Chapter 12: Thursday Morning - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
Hugo had ceased to speak coherently some time in the early hours of the morning, though he still grunted from time to time. The thick, sickly sweet smell lay heavy on the air throughout the bedroom; by this time Innogen was unclear whether it came off his body or hers.
During the pain-racked, sweaty night she had somehow lost track of time. Her consciousness cowered in some tiny, protected corner, driven into hiding by the hammer blows of her pounding headache. The high tinkle of childish laughter was everywhere she turned, and small, girlish hands caught at the folds of her kimono in her occasional movements between bedroom and bathroom.
So far, each time she had spun round there had been no-one there to see, and the feather-light drifting fingers had withdrawn. At least, until the next time.
Outside the window the world was still pitch black, and the waters rushed through all the bottom half of the house. The clock by her bed had stopped and she must have left her watch in the downstairs loo in that hasty, furtive enrobing before they had left for the church the night before last.
Another wave of pain broke through her, and with a stupendous effort she suppressed an audible cry. The swollen glands in her armpits throbbed endlessly.
She gave a smile of grim triumph, and set her teeth.
The price of power, she told her quailing spirit.
There is no power coming, a breathy little voice whispered in her ear. They have trapped you in lies and a cheat. You have been abandoned to die, and you will die in sin, and the Devil will have your soul.
The Master told me the temptations to give up would be many, she answered proudly. I see you for what you are. I will never give up.
The breathy, high voice was sincere, concerned.
Soon, you will die. You have the marks of the Sickness on you, and already the servants have fled. You should confess. It would be right. Send for the cleric, and make your confession.
Hugo turned in the bed, and gave a shrill scream as the pain, it seems, bit deep. Innogen felt a small cool hand begin to stroke her forehead, and the hair where it sprang back from her brow.
There will be springs of living waters. But only if you confess.
She tried to summon up within herself the certainty she had felt mere moments before, but somehow that evanescent touch blocked her access to confidence. The tide turned; the whispering voice continued on and it became harder and harder to doubt the truth of its words. And gradually, it seemed to her that the voice was coming from inside her own head, so she was unsure which were her own thoughts, and which were breathed into her head by the relentless, childish voice.
Abruptly, shortly after a cold grey day had dawned, she made up her mind. Even now, she looked tremulously towards Hugo, tossing restlessly on the bed, and muttering to himself. But he was too far gone to stop her as she reached across him for the mobile phone.
Its outline felt alien in her hands, her fingers explored its strange warmth and smoothness, even as she recognised it for the phone she had had in her hands hundreds of time. It was difficult to remember how it worked; her sluggish brain had to dig deep before she dragged out the precise sequence of events which allowed her to dial. Fortunately, the Vicarage number was one of the ones programmed into memory. She managed to get through on the third attempt.
Yes! A little exultant voice within her screamed. Confess! You must make confession. Make it now!
Not over the telephone, some residual sense of propriety protested. And then a voice over the crackle of appalling atmospherics said,
“Hello? The Rector speaking. Can I help?”
And with a faint wisp of dying consciousness Innogen croaked faintly into the instrument (the knowledge of whose uses were already slipping away from the foreground of her mind),
“Rector? The Mill House - Innogen McClellan speaking - I - well - can you get here? There’s something I really, really need to speak to you about. And - Rector? It really won’t wait.”
And then the phone fell from her hand to the bedroom floor, and she looked down uncomprehendingly at it, and wondered what it could possibly be for.
The stench was the first thing that hit Peter once he got in through the door. When his shouting and banging had produced no response, it had taken a broken pane, and a long arm craned round to flick up the catch on the Yale lock for him to gain access. If this was not the emergency the breathy, broken voice on the phone had suggested, that would be another black mark against him in the Bishop’s ledgers. But he had made up his mind to take the risk.
It was a bizarre smell; at once close, encompassing a thick sickroom odour coupled with the hints of spoiled food from the kitchen (with the floodwater that high, he reminded himself, the electricity must have failed the first night, and the fridge and freezer were doubtless now foetid disaster zones) and strangely outdoorsy, with the stale green smell of the uncontrolled river waters turning the calculated simplicity of the ground floor into a grotesque parody of a boathouse.
The smell, foul as it was, reassured him on one point. It was not the first time he had forcibly entered an apparently abandoned house following a panicked, oblique message, and he had been half-prepared to encounter the never-forgotten, unmistakable reek that emanates from a corpse as the process of decomposition advances.
He had been spared that, at least. For the moment. But things were clearly quite bad enough.
He choked, peering through the dim interior as he waded through the living room in Neville’s too-large, borrowed boots. Something bloated, sodden and stinking bumped into his leg as it spiralled aimlessly past in a stately waltz amid other flotsam. He suppressed nausea as he recognised a drowned rat.
Two used but empty wineglasses rested on top of a Queen Anne walnut bureau that poked its top third out of the floods. Next to them, a bottle of a premier cru claret sat in a silver rimmed, mahogany-bottomed wine-holder. It was half full, but uncorked. He sniffed, cautiously, at the contents; badly oxidised by now. Open at least a day; most probably longer. He frowned. Neither Innogen nor Hugo would be careless enough to leave even an indifferent wine open to ruin by the atmosphere, and this one -
He frowned, slightly cynically, as he read the label again. It was plain that whatever they had been celebrating had justified a vintage several notches more grandiose than anything they had ever condescended to serve to him during his two or three previous visits here.
By the back door in the kitchen Barbours and Burberrys filled a range of hooks to overflowing, and at least two pairs of Wellington boots bobbed, waterlogged, amid the general wreckage. Impossible to tell, but it suggested that if the inhabitants were from home, they had not bothered to put on outdoor things before leaving. His own ease of entry showed that the alarm had not been set, nor the mortice lock secured, confirming the message already signalled by the parked Aston.
If they went anywhere, they can’t have been expecting to go far or be away for long.
Peter took a deep breath, regretting it instantly, as he put his finger on the real source of his disquiet.
Publicity is life’s blood to both of them. If they were - alive - and capable of communicating - why haven’t they been forcing themselves to the forefront of the flood rescue efforts for the past two days?
He shook his head.
So - they must be still here. Somewhere. And Innogen, at least, was still alive twenty minutes ago.
He turned decisively towards the open, architect-designed spiral staircase that swooped elegantly down into the centre of the room; the flawlessly executed bridge linking ancient and modern in this exquisitely elegant, yet quirky, interior as the lifestyle magazines had described it.
He took the acid-etched glass treads two at a time. Whatever the solution to this mystery was, it must be upstairs.
The master bedroom door was closed. He rapped firmly on it, twice.
“Innogen? Ms McClellan? It’s me, Peter Blakeney. The Rector. You sent for me.”
A hand came out of the dimness on the landing, and caught his wrist as he was preparing for a second assault on the door.
Peter turned, dragged round by the iron pressure on his arm. He suppressed a gasp.
Innogen had obviously been concealing herself in the shadows. Now she pulled herself close to him, using the leverage of her tight, clawed hold on his arm, with a strength that surprised him, given her shocking state.
Her blonde hair was a wild tangle, huge bruised shadows were under her eyes, the smeared remains of several-days old makeup disfigured her face, and she was wearing a thin silk kimono, and, all-too-obviously, nothing underneath it. Despite the ravaged remnants of her elfin beauty and exquisitely proportioned figure, the effect was grotesque.
Acutely aware that she had caught him at a severe disadvantage, Peter added, “You startled me,” and felt foolish and inadequate as he did so.
Her eyes bulged, unnaturally, and she leaned very close towards him, hissing in his ear, in a high, breathy voice she had never used to him before, “He mustn’t know you are here. Don’t make more noise. Must come away, come downstairs. He told her no-one must come here, no-one must speak to them. Dying - have to confess. Atone. He isn’t to be allowed to stop it.”
Whole symphonies of alarm bells rang in Peter’s mind.
A nose for the risks of being compromised which would make a Victorian chaperone look as relaxed as a hippy at a 60s happening.
He had his duty and would not be deterred from it, and if Innogen thought she was dying - well, her appearance was entirely consistent with that assumption. But she was not the only one to be considered. Whatever was up with Hugo - if Hugo died while he heard her confession, say - or if (scarcely less probable, given the stage-setting) he had happened upon a bungled murder/suicide, or suicide pact and Hugo lay already dead - Peter’s actions and priorities would be gone through with a fine-tooth comb. Doubtless, by those who rated spiritual matters at less than nothing.
And in the full glare of the world’s press.
He chose his next words with extreme care. “Innogen, I can see you’re very ill. And naturally, of course, I am here to give you all the help I can. But if Hugo’s ill, too, then shouldn’t I be getting help for you both? It would only take me a second or so to telephone, and then you can be quite sure that whatever the medics need to do, you will have all the privacy you need to tell me anything you want.”
She shook her head, frantically. “No, no. After. Hugo - he said no-one must interrupt. No-one must come here. He pulled me upstairs in case someone saw me. Look!”
She held out her other hand, the one that was not clamped on Peter’s arm, towards him. There was an unmistakable pattern of four bruises imprinted in the pale skin just above the wrist. He swallowed. Her eyes dilated even further, and her voice reached an even higher pitch, with an edge of something else: an uncanny note of triumph that presumably had its roots in hysteria. At all costs he had to get over that, before they could move on. He made his voice very gentle.
“I see,” he said, though he did not, not fully. “Then you will let me call for medical help as soon as you’ve made your confession?”
She paused, and there was a look of craftiness about her eyes, which made him feel ill, and deeply uneasy. She nodded, however.
“After confession, when it’s safe. Nothing he can do to stop it, then. Dying.”
She relaxed her grip on his arm once she had secured his agreement, sliding her hand down to rest confidingly in his. There was something strange about its feel; the skin was hot and dry, and its size seemed to change even as he held it. When he looked at it he could see it was the finely manicured hand of a grown woman.
And a pretty high-maintenance one, at that, he thought, before he could stop himself.
The fingers which he could feel pressing trustingly into his own hand were, on the other hand, the small, half developed ones of a child.
She tugged at his hand, drawing him towards the head of the staircase. He held back, hesitating.
“Down there? But it’s flooded - it’s in no fit state - you’re not well -“
“Down there,” Innogen insisted. “I need to show you something in the kitchen. Explain. Important.”
He suffered himself to be led where she wanted him to take him, but he eyed her sidelong. The crafty look was in her face again, and the note of triumph in her voice beginning to deepen. It was not merely for manners’ sake that he let her precede him down the stairway.
“Well, then I suggest you wake him up.”
Peter was acutely aware that his voice must be so far away from his normal deprecating tones that the naked surprise in Mrs P.’s voice - even, perhaps, the unspoken message, Can this be the real Rev. Blakeney or am I speaking to an impostor? - was wholly understandable. Nevertheless, the authority of his position and the needs of the moment had to override diplomacy. He coughed, impatiently.
“No; it most certainly will not wait; I have with me someone who is anxious to - restore to him something that was - taken from the Manor grounds. Wrongfully. She is ill and in considerable distress, and only the immediate assurance that she has done what she could to repair the harm done will help. And for that, I need Draco here. Now. So wake him up. Thank you.”
He tapped the “end call” button on the mobile phone, and turned to Innogen, who was crouching miserably on the kitchen table. The flood waters were beginning to recede, and the water in the kitchen was no more than about two feet deep by now, but slime lay over everything the waters had touched, and the chill room was deeply unwelcoming. He wondered whether he ought to persuade Innogen to move back upstairs - but she had not spoken to him since she had finished her confession and directed him to the Welsh dresser and the secrets it contained, and asked him to do - what he had now done.
She raised her head to meet his look, and his eyes shifted uneasily away from the unreadable expression in the depths of hers. While an advocate of individual auricular confession, he had to accept that there were downsides, and that an absolute assurance that one would never tell the penitent’s secrets was a poor second - in embarrassment terms - to not knowing them in the first place.
Particularly in a small village.
He looked at what was spread out on clean greaseproof paper on the other end of the kitchen table, and shuddered inwardly.
And particularly secrets such as these.
“I’ve asked Draco to come and take the bones back to the mausoleum, as you wanted. And then we will have to see about getting treatment for you and - Hugo. After that - well, it’s up to you. But I cannot over-estimate how strongly I recommend that you try to use the influence you have within EP to find this person called the Master and remove his influence. You’ve seen for yourself how dangerous this is. Others need to be protected too. And - Innogen - confession - penitence - isn’t a matter of a form of words. The words are the easy part. Genuinely - consciously - rejecting the sin, and seeking to atone for it, so far as possible - that’s what confession is really about.”
He had lost her, he could tell. She refused to make eye-contact with him. Her lips moved.
“No, Innogen. You mustn’t despair. Despair isn’t - isn’t -“
Abruptly, she looked straight up at him, and he shuddered. The crafty look had taken over her face completely, now. Irrelevantly, he found himself thinking I don’t remember her eyes being that colour.
The sheer unexpected rush of her onslaught caught him off-balance, and he floundered, trying to remain upright. Her fingers - unexpectedly, horribly strong - closed around his windpipe, choking his air. He tried, in the approved manner, to hook his foot behind her ankle, and throw her off balance, but he had reckoned without the clumsiness of the oversized, borrowed boots. He trod on his other foot, slithered, tripped, and went over. The foul, cold waters closed above his head, and Innogen’s fingers were still biting into his neck, and her knees were in his chest, forcing the remaining air out of his lungs, weighting him down. He struggled, frantically, hopelessly, but the slimy flags of the kitchen floor under the water gave him no purchase to break her grip.
Into your hands, he thought, and let the fiery darkness take him.
“I said,” the persistent, irritating voice continued, “Is being physically attacked by one’s female parishioners an ordinary hazard of the job for all vicars, or is it a heresy you’ve decided to develop off your own bat?”
The whole of his lungs was a burning disaster zone, and his chest felt as though he had been through the peine forte et dure, but it was definitely air that he was breathing. Surprisingly fresh air, actually. He opened one eye.
“Oh, good. You are alive. I was beginning to think I’d have to think up some nauseatingly syrupy and deeply implausible dying messages to pass on to Hermione.”
He struggled into a sitting position. He was on the flagged floor of the Mill House sitting room - the floods seemed, improbably, to have retreated - with a cushion under his head. Innogen lay unconscious on a sofa which should have been sodden, but somehow didn’t appear to be.
“What happened?” he croaked. Draco shrugged.
“You tell me. All I know was I Apparated in, all set to tell you that to get me up at that time in the morning, you’d have to have a bloody good reason, unless you wanted to spend the rest of the year as a goldfish -“
“Sounds restful,” Peter muttered automatically. ” A built in defence against one’s parishioners trying to drown one. Plus: no attention span. No decisions. No Bishop. “
“It can always be arranged - Anyway, as when I arrived you were being held down underwater by - well -“
Draco’s glance passed over Innogen, lingered momentarily with what Peter suspected was a faint air of unease, and then passed back to Peter. His voice, however, retained its coolly uninflected tone.
“Well, much to my annoyance, that rather blew the moral high ground - not that I’m so accustomed to occupying that territory that I’d forgotten how to manage without - “
“You surprise me,” Peter said dryly. Some obscure instinct, possibly pride, impelled him to add.
“I wasn’t calling for help, you know. Not - ah - originally. Not that I’m not - er - very grateful to you for turning up when you did.”
Draco gave a chopped off nod. “You’re welcome. Believe me, a very large part of my personal safety is invested in your not getting yourself killed in circumstances where I could by any stretch of the imagination be thought as being responsible either for the peril or for not hauling you out of it in time and unscathed - (by the way, you know, I’d be planning to disinfect yourself and use whatever you Muggles do use to fight infections as soon as you get home, that water looked wildly insalubrious to me) - Anyway, I did manage to spot what was on the end of the kitchen table, thank you, despite the excitement. I presume that was what you wanted to talk to me about?”
Peter nodded. “Innogen seemed very anxious to restore them to you personally, and to explain why -“
Draco’s eyes were bleak. “Actually,” he said, “Given my upbringing, I think you can safely consider those explanations more-or-less superfluous. After all, when I see a human arm bone and a miscellaneous assortment of phalanges set out on kitchen paper, my assumption does tend more towards Necromancy than soup.”
Peter suppressed a shudder. “Theologically this may be unsound, but as someone who’s enjoyed your hospitality I feel curiously reassured.” He looked across the room. “And how is Innogen?”
Draco avoided his direct gaze. “Ah, yes, her.”
Despite his reluctance to face her, and the recent violent attack, she was, of course, still a parishioner and someone he was responsible for. Gingerly Peter struggled to his feet and moved towards the sofa, only to be brought abruptly to a standstill, as though he had hit an invisible brick wall.
He tried to keep the panic out of his voice. The other’s tone was cold, and there was a warning note in it.
“Given your experiences earlier, I wouldn’t be so eager to breach the pentacle if I were you. Especially now she’s spotted we’re on to her.”
Peter spun. “What are you talking about?”
There was an exaggerated sigh.
“Well, be honest. What did you think was attacking you?”
Draco’s voice was dismissive almost to the point of scorn, but Peter had the distinct impression that his mannerisms were, as ever, a cloak for something else. And, in that context, what that something might be made him more than a little uneasy.
He made an effort to be as factual as possible, casting his mind back, remembering Innogen’s hand, and those eyes, and the sound of her voice. He had not expected he would ever have to deal with such a situation, but he could not deny he had been, at one point (by someone, it was true, he had been inclined to dismiss at the time as overly credulous and too affected by Hollywood’s clichés) instructed in how to recognise the signs.
Draco nodded. “Not that I blame you for not spotting it. I probably wouldn’t have worked it out so quickly if she hadn’t already had a go at me. Start of last month. Before Neville spotted the mausoleum had been robbed.”
Draco averted his eyes again, equally avoiding looking at Peter or at Innogen. “Well, it’s her bones that were used, anyway. Of course, if you’re thick enough to practice Necromancy no-one actually supervises the whole process making sure that what you see is what you get.”
He jerked his head with chilling matter-of-factness in Innogen’s direction.
“Which means that what’s in there is either Cousin Sarah or - something else doing a remarkably good imitation of her.”
Peter’s lips had gone very dry. He passed his tongue over them, and swallowed.
“And if it’s the latter?”
Draco shrugged. “Well, looking on the bright side, the rules say it shouldn’t be allowed to do anything Cousin Sarah wouldn’t.”
“On the flip side, you’d probably better bear in mind she was my cousin.”
Innogen stirred on the couch, rousing up on one elbow, and staring at them malevolently out of swirling silver eyes. Peter fought an impulse to retreat, and instead managed to stare steadily back at her. Draco drew his wand, with a leisurely flourish almost like a fencer saluting his opponent before a bout.
“What are you planning?” Peter muttered.
“To send it back wherever it came from, of course. Because Innogen McClellan might be a half-witted grave-robbing bimbo, but from what I can see she doesn’t look any too well, either. And if she dies while it’s still in there, well, then we’ll have an untethered, unquiet spirit that’s - ah - fed - on our hands. And I really don’t rate my chances of dealing with that without involving the Ministry. Which, as you know, isn’t actually on the cards. At this precise moment in time.”
He broke off, following the convulsive movements of Innogen’s head with his wand-tip, meditatively. She bared back her lips from her teeth, and pressed back against the sofa, widening her eyes as though in pain.
“No,” Draco purred, “You can’t break out of there. Trust me on that one.”
Peter gulped. “Look - if you’re planning - I ought to tell you - well, I’m not licensed to perform a deliverance ministry.”
“Deliverance ministry?” Draco’s voice was remote, his eyes fixed on Innogen. She spat towards him, and he shook his head reprovingly. Peter coughed; it reminded him how badly his lungs hurt.
“Well - you know. Loosely referred to as an exorcism, though that’s a bit sensationalist, so we prefer not to use the term. Anyway, it’d have to be Canon Bowles. He’s the only one in the Diocese. And even he could only act with the Bishop’s express permission, as the - um - ceremony would be on a human, not a building. And I can tell you one thing: the Bishop would never believe Innogen McClellan was possessed. Well, not until she’d grabbed him by the throat and held his head under water, anyway -“
Conscious of the fact that he was beginning to babble, Peter came to an abrupt stop. Draco’s eyes had never shifted from his target.
“Oh well. I see. Muggle stuff, then. Well, since I’m not planning to perform an exorcism, the Bishop won’t have to get his knickers in a twist about it, will he?”
Peter took a deep breath.
“So then what are you going to do?”
“And the difference between that and an exorcism is what, exactly?”
“Well, for one thing, I’m expecting it to work.”
There were, of course, things he could have said to that. But he was not - had never been - the sort to quarrel with an expert. Nor to fight pointless turf wars. He nodded.
“I see. Well, In that case - do what you want to do. But make sure you harm the - the - Innogen as little as possible.”
Draco paused, momentarily. Then he nodded.
The tip of the wand hovered; hesitated. Then with no more than three graceful wrist movements, Draco delineated around them both a pentagram whose outline sparkled in green glitter over the slimy flagstones.
“You know, she might always break these barriers,” he said calmly. “After all - well, I can’t say who she may be. Or how powerful. But even if she is who she is supposed to be, then she may be young, but she is one of the Family. And if so - well -“
Draco acknowledged his terrified impatience with a brief, dismissive, movement of his head.
“Well, in that case, I understand praying is part of your job description. If she breaks through, I’d most certainly give that your best shot.”
Peter felt his lips compressing. “Go on,” he said. “Get on with it.”
The wand tip moved outwards with the casual flick of someone who casts a fly over tranquil evening waters in the hope of bringing in a precious catch. Innogen’s eyes followed its every move. Draco emitted a shallow laugh.
“I think it’s fair to assume we understand each other. So, then, perhaps it might be time?”
Peter nodded, faintly. He was, in fact, keyed up for anything. Which, all things considered, might be assumed to be a good thing.
And which was, actually no protection at all.
As, indeed, he found out a scant few minutes later.
The sound came as though it were wrenched with bare hands out of the bowels of a living being. Not unnaturally, of course. She might, Peter supposed a split second later, be living, of course. But not, he judged, in any sense he wished to know about.
Innogen writhed round on the sofa, foaming at the lips, her head thrown back against the cushions. Peter tensed. Whatever the limitations of theological college he had, of course, seen this part in the movies.
Now we’re in for it. Fire and brimstone; and rhetoric failing against the inherent power of evil.
I do wish Canon Bowles were here.
Draco dropped down onto his haunches within the pentacle he had just drawn.
“Sarah, come out of there. At once,” he said, in a calm, matter-of-fact, elder brotherly voice.
The thing inhabiting Innogen bared her teeth, and screamed wordlessly in his face.
Draco barely blinked.
“There’s no need to be rude. Don’t be ridiculous.”
She screamed defiance again, getting to her feet in order to claw at the boundaries of her invisible prison. Much to Peter’s relief, the barriers seemed to be holding.
Draco’s voice grew more authoritative. “You know, Sarah, I’m not him.”
He swivelled, looking the - child? woman? on the sofa full in the face.
“He died, Sarah; your brother died. He died rotten and raving in a gambling hell far from home. The family only survived because his last whore had the wit to get a Fleet parson to tell the words of the marriage ceremony over them when he could barely tell black from white, so her child would be born legitimate. I am not him, I tell you. But I am the Head of the Family. And by that right I compel you: come out of there.”
The figure on the couch whimpered. Draco looked down dispassionately at her.
“It isn’t going to make any difference, you know. You can’t stay here. There is nothing for you to stay for. You can’t revenge yourself on someone who’s been dead for over three hundred years. Not here. Not among the living. So come out.”
Innogen writhed and screamed again, but the scream was fainter now, less convinced. Draco, hearing it, adjusted his stance, pulling himself up to his full height.
How can I have thought he was short? Peter thought, irrelevantly. Against the water-stained cushions of the sofa Innogen looked tiny by contrast. Were-light streamed from the end of the wand, illuminating her pitilessly, like the lights around the mirror in a theatrical dressing room.
“As Head of the Family I require it of you. Leave. Now. Go. I have the power to make you, and the right to demand it.”
A faint childish voice broke from Innogen’s lips.
“If I go, will you make the pain stop? “
One graceful, perfectly manicured hand swept hesitantly across Innogen’s body. The reedy voice continued,
“So much pain. He snared her with lies and a cheat. She brought the bones back, herself. He didn’t want her to do it. That deserves stopping the pain.”
Draco, still keeping his eyes on Innogen, nevertheless managed a complex movement of his head, inclining his ear closer to Peter, speaking out of the corner of his mouth.
Peter shrugged. “I think she must mean her husband. He’s upstairs. I - ah - somewhat got the impression that he’d been - um - the dominant force behind - all this.”
Innogen gave an infuriated stamp of one foot. “No! Not her husband. The other one. In the grave-house. At the rites. The one who was one of us.”
Draco nodded, gravely. “Ah, yes. He’d have to have been, wouldn’t he? And a powerful one. Takes a heck of a lot of Dark talent, necromancy.”
Innogen still looked impatient. “No. Not just a wizard. One of us. Family.”
Peter saw Draco’s expression change; his pallid skin assume a greenish tinge. “Oh. I see. Or at least, I begin to see. Would he have mentioned which part of the family, Sarah, by any chance?”
Innogen’s expression was, in the context, a horrifying parody of a child caught out in some misdeed, and hoping that a prompt dobbing up of her partners-in-crime will avert some portion of the justified wrath of the Powers That Be. She nodded eagerly.
“He said - he said he was the Heir. He Summoned me - as the Heir and in the name of the Head of the Family. He said so. He said it himself.”
Draco’s face darkened, and the were-light assumed a blood-red tinge.
“He did, did he? If so, Sarah, he lied. You were not rightfully Summoned. I have no heir of my blood, and the Family will end with me.”
And Peter caught, passing between those two of the same blood, an eerily similar look of appalled triumph. If Sarah could not achieve the death of her brother, she nonetheless gloried in the extinction of his line. Draco nodded, solemnly, to confirm the truth of his assertion.
The little girl - impossible any longer to think of her as Innogen - got to her feet, and advanced. With a shock of visceral horror Peter saw Draco flick his wand to allow the pentacles to dissolve around them both. When she got within a yard of them she stopped, and with the same precise, formal, but laughing grace that he recollected from the girl in the portrait, she sank into a deep curtsey. Draco, nevertheless keeping his wand ready, bowed in response.
And then there was only Innogen, lying bewildered on slimy flagstones, blinking up at him from her own blue eyes.
He bent over her. “Now, don’t worry about anything. You and your husband have been taken ill, and you asked me to come over. We’re just getting the ambulance now.”
He slid his hands beneath her armpits, in order to assist her in drawing her to her bare feet. His hands, placed with scrupulous propriety, encountered wrongness; an unexpected hard swelling under his finger tips, perhaps the size of an apricot. He chose his next words with care.
“Innogen? We’re going to need to tell the doctor what seems to be wrong with you. And there’s something in your armpit that doesn’t - ah - feel quite right. Would you mind if I rolled your sleeve the whole way up - yes, right up to your shoulder - that’s good, so I could have a look?”
She was as unresisting as a rag doll. Sarah’s departure - and it seemed, truly, that she had departed - seemed to have left her cleansed but limp.
He could not suppress a gasp at what was left exposed once the gaudy silk had been rolled up. Admittedly, he had only seen its like before in crude woodcuts, designed more to shock than to inform, but the sight of that black, stinking swelling in her armpit triggered race memories of fear, and death, and devastation.
He spun to face Draco. Memory went into overload.
Sarah Melusine Richenda Rookwood Malfoy. Aetat XI, Anno Domini MDCLXV .
Or, in the vulgar, 1665.
“Draco!” he demanded, “Tell me one thing. What did your cousin Sarah die of?”
Draco turned towards him, looking puzzled.
“Well, the plague, of course.”
He must, it seemed, be looking like an idiot, because Draco waved an explanatory hand in the air, and added,
“You know. The Plague. The big one. Charles II. It really was the most jaw-dropping bad luck. They’d only just perfected Floo powder - they didn’t have the network, it was all point to point and having to work out parameters with astrolabes in advance - anyway, they hadn’t worked out about standardized pronunciations across the country, and why would they, since even our people didn’t get to see each other all that frequently - and the convention that the Gillingham in Kent gets a hard g, and the one in Wiltshire gets a soft g wasn’t exactly set in stone - well, anyway, her father was trying to get hold of a friend whose stallion was due to stand at stud and who he wanted to cover our mares, and the next thing was, he’d landed on top of a man-o-war in the Medway. Just come from the East, unfortunately. And when he got home, the sickness was already on him. And he infected the rest of the household.”
Draco made a dismissive gesture.
“We’d done very well out of the Black Death - that started in the next county, did you know - because we’d got the potions and we survived when the people in the Castle didn’t, and it was easy enough for our lot to take over the depopulated lands afterwards. But because of the 1620 fire our records had been lost, so unfortunately they didn’t know what they’d got on their hands until it was much too late. As it happened, Sarah’s parents died - as had her nurse (she was one of Mrs P.’s lot - she would be) and the rest of the servants bolted - not that they got far, come to think of it - and - “
He spread his hands. “It really must have been a horrid death, you know,” he said apologetically. “Quite enough to screw anyone up. You shouldn’t be too hard on her.”
“Draco!” Peter blinked at the degree of command it seemed his voice could convey. “That question was not intended as “press button here to obtain free chapter of Malfoy family history,” thank you. I was trying to tell you; unless I’m going mad (and if I were to describe the last few days to a disinterested outsider, I’m by no means sure I could be convincing to the contrary) that she appears to have passed bubonic plague on to Innogen. And, I don’t doubt, to Hugo. And I don’t know how that ties in to whatever you know about Necromancy, but as an actual matter of observed scientific fact, that seems to be what we’ve got here. So can you go upstairs, find out if her husband is even alive and what shape he seems to be in, while I call Richard and tell him that we appear to have an outbreak of a notifiable disease on our hands? No, on second thoughts, make that the notifiable disease. In fact, to coin a phrase, the big one.”
Draco nodded, briefly, and vanished upstairs. Peter had been keeping an eye on his wristwatch, otherwise he would have been prepared to declare the interval an eternity. Actually, within less that four and three-quarter minutes, Draco was back. There was something about his eyes and the wry set of his mouth that suggested to Peter that he had come very close to vomiting, and had still not entirely ruled out the option. However, all he said was,
“Well, he’s alive. Just. But his - ah -“
He gestured towards the swelling in Innogen’s arm-pit. “They - um - seem to have burst. Very messily. Not a very good sign at all, it didn’t look like.”
“You didn’t touch it?”
Peter’s mind spiralled over practicalities. How contagious was plague, anyway? Were they both already infected? Did anyone know anything about treating it, these days? And what about the rest of the village? The little drowned corpse of the rat, beached with the withdrawal of the waters against the skirting board, assumed a new and horrid significance.
Draco’s presence was, oddly, reassuring. He might be pale, but he was certainly not panicking.
“Of course not. What the hell do you take me for? A Gryffindor? I propose to leave that sort of thing to the experts. And, I might say, it looks a lot more likely in his case that the relevant experts will have screwdrivers rather than scalpels. And rather heavy-duty oiled dragon hide gloves, if they’ve got any sense.”
Peter gulped. He had called Richard when he was waiting, and was deeply grateful that the problem would be in someone else’s hands before too long, but given what Innogen had confided to him, he feared for what might become of Hugo - what had already become of him. If he died without even a chance of a change of heart -
Draco’s voice cut across his thoughts.
“Got anything for breakfast back at the Vicarage?”
“Ah - er - what?”
“Well,” Draco said in a tone which dripped sweet reasonableness, “I’m hardly going to march back into the Manor and say “Hi, gorgeous, give me a kiss; I’m just had such a hard morning practicing reverse Necromancy, oh, and by the way I think I may be infected with bubonic plague”, now, am I? You’re just going to have to put up with me staying in quarantine with you until someone passes us clear of infection.”
“Or until one or both of us goes down with bubonic plague,” Peter said mordantly. Draco’s eyes glittered.
“I’ve got to say, if you ask most of the people I was at school with, they’d say in a choice of plague versus my uninterrupted company; nasty decision.”
“I’ll take my chances on your company, thanks all the same. But I warn you; the roof leaks.”
“Plus ça change - “
“And I hope you can arrange to take in Canon Bowles at the Manor - I should ring him now to let him know not to be there when we get to the Vicarage -“
Draco looked mildly taken aback, and then nodded. “Yes, OK. If he doesn’t mind - and at least he isn’t local, so he might not be that prejudiced. It’s not as if we don’t have the space. And anyway, Neville’s probably going to be fretting, and it’ll take his mind off it. Actually, keeping Mrs P. and Canon Bowles apart probably would keep his mind off things even if I were to get plague - And I’m not actually feeling all that great, though maybe that was getting up early -“
Peter looked severe. “Look, quarantine’s going to be trying enough. Sharing quarters with a self-pitying hypochondriac isn’t something anyone should have to put up with -“
Draco looked as if he was feeling for a snappy comeback. But then the doorbell rang. With a sense of relief, Peter realised that his duties, for the time being, were over; other people had their roles to perform here, now.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see the floodwaters begin flowing unobtrusively back into the room.
Emily Longbottom regarded the gadget in the corner of Caitlin’s sitting room with interest, not untouched with apprehension. She had seen Muggle televisions before (the barriers between Wizard and Muggle in Pendle had not been proof against the appeal of the Coronation, for instance, and she had accepted an invitation a neighbour’s house for the party, projecting an air of being fully au fait with the alarming, flickering box in the corner and accepting Cyprus sherry with grave condescension). However, it was the first time she had been left alone with one, and it was not an opportunity she intended to miss out on.
She examined it with an engineer’s assessing eye from all angles. The technology, unsurprisingly, seemed to have developed somewhat since 1953.
A bit of trial and error with the whatchemacallit - remote control - and, to be honest, a smidgeon of a spell at a crucial moment, and the box was flickering and chattering away to itself.
Emily greeted her minor victory over the alien with a slow, sure, smile.
Growing in assurance, she seized up the controls and busily cycled through a dozen or so random channels, throwing in the odd “Tsk” as appropriate at the images flickering past, and, at one point, a snort of such epically censorious proportions she regretted the absence of an audience. A chance-heard word caught her attention, and her finger, poised to move on to the next channel, froze over the control pad. She turned her full attention towards the screen.
Evidently she had hit upon some Muggle news programme. She listened through it all carefully, and then sat in silence for some time.
“Well!” Emily Longbottom said out loud, “That does put the cat among the pigeons, and no mistake.”
She put her head on one side, and pondered.
“It’ll never do for that excitable lot out there to get to hear of this too soon. All sorts of trouble. Bolting to the four corners and spreading it, likely as not. And then how am I going to get to the bottom of what’s been going on here?”
It was clearly a time for drastic measures. The course participants, after a subdued lunch (that little Scot’s appetite still wasn’t what it should be, and Miss Flibbertigibbet was looking tireder and more washed out than that Irish minx who’d got a better excuse for it) were safely corralled in the afternoon session. None of them would have a chance to pick up a news bulletin for a few hours, at least. The evening was the danger time, then. She could, of course, disable any of these - television - things in the guest house. But the village would be buzzing with the news by now. Somehow or other, she had got to stop them wandering off to the pub or wherever it was that they did go in the evenings. Just buy a few hours, in which she could advance her investigations.
Oh, and to decide what she could do to help in the village, naturally.
Emily Longbottom pulled out her wand, and pondered.
It was, of course, always possible that the Ministry might come to hear of it, and take a dim view. But on the whole she doubted it. She’d had her personal encounters with most of the Ministry seniors and had always come out on top to date. Her family connections alone guaranteed respectful neutrality, most of the time. There was no reason why her luck should change now.
She blew a speck of dust off the tip of her wand, and went out into the guesthouse, closing the green-baize door behind her against the chattering television screen.
By the end of Thursday afternoon the last thing Hermione wanted was to go to Dean’s dinner party.
What is it with me and dinner parties at the moment? she reflected bitterly as, being the last to leave the office, she muttered, “Occultate!” in a voice calculated to penetrate to every part of the building. Obediently, the lights snapped off. She closed the door, pulled a key from her handbag, locked it, and set the anti-intruder charms with a certain grim satisfaction. There were some nights when she almost hoped some masochistic or poorly-informed thief would try to burgle the offices of Intermage Security Consultants Limited. And tonight was very definitely one of those nights.
Charity, that’s how they must see it, she added to herself as she bent her head into the driving rain, and felt water from the icy puddles which collected along the sides of the road splash above her thin court shoes, and soak through her tights.
She had, as a matter of fact, perfected the Pluvium Repellere charm a term-and-a-half into her first year at Hogwarts. No matter.
For some states of mind only the Pathetic Fallacy will do.
Save this poor lonely woman from another evening in her depressing little flat with only her cat for company. That’s obviously what they’re all thinking.
And I’m not lonely. Frankly.
She paused, momentarily.
Nor am I in need of endless helpings of Spaghetti Carbonara, and being paired off with anyone they’ve been able to dredge up as an apparently unattached extra man, thank you very much. Either.
She continued walking down the rain-swept street.
Mind you - it’s not that the theory couldn’t work. Given the right man. I wish -
Her mind baulked at going over the events of Tuesday evening. Masochistically, she forced herself back down that path.
Her delight and relief at Peter’s appearance on her doorstep had been the high point. The evening had deteriorated from there.
It had begun, of course, with Ron. Overcome with Adrienne’s latest enormity (the details of which now, she was ashamed to say, she was quite unable to recall) he had appeared on her hearth, and been pouring out his heart to her for quite five minutes before her signals to him had managed to get through the concept of not alone. At which signal he had retreated, an expression of indefinable hurt in his eyes, leaving her turning towards Peter with a faintly defensive air, spotting him looking completely - non-committal, his face as blank as a snow-field swept by wind, which had left her feeling apologetic and defenceless more effectively than any words could have managed.
As though, perhaps, it suddenly occurred to you that “being a sister of mercy” was not quite as far away from “committing adultery in your heart” than you had previously assumed?
She had produced coffee to smooth the awkward moment. Which it had - she supposed - they had started to recapture some of that earlier ease -
Until, of course, Harry - presumably egged on by Ron - decided to show up on the hearth in his turn.
Detecting movement in the background behind her head, Harry’s ill-starred opening line had been, “Hermione! Don’t tell me you’re actually still encouraging that perverted bastard!”
She had moved aside, enough for him to see Peter, sitting looking polite on the sofa, and Harry had gulped, and vanished abruptly. Which was, she reflected, almost worse than if he had stayed to talk.
Peter had left shortly afterwards, muttering something about the last train and Early Service the next day, but she had suspected he was moving awkwardly round her, and gritted her teeth with fury.
He probably thinks I’m a total slut. And co-dependent. And a weirdo. And I expect he disapproves of witchcraft altogether. On principle. And if he doesn’t, his Bishop will. In fact, isn’t there something in the Book of Exodus -?
The rain lashed down, joining its dampness to the salt drops covering her eyes, and she turned her face upwards to it in a wail of unashamed self-pity.
You fancy someone, and the most acceptable things he knows about you are the ones he’s been told by Draco Malfoy.
She sniffed pathetically and continued on through the driving rain.
In tribute, however, to the time honoured maximum that you can take the girl out of Belsize Park, but not the Belsize Park out of the girl, she was dry eyed, composed, and a demure 20 minutes after the scheduled time when she appeared on Dean’s doorstep. She held out a bottle of wine to him and he opened his arms to her on the doorstep and kissed her on the cheek. He blinked, momentarily, at the sight of the dusty bottle she had produced from a Waitrose carrier bag. Two cases from the wizarding branch of Justerini and Brooks had arrived for her last week, apparently an unscheduled bonus for her recent efforts in Dorset, and she had merely snatched a bottle from the nearer one before leaving the flat that morning. It had not occurred to her before she saw Dean’s expression that Chateau St Estephe 1976 was a trifle excessive for an informal midweek get-together of old friends.
“Come right on in,” Dean said, waving his hand hospitably. “Justin’s arrived already.”
The warm smells of cooking filled the flat. The curtains were drawn against the storm outside; and the lights were welcoming pools of comfort. Hermione muttered a drying charm over her sodden shoes, and began to cheer up. Justin grinned up at her from the sofa, and scrambled somewhat awkwardly to his feet.
“Nice to see you after so long. How’s business? Can I get you a drink? Bar duties have been delegated to me, for the time being; the Beef Wellington’s apparently about to go critical, and requires round-the-clock supervision from both our hosts.”
She nodded, and he poured her a gin and tonic. Something about the way his hand curved around the glass as he passed it across to her caught her eye; she looked down and then suppressed a squeak of dismay. Not effectively enough, evidently; he looked somewhat ruefully down.
“Oops. Sorry. I’d got so used to them I’d forgotten they might come as a bit of a shock to anyone else. And I’ve got an appointment booked at St Mungo’s for some tidying up, if that makes it any better.”
“But what - I mean, where -“
She trailed to a stop, abruptly conscious that where did you mislay your finger ends? did not feature as part of the general run of polite dinner party conversation. Justin filled in the gaps in her question without difficulty.
“They’re somewhere under an ice-fall in the Andes. Along, blast it, with the emergency pack containing my wand. Still, doubtless, with the bloody over-effective anti-tamper seals still in place. If I’d been able to get into that at the appropriate moment, I might have been able to do something a bit more sensible about the frostbite. Honestly, you know, it’s high time the Magical Mountaineering Council got its head out of its backside, and came up with a sensible set of rules on wand-accessibility during a qualifying ascent, you know. But, bless them, they’re no dafter than the Muggle lot, with all this endless squabbling about oxygen and porters, and whether pre-fixed pitons are an act of vandalism.”
She must, she thought, still be looking somewhat fazed, because he added cheerfully, “Mind you, does wonders for one’s crag-cred. You aren’t anyone at the British Mountaineering Club unless you’ve got bits visibly missing. Or invisibly missing, come to think of it. You will not believe the invitation I got after a somewhat lavish dinner there last September. Just put it this way, there is only one answer to the question, Do you want to see what the pitiless chill of an Antarctic crossing does to a man’s foreskin? And somehow, I don’t think it was the one he wanted to hear. Nice body; personality located somewhere slimy festering things go for dirty weekends.”
She giggled. He looked at her, and said, in a rather different voice, “Sorry to hear about Giles. My old man rang me yesterday to let me know. He’s on some Board or other with Lloyd-Ashby père, I gather. And got burnt in the eighties on one of Sheldon Nash’s arbitrage schemes, but then, who didn’t? Not that you’d wish that on anyone, all the same. Only daughter, wasn’t she?”
Tears pricked behind her eyelids again. He reached out with the mutilated hand to pat her awkwardly on her shoulder, and at that moment the doorbell rang again. Dean’s partner Sam came skidding out from the kitchen at speed.
“Hi, hon,” she said breathlessly to Hermione. “Sorry I wasn’t able to come out and say hello properly when you got here. Justin, you couldn’t go and let Seamus and Nuala in, could you? We’re both completely tied up in liver pate and puff pastry.”
“Oh, spare us the kinky sidelights on your sex-life, please,” Justin said. She wrinkled her small snub nose at him in mock-disgust, and he grinned unrepentantly at her before heading off into the hall. Sam turned round, looking at Hermione with her head on one side.
“And how are you, stranger? What have you been up to? And are we going to be seeing Harry back this side of the Pond any time soon, hm?”
Relieved by the distraction - and by Samantha’s rapid fire speed of delivery - Hermione allowed herself to be kissed on both cheeks. And then Seamus and Nuala were there, chattering exuberantly, and it seemed easiest simply to go with the flow.
The meal had been eaten, and they were sprawled around the lounge with coffee and liqueur chocolates, with Seamus in the midst of a scathing take-off of his current boss, aka that eejit, when Dean gave a whoop of shocked concern.
“Gangway, gangway, you lot. Absolutely have to get the news on now. I need to know how the Hammers got on in the replay.”
Sam looked plaintive.
“However long I live here, I’ll never get the hang of soccer.”
“That’s probably why Dean fell for you in the first place,” Justin said. “You’ve got such a lot in common with his team.”
Dean snorted, and turned on the TV in the middle of the news. The reporter, standing under some dripping trees in some dark and rain-sodden bit of countryside, did not look happy.
“Jeez!” Seumas muttered. “If it’s not still bloody foot and mouth. Can’t the BBC cover anything else?”
“Apparently not. And it’s put the kybosh on the Six Nations,” Justin said. “When I’d timed my last trek so I’d be home in time for all the games my brother had got us tickets for, too. Made me feel exactly like Charters and Caldecott when I finally struggled into London, and the first thing I saw was that the match at Lansdowne Road had been cancelled.”
“Too bloody right it has. Not having your English viruses fecking up our national herd, if it’s all the same to you, thank you so much. We’ve enough shit to owe to you lot as it is.”
“You guys! I really don’t think this is about foot and mouth at all,” Samantha said. “Could you just shut up so we can all listen?”
The reporter had an expression of deep concern, and the sort of note in her voice generally reserved for child-abductions or random shooting sprees.
“To an outsider, time in this idyllic West Country village seems to have stood still. To the local people, however, the truth is very different. For weeks they have fought a lonely battle against the inroads of foot and mouth. Tonight they are facing a new, horrific peril, a disease that has not been seen in this country in centuries. Its first two victims - proof if it were needed that this lethal predator takes no account of money, fame or talent in choosing where to strike - lie tonight in a critical condition. Behind me a village waits in fear to find where bubonic plague will strike next.”
She paused, and turned to face the camera fully.
“This is Caroline Wright-Hewitt, BBC News, Malfoy Instrinsica, Wiltshire.”
There was an immediate hubbub of conversation in the living room.
“My god! What the hell has Draco let loose now?”
“-made the Muggle news, by Jesus - the spineless eejits at the Ministry will just have to take notice now -“
”- Oy, Seamus - chuck me the remote willya - looks like I’ll just have to get the Hammers result off teletext -“
” - Who the hell do you think the victims are - I mean, if the BBC has noticed, they must be Muggle celebs or else I’d think -“
“-Yes, sounds like it, worse luck - not that I reckon any self-respecting plague germ would actually choose Draco Malfoy as its des. res -“
Sam’s warm, concerned twang cut through the others.
“Hang on a minute here, all of you,” she said reasonably, “But I’m missing a few beats. Look, who is this Draco Malfoy guy, and why do you all seem to think he’s responsible for this plague outbreak anyway?”
Hermione’s lips were tightly compressed, and she was trying to stop her anger and fear from lashing out and betraying her.
Dean waved a hand in the air. “God, have I really never mentioned him before? We were at school with him. Total jerk - one of those guys you’d think would be immensely improved by death -“
“Which, to all intents and purposes, he was.” To her surprise Justin looked almost as tense as she felt. “So, chaps, especially after Recent Events, you might lay off a bit. Yes?”
Dean raised surprised eyebrows. “Never knew he was such a mate of yours -“
“He isn’t, especially. Though we know some of the same people. I ran across him a couple of times in Recent Events, and he and Neville helped dig me out of a bit of a jam once then. But - I can tell you this - if you’ve ever seen what bubonic plague really does - look, autumn before last we were climbing in the Pamiro-Alai, in Krygystan - and we got into an area that the plague had got to first.”
“There isn’t an enemy I’ve ever had - and I’m not making any exceptions here - that I’d wish that horror on.”
He got to his feet. “Anyway, chaps, since I’m still a bit worn out after the trek, and I’ve got a spot of surgery scheduled for later in the week, I’d better love you and leave you. Gorgeous meal, Sam - and no, I’m not just saying that because it makes a lovely change from guinea pig - even though it does - it’s nice to find at least one Yank who hasn’t been irrevocably put off the roast beef of old England by the bad publicity -“
Sam’s warm brown eyes were troubled, but she managed to return his smile, standing on tip-toe to kiss him.
“Not a Yank, sweetheart. Annapolis. Maryland. Don’t you forget it, now. Because my parents sure don’t, believe it. As you’ll find out at the wedding next year, if so help us we all live that long -“
“And if the creek don’t rise,” Dean added automatically. Sam smiled dazzlingly at him, and then turned to Justin again.
“Look, it isn’t that late - you’re sure you don’t want to stay a bit longer?”
He smiled, but shook his head. “Sorry, Sam, have to be going.”
Hermione reached a decision. “You couldn’t possibly drop me off, Justin, could you? I - ah - think I’ve had a bit too much of the wine to want to Apparate tonight. And I’ve got a heavy day at the office tomorrow, too. Bye everyone - no, don’t bother to get up -“
Justin’s lips quirked, but he handed her into her coat without comment. It was not until she was sitting in the passenger seat of the TVR convertible (he had, she noted, pulled on a pair of black leather driving gloves, which she thought, suggested he was less nonchalant about the damage to his fingers than he pretended) that he spoke again.
“Of course, if you’d really wanted to make it obvious that you were making a bolt for it, I suppose you could have said “Beam me up, Scotty.” Or just Apparated straight out of there. But short of doing either of those -“
He caught sight of her face in the reflected glow of a traffic light, and his tone changed.
“Are you OK? I thought you were just making a tactical retreat, to avoid getting into a row, same as me -“
She shook her head.
“No - it’s - Look, Justin - your brother’s a doctor, isn’t he?”
“My-brother-the-consultant, you mean. With a seven-enema salute. Yes, he is. And big sis has just started her houseman’s job at Guy’s, too. And I don’t suppose either of them has ever seen a case of bubonic plague in their lives. Lucky sods.”
“Yes, I know, but they’ll have studied - look, could you ask them - could someone catch bubonic plague from bones? I mean, if they were doing - archaeology, say, and opened up the tomb of someone who’d died of it -?”
He swung the car competently through the traffic pelting round Marble Arch. “Oh, I don’t need to ask them that one. Yes. Of course you could. You should just have heard the family outcry when Aunt Jemima - well, she’s my stepmum’s half-sister, actually, but the joke seemed too good to waste - anyway, when she announced she’d put in an offer on some overpriced pad somewhere between St Dunstan’s-in-the East and the Tower. And, as the estate agent conspicuously hadn’t bothered to mention, slap-bang over some of the plague pits left after London’s last little outbreak. Can live in the soil for up to 900 years, Pasteurella pestis. Persistent little bugger. And god help you if it decides to go pneumonic or septicaemic on you. Witch or wizard or not.”
She gulped. “Oh, god,” she muttered. He cast a sidelong glance at her.
“Worried about Neville? Who, I noticed, but couldn’t be arsed to get into a fight about, seemed to have become the invisible man all of a sudden back there.”
She suddenly felt clammy.
“Worried about both of them. And - and someone else in the village, too. Well, apart from all the other people in the village, naturally.”
He looked at her again.
“Mm. I see. Look, swing by my place first, why don’t you? I’ve got something I suspect you’ll be needing. If you’re about to do what I think, that is.”
The tiny mews house had the air of an eyrie - a ledge that was touched on, briefly, and then abandoned again for weeks at a time. There was a pile of unopened post on the table - Justin collected another pile from his mailbox and added it to the detritus - and started rummaging in a drawer of a filing cabinet.
“Remember what I said about Krygystan?” he tossed back over his shoulder. “Well, I had a mixed party of wizards and Muggles with me on that trek. Absolute nightmare. And one of the Muggles got sick first. And the official Ministry line would have been to leave the Muggles to it, and Apparate with those who could back into a quarantine hospital. But, of course, that isn’t the sort of thing that one does.”
“So the first thing I did was went and found one of the local wizards. He didn’t want to talk to me, but he did - in the end. And somewhere - about here - I should have the local potion recipe I got out of him. Which worked, thank god. Or I wouldn’t be talking to you now. Probably.”
He closed his hand on the slip of parchment with a suppressed grunt of triumph, and turned to face her. His tanned face was serious.
“Of course, you do realise the Ministry will give you hell if it finds out you’ve been using it to protect Muggles - actually, it was bloody awkward even in my case, except given where I was when did it, no-one had a bloody clue whose writ ran, or more likely didn’t. But they won’t have any doubts in Wiltshire. So be careful.”
He paused again. “Neville’ll know where to get the ingredients, I should think. And I can’t see him getting his arse out to safety. Actually, I can’t see Draco abandoning his people in a hurry, either. He’s pretty tribal about that sort of thing, for all his faults. Do well in Kyrgystan, probably, if they had better plumbing.”
He flicked his wand, and the hearth leapt into flame. “Do you want to Floo onwards from here?”
She nodded, wordlessly. He smiled.
“Give my regards to Neville. And Draco too, the snarky old bastard.”
As she whirled away, almost the last thing she saw was a black-gloved hand, raised in a gesture that was almost a salute.
”- and the eights were pure, so that makes 5100. My game.”
Peter gathered together the scattered debris of the two packs, and began to shuffle them competently. Draco’s face looked sulky.
Peter paused in his shuffling. Something about Draco’s expression lead him to suspect that suggesting another round at this juncture would hardly be popular.
“Well,” he said reasonably, temporizing, “Given I only started to teach you the rules this afternoon, it’s hardly that surprising. It’s not as if it wasn’t complicated. And you were definitely giving me a run for my money in that last lot.”
Draco got up and moved irresolutely over to the window of the front sitting room. He had been pacing restlessly round the house for most of the afternoon, apart from a brief interlude when Neville had come down from the Manor with supplies and spare clothes. They had a conversation through an open window; Neville had been convinced that Draco was making an idiotic fuss about nothing, and had tried to come in, but Draco had somehow prevented him. Peter had noted with covert amusement that the few people passing down Vicarage Lane during the altercation, who might otherwise have dawdled nosily at the sound of raised voices, had briskly remembered business elsewhere, and trotted purposefully away. And, apart from a brief visit from Richard (looking horribly harassed and old) to bring them pre-emptive courses of antibiotics, and to tell them that if a blood sample taken next morning shown no bacteria present they could count themselves free to move, unless symptoms appeared, they had had nothing to do since then. It was only to prevent spontaneous combustion that had led him to suggest cards.
“Ought the lights to be on in the church?” Draco enquired, part-turning round to face him.
“What?” Peter made two steps to the window. Draco’s pointing hand - he must have impressive night-vision, or maybe he was doing something to enhance it - indicated a faint, low-down, flickering light round by the side door into the vestry. Peter found himself heading for the door almost without conscious thought.
“What?” Draco said from behind him. Peter turned to face him, reaching for his coat at the same time.
“There - most certainly - oughtn’t to be anyone in the church - at this time of night. And this time I’m going to get to the bottom of it. Quarantine or no quarantine.”
“I’m coming with you.”
His surprise must have shown in his expression, because Draco made an impatient gesture.
“Look, it’s got to be more interesting than losing at cards, hasn’t it? And I shouldn’t imagine I’d get any sleep if I went to bed now. And admit it: you could use the back up - odds-on it’s something from my world rather than yours. And anyway -“
A wicked gleam flickered momentarily in his eyes, but his voice remained calmly practicable.
“How many other chances am I ever going to get to use the line, “I warn you; I have a plague bacillus here, and I’m not afraid to use it?”