Chapter 1 : In the Mist
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The film noir/hardboiled mystery genre is a new one for me to write, so for now, this story will remain fairly short. Please let me know what you think - any suggestions you can give are much appreciated!
In the Mist
The mist was high, rolling down from the peaks where the snow still clung to the hard stone into brown valleys were it caught on the tops of skeletal trees. Here the leaves were too afraid to show themselves this early in the season. Even the sheep kept to their pens, huddling together for warmth, their thick wool steaming. The path they usually trod, half-hidden behind an outcrop of rocks, was perilous at best, but he’d never been the type to take the easy road.
No one had been told to expect a visitor that day.
He came out of the mist, at first the merest shadow, a trick of the eye caused by a rush of wind from the distant peaks. But no, it changed. The shadow grew dark, taking the shape of a man with a wooden leg, hobbling his way over gravel and mud to the high gates that rose suddenly before him, crackling with magic.
He did not even blink at the sight that struck wonder into the hearts of children and fear into those who’d long given up their hearts to the devil. His dark eyes revealed nothing in their inky depths, but unbeknownst to most, they took in every detail of the land around him, glaring into the mist without mercy, uncovering the secrets veiled by its silvery cloak. He waited for the gates to open.
They were not the gates of heaven or hell. To some, the most accurate and honest, it was right in the middle.
A place of magic for so many, the place where it would all begin. It was also a place of nightmare, of frigid caverns and creatures of the night, human or otherwise. They’d never wash the blood from the flagstones or silence the echoes of screams in the halls. The ghosts were there for a reason: they kept everyone from forgetting the dirty secrets buried within those walls, behind the closed doors and fancy tapestries. Murder, scandal, deceit. It was all there, ripe for the pickings.
There was a sound of shuffling footsteps before a lantern’s light parted the mist and a voice tore through the dampening fog.
With a measured indolence, the wizard took the cigarette from his mouth and ground out its final centimetres beneath his heavy, booted heel.
“Alastor Moody. Dumbledore’s expecting me.”
The shadow accompanying the golden light, softened by the mist, peered through the wrought iron. “‘xpectin’ you?”
“Aye. Best not to keep him waiting, don’t you think?”
There remained some trepidation in the groundskeeper’s silence. Much was to be learned from that single moment of hesitation and Moody’s ears, ever vigilant, missed nothing.
“It’s official Ministry business, Hagrid. Best open up.”
He could guess at the wary grimace that passed over the half-giant’s face, but that was no matter, not when the gates swung open on silent hinges, shoving aside the mist with ruthless black arms to leave a gaping hole. Moody stepped forward and the gates shut behind him. One way in, one way out. He had to go through with this now.
“I’ll lead ye, Moody. No sense you gettin’ lost in this fog.”
Hagrid checked the lock's ancient mechanism before joining the visiting wizard on the long, twisting drive. Moody crossed his arms, lips crumpled together pushing upward toward his aquiline nose, a thing too large for the rest of his face.
It was a longer walk than he would have liked, the slow pondering through the heavy fog. On one side, he could hear the gentle swish of the lake water as its varied occupants made their presence known. On the other side, the forest was a presence to itself, dark and looming, a too-large shadow on his left that would have brought a shiver to a lesser Auror. One who hadn’t seen the War perhaps. Yes, that would be it. They were a different crop. Much different with their new ideas and free-thinking ways, believing that it couldn’t happen again because they’d never seen it happen to begin with. Naive fools.
Hagrid rattled on about one topic or another before lapsing into an uncomfortable silence until the castle heaved into sight, the towers invisible, lost in a cloud. Somewhere up there, the old man was waiting. Moody had the letter in his pocket still, a simple request for his attendance on a certain date at a certain time, no further explanation offered.
Again, hesitation. Hagrid was looking down at his leg, or rather, the absence of it.
“‘ow’s it feelin’? No trouble?”
Moody managed a snort, sending the fog that clung to his cheeks swirling about his face.
“Less than it did when I still had the thing.”
He pushed through the massive doors and was swallowed by the castle’s inner shadows. He felt them as he took to the stairs, carefully, working on getting the right balance as he went. Up and up, as though into the clouds, that hellish blackness that hung overhead, impenetrable, unyielding. He followed the staircases, halting only when they chose to shift their path, extending or shortening his journey at their weak, woman’s will.
The castle was dimly lit, his shadow a long and narrow creature limping after him that wavered each time a draught caused the torches to flicker and flare in menacing shapes The students were all abed, none of this unruly bunch daring to walk the corridors alone on such a night as this. Prying eyes would only meet with trouble; answers weren’t always worth the price of knowing them. This place was another Bluebeard’s castle, its bloody chambers hidden from view, but not impossible to find, if one only knew how and where to look.
He had and did.
That was in the past now, and if he could help it, it would prefer to keep it there.
It took him an age to arrive at the gate to the Headmaster’s tower, its Argus-eyed gargoyle staring him down with a haughty expression, daring him to be ignorant of the correct password, the arrogant bastard. Retrieving the letter from its place safe alongside his flask, his lips twisted at the necessity of using such a childish word to gain entrance to the Headmaster’s lofty tower.
He could have sworn the cursed gargoyle was wheezing with laughter as he took his place upon the revolving stairway. Finally a stair that did not require him to climb; his leg ached right down to its absent toes, the phantom pains and itches hellishly maddening in their persistence. It didn’t help that the wooden leg wasn’t quite the right length, forcing him off-balance in a lumbering gait that rivalled that of a drunken pirate.
Entering the office at the top of the stairs, he found himself staring up at the high ceiling and the strange instruments that hung from the rafters and lined the tops of the immense shelves of books along the walls. Lit only by the lamp upon the desk, the room was filled with shadows, large and terrible, stretching their long fingers across the wooden planks of the floor as though to catch on the trailing corners of Moody’s robes, dragging him back down to hell.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Moody. I hope that the weather was not a hindrance to you.”
The lamp illuminated the wizard behind the massive desk, setting the vestiges of auburn in his hair aglow, a vast contrast to his ghostly pale flesh, his cheekbones skeletal in the heavy shadow, his eyes a dangerous blue.
Moody felt in his pocket for the comforting presence of his wand. This was Dumbledore. There couldn’t be a safer place in all of Britain. But he had a bad feeling, a stray butterfly flurrying ‘round the pit of his stomach that wouldn’t give him a moment’s peace, not since the moment he set foot in the castle. The whole place was against him. Every stone, every shadow. There was no escaping it.
His hand transferred to his flask. He took a fair drink before capping it off and taking the chair to which Dumbledore gestured with a long, pale hand.
“It’s not so much the weather as the leg, Professor. Still getting used to it.”
Dumbledore leaned forward, his hands neatly folded on the desk in front of him, the lamplight shading his eyes.
“I am sorry to have asked you here at such a time, but I am in need of your... particular investigative talents. Should you have the time to offer your services, entirely off the official record, I must add, I would be greatly appreciative.”
There was something odd in this, something odd in the worst possible way. Moody’s gaze was intent on the old wizard. Though only Headmaster for a short time, Dumbledore had already made his mark on the school as its Transfiguration professor, Moody’s own professor back in the day, but that didn’t matter now. What did was that a wizard of considerable power, magical and otherwise, was in need of answers only a private agent of inquiry could provide.
Moody leaned forward himself, shoving that irritating butterfly in his abdomen aside as his hands gripped the arms of his chair in excitement. His curiosity, awakened by the mysterious nature of this whole situation, was baying for blood.
“And what’s the nature of this case, Professor? If you don’t mind me calling it that.”
Dumbledore’s response came after a lengthy pause that sent Moody’s hand back to the concealed flask. He gripped it with whitened knuckles, a bead of sweat leaking from his hairline until he reached up to wipe it away with a shaking hand.
“I have come across some unsettling information regarding a professor. The issue is not one of trust; she can be trusted explicitly.” Dumbledore spoke these words with emphasis, his gaze locked onto Moody’s. “My worry arises from a future threat that this information may pose to the school and its students.”
“And you want me to follow up on this information? See where it leads?” Moody’s eyes glittered in the flickering light. He was like the moth unable to resist the flame.
Dumbledore nodded. “In the very same month that this professor applied for the position, another arrived to request a different position. He had done so in the past, only to be refused due to his youth. This new professor, hired to fill the Transfiguration position I recently vacated, is young, and so, at the news of this, that other applicant returned.”
Moody frowned. “You turned him down a second time?”
It was always the innocent questions that made people uncomfortable. They were the questions no one wanted to answer, the ones they knew would reveal too much. Moody had to know. It was the key to it all; he could see that from the glassy look in Dumbledore’s eyes. It was a barrier to his knowledge, one that would have to come down if he was to get anywhere with this very strange case.
“He could not be trusted, neither now nor ever. You may have heard his name, though has a particular talent for remaining beyond the reach of official records.” A dramatic pause ensued before the final reveal: “Tom Riddle.”
The name was not unfamiliar, however ordinary it seemed.
In a flash, he could see it: the old witch’s chambers, filled to the brim with useless shit that would have been better off in a museum, if not the rubbish bin. Riddle had been seducing her with more junk while wanting to take bits of it away, the expensive bits that she didn’t even know about. She was dead, murdered by her house elf, or so the Auror in charge had thought. Moody had not. It had done nothing to bolster him in his colleague’s eyes, but he couldn’t care less about them. They were wrong. Something else had been going on, and they’d been too idiotic to see the answer beneath their greasy noses.
There was more, too, but Dumbledore’s voice shattered the mirror of memory.
“A gifted student with promise who took the wrong course. That is all I will say of him for the moment.” Dumbledore’s eyes did not twitch as would those of a lesser wizard, even when he was hiding something. Elusive was his middle name.
“But the other one, the new professor. What does she have to do with this?”
From the multitude of parchments scattered upon the desk in orderly piles, Dumbledore took up a singular specimen, torn and crumpled like nobody’s business, and passed it across to Moody. It wasn’t the usual type of parchment sold in Britain. Too heavy, too rough. It had soaked up the ink too well, causing it to blur the strokes. The quill had blotted twice and was of a generally uneven cut, as though sharpened by a blunt knife. The words themselves were not of the greatest interest, the usual kind of fair for a poison pen:
Do you know just what kind of person you’ve let into Hogwarts?
Better ask the lying bitch about her last boyfriend.
He’s your old favourite.
Everything about this note was an exaggeration, a kind of mask set in place to fool its reader, but surely the writer would have known that Dumbledore would see through its poorly-constructed facade. It was too easy, too transparent. Made to look as though written by someone of low class – in all senses of the word – on homemade parchment with no distinguishing marks in the strokes, all of them too blurred to latch onto.
It was the kind of note sent to many people in many places, usually out of spite, envy, the usual boring reasons, yet for some reason, it had bothered Dumbledore. Or maybe it wasn’t the note itself, but all the other little things that accompanied it.
One thing was clear: Dumbledore was having one of those gut feelings, the kind that Moody hated to ignore. If it felt wrong, it had to be wrong.
“How did this come?”
“It came by owl. One of our own, incidentally.” A line appeared between Dumbledore’s brows. “It had flown off course and was captured, from what Hagrid could gather.”
Moody turned over the note in his hands. “But you are the only one who’s seen this?”
“Any guesses as to who sent it?”
But finding out who sent it wasn’t the only answer Dumbledore was looking for. That much Moody could discern. The rest was a pile of loose threads. It would take him a while to sort through it all: the timing of the two applications, the possible history between the witch and wizard involved, the anonymous poison pen, and this new professor herself. What was so special about her? Albus Dumbledore didn’t trust just anyone.
With twisted lips, Moody set the parchment down. “So who’s the new professor?”
This seemed to be the information that Dumbledore was loathe to part with. Laying his hands flat on the desk, he stared at Moody with the kind of intensity that would have felled and army. It had.
Moody’s eyebrows rose. This name, he knew.
“She was in Magical Law Enforcement for a while. Couldn't get herself interested in the work, or the people, not that I blame her there. Nothing special.” Nothing to deserve Dumbledore’s explicit trust, that was for sure, and even less to deserve notice by some poison pen.
“So you’re worried about her reputation?”
The intensity of Dumbledore’s gaze didn’t waver an iota.
“My concern regards the safety of the school and its occupants.”
A vague explanation if he’d ever heard one. He began to itch for another cigarette.
“Aye, but whose the one you’re worried about? The writer of those note or Riddle?”
The eyes remained impassive. Intent, but impassive. No answers. Those, Moody would have to find out for himself. The records offices. McGonagall herself, though if his memory was right, and he never questioned the state of his memory, she wasn’t the type to talk.
He had one question left. “Why me? You could’ve had half the Aurors in here at your disposal, and you choose the one who’s got the worst rep and a missing leg. Even if you wanted this out of the record, I’ll tell you now that I’m not the sort anyone in their right mind would have confidence in.”
A sudden smile erupted on Dumbledore’s lips, his eyes softening into their usual twinkle.
“And that, Mr. Moody, is why.”
If there was one thing Alastor Moody would have get used to with this case, it was that the answer to every question would be another goddamn riddle. With a nod to Dumbledore, unwilling to risk speech, Moody soon found himself once more in the mist, his vision as clouded as his thoughts.