I pressed down on the accelerator to speed past the group of women with designer-label shopping bags, whose arms were elegantly raised in the air in an attempt to flag me down, and ignored the repeated pings on my phone that were supposed to alert me to would-be customers. I’d made enough today to pay my bills so I was on my way home to put my feet up. The joys of being self-employed. I can clock off when I want and, darn it, that’s exactly what I was going to do.
I turned up the music and grinned happily to myself. If I took the right roads I could be home in fifteen minutes. Then I slammed on the brakes, almost giving myself whiplash in the process.
A red-robed witch was standing at the corner up ahead. Hello… I pulled up alongside her and rolled down the window. ‘Where to?’
‘I thought you weren’t going to stop,’ she said with surprise. ‘I’m heading to the Order headquarters.’ She looked at me nervously as if she were expecting me to decline politely. She obviously didn’t recognise me, but I wasn’t anti-witch. Far from it: I used to avoid the Order like the plague but things are different these days.
‘Excellent!’ I beamed. ‘Hop in.’
She clambered awkwardly into the back, the flaps of her robe almost getting caught in the door. She tugged at them, finally managed to pull them inside with her and we took off.
‘It’s a bit late, isn’t it?’ I enquired.
She gazed at me blankly in the rear-view window. ‘Huh?’
‘For work,’ I said helpfully. ‘It’s a bit late for work.’
She scratched at her arm. ‘I’m on call.’ There was a pause. ‘It’s a confidential matter.’
I almost snorted. I didn’t give two hoots why she was on her way to work at this hour. Nonsensically, the Order still keeps its machinations to itself as much as it possibly can; if they want to hide away from the real world, that’s up to them. I was just trying to make conversation. Frankly, I prefer the more taciturn customer. Sometimes, making the effort to discuss the weather or politics or whatever is just a pain in the arse.
I took the back roads, avoiding the rush-hour traffic, and dropped her off right in front of Runic Magic. Another witch was waiting outside and ambled over to get in my taxi. I pretended not to see him and took off down the campus road before he could open the door, keeping my eyes peeled as I went.
I knew I was being silly; perhaps I was even verging towards the obsessive. I wasn’t stalking Winter though, I reasoned. I just happened to have had a customer who wanted to go this way. It was just coincidence.
Perhaps if I told myself that often enough it would become true.
I stopped again, this time outside the squat grey building of Arcane Branch. Due to the late hour, there weren’t many lights on inside and I wasn’t going to wait for long. But if Adeptus Exemptus Raphael Winter, with his lapis-lazuli eyes which could stop a herd of stampeding women in their tracks, happened to be finishing work around this hour…
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. He had his own car. He didn’t need a taxi. But if he came out, it would be impolite not to say hello to him. After all, we had worked together very closely last month. Very closely.
Now that the binding that magically tied us together had been removed, I was no longer required to stay near him. I no longer had to work with him. But the man had an irritating way of sneaking unbidden into my thoughts, which had nothing to do with magic and everything to do with the hot, zippy kick of sheer lust. And maybe something more, which I was trying not to think about too much.
I’d not seen or heard from Winter since he’d abandoned my bed at great speed after our rather inebriated visit to the karaoke bar. I shouldn’t have cared about that. But I did.
Another light flicked off inside the building and I held my breath. A minute or two later, an older witch with a heavy gait shuffled out of the main doors, followed by three younger ones. All of them looked tired. The Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment certainly demands its pound of flesh.
I couldn’t help wondering what they were working on. It wasn’t really my business, not any longer. I didn’t want to end my working days feeling like those witches obviously did. I just wasn’t that kind of person. All the same, there was no denying my flicker of curiosity.
Five minutes went by. Then ten. I sighed. This was ridiculous; either Winter was inside and still working – and would be for some time yet – or he had already left. Waiting out here was pointless. In any case, if he didn’t want to see me then I could hardly force the matter.
I shook my head at my own idiocy just as another witch emerged from the building. This one I recognised. I jumped out of the car and waved. ‘Eve!’
My long-limbed neighbour blinked in surprise but she smiled and wandered over. ‘Good to see you, Ivy. What brings you to this part of town?’
I twiddled with a loose blonde curl. ‘Oh,’ I said in an overly casual tone, ‘I had a customer headed this way. I thought I’d come by in case you were around and needed a lift home.’
Eve’s smooth brow furrowed. ‘I have a car. I thought you knew that.’
I did. Of course I did. ‘Er…’
‘But if you’re looking for some company, I can come with you.’ She peered at me anxiously, as if worried. ‘It’ll save on petrol and then I can take the bus in tomorrow morning.’
I winced internally. Eve was such a nice person that she’d actually do that but it was hardly fair. Waving my hand dismissively, I smiled. ‘Oh no, there’s no need for that. It’s only because I’m in the area that I dropped by.’
Given how little I’d seen of her lately, I reckoned she was keeping very long hours. I didn’t think that the buses were even running when she left for work these days and I certainly wasn’t filled with urgent desire to get up at that time to drive her back here. I couldn’t understand how anyone who wasn’t short of a million brain cells would want to get up so early. Each to their own, though.
For her part, Eve seemed relieved. ‘I have to make a quick house call on my way home anyway,’ she confided. ‘It’s for this new assignment I’m on.’
I pasted on a disinterested look. ‘Oh yes?’
‘There’s a group of non-Order witches who’ve been causing a few waves. My mentor wants me to have a chat to one of them and try to get them to cool things.’
Eve’s mentor was originally supposed to be Winter but instead she’d been assigned to someone else. I nibbled on my bottom lip. ‘How are things going with your mentor?’
‘She’s great.’ Eve smiled. ‘I’m learning so much, Ivy, and it’s so much fun.’
Fun? We clearly had different definitions for that word. Vegging out on the sofa is fun; fourteen-hour days with a bunch of Order geeks are not. ‘And are there other new witches with you?’ I asked. ‘New to Arcane Branch?’
Eve pressed her lips together as if to avoid giggling. Darn it. She knew exactly why I was here. ‘Adeptus Exemptus Winter still hasn’t taken on a new partner.’
‘I wasn’t … I mean, I didn’t…’ Arse. I sighed and yielded to the truth. ‘How’s he doing?’
‘I could give you his phone number and you could ask him yourself,’ she suggested with the serene maturity of someone who didn’t have an almost soul-destroying crush to deal with. ‘Or I could tell him you were here and…’
‘No!’ The last thing I wanted was for Winter to think I’d been hanging around in the vain hope of seeing him – whether it was true or not. And if I called him and he didn’t want to speak to me I’d feel even worse. He had told me we should forget our night together had ever happened. Anyway, we didn’t have anything in common. I had to stop mooning after him and get on with my life. I wasn’t a lovesick teenager, even if I felt that way.
‘I better get going,’ I said hastily. ‘Brutus will be wondering where I am.’
Eve grinned. ‘Sure, Ivy. If you change your mind, let me know.’
I nodded distractedly. ‘I’ll see you around.’