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Chapter 5: The First Set-Back
The First Set-Back
So there I was, the only force for good in the room. Somehow, I had to get both the girl and my anti-partner to the Ministry without losing either or losing to either. The second of these was the far more likely option. As much as I prided myself on spell-work and Defence Against the Dark Arts, I wouldn’t be able to inflict harm upon either without invoking some great consequence. The Beaver would be all-too-happy to watch me fall.
My hands were figuratively tied.
Therefore, when Malfoy gave me that smarmy smile, I smiled back.
In response, his lips visibly wavered, his eyes flickering away.
He was worried too. I suppose that I couldn’t blame him. We were in more than a bit of a pickle, the situation growing bleaker by the minute, and both of our necks were on the line for this, not just mine. If I went down, I’d sure as Merlin bring him down with me.
Wasn’t this just the best start to a beautiful friendship? I thought so.
Phyllis finished murmuring sweet nothings into her mobile, hitting the end call button with a surprising level of force.
“If you don’t find who did this in the next forty-eight hours, Bogey will come down on the city.” Her voice was oddly harsh. “I convinced him out of giving you only twenty-four, so be happy.”
I blinked. Had I been a Malfoy, I probably would have squeaked too.
“That’s not enough time,” I said at last.
She shrugged, but there was the slightest amount of tension in the set of her jaw and the twitch of her right pinkie finger. Nervous ticks: we all have them, but most people don’t take the time to bother noticing them. Who wouldn’t have twitchy nerves after their flat had been blown to smithereens? She was human beneath that mask of vampiric makeup, and right now, she was downright terrified.
“So can we get moving, or do you prefer being hexed to bits?”
She just wasn’t the damsel in distress sort of girl. I could admire that.
I glanced toward Scorpius, who was watching her as though she’d turned into a dragon, or worse, his grandmother. I couldn’t – and wouldn’t dare – guess at what was going on in that strange little mind of his.
But it was, as usual, nothing compared to what was going on in mine.
“You’re really one for alliteration, aren’t you, Phyllis?” It came out sounding nothing like what had gone through my head a second before.
She shot me the kind of glare I deserved.
Both equally emasculated, Scorpius and I took up positions on either side of her, and she, much to my chagrin, looked far too pleased with herself. Girls, they were all the same, in the end. A load of trouble and strife, to use the Cockney term. I couldn’t get into their heads at all. Even Malfoy made more sense.
The only thing that made sense about Phyllis was that she was the one in control, and she had been since appearing at the door.
There was something going on that still lay just beyond my comprehension. It worried me. I’d never say that it scared me. Not at all. There was nothing to be scared of. Really. Only the potential of being blown up by person or persons unknown, physically destroyed by an intimidating gangster, or (and I’m limiting myself to three options here, for sanity’s sake) being permanently transferred to the welcome desk, a Potter on display for the magical masses.
“Today would be nice.”
They looked at me with equal parts derision and impatience. As the officer in charge (if only in title and not in fact), I latched onto Phyllis’s arm and nodded for Malfoy to follow suit. Once he had, I initiated the larger-scale apparition spell that launched us deep into the bowels of the Ministry of Magic where the darkest secrets of the wizarding world are kept under lock and key for all time.
“The Atrium? That’s the best you can do?”
I never claimed to being capable of better. My clearance access was little more than that of the nearest Muggle.
“As soon as we’ve left you in custody, Miss Lime.” I hammed up my language to impress the onlookers, none of whom seemed to have previously come across a girl who looked like Phyllis. Until today, neither had I. “We’ll have to return to the scene.”
“What for?” She had shaken off our hands easily enough and now stood rebelliously a step away with crossed arms, loudly chewing some Drooble’s Best. “Like I told you, nothing there. It was a Muggle place, just temporary.”
So Malfoy was capable of contribution after all. He swept back a stray curl that had fallen over his forehead with all the dramatic fire of a leading lady.
I was in no mood for this. I’d seen a bomb go off in the middle of London and had walked among the wreckage, feeling the blood dripping from my hands... in a purely metaphorical way, of course. In a way – in many ways – we were to blame. We hadn’t been able to put a stop to it. We hadn’t seen the signs. Weren’t there supposed to be Unspeakables collecting all the necessary intell on these assignments before we were sent out to deal with them? Whichever Unspeakable had gotten this job had surely failed and we had ended up right in the middle of a great, bloody mess.
My name echoed through the Atrium with an ominous note that turned Malfoy and the girl pale. That was saying something, seeing how light-skinned they already were. I’ll admit that I felt a little tingle down my spine at the sound of the Beaver’s fury.
“What. Is. This?”
He was so out-of-breath that the question emerged in fragmentary form. Whether his shortness of breath was from running through the corridors in search of me or the sheer volume of his bellow I couldn’t be sure. It could also have been the smoking, though I wasn’t supposed to know about that little habit of it (or the other habits, but I won’t mention those until a real emergency arises).
I stepped aside to gesture toward Phyllis. “This is Miss Lime whose flat you requested that we... um... survey.... I mean watch.” Any cool attitude I may have had was quickly melted away by the raging temper of my unfortunate superior.
The unfortunate bit being that he was my superior in the first place.
“We brought her in for her own safety, sir.” Malfoy weaselled his way over in the typical Malfoy way. “I’m sure by now you are aware of the situation.”
I mouthed a big “no” in Malfoy’s direction, but he was being too much of a brown-noser to realize that, instead of impressing the Beaver with his efficient coolness, he was in fact sending the cauldron of fury to a critical boiling point.
“And our assessment was that it would be best to bring the subject of our surveillance here to the Ministry for safe-keeping and interrogation so that we can properly ascertain the identities of the assailants in this case.”
After completing this long-winded formal statement, Malfoy discretely gasped for breath.
I was reasonably impressed by his grasp of language and his way of emitting absolute applesauce when the time came to be a political pickpocket, but the fact was that I didn’t even need to think about the ways in which I could have said it better. The fact was that I would never have said it at all.
The Beaver’s announcement of our arrival via the bellowing of my name had already attracted a sizable crowd of employees skiving off work and visitors who would be lost anyway and therefore were happy to find some point of familiarity, and a Potter was definitely a point of familiarity if there was one. Now, as the Beaver let loose another very unprofessional roar, I half-expected some of these onlookers to summon bowls of popcorn and sweets as though they were set to enjoy the latest comic film.
Yes, this was certainly a screwball comedy. For all that it contained bombs, gangsters, and Aurors, it contained far too much of the ridiculous and not at all enough of the sublime.
And through the whole thing, Phyllis stood to one side, arms crossed, looking more like one of the crowd than a central player. If I was her, I would have slipped away a long time before. It would have been easy, with this crowd and this spectacle, but for some impossible reason, she had remained, chewing her gum and looking bored.
“There. Is. No. Case.” The Beaver sucked in a deep, terrifying breath and was thereby able to emit more than one syllable at a time. “Not for you two. Upstairs. Now!”
Malfoy was now turning red at having been shot down without any regard for his family name or the thousands of galleons his father and grandfather had donated to the Ministry for atonement of the family sins. He had been the darling of Beaver’s eyes for too long, but having gotten himself embroiled in the botch-up of a routine surveillance, he was now tainted with the brush of Potter in the shade of Albus Severus.
“But what about...?” He tried for one final act of repentance, but the words died on his lips when he looked in the direction of Phyllis.
Or rather, shall I say, the Phyllis that was no longer there.
The crowd was too thick for us to catch any sight of her, but she had easily enough found a way of melting into it. I would have thought her presence was noticeable, yet neither the Beaver nor anyone else could remember her face. Her clothes, yes. Her makeup, yes. Her legs, certainly. Her actual appearance, not so much.
The alarm went out. Hit wizards began sweeping the area. The floo portals were temporarily shut down.
But it was all too late. We’d lost the girl, lost the trail, and worst of all, lost the case.
A good case, the kind of really interesting case that Aurors have been known to kill for, finally lands within my grasp, and then it’s torn away with a bellow and a healthy swat back into the drudgery of desk work, probably for the rest of my meagre existence.
Though such things never stopped a Potter before, did they?
The game was on.