Intended as guidance for the wise, not the obedience of fools: Northern Caves
For the first time Melanie's thoughts became muddled, swirled in patterns, refused to stabilise even when she tried to fix them, fiercely, upon the metronymic regularity of the drips from the end of the pipe to the hole in the floor. That had never failed her before. Her vision became blurred. The temperature, too - someone must be doing things to the central heating. It swung, bizarrely, from tropical to arctic and back again. She ought to get up and stop them doing it. It must be so hard on the dogs, poor things, in their furry coats. Someone should tell the person in charge of the central heating that it was distressing the dogs.
"The hare, in spite of fur, was very cold." she muttered.
She cowered back against the bed at the sound of another voice, even though it was not one of those she recognised as belonging to her captors. Its owner appeared within her field of vision, and bent over her. A woman: sculptured cheek-bones making her face an artist's dream of planes and angles. Short pale blond hair forming a fitting frame for the sheer elegance of her features: long white robes falling in classic folds to the floor.
Well, I told them I couldn't go on losing that much blood indefinitely.
There was a perverse sense of satisfaction about the thought: as though the suspension of natural laws on her behalf had been troubling her for too long, and the resumption of the proper order brought her mind into much-needed balance.
The angel bent down out of her direct line of sight, apparently looking at something at the side of the bed. Whatever she spotted there was evidently not to the angel's liking: in a beautifully modulated voice she gave expression to a startling torrent of language, which caused Melanie to raise her eyebrows. Heaven's standards on such matters, it seemed, were significantly laxer than her mother's.
"You'd better take the blood drain out now," the angel reported across her body to someone unseen. "They've been putting the potion into her other arm. And they've either been remarkably stingy with it or they've been drawing one hell of a lot of blood out of her."
"Eleven and a half pints since Wednesday lunchtime," Melanie said helpfully. Clearly angels had to fill in forms like everyone else, and it was up to her to co-operate with the admission formalities so far as lay in her power. And then, because she valued accuracy and presumed that angels must do, also - otherwise, why all that fuss about the pinheads? - she added,
"That's a bit approximate, I'm afraid. I think I slightly lost count just now."
Immensely long fingers rested for a moment on her wrist, as though feeling for a pulse, which seemed odd.
"I'm not surprised. Now, don't try and sit up for a bit, you'll only faint."
Melanie struggled to raise her head a little, and the angel-woman put one palm on her forehead and pushed her firmly back down on the bed.
"Faint? I - I assumed I was dead."
"Well, don't sound so disappointed," the angel-woman said. "It makes your rescuers feel all unwanted."
There was a warm, deep, furry, blissfully familiar Lancashire accent coming from behind her head. It continued:
"She's only a bit confused. Don't hassle her."
"Neville?" She pushed herself successfully up on one elbow, that time, and then gasped as her vision clouded rapidly over. She felt strong arms round her shoulders, and dissolved into a fit of hiccupping sobs against his chest.
"I'm s-sorry to be s-so girly," she spluttered pathetically, noting with concern that even Marvolo and Riddle in their most dribblesome moments would have been hard put to make such a mess of the front of his robes in such a short time. He pulled a handkerchief from one pocket and mopped her up firmly.
"You aren't being girly. Howl all you want to. Have a good scream if it makes you feel better. Have several. Throw objects violently at the ceiling. Whatever you want. Whatever you need. You're perfectly entitled. If it makes you feel better, just do it."
"What remarkably sensible advice," the angel-woman said from somewhere besides the bed. "I should take it on board, if I were you."
There was an unexplained edge to her voice. Neville, clearly, had heard her and was deliberately not responding: his arms around Melanie's shoulders were suddenly tense. The angel-woman came into view again, and shrugged.
"Anyway, I could do you a Cheering Charm if it might help. It won't make you any less light-headed, but, with any luck, it should at least make you feel that you got that way due to tobogganing nude down the Cresta Run while licking Dom Perignon off the chest of the Irish Seeker."
Melanie momentarily floundered in bewilderment before she understood. Her remaining blood rushed, hotly, up into her cheeks, and the woman - definitely no angel - grinned impishly down at her confusion. Realisation hit her in a flood.
"You - you're Draco's mother, aren't you?"
Both her rescuers exchanged quick grins. The tense atmosphere she had detected suddenly relaxed.
"I would hate to ask you to explain the thought processes that got you to that conclusion at that precise moment," the blonde woman drawled. "You're perfectly right, of course. Narcissa deVries. At your service."
At this point there was a sudden sound of howling and scraping at the door. Both her rescuers spun round, wands instantly out.
"Oh, not another one," Neville hissed. "The defences to this place are really getting on my nerves. What with rotting samurai and fake cave trolls - "
"To say nothing of those rather bizarre pig shaped things with trunks, that you niftily dropped the Sneezing Hex on," Narcissa added. Neville nodded.
"All I can think about those things is the staff here must have designed them after watching illicit Muggle sci-fi videos while doing some seriously strange potions."
The scraping sound had now been amplified with snuffling.
Narcissa looked dubiously at the door. "I do hope it isn't a Tebo. I've never been good at Tebos."
They both regarded the door intently, knuckles white on wand grips.
"Er, Neville?" Melanie said hesitantly. "I expect it's one of the dogs. They - ah - were kidnapped when we were -actually, I think they were used to bait the trap - and I've been trying to look after them. They both rushed out when the - kidnappers - opened the door to bring me here - no wonder, poor things, with no-one taking them for runs at all - and that does sound like a dog. Honestly."
Somewhat shamefacedly, Neville and Narcissa exchanged glances and then, very cautiously, Neville opened the door. Marvolo bounded in, realised with delight that several of his family pets were gathered there, and leapt up to greet them, barking ecstatically.
"Wonderful," Narcissa sighed. "So much for the idea of a surgical strike with pinpoint security. And we brought the dog, too."
"Speaking of surgery," Melanie said, suddenly realising that the clouds were beginning to lift from her vision and that she was, indeed, feeling a good deal better, "Why aren't I dead? I should be drained of blood, by now."
Narcissa patted her arm reassuringly.
"Whoever's doing this has been putting a potion into you - actually, we're letting the rest of the dose filter into you now, so don't move your left arm too energetically until it's finished - to speed up the body's ability to replace blood loss by about five-fold." Narcissa looked disapprovingly at Melanie's right arm. "Which means, if your numbers are right, that they've still left you quite seriously anaemic. Don't - um - panic too much if you've got less blood around than you might otherwise expect for the next few weeks. And do make sure you eat properly - have they been feeding you, by the way?"
Melanie shuddered involuntarily. Food was not a happy memory of the last two days.
"Well - there's been food. Steak. Liver. Black puddings. That sort of thing. Not - er - anything I actually eat. And I simply couldn't make them understand that I'm a vegetarian - "
Narcissa raised an eyebrow. "No. Well, you don't actually get wizarding vegetarians. It'd be too complicated, what with - "
Her eyes dropped down to Melanie's left side, and she seemed momentarily distracted.
"-One thing and another," she concluded. "You know, I think that stuff's just about finished going into you. Well, promise me you'll eat sensibly for the next few days, won't you? Vegetarian or not. Plenty of iron. Make sure you eat your spinach - god, and there's something I haven't heard myself saying for about ten years or so - "
The deeply worried expression, which Melanie had begun to notice on Neville's face, lightened suddenly.
"I can't believe you ever got Draco to eat vegetables," he said.
Narcissa's answering smile lit her eyes. "Ah, well, one of the unsung benefits of bringing up a kid in a Death Eater household is that the threat "Do as I say, or I'll tell your father and he'll make you," does have some real authority."
He snorted with sudden, inexplicable, laughter. Melanie decided that there was no point in asking for an explanation: not, at any rate, with so many other things in pressing need of elucidation.
"But what did they want all that blood for?" she demanded. "I mean, it wasn't just me, it's been Dudley, too -"
Try as she might, her voice shook a little as she said his name. She caught Neville's concerned glance and set her lips firmly together to stop them trembling.
"Er - who are they?" he asked. She shook her head.
"I'd never seen either of them before. And they wore masks, most of the time. Only they were getting much more careless, today, about that -"
She shuddered. She had read enough thrillers to know that it was not a good sign when the kidnappers allowed you to see their faces.
"But old, young, male, female?"
"Two women. One a good bit older than the other, I'd say. And the older one - she talks to herself."
Narcissa looked at her in a baffled way. "You mean, muttering? But that could be spell casting, you know."
Melanie shook her head. "No. They've got very different voices. The older one's a Londoner, I think. The young one - she sounds a bit Sloaney. But I've heard them through the door here - and outside the place where they've been holding us - and the older one has long conversations with herself. Answering herself, and everything. It's seriously creepy." She shuddered, and changed the subject to one, which if not less gruesome, was at least closer at hand.
"You know, that blood collection can't be for medical purposes - I mean, look how unhygienically they've been collecting the stuff - "
She turned to gesture towards the hole in the floor and drew in her breath with a sudden half-amused, half horrified gasp. At the sound Neville spun on his heel, and with two strides crossed the room to drag Marvolo firmly by his scruff away from his fascinated exploration of the vicinity.
Neville's expression as he looked down at her was truly appalled.
"Melanie, I do apologise for our ghastly dog. I mean, I know he had a disturbed puppy-hood, but that just doesn't excuse - "
He gestured apologetically at Marvolo's exuberantly blood-drenched muzzle and paws. Unconcerned by official disapproval, the spaniel sat down on the floor, and began licking the gore off, thoroughly and appreciatively. Neville batted at him rather ineffectually with his hands. Melanie gave a weak, faintly hysterical giggle.
"Oh, leave him alone. I'm sure he's making better use of my blood than they are. Whatever they're doing with it. Golly, do you suppose they're keeping vampires in the cellar?"
"Possible. But I doubt it. " Neville set his lips in a narrow line. "Well, on the whole, I'd still rather not explain to the Ministry what one of the Manor dogs is doing up to its eyebrows in human blood, if it's all the same to you. Not this week, at any rate. Stop it, you awful creature. I'm sure you haven't starved for two days because you had scruples about eating black puddings."
"Well, not the ones he got to first, anyway," Melanie murmured.
"Engineering," Narcissa said crisply and unexpectedly. Both of them looked at her. Marvolo took the opportunity while Neville was distracted to sidle unobtrusively back to the blood-hole.
"In occult engineering, blood is - " she snapped her fingers " - The approximate equivalent of lubricating oil."
"But it'd clot, and seize the works - " Melanie began. Narcissa looked at her.
"I didn't say it was an exact replacement," she said patiently. "Just that it fulfils the same function. Anyway, you enchant it not to clot. And - er - in really Dark engineering you can use it to kick-start certain sorts of processes. Well, actually, that's true in most occult engineering -"
Neville gave her an intensely sceptical look. "Then what's the difference between Dark and legit applications?"
She blushed. "Well, whether it's the engineer's own blood or - someone else's, actually. Although - ah - even in very respectable occult engineering workshops the apprentices have always been traditionally seen as something of a grey area. But certainly what's been going on here is about as Dark as it gets. Especially since I expect they were banking on topping their collection up with an extra 6 pints or so from each of you by using the Iugulare Curse when they finally decided to kill you."
Suddenly the reek of blood from the corner became oppressive. Melanie choked, suddenly, and almost threw up. Neville looked reproachfully across at Narcissa.
"I do wish, sometimes, pureblood witches and wizards could work out that there are some Muggles who've had the benefit of a classical education," he snapped. "And it is her blood you're talking about."
"Yes." Narcissa looked puzzled. "And that's another thing. I can see why they - whoever they are - might be interested in Dudley's blood. Given his connections. But I can't see - sorry, this isn't intended as an insult, Melanie - why they'd be so interested in yours. Unless you've got magical ancestry you haven't been telling us about? Or at least, that they think you have?"
"No." Melanie was quite definite about that.
"No strange family members no-one talks about any more?" Neville prompted.
Melanie shrugged. "Well, all families have those, don't they? And - as a matter of fact, I don't actually remember my father at all."
Both Neville and Narcissa looked hopeful, and then appeared to have mentally decided to substitute "Tactfully Interested" for "Hopeful" at the same moment. She suppressed a giggle at their contorted expressions. She shook her head.
"Sorry to disappoint you," she said. "My mother told me he ran off with the barmaid from the Dog and Duck when I was about one. I really don't think there was any magic involved. And believe me, if she'd thought there had been any sort of funny business, I'm sure my mother would have mentioned it."
Narcissa assumed a thoughtful expression. "Well, that looks bad, then."
"I really do not like the idea of these characters going around collecting random samples of blood in huge quantities. It - somehow doesn't suggest that precision engineering is what they have in mind. We'd better get moving."
Reluctantly Melanie swung herself off the bed and to the floor. Her legs were weak, but she could stand, just. Neville looked at her with concern and offered her an arm.
"Sure you can manage?"
She gritted her teeth. "I've got to, haven't I? I'm not having my blood used for black magic without so much as trying to stop them."
Neville patted her shoulder. There was something unreadable in his expression.
"Good girl. You have got guts, you know."
She cast an eye around the room, and wrinkled her nose. "Even if they do look as though they're mostly littering the floor at the moment."
"That's what I mean. That's - impressive - after two days in - um - effectively the condemned cell. Believe me."
His smile was too evidently a self-conscious effort to warm her. It failed: she shivered suddenly.
Ah, yes. The condemned cell. If you have to be there, always try to be the condemned man. There are, believe me, much worse things to be.
Such as, say, for instance, the whore d'oeuvres before the hearty breakfast.
She moved onwards into the facility with a set expression, which acknowledged nothing and conceded nothing.
"Alohomora," Hermione muttered. The door stayed obstinately shut.
"Stands to reason, I suppose, that they've put some added security on it, " Chris sighed. "The way that charm's been over-used, it practically stopped being worth locking doors at all during Recent Events. We'd better go for something more drastic. Stand back."
He raised his own wand.
The door crumbled into dust before him. At the far end of the room the prisoner turned round as they entered, and dived to the floor in an apparent attempt to hide under the bed.
Hermione addressed his protruding backside as the only part visible. He gibbered something inaudible. She sighed, and spoke slowly and clearly.
"Dudley, don't be afraid. We're here to rescue you. I'm a friend of Harry's."
His eyes blinking suspiciously, he emerged slowly and looked at them both.
"About bloody time," Dudley snarled. "I suppose Harry told you there was no need to hurry. He would."
Chris fell back half a pace. Hermione took in the general scene of disorder in what she suspected would, in the palmy days of the research facility's prosperity, have once been a decent, if Spartan, studio flat for a senior research director, and started unobtrusively performing a few housekeeping charms.
"You've no idea the awful things they've been doing to me," Dudley ranted on. "And I've been practically starved, too. And you obviously just decided to take your time about getting here."
Camilleri unslung his camera bag.
"If you could just keep that look of defiant desperation," he said briskly "Our readers will like it. Yes, curl your lip just a bit more. Perfect."
Dudley glared at him. "What readers?"
Camilleri took a few shots before answering. "Daily Prophet. Britain's largest circulation wizarding newspaper. Now, this isn't usually my department, but as I don't have anyone else to do it for me, I'll just have to manage solo. What would you say kept you going during your ordeal?"
Dudley folded his arms. "I'm not telling you anything which'll be read by those perverts and weirdos. I want to get out of here, and I want to go now. So there."
" 'My one ambition is to be reunited with my family,' " Chris translated rapidly, pulling out a small parchment block and scribbling on it. Hermione giggled, earning herself another black look from Dudley.
"Chris!" she protested weakly. "Don't you think we'd better try and find Melanie, to say nothing of whoever did the kidnapping, before sitting down to get the exclusive interviews?"
Chris looked at her in a faintly baffled way. "Hermione, has it ever occurred to you to reassess your priorities? This is an historic event. Here I am - a journalist - and I'm actually making news."
"As opposed, say, to making it up, as you usually do?"
His expression was so unexpectedly hurt that she patted him on the arm, and said relentingly,
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean that personally. It's just - well, I haven't had the pleasantest time at the hands of one or two of your colleagues, you know. It's left me a bit sensitive about the Prophet."
His sudden grin was understanding. "I take it you mean our Rita?"
She nodded. Dudley seemed to be cogitating; his mouth hung open momentarily, and he rotated the end of his little finger in his left ear. Then he said slowly:
"Funny, that's not a name you hear much these days. I expect people have realised how common it sounds. But that's what she's called, too."
Both of them turned to look at him. Chris, true to his training, got the question out first.
Dudley looked surprised. "One of those hags who've been holding me prisoner, of course. The younger one called her Rita accidentally this morning, and I thought she was going to be turned into a frog right in front of me. You people are all mad. Something ought to be done. If I had my way, you should be stamped out."
He maundered on, unstoppable and unheard. Meanwhile, Chris and Hermione were looking at each other in sheer horror. Hermione gave that horror voice.
"She has had remarkable strokes of luck getting breaks on this story," Chris muttered to himself, his face ashy. "Uncanny, I thought so at the time."
Hermione, scarcely less pale, gazed back at him.
"Making news, not making it up?"
As one, they turned towards the door. Then Chris, recollecting something, turned back. "Come with us," he ordered Dudley. "It isn't safe for you to be wandering around alone. In fact, the way things are going, I don't think it's safe for me to be wandering around alone. By the way, if anything leaps out and start firing hexes at us, the safest place for you to stand will be between me, and whatever it is. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but that's magic for you."
Dudley was still whining unstoppably in the rear of the party as they left the flat and advanced into the bowels of the facility.
At the bottom of the cliff the cave system opened out into a boulder-strewn space which formed the antechamber to a vast cavern, reached through an archway the size of a cathedral door, which was crammed with stalactites and stalagmites of all sizes, columns of limestone twisted into fantastic shapes and rippling sheets of multi-coloured frozen rock. Even the water dripping from the ceiling gave out pure musical notes as the drips landed on the exquisite limestone sculptures below. Martin sighed appreciatively.
"Wow," he breathed appreciatively, "the boys from the Club will never believe their eyes when I bring them here."
Draco deliberately and slowly swept him with a look of sheer disbelief.
"As I think I recall telling you till I was blue in the face, this is a back way in to the Dark Lord's top secret underground research facility. It should be regarded as strictly a once in a lifetime experience, even in the lifetimes of very unfortunate people. It is not - repeat not - a suitable location for any sort of caving club jaunt whatsoever."
"But just look at those stalactites!"
Gesturing enthusiastically, Martin stepped under the arch into the second cavern. The stalactite which hurled itself out of nowhere like a javelin missed impaling him by inches, and shattered into millions of tiny spars on the rock floor behind him. He leapt back into the antechamber. Draco felt he deserved a medal for not allowing the words "I told you so" to pass his lips. Mrs Longbottom gave a knowing snort. Martin stared in appalled disbelief through the archway.
"Using a stalactite as a weapon? Did this - Dark Lord - guy have any idea - any idea at all - how many hundreds of years it takes to form one of that size? Hooligan! Vandal! Philistine!"
Draco exhaled. "Yes. As I told you. Seriously evil guy. Not eco-friendly at all. Didn't care one iota how much mess he made of the environment if it advanced his plans for world domination. Got that, right? Good."
"Well, that is a bit of a facer and no mistake," Mrs Longbottom observed, looking across into the second cavern. "I mean, you can see how the passage continues on, but getting past them stalagmites will be a bugger if they all start doing that at us. Now, Draco, Neville tells me you used to be quite a useful Seeker. D'you reckon if you get on your broom and zigzag like a bat out of hell across that cavern you can work out how to stop them doing that, from the other side, if you do manage to get through? "
Draco opened his mouth, but Martin got in quicker. "Mrs Longbottom!" He protested, "that's completely unthinkable."
"You can say that again," Draco said. "I might be a bit unclear about my long-term life ambitions, but I can assure you "pincushion" has never been one of them."
"And think of the wanton destruction of a unique underground environment that would result from any attempt to do that," Martin added earnestly. "It would be wholly unjustifiable, even if by some freak chance he survived."
Draco glared at him. Martin chuntered obliviously on.
"There must be a way round; give me a few minutes."
Draco and Mrs Longbottom exchanged glances. Without heeding them, Martin started scouting hopefully around the antechamber, tapping, listening to and even, Draco thought, sniffing its limestone walls. In a very few minutes they heard his whoop of triumph. He gestured enthusiastically at an unobtrusive opening at least 70 centimetres high by 60 centimetres wide, which was about two and a half metres above them in the rock wall nearest the archway.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised if that wasn't the start of a perfectly plausible alternative route through. And, of course, as the passage will have been unexplored before we go through it, I might even get it named after me in the next edition of Northern Caves when I've written the note for this one up. Think of that."
"Hm. Of course, if it turns into a cul-de-sac that's too narrow to back out of, then they can always call it Daft Git's End, instead," Draco murmured, gesturing politely in an "After-You" sort of way at the rock face. Mrs Longbottom rolled up her sleeves and favoured Martin with a look of steely determination.
"I don't think it's sensible you risking getting yourself stuck in that hole, just for the sake of two lines in some book only some silly-looking nutters will ever read. And even if you are right about it being a route through, you certainly don't know what else there might be in that tunnel, that you aren't equipped to deal with."
"Too true," Draco observed. "Believe me, the Dark Lord was not the kind of guy who'd leave a crucial back route into his facility guarded only by an incompetent Acromantula with a hidden agenda."
Mrs Longbottom drew a deep breath.
"Well, then, I suggest you both leave this one to an expert."
Before Martin could protest, Mrs Longbottom had vanished and been replaced by a miniscule bat, which fluttered determinedly up to the hole and through it. Martin turned to Draco.
"Golly. And to think I've actually been calling Neville's grandmother a mad old bat for years. Not - er - to her face, of course. Can you do that, too?"
Draco shook his head.
"No. Furthermore, I have absolutely no inclination to learn how. And what's more, I didn't know she could, either. Mind you, I agree with you. Best evidence I've seen in years that their animal forms do reflect Animagi's basic personality traits."
He looked thoughtfully up at the hole through which she had vanished.
There followed a tense wait, which felt far longer than, in truth, it was. Draco had talked Martin for the third time out of climbing up to the hole ("Just to have a bit of a preliminary exploration") by the time a weary bat fluttered out of it, and changed back into a dishevelled Emily Longbottom.
"Well?" Draco demanded. She nodded. He spotted a gleam of savage triumph in her eyes.
""Nothing untoward in that tunnel. At least, not now. It's a bit narrow when you first go in, and there's a couple of steep bits, but nothing that's any worse than a bit of a scramble for a couple of young energetic lads. I suggest you get weaving."
Without waiting for an answer, she turned herself back into a bat, and vanished again.
The tunnel, despite Mrs Longbottom's assurances, was narrow and tortuous: partly blocked by loose boulders, and crossed by numerous icy watercourses, least two of which filled the chamber to within half a metre of the roof. Draco scrambled along, hampered by his robes, cursing fluently under his breath, and assumed from Martin's ecstatic squeaks and exclamations ahead of him, that its twists and turns, pitches and claustrophobically tight squeezes presented something uniquely perilous even in his extensive experience of subterranean danger and discomfort. They came at last, however, though not unscathed, out into a small rock chamber where it was just possible to stand upright, and where Mrs Longbottom was waiting for them. She gestured towards a low opening in one corner.
"That's the last leg. Not a lot to it. But I thought I'd better wait for you here. You should know there are some funny noises coming out of that hole, that weren't there when I came through the first time."
Draco raised his eyebrows, and dropped to his knees on the rock floor, listening through the aperture. There was, certainly, a strange gasping or panting noise, occasionally muffled and occasionally amplified by quirks of acoustics in the rock passage through which it was being funnelled.
"It sounds like -" he said doubtfully, but before he could finish his sentence Riddle shot out of the tunnel, both ears flopping madly behind him with the speed of his passing, and leapt bodily into Draco's arms. A long pink tongue shot out and started giving him a thorough, messy, and unscheduled face wash.
Draco stood up violently, still clasping Riddle in his arms, and narrowly missed bashing his head on the low rock roof.
"Look at this! The unspeakable bastards actually had the nerve to kidnap my dogs as well," he declared passionately. "Anything could have happened to them in a place like this. And god only knows where the other one is, or what state he's in. Now that's just wrong. I'm going to find who's responsible, and make them pay for this."
He strode determinedly towards the exit tunnel. Mrs Longbottom coughed, dryly. "You've no call to go marding that dog. Last time I looked it had four perfectly good paws of its own."
He glared at her across Riddle's forehead. She glared back. Impasse. Her gaze dropped (though hardly, surely, in an acknowledgement of defeat) and fixed itself instead on the dog. Riddle gave Draco's face a final lick, and then wriggled demurely out of his arms and down onto the floor. The spaniel gave Emily Longbottom a single backwards glance, and then padded ahead of them - with a suspicion of a slink in his walk - into the passage. She smiled, a deeply satisfied smile. Draco grimaced back.
"After you," he breathed. Mrs Longbottom ducked her head, and followed Riddle through into the main body of the facility.
The rock passage came out in the side wall of a passage within the facility, where the walls were of dressed masonry rather than raw rock. Narcissa, Neville and Melanie, who was holding Marvolo firmly by the collar, waited as the three pot-holers (to say nothing of Riddle) extricated themselves laboriously past the remains of the metal grille, which had once, apparently, shut the tunnel entrance from the rest of the facility.
"Hello, darling," Narcissa greeted her son rather breathlessly. "Mrs Longbottom told me you were on your way." She gave him a faintly doubtful look. "Hm. Those robes don't seem to have stood up to your journey any too well."
Draco gave his mother a speaking glance, and indicated Martin. "Yes. Well, when you decided we were going to play this one in traditional gear, I don't suppose you banked on my being dragged through every crevice in this bloody hillside at the heels of someone who only has to spot an unfeasibly small and constricted opening to be off down it, like a demented - um - a demented - "
He circled his hand in the air as though hoping to pluck a suitable metaphor from it.
"Ferret?" Melanie hazarded helpfully. The reaction she got was extraordinary. Both Draco and Narcissa braced themselves back against the wall, looking rather as though they'd been stuffed. Neville said gently, "Ah, Melanie? It's a bit of a quirk, I know, but in this family we don't - er - tend to use the "F" word."
This comment struck her as completely baffling. She began:
"But I - "
"Anyway, like a demented animal that goes down holes a lot but isn't any sort of member of the weasel family at all whatsoever. Anyway, it doesn't matter. What the hell's happened to Marvolo? He's all over blood. If those bastards have - "
"Actually," Melanie said diffidently, "it's mine. The blood, I mean."
He shot her a deeply worried look. "I'm sure he didn't mean - "
Melanie shook her head vigorously. "No - er, he didn't do anything. It - um - got spilt, and he - er, got into it. By accident."
It was apparent for his expression that Draco was entirely familiar with the sort of accidents his dogs could bring off given half a chance. He gave her another intensely sceptical look, and obviously decided to change the subject. "Anyway, what do we do next?"
Mrs Longbottom snorted. "Well, we were coming to that. It seems clear from what Narcissa's been telling me that these people have been collecting enough blood to set off something very big and very nasty. Luckily, they're probably banking on collecting another 12 pints or so from Melanie here and this Dudley in the final push, so odds are whatever they've built isn't ready to set off yet."
Narcissa unrolled her parchment again.
"Our betting is that the Whateveritis will be in the room immediately under where we found Melanie linked up to the blood drain and replenishment system. That is, here."
One long nail, the varnish not even chipped, tapped the parchment briskly in the appropriate place.
"That would be the most elegant engineering solution, because you would have a straight gravity-driven drop, allowing the blood to go straight to the -thing - in real time. As it was collected. We've also considered here - " The nail indicated another, larger space on the upper area. "That appears to have been the facility's major test bed and demonstration area, when it was - er - in regular use. However, we've ruled it out. For one thing, it's a much less convenient place to get the blood to. Getting it from where it was collected would need a thaumatulurgical pumping system of considerable complexity, and quite a lot of spell-power to avoid congealment issues in the bends. If they had been building the device there the obvious place to put the hostages for blood collection would have been here."
The nail clicked down, again, on a different location on the plan. Without warning, the tiny sound assumed a sudden, horrific significance. The air became unnaturally hot and oppressive around her. Melanie gulped, and hoped none of the others had spotted the sudden betrayal of weakness. Then, she became suddenly aware of an intense grey glance from across the circle grouped around the parchment.
"I think you'd be better off out of earshot of this lot, " Draco said firmly, moving over to catch her elbow and ease her away from the group. He half-walked, half-carried her briskly round a couple of bends of the corridor, ignoring her half-hearted squeaks of protest, and pushed her gently down to a sitting position against the wall. He flopped down onto the floor next to her. The dogs bounded up cheerfully and licked her hands. The chill air breathing through the corridor began to revive her a little.
"Thanks." She blinked back tears. "I'm sorry to be such a nuisance."
Draco raised an eyebrow. "Nuisance? Far from it. Cast iron excuse to get myself out of a situation that was rapidly becoming untenable, more like. Furthermore, though ma knows me too well to be fooled, it had the added bonus of giving Neville's grandmother the wholly spurious impression that I have the instincts of a gentleman."
"You can say that again," a voice from above their heads observed. "I've just copped a short, but perfectly formed ticking off for not spotting that Melanie was looking unwell and doing something about it myself."
Melanie looked up. There was an odd, twisted expression about Neville's lips, which was shaped like a smile while, at the same time, having almost nothing in common with one.
"But that's simply not fair - " she began hotly. Neville shrugged.
"Who said anything about fair? We're talking families, here." He paused for a moment, and then slid down to sit on the floor next to Draco. "Here: this dropped out of your duffle onto the van floor, and I'd been meaning to give it you back. Melanie looks like she could use a drink. As you probably gathered, she's had a difficult couple of days."
Draco stretched out his hand for the proffered hip flask and poured whisky into three of the little cups. He pushed two towards Neville and Melanie. He looked at Neville and raised an eyebrow.
"Ah? Then you're both making me feel indecently healthy and inordinately lucky."
Their eyes met. Draco's rough and soaking scramble through the tunnels had left his hair in tangles around his face. Neville stretched out a hand and brushed it gently back from his forehead.
"Couldn't have us both down at the same time, could we? Who'd organize the rescue?"
Melanie looked up, suddenly. "I'm awfully sorry, you know. I wasn't even thinking straight. What are you two doing on the rescue party at all? I mean, Dudley's been saying how the Ministry were bound to send a party in strength to collect him, given his important wizarding relations - well, I mean, that's what he's been saying in the intervals of screaming that he's going to die horribly, and that it's all my fault for insisting on rescuing the dogs -"
"Huh?" Draco was not getting this sequence of events at all. Melanie spread her hands, explanatorily.
"The dogs were stuck on a little sort of sandy ledge thing, on a cliff in the Manor grounds - and when I tried to free them - Dudley was holding onto my ankles to stop me falling down the cliff - we all just sort of whirled away, and landed here. And we've been waiting to be rescued ever since. But I didn't think you got on with the Ministry - "
Draco stretched out his booted feet and topped up the cups from the hip flask, which, from its weight as he hefted it, looked still to be about half full.
"Mrs P., thou art worth thy weight in rubies," he breathed. Then he looked at Melanie. "Understatement of the year, that. Ministry men have been chasing me across England, trying to kill me since early Thursday morning. And if it hadn't been for your - I mean, our - boss Caitlin, they'd have succeeded."
Melanie felt her brow wrinkle. "What did she- ? "
Draco's expression had a very faint air of smugness about it. "She spotted that I was the right man to organise this rescue mission. For the first time in my life, someone actually decided I was employable. So - you can tell your boyfriend -"
Involuntarily her insides twisted within her. She concealed a shiver.
"That he can wait for the Ministry guys to get here if he likes, but if he wants to get out now, he'd better realize that as far as this rescue team's concerned, he's just a free bonus offer. I'm actually hired to get you out. If it wasn't for the hassle with the Ministry he's causing me, none of us would have stirred a finger to help him."
She couldn't help it. She dissolved into tears again, her head dropping down onto her knees. The other two seemed, sensibly, to have decided to let her get it out of her system. She could, dimly, hear them talking above her head.
"It's all very well my mother and your grandmother going on about 'elegant engineering solutions'. Until they know who's doing this, they don't know if they're engineers at all, let along elegant ones. But my bet is that ma's wrong. I don't think this is an elegant plot at all. In fact, I think it's a bloody stupid, ludicrously over-complicated plot. Just look at all the fancy, unnecessary bits that have been put into it. Getting a fake picture into the Manor. Smuggling a Portkey onto the Manor grounds. Manipulating bloody Eustace into making his bid for the Longbottom money this year rather than next year, or ten years from now. Doing whatever it was they thought they were up to with that werewolf. Whoever's behind this plot couldn't have made it more Gothic if they'd published it in three volumes and sold it with a free set of turrets and crenallations thrown in."
"Um, I see. And, that means?" Neville sounded interested, ready to be convinced. Draco's tone changed, subtly, apparently gaining in confidence as he realised his argument was falling on receptive ears.
"If you ask me, whatever they're building has got to be in the big showcase room, not in some small bit of the lab that they only chose so they didn't have to send the blood too far. That isn't the way these people think. No - it's going to be splashy, and messy and - and BIG!"
"How very smartly worked out, Mr Malfoy."
The hard, brittle voice from the bend of the corridor surprised all three of them. Their glances shot up. Rita Skeeter leaned against the wall, her wand out, her eyes glittering behind her glasses. Draco's hand stole towards the wand in his own belt. She shook her head; her eyes widened with amusement.
"How sweet. But it won't help you, you know. I have - support - deployed around this facility. Support which none of you incompetents have found yet - and aren't going to find it in time. So, suppose you stun me. Suppose you kill me, for that matter. I'm prepared to risk my life in the cause of Truth. All that will happen when the Ministry arrive is that the scene will be neatly set, and they will, of course, have no doubts whatsoever about the right conclusions to draw. All my notes are written up. My last and greatest story: my last and greatest piece of investigative journalism. I shall have the sort of immortality Lord Voldemort only dreamed of."
There was an impressive rumble, rather like an earthquake, from deep within the hillside. Neville murmured something which Melanie couldn't quite catch; the only word she could distinguish appeared to be "hippo", which scarcely seemed plausible.
Rita paused, irritably. "You are supposed to say 'You're insane: you'll never get away with this!' at that point, you know."
Draco bowed. "Consider it said. Whatever. Go on."
Her smile became more fixed, more deranged.
"It was my tip-off that alerted the Ministry to your implication in three suspected murders. And here are two of the corpses already, all right and tight."
Neville looked at her, and raised his eyebrows. His voice was flat, with the merest trace of something fugitive - perhaps mockery - in it.
" Wreathed is the bull for the sacrifice; and the slayer too stands ready," he murmured.
Her eyes glittered coldly. Without troubling to respond to him, her glance passed over Neville and Melanie and returned to fix itself, insolently, on Draco.
"Killing the third one will be easy. No - correction: killing the third one will be a pleasure."
Her mad grin widened. Her gaze flickered back to Melanie.
"And I expect, Ms Schwartz, you'd be - interested - to know how I'm planning to use your blood. Since you were so co-operative in letting us take so much of it."
Some lingering sense of absurdity bubbled up from deep within her. She stared disbelievingly back at Rita.
Golly. I'd never have betted anyone would ever have cast me as a Bond girl, even if it is only for the death scene. Shame about the script, though.
"Coq au Vin?" she enquired indifferently. There was a three-fold gasp. Rita's full attention snapped onto her. Draco, Melanie could see out of the corner of her eye, was using the distraction to sidle his fingers very unobtrusively towards his wand. Neville, his hands too much in Rita's line of sight to try anything of the sort, was beginning to subtly shift his own position on the floor so as to blanket her view of Draco if she dropped her attention from Melanie.
"Funny girl," Rita snapped. "Well, try laughing at this. When I and my - back-up team - found our way into this facility we found a little parcel that You Know Who never got to deliver. It seems it was just a little bit delayed in beta testing. However, it must have been all ready for him to launch in anger just as our heroic Mr Potter put an end to his career. But - when the Ministry finally gets here as a result of my tip off, they'll find the Doomsday Device has been brought back on line using the blood of the three victims. And you, Mr Malfoy, will be at the controls. Thanks to me, they'll be just in time to avert you bringing off a major disaster. I can't see either your mother or his grandmother talking the Ministry out of killing you on the spot after that one, can you? Especially once I - we've - Obliviated them."
Melanie's strained ears caught a sound from behind Rita. Footsteps, moving towards them fast. And from the opposite direction to the group they had left huddled over the parchment.
Oh god. Please let them be in time.
Rita's head went up. Her eye had caught Draco's move towards his wand, but she already had hers out, and spoke first.
With one agonized gasp all of Neville's breath was forcibly driven from his body. He sank down, purple faced and choking. Draco spun, and caught him before he hit the ground. Rita gave one, final, intensely satisfied smile, and Disapparated. The noise of on-coming footsteps was suddenly loud in Melanie's ears
As Camilleri and Hermione rounded the corner of the passage they heard the distinctive 'pop!' of Disapparation. Neville lay motionless on the floor, grey faced and not apparently breathing.
Draco crouched over him, grabbing frantically at his neck, trying to feel for a pulse, and, from his expression, not finding one. Hermione, alarmed, dived across the passage.
He spun upwards, his lips curled back from his gums, white showing all round his irises.
"See you. There's somewhere I have to be."
He was gone.
Melanie wound one end of a lock of hair frantically around her finger end.
"Aren't you going to do something?"
"Like what?" Hermione was loosening Neville's robes at the neck.
"To stop Draco killing someone."
"Killing someone? Who?"
Melanie gritted her teeth. "Right this moment, I shouldn't imagine he's too fussed."
She turned on her heel and pelted down the passage. The dogs chased enthusiastically in her wake.
Chris looked at Hermione.
"Did you see that? Only a Muggle could be stupid enough to run towards a Dark wizard in that sort of state."
Hermione looked desperately up at Chris.
"For god's sake get me some help. I don't think I can manage on my own."
Camilleri looked down, nodded, and Disapparated. Hermione tossed her wand to one side, and started CPR. There was a rush of air, and Mrs Longbottom was suddenly beside her, wand out. Her face was unreadable.
"Stand back," she said grimly.
She put the end of her wand directly against Neville's breastbone, closed her eyes, and concentrated. There was an intense flash of violet light, and Mrs Longbottom staggered back, grey faced and sweating. Neville did not move. His grandmother inhaled, sharply, repositioned her wand and looked across at Hermione.
"I'll need to lean on your shoulder. Got your wand? Hold it parallel with mine, and don't flinch."
Her bony fingers clawed down onto Hermione's collarbone. Hermione braced herself. Mrs Longbottom paused, gripped harder, pointed her wand, and spoke. The violet light danced between the two wands, and down into Neville's body. The recoil shuddered up Hermione's wrist, but she held steady with an enormous effort.
A yell of pure pain broke from Neville's lips as he inhaled. His eyes opened.
"Where's Draco?" he gasped.
Mrs Longbottom gathered her breath. Her hair was hanging lankly about her face, and she looked forty years older, but she was still every inch the head of the family.
"We'll look after young Draco. You're in no fit state to worry about him. We've got to get you out of here, back to the house, and put you to bed."
Neville struggled up into a sitting position. "Hermione?"
"He's gone after - whoever did that."
Neville brushed a hand across his forehead. "Rita Skeeter. I know - where she was going - main demonstration room of the lab - I've got to get after him - give me my wand -"
Hermione, her eyes on his grandmother, nudged it towards him from where it had fallen.
Mrs Longbottom folded her arms.
"You aren't going anywhere, young man. I'm not proposing to let you kill yourself after we've gone to all that effort to bring you round."
Neville pulled himself to his feet, swaying.
"Grandma," he said. "It's not that I'm not grateful but - fuck off."
He Disapparated. His grandmother looked after him, open-mouthed. Then, it appeared, she realised she was not alone. She looked at Hermione.
"Eh," said Mrs Longbottom. "They do say folk get to favour their pets, don't they?"
Rita's eyes glittered. Her body was completely immobilized by the ropes Draco had cast around her, but her head was up. Behind her, sitting on a podium in the central demonstration room of the facility, the Doomsday Device flickered to itself, and made a sinister humming noise. The stench of blood hung heavy in its vicinity.
"So this is where you pull out your wand and use Avada Kedavra, I suppose."
"Why?" Draco breathed. "What's the attraction for me in using a spell that's notorious for being quick and - painless?"
Her eyes betrayed a sudden doubt. Behind him there was the sound of a door being gently pushed open. Unheeding, he raised his wand.
"Go on, boys. Good dogs. Fetch! Fetch! Rabbits!"
Marvolo leapt and took the wand neatly from Draco's fingers as it swished down, took his prey into a corner and began worrying at it enthusiastically. Riddle bounded ecstatically around his owner's legs, leaping up to lick at his hands as Draco tried to retrieve his wand from Marvolo.
"Drop that, you fucking cloth eared fur-ball! Drop that now, you horrible hound, or you're earmuffs! Look, I mean this! Behave yourselves now, or I'll - I'll cut your tails off behind your ears!"
Melanie knelt on the floor, waving her arms frantically.
"Good dog! Fetch! Fetch! Bring it to Melanie, there's a good boy."
Riddle squirmed between Draco's legs, managed to entwine himself firmly in the remains of Draco's robes, and brought him to the ground. Marvolo bounded to within two yards of Melanie and growled playfully at her as she reached for the wand, defending it between his forepaws.
Draco twisted full length, stretched and grabbed Marvolo around his middle. One hand closed over the wand. Melanie's grab was inches too short. Marvolo wriggled, and gripped down tighter on his treasure. Draco pulled himself laboriously to his feet and swung the dog and wand together round to face Rita.
"Eat death, you revolting harpy. May you lie un-mourned and unburied, and may the corbies reject your bones-"
"Draco," a voice said plaintively and rather muzzily from the doorway behind him, "why are you apparently trying to cast an Unspeakable Curse with a springer spaniel?"
Draco spun, dropped Marvolo (who yelped indignantly), and enfolded Neville in his arms. Over Draco's left shoulder Neville spotted Rita wriggling her fingers free of the ropes and inching towards her wand which was lying a few feet from her. His own wand, however, was already out.
The sheer power in the stunning spell slammed her back five yards into the wall. She slid down and lay motionless to one side of the Doomsday Device.
Draco breathed out, shakily.
"My god! You're getting good at that one."
Neville looked down into his face. There was a touch of reckless enthusiasm about his eyes, which warmed Draco's heart.
"I'm having a very bad day. Plus, how often do I ever get to be the decisive competent one? Oof! You don't have to squeeze me quite that hard, you know. I reckon I've got at least four broken ribs on each side."
Draco half turned to look at Rita's unconscious body.
"No, be fair. I reckon Hermione and my grandmother probably did for my ribs between them. Believe me, their notion of first aid doesn't take any prisoners. I feel quite unbelievably awful."
"Funny; so do I."
They slid exhaustedly and in a tangled heap down the wall opposite Rita. Melanie grinned shyly at them as she continued in her attempt to persuade Marvolo to drop the wand. Marvolo evidently regarded her efforts as a further challenge, and resisted enthusiastically. Draco raised one eyebrow and smiled.
"Leave it. The teeth marks are going to be difficult enough to explain to Ollivander's support and maintenance department as it is. So, Melanie, what fur?"
She looked at him in a puzzled way.
"What for what?"
"Not what for, what fur? I intend to buy you a fur coat at the earliest opportunity. Least I can do."
Melanie blushed, comprehensively.
"Come off it, Draco, you know I'm a vegetarian."
"OK, then, Schwartz; choose your vegetable and I'll get someone peeling."
"You know I didn't stop you from killing Rita for that."
"Oh, the fur coat isn't for saving my backside from Azkaban. You get the undying gratitude of the house of Malfoy for that."
"Oh, god," Neville muttered. "If you've got any sense, Melanie, you'll opt for the dead animals while the going's good."
Draco waved a hand airily.
"No, the fur coat's a bribe. To buy your silence. After all, I still haven't absolutely ruled out evil overlord as a career goal, and while I know from close personal experience that there are a lot of embarrassing faux pas which you can talk your supporters into overlooking providing you use sufficient determination and charisma, I honestly think that having it widely known that my Dark designs had been foiled by a brace of long eared mutts with half a brain cell between them would be what the management consultants call a Career Limiting Error."
Melanie coughed, nervously.
"Speaking of evil overlords, ought I to mention that something on this gadget just flicked on?"
That got the undivided attention of both of them.
"Well - it looks like a digital readout. Do you people have those?"
Draco shook his head. "Not noticeably, no. What's it say?
Melanie braved the gore-soaked area round the room to examine it and report back.
" It reads 1800 - no, 1799 - no - "
There was a moment's pause. Neville coughed.
"She did say this project was one of You-Know-Who's, didn't she?"
"Mm. And there's one thing I can tell you for certain about the Dark Lord. As he used to be practically a friend of the family. So to speak."
"If he was responsible for calling something a Doomsday Device, he wasn't the kind of guy to name it in a fit of post-modernist self-referential irony. Melanie?"
"Find us an occult engineer. Fast."
She looked despairingly at him.
"But I don't know where to look."
Neville drew a deep breath.
"Why? Is she likely to know one?"
"She is one. At least, she's the best we're likely to get in the next - um - 30 minutes."
Draco looked at his watch.
"Twenty-nine and a half. I suggest you hurry."
"Find my mother? Why?"
Mrs Longbottom looked at Draco.
"Because, young man, in the days when, if Stalin wanted to build power stations in the Ukraine he brought engineers over from Lancashire to do it, Charlie Device was the best damn engineer in the whole of the County Palatine. Wizard or Muggle. And Charlie Device was paying your mother for consultancy before she was eight years old."
"But - that was just a game - "
Mrs Longbottom smiled grimly. "Not if you were the competition, and monitoring the security on that plant, it wasn't. Anyone whose engineering instincts Charlie Device respected as much as he respected his granddaughter's is the best we could hope to have available, given we can't have him. I'd get Charlie Device himself on the job if it wasn't that Necromancy takes a hell of a lot longer than we've got, and some of the ingredients aren't readily to hand."
Neville's voice was profoundly shocked. "Plus, it's officially one of the four Inexcusable Dark Arts and is formally banned in every magic-using country which is a member of the International Confederation."
"Well, except Albania," Draco pointed out reasonably. Neville drew in his breath with a hiss.
"We aren't in Albania," he said through gritted teeth. Draco shrugged.
"We easily might be in 26 minutes. Who knows how widespread the fallout from the explosion's going to be? Anyway, as your grandmother says we don't have time to try Necromancy, so the question of legality doesn't arise. Ma it'll have to be, then."
Narcissa stood on the threshold of the room and stared across at the machine, which now had added a piercing and erratic "beep!" to its previous repertoire of hums and buzzes.
"Oh, fuck," she said simply. "The idiot actually built it. And even Lucius told him and told him not to."
Everyone in the room - who now included Camilleri, Hermione, and a resentful Dudley - looked across at her.
Draco cleared his throat.
"You - er - know what that thing is?"
She nodded, grimly. "It's a Mark Three Thaumatulurgical Capacitor."
There was a baffled and universal silence. She shook her elegant blonde head irritably.
"Oh, stop looking so - limited. I mean, it's a device designed to absorb and enhance all the magical energies in its vicinity until at a pre-set moment it feeds them violently back into the atmosphere. Those energies, in turn, trigger an unstoppable series of chain-reactions as the power generated by the discharge process absorbs fresh thaumatulurgical energies across an annular wave front spreading outward from the central discharge point."
They looked at her open-mouthed.
"I don't understand," Dudley whined. Melanie, who had, at his entrance, moved herself to the further side of the room, unobtrusively putting Neville and Draco between her and him, looked across at him for the first time since he had arrived, and muttered, "Imbecile."
"Bit harsh, surely, in the specific circumstances?" Camilleri murmured. "Er, Narcissa, could you give us a translation into English, from Engineering? I think the subs are going to have trouble getting their heads round what you've just said. To say nothing of the punters. No journalist ever lost out by underestimating the intelligence of the readers. Ask her." He nodded towards the bound captive in the corner.
Melanie turned to him.
"She means," she said tightly, "That it's effectively a magical nuclear reactor. And it's just about to go critical."
Dudley made a dive for the doorway. Camilleri fielded him effectively by the scruff of his neck and thrust him back into the room. "Don't behave like an idiot," he said firmly. "If you can help it. How far do you reckon you can run in 24 minutes, anyway? Er, Narcissa - what's your best guess at the maximum diameter of the affected area if that thing does go off?"
Narcissa had already ripped the more cumbersome bits of her white robes off and was inching herself underneath the low-slung base of the Doomsday Device. Her voice was abstracted and somewhat muffled. "Hm? Oh, theoretically, unless it hits a zone at least 10 miles wide where there are no detectable magical energies at all, the initial reaction shouldn't start running out of impetus for at least 250 miles or so. If it get strongly reinforced within that radius - and I'll remind you exactly where Hogwarts and Diagon Alley happen to be in relation to here - that will almost certainly set off secondary epicentral discharges with practically the same initial energy levels as the first."
Camilleri gulped. "Looks like I'd better try to get my copy through to the Vlatislava office of the Prophet, then."
Mrs Longbottom's voice was urgent. "And can you actually defuse it, Narcissa, love?"
Narcissa stuck her head out from under the Device. Her face was masked with congealing blood and sump oil, and her hair was also matted with them. Camilleri leaned towards her with his camera, and the flash went.
"Nice to know you've got faith in my abilities," she murmured to him. "Personally, I wouldn't bank on you getting that shot developed. Thank god, in some ways, given what I must look like."
His expression was odd. "Well, I trust you," he said. "And - you should know I'm proposing to tell the subs to caption it 'The Loveliest Witch in Britain In Her Finest Hour' whenever they do print it."
"Well, you'd have more chance getting it into print if this total abortion - I ask you, devising a wipe-out, mutually assured destruction device when you're sitting at the top of a heap of rapidly splintering backstabbing incompetents without the remotest conception of 'Fail To Safe', would you call that bright? - wasn't a complete botch up of Muggle and Wizard concepts, thrown together on no guiding principle that I can divine. And given where we are, I wouldn't bank on the designer of the Muggle part of this garbage still being around to tell us what he was up to when he designed it."
She looked despairingly at the Device. "In fact, knowing the Dark Lord, its designer is probably currently forming part of the central processing unit."
She paused for a moment, and then twisted her body in a remarkably eel like manner. "Melanie?"
"Ye-es?" Melanie gulped as, in approaching the Doomsday Device, she skidded on a large patch of blood. Idiot. It's yours. You can't be repelled by something that's part of you. Unbidden, another part of her brain responded: Oh, yes? Like your taste in men, huh, then?
"You seem to have your head screwed on. Know anything about Muggle engineering?"
She gulped again. "Well, that was what I'd planned on knowing after leaving Cambridge." She looked nervously at the Doomsday Device, which had now started to vibrate alarmingly. "Not before arriving."
The vibration had evidently also caught Narcissa's attention.
"Mm. Well, if you want there to be an after, you might give me a hint as to how to get the front of this bloody control panel off. I can't even start defusing the thing until I've done that. Accio."
She snapped her fingers and a Phillips screwdriver appeared from mid air and fell into her hand. Melanie flopped to the ground and wormed her way under the Device next to Narcissa. "That bit's simple."
She took the screwdriver from Narcissa and deployed it rapidly. "But that's not - could it be some magical equivalent to a screw with a left hand thread, perhaps?"
Narcissa seized back the screwdriver and gave it a close view.
"Brilliant. Oh, good girl. Reverse Spottiswoode," she explained parenthetically, for Emily Longbottom's benefit. The cover was flung randomly out from under the Device into the main part of the room.
"Now, what do you think of these wires? All the same colour, of course: they would be. Hermione, love, could you have a scout around and see if there's a manual somewhere?"
Hermione's squeak of triumph as she located the relevant object neatly stowed in a pocket built into the back of the Device turned into a growl of frustration, as the letters danced up off the page before her eyes, forming little quadrille lines and elegant, changing patterns.
"It's encoded," she reported to the two under the Device. "I think I can get somewhere with it - it's not unlike some I've seen before - but you'd better not wait until I have. Illustro, Illustro."
Martin, who had strolled up to the podium with a generally benign air of wanting to help, blinked. "Goodness," he said slowly. "Think of someone twisted enough to deliberately make their technical manual incomprehensible, rather than just allowing it to happen naturally."
Narcissa stuck her head out again.
"Emily, I don't think you can get under here unless you were to Transform, but I'd appreciate your views on this wiring, too."
Mrs Longbottom nodded, knelt down, and then in her bat shape flitted under the Device.
Draco drew a deep breath. "I've just had an idea. But I'll need to go to London to see if it works. And I'll need help."
He looked across the room. Neville began to struggle to his feet. A remarkably speedy bat zoomed out from under the Device, transforming itself back into Neville's grandmother almost before dropping out of mid-air.
"Our Neville isn't Apparating anywhere - " she was beginning, before realizing the sound was coming in stereo.
"You aren't Apparating anywhere in that state," Draco finished firmly. Neville glared at him, and he smiled ruthlessly back. "Not risking your life for the third bloody time this morning." His glance lighted on Camilleri. "Come on. You'll do. I'll explain as we're getting out of here."
They pelted out towards the front exit.
Martin leant over the Device in an interested manner. "Er, ought you to know that there's a large red button on the front of this, that says 'Emergency Stop'? It ought to be worth a try, don't you think?"
His finger was already wandering towards it when a chorus of four determined female voices told him, explosively, to "Keep Off". He leapt back, startled but still determinedly polite.
Narcissa half scrambled out from under the Device. "Sorry," she said, twisting so as to look up at him. "But nothing I know about the personality of this gadget's commissioner suggests that there is any likelihood that the result of pressing that button will have any correlation at all with what it's advertised as doing."
She scrambled back underneath again.
Martin thought about that one for a bit. "But that isn't safe," he said with mild but profound indignation. "That - that's actively misleading."
The Device Defusing team were too preoccupied to respond to his justifiable complaints. He looked at them, sighed, and pulled out a Palm 3 from an inside waterproof pocket in his jacket and clenched the stylus thoughtfully between his teeth for a moment. Then, he began writing.
"The approach begins with an exhilarating traverse down a steeply pitched 20 metres of descent. Care needs to be taken on this section to avoid loose debris falling from above, which in this part of the route represents an unusually serious problem. At the base of the descent, avoid the apparently direct route onwards, which presents unexpected hazards (although remarkably fine and unusual rock formations can be glimpsed through the rock archway into the adjoining cavern). The route continues via a particularly challenging -"
The creative spirit whirled him away from his surroundings. Lost in thought, he tapped on, regardless of the excitement around him.
The unconscious prisoner writhed in her bonds and began to come round. Neville eyed her, wondering whether he should stun her again, but then shrugged and compromised by collecting her wand from the floor to add to the collection he was building up in his belt, and then let nature take its course. Rita opened her eyes and glared across at him.
"You may have had your petty triumph, but you don't have long to enjoy it," she snarled. "Nothing can stop that machine now. The wizard world in Western Europe has less than twenty minutes to exist. The Dark Lord triumphs at last!"
He looked at her.
"So what do you get out of this plot, then?" he enquired. "I mean, we're all sitting in this room together. When it blows, you go with it. You won't even get to file your copy. No undying fame. Not even your expenses paid."
Rita's lips curled back in a snarl of triumph. "I had my reasons. Oh, believe me, I had my reasons."
Unexpectedly, he heard at that moment the sound of pelting footsteps from the passageway outside.
God, Draco's been quick. I wonder if -
Neville's jaw dropped as he took in the sight of the new arrival. His squeak of surprise obviously got through even Martin's trance-like state, since he glanced up from whatever he was doing, and looked as stupefied as Neville felt.
"Merciful heaven!" Martin breathed. "There's two of them!"
Indeed, the woman who had just rushed into the room was an exact double of the woman who was lying bound next to the Doomsday Device.
Almost without conscious thought, Neville pointed his own wand at her and breathed, "Expelliarmus!" It shocked him when the woman he could only think of as Agitated Rita appeared not even to notice her wand flying backwards out of her hand as she rushed madly on into the room. She skidded to a halt next to the woman he mentally dubbed Bound Rita, and screeched,
"You were only supposed to switch the bleeding display on!"
Bound Rita looked her straight in the eyes.
"Well, Rita, dear, perhaps your grasp of the Imperius curse isn't what you flattered yourself it was. I - had other plans. This is one firework which certainly isn't going to be a damp Squib."
Neville felt that the sarcastic spin which she put on the last word, accompanied by a finished sneer in his direction, was a trifle uncalled for, especially since to his recollection they had never met before he had blasted her halfway across a room with a Stunning spell.
And where is Draco when you're stuck for a blistering comeback at short notice?
Narcissa crawled out from under the Device, dusted down her hands, and fixed Agitated Rita with a steely glare. "I see. So this was merely intended to be an empty melodramatic gesture, was it? And I suppose it didn't occur to you to have a complete set of defusing instructions on hand in case someone like your psychotic little friend with the Polyjuice makeover decided to take the game a few stages further once you'd obligingly loaded the missile for her?"
Her eye passed pitilessly over Agitated Rita, who looked defiantly back at her. "And how do you know she's the Polyjuiced one?"
Narcissa barely missed a beat. "Only someone who had really spent forty eight years developing a finished absence of style could have selected those shoes. Someone who was merely faking it would have been unable to hit that precise line between the merely tacky and the deeply dowdy."
She looked at Agitated Rita again. "I'll take that as a no, then," she added, and made as if to crawl back under the Device. Bound Rita coughed, pointedly.
"It's about the end of the hour," she purred gently. "Recognise someone you know, Mrs Malfoy?"
Narcissa spun on the spot. Neville watched, as over one prolonged instant Bound Rita's features flowed, melted like Dali clocks, and re-formed into-
"Pansy Parkinson!" he gasped. She swept him with a disparaging glance.
"Always interesting to see what one's exs decide to make do with afterwards," she purred. Sheer blind fury boiled momentarily behind his eyes. Words failed him. They did not, however, fail Narcissa.
"And putting your exs utterly off your entire sex must be quite an achievement, too, don't you think?" She put her head on one side. "Or - perhaps not, if you happen to have a natural talent for - being off-putting."
Pansy smiled. Her voice was syrup and strychnine. "Really, Mrs Malfoy? I certainly didn't put Lucius Malfoy off. Far from it, in fact. I'm sorry to hurt your feelings, Mrs Malfoy, but since we're about to die I ought to put my conscience at ease. I have to confess to you that I screwed your husband. Repeatedly."
Narcissa regarded her for one long moment, and then smiled suddenly, and with a complete absence of affectation.
"Sweetie, everyone screwed Lucius."
With that she dived back under the Doomsday Device, muttering: "Any progress on tracing those relays, you lot?"
Pansy's face crumpled, and she suddenly looked much younger, about five or six, in fact, and on the point of bursting into tears. Her voice had a raw edge of defiance.
"And he said it was much better than with you!"
Narcissa twisted her head halfway out from underneath the Device to look at her again.
"Really? I'm surprised he could remember back far enough to set up a decent baseline."
Someone else under the Device had clearly done something to attract her attention, because she twisted her neck to look back at it's underside thoughtfully.
"Oh, yes, Emily - I really think you have got something there. Now, suppose we -"
She vanished again. Pansy managed to wriggle a foot sufficiently clear of the entangling ropes to be able to stamp it.
"You don't understand."
"Understand what?" a cheerful voice said from the doorway. "Good heavens, Pansy!"
Draco manoeuvred the front edge of a heavy picture carefully into the room. Camilleri brought up the rear, muttering to himself:
"I've not known him five minutes and we've just robbed the National Portrait Gallery. The National Portrait Gallery! I mean, couldn't he start small? The Tiffany glass from the Accrington City Gallery, perhaps. One or two of those ghastly Pre-Raphs from the Whitworth, if the mood took him. No-one would miss those. They've got hundreds, all indifferent. But the National Portrait Gallery!"
"Shut up," Draco said firmly. "To begin with, it isn't theft. This is one of our family portraits, on loan. I've just - temporarily brought it back to its owner. My mother. You know, the blonde one who's currently trying to demonstrate that human blood is the new black. Anyway, Pansy, how did you come to get swapped with Rita? And what are you doing there in those ropes? Or shouldn't I ask?"
Pansy's lips curled. "I've been telling your mother all about me sleeping with your father, actually."
Draco raised one eyebrow.
"Goodness, did you really? That would explain his uncharacteristic chirpiness that fortnight you stayed with us."
Narcissa wriggled her way out from under the Doomsday Device again.
"Really, Draco darling, whatever the circumstances, chirpy has never been the appropriate word to use to describe your father."
Camilleri looked at Neville. Neville looked back. "Is it just me," Chris demanded plaintively. "Or have you spotted that those two seems to conduct life as though it were Greek tragedy re-scripted by Monty Python?"
Before Neville could hazard a response, Draco intervened. "Hi, ma. Look who we've brought you."
At a gesture, he and Camilleri propped the portrait up on one edge. It uttered a loud snort of indignation, at which they looked down, looked embarrassed, and rapidly turned it the right way up. Narcissa gave an exclamation in which Neville thought he detected profound relief.
Charlie Device peered out of the portrait at her. "Young Draco tells me you've got an engineering problem. Well, naturally I'll do what I can. But I must say, Narcissa, next time you decide to loan me out to an exhibition, do make sure there are some other wizard portraits in it. I'd have gone out of my mind with boredom if it hadn't unexpectedly turned out that the portrait of some Muggle polymer chemist called Mercer five along had been painted by a young wizard who was hiding out incognito in the Factory because he had a crush on Edie Sedgewick."
"Sorry, Grandad," Narcissa said in a rather small voice. He looked at her, and relented. "Thaumatulurgical Capacitator, is it? We'd looked at a few ways of doing that. None of them got beyond the prototype stage, but I reckon I've got as good a grasp of the theory as anyone in country. Push me under that machine, lass, and I'll take a dekko for you."
The portrait was passed carefully under the Device. Narcissa ran her filthy fingers through her no less filthy hair, and took the opportunity for a quick stretch. While her enemy was in view, Pansy drew a deep breath, and launched her next salvo.
"It's all very well you pretending to be all nonchalant about it. But I loved Lucius."
Her voice broke, and she sobbed. "I - I got involved with Rita's plan because of him. I thought - I thought I could revenge your murder of him, you bitch, even though I could never bring him back to life."
She looked up and looked around the room, her eyes fixing on the Doomsday Device.
"He'd have wanted me to do it."
Narcissa's face was pale and set. "Oh, I agree with you. Unlike you, apparently, it's not something I'd have considered one of his more endearing characteristics."
Pansy babbled on obliviously.
"As soon as I realised the power that thing had, I knew I had to set it off. I faked the figures so Rita would think it needed much more blood than it really did. And I took a few pints more from those Muggles than I put on the records, too. There weren't going to be any risks of it running out of fuel. And then when Rita put me under Imperius earlier - "
"Yes," Draco interrupted. "Where did the bit about Imperius come in?"
"S'obvious." No-one had expected Neville to speak, and they all turned to look at him. He flushed to find himself the centre of attention, but ploughed boldly on. "Look - Rita's plan was to frame you for the murders and rush in to stop the Device at the crucial moment so she got her story. As her only accomplice, Pansy would have been a constant danger to her alive. Do you think she'd have resisted the blackmail opportunities?"
Draco shook his head.
"Of course not. She's always been that type. Why do you suppose I was always so careful to - " He caught sight of his mother's interested eye on him, and trailed to a stop. "Well, anyway, tell you later. If we get a later."
"Rita put her under Imperius to provoke you into killing her. If that had worked, as well as the other three corpses, the Ministry would have found Pansy's dead body in the control room here. I expect that would have looked well in the headline, wouldn't it, Rita? Ex-Lover Sacrifices Self To Save World?"
Pansy snarled. "Yes. It didn't take me too long to work that out, either. But once I knew the Device was running and couldn't be stopped, I didn't care whether I died then or half an hour later. It'd all be over, and I'd be reunited with Lucius."
Draco and his mother exchanged a look which said, eloquently, that neither of them thought either the company or the probable climate for such a reunion would be their own preference. It was a mistake, because Pansy spotted it. She turned savagely on Narcissa.
"Stop looking so smug. He promised me - just before you killed him, you bitch - that he was planning to divorce you, and marry me."
Narcissa's voice was still dead level. "Well, subject to warranties and satisfactory financial due diligence, surely?"
Pansy gathered all her energy, and spat at Narcissa, hitting her squarely on the cheek. She raised what was left of her sleeve mechanically to wipe it away, her eyes fixed on Pansy. The Device clicked and whirred on un-heeded by her.
"Warranties!" Pansy hissed. "Yes - certainly. I could have given him other children, for one thing. Ones who would be prepared to serve the Dark Lord properly."
Narcissa's lips were a compressed tight line. "I see that Lucius wasn't just - impoliticly garrulous - in the marital bed, then."
Draco stepped forward, and put his hand out towards his mother's arm. "I didn't - You never - "
Narcissa looked at him. "What conceivable good could it possibly have done you to know? Just - remember that you can't dodge all the hexes all of the time. However good you are." Her lips quirked in what was, improbably, a smile. "Don't look so stricken about it. Even with the best midwitches money could buy it came down to nine months worth of vomiting and swollen ankles, followed by fourteen hours of sheer agony, followed by a magical duel in the birthing room when I assure you I was not playing on the top of my form. How much of an idiot would I have had to be to go through all that again, even if I had been able to?"
Neville caught Narcissa's eye. His lips moved, almost in a whisper. "Not entirely as planned, I take it?"
Her eyes widened in understanding - and, improbably, appreciation. She gave him a small nod.
"Eh, I'm sorry to break this up just when it's getting interesting," Mrs Longbottom said from behind them. "But Charlie reckons he's found wire to the cut-off relays."
"And?" Narcissa turned. "There has to be an and, or you'd have cut it by now. Time's running out."
Mrs Longbottom nodded. "The problem is, that young Melanie reckons it's linked into a dead man switch. You can't cut that one - and get through to the final disconnection sequence - without a weight coming down and completing something she calls an accelerated detonation circuit."
"Mm." She gave it some thought. "Can we counter-weight it?"
Mrs Longbottom nodded. "That would work."
Draco pulled out his wand. "How big does this counterweight have to be?"
Mrs Longbottom gestured generously with her arms. "Anything over 250 pounds would probably do. Heavier the better, though. Goes on the top of the Device, just to the left there."
"Guide it into position for me, please." Draco spun on his booted heel. Neville caught sight of the reckless mischief in his eye an instant before he cast the spell.
"Draco, you can't - "
"Watch me." He looked at Dudley, who was slumped in the furthest possible corner, muttering incomprehensibly to himself. "Petrificatus Totalis. Levo! "
A howl of sheer outrage rent the air as he briskly swung the frozen Dudley across the room and suspended him in the air above the Doomsday Device. Mrs Longbottom nodded. "Just there, lad. Drop him down."
Dudley landed squarely on the machine, and yelped. Mrs Longbottom eyed Draco approvingly. "Eh, that was a bit of smart thinking." She looked across at Dudley, and nodded. "Eh. From each according to his abilities, as Eugene was so fond of saying."
"Eugene?" Neville gazed at his grandmother. "Who's Eugene?"
She drew herself up to her full height, and looked at him in a tight-lipped way. "He's someone who's been dead for seventy-five years, young man, and that's all you need to know."
It was unlikely, after all, that he would have had the nerve to pursue the subject, but at this moment there was a shout of pure triumph. Melanie, Hermione, and a portrait which by now looked in serious need of restoration, crawled or were dragged from under the Doomsday Device. The small red lights on top of it went out. The humming stopped. The digital readout came to a pause, frozen forever at 106.
The defusing team hugged everyone in sight, including the dogs.
"We did it!"
Draco strolled nonchalantly over towards the Device. "And with a minute and three quarters to go, too," he observed. "We needn't have sweated all that hard to get back from the National Portrait Gallery, Chris. Practically time to have stopped off for a drink."
The eyes of everyone in the room were on him, and all were glaring. It was, however, Hermione who found her voice first.
"I don't think so."
She pushed the open manual under his nose. The characters wavered on the page, as though being read through heat haze, but were legible enough.
"Um," he said. "You did say this was a Mark 3, didn't you?" Narcissa nodded.
"Then I think it's only fair to tell all of you that Mark 3s appear to have been designed to detonate at 93."
The silence which followed might have gone on for some time, had Hermione's phone not, unexpectedly, rung. Martin looked at her.
"That's amazing. Fancy getting a signal down here."
She ignored him. She listened for a few seconds and then said: "Yes. I'll tell them."
She looked up. "We need to get to the front entrance. Now. That was Tom Patullo, Draco. He and your lawyers are on their way up from the Manor. They've got a couple of senior Ministry guys on board - I think your lawyers have convinced them that the Ministry will be in even more trouble if they try to Apparate up ahead of them, and that you won't speak to them without your lawyers present anyway. But we'd better have this place secured - prisoners on hand - hostages present and correct - immobilized device ready for inspection - everything ship-shape for you to convince the Ministry that you're innocent of all charges and nothing can be held over you."
Neville was aware he had suddenly paled.
"Oh my god. That duck!"
He exchanged a frantic glance with Draco. Draco nodded, decisively. "We'd better Apparate down to Martin's place to collect it. Martin - er, can we borrow the keys to your cottage?"
Martin nodded slowly. "But - do you really think senior civil servants are going to be bothered with a rubber duck? At a time like this?"
Neville spoke from between gritted teeth. "They're going to bother about this duck all right." He cast a hunted glance around the room. "It's - well, it's no ordinary duck. In fact - actually, you may as well know this now, Grandma - it's Mad Eye Moody."
He nodded, miserably. His grandmother looked at Draco. "And is this true? Did you really turn Mad Eye Moody into a rubber duck?"
"Certainly not." Draco's denial was prompt and emphatic. There was an easing of tension in the room. He smiled, sunnily and comprehensively.
"It was Neville," he added. Mrs Longbottom turned on her heel and gave her grandson a Look which spoke volumes. Neville shuddered, involuntarily. Her eye dropped to his belt.
"And what might those be?" she enquired portentously.
"Wands," he said. She coughed, irritably.
"I can see that. But it hasn't escaped my notice that there are five of them. Would you care to explain? Everything?"
Neville looked down at the collection in his belt. "Um - this one's mine, of course."
"Yes. I can recognise that one. And the others?"
"Well - that one's Paul's - you know, the therapist who was holding me prisoner in the clinic Eustace put me in. I -ah - got that one when I stunned him. And - um - this one's Pansy's - only I thought it was Rita's at the time, you know. That was another Stunning spell. Oh, and this one really is Rita's. I did Expelliarmus when she arrived a few minutes ago, but I think you were under the Device at the time. And - then - this one's er - Mad-eye's. He - ah - dropped it in the course of that duck business."
"I see." She looked closely at him. "That would be this morning's collection, I take it?"
He nodded again. Unmistakeably, the obsidian glare in her beady black eyes softened. Her lips curved into a grin. "Eh, it's a shame your father can't hear about Mad-Eye. That'd give him a good laugh, that would."
"But - they were colleagues - Aurors in the same team - "
"Aye. Nearly drove Frank to distraction. They shared an office. What with old Mad-Eye bending the rules in every which way, and then leaving Frank to sort out the paperwork and calm the bureaucrats down, and all his other little habits, such as chaining his mug to the radiator so the washing up witches in the canteen couldn't pull a switch with it, your father often used to come home and tell me he'd been this close to turning him into something himself."
Mrs Longbottom held up thumb and forefinger, about two millimetres apart.
"Don't think he ever thought of rubber ducks, though. Now, you bring me that duck, and let me deal with the rest. I can guarantee he won't be bringing any complaints to the Ministry after I've had a word or two with young Alastor. Not unless he wants to find himself the laughing stock of every surviving Auror who's ever passed through the Ministry."
Neville exhaled. His grandmother gave him another beady glance.
"Aye. Not a bad morning's work that, all things considered. You're coming on. You might make a half-way decent wizard by the time you're fifty."
Neville thought of a lot of things to say, and then was suddenly aware of Draco's eye on him, sparkling with indignation, and clearly dying to be allowed to let rip. He shook his head, gently. She's had a lot to put up with. Is the last word such a hard thing to give her?
"We'd better be going," he said instead. Without looking behind him he left the facility.
The Muggle helicopter had scarcely touched down on the field closest to the cliff when Tom Patullo was out of it, his hands over his head and running to greet them.
"It's great to see you again, Malfoy," was his first and most unexpected words. "Even if you do look as though you've disguised yourself as an Episcopalian minister and then been through a live fire combat exercise."
Faced with enthusiasm from such a quarter even Draco's ability to think up an appropriate response went into emergency shut down. Tom Patullo looked at him and grinned.
"Aw, yes, I'll have a few things to say to you about your notions of business ethics when we get a moment. But not now. This time, I owe you. You've got no idea what I've just been told by my PA back at head office."
Draco indicated, somewhat weakly, that even if his performance in Divination had been at least three times as good as it had actually been, this would still have been a true statement. Patullo's grin got wider.
"No. Well, I had her phone through the news that you'd got his son safely out as soon as Miss Granger told me - good grief, is that him? If he'd been mine I'd have been tempted to leave him in there - and my PA called not five minutes ago to say she'd just got a fax."
"A fox?" Draco visualized a small red-brown animal with a parchment tied to its leg. "Well, it could work, I suppose. Be risky in the hunting season."
Patullo looked at him. "No - a fax is - oh, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that Vernon Dursley's done it! He's resigned! Surrendered his share options! Given the Company attorneys a free run to argue he's repudiated his service contract. Told me "he couldn't reconcile with his conscience continuing to work with a company whose ethical standards were low enough to consider keeping on the Manor as their European centre." He's too yellow to work for Nelcorp while you're their landlord, is what- and, thank all the stars - he's now Somebody Else's Problem! Thanks mainly to you, you slimy devious unethical bastard."
He clapped his hand firmly on Draco's shoulder. "Now, find us a pub. I want to buy you a drink."
Draco exhaled with sheer relief. Neville exchanged a grin with him. Then Neville coughed.
"Magical or Muggle?"
"Um?" Tom looked baffled
"The pub - Magical or Muggle."
Tom looked round. He surveyed the motley, bedraggled team of rescuers. He raised his eyebrows at the unexplained presence - in an elderly lady's careful grasp - of a rubber duck. He thought for a moment, and then smiled.
"You chose. Whichever. Closest."
"Ah, in that case," Neville said firmly "I know exactly where we have to go."
He made his way decisively towards the van.