Chapter 1 : Rat
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Chapter One: Rat
It was nearly noon, and Ettie Edgecombe, Junior Regulator of the Floo Network Authority, Department of Magical Transportation, had just about finished perusing her fifty-ninth Floo Conversational Transcript. It hadn’t been a particularly enlightening read; in fact, the document consisted of a lengthy and irritable debate between two half-senile wizards about a chess game played some twenty-five years ago. So, old chap, do you remember that game we had at the Leaky? Was Knight to G8 a wise move? Would it not have been better for the Bishop to make a capture at A3? Ah, but that would place the King in a vulnerable position, wouldn’t it?
Ettie groaned, rubbing at her temples, her fingertips stained from the thick makeup on her face. She prodded the transcript hard with her wand and it furled itself into a taut roll before zipping off to a corner of the room and jumping into the open drawer of a filing cabinet. The drawer shut with a snap, and from inside, came the sounds of paper being crunched and shredded. The filing cabinet was in a bad temper.
The office she worked in was a cluttered one; she sat at a very long desk that cut the room into two, punctuated with sheaves of parchment and stacks of scrolls and old memos scrunched into wonky shapes. Facing her was an enormous fireplace, swallowing up most of the wall. A green fire blazed in the grate and among the flames, the outlines of people’s faces flickered in and out of focus, their mouths open and muttering long streams of nonsense. Or at least it appeared to be nonsense, all the conversations of the wizarding world being mashed together and channelled through the fireplaces of the Floo Offices, known as the Floo Grateway. They would be deciphered and recorded by the Chroniquill system.
Her desk stretched all the way to the edge of the grate, down that end, there were more stacks of blank parchment and a dozen quills – Chroniquills, they were called – scratching out the conversations apprehended through the Grateway, creating those transcripts that she had to read. Mostly, they were comprised of nothing but vapid talk, the daily scrapings of the lives of people for whom she did not care a whit.
That was the Ministry’s way of searching for traitors.
There was a series of popping noises from the fire, indicating that new Floo users had connected to the Network. Three different faces guttered briefly in the flames, and one of the Chroniquills perked up and began to write on a fresh slip of parchment.
Ettie got up, rolled the crick out of her shoulders, and peered at the latest record being furiously transcribed by the quill. 12.11p.m., August 13th, 1997, Babbling, Greengrass and Nott Floo units active. Oh dear god. Yet another three-way Floo chat session between Belinda Babbling, Cassia Nott and Melisande Greengrass.
BABBLING: Darlings, did you hear about the Baddocks?
GREENGRASS: You mean the news where Barnabas and Hilda –
BABBLING: Yes, that’s the one – well, fancy that!
NOTT: Well, what’s happened, now?
They were at it again. Babbling, Nott and Greengrass, sticking their faces into their fireplaces and spouting their endless drivel. Clearly, the Ministry’s restrictions on the sale and purchase of Floo powder weren’t enough to deter the biggest gossips in the wizarding world.
GREENGRASS: Goodness, Cassia, where have you been? Word’s gone round – and very accurate word it must be – that Mortimer Macnair has been paying late night visits to the Baddock residence and we all know old Barnabas Baddock is out of town, gone to London –
NOTT: Well, I’m hardly surprised – Hilda is more than twenty years younger than that doddering old fool –
GREENGRASS: She’s after his fortune, that’s what.
The fire began spluttering loudly and she looked up, startled. All the vague faces had disappeared from the flames and the Chroniquills had stopped writing; they hovered above their respective parchment pieces, nibs dripping ink onto unfinished transcripts. Everything died for a moment and the fire seemed to freeze, before there was a loud whoosh and the flames parted and something came hurtling through the gap. She had never seen anything like it before; it looked like a black horn mounted on a pedestal with two stout legs. There was a key sticking out of the horn’s tube, turning round and round like a clockwork wind-up toy. The thing scuttled beneath a desk, where, all of a sudden, the key popped out, and from the horn, there came a sound like a terrific fart followed by a cloud of thick black smoke, swelling up and filling the entire room.
The fartsmoke stung her eyes, and blinking away tears, she fumbled for her wand, cursing. The door opened.
Ettie rubbed at her eyes, vaguely aware of the thick eyeliner streaking the back of her hand. The smoke thinned and vanished. Parchment had blown across the room in a storm of paper. But the green fire was back to normal and the mumbling faces had begun to appear again, their words closely tracked by the Chroniquills.
“Are – are you alright?”
Standing at the doorway was an anxious looking wizard in robes that were a scuffed and discoloured navy blue, holding his wand out. It was him who had cast the Vanishing Spell on the smoke.
“Thank you,” Ettie said stiffly. She continued to survey him critically. He wasn’t very tall; his wispy gingery hair was pulling back into his scalp and his forehead was gathered into a frown. He stood with his legs apart, feet pointing in opposite directions, wearing a pair of Muggle sneakers with the shoelaces fraying and looped into floppy knots.
“W-what the heck happened here?”
There was something feeble about the way he spoke – the stutter along the edges of his words. He seemed quite unsettled by her presence, though she didn’t know why; he stuffed a fist into his robes, and beneath the material, his hand clenched and unclenched the insides of his pockets. It gave her a tiny boost of confidence, though, the idea of this pathetic middle-aged man almost cowering before her.
“Some anonymous thug sent something through the Floo Grateway,” she said bitterly, “and it blew up and let out all that smoke.”
“Is that even possible? Can’t – can’t the Network detect the source of it?”
She shrugged. “There have been untraceable intruders in the Network; they’ve managed to tap into the system – don’t even ask me bloody how – for the sole purpose of setting off all this chaos. It all started happening when the Ministry restricted Floo travel.”
“Ah,” Reg shifted from foot to foot. Ettie surveyed him curiously. He continued, “Well there’ve been a lot of – other disturbances throughout the Ministry. Malfunctioning Atmospheric Charms, and there’s simply no end to the Howlers arriving, a couple of them were screaming in Gobbledegook of all things - oh, and nameless envelopes full of all kinds of stuff, Doxy eggs, Wartcap powder, Bubotuber pus – ”
He broke off, glancing rather awkwardly at her. “Well, we’ve been busy.”
She stood up and leaned against her desk. They were of equal height, and he seemed to notice this as well, because he cringed a little when she drew herself up.
“Marietta Edgecombe,” she said, “I work here at the Floo offices. Started over the summer. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“R-Reg Cattermole,” he answered looking dazed, “Magical Maintenance. I received an alert about faulty Ventilation Charms?”
“Oh, at last. It’s starting to smell like the apothecary’s backroom in here for some reason.”
Drawing a clipboard out from the depths of his pocket, he scratched something on it with a quill. “Well, yes, the Charms in the Floo offices are due for renewing.”
He pointed his wand toward the ceiling, frowning as if trying to remember something, before mumbling an incantation. Four wisps of yellowish-green smoke flew from the tip, one after another, each darting to a corner of the ceiling where they hovered, stationary. But instead of the cool draft of a Ventilation Charm, the smell of Bubotuber pus filled the room, thick, sickening, like petrol, coating the insides of her nostrils and the lining of her throat.
The pores on her face began to prickle and Ettie sat on her fingers to prevent them from jumping to her face and scratching. Her skin was delicate and much too prone to bursting into those dreadful outbreaks of pimples, which had been cursed onto her face since her Hogwarts days.
“Undo the Charm!” she yelled. “Stop it!”
Reg had his nose buried in the sleeve of his forearm, eyes watering. With a sharp swish of his wand, a “Finite” that was more forceful than a mutter, the Charms along with the smell disappeared.
“Bubotuber pus,” she said. “How is it you’re in Magical Maintenance?”
His mouth jerked, and his shoulders jolted upwards. He was offended by the question. But whatever retort he was going to make didn’t come.
“S-sorry,” he muttered. “I’m having a lot to deal with these days.”
She paused, nibbling at her top lip, head angled toward the ceiling as though in contemplation. Her silence made him more and nervous and she knew it. He uttered another incantation, and the cold piercing fragrance of jasmine filled the air. The Charms hung near the ceiling, tufts of dewy smoke, which didn’t disperse. The room felt fresher and a cool current of air brushed against her robes.
“I hope this’ll help,” Reg said. He looked around the room, at the stacks of parchment on her desk, the Chroniquills scrawling out more and more drivel for her to go through, the filing cabinets lumped together in a corner. “It does seem rather cluttered in here.”
“Isn’t it?” she said sulkily, “No thanks to Quotidius Quarkley who assigns me the most pointless of tasks.”
He frowned, “Quarkley? But isn’t – isn’t Juniper Swift the Head of the Department of Magical Transport?”
Ettie jerked in her seat, knee bumping against the table leg, her eyes blooming saucer-wide. A flick of her wand and the door slammed.
“Have you lost your mind? Do you want us to be arrested?” she hissed. “What did you say that name for?”
All he could do was gape at her. How very stupid he looked, standing there, jaw hanging open, twitching as though he were trying to speak. Obviously he hadn’t known about Juniper Swift, blurting her name out like that. She thought of the two Portkey Office employees, Patience Horton and Lawrence Milliken, who had been called in for questioning after being caught discussing Juniper Swift. Juniper Swift, former head of the Department of Magical Transport, was a traitor to the Ministry, and discussing traitors was frowned upon by the higher authorities.
“Juniper Swift is dead.”
“I’m s-sorry. I didn’t know.”
“You’d better go,” she told him stiffly.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. The door opened and she half-expected it to slam, but he shut it so gently that there was only a muted careful tap. She turned back to her work, breathing in the jasmine scent. Jasmine, of all things. The smell was keen, puncturing through her nostrils. She was sick of it already.
At six in the evening, Ettie filed away her last transcript for the day. The fire in the Grateway was silent, and the Chroniquills were still. Nobody was on the Network. She closed the door and went down the corridor to the elevator, where a number of the other Magical Transport employees were already waiting. Faridah Iman, Hezekiah Mills, Mirabel Eccleburns, and two other wizards whose names she had yet to know. They nodded at her blankly as she joined them, their eyes hooded and mild, chins tucked into collars. Ever since Scrimgeour’s abrupt resignation and the arrival of the Death Eaters, there had been little trust or cordiality between Ministry employees. Amicability was discouraged.
The lift took a long time coming, clanking somewhere in the shafts. Her gaze wafted down to the end of the corridor, to the very last door – the empty office that used to belong to Juniper Swift. Swift had always been such a mysterious figure in the Department, arriving before any of the other workers and leaving late at night, and throughout the day, she almost never stepped out of her office.
The first time Ettie stepped into Swift’s office was to deliver a stack of completed reports from the Floo Office. She’d already been working at the Network for several weeks, but had never glimpsed the Department Head. Inside, the office had been dimly-lit but airy. There was a massive fireplace to the left, and a mantelpiece with a sky-blue porcelain urn, painted with white dragonlilies. Swift had been fond of plants; along the walls were large pots full of twisty plants and stems tangling with each other, vines studded with purple and yellow flowers sinking their little curls and grapnels into the panelling and climbing up to the ceiling. It smelled sweet and fruity in there, Ettie remembered, and there was no need for scented Ventilation Charms.
Juniper Swift had been sitting behind a desk carved of grainy sweetlarch timber, littered with stacks of folders, scrolls, and jars full of water and plant cuttings. She was tall, very tall, with very dark skin and hair cropped close to her skull and a high forehead, marked by the thin arches of her eyebrows. When Ettie approached, she looked up, unsmiling.
“You must be the new girl,” Swift said. She had a low voice, and her consonants were crisp.
One of Swift’s eyebrows moved, a millimetre of a twitch. “I’ve heard good things about you. I received a very positive recommendation, too.”
She didn’t answer.
“From Dolores Umbridge.”
“I – I’m not sure what she said about me.”
“Good things.” Juniper clasped her hands together and rested her chin on them. “And of course you know that you’re working your mother’s old job.”
“How’s Marie doing, anyhow?”
Ettie swallowed, twisting at the cuffs of her sleeves. Out of habit, she put a hand to her face but the skin was still smooth and a little slippery from her usual lotions. “My mother’s alright, I suppose –”
“Promoted to the Muggle-born Registration Commission, along with Dolores, isn’t that right?” Juniper cut her short. She had tilted her face to the ceiling a little, and Ettie flinched a little beneath her superior’s sharp gaze, sifting over her. She nodded.
“Well,” Juniper continued, the edge in her voice dropping away quickly as she leafed through the stack of parchment Ettie had brought, “that’s a good position to be in, especially in these times.” She nodded at Ettie. “Thank you for the papers, and I hope you’ll enjoy working here. Send my regards to your mother.”
Juniper Swift was now dead. She died three days ago in her own home. Ministry officials or Death Eaters had turned up at her place in the early hours of the morning to arrest her and she had fought back and she had been killed. Ettie knew all that.
The lift arrived in a fit of clanking. Ettie was the last to enter, still gazing down the direction of Swift’s empty office, a dark pocket at the end of the corridor, before she remembered herself, straightened up and stepped into the lift.
The apothecary at Diagon Alley had her daily pick-up ready when she got there. A tiny stoppered vial filled with a dull yellow liquid. Ettie pulled the balaclava off her face. Pimples had begun to pop out through the layers of her makeup, patches of purple bumps forming snatches of an alphabet across her forehead and cheeks. If she let them be, more of the pustules would emerge and together they would spell a word. SNEAK. She would never forgive Granger for this. Ettie tipped the vial into a piece of cloth, soaking it with liquid before swabbing her face with it. The skin burned and cooled.
As she walked out of the store, a figure hurrying along the opposite side of the street caught her eye. She would recognise that long straight fall of black hair and the thinness of the silhouette anywhere.
“Cho?” Ettie called. The other girl didn’t seem to hear. If anything, she appeared to pick up speed. Ettie ran across the road. “Cho!”
Reluctantly, the girl turned. “Ettie,” she said with fake surprise, “I didn’t see you.”
Ettie frowned before deciding to ignore Cho’s hostility. “I’ve been writing to you all summer. Didn’t you get my letters?”
“What? Well, I suppose not.” Cho’s head was inclined, her eyes gazing somewhere else. “I moved house. I didn’t receive anything – well, you know how it’s like.”
Cho had changed over the summer. She was thinner, and her complexion was sallow and waxen. She was wearing Muggle clothes - a thin shirt and a limp pink cardigan, empty at the shoulders.
Ettie slipped an arm around Cho’s elbow and was surprised when the other girl flinched slightly. “Let’s go somewhere and catch up now,” she suggested.
“Now?” Cho said, taken aback. “Well, I dunno, I have to be – ”
“I haven’t seen you for two months and you haven’t been replying. You owe me.”
Cho shrugged. “Fine. There’s this cafe I always go to in Muggle London.”
“Muggle London?” Ettie demanded incredulously.
“You want to go or not? I don’t want to stay in this place.”
Ettie felt the same way. Diagon Alley was different now. Many of the shops were shut and the windows boarded up. Those that weren’t sealed off were broken with their shutters hanging off from loose hinges, wheezing and banging in the wind. Notices of new curfew rules as well as massive posters of people wanted by the new Ministry – including Harry Potter himself – were peeling off the sides of buildings. Cho held her hand out to Ettie and they Apparated.
Ettie found herself standing in a dirty alleyway, full of padlocked back doors and skips piled high with rubbish, the building sides scrawled with graffiti. Cho led her round the corner into the main street, and into a dingy strip of a cafe, with Formica-topped tables and sticky plastic seats.
“Tea,” Cho told the waitress.
“So,” Ettie folded her hands on her lap, away from the table. “How have you been?”
Cho’s lips quickened into a smile, the first since Ettie had bumped into her outside the apothecary’s. “I’m alright. Sorry about this place, by the way. I didn’t know where else we could go. I sometimes come here after work.”
“Work?” Ettie echoed. “Where do you work now?”
“At the Muggle optician’s." Cho grinned. “It’s pretty dreary stuff. I guess I can finally say that I hate my job.”
“A Muggle optician’s?”
Cho’s face soured and her smile fell away. “Well, I can’t get a job anywhere else, alright? I wasn’t even going to get this stupid optician’s job because I know nothing about spectacles. I had to Confund the man into giving me a job.”
“Oh.” Without thinking, Ettie continued, “I work at the Ministry now, at the Floo Network Authority.”
Cho’s eyebrows skipped high up her forehead. “How on earth did you get a job in the Ministry? I heard their employment rate is at an all-time low. They’re incredibly suspicious of – of infiltration by the enemy.” She laughed, a harsh, ringing sound.
“I got a recommendation,” Ettie answered reluctantly.
“Who recommended you?”
“Just some friend of my mother’s. My mother’s still there as well.”
They sipped their tea in silence for a little while. Ettie looked gloomily down in her cup, brown dilute tea with a film of grease clinging to the surface of the liquid. She didn’t like tea. She lifted the cup to her lips and rested her teeth on the rim. The steam swirled into her nose. Cho was acting bizarrely. She hadn’t seen Cho for nearly two months now, not since they’d left Hogwarts together for the last time. Seventh year had been a wretched time for both of them. They’d stuck to each other. The other students had been unfriendly and unsympathetic toward Ettie’s cursed face and disfiguring acne. If anything, they seemed to think that she deserved it. And Cho had lost all her former popularity with her new scowly disposition. Ettie had been glad to get out of school but Cho had been as glum as ever. Then again, that girl had been miserable for years now.
“Why’d you do it?” Cho said suddenly, startling Ettie out of her lacklustre thoughts.
“I was thinking about that time, you know, – back in sixth year, when we were with that group. The DA, Why’d you do it? Go to Umbridge and tell on us lot?”
Ettie bit at the inside of her lip. “You know very well what happened. I told you. How is it you’re still going on about some stupid school thing that happened years ago?”
“I forgot.” Cho’s dull eyes were suddenly sharp.
“Well, if you must know, Umbridge was interrogating me. With Veritaserum. What was I supposed to do? I didn’t even know I’d been given a cupful of truth serum.”
Cho didn’t look like she believed a word. “Sorry. I must’ve forgot that you told me.”
“How’s your new place?”
“It’s alright,” Cho looked listless and bored again. “Well, not really. It’s a crummy sort of place. And I seem to be having some sort of rat infestation problem.”
Cho put down the cup she’d been cradling and got up. “Well, I have to go.”
“We should meet up again. It’s been such a long time. ”
“I told you. I’ve been busy. I’ll write you when I get home, alright? That way we can keep in touch.”
Cho walked toward the door, opened it, and the buzz of the city outside poured in. Just before she stepped out, she turned back, a cold flicker of a smile on her face. “And congratulations on your new job.”
Her mother was not in when she got home. Hardly surprising, given how much time her mother was spending with Dolores and the Muggle-born Registration Commission. Ettie went to her room, peeled off her robes and lay in bed. There wasn’t much to do. She was a working adult now. She’d always wanted to get out of Hogwarts and get a decent job at the Ministry and somehow, it had all worked out for her. Except there wasn’t anything remotely satisfying about it all. Work was dull – the piles of parchmentwork, the hundreds of inane transcripts of Floo conversations, and the isolation that came with sitting in an airless office nine hours a day with faulty Ventilation Charms. The most interesting part of her job so far had been meeting that funny little wizard from Magical Maintenance – what was his name? Reg Cattermole. He was an odd one, nervous and timid but not entirely trusting of her. She found herself thinking of the way he wheezed his syllables, the despondent lines around his brow, and the quick, restless way his fingers worked, scratching at the lapels of his robes.
There was a sharp tap on the window of her room and she sat up, startled. An owl was perched on the ledge outside, beak clicking against the glass. Had someone written her a letter? The only person who would write to her was Cho, and somehow, after today’s meeting, Ettie didn’t think it very likely. She lifted the hasp and the owl flew in. She didn't recognise the bird. Its grey feathers were patchy and it smelled mildewy and something was dangling from its beak. The owl fluttered once around the room before dropping the thing in its beak right into her lap.
She nearly screamed. It was a rat. A fat dead rat, too huge to be normal. Someone had definitely put an Engorgio charm on it. The smell of the dead creature was raw and rotten and foul, brown mangy fur matted with dark splotches and the beady eyes still open, blood speckling the area around its pink nostrils. And its tail! The limp tail, bald, with a slight curl.
The owl, perched at her side, hooted irritably. A scrap of parchment was attached to its foot. She untied it and spread the crumpled bit of paper out. A cutting from the Daily Prophet, an issue from a few weeks back. There was a black and white photograph, its crinkly residents grimacing back at her. Beneath, a caption.
The newly instituted Muggle-born Registration Commission will be headed by Dolores Jane Umbridge. Also present as members of the Committee are: Yersinius Yaxley, Phyllis Woodworth, Eglant Wright, and Marie Edgecombe.
One of the women in the photograph, standing near the edge, was shorter than the rest. She had a stony mouth and long dark hair like Ettie, waves of it, pinned away from her square, frowning face.
A/N: Hello everyone, and welcome to yet another new short story of mine. I wrote this one way before Apple Island, and this fic is pretty much finished. It will be three chapters long, and I'll post the other two as soon as I get a banner, and er, finish with the editing.
This story is probably a little different from my other works; it's a bit drier and less dramatic, and much slower-paced, and I'm not sure how easy it will be to read. :P
Those Floo transcript things were influenced by a boring linguistics class which I took one semester, called 'Conversational Analysis'. I had to pretty much listen to and read transcripts of people's conversations and analyse them, all their dinner plans and grocery lists and so on. Terribly dreary stuff.
Thanks for reading!