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Chapter 10: Wednesday Morning and Afternoon - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall

The housekeeper’s stony gaze passed over him without betraying a flicker of recognition, although from the cold hostility radiating off her Peter was quite sure that she knew exactly who he was. From behind him he heard Neville say, coolly,

“Thank you, Mrs P. And where can we find Caitlin? With the casualty?”

Mrs P. shook her head. “She’s up checking her room, with the master, trying to find out what she was poisoned with. They asked for you to wait for them in her private sitting room. The victim - sorry, Mr Neville, I meant, the patient - she’s in the residents’ sitting room. Some of the other guests are looking after her, till the ambulance arrives. But Mistress Naismith said to get the doctor, pronto. Speaking frankly, I’m not sure she trusts their notions of first aid. “

Neville nodded.

“Would you be so good as to let Draco and Caitlin know we’ll organise it? Oh, and could you take the dogs back up to the Manor if you’ve finished here? I don’t suppose Caitlin will appreciate having them cavorting about while she’s having a crisis. Please could you check, too, what the Nelcorp people need by way of additional supplies for the flood victims. I’d suggest you offer them the last load of beef we’d earmarked for those people Hermione put us onto in Leadenhall Market: after all, if the Muggles won’t allow us to ship it, I don’t see why someone shouldn’t get the benefit.”

She acknowledged the instruction with a wordless nod, and vanished back indoors, still looking stern-faced. Neville turned apologetically to Peter.

“Oops. Looks like neither of us quite fall into the category of cleared of suspicion, then. Unless it’s your collar, of course. She is - um - rather twitchy about clergymen, actually. Family reasons.”

His throat was dry, and he wasn’t even sure he actually wanted to know the answer, but something led him to ask, nonetheless.


Neville, also looking deeply surprised that he was pursuing the matter, coughed nervously.

“Well - um - during the Commonwealth some preacher from Poole decided to set himself up as the local witch-finder. And - ah - rather unfortunately, one of the first ones he managed to find was Mrs P.’s ancestress, who must have been about 16 or so at the time. She’d decided - apparently for totally non-magical reasons, actually - to celebrate May Day by a bathe in the Ebble. Which, of course, added up to an open-and-shut case of witchcraft to this guy. I mean, think about it; cleanliness, nudity, and celebration of a pagan festival all in one fell swoop. And unfortunately, he managed to snatch her and overpower her before she could get to her wand, which, of course, she’d left on the riverbank with her clothes. And as a result there was nothing to stop her being carried naked across the back of a mule into Salisbury, at the head of a jeering mob.”

Peter gulped, and repressed an obscure impulse to apologise. Neville eyed him curiously.

“Well, if she’d just been an ordinary teenager that would have just added humiliation to injury, of course. As it was - the news got round pretty fast, and her family did know she was in trouble. So though the preacher did manage to have a decent go at her with the boot when she got to Salisbury Gaol - they say she never did walk straight again, afterwards -“

This time the impulse won out.

“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling foolish and ineffectual as he did so. Neville raised his eyebrows.

“I wouldn’t be,” he said. “After all, unless I’ve very much mistaken, the same people that were giving her the boot would have probably found a convenient heresy or so to pin on you, I expect, if you’d lived then. I’ve never noticed that pointing out sanely and sensibly that things are usually more complicated than people would love to believe actually makes anyone popular. No?”

Fleetingly, Peter thought of the Bishop, and EP. Without, however, waiting for him to say anything, Neville continued,

“And anyway, you haven’t heard all of it, yet. Well, overnight her friends got to Salisbury, and the Gaol wasn’t, I expect, anything special to bust her out of. Only, of course, our authorities would never have stood for them leaving an empty cell for the Muggles to worry about.”

He paused, meditatively. “It was only as the preacher took the prisoner out to swim her - floats she’s guilty, sinks she’s innocent, you know - and, much to the crowd’s disappointment she was going under for the third, and, as it turned out, final time - that our people let the glamour slip and he recognised his only daughter, he thought he’d left behind in Poole. And he leapt into the water to try and pull her out - so of course, they assumed he’d been bewitched, and forcibly dragged him back - and when he got home, everyone told him she’d run away with a sailor. He’d always believed in showing his love for his children with the buckle end of his belt, you see. He abandoned witch-finding and died mad, a couple of years later.”

Neville looked across at Peter, who, with an effort, remained silent and impassive.

“One of the reasons I’ve always found politics so difficult,” he added, and then, thoughtfully, “History was very badly taught at my school. We were all so bored no-one could remember a word of it. It’s only after I started to read it for myself that I wondered if that, perhaps, might have been deliberate.”

This level of intensity was just too much. Peter reached a decision. “Look here,” he said, “I really don’t think Caitlin’s going to be in any mood for the sort of discussion we were planning, given the afternoon she must be having. And Canon Bowles probably will be needing me. I’m pretty certain I know where to find Richard. So should I go and search him out, and you can call me at the Rectory when things are more sorted here?”

Neville nodded, and headed towards the guest house door. Peter paused, irresolutely, before turning back towards the street. He had, of course, every reason to depart now. They were good reasons all, and he meant them all sincerely. But somewhere on the edge of his hearing he was conscious of a mocking, ghostly crowing.

“I said, get back from her.”

In the shocked hush of the residents’ sitting room Jacqueline’s snapped order had all the impact of a high-powered rifle being fired. Into the chandelier. Under its force, Julian reluctantly pocketed his Swiss Army knife, and gazed at her with an air of injured reasonableness.

“I really don’t think you’ve quite grasped the scale of the problem, here, Jackie. We’re faced with a life-threatening situation. And - while I understand why you don’t feel ready to cope with that intellectually, we can’t at this moment afford you that luxury. I’m sorry, but this situation calls for drastic, yet necessary, action.”

She paused. She inhaled. And then she said, slowly, deliberately, and above all audibly, so that everyone in the room recoiled before the intensity of it,

“Believe me, Julian, that fact is the last thing I’d quarrel with you about. And, in line with that assessment, if you take one step nearer with that knife and that biro casing, I will regard it as necessary - and, indeed, drastic, if the word suits you better - to get them off you, physically, before you touch Cathy with either of them. Even if that means breaking both of your wrists with my bare hands. Or your neck. If that’s what it takes.”

He opened his mouth to remonstrate, but she forestalled him.

“And, in the event of any legal consequences, I have every intention of facing the jury with a clear conscience, and telling them, “This man was advancing towards the casualty’s throat with a blunt unsterilised pen-knife, and told me - before witnesses - that he was planning to make an unanaesthetised incision between the cartilage rings of her trachea.” Tell me, Julian, have you ever tried to work out - in anger, with a real human being under your fingers - which are the rings, and which the bits in between? Can you really feel which is which? Because I can tell you, I’ve never seen better than 20% accuracy when they test out the fourth-year medical students for the first time - at least, I mean, when they used to - “

She paced towards the window and then swirled round on her heel to face Julian straight in the eye. Briefly, incongruously, she blessed having worn the old black bat-winged knitted silk top for the day. It folded around her so impressively as she did so. And stage presence, as her mentor at Guy’s had advised her so long ago, was half the secret of successful surgical practice. It’s no coincidence they call it a theatre.

“Have you any conception of exactly how much pain your proposed course of action would impose on her? She may be unconscious now, but I can tell you, doing what you suggest would bloody well wake her up, and sharpish too. Especially with a blade I suspect hasn’t seen a grinding stone in what - fifteen years? Twenty? Sheesh! And anyway -“

She dropped her voice. In the days when she had had students hanging obediently on her every word, that trick had always worked. And, almost inconceivably, Julian recoiled, his expression almost that of those long-ago disciples. As the sense of wild elation within her threatened to take over, she seized the moment, following his retreating face, thrusting her own features into his recoil, and hissing at him with all the power her fury and righteousness could command.

“Do you have any idea of where her carotid artery even is -? Or her jugular vein? Well, go away and study the diagrams, and bloody well don’t go stabbing blunt dirty knives into people’s necks until you know whether you’re aiming to hit the major blood vessels or miss them, OK? Got that?”

She was breathing heavily, her face suffused, but she still had breath and spirit left to deliver the coup de grace.

“And - I would say that there’s nothing better than the first aid you’ve proposed. In the right circumstances. And if you’re able to get it right. Technically. Where the obstruction to the trachea has blocked all other possibilities, an emergency tracheotomy is, I accept, the only option. But there’s one thing you’ve left out. Put your ear where it should be, won’t you? To her mouth. Look down her throat before you suggest anything surgical. At all. Whatsoever.”

She stepped back a deliberate pace and a half - that had always worked, too, in the old days - took three measured breaths, and then gestured at the unconscious patient on the sofa.

“If you look at her, she’s still breathing. Naturally. With difficulty, I grant you. But - through the normal equipment. No holes anywhere. What say, you leave it that way? Until things get worse? If they do? OK?”

She paused, and then with every shred she could summon up of the woman she had once been, she infused her voice with scorn.

“Look, Julian, has it ever occurred to you why the word emergency got put in front of tracheotomy in the first place? Well, maybe this was the reason. It was the option you used when there wasn’t any alternative to breathing, at all, whatsoever? OK? And if you detect any alternative - and I can tell you, she is assuredly breathing here, then don’t do the first aid that is intended to claw through an air passage against the odds, OK? At all. Understood?”

There was a sound of clapping from the door to the passage. She turned, abruptly. A man - in his late middle age, she judged - his thinning grey hair scraped back from his tanned, lined brow, stood in the gap.

Primum non nocere,” he said, and then, “Brava”. And met her eyes.

“Indeed,” she said, refusing to surrender the pass, even so. The new arrival glanced over the residents’ sitting room, and then back to her.

“I’m Richard Howard. I’m the doctor in this village. I need a bit of space. Please could you leave me with the casualty? All of you -? Except for Miss -?”

His dark eyes caught hers and held them. Involuntarily, she stuttered.

“Call - call me Jacqueline.”

He nodded. Then he looked round at the others.

“Well, I suggest you leave me here with the patient and with Miss Jacqueline here. Thank you.”

Grumbling, reluctantly, all of them left the sitting room. Then he turned to her.

“What treatment have you given?”

She exhaled. Determinedly factual, she said, “I put natural yoghurt down her throat when they were trying to make her vomit. I could see the poison was corrosive, and emesis was contra-indicated. Milk would have done, but more people can tolerate yoghurt. And then I fended off the first aid.”

“So I saw.” He raised Cathy’s head to peer into her eyes and looked distasteful as he spotted the distended pupils. Jacqueline saw the angle of his glance and said,

“I know. I’m having difficulties reconciling that with the other symptoms. And the sooner a serious casualty ward tackles that, the better, for my mind. The ambulance is on its way. I telephoned.”

He was still looking sceptical, dammit, so she expanded.

“You have to understand, she - the patient -” she stole a determinedly unworried glance at Cathy. “Made a habit of dosing herself with herbal remedies. Home gathered ones. I saw her myself drinking something she claimed was raspberry leaf tea, for stomach cramps, and then when she started with the sore mouth she insisted on brewing herself some disgusting-smelling concoction she insisted was comfrey. I’ve told Caitlin to impound anything herbal from her room, and make sure that the poisons unit gets to see samples of all of it.”

He nodded. Then he paused. “You’re Jacqueline Hawkins, aren’t you?”

She shrugged, and tried to avoid sounding bitter. But photographs of her face had appeared too often in medical publications for her to deny it, much as she wished to. “I was.”

His voice was meditative, reflective. “Médecins Sans Frontières? Bosnia? The Medic who survived the Massacre, wasn’t it?”

“And sundry other media cliché. Mostly alliterative, yes. I don’t, you understand, practice any more.”

He looked across at Cathy. The breathing was still agonized, and the pulse - she had kept her fingers against Cathy’s throat - was fast and faint.

“Are you sure?” he enquired gently.

She looked down. “Well, always excepting emergencies.”

Richard hissed sympathetically between his front teeth. “Why the hell people continue blindly to believe that natural equals wholesome, I cannot think. And god alone knows what she’s managed to put into herself as a result.”

There was a noise at the door. Caitlin, making little pretence of knocking, strode through. “The ambulance is just coming up the driveway, Richard,” she said without preamble. “Can we be ready to have her carried out through the French windows?”

“By all means. Do you have samples of anything it could have been, ready for the hospital?”

By way of answer, Caitlin indicated a plastic carrier bag she’d dropped on the floor by the couch, together with a bag containing, Jacqueline presumed, overnight things for Cathy.

Jacqueline, without asking any kind of permission, reached over to the carrier bag. There was a collection of small plastic containers inside, each neatly labelled in black ink in a delicate, faintly archaic handwriting.

“Samples of everything vaguely herbal or medicinal we could find in her room,” Caitlin said. “One per container. Goodness only knows what those samples are - she wasn’t any too precise about labelling them up herself - but we did our best to try and jot down as many clues as we could.”

“Who’s we?” Embarrassingly, Jacqueline found herself in chorus with the village doctor. Caitlin surveyed them both with a rather bleak expression.

“I - fortunately, a friend of mine who has had a good deal of experience in - ah, formulating herbal compounds of various sorts - was on hand to assist me in checking through Cathy’s things.”

Richard’s expression cleared. His expression of enlightenment suggested that Caitlin’s non-explanation had conveyed more to him than to her. However, in a voice that strove to sound calm and normal Jacqueline said,

“Good. Best that you weren’t alone when you searched her room. You see - one daren’t overlook the possibility in these cases that -“

She came to an awkward stop. The guesthouse proprietor’s face was sardonic.

“That it isn’t a stupid accident? And that in the event of an investigation there might be suggestions that I’d planted something in her room?”

Relieved at Caitlin’s perception, Jacqueline added,

“Or taken something away.”

Caitlin nodded. “Oddly enough, that’s the third time this afternoon I’ve been given a similar warning. With you, I’d put it down to professional caution, with the first one I’d put it down to painful personal experience, but the second one, now that one was interesting -“

She tailed off, and then added, tersely, “I’ve had her room sealed up. Just in case.”

Richard looked at her. “Good thinking, but are you sure locking it will be effective? After all, you’ve had at least one instance of these rooms being broken into; there may be a rogue pass-key around -“

Thank you, Richard. I am bright enough to think of that one. And to take precautions. Put it this way: if anyone tries breaking those seals they’ll get something they won’t expect. Anyway, no time for that: the para-medics are here. Now, take these, Jacqueline.”

She thrust the carrier bag and the overnight case into her hands.

“What? I -“

Ruthlessly, as the paramedics started to lift the nearly unconscious woman, and ease her out towards the waiting ambulance, Caitlin handed Jacqueline her coat and started to help her on with it.

“Richard tells me you’ve been good enough to volunteer to travel in the ambulance with Cathy.”

She turned, and glared at the village doctor. It was a bare-faced lie: there had not been time enough for the two to have communicated. Richard, however, was smiling broadly.

“Yes, it would take a tremendous load off my mind. I’m still dealing with the fall-out from this flooding, and doubtless there’ll be more sprains, strains, hypothermias and infected cuts coming in if the river keeps rising, but all the same, it’s a tremendous stroke of luck that there’s a qualified person able to travel in the ambulance, and explain matters to the poisons unit.”

She paused, helplessly, irresolutely. But one of the paramedics was already holding the French windows open for her to walk out onto the rain-swept driveway. Caitlin smiled at her.

“Give me a call, when you’ve seen her settled down and everything’s sorted at the hospital, and I’ll arrange for a lift home for you.”

Blankly, she nodded, and moved almost automatically towards the ambulance. She was dimly aware of the paramedic looking towards Richard and saying something, which she could not catch, but whose sense she gathered from the answer.

“Yes, I know the patient’s looking in a bad way, but you can rely on Dr Hawkins here to keep the situation under control until you can get her into intensive care. Eh? What? Yes. That Dr Hawkins. Indeed.”

And then her nostrils were breathing the wholly familiar scent of disinfectant and medical gases which streamed out of the inside of the ambulance as its back doors were opened. Caitlin and Dr Howard were firmly making way for her and the paramedics through the gaggle of delegates clustering on the sopping gravel (“Ghouls” said one part of her mind, even as the more charitable part told her, “We’ve been living on top of each other for days. Stands to reason they’d be worried”). And she had a patient to care for, so externals were gradually losing relevance, in any event. Cathy , evidently, was partly roused to consciousness by the cold as she was transferred to the ambulance. She was pushing herself frantically up from the stretcher against the firm, gentle, restraining arms of the paramedics, her eyes black with the distension in her pupils, her whole body tense and focussed on something no-one else could see, her horribly harsh, breathy, barely intelligible tones gasping out a broken sentence towards a listener who was not there.

“Simon! Simon! You’ll never guess what, Simon. Brilliant news. I’ve got us a publishing contract. What should our pseudonym be?”

The frantic scrabble through the detritus left behind by her two sons in the rooms tucked under the eaves that were still, notionally, theirs had, eventually, yielded what she was looking for. She returned to her sitting room clutching the rectangular cardboard box like a trophy.

“It’s not very high intensification,” she explained apologetically as she unpacked the microscope from its protective polystyrene. Then, struck with a sudden doubt, she turned to look at the two young men propping themselves against the furniture. Draco, certainly, had an expression of the deepest scepticism on his face.

“You - you have seen one of these before, haven’t you?”

“Well, actually -“

“Yes,” Neville interrupted firmly, “I can use a microscope, honestly.”

Indeed, he assembled it without trouble, adjusting the eye-piece and presenting it with sample slide loaded so that Draco, who still appeared to think it was likely to bite, could peer through it

“Well, it’s quite interesting. I suppose,” Draco muttered, ” I don’t quite see what you expect us to do with it, though.”

She paused for a moment. There was an array of samples on the table in front of her.

“Well,” she said, “I kept back a bit of everything I sent off to the poisons lab. I rather thought - given your training - you might get on to what was used a bit quicker than the hospital will. I mean - you do use them, don’t you? Herbs and things? For er - magic potions and such?”

Neville looked rather sheepish. “Well, I grow them. Potions wasn’t - isn’t - um - my strongest subject - “

Draco’s eyes glittered with faintly malicious amusement. “What I think Neville’s trying to tell you is that he is still the proud possessor of the Hogwarts All-comers Open Potions record for melted cauldrons, bizarre side-effects (lobster claws, wasn’t it, Neville?), unscheduled explosions - “

Although he reddened, Neville’s voice was commendably calm. “Well, there are worse reputations to have. What was it I recall Parvati saying in one lesson? Something like “Professor, Professor! My hair just turned into snakes, and I’ll swear Malfoy meant to do it - ?” “

Draco looked unabashed. “Anyway, I understand that there are two possibilities for what happened today, ” he said. “First, horrendously careless accident, and, secondly, deliberate poisoning.”

She nodded. A slow smile spread over his features. “Well, on the basis of our past history, I think you could say that as investigators, that about makes us the Dream Team. Lead us to it.”

His eye turned to the microscope again.

“Though I still don’t see where that gadget comes in. An amplificare charm would do at least as well.”

The exasperation was plainly audible in her voice as she exhaled.

“Yes, well, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use both. But at some point I may have to convince our authorities to sit up and take notice. And even if I have to work back to the scientific explanation from whatever you come up with using your methods, I’d like to have something more than magic to explain why I’m trying to get some CID inspector from half the county away to take me seriously.”

Draco looked mulish. “Even half the county away, I’d hope they’d have a bit of respect -“

Neville snorted.

“Oh, honestly, Draco, and the Ministry’s going to say precisely what if we go and give magical evidence to the Muggle police?”

Judging from Draco’s silence that he had made his point, Neville nodded to Caitlin. “OK. Where do you want me to start?”

She gestured towards the sample on its saucer at the far end of the line.

“This one. It’s supposed to be raspberry leaves. She definitely took an infusion of that yesterday and today, for stomach cramps -“

“Not nearly as effective without the Ashwinder yolk, they tell me,” Draco muttered thoughtfully. Neville made an exasperated noise.

“Which she was going to get from where, precisely? Anyway, if that’s all that was in it, that shouldn’t have produced any of those symptoms. Let’s see.”

He took a generous pinch of the dried leaves, rolled them between his palms, and sniffed. He sniffed again and squinted down at the little heap of shreds.

“Well, I’m not sure,” he said. “That doesn’t seem quite right, certainly. In fact, I’d say there are definitely at least two different plants in that. And judging by the smell and feel, one of them’s a lot fresher than the other. What do you reckon?”

Draco looked at him, pulled out his wand, pointed it at his own nose and muttered,

Odoratum canis reddo.”

He leant, rather like a wine connoisseur, over the sample, and inhaled thoughtfully -

And recoiled, gagging uncontrollably, his face a nasty shade of grey-green. Caitlin hurriedly passed him a glass of water, of which he gulped down about half.

“My god!” he spat out, when he could speak again, “You mean she actually drank that stuff? Twice?”

Caitlin set her lips. “Well, I suspect she subscribes to the view that it can’t be doing you any good unless it tastes revolting -“

“Ah! I see. The Pomfrey school of remedies,” Neville said, and then, looking over at Draco, who was still spluttering, “Actually, you know, unless she’s got a large dollop of bloodhound in her ancestry, I don’t expect her nose would be quite that sensitive.”

His boyfriend, looking faintly sheepish, raised the wand again, muttering, “Finite incantatem” and suddenly looked a great deal healthier. He nodded, assentingly.

“Definitely two different herbs in there. One of them reeking like bubotuber pus if you sniff it properly.”

He paused, carefully returned the fragments to the saucer with the remainder of the sample, waved his wand thoughtfully over them, and murmured, “Unificate”.

Under Caitlin’s entranced gaze, as she observed events much she might have once looked at the kind of trick photography which shows a rose becoming a bud, and then a barren shoot again, all in the space of half a minute, the fragments on the saucer asserted themselves; almost looked confused (to her anthropomorphic eye, at least) and then, suddenly coalesced back into their original leaf form - at least, she assumed, so far as they were able to.

A handful of dried red brown leaves of familiar shape sat on the saucer, surrounding part of a fresher leaf veined in patterns of white, green and pink. Draco looked up expressively to Neville, who was contemplating the interloper with his head on one side. He, in turn, raised his eyebrows and whistled, expressively.

“Caladium,” he said. “However batty she was, that’s got no business in a stomach cramp potion. Swollen tongue, was it? Sore mouth? I’m not a bit surprised.”

There was a pause. Caitlin noted, with mild hilarity (however inappropriate it might be in the circumstances) that Draco had the identical air of faintly baffled politeness to the one she felt on her own features.

Neville looked at them both with some exasperation. “Caladium? Angel wings? Heart of Jesus? Come on, Caitlin, I don’t care what name they sold them to you under, but you must know what I mean.”

“Sold them to me?” She enquired, to buy time. He looked faintly exasperated.

“Well, I imagined that’s what you’d done. Either that or gone shop-lifting in a garden centre. You can’t have found them growing wild; they’re sub-tropical.”

Draco looked out of the window. The wind, which had died down earlier, had evidently risen again: the trees in the garden were tossing wildly and the rain lashing across horizontally.

“Which Wiltshire isn’t,” he observed somewhat unnecessarily. She ignored it, to concentrate on the main point.

“Where do I come in?” she enquired.

Neville was not the sort to look martyred, but his expression suggested he was thinking about breaking his rule. “There’s one on that window-ledge,” he said patiently, gesturing towards it. She turned, and looked at it. The leaf, now she thought, did seem to have some family relationship to it.

“Oh, those plants.”

Sensing, perhaps, that given the build-up this response might have been somewhat inadequate, she added,

“The gardener organised those. I’ve got them all round the guest-house. But he never gave me any names. And I just said I wanted some pot plants that would look a bit brighter for February and March.”

She paused for a moment, and then plunged, recklessly, into confession of the abysm of her ignorance.

“As a matter of fact, I’d assumed that they were a rather unusual form of poinsettia.”

She realised, from the outraged expression on his face (eerily reminiscent of that of the 12 year-old Ricky that time she’d muddled up his Airfix models, and confused the F14 with the MiG), that she had evidently made a gaffe of world-shaking proportions. Nevertheless, Neville’s voice was resolutely polite as he said,

“Well, it wouldn’t have done Cathy any good to have put poinsettia in her stomach cramp remedy either. But I can tell you that caladium would have been markedly worse for her.”

She coughed.

“You mean my gardener actually supplied me with poisonous plants? For decoration?”

“Perhaps,” Draco observed trenchantly, “He assumed that even your guests could be relied on not to eat them.”

She looked dubiously down at the parti-coloured leaf.

‘Well, I suppose. At least, it’s true they haven’t before. So far as I know. Though I think next time I will insist on playing it safe, and go for poinsettias -“

Neville sighed. “Actually, poinsettias are poisonous too, just not quite as much. In fact, it’s amazing just how many common plants are completely lethal when you get right down to it. If she’d managed to get her hands on a castor bean, for example, we’d be having this conversation in the morgue.”

She thought about that, and shuddered. “Well, in any event it seems to have been poisonous enough -“

“Well, actually, I was wondering - “

“Should we see what First-Cousin-Twice-Removed Melusine has to say about that?”

Draco reached into an inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a slim, leather-bound volume, the stamped gold letters on the cover proclaiming it to be A Malfoy Miscellany; 1001 Ways of Causing Sudden Death. He must have spotted her air of half-amused horror, because he said explanatorily,

” An exercise in vanity publishing by one of my grandfather’s cousins in the 1920’s or thereabouts. Her style’s a bit much, but so far as we’ve been able to check it, her research was pretty reliable.”

Neville made a wry grimace. He was evidently quoting:

If the mute helplessness of your caged rats and rabbits bids your softer nature stay your experimenting hand, consider this instead. All families, however old and noble, have members of that class unkindly dubbed “superfluous” by the wider world, and to give one’s life in the service of Science is a noble destiny to which few are called.”

Caitlin giggled. “Actually, that’s rather witty. I like her style.”

Neville pursed his lips tighter. “As a literary exercise, possibly. As a philosophy of life, let’s say I have my reservations.”

Draco made an airy gesture with one hand.

“You know, old Melusine ended up as quite a famous author. She started writing stories for her nieces and nephews, and they were rather thinly disguised accounts of the games she and her sisters used to get up in the Manor estate with my grandfather when they were all kids at the tail end of the 19th century or whenever. They were pretty popular in their day. Desperately unfashionable and no-one reads them now, of course -“

I’ve read them,” Neville observed mordantly. “They were Great-Uncle Algie’s favourites when he was a kid and he gave me all his copies and used to give me quizzes on them whenever he visited.”

He shuddered, expressively. Despite the fact that it was a complete distraction from the task in front of them Caitlin’s curiosity got the better of her.

“And?” she prompted. Neville shuddered again.

“I think of them as Hammer House of Bastable,” he said. “Never realised that they were set here, though.”

Draco nodded. “Oh, yes. Our pond is where they re-enacted the decisive intervention of the Mer-people into the battle of Lepanto, and you can still just about see the foundation stones of the cottage where Melusine and her sisters nearly burned my grandfather alive during that game of Wizards and Muggles that got a bit out of hand -“

“Good grief,” Caitlin breathed. “And? What happened?”

“Fortuitous thunderstorm, rather singed granddad, and the cousins got sent to bed without their suppers, what else would you expect?”

She sniffed.

“Always nice to see strict Victorian child-rearing standards being upheld.”

Draco grinned. “Well, the book left out the family mega-row about the whole business. Melusine’s side of the family went big on the high spirits, girls will be girls argument, and my great-grandparents, understandably, concentrated more on motive, as in: twelve is quite old enough to understand what “standing next in the entail” means. And then it all got sidetracked into a debate about whether my grandfather was a rude little brat, forcing them to be the Muggles just because they were girls, since as the visitors they should have been allowed to choose. All the original letters are in the muniments room somewhere. Nasty turn of phrase great-grandma had on her, too. To say nothing of the aunts.”

Notwithstanding the prattling, he had been flicking energetically through the little book, and now raised his head to look straight at his partner.

“Look, Neville, Cousin Melusine doesn’t have anything to say about this caladium stuff. It can’t be a very important poison. Or is it just something they didn’t use much then?”

Neville poked his finger at the leaf on the saucer, and, without fuss, it resolved itself back into miniscule fragments. “Yes, well, that was the point I was going to make, next time you let me get a word in edgeways. Caladium is poisonous, OK, but not going to be lethal unless you’re desperately unlucky and eat shed-loads of it. It’s certainly not something anyone would go for if they were seriously trying to kill someone. Much more in the nasty practical jokes class. In fact, now you come to mention it, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like it wasn’t the active principle behind - let’s say - items 85, 97 and 231 in the WWW current catalogue -“

His face was drawn and cynical. Caitlin raised her eyebrows in a silent request for enlightenment, at the same time as Draco said,

“How the fuck do you know that? Trade secret, surely?”

Neville’s lips twisted in a bitter grimace.

“Put it this way. Your Cousin Melusine might have had scruples about lab rats, but not family. Some people have scruples about both. But either way, scientists still need to find some sort of experimental subjects if they’re pushing back the boundaries of knowledge. Someone who they regard as - what was it? Oh yes: of that class unkindly dubbed “superfluous” by the wider world. I’ve unwittingly test-driven so many of their nasty little products they ought to be paying me royalties. Or put it another way, from the time I was eleven I didn’t need anyone messing with my head to convince me that the bad guys aren’t necessarily the ones in the green and silver uniform -“

He paused, and coughed, visibly reorienting himself.

“Anyway, Caitlin, what else was it you said she drank? After the stomach cramp stuff? Because I can tell you, she’d not have got into the state she was because of caladium on its own. Though every little helped.”

She blinked at the abrupt change of direction, but knew enough not to pursue the other matter; Draco, on the other hand, was dead white with either fear or fury and evidently not planning to keep his mouth shut.

“Is - that - so,” he hissed with ferocious emphasis. “Well, perhaps they might be interested in this. Even if they don’t know themselves, I happen to know exactly why Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes had a big spike in turnover when the Death Eaters were somewhat short of ideas, in November of our seventh year, it must have been.”

Neville, she saw, was cowering back, and Draco must have seen it, but nevertheless he did not ease off.

“Have you ever tried to imagine just how effective ton-tongue toffee - to name but one - is, as a torture device, once you stand back and allow the engorgement charm to go that little bit too far? One has to add nothing except - intent. Everything else done for you.”

Neville, she noted, made a small, wordless, panicked sound. Draco edged forward.

“I’ve not agreed to go back to Hogwarts for Old Boys or whatever because I’ll not stand by and watch them - your so-called Gryffindor mates - treating you like shit, OK? But you’ve asked me to, before now, and perhaps I am being unfair. OK. It’s a deal. I go to the next do they have, as your partner, and I agree not to say a word out of line. But -“

He turned slightly, so he was facing Neville full on, dropping his voice impressively.

“If Fred or George Weasley is there - and if they happen - as is their wont - to decide that you look more fetching with yellow feathers, or the like - “

His voice got lower and more menacing.

“Well, then is the moment I propose to take them on one side and tell them exactly how I saw Percy die. And let them laugh at that.”

Neville, almost as white, said only, “Don’t you think we’d be better off concentrating on the problems we’ve actually got, rather than re-fighting old wars we can’t win? Caitlin, what else was it she drank?”

Draco spun away, his lips compressed, and leaned against the window-sill, staring blindly out into the rain. Nervously, Caitlin pushed another saucer across to Neville.

“This one. Alleged to be comfrey tea.”

He went through the rub-and-sniff routine again, and a slow smile spread over his lips. “Find it relaxing, did she? I’m not surprised. And I’m certainly prepared to say she probably put that particular addition into her - tea - herself.”

Draco turned round. “Let me have a sniff at that.”

On Neville’s nod he repeated the spell he had used before. As he raised his head from the saucer his brow was wrinkled in a troubled frown. Neville raised questioning brows.

“Well, you’re right about the dope, of course. Not first-class quality, in my opinion - “

Neville shrugged. “Winzar home-grown, I’d suppose. Most likely. Or she could have brought it with her herself. But?”

Draco shook his head slowly. “Remind me, Caitlin. What did you say her eyes looked like?”

“Huge. Absolutely black. Practically all pupil and no iris.”

Draco laid Cousin Melusine aside on the window-ledge.

“And irregular pulse? And not making sense? Muttering stuff?”

She nodded. The blond boy inhaled.

“Well, I don’t think we need to trouble my cousin about that one. “

He pulled out his wand, blew on the tip, coughed, and muttered something. From the tiny fragments on the saucer a wavering, shadowy image started to emerge, drifting forwards and back, then solidifying into a plant with small dusky mauve flowers. Both the boys made small sounds of recognition.

It was no point, with these people, to pretend to be better informed than she was. She raised her eyebrows.

“And that is?”

Neville looked at her with a certain degree of sympathy for her bewilderment. “Oh, the favourite of them all. Not the most lethal, not the easiest to conceal. But still the poisoner’s classic. In our world, at least. Deadly nightshade.”

“Active principle atropine,” Draco added bleakly. “Belladonna. Easily obtained - I could name you half a hundred legitimate potions applications it’s essential for, so even the Ministry couldn’t think of banning it, and anyway even if they did, it grows wild all over the shop, and the poisonous principle is easy enough to isolate. Anyone could have done it. Witch, wizard or Muggle. But even a Muggle wouldn’t have deliberately put it in her own drink, not without knowing what she was doing. In which case - why worry about the other stuff? But there’s one thing -“

His voice grew harsh.

“The person who has the brains to put belladonna into a soothing tea - especially one that’s been, shall we say, tarted up a bit to make it even more soothing - and who therefore is relying on the victim being too far gone to complain before the symptoms are thoroughly advanced - well, that doesn’t seem to me like the same person who goes round playing nasty little games with plants that’ll give you a swollen tongue and a nasty rash at worst, and all be over in the morning. One of them’s aiming to kill, and the other isn’t.”

She passed her tongue over her lips. “And? Your meaning is?”

She knew, actually, but the whole idea was so alien she felt that hearing someone else say it would be the only hope she had of it making some vague hint at sense. It was Neville - apparently responding to her confusion - who spoke.

“He means,” he said gently, “That it looks like you might have at least two poisoners operating in the guesthouse.”

Caitlin put down the receiver and made a face.

“Honestly!” she said. “Do the police want to faff about until they’ve got an actual dead body on their hands before they sit up and take notice? Results from the poisons unit are still being processed apparently. Oh, and One has to remember, so-called alternative medicine hasn’t gone through a rigorous testing process and regrettably one must expect accidents. And, anyway, it seems, anyone whose motto is “pick your own aspirin” deserves all she gets.”

She rubbed her hands down her face in a despairing gesture, and then said,

“Oh, and if that wasn’t all I had to worry about, apparently they couldn’t send CID even if they were going to - which, I could tell they weren’t - because some poor unfortunate’s got themselves crushed by a fallen tree up the hill on the Salisbury road, and what with the wreckage - and the tree - and the rescue crews - and another couple of trees that don’t look any too healthy either, if the wind keeps up - it looks like the village is more or less cut off by road in both directions.”

Draco got to his feet, shrugging on his waterproof jacket.

“Well, we’ll be back later. I suppose we’d better go and find Peter - he was coming up to have a word with you, actually, but then we had all the excitement about Cathy, and then he got a message from Canon - Bowles, is it? - he had to be back at the church, for the exorcism or whatever -“

Caitlin’s eyes widened. “Does it ever occur to you,” she enquired, “That more rather than less information would be nice on occasions? I assumed, when you said he was on his way to see me, that it was something to do with the flooding, and organising emergency accommodation for people - though actually Nelcorp have been incredibly generous, and loaned the whole of their training block to house people in until they can get back to their homes -“

The corners of Draco’s mouth quirked up. “I bet that was a bit of a hard sell to our villagers, even that side of the security gates -“

Caitlin schooled her features into a mask of perfect blandness.

“Well, it’s true there was some initial reluctance, but when Mrs P. said that if everyone couldn’t be accommodated by Nelcorp, she was confident that in a disaster like this you would be more than willing to extend the hospitality of the Manor to anyone who was left over there was a positive stampede towards Nelcorp side of the fence. They did fit them all in, of course. And we’d just seen the last of them off and were getting stuck into the washing up when Cathy started retching and raving. But stop evading the point. What exorcism? And why was Peter coming to see me?”

Apparently giving in to the inevitable, Draco sat down again and gestured towards Neville. “You know most about it.”

Briefly, Neville outlined the story, from Peter’s suspicions on finding the communion vessels had apparently been tampered with (“That’s one in the eye for Lucy,” Caitlin muttered.” You have absolutely no idea how much grief she gave me over breakfast about how inappropriate it was for Peter to use an obviously festive chalice on such a sombre holiday. I’d love to break it to her it was a straight choice between that and one which had just been used for the Black Mass, and watch her face”) to their discovery of magic traces in and around the church.

“And,” he said,” That’s another reason why I don’t like belladonna cropping up here. It may be just a coincidence, but there’s a nasty tradition of belladonna being used by the sort of Muggles who think they’re practising the Black Arts - there’s all sorts of folklore about them mixing it with baby’s fat to make an ointment to help them fly -“

Draco looked up, an outraged expression on his face. “But that’s ridiculous! It wouldn’t work at all without the -“


He subsided back into an affronted silence. Neville spread his hands in an apologetic gesture. “I ended up getting to know quite a bit about this stuff because I’m afraid my part of the world is unfortunately rather infested with Muggles who think they’re witches of one sort or another. Particularly around Hallowe’en. Gran got wound up enough to make a complaint to the local Council about it a couple of years ago.”

“And?” she prompted. He grinned ruefully.

“Um, yes, and. The guy from the Council she finally got to see was a total foreigner - Surrey, I think, or was it Sutton Coldfield? - anyway, he didn’t know anything to speak of about the area or Gran -“

“I take it his colleagues knew much too much about both?”

“And the rest. One of the caving club guys works for the Council, and I gather from him they were running some sort of office sweepstake on what shape he’d be in at the end of the meeting - well, whatever, Gran gave him the full benefit of her opinions on the subject, and he started wittering on about respect for other people’s faiths and paganism being a perfectly valid religious belief even if it was a minority one - and she apparently just snorted and said, “Young man, I’m old enough to know the difference between religion and daftness, and running about on top of Pendle Hill in October in the altogether is daftness, no two ways about it, and I don’t pay my rates to support that sort of thing” and just walked out.”

“And?” Caitlin was undeniably fascinated. Neville grinned.

“The Council, on balance, decided to impose strict parking restrictions around the Hill for the Hallowe’en period. There was - um - some quite lively correspondence in the local paper about it. And it got livelier when Gran decided to shove her oar in to the effect that if they are who they think they are, they should be arriving on their broomsticks and not worrying about car parks. She got accused of all sorts of things about that one. Outmoded negative stereotyping of what the Craft is really about was about the mildest.”

“Good grief,” Caitlin breathed. “I wonder if we could talk her into tackling Glastonbury. That place is just getting completely out of hand. Throw half a brick in any direction and you’ll hit someone getting in touch with their inner earth daemon.”

“Many of them staying here, I expect,” Draco said pointedly. “As my great-grandfather’s motto went: “There’s more brass in stupidity than sense”. Don’t knock it.”

She considered that for a moment. While she was doing so, Neville cleared his throat pointedly.

“Anyway, we’re getting off the point. Which is, I really don’t like all these links between these happenings and our world - particularly the murkier end of our world - and I really don’t like the way everything keeps channelling back here.”

Neville nodded meaningfully at Draco, who coughed.

“Peter did tell us, fairly bluntly, that it ought to be cards on the table time. And - ah - I’m sorry to say that we haven’t perhaps been quite as frank as we might have been about some of what’s been going on.”

“You don’t say.”

The very blandness of her tone must have stung. Draco flushed.

“Yes, well, we aren’t really supposed to talk to anyone about this sort of thing at all. And old habits die hard, be fair. Especially since - anyway, look, that first evening - when Jacqueline got so scared - and I went out to see what I could find, and check out whether someone had been playing a trick?”

Something about his tone and expression caught and held her attention. “Yes? What was it that you thought you’d seen on the hill?”

He gulped; his restlessly searching grey eyes flickered frantically around the room, trying desperately to avoid meeting her gaze. His voice was very low as he responded.

“Well, as a matter of fact I thought I saw my father.”

“What!” Neville spun to face him, an expression of shocked horror on his face. Draco, still not meeting his eyes, spread his hands in a hopeless gesture.

“Well, it was only a glimpse. By the reflections of the moonlight on the snow. I went after - it - and it vanished off up-slope. No footprints, naturally. Nasty shock.”

Despite his light, disengaged tones she could see a pulse beating, very fast, in the hollow of his neck. His voice was rushed, as though to stave off interruption, as he continued.

“When I got back and had another look at Jacqueline, though, and worked out how she’d looked at me when I came into the room at first - I put two and two together, and kicked myself for having been so - I mean, for falling for it in the first place.”

He took a deep breath. “I mean, all things considered, it simply had to have been just a boggart.”

His words expressed certainty; Caitlin, judging the tone, drew other conclusions. So, evidently, had Neville, who, looking as though he had just seen a ghost, crossed the room and looped his arm across Draco’s shoulders.

“A boggart.” His deep voice rumbled reassuringly. “So you said before. But, you silly sausage, why didn’t you tell me earlier what form it took when you saw it?”

Caitlin noticed that Draco seemed to be trembling all over, obviously keeping his voice steady with an act of sheer willpower.

“Maybe I didn’t want to give my father credit for being the nastiest thing in my head, all things considered?”

Caitlin coughed, more in an effort to break the intensity than anything else.

“But what is a boggart?”

The two young men looked up at her. Once again, she had an eerie, Bluebeard’s wife’s sense of being about to unlock a door behind which lurked something she was by no means prepared to see. Stubbornly she pressed on.


It was Neville who responded.

“Magical creature. It takes the form of whatever it is you fear the most. So if someone - and by someone, I mean, some witch or wizard - had managed to plant a boggart on the hillside, whichever of the guests who met it would be assured of a pretty nasty time.”

Involuntarily, her hand had strayed to her lips.

“Oh god. Poor Jacqueline.”

“I take it she’s had worse to fear than the average?” Draco appeared to have recovered his composure; his tone was even and thoughtful. She nodded.

“You could say that. Richard told me about it, just now. He recognised her. She was a doctor, out in Bosnia with Médecins Sans Frontières?. They got word that the hospital where they were was in the path of an advancing attack and got the patients who could be moved by road out while they could. She and a couple of nurses volunteered to stay behind with the rest, to wait for an airlift. Unfortunately, the enemy got there before the helicopters did, and decided to go in for a bit of ethnic cleansing on the hoof. It - wasn’t very pretty. They cut up the wounded alive in bed, I gather. God only knows what happened to the nurses. When the counter-attackers broke through, Jacqueline was the only survivor, badly injured under a heap of corpses besides a half dug mass grave. Conscious, unluckily. So whatever she’d have seen -“

She spread her fingers expressively. Draco’s expression was shocking in its cynicism, which somehow emphasised rather than concealed his extreme youth.

“Ethnic cleansing? Hm. Well, I suppose I should be thankful.”

Her eyebrows went up, questioningly. He continued.

“Well, with that sort of thing going on in your world, at least I can console myself that with all the Muggles my father killed, there’s a sporting chance that at least some of them deserved it.”

There was a pause. With a rather self-conscious air of dragging them back to the subject, Neville said firmly, “Actually, the problem we seem to have here looks like the absolute reverse of what your father and his crowd were up to. It looks as though there’s some nasty co-operation going on between these EP people and some pretty dodgy wizards: this is some sort of alliance, not opposition.”

The cynical expression on Draco’s face deepened.

“Believe me, there’s no such thing as an alliance where one person has - power - and the other hasn’t. We’re talking master and slave here.”

Neville jutted his chin out obstinately. “I’m not so sure. Jackals live very well off what the lions leave behind, they tell me.”

An earlier phrase had caught her attention.

“EP? What’s that got to do with the price of butter?”

Somewhat melodramatically (though not, she thought, if you judged by his personal standards) Draco smote his hand into the centre of his forehead.

“God! You mean we told you all about the church business and we totally left out where the guesthouse really comes in? EP - I take it you’ve heard of Empowerment Pathway -?”

Her lips curved; Draco’s expression reflected her own disdain.

“Well, I could hardly miss, could I? Not with the High Priestess herself living in the village.”

“What? Who? I mean, come to think of it Peter dropped a hint about EP types in the village - and I suppose that might explain why they thought of buying your place for their European Centre in the first place -“

That hit her right in the solar plexus. She drew herself up haughtily.

“Buying my house? And suppose I hadn’t been interested in selling?”

Draco shrugged eloquently. “Perhaps they’ve been trying to leave you without much option. I mean, I’m about the last person you could kid that a place this size is cheap to maintain. And you can’t con me that business has been brilliant recently, either. And this can hardly have been the most successful fortnight, with one thing and the other. It would explain a lot, wouldn’t it? But who’s the High Priestess?”

She pushed the implications of his previous sentences to the bottom of her mind, to fret about at her leisure, and concentrated on the main point.

“Well, you’ve met her husband, I gather. Or at least, I know Neville has. Mrs Waley’s been telling that story right, left and centre, with bells on. The Somervilles aren’t well-liked.”

Neville raised his eyebrows.

“She’d be the one Riddle put his paws all over? Hugo Somerville’s wife’s into EP? “

Caitlin nodded. “Innogen McClellan ? Oh, yes, big style. Probably their most famous devotee. She wrote - well, I suppose someone ghost wrote for her, at least - a best-selling self-help book about it. All about how EP had helped her break out of a cycle of abusive relationships and find true lurrve. Very weepy and confessional. She must have made a mint out of it. To say nothing of the TV work she seems to have got off the back of it. Daytime stuff, mostly, but still, no doubt they pay her well enough. The Mill House was bought with her money not his, you know. And I think she paid for the Aston. Very expensive pet, Mr Somerville.”

She sniffed. At that moment a shrill alarm sounded from the computer on the desk, and she looked at her watch.

“And now I’ve got to go and calm the punters down over coffee and cakes- and it was supposed to be Áine’s birthday celebration, too - “

Neville looked at her in some alarm.

“Well, be careful. Don’t eat anything everyone else isn’t - “

She shivered. Even now - even with what she had seen in that room - it seemed inconceivable that murder had just been attempted in her own house. Still, she nodded.

“I’ll watch it, promise. Though I can’t afford not to eat at all - that’ll just make whoever it is suspicious -“

They made assenting noises.

“If you can manage it, try and see if anyone says anything interesting. Find out what friends that Ken character has in the village, for instance. And if any of the others have heard of EP,” Neville suggested. “I think I’ll borrow another of the canoes, and go and have a scout around the Somervilles’ place, see if they really are away.”

Draco looked at him. “Well, watch it. I’ve never seen the Ebble run like it is today.”

Neville shrugged. “I’ll be fine, honest. I’ve got the hang of this draw stroke thing, now.”

Draco’s expression conveyed more than a thousand words. However, all he said was, “We’ll be back later, with Peter and Canon Bowles, if that’s OK, to pool all our information and see what clues we’ve all got between us.”

“No doubt drawing everything up into neat columns of Things to be Noted and Things To Be Done,” Caitlin observed dryly. After an initial moment of bafflement, Draco flashed her a quick grin.

“Abso-bally-lutely,” he drawled, in a version of his ordinary tones that was exaggerated beyond parody to the point of absurdity. Then, dropping back into his normal voice, and assuming a serious expression, he added, “I wish I could have lent you a bezoar. But the Ministry confiscated all ours in the middle of Recent Events, and I’ve still not talked them into giving them back.”

His boyfriend looked across at him with surprise. “But bezoars aren’t prohibited - “

Draco shrugged. “We did have a hundred and three of them. And I don’t think the Ministry quite accepted our explanations for why we’d been stockpiling artefacts that made one immune to most poisons. Our very, very dodgy friends might have explained why we wanted the first dozen or so, but not the remainder.”

Neville looked at Draco, smiled, and exhaled gently. “I see. I don’t think I’d have cared to share an omelette with you, in the old days. Anyway, Caitlin - see you later. And take care, ok?”

And it was palpably absurd - and an indication of how much the absurd stresses of the day were getting to her - for her to feel as the two vanished into thin air from her living room that her last line of defence had been withdrawn from her.

She squared her shoulders, fixed a falsely reassuring smile on her lips, and pushed open the green baize door.

“Hello? Is there anyone in there?”

The pounding on the front door redoubled in volume. Innogen, perched on the edge of the kitchen table, tucked her slippered feet up out of the reach of the swirling, evil smelling brown waters, wrapped her hands, around her pounding head, and did her best to make her moans of pain inaudible.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Her husband’s voice was a raspy hiss. He stood, swaying slightly, well over his knees in the floodwaters, holding himself upright by the frame of the kitchen door.

“Nothing. Nothing.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of blue fabric whisking behind the dresser. She turned to get a better look, but there was nothing there. From behind her came a high peal of laughter; little girl’s laughter. She spun again, knowing as she did so that she would see nothing. The laughter sounded again, this time from over by the range. She resisted the temptation to turn her head to follow the sound, and on the very edge of her hearing she was conscious of a faint exhalation, like a sigh of disappointment.

The hammering on the door came again, even louder, each blow seeming to strike physically through her head.

“Hello? Is there anyone at home? Are you OK in there? We’re here to help.”

Hugo’s face suddenly twisted into an ugly parody of its normal expression. His features were puffed and red; had they not been strictly observing the fast enjoined upon them at the midnight ceremony she would have suspected him of having been drinking.

“So that’s what you’re up to,” he hissed. “Well, I’m not having it.”

Before she could protest, he had surged forward, and grasped her wrist with pitiless strength. At the same time he clamped his other hand firmly over her mouth. This close, he smelled rank: sweaty, unwashed, and with something else underlying those smells; a sickly-sweet stench like that of a sick dog.

He pulled her off the table and, stooping low to avoid any risk of their being seen from the window (the blind was down, but no matter) half-dragged her through the swirling waters to the staircase.

“You little fool,” he breathed. “I should have known you’d lose your nerve and scream for help at the first bit of discomfort. But I’m not going to let you wreck this now, not when we’re so close to power.”

But I wasn’t, she said silently into his suffocating palm. You are unjust.

As he pulled her bodily round the open, airy curve of the steel-and-glass spiral she thought she caught a glimpse of tossed-back golden ringlets, and heard the wisp of a thread of childish laughter.