At that moment, I wasn’t sure what pleased me more. Did I want a torrid love affair or did I want to catch an evil murderer? Both, of course, but given the choice between the two it was a tough call.
We were transported upstream, past the spot where Lou and I had ‘borrowed’ the boat, and on until the river became too narrow to navigate. There was no further sign of Gareth so I assumed that, despite his assertions regarding rights of way, he’d decided the safest way to retrieve yet another lost sheep was to avoid the camera crews and anyone related to Enchantment. Frankly, those animals seemed considerably more trouble than they were worth.
For my own part, I took advantage of the journey to work on my people skills. I sat at the front, next to Harriet. If I could bring her round to my side, my life would get a whole lot easier. I’d probably find it easy to inveigle my way back into Mike’s good books simply by flashing some more cleavage at him, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I still have some standards, even if they were slipping considerably with all this work I kept having to do.
‘Listen,’ I said. Harriet turned her head away, as if resolving not to look in my direction. ‘I didn’t mean to get you into trouble when I altered your clothes. I was just trying to help you out.’ I pointed down at my ridiculous garb. ‘I paid the price. That woman definitely got her own back on me.’
Harriet sniffed. I supposed it was better than complete silence.
‘And about the putting you to sleep thing yesterday? I probably shouldn’t have done it but it worked out well in the end, right? We weren’t the last team to arrive because we didn’t receive any extra disadvantages. I know if we’d gone for the shelter that Mike wanted, it would have taken us hours.’
‘He is a bit of a knucklehead,’ she admitted. Hurray! I was getting somewhere. ‘But not as moronic as you for doing so much magic that you began seeing things.’
Arse. ‘That’s never happened to me before,’ I said, ‘but you’re right. Hopefully this challenge won’t involve much energy. I wonder what Trevor Bellows has devised for us.’
Her lip curled. ‘Assuming he has the time in between everything else.’ The disdain in her voice, not to mention her expression, immediately piqued my curiosity.
‘What do you mean?’
Harriet raised a sarcastic eyebrow as if it were patently obvious what she was talking about, but I was still drawing a blank. ‘Oh. I keep forgetting you weren’t here at the start,’ she dismissed, before turning away once more.
I ground my teeth. Bellows might not be my immediate focus but that didn’t mean I was going to forget about him. It was still possible that the bloody pentagram in his trailer was a warning designed solely for him. Winter hadn’t yet discovered any hidden meanings or the purpose behind the pentagram, but it remained pertinent.
‘Yeah,’ I said, doing my best to chivvy her along and encourage her to open up more. ‘I feel like I really missed out. I love a bit of gossip, though. What’s Bellows been up to?’
Harriet kept her eyes averted. ‘I’m no tattle-tale.’
Oh, for goodness’ sake. She’d already brought up this little titbit so pretending to be close-lipped now was pointless. But it was clear that she would refuse to say anything else about the matter. I’d just have to find someone else to fill me in.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to move to the back of the boat and question Lou. It was already pulling into the side and I could see crowds of people gathered in a grassy field to the right. We were ushered off before being directed towards our positions. I tried to edge back slightly to engage Lou in conversation but I received an angry hiss from Barry. I’d have ignored him but for the fact that one of the medics ambled over to check I wasn’t still going loopy from too much magic. This whole investigation would be a damn sight easier if people didn’t keep getting in my way.
Various bits of equipment were being checked over. As far as I could tell, the producers had set up some kind of open-air torture for us involving ropes, climbing frames and mud. I wondered whether the government knew that a reality television show was flouting the Geneva Convention.
I submitted to the medic’s ministrations while eyeing the obstacle course with trepidation. Maybe I could plead illness. ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘I’m still feeling a bit weak. I think I should sit this one out.’
He frowned at me. ‘You seem fine.’
‘This isn’t the sort of medical problem you usually deal with. This one is magic related so, although I might look alright on the surface, there could any manner of problems going on inside me.’ I leaned in a bit closer. ‘Spells are dangerous.’
‘Mm-hmm.’ He turned his head and motioned to someone in the crowd. When I realised it was Trevor Bellows, I couldn’t resist another peek at Harriet but she was deep in conversation with Lou and Mike. Something about faking an argument so the other contestants wouldn’t think any worrisome alliances were being formed. I rolled my eyes.
Bellows, with his pretentious purple robe flapping around his ankles, strode over. ‘What seems to be the problem?’ He pulled up his sleeves, which was a pointless effort because they were so baggy they immediately fell back down round his wrists again. ‘If it is within my powers to help then I shall.’
The medic pointed at me. Barry, apparently sensing that something was up, also came over. This was a lot of attention considering all I was trying to do was weasel my way out of the challenge. ‘This one says she’s still feeling ill and wants to sit out the challenge.’
Bellows’ mouth twitched. I instantly got the impression that he’d be absolutely thrilled if I didn’t participate. ‘The wellbeing of our contestants is paramount!’
Tell that to Benjamin Alberts. I gave Bellows a weak smile. ‘I don’t want to be any trouble but I don’t want to collapse mid-challenge either.’
From the corner of my eye I spotted Winter look up from a conversation with Mazza. There was a frown on his face as if he knew exactly what I was up to. I glanced away hurriedly.
‘Well,’ Bellows said, ‘if you’re not up to it, it’s essential that you don’t take part. We can get you on a train and back to civilisation in no time.’
Arse. ‘I’ll probably be okay by tomorrow…’
He shook his head. ‘Oh no. We want to make sure you don’t do yourself serious injury, so we’ll have to withdraw you from the show. Of course,’ he added with a smile, ‘we don’t permit anyone to hang around the set if they have no reason to be there.’
Without realising it, I’d played right into his hands. The smarmy bugger was smarter than I’d given him credit for. ‘I’ll soldier on,’ I said.
Barry looked anxious. ‘I think that would be best.’
‘Anything for my lovely producer.’
‘We can’t have you getting sick,’ Bellows interjected.
‘I’m fine, Trevor,’ I told him. ‘I’ll be brave for the sake of Enchantment.’
Something like annoyance flashed in his eyes. ‘You’re such a trooper.’ He turned on his heel and stalked off.
‘He really doesn’t like me very much,’ I murmured.
Barry chuckled. ‘Is it any surprise? You can do the sort of magic he can only dream of. And you’re not in the Order so he can’t dismiss you. You’re competition for our Trev and he knows it. He’s on the outs as it is, and if everyone else thought about it they’d realise you could replace him.’
‘I’m a contestant,’ I protested.
‘If you win the show, or even if you do well, there’ll be a contract in your hands the next morning. Trevor Bellows is old school. Viewers enjoy seeing some fresh blood.’
I considered this, finally feeling some sympathy for Bellows. It couldn’t be easy thinking that there were incomers on all sides trying to steal your job from under you. Although surely he must have made enough money by now to sit back on his laurels and enjoy all that a quiet life had to offer.
I watched as he walked from group to group, his wide sleeves flapping every time he waved at someone and tried to get their attention. Poor guy. Then Brutus pitched up out of nowhere and rubbed himself against Bellows’ legs. Nah. Bellows deserved everything he got.