The urgent whispers followed him everywhere he went. At first he had thought he was imagining them. They were ever-present: a word dropped here, a syllable tossed there. He heard them from around corners, through thin doors, and yet every time only a scrap of sound lingered in the silence that fell immediately after he rounded that corner or opened that door. At first he had chased the whispers out of curiosity, but because he could not catch them the novelty had worn off, and now it was just irritating. There was no escape from them.
“Oh, I’m totally there.”
“…but that’s too early for me.”
“Thank god it’s in the one with the coffee machine.”
“I know, I’m telling you, the planning couldn’t be more inconsiderate…”
Kingsley stepped back from the urinal and began to button his robes back up, taking his time. He had found that the restroom was the only place in which he could take shelter from the whispers, and so he had recently made an effort to spend as much time as possible in the loo. He wasn’t in much of a hurry to leave the restroom only to be bombarded with hints of a secret that he had no part in. Kingsley had thought that he knew about everything that went on in the Ministry, but this mystery seemed to have popped up overnight.
He sighed to himself for the umpteenth time in an hour and dawdled in front of the mirror, adjusting his cap. Kingsley wasn’t used to being out of the loop within the Ministry, and he didn’t like the exposed and vulnerable feeling that it carried. Then the door behind him swung open and in stepped two men, carrying on their conversation in hushed tones.
“She seemed surprised that I knew about it, but why wouldn’t I?” The first man spluttered, upset. “I reckon that’s why she never answers my owls with anything more than one-word responses. She does know I’m a manager, right?”
The other shrugged. “I dunno, but all the managers in my Division are planning to go. Keep quiet; nobody else is supposed to—”
The two men halted and fell silent when they spotted Kingsley standing by the row of urinals, regarding them curiously. They shared a tiny meaningful glance and then struggled to scour all signs of guilt from their faces with little success. There was an awkward moment in which all three men stood stock still, unsure of what to do to break the uncomfortable silence. Kingsley turned his most authoritative stare on the two workers, hoping to intimidate an explanation out of them. As managers, they might have had their own offices, but Kingsley was an advisor on the Board and he had a corner office.
The last man to speak, the taller and more self-assured of the two, seemed to recover his composure first. “Good afternoon, Mr. Shacklebolt, sir,” he said stiffly.
Kingsley nodded at him and waited, but the other one simply inclined his head briefly and made his way to the last urinal on the wall, on the end farthest away from Kingsley. The first man trundled over to a urinal smack in the middle of the row and began to fiddle with his waistband. Now restroom decorum required that Kingsley turn away, and he complied, frustrated. There would be no further conversation to be had here.
Kingsley swallowed his grumble of aggravation and suffered through another awkward minute or so to wash his hands in the sink. He strained to hear any exchange of words between the other two men above the running water, but they stayed stubbornly silent. Finally there was nothing to do but dry his hands with a paper towel and walk out.
He strode down the hallway, his mind churning. Even though the whispers miraculously silenced themselves every time he entered the scene, Kingsley had managed to piece together a vague guess from the sheer amount of talk going around. Something was going on next Wednesday, and by the way that the message had completely avoided him and every other member of the Board, Kingsley would bet his favorite hat that it was treacherous—maybe even illegal.
But honestly, he and the Minister had little reason to be worried yet. Past conspiratorial design in the Ministry had been pathetically short-lived, mostly because the gossip mill turned so fast here that soon all anti-Minister interest trickled away in favor of the news on who was snogging who in whose office during the lunch break.
Besides, nothing definitively troublesome had turned up yet. It was all insignificant talk so far. Kingsley and Scrimgeour had more important things to think about—for example, the next World’s Alliance meeting.
Before he had escaped to the loo for silence, Kingsley had been arranging the Vidiportal appointment for the Minister’s upcoming meeting with the World’s Alliance to review their progress with the alarms so far. As Kingsley had expected, the frequency of Muggle accidents hadn’t changed much at all since the alarms had been given out. It was a classic example of how Muggles would believe anything they wanted to believe.
But the operation wasn’t a total waste, after all. At least the Muggle leaders who badgered Scrimgeour for safety measures would be quieted, and the failing Wizarding corporation Erickson & Co. would get a huge boost from the sale.
“Speaking of which,” Kingsley mused to himself as he stepped into the empty elevator, “I should go ask ExComm if Erickson’s replied about the payment yet.”
He had ordered someone there to send an owl to the multi-million-Galleon corporation, proposing a way for the Muggles to pay directly for their alarms. Kingsley assumed that such a huge order by the government would take precedence—and possibly be handled by the top dogs themselves—but he hadn’t received a reply in over four days. In the business world, that was far too long.
As he strode out of the elevator and entered the ExComm wing again, Kingsley felt a thrill of fear rush over him. At first, he couldn’t figure out why, until he concentrated and listened hard. There they were again, the whispers. This time, the hushed voices—a male and a female—came from a door only a few feet from his left shoulder. It was Melinda Connelly’s office.
“Really? That sounds absolutely fascinating.” Linda’s voice could be heard, unnaturally high and coquettish. Kingsley grimaced. That always meant she was after something: a well-kept secret, perhaps, or an impossible favor. “I wish I was as close to him as you are, so that he could confide in me with such exciting ideas,” she continued. Kingsley could practically picture Linda pouting forlornly, and shook his head in disapproval at the mental image.
The male’s responding baritone was more difficult to hear. “Well, I for one am glad that you two are not too close,” he murmured.
Kingsley made another face, not knowing whether it was the awful line or the sickly sweet tone in which he said it that was worse. There was a loud shuffling of displaced papers and the man laughed. Kingsley turned away, having heard more than enough, when inside the room Linda suddenly protested loudly.
“Oi, hold on a second—”
Kingsley stopped cold, the hairs on his arms prickling. He positioned himself into a squatting fight stance nearer to the door, ready to come to Linda’s aid should she need it.
“What is it?” the male sounded impatient.
There was silence for a long moment. Then Linda insisted clearly, “Tell me more first.” Kingsley choked back a laugh and tried to ease his tensed muscles as the man sputtered in protest.
“More…about Lyle? Like what?” Kingsley’s eyes widened. Finally, they were getting on to something useful. “Why are you so interested in knowing about him anyway?” the man accused jealously.
“Not about him,” Linda argued, “about whether or not there’s finally going to be some change around here. All the managers have been talking amongst themselves and complaining ever since we heard that Scrimgeour was helping out the Muggles, but no one’s done anything yet. Besides, I want to know if it’s worth it to get up so early to make the meeting next week.”
A meeting led by the Lyle Peterson, the head legal counselor—this was news to Kingsley. He snuck a hurried glance down the empty hallway in either direction to make sure nobody had seen him in this ridiculous position yet, and then pressed his ear right to the door.
“You should definitely go,” the man was saying. “As far as I know, Lyle’s only arranged this one meeting so far, because the Board will be hosting that annual food drive thing in London on Wednesday. There won’t be a single advisor in this place, aside from a few of the main Heads of Departments. It’s the perfect opportunity.”
“Oh, is that why?” Linda asked in surprise. “That’s…convenient.”
She seemed at a loss for words, and the man took the opportunity to declare, “Now—”
Without thinking, Kingsley raised a fist and rapped sharply on the door. He held his breath and counted to ten silently, ignoring the frantic shuffling going on inside as rapid adjustments to hair, clothes, and papers were made. Then he knocked again. He only got halfway through his second set of ten before Linda called out, “Come in!”
Kingsley stepped into the room, noting the crooked lampshade and upside-down crystal paperweight with a smirk. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Miss Connelly, but I must speak with you for a moment.”
Linda, eyebrows raised, gestured for him to sit down and began to close the door. The man, whose name Kingsley could not remember at the moment, loitered near the filing cabinets along the wall. He was young, and Kingsley’s arrival had caught him somewhere between curiosity and embarrassment. “Er—alone?” Kingsley pressed, shooting the stranger a warning glance.
“Of course, excuse me,” he mumbled and fled, barely remembering to turn around at the door and address Kingsley. “Good day, Mr. Shacklebolt, sir.”
When the door had swung shut, Kingsley eyed Linda disapprovingly. “That wasn’t Charlie from Legal Counsel,” he observed with a wry grin. Linda looked away, a flush spreading across her face. She focused instead on firing silencing spells onto the walls and underneath the doorframe.
“I should’ve thought of this earlier,” she grumbled. “Then we wouldn’t have snoops like you coming about.”
Once the room was secure, Kingsley rubbed his eyes tiredly and his tone grew somber. “He wasn’t Charlie, nor was he another manager from any of the three departments you told me about last week, Linda. What were you doing discussing the new order with him?”
“He’s Willy Something-or-Other, an assistant from Legal Counsel,” she admitted. “He’s not a manager, but he’s close with Lyle Peterson…last year they went to some convention in Wales together, or worked on some project there or something. It’s no surprise he already knows about the order. I suppose he’s expecting to be promoted soon, too; Lyle’s old managerial spot has been open for a few weeks now.”
“Peterson. That kid’s a shit-stirrer,” Kingsley grumbled, thinking of the Board’s troublesome new member. “Tell me he’s not behind it all—what I’ve been hearing around here lately, I mean. We can’t afford to have news of the half-abandoned Statute floating around. Even the Heads know better than to let it get out to the workers.”
Linda fiddled uncomfortably with her large feather quill, swirling it around in her pot of ink. “Look, Kingsley dear, we’ve known each other for a very long time and you know I’d trust you with anything, but it’s not just you I have to worry about, okay?” She swept a piece of hair behind her ear, distressed. “It’s the entire Board and all of Legal Counsel, and if I handle this in the wrong way, that’s more than enough to get me fired! I can’t tell you anything. You understand, don’t you?”
Kingsley froze, his heart pounding erratically. “The entire Board?” he asked quietly. “All of Legal Counsel?” The situation was worse, way worse, than he could have predicted from the elusive whispers. “Merlin, Linda, you told me it was only the managers who knew!”
“That’s what I thought, I swear!” Linda cried, wringing her hands in worry. “It was some Head that leaked it to the managers, that’s what I told you. You know the Heads have always been out for their own interests ahead of the Board’s.”
“And then Lyle Peterson brought in all of Legal Counsel?” Kingsley groaned.
“Well, he hasn’t yet, but he can do that sort of thing now that he’s Executive Counselor. And Merlin, leaking the violated Statute isn’t even what I’m worried about!” Linda cringed and began to pace about the room. “I’m sorry, Kingsley, I’m really sorry, but I can’t tell you any more.”
Kingsley stood up to face her. “Do I really have to go after your friend Willy Something-or-Other for the rest of the information?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t have to be this nice to him.” It was an empty threat, but Kingsley had nothing else to offer. Amazingly, it seemed to work.
“No, don’t!” she said. “It’s not his fault, he doesn’t know much. Okay, see, on Wednesday morning, there’s going to be this thing—Lyle’s not really elaborated much on it, but he called for Law Enforcement, Public Affairs, really everyone who knows about the new order, to be there.” She approached Kingsley and jabbed a finger at his chest. “But I know what you’re thinking, Kingsley. No, you will not go, you will not make it known that you know anything about it, and you will not tell anyone on the Board!” she whispered fiercely. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Too dangerous?” he repeated incredulously. “I’m an Auror.”
“Just, please, Kingsley, it’s bigger than I know!” Linda pleaded. “Don’t bring the Board into this—they’ll only muck things up more for the people who are trying to fix it! Half the people going don’t even believe Lyle. I know I don’t trust him. We’re just going to see what we can do to keep this from blowing up. Merlin knows what’ll happen if the public hears about this.” She sighed, shaking her head. “He’s a right demagogue, dear. The best one the Ministry’s seen in years. Help us if you can, but—”
“Don’t bring the Board into it, I know.” Kingsley rubbed his sore eyes with the heels of his palms again. “I won’t.”
“Good,” Linda said. “If a Head is working together with Lyle, more likely than not the Board’s compromised anyway.” She looked around awkwardly for a moment before she spotted a tin of candies on her desk. “Er—would you like a chocolate?”
“No thanks, I’ve got a meeting I need to finish arranging…” Kingsley opened the door and was out into the hallway before he remembered why he had come to External Communications in the first place. “You haven’t gotten any high-priority messages for me around here lately, have you?”
Linda frowned. “No, don’t think so, or people would have been talking. You’re still approving those drafts from the Prophet before they print, aren’t you? There’s one of those coming through here every morning, and that’s the only stuff coming in for you.”
Kingsley nodded. “Yeah, but this one’s an owl from Erickson & Co. They’re days late to reply me.”
“That’s odd. Erickson, you said? Charlie’s old friends with that bloke; he was telling me about him just this morning. He said they were talking about going fishing together last weekend, but Charlie hasn’t been able to find hide nor hair of him for almost a week.” Linda smiled faintly. “Really young to be head of such a big company, isn’t he? I reckon he must be pretty rich.”
Kingsley snorted as he headed out the door again. “Don’t get your hopes up, Linda,” he joked, trying to suppress a strange feeling of uneasiness in his gut. There was nothing good that could come from the CEO of ErickCorp suddenly vanishing. “My fiancée read in Witch Weekly once that he’s married—has a little girl, too.”
Linda sighed forlornly. “Maybe he’s off on his second honeymoon. Be careful, and remember what I said!” she called after him. “Merlin help us both if something goes wrong.”
At the start of his lunch break, Pius Thicknesse strolled casually into the Legal Counsel department, past the general secretary, and into Lyle Peterson’s office. Peterson’s personal secretary frowned and called after him. “The Executive Counselor is busy. Do you have an appointment, sir?”
Without a word Thicknesse turned around, raised a clumsy eyebrow, and pointed at his badge, which clearly stated his name followed by the title in bold red letters: “Head”. Sighing, the secretary waved him in, muttering to herself about inflated egos.
Sure enough, Lyle Peterson was hunched at his desk, scribbling away furiously with a quill on a long piece of parchment that was wet with new black ink. Thicknesse leaned against the doorframe and observed him silently for a minute, but the younger man was so preoccupied that he didn’t seem to notice.
Finally Thicknesse grew impatient of waiting to be acknowledged. He would have to sacrifice his dramatic entrance for the sake of brevity—after all, his lunch break was only a couple short hours, and he had other things he needed to take care of.
He cleared his throat loudly. “So, how’s the speech-writing going?”
Peterson jerked up from his parchment, startled. His nerves were already ragged with anticipation and conspiratorial anxiety. “How did you—”
“You may be running the group therapy session this time, Peterson, but don’t forget where your information comes from,” Thickness replied smugly. He took a certain pleasure in looking down upon the ambitious young attorney. “Do not assume that you have any secrets from me because on this project, your people don’t work for you. They work for me, and I will be informed of your every new development.”
“Of course,” Peterson agreed smoothly. Barely a flicker of an eyelid betrayed his distaste for Thicknesse’s condescension—it wasn’t so long ago that Peterson had worked subordinate to someone, and he didn’t appreciate the reminder. “I only thought that this was the logical next step.”
Thicknesse’s top lip curled, but he nodded. “Unfortunately, I just received word that I must attend the fundraiser with the rest of the primary Board members on Wednesday. It’s just as well that I do not attend the gathering—you are the more prolific speaker of us two. However, you and I both know that your meeting is vital to our success, and you would do well to remember the full objective of this project. Do you understand my meaning?”
“You have nothing to worry about from me, sir,” Peterson declared stoutly. “I wouldn’t dream of promoting myself in your place.”
Thicknesse stared suspiciously down at the young man, one eyebrow raised. “I’m not sure I believe you.”
“It would be a poor tactical choice to pit myself against you, sir.” There was an unnoticed lilt of irony in Peterson’s formal tone. “I do not have enough experience or support to combat you, and if we combined our resources instead of dividing them we’d have twice the chance of succeeding.”
“You’re quite convincing,” Thicknesse noted, a shadow of a smirk beginning to show on his lips. “Well, if all goes well, rest assured that you will certainly be well rewarded for your efforts upon my ascension, then. Perhaps there will be a vacancy on my private advisory—as it is, the Board is quickly becoming obsolete without my help. Good day, Mr. Peterson.”
As unceremoniously as he had come, Thicknesse swept out of the office, and quill scratched upon parchment once more. Lyle Peterson resumed his writing with new vigor, comforted by the thought that Thicknesse had all but promised him the spoils of his victory. He didn’t have to like this new boss; he just had to obey him. Then all of this work—long hours, sleepless nights, constant anxiety, and dishonest business—would pay off for him in the end.
A/N: Sorry about the late update, but as always reviews are very much appreciated. The box is below. =]
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