Chapter 4: The Thief and Saviour
At the young age of ten, about to turn eleven less than a month after that summer and with an impressive will to live and improve herself, Hermione Jane Granger had already filled many of her attic beams with rows of books ranging from battered novels to mismatched encyclopaedia tomes, complemented by scattered things, puzzles and trinkets she would find amazing or challenging enough to keep. She could have easily filled all that space with brand new books simply by asking her aunt Claire to bring her the newest releases from the fancy bookshop she managed, as she did for the home library, but Hermione stubbornly preferred to earn her own.
She could have relied on her uncle Charles as well, who was her late father's brother, to provide her with every book or material possession she desired on a whim, for her relatives didn't spare anything except real acceptance of her; it seemed the many odd and unusual things that happened around her had placed an insurmountable barrier between them since her very earliest years of life. Uncle Charles Granger was a very successful solicitor and also managed a charity foundation he had started in Hermione's name the year after her mother and father died. She tended to frown when thinking about it, not that she didn't appreciate the wonderful benefits and opportunities the foundation provided to children in those primary schools selected for their commitment, she just wished they had not used her name and personal tragedy for it.
Her school grades reflected an enthusiastic desire for knowledge and clear understanding of the world around her, being the top student in her class just like her older cousin Bernadette was in her own year. But while her cousin was also very openly friendly and talkative, Hermione had a tendency to scare others away with her unorthodox behaviour, earning isolation from most, if not all of the other children.
Two large round white framed windows complemented the tiled roofs and adorned cornices of the Victorian style manor where the Grangers lived, one facing north that illuminated an open area used as a storage room above the master bedroom on the second floor, and one facing east, where a brown-haired girl lived since well before her sixth birthday. Bernadette had demanded to have the bedroom for herself alone after an incident involving songbirds, and Hermione already loved that enormous, open space she had discovered one day while playing hide and seek. Her uncles did little to dissuade her from the decision to use the attic as her bedroom, in fact they mildly encouraged her to do so.
A couple of bedsheets discarded by her older cousin hung from the ceiling and served as dividers, separating the makeshift common room from her vast sleeping space. An antique couples' bed, once owned by her aunt and uncle and given to her when she took the decision to move upstairs was placed right beside the round swivelling glass pane, opposite a creaking rocking chair that stood wedged between a book filled table with a small reading lamp on top and a pot-belly stove she had found discarded on the street and smuggled inside when she was nine years old, using an improvised yet highly efficient pulley system.
Hermione's constant daily and nightly escapades around the rooftops had annulled her fear of heights years ago and increased both her strength and endurance; since she barely had any human friends, many cats and birds had become her constant playmates as she jumped from house to house, exploring as far away as she could between chimneys, trees and alleys until satiating her curiosity for the world around her, or finding a nice spot to sit and read. Her favourite cat friends were Jim and John, two ragged old felines that taught her how to walk the thinnest of walls, avoid the sharpest of cornices and how to swiftly jump anywhere she wished to reach.
A jet black raven, that was as large as a wild duck, she had named Kettle would usually bring her a shiny gift or two during the week, a few mismatched silver earrings and once a gold necklace with a pendant bearing strange markings that she wore under her shirt at all times were some of the bird's most expensive gifts. The rest of the time Kettle the raven would bring soda can rings or pieces of scrap metal, yet Hermione would always thank him and give him a cookie or bread crumbs for his effort. She had by then also developed a moral code of conduct for acquiring her precious books, those papery companions that taught, entertained and challenged her when not at school.
Her first book was a battered pocket edition of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontė, after checking how much the second hand bookshop asked for it, she searched and researched for something of equal value to leave as an exchange, as a barter of sorts. She soon found out that a simple flower bouquet would cost the same, and left through her attic's circular window one evening to collect just enough flowers from the gardens around her house, making sure to carefully water and remove the weeds off the flower beds from where she plucked them. She kept the bouquet in a glass of water and carried it with her to school the next day, thus adding to the already broad repertoire of things to tease Hermione about in school.
After following the same routine of leaving school with her cousin Bernadette towards aunt Claire's workplace at Kyles, the upscale bookshop where a single printed edition costed as much as ten perfectly readable second-hand tomes in The Earmarked Parlour, she excused herself and left carrying the colourful flowers. Hermione walked back to the old, dimly lit and narrow shop in Old Compton Street they passed by everyday before turning left on Charing Cross, waited for he opportunity and stealthily swapped the book for the flower bouquet, which she left by the counter so that the lady who owned the shop could see it. Her adrenalin was rushing and she didn't stop running until safely entering her aunt's fancy bookshop, clutching the first book she had ever rightfully owned to her chest.
Evening of the next day after school Hermione nervously glanced towards the shop and saw her bouquet proudly displayed on the front window inside a very delicate and ornate vase, and so began a constant exchange as she spent less and less time with her aunt and cousin after school, instead hanging by The Earmarked Parlour. Sometimes she would surreptitiously slip some fruit she had saved from school lunch that day or some coins she might have found on the ground and had been collecting into Mrs Miranda Morewitt the bookshop owner's purse for a small book; or then she would take the trash outside and thematically sort a bookcase or a box full of titles while she pretended to be choosing something, exchanging the amount of labour for an equivalent book in monetary terms. Lately she had taken to repairing loose leaves and restoring ripped covers, and felt confident enough to apply her technique to some of the most mistreated books she could not afford, borrowing them for a few days and swiftly returning them once they were repaired.
It was during the spring of her ninth year that Mrs Morewitt gently held Hermione by the shoulders and guided her to sit behind the counter. She had tried to hide her rising panic, but she knew what the bookshop lady wished to talk about. Perhaps she had miscalculated the value of some of the books she took? Or worse, maybe she had never quite understood how odd things kept appearing in her purse or inside her store, and had never really noticed the missing books until that day? Hermione fell into her questioning and began to shake as badly as when she had her nightmares, remembering that unbearable crushing feeling on her body and the image of a falling wall that ended in a sea of black flashing before her closed eyes.
Mrs Morewitt took hold of both her small hands and softly asked her to lift her face. When the young girl recovered her breath, she asked her to have some tea and waited a few minutes before offering her to help in the store during the coming summer in exchange for the amount of literature she deemed worthy of her work, because she was the most honest book thief she had ever met in her life. "It would be nice to speak to your mother as well, so that she approves of you helping me."
Hermione's eyes immediately watered at the mention of her being a book thief. "Oh please madam, I'm so sorry... I-I didn't mean to steal, I can return what I've... What I've taken..."
"No my darling, you mistake my words! There will be no need to return anything at all, I was just letting you know that I am aware and grateful for all your exchanges over the past year!" she replied in a kind voice. She then added that the thing she most liked from her were the flower bouquets, once a week she would find a new set of beautiful flowers on her window-shop vase. "Now how about you tell me your name and then bring your mother or father to meet me?"
"I'm afraid I can't... You see, I live with my uncle and his wife and daughter, because my parents, well they died in an accident when I was two," she answered, and then introduced herself as Hermione Granger, politely extending her small hand to the bookshop owner. Miranda Morewitt was a tall and slim woman with pale blue eyes and shoulder length grey-streaked black hair who appeared to be in her late fifties and had a rather suspicious permanent twinkle in her eyes; she shook hands with young Hermione and asked her to return accompanied by one of her uncles as soon as she could, before taking a seat next to the girl and asking her a bit more about herself.
Not quite certain why, the wild-haired child felt at ease with Mrs Morewitt; they spent a couple of hours talking and by then she had revealed as far back as she could remember of her life, minus the obviously frightening strange events that she seemed to be able to cause. Hermione explained how she was known as the "miracle baby" and children in school used to tease her about it, besides making fun of her teeth and her hair. She told the shop owner of her oldest memory, at age four, when she managed to verbalize her first complete phrase, rather than simple gestures or yes and no answers. It wasn't a problem regarding her ability to properly string an idea with words, she simply couldn't express them with her mouth until the morning she clearly asked for "juice and a piece of toast with butter, auntie Claire, please?" carefully highlighting the word please at the end.
"My uncles were so happy, I kind of remember they hugged me and kissed me, u-until... Well they were real happy and so was I..." she trailed off, her smile fading to a slight pout.
"Why don't you tell me about your love for books, darling. How many have you read by now?" the older woman asked, swiftly changing the subject of their talk.
"Well, so far I've read about five or six books a month, but then some are hard and then I've got to use a dictionary, and sometimes I take them with me to school but then they get mixed-up with my library books, and I'm rambling aren't I?"
Mrs Morewitt laughed heartily and refilled both their tea cups, urging Hermione to continue her aptly described rambling.
"As to why I like them, well they remind me of someone. I don't even know his name, but he was, like me?" she noticed Mrs Morewitt's twinkle flare when she said this, "Sure my aunt had already given me lots to read, and uncle Charles says both my mum and dad favoured a book to a film, but it's him I don't want to forget... And a good book can puzzle, teach and keep me company all at the same time!"
Both finished their fourth cup and Hermione excused herself, promising to return with her aunt as soon as she could. "Hermione the book thief, or rather the book healer!" she heard Mrs Morewitt whisper and chuckle as she left the bookshop, bouncing with every step she took. The word "healer" sounded quite unusual for her, for it was an old terminology describing a medical practitioner that regular people didn't use very often.
The older woman was quite certain that nobody would take better care or fully appreciate the knowledge contained in these books' yellowing pages as this unusual child named Hermione, and only hoped that she could spend the summer as proposed. There was also something intriguing about little miss Granger she dared to hope would come to be true.
It was a warm Friday afternoon while Mrs Morewitt enjoyed her tea together with two other women in a room behind shelves displaying leather bound editions so old the titles had vanished off their spines that Hermione returned, being pushed inside the shop with a single index finger on the back, as if the person trailing her was afraid of touching the child. Aunt Claire stopped to look around the shop while the door closed and the bell rang for a second time, and managed to produce half a smile, lifting Hermione's hopes up, only to be shattered as Claire Granger stared nastily over what she deemed clearly inappropriate clothing for a shopkeeper.
"Is this some kind of dressing-up club? My niece said nothing of the sort other than she had been offered to spend her summer days in this place..."
"Please aunt Claire, allow me to introduce you to Mrs Miranda Morewitt." Hermione interjected, hoping to soften her aunt's temper. "This is a bookshop similar the one you manage, only it deals with discarded, second hand items instead of the just published, brand new editions in yours."
Both women then greeted each other and Miranda explained to aunt Claire how she had seen her niece stopping by to read on many occasions over the past year, conveniently omitting the fact she had been actually trading work, flowers and coins for more than a book a week, allowing Hermione to release a long held breath. She left the adults to speak among themselves and turned to watch the other two old ladies sipping tea by the other room at the end of the store. They wore the same style of clothing as Mrs Morewitt, only these also had matching pointed hats, then Hermione understood her aunt's comment regarding a "dress-up club" at once. They did wear odd clothes but she had never really paid attention to it before.
The short plump lady sitting on the left side of the small cast iron table donned a very earth stained soft brown robe and seemed to be animatedly describing a vegetable of sorts, while the older, taller and thinner, more stern looking woman sat in front wearing a black cloak over a similarly dark robe and quietly listened to the story, barely moving her thin, straight lips. They seemed startled by Hermione's gaze upon them, quickly removed their hats and moved further out of view while whispering to each other, occasionally glancing back at the bushy haired girl who kept peeking at the old, peeling doorway next to sagged book filled shelves.
Claire called for her niece to approach, and keeping a prudent distance as was her usual demeanour, told Hermione she could come to assist Mrs Morewitt and didn't have to consider this a job or an obligation. She had sternly demanded of the shop's owner that the young girl needed to have complete freedom to come and go as she pleased, and that she must be treated as kindly as possible despite her sometimes quite unusual behaviour. Then Claire added that she hoped her not to do anything strange around the store, and could hardly hide the fear in her eyes. Hearing this, Hermione wished to be swallowed whole by the ground and had to find a seat, while Mrs Morewitt simply nodded and grinned.
"Of course Mrs Granger, your niece is free to do as she wishes, if any given day she feels indisposed to come, all I ask is for you to let me know so I do not worry about something being wrong," she concluded while placing a hand over Hermione's head.
"My husband Charles is a very prominent solicitor, if anything should happen--"
will happen Mrs Granger, and Hermione will join me for lunch as well during the week, if she agrees to it?"
Hermione nodded silently and walked alongside her aunt to leave the narrow yet five times as deep shop, leaning back for a second to wave goodbye at the two older women she had seen on the back, leaving a very surprised Mrs Morewitt looking between the back room of her shop and the now empty entrance, several times.
Summer at The Earmarked Parlour was an enjoyable experience, young Hermione had become friendly, while still reserved on certain subjects, to the bookshop owner who insisted in being called Miranda. The two women she had seen the day aunt Claire had agreed to allow her to spend her summer helping in the store didn't come back again, but she did occasionally catch a glimpse of strangely dressed men and women waking around the room in the back when the old door was open. Both would sit and have lunch together, discussing one topic or another, or a novel one of them had been reading, and sometimes Miranda would brush more personal subjects, hoping to find some proof of her suspicions.
By late August the fall school term loomed in the horizon, Hermione let Miranda know she would still be visiting weekly or as regularly as she could after classes. The older lady asked her to please remember to stop by the shop on September nineteenth, she dismissed the girl's protest saying it was only fair to have presents, even if from an old lady with whom she had only spent a summer but hoped to be considered a friend. It was then that Hermione realized what had happened, she had truly made a human friend, it wasn't someone her age but she felt comfortable and could share some of her own fears and accomplishments with Miranda without feeling judged or feared by her like her uncles and schoolmates did.
The day of her tenth birthday was perhaps the longest day in the history of mankind, according to Hermione. School never seemed to end and while she tried very hard to concentrate, her mind would fly away into the hazy memories of books, pointed hats and a boy of deep green eyes. She had sat in bed that morning still feeling a tingling in her right hand, remembering the face in her dream. He seemed to be so lost, yet she saw caring, understanding and compassion before the dream plunged her into a large pile of books and looked up at an old man wearing a talking pointy hat that accused her of being a book thief, she closed her eyes inside her dream when the rumbling sounds and crushing sensations announced her familiar nightmare. She was about to be buried under the rubble of the collapsed building that killed her mum and dad when green-eyes whispered "Who are you?" in her right ear.
"Who am I then?" Hermione asked out loud while the Mathematics teacher tried to convince a freckled skinny boy that the number ten does indeed consist of a one and a zero, but not because they are multiplied together. He insisted that one times zero equalled to ten.
"What'd you say, bookworm?" Hissed the dissonant voice belonging to Laura Lemebel. Tall and tanned Laura had a predilection for picking on Hermione, be it by making fun of her hair, pointing her scar at others or simply by hiding her schoolbooks in the most inaccessible places around the school. This time she just moved her long arms over Hermione and snatched her textbook, telling her to answer or she would keep it for herself.
Hermione had never not
finished an assignment in class, and this would not be the exception. "Give it back!"
"No, tell me what you said before. And maybe
I'll give it back!" Laura replied while forcefully holding the textbook with both hands.
Screams interrupted the class when Laura began shouting something about a flying book and bushy haired freaky dorks, infuriating the already upset teacher Mr Cardinal who dragged her to the infirmary in a state of shock. Hermione remained seated and began to work on the day's assignment, fighting an urge to laugh at the face on her schoolmate when the pages began rustling and wriggling away from her grip one by one, until the cover itself flew away and the whole book reassembled itself in front of its rightful owner in little more than a second. These strange, impossible events kept happening at the most convenient of times, and she was most grateful for it although she could not even begin to explain them, and had built a wall of discomfort, perhaps outright fear, between her and her family ever since she was four and made it rain hundreds of small dandelion flowers all over their kitchen out of sheer happiness.
Classes ended at last, Hermione saw her cousin Bernadette giggling among some friends and walked by her, explaining that she was going to The Earmarked Parlour. She knew Bernadette despised the place, since her cousin always pointed out that "nothing's better than a freshly printed hard-cover edition," like the expensive titles in her mother's bookshop, so she wasn't surprised when Bernadette simply shrugged and shooed her before the other older girls could tease her about the "dorky cousin". Hermione knew it was a half-hearted brush-off, and that her older cousin would make it up to her by leaving a small present for her in her attic like she did every year, in fact Hermione was certain they could have been quite friendly, were it not for Bernadette's irrational fear of her after they shared a bedroom for a few years, and her excessively nosy and cheerful mannerisms. Hermione herself was a stark contrast to Bernadette's character, she had trouble making people like her with the know-it-all and overachieving attitude, besides the strange things that kept happening around her. "I'll let mum and dad know that you'll be back later, Hermione!" she heard her cousin yell while she carefully crossed the street, looking at both sides first.
Inside The Earmarked Parlour all lights were out, yet Hermione found the door unlocked. She bit her lower lip and pushed the glass panelled wooden door, carefully looking around but finding not a soul on the couches or by the front shelves. It was when she noticed a tumbled stack of twenty five Pence each books and a tumbled bookcase that she began to worry. Rounding the faded periwinkle couches and turning left behind the counter, Hermione discovered the rigid form of Mrs Morewitt facing the floor. She was stiff as a wooden board, with her arms straight and pressed to the sides of her body while her legs stood hard and flat enough to iron a shirt over them.
"First things first!" she thought and looked around, dropped her school rucksack and ran across the shop to grab a heavy brass candle holder for her own protection. Hermione scanned the room once more and bent over to turn Miranda Morewitt on her back, checking for pulse and breathing. Distressed at finding little signs of life, she tried to wake her but found herself unable to flex or bend Mrs Morewitt's body. Utterly puzzled, she resolved it would be better to call for help using the telephone booth located in the street corner, she peeked out the door and ran for it while still clutching the brass candle holder.
Hermione had barely stepped out of the bookshop when a tall middle-aged man with greying red hair appeared out of nowhere and held her up by the waist, asking who she was and where she was running to. Hermione instinctively defended herself, swinging and knocking the tarnished metallic sturdy ornament over the man's head, who relinquished his grip on the girl and fell on the side walk. She heard him faintly exclaim "Merlin's beard!" before collapsing face down on the flagstone pavement.
Startled by her swift reaction and the fact that she now had two unconscious adults in her presence, one who stood unnaturally paralysed and another who cried for a mythological character after being hit, Hermione called for help using the triple nine service and ran across the street to climb and hide on the roof, positioning herself so as to have an unimpeded view through Mrs Morewitt's large front windows. In the scarce four minutes it took for her to use the back-door and reach the top while avoiding workers and tenants, two men wearing oddly matched polka-dotted shirts and pinstriped trousers were pushing away some people who had tried to help the fallen man on the street.
She observed nervously when a third man, older and wearing a mismatched business suit with a brown bowler hat on his head lifted the tall red-head and dragged him inside The Earmarked Parlour, where another oddly dressed lady was already tending to her older female friend, helping Mr Morewitt to her feet who, despite being a little wobbly and dizzy seemed to be in one piece after all. The man wearing the bowler hat kept looking everywhere and popped his head out to scan the street one last time before slamming the door and closing the thick maroon curtains behind the other polka-dotted men who finally walked inside.
She was debating with herself whether to approach and confirm that Miranda Morewitt was safe or to stay where she was and wait for the strange group of people to leave. Her racing heart and genuine concern pushed her up over the ledge to make her way back, but keeping constant view of the shop while doing so; she gauged the distance to the adjacent building, took half a step back and leapt, landing softly over the slippery tin roof and sliding a few yards, breaking her descent with both feet against the rusty rain gutter that ran along the old brick cornice. Hermione crawled to take another glimpse at the still closed shop's curtains, backed away slightly and held to the roof using her arms while dangling her legs over to jump on the fire-escape iron ladder. She began to hear sirens approaching, the lady who took her call at the emergency services number had asked her what the emergency was, and Hermione quickly described finding a middle-aged woman on the floor, most likely suffering a cardiac arrest. She was glad the lady believed her and not dismissed the call as a prank. Looking over her shoulder again, she noticed the door was opening and pressed herself as much as possible against the wall, hiding half of her small body on the recesses of a swivelling window in order to avoid being seen.
A light creaking sound emanated from the unkempt window pane, it receded under Hermione's weight and flipped open, lifting her legs and thrusting her back head-first inside the building. Screeching loudly, she fell over and landed painfully on top of a series of barred cages, ruining the already mangled and dirty light-blue dress she had been wearing for her birthday. Looking around to assess her surroundings, she was forced to cover her ears from what sounded like the deafening sounds of a tropical jungle, but right there in England. Birds cackling and monkeys screaming greeted her eyes as they adjusted to the low light conditions; Hermione clearly identified rustled pink flamingos, jumping gibbons and disgruntled squirrel monkeys, a pair of reptiles inside a half filled bathtub kept rolling over each other, probably baby crocodiles, while the cage she had fallen upon contained several large toucans trying to nip her hands and knees, bobbing their heads up and down at her.
this place?" she asked no one in particular, before rubbing her sore bum and jumping from the steel cage.
The floor of the large warehouse was covered in sawdust, a row of dirty swivelling windows ran along the southern wall, while a barred door impeded transit leading to and from an unlit corridor on the other side; anything larger than an alley cat, that is. She could never hope to reach the window from where she fell through, and the distressed animals were likely to draw attention from someone, someone who would surely ask her what she was doing there in the first place. Hermione tore her gaze away from the cute spotted Kune-Kune piglets she was pampering when a cursing, gruff voice and lazy footsteps resounded from the corridor, now briefly illuminated by the initial flickering of a fluorescent overhead lamp turned on. She needed to think fast!
"Right... Bathing tub, no, there's crocodiles! Behind the cages?" she squeezed behind the filthy steel containers, "Be quiet, you hysterical monkeys, I can't set you free! Oh, the things I get myself into!" she complained under her breath, sliding out from behind the monkey cages and crawling under the lowest shelf of a cabinet holding at least a dozen glass containers filled with dull coloured, sad-looking geckos.
"Stop yer racket, ya filthy beasts!" yelled the silhouette of a man. He pulled a lantern and shone it around the room, passing over the imprisoned birds and then moving to the right side, where the beam of light reflected against the glass aquariums and, upon finding nothing out of the ordinary, he let his arm fall until the artificial light brushed Hermione's wide open eyes.
She gasped, she was absolutely certain the man had seen her pupils reflect the light and her heart threatened to jump out of her chest. Even how to breath escaped her mind as the fear of being caught overcame her every thought. Hermione managed to exhale after a minute when the man appeared to decide nothing was out of place and quietly turned to leave, but not before cursing the "ruddy animals" again.
"I've got to get out of here!" she was biting her lip so strongly it almost drew blood, not that it would be very noticeable in her current state, but it would be quite annoying to add yet another wound to the healing list.
The sirens outside were now blaring into the old building as well, she could picture the emergency vehicles and the disgruntled officers as they find a recovered Mrs Morewitt, but how could she now she was going to be all right? It was Hermione's turn to wish someone called in help for her!
"C'mon, we've gotta pull the fake wall 'fore 'em coppers get 'ere!" came the same man's voice from the distance, just before a piercing screech and a muffled thump indicated the corridor being sealed.
"Wonderful!" Hermione said in an exasperated tone, exiting her hiding place and throwing her hands on the air, "I'm locked in here, and I've got classes tomorrow! Oh, I'm gonna be expelled..." Yes, being expelled was her greatest concern at the moment.
The evening brought further darkness into the large open space where the "amazing jungle in a box" as she had decided to call the poor trapped animals, continued their pleas for food, attention or freedom, whichever she could provide, yet none were available to her either. The building itself looked old, perhaps it was a factory of some kind, she reasoned, and then she remembered most warehouses and workshops had shafts along the walls to drop refuse or by-products of whatever they produced inside! Hermione began to peek over crates and boxes along the wall, looking for a trapdoor or opening, until noticing a square metallic plate with two handles on it.
"Yes!" she pushed it with all her might and, taking one last glance at the sad-looking monkeys and distressed toucans, slid feet first down the tube. "I'm never, ever
wearing a dress again in my life!" she promised herself after slowing her descent with arms and feet, finally landing on the alley outside.
Hastily crossing the street, she crawled and peeked inside the bookshop, careful not to let anything beyond her forehead and eyebrows show. All the book piles and shelves were tidy as if never overturned, and Mrs Morewitt was beyond the doorway to the back room of the shop, she could see her figure walking about in a nervous pace and felt relieved that she was indeed in good health. The bell above the door rang twice as the door opened and closed, and Hermione found herself being hugged before she could speak a single word.
"My darling, where have you been? I was so worried when I saw your school belongings here but you were nowhere to be found!"
"I came in and you were face first on the floor, and--"
"Hermione, what in Mer-- What happened to you?" Mrs Morewitt interrupted, taking in her mangled and torn dress, her bruised knees and elbows, and her overall very dirty appearance.
The young girl retold her ordeal of the last few hours, from finding Mrs Morewitt unconscious to calling for help and hiding on the warehouse roof across the street, she discretely avoided telling her how she had knocked a man unconscious, then she explained how she fell inside were dozens of animals were to be found, most likely endangered species cooped inside an empty workshop on the third floor, and that she had to slide down a shaft to escape, hence her current state of untidiness.
"Untidiness? You're hurt all over, and you smell like a troll!" The older woman suddenly blanched as Hermione lifted one eyebrow.
"If there's such thing as a troll," she pouted and sniffed the hem of her ruined dress, "yes, I'd believe they smell like this, or worse..."
Nervous laughter ensued, before Hermione worried her lip and asked again if Mrs Morewitt was all right, she tried to ask about the unusual condition in which she had found her, but the older woman politely dismissed her questions and changed the subject by fetching a large package from behind the old dark walnut counter. It was wrapped in plain brown paper, held together by simple twine, with an attached handwritten card that read "to Hermione the book Healer, from your friend Miranda" on it.
"Thank you so much!" the girl said, before turning the package in her hands, carefully looking for clues as to what it might be without actually opening the present. It was an old habit she had, whenever she encountered something new or undisclosed, she would play this game of wit with herself, challenging her own deduction abilities.
Quite heavy, rectangular and thick, silent when gently shaken yet with noticeable inertia, indicating something within a box, Hermione continued her thorough analysis until catching Mrs Morewitt's amused expression. She blushed and quickly settled for the idea of this being a wooden box holding a set of fountain pens and perhaps other related items like an ink bottle. With dexterity and calm that began to exasperate the already impatient old lady, Hermione finished undoing the knots and unwrapping the brown paper.
She gasped upon the unwrapped present, and Mrs Morewitt barely managed to conceal a small laugh. "Not quite what you expected, I presume?"
"Mir-- Mrs Morewitt, t-this is too much!"
"Why don't you take a closer look, darling?"
Hermione delicately placed the rectangular item on her lap, neatly folded the brown paper and set it aside under the twine and her card before picking the gift with both hands. It was indeed a box as she had deduced, yet not wooden but made of the purest Lapis Lazuli stone she had ever laid eyes upon. The strikingly deep blue hues seemed to dance over the surface of the impossibly polished box, swirling over golden specks that resembled the galaxy cluster known as the Milky Way when it brightens the heavens on those rare, yet most gorgeous nights of pure, open celestial skies.
She then began to look for a latch or hinge of some kind; twice she looked before turning to Mrs Morewitt for help. The bookshop owner pretended to be busy straightening a row of paperback editions and simply shrugged, leaving Hermione alone with the puzzling container. "This can't be, there's something inside, but absolutely no opening!" she murmured to herself, "And this is way too much, the Lapis Lazuli itself
is worth a fortune! You could purchase a star with--" Hermione stopped in mid sentence, rearranged the stone container on her hands and gasped, "Holy cricket, it's the northern star! Polaris!" she jumped on the couch and twisted the blue monolith around, recognizing constellations and stars belonging to both southern and northern hemispheres.
"Miranda! It's a star chart! This is amazing!" Hermione excitedly said behind her shoulder, receiving an affirmative reply from behind the shelves.
"That puzzle was one of my late husband Bragna's hundreds
of marvellous trinkets, he was quite an avid collector, always on the hunt for a silvery, whirring novelty or challenging plaything..." she explained, "And you mentioned enjoying this sort of item, darling. I'm happy that you like it!"
Riding the bus back home, Hermione continued to play with the sparkling puzzle while people stared at her, with wrinkling noses because of the smell. She bypassed the front door and climbed to her attic using some wall bricks and mouldings, as well as window sills along the house exterior for support until reaching the knotted rope she had fashioned as a makeshift ladder to her oval window. Hermione grabbed her long sleeved pyjamas, prepared her rucksack for the next day of school and made quick use of a most welcome bath before going downstairs for dinner.
"Happy birthday, Hermione!" greeted uncle Charles with real happiness in his brown eyes, although he refrained from hugging or kissing her. None of her uncles ever touched her if not absolutely unavoidable, however her paternal grandparents, who travelled to the Isles for two weeks every spring did hug her often, same as other relatives from aunt Claire's side of the family. Claire would always twitch and gasp every time this happened.
"Thank you uncle Charles," she answered before taking a seat by the opposite end of the long dinner table.
"Now, remain calm and have a look at your presents!"
Hermione knew "to remain calm" meant "try not to bend the laws of physics again, so we don't have to cower under the table", nor spend the night trying to come up with a rational explanation and convince oneself of what happened like she did. Butterflies do not
fly out of curtain decorations, they simply entered the room when the window was left open, she reminded herself.
"Oh! Look mum, she's doing it again!" Bernadette pointed, making her parents jump on their seats, "She's like, analysing
the presents instead of opening them!"
"Do you mind?" she said from her far away spot.
"Oh, I do, dorky-mione! C'mon just tear it up..."
"Honey, that's enough," uncle Charles told his daughter, "and you're delaying your own birthday cake, pumpkin," he added while looking at Hermione.
With a full stomach after three delicious Black Forest chocolate cake servings, plus a pile of brand new books and a fluffy red sweater with golden stripes for the fall and winter cold seasons, Hermione had to juggle while treading up the stairs and making her way to her bedroom when she noticed the half-expected present from her cousin. On the landing behind the partially hidden door leading to her attic, sat a small gaily wrapped present whose bow was larger than the content itself.
" she yelled down the corridor, before resuming her climb with one more gift in tow, unaware of Bernadette's smile and little shudder in her own room.
The following week held days that were too short for Hermione, she applied herself to school matters as usual, only she seemed even more detached from the teasing and name-calling than before, instead using all her free time to finish homework. Laura Lemebel had not returned since the flying book incident, which Hermione consciously chose to explain as her being too fast to turn and retrieve the stolen textbook, since books do not hover
, nor reassemble themselves page by page. According to her giggling gang of dim-witted friends, Laura had transferred to another, even more exclusive elite school, however her absence did nothing to improve Hermione's standing before the other children.
Her mind was frantically looking for a way to investigate that warehouse full of animals, but how to get inside? She wasn't willing to ruin yet another set of clothes or risk breaking her neck by jumping in from the high windows. Whenever she wasn't thinking of saving imprisoned fauna or excelling in classes, she applied herself to solving the intricate puzzle Mrs Morewitt had given her.
Wearing the colourful beaded necklace she had received from Bernadette for her birthday together with the golden pendant she never took off for any reason, Hermione stopped by The Earmarked Parlour after classes for her usual weekly cup of tea and to surreptitiously monitor all movement in and out of the building across the street. Small talk ensued as the sun travelled further west, casting elongated shadows on the street and signalling the end of office hours, flooding the same streets with people coming and going, of which a select minority stepped inside the bookshop at one time or another.
Occasionally Mrs Morewitt would cross the doorway to the back-room of the shop and stay out of sight for long minutes, time Hermione took to resume her note taking, describing the appearance of every person going in or out, at what hour of the evening and what they were carrying. She managed to get permission from aunt Claire to visit more than twice a week, but even so after a couple months of surveillance she could hardly discern any movement patterns. Her observation times were too short and scarce.
"I need a way in, and a distraction," she pondered while resting diagonally over her huge bed at night, "and I know exactly
who can do it."
It took quite some convincing, pleading and bribing to obtain Bernadette's help, she had finally settled for a full month of chores and
preferential rights to the lavatory; if both girls arrived at the same time in the morning, Hermione would have to yield. They never shook hands for the agreement, she had extended her hand but her cousin backed away as if burnt by fire.
The very following evening, they excused themselves from aunt Claire's shop under different pretexts and made their way to a large steel curtain door, where they banged until an old, half-toothless man appeared by a side door.
We're Berny and Hermy," greeted Bernadette using her most stunningly chipper voice, "both of us are students at the prestigious James Lillywhite Junior School over Regent Street, and we're conducting a survey of select businesses in the area!"
As her cousin finished bombarding the haggard looking man who came to open the door, Hermione could actually see her jumping up and down with the notepad and pencil in hand. Yes, this was going to work perfectly!
"Would you kindly spare a few minutes of your precious time to answer some of our questions? Pleaseee?
While the old man stood trying to process who and what the two little girls were and wanted, Hermione and Bernadette rounded him and burst into what looked like a loading paddock, with large and small wooden crates strewn and piled all over the floor.
"Are these real
boxes? Oh! It's a box factory, isn't it?" Hermione fought the urge to slap her own forehead, rolling her eyes and hoping this was part of her cousin's "giggle girl" impersonation rather than a truthful question. The man simply nodded in confusion, before denying it.
"Nay, 'em boxes 'r fer furniture, ya see?" he walked to a large open-lidded box, and beneath the hundreds of foam peanuts he wiped away stood a very impressive tropical wood dinner table. Hermione frowned upon both environment damaging goods, thinking of the polystyrene non-degradable foam and the surely protected green-forest trees they killed to craft that furniture piece.
"So your business is related to importing foreign furniture?" the younger of the two girls asked.
"Aye, Mr Roberts' business... What d'ya want 'ere again?" he asked, scratching his ear in a circular motion with his right hand little finger and then sniffing the tip. He failed to notice both Granger girls gagging.
"We're doing an assignment for school, and we need to know what kind of activi--", Hermione nudged Bernadette on her ribs, "I mean do you occupy the entire building for furniture only?"
"Old man Polkiss here is our warehouse janitor and night keeper, ladies," a well dressed man, not older than fifty greeted after exiting an office door by the south wall of the unloading area behind them, "my name is Barty Roberts how may I help you?"
Hermione took the initiative this time, explaining their supposed school assignment and asking for a tour of the building. Mr Roberts narrowed his eyes for a few seconds and finally agreed, making a small hand motion for Mr Polkiss behind their backs before pushing the girls up a flight of iron steps.
"As you already saw, the area below us is used for receiving, shipping and storing our imported or manufactured articles, while up here on our second floor we have the wood crafting shop and glass container fabrication."
"Oh! Is that an aquarium? It's so huge!"
"Yes indeed, and those are bell-shaped domes for jewellery or other items needing protection from dust or curious hands," he added, "we can produce almost any kind of glass enclosure."
While her cousin kept Mr Roberts busy answering a tirade of never-ending questions, Hermione slipped away to the third floor and, after pushing a series of boxes and a large steel sliding door a foot or so to cross, found the barred doorway to the large room holding the "jungle in a box". She drew a detailed sketch of the building itself and wrote down the names of all animals she could see before swiftly returning to the metal workshop she had found.
"Oy, what 'r ya doin' girl?" yelled the old night keeper.
She jumped a foot in the air, turned around and showed the man her drawing, a stick figure wearing a wool cap similar to Mr Polkiss' ghastly yellow one, carrying a box out of a lorry.
"Aw, ain't it sweet... All right, you ain't s'posed to walk 'round 'ere alone, now go meet yer friend downstairs!"
Hermione reached the second floor and asked "What's on the third floor?" startling Mr Roberts who had not seen her approach. She winked at her cousin Bernadette and passed a folded paper behind her back, that her cousin quickly hid inside her rucksack while pretending to be looking for another, better sharpened pencil.
"A simple metal workshop and another storage area for the more exclusive and expensive items, which we hoist using that elevator over there."
"Why yes of course, what else could it be?" answered the older man with a glare.
"Nothing, only furniture
indeed," Hermione replied with a matching glare of her own.
With barely a pleasantry after that last exchange, the Granger cousins were promptly shown outside and the steel curtain lowered again. Hermione was certain the man who identified himself as Barty Roberts suspected her and would likely make a move that very same cold winter day. She asked Bernadette for her camera and to cover for her at night, which cost her yet another two weeks of house chores.
"Hermione, are you sure? It's freezing cold outside, you'd better just call the police and tell them what you saw!"
"No, they'll not believe me, and if that man moves the animals tonight by the time they investigate there'll be no evidence left."
"But it's Christmas this Sunday!" Bernadette insisted, "You stubborn dork
, you'll be in bed with pneumonia for the entire hols if you do this!"
"Don't care, Berny! This is more important and I'll be back tomorrow morning before they even think of me..."
"D'you even have money for a cab?" her cousin asked in an exasperated tone.
"Yeah, I sold a pair of silver earrings last month..."
"Those big, mismatched ones? You are
a dork! Why didn't you just ask my mum for money?" she screamed in the middle of the street.
"Because this is my
quest and my choice," Hermione replied, "because if I get to do something by myself that my uncles feel proud of... T-Then they might e-even get to like me..."
"Oh c'mon Hermione! You know mum and dad love you, it's just that-that..." Bernadette trailed off without completing the sentence.
"That they're afraid of me," Hermione finished sadly.
Bernadette huffed and continued walking to Kyles, where her mother Claire worked. Hermione saw her cousin glancing at her every few seconds over her shoulder and sped up to match her longer strides. They went home that evening with a much less enthusiastic than usual Bernadette in the car, prompting aunt Claire to ask if there was something wrong; both girls shrugged and carried on staring out the windows without any further conversation.
"It's time, the cab should be arriving by corner in a few minutes Jim," Hermione spoke to her cat companions, "and I'll be returning in the morning John, so keep your friend busy and tell Kettle not to worry!" Sometimes she felt silly speaking to the animals, but if they didn't understand her words, somehow her tone was enough to convey some basic form of communication.
She reviewed her wallet and picture camera, adjusted her black jeans and pulled the hood of her black nylon climbing jacket over her tightly tied hair. A snow-proof sleeping bag hung rolled together on her left shoulder tied to the bag holding the camera, a notepad, many energy bars and a large water bottle. Hermione grabbed the knotted rope tied to the cornice on top of her attic window and descended back first, careful not to make any unnecessary noise or showing herself outside any windows.
Once on firm ground, she ran to the street corner where she had asked for transportation using the phone at Kyles that evening. The cab had arrived a few minutes early, and Hermione thanked the taxi driver for it as she gave him directions to one street north of The Earmarked Parlour.
"Is your mum waiting for you there, kid?"
"No, she died when I was two," she bluntly answered, effectively cutting all conversation from before it even started.
The vehicle stopped and she exited in a hurry, looking both sides first and darting down a narrow space between two buildings. Hermione climbed up to the roof, readjusted her load and crawled over the ledge, circumventing the noisy tin and aluminium ventilation and air conditioning ducts. Upon reaching a suitable, angled shingle roof, she swung her legs over and let her body fall on it, flexing her knees and rolling twice to ease the impact.
"This is terribly boring," she complained, "it's almost eleven and nothing happens!" Hermione had expected surveillance to be, well less boring than freezing on a roof for endlessly extended hours. She had already consumed a couple of energy bars when a quarter or so to one in the morning a large lorry ran twice past the warehouse, rearing towards the loading paddock when a certain somebody wearing a characteristic yellow wool cap flashed a torch at it.
"Ha! I knew he'd make a move tonight!" She grinned to herself and opened the sleeping bag, removed the camera from its bag and slowly wriggled forward to the very edge of the roof. Careful not to use the flash, she snapped a few shots, spending four of the thirty two frames available in the photo film. The street light partially illuminated the blue lorry's front license plate but nothing could be seen on the other side where it was being loaded.
Hermione decided to take a risk and move closer, the running motor and the noise coming from the animals inside the crates was enough to mask her own footsteps. She tightened her hair and hood again, before descending a set of fire escape stairs and positioning herself some twenty yards away across the street. Suddenly a vehicle rounded a corner and parked at a right angle against the blue lorry, Hermione pushed the shutter twice to capture evidence of Mr Roberts on the site and walking into the warehouse.
Half an hour later the lorry had become a jungle on wheels, Hermione witnessed Mr Polkiss boarding the cabin with a disgruntled look and Mr Roberts walking to his car and opening the trunk, only to return inside carrying a petrol tank and several rags. The tell-tale smell of burning wood and the orange glow behind the two motor vehicles alerted her of what happened. Mr Roberts didn't intend to return! If she failed to follow him somehow, even with her photographic evidence in hand the police would never find him!
As fire gained strength and consumed the building, the arsonist returned and had a fierce discussion with the old night keeper through the open door of the cabin. Hermione used the distraction to cross the lane and kneel behind Mr Roberts' German made sedan, she looked at the arguing men again and ran as fast her small legs could carry her, lifting the PVC canvas and jumping inside the lorry to share a ride with her new fellow travellers.
The transport vehicle exited the burning building but the bushy-haired girl couldn't see Mr Roberts driving behind them, therefore she hoped he was leading the lorry to its destination instead. "Well, let's see what I can find here," she mumbled ten minutes into their journey while writing animal names on a notepad, "monkeys, parrot, another parrot, tiger, lizard-- Tiger!?" the loud growl of a young, male, unquestionably male she confirmed after a quick check, striped Bengal tiger made her cower slightly against the cages holding annoyingly neurotic spider monkeys, "How in the world did they manage to smuggle a tiger into the country?"
All she could state with absolute certainty was her given name and the fact it was cold, really, really
cold. Hermione shivered as the freezing late December wind battered the flimsy canvas covering the lively shipment. She could only guess, but it seemed to be around five in the morning, although her constant drowsiness and sporadic plunges into deep sleep made it difficult to tell. "Why didn't anybody give me a watch for my birthday..." she thought, before falling into her dreams again.
The strangely familiar boy was standing in front of her, his palm face forward as if reaching for her but never touching. His expression now that of concern, he seemed worried and whispered "Where are you?" in her right ear, barely an instant before she felt the ground shaking and piles of rubble buried her tiny body under the collapsed building that killed her parents. "I don't know," she mumbled in her troubled sleep.
Hermione had finished distributing her meals among the other passengers, the toucans and parrots found the energy bars most appetizing, but the Madagascar lizards simply scoffed at the food and walked right over it. The monkeys tried to eat the wrapping foil as well, Hermione rolled her eyes at how much they resembled certain humans she knew, and threw the last portion inside the tiger's cage. It sniffed the energy bar and looked at her as if asking whether she was plain crazy or simply delusional.
The lorry began to slow down and turn right and left, she peeked under the canvas and saw they were in a large city, and that the sun was already up. The restless animals continued to make their jungle-like cackle until their transport entered a building, it appeared to be the end of their journey and Hermione needed to exit the lorry before she was caught.
She held the camera and her bag, closed her jacket and let her wild hair loose over the hood, ready to jump as the speed decreased enough. Barty Roberts, however, was an impatient man and climbed the back of the large transport vehicle before it even parked.
"You!" he pointed upon lifting the flap, "What... How... Why... Who
are you and what are you doing here?"
"Who's that ya talkin' to, guv'nor?" asked Mr Polkiss from behind.
"They've found me! They've found me!" Hermione panicked and backed away, "What was I thinking? Oh, they're gonna kill me and I never got a chance to meet green-eyes again!" As she curled into a ball, closing her eyes and clutching her knees together, she heard the swoosh of the canvas being pulled away and then a series of loud metallic clicks and clunks.
Whatever expletives the men were about to say were roughly cut by growls, squeaks and screams. Hermione felt a rustle of wings and clawed feet on top of her head, regained enough control to peek between her fingers using one eye only, and came eye to eye with the most comforting deep brown irises in front of her. "Kettle!" she yelled, hugging the enormous raven with all her might, causing the bird to screech, "How'd you find me?"
"Run Otis, run!" screamed Mr Roberts while climbing to the top of the lorry, he watched with a look Hermione could only describe as morbid fascination when the not so small young Bengal tiger tumbled old Mr Polkiss, whose lucky stars must have been shining bright that day as a pair of spider monkeys distracted the feline long enough for him to escape.
She noticed the PVC canvas laying neatly folded ten yards away, yet even more intriguing was the fact that the steel cages seemed to have dismantled themselves, as if the welds had given way, liberating mammals, reptiles and avian species alike around the spacious dingy warehouse. Kettle the raven flew away through a broken window and Hermione followed the same idea, albeit by running on the ground since she had no wings.
The tiger was now prancing around the lorry, stalking the insane looking Mr Roberts as he swung his feet in a pendulum motion, teasing the orange beast. "I saw what you did!" he yelled upon setting his gaze on Hermione, "I don't know what
you are, but I. Saw. You!"
Confused by those words, she continued to run in order to find a telephone. The offices by the warehouse entrance had phones but no working lines, and she dared not continue to try them lest old Polkiss find her, so Hermione exited the building and sprinted away to a street corner, where a smoking man was sweeping the steps of a small pub aptly named The Corner Steps.
"I need to use your phone!"
"Aye girl, 's on the back," he replied pointing his thumb over his shoulder.
Every beep seemed to last an hour, "C'mon... Berny answer the phone, please!" she whispered. Hermione was about to give up when by the eleventh ring someone answered.
"Oh... Er... Is Bernadette there?"
"May I ask who's calling?"
"A friend, from school?"
Strange sounds Hermione wasn't familiar with and most certainly didn't belong to the normal background noise of her home ensued, until her cousin answered in a stressed voice, "H-Hullo?"
"Berny! You've gotta help--"
"Hermione! Mum it's her!
" she screamed, making her wonder if she had just lost a few decibels of hearing sensitivity forever.
"Yeah, it's me, what's go--"
"My goodness child, where in the name of Gutenberg are you?
" aunt Claire yelled, effectively increasing the chances of Hermione losing half her hearing on the right ear. Just then the unknown voice belonging to the man who answered her call came on the receiver, "Ms Granger? This is Police Commissioner Louis Lamont, I need to--"
"Just a second, P.C. Lamont," she interrupted, "I'm being chased by two men who are animal smugglers and started a fire on a commercial building located in Old Compton Street, and--"
"Please tell me where you are right this moment and we'll send a squad vehicle to protect you!"
"Oh, right, er..." Hermione had no idea where she was, so she took one of the coasters from the bar and read, "The Corner Steps Pub, Manchester
? Oh bother, please tell my uncles I'm--" gasping at the sight of a man's silhouette by the pub entrance, Hermione hung the receiver and shrank as much as possible behind the stained bar.
(Continues in Chapter 5: The Thief and Saviour, Part Deux)