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Chapter 24 : Slash of Darkness in Yourself
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‘I was gone,’ said Jennifer Riley with absolute determination, ‘for an hour. I went for a walk around the park to clear my head. And then I came home.’
Tanith and Harry exchanged glances, and the senior Auror reached into her coat to pull out her notepad. ‘We have your statement indicating you were home by ten o’ clock that night. You stand by this?’
She frowned. ‘I do.’
‘And Mister Doyle has verified this.’
‘Gabriel Doyle, your friend, a man you’ve trusted with your life - yes. He’s verified this.’
‘Come on, Riley, you know better than to pollute this with personal feelings.’
Jen arched an eyebrow. ‘Because you’re not doing that right now, Auror Cole?’
Tanith flinched as the accusation bounced around the walls of one of Canary Wharf’s cramped interview rooms. ‘If I were, Riley, then I’d have let you go already. But you know how this works. You’re the one who believes in how the system will bring the truth out, so you don’t need to worry about your innocence being proven.’
‘The system has to be run by good people.’
Harry’s shoulders squared a little. ‘You may have claimed you were at home, and your partner may have confirmed this, but we have testimony to bring this alibi into question.’
Jen’s head tilted, and Tanith couldn’t read anything but defensive sincerity in her expression. If she was lying, she was better at it than Tanith had ever given her credit for.
‘Auror Bell recalls being at the flat at ten-fifteen, fifteen minutes after you claim you were back, with only Mister Doyle at home.’ She kept her voice low, calm, and studied that mask for any hint of a crack.
The only crack was surprise. ‘Auror Bell must be mistaken. I went for a walk. I came home. I wasn’t gone more than an hour. The times are approximate, but not that approximate.’ Jen shook her head. ‘I appreciate how this might be concerning, but you’re barking up the wrong tree, Auror Cole.’
Tanith picked up her notebook. ‘Does the name Stacey Whitman mean anything to you?’
Jen looked like she was sincerely thinking, then shrugged. ‘No.’
‘And we’ve covered that you believe you left nothing, intentionally or accidentally, in Bernard Lackardy’s cell.’
‘We have, indeed, covered that.’
‘All right.’ Tanith flipped the notebook shut and got to her feet. ‘We’re done here. Thank you for your cooperation. Come on, Potter.’
The two Aurors slunk out of the interview room, leaving Jen shut in behind them, and Harry gave a sigh when the door closed. ‘She’s not giving anything away.’
Tanith grimaced. ‘All we have is an alibi that doesn’t add up.’
‘And a rune next to a dead body which only two people could have dropped.’ Harry made a face. ‘Unless there’s way more mess in this office than you anticipated.’
‘You think the Head of the Prosecution Office being implicated in the highest profile murders since the war isn’t more mess than I ever figured was going to fall down on us?’
‘There’s the senior aide, still.’
‘No luck there.’ They turned to see Ron and Katie coming out of the other interview room, Ron rather dour-faced, Katie still with that rather sick expression she’d been wearing since confessing and implicating Jen.
‘Tom Everard’s alibi the night of your attack checks out,’ Ron continued. ‘His neighbour saw him coming into his flat at ten-twenty on the night, and heard him cooking dinner and listening to the radio. Guess an aide’s pay in the Prosecution Office isn’t so good if he’s living somewhere with walls that paper-thin.’
‘It’s not,’ said Tanith, and scowled. ‘All right. We can still hold him for another couple of hours, but that’s it, really. We don’t have enough to go on to keep him here.’
‘And we have enough to go on for Riley?’ Ron quirked an eyebrow.
‘I worry we might. But I have another interview to conduct. Which room did you put him in?’
‘Beta,’ said Katie, still rather pale-faced. ‘You want any of us to -’
‘I’ll do this one myself,’ Tanith said firmly. ‘You finalise things with Everard.’
The last of the interview rooms her team had claimed was at the end of the corridor, a corridor most members of the MLE were trying to avoid as Auror investigations went through several of the nastier jobs that any of them could do. It was bad enough conducting investigations into the death of one of their own, or into a murder on their own premises, but combine these two with a prime suspect in the Prosecution Office, the office they relied on to make their own good work stick, and this was a situation nobody wanted to be too closely associated with.
Except for those of them who didn’t have a choice.
Gabriel was sat at the table in the interview room, hands clasped together, head lowered. He jerked up as she came in, expression tensing before he realised it was her, then his gaze became cautious, suspicious. ‘Tanith, what the hell’s going on -?’
She didn’t answer until she was sat down, her chest tight. ‘Here’s the deal, Gabe.’ Her voice was raspier than she meant it to come out. ‘Jen’s alibi the night I was attacked? It doesn’t check out.’
He frowned, bewildered. ‘I gave you the times -’
‘No, I gave you the times. You couldn’t remember what time she’d come back.’ Tanith leant forward an inch. ‘Could you?’ He hesitated, and her heart sank as she realised she had him. ‘Katie confirmed that Jen wasn’t home, fifteen minutes after she said she’d been. So I’m going to ask you again, Gabe. When did Jen get back?’ Gabriel opened his mouth - then paused, and frustration surged within her. ‘Damn it, Gabe, I am not the enemy here!’
‘Really?’ He tensed. ‘Because you’re the one who’s got me and my girlfriend in an interview room -’
‘You know I have to do my job, and my job means that I have to look at a suspect who has motive and opportunity and right now the person who has both is sitting on a defence made out of lies!’
Her voice echoed around the room, though still Gabriel’s expression remained tight, unaffected, and Tanith realised with a start that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d faced the brick wall of his implacability like this. Normally he just turned it on others, normally she was one of the few people who could sidle past it, but not today.
‘This isn’t a smoking gun,’ Tanith continued carefully, ‘but this is not something I can ignore.’
‘Really? Even though everything doesn’t add up, perhaps, you can’t let this one go out of faith? You can’t look at someone and know, and trust, that no matter how it seems, they are not the person who might do what you fear they’ve done?’ Gabriel’s voice was low, challenging.
She felt the sting of the implied accusation of hypocrisy, and straightened, shoulders squaring. Her expression twisted. ‘I have to do my job. And my job means I don’t have the luxury that you do of being able to rely on faith. I need truth and I need facts.’ Tanith forced herself to shrug. ‘So give me facts. When did Jennifer Riley make it home last Thursday night?’
Gabriel hesitated again, and she slammed her hands down on the desk. ‘Come on, Gabe, you are not an idiot, and if you had an answer to make this go away, you’d give me one - but do not try to lie to me again because I can see through you. When did she come home?’
‘This isn’t -’
Another pause, but now she saw something cracking at the edge of his mask, and she let it wait this time, let it worry itself open until Gabriel worked his jaw silently - then his shoulders slumped. ‘I don’t - I don’t know.’
Her instincts as a friend made her want to go to him. Her instincts as an Auror made her lean forward and keep an edge in her voice. ‘You don’t know?’
‘It was late! We’d rowed, badly. I shut myself up in my room, it was dark, I don’t know how long I was there, it felt like it might as well have been days, I didn’t check the time when she came back...’
And there it was. Patience and the correct application of pressure meant she’d found his kernel of doubt and done the impossible - break Gabriel Doyle’s mask. But Tanith struggled to draw anything resembling satisfaction from this victory.
She leant back and gave a stiff nod. ‘All right. All right...’
Gabriel ran a hand through his hair, and to her horror she could see him shaking. ‘Merlin, Tanith - you are barking up the wrong tree -’
‘I hope so,’ she said. ‘But I’ve got other dogs after other trees, and I can’t leave this tree behind until I know for sure. There are a hundred and one possible explanations for this, but -’
‘No, there’s just one,’ Gabriel snapped. ‘And that’s that she didn’t do it. I know this might be tough for you, Tanith, to accept and understand. But the kind of thing you’re suspecting? It’s just not in Jen’s nature.’
‘I know -’
‘You don’t. Because I don’t - didn’t - and you and I are that bit too alike.’ He looked up, dark eyes meeting hers and blazing with a fierceness she’d not seen before. ‘We both scratch and claw our way to being good people, and even if we win, it’s after a long battle. There are lots of reasons you’re good at this job, but one of them is because you’re good at seeing the darkness inside of people. Understanding why they do the things they do. And you have that insight because, even if you’ve turned your back on it, you’ve got that slash of darkness in yourself.’
Tanith hesitated, and Gabriel leant forwards, gaze still ardent. ‘So you don’t get that Jen doesn’t. I’m not taking about purity or innocence or any of that crap, I’m talking about the kind of morals that are unflinching and bright and blinding. The person you’re after? Is weak, and petty, and cowardly, and broken. That’s not her.’
There was a pause, then Tanith got to her feet, fiddling with her notebook. When she spoke, her voice was a little unsteady. ‘I look forward to you being proven right.’
Outside, her three trainees waited, though from the looks on their faces she suspected they had watched the entire interview, as there was no curiosity in their eyes - just a dull air of determination. Tanith scowled when she saw them, and jerked a thumb over her shoulder.
‘I just have two things for you to do,’ she growled. ‘Process Gabriel out. And someone can fucking find me Stacey Whitman.’
Harry quirked an eyebrow. ‘Where are you going?’
‘To do something unpleasant I don’t want the three of you tarnished with.’
Again, she went to an interview room - and again was confronted with the cold grey eyes of Jennifer Riley, calm and dignified even in a confined space such as this. With just the two of them in the room the tension was almost palpable and when Tanith shut the door behind her it sounded loud, far too loud.
‘Your alibi no longer checks out, Riley,’ she said. ‘Gabriel’s admitted he can’t remember for sure when you were back.’
‘I imagine that puts you in a rather difficult situation, Auror Cole.’
‘Damn it, Riley. You talk about following the system, but this entire situation is mired in a mess of lies. Why don’t you just tell me where you were that night?’
Jen straightened. ‘I did.’
‘I have an Auror, one of your best friends, telling me that’s wrong. That when I was attacked, you were unaccounted for.’
‘As the victim in this case, should you be really investigating?’
Tanith yanked back the empty chair and sat down. ‘I’m trying to do you a favour here. We gave you the benefit of the doubt, Bell gave you the benefit of the doubt, and now Lackardy’s dead and I can’t afford to do that. I’ve got the whole of the MLE, the whole of the wizarding world breathing down my neck and I cannot afford to make a fuck up. So just tell me -’
‘I told you,’ Jen snapped. ‘Katie must be mistaken.’
‘I’m pretty sure that if Bell had even the slightest amount of doubt as to what she saw when, she’d have kept her trap shut. She did in the first place, to protect you, even if this could cost her a whole career in the MLE, because she trusted you. So if not for me, then for her.’
Jen looked away. ‘I wish I could help,’ she said quietly. ‘But I have told you what I know. If Gabriel can’t remember, that’s not so unusual that he didn’t check his watch at a time of emotional turmoil. Katie is wrong, and even if she weren’t, I certainly wouldn’t have asked her to lie for me. And that’s all I know.’
Tanith scrubbed her face with a hand, feeling the weariness in her bones. ‘Merlin, but you are stubborn.’
‘Let’s find out what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, Cole.’ Jen straightened. ‘Your move.’
‘Don’t play this game, Riley. You know exactly what my options are. We’ve gone through your alibis for the murders on this case - a whole lot of late nights, alone in the office, or home alone, with nobody to confirm your presence isn’t exactly damning, but it sure as hell isn’t clearing your name any time soon! Nor is that you and Tom went your separate ways after speaking to Lackardy and you “needed time to think”! If you were anyone else -’
‘Treat me like I’m anyone else. Because if you’re so worried about everyone breathing down your neck, it’s going to be bad enough when they realise you didn’t bring me in sooner because of personal relationships. You don’t want it to be made worse.’
Tanith’s expression twisted. ‘And here’s you and me having another conversation about being slaves to the system.’
‘That was years ago.’ Jen paused, then looked up for their eyes to meet firmly. ‘Let me be honest: I don’t trust you.’
‘Are you really letting the Nick thing -’
‘No. But I want to thank you for referring to the time you executed the man I loved as a “thing”.’ Jen did hesitate, drawing her hand down her face wearily. ‘I get it. I understand it. You had to kill him. Or you refused and Brynmor would kill you, then him -’
‘Not just me.’ To anyone else, she’d been quiet, calm, stating her case, but now Tanith’s voice faltered. ‘My father in Azkaban. My mother. My sister. Her daughter.’
Jen’s gaze flickered. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I know that’s hard. I always worried they’d go after my parents, my sister. But they were always loath to go after pureblood families.’
‘And then sometimes they weren't so reluctant.' Tanith stared at the desk, her gaze unseeing for a long moment. ‘He said - he said, if I saw you again... to tell you he was sorry.’
When anyone else would have burst into tears, Jen just closed her eyes. But she took longer before she spoke, and when she did, her voice was tight, hoarse. ‘I hope it was quick.’
‘It was. And he was... unflinching.’ Tanith didn’t know if this was helping or just making it worse, but she still didn’t look up, and all she could see in the desk was Nick Wilson’s face in those final moments, making that light-hearted, affectionate, and loyal exchange with his best friend.
Silence fell upon them for those long seconds, until finally Jen cleared her throat. ‘I don’t... blame you,’ she said awkwardly. ‘Though you’ll forgive me if I don’t invite you around for tea any time -’ Then she stopped, and squared her shoulders, and met Tanith’s eyes. ‘Actually, no. Look at me, Cole.’
Tanith did, just about, and blinked as she found Jen Riley’s gaze locked on hers, calm and firm. ‘I don’t blame you,’ said Jen levelly. ‘It was not your fault. My more complicated feelings aside, I believe you were in an impossible situation in the war, I believe you did everything you could to help where possible. I have not forgotten that without you, Nick would have been given the Dementor’s Kiss months earlier.’
‘Except, again, he would have been in Azkaban because of me -’
‘If not you, then someone else, perhaps, maybe. Let me focus on what I know: I know that you had no choice. I know that when you had a choice, you invariably took the hard path to do the right thing.’ Jen wrinkled her nose. ‘I also know that I don’t like you very much. I think you’re downright unpleasant, occasionally hypocritical, and sometimes narrow-minded. But. I do know you have a strong sense of right and wrong. I know you’re good at your job. I know I want you to keep on doing your job for years to come. And I know I want you to do your job right now.’
Absolution, Tanith reflected bitterly, came with a hefty serving of guilt on the side. ‘That’s what I’m trying to do.’
‘No, you’re trying to cut me some slack because you trust me. And I’m saying that’s a terrible idea. Because at some point this will get bigger than you - this will go to the Auror Office as a whole, the MLE as a whole. And I think the MLE has been a little too prepared to take the easy road when it comes to justice.’
‘You’ve been the one responsible for justice.’
‘On paper. You know, in practice, how much of these decisions come from the Auror Office, the Head of the MLE. Like Lackardy. He wanted to make a deal to sell out associates of Garrett Avery he claimed he knew about, who are more influential in the Remnant than him. In return, he’d get a reduced sentence. Is that justice?’
Tanith ground her teeth together. ‘It’s the price of doing business. And it’s a business you’re involved in, too.’
‘As I recall, I’m the reason Bernard Lackardy didn’t get charged with a murder he didn’t commit,’ Jen said smoothly. ‘While the Auror Office trying to make things easier, cutting corners, got him into that situation in the first place. So forgive me if I don’t want this handled behind the scenes.’
‘But they’ll do you any favours if I do this by the book?’
‘I think I stand a better chance with you at the helm, with everything being done in the open. If you disagree, we’re at an impasse.’
‘I guess we are.’
‘So can I go?’ Jen’s eyes flashed defiantly.
Tanith tensed. ‘Don’t make this harder than it has to be.’
‘I’m not. I’m the one of us facing reality. And the reality is that, if you don’t have anything more to say, I am free to leave this interview room at any time.’
She went to stand, and Tanith lifted a hand. ‘Or, you could choose to stay and help us with our investigation.’
Jen stopped. ‘You wouldn’t offer that to anyone else.’
‘You’re not anyone else.’
‘I am in the eyes of the law.’ Jen Riley squared her shoulders. ‘So, go on. Follow the law.’
Tanith rose, jaw clenched, and glowered across the interview room. ‘Oh, fuck you, Riley,’ she hissed. ‘What is this, fighting me on this? We’re on the same side.’
‘Not right now, we’re not. And my best chance of not being discarded by the MLE, the MLE so eager for any kind of answer to this current crisis, is to follow procedure to the letter, for this to be as public and transparent a process as possible, and I don’t particularly care if that makes your life difficult.’
The two women glared at each other for several long seconds, before Tanith drew a sharp, pained breath. ‘So be it. Jennifer Riley, you are under arrest for the murders of Jacob Van Roden, Bartholomew Mulready, Valerie Phelps, and Bernard Lackardy, and for the attempted murder of an officer of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.’
Five hours later she was still there, at Canary Wharf. Even when the MLE officers had calmed down from the drama of the security breach, even when Vaughn himself had signed off for the rest of the night, even when she’d dispatched her trainees to the Ministry, ostensibly to go through records there but in reality so she could be left alone.
Jen had been transferred to one of the cells, Gabriel and Tom had been let go, and she needed to get to the bottom of this.
Hardly anyone was still in the building by this time, so when she heard footsteps in the bullpen she didn’t look up, expecting it to be her trainees. ‘Did you find something?’
‘I found you.’ Tanith looked up with a jerk to see Tobias stood there, leaning on his staff, brow furrowed. ‘And I heard everything went crazy today.’
‘I have to follow procedure -’
‘You don’t have to explain yourself to me.’ Tobias limped in to pull up the chair across from her, Jacob’s chair, and she managed to not flinch. He was the only person in the world who could get away with that.
It was also, once her knee-jerk reaction of disapproval faded, reassuring to look up and see half of what she expected, deep down: someone she trusted.
‘You will have to explain yourself to the press. They’re having a field day with this.’
‘The arrest of the Head of the Prosecution Office for the same murders she herself would have prosecuted. I know.’ Tanith’s shoulders hunched. ‘This couldn’t suck more. She and Everard are the only people who could have dropped a rune in Lackardy’s cell, and Everard’s got an alibi for at least my attack.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought it of either of them,’ said Tobias gloomily. ‘What about someone else breaking through Canary Wharf’s defences?’
‘That’s what I’m hoping.’ She nodded. ‘Vaughn’s got the security teams going over the wardings to find some evidence of their being breached. But it’ll take time, and until I can find that...’ She rested her head in her hands. ‘I can’t justify letting my prime suspect walk.’
‘She didn’t do it. And you know this. And you’ll find evidence of this.’ She heard him stand, heard him shuffle around the desks, then his hands were on her shoulders, and only then did she realise quite how horribly tense she’d become. ‘I trust you.’
That helped, a little. A little was enough. Tanith lowered her hands and looked up at him standing over her. ‘At least someone does. And I have other leads. The other three are going through Ministry records to try to track down our leak and find out who Stacey Whitman is.’
Tobias cocked his head. ‘And... who is that?’
‘Someone who’s gone through a suspicious amount of trouble to discreetly receive a delivery of a substance found at a crime scene, and has been receiving MLE files about personnel fired after the June Inquiries. Unfortunately, this is exactly the wrong time to get the MLE to do something.’ She frowned at him. ‘I hate your election.’
‘Enforcers are being rerouted for security of polling stations. Administration are going nuts at this. You’d think that getting a surveillance team on a hot spot and rooting out a leak in HR would take a higher priority, but...’ Tanith made a face. ‘It’s being done. Just... inefficiently.’
‘But you have leads,’ said Tobias quietly. ‘One of them will show up something - this Stacey Whitman identity, this leak. And it’s not as if you’re going to charge Jen...’
‘No.’ She tensed. ‘But that means I have forty-eight hours to get something better. And the clock’s ticking.’
‘What’re you working on?’
‘Staff rotas to find out who might have had access to these various files. It’s getting messy.’ Tanith rubbed her temples. ‘But I can’t go down to HR and start throwing around these accusations or whoever it was is going to start covering their tracks.’
‘And how long have you been at it?’
Tanith looked around. ‘What time is it?’
‘Past nine, love.’ He squeezed her shoulders gently. ‘You should get some rest. No wonder you’re not getting to the bottom of this...’
‘I’ll rest when I have my killer and Jen Riley can go free.’ She got to her feet, sliding away from his touch, and went over to the next stack of files. ‘You should go home, though. I know you’ll have a busy day tomorrow.’
‘We do start at five,’ Tobias conceded. ‘Stopping by pretty much every bloody polling station on a whirlwind tour of the country. But I’m not going to be able to rest if I’m worried about you driving yourself into the floor.’
‘You think Gabe’s getting any rest tonight with his girlfriend locked up? You think Riley’s getting any rest tonight? As someone who’s enjoyed the hospitality of Canary Wharf’s cells, I can assure you the answer is “no”.’ Tanith scowled as she fussed with the folders.
Tobias sighed. ‘Since she’s accused of, amongst other things, murdering an Auror, can’t you justify a request to Vaughn for a Legilimens to -’
‘No.’ Tanith whirled around, voice like thunder. ‘Under absolutely no circumstances. Aside from the fact that, in legilimency, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, I will not have a -’
‘Okay, okay.’ She’d been shakier than she’d thought, she realised, as Tobias limped across the gap between them and reached out to catch her hands. ‘Bad idea. Forget it.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Her gaze dropped. ‘I just don’t feel like I can justify going home and relaxing when I’ve managed to ruin lives today...’
‘You’re not walking out on your responsibilities, you’re recharging,’ said Tobias quietly, his hold on her hands tight. ‘So you will be in a better state tomorrow to go out there, find the truth, and finish this.’
Her shoulders hunched in. ‘I don’t...’
‘You don’t have to punish yourself for this,’ he murmured. ‘Everything will look brighter tomorrow. And, you see, I’m not leaving until you do.’
She looked up, a crooked smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. ‘You know, I could have Enforcers throw you out.’
‘Colquhoun’s on the front desk, he won’t throw me out. He likes me better than you.’ Tobias smirked, clearly knowing when he’d won. ‘You’re not a bad person for being able to sleep at night.’
‘I assure you,’ said Tanith mock-haughtily, ‘I have a lot of experience on the subject of bad people.’
‘So do I. I know them when I see them. And you, Tanith Cole, are not a bad person.’
Then he leant down to kiss her, which brought its own surge of excitement and tingles as Tanith was abruptly, keenly aware that even if they stood behind some screens they were still in the middle of her office and this was wholly inappropriate.
But as his closeness, the feel of him, his warmth and his reassurance wrapping around her finally began to make a dent in the self-doubt, the self-loathing, and the tension that had sunk deep into her bones over the day, she realised that she didn’t especially care.
And when she pulled back, shy and self-conscious in a way which was new but not unwelcome, she couldn’t fight a small, tired, rueful smile. ‘Okay. You win. Let’s go home.’
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