Star Witch – Helen Harper

Sofa time! 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 selfemployed. 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.’ I waited as Eve headed off towards the car park then turned back to my taxi. I was going home to order a curry, crack open a bottle of wine and not think about Raphael Winter. Not once. I turned on the engine, forgetting that my For Hire light was still on. Before I’d even put the taxi into gear, someone had opened the door and got into the back. ‘I’m off the clock,’ I grunted.

‘It’s good to see you too, Ivy,’ Tarquin’s smooth voice murmured. I gritted my teeth. This was why I should have stuck to my instincts and stayed as far away from the Order as possible. If I’d had anything to do with it, my floppy-haired foe would have been hung, drawn and quartered for his machinations to get rid of Eve. She’d let his meddling pass, however, believing he deserved a second chance. ‘Get out, Tarquin.’ ‘Your light is on.’ I switched it off. ‘No, it’s not.’ I turned my head and gave him a hard look.

Unlike the other witches I’d seen tonight, he appeared as rested and unruffled as it was possible to be. ‘Piss off.’ In response, Tarquin clicked his seatbelt into place. I rolled my eyes. Why me? I flicked my fingers into a simple rune and the seatbelt immediately undid itself. Tarquin tutted. ‘Now, now. The law is very clear, Ivy. I’m a paying customer and you have to take me to where I want to go. Otherwise,’ he shook his head in dismay, ‘I’ll be forced to make a formal complaint against you.

’ Seriously? ‘Tarquin, don’t be a complete plonker. Just get out of my taxi.’ He folded his arms. ‘No.’ He met my eyes. ‘I’m not lying, Ivy. Either you take me to where I want to go or I will complain.’ He smirked. ‘In writing.’ I wondered whether he really thought that was supposed to scare me.

‘I think I’ll cope,’ I said drily. ‘I’m going home.’ ‘Perfect.’ His smile grew, revealing whiter-than-white teeth that must have cost a pretty penny. ‘So am I.’ He leaned forward. ‘And now we live in the same building so you have no reason not to drive me there.’ I stared at him. ‘Pardon?’ ‘I’ve moved.’ ‘To my building?’ ‘Yes.

’ ‘You’re lying.’ He gestured towards me with open palms. ‘Why would I do that? I’m on the fourth floor. Flat C.’ The family who’d been living there had indeed moved out last month. I gazed at him with narrowed eyes. Tarquin never did anything without a reason – and that reason always served his own interests. The building where Eve and I live is lovely, but old-money people like Tarquin don’t live there. It is neither pretentious, nor stupidly expensive nor up-and-coming. ‘Have you fallen on hard times?’ I could only hope.

He laughed. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Father just thought it was time that I stopped relying on the family. I’m striking out on my own.’ I watched him carefully. I doubted that was all there was to it. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed likely that his new address was about giving the appearance that he was an everyman in the hope that the Order seniors would look favourably upon him. After the kerfuffle and corruption surrounding Order promotions, they probably wanted to make it very clear to the world that their system was based purely on merit. They didn’t want to be seen promoting someone from a wealthy, well-connected family. Affirmative action, Order style.

Tarquin was slumming it because he was worried that his privileged position wouldn’t permit him to get to Second Level until the dust settled. It probably didn’t hurt that he’d moved to the same building where Eve lived, given that she’d already been promoted beyond him. ‘Where’s your car?’ I asked. He prided himself on showy numbers that wouldn’t look out of place on a racetrack. There was no way he’d have given up whatever swanky vehicle he was currently driving. His postcode, maybe. His car? Never. ‘It’s in the garage.’ He wrinkled his nose. ‘I may have wrapped it round a tree last weekend.

’ I wasn’t even slightly surprised. ‘Plonker,’ I dismissed. He didn’t argue with me, he simply leaned forward, a familiar smile tugging at his mouth. When I was a teenager, he’d managed to get me to do just about anything he wanted with that expression. But I wasn’t a teenager any more. ‘Come on, Ivy. I want to talk to you so let’s make bygones be bygones. We could be friends again.’ He placed a certain emphasis on the word ‘friends’ which made me grimace in disgust. ‘Been there, done that, got expelled,’ I said.

He leaned back and shrugged as if it were entirely my loss. ‘Fine, then. But you will drive me home. I really do want to talk to you.’ Tarquin was probably enjoying the chance to order me around. As tempting as it was to turf him out, it was more tempting to take his money. It wasn’t as if I had to go out of my way to get it either. I pursed my lips. Fine. There was no way I was going to put up with his inane chatter for the whole journey back, however.

I sketched out another rune, putting up an invisible barrier between him and myself. It would effectively block out any noise and I could drive home in peace. I’d already tortured myself enough for one day. *** When we finally pulled up outside my block of flats, Tarquin’s lips were still moving. I didn’t think he’d stopped talking for more than a few seconds during the entire journey. I congratulated myself on my forward planning and released the spell. ‘…and that’s when I told him he was wrong,’ he said with a dramatic flourish. ‘Excellent,’ I murmured. ‘That’s fifty quid.’ He looked startled.

‘How much?’ ‘Fifty quid,’ I repeated, silently adding on a tax for the benefit of customers like him who annoyed me. Tarquin shrugged and handed over the money. I wasn’t surprised that there wasn’t a tip; in my experience the wealthier the customer, the less generous they were likely to be. It made me feel less guilty about charging him far more than I should have. I got out of the car. Tarquin didn’t move. Tapping my foot, I glared at him through the window. ‘Get a move on then.’ He looked startled. I wondered whether he’d been waiting for me to open the door for him like some kind of private chauffeur.

As if. Belatedly getting the message that I wasn’t going to bow and scrape, he pushed the door open himself and got out. I locked up the taxi and spun away. My duty was done. ‘So did I do the right thing?’ he asked, calling out from behind me. I ignored him and picked up my pace. He had to get the message sooner or later. ‘Ivy…’ I marched ahead. Unfortunately, Tarquin’s legs were far longer than mine and I’m rather unused to moving quickly. He caught up within seconds, grabbing my elbow and swinging me around.

‘Get your hands off me,’ I hissed. He dropped them as if he’d been burned. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered. ‘But I do value your opinion. Just let me know what you think and I’ll leave you in peace.’ Obviously I still hadn’t the faintest idea what he’d been wittering on about. I sighed. ‘Yeah, sure. You did the right thing.’ He looked relieved, which surprised me.

‘Really? That’s great.’ He took a step forward and gazed down at me. ‘Thank you.’ For a moment he seemed sincere then he reverted abruptly to type. ‘You could come up to my place and I’ll show you my gratitude in person,’ he purred, drawing even closer. He reached up and brushed the back of his hand against my cheek, his touch feather-light. Ick. Ick. Ick. My fingers itched to draw a rune that would teach him never to come near me again.

Instead I told myself to stay calm and coyly looked up at him through my eyelashes. I pushed onto my tiptoes until we were nose to nose. ‘Tarquin,’ I breathed. He tilted his head, his hair falling across one eye, and deepened his own voice to a husk. ‘Yes, Ivy?’ ‘I think I’ve made it clear,’ I said softly, ‘that I despise you. Don’t ever come near me again. Don’t get in my taxi, don’t even say hello to me in passing if we meet in the corridor. I’m a far better witch than you and if you bother me again, you’ll regret it.’ I never got chance to hear his response. There was a loud cough from behind us.

Somehow I knew who it belonged to without checking. I turned round slowly. It was even worse than I thought. Before I could say anything Tarquin, with wide eyes and a delighted expression, all but bowed. ‘Ipsissimus Collings! How wonderful of you to call on me at my new abode! And you brought along Adeptus Exemptus Winter. It’s a pleasure to see you both.’ I had the feeling that the Ipsissimus was looking at Tarquin as if he were trying to remember who he was, but I wasn’t paying the Order Head much attention. All my focus was on Winter. Unfortunately, his expression was completely unreadable. He was also wearing a red robe, suggesting he was here on official business rather than for a social call, which didn’t exactly fill me with the joy that his presence should have.

‘Villeneuve, is it?’ the Ipsissimus asked. He looked at Tarquin in confusion. ‘Aren’t you the one who was assaulted by Ms Wilde?’ ‘That was years ago!’ Tarquin burbled happily. He put his arm round my shoulders as if to prove that we were the best of friends now, before abruptly remembering my threat of just seconds earlier and hastily removing it. ‘Why don’t we go upstairs? I have the most wonderful twenty-yearold malt that I’m sure you’ll love.’ ‘Actually, we are here to speak to Ms Wilde.’ Tarquin blinked rapidly. ‘What?’ He coughed. ‘I mean, of course! What have you done now, Ivy? Been getting into mischief again?’ I glared at him. With the looming presence of the Ipsissimus, however, Tarquin barely noticed.

‘I’ll walk up with you. Maybe you can come and partake of some whisky when you’re finished with her.’

.

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