They had stopped for lunch at a quiet pub in a sleepy village somewhere out in the countryside, Owen was not sure exactly where. He was sandwiched on a hard wooden bench between Maggy’s plump arm and a grimy window. Opposite him was Silvia Oakwood, her mouth a thin line and her features sharp as a knife.
“How do you know each other?” Owen asked.
He had no real interest in the answer, but felt he had to somehow lift the heavy silence which had fallen over them. The atmosphere inside the pub did not help. It was poorly lit, had black and white photographs of old people plastering every wall and the only sound was the barman’s cloth brushing over the counter top.
“We’re members of the same organisation.” Maggy replied.
He looked at the stern, hawklike woman sitting opposite him and wondered what interests she could possibly have in common with the kindly, overweight case-worker.
“I’m a civil servant, working at the Home Office.”
“Would you like to know what our organisation does, dear?”
Owen still was not sure that he understood how they had met. From what little he knew, he could imagine that social services and civil service might overlap somehow, but only to a limited extent.
But the explanation was delayed by the arrival of their lunch. With a clatter of cutlery, the barman set down three plates loaded with food in front of them. The sight of it reminded Owen that he had not eaten yet. His fork dived into a pile of mashed potato, shoveled it into his mouth then scooped up a forkful of peas.
“Our organisation seeks to preserve the balance in society by maintaining the present status quo.”
“Status what?” Owen mumbled through a mouth filled with peas and sausage.
“That’s not the right way to put it, Silvia. We try to keep magic away from the general population.” Maggy translated.
“Why?” Owen asked. “Isn’t magic a good thing?”
Silvia Underwood sucked in air through her teeth and pursed her lips together so tightly that her face began to redden. Maggy laid a comforting hand on his arm, her soft palm warm against his skin.
“You tell us, Owen. From what you’ve seen, is magic good?”
He remembered the two men murdered on the train when the professor was escaping, the man Owen had accidentally killed in the antiques shop and the ruined side of the hospital. The pocket watch suddenly weighed heavily in his trouser pocket.
“I guess it isn’t. So who were the men on the train? Did they try to destroy the hospital?”
“They’re very bad men.” Silvia Oakwood snapped. “Men who are trying to do the opposite of what we are doing. And yes, that was their handiwork.”
“Who are they though?”
“Don’t fret about those things.” Maggy said, her voice soothing.
“You’re quite safe.”
Silvia Oakwood’s words were comforting, but she delivered them in such a way that made Owen immediately concerned. Her eyes were wide and nervous, darting to look at something over his shoulder.
Instinctively, he reached for the pocket watch as he turned to see what had shocked her.
Two people stood in the doorway. One was Maev, her mousy face brightening as she saw Owen, and the other was her tall, gangling father. The reed-like man’s expression matched Silvia Underwood’s exactly. Their eyes bored into each other’s with a combination of fear and anger.
“Hi mum.” Maev called.
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