Chapter 8: Tuesday Morning, Afternoon and Evening - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
As she stared down at them the backs of Hermione’s hands looked as though they belonged to someone else. The faint sounds of the office came through to her ears muffled as though through a thick blanket; the print on the mass of newspapers that covered the desk danced in front of her eyes in a manic series of incomprehensible hieroglyphics. The air was at the same time cold and intolerably stuffy. She wondered, with a kind of detachment, whether she was about to faint.
“No,” she muttered, and was unaware she had spoken aloud, “Oh no.”
“Miss Granger. Can I get Miss Granger anything?”
She looked up to find Lucy hovering at her elbow, a look of urgent concern on her face. She lifted one hand wearily - how could one’s own limb suddenly weigh so much? - in a gesture of dismissal, and then changed her mind.
“Viktor-? Is Viktor in his office?”
Lucy’s face creased in disappointment; her ears drooped. Clearly she took personal responsibility for the fact that one of the two directors of the company was not around when the other asked for him.
“No, Miss Granger. I is sorry. Mr Krum is telling me he is in meetings for the rest of the day, and he is being away for the rest of the week, working out of the office. He is leaving messages for you -“
Hermione, suddenly, found everything all too much.
“Yes, fine, thank you Lucy,” she interrupted. “In that case -“
She looked down at the desk again. An unreasonable blast of resentment, not, for once, checked by her more rational inner voice, filled her. How dare Viktor choose today to be unavailable? Notwithstanding their split, his generous nature would not have begrudged her any comfort he could offer - if only he’d been there.
Her eye strayed towards the fireplace. If she could have been sure of getting hold of Ron - but these days Adrienne seemed to have appointed herself permanent watch-dragon of the matrimonial hearth, and Hermione’s spirit quailed at the thought of meeting that blend of barely veiled resentment and seething jealousy today of all days. And as for Harry - she had only vague recollections of Saturday night’s fiasco, though slanging match on an epic scale certainly formed part of the overall impression she had retained - but the expression of wounded shock and disappointment on Harry’s face at Draco’s presence in her living room gone midnight was uncomfortably vivid. And in any case - she looked down at her watch - it was only 3am in Boston still.
She reached a decision.
“Lucy,” she said, “I need to send an owl, now. And after that - I’m taking the rest of the day off. If anyone wants me and it’s really urgent, I’ll be at the flat.”
She was dimly aware of a look of shock on Lucy’s face, as though her personal heavens had fallen, but brushed it impatiently aside. With fingers that only trembled slightly she reached for her quill.
The vicarage doorbell sounded again.
“Coming!” Peter shouted from the recesses of the kitchen, perhaps just a shade more irritably than he had intended.
Why don’t you have the sense to come round to the back door, whoever you are?
He turned the soup down to a gentle simmer on the Raeburn, and sprinted down the hall.
Draco was standing in the porch, with such an expression on his face that Peter’s initial greeting died on his lips and instead he said,
“Come straight through to the kitchen. And let me take your coat. You look absolutely frozen.”
His visitor nodded and, moving rather like a sleepwalker, allowed himself to be guided into the warmth of the kitchen, where he flopped down at the table, and fumbled into a inside pocket of his jacket.
“Here. You need to see this. I just got it.”
This was a clipping from that morning’s Daily Mail.
Honeymoon Horror in Paradise Island, the headline ran. Peter cast his eye over the rest of the short item.
The families of newly-weds Giles (32) and Brooke (29) Lloyd Ashby are today numb with shock after learning that the bodies of the couple, who only married on Saturday, had been discovered amid boat wreckage on a coral reef on their honeymoon hideaway island. Staff at the exclusive Seychelles resort raised the alarm when the couple failed to return from a snorkelling trip out to the reef. Prominent Wall Street financier Sheldon B. Nash III, the bride’s father, is on his way out to the Seychelles to co-ordinate local investigations of the tragedy. Foul play is not, however, suspected. One local source said, “People coming out from England often simply don’t expect the strength of the sun out here. If they don’t spend a day or two acclimatising, and take sensible precautions against heatstroke and dehydration, dizziness and faint spells are very common. From the condition of the bodies, and what we’ve seen of the wreckage, it appears that whoever was driving the speedboat may have had a momentary lapse of consciousness with tragic consequences.”
Peter passed the clipping back to Draco. “The wedding you were at on Saturday? Hermione’s friends?”
Draco nodded. Peter paused.
“At least they seem very confident that it was - well, I’m not trying to belittle the shock by saying just an accident, but at least -“
Draco’s face twisted into a mask of shocking cynicism. “Reading between the lines, the bodies weren’t retrieved until several hours after they’d hit a coral reef at speed, on a tropical island, in the full heat of the day. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for the clothes and jewellery, and such, I’d lay odds they’d have had difficulty telling what species they were, let alone what they died of -“
Peter nodded slowly. “I suppose the reef scavengers would have already got to the bodies well before they were found - to say nothing of the decomposition.”
His visitor exhaled, very slowly. “And let us, by all means, say nothing of the decomposition -“
Catching the queer, cracked note in Draco’s voice, Peter shot him a sidelong glance. There had been various times in his past when he had to deal with people who were on the verge of breaking apart altogether. As it happens, several had been armed. None of them - so far as he had been aware at the time - had been the possessors of supernatural powers of unknown scope, but of whose reality he had no doubt whatsoever.
“Still,” he said, in a calm, controlled, measured voice, “They do seem very convinced there was nothing suspicious -“
Draco vented an eerie laugh that was closer to being a sob, and the hairs on the back of Peter’s neck rose.
“I can flatly guarantee,” he said, “That if you’d picked those bodies out of a snowdrift in the High Arctic two minutes after they died there would still have been nothing suspicious about them. Apart, of course, from the fact that you would have been absolutely unable to find any reason whatsoever why they were dead.”
His pulse was racing. He called upon some half-forgotten breathing techniques to slow it before he responded.
“And why are you so sure?”
Time hung suspended for an endless moment in the vicarage kitchen. Then -
“Because I killed them,” Draco said simply.
There was a pause, while Peter tried to marshal his ideas into some sort of logical response. Before he could do so, Draco spoke again. This time, his voice had an edge of sheer reasonableness, the air of one who sets out all the facts before a disinterested tribunal.
“Actually, that isn’t one hundred per cent true. Me and Hermione - we killed them.”
Peter cleared his throat. “I - ah - I see. Or rather I don’t.” His eyes went to the Raeburn. “You look rather as though you could do with a hot drink, you know. Can I pour you some soup?”
Draco looked up at him, an unreadable expression on his face. “Well. That isn’t - exactly the response I was expecting.” He paused. “Actually, yes, since you mention it I’d appreciate it. Funnily enough. In a mug, if you didn’t mind. I’m not sure if my hands are working well enough to use a spoon at the moment. When I got Hermione’s owl - with that clipping - I don’t quite remember the next bit. Next thing I knew, I was walking down the path behind the church, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go so I came here. Judging by how cold I am, I’ve been walking about some time.”
“I see.” Peter tipped the soup into a couple of mugs, and watched Draco curl his hands around his. “So, how did you kill them?”
“I - ah?”
He made his voice very calm and non-committal. “Well, did you lay violent hands on them personally, or pay someone to do it, or just egg someone on to kill them?”
“What, none of those? Neither of you?”
He paused, tellingly, and then looked Draco straight in the eye.
“Then wouldn’t it help if you defined your terms a bit better? Otherwise I might think that you were claiming to have killed them out of some vague sense of unattributable guilt, because they were dead, and maybe you thought you’d wished it. Something I see a surprising amount of in my job, you know.”
He paused. Draco conspicuously failed to respond.
“No answer? But, then, if you didn’t do it, or commission it, or encourage it, in exactly what sense did you kill them, then?”
Draco muttered into the depths of the mug, “If it hadn’t been for me, they’d still be alive.”
“A large claim,” Peter said dryly. “In my last curacy I recall conducting the funeral of a man who just missed that Cheltenham train that crashed at Paddington. He was run over in the station car park not looking where he was going, as he was on his mobile telling his boss he’d be along on the next one.”
Draco continued as if he had not heard anything.
“When Neville was in the Far East last month, they took him to a kite-fighting festival. It’s a big thing out there, you know. You try and capture your opponent’s kite by cutting its string. And to do that you dip the top few metres of your own string in stuff called manjha. It’s basically flour and water paste mixed with ground glass. And when it entangles with another string, it’s abrasive enough to cut it right through.”
He looked up from the table, straight at Peter, although Peter was not entirely sure he was seeing him at all. The whites were showing all around his irises. His voice dropped to barely above a whisper.
“Sometimes I think I was born wearing an invisible coat of manjha. And I brush up against other people’s lifelines, and they fray.”
And how the hell am I supposed to respond to that one?
By way of gaining time, Peter took a mouthful of the chicken consommé, paused in thought, and reached up to the cupboard over the table, hooking down the Lea & Perrins, the salt cellar, and the remains of a bottle of fino. He pushed them across the table towards Draco. “Here. One of these might actually improve it. And all three of them together are unlikely to make it worse.”
Draco gave the Worcester sauce a miss, but laced the soup with the sherry before taking a swallow.
“It’s not as bad as all that,” he said. “Actually, it reminds me of the war. There was one time - the first time I’d been out on a mission with Neville, as a matter of fact - ” He trailed off. “Of course, you don’t know about the war, do you? Where all this bloody mess started, I wouldn’t be surprised. Even if I don’t know how. But especially if - “
He broke off awkwardly, as if he was on the verge of saying too much.
Something suddenly clicked into place in Peter’s brain. Casual dinner-table conversation. Three young people who’d all been at school together.
“We’ve just had a rash of those in the wake of Recent Events. Not, obviously, that anyone’s yet had the bad taste to write one actually about Recent Events so far - they tend - ah - to concentrate on at least twenty years ago -“
“And to be written by people who weren’t seriously involved, either then or later -“
“Well, whatever anyone says about why or how, we all were there. And jolly miserable it all was, too. I’d quite approve of an AU novel about Recent Events, provided the author gave us better food, and a lot fewer moments of sheer blind terror, and a bit more sleep - “
He coughed. “Is the war what you called Recent Events? When we were having dinner?”
If it is true you have fought in war, your claim to have killed may not be the hot air I thought it originally. Nor your guilt. Even if these two are not among your victims. And what about Hermione, in all this? Oh, Lord. What is this world I suddenly find myself in?
From the lean-to conservatory on the other side of the kitchen door there came a sudden sound of scuffling. Draco’s head jerked up sharply, and he half-turned towards the noise. Peter made a reassuring gesture.
“Rats, I’m afraid. They tell me all the houses in the lower part of the village are prone to the problem - something to do with being too close to the river, I expect. But at least one thing the previous incumbent did was block up the holes. They don’t get beyond the wall. But I’d been thinking of getting a cat, just in case.”
There was a speculative note in Draco’s voice. “Oh? So I take it you’re a cat person?”
This is really not the time to start discussing this sort of thing. Dog lovers. Honestly. No sense of priorities.
Peter picked his next words very carefully indeed.
“Well, yes. I suppose. But that really doesn’t matter at the moment. Was Hermione involved in the war, too?”
The cracked note was back in Draco’s voice. “She’s a bloody war hero. In fact, she’s such a big hero, that if it hadn’t been for her, there might not have been a war at all.”
And that’s supposed to be a good thing?
Peter paused in thought.
Well, I suppose it would depend on the alternatives.
Draco gestured expressively, and violently. “Which was why when that tarty hag started treating her like dirt -“
“Yes, Brooke, yes, her. Out to make Hermione - out to make one of us for god’s sake - feel like she was a small piece of shit on the floor. When, although she didn’t know it, if it hadn’t been for Hermione - well, Brooke would’ve prayed for the death she got, you know. On bended knees. Unless - given her talents - the Dark Lord had been interested enough to make a pet of her, of course. In which case she’d have appreciated how useless it would be to pray at all. Bitch.”
De mortuis nihil nisi bonum evidently has no place in the Code of the Malfoys, Peter reflected.
And the bits about turning the other cheek don’t seem to have registered, either.
“How was she trying to - ah - upset - Hermione?” he enquired.
Draco shifted in his seat, tracing a pattern on the kitchen table in a drop of spilled soup, and avoiding Peter’s eyes. “Oh, the usual ways.”
Peter kept the perfect poker face on which he had been complimented, in a past life, by experts.
“As in?” he enquired blandly, after a sufficiently indifferent pause.
“Well,” Draco muttered, “The first thing was, she seemed to have decided that if me and Hermione were an item, then she was going to prove to Hermione and to anyone else who might be watching that that needn’t last any longer that she chose it should. Which was a pretty nasty assumption for her to make. Especially since she’d been flaunting Giles - poor bugger - like a trophy for all the early part of the day.”
It was remarkably hard to project blandness, now one came to think about it. And ultimately self-defeating. Peter, once again, drove back his baser instincts with an effort.
“And then?” he enquired. Blandly. Draco looked up at him and seemed to see something in his expression, because he grimaced, faintly, in a way that was almost a smile. And a smile that had fellow feeling in it, too. Nonetheless, Peter was not planning to stand for it.
“I’m waiting,” he said.
“We-ll.” Draco paused, for just as long as it took to be completely infuriating. “Well. I - thought it would be interesting to let her think she’d succeeded.”
“And what did you think Hermione was going to think?”
His voice must have come out more repressive than he had intended, because Draco flushed.
“Well,” he said somewhat stiffly, “I thought, given what she knew that Brooke didn’t, she’d realise that I had to be winding Brooke up.” The note in his voice changed, suddenly. Draco’s expression was now rueful. “Unfortunately, I turned out to be wrong about that. I don’t think Hermione was really thinking quite straight for a lot of Saturday - mind you, she has had an awful lot on her plate recently, what with the split with Dances with Ducks, and the aftermath of the Ron fiasco, which just seems to keep on running -“
Peter kept his voice dead level. “Are you entirely sure Hermione would want you to tell me all this?”
Draco shrugged. “Oh, horrified out of her mind, I should think. But then, if she expects me to be discreet then she must have seriously missed the point somewhere along the way, too. And it’s high time someone got the complete picture. I mean, everyone expects me to be deeply neurotic, and a complete drama queen to boot, so if I choose to let off steam any way that looks good to me no-one’s going to get their knickers in a twist about it. But imagine what a pig it must be for someone who’s so tied up with being the calm, reasonable, intelligent one, when they’ve suddenly got every excuse for losing it and don’t know how. No wonder she didn’t have the nerve to bring it off without outside assistance.”
Unfairly, Peter’s lips had curved up in a smile. “I think you’d better keep on telling me about Brooke. What actually did you do?”
“Danced.” Draco’s mouth curved, wryly. “At least, that was just about how I’d have described it. Brooke - seemed to put a lot of latitude into her definitions. And certainly if I had been Hermione’s boyfriend - as Brooke obviously did assume - Hermione really would have been quite justified in wanting to kill her -“
Abruptly, he looked down at the table, and the newspaper clipping lying on it, swallowed hard, but continued with barely a break.
“But I wasn’t going to tell Brooke just what a pathetic so-and-so she was being. I had plans for demonstrating it later, you see. Also, she was letting slip some very interesting things - and I don’t just mean her tits out of that idiotic dress, though that too, of course - “
“I see -“
“I doubt you do. It had to be seen to be believed. Anyway, she was obviously set on finding out what one of the other guests who’d been sitting at our table had said that she shouldn’t. But she didn’t seem to have the brains to work out that at the same time, she was telling me a lot more than Joanna had blurted. Including just how seriously she was taking it. God, it was weird.”
And I would really hate to guess what your yardstick of “weird” looks like. Hieronymus Bosch discovers acid, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Draco glanced uneasily down at the newspaper again. “God, I do hope Jonathan and Joanna are going to be all right. That woman was seriously out of control, you know. I’ve met some psychos in my time, but anyone who can actually try and get two people killed just for dancing a tango -“
These sudden shifts of direction were giving Peter a headache.
“Look,” he interrupted, “What tango? And when? And what do you mean by try to get two people killed?”
“Me and Hermione. After Brooke had finished with me - well, Hermione didn’t seem any too chuffed. Which I suppose, with the benefit of hindsight, wasn’t unreasonable. And - oh, don’t look at me in that tone of voice - anyway, given the circs, what I’d been previously intending to do to show Brooke where she got off didn’t seem entirely adequate. So I decided to make the put-down a bit more public than that. That is: I asked Hermione to dance a tango with me.”
Peter was undeniably fascinated.
“And - could she tango?”
I suppose, given the circumstances, it would be tacky of the families to circulate the wedding video. But I’d love to have seen it.
Draco looked calmly at him. “Given an excuse to stop thinking about her feet, she’s a more than adequate dancer. Even when she doesn’t know the steps.” He paused, momentarily. “Mind you, I don’t think that, absent Dark Magic, she’s ever had the excuse before. But - since you ask - the effect was stunning, yes. Absolutely sensational. If Brooke hadn’t stopped them, they’d have all applauded. And bloody right, too.”
“And? What then?”
Draco paused. “Well - I noticed as we came off the dance floor that Brooke was wearing an expression that would have curdled milk, and I more-or-less thought: well, mission accomplished, then. I certainly didn’t expect her to - “
From somewhere far outside himself Peter could feel a storm of anger building. He thrust it away.
“Are you really saying that Brooke tried to get you and Hermione killed? Simply because you danced together?”
Draco looked surprised. “Yes. But I do wish you’d let me explain all that in the right place, otherwise none of this is going to make any sense whatsoever.”
Unexpectedly he found he was shaking.
“I don’t care about making sense! Where’s Hermione now, and are you sure she’s all right?”
His guest’s eyes widened. “You know,” he said reasonably, “Hermione is very much capable of looking after herself.”
“And - do you know she has?” he snapped. Draco waved an impatient hand.
“Yes. I spoke to her on Sunday, to remind her she might want to consider upping the security on her flat.”
Draco grinned ruefully. “I earned myself an earful to the effect that thank you, magical security was very much her business, and as a matter of fact the only reason she hadn’t been on to me with similar advice was that she knew the wards on the Manor were up to scratch because she’d seen to them herself. It was my own stupid fault, of course. I ought to have waited until a lot later in the day before getting on to her. In fact, when her owl arrived this morning I did rather expect it was going to be an apology for her biting my head off. I certainly didn’t expect -“
He looked down at the clipping on the table, and his expression, which had become much more animated, suddenly chilled again.
And if he’s so upset about it, what must Hermione be thinking?
Peter took a deep breath and reached a decision.
“I’ve got to get up to London. Now.”
Draco raised his eyebrows.
“Yes. I need to talk to Hermione. Quite apart from the shock she must be feeling about Brooke and Giles - especially as she and Giles, you tell me, were once close- “
“And she couldn’t have been thinking too straight then, either, to let him get close - mind you, from what Neville says, the malign influence of the maternal mother-Weasel from Hell did an awful lot more damage than I’d assumed -“
He made an exasperated sound.
“Draco! I’ve told you once; if any of this is stuff I need to know I’m sure Hermione will tell me-“
“God, you can sound awfully like Neville when you want to, you know - “
“I’m relieved to hear it -“
Draco nodded. “OK. Fair enough.” His face changed, suddenly. “On the other hand, one thing which she probably won’t tell you, and which I will is that we both owe her a lot. And she hasn’t had the easiest time since the end of Recent Events. And that if you were to show any sign of treating her like, say, that tosser Giles, you ought to know that I do know about five ways to kill you without even bothering to do research. Some of them significantly more painful than others. And if you don’t want any of them demonstrating on you, don’t hurt her.”
The cool grey eyes suddenly carried the menace of an arctic sea. Peter marshalled his thoughts into some sort of order.
“Well, if you were actually to do that, I’d find it ethically unjustifiable. As well, of course, as personally distasteful.” He paused. “But I find it difficult to criticize you for saying it.”
Draco looked at him, thoughtfully, for a moment. “Well, if that’s how you feel about it, I expect I could give you a lift to London. It’s not as if Neville will be needing the car - the Ministry have held up some of his plants in Customs on a claim that they’re on the Prohibited Magical Artefacts List, and he Apparated off to Tilbury with all the herbals we’ve got at the crack of dawn this morning. In fact, he’d probably appreciate it if I showed up in time to drive him back home, come to think of it. But we’d better hang on another half hour or so - there’ll be no point at all in showing up to see her if she hasn’t finished working. Honestly. If you really think it’s necessary -“
“Yes. And a lift to the station would do, you know. I’d take my own car, except I suspect Ermintrude would find motorways too much at her advanced state of life. But apart from anything else, Hermione must still be pretty shocked if she had a death threat on Saturday -“
His visitor put his head on one side, thoughtfully.
“Well, you’ve got to put these things in perspective. I mean, it’s pretty upsetting the first time or two, but by the time you’ve had several you start taking them more-or-less in your stride - unless they get you at a bad time, of course -“
Peter’s voice was low with shock.
“You mean - more than one person’s threatened to kill Hermione?”
“Oh, god, yes.” Draco’s expression became unreadable. “You’re looking at one, actually.”
“Well - if Granger, I’ve been told to kill you and I don’t think I can, so get the fuck out of here before I change my mind counts, of course. We weren’t always on the same side in the war, you know.”
It was an effort to keep his voice steady. “I see. But leaving that aside, she’s got every excuse to be in a state if Brooke threatened to have her killed on Saturday, and has fetched up dead herself by Tuesday. Presumably at the hands of the same people.”
His voice went up interrogatively at the end of the sentence. Draco nodded.
“Not much doubt about that, honestly. Actually, on thinking about it, it probably wasn’t just the tango business. I mean, Brooke might have assumed she had the clout to pull in those kind of favours, but to get someone with real power to go along with it, they must have thought it was worth the risk, too. I think whoever she spoke to must have worked out she’d told me more than she should and they’d have wanted to stop the leak before it went any further.”
He gulped, hard, looked at the clipping again, and continued,
“Oh, god, this is all sounding so horribly plausible. But when I got the warning and we just vanished, they’d have made more enquiries - I wasn’t using my own name, but Hermione’s would have told them more than enough, and I can tell you, Brooke got close enough that she certainly could have given them a description of me down to flecks of colour in my eyes. Oh, the stupid, stupid bitch! She knew she was dealing with people she thought would carry out a murder just because her elegant nose had been put out of joint, and it must have never occurred to her that she was effectively confessing that she’d betrayed their secrets to probably the last two people on this earth who ought to know anything about it -“
And also, apparently, she can never have considered that Matthew 26 v.52 might have personal application.
Peter raised his hand in a let’s-not-go-too-fast gesture.
“It sounds quite plausible, I agree. But you’ve got to remember, just because something could have happened that way, doesn’t mean that it did. Why don’t you go back a bit, and try telling me a bit more about this secret she let slip?”
Draco looked at him somewhat doubtfully. “You are bearing in mind I’ve just said it’s the sort of secret people are killed for knowing?”
Peter’s mouth was dry. Nevertheless, he made his voice sound as reasonable as possible. “Well, in that case, it makes sense to tell as many people as possible. Broaden the targets, and however homicidal the people behind this may be, they can’t feasibly get everyone who knows.”
“That’s going to be very comforting for the ones they do get,” Draco muttered, “But if you want to know, then it’s your funeral.”
“Well, not if you manage to keep the statistics favourable,” Peter said. The ghost of a smile crossed Draco’s face.
“OK - well - look, have you ever heard of Empowerment Pathway?”
His lips, almost automatically, twisted up in a disapproving grimace.
“Well - bits. And the bits I know, I don’t like.”
There was a deeply reassured “huff” from his visitor. “Thank god for that. From what I could gather it’s some Muggle nonsense, but frankly I didn’t have a clue what they were going on about. All I could tell was, I didn’t like the sound of it. I mean, anything which had Brooke and “power” in close association was bound to be iffy, don’t you think? And she wouldn’t believe in anything that didn’t have a personal payoff for her, calculated to three decimal places in big red letters in the opening paragraph.”
Peter linked his fingers together and leaned back in his chair, towards the comforting heat of the Raeburn. “It kicked off about three or four years ago,” he said abruptly. “It’s the sort of thing you always assume comes out of California, but this doesn’t, so far as I can tell. Well, EP sells itself as a complex of disciplines and techniques, it’s not a belief system - frankly, I’d be happier if it was. Though I wouldn’t be popular if you told the Bishop I’d said so.”
Draco grinned. “I think I can safely assure you we aren’t on speaking terms.”
“I wish that was true of everyone in this parish - Anyway, because you can practise EP in conjunction with any religion, or none, some of the leading lights in the movement have got on very friendly terms with some people - to be honest, some of the people I’m not entirely in sympathy with - in the Anglican communion. So now, for instance, you get retreats where you’ll find unadvertised EP workshops are part of the programme and organisers getting surprisingly shirty if attendees say No thanks, not my cup of tea, I’d rather pass on that bit -“
He took a mouthful of soup, and added abruptly:
“It’s high time some people realised that there’s nothing new under the sun, and stuff that was nasty dangerous rubbish when it was being spouted by a bunch of Neo-Platonist heretics in the fourth century is just the same rubbish when you dust it off, translate it into consultant-speak, and tidy it into a PowerPoint presentation.”
He took a deep breath. Draco’s air of intelligent if faintly baffled interest in the face, presumably, of cultural overload (Peter was, momentarily, reminded of undergraduate experiences, sitting in the Plaka trying to follow newspaper reports of events in Tiananmen Square with only A level classical Greek to assist) was unexpectedly encouraging.
Peter gestured expressively.
“I wish the Bishop would appreciate that the opposite of having a closed mind isn’t having one that’s open to every wind that blows, and that attuning your senses to enhance your receptiveness to the spiritual world isn’t likely to be especially good for you unless you specify in advance what sort of spirits you’re hoping to pick up on your receiver.”
“Well,” Draco said with an air of sweet reason, “I can’t see what the Bishop can object to in your saying that. I mean, even Dark Arts text-books always tell you: The reason you summon demons by name, is so you can check whether you actually want to be introduced to them before inviting them in. And always learn the banishment ritual before the Summoning.”
“You know, I really don’t think sharing that one with him is going to help. Somehow. Though EP may have more in common than that with demon-summoning -“
He broke off, and eyed Draco speculatively. Draco, plainly catching his drift, added hurriedly,
“Strictly as a spectator, in my case, you know. And it was ages ago. And it’s the kind of thing people like Neville and Hermione are very strongly against, honestly.”
At the mention of Neville’s name a sudden recollection chimed in.
“They’ve done - horrible things - to give themselves power. And they may well believe they’ve succeeded. And so they’ll go on doing - whatever they think will continue delivering the power. Which is fake.”
Although it was only early afternoon, the room suddenly seemed dark, as though momentarily inhabited by a brooding, malevolent presence. Little daylight came in through the windows; the morning’s sullen grey had turned into a darker and more ominous blackness under the wings of a gathering storm. Silence fell, apart from the occasional scrabbles from the lean-to. It was an effort to continue speaking, and the words seemed to drop into the air of the kitchen like lead bricks. Draco had his head on one side, as though he were listening to something on the outside of the range of human hearing. Nevertheless, Peter continued:
“The trouble is, it always comes down to numbers. Are you going to be judged by how many people you attract into the Church, rather than what you say to those who come? But I won’t accept - that is - I believe there are real dangers that there are some ways you can preach that are prone to attract people who are looking for payoffs, rather than faith. Like miracles. You have to ask: why miracles? But people don’t. And because EP is -“
He snapped his fingers in frustration, as he reached for the right word.
“Decontextualised - the Bishop can reassure himself that it’s all part of a toolkit, and there’s nothing wrong with sitting in an Empowerment Pathway group and hypnotizing yourself, or practicing a hotchpotch of shamanic stuff to give you an out-of-body experience, provided you’re notionally a member of the Church. And there are people in this village who do that - and go round for drinks at the Bishop’s Palace afterwards, come to think of it.”
He took a deep and shaky breath.
“But if they don’t have a strong faith to begin with - then I keep thinking of the swept and garnished house. Because the reasons for taking up EP almost always seem to be selfish, from what I’ve seen. And in those circumstances, it seems that they are opening themselves up to one of the most ghastly mistakes you could imagine.”
He stared into the dregs of his soup mug. “Turning their souls into a blank cheque, you could say.”
There was another, more sustained outbreak of scrabbling, and something which sounded like one of the potted plants falling over in the conservatory. Draco was suddenly on his feet, a wand out in his hand.
“That isn’t rats,” he said. “Intrate!”
The kitchen door crashed open. A slight figure was hurled through into the kitchen with a velocity that implied she had had an invisible boot applied forcibly to the seat of her trousers. She landed on the kitchen floor and slid into the Raeburn’s side with an expressive “Oof!” of involuntarily expelled breath.
Draco stood over her.
“Well, well!” he breathed. “Nicci. Didn’t they ever tell you it was rude to listen at doors?”
The girl opened her eyes, gathering her voice with an effort. She ignored Draco, and turned her gaze on Peter.
“Bastard!” she hissed. “I’ve heard everything. Including what you said about Daddy. And your knocking Empowerment Pathway - naturally you’re too repressed to believe in something that might actually do anyone any actual good. And I know all about that bitch I saw creeping out of here well after midnight on Friday. So you’re going to go and see her in London, are you? Well, I can tell you, I’m going to get her number and call her, and I’ll tell her - he’ll ruin your life like he ruined mine!”
Peter’s heart was pounding and his mouth was dry. He looked up across the girl’s supine body into Draco’s eyes, and quailed. The arctic sea was now heaping up into storm waves, and Draco’s wand-tip was pointing straight at his heart.
He made his voice as calm as possible.
“Do I understand that you’ve met Veronica?” he enquired.
The cold, swirling eyes were still fixed on him. Veronica, however, was lying, somehow looking pathetically crumpled, snorting quietly to herself in a corner of the kitchen. Peter cast a worried glance at her. Draco followed the line of his gaze.
“Oh, stop flapping. I didn’t even stun her, I just used a sleeping charm.”
“Maybe, but I’m quite sure that she didn’t actually want to fall asleep at that precise moment -“
Draco’s thin lips curled scornfully. “No, what she wanted to do was have a full volume hissy fit, involving - if I recall correctly -” his fingers went up to touch the thin line scored along his cheekbone, coming away red ” - random physical violence on innocent bystanders with what looked like fingernails but which felt like the business ends of sewing needles. She was incredibly lucky that Neville’s devoted the best part of the last three years to reforming my character, otherwise you’d be down one ex-girlfriend and up one Vicarage cat -“
Oops. And how the hell would I have explained that one away to the Bishop? “Meet Fluffy. You may not recognise her with the paws and tail and all that, but she used to be your daughter”?
Peter shook his head to dispel the vision.
“Look, it’s high time you got one thing straight. Veronica has never been my girlfriend.”
“But she said you’d ruined her life!”
“I assure you, it’s perfectly possible to do that without being in a romantic relationship with somebody. And without intending it, either.”
That, improbably, seemed to get through. Draco looked marginally less tense, and he put his wand back into his belt.
“Well, what was that all about, then?” he demanded. Peter exhaled irritably.
“Which bits of the phrase “None of your business” didn’t you understand?” he said. “Even if I wanted to tell you about it - and I’d be dotty to do that, given that as far as I can tell your understanding of the conception of discretion is about on a par with your knowledge of New Testament Greek -“
“Actually,” Draco observed, “Classical languages are rather a strong point of mine. They add a lovely touch of sophisticated obfuscation to an incantation, don’t you know?”
Peter allowed an exasperated sound to escape his lips, and caught a fleeting glimpse of satisfaction on Draco’s face.
Situation normal, it would appear. He briefly wondered what went to create someone who was apparently only really at ease when convinced that those he was conversing with were irritated to screaming point with him. With an effort, he relaxed his own features into a calm expression (rewarded by a flicker of doubt in those grey eyes) and said, “Well, I’m not the best person to take that one up with. Perhaps you should try discussing it with Father Gregory over in Tollard Abbas. He’s a big supporter of the Latin Mass, and I’m sure you’ll find things in common. Anyway, Draco, I really can’t tell you about it. Professional reasons. I can’t even really tell Hermione, actually, but I’ve got to try to explain something - and not just in a case Veronica gets to her first -“
His eyes moved doubtfully towards the sleeping figure in the corner of the kitchen. Draco waved a hand airily.
“I wouldn’t worry about her doing that. She really isn’t going to get hold of Hermione’s whatsit - you know - telephone number. It isn’t a just case of ex-directory, that one. It’s a case of Are you in touch with unearthly powers the like of which have not been seen in this land for a century? And I really don’t think Nicci is.”
As he finished his sentence, however, his voice clouded over with doubt, and he bent suddenly over the sleeping figure on the flagged floor.
“Though now you mention it -“
Before Peter could remonstrate, Draco had gently inserted his thumb into the sleeping girl’s mouth, using it to turn back her lower lip to expose the gums. Before he veiled his expression, Peter thought he caught a flicker of apprehension in Draco’s unguarded face. It reminded him of the look he had surprised on the face of someone he had known in his first curacy, who had been in remission for cancer for 10 years, and had just experienced the first, faintest, indications that his luck had changed.
Draco straightened up. “She’s very anaemic,” he observed coolly. Peter got the distinct impression that he was being offered a very large clue, but that if he failed to decode this one by himself there would not be any others on offer.
“I believe she’s always been on some idiotic diet or other,” he said mildly. “Stands to reason it wouldn’t have done her any good.”
“Mm. Could be.”
Draco’s voice was politely non-committal. Peter decided to leave it at that for now. “Anyway,” he said, “The real question is what to do about her?”
It was an effort of will not to allow his unease to infect his voice. It had been plain that Veronica had been listening in the conservatory for a great deal too long, and he knew enough not to count on her discretion, even if it had not become plain just how deep her enmity ran.
“Well -” There was a note in Draco’s voice that shrieked danger. Peter’s head shot up.
“I warn you, if you’re thinking of doing something magical and unethical -“
Draco paused, gesturing towards Veronica with his wand, and muttering something under his breath.
“No,” he said sweetly, “Not thinking. Done it. Memory charm. It occurs to me that whatever I might think about you, I don’t care having her knowing my business. Or flapping her lips off all round the village with it. Or telling any of her - friends. Whoever they may be. Especially if they should turn out to be - someone they in fact can’t possibly be at all. Anyhow. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not doing it for your benefit, or anything.”
“Of course not,” Peter said politely. Under the cover of the table, his hands trembled.
I ought to tell him to undo it - whatever it is - at once. I ought -
“I’m not going to reverse it, so you may as well can the pointless soul-searching,” his visitor told him clearly, before he could open his mouth. “What I’m actually going to do is set her on her way back to the guest house. She’ll wake up before she gets to the road, and wonder what she’s doing near the church, but I’d be surprised if that sort of confusion’s new to her.”
Draco must have caught the flat, too readily comprehending note in his monosyllable, because an eyebrow went up. Peter looked at him.
“I had hoped she’d stopped,” he said explanatorily. “She told me - some time ago - she had.”
Draco shook his head. “I really don’t think so. Not if last Thursday’s anything to go by. I mean, she comes over as a total airhead, of course, anyway, but there was a certain - quality - to her disconnectedness which seemed suggestive. And anyway, she offered me a - choice of chemical opportunities before I left. I gather she hoped it might assist her personal agenda for the evening. She isn’t the world’s most perceptive, is she?”
Peter felt his face twist.
“Oh,” he said again. Inadequate as it sounded, he could not think of anything better. Draco looked at him, and appeared to make up his mind.
“Look,” he said, “If you hurt Hermione you’re still going to be dog meat, understood? And I do mean that literally, and I have the dogs to prove it -“
Unbidden, Peter’s lips quirked as he recollected Marvolo and Riddle squirming on the Manor carpet as they displayed their full tummy-tickling company manners for his benefit. There was a rueful answering flicker in Draco’s eyes.
“Blast it!” he said conversationally. “You’ve no idea how difficult it is to sound appropriately foreboding when no matter that your entire world can’t see you as anything but the hellhound type, what fate actually gave you was springer spaniels.”
“I’ll take the intention for the breed,” Peter said solemnly.
Draco frowned at him, but an irrepressible spark shone in his expression. “But I’m prepared to assume Nicci’s not entirely your fault,” he said firmly. “Just don’t push your luck, ok? And having got that straight, do you still want that lift?”
Suddenly Peter was aware of a slackening of tension so profound that it felt as though gravity in the room had halved. He reached up behind the kitchen door for his coat.
“Yes,” he said, getting to his feet.
The storm which had been gathering all day burst over Glastonbury just when the group was at its most dispersed. Kivren was caught in the open by King Arthur’s tomb, in the midst of her fascinated speculation whether the sheaf of hothouse lilies on it had been left by one of her group. She sprinted for shelter in the lee of the nearest clump of ruins.
She was not - she suddenly realised - the only one seeking sanctuary in the same place. From behind the crumbling stone of the wall came a harsh voice, raised in anger.
“What do you mean, you half-witted bint? Even you must have found out something. Christ! How much of that stuff did you take?”
The sheer venom in Ken’s tone brought Kivren to an abrupt halt notwithstanding that the rain was now sluicing down, driving icy knives through her suddenly too-thin clothing. Although the woman addressed was out of sight, and her response was too low to be clearly audible, Kivren had no doubt that it was Nicci. For a brief moment she wondered if she ought to intervene, but Ken’s voice had left her in no doubt as to just how hostile his response would be if she did. She wavered under the icy downpour. If she thought Nicci was in physical danger -
“You thick bitch.”
It was the level of matter of factness in Ken’s voice as he came out with the hateful epithet - and the absence of any response from Nicci, where she had expected some sort of howl of outrage - which decided her. She was not, under any circumstances, going to get involved in that dynamic. She spun on her heel, and bolted for the first alternative shelter she could find.
Even though it was some distance away the small chapel looked like a haven of safety. It was only when she was wholly committed to entering that she realised she was not the only member of the group who had opted for St Patrick’s Chapel as her particular port in this storm.
Cathy turned as she entered.
Cathy’s eyes glittered, picking up, it seemed, on her sudden hesitation to come further inside.
“Don’t hold back on my account. It’s coming down stair-rods, and anyway, I got a sense that you’d rather been avoiding me. And I thought it might be a nice opportunity for us to have a little chat, without one of the others bursting in on us.”
Kivren’s heart started pounding, in a way that had nothing to do with her dash across the Abbey grounds.
“A chat?” she hazarded.
Cathy nodded. “I believe we’ve got some things in common. One thing, anyway. And it might make sense to get that out in the open. If you’ve the nerve to do it”
So. I wasn’t wrong. Those clues I hoped added up to something else - anything else -
Her stomach turned over within her.
But she’s right. We are here, and perhaps it was meant so. After all, we stand on holy ground.
She made her voice as cool as she could manage, and stared straight back at Cathy.
“I am tied to the stake, and I must stand the course.” She paused. “Lear,” she added sweetly. “Since I understand you are - superstitious - about Macbeth. As well you might be. Which reminds me: what is a real published author doing on a course like this?”
Cathy raised her eyebrows. “Google has a lot to answer for,” she observed coolly. Kivren shook her head.
“Not Google. At least - not until the very last bit. Simon had told me his theories about history, of course. And left papers, when I could finally bring myself to read them. From that I knew it had to be someone from the group at York who took his unfinished manuscript about the Macbeths, and got it published on their own account after his death. And you gave away yourself that you’d been part of the York team. And I’d already managed to rule out some of them, long before I came on this course - you know, it only needed a tiny bit of digging after you’d made that crucial admission to work out that it had to be you. No-one else fitted. And you needn’t bother answering my last question. You’re here because your publisher’s going to expect you to produce a second book, won’t they? And you won’t have the - advantages - you had for the last one. This time, you’ll actually have to do the writing yourself. And you’ve never done that before. Have you?”
The rawness of her anger echoed into every corner of the chapel, as though it in itself had the power to wake the dead. Outside the rain hissed down, and the lightning crashed above their heads.
Cathy looked her up and down. “Ah, so that’s it, is it? Can’t bear to think I might have actually done something successful?”
Kivren cleared her throat. “I know you haven’t. There were - some of the things I found on Simon’s computer were drafts. Drafts he’d started. Drafts of that novel. I could send them to your publisher - “
“You won’t.” Cathy’s voice was flat and unemotional.
“Because you’ll look like some crazed woman with an obsession who’s generated some paperwork to feed it. Publishers get to smell them. They hire teams of people to brush them off. And anyway- “
Her smile was secretive, hateful. Kivren forced herself to keep looking steadily at her, thinking all the time of snake-charming.
“His having bits of the novel on his hard drive proves nothing, nothing at all about who really wrote it. You see, you really don’t know anything.”
Her voice dropped very low. She leaned over towards Kivren in a horrid parody of intimacy.
“I told you about the collaboration we had going at York. But I didn’t say that it was Simon who had the original idea, and me who kept the syndicate going. We were - very close then, you understand. But there’s one other thing you should know. We kept it going long, long after he’d gone to Edinburgh. Writing together. And the rest. Very good train links, you know, between York and Edinburgh. And excellent roads, too. Until the last, of course. Tell me, did it never occur to you to wonder what Simon might have been doing out near Barnard’s Castle that particular night? Given his parents were actually in Carlisle?”
The blood was thundering in Kivren’s ears, making it suddenly almost impossible to hear what Cathy was saying. It was, however, essential that she keep communication.
“No,” she muttered in a strangulated squeak, and knew she lied as she did so.
I always, always wondered. And blamed myself for wondering when he was dead, and no longer there to laugh me out of my paranoia. And after the funeral, I cursed myself for wondering when he wasn’t here to laugh, or swear at me, and call me an idiot for my doubts. Hundreds of possible innocent explanations. He’d take eighty mile detours at the drop of a hat, to look at some church inscription someone had told him about. And Simon was a sucker for the scenic routes. And loathed routine. The boredom of sameness. The boredom of commitment.
Kivren bit her lip. Cathy’s voice purred on.
“You see, dear, you never had him all to yourself. Not ever. Not for one second. And the stuff he read to you - oh, he told me about that - we wrote that together, too.”
Kivren could still make no answer. Cathy drew back, still with the same smile on her lips.
“Anyway,” she added, ” It seems to have stopped raining. Should we go and find the others? Before they waste all their money on crystals, and duff recordings of whale-songs?”
Blinded by tears Kivren sank down onto a pew. Her fingers closed over the small brown paper packet in her pocket, and she thought, dully, grateful to be able to focus on so trivial a matter, that Cathy must have seen her going in to the New Age shop earlier in the day, and aimed her parting shot accurately to her address.
It hardly mattered, though. Not compared to what else Cathy had said.
A voice inside her head was shrieking, “No! no!” even as another part of her brain found itself pulling together congruences, making sense of things, telling her it was all true.
She looked at the open door of the chapel through which Cathy had gone.
I cannot bear her to live, knowing my humiliation.
And, as if from a great distance away, a calmly reasonable voice, one she had heard indistinctly before, speaking audibly at last.
So what are you proposing to do about it, then?
She looked from a great distance away down to the snapshots scattered over her duvet. It had not, she remembered, been a good holiday; the photos glossed over the sting of sunburn, mosquito bites and constant petty irritations, chief among which, she remembered now, had been the strain of living at close quarters with someone and constantly having to repress her reflex urge to use magic lest he might see. But the snaps were - the uncharacteristically dishevelled state of her flat betrayed the frantic, pointless urgency of her search - the only photographs it turned out she had kept from that time, after all.
Giles hates - hated, she corrected herself with masochistic pedantry - being photographed. He had suspected - not, looking down at the evidence on the bed, entirely without justification - that ten years living on City expense accounts reflected uncharitably back to him whenever he was caught on camera. But then there were truths and pretences that the camera could not disentangle. In one shot where the hot Provençal sun blazed down onto the small shaded tables in the square, on her bare shoulders; on her smile and Giles’, as they held hands in the sun. Or here; high up on the slopes of the Luberon, Giles brushing back the sweat from his brow and laughing back at her. Or on the beach at Cassis, when he’d completely lost his rag after she’d turned them over in an accidental jibe, when he’d been teaching her to sail the Laser, but where the photograph showed them merely salt-stained and dishevelled, blinking at the lens like naughty school kids caught snogging.
The camera never lies, indeed. But it can edit severely for reality.
Tears blinded her again. She could not - however she worked at it - make her resentment of him enough to fill the great gaping hole that the morning had opened up inside her.
He might have been more of the frog than the prince, when you came down to it. But still, he should never have died. Without me - without this cursed - gift - of mine - he would never have died.
She had been poised so long in silent, frozen contemplation of the photographs that she had almost forgotten sound. The buzzer cut through like the sound of a circular saw. Before she could move her cramped limbs to answer it, it sounded again.
The alarm system was playing up again. There was only a blizzard of static through the receiver when she picked up the handset and demanded who it was. Half a spell, of course, would have told her who was at the front door, but - she looked down onto the glossy, sun-drenched idyll strewn in neat, square prints over the duvet.
This is not the time.
And then again, at the back of her mind, sounded another voice.
A time to mourn, a time to rejoice
And a time for every purpose under heaven.
She was barefoot, but the cool cement of the stair and corridor down to the front door of the block was smooth and soothing to her feet. She came to the glass front door and paused as she saw who was waiting on the further side.
How could - how can - what on earth - what does he - a Muggle - think - I shouldn’t - look at Giles’ destruction - All my fault -
How could he have known how much I wanted him to be here? How could he get here so quickly?
She had opened the door before the thoughts had finished crossing her mind.
On the very edge of her hearing she thought she heard a faint sound like a champagne cork popping. But on the rain-sodden step there was suddenly no one there but the two of them.
“Peter,” she said.
“I thought you might need someone you could talk to today,” he said.
“I did. I do.” She paused.
“Won’t you come into the warm? It’s a terrible night,” she said. And smiled.