‘They’re elusive,’ Val finally said. ‘Secretive to a fault, and yes, I am well aware of the irony of my calling them secretive when we are all employed by a woman whose sole identifiable presence consists of a disembodied voice and an old-fashioned mode of address. Nonetheless. Two days of digging and we don’t have much.
‘We know that Ancestria Magicka was formed last June, but we only know that because there was a brief press release about it in the Magickal Herald at the end of June. It described the organisation as “formed for the efficient, professional retrieval of artefacts of great cultural value” or something to that effect, and it puts a nice shine on what they do, but it didn’t take long for them to develop a reputation for the kind of efficiency that consists more of smash-and-grab thuggery than sleek professionalism.
‘We don’t know who founded it or how they are funded, except that the Hidden Ministry certainly has no involvement. They are fully independent, which means largely unmonitored. We’ve found the names of only a few of their operatives, including Katalin Pataki. Her regular partner is George Mercer, who is known to carry a Sardonyx Wand. He was almost certainly the man you and Jay encountered at Milton Keynes.
‘They’ve been recruiting aggressively. Milady revealed we have lost two prospective employees this year to superior offers from Ancestria Magicka. Considering the bidding war over Ms. Pataki, it’s clear that they are not at all strapped for cash.’
Unlike us, I thought. We do all right, but that’s about it, and we are more heavily reliant upon Ministry funding than Milady would like. They are so interfering, she had once complained to me, in an unusually forthcoming mood. With no such ties and no shortage of resources, Ancestria Magicka was in an enviable position indeed.
‘Their goals remain unclear,’ Val continued. ‘They are rumoured to have secured at least two Great Treasures this year already, one at auction and one an original find, together with quite the list of lesser artefacts. But what they have done with them is anybody’s guess. Sold them? Stashed them? Anything claimed by Ancestria tends to disappear without trace.’
I gripped the desk. ‘Not Jay.’
‘This is the first I have heard of their absconding with a person. Crude as their methods are reported to be, they are not known for brutality. I imagine it likely that they have a clear purpose in mind for Jay.’
‘Unlikely. They do not need money, and while the Society is known to be in possession of some few Treasures ourselves, there are plenty still out in the world for them to pursue first, with greater ease and lesser risk. And why take only Jay, if all they wanted was a hostage? Why not you? You are a senior acquisitions specialist with quite the reputation outside the Society. They might well imagine your abduction would inspire a comfortable spirit of co-operation in Milady.’
I wondered if it would. Trying to mentally calculate one’s own probable value to one’s employers is a grisly business, however, so I soon abandoned the project.
I felt a little reassured by Val’s logic, but it did not escape me that her recital had not yet included anything that might help us to find Jay. ‘Where do they hide out?’ I asked.
‘I’ve spent all day on that very question, and I’ve had four other people on it, too. So’s Nell. Ancestria Magicka has a pretty major internet presence, as it turns out; far more than we do. A slick, lovely website promoting their services in the best possible light, and carefully couched in terms that would not too much alarm any non-magicker who happened upon it. Nell’s got a couple of people working on it, but without much progress. The website’s registered to a shoe shop in Wolverhampton.’
‘A shoe shop?’
‘Currently specialises in orthopaedic shoes. Family business, established 1969.’
I put my head in my hands. ‘Have you got anything useful at all?’
‘Just one thing. Maybe.’
‘A maybe thing.’
Val nodded. ‘A year ago last February, a strange case came up in the property market: Ashdown Castle in Cheshire was suddenly sold. A fifteenth-century mansion with strong magickal connections ought not to have gone ownerless for very long, but the place was in a state of such near-total ruin that it was essentially valueless. I was surprised to hear of its sale, and even more surprised to learn that — by rumour at least — the sale price ran into the millions. The old place has some attractive heritage, to be sure; it’s supposed to have been built by the Beaumonts, one of the most prominent magickal families of medieval England, and as with all such places it’s said to be littered with history, old magick and secrets. But to pay several million for a ruin?’
‘You think Ancestria Magicka bought it?’
‘The idea occurred to me. They’d need a base of operations, and what better site for a group even more obsessed with all things old, obscure and priceless than we are? I thought little of the matter at the time, but I put it in my Mysteries folder and I dug it up this morning.’ Val paused, perhaps for effect. ‘There’s little to be found about its new owners, which immediately made me more suspicious. All I could find was a name, or half a name — Becket. And guess who shares that surname?’
‘Wha… oh. The shoe-sellers of Wolverhampton?’
‘The same! Before you ask: no, I do not think that family has anything to do with it. They’re squarely non-magickal, and characterised by the kind of dull respectability that absolutely precludes the possibility of such interesting shenanigans. I do think that our friends at Ancestria are going to extraordinary lengths to maintain secrecy about their doings, though, and they’re probably using a few such unremarkable names and addresses as a blind.’
‘It’s thin,’ I said.
‘I know. But it’s worth investigating.’
I nodded, distracted. Somebody had walked past our hideaway four times in the space of five minutes, back and forth, back and forth. A slim, shortish figure I recognised, moving at speed, her dark hair swinging.
‘What’s Indira doing?’ I said, frowning.
‘Looking for something,’ murmured Val, and dissolved the protective charm around the carrel with a flick of her fingers.
I set off after Indira. I found her soon enough, for she was coming back my way yet again. She stopped when she saw me and gave me a wide-eyed stare.
‘Hello,’ I said cordially.
‘I was looking for you,’ said Indira.
‘Here I am. What can I do for you?’ I was trying to be as approachable as possible, and hoping I was not coming off as patronising. It was obviously too late to break the news of her brother’s disappearance; her manner proclaimed she was already well informed.
Indira has the air of a schoolgirl as well as the appearance of one. She has been impeccably dressed every time I have seen her, but with none of Jay’s flair. She wears neat, plain blouses and skirts, her hair always tied up into a perfect, severe ponytail. Her manner is self-contained and withdrawn; I might have called her reserved, if I didn’t know she was shy. She looks as though she never knowingly puts a foot wrong, and wouldn’t dream of doing so either, which makes the arm-sling an incongruous addition to her wardrobe.
I wondered what kind of person was hiding behind all that conscientious, slightly desperate perfection.
Indira put a phone into my hands. ‘Jay’s tracking charm is missing.’
I knew it for Jay’s phone at once. Not because there was anything distinctive about it, as such; the latest iPhone, plain black case, the same thing at least fifty Society employees probably carried (Indira included). I knew it for Jay’s because I had, only the week before, rather wickedly adorned it with a sparkly green butterfly sticker on the top left corner. For some reason, he’d left it there.
There was certainly no sign of a tracking charm anywhere on it. ‘Does he always use them?’
Indira managed a tiny smile. ‘He’s always losing things. He was like that from a child. When he arrived here he got a whole batch of tracker-patches from Development and stuck them on everything he owns. I know, because he gave the leftovers to me.’
‘He couldn’t have just forgotten to put one on his phone?’
‘No chance. The two items Jay loses the most often are his phone and his keys. They’re the first things he would put trackers on.’
My hopes leapt for a second, until I remembered that Jay’s keys had been in his jacket pocket, which was even now lying forlornly upon the bed in his empty room. ‘Perhaps it fell off?’ I suggested.
‘They don’t fall off.’
Indira spoke with certainty, and I had no power of arguing with her. Not being prone to misplacing my stuff, I have rarely had occasion to use them. ‘You have some theory, I think?’
Indira hesitated. ‘I think… he must have removed it deliberately. And if he did that, he has probably taken it with him.’
My mind raced, and came up blank. ‘I don’t know how they work. What do you do to locate the charm, if you have lost the object it’s guarding?’
‘They come in pairs. You keep one somewhere safe, and put its pair on whatever you want to keep track of. Then you can use one to lead you to the other. Jay’s got an entire book of them.’
I began to feel the kind of wild, surging hope that tends to end in crashing disappointment, and did my best to contain it. ‘Do you know where the book is?’
‘No. That’s why I came to you.’
‘Forgive me, but you must know your brother far better than I.’
Indira’s awkwardness manifestly tripled. She looked at her feet. ‘I, um… cannot get into his room.’
A vision of myself only an hour past drifted through my head. I had casually infiltrated Jay’s room — skulked my way inside, in fact, since it did feel weird to be in there uninvited, and when Jay was absent. Feeling guiltily like an interloper, I’d placed his jacket and his other bits and pieces onto his bed and immediately fled. It had never occurred to me that he might have sealed off his room to everybody but me.
I could imagine well enough why he would keep that space private from a sister who had to be a least a decade his junior, however close they appeared to be. Why he would grant free access to me was a different problem, one I had no answer to whatsoever.
‘He speaks highly of you,’ said Indira to the floor.
Oh. ‘Goodness, we aren’t — it isn’t like—’
‘Oh, I know!’ Indira hastily interjected, and with a degree of horror I could only find slightly insulting. ‘I would never think that! I only meant that he trusts you.’
I let all of this pass; we were wasting time. ‘Come on,’ I said, and led the way smartly back to the main stairs. I had paid little close attention to all the flotsam and jetsam in Jay’s pockets when I had made my frantic search before; I had been looking for a stray tracker-patch like the one Jay had found in the book, and nothing else had appeared relevant at the time. But I vaguely recalled the presence of a little booklet of some kind; I had probably mentally passed it off as a pocket notebook, however unnecessary such an accessory might be to a man with a smartphone. But that booklet, I was now willing to hope, contained all of Jay’s paired tracking charms.