Chapter 3 : C is for Coffee, Criminals and a Catastrophe
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(and guess who caused the catastrophe?)
When I step foot into Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, the first person I see is the one I’ve come to speak to. Roxanne Weasley is standing near a group of young children, next to the Pygmy Puff section, and as I get closer to the crowd I can hear her giving advice to a young girl with plaits on which Pygmy Puff she should choose. I wait several steps away, not wanting to interrupt the discussion and disgrace myself further in Roxanne’s eyes, but one of the boys sees me and tells her. She turns around to look at me, and her expression is unsurprisingly sour. I can’t believe how much she looks like her mum - while I always remember Angelina having cropped hair while I was growing up and Roxanne’s is long and curly, their facial features are so similar they’ve been mistaken for sisters in the past.
“Alicia,” she says frostily. “Freddie didn’t mention you coming here; he’s out at the moment.”
“Actually, I came to speak to you,” I answer, and Roxanne folds her arms and tilts her head expectantly. “In private. Please.”
She sighs, before murmuring something inaudible to the children surrounding her and then walking in the direction of the back. For a moment I hesitate until she motions for me to follow, and I comply. When we reach her dad’s office, she flicks her wand to lock the door behind me and sits down in the plush armchair behind the desk. Without needing to be asked - I know she won’t offer, anyway - I sit down on the armchair opposite.
“We’re in private,” Roxanne shrugs. “Now, what do you want?”
I take a deep breath, not quite sure how to phrase my request. Years ago, I would have known how to talk to her - we grew up together, after all, since our parents were best friends and always went everywhere in a foursome. I wouldn’t hesitate to ask for her help, because she would have given it willingly. Despite the age difference between Roxanne and Freddie, and Leanne and I, we were incredibly close - in fact, once upon a time, Roxanne was the nearest thing I had to a big sister.
And then I screwed it all up.
“I need your help,” I blurt out, and Roxanne raises an eyebrow.
“You,” she says, pointing at me and then at herself, “want my help?”
That’s Roxanne - blunt and to the point. No matter what anyone says about her, no-one can deny that she’s brutally honest, although she’s also quite good at lying. It’s only my years of knowing her that enable me to know she lies when she waffles on about something, and is honest when she says the bare minimum, which is something that most people can’t tell.
“Because I can’t do it on my own,” I admit.
She shrugs. “Tough. What do you want me to do about it? Solve all of your problems, just because life’s not going your way? That’s not how life works, Alicia. You take care of your own messes, fix your mistakes.” Groaning in exasperation, she stands up and is about to walk out when she turns to me again. “I can’t believe you actually have the audacity to come here in the first place, let alone ask for my help like we’re friends again. It was a mistake even bothering to listen to you; all you care about is yourself.”
“That’s not true!” I shout, standing up and moving so that she and I are facing each other. “If it was, I wouldn’t have agreed to my parents selling the agency to Albus, would I?”
This seems to surprise Roxanne, and she looks at me wide-eyed. “When did that happen?”
“Yesterday,” I sigh. “It was either work with Al, or make my dad sell his radio station. I picked my dad, because I’m not as selfish as you think I am. I’m working with him now - he says he wants to spend the rest of the summer getting the feel for the agency, so I’m going to be seeing him five days a week for the rest of the month. And he’s willing to be friends with me too - he says he wants the two of us to have a fresh start, just friends this time. He’s willing to forgive me; why can’t you?”
Roxanne closes her eyes and slumps back into her armchair. “Albus knew. Before you even officially dumped him, he’d worked it out. He came to me asking for my advice, because I’d known you longer than he had. He kept owling me in the middle of the night with new and crazy ideas of how he could make you fall in love with him all over again. You didn’t just break his heart, you lied to him over and over and over again. And not just him either - you lied to me and Freddie, even your own sister. All for what? Some trumped-up has-been Frenchman who lost his allure as soon as the danger of being caught didn’t exist any more?”
I want to say something in response, but I can’t. I never realized that Albus knew, or that he had tried so hard to win me back. My head was full of dreams that would never come true, of scenarios that would never have happened. It’s stupid, I know, but back then I’d believed that the consequences of my actions wouldn’t be so bad, that everything would work out perfectly okay. Of course, it didn’t.
“Look. Is it a case you need my help with?” Roxanne suddenly asks, and it takes me a few moments to realize exactly what she’s asking before I nod. “What do you need me to do?”
I look at her uncertainly. “Are you helping or not?”
“Depends on what it is,” she says.
“There’s a case that requires for us to break into the Ministry’s archives - level three, possibly level four. It’s unofficial - I’m doing it mostly as a favour for a friend.” There’s no need to tell her about the eye-watering amount that Thierry’s offering, or that he’s the friend - she’ll definitely say no if I do. “We have to pull it off tomorrow morning while everyone’s arriving and getting to their office - according to Nick, that’s the best option in the time frame we’ve got. But we need someone who knows how to identify and disable security charms, and that’s why we - that’s why I need you.”
“Why can’t you ask Nick?”
I sigh. “It’s his and Molly’s anniversary tomorrow. He’s already arranged to spend the day with her. I could make him change his plans, but instead I’m coming here to ask you to replace him for just a few hours.” I don’t say anything more, instead I keep quiet and let those words seep into Roxanne’s mind. She’s so convinced that I’m selfish, and maybe I am - I’m just human, after all - but I need to convince her that I’m holier-than-thou now so she’ll help.
“I don’t know if I can do what you’re asking, Alicia. This is major - what if we get caught?” Roxanne asks.
“That’s why I need your help,” I explain. “Without you, we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. We’ll get caught, and my team will risk ending up in Azkaban. Do you really want that, Roxanne? I don’t, that’s why I’m willing to do anything to maximize our chances of making it out of there with what we’re going in for. Even coming here.”
She shakes her head. “I have sons, Alicia. Two amazing little boys who need their mum. If I get arrested -”
“- but you won’t,” I interrupt. “You’re too smart for that.”
Roxanne sighs before getting up and pacing the room around me. I desperately want to say something, to break the awkward not-quite-silence of no words but footsteps echoing and yet I fight the urge to speak, because I know that the more I talk, the likelier it is that I’ll make her decide not to help.”
“What’s the plan then?” she asks.
“Nick’s going to plan the operation for us,” I say. “He’s doing it now, so I’m not too sure what exactly we’re doing. He should have it ready for tonight, though; why don’t you come to the office and go over everything with us? Say, six o’clock?”
“I’ll do it. I’ll come tonight - but on the condition that if I feel it’s too risky, I’m not going through with it. And six is when the boys have their bathtime - I’ll be there for eight, no earlier.”
I smile. “Deal.”
It's only after Roxanne agrees to join us tomorrow that I realize how emotionally draining our discussion was. Ideally, something strong and alcoholic would be nice, but given that it's the middle of the morning and I'm due at work, that's probably not the best of ideas. Instead, I dive into a little café just a couple of doors away from Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes and order myself a cappuccino before sitting in one of the chairs furthest away from the doors. It's my intention not to be disturbed, so when someone flops into the seat opposite me, my first instinct is to look up and glare indignantly until I realize that the newcomer is my little sister.
"Ugh," she groans. "You weren't supposed to be here. I've just sent you a message with one of those memo thingies."
The memo thingy she speaks of is called an interdepartmental memo, formerly owned by the Ministry. Each employee of Jordan and Parsons has one, and if someone needs to get in touch with the office they just need to establish a Floo connection, throw the memo into the flames and it'll come out in our fireplace. It's a much better system than kneeling down to put your head into the fire, because not only is there the risk of being burnt if you don't use enough Floo powder for the duration of your conversation, if you're using a public fireplace - like the Leaky Cauldron, although they banned that ages ago - it stops people from arriving and diverts them to other places nearby. Adding the fact that your body is also at risk of being tripped over - or worse - and it looks undignified, using the interdepartmental memos are a wonderful alternative. If only the Ministry would actually sell them or even the rights to make them, they'd make millions. But that's besides the point - Leanne’s behaviour and expression look suspicious to me, and I want to know why.
"Clearly, I didn't get it," I say. "What did you say?"
She sighs, studying a stain on the table closely before she finally speaks. "The memo said I had an appointment with a medi-witch that I forgot to mention this morning, ergo I'd be late. I was actually on my way back to the agency when I saw you here and wondered what was up."
"But there aren't any medi-witches based in Diagon Alley," I answer, frowning in confusion. "How come you're here?"
Leanne visibly cringes. "Okay," she concedes. "I had a job interview - that's why I left early this morning. Ellie and I met for breakfast before the interview so that she could give me tips from her interview last year."
It takes a few moments to place Ellie in my memory, but then I remember who she is: she and Leanne were on the Gryffindor Quidditch team together - in fact, I'm pretty sure Ellie's a journalist for the Bludger, a fortnightly magazine specializing in Quidditch. Last I heard, the Daily Prophet had their noses bent out of joint at how successful the Bludger is, because the readership for their Quidditch section has dropped.
"So, you've decided on journalism then?" I ask, and my sister nods emphatically.
"It's something that was always on the agenda. And I get to talk about Quidditch, which is always a plus. You’re okay with it, right?”
I nod. “We both always knew you working at the agency was going to be temporary until you decided on a career. I just don’t understand why you didn’t tell me.”
She looks nervous, before speaking tentatively. “You and the Bludger don’t exactly have the best of histories together, do you?”
There’s no need to ask what she’s talking about: it was the scandal of the decade when the Bludger ran an expose on me. I get why it was such a good scoop - a Potter’s girlfriend having an affair with an international Quidditch star was how they got to the popularity they’re at now, but Leanne’s right. Just because I understand their rationale, it doesn’t mean that I like it. Jordan and Parsons had a low turnover for the first few months after that, something I’ve not forgiven the Bludger for. Many of our clients were questioning how they could trust us to cover up their sordid secrets if a Jordan couldn’t keep her own, and the fact is that I was young and stupid and thought that I was invincible. I was convinced that just because Albus and I were the children of war heroes, the newspapers wouldn’t dare to touch us.
I learnt my lesson the hard way.
“That’s not your fault. Besides, it’s Connie Boot I should really be pissed off at, not the paper as a whole. Anyway, how did the interview go?”
“Thanks,” Leanne smiles. “And it went great - they’ve given all the shortlisted candidates a fake article to write to test our ability to work well under a short deadline. I’m going to hand in the article tomorrow morning, and whoever wrote the best article gets the job.”
I stare at her in horror. “Tomorrow morning?!”
“Yeah,” my sister says, looking at me with a concerned expression. “Why, what’s happening tomorrow?”
I groan and bury my head into my hands before proceeding to tell her everything. I explain what Thierry told me this morning and detail what he’s asking me to do, before discussing my conversation with Nick earlier and then Roxanne, pausing a few times in between to sip at my cappuccino. At the end, she looks at me with an expression of sheer incredulity before speaking, her words uttered slowly but full of the criticising tone I usually hear from our mother, not her.
“Have you gone crazy?”
“Thierry’s motives might not be the best,” I concede, “but what else can I do?”
“I don’t know!” Leanne exclaims. “Shake him until his brain starts functioning again; refuse to do the job and keep him under lock and key until the deadline’s passed; drag him to Piper Swift and tell him that if he doesn’t stop being a coward and talk to her, you’ll repeat everything he said. Anything but encouraging him to behave like a toddler throwing a tantrum because things didn’t go his way!”
Sighing, I run my fingers through my hair, trying to buy myself some time so that I can put what I feel into words that will persuade Leanne to agree to letting this scheme proceed as arranged.
“Okay,” I sigh. “I’ll tell you the truth.” Although what I’m about to say wasn’t the truth until now, but it will be from now on, because this will be a sacrifice I’ll have to make to get the agency. Surely that has to count as somewhat truthful?
“What do you mean?” Leanne asks, looking at me sceptically.
“You know when I said Thierry was offering an unlimited amount of money to buy Albus’ share of the agency? I wanted to put the agency into both of our names. You could be a sleeping partner; you’d have no involvement in the day-to-day side of things so you could continue doing whatever career you want, like working for the Bludger. But you’d have an income, so whatever happens, you’ll have some money to fall back on. Jordan and Parsons was set up by Mum and Dad as a family business; shouldn’t it stay exactly that? I didn’t tell you because I wanted it to be a surprise for your birthday next week, but since you’re so adamant about not letting Thierry do what he wants, I’ve had to.”
Leanne stares at me, and I can tell that she’s internally floundering for words. That’s good; it means that there’s less chance of her thinking up another reason we shouldn’t take this case. Thierry’s an adult, after all; he can make his own mistakes and as for the team, it’s like I told Nick: they’ll have the option to back out if they're concerned about getting caught, though they needn't be.
"If you get caught, Ali, there won't be an agency for us to own. Do you really think the Ministry's just going to let Jordan and Parsons get away with breaking and entering?"
"Then we'll just have to make extra sure that we don't get caught," I answer, standing up so that I can leave. "Are you in or out?"
My sister's expression is uncertain, and she doesn't say anything in response, just glances up at me before turning to stare at her own still-full cup of coffee. I'm about to press her for a response before I remember what she said earlier about her article.
"If I can persuade the Bludger to give you some more time, will you help?"
"Yes," she nods. "Thanks - although I doubt they'll budge on the deadline. Good luck."
I don't know if she means good luck with persuading the Bludger to extend her deadline or good luck for tomorrow morning, but I'm certain I don't need it. I have an excellent team who won't fail. When she stands up, I smile, waiting while she picks up her bags to join me. Leanne's my little sister, and if she wants something that's in my power to give, she'll have it.
Connie Boot had better watch out.
"The first person who gives me a full report on Connie Boot - yes, that one you're all thinking of - gets a twenty Galleon bonus in this week's wage and the opportunity to offload their least favourite client onto someone else," I announce as I walk into the office.
Most bosses would simply offer a bonus and that's it, but I don't have the budget to throw money around whenever I need something done pronto. My team are smart enough to know who can handle which client, so it's harmless enough letting the good workers give away an annoying client in exchange for one who's less trouble. There are of course some exceptions, but even Sophie's learnt what can be done and what can't and she's only been here for three months.
"Alicia," Nick says and I stop abruptly outside my office door before turning around to face him. "I've explained what we're doing tomorrow."
"I'm out," Anton announces from behind Nick. "I'm not going risk having a criminal record, not for you or anyone. And I'm not letting Sophie risk her lack of one either; she's soft enough to help you but someone needs to look out for her."
"Do you really think I won't?" I ask, taking several steps forward until Anton and I are face to face. "Why do you think Nick is planning this operation personally? What's the reason for Roxanne Weasley coming here tonight to finalize the plans ready for tomorrow morning? You might think they're not good enough because there's only minor stuff on their criminal records, but that's the whole point. They're smart enough to not get caught, and that makes them the best available; I'm making sure that we have the best so that no-one will ever know we pulled this off."
Anton doesn't say a word. I'm tempted to continue my verbal rage, but instead I leave him and storm into my office. No Nick. No Anton. No Sophie. The only people in my team who will be present tomorrow morning - myself excepted - are Leanne and Max, and neither of them are used to working outside of the agency. Anton's spent countless hours socializing at Quidditch-related events and matches; Nick's second workplace is Knockturn Alley and even Sophie's done some field work. I need someone capable of duelling; someone physically fit; someone who has something to lose so they're not tempted to betray the agency. In short, I need Mr or Ms Perfect, and I don't have him or her.
I take off my coat and hang it on the coat-stand before sitting down. Just when I pick up my quill to start jotting down Connie Boot's weaknesses, there's a knock on the door.
"Unless you know what Connie Boot's deepest, darkest fear is, go away," I call out. I'm not in the mood to speak to anyone, after all, and I don't want to get into the habit of biting my employees' heads off.
"Max and Anton are racing to see who can get the most information fastest," Sophie says, opening the door regardless. "You'll have that information in just a few minutes, I'm sure. There's just something I wanted to talk to you about, without anyone else knowing."
I sigh. "Go ahead."
"Could you read this, please?" she asks, passing me a letter.
I take it and quickly scan the words written upon the parchment. It's from a client of Sophie's, thanking her for establishing the false alibi he paid for, although he mentions something about being disappointed to have to hire two public relations firms - the other being in the Muggle world, because he's Muggle-born so he still goes to Muggle places et cetera.
"What's the significance?" I ask. Perhaps it's the stress of my current situation, but I'm failing to grasp what's so important about this letter.
Sophie looks somewhat nervous. "Well, you said when I first started that you'd always listen if someone had an idea on how to improve the agency, and I just thought, what if this client's not the only one hiring Muggle PR firms as well as us? What if we had someone who specializes in Muggle PR? It might generate more business, especially with Muggle-born people."
I can't believe I haven't thought of this before; surprising, since Mum's Muggle-born. Then again, her mum died when I was a baby and her dad was never around so she hasn't been a part of the Muggle world for a long time. But I'm sure the logistics of finding someone who knows the Muggle world well enough to do the non-magical equivalent of what the agency's doing right now would be difficult, especially without using magic because that would attract the Ministry's attention. Add in the fact that they'd need to have some sort of public relations knowledge or experience - finding such a person would be difficult.
But I already know the perfect person.
"Sophie Lawrence," I say, standing up and placing my hands on her cheeks to give her a platonic kiss on the forehead, "you are a genius."
Before she has a chance to respond, I pick up my coat and rush out of the office as quickly as I can. There's a clamour as Anton and Max see me leaving and rush to give me the requested parchmentwork, but I push their hands away.
"Leave the information on my desk!" I call out as I push the door open to leave the office.
Screw Connie Boot. I've got someone more important to see: the person who's about to become the answer to all of my problems.
Author's Note: So, the plot's starting to move! What did you think of Roxanne? Of Leanne joining the Bludger and Sophie's idea? And who do you think the mysterious Marin is? :P
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