Chapter 3 : The Inspection
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I was more interested in why someone’s bed would suddenly catch fire for no reason. No one had died – the worst thing that happened was that Marjorie Banks had lost half her eyelashes – but I couldn’t help an instinctual gut feeling that this wasn’t entirely unconnected to the body on the carriage path. Two strange incidents, both inexplicable, both frightening.
Something wasn’t right.
So when I walk into the Great Hall for breakfast the next morning, and it seems like everyone is staring at the Gryffindor table like it, too, might burst into flames, I’m not surprised. I take my place at the table next to Albus, who’s looking at Erin like he’s wondering if she needs him to comfort her again. He’s so transparent I have to look away in case I start laughing.
Erin’s not looking at him. She’s paging determinedly through the Daily Prophet and looking infinitely more calm and collected than she had last night. I don’t blame her – nearly dying in an inferno’s bound to shake someone up – but I still can’t get over how very un-Erin she looked. It was like when you see a friend or family member cry for the first time, and you just kind of stand there helplessly, feeling like you should be doing something and having no idea what.
“Good morning,” she says to me, still not looking up. Albus’s spine straightens slightly, and he hesitates while buttering what is (judging by the abandoned crusts on his plate) his fifth piece of toast. I smirk around the rim of the mug of coffee I’ve just poured.
“Hi.” I blow across the surface to cool it, and then ask, “Did you end up getting any sleep?”
Erin, flipping across the sports section without looking at any of the columns on the page, shakes her head. “Not really. But I just stayed up and finished reading the textbook introductions I hadn’t gotten around to yet. Not a total waste of time.” After a slight pause, she adds, “And then I went to the library.”
Albus frowns. “How early does the library open, anyway?”
“Early enough,” Erin says nonchalantly. “I want to know what sick sort of spell would make something catch fire for seemingly no reason. The library’s as good a place as any to figure that out.” Her eyes linger for a minute over the society pages, and then she closes the paper with a rustle, folding it neatly.
“You think it’s a spell, then?” Albus asks. He has now managed to mangle his fifth piece of toast and heaps his crust with the others.
She frowns slightly at him in concentration. “What else could it be?”
He shrugs, and then adds, “Well, did you find anything?”
“Not yet.” Erin looks at us at last, and there is a glint in her eyes I can’t quite name – determination? Deliberation? That’s Apparition, I chide myself – but the words fit the look on her face. For some reason, this makes me smile, and I have to hide it quickly by stuffing half a kipper into my mouth without regard for how it looks to onlookers.
“Dad’s here,” Albus interrupts suddenly. If he means to divert my attention from Erin, he’s picked the right change in subject. I freeze with the mug halfway to my mouth. “To check out the body,” he adds, like I don’t know that’s why Dad would travel all the way to Hogwarts on the first day of term.
I mash a fried egg with the back of my fork, watching the yolk break and ooze through the tines. “Did he say anything about the guy?”
“Nope. I just saw him from afar,” Albus says. “I don’t think he saw me.” He’s about to say something to Erin, but at that moment Professor Longbottom comes to stand over us, a sheaf of parchment in his hands. He looks slightly overwhelmed, like he always does when he’s passing out the course schedules. I hadn’t realized he was working his way down the table until then.
“Albus,” he says cheerily. “Miss McKay.” He passes them two nearly identical schedules, and Erin bends over hers at once, fingers tracing down the columns studiously. I hold out my hand wordlessly for mine and Professor Longbottom passes it along, nearly dropping the rest as he moves away.
I run my eyes down Monday’s column. Free period, Charms, Ancient Runes before lunch, and double Potions to finish off the day. I grin in spite of everything that's happened in the past twenty-four hours. Potions and Ancient Runes are my best subjects, and I’ve got a free period first thing in the morning besides. As far as classes go, I’ve never had a better Monday.
Albus and Erin are pushing away from the table, slinging their bags over their shoulders, and I rise to join them. Albus is mumbling something sour about having Care of Magical Creatures before lunch, which apparently doesn’t agree with him, and Erin’s listening to him patiently. She seems to be back to her old self – calm, steady, untouchable – but there is something different about the way she moves, and I can’t quite put my finger on what.
“Where are you off to now?” I ask, standing up and picking up my own bag from the floor.
“Defense Against the Dark Arts,” Albus tells me, looking considerably happier about this prospect. “You?”
“I’ve got a free period,” I tell him, glancing over towards the doors of the Great Hall. People are already trickling out of it, heading to class or the common room or wherever else they’re going on this cloudy Monday morning. “And I’m going to go and find Dad.”
It’s not hard to find him. I know exactly where he’s going to be, and sure enough, as I emerge onto the grounds a few minutes after telling Albus and Erin I’ll see them at lunch, I spot Dad standing with a couple other Ministry wizards at the carriage path where the body was found. It’s not there anymore, but someone’s enchanted small sparks to outline where it was lying, and they glow dull and red in the morning haze. The rain still hasn’t returned, but the sky’s still heavy with moisture, and the fog is absolutely incredible. I can’t even see the tops of some of the taller towers.
One of the other two men apparently hears me walking down towards them, and he turns, looking at me over his shoulder. I’m a little shocked to see that it’s Teddy, and then I wonder how I could have missed him; he’s still dressed in the moss green robes the interning Healers at St. Mungo’s wear to distinguish them from the lime green of the regular Healers. I can just make out the crossed bone-and-wand patch on the chest.
“James!” he calls happily, an odd emotion among the fog and the general somber atmosphere that should surround a murder scene. At his shout, Dad turns, squinting at me through his glasses and frowning slightly. The other man turns too, but I don’t recognize him.
“What are you doing here?” Dad asks as I move to stand between him and Teddy.
“Free period,” I say, aware that it doesn’t necessarily answer the question. No matter whether I’m supposed to be in class or not, that doesn’t mean I should have wandered out here, but I don’t own up to this. “Albus said he saw you earlier. I figured you’d be out here.”
“This boy yours, Potter?” The man next to Dad is peering at me curiously through gray eyes ringed in a tired, almost bruised purple. The red-brown hair on top of his head looks swollen and springy with damp.
Dad nods once, still not looking happy that I’ve found my way down here. “My son, James.”
The gray-eyed man sticks out a hand speckled with broken veins. “Thanatos Corrigan,” he says, wringing my hand firmly. “Call me Than. Just started working under your dad two weeks ago.” Still shaking my hand vigorously, he adds, “Big fan of your dad, of course. Always happy to meet another Potter!”
I’m suddenly painfully aware of the students picking their way across the grounds toward the greenhouses or the Care of Magical Creatures paddocks, and how many of them are looking my way as Corrigan yammers on loudly. I see a couple of heads inclined together in conversation, and withdraw my hand from Corrigan’s quickly, feeling my face flush.
“Who was he?” I ask quickly, dropping my voice in hopes that people will quit staring. My eyes fall on the red sparks outlining a sprawled body. I imagine that I can still see some of the blood on the ground, and my stomach wriggles unpleasantly.
Dad looks reluctant to answer, but Corrigan speaks up. “Bartleby Cuffe. Somehow related to Barnabas Cuffe – he used to edit the Daily Prophet,” he added with a slight air of importance. “Lived in a little flat over Gladrags, but according to that shop woman he was just about as poor as you could get. He wrote in rants to the Prophet all the time, but they apparently only ran them because they felt bad –”
“Yes, thank you, Corrigan,” Dad says in annoyance. Corrigan shuts up at once, but he doesn’t look abashed at all, which I can’t help but be impressed by.
“Do you know what happened?” I wish I could stop the questions from spilling out of my mouth, but it’s useless.
“No,” Dad says shortly. “They’ve taken the body to St. Mungo’s.” I side-eye Teddy, who looks somewhat excited about this. It’s only then that I remember that the Magical Mortuary is his department; he probably accompanied one of the more senior Healers out here.
I think about telling Dad what I saw on the map last night – that, for whatever reason, Cuffe’s name was a single unlabeled dot when I’d never seen the map’s magic fail like that before. But there’s still the whole issue of my never having admitted I had it in so many words, and I let the news die on my lips, stomach twisting slightly in guilt, wondering if I’ll regret this later.
I’m still looking at the patch of ground where Bartleby Cuffe died, still remembering his tangled beard and wide-open eyes. No matter who he was, it still didn’t explain how he’d gotten into the grounds, or – perhaps more importantly – who’d killed him. I’m struck suddenly by how thick the fog is. There could be anything lurking around in there.
“Hey, Dad?” I ask suddenly. “Do you know what kind of spell would make something catch on fire at random?”
That catches his attention. “What?” His eyes narrow slightly. “Not off the top of my head. Are you trying out spells at random, James? You shouldn’t use any spell you’re not sure of –”
“Dad, no.” The three of us – Albus, Lily, and me – have heard this lecture so often growing up we could probably recite it back to him, although details are still fuzzy. Lily still holds out that Dad killed a man using a made-up spell, but if I’m being honest, that’s not a very exciting theory. He didn’t get to where he was without killing people. “I didn’t use any spells,” I continue crossly, because he’s still looking at me like he doesn’t believe me.
I explain to him what happened in the fifth year girls’ dormitory last night, and now Teddy and Corrigan and Dad are all wearing identical frowns on their faces. “It just burst into flames?” Teddy says slowly, once I’ve finished. I can’t tell if he believes me or not.
“Yes,” I insist. “And Erin thinks –”
“Who?” Corrigan interrupts, and I glare at him. Not any of your business, I think rudely.
“Erin. Erin McKay.” It’s not helpful information, but I half-turn so my shoulder blocks most of his body so he won’t press me further. “She thinks it’s somehow connected to this.” I gesture expansively at the mud and the fog and the sparks glowing dully through both.
“Probably a prank,” Teddy says helpfully. “Or it’s a protective charm on the castle. Like how the girls’ dorms have that staircase that turns into a slide if we try to go up?”
I shake my head. “This wasn’t like that.” But they’ve all already turned back to studying the outline – what they’re looking for, I have no idea – and I have to smash down the surge of frustration that’s bubbling up inside me. How are they not taking this seriously?
“I think I’m going to go back inside,” I announce. Dad only nods, but as I turn to go, his voice suddenly stops me.
I turn back around. Teddy and Corrigan are both looking at me, but Dad’s still studying the crime scene. He doesn’t meet my eyes as he says, “You’re going to keep this to yourself, please.”
It’s not a question. “Yeah,” I say, and he nods once.
“Say hi to Al and Lils for me.”
“Yeah,” I say again, and, giving Teddy a small wave and smiling politely at Corrigan, I start to head back for the castle. I’ve got Charms next, and I need to grab my book from the common room, but my mind’s still on the red sparks and the look on Cuffe’s face that froze with him in death. Dad told me to keep what I learned to myself, but I already know I’m going to disobey him.
I need to know if Erin ever read any of Cuffe’s letters in the Prophet, and if that has anything to do with why he turned up dead at Hogwarts. And suddenly, having to go until lunch until I get to talk to her again seems nearly impossible.
A/N: This week's been a little stressful for me, what with a combination of finishing up the posting of Breaking Even and some random school things. But I've finally hacked away enough at my unanswered reviews to feel okay about posting a new chapter of this story! I'm getting more and more excited about it -- I've got a mental list of things I want to include, scenes I'm excited to write, the works. It's a stress release, this story, which is really awesome for me. I finally got to write a bit of it last night after over a week of letting it stew, and my brain is absolutely flooded with more ideas!
I hope you're enjoying it so far, too! Any questions or confusion I can clear up? Thank you for reading, and if you have the time, reviews are very appreciated!
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