The Daily Prophet's newest and youngest reporter assumed a position at the furthest end of the long table in the conference room and quivered with anticipation. He had been in journalism all of a day and a half, and already he had been summoned to a select story planning session designated under the cryptic but thrilling title "Operation Overlord". Life, he felt, could hold few further glories for him. He glanced around the empty, wood-panelled room and sniffed the heady smell of great events on the move.
It was a small, hand-picked group who finally gathered, some half hour after the time appointed for the start of the conference. The first to arrive were two senior news reporters, to whom Colin had been introduced on yesterday's whistle-stop tour of the office but whose names he had failed to catch, and been too embarrassed to ask for again. They wandered in, took one look at him, and assumed seats at the opposite end of the table, continuing an uninterrupted comparison of the merits of the respective Wasps and Cannons defence line-ups without any further acknowledgement to him.
The next to arrive was the staff photographer, Crispin Camilleri, who grinned cheerfully at the new recruit, and jerked his thumb at a small laminated notice which was sitting on the table in front of Colin.
"Shove me over that, would you?"
As Colin obeyed in some surprise he automatically looked down at it. A small, animated witch shook a warning forefinger aggressively in his face to emphasise the printed instruction: "SMOKE-DETECTION CHARMS HAVE BEEN DEACTIVATED IN MEETING ROOMS FOR THE COMFORT OF THE PROPHET'S GUESTS ONLY. INTERNAL MEETINGS REMAIN SUBJECT TO THE PROPHET GROUP'S STRICT NO-SMOKING POLICY. THANK YOU."
With a negligent flick of his wand Camilleri Transfigured the notice into an ashtray, and lit up a Gauloise.
There was a sudden hush in the room as the final person arrived for the meeting. The two senior reporters shut up in mid sentence. Colin tried to make himself invisible. Camilleri looked up at her, yawned, and blew a perfect smoke ring.
"Hi, Reet. Any chance of you letting us in on what this meeting's all about?"
Rita Skeeter smiled, took a quick scan round the room, and fixed her gaze on the newest recruit.
"Creevey! Organise us some coffee, will you?"
Colin leapt nervously to his feet. Rita, the two senior reporters and Camilleri watched him with apprehension, but at the cost only of a broken cup and a minor upset involving the sugar bowl and a couple of saucers he managed to dish out coffee to everyone, mostly in cups, and resumed his seat, breathing heavily. Rita's blue cardboard folder, intriguingly labelled "Overlord" rested on the opposite side of the table, and he craned his neck in what he hoped was an unobtrusive attempt to ascertain more about its contents.
Rita raised her head, looked at the doors and windows, lifted her wand and muttered "Dissimulate". The room darkened momentarily.
'Well," she said. "I hope you appreciate that no hint of this is to be allowed to leak beyond the five of us until I say we're ready to go to press. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that what I'm proposing to let you in on could be the biggest story this century."
Colin gasped with sheer excitement. She looked at him with an icy glance.
"You mean, bigger than Woodward and Bernstein, even?"
"Never heard of them," she said coldly. He sat back in his chair, looking slightly deflated. Camilleri winked at him. Rita resumed.
"Neil, give us a summary of your findings to date."
The senior reporter who favoured the Cannons looked up at the sound of his name, and waved one hand. A quill leapt to attention, and began scrawling headings importantly across a flip chart that occupied an easel in one corner of the conference room. Neil gestured expansively at the top heading.
Dark Instincts Emerging
"Acting on hints received from Rita's source within Malfoy Manor - " he began. Colin bounced forward eagerly onto the very edge of his chair.
Rita favoured him with a quelling glance. "Investigative journalism is a dangerous business, as you will no doubt find out, Creevey. As a result, one safeguards one's source behind several layers of cut-outs, so that if legal - or, as no doubt in this case, illegal - pressure is brought to bear on one to name one's informant, the paper may shelter behind a genuine lack of relevant knowledge. For these purposes our mole will be referred to as "Gilt-edge", is that understood?"
He nodded, wordlessly. Camilleri lit another Gauloise from the butt of the first, blew another smoke ring and said, "You mean it isn't you doing your famous bugging routine this time, Rita?"
There was a hint of a snigger from the two senior reporters. Rita stared them all down impassively.
"Not with a minimum of seven highly trained attack owls on the premises at any one time, no. Of course, if any of you would like to volunteer I would not dream of standing in your way."
There was an awkward silence. She nodded towards Neil.
"As you were saying -?"
"We investigated reports that Malfoy had been making heavy purchases of Muggle literature of various sorts. I insinuated myself as casual labour onto a ground-cover clearance squad - by the way, Rita, it gave me a brilliant idea for a shock/horror feature on 'Dark Terrorism risks - who knows who may be watching YOU?' - the Minister of Magic's supposed to be having a swimming pool put in next month. I could pull the same stunt - get on the working gang - plant some faked up Dark Magic artifacts - run an expose -"
"Raise it at the monthly features conference. Get on with it."
"- And got as far as the kitchen of Malfoy Manor under pretence of having to seek urgent first aid for a rash caused by some of the plants we were being asked to dig up and burn. By the way, I reckon there must be half the Herbarium Maleficarium growing in those woods - or at least, there was until we had to yank them all up - "
"Digging up and burning Dark Magic plants isn't newsworthy. At least, not until we've found the crime that it's intended to conceal the evidence of. Do hurry up with this, Neil; you don't seem to know the difference between a sound-bite and osmosis."
"At that point I had the good luck to spot Malfoy himself, who'd wandered into the kitchen to complain that the milk was off, and who was actually carrying a Muggle book at the time. And, I got to spot the title before his housekeeper kicked me out and told me to go and ask the squad supervisor for the first aid kit. And guess what it was?"
Camilleri looked as though he was about to start making suggestions when Neil dropped his voice and hissed portentously:
"It was The Lord of The Rings!!!"
Rita and the other news reporter looked suitably aghast, albeit in a pleased sort of way; Camilleri assumed an expression of faint disappointment and Colin appeared honestly puzzled.
"Well, I can't see what's so peculiar about that," he said. They gazed at him. The other senior reporter spoke.
"Come on, Creevey, what would Draco Malfoy be reading Lord of the Rings for?"
Colin shrugged, helplessly.
"The plot? The characterization? The fascination with a perfectly realized incredibly detailed alternative world?" he hazarded hopefully. Neil looked at him with an expression of stunned disbelief.
"Creevey, this is Draco Malfoy we're talking about here!"
"As opposed to, say, bloody Martin Smith from Croydon?" Camilleri enquired gently, of no-one in particular. Nobody responded to him. He shrugged, and pulled out another packet of Gauloises.
"It's obvious!" Neil said emphatically. "There's no other explanation possible. He identifies with Sauron!"
There was a stunned silence for some moments. Colin nervously cleared his throat.
"Er, Neil? Can I call you Neil? Look, I was at school with Draco Malfoy - well, I was in the year below, and we weren't in the same House, but I did know him, like, to speak to and so on."
"We know that," Rita said briskly. "That's why we invited you to be in on this story."
"Oh." Colin looked rather crestfallen.
"As well as realizing that you'd do a very good job as the junior person on the team, of course," Camilleri continued smoothly, raising his hand to light another Gauloise and taking the opportunity, as the sleeve of his robe partially concealed his face from Colin, to glare meaningfully at Rita.
"Ah - oh yes, apart from that, of course. And your point is?"
"Well I - I simply can't imagine him identifying with Sauron. I mean," Colin's voice became firmer and rather more confident as his recollections of Draco as he had last seen him at school solidified, "I just can't imagine him living in a mess like Mordor, for a start."
"You mean," Camilleri observed through lips which seemed to be tamping down a curl of irresistible amusement by an effort of pure will, "That if Draco were Sauron he'd have taken damn good care to enslave a decent landscape gardener before setting off on his plans for world domination?"
Colin nodded vigorously.
"And here were we thinking that he had," murmured the other senior reporter, and both sniggered. Colin looked rather put out.
"Look, I like Neville - " he began, before suddenly giving a quick intake of breath as a sharp and sudden pain hit his leg just above the ankle bone. He looked surreptitiously under the table, and rolled up his robes to the knee, but could see no apparent cause. Meanwhile, the conference rolled on around him.
"Well, I think that's a very important contribution from Neil. Especially since he also managed to confirm the rumours about those dogs, at the same time. Simon, what have you got to add?"
"A recent pattern of highly suspicious and uncharacteristic interactions with Muggles. Obviously, most of my observations have been forced to take place in the village and round about rather than on Malfoy ground itself - by the way, Rita, could you sort out with accounts that I'm still waiting for them to pay me my exes from Barton Cleeve? It does make quite a difference, you know. But Gilt Edge's tip-off about the Schwartz girl has set off one or two trains of enquiry, which I'm hoping will bear fruit in the next day or two. And Chris has secured a photo!"
With an air of considerable aplomb he spun the photograph onto the conference room table. The five looked at it critically. Melanie, caught on the main street of the village, obviously in a harassed transition between one task, which had overrun, and another for which she was already late, blinked unheedingly up at them and scurried out of the frame.
"Hm." Rita turned the photograph the other way round in the hope it would be more inspiring that way up. "I'm not sure I can quite buy her as the star of a 'Love Rat Malfoy Stole My Girlfriend For Kinky Threesome Sobs Potter Cousin' exclusive, Simon. And I got this nice warm glow when Gilt Edge tipped me off she'd spent the night at the Manor, too."
"First Muggle to do that in 200 years, must be," Simon said. "Well, and leave on her own two feet in the morning, anyway. That has to mean something."
"After all," Camilleri added hopefully, "it's always possible he Seeks for both sides. There was Pansy Parkinson, remember."
"Well, er - " Colin looked rather pink. "I'm not quite sure going out with Pansy Parkinson quite counts. They - er - didn't call that girl the Slytherin broomstick for nothing."
Camilleri blew out a lungful of smoke meditatively. "Ah. I see. A sort of dreary sexual turnstile through which every man must pass."
"I'll remind both of you that you are talking about the daughter of a very senior member of the Board of this newspaper group," Rita said repressively. Camilleri nodded.
"Point taken. From now on, Colin, think of her only as St Pansy the Pious; Virgin, Saint and Martyr."
"But she's still alive - "
"I rather had some of Draco's Slytherin contemporaries in mind when I made the observation. Anyway, back to Ms Schwartz. If she isn't a love triangle, what is she?"
"From my observations from my position in the ground-force crew," Neil said, somewhat huffily, "it strikes me he just quite likes her because she gets on well with his dogs."
The other four looked at him. Rita recovered most quickly.
"And what kind of relationship is, 'quite likes her because she gets on well with his dogs'? Not exactly one known to journalism, is it? I can't see the public believing that one in a hurry. Even young Creevey here, who's been with us less than forty-eight hours, knows that, I'll bet. Creevey: name for me the roles proper to women in the popular press. Skip celebrities and It witches, we know all about them."
Thus unexpectedly called upon, Colin felt rather as though he had been asked to enunciate the forty-five principal uses of Mandragora in a Potions class which had hitherto been concentrating exclusively on Debilitating Draughts. He took a deep breath.
"Er, femmes fatale, love cheats and general rabbit-boilers?" he hazarded. Rita nodded.
"Good. Go on."
"Well, obviously, given the first group - betrayed but loyal wives. Helpless victims of horrific crimes, of course. And - oh yes, distraught mothers: 'I will never believe my son could have done this awful thing'. Oh, what next? Um - heartless career witch -"
"Witches. That one's usually plural. You know: 'Recent research has shown that an ever increasing number of young witches are facing a bleak future, as their demands for a Have It All Lifestyle, combining career, relationships and a dizzy social whirl, leave many of them exhausted, lonely, unfulfilled and desperate to salvage their fading chances for family life, as the biological clock ticks inexorably on past them.' But you're doing very well. Try sport - ?"
"Oh, thanks, of course. Sport. 'We salute our plucky British sporting lasses for their gallant attempt. Diet tips of the British team on pages 5 & 8 with a preview of the new super-slinky team robes on page 11.''"
"Good. But don't forget sporting lasses from other countries, who -?"
"Are herded into childhood-destroying training camps from an early age. Try to cheat their way to victory over Our Girls by the use of illicit Potions and, er, Sex-Change Charms, of course. And - um - probably go in for strange sexual practices in their locker-rooms, too." He crimsoned.
"Well, with the exception of battling but fragile grandmothers you seem to have covered the bases, Creevey. Nice effort."
Warmed by this praise, Colin looked down at Melanie's photograph again. Inspiration struck.
"Could she, perhaps, be plucky?"
Rita gave it a moment's thought.
" 'Fraid not. The Prophet style guide strictly reserves "plucky" for kids under 13. And it helps if they're missing an arm, or suffering from a terminal illness, too. But it isn't a bad attempt. No, as it is we'll have to wait until Simon gets us some more details. We'll be bound to find out where to place her sooner or later. Now, any details about what that Granger woman's connection with all this is?"
Simon and Neil shook their heads in a depressed way.
"She seems to be carrying some sort of personal cloaking talisman about with her. Gilt Edge hasn't been able to pick up anything apart from some vague reference to '1.5% and expenses' and even that isn't a certainty. Otherwise, any conversation she's had hasn't been audible. All we know is that she's had about three meetings with Malfoy - none of them in the last two and a half months - and has met Potter's uncle once and some American Muggles, who've got some connection with his firm, once again. None of it adds up. About the best theory we could come up with is that Malfoy's turned her, somehow, and has hired her to take out Harry Potter -"
Colin opened his mouth again, but his intended comment was bitten off in an agonized gasp as the shooting pain he had experienced before hit him again, this time right on his other anklebone.
Rita drummed on the table top with her long red-lacquered talons to get the attention of the whole meeting.
"Well," she said briskly, "you can see why I warned you all that this is big. And dangerous. And - though I'm sure this is the last consideration any of us have on our minds at this pivotal moment - likely to make all our journalistic reputations, at least provided this story is handled in the right way. The evidence all seems to point in one direction - Draco Malfoy is setting himself up to assume He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's mantle! The Ministry is spineless and weak. The glamour of his wretched mother has effectively gagged the TV and radio stations - none of them would dare even hint at such a story. Gentlemen, once again the British Newspaper Press is the last bastion of freedom and independent thought. It is our sacred duty - and that of the Daily Prophet - to prove it and use the power of the press to stop him before it happens!"
She paused, impressively. Colin's jaw dropped.
"But - but Miss Skeeter - what about Neville, if that's so?"
Neil and Simon looked at him pityingly. Neil spoke first.
"I'm sorry - if he's a friend of yours. At this moment in time, to look on the bright side, the most likely explanation is that he's a Mere Dupe and unaware of his lover's Sinister Plans. But we haven't quite worked out where he fits into the overall story. We'll keep you posted, though."
Colin set his jaw.
"Look, have you thought everything through carefully? I mean, couldn't there possibly be an alternative explanation? I mean, all this seems to have a lot of supposition about it. Oh my god!"
The pain he had experienced twice before suddenly hit him simultaneously in both ankles, and he was unable to repress an audible yelp of pain.
Rita Skeeter looked coldly at him.
"Have you quite finished?"
He nodded, wordlessly.
"Good. Your job on this team is to follow orders, Creevey, not question either our tactics or our strategy. Understood?"
He nodded again. She swept impressively to her feet in order to leave, but wrecked the effect by allowing the heavy sleeve of her robe to swing round as she did so and bring the ashtray, a half-empty chilly coffee cup and her blue folder crashing to the ground. Colin dived into the wreckage in order to assist. He scooped together a bundle of scattered papers and handed them over to her, catching sight, as he did so, of an upside down galley proof which had evidently slithered from the folder.
"Composito", he breathed, surreptitiously, and immediately the upside-down words were as legible as if they had been the right way up in front of him. Could Malfoy Be Dark Lord's Secret Love-child? the headline ran. But before he could read more he caught Rita's beady eye upon him.
"Thank you," she breathed through compressed lips and swept out, clutching the recovered folder to her. Neil and Simon followed in her wake. Camilleri looked at Colin.
"You joined us yesterday, didn't you?"
He nodded. After that morning, it felt like a lifetime.
"Anyone taken you down to the Cauldron for a celebration drink, yet?"
Colin shook his head. Somehow, speech seemed beyond him.
"Well, what are the Prophet's proud journalistic traditions coming to, I ask myself? Call this carrying the torch for the British newspaper press? Come on. I'll stand you lunch."
They left the Prophet buildings, and stepped out into the bright sunshine of DiagonAlley. Although it was a hot day Colin shivered, suddenly and inexplicably. Camilleri caught his elbow as he almost stepped off the kerb into the path of a Ministry cavalcade, which was swinging past, hooting.
"Come on," he said. "You'll feel a lot better after a drink or four."
They made their silent way towards The Leaky Cauldron.
Camilleri led the way towards a corner seat, waved his wand around a couple of times, muttered "Sub rosa" and signalled the inn-keeper over.
"A pint of Old Greenwinkles Extra for me, Tom, with a large Ogden's chaser, straight, and - what'll you have, Colin?"
Colin indicated that cider would be fine, honestly.
"Pint of cider it is. Oh, and Tom?"
"Yes, Mr Camilleri?"
"Keep 'em coming. On my slate, please."
When the drinks were on the table in front of them Colin turned to Camilleri and said :
"Mu - may I ask you something, Mr Camilleri?"
"Only if you call me Chris. Go on, neck some of that. What do you want to know?"
"I couldn't help reading something which slipped out of Miss Skeeter's folder - look, could Draco Malfoy really be You-Know-Who's illegitimate son?"
Camilleri looked faintly baffled for a minute, and then burst into a snort of hearty laughter.
"Oh, god, yes, I'd forgotten that one. Don't tell me Reet's still carrying it around on file."
Colin felt this reaction was not all it should be. Camilleri looked at him, took a quick swallow of his whisky, and said,
"That would be the story about You-Know-Who forcing Lucius Malfoy to let him turn up in Narcissa's bed, all Poly-juiced up, oh, some time in 1979 I suppose it'd have to have been. The yarn's been going the rounds for a fair time."
"And? Could it be true?"
"Persistent little bugger, aren't you? Go well on a doorstep, you will. Yes, of course it could be true. Unfortunately, when we looked at the story closely there wasn't a shred of evidence that it actually was true. So, for some unaccountable technical reason, the Prophet's lawyers insisted we spike it. Reet was livid. Personally, I think it's a load of old cobblers. To begin with, once you got into Narcissa deVries's bed you wouldn't want to limit yourself to an hour, would you? That'd put the kibosh on Poly-juice to begin with."
He stared gloomily into his glass. Then he appeared to recollect himself. "Anyway, Colin, this is your second day in journalism. Can I, as an older and infinitely more battle-scared - no, make that bottle-scarred - journalist than you, offer you some advice if you want your career to last beyond the weekend? Don't, whatever mistakes you propose to make in the rest of your career (and believe me, that includes spelling Voldemort's name wrong in a front page headline and chucking up last night's beer all over the Minister for Magic's boots) ever suggest to the Prophet's star reporter that she's barking up the wrong tree when she's onto a big story. And another thing: it wouldn't be the first time that Rita wrong-footed the lot of us by having a team doing research on what they think the real story is, and then we'll find out she was actually ferreting down some other rabbit-hole altogether. She may be a total bitch, but she is good, and if she thinks there's a story somewhere, then there probably is."
Overcome by this outburst Camilleri drained the contents of both his glasses, and summoned Tom over with refills.
"Anyway," Colin persisted, "wouldn't it be awful for Neville if that did turn out to be true? Imagine doing that with You Know Who's - ugh!"
He shuddered. "Mind you," he added, "I still don't really think Draco can possibly be going to take over as his successor. I mean, think about it."
'Why couldn't he?" Camilleri enquired, his head on one side.
"Well -" Colin pondered for a minute, as if trying to get his thoughts in order. He gestured expansively with his glass, looked at it with an air of faint surprise, and drained it. "In the first place, the words "piss-up" and "brewery" spring irresistibly to mind. And, secondly, what about Neville? I mean, it's all very well what Neil said, but how thick would you have to be not to work out that your -er- lover was planning a campaign for world domination from a house you were both actually living in?"
"Well, I thought Neville was supposed to be particularly stupid. Everything I've ever heard about what he did at school -"
"Oh, don't pay any attention to that crap."
Colin waved his hand impatiently. Looking faintly impressed, Camilleri put another pint of cider in it, and nodded.
"My brother once said something really clever about Neville - well - Dennis is the clever one, you know. He wants to write too, but novels, not journalism - well, Neville waded in to help him in some fight with a couple of Slytherins who were having a go at him because he was a Mudblood - Dennis, I mean - and while they were in the Infirmary for the next day or so they got talking, and Dennis said that he reckoned Neville's real problem was that he wasn't born a Mudblood too."
"Yes?" Camilleri's complex gesture with the lit end of a Gauloise evidently translated to: "Another whisky: hold the bitter" in Tom's code, and he hastened to oblige. Heartened by this unusual show of interest in his theories Colin continued.
"Oh, yes. I mean, when we started showing any sort of magical talent our parents thought it was just unbelievably cool. But there's lots of things Neville can do really well - I mean, ordinary Muggle things - you have got Muggle ancestry, haven't you? I thought I spotted at the meeting -"
"My mother," Camilleri muttered. "But don't spread that sort of thing around too much at the Prophet, either. And don't say I said that. But look up the Board's record in Recent Events next time you're feeling interested in a little - ah - background research on a story."
Colin's eyes widened. For a moment, Camilleri's expression became apologetic. He took another swig of whisky. "You were saying?"
"My brother said that the big problem for Neville was that he was born to a pureblood family, who didn't pay a lot of attention to anything except magic, and that every time they expected him to do something magical in a hurry he got flustered and cocked it up, so he spent most of his childhood just being resigned to being the Family Disappointment."
"Well, if you are planning on being the Family Disappointment, having a boyfriend who's about to unleash a campaign as the next Dark Lord-in-Waiting seems to me like doing the job in spades."
Colin's tone was utterly disbelieving. "Look, doesn't the Prophet ever actually do any research? I mean, I know I got introduced to the Research Department - "
"Um, yes, I know, squashed in between Accounts and Back Numbers. I'm told they're planning put a sign saying "Beware of the Leopard" on the door, to make sure even fewer members of the staff bother them than do already. Listen, son, there's one great rule of journalism: "Research is great, provided you don't let it get in the way of the story". What about it?"
"You mean you don't know what Neville did in Recent Events?"
Camilleri shrugged. "Some sort of backroom job involving potions ingredients, wasn't it?"
"Mm. I suppose you could call it that. I researched it all out last summer, actually, because I thought the Prophet might be a bit interested. You know: 'Hidden Stories of Recent Events', that sort of thing. But they sent it back to me."
Camilleri looked at him owlishly, and finished his pint.
"Happens to the best of us. You should see the cropping the Design Editor does on my best shots, daily. Make's you weep. But go on. S'intriguing."
Colin paused, and took a swallow of cider. Suddenly, it seemed important to tell it, and tell it right. It might only be to one man in a dark smoky room, but he had the story and the duty that came with it.
"Well, of course, because the Death Eaters knew what Potions they were planning to use, they knew what counter-measures the allies would have to take. And they knew, as a result, what Potions ingredients would soon be in short supply. They knew where they grew, and when the allied wizards and witches came in to take them the Death Eaters would be waiting."
He looked across at Camilleri, and spread his palms wide.
"And you know how it is with plants for use in magical applications: they have to be picked at the right phase of the moon, or with the dew on them, and sometimes even the most closely related sub-species just won't do. Or they have to be plucked from the soil living, and transported roots and all. Well, it was just a nightmare. People were dying in thousands, just because there weren't enough people on the allied side who could tell hemlock from wild parsnip."
He paused, and took another swallow. Camilleri, whose hand had been moving towards his cigarettes, held it, frozen. Colin resumed.
"Professor Sprout drafted in everyone she could who had the knowledge to bring back what was needed. It didn't even matter if they were still at school yet, provided they were fifth year or above. Neville - well, no doubt about him having the Herbology knowledge, but they reckon he splinched himself fourteen times before he got his Apparation licence and they let him go out on the raids."
Colin took a sip of cider.
"Actually," he added, "it was more like thirty-two times. He talked Hermione into repairing him the other times, because he was afraid the authorities would stop him trying. Once he'd got his licence he went the whole way through the rest of Recent Events doing that job. As a matter of fact the Death Eaters actually captured him on one mission, and I've never been able to find out how the allies sprung him from Azkaban that time. If anyone knows, they aren't saying. Anyway, do you seriously believe someone with that record would either let his boyfriend drop that on us again, or simply not notice it was happening?"
Camilleri shook his head. "I - I w'dn't think so."
Magically, another round of drinks appeared on the table in front of them. Colin looked faintly appalled at his third pint, but Camilleri waved at it expansively.
"G'wn. Tr'dn of British Press, m'boy. Go 'head."
He drained his whisky and summoned another. He knocked that back in one.
"Rules of life," he said emphatically, waving his fingers into Colin's face. "Key - rules'f LIFE! Rule 1; spell bloody names right. Rule 2: always put in their ages. Rule 3 - bugger it - there is no rule 3. Rule 4 - never fall in love with a woman who's out'f yr reach, boy. Rule 5 - "
He raised himself half out of his chair, waved his arms dramatically and then subsided back on the table, slumped his head on his arms, and began snoring. Colin looked at him in some alarm. Tom tapped him on the shoulder.
"Not to worry, Mr Creevey. We'll look after him. And you needn't mention it back at the -er - "
"Oh, no, definitely not." Colin's hand went towards his wallet, but Tom shook his head.
"All on the slate. Be seeing you. Now, you don't want to be too late back on your second day -"
"Oh, no - "
Colin scurried out of The Leaky Cauldron. Cautiously, Tom approached the figure prone on the table.
"Mr Camilleri, sir?"
"Has he gone?"
Chris did not move his head. Tom parted the blind at the window next to him, took one look and nodded.
"Just going into the Prophet building now."
Camilleri pushed himself upright and ran his fingers through his mop of black hair. Tom beamed at him.
"Nice to see there's nothing wrong. You had me worried for a minute there, sir. Not like you to go all woozy over a lunchtime beer or two. I mean, I can remember when the Wanderers toured the British Isles, and we had the entire squad in here and only you and that young Chaser of theirs walked out of here on your feet - "
"Oh, lord, yes, I remember. He dragged me off into Muggle London and we finally passed out in some gutter in Soho at five o'clock the next morning. Nice lad - could have played for the Aussie national side, I always thought, given a year or two more. And then to get killed in some stupid little skirmish in Recent Events - before he'd even done anything -"
He paused. Tom polished a glass on the cloth he held in his hand.
"Ah, well, sir, thank goodness those times are over, eh?"
"I only hope. I really, really hope."
Camilleri pulled himself together with sudden decision.
"Look, Tom? Can I borrow your fireplace and a pinch of Floo powder?"
"Surely, but - "
"And if the office drop in, tell them I'm off doing the pictures for that 'Witch Gives Birth to Quads' story down in Kent."
Tom handed him a large Chinese-style jar, and paused for a second.
"And if your friends call, sir?"
Camilleri looked at him irritably.
"I'm a journalist, you idiot. We don't have friends. We just have stories."
He stepped into the flames.
Mrs Longbottom looked steadily at him.
"Maybe I do know where Narcissa deVries is. But I can tell you, you're the last person I'd give the information to if I did."
"Second last, surely," Camilleri murmured. She looked at him, and suddenly smiled.
"I do like to see a bit of realism breaking out occasionally. By the accent you'll be a local lad, I take it, despite the Eytie name?"
"Born in Osbaldeston. Though I was brought up in Whalley Range."
"Close enough. Cup of tea?"
There was a pause while Betsey supplied them both with tea. Camilleri sucked it down gratefully, while Mrs Longbottom regarded him out of steady dark eyes.
"So? What do you have to see Narcissa about that's so very, very urgent?"
Camilleri looked round the living room.
"Is this secure?"
"Well - " He licked his lips nervously. "I shouldn't be doing this, you know."
Mrs Longbottom sniffed, sceptically.
"Well, get on with it then, before you change your mind."
His eyes were hooded under his dark brows. There was an underlying pallor to his face, so his normal even olive tan lay like an unhealthy scum on top of it.
"This would be the end for me, if this gets out. Look, Reet's on a story and something about it just smells all wrong. Really, really - wrong, somehow. I was worried anyway, and then something one of our junior reporters said just clinched it. And I need to speak to Narcissa right away."
Mrs Longbottom filled up the teacups again.
"This story will be about young Draco, I take it."
Camilleri looked up at her in alarm.
"So he is doing something to worry you?"
Mrs Longbottom pursued her lips. "Well, he's obviously not eating properly, and it doesn't look as though he's getting enough sleep, either - I'll thank you not to look at me in that tone of voice, young man - but I don't suppose that's the kind of worried you had in mind. Oh, use your brains. It's obvious the story had to be about Draco, or you wouldn't be so anxious to get hold of Narcissa. There'd be no point in breaking it to her that the Minister for Magic wears ladies' underwear in a fetching fine-mesh chain-mail, she wouldn't be interested."
Camilleri contemplated this for some seconds.
"Is that true?" he asked. Mrs Longbottom favoured him with a saurian smile.
"That, as they say, young man, is for me to allege and you to verify. But I can tell you one thing for free: if you're about to spoil your boss's big story, then you'd better have something up your sleeve to put in its place."
"Rita isn't my -"
"Come off it, young man - if the Prophet decides it's got to get rid of one of you over this business, which will it choose?"
He sunk his face gloomily into the teacup, and declined to comment. Mrs Longbottom got stiffly to her feet.
"Look, this is the best I can do for you," she said. "I really can't give you Narcissa's whereabouts just like that. If she took it the wrong way - well, I'm older and know more hexes, but she's younger and has got sharper reactions. But I'll send her an express owl this minute, telling her what you've just told me, and asking her to get in touch with you directly. After all, it'll only waste a day, and nothing much can happen in that time, at least not if you keep your eyes peeled."
After a moment's thought, Camilleri nodded. He rose to his feet and extended his hand.
"Well, thanks," he said. "I don't know if I'm being all sorts of idiot - but thanks for helping me do it, anyway."
"You're welcome." She eyed him narrowly. "Just one question."
"How do you propose to keep her in the style to which she's accustomed, if you do get lucky?"
He spun rapidly round.
"How did you-?"
Mrs Longbottom smiled again. "I recollect how you were looking at her when you were last here. It might've been three quarters of a century ago, but young men used to look at me in that way once. A few of them, at least, on a Saturday night when I'd gone to a bit of trouble with my hair. And now you're here, telling me you're about to risk your job, and give up the chance of being in on an exclusive story - I thought an exclusive was more or less a religion to you people? Don't try to fool me that you're doing this on a pure point of principle."
Camilleri shook his head helplessly. "No. But what chance do I have? What can you offer to the woman who's got everything?"
Mrs Longbottom sniffed. "A good laugh'd be a reasonable start, I should think, in Narcissa's case. Oh, go on with you. And the best of luck. Count on me for a bit of help if you need it. Heaven knows what sort of trouble she'd end up with if she was left to her own devices. Getting off with some sponging playboy ne'er do well, I shouldn't wonder. I never thought I'd find myself saying this about anyone, but her son's got far better taste in men than she has. And you can stop sniggering: I'm not saying that just because Neville's family. Anyway, run along. I've got an urgent owl to send."
Camilleri turned, thought of saying something, changed his mind, and flung a pinch of Floo powder into the fireplace. Just before the flames engulfed him Mrs Longbottom called out,
"Oh, and don't forget about the marabou feather trim. That's very important."
He grinned, and vanished.
Betsey appeared to clear away the tea-things. Mrs Longbottom looked at her.
"Have you got young Neville's room ready for tomorrow?"
"I'se just finished, Madam."
"Good. Now, I wonder, should I tell him anything about this?"
She walked over to the window and looked out across to the Hill. The white clouds were scurrying fast across the sky, casting small shadows that rushed over the summer fields, and then chased each other away. Through the open window she could hear the distant sounds of a skylark singing. Mrs Longbottom shook her head decisively.
"No," she said to herself. "It'll only worry him. And we don't know anything definite yet. Better wait and see what young Narcissa manages to get out of that excessively devoted young man."
"Go to the pub? Which pub?"
"Your local, I thought. I mean, we could go to the pub in my village, but you know the Ministry's got a campaign on against drinking and Flooing, and Apparation makes me feel pissed even if I'm not."
"Ah," Draco murmured, "my definition of a cheap date."
"And as I've got to be in Lancashire tomorrow and Thursday anyway, there's no reason to go up there tonight as well. Plus, Betsey's related to the cellar-elves in practically all of the Fence, Read and Whalley pubs, so anything we did there would get straight back to Grandma."
Draco looked hopeful.
"Were you proposing to do anything particularly newsworthy?"
"Even missing the black from a straight pot is newsworthy by the time Grandma gets onto it," Neville muttered darkly.
"Ah, well, if it's pool you're after that definitely means the Muggle pub in the village. The Gibbeted Exciseman hasn't heard of a game more recent than Shove Sickle, and anyway, I suspect the family's still barred, despite Recent Events. OK, I'm on. Grab your coat: the slobbering furballs could do with some exercise, anyway."
Marvolo and Riddle looked up at Draco with single-minded adoration. He gestured imperatively towards the back door, and they were there, instantly, all quiver and wag, before he unlatched it.
"God, sometimes they remind me so of father," Draco muttered as he and Neville strode out into the evening. A soft summer drizzle had set in, silvering their clothes and the dogs' coats with a shimmering film like the blood of ghosts in the light of the waning moon as they moved down the track through the blessedly unpopulated night-scented woodland. "If only the Dark Lord had taken up breeding spaniels instead of trying for world domination. Imagine the trouble he'd have been spared."
The lounge bar of the Rose and Crown was brightly lit. Around the fruit machine a gaggle of the Nelcorp management trainees, Dudley prominent among them, argued noisily over holds and nudges. Perched on the edge of a table just behind them, Melanie held onto the remains of her warm half of cider with an air of pathetic festivity. Draco semi-waved as he and Neville came in, and slipped Marvolo and Riddle's collars. They bounded over to her and she fussed gratefully over them, as Neville and Draco vanished into the public bar through the elaborate arch, which bore a florid inscription to the effect that the Rose & Crown had been Humbly and Refpectfully Honoured to Welcome His Moft Efteemed and Martial Grace the Duke of Cumberland on the 14th July 1747 on the Occafion of the Building's Re-opening and Extenfion.
One of the bar staff appeared at Melanie's elbow with a bowl of water for the two dogs, which they snuffled at greedily. Somehow, at the same time, a glass of white wine materialised on the table in front of her. Meanwhile, in the public bar, five twenty pence pieces, which had been "on" the edge of the pool table, waiting for a turn, disappeared instantly. The Rose and Crown might be the Muggle pub in the village, but it had been there for four hundred years, and news like the Malfoy family tends to get around.
"So, then, why don't we go on back to the Manor and give our landlord a bit of a surprise, eh? Try letting off some of those firecrackers on his side of the house, eh? Wake him up a bit, what do you think?"
'I don't think that's going to work, Dudley."
It was the sixth time Melanie had said it, and nothing surprised her more than when one of the trainees - a plump, prematurely balding twenty-two year old from St Andrew's called Jake - said:
'Why not? Enlighten us, oh beauteous one."
She bit her lip, gritted her teeth and muttered:
"Because as a matter of fact your landlord isn't asleep back at the Manor. He's next door in the public bar, playing pool. He has been for the last hour and a quarter. Oddly enough, for about the same length of time his spaniels have been curled up under my chair."
Jake did a well-choreographed double take. Then, very, very slowly he looked under the table. He came up again, mugging elaborately for the benefit of the other trainees.
"Fashion update, fashion update. That was not, after all, Melanie Schickelgruber's idiosyncratic take on the pony-skin clog. No, sorry to mislead you out there, folks. Our favourite model is - that is, really is - wearing two dogs on her feet. Well, as the old saying goes, takes two to know one. Hey - only kidding, Melanie love. You look fantastic, sweetie."
Dudley had been cackling as hard as the others. Then, rather slowly, he said:
"Why don't we go next door? At Sweetings no-one ever beat me at pool. Why don't we show our landlord where he gets off?"
The trainees applauded noisily. Melanie said doubtfully,
"Dudley? Is that really a good idea?"
Her feeble protest went unheard. The whole whooping mob piled enthusiastically under the arch. Melanie drifted unwillingly in their wake, Riddle and Marvolo wuffling enthusiastically at her heels.
On the pool table things were getting tense.
Within the first five minutes Draco had realised that Neville was a considerably better pool player than he would ever be. It did not take him many minutes longer to realise that this placed him in the same boat as approximately 98% of the inhabitants of the counties of Wiltshire and Dorset. By halfway through the second game most of the village was thronging the public bar. As in all rural pubs in areas with high rainfall and atrocious transport infrastructure the local pool standards were high, and this, for the connoisseur, was a piece of pure artistry.
By the time the trainees arrived, a rare mistake in the fifth game had left Neville's only remaining stripe sitting un-pottably behind the black. Three spots remained on the table. Draco brushed blue chalk on the webbing between his thumb and forefinger and circled the table with a predatory air.
Even Marvolo and Riddle curbed their natural exuberance, and flopped peacefully into the shadows under one of the tables. Melanie unobtrusively nudged them back even further with her heel.
Dudley hissed in her ear:
"So who's the other bloke? The one who can actually play?"
Melanie blushed crimson.
'He's - er - I think he's a school friend. Staying at the Manor -"
Jake looked at her.
"I think he's a school friend," he mimicked suddenly, in a harsh, high-pitched voice. "Come on, Melly dearest. Tell us what you know about the wicked Count. After all, you seem to have spent your off duty time getting very close to him."
Dudley looked up at him in sudden alarm.
"What're you getting at, eh?"
"Oh, I'm sure Melly's going to tell you. No secrets for a nice, sweet, girl like our Melly. Unless maybe she's let the wicked Count get even closer than we all suspect."
Dudley's brows gathered together. Before the storm could break Melanie drew herself up to her full five foot four and said with dignity,
"If you are going to exercise your dirty mind, Jake Middleton, you should try to get your facts straight. If I were planning to cheat on Dudley (which of course I never would) your landlord's the last person I'd choose. He's gay, for what it's worth. That's his boyfriend he's playing pool with now."
"Well, what do you know?"
Neville considered the snooker he'd been left in from three different angles. Then, with infinite care and precision, he curved the cue ball past the obstructing spot by a matter of millimetres. The final stripe rolled gently into the pocket. It was the work of seconds to finish the game after that.
"So, I lose five - nil. How do you want to take your winnings?"
Draco's eyes sparkled at him with wicked amusement.
Neville caught the look, and returned it. "We-ell, I could always insist on -"
"Excuse me." The flipped twenty pence piece landed squarely in the middle of the green baize. "They do play winner stays on in this pub, don't they?"
"Yes, but I'm not bothered, if you'd rather-"
"No. That's fine. Just - fine."
Dudley started to frame up the balls for the game. Melanie stood watching him, biting her lips and looking tense and unhappy. On impulse, Draco tapped Dudley's arm.
"Doubles? Neville and me against you and your girlfriend?"
Dudley looked momentarily undecided. Jake winked at him from his vantage point by the bar.
"Play it as pairs if that's what he wants."
Neville broke, putting a spot down. There was little else on: he tucked the cue ball safely against a cushion, and handed his cue to Draco. Dudley made a performance of chalking his own cue, did something flashy, and edged one of the stripes into the centre pocket. In quick succession he potted two more. Jake orchestrated the trainees in a round of mocking applause. Dudley bowed, over-reached himself, and left the fourth stripe teetering on the edge of the top pocket.
Neville whispered briefly in Draco's ear. Draco nodded and hit the cue ball gently the whole length of the table to break up the remaining spots and come safely to rest on the far side of them. Melanie advanced nervously to the table.
She looked at the position from a number of angles, and raised her eyes in a helpless appeal for assistance. Dudley moved bossily over to the table.
"Here," he said. "Hit the cue-ball quite hard. Aim it at my finger."
He put his finger on the cushion edge, marking where she should hit to double back onto the stripe in the centre of the table.
One of the Nelcorp trainees leaned over to Jake. Draco, whose ears were acute, clearly heard him say, "At least that gives her a two-inch target to aim at."
Melanie drew back the cue and self-evidently gave the cue ball all she had. It shot rapidly across the table; hit the cushion just below Dudley's finger; doubled back to bounce off the cushion in front of her; hit the further cushion once more, and finally, its momentum slowing at last, just brushed the stripe which Dudley had left poised. The perilously balanced ball teetered, and with infinite slowness plopped over the edge and into the pocket.
"Oh," she said in a deeply surprised voice, nervously eyeing the cue ball where it had finally come to rest somewhere in the middle of the table, a long way both from the cushions and from the nearest available stripe. She leant as far as she could over the table to line up the shot, teetering on tiptoe on one precarious foot, and as she did so her left breast gently displaced one of the remaining spots by about half an inch.
"Oops!" Melanie said. Dudley glared at her, and Jake muttered: "two shots." Neville turned round from an apparent rapt contemplation of the Minor Counties cricket schedule that was hanging against the bar wall.
"I didn't see anything," he said. Jake snickered.
"No, I suppose noticing tits wouldn't be much in your line. Even such a fine pair as our Melly's. In the - er- circumstances."
Draco, leaning against the bar, paled to dead white. His lips were compressed to bloodless lines, his nostrils were flared to dark pits, and there were deep indentations showing either side of them. Ignoring him, Neville looked straight back at Jake. His voice was completely uninflected.
"I said, I didn't see anything. Your shot, Melanie."
She bent over the table again, and this time tapped the cue ball with unexpected gentleness. It drifted with agonizing slowness down the table, finally coming to rest just against the purple stripe in the very centre of the table. Neville considered the position briefly, played the cue ball with micrometer accuracy away from the purple stripe, doubled a spot, and left it covering one of the top pockets, neatly cutting off Dudley's two best chances of potting any of the three remaining stripes. Dudley chalked his cue elaborately, strutted over to the table, and just missed potting a stripe into the bottom pocket. He swore, and stepped back to let Draco play.
With the narrowest of edges, Draco put the only pottable spot cleanly and without fuss down into the same pocket, knocking the stripe away up the table in the process. The cue ball cut back neatly into an ideal position for the next spot, which he put down with equal efficiency into a centre pocket. He spun round, stalked to the other end of the table, put a lot of stun on the cue ball and potted another spot, leaving the cue ball spinning on its axis in mid table. Neville cast a speculative glance towards the chair on which they had left their coats, but so far as he could tell Draco's wand was still where he had left it when they came in, tucked into the concealed holster in his raincoat sleeve, and at the bottom of the pile.
Draco paced round the table, considered two alternative possibilities, lined up his shot, and hit the cue ball smartly at the spot which lay nestled against the cushion at the far end of the table. With a sound which Neville felt was queasily reminiscent of a club cracking a human skull, the cue ball hit cushion and spot simultaneously, bringing the spot back up the table and into the pocket immediately in front of Draco. He considered the cue ball, tapped it gently, and allowed it to run back down the table, gently deflecting the penultimate spot towards the top left pocket. It moved with dignity down the table, hesitated, and the rub of the baize toppled it gently down into the pocket's embrace.
"Excuse me," Draco said, sliding sideways into a space between the group of management trainees leaning against the bar and bending over the table, preparing to tap the final spot into the centre pocket, leaving him with a clear shot at the black.
Jake looked straight at Dudley, and grinned, meaningfully. Dudley caught the eyes of the other trainees, and, with a huge wink, leaned over and, very deliberately, pinched Draco's left buttock, hard. Draco miscued, spectacularly. His cue tip must have missed cutting the cloth by a hair's breadth. The remaining balls scattered at random, and the black went down. He straightened up and spun round in a single blindingly fast movement, the cue brought to an attack position by pure reflex. Dudley recoiled, but kept the sneer fixed on his face.
"What's the problem? I was told you appreciated that sort of thing. Oh, and it's our game, I see. "
Draco's gaze swept him coldly from feet to head and back again. There was dead silence in the bar. On the very edge of Draco's peripheral vision he could sense that Neville had positioned himself quietly to cover his right side, a little behind him. Behind Jake's grinning head Draco saw the barman make a tiny hand movement. In response, and unnoticed by the Nelcorp trainees, three men who looked like the front row of the village rugby team moved with the slow-burning menace of dischuffed hippopotami to cut off the available exits. The barman caught Draco's eye, and gave a small, significant nod. It was a village where even to be born in the bed one's grandfather was conceived in could not always prevent one being classified as a transient and an incomer. The Malfoys might be unpopular in the village, but six and a half hundred years of history confirmed that they were unquestionably Local.
Jake and one of the other trainees detached themselves from their positions against the bar and moved to flank Dudley. The two remaining trainees took off their jackets, and tried to look menacing in the background. Melanie looked helplessly across the divide between the two groups.
"Look, can you all stop being such idiots? Dudley, just stop this right now."
"Get out of this, Melanie," Dudley snapped. "It's none of your business."
She moved back against the bar, her eyes wide, the dogs pressing against her legs. Dudley turned to face Draco again.
"Well?" Dudley persisted. "Isn't it true you take it up the arse?"
There was a collective sharp intake of breath. The villagers had long memories, and a vibrant tradition of oral history, and most of them were quite aware that no Malfoy had been publicly insulted in that bar since 1746.
Draco looked him up and down slowly once more, and smiled sweetly. Several of the more perceptive customers of the Rose and Crown faded rapidly out into the night.
"Why bother speculating?" he drawled. "I can assure you it's never going to be of any personal relevance to you."
Dudley blinked, bemusedly. Draco balanced himself lightly on the balls of his feet, and waited. Swapping Repartee With the Hard of Thinking was a subject in which he was confident he could obtain an "A" grade NEWT with no prior revision at any time. Although Jake's eyes flashed meaningfully, Dudley evidently decided to abandon any attempt to work out Draco's last comment as a bad job, and returned to what he saw as the principal argument. His hands were the size of hams, he had twice Draco's breadth and he overtopped him by at least six inches. And he had, in his day, been the Headmasters' Conference Boxing Champion (Heavyweight Division). He advanced a yard closer. His face was within a foot of Draco's.
"Look, Malfoy," Dudley breathed. "Give me one reason - just one - why I shouldn't spread your pretty face across the floor of this bar so thinly your boyfriend'll have to scrape it up with a shovel next time he wants a kiss."
Draco put his head on one side, and assumed an attitude of deep cogitation. On the very outer edge of his hearing - where sense meets thought - he knew he could detect Neville saying: "Draco! No!" But there was a roar of sheer adrenaline like the pounding sea in his ears and the mot juste had him in its embrace, and was carrying him helplessly onwards towards the shore.
"Only one reason?" he drawled. His body relaxed, his lips curled with sheer amusement, his eyes widened, and his serene gaze met Dudley's full on. "Well, if you insist on limiting me to one reason - how about - say - for old times sake?"
He saw Dudley looking as baffled as expected, and paused for two beats before pressing home his advantage.
"I mean - after all - I was at school with your cousin Harry, you know."
For one perfect moment the scene was frozen, and then Dudley backed away from him so fast that he slammed his back into the edge of the bar and knocked the wind out of himself completely. As he went purple and spluttered, and the Nelcorp trainees pounded him uncomprehendingly on the back and arms, Draco moved forward to peer down at him in a concerned way, and said: "Sorry you don't seem to be entirely well, at the moment. Anyway, as I understood it, your last remark was an invitation to step outside. Whenever you're ready. Melanie, could I possibly ask you to keep the dogs with you in here? They get really distressed at loud bangs and agonized screaming noises."
Dudley, half supine, looked up at him and screamed, "No! No! Get away from me, you unnatural pervert!"
He scrambled to his feet, and bolted from the bar, the baffled Nelcorp trainees following in his wake. Melanie, caught again between two camps, paused, briefly and looked back at the two of them. Neville shook his head, firmly, waving a hand towards a convenient door. Reluctantly she drifted out into the night. Draco flopped into a convenient chair, breathing heavily. Neville sat down opposite him, looked as though he was about to say something, and then shrugged, relapsing into silence. The dogs collapsed at their feet. An improbably bewhiskered drinker who had maintained a resolute silence throughout the whole episode got up, favoured the bar with a filthy look, and muttered, "I can't take sich nonsense" before taking himself off into the night. Some of the locals began to forgather around the abandoned pool table. The barman drifted up with two large whiskies and an apologetic expression.
"I'm sorry, Mr Malfoy," he said. "Blow-ins. No manners. Thanks for - er - "
Draco looked up at him. At the back of a deeply exhausted and defeated expression there remained a tiny flicker of amusement. He dug into the pockets of his discarded raincoat, pulled out a ten-pound note, looked at it with some bemusement, and pushed it across to the barman.
"Here," he said. "Have one on me. Drink to - let's see - not being the men our fathers were. That should do it."