Toil and Trouble: 8

I ran downstairs.

The landlady only confirmed my worst fears: she had seen nothing of Jay all morning, not a peep since yesterday evening. She had not heard anything in the night that might have sounded suspiciously like a break-in by magickal marauders; but then, neither had I. At dawn, Jay had been sleeping comfortably in front of a desultorily flickering television. A couple of hours later, he’d vanished.

I stood in Jay’s abandoned room, dithering like a ninny while my mind turned in confused circles. These are the moments in life when one would wish to be a picture of unflappable resolve, brimming with self-confidence and perfectly clear upon the best course of action. My brain would only consent to ask foolish questions. Where was Jay? No way to tell. Why had he gone? Well, he probably hadn’t stepped out for coffee without his jacket, wallet or keys.

Then Rob showed up.

I was informed of his presence when my landlady — a mild retiree with a taste for forties fashions — stood diffidently on the tiny landing outside our rooms and called: ‘Dear? There is a gentleman to see you.’

I thought first of Katalin’s mysterious sidekick, and marched downstairs with my Wand in my hand, ready to wrest Jay from him by hook or by crook. But of course, the man patiently awaiting me in the hall was Rob. He was looking extra forbidding: with his dark frame swathed in even darker clothes, no wonder my landlady had seemed a bit nervous. He looked like the riot police, or maybe an assassin.

‘No!’ I yelped when I saw him, and stopped, frozen, two-thirds of the way down the stairs. ‘Go away!’

‘Morning, Ves,’ said Rob, unperturbed. ‘Why?’

‘Because when I tell you what’s happened you’ll have to kill me.’

‘I might kill somebody,’ Rob allowed — not at all to the reassurance of my poor landlady, who was, at that moment, creeping past us into the safety of her living-room. ‘But never you. What’s the matter?’

‘I’ve lost the book.’ I sat down heavily upon the stairs and clutched at my hair, whose jaunty pink colour seemed quite inappropriate just then.

Rob didn’t move. ‘That is unfortunate.’

And I’ve lost Jay.’

That gave him greater pause. He blinked, uttered, ‘Ah,’ and fell silent.

‘Just make it quick,’ I pleaded. ‘I probably deserve to suffer, but I haven’t the courage.’

Rob came forward and extended a hand. Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be hauled back to my feet. ‘Calm, Ves,’ he said, more kindly than I felt I deserved. ‘It isn’t your fault.’

‘Of course it is! If I wasn’t responsible for keeping them safe then who was?’

‘Jay is not helpless.’

‘He’s never been sent out by himself yet. I’m here because I’m supposed to be competent. Milady said I could be relied upon to handle any “difficulties” that “might happen to arise”! And I haven’t! I was asleep, and Jay was hauled off like a sack of potatoes!’

‘Not necessarily.’

‘What do you mean, not necessarily? That is clearly the case.’

Rob made no reply, exactly. He only said, ‘Jay is clever,’ which did not appear to relate to anything. ‘Tell me what’s happened.’

I brought him up to speed with as much detail as I could manage, finishing with, ‘I don’t even know how they found us in this wretched—’ I broke off as a horrible idea occurred to me. I did not pause to explain; I merely turned and high-tailed it back up the stairs.

Jay’s jacket. I all but tore it off the bedpost and rummaged through the pockets. Lots of detritus came out; I have too much respect for Jay’s dignity to describe every article of it.

And there. At the bottom of his left pocket, hidden under a crumpled-up handkerchief, was a tiny round sparkling thing: one of Orlando’s tracker charms.

Crap.

Rob had come in behind me. I handed it off to him without another word, and began to pace. How had it failed to occur to me to check Jay’s clothes? Or my own! If someone had got close enough to Bill to stick a tracking-charm on him, it wasn’t so far-fetched to imagine that the same someone might have done something similar to Jay. According to the news, at least, he was both the discoverer and the keeper of the precious book.

I engaged in a hasty scout of my own attire, courtesy of my lovely spangled Sunstone. It was a rather menial duty for such a magnificent heirloom, but the Wand was remarkably effective at detecting magick. I came up with nothing, or nothing besides the usual: the charmed ring I wear that adjusts the colour of my hair, the spell that keeps ladders from forming in my tights, that kind of thing. No trackers.

‘I suppose they only wanted Jay,’ I said, stashing the Wand.

‘I wonder why.’ Rob had gone quiet and tense in that focused way he has, and was examining the contents of Jay’s abandoned room like a police detective. He called somebody. ‘We have a mole at Home,’ he said into it, tersely. ‘Someone got a tracker-charm onto Jay, as well as the book, and they’re both missing. Vesper’s unharmed. Tell Milady.’

I began to feel calmer. Rob has that effect: he’s completely unflappable.

So am I, usually, or at least more so. But I’d never lost a priceless artefact and a protégé in one day before.

‘Where is the nearest henge?’ said Rob next.

I caught his train of thought at once. ‘Yes! They’d want to whisk off right away, wouldn’t they? The easiest thing would probably be to go back to Milton Keynes.’ I could not say this with any great certainty; I am after all legendary for my inability to find my way around.

Rob delicately refrained from saying this, though he did take the precaution of checking my theory on his phone. ‘Milton Keynes it is,’ he said, and fell to gathering up Jay’s things. ‘Let’s go.’

 

I whistled up Addie again, and one of her friends, too — a sturdy stallion Rob’s ridden before. We made the trip back to Milton Keynes’ shiny new henge in record time, but we were still too late. The hilltop was a grey, empty space, an overcast morning and my disappointed hopes combining to render it a desolate scene.

We waited a full hour, just in case we had somehow managed to beat Jay’s abductors to the site. But nobody came.

Rob was on his phone for a fair bit of this time, conveying the news to, and receiving advice from, various members of the Society. At length — bored, probably, of watching me hop anxiously about the hilltop like a rabbit on speed — he collected me up and escorted me kindly down the hill again. ‘We’re going Home,’ he said, a shade grimly.

‘How?’

‘The boring way. By train.’

‘What does Milady say?’

‘Nothing about the immediate evisceration of one Cordelia Vesper, if that’s what you mean.’

I heaved a small, inward sigh of relief. ‘And what else?’

‘Theories abound as to why Jay’s vanished with the book, and—’

‘Don’t say it like that,’ I begged, feeling compelled to interrupt. ‘You make it sound like Jay thieved the book and ran.’

‘Well, one or two people who dislike Jay are saying more or less that. But nobody who knows him would imagine it possible.’

‘Who could dislike Jay?!’

‘His unique skills put him in a powerful position, and power will always attract enemies.’

‘Haters,’ I muttered. I wondered suddenly whether Indira had heard the news. I hoped not, yet; much as I was at fault, I would rather tell her about her brother’s disappearance myself. That way, I could make sure she was all right. Wherever he was, Jay would be worrying something awful about her.

‘Milady’s had Val researching Ancestria Magicka for the past two days,’ Rob continued. ‘She’s now got the entire Research and Library Division on it, and has thrown them a lot of extra resources, to boot. She’s confident they will soon come up with something that will help us to help Jay.’

‘And Bill.’

‘And Bill, though Jay is the Society’s priority.’

I hoped this was because he’s brilliant rather than because he’s the first Waymaster we’ve had in nearly a decade.

‘Also,’ Rob added. ‘Val said: Tell Ves to stop fussing.’

‘Fussing?’

‘Running around like a headless chicken.’

‘I hope you told her that I am the very picture of cool composure, as always.’

Rob gave me a sideways look. ‘Why would I ever tell her anything else?’

I patted his arm. ‘I love you.’

‘I know.’

 

When we arrived Home a few hours later, we went straight up to Milady’s tower — the quick way. And by that I mean that House itself appeared to have got caught up in the sense of urgency Jay’s vanishment had caused and gave us a lift straight up to the top. We went from the entrance hall to Milady’s tower-top room in one step.

‘Thank you, House,’ I murmured. House and I have had a little conversation together before. I would not presume to call us friends, but we’ve been introduced, and one would never expect to sweep by an acquaintance unacknowledged.

‘It’s good to see you are well, Ves,’ Milady greeted me.

I curtsied. ‘I was in no danger, for they did not appear to want me.’

‘An interesting point to note, indeed. Thank you for fetching her back so promptly, Rob. What have you both to report?’

‘Nothing new,’ Rob answered. ‘We were not able to catch up with Katalin Pataki or her colleague, nor did we discover any clues as to Jay’s whereabouts.’

‘Is there any evidence that Pataki is behind the theft and kidnapping?’

‘No solid evidence, though considering the encounter Jay and Ves had with those two yesterday, it seems too obvious a conclusion to be discounted.’

‘I cannot disagree. Ves, I’d like you to go directly to Valerie, if you please. She may already have useful information to convey, and if not, your research skills will no doubt be wanted.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘An attempt to recover Jay, and also the book, must be made very soon. I have sent envoys to Ancestria Magicka already in hopes of securing Jay’s swift release by diplomatic means, if not the return of the book. But I cannot hold out much hope of its success; they are likely to meet only with a total denial of any involvement whatsoever. Therefore, our methods must be more direct.’

‘Please tell me I am to be part of the team,’ I said.

‘I would not dream of excluding you, Ves. You will be very much needed.’

Phew.

‘You also, Rob.’

Double phew. ‘Is the identity of our traitor yet known?’

Milady’s voice turned cold. ‘Not yet.’

‘It could be someone from Research.’

‘And Valerie therefore has orders to collate all gleaned information discreetly, and to keep her silence on the topic of any planned response. As must the two of you.’

We readily agreed, of course, though I did so with a heavy heart. To have to keep secrets within my own organisation, and from people I have known for years! A painful duty.

I was reassured, though, to find that no suspicion had attached to me. If there were those who could doubt Jay’s loyalty so far as to accuse him of stealing the book, well, I had my detractors, too. I had not lacked for opportunities to sabotage our little mission, and Jay’s disappearance had happened while I was asleep in the very next room. Who was to say I hadn’t had a hand in it all? I was comforted to find that Milady was in no way disposed to consider it likely, nor were Rob or Val.

It’s good to have friends.

 

Val greeted me with a shrewd, narrow-eyed look. She sat behind her huge desk like a queen, as always; straight-backed, imperious, and far too knowing.

‘Have you been eating?’ she said.

I opened my mouth to protest that nothing — nothing — could long divide me and food, but then I realised I had not eaten since breakfast, and the prospect of doing so only induced a feeling of nausea.

So I swept this aside.

‘I’ve been sent to help,’ I said brightly. I tried, as I crossed to Val’s desk, to walk with the supreme confidence of an unflappable woman, and took some comfort in the smart rap-rap-rapping sound my heels made upon the polished wooden floor.

Val was not convinced.

‘Sit down before you fall over,’ she said, with — was it, really? — a roll of her eyes.

My knees were feeling a bit weak, so I meekly obeyed. ‘I feel so feeble.’

‘Why, because you’re worried? Come off it, Ves. You’d be equal to anything, if only it were you who’d been swiped. You’d be out of there in no time, pink hair flying, leaving the place a smoking ruin behind you. It’s unusual for you to have to fear for someone else.’

It was the feeling of impotence that bothered me; I rarely felt so much at a loss. ‘You don’t… think they would harm him?’ I hazarded.

‘Never,’ said Val with reassuring confidence. ‘He is far too valuable.’

True. Waymasters do not grow on trees. ‘What have you found out?’

‘Right. Come with me.’ Val glided out from behind her desk and sent her chair zipping for the main doors, an act which surprised me for a second. Chatting comfortably with Val at her own, name-plaqued desk was as customary as eating lunch.

But Milady’s exhortation had not fallen upon deaf ears. I followed obediently behind Val’s hovering chair — I tend to call it a wheelchair but only because it’s the common parlance; the chair has no wheels because it flies. Val took me to my own hidden study carrel, and, with an air of mild disgust at the necessity, sealed it up with a slick silencing charm. The air sparkled in a way I found oddly reassuring; no one was going to be listening in on us.

Val tapped her impeccably-manicured fingernails upon the carrel’s desk for a moment, apparently deciding where to begin.


Copyright Charlotte E. English. All rights reserved.