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Riddle in the Dark by Violet Gryfindor
Format: Short story
Chapter 2: The Shadow at Dawn
The Shadow at Dawn
The mist swirled about as Moody took one final, some would say fatal, look at the castle looming behind him.
He caught a glimpse of McGonagall, high in her ivory tower, silhouetted against the window. It couldn’t have been anyone else. Maybe her ears had been burning, or maybe, like him, she had a certain sensitivity to the atmosphere. Either way, the Transfiguration professor’s office was just about there, so it had to be her. From the looks of it, she was staring down, watching as the doors shut behind him, casting him into darkness. On a whim, he lit a cigarette so that she would see the glow, perhaps even his face, if her eyes were as good as they said.
It was too soon to talk to her. A lesser detective would have leapt up those staircase to catch her before she suspected the game was afoot, but that sort of thing wouldn’t work with her. She wasn’t the type to let her guard down. She would always be on the watch for trouble. It would make her a good professor. It would have made her a great Auror.
Anyway, he wasn’t in the mood to be leaping up staircases.
He hadn’t been entirely honest to Dumbledore. It wasn’t his secret to tell, anyway. If McGonagall hadn’t been forthright about her past, he saw no reason to burst the bubble she’d made for herself here. Not yet, at least.
Yes, people had talked about Minvera McGonagall. Anyone straight out of school who could work her way through old cases like she had, sorting and resorting them, narrowing down the facts into neatly organized lists until the solution just appeared, like out of nowhere, was nothing short of brilliant. A real head on a pretty set of shoulders. But somewhere things had gone wrong. No one knew how or what, though there were whispers. There always were, particularly with a girl like her. Too much like the other witches. Too focussed on her work, as though the rest of the world simply didn’t matter. Maybe to her, it didn’t. He could sympathize with that, to a degree.
But working in the Department meant cavorting with all sorts, the dregs of wizarding life, the criminals and the scum, the dark wizards and the truly evil ones. There was no telling who or what she might have gotten herself embroiled with, even in the records office. There were some who would have done anything to get a hold of their file or the files of others, especially any of those dealing with the war. Some really juicy information sat in those files, mouldering away behind some box of nargle sightings or fraudulent potions sales, and McGonagall would be the type to know where everything was and what it meant, even if she’d only seen it once.
Moody knew only of one particular problem, of a common sort. The head of the department, a less scrupulous wizard than old Pilliwickle, had gotten a fancy for her, and she, being a properly modern sort of witch, simply wasn’t interested. No scandal caught fire. No repercussions ensued. It just turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. She was “uncomfortable in that environment” or so the head’s secretary happily told everyone. Twice.
So McGonagall had gone back to Hogwarts like a rat back into its hole. It had to be more than just a state of discomfort that had brought her back here. Not just anyone came to work at Hogwarts. She was hiding from something, or someone, and this was, for all its sins, the safest place in all of Britain.
Moody looked back up at the window, but the shadow was no longer in sight. Maybe it hadn’t been there at all. Either way, he’d been here too long. The atmosphere was starting to get to him, a slow creeping feeling, like something was watching him, just out of sight.
He didn’t like to be watched. If anyone around here was going to be doing any watching, it was him.
Glancing from side to side, he flicked away the charred remains of the cigarette and stomped off down the gravel path. Let her think what she would, she would spill the whole story soon enough. His job was to sort the fact from the fiction, casting aside the malicious rumours of clerks in search of those few grains of truth that made his work worth doing. Hell, they made his life worth living too.
The wind sent the mist swirling for cover, allowing the Auror to pass unmolested by the damp, if not by the cold. He took a draught from his pocket flask once he passed through the gates, watching as they shut behind him on silenced hinges before he twisted on his good leg and vanished into the night. He appeared but a moment later in the Ministry Atrium, stumbling a little on the polished marble, the wooden knob a damned poor substitute for a foot. How was he meant to do his job if he lumbered about like a drunk hippogriff?
The watchwizard was more than half-asleep, but surrounded by so many surveillance objects that a pixie couldn’t so much as sneeze without him knowing. They weren’t perfect, though, and Moody glowered at the sight of such lax security. There was nothing better than using one’s own eyes and ears, nose too.
He started at the sound of Moody’s wooden leg, blinking rapidly.
“Who’s there?” The words slurred together. “Oh, Moody. What’re you doing here?”
“Research,” Moody growled, passing by without hesitation.
The watchwizard muttered something that Moody preferred not to hear. All but one of the lifts was in position, its dial set to the ninth floor, those Spooks never knowing a good night’s sleep when they saw it. He let a small smile pass across his lips. Not that he was any better.
There was a light on in the Hit Wizards’ office, but the remainder of the floor was empty. The darkened cubicles were somewhat haunting, if he had that sort of imagination. Quite a thing it’d be, to see ghosts where there none. He supposed it was part of his job to see what wasn’t visible to others, Divination without the crystal balls and hocus-pocus. Dark Wizards knew better than anyone how to hide their tracks, the good ones at least. The bad ones... well, he left them for the new recruits. Let them have their glory while they could.
To most, things had been quiet after the war. There wasn’t any foe to match Grindelwald, his wit and charm making him more dangerous than the usual slime who fell under Moody’s radar. Yet he couldn’t help but sense something strange in the air, a certain apprehension, of expectation. Peace never lasted for long. There were always opportunists hungry for that taste of power, quick to take advantage of the slightest slackening of vigilance.
Moody was only one. Even ten, twenty, maybe even a hundred couldn’t stop a real threat to the Wizarding World.
Someone passed him in the corridor, a cocky bastard of a Hit Wizard, from the looks of him, all flash and charm. He had the gall to doff his hat and wish Moody good evening, replacing the hat with a strange flick of his hand. Moody snarled a reply. These new recruits were hopeless cases, playing the job like they were in one of those Muggle pictures. No respect for the work, the real work of a good detective.
A scowl still marked Moody’s face as he tapped his wand three times against the door to the records office. He drew a rune in the air that showed blue against the glossy wood. The door creaked open as the rune faded, and the lights flicked on, one by one, revealing rows upon rows of magically compacted files. One for every investigation. Another for every individual involved in a case. All cross-referenced and logged in a complex system that made the records keepers the most significant personnel in the department, if not in the entire Ministry. They could know everything about anyone with a couple waves of their wands. Moody wished he could use one of them for this, but they would ask questions and, worse yet, demand answers. He couldn’t risk it.
He settled behind himself at one of the reading tables, cracking open the most recent ledger, each entry labelled and categorized with a neat, somewhat flowery hand. That hand had changed in mid-summer, when McGonagall had decided to resign her position. Her entries were eerily precise, the script too firm to be that of a steady emotional state. There was tension there. Repressed feeling nearly bursting through at the seams. Some entries were cross-referenced so many times that they revealed more obsession than care.
It was a mind that Moody could understand too well.
After two hours, his eyes began to glaze over. It had been a long day, but he took a long draught from his flask and let the liquid tingle down his throat and tingle his nerves back into life. He was never one for coffee like those sluggish paper-pushers downstairs; they could down gallons of the stuff, and it still did nothing to speed them up. Reports meant to be done in an hour took weeks to arrive.... but he wasn’t going to start up on that again. Let them do their work, and let him do his in peace.
Another hour passed, the offices outside now completely dark, the whole structure empty and creaking around him, before he found something. It was a tiny thing, a line written in too hurried a hand, the ink smeared at one end as though poorly blotted. But that wasn’t it at all. This was a case of fraud.
Magic would have done the trick, well enough, but the author of this entry had chosen not to use it. Magic was too easily traceable. That smear of ink was a more thorough disguise because it was natural. Such things simply happened. No one was meant to pay any attention to them, and that was what she had bet on.
Until now, no one had questioned it in the least.
Moody narrowed his eyes, his finger tapping the altered entry twice before he took out a small notebook and cracked stub of a pencil to record the few details that remained legible. There was no need to use code, like he sometimes did. There was only one other person who’d understand the significance of this. Pass it under her nose, and she’d be within his power. That would be enough to get the truth and get this case out of the way.
Something was smelling bad about the whole thing. He didn’t like it. Not the summons to Hogwarts, nor the poison pen or the fraudulent record.
It was the record, most of all, that niggled at his nerve centre, stirring into life a memory, but of what, he couldn’t yet be sure. He had to find the file next, but even as he rose, palms flat against the table for support, he knew it wouldn’t be there. That was the trick, you see. Smear the ink so that if questions were asked, one could use the excuse of being rushed, of making a mistake, of the file just being misplaced rather than completely missing. He walked down one of the long aisles, waving his wand as he approached the right spot: row five, shelf K. The shelving unit noisily expanded like an accordion, revealing folders organized by year which contained yet more folders organized by month, each colour-coded and marked with the traditional set of symbols. Moody flipped through with fingers too large and clumsy for the delicate leaves of parchment pressed close together, but all of the parchments were present.
Jaw clenched, he tore the parchment in question from its cozy abode, its neat, flat edges crumpling in his hands.
No, no, this was impossible. It should not have been there. The entry, the smear, all of it was meant to add up to a missing document. He had been so sure. It had seemed so bloody obvious....
That was the problem. McGonagall remained a step ahead. She had covered her tracks well. Too well, which in itself of great importance. Only a grave secret could warrant such intrigue, but Moody’s mind was busy pondering other things more close at hand: the smear, its placement, and the thing it was really meant to disguise.
A bitter pain took root in his chest as he hurried back toward the desk, not realizing that he still held the parchment. It fluttered to the ground when he reached for the ledger. His eyes caught the movement, and one hand had already closed around his wand before he shook himself to, muttering curses. He bent down to retrieve it, but his leg slipped and he crashed against the table, more curses bursting forth. The ledger fell with a bang of thunder on its spine.
“Ow! You stupid oaf, what did you do that for?”
If the ledger had eyes, it would have glared in accompaniment to its complaint.
Moody grimaced, but gave no reply, his good knee throbbing and his arms bruised. It was worse than battling a banshee to try and manoeuvre in ways that would have once been so simple, so bloody absolutely simple. It wasn’t a wonder they wouldn’t let him back. Useless. Utterly useless. Maybe Urquart wasn’t as big a fool as he’d thought. There was only one fool here, and that was Alastor Moody.
He managed to seat himself on the nearest stool, rubbing his knee, the parchment in his other hand. It was a report on house elves, of all things, and he almost cast it aside in disgust before thinking better of it. Bending forward to examine the tight, cursive letters, he thought it had to do with punishment, prison terms and the like, the usual guff about equal rights. Moody had to admit that he was more concerned about those pureblood toffs who thought they could get away with anything if they only passed along a bag of galleons. But he couldn’t let himself forget that case....
Hokey was its name, a pathetic thing hardly capable of carrying the tea tray, accused of poisoning her mistress. Confession or not, it was a set-up, clever as hell. Moody still believed it ten years on, and he would keep believing it.
The report never mentioned Hokey, but it had stirred the right memory.
His eyes flickered toward the ledger.
Just as she had wanted. She had meant for someone to see it, someone who knew the story, who remembered the truth. This mystery was becoming far more impressive than he had imagined out there in the mists of Hogwarts. Tom Riddle was at the root of this, and McGonagall, when covering her tracks with the smear, had purposely marked it across two entries. One was the fraudulent record, likely missing from its file, but the other was meant as a breadcrumb to lure him down the correct path.
Wand in hand, he raised it to reopen the ledger to the correct page only to have it wrenched from his hand by a figure looming close behind him, tall and thin with no face at all. As Moody struggled to turn and lash out against his assailant, his leg failed him, slipping on the polished floor. Arms flailing, he tumbled to the ground, his head falling against the table’s edge.
All was darkness.
The line "the game was afoot" is adapted from the famous Sherlock Holmes line, which in turn is taken from Shakespeare's Henry V, Act 3, scene 1.