Chapter 11 : All Your Fuss-Eggs in One Fuss-Basket
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'We're back to square one,' Katie wailed, burying her face in her arms as Aurors buzzed and prowled around the bullpen down in Canary Wharf. Most of them were passing through, stopping for important meetings, picking up folders; the team of trainees had been stuck around the desks for an hour so far that morning, and were not set to move off anywhere any time soon. 'If the wife didn't do it, then who the hell did?'
'We have to let the evidence lead us,' Tanith said, trying to sound commanding and reassuring but as much at a loss as the rest, and aware this wasn't the first time she'd said that this morning. She flicked her wand at the board on the wall she'd claimed for the Mulready case. 'Go back to basics. Look at every inch of what occurred that night, at the crime scene. Look at every person who might have motive.'
'I thought we established half of Britain wouldn't have spat on Mulready if he was on fire,' Ron grumbled from where he was sat next to Katie.
'There's a line between that and murder,' said Harry. He, of all of them, had tried to remain the most placid about the entire affair.
'Exactly.' Tanith nodded at him. 'We go back to the files of Mulready's old cases and criminal record and find the people who looked like they'd have a real reason to hold a grudge. Cross-reference those individuals with their own records to see who might have the temperament and the means to act on it. We got halfway through this work before we got distracted with a lead on the wife; it's almost done.'
Harry picked up a file on the table next to him. 'Oh, and I got the paperwork back from the Arithmancers about the killing curse. That is, the curse-that-was-used-to-kill-him. Not the Killing Curse.'
'To think I mocked you,' Tanith said, reaching for it and by now unashamed to implicitly accept she'd been wrong to discourage him. 'There better be something good in here.'
'It was the Scindo curse,' said Harry. 'Apparently it's a particular derivation of some routine severing spells which are usually used for non-violent means - hacking through the undergrowth, that kind of thing.'
'Hey, I know that one.' Katie brightened up. 'We used it a bunch in the Lions, or at least, some of the guys did. They said it had a really good punch, but it was kind of slow and unwieldy. A good finishing move or if you thought they weren't expecting it, and sometimes good to punch through shields, but you wouldn't want to try to pull it off if you were under heavy fire.'
Tanith made a face as she read the file. 'So you're saying it was pretty widely used and not especially distinctive unless it's properly analysed.'
'And it wasn't unpopular in the war. I think the guys might have picked it up off the Death Eaters in the first place, or vice versa, I dunno. It got thrown around a lot.' Katie shrugged.
'Then maybe we should focus our attention on suspects we knew were in the war,' Ron suggested. 'If it's possible that whoever used it on Mulready picked it up from there, or from the same trend all the Death Eaters did.'
'It's as good a start as any,' said Harry, brightening a bit.
'Then it's a plan, Chief. Chief?'
All three of them now looked up at Tanith, who'd been staring at the file. As Katie prompted her, she snapped it shut, then stood without looking at them and began yanking open her drawers, rifling through them one at a time.
Harry leant forwards. 'Thought of something?'
She didn't answer, but eventually pulled out one folder which was still clipped shut; from the way she had to prise at the clips it looked like she hadn't opened it much, if at all. The three fell silent again when, one at a time, they recognised the contents of the file as the details of the arrest of Bernard Lackardy.
'Scindo,' Tanith hissed at last, slapping the palm of her hand down on the folder. 'Son of a bitch.'
Katie was the first one to venture to talk. 'Chief?'
'No, it's - nothing to do with the case.' But her shoulders tensed, and only slowly did she close the folder. 'I remember Scindo now, though I didn't tend to get sent on the jobs where the Death Eaters were throwing around vicious curses like that. I shouldn't have forgotten it, though.'
Harry winced. 'Is that what Lackardy used on...'
'Yeah.' Tanith went to shove the folder back into a drawer. 'But I'm letting myself get distracted. It doesn't matter now -'
'Actually, it might.'
All four of them looked up to see not just Cassius Vaughn storming into the bullpen, but Jen Riley by his side, a huge stack of papers under one arm. Both of them looked rather serious-faced, and Vaughn didn't break step to gesture for them to follow.
Exchanging glances of confusion but not saying anything, the Aurors trooped after them out of the bullpen, following Vaughn as he led them down the corridor and into the broad conference room used normally for team leader briefings and other such auspicious occasions. Tanith didn't think she'd been in it more than a handful of times, and none of them had been for anything minor.
Her eyes still landed on the chair at the top of the table, where she almost half-expected to see Thanatos Brynmor's tall, brooding shape.
'Sit down,' said Vaughn, but he didn't wait for them to finish shuffling around with seats and space before he continued. 'I just had Miss Riley here burst in on me with some rather damning and worrying information that's going to affect this case - and other cases. And some of you.'
He looked right at Tanith, who opened her mouth to speak before Vaughn gestured to Jen, who set her paperwork down.
'I had to go over the evidence against Bernard Lackardy. Because to charge someone with murder, you have to be damn sure that they did it,' she said, her voice a little cold.
'He did do it,' Tanith growled, but the frustration felt now born of instinct more than fact.
'Actually, he didn't. I won't tell Mister Vaughn how to do his job, but he needs to take a serious look at how some even quite seasoned Aurors are following procedure if Auror Savage allowed -'
'That sounds an awful lot like you are telling me how to do my job,' said Vaughn unpleasantly. 'Cut to the chase.'
Jen glared, but let her gaze fall to the papers. 'I conducted the basic double-checking of facts, and discovered nobody had so much as cast a Priori Incantatum on Lackardy's wand after he was brought in.'
Tanith's brow furrowed. 'It was a Stupefy. It missed. And what the hell does that prove?'
'It was a Stun, yes, but you know full well that your Analysis Office can get back as many as the past dozen spells. From Lackardy's wand we could get as far back as the telekinetic charm he used to hurl a car at Auror Van Roden,' said Jen, and then she hesitated.
'Still not seeing the point, Riley,' said Tanith, not caring for her apprehension.
'Auror Van Roden was killed by the Scindo curse; this was identified as a matter of procedure, as is always done when a member of the MLE is killed,' said Vaughn. 'Nowhere in the analysis of Lackardy's wand was there any indication that Lackardy cast that.'
Grim silence fell upon them all, broken only when Tanith drew a short, tense breath. 'You're saying that Jacob wasn't killed by Lackardy.'
'That's exactly what I'm saying,' said Jen. 'Lackardy claims someone burst into his room and attacked him. He fled, and ran straight into the two of you. Savage suggested there wasn't much evidence to back this up, but Lackardy did live in squalor and claims he ran away quickly; it's not that odd. And it's a strange lie.'
Tanith's expression pinched. 'If there's this mysterious fourth person present who attacked Lackardy and drove him out at us - and I agree that Lackardy was acting rather strangely to blunder as badly as he did,' she said carefully, 'then I don't understand why they'd kill Jacob.'
'Maybe for their own reasons,' said Vaughn. 'Maybe as an accident. Maybe it wasn't them. But it wasn't Bernard Lackardy. We're going to have to drop those charges against him and see if the Prosecution Office can take him on over the Avery collaboration.'
'We can do that,' said Jen quietly.
Tanith made a face. 'Much as I appreciate knowing that Jacob's killer is still out there,' she said, 'why have you brought the lot of us in here? Unless you want me to make a pitch for taking us off Mulready's case and put on this one, and then I assure you, I can put on a damn light show to argue that.'
'You don't have to. Not yet.' Vaughn sighed. 'Two uses of a distinctive but not-uncommon spell being used to murder people who, six months ago, were part of the MLE, is not enough to raise my eyebrows. Not when the circumstances are so different. But we got another murder in this morning I was going to palm off onto Williamson.'
He took a folder off Jen and tossed it onto the table. 'Valeria Phelps, Miss Riley's predecessor. Conducted the prosecution of hundreds of cases during Thicknesse's regime, cases the Wizengamot has considered to be unlawful.'
'Someone I would have loved to throw in prison,' said Jen tersely, 'but despite the fact that she was a rather disgusting woman who happily associated with Thicknesse's regime and shot up the ranks over the nine months accordingly, she was unfortunately well-enough versed in the law to hide behind... only following orders.'
'Though she was thrown out of the Ministry after the war and not much has been heard from her since. And then her body was found in her house this morning. Killed by, you guessed it, the Scindo curse.'
Tanith's eyes flashed and she reached for the folder. 'Someone formerly associated with the Thicknesse regime to a full and disgusting level, who escaped justice immediately after through convenience or slipperiness, has been attacked or murdered in their home and killed with a specific spell.'
'I might only be a trainee,' said Harry, 'but that sounds like a pattern to me.'
'Miss Riley.' Vaughn looked over at Jen. 'Could you give me the room?'
She inclined her head and ducked out, and Vaughn waited until the door had clicked shut behind her before he continued. 'The similarities between the Phelps and the Mulready cases are enough that they'll need the same people at the head of them. The Lackardy case - the Van Roden case - is a clusterfuck, but I won't risk dismissing the connections just yet.' He planted his hands on the conference table and looked at his four Aurors - but most of all at Tanith. 'I don't know if this is a case I can give to trainees.'
Tanith opened her mouth to protest - to defend the trainees, to point out Savage's shortcomings, to tell him to ditch the trainees and let her tackle it - but it was Harry who piped up first.
'We can handle it,' he said, gaze cool and calm and collected. Tanith was beginning to tell when he was putting on his mask of The Boy Who Lived, and she suspected he was wilfully turning it on Vaughn right then.
'We can,' she said, eager to back him up. 'The kids are good, they know their trade, and they're not going to cut corners like Savage did.'
There was a pause, then Vaughn gave a single, slow nod. 'I'll give you a chance,' he said gruffly. 'If only because I'm low on people. But if this is a serial killer, it's not going to take long before this flares up. Nobody cares much about Mulready. People will care about a series of murders, especially when it includes an Auror. There's going to be fuss.'
'There'll be fuss wherever Harry is,' said Ron. 'At least this way you get all your fuss-eggs in one fuss-basket.'
'Trainees, I'm going to have to ask you to return to the bullpen. Your Team Leader can give you your next move in a few minutes,' said Vaughn, and the three trainees made themselves scarce with notable speed.
Tanith watched them go, knowing what was coming, and the moment the door was shut behind Ron she'd stood. 'Boss, I can do this case.'
Vaughn scowled. 'I don't want to see this go rotten -'
'It won't.' Her heart was pounding in her chest. 'I know you'll take me off if I screw this up, but I won't. I know it's bad procedure to put an Auror on the murder of their partner, but it's Jacob. I have to find out what happened to him.' She drew a tense breath. 'I sat on the sidelines in the war for so long, Boss, watching injustice after injustice, and I don't know if I can do it again for him. Not for him.'
'I've already said you're on the case, Cole. You don't need to convince me.' Vaughn lifted a hand, but his expression remained stern. 'But you need to listen to me. I am taking one hell of a risk letting this ball stay in your court. And this is because I am low on people and low on time, and Weasley's right - if the press are going to write about Potter anyway, let's give them something to write about. But that means the heat is going to be on your head even more, and you cannot afford to put a foot so much as an inch out of place. You are close to this one, too damn close for my liking, but I'm going to give you a chance.'
His expression folded up. 'And if you prove my faith wrong I will have you babysitting these trainees through Floo traffic violations, I shit you not.'
Tanith gave a short, jerky nod. 'I understand, Boss. I really do. And I'm not going to let you down.'
'All right.' Vaughn squared his shoulders. 'Then get to work. I'll get all the pertinent files down to you.' He nodded at the folder on the conference table, which she picked up as she left the room, winding through the corridors back down to the bullpen.
Jen was lingering at the edges, body language tense, and stepped out to waylay her. 'Cole, look. I'm sorry you ended up getting that news through the official channels.'
Tanith paused, genuinely surprised. 'It was official information.'
'Yeah, but not everyone would want to be told that their partner's killer was still on the loose in the middle of a briefing. But I couldn't justify not taking this stuff to Vaughn directly.' Jen made a face. 'Especially not since it reflect so badly on members of the Auror Office.'
'Savage isn't a bad Auror,' said Tanith, not sure why she was defending a colleague she particularly didn't like. 'But he's been overworked and... and I think most of us thought the Lackardy case was pretty open and shut.'
Jen looked over her shoulder at where the trainees sat. 'I guess it's turning out to be anything but, huh?' She sighed. 'I'll let you get to it. I might have to reschedule Lackardy's court date but I'm probably going to have to call you up as a witness now. It's likely I'll need to bring up the stuff he did during the war.'
'Happy to help,' said Tanith, then ducked past her and went to join her three trainees. They looked tense, apprehensive, knowing she'd just taken a blow of significant news - but they were alert, bright-eyed. Keen.
As was she. Although her gut twisted and her heart spun at the thought of what had happened to Jacob, although fire burned in her belly at the thought that there was someone out there who needed to still be brought to justice for his death, it wasn't like it had been for months. These feelings weren't crippling, draining, dragging her down and killing hope.
Because she wasn't helpless this time. This was something that shocked her to her core and she could do something about it. Go out there. Enact justice.
It was a good feeling.
Tanith looked at her three trainees and gave a broad, feral smile as she set down Valeria Phelps' file on the table. 'New victim. New crime scene. New clues and leads to go through, from here and from Lackardy. We identify the connections between them. We follow the trail.
'And we find the son of a bitch responsible and we bring him down.'
Will Rayner squinted down the corridor as he emerged from the heavy door that led to the Department of Mysteries. '...how long have you been here?'
'About ten minutes. Someone said you'd be out soon.' Cal got to his feet, having been perched on the floor in the Ministry. A pair of paper coffee cups were in his hands, and he passed one over to his foster father.
Will took it, still looking a bit confused. 'You could have got a memo sent in to come see me. Or to get me to come out.'
'I didn't want to disturb you. But I do want to buy you breakfast.' Cal cocked his head at him. 'Or is it dinner for you?'
'Fried dinner sounds fantastic. There's a greasy spoon place around the corner, wizards don't go there but it'll be open even at this time. They do the best black pudding...'
The Muggle-born Unspeakable led his foster son to the lifts and through to the exit of the Ministry. At five in the morning the place was quiet, downright peaceful, with just the particularly keen early risers of ministry officials, and members of the Department of International Magical Cooperation who were bound to the sun in a different land.
And, in very rare cases, the people who were just leaving.
'I'd ask you how work was going,' said Cal as they stepped out into the dark, crisp, morning London air, 'but I bet you can't tell me.'
'Refining Floo Communication, security, and... well, how to break that security,' said Will pleasantly. 'I picked up a lot of techniques while in Russia and Greece. I want to implement them so we know how to stop them, and refine them so we can use them on other people.' He took a gulp of coffee. 'Never design a weapon you can't protect yourself from.'
'Floo security incursions are weapons. They're just bloodless.' Will smirked. 'Usually.' He clapped Cal on the shoulder as they wandered down the gloomy streets. 'Not that it's not good to see you, kid, but to what do I owe the pleasure?'
'I can't just drop by?'
'You can. But it's not like our trips to the Leaky Cauldron have been irregular, and it's five in the morning.'
Cal looked down bashfully, big shoulders hunching a little. 'I couldn't sleep. I reckoned you'd still be up.'
He didn't say any more, though Will watched him for several more long, pointed seconds. The older man sighed. 'So, how've you been?'
'Good. I've been good.' Cal nodded quickly, sincerely. 'It's going great at Puddlemere. I've got an interview with Which Broomstick next week, I'm getting to start most games these days, and I've even been getting some contact from the Tornadoes manager I think is him starting to try to poach me.'
'I won't go. But it's nice to be asked, you know?' Cal grinned. 'To be in demand. I'm not used to that. But I intend to enjoy it while it lasts.'
'I'm glad you're doing good, kid,' Will said sincerely. 'It's a cutthroat world out there, but you've got a good head on your shoulders. And you're getting paid well to do something that you love. Not many people can proclaim that.'
'No,' said Cal, his smile souring a very little. 'They can't.'
They'd just made it to the café, and Will sorted them out with food - Cal suspected this had been a cunning ruse by his foster father to stop him from buying him breakfast. He had no Muggle money on him, so it was up to Will to get them their breakfasts.
They talked about nothing as they waited - recent matches, Will's work, anything and everything except for anything important - and then ate in determined silence, both of them big men with hearty appetites who liked to enjoy their meals.
It was only when Cal was wiping up the baked bean sauce with a slice of toast that he finally broke the silence. 'I went to see Thanatos.'
Will wiped his mouth with a napkin. 'I heard.'
'It didn't go well.'
'What did the bastard have to say for himself?' Will looked cautious as much as anything else as he watched his foster son.
Cal rolled a shoulder. 'I think... I think he knows he's beaten. Properly, this time. Not like before, when he thought You-Know-Who would come back and that he'd just need to bide his time. I think that gave him strength and determination to keep his mind in Azkaban.'
'In so far he ever kept his mind to begin with,' said Will quietly. 'But it definitely gave him... fire.'
'That's gone, now. He's looking at how everything he fought for has turned to ash. His life, his ideals, his family. And he's going to spend the rest of his life, which could be at least another fifty years, in a cell in Azkaban prison.'
Will leant forward. 'Hey.' He caught Cal's gaze, and kept it firmly. 'He killed people. He tortured people. He tortured you, and your friends. You don't have to feel sorry for him.'
Cal sighed, scrubbing his face with his hands. 'That's the problem,' he said quietly. 'I kind of do. He's just... pathetic right now. Beaten. He has nothing in his life.'
'So do a lot of other people. Because he took everything from them. Including their lives.' Will looked cautious, reserved.
'He still wants a connection to me,' said Cal, the words coming out in a tumble. 'I think it's the only thing he could have left in his life. And I can't ever agree with his ideals, or ever look at him and not see a murderer, but there's also - I don't know.' He stared at the table. 'The idea of condemning a man to being stuck in the world's most miserable prison with nobody to ever visit him, or even care that he's there, is... I find it hard to grasp what a man could do deserve that.'
'I don't know,' Will agreed, 'but I think that if it is possible for that fate to be deserved, then Thanatos Brynmor deserves it. And I know that if you are to make decisions about your life, then they should be about yours. Not his. He made his choices, for himself and for others, and now he has to live with them. Do you want a connection with him?'
Cal blinked. 'I - I don't know. That's not a question I've been very good at answering.'
Will grimaced a little. 'I can't tell you what to do, with your life and your choices -'
'But you can give me advice.' Cal gave a worn, worried smile. 'That's why I came here, Will, I - it's you, you're the wisest man I know, you're the only person who can give me advice on this...'
Will's shoulders relaxed, but only slightly. 'Then all I can tell you is to make a choice for you. For what you want. Do not - do not - make your life worse or even remotely inconvenienced for him. He doesn't deserve that. He doesn't deserve anything that is not freely given because the person wants to give it. Not out of guilt, or out of pity, but given, truly given.'
Cal stared at his hands, but gave a short jerk of a nod. 'You don't think I should have anything to do with him, do you.'
'I think that the right decision was made eighteen years ago when they locked him up and threw away the key,' said Will tersely. 'I think that man stands as one of the top five war criminals, possibly the greatest war criminal still alive. I think that he had a thousand and one times to turn back and never did, and so even if he is suddenly expressing that he was wrong - and if he is, I wouldn't believe it - then it is a repentance which is worth less than nothing. Any man can claim to be penitent when he stands in the jaws of hell. True absolution can only come at a price. Because if it didn't cost anything, it's worthless.'
'And he has to even really want forgiveness in the first place,' Cal mumbled. 'Lying aside, I don't even know if that was what he was saying. I don't know if he was accepting he was wrong so much as accepting he's been defeated. Doing so with marginally good grace can kind of look like the same thing.'
'If Voldemort came back tomorrow with an army at his back and broke Thanatos Brynmor out of Azkaban, he would get down on one knee before you could spit,' said Will. 'Remember that. Every time you look at him, remember that, if you struggle to remember his crimes.'
'I shouldn't struggle to remember his crimes,' Cal mumbled guiltily. 'That's pathetic and selfish of me, isn't it. Even if I could forgive what he's done to me, if I wanted to, it's not down to me to forgive him for what he did to others.'
'I know it's hard,' said Will, 'when you're dealing with people who you don't know, when you're dealing with injustices which are far removed from yourself. It makes it detached, it's like something you see on TV where you only intellectually recognise that it's wrong. But it's not so detached for those people. And I think it's important you remember that, even if those people are so far from yourself.'
'A lot of them are,' said Cal, and his expression had darkened with slow, pained realisation and blossoming, twisting guilt. He glanced up at Will. 'But there's definitely one person awfully close to home whose life Thanatos has wrecked. Twice.'
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