I froze. Did I really just see that? I spun round towards the cameras but they were all pointed at me. Engaging the cameramen in conversation would be useless. First of all, they were under orders not to communicate; second, I reckoned I’d used up any goodwill I had with them. Another mutter about a hallucination and I’d be out on my ear.
Swallowing hard and trying to stay calm, I glanced back warily. There was no sign of any potential zombie. I edged to my right and peered round, catching a flash of dark clothing. Then there was a loud heaving grunt, not dissimilar to what I imagined a death rattle would sound like.
I raised my hands, ready to perform whatever defensive or offensive runes were required, when there was a ragged whoop from behind me. The zombie, if that’s what it was, rustled in alarm. I heard a single pant, like a breath, then the thing crashed away through the undergrowth. The three contestants who’d been stuck in the mud pit were oblivious. As they passed me, they continued to whoop, holding hands and beaming with muddy delight.
Rachelle, who was closest to me, turned in my direction. ‘This is what happens when you work together and when you’re nice to others,’ she sniped.
My jaw worked uselessly. Whatever I’d seen had already gone. The river was in that direction so maybe the bloody thing would drown. I could only hope.
‘Be as nice as you want,’ I shot back to them as they skipped away in front of me. ‘But just remember that only one person can win!’
They ignored me. I twisted away and stared back through the undergrowth. If this really was another undead necromantic being, I needed Winter and I needed him now.
In the end I came last, a very bedraggled last at that. The rest of the contestants clapped politely as my name, quite literally, went up in smoke. Then Belinda stepped forward and pointed at Harriet as the winner.
Despite my fear about what I may or may not have seen, I was surprised. She must have come ahead in the puzzle section. I raised my hands to clap then caught Barry frowning at me. I dropped my arms and pouted instead. Being mean was rather hard work.
The only saving grace was that we were given an hour’s break before voting. I knew that I’d be free from the cameras because, on screen, the transition between the challenge and the voting happened instantaneously. All the producers made a beeline for their contestants. No doubt this ‘break’ was to make sure that everyone voted the way they were supposed to.
‘Ivy!’ Barry stretched his arms out expansively. ‘Bad luck.’
I shrugged. ‘Whatever. I have to go.’
‘You want to talk strategy for the voting, right?’
‘Of course. What else is there?’
Bloodthirsty zombies lurking in the trees less than half a mile from here. ‘You’d be surprised,’ I murmured. ‘But either I’ll be voted out or I won’t be. Nothing else I do will make a difference now.’
‘I have to go.’ I paused for a beat. ‘I’ve got my period.’
As expected, Barry blanched and backed off. I stalked away from him, my posture ramrod straight to ensure he didn’t come after me. Now all I had to do was hope that Winter had returned from his snooping.
Ignoring the crew members busying themselves rigging up the voting area, I swept along as if I knew exactly what I was doing. I couldn’t see Winter anywhere. Moonbeam, however, was coming straight towards me so I veered away and moved into the trees. I didn’t dare go far; after all, there might be a damn zombie lurking there. All the same, the last thing I needed now was to be drawn into yet another chat with Belinda’s plotting son.
Keeping to the fringes of the small wood, I looked desperately for Winter’s familiar form. I was so busy searching for him that I almost tripped up again. This time it wasn’t on a pesky tree root, however; it was Brutus.
‘What gives?’ I growled. ‘You abandon me as soon as I get here and now you’re trying to kill me?’
My cat yawned and began to wash himself. I scowled. I didn’t have time for this.
‘Magic man,’ Brutus said as I started to turn away.
I looked back. ‘You mean Bellows? Your new owner?’
I received a scathing look in response. Clearly, Brutus didn’t believe anyone owned him. In that, of course, he was absolutely correct. ‘Fish.’
I raised my hands helplessly. ‘Am I supposed to understand what that means?’
Brutus licked his lips. Given that he wasn’t using his usual refrain to demand food, I suddenly understood. ‘Oh. He gives you fish.’
‘Good fish.’ His whiskers quivered. ‘Give fish.’
I gazed at him in exasperation. ‘Do I look like I’m carrying a string of mackerel with me? Some familiar you are. You’re supposed to aid me in my magic quests, not piss off at the first chance of a deluxe meal.’
If Brutus could have shrugged, he probably would have. ‘Magic man no magic.’
Yeah, I probably wasn’t surprised at that. All the same, I wanted to double-check. ‘You’re sure?’ At least if Bellows possessed no real magical abilities, he could be struck off the list of necromancer suspects. That meant there were only about a hundred thousand people left to investigate if I included everyone in the town, all the outlying villages and the cast and crew involved in Enchantment. The way things were going right now, I had to take every success.
Brutus sniffed, as if he wouldn’t deign to answer. It was fine for him to repeat the same things over and over unnecessarily but when I asked him to do it for me, he took the hump. Contrary cat.
I froze. ‘Trevor Bellows is a bad man?’
Brutus yawned again. Then he turned his head to the right. There was a rustle in the trees. The zombie. It had to have come back. I swallowed hard and flicked a warning glance at my cat. ‘Get back,’ I warned. ‘This could be bad.’
There was another rustle and Winter appeared. I exhaled loudly in relief. He stared at me. ‘What’s wrong? You look as white as a sheet.’
I opened my mouth to answer but Brutus got in there first. ‘Bad man,’ he said.
For a fleeting moment, Winter looked hurt. ‘Me?’
Brutus sighed and stood up, walking away with his tail waving violently in the air as if he couldn’t bear to be near either of us.
‘I think he meant Bellows,’ I said.
Winter’s mouth flattened into a grim line. ‘Then he’s right. Trevor Bellows is a very bad man indeed.’ He gave me a look filled with meaning that I couldn’t interpret then reached into his jacket and withdrew a small manila envelope. ‘Here,’ he said.
The expression on his face and the tone of his voice made me take the proffered envelope with considerable trepidation. Winter put his hands into his pockets and looked away whilst I slid out the contents and examined them. It was a series of glossy photographs, obviously taken in sequence.
I flipped through them, with the odd sensation that the last lingering vestiges of my childhood were being shattered in one swoop. I didn’t make it through all of them. Seeing the first few, of Belinda Battenapple in compromising positions involving nudity and a range of objects, including ropes, blindfolds and a lurid pink ball gag, I’d seen enough.
I breathed out. ‘Well.’
The tips of Winter’s ears were red. He was obviously embarrassed. He coughed awkwardly. ‘I didn’t take it but there was also an envelope stuffed full of cash and a note.’
‘What did it say?’
He sighed. ‘You’ve got what you wanted.’
I absorbed this. ‘So you think that Trevor Bellows has been blackmailing Belinda?’
‘That’s certainly what it looks like.’
‘Do you think he took the photos? Or did he come by them through other means?’
‘I don’t know. But we do need to speak to Bellows at his earliest convenience.’
I shook my head, as much in dismay as in a bid to get the images of Belinda out of my mind. ‘It’s horrid,’ I said, ‘and he’s clearly a bastard. But that doesn’t mean he had anything to do with dead bodies rising up from the ground. You should pass this on to the police and let them deal with it. It’s out of our remit.’