Chapter 1 : SCENE ONE
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EXCERPT FROM THE TRANSCRIPTS OF DRACO A. MALFOY, APRIL 13th, 2003
They were not the kind of people I usually see. That should have been my first clue that this was far beyond an ordinary case. They were older, and dressed too well for the neighborhood, coming down the street looking nervous and glancing over their shoulders. A couple, maybe in their forties, but well taken care of: the woman with her hair done nicely, and the man wearing an expensive hat over his bald spot. I knew they had to be coming for me from the second I spotted them across the street- I just didn't know why.
It only took a minute for the story to come tumbling out. Usually, people hesitate. They don't want to elaborate, they don't want to think about their own guilt and how it lead them to be sitting in the chair across from me, a cigarette-scarred desk between us that they rest their hands on like it will anchor them in the churning sea of their own misdeeds. But these two were chattering nervously before I even sat down, the man twisting his handkerchief in his hands and the woman taking great gulps of air in between trembling sobs. She wasn't crying- maybe she had no tears left- just shaking in a rhythmic, heaving way.
"Our daughter, Rose," the woman said, and the man fumbled in his wallet for a photograph. His hand was shaking when he slid it across the table and I let it sit, for the time being, without looking at it. I didn't need to, I could see it already. She'd be pretty like her mother looked like she was when her eyes weren't red and swollen. She'd be young. She'd be smiling because she had parents who loved her and crept down dark alleys, desperate to help her but unsure where to turn.
"She's just out of Hogwarts," the man explained, and his wife nodded tremulously. "Excellent marks, never a spot of trouble. But as soon as she's home she starts acting strangely; staying out too late, with people we'd never seen before, keeping secrets. We thought- we thought it was normal. Youth, you know," he said, and he tried for a shaky smile. I thought about returning it- people always say my bedside manner leaves something to be desired- but I never can bring myself to be too reassuring. It gives people a lot of hope, relaxes them. Sometimes they shouldn't be too hopeful, or relaxed.
"Then, just a few weeks ago, she started staying out for days at a time. She'd come home one morning without a word to say to either of us and looking pale as anything. We tried to talk to her about it, she didn't want to hear a word," the man continued, looking anguished. "And then... and then... three weeks ago, she leaves, and doesn't come back. We've been round to all of her friends, everywhere they say she hangs about, but no one's seen or heard from her."
Not much to go on. Not a lot of ways for this to end. But they wanted to pay up front. 'Anything you can find,' they said. It was too good of an offer; they were desperate. I asked about the usual suspects, but they were clueless. They said she didn't have a boyfriend. I looked at the picture. She was pretty, happy, warm. There was no way this girl was wandering around town without catching anyone's eye, but the parents seemed sincere. So they didn't know. Well, a young girl confides in her friends. I'd have to start there.
When they left, I advised them to stay in the street, where the lamp light was strongest. You never know what's lurking in the darkness these days.
It's raining again. The streets of London are shallow pools and in the night the pavement is dark as spilled blood. But it doesn't seem to bother him as he heads down the street, head tilted so his hat can keep the rain out of his eyes, his hands deep in the pockets of his raincoat. Draco knows, from the parents description, that Rose Zeller liked to get a taste of the nightlife. So she has friends roaming the slick streets of London tonight, somewhere, and he is on his way to find them.
He turns down the back alley and taps the bricks with his wand, waiting as the archway reveals the entrance to Diagon Alley. It's like stepping into daylight, with neon colored lights flashing everywhere he looks, shining from windows and doorways and reflecting off of the rain drops as they fall in an endless technicolor firework. If she was just out of school and looking for a party, this was where she'd have gone: the Alleys. It had still been a shopping district when he had left school, but he could imagine the appeal to a barely-of-age witch: one endless party, dance clubs that didn't close until the sun had risen, the pulse of youth and rebellion permeating every building. Once the shops had closed, after Kingsley's murder and the Splintering had begun, it had been a wasteland: streets full of empty, unwanted buildings occupied only by mice and the desperate. Easy enough to tear down a few old shops, expand underground, and let the dusk-to-dawn festivity begin.
The first few places are useless. The barkeepers have never seen her, the doormen have never seen her, or she looks just like every other girl who comes in and out and they can't be sure. On his third try he strikes gold: a barmaid who says she's been in and out, but not in the past few weeks. The barmaid is leaning on the counter, looking up at him through long eyelashes, her voice melodic.
"Any friends inside?" he asks her, and she tilts her head as she looks, her long blonde hair swaying in straight tendrils across her neck. She points to a distant table, as she pulls her hand back, her fingers brush his arm. He thanks her and turns his back and can't see, but can imagine, her tiny frown at his dismissal.
He makes his way to the back table and finds a rowdy group: six or so eighteen-to-nineteens, talking over each other and over the pounding music. Draco can be patient enough; he sits at a nearby empty table and waits for the group to thin. When it does, he's left with two girls, their eyes wide and bright with excitement, speaking low enough that he can't hear a word in the bass-heavy atmosphere. He stands up and slides into the seat next to them. He's good with girls, especially girls who like a little risk. They like the cold way he looks at them, they think they can warm his heart. They like that he's a little dangerous, a little too controlled. It takes a while for them to become afraid of the man behind the smooth exterior. This is lucky for him. He enjoys the company and the soft, warm touch of women but he has no taste for the love that they tearfully demand, eventually, before storming away. He enjoys challenge. Most women are easy and the ones who are not are the ones he remembers. These two girls will fold like petals in the wind.
"Ladies," he gives them a nod and they look at him in surprise. He's older, but not by much, and he doesn't look like a freak. He can see the wary interest growing in their faces, but they're cautious. You can't trust strangers in the Alleys. They've heard stories of what can happen to pretty girls like them when they get too friendly with someone a little too dangerous and with just enough power not to fear getting caught.
"What's your name?" one of them, the bolder one, asks him. Her friend is pretty in a bland, nondescript way, but this one's eyes are dark and narrow, with a hint of exoticism. She is more confident, more attracted by the idea of a dark, smoldering stranger.
"Ben," Draco replies, and within minutes they are laughing, amused by his smooth talk and cool manner. The nervous one is Yvonne, the other Nancy, and he takes advantage of their warmth.
"I'm looking for a girl. I'm told you might have been familiar," he says loudly over the music. "Rose Zeller?"
He doesn't bother with an elaborate pretense. These ones are working hard at playing dangerous games, but they're innocent, fresh and unsuspecting. They liked to toy with the idea of risk: darkness, strangers, a close and sweaty dance floor and the reputation of the Alleys. But they wouldn't go any farther. They looked at one another and exchanged rolled eyes when they heard the name.
"She doesn't come here anymore. She thinks she's too good," the bold one says, and the other gives an agreeing laugh.
"What do you mean?"
"She and her stupid boyfriend stopped coming. They were always saying they had 'important' things to do," the other, the nervous one, chimes in, eager to be a part of the conversation. "And then they stopped showing up. You know, it's a good thing we don't have prat boyfriends." Her friend gives her an embarrassed prod and they both giggle.
"Where did they take their business?" he asks, careful not to push too hard, to arouse their suspicions. But they only shrug.
"I saw them across the street, at Potions," the bold one says. "Kevin was talking to some guys, but Rose looked like she wasn't excited."
"Kevin the boyfriend?" Draco confirms, making a mental note of it.
"Kevin Whitby," they echo simultaneously, then turn to one another and giggle. Draco stands up.
"Where are you going?"
"Forgot to feed the cat," he shoots back over his shoulder.
He makes his way back to the entrance from which he came. On the way, he passes the barmaid, and she looks up as he walks by. She follows him with her eyes. He has time to spare and she's got plenty to offer in the way of entertainment. He could turn back to her, sit down at the bar, order a drink and give her what she wants- a few hours of pleasant, suggestive conversation. Some jokes to laugh at. An invitation and a cold, brisk tone in the morning so that she can leave and tell herself she was blameless, that he was an arse, and she guiltless for her indiscretion. But there's no telling what her agenda might be, especially not in the Alleys. Any other night he might be interested but tonight he's got another woman on his mind, and this one he's being well paid to track down.
He heads out and searches for the place the girl mentioned, 'Potions'. It isn't quite across the street, it is further down the alley, and Draco wonders if that is quite as ominous as it seems to him. The further down the alley, the closer to the other, unmentionable side of Alley Town: Knockturn Alley. It's not the kind of place a sweet, excited teenage girl would wander into accidentally. Knockturn Alley is the very heart of Dynasty territory, the center of the web from which their silken lines spin. It's the kind of place only players who know the game very well ever venture.
He passes groups of people, some standing in circles huddled beneath awnings against the downpour, others alone, lighting a lone cigarette and struggling to keep it burning. Ahead of him, Draco sees a solitary figure leaning against a wall. He doesn't appear to be doing much of anything; he simply stares out into the rain, his eyes wide and blank. Draco has heard rumors of some new craze sweeping through, some illicit substance that is gaining popularity with University students. The man certainly looks as though he's seeing something otherwordly. But Draco has no interest in the activities of drug-addled students, only in the activities of two, and that trail leads him to the doorstep of Potions, a busy-looking pub that seems to be designed around the familiar Potions classroom at Hogwarts.
It's clever designing, but Draco isn't swept up by an emotional barrage of schoolboy memories. It's only been five years, of course. Perhaps he's too young yet to know the pangs of nostalgia. He takes a seat at the bar and keeps his eyes open. What he learns after a few minutes of observation is interesting: most of the crowd is oblivious, telling loud filthy jokes and running from table to table in a dizzying rotation. A few are dancing on the platform representing the teacher's desk, their heads bobbing to repetitive music. But a few fairly quiet patrons occasionally slip up the stairs in the back corner, disappearing and not returning.
He turns to two young men sitting in stools adjacent to him, who are boasting loudly about the number of Firewhiskeys they've had and arguing one another's claims. Merlin, it's loud in here, and boiling. Everywhere he turns there's another group of men and women, smashed, falling out of their stools, the witches wearing robes that exposed more skin than they covered. These are not the people he knew in school, the arrogant and competitive young men drinking from forbidden flasks in the common room and plotting future careers, the haughty and clever socialites taking pleasure in their own superiority, both sides playing a graceful, well-scripted dance between rebellion and a proper public face. This is loud, dirty, shameless. He's used to upper crust, and he's sinking into the messy center of the Alleys' apple pie. He's not in his element here, but he's confident in his ability to playact. If he wasn't a good liar he'd be dead.
"What's upstairs?" he asks of the man next to him, skipping an introduction.
"Private party," the man replies, barely glancing over his shoulder.
He moves around a bit, discreetly dropping names, looking for anyone who might have had an ear to Kevin's business there. But it's a tough crowd tonight, no one talks, no one has a clue bigger than their own sense of self-preservation. These are the kinds of people who can go deaf faster than a curse can cross a room when it's convenient for them. There's nothing for it. He'll have to try a direct approach.
He heads for the stairs with supreme confidence. That and a hard attitude have gotten him into tight places before. But he's only halfway up the steps when a women in a cocktail apron descends, looking at him with a quick eye. Damn.
"I'm sorry sir, this party is private," she tells him, blocking his way.
"Who's birthday is it?" he asks her casually, leaning against the banister so she has nowhere to slip by.
"Somebody with a real nice family," she tells him, raising an eyebrow. He knows what that means- whatever game is going on upstairs has more players than are present tonight.
"Didn't I tell you? I'm the birthday boy's uncle," he says to her, and carefully steps around where she's standing still, looking at him warily. "Don't worry, I prefer to be anonymous," he assures her, and slips a galleon into her apron pocket as he ascends. He always tips his waitress.
She makes no move to stop him this time. Perhaps she's simply not used to such pushy customers. Most people make a real effort to stay out of the way of private business in the Alleys. Draco's finding himself down here more and more. The waitress needn't be concerned: it's in his best interest to keep his head down. Nobody really likes a snoop. When he reaches the top of the stairs and follows the sound of voices down a corridor to a room on the left, he stays quiet and he stays hidden, around the corner, listening to the raucous laughter within. They're playing cards; he can hear the slap of the stiff material on a table.
"I've got ashes," someone says, with a groan. His fellows rib him for a moment before a few more fold, and the game is over. Draco hears the clink of glasses.
"How much money do you think you've lost so far, Jimmy?" asks a gruff voice.
"It's the drink, fellas. I can't trust myself when I've knocked a few back," the other man replies, and his friends laugh at the joke.
"Well that's pathetic, seeing as we don't trust you when you're sober," someone shoots back, and the laughter resumes.
"How's business?" Jimmy asks, presumably to someone specific.
"Got blocks to push tomorrow," comes the answer. "Harlow's got me making house calls three times a week. But who's complaining? 'Low says push, I push."
"Unless you want to eat sparks," comments another, and a nervous chuckle ripples around the room. Draco doesn't follow half of what they're talking about but he knows the name; Leon Harlow, a big shot on the Knockturn side, also called Leon Low by those who know him. So Kevin Whitby was dipping his toes in the Dynasty water. There's no way these are major players, not if they're still here and not on the other side of the Alleys. They're feet, wand men, little fish compared to the bosses. And Kevin had been in with them. So how does Rose fit in?
He's heard enough to move forward and there's no way he'll get any of them to talk, these are close-mouthed men for the sake of their own skins. He backs down, descends the stairs into the crowded pub below, and goes in search of the chatty waitress. She leaning on the bar, making a meal out of writing out a ticket. He slips between a few other patrons to her side.
"Bored by the party?" she asks him, avoiding his eyes.
"I don't like cake," he replies. He takes the photo of Rose from his pocket, slides it across the bar to her side. She doesn't pick it up but he knows she's looking. "This girl ever visit the scene upstairs?"
"Maybe I've never seen her," the waitress dodges shrewdly, turning to him and abandoning her half-written ticket.
"Maybe you haven't," he shrugs. "Her brother will be sorry she missed his birthday party. He might be upset. I'd send her an owl if I knew where to find her."
She bites her lip and looks down at the photo again. She wants to help, he knows, and so he waits in silence. Good people always talk in the end, when their consciences work them over. This girl is good. She's in the wrong place with the wrong crowd. She's tipping like a teapot in the hand of god and he waits nearby, ready to pour himself a cup.
"She came in with a touchy kind of guy. But she works the crowd downstairs, never up. She made a lot of friends. Someone said she was looking for a leg up."
"On what ladder?"
"She liked to play girlfriend," the waitress shrugs neatly. "That's all I know."
It's been a productive night and he's picked up the scent. He leaves her by the bar and heads out, back into the night where the rain has slowed and drips from roofs and gutters in a drumming rhythm that keeps time with his footsteps and the flow of his mind working the puzzle. So Rose had followed her boyfriend when he wanted to get a piece of the action, but she was headed in a different direction, trying to make connections, feeling her way up. And she found out she couldn't get what she wanted with the Potions crowd. So what was she looking for? 'She liked to play girlfriend', the waitress said. What did that mean?
He's nearly out of the Diagon Alley when it clicks into place. Of course. A girl looking to make a name for herself without getting into the boy's club, she had only one way to go, and this side of the Alleys never would have gotten her there. She must have realized it, gotten hungry. Or maybe Kevin wanted a bigger piece of the pie than the scraps he was sharing with the boys upstairs. They got greedy and they got in deeper.
So he has a destination. It's been a while since he's been on that side of town, and the last time ended on shaky terms with a few of the inhabitants. They know him there and not everyone likes him. Perhaps he ought to start keeping better company, or at least avoiding jobs for the people who'd just as soon kill him if he ever lost his uses. He's not a saint; he'll take any job for anyone who has the gold and wants to part with it in exchange for his unique skills. Sometimes that's put him on the wrong side of the law, sometimes on the wrong end of the moral spectrum. But he doesn't discriminate and he sleeps just fine at night, probably due to the fine sheets he's paid for with somebody's blood money. A clean conscience isn't worth its weight in this town. What's valuable is information, and that's what he offers. For a fee.