Chapter 3 : A Bit of Friendly Competition
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Raj hadn’t told me that the meeting would include almost every other host at the station. But judging by the look on his face when we entered Diggle’s office, nobody had told him, either.
“Welcome,” said Diggle from behind his cluttered desk. “Good show?”
“It always is,” I replied, taking an empty seat.
I glanced at my fellow hosts. Two were missing: Helen Widdershins, whose household advice show was on immediately following mine, and Elwood Montgomery, who reported the news for a couple of hours every night.
Kate MacMillan, who was in the seat next to mine, gave me a smile when I sat down. I liked Kate. She was a witch in her early-forties who gave relationship advice in the afternoon. I worked on her show for awhile, reading the advertisements and various other tasks, and it was Kate who dropped hints to Diggle that I might be ready for bigger and better things.
Dahlia Brown was also there, which surprised me, because Dahlia kept mostly to herself. She hosted a late-night show called Daily Divination with Dahlia. I’d been at Hogwarts with her, but as she was a couple of years ahead of me and in a different House, I didn’t know much about her.
I heard once that her mum Lavender had been at Hogwarts with my parents, but when I asked about her at a family gathering, several interesting things had happened: my mum smacked me in the head, Uncle Harry started cracking up, Aunt Ginny smacked him in the head, and Uncle Ron turned bright red and asked me to please not mention Miss Brown in the future when Aunt Hermione was around. Now, I’m not a total idiot. I figured that one out real quick. I was confused and impressed at the same time, because I could never picture Uncle Ron being successful with any women aside from Aunt Hermione. It seemed unnatural.
The only time I’d ever had direct contact with Dahlia was a few months earlier, when she approached me at the station, told me that she foresaw something terrible regarding my show the following day, and asked me if I would like to switch time slots with her. Of course, I said no. I knew she just wanted prime air time – there was a reason they stuck her in the middle of the night, and it’s because she was a total nutter. Then I showed up for work the next day and found out that Dex, Tibbs, and James had all fallen ill, and Raj and I had to do the show alone. Dex said he wondered if Dahlia had actually made a real prediction. I think she just poisoned the food in the break room.
Last, and definitely least in my book, Stan Bollingsworth was at the meeting. Bollingsworth had an evening show where he pontificated on all manner of things that nobody in their right mind would want to listen to. Every word that came out of his mouth actually had a net negative impact on his ability to get laid, which is no doubt why he was such an arse to everyone around him.
He was about five hundred years old, and he hated me because I was splashing around in the fountain of youth, and because my show was better than his.
He also had no neck.
He cleared his throat and looked over at us. “Hello, boys,” he said, with particular emphasis and condescension in the second word.
I’m twenty-six years old. I’ve got your boys right here.
Bollingsworth’s production manager, Eric Barnes, was also there, sitting behind everyone else and generally blending into the woodwork. Barnes was a mousy-looking man who didn’t say very much. Kate’s manager wasn’t there, because he was also manager for Helen’s show. I don’t know whether Dahlia even had a production manager – maybe she didn’t have a crew at all, as having people around during her barmy fortune-telling sessions probably disrupted her chi or something.
Diggle clapped his hands together. “So now you’re all here – almost all of you, anyway. Because Helen and Elwood couldn’t make it, I’ve talked to them each separately. Helen is interested in taking part. Elwood probably will not, but as Elwood only reports the news anyway, I’m not so sure it would work for him. But I’m hoping you’ll all want to be involved, although there’s no pressure. I just think it would be a great thing for the station to do together.”
If it had anything to do with team-building, I was out of there. I’d heard about that kind of wonky stuff from my cousins who worked for the Ministry. There was no way I was going to do anything that required me to place my trust in Stan Bollingsworth.
Diggle continued. “As you know, St. Mungo’s has been dealing with a large influx of Muggle patients as a result of the Snapper attacks. Because of the fact that many of these patients are going to require long-term care, and the fact that St. Mungo’s isn’t generally prepared to deal on a large scale with the complications that go along with Muggle patients, they’re finding themselves stretched rather thin. I think it would be nice if we, as a station, raised some money to help out St. Mungo’s in terms of resources, and if possible to also help out the families of the victims who may be in bad shape for quite some time.”
“That’s a lovely idea!” said Kate.
Diggle smiled. “Stan here has come up with an even better idea, to make a bit of friendly competition out of it.”
Putting “Stan” and “friendly” in the same sentence was like giving Voldemort the nickname “Snugglekins.”
“The way it would work, each of you would try to raise charitable funds on your show over the next few months, and the winner, the host who raises the most money, would get a perk of sorts.”
“Perk” was the right word. I could practically feel Raj’s ears perking up at the idea of anything that would help advance our show.
“The winning host would be allowed to take over another show’s slot for a week, essentially getting twice as much air time. The host and crew of that show would still work, of course, but helping out the winning host during the takeover slot. Sort of like assistants for a week.”
No. Absolutely bleeding not.
I knew exactly why Soddingsface had suggested that. He knew he’d win. Aside from my Uncle Percy, all of the people who listened to the Stan Bollingsworth Show were hundred-year-old retirees who were filthy rich. And I knew exactly whose slot he would take over.
Why was Diggle looking like this was the greatest idea since Floo Powder was invented?
“And I thought I’d throw in another benefit,” he added. “I’ve been wanting to expand the Saturday lineup anyway, so whoever wins will get a three-hour slot on Saturdays. Permanently.”
I don’t think Raj had been this excited since…well, I don’t think Raj had ever been this excited. It didn’t show on his face, but I knew him well enough to recognize the manic gleam in his eye.
He wouldn’t do that to me. He would know better. Raj was a Ravenclaw. Weren’t they supposed to be intelligent?
I had to say something, but it seemed I had lost all ability to speak. I believe that’s what you would call irony. It’s not nearly as humorous when it actually happens to you.
“Diggle,” I finally choked out. My voice sounded like that of a twelve year-old girl. “It’s the end of October.”
“Yes.” He frowned and looked at me like I had gone mad. He had no idea how close that was to reality.
“Well…it’s just that the holidays are almost upon us…and it’s always such an expensive time. Do you really think people will be ready and willing to toss loads of money our way?”
“Well, what better time to raise charitable funds than the holidays? Especially for something like this – there’s a lot of concern about these poor Muggles, especially with them being away from their families for so long. In fact, I think we could try to finish our fundraising by the end of December. Then it would really be a proper Christmas gesture.”
Step one: take out wand. Step two: hex self in foot.
“Afraid of a little friendly competition, Freddie?”
I don’t recall ever giving Boringsworth permission to call me Freddie. And no, I wasn’t afraid of competition. I was scared of that sad excuse for a hairpiece that looked like all the vermin of the world lived in it.
“ ’Course not, Stannie-boy.” I gave him my best Go provoke a troll expression. But on the inside, I was curled up in a fetal position crying for my mummy.
“So!” said Diggle with a crooked smile. “What does everyone think? We’ll start the competition next week, end it in a couple of months, perhaps at the end of the last full week in December, and then the following week we’ll do the slot switch.”
I decided that this would have been the perfect time to have some Puking Pastilles handy, and reminded myself to visit Dad’s shop more often.
Raj crossed his arms and stretched his long legs out in front of him. “I have one suggestion,” he said in his most measured, reasonable voice. “That following week is the New Year…I don’t think it would be a good idea to disrupt anyone’s New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day show. What if we pushed back the swap until the following week – first full week in January?”
That’s an interesting strategy, Raj. What I don’t see is how the hell it’s going to get us out of this. But what do I know? I’m just a dashing Gryffindor.
Diggle pursed his lips and raised one eyebrow. “Very well. Can I count you all in, then?”
“Definitely!” said Kate.
“Of course,” said Bollingsworth. He smiled, and his eyes disappeared into his corpulent face. What a horrifying sight that man was. I thought we should be raising money to have his entire face replaced.
“We’re in,” said Raj. I suffered momentary heart failure and realized I needed to have a talk with Raj about seeking excitement at the expense of my dignity.
Everyone looked at Dahlia for her decision. She lifted her chin in the air and tossed her long brown hair off her shoulders. “The Inner Eye is not concerned with such tedium,” she said in a patronizing sort of voice. “I must decline the invitation.”
Tedium? How about pretentium? (Look, if she could make up prophecies, I could certainly make up new words.)
The meeting wrapped up, and I was the first one out of Diggle’s office. Raj was right behind me, and when I reached the break room I turned around and whispered, “Raj! Exactly what is going through your tossing mind?”
Raj held up one hand to silence me and smiled pointedly over my shoulder. “Bye, Dahlia.”
I glanced over my shoulder to see Dahlia headed for the fireplace. She stopped and gazed at us for a moment. Did she have a lazy eye?
She sniffed in a superior way, looked straight at me (well, sort of straight), and said in what she clearly considered to be a mysterious voice, “I see betrayal in your future.” With that, she bowed her head and drifted off towards the fireplace once more.
“It’s not in my future, is it?” I snapped as she Flooed out of sight. “It’s about ten minutes in my past!” I turned back to Raj and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Raj, you’re like a brother to me, and it’s for that reason I want you to know…the deepest circle of Hell is reserved for traitors.”
“Stop being so melodramatic. We’re going to work this out, Fred. We can do this!” He glanced over my shoulder again, then lowered his voice. “Look…let’s Floo the others, meet up for lunch, and figure this out. We’ll get some ideas out there, it’ll be better than you think.”
“I should make you buy.”
“Can’t, sorry! I’ve got a family to feed.”
“You’re full of crap. Besides, you make more than I do.”
“Well, I’m more valuable than you are. Doesn’t Tibbs owe you lunch, anyway?”
“Yeah, but I hate making her pay. Feels wrong.”
“So chivalrous.” He grinned. “Alright, so…we shouldn’t Floo anyone from here. I don’t want to be overheard. Let’s each of us go home, and I’ll Floo Dexter and you Floo James and Tabitha. It’s close to ten now, so let’s say…eleven-thirty at the Leaky Cauldron?”
A few minutes later, I stepped out of my fireplace and into my flat. My orange tabby cat was perched on a nearby chair, staring at me as if he had been expecting me at that exact moment.
“Hello, Ogden!” I scratched him behind the ears. “Where’s Tonic?”
I found Tonic, my brown tabby cat, lying in a patch of sunlight next to the sofa. She blinked at me, yawned, then stretched and rolled onto her other side.
“Glad to know everyone’s so chuffed to see me,” I said.
I redirected my attention to the task at hand: time to Floo James and Tibbs, both of whom would undoubtedly take my side in this mess.
I’d always been a bit wary of the Floo Network as an impromptu method of communication. Back in the day, that had really been the only means of communication, apart from sending owls, and you couldn’t exactly use owls when you wanted a quick response. And, as everyone else seemed to think the Floo Network was brilliant, I’m sure I was the only person who saw the inherent flaw in the system.
When Flooing someone, you basically popped up unannounced into their home. Sometimes it was expected, but more often than not, it was a spur-of-the-moment visit. Privacy was clearly not a consideration when the Floo Network was invented.
Often, when I was home from Hogwarts for the holidays, or while I still lived at home after school, Dad would ask me to do him a favor and Floo someone – my grandparents, maybe, or Uncle Ron or Uncle Harry. I didn’t have a problem with my grandparents, but I was less inclined to pop my head into Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione’s sitting room without warning. See, Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione were more flirtatious than a couple of teenagers. I therefore lived in constant fear that I’d pop over there one day to find them in the process of…well…let’s say making Hugo into a middle child.
Nowadays, we had the telephone, and while some wizards still hadn’t quite accepted the telephone as a replacement for Flooing, at least I would never have to worry about needing therapy as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Or the right time, I supposed, depending on whose perspective it was from.)
On the other hand, James and Tibbs each lived alone, and as we’d all just come home from work, I felt it safe to assume I wasn’t going to see anything traumatizing. And so I stuck my head into the fireplace and Flooed Tibbs first.
I stared out at a familiar room, decorated in bright reds and yellows. A row of well-kept potted plants sat on a windowsill, and an abstract painting hung on an adjacent wall, but my sound technician was nowhere in sight.
“Tibbs!” I bellowed. I waited a few seconds before shouting again, “Tibbs! Get your Yankee arse in here!”
She strode into view, an amused expression playing across her heart-shaped face. “What is it? Is the world ending?”
“Yes, it bleeding well is. You wouldn’t believe what Raj had gotten us into.” I gave her the abridged version of the story and told her to meet up for lunch at eleven-thirty. Then I Flooed James.
My cousin came into view right away. His tall, lanky frame was draped across his manky old sofa, and he was staring placidly at the ceiling with his hands behind his head.
“Ah,” I said. “Hello, Raskolnikov.”
“What?” His forehead crinkled as he glanced over at me and pulled himself into a sitting position.
I sighed. “Don’t you read?”
“Fred, when have you ever known me to read?”
I explained the problem to my uncultured buffoon of a relative and told him where to meet everyone.
Now we’d see what the rest of my crew thought of the situation.
After making the obligatory conversation with Hannah Longbottom, the landlady of the Leaky Cauldron, and placing our orders with the waitress, it soon became clear that everyone else had been drinking the same crazy juice as Raj.
“It sounds brilliant!” said Dex, after Raj and I explained the competition with the other hosts.
“Yeah, it should be fun, mate,” James added.
I glared at them and turned to Tibbs. “Et tu, Brute?”
She shrugged. “I don’t think it’s as bad as you believe, Fred. We could have a chance, you know.”
I grumbled incoherently as the waitress brought out the first wave of food. I pushed my salad plate towards Tibbs so that she could take my tomatoes; as she did so, I picked the radishes off of her salad (Tibbs didn’t like root vegetables, aside from potatoes). We were a good team, Miss Benson and I.
“Well, look,” said Raj in between bites, “the most obvious way to go about this is to have some kind of incentive for listeners who donate. You can bet all your Galleons that the other shows will be doing that. I mean, yes, a lot of our listeners are young and aren’t making a ton of money, but we can still get them hooked somehow. Besides, why wouldn’t they want to help us? They’ve got as much of a stake in this as we have – they don’t want to have us off the air for a week!”
“Yeah,” I said, “but what can we give out? Nothing too expensive, obviously.”
“Well,” said Raj slowly, “the first thing I thought of was tickets to a Quidditch match.” He glanced at James, who seemed to understand what Raj was getting at and responded by wrinkling his nose.
“What?” asked Raj. “You’re on good terms with your old manager, aren’t you?”
“I suppose so,” responded James.
I raised my eyebrows. It was actually a decent idea. “It couldn’t hurt, James,” I said. “Think you could see if we can get any tickets for free, or at least at a considerable discount?”
James nodded and gave us a smile that didn’t quite cover up his sudden bout of moodiness. “Right. I’ll talk to Mike and see if I can’t work something out.”
He stabbed at something on his plate much harder than was necessary, and I could almost hear Tibbs rolling her eyes. Out of us all, Tibbs had the lowest tolerance for James’ lingering resentment over his dead Quidditch career.
“Hey!” said Dex a moment later. “What if you bred Ogden and Tonic, and then we could give out kittens?”
We all stopped eating and stared at Dex for a full ten seconds.
“Dex, would you donate twenty or so Galleons in order to get a kitten?”
“Don’t know – it would probably depend on the cuteness of the kitten in question.”
I laughed. “Try saying that five times fast. Besides, my cats aren’t capable of having kittens anyway – don’t tell Ogden, though, because I think it’d hurt his ego.”
“Fred!” exclaimed Raj, cutting through everyone’s laughter. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before! Get your dad to donate a bunch of stuff from Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes!”
“What? It’s a good idea!” he insisted.
I rolled my eyes. “I hate having a famous family.”
“Eff off!” laughed James, throwing a piece of bread at me.
“Well, you don’t count.” I chuckled. “I just hate the idea of the show becoming That show with that guy whose dad owns Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes and whose uncle is Harry Potter and whose other uncle and aunt are war heroes and whose other aunt is a famous Quidditch player – ”
At that last bit, James threw a piece of bread at Dexter.
I sighed. “I’ll think about talking to my dad. He already thinks he’s entitled to free advertisement time on the show.” I looked at James. “Mental, all of them – our family is completely mad!”
He laughed even more. “In twenty years, when you become your dad, I’ll never let you live it down.”
From there, the conversation got terribly off topic, as we all discussed the various ways in which we would inevitably become our parents. Tibbs joined in the fun, but when the discussion finally came ‘round to the idea of Tibbs becoming her mother, I declared rather tactfully that Tibbs would always be a good bloke like her dad, and then I steered the discussion to the topic of whether Raj and his wife Michelle were going to have a boy or a girl. Michelle wanted to be surprised and had forbidden the Healer from telling either of them which it would be.
We all concurred that Raj was going to have a girl, which scared the hell out of him and provoked him to bring the conversation back full circle to the topic of the fundraising competition.
I left the Leaky Cauldron feeling more or less settled about the daunting task we had ahead of us. Whatever happened, my crew was sure to have far more fun than anybody ought to be allowed.
I was still going to get back at Raj somehow…probably by taking him out and getting him snockered, then sending him home to face his wife.
In the meantime, I had a Weasley-tastic weekend ahead of me. Gran’s eightieth birthday party was the next day, and the Greater Weasley Family would be out in full force, in all its lunacy and glory.
Nutters, all of them. And people wonder where I get it from.
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