There was no time to lose and yet Albus felt as though he was moving through treacle; every action was dragged out, the clocks showed minutes passing painfully slowly and voices were low-pitched, as though he was underwater and the sound took an age to reach him. His head throbbed from the alcohol and the enormity of the situation; it was difficult for him to describe exactly how he felt. Confused was probably a good word for it; confused that people and events from months and years ago were suddenly playing a role in the grand scheme of things. He didn't know how Max or Alexei had found him, whether his department was still secure, what he was going to do or whether his family was safe, and it unsettled him. Of all things, Albus hated not knowing something. The man who could speak five languages and who was practically a polymath was left in the dark, utterly impotent, and he hated it.
They had to walk from The Quay to the Ministry; if the department had been compromised then who was to say that even the most basic forms of magic would be possible? Trains and taxis meant being on camera, a luxury they couldn't afford, and when you were travelling between countries frequently or spending days at a time in a certain department, cars weren't particularly useful. And so Albus, Hugo, Lyra and Nick walked the twenty minutes from their apartment to the Ministry in a heavy silence broken only by the occasional direction or rhetorical question. People, their faces blurred, passed by them, utterly ignorant of the fact that the world had come crashing down around these four people. Their lives were so easy and simple by comparison but it was hard to envy them; where was the excitement, the adrenaline if your life was only black and white?
Stopping outside the loos that still acted as an official entrance to the Ministry, Albus turned around to face Lyra and Nick. "It'll look odd if we all traipse in there and start asking questions. There's no reason for you to know Jemima. Why don't you go and find Big Al and find out what he knows about Alexei, and why we've had two pleasant visits from old friends in a very short space of time," he suggested and it was obvious that he was shocked: he ran a hand through his hair wearily and his last comment, which would normally have been venomous and packed with biting sarcasm, sounded tired and hollow. Holding her tongue for once, Lyra nodded silently and she and Nick set off. Hugo and Albus looked at each other briefly then proceeded to flush themselves in.
The Ministry atrium had changed dramatically since the War years; the gloomy, claustrophic underground room with its shiny black tiles had morphed into a cavernous space with cheerful hues of navy, grey and white. False windows had been inserted so daylight from the world outside flooded in during the summer months and the only remainder of the once-ostentatious area was a solid gold sculpture in the middle of the space, a phoenix that hovered in mid-air. Recently heralded as one of the Wonders of New Modern Magical Britain by the Daily Prophet, it served as a reminder of the sacrifices made to achieve this new world; despite the death, the destruction and the corruption that had nearly brought the world to a standstill, something pure and brilliant had risen from the ashes. The future looked bright.
A few of the newer employees still shot Albus and Hugo admiring looks as they wondered through to the lifts but today was no day for signing autographs; as they reached the lifts and waited for the golden grills to open, Albus spoke to Hugo in a low voice.
"Go to the department and check on everyone. Make sure they're okay, that nothing's been touched, and ask if Alexei was there. I'll go and see what's in Finch's office and I'll meet you back by the statue," he said in a low voice and with that, they climbed into different lifts and disappeared.
Nick Styles liked being 'the man with a plan', as Hugo had once put it. Technically, it was Albus who had the idea to start with but then it was Nick's to play around with and bring to fruition in any way that he pleased, so long as it worked. And it always worked; he tended to ignore that one incident at school that hadn't gone strictly to plan... but then, everyone had ups and downs and what was one down compared to 11 years of ups? Even when Lyra and Albus had left school and only Hugo and he were left doing what they did best, Nick never failed.
Being the plan man required brains; granted, he wasn't as smart as Albus was and secretly, because he wouldn't dare admit it, Nick doubted that many people were. He had been in awe of the older boy from the first time he'd met him, for Albus' reputation preceded him, and that hadn't disappeared when they'd actually met and got to know each other. Working together had brought out different sides to the two boys and Nick considered the other a close friend.
Charisma was important, too; in the beginning, Nick had constantly been finding new contacts, making new friends who moved in similar circles as they did. It was hard not to like him; Albus, although smooth and charming, had a tendancy to come over as arrogant and aloof. Hugo was bright but afraid of his own shadow, and although nearly everyone seemed to want Lyra, it was hard to actually like her. Nick had all of those qualities, though perhaps not Lyra's sexual desirability, and he was the one all of the contacts wanted to talk to, laugh with, arrange heists with. He laughed and joked in a way that belied his competancy; in a way, the success of the team was truly down to him, not, however, that he would dream of admitting such a thing.
"You're such a gentleman," Lyra said, the sarcasm clear in the lilt in her voice as Nick picked up her dropped iPod. He blushed; as jovial as he might be amongst contacts and even amongst Albus and Hugo, that side of him seemed to disappear when he was left on his own with Lyra, and was replaced by the awkward and gangly eleven year old boy that he had been when he had first met her, more accustomed to Pokemon cards than girls. Whatever he said was countered with the sharp tongue and brilliant mind of a girl so self-assured in her looks and effect on boys that he had difficulty in sustaining conversation when it was just the two of them; he was turned into, in slightly less poetic turn of phrase, a hormonal and dithering teenager.
He'd never had a problem around other girls, it was only Lyra who reduced him to such a pathetic state. His crush on her had lasted for years and it showed no signs of being any easier to handle. She was so far out of his league as to be stratospheric and, unlike those 90s movies, showed absolutely no romantic interest in him, no matter how hard he tried to be his usual self around her. He was a hopeless, desperate romantic and it was tragic.
And, of course, a constant source of amusement to Hugo, who had put up with his best friend's woes and worries for years but seemed to have an endless supply of witty putdowns and fatalistic remarks. It obviously ran in the family.
The worst part, though, for Nick wasn't that Lyra wasn't interested in him; that he could deal with and understand. It wasn't that she had fallen, in her bitter and caustic way, for some anonymous stranger. It was that she had decided to bestow her love and her sensuality on Albus, of all people, the boy who had never had a girlfriend that lasted longer than a term and who had almost given up on love, for completely understandable reasons.
And Lyra knew that and she still tried to attractt his attention, still tried to make him see her as so many others did, but the fact remained that he didn't. He hadn't at school when the two of them and their broader circle of friends had gone swimming in their underwear in the Lake, he hadn't when he'd seen her all over Ben Roberts after graduation; not even when she'd gone to Old Bond Street after one of their early heists and returned in the evening decadent in Dior and dripping with diamonds. He was completely oblivious to her charms, concerned only for her well-being as one would care for a friend of twelve years, and it killed Nick inside to see her rejected. Lyra was too good an actress to show it openly but it was there occasionally when she thought no one was looking and the confidence was dented slightly; when the chink in the armour was exposed.
"Well, this is where he usually is. And if he's not here, I'll bloody kill him," Lyra said suddenly and her husky voice interrupted Nick's reverie. He didn't have a clue, at first, where they where; he'd simply been following her around London, lost in his own thoughts, and would have walked into her had she not spoken. Now, though, as he looked around, he realised that he knew exactly where they were; a run-down, distinctly uninviting fish and chips shop in Hackney, the sort of place you'd give a wide berth come Saturday evening. Lyra was right though, and it was Big Al's favourite haunt. Apparently the battered cod was on another level but there was something about the way the chips shone more than the plates under the lights that put Nick off testing the theory.
Smirking as Nick held the door open for her, Lyra waltzed inside and scanned the restaurant quickly before her gaze lingered on a lonely figure at the back, typically munching his way through a week's worth of saturated fat and calories. Smiling slightly at her success, Lyra led the way across the vinyl floor and ignore the looks from other dodgy-looking patrons.
Big Al, who was, as the name suggested, not the slimmest of men, paid no attention to the two of them as they sat down in the plastic chairs opposite him. His dirty grey hair was wiry and in need of combing and the thick-frammed glassly sat squarely on the bridge of his nose. Despite appearances, Big Al knew everything, everyone and everywhere. If you were on his good side, he'd help you out with anything, for a fee. If you were on his bad side, he'd sell you out without a moment's hesitation to the highest bidder and watched while you burned. It was just as well then that Nick happened to be one of his favourites.
"Remembered my address, have you," he said gruffly after a moment or so but then looked up to grin in comradeship at Nick. Here, he could almost block Lyra out. He was in his element. He was in charge.
Declining Big Al's offer of a dubiously coloured drink and trying to ignore Lyra's request for sparkling water, Nick leaned across the greasy table and spoke very softly. "We've had a couple of visits from friends recently," he started.
Big Al carried on eating as bit of batter found their way onto his lap but he waved a couple of fingers to show that he was listening.
"Max Nott and Alexei Nekrasov, a couple of days apart. Max found his way to the apartment, Alexei and friend met up with Al and Hugh at a family lunch," Nick continued and Big Al snorted in laughter.
"Sounds like your security system needs an upgrade," he said and still carried on eating. Lyra made to retort but Nick looked at her, ignoring his thumping heart, and she was silent. She made a face at the taste of the sparkling water that she had eventually ordered and went back to inspecting her manicured fingernails.
"You know as well as I do that no one beats Hugh's systems."
"Then you've got a problem on the inside."
"That's not what I'm here for. What do you know about Max and Alexei's movements?"
Big Al sighed, wiped his mouth on a paper napkin and sat back in his seat. He was silent for a while, staring at Nick. "You haven't paid me for the last time, you know," he started but Nick rolled his eyes and he didn't press any further. "Nott's been abroad for a while, reacquainting himself with some people you'd really rather he wasn't getting cosy with. The Tambov Gang, for one, and La Stidda. I've heard whispers that he's also talking to the Unione Corse and it wouldn't surprise me if he moves onto a couple of the big American gangs. Whatever you lot've done, it must be serious."
Nick's mouth was agape; Lyra had the good sense not to look so obviously appalled but her eyes were wide nonetheless. "You're fucking having us on," she said at last in a hoarse voice, low with fear and anxiety.
"Sweetheart, that's not what I get paid for," Big Al said smoothly and Lyra shuddered. "There ain't much love lost between you and your big brother; he wants to bring you to your knees by the looks of it. You pissed someone off big time and now they want their own back. If I were you, I'd run. I don't know where, but I'd run and not even think about looking over my shoulder."
"We don't run," Nick said quickly, gathering his wits about him. "We'll ride this one out. Oh, and one more thing. What do you know about Jemima Finch?"
Big Al shrugged and signalled that he wanted his bill. On cue, Lyra and Nick stood up from the chairs; they knew when they were being dismissed. "She's gone walkies, or so I heard, and ended up sleeping over at Nott's. I don't know where, though. Little birdy told me she's got the inside scoop on you lot and that poor son-of-a-bitch you tried to sell a Monet to."
With a cheery wave, Big Al paid the bill and pushed past the two of them on his way out. Unable to stand the smell any longer, they hurried out, too, and stood outside in the fresh air, inhaling deeply and trying to process what they'd heard.
"But- how the hell can she know about Darnell," Nick asked desperately and Lyra whirled round to face him, a rare cigarette between her lips and her hand shaking as she tried to light it.
"I don't know but we're fucked. We can't outrun this one, Nicky, and I'm not fool enough to try. We need Al," she said shortly and so, ignoring the possible dangers, she and Nick Apparated away.
Author's Note: a little slower this time, perhaps? In case you're interested, those groups Big Al mentionned are real life mafia groups: the Tambov Gang operates in St. Petersburg, La Stridda in Sicily and the Unione Corse in Marseilles and Corsica.
Please let me know what you think!