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Beyond This Place by Slide
Chapter 23: Heads or Tails
‘What is this place?’ Tanith squinted as she peered around the empty rooms.
‘Offices. Unused. The name on the bell ringer said, you guessed it, Stacey Whitman, though if that’s who actually rents this place, I don’t know.’ Katie hovered by the door leading to the corridor, the stairs, and back into the streets of north London.
‘The bell ringer?’
Katie rolled her eyes. ‘Those buttons by the doors? They have names on them so you know who to ring when you want to visit.’
‘Oh. I was too busy Alohomora-ing our way in.’ Tanith looked a bit abashed. ‘You can tell I’m not really cut out for this Muggle investigation end of things.’
‘Yeah, well, I only know so much myself.’ Katie pushed the door to and wandered to the window, tugging one of the blinds slates down to peer into the street beyond. ‘My Dad only really brought me up with radio and TV, not so much... everyday stuff.’
‘Still doing better than me.’ Tanith stopped in one of the doors to a further room, but shrugged forlornly. ‘There’s nothing here. It’s just a set of empty rooms. Peculiarly thorough. They get deliveries sent to a Muggle PO Box, and then get a courier to bring them here, where there’s... nothing?’
‘I guess we got lucky spotting the courier.’
‘So nobody sees who orders from the shop, nobody sees who the goods are delivered to, and if the courier just drops off things here, then nobody sees who the goods are transferred to. It’s thorough, and it’s paranoid.’ She rapped her fingers on her belt buckle.
‘Of course, none of that is illegal.’
‘No,’ Tanith conceded. ‘But who the hell goes to that much trouble to buy some bloody Boom-Doh?’
Katie looked back down into the street. ‘The courier did drop off some envelopes. We could take a look at what’s in the post box downstairs?’
‘True. Maybe these rooms aren’t what’s important here, maybe it’s just another drop-off point for documents and deliveries. Let’s just hope this isn’t a ridiculously long chain of implausible couriers.’ Tanith gave a grimace of a smile, and the two of them left, magically locking the door behind them.
Back in the lobby downstairs, Tanith looked around to make sure they were clear and drew her wand. ‘Just because the office door had no protection doesn’t mean this doesn’t.’
Katie nodded, and quirked an eyebrow as the other woman frowned after swishing her wand. ‘Something?’
‘Protection charms. Alert charms. Anti-Muggle charms. A pretty thorough job.’
Katie smirked. ‘I got this one. Just keep an eye out.’
Tanith moved towards the glass door out into the street, folding her arms across her chest and keeping her ears pricked for the sound of footsteps coming from down the stairs. Although her attention was discreetly kept on every Muggle wandering past in case they diverted into the building, she occasionally glanced back at Katie, who had her wand pointed at Stacey Whitman’s post box.
‘This is pretty good,’ Katie commented in between incantations. ‘Like you said, thorough. Used all the right layering, all the right tricks. Unluckily for them, it’s the same sort of thoroughness I had to use for protecting us back in the Lions.’
‘Can you get through it?’
‘I can get through it, not be noticed, and put it back up again without them batting an eyelid. This is my ball, Chief.’
‘If you say so.’
After a couple of minutes Katie finished her incantations, rounding it off with a mundane ‘Alohomora’, and pulled the post box open. ‘Here we go.’
‘Let’s be careful with this,’ said Tanith. ‘I don’t want to do anything we can’t reseal afterwards. If we don’t get something damning here, I want us to be able to leave everything exactly as it was.’
‘In case we’ve just broken into some poor innocent sap’s mail?’
‘In case it spooks an actual perpetrator.’
Katie picked up the envelopes and ran her wand over them. ‘Chief,’ she said after a second’s thought, ‘are we allowed to just break in like this and go through someone’s post?’
‘Stacey Whitman is a Muggle, officially,’ said Tanith with a smirk. ‘So, pretty much, yes. If it was a wizard we’d need some legitimate suspicion...’
‘...other than buying a child’s toy.’ Katie snorted, and the flap of the envelope she was holding - a big, inflexible package - flipped open magically. ‘Hello, what do we have here?’
She reached in to pull out a card folder, and passed it over to Tanith.
Who opened it up and immediately swore loudly.
‘You know, when we signed up to become Aurors, this wasn’t the kind of exciting work I was expecting to have.’
Harry gave Ron a lopsided smile. ‘Chin up. Cole’s right; we do this boring stuff and at the end of it we get to risk our necks for minimal acclaim.’
‘You are way too happy about that idea, mate.’ Ron snorted as he reached for the next of the folders George had sent down to Canary Wharf. ‘Possible death! And very little chance of being harassed by reporters along the way!’
‘See? It’s a better version of the old days.’
There was the sound of someone clearing their throat in a pointed manner, and they both looked up to the makeshift entrance of their corner of the bullpen, isolated off by office screens, to see the tall shape of Jennifer Riley and the bulky form of her eternal shadow, Tom Everard.
‘Sorry to interrupt,’ said Jen with an apologetic smile. ‘We’re looking for Cole.’
‘Out,’ said Harry.
‘Doing more interesting work than us,’ added Ron.
‘Hm. Perhaps you two can help me.’ She reached to take a file from the helpful Tom. ‘I’m here to see Bernard Lackardy. He indicated he wanted to speak to someone down in the Prosecution Office before his sentencing happens.’
‘Oh.’ The two trainees exchanged looks, and Harry stood. ‘Wouldn’t you need to talk to Savage, since he handled the arrest -’
‘I’d rather not trust Jeremiah Savage to so much as get me a coffee if I can help it.’
‘Though she is pretty particular about her coffee, so that’s not a menial task,’ said Tom with a smirk.
‘But since Lackardy is technically a witness in your investigation, you can still get us in to talk to him.’ Jen smiled. ‘I don’t mean to tear you from your work.’
‘Oh, no,’ said Ron, also springing upright. ‘We can totally walk you down there. Supervise. All that. The work can wait.’
Tom frowned at the desks. ‘Looks important.’
‘Basic procedure,’ said Harry, and pulled a coin from his pocket, looking at Ron. ‘Heads or tails? Winner gets to visit a Death Eater instead of stare at customer lists.’
They tossed, Ron lost, and with a good-natured grumble he returned to the pile of folders while Harry led the two legal counsellors down through the corridors of Canary Wharf. Jen walked with the confidence of someone who knew what to expect, but Tom seemed tense, shoulders squared.
Harry glanced at him. ‘You’re expecting something bad down there?’
Tom jerked a little as if from a reverie, and shrugged. ‘I don’t know what he wants. But nothing good comes from this -’
‘It’ll be a bargain for information,’ said Jen bluntly as they went down the stairs towards the cells of Canary Wharf’s jail. ‘That’s what it always is. He’s sat through his trial, realised he’s screwed, and now he’ll want to convince me that he has something that’s worth asking the Wizengamot to give him a lighter sentence.’
‘Like I said.’ Tom scowled. ‘Nothing good.’
‘If he’s been involved with Avery -’
‘Then only now he gives us information, to save his own skin? To hell with that. Let him rot, Jen. Proudfoot and the others are doing fine without his insights.’
Jen glared at her paralegal. ‘We don’t know what his insights are,’ she said. ‘We can’t make that judgement now.’
‘Except he won’t tell us everything he knows because he’ll want to bargain, which means he’ll make it sound better than what he knows. And then, we get him off from a life sentence - what if it turns out his information’s rubbish?’
Harry found himself focusing more and more on just leading the way, collecting the key from the jail officer, heading for the right cell. He had no desire to get caught in the middle of this professional tiff.
But Jen lifted a hand sharply and Tom fell silent. ‘Tom. We’re not debating this. Because we’re not making a decision. We’ll see what he has to say. And then we’ll consider it. Anything else is premature.’
They reached the right cell, and Harry pulled the right key to unlock it. ‘Do you want me in here?’
‘He has the right to speak with us in private, even if we’re not his counsellors,’ said Jen. ‘Especially when his counsellor’s a moron.’
Tom made a face. ‘He doesn’t have that legal right with anyone but his counse-’
‘He has the moral right,’ she said firmly, eyes flashing. ‘Leave it, Tom, or I’ll talk to him myself.’
Tom Everard’s mouth snapped shut abruptly. ‘Fine. You do the talking. I’ll take notes.’
Harry stepped back to let them in the gloomy cell that had been Bernard Lackardy’s home for several weeks, and carefully locked up after them, now committed to waiting down here in the dim lighting for however long it would take the two bickering legal professionals to have their meeting with a man accused of a whole litany of unpleasant crimes.
Now he was wishing he’d lost the coin toss.
‘You’re sure you sealed up the envelopes and the spells properly behind you?’ said Tanith as she and Katie burst into the corridors out of the Apparition Chamber in Canary Wharf.
‘Chief, I know how to do my bit of the job; now you do yours and let’s truss this son of a bitch up to be properly nailed.’
‘No nailing just yet. We’ll get a proper surveillance team on that place, day in, day out; if anyone so much as sneezes at that damn building then I’m going to want them identified within the hour. If they’re Stacey Whitman, or know where Stacey Whitman is, then they’re ours.’
Canary Wharf was usually a busy building and today was no exception, but still people side-stepped to let the two Aurors come storming through. Force of personality aside, their case had quickly become the second-highest profile in the country, and since little new about the hunt for Garrett Avery was coming to light, it was difficult to miss a pair of MLE Officers behind the investigation - even if most people, in and out of the department, were going to recognise Ron and Harry first. It got them some perks, even if all it meant was that they could get from A to B quickly.
Today, that could have made a serious difference.
The bullpen was calm, quiet, and Ron and Harry themselves still over in their section, Ron by now with his feet up on the desks as he rifled through files. Harry spotted them coming over first, and didn’t seem to notice their serious expressions as he stood.
‘Hey, Cole - Jen Riley and Tom Everard left about half an hour ago, turns out Lackardy wanted to make some bargain for Avery information -’
‘Don’t care,’ Tanith snapped. ‘We’ve got a lead, a proper lead.’
‘We know one of the hidey-holes of our killer,’ added Katie. ‘The name they’re using is Stacey Whitman, which has to be an identity which exists in the Muggle world; they’ve got a Muggle PO Box and are renting out an office in Enfield where they’re having deliveries like the Boom-Doh sent to.’
Harry and Ron exchanged looks. ‘That doesn’t sound like an offence,’ said Ron, but he sounded keen.
‘No, but we broke into their post box and found copies of personnel documents from this department about MLE Officers who were drummed out in the June Inquiries,’ said Tanith, voice low. ‘Like Bernard Lackardy and Bartholomew Mulready. I’m going to go to Vaughn to get Enforcer surveillance on that building.’
‘Who the hell is Stacey Whitman?’
‘Nobody we’ve found in wizard records. We’ll find out who Muggles think they are, we’ll find out any associations they have; we’ll pursue this leak from our own office, starting with HR and the legal departments who handled the June Inquiries. This adds up too much to not be a lead, and I will not let this one slip through -’
Then the lights went out. Just for a second, a second enough for everyone’s breath to catch and hands to go to their wands, but when illumination returned it was from usually-dim sconces on the wall, and was a low, piercing green.
‘What the hell -’
‘That’s a lockdown.’ Tanith’s head snapped up. ‘Emergency security lockdown - don’t move,’ she added as both Harry and Ron looked ready to snap into action. ‘This has been a security breach, we can’t have people running around like headless chickens. There’s an emergency response team to react to this, and otherwise we don’t move until we’re -’
‘Cole! Get your team and get over here!’
‘...told. Like that.’ Tanith drew a sharp breath and turned in the direction of the door, where stood the burly and serious-eyes form of Cassius Vaughn. ‘What’s going on, Boss?’
Vaughn was surrounded by Enforcers Tanith recognised as some the emergency response team, but he didn’t answer, just jerked a hand for them to follow him, and the four of them hurried over. Even then he didn’t talk, but led them down the corridors and eventually to the top of the stairs leading to the jail.
‘Jail Officer just did cell checkup,’ said Vaughn gruffly, leading them down. ‘Bernard Lackardy’s dead.’
‘What?’ That was Harry, pushing to stand at Tanith’s side. ‘I just saw him not thirty minutes ago -’
‘And in those thirty minutes, someone’s gone into that cell and killed him.’ Vaughn made a face. ‘This is your show, Cole, because by now it’s not taking a full analysis to identify the spell he’s been slashed up with.’
Tanith let out a low whistle. ‘Scindo. Son of a bitch. Jail Officer saw nobody?’
‘I’ve got everyone who’s been down here since Potter took Riley and Everard out; they’re contained. But there’s nothing fishy about any of it -’
‘Except that he’s dead.’
‘We trust the Jail Officer?’ said Harry, a bit tersely.
Vaughn snorted. ‘Mortimer Drudge got this job for a reason. If he’s rotten, Potter, you’re rotten.’
‘Then it’s someone who was visiting since Harry left,’ said Tanith. ‘There’s no way someone’s punched in through Canary Wharf security; that was something not a single resistance cell or Death Eater succeeded at in the war whoever held this building.’
‘That’s exactly what we’re trying to confirm,’ said Vaughn, and they turned the next corner in the cell block to see the door to Bernard Lackardy’s cell - the door to the crime scene. It was gloomy within, but two Enforcers, other members of the emergency response team, stood at the doorway, grim-faced.
‘We found something, Boss,’ said one of them, stepping forward and extending a hand. In it he held a fist-shaped rock, the sight of which was enough to make Tanith’s breath catch in her throat.
Vaughn took it, and if his craggy features were already lined with dark concern, now they folded up even more. He turned the rock over in his hand, and looked back at the others. ‘Security rune. Placed in here to allow someone to apparate in from outside. This is of the highest clearance.’
‘Drudge confirmed the cell was swept this morning and nothing in here was found,’ said the Enforcer.
‘And who’s been in here since this time?’ said Tanith.
‘Drudge said nobody except for the legal counsel Auror Potter escorted down.’
Vaughn turned to Tanith, shoulders squaring. ‘Your gig, Cole.’
My call. My responsibility. My fuck-up.
Tanith drew a sharp breath. ‘Lift the emergency lock-down,’ she said slowly, carefully, then turned to Harry and Ron. ‘And get down to the Prosecution Office and bring in Jennifer Riley and Thomas Everard.’
The gathered officers of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement dispersed almost immediately at those words. Everyone knew their job - Vaughn and the response team to properly lift the lock-down, Harry and Ron to march into the Ministry and bring in people they usually worked so closely in unison with.
And, left in the humming darkness, Tanith Cole and Katie Bell, their eyes meeting tensely.
Tanith’s expression flickered. ‘I stand by what I said before.’
Katie looked unusually pale, and grabbed Tanith by the elbow to tug her into the cell. ‘And so would I, you know, Chief. Until death. Whatever was said, whoever lied, whatever little deceptions of convenience we’ve got into. I’d stake my life on it being impossible Jen did this.’
And ‘this’ was an altogether more gruesome, real issue than it had ever been before when they’d debated Jen Riley’s possible guilt - because the body of Bernard Lackardy was right there on the floor near them, in a corner in the cell, a miserable bundle of clothes and flesh and blood.
Tanith only fleetingly looked at it. Of all the corpses she’d seen in her career - in her life - Bernard Lackardy’s was not one to make her weep.
‘It’s just a bit more complicated than that,’ Katie continued, equally unperturbed by the corpse in a way which would have made Tanith disturbed at the two of them if they didn’t have better issues to concern themselves with. ‘Because there’s no doubt in my mind that Doyle - and Jen - were lying about her alibi.’
Tanith frowned. ‘You don’t get to decide now that they were lying, Bell, when it looks dubious - I’ve known Gabe for years and he can still pull a fast one on me better than anyone I -’
‘I know they were lying,’ said Katie with deceptive coolness Tanith suspected was an effort to keep tight control, ‘because there’s something I didn’t mention before. That night? I swung by the flat at ten fifteen, when they both should have been at home, and about fifteen minutes before you were attacked. And you know what I found? Doyle asleep in a chair in their bedroom, and no sign of Jen.’
The words thudded into Tanith’s gut, as powerful as a punch and considerably more unpleasant. Katie, too, looked as if the confession had been physically painful to her, and it was with this same sick expression that she continued speaking.
‘I really did think the same thing as you. That there was no way under the sun that Jen could have done this, and that by letting this alibi go by unquestioned meant we didn’t waste our time chasing after her.’
Tanith closed her eyes for a moment, drawing a deep breath. When she spoke, she didn’t feel any better. ‘You now think she could have done this?’
‘No,’ said Katie unhappily. ‘But now I think we need to be properly honest and up-front to make sure we can clear her name. Following procedure. According to the law. Instead of according to our guts.’ She hesitated. ‘If you need me off this case, or to put me on report because I didn’t say this earlier, Chief, I get it -’
‘You’ll do nothing.’ Tanith ground her teeth together for several long moments, thinking. ‘I was no better than you. And I’m meant to be in charge. So you sure as hell won’t take any flack without me taking flack, too.’ She hesitated. ‘And right now, flack helps nobody. So you’ll do nothing. Except...’
She looked away, looked at the gloomy walls she hated so much, the shoddy, morale-destroying lighting, even the body - anything but at Katie Bell’s face when she uttered her next words, words the like of wish she’d prayed she’d never, ever have to say.
‘...except, while Harry and Ron are off bringing in Jen and Tom, you’ll go bring in Gabriel Doyle.’