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Chapter 16 : Up in Flames
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I staggered backward and nearly dropped my wand. My leg felt like it was on fire – I looked down and saw blood starting to soak my pant leg. Oh, holy Kneazles. I didn't want to look at what was under there.
Ambrosia had managed to come along by hanging onto my shirt, and she wasn't in any better shape. She'd left behind a chunk of forearm. The shovel clattered to the pavement and she clutched at her wounded arm, staggering back from me a few paces. Her face had gone a little ashen, but she didn't make a sound.
Someone groaned, and I realized it was me. My leg really hurt, and I was suddenly angry with Ambrosia. “This is all your fault,” I told her snappishly. “I don't even know what the bloody hell you've been doing, you know.”
Her lips pressed together angrily for a moment, but she only said, “Where the devil are we?” She raised her wand and I flinched for a second, but she only used it to conjure bandages.
I looked around and realized with a thrill of horror that we were right around the corner from Victoire's house. I hadn't meant to come here. I tried to wipe the expression from my face before I turned back to Ambrosia, who had been wrapping her arm. “I don't know. I meant to go to Harry Potter's house.”
Ambrosia shook her head and came toward me. “This time, I'll do it. I don't need another injury.” She grabbed my arm and I tried to jerk away, but her fingers dug in and she dragged me along with her as she Disapparated.
This time when we reappeared, I had no idea where we were. She'd managed not to splinch us, either, which I sort of resented, since she apparently now thought I was incompetent at what was actually my best skill. We were in some kind of building, a large and cavernous room that looked like a disused office building. There were boxes stacked along one wall from floor to ceiling, the only part of the place that didn't look dusty and cobwebbed.
Ambrosia tried to grab my wand from my hand and we struggled over it for a moment. I was just starting to feel stupid about our tug-of-war when I heard a snap. I looked down; my wand had cracked in half.
Ambrosia looked down at it too and then let go of me. “You might as well keep it, then.”
I stared at the broken halves of my wand as she walked off. I wasn't sure what to do without a wand. I'd had it taken a few times by bad guys – even by Ambrosia – but I'd never broken a wand before. I'd had that wand since I was eleven. I stuck the broken wand in my pocket, for lack of anything better to do with it. I wasn't quite ready to just toss it aside. I sort of felt like I should give it a proper burial at my parents' house, actually. Maybe a little memorial service with coffee and cakes.
Ambrosia had gone over to the stacks of boxes while I was mourning my dead wand, and started looking in the boxes. I watched her for a moment, but she was mostly ignoring me. I debated just walking off and looking for an exit, but since she was here and wasn't hexing me or trying to kill me at the moment, and my leg was still throbbing and oozing blood so I probably couldn't outrun her...
“Did you kill Herbert Annable?”
Ambrosia looked up at me, and we regarded each other steadily for a moment, then she said, “No. Gormly did him. Wanted Annable's territory.”
“And you killed Gormly.”
She nodded. “Can't have my dealers putting on airs, can I? Once they start thinking they can take what they want instead of following orders, you lose control over them.”
I realized she was speaking in an American accent again. Ambrosia was possibly the most frustrating felon I'd ever dealt with. “And Lenny Graves?”
“I didn't even know he was involved until I heard he'd jumped bail,” she admitted.
“Andrew said you asked him to let Lenny off on a plea bargain.”
She snorted. “I never did. He did that all on his own. Thought it would get him in good with Lenny's dad, give him good contacts at the Ministry or something.”
She sounded very disparaging when she spoke of him, which I couldn't really blame her for, since he was a huge git. But still: “He left his wife for you.”
“I never asked him to,” she said, and there was such disinterest in her voice, I believed her. “I just needed a Ministry lawyer, so I started an affair with him. He started talking about weddings and engagements, and I played along for a while. We needed someone on the inside, letting our men off easy when they got arrested. It was good timing to end it now anyway. He was getting entirely too serious – told me he'd gone and left his wife – and he'd pretty well served his purpose. Once they get caught out, having a lawyer in your pocket stops being useful.”
I was feeling kind of stunned. She wasn't at all sorry or embarrassed at the devastation she'd wrought in that family. Andrew had only been a tool for her to use up and throw away, not caring that she'd destroyed his career and his family in the process. He'd walked toward his own corruption willingly enough, so my sympathy for him was limited, but Dominique and her baby hadn't deserved any of this.
“It was a calculated risk, using him,” Ambrosia went on. “He was married to a Weasley. Not a family my boss wanted annoyed with her, if anything went wrong, but it gave him more cover at the Ministry. People don't suspect Weasleys of this sort of thing. You're too well known as good guys.”
She'd chosen him pretty well, actually. Her reasoning was exactly what had let him go on as long as he had. Nobody suspected Andrew. He'd married a Weasley girl.
I had an uneasy feeling she was only talking so freely because she thought she could kill me at her leisure now, but I was getting so much out of her, I decided to go with it a little longer.
“What's your real name?” I asked.
“You can go on calling me Ambrosia. It's as good a name as any.” She turned back to the boxes then. I thought she might be counting something.
“What's in there?”
Drugs, I'd bet. I quickly reviewed what she'd told me to see if I'd missed anything. Andrew had been deliberately chosen as her patsy; Lenny's involvement had been accidental, but she hadn't cared about it; Gormly had killed Annable after all, and she'd killed him to keep him in line. This confirmed quite a bit of what we'd deduced (and by deduced, I mean guessed), but there were still some unanswered questions, aside from who she really was. For one thing, I didn't think Annable or Gormly were involved in whatever she was doing with McBride. I had a feeling they had only been a side distraction to her, and unfortunately, the two of them had gotten me involved as well.
But since I was involved now, might as well go for broke.
“Who is your boss? What is it you've been doing that you didn't want me messing up? How is McBride involved? Was Annable involved too? Are you part of The Organization?”
Ambrosia chuckled, still looking through the boxes. “Which do you want to know about first?”
“I don't know about Miss Weasley,” came a new voice in ringing tones from behind me, “but I'd like to know what you've been up to with Joseph McBride.”
Ambrosia seemed to freeze. She turned slowly, and I saw her wand was in her hand. I looked behind me and started when I recognized the woman as the silver-haired investor Angelo had been sucking up to not long ago.
She walked slowly towards us, her sensible grey heels ringing on the bare concrete floor. Two men stood behind her, towering over her petite frame. They looked like mob goons in a Muggle film, except that they were wearing black tailored robes instead of pinstripe suits. Their wands were drawn and pointed at Ambrosia.
“Don't bother trying to Disapparate, my dear. While you were chatting with Miss Weasley, I had an Anti-Disapparition Jinx put on this building.” She smiled at Ambrosia pleasantly, but her eyes were cold and flat in a way that scared me almost as much as Ambrosia and her shovel.
“I wasn't going to,” Ambrosia said firmly. She didn't sound at all frightened. She held her wand a little warily, as if she weren't sure what was going to happen next. I sort of thought she was stupid not to be afraid when she was outnumbered, but then again, she had taken out O'Toole without breaking a sweat. Well, maybe a little sweat.
“To what purpose were you putting our talented young Joseph?” The silver-haired woman, who I was thinking now was Ambrosia's boss, asked in a tone of voice that indicated she was used to being in command.
Ambrosia's face was completely blank. She stood there, frozen, looking at the woman, but I could see she was only wary, not afraid. I sort of thought she was calculating her next several moves. I reckoned she hadn't expected this turn of events.
“Have you asked him?” she said eventually.
“Sadly, I have not been able to find him,” the silver-haired woman said (I really needed to find out her name).
This seemed to relieve Ambrosia a bit, though she tried to hide it. I was getting an inkling now that whatever she'd been up to had been under her boss's radar, and she hadn't meant to be found out.
“Was he working for you? Forging your paperwork for your little takeover? I know you were sleeping with him.”
Ambrosia didn't answer, and the Boss Lady curled her lip at Ambrosia and then turned to me. “Miss Weasley, you are bleeding. Did Mariana injure you?”
It only took me half a second to realize who she meant. Great, another alias for Ambrosia. I sort of doubted that one was her real name either. “No, I splinched myself.”
“Sergei.” Boss Lady snapped her fingers, and one of the goons came forward. I wasn't so sure I wanted him doing anything to me, injured or not, but I didn't have a way to stop him.
Sergei pulled a thick, stubby wand from his pocket and aimed it at my leg, where the blood was still coming through my jeans. He muttered something in a low bass, and I felt my leg reknitting. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, but it was over quickly, leaving my leg with only a dull throb.
“We don't often have the luxury of sending our people to St. Mungo's for minor injuries,” Boss Lady informed me in her cool voice. “Sergei here is quite good with healing spells.”
“Um, thanks,” I managed, resisting the urge to pull up my pant leg and compare Sergei's work with my brother's.
He nodded at me and stepped back into line behind the Boss Lady. I noticed no one offered to fix Ambrosia's splinched arm.
Ambrosia hadn't looked at me while Sergei was healing my leg, only kept staring at her boss. Boss Lady returned her attention to Ambrosia, and they stared at one another. I started edging backward. They looked like there might be a duel soon, and I didn't want to be caught in the crossfire.
“Did you think I didn't know what you were doing? That I didn't know about your little conspiracy with Joseph?” the Boss Lady asked.
Ambrosia was silent. I sort of thought that was a bad sign. She was utterly still except one finger slowly rubbing the handle of her wand. Definitely a bad sign. I edged back a little. I thought for a second that no one had noticed, but then Sergei came to stand next to me. He didn't say anything, but I got the message.
We watched in silence for a while as as Ambrosia and the Boss Lady stared at each other. Eventually Sergei leaned over and said, “Mariana, she is not so good, she has been stealing from the Madame. The Madame, she believes Mariana seeks to kill her and take away her empire. She does this with our artist Joseph.”
His accent was thicker than Mrs. Kochel's. It took my brain a minute to filter out the accent and figure out what he'd said.
“That doesn't actually surprise me,” I told him.
Sergei nodded. “Upon whom do you place your gold? Mariana, she is young and quick like a cobra, but the Madame, she has much experience and has killed many others who tried to steal from her.”
Great. Ambrosia had tried to do a hostile takeover on someone just as sociopathic as she was.
The two women were so still, they might have been statues but for the cold calculation in each pair of eyes. I sort of felt like I was looking at the same woman, twenty-five years apart. Thirty or fifty, either way they were conscienceless and cold-blooded. A cobra, Sergei had said. Good comparison.
“My money is on the Madame,” Sergei added.
Maybe she heard him, because suddenly both Ambrosia and the Boss Lady threw a barrage of curses at each other. Flashes of red and blue illuminated the empty offices, and I tried to turn and run while everyone was distracted.
Sergrei wasn't as distracted as I'd thought. He reached out and grabbed my arm in a grip like iron. “Please not to make me cast a Body-Bind Curse upon you, miss,” he said calmly.
Crap. I'd sort of been hoping they would just let me go once Ambrosia was dealt with – assuming the Madame won their duel – but now I was starting to think that wasn't going to happen. Sergei and his boss weren't going to let me see the light of day again. I knew if Ambrosia won, it was the shovel for me.
I was in trouble either way, I reckoned. I was going to have to figure a way out somehow. No brilliant ideas were forthcoming. I had no wand, an injured leg, no idea where I was, and I was outnumbered. As usual, my stock was in the toilet.
The duel suddenly stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and Ambrosia and the Madame (I was starting to think of her that way, in Sergei's accent and everything) paced slowly around each other in a wide circle. The floor where they'd been standing was charred and blackened.
“This, it is typical,” Sergei announced sagely. He would've made a good Quidditch commentator. You know, if he didn't have an accent you could chew on. “They test one another, and now, now someone will be killed.”
I had seen a few people get killed, and I didn't really want to see it again. I looked around; the windows were big enough to climb out one easily if I could break the glass, but I didn't know how high up we were. I didn't see any exits, but there must be at least one – the Madame and her henchmen had come in somehow – and with the right distraction I might be able to outrun Sergei.
I glanced down at Sergei's legs. He was built like a bull. I was lazy and didn't run unless my life was in imminent danger, so I probably wasn't in as good shape as he was, and my leg still ached where I'd splinched it. Maybe I couldn't outrun him. Besides, he had a wand and I didn't. Outrunning him and dodging Body-Bind Curses might be too much to hope for.
If I could break a window, even if we were high up, I could Disapparate in mid-air before I fell more than a few feet. The Anti-Disapparition Jinx should end at the building's edges. But I needed a wand to Apparate. I didn't want to try it with just my broken wand, in case that made me splinch myself. Or worse, nothing at all happened.
Ambrosia and the Madame resumed their duel, startling me. A stray spell zoomed toward us, and I ducked a bit and shrieked, “Shield!”
Sergei had a Shield Charm up before I'd even finished speaking – man his reflexes were good – and the spell ricocheted off it and slammed into the stacks of boxes. A few of them exploded outwards, sparking and hissing, and then it all went up in a whoosh of bright green flames.
“Oops,” Sergei said.
Ambrosia and the Madame kept dueling, and the flames leapt higher, licking at the ceiling. A few more boxes exploded in a shower of silver sparks, and something went up like a rocket, smashing through the charred ceiling and out the roof. We were on the top floor, apparently: I could see the overcast sky through the hole.
The Madame looked over at the boxes and then at Ambrosia, and cast a Killing Curse at her. Ambrosia ducked and the rush of green went over her head, hitting the wall behind her. Ambrosia started running, and the Madame cast two more Killing Curses that missed, and a third that missed Ambrosia but hit the second goon in the shoulder.
The force of the spell spun him around, and for a second I thought it might have glanced off him so he didn't catch enough Dark Magic to die, but then his face was visible and I knew he was already dead. He fell heavily, landing with a thud on the dusty floor, face-down.
Neither Ambrosia nor the Madame seemed to have noticed or cared that her henchman had been killed in the crossfire. Sergei hadn't even blinked. I was feeling a little sick to my stomach, personally. I didn't even know the man's name, and I was the only one upset at his death.
Sirens sounded in the distance, growing closer, and Ambrosia and the Madame fought on, faster and more vicious now. I could just see out the window to my right – the one I'd chosen as my escape route if I could get a hold of a wand – Muggle fire trucks and emergency vehicles pulling up into the parking lot outside. Uh-oh. There was a lot of magic in here.
There was no ignoring the sirens now. Sergei had turned away from the duel and was looking out the window with a small frown. The Muggles were pouring out of their vehicles and into the building. I reckoned we only had a few minutes until they were on us. Ambrosia and the Madame appeared to have reached the same conclusion.
“Sergei,” the Madame began, and in the split second that her focus on Ambrosia wavered, Ambrosia cast a spell that smashed the window, glass flying everywhere, and bolted.
She ran flat-out toward the window, past the hexes the Madame threw at her, and leaped through it into the empty space in a perfect swan dive. Over the screams of the Muggles below, I heard the crack of Ambrosia Disapparating.
She had stolen my exit strategy.
The Madame was stock-still now, and I thought she might finally have been surprised. She turned as Muggle firefighters broke through into the room and tried to Disapparate, but was trapped by her own jinx.
“I did not see that coming,” Sergei remarked, but then he had his hands up as Muggle firemen came up to us, armed with axes and hoses and assorted paraphernalia I couldn't identify. They looked a little bewildered.
“What the hell happened here?” one of the firemen asked.
Sergei and I exchanged a glance. I couldn't even begin to explain.
By the time we got down to the parking lot, the Obliviators had turned up, accompanied by a squad of MLEs. The Obliviators set to work erasing memories and sending the Muggles away, and some of the MLEs took the Madame and Sergei into custody while the rest cordoned off the magical mess that we'd made of the office building.
Some of the Magical Law Enforcement officers must have recognized me, because no one tried to take me into custody. I saw Jack Upchurch on the edge of the crowd, talking to a few other MLEs, and waved to him. He came over with a big grin.
“I knew there couldn't be a mess like this without you involved,” he said.
“It wasn't my fault,” I told him.
“I already called for Aurors,” Jack said. “I'd be willing to lay odds your dad will be with them.”
I wasn't willing to take those odds. Good thing, too, because my dad and Uncle Harry arrived about five minutes later with five other Aurors. Dad made a beeline for me while Uncle Harry and the rest of their team went straight for the Madame and Sergei.
Dad looked like he might want to spank me or ground me for a month, but he kissed my forehead instead and said, “Young lady...”
“I knew you'd be here as soon as I heard about this mess.”
“Told you,” Jack put in sotto voce. Dad ignored him.
“Are you okay, Rosie?”
I relaxed a bit. He wasn't really angry or I'd have gotten middle-named. “I'm fine.”
Dad nodded, looking relieved now, then turned to look at the building. Smoke rose in huge plumes from the roof, changing from red to yellow as it rose into the grey sky, and as I watched, shouts went up and one wall slid off the building in a cascade of bricks. I could see a couple of MLEs inside the building, which now looked as if someone had sliced off one side of it.
“Nice,” said Jack. “This is one of your better ones.”
“She did so well in school,” Dad said in a faraway voice.
“It wasn't my fault,” I assured them. “Sergei blocked a curse and it ricocheted.”
Another squad of MLEs and Obliviators arrived by portkey. They dropped the empty beer bottle they'd been holding and ran toward the building. A few more bricks fell off the upper story, and something inside the ruined building shot up into the air and exploded fifty feet over the building. MLEs were shouting inside.
“I better get back to work,” Jack said, and jogged off.
Uncle Harry came over, looking rather intense. “Ron,” he began, ignoring me. “Do you know who that is?”
Dad glanced over at Sergei and the Madame. “Not Ambrosia Heggs.”
“She got away,” I said. “Jumped out the window and Disapparated when the Muggles arrived.”
“Bloody hell,” Dad said. “How mental do you have to be to do something like that?”
“Ron,” Uncle Harry said impatiently. “That's Joan Mihalek.”
This drew Dad's full attention. “You're joking.” He turned to look at the Madame. “Finally!”
“Who is she?” I asked.
“Number Five on the Auror Department Ten Most Wanted,” Uncle Harry told me. “Murder, extortion, money-laundering, theft, arson, Dark magic of all kinds, you name it. We've been after her for years. I can't believe we finally got her.”
He and Dad were both looking very pleased now. No one was yelling at me. I thought that probably counted as a case well ended.
“Is there a reward?” I asked hopefully.
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