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Chapter 8 : Eight: The Hermit
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“Oi, O’Keefe! Lupin!”
It takes me a few seconds to realize that the noise is actually a voice, that the voice belongs to Alastor Moody, and that it’s emanating from my sitting room. I scramble out of bed and into the sitting room, tossing on my dressing gown as I go. Sure enough, Moody’s head is sitting in the fire, gazing impatiently out at the room. As I cross the room to the fire, I notice that Sirius and Remus have both cleared out – I assume that Sirius has gone home, and Remus has found his way into his own bedroom.
“Took you long enough,” Moody says, spitting out a bit of ash onto the carpet. “There’s been another murder.”
“So soon?” I say, dumbfounded. “The killer struck just yesterday…”
“Looks like he’s building momentum,” says Moody grimly. “Look, I want you and Lupin to get over here right now, before any bloody reporters start crawling all over the crime scene. You’ll want to Floo to 21 Wayside Road, and I’ll meet you there. And wear Muggle clothes. Got all that?”
“Yeah,” I nod, excitement creeping over me. “Give me five minutes to get Remus up.”
Moody disappears, and I hurry over to the corridor, where I bang loudly on Remus’ bedroom door. “Remus, are you alive in there?” I press my ear against the door, and hear a low groan from the others side. Chuckling, I pull the door open and stick my head inside. Remus’ bedroom is relatively plain – other than a few framed photographs of his parents, the walls are bare. Every flat surface in sight, from his small desk to the shelves in the closet, is covered with stacks of books.
Remus is sitting up in his bed, his back hunched, his hands covering his eyes. “I’m never drinking again.”
“Don’t be a baby,” I say, grinning. “Hey, there’s been another murder, so we’ve got to get going. Five minutes to get ready – Muggle clothes, okay?”
Remus just groans, clutching his head. I leave him in peace, closing the door carefully behind me as I march off to get dressed. I pull on my ugly wool coat and jeans (the only Muggle clothes I own) and when I return to the sitting room a few minutes later, I’m both surprised and impressed to see that Remus has managed to drag himself out of bed. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to drag himself very far – he’s collapsed on the sofa.
“Shall we, then?” I say, stepping confidently up to the Fireplace. It’s far too early to be awake in my opinion, but my adrenaline is pumping and my spirits are soaring in eager anticipation of the murder scene. Which I suppose is a bit morbid. I grab a handful of Floo powder out of the flowerpot on the mantelpiece, and beckon to Remus.
“I think I’m still drunk,” he says, getting to his feet. His knees quiver as he approaches the fireplace, and he honestly looks more like a baby deer than a werewolf. A very sloshed baby deer. “Where are we going?”
“I s’pose we’ll find out when we get there, won’t we?” I say brightly. “The address is 21 Wayside Road. Do be careful, won’t you? I’d really hate it if you got all mixed up, and ended up in You-Know-Who’s shower or something.”
Remus gives me such a doleful look that I can’t help laughing. “All right, see you there,” I say, throwing my Floo powder into the fire, and climbing into the tangle of leaping green flames. “21 Wayside Road,” I say, carefully pronouncing each syllable, and I’m whisked away from the flat, my heart pounding in anticipation of an adventure.
I wind up in a smallish, abandoned house. Every visible surface is covered with a thick layering of dust, and I sneeze violently as I climb out of the dilapidated fireplace. Moody, who’s waiting in the tiny kitchen, nods at me. “Lupin coming?”
“We’ll see,” I say, grinning. Seconds later, the fire lights up green again, and Remus comes staggering out of it, looking extremely sick. He sticks a hand out and props himself up against the stone wall, squinting at us, taking slow, deep breaths. He looks fairly awful – his face has taken on a grayish hue, and his hair is sticking out in every direction, James Potter style.
“Merlin’s beard, boy,” growls Moody, “Don’t tell me O’Keefe is already rubbing off on you.”
“It’s not my fault!” I protest, but Moody waves away my indignation.
“Just don’t either of you go vomiting on the corpse,” he says, crossing the kitchen in three strides and kicking open the shabby wooden door. I follow him eagerly out of the house and along a small dirt road, which is lined with several other, similarly unkempt houses. The sun has only just begun to rise, casting a pale unearthly light over the road, the houses, and the vast fields of scraggly weeds that lie beyond.
Remus walks a few paces behind me, groaning quietly with every step he takes. I feel a twinge of sympathy, and the thought of slowing down for him crosses my mind, but it’s quickly overtaken by my eagerness to get going with the case.
The dirt road thins gradually, until suddenly it’s cut in two by an ancient-looking, stone bridge. The bridge has been built over top of a very small stream, and seems rather disproportionate. I imagine that the stream must have once been a large river that supported the village. When the river died out, so did the farms, and thus the rest of the town. I’m expecting Moody to cross the bridge, but instead, he leads us down below it. In the shade of the bridge lies an old Muggle man – the fourth murder victim.
The man has been lain out with his arms stretching out on either side of his body. In one gnarled hand, he holds a lantern; in the other, a walking stick. His eyes are closed, and his wrinkled face looks blank and vacant, like a mask.
“He was found late last night by a couple of teenagers,” says Moody. “Name’s Jim Gunthrey. He’s a hermit, lives in one of the abandoned houses we passed by. I woke up Healer Bradshaw, and she had a look, found definite traces of Blacknewt Venom in his system.”
I approach the old man’s corpse, my shoes squishing in the mud. “No signs of his wrists or ankles having been tied.”
“There’s a tarot card called the Hermit,” interjects Remus. Moody and I turn to look at him, and he shrugs at us. “I memorized them.”
“Well, you’re a useful drunk at any rate,” says Moody. “So the killer’s continuing this tarot theme – the question is, why?”
I crouch down beside the body, my eyes scanning around the immediate area. The earth under the bridge is soggy, covered with moss in some areas. “Look at the mud over there, leading over from the road.”
“What about it?” says Moody.
“Do you see those odd marks? It looks like somebody used a shovel or something to smooth over some tracks in the mud.” I say, pointing. “So I’d say this bloke was probably killed somewhere else – in his house maybe – and then dragged or carried here by the killer.”
Moody nods. “I’ll send some people over to his house later to have a look around for any clues.”
“What I don’t understand,” I say, staring down at the corpse’s face. “Is how the poison is being administered. Presumably the killer doesn’t know all these victims personally, so it’s not as if he’s knocking on their doors and offering them a slice of pie.”
“At any rate, it’s about time we found out the supplier of the poison,” says Moody. “Blacknewt Venom is banned by the Ministry, so unless the killer is brewing it personally, it’s got to be coming from Knockturn Alley.”
“I’ll go check out the shops,” I volunteer brightly. “I’m becoming quite the regular there.”
“Neither you, nor Lupin, is qualified to go searching through Knockturn Alley for illegal poisons,” says Moody flatly. “I’ll send a team of Aurors to investigate, and I’ll let you know what they find. In the meantime, you’ll want to keep your heads down, and get some rest – and stay off the Firewhisky, both of you.”
Remus and I return to the flat. He crumples into a chair, his elbows propped up on the kitchen table, his face in his hands. “When I close my eyes, it feels like I’m spinning around,” he says. “Is this how you feel all the time?”
I laugh, sitting down across from him. “Don’t be silly – I haven’t got feelings.”
Remus lifts his head out of his hands, yawning. “How did you get on with Sirius last night?”
“Oh.” The morning’s been so eventful that I haven’t had time to reflect on our brief encounter last night. Now that I come to think of it, though, it went a lot better than I would’ve imagined. Granted, it was dead awkward and the sheer memory of it makes me want to rip my heart out, but we didn’t end up yelling at each other or dueling. “Pretty well. He looks like he’s taking care of himself.”
“Does he look that way?” says Remus, his expression amused. “I don’t think I know of anyone who takes worse care of themselves. Well, apart from you.”
“Speaking of which…” I get up and grab a bottle of Firewhisky and two glasses, which I set down on the table. Sitting down, I open the bottle and pour a few centimeters of the caramel-colored liquid into each glass. I push one toward Remus. “You’ll want to drink that.”
“Will it make me feel better?” he asks, accepting the glass hesitantly.
“No,” I say, “but it’ll make you momentarily forget that you feel bad.”
Remus frowns and pushes the glass away. “I think I’ll just have some water.”
“Have it your way,” I say, not exactly hurt but a bit annoyed. As Remus drags himself to his feet and goes about getting himself some water, I carefully pour both glasses of Firewhisky back into the bottle, and send it flying back into the cabinet with a Levitating Charm. “Was there anything about the case in yesterday’s Evening Prophet?”
“Yeah,” says Remus, sitting back down and massaging his temples. “Just a small article, didn’t even make the front page. But at the rate the killer’s going, it won’t be long before everyone in London’s talking about it.”
“We’re going to catch him before that happens,” I say confidently.
“We’ve got to,” says Remus solemnly. “There are dark times ahead of us, and it’s going to be important that people believe in the Ministry. That’s why this case is so important – if it looks like the Auror Office has got things in control, it’ll give people faith.”
A wave of uneasiness washes over me. “Remus, I know you don’t like being asked about the work you do for Moody, the secret stuff. But people’ve been a lot about the Death Eaters lately, and they’ve been saying there’s going to be a war on. Is that…?”
Remus nods, his face somber. “It’s true.”
Barnabus looks up at me. I’m irritated to see that, though his flat was set on fire just two days ago, his clothes and hair are impeccably neat. He’s chosen a table in the back corner of the Leaky Cauldron, which I take to mean that he doesn’t want anybody to hear our conversation. The pub is unusually crowded even for lunchtime, and I feel more than a few pairs of eyes on me. That’s funny – I’d almost forgotten that I’m notorious. I meet an old witch’s disapproving gaze, and wink at her.
“Thanks for coming,” says Barnabus, nodding for me to sit down. “I thought we could have a chat over lunch. On me.”
I’m still annoyed at him for giving me the cold shoulder all last week, but I’ve never been one to turn down a free meal, so I take a seat across from him. I look at him levelly, leaning casually back in my seat, my arms crossed. “And what was it you wanted to chat about?”
Barnabus leans close to me, shooting a surreptitious glance around the neighboring tables. “You’ve probably heard what happened at my flat the other last night?”
“Hmm,” I say, leaning back in my chair. “Would you be referring to the party to which I wasn’t invited, or to the great blazing fire which put said party to an end?”
“You could have come,” says Barnabus quickly, clearing his throat. “All sorts of people showed up. But look, Aislin, that fire was no accident. I don’t know if you read it, but I wrote an article for the Prophet last week about that bloke Avery being chucked out of the Ministry, and I said some stuff about him…well, some stuff he probably didn’t like.”
“So you think he set fire to your entire building in revenge?” I shake my head. “Barny, if everyone you wrote shit articles about went around setting buildings on fire, London’d be razed to the ground.”
Barnabus frowns at me. He changes the subject for a few while, incessantly rambling about his promotion to senior reporter and how he could be set up to become assistant editor before long. But as soon as the stooped innkeeper sets down our food, he wheels back around. “I know it’s him. I don’t know how I know it, but I do.”
I look up from my steak and kidney pie just long enough to roll my eyes at him.
“I know it’s not convincing!” he says, slamming his fist down onto the table. A few of the other patrons look around at us curiously. Lowering his voice, Barnabus continues: “That’s why I want you to investigate it for me. Help me gather up enough evidence to prove it was Avery, and then I’ll take the case to the Ministry.”
I take a long drink of mead. “And how exactly am I supposed to go about doing that? Do have anything to go off of beside your guess?”
“It’s not a guess,” says Barnabus, “it’s a feeling. I don’t care how you go about it, I just want justice. I’ll pay you as much as you want.”
This catches my interest, and I raise my eyebrows. “As much as I want?”
“Within reason,” Barnabus amends.
“Hmm,” I mull it over as I clean off the rest of my pie. On one hand, Barnabus is an overconfident prick whose obsession with money almost rivals his obsession with himself. On the other hand, I happen to like money very much, myself. “Okay,” I say finally, “Here’s the deal. Condition one: by the end of this week, you will publish a lovely, shining article about me, and what a great bloody detective I am, and how I’ve turned over a new leaf and renounced my heathen ways.”
“Have you renounced them?” says Barnabus, amused.
“Of course not, but that’s beside the point,” I snap. “And you should also throw something in about how beautiful and young and spirited I am. Condition two: you will transfer a sum of one thousand Galleons to my Gringotts vault by tomorrow.”
“One thousand Galleons?” says Barnabus, out of sorts. “You’re robbing me!”
“Of course I am,” I say, smiling a slightly predatory smile. “But there isn’t much you can do about it, because you need me. Of course, if I don’t manage to solve your stupid case, I’ll return sixty percent of that sum to you. Capiche?”
Barnabus grinds his teeth, glaring at me. “Fine,” he says after a minute. “But I’d like you to know that if you fail to solve this case, I’m going to write the most defaming article you can imagine.”
I shrug, gulping down the dregs of my ale, and getting to my feet. “Well then, it’s a good thing I never fail. See you around, Barny.”
With that, I stride confidently out of the Leaky Cauldron, and out into the cold winter air. Diagon Alley is unusually crowded today, and as I look around at the shoppers, whose arms are laden with oversized bags and boxes, I realize that Christmas is tomorrow. I feel almost wistful for a moment as I remember the years of happy Christmases with my family, golden times that have slipped away, never to return.
I’m perfectly aware that I’ve lost Barnabus’ friendship, but somehow I can’t bring myself to care. Possibly it’s because I’ve come to my senses and realized that he’s a complete wanker, utterly unfit for the company of other human beings. Or, more likely, I’m simply too lazy to make a fuss about it.
But do feel just a slight twinge of loneliness as I walk through the throngs of cheerful shoppers. Pulling the hood of my robes over my head, I pick up a little speed, anxious to be home and out of this merry crowd. As I walk, I glance up at the grayish sky, which threatens snow. I wonder what Sirius is doing for Christmas Eve. I imagine that he and his friends will celebrate together, which means I’ll be alone in the flat tonight. I’d call on Marlene, but of course she’ll probably be tucked away with Johnny or her family.
In fact, there’s only other person I know of who’s bound to be alone tonight.
Cursing myself for my weakness, I turn into the nearest shop and use their fireplace to Floo over to Barnabus’ flat. He’s just gotten home and is pouring himself a drink at the small bar in the sitting room. He frowns at me as I climb out of the fireplace.
“What, do you want more money now?” he says grumpily.
I cross the room slowly, take the glass out of his hand, and drink. Then I set it down on the bar, wind my arms around Barnabus’ neck, and kiss him.
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