still descending down my spine as I thought about what he’d said.
I reached into my pocket and took out my phone. Very slowly, I found the number I needed and held the phone to my ear. George glanced askance at Winter. ‘Is she calling a cab already? We’ve not even sat down to our starters and your mother’s got her famous Yorkshire puddings ready for the mains.’
Winter finally managed to stop coughing. Something about my expression must have alerted him to the seriousness of the situation because he suddenly looked concerned. ‘Ivy?’ he asked.
I shook my head at him as Tarquin answered. ‘Tarq,’ I said. ‘I need you to tell me one thing.’
‘Ivy, darling! How are you? Are you busy? Because I’m still trying to finish off that paperwork and there’s no movement yet with our murderer, so there might still be time for me to hoof it over there before the fireworks begin.’
‘Has anyone actually seen him?’
‘You mean Hal Prescott? No. Not since that initial sighting yesterday. He knows he’s under surveillance, though, and that he can’t go anywhere. The entire hotel is surrounded. He’s in his room. I think the bomb squad is preparing to go in but—’
I interrupted him. ‘Under what name did he check into the hotel?’
I tapped my foot. Winter stilled completely and watched me. ‘The hotel in Uffington,’ I repeated. ‘What name did he register when he checked in?’
‘Hal Prescott, of course. What other name would he use?’
I swallowed. ‘I need you to double check. Are you absolutely sure he used his real name?’
‘Yes,’ he said, sounding hurt. ‘I have the paperwork right here. He checked in yesterday morning at 11.32am. He…’
I hung up the phone and looked at Winter. ‘Blackbeard is not in Uffington. If he was, he’d have used an assumed name like he did last time. He’s still a step ahead of us and he’s still toying with us. He’s set us up, Rafe. It’s the only explanation.’
Winter’s blue eyes met mine. ‘If he’s not there, there’s only one place he’s likely to be.’
I nodded. ‘The Order.’
Winter made for the door. ‘Mum, Dad, thanks for the tea. We have to go.’
‘Come on, Brutus!’ I yelled, running after Winter. Given my limbs were still stiff and unyielding that wasn’t a particularly easy feat.
Brutus let out a yowl. ‘Mouse!’
It was our secret, pre-arranged signal designed to cause havoc and offer me an escape. His timing sucked. ‘Not now, Brutus!’ I yelled over my shoulder.
There was a faint mutter, ‘Bitch,’ then he came careening out after us. We had to get back to Oxford. Right now.