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Witches Incorporated

Witches Incorporated

Rogue Agent - Book 2

(AUS/NZ Release)

PUBLISHER: HarperVoyager
FORMAT: Trade Paperback
ISBN-10: 0732286050
ISBN-13: 9780732286057

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Chapter One


According to Department records, the property was known as Establishment 743-865-928/Entwhistle.

Gathered in smoky mess-hall corners, inhaling a quick cig – or a pipe, if they were particular -- Sir Alec’s senior janitors, his most hard-bitten secret agents, called it the haunted house. Rolling their eyes when they said it. Sort of joking. But mostly not. Never elaborating; why should they? Nobody had warned them. Nobody gave them a heads-up the day before they faced final assessment. They’d sunk or swum, no half-measures. And no help. What do you reckon, Dunwoody? You reckon you deserve any different, just because someone’s told you you’re the bees’ thaumaturgical knees? Sink or swim, mate. That’s how it works. That’s how the pretenders get shuffled out of the pack. If you’re as good as they say you are, well … you’ll be laughing, won’t you?

Shrouded in a damp early morning mist, deep in the wilds of rural Ottosland, Gerald wasn’t feeling particularly amused. Cold? Yes. Apprehensive? Certainly. Beginning to wonder if he’d made a mistake? Without question. But really not in the mood for a giggle.

I wish Reg was here. Or Monk. Melissande, even. At this point I’d probably throw my arms around Rupert, butterflies and all.

But he squashed the thought a heartbeat after it formed. The first rule he’d made for himself upon entering janitorial training was No pining. Yes, he missed his friends but he’d see them again sooner or later. He’d already seen Monk once. A work-related visit, to be sure, no social niceties allowed, but still. It proved he wasn’t languishing in permanent exile.

He just wished the situation with his parents was equally straightforward. Returned at long last from gallivanting around the world, they couldn’t understand why he kept putting off a visit and was so vague about his new employment and why he’d given up on his last position as a royal court wizard. So prestigious, that had been. What had gone wrong this time? And when are we going to see you, son?

Sorry,” he kept saying in his letters. He’d phoned them once, but couldn’t bear to do that again. His mother’s tearful voice was enough to break him. “I’ll tell you all about New Ottosland soon, I promise. Just a bit busy now. You know how it is.”

Except they didn’t know, and they never could. He’d have to lie to them. And once he did that -- once he crossed that line -- he could never cross back, which meant something precious would be irreparably broken. Too much in his life, in himself, had changed of late. While his parents’ backs were turned he’d become some dark, unfathomable stranger … and he knew he couldn’t trust himself not to let them see it. It was still too soon.

 They’d have to be lied to eventually, of course. He knew that. He did. Just … not yet.

Abruptly aware of stinging eyes and ragged breathing, Gerald shook his head sharply. Enough, Dunnywood. There was no point working himself into a state over what couldn’t be helped. For better or worse he’d chosen this new life. This … penance. That meant living with the consequences.

Time to focus on the job at hand.

Which right here, right now, was surviving till supper. Because one of Sir Alec’s senior janitors, a pale, bruised-looking chap by the name of Dalby – well, this week, anyway -- had confided over a mug of stewed tea that the Department property’s name-tag designation had a habit of changing. Whenever, rumour whispered, the house claimed a new victim. Today it was tagged Entwhistle. Tomorrow it might be … well, it might be known as Dunwoody. You never know, eh?

Gerald tucked his cold-nipped fingers into his armpits and bounced on his toes to keep his sluggish blood moving. That’s right. You never know. Life is full of surprises. And some of them, it turned out, were more palatable than others.

But he wasn’t going to think about that, either. What was the point? He’d done what he’d done and he was who he’d become. Regret and remorse could change none of it. If the last tumultuous, exhausting and unexpected six months of his life had taught him nothing else, they’d taught him that one biting, bitter lesson.

Instead, he peered through the impassable, imposing wrought-iron gates before him, up the long straight driveway to the house, trying to make out more than a few haphazard chimney pots and a vague hint of higgledy-piggledy gables. No luck. But whether that was because he was blind in one eye or because the autumnal mist was just too thick or because the house was protected by some kind of deflection incant, he couldn’t tell.

Towering oak trees on either side of the gates dripped moisture like a leaking tap, plink plink plink on his hatless head and coated shoulders. The water trickled nastily between skin and shirt-collar, all the way down his spine to the waistband of his trousers. Beneath his feet, the gravel was muddy and rutted. Fading into the distance the muffled clip-clop of hooves and the creak of wooden wheels as the cart that had deposited him here returned to the railway station.

Otherwise, the surrounding countryside was quiet. Too quiet. Not a cock-crow, not a bleating lamb. No dog barked. No milch cow lowed. He could hear his heart thudding sullenly against his ribs. That was nerves. Because here he was in far-flung, bucolic Finkley Meadows, and all his hopes, dreams and fears were come down to this.

Testing time.

Tucked beneath his overcoat, in the pocket of his jacket, was a single folded sheet of paper, decorated with precise spiky writing in plain black ink. Time to pay the piper, Mister Dunwoody. Finkley Meadows. The 8th, at dawn. Someone will meet you on the platform. Sir Alec. A one-way railway token had accompanied the missive.

He remembered thinking: So is the Department merely being fiscally responsible, or should I take the hint and give up while I still can?

But of course he’d accepted the invitation. The challenge. Reg would never forgive him if he tucked his tail between his legs and ran.

So all right. I’m here. I’m ready to be tested.

Except the property’s daunting front gates were hexed shut, and he couldn’t pin down the incant. Slippery and inusubstantial, like melting soap at the bottom of the bath-tub, it teased the edges of his awareness. Taunted his newfound, newly-honed expertise. He tried till he sweated but he couldn’t lay a finger on it. The gates remained stubbornly, unbelievably closed.


Blowing out a short, frustrated breath he glared at them, and then at the stone wall they were hinged onto. Intimidatingly tall, patchworked with moss and choking ivy, he had no hope of climbing over it. Of course, he could fly over the bloody thing if he dared risk a levitation incant on himself. But levitation incants, like the Speed-em-up hex, like any kind of thaumaturgy which altered the properties of living tissue, were strictly off-limits. If he tried one, and something went wrong, being caught breaking the law would be the least of his worries. Being buried in something no bigger than an egg-cup was a far more likely outcome.

So. Scratch that bright idea.

Did whoever was in the house even know he’d arrived? He hadn’t a clue. Nor did there seem to be any way of communicating with the distant, fog-shrouded establishment. No crystal ball, not even a boring, ordinary telephone. Of course, he could always shout …

Honestly, this was ridiculous.

He blew out another breath. Then, surrendering to temper, he wrapped his fingers around the gates’ wrought-iron bars and shook. “Come on! Let me in! I’m catching pewmonia out here!”

Nothing. The gates’ locking incant buzzed fuzzily through his gloves. Fuzzily

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “You idiot, Gerald.”

With a fingersnap and a single command he deactivated the anti-etheretic shield that stifled his unique thaumic imprint. Wearing the wretched thing was a bit like enduring faulty earplugs. He wasn’t thaumaturgically deaf, not exactly, but he was definitely compromised. No wonder he couldn’t get past the hexed gates. He hated the shield, and had said so, forcibly, but nobody would listen. In the end he’d taken his complaints to Sir Alec. Softly-spoken and blandly nondescript, the man lurked in the shadows of every Department conversation. As though he could see through walls and read thoughts from a distance. Even when he was absent, his presence at janitorial headquarters was inescapable. He was the absolute, ultimate authority.

But Sir Alec hadn’t had any sympathy either.

“Mister Dunwoody,” he’d said, his pale grey eyes severe, “stop wasting my time. Your identity must remain obscure and so far that shield is the best method we can contrive. So you’ll not put one toe in public without first activating your thaumic obfuscator, is that clear? The last thing we need is anybody noticing you.”

And of course, Sir Alec was right. Janitorial agent Gerald Dunwoody couldn’t afford to stand out in any way. Which was also why Monk had devised a nifty little incant that turned his silvered blind eye brown again. The change wasn’t permanent; even with Monk’s best efforts it wore off after five hours or so, but it was easily reapplied. And with both incants activated he could pass muster as the old Gerald Dunwoody, with two normal-looking eyes and a lousy Third Grade thaumic signature.

The good old days.

With the shield-incant cancelled he could feel his muffled senses coming alive again. Feel the ebb and flow of the ether, fluctuations in the thaumic currents. He could feel his rogue powers, simmering gently beneath his ordinary surface.

Ever since joining Sir Alec’s department -- whenever he wasn’t studying the complicated rules of domestic and foreign thaumaturgic policing and how to apply them without creating fourteen different kinds of international incident -- he’d cautiously explored his newfound abilities. So far he’d not met a First Grade incant he couldn’t master: something that had him swinging wildly between elation and trepidation. One minute he was awash with heart-pounding apprehension – nobody should have this much power, not even me – and the next he was terrified he’d wake up to find it vanished and himself returned to unremarkable mediocrity.

He was still waiting for that pendulum to stop. 

And then there was the dizzying parade of mysterious Department experts who came to examine him, who’d smiled vaguely, politely, and said, ‘Call me Doc’. They’d poked him and prodded him, run test after test, pulled faces and gone away again, never bothering to share their findings with their subject. He’d hated it, hotly resenting being kept in the dark. He was the one being poked and prodded, wasn’t he? Jumped through hoops like a dog at the circus? He had a right to know exactly who and what he was, didn’t he?

No. Apparently he didn’t. Not according to Sir Alec, anyway, whose continued lack of sympathy had been chilling … if not entirely unexpected.

“It’s not a question of us wanting to control you, Mister Dunwoody,” Sir Alec said briskly. “When the time’s right we’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

“And when will that be?” he’d demanded. “I don’t think you understand what this is like. Knowing what I’m capable of. Knowing what’s ticking away inside me. Not  knowing what I’m – you’re – we're going to do about it.”

Sir Alec had sat back in his leather armchair then, and shifted his pale grey gaze to stare through his office window at the dreary suburban street outside.

“Well, I rather think that’s the crux of the problem, don’t you?” he asked, surprisingly mild. “You don’t know what you’re capable of, any more than we do. The truth is we’re still trying to figure you out.”

“Oh,” he said, taken aback. “So … what does that mean? Does it mean I can’t even be trusted as a janitor? That I’m stuck in this mausoleum for the rest of my life, performing tricks for visiting Department thaumaturgists?”

“No, of course not,” Sir Alec retorted, and leaned forward with his elbows braced on his desk. “It’s not a question of trust. It’s a question of making sure we handle this unique situation properly. Mister Dunwoody, I thought your experiences in New Ottosland would’ve made the danger obvious. King Lional wasn’t the only ambitious man in the world. There are other people – entire governments, actually – who, if they knew of your existence, might well go to quite dramatic lengths to get their hands on you.”

It was like being doused with a bucket of ice-water. “Are you saying I’m some kind of target?”

Sighing, Sir Alec sat back again. “I’m saying this is a game full of hypothetical scenarios. I’m saying one of the things I get paid to do is dream up potential disasters and then concoct ways of preventing – or in the worst case, surviving -- them. But the operative word here is hypothetical. Really, Mister Dunwoody, you must not be an alarmist.”

“I’ll stop if you stop,” he retorted. “I agreed to join your team so I could do some good in the world, not sit around in basements giving thaumic contabulators hysterics.”

“One step at a time, Mister Dunwoody,” said Sir Alec, infuriatingly bland. “If we’re to teach you how to protect the world and its innocents from nefarious individuals, first we must fully understand what makes you tick. So you need to be patient. Let us complete our investigation. When that’s done, we can talk again.”

Investigation. Sir Alec had made him sound like a – a crime. Although maybe that wasn’t such a poor choice of words. What had happened in New Ottosland … that had been criminal.

Of course, in the end he’d swallowed his anger and frustration and suffered the Department’s endless, ongoing examinations. What other choice did he have? He had nowhere else to go. The government’s position had been made perfectly clear: rogue wizards were untidy. They couldn’t be left … lying about.

“There’s no point squealing, mate,” Monk told him a week later when he brought the eye-changing incant for testing. “Sir Alec’s the best in the business. He knows what he’s doing -- and he’s right. I can name two unfriendly governments and four dubious companies who’d love to bottle what you’ve got. And that’s just off the top of my head. So you stay put here for as long as Sir Alec tells you. Let the boffins run all the tests they want, twice. You’ll be safe that way.”

And that had given him a horrible jolt. Monk was afraid for him? Why? What did he know that Sir Alec wasn’t saying?

“There’s no need to panic, Gerald,” Monk had added, reading him with unerring accuracy, as usual. “There’s nothing in the wind. Sir Alec’s just … being careful. Don’t worry about it.”

So he hadn’t. Or at least, not very much. Instead he’d endured the ongoing poking and prodding and rehashing of what had happened in New Ottosland, and put all his leftover energy into his janitorial studies. And he must have done something right because here he was at the front gates of the haunted house, ready to prove without doubt that Gerald Dunwoody was up to the task of being one of Sir Alec’s junior janitors. Ready to start paying back the debt he owed his dead.

In which case, Dunnywood, it’s past time you got this show on the road.

He tugged off his gloves, shoved them in his pocket, then ran his fingers lightly over the hexed gates’ weathered wrought iron. That was better. He could read the incant properly now -- and it was a right little sod, too, prickly as a thornbush. Intricately tangled. Deviously devised. Tasting of stinkweed, scented with deception.

Is this one of Monk’s hexes? I’ll bet it’s one of Monk’s. I’m sure I can catch a whiff of Monkishness in here …

But he wasn’t only sensing his friend’s familiar, anarchic thaumic signature. This incant felt like a joint operation. More than one wizard had helped to create it. So the Department’s best were ganging up on him, were they? He grinned.

You want to play, chaps? All right. Let’s play.

Except the game swiftly became deadly serious, because as far as thaumaturgic tests went this one was murder. The hex actually did test him, which was no mean feat. He was a rogue wizard, after all. Challenges like this were supposed to be easy.

At least he thought they were.

Oh, well. If it was easy they wouldn’t call it a test, would they?

Sweating, swearing, he dismantled the convoluted hex one brilliant, stubborn strand at a time. Monk and his mates had really pulled out all the stops, doubling and redoubling the bindings, slyly tricking him with feints and misdirections that left his fingers stinging and his hair standing on end. But in the end he was victorious. After nearly half an hour of squinting concentration the incant’s final binding snapped and he was rewarded by the gates slowly swinging wide on soundless hinges.

One fist pumped above his head in a restrained exhibition of triumph. “Ha! Yes! Choke on that, Mister Markham! You and your fancy Research and Development chums!”

Not that he was taking the hex personally, of course. Chances were that Monk didn’t even know who it was being designed for. Sir Alec was a master at keeping secrets, after all. But either way – whether Monk was in on the game or not – there was no denying the deep satisfaction of defeating the best thaumaturgy a team of First Grade wizards could throw at him. Because rightly or wrongly, it was going to take a lot longer than six months to forget what being a despised Third Grade wizard had felt like.

By now the early morning’s blanket of mist had almost completely burned away, so the sun was free to gild the hedgerows and grass verges that bordered the country lane. Wild snapdragons and shy bluebells danced among the untidy greenery. Tiny scarlet-faced finches hopped and strutted on spindly legs. Momentarily distracted, Gerald smiled. After so long in grimly tarmacced and cobblestoned Nettleworth, where the only grass to be found was in a painting, Finkley Meadows was a literal breath of fresh air. But there was no time to appreciate its postcard prettiness right now. Right now he had more tests to pass.

Abruptly sober, remembering with a nasty twinge why he’d just unravelled that hex, Gerald took a deep breath, cautiously stepped through the gates, and only jumped an inch or two when they slammed shut behind him. On another deep breath, his heart again banging at his ribs, he started walking towards the Department house’s distant front door. More oak trees lined each side of the gravel driveway, their spreading branches and boisterous foliage blotting out the clear blue sky. Beyond their ragged sentinel stand an unkempt garden swallowed open ground. Lacy shreds of mist tangled amongst the snarled undergrowth and an ominous chill seeped upwards through the untamed grass, smelling old, and rank, and angry.

He shivered. So much for picturesque.

Despite the general theme of ‘Don’t tell the new chum anything about the establishment’, a couple of the younger, more recently recruited agents he’d met in passing at headquarters had let one or two small hints slip. Apparently every trainee agent ended up here at the house, where they faced a test designed specifically for them. If they passed, congratulations. Welcome to one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Have fun and don’t forget to sign your will.

“And if we fail?” he’d asked. “What happens then?”

No-one knew. Not for certain. But failed trainees were never seen again.

Remembering that, Gerald shoved his gloveless hands in his overcoat pockets, scrunched his shoulders round his ears and walked a little faster. Nothing but a hobgoblin story, surely. The government couldn’t go around disappearing people. That would be illegal. No, the agents had been playing tricks on him. Probably the senior agents had put the juniors up to it. Old dogs geeing up the new pup. Having some fun at his expense.

“That’s all it is, Reg,” he said in passing to the wood pigeon staring at him from a nearby low branch. “Them taking the mickey. I’ve got nothing to worry about. I’ll be fine.”

The pigeon, who actually didn’t look much like Reg at all, really the only thing they had in common were the feathers, cocked its head to one side and cooed down at him, dimly.

He sighed. “Right. Yes. Thanks so much for that. Very helpful. Most inspiring.”

Lord, he missed Reg.

It occurred to him then, steadily walking, that the house at the end of the driveway wasn’t getting any closer. In fact, it seemed to be further away now than when he’d started.

He stopped. Looked behind him. The closed gates seemed the right distance away, given how long he’d been walking. How strange. He looked back to the house –

-- and nearly fell over, because he was on the other side of the gates again, in the muddy laneway, looking through the wrought-iron bars at misty, haphazard chimney pots and higgledy-piggledy gables.

His jaw dropped. “Bloody hell!”

This time the hex wasn’t the same one he’d so painstakingly unravelled a few minutes ago – but it was just as tricky and demanding. He nearly went cross-eyed dismantling it, but at long last the gates swung open.  Practically bolting through, he paid no attention as they slammed shut behind him. Put his head down, sprinted for the house –

-- and nearly broke his nose on the closed wrought-iron gates.

What?” he shouted, and jumped up and down a bit. “This is ridiculous! How am I supposed to pass the damned test if I can’t even set foot in the house?”

Except, apparently, this was the test. Or at least the start of it. Obviously the driveway was hexed, just like the front gates. But why hadn’t he sensed it? Worse yet, what else hadn’t he sensed? What other nasty surprises were waiting for him? He didn’t have a bloody clue. Wonderful. His morning was lurching from bad to worse. All right. Think, Dunwoody. Was he supposed to defuse both hexes? No, no, that was too easy. Too obvious. There had to be a different explanation. This was a test devised by Sir Alec, after all. He had to think sideways. He had to think devious.

What is it I’ve been training to be? An agent. And what is it agents do? They slide into tricky situations unobtrusively. Hmmm. Nothing terribly unobtrusive about marching through the front gates and up the driveway straight to the front door, is there? So think, you plonker. How else can you get to where you need to go?

Of course he could just blast the establishment’s encompassing high stone wall to rubble. Lord knew he had an arsenal of destructive incants at his fingertips these days. Except much of his janitorial training had been about finesse and subtlety.

So. No blasting, either.

Maybe there were some handy little cracks and crevices under the moss and ivy? Finger-and-toe holds that could help him climb up and over?

But when he tried digging handfuls of green stuff off the stonework the most appalling wave of nausea flooded through him, courtesy of a powerful anti-intruder incant. Head reeling, stomach rebelling, he flailed backwards and nearly landed on his rump in the muddy road. Balance recovered, breathing hard, he waited for the awful sickness to subside.

This is embarrassing. I’m a rogue wizard! I turned a cat into a lion. Hell’s bells, I made a dragon … but I can’t get myself over a wall?

Apparently not.

So there was no going through the front gates and no climbing over the wall. That meant there had to be another way in. Disgruntled, he switched his shield-incant back on, because he was in public and that was the arrangement, and started tromping.

The moss-and-ivy covered stonework faithfully followed the edges of the country lane, in places so closely he had to leap down from the narrow verge. There was no sign of another gate or any breach in the wall. At this rate he was never going to find his way in. And would that mean some kind of a Department record? Gerald Duwnoody, rogue agent, the first wizard in history to fail janitorial testing by not even making it through the front door?

Bloody hell. I hope not.

Rounding a sharp bend in the lane, without warning he was confronted by an enormous haywagon heading straight for him. There wasn’t time to get across the lane to the hedgerow on the other side, and the only way he wasn’t going to get squashed by the dangerously over-hanging hay was if he flattened himself against the wall.

Oh no. I am going to be so sick …

With a despairing groan he closed his eyes and turned his face away. Pushed his shoulder-blades, spine and hamstrings flat to the spongy moss and surrendered to the messy inevitable.

Which didn’t happen.

The haywagon trundled by, its driver oblivious to his discomfort, clearly contemptuous of madcap townie pedestrians who ought to know better than go prancing about the countryside on foot. The wagon’s massively hairy carthorse snorted, matching its driver’s opinion, soup-plate hooves splashing liquid mud and stones.

Remarkably unflattened and miraculously not sick, Gerald gaped at the wall. Then, just to be certain, he leaned his full weight against it. No. Not so much as a quease.

This is absurd. What’s going on? What’s changed?

Only one thing.

He deactivated the shield-incant and warily touched his fingertips to a bare patch of stonework. A wave of nausea immediately crashed over him. Retching, he slammed the shield in place again and the sickness vanished.

Right. Right. There’s a point to this, I know there is. Somewhere here there’s a message. I think. What a pity I don’t speak fluent Sir Alec …

But at least one thing was abundantly clear. With his shield-incant switched on, if push came to shove he could climb the wall. Well. He could climb the wall if he could climb. Except climbing had never really been his thing, not even as a small, mildly adventurous boy. Maybe someone had left a handy sheep-hurdle lying about, that he could hex into a wooden flying carpet. This was the countryside after all. Surely abandoned sheep-hurdles were as common as dandelions …

Except no. They weren’t. But there was, it turned out, a tree growing more-or-less close to the wall, further along the lane. It was better than nothing and all he was going to get.

Muddy, splintered, scraped and bruised, Gerald picked himself up out of the quagmire on the other side of the wall. Snapping off the shield-incant again, he held his breath. Then, when nothing terrible happened, he began clearing a path through out-of-control brambles, feral apple trees and hazelnut-thickets taller than he was, making his way back to the waiting Department house.

This is ridiculous. I’m a wizard, not a wilderness explorer.

Branch by thorn by gnarled, tangled root, the jungle surrendered to his careful incants and he slid his way through it, as inconspicuously, as subtly, as he could. Getting closer, the haphazard chimney pots and higgledy-piggledy gables of the establishment.

With cautious optimism he pushed through the last of the undergrowth into relatively clear ground. Saw oak trees. Saw the gravel driveway. Saw the house’s front door, beckoning. Feeling his face split wide in a smile he tugged his coat free of the last bramble and strode forward.

Oh, Gerald,” said a petulant voice. “Why did you have to go and kill me? We made such a grand team. You know, together we could have ruled the world.”