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Chapter 6: Crazy Niffler-Lady Killer
‘Interesting, she collected those little collection plates with pictures of nifflers on them. Oh, did I say “interesting”? I meant to say “mind-numbing”. There’s nothing here, Chief.’
Tanith looked over at Katie’s declaration of the latest find in the small storage room, and had to concede that the trainee was right. She’d been so enthused when she’d tracked down the storage room in Annabelle Mulready’s name, confident there’d be something there which could give a lead to their AWOL suspect, but after two hours of the four of them trawling through the mass of packed belongings there’d been no luck.
‘I second that. I think that curtain tried to kill me,’ said Ron, disentangling himself from a pile of crates he’d had to clamber through to get to the depths of Mrs Mulready’s belongings. ‘Who keeps all of this crap?’
‘And, more importantly, who keeps all of this crap when they have a perfectly good house?’ Harry dusted his hands off and went, blinking, towards the sunlight streaming in through the roll-up door. ‘Do we even know when she last came in here?’
‘Last week. She dropped off that box over there.’ Tanith snapped her folder shut with a sigh. ‘What’s in it?’
Katie stuck her head out from behind a crate. ‘More niffler memorabilia. I think this is the wizarding world’s answer to a crazy cat lady, Chief.’
‘No, no. That’s still cats. Nifflers are for your hard-core isolationists. I don’t -’
Tanith looked over at Harry at the interruption, and her hand drifted to her wand, holstered by her side. ‘What is it?’
Harry ducked back into the shadows, and jerked his head towards the way out of the alleyway where all of these storage rooms were homed. ‘Press. Talking to the owner.’
She scowled. ‘Who called in this lead? Kellan and Dwight? I’m going to have their balls when we’re back to Canary Wharf.’
‘Maybe we can tell them all about the crazy niffler-lady killer on the loose,’ said Katie. ‘Otherwise, I don’t see the story here.’
Harry smiled humourlessly and shrugged. ‘Sorry. That story would be me, again.’
‘Sorry to ruin your dreams, Potter, but I’m not sitting around so they can write a pretty little exposé on your life as an Auror trainee.’ Tanith popped her head briefly around the door and scowled. ‘Oh, there’s a whole field of the buggers.’
He nodded. ‘They hunt in packs. And you can be sure my dreams will be intact if we dodge them.’
‘There’s no other way out of here,’ said Ron, dusting himself off. ‘I checked.’
‘And this place has, obviously, nice and secure anti-apparition wards.’ Katie shrugged. ‘Only way out is through the fire, Chief.’
‘Right. Well. Follow my lead, and let me do the talking. Do not answer them, under any circumstances, whatever they ask you. And we might get through this without winding up on the first page.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Ron as they left, ‘Harry sneezed last week and it ended up on the first page.’
‘Talk about a day to bury bad news,’ Tanith muttered. ‘Tell you what, how about you catch a cold next time Shacklebolt wants something out of the polls?’ Without waiting for a response, she straightened her coat and made her way down the narrow alleyway towards where she could see a gaggle of gathered figures.
She had not had to deal much with the press. She was not set the high-profile cases, like the hunt for Avery, and any time her work had come into contact with the media she’d been working with someone more experienced, like Jacob or even Vaughn, who’d fended off the journalists.
But she knew a lot of them by sight. And realised that the group of them, gathered like vultures and peering down at the approaching four Aurors with greedy eyes, were not, as she’d hoped, the desperate scavengers at the bottom of the food chain. No, even the halfway respectable got to chase a story about Harry Potter.
She’d seen Vaughn handle them before. But Vaughn’s rudeness was both legendary and expected. Tanith wasn’t sure she could pull it off. She lifted a hand as they emerged out the alleyway and were greeted with bursts of lights of flashing cameras and the babbling voices of a dozen questions shouted at once.
‘Mister Potter! How’s it like -’
‘What are you -’
‘Who’s the -’
‘Could you tell us -’
All of them directed, of course, at Harry. Tanith cleared her throat. ‘Potter,’ she said clearly, loud enough to be heard over the babbling, ‘is an Auror trainee. If you have any questions regarding current Auror operations, I am the investigative team leader, and you can direct them to me.’
This did take the crowd briefly aback, but the more flexible of those gathered turned on her with hungry eyes. ‘Is it true that the Auror Office has requested Mister Potter’s presence on this case due to its importance?’
Tanith resisted the urge to scoff. ‘Potter, Bell, and Weasley are three trainees. They are working with me on this case for field experience.’
‘Then if they’re only trainees, does this mean that the Auror Office isn’t taking the death of a former Auror seriously?’
Fortunately that was from a completely different journalist, and Tanith realised she was going to have to sidestep two opposing spin methods being thrown at her. It was like dancing through a minefield. ‘The Auror Office has assigned a fully-qualified Auror, namely myself, to investigate the murder of Bartholomew Mulready. We’re taking this perfectly seriously.’
‘Is it true this attack was motivated by vengeance for crimes Mulready committed during the Occupation, crimes the Auror Office had yet to arrest him for?’
‘It’s policy to not comment on an ongoing investigation, gentlemen and ladies, you all know this,’ Tanith sighed. ‘And right now we’ve got places to be, so if you don’t have any more questions for me we’ll be going, and if you have any questions for Potter, you can ask them when he is not on the clock of the Auror Office.’
Despite having effectively invited them to ask more questions she began to push her way forward, hand on Harry’s shoulder to steer him along, though the taller man was working his way through the crowd with a look of distasteful determination that raised him somewhat in Tanith’s opinion. She’d thought he might have liked the attention.
Then again, her only experience of such attention was in watching Tobias, who used it for his job, or Cal, for whom the shine had not yet come off. Harry Potter had been famous a lot longer than Cal Brynmor.
And they ignored the remaining questions, most of them thrown at Harry in defiance of instructions, who valiantly ignored them until one, from one of the lesser, more trashy papers, wafted across the crowd.
‘Mister Potter! How does it feel learning under an Auror who’s already had one partner die?’
Then Tanith didn’t see the crowd at all - she saw red, but before she could whirl around to face the accusation, it wasn’t her hand on Harry’s shoulder any more, it was his hand on hers, pushing her forward, towards the edge of the mob.
‘You stupid son of a -’
‘Auror Cole has been selected for this task by Director Vaughn,’ said Harry, speaking over her angry hiss loud enough to block it out. ‘And though they both have my full confidence, neither one of them needs the support of a Trainee Auror in order to do their jobs.’ Then they were out of the bulk of the mass, in the open, and Harry was looking over at Katie. ‘Get us out of here, now -’
Then Tanith felt Katie and Ron’s hands on her shoulders, Katie was mumbling, and as one the four of them went snapping and whirling through space and time before landing, rather unsteadily, in the Apparition Chamber in Canary Wharf.
Tanith ripped herself free, shaking with anger. ‘That little shit!’
‘You know, I think I preferred the press when they were just talking crap about your love life, mate,’ said Ron with a grimace.
‘Somehow I don’t think Ginny would agree. You all right, Cole?’
Tanith ran a shaky hand through her hair, drawing a deep breath. ‘Yeah, I...’ Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head. ‘I’m okay. I just didn’t expect that.’ She looked ruefully at her three trainees, all of whom were eyeing her rather dubiously. ‘That was good. You did good.’
‘Yeah, I mean, we didn’t even punch him,’ said Ron. ‘That guy was bang out of order.’
‘I should have realised you actually have more experience than me in how to deal with the press, Potter,’ Tanith said ruefully.
‘You did fine,’ he said, and ridiculously she felt appeased by the approval of her own trainee as Harry gave a reassuring grin. He was not, she had ever thought, an especially attractive man; his wasn’t a face to instantly swoon over, and his general manner was casual and unassuming. He didn’t even have an electric presence like she’d known some people could have, the kind to draw all eyes when walking into a room.
But, she had to concede, when Harry Potter smiled it was a bit easier to believe that Everything was Going to be Okay.
‘They were trying to get a rise out of you,’ he continued. ‘Or out of me, so they’d have a story to splash over the front page. I’m sorry that it happened.’
She frowned. ‘It’s not your fault, Potter.’
‘They wouldn’t be here, caring about this case, if it weren’t for me.’ Harry shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged. ‘I didn’t want to bring this down on us.’
Tanith lifted a hand. ‘I’m pissed. But I’m okay. One run-in with some little shitstain journalist isn’t enough to run me ragged.’ She reached into her pocket and pulled out her pocketwatch. ‘It’s late. Or, late enough. We’re not going to get anything more today, and I’ve got Enforcers watching the Knight Bus. You guys should clock out.’
Ron grinned toothily. ‘Score.’ He looked at Harry. ‘Pub? Hermione should be down from Hogwarts in a couple of hours...’
Tanith frowned. ‘She’s on the rebuilding team?’
He made a so-so gesture. ‘She’s technically still going to sit her NEWTs at the end of the year. But I think half of her practical study and coursework is going to revolve around using it to rebuild the school. She spoke a lot about renewing complicated protection enchantments and then, I fell asleep.’
Tanith snorted companionably. ‘I hear you on that one.’
‘Yeah, how is Grey? We should hook him and Hermione up for a rematch.’
‘Last Nerd Standing?’ Tanith gave an awkward smile. ‘He’s busy. Works for the Minister late nights.’
‘You better not be doing that yourself tonight again, Chief,’ said Katie. ‘Come on. We should all hit the Leaky Cauldron. Have a pint. Celebrate two days on the job without dying.’
‘We’ve not even run into trouble yet.’
‘I mean you killing us.’
Tanith looked suspiciously at the three. Katie was grinning a little too encouragingly, Ron looked a bit more relaxed after their jokes about their respective other halves, and Harry still wore the reassuring smile she was trying to ignore. Even if Katie was egging them on, they definitely looked genuine.
‘I’ve actually got plans,’ she said sincerely.
‘Ooh, hot date with Grey? Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’ Katie wagged a finger.
‘It’s not. But if it were, Bell, then that instruction would make it the least hot date with him I could possibly imagine.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Almost never.’ Tanith straightened her coat. ‘I’ll see you not too bright and early tomorrow. You three have fun.’
Once, if she’d been with Jacob, they might have fudged regulations a little and apparated home straight out of the Apparition Chambers, which were supposed to be used only for official business. But not only was she not prepared to do that with new co-workers, she was supposed to be teaching her trio how to follow regulations, not how to bend them thoroughly for their own convenience.
That was Advanced Courses.
So she walked out of the office, astonished at being able to do so at a reasonable hour, and considered it just typical that Tobias had a meeting that evening at the Ministry. She’d not seen him since their breakfast together, though this wasn’t so uncommon when one or both of them had a new project or case to embark upon.
That new leaf wasn’t quite done being turned over.
She went home first. Apparated to the Leaky Cauldron and then ducked into Diagon Alley, wandering the streets and revelling in how she could do so at a time of night when the road felt actually alive. Too late at night and it was ghostly, too much like it had been during the Occupation, but now the shops were closing and the evening establishments lighting up, and for once she could be someone walking home just like anyone else, connected to the world around her.
Even the posters of Kingsley Shacklebolt and Philon Harrigan, demanding for the votes of the masses in the upcoming election, couldn’t dent her mood.
The lights were on in her flat, obvious from outside since her part of Diagon Alley was usually dark come nightfall. Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, across the road, had not retained its jubilation and sound since the end of the war, though it remained open, and it remained popular. Nevertheless, this had coincided with her rent going up since the noise pollution wasn’t quite so awful, and had helpfully been timed with her making it onto a fully-fledged Auror’s salary and Cal raking in the wages of a first-string Quidditch player.
She’d expected him to move out. First with Nat, when she had returned to the wizarding world after a month recovering from her time in Azkaban, and all had looked to be bliss and sunshine between the two of them. Then, as Cal had enjoyed success after success with Puddlemere United and raked in more money, more public attention, she thought he might move to somewhere better befitting his new way of life.
And he might have done, if he and Nat hadn’t crashed and burned quite so badly. But as it stood, even if she pulled erratic hours and he would be away for days at a time if Puddlemere were playing somewhere far away, they much preferred there to be a second pair of shoes by the door when they came home.
This didn’t mean that Cal’s not-inconsiderable new wealth hadn’t improved their quality of life. Tanith had tried to keep up with the home improvements, but he’d quickly outspent her and swatted away her efforts to contribute a little dismissively.
But she couldn’t deny it was great to have furniture that matched, great to have a completely refitted kitchen, and particularly great to have a fully-stocked bar. This bar was less pleasant when his teammates came around for a party, but Tanith could usually find somewhere else to be on such occasions. Cal always encouraged her to stay, but drunk and boisterous Quidditch players were not her idea of good society.
He was making himself a drink when she stepped in through the door, and almost dropped it in his staggering about in mock-shock. ‘Holy crap. You live. You’re not just a figment of my imagination!’
‘You should be so lucky.’ Tanith gave him a lopsided smile as she hung up her coat. ‘I’m just popping in and out to get changed. I know the girls will judge me if I go out in my work clothes.’
‘The judgement of the ladies. Dire indeed.’ Cal wagged a finger at her before he ducked down behind the bar. ‘Drink? I’m learning how to make martinis.’
‘I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time for that while I’m out, and I do fancy making it to work tomorrow not looking like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.’
‘Ah-ha!’ Cal popped up. ‘J’accuse!’
‘That. That was a pop-culture reference. A Muggle pop-culture reference. Which you made!’
Tanith folded her arms across her chest defensively. Crap. ‘What’s your point?’
‘You don’t know any pop-culture!’
‘I spent enough time around you. Enough time around Nat. Enough time around, now, for my sins, Katie Bell.’ Tanith shrugged and headed for her bedroom. ‘Things sink in! You talk a lot, I don’t have to know what it means!’
‘I still remember you liking the Rolling Stones!’ he said, but his accusation was lost as she closed the door behind her.
And sagged against the wall.
She’d tried to not think about him. Wherever he was, he had to be doing better without her, better not knowing about her. Better with not a memory in his head of the time they’d spent together, of the facts of the wizarding world she’d told him. Better just living his life and playing his music.
And Tanith even believed that, most of the time. When her life was going well, or was busy, she looked back on their time together and considered it best to not think about unravelling the work of the Obliviators that had ripped the memories from his mind.
But then came the quiet times. When it was just her and her loneliness, and so she’d thought of him more than she’d have liked while she was away in Tuscany. That, she thought she’d got under control, especially since she’d spoken to Tobias, but every once in a while she’d catch a few bars of music, a few lines of a song, and she’d remember him.
And she was still the only soul alive who knew what they’d been through together. It stayed locked away in her thoughts, along with half of her other experiences from the war. Anything from the past eighteen months she could condemn to memory and never bring out into the light, she was happy to leave in shadow.
That included David, even if he was the only good thing to be left in the darkness.
When she emerged again, Cal was sat down with the wireless on and his drink half-empty, lounging across the sofa with all of the ease of a man who knew he didn’t have to go anywhere any time soon.
‘You’re having a night in?’ she said, smoothing down her shirt.
‘It’s me and the Match Weekly,’ said Cal with a smirk, nodding at the wireless. ‘I’m in training early tomorrow, then we’re off to Caerphilly for the match on Saturday.’
‘Ah, you get to declare yourself a traitor in front of a crowd of thousands.’
‘A very well-paid traitor.’ His grin broadened. ‘You should come, I can get you tickets.’
‘You only want to give me tickets so I can give Potter tickets and so you get more press attention.’ She wagged a finger at him. ‘Tell me when you play the Holyhead Harpies and I will buy me and my team tickets to that game. On the condition that you win.’
‘Hey. I always win.’
Tanith glanced at the clock on the wall. She didn’t need to race out the door right away, and that was such a pleasant novelty that she let herself sit on the armrest of the sofa, and realised she hadn’t sat down in about six hours. ‘You’re just going to listen to the radio tonight?’ she asked, voice deceptively light.
Cal gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘I’ll relax. Get some me-time. I’d have suggested we, I don’t know, go down the pub or something but I assumed you’d be working late.’
‘Not an unreasonable assumption. We should do that sometime, I swear we’re more like ships passing in the night than roommates.’
‘Oh, no.’ Cal lifted a hand. ‘I’m not getting put on your waiting list. Competition is fierce, and I’d just get bumped off for Tobias at some point anyway. I’ll stick with you and me sharing a beer when circumstance puts us in the same place at the same time.’ He scratched his nose. ‘Speaking of Tobias, he said he might have come by tonight, but then something came up at work.’
Tanith shifted her weight. ‘I thought he had a meeting all tonight. For the opening event tomorrow.’
‘Yeah, he - I think he didn’t want to tell you he might get out early in case he didn’t. And now he’s not, so I shouldn’t have said anything.’ Cal made a face. ‘He said someone in the office spilled the details of the hospital opening to the press. So instead of a meeting, he gets to conduct an inquiry into who did that and have a meeting.’
‘Why did you tell me?’
Cal looked guilty. ‘In case you hoped he’d swing by and then he didn’t and you’d be disappointed? Sorry.’
She waved a dismissive hand. ‘Don’t be silly, Cal. I’m okay. You can talk about him and I won’t explode.’ But still she didn’t look away from him, and awkwardly Tanith wrung her hands together. ‘Are you doing okay?’
He took a gulp of his drink. ‘Hm? Me? Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘I don’t know, we’ve not really talked since you and Nat...’
Cal’s expression flickered. ‘There’s... not a whole lot to talk about. We tried it. It didn’t work. I don’t want to bum you out.’ He jerked a finger in her direction. ‘Or start you thinking that, just because Nat and I couldn’t reconcile our lifestyle differences, nobody can ever reconcile theirs. And by “nobody” I mean “you and Tobias”.’
She couldn’t help but smile wryly at his accusation. ‘So noted. It just really sucks, I mean, you two went through so much together...’
‘War, imprisonment, torture, blackmail, and then, of all things to bring us to an end, reality delivers the killing blow.’ He made a face into his drink. ‘Really does suck.’
‘You’ll find someone.’
‘Hey, don’t weep for me. I like being single,’ said Cal, brightening up a bit. ‘I like being able to go out all hours, I like being able to travel, I like being able to do what I fancy and not have to answer to or inconvenience anyone else. I’m getting the chance to be me, you know? For the first time in my life I’m the best at what I do, I’m valued for what I do, and I get to do that as me. Cal. Not as Cal-and-someone-else. You know?’ He cocked his head.
‘I do know. And you know you have been... you know... valued.’ Tanith shifted her weight, ever clumsy with outright declarations of affection. ‘I didn’t figure how much you backed me up last year until you were gone. I don’t think I properly told you how much I appreciated it.’
He peered suspiciously at her. ‘Who are you, and what did you do with Tanith Cole?’
‘Hey, I mean it -’
‘I know. And you did properly tell me.’ Cal grinned lopsidedly. ‘You just did it in Tanith-speak. I’m an expert in that, you know, I don’t think even the great Tobias Grey’s quite as good at it. He’s an excellent misinterpreter.’
She laughed, slapping him on the shoulder, and got to her feet. ‘I better go,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you later. Don’t wait up.’
‘Oh, before you go?’ She was by the door by the time he spoke, her coat in her hands, and looked back to see Cal’s expression was one of genuine anxiety. ‘I got... permission. To go see Thanatos. They’re still setting a date but it should be in the next fortnight, as soon as I can get the Azkaban Service my schedule, that kind of thing.’
‘That’s...’ Tanith was going to say “good” instinctively, and thought better of it. ‘It’s about time.’
‘I can’t say I pushed for a trip to the High Security Wing to be processed that quick.’ Cal ran a hand across his bristly hair. ‘But. Um. There’s got to be a law enforcement officer there, and I know I could just go with whoever’s on warden duty that day. But I was wondering if... you’d come with.’ He hesitated. ‘I know you and he had your own... mess -’
‘I’ll do it,’ she said quickly, cutting him off. ‘Tell me when and I’ll make sure Vaughn knows.’
He grinned, nervous but clearly pleased. ‘Yeah?’
‘Of course. I don’t want you going in there without backup.’
‘Huh. Wow.’ Cal looked surprised, rubbing the back of his neck. ‘Thanks. I won’t keep you. I feel all guilty, now. You’re going into the belly of the beast yourself and I’m not going to be there to give you backup.’
Tanith made a face. ‘It’s not quite that bad,’ she said, nose wrinkled. ‘But it’s close.’