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Chapter 3: Chapter Two: Holdovers
Chapter Two: Holdovers
Augustus Bainbridge is the vilest, most despicable excuse for a man Kate ever had the misfortune of meeting. Everything about him disgusts her, from his piggy little eyes to the expensive leather loafers he insists on wearing everywhere, even into the middle of the desert. He's an arrogant, slimly toad who, in Kate’s opinion, should do the world a favor and fall off a very tall cliff.
After his last visit to the camp, Kate swore to Henry she would gladly splinch herself before spending another moment in his insufferable company. Now he was back, and far too soon, for another round of ostensible inspections.
“I need you on your best behavior,” Henry told her as they left his tent and headed toward the worksite.
“Me?” Kate said indignantly. “What about him? He’s the one who pops up whenever he likes, nosing around on so-called “Ministry Business.” He’s an incompetent arse who spends half his time here ogling anything remotely female.”
“I know, I know,” Henry said, using the back of his hand to wipe the sweat from this brow. It was nearing dinnertime but the sun was still blazing overhead. “But now more than ever we need a clean report. Damn if I’ll let him be the one standing in the way of us and a chance at funding.”
Augustus Bainbridge is the Senior Under-Secretary to the Committee on Overseas Operations, a small subset of the Department of International Magical Cooperation. It's a title he likes to repeat often, though he is always conveniently quiet on the details of just what exactly the position entails. Presumably it's his responsibility to ensure that all parties operating on behalf of the Ministry, or simple using Ministry funds, are abiding by the guidelines established by all involved governments.
In principle, Kate has no objection to this. Some level of oversight is to be expected. What is incomprehensible to her is how anyone in their right mind could put that oaf of a man in charge of anything.
The current dig site is thirty kilometers east of camp, an easy journey by apparation once outside the camp perimeter. The location is truly majestic, with the edge of the oasis still visible to the west, large rock formations shooting up out of the sea of sand to the south. And somewhere to the east, far past the dunes and beyond the horizon, lay the fertile land of the Nile.
As she and Henry drew closer to the figures standing beneath a white pitch-tent that provided much needed shade to the workers, the rotund silhouette of one of her least favorite people began to differentiate itself from the others like some sort of terrible desert mirage.
“Oh, ho!” Bainbridge called out, waving to Kate and Henry as they made their way toward the tent. She could already see the glint of white teeth revealed by his disingenuous grin. “And you’ve brought the lady of the hour, Henry. Very good. Very good indeed.”
Kate glared over at Henry, who kept his gaze suspiciously pointed forward.
The skeleton of the suspected Vipertooth had first been detected the month before. Since then, the full outline had been uncovered and carefully marked off with small wooden stakes. Thin rope had then been draped between each stake, creating a makeshift border, directing the workers where to stand and warning visitors to keep off. Three figures – Bainbridge in the middle, flanked on either side by a nervous-looking Eleanor and a very confused looking Michael Turner – stood near the edge of the rope that marked the prehistoric dragon’s hind-quarters, still hidden beneath layers of rock and sand.
“Miss Alrick here was just showing off your latest little discovery, Henry,” Bainbridge said, gesturing toward Eleanor, who gave Kate an uneasy grin. “Doesn’t look like much at the moment though, does it?” he chuckled. “When the lady mentioned an exciting find I was expecting something a bit more...well, complete. Just begun the work on this, I presume?”
He looked over at Michael now, who like Kate, was still covered in a day’s worth of dirt and filth.
“Nearly four weeks now, sir,” Michael replied.
Tall, slim and smart almost to a fault, Michael Turner is a few years older than Kate and second in command to Henry. He works exceptionally hard at his job, often at the neglect of sleep, leaving him with perpetual dark circles beneath his brown eyes. He's shy and awkward, like a young teenager still adjusting to his growing body. Though respected by everyone around camp, he always seems somehow removed from the group.
But despite his impressive brainpower, Michael is no match for a man like Bainbridge. His mind works in formulas and facts. He is simply unable to comprehend a man who makes decisions based on arrogance and seems to thrive despite his obvious ignorance.
“Hmm,” said Bainbridge, dabbing at his glistening brow with a white handkerchief. “Well, these things do take time, I suppose. But, what do I know?” he tittered. “I’m just a lowly Senior Under-Secretary. What is it they call you again, Henry?”
Henry opened his mouth but closed it again quickly, unable to think of a reply, or else unwilling to express his true thoughts in the presence of ladies.
Bainbridge waived away his own question, turning his attention to Kate. “And you. I hear you’ll be blessing us all with your company for the summer. How wonderful.”
Kate could feel Eleanor and Michael’s quizzical stares boring into her. She already felt like a traitor and she hadn’t even agreed to anything yet.
“Actually, I haven’t –” she began, but he cut her off.
“I can’t say I’m optimistic about the chances of your little operation, but it will be a pleasure to have you so near at hand, whatever the reason.”
He was staring intently at her now, his eyes focused about a foot shy of her face.
Kate could feel her eyes roll so far back in her head she was sure she saw her own brain.
“Now,” he said, peeling his eyes away from Kate’s chest, “when I was here last, you were all working…” he looked around the sandy landscape to the south. “Let me see here…”
He extracted a small notebook from inside his breast pocket and began flipping though the pages. “Over that way, I believe.” He was looking off at some unseen spot toward the horizon.
“Actually, it was that way, sir,” Michael said, pointing in the opposite direction.
“Yes, quite,” Bainbridge said, turning himself around. “Of course. And that was rather close to the border you agreed to stay within, was it not? I certainly hope this lies well within your territory, Mr James.”
“I can assure you, it does,” Henry said.
“Yes, well, we shall see.” Bainbridge closed his notebook and placed it back inside his pocket. “I’ve seen more than enough of…this.” He gestured dismissively at the bones before him. “Let us return to your…office, do you call it? We have a lot to review and I am melting like an icicle out here. How anyone works in these conditions...” he mumbled under his breath. “Come along, Henry. I could do with a cold drink.”
He marched off without so much as an acknowledgement to the others. Henry gave them a woeful look and trotted after him.
They watched as the men walk for several paces before turning and disappearing from sight. Eleanor instantly rounded on Kate.
“What was that about?” she asked, cocking one pale eyebrow and folding her hands across her chest.
“Did Henry mention Mr Bainbridge was coming?” Michael asked, clearly troubled by the thought that his powerful brain had failed him. “I’m sure I would have remembered him saying anything about an inspection. Maybe I…”
“Relax,” Kate told him. “It was a surprise to Henry too. At least as of a few hours ago.”
“And we’re not even due for another inspection until September,” said Eleanor. “What’s be back already for? And what’s this about you going to London? Are you really leaving?”
Kate sighed. “It’s sure starting to look that way.”
The sun had finally started to set. The blue sky was fading slowly into pale purple. With the approaching twilight came a steady, dry breeze that rustled the high palms – the first sign of the cooler temperatures that were a nightly ritual in the desert.
Kate had spent the last hour filling Eleanor and Michael in on everything Henry had told her. They had listened attentively as she explained Henry’s request for her to spend some time in London and his need to remain behind to entertain investors. When she was done, Michael’s demeanor was predictably quiet and impassive. Eleanor, however, seemed to share in Henry’s alarm.
“I think Henry’s right,” Eleanor said, tucking a short brown curl behind her ear. “We need someone there to look into all this.”
Eleanor was tall and incredibly thin, her build like that of a bird – a resemblance helped along by her long, pinched face. She was pretty enough but her large eyes looked perpetually alarmed as if expecting disaster around every corner. She and Kate had grown close over the years, two of only a handful of young women living at the camp. Still, Kate couldn’t help but find Eleanor’s propensity for overreaction tiresome at times.
“My brother’s still got that job with the Ministry,” Eleanor continued. “He said the whole place is being investigated. A real house cleaning, or so he says.”
The trio had wandered into the mess hall, selecting a small table in the corner furthest from the door. Despite being dinnertime, none of have them had bothered to fix a plate.
“Investigated by who?” Kate asked.
Eleanor didn’t seem to have an answer for this. Shrugging, she said, “It just seems to me like they’re intent on making sure there aren’t any Holdovers still lurking about.”
Holdovers. The latest buzzword, thanks to The Daily Prophet. Two years since You-Know-Who was defeated and the rumors about dark plots and supporters driven underground continued. They might be leaderless, The Prophet said, but that didn’t mean they weren’t still dangerous. But in the Ministry after all this time? Kate found that a bit hard to swallow.
After a few more minutes of debate, Kate took her leave, desperate to get back to her tent and a quiet moment alone to think. With the dirt of the day finally washed away, she felt her mood begin to improve. She was standing in front of her bathroom mirror, toweling her long wet hair, when she heard it.
A rustle of fabric followed by a muffled thud from somewhere inside her tent.
Kate set down her towel, reaching instinctively for her wand. It wasn’t there.
Damn. It was sitting on the nightstand beside her bed. She pressed her ear to the bathroom door but heard only silence. Slowly, she pushed open the door.
Stepping out, she felt a light hand touch her shoulder. She jumped around.
“Bloody hell!” she cried, pressing her hand to heart.
Leaning against the nearest bedpost – one arm outstretched, the other dangling at his side – was the very tall and very handsome William Becket.
“What were you planning to do,” he said, flashing her his infamous crooked smile, “Comb me to death?”
Kate looked down. She was pointing a brush straight at his chest. She hadn’t even remembered grabbing the thing.
“Ever hear of knocking?” she shot, dropping her hands to her hips.
"What, and miss that look of surprise? Not a chance. Besides,” he said, patting the canvas wall, “no door, remember? Nice look, by the way” he said, taking in her tangled hair and baggy nightshirt.
“What do you want, Will?”
“That’s not very friendly,” he said, smiling again.
“Well, I’m not in a very friendly mood.”
He put his hands up in mock surrender.
“Hey, I just came over to say congratulations,” he said, taking an uninvited seat on the edge of her bed.
“For what exactly?” Kate asked in spite of herself.
“The London trip, of course. There are worse places to spend a summer than the Ministry.”
Kate was taken aback. “How do you know about that?”
“So, it’s true?”
“You didn’t answer my question.” Kate was all too familiar with his skill at evasion. “Who told you about London?”
“A little birdie,” he said, wiggling his thick eyebrows at her. “What does it matter? So, when do you leave?”
“I don’t know yet,” she said flatly. “I don’t even know if I’m going.”
Will sat up straight. “You’re kidding, right? You have to go.”
“What does it matter to you?”
Will slid over, patting the bed beside him. Kate ignored the gesture and leaned instead on the corner of her desk.
Shrugging, Will said, “Despite what you think, I do still care about you, Kate. And this is a great opportunity.”
Things were quickly moving from strange to downright bizarre. Kate and Will had hardly exchanged more than forced pleasantries since their short-lived romance nearly six months ago. It had been a brief but intense affair, one Kate was all too happy to forget. But now he was suddenly back, sneaking into her tent, giving her sage advice? Something definitely didn’t add up.
“How exactly is a hearing before some budget committee a good opportunity?”
“Come on,” he said, giving her another lopsided smile. “You know what I mean.”
“Obviously I don’t.”
He sighed. “I just mean that with…Well, it’s no secret that Henry’s in over his head these days –”
Kate opened her mouth to protest, but Will put up his hand to stop her.
“Don’t get all offended,” he continued. “Henry’s great, but you know I’m right. He can’t keep up with the expenses. We’ve all known it for a long time. I don’t want this place to close down any more than the next guy. I’ve got a good thing going here.”
That, at least, Kate knew was the truth. Unlike the rest of them, Will wasn’t in the dragon business. He was a liaison, an expert in language and culture. He moved around from place to place, interpreting and negotiating for English wizards abroad. He’d been brought on by Henry a year ago to help settle a dispute with a local branch of the Egyptian Wizarding Council. Apparently he’d impressed the Egyptians so much they hired him stay near at hand in case any other problems arose. As far as Kate was concerned, the man got paid to sit on his arse and watch others work, ducking out of town whenever the mood struck and returning only if and when he pleased...or feared his absence might be noticed.
“But…” Will added, his voice now barely more than a whisper. “Let’s face it. That’s a real possibility. And then what are we all going to do? What would you do then, Kate?”
She didn’t answer him. She wanted to argue, tell him he was wrong, but she couldn’t...and he wasn’t.
“All I’m saying is that at least with this trip you’ll get a chance to meet some new people. The kind of people who might be good to know…down the road.”
“What, you mean your kind of people?” Kate shot.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said, narrowing his dark eyes.
Kate could see that subtle flash of anger that he was always so good at concealing from others, but never from her. He wasn’t a violent man but there always seemed to be something brewing just under the surface. He came off all handsome and demure, a product of good genes and rich pedigree, but Kate knew that in reality he was guarded and aloof, even secretive at times. There was something dark there, hidden behind his smile.
“I don’t know. Nothing,” Kate said, backing down. She was tired to argue.
His face relaxed and the traces of tension melted away.
“Well, it’s something to think about anyway,” he said, standing up. “I’ll be in London myself this summer. Maybe I’ll see you there.”
“Maybe,” she replied.
He headed toward the makeshift door. Kate stood up to follow, planning to seal the damn thing shut with a permanent sticking charm.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” he said, turning to face her.
Kate shrugged. She knew just what it was, but she didn’t really care to talk about it.
“Well,” he said, “here’s to hoping you can save all our jobs. ”
He leaned in slightly, his lips barely grazing her cheek. Kate cursed inwardly as she felt an all too familiar flutter deep in her stomach as she felt his warm breath on her skin.
And just as suddenly as he had arrived, he was gone, leaving Kate alone at last.