Blackbeard raised his hand to shield his eyes; he didn’t know the liquid was barely lukewarm. When he realised he’d been fooled, he snarled and abandoned his bid to kill Eve in favour of facing this new threat. Me.
He swiped the blade forward. Surprise, surprise, I wasn’t fast enough to dodge it and it sliced through my arm. I cried out involuntarily. Blackbeard’s eyes widened as he recognised me. A small, dull voice nibbled at the back of my mind: use this, Ivy. You can use this.
I threw myself to the ground, collapsing onto my knees in front of him. ‘I’m not a witch!’ I wailed. ‘Don’t kill me! I can’t use magic at all!’
Blackbeard paused, the knife held aloft. He frowned at me as if trying to decide what to do. Then he lowered his arms and glanced around. Eve was out cold and the crèche witches had vanished. To all intents and purposes, it was just him and me.
‘You might not be a witch,’ he spat, ‘but you sleep with witches. You are here with witches. As a collaborator, you are as bad as they are. Worse even.’
‘It’s not my fault,’ I babbled. ‘I’m not smart. I don’t have any special skills. I’m just a taxi driver. I thought hanging around witches would make my life better. Instead it’s much, much worse. Now I’m stuck with them and I don’t know how to escape.’ I grabbed hold of his trouser legs. ‘You can help me.’
He kicked me away. ‘You’re lying.’
‘I’m not!’ I held up my hands. ‘My ID is in my pocket.’ I pulled it out and tossed it over to him. ‘See?’ I said. ‘I’m a taxi driver. I’m like you. I’m not a witch, I don’t want to be a witch. I think they bewitched me because they wanted a chauffeur. I’m no other use to them. But…’ my voice dropped ‘…I think they want to use me in some of their spells. Black magic stuff. They want my blood. They want to do evil things.’
When it came to killing and planning for killing, Blackbeard was a clever man but even clever men have blind spots. Prejudice can blind even the smartest fool and Blackbeard’s prejudice was against witches. All I needed was to cast some doubt; all I needed was to gain some time.
He shook his large head. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘But I can’t trust that you’re telling the truth.’
‘You know I’m not a witch,’ I pleaded. ‘You know from my ID that I’m just a taxi driver. I don’t know what else I can do to prove that I’m not like them.’
‘Tough. I’ve already let you escape once. I was kind then but I can’t afford to be kind now. You had your chance.’
I sagged. ‘Fine,’ I whispered. ‘In truth, anything will be better than remaining here with these bastards. But … are we the same? Do we hate them in the same way? Is that why you’re killing them?’ I kept my head low and subdued my body language. I was already defeated; I was already prepared to die.
‘All witches are evil. All witches are unnatural.’ Blackbeard said the words as if by rote. He’d been taught to believe this. More fool him.
‘Why did you kill the coven?’ I asked. ‘Why not come straight here first? Raphael, the witch I was with on Dartmoor? He learned about you because you destroyed that coven. Without their deaths, no one would have known you existed. Why them?’
He gave me a blank look. ‘They were there and I needed the practice. I had to know if I was capable of murder. Not everyone is.’ He rubbed his ear where Eve had bitten it, then pulled his hands away and gazed at the blood as if seeing it for the first time. ‘It’s a lot easier than I thought it would be. I knew that having ended them, I could end anyone.’ He raised his massive shoulders in a shrug, as if surprised by himself and his ability to kill, in the same way that I would be surprised if I discovered some money wedged underneath a sofa cushion. ‘How did the witch find out about them anyway?’
Ah ha. Maybe I’d piqued his curiosity. A glimmer of hope rippled through me. I had to manage this properly; I had to give a good enough answer to keep him talking. The closer I stayed to the truth, the more believable I’d be. ‘I told you. Some kind of black magic. I think…’ I hesitated. ‘I think he’s been talking to corpses and they talk back.’
‘Unnatural,’ Blackbeard muttered.
Tell me about it. ‘Why didn’t you just burn all their bodies at once? Why not get rid of them in one go?’
He checked his watch. ‘How many questions are you planning on asking?’ His voice wasn’t irritated, just curious as if he wanted to be sure he could adjust his schedule if necessary. At that point I realised that he wanted to talk; he was desperate to share his exploits with someone who would listen. He’d spent so long hiding his actions that all he wanted to do now was to spill his secrets to the world. And the more I could delay him, the better chance I had.
‘Only a few more,’ I said. ‘I just want to understand.’
He nodded. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s kind of hard to burn seven bodies in one go. They don’t burn quickly and I had limited time each night to do it. I had to keep them in my flat until I could transport them to the crematorium without anyone noticing. And the longer I had to wait, the more I realised I enjoyed it.’ He bared his teeth. ‘Anticipation is a wonderful thing. It’s usually a greater pleasure than the end result. So I drew out disposing of the ashes in the same way.’ He smiled. Chillingly, it was a genuine smile, filled with joy. ‘It was a lot of fun. And each time I got rid of the ash, the feeling built up here.’ He thumped his chest. ‘The need. The desire.’
‘The desire to kill?’
His eyes glowed. He thought I understood, that I ‘got’ him. I’d get him alright, just not in the way he thought. ‘That’s it exactly.’
‘You planned everything so well,’ I said. ‘The secret room in your flat was a stroke of genius.’
‘I had to be in control, to make sure that when those bastards came after me they did it on my terms. Not on theirs.’ His face twisted. ‘This was Plan B, though. Plan A was even better but I had to change it because of you. You knew I’d killed that coven so I had to alter everything.’
I tried to keep my expression blank. All those media embargoes and all that tiptoeing around – and I’d already given the game away when I met Blackbeard in the pub car park. Eve was unconscious. Perhaps I’d manage to keep that little titbit to myself.
‘Uh, sorry,’ I stammered.
He shrugged. ‘It’s good to be tested. And I always had my Plan B ready. That’s why I had that fake glass wall made. I wasn’t sure anyone would be smart enough to spot it was a fake but I hoped they would. Then they’d follow my fake trail and I’d be safe to do what I wanted.’ He gestured round. ‘As you see.’
‘Fake glass?’ I asked. ‘Not mirror?’
‘Real mirrored glass is costly and difficult to break.’ He stroked his beard. ‘The stuff I had was the same as they use in films for actors so they don’t get hurt when they jump through windows.’ He sounded very proud.
If it wasn’t a real mirror that I’d broken in Blackbeard’s flat, I didn’t have seven years’ bad luck coming my way. This day was looking better and better. ‘Thanks,’ I said, meaning it. ‘I appreciate knowing that.’
A mass murderer with manners. I swallowed. ‘There is one thing I should mention,’ I said. ‘One thing that leaves you a little bit screwed.’
He raised his black, bushy eyebrows. ‘What’s that?’
‘I lied. I’m a witch.’ I smiled. ‘I’m a witchy witch with witch blood running through my veins and magic in my soul.’
Apparently I was a better liar than I thought. ‘No, you’re not,’ Blackbeard said. ‘If you were a witch, you’d have tried to bespell me the first time we met.’
It was my turn to shrug. ‘I had my reasons for avoiding magic back then. And I have to avoid it now, of course, because it won’t affect you. This will though.’ And I reached up with both hands and yanked on his beard as hard as I could.