Chapter 1: Prelude Played In Early February - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
England! With all thy faults I love thee still.
William Cowper: The Task
Even though it was no more than about 4.30 in the evening it was pitch dark when Neville arrived back in the Manor grounds. There was a tiny dusting of snow on the rock-hard ground and the stars and half-moon above cut down out of the clear sky with a brutally uncaring, cruelly brilliant beauty. A sawing north-easterly breeze numbed his incautiously ungloved hands. Even turning the key to the white-enamelled metal door of the newly-built greenhouse complex was an effort. As his nostrils caught the complex mix of compost, fertilizer, and the warm jungly scent of the greenhouses he inhaled deeply. Heat-retention charms permanently guarded the greenhouses to protect the delicately transplanted plants from the full rigour of the English winter season, and he passed gratefully through into the warm heart of his territory.
Home. At last.
Despite the charms, he could still feel the underlying chill that crept past the state-of-the-art glasswork from the winter-bound woodland outside. The contrast with the temperatures his skin still recollected from his last brief stopover in Hong Kong was startling. As the cold seeped into his very bones he wanted nothing so much as to go straight up to the Manor to savour to the last drop the warm, long-desired welcome he knew would be waiting for him there. But he had jobs to do before collapsing into that luxury. The heavy loot from his near-world-circling trip would be following him in intermittent packages for the next month or so, but the most precious plants that he was carrying personally with him needed to be transplanted and made at home before he considered his own needs. After all - he smiled, ruefully - it had only been his connections that had permitted him to bring back seedlings of those jealously guarded magical plants at all.
Of course, he was a pure-blood, and the startling generational anomalies that the natural longevity of wizards coupled with their penchant for murderous extermination of their own kind could produce were hardly news to him. Nevertheless, sitting in that room in the sweltering heat of China’s Henan province, looking across at the shrunken figure wrapped in green silk brocade who had teetered in on obscenely tiny 3-inch bound feet as she brought him the ceremonial green tea, he had caught his breath to think that he was looking at someone who had been sister to his lover’s great great-grandmother. And traced her direct line from the hereditary necromancers to the Imperial Throne. She had smiled up at him beneath those inscrutable almond eyes - wrinkles deep as ditches in her brown face - and said through the translating charm:
“So? And after so many years, can we who are left in the Ancient Kingdom still see the White Devil of Tae-Mo-Shan in him?”
She produced from a lacquered cabinet a painting on silk: conventionally Chinese in its draughtsmanship, flecked with damp and the stains of the years. But the arrogant grey eyes that flicked out of the piratical Early Victorian face were wholly familiar: enough to start his heart racing, in fact. And she had not needed more than to see that change in expression to bark an order to black-clad servants who came running from the inner sanctum. At which all the herbal treasures of Shaolin had been laid open to him.
And whatever his needs, those had to be seen safe before he could rest that night.
The potting bench was comforting - home territory. He had been working solidly for some three quarters of an hour before his eyes lighted on the new arrival sitting on the floor at the far end of the bench. His breath curled in an unspoken hiss of sheer fury.
The carefully calculated revenue and reserves of his fledgling business could - all projections being met, and allowing a prudent 5% overshoot for contingencies - by next December permit the purchase at the entry-level of one of those enticing new incubator units, designed by the best Herbology experts of three continents, and custom-charmed to allow for the intense cultivation of seedlings from other climes under graduated heat, light and humidity conditions commensurate with their native lands.
What was currently sitting on the floor at the other end of the potting bench was - arrogantly, unquestionably - the most sophisticated example of the breed that had yet seen the light of day. With every conceivable add on and peripheral known to man. At an estimated price which his business would be by no means equipped to absorb for years to come.
He strode furiously towards it. As he had half expected, there was a slender parchment label hanging off it from a delicate green silk tassel. He turned it over, almost ripping it off in his annoyance. Shorn of the idiosyncratic spelling, the finely black-inked message was unequivocal.
“Advance 21st birthday present. So don’t start. Or if you must, for god’s sake come and do it soon. And in person - please? Missing you diabolically. Have you been crawling your way across the continent of Asia man by man to take so long? Love (whatever you’ve been up to) D.”
Against his will, his lips twisted into a smile. He looked back at the potting bench. Nothing there, now, that would hurt if he left it till the morning. And he could send someone down for the luggage then. It was hardly as though he was short of clothes up at the house. Or expected to need many tonight, for that matter.
With sudden decision he locked up the greenhouse complex behind him, and started off up the track towards the Manor at a determined trot.
It was only when he rounded the corner of the track as it wound round the base of the ha-ha that he could see the house. As he did so he gasped, and sharp fear grabbed him in the gut.
Every window in the East Wing of the Manor was ablaze with light. There must have been something like a hundred lit candles in every room. Their combined light splintered through the diamond panes of the little windows and shattered on the frost-rimed driveway outside. The house was a beacon flaming a message of absolute wrongness.
Instinctively he pulled out his wand and broke into a run, but had barely gone five strides towards the Manor before commonsense forced its way into his fear-addled brain. Without pausing to break stride he Disapparated.
The feeling of wrongness sharpened as he Apparated within the entrance hall. There was, for one thing, no scrabbling of blunt claws on polished floorboards; no barking; no frantic floppy eared exuberance to greet a new arrival. The dogs, it seemed, were not at home. Nor - he dropped his travelling cloak to the floor, and let it lie in a tangled heap - was the Manor’s cook-housekeeper. At that hour, Mrs P. should have materialized instantly at his elbow, professing concern for his well-travelled state and offering him everything from hot soup to champagne to recreate him after his journey.
He moved, rapidly but cautiously, through the lower floor rooms and up the stairs. In the muniments room Draco’s Great-Uncle Roger raised expressive eyebrows in his portrait. He thought he caught a whispered: “Go on, boy!” as he passed rapidly through and up towards the bedrooms.
The door of their bedroom was tightly closed. He spoke, firmly and loudly outside it. “Draco? It’s me. I’m back.”
There was, he fancied, the faintest of gasps from behind the dark oak panelling.
Nevertheless, he still had his wand in his hand as he kicked it open. Not only was he unsure about what lay behind that door, even on the most optimistic scenario it was likely to include a wizard intensively trained in the Dark Arts by experts, whose hair-trigger reflexes had been honed over months of combat experience, and in a state of mind he could only guess at as being deeply disturbed.
The door swung back before his boot.
“Oh, god,” he said aloud. His mind clicked rapidly on. Oh fuck. I thought we were over this sort of thing. What the hell has been going on to spark this lot off?
Draco was braced across the furthest corner of the room, supported on two sides by the walls, glaring with blind defiance across at the door, his wand held out in a double-handed duellist’s stance and his lips drawn back from his teeth in a frozen grimace.
“Draco,” Neville said clearly and loudly. His boyfriend’s head snapped up, and met his gaze. The pupils of the grey eyes were distended unnaturally, but there was, thank heavens, recognition in them. He moved purposefully forward into the room. There was a sudden crunching sound, like treading on granulated sugar, and from the bottle his booted foot had crushed the sharp smell of asafoetida rushed up to his nostrils. He drew in his breath, and looked down at the carpet. Very little liquid had escaped from the broken bottle; it must have been practically empty when it had fallen to the ground.
He recognised the potion instantly from the smell. No-one who had been through the darkest days of Recent Events would have failed to do so. The allies had lived on the stuff at one time, counting the snatching of a desperate few hours more for defending gaps that they were in all reason spread too impossibly thin to cover a fair trade for its shattering metabolic effects. That, at any rate, explained the pupils. And the heavy bruised violet shadows all around the orbits of the eyes, giving his lover something of the air of an anorexic panda. And the hectic red flush on the cheekbones. And, probably, the fact that Draco’s heart would be racing about twice as fast as it normally should, his hands on his wand were definitely shaking and his breath was coming in low rasping gasps.
Which only left one thing unexplained, then.
“Why?” he asked simply, crossing the room and sitting down on the bed. “What have you been taking that muck for? War’s over, didn’t they mention it to you?”
Draco shuddered. “The war’s not over. No-one’s ever going to let the war be over for me. Nor for you, neither, if you’re stupid enough to stick with me. You’d be better off getting out while you still can.”
Neville put his head on one side, considering. At least, looking on the bright side, it was conversation, and more rational than he’d dared to hope, at that. “I wasn’t planning on going anywhere, you know,” he said reasonably. “I like it here. I’d been looking forward to getting home, in fact.”
“God! How can you -?” Draco’s voice rose, and then he obviously seized command of it with an effort. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me you’ve been getting about ten Howlers a week, accusing you of only screwing me for the sake of the money-?”
Draco’s voice wavered beyond the point of control, and he shut up, abruptly.
What -? That’s what this is about? But why didn’t Mrs P. -?
He pushed back the questions and made his voice determinedly light. “Oh, it’s a pity you seem just to have encountered the boring ones. The ones that accuse me of only doing it for the whips and chains are much more entertaining, on the whole.”
He caught sight of Draco’s stormy eye on him, and turned his hands palm outwards, reasonably, conciliatorily.
“Mrs P. was supposed to tackle all that sort of thing, while I was away. You shouldn’t have been bothered. So what happened?”
The voice was a low mutter. “I sent her away. She needed a holiday, anyway, and she was getting on my nerves.”
Which, of course, left one obvious question.
“So what have you been eating since she went?”
He was wholly unsurprised by Draco’s answer.
“Nothing. I couldn’t. It all smelt - ” One hand pawed vaguely about in front of his nostrils. “Everything I tasted, tasted of rotting flesh. That’s why I had to get Mrs P. out of the house. She kept insisting on cooking things. I couldn’t stand it any more.”
“Well, I suppose she sort of sees it as her role in life, you know. Being as she’s a cook. And the dogs?”
“She’s looking after them. I was afraid - if anything got me - I didn’t want them to suffer.”
Ah. Now we might be getting somewhere.
“I can see that,” he said encouragingly. “And anyway, if you did succeed in starving or poisoning yourself to death, I’m glad you weren’t planning to leave your corpse locked up in the Manor with those two getting peckish. Loyal creatures, I grant you, to the death - but after that, I’m afraid their stomachs might get the better of their finer feelings. Nasty experience for the next of kin, that would be. By the way, you didn’t happen to pick up a Howler from the “beware the spaniels of Satan” woman, did you? She’s one of my regulars. I always find it slightly touching that she always signs off with and don’t you forget to wrap up warmly.”
Draco looked furiously up at him, only to find that under cover of the meaningless patter Neville had quietly moved a lot closer. Within range, in fact. Neville slid an arm round his shoulders, and pulled him across to sit on the bed next to him.
“Come on,” he said with firm gentleness. “Stop being such a silly sausage. Tell me. What did you think was going to get you? And why the hell didn’t you send for me when it started?”
Draco’s voice was muffled. “I tried. But no-one knew where you’d gone on to after Beijing. And then I sent Mrs P. away, and I started having to tackle the post, and I just realised then what a hell of a fucking mess I’d landed you in, and you’d never even said, and even if I could have found you, I couldn’t face dropping this on you as well as that other crap. God, you deserve so much better than this.”
“Hey.” His fingers went out to brush a stray lock of hair off Draco’s cheekbone. “I’ve told you before. I’m big enough and ugly enough to look after myself, love. Got that?”
Draco’s voice was very faint. “Not this, really. Not this.”
Protectively, Neville clutched the thin stringy frame of Draco’s upper body hard against his heart. He murmured down into the silky mop of fine, unmanageable hair,
“Oh? So what makes this one different, love? I mean, over the last couple of years we’ve had everything from near bankruptcy to tabloid outrage to plots to destroy the world to the machinations of my bloody relatives to investigations by the Magical Merger Commission. What makes this new problem any harder to tackle?”
Draco’s voice was almost inaudible.
“Because I think I’m going mad,” he muttered eventually.
“I’m seeing things that aren’t there. Night after night. For about a week now. And they wait for me round passages in the Manor, and I can see them out of the corners of my eyes, but when I’ve turned round, they’ve gone. And I can’t let myself go to sleep because I’m terrified they’ll get me when I’m not watching out for them -“
The words hit like a hammer-blow, but he was not prepared to let Draco notice that. Almost before his lover had uttered them he was pulling him tighter to his chest and breathing flippantly into his hair,
“Is that all?”
He knew he had made the right decision by the fractional un-tensing he felt in the muscles of Draco’s back, as he held him. He continued firmly on before any other response could be made.
“Anyway, you can tell me about that later. The first thing that’s going to happen now is that I’m going to run us a bath. I know I need it after travelling all that way and - sorry love - it’s obvious it hasn’t been your first priority either.”
There was a vague sound from the head now crushed against his chest, but he carried on regardless.
“Then I’m going to take you out for dinner, and then you’re going to get a good night’s sleep for once. And don’t worry about things getting you in the night, because my body still thinks it’s in China, so I don’t expect I’ll be doing that much sleeping anyway. I’ll watch your back for you. And in the morning you can tell me about it properly, and we can work out what to do about whatever’s been happening. Together. Like we always have. Got that?”
“Dinner?” Draco’s voice was vague, as though it were a strange foreign concept he had heard about once in a distant land.
“Yes, love. Food. Your blood sugar must be so low it doesn’t bear thinking about.”
Draco’s voice was dead flat. “And suppose I just chuck it straight back up?”
He made his voice completely calm. “Then I suggest you choose something you can bear to put up with coming and going. Mushroom risotto, say. Anyway, bath first.”
As ever, the huge sunken bath took its time to fill. When its brimming depths were finally breathing scented steam through the bathroom, Neville flicked his wand, and magic candles concealed deep in its surrounding podium came suddenly alight, their delicate radiance diffused gently through the thick green glass sides of the bath, like the lights of ghostly wrecks on the sea-bed.
Draco had sat with his head in his hands on the edge of the bed, not speaking or apparently noticing much, while Neville drew the bath. Once they were both immersed in its luxurious warmth, however, he started to revive, although Neville noticed that, even here, he kept his wand mere inches away, and from time to time shot suspicious glances at the taps, as though he expected something sinister to emerge from them at any moment. Neville’s gently exploring fingers, ostensibly soaping, noted at least that Draco’s pulse had begun to slow back to something approaching normality.
“So,” he murmured gently, “Why didn’t you call on your mother, when you couldn’t find me?”
There was a quick “huff” of surprise. “Didn’t you - oh, of course not. It must have happened just about when you were getting to Beijing - I sent an owl, though - goodness knows what happened to it -“
“Something terminal involving bamboo shoots and black bean sauce, I shouldn’t be surprised,” Neville observed, a trifle mordantly. Draco’s lips, for the first time since his return, quirked up briefly.
“Doubtless. Anyway, the short version is: ma’s gone missing.”
The note of horrified bafflement in his voice was not, Neville thought, overstated.
Narcissa DeVries - fabulously wealthy, staggeringly beautiful, insanely famous - could not simply disappear. Ten-year-long wars had been triggered by less. And even in the depths of China, surely the news must have reached him?
Draco must have sensed what he was thinking. He gestured thoughtfully with a loofah. “Oh, not in the Dematerialised-By-Dark-Forces sense. She took about seventeen suitcases with her, so I’d say any form of kidnapping was right out.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. The logic was impeccable, and Draco’s voice was even managing ordinarily conversational tones, though with an undeniable edge.
“Well, absent very understanding kidnappers with a removal van and advanced fashion sense, certainly.”
Draco shook his head, scattering drops of water from the ends of his hair. “No, she bolted. Chris apparently made the mistake of proposing to her on her birthday - he said afterwards he couldn’t imagine what had come over him - and after that we couldn’t see her for dust. We think she’s somewhere in the Whitsundays, probably - living the simple life in a beach hut - “
Neville had known Draco’s mother long enough to accept that in her mind simple life could quite easily be reconciled with seventeen suitcases, so nodded understandingly, and surreptitiously commanded the taps to add a little more hot to the bath.
“But location charms aren’t working and all owls are returning with their messages unopened. Such a waste, because we split a bottle of whisky and composed an absolute beauty - Chris explained to ma he’d only proposed in the first place because an evil ex had him under Imperius at the time, and offered to bring testimony from at least 20 women including the evil ex concerned about how commitment-phobic he really was absent Dark coercion. But even that one came back unopened, and eventually Chris got fed up about the whole thing - he was holed up here for a bit - and asked the Prophet to send him off to photograph the most remote magical conflict they could find. So he’s probably in Venezuela by now.”
Being able to talk about ordinary things, rather than whatever he’d been debating with himself in the dark hours when he’d kept himself awake for fear of elusive enemies on the edge of his vision, was obviously doing him good. Neville grinned, and Draco gave him a quick glance out of the corners of his eye. Whatever he saw was clearly reassuring, because he smiled back: a real smile at last. Neville felt a sharp pang. Could it really have been that on top of all his other troubles, he actually had been dreading Neville’s rejecting him when he told him his fears? He stretched out one long leg and drew his foot in a gentle caress over Draco’s chest, teasing gently at his nipples with his big toe. Draco sighed, slightly, and settled further down into the water’s warm embrace at the other end of the bath.
“Don’t fall asleep there,” Neville warned.
Neville got up, with an effort, and clambered out of the bath to drip onto the mat. Suddenly, the bathroom air warmed up around him, and he was conscious a towel had abruptly materialized in mid-air at his elbow. Looking back towards the bath, he saw Draco had his wand in his hand. More to the point, he was allowing his eyes to travel lazily down Neville’s body as he stood on the mat.
It looks as though normal service, as the Muggles put it, will be resumed shortly.
It was a conscious effort to stick to his original plan.
The good is often the enemy of the best. And he’s too tired, anyway.
“Anyway, I’m going to get dressed and fetch the car. See you downstairs in 5. And wear something you can be seen wearing in the village.”
“I’m taking you to that new wine bar they’ve opened. I somehow think that on a Wednesday night in the depths of winter we shouldn’t have any problems getting a table. Not us, anyway. Not here.”
Draco acknowledged the point with a slight nod, and yawned. “Do we really have to go out?”
“Yes. I’d be very surprised if there’s any food in the house, and you need to eat. And we’re taking the car because you’re not Apparating in that state, and as soon as the last of that stuff has got itself out of your system you’re going to flop like a puppet with the strings cut. And while I might be able to pick you up and carry you, I’m certainly not doing it all the way back from the village.”
“Bully.” But the tone was only fake-petulant, and the eyes expressed a level of gratitude and affection that caused something to flutter wildly in Neville’s insides. He moved to the side of the bath and dropped a quick kiss on his lips. Draco’s hand came out of the bathwater’s depths and gripped hard over his.
“You’re sure about this? And you don’t mind, honestly?”
“Yes. I’m sure.” He reached across Draco to the podium on the other side of the bath. “Anyway, while I’m getting the car, I’ve found someone to look after you.”
The small rubber duck quacked sleepily at him as he scooped it up from the edge of the podium and dropped it into the bath, where it started paddling around energetically, blinking up at them both from dark beady eyes. Draco choked back a semi-hysterical giggle.
Neville was suddenly vividly reminded of last Valentine’s Day. He had been surprised by Draco’s booking of a table at the stuffiest and most exclusive restaurant in the wizarding world: they were, he had reckoned, on average fifty years younger than any of the other diners, and the table in the far corner of the room was apparently an official Ministry retirement party for someone he knew from family talk had been his father’s boss in his very first Ministry position. And then a stiff waiter had removed a silver salver from the top of a plate and a rubber duck had waddled unexpectedly out from under it and headed determinedly across the starched white linen of the tablecloth towards him.
“I know you had to give back the original,” Draco had explained then, the light of mischief in his eyes. “But I thought I’d get you the best substitute I could.”
And behind his lover’s laughing face he had caught sight of the table full of senior Ministry men, who had clearly seen everything, and who were not laughing at all.
Now Neville stretched out one finger, and gently tickled the duck’s back.
“Keep an eye on him for me. He needs it,” he murmured, and left the bathroom.
Hermione looked up in surprise across her desk at the slight, blond, exhausted-looking figure who entered at her invitation, flopped down in the guest chair, and sat back, crossing his feet elegantly at the ankles.
Her guest looked at her, and gestured languidly at the desk, where her mobile phone sat among piles of papers.
“Is this room wholly secure?”
She felt her face flame at the implied - and, knowing Malfoy, blast him, doubtless wholly intentional - aspersion on her professional competence.
“Yes,” she snapped. “The room is fully secure. I attend to the encryption and anti-eavesdropping charms myself. And the codes are changed daily, and I cycle through the underlying arithmanchograms on a random basis.”
Her guest smiled a slow, serene smile.
“Good. That’s what we expected from you. In that case, between these four walls and for your ears only, I can answer your question. No.”
“What que-?” She paused. She looked at him more narrowly, sweeping him up and down with her eyes, checking out minor clues, the angle of his body, the slight fold of his mouth as he compressed his lips. She rang a small bell on her desk and a house-elf - neatly attired in a smart navy and white uniform with red piping down the trouser legs - appeared out of nowhere.
“Lucy - and please, it’s Hermione - could you possibly bring some coffee for Mr Malfoy and me? Mr Malfoy takes his with cream and one sugar. The usual for me, please, Lucy.”
The house-elf bobbed her head, and vanished. It was not until the coffees were on her desk, and they were both sipping them, that her guest spoke again.
“That was - quite quick. Pretty much as advertised, in fact.”
She looked at him in an exasperated way. “Neville? Could you possibly tell me what’s going on? And where in hell you got the Polyjuice Potion from?”
He shrugged. “Draco Apparated up to Hogsmeade and blagged some off Snape - did you know Snape had invented a quick brew version of the stuff -?”
Hermione shook her head. “I - er - tend to leave - um - disguise, and all that sort of thing to our field operatives.”
She felt her face go slightly pink, and if she had had any lingering doubts about the identity of the man sitting opposite her they would have been dispelled when he tactfully changed the subject without further allusion to Polyjuice.
“As you’re the security consultants, we were rather hoping you could tell us what was going on. And when we say you, we did mean you personally, not one of your team. Though I’m sure they’re all very good at what they do.”
She looked at him doubtfully.
“I’m one of the directors, not a field agent. It’s going to make quite a difference to the charge-out rates.”
Neville shrugged, and then, a split second later, evidently concluded that raising an eyebrow would have been more appropriate to his assumed identity, so did that as well. Her grin was not quite suppressed in time. He looked across at her ruefully.
“Yes, well, if you think I’m having trouble managing to stay in character, you should have seen Draco trying to be six-foot two. I’ve been telling him for years that 17th century ceilings and 21st century heights don’t mix, and I think he finally believes me. It was nothing short of a miracle getting him away from the Manor this morning without him concussing himself.” He made a brief grimace. “Not that that sort of mishap would necessarily have given the game away, I suppose. Anyway, the appearance may be purely temporary but I can assure you that the power of attorney over the Malfoy Gringotts account isn’t. Consider your charge-out rate covered. But if you were planning on offering a special Gryffindor discount I could bear to wait thirty minutes till this dose wears off.”
She ignored his flippancy. “Power of attorney? Neville, what is happening? Is Draco all right?”
The carven pale face opposite her went suddenly bleak. “Why do you suppose I’m here? No. Or rather, I hope so, but - look, Hermione, this is why we need you and no one else. You really are the only one we can trust - the only one he can trust, anyway, which is the main point.”
The change in tone warned her. She reached out a hand, impulsively, across the desk and took the other’s slender fingers in a firm clasp. Impossibly, she thought she could sense through their fragile elegance the large, calloused, square-tipped, workmanlike hand which she knew was really there.
Neville swallowed, looking down towards the carpet. “He thinks he’s going mad,” he muttered abruptly. Her hand tightened over his.
“Oh god,” she breathed, “How awful for you. How - how are you managing?”
This time, he didn’t bother to avoid shrugging. “I cope. Sickness and health, you know.”
He must have detected some change in her expression, because he muttered with a touch of impatience, “Just because they don’t let you make a vow doesn’t stop you keeping one, you know, Hermione.”
She hoped her voice did not reflect the bitterness she felt. “Not a subject I’ve got personal experience of, sorry.”
His voice suddenly sounded relieved, as though glad to have the emotional focus of the conversation shifted anywhere but on him. “Twenty-one is not exactly on the shelf, you know. And look at what a hash those of our year who rushed into matrimony to celebrate surviving Recent Events all seem to be making of it.”
She bit her lip. “Yes. Quite.”
He looked at her. “Oh, god. Sorry.” His lips quirked up. “I knew Polyjuice affected the vocal cords but they never told me it hit the brain synapses, too. That really was - horribly in character. Sorry.”
She took a handkerchief from her desk drawer and blew her nose determinedly. “Anyway, if that’s the problem, why are you hiring security consultants? Why not mediwizards?”
As his face registered a flicker of pain her initial sense of satisfaction at the return jab was subsumed in an up rush of guilt. She patted his hand again. “Look, I know what you went through, year before last. But is it fair to him not to get him the help he might need, just because you’ve had some horrific experiences?”
Neville ran both his hands down over the fine-carved, borrowed face in a gesture that was wholly familiar and yet, in the borrowed body, deeply alien and disconcerting.
“Actually, it was me who suggested it. But he wouldn’t hear of it. And after a bit of thought, I realised he was right. Look, Hermione, you do the job you do. And you’re from a Muggle family, and came right the way through in the thick of it in Recent Events, and you knew what went on, and how many compromises and how many dirty bargains along the way got us to where we did.”
His voice was harsh.
Polyjuice might affect the vocal cords, but not - apparently - all that much. When he loses his rag you can actually hear the millstone grit showing through.
Neville gestured passionately.
“And I might be a pure-blood, but I wasn’t really brought up as one, because my lovely pure-blood family always thought they might want to keep their options open about me. So I had Muggle friends, and grew up going round to their houses, and watching old black and white movies on Muggle TV on the afternoons in the school holidays. So when the Ministry spins us this whole scenario about the man in the black hat and the man in the white hat meeting and casting their shadows in the noon sun that beats down on the dirt street of the one horse town, and when it’s all over the man in the black hat is dead in the dust, and the credits can roll and we can all go back out into the daylight and get on with our lives, you know and I know where they nicked the idea from. I’m not knocking anyone, Hermione, but god knows we’ll never get out of this nightmare until someone actually admits that this disease can neither be created nor cured by one man.”
Her voice was very low. “Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”
He nodded, looking suddenly transcendent, as he realised she had - against all the odds - understood.
She gulped, took a deep swallow of coffee and made her voice determinedly practical. “But I don’t see what that’s got to do with Draco’s - problems.”
He made an impatient gesture. “Oh, look at things sensibly. He doesn’t fit the nice tidy scenario. He isn’t dead, he isn’t crawling around on the talk-show circuit being guilt-ridden and tear-stricken at 10,000 Galleons a shot, he regards the Ministry - still - as a rather incompetent bunch of municipal rodent-removal technicians from a not terribly interesting borough - and lets them know it, too - “
She snorted with laughter. He glared at her.
“That hurts, you know. Still. That they don’t deserve any better, I mean. I grew up thinking of the Ministry as the guys on white horses - the ones I was never, ever, going to be good enough to join. Whatever I did. However hard I tried. Even through Recent Events, I hung - despite everything - onto the idea that maybe they were still the heroes that would ride in and save everyone, even if they were - not what I’d been brought up to believe they were. But what we were both put through, the year before last -“
His voice faltered. She jumped in.
“You know, there was one thing I never did understand about that lot. I mean, I could see why the Ministry were so keen to drop a cloak of invisibility over the whole concept of the thaumaturlurgical capacitator. Not the sort of idea you’d want anyone copycatting. And they must have been relieved that they didn’t have to go through the embarrassment of a trial, either -“
Neville’s voice was cynical. “Luckily for them. Being as Pansy had neatly gone off her head, and Rita committed suicide in prison -“
“And took such trouble to do it, too. Thirty-one stab wounds in the back, wasn’t it?” Hermione breathed gently. He nodded. She continued:
“But, between us we did save our world. Why not acknowledge that at least internally? I mean, I didn’t suppose either of you was exactly expecting the Order of Merlin. But why on earth are you two still having to deal with so much Ministry bloody-mindedness?”
His gesture was infinitely world-weary. “How do you suppose the Ministry feels, knowing that we know it was played for a complete sucker by a journo out for her own interests and a half-crazed teenage girl with a terminal crush on a dead Dark Wizard? To say nothing of the sting of having to pay me shed-loads of compensation for allowing one of their senior guys to play the system up hill and down dale to get his dirty paws on the family money? They were absolutely shit-scared one of us was going to spill the beans publicly about dear Eustace, you know. I was told I either accepted a lump sum settlement with a cast-iron confidentiality clause, or they’d fight me cat and dog with everything at their disposal - and since there were bits we weren’t actually mad about coming out - the way Draco actually sprung me from those bastards, fr’instance -“
He paused, and then shrugged again. “So. There you have it. We just know too much to be safe for them. The Ministry guys would wet themselves with excitement if they thought there was any real chance of shutting us up permanently. Or any excuse to suggest Draco isn’t stable - and god, given Malfoy heredity and what he went through in Recent Events, it isn’t exactly the hardest slur to make. We just daren’t trust anyone who offers to treat him. Anyone at all.”
Hermione paused hesitantly. “Have you ever thought of looking for help - outside our world? Somewhere the Ministry writ doesn’t run, I mean?”
Neville looked at her, speculatively. Then the fine-drawn lips broke into what was, for once, a wholly un-tense and honest smile. “Hermione! You obviously aren’t quite on top form this morning. Can you imagine what a Muggle psychiatrist would make of Draco?”
She thought, and felt herself flush deeply as she caught his meaning. “Um - the research paper of a lifetime?” she proffered hesitantly.
“Well, I’m glad you’ve got that much common-sense.” He sobered up, abruptly. “Look, we’re calling upon your firm because there’s at least a possibility this lot is being manipulated externally. And if so, I want to find out how. And why. After all, it’s hardly as though there’s any shortage of candidates. And I can’t really believe that the minute me and Narcissa are out of the country is the very moment Draco decides to crack up. I’m not going to believe it, anyway. Not, at least, until I’ve exhausted every other possibility. Hence this charade. Anything that wants to manifest itself is more likely to manifest itself if it thinks Draco’s back on his own. If you read that rag -“
His gesture indicated the red-topped Daily Constellation on Hermione’s desk, top of the pile of the day’s papers, wizard and Muggle, which she had been in the middle of her morning trawl through when her visitor had been announced.
“You’ll see from the Diary column that we’ve quarrelled, and I, apparently, have “flounced off in a terminal huff.”
His tone dripped distaste, but then he grinned. “It was quite a row, actually. You can tell Draco’s great-grandmother was on the stage. He thought of things to accuse himself of that I wouldn’t have managed if I’d - ah - thought them out with both hands for a fortnight. To coin a phrase.”
“And where is he?”
“South of France. One of the only redeeming features about his ghastly grandmother is that she left him a chateau in the Languedoc.”
Hermione deliberately made herself sound unimpressed. “And does this one have death-watch beetle?”
“Phylloxera, probably. It’s one of those chateaux. Anyway, can I expect you down in Wiltshire this afternoon?”
There was, after all, only one thing to say to that sort of appeal. She nodded, silently. And found it necessary to escort him politely through the outer office to the door. Where, in the full sight of Lucy and half the goggling office staff, with precise, old-fashioned elegance, and a wicked gleam dancing in the depths of those grey eyes he found it necessary to lift her fingers so as to brush them across his finely carved lips by way of farewell. And then Disapparated without further comment.
She made her way back to her office, and ruthlessly rearranged every engagement for the next week.
Hermione brushed her hair back from her forehead, tapped a new code into the thaumaturge, and grimly deployed it yet again.
Neville, who was also looking somewhat frazzled, eyed it with an expression in which the barest flicker of hope was visible beneath a carapace of weary resignation. They waited in silence, while the thaumaturge stubbornly sat, inertly, on the ground. After some seconds had passed Hermione compressed her lips and picked it up, looking at the dial for some seconds.
“Well?” Neville demanded.
“An even lower reading of background magical activity over the last six weeks than you’d expect, just allowing for our presence here, let alone Draco’s. Certainly nothing untoward. No sudden spikes. Nothing Dark. And Neville, we’ve been at this for five days now. Isn’t it time to call it quits?”
He set his chin grimly. Although it was still broad daylight, from their position on the rising ground to the rear of the Manor it was possible to track the powerful, ponderous wing-beat of an eagle owl as it crossed the grounds, coming from the direction of the coast. He pointed it out to her. She sighed.
“That makes the third today. Or the fourth. I haven’t been keeping an eye on the Owlery for the last forty minutes.” He looked at her with a look of weary defiance in his hazel eyes which made her think of batteries out of ammunition, fixing bayonets and prepared to die to the last man.
“Shouldn’t you go to him?”
“With no news? Or at least, no better news than that?” He indicated the thaumaturge, which was now looking as smug as an inanimate object had any right to do. “Hermione, did you ever read the Father Brown stories?”
The sudden non sequitur made her blink. “Yes. When I was fifteen or so. But I’m surprised you have.”
“Mm. Yes. There’s a quote in one of them - The Salad of Colonel Cray - that’s been about all I’ve had to hang onto, the last day or two.”
He watched as the eagle owl vanished around the far side of the Manor. She looked at him in a baffled way.
Neville turned to her. ” Well, he does so desperately want us to prove him wrong.”
She paused - thought - opened her mouth to say something -
And was forestalled by Neville’s yell of sheer rage.
She spun on the spot, but his long legs were already making indignant tracks across the hillside towards the furthest corner of the Manor grounds. She had to micro-Apparate to catch up with him.
“Neville,” she gasped, conscious that she was trotting undignifiedly as he continued at a furious pace towards whatever had attracted his attention, “What the hell is going on?”
He gestured passionately towards the stone circle she had seen on the edge of the Manor property, and which was - according to the 6-inches-to-a-mile Ordnance survey map they had been using for their thaumatulurgical audit of the Manor and its grounds - called the Seven Sisters. Against the dull grey-green of the winter hillside the bright specks of man-made fibre denoting hikers stood out in startling contrast around it.
“I’d stretch a point in ordinary circumstances,” he hissed, “Though that is not a right of way, and never has been, and I’ve even got the Ramblers’ Association to admit that in correspondence. But at least it is only about 100 metres from the lane that borders the estate, and the circle is an ancient monument. But they bloody well have to know that even genuine footpaths in the county are going to be shut from Monday, and we’ve got 150 head of pedigree cattle on this land, to say nothing of the pigs. Or the sheep. And god only knows where that lot have all come from. And I’m damned if I’m going to tell Draco when he gets back that I let a bunch of half-wit Muggles spread foot-and-mouth onto our land. Honestly, thoughtless bastards like that don’t bloody well deserve the Right to Roam - call themselves the heirs of the Mass Trespass, do they? Well, I’ll see about that - “
He strode determinedly forward.
“Well,” she panted as she followed in his wake, ” I imagine if they knew they were on Malfoy land, they wouldn’t actually want the right to roam - oh, gosh, Neville-!”
Her hand clawed frantically into his arm, pulling him off his stride and round to face her. His face was a mask of pure anger.
“Hermione? Look, this is an emergency. I am not, repeat not Apparating back to the library to check the Hebrew for “foot-and-mouth disease” before I turn those irresponsible imbeciles off Manor land, got that?”
She shook her head impatiently. “No, Neville, this is serious. How did they manage to get onto the land at all? I thought the barriers were supposed to be impenetrable?”
He took a breath, visibly collected himself, and looked at her. “Come to think of it, so did I. They certainly are if you’re magical - you must have felt the shock coming through, and you had permission -“
The sweet excitement of having a breakthrough within her sights sang along her every vein. “Yes. Oh, look, can we get back to the Manor? Now? I need to think something through.”
He looked at her, and must have caught something of the triumph in her eyes, because his hopelessly drawn-down brows were permitted to lift a cautious two millimetres. Nevertheless, he sighed resignedly. “I suppose so. After all, you’re the expert round here. But I don’t suppose you could manage to do something to persuade those idiots that there’s some pints of Badger down at the Rose and Crown that have their names on, and they should head back down to the village pronto? Using the lane for preference, hm?”
She nodded, and flicked her wand, muttering as she did so. In ones and twos, to be followed by a sudden avalanche as the lingerers realised they were about to be left stranded on the hill by the departure of their fellows, the brightly coloured specks remembered an urgent engagement elsewhere. When the last of them were seen to be clambering over the stile that led into the lane Neville nodded.
“OK. Back to the Manor it is. But I warn you, after that build-up, this had better be good.”
She looked up at him, and knew her eyes were blazing in triumph. “Oh, it will be. Trust me. It will be.”
Dawn broke over the bleak, serried rows of the terraced vines, carefully enshrouded in sacking against the bitter mistral. The mountains stood out stark and two-dimensional against the pale blue of the winter sky; the scent of the herbs from the dry soil was sharp in the nostrils of the man who stood on the castle ramparts, looking hopelessly northwards.
There was a small, protesting sound from down near his feet. He bent, automatically, to tickle the spaniel on the soft fur of its chest. It yawned, and rolled over onto its back, curling its soft warmth against his booted ankles.
When he looked up again it was to see a small Scops owl perched on the rough stone of the balustrade, its yellow eyes blazing palely in the dawn. He reached out a hand, which, to his fury, could not stay steady as it undid the deep scarlet ribbon with the thinnest of silver edges, which tied a small parchment slip to its leg.
He read the message once, and then he read it again, sinking down to sit on the embrasure between the battlements. Uncaringly, he leant back over 50 metres of sheer drop as he tried to take it in. The spaniel, evidently feeling neglected, got up and wandered over to lick at his hands. One set of elegant fingers dropped down to play with its ears as the other crushed the slip of parchment and tossed it over the edge into the abyss.
“Thank god!” he said aloud. “Thank god!”
And then, knowing himself alone except for the dog (which was already composing itself for sleep again at his feet in the warm nest of his robes) he turned, and rested his forehead against the rough stone of the battlement, and wept freely into the silent dawn.
Neville looked at Hermione. The shadows of the little bandstand-like structure - the Temple of the Winds - fell across her face.
“So: you are sure that they - whoever they are - used Muggles as - what did you call them? - mules to smuggle something onto Malfoy land to cause Draco’s problems?”
His voice went up in a questioning tone. She nodded her head vigorously.
“Yes. When I looked at the results we’ve been getting from the thaumaturges with that possibility in mind, a whole load of little discrepancies and anomalies suddenly slotted into place, just like that.” She snapped her fingers.
He suppressed a grin. From the moment of her inspiration up near the Seven Sisters she had retreated to the library and spent the best part of a day and a half bent obsessively over tables and analyses, declining food, making tiny notations against figures on paper, snarling at interruptions, surrounding herself with a pile of open leather bound volumes that got higher and higher, endlessly calculating and re-calculating before eventually emerging, drawn with weariness but ablaze with triumph, to say simply:
“It’s OK. You can send him an owl, now. Tell him - it’s not him. Someone’s been doing this deliberately.” And then she had swayed unsteadily on her cramped feet, yawned and murmured, “Oh, golly, I do feel so tired.”
Hermione’s idea of an instant breakthrough is so much like everyone else’s idea of a major research project.
She frowned, as she evidently caught sight of his grin. He considered trying to explain, but then shrugged, letting it pass. She made a small impatient sound and continued with her exposition.
“From what we saw up by the Seven Sisters, looks as though the barriers these days aren’t in the least effective to prevent anyone non-magical from coming on the property-“
Neville nodded. “I think the old rule was: “Muggles to be killed when you sense them.” The old rule isn’t in force, and I don’t suppose they got round to putting anything in its place. After all, what harm could Muggles do them? Before foot-and-mouth, at any rate.”
“Yes. All we have to do now is find out what’s been smuggled, and where it is.”
He grinned at her again. “Ah. The easy bit.”
She looked, momentarily, indignant, before allowing herself a half-grin too. Half apologetically, he gestured towards the back-pack resting on the floor at his feet.
“Shall we see if this helps?”
Neville reached down and extracted something carefully wrapped in black velvet. Hermione’s eyes widened as he unwrapped it.
“Neville - what the hell is that?”
The finely moulded bronze dragons that curled over the elegantly engineered arc of the instrument he was holding in one careful hand writhed under his fingers: the crystal lenses blazed sparks in the low winter sunshine.
“Would you believe me if I said: a present from a lady?”
He grinned at her, while still taking an edge-on sight of the Seven Sisters from the point where they stood.
“It was left to her by her sister. The one who was the pirate’s bride, you know. And in case you’re worried about my morals: I don’t bat for that side, and she was at least 160 years old in any event.”
He turned round and squinted through the sextant in the opposite direction, and then turned it through ninety degrees, dropped the shades over the eyepiece, and took a sun-sight. “Hm. You might want to take a look at that.”
He pointed down-slope.
Hermione came up onto tiptoe to peer over the high parapet of the temple. She pursed her lips. “What is that building down there?”
“In the yew grove?”
She nodded her head.
“Um. I had hoped we wouldn’t get there. That’s the Malfoy family mausoleum. And it would appear to be-“
He squinted resignedly down the sextant again, and sighed. “On a direct line through us, and right down from the Seven Sisters. Doubtless on a ley line. Just the sort of thing Muggles might get excitable about, anyway. We’d better get down there. We might find a clue.”
Fifteen minutes later he was deeply regretting the suggestion. Hermione was sitting on a heavily lichened green wall just outside looking dead white, as people do in the aftermath of vomiting their guts out, and only the discipline he had learned in Recent Events had prevented his following suit.
The stone-flagged floor of the mausoleum resembled nothing more than the aftermath of a necrophiliac rummage sale. Bones were strewn everywhere. Covers had been wrenched off the cabinets in which bodies had been stored. Skulls lay randomly, brown with age except in the place where splintered white betrayed that someone had recently used a chisel to force teeth out from jaws.
“Thank god Draco’s still in France. It’s bad enough for us, but for him, these are family -“
She came nervously up to the threshold of the mausoleum, and peered inside. She gestured at one relatively untarnished bronze plaque. “I know. That one’s actually his father’s -”
Neville felt his expression change, rapidly. “Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about that one. No-one’s touched it, and it’s only ashes in there, anyway. Apparently Narcissa told everyone that Lucius had always had a strong preference for cremation, and I don’t suppose anyone was minded to argue with her much at the time.”
“Even so -“
“And,” Neville continued rapidly on, “I wouldn’t necessarily assume they’re Lucius’s ashes in there, either.”
“Not -?” Her eyes were wide. He nodded, slowly. She looked at him, questioning.
“But - then where are Draco’s father’s ashes?”
His voice was slow and deliberate. “Well - they’ve never had a cat. But if they had, I’d strongly suggest looking in the litter tray.”
He heard her give a sharp gasp of horrified amusement. Without pursuing the point, he began to make a cautious circuit round the mausoleum, inventorying the extent of the desecration.
“Eight tombs broken into,” he reported. “Selectively - only seventeenth and eighteenth century ones, it looks like. Oh, my god - look at that.”
Hermione declined his invitation, retreating rapidly back out into the open. He stooped down besides a pathetically tiny heap of bones that lay where they had apparently been tossed aside, trying to straighten and make decent the child’s skeleton. One of the lower arm bones appeared to have been wrenched violently off, and was missing, and the chisel-wielder had been at this skull, too. Bile rose in his gullet. He abandoned the attempt and joined Hermione on the wall outside.
“What sort of sick gits do something like this?” he breathed. “It’s just senseless.”
She shook her head. “Sick, maybe, but not senseless. I’ve used the thaumaturge again. No magical traces at all - here. Whichever people did this were Muggles, and they used nothing but brute force. But once - someone with Dark power got their hands on - on what was taken away - well, then - “
Her voice tailed off. He spun to face her.
“What, Hermione? What could they do with those - relics?”
She bit her lip. “I do wish Viktor was back. But that tournament in Sydney doesn’t end for another few days. And he’s much better read up in Necromancy than I am.”
He tried not to sound as disapproving as he felt. “Surely even Durmstrang didn’t actually teach Necromancy?”
She did not quite meet his eyes. “I think - maybe just the theory. In outline.”
He forbore to press the point, and reverted to his original question.
“Anyway, what do you think could be done with them?”
Hermione hesitated. “Well, if whoever had the bones knew how, he - or she - could summon their spirits back. I imagine - that was what Draco could sense in the Manor. Unquiet spirits. But they wouldn’t be - they wouldn’t be like the ghosts you and I know. Normal ghosts get to be ghosts because they want to - because they’re got some unfinished business, usually, or just can’t get their heads around this dying concept -“
He nodded, quickly, to show he had understood. “Like Professor Binns -“
“Yes. Or Nearly Headless Nick - hanging around so as to be a perpetual reproach to the headsman for having done a shoddy job in the first place. But spirits raised by Necromancy aren’t like that - they don’t want to be here - that’s why the rites are so dangerous, because you’re pulling something back into the world of the living that will hate and resent having been dragged here. And yet, sometimes when they do get here, they don’t want to leave, either, and they try to latch onto something so they can stay - anything - they’ve got this sort of hunger -“
“God. No wonder Draco was terrified to go to sleep.”
“Just as well he didn’t,” Hermione observed. “After all, as you said earlier, these spirits would be family. He’d be more at risk of their fastening on to him than almost anyone else.”
Neville shuddered. “So can you do anything to protect the Manor?”
Hermione nodded, decisively. “Now we know how it was done, there are a number of protections we can put in place. The best results would be if we could get the remains back, of course - “
“Yes. I’m not exactly mad about the idea of a mixed bag of Malfoy bones wandering randomly round Wiltshire in the hands of some anonymous Dark witch or wizard.”
“They probably aren’t,” Hermione pointed out.
“In the hands of any kind of witch or wizard. Whoever set this up isn’t going to risk being caught with them in their possession. And they’ve already sheltered themselves behind some Muggles once -“
She nodded in the general direction of the vandalized mausoleum. Neville felt a sudden chill as he caught her meaning. “You mean, you think the Muggles may still have the bones?”
“Why not? You’d only need brief access to them to do the Necromantic rites. And aren’t you forgetting one thing?”
She frowned. “What’s happened here was difficult, and dangerous - and sick, as you say. There must have been something in it for the Muggles who did it. And whoever they are, they’re all too deeply in to back out now. Whoever arranging it will have them dancing to his or her tune, if my guess is right.”
He looked around, and set his jaw. “Right. Look then, here’s what we do. Consider yourself given an unlimited budget to clean this place up from the magical point of view, and to put in place whatever protections you can find against its happening again. I’m going to send Draco another owl, to make sure he stays in the South of France until this is sorted. I’m not having him seeing that if I can help it.”
She nodded. “And the mausoleum? And finding the Muggles?”
“That needs special attention. And, off hand, I can think of only one thing to do about it. But don’t you worry about that bit. That will be my department.”
Peter Blakeney was spending his evening at his computer engaged in an intricate struggle. Hebrew vocabulary, less-than-accurate Biblical translations, the known views of the Parish council, the latest pronouncements of General Synod, the more unsympathetic tendencies of Saint Paul (which Peter tried and failed to avoid thinking of as channelling his inner Saul-of-Tarsus), the prejudices of the Bishop and his own natural inclinations were all insisting on fighting their corners, and fighting them tooth and nail. He glared at the PC.
“When one talks of “God the Father,” ” he tapped into the keyboard, “One has to be careful not to exclude as a result the concepts also of God the mother - God the sister - God the brother - “
God the god-awful sister-in-law one part of his brain chimed in, before he could stop it. He said firmly to his sub-conscious: “Stop that. Liz is a lovely person. If a trifle emphatic. Sometimes. And she most definitely means well. Which must count for a lot. Surely. Doesn’t it?”
He gulped, muttered internally “Vade post me, Satana,” and typed harder.
“Part of God’s greatness is that he could so love the world as to bring himself into our family, as a relative, as one of us. C.S.Lewis once described God’s position on the Incarnation in terms of how any of us might feel to become a slug or a crab. We all know how we can all feel sometimes - in weak moments - about our families -“
He paused, momentarily, to consider that concept, and gulped, as the potential pitfalls became apparent. Perhaps he ought to take the easy option and preach on what his parishioners were really concerned about.
“Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness / nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.”
Ninety-per-cent of his ageing congregation had been brought up in the fold of the King James Version - and Peter knew that a sermon preached around its gentle, poetic, deeply inaccurate familiarities would be soothing in the face of the horrors that were currently facing the villagers of Malfoy Intrinsica in this year of Our Lord two thousand and one.
I could not have believed that, in the twenty-first century in England, I would encounter farm children with rickets and incipient TB in my very first parish. And our current troubles have only just started.
Notwithstanding Canon Bowles’ knowing looks, he had been shocked to find that this deeply picturesque rural parish was even more profoundly deprived than the rough inner-city areas where he had spent his two curacies. Nor had he realised how helpless he would feel, in the teeth of its poverty and its desperate crying out for help that no one else seemed minded to supply. His hand rested idly on the mouse-mat as the sheer enormity of the problem made itself felt.
It was some time into his reverie before he noticed that a hand was rapping hard on his study windows. It was not the first time it had happened. After dark was frequently the time when people came unobtrusively to ask for his advice.
“Please come in,” he said firmly, “The conservatory door is on the latch.”
He scowled briefly at the screen, saved the half-finished document, and removed himself to the kitchen to meet his visitor.
The scruffily-dressed, hefty young man he found in the kitchen was not what he had been expecting. He had most certainly not set foot in any of his three churches in the four months Peter had been installed in the living, though he did look slightly familiar.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” the apparition said politely. “It’s very late. But I did need to talk to you.”
“Of course.” He was very much aware of what he ought to project. Calm. In charge. Having the cure of souls here. “May I get you a coffee?”
His visitor nodded. “Thank you. White. One sugar.”
Making the coffee afforded him a pause to take stock. It was, however, not long enough. His visitor looked at him and said:
“I’m sorry - I should have introduced myself. I’m Neville Longbottom. I live at the Manor.”
A piece slotted abruptly into place. Shortly after his arrival he had asked his new churchwardens to take him to the Rose and Crown, mindful of yet another piece of Canon Bowles’ invaluable advice (“Never go into the village pub on your own. The parish will assume you’re an alky. And never have more than one pint when you’re in there. But make sure you’re seen in there from time to time, and cultivate the landlord. After all, properly managed, the local’s going to act as a clearing house for most of the problems which will eventually be dumped on your lap”). And Jack, the landlord, apropos of nothing in particular, had indicated the young man who had just left the pool table and was in the process of buying a round at the other end of the bar.
“Not someone you’re going to be seeing anything of in church,” he’d observed casually, “But worth your while keeping an eye out for. He lives with our very peculiar local lord of the Manor. They’re -“
And he had flopped his wrist expressively.
Further enquiry had been futile. Peter had soon learned that nothing closed a conversation quicker or left a more awkward silence behind it than any mention in the village of the Manor or its inhabitants.
Well, looks as though I might have my curiosity satisfied at last.
“Knowing this village, you’ll presumably have heard about me and Draco,” his visitor continued.
Peter nodded, aware he was probably not making the best job of this conversation. “Yes. Well. Sort of.” His voice was hesitant. “Would that be what you wanted to talk to me about?”
The expression on his visitor’s face was suddenly incredulous, and, he thought, a trifle bitter. “No, actually. I’ve had an exhaustive explanation of what the Christian position is on the topic. Several, in fact, thank you. When the Prophet outed us my cousin Eustace kindly sent me a Bible. With relevant passages flagged up with little stickers, you know. Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Corinthians, Timothy and Romans. All complete.”
Oh dear. Sounds like this cousin was another of these who’s read every word of the Bible except the story of the woman taken in adultery. What a problem they are for the rest of us. And how the heck does one get outed by a prophet? Well, come to think of it, I imagine old Jeremiah for one would have had a whale of a time doing it, but I can’t recall any such incident off hand.
“Well,” he said with determined lightness, “At least, looking on the bright side he seems to have left out Genesis 19.”
His visitor’s voice was hesitant. “Gen -?” The penny apparently dropped. “Ah - oh, I see. Sodom and Gomorrah. God - I mean, golly - did I forget the Cities of the Plain? That section got special treatment. Stuck on labels and highlighter pen. With a rather excitable commentary adorned with little exclamation marks in the margins in red ink.”
Peter knew his voice was sounding very dry. “Remind me not to lend any books to your cousin.”
His visitor grinned, suddenly, and he felt the tension suddenly easing in the room.
“Tell me, since you must have studied it. What’s the professional take on why it was OK for Lot to invite the mob to gang rape his virgin daughters? Not being a Christian, that bit struck me as distinctly dodgy.”
This conversation is getting surreal.
Peter decided to tackle it with as much brisk efficiency as he could summon up.
“Sacred duty of hospitality, you know. However unpalatable it sounds. And three years of Oxford undergraduate Divinity and two years of theological college didn’t produce any answer more satisfactory to why? than: they really thought about that sort of thing very differently in the ancient world. And Lot isn’t supposed to be a role model, you know. He’s hanging in by the skin of his teeth. I assure you, we did think about those sort of problems quite hard.”
Neville raised his eyebrows. “Oh. That’s - you sound a lot less - emphatic - than Eustace.”
About an awful lot of things, I wouldn’t mind betting. If I did bet, of course.
He made his voice encouraging. “Ah?”
“Mm. I asked him same thing. He didn’t have any doubts at all.”
“For him, the crucial point was the sex of the angels. I don’t think it had occurred to him to worry about the little girls at all.”
Peter made a decision. It was obvious that his visitor had not come to the vicarage to discuss the more arcane points of Genesis 19 vv. 4-9. It was equally obvious that he was having trouble broaching whatever his real purpose was, and if Peter didn’t take charge of this conversation soon, his visitor might easily lose his nerve and back out of the whole matter. Which would not only leave Peter mad with unsatisfied curiosity, but worried. Given his unease, and his evident views on Christianity (for which that cousin of his does not seem to have been the best advertisement, one has to say), Neville clearly would not have come to the vicarage at all if there hadn’t been something serious driving him.
“Do you want to come through into the study? It’s more comfortable there, and I take it whatever you want to talk to me about could take some time?”
Neville nodded, hesitantly. It was not until they were sitting in deep armchairs (sorely in need of re-upholstering) on either side of the fire, and Peter had poured them both more coffee from the fresh pot he had made, that Neville spoke again.
“Excuse my asking, but is this - would you be prepared to treat this as secrets of the confessional stuff? I mean, I know enough to know the C of E doesn’t -“
“As a matter of fact, we do. Well, it depends on the priest. It varies a lot. Personally, I’m an advocate of individual auricular confession. I found it - myself - a great help when I’d just gone up to University. So yes. Of course. But you need to understand the limits. There isn’t any legal protection allowing me to maintain the confidentiality of anything you tell me, for instance, against a police investigation. It isn’t formally privileged. And I’d better warn you, also, that if you were planning on confessing to any major crimes - “
His visitor’s face was a study in surprise. “Major crimes?”
“No? Good. Because that would be something I’d have to take further. Though obviously, I’d give you all the help I could to come forward - “
Neville’s expression was unreadable, but he thought he detected a certain amusement in it. “Actually, the fact I’m proposing to tell you about this lot at all is a pretty major crime. By the rules I’m supposed to play by, in any event. But, believe me, that one isn’t your problem. And I’m certainly not planning to spill the beans to the Ministry, whatever. No, what I’m doing, I suppose, is reporting a crime. And, before you ask, I have no idea at all who did it.”
Peter nodded, automatically. The shadows danced in the corners of the study, and suddenly he had the sense of standing on a borderline. Small gestures and movements assumed incredible importance.
Anything can happen he thought, and though the thought terrified him he felt an exhilaration of spirit beating through it all. I’m in for it now.
“Go on,” he said calmly.
“Did you know that you’ve got something very nasty indeed happening in this parish?”
The sentence, given his expectations, was almost bathetic. He snapped his fingers impatiently.
“You mean: on top of the prevalence of hard drugs, and alcohol abuse, and consequent familial abuse, and sex crime, and the incredible poverty, and the fact that the last bus to anywhere leaves at 5:30, and there are only buses on three days a week, so anyone without a car, or women stuck at home with young children or elderly parents while the family car is elsewhere are prisoners in their own homes -?”
His guest’s voice was low, but emphatic.
“You’ve forgotten foot-and-mouth. Or the fact that for two years before foot-and-mouth animals going to market were only fetching prices that wouldn’t cover the food, let alone the other costs of rearing them. Thanks, I understand, to the best part of twenty years’ self-serving idiocy from their Ministry.”
Peter raised an eyebrow, and his visitor smiled, suddenly, as though it were being dragged out of him.
“Very rare talent, that. And I can’t imagine there’s that much scope for it in the Church. Pity. Anyway, leaving that one aside, yes. I know all of that. I’m not here to talk about it, though. But you need to take me seriously. Believe me, there are some truly horrible things happening.”
Peter caught the urgency in his tone, and nodded.
“OK. Please tell me.”
Neville’s hand moved, arrestingly. “This bit is going to be difficult. That’s the bit I’m not supposed to tell you about. But I think I have to. Look, well, anyway, what do you think about magic?”
His visitor sighed. “Oh, I knew this was going to be complicated.”
His hand moved to his sleeve, and pulled out a slender wooden rod.
The coffee pot rose up off the occasional table he had dragged in front of the fire, floated through the air, tilted, replenished his coffee cup, and then drifted back down to the table again. Peter suppressed a gulp.
“I see. I think. Thank you, by the way.”
His guest’s voice was somewhat cynical. “Maybe. But you saw it, at least. It exists. Irrespective of whether you believe in it or approve of it or not. Now, trust me. If you don’t have the innate talent - basically, to be able to do magic you need be born with the talent and then also to have it - sparked off - by something magical happening to you before you’re too old for it to work. Saturation in a magical field, my Grandma calls it. But then, she was an engineer. It’s how she thinks. Anyway, the point I’m making is that if you don’t have the talent in the first place then nothing - believe me on this one - nothing will create it in you. However many sacrifices you make, or souls you pledge, or pentacles you stand in -“
Peter drew in his breath sharply. “It sounds as though someone who tried any of those would be risking doing themselves a lot of damage. Spiritually.”
His visitor looked slightly surprised, but then nodded. “Well, that’s your speciality. But I wouldn’t say you were wrong. Especially not with the people they could end up mixing with from our world. Who really are not at all nice people, and would certainly see them purely as - fodder. But you need to understand a bit more about the - the mechanics. Tell me, have you ever tried to recharge a car battery that’s been knackered so badly it won’t hold a charge?”
“Well, that’s about what you’d be dealing with if you’re trying to put magical talent where there isn’t any. But equally, if you’ve seen a duff car battery, you’ll know that at certain times you can’t tell if it’s working or not.”
Peter looked at him, questioningly.
“You mean: when it’s simply channelling power from another electrical source?”
“Very good. Yes. And I’ve got a horrible suspicion that things may have been set up so these people don’t know the difference themselves. So they’ve done - horrible things - to give themselves power. And they may well believe they’ve succeeded. And so they’ll go on doing - whatever they think will continue delivering the power. Which is fake, of course. They’re dancing to someone else’s tune. But they’ve done the things, notwithstanding. And they must have known how bad they were, at the time. Which is, I suspect, very much your department.”
Peter’s voice was very low. “How bad?”
Neville shrugged. “Tombs. They’ve broken into graves. Taken out bodies. Broken off bones. Taken away teeth. Given them to someone to - use. To use in very Dark and very illegal and - very real - magic.”
“Which graves? Is that the criminal offence you’re talking about?”
Neville nodded. “And it’s the one I hoped I might talk you into covering up for me.”
His outraged squeal had, it seemed, been anticipated. Neville gestured, passionately and decisively.
“Look, you’ve been very polite. And I appreciate that. It - makes a nice change. But there’s one thing you have to understand. You have your point of view. All well and good - for you. But my job here is to make sure Draco isn’t hurt. And I just don’t want to imagine how he’ll respond if he sees what they’ve done to his family’s bones. You have no idea how bad a state he was in when I got home. And I do care very much about that. Whether you think I should or not.”
“Hm.” Peter got up and crossed to the overflowing bookshelf that occupied the whole of one wall of the study, selecting a volume and flicking through it. He caught his visitor’s eye on his and waved an explanatory hand.
“Davies’ Law of Burials, Cremation and Exhumation,” he explained. For some reason his visitor looked somewhat amused, and was obviously deliberately refraining from comment.
He found the passages he wanted, and flicked quickly through.
“The mausoleum - it is on private land? “
His visitor shrugged.
“About as private as it gets.”
“Hm. And how old were the tombs that had been vandalized? Do they pre-date the Burial Acts, would you say?”
His visitor looked somewhat baffled, so he amplified, helpfully, “Pre 1852, or not?”
“Oh, gosh yes: the latest I saw was sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century, and the earliest was 1665.”
“Hm.” He thought for a bit, and then closed the book. “OK, this is what I suggest. As far as I can tell, your big concern is your partner’s distress if you tell him this news, yes?”
Neville nodded. “I’ll have to say something, but I want to soften it as much as possible. And he can’t possibly be forced to look at it. Or give statements. He’ll just flip.”
“That’s something the secular authorities will be surprisingly sensitive about, you know. We do get the odd case like this from time to time, I’m sorry to say. Now, the legal position is that the owner of the burial site actually has a duty to restore it following desecration, subject to a couple of caveats we’ll come on to. So I’ve got no problem about turning up with you - you’ve got some form of authority over the property, I assume? - to see what we need to do to sort that. Tomorrow at ten OK for you? At the burial ground?”
Neville nodded, wordlessly. Peter continued.
“As far as criminal offences go, the subject’s all a bit up in the air, because we don’t know who did it and who’s got the bones that were taken. They aren’t, by the way, stolen property: no one owns body bits. But, I assure you, I shall certainly do what I can to find out what’s become of them. And that is very much the sort of thing that someone with an uneasy conscience may well come to me with. Not the - taker - necessarily, but someone who lives with them, maybe. As you say, my department.”
He took a deep breath.
“Desecrating the tombs was probably an offence of criminal damage rather than any of the specific crimes of disturbing burial grounds that Davies sets out, because of the age of the remains and the slightly anomalous status of the mausoleum. Now, the authorities are going to want to be sure, before we start putting the mausoleum to rights, that the bones really are the age that we all think they are - there has been the odd case of people trying to hide dead bodies in churchyards before now -“
“Sort of coals to Newcastle, really,” Neville murmured, and then added, “I’m fairly confident about that, actually. Hermione - well, anyway, we checked. In our own way.”
“Good. And anyway, so far as convincing the police is concerned, there’s a guy I was at college with who specializes in human skeletal remains, and he’s just got a senior lectureship at Bristol. I know the police have called upon him from time to time, and I shouldn’t imagine he’d object to driving over for the day, and giving everyone the benefit of his expert opinion. And the cops wouldn’t want to tie up a police forensic team if they’ve got that sort of expert report in front of them. So if you allowed me to make a report to the police, and if you’ve got rights of access to the land, and so forth I shouldn’t see why we couldn’t get things sorted without any sort of publicity. Quite quickly. I’m afraid that’s the best I can do.”
Neville paused, and nodded. “If there’s a quick way of getting it put back straight, and we don’t have to have people crawling all over the Manor and the grounds then I’d be so grateful. We really can’t afford to have our authorities getting onto it - not something juicy involving human skeletal remains and Malfoy land. If they did - well, they wouldn’t be so much leaping to conclusions as building elaborate cantilevered structures so as to reach conclusions more efficiently for prolonged periods.”
He got up, somewhat abruptly, and extended his hand. “Thanks.”
“No problem. Part of the job. And it’s been nice talking to you.”
His visitor’s attention, as he stood up, had obviously been caught by the small eighteenth century oil painting of one of Peter’s predecessors that hung above the desk. Peter gestured helpfully.
“That’s Canon Rawkins. Incumbent here from 1760 to 1790.”
“I - know. I recognised him. There’s a similar portrait up at the Manor.” Neville hesitated, and turned round to face him. “Look, how much history to this parish did they tell you, when they offered you it?”
Peter knew he must be looking surprised. “Well, the usual stuff, I presume. Not all that detailed - but they don’t, you know. I’ve been amusing myself going through the parish records when I’ve had any time, actually.”
“Um.” Neville looked at the portrait again. “According to Draco’s Great Uncle Roger, the Canon was the wickedest man he’d ever met in his entire life. In the circumstances, I think you ought to assume that doesn’t mean blessing himself an extra glass or so of communion wine, and cheating himself at patience in the long winter evenings.”
“Draco’s Great Uncle - Oh, I see. Family memoirs?”
Neville shook his head. “Family portrait.”
Peter, prudently, decided to let that one lie where it fell. He looked again at the portrait. “The funny thing is, we’ve not been able to find his tomb. There’s a bequest which funds the upkeep of memorials to all the incumbents who died in the parish - and there do seem to have been rather a lot of them, I must say - but we’ve never found his grave.”
“Ah?” Neville’s voice was rather distant. “That, I suppose, would be because of him not actually having died.”
Neville turned to face him, away from his contemplation of the portrait. “Well, not in the conventional sense, anyway. But good-night. Be seeing you in the morning.”
He was, abruptly, gone; vanishing into thin air as though he had never been. Peter reached out a shaky hand and switched off the computer. He somehow felt that the events of the evening had utterly wrecked any chance he might have had of regaining his original train of thought. And that he might have to do some serious revisions to his sermon in the morning.