She was a tall, generously built, middle-aged woman, with severely cut, iron grey hair and shrewd dark eyes sparkling under heavy brows amid a fine network of laughter lines. She shut the garden door and locked it with decision, then gestured to Draco to precede her to the house.
Once inside, she unlocked a door marked "Private", and took him into a small sitting room, whose desk, PC, ledgers and filing cabinet indicated that it also did duty as an office.
"Do you drink herbal tea?" she enquired abruptly. Draco nodded, bemusedly. She flicked a switch on an electric kettle, which stood on a side table, and rummaged in a cupboard, pulling out a couple of garish packets and two cups.
"The name's Caitlin, by the way," she added. "I know who you are. And, though I've only been in this village for 12 years, because of who I know and the circles I move in I've got a pretty good idea of what you are, too. And if I had had any lingering doubts, a conversation I happened to overhear through my bedroom window last week would have removed them."
She nodded in the general direction of a bookshelf, which was piled high with assorted magazines.
"You might find the top one interesting."
It was a thin, home-published little pamphlet, entitled The New Age Enquirer, dated about two years ago, and with a grainy black and white photograph of the Manor on the front, under the heading "Shock Discoveries in Wiltshire."
As Draco flicked through its pages with increasing bafflement, Caitlin evidently realised that he needed some help.
"That's a study carried out by a friend of mine who's interested in ley lines and energy flows. He carried out a series of observations around the Manor - trespassing on your land, I'm sorry to say."
Caitlin's tone did not imply her sorrow was genuine.
"His results were quite remarkable. Tell me, Mr Malfoy, what would you say if I told you that in psychic energy terms you appear to be living in the approximate equivalent of a nuclear waste dump?"
And what's one of those when it's at home? Nothing good, evidently. He shrugged.
"If I knew what one was, I'd have more chance of saying something intelligent about it. But what I can say is that next time your friend wants something supernatural to research, he might want to concentrate on bloody amazing strokes of inconceivable luck. Because if he was trespassing around the Manor measuring negative energies two years ago, and he's still alive today, he's about as lucky as someone who falls from the top of the Eiffel Tower, is caught by a naked Veela on a broomstick half way down and lands with one of his boots on a winning lottery ticket."
Caitlin, who had had her back to him while concentrating on pouring the herbal tea into cups, turned and fixed him with a direct gaze.
"Ah. And so we come down to it, Mr Malfoy. Did Melanie run out of luck?"
She obviously thought that would mean something to him, but it left him completely nonplussed.
"Melanie? What's happened to her?"
Her shrewd eyes summed him up, and apparently concluded that his surprise was genuine. She passed him a cup.
"You didn't know that Melanie and that oaf you verbally demolished in the pub the other night haven't been seen since yesterday? And that there's no evidence they ever left the Manor grounds?"
His eyes widened. "No. Well, that certainly explains the unhealthy interest the Ministry seems to be taking in me this morning."
"Well, that and the rumour that you killed your boyfriend after a row."
The cup crashed to the floor. Draco pushed back his chair violently.
"They said what?"
He was trembling all over. Quietly, Caitlin picked up the pieces of the shattered cup, ditched them into the waste-paper basket, and pushed him back into his seat. She handed him the other cup. "Take this one. And calm down. I'm sorry I startled you but I thought you ought to know everything you've been accused of. And, I may say, I'm pretty certain they don't believe that last one themselves, but they're definitely saying it."
There was no reason to believe her, just because she claimed to know something. How could some weird Muggle have an insight into the Ministry's workings, anyway?
"How come you know so much, anyway?" he demanded.
Her face was grim.
"That's quite a long story. And since I don't suppose you'll be going anywhere until we can work out a way of getting you through that dragnet your - Ministry, is it? - seems to have placed round the village, you've got time to hear it. Don't worry, by the way, about them coming here. They've already been."
"And you can remember it?"
Deliberately, he loaded his voice with arrant disbelief. Apparently unfazed, Caitlin smiled.
"Ah, that. I was quite proud of myself for thinking of that. When I was young and radical, we used to have workshops on what to do if the enemy caught you, and tried brain-washing - hypnosis - psychological torture, whatever. And one of the bits I remembered was that if anyone was trying any sort of mind control on you, the best way of beating it was to put your tongue between your back teeth and bite on it, quite hard, while simultaneously picturing your enemy sitting on the loo with his trousers round his ankles. So when that Ministry goon pulled out his wand, I thought it was worth a shot. And, much to my surprise, it actually worked: things went a bit woozy for a minute, and then sharpened right back up again. Then, obviously, I acted as dumb and confused as possible, and they left. I nipped upstairs so I could check from the attic window that they really had gone, and while I was doing that I saw you pop up in the churchyard and start playing hide and seek with the perimeter guards. And I reckoned that I might actually get a few more answers out of you than I had out of them. So here you are."
She looked at him in rather the way a mother Kneazle might regard one of her less promising kittens, who had finally managed to bring in its first mouse. Draco sighed.
"And what are you planning to do with any answers I give you? What do you want to get out of it?"
Caitlin thought for a moment. "I want Melanie safe. I like that kid. Oh, I know on the one hand you could say she's only a member of staff, and it's stupid of me to get so bothered about her, but I've been very lonely since the boys left home, and she's been company for me."
She nodded, explanatorily, towards two framed photographs on the desk. In the nearer one a young man in uniform stood in front of a darkly menacing shape which Draco assumed was some sort of Muggle aircraft; in the other a slightly taller and skinnier young man, who was, oddly for a Muggle, wearing robes, was being presented with a parchment by a much older man, also robed, in a sun-drenched open space in some country which went in for palm trees.
"I always hankered after a daughter. And she's a bright kid. Oh, she doesn't have enough common sense to find the right way out of a paper bag, and that idiot mother of hers has spent so much time filling her up with a whole load of totally nonsensical fears that by now she isn't able to spot the things that she damn well ought to be afraid of. To say nothing of her attempt to make a silk purse out of that sow's ear of a boyfriend of hers."
"The whole hog, surely, in Dursley's case, not just the ear?" Draco murmured. Caitlin grinned at him.
"That face of yours does look a whole lot better when you smile, you know. Takes the edge off those 'Do As I Tell You Or Be Shot At Dawn' features."
"I haven't exactly got a lot to smile about at the moment," Draco said. "In the last 24 hours I seem to have lost my lover, my reputation, my home, my fortune and my dogs."
Caitlin put her head on one side and tapped the end of a pencil against her front teeth thoughtfully. "Well, at least some of those must be in the 'temporarily mislaid' category, surely. And from what the Ministry goons were saying, the appropriate word for your reputation at least in official circles seems to be 'reinforced', rather than 'lost'. Anyway, tell me about the dogs. No one mentioned those were missing. And Melanie adored them. She'd be putty in the hands of anyone who threatened them, you know. Her mother wouldn't let her have pets. Allergies, apparently." She sniffed, audibly.
Draco spread his hands.
"The dogs went missing yesterday morning. I told Melanie when she came up to see me yesterday. She said she'd keep an eye out for them, in case they'd got onto Nelcorp land. They shouldn't be able to cross the barriers, but there've been problems with those all summer. Then she went off to help that Dursley object pack, and that was the last I saw of her. That would have been at just after eleven."
Caitlin looked thoughtful.
"About right. She was due back here at 12:15. And one thing she is, is reliable. When she wasn't here at 12:30 I knew something was wrong. Of course, it was nuts getting the meal served and washed up with one server short, so I didn't have time to think about it until 2.30 or so, by which time I had her boyfriend's appalling parents on my hands, screaming blue murder, calling poor Melanie the most insulting names, accusing her of having lured their precious son into a den of vice (as if she'd have recognized one if it'd got up and caressed her round the ankle with the thong of a raw-hide whip) and apparently holding me responsible him not being where they'd agreed to pick him up. Well, when Melanie still hadn't showed up by mid-afternoon, when she was supposed to be picking gooseberries for that night's pudding, I was seriously worried. I came up to the Manor to see if you knew anything, but that housekeeper of yours looked at me as though I boiled babies for a hobby, and refused to speak to me at all - whim of adamant, evidently -"
Draco nodded his head sympathetically if a trifle hypocritically at this news. "I know. Mrs P. can be a bit of a trial, even with us. I remember my mother once had to put the full body bind on her to stop her storming out of the kitchen to give the Minister for Magic a piece of her mind in the middle of a formal banquet in his honour."
"Golly. What had he done?"
"Pontificated for 15 minutes solidly while she was waiting with the mushroom soufflés ready to serve."
Caitlin's eyes sparkled. "Oh, in your mother's place I'd have been tempted to let her rip. Mass catering is difficult enough without the guests committing acts of gratuitous abuse on the food. Anyway, I came back and called the police, and didn't get any more joy there. Have you any concept how difficult it is to get them to take any interest in the disappearance of an adult? They verbally patted me on the head, and told me that teenage girls were very flighty, and had it occurred to me that she'd probably gone off somewhere with her boyfriend, and would she thank me for interfering? And so we served supper short-handed again, and eventually I went to bed - of course, I didn't sleep to speak of - and at about eight this morning I found three robed goons on my doorstep. They more or less forced their way in, and started asking the most idiotic questions. Did I know that Melanie had been associating with a dangerous Dark magician? What did I know about what hold you had over her? Had she any shown signs of being in a zombie-like trance, as though her will was being externally controlled? I mean, I ask you, have they ever employed any eighteen year olds? They all behave like zombies on occasion. How're you supposed to tell?"
"And what did you tell them? What do you know, come to that? Apart from having a dim view of the psychic energy round the Manor, of course."
Caitlin poured herself another cup of herbal tea, and sat back in the depths of the armchair.
"The first thing, young man, is that what I know or don't know, and what I told them are two radically different things. To begin with, the leader of the delegation started by asking to speak to the man of the house, which always gets my back up. Oh, the moment I spotted them I smelled trouble. And I know a thing or two. You might not think it to look at me, but I've had an eventful past. The first time the authorities beat me up was the CRS when I was out with the Sorbonne students in '68 - I was standing next to Blair Peach on that Anti-Nazi League demonstration twenty minutes before the SPG went in - the monkeys were breaking up our camp at Greenham gates as I was going into labour with Ricky, though of course he tends to gloss over exactly how he came to be born on a US airbase, now he's become a hired killer -"
She paused for breath. Draco grasped firmly onto the only comprehensible statement he could disentangle out of this recital.
"I'm told the money's very good, and you can arrange the hours to fit around family life," he proffered hopefully. She shot him a startled glance, and evidently decided to let it pass.
"Anyway you get to recognize the smell of the Establishment in full blown panic-and-cover-up mode after a while. And as for their leader - I haven't seen a man look more out of his depth since that Russian harpooner I tipped into the Sea of Okhotsk."
Draco's voice was casual.
"What did the senior Ministry man look like?"
Caitlin snorted. "I think he's what Jane Austen would have called 'a heavy young man'. I suggest you try picturing the bastard offspring of the Reverend Mr Collins and a dromedary. Oh, and he was sporting a very recent black eye. Over the course of our interview I managed to develop a deep admiration for the other person in the world who clearly estimated that gentleman in exactly the same way as I did."
There was a pause while Draco ran rapidly through a list of possible candidates in his head.
"I think I should be able to get you an introduction. If I ever get out of this mess, that is."
"Anyway, for what it's worth: I got the impression that this Ministry don't have a clue what's really happened to Melanie and that oaf Dudley. Some journalist apparently claims she's got a lead on their whereabouts - would 'You Know Who's Underground research station' mean anything to you? But the Ministry men didn't look to me like they were exactly panting to mount a rescue expedition."
He felt suddenly nauseated, and suspected his face had probably turned a betraying shade of green. It was an effort to keep his voice level. "No, I can see they mightn't be. Even this long after Recent Events, either of the possible locations she might mean by that wouldn't be - exactly salubrious. And really quite hard to find if you weren't - um - in the know. And - er - even harder to leave. Intact, anyway."
Caitlin looked grim. "Tell me, what do you think about Melanie's chances?"
Do you really want me to tell you? His voice sounded uncharacteristically diffident in his own ears as he said,
"Would you rather have meaningless but vaguely reassuring platitudes, or my honest unvarnished opinion?"
Caitlin looked at him steadily.
"Honesty is always something I appreciate," she breathed.
"Well, then, I think her only chance of not currently being in mortal peril is if whoever's kidnapped her has killed her already."
Caitlin's face betrayed a brief spasm of pain.
"Perhaps," she muttered, "there might be a half-way house between honesty and tact, after all. Then, if you're right, what might stop whoever's got her from killing her now, if he or she hasn't already?"
Draco considered this for a moment. There was, after all, only one possible reason he could think of.
"The possibility that I might have an alibi for the murder," he confessed, honestly.
"Mm. That would figure. Well, then, so far as I could work out, the Ministry would definitely rather deal with two corpses and you being bang to rights for their murder, than try to retrieve two intact human beings and work out who else might be to blame."
"I see." There was a cold feeling at the pit of Draco's stomach. "And Neville?"
Caitlin looked across at him. Her voice softened, inexplicably.
"In his case, I'd say that the Ministry official I was talking to definitely knew where he was, and, if you ask me, he'd probably put him there. The story about you having done anything to him was strictly for the polloi, so far as he was concerned. I, of course, was the polloi."
She paused for a moment, and then went on.
"I hope nothing serious has happened to him - he strikes me as a nice boy. Got his head screwed on the right way."
That came as a surprise. "I didn't know you'd met."
"We haven't. I mentioned a fascinating conversation I happened to overhear, a week or so ago, didn't I? Well, to recap - can I offer you a biscuit? - one night I got a bit bothered because Melanie wasn't in at locking up time. Oh, that's not a big deal - she joined us at Easter, and by the May Day Bank Holiday I was quite sure she could be trusted with a key to the back door, so I gave her one. And she's not abused the privilege. But - well, she hadn't come in. And she'd mentioned going up to see that prat after she'd finished serving the supper-"
"I can't imagine what she sees in him," Draco said. Caitlin's eyes glittered. Her voice dripped pure acid.
"Well, don't look to me for an explanation unless you really want a thesis on Sexual Politics and Body Fascism in the Late 20th Century. But I can see what he sees in her. And I'd be surprised if I really had to spell out to a reasonably clued up young man of the world just what that might be, given he's an unprincipled oaf with all the social graces and savoir faire of a warthog on a bad hair day, and she's a besotted and inexperienced girl with a desperate inferiority complex -"
"Oh, that," Draco muttered.
"- But, quite apart from that, it's only his father's string pulling which got him on that programme in the first place, since it should be strictly graduate, and he'd not have stuck it this long if she hadn't been writing the best part of his assignments for him. Anyway, that's not important right now. She wasn't back by well after one - I'm a late night person and I'd things to see to in the office - and it bothered me."
"Why didn't you just draw the obvious conclusion?" Draco enquired.
She skewered him with a glance.
"It certainly crossed my mind. Tell me, in my place, given I see her as a sort of daughter, would you think the obvious conclusion would actually reassure me?"
Draco was silent. Caitlin continued.
"Well, as you can imagine, I didn't sleep too well. And round about six-thirty the next morning I heard a car pull up outside. I got a quiet look at it from behind my bedroom curtains, and I was damn sure it wasn't anything to do with that idiot Dursley: to begin with, if he could afford a car like that he wouldn't be going out with Melanie. And then I spotted the number plate, and that gave me quite a shock, given that she'd last been seen heading up to the Manor. I'd gone with the general view in the village that the less contact with your family, the healthier, up to then. Anyway, Melanie and a young man I didn't recognise got out and started talking. And as my bedroom window was open I heard every word. It didn't take me long to work out he had to be your boyfriend - don't look so surprised, gossip's a major league sport in these parts - and I've got to say what he said impressed me. Anyone who tries to talk Melanie out of her delusions about that cretin gets good marks in my book. It's also how I ended up with a good idea of what to expect when that Ministry thug pulled out his wand. So it's probably thanks to him I'm able to tell you about it."
She paused for breath.
"Well, Melanie didn't mention anything about where she'd been, and very little about you two, apart from talking about the dogs; most unusual, because normally waterfalls aren't in it when she starts to chatter. Anyway, the next time I saw either of you was during that extraordinary exhibition in the pub the other night."
Her casual comment came as a considerable shock.
"You were there? I didn't spot you."
Her face wore a look of grim amusement. "Nor did any of the trainees. I've discovered as I've got older that having grey hair is nearly as effective as a cap of invisibility in allowing one to pass unnoticed."
"Cloak," Draco murmured.
"Cloak of invisibility, not cap. All a cap would do would make you look headless. Admittedly, given that most of the family trees in this village resemble monkey puzzles, two heads probably would go unnoticed, but complete decapitation would certainly raise comment even in the Rose and Crown."
Caitlin's eyes gleamed. "Thanks for that correction. Anyway, the Ministry men seemed very interested to hear I'd been there, though why they bothered, since they didn't want to hear my opinion -"
"Which was?" He made his tone studiedly casual.
"That if you'd turned up dead or missing the next morning, I'd be the first to suspect pig-features, since you'd demolished him completely in front of all his little cronies, but I couldn't see any reason why you'd have killed him. At least, not until after you'd given him a good long time to smart about it all."
He remained silent. Caitlin ran her fingers briskly through her hair and said:
"Well, this isn't getting us anywhere. You clearly have some idea where Melanie might be. In that case, I'm prepared to back my hunch that you're the best bet to get her out of it. Heaven knows, no one else seems even prepared to try. And I suppose that had better include shit-for-brains, too, since she's just the type to ruin the rest of her life with guilt, if she gets out and he doesn't."
Draco gulped. "Why me? I mean, I'm not exactly anyone's first choice to do the heroic thing; I'm not known for my altruism and no-one with a grain of sense would mistake me for a nice person."
Caitlin snorted. "Melanie does altruism, and look what that's landed her. Nor am I interested in heroics. And, Mr Malfoy, I'm certainly not looking to hire a nice person. "
"Hire?" One eyebrow went up practically to his hairline. She nodded, vigorously.
"Yes, Mr Malfoy. I'm offering you a job. And I can tell you that the advert for that job, if I'd placed one, would have read: 'Wanted: one devious bastard who knows all the tricks and isn't going to cock up at the crucial moment because of any ill-timed scruples about using them.' Oh, and one other thing. 'Must have overwhelming personal interest in assuring satisfactory outcome of the assignment.'"
Draco's eyes widened.
"Oh. I see. Well, I suppose that makes me your man, then. But on one condition. I've got a prior claim on my time. I have got to get to Lancashire, to a pub called the Freemasons Arms, which is in some place called Wiswell I've never heard of. There's someone there who's supposed to know where Neville is. I'm seriously worried about what's happened to him. Look - the leader of those Ministry types you bumped into is Neville's cousin. You think he's responsible for Neville's disappearance - well, so do I. He's gone way out on a limb with this operation already. If he screws up, his career's over. But if he succeeds - then he's one step away from some serious wedge. And in my experience, people don't get nicer when the stakes are that high."
Caitlin gazed at him levelly.
"Speaking as a life-long protester against the abuses of global capitalism, I can say I'm with you all the way on that one. Yes, I can see that would be a priority for you. One minor point, though: why bother to mention that to me at all? You must realize I can hardly monitor what you're up to. Why not just accept my terms, and then go off on your own devices? "
He chose his words with extreme care.
"Because I can persuade you to commit yourself even further once I've created the illusion of laying all my cards on the table?"
Caitlin laughed out loud at that.
"All Cretans are liars. Do you play bridge, Mr Malfoy?"
And what's that got to do with the price of butter? He opened his eyes, blinked and said,
"Yes, as a matter of fact. One of the important elements in the education of a well-brought up young man, my mother always said. Probably the same game you're used to, though a number of the conventions we use wouldn't be familiar to you."
Her smile broadened. "Good. Then it would be my pleasure to invite you and your mother to a bridge evening once this - unpleasantness - has been satisfactorily resolved. I'll be interested to see your skill at bluffing in a proper forum. And I've seen your mother about the village a few times over the years I've been here, and I'd be fascinated for a chance to hear how life looks from her viewpoint. Never having been a jaw-dropping beauty myself, you understand."
He surveyed her for a moment. Her eyes laughed back at him: despite her words, she was not a woman who was insecure about her looks, this one. Or anything else, probably. He grinned, lazily.
"Well, I'd be surprised if the ones who got past the point of shaking in fundamental inhuman terror had had any actual complaints," he drawled.
Caitlin, momentarily, looked almost disconcerted.
"Golly. She has brought you up well."
"Mm. Maybe." He wrinkled his brows. " What I can remember about what she said about beauty, however, went something like 'Always remember that beauty's a currency. But you have to grow up before you realise that it isn't one that's accepted in the very best establishments without something harder to back it.' "
She clearly thought about that one a bit.
"All I can say to that is that either your mother made her living thinking up inspirational slogans for the sort of posters you see on the back of the bathroom door in the houses of people you don't like, or that she'd had quite a lot of gin when she came out with that one."
This time Draco's laugh was uninhibited. It felt most peculiar. His eyes met Caitlin's, which brimmed with a challenge. She paused, momentarily, then enquired sweetly
"Unless, of course, those sort of posters are one of the mundane irksomenesses which people like yourself are spared?"
He shook his head ruefully. Would they were.
"Au contraire, I'm sorry to say. They make little encouraging gestures at you in our world. I mean, I suppose Mu- you people just get the slogan, presumably printed across a view of dolphins in a clear blue sea, or the like - ?"
"Or sunset over a remote lake, set among pine forests -"
"Or a granite pinnacle, with a lone climber hanging off it?"
Caitlin nodded in an almost mesmerized way.
"Um. Well, ours then look you straight in the eye, and recite you at least a chapter from some cheesy self-help book, which in most cases you could have worked out from the slogan, actually. The Crabbes - I mean, some people I used to visit in the school holidays - were big into them. And I'd never learn. I'd make some sarky remark about the latest one at breakfast, and I'd wonder why I was getting offended looks at supper the next day."
And I'll bet Eustace is planning to paper his new residence with them. If he isn't stopped.
Caitlin grinned. "Anyway, aren't you interested in the financial terms of my offer at all?"
That was a strange one. Draco thought about it for a bit.
"In principle, I suppose. It's rather a difficult one for me. No-one having considered me employable in the past, you understand."
Caitlin looked at him. "Well, the traditional deal would be: 'fifty dollars a day, and expenses.' But I'm afraid inflation, exchange rates and cost of living have taken quite a bite out of the dollar since that was the going rate."
Draco smiled. "Actually, the chances of me being around to collect the time/cost element - I take it I do have to invoice in arrears after the event? - yes, I rather thought so - are so slender that I'll take the traditional deal. I need all the favourable omens I can scrape together. But on the other hand you'll have to advance me a lot for expenses. Neville's in Lancashire, and - if that bitch of a reporter is actually right - Melanie will either be somewhere on the Lancashire/Yorkshire/Cumbria border, or in the County of Laois and Offaly and I know which one I'd rather tackle first. So I'm planning to spring Neville, if I can, and then we'll check the first location, and fall back on the second if we draw a blank there. It doubles her chances if there are two of us, anyway."
"OK. I'll make sure you've got plenty for railway tickets and so forth. And I'll look this Freemasons' Arms up in the Good Pub guide for you before you go, so you've got more of a chance of finding it. And then bloody well buy yourself a decent map, first chance you get. Even if you were the type who's willing to ask for directions (and I'll lay odds you aren't) it really wouldn't be sensible of you to risk getting lost today. Now, I've got the germ of an idea about how to get you out of the village, but I need to run the concept past some of our late breakfasters. And come to think of it, in the meantime, can I get you something? We're having a Mexican week, so it isn't your average breakfast food, but I got the recipe for some wonderful vegetarian burritos at the Sidmouth Folk Festival, when I was last there with the West Wiltshire Border Morris Team."
He was, undoubtedly, starving - no breakfast, too much exercise and excitement that morning and virtually no food the day before had left him almost shaking from the effects of low blood sugar, and who knew what he would get to eat later. But -
"OK," he said at length. " Do your worst. But - will you take my advice about something?"
"Look - in the circumstances you ought to assume that I do know a bit about meddling with strange arcane forces and summoning raw, evil energies from beyond the boundaries of thought and space?"
She nodded, hesitantly.
"In that case, do yourself a favour and lay off the Morris Dancing, OK?"
She looked at him, wide-eyed, but vanished without commenting through an unmarked door, which he presumed led to the rest of the guest-house. He waited, flicking idly through the magazines until she reappeared, briefly, to hand him a tray of food and vanish again. It looked bizarre, and tasted delectable. Perhaps half an hour later she returned with a full carrier bag and an air of deep satisfaction.
"Sorted. The kids are leaving in an hour or two, and they'll give you a lift in the van as far as Oxford. You ought to be able to pick up a train going north from there. And you're less likely to be conspicuous on Oxford station than most of the other places I thought of. Milton Keynes, for example. But I ought to warn you the kids are on their way to Cropredy - you know, the folk festival, and I suppose it'd be too much to hope that you know anything about Fairport Convention?"
Draco shook his head, dumbly.
"Much as I thought. In that case, you'd better fall back on having only heard Liege and Lief : they'll assume if that's so that you're a deeply conservative individual with appalling reactionary views, but at least they'll accept you're part of the human race after all."
"But I haven't heard -"
"I'll play it to you while I'm dying your hair."
"While you're doing what?"
If she had suddenly Transfigured herself into a Swedish Short Snout bearing a warrant for his arrest Draco could scarcely have felt more appalled.
Caitlin favoured him with an expression of overwhelming patience and restraint.
"I believe I mentioned to you having spotted you bob up in the churchyard. Which is a couple of hundred yards from Gaia's Place, if not slightly more. Now, given I've probably seen you five times in my life, if that, how come I recognized you at that distance?"
While he was still too startled to put up any active resistance, she pulled a bottle from the carrier bag and advanced menacingly on him. He cast a quick glance over the label, and gave a protesting squeak.
"No. Definitely not. It's against my religion to henna. Red is right out."
Caitlin looked rather disappointed. "But with that skin and those eyes, it'd be a natural. I mean inherently you obviously are a red-head."
He shuddered, a little over-elaborately. It was, for the moment, almost a relief to turn his mind to these comparative trivialities, rather than worry about the journey ahead. He allowed an icy edge to creep into his voice, and arranged his features in a pattern of grim opposition.
"Inherently I am, without assistance I might add, a platinum blond. And I have particular personal objections to going ginger. Think of something else, if you have to dye it at all. And I warn you, the colour, whatever you choose, had better come out completely with no side effects once this is over, or I'll sue."
Caitlin bared her teeth amiably.
"I'm sure your mother will be able to assist if things get sticky."
A sudden reflection betrayed him into a broad grin. He nodded.
"I expect so too, come to think of it. When she was at school, she went green and purple in alternate stripes, once, and I think it took seven and a half minutes from a standing start at the other end of the Great Hall for McGonagall to get it back to base-line blonde. Plus 25 points from Slytherin. Mind you, she could probably have got away with 10 points if it hadn't been for the bin liner and the safety pins. If someone hadn't taken a photo I'd have never believed it."
"Um. I'm not sure I can quite believe it even so. What was her excuse?"
"1976. And 15 Galleons that said she'd never dare to."
Caitlin peered into the depths of the carrier bag and considered various possibilities.
"How about jet black? No-one will believe it's natural, of course, but they'll all assume you started off from non-descript mouse. Given a few strategic bits of skull shaped silver jewellery and a henna tattoo in a suitable location, and you'll have a nice Goth personality all ready to step into."
Draco's jaws and throat worked convulsively for a moment. When he was able to speak, he breathed, "Honestly, I don't think a disguise which combines my features and any sort of tattoo would help the situation. Seriously. Trust me on this one."
Caitlin looked at him, almost as though she were about to press the relative alternative merits of pierced eyebrows or, perhaps, a Mohican, and then relented.
"OK. Let's compromise: chestnut hair, no jewellery, no tattoos. But you'll have to ditch those clothes. Fortunately, you're about Ricky's build and he's left some jeans and T-shirts and so on here. I expect we'll have you looking completely unremarkable before we've finished."
He snorted. "Not exactly my main aim and object in life, that, up to now. But I suppose it has its uses."
Caitlin continued as if she had not heard him.
"I've told the kids you've had a bit of a run-in with local law enforcement over some - um - recreational herb-growing. They're massively sympathetic about it all. That'll explain why you're keeping your head down in the back of the van until you're well clear of the locality, and also give you a cover story if you happened to start getting all twitchy and panicking."
Draco composed his face into a carved mask of icy hauteur. "I can assure you, compared to what I went through in Recent Events, I'd be flabbergasted if there's anything out there that's able to get me even marginally twitchy or panicking." Then, a thought struck him, and he felt the set lines of his jaw relax momentarily. "Though, mind you, if the Ministry got to our greenhouses before Mrs P. did, then that recreational herbology story will start sounding all too horribly plausible."
Caitlin's expression was profoundly shocked. "I think, as a responsible employer of domestic staff, I ought to point out that 'covering up the boss's felonies' is hardly in any employee's job description."
Really? Why ever not? His puzzlement betrayed itself in his voice.
"Oh, it is in ours. At least, unless my mother's had the standard Malfoy employment contracts amended without bothering to mention it to me. But, as a matter of fact, strictly speaking in our world growing the stuff isn't illegal. Provided you can show it's for a genuine Potions application, that is. The only problem is, the only two Potions applications I can think of offhand are for conditions that are so desperately embarrassing that, all other things being equal, I'd rather admit outright it was for smoking, and stand the rap. Anyway, is there anything else I ought to know about what you've been telling these characters about me?"
"There is just one other thing, yes." She assumed an attitude of robust common sense. "I mean, you obviously can't wander about under that name, can you?"
His mouth opened in silent protest, but Caitlin continued relentlessly on.
"I've told them you're called David Molloy. You're bound to have forgotten you've still got some monogrammed personal property or other on you, so I had to stick with the same initials. Mind you, you've got to remember that they'll be guaranteed to nickname you 'Moose' and think they're being hysterically funny and original. Just take it in your stride, will you? I could explain why, but it'd take more background than we've got time for, and you'd only demand to know who murdered the chauffeur."
"I most certainly wouldn't," Draco muttered. "Just so long as he's not one of the corpses that's being laid at my door, I don't give a monkey's who stiffed him."
Caitlin smiled, and flicked on the stereo in the corner of the room.
"Anyway," she said firmly, "keep your ears open. I expect there'll be a short test later."
When, about an hour and a quarter later, Draco emerged onto the gravel drive at the front of the guest house he was disconcerted to encounter a shocking pink VW van, the words "Eclipse or Bust" painted on one side, its roof surmounted by a fibre-glass pterodactyl with a home made sign swinging from its beak ordering peremptorily: "End Third World Debt Before The End of The Millennium". He turned protestingly to look at Caitlin, but she was busy beaming at and saying farewells to a motley assortment of young people who were piling out of the front door of Gaia's Place bearing piles of multi-ethnic luggage of varying degrees of crepitude. The foremost of the group bounded forwards towards Draco, with an enthusiastic expression on his face which reminded Draco, momentarily, of his lost dogs.
"Hi," the newcomer said, beaming. "I'm Roj. And you must be David! Meet the gang."
He gestured expansively round. "That's Mark. He's the other one with a licence to drive this thing. Jenna - she's the one taking a photo at the moment. She's keeping our trip journal up to date on the web. And this is Sebastian. Lazy bastard, but brilliant at keeping the kitty straight. Father's a partner at KPMG, you know. Seb! Wake up and say hi to David! Oh, and this is Imran. He navigates. Bump of locality like no tomorrow. We'd still be somewhere near Truro if it wasn't for him. And last, but by no means least, Siouxsie."
He gestured towards a tiny, fragile figure with a mass of red-brown curls, whose severely cropped silver Lycra top revealed at one extremity three navel rings, and at the other a small blue tattooed dolphin apparently caught in the act of diving for cover from just under her collar bone towards the shallow protection of her cleavage.
"Delighted to meet you," Draco murmured, extending a hand. She ignored it, pulled out a rolling machine, rolled a cigarette, lit it, gestured emphatically towards him with the lit end, and said in a strong Irish accent,
"Now don't youse be getting any fucking funny ideas, ok?"
Draco's tone was unchanged.
"I'd be the very last person to do that, I can assure you."
She blew smoke out through her nostrils, and glared at him.
"I suppose youse is lounging there thinking I'm the chief cook and bottle washer, is that it?"
"No. Not nearly scary enough to be the chief cook. In my experience. Sorry."
Her look of bare-teethed fury was, at the same time, indefinably hurt. Roj coughed, hastily.
"Siouxsie's our mechanic, and the only reason we stay on the road at all. Anyway, we'd better be going or we'll miss the best camping places. Look out now, everyone aboard!"
He whistled, thinly. Grudgingly, the party retrieved the gear spread about the lawn and clambered into the van. Caitlin, suddenly mindful of issues beyond her immediate responsibilities as the host saying farewell, scrambled to the window of the van. It was already beginning to be in motion. She signalled frantically at Draco, who leaned out through the window as she galloped after the van.
"Look - I forgot to mention - if you get into any trouble of the sort I can help you with - just ring."
"Yes - I mean, telephone - try the guest-house line - or if they can't get me on that -"
She was being left behind as the van gathered pace. She pulled together all the strength of her lungs and shouted after him:
"If you can't get me on the guest-house line, call my private one. I'm in the book - ask Directory enquiries - the name's NAISMITH-"
She was left standing on the drive. The van lumbered out onto the main road.
"Well," Roj said decisively, "time we put some music on. You guys know the score. No Fairport till we cross the Oxfordshire border. I vote we ask our guest to choose. David, what do you think of the Grateful Dead?"
Draco, suddenly aware he was being addressed, turned a puzzled glance on the driver.
"In my experience they're very few and far between," he said firmly, and burrowed deep under the sleeping bags and rucksacks as the van swept down through the village street.
"Anyway, be seeing you, Moose! Best of luck! And don't forget our RPG evening on the 16th of next month!"
The van lurched off down the street in the vague direction of Woodstock, leaving Draco standing under a plane tree shaking his head slowly from side to side in an effort to dispel an acute sense of disorientation for which the last twenty minutes' lurch through the greater arcana of the Oxford one-way system (the planners of which, in Draco's private opinion, could have given the Dark Lord tips on the optimum way of spreading mass confusion and terror) was not wholly responsible.
The next job was to find the railway station. He had a sense that they had swung by it at least twice since they entered the city, but Imran had insisted that the van could get even closer, with a bit more effort. Then they had lost track of it altogether. Faced with yet another whistle stop tour of Iffley, Cowley, Botley, Hinksey and, for all he knew, Osney and Binsey as well, he had insisted that they decanted him on the first reasonably central street they came to.
The surrounding architecture was comfortingly Gothic; the honey-coloured buildings slept in the generous noon of high summer. He shouldered his duffle and considered his next move with care. Obviously, he needed to find the station as soon as possible, but he was deeply reluctant simply to buttonhole a passing Muggle to ask directions. He paused, irresolutely, and then caught sight of a swinging pub sign, displaying a remarkably cheerful infant being dangled casually from the talons of a large bird of prey. He trotted briskly towards it. The barman would be bound to know the quickest way of getting to the station, and god only knew, after a morning like this one, he deserved a drink.
The pub, however, was unexpectedly crowded. A mob at least four deep pressed against the bar, all apparently screaming at once in some language Draco had never heard. He looked despairingly across, trying to gauge how long it was likely to take to get served.
"You'll be lucky," a deeply cynical voice said in his ear. He turned to see a man with glasses and a ponytail.
"That lot," the man said, gesturing bitterly in the direction of the scrum at the bar with the tail end of his pint, "are the Lord of the Rings Appreciation Society, and quite apart from the fact that they don't appear to have a mind between them to make up, they've been insisting on ordering all their drinks in Quenya. And as the barman doesn't happen to know the difference between the elvish for 'Eight Pints of Pedigree and a packet of cheesy wotsits' and the weather forecast for Bicester and all points east it's been taking a fair time."
Draco was on the point of asking his new acquaintance if he happened to know the way to the station when a movement in the corner caught his eye. He was suddenly aware of a dark and piercing glance being directed towards him.
"Well, in that case I'd better find somewhere else," he muttered hurriedly. "I've got a train to catch."
He bolted quickly back out onto the street, and walked briskly, fighting the urge to run, north up the street. He took the first left turning he came to, and then the next.
"Well, this is an unexpected pleasure," a voice purred silkily in his ear. "You seem to have had some very varied experiences since we met last."
Draco stopped and turned round. Professor Snape was leaning negligently against the railings of the building to the left of the street, his hand resting casually against the seam of his trousers. Draco dropped his duffle bag at his feet, and, slowly and deliberately, spread his hands wide, at waist height, in front of him. Snape nodded.
"At least you also seem to have acquired a grain of sense along the way. More than some of the dunderheads I have to put up with daily, anyway."
His eyes fell on the duffle bag, and he coughed, irritably.
"Pick it up, boy, pick it up. I think we've established that I've got the drop on you, as I'm told the Muggle films so quaintly put it. Anyway, all that using your wand would do is substitute someone who definitely wants to kill you for someone who isn't quite sure."
Draco raised one eyebrow.
"You aren't sure? In our circles, that must make you pretty well unique this morning."
Snape made the sound usually written as "tsk".
"Your unusually well developed ego may have prevented your noticing it before, but the assumption that the world would be a finer place without you has been pretty widely held for quite some time. After all, you can't make a hobby out of deliberately making the lives of those around you a misery, and then expect people to love you for it. Trust me on that one."
He paused for breath. Draco did not plan on interrupting: time wasted on ranting, which might have been spent hexing, was, in his view, an infinitely profitable trade.
"Take me, for example. You spent the best part of seven years relentlessly exploiting your inside knowledge that I was - in all the circumstances - unlikely to unleash on you the retribution you so richly - and frequently - deserved. You think I didn't even notice? If it wasn't for the fact that you were the only one in that group who had even a marginal feeling for my subject, I wouldn't even pause for breath before turning you in."
Snape gestured eloquently with one long-fingered hand: his eyes glittered menacingly.
"Think about it. If I were to hand you over to the Ministry I'd step straight into an Order of Merlin and be able to buy myself a complete new kitchen and bathroom with the reward. Which, I can tell you, would almost certainly spread far more joy and happiness than you've ever accounted for in your entire miserable lifetime."
"So that's what it comes down to? Betrayed for the sake of a whirlpool bath and a set of Corian worktops?"
The contempt was naked in his voice. There was a moment's silence. A muscle in Snape's cheek began to flicker.
"Given the talent the Ministry pulled out of retirement when the current crop of half-baked kids came away empty handed from the Manor, if I did hand you over it'd bloody well count as saving your life, not betraying you. At least I'd turn you in intact and still breathing. They'll have demanded permission to play by all the old rules, I can guarantee you."
Draco acknowledged the point with a slightly lifted chin.
"Nevertheless, if you can fight your understandable urge to redecorate, I'd prefer to take my chances. Though I suppose whatever you decide I should be grateful you rated my Potions skill as worth sparing my life for."
Snape gritted his teeth.
"I forgot," he said abruptly. "There were a couple of other reasons why I prefer not to kill you. The first is that, on the off-chance there is an afterlife, I'd hate to do anything that would please Lucius so much."
He paused, took a deep breath, and looked straight at Draco.
"The second, of course, is that you're doing our people such a big favour by keeping that cretin Longbottom out of the gene pool."
There was an infinitely prolonged split second. Then-
Draco's wand lay on the pavement with a thin curl of green smoke still drifting gently up from it.
Snape was breathing slightly more heavily than before.
"Now that was seriously stupid. Even if it was -" he flicked back his cuff momentarily to gaze at his wrist, "about three-tenths of a second faster than I'd expected."
He gestured with his wand. "Obfuscate!"
The green smoke vanished.
Snape looked at Draco. "I wouldn't use your wand again unless you're sure there's a reliable wizard with a clean untracked wand ready to tidy up after you. That is, not unless you really do have a burning desire to end up dead for a crime you didn't do."
Draco's skin felt clammy. His voice was husky.
"So you do think I didn't do it?"
Snape half-turned away.
"Don't be an idiot, boy. I know you didn't do it."
Draco's voice was very low.
Snape turned back towards him.
"Well, in the first place, during Recent Events I once spent a whole interminable day observing Potter's cousin. Funnily enough, I was tasked with making a report on whether kidnapping him would tempt Potter to do something ill-thought out and heroic."
Draco raised his eyebrows sardonically.
"Really? A report? Who to?"
Snape barely acknowledged the nuance. "I made two reports, as it turned out," he announced blandly. "Fortunately, though I had to adjust them for presentation purposes, I was able to reuse a significant portion of the underlying research. Both of them concluded that the idea was a rotten one. The - er - slightly franker one followed on to observe that the subject would have whined like buggery, been unbelievably expensive to feed during any time he was kept in incarceration, and that there was a high likelihood that Potter would regard his cousin's evaporation as though several birthdays had simultaneously come early, which was hardly the object of the exercise."
Snape pointed his wand at an inconveniently placed tangle of bicycles. They leapt sideways, allowing him to shift into a slightly more comfortable position against the railings.
"It would certainly have been how I'd have felt in Potter's place. Twenty-four hours in his cousin's company were unspeakable. Multiply that by seventeen and a half years and the relief of getting rid of him would be practically unimaginable. And as you'd encountered Dudley for long enough to draw that conclusion on your own account, I really couldn't credit your doing anything which would give Potter that amount of pleasure. Then there was something so familiarly self-righteous about the allegation that you'd threatened Dursley with Cruciatus, too. A thin substratum of hearsay and speculation relentlessly stretched to support the most unflattering conclusion."
"That's about right. What I actually did to Dursley was to invite him outside so I could beat the shit out of him."
There was an underlying purr of ironic amusement in Snape's voice. "In that case, knowing you, you must have either been absolutely sure he wasn't going to take you up on your offer or you had some serious muscle backing you up."
Draco could feel his cheekbones heating as he flushed at the taunt, but he managed to keep his voice commendably unembarrassed.
"I begin to see why no-one asked me to prepare reports on whether you could be provoked into doing something ill-timed and heroic. Which reminds me: what brings you to Oxford?"
"I'm trying to catch a train."
Snape looked startled. "A Muggle train? Have you ever travelled by one before?"
Draco's lip curled. "Take a wild guess, will you?"
"Hm. I once had to travel halfway across the country by Muggle train. Some of the things some of us had to do for the Cause during Recent Events weren't pleasant, you know. Are you quite sure I can't interest you in being quietly handed over the Ministry for questioning instead?"
Draco shook his head. Snape sighed.
"Ah, well. I'm not proposing to ask where you're going, because if the Aurors are playing by the old rules I daresay they'll be handing out Veritaserum like pumpkin juice shortly. But I'll point you towards the station and lend you the benefit of a cloaking spell while you get there."
This unexpected generosity was disconcerting after Snape's earlier hostility. Not a day to look a gift-horse in the mouth, though. And if he did want to turn you in, he's had plenty of chances already.
"Don't bother thanking me, boy. I'm keen to get you out of my vicinity as soon as possible. Your unexpected appearance has already comprehensively wrecked my plans for a quiet afternoon in the Shadowy Stacks of the Bodleian with the second volume of Aristotle's Poetics, so I'd rather see the back of you before you can do any more damage."
They commenced walking down the road. After a few minutes they paused at a busy junction, the station clearly visible ahead.
"Well, I'll leave you here," Snape said abruptly. "One word of advice: don't get into any duels. You're quick, but anyone you'll be likely to come up against will have been fighting for their lives for the best part of twenty years, or longer. What's more, they won't have any doubts about what they want to achieve from the second they draw their wand. Oh, and they won't make the mistake of losing their tempers. No matter what you might say to provoke them."
He swung away into the crowds before Draco could say anything. Draco stood looking after him for a moment, then shouldered his duffle and made his way over towards the station.
"Change at Preston." It was, by now, almost a mantra. Draco had been rather pleased with himself for the way he had coped at the Oxford booking office (although the booking clerk had muttered audibly to himself, "It's a crime, you know, what the relentless pressure towards individualism does to them"). Muggle trains had gone through the stages of being baffling but interesting; baffling but tedious; and then just plain baffling, at which point they had been held up for 45 minutes by what the ticket inspector loudly insisted over the tannoy was a sheep lodged in the high tension cables, and by no stretch of the imagination whatsoever a problem attributable to any failing on the part of Virgin Rail. Draco had taken advantage of the delay to investigate the buffet car, and had retreated with a strong sense of regret that he had not taken Caitlin up on her offer to pack a lunch for him.
Most of the rest of the time he had used the paperback which he had found in his duffle bag as a barrier to ward off any ill-judged conversational attempts on the part of his fellow travellers, and watched them covertly out of the sides of his eyes. There were so many of them - and all so different - and how did they cope, after all, lacking any understanding of all the ways magic soothed and intrigued, effected and entertained? His own inability to use his wand was a nagging ache: a vague area of low-level discomfort on the fringe of his consciousness. His moment of idiocy in drawing his wand on Snape, he suspected, had owed more than a little to his need to soothe that ache. Which had, of course, met and combined with the un-nameable terror that had built in his guts over the course of the morning, and with the incandescent fury Snape's quip had unleashed from some place within him he did not know he possessed. Still, he's right. Not a mistake you can afford to repeat.
He slid a bewildered glance over to the Muggle of about his own age - or perhaps a year or two older - in the next seat. He was excitably exhaling through clenched teeth and swearing sotto voce as with convulsive spasms of two fingers he shot down geometrical shape after menacing geometrical shape on the screen of the - lap top? Yes, that was the word - on the table in front of him. And they called this living? How could they possibly bear it?
Caitlin, he supposed, got through life on sheer vitality and a determination never to recognize any cause as hopeless, and Melanie probably floated by on a current of unquenchable if barely explicable optimism - but all these others? What made them continue to get up in the morning?
His father, of course, had an easy answer. Muggles are too stupid too realize what the world's about. They scrape by with their pathetic machines, and think that's all there is. That is why they will always be cattle created for the service of the stronger race.
It had sounded like an unarguable truth to him, once. Now - the train windows bowed inwards, and his ears popped as another express rushed past in the opposite direction. As they rattled through a station at which the train had plainly no intention of stopping he glimpsed behind it some incomprehensible Muggle building; a massive complex of entwined pipes and vessels, smoke stacks belching white smoke, and occasional flares of fire: the retorts, alembics and crucibles of a giant's Potions bench swollen yet vaster by an uncontrollable Engorgement charm, and all buzzing with demonic energy harnessed for some unguessable purpose. He felt suddenly very alone in the crowded carriage.
It was an enormous relief when the voice over the tannoy (the owner of which, he suspected, was surfing forward on an unstoppable wave of bravado having got away with the sheep story without the Muggles rising up en masse and beating the truth out of him by main force) announced, "Preston! Preston next stop! And mind you've got all yer traps!"
Draco tumbled out onto the odd-smelling platform. With an unaccustomed sense of competence about this Muggle environment he glanced knowingly up at the orange shrouded grey screens above his head. The train for Leeds via Nelson - Platform 7 - 10 minutes - easy enough to manage - in forty five minutes he would be in Whalley. Which was less than a mile from the Freemason's Arms - so he was less than an hour from finding out, then -
He gulped, and started up the ramp leading to the bridge between the platforms.
A horribly familiar glimpse of features in the crowd sweeping down the ramp from one of the other platforms caused his heart to stop - what is it with my luck today? Can't I have just one break, somehow? - has he seen me or hasn't he? - instinctively, Draco turned away, ducking back towards the platform from which he had come - any platform - anywhere, anywhere but here -
At that moment a small, dirty, two-section Diesel Motor Unit came sliding into the bay on platform 3. Acting on the blind instinct of "any port in a storm" Draco leaped for its door, almost before it had stopped moving. Once safely on board he crouched down into cover and peered out through the murky windows. Seamus Finnegan was still standing on Platform 4, surrounded by a gaggle of older people who from their congruence of features had to be family, looking vaguely up at the information screens - why can't the thick Irish git learn to Apparate like the rest of us? - when with multifarious arthritic wheezes and creaks the DMU - thank god!- pulled out of the station. Draco's last memory of Preston was of Finnegan's expression - "did I just spot someone I know from somewhere?" glimpsed through the deeply begrimed carriage window. His heart thudding desperately, Draco was able to take in little for several minutes.
When he collected himself he was aware that the ticket collector was moving gradually down the carriage. With an air of studied casualness Draco got up, swinging his bag behind his back, drifted off to the passage which linked the two carriages, and leant out through the open window in defiance of the notice which told him not to, so as to smell the blessedly fresh country smell from the fields either side of the track. To the right of the train he could see the dark bulk of the Hill - well over in the distance, from an odd angle, and receding rapidly behind them, but nevertheless present. It was his one fixed point in a changing world, and the sight of it steadied him. You're going north, and a little west of where you should be. Nothing to worry about at all. Easy to solve. If only this isn't the non-stop to Glasgow, that is.
And, of course, provided you don't get run in for travelling without a ticket first.
Draco had only the haziest idea of what the penalties were likely to be. On the basis of the rest of the morning, his assumptions were not optimistic. Fortunately, the ticket collector had been arrested in his progress down the carriage by someone with some deeply complex query, which apparently required much pulling of notebooks and timetables out of pockets, hissing through clenched teeth, and waving of arms. Only when the problem seemed on the point of being resolved did Draco draw delicately back, and prudently retreat into the loo as the ticket collector began his advance down the carriage again.
The sense of the train decelerating to a stop prompted him to move from his cover. The train had pulled up at a stone-built station festooned with improbable crenellations and battlements. The station name was obscured behind a scatter of mail trucks. Doesn't matter. Time to get out, I think. The ticket collector, fortunately, had his back turned. Draco swung open the heavy door and dropped, lightly, down to the platform. He thought he heard someone call out behind him, but did not look back, moving swiftly but without running through the confused mob of people who were leaving, boarding or greeting the train, and out into a broad sunlit car park. Get well away from the station, then you can find out where you've fetched up. Without any particular object in view he turned right, crossing a bridge over the railway line and began to climb up a steepish hill lined with imposing Georgian town houses in a cool grey stone.
The road took a sharp, steep turn, and swung round to cross a sun-dappled, tree-shaded, cobbled square, which formed the forecourt for the massive stone gatehouse of an imposing - and impressively intact - castle. He choked, suddenly, and came to a complete stop. The edges of his vision pressed in upon him as the grainy grey clouds of impending unconsciousness threatened to overwhelm him; his nostrils were full of the exhalation of fresh blood that seemed to beat up at him in waves from the cobbled approach in front of him. There was no need for him now to find out where he was. He knew.
Memory carried him back 15 months and more ago. Time had not, it seemed, softened one iota of the scene; it was in front of him in every detail. The harsh, high pitched tones of the Dark Lord carried effortlessly to every corner of the great ballroom of the Manor, turned for this occasion into an auditorium and filled to overflowing with the cream of the Dark Lord's supporters. With an almost negligent gesture with his wand the Dark Lord had conjured on the podium a three-dimensional image from smoke, which writhed and grew, and became more solid even as they watched. It crystallized into a precise replica in miniature of a massive stone gatehouse. Behind it the main bulk of the Castle loomed. The Death Eaters leaned forward, the ballroom wrapped in absolute silence but for their shallow, tense breathing.
"Look on it."
The Dark Lord's voice was resonant, the power in his voice building as he spoke with an almost physical force. "I would show you all of them. All of the places where the Muggles imprisoned and killed our people in the past. They have forgotten or turned them into tales to amuse themselves with. We will make them remember. We will make them remember on those very stones what they did to our people. They will remember in pain; they will remember in iron; they will remember in fire. No Muggle will ever be able to forget us again. And we will have our revenge!"
Suddenly everyone in the ballroom was standing, chanting, punching the air. Waves of passionate dedication flowed back from the audience to the podium like a living, many-headed monster. Draco, standing near the back, saw even his father was on his feet, chanting, swaying, arms around the nearest two of the platform party, his accustomed dignity and reserve cast to the four winds. Nothing can stop us now. The air fizzed green, blue and silver with magical energy.
As his eyes searched frantically for a rock of sanity in the entranced crowd he caught sight of the other silver-blonde head in the room: his mother, poised as ever, standing against the folding screens which divided the ballroom from the banqueting hall, ready to give the signal to the armies of servitors to fling wide the doors and start serving drinks. It was her utter stillness that had arrested his eye; as his gaze fell on her she raised her head, looking across the tops of the howling, chanting, hysterical mob, and looked straight at him. For a long private instant they stood amid the chaos, sharing an unspoken thought.
And he still thinks he can control this?
"Hey, are you all right?"
For one bizarre moment he thought that Irene Patullo had joined the mob of his acquaintances who seemed to be following him across England. Then he realized that the American accent was slightly harsher; older - creakier; perhaps, just perhaps, a degree less cultured. Kind, though. He had not realized before how much kindness there was floating about the place. Not evenly spread, though. Gathered in hidden pockets like that oil stuff the Muggles were so keen on. Something one had to drill for, often. Perhaps if you drilled too enthusiastically you risked destroying yourself by the sheer pressure of kindness that came blasting back up at you. Perhaps, on the other hand, it was high time he got both his brain and his vocal cords off auto-pilot, and landed himself back on Planet Coherent.
Draco opened his eyes with a struggle. He was sitting on a low wall at the edge of the grass space in front of the Castle. Two elderly women were peering down at him in a concerned way.
"We were sure you were about to faint. You just came to a dead stop, and then sank down on that wall, here. Are you okay? Drink this. "
A paper cup containing a drink which looked most peculiar - dark brown, fizzy, and indefinably medicinal in smell - was pushed in front of him. He took a swallow, and sneezed.
"Thanks. I - I think I'm ok. It was just - it was just this place. It just hit me. I'm fine now, honestly."
They favoured him with expressions of deep interest.
"Well, isn't that just amazing? I wouldn't be surprised if you were picking up on the atmosphere of the Castle. Nancy and I were just saying, with all the blood that's been shed round here, anyone who's at all sensitive to atmosphere would be practically bound to detect unquiet spirits on this ground."
Draco gave this a moment's thought. He had never bothered with sensing ghosts; they either wandered up and chatted to him, or he ignored them. Doubtless the Castle had a fairly large contingent. Red Caps, too, very probably. Better not to mention it. He made a non-committal sound in the back of his throat.
"We're on a coach tour," the woman called Nancy added conversationally. "Famous literary and historical sites. Only the others are going over the Castle at the moment, and the guide didn't think we'd be able to manage the steps. With Ruth's hip replacement barely settled, and all. But at least we were able to get round to the other side of the Castle, and take photographs of the Witches Tower."
"Well Tower." He had not meant the automatic correction to come out so sharply.
Ruth looked at him. "Is that so? They told us it was called the Witches Tower. You know, after the Lancashire Witches - we're on the Witches Trail today. Tomorrow it's the Lake Poets and the Border Reivers. We've been to Pendle, and Read, and Newchurch, and Barley, and the coach finishes up here. Oh, it's a terrible story. Those poor women. They were imprisoned there - "
"In 1612. Yes, I know." His voice was tight, clipped. Clearly they realized it was not a good subject, even if they had no understanding why. They were looking at him with puzzled eyes. He floundered on. "I'm - well, actually, I'm descended from one of them. Well, technically, I suppose, from two of them, as they were mother and daughter - "
Ack. Definitely too much information for safety. And I'd better just hope that they haven't been given enough context to work out that that means I've just confessed to being descended from the chief prosecution witness, too. Still, if my mother could keep the Dark Lord from making that particular connection for however many years, I suppose I can manage with a couple of Muggles for five minutes.
Because, of course - strange, how insight finally catches up with you, long after it might have been some bloody use - for all the Dark Lord's proclaiming his intention to avenge the wrongs of witches and wizards at the hands of brutal, ignorant, long-dead Muggles, the whole history had been much more complicated than the crudely painted child's picture book he set out before his followers. The ruthless internal divisions and struggles for power within the wizarding world over the centuries had seen to that. During all the various upsurges of Muggle oppression of witches and wizards the only times the Muggle authorities had ever actually managed to kill anyone other than their own by all their zealotry was when they had active connivance from the wizarding community. Oh, the motives for collaboration varied: weeding out Squibs and other black sheep; struggles for inheritances; the hope of Royal patronage - sometimes, desperate denial and self-loathing, an effort to integrate into Muggle marriages and Muggle families by bringing a blood sacrifice to seal the pact. Dirty stories, all of them. Not many dirtier than that of his many-times great grandmother. They had made up a ballad about that one. Neville, once, had told him even the Muggles still remembered it: that he'd heard someone singing it in a Lancashire pub on a folk night.
By the time she was nine
She'd committed a grave crime
For her family from the gallows swung dead.
He looked across at the grim pile of the Castle. Somewhere inside that mass of stone, 313 years ago almost to the day, Jennet Device had stood in a courtroom and sworn away the lives of her mother, sister and brother. Her grandmother - imprisoned on her testimony and dead in gaol - had been already a rotting corpse buried somewhere about the prison precincts. No wonder the blood-guilt reflected back at him from the stones.
The two women looked undeniably impressed.
"Really? Well, that explains it, of course." Ruth turned confirmatorily to Nancy. "We could tell - it just looked as though something invisible had hit you, right there, and stopped you dead in your tracks."
He had, as a matter of fact, seen people being hit by something invisible, and strongly doubted whether the simile was an accurate one. But he did not propose to debate the point. The sooner I'm out of here, the better. He got to his feet.
"Anyway, I've got to be going. Thanks. Bye."
They waved vaguely at him; he could sense that the brevity of their encounter only added to his fascination in their eyes. He nodded a brisk farewell, and started walking. He did not look back, but he could feel the Castle's baleful surveillance between his shoulder blades all the time he was walking down the hill on which it stood.
Once again, his feet took a route without him giving them conscious direction. However, when he came onto a busy T-junction with a bookshop on one corner he remembered Caitlin's instructions, and went in to consider maps. A thought struck him. He was, after all, rather less than 20 miles from Wiswell. Neville was always going on about the pleasures of walking longer distances than that, when Draco was teasing him about his reluctance to use broomsticks. It would be quite easy - the assistant at the bookshop was happy to give him directions - to buy one of those gadgets the Muggles used instead of a Point Me charm. The map showed gloriously open, virtually uninhabited country between here and his objective. Even if Finnegan had alerted the Aurors it would be like a needle in a haystack looking for him in that. He'd have daylight virtually all the way - it was the height of summer. And he'd had enough of Muggles and their machines to last him for quite a bit. No, walking was obviously the safest thing for it. And the sooner he started, the better.
He was, of course, from the South, and his family, although unquestionably landed gentry and far from opposed to blood sports in principle, had never taken much notice of the significant dates of the Muggle sporting calendar, as enshrined in The Field and Country Life. Neville, brought up in the shadow of Pendle Hill, could have enlightened him, had he been there. Caitlin could have pointed out that the map is not the territory. Draco, however, distracted by his troubles, his shaken imagination fancying legions of Aurors positioned on every bus or train route in the whole of the county, desperate to shake the blood sodden dust of Lancaster from his feet, took out his new bought map and compass and plotted a long straight course across the barren, unpopulated, wastes which lay between him and his objective.
Then, as innocent as any babe unborn, he set his feet towards Dolphinholme and the south-east, and no kind soul plucked him by the sleeve, or informed him that if one proposes to take a twenty mile hike across some of the finest grouse moors in the whole of the fair North Country, the 12th of August is not the best day to choose for the journey.
Camilleri had had an agitating afternoon, but he had started to feel generally happier about life as the day wore on with still no summons from Rita or news that Draco had been captured. To his surprise (not to mention amusement) St Mungo's appeared to be maintaining the stiffest of possible fronts, and no hint of the news that a patient had evaporated from inside one of their secure wards had been allowed to leak out. By half past eight that evening Neil, who had been holding down the news desk with an increasing air of stress which gradually flooded in past the breakwater of his self-importance, gave all the Overlord team conditional permission to go home, on the strict understanding that they were to hold themselves in readiness to return at any hour of the day or night should the situation change.
Camilleri reached the flat some ten minutes before Narcissa Apparated in, her arms laden with elegant carrier bags bearing the names of some of the most illustrious outlets in the whole wizarding world.
"Shopping?" Camilleri enquired sceptically. "At a time like this?"
Narcissa bestowed a sparkling smile on him. Her marble remoteness of the morning had dissolved into fizzing energy: he expected to see St Elmo's fire leap from finger end to finger end. Mischief radiated off her, and he felt that to embrace her would be rather like stroking a half-grown tiger cub.
"I can always make time for shopping. At least for essentials."
She dropped the bags onto the sofa bed and swept her eyes around, her gaze taking in the view through the false window (the glittering lights of Hong Kong Island reflected in the harbour, shot from the penthouse bar of the Peninsula Hotel on Kowloon side), Camilleri's hastily repacked photographic equipment, the strategic pile of laundry dumped so as to conveniently obscure the fireplace, and, finally, Neville's owl, which had been roosting on the bookshelf, its head tucked under its wing. Camilleri followed the direction of her gaze.
"Oh, yes," he muttered. "Forgot to mention that. You've had an owl."
She raised a brow. "Another one?" She moved in the direction of his gesture, picked up the small cylinder of parchment, slit it open without difficulty, and pursed her lips slightly while reading it.
"Hm. The same as the others. A little more information would be nice. But at least that's a reasonably easy instruction to follow."
She dropped it into the ashtray and set fire to it with a word. The letters showed a darker shade of grey for a moment, then collapsed to ash. Narcissa pulled out a small pad of parchment and scribbled, quickly, looping the completed message round the small owl's leg. It pecked sleepily at her.
"Shoo!" Narcissa said firmly. "In terms of long term strategy that's the best I can come up with. Just get on with it, OK?"
The owl made a resentful clicking noise with its beak, and took off through the fireplace. Narcissa turned round to Camilleri.
"Anyway," she said "I need your help. I'll be putting together an alibi for Draco this evening, and I'm going to need a bit of assistance."
Camilleri's voice was urgent.
"What's he doing? Where is he?"
Narcissa looked blankly at him. "How on earth would I know? I have a vague idea where he's heading, but that's about it. I'm only planning on giving the Powers that Be a general steer in the opposite direction."
Camilleri took a deep breath. "But how do you know he needs an alibi, then?"
Narcissa's gaze became even more baffled. "Well, I expect it'll come in useful, even if he's got one already, don't you think?"
Belatedly, Camilleri realized that in Narcissa's family alibis were, apparently, to be treated as the equivalent of socks: provided they fitted one could never, really, ever be given too many of them. He nodded, firmly.
"Oh - er, yes. Of course. What do I have to do?"
She smiled, slowly.
"Well, in the first place, I need to borrow the bathroom. Then - look, I'll explain the rest while I'm soaking."
"God, that's bloody disconcerting," Camilleri moaned. "How do you do that?"
Narcissa grinned wickedly at him.
"Hair and makeup, mostly. A good bit of strapping. Some excruciatingly uncomfortable Muggle gadgets called contact lenses. And then, perhaps, the smallest snifter of illusion to complete the overall effect. But don't worry. I've not done anything drastic. All original bits still present and correct. Not even Polyjuiced."
"Oh? And how do you plan to maintain your cover if anyone makes a pass at you, if that's so?"
"I'm planning on no-one getting close enough to make the attempt."
"In that outfit? Down Canal Street? Lord, give me strength."
"Yes, dear. Noted. Anyway, give me fifteen minutes to make an initial impression and then get in there and take your photograph. Make sure you get the club's name prominently in the background. And, Chris -?"
"Don't let them have the negative until you've negotiated freelance rates for it. Bearing in mind it has to be in the Prophet's hands by midnight to meet their print deadline, that is."
"I've got a really bad feeling about this one," Camilleri muttered, but he began to put his kit together nonetheless. Narcissa smiled dazzlingly at him.
"I knew I could count on you."
The bouncer was quite sure that the apparition in front of him ought, on any sensible interpretation of the club's dress code, be excluded. Admittedly, while the guidelines were explicit on the subject of trainers, jeans and leg warmers, they had an inexplicable gap when it came to stuffed vultures. However, on general principles, surely -
"I'm not planning to stay long," Emily Longbottom said reasonably. "I only need to have a quick word with my grandson's young man. He's blond, and he can't have arrived very long ago."
The bouncer could recognize trouble when he saw it coming. In fact, it was part of his job description.
"Look, I realize it may have been difficult for you to adjust to, but times have changed. It's not the sort of thing you can exactly talk people out of, however you may feel about it. And anyway, here's neither the time nor the place - "
"Oh, I'm not out to cause trouble. At least, not between those two. In fact, I'd be a lot happier if I knew Neville was safely with Draco. No, I need some information. And I need it fast. So, young man - "
Inexplicably, impossibly, the bouncer felt all 6ft 4 of his hard, steroid-enhanced body being pushed back against the acid-etched glass behind him. The door began to yield to the almost irresistible pressure. The bouncer tried his final shot.
"Look; even if I did let you in: how would you recognize him? It's not exactly floodlit in there, and, after all, I've let a few hundred people in this evening, and about a quarter of them were blond. It's a total zoo; you'd never spot the man you're after."
"Rubbish," Emily Longbottom said decisively. "I'll flatly guarantee you'd have noticed him when he arrived - unless, of course you've been ridiculously spoilt all your life."
The bouncer's jaw dropped.
"You wouldn't - you couldn't possibly be referring to the Ziggy Stardust reincarnation in the leather hot-pants and the thigh length spike heeled boots, would you?"
Mrs Longbottom gave a satisfied nod.
"That sounds about right. I don't know anything about this Ziggy Stardust person, but the rest makes sense. Go on, then. Take me to him."
She found who she was looking for in the chill-out room, lounging against the bar with a bottle of Grolsch negligently dangling along one leather- bound sweat-beaded muscle-toned flank.
"Eh, I'm glad to find you," Emily Longbottom said. "From the description, I weren't sure if it was you doing something clever, or young Draco up to something remarkably stupid."
Narcissa looked narrowly up and down the room before answering.
"Have you used your wand recently?"
"No - not really. Well. Maybe a bit at the door. Though most of that was force of personality, I suppose. Why?"
By way of answer, Narcissa pulled a slender supple piece of dark mahogany out of the top of her right boot, and passed it to her.
"Take this one. I - er - managed to find a cache of Ollivanders' Untraceable Interchangeables that the Death Eaters don't seem to have declared to the Ministry during decommissioning."
Mrs Longbottom favoured her with the narrowest of beady stares, one she had perfected by practice on her family for at least eight decades.
"Well, I'll go to our house. And that little bugger swore blind he was only making them for Us."
Narcissa looked imperturbably straight back at her. "Oh well, you know what they say. Being a double agent means never having to worry about whether you've got top of the range equipment."
"And does young Draco know his wand's compromised?"
Narcissa shrugged. The impact of her bare shoulders moving, as the random lights flashed off them in the darkened corners of the club, had to be seen to be believed. She knitted her flawless brows together, muttered "Such a waste, all this domesticity" and flashed sultry, sidelong glances into all four corners of the room.
"Keep your mind on things," Emily Longbottom advised firmly. Narcissa turned back to the matter at hand with a visible effort.
"Yes, I should think so. On the grounds he hasn't used it for the last twelve hours."
Mrs Longbottom raised her eyebrows.
"And how come you're so certain?"
"Well- " Narcissa paused. "The Ministry has a strictly unattributable one way leak into the Prophet. And, it seems, the Prophet now has a strictly unattributable one-way leak into me."
Mrs Longbottom relaxed slightly.
"Good. I'm glad Draco's got that much sense. And where are you really supposed to be? I mean, of course, you, you: as opposed to you, him. The newspapers will be bound to be asking."
Narcissa pouted, elegantly.
"Yes, you. By the way, could you possibly take it for granted for the time being that Muggles having coronaries in your immediate vicinity are part of the general background, rather than specifically rubbing it in?"
Narcissa grinned, and stopped caressing the top of the beer bottle absently with her index finger.
"Oh, me? I'm in rehab."
"Yes. You know L'Aiglon Retreat?"
Narcissa paused for the merest breath. Everyone knew L'Aiglon Retreat, that place in the Alps near Lausanne to which the Beautiful People went, when simply being beautiful was not enough to ensure they would be taken in anywhere else. Mrs Longbottom nodded.
"Aye - "
"Well, two days ago someone took a frightful blurry photo of me as I was driven in through the back gate. And after an hour or so soul-searching, poor love, he offered it to the Necromantischer Zeitung. Who had the most fearful ethical scruples. And then the clinic had a big set to about patient confidentiality, as well, and so on-"
Narcissa pouted again.
"I rather think that the Directeur is about to issue an official statement deploring Press intrusion, but admitting that I may - just possibly - have been taken in suffering from complete mental exhaustion in the last few days, and that no word of - Draco's problems - has - or will - be allowed to intrude on the completeness of my recovery. I rather think the total isolation from the outside world phase must last for at least ten days to be effective."
Mrs Longbottom looked at her.
"Very nice. But how come this photo was taken two days ago when so far as I'm aware the story didn't break till this morning?"
Narcissa continued to regard her steadily.
"It's amazing how good an alibi you can construct with an illicit Time-Turner, unlimited financial resources, and practically no moral scruples," she said gently. Mrs Longbottom gave a deep sigh of profound satisfaction.
"Good. So what are you planning as your next move?"
Narcissa surveyed her surroundings again, yawned, and stretched.
"In about five minutes," she said "I intend to be photographed here doing something which will make an unmistakeable impression. That will establish my - I mean, his - presence in Manchester at this time. I'm then going to head for Soho, thus comprehensively proving that I have left the North-West, and then I'll re-emphasise that point by going on to Brighton. I propose to carry out a similar programme in both locations. Assuming I've managed to pick up a sufficiently dedicated team of Aurors on my tail by that time, I, and the entire following pack will breakfast in Amsterdam. I will then lay a false trail in the general direction of Romania, ditch the disguise, and I suggest we re-group tomorrow afternoon. With a bit of luck. Send messages through Chris; he's co-ordinating the whole strategy."
As a six-foot tall drag queen on stilts roller-bladed past, Mrs Longbottom looked up and said helpfully, "The tab of your zip's out at the back, love." The drag queen flashed her a dazzling smile, tucked it in, and continued through the club without breaking his glide. Mrs Longbottom shook her head reflectively.
"Eh. Some folks." She looked at Narcissa.
"Well, all I can say is if you're planning to make an unmistakable impression it's going to take a bit of effort. Doesn't look as though they impress easily round these parts. And it'll take a bit of living down, too."
Narcissa's lips set in a narrow, determined line.
"Living it down is Draco's problem. My job ends as soon as I've ensured he's lived long enough to need to."
Draco, at this point, would have given serious consideration to opting out of the living business altogether if only it put an end to the agony in his feet. He had discovered by painful experiment that neither he nor his shoes were naturally well-adapted to a twenty mile hike across rough country, and his original view that Neville's predilection for taking long country walks for the fun of it was a bizarre kink had been substantially reinforced. He had decided to avoid the roads until it became quite dark: those two unexpected encounters with people who knew him had rattled his nerves badly. Up on the high moors, until dusk sent the shooting parties home, he had had the rattle of gunfire as the ever present counterpoint to his journey, and been forced to make several detours to avoid game-keepers, beaters and their charges. It struck him, the second time a hail of pellets whistled past his head into the heather, that given all the variants on sudden and violent death he had been dodging since he woke up that morning that it would be the height of irony if his end actually came at the hands of an inbred Muggle aristocrat too stupid to distinguish between him and a grouse.
He limped into Wiswell shortly before last orders at the Freemason's Arms and considered his options. After revolving a variety of improbable schemes he concluded that keeping it simple was infinitely the best strategy. He shouldered his way through the crowded bar, cast a glance over the pumps, caught the landlord's eye, and ordered a pint of Nemesis. As he collected his change he said casually,
"I was hoping I could have a word with Thwaitsey - is he around?"
The landlord's jaw dropped.
"Er - you know Thwaitsey?"
Draco shook his head. "But I was told he might have some news about a friend of mine."
The landlord leaned over the bar, and dropped his voice.
"But - you do know about - well - er, I mean - "
He paused, put both his hands up to the sides of his head, and flapped them in energetic circles, looking hopefully across at Draco to see if he was getting the message. He wasn't.
"The orchestral conducting? The helicopters? The rotary ear-wax removing devices?" Draco hazarded. The landlord shook his head, leaned further and even more confidentially over the bar, and hissed,
"No - you do know about Thwaitsey - that he's - er - "
He paused, and flapped his hands around his head again. The other drinkers charitably appeared to assume it was a sudden attack of tinnitus, and after a moment or two sending puzzled glances in their direction returned to their drinks. Something about the landlord's pleading expression struck a chord in Draco's memory.
"I'm not going to be desperately surprised by the big pointy ears, if that's what you're getting at," he said helpfully. The landlord suddenly relaxed.
"Ah! So you do know what he is. Then I suppose that'll make you - er - you know." He nodded, significantly.
"Probably," Draco said cautiously. The landlord dropped his voice.
"Then you wouldn't happen to know Neville Longbottom, would you?"
Draco jumped. "Why do you ask?"
The landlord looked at him, bent down behind the bar, and pulled out a back pack.
"He left this in here yesterday afternoon. That was a strange how d'you do; he walked in, ordered a pint of Dark Assassin and then vanished before I could pour it, without even saying goodbye, and left his back pack and his wallet behind, too. I've been trying to get them back to him. I asked Thwaitsey to take them up to the house, but he got into a right state and started jabbering at me and trying to jam his head into the old cider-press. To tell you the truth, I didn't have any idea what he was squeaking about. I gathered the old lady's away, and there's some sort of family argy-bargy going on, but I didn't want to poke my nose in further where it might not be wanted. I mean, don't get me wrong. I've known Neville a long time, and I've got a lot of respect for the old lady, and they don't come any better or more willing than Thwaitsey. He came with the pub, and I've never had a better cellar man. Wish I could get him to wear a brewery T-shirt, though. But in these parts, when it turns out to be something to do with you people's business, we'd rather we didn't hear owt and then we don't have to say nowt, as the saying goes."
"Oh." Draco thought for a moment. "You're probably wise. Actually, it was Neville I wanted to ask Thwaitsey about, as it happens."
The landlord eyed him shrewdly. "I wondered if it might be. Look: you wait here until locking up time. Then, leave with the rest of the customers; hang about for ten minutes or so until we've got everything sorted here, and then come back. I'll make sure the trap door they drop the barrels through round the side of the pub's left unlocked for you. Thwaitsey'll be in the cellar waiting for you."
He turned to serve one of the other customers. Draco took his pint and wandered over to a seat near the window. The pleasure of simply sitting down was overwhelming. Every muscle he knew he possessed ached, as well as several other groups that seemed to have invented themselves purely for the pleasure of joining in the overall chorus of pain. Considered frankly, as a one-man rescue expedition, he had to say he was not currently the ideal choice. He was aware from his readings of early twentieth century Muggle novels that any run-of-the-mill hero would have brushed off his experiences of the day as a mere stroll in the park: they could foil dastardly Hunnish plots single handed after a day spent tearing themselves free from multiple bonds in underground torture chambers - knocking-out thuggish Teutonic henchmen - stealing cars which after hair-raising chases they drove off the road into ditches - crossing ice-bound escarpments by seven hour routes that were considered too difficult for most people to attempt even in summer: all he could conclude was that people then must have had different sorts of bodies. And, for that matter, brains. He yawned. He sincerely hoped that what he had to do next would not require too much sharp-wittedness.
He was almost glad that his brains were not working at their quickest when, half an hour later, he found himself sitting on the edge of the outdoor trap peering down into silent blackness. At best what was in the cellar below was an unknown house-elf - and he had no illusions about the reputation he and his family enjoyed in house-elf circles. In normal circumstances a wizard would have no doubts about his ability to cow any house-elf into submission - but these circumstances were hardly normal. He would be unable to use his wand, and though house-elf respect for wizards in principle ought to keep him safe, there was no guarantee of it. Especially since a house-elf presenting the Ministry with evidence of his elimination (both ears, perhaps?) would presumably come in for a suitably scaled down version of the reward Snape had been talking about, to say nothing of kudos to an unparalleled degree among his own people. On the other hand, what serious alternative did he have?
"Oh, sod it," he muttered irritably to himself, and launched himself into the unknown.
He landed lightly on the balls of his feet, suppressing a gasp of pain as he caught at least two of his recent blisters in the process. There was an eerie moment of complete - but somehow populated - silence in the cellar. He was certainly not alone. Furthermore, if his instincts served him right, there was not merely one other being in there with him.
There was an apologetic cough.
"Draco Malfoy? Is you being Draco Malfoy?"
"Yes, I is - I mean, I am. Are you Thwaitsey?"
A small gleam of light appeared at the far end of the cellar, and there was a bang from above his head as the trapdoor closed itself. Draco hoped his quickly stifled gasp of apprehension had not been audible. The light brightened, and a small figure wearing a costume that appeared to be constructed from the towels used to mop up bar spills made its way over to him and goggled up at him.
"Draco Malfoy is taking a very long time to get here," he said reproachfully.
"Yes, well, I've had a very difficult day. And for god's sake use one of my names, not the whole handle. Either 'Draco' or 'Malfoy' I'm prepared to put up with, but 'Draco Malfoy' sounds like Mrs P. telling me off for nicking her currants when I was about six."
Thwaitsey giggled, rather nervously.
"I is having something to give you," he said mysteriously, and fumbled in a pouch, ingeniously made, apparently, from woven crisp packets. He handed two battered looking beer mats over to Draco. Draco turned them over in his hand. Each of the mats had had the printing scratched completely off on one side, leaving an exposed square of bare cardboard. There were faint rust brown stains on each one.
"More light," Draco snapped, peremptorily, and then, recollecting himself, "er, I meant, please."
Thwaitsey clicked his fingers. The cellar was suddenly flooded with brilliant illumination. Draco bent over the two beer mats again, and the rust brown stains resolved themselves into letters: "HELP" on one mat and "I.L.Y." on the other. He turned that one over for more clues. The printing was intact on the other side. Another guest beer, it seemed. Draig Aur. He caught his breath, sharply.
"Did Neville leave these?" he demanded. Thwaitsey nodded. It was more of a whole body shudder.
"He is dropping them through the trap-door. He is knowing I is in the cellar, and is talking cleverly so bad people who is taking him away is not realising. I is guessing he means them for you. I is following so I knows where they is taking him - "
Thwaitsey's voice tailed off into a tremulous squeak. He was pressing himself back against the beer barrels, cowering in fear. Belatedly, Draco realized he had sprung to his feet and was towering over the terrified house-elf. He backed off, slightly, making quick, would-be soothing gestures with his hands.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. It's just - I'm worried."
"We's all worried," said another voice miserably. Draco peered round the corner of the row of barrels, to see Betsey, her face blotched and runnelled with tears, crouching behind a silvery figure in leather kilt and armour, who was lying prone on the cellar floor, snoring heavily through his massive and heavily arched nose.
"Oh, hello," Draco murmured awkwardly. "I - er - thanks again for this morning. Er - who's your sleepy friend?"
Betsey looked at the ghost with immense disdain.
"He is being no friend of mine. He is being Octavius Cambrensis Vulgo. He is often coming here from the camp at Ribchester."
"Mm. Well, I shouldn't imagine being dead will save him, if his centurion catches up with him in that condition. Especially if he's supposed to be in training. Ah - what are you doing here? I mean, is it safe for you?"
By way of answer Betsey emerged fully out from behind the stricken Roman. With a superhuman effort Draco suppressed a reflexive snigger. She shuffled miserably over towards him, dressed in a pink baby-doll nightie, which trailed behind her on the ground as she walked. It had a motif of two white bunny rabbits holding hands against the background of a red satin heart emblazoned across the chest, just above the words "Sweet Dreams" picked out in diamante studs.
"Good Grief! You don't mean that plonker Eustace actually gave you clothes?"
She nodded, shamefacedly. Draco crouched down so he was looking her almost straight in the eyes.
"The stupid, ungrateful git. Has he no sense at all? What was his excuse, then?"
Betsey's voice was very small.
"I think he may have been overhearing me call Miss Elaine a 'bossy little madam with no more brains than a dead slug'," she confessed. Draco gave a quick yelp of laughter.
"Good for you. Has that half-witted bimbo moved into the house, then?"
Betsey looked shocked. "Oh. No. Mr Eustace is not having any of that sort of thing, at all. Not until they are married, he is saying."
Draco gave the baby-doll nightie a thoughtful stare. "That one of hers?"
"Hm, well, you can see his point, then. Put off the moment for as long as possible, in his place, I would. And I bet they'll be shipping in Nerve-Stiffening Potion by the tanker-load for the wedding night, too. Thwaitsey?"
The other house-elf crept nervously closer. "Yes?"
"Can you find one of those brewery T-shirts your boss was mentioning for Betsey? I mean, don't get me wrong here. I'm not giving her clothes. To begin with, I don't have any legal right to give her clothes or not, and to go on with the clothes I'm not proposing to give to her don't belong to me. Got that?"
Thwaitsey nodded, hesitantly.
"Good." Draco hoped what he was saying was making sense to somebody. He did not necessarily feel he was that somebody. "Well, since Betsey has been given clothes by Eustace, she doesn't have to worry about being loyal to him any more - not, I think, by the way, she ever had to be, but that's another argument. But I think as she's got clothes anyway, she'd be a lot more comfortable in something a bit more - practical - than what she's wearing. Because now she's a free agent, she can help me rescue Neville, can't you, Betsey?"
Betsey nodded, energetically.
"Good. Well, if you get that sorted, Thaitsey, Betsey and me can get straight off after Neville. How far is it? And can we not walk to get there?"
Betsey looked up at him, goggle-eyed.
"You is being a lot later than I is expecting," she said. Draco frowned, irritably.
"I know that. I've had god knows how many Aurors on my tail today; getting out of the Manor was no picnic, to begin with, and when I couldn't change trains at Preston, I had to go on to Lancaster, and then I've walked all the way from there, with imbeciles shooting at me - "
His voice ran down. A day like this is more than anyone ought to be asked to put up with. Draco wrapped his arms round his knees and sat down on the floor, the better to express his sulky resentment at his lukewarm welcome. Betsey nervously patted him on the shoulder.
"I is not blaming you. You is here now. But - it is being harder to rescue Master Neville now. The house they is keeping him in, is defended more at night. Thwaitsey is checking, when he is trying to see if he could be getting him out himself. Now, there is being two wizards and one witch in the house, and all doors locked and alarms on. During the day, is just two people. If we go in the morning, I could be drawing one of them outside, and you could be taking their wand. It is being by far Master Neville's best chance."
Draco paused. "But, that leaves him in there all night. They could be doing anything to him."
There was a sudden silence, broken only by the sounds of ghostly Roman snores. Both the two house-elves were suddenly looking anywhere but at him. Draco straightened himself up rapidly, and gasped as his now stiffening muscles protested at the movement.
"You do know what they're doing to him. Look, enough of this nonsense. Tell me where he is, and if you don't want to do anything to stop it, I will."
Betsey hissed at him in sheer distress.
"Is not right. I is knowing him since he was born, and I is not wanting him to suffer any more, either. But - you is his only hope. You must be getting it right. You is not able to rescue him tonight, and if you try, you is making matter much worse for him. You must be being sensible and resting here till morning. "
Part of his mind acknowledged her point, even as he shook his head in emphatic rejection.
"There isn't time for that. We have to be going now."
He turned on one blistered foot. Betsey's ears drooped, and she made a nervous movement with her hands.
"I is really, really sorry about this," she muttered. Arrested by something in the tone of her voice, Draco turned back towards her.
He slumped forwards. Shaking with guilt and reaction, Betsey moved his limbs into a more comfortable position, tucked the duffle bag under his head by way of pillow, and pulled a blanket over him, before bolting into a far corner of the cellar where she cowered, whimpering, with her hands over her ears.
"Oh! Oh! Oh! I is hoping he is not being too angry when he is waking up," she squeaked apprehensively. Thwaitsey patted her on the shoulder.
"You is doing it for the best," he said comfortingly, and then stole another nervous glance at Draco's sleeping form. "And anyway, youse done it now. Better be letting him have a good night's rest before he finds out. He is likely to be feeling better about it in the morning. I is only hoping."
The lights suddenly went out. The only sound in the cellar was the sound of the regular breathing from the two sleepers.