N ightingale dropped Jenny off at the office and then drove to Camden. He left his MGB on the third floor of a multi-storey car park close to Camden Lock market. The Wicca Woman shop wasn’t easy to find unless you were looking for it; it was tucked away in a side street between a store selling exotic bongs and T-shirts promoting cannabis use, and another that specialised in hand-knitted sweaters. A tiny bell tinkled as Nightingale pushed open the door. He smelled lavender and lemon grass and jasmine and he saw an incense stick burning in a pewter holder by an old-fashioned cash register.
Alice Steadman was arranging a display of crystals on a shelf by the window. Her face broke into a smile when she saw him. ‘Mr Nightingale, I’m so pleased to see you.’ She was in her late sixties, with pointy bird-like features and grey hair tied back in a ponytail. Her skin was wrinkled and almost translucent but her eyes were an emerald green that burned with a fierce intensity. She was dressed all in black: a long silk shirt-dress that reached almost to her knees, a thick leather belt with a silver buckle in the shape of a quarter moon, thick tights and slippers with silver bells on the toes.
‘Why’s that, Mrs Steadman?’
‘Because the last time we met you were asking me about selling souls to the devil. I must admit you had me worried.’
‘I was just curious,’ said Nightingale. He held up the carrier bag he was holding. ‘I brought you a gift.’
She giggled girlishly. ‘Oh you shouldn’t have. Books? From your collection? Oh let me see.’
Nightingale gave her the carrier bag. Inside were three books that he’d taken from the shelves in the basement of Gosling Manor. They were all old and bound in leather, one was about witchcraft in the Middle Ages and the other two were books of spells, both lavishly illustrated.
Mrs Steadman gasped. ‘Oh my goodness,’ she said. She looked at him, her eyes wide. ‘You can’t possibly give these to me, Mr Nightingale. They’re far too precious.’
‘They’re no use to me, Mrs Steadman,’ said Nightingale. ‘And I’ll be selling most of what I have. I just wanted to thank you for all the help you gave me.’
She clasped the books to her chest as if she was afraid that he might change his mind. ‘Well, let me at least offer you a cup of tea,’ she said.
‘You read my mind,’ said Nightingale.
Mrs Steadman pulled back a beaded curtain behind the counter. ‘Briana, can you take over the shop for me?’ she called.
Nightingale heard soft footsteps and then a punk girl with fluorescent pink hair appeared. Like Mrs Steadman she was dressed all in black and she had a chrome stud in her chin, two studs in each eyebrow and a nose ring. She grinned at Mrs Steadman. ‘Is this your new boyfriend, then?’ she asked in a nasal Essex accent.
‘No, Briana, of course not,’ said Mrs Steadman, but her cheeks flushed. ‘I’m just going to make Mr Nightingale a cup of tea.’
Nightingale followed her through the curtain to a small room where a gas fire was burning, casting flickering shadows across the walls. She put the books on a circular wooden table and waved for Nightingale to sit on one of three wooden chairs. Above the table was a brightly coloured Tiffany lampshade, and on one wall was a flatscreen television tuned to a chat show.
Mrs Steadman picked up a remote and switched off the television. ‘I tell Briana that television destroys the brain cells, but she won’t listen to me,’ she said, going over to a kettle on top of a pale green refrigerator and switching it on. She looked at him over her shoulder. ‘Milk and no sugar,’ she said.
‘You’ve a good memory,’ said Nightingale.
‘I’m not senile yet, young man,’ she said archly.
‘I know that, Mrs Steadman,’ he said. He nodded towards the beaded curtain. ‘How’s business?’
‘Better than ever,’ she said, spooning PG Tips into a brown ceramic teapot. ‘I think the recession means that more people are looking for help.’
‘Spells to make money?’ asked Nightingale.
‘Not just money, but that’s obviously an issue. When times are hard people look for answers and Wicca has them in abundance. Wicca helps you to find your place in the natural order of things and helps you to live in harmony with others.’
When the kettle had boiled she poured water into the teapot and carried it over to the table on a tray with two blue and white striped mugs and a matching milk jug. She sat down and poured the tea, then added milk.
‘How’s your business, Mr Nightingale?’ she asked, watching him like an inquisitive bird.
‘Ticking over,’ said Nightingale. ‘I do a lot of divorce work and when times are hard relationships are always stressed.’
Mrs Steadman sipped her tea and studied him over the top of her mug. ‘I get the feeling that you didn’t come just to give me the books,’ she said.
Nightingale smiled. ‘You can see right through me, can’t you?’
‘I’m a good reader of people, that’s true.’
‘You’d have made a great detective.’
‘I’m sure you mean that as a compliment,’ she said, putting down her mug. ‘So how can I help you?’
Nightingale ran a hand through his hair. ‘It’s a bit embarrassing, actually.’
‘A love potion?’
Nightingale laughed out loud. ‘Sadly, no,’ he said.
‘There’s no lady in your life?’ she said with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
‘Mrs Steadman, I didn’t come here for help with my love life,’ he said. ‘It’s more practical than that. I’m about to lose my driving licence. I did a silly thing and drove after I’d been drinking.’
‘That is silly,’ said Mrs Steadman. ‘Drinking and driving is very dangerous.’
‘I know,’ said Nightingale, holding up his hands. ‘It was a stupid thing to do. It’s no excuse but I was under a lot of stress.’
‘So the police caught you, did they?’
Nightingale nodded. ‘I was breathalysed and charged and when it goes to court I’ll lose my licence, unless…’ He left the sentence unfinished.
‘Unless you can use magic to help you out of your predicament?’
‘When you put it like that it does sound ridiculous, doesn’t it?’
She ran her finger around the rim of her mug. ‘It’s not ridiculous, but it is rather unethical.’
‘Sorry, it was a stupid idea,’ said Nightingale. ‘It’s just that I really can’t do without my car. Forget I asked.’
Mrs Steadman chuckled. ‘You do give up easily, don’t you?’ she said.
‘Now you’re sending out mixed signals,’ said Nightingale. ‘Is there anything that can be done?’
‘What exactly is it that you want?’ she asked.
Nightingale shrugged. ‘Some sort of lucky charm, maybe. Something that would help me win the case.’ He threw up his hands. ‘I don’t know, Mrs Steadman. The more I talk about it, the crazier it sounds.’
‘Actually it’s not at all crazy,’ she said. ‘But you’ll need more than luck, you’ll need something specific. And the more specific the spell, the greater the risk.’
‘Let’s just say that you have to be careful what you wish for.’ She sipped her tea. ‘I’ll give you a spell, Mr Nightingale. Just be careful, that’s all.’
‘Yes, magic. But Wicca magic. Even though, strictly speaking, you’re asking for something that I suppose is borderline illegal.’
‘I had been drinking, that’s true,’ said Nightingale. ‘But I wasn’t drunk, and I wasn’t a danger to anyone.’
Mrs Steadman held up a delicately boned hand. ‘Really, Mr Nightingale, it’s not my concern. I know you’re a good man.’
‘I wish that were true.’ He smiled when he saw her face fall and realised she wasn’t used to his sense of humour. ‘Thank you, Mrs Steadman. Really.’
‘You’re welcome,’ she said. ‘It’s the least I can do considering the books you’ve brought me. Now, first you need a red candle. It must be three times as tall as its diameter. And it must be a crimson red, not blood red. You need to be in a darkened room, the darker the better, though moonlight is acceptable. This has to be done at night-time, between midnight and two o’clock. You put a horseshoe around the candle. The open end facing you, the closed end facing north. The shoe must have been worn by a white mare that has yet to foal.’
Nightingale frowned. ‘A mare?’
‘A mare is a female horse more than three years old. Prior to that she’s a filly. You’re not an equestrian, are you?’
‘I’m more of an internal-combustion aficionado,’ he said. ‘Where am I going to get a white mare’s shoe?’
‘I have everything you need in stock,’ said Mrs Steadman. ‘I have a supplier who runs a riding stable in Wimbledon. Now, you need a piece of virgin parchment, a quill made from a swan’s feather and black ink that has been prepared in the Persian way.’ She smiled at him. ‘And yes, before you ask, I have the ink. And the parchment. And the feather.’
‘You’re a godsend, Mrs Steadman.’
‘Now, you write down what you want on the parchment while you chant these words: “What I want I write here, please take my dream and bring it near, what I want is what I should get, let all my dreams now be met.” Then you fold the parchment in half and in half again and hold it over the flame of the candle and let it burn. It must burn completely while it’s in your fingers – the more of the parchment that remains, the less likely it is that you’ll get the wish granted. Ideally you want it to turn to ashes in your hand. Then you rub the ash between your hands until there is nothing left. And this is important: you mustn’t wash your hands until the following night. Until after midnight. If you wash your hands before then, you negate the spell.’
‘And that’ll work?’
‘Of course it’ll work, young man. Provided you do exactly as I’ve said.’
Nightingale sipped his tea. ‘If it’s as easy as that, why doesn’t everyone do it?’
‘A lot do,’ she said. ‘There’s more interest than ever in Wicca.’
‘But it’s not as if it’s generally known, is it? That magic can get you off a drunk-driving charge?’
Mrs Steadman chuckled. ‘We tend not to advertise,’ she said. ‘And I doubt that many solicitors would be prepared to suggest magic as an alternative to legal advice.’
‘But it will work, right?’
‘I would hope so, yes. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.’