The entry-phone buzzer had a high, grating persistence, which cut ruthlessly through the soft downy clouds of sleep.
"Go 'way," Hermione muttered, turning under the duvet and putting a pillow over her head. Undaunted, the buzzer shrilled on. Blearily, she pushed herself up on one elbow, dislodging Crookshanks (who meowed reproachfully at her) and peered at the alarm clock by the side of the bed. Half past eight. A.M. This is so not fair.
Dawn had caught the incoming transatlantic flight as it crossed the coast of Western Ireland: a landmark which the stewardesses had, bizarrely, chosen to celebrate by offering a pre-packaged, chilled, cream tea to those passengers who had not taken the precaution of burrowing for protection beneath their BA blankets as the rattle of the trolley approached. The plane had touched down at Heathrow at five; the usual mix ups with luggage and passport control had accounted for another hour, and it was only a bit of discreetly managed Apparation that had got Hermione into bed for half past six.
And that's the last time I try Apparating after an all night flight. If nearly splinching hurts that much, doing the job properly must be agony. Supper in Boston, breakfast over Cork, legs in West Acton.
The buzzer continued to wreak its aural destruction. Reluctantly, Hermione reached out for her dressing gown, and padded sleepily towards the handset on the wall by the front door.
"Oh, you are in, darling. I was beginning to get worried."
Her mother's voice had the perky cheerfulness of someone who had undoubtedly enjoyed a good eight hours' sleep. All of it in the same time zone.
Repressing a snarl, Hermione pressed the release lock on the door. Her mother, bearing bulging Waitrose carrier bags in each arm, beamed cheerfully at her from the threshold.
"Not up yet? You know, the only way to beat jet lag is to get onto the time scheme of the place you're in, instantly, and stick to it absolutely ruthlessly. I brought you some bread and breakfast stuff, by the way. I thought you wouldn't have had time to shop yet."
"You thought right, seeing that I only got in two hours ago."
Her mother looked at her in a puzzled way.
"I thought it was yesterday evening you were due in?"
Hermione nodded. "It was. But they'd overbooked the flight, so they offered us vouchers and a bounce to club class if any of us volunteered to take the later one. And it gave me another few hours to catch up with the cousins, and I've always wanted to fly club, so -"
She shrugged. Her mother, who had appropriated a chair in the corner of the kitchen, eyed her brightly and said:
"Good idea. And how are the cousins? And how did the wedding go?"
Repressing a yawn, Hermione moved over towards the cupboard and pulled out a vacuum-sealed bag of coffee and a cafetière. It was obvious from her mother's attitude that she was settled in for the long haul, and that resistance was futile.
"Oh, fine. It was - different."
Absently she pointed her wand at the kettle, which boiled, instantly. An unidentifiable expression twisted the edges of her mother's mouth, and was gone before she could be sure it had even been there at all.
"Rebecca's dress was just amazing. And the bridesmaids' dresses. Wild silk. Her own designs. All in classical Greek styles. You know: just sheer falls of silk to the floor. Breathtakingly simple: jaw-droppingly difficult to look good in. In fact, one of the bridesmaids told me that Rebecca had offered all of them free liposuction as a bridesmaid's present, so there wouldn't be any danger of VPLs showing in the wedding photos."
The eyes of mother and daughter met, and danced with amusement.
"I think she was joking," Hermione added. She thought for a moment. "Probably."
Her mother took a reflective sip of coffee.
"Hm. Well, I take it Rebecca hasn't changed then?"
"Not unless you count getting more so as changing."
Hermione's mother pursued her lips. 'Well, that's a bit difficult to imagine, too. I'd have thought even Plato would have found the concept of a more Rebecca-like Rebecca a bit of a philosophical conundrum."
Hermione frothed the milk for her own coffee with the tip of her wand, and scattered hot chocolate on top of the froth.
"Well, she's been promoted: she's now a senior analyst at JP Morgan. And Mark's expecting to be offered tenure at MIT this year. Oh, and I took lots of photographs. I'll get them developed later today. I expect the best will be the ones where they released hundreds of doves at the end of the ceremony, and all the women guests suddenly got the same Awful Thought at the same moment, and they all started frantically putting their hands over their hats. Not that they were in any danger. Rebecca's not going to let any damn pigeons misbehave at her wedding."
Besides, even if Rebecca didn't put a Guarantee of Good Pigeon Behaviour on her wedding list at Saks Fifth Avenue, that's no reason why she shouldn't get one as a present. Unofficially.
"Well, dear, you will bear in mind that your father and I will be expected to send extra sets of the photos to all the family who couldn't make it? I mean you will make sure that they don't - ah - wriggle, won't you?"
"I'll get them done at Boots, promise."
"Thanks." Her mother looked momentarily wistful. "Now when you were a child that was something we rather expected you'd have ended up doing - academia, I mean, not that you wouldn't have been very good in the City, too."
Impulsively, Hermione patted her on the arm.
"Sorry-" she began. Her mother eyed her and said briskly:
"Don't be. You have to make the most of your talents. Whatever they are. And we're both very proud of you." She sighed. "It would be nice, though, if your people did have universities. I'm at my wits' end trying to deflect those polite but-oh-so-pitying enquiries from Piers and Diane about why you aren't going into any form of higher education."
"Tell them I got into a bad crowd at school, and that I've dropped out to run a bar on Santorini," Hermione suggested. Her mother glared amiably at her.
"Certainly not! Piers and Diane can think up those sorts of explanations without any encouragement from me, thank you very much. Besides, it's not fair. All your friends at school were very nice. Which reminds me, one of them called you on Wednesday night when we were cat-sitting. I do wish, by the way, dear, you could persuade them to use the phone occasionally. I mean, it gave your father the shock of his life, suddenly to have a talking head turn up in the fireplace in the middle of The X Files. And it can't be healthy. I'm sure you end up inhaling an awful lot of ash -"
Hermione deflected this sidelight with an impatient hand wave. "Well? Who was it?"
Here, her mother looked faintly guilty.
"Ah. Well, as I said, your father positively jumped. And I'm afraid he knocked his glass of wine over onto poor Crookshanks, who leaped away and managed to upset the rest of the bottle in the process. And in the excitement of making sure it didn't stain the rug, I'm afraid we didn't quite catch the young man's name. It wasn't anyone we'd met before, though. I'd have remembered. Very well spoken. Beautiful manners - even when your father suddenly decided to see the funny side and started addressing me as Scully and declaring dramatically that the truth was in here. Though I'm not sure your friend quite got the joke."
She giggled, fondly.
Hermione looked thoughtful.
"Was he blond?"
Her mother grinned. "And how, as they used to say in my youth."
"Goodness. I wonder what Draco wanted. I hope nothing's gone wrong about the dogs."
"You know those two spaniels I was looking after for a bit, whose owner had died?"
Her mother looked severe. "If you mean the thieving hounds who broke into my kitchen and scoffed all the canapés for the Victim Support Cheese and Wine -"
Hermione nodded hurriedly. "Yes. Them. Well, Draco gave them a home -"
"He must be a very long suffering and good natured young man. Though come to think of it, he did look rather out of sorts. I thought it was Richard's antics, but if those creatures had just damaged something expensive of his that would explain it. Wonder what it was?"
Hermione shuddered. "Could be anything, in that house. Ming vases, probably. Did he look like someone who'd just had a priceless piece of Chinese ceramics eaten by a dog?"
Her mother put her head on one side. "Honestly, dear, how big a comparison group do you expect me to have in my database? So what is this - Draco, did you say? - doing now you've all left school?"
"Nothing. I mean, he doesn't have to. His father died last year and that left him very well off. So he just lives on the family estate in Wiltshire."
She paused, and looked at her mother.
"With his boyfriend," she added pointedly. Her mother started to gather her things together.
"Ah. What a pity. Anyway, I can't sit here gabbing all day. Half of North London seems to have scheduled today for its once in a decade trip to the dentist. Honestly, with some of these mouths it works out more like archaeology than dentistry. I'll let myself out. Oh, and I brought your post over. So clever, the way the owls know not to leave it at an unoccupied flat as a hint for burglars. And they seem happy enough about delivering it, though you do wonder -"
Still chattering cheerfully, she manoeuvred herself out of the flat. Hermione turned to the pile of post that her mother had left on the table, topped by today's edition of the Daily Prophet. Her eye fell idly on the lead story, and she suddenly froze, snatched it up, and read it closely, all the way through, twice.
"Oh my god!"
Without a thought for the perils of ash inhaling and the fact that she was still only wearing her dressing gown she headed determinedly for the fireplace in the living room.
"Harry, just what has been going on?"
She brandished the newspaper at him emphatically. Once she had found him in, she had glared firmly at him from the hearth, told him to wait five minutes, and Floo-d ruthlessly over as soon as she had dressed, pausing only to telephone her father briefly at the clinic.
She noted that the phone was off the hook, the curtains were drawn and that the door was triple bolted, and deduced, accurately, that he was currently avoiding his relatives. He eyed her warily.
"How much do you know?"
"Very little - I've just read the story in this morning's Prophet. They seem to want to believe Draco's setting himself up as You Know Who's replacement. Has everyone decided to go totally mad just because I decide to take a couple of weeks off to go to the States?"
Harry looked at her, evidently decided that she was not going to be fended off lightly, and started clearing a heap of un-ironed washing off the more presentable of the two kitchen chairs. He shrugged.
"Well, Malfoy certainly seems to have done."
Hermione gave a disapproving hiss through her front teeth.
"Well, that seems to be about the only plausible explanation for what he's supposed to have done. If any of that garbage in the Prophet is true. Which I, personally, doubt."
Prudently, she did not allow him a word in edgeways before she continued.
"The words logic and plausibility, yet alone the concept of 'And what could possibly be in it for him?' don't seem to have crossed the minds of the reporters at the Prophet."
She took a deep breath.
"I mean, according to their story he's supposed to have kidnapped your cousin and his girlfriend - and there's five words I never thought I'd be using in the same sentence - sometime on Wednesday afternoon. He then, if you believe the newspaper, and completely contrary to any notions of common sense or self-preservation, sits about at the Manor all the rest of Wednesday apparently waiting for someone to notice. Disappointed, evidently, he only gets out of the place a jump ahead of the Aurors on Thursday morning. Despite having gone out of his way to make life difficult for himself, he manages to avoid being detected all day Thursday, unless an unconfirmed sighting on Preston station really was him. In order to celebrate not having been caught, presumably, he then decides to go cruising the gay bars of Manchester, Brighton and London, apparently bumping into random wizard photographers at every turn, who keep the Prophet tactfully supplied with close-ups of the tour but never once get round to informing the Ministry about it until he's moved on to the next city. Would you like to remind me just how many times during Recent Events you can remember You Know Who taking a few hours off to go clubbing? I mean, is this supposed to be an insane mad plan or merely an incredibly stupid one?"
Harry had evidently decided to concentrate on the weakest point in this very logical attack.
"There's no evidence at all Malfoy was in the Manor on Wednesday night."
Hermione set her jaw pugnaciously.
"There is, you know. He tried to call me."
"He tried to call me on Wednesday evening. And, what's more, he left a message with my parents for me to call him back. When convenient after my flight got in. Which they told him was due at 6.30 yesterday evening. Which leads me to believe he was expecting to be at the Manor all yesterday evening. Which would be a bit optimistic if he'd spent Wednesday afternoon dabbling in a little light kidnapping, don't you think?"
Despite himself, Harry grinned.
"I don't think you could call snatching Dudley light kidnapping. By any stretch of the imagination. And if you want to know what could be in it for Malfoy, the earfuls I've been getting from Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia ever since it happened would make it almost worthwhile. Knowing him."
"Only if he's got your place bugged so he can actually hear them," Hermione snapped nastily, and was rewarded by seeing him pale.
"Do you think he has?" Harry asked uneasily. She shook her head.
"I shouldn't think so for a moment. In the first place, I make sure the firm keeps it swept. Secondly, if you had been doing anything interesting here he wouldn't have been able to resist the temptation of letting you know he knew about it by now, and, if you haven't, then he'd have got bored and given up listening. Plus, he does have a life of his own, you know. Which reminds me, what do you know about what's happened to Neville? The Prophet obviously wanted to say something its lawyers wouldn't let it - so they just hinted in that slimy sort of way they have - you know, that Something Awful had happened, and they might be able to fill in the gory details if you buy tomorrow's edition. Do you know what's happened to him?"
Harry shook his head vigorously.
"Nope. I was hoping to hear from his cousin, that they had managed to rescue him in time, but I haven't heard a thing. Not even a note. Just an owl bringing my cloak back - "
Hermione sat herself firmly down on the kitchen chair and assumed an inquisitorial air.
"I think," she said firmly, "that you should begin from the beginning. With everything you know. And who's been doing what. And who Neville's cousin is and where your cloak comes into it. And who "they" are. And what they were proposing to rescue Neville from. And if you were planning to make any toast while we're talking - "
Harry resigned himself to the inevitable. He gestured towards the toaster with his wand. Two currant teacakes obediently hopped into it, and it started to glow encouragingly.
"Well," he said thoughtfully, "The first I heard about it was when Dudley rang me up on Tuesday night - "
"You mean you actually let Dudley have your number?" Hermione enquired in stunned disbelief. Harry shook his head.
"No - that is a bit odd, now you come to mention it. It's not as if I was in the book. Anyway, he called me to say Malfoy'd threatened him with Cruciatus after a row in a pub over a pool game - "
She waved her hand in a cool down gesture. "Honestly, Harry, you'd make a rotten witness. Let's leave why Draco was playing pool with Dudley on one side for now - though I've got to say I find the idea mind-boggling in itself. But your cousin wouldn't have a clue what Cruciatus was. He couldn't possibly have said that. What did he really say?"
Defensively, Harry retrieved the teacakes from the toaster and began to butter them. He gestured thoughtfully with the butter knife.
"Well, as nearly as possible in his own words, he said: 'One of your insane perverted school-friends just tried to kill me. Did you put the evil little creep up to it, you git-faced bastard?' Only it went on an awful lot longer than that, of course. And there was a lot more snarling involved."
"Hm. Not entirely specific, then, was it? I mean, Dudley's claimed before now that you've tried to kill him. And that Ron has. And Hagrid. And, for that matter, Fred and George very nearly brought it off. I'm glad I talked them into to dropping Ton Tongue Toffee from their range before someone actually did panic and choke, by the way. Imagine the lawsuits."
Harry nodded. "I did think of that. I'm not as stupid as you imagine, honestly. That's why I insisted on speaking directly to whatsername - Melanie - goodness, she must be a complete gargoyle, don't you think? Can you imagine who else'd go out with - ?"
He evidently caught sight of Hermione's expression, and prudently allowed words to fail him.
"You were saying?" she said coldly.
"Melanie said Draco asked her to keep an eye on his dogs while he took Dudley outside to fight him, because loud bangs and agonized screaming noises upset them."
Hermione felt the edges of her lips begin to quirk up, and tamped them down ruthlessly.
"Harry, how many times have you seen Cruciatus used?"
His face was grim. "Too many." She nodded.
"Me too. And off-hand, how many of those times involved loud bangs? To your recollection?"
He looked rather baffled. "Well, none of them, of course. Cruciatus doesn't. Plenty of screaming, though."
Her voice took on a note of triumph.
"And you think Draco doesn't know that?"
Harry obviously felt she was manoeuvring him into an unfair position. He frowned. "Of course he knows it. With a family like his, he probably learned how to do Cruciatus before he could walk. He'd just be banking on Dudley not knowing it."
Hermione gave an exasperated snort. "And Neville? Wasn't he there? Or are you seriously suggesting Draco would assume that Neville wouldn't know exactly how Cruciatus works? Or that he wouldn't object to its being used in front of him?"
"Oh, I don't know. Yes, he must have been there, from something Dudley said. But who knows what he thinks about anything these days?"
She could feel the anger beginning to build up in her. Cool it. What you're feeling is lack of sleep, mainly. Or premenstrual tension. Or low blood sugar. Or, for that matter, just a plain old fashioned perfectly rational urge to kill the imbecile now.
Through gritted teeth she said,
"I used to think you were friends."
Harry looked hurt. "Well, you don't think I'd have lent my cloak if I hadn't thought that - despite everything - he's still a friend, and needed help."
"Yes, what did you - No, we'll come onto that in a minute. So what happened next?"
He looked thoughtful and started making coffee.
"I told her I'd get some help and she had to be careful - and then - I think they must have lost the signal. She got cut off. And, of course, as I didn't have the number, I couldn't call them back."
His eyes looked faintly shifty. Hermione considered pressing the point, and then decided to leave it. She thought she detected a faint air of relief as Harry poured the coffee into mugs and pushed one of them over to her.
"Well, naturally, I couldn't get hold of anyone that night - it must have been about one in the morning by the time they'd finished. But I managed to catch Arthur Weasley first thing next day before he'd left the Burrow, and he said that there'd been all sorts of rumours flying around the Ministry for months - not his department, actually, but naturally he gets to hear things - and this only confirmed some of the stories they were investigating. And then he called me back about half an hour later, and said, could I get up to the Ministry as fast as possible, because there was someone I had to meet. And that's where I met Neville's cousin Eustace."
She was rather pleased with the perfect absence of inflexion in her tone.
"Well, he's been very worried too, naturally."
She exhaled, very slowly. "Why, precisely, naturally?"
Harry looked irritated. "Oh, stop going all Guardian reader on me. I am not prejudiced, whatever you might think. Though I don't mind saying, it did come as a shock. I was down at the Burrow last October when the Prophet arrived on the breakfast table, and when I saw That Photograph I was so flabbergasted I inhaled a mouthful of toast. If Ron hadn't had the sense to Summon the crumbs out of my windpipe goodness only knows what might have happened."
Hermione giggled. "What a sell that would have been for You Know Who. The best part of twenty years dedicated to doing you in, and a slice of Mrs Weasley's homemade granary cob succeeds where he and all his Death Eaters' best efforts failed. Bit embarrassing for the Prophet, too. Shock Exclusive: Boy Who Lived Killed By Shock Exclusive."
"Thank you," Harry said with dignity. "I had all those jokes at the time. Actually."
"Mm. I can see that. But -?"
He flushed, resentfully.
"No, well since as a matter of fact until then I didn't even know Neville was gay it's no wonder it came as a surprise to me."
"Really?" She raised her eyebrows. "I've known since we were fourteen."
He looked rather put out. "You did? How?"
"Well, he told me, of course. How else d'you expect me to know?"
Truth to tell, he looked faintly relieved, but rallied gamely.
"Well, I suppose I didn't expect you to have found out after you'd flung yourself onto him in a paroxysm of pulsating passion, as Witch Weekly calls it -"
She shook her head.
"No. That was Lavender. With Draco. As a matter of fact."
Secretly to her relief, Harry did not expect her to give further and better particulars of the truth of this asseveration. He pursed his lips in a disgusted way but evidently decided not to press the point.
"Anyway, Neville's cousin said - and it did sort of make sense, you know - that Neville had been badly traumatised by Recent Events, and basically that's how he'd got mixed up with Malfoy in the first place. And that they reckoned he was thinking better of it, but that he'd be too petrified to break free without help, and that Malfoy was exploiting that sense of dependency. And that they'd come across this clinic, who specialized in treating similar cases, and they were hoping to persuade Neville to volunteer for therapy. But that events had now started to move so fast that they were afraid that before he plucked up courage to tell Malfoy that that's what he was doing, that Malfoy would have done something which the Department of Magical Law Enforcement would have to pull him in for, and obviously they didn't want Neville mixed up in that. Because even if they did manage to get him off any charges on the grounds he didn't know anything, the mud was bound to stick, and Eustace said he couldn't face the thought of poor Neville spending the rest of his life with all of our world thinking he'd been implicated in Dark activities and that he'd only got off because he had family at the Ministry who'd pulled strings to manage it. So I said of course I'd do anything I could to help."
"Oh, of course."
He could hardly fail to notice the ironic bite to her voice. He looked at her defensively.
"This was the first time you'd met this - Eustace - wasn't it? Now, I know it was Arthur Weasley introduced him to you, and I agree Ron's dad doesn't have a mean bone in his body, but then, you wouldn't actually put him down as favourite in the Common Sense Champion Hurdles, either, now would you? I don't suppose it occurred to you to call Neville and ask whether any of this taradiddle had a grain of truth in it?"
Harry flushed. "Well, of course I thought of calling Neville, but I - well, it was a bit awkward, out of the blue, especially as I hadn't spoken to him for a few weeks -"
"-Months," Hermione muttered. Harry ignored her.
"-And, anyway, I'd have had to call him at the Manor - "
Hermione gestured passionately with the remains of her teacake.
"Oh, of course. Better to get mixed up in some Longbottom family scheme to shunt Neville into a loony bin because they don't like his boyfriend than risk having to exchange a civil sentence with Draco. Who, incidentally, really was traumatized by Recent Events."
"Bollocks!" Harry snorted derisively. "To begin with, he hardly did anything in Recent Events. Well, he might have got a bit injured, but even a fractured skull isn't anything special, not with the right treatment spells. He always did make a massive amount of fuss about the slightest little thing that happened to him. Remember school? And I expect his mother really hammed up that potions stuff about his father, so her book would sell. Anyway, like I said, this was all going to be voluntary - if Neville didn't want to go, then he wouldn't. So what's wrong with that? And I never thought I'd hear you say "loony bin". Not politically correct at all."
She compressed her lips, tightly. "Well, you know my views on the standards of medi-witchcraft. The physical stuff is fine, but anything psychological is just back in the 19th century so far as I can tell. The early nineteenth century. I mean, what sort of therapy was this supposed to be, anyway?"
Harry looked baffled. Hermione waved a hand.
"Gestalt? Esalen? Primal Scream? Neuro-linguistic programming?"
He continued to look at her as though she were talking Cantonese. She sighed, with a degree more emphasis than the circumstances perhaps warranted, and dropped the issue.
"Anyway, what happened then?"
"Well, Eustace asked if there was somewhere we could meet, privately, to work out what to do next, because he didn't want to risk our being spotted together by Malfoy. Or someone working for him. Well, I'd been planning to go for a swim anyway at that new health-club they've just opened on the corner of Diagon Alley - Gee Whizz - they'd sent me a month's complimentary trial membership, and I hadn't got round to using it. So I said, why not there?"
Hermione snorted. "You'd have looked a right idiot if it turned out they'd sent one to Draco as well, and you'd bumped into him in the locker-room."
Harry blenched, visibly, but continued doggedly on.
"And Eustace said: perfect, but could I bring my cloak? Because if Malfoy was around when the therapists turned up to talk to Neville, he might need to use it to get away from the Manor without him suspecting. So I got it out of my vault at Gringotts and met Eustace and the therapist - Paul - after my swim. And he seemed quite okay - friendly, you know - and said he hoped that Neville would realise soon what he owed me - "
"It sounds horribly plausible," Hermione muttered. Harry, who had been visibly keeping his temper under control up until then, finally snapped.
"Look, Hermione, what are you getting at? You've been interrogating me in that irritatingly superior way you have sometimes, as though I was supposed to have done something different. This is Neville's family we're talking about here. And they're obviously worried sick - "
"Remind me to remind you of that next time your Aunt Petunia asks me to give her a magical hand in whisking you off somewhere I don't know, with someone I've never met before, to do something unspecified to you under the general heading of "therapy". Honestly, Harry, you of all people - "
He looked extremely hurt. "That's complete nonsense and you know it. You'd know if it was Aunt Petunia there was definitely something sinister going on. Neville's got a nice family - "
Hermione's jaw dropped.
"Am I hearing this right? One of Neville's uncles once dropped him out of a bedroom window because he had a straight choice between holding him or an Eccles cake. Guess which he opted for? Are we talking Mr Caring here, or what?"
"I expect that was an accident. And there obviously is something deeply sinister going on with Draco. I mean, after all, the Ministry clearly have been keeping an eye on the Manor for months, which must prove something -"
Her voice was deeply sardonic.
"Tell me, would that be the Ministry that banged Sirius up in Azkaban for thirteen years without trial, or a different Ministry?"
"That's all changed. They had a big clear out after Recent Events. Look, stop having a go. You've absolutely no reason to suspect everything wasn't completely above board - "
There was a deep expression of hurt in the depths of his green eyes. She looked at him for a moment, and then nodded, reluctantly.
"Okay. I accept that. I'm sorry. I'm just worried sick about Neville. But, Harry, do you mind doing something for me?"
He smiled, gratefully. "Sure. Fire away."
"Do priori incantatem on your wand. Now. Back to - oh, the spell you cast just before you called Arthur Weasley Wednesday morning. Please. Just for me."
Her fingers were tense on the handle of her own wand, and her eyes swept his face.
Baffled, he pulled out his wand, looked at it a moment, and nodded. "Okay."
He muttered the words of the spell, and a pleasing aroma of toasting bread spread through the kitchen. Hermione propped her chin up on her hand, rested her elbows on the table, and watched as the spells unrolled, until the smell of toast came round again. Then she nodded. Harry muttered "finite incantatem" and the parade stopped. He was looking very white.
"How did you know?"
She shrugged. "Obvious logical step. Go back to what I said earlier. What could possibly be in it for him? You've got a lot more reason to kidnap Dudley and frame Draco for it than he has for doing anything. And - lo and behold - it turns out this wand created a Portkey. Some time yesterday morning. Just before Dudley and Melanie were kidnapped, want to bet?"
His voice had a tremble in it. "But - you can't believe I'd - "
Hermione patted his arm, quickly. "No. I don't. And anyway, if you had done it you'd have realized I knew when I asked you to do priori incantatem. No. Looks like you're in the frame as well as Draco. Well, I don't suppose you go swimming with your wand, do you?"
His eyes widened.
"Not usually. That was when they got to it, you think?"
She shrugged. "Must have been. And they conned you into lending your Invisibility Cloak - what's the betting someone's going to remember having spotted that at some significant point or other? Harry, the minute the Aurors kill Draco, whoever's behind all this will start pointing out that this whole plot has your magical fingerprints all over it. You're in a lot of danger. And you don't have much time. It must be something close to a miracle that they haven't caught him already."
She started scribbling hurriedly on a piece of paper she pulled from the depths of her handbag. "Have you got a passport?"
"Yes but - "
"My cousins have a summer cottage up in Maine. The whole mob is piling up there to relax now the wedding's over. They invited me, but I said I'd got things to do back here. There's heaps of room, though, and nothing of a magical community for miles. Great seafood. Whale watching. They'd be delighted to put you up, if you head over there and lie low till this is all sorted. I'll call them when you're on your way to the airport."
"Airport? Why not - "
She hissed, impatiently. "Haven't you worked out by now that this is being run through the Ministry, somehow? You don't want to be using your wand around here any more than you can help. I'll put the ticket on my credit card; you can pay me back whenever. I'll send you an owl telling you where to pick it up. And phone the cousins. And then I'll try and rescue Dudley and thingamajig. If they can be pulled out of this alive, then the whole plot fails. It's the only way to keep you safe. But - look - here's the address. Go. Now. Before Draco gets himself killed, and they come after you."
At this moment there was a thunderous banging at the door. Both of them looked at each other in an appalled way. Then, a stentorian shout blasted through at them.
"Boy! I know you're in there, boy! Stop snivelling in there, you miserable coward, and come out and look me and your Aunt in the face."
They took one appalled glance at each other, and then almost tripped over themselves in the haste of their dive towards the fireplace.
"She what?" Colin just didn't seem to be getting this one at all. The office junior looked deeply irritated.
"She said, she was sorry she was going to have to cancel lunch, but could you have a quick coffee now? In Diagon Alley. Anyway, she's your problem. I'm only the messenger boy round here." He left, with a suspicion of a flounce. Colin looked baffled.
"But I didn't -"
Camilleri leant across the desk. "Look, kid, I don't know if you did or you didn't. But if you take my advice, if there's some woman down in reception who thinks you were supposed to be having lunch, I suggest you go down and bluff the whole thing out. It's bound to be less traumatic than either confessing you've forgotten all about it, or telling her she's invented the whole thing. Even if she did. And it's certainly better than leaving her to make a scene in front of the receptionists, if she's pissed off about something. Trust me. If the whole Prophet distribution network were taken over by hostile Goblins tomorrow, those lasses would still get the news circulated on time, without even smudging their mascara. In their coffee breaks. Honestly. You do not want to give them any gossip fodder. Ever. Anyway, what's she like? I mean, are you actually trying to dodge her, or are you on for it? Or are you afraid she's going to break the news that she thinks she was slurring her words a bit last time she pronounced the Contraceptus charm, and now she's three weeks late?"
Colin looked rather terrified.
"It certainly can't be anything like that." He gulped. "Well, it's Hermione. You know, from school."
"Oh." Camilleri thought for a moment. Then he coughed. "Colin, sometimes I wonder if you're really cut out for this job."
Colin looked stricken. Camilleri got to his feet, took Colin's arm in a firm grip, and strolled with elaborate casualness out of earshot of the people working at the desks in the centre of the room.
"Son, what's the biggest thing you're working on at the moment?"
Colin raised his eyebrows.
"Overlord. Of course. Why - "
"And who's the key person in Overlord whom nobody - not Neil, not Simon, not Reet - has managed to get a squeak out of yet?"
A great awakening light dawned over Colin's features. "Oh. I see."
"Yes." Camilleri hissed through his teeth. "Son, a really key interviewee is sitting in reception demanding you speak to her. And with a patently false excuse, at that."
His hand came down on Colin's shoulders in a friendly, but firm slap.
"Go on, son. Go get yourself a scoop. And don't forget to make a proper exes claim. And remember - it is a truth universally acknowledged that the interviewee in a really important story always holds out till the third helping of Beluga before spilling the beans."
He watched Colin head excitably towards the staircase, and then looked cautiously around. Neil and Simon were having a long, three-way argument with the Prophet Group's lawyer, presumably about the topic that they had been arguing about most of yesterday, with equal lack of result. Neither of them was looking in his direction. Very, very casually Camilleri shouldered his camera bag, and sloped unobtrusively towards the staircase.
The umbrella cast a welcome shade over the table outside Florian Fortescue's ice cream parlour. Colin's expression was one of deep puzzlement.
"Where does Gee Whizz come into it? It's a gym. I've been a member since it opened. They did discount rates as part of the Prophet trainee package. What could it possibly have to do with any of this?"
Hermione's voice was brisk. "That's exactly what I'm counting on you to find out. Keep it very close to your chest, though. This is your story, and I'm not planning for you to spread it around the whole office. All I can say is that you need to check who was in there between - say about 9.00 am and about 10.30am yesterday morning. Get a list, and then start cross-referring it against the other things we know. The person you're looking for - our suspect, X - though, of course, he or she may have used an agent - is someone who's obviously got a grudge against both Harry and Draco."
"Golly," he said thoughtfully. "Narrows the field a bit, doesn't it? If you could also manage to establish that X had been a massive pal of both Professor Snape and Sirius Black, I reckon we'd have got him sussed. Or her. Or, I suppose, it. Though I expect someone would have noticed a Dementor in a locker room -"
Hermione admitted the justice of this one. "Of course, it could be two somebodies working in collusion," she added thoughtfully. "Not telling each other everything. You might want to chat up whoever's in charge of handing out trial memberships at Gee Whizz, too. Find out who decided to send Harry a complimentary membership a few days ago. And identify out who's behind Gee Whizz, financially. Oh, and you need to check out a Ministry official. First name, Eustace. Surname, probably Longbottom, but he might be from the other side of the family. Neville's cousin, anyway. Cross-refer for any connections between him and anyone the first search turns up. And anything else you can find - record in Recent Events, that sort of thing. Oh, and see if anyone knows what old Mrs Longbottom's up to - no-one seems to have heard from her in days, and with Neville missing, that's peculiar in itself. I mean, I'd have expected her to be sending a Howler to the Prophet every two hours by now."
Colin waved a hand and a Quickquill scribbled on the spiral bound parchment tablet that was lying on the white metal table absorbing spills from their rapidly melting Knickerbockers Glory.
Mrs Longbottom : query barking?
"Anything else?" he enquired. "Just in case I have five minutes left before lunch after completing those little projects. I'd hate to waste any time."
Hermione regarded him severely. "Colin, I'm offering you an opportunity here. I thought you were interested in becoming a real investigative reporter."
He looked hurt. "Of course. It's what I've always wanted to do. Ever since I was little and I used to conduct hard-hitting interviews with our cat. And Dennis's teddy bear."
"Right. Then I suggest you start doing some real investigation. Of a genuine, important, potentially lethal story. Or do you really want to spend the whole of your career wallowing in a lot of fake moral outrage about somebody unexpected snogging somebody else unexpected? Or researching stories about whether the Spanish Quidditch team's Seeker has used breast-enhancement charms or whether she owes it all to diet and exercise?"
Mesmerised, Colin sat back in his chair and shook his head, slowly. Hermione smiled.
"Good. I knew I could count on you. Now, why don't you pay the bill - and make sure you get a receipt for your expenses, though quite frankly I don't think even the Prophet's accounts department are going to fall for a story that they put caviar in the sundaes around here. And then I suggest you get cracking. You've got a lot to do."
He nodded, and scurried inside to pay. She finished the last teaspoon of raspberry syrup, and stretched out luxuriously in the sunshine - after all, I have only had two hours sleep. Perhaps five minutes power-napping is just what's needed here.
A shadow fell across the table, and a wisp of cigarette smoke assaulted her nostrils. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes.
"Hello, Ms Granger. Chris Camilleri. Prophet photographer. Young Colin forgot to mention that I'd be along to take some photographs of you. If you don't object, of course."
Six foot two of Anglo-Italian hunk flashed a glorious smile at her, and slid into the seat opposite with cat-like grace, snapping his fingers negligently for the waiter.
"Champagne sorbet, twice. And hold the sorbet."
Against her will, shock was overcome by amusement, and she smiled back.
"We can't drink champagne this early in the morning. And this is an ice-cream parlour. I'm not even sure they sell it."
His smile rippled at her. She noticed that there was a slight touch of grey on his temples, and a deep network of laughter lines around his eyes, belying the youthful appearance that had struck her at first glance.
"Oh, come on, Ms Granger, what was breakfast on expenses invented for? And Florrie will find some. We go back a long way. Even if I do come from a town where it'd be wands at dawn for a Fortescue to be seen drinking with a Camilleri."
Her eyes narrowed. "Recent Events?"
He shrugged. "No. Recent Events was politics. This is ice cream. That's business. Some people think ice cream's a matter of life and death, but I can tell you, it's much more important than that. Anyway - I, er noticed you seemed to be giving young Colin a lot of good advice -"
Involuntarily, her glance fell on her mobile phone, which rested on the table, shut. His eyes flickered, and she cursed herself internally.
"Well, since that's what I've been giving to him ever since he joined, it looked like a fair inference from where I was standing. Judging by your expressions. Not that I could hear any of it. Of course."
She acknowledged the point with a shrug. A bottle of Moet and two glasses arrived: she looked at them, and then, unexpectedly, giggled.
"Okay. You win. After all -"
She sneaked a quick glance at her watch.
"It's still the wee small hours as far as my body clock's concerned. And that's quite a respectable time to be drinking champagne. Especially after a wedding."
He nodded, popped the cork with one experienced twist of a strong brown hand, and raised the smoking bottle over the two glasses. His eyebrows lifted enquiringly.
"Will't sup with me?"
Her eyes widened in surprise. She smiled, and nodded.
"Aye, if I be alive, and thy mind hold, and thy champagne be worth the drinking."
The glasses clinked. Camilleri grinned slyly at her.
"So, Ms Granger, what did you think of the langoustines at Barton Cleeve?"
"Actually, I had the lamb -"
Her voice tailed off. He smiled lazily.
"Good memory. From nearly six months ago."
'Whenever I eat three cutlets which seem to be retailing at the price of a small Welsh hill farm it tends to be rather memorable."
"Really?" Camilleri took a swallow of champagne. "I thought the guest menus at Barton Cleeve didn't have prices on."
Hermione raised her eyebrows. "You are good. But watch!"
She flipped up the lid on her mobile phone and pushed it across to Camilleri.
"Point it to that wizard on the next table. The executive-type in pinstriped robes working on his parchments. And then look at the little screen thing."
Camilleri did as she said. His eyes widened.
"That's very nice. And believe me, I know a good bit about magical optics. Every word distinct. And the - er - pictures, also. And I take it this acts as a sound muffler as well?"
Hermione nodded. "Yes. I'm in research for a small start-up who recognized the need for some properly designed gadgets of this nature. For Aurors, and such. We're still trying to get a toehold with the Ministry here, but we've had a lot of interest from abroad. Mainly in Eastern Europe, so far. And we closed our first real order last month. And on the non-Governmental side, we can see a really big demand for personal cloaking talismans - and that one works as a genuine Muggle phone, too. Anyway, why are you interested in what I ate at Barton Cleeve? Or are you principally interested in who I ate it with?"
His tone was friendly and non-committal.
"Because I'm a friend of the family?"
"And whose family would that be?"
Camilleri smiled. "You do well to be so cagey. Even with your anti-eavesdropping device switched on. Perhaps I should say - the family of the man whose menu did have the prices on?"
Hermione surveyed him narrowly.
"Oh. In that case, I hope you might be taking a more independent line than the rest of your paper?"
He nodded, wordlessly.
"Then I trust you enjoyed Manchester?"
His grin widened. "You mistake me. That photograph was taken by a freelance friend of mine. Though I admit, given my - er, connections - he did ask me to negotiate the deal with the Prophet."
Her voice was calm, businesslike.
"Then, given your apparent - connections - I'm asking you for help. I have my own reasons for finding out who's behind the kidnapping of Dudley and - "
She snapped her fingers, in momentary irritation at an uncharacteristic memory lapse.
"Melanie," Camilleri supplied helpfully. His eyes were watchful. "And is the offer of help to be mutual?"
She nodded. "Yes. I want to find out who's behind all this, and get them nailed. To make sure they're no further threat to any friend of mine."
"Good." He smiled. "And given the hole the Prophet's been digging for itself to date, and since I still have some value for my job I'd not object if Colin then presents the results as his own personal scoop. At least the kid's got a nose for the right things, and the brains may follow with practice. Oh, and in answer to your last remark to him - "
Her face froze with surprise. Camilleri continued as if he had not noticed it.
"She has. Ask any photographer who was at the last Spain/Italy friendly. She brought off a classic Wronski Feint, and if they'd been natural they'd have moved differently when she dived."
"I thought you claimed you hadn't heard anything?" Her voice was rigid with shock, anger, and just a hint of respect. He grinned.
"Oh, I didn't. But I recommend when you put the mark II version of that gadget into beta testing you get them to check if it's proof against someone who's learned a low Muggle trick like lip reading."
Perhaps fortunately, at this moment the phone rang. Hermione flinched as a very familiar - and very annoyed - American voice demanded to speak to Ms Granger at once.
"Speaking. Oh hello, Mr Patullo. What a surprise -"
She held the phone a little away from her ear as he responded vehemently to this gambit, and then resumed, miserably conscious that she was beginning to babble nervously.
"Really? Good heavens. We must practically have bumped into each other at Heathrow - yes, from Boston. Coming in from my cousin's wedding. And how was your flight?"
Tom Patullo moved brusquely past the pleasantries and on to the real meat of his call. Her jaw dropped slightly as she took in what he was saying.
"Draco called you? I mean, using a telephone? When? Why?"
Tom Patullo, it seemed, had been waiting for some time to get a lot off his chest. He began to expound at length. This may have been a blunder: it gave her a chance to gather her scattered wits together. Eventually Hermione coughed, apologetically, in an effort to stem the tirade.
Camilleri gestured at her, and she nodded, raising her glass so it obscured her lips as she spoke.
"Ah. Yes. Well, I am sorry about that - no, truly. Especially when we found out how nice you both were - and how is Mrs Patullo? Is she with you?"
Tom indicated that he was not in the mood for small talk. He made it clear that he regarded her behaviour as inexcusable, and that he felt both he and Irene were owed an apology. She blushed, and her voice took on a defensive edge.
"Well, yes, I can see that from your point of view. But of course I take marriage seriously. I really do. I'd never have pretended to be married to Draco - but, well, an engagement's different. And we did let you know it wasn't happening as soon as we possibly could."
Tom took advantage of her pause for breath to put forward a number of cogent arguments against her position. Forcefully.
Hermione shook her head, firmly, at the mobile phone.
"No - I do quite agree, I don't like being wrong-footed either. But look, would it actually have helped if we'd been upfront with you?"
Well, not exactly.
In such circumstances, Tom made clear, he would undoubtedly not have touched the Manor with a barge-pole.
"Hm, yes, I see. Yes, that was what we were afraid of, actually."
She took a deep breath and rallied all her forces for a last desperate defence of her position.
"But it has been such a massive success, otherwise. Rebecca - she's my cousin, she's in financial analysis - JP Morgan, Boston - says that Nelcorp's European strategy has put it way out in front of the pack. Honestly. She says everyone's scrabbling to catch up. She reckoned no-one in the sector could even have spelt "ERDF funding" before you showed them the way to go. She was really, really impressed when I told her I'd met you. And believe me, impressing Rebecca isn't easy. In fact, most of the family would say, not possible. Not without a ten tonne weight from an 80 metre height, anyway. And all her colleagues I spoke to at the wedding seemed to think that Nelcorp's position was all down to your foresight. Things like seeing that the Manor was absolutely right for your European R&D centre. The Board really would be idiots to kick up a fuss, especially since it'd just blow up in their own faces. I mean they must have share options, and things -"
He interrupted her to intimate that some of his Board might well have principles as well as share options, which he had to allow they were entitled to have taken into account.
Hermione raised her eyebrows.
"Do you actually have to tell them? I mean, I understand the concept of fiduciary duty all right, but would forgetting to tell the Board that your European landlord's a gay wizard actually breach it? Even in Virginia? I mean - I'd be very surprised if it were grounds for invalidating the lease - in fact, when I say "very surprised" I mean it was something I insisted Draco's lawyers got checked, especially. So since you're stuck with the Manor anyway, and the conversion work is going so well - "
He did not, it appeared, share her optimism. In a few well-chosen phrases he pointed out to her precisely why this might be so.
Ack. What a mess. And what a menace that man is.
"Oh dear, is he being a problem?"
Yes, evidently. It was not a difficult task for him to convince her of exactly how big a problem Vernon Dursley could be when he applied what passed for his mind to the job in hand.
Hermione's voice took on a note of indignation as she responded.
"Well, that's not fair, not at all. No, I can see exactly why you'd be upset about that. What a good job Draco warned you in time so you could cut off his access to the Board intranet - and route all his calls through your personal staff - golly, what a hypocrite! And after all, if he's blaming you for not having spotted Draco was a wizard, where does he stand in all this? You only met Draco once, and I had several meetings with Vernon Dursley, and I'm one of his nephew's oldest friends. If he'd been anything of a guardian to Harry he ought at least to have recognized my name - to say nothing of Draco's - "
Tom interrupted to ask how Vernon Dursley's nephew was relevant to the problem at hand.
Her voice was high with disbelief.
"What do you mean, how does his nephew come into it? You mean Vernon Dursley didn't even tell you that his nephew's a wizard too? A nephew he brought up - well, if you can call it bringing up - from when he was a baby?"
This found its mark. Tom Patullo's voice grew noticeably warmer and he was prepared to admit that this did, indeed, put a rather different complexion on events. And, certainly, on Vernon Dursley's ability to blackmail him in relation to the rest of the Board. Hermione could feel her fingers begin to un-tense around the stem of the champagne flute.
Tom Patullo, once his initial annoyance had dissipated, seemed disposed to adopt Hermione as his native guide in the strange territory in which he now found himself. She relaxed further under the warm sense of being useful.
"Oh, yes, of course. Whatever I can do. What do you need?"
Patullo's answer left her in no doubts about his requirements. A good wizard law firm. Fast.
"Oh, yes, I can certainly manage that one. Well, what sort of lawyer?"
The best available firm, evidently. Preferably with a commitment to its clients' interests which makes a tigress's attitude to her cubs look like a pose of studied indifference. And expense no object.
She nodded, oblivious to the fact that he could not see her.
"Oh, I see. Well, if that's what you want to do I certainly think the Malfoy family solicitors are who you need. And yes: they most certainly can kick ass. Only they'd probably pronounce it "arse". Or, more likely, get a minion to pronounce it for them. Ellenborough Jeffries Rich. Okay, I'll make sure one of their senior partners meets you as soon as possible. How're you planning to get down to Dorset?"
Chartering a helicopter? Golly. What must it be like to be that rich?
She made a conscious effort to keep her voice from sounding impressed.
"Oh, I see. Right, then, I'll see you at the Westland Heliport in Battersea in - call it forty minutes. Oh - and Mr Patullo - don't talk to anyone until we meet you. I think things have got a whole lot more complicated than when you spoke to Draco. I'll explain when we meet."
He accepted this. Much to her relief, his voice had slipped back to the gentle, friendly rumble she remembered from their earlier meeting. It seemed she was on her way to being forgiven. He had, however, one last job for her. She could feel her face creasing with bafflement.
" You want me to speak to who? Draco's PA? Oh, I see. I was wondering how he'd managed to get through to you. But I didn't know he had a - what's she called?"
Oh. Oh. How remarkably interesting. I bet whoever's behind this plot wouldn't have expected that little wrinkle.
She was careful not to allow a hint of this private judgment into her voice.
"I see. And you spoke to her the day before yesterday? When, about?"
Tom suggested, gently, that this was something of a sore point. Six am was, he indicated, not exactly reasonable business hours.
"Oh, I am sorry - but I expect they got confused about Eastern Standard Time. Oh, poor you. Anyway, see you soon. Bye."
She flipped the phone shut. She stared up at Camilleri, who had taken the opportunity while she was speaking to light a Gauloise. She coughed, pointedly, and glared at him. After about five seconds of this treatment he stubbed it out.
"Well, well, well. Talk about the plot thickening. Look, are you serious about being on Draco's side, or are you just after a story?"
Camilleri blinked. "I'm not sure about being on Draco's side - I mean, I still haven't seen any reason to trust him any further than I could spit a medium sized capybara. But I'm certainly interested in not getting on Narcissa's wrong side. And, if we are supposed to be helping each other, I might say that you've got a lot more chance of persuading one of the senior partners at Ellenborough Jeffries Rich to act for a Muggle - no matter how influential he is - if they're assured by Narcissa deVries that he's come to them on her personal recommendation and she's relying on them to do exactly what he says."
"And you can arrange that?"
"Just give me five minutes. Oh, and you'd better warn anyone going into the Manor that there's supposed to be a Prophet mole somewhere about the premises. Name of Gilt Edge. The place has been leaking like a sieve for months. You might want to take a few of your gadgets down with you."
"OK. Thanks for that tip and - well, one good turn deserves another. That was Tom Patullo. And no-body else must know until he's in the country until he's had a chance to speak to that lawyer. But you might tell Narcissa, if you're speaking."
"He's the CEO of the Company Draco sold half the Manor to. And, incidentally, he's Vernon Dursley's boss. But that isn't the most interesting thing about him. Apparently, Draco phoned him on Wednesday at 6.00am Eastern Standard Time - which would make it what, about 11 am here? God, no wonder I feel knackered. Anyway, Draco told him that Vernon Dursley was out to make huge quantities of trouble for Draco and Nelcorp about some argument Draco had had in a pub with Dudley. And he told him precisely why. And what ammunition he'd got. Now, Draco doesn't have a phone himself. Can you see him going out to a public box, even if he'd heard such things existed?"
Camilleri, evidently taking the question as rhetorical, gestured to her to continue. He leaned forward intently as she did so.
"My guess is he'll have used a telephone in the Muggle part of the Manor, and there'll be Muggle records of the call being made. All of which Tom Patullo will be in a position to trace. Provided the Ministry leaves his memory alone long enough for him to do it. And here's where it gets interesting. Draco obviously needed help in putting the call through. Well, I've seen him try to use this phone. It isn't exactly something he feels comfortable with. Well, Tom naturally assumed that the girl who connected him to Draco was Draco's PA."
Camilleri frowned. His hand strayed automatically towards his cigarette packet.
"So? If you haven't seen him in months, he could always have hired one."
Hermione's smile curled back over her lips.
"Bit of a coincidence she happens to be called Melanie, then, isn't it?" she enquired sweetly. Camilleri's eyes went calculating.
"Could she have been under Imperius, do you think? No, that just doesn't make any sense at all. And why the hell would anyone call an independent witness to say he'd just had a violent row with one person he was about to kidnap, and use the other one to help him place the call?"
"Totally demented mad plan, not even a severely stupid one? Or - someone else's plan, with random facts they haven't betted on? I suggest if you're pursuing any independent researches - or if you happen to get a chance to give Colin a steer in his investigations - you might suggest that he should try looking at the facts on the assumption that no-one could possibly be that thick."
"I most certainly will. And I suggest you get yourself going. You've got yourself a busy morning. Look, would you mind giving me your mobile number?"
She scribbled something quickly on a slip of parchment and handed it to him. He nodded.
"Thanks. Keep it switched on, and charged. That's one thing the Ministry won't be on the lookout for. And once you've seen how the land lies at the Manor, I suggest you should make yourself ready to travel."
Camilleri shrugged. "How would I know? I'm only awaiting orders. One tip: wherever it is, it almost certainly isn't Amsterdam. Or Manchester. Or, for that matter, Brighton. Anyway, you've lots to do. Places to go, people to sue. I suggest you get going. But keep checking for my call."
Hermione nodded, and rose. He had already vanished by the time she reached the corner of Diagon Alley and turned her head to look for him.
"I don't care. You said 'underground'."
Martin's normally mild expression bore an air of grim determination. He put one square-tipped finger on a blue-inked line that ran across the caving map spread across his kitchen table.
"You told me that there are people trapped underground in an unexplored cavern complex located somewhere slightly south of the Wretched Rabbit. That makes it a cave rescue matter, and that means it's my department, so I'm going with you."
"I didn't say: 'trapped'.' Draco's voice was hoarse with exasperation. "I said: 'held hostage' By some people who are bloody dangerous and mightily pissed off, so far as I can tell. And, I might add, who are almost certainly sitting on a magical arsenal big enough to turn the surrounding three counties into a great, big, glowing hole in the dark."
"Populated only by six legged phosphorescent wombats," Neville added dreamily. He had been perched on the edge of the kitchen table, swinging his legs, and taking no part in the raging argument. Now both arguers glared at him in unison. Martin managed to get his word in first.
"The Pendle and Craven Cave Rescue Service aren't going to leave someone stuck underground just because some - topsider - thinks it might be dangerous."
Draco's fist came down on the kitchen table.
"You Muggle half-wit! Doesn't Lord Voldemort's Top Secret underground research centre mean anything to you?"
"Well, no, actually," Martin said reasonably.
"Look, we're talking about a location that even my father would have made his excuses to avoid. People used to go in there and not be seen again for decades! And that was just the research staff. They say that the head of the facility came out for a weekend break when the Dark Lord rose again, and he hadn't even noticed he'd been away."
Martin shrugged again. "Well, that's theoretical scientists for you. We've got a number in the club. We had the biggest meteorological expert in Europe up here the other week, and he nearly got caught between Wilf Taylor's Passage and Eureka Junction because he hadn't worked out that going down Lancaster Hole six hours after the biggest downpour we'd had all summer wasn't entirely the most intelligent plan he could come up with."
Draco looked at Neville.
"Look, you know what the risks are. Aren't you going to back me up?"
In the slightly stunned silence which followed Neville slid himself off the edge of the table, and stood up, decisively.
"In the first place, I've heard people try to talk Martin out of attempting cave rescues before. They always lose. In the second place, you made the tactical error of telling him that this particular rescue would take place in an underground complex no-one outside a very limited number of people had ever had access to before, the depths of which were completely unplumbed, and which presented hazards undreamt of in any ordinary caver's wildest fantasies."
"That isn't the attraction, honestly," Martin said, although his faintly demented grin belied his words.
"Finally," Neville said, reaching up towards some keys, which hung on a hook behind the back door, " I don't know how you feel about it, but I'm not going to try Apparating with a borrowed wand, especially given the amount of sleep I've had over the last thirty-six hours. And since I don't expect Martin's going to lend us the van without him in it, that doesn't give us a lot of choice. Unless you want to add another 25 miles on foot to your efforts yesterday. Coming?"
He was out through the back door before either of them could do more than glare at each other for form's sake, and then follow in his wake.
Draco did not recover his powers of speech until they were well past Gisburn and halfway to Long Preston.
"Aren't you going a bit fast?" he enquired, as the van overtook a sales rep in a Guards red Mazda MX5 on a blind bend.
"No," Neville hissed through gritted teeth. Martin looked up at Draco from the heap of ropes, caribiners and spare helmets upon which the g-forces had flung him and smiled, sunnily.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry," he said cheerfully. "He's only ever put us in the ditch once. And that was the artic's fault, really."
"How reassuring," Draco said acidly, as the van lurched perilously close to the dry-stone wall on one side of the road, and then, equally perilously, back again towards the crown of the road.
"Anyway, I've been thinking," Neville said, with the air of one coming to a deeply considered conclusion, and waving one hand vaguely in the air to emphasise it. Both Draco and Martin followed the line described by his negligently waving fingertips with a fascination bordering on horror. A tractor towing a full slurry tanker behind it swung emphatically into the centre of the road as it rounded the approaching bend from the opposite direction. Both the passengers drew in their breath simultaneously. Neville took full control of the wheel, dived in past and behind the tanker's tail with a few centimetres to spare, and resumed his thoughtful hand movement. "Martin, these are the Easegill caverns. Or as near as dammit. Which means it's the Ingleton and Kirby Lonsdale boys' problem, and not Pendle's after all."
"Oh." Martin made an unsuccessful attempt to look guilty. "Should I call them up? They could meet us in the car-park of the Goat Gap Inn - "
"You're suggesting we go to a pub? Now?" Draco enquired. Neville and Martin looked at him in deep puzzlement.
"Well, it's traditional. I mean, you think anyone would go down into a black hole in the earth in limestone country with a flash flood rising by the minute and a high likelihood of finding someone's smashed skull at the bottom of the shaft if they were completely sober?"
"Look, I think you two are both total nutters. And I mean that purely literally, not in the Related-To-Great-Grandfather's-First-Wife sense."
"Oh, my grandmother was a Nutter," Martin said cheerfully. Draco looked at him.
"You do surprise me. Oh my god. Sheep! Sheep! Neville, watch it, there's a sheep-!"
Indeed, the panicked animal was doing its best to outrun the van, trotting manically down the dead centre of the road. There was no possibility of passing it on either side. Neville seized Paul's wand from the dashboard.
"Levo!" he snarled. A fine example of the Swaledale breeding ewe whisked unexpectedly up off the road, from inches in front of the van's radiator, and floated gently down (Draco caught a horrified glimpse in the rear view mirror) into the laps of a party of twitchers who had their telescopes and binoculars out in a lay-by by the side of the road. They gazed in appalled disbelief at the van.
"Oh my god," Draco moaned. "And to think I'm the one who's having trouble with the Ministry."
He put his head in his hands. The van swung rapidly onwards through Ribblesdale.
The thick dark red liquid drips slowly from the end of the funnel along the shallow line of the tube, each slow-forced bubble running into its languorously moving fellows until they gather and pause on the tube's edge over the long drop. There, imprisoned by surface tension, they wait, poised in exquisite uncertainty, until one final bubble adds its minute mass to the others, and the whole succumbs to gravity's relentless urging, and tips, full-bodied, over the edge and down through the wide-mouthed hole in the dank limestone floor to - who knows where?
Each drop that falls contains approximately half a teaspoonful of my heart's blood. I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.
Every two drops, then, adds up to 5 millilitres. There are 568 millilitres in a pint. That equals two hundred and twenty eight drops. One drop every six seconds. One pint, therefore, every 22 minutes and 43 seconds. There are between eight and twelve pints of blood in the average human body.
I have been here two full days. Twice a day, for a full hour each time, I have watched immobile as my blood runs down the tube, always at the same rate.
They have taken ten pints of my blood since they brought me here. Why am I still alive? And for what am I kept alive? How long in this disintegration can the mind remain? My heart lies buried like a corpse. Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I gaze, I see here only the black ruins of my life, where I have spent so many years, and ruined and wrecked myself.