Chapter 1 - The Mark of The Beast by A.J. Hall
What did you think: that we had some sort of secret paw-clasp, or something?
I can assure you that, all other things being equal (which means, for all intents and purposes, 27 days out of the 28) I am no more likely to recognise a werewolf than the merest untutored Muggle would be.
There exist, undoubtedly, certain subtle signs and portents which might drop a telling hint to someone with my own personal experience, but which would be lost on those without my background. For example, if I were chatting up a girl in a bar (which, contrary to popular belief, does happen from time to time) and she were to enthuse about how well she was progressing at silver-smithing in night-school, I might well reach the conclusion that she and I do not, in fact, have all that much in common. Furthermore, it is true that all werewolves tend rapidly to develop a sense of the futile, which usually expresses itself in a deeply wearied cynical take on the minutiae of everyday life.
On the other hand, it is the nineteen-eighties I’m talking about here. As formal logic might have it: “All werewolves have a deeply wearied cynical take on the minutiae of everyday life. Gerald has a deeply wearied cynical take on the minutiae of everyday life. Therefore Gerald -“
Is a member of the British Parliamentary Labour Party, actually. Well, as a matter of fact he’s a werewolf as well. For many years I and my - fellow-travellers - used to organise a rota, to ensure that every full moon he was kept well away from the Chequers estate. It wasn’t that werewolves as a body held out a particular brief for Margaret Thatcher but the Ministry would undoubtedly have taken it badly if the Muggle Prime Minister were to be found with her throat ripped out, and that would have had repercussions for all of us. Besides, I was afraid his bite might miss the killing stroke and merely wound.
I might be a werewolf, but I have standards.
And then there is, of course, the Scar. My own is a faint silvery mark on the upper right side of my rib-cage. If anyone asks, I claim I got it in a motor-cycle accident. Which, for what it is worth, is without question true of the other scar tissue around it, including the butchered stitch marks of the Muggle hospital who dealt with the aftermath of the crash concerned. Sirius carries much less visible marks of that particular Ionian hairpin bend. From the day the crash happened, and for another eighteen months after that, I pointed that fact out to him regularly as yet another example of his all-embracing, supernatural good luck. But at least that bungled hospitalisation has, over the years, had its uses.
When I was about 10 the Ministry got terribly worried about the truth which I have just put forward. They decided that the official Werewolf Register lacked - if you will pardon the pun - teeth.
The Register, of course, was a typical Ministry initiative: under-resourced and, therefore, inevitably, for the most part un-enforced and un-enforceable. If they got you for something else, they would throw in failure to register to ensure a conviction. Otherwise, it was a dead letter.
Anyway, the Ministry decided that all registered werewolves needed to bear a visible mark of their registry number. The official explanation was that if one turned up dead in a changed state it would be useful for the coroner to be able to shave off a small patch of hair and thereafter inform one’s loving friends and family that they could now draw a line under your particular branch of the family tree.
From now on registered werewolves would have their number indelibly printed - a little bit like Muggle tattoos, but I understand you can do things to reverse Muggle tattoos - on their bodies. Oh, in quite a civilised way, you understand. The Ministry explained most carefully - particularly for the benefit of the parents of those afflicted - that it would not be at all noticeable or have any disadvantage or lead to any discrimination against us in everyday living, and would, in fact, be entirely in our own best interests.
All I can say is show me a werewolf who believes any Ministry measure is in his own best interests, and I’ll show you a seriously screwed-up puppy.
Under the proposed plan, our Registry numbers would be printed carefully on the lower side of our left hip bones; well below the waistline of swimming trunks or boxer shorts, easily concealed in normal life.
Easily concealed, in fact, until it came to having sex.
The hidden agenda - and I have read it in the minutes of the Select Committees concerned - screamed: “Big Hairy Monsters Want to Shag Your Wives and Daughters”.
I can’t see what the fuss was about, myself. I mean, whatever its other disadvantages, lycanthropy is pretty definitely not a sexually transmitted disease. In fact, I can recollect once pointing out to Sirius that the difference between lycanthropy and syphilis was that you didn’t even get any fun out of catching lycanthropy.
My parents, of course, trotted me along to the clinic for the labelling treatment pronto. They were good people, my parents, who persisted in a touching faith that however much life might throw at one, one would always come out ok if one played everything straight by the rules, didn’t complain, didn’t try to usurp one’s betters’ position in life and never, ever, argued with the umpire.
It was a view which, largely, they succeeded in passing on to me. For many years, at least.
It was in the early part of 1982 when I first met Isobel. The last eight months or so had been bad. The Ministry had won the war - or rather, it was taking advantage of a fortuitous accident, which it had no clue whatsoever why had occurred, to crow about victory. They were, however, showing no signs at all of trying to win the peace. The Lestrange business had shaken everyone badly. There were - well, in the circumstances you will excuse me if I don’t say witch-hunts - going on all over the shop. Dark creatures were not flavour of the month. My parents had died recently, leaving me precariously solvent but without future or support. My friends - well, assume that it was not an entirely positive time on the friends front, ok?
And Isobel was stunning. Utterly, jaw-droppingly, “you-lucky-bastard-how-come-you-pulled-one-like-that?” stunning. Fragile, huge eyed, soft auburn hair. She had that impossibly delicate bone structure which a later girlfriend somewhat cynically pointed out to me usually denotes a history of serious eating disorders in early adolescence (for some reason I tend to run to angsty relationships).
In normal circumstances I would have been as likely to chance my luck with her as to ask Celestina Warbeck to play the Moonlight Sonata as a special request on World Wizarding Network’s Family Favourites.
These were not, however, entirely normal circumstances. To begin with not only had I my legacy, but I had actually also succeeded in obtaining gainful employment - temporary, it was true, but remarkably well paid: tutoring the exceedingly thick son of one of our oldest pureblood families, in the hope that he might at the end of the summer scrape into Durmstrang on the back of the family’s old name and vast sums in coined silver deployed in discreet bribery. Oh, the kid had magical talent, all right, or he wouldn’t have made it to the age of eleven - minor questions of sentiment and family feeling have never stopped our older families pruning Squibs ruthlessly out of their family trees, by means of convenient childhood accidents and vague we-don’t-talk-about-the-details illnesses. But he was unlikely to be able to realise such talent as he possessed unless a sounder grasp of reading, writing and the rudiments of Latin grammar were, somehow or other, forced into him by summer’s end. And his desperate parents weren’t too bothered about who - or what - did it, so long as they got results.
Accordingly, I was, for me, feeling comparatively well-off; certainly able to afford some new robes and finish off my shopping expedition with a couple of beers in the Leaky Cauldron.
The Cauldron, for what must have been the only six months in its two and a half thousand year history, was going through an ultra-trendy phase, which not only put it millennia ahead of wizard fashions in interior decoration, but which it took Muggle bar fashions at least three years to catch up with. It was all brushed steel, polished beech-wood floors and bright pools of light from recessed ceiling spots.
Naturally its traditional clientele hated it and were staying away in droves (rumour had it that after six glorious months the landlord was eventually framed for possession of Dark Artefacts without a licence by a particularly fogeyish Ministry man, and the Cauldron - under new management - reverted to its customary Gothic gloom).
Contrariwise, the younger set - in an anything-goes, Roaring Twenties mood following the fall of You-Know-Who - adored the new regime during its brief flowering.
And any refurbishment which brought someone like Isobel into the Cauldron had my enthusiastic vote.
She was, I reckoned, a mere year or two younger than I was; but not someone I recognised - which was, in itself, exciting. One of the big disadvantages of being educated at the same school as about ninety percent of your contemporaries is that not only does it allow for minor schoolboy spats to harden and mature into blood feuds cherished over generations with no-one ever having a chance to get away from the weight of all that history and resentment, but it also means that you know a lot too much about practically anyone you might otherwise cherish romantic inclinations towards. Not from Hogwarts was practically an aphrodisiac in itself
To cap it all, she was bent forwards attractively over The Abomination, with which she was obviously engaged in a life or death struggle. It was an angle which showed her considerable charms at their very best. You Know Who had, in general, been unsuccessful in his necromantic experiments even at the height of his reign of terror, but the sight of Isobel’s bottom in those tight blue jeans would, without any fuss or pentacles at all, have undoubtedly been enough to raise the dead.
The Abomination was the most controversial of the innovations brought in by the current management: a gadget which the landlord had based upon something he’d seen in a Muggle pub, and to vast snortings of disapproval had had designed by a firm of occult engineers who would create anything for anybody provided the price was right and the technicalities sufficiently challenging. Inserting a Knut released a little steel ball, which one had to keep in play using a pair of button-operated flippers (the use of wands was verboten and attempts to cheat led to nasty surprises). You kept bouncing the ball around a sloped table scoring points as you went and ignoring various pre-set distractions; coloured lights, flares, small explosions, singing pixies, hands that leaped out of the front of the machine and grabbed your shirt front if you tried to tilt - that sort of thing. Older wizards tended to snort and say that they hadn’t fought You-Know-Who for eleven years to have that sort of nonsense happen in their pub, conveniently forgetting that it looked like just the sort of thing that You-Know-Who would have made a particular point of objecting to. If we had not won the war (well, in a manner of speaking) The Abomination simply could not have happened.
As it happened, I’d developed quite an expertise on the Muggle version, during my last stint of paid employment (bar work is always a fall-back, if abysmally paid, and your average bar manager will be more than prepared to overlook a staff member turning into a snarling hairy monster once a month, provided he’s convivial, punctual, not noticeably hung over and remembers to clean his lines properly all the rest of the time).
It was obvious that Isobel wasn’t quite getting the principle of the thing, and was getting herself thoroughly (and prettily) worked up at her lack of success.
I picked up my drink, and drifted over to the corner where The Abomination was located just as she pulled a wand out of her handbag, and was obviously on the point of Transfiguring it into something neither it nor the landlord could be expected to appreciate.
I knew I was likely to crash and burn, but for once I was feeling reckless.
“Excuse me,” I could hear myself saying banally from an improbable distance away, “but I don’t think you’ve got your stance quite right. If you’d let me show you -?”
She turned round from The Abomination - startled, I think - prepared to be hostile - and then, improbably, smiled. Her voice was breathy, with accents of honey.
“It would - ” she paused, meaningfully, “be my pleasure.”
I moved to stand behind her, and, raising my eyebrows by way of request for permission, put my hands on either side of her impossibly slender waist to guide her into position.
I, at least, had known where I wanted the evening to end up from the first moment I saw her. Too much past experience had taught me that I might be being hopelessly optimistic to expect her to want that too. But at the end of the evening, during which we had talked seemingly endlessly without - I now recollect - exchanging any real information at all, I tentatively offered her coffee back at my place. And she smiled, a slow, secretive and rather sad smile. And hesitated before responding. For a moment I thought she was going to invent an early morning work commitment, with a consequent need to get home immediately, but then she nodded. We left the Cauldron and passed into the shadowy corner where its unprepossessing front meets with the nondescript shop on the left side of it - the precise boundary between the magical and Muggle worlds.
On that dim frontier, without wasting a breath on words, she hungrily snatched at the back of my neck with one tiny hand, pulling my lips down to meet hers with bruising urgency, pressing me back into the stonework of the building with the pressure of her narrow hips, forcing her body harder against mine as she felt my arousal; her other hand finding its way inside my robes and sliding slowly, expertly, with delicious, lingering agony, over the smooth eager flesh she found there. And her avidity woke an equally frantic response in me. My fingers tore at the front of her clothes, my tongue flickered inside her mouth. If it had not been for a loud and disapproving cough from behind Isobel’s head (probably, I suspect, the last of an increasingly impatient series) who knows where - or if - we would have stopped?
I looked up and over her head straight into the eyes of a face which I recognised. He recognised me, too. The mixture of loathing, surprise, and fear in his expression acted on me like an ice water shower. Isobel must have felt my body suddenly cease to respond to hers, since she opened her eyes, and half turned to face the intruder too. His expression changed abruptly when he saw he was being looked at by two pairs of eyes, not one.
To do Scamander justice, he plays by the rules he set. I cannot think of one of his erstwhile subordinates who would have resisted the temptation to give Isobel a pseudo-fatherly, do-you-know-what-you-are-doing? hint. But I was breaking no law, the moon hidden behind the thick clouds above our heads was waning to the three-quarters, and the rules of the Registry pledged - even when they did nothing to ensure - discretion. He gave us a cold nod, and passed on down the street.
“Do you know him?” Isobel murmured in a subdued, shocked tone. I could feel her shivering through her thin top, and I put my arm round her.
“Mm. Ministry. Or was - he’s retired now. He - doesn’t particularly like me.”
There could be any number of reasons for that, in the aftermath of You-Know-Who’s downfall. The safest course at that particular time - and for more than a decade afterwards, come to think of it - was: “Don’t ask; don’t tell”. It stood me in good stead then. She nodded, unhappily, and her teeth started to chatter. I took off the top layer of my robes, and wrapped it round her shoulders. I made my tone change, striving to lighten the mood, not wanting to remember whose voice I was echoing as I did so.
“Come on, back to my place,” I said gently, trying to put a smile into my voice. “It’s a cold night. High time you put something warm inside you.”
She smiled reluctantly at that, and allowed me to guide her along the street, back towards my waiting house, and my strategically ill-lit bedroom.
We had coffee, eventually. But it came with croissants, for breakfast.
It was with some panic that I looked at the lunar calendar which hung in an unobtrusive corner of the bedroom, and realised that with less than twenty-four hours to go to the full moon I was utterly without a plausible excuse not to see Isobel on the forthcoming night. She knew my parents were dead - I’d rashly muttered something to that effect on our first night together, when she’d made some comment about its being a rather big house for a single man in his early twenties. The words “perhaps we need some time apart” were open to fatal misconstruction. Sudden illnesses - I had learned to my cost with earlier girlfriends - either led to them turning up on one’s doorstep brimming with Florence Nightingale fervour, or to accusations of two-timing. Private tutors do not, customarily, have to go on urgent transatlantic business at short notice. A family funeral will work once, but no steady relationship will stand the atmosphere of suspicion generated by the belief that one’s nearest and dearest are popping their clogs on a regular monthly schedule.
Part of my mind was still worrying away at this when I went out to meet Isobel that evening. We had Chinese, I remember, and then, inevitably, went back to my place. The guilt I felt about the impending betrayal of tomorrow transmuted itself into a frantic desire for connection, for something beyond the sweaty immediacy of the moment. I wanted - needed - to be loved, trusted, cuddled, cherished. Wanted.
But it was inconceivable that I could ever betray to Isobel exactly why I needed that so badly.
We had, of course, known each other for barely three weeks. From the first, though, I had sensed that Isobel’s delicacy was purely superficial: she was the sort who would shed tears over a hedgehog found crushed in the road but unhesitatingly give the order to execute a traitor or send a company of men on a suicidal diversionary mission without it affecting her equanimity by one iota. Titanium butterflies, they called them. I had seen several of the type during the late war (neither side had had a monopoly on them). At least one of them I - and my friends - had perhaps between us helped to create. Under no circumstances would one admit any weakness to one of them; the knowledge would be stored away and brought out at the precise strategic moment when it could be detonated for maximum effect. It was not, in any event, for her softer qualities that I had got involved with Isobel.
That night, for once, however, the purely physical failed to take over and the nagging guilt in my gut assumed an almost tangible presence in my bedroom: baleful and accusing. Isobel, too, was twitchy and on edge, repeatedly moving my exploring fingers, and giving sharp exhalations of exasperation as she did so. Her final gasps of ecstasy were plausible but ultimately unconvincing - perhaps intended simply to bring a respectable end to a situation that neither of us was enjoying, but neither of us possessed the honesty - or intimacy - to confess was being a failure. We lay unsatisfied beside each other in a night which held too many secrets for rest.
The early morning sun was slanting in through the window when I awoke. Normally Isobel was up and about long before I stirred; she had to be early at her job, she told me (something vaguely marketing-related, I gathered). Last night, however, she had been in an odd mood: strained and tired, and she had tried to recapture her normal vivacity by drinking far too much of one of my father’s remaining bottles of single malt whisky. It had been a very short term expedient; she had fallen into uneasy slumber shortly after one, tossed restlessly for an apparently interminable period between three and four, and then fallen into a heavy doze just as dawn was breaking. I got up, on tiptoe, and made myself a cup of tea, trying to crack the issue of what I was going to say about tonight. When I had finished drinking it I drifted back into the bedroom. Isobel had tossed the bedclothes completely off by now.
I sat quietly at the end of the bed, watching her sleep, seeing her - uncharacteristically - open, vulnerable, young, spread with careless abandon across the bed. I leant over - not meaning, at first, to wake her, and dropped a light kiss onto the fragile framework of her neck and collar-bones. She stirred in her sleep, and turned towards me, reaching up a sluggish hand to brush my cheek. I bent, and ran my tongue round each nipple in turn. She murmured in her sleep, and smiled. Encouraged, I brushed my lips gently downwards - further, and yet further.
When my half-open, sleep-drugged eyes first spotted it I took it for a bruise; at least, the conscious part of my mind was telling me: her skin bruises if you kiss it. You just must have been rougher last night than you thought.
The cold feeling at the pit of my stomach knew different. Within a few hours the full moon would rise, and my animal instincts - the qualities which makes a horse buck when it knows that there is thunder coming, or a dog run barking into the corner of a room where murder was done three hundred years before - were acute, and rising. The sense of wrongness was palpable. With infinite care, so as not to awake her, I moved down the bed, my fingers trailing in an airy, deceptive caress over her stomach, opening my eyes fully to the early morning sunlight. The mark was, from the angle I was looking, the wrong way up, but easy enough to read.
3273 ran the blue-black number inscribed under Isobel’s left hip bone. My own was 5967. A bite, therefore, if I was right about her age, when she was about 10. Even with my own - so far as the authorities knew, that was - successful experience as a precedent, I suddenly realised why it might be that I had not met her at Hogwarts.
That, idiotically, was my first thought. It seemed an age later when the second realisation dawned.
She hasn’t told you yet that her great-aunt is being buried this afternoon. In fact, yesterday she made a specific point of saying that she wanted to cook pasta for you tonight. So either she’s guessed about you, too, or -
I went into the bathroom and sat there for nearly three-quarters of an hour, thinking. I was only dragged out of there by Isobel’s frantic pounding on the door, declaring that she was late for work, and how could I have let her oversleep, but she had to go now and I wouldn’t be late that evening, would I darling?
I emerged, a towel strategically slung sarong-style round my hips, hair convincingly dripping wet down my back.
She was wearing a shirt of mine by way of dressing-gown. It hung well down over her thighs. Further, she had all her clothes in a scooped up armload in front of her, ready to change in the bathroom. Plainly, she was taking no chances on my spotting anything, and I suddenly cast my mind back over all the other little evasions, the little hints that - if I hadn’t been so glad for my own personal reasons that she preferred the half-lit and the semi-clad - might have told me something earlier.
“What time do you want me round tonight?”
Her eyes were huge; her voice still breathy, still with accents of honey. She giggled.
“Darling, you know I said 7.30. Don’t be late, will you? I’ve kicked my flatmate out for the evening, but she said I could only bank on her staying away till 11ish. She’s been dying to meet you, you know, but I wanted to keep you all to myself.” She dodged past me, and into the bathroom, without waiting for my answer.
Moonrise that night was at 9.02pm. If Isobel’s flatmate existed at all - and this was the first I’d heard of her - and if she arrived back home at 11pm, she was likely to get her wish. One way or the other.
Isobel left, in a tearing hurry: I could see her running down the street. I reached for the Floo jar, and headed to the fireplace. As soon as I had set that abysmally ignorant brat a suitably challenging workload to keep him out of trouble for the next two days (we had reached the rudiments of Latin grammar, but since he had complained to me yesterday that he didn’t see why he should be expected to know the difference between “a noun and a verbal” I was not optimistic about our progress) I would be off to Dorset.
Scamander might be a tight-arsed old bastard, but he at least no longer had any official connection with the Ministry. And he had a scholar’s detailed understanding of the subject. And, unlike those who had succeeded to his bureaucratic empire, he understood the meaning of discretion.
“Another cup of tea?” Scamander’s rigid politeness carried him inexorably along. I only surprised him in one sidelong glance at the clock, though I was fairly clear that the gap between my knocking at his door and his answering it was less due to the rheumatism he claimed - he was, after all, only a hale 85 or so at the time, and his numerous field expeditions had turned him into a spare, wiry man with well-leathered skin, easily good for another half-century or so - as to his taking the time to check the lunar calendar before letting me in. By way of acknowledging his courtesy, I looked pointedly at my own watch.
“I think I’ve just got time for one more before I have to rush. Thank you.” The steam rose above the fine white porcelain. Scamander unbent somewhat in response. A frosty smile hovered over his bluish lips.
“Indeed. Don’t let me keep you. Presumably you and your young lady have made - ah - arrangements for this evening.”
My smile - although equally chilly - nonetheless conveyed, I hoped, a gracious acknowledgement of his tact.
“Isobel and me? Of course. What else could you expect?”
He looked suddenly puzzled. “Isobel?”
I took in something else, rapidly.
Oh. Interesting. I wonder whose name is really inscribed in the Register against 3273, then?
I smiled, sidelong, I only hoped in time. “She’s in marketing, you know. Having the right name matters, there. People can be so superficial about externals, don’t you think?”
He was too much the old campaigner to acknowledge a hit. He took another Bath Oliver before responding. His voice, however, when he did respond, was uncharacteristically hesitant.
“I remember - days I was up in the Himalayas looking for the Yeti. You could look thousands upon thousands of feet down into the valley. And the air was so clear, if it wasn’t blizzarding you could see everything as though it were next to you. One day, I remember, it was so perfect I could see the farmer I’d been lodging with out in his fields - and then I saw a bear creeping up on him from the river valley. I knew he’d killed a pair of bear cubs the previous day - he’d offered me the skins for my collection. Now, it seemed, their mother was out for revenge. But of course, from that height, a shout would never be heard. One shouts, anyway, of course.”
His grimace as his hand indicated futility was all-inclusive. For these purposes, it seemed, I shared in the lot of humanity.
“Anyway,” he continued after a brief pause, “just as the bear was getting closer I couldn’t stand to look any more. So I turned my glance away from my friend and host, back to the little farm that had been his one and all to him. The little farm it seemed he would never see again. And - then I saw his wife, his demure dark-haired small plump wife of two weeks, the golden girl he’d known for a bare two weeks, who it seemed he’d never known at all, who didn’t yet know she’d be a widow before the sunset, down at the back of the farm (for in that clean pure air, you understand, it’s like you’d been looking through a Muggle telescope) beckoning to a young man to come into to the back of the house while her husband was out in the field. And then I looked back out to the fields, where her husband still had not yet realised that the bear which would have his throat out of him was stirring down in the thicket. And I knew it would have destroyed him to see what I had seen that day. So - I looked up at the matchless blue of the high mountain sky until I judged that matters had taken their course. Nothing could have been heard, after all, even when I shouted.”
And looked up at me for some sort of response. I think as reward for sharing that revelation he expected some acknowledgement of his unexpectedly human vulnerability. He could not have expected me to snap, inhumanly,
“And, did you know what her brother looked like?”
“What - What?”
My anger was so tangible I could almost feel the stringy skin of his yellowed, leathery throat unresisting under my jaws. Idiot. Tunnel-visioned, narrow-minded idiot.
I choked it back to a merely cerebral cold fury with an enormous effort.
To given him credit as a scientist, he was prepared to assume my anger - even on the verge of the full moon - was wholly human rather than monstrous. He looked across the tea-cups at me, a dry question in his eyes.
My voice was harsh.
“You assumed betrayal, but did you ever bother to find out whether your- analysis of the situation - was the right one?”
He shook his head, slowly. “I left the village the same day.” His mouth curled into some sort of grimace, possibly a smile. “Anyway, even so, that incident left me with the strong view that I’d be very bad at doing God’s job. Looking down from a great height and finding that everything always is so much more complicated than one expects. Though I am aware that you - and your - fellow-sufferers may take a different view of what I did.”
I shook my head. I had never accused Scamander of playing God when he set up the Registry - he was a good man in a bad situation, trying to be fair to all accordingly to his lights. And not responsible for the fact that his successors were lesser men.
His voice was wistful. “And I feel it has been, in a small way, a success - We’ve had no reported bites from a registered sufferer in the last ten years. And the public recognizes that, I think. That must be good for everyone.”
I could not but agree. If that’s true, then that’s the information I came for. I nodded, then got to my feet.
“Anyway, I have to be going. Thanks for the tea.”
He rose too as I made my way to the fireplace. Just before I stepped into the flames I turned.
“Why didn’t you Apparate down the mountain?”
His smile was self-mocking. “I’ve been asking myself that for the last forty years.”
Courteously, absent-mindedly, he threw a pinch of Floo powder into the fire. As I gave the name of my house and started to whirl away I thought I heard him say,
“Perhaps, despite myself, because I was touched by a moment’s sympathy for the bear.”
The pasta plates had been cleared away; into the sink at least. My half-hearted attempt to wash up had been forcibly prevented, and I had been more-or-less dragged into the living room with the remains of a litre-and-a half screw-top bottle of Safeway’s’ Valpolicella. Our glasses were precariously located on the floor, below us, amid a scatter of our top garments. We stretched entangled on the brown velour sofa, which, in my opinion, had seen better days, to say nothing of many strenuous nights.
Isobel, now topless and still stunning in her tanned semi-nudity, no matter what I knew, was strung up to a high pitch of excitement, flushed and teasing. Entirely desirable. Over the top of her auburn head I could see the clock on the mantelpiece. One minute to nine. She had not drawn the curtains, but the window only gave on to the brick wall of the back of the flats opposite. No sky was visible, and the yellowed, grimy brickwork was bathed in the orange glow of the streetlights. It did not matter. Neither us would need to see the moon when it rose in the next three minutes.
She filled her mouth with wine, before bending her lips down to mine in a kiss. She let the sharp sour taste pass between us in an act of tender complicity. I looked covertly up into her eyes from under my lowered lids. The pupils were distended hugely. I reached round and ran my nails hard the full length of her bare back, and she gave a long, hissing sigh.
She pushed herself up, her tiny hands against my chest, so she was straddling me, her flexible body arching back high above me. Her expression had changed; but her triumphantly teasing expression was not, I thought, entirely unmixed with sadness.
“Such a pity, love. Such a pity.” She bent as though to kiss me again, teasing her fingers through the hairs on my chest, cupping my chin with one hand.
Above that mean brick-built North-Eastern London suburb the moon rose.
Her teeth would undoubtedly have met in my throat next second, had her aim not been put out by its suddenly being further away, and a radically different shape - to say nothing of being covered in thick fur - to that she had aimed for. She must have realised her danger on that instant. Without even pausing to howl, her heavy body made a single leap for the window, crashing through the glass and out into the night. I followed. Naked blood lust drove me, and the instinctive need to rid the pack of the renegade who put us all in danger. It would be a long chase but there was no likelihood of my losing my prey.
No, of course not. What do you take me for?
Over the course of my life one thing has never ceased to surprise me, and that is the sheer degree of prurient interest which non-sufferers seem to have in werewolf sex.
They might bear in mind that werewolves are, physically at least, wolves. Even an alpha female wolf is only receptive for a few weeks in late winter, and due to pack pressure non-alpha females may never come into heat at all (the dominance rituals of alpha female wolves are probably what got the word “bitch” its more popular secondary meaning). Werewolves, to add to the general complications, are of course only in that form for one night a month. Given that at the date when we speak the first Psion Organiser and its handy timetabling programs would not be released for another eighteen months, attempting to schedule sex when in wolf form with a female werewolf would be likely to leave both parties complaining they had a headache.
Added to that, wolves are naturally reasonably monogamous (though, frankly, the mate-for-life stuff has been grossly exaggerated), and they have the settled reluctance to mix sex and violence usually found in animals whose jaw pressure can deliver a bite of several hundred pounds per square inch.
Our fight, therefore, when I finally cornered her, was utterly unambiguous. She was aiming to kill me and I - well, long-term strategising isn’t easy when in wolf form, but I knew that I had succeeded in that dim purpose I had somehow clung onto throughout the twists and turns of that long night when she was still alive though mortally wounded as the moon set and we changed back into human form.
It was a cold, bruised, naked, hopeless dawn. Drizzle wept down out of a uniform grey sky. Her mad flight had taken us - fortunately, I suppose, for the population of East London - in the most direct route for open country she could find. In a clearing between the trees in the heart of Epping Forest Isobel lay bleeding and exhausted - on something, I subsequently discovered, that had been an altar stone in the days when magical talent and divinity were still being conflated, and which was still a focus of worship for those Muggles who still wistfully hoped that half-fudged ritual would fill a gap in themselves that natural ability had not.
Her eyes were narrow and watchful.
“So,” she breathed, in a low gasping voice, “you fooled me.”
“Was it really that way round?”
Her face twisted. “Well, I take it we both had the same idea in mind. Pity you were bigger than me.”
It had not occurred to me that she would - with the benefit of hindsight - interpret my silence as the full moon approached as an effort to lure her into the same trap as she had tried on me, and denials sprang to my mouth, only to die there unuttered. There was too little time.
“How many others, Isobel? And what did you do with the bodies?”
Her eyes widened. Her voice was fading, but still managed to sound sexy; its huskiness heightened by her pain and weakness.
“So I can’t convince you that you were my first?”
I shook my head. “No, Isobel. I never thought that. Not in any sense. But what happened to the others?”
They could not - assuming Scamander was right - have been left to be found by the Ministry. And I would have heard, in any event. We all would.
She smiled. I detected a sense of relief that she could - for the first time in how many years, I wondered - speak openly.
“The first one was my cousin. My parents never told the rest of the family I’d been bitten, but when we went to family gatherings I could see my mother looking at my cousins and then back at me, and asking herself what she’d done to deserve it.”
She stopped to catch her breath. Her voice was fainter when she resumed.
“It was worst of all when it came to the newest born cousin’s first birthday party. My mother was all over him, making gooey noises, making it absolutely clear to me that she’d have made a swap in a heart-beat. Her expression, when she looked from him to me, told me as much.”
She coughed; blood came up. Instinctively, I went to wipe it away, but my hand fell away before completing the action. Her eyes hardened at my half-hearted gesture. “I sneaked into the nursery when they were all having drinks and looked down at him. Before I knew what I was doing I’d picked him up and started shaking him, shaking him so hard. I think I was thinking: Why the hell, why the hell should you be sitting there, waiting for everything I always expected - Hogwarts, top grade NEWTS, the Ministry - when I was never going to have any of that, and for no fault of my own? “
She was shaking too. “He was still alive when I came to my senses. And he couldn’t tell on me, of course. I put him down on the cot, and tucked him back up, and went down to the end of the garden, to play by the stream. No-one ever knew I’d been in the nursery, and when my aunt found him dead the next morning, no-one thought of suspecting foul play. Well, perhaps my mother did. But there was nothing she could have proved, and she’d have died rather than tell the family why she didn’t trust me.”
She coughed again. Her voice was fading away now; blood loss was making her weaker.
“I didn’t kill again until I was 15. But the thought that I had, and had got away with it, kept me strong through those years. And I needed something to keep me strong. Well - you know how it hurts, don’t you? The pain - and the fear of the pain even when the pain isn’t happening. It’s possible, surely, to understand that the fear of the pain might sometimes be worse than the pain itself, no? But my mother never acknowledged that I might have a bit more to put up with than the average girl, once a month. Less, in fact. She’d scream at me how feeble I was being, even if it was through the key-hole in the treble-bolted shed at the back of the house. And the rest of the time - oh, no. I had to be so grateful that she hadn’t kicked me out of doors. So - next time I killed it was a private tutor my family got for me. My mother had never trusted me to go to Hogwarts, though they said perhaps it might be done.”
She gulped hard. I knew that if I interrupted her it would be against my best interests, but I also knew that if she died now it would be also leave a deep empty space, that I could never fill. Involuntarily, I reached out, with a handful of damp grass to wipe her forehead. Her first look at my hand was full of disdain.
She spat, almost contemptuously.
” I don’t think - even you - would have quarrelled with me there. I was barely fifteen. And my mother had been so scared of me that it had never occurred to her to be scared for me. I knew nothing - my mother hadn’t wanted even to think about me and sex, and I’d not had friends who might have left me less lethally innocent - and - he said he would take me - somewhere - to tell me a secret. He had spotted, of course, that my mother was - too remote - to care for me. Or about me. And when I worked out what was happening, it was too late. He thought so, too. He threatened to tell my mother, tell her I’d led him on. She’d have believed him, too. “
Her eyes were wide, yellow, unambiguous.
“Fair exchange, think you, boyo?” Her voice had a thick, Welsh intonation now. She was going home, to the land of her fathers and fathers before, and did not care how she modulated her tones. But she was bound to the truth, with her dying breath. Only the truth could set her free. Her voice was husky as she continued, but she would not stop speaking now, I knew.
“I told him a secret too. After he had been - too strong for me - once, I swore he never would be so again. And so it was.”
She was in pain, but her glance was sly and knowing. Against my will, I nodded in acquiescence.
“That was when I knew what I could do,” she breathed. She looked at me. “But I knew that I’d be finished if the Ministry ever found a body. Always I had to know where I would leave them, be ready to hide them after -“
My voice was harsh and urgent.
“How many, Isobel? Where?”
Exhausted, grateful for the chance of talking - perhaps, who knows? - yielding to pack discipline at last, eventually she told me. It was a long, chilly session. Once started, she never once, give her credit, objected. She knew, I think, that this was the end, and she was making her peace before it passed. She had told me everything, I think, before I heard the warning rasp in her voice. She knew it was the end too.
“Please - don’t - let them burn me.”
There were still those who believed werewolves turned into vampires on death. It was nonsense, of course. But then, of course, there were those who had always run the Registry as if lycanthropy were a sexually transmitted disease.
“Trust me.” There was no reason why she should believe those words, even if she was capable of hearing them. Nevertheless, she nodded, faintly. When she died, I drew my forefingers down over her eyes before leaving her under a light coating of leaves in the thin, hopeless, weeping grey dawn.
It is, of course, deeply difficult to hitch a lift anywhere stark bollock naked. But one thing my time as a Muggle barman had taught me, was that practically any form of aberrant behaviour, at least if perpetrated by a personable young man in his twenties, will be automatically excused in the non-magical community provided the all-powerful incantation “Stag-Party” is included in the first five words of the relevant explanation. Within 40 minutes of Isobel’s death I was kneeling in my own fireplace praying my non-existent socks off that Albus Dumbledore would not have chosen to take a long weekend at that particular moment.
I’d arranged to meet him in Epping Forest, not far from where I’d concealed Isobel’s body. It took me longer to get there by Muggle underground - once I had dressed - than it must have taken him to walk to Hogsmeade and Apparate from there. When I arrived, he was leaning against a tree, reading some trashy doorstep-thick Muggle paperback with an air of child-like glee and wonderment. My expression as I arrived dashed the amusement abruptly from his face. His eyes widened as I led him without explanation to where I had left the body, and cleared back the thin protection of leaves from it. He had always been able to look beyond the surface: to see the potential for good where others would have seen nothing but evil. Nonetheless, it takes a considerable amount of composure to stand next to a werewolf the day after a full moon night, looking down at the corpse of a beautiful young woman who has clearly been savaged to death, and say without any pause or hesitation,
“Well, Remus? Suppose you tell me all about it?”
He sat down on a fallen tree trunk and patted it encouragingly. I sat down next to him, and hesitated. I had brought him here to tell him the truth, but it still didn’t stop it feeling like betrayal. I could see him look from me to Isobel’s body, and then back to me. He drew his wand, and moved it gently in the air in front of us. I found myself looking at an opened ledger, which had somehow been conjured up before my eyes. I had not seen the original in real life, though it had ruled my life for as long as I could remember. I knew what it was, of course. Isobel’s face - the lettering below it blurred and unreadable - moved and smiled on the page in front of my eyes.
“You guessed, then?” I asked. He shook his head, slowly.
“No. But - there are very few of us, really, you know. And we are getting fewer: Voldemort picked the right fear to play upon, there. By the time you’ve taught for a hundred or so years most of the new students look like minor variants on faces you’ve known for generations. I taught her father, and her mother: her grandparents also. All from our oldest wizarding families, of course. I’d have taught her, too, but her mother thought it would be too difficult to arrange and - unlike with you - it was hard for me to say she was wrong, having met the child. Perhaps - I should have fought harder.”
I nodded, biting my lip. “I think - by the time you met her - it might have already been too late to save her.
“He swivelled to face me; his eyes piercing and keen.
“Never too late, ever. Not for anyone. You should remember that.”
He looked down at the broken corpse, which surely, concretely, belied his words, and shook his head decisively. “No - you do remember it. Otherwise why bring me here? You know as well as I do that an anonymous owl to the Ministry, telling them her location and advising them to check for her number, would have solved the problem of the body, and no questions asked.”
My lips twisted, wryly. It was, true, something that I knew, but it had not occurred to me to do it. Never crossed my mind, in fact.
“Garbage disposal?” My voice was bitter and dismissive. “She asked - not to be burned.”
Dumbledore nodded. “I can see to that. They’ll kick up a bit, but I can arrange it. And if I need be I’ll invoke the Permanent Secretary Emeritus.” His lips quirked into a smile which, though brief, had genuine affection in it. “Newt and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but he loathes the thought of unscientific poppycock infiltrating his old Department.”
There was, however, one other thing. It was a betrayal, of course, of me and of all my fellow-sufferers, but I could not let it go.
“There’s something you have to know.”
His keen gaze skewered me. He nodded for me to carry on.
My voice was level. “There are fourteen bodies which need finding. Five of them are Muggles. Two of them - both Muggles - are women, the rest men. I’ve got rough details of where they are hidden, and I know who they are - mostly, at least. There were a couple Isobel didn’t seem too sure about: married men, I suspect, spinning her a line. They’ll be more difficult, but perhaps St Mungo’s will be able to send some specialists along to assist. They’ve had enough practice with unidentifiable bodies recently, after all.”
His face did not change noticeably, but became bleaker. He looked down at the twisted corpse.
“I suppose you know what this will mean?”
Of course I did. I had, after all, had twenty-four hours to think about it, even though I hadn’t been in a fit state to do much analysis for much of that time. A werewolf - a registered werewolf - operating within the system and still managing to be a successfully undetected serial killer for the best part of a decade and a half. It would start a scandal that had the potential to break the Beast Division into fragments. And as for the fall-out on the rest of us -
I shuddered. Scamander had not lied, it was true, when he had made his case for the Register. “Fear,” he had said, “is for the most part fear of the unknown. And, on their side, the majority of our werewolf friends are responsible citizens, the victims of a hideous affliction which is no fault of theirs. The Register’s success will be the success of all of us. Once we have shown how effective we can be at policing the werewolf community in partnership with it, we will, I hope, see an end to these ugly hounding to deaths and lynchings which are a blot on the wizard world.”
And I had just shown the Register to be a useless heap of parchment. It had - I now acknowledged, too late - offered its own limited protection to us after all: the protection which people derive from the knowledge that Something Official Is Being Done, and so they need do nothing about it themselves, or even think too much about the problem any more. Once witches and wizards realised that they had all been deceiving themselves the reaction would be hideous to think about - and I and my fellow sufferers would be standing directly downstream of the dam burst of all that pent-up loathing and frustration. Nevertheless, my voice was steady.
“Still - those bodies have to be found. You know as well as I do how much worse it was when You-Know-Who was in power for the families of those who just - disappeared, rather than where they knew they’d been murdered. It’s the same here. Those families - they can’t start mourning until they have finished hoping. They need to have the chance to say goodbye, properly. I can’t be party to a cover-up. Whatever it means for - for us.”
He nodded again, his eyes searching my face. He knew, of course, that if my role in this were ever made known my own life would be worth little. Too many of my fellow sufferers would feel too betrayed to let me live.
“Do you like travel, Remus?” he asked. The non sequitur was baffling, and I must have shown it. He smiled.
“You mentioned the disappearances under Voldemort’s terror. I’ve been - privileged - “
His mouth twisted in recognition of the irony.
“To sit in on numerous closed sessions of the Ministry interrogating his former associates. And one thing is becoming increasingly apparent. Not only are some of the worst of the worst going to walk unscathed - ‘People like us, Albus, you must understand, simply don’t do things like that’ - “
He was imitating someone, but I could think of too many possibilities to fix upon the right individual. I waited for him to get to the point. He recollected himself.
“Well, anyway, it is also becoming apparent that a period of eleven years during which everyone in our world has been too afraid to ask too many questions about random killings and disappearances has given - opportunities - to the scared, or the desperate, or the unscrupulous, that may not have existed before. The Ministry is not proposing to open any cans of worms by looking into how many so-called Death Eater killings might have less convenient explanations, but I dislike the idea that there are those out in our world who have killed and got away with it. Furthermore, those in other countries have too easily concluded that our late troubles have been - a purely local difficulty. But Voldemort could not have come so far, so fast without help - or, at least, studiedly blind neutrality - from within the other European Ministries. And, of course, our very oldest and best families have always had the closest of ties to their co-equals on the Continent. Again, not something in which I have succeeded in interesting the Ministry.”
He sighed. I suddenly saw him looking old, rather than ageless as I had always thought him.
“And, then, finally, it has not escaped my notice that the actions of the Ministry over the years has given a number of minority groups -“
He took care not to catch my eye.
“Real reason to feel themselves disaffected. And not only Voldemort may well have found that a fertile breeding ground for recruitment. Anyway, I, with a few others have managed, covertly, to pull together some funds. In fact, two of my closest confidants on this matter - who, regrettable, did not survive our late madness - have left very generous bequests to help our work. We need to find oddities: to track down crimes which no-one yet suspects have been committed, to match patterns and draw conclusions which are not permitted to be drawn. The pond has been stirred down to its depths by the work of the past few years; we need someone who is willing to step in and tackle those things which have now been driven up from the bottom to feed.”
He was no longer even the simulacrum of a kindly dodderer, or charmingly ineffectual eccentric. His eyes were piercing. “You’d be better out of the country for a few years. And we - could do with a roving eye, someone who can draw conclusions, and keep their head. Who can fight for what is right, and know when not to substitute the good for the politically expedient. There’s something nasty brewing in the Balkans which is overdue for a bit of quiet digging even as we speak. And there’ll be others coming along. Are you free to travel within the week?”
I hesitated. Gerald, if I called him, could easily keep an eye on the house - even find me a tenant if I asked him. It was in a good neighbourhood, and London, much to his disgust, was surfing unstoppably forward on a crest of materialistic optimism. Down at my feet was the incontrovertible proof that I had no romantic ties to keep me in England. There was, then, only one thing outstanding.
The first name felt odd, but it was far less of an imposition than the favour I was about to ask.
“Would it be possible for you just to squeeze one very very stupid pupil into Hogwarts this year, somehow?”
He looked at me, narrow-eyed. He knew, of course, what I’d been doing that summer: I suspected, actually, that it was his tactful behind the scenes manipulation which had got me the job.
“How bad is he?”
I sighed. “Frankly, I think he’d be hard put to it to out-think a reasonably cerebral flobberworm. But he may be thick, but, so far as I can tell, he isn’t vicious. I’d lay no odds about what’s going to happen to him in five years at Durmstrang, though, if they even take him. He’d be at the mercy of every wind that blows, and probably end up as somebody’s fall-guy without having a clue what he was getting himself into. At least at Hogwarts I’d know you were keeping an eye.”
Dumbledore sighed. “Does the boy have any talents?”
I thought, hard. “He’s very fond of animals,” I said, finally, despairingly. Dumbeldore’s lips quirked up.
“Splendid! I’m sure we can think of a few ways to keep him out of mischief, then. I’ll arrange for Minerva to send the letter this evening. Now, you be getting along. I’ll deal with this -“
His gesture encompassed not only Isobel’s body, but also the painful, poisonous freight of guilt and recrimination it carried with it. I nodded, and turned away. His voice stopped me.
“One thing, Remus. I used to be very fond of the Muggle movies.” His eyes dropped ruefully to the book in his hand. “In the days when they did still write them like that. And I’m reminded of a very wise thing that a man who used to write for the Muggle movies once said. You might bear it in mind. I don’t think, you know, it could have been pure chance that brought all this about.”
He cleared his voice.
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”
He paused. “Good luck, Remus. Go safely and return safely.”
Instantly he and Isobel’s body had blinked out of the clearing. I made my way slowly back to the road, thinking.
A very great man, Albus Dumbledore. And as mad as a March hare, nine nights out of ten, evidently.