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Shadowplay by dominique_fox
Chapter 16 : Sixteen: The Emperor
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 7

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That night, when Sirius has gone home and I’ve finally fallen asleep after tossing and turning in bed for hours, a thick icy fog creeps over London. It swallows up the whole city into its immensity, and when I wake up I find it pressing up against my window, like a night animal hoping to find a way inside.

While I shower, dress, and eat breakfast, I try not to think of Sirius. It isn’t easy, with the soapy smell of his aftershave so fresh in my mind. Each time I remember the feeling of his arms around me, I remind myself that what happened last night was a single, bright moment in time that won’t be repeated. It’s not as if we’re going to start dating. Sirius and I both have more important things going on at the moment, and besides, we don’t live in the same world that we lived in when we were seventeen. Things have changed.

An hour after breakfast, I find myself walking through the damp fog, following Moody along the cobbled road of Diagon Alley with Remus at my side. Remus looks as if he’s paying dearly for last night’s fun: his eyes are half-shut and he winces with every step he takes. He only had time to throw an overcoat over his pajamas before Moody rushed us out of the apartment, so he walks with his arms crossed, shivering. As I watch him, he stumbles over a pebble, and groans.

“You know, if you’d drink more often, you might not get such bad hangovers,” I tell him, grinning. Large quantities of hard stuff like Firewhisky will still give me a nasty headache in the morning, but last night’s champagne was kid stuff.

“If you got worse hangovers, you might not drink as often,” replies Remus, squinting over at me.

“It’s just a bit farther,” calls Moody over his shoulder, speeding up his gait. It’s still too early for people to really be out and about, but through the fog I can see the hazy silhouettes of the morning’s first shoppers. We walk for a few minutes and then turn into an alleyway, where Moody pulls open a building’s small side-door and leads us into what turns out to be a narrow, moldy stairwell. “Three flights up,” he says, and Remus groans again.

I follow Moody up the narrow set of stairs, Remus trudging behind me. The first flight of stairs smells like cats and stale bread, but as we reach the first landing and proceed to the second flight of stairs, another smell creeps in: the subtle, evil smell of things starting to rot. It feels ominous, walking up step after step, the smell of death growing stronger with each step. I think back to the wedding, wishing I could have held onto the brightness of that day for just a little while longer.

We reach the third landing, and it’s worse than I expected.

The man has been propped up in the dingy windowsill. The blades of knives disappear through his shoulders and forearms, pinning him into place. He’s still wearing his dress-robes from the wedding, but there’s blood all down the front of them. It clots in his thick, black beard and on the ground at his feet. The killer has put a fake-gold crown in his hair, and a matching staff into his stiff right hand.

“Edwin Napier, owner of the Applebee Arrows,” says Moody. “He was at the wedding yesterday.”

I nod, hovering at the top of the stairs, unwilling to approach the corpse of Edwin Napier. In death, Napier’s face is as cold and blank as a statue’s face – it’s as if he was never alive at all. But I think back to his warm handshake last night, and the nostalgia in his eyes as he spoke of Ireland. My knees shake.

Seeming to sense my uneasiness, Remus pushes gently past me to inspect the body.

“He’s dressed up as The Emperor card,” says Remus. He points to the knives stuck through Napier’s shoulders and arms. “He’s pinned up very neatly - systematically, even. Which makes it seem like North had a careful plan.”

“How heavy d’you suppose he is?” I ask, feeling a bit steadier now that we’re talking about Napier as a corpse rather than a guest from James and Lily’s wedding. “North’s a pretty small bloke. Do you think he could have lifted Napier up onto the windowsill, all by himself?”

“I’d guess not,” says Remus, turning to face Moody and me. “He probably would’ve needed help from someone else – unless he really is using magic.”

“And come to think of it, in the first murder, the victim was strung up from a very high tree,” I add, “so North would’ve needed some kind of help with that, too. Either there’s an accomplice, or North can use magic.”

“But if North can use magic,” says Moody, “why would he bother using knives to pin his victims up?”

“Possibly he thinks it’s a part of the ritual,” says Remus, turning back to the body. “The knives look like a matching set, they’ve all got wooden handles. Actually…” Remus leans in closer. “They’ve got something engraved on them. It’s in a different language, though. French?”

Moody leans over Remus’ shoulder. “French,” he confirms.

“Madame Luminaire,” I say. “She’s French. I’ll bet it’s her who’s giving North the props he needs. She could even be using the Imperius Curse on him, making him carry out the murders for her. Is there anything new on the search for her?”

Moody shakes his head. I feel like telling him the Aurors need to get their bloody act together, but I suppose they’re all busy hunting down Death Eaters

“Does he have a wand with him?” I ask Remus. “The last victim didn’t have one.”

Remus goes through the pockets of Napier’s dress robes, and shakes his head. “No, he doesn’t,” he says. “That’s odd. He could have been Disarmed, I s’pose, but I still don’t see why they’d bother taking it with them. Unless that's a part of the ritual, too.”

The three of us stand still for a minute, letting it all sink in. Inside, I’m aching to race down the stairs and get out of the building, away from Napier’s corpse. He was so lively last night, arguing with the sour-faced old woman about the Triwizard Tournament. And now, here he is, a statue.

“Well,” says Moody eventually, “I’m off to interview Napier’s wife. O’Keefe, I think you’d better not come along. Mrs. Napier’s bound to be in a fragile state, and you’d only upset her.”

“Fair enough,” I say, shrugging. I have no desire to pry information out of a grieving widow.

Moody turns to Remus, casting a pitying gaze upon his pallid face and pajamas. “As for you,” he says gruffly, “you’ll want to get home and have a rest. You look like you need it.”

“But I–” Remus gives up mid-sentence, and sighs. “Yeah, I’ll do that.”

Moody Disapparates with a curt nod, leaving Remus and me alone on the landing with the corpse of Edwin Napier. Remus shoves his hands into his pockets, turning away from the terrible sight.

“Are you okay?” he says, looking at me warily.

I nod, trying to look away from the body. “I met him at the wedding,” I tell Remus. “He knew my dad, they were at Hogwarts together.”

“Yeah,” says Remus, “I saw you talking to him. I didn’t realize he was the owner of the Arrows, though. That’s James’ favorite team.”

“The Prophet’s going to all over the story,” I sigh, already dreading the headlines. “I don’t think I can get Barnabus to keep his mouth shut about this one. People are going to be outraged – a Squib murdering an old successful Wizard.”

Remus nods glumly. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it,” he says, starting back down the moldy staircase. I follow him out of the building, back into the dense fog. But halfway back to the flat, I stop in my tracks, an idea striking me suddenly. It’s a dangerous, illegal idea, but a good one, and if I go about it right Barnabus will owe me a lifetime’s worth of favors.

“Hey, Remus,” I call. Remus stops walking and turns around, looking surprised to see that I’ve fallen behind. “Look,” I say, “I just remembered we’re out of, erm…sugar, or something. So I’m off to pick up some more. Okay?”

“I bought sugar a few days ago,” says Remus.

“Yeah, okay, but that doesn’t matter,” I say impatiently, “because I’m lying to you to cover up that I’m actually about to go and do something very dishonorable, which you would not approve of in the least. So you’d better get back to bed and imagine I’m just out buying some more sugar, yeah?”

Remus frowns, looking thoroughly confused. “I, er…”

“Good,” I say brightly, and Disapparate.

A few minutes later, I burst through the entrance of Barnabus’ building. Ignoring the disapproving stairs of the dignified witches and wizards in the lobby, I bound up the stairs to the second floor and knock on Barnabus’ door. When nobody answers it, I curl my hands into fists and pound them against the door as loudly as I can.

“OI, BARNY!” I yell at the top of my voice. “DESTINY IS AT YOUR DOORSTEP!”

The door swings open to reveal a very disgruntled Barnabus, wearing a dressing gown over a set of black silk pajamas. “What the hell are you playing at?” he hisses at me, leaning through the doorway. “You ignore me all night at the party, and now that I’ve finally managed to get off with another girl you come barging into my flat?”

I blink. It hadn’t occurred to me that Barnabus might have had somebody over for the night.

“Right,” I say, recovering. “Sorry about that, but I’ve got a proposition to make. It’s important.”

Barnabus glowers at me, drumming his fingers against the doorframe. “Fine,” he finally says, standing aside so that I can enter the room. “You can come in for a minute, but keep your damn voice down, Amelie’s in the bedroom.”

Amelie?” I say, dumbstruck. “You’re shagging a bloody Frenchwoman? Have some patriotism, for Merlin’s sake.”

Barnabus shuts the door quietly, and turns to me. “What d’you want?”

I let my eyes flicker briefly over his face, hoping that I’ve calculated his character correctly. If I’m wrong about him, and I say what I’m about to say, I could end up in a hell of a lot of trouble. “Well,” I say slowly, leaning back against the wall, “I’ve been doing some thinking about your case. You know, the whole Avery thing.”

“Yeah, I know,” says Barnabus impatiently.

“The thing is,” I continue, “I think you’re right. I think Avery’s exactly the sort of person who would set a bloke’s flat on fire for revenge. The problem is, though, there’s no way to go about investigating him. If there was any evidence lying around the building, it’ll be gone by this time. We’ve got nothing to go off of, other than your hunch.”

“It’s not just a hunch,” says Barnabus quickly, “I know he did it.”

“Yeah, whatever,” I reply. “My point is, I think Avery’s an evil, rotten bastard and I’d love to see him prosecuted for this. But there’s no way we’re going to find the proof we need to convict him.”

“So you’re giving up,” says Barnabus, an ugly smirk unfolding across his face. “Well, that’s fine, but I want my money back, and I think you know exactly where you stand with me until I get it.”

“Don’t try to threaten me, you numbskull,” I say, raising my voice further when Barnabus motions for me to quiet down. “You’re wearing silk pajamas, for Merlin’s sake. I won’t be intimidated by someone wearing silk pajamas, I just absolutely won’t. And anyway, I wasn’t finished. We’re not going to find any evidence that’ll convict Avery. So I say we should invent some.”

Barnabus blinks. “What are you suggesting?”

I roll my eyes. “I'm suggesting that we frame him.”

Barnabus raises his eyebrows slowly. “And, supposing I was interested, how exactly would we do that?”

“Supposing you were interested,” I reply, “you would leave the details to me. I know the system better than you do, I can make it work. But, supposing you were interested, I’d need some kind of incentive to make all this work worthwhile.”

“You can forget about paying me back,” says Barnabus immediately. “The money’s yours. All I want is to see Avery locked up.”

“That’s a start,” I say, smiling like a big cat of prey. “But I’m also going to need something else from you. The Tarot Card Killer struck again this morning, and his victim was Edwin Napier.”

“The owner of the Applebee Arrows?” says Barnabus, his jaw dropping. “Listen, Aislin, that’s too big a story for me to cover up. Even if I manage to keep it out of the Prophet, all the other papers and magazines’ll be writing about it.”

“I know that,” I tell him. “But I want you to promise me that you’ll pull out all the stops, call in every favor you’ve got, and do anything you can to keep the blame from falling on the Auror Office – or specifically, Alastor Moody.”

“But that’s impossible!” says Barnabus, forgetting to keep his voice down. “Anyone can see it’s Moody’s fault that these murders keep happening. Everybody’s going to be out for Moody’s blood, and besides, there’s nobody else to pin the blame on.”

“Pin it on me, if you have to,” I say. “I don’t care. But you’re going to have to keep the spotlight off of Moody, if you want me to get Avery for you.”

Barnabus gives me a long stare, and for a moment I’m afraid he’s going to turn me down. But then he sighs, sticking out his hand for me to shake. “All right then,” he says, “I’ll do what I can. But you’d better bring me Avery’s head on a platter.”

“I’ll make it a silver one,” I assure him.

After leaving Barnabus’, I decide to stop by a few shops to buy some things for lunch. When I finally push through the kitchen door, my arms full of bags of leafy greens and fresh fruit and parcels of cheese, I’m surprised to find Remus and Marlene sitting together at the kitchen table, having tea.

“Hi, Aislin,” says Marlene brightly, as I set everything down on the counter. “I just came by to tell you the news – Johnny’s asked me to move into his flat with him!”

“Oh.” I take in the smile on her face and the eagerness in her eyes, and I know that she wants me to be happy for her. I mostly ignored her at the wedding, and if I’m being completely honest I suppose I’ve been mostly ignoring her ever since she and Johnny got together. I feel a big guilty at it now, as I blink down at her beaming face. “That’s brilliant,” I say, in the most enthusiastic voice I can manage, though I’m honestly at a total loss to understand how anybody could ever bear to be around Johnny for more than a couple of hours at a time. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” says Marlene, preening happily, running her fingers through her shiny brown hair. “He asked me at the wedding, it was so romantic. Oh, and Aislin–” She glances quickly at Remus, who quickly clears his throat and stands up to make more tea. “He said ‘I love you!’”

“Brilliant,” I say again, wanting so badly to be nice to her. “Look, d’you want to stay over for lunch? It’s been so long since we talked properly.”

“Oh, I wish I could,” says Marlene, “I really do, and it’s so sweet of you to offer… But I’ve promised Johnny I’d have lunch with his family today – and actually, I should really get going, or I’ll be late. I just had to stop by and tell you the news!”

“I’m glad you did,” I say, as Marlene jumps to her feet and gives me a quick hug good-bye. “Bye, then.”

“Right, bye, Aislin,” she says, practically skipping out of the kitchen, “Bye, Remus!”

When she’s gone, Remus sits back down at the table, quietly stirring sugar into his tea. I start to unwrap the parcels of food, setting the cheeses and salamis onto plates and slicing them, and all the while feeling childish and ashamed of myself. Edwin Napier was murdered this morning, and here I am acting petty over Marlene’s taste in men. I sigh, summoning over a breadknife and setting it to work sawing a baguette into thin slices.

“What do you have against Johnny?” asks Remus after a while, looking up cautiously from his tea. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

I feel my face flushing. “Is it that obvious?”

Remus shrugs, still staring up at me with that look of cautious curiosity, as if he were tiptoeing past a sleeping dragon. “I don’t think Marlene noticed,” he says, which isn’t exactly an answer to my question.

I sigh again. I summon a small bowl over from the cabinet and start mixing olive oil and pepper into it to make a salad dressing. I’m not capable of doing any complicated cooking, salad dressings are pretty much the culmination of my abilities. “I s’pose I just think he’s sort of dopey,” I say after a while, glancing at Remus, who nods thoughtfully.

“But do you think it’s really that important?” he says carefully. “I mean, it looks like he makes her happy, and she’s able to take care of herself. So, does it really matter what you think of him?”

“I…” I set the bowl down on the kitchen table, anger boiling inside me. Deep down I know that Remus is right, and of course that makes me even angrier. Under Remus’ gaze, which is apologetic and a little disappointed, I grab a bottle of Firewhisky, a plate of food, and a pile of case notes, and storm off to my room to despise myself in private.

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