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Chapter 60: Chapter Sixty
Barty didn't try to contact Gwen. She'd feared that he might, worried that he'd try and force her to see him when she still hadn't managed to make sense of everything he'd already said, but he never did. It was two days since she'd walked out on him at the hotel, and she hadn't heard from him since.
Part of her was grateful for that. She needed time to wrap her head around everything he'd told her, and she wondered if maybe it meant that he was innocent after all, that he seemed content to give her some space, but she also wondered if perhaps he was staying away because he knew her worst fears were true. Despite the explanation he'd given her, she knew she could no longer trust him. And what if everything she'd suspected was right all along?
No matter how hard she thought about it, Gwen just didn't know what to do. She hadn't told anyone about what happened, not yet. After all, what would she say? That her boyfriend, who also happened to be the son of Bartemius Crouch Sr., had gotten involved with the Death Eaters? Sure, she could prove that he had a Dark Mark, but was turning him in really something she wanted to do? Even after everything she'd seen, she still couldn't reconcile herself with the idea that he was a Death Eater. And what if, maybe, he was telling the truth about his side of the story? He may have done something stupid, but Gwen knew full well what would happen if he was exposed as having a Dark Mark. His life would be completely ruined, and part of her still cared about him enough to not want to put him through that.
Arguments and counter-arguments for her to not believe him kept cycling round her head, and none of it made it easier for her to decide what to do. She'd kept everything that had happened secret up until now, but if she didn't talk about this with someone soon she was going to go crazy. There was no way she could tell her parents, given that they both worked closely with Crouch Sr., and she didn't really have any friends as such that she'd trust with something like this. Really, the only option that she could think of was Sander, but given how she knew he felt about Barty she thought that might be a bad idea as well. He'd only see this as confirming his suspicions, and she wasn't ready to let him think that, not when Barty still deserved the benefit of the doubt and should be allowed to explain himself better. Or maybe she was just letting her feelings for him get in the way.
As if it hadn't been bad enough trying to pretend that everything was alright to her parents over the weekend, the conflict raging through her mind was now making trying to work hell as well. Gwen had been sat in her office for over an hour now, staring down at the same sheet of figures without taking any of it in as she tried to make sense of what she was thinking. This wasn't good. No matter what else was going on she really couldn't risk screwing up with her job, but knowing that didn't make it any easier for her to concentrate. Without talking to Barty again she had no idea what to make of the situation, but yet she found the prospect of seeing him again to be both terrifying and something she was desperate for. She needed some proper answers, just to set her own mind at rest. There was still the possibility that he was innocent, although part of her wondered if maybe she was grossly exaggerating that possibility just to make herself feel better. But even if that was the case, the fact he genuinely seemed to care about her had to count for something, right?
Damn, but letting herself get caught up thinking about this now wasn't helping anything. Gwen forced herself to push the conflicting thoughts to the back of her mind and tried to concentrate on work, but she didn't succeed for long before her efforts were interrupted by the sound of a knock on the door. At the noise, she felt her stomach squirm uncomfortably as she simultaneously felt both hope and dread that it might be Barty, but as she looked up to see the door open before she'd even had chance to call out, "Come in," the squirming quickly turned to a very unpleasant sinking sensation as she saw the person who entered.
The woman who stepped into the office was young, with neatly curled platinum blonde hair and lips that were painted a shade of bright pink. She was elegantly, if flamboyantly, attired in a lime green suit jacket and pencil skirt combined with a yellow lemon blouse, and her shoes were a vivid shade of red with very high heels. Perched on the end of her nose were a set of red horn rimmed spectacles, through which she peered down at Gwen as she strutted into the room. "Good morning, Miss Coulthard. Or Gwen, isn't it? How about I call you Gwen? I'm Rita Skeeter, reporter for the Daily Prophet and columnist for Witch Weekly, as I'm sure you're aware." The woman introduced herself in an overly familiar tone, sitting herself down in the chair opposite Gwen and offering out a hand for her to shake.
Gwen glanced down at it in a mixture of nervousness and disdain. She of course knew who Rita Skeeter was. She'd seen enough of the woman's columns in Christine's copies of Witch Weekly to be able to recognise her by sight, and of course there were the countless vitriolic articles she wrote that Gwen saw in the Prophet on a daily basis, but what did she want with her? Then Gwen suddenly remembered that awful article she'd seen about her and Barty in the paper the other week, and she had a horrible feeling she knew exactly what Skeeter was here for. Just great. This really was the last thing she needed right now.
Gwen didn't accept the offered hand, but instead looked back up at Skeeter's face and addressed her coolly. "I'm sorry, Miss Skeeter, but I'm busy right now. If you'd like investment advice then you'll have to make an appointment like my other clients." She was trying to be as calm and confident as possible, but with her nerves raging and with Skeeter's beady gaze settled on her, that was proving to be difficult.
Seemingly unperturbed, Skeeter let her hand drop and then leaned back casually in the chair, crossing her legs as she did so. "Ah, but I was hoping you and I could have a little chat. You know, girl to girl," she said in a superficially friendly tone.
Despite an increasing sense of panic building in her gut, Gwen tried to hold her ground. "I'm sorry, but I'll have to decline that offer," she responded firmly, "As I said, I'm busy."
Skeeter's lips curled into a rather vicious and condescending smile. "Oh come on, Gwen, are you worried your boss will find out? Because I won't tell if you won't," she said, tapping the side of her nose, and the way the woman appeared to be leering at her made Gwen's skin crawl.
"No, I apologize, but I must decline. Now please leave my office," Gwen repeated, and was beginning to wonder if she'd be justified in calling security to get rid of this woman. Then she thought that would perhaps give the impression she couldn't handle herself.
Skeeter made no move that suggested she was about to comply, and instead just continued to give Gwen that falsely sweet smile and began to reach into her crocodile skin clutch bag for parchment and a quill. "I was wondering if perhaps you'd be able to tell me more about your relationship with Barty Crouch Jr," she continued, and Gwen felt her stomach sink even further. "What's it like dating the son of one of the Ministry's most senior officials? Do you feel you get along well with his father? And how about that date the pair of you were on on Friday? Any secrets you'd care to share?"
At those words, Gwen suddenly felt herself freeze up in absolute panic. Did she know? Had she somehow found out what happened? Was she looking for evidence to expose her and Barty? "But how…you know about that?" Gwen managed to choke out.
Skeeter gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "Of course I know about that, dear," she said, setting down a sheet of parchment and a bright green quill on the desk in front of her, "And I'm sure my readers would love to know all about it, too. There are hundreds of girls who'd love to be in your position, Gwen. Wouldn't you just love to share little bit of insight with them? What's it really like to be dating one of the most eligible bachelors in the wizarding community? Are there any romantic tales about him that you could tell us, just for the girls?"
Gwen just stared at her, unable to speak. She doesn't know, she told herself, she wouldn't be asking these inane questions if she knew. She just thinks we went on a date, that's all. Don't panic. She doesn't know. Attempting to regain her composure, Gwen drew a deep breath and once again tried to make this harpy just go the hell away. "If you're looking for something to gossip about, then you won't find it here."
Following her response, Skeeter gave her an irritated look and scowled at the quill which was now hovering above the parchment ready to write. It began to scribble something down and Gwen was tempted to look and see what, but she didn't want to take her eyes off of Skeeter. The reporter tried to smooth out her look of annoyance and smiled again. "But, Gwen, this is your golden opportunity to make all the other girls envious…"
"I'm not interested," Gwen said abruptly, cutting her off mid-sentence. Skeeter scowled again, and Gwen took the opportunity to glance down briefly at what the quill was scrawling on the parchment:…stubbornly refusing to speak to us, the aloof banker… Gwen didn't have chance to read much more before Skeeter was speaking again, but feeling a rush of indignation Gwen shot a fierce glare at the reporter.
"There's no need to be like that. I only want to tell your side of the story; the true story. Put an end to all the speculation," Skeeter drawled. The words sounded like sugar coated venom coming from her glossy pink lips.
The speculation you started, Gwen thought bitterly, but she wasn't about to let herself be drawn in. "Leave my office, or I'll call security," she ordered, her anger beginning to show through in her tone.
Still, Skeeter didn't move. "Is there really any need to act so childishly?" she said condescendingly, although she at last seemed to realise that she wasn't going to get anywhere. "I only hoped the pair of us could conduct a civilised interview like two adults."
Now Gwen was beginning to get the sense she was being baited, perhaps so that she'd say something stupid and Skeeter could write as horrible an article about her as possible, but she was just too much in state of anger and nerves to even formulate a particularly derogatory response. She just wanted the bitch gone. "Look, will you just leave," Gwen said, not even attempting to be polite anymore and with more than a hint of desperation in her voice.
Skeeter didn't look at all happy with that response, and instead put on an expression like a spoiled child who hadn't gotten her own way. Very quickly though, she tried to hide it and forced her fake smile back into place. After a pause, in which she still made no move to leave, Skeeter addressed Gwen in a very calm and measured tone. "Well, Miss Coulthard, I think the pair of us didn't get off to a very good start here. Perhaps we should start again. Allow me to explain exactly what kind of opportunity I'm offering you here…"
Gwen didn't want to hear her explain anything, but was spared having to retaliate further by the sound of somebody else knocking on the office door. Gwen couldn't call out, "It's open," quickly enough before both she and Skeeter turned to see who had entered the room. Gwen had hoped that perhaps it would be Semog or a co-worker or someone else who'd give her a solid reason to get back to work and get rid of Skeeter, but as she saw who it was she realised she didn't recognise the man in question at all.
He was very tall and appeared to be in the latter years of middle age, with black hair that was slicked smoothly over his scalp and greying just slightly at the temples. Everything about him from his stance to his choice of attire cut a very imposing figure – he was standing straight backed, with his arms held stiffly at his sides, and was dressed in an expensively tailored suit that was coloured entirely black, including his shirt, waistcoat and tie. His angular jaw and sharp cheekbones served to give his face a very harsh look, which was emphasised even further by the stern expression in his dark grey eyes. But even despite the rather intimidating way the man appeared to be surveying her, Gwen couldn't help but feel that there was something strangely familiar about him.
The man's eyes flickered from Gwen to Rita Skeeter for a moment, taking in the scene in front of him, and then he turned back to Gwen and held her gaze as he addressed her. "Miss Coulthard, I apologize for interrupting you, but if it would be convenient for me to wait in the corridor I would like to speak with you as soon as possible." When he spoke, his English accent was so crisp he sounded like he could be a radio news reporter from the 1960's.
Relieved that she'd found an excuse to get rid of Skeeter, even if she didn't know who this man was, Gwen answered him quickly. "Oh, it's no problem. Miss Skeeter was just leaving. I'd be more than happy to speak with you now."
She stood up and gestured for Skeeter to do the same, but the reporter did so with a rather disgruntled expression and turned disdainfully to the newcomer. "Actually, I'd hoped Gwen and I could have just a few minutes longer here, if that's quite alright. We've really only just started," Skeeter said, putting on an artificial smile for the man which didn't match the very insistent and cool look in her eyes.
The man just gazed back at her with a look of equal disdain. "And may I respectfully inquire as to who you are and what your business is with Miss Coulthard? She has quite clearly indicated that she wishes for you to leave, and since I have urgent matters to discuss with her I would be grateful if you would oblige."
Skeeter shot him a fierce look that showed she clearly did not appreciate being addressed like that. "I am Rita Skeeter," she replied quite indignantly, "I write for the Daily Prophet, reporting to the public things that they need to know. My business with Miss Coulthard is none of yours. Now may I ask who you are?"
Gwen held her breath, wondering who in Merlin's name this man was and how he was going to react to that, but when he made his reply to Skeeter she found she couldn't help but be even more grateful that he'd showed up when he had.
"Who I am?" the man repeated mockingly, the corners of his mouth twitching just ever so slightly in what might be a smirk. "But of course, wouldn't that be most interesting to someone of your kind, madam? Someone who makes their own living invading the lives of others?" Despite his meticulously polite tone, his words were flooded with contempt. "You take their words and twist them like poison ivy to make paint, which you then use to blacken their reputations. Every inch of privacy or dignity is cut away by the sharp blades of your quills, as you suck on their misfortunes and feast on their downfalls like a leech, seeking only to sustain your own careers. You call yourself a journalist, madam, but in truth, what you are, is a parasite."
Following that speech, the man paused for dramatic effect, and Gwen couldn't help but get the impression that he was trained in either Roman rhetoric or classical theatre. Skeeter just gaped at him for a moment, shocked at the way he'd spoken to her, and then after a pause the man continued in a tone that was as forceful as ever. "Now, as Dutch Secretary of State for International Magical Affairs and a member of the European Aurors Council, I will ask you just this once to leave." At that point he suddenly produced his wand, but instead of holding it as if he were about to cast a spell, he held out the handle so that both Gwen and Rita could see the gold badge attached to it in the shape of an eagle. Gwen didn't recognise it, but clearly understood it was some kind of official emblem.
As the one who was standing closer, Rita examined it more closely for a moment, and then with a deeply angry and frustrated look she glared back up at the man, before turning back to Gwen and saying in a falsely sweet voice dripping with malice, "Well, perhaps some other time then." She then snatched up her parchment and quill and stormed from the room without a backward glance.
Gwen stared after her for a few seconds and the turned back to the man, more than a little astounded by what she'd just witnessed. That had been…well, she wasn't sure if incredible was quite the word for it, but it had been impressive to say the least. Even if the man hadn't introduced himself as a Secretary of State she could quite probably have guessed he was a politician, but she was definitely a little surprised to learn that a man with such a refined English accent was Dutch. But since he was Dutch though, and a Secretary of State, did that mean he was who she thought he was?
She was spared much speculation or having to ask by the man taking advantage of her speechlessness and introducing himself. "My apologies, Miss Coulthard, but I cannot abide journalists and I sensed her presence was distressing you. I hope I did not act out of turn." Gwen was still at a loss for words, but he didn't actually give her any time to respond before continuing. "Perhaps it is time I introduced myself more formally. My name is Arien van der Lijn, Dutch Secretary of State for International Magical Affairs. I believe you know my nephew, Sander Westerbeck."