The macho guy ambled over, leering in my direction. ‘So you’re the newbie.’ He stuck out his hand. ‘I’m Mike.’
I put on my prettiest smile. ‘Hi, Mike!’ I trilled. For all his muscles, his handshake was surprisingly weak.
‘I like your dress,’ he told me. ‘You stick with me. I’ll keep you safe.’ He leaned down and lowered his voice. ‘I’m an expert at all this magic stuff. Last year I found a spell to hotwire cars. Now I can travel at full speed without the need for any petrol. I’m saving the planet and my money at the same time.’
Mike was obviously an idiot. ‘Except that’s impossible. You can’t mix magic and technology like that.’
He flexed his muscles and grinned at me like I was stupid. ‘That’s what the Order wants you to think.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘It’s the truth.’
‘She’s an Order witch,’ Harriet interrupted. ‘There’s no point saying anything about magic to her.’
Mike stiffened, while the other contestants stared at me. ‘You? You’re in the Order?’
‘No. But I could be if I wanted.’
‘So could I.’
No, he couldn’t. I didn’t need to present him with the entrance exams to know that any magic he possessed wasn’t worth the Order’s time. Even the lowest and weakest Neophyte would leave this plonker in the dust. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Whatever you say.’
Mike glowered at me. ‘I do say.’
I noticed that the others were shuffling away from me, as if I’d taint them by simply standing too close.
A weedy guy in a suit spoke up. ‘Do you remember Faith in series four?’ Various people nodded. ‘Well,’ he said knowledgeably, ‘she was in the Order. She was voted out in the second episode.’
I gritted my teeth. She had tried to enter the Order but failed at the first hurdle. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Bellows smirking and tried to relax. I wasn’t here to win the show, I reminded myself. If I wanted to find out anything useful, I had to be more congenial. It would do the investigation no good if everyone refused to speak to me. My movements were going to be curtailed enough now that I was a contestant and not a runner. I had to show Winter that he needed me; I just wished it didn’t have to be such hard work.
‘The Order didn’t want me,’ I said in a slightly raised voice. ‘They kicked me out. Sure, I’ve got a bit of magic in me but I bet it’s nothing compared to you lot.’ I pasted on a wistful expression. ‘I’m just here as a last-minute replacement to make up the numbers. I know I’ll be voted out quickly. That’s okay.’
An older woman, dressed in a painfully tailored power suit, smiled at me. ‘Don’t say that. If you were in the Order even for a short while you must be able to do some spells. Don’t worry about this lot. We’re all just nervous.’ Mike let out a snort. She ignored him. ‘I’m Lou.’
An ally – unless she was only pretending to be on my side so she could shaft me later. Good grief. No wonder I preferred watching Enchantment from the safety of my sofa. Being here could drive a person nuts. ‘I’m Ivy,’ I told her.
She patted my cheek in a motherly fashion. ‘You’ll be fine, Ivy.’
Trevor Bellows looked away in disgust. He adjusted his hat and cleared his throat. ‘You’ll have plenty of opportunity to judge each other’s abilities soon,’ he said, his jowls juddering as he spoke. He still looked rather pale. I fixed my attention on him, examining his tired eyes. Perhaps he really was being targeted by our nasty necromancer. He certainly didn’t look like he’d had much sleep last night. ‘Remember,’ he continued, ‘you are only to use magic when we tell you. We can’t have you lot shooting off spells and destroying half of the Scottish Highlands in your wake, now can we? I’ll be on hand to help you if you need me to. You’ll all be perfectly safe. We’ve even managed to get extra security, just to be sure.’
No wonder the set looked busier than yesterday. I guessed Enchantment weren’t taking any chances.
Another producer wandered up with a clipboard. She had an earpiece and was obviously listening to something. After a moment or two she nodded before clapping her hands together. ‘It’s time, people!’ She spoke with an odd accent that made her voice rise at the end of each sentence, a strange mixture of peppy American cheerleader and overly excited Australian soap opera star. It should be illegal to expend that much energy while speaking. ‘Follow me! We’re off to the stage!’
Lou sighed. ‘Let’s hope nobody dies this time around.’
Amen to that.
Things felt very different now that I knew I was going to be in front of the cameras rather than behind them. As we clustered together, ready to make our debut, I spotted Brutus slinking up and let out a sigh of relief. He might be a contrary cat who seemed to care about little more than food but he’d obviously picked up on the fact that I was feeling a bit nervous and come to provide me with some much-needed moral support. Then he ignored me and made a beeline for Trevor Bellows, snaking round his legs.
Bellows leaned down and absentmindedly scratched Brutus behind the ears. In response, my cat let out a tiny meow. ‘You’re a clever little thing, aren’t you?’ Bellows murmured. ‘I wonder what you’d say if you could really talk.’
He really didn’t want to know. I threw my errant familiar a narrow-eyed glare and turned away, noticing Winter at the far side, scrutinizing all the last-minute preparations. Barry was deep in conversation with another of the producers so I took advantage of the moment to edge over.
Winter glanced at me and frowned. ‘You need to stop talking to me so publicly, Ivy. It’s common knowledge that we were once partners but we still need everyone to believe that I came here to keep an eye on you.’
‘That was rather clever of me to come up with that, wasn’t it?’
He sighed. ‘Ivy…’
I reached up on my tiptoes and slapped him in the face.
‘What the hell?’ He spun towards me.
‘Is that enough?’ I enquired.
‘Now everyone is looking at us!’
‘They were looking at us before. They’re just not hiding the fact any more.’ My eyes danced but I kept a stern frown on my face just for show. Then I raised my voice. ‘The Order should have sent someone else. You shouldn’t be here, Adeptus Exemptus. It’s a conflict of interest.’
‘Don’t be too enthusiastic with your protests,’ he growled, ‘or Enchantment will demand someone else takes my place.’
‘And the Ipsissimus will ignore them. They can’t dictate who is here.’ For good measure, I raised my hand to slap him again. This time he was prepared and caught my hand before it connected with his cheek. ‘Stop that!’
I leant forward, hoping it looked like I was demanding he release me at once. ‘The vial I told you about that’s around Belinda Battenapple’s neck,’ I said, keeping my voice low. ‘There’s definitely something fishy about it. I quizzed Moonbeam and he couldn’t wait to change the subject. It’s definitely worth investigating.’
Winter let go of my hand. ‘Investigate it then.’
I crossed my arms. ‘You’re the Order rep around here. I’m just the hired help.’
‘They won’t let me get close to her,’ he muttered. ‘I think they’re afraid my presence might sully her reputation. If an Order investigator is seen talking to her, word will get out and—’
‘And it’ll be all over the press.’ I wrinkled my nose. ‘That’s annoying. I guess that yet again I’ll just have to do your job for you.’
‘I’ve told you before not to be overly reckless, Ivy.’
Pah. ‘I’m not reckless,’ I informed him. ‘I just don’t see why you always have to take the long way round when there are shortcuts.’
‘If you get hurt…’ His voice trailed off.
I met his eyes. ‘What? Would you be upset?’