The Man in Black checked that his door was securely locked behind him, then tread rapidly down the cobblestone street. He hunched his shoulders beneath his cloak, as if against a cold wind. The gangly-limbed boy who watched him intently from the front walk three houses down wore short sleeves, and sweated in the pre-dusk heat of August.
Roland had watched him come and go periodically throughout the summer, and always The Man in Black wore the same black cloak. Hence the nickname. As if he could feel eyes tracking him from behind, the man stopped and turned abruptly, piercing the boy with one dark eye. Roland could distinguish neither iris nor pupil, just a glint of reflected light bouncing out from the shadows gathered beneath his disapproving brow. The eye flicked left and right, as if unsatisfied by what it saw. Perhaps the man sensed that someone else was spying, someone hidden.
Roland looked down abruptly, pretending that he had been focused on his flipped upside-down bicycle the entire time. The man continued walking, cloak billowing behind him as he turned and strode purposefully down another cobbled lane toward the river, where the boy sometimes poked a stick into the muddy shallows, hoping to see a fish or turtle. His mother had told him more than once that nothing lived in that stinking water, and he was under no circumstances allowed to wade into it. He had once, on one sweltering July day, and been so disgusted by the slimy ooze creeping between his toes that he hadn't attempted it again.
The man disappeared into the monotonous rows of tumbledown brick house, and the boy dared look up again, simultaneously attempting to rub the thick black grease from the bicycle chain off his fingers and onto his legs, without success. Underneath the grease, many of the chain links were rusted. His bicycle was a patchwork of mismatched parts scavenged from other bicycles, and he spent almost as much time repairing it as riding it. It was apparently time to find a new chain.
“Here, let me take a look at that,” said the woman, who had appeared again just as quickly as she'd disappeared a few minutes ago. “I used to bike everywhere, and my chain would lock up and pop off like that occasionally.”
Her accent was strange, but her voice itself was comforting, and he stepped away from the bicycle as she knelt before it, cutoff jeans riding up her bronzed thighs. His light blue eyes jumped away to her arms as she rolled up her plaid sleeves, stopping at the elbows despite the heat. He heard her muttering to herself under her breath, and saw a flash of movement. Her hands seemed to flutter about the bicycle without actually touching it. He must have looked away without realizing it, because suddenly the chain was back on and running smoothly along the chain wheel as she cranked the pedals.
“Here you go, all fixed,” she said, flipping the bike over and holding it out to him by the handlebars. He took it by the seat and turned the pedals himself to confirm that, yes, the chain was unkinked. The bent teeth on the chain wheel were also straight, now.
“Thank you, miss,” he whispered, glancing anxiously at his own house, though he knew his mother wasn't home from work yet and couldn't yell at him for allowing a stranger to fix his bike if she wasn't around to see it.
“That man in the house at the end of street,” she said, tilting her head toward The Man in Black's house. “How often does he come and go?”
“Every now and then. I see him once maybe every other week,” he answered, intrigued that someone else found The Man in Black as fascinating as he did.
She looked thoughtfully into the direction he'd gone. “So he won't be back anytime soon? He won't come back this evening, for instance?”
“I don't think so. He doesn't come and go often.”
She nodded. “Thanks,” she said. “Do me a favor. If he ever asks, I was never here.”
“He won't. He never says anything. I tried saying hello once and he scowled and said,” and here he lowered his voice in imitation of The Man in Black, though he couldn't get quite deep enough, “didn't your mother teach you not to converse with strangers?”
The woman didn't smile, she didn't seem capable of it, but for a moment he saw a flash of life in her dull brown eyes. “Still, just in case,” she said. She turned to go, then turned back for a moment.
“You know, if you never talk to strangers, you won't ever get to know anyone,” she said. She turned once again and took a few steps down the walk before stopping a second time. “Just be careful about who you choose to talk to.”
Roland watched her retreating figure for a moment, then jumped onto his bike and began pedaling down the street, tires thumping over the uneven stones as he flew all the way to the corner before turning back and circling around.
“A witch used to live in that house,” he boasted.
“A witch?” she asked, clearly not believing him. “Did you ever see her?”
“Yes, she'd come out and yell at anyone who walked across her back garden.”
“So you crossed it a lot then, I suppose?”
“Mostly on accident,” he said, eyes shifting deviously.
“Did she ever turn you into a toad?”
He shook his head. “No, but she threatened to hex anyone who came asking for sweets on Halloween, or who came caroling at Christmas.”
“How awful,” she said, not sounding like she meant it. “So what happened to her?”
“She died, I guess. That's when The Man in Black began showing up.”
One eyebrow arched upward, and once again her eyes flashed as she asked, “The man in black?”
“The one you're following.”
She gazed off down the street, eyes looking very far away. “Interesting,” she murmured. It was several seconds before she turned back and asked, “Do you ever go to the playground?”
“Sometimes,” he said, circling lazily to keep pace with her. He, too, paused before continuing,“Me and my friends used to play It.”
“It? Is that where someone has to run around, trying to catch everyone else?”
His dark, sweaty hair flopped up and down as he nodded.
“We called that Tag in my neighborhood,” she said, eyes running over the boarded-up windows and un-mown grass that plagued many of the houses on Spinner's End. “It's very quiet along this street.”
“Taking tea,” he mumbled. It was also true that most of his friends had moved away. Families never lingered long on Spinner's End, his mother said, not if they could help it. Their own stay had proven to be longer than she'd initially promised.
She glanced at her wristwatch. “Oh, right. It is that time. What about you? Why aren't you eating, now?”
“My mum's not home, yet. I'm not hungry, anyway.” That was half-truth. He was hungry, but there'd be no food for tea until his mother returned from work with take-away.
She nodded and continued walking. Seven blocks to the playground. She walked slowly, observing that the houses improved the farther she got from the mill, but not by much. The mill's chimney brooded over the neighborhood like a gigantic middle finger shouting, “Fuck you!” to everyone living in its shadow.
The three-bedroom house she'd grown up in was larger than these, though about as well-kept. At least she'd had a real yard, clear air and water that didn't smell like death. Spying on Snape was turning out to be only slightly less depressing than attempting to track down Remus had been. Maybe that was an exaggeration. That had been pretty damn depressing. She hadn't even found him.
The playground was sad as playgrounds go; with rusted swings, lopsided roundabout and a warped slide. Perhaps they had been painted brightly once, but now they were all the same faded gray. Sharp, dry grass grew up through myriad cracks in the pavement. They stopped and watched the empty swings for a moment, as if there were invisible children playing there that only they could see.
Finally, the boy pedaled around in one final long, slow turn to continue back the way he came. “I'm off, then,” he said.
“Wait,” she said, as she reached into her pocket and pulled out a chocolate bar. “Thanks for chatting with a stranger. Remember the favor I asked.”
He hesitated for just a moment before taking the sweet. If he ate it before she got home, then his mother would never know. “You were never here,” he said, pedaling away, adding Miss Sad Eyes to his short list of Mysterious Visitors to Look Out For. He'd liked the way the air had crackled when she handed him the chocolate; it was similar to the crackle he felt whenever he fiddled with the telly or radio.
Clio watched him dwindle down the street, thinking that perhaps it was just static electricity she'd felt. She didn't dwell on the other possibility for long, but turned the corner and headed down the next street; feeling momentarily nostalgic for the carefree act of riding a bicycle through a distant tree-shaded neighborhood that she'd long outgrown.
Seven more blocks to her house. City blocks: short and easily navigable by even small children, especially when there wasn't anywhere else for them to play, or anyone else to play with.
Fourteen blocks, total, from his house to hers.
Remus emerged cautiously from his door, inhaling deeply to get a sense of his surroundings before leaving the safety behind. Garbage, car exhaust, rat poison, heavenly smells from the chocolate factory half a mile away and finally the more immediate, salty smell of raw meat from the butcher shop one block over and two blocks down. Now his stomach began rumbling.
It was an hour before dawn, and the few working street lights were still lit. He stole quickly through the alley, stealthy in his movements though he was alone except for the rats that scuttled from his path. He no longer took the rats' presence for granted, but kept a lookout for bald patches and missing toes. He ignored the contents of the dumpsters along this stretch, his goal the bounty that he knew lay ahead.
The other gleaners would be emerging soon, but he intended to be long gone by then. The scent of blood and bone in the butcher's bins, perfectly good meat going to waste, drew him like a siren. The heavy lid, effective at keeping out the rats and other vermin and thus preserving the goodies within was easily lifted, the paper-wrapped meat inside easily sifted through with his wand. He found a large cache of pork sausage today. He levitated three pounds out and into a small bag that had been charmed to keep cold for at least an hour. He preferred his meat a little less processed, but he wasn't about to turn his nose up. The real find was buried beneath: several pounds of brisket just on the verge of going bad. No matter, his stomach could handle the extra bacteria. Into the sack it went.
His meat stock replenished, he turned toward the dark, sensual smell of chocolate. He could have tread this path in his sleep, but it was in his nature to remain ever aware of his surroundings. Just a block from the factory he was pulled up short by an out of place scent. Pomegranate. It must be his imagination. He inhaled again and the fragrance remained faint but unmistakable; stealing his breath with the memory of silken hair twined around his fingers, of a soft throat pressed to his mouth.
His guilty conscience must be torturing him. She couldn't possibly have been here, but his nose told him that she had passed this way not more than a day earlier. She couldn't possibly have tracked him here, unless: had he ever mentioned to her the benefits (beyond the obvious) of living in close proximity to a chocolate factory? That the constant presence of chocolate molecules in the air provided a small but measurable protection from dementors, boosting the human immune system while weakening theirs?
He must have, during one of those moments as they walked together (her fingers caressing his, hinting at what was to come later) when he was desperately searching for something interesting to say; or later as she lay in his arms, her hair wound around his fingers, and he was once again desperately searching for something interesting to say.
He groaned: these memories were agonizing, now. They ripped him apart from the inside out, and he was helpless to stop them. The coming full moon would almost be a blessing, he thought bitterly. For one night, at least, she would be driven completely from his mind. Even the physical pain of the transformation was preferable to this.
One hand clutched involuntarily at his breast pocket, where he carried her last letter wrapped around a ticket. He still hadn't decided what to do with it. How much harder would it be to leave her a second time?