I spun back round then immediately regretted it as I almost toppled over. I definitely needed a holiday to regain my equilibrium. I’d had three days’ hard graft. That was more than enough for this month. Or this year.
‘Ivy!’ Winter called from the car. He tapped his watch and I nodded to show I understood.
‘Give me a minute. Can you pay for the petrol? I need to talk to this guy.’ I gestured at the overdressed spectre.
Unfortunately, a man who was most definitely not dead – but who looked like he had the sort of hangover that made you wish you were dead – passed in front of me and frowned blearily. ‘What? Were you at Jill’s party? Because what happened with that bush wasn’t my fault.’
‘I wasn’t talking to you,’ I said.
He glanced over his shoulder. There was no one there apart from Mr Titanic who, of course, my new acquaintance couldn’t see.
I rolled my eyes. ‘Just piss off.’ Politeness was all very well when you didn’t have dead people and mass murderers and potential Order destruction on your plate at the same time. I could see him thinking about retorting but in the end the hangover won out and he continued on his way. It was probably just as well.
I returned my full attention to the ghost. ‘Where are they?’ I asked. ‘Where are the other coven members?’
‘Visiting their families, I believe.’ He sniffed. ‘The newly dead often find it hard to let go when they realise they’re no longer physically viable.’
‘I meant where are their remains?’
His eyebrows lifted. ‘Oh yes. Apparently I’m to tell you that they’re in a hotel room in a place called Uffington. There’s a lot of activity going on outside. Something to do with magic? Or police?’ He shrugged. ‘I don’t really know.’
My stomach sank. ‘Is that it?’
He bowed. ‘It was my pleasure, my dear. Toodle pip.’ He vanished.
I returned to the car at the same time as Winter. ‘All paid,’ he said. ‘Was that another ghost?’
I nodded grimly and told him what Mr Titanic had said. Winter’s expression grew even bleaker while his blue eyes darkened. ‘It’s confirmed then. They wouldn’t have appeared if Blackbeard was in the vicinity. His null nature would have prevented it. He’s definitely not in Uffington but he wants us to think he is.’
I turned on the engine. I thought I’d been driving too fast before; that was nothing compared to what I was about to do.
I half expected to arrive at the Order headquarters and find a scene of bloody carnage. We’d kept the radio on as we drove on the off-chance that a breaking news bulletin would tell us everything we didn’t want to know, but there was nothing. Abandoning all sense of propriety or sanity, I abandoned the taxi in the middle of the road and jumped out.
‘Stay with the car, Brutus,’ I ordered. This wasn’t the time to have him loose on a magical campus. We had enough to worry about as it was. Fortunately, he simply yawned in response and curled up to sleep in the back seat. Thank goodness for small mercies.
Focusing on the nearest group of witches, I grabbed a red-robed Neophyte and pulled her to the side before shaking her. ‘What’s going on? What’s wrong?’
‘Have you seen a man with a black beard and a bald head anywhere near here?’
Her jaw hung gormlessly as she tried to work out who I was and what I really wanted. The relief on her face when she spotted Winter was almost palpable. ‘Adeptus Exemptus!’
‘Ivy,’ Winter said, ‘let go of the innocent Neophyte. She clearly doesn’t know anything.’ I bared my teeth and she jumped but I did as he asked. ‘I’m sorry,’ Winter continued with a professional smile. Now we were back at the Order, he’d automatically slipped back into serious witch mode.
She gave him a fawning glance as if he’d just rescued her from a wildebeest. ‘I’m Lily. You won’t remember me,’ she said, ‘but we’ve met before. It was only once during orientation, and there were lots of other Neophytes in the same group, but it was a real honour for me.’
Winter smiled. ‘Lily, of course I remember. You’re the girl from Devon who likes fish and is looking forward to learning more about herblore.’
Her cheeks turned bright pink. Damn him and his almost perfect memory. I tapped my foot impatiently. Did we seriously have time for this crap?
‘Tell me, Lily,’ Winter said, leaning in towards her. ‘Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary about the Order today? It’s very important. Anything you’ve seen will be helpful.’
‘Uh…’ She blinked rapidly, obviously desperate to help her hero. ‘There are a lot of Arcane Branch witches absent.’
Winter nodded quickly. ‘Anything else?’
Her brow furrowed as she tried to think. This was a waste of time. ‘The cafeteria in the north quarter has green jelly instead of red. I don’t know why.’
I huffed and rolled my eyes. They ignored me.
‘And have you seen the man Ivy described? He’s quite distinctive. A very large build, a big bushy black beard, and an earring with a skull in it.’
She desperately wanted to say yes but in the end she felt compelled to tell the truth. ‘No.’
‘How about your friends over there?’ he asked gently, pointing towards the rest of the Neophytes who were goggling at us.
‘I’ll go ask.’ She turned tail and jogged away.
‘You can stop that,’ Winter said to me in an undertone. ‘I learnt those skills from you.’
‘Skills?’ I scoffed. ‘Getting young women to all but drop their knickers at one flash of your baby blues? That’s not one of my skills.’
‘I meant being nice to people to get them to tell us what they know.’
I crossed my arms. ‘I don’t think Lily knows anything.’
‘Wide-eyed Neophytes have wide eyes. They see more than you think.’ He gestured around. ‘There’s nothing wrong here. No one is screaming. There is no blood.’
‘Just because Blackbeard’s not acted yet doesn’t mean he won’t.’
‘I know that.’ Winter touched my arm. ‘Don’t let the stress get to you.’
My mouth twitched, ready to continue arguing, but I forced myself to relax. Winter was right: I’d been so worked up about what we were going to see when we arrived that seeing nothing had amped up the pressure inside me. I breathed out. Breathing was good.
Lily ran back over. ‘No. No one’s seen a thing.’
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘It’s really appreciated. Ivy and I are going to see the Ipsissimus now but I need you to pass the word round. If anyone sees the man I described, they are not to approach him. They must come and find us as quickly as possible. Can I trust you to do this?’
Lily pulled her shoulders back. ‘Yes.’ Her eyes shone. ‘Yes, you can. I won’t let you down.’ She half curtsied and sped away once more.
‘Okay,’ I conceded grudgingly. ‘She’s going to bend over backwards to do your bidding. That was actually quite smart.’
Winter gave me a fleeting smile. ‘I am actually quite smart.’ Then his expression sobered. ‘But perhaps not as smart as Blackbeard. Let’s get to the Ipsissimus now. He’ll be able to prevent this from happening.’
I sighed. Yeah. Whatever ‘this’ was.
‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ Winter said, as we marched towards the main building where the Ipsissimus hung out. ‘I really can’t believe they’re selling green jelly instead of red.’
I glanced at him. ‘Did you just crack a joke whilst under extreme pressure?’
‘I did.’ He paused. ‘Did it work?’
‘Nope.’ I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. ‘But I do love you for it.’
About three seconds after we entered, a security guard strode up to us. ‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter, Ipsissimus Collings told us that if you appeared we were to inform him immediately and ask you to wait to be shown up to his office.’ His tone was warm and respectful. It certainly made a change. ‘Unfortunately, he’s not here at the moment but we can try to locate him for you. Why don’t you come with me and I’ll show you to a waiting area?’
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