Somewhat belatedly, Winter appeared to realise he’d gone too far. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered.
‘Yes, well,’ the Ipsissimus coughed. ‘The thing is that the producers of Enchantment are planning a new series. Instead of twelve would-be witches in London, they’re going for some kind of wilderness expedition. They’ve already selected their participants but during pre-production on location one of them met a rather, well, unsavoury end.’
I ripped my gaze away from Winter and tried to focus. ‘One of them is dead?’
‘Alas, yes. And under highly suspicious circumstances. This was not a natural end.’
I sucked in a breath. ‘That’s terrible. I imagine you’re concerned about it because you believe magic was involved?’
The Ipsissimus grimaced. ‘There are no primary traces. Benjamin Alberts, the poor man who died, was essentially ripped apart and found strewn halfway across a moor.’
I winced. That sounded nasty. ‘No primary traces,’ I said slowly, thinking about what he’d said. ‘But there are secondary suggestions of magic?’
The Ipsissimus nodded. ‘Whoever killed him didn’t use magic but they’d recently come into contact with it. The residue was faint but definitely there.’
I tried hard not to think about who would tear a living, breathing, human person apart. ‘What do the police say?’
‘They don’t believe there’s enough evidence that magic was involved to call us in. Neither do they have any evidence to suggest the death is connected to the television show.’
I absorbed this. Without direct evidence of any spells, the Order wouldn’t automatically be involved in the investigation and couldn’t demand to be part of it. Somehow I didn’t think this sat well with the Ipsissimus.
He continued. ‘The production company behind Enchantment wields considerable power. They have connections in high places and they’ve pulled some strings to be allowed to continue with the show. They already have a replacement for Benjamin Alberts and are all set to begin filming next week.’
‘We put in a request,’ Winter said, ‘for an Order representative to be present at all times to ensure the safety of the other contestants. Even though they don’t appear to possess enough magic ability to enter the Order, the rest of the country doesn’t see it like that.’
‘If more of them die, then the Order will be blamed,’ I said slowly. ‘Because they’re supposedly witches.’
‘Indeed.’ A muscle in Winter’s jaw throbbed. ‘It will reflect very poorly on us. Not to mention that we don’t want more of them to die.’
Well, yes, I supposed there was that too. ‘Let me guess,’ I said drily. ‘The company has refused your request. They don’t want anyone from the Order messing with their most popular programme.’
‘You have grasped the situation accurately, Ms Wilde,’ said the Ipsissimus. ‘We cannot afford any more bad press right now. We’ll be blamed for not acting sooner if there are further deaths but we are not being permitted to investigate the first one, or to be present to guard against any more. The large audience that this programme apparently commands means that this is a situation that merits close attention. We need someone who is not associated with the Order to go undercover and find out exactly what’s going on.’
A slow thrill descended down my spine. ‘Me.’
Winter shifted slightly, causing Brutus to growl in his lap. ‘You will do nothing other than report back. You will be there to observe and nothing else.’
‘Just watch what’s going on?’ I grinned. ‘I can do that.’ In fact it seemed right up my alley. Besides, just because one contestant had met an untimely death didn’t mean there would be more. It might just be bad luck. Very bad luck, admittedly.
Before Winter could comment yet again on what he believed to be my lazy nature, the Ipsissimus spoke up. ‘We do appreciate it. You are the perfect candidate, Ms Wilde. You fully understand the nature of magic but you have no current affiliation with the Order. Even if your past history with us is discovered, no one will have reason to think you are working for us.’
‘Because first I was expelled and then I was forced to work for you against my will,’ I said.
The Ipsissimus inclined his head. ‘Just so.’ He met my eyes. ‘Will you help us?’
‘Sure. It doesn’t sound too hard.’ I glanced at Winter. ‘I can put in the effort.’
He looked away. The Ipsissmus clapped his hands. ‘Excellent. I knew we could count on you.’ He checked his watch. ‘I shall leave Adeptus Winter to go through all the details with you. Unfortunately, I must take my leave.’
We all stood up. Even Brutus seemed keen to act politely, although he still watched the Ipsissimus depart with narrowed eyes. Apparently deciding that he needed to make sure that the Order Head was definitely leaving, he stretched before following him out to the corridor.
Then the door closed and Winter and I were alone.
For several seconds after the Ipsissimus left, neither of us said anything. The silence lengthened, filling the atmosphere with a heavy, uncomfortable feeling.
‘How have you been?’ Winter asked eventually.
‘Good.’ I hesitated. ‘You?’
There was more awkward silence. I scratched my neck and sighed. This could be going better. ‘How’s Princess Parma Periwinkle?’ I asked, referring to Winter’s daftly named familiar.
‘Fine. Although she will be staying behind in Oxford for the duration of this investigation. She doesn’t travel well.’
‘Mmm.’ I racked my brains for something else to say. ‘Have you changed jobs?’ I enquired finally. Winter’s brow furrowed. ‘You used to deal with stolen property. Murder seems an entirely different proposition.’
He raised his shoulders in a vague shrug. ‘I was reassigned. Obviously I’m still in Arcane Branch but, given that our assignment together involved the death of an Adeptus Exemptus and we managed to solve the case…’
‘…then,’ I finished for him, ‘your superiors have seen your abilities and granted you an even more prestigious position.’ He nodded while I arched an eyebrow. ‘Are you being groomed for Department Head?’ To be in charge of Arcane Branch was to enjoy heady heights indeed.
Winter tapped his foot. ‘There are many talented witches in Arcane Branch. And it doesn’t look like Magus Phelps is retiring any time soon. I’m still only Second Level, Ivy.’
‘Plenty of Department Heads are Second Level.’
‘Not Arcane Branch.’
I pursed my lips. ‘So you’re looking to move up to Third Level?’ It was the highest any witch could go. I had no doubt that Winter would achieve it sooner or later, regardless of his relatively young age.
‘Are you suggesting that I shouldn’t?’ His tone was cool. ‘Ambition isn’t a disease, you know.’
I held up my hands. ‘Heavens forbid I would think such a thing. I think you’d be a good Department Head, Rafe.’ I used his first name deliberately just to see how he’d react. There was nothing more than a faint flicker in his eyes. ‘And I’m sure your skills are more than up to the task.’ He watched me as if he thought I were somehow taking the piss.
Unsure how we’d reached this point, I half grimaced. ‘Are you sure you don’t want anything to drink?’
‘Do you have tequila?’ There was an odd note in his voice. I hardly needed reminding that tequila was what we’d both been drinking before we ended up in bed together.
I sucked in a breath. ‘I don’t have any. But I can go out and get some if you…’
He forestalled me. ‘It was a joke, Ivy. I’m fine.’
I laughed unconvincingly.
Winter sat back down on the same chair, took out a manila folder and opened it up. ‘Despite the production company’s recalcitrance,’ he said formally, ‘we have managed to procure you a position via one of the recruitment agencies they use. You will be working for them for the duration of filming.’