Chapter 2 : Knockturn Alley
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Chapter Two - Knockturn Alley
Amazing image by Lady Asphodel at TDA!
Unbeknownst to many, concealed from public panic, things are changing in Great Britain. Beneath the pleasant surface, the old members are stirring, reuniting, testing the waters of how far they can push their power before someone notices. The Clearwater girl was only the beginning in a series of simple, easily executed murders: curses to be whispered in the safest hours of the morning, doors closed and locked behind hooded figures. The warriors take their stands: they will eliminate possible enemies before they are forces to be reckoned with, leaving only the weak and aggrieved, waiting to be conquered.
“When was the last time you spoke with Ms. Clearwater?”
I swallow, feeling warm and frightened although I know I haven’t done anything wrong.
“Two days, before… you know. Before she was… died.” Even to myself I make no sense. It’s no wonder the rat-faced Auror is giving me such sour looks, and the appointed Quick-Notes Quill at his side keeps angrily scratching things out.
“Okay, Ms. Burke, and what did this encounter entail?” The Auror asks, sounding bored as he picks at a nasty looking scab on his hand. The Ministry of Magic offices are chilly today, and I notice small goosebumps raising up on my arms.
I swallow again – why has my throat chosen today to seize up? Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent the past two weeks languishing alone in Sebastian’s apartment, scrubbing at obscure surfaces and making ferocious faces at the owls who keep arriving with letter from my other friends.
“She came over to my house in the evening for a cup of tea. We… talked for a while, about little things, like my work and, er, her poems, and her deal with that kooky newspaper…er, I forget the name…help me out here!” I wave my hands around a bit and then stop abruptly when I realize how strange it must look, and tuck them under my thighs where they can no longer flail and embarrass me.
The Auror glances at his notes with disinterest. “Are you speaking of the Quibbler, Ms. Burke, from which Ms. Clearwater had received much correspondence?”
“Yes, that,” I say weakly. “Sorry. She had a couple pieces published, I think, before…”
“Continue with your summary, Ms. Burke,” the Auror says, rather rudely. I glance at the silver nameplate on his rather shabby oak desk: Auror Dawlish, Secret Police.
Not too secret, then, I think to myself, and resist the urge to laugh in his ridiculous, pompous face. Dawlish looks infuriated, as if he knows what I’m thinking. Hopefully he’s not a Legilimens. The entire office is rather plain and drab: gray curtains dangle over windows enchanted to show scenes from the outside. Right now they are depicting a rather rainy moor, across which a hare hops sullenly.
Dawlish clears his throat loudly.
“Sorry. Er, well that’s about it. She Apparated home off my doorstep.”
“Back to her flat?”
“I presume.” I shrug. Dawlish looks at me through one beady eye.
“And around what time did you part ways?”
“Dunno, ten, maybe?” He nods and the quill scribbles something down on a pad of parchment that I’m convinced is just full of doodles and scribbles.
I summon my courage. “Listen, er, Auror Dawlish, sir? You are going to find out who hurt Penny… Ms. Clearwater, right? You are doing everything you can?”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing here, Ms. Burke?” He retorts, and viciously dips his quill into the inkwell. His hand trembles slightly, as if his bones are fighting him from the inside, and his fingers knock into the inkwell, spurting black ink across his desk.
I jerk towards where my wand is safely stowed in my purse, but remember that my magic still evades me. Besides, there’s probably a law against drawing one’s wand in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, no matter the intentions.
Instead, I watch awkwardly as Dawlish swears to himself and tries to keep the ink from spreading with his bare hands, staining the rough skin of his fingers.
“You’ll keep me posted on the investigation?” I ask nervously. He glares at me in a clear dismissal, and I practically run out of there, uncertain whether my interview has actually accomplished anything, and wondering who on this earth could have killed Penelope.
I hear Dawlish swear over my shoulder. Despite my wariness, I can’t help but wonder if he has a story.
I awaken in the middle of the night, staring at the dark ceiling of Sebastian’s bedroom as if it holds an answer for me. He’s insisted that I stay at his place, and the mandatory trip to be interviewed at the Ministry was the first time I’ve really left the flat. In fact, I haven’t even been outside, since I just took the Floo network straight from Seb’s to the windowless interior of the Ministry. This is an existence of tightly locked doors and recycled air.
Restless, both sweating and chilled at the same time, I finally stop tossing and pull myself up to make a cup of tea. Tiptoeing so as not to waken my sleeping boyfriend, I make it to the kitchen unscathed and boil the tea quickly, hurriedly stirring in an extra sugar just for the sake of it.
It’s as I’m walking towards the comfortable leather sofa in the living room that I trip over my own bare feet and fall, sprawling across the floor, hot tea spraying across my arms and chest, the mug shattering in multiple, flying pieces. A thrilling sensation of tightness floods through my jaw, as if my brain has flown backwards in my skull and resounded against the back of the head, that momentary terror of the free fall.
I lie on the floor for a full five seconds, checking each limb and ensuring that yes, I am alright and alive and well. And then I begin laughing at the absurdity of it, and I run to clean up the mess like a Muggle because my magic has not yet returned to me and I am quite powerless and Penelope is quite dead but she would be laughing at me too, in her amused, slightly pitying way. Because sometimes somebody needs to laugh in these situations.
And once the tea has been soaked by Sebastian’s fine paper towels and the last of the shards of the mug have been gathered, in case Seb offers to reassemble it with a Reparo Charm tomorrow, and I am righted and dry, I realize what has to be done: I need to return to the outside world. I need to see my friends: to hug and chat with Gemma over a plate of fish and chips, to go on a real date with Sebastian and try to escape from this rut of underlying bitterness and unspoken anger, to start collecting the stories of strangers again. Most importantly, I need to return to Borgin and Burkes.
Twenty-six years earlier
The story of how I came to work at Borgin and Burkes is that of two great friends, cancer, an inheritance, and a slippery pureblood who fell in love with a Muggle. My father, Caractarus Burke, was one of the co-founders of a small shop down Knockturn Alley way that sold knick-knacks and useful, generally contraband items which specialized in the Dark Arts. Borgin and Burke were collectors and traders, gathering mysterious and suspicious objects ranging in value and potential for hazard, and willingly handing them over to the highest bidder.
The important thing about Borgin and Burke was that they didn’t choose sides: they were pure capitalists, out for individual gain and not giving a gander for values or human rights or prejudices. They were prejudiced only upon those who wouldn’t give them a good price. Merchants of the underworld, as it were, though apparently my father could curdle one’s blood with tales of high up Ministry officials sneaking in to satisfy their needs. For many years, there was even an undercover drug ring that traded out of the back room, selling questionable products to those who desired.
Great men, clever men, wicked men, broken men, careless men passed through that small shop over the years, taking with them skulls enchanted to bite thieves, goblin-made weapons adorned by ancient curses that glinted evilly in the dusty shop, illegally acquired potions ingredients from all corners of the globe. Each had it’s price, and Borgin and Burke were always willing to haggle. Each customer parted with the unspoken knowledge that nothing would be said of it, no name repeated, unless the gain of telling outweighed the loss of betrayal.
Borgin was the salesman, the man who always gave the customer precisely what they required, with a greasy smile to see them out. However, Burke, my father, was the brains behind the business, the man who did the accounts and paid the rent on the small store. But most importantly, he was the collector, the man who ran a golden chain through his fingers as it sparkled with malice and paid the broken down widow ten Sickles, the man who meticulously arranged the collection of human bones to it’s most elegant advantage, and knew the properties and resources of each individual rib.
But the real beginning of my story is when Mr. Burke met a pretty Muggle divorcee who accidentally wandered into the Leaky Cauldron when he was nursing his end of the day pint.
In the morning after my nighttime realization, I brew two coffees then head out the door, calling over my shoulder that I’ll see Sebastian tonight. Swinging my purse in the damp morning air, I turn down Knockturn and wave cheerily to Mr. Peppin, who operates a grimy second-hand wand shop, as he set out his wares in the front window. He shades his eyes with his palm to identify me, and shouts something intelligible down the street, and I let myself skip a little in that fresh feeling of morning emptiness.
When I reach the shop, I let myself in and hunt about for Borgin. He is to be found sitting in the back room, polishing a gaudy set of silverware.
“Morning, sir,” I say brightly, humming as I set my purse down and take stock of the back room. “Merlin, this place is a dump, Borgin! Have you never heard of organization and cataloguing?”
“I didn’t expect you back so soon, Verity,” Borgin says dryly, a little puzzled at my appearance. He carefully examines a long, wicked-sharp serving knife, rubbing his cloth lovingly over it’s bright blade. “I would have tidied up.”
“I would have come back sooner if I’d known what shape the place was in,” I tease, taking a silent inventory of the new stock that slathers the shelves. I lean over Borgin’s shoulder to examine the silverware he’s bent over. “New bling, eh?”
Borgin rolls his eyes drolly. “Oh, the vocabulary of the young. Yes, a wizard came in this week with the whole lot in a great chest. Said it belonged to the Hapsburgs.”
I whistle. “And did it?”
Borgin rattles his thin shoulders in his strange, silent laughter. “How would I know, my dear?”
“Anyway,” I sigh, “you must be pleased that I’m back to help you deal with it. Aren’t you meant to be in semi-retirement?” Falling back into the familiar banter and seeing a smile crack the hardened face almost makes me forget about the last two weeks of my isolation. Mrs. Borgin once told me that I make her husband light up, remember his youth in a way his own children never did.
“No rest for the wicked, love,” Borgin sighs back. “Why don’t you set up the till and clean up the shop a little? I’ll finish this up and then leave you to it—Mrs. Borgin is baking today.”
“You better bring me some treats tomorrow then,” I warn mockingly, leaving him to his self-satisfied polishing. I set my impotent wand down next to the till and examine the small shop with a professional, critical eye. The shrunken heads are on the verge of creating a landslide, and a fine layer of dust is smothering the old Vanishing cabinet. Grabbing the ladder, I set into the comfortable routine of turning this dump into a fine example of underhanded capital.
The door rings as it is shoved open, and one of our best undercover suppliers, Mundungus Fletcher, heaves in a huge bag, a bead of sweat dripping off his nose.
“Yer alright, Verity,” he pants, and I help him to move the bag to the back table, where I’ll sort through it and pay him for any goods that look interesting. Dung is a chronic kleptomaniac, but he puts his obsession to good use and has managed to morph it into a full-blown career. He’s a good man, though: he often brings me some fine chocolate, though I never ask where he fetches them from. In this business, it’s always best to look the other way.
After Dung leaves, I set myself to the task of poring over the accounts and getting in touch with some of our other suppliers. For the first time since the day Sebastian barged in here and told me Penelope was dead, I feel in control. This is Borgin and Burkes. This is my birthright.
Twenty-six years earlier, Knockturn Alley
“What do you mean you got married?” Borgin demanded, looking in horror at the tall, noble-faced Muggle woman who clutched Burke’s hand only a little too tightly. Her face was awed and slightly entranced as she looked around the shop. Taking the measure, Borgin could admit she was handsome: blond hair coiffed into a high bun, an air of maturity and perceptiveness that meant she took in every detail. She looked very alike to the bright-faced girl who would march confidently into his shop, twenty-five years in the future.
Burke shrugged helplessly, though he was slightly enjoying the puzzled outrage of his business partner and oldest friend.
“You always thought I’d be alone forever, here to mind the shop while you gallivanted around the world,” Burke commented, laughing internally. “Well, this is Elizabeth, and now she’s Mrs. Burke to you. We’ll be going on a honeymoon to Egypt tomorrow, and I thought it would be prudent to give you a warning.”
Borgin crumbled, slapping his old friend on the back and giving Mrs. Elizabeth Burke a brisk handshake, the kind he reserved only for the most prestigious and honoured of customers.
“Make sure to keep an eye out for wares in Cairo,” he advised his friend steadily. “I’ll give you the addresses of some of the more… industrious Curse Breakers. No reason why you shouldn’t mix business with pleasure.”
Elizabeth smiled at Borgin, a rehearsed, sugary kind of thing for this odd little man, closest friend of the man she had married, whose world was still enthralling her. “We’d be delighted.”
The results of the story are that Caractarus Burke lived for a handful of years, enough to settle down in a quiet Muggle suburb from which he could comfortably Apparate each morning to Knockturn Alley as the sun rose over both Muggle and wizarding London. Elizabeth continued her job as a firm consultant, collecting businesses and dissecting them for their worth, and Caractarus continued with collecting artifacts. After a year of matrimony they collected something altogether foreign and wondrous: a squalling, curious, meddlesome baby christened Verity Elizabeth Burke.
My father died when I was four: he was old for a wizarding father, after all, and many years of smoking and exposure to hazardous objects had whittled down his naturally frail constitution. My mother was too strong of a figure to let his death bring her down for long, and she had her own demons to face. These included raising a reckless daughter on her own who didn’t know the meaning of cautious, as well as that determined dragon called breast cancer which raged and tumbled within her.
My mother finally gave up her battle when I was newly seventeen. Of course, I had been away at Hogwarts for several years, and each summer and holiday I returned to find her more decayed, broken down, and empty of spirit, of life. I loved her, but it was almost a relief to know that the pain had ended and all that remained was my own pain and emptiness, a small space behind my ear, the place where she had so often stroked the hair back away from my face, empty and lonely and full of still air. Sometimes I would move too quickly and feel that little pocket of myself be left behind, and resound against the rest of me which remained complete.
Two Years Earlier
I had grown up with only a mother, a mother who knew little of the wizarding world despite raising a young witch on her own. Strange things happened around our flat, things she couldn’t quite explain to the neighbors. They were baffled to observe a laughing, light-headed child, looking up at the several stories from which she had just leapt. The wretched woman down the hall’s many sets of shoes tap-dancing about her, terrifying the poor soul who had just scolded me on my muddy feet. But we had a happy life together, and I barely remembered the shell of a father, the old man who had died when I was so young.
When my father died, he was still co-owner and partner of the shop, and each month after Burke’s death Borgin dutifully sent a cheque to our home in London, addressed to Verity Burke. My mother, sufficient an her income of her own, deposited each pound in a special Muggle bank account, which Borgin had carefully had converted from wizarding currency. My time spent in the wizarding pockets of London was limited at best, although my mother did take me to Diagon Alley each summer to purchase my school supplies. She told me my father had been in retail, but wisely chose to stay away from Knockturn Alley and the dangers it presented for the novel Muggle.
After my mother died, our solicitor explained to me that I had inherited my father’s share of Borgin and Burke’s, and now that I was of age I could make my own financial decisions and choose to sell out my share, thus foregoing the monthly cheques that continued to arrive, addressed with the strange return address and the beak marks on the exterior.
The Back Room behind the False Wall
Borgin and Burke’s, Ltd.
13 Knockturn Alley
I could have cut and run. But I wanted more than that.
In the July after my seventh year, I accompanied Sebastian to his entry-level position at Gringotts. Kissing him goodbye on the white steps and promising to be back within the hour, I took my first steps into Knockturn Alley.
Incredible, how such a different place can exist mere steps from the polished, shining, presentable Diagon Alley. This was the true grit of the wizarding world, the buildings tumbling towards disrepair, held up by spit, gum and magic. The people anxious not to make eye contact, shuffling along on their own business. The malice and the danger and the truth. I saw my beloved wizarding world for what it truly was: a place that instilled misery for many, a domain in which not everyone was perfectly satisfied.
Sebastian was concerned: those were the times before the Dark Times, but Sirius Black was still on the run and the carefully constructed security of the past thirteen years was in an uproar. However, I was bold back then, and I walked as if I belonged to Knockturn, nodding curtly at the witches and wizards who dared to meet my eyes, painfully aware of the sharp apperance of my skirt and blouse, of the chip-chip of my heels in the broken, uneven cobbles, of how my short blond hair must have stood out against the impending gray of this particular sky.
I entered the shop without knocking or checking inside, admiring the little bell chime that signified my arrival. Curious, I began to expect the place, dusty, overgrown and cluttered though it was. The Dark objects interested me: not for the capabilities, but for their true worth, their stories. And there were beautiful things here, hidden amidst the grisly junk. I had stretched forward to closely examine a silver and opal necklace when a voice growled behind me.
“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you, lassie.”
I whirled, and found myself face to face with the proprietor. “And why would that be, sir?”
Borgin chuckled, circling me like a wary cat. “The last lady who touched that necklace didn’t last much long enough to put it ‘round her wee neck.”
“Care to elaborate?” I ask, knowing a good story when I hear one. Burke tips his head questionably.
“Are you looking for something in particular, my girl?”
“Actually, I was hoping to check out that which is half mine,” I retorted, relishing my boldness, and pulled out the papers. Borgin grins at me, making no move to check my credentials.
“Verity Burke, returned at last,” he marveled.
I smiled: a little strained, a little wary, but concealing fascination with this strange little space, this reservoir of dark magical objects that slipped between the cracks.
“So when can I start work?” I ask, and the strange, stooped old man grunted and grinned at me like this pleased him.
Borgin and I spent the day going around the shop, examining each display and learning about the magical properties and the histories of the objects he had there. Some things had been lingering for years, waiting for the unique pair of eyes that would appreciate it’s worth. Others were snapped up immediately, by sharp-suited wizards tucking the object slyly into the pocket of their dress robes, some revered by street witches who had nothing left to lose. The shop fascinated me: the diverse clientele, the shroud of secrecy and devotion that lurked in its corners.
Borgin and I worked out an arrangement. I would work for the shop, manning the front so that he could do his business in the back room or take days of much needed retirement. He would instruct me in the art of haggling, in dealing and dallying with the special customers, in which objects were dangerous and which were pure fraud. I would be paid a regular salary, as well as receive my usual payments from the overall sales. We shook hands on it and spat over our right shoulders to seal the deal. This, Borgin told me, was an underworld symbol for convenient trust.
The following week at the shop is both refreshing and wonderfully tiring. Besides a spat with a deep-voiced, hooded wizard over the price of a mummified dragon talon, I am thrilled to be back in the game, making the shop look it’s best and playing the power politics game with the customers.
It’s a little past noon on my fifth day back, and I’m carefully examining a set of beautiful but frayed gilded mirrors that a tidy little witch sold for a pittance. Cautiously, I tap the first mirror with my wand and whisper “Revelio,” then swear quietly when nothing happens. I peer closely at the cracked edges of the mirror, trying to discern any cause of the cracks, when a figure appears in the reflection, moving slowly and carefully through the shop.
I arrange my features in my most impenetrable, professional smile, check it’s effectiveness in the mirror before me, then swivel and rise to greet the new customer. To my surprise, he’s not the usual sort I get in here- sly and conniving, or decrepit and desperate: instead, he looks rather normal and very familiar. He’s quite young: around my age, most likely. He shifts a bit nervously, clearly taking my measure and surprised to see a young, smartly dressed girl surrounded by Dark and uncanny objects. The new ones always are.
“What can I help you with today?” I ask politely, moving towards the boy. Up close and not viewed through the old mirror, I examine him quickly. He towers over me by a head, and I’m quite tall. The top of his head is dangerously close to grazing the baby Basilisk skeleton hanging from the ceiling: I make a mental note to tell Burke that the bloody thing is a hazard. He has warm brown eyes that dart around as if taking everything in, a spattering of freckles across the thin, straight nose, and a mouth that seems to naturally curve upwards at the corners. His thin frame is sheathed in an expensive looking peacoat, but his wrists dangle just a little too far past the sleeves. The trouser leg on the left is damp, as if he’s stepped in one of the puddles that lie evidence to this week’s poor weather. His red hair gleams, a little damp from the mist. Must be a Weasley, I decide.
The boy interrupts my measure of his appearance by running his hand along the counter.
“Nice loot you’ve got here,” he comments, examining a set of arrows fletched with Hippogriff feathers, a relic from Canada, I’ll have you know. Or so I’ve been telling my customers. “If I ever need a charming shrunken head to talk to, I hope you’ll give me a deal.” He grins, a lop-sided affair.
Bill Weasley, maybe? I think to myself, trying to recall Percy Weasley’s numerous red-headed siblings. I never really paid attention to him beyond the times when he was snogging Penelope.
“You can take the lot of you can handle their whinging,” I counter, shooting the shrunken heads a dirty look. They glare back, and I hear small mutters of “ungrateful wench” and “upstart feminist.” Really, they’ve been eavesdropping on contemporary people for too long.
The unnamed Weasley smirks, and twirls one of the heads around so it’s facing the wall. Shrieking and chaos ensues.
“Thanks for that,” I growl, stepping behind the counter, leaning my body weight on its mottled wooden surface. “Now, can I help you find something specific, or are you just browsing?” People don’t just wander into Borgin and Burke’s to browse. I raise my eyebrows at him expectantly. Charlie? But didn’t he Portkey off to be burnt to a crisp in Romania?
Weasley shrugs. “Actually, I’ve been looking for something very specific. I need it for a new product, you see.” He becomes all business, leaning towards me conspiratorially, training those brown eyes earnestly on my face. “Powdered banshee bone. It’s rare, but… we thought if anywhere ‘round here supplied it, you lot would.”
I maintain a poker face. We do have banshee bone, of course—it’s one of the key ingredients in certain Potions such as the Draught of Invisibility. We have it crushed, powdered, and watered down, however you please. However, it’s been illegal in Britain for the past seventy years, and one of the tricks to the trade is making sure you know exactly who you’re dealing with. For all I know, this kid could be a narc. Auror Weasley, reporting for duty.
“What does a smart chap like yourself want with that sort of substance?” I ask, and am surprised to see a wide grin spread across his face. He whips out a piece of parchment covered with two hand-writings: one neat and pristine, and one messy scrawl that seems to be correcting all of the first hand’s calculations.
“It’s for a new product,” he explains, eyes shining. “Called ‘The Singer’s Sucker.’ Working title, mind. We think the banshee bone will help with the impulsivity.” He stumbles a little over this strange word, amused with himself.
I take the page and pretend to scan it, not really understanding what this bloke is on about.
“You do realize that banshee bone is rather illegal and, if consumed in large quantities, can have permanent effects?”
“Yes Mum, we did our homework,” Weasley mock-sighs, then grins, jumping back and forth on the stop a little. Yeah, there’s no way this kid is old enough to be an Auror. He’s the opposite of the cool, collected type. Not that Dawlish gave me the best impression of those individuals meant to protect the wizarding world.
“Where will you be marketing this product?”
“Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes,” he responds promptly, flourishing from a pocket a brightly-coloured, flashing card. “Joke shop products to spice up any mundane day. We’ve been operating through mail order all year, but now that we’ve left Hogwarts and purchased a storefront up in Diagon, it’s going to be huge. You’ll have to come check us out.” A slight blush gives away his cool, professional manner.
I grant him a little smile and scan the card, blinking at its colorful, flashing lights.
Co-founder, co-owner and co-earner
Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes
“Oh! You’re one of the twins!” I cry out, then freeze, a little embarrassed at my outburst. “I’m so sorry, I mean, I knew you were a Weasley but I had no idea which one…”
George grins widely. “S’alright. I don’t know your name yet, either.”
“Verity Burke,” I introduce myself, and before I know it he’s seized my hand and is pumping it enthusiastically. Old stories are coursing through my head: Penelope complaining about the Weasley twins blocking up corridors by throwing Dungbombs in Mrs. Norris’ wake, the Weasley twins setting traps for Percy that Penelope got tangled up in, the Weasley twins sneaking out after hours and always just evading of her prefect claws, Filch muttering as he shoved by me on a rampage.
George finally lets go of my hand, and I feel myself blushing. Lovely.
“I guess I didn’t recognize you without a Dungbomb in your hand,” I murmur. “Or without your twin. Not sure if you remember, but you hung my best friend’s knickers from the Great Hall once.”
“Dreadfully sorry about that,” George says, tipping an invisible hat. “Whoever it was, I’m sure it was for the greater good. Fred would’ve come down today too, you know, but he’s been… indisposed after trying out one of our new products.”
“It wasn’t the ‘Singer’s Sucker’ by any chance?”
“Right you are! He’s been making bullfrog sounds for the past two days. Poor lad can’t get a word of English out.” He doesn’t sound too sympathetic at his brother’s plight.
“How unfortunate,” I say, amused. “Here, I’ll fetch you that banshee bone, yeah?” I begin to scurry to the back room, and glance over my shoulder. “Oh, and I’d severely recommend not touching that.” George recoils from a certain beautiful, shining opal necklace, nearly tripping over his own feet and into the case of harmonicas, which give an angry whistle. Biting back a smile, I fetch the banshee bone quickly, thinking it best not to leave this kid unsupervised for too long. Sure enough, upon my return, half the shrunken heads are already screaming at him.
“Shut up, or I’ll hang you from the ceiling by your hair!” I yell at them, and George smirks and sticks out his tongue at the heads as they zip it. They send us both murderous glares.
“There you are. Nineteen Sickles, please,” I chime, plopping the small brown bag full of dry powder on the counter. George dodges around the collection of antique brooms, hops over the long crack in the wooden flooring (caused by an unfortunate explosion of Fiendfyre years ago) and whistles.
“Not a bad price at all, Miss Verity Burke.”
“Yeah, well,” I blush, “just don’t tell anyone where you got it, okay? Unless they’re the right people.”
“Understood,” he winks, and takes out a small change bag. Boldly grabbing my hand, he holds it still as he counts nineteen Sickles into my palm. I feel the warm blush spreading up through my cheekbones. His hand is warm and secure on mine, and when he finally lets me go I feel a little emptier, then chide myself for thinking such thoughts.
“Good luck with the Singer Suckers,” I say, trying hard to keep my voice light. “But… I have a question. Weren’t you a few years younger than… I mean, you’re not still at Hogwarts…?” Again I curse my inability to string sentences together. Pull it together, Verity. You’ve been shut up in that flat for far too long.
“That’s a long story,” George grins, “involving contraband, fireworks and a certain toadlike hag in pink robes.”
“I’d like to hear it someday,” I say boldly. “Maybe next time you’re here… buying more banshee bone, you could…fill me in.”
A faint pink tint colors the space between his freckles. “You know what, I’m-”
But whatever he was going to say is interrupted by the arrival of a rather soggy witch, rainwater dripping off her long nose and clutching a large package to her chest. She glares, giving us each the once-over, before dropping her load onto the counter with a round thump.
“I’ll be off, then. Plucky meeting you, Verity Burke,” George retaliates quickly, and giving me another quick smile he whirls around and leaves. I hear him cursing slightly and pulling his coat more tightly around him when he realizes the drizzle has augmented to full out pouring. I can’t help but let a smile twitch itself onto my face when he turns around a few steps away, glancing for the barest moment back the way he came, and then disappears into the streets, tall red head bowed among the other passer-bys of Knockturn.
I turn to the long-nosed witch, who is hemming and hawing at me, and put on my most brilliant, least nervous smile.
“What service can I be of today, madam?”
I scamper barefoot to the Muggle telephone, it’s ring eerily filling my flat. Curious, I cradle the phone in my arms and hop onto my sofa, giving it an affectionate pat. The sofa was coined at Borgin and Burke’s: it’s specially bewitched to attack any intruder who has never sat on it before. Most of the time, however, it’s a perfectly comfortable and well-behaved bit of upholstery. The flat itself seems irritated at my long absence: I haven’t set foot here since the morning after Penelope’s final visit, and her spirit seems to lurk in the kitchen where we quarreled, hovering just out of sight.
“Hello, you alright?” I lie down and swing my legs up onto the cushions, admiring their length.
“Verity?” The woman’s voice is mildly concerned and rather familiar. “This is Verity, right?”
“Lovely, hello dear… This is Wanda, Wanda Clearwater-”
“Oh, hello Mrs. Clearwater,” I reply, feeling a guilty sensation in the bottom of my stomach. I haven’t even made an effort to check in with her since the funeral.
“Yes, hello darling… listen, I’m sorry to bother you… but I’ve just been in contact with a man from the Ministry for Magic, the one investigating Penny’s… Penny’s case.”
I roll my eyes instantly at the mention of the useless Auror Dawlish, and wonder vaguely if Mrs. Clearwater is calling to warn me that he’s coming to arrest me for Penelope’s murder. Fabulous.
“Yes, the thing is, they have a clue to the case,” Mrs. Clearwater lowers her voice, trembling and soft over the airwaves. “There’s a witness this time. There’s been… there’s been another death.”
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