One cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God! the British journalist
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there's no occasion to.
Humbert Wolfe: The Uncelestial City 1930
Outside the rain beat in horizontal brush strokes across the shrubbery. The wind, getting in on the act, wuthered enthusiastically away in the chimneybreast. The square-built house of smoke-blackened stone on the edge of Roughlee-in-Pendle glared across the valley at the Hill, barely visible today beneath its shrouding of low cloud. It was a staring match that had been going on for a hundred and fifty years.
So far, it was still a no-score draw. The house had been built by a race that had prized above all else the ability to stand upright and glare back at whatever opposed you for however long it took until the opponent blinked. There were very few of them left now.
Emily Longbottom looked up wearily as the family house-elf, Betsey, skidded excitedly into the room, whirling her arms in a frantic effort to stop as the initial impetus of her arrival threatened to carry her across the highly polished parquet and into the fireplace.
"Madam is never, ever, guessing who is in the porch now," Betsey announced.
"Hmph! Proper house elves wouldn't leave me guessing. They'd either announce whoever it was in a decent fashion or let them in so I could find out for myself. And they wouldn't wear them bloody daft roller skates, either."
Betsey muttered something, which might, or might not, have been: "Spineless southern buggers". Old Mrs Longbottom prudently succumbed to an attack of deafness. Wherever two or more Pendle witches were gathered together "the house elf problem" was pretty sure to be high on the list of conversational topics. "They've got boggart blood" was the most popular theory to explain the peculiarities of the local elves.
"Go on, then. Surprise me."
Betsey looked smug. She leaned over and whispered in Mrs Longbottom's ear. The old woman sat up even straighter. Betsey grinned. "I is telling you."
"Well, that is a turn up for the book, all right. I suppose we'd better find out what she's up here for. Go and let her in. And - Betsey -"
"Under no circumstances are you to ask for her autograph."
The house-elf vanished. Moments later the door swung soundlessly open, revealing a very tall blonde woman standing in the entrance, shaking rain-drops from her impeccably cut black robes. Betsey, from an unseen vantage point, announced
"Narcissa deVries to see you, Madam."
During what wizards and witches were now coming to refer to as Recent Events Voldemort had had a simple initiation test for those recruits who - depressingly - had flocked to join him after his initial successes. If they wished to become a Death Eater they must kill a victim selected for them at random, within twenty-four hours, without assistance. Furthermore, if Voldemort's star should fall, it would be clear to the whole world that the individual's decision to take the test had been one of pure free will: no hope this time of sheltering behind Imperius.
Dying in the attempt was a honourable end (and, of course, neatly weeded out those whose incompetence might embarrass the Dark Lord later). Failing to carry out the test and surviving was not an option. Refusing the test, warning the intended victim, and then walking back to Voldemort's HQ to inform his second in command that one had done so was an act of such spectacularly suicidal stupidity that a depressed lemming would have earnestly counselled against it.
Even if the second in command concerned was the recruit's own father. Especially if the second in command was the recruit's own father.
Naturally, in the aftermath of Recent Events, when the wizard world had leisure to think once more, the question of Why? tended to arise. Various far-fetched theories were spun as to what exactly had happened the night Draco Malfoy went out to murder Hermione Granger, and returned some hours later, to tell his father that, actually, he thought becoming a Death Eater was a rotten idea, and he'd rather be excused.
Perhaps the best explanation was, after all, the simplest: Voldemort, whose grasp of his own psychology was, by that time, slipping considerably, had simply failed to appreciate that dislike, even intense dislike, is much further from hatred than it appears. Killing someone whom you have seen across the breakfast table for nearly half your life cannot be comfortably classified as mere garbage disposal, or the clinical negativing of a subject, however much you may have cringed inside at every bite of toast they ate for every breakfast of every week of that time.
Why, in any event, was not a question that occurred to Lucius Malfoy. His main objective was damage limitation. Thirty-odd years in the Dark Lord's service had polished his ability to regard people as things to a high degree.
Twenty minutes later Draco was lying in a deserted quarry forty miles from Voldemort's headquarters, already feeling the first effects of the Death in Life Potion his father had forced down his throat. As Lucius Disapparated he tossed over his shoulder two pieces of information. First, that the potion had been carefully designed to produce death and most of its after-effects, but in the wrong order. Decomposition commenced while the victim was both alive and sentient, and death, when it came, was a relief not only to the well-rotted victim, but to anyone strong stomached enough to remain in his vicinity. Secondly, that there was no antidote.
Some time later that evening, it appears, Lucius Malfoy mentioned to his wife that he had dealt with a potential family embarrassment.
This was a tactical misjudgement possibly never equalled since that of the general whose last words had been:
"Don't worry, they can't possibly hit an elephant at this dist-"
Legend, and the will to believe, clouds much of what happened next. Those allied against Voldemort were doing very badly at the time, and the impact on morale of the slightest victory was wholly disproportionate to its tactical value. Narcissa received the news quietly, but can have wasted no time. Within three hours Malfoy Manor, the fourteen top Death Eaters it was sheltering, and a cache of valuable intelligence information about Voldemort's plans had been turned over to his enemies with not a drop of allied blood being split.
As the advance party made their way unopposed into the enemy stronghold they found Lucius dead in the basement, an expression of extreme annoyance on his face. It was believed that he had committed suicide, lacking the nerve to meet either Voldemort or Narcissa alive.
By dawn Narcissa was standing over the best Potions wizard the allies could put at her disposal, holding her wand with an air of indefinable menace. Whether it was the threat, the sheer intellectual challenge, or the fact that against considerable odds she had found one of the few allied wizards who actually quite liked Draco, but Lucius Malfoy's confidence that the effects of the Death In Life Potion were irreversible proved as illusory as all his other hopes. Narcissa and her son had joined the allies, and the rest, as they say, was herstory.
The furore was amazing. As someone said, "Never in the whole history of the struggle against Voldemort was so unexpected a reversal inflicted so effectively by one so stunningly photogenic". Others might justifiably feel they had contributed more to Voldemort's defeat; Narcissa, however, got the book deals.
When, interviewed on live wizarding TV, Narcissa had looked up shyly under the new haircut that had already launched a thousand bobs, and confessed that she was reverting to her maiden name as she "no longer felt comfortable" being called Malfoy (and, subsequently in the interview, announced the launch of "Fragrance deVries") the biggest celebrity of the post-Voldemort era was born. Her famous smile, shy sidelong glance, and huge, haunted violet eyes followed the magical world from every newsstand.
And now the most celebrated witch of the twentieth century had arrived inexplicably in Emily Longbottom's living room.
"I had to come," she said simply. "You were the only one I could think of who might help."
Emily Longbottom was clearly none the wiser. Narcissa handed her a piece of paper: the front page proof from the next Sunday Prophet, most of which was occupied by a rather blurry photograph of two figures on a palm fringed beach, apparently engaged in re-enacting the surf scene in From Here To Eternity. Unlike the subjects of most wizard photographs they were not waving back at the viewer, and, indeed appeared completely unaware that they were being photographed. The indistinct nature of the shot hinted strongly that it had been taken by a concealed camera, although the two were sufficiently absorbed in each other that they might not have noticed a squad of dragons playing Quidditch in their immediate vicinity, either.
Mrs Longbottom inhaled sharply and put her hand on her heart.
"Well, I'll - I'll go to our house," she spluttered eventually. "It's our Neville. And he's kissing a - a man -"
"No shit, Sherlock," Narcissa muttered in possibly pardonable exasperation. The older woman's eyes narrowed.
"I'm not having language in my living room, young lady."
She glared momentarily at her, and then back to the photograph; back again at Narcissa and then back down at the laughing blond boy in the surf. There was the sound of Knuts audibly dropping.
"That wouldn't be - it wouldn't happen to be your son, would it?"
Narcissa nodded, wordlessly. Mrs Longbottom bent her beady gaze back to the page proof.
"I just don't believe it," she hissed.
Narcissa nodded sympathetically.
"I know: that's just what I thought."
'I don't mean that." She paused. "I mean, I've been telling Neville to throw out those swimming trunks for the past two years and now they're all over the newspapers."
Narcissa bent over the photograph again and studied it closely for some seconds.
"Mm. Well I'd bet serious money that Draco will have endorsed your recommendation by now."
Mrs Longbottom's eyes narrowed.
"Are you criticising our Neville's dress sense?"
"No. I'm merely commenting on Draco's tendency to regard relationships as home improvement projects." Her lip quivered for a moment. "He gets it from his father."
Suddenly, with the mention of Lucius Malfoy, Narcissa's composure abruptly left her. She buried her head on the sofa arm, and sobbed. For a moment Mrs Longbottom's world had lurched perilously close to the unfamiliar; now there was a distraught witch howling her heart out in her living room. Unsatisfactory men folk were to blame. Mrs Longbottom drew ninety-odd years of experience around her, and found herself sitting straighter, as though they were corseting her. She sat herself stiffly down next to Narcissa, and patted her on the shoulder.
"Now, now, love. It's not that bad. Nobody died. We'll think of something."
"But it'll be all over the papers by Sunday -"
"So it'll be round someone's chips by Monday."
"And he won't give me any grandchildren -"
"As I've just been finding out, grandchildren aren't everything they're cracked up to be."
"And what'll the neighbours think?"
"If everything they say about you is true, your neighbours are in the next county."
Narcissa raised a tear-stained face and managed a weak grin.
"Actually, I'm not speaking to the neighbours. Something to do with getting their son and daughter-in-law sent to Azkaban." Her grin faded. "As a matter of fact, that's pretty much true of all our - of all Lucius's friends. And I seem to have lost touch with most of my old friends since I married -"
Another fit of howls overtook her. Emily Longbottom patted her briskly on the shoulder.
"Well, look on the bright side. Cuts down the Christmas card list."
Narcissa sobbed on, uncaring. Mrs Longbottom drew herself stiffly to her feet. "What you need is a nice cup of tea and something solid inside you. You don't look as if you've had a square meal in months. Betsey!"
There was a rustle from behind the window curtains.
"Make yourself useful, for once, and get the kettle on. No, wait a moment, there's something I have to see to in the kitchen -"
She tactfully took herself out of the room, leaving Narcissa whimpering on the sofa.
When she returned Narcissa had pulled herself together, restored her makeup to its former flawless perfection, and was standing by the fireplace, in apparently intent study of a sepia photograph of a young man in uniform over the mantelpiece. Mrs Longbottom nodded in its general direction.
"That's Frank. My first husband. He went with the Pals."
Narcissa looked blank.
"The Accrington Pals. They were a regiment. In the first Muggle world war. Some daft ha'porth at the War Office thought it'd encourage lads to join up if they could be in the same unit as their friends from the mills. And they did, of course. Gave them two weeks training and sent them off to the Somme. Three quarters of the battalion killed or wounded within minutes. There wasn't a family in the town that hadn't lost someone. They didn't have any more Pals regiments after that, but it was too late for Frank."
Mrs Longbottom paused.
"Mind you," she added with a certain grim satisfaction "None of the War Office buggers who thought up the whole daft caper had a decent night's sleep for the rest of the decade."
Narcissa raised one perfectly arched eyebrow.
Mrs Longbottom snorted.
"I doubt if any of them could even spell conscience. Embarrassing itches, more like. Rashes - generally in places I wouldn't care to mention. Invisible scorpions. The invisible scorpions were good. Mostly, they got diagnosed as DTs. Actually, after a year or two of itches and scorpions that they couldn't see, most of them did have DTs."
The expression on Narcissa's face came close to awed respect. Mrs Longbotttom, once adrift on a sea of comfortable reminiscence, was clearly in no hurry to steer for the whirlpools of the matter at hand. She sighed comfortably, and settled back into one of the two overstuffed armchairs by the fire, gesturing her guest into the depths of the other one.
"Anyway, tea." She waved her hand, and a silver teapot floated gently through the air and poised itself over the two china cups positioned on the small Victorian inlay table by the fire. A procession of toasted crumpets, honey, damson and strawberry jams and a walnut cake with pink icing drifted into the room, hovering politely at their elbows.
"Hm. DeVries. That'll make you one of Charlie Device's grandchildren? Your father would have been be his youngest, the one who changed his name to deVries after the dragon hide financial futures trial, then?"
"He was acquitted on all charges."
"I like that in a man," Mrs Longbottom observed dryly.
There was a pause.
"In my father's day, Chattox & Device Witchgear was the biggest occult engineering firm in Europe. Half the cauldrons in the country came from our shops. Of course, when my father retired and my brother took over he and your grandfather didn't see eye to eye, and they went their separate ways. But you'll be too young to know about any of that."
Narcissa frowned. "My grandfather always used to claim your brother had pinched the design for a radical new multi-operation lathe from him. It was supposed to give four times the output for half the spell power. He used to tell me about it when I came to stay. It was a sort of game: I had to think up ways your brother might have done it. If he hadn't thought of my suggestion, he'd give me a Galleon. But I don't think we ever worked it out."
She took a sip of tea and continued.
"His R&D plant was designed to be impregnable. It was centrally heated so you couldn't hack into it from the Floo Network - his research team had the best salary and benefits package in the country, but you didn't get on it if you weren't prepared to consent to random Veritaserum testing - no-one, including a Board director, was allowed to pass into the restricted area without spending an hour under observation, to stop Polyjuice - the windows were all secured with Double Gravity hexes and Unbreakable Charms - the duct-work was all far too narrow to crawl through...."
Mrs Longbottom looked thoughtful.
"I remember that lathe. Amazing bit of kit, but so much trouble. We had no end of a job working out the manufacturing tolerances for it. Took us weeks of overtime in the shops until we cracked it."
She took a sip of tea.
"Only to be expected, really."
She helped herself to another crumpet and buttered it slowly.
"Have you any conception of how difficult it is drumming the concept of thous into a bat?"
Narcissa, caught unawares with a mouthful of tea, spluttered it helplessly all over the front of her robes. Mrs Longbottom grinned wickedly at her.
"Good. I thought that'd put some colour into your cheeks. Who'd have thought old Charlie would have decided to tell you all that ancient history? It makes you practically family."
Narcissa looked hesitant.
"I don't think my grandfather losing out to your brother in a piece of industrial espionage sixty years ago counts as being related."
"It does in East Lancashire. Anyway, the industrial espionage wasn't all one way. They reckoned Charlie Device had half the Veela showgirls in London on his payroll at one time or another. What they didn't get out of the reps come trade show time wasn't worth knowing."
Narcissa dropped her long lashes in the Look that had launched a thousand column inches.
"Oh, that wasn't the half of it," she purred. "He married his best operative."
Mrs Longbottom looked at her, appraisingly.
"Well, I can see that, now you come to mention it. But I always thought Charlie Device married into the Little Hangleton Nutters?"
"First wife. Grandma was his second."
Mrs Longbottom paused for a moment. Then, decisively, she gestured with one hand. The tea things scrambled rapidly, but in an orderly way, towards the door to the kitchen (Narcissa envisaged them queuing up over the sink to wash themselves up); the crumbs brushed themselves into the fireplace, and the old lady visibly moved from Social to Business.
"Well," she said, fixing Narcissa with a beady gaze, "what are we going to do? Can you get hold of your son?"
"I don't think so. I don't even know where they are - the article just says "exclusive Indian Ocean hideaway resort". "
"I'll give Neville "hideaway" when I catch up with him. He said he was going to Brighton. I was wondering why I hadn't got an owl yet."
"I did get an owl," Narcissa said grimly. "Allegedly from Paris. I should have wondered why the poor bird looked so bedraggled if it'd only done a cross channel hop."
Mrs Longbottom looked thoughtful.
"If it was just Neville I could cut off his allowance, and that'd bring him home soon enough. But I suppose your lad's independent since his father passed on?"
"What Draco inherited," Narcissa said precisely, "is a moth-eaten, over-large Jacobean draught-box full of dubious and unsaleable magical artefacts, which costs a mint to run and which has only remained in the family for the last eight generations because of the proud family tradition that Malfoys Always Marry Money. As on current form that looks like yet another family tradition Draco won't be upholding, I probably am able to exercise quite a lot of financial leverage. I could, for example, tell him that the death-watch beetle in the roof is now officially his responsibility. If I wanted to play really dirty I could probably persuade Gringotts Gruinard Offshore to exercise their discretion under the trust deed in favour of the Knutsford Kneazle sanctuary. What I don't see is what use it's going to be."
"If we threaten to cut off supplies, they'll have to come home, and then they can sort out this mess for themselves."
"Er, Mrs Longbottom? Exactly how old were you when you married your first husband?"
"Seventeen, but I don't see what -"
"And he was a Muggle who worked in a mill, wasn't he?"
"And what did your parents do when you announced your engagement?"
"Well, my father burned my wand, locked me in my bedroom, and told me I'd never see a penny of the family money if I went through with it. I had to climb down a drainpipe to run away with Frank; that was no picnic in the corsets we wore then, I can tell you. I didn't speak to either of my parents again until 1928."
"So - why do you reckon these tactics are going to work better this time around? Just because you're dealing with two young men at the tail end of the twentieth century, rather than with an Edwardian schoolgirl, perhaps?"
Mrs Longbottom paused.
"Well, young people today don't have the gumption my generation had," she muttered, but it didn't sound as though her heart was in it.
"Even if we could get in touch with them, they couldn't get home in time to make any difference. The Prophet goes to press tonight. That frightful Skeeter woman's been trying to get hold of me all day so I can 'give my side of the story'. If I refuse, she'll make up some frightful tosh about 'withdrawing into her world of empty privilege', probably implying I'm holed up in the Manor slashing my veins with one hand, cuddling a half empty bottle of vodka in the other and drawing Dark Magic sigils on the floor with my feet. If I do give the interview, she'll twist everything I say."
"Can't you sue them?"
"My lawyer says that it'd be a total waste of money. He said if we tried the Prophet'll only run the story at twice the length, probably under the headline 'Shock Sex Romp Snaps They Tried To Ban'."
"Hm. Well, there's only one thing for it. Betsey!"
The house elf skidded into the room.
"Find my hat, and make sure the front drawing room's tidy. I'm having some people from the Press here."
"I's doing that right now, Madam."
Emily Longbottom donned the stuffed vulture and straightened it in the mirror over the fireplace.
"Get yourself out of sight," she told Narcissa. "If they can't find the organ grinder, there's more chance they'll agree to interviewing the monkey."
She knelt down onto the hearthrug, leaned into the flames, and announced:
"Sunday Prophet offices".
Rita Skeeter looked up at the porch in front of which she and Crispin Camilleri, the Prophet's duty photographer, had just Apparated, and swore acidly at the broken cast iron drainpipe from whose ragged edge approximately half a gallon of rushing rainwater had just overflowed and cascaded down the neck of her robes.
"You'd have thought they'd have heard of Reparo charms even in this godforsaken neck of the woods," she hissed venomously. Camilleri, who had spotted the danger in time to pull his equipment away from the flood, grinned wholly unsympathetically at his colleague.
"Cool it, Reet," he advised, having a final drag on his Gauloise and flicking the butt into the laurel bush at the side of the front door. "You're just sore because you wanted to have a go at Ice Maiden deVries, and instead all you've got is an interview with a mad old bat who thinks it's chic to wear a moth-eaten eagle on her hat."
At this moment the door swung impressively open in front of them, and they were conscious of a silent invitation to enter. They made their way down a dark hall, dimly populated by the shapes of numerous stuffed animals. Camilleri, catching the odd glimpse of fangs or claws from the shadows, thought that the overall impression was as if some Longbottom ancestor had systematically built up the collection using Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, cross referenced by inherent dangerousness coupled with ease of stuffing.
The next door to swing open lead into a dark room, with an air of musty grandeur which gave the impression that it was opened up for weddings and funerals only. The red velvet curtains were drawn across the last of the fading daylight; the only light came from two candles on the mantelpiece and a small, depressed, fire on the hearth.
Emily Longbottom turned to face the two journalists as the door swung open. Her eyes skimmed briefly over Camilleri (he momentarily regretted his new hard-man haircut) and rested upon Rita Skeeter.
"Eh," she said at last, "things you see when you haven't got your wand."
Rita Skeeter looked straight back at her. "It really is very good of you, Emily, to spend these few moments talking to the Prophet. I realise that for someone of your generation this news must have come as a particularly great shock to you."
"The name's Longbottom. Mrs Longbottom. And I don't know what you mean by "shock". I'm 103. I've lived through two bouts of You Know Who's nonsense, as well as two major Muggle wars. I've had to deal with influenza epidemics, TB, typhoid and polio. Sometimes the potions worked and sometimes they didn't. With one thing and another I've outlived two husbands and four children. If you've done your homework, you'll know where my last child is. Believe me, it'd take more than young Neville's likely to think up even to startle me."
Camilleri felt his face begin to crease. He pulled it hastily straight as he intercepted a frown from Rita Skeeter. He held out his hand.
"Delighted to meet you, Mrs Longbottom. I'm Crispin Camilleri, photographer for the Prophet."
"Hmph. Did you take That Photograph?"
Camilleri heard, in the tone, the implication that there was a nice space in the hallway where "Paparazzo, Wild: Barehanded in Drawing Room" would complement the other hunting trophies to perfection. He shook his head hurriedly.
"No, that was, er - one of our freelancers -" One lucky moment and the bastard doesn't have to work for the rest of the millennium. Probably picking out his next racing broom as we speak. And technically it's such a lousy photo. I mean, it's not as if he wouldn't have had time to put a grey-grad filter on, stop it looking so washed out in the sun. Come to think of it, they don't look as if they'd have noticed if he'd stood right next to them and looked up all the stops and aperture settings in Wigglesworth's Complete Wizard Photography Compendium. Which is about the level the lucky bastard is on.
"I'm glad to hear it. Because I don't think it looks very good. In fact, if any of our holiday snapshots came back looking that blurry I'd not bother collecting them."
"This is hardly a holiday snapshot, Emily." Rita Skeeter tapped her long nailed fingers for emphasis on the page proof, which was lying on the table. "Our readers aren't going to see it in that light. 'After a year of turmoil and upheaval, is this revelation of her son's secret sexual identity the final straw for troubled beauty Narcissa deVries?' "
"Well, no, I shouldn't think so, really."
Both journalists spun round in the direction of the husky voice from the shadows. The fire suddenly blazed up on the hearth; a dozen more candles leapt to life on various sconces, and as Narcissa leaned forward from the depths of her chair into the firelight, her robes fell sideways to reveal the seemingly endless length of her silk-cocooned legs. Camilleri suddenly heard his blood pounding in his ears as the full mega-wattage of the wizarding world's most famous smile was turned upon him.
"We thought," she said, smiling apologetically up at the photographer, "it would save you an awful lot of time if you interviewed both of us together."
Rita Skeeter glanced down at her parchment of pre-prepared questions, pulled out her notebook and a freshly sharpened quill, and smiled winningly at Narcissa.
"Emily, it's been speculated that your grandson may have had a vulnerable moment of - let's call it late adolescent confusion - shamelessly exploited by a charismatic young man with - to put it frankly - an unhealthy level of Dark Arts experience. How do you honestly feel about Draco Malfoy? "
She looked up, met the steady gaze of the young man's even more charismatic mother (who was currently giving her the Look she was accustomed, in the office, to refer to as the "cocker spaniel in a bacon slicer" of the deVries repertoire) and decisively scored through Question One with her quill. A quick glance consigned questions two, three, four, six, seven and nine through thirteen to a similar limbo.
Narcissa took advantage of the pause that followed.
"I'm still puzzled at the Prophet's justification for running a story about Draco's private life. It's not as if he's the Minister for Magic or someone. What's the public interest?"
Rita looked patronising.
"Surely, Narcissa, that's a bit hypocritical coming from you? After all, you were hardly shielding Draco's privacy when you gave That Interview, were you? One witch's tragic tale of how she sacrificed home and marriage for her only son's life, wasn't that how they billed it? Your book, too: Fallen Angel: Twenty Tormented Years with the Dark Lord's Lieutenant. Not exactly the title someone who was being reticent about family matters would choose, hmm? No, Narcissa, you can't use your family when the publicity suits you - how is Fragrance deVries doing, by the way? - and then scream foul as soon as we find something which you think might spoil your carefully drawn picture."
Mrs Longbottom sniffed. "Neat explanation, I'll give you that. However, I can't see how it explains why you're dragging Neville into it. He's no celebrity."
"He will be by Sunday afternoon," Camilleri said cheerfully. "At least down Canal Street." Camilleri took a further glance at the photograph. "Shame about the trunks," he added thoughtfully.
Mrs Longbottom glared at him, and reverted to the main attack.
"Anyway, what's wrong with hypocrisy? A bit of hypocrisy's needed to grease the wheels of life. Makes the world go round."
"As does money, of course," Narcissa added.
Rita's smile broadened, but still did not reach her eyes.
"You wouldn't, be any chance, be asking me how much the Prophet would accept not to run the story?"
"No, she isn't," Mrs Longbottom snapped. All three of them looked at her in surprise, and Narcissa's mouth began to form an 'O' of denial. Mrs Longbottom gestured impatiently with her wand hand.
"I know how much trouble the Prophet group's in. You did yourselves no favours during Recent Events, did you, backing the Ministry long after most of your readers had realised Fudge was a spineless worm? Then when you did cotton on, you panicked - did nothing but run editorials about our only hope being trying to make the best surrender terms we could with You Know Who. Those "Goblins - the enemy within?" stories must have put a percentage point or two on your overdraft interest rate, as well. No wonder the Prophet's share price is at its lowest for ten years."
Mrs Longbottom paused for breath.
"Now with this story - you must be betting that this will double your circulation for this Sunday, and I daresay you've got a follow up planned for next week. Goodness only knows what kind of advertising you've been able to sell on the back of it. All things considered, I reckon you'd be a fool to pull the story for anything less than a half a million Galleons. Believe me, no-body's embarrassment's worth that kind of money."
There was a pause. Camilleri broke it.
"You seem to know a lot about our business."
"There's a saying in these parts: "Where there's muck, there's brass." Accordingly, our family has always taken care to have newspapers well represented in our investment portfolio. You might care to mention to your editor that the market wouldn't react at all well if a significant bloc of Prophet shares hit the markets - say, tomorrow at nine."
Rita paled. Camilleri smiled cheerfully at her.
"Now you wouldn't do that, would you, Mrs Longbottom?"
"And why not, young man?"
"To begin with, I suspect it's against your religion to sell on a falling market. Secondly, once you've sold, any leverage you have as shareholder vanishes; we run the story, the share price rises and you've lost the opportunity to get the value of it. Sounds pretty much no win to me."
"Hmph. Well, at least you're not as green as you're cabbage looking."
"Can we get on?" Rita Skeeter asked irritably. "Would you say, Narcissa, that Draco's inclinations are a result of the influence of his father?"
Mrs Longbottom nodded sagely. "Wouldn't surprise me. After all, they invented it, didn't they - the aristocracy?"
She pursed her lips.
"Homo-sex-u-ality, of course."
Rita Skeeter bit completely through the end of her quill, Narcissa gazed into the middle distance with the Look that Celestina Warbeck had once described as 'having the serene remote beauty of an Alaskan peak" and Rita had dubbed "the stunned albatross expression", and Camilleri bent over his photographic kit, apparently suffering from an acute sneezing fit. Mrs Longbottom straightened the vulture by half an inch or so, smiled in a satisfied way, and said,
"Anyway, I mustn't interfere. Do go on."
Rita muttered something under her breath, refixed her smile, and said,
"Well, what do you think, Narcissa? Some sort of unresolved Freudian conflict there, do you think?"
Narcissa looked blank.
"He was what the Muggles call a trickcyclist," Mrs Longbottom informed her helpfully. "My Frank - Neville's father, that is - read all his stuff when he was training to be an Auror - said he was trying to work out what turned people into Death Eaters. I could hardly make head or tail of it, but I will say that Freud man had some ideas about broomsticks which I wouldn't care to repeat in mixed company."
Rita Skeeter bit through her second quill and made a noise of sheer exasperation. Mrs Longbottom leaned inquisitively towards the parchment on Rita's lap where her notes were beginning to take shape.
A tear glistens like a perfect diamond in the corner of Narcissa deVries's eye. Her voice scarcely above a whisper, she breathes "I feel Draco is looking for an emotional outlet he missed in his relationship with his father. Lucius was always so reserved, so inadequate at expressing his feelings for his son.
"You can't write that," Mrs Longbottom interjected. Rita glared at her.
"And why not?"
"Well, to begin with, it's daft. Everyone knows that Lucius Malfoy tried to murder young Draco. Now, personally I think that's a dreadful way to treat your own flesh and blood, but whatever the man's faults were, you can't accuse him of hiding how he felt about his lad."
Narcissa gave a sudden sob, and Emily Longbottom patted her reassuringly on the shoulder.
"Oh, I'm sorry, love. I didn't mean to reopen old wounds."
Rita gritted her teeth.
"Old wounds. Exactly," she hissed. " Perhaps, on balance, we oughtn't to be talking about possible Oedipal influences. Maybe the myth we should be talking about is - Clytemnestra, perhaps?"
Narcissa looked up from under her eyelashes.
"I was so dim at Hogwarts. My top mark was Care of Magical Creatures, best-kept Diricawl, you know. Who was Clytemnestra?"
Camilleri fixed his eyes on his colleague.
"Rita, dear," he breathed, "would you be implying that Draco is suffering from Oresteid development?"
"I think," Rita said, "you all know what I'm talking about. It's what our readers are interested in, after all. Narcissa: you must know that most people assume that you killed your husband. It seems your son may have reached the same view. What else explains his getting as far away as possible and concealing his whereabouts from you (oh, yes, I know all about that so-called owl from Paris)? Why else would he avoid confiding in you about his boyfriend, and let you have the shock of finding out about it from the papers? Would you care to give the Prophet your perspective on Recent Events, Narcissa?"
Camilleri sat back in his chair, allowing the shadows in the room to obscure his suddenly deeply worried expression.
Bloody hell. Here was I thinking that she was just being the muckraking back stabbing bitch we all know and loath, when she pulls this one out of the bag. This isn't journalism: this is personal.
Narcissa's tone was utterly dead.
"If you are proposing to imply anything of the kind in your filthy rag, I hope you are prepared for the consequences."
Rita's smile reached her ears.
"I have my editor's full backing. If there is anything in the story as published to which you object, no doubt your lawyers will be talking to our lawyers. If, of course, at the end of the day you decide that you haven't grounds to bring proceedings then I'm sure you'll agree that it would be only fair for us to inform our readers of that and allow them to draw their own conclusions."
There was silence in the drawing room. From the hall, the strokes of the grandfather clock striking the hour came like a church bell at a funeral. Mrs Longbottom sat up even straighter on the horsehair chair.
"Let me get this straight," she said. "You're planning to imply that Narcissa here killed her husband, and Draco found out about it and ran off to the Tropics with our Neville as a result. Then, you're going to wait and see if Narcissa sues you. If she does, you make another story out of being sued, and get to repeat the whole thing again in court where you get a free pass to say what the devil you like and quote it in the paper afterwards. If she doesn't sue you, you run another story about 'why is she too scared to challenge the first story?'. Well, I can't say I like your morals, but you've got a good notion of how to boost circulation, I'll say that for you."
Rita looked even more like a crocodile after a particularly good lunch.
"If I were you," Mrs Longbottom continued, "I'd get on your knees and pray to whatever you do pray to that Narcissa does serve a Writ on you."
Camilleri leaned forward, and caught Mrs Longbottom's eye.
"And why would that be?"
"Work it out for yourself, young man. The Prophet's logic seems to be that if it isn't true she'll sue, and if she doesn't sue, it must be true. Which means that if she doesn't sue you've just made an enemy of a witch who was powerful enough to take out You Know Who's right hand man in his own headquarters, clever enough to do it without being suspected by anyone who saw the body, and cute enough to do it in a way which meant she and her boy got to keep the family home and all Lucius Malfoy's money. If you live as long as I have, young man, you'll find out that there are far worse things than lawyers."
Narcissa bent down and pulled her wand from its mink-lined Fendi wand case, allowing it to droop negligently in her long fingers.
"Scorpions," she muttered. "Invisible scorpions."
Rita had stopped smiling.
"Emily, are you threatening me?"
"No. I'm just applying logic. The difference being, that if it were a threat I might choose to go through with it or not, and you could take a calculated risk. Logic, on the other hand, will catch up with you whatever I do about it."
"Mrs Longbottom - could you let me and my colleague have a few moments to discuss it?"
Emily nodded regally. "We'll be next door. Just call through the fireplace when you want to talk to us again. Come on, Narcissa love."
The two journalists had an indefinably chastened air when Narcissa and Mrs Longbottom returned. Camilleri cleared his throat.
"The last thing the Prophet wishes to do would be to cause any unnecessary distress to a young man who's been so recently bereaved. I think you can take our word for it that the article will not be making any suggestion along the lines we recently - ah - canvassed with you. Now can we get on?"
Narcissa leaned forward.
"Yes - but I have a question for you. Just what would you put in this story if we didn't give you these interviews?"
Unexpectedly, it was Mrs Longbottom who answered. She had, on her return to the room, taken the corner of the sofa previously occupied by Rita Skeeter, and was riffling through some sheets of parchment Rita had left there.
"All sorts of rubbish from their so-called school-friends, it looks like."
"Here, you can't read those! They're confidential! The Prophet protects its sources."
Rita had risen menacingly to her feet, but Mrs Longbottom pinned her back in her chair with a negligent flick of her wand.
"Now, don't do anything you might regret. I'm reading, and I don't like to be disturbed. Betsey! My reading glasses."
They dropped out of mid-air onto Mrs Longbottom's nose. Camilleri, to break what was becoming an awkward silence, said, "You should have encrypted them, Reet."
Rita gritted her teeth.
"I did encrypt them."
Mrs Longbottom looked up over the top of her glasses.
"I reckon the Prophet ought to use something a bit more up-to-date. A first year Arithmancy student could go straight through this one. Spottiswoode's Reversing Sequence, with a minor variant in the fourth and the eighth. Come over here, Narcissa, and read this one. I don't know who she is, but she seems to have it in for young Draco -
'I feel I have simply been used by him as a prop to conceal his real nature. All the time when I was dreaming about the life I hoped we could share together he was cynically manipulating me, casting me as part of his cover story. I look back at all the good times we shared, and ask myself, "Was none of it for real?"'
"No wonder she's a bit miffed. Sounds like she had the wedding planned down to the flowers in her bouquet, and a set of robes that'd look good from the back. Mind you, if she believes any teenage boy who tells her it's marriage he's got on his mind, she'll be lucky if this is the worst trouble she lands herself in. Though finding your young man's run off to a desert island with our Neville would be a turn up for the book, I grant you that."
"That's Pansy Parkinson," Narcissa said distantly. "So far as I'm aware they split up when Draco was sixteen."
"So far as you're aware," Rita said nastily. "After all, he doesn't seem to be big on the mother/son confidences thing, does he? Miss Parkinson - who, I might add, is the daughter of a member of our Board - gave a very full interview about her long and -ah- intimate relationship with your son to our reporter. Some of the -er- details she was prepared to reveal we could hardly use in a family newspaper, but I'm sure her father will be interested in having a private word with Draco on his return to the UK."
"Well, the Prophet will know exactly how far to trust its source," Narcissa said blandly. "However, as during an interminable fortnight Pansy spent at the Manor one summer holidays she amused herself by making pretty explicit come-ons to the master of the house, the Quidditch professional, and the man who came to trim the beaks and toes of the family owls, I don't think it's merely maternal over-protectiveness which makes me unconvinced she has my son's best interests at heart."
There was a pause.
"By the way," Narcissa added, "that was on the record."
"I don't suppose you've any idea who he's been seeing since he was sixteen, if that's true? Absence of other girlfriends not strike you as a bit odd, with hindsight, eligible young man like him?"
"There's been a war on for most of the last three years. Romantic entanglements have hardly been the first things on anyone's mind."
"Come off it, Narcissa. Danger makes people more likely to fall into each other's arms, not less."
"She's right, you know," Mrs Longbottom put in. "I saw that with both the big Muggle wars, as well as with You Know Who's two efforts. I expect you've noticed it a lot in your line of work, Miss Skeeter. In fact, I daresay you've had a few invitations that you'd never have reckoned on being offered if it hadn't been for Recent Events."
Rita was running out of facial grimaces. Mrs Longbottom turned back towards the parchments. "Oh - I like this one:
'Of course Neville isn't my boyfriend. He never has been. We've been to the Yule Ball together a couple of times, is all. Shocked? Yes, of course I'm shocked. I'd be shocked if any friend of mine was going out with Draco Malfoy. Well, I suppose if your secret source tells you so he may be fantastic in bed, but only an absolute sweetie like Neville who tries to see the good in everybody would be prepared to persevere past the shitty personality for long enough to find out. Look, since you're likely to see Draco before I do could you tell him from me that if he does anything - anything at all - to make Neville regret it I shall personally pull his guts up out through his gullet and tie them into a big floppy bow round his neck. After that I'll get out my wand and do something really unpleasant to him.'
"We weren't thinking of using that one," Camilleri said. "Doesn't quite fit the Prophet house style. In fact, I think you'll find that the rest of them comprise some rather emphatic no comments, a few samples of semi-pornographic fiction, not especially well spelt, and an imaginative and rather enchanting little excursion signed by someone calling themselves Gred which purports to be an eyewitness account of something seen in the broomstick closet at Hogwarts starring Draco, supported by two individuals called Crabbe and Goyle (who I believe were both casualties on You Know Who's side during Recent Events), with the late Minster for Magic, the Hogwarts Potions Master, four Crups and a Puffskein taking assorted bit parts. That one would undoubtedly represent the journalistic scoop of the century (though not, as Rita puts it, in a family newspaper) if any of us could believe a word of it. I understand some of the news room are planning to dramatise it for the Christmas party."
"I see," Narcissa said levelly. "No doubt you'll be sending me an invitation."
Camilleri smiled back at her.
"Delighted, I'm sure. Oh, and I forgot - the final parchment was a rather desperate statement from some character called Finch-Fletchley to the effect that he did not have sexual relations with your son. Strictly entre nous I suspect he's hoping to be disbelieved."
Narcissa drew a deep breath.
"Well, while we were next door, Mrs Longbottom and I had a talk. It seems to us that this interview isn't really getting any of us anywhere, although I, for one, have been quite fascinated by what the Prophet planned to say if we had not agreed to meet you. I shall certainly ask my agent to bear in mind the Prophet's apparent standpoint on some issues when considering interview requests in the future. Anway, we've decided to issue a joint statement to the Prophet. This is it, and it's all you're getting."
She nodded to Mrs Longbottom, who pulled a piece of parchment from the sleeve of her robes, and began.
"In our view this is not a proper news story. Furthermore, we have to deplore anyone who sticks a long range lens into what two young adults choose to do on a private beach during the first few days of relaxation they've been able to take following a vicious war in which they were both combatants, and suffered heavy personal losses.
"We'd prefer the Prophet didn't run it, but we can see that in a straight choice between prurient and distressing muckraking and declining circulation figures, considerations of good taste will naturally end up taking a back seat. But we wish to state that the deVries and the Longbottom families have had close family and business ties for a very long time, and we seriously advise the Prophet not even to try driving a wedge between us over this so-called story. It takes two to tango, in our experience, and that's how we propose to treat it.
"Finally, we would like to stress that we see this as a family matter. Family means not washing dirty linen in public. Family also means giving support, and hoping your children and grandchildren find happiness, even if in your own personal view - and we stress this is an entirely general observation not to be taken to refer to any particular set of circumstances - they seem to be looking for it in some bloody strange places."
She took a deep breath.
"Well, I think that wraps it up. Betsey! Show the people from the Prophet out."
When the door had finally locked shut behind them Emily Longbottom returned to the living room, where Narcissa had slipped her high-heeled shoes off and curled up on a corner of the sofa. Her shoulders drooped with utter exhaustion.
"You'll be staying the night," Emily Longbottom said abruptly. "I've had Betsey put a hot water bottle in the bed in the Blue Room. I'll send her to collect your overnight things from the Manor. Anything special you need?"
Narcissa looked up gratefully. "You couldn't ask her to pick up an owl from the Owlery, could you? Tell her to bring Maximilian, if he's rested; he's the best of our Search & Deliver birds."
The fire in the bedroom had sunk to glowing embers, and everyone else in the house had gone to bed. Narcissa pulled a sheet of parchment towards her, and dipped her quill in the small bottle she always carried in her vanity case. Recipes for the right ink for Howlers varied from family to family, but her grandmother's belladonna and pangolin bile mixture had always worked for her.
Draco, you horrid little hedonistic brat, there are times when I wish I'd left your father to it and saved myself a heap of trouble. How you got through Recent Events with a whole skin if you don't even have the brains to run a few Intrusion detection charms over the shrubbery before deciding to go exploring your boyfriend's tonsils on the beach I find hard to imagine. If they have newspapers wherever it is you are (and I have to add I don't remember the Seine having palm fringed beaches, though I'm told the Muggles have a concept called Global Warming which I daresay may account for it) you'll know by now that you and Neville have made the front page of the Prophet. I can't say they've caught either of you from the best angle, and I won't even mention those trunks. I've been doing damage limitation back here for all it's worth, but that Skeeter cow is seriously out for blood. I suggest you two get yourselves home at once before she surprises us all with next week's fascinating instalment.
Yr loving mother
PS: IMPORTANT - did you at any time propose to Pansy Parkinson? If so, does she have any hard evidence of it?
PPS Kindly let Neville know that a really annoyed note from his grandmother follows by separate owl.