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Portmanteau by Arithmancy_Wiz
Format: Short story
Chapter 2: Chapter One: Money
Chapter One: Money
Three Years Later.
Henry Jones was a brilliant man. He was also desperately old-fashioned. Perhaps it was a sign of his age or an unintended byproduct of his profession. Or perhaps it was the result of spending far too much time with the stuffy intellectuals who claimed him as one of their own.
As fond of Henry as she was, Kate Wiggins was inclined to believe the latter. She had often complained to him about the time he wasted on outdated pleasantries like cooking from scratch or cleaning without the help of magic. But now – tripping and stumbling around the cluttered tent she’d been calling home for the past two years – she wished she’d held her tongue.
A folded piece of parchment no bigger than a one-pound note was buzzing and flapping around her low-hanging ceiling looking very much like an insect trapped in a jar. As no one else ever sent her post, Kate had no doubt who the letter was from. The only question was why Henry hadn’t delivered it himself – neatly pinning to the heavy canvas flap that served as her front door as was his usual practice. Enchanted mail was hardly Henry’s style.
Kate reached out for the letter again but missed. Twice more it slipped through her outstretched fingers. Just as she was about to pull her wand on the blasted thing it came to a sudden stop, completely entangled in the thin fabric that acted as make-shift divider between her bedroom and study.
She snatched the note and ripped it open.
Please call on me at your earliest convenience,
H. A. Jones
Kate flipped the note over, looking for more. It was blank.
If the scrawl hadn’t been so familiar – the large loop of the J nearly twice the size of the other letters – Kate wouldn’t have believed it from Henry. The only thing more affected than his refusal to keep up with the modern means of communication was his inability to get straight to the point. Everything about this note was not only unusual, it was alarming.
Kate sighed. Her curiosity and concern were outweighing (though only slightly) her desire for a cool bath and a long nap. She stepped in front of the small mirror propped up against an unused trunk. No surprises here. She was covered in sand from head to toe. The fine dust had settled over her tan skin, brown hair and well-worn clothes, leaving her looking as if she’d stepped out of a faded oil painting. She could take the time to change, wash her face, but what was the point? She was in the middle of the desert. Everything she owned – everything she touched – was covered in the same sandy film.
Brushing off the largest grains of sand still clinging to her kneecaps, Kate turned and exited the tent.
Their camp was small and inconspicuous, nestled away in a remote part of the Bahariya Oasis, which stood like a green beacon between the Mediterranean and the Black Desert. The locals hardly ever traveled in this far, choosing to stay nearer the main roads that had been completed a few decades before. There was always the possibility of lost tourists popping up unexpectedly but that was rare and well prepared for. As beautiful as the Oasis was, visitors to Egypt seemed much more interested in the great pyramids to the north or the sand dune oceans and volcanic hills to the south and east tha°n in an outcropping of overgrown palm trees inhabited by local farmers.
The seclusion suited their purposes well. It was an easy trip to Cairo for supplies when needed, but they were otherwise left alone to do their work in peace. Too many of them had learned the hard way that the less people who knew of their presence there, the safer it was for everyone.
It was a ten-minute walk from Kate’s tent to Henry’s – no apparating was permitted within the camp perimeters. The camp itself, sitting in a clearing and bordered on all sides by massive palms, was divided into three sections. The first was the living quarters, home to the twenty or so people who resided in the makeshift village year round. Five long rows of beige tents were staggered among the tall grasses. They were all identical on the outside, resembling common pitch tents, but like all magical tents, varied on the number of rooms within. More lavish accommodations were frowned upon and considered unnecessarily showy by most of the residents. This suited Kate just fine. She found the small space of her home to be comfortable and intimate, like living in a heated cave.
The second part of camp, just north of the last row of tents, was known as The Commons. The mess hall was located here, as was the main study – a round classroom-like building used for storing tools, books and other assorted items one could check out at will. There had been a half-hearted attempt to build a small quidditch pitch out behind the mess hall, but the effort had been abandoned the first time the temperate reached 43°C.
On the outskirts of camp, butting up against the overhanging trees sat The Lair. Out of all the structures in the camp, this was the only one that had already been standing when the first of the expedition arrived. It had been in poor shape, abandoned decades before, most likely by a farmer who had moved his family closer to town. It was low to the ground, the stone crumbling off the sides, most of the roof caved in. Long before Kate arrived in Egypt, Henry had taken the dilapidated structure under his wing, converting it into his own private residence as well as a guesthouse for those few people who visited the site. Aside from the work of his team, The Lair was his pride and joy. A sign of good fortune he said, to have found it so close to the work site.
Kate’s light knock on Henry’s office door was met with a muffled, “Come in!”
Stepping inside The Lair was a lot like walking into a poorly tended library. Despite the temperature outside, the room was always cool, dry and dimly lit. Every wall was lined with rickety bookshelves, overflowing with tattered leather books and rolls of yellowed parchment. Maps and diagrams hung three or four thick, curling up and away from the walls with age. Overstuffed armchairs seated around a square table were buried beneath notebooks, weeklies and whatever else didn’t fit on or near the bookcases.
“Henry?” Kate called, scanning the room, her eyes working hard to adjust to the sudden darkness.
At last she spotted him sitting behind his desk, his head barely clearing the large stack of books in front of him.
“You’re here. Wonderful,” he said, standing up to great her. He was smiling widely but the humor didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Just wonderful.”
Henry was a small, enthusiastic man, his kind face hidden behind large glasses and a lot of beard. His hair was pale silver, his skin tan and wrinkled, but his eyes were sharp and aware, and he moved with the agility of a man half his age – though exactly what age that was, no one was quite sure.
“I wasn’t sure you’d make it before...” he began, rounding his desk and hurriedly working to unbury one the nearby chairs. “But you have, so… That’s one hurdle down. “Sit,” he added, patting the now clear seat.
Kate did so and waited patiently as Henry began the ritual of making them each a strong cup of tea. No business was ever discussed with Henry until all parties had been served their tea.
By the time he returned, Kate had managed to carve out a small corner of room on Henry’s desk where he gently placed the mismatched teacups.
“Thanks,” Kate said politely as Henry resumed his position behind his desk.
“So,” he began, pushing the slightly nicer looking cup toward Kate, “tell me how things are progressing.”
Henry didn’t need Kate to tell him how anything in or around camp was going. Nothing having to do with the project was done without his knowledge or consent. But he seemed to enjoy asking nonetheless, preferring to hear Kate’s take on things in her own words.
“As expected,” she said. “And on schedule, which is always a surprise.”
He nodded but said nothing, so she continued.
“The tail took a lot less time to extract than we planned for. We were thinking at least a week on that. But Turner finished the last of it this morning. It looks like we’ve got about eighty percent of it. It we’re half as lucky with the wingspan…”
Kate didn’t need to finish the thought. Even a first year could tell that wing bones, even those of a thirty-foot dragon, were delicate. Finding them fully intact was a dream realized by few excavators.
“Have we any guesses on breed?” Henry asked.
“Not yet. Eleanor’s still working on the skull. She’s thinking an early Vipertooth maybe. But she won’t be sure until she sees the talons. Ridges on the tail are pretty suggestive though.”
“Vipertooth?” said Henry, perking up. “That would be a find. One this far east...That should catch some attention.”
Herny was right about one thing. Vipertooths were native to the mountains of Peru – a far cry from the Egyptian desert. But as to drawing anyone’s attention, Kate had her doubts. Dragons were her life. It was why she and Henry and all the others were here, hidden away at the edge of the map. It’s why they spent long days baking in the sun, painstakingly chipping away at the earth. But it wasn’t so easy convincing others their work was worth noticing. Digging in the dirt was a muggle pursuit, or so Kate was often told. Not hardly worthy of her time or efforts.
But Henry was not to be persuaded. As coveted as his brilliant mind was by the heads at St. Mungos or those at any number of Ministries around the world, Henry believed in his work and in the truths only the past could reveal. When truly needed, he could be lured away from his studies for brief periods of time – like the summer two years ago when he’d been called to head the committee handling an upsurge in Ramora poaching by wizards of the coast of India. But he always returned to fossils. To Dragons.
That was why he built this outpost five years ago. Once he realized that the small skeleton of an ancient dragon discovered deep beneath the Egyptian desert was just one of dozens of skeletons lying in what amounted to a mass dragon grave, he had set up shop and began inviting other talented and likeminded people to assist him.
Kate had been one of his last recruits, joining the team less than two years before. Henry had been reluctant to bring her on. She was trained to work with live specimens, not bones. But her persistence and passion had won him over in the end. And it hadn’t taken long for her to become one of his most favored protégés.
The pair prattled on about Vipertooths and wingspans for several more minutes before Henry finally set down his tea and seemed ready to get to the point of the meeting.
Clearing his throat, he began, “I don’t suppose I’m telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that funds are tight and growing tighter by the day it seems. Supply requests are going unfilled, you lot are overworked with no money to bring on more help...
“We’re all a team here so I try and share with the group as much as I can. I don’t keep our source of funding secret. But a Ministry Grant only goes so far. Frankly, I still have no idea why they picked my proposal. If they think it will change my mind about heading the Dragon Research and Restraint Bureau, they are sorely mistaken. But that’s neither here nor there,” he added quickly. “I took the money. And gladly.
“But that’s going on nearly six years ago now and times have changed. And not for the worse, I might add. Shacklebolt is the best thing that’s happened to the Ministry in a very long time. But change is change. He’s got different priorities than Fudge. Runs a tighter ship. Funds for non-essential –” he seemed to choke slightly on the word – “projects are being reigned in. I’ve tried to think of a way around it, but now…”
He paused then, reaching into his breast pocket and extracting an official looking letter.
“Well, just read it yourself,” he said, handing it over to her.
Kate took the letter and scanned quickly through the small, neat print:
Mr Henry A. Jones:
Since 18 November, 1994, you and/or those working under your direction, have been the recipient of funds allotted by Ministry Grant No. 7927A, provided under the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. The Ministry would like to thank you for your work and contributions to our understanding of the magical world. We must, however, inform you and all other non-essential grant recipients that beginning 1 June, all outgoing payments will be suspended until such time as the newly appointed Budgetary Review Board can evaluate your continued request for funds.
A hearing on your research has been scheduled for 18 August at 2pm. At this time, you and/or a designated person representing your interests will have the opportunity to present to the committee your findings and anticipated monetary needs. Failure to appear on this date will result in automatic disqualification for future funding.
Secretary to the Budgetary Review Board
Kate stared at the letter for a long moment before finally handing it back to Henry.
“Can they really do this?” she asked. “Give you the money and then just take it back like that?”
“I’m afraid they can. And will.”
“But the first of June. That’s what…six days from now? How can they just cut the money off so suddenly? Without hardly a warning? We won’t even have half the wing uncovered by then.”
“It’s not so terribly sudden, really,” Henry admitted, sounding far too resigned to Kate. “It was only a matter of time before something like this came up. I’m frankly surprised they didn’t shut us down a long time ago. These sorts of things happen all the time.”
"So, what? That’s just the end of things? Pack up and go home?” Kate pressed, feeling a sudden flash of rising heat that had nothing to do with the temperature outside.
“Not hardly, if I can help it.”
Henry was on his feet now, pacing back and forth along the narrow alley between his desk and the stone wall.
“I’ve been considering for some time now what steps to take should something like this arise. I’m honestly not tickled by any of the alternatives. I’ve been running my own ship here for far too long, I suppose. It was naive of me to think it could continue on like this for much longer. Of course, there are hoops to jump through with the Ministry to be sure, but nothing like what’s to come…”
“Henry, you’ve lost me,” Kate said, gazing uneasily at her boss and friend. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s simply, really,” he said, halting behind his chair. “Privatization.”
“Henry, you can’t be serious. That would...”
“Believe you me,” he said, slumping back into his seat before removing his glasses and rubbing at his eyes, “if I can avoid it, I will. But I’m hard pressed to see an alternative. We’ll go to the Ministry, grovel for the money as best we can. But I can’t wait until they refuse us to start looking for new funding. By then it will be too late.”
“But who?” she asked. “I mean, who besides us and the Ministry care what we’re doing out here? What’s the benefit for a private investor? And what do you mean it will be too late? Too late for what?”
“You’re missing the point, Kate,” Henry said soberly.
Kate couldn’t agree more. She was totally and utterly confused.
“The earth here is full of more than bones. It’s rich in the kind of natural resources coveted by a lot of men – wizards and muggles alike. Work with those already here – us in other words – and they get one step closer to their treasure. If you own what’s on top of the land, it’s all that much easier to own what lies beneath it.”
Now it was Kate’s turn to rise. A sudden burst of nervous energy made her unable to sit still.
“Okay,” she said. “Say you’re right. What next? How exactly does one go about finding an investor?”
“Actually,” Henry started, “that’s the easy part. I’ve got a parchment a mile long of people who’ve been itching to get inside our camp and start poking around. All I have to do is open the doors and they’ll start swarming in – wanting to tour the facilities, meet the team, be given the full scope of what exactly their investment will buy. But here’s where the trouble is – where I’m going to need your help.”
“Anything,” Kate assured him.
Henry looked up at her, giving her the kind of knowing stare that made her suddenly leery about her hasty agreement.
“I can’t see the benefit in prolonging the inevitable. The sooner I get investors in here, the sooner we can be rid of the lot of them. Besides, once word gets around we’re in a financial pinch, we lose the upper hand and we’ll be lucky to get out with our skins, let alone a workable arrangement. No, I need to be here and I need to get this going today. That, however, leaves me with the problem of...London. As talented a wizard as I may be, I cannot yet be in two places at once. But you...”
“Not a chance,” Kate said, refusing to give the man a chance to finish his request.
“Now hear me out –”
“Henry, don’t be absurd. The hearing can’t be more than a few hours. Surely even I could hold off your investors for that long.”
“But that’s just it,” he said, coming around the desk to stand face to face with Kate, the two nearly identical in height. “It won’t only be for a few hours. Bloody Budgetary Review Board,” he griped, retrieving the letter he’d just shown her and shaking it in frustration. “I haven’t a clue what that even means. I’ve stayed out of that place as much as possible these past few years. Who knows what kind of changes they’ve made. I’ve got a strong feeling this is going to take serious time to prepare for. I’m going to need someone there for the long haul. To figure what we’re up against, if we’re to have any chance at winning them over.”
To Kate, this was feeling less and less like a request and a lot more like an ultimatum with each passing second. It wasn’t her single job in jeopardy if she refused - Henry would never be so vindictive. This was about whether or not there would be any job left to have.
“Henry, this is...crazy. I’m about the worst person for the job. I’m not the fossil expert. Why not send Beckett? He’d love the chance to rub shoulders with people in high places.”
“Precisely,” Henry replied, his eyes bulging slightly. “William has ambitions far beyond what we do here. I need someone there I can trust. Someone who won’t be distracted by…other things.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Kate sighed, falling back into her chair, rustling a teetering stack of nearby papers. “Do you honestly think I’m the best person for this?”
Kate saw the sincerity written on his face and wished she possessed even a hint of his confidence in her.
“Well, can I at least have a few days to think about it?”
“That,” he said, suddenly turning his full attention to small scratch in his wooden desk, “is a bit more problematic. I told him to give me – us – a little more time before he came, but he insisted on arriving straight away. If you’d said no...”
“He was delighted to hear you’d be coming to London. Offered to assist in anyway possible.”
“Henry, what did you – ”
“…arrived just an hour ago. Eleanor is showing him around now…I’m surprised you didn’t run into them on your way over….”
“Henry, if you’re talking about who I think you’re talking about, I’m going to murder you in your sleep.”
Henry had the decency to blush a brilliant red.
A/N – As with Romania, I have sadly never been to Egypt. All my attempts to recreate the landscape here are brought to you via google images and one too many specials on the Discovery Channel. I hope I haven’t made any unforgivable blunders.