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Chapter 5 : Touching Magic
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Note: The initial conversation occurs in January of 1981; Vernon’s final meetings in Baghdad and subsequent return to the UK occur in late April/early May 1981. I do not (currently) have the exact length of time Vernon spent in Baghdad determined, but it was probably several weeks. The time between the conversation and Vernon’s trip to Baghdad was filled by Vernon with his day-job at Grunnings, research with dealers, contacting the foreign office, and so forth.
Vernon Dursley looked at the gold bars on the living room coffee table as if they might evaporate at any moment. Given that his sister-in-law was a witch, it wasn’t entirely impossible that they might, although this didn’t have the air of a prank. Just over two months ago some criminal from the wizarding world had murdered her husband of the time and tried to kill her but she had ended up killing him instead in a big fight somewhere called ‘Godric’s Hollow’. Vernon approved of that. Criminals and gang-leaders of the sort that this ‘Lord Volgablort’ (or some such nonsense) had by all accounts been richly deserved everything that they had coming to them.
The impact of that encounter on his sister-in-law had been dramatic though. She’d had a nervous or hysterical breakdown for a bit.
A couple of months after that, here his sister-in-law Lily was, in his living room, with a pair of gold bars on the table. She had definitely changed. Her eyes were harder, and she looked warier. She had one of those wands, over a foot long, to hand and it wasn’t her previous one. Any sudden sound such as a backfiring car saw her hand go for the wand for a moment, until it became clear that there was no emergency which involved her.
“I need something, Vernon.” Lily said. “I need a copy of a book called Al Azif written by an Arab named Abdul Alhazred in the eighth century AD. Whilst an original would be brilliant, at this point I’ll settle for a later century reproduction.”
“Why can’t you borrow a copy from one of your friends or from some wizard library?” Vernon asked. This ‘Al Azif’ sounded to him suspiciously like something to do with magic.
“Because this isn’t normal witch and wizard magic Vernon. It may not even be magic, but at this point I’m sufficiently desperate I’ll chase even fairy stories. I killed one of the most powerful dark wizards of recent times, Vernon, and I took his wand, but when he comes back – and he almost certainly will come back unfortunately – I’m probably going to have to fight him all over again and I want something he’s never even dreamt of to smack him down with until he either stays dead or goes away and stops bothering me.”
She was starting to lose her composure, and had to draw several deep breaths to calm herself before concluding:
“This isn’t something witches or wizards keep on their shelves, Vernon, which is why I want it.”
Vernon glanced at the wand his sister-in-law had propped up by the side of her armchair, ready to snatch up in a hurry if disaster had threatened. He made the mistake of trying not to think about the things it might have done under the ownership of its previous user and ended up grimacing.
“Why me?” Vernon asked hurriedly, trying to head off from any further discussion that might involve that wand or its previous owner. “Not that I’m agreeing to head off on a wild goose chase for this ‘Al Azif’, but why can’t you go looking for it?”
“Because I need to spend the next however many months it takes learning Arabic so that I can read a copy if one turns up.” Lily said. “Well partly that, and partly because at some point in the next eight or nine months you will hopefully have either another nephew or another niece and I don’t have any idea how long it will take to find a copy of Al Azif. And I can’t ask Severus to go, since I need him to hand to discourage any attacks by Death Eaters still roaming free who are upset about the way the Battle of Godric’s Hollow played out, and I don’t want to involve any other witches or wizards I know in this right now because this whole thing is supposed to be a surprise if anything comes of it. You and Petunia are the non-wizards I know best, but we both know it would be silly to ask Petunia to do this.”
Vernon found this a bit confusing, but she was sounding stressed and he got sufficient of the point of it not to feel the need to ask her to clarify. Petunia was currently upstairs, feeding and changing baby Dudley, and Vernon had to concede Lily’s point that it would be silly of her to ask her sister to go gallivanting off looking for some book with Dudley in tow.
“Well yes.” Vernon prevaricated.
Vernon had a job at Grunnings, a drill-making firm, but it was rather a prosaic job right now, even if it might have long-term prospects.
He eyed the gold bars on the table. He had no idea how much they were worth – possibly Lily didn’t either – but they were gold bars and they were nine or ten inches long. Indeed the table had creaked rather alarmingly when they were placed upon it.
But, his Grunnings job did offer long-term prospects.
“Is it just the one book you want?” Vernon asked, weighing the prospects. “And to what extent can you afford to fund this line of research?”
“I hadn’t thought much beyond Al Azif to be honest with you.” Lily said. “There are several copies of it listed in the inventory of Owain Glyndŵr’s royal library, which seemed odd and was what put Severus and I onto it in the first place. There are at least half a dozen further books and scrolls in the lists too, which neither Severus nor I recognise as regular magical texts, which could offer additional leads. And this is about the safety of my family, Vernon. Money is no object if it looks even remotely promising.” She waved at the gold bars on the table. “I don’t know exactly how much this is worth in the non-magical world, but I’m sure it’s quite valuable, and there’s quite a bit more in the Gringotts vault. Plus various investments. When I married James we endowed each other with ‘all our worldly goods’.”
Vernon had never liked James Potter very much, pegging him for an arrogant brat of a wizard, but it sounded like he had been quite well off, which maybe explained some of his attitude. And apparently it was now all Lily’s and she was prepared to spend however much it took with this craziness.
At this point, Vernon had to remind himself that she was his sister-in-law, and so, witch or not, there was some behaviour on his part (such as taking undue advantage of her) which was unacceptable.
“And if I’m unable to assist?” he asked.
She twitched slightly, and when she spoke her voice definitely sounded strained.
“I suppose I’ll have to find someone else non-magical and curse or hex them if absolutely necessary to ensure cooperation. I’m sure your world must have some sort of book-dealers and agents if I look hard enough. I can’t afford to let grass grow under my feet given who I killed and the unknown length of time I have before he surfaces again.”
Vernon wasn’t sure if witches were normally allowed to curse or hex ‘normal folk’, but noted that – desperate though she was – apparently Lily considered it currently out of bounds to curse or hex him, for which he was duly grateful.
“Well I could take a couple of months holiday from Grunnings and look about a bit for you.” Vernon said. He figured it couldn’t hurt to got to London and ask around some auction houses and dealers about this book for at least a short time, and especially not with this much money on the table.
“Thank-you.” Lily’s face lit up for the first time that he could remember since well… October, he supposed. “I’ll write the name of the book and author down for you. And Gringotts recommend you change the bars for money at the Bank of England, since apparently the Bank of England has someone there able to authenticate the stamps and serial numbers on bars from Gringotts. Oh, and if you need anything by the way of potions don’t feel too ashamed to ask. I know you’re not a wizard, but I’m sure since you’re family no-one at the ministry would quote the statute of secrecy at me if I supply you with some, and I might even be able to slip you the odd charmed object.”
Several months after that conversation, Vernon Dursley was slipping through the hot and dusty streets of a Baghdad night. He had acquired a useful contact with the Foreign Office over several long lunches in London, and been able to get the necessary visas for this trip with relatively little trouble. He’d read up on the local customs, and what sort of restrictions and regulations Saddam Hussain and his regime imposed on movements, and arranged modest ‘gifts’ for the appropriate Iraqi officials.
Vernon Dursley had become aware over the last few days that apparently he wasn’t the only one in the running for this particular copy of Al Azif, but that some weird bunch of religious fanatics were after it too. Fortunately, the religious fanatics weren’t in favour with the ruling regime, and kept running into trouble with what passed for local law enforcement. Even more fortunately, they were apparently just normal men and women (or at least normal in terms of magical ability) and didn’t possess the means that Vernon had at his disposal to simply disappear from the sight of anyone who wasn’t a witch or wizard.
Lily hadn’t been sure how effective those particular knick-knacks would be, at first, and had insisted Vernon test them out on the streets of London, some of her friends having cleared it first with the ministry that regulated British magical society. She’d been surprised at how effective they’d been – indeed that they’d even worked at all – despite the humming and hahhing of some mentor called Professor Slughorn whom Vernon had briefly met and who insisted she’d always ‘been very good at charms’.
Anyway, in an emergency, Vernon could simply crunch one of the knick-knacks between his fingers and simply vanish as far as anyone without any magical ability was concerned, for a period of an hour or two. Apparently it even fooled security cameras and, in case of inspection by any heavy handed customs officials, Lily had somehow worked things so that they only had effect if he was the one doing the crunching.
Vernon almost felt a bit like James Bond armed with various little bits of gadgetry by ‘Q’. He wondered if it was possible to produce magical effects that duplicated actual Bond gadgets for real, like that wristwatch with the magnet effect in Live and Let Die, although, he wasn’t sure how he’d justify that with Lily…
Vernon had also discovered during his researches in London that apparently Al Azif might well be the original and Arabic name for the book which Lily was interested in, but that various translations in circulation in Europe were more commonly known as The Necronomicon – although apparently these were much harder to find than copies of Al Azif since they were written in more ‘accessible’ languages and all sorts of weirdoes were after them. As far as Vernon knew, himself aside, there was just the one bunch of Arab whackos after this copy of Al Azif, who dressed in black and carried curved knives. Several had tangled with a group of Iraqi security officials a couple of days ago and come off the worse for it, going down in a hail of bullets. They’d kept shouting something about ‘Shub-Niggurath’ as they went down.
Once he had found that there was a potential copy of Al Azif on the market, but that it would require travel to and negotiations in Baghdad, Vernon had picked up the basics of spoken Arabic with a speed which surprised him. It seemed he had a natural gift for mastering the routines of ingratiating himself with foreign officials, requesting information and/or directions, and for trading insults and haggling in a foreign language. Indeed, haggling in a Baghdad bazaar Vernon felt a good deal more at home than at a supermarket back home in Little Whinging. It was good fun trading insults and underhanded compliments to try and get a price down or obtain a vital piece of information or recommendation. And he had diligently followed a trail of rumours from a contact outside a mosque after one Friday prayers through three shady coffee houses, one barber’s shop, and a very polite and respectful den of thieves to a trader who reportedly had a copy of the desired Al Azif. Apparently he was prepared to negotiate with Vernon because Vernon was a foreigner, and clearly not likely to be an associate of some other personage or organisation with whom the trader wished not to deal. Vernon rather strongly suspected from what he had picked up of local goings-on that these ‘Shub-Niggurath’ crazies had made at least one attempt to obtain the Al Azif before from his possible supplier, and it had ended very badly turning into an outright robbery attempt.
Vernon arrived outside the small back-streets book-dealer store, where the rendezvous with a friend of the trader was supposed to take place, and checked his watch. Twenty minutes to go. He adjusted his fedora and sank back into the shadows of a doorway across the street to wait.
Somewhere nearby the faint sounds of music from an Arabic radio station was trickling out between the shutters of a building, and a dog several neighbourhoods away was barking…
Mission accomplished and book acquired after a ride in a van to a backroom in a Baghdad garage where the final negotiations and handover had occurred, Vernon had taken precautions to seem just another tourist or businessman in leaving Baghdad – but he had a feeling that his departure from the airport had been watched by unfriendly eyes. On arrival at Heathrow, and having cleared customs with an appropriate duty payment regarding the ‘rare book’ he was now carrying, he found a couple of men of Arabic appearance surveilling the arrivals lounge, looking up and down from some sort of documents or photograph which they had. Now they could have been looking for anyone off the flight Vernon had just disembarked from, and they certainly weren’t wearing those black robes that the freaks in Baghdad had been, but Vernon was certain that they exchanged words and one of them pointed briefly in his general direction at about the same time that he collected his luggage from the carousel.
Vernon calmly headed across the hall and out of the airport to the taxi-rank. He didn’t bother looking back. He selected a cab several vehicles back along the rank and gave the driver directions to take him to somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, half a dozen miles from Heathrow. Looking back occasionally through the rear window, once the taxi he had boarded was in motion, he noticed that the taxi appeared to be being followed by a black limousine.
He grimly smiled to himself.
The taxi dropped him off on the green of the indicated village, and Vernon paid the driver, and disappeared from sight around a corner, and hurriedly employed one of his ‘invisibility’ knick-knacks.
Moments later he heard a limousine pulling up and people getting out, with someone barking instructions ‘find him!’ in Arabic.
He heard running feet and saw a couple of Arabs in dark grey business suits come into view, their right hands casually dipped into their pockets as they went scuttling past, who took a quick glance at the long straight stretch of street which he would now (ordinarily) be exposed to view in before heading on.
Vernon set off. It was going to be a long walk with his suitcase and hand luggage to the next village.
Some fifteen minutes later, he glanced back, just before he disappeared over the crest of a hill, to see that the Arabs were now apparently going door to door, knocking and showing papers or pictures of some sort to anyone who answered…
“Who or what is ‘Shub-Niggurath’, Lily?” Vernon asked.
Having walked to the adjacent village and waited for the invisibility effect to expire, Vernon had called himself another taxi from a local pub, travelled to a different village, caught a train, taken another taxi and a bus, just to be sure he had shaken any pursuit, and finally arrived at a small cottage in the Lake District formerly owned by James Potter, and currently the home of Lily and Severus and Harry.
“I’m not sure.” Lily frowned. “I think Quoggle’s Myths stated it was a very big black goat that some non-wizards worship, but I don’t know how accurate that is.” She waved a hand. “It’s one of those things which witches and wizards don’t take seriously, whatever it is.”
Lily had ‘filled out’ in the months since Vernon had last seen her and was now very noticeably pregnant. She also seemed much calmer than in January, although Vernon couldn’t tell how much of that was down to the passage of time and how much might be to that she was in a place she felt secure.
“Well Shub-Niggurath apparently has some associates devout enough to follow me in Baghdad and chase me several dozen miles across southern England because I was looking for that book.” Vernon said. “By the way: apparently there are European translations printed under the name The Necronomicon, but not just these Shub-Niggurath lot but all sorts of crazies are after those.”
“Were you in any trouble?” Lily looked concerned. “I don’t remember you calling, and I think someone’s been in most of the time, but for various reasons we’d rather not have an answer-phone.”
“They weren’t any bother.” Vernon said. “They couldn’t cope with your invisibility from non-wizards knick-knack. It was annoying to be chased by them though.”
“Well, if you got away unhurt, that’s the main thing.” Lily said. “It’s a shame you couldn’t get the book, but by the sound of it…”
“Oh, but I did get the book.” Vernon said, producing the tome from his briefcase with a flourish. He enjoyed the look on his sister-in-law’s face, as he placed it on the desk.
She rose to her feet and for a moment he thought she was going to fling herself upon him and wrap her arms around him, but then she grimaced, and patted her stomach instead.
“Sorry. Baby.” she said, and sat back down again.
Then Vernon reached into the briefcase, and with considerably less enthusiasm retrieved the two bundles of banknotes. She hadn’t ever said she wanted any change, but she was his sister-in-law, and he had had fun damnit – would have stories about this for Dudley when he was older.
He put the banknotes on the table.
“I’ll write up a report of what I’ve spent in the next few days and get it to you.” he said.
With even more reluctance he began to retrieve the unused potion bottles and knick-knacks.
“Keep them.” Lily said, meaning the magic items. “And ask me if you want anything more like that. I’ll find some explanation to run past the ministry, and this ‘Shub-Niggurath’ crowd might be on the look out for you now. I’ll ask around and get Severus to do so too; see if there’s anything definite we can discover about them…”
Vernon Dursley isn’t entirely up to speed on exactly what happened to Lily, since most of his information regarding events in Godric’s Hollow have come by telephone conversations with Severus Snape, with only a couple of face to face meetings (and those brief).
Lily’s state of mind, at least in January 1981, is very fragile still – especially if she’s away from ‘home’ and Severus isn’t present – and she tends to over-react and not explain herself very clearly in such circumstances. She probably could have handled the initial discussion with Vernon better if Severus had been there, but she wanted to find out how she could handle such a trip on her own.
I have posted a partial account of events leading to the Battle of Godric’s Hollow of 1980 in the ‘Shadow of Three Bolts: Lily & Severus’ story. I had several more chapters sketched out, but as of the moment (27th February, 2012) the work and stress involved in converting lengthy documents from their original Word format for publication on this site is more than I can comfortably handle. At present I have just one more chapter in this collection of short stories lining up for this site, concerning Draco Malfoy’s doings on the morning of the 1st September 1991 when he heads for King’s Cross.
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