Chapter 15: Friday Evening - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
After a tedious round of statement making and official verbiage, a dispirited little group gathered back at the Vicarage in the evening.
The police - summoned at Peter’s insistence in the teeth of spirited opposition - had put incident tape around the Temple and Ken’s body was in the process of being removed to the mortuary. Caitlin, back in Gaia’s Place and primed by a quick phone-call from Neville, had chosen this moment to “discover” the aspirin bottle in the residents’ sitting room, and the police seemed unclear whether to be more pleased or annoyed by the complications this introduced into the poisoning case they had almost written off as solved. It had, at least, apparently absolved them of having to pretend too much sympathy with the corpse. The forensic team had been positively jolly as they worked.
The decision to decamp to the Vicarage at the earliest opportunity had been mainly to prevent Neville fretting too badly about the numerous pairs of unhygienic official boots currently contaminating Manor land. Draco, who had also been visibly wincing at the degree to which the shades of the Manor were being thus polluted, had later sent the dogs down to keep him company, ostensibly on the grounds that the presence of Muggle officials was upsetting them.
“And,” Mrs P. had said excitedly as she delivered Marvolo and Riddle (Neville got a distinct sense that an unexpected Muggle corpse on Malfoy land was reminding her pleasurably of the Manor’s glory days), “However the police try to twist it, they can’t make out it’s against the law for the Master to play cards with his own family, on his own land. Not no how, not no way, not never.”
And since the one member of the alfresco card party who had so far not been found was, by unanimous eyewitness testimony, the only person to have laid a finger on the deceased, it seemed likely that Draco would be released to join them as soon as Ken’s body had been safely removed.
“And not a moment too soon,” Mrs Longbottom said with an air of grim satisfaction. “It’s getting very late. The Canon will be out. And Bartlemass, too. I may have given him a nasty burn, but he’ll be back as soon as he lays his hand on another wand. Can’t risk that nasty Dark wandless business again, even if he could find another victim. Surprised it worked in the first place.”
Neville looked at his grandmother. “You think Bartlemass is going to come back?”
She nodded vigorously. “Not a doubt about it. There wasn’t one of that line who had the gumption to spot when he was beaten.”
Neville allowed himself a small, private grin. “Still isn’t.”
Mrs Longbottom snorted. “Well, I will say this for young Draco. He’s better at picking the right fights than most of them. And the right side for that matter.”
“My god! Do I actually hear the ghost of a compliment?”
Abruptly, Draco was standing in the sitting room. He was wearing robes, presumably to signal that he was done with Muggledom for the day. Mrs Longbottom looked at him.
“Oh, so they haven’t locked you up yet, then?”
Draco raised an eyebrow.
“Certainly not! Released without a stain on my character.”
Mrs Longbottom turned her head, sharply, towards something she had apparently seen outside the sitting room window. They all followed the line of her glance, nervously peering out through into the darkness. She shook her head decisively, and turned back to face Draco.
“I’m sorry. For a moment I thought I noticed your Gloucester Old Spots indulging in a spot of formation flying round the church tower. Trick of the light, no doubt. You were saying?”
Draco smiled sweetly.
“I was saying that none of us appear to be being suspected of anything. Even you. In fact, they still weren’t sure whether or not to call it natural causes. None of us are supposed to leave the village without letting them know until after the post mortem, but if anything they’re much more interested in Bartlemass.”
“So am I,” Peter said. “What’s he been doing? I mean, I gather he’s some sort of relative of yours, and he’s obviously a psychotic ruthless killer -“
Draco, at Mrs Longbottom and Hermione’s glances in his direction, had the grace to flush slightly. He made an airy gesture.
“That’s practically a tautology, as they’ll be delighted to remind you.”
Neville extended a hand and laid it on Draco’s arm. “Actually, you know, family or not you’re developing a worrying streak of altruism in your old age. You never had to take that risk, earlier -“
Draco shrugged. “No option. Nothing but a serious crack at getting his paws on the Manor could possibly have distracted Bartlemass for long enough to get the rescue team into position.” His eye flicked over to Mrs Longbottom, who smiled a satisfied, saurian grin. Hermione got to her feet.
“Does anyone want coffee? I’m making some.”
“I’ll help,” Peter said. The two vanished kitchen wards. Mrs Longbottom looked thoughtfully after them, and then pulled herself creakily from the depths of the armchair. “I’d better be popping over to Gaia’s Place and seeing that Caitlin’s got proper protection in case the attack kicks off there. Your Mrs P. can look after the Manor - and I pity the vampire that comes up against her - but I’ll need to keep Caitlin covered. I asked her to come here, but she said that her guests had been struck all of a heap by Ken’s death, and she couldn’t leave them.”
She Apparated away. Draco glanced at Neville.
“If that was anyone other than your grandmother, I’d call that tact.”
Neville grinned back at him. He felt he had been grinning unstoppably since the resolution of the card game; the police had been minded to take it badly in their interview with him.
“Maybe she’s developing surprises in her old age, too. But I meant it. You took an idiotic chance - risked everything - your house, your life -“
Draco’s voice dropped to a whisper and became husky.
“Maybe - well, you know what you said - that you didn’t want the Manor without me inside it? Well, did it never occur to you that I might well feel the same way about you?”
And he looked up from the chair with an air of unmistakable invitation, mixed with something else; an air of hesitation, almost disbelief at his luck, like a traveller who has been stumbling for hours through a blizzard, sees a lighted house ahead, and can hardly credit that shelter from the storm is at last his for the asking.
Neville found himself crossing the room before he was aware of it.
Draco’s lips were warm, receptive, waiting for his kiss. The silky feel of Draco’s hair as he burrowed his fingers in it was so wonderfully familiar. His relief in being able to hold him again after that terror-filled afternoon tinged his pleasure with an edge so sharp it was almost pain.
He knelt over him, pressing him back into the armchair, squeezing his thighs between his knees, his hands roaming freely across the smooth skin of Draco’s back beneath his sweater. He gave a sharp gasp, and pulled Neville closer, arching up into the kiss.
There was a dry cough from behind them.
“Excuse me if I’m interrupting anything important,” his grandmother’s voice rasped out, “But I’ve just found a lost vulture on the village street, and it appears it’s got a package for young Draco.”
They stumbled awkwardly apart. Draco muttered something under his breath, and Neville’s grandmother shot him a beady look.
“And there’s no call for language, young man. Specially not when you’re enjoying the hospitality of the vicar. I’ll let it in here, should I?”
At this moment they heard the study door open, a short exclamation of surprise and then a fluting, clerical voice.
“Peter! Excuse me for interrupting you - and I’m sorry I didn’t come out to greet your guests earlier, but I had finally started to get my footnotes for my submissions to the Synod sub-committee straightened out, and I didn’t want to break the thread, as it were - but Peter, were you aware that you seem to have a Griffon Vulture in your hallway? A Himalayan Griffon Vulture, unless I’m very much mistaken.”
“A what?” Peter’s startlement was evident in his voice. Neville and Draco piled through into the hallway in the wake of Mrs Longbottom, to see Peter emerging from the kitchen, his arms full of a tray of coffee, with Hermione, looking flushed, self-conscious, and rather attractively dishevelled behind him. Both were gazing in surprise at the large, handsome, dark brown, white-ruffed bird which was hopping ponderously along, its talons scrabbling long scars in the linoleum and its progress considerably impeded by a jade-green silk parcel which was tied to one leg with black cord.
“It’s apparently for me,” Draco said. “Special delivery.”
He knelt down and released the cord, which, Neville noticed, was made of some infinitely fine silk substance that brought a faint breath of the sea with it when it was untied. The vulture, with the satisfied air of a bird with a mission completed, stretched its wings in a lazy flap (overturning the umbrella stand and knocking a brass tray off the hall-table and onto the floor with a resounding clang as it did so), and uttered a sound between a croak and a yawn, which allowed them all to inspect at close range its formidable hooked beak.
Draco was studying the intricately folded piece of paper that had been attached, somehow, to the cord, before tackling the package itself.
“It’s flown a long way.”
“Aye,” Mrs Longbottom said, “Then it’s no doubt peckish. If I were yon dogs, I’d not be too happy about the gleam it seems to have in its eye when it looks at them.”
Neville, looking in the direction his grandmother was indicating, took her point. He caught Marvolo and Riddle’s collars, and pushed them firmly behind him. It might have been imagination, but he fancied he spotted a faintly disappointed look on the vulture’s face.
Peter cleared his throat.
“I’ve got some liver in the fridge - “
The vulture, apparently picking up on the tone if not the words, made determined tracks into the kitchen, its talons clicking on the floor. Peter vanished after it. When he returned (sans vulture) Draco had opened the package and its contents - a loose bundle of green cloth - were in his arms as he knelt on the hall floor.
“Where’s the nearest flagpole?” Draco demanded. Peter blinked.
“On the church, but -“
“That’s a flag?”
Draco shrugged. “Well, technically a banner, I suppose. But yes - it’s something we need a flagpole for.”
He let the folds of silk fall open across his legs. Against the background a dragon rose up in hissing anger, its scales glittering with gold and silver thread, its eyes worked with gemstones, its wicked teeth appliquéd ivory, iridescent green-gold of insect wings gleaming down the length of its back and tail, and the seven talons on each of its outspread feet iron-grey scimitars poised to rend and tear.
Draco sat back on his heels, and looked at it with satisfaction.
“Nice to know Yu Long’s declared her colours, anyway. And for the legitimate line. You must have made quite an impact on her, love. I’ve never heard of her getting herself involved in family rows before -“
“Yu Long?” Peter raised a questioning eyebrow. Neville shrugged.
“His whatever-great aunt it is when someone’s your great-great grandmother’s sister.”
Peter’s eyebrow went higher. “I wouldn’t know. I think it’s a relationship I’ve only ever seen in a table of kindred and affinity. And I’m not quite sure I believed in it there. It wasn’t the one at the back of the Prayer Book.”
“Kin- oh, I see. Good lord. I’m surprised anyone would need to be told not to marry one. Anyway, Draco’s oldest surviving relative. Well, Bartlemass’s too, I suppose.”
Peter’s air of puzzlement was reminiscent of that of the dogs when someone had maliciously put one food bowl at one end of the kitchen, and the other at the opposite end at the same time, and they were bewildered over which way to dive first.
“Draco’s got Chinese ancestry?”
Neville’s smile broadened.
“Yup. Doesn’t look it, does he? But then, they say none of them have since his great-grandfather. Poor bugger; they say his father hated him for not looking enough like his mother, and the kids at Hogwarts gave him hell for being “slitty-eyed”. No wonder he ended up going dotty about the sanctity of the pureblood cause.”
Peter continued to look baffled. Neville waved an explanatory hand.
“Draco’s great-great grandfather used to be known as the White Devil of Tae-Mo-Shan. Pirate, you know. Ran away to sea after a family row. He captured the junk, which Yu Long and her sister Yu Jian were travelling on between Shanghai and Canton, and no one was more surprised than their father when he decided actually to marry the older girl. Now she must have been quite a sorceress. Caused quite a sensation when he brought her back to the Manor some time in the late 1840s, I gather -“
“No point in sitting here gossiping all night.” Draco’s voice was urgent. “We’ve been sent this - we’ve got to fly it. We’d better be getting to the church.”
Peter’s voice was deeply outraged.
“You can’t put that on the church! There are rules. And what would the Bishop say?”
Draco looked at him with an air of deep reasonableness.
“Look, the Bishop’s only daughter is currently sleeping off a drug overdose in your spare bedroom with a vampire bite in her neck. How upset do you think he could be about your flying something that wasn’t a differenced flag of St George from the church flagstaff?”
Peter shrugged helplessly.
“He’s always prided himself on being a details man -“
Draco snorted. He was already on his way to the door. Neville and Hermione, wands in hand, followed behind.
Mrs Longbottom eyed them. “I’d best be checking on Caitlin. I’ll see you over at the church when I’ve done at the guesthouse.” She looked at Canon Bowles who, now he had seen the vulture safely disposed of, seemed minded to return to his footnotes in the study. “You want to be careful if you’re planning on staying here. I don’t want to cause undue alarm, but there isn’t anything to stop the old Canon - Canon Rawkins, that is - coming in here. He doesn’t need inviting - it seems to be his notion that he lives here. And it won’t come as a surprise to you that he won’t have any respect for your cloth. You could have a nasty shock if he does turn up.”
Canon Bowles eyed her over the half-moon glasses he had been wearing to read.
“Indeed? Well, that will be a new experience for me, and one, I confess, I find rather intriguing. In the course of being the only person licensed to perform a Deliverance Ministry in the diocese I have had some remarkable encounters, but no vampires - at least, not so far as I was aware at the time. Though I did meet a most interesting Greek Orthodox priest at an International Ecumenical Conference once, from somewhere like the Northern tip of Euboia, I think it was, who claimed to have had quite a problem in his village with - now - what did he call them -Vrykolakes, was it? - anyway, a sort of Greek vampire who preferred wine to blood -“
Mrs Longbottom snorted. “Doesn’t surprise me, knowing Greeks. Doubtless they didn’t object to garlic, any, either.”
“Well, I can safely guarantee that Canon Rawkins will be quite conventional about his drinking preferences, given half a chance, ” Draco said. “Even if he did nab the last bottle of Pomerol when he was here before, the bastard - “
“Peter, ought I to stay?” Hermione was turning back from the door even as she spoke. Canon Bowles raised his white bushy brows.
“My dear young lady! While I am most touched by the offer, do consider the wider picture. For good reason, it seems likeliest the assault will come at the Church. For you to stay here would weaken your forces at the point of maximum threat and risk defeat in detail. I’m sure Draco’s aunt would be able to reference for you Sun Tzu on the dangers of dividing one’s forces -“
“Chapter six,” Hermione snapped. Peter and Canon Bowles looked startled, and Neville and Draco exchanged a grin.
“I bow to your superior knowledge,” Canon Bowles said, suiting the action to the words. “But concentrate on practicalities. I, being superannuated and scrawny, present a much less tempting target than you would. And I may always be able to induce him to talk rather than bite. One never knows. How fascinating it would be to discuss matters with someone who had seen the Established Church in good King George’s golden days! And how surprised he will be as to how things have changed.”
Further persuasion proved useless, and a few moments later they were at the foot of the tower of St Sebastian’s. Draco tucked the bundle of flag into the neck of his shirt, put one hand on the substantial lead drainpipe, gripped hard, and started to swarm up it. Peter gulped.
“So,” he said nervously, “Cat-burglar in his ancestry as well as China Seas pirate?”
Neville, at whom the comment had been principally directed, kept his eyes tipped upwards following Draco’s progress as he responded. “Not that I know of. But he has an excellent head for heights. And - oh, he’s there -“
They caught a glimpse of fair hair before Draco clambered over onto the top of the tower and bent down out of sight, presumably busy with the flag halliards. The banner moved slowly, jerkily, up the flagstaff. Fortuitously, the night breeze caught it as he finished hauling it up, and it swelled out impressively. A sudden shower of silver and green sparks went up, illuminating the embossed dragon in its full glory.
“There,” Neville breathed. “Let them fire on that.”
A voice, cold as the tomb, sounded behind him, and very close to his left ear.
“You have called us to the battlefield. We are ready.”
“Oh, not again,” Julian observed in exasperation. Áine glared at him from red-rimmed eyes. Lucy looked across the sitting room at him.
“That, if I may say so, was quite uncalled for. Naturally we’re all upset - “
“Why?” Julian jutted his chin aggressively. “Áine was the first to criticize Ken when he was alive - “
“No, be fair. Make that the first in a small and determined queue,” Lucy said. “I’m not claiming he was a saint. I don’t believe in glossing over people’s faults, just because they happen to be dead. But we worked with him and lived with him for the best part of a fortnight, and while he may have had his irritating side -“
“Oh, do be realistic, Lucy! He could have been a dodecahedron and we’d still have been pushed to find his non-irritating side.”
Lucy shook her head.
“Julian! That’s quite enough! I was saying, he may have had his irritating side, but he deserves some respect, and no-one’s being hypocritical if they acknowledge that. His having that heart-attack was a massive shock -“
Alan, who had been sitting in the armchair in the corner, pretending to read, sat up at Julian’s shout and eyed him owlishly.
“Look, the police seemed to think that was by far the most likely explanation. I daresay they’d not even have really considered foul play seriously if it hadn’t been for the earlier trouble we’ve had -“
“Trrrrrouble!” Julian snorted, rolling his “r’s” with a sardonic inflection. He liked the effect, so he did it again. “Trrrouble? Well, that’s one way of describing the fact that we all seem to have been sharing a guesthouse with a demented Wiccan poisoner for the last fortnight.”
“Poor kid,” Jacqueline interjected unexpectedly. They all looked at her accusingly. She shrugged.
“Kivren wasn’t a bad person, I don’t think. Just a bit messed up. I don’t suppose she really intended to do Cathy any serious harm.”
Lucy snorted. “True enough. Those sort often don’t. But they do the harm all right, in their own muddle headed ways.”
Jacqueline hesitated, then nodded with an air of acceptance. “Yes. Maybe stupidity is the eighth deadly sin, after all.” She resumed staring idly into the flames of the wood fire that Caitlin had ordered lit in the sitting room. “Still,” she said after a few moments, “I can’t help feeling sorry for her, even so.”
“Well,” Julian said, “It’s easy enough for you to be charitable. I’d be surprised if our landlady feels the same way.”
“Feels the same way about what, Mr Garrowby?”
The opening of the sitting room door had been so noiseless that they all turned towards the speaker with a sense of profound shock. Caitlin, apparently fully aware of the sensation she was creating, and mildly amused by it, strolled over to the table where the supper things were still laid out, and poured herself a cup of coffee. She turned to face Julian, her eyebrows raised in a questioning fashion.
“Jackie, it seems, takes the view that Kivren’s escapades are all down to her being a poor misunderstood little girl. But I can hardly imagine you’d feel the same way. Not as a victim of them.”
Caitlin selected a biscuit with precision before responding. Her eyes looked steadily at him over the rim of her coffee cup; he felt almost, for a moment, unsure of himself. Then she smiled.
“Oh but I do, Mr Garrowby. More than you could possibly imagine.”
Her smile broadened. Her tone was slow and deliberate.
“Quite apart from anyone else who might have misunderstood poor Kivren, it seems as though the police did, too. They’ve just been on the phone.”
The pause dragged out, maddeningly. He had not intended to ask the next question, but found himself doing so before he could stop himself.
“And? What about?”
“It seems they’ve taken fingerprints off the aspirin bottle I came across in that cupboard.” She nodded towards the antique walnut sideboard against the wall.
Somehow, he couldn’t stop himself asking questions. The eyes of everyone in the room were fixed on them both.
Somewhere in the room someone exhaled, noisily, almost as though they had found it a relief to have their suspicions confirmed for them. Caitlin surveyed them all in a leisurely way before turning back to Julian with an air, almost, of challenging him.
Julian shrugged. “Well, presumably Kivren at least had the brains not to use her own pills to poison you with. You’re surely not implying that Ken did it, and then topped himself out of remorse, are you?”
Caitlin held his gaze for a long moment before dropping it as though, he thought with a quick internal sting of humiliation, it had abruptly ceased to interest her.
“No, Mr Garrowby, ” she said in her deep contralto, “I’m not saying that.”
Suddenly, everything became intolerable.
“Well,” Julian said, his voice sounding faint and reedy in his own ears, “I’ve had enough of sitting around pretending to be racked with grief. I’m off to make a start on my packing. I suppose we are going to be able to get away tomorrow as planned?”
Alan looked up. His expression, to Julian’s eyes, looked faintly doubtful, even though his voice swelled confidently through the room.
“Yes. I’ve not heard any reason why not. Well, goodnight, Julian. See you in the morning.”
He paused, momentarily, but no one asked him to stay, and having made his point it seemed, now, impossible to back down. He squared his shoulders and marched firmly out of the room.
There was a chill draught blowing down the passage from the extension, and Julian congratulated himself that he had selected the thicker of his Fair Isle sweaters that evening. His bedroom, once he arrived there, was cold too. He flicked on the bedside lights (he had, since arriving here, always preferred their subdued yellow glow to the starkness of the overhead lamp) and then knelt by the side of the radiator under the window, trying to get it to divulge more heat.
There was a sharp rap on the window above his head. He straightened up so abruptly that for a moment his vision clouded. There was someone at the window - solid, square tipped hands slapping rhythmically against the pane - a white face pressed closely against the glass -
A face. A familiar face, surely? Half a second, and he’d have it -
The cold fingers of stark unreason tightened about his heart, and squeezed. His fingers and feet were suddenly numb. The hairs rose on the back of his neck, and an ice-cold droplet of pure blind terror made its way with agonizing slowness down his spine.
And a small cold voice at the back of his mind said,
You need to remember how that feels. Then at least you’ll have learned one thing on this tin-pot course.
Julian gave a small, petrified whimper.
“Don’t be bloody ridiculous, man.” The shout came through faintly, muffled by the glass. “I know what you must be thinking, but stop looking like you’re seeing a ghost and for fuck’s sake let me in. I’m freezing my bollocks off out here, and I daren’t think what’s going to happen if someone - well, you know who I mean - sees me.”
The voice was so quintessentially Ken - the broad Yorkshire vowels accentuating the aggrieved note in his tone - that involuntarily Julian emitted a sharp bark of relieved laughter.
Christ! What sort of state have you let Caitlin and that spooky old crone get you in to? Of course there’s a perfectly simple explanation. Got to be.
With hands that, infuriatingly, still trembled, Julian pushed up the sash window, leant out and grabbed the reassuringly normal-feeling, rain-coated shoulder of his unexpected visitor.
“Ken! It is you! But what the hell -?”
“No time.” The older man’s voice was hurried, his words running into each other, his breath coming in thick, shuddering pants as though he had been running. “Give me a hand to climb in. Quick. They may - still be after me. Look, Julian, don’t faff about now. This is serious. You don’t know yet just how serious. And you’re the only one I can trust. So for Pete’s sake help me in.”
Julian leaned further out over the flowerbed. Ken, gripping at both Julian’s wrists with unexpected, bruising strength, made a scrambled attempt to get in through the window, which, after a good bit of exhausting, frantic but somehow surprisingly silent pulling and shoving, resulted in his tumbling over the sill and fetching up gasping like a landed fish on the bedside carpet.
“What the hell has been happening to you?” Julian demanded. “We were told that you were dead -“
Ken looked grim, and his eyes burned.
“Well, if I’m not, it’s no thanks to our precious Lord of the Manor.” He pulled himself up from the mat by the edge of the bed, kicked off his shoes, and, without waiting for an invitation, flopped on his back on top of the duvet. The normal irritation that Julian would have felt at this appropriation of his territory was all but buried in the upsurge of excitement he felt.
“What do you mean?” His voice, unbidden by him, had dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. Ken, his eyes apparently shut, shrugged.
“Pour me a drink, and I’ll tell you.” He paused. “Come off it, I know you’ve got a bottle of gin hidden in the wardrobe. And tonic. Nicci saw you buy them in the village shop. Such a memory that girl has. Apart from for anything which might constitute education, that is. Other than that I’d say she remembered everything she’d ever learned. And not in the Bishop’s Palace. No way José not in the fucking Bishop’s fucking palace.”
He let out a breath which was almost a whistle, raised a languid arm into the air, and started contemplating the back of it with apparent rapt fascination. Julian, retreating towards the bathroom with the two bottles, wondered briefly how his visitor had managed to get himself stoned between leaving - well, presumably not the mortuary - and arriving here.
He shrugged. It was hardly his affair what else Ken chose to mix with the drink he had so shamelessly blagged off him, and it was clear that he was not going to unbutton his lips without alcohol.
And there was no way - but no way - that Julian was proposing to pass on this opportunity.
The first tooth glass - the spare - was sitting primly untouched in the far corner of the shelf. The other, of course, he would have to rinse out. He reached up to the shelf under the shaving mirror - and paused as he caught sight of the bedroom’s reflection as seen through the bathroom’s open door behind him.
Where’s Ken gone?
Abruptly, he was conscious he could no longer hear Ken’s harsh, laboured breathing.
The bedside light went out.
He spun on his heel.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment,” purred a voice out of the darkness.
“Svjatitse Bogoroditse, spasi nash!”
The screamed, almost instinctive phrase burst from her throat as she cowered back from the thing which had entered the sitting room moments earlier, wearing a dead man’s body like a tailor-made suit, and with a ready string of plausible lies on its stolen lips.
After the first panicked shriek, Jacqueline had retreated to a corner, her back against the bookshelves, fingers pressed hard against her mouth. Ken - an awkward smile on his face - advanced towards her.
“Jackie - oh, I’m sorry Jackie - I should have had a bit more gumption than to come bursting in here knowing you were in the room. Not given what I know you’ve gone through. Oh, fuck - she’s going to faint. Someone grab her before she falls over. I shouldn’t touch her. She’d do her nut, in the state she’s in.”
Lucy advanced firmly across the room, putting one cardiganed arm around Jacqueline’s shoulders.
“Now, then, that’s quite enough of that nonsense,” she said with brisk kindliness. “I know you’ve had a shock - we all have - but there’s no need to make an exhibition of yourself. Not after the splendid way you’ve been coping in the village these last two days. Don’t go letting yourself down now. Come and sit on the sofa next to me.”
Obediently, Jacqueline allowed Lucy to lead her across the room, to the comfortable chintz of the far sofa. At least it took her further away from - that. She sank down into the cushions and looked desperately up at Lucy. Ken was still talking to the little knot around him; he was explaining something with firmly sketched gestures of his hands. No one was paying any attention to the grey-haired retired schoolteacher, bent over the gibbering madwoman on the sofa.
She had to get Lucy to understand. Why couldn’t she make her?
“The dead never rise,” she gasped. “Never.”
Lucy, for a moment, seemed almost to have a missionary light in her eyes. Her lips parted. Jacqueline made a brisk, hissing protest through her chattering teeth.
“No, you idiot. Not church. Don’t give me the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised you fool. The dead. Never rise. Not in the body. Except in our nightmares. Our waking nightmares. And when they rise in the body, they rise as something else.”
She coughed. Lucy made a clicking noise with her tongue behind her teeth.
“Really, Jacqueline, you’re sounding quite hysterical, ” she began. Jacqueline reached out and caught her wrist.
“Do something for me?”
Lucy looked stern. “Well, if it isn’t something nonsensical and superstitious, and if it might calm you down -“
She nodded frantically, trying at the same time to work out through the corner of her eye what Ken was doing now. He had finished his story - whatever it was - they were crowding round to ask questions -
“Do you have your prayer book? In your handbag still?”
Lucy nodded. “I never realised you were religious -“
Jacqueline was conscious of a faint thread of hilarious incongruity somewhere in her brain. “Brought up a Catholic. Educated by nuns.”
Lucy gave another, satisfied nod.
“Ah. That’s it. Thought you weren’t. It’s the Anglican prayer book, you know.”
“Don’t care. Work nearly as well. Probably doesn’t know the difference. Just - touch him with it.”
“Touch him?” The tone was incredulous. Jacqueline conquered her irritation.
“Yes. To make me happy. Please.” She suddenly was seized by an inspiration. “You know the bible. Mark. Mark 16. Verse 17.”
There was a brief, calculating pause, and then, abruptly, Lucy’s face changed. She took off her cardigan and draped it, fussily, around Jacqueline’s shoulders.
“You’re being a very silly girl,” she told her distinctly. “Just lie there and I’ll get you a glass of water, and an aspirin, and you can stop talking nonsense.”
She straightened up and walked over towards the table bearing the remains of the supper things, including a bottle of mineral water. The others did not turn their heads as she approached.
“Jesus, and wouldn’t I like to have seen the expression on the face of the guys in the morgue when you started to come to yourself - talk about Finnegan’s Wake -“
Ken turned to face Áine. Jacqueline, catching sight of the expression on his face, swung her feet soundlessly down onto the floor.
“Oh, it was worse than that. I didn’t have a clue where I was, and I just put my hands out and grabbed the first person I could reach - like this!”
Áine uttered a squeak of surprise, which shaded into an “Oof” of pain as he caught both her wrists, and pulled them up and together under her chin.
“Just like that!” he said, and his grin broadened. The little group looked taken aback. One or two of them shifted uneasily from foot to foot.
“Stop that at once, you’re hurting her,” Lucy said sharply. Ken laughed.
“Only joie de vivre,” he said, and leaned forwards, pressing Áine back into the corner of the room, still holding her firmly by the wrists, bending down so his face was mere centimetres away from her own. She let out a quick squeak: not panic, yet, but closer to true fear than she had shown earlier.
“Ken! What in hell do you think you’re playing at? Let go of me at once, you daft eejit - Sweet Jesus and Mary, and you’re the strong one for somebody who was lying in the morgue not two hours ago - “
Jacqueline crossed the room in three strides, and started hammering on Ken’s back. Her blows apparently affected him as little as gnat-bites. Her brain raced - Áine needed to know the peril she stood in -
Thank god for a convent education. I bet they made exactly the same jokes about the nuns in hers as we did about ours.
“Áine! Show him your cross!”
So the Mother Superior said to the nun who was driving, “Sister Mary Assumpta, show him your cross,” and so she wound down her window and shouted, “Get the fuck out of here when the Reverend Mother tells you, you ugly bastard vampire.”
Áine must have cottoned on, abruptly. Her voice went up in a shrill shriek of unequivocal terror and realization. She began to struggle like a mad thing in Ken’s grasp, stamping at his feet and raking at his shins with her heels.
“Get it away from me - get it off me - oh, holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners -“
Alan sprang to his feet. “Ken! What the hell do you think you’re playing at -“
Ken’s lips parted in a wordless snarl. Alan, catching out at one of his hands, was shaken free with a single violent wriggle, and lost his balance, grabbing at the back of a chair to steady himself, and taking it down with him as he toppled to the floor with a resounding crash.
Lucy aimed a firm, open-handed swipe at the side of Ken’s head. He made no effort to dodge - his eyes egged her on. It was only in the second before the blow landed that he spotted what she had palmed from her handbag in the confusion.
As the prayer book hit his cheek he uttered a howl of pain and sheer rage, dropped Áine, and swung round to concentrate on Lucy.
The shout seemed to come from no-where to fill the room. A beam of red light took Ken full in the chest. He froze on the spot, his arm still raised for a blow.
Mrs Longbottom was standing in the doorway. She turned her head to address a comment to someone in the passage behind her. “Get yourself down to the kitchen. I can’t hold him like that indefinitely. I need your biggest meat-cleaver.”
The person behind her - Caitlin, Jacqueline presumed - must have made some sort of demurral, because Mrs Longbottom sounded irritated.
“Yes, well, if that doesn’t teach you the error of your ways, I don’t know what else will. Come back with the biggest and sharpest thing you can find, then. And I only pray you keep some tough vegetables in these parts. Now hurry.”
Alan pulled himself to his feet and looked owlishly at her. “Now look here, I don’t know what you’re thinking, or what you’ve just done, but we need to get Ken to a doctor. He’s obviously severely traumatized by what’s happened to him - no wonder, waking up on a slab -“
“And if he has his way, he won’t be the only one. And I’ll remind you, you’ve got a doctor in the room, Mr Bletchley.” The harsh old voice was cynical. “Well, Dr Hawkins. Your diagnosis?”
Jacqueline drew a deep breath. Ken stood there, still unnaturally suspended, and the old lady - how had she done that? - kept a short stick, rather resembling a conductor’s baton, aimed at him while she spoke.
“He’s dead,” she said definitely. There was an instant clamour from everyone else in the room, and she stilled it, impatiently.
“Yes. I know what you’ve just seen. And you know what? I can’t bloody well explain it, either. But I can tell you one thing: I know what standard operating procedures are for a body that’s been brought in on a police investigation. All vital signs extinct before they let it go for autopsy. And I can assure you, all means all. So that taradiddle he was spinning you about having been in a deep coma, and coming out of it - that’s just made up out of tabloid newspapers and Hollywood movies. It just couldn’t happen that way.”
She took a deep breath.
“But there’s another thing. I know he’s dead. I saw his body on the Manor grounds, this morning.”
She paused. The morning’s scene was still vivid in her mind. She had been on her way back from visiting a worrying headache in a cottage at the top end of the village (satisfactorily diagnosed as a hangover brought on by precautionary consumption of alcohol in an effort to ward off plague germs). Almost before she had been conscious of registering the presence of someone flagging her down at the roadside, she had put on the brakes and come to a screeching halt. When she had wound down her window, Neville was already there, with a rushed, barely coherent story about a card game, and a casualty.
And she had known, without possibility of error, that nothing she could do would restore life to the body she had found lying on the damp ground next to the little folly.
She had tried, of course. All the usual techniques. One always did, even with cold eyes that one knew would never light or move again staring up into nothingness past you. And then the police had come, and she had exchanged crisp technicalities with the police doctor, who had attempted his own useless intervention with the more sophisticated technology he had brought. And they had both had too much experience of death to believe that whatever had happened to Ken was in any sense revocable. Not from the start of their elaborate futilities.
Not even with the evidence of my own eyes to the contrary.
Áine let out a small scream. Jacqueline whipped her head round. Ken was struggling as though to free himself from invisible ropes; Mrs Longbottom was concentrating hard on him, muttering under her breath, but gradually being pushed back to the door. Ken’s eyes burned triumphantly; with a last wriggle he shook himself free of bondage and took a step towards Áine, reaching out again towards her.
“Stop that at once, Mr Hemsworth. In fact, I’m proposing to make you.”
Caitlin, her voice icy, stood in the doorway swinging an axe. Alan struggled up to his feet. “Look, are you people all mad? You can’t -“
And then there was a violent, swishing movement through the air, and further remonstrance was futile. Caitlin, pressing her initial advantage, stood over Ken’s wriggling body on the hearthrug, hacking firmly at his neck with repeated blows, until the head had been completely detached and rolled away, fetching up against the fender. Dimly, Jacqueline noted the eerie absence of blood throughout the whole process, and felt, as at one remove, a sense that it would be proper if she could muster more of a sense of shock at that realisation, rather than faint satisfaction. She shook her head determinedly.
Why not appreciate it? It’s hardly as though you’d previously over-indulged in the luxury of being proved right to these people.
Her job done, Caitlin straightened up groggily, leaned over, and was sick into the coal-scuttle. The other guests looked at her in horror.
“Stupefy!” said Mrs Longbottom quietly, and then, looking straight at Jacqueline, made a quick, wriggling gesture with her hand. Alan, Áine and Lucy were, suddenly, asleep, slumped where they had been sitting or standing a second ago. Caitlin flopped white faced onto a sofa.
“Well,” Mrs Longbottom said with an air of resignation, “This one’s going to take a fair few memory charms to sort out. And getting rid of the body won’t be that easy, either.” She looked across at Caitlin. “Nice hand with an axe, there. From all I’ve heard, your mother would have been proud of you.” She swivelled, looking across at Jacqueline. “You, too, Dr Hawkins. I appreciate folk with the gumption to stick to their opinion when other people are trying to shout them down.”
Jacqueline looked up, trying to think of something to say, but Mrs Longbottom was raising the baton again, and opening her mouth to say something. Jacqueline yawned, abruptly. She was so sleepy, somehow. And the sofa arm was so tempting. Just a little rest, then, after all the excitement -
Neville dropped to a crouch behind an imposing Victorian tomb and let the hex whistle over his head and spend itself in a shower of sparks against a fortunately robust stone urn engraved with a detailed list of the deceased’s admirable qualities. From somewhere over behind the yew tree (which local legend had credited with providing the staves for bows used at Agincourt) green and silver flashes of light indicated where Draco had taken cover to return fire.
Not, of course, that he was likely to be in the same place for too many seconds together. They had learned that in Recent Events. Hit, run, dodge. And then all over again. Day after day. For months.
There was a suppressed gasp from over near the vestry door, and he winced. Hermione might have had experience in going into battle encumbered with Muggles who needed defending, for all he knew, but it had posed a new and unwelcome set of problems for him and Draco. But it was Peter’s fight too, he supposed. In fact, since so far as Canon Rawkins was concerned it appeared Peter had either to be controlled or destroyed, no one could blame him for wanting to take the fight to the enemy.
And there may be some way in which he can prove himself more of an asset than a liability, but I’m blessed if I can see it.
Green and silver sparks, in two fast, evenly spaced bursts, shot up from the opposite side of the churchyard. Draco might have had to bully and snarl it into his fallible memory, but their old survival code was part of his blood and bone now.
He micro-Apparated a precisely calculated 50 metres to the right. The incoming fireball blasted the tomb behind which he had been sheltering into powder. From somewhere near the vestry door there was a quickly stifled yelp of protest. In reaction, his protective spell arced across the churchyard, and hissed into a shower of gold and red as it met another, coming from the other direction: Hermione, he presumed. The hex aimed at Peter - his sound having betrayed his position - hit and shattered against their combined shield. The impact reverberated up Neville’s wand hand. He suppressed a gasp of pain as his fingers stung on his wand-grip. He zigzagged sideways, another 50 metres, fetching up behind the yew.
There was the sudden silky brush of breath against his earlobe, the whisper of a voice almost as silent as thought. “We’re only fighting Bartlemass at the moment. Canon’s off somewhere. Hold the fort here, while I check Gaia’s Place and the Vicarage?”
A flurry of sparks - Hermione, presumably, duelling their assailant - erupted near the lych-gate.
Draco’s voice acquired a note of irritation.
“You’ve a better chance of holding him than I have. Bastard seems to know how I think. But he can’t read you - nearly as easily. Hang on and for fuck’s sake finish the job this time, yes?”
“OK, love. Luck.”
“You too. Watch it. He’s much too fucking strong. Especially for a one-armed man. And where’s your Gran when she might fucking well be useful for once?”
Without waiting for the answer, Draco was gone. Neville counted to three, cast a time-delay spell, and Apparated across the churchyard towards Peter’s last location. The explosion he had left behind detonated on cue, drawing a spectacular flash of green light from the church porch. Hermione, obviously, had been waiting her chance. A red beam winged out of the darkness, fast and on target, and there was a yelp from the darkened porch as it connected.
“Well done,” he shouted into the darkness, firing off another hex even as he spoke. “Keep that up and we’ve got the bastard. Don’t be fooled; he might come on strong but he’s got no stamina. I’d have had him this morning except for his little Muggle tool. Oh, that and he couldn’t win a game of Snap against a blindfold five-year old -“
A burst of furious white fire lit up the churchyard like sheet lightning. Neville smelt burning hair - his own, it must have nearly caught him head on, so much for his assumption he could duck fast enough - and by its light he caught sight of the tail of a black robe whisking round the flying buttress at the corner of the church.
“Hermione! He’s -“
There was an answering shout.
“I can see - he’s off up the lane -“
There was the sound of flying footsteps receding into the darkness. Neville, moving with considerable caution, slid through the shadows to the vestry door. Peter emerged from behind the carved white angel, which Neville knew concealed the exit of the Manor escape route.
“You all right?”
Peter, looking slightly dazed, nodded. “Still breathing. Good, isn’t it?”
There was an amused chuckle from the darkness, and, impossibly, the vestry door opened slowly from the inside. From the hollowing emptiness of the church a voice said,
“An overrated pastime. As I have recently had demonstrated to me.”
The fragile girl under the duvet tossed her head on the pillow, restlessly, exposing the ugly bruising and torn flesh around her throat. Canon Bowles, sitting by the girl’s bedside, clicked his tongue behind his teeth, and tilted the light by which he was reading so that it did not fall upon her swollen eyelids and disturb her uneasy sleep.
The sudden drop in the temperature might have been what caused him to look up, though his life-long experiences combining psychic research and the vagaries of ecclesiastical draught-proofing had left him sceptical about the reliability of this indication of supernatural activity.
The white-haired cleric with the burning eyes was regarding him across Nicci’s bed. Fussily, Canon Bowles marked his place with a bookmark and closed the book. The new arrival looked down at his gesture, and smiled.
“To see fine books mistreated is above all my detestation,” he drawled, “So - should you think to use that as a weapon, I assure you on my honour as a gentleman that I am quite impervious to the impact of devotional literature.”
Canon Bowles blinked.
“I confess, I would have expected nothing different of you. Though - in this case - profound as is my admiration for Miss Sayers, it would be unfair to expect any such assistance from her in these circumstances.”
He put The Nine Tailors down on the bedside table, and folded his arms, tucking his chilling fingers inside the comforting warmth of his jacket. He summoned all the coldness he could into his voice as he eyed up the renegade.
“So,” he said, “The representative of the Church Triumphant. Washed up on the sands of the high Tory Establishment, rolled ever forwards on the cresting wave of the Age of Enlightenment. Only the barest stirrings from the evangelical movement to trouble your cocooned well-being; the unfashionably enthusiastic Methodists satisfactorily beyond the pale, the treacherous and bog-trotting Catholics planted carefully beneath contempt; the Jews and the Quakers bound by the fetters of the oaths of allegiance. No wonder you had to turn to Satan. All your other temptations towards overweening pride had already been catered for within the body of the Church. I thought you might come.”
Rawkins merely looked bored.
“In that case, why did you stay?”
Canon Bowles looked down at Nicci. “I baptized her. And I coached her for her Communion classes.”
Canon Rawkins sneered at him.
“And a poor job you made of them both, it seems. So you thought to complete the job by seeing her die?”
He looked back steadily into eyes which, for the first time in his experience, gave onto the void of a soul irrevocably lost.
“I thought that - if she did die - someone ought to be here with her who knew her.”
The vampire’s eyes glittered; his head bent forward over the girl on the bed. One long-fingered, long-nailed hand reached out, brushing her hair back from her forehead in a parody of a caress.
“Oh, it isn’t if. For her, it is very definitely when. And when means soon. I need her, poor wanton thing that she is. I lost one of my people earlier, and I need her. Now.”
He moved abruptly forward, seizing a great hank of Nicci’s hair so as to force her head back and expose her throat for his killing bite.
Canon Bowles took a deep breath. He was surprised at how little fear he felt, now that the moment had come. He made his voice commanding.
“And, of course, there was one last thing I thought I should be here to do for her.”
His right hand whipped out from inside his jacket, the sharpened stake grasped in his fist, and stabbed upwards, once. Canon Rawkins fell back half a pace from the bed, the stake standing out from his chest, and then grimaced, horribly. He plucked out the stake, snapped it in his hands, and dropped the shards dismissively onto the duvet, leaning forwards and clawing his fingers into Canon Bowles’s clerical collar, giving a brutal twist to cut off his oxygen.
“Now,” he snarled into Bowles’s face.
Faintly, above the roar of blood swirling in his ears, came the sound of a door being opened, and a pointed cough.
“Well, well, well,” said a bored voice. “Two hundred and odd years in this parish, and you still haven’t worked out it’s the Manor you need to be afraid of. When will you learn proper respect for your betters?”
Canon Bowles found himself choking, eyes streaming, half collapsed over the duvet. The vampire, it seemed, had dropped him to concentrate on its new enemy. He pushed himself up in time to see Rawkins turn violently towards Draco, and Draco, in turn, moving in apparent slow motion, as though he had all the time in the world, raise his hand to head height and throw - no, squirt - something into Rawkins’ eyes. The vampire stumbled back, clawing at its face, uttering a string of eighteenth-century oaths.
And at that moment a large handsome brown bird with a white ruff hopped ponderously from the landing into the bedroom, reared itself up with flapping wings, and launched itself towards the old Canon with a screech of unadulterated rage.
The vampire made no effort to fight off the new foe. Instead, he stumbled back, hard, against the window, smashed a hole in a corner and evaporated through it as a black cloud, less substantial than smoke. Draco and Canon Bowles found themselves looking at each other, breathing hard and shakily in the aftermath of the fight.
The vulture, an air of disappointment on its face, hopped up onto the window sill, looked out into the night, and then, having clearly determined its prey was nowhere in sight, philosophically began to preen its feathers.
Canon Bowles gestured feebly at Draco. “Thank you, dear boy,” he said. “Your arrival was - extremely opportune.”
He looked down at what Draco was holding. A note of doubt entered his voice. “Was that - ah - magic?”
Draco appeared faintly embarrassed. He, too, looked down at the weapon in his hand.
“Er - ah, no, actually.”
He raised his hand and gestured explanatorily with its contents. “A catering-sized tube of ready chopped garlic paste, as a matter of fact. Present from Caitlin. She says the punters can’t tell the difference, and it saves hours cleaning garlic crushers in the kitchen.”
He looked at the metal tube more carefully. “Hm. Contains preservative. Would you say that made it more or less suitable as vampire repellent?”
Canon Bowles snorted. “I had rather hoped it might function as a vampiricide, not merely as a repellent.”
Draco shook his head. “Unfortunately, things never are that simple. What we’ve got flapping around out there now is - well, think of it as a sort of severely pissed off undead Chicken Kiev.” His eye dropped to the shards of wood on the duvet. “It was bad luck about that stake, though. Nearly worked. Judging from what I could see, I reckon you must have just clipped a rib. Unlucky. And you were probably aiming just a little bit too far left to get his heart. Beginners often do.”
Canon Bowles swallowed, and avoided the temptation to ask how Draco had obtained his expertise. Instead he gestured at the vulture.
“And -? The sporting intervention of our feathered friend?”
Draco shrugged. “Neville’s Gran was quite wrong, you know. The dogs were never in any danger. Like all vultures, this one strictly prefers carrion. The older the better, in some respects.”
“Hm. Then presumably a 250 year old vampire is something it would merely regard as appropriately well hung.”
He caught the ghost of a sardonic eyebrow flicker, and summoned a lifetime’s store of repressive into his expression, aiming it full blast at Draco. Draco’s lips flickered, but the entendre remained undoubled. The Canon coughed.
“Anyway, it seems I’m lucky you dropped by.”
“I thought I’d better check on what was happening here. Looks like Rawkins has been cutting a bit of a swathe through the village. I’ve just come from Gaia’s Place, you know. Seems like he managed to turn that guy Bartlemass killed this morning - Ken Hemsworth - and they’d had one heck of a job fighting him off. In the end Caitlin had to take his head off with the hatchet she uses for firewood. Fifteen blows to get through the neck, Mrs Longbottom said, but she just gritted her teeth and kept on until she’d finished.”
“Good grief!” the Canon said mildly. “What a shock for her. I hope she’s managing to cope with the aftermath?”
“Doing her best. So far as I can see. I left her drinking brandy and starting to cheer up a bit. She - um - she claims that she’s frequently wanted to swat a punter’s head off, but she never dreamed she’d actually achieve her ambition. And certainly not in the residents’ sitting room in front of the rest of them.”
“Ah! That sounds reassuringly like Miss Franklin, you know.”
Momentarily, Draco appeared hesitant. “You knew - um - Caitlin’s aunt, didn’t you?”
The Canon’s eyes narrowed. There was a note in the voice which infallibly indicated that there was more to the question than mere polite interest - and equally infallibly told him that further enquiry would meet with a brick wall. He chose his words with care.
“I did indeed. And I can certainly say she’d have been proud of Caitlin tonight. Mens sibi conscia recti - they tell me you had the benefit of a classical education?”
Wordlessly, Draco nodded. The Canon continued.
“Well, that was Miss Franklin. God help you if you got between her and the workings of her conscience.”
Unwillingly Draco grinned. “Sounds familiar. A good aunt for Neville - for Caitlin to have had, certainly. Better than - well, put it this way - I can’t say I’ve actually been lucky in my choice of aunts. And certainly - well, let’s say Neville hasn’t been lucky in them either.”
Canon Bowles clicked his tongue against his teeth. “You should know,” he said abruptly, “That I doubt Rawkins will be the only vampire you’ll have on your plate tonight. He came here - hoping to recruit Nicci.” His eyes flickered to the girl in the bed, who was now tossing in the throes of nightmare, making small kittenish whimpering sounds deep in her mutilated throat. “But he said she’d be a replacement - that he’d already lost someone. One of his people.”
Abruptly, Draco was on his feet. “One? There are others besides Ken? Oh, fuck, I knew Bartlemass seemed too strong for his injuries. Look - you’re welcome to keep the vulture and the garlic - I’ve got to be getting to the churchyard. I never realised I’d left him fighting two vampires - and one of them a wizard, too -“
“By all means, dear boy. Don’t let me hinder -“
Before the sentence was out of his mouth, Draco had vanished from the room. Carefully, Canon Bowles selected another sharpened piece of wood from the small stash he had concealed under the bed, and meditatively measured it against his own chest, feeling with his fingers for the faint flutter of heartbeat, and the potential obstruction of the ribcage. Having satisfied himself as to the location of the human heart, he tucked the stake in readiness under Nicci’s pillow, picked up his book, and composed himself once more to unravelling the intricate web of deceit and violence afflicting the parish of Fenchurch St Paul.
Peter and Neville flattened themselves against the stone of the church on either side of the vestry door. A wisp of darkness oozed out from the gap worn between the bottom of the wood, and the stone worn hollow by the steps of tens of past incumbents over the last eight hundred years.
“Bugger!” Neville exclaimed hoarsely. “Should have guessed that locking charm wasn’t going to hold forever.”
The patch of darkness grew, wavered, and then grew again. Under the controlling influence of Neville’s wand, however, it flickered momentarily, and then retreated into the far distance, blending with the other shadows in the churchyard.
“I wish Hermione was back,” Peter observed. Neville nodded. “Me too. I -“
There was suddenly a stir of movement in the churchyard. “He used a Confundus Charm, blast him,” a breathless voice reported. “On top of a Disingenuo hex. I got as far as Gaia’s Place before I realised I’d been fooled -“
“And are they all right up there?”
Neville hated himself for allowing the anxious, almost frantic note to creep into his voice, but still - all things considered - it wasn’t actually as if he was overburdened with relatives - at least, not tolerable ones -
“Your grandmother and Caitlin were perfectly fine when I left them,” Hermione said firmly. “Well - I mean - Caitlin was unconscious, and your grandmother was up to her eyeballs in arguing with the Muggle Liaison Office - golly, given all the forms they can produce when we’re only trying to help there are times I wonder exactly what we fought the war for -“
“You sound so like my father,” a voice observed out of the darkness. Hermione was so close to him that Neville could feel her start, nervously.
“I’m sorry -” she began, stiffly.
“Please don’t be.” Peter’s voice was warm in the darkness. “In fact, if you tell me that you gave up taking the Manchester Guardian when they took the small ads off the front page I might just propose - oh, do look out!”
Bartlemass swooped in on them and all was frantic defence for a few minutes. They were aware that he was gaining in strength, somehow, as the night wore on; perhaps as he grew more comfortable in his vampire form, as the memory of his almost-defeat of the morning faded from his cold muscles and unbeating heart. He could see better than they could in the dark, too; Neville and Hermione had both cast ex tenebris, but for Bartlemass it was clear the gloomy churchyard could have been bathed in the noonday sun for all the impediment he was suffering to his vision. And always the intention behind his attacks was to part them; to get them to drop the cover they were holding over Peter, and to pick off the vulnerable Muggle and then trade upon the grief and confusion he hoped to spread as a result.
Peter, it seemed, knew it too. Although he was handicapped by the darkness in a way none of the others were, he was showing no panic. Once or twice, indeed, a quick, reassuring word or joke from him had been invaluable in easing the will-sapping despair that which seemed to hover around Bartlemass like a miasma, and which was more effective than any of his other weapons.
Neville risked a quick glance at his wrist-watch, and swore. Though the fight had been apparently going on for ever, it was over five hours yet to dawn. And the Canon had yet to reappear on the scene, and from what Hermione had said it seemed his grandmother would be caught in the Devil’s Snare of strangling bureaucracy for the foreseeable future.
And still no sign of Draco.
“Don’t let him get to you!” Peter snapped irritably. Neville started - it was quite true, Bartlemass had exploited his worry and inattention, and now the vampire was far too close, leaning in towards his chest with wand out for the kill.
Fighting the lethargy which Bartlemass’s proximity had spread through his body, he sent up a defiant blaze of sparks from the end of his wand, casting a protective shield over Peter and himself at the same time. His reaction was answered - at last - by a firework burst from over by Vicarage Lane. They all turned. An arrogant, slow drawl cut the night from the other side of the churchyard.
“Bartlemass? I really don’t think this is the cleverest career move, you know. If you ever wanted to hold the Manor you have to offer blood and bone - and you only have borrowed blood, now, don’t you? Tell me - I’ve always wondered. As a vampire, isn’t that zero blood pressure thing going to put a bit of a crimp in your sex-life? Can’t see Offy being too chuffed about that. Assuming, of course, that there’s no truth in the rumour about why Offy had that fling with Goyle’s dad during Recent Events, of course. Ma claimed that that just proved Offy’s got a fetish for chipolatas, but -“
He paused, and then the drawling voice assumed a note of fake contrition. He snapped his fingers. “Oh, oops! My tongue running away with me again. And when I’d promised ma not to breathe a word.”
Bartlemass turned in a flash of lightning that lit the churchyard from end to end. Momentarily the tall robed figure was outlined against the pale church wall, and then the light went out. Green after-images dazzled Neville’s vision briefly. When he could see again Bartlemass and Draco were duelling on the far side of the churchyard: a ragged unscientific mêlée in which both seemed keen to inflict the maximum injury on each other and where notions of strategy seemed to have been abandoned.
Peter was watching tensely, flicking glances behind him to the vestry door from which Bartlemass had emerged. It was clear that he was waiting for something. Hermione, too, was plainly on edge. She murmured something about looking inside the church, and it was only Peter’s grip on her arm that prevented her dodging inside.
“No! Rawkins is trying to lure us in there - it’s too dangerous to fall for it.”
She shook him furiously off.
“Look, I’m more than capable of looking after myself - better than you, I’d guess. And - what’s more - this is war. And I happen to know what a war really feels like.”
“And you think I don’t?”
His voice had a hissing intensity that made Neville turn his head. Peter and Hermione’s faces were within inches of each other, and, notwithstanding the battle going on elsewhere in the churchyard, they were oblivious of everything except each other.
“Look - has it ever occurred to you that there are women not a quarter of a mile from here - and years younger than you to boot - who are bringing up two children on nothing but what the deeply generous State allows them? You think that isn’t war? Not even knowing if they can eke out enough to eat for the rest of the week, and with two crying kids to cope with on their own?”
He took a deep breath. Neville - his vision filtered through the green haze of the ex tenebris charm - thought Hermione looked, for once, fidgety and unsure of herself. Peter continued relentlessly.
“Day in, day out. Fighting against the rats, and the weather, and the snide passing comments of the ladies who lunch in this village? The ones who come to church - oh yes, and don’t forget, I get to observe things from the other side as it were - and see the ladies with the crocodile shoes shuffling a little sideways from them at the communion rail? And you think that isn’t warfare? I can assure you, Hermione, that they’d swap in a heartbeat for a clean fight with excitement and a chance of glory. Each evening without despair is a victory for some of my parishioners. And there’s no discharge in that war.”
Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but was, abruptly, forestalled by an archaically cut-glass accent from behind her.
“No. It occurs to me now that you would not make an acceptable curate for me. Do you not apprehend that you sound almost Methodistical?”
Peter set his teeth, visibly. “Do I? And so: does it occur to you that you would hardly have had the problems with the Methodists you did had you and your peers considered the merits of sounding more like me?”
Canon Rawkins clicked his tongue against his teeth, and sighed.
“Such naiveté !”
Hermione’s face was set. She raised her wand. “Te Glaceo!”
Momentarily Rawkins was frozen to the spot, like a sculpture chopped from the Greenland icecap. She grabbed Peter’s hand, and bolted with him across the churchyard. In the haste of their flight Peter caught his foot on the iron fender surrounding a monument and fell.
Neville’s cry of warning came too late.
The duellists had each been too intent on the other to spot the danger. Draco, cannoned into by Peter, tripped: his wand went flying. As he scrambled frantically to retrieve it Bartlemass flung himself forward and caught the back of Draco’s robes. Draco, turning with a sinuous wriggle, lashed out back at Bartlemass with one leg, catching him on the point of the jaw with his foot. Hermione dodged round the outskirts of the fight, trying to see if she could land a hex on Bartlemass without hitting Draco.
Neville raised his own wand. “Expelliarmus!”
Bartlemass’s wand flew out of his hand and was lost somewhere in the darkness. Draco grabbed him by the throat and began to bang his head systematically against a tombstone.
With a sudden sense of queasy shock, Neville crystallised a thought which had been floating formlessly at the back of his mind since Bartlemass’s reappearance in the churchyard.
Looks like being turned into a vampire has done one thing for him, in any event. He’s got his wand hand back.
And, although the restored limb had a faint smokiness about it, and lights could dimly be seen through it, it was clear that the transformation had left it with more than human strength.
Bartlemass forced both his hands, palms together, sharply upwards, breaking Draco’s grip on his neck.
A Lumos charm suddenly illuminated the entire churchyard with a cold bright radiance like the full moonlight. Hermione, Neville guessed, was once more trying to compensate for Peter’s disadvantages in this fight. As the light struck Bartlemass’s face it occurred to Neville that since his death Bartlemass was looking far more like Lucius Malfoy than he ever had in life; perhaps only once the blood had ceased to flow in his veins had his features been able to assume an icy cruelty which pointed his resemblance to his half-brother.
And, it occurred to Neville uneasily, from Draco’s expression it was plain he had, for the first time in this fight, been struck by the same thing.
Bartlemass snarled with sheer fury, scrambled to his feet, and attacked again. This time Draco fell back before him. He stumbled a few yards and fetched up with his back against the carved stone angel. Almost without pausing, he put his hand behind him, and pressed. A dark tunnel opened at his feet.
“No, Draco, don’t!” Neville yelled.
It seemed as if Draco had lost the ability to hear him. Moving like a sleepwalker, he ducked his head and vanished into the tunnel, Bartlemass hard on his heels.
Neville Apparated across the churchyard, fetching up next to Peter, who was looking at the tunnel opening with a peculiar expression. He turned to Neville.
“I’ve always thought there was something fishy about that tomb. The style of the carving is about three decades later than the date on it, and I’ve not found the record of the death in the parish registers. So. Where does the tunnel come out?”
“Here,” Neville said grimly. “That isn’t an entrance, it’s an exit. He’s let himself be backed into a corner. I suppose he was just too frantic to get himself back onto Manor territory to be thinking quite straight. I’ve got to get after him -“
Peter put out a hand and caught the front of his jacket. “No. Both you and Hermione are needed here - Rawkins looks like whatever Hermione put on him is wearing off. I’m just going to be a liability to you when he attacks. I’ll go after Draco.”
Before he could do anything to stop him, Peter had vanished down the hole. And then Rawkins was upon them, and it was impossible to think of anything more than sheer survival.
The tunnel smelled of damp earth and mould and the steps down into it were crumbling. Peter picked his way with care, aided by a faint glow from further up the tunnel. He could hear noises, too.
No more than about 15 metres down the passage it kinked, sharply. Once round the bend the light became brighter.
The tunnel ended, apparently, in a blank wall. Draco’s back was pressed up against it, his head lolling on his chest, and his eyes closed. Bartlemass circled around, apparently torn between his fear that Draco was bluffing to lure him within range, and his instinct to go for the kill.
On the very edge of Peter’s vision he was conscious of something - a filmy white figure hovering on the fevered border of unreality in the shadows that pressed in on the two combatants. He couldn’t tell if either of the other two had spotted it. It was irrelevant to his present task, in any event.
“Draco, get a grip on yourself,” he said sharply. Bartlemass spun round; Draco opened one eye, and focused groggily on Peter.
“I can’t recollect asking you to intervene in our - family argument,” Bartlemass snapped. “I shall deal with you later.”
Peter studiously ignored him, addressing all his comments directly to Draco.
“He’s affecting your mind, you idiot. So he looks like your father? So what? That’s all he’s got left, now. All his plotting and planning, and what does it come down to? He’s spent his life trying to turn himself into someone else, and sacrificed his hope of the life to come merely so the Canon could turn him into his tool. He may have made a creed of despising - what is it you call us, Draco? Muggles -? Anyway, now he’s just another bulwark the Canon set up to prevent us getting to him. He’s expendable. From the Canon’s point of view he’s just another Ken to be used and discarded. Come on, Draco; show a bit of backbone. Caitlin Naismith took out Ken with a hatchet that probably cost her five quid from B&Q. Don’t tell me that with your talents you can’t do a lot better than that?”
Draco opened both eyes. His will began, visibly, to reassert itself. He pushed himself away from the wall, towards his relative. He swung an inept round-armed punch towards him, which failed to connect, so he stumbled forward, off-balance.
Bartlemass snarled, spun away, and went straight for Peter’s throat. As the horribly strong hands closed on his neck, and his vision started to dissolve into exploding black and red spots, Peter found strength for one last act.
“Draco! You - dropped - this. In the - church-yard,” he choked.
With the last of his strength he tossed Draco the wand he had retrieved from behind a tomb. Draco snatched it one-handed out of the air.
“Acueo!” The ringing voice filled the subterranean chamber.
Bartlemass dropped Peter, and turned at the noise. Peter, sprawling on the damp green-stained flags of the floor, looked up in time to see him - at last unsure of himself - try to avoid the blow. But Draco’s aim was true, and the sharpened wand buried itself to the handle in Bartlemass’s unbeating heart.
There was a whisper of fabric as if someone dressed in diaphanous drapery had just slipped past him, and Peter was suddenly conscious that the cobweb-thin presence he had detected on the outskirts of his vision was no longer with them.
Draco looked ruefully up at Peter.
“Oh, fuck,” he said. “Another tough one to explain to Ollivanders.”
Peter extended a hand to pull him to his feet. “Can’t you - have you broken it?”
He gestured towards the wand handle protruding from Bartlemass’s chest.
Draco looked dubious. “Well, given what I’ve just used it for, I’d certainly not fancy using it again until it’s been properly checked over, at least. And anyway, I’m not planning on pulling it out until we’ve got him safely decapitated and we’ve stuffed his head with garlic. Anyway, thanks. Thanks a lot.”
Peter’s voice was cynical. “Hold off the thanks until I tell you what the reward for a job well-done’s going to be. I don’t imagine the Canon is going to be such a pushover, and he’s fighting Neville and Hermione up there as we speak.”
“Oh, shit.” Draco was already heading for the exit from the tunnel. He turned to look back at Peter. “This time, we’ve got to fight him on your own ground. It’s high time. We’re going to church.”
Neville felt the studded oak of the main door of the church against his back. It was odd, fighting with Hermione rather than Draco at his side; there was too much history there for things to flow easily. Her anxieties - her too-poorly concealed recollections of his past clumsiness and incompetence, and doubts about his current abilities - communicated themselves wordlessly to his brain and fingers, causing him to start to slip up, to bungle simple spells.
In short, to fail.
He shuddered. In the swirling hollow contempt of the Canon’s dark eyes he read the inevitability of their defeat.
And it will be all my fault.
They were barely holding their own. The Canon had nearly broken through with a fatal stroke on more than one occasion, and they had only scrambled a defence. They had not managed to formulate a counter-attack in ages; he seemed impervious to most of the hexes they could throw at him, and even those which had some effect, like the freezing charm Hermione had used, wore off within minutes and appeared to leave him immune to their re-use.
Worst of all, it became apparent that Rawkins was merely biding his time, knowing that he only had to conserve his energies and Bartlemass would emerge from the tunnel to reinforce him.
I should never have let Draco go in there alone - I should -
“Watch him!” Hermione gasped, striking away Rawkins’ clawing hand, which sought to pull Neville out from the church door. Neville nodded, too winded too speak. Rawkins’ lips drew back from his excellent teeth, and he smiled a smile that was almost a snarl.
“Looking for a miracle, are you? I can assure you that you will wait long. And I should know.”
“I doubt that.” Hermione had a new note on her voice, one that made Neville turn part way towards her.
She stepped forward, out of the shadow of the tower, and pointed upward.
“If you don’t believe in miracles, look at that!”
Neville, still tracking Bartlemass’s movements out of the corner of one eye, followed the line of her hand.
Caught by a sudden gust of wind, the banner was billowing out far into the night. For a moment, Neville wondered how the vulture could have managed to carry so much fabric - it must be flapping twenty or thirty feet from the flagstaff -
The banner unrolled itself fantastically across the sky. Forty feet - fifty - sixty feet -
There was a pause.
The wind dropped.
The world waited.
And then She came.
In one blinding moment, the embroidered dragon on the flag solidified, and then coalesced from two-dimensional Representation into three-dimensional Reality. Art, suddenly, was made flesh. The hot exhalation of her nostrils was over St Sebastian’s Church, and the beat of her wings shadowed all below.
For one gloriously untrammelled second she hung - green and golden - above the village of Malfoy Intrinsica.
She poised, roared, swooped -
The dragon set herself down in the churchyard with the obsessively precise delicacy of one who alights upon eggshells.
Hermione backed away before her, back to the safety of the church door.
So did Canon Rawkins.
As they fell back before her, the dragon raised one of her forelimbs seven feet into the air and smacked it down, hard, between the two of them. It reverberated with the sound of thunder. The tarmac of the pathway broke into long cracks under the impact of her seven-toed, iron scimitared foot.
“So,” Neville muttered aloud, “They didn’t manage to bind those, I see.”
The swirling reptilian grey-green eyes of the great Worm looked straight at him, oblivious of the cowering witch and the timorous vampire, who were falling back in confusion, and Neville thought he saw within them a glint of a profound, ageless amusement.
Bathing him in a baking, pitiless breath, as arid as the Gobi desert in the heat of noontide at midsummer, the dragon opened her mouth. Sonorous, hissing syllables, imbued with Meaning but wholly devoid of Sense or Comprehension, emerged.
“What’s it saying?” Hermione, it seemed, had managed to get herself back to the church door to stand beside him. Neville shrugged.
“I’m not Harry. And even if I were a Parselmouth, I rather suspect that’s an archaic Mandarin dialect of it that she’s speaking.”
Abruptly, behind them, there was a disconcerting lurch as the postern in the church door opened a fraction. Neville felt his collar being grabbed; from the squeak something similar had just happened to Hermione.
“Get your arses in here,” a reassuringly familiar voice demanded. “Otherwise you’ll be in Jade Dragon’s way. And it isn’t nice to obstruct a lady. Not when she’s wanting to breathe fire over someone. And certainly not when she’s family.”
They stumbled, somehow, backwards into the church, barring the door behind them. Outside, there was the raging of the dragon’s breath like a mighty wind. The church, abruptly, seemed like shelter from the storm.
There were candles on the altar. The light was lit over the sanctuary. The altar glowed with the chased silver-gilt of the Armitage Bequest. Peter emerged from the vestry, properly attired for a service. He raised an eyebrow at Neville’s evident confusion.
” I dare not shut his chapel/ On such as care to attend,” Peter quoted.
A chill breath blew through the church. Hermione gave a quick, half-strangled squeak.
They all turned, as dark smoke breathed under the West Door and rematerialized at the far end of the aisle in the shape of a man.
“Out!” Canon Rawkins screamed defiantly at Peter. “I’ll not give place to a canting rogue of a Methodistical hedge-creeper. I stand on my own ground, and I bid you depart hence. No-one dare gainsay me that right.”
He paced slowly, carefully, with a parade of confidence, down the nave.
“You lie,” Peter said coldly. Rawkins turned so as to face him fully. Peter raised an eye-brow, gestured towards the communion-rail, and said, slowly, ceremoniously,
“Therefore if any of you be a blasphemer of God, an hinderer or slanderer of his Word, an adulterer, or be in malice, or envy, or in any other grievous crime, repent you of your sins, or else come not to that holy Table; lest, after the taking of that holy Sacrament, the devil enter into you, as he entered into Judas, and fill you full of all iniquities, and bring you to destruction both of body and soul.”
He paused. “Well? ” he demanded. Rawkins’ eyes filled with fury.
“This is my parish! And will always be so!”
There was a roar and the dry burning breath of a desert wind. And then a resounding crash.
Yu Long had breached the West Door. It fell in charred splinters to the ground.
The dragon paused, momentarily, as though uncertain as to whether she would, even now, fit through the archway. But with a wriggle the great head was through, and the long neck, and the seemingly endless length of mailed body and armoured tail.
Canon Rawkins backed towards the altar, away from the dragon.
“I warned you,” Peter said in a deceptively calm voice. “That is not a good idea.”
Yu Long reared up, flapping. She launched herself upon the air.
The Canon’s nerve broke. He bolted towards the vestry door.
He could never have been in time.
The dragon swooped down, her iron-grey talons stretched for the killing blow.
The Canon’s head, severed from his body by the force of her dive, rolled in diminishing circles, and came to a stop against the base of the pulpit.
Where the dragon had been, on the cool Purbeck stone of the nave, was a tiny, frail, green-brocaded figure, trying to draw in breath in huge gulping draughts, which all too evidently were insufficient for her labouring lungs. Neville saw Peter check Hermione as both he and Draco rushed towards her.
She turned her head up to the incomparable tracery of the fan vaulting on the roof of the nave. She smiled, faintly (wrinkles deep as ditches on her brown face) and said, through the translating charm,
“Bury me next to my sister, yes?”
One of them might have said something - perhaps she heard it - in any event she smiled and her head flopped back onto the cool stone of the floor, her eyes looking up past them. It did not occur to either of them to doubt for a moment that she was dead.
Draco got to his feet, swearing profusely. Peter glared at him.
“Yes? And what’s that supposed to be about?”
“Didn’t you hear her?”
Peter raised an eyebrow. “Heard, yes. Understood, no. If you would care to translate -?”
“She asked to be buried next to her sister. Asked, as in “Senior witch in the family, died saving your arse from utter annihilation, last dying wish of.” As in, alternatively, “No sense of the word “optional” need apply.” “
Peter continued to look baffled. “Well? It isn’t as if there isn’t space in that mausoleum. And even if she was - Buddhist or Taoist or whatever - on private land that shouldn’t -“
“Her sister isn’t buried there.”
Draco’s voice was low and menacing.
“Not. Buried. There.” He paused. “You see, she only lived a couple of years after coming back to England. Pined away in the cold and damp, most people said. Got poisoned by one of his racist bastard relatives, her husband said. Wouldn’t be surprised. Though he never found out who. Anyway, whatever. He took his favourite fighting junk, and he manned it with the sweepings of the Shanghai docksides, and paid them all in gold in advance before they left port.”
“And then he sailed it straight into a typhoon in the Malacca Strait, and let it go down with all hands. Except him, of course. He Apparated out to dry land. Lost his nerve - remembered his kids - whatever - And Yu Jian lies in 200 fathoms, between Sumatra and Malaysia. And that’s where her sister just asked to be taken. And I really don’t have a choice about it, at all
“I trust you can avoid the human sacrifice angle.”
Peter’s voice was very dry. Like, Neville thought abruptly, frozen carbon dioxide.
Draco paused, then nodded. “I don’t think she’d insist. But still - it’s not considerate. She might have realised that I get seasick on a duck pond.”
“Maybe she did. You have to have inherited your sense of humour from somewhere.” Neville’s temptation to grin unstoppably was, it appeared, back in business. And Hermione, it seemed, had caught it too. Draco raised his head, his eyes dancing.
“Oh, well. Travel broadens the mind, they say.”
Gently, he slid his arms under Yu Long’s fragile body, and straightened up, still holding her.
“I’d better take her back to the Manor. Hermione, do you mind sorting out the last rites for the other two bodies? More your area of expertise than mine. Bartlemass is at the bottom of the tunnel with my wand in him, but he needs finishing off. Decapitate him and then stuff his head with lots of garlic.”
Neville, sympathetically noting that Hermione seemed to have gone rather green, murmured,
“Love, that sounds like the sort of deeply twisted recipe that Nick would have as his signature dish.”
“In my opinion,” said a dry Lancashire voice from amidst the wreckage of the church door, “Some folk would do better if they didn’t take one look at any mucky job going and find some poor woman to do it.”
Mrs Longbottom advanced down the length of the aisle, and came to a halt near the pulpit, looking down at Rawkins’s severed head.
“Mind you,” she said with an air of grudging respect, “If you want a job doing properly, at least you can rely on a woman. Heart give out, did it? No wonder. Must have taken it out of her, though. Transforming herself into a dragon on top of having herself posted here from China. Well, it’s a shame, though. I’d have liked to ask her how she did it. Bats are all very well, but that’s a Transformation that commands a bit of real respect -”
Neville was aware that Peter had spotted his lips moving silently, and was shooting him a sceptical glance faintly tinged with disapproval. He ignored him.
After all, if he’s got problems with my saying fervent and sincere prayers just because we’re in church, then I reckon he’s in the wrong job.
Mrs Longbottom sighed audibly.
“Still, no use wasting time regretting what you can’t change. Well, I suppose we’d better start clearing up here. That door’s going to take something a bit more sophisticated than Reparo, for a start.”
She rolled up her sleeves and fixed Neville with the unmistakable glare of a Lancastrian matriarch with a list of chores in her hand and a relative with Expectations in her gun sights. Draco coughed.
“Well, anyway, as I was saying. I’d better be getting back to the Manor -“
Neville caught his eye. Coward.
Draco made the most imperceptible of shrugs. Who, me? Tactical retreat in good order, that’s all.
Neville snorted. His grandmother rotated on her heel, the better to regard Draco.
“Aye, well, given you’ve had your brushes with the Law this week, I don’t suppose you ought to be caught hanging around here with a dead body in your arms, that’s for sure. And we can manage without you. Though a late supper or an early breakfast up at your Manor wouldn’t come amiss when we’ve finished up. I get the impression some people here - not that I’m naming names, you understand - haven’t been as frank about what they know as they could have been, and I, for one, would appreciate a few answers.”
Draco, apparently too oppressed to retort, nodded. She smiled. “Good. I’ll be bringing Caitlin - and, Reverend, maybe your friend the Canon would care to join us?”
“I’m sure he’d -“
“Good. Oh, and Hermione?”
Hermione had been over by the door, apparently carrying out a damage assessment on the charred and splintered wreckage. She raised her head at the sound of her name. “I suggest you go and get young Nicci decent, and get her back to the guesthouse and tucked up before she comes to herself. She should be on the mend now, and I don’t want to think what sort of taradiddle she’ll blurt out to her father if she wakes up in bed at the Vicarage.”
Peter, to judge by his face, did not want to think about it either, but was assuredly doing so. He gulped.
“If you really don’t mind,” he said shyly to Hermione. “I think that could be - a seriously good idea.”
She nodded briskly.
“Of course. No problem. I’ll be right on it.”
“Allow me to escort you as far as the guest-house,” Draco said. She eyed him in a leisurely way.
“Thank you.” She paused. And smiled sweetly. “But it’s only fair to warn you, I never take advice about my private life from men who happen to be carrying dead women. It’s a personal quirk.”
Draco raised an eyebrow.
“Perish the thought.”
They left the church in improbable harmony.
Peter, following hard on Neville’s heels into the candle-lit sitting room of the Manor, found Caitlin tucked under a duvet on one of the sofas, as befitted her recent invalid status; Hermione kneeling on the hearthrug tending a substantial wood fire; and Draco gesturing hospitably over a tray of glasses with a venerable and dusty bottle. Crookshanks, with the air of smug superiority that is the prerogative of the feline race, was curled against Hermione’s knees in the dead centre of the very warmest part of the hearth-rug, and Marvolo and Riddle were pressed against their owner’s legs, eyeing the intruder and uttering occasional whimpers of protest.
Peter deferred to Mrs Longbottom and Canon Bowles, but, once their needs had been attended to, accepted a glass of wine and sank into one of the armchairs nearer the fire with a sudden sense of release. All things considered, he thought through a pleasant sense of muzziness that had nothing to do with the wine (of which he had only had the barest sip) it definitely came under the definition of an action-packed evening. And one that had ended far more favourably than he had dared hope.
Hermione, presumably hearing the small sigh of contentment he had emitted as he sank back in the comforting leather of the arm chair, looked up at him with a quick, shy grin and then, abruptly, became very busy with poking the fire. Peter, his glance ranging across the room, intercepted Draco’s eye passing over them both, one sardonic eyebrow raised in pointed commentary.
Mrs Longbottom coughed repressively.
“Well,” she said, “I don’t know about the rest of you - and I’m sure he’s regretting it now, wherever he is - but what I’d like to know what that Bartlemass thought he was playing at, messing about with vampires in first place. It’s not as if you can tame them with bread and milk, like they were hedgehogs, you know.”
Draco, seeing all his guests were supplied for the moment with drinks, flopped onto the sofa next to Neville. The dogs attempted to climb on top of them and were firmly pushed down to the floor to sit by their feet. One of Draco’s hands dropped to play with Riddle’s ears and he gestured explanatorily with the other one.
“Oh, I reckon the last thing Bartlemass wanted was to upset the old Canon’s unholy slumbers. Stirred him up with the Necromantic rites in the churchyard, and couldn’t get rid of him after, would be my betting. But that’s what I said; if you’re fool enough to do Necromancy, you deserve whatever you get.”
“Ah yes.” Canon Bowles swirled the fine wine around in the cut-crystal goblet and inhaled. Peter suppressed a giggle; his mentor’s expression of blissful satisfaction was identical to that on Crookshanks’ face as he basked in the glow of the fire.
“Yes?” Draco looked enquiringly at him.
“Well, dear boy, I do confess to considerable professional curiosity about why Bartlemass was dabbling in Necromancy in the first place. Unless it was because his public - I mean, people like the Somervilles - expected that that was what they’d get from Dark Magic and he didn’t dare disappoint?”
Draco and Neville exchanged an uneasy glance. While, however, they were still apparently making their minds up, Hermione intervened.
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “I’m sure they were very impressed by it. And I don’t suppose he could have talked them into stealing the bones without demonstrating something of the sort. But - um - I believe he’d really have been doing it to get round the Manor defences. Actually, I did take the opportunity earlier of calling Viktor -“
“Viktor?” Canon Bowles enquired. Peter was abruptly conscious of Hermione’s air of confusion, Neville’s consternation and a sardonic expression on Mrs Longbottom’s face. He deliberately avoided catching Draco’s eye.
“Hermione’s business partner, Canon,” he interjected smoothly. “Perhaps you ought to meet him if you’re continuing with the Deliverance Ministry, you know. Actually, Hermione, it sounds as though you’ve got a good split going there between the two sides of the business - I mean, Draco tells me that anti-Necromancy is his speciality - isn’t that right?”
She seemed too overcome to look up at him, but nodded, her hair falling all around and concealing her face as she did so. Peter was abruptly conscious of an extended robed arm, and a cobwebby bottle poised over his glass.
“I think, Peter,” a cut-glass voice said from about a foot above his left ear, “That you have rather earned a top-up. Yes, well, Hermione’s quite right. The real reason for using the bones would be that ghosts could go where Bartlemass couldn’t. And do what he couldn’t bring off. And he’d obviously conned Sarah that he was acting for the rightful Heir -“
“And,” Neville said thoughtfully, staring into the fire as though it might reveal something to him, or, perhaps, Peter thought, as if he was too afraid to look elsewhere, “If Bartlemass was after the Manor, he needed to get Draco out of it one way or another. And by using Sarah he must definitely have intended - the other.”
He shuddered. Peter filled in the blanks from what he had seen over the past few days.
Possession - madness - despair - utter annihilation, body and soul -
At the note in his lover’s voice Draco had turned, but before he could return to the sofa the two dogs had apparently seized the moment, and dived onto the sofa and on top of Neville in an up rush of frantic canine affection. In tribute to their grasp of psychology, this time they were not repulsed.
Hermione took one glance, and changed the subject abruptly.
“What I don’t understand,” she said, “Was why the potion recipe Justin gave me worked on Innogen, but not on Hugo? I mean, you Apparated into the isolation ward and gave them both a proper dose, didn’t you, Draco?”
Draco looked uncharacteristically flustered. While he was still apparently trying to find words, Peter coughed and said, “You know, Hermione, Hugo was much more far gone than Innogen even when we found them. I expect that was the reason it didn’t work on him. But what I don’t understand is why Sarah was so keen to make Innogen confess. If it hadn’t been for that, we wouldn’t have been able to save either of them, and before we knew it the plague would have completely run riot through the village, so Bartlemass could have snapped Gaia’s Place up for an absolute song, even if Caitlin had been one of the lucky ones.”
Canon Bowles took a sip of his Burgundy - with an air of intense pleasure verging on beatification - and said, “I think that is something I might be able to comprehend. Would she -” He eyed Draco with an air of interest. “Forgive me, but I understand very little of your customs. But would your Cousin Sarah - if it were indeed she whom Peter met - have received any form of religious instruction?”
Draco - obviously slightly taken aback - nodded.
“Of course. She was born under the Commonwealth, you know. And whatever we did about the Displacement Charms -“
“Oh,” Peter murmured, “So that explains the stained glass and those amazing paintings. And - I presume they’re still in force? Yes, I thought so - so: the totally bizarre absence of ecclesiastical tourists, too?”
“Whatever the effect of the Displacement Charms,” Draco repeated firmly, “One couldn’t afford to stand out too - noticeably. At the time.”
Canon Bowles nodded. “I see. Not a very nice young girl. But with a very finished grasp of theology.”
“Wha-” Hermione began. He took another sip of Burgundy, rolled it round his mouth, and quoted dreamily,
“There’s a great text in Galatians/Once you slip on it entails/29 distinct damnations/One sure if another fails.”
He opened surprisingly beady eyes and said, sharply, “Whatever she may have been taught about religion, she’d clearly grasped that Papistry was the one deadly sin. She did not, I fear, have Innogen’s ultimate welfare in mind when she urged her to confess. But what I -“
“What I don’t understand, Sir,” broke in a firm voice from the doorway, “Is what I’m expected to do about this deceased Chinese lady who appears abruptly to have appeared in my pantry. Sir.”
Draco, his pale skin betraying his confusion, looked up. Mrs P., her hair in short plaits and wearing something that looked like a baby-blue winceyette version - Peter thought hysterically - of an Oxford D.Litt gown over men’s striped pyjamas, stood in the doorway.
“Ah. Oh, yes, I’m sorry that may have startled you, Mrs P. I had hoped you’d have got my warning. Anyway, I’m sorry to say that Great-great Aunt Yu Long’s heart seems to have given out in the crisis. We need to take her home but until we -“
Mrs P. thunderous expression cleared abruptly. “Oh, so she’s Family. My condolences, sir, on your sad loss. I’ll just be doing the necessary, shall I?”
“Yes, that would be -“
“And for yourselves? No doubt an assortment of sandwiches and so forth would be appropriate?”
Draco nodded. “Indeed.”
“I’ll be right on it, sir.”
The apparition vanished, abruptly. For a moment Peter considered what might happen if Mrs P. ever decided to abandon Draco to his fate. The wording of the advertisement sprung irresistibly to mind. Wanted; reliable cook/housekeeper. Embalming skills essential.
“Well, what I don’t understand,” Neville said, breaking in on his reverie, “Is: did your cousin Ophelia know about the plot to make her Lady of the Manor, Draco, or not?”
Draco shook his head. “I’d doubt it. I mean, I fire-talked her earlier - in my capacity of Head of the Family to pass on my - our - sympathy with her on the loss of her husband -“
From her supine position on the sofa Caitlin made a sharp sound of disapproval.
“But you’d just sharpened your wand and buried it up to the hilt in his heart!”
Draco looked dispassionately at her. “All the more reason to be polite, surely?”
Without allowing her a chance to get a word in edgeways, he added, “Anyway, no, I think he’d not mentioned a word. To say nothing of not telling her how much of their money he’d spent to get control of EP. I suppose he was reckoning that by the time their own money ran out, he’d have got control of Brooke’s estate - and the Somervilles’ too, I suppose - Offy wanted the Manor, but I think Bartlemass realised that if he played his cards right with EP he’d get much more money than the Manor’s worth. And probably a string of gullible Muggle idiots where those three came from, too. But I suppose it cost him more than he’d banked on in the early stages, and with the money running out he couldn’t afford to hang about and wait until he could make the deaths look less suspicious - “
Mrs Longbottom snorted. “I see. Usual mistake. Under-capitalised.” She must have detected a certain scepticism in the air, because she fixed Draco with a beady glare, and added, “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice, young man. Just because you’re planning a criminal conspiracy doesn’t mean you can afford to overlook the importance of cash-flow and contingencies, all the same.”
After a moment, Draco gave a choppy, acknowledging nod.
“Well, I don’t suppose Offy’s in a position to disagree. They weren’t that well off to start with, you know, and she must be pretty close to broke, by now, I’d guess. Though actually, I had an idea about that. She still owns the copyright to Cousin Melusine’s books, you know. And she’s not such a bad sort. And I reckon they wouldn’t need much editing to sell them to the Muggles - you know, as pure children’s fantasy. And Innogen - I gather Bartlemass introduced her to Offy, and they get on quite well - has all the contacts to get them turned into Muggle TV series too. And I suppose she’ll need the money, too. After all, it isn’t as if she can make a lifetime’s career out of being a celebrity widow, however spectacularly Hugo chose to depart this life.”
“Why ever not, darling?” The new arrival’s voice broke in from the direction of the doorway. Draco spun on the spot, and crossed the room in two bounds to greet his mother with an enthusiastic hug. The dogs - apparently feeling liberated by his example, dived off the sofa, skidded on the polished Manor floors, and slithered enthusiastically into the general melee.
Narcissa DeVries dropped her outer garments onto a convenient chair, caught up a glass of wine with one negligent gesture, looked at her son, and said plaintively,
“But what I don’t understand, darling, is why with all this gorgeous publicity for the village you haven’t managed to slide in even one mention of the new men’s fragrance range?”
Draco looked as though he might have considered saying a little more, but contented himself with, “Perhaps I thought associating your product with bubonic plague wasn’t entirely the most positive connection I could make, yes?”
Narcissa shrugged her flawless shoulders. “Darling, provided the idiot public remember one, they never get the context. Anyway. Everyone seems to be looking very well, notwithstanding. I’m glad to see everything seems to have turned out for the best after all.”
“For the best?” Caitlin’s voice was deeply cynical. “What I want to know is, how I’m supposed to keep a viable guesthouse going. In all the circumstances.”
“Ah.” In anyone else, the note in Mrs Longbottom’s voice would have qualified as embarrassed. “Well. Um. That is: I find myself with some funds from what I think of as my annual speculative investment pot unallocated this year. Owing - ” Here she favoured Neville with an awful glance. “Owing to the opportunity I believed I had of getting in on the ground floor of a promising specialist nursery garden business going to a competing investor.”
She swivelled round until she was staring straight at Draco. He smiled unblushingly back at her.
“Not me, I assure you. In money matters, your grandson seems to have an independent streak the size of the Grand Canyon. Can’t think where he gets that from.”
Mrs Longbottom swivelled back, and favoured Neville with a questioning, but, nonetheless, saurian grin. He shrugged.
“No point in loading a start-up with debt it can avoid, I thought.”
She turned away from him and back to Caitlin.
“Anyway,” she said, “Being in funds, and also being worried in case someone else gets Bartlemass’s ideas and isn’t dense enough to mess them up, it occurs to me that you could do worse than let the EP people have their centre. Leased, not sold, of course. And with an agreement with you where you can do what you like, and keep a fairly tight hand on what other courses you offer along with the EP. I thought perhaps I’ll take the power vacuum there’ll be at the moment in EP, and get in quickly before anyone else does.”
She paused, thoughtfully.
“You see, I’ve been thinking. There must be a lot of Muggles out there who miss their Hogwarts letter by a whisker. And that talent’s got to go somewhere, stands to reason. “
She gathered them in with her eye, and, accepting that they were apparently listening, gestured expansively. “My theory is those near-misses are what account for what the Muggles call “star quality” and “charisma”. Let them put the ‘fluence on people, and those are the ones who can slide out of anything with people sitting around applauding when they ought to be calling the police. Eh, I mean, but it’s obvious. Plenty of them about. Take that Muggle Yank politician a couple of years ago, for instance. You know, that one with the strange ideas about best thing to do with a good cigar? Spitting image of the factory manager in that munitions works over at Castleton, during the war. Aye, and they had a lot in common, those two. They always said about that manager, that if a girl wanted to be promoted to spot-welder from the lathes, she had to ask him on her bended knees -“
She paused, allowing her eyes to pass over the gathering to check they were still with her.
Draco looked puzzled. “What on earth are you talking about? Which Muggle politician?”
Peter surveyed the room. Neville was, it seemed, suffering from a violent attack of hiccups. Hermione was doing something dramatic and rather destructive to the fire. Canon Bowles was sitting bolt upright, an expression of quite unclerical mischief on his face. Narcissa’s eyes were dancing wildly. Caitlin, from the sofa, cleared her throat and mouthed in Peter’s direction:
“Tell him. Let’s see what happens.”
Briefly, factually, and unemotionally, Peter took it upon himself to enlighten Draco about the lower points in the political career of William Jefferson Clinton. After he had finished, there was a pause.
Draco exhaled, noisily.
“Ye gods. And until tonight, if you’d asked, I’d have betted no-one could credibly combine the concepts of “blow-job” and “spot-welding” in the same sentence. Whatever the challenge. Still less Neville’s Gran.”
He looked at the elderly woman with - Peter fancied - an air of grudging respect
Mrs Longbottom waved an impatient hand. “Well, leaving that aside, that’s what I think. A powerful force, the nearly magical, I reckon. And so did Bartlemass. EP was just his way of trying to tap into them. And I daresay there’s a lot of other stuff like that out there. Caitlin: happen you could do worse for the rest of your life than flush out dangerous nonsense which could hurt people, give some people a bit of an outlet, and make a decent living on the side.”
Caitlin paused, hesitated, and then smiled.
“I’ll think about it.”
“You do that.”
There was another pause. Draco refilled the glasses.
“But what I don’t understand,” Peter said thoughtfully, “Is why Veronica showed up in the village at all. What was she after?”
Hermione looked faintly uneasy.
“I’m not sure I ought -” she began.
“I am,” Caitlin said briskly, “There’s been too much being cagey to spare people’s feelings round here, in my opinion. And I don’t want to run you down, Peter, but from what she seemed to be babbling about when me and Hermione were tucking her into bed at the guesthouse, I wouldn’t say you featured as much in her thinking as you might have flattered yourself you did -“
Peter opted for honesty. “Not exactly flattered, more horribly apprehensive, if you want to be precise -“
Caitlin made a gesture in the air with one hand. “Whatever. Anyway, presumably someone knew she’d be bound to meet you here -“
Canon Bowles’s eyes glittered. “Oh, yes, indeed. The EP people who’d finagled your appointment, for instance. They must really have been waiting for Veronica’s reaction to finding you here to blow up, so that at the moment when a strong lead from the Rector might be a hindrance to their plans, they could - through the Somervilles - use that to put you in the worst possible light with the Bishop, and cut off any chance of your asking for help that way. And I presume Hugo Somerville was the source of the rumours about you and Neville, too. The last thing Bartlemass or Rawkins could have either expected or wanted was an alliance between the Church and the Manor.”
Neville and Draco appeared too taken aback by this realization to comment.
“But Nicci’s real use to the plot, so far as we can tell,” Hermione put in, “Was the stuff she knew. And her connections with the Bishop, of course. They could plant any story with her, and rely on its getting back to him in all its gory details. You know - well, I don’t know how much all that drug stuff will have damaged it - but her memory seems to be absolutely freakish. Genuinely eidetic. With that to help, I can’t imagine why she didn’t do much better at school and university -“
Caitlin looked sardonic. “Massive RAM capacity; analytical processing software never installed, if you want my opinion. And I’ve spent the best part of a fortnight listening to her prattle. But I agree: an absolute godsend for information gathering. She’d soak up stuff like a sponge, and not be able to tell whether she should be spreading it around or not, or even why anyone might be interested. We - ah - took the opportunity to ask her a couple of questions while she was waking up.”
Hermione, Peter decided, looked particularly attractive when she was conscious of not being entirely on the moral high ground. That pink shade became her remarkably. Caitlin, meanwhile, continued.
“Jacqueline seems to have been a patient in that clinic Nicci was a receptionist at. Hence she knew about her having had to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. And I did a bit of digging about Alan, too; apparently he’d been a lecturer at the University she’d been at, and left under a cloud - some girl claimed she’d been sexually harassed by him and though the faculty enquiry cleared him there was a pretty vocal mob of students who claimed that was just an Establishment whitewash, and in due course they succeeded in forcing him out. So that’s where Ken got the material for the anonymous letters.”
“Which anonymous letters?” Canon Bowles enquired, his face alight with interest.
Neville looked across at Caitlin. “Yes, Jacqueline mentioned those. What was that all about?”
Caitlin spread her hands dismissively. “From what I can tell - I did a lot of thinking about this when I was in hospital - but I reckon Ken thought he was supposed to be causing enough disruption in the guesthouse so that the Creative Writing people would kick up a fuss about paying me, and I’d be even more strapped for cash, and have to sell that much quicker. Hence the practical jokes. But he must have been terrified we’d finger him for the pranks - he was trying to set Jacqueline up as a suspect for those - so the anonymous letters - “
“Aye,” Mrs Longbottom said, nodding. “But that was all completely half-baked. The Muggles in EP might have believed in Ken - he talked a good game - but he never had the gumption to commit more than half his mind to any bit of it. I’d have winkled you out of here in half the time he thought he was taking. And he was always trying to play both sides off against the middle. Never realised anyone might be playing him. His other problem was, like most Yorkshiremen, Ken was tight and on the make. Hear all, see all and say nowt; drink all, sup all, and pay nowt, and if tha ever does owt for nowt, allus do it for thy sen. That was him, all right. You see, I took the precaution of checking through all their rooms, and Mr Bletchley seemed to be hiding a small collection of blackmailing letters in his sock drawer. Didn’t take more than half a spell to work out who’d sent them. Seems like Nicci let slip about Mr Bletchley’s indiscretion, and instead of using it to advance the Cause, Ken decided to cream off a few bob first.”
Draco exhaled. “You’re sure?”
She looked at him. “Yes. Fortunately for Ken, in the early stages it seems Mr Bletchley thought it was most likely to be that Cathy - after all, she was in the same line of work, and might have heard something - and when she got poisoned, seems as though he assumed someone in the guesthouse was probably another victim and had maybe taken direct action - “
Caitlin snapped her fingers feebly.
“So that’s why he insisted I have a witness in searching her room!”
Mrs Longbottom nodded. “Doubtless. Didn’t help Ken when Bartlemass spotted what was going on, I daresay. Or so I reckon. And Bartlemass would have needed someone he could turn over to the Canon by then, too. Try and stave off the inevitable.”
Peter was aware his voice was sounding plaintive. “So? That’s all very interesting, but what about me? All this exposition is great, but what do you suggest I explain to the Bishop?”
Hermione turned towards him.
“You saved his daughter from a Satanic cult masquerading as a positive-thinking programme?” she suggested.
“You snatched her from the amorous advances of a lower-middle-class blackmailing Yorkshire plonker?” Draco offered at the same time.
Each glared at each other. The deadlock was broken by a familiar sound.
“The canapés are served, sir,” Mrs P. announced.
“You know,” Draco said, “I’ve been thinking.”
Neville tried not to let his trepidation sound in his voice.
“Hm?” he murmured sleepily.
Draco turned and put an arm across his chest, snuggling confidingly into his side.
“Well, having to take Yu Long to the South China Seas could be a blessing in disguise. It’s been forever since we’ve had a proper holiday. Together. Somewhere hot.”
Neville’s snort of laughter was half-amused, half-appalled.
“Draco! Only you could regard taking your great-aunt’s corpse on its funeral journey as a proper holiday.”
“Well, you know. A cruise in sub-tropical oceans on a private yacht. The essence of romantic style. And - what I said earlier - there must be seasickness potions -“
Neville reached out a forefinger and traced it around Draco’s lips.
“Probably taste foul.”
“But think of the blue sea stretching to the far horizon -“
“Littered with sea-serpents and beset with waterspouts -“
“Then approaching palm-fringed shores at dusk - feeling our way up winding inlets to find an anchorage -“
“Wondering whether we were going to find ravening pirate hordes or simply trained squads of killer mosquitoes this time -“
“Waking up at anchor in the morning and taking a header off the stern into crystal-clear tropical waters -“
“Getting our bollocks bitten off by a passing shark -“
Draco’s voice sounded profoundly exasperated.
“Oh, fuck! “
Neville lay still, blissfully encircled within his lover’s arms.
“Was that an invitation?”
“Do you want it to be?” Draco purred lazily.
Suddenly, he was overcome by a recollection, and snorted out a sudden giggle. In the darkness, Draco sounded irritated.
“I - um - I suddenly thought of something Gran used to say.”
There was a deep sigh.
“Neville, you have absolutely no idea of exactly how disturbed that particular observation makes me, at this precise moment in time -“
He giggled again.
“It’s just - it’s what she said - there’s this conversation between a man and a girl, at a dance -“
There came an affronted cough.
” And he said: ‘can you dance?’ I said ‘who?’ He said ‘you’. I said ‘no.’ He said ‘Oh’. “
“Oh.” There was a pause. “So I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ then?”
Neville thought about it for a moment.
“Maybe,” he said. And, in the darkness, smiled. And reached out an exploratory hand.
“Mm - ah - yes - well - oh - yes - I mean - uh, yes - oh definitely - oh, god, yes - ah - just don’t stop -“
The full glory of the moon’s shining silver slanted in through the window. It was possible that one of them might have been capable of appreciating its extravagant cold beauty as it rose over the carved archaic beauty of the uplands behind the Manor.
There was a pause for dramatic effect.
Sulkily, the moon hid itself behind a cloud.
Classic Boat: May 2001
The on-going saga of the Hypatia took an encouraging turn with the news that the 80 foot classic yacht, which has lain abandoned for over a year in Falmouth following the collapse of a multi-million pound restoration project, was purchased in March for an undisclosed sum by an un-named private buyer. Hypatia, built in 1896 for a member of the Vanderbilt family, is one of the few surviving gentleman’s yachts of the period and even after years of neglect shows all the magnificent lines that made her, in her day, truly a Queen of the Oceans. The buyer, reportedly, plans to refit her and sail her to the South China Seas on what is intended as “the voyage of a lifetime”.