The half moon laid a track of dancing silver across the dark waters of the Adriatic. The island seemed to have been cut off from time and space: it could hardly have changed in two thousand years. The warm night air was thick with the scent of lavender and thyme; the cicadas clicked unmusically in the sparse but aromatic undergrowth which covered the thin soil below the terrace's balustrade. Under the first trees of the small citrus grove in which the terrace ended Camilleri could see a reflected wisp of escaped moonlight. He thrust his hands into his pockets in case their sudden shaking betrayed him, and strode forward.
"Do you come here often?"
Narcissa's cool, mocking tone arrested his progress before he was halfway to his objective. It was the mockery to which he responded, as he retorted automatically.
"As a matter of fact, I haven't even come here once. So far this evening."
She emerged fully from under the shadow of the trees.
"I ought to warn you," she said levelly, "that if your next comment is, 'there's a party in my trousers and you're invited' I'll be Disapparating out of here so fast that the air molecules will probably weld together behind me."
Camilleri threw back his head and laughed.
"No-one ever seriously used that line on you, did they?"
Her lips compressed into two thin lines. He was unsure whether they repressed amusement or disgust.
"Unfortunately, they did. To make matters worse, they did it in French. But, I'm sorry to say, without attempting the accent. However, I can tell you that your opening comment just about squeezes in there among the ten worst chat up lines I've ever experienced."
"Really?" Camilleri looked interested. "You might drop me an owl with the other eight some day. You never know when they might come in handy."
Narcissa gestured towards a small table on the terrace close by her, bearing a small array of glasses, bottles and a cocktail shaker.
She reached out her left hand to him with the drink. She wore no rings, Camilleri noted. In the moonlight the slender curve of her elegant bare arm looked as bloodless and cold as alabaster. A light breeze sprang up from the sea, dancing the dust and the twigs from the trees along the terrace in ghostly eddies. He shivered momentarily. He had not meant to say it, but the unrelenting white marble of the terrace floor and balustrade reminded him too strongly of a mausoleum, and he found himself uttering the question before he could stop it.
"Did you kill your husband, Narcissa?"
Her voice betrayed no emotion, and little interest, apparently.
"Well, not with a cocktail shaker, I can assure you."
Camilleri met her gaze, and held it. She shrugged her shoulders, allowing her sleeveless ivory robe to rearrange itself in a different composition of classically sculpted folds around her.
'When I took the decision I did I certainly had no illusions about what it would mean for Lucius. If I succeeded, he would die. So yes: my deliberate act led directly to my husband's death. To that extent, I killed him. Does it really matter whose hand actually did it? His, or Voldemort's, or some anonymous Auror's, or mine?"
His eyes remained fixed on Narcissa. She stood in the moonlight like the statue of an archaic deity, brought from the loot of sacked palaces by some long dead Emperor to decorate his terrace.
"Well, it might to Draco," he said apologetically.
"True. It might."
She continued looking out at the sea, as her hands automatically poured herself a gin and tonic. He noticed that she spilt a little of the tonic as she poured. Her hands were not as steady as the rest of her, either. Camilleri smiled, suddenly.
"Do you want a slice of lemon in that?"
She nodded. He reached a hand up into the tree branches above her head and plucked one. Then, he pulled a Swiss army knife from his pocket and chopped the lemon into neat slices, finally spearing one on the point of the knife and dropping it into Narcissa's drink. She raised one eyebrow in a quizzical arch.
"You know, every other wizard I know would have used his wand for that."
Camilleri looked Narcissa straight in the eye.
"Well, I did, actually," he said, deadpan. "That's an orange tree."
With her snort of laughter the tension suddenly broke. Statues of goddesses never snigger. Camilleri moved next to her, leaned negligently against the balustrade, and lit a Gauloise. A small cloud of fireflies fluttered up to see if they had company, and then left in disgust.
"So," Narcissa said. "Why are you here? "
Camilleri took a long drag on his cigarette before answering.
"I'm not at all sure," he said eventually. "But - in case you're worrying - it isn't some cunning ploy to get an unguarded snap-shot of you, or something."
Narcissa smiled. Subtle serpent of old Nile. There was more like four hundred years of experience than forty behind her smile.
"Oh, I know that. If there'd been any concealed photographic equipment on you it'd have self destructed by now. Unlike my son, I do believe in taking sensible precautions against the Press. There are some very state of the art anti-surveillance charms on this terrace. You must have made quite an impression on Emily Longbottom, by the way."
This abrupt change of direction, Camilleri guessed, was intended to befuddle him. He spared a second to breathe a brief prayer of gratitude to whichever guardian presence had warned him, in a voice too strong to ignore, that carrying his habitual breast pocket camera to this meeting would be outside the spirit, if not the letter, of the terms which Narcissa's owl had brought to him earlier in the day. Then - well, two can play at that game. He smiled blandly back at her.
"So, Narcissa, do you think Draco's gearing up to kick off a new round of Recent Events?"
Her long fingers tightened convulsively on the balustrade.
"Oh, god, won't you bastards ever let up? No, of course I don't. If that's all you wanted a pretext to ask, you can get out of here, now. Go on!"
Her voice shook, and her eyes were bright with unshed tears.
Camilleri did not move. "Why are you so sure?" he asked gently. She half turned, and looked up at him, as though trying to read something from his face and voice. He apparently passed the test: she let out a shuddering breath and said:
"Because he lost so much the last time around. And because he'd lose everything else that matters to him if he tried anything of the sort. And because - I hope - he's got more sense."
Camilleri nodded. Narcissa took a sip of her gin and tonic, took three deep breaths, and then added more calmly,
"Plus, I expect he's worked out by now that you can't combine a campaign for world domination with a three hour lie-in every morning."
Unbidden, Camilleri's thoughts strayed to what-ifs. What if You-Know-Who's mother had lived? Could he really have embarked upon two devastating campaigns of terror against the whole wizarding world in the certain knowledge that while he might have cowed everyone else, there remained One who might pop up and say: "Yes, I know the whole Army of the Dark Side is waiting for your word to unleash Armageddon, but you can't do it in that robe. The seam's starting to split at the back. And when did you last order your lackeys to clean those boots?"
"A very weighty argument, that last one," he said solemnly. "It'd fly for me. I'm not a morning person either. Unfortunately, it's going to be Reet you'll have to convince. And, as she isn't, or, so far as I know, ever has had a mother (if you ask me, I reckon she came out of an egg) I think she's going to discount your opinion fairly heavily. "
The surprise, he realized, was genuine. The beautiful brows knitted in puzzlement.
"But - she can't really think that Draco would - Oh, but that's ridiculous."
He lit another Gauloise. Some night bird began to call from within the olive grove that fell down the hillside below the balustrade to the sea, two hundred feet below.
"She's been working on the story for months. The Prophet's obviously given her carte blanche to involve who she likes and take them off anything else she chooses. She keeps on hinting that it's going to be big - and make everyone's reputation. Limitless exes, too. No wonder most of the people she's involved so far thinks the sun shines out of her - eyes. She also claims to have some sort of mole within the Manor itself, though that could just be a bit of typical Reet smoke and mirrors. And - she really would kill me if she knew I was here now, so I hope those anti-surveillance charms are as good as you claim they are."
Narcissa took three strides down the terrace, turned, and paced back.
"It just doesn't make any sense at all," she muttered. "Just on practicalities alone it's a total nonsense. If Draco had been planning anything of the sort, he wouldn't have balked at murdering Hermione. If he'd killed her, that would have left him with only about four strategic murders before he could step into an established power base and a winning position. Tough ones, of course, but still - Why go to all that trouble to sacrifice the power base and the position, nearly getting killed in the process, if he's then going to decide to go for it the hard way? Waste of time, waste of money, waste of opportunity. Totally bloody idiotic."
Camilleri swallowed, hard, and tried not to let Narcissa notice that he had done so. He pictured putting this very logical assessment to Neil and Simon, and shook his head at the thought, only to notice that Narcissa was doing so as well.
"No, that'd be a downright stupid plot. And I don't like that Skeeter cow, but I don't think she's stupid. If she thinks she's on the track of a plot - and if she isn't lying - then it has to be some other plot. You did say smoke and mirrors, didn't you? The question is, then, what's she really after?"
The moment had come. Camilleri licked his tongue over suddenly dry lips, took a deep breath and said, "I don't know, but I'm very much afraid it might be - you."
Narcissa spun on one heel, in a cloud of flying draperies.
He nodded. "I've known her a very long time. And she isn't at all a nice person, but she is, basically, very professional. She knows where the line is, and she hits it, dead on, 98% of the time. About the only time I can remember her coming a cropper was with young Hermione, a few years ago. And she bounced back from that pretty effectively, too. But when I saw her in action with you in October - well, she was different. Her emotions were involved. It was all dead serious and dead personal. Fr'instance, when we had that time-out, when I was talking her out of taking that line about - er - about your late husband - she started necking back antacid from a bottle in her handbag like it was going out of fashion. A pro like Reet shouldn't be so nervous about a basic pants-down parlez-vous that her digestion goes back on her, for god's sake."
Narcissa's face froze. "It's always interesting to learn the technical expressions for things. I take it that 'pants-down parlez-vous' will be Prophet jargon for 'Confronting the family of those you are about to crucify publicly, to discuss exactly where the nails get hammered in hardest'? Do you ever think about your victims in the days and weeks afterwards? When the newspaper articles have gone to line the bottoms of gerbil cages, and you're off after some newer quarry, your unspeakable readers are still sending in Howlers by every post, and every chance acquaintance the poor so-and-sos have ever had calls up to disapprove, or express their gushing, sticky-beaking sympathy, or offer their unparalleled advice as to exactly what they should have done to avoid it all - "
Her breath ran out. She took another swallow of her drink, and swung round to look determinedly away from him. Her beautiful profile was stark against the moon-path on the dark sea.
His heart stopped, momentarily, and then started up again, very fast. He was breathing harder, too.
"No. I don't get to see that side, I admit. And I agree, maybe it isn't a very nice job. But then, nor was running a salon on behalf of You-Know-Who, if I wanted to start being uncouth, and mentioning things that you'd rather gloss over, Narcissa. Look, I freely admit I thought it was a total hoot when that picture hit my desk. It wasn't exactly as if it was anything all that serious - about half the Prophet staff has been spotted doing worse at the office party, for god's sake. And I did get a kick out of seeing a Malfoy land himself in it."
He paused, briefly, to light another cigarette. It took him a number of attempts. His hands were trembling unashamedly now.
"You see, I had a brother. A few years older than me. A - a Squib, I suppose you'd say. He didn't mind much, I think. He thought my magic was a total hoot. Meet my weird brother, and if he likes you he might show you his wand. That's how he used to introduce me to girls at parties. He played in a rock band. Got on Top of the Pops once - well, I don't suppose that means anything to you. It meant a hell of a lot to me, I can tell you. He could only have been more famous in Whalley Range if the City scouts had picked him up. And then one day - "
He spread his hands.
"Nothing. He vanished. The Ministry wasn't interested. Could be anything, they said. Did I know all about the dodgy Muggle circles he moved in? No? Then investigate those. Tell the Muggle police. Don't worry us with alarmist reports; we have enough on our plates dealing with the Wizards who are vanishing daily. And we tried to believe he'd walk in next day - or the day after. Sometimes, I still think that. But - when I was outside Flourish & Blotts, a few weeks later, just about to buy my books for my sixth year, and Lucius Malfoy passed me in the street - he recognized me. And he shouldn't have done. Oh, I knew who he was, all right. I'd already planned to go into journalism and I was reading every publication, every edition, seeing what they did right, what they did wrong. And he'd been Witch Weekly's most eligible bachelor a fortnight before. But there was no reason why he should have recognized me. But, when he passed me, his eyes flickered. And then he tried to hide it. And ever since then, I always thought I knew."
He paused, momentarily. The rigid line of Narcissa's backbone had started to droop, but her head still determinedly faced seawards.
"Tell me, do you think any of us can ever win the post-war?" Her voice was muffled.
Camilleri carried on as though he had not heard her, though his voice softened.
"Which is why - if you did happen, by some chance, to know whose hand actually did do it - you might put a drink in it from me, perhaps. And from my brother."
Narcissa turned, and his arms were waiting for her. She buried herself against his shoulder making small, incoherent, sobbing noises. His hand went up to her hair, and began to stroke it rhythmically. Her hands reached up to encircle his back and waist, and pull him closer. They held each other for a long time. It was Narcissa who broke away first.
"So," she said, in a perfectly neutral voice, "what happens next?"
Camilleri tried to read her expression in the half-light.
"We can separate - or go on together. I would - appreciate the latter. Very much. But I can see in the circumstances that given my background - given my job - I've nothing to offer you - you've no reason to trust me -"
Narcissa gave a small, impatient shrug.
"Much that matters. I've only been to bed with one man in my entire life whom I actually trusted."
It was inevitable. He was a journalist, and the urge to ask intrusive questions at inopportune moments was stamped through him like Blackpool went through rock.
"And - ?"
She turned to look out to sea again. "Oh, he married my best friend. On whom it turned out he was cheating when he slept with me. To win a bet with his own friends, I understood later. I gave her a Memory Charm as an engagement present. God, I miss her so much sometimes."
The sea, apparently, was not proposing to give up any ghosts that evening, because Narcissa, after another long stare at it, turned round to face Camilleri, her voice determinedly light.
"Well, I rejected your first line, and I've already seen your wand. Any other offers or have you run out of imagination?"
Camilleri tried to match her tone. "The traditional expression at this stage of the evening, I think, is 'Your place or mine?' Though 'Get your coat, love, you've pulled' has been known."
Narcissa wrinkled her nose. Even that gesture managed to convey the ultimate in chic.
"I know. I have heard that one before, as well."
"Ah. One of the missing eight, perchance?"
She shook her head.
"Comes in at number 17, actually. Well, then, as I'm an old-fashioned girl who believes in tradition -"
Her eyebrows went up in an unmistakable invitation. Camilleri drew a deep breath, and sent his voice down into the depths of his Gauloise-damaged lungs to seek out his huskiest register.
"Your place - or mine, milady?"
She smiled, and his insides turned to water. Her voice was very gentle.
"Actually - this is my place."
He looked up the hill above the terrace, at the baroque marble mass of the villa that tumbled down the slopes of the hill towards the terrace. A summer palace for a Grand-Duke of the Austro-Hungarian empire, no doubt, in the sunlit days before the First World War.
"The - the whole estate?"
She looked faintly apologetic.
"The whole island. But it's a very small one, honestly."
He gathered up all his courage. "In that case, better be my place. After all, I'd like to play you some proper jazz this evening, and I'm sure you can't have a decent hi-fi in that thing."
"And why not?" Her voice was amused, and playful. "Suppose I said I'd had Europe's best consultants, Wizard and Muggle, with an unlimited budget searching for the world's best hi-fi to bring it here and install it to its ultimate capacity?"
His eyes danced, and lit an answering sparkle in Narcissa's.
"They still wouldn't have brought to the job what I brought to it when I selected my system."
"And that was?"
He paused for a heartbeat, and looked her full in the eyes.
"Passion," he said simply.
The nightmare ran its inevitable course. His father turned, faced him at last, stared straight at him with the contempt that had always been there, but always for others, always for others who deserved it. Never for him. He tried to rise, tried to speak, but sank back to the quarry floor, dumb and immobilised. The pieces of his broken wand lay around him. His father regarded him for one endless moment, and then turned on his heel and Disapparated in silence. But he had not been left alone. Never alone. The quarry floor was thick with other corpses. The one nearest to him would have been a clean picked skeleton save for the few mummified rags of flesh clinging to its ribs. With unspeakable horror he noticed it was holding out its bony hand to him. When he froze in panic it caught him by the elbow instead.
"Probably don't remember me, do you? Diggory. Cedric Diggory. Splendid to have you with us at last. I've always said we ought to have a lot more co-operation between Hufflepuffs and Slytherins. I've been trying to get together some interest in a scratch Quidditch team to pass the time away, but frankly the chaps here have been a bit apathetic. Now we've got you on board I'm sure we can change all that. And we've got the chance of an international standard Chaser as soon as he can track down his leg bones."
Draco cried out and thrashed in the bed, clutching out frantically for comfort. But his outstretched arm crashed down through empty air, landing on the cold smooth linen of the unoccupied side. He woke.
He was being grasped by the elbow. A small indistinct figure was shaking it violently, while her face flickered in and out of view, too rapidly to follow.
"Wake up! Wake up! Master Neville is in trouble. Master Neville needs you!"
He dragged himself groggily to a sitting position, and rubbed his hands across his eyes.
The small urgent figure screamed in agony, and then flickered out for a full second, before reappearing, somehow smaller and less definite than before. She screamed again, and bit, hard, at her own wrist to stifle the sound.
"What the -? Betsey? It is Betsey, isn't it?"
She nodded, violently, her mouth open in another inaudible scream.
"What is it? I'm awake, I think. What did you say about Neville? Where is he? What's happened?"
She shuddered from top to bottom, her long pointed ears quivering. In all the discreditable history of his family's dealings with house-elves, he had never seen one as close as this to splinching. House-elves had magic in them like humans had blood; the only thing that could really hurt them was their controlling family. Conflicts of loyalty could tear them apart. Literally.
"Bad men took him. Bad men took madam too. Bad Betsey. Not madam any more. Madwoman, more like! Disloyal to master to call her madam. Betsey must be punished. " Her entire appearance rippled and became insubstantial, then it solidified again. The lines of sheer agony on her face testified to how hard it must be for her to hold her projection in his room. "Master Neville asked for you. Not Master any more. Thwaitsey told me. Ask him. Thwaitsey knows where - aargh!"
"Who's Thwaitsey? Where is he?" Draco asked urgently. She could surely stand only a few more minutes of this. She came into focus again.
"Freemasons Arms. Wiswell. Not far from the house. Not master's house - not never - not - no - no - nooooo -"
Her voice tailed off into a yelp of anguish.
Draco caught up his wand from the bedside table. Betsey shook her head at him so vigorously he feared it might fall off.
"Draco not to use his wand. The Ministry - the Ministry know - Not safe to use. But come. Come quickly."
As she flickered again he felt a stabbing pain hit him from behind both eyeballs. He gasped. He had felt it twice before during Recent Events. It meant that the Manor was under siege. He focused his gaze with an effort on Betsey. She was becoming fainter by the second.
"Freemason's Arms, Wiswell. Thwaitsey. Got it. If you can, tell Neville I'm on my way. But get out of here now. It isn't safe for you to stay. Go and do what you have to do up in Lancashire. Don't let them - I mean, keep your head down. And - thanks. I'll make sure the - the family know what you did. The real family. My word on it."
She gave him a pale ghost of what would in other circumstances have been a cheeky grin, and flickered out. The throbbing pain hit him again. It was much worse than he had experienced it before, but that was surely no surprise. The two previous attempts to take the Manor had been beaten off, and in any case then he had only been the heir, not the owner. Somebody else's problem. When the Manor finally fell during Recent Events he had been beyond feeling anything, but somehow he suspected that the warning system would not have been operating on that occasion.
Without bothering to do more than throw on a dressing gown he sprinted for the muniments room, rummaging frantically in a bureau drawer there for his personal seal. The number of people in the world who were able to read messages sealed with that could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and still leave spares. He grabbed some parchment and scribbled hurriedly. Another bureau drawer yielded up what looked like the Manor's total stash of Muggle money. He grimaced at it as he thrust it into his dressing gown pocket with the sealed and completed notes.
He got to his feet, and paused. A movement from one of the portraits caught his eye. Great Uncle Roger had drawn his rapier, and raised it to him in a gesture of salute. Draco bowed, formally, back to him. Their eyes met in perfect understanding. The Manor might have to be abandoned by its owner, but he would not be without a family representative to oversee his interests once the invaders were in possession. Draco turned and left the muniments room.
His next stop was the Owlery. There were five owls currently in there; he gave each of them the same sealed message. Situation desperate. Use your imagination. Heading for Lancashire now. Neville's owl, the last of the five, was fidgety as he picked her up; her feathers were dishevelled and it looked as though she was beginning a moult. She pecked violently at his fingers.
"I know, I know. I'm doing all I can. You can go and look for him after you've delivered that message, ok? But that has to get through."
She looked searchingly at his face, and then took off through the hatchway with a screech.
The throbbing had temporarily retreated to manageable background pain, but he did not deceive himself that this meant that the attack was lessening.
The defences would hold for some time, but the attackers must beat them down eventually; probably within an hour. Two, at the outside. Even if the owls got through he could expect no reinforcements within that time period.
He redoubled back to his bedroom, dressed himself in the first Muggle clothes he could find, and then started rummaging frantically in Neville's wardrobe for a duffle bag he knew he had seen there. A few moments search found it; he threw a change of his own clothes and one of Neville's in it. Then he picked up his wand, regarding it with an uncertain expression.
Each wand channelled magical energy in a subtly unique way; a wand which could do great things in one wizard's hands might be almost useless or backfire dangerously in the hands of another. That meant, of course, that each witch or wizard's wand created a magical aura when used which was as distinctive as a fingerprint. Wand-makers were required, under the emergency ordinances passed during Recent Events, and not yet repealed, to retain a "print" of the signature energies of any wand they supplied or had back for repairs, so that Aurors could - by use of sophisticated thaumatulurgical sensors - be alerted to its use.
This had, not unnaturally, caused an uproar. Witches and wizards did not necessarily want their every magical action open to scrutiny by the all-seeing eyes of the Ministry. Certain establishments, which existed to provide discreet services to a discerning clientele, mentioned that the idea was inimical to their very existence. Furthermore, the wand makers loathed the rule, since it risked their losing a lucrative section of trade to unscrupulous black market operators. The Ministry had been forced to concede that only a special order, signed off by a Departmental Head or Deputy, based on a genuine belief that the wand concerned had been or would be likely to be used to cast one of a defined class of proscribed enchantments, justified the disclosure of a wand-print. Or, of course, other good and sufficient cause in the general wizarding interest.
Such as, for example, having a great deal too much fun in bed with a senior official's cousin.
The wand was little more than a year old, and, as he had got it from Ollivanders at the height of Recent Events, its print would undoubtedly be on file. On Melanie's story alone the Ministry would have had no difficulty getting a disclosure order. Using it would light up his whereabouts like a bonfire. And if his wand was compromised - he grimaced. The same raft of emergency powers also allowed the Ministry to freeze bank accounts and to require Gringotts to report attempts to access them. It was safe to assume that he was cut off from his cash reserves for the foreseeable future.
Wonderful. You've somehow got to get yourself to Lancashire, to a place you've never heard of, to get vital information out of someone you've never met. And you can't use either money or magic to do it.
The throbbing pain hit him again. The attackers must be getting very close. With sudden decision he thrust the wand into the duffle bag along with a miscellaneous collection of other items from the bedside table, and considered his next move.
There are advantages to living in a house whose builder raised it on the smoking foundations of the building in which his brother was deliberately burned alive. Ways of getting out in a hurry tend to have been considered from the planning stage upwards.
The route he was planning to use existed for one purpose, and one purpose only: it was a last resort to get the owner of the Manor out if in his judgment the Manor was on the point of falling to the enemy and could not be held. It was a way out, never a way in, and its existence and how to get into it were a closely guarded secret, passed only from the owner to his direct heir. It occurred to Draco, with faint surprise, and then renewed surprise that he had not thought of it before, that it was likely that the secret would die with him.
But preferably not in the next half-hour.
The only problem was that the entry to the escape route now lay in the Nelcorp part of the Manor. And, whereas yesterday two spells had enabled him to walk through any security the Nelcorp engineers had been able to put in place without any chance of detection, without his wand that part of the Manor was now cut off from him.
Except, of course, via the roof. And the roof had been his own private playground and kingdom ever since he'd been old enough to get a broomstick up there. Broomsticks were ruled out at the moment, of course, but - there were other means of getting onto the roof. He'd used them successfully in the past. Even if not for a few years.
He looked speculatively at the window.
The Jacobean casement consisted of three small, narrow openings, glazed with diamonded panes, divided by thin bands of honey-coloured stone. He opened one of the windows to its fullest extent and considered the problem. He had undoubtedly been a good bit smaller when he'd got out through it last. However, on the principle that where head and one arm went the rest should follow, it certainly ought to be possible.
He leaned out with the duffle bag and looped the carrying straps round the nearby drain-pipe, leaving it dangling for later collection. One less thing to worry about. Then, he reached out and up, groping for the familiar handholds on the edge of the lead guttering above the window, noting with faintly gratified surprise that any problems which the increased breadth of shoulders he'd gained since he was fourteen might cause him in getting out through the window, were more than compensated for by the additional purchase he could get from the extra length of legs and arms. There was, admittedly, one awful moment when his knee joint doubled, awkwardly, as he tried to force it though the window, and the spectre of being trapped indefinitely half-in/half out swam before his eyes, but he wrenched his leg through the window with an eye-watering effort, and hung, momentarily, from the guttering by both hands, the full height of the building above the lawn. Then, he managed to hook one leg round the drainpipe and swarm up the last few feet that took him over the parapet and in among the familiar warm lichened slate slopes of the roof. Retrieving the duffle bag was the work of seconds. He set off across the foothills of the roof towards the false chimneystack, concealed among a forest of real ones, which cloaked the entrance to his escape route.
The tiny flat, unobtrusively located deep beneath the Lauderdale Tower of London's Barbican, was a dynamic tribute to the forces of chaos and human ingenuity combined. An ever-changing panorama of the world's most spectacular views - photographed specially for the purpose by the flat's owner - moved enticingly and forever out of reach behind the glass of the false window. At present (for it was early morning in London) the window gave onto the late night glitter of Lower Manhattan, viewed across the soothing, sinister, dark mass of Central Park.
There was not one spare centimetre of floor space visible in the living room, where a sofa-bed (expanded for the occasion to its fullest extent) jostled for position with an SME 20 record deck, some 4 or 5 assorted AudioResearch valve amps each with its own place in a strict hierarchy of reproduction, racks of boxes containing the rarest of the rare in vinyl, a pair of ferocious Avantgarde speakers, three wine racks (much depleted in the course of the previous evening), two ashtrays (full) and fourteen cases of photographic equipment. Both kitchen and bathroom betrayed evidence that they each had a full second career moonlighting as darkrooms. The miniscule bedroom might (under the detritus of clothes, magazines, spare bodies and lenses from the Leica Vorlagensorceror range, miscellaneous photographic potions ingredients and assorted other items of varying age and identifiability) possibly have concealed a bed, but it would certainly have taken an expedition on the scale which Lady Franklin had mounted in search of her missing husband to have discovered it.
Camilleri roused himself cautiously, trying not to wake the sleeping woman by his side. His skull, however, came into violent concussion with the overhang of the bookshelf behind the sofa-bed, which he had momentarily forgotten. He swore, picturesquely but in an uncharacteristically subdued tone, and, despite his despairing grab, Catch 22, which had been on the very edge of the bookshelf, slid inevitably off it and onto Narcissa's stomach. She woke, all at once and instantly aware of her surroundings, rolled onto her side and smiled at him like a well-fed Siamese cat.
"Coffee?" he enquired hospitably. "Breakfast? There's some bacon, I think - and, of course, ancient eggs."
Her incomparable violet eyes held an expression of sheer puzzlement.
"Chinese food? For breakfast?"
Camilleri looked faintly guilty.
"Er, no," he confessed. "I'm just totally crap at reading the sell-by dates on the boxes."
Narcissa considered this for a moment or two.
She paused. The tip of one forefinger began to trail absent-mindedly up Camilleri's leg towards his inner thigh.
"If you really insist."
She leaned her head over his face, her hair hanging in a sheer pale curtain around them. His lips met hers; her tongue teased its way into his mouth and began slow, exploratory circles. He reached up his own hand for the back of her neck. She broke away, momentarily, brushed back her hair and looked down at him thoughtfully.
"Of course, I expect you're really, really frightfully hungry."
She moved one long leg up the bed to encircle his waist, and ran all the nails of her other hand slowly from his neck down to the base of his spine.
"On the other hand- if you could bear to postpone breakfast a bit -"
She bent towards his mouth again. With a suffocated moan, Camilleri indicated that he thought he might, just possibly, be able to bear it. This once.
It was quite some minutes later when a deeply embarrassed cough and an "Oh, Chris? Sorry if this catches you at a bad time" from behind the record boxes indicated that Camilleri's office wished to communicate with him.
"Nevair ave I been treated comme si! C'est affreuse!" Narcissa exclaimed, loudly and melodramatically, and disappeared promptly under the bedclothes. Camilleri checked she was completely concealed, grabbed his pants, slid into them, and moved a couple of boxes to reveal a very small fireplace, out of which Neil's head, eyes prudently closed, was protruding.
"Yes?" Camilleri snapped. "It might have escaped your notice, but I had this morning booked off. It's in the book, and everything."
Neil opened one eye cautiously. He coughed.
"Er, Chris? I'm really really sorry, but I was expecting this to be your living room."
"It is my living room. I wasn't aware I had to get the office's permission before I included 'bonking' under 'room, living; acts appropriate for the use of'."
"Well, I'm sorry if I startled you and, er, your girlfriend -"
Neil paused, as though hoping for an introduction. Racking his brains frantically, Camilleri gestured nonchalantly towards the bed with a sock.
"Oh, you mean Clementine." There was a deeply affronted snort from under the duvet.
"Simone, imbécile! C'est le devoir premier d'un gentilhomme de se rappeler au matin le nom de sa petite amie de la nuit."
"Look, I don't suppose you could ask Simone to leave us alone for a moment or two? This one is pretty hot and pretty sensitive."
"Stunning choice of words there," Camilleri muttered. The hump under the duvet wriggled, and he thought he detected a stifled snort of laughter. He said loudly,
"Oh, don't worry about her. To tell you the truth, I don't think she understands much English."
Neil gave the hump another dubious look, and then shrugged.
"OK. If you think it's all right. Well, you'd better get over here right away. The Overlord story's breaking fast. Apparently he's kidnapped two Muggles now - and guess who one of them is?"
Camilleri's stomach did a total flip over. He dared not look at the bed.
"What do you mean, kidnapped?"
Neil's eyes shone with pleasure and he gestured dramatically.
"If he hasn't done something worse. It's Potter's cousin and his girlfriend. They set out from the Manor to walk to the village yesterday just before lunch, and haven't been seen since. Apparently Malfoy had some sort of a fight with him in the pub the night before last - threatened to use Cruciatus on him and everything. Rita's been doing her nut because her strictly unattributable Ministry source didn't tip her off about any of it till first thing this morning, when the Aurors were already on their way down to Wiltshire to bring him in. She Apparated off in a right state, saying she'd got a line on the two Muggles' whereabouts, and told me to get you back here pronto. Oh, and she'd had a late report in from Gilt Edge - it seems Malfoy and the boyfriend had a huge row early yesterday, and the boyfriend is supposed to have gone off to Lancashire in a huff - but the bottom line is that he hasn't been seen since, either. Current betting is that he cottoned on to what was happening, and Malfoy's done him in as well before he could spill the beans to the Ministry."
Camilleri moved between the fireplace and the bed, in case Neil noticed the absolute rigidity which the hump under the duvet had suddenly assumed.
"Right. OK. Neil, you get back and hold the fort; tell them I'll be along just as soon I'm dressed - showered - have sorted things out here -"
Neil nodded, and vanished. Camilleri turned. Narcissa was already half out of the bed, her eyes wide and her skin whiter than the sheets. As he opened his mouth she made a rapid "sshing" gesture.
"You probably just think I'm being a doting mother," she said, rapidly and distinctly, "but I don't believe for a moment Draco's done any of that. And he certainly won't have harmed Neville in any way - that bit's got to be nonsense."
Camilleri looked at her, his eyes deeply troubled. "Go on. I'm listening, which is more than most of our world would be by now."
"Look, I'm not saying Draco isn't capable of committing a murder. Given sufficient provocation, I've found, most of us would be surprised at what we're capable of - and he is Lucius's son, after all. And if he really has split up with Neville - well, Neville's been pretty much a stabilising influence on him, and if that stability goes, god only knows what might happen. But I still can't see him doing what he's been accused of. I mean, after all, he is his father's son. And Lucius, apart from anything else, was bloody devious and had a strong sense of self-preservation. No way on this earth would Lucius ever have a public fight with a close relative of his worst enemy, threaten him with an illegal curse in front of witnesses, and then kidnap him the day after. Let alone having him vanish from Malfoy land, at a time when he was actually there, too. And I can't see Draco doing it, either. And what's his motive supposed to be?"
He continued to look at her for a few moments, and then he came to a sudden decision.
"I don't know if this is the right thing or not, Narcissa, and I'm not saying I'm convinced. But I am prepared to keep an open mind. But you must be, too. After all, this lot can't be happening by coincidence. If Draco didn't do it someone must be trying to frame him. And you've got to start thinking about who that could be. Who else would dislike Dudley Dursley enough to have him kidnapped, just for the sake of landing Draco in Azkaban?"
Their eyes met, for one appalled moment. Camilleri recovered first.
"Well, apart from him, of course."
"Quite. That would be something we'd never get the Ministry to swallow. But whoever's behind this isn't simply trying to get Draco imprisoned. They're trying to get him killed. Not that it makes a lot of difference in the long run; Draco wouldn't last a week in Azkaban. There are too many old friends of the family in there. But the Ministry can't afford for this to go to trial. They must see how flimsy their evidence is - and they know we can pay for the best legal representation there is. And the Ministry won't relish the sort of things that might come out if they involve a Malfoy in a big, messy trial. Like the guest lists for every dinner party and little soirée I've given for the last twenty years, fr'instance. No, Killed while resisting arrest is what the Aurors will be after, all nice and tidy for them."
Her face was bleak. Camilleri put his hand on her arm.
"Narcissa - I've said I'll keep an open mind. We wouldn't be here if I'd been wholly happy about the Prophet story in the first place, now would we? And - and I'll keep you posted on how things go, OK? But you've got to know - I expect the office have called me in so I can be sent off to Dorset. To - to get photographs if - of what happens."
She gave a short, mirthless laugh. "I see. Well, if the worst does happen, try to remember he strongly prefers his right profile. He said after the last episode that he wouldn't be caught dead in the Prophet from the other angle again. But I'll be very surprised if there's anything for you to see at the Manor. Lucius couldn't hold it with the skeleton staff we've got now. I shouldn't think Draco will even try. Anyway, can you lend me some clothes?"
She gestured impatiently. "I'm going to look pretty conspicuous dashing around the place in a sleeveless white evening robe. And I can hardly Floo back to the Manor to pick up a change, in the circs, which is what I was planning to do before it all went pear-shaped. So can I borrow some clothes?"
After a brief excavation in the remoter reaches of his bedroom he came up with a reasonably clean black tee-shirt and set of black combat trousers. Narcissa cinched them in about her waist with the white silk rope belt from her evening robes and he raised his eyebrows in a half-amused, half exasperated grimace.
"How do you do that?"
"What?" Her voice was remote, her eyes abstracted.
"Well, I know exactly what I paid for those, and where I got them, and you still manage to make them look as though a team of designers spent weeks sculpting them individually to your body."
She shrugged, indifferently. With a pang, he realized that she was barely with him. His attempt to lighten her mood froze on his lips: instead, he said
"Where are you off to?"
"Knockturn Alley, first. Then Zurich."
"Why - ?"
Narcissa looked him full in the face. "You know, my grandfather always said; never ask a question where there's no practical good in knowing the answer, and having the information could be an embarrassment to you. But, if you insist: I'm going to Knockturn Alley because I know some people there who have some things I need. And I'm going to Zurich because the Ministry hasn't got the powers over offshore bank accounts that it has over Gringotts ones. And I mean to go there in person to ensure that things stay that way. After all, they say money is the sinews of war, don't they?"
His stomach had been plummeting downwards ever since Neil had appeared; it took another lurch.
"But we aren't at war."
She turned to him. "No. And I'm sure the Ministry would hate to find that they've done anything to change that."
She kissed him coolly, almost impersonally, and stepped into the fireplace.
The room was window-less, and the heavy door had a judas hole in it. Every so often an eye would be framed in it, and then vanish again. Mrs Longbottom lay back on the bed and feigned sleep, surveying her surroundings from under the lids of her eyes.
They had, of course, taken her wand. Her handbag was missing, and her clothes; she was now wearing a cumbersome winceyette hospital nightgown, a little too big for her. Further, they had even stripped her of her jewellery; her locket, her heavy gold wedding ring, the massive square cut ruby engagement ring which matched it, and the anomalous thin band of cheap gold, worn finer still with age, set only with the dust from the diamond cutter's floor, which she had worn on her little finger ever since age had thickened her knuckles so that it no longer fitted on any other. That ring had not been off her left hand for eighty-seven years. They would pay for that sacrilege.
The room was sparsely and functionally furnished, and its designers had taken care to avoid any possibilities for attack or escape presented by the imaginative use of furniture. The light came from a smooth panel in the ceiling; the bed was bolted to the floor; the room's ventilation came from a six-inch diameter aperture in the top right hand corner, covered by a fine mesh grille.
She shook her head, still dazed from the potions they had dosed her with, and flexed the knuckles of her right hand, which were skinned and bruised. Soft, intensely strong padded bands encircled wrists and ankles, attaching her to the bed. Above her head, irritatingly only just within eyeshot, a medical chart advised: "Continue physical restraints until after consultant's review. Full suicide precautions."
"Suicide! They think that's what they have to take precautions against! " she snorted, before realizing there was no-one to hear her. They viewed her remotely through the judas hole: apparently they did not regard her comments on the situation in which she found herself as worthy of note.
Emily Longbottom surveyed the room again, and sighed. She was going to have to get out of here the hard way. And she was so very tired.
Draco reached the bottom of the flue and found himself in a small, brick lined room, eerily reminiscent of a huge bread-oven.
And then the witch took the bad little children and baked them in her oven and ate them all up, all except the hair on top of their heads. And then they all lived happily ever after.
Only the smallest shafts of light drifted down from above, and without his wand an ex Tenebris charm was out of the question, but he had been taught to do this in the dark if necessary. His fingertips moved gently across the surface of the bricks, feeling for the invisible patterns of indentations he knew were there - here and, yes, here. The pressure in two locations simultaneously moved the whole wall aside by half a metre. He slid through into the dark, earth-smelling tunnel, and it moved, soundlessly, to close off the passage behind him.
There had been no noises yet which indicated that the Manor security had been breached, but the pain behind his eyes was a constant throb, interspersed with intermittent flashes of agony which several times on the long climb downwards had forced him to pause, and cling to the worn hand- and foot-holds, unable to go on, sweating clammily, until it eased.
Forty metres down the tunnel was an iron grille, closing off the narrow passage from floor to ceiling. He pulled his seal out of his pocket, worked his hand and arm with care through the grille and round to its side, and engaged the seal's head in a small, intricately carved plaque of granite, set in the wall to the left of the grille. As the seal engaged the grille swung open enough to let him through. He slid past, disengaged the seal, and allowed the grille to close behind him. Then, he repeated the same manoeuvre in reverse, finding a corresponding plaque in the low ceiling at the Manor side of the passage. His footsteps sounded hollow for a few metres, but the ground continued reassuringly to exist beneath his feet.
His fingers brushed the walls as he moved swiftly on. There were signs in the wall for those who had been taught to read them. At the point when they told him he must be exactly below the level of the ha-ha he turned to his left, and instead of following the clear route forwards he found a pattern of holes in the wall at his side, which, when pressed in sequence swung that whole section of the wall out and across the obvious route, and opened a branch tunnel, down which he scrambled for several metres, before tapping imperatively on a wall at the side, which raised a hatch-way allowing him to scramble back into the main tunnel again.
After that, the main problem was the stooping as the passage got lower and lower as it neared its exit. As he entered the last hundred metres or so, for the first time in his life he felt a vague sense of gratitude that he had not achieved better than average height.
Anyone much taller would be in agony by now. Neville, for example -
He stopped that line of thought, quickly. Later. First get out of here.
The tunnel took a sharp bend, and then a second one. He burst, unexpectedly, into light. It was not bright; not brighter than the candle in a lantern resting on the coffin on the night of a wake, but it was horribly wrong, horribly intrusive after the dark of the tunnels. He threw his hand momentarily up to block it from his eyes, which were by now thoroughly attuned to darkness.
But not before he had had an instant's glimpse of what was holding the lantern. A skeletal hand, bones the yellow of old ivory, under the froth of silvery white lace cuffs of an eighteenth century wedding gown. And above the lantern, barely concealed behind a Mechlin veil, the deep black sockets of the skull, and the grinning teeth.
The voice came from nowhere, and from everywhere. It breathed no moisture, no sense of lips and throat in its tone. Its owner's flesh had crumbled to dust over two hundred and twenty years before he was even thought of. Still the sound whispered around him, thundering back down the passage.
Word - word- word the echoes mumbled.
Wonderful he thought acidly. Things you find out at the worst possible moment that your father never bothered to tell you. Come to think of it, not really such a huge surprise, all things considered.
I did not let the last one pass. He looked like you, but he could not tell me the word. I did not let him pass.
Pass- pass - pass-
He opened his eyes, blinking a little, and regarded the apparition. Identifying it - her - was easy. The Bride of the Manor. As the owner of the place, he knew all the ghosts he could expect to see about the family home; was on reasonably good terms with most of them, in fact. He had not expected to see the Bride. Not, that is, more than once in his life. And he had rather hoped that that particular moment would have been postponed to at least a hundred years in the future.
Apparently not. At least she seems to be in the mood to be chatty. Not, of course, that there are any reports on whether that's her usual style. Not that have survived, at any rate.
She had once had a name: Anne, or Elizabeth or Arabella. Something demure and appropriate, now lost in the by-ways of history. And she had had a fortune - she'd married into the Malfoys after all - and, one assumed, more than her fair share of good looks. In fact, for a Muggle, to catch the eye of the Manor's owner? She must have been a stunner and a half, doubtless a round-faced, dimpled, exquisite, eighteenth century porcelain figurine, with knowing almond eyes and the merest blush of rose on pearl white skin under piled up powdered hair. She had not, of course, survived long enough to have her portrait painted.
It had, Draco presumed, caused a huge family row when Devereux Malfoy (his name, unfairly, had survived) announced he was proposing to marry a Muggle, but all the warring factions had duly turned up at the wedding feast, which, given the atrocious state of the local roads and the heaviness of recent snowfalls, had soon turned into a three day free-for-all orgy, helped on by pipes and hogsheads of reconciliatory Malfoy port. And when dancing and feasting palled, no-one could quite remember who had suggested a game of hide and seek all over the Manor to pass the time. And the Bride had never been seen - in the flesh - since.
Devereux, acting on sound Malfoy instincts, had immediately accused his brother and next heir - the person who had been most vocally against the mixed marriage - of having spirited her away. As both of them died from wounds received in the resulting duel, the truth of the accusation was never established, nor was the Bride's whereabouts, until some eighty years later - for even the best locking charm cannot be expected to hold forever - when an unfortunate Malfoy housemaid opened a large chest in a long disused bedroom, only to find within it a skeleton in a wedding dress.
Since when, legend said, the ghost of the Bride had appeared in the last moments of every owner of the Manor who died on the premises to act as his escort to - wherever.
And, as there's no indication she's made a habit of dropping in for social chit-chat in between times, I can only say this doesn't look too good.
Tell me the password. You cannot keep me waiting forever.
Ever - ever - ever.
He looked at her, and made up his mind. Two hundred and fifty years was a long time to keep on doing the same thing. Perhaps even ghosts got bored. He would have been, by this time. And she must have been younger than him when she'd started.
He fished, briefly, in his duffel bag. Among the miscellaneous articles he had swept into it on departure he had, almost absent-mindedly, included his hip-flask which - bless you, Mrs P. - was encouragingly heavy, and gurgled in a full sort of way. He unclipped two of the little metal cups, which were secured, cunningly, over the cap of the flask, and filled them, holding one of them out politely to the skeleton's hand.
He had not expected she would be able to hold it, and indeed she did not, but somehow it suspended itself in the air before her. If a skull could look puzzled, he fancied she was doing so.
He cleared his throat. If only his blasted ancestors had bothered to remember her name, for god's sake. Well, he'd have to hope she'd take it in the spirit in which it was meant.
"Welcome to the family," he said formally. He raised his own cup to toast her. "To Nellie O'Mora, the fairest witch that ever was, or ever will be."
He barely touched his lips with the drink, before putting it down. There was a pause, and he felt fear tingling along every one of his nerve endings as the silence between them deepened through one long moment.
She nodded, slowly, and moved aside, with the elaborate grace of someone committing herself to the opening steps of an intricate, immensely formal minuet. He did not look back as he moved past her and out into the sunlight, but as he passed her he had a momentary sense of knowing almond eyes looking out at him from a dimpled, exquisite, pearl white face, and the brief scent of Christmas roses.
The pipistrelle is the smallest and rarest British bat. Various learned papers have been written on its steep, near catastrophic decline over the last twenty years. Most blame destruction of its traditional habitats.
Inside a photographic bag sitting under the desk of a journalist currently having one of the worst days of his professional career, in a busy newspaper office in the centre of wizarding London, could never have been said to be one of those traditional habitats. Nevertheless, when Camilleri reached down automatically for a brush to finish polishing a lens which had already achieved a diamond bright, speckless clarity, a set of small sharp teeth fastened in his forefinger, followed by an almost inaudible sequence of high-pitched squeaking, by which he felt an urgent, and none too charitable message was being intended.
With an elaborately accidental movement of his elbow he knocked a filter cap to the carpet, and bent casually down to retrieve it, and suddenly found himself being stared at knowingly by a pair of tiny beady eyes.
Once sure it had attracted his attention, the bat folded its wings around itself with an air of determination. Camilleri retrieved the filter cap, and re-emerged from under his desk making a sound of profound annoyance.
"Bugger! You aren't going to believe this," he said. "I've gone and left my macro zoom behind at the flat, and it's absolutely essential for this sort of work. Simon, you couldn't possibly cover for me while I nip back and get it, could you? I'll only be ten minutes, and now the Aurors seem to be drawing a blank at the Manor, it could be hours before I'm called on. And I absolutely can't do without that lens."
Simon pursed his lips, and made a whistling sound through his teeth.
"You're pushing your luck, aren't you?" he observed. "What if Rita finds you not here for the second time this morning?"
There was a suppressed snigger from everyone within earshot. Apparently the story of why Camilleri had been missing the first time had done the rounds, doubtless with advantages. He shrugged.
"Look, if I take my kit with me I can Apparate to wherever she wants me, from wherever I am, just as quickly as I can from here. You only have to tell her I'm in the loo, and tip me off pdq that I'm needed. Anyway, I'll be killed just as quickly by Reet if I turn up without the right gear."
Colin, who was within earshot, coughed nervously and went rather pink.
"I'll let you know if anyone wants you, Mr Camilleri," he said.
Camilleri finished gathering his things together, nonchalantly flipped the top over his camera bag and buckled it down loosely, and stood up.
"Thanks, kid," he said. "And for god's sake call me Chris."
He strode decisively for the exit, his bag slung over his shoulder.
Once in his flat, his first action was to drop the bag onto the sofa, and unbuckle it in order to release the imprisoned bat. He had not, however, prepared himself for the unexpected presence in the room of a small and aggressive owl, which swooped down out of nowhere, apparently bent on catching up on a number of missed meals. Only Camilleri's reflex and despairing tackle, which brought the owl in a feathery and indignant bundle to the floor, saved the bat from becoming hors d'oeuvres. The owl promptly took out its resentment on Camilleri's fingers, and a bloody and far from silent struggle ensued. Camilleri finally triumphed, and turned round breathlessly, clutching the owl firmly at arm's length, to see Emily Longbottom putting the final touches to tidying her hair.
"Thanks, lad. That was a very close shave, that. Good job you seem to have your wits about you."
She took a deep breath, and added reflectively:
"I've haven't done that for forty years, and now I have done it, I can remember why I left it so long. I don't suppose there's any chance of a cup of tea? You find yourself eating some very strange things, as a bat, and I'd appreciate the chance to get the taste out of my mouth."
Camilleri paused, momentarily, and then vanished into the kitchen, returning a couple of minutes later with a steaming mug.
"If you'll excuse my saying this, Mrs Longbottom, it seems like the Animagi Register at the Ministry is about as useless as a one-legged man at a backside kicking contest."
She nodded, thoughtfully.
"Aye. Well, that's civil servants for you. Not a clue about how people really think. I mean it takes a lot of hard work to learn the Animagus spells; it's bloody uncomfortable most of the time, and as you've just seen, it isn't always that safe."
She peered round the room. "Speaking of which, what did you do with -?"
"I shut it in the kitchen. With a saucer of water and a couple of rashers of bacon."
Mrs Longbottom nodded in a satisfied way. "Good. That's young Neville's owl. I recognized her at once. He'd be glad to know she was being properly looked after. Though mind you, I expect he'd have been quite put out if she had managed to eat me."
Camilleri nodded, faintly, but declined to comment.
"Anyway, as I was saying; it's hard, it's risky, and it takes a long time becoming an Animagus. And practically all of the reasons you'd do it would be made completely useless if you actually then trotted off and registered yourself. Take your boss, for instance. Investigative journalism. Take me. Industrial espionage and general nosiness. To say nothing of all the unregistered Animagi in Wales and New Zealand - no need to ask yourself what they do it for -"
He couldn't help it. He interrupted.
"I'm sorry, Mrs Longbottom, you've lost me there. What do the Welsh and New Zealanders do it for?"
She flashed him an exceedingly beady glance.
"Getting into Rugby internationals that they don't have tickets for," she snapped. "What did you think I meant?"
He spread his hands, helplessly.
"Anyway, we can't sit here all day. They'll be expecting you back at the office, or wherever. What's been happening? And would that owl have brought a message, by any chance?"
Struck by the common sense of this, Camilleri ventured into the kitchen, prudently bringing the owl back together with the remains of its meal this time. There was, indeed, a tiny roll of parchment tied to its leg with an elegant green silk tassel, but once it was removed it proved impossible to open.
"I wouldn't waste your time," Mrs Longbottom observed, after a few moments scrutiny. "It's clear it isn't intended for either of us. Any particular reason why that owl might have been looking for young Narcissa here?"
"Well - " he paused. "Possibly. I mean, she was here. Earlier. But how do you know it's intended for Narcissa? I mean, why would your grandson be writing to her?"
Mrs Longbottom snorted.
"I said, young man, that it was Neville's owl, not that he'd sent her. When I saw him - this is Thursday, isn't it? - yesterday morning, then, he didn't have her with him. He'd left her back at the Manor. Besides, that isn't how Neville does up his messages, and I doubt he could have sealed one in a way I couldn't open, either. No, unless I'm much mistaken that's from young Draco, and it stands to reason it's intended for his mother. Can't have missed her by much, either. That owl must have more brains than I thought she had."
Camilleri thought for a moment. "You say you saw Neville yesterday? When, exactly?"
Mrs Longbottom creased her brow. "About half eight in the morning, I suppose it'd be. He Apparated up in a right state, I can tell you. "
"But - but it was definitely after he'd last been at the Manor?"
Mrs Longbottom chuckled. "Aye. And there'd obviously been skin and feathers there that morning. I reckon Draco will have just realised that with our Neville, it's not that the Longbottom temper skipped a generation, it just takes a good bit longer to build up a decent head of steam than it did with his father, or his grandfather, god rest him."
Camilleri's tone was urgent.
"But he was there? Because the word on the street was that he hadn't been seen since he quarrelled with Draco."
Mrs Longbottom's eyes narrowed.
"And who might have been spreading that?"
"Reet claims she's got a source inside the Manor itself - code named Gilt Edge, for what it's worth - and that's where the story started. But then the Ministry leak confirmed that the Aurors were also looking to question Draco in connection with Neville's - um - disappearance - as well as to do with the kidnapping of the two Muggles -"
Involuntarily, Camilleri recoiled. Mrs Longbottom's face had turned into a mask of such contorted fury that he found himself surreptitiously pinching his lower limbs in case the mere sight had petrified them where he stood.
"The Ministry," she hissed. "The Aurors! That used to be a respectable job for a man! Well, I can tell you, the Ministry's gone too far this time. Gilt Edge, eh? And a frame's what it looks like, too. Young man, I can tell you that not only was Neville quite healthy when I last saw him (apart from a fit of the Longbottom sulks, and I daresay he'd have walked those off in a few hours or so) but that I told two Ministry employees as much yesterday afternoon. So what other lies are they spreading?"
Suddenly the tight, tense feeling, which had been in Camilleri's stomach since Neil's appearance that morning, started to ease.
"They reckon Draco's kidnapped a couple of Muggles. Potter's cousin, and some girl he hangs about with."
Mrs Longbottom looked grimly satisfied. "That the one who picked the fight with Draco in the pub night before last?"
Camilleri looked startled.
"He picked the fight?"
Mrs Longbottom nodded. "That's what Neville said. And before you say anything, young man, I can tell you Neville wasn't giving Draco the benefit of any doubts yesterday morning. If he said this Dudley picked a fight, that's what he did. Mind you, he got rather vague when I asked what the fight was all about, so I imagine this Dudley probably must have called one or the other of them a nancy boy or something of the sort. If you could have got to the bar staff before the Aurors did, you'd have been able to find out. Too late now, of course."
This aspect of the affair had not occurred to Camilleri before. He gave it some serious thought now.
"And Neville's vanished - and Dudley and his girl-friend have vanished - and you - why are you wearing a nightgown, by the way?"
Mrs Longbottom gave him a thoughtful look.
"I wondered when you were going to get round to asking. I woke up this morning in St Mungo's. And I'd be very surprised if we don't find out that Neville's being held somewhere similar, too. Next time you see Narcissa, you might ask her if she's got any idea how Draco's left his money. Not that she necessarily knows, mind you. Not a family which spreads that sort of information around like marmalade, that one. And very sensible too."
Camilleri was getting increasingly baffled. "Draco's money?"
The expression on Mrs Longbottom's face suggested that if his current obtuseness continued, she might resort to using a pick-axe to drive the ideas into his skull. Her voice was very slow and very patient as she continued.
"Well, if he didn't do any of this, whoever's trying to set him up is almost certainly trying to murder him. And money's quite a reasonable motive for murdering anyone who's got as much of it as young Draco does. Even after Recent Events. And if that is the motive, we start looking at who benefits. And who their heirs might be. And how those heirs, in turn, have disposed of their property. And what might be one of the inconvenient side effects of a declaration of insanity, young man?"
Camilleri swallowed, desperately. "Legal incompetence?" he hazarded. She favoured him with a sidelong smile.
"Quite. Which would prevent anyone currently at risk of dying intestate from making a valid will. You might think on that one, if you get a few spare minutes. Well, young man, you've got to get back to the office, and I'd be grateful if you could lend me your fireplace. I need to get hold of my solicitor, fast."
He looked at her in bafflement.
"But - if you've actually only just escaped from St Mungo's - is it the best time to -?"
The smile widened.
"Oh, I'm not touching my will. That was made eleven years ago, and I'm quite satisfied as to how I've arranged things. But there's a few other things I need to see to in a hurry. And if you are going back down Diagon Alley, could you drop into Ollivanders, and ask if he could pop round here for a private fitting as soon as he has a spare five minutes?"
He was being pushed out of the door of his own flat. He turned, and in protest muttered "But you still haven't said why you don't think Draco kidnapped the Muggles. He still could've done, you know."
Mrs Longbottom looked pityingly at him.
"And what does Narcissa say about it?"
Camilleri looked mulish.
"She says he didn't, of course."
"Well, in that case I suggest you listen to her. Because I can tell you, she takes an even dimmer view of her own family than I do of mine. If that's possible. Do yourself a favour, young man. Next chance you get, tell her you're on her side, and are proposing to back her to the hilt. And then do whatever she says."
He turned on the doorstep, and looked at Mrs Longbottom with a rising hope.
"And you really believe that backing Narcissa is the right thing to do?"
Emily Longbottom nodded, with emphasis.
He favoured her with a grin that lit up his whole body, and was suddenly gone. She regarded the shut front door of the flat for a moment.
"And," she added grimly to herself, "quite apart from the rights and wrongs, if the Ministry have succeeded in killing Draco, young man, I can certainly tell you that backing Narcissa will be a lot safer."
The air still had an early morning tang to it as Draco moved cautiously through the lych gate from the church yard, where the tunnel had ended, appropriately enough, in an empty and cracked Malfoy sepulchre, the sunlight slanting in through the damaged panels under the ironically smiling carved angel. With an indrawn breath he flattened himself almost to nothing under the arch of the gate itself as he spotted a movement like the hem of a robe flapping outwards from the narrow passage which lead to the back door of the Rose and Crown. He watched it for fully half a minute, but there was no further movement. He turned, cautiously, and considered the long curve of the village street from the point of view of a hunted fox looking for cover.
The only possibility was a narrow and twisty lane which ran behind the church (widdershins, it would be, as if I didn't have enough to worry about ) and between backs of the shops and houses on the shaded side of the street and the gardens of the houses which backed onto them, going up the hill.
He slipped into the lane and moved swiftly uphill, round the first bend, then the second, and the third - oh, no, definitely not my day -
He whisked back round the third bend and flattened himself into the curve of the ten foot tall wall of the garden on the right hand side of the lane, breathing heavily. By some fluke of luck the tall robed figure ahead of him, whom he had nearly run into, had his back to him, and Draco's lightly shod feet had made little sound on the smooth tarmac. Although his blood thudding in his ears seemed enough in itself to alert the Auror ahead, no-one came back round the bend.
Still, time to find another bolt hole.
He turned, and moved delicately back down the lane towards the church. As he reached the nearest bend he peered nervously round it before committing himself. His caution was not misplaced. The rotund robed figure who occupied most of the lane behind him, fortunately, was engaged in staring intently back towards the church, as though he was expecting something to swoop down on him from the belfry.
Bugger. Caught in the jaws of a pincer movement. The only advantage you have is that neither of the Aurors have spotted you yet.
The lane at this point was only a yard and a half wide, and the tall walls either side of it bulged with age. Small plants grew out of them - stones were missing - there were ample hand and foot holds, but once he reached the coping stones on top of one or other of them he would be outlined against the sky for either Auror to take his best shot at him. He backed along the edge of the right hand wall, feeling out for inspiration.
His hands touched the smooth weathered oak of a wooden door. It had a massive iron handle - too much to hope it was unlocked - he was trying it desperately even as he thought it -and the door was suddenly opened, from the inside. He fell forward against the sudden absence of resistance. As he did so a strong hand caught his collar, and a deep, husky, woman's voice said,
"I think, Mr Malfoy, we need to talk. And I'm sure we'd both prefer it if your friends in the lane didn't interrupt us while we do."