Chapter 9 : Nine: A Cup of Tea
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Five chairs have been set up in a row, facing Mr. Potter’s desk. Mr. Potter stands behind his desk, watching us settle into the chairs. Beside him stands a tall, dark-haired witch in Healers’ robes; and on his desk sits a metal stand holding five glass vials of clear liquid.
“This won’t take long,” he says, without interlude, once we’ve all taken our seats. I glance sideways at Ada: her jaw is set, her skin still very pale. “Padma, whenever you’re ready.”
The Healer selects a vial from the stand and approaches Ragnar, who’s sitting at the end of our row of chairs. “Ministry policy requires that a Healer preside over interrogations by potion,” she explains, her voice low and soothing. “I’m just here so that, in the event of any adverse reactions, we can get you treated straight away. Are you ready?”
“Yeah,” says Ragnar gruffly. He tilts his head back and allows the Healer to pour the contents of the vial down his throat. He seems very casual about it all, and I find myself wondering whether he’s ever had to do this before. The Healer leans down, holding her face close to Ragnar’s, and I realize that she’s probably making sure that his pupils are dilating properly.
“All yours, Harry,” she says after a minute, stepping away from Ragnar.
“Right.” Mr. Potter strides around his desk and leans back against the edge of it, looking down at Ragnar. “Are you Ragnar Svanstrom, age thirty-eight, married to Hilde Svanstrom?”
“Yes,” says Ragnar simply. Looking over at him, I see that his face has relaxed completely, and his eyes have gone glassy and calm. I’ve hardly ever seen him without a scowl on his face, and the change suits him. It reminds me that he is only thirty-eight years old, after all, and not a thousand.
“Please describe your movements between five o’clock and midnight this Tuesday,” says Mr. Potter, and I feel my face flood with color. It hadn’t occurred to me that they’d be asking what we got up to on Tuesday night. I was having my brains fucked out by Xavier, which isn’t a piece of information I’m dying to share with my ex’s dad, my entire team, and a random Healer.
“I worked late,” says Ragnar, his voice so unusually placid. “I left the office around eight o’clock, and went home.”
“Who did you speak to that evening, or otherwise communicate with, after you left the office?”
“Talked to my kids.” Ragnar’s face splits into a beatific grin, so broad and shining that it makes me smile, too. “Inge and Anna. They were still awake when I got home, so I asked them about their day. They went out flying.”
“My wife.” Ragnar’s grin falters. “We argued. She wants to go away on holiday next week, but I’m nose-deep in work and there’d be no one to look after the kids. I think she’s going to go, anyway.”
“Have you shared information about the Dawson case with anyone outside of the Auror Office?” asks Mr. Potter, smoothly moving on from the topic of Ragnar’s family life, though I’m inwardly keen to find out more. “Last evening or at any point since the start of the investigation?”
“Does anyone outside of the Auror Office know that you’re working on the Dawson case?”
“Have you ever taken documents, photographs, evidence, or any other form of information regarding the case outside of the Auror Office without being explicitly required to do so for the investigation?”
“All right,” Mr. Potter leans back, apparently satisfied with Ragnar’s innocence. “Let’s move on to Mr. Grimm, please, Padma.”
The Healer removes the second flask of Veritaserum from the stand, and approaches Darren with it. “Bottoms up,” he says nervously, and then tilts his head back. The Healer empties the vial into his mouth, and then leans down again to watch the change in his pupils. After a minute, she frowns and looks around at Mr. Potter.
“This one might be having a reaction,” she says. “His pupils are dilating properly, but the skin around his eyes is turning very red.”
“Is he in pain?” asks Mr. Potter.
“I’m not in pain,” offers Darren, looking just as serene as Ragnar (who, at the end of the row, is slowly regaining his usual surly demeanor) did a minute ago. “I feel great.”
“Hmm.” The Healer grabs Darren’s chin and tilts his head from side to side. “Well, the potion seems to be working and it doesn’t look like it’s doing any harm. You might as well go ahead with your questioning, and if he develops any other symptoms, I’ll take him back to St. Mungo’s.”
“Are you Darren Grimm, twenty-seven, son of Archibald and Anastasia Grimm?” Mr. Potter asks Darren, as the Healer moves aside.
“Yes,” he replies.
Mr. Potter goes through the same series of questions he did with Ragnar, and Darren answers them all satisfactorily: He popped over to his parents’ house in Cornwall for dinner, didn’t share any information about the case or speak to anyone unusual. Within minutes, Charlie is telling us all about his evening at the Leaky Cauldron with his mates. Then it’s on to me.
“She all right?” says Mr. Potter’s voice, as if from very far away.
The Healer’s eyes are brown and sparkly, full of tiny flecks of honey. I want to tell her that her eyes are beautiful. “Yeah, she’s ready,” says the Healer, moving out of my line of vision. My eyes refocus onto Mr. Potter’s face, so much like his son’s.
“Are you Fiona Smith, twenty-two, daughter of the late Zacharias Smith and Moira MacHenry?” His voice is melodic and clear, like rich, deep notes on a piano.
“Yes,” I confirm.
“Please describe your movements between five o’clock and midnight this Tuesday,” he says.
“I left work at six,” I tell him, smiling at the pleasant memory of returning home to find Xavier, Rose, and Jasper lounging around my sitting room. “I went home straight from work, and stayed in for the rest of the night.”
“Who did you speak to, or otherwise communicate with, after you left work?”
“Mm.” My limbs feel light, like they’ve been filled with air. I’m only half-aware of the chair underneath my body, of the people around me -- people whose names I can’t quite remember… “My friends Rose and Jasper were waiting for me at home. So was Xavier. He’s not my friend anymore, though.”
“What did you talk about?” says that voice from so far away, another world practically.
“Rose and Jasper didn’t stay long,” I sigh placidly. “They wanted to have dinner, but I thought if they stayed they would take the mickey out of Xavier because he has stupid hair. Xavier stayed the night, but we didn’t do much talking. He told me about the Arrows’ last match.”
After a few more questions, Mr. Potter’s attention shifts away from me, leaving me to float blissfully in this new, serene world. Slowly, though, the tranquility begins to ebb away -- leaving a cold, hollow feeling in its wake. By the time the potion has fully worn off, Ada’s interrogation is over. The room has gone silent: there are tears streaming down Ada’s face, and the rest of the team is staring at her.
“She doesn’t remember,” says Ragnar after a minute, looking up at Mr. Potter. “That doesn’t mean she did it.”
“Of course.” Mr. Potter nods, adjusting his glasses. Behind the lenses, his eyes are serious and thoughtful. He pushes off his desk and begins to pace around the office. “You’re free to go,” he tells us after a moment, waving a hand at us all. “Padma, thanks for your help.”
“Any time,” says the Healer, who’s inspecting Darren’s face again. “I think I’ll take this one back to St. Mungo’s -- he’s not looking too good.”
It’s a pretty massive understatement. Darren’s entire face has gone bright red and puffy, like he’s been stung by a giant bee. “I’m okay,” he tries to say, but his lips have swollen so severely that it’s hard to understand him.
“Aurors.” The Healer rolls her eyes, yanking Darren out of the chair by his wrist. She turns to the rest of us. “As for you lot, if you’re feeling moody or secretive, have some chocolate or a spot of tea. Does wonders.”
“What are they going to do?” I ask Ragnar anxiously, back in the safety of our meeting room. I’m sitting huddled up at my desk, clutching mugs of tea to counteract the after-effects of the Veritaserum. Ragnar has sent Ada home for the day despite her protests, and Darren’s still at St. Mungo’s. “They can’t fire her, can they? Not until they’ve actually proven that she did it.”
“I don’t know.” Ragnar’s leaning against the wall, his arms crossed, apparently deep in thought. “No, they won’t fire her yet. They might suspend her while they investigate.”
“But we need her!” I object. “She was carrying half the weight of this case!”
“I don’t see a way out of it,” says Ragnar, his voice as grim as the expression on his face. “This is a high-profile case, remember. The Ministry’s going to be out for blood. The most we can do is to carry on without her and hope for the best.”
“That’s rubbish!” I say hotly, slapping a hand down onto my desk. Charlie looks up at me in surprise, but I don’t care. “The Ministry’s never been picky about who it blames for disasters, has it? As long as there’s a scapegoat to pin everything on, they’re happy. What if they decide to lock Ada up, or something, just to make everyone think they’ve got a handle on things?”
“You’re forgetting that Potter’s involved,” says Ragnar. “If there’s one person at the Ministry we can trust, it’s him.” He straightens up, smoothing down his robes. “Now. Let’s get back to work, make sure this case doesn’t fall apart.”
Ragnar stalks out of the room without another word. Typical.
Charlie turns to me with a shadow of a smirk on his face. “Seriously, you don’t think it was her? Are you in love with her, or something?”
“Shut up, Holcombe,” I mutter, grinding my fingers into my temples.
“Could that be the reason why you and Xavier Fioran ‘aren’t friends anymore?’” he asks innocently. “Or did you get all clingy and try to make him commit? Because hot-shot Quidditch players aren’t generally big fans of commitment, you know.”
I force myself to look down at my teacup and keep my mouth shut, determined not to let him get a rise out of me. Just yesterday I was feeling all protective of Charlie because he’s part of my team. Right now, he could get chucked straight into Azkaban for all I care.
He laughs. “Okay. Silent treatment. I guess I’ll have another look around the last crime scene, see if I can turn up anything new.”
He struts off, presumably to get the Portkey to the Dawson crime scene. I keep my eyes glued to my teacup, trying to figure out how I should spend the day. Ragnar didn’t both giving us instructions, so apparently I’ve been left to my own devices. I could push papers around like I did yesterday with Ada, but I doubt that would yield any results. I could make another trip to the first crime scene, but there’s not much to see there besides some old teacups and…
Oh. I’ve jumped out of my seat before the thought has even fully formed itself. It’s just an idea, and it could be nothing -- but it could be everything.
“Ragnar!” I exclaim, and then remember that he’s nowhere nearby. I hurl myself out of the meeting room and down the corridor, my heart racing. “Ragnar!” I yell again, yanking open his office door and bolting through it.
He’s hunched over his desk, reading from a gigantic scroll of parchment. He looks up bemusedly -- and I freeze guiltily, realizing that I probably should have knocked.
“Oh, er,” I clasp my hands together. “Sorry for, for barging in like that.”
“Sit down,” he says, nodding to a chair near his desk.
“Thanks.” I take a seat nervously, and glance around the office. It’s smaller than Mr. Potter’s, and much neater -- or maybe it just looks that way because it’s not so cluttered by awards. There are a few photographs of his two kids: tiny blonde girls who smile and wave at me so angelically it’s hard not to wave back. “Sorry I got so excited -- I just had a thought about the case.”
Ragnar’s expression is inscrutable. “Go on.”
“Well.” I clear my throat. “Well, the first set of victims had all drunk tea before they went all, you know, vicious and murder-y. And the second pair had drunk wine. We’ve been assuming that whatever was done to the victims was done via spellwork, because the damage to their brains was similar to the damage caused by Dark enchantments. But what if it wasn’t spellwork, what if there was just something in their drinks?”
Ragnar thinks for a moment. He leans back in his chair, pushing a stray lock of blonde hair behind his ear. “Yeah, that’s a thought,” he agrees. “I want you and Holcombe to stop by the crime scenes, pick up the teacups and glasses, and bring them back here for testing. Come to think of it, bring back anything tea- or wine-related.”
“Yes, sir,” I’m already rising out of my chair, excited to have a task that doesn’t involve re-reading notes. “I’ll get on that right away.”
“Smith,” he says suddenly, making me pause. He looks suddenly less majestic and leonine than usual: his face looks uncomfortable and even uncertain. “How are you finding the team?”
I blink, surprised. It’s the kind of thing I would expect a regular boss to ask -- not someone like Ragnar, who’s generally too preoccupied with important things to remember my existence. “I like it,” I tell him honestly.
“Good.” He looks back down at the enormous scroll. “You’re doing good work.”
Charlie and I ransack both crime scenes for teabags, bottles of wine, jugs of milk, decanters, and anything else that might contain traces of poison. We drop the stuff off with Lorna Whitlock, a Junior Auror who takes care of the office’s substance testing needs.
“Yeah, so, we need all this stuff tested,” says Charlie confidently, as we deposit our handfuls of stuff -- already charmed so that our fingerprints won’t rub off on them or smudge any evidence -- onto her desk.
Lorna looks up at us in dismay. “All this? Tested for what?”
“We’ve no idea,” says Charlie with a grin. “More importantly, what’re you doing on Friday night. Before you reply, consider this: the answer could be me.” He points at himself.
“Please,” Lorna appeals to me. “Get him out of my sight.”
“Yep.” I grab Charlie by the elbow of his robes and drag him away. “Got a crush, Holcombe?”
“I don’t have a crush on her,” says Charlie, rolling his eyes. “I want to bone her.”
“Eugh.” I release him and wipe my hand on my own robes. “You know, maybe women would be more interested in you if you didn’t say things like that.”
“Who says women aren’t interested in me?” says Charlie with a sidelong wink.
“I did,” I remind him. “I just said it. I can say it again if you like: Women aren’t in--”
“I can see why Fioran had had enough of you,” snaps Charlie, interrupting me. “You’re a nightmare.”
“Okay,” says Jasper, splaying his hands out enthusiastically. “Okay, I know what we’re going to do. I met this bloke last week on Knockturn Alley, totally the type of guy who could sabotage someone’s broomstick. So Rose and I will just break into Fioran’s flat and borrow it for a few hours, and then when he hops on at his next Quidditch practice? Splat.”
“Yeah, that’s a really good plan,” says Rose, nodding. “Except for the part where we all get arrested, you prat.”
“Well, I don’t see you coming up with something better,” sniffs Jasper, extending his chopsticks toward the gigantic bowl of noodles that’s sitting between us. He grabs some and slurps them up thoughtfully. “That’s so weird that you ran into James right after. I mean, what must’ve been going through his head? Do you suppose he’s having a good gloat about it now? Like, shagging his girlfriend out in the woods and getting off on your misery?”
I cringe, and stuff a bunch of noodles into my mouth to avoid having to answer him.
“Honestly, what is wrong with you?” hisses Rose, waving her chopsticks at him. “Have a little sensitivity, that’s obviously not what Fee wants to think about right now.”
“Yeah, I s’pose,” concedes Jasper with a shrug. He leans back, drumming his chopsticks on the table. “I think I’m going to have a party on Saturday night, that’ll help take your mind off things. Oh, you know who I’m going to invite? I’m going to invite Sylvan Abercrombie. I know I may have objected to his squiggly eyebrows in the past, but if he’s what you want, Fee, I’ll happily--”
“I never said I was interested in Sylvan Abercrombie,” I grumble. “It was Rose who suggested that. As a matter of fact, I’m through with men. Absolutely done.”
“There’s one we haven’t heard before,” says Rose sweetly.
I glare at her. “You’re supposed to be my friend. You’re supposed to back me up when I say I don’t need a man in my life.”
“You don’t need a man in your life,” agrees Rose, waving a large piece of carrot at me with her chopsticks. “What you should have is lots of men and-or women. If you want to give up on romance, that’s fine with me, that’s what I’ve been telling you from the beginning. But for Merlin’s sake don’t turn your back on sex.”
Jasper closes his eyes and raises one fist supportively. “You go, girl.”
“Shut up,” says Rose without looking at him. “Now, Sylvan Abercrombie’s eyebrows may be a bit wonky. But he’s a cursebreaker, so he’s really fit, and don’t even try to tell us that that’s not what you’re into.”
“Ha!” Jasper punches his fist into the air. “That’s our Weasley, dishing it out! Kicking her best friend while she’s down, classic!”
“SHUT UP,” Rose and I roar in unison.
Jasper’s fist drops back onto the table. “Fine,” he says sulkily, shoving a load of noodles into his mouth. “Why don’t you girls just go on talking about your girl stuff then, and I’ll just sit here and eat my noodles.”
“Anyway,” says Rose smoothly. “The point is, Fioran’s out. He’s old news. And I know you’re upset about it, and you have every right to be, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from moving on and having a good time. I know you, Fee! I know how you let this stuff affect you. It’s not healthy. You hold grudges and you let stuff fester inside you for ages when you should be airing it all out.”
“Yeah, let it all air out,” says Jasper enthusiastically, and Rose shoots him a long-suffering look.
“What do you think?” she asks me. “Will you agree to come to the party, and at least meet some new people?”
I frown at her. She’s right in a way -- I do have a tendency to let things fester. But don’t I have a right to deal with things the way I want to deal with them? Why is Rose’s way better than my way? Before I can answer her, a voice calls from the kitchen:
“Hey, Fiona? You around?”
My eyes widen. “Oh, fuck,” I whisper to Rose and Jasper. “That’s him. Xavier.”
“What?” Rose whispers back, looking stricken. “He’s got a lot of nerve, popping over uninvited after last night.”
“Fiona?” calls Xavier’s voice again. I hear his footsteps wandering toward the kitchen, and blood rushes to my face.
“I don’t want to talk to him!” I hiss at them, panicking.
“Oh, all right.” mutters Jasper, getting to his feet. To Rose’s and my astonishment, he throws off his robes and starts to unbutton his shirt. “You ignore me, you tell me to shut up, and then any time one of you lot have a problem it’s ‘take your shirt off, Jasper. Get naked, Jasper.’ All I can say is, you’re lucky to have a friend like me.”
But Jasper has already stripped down to his underwear, and before Rose and I can stop him, he’s marched straight out into the sitting room. I stare at Rose in horror, open-mouthed; she stuffs a hand into her mouth to stop herself from laughing.
“Oh, hi,” says Xavier’s voice, sounding terribly confused. “I was just looking for your friend Fiona?”
“Looking for Fiona, were you?” Jasper drawls, then laughs. “Well, we were just in the middle of something, so now’s not really the best time.”
I hear the twanging of elastic against skin, and realize with a combination of awe and disgust that Jasper must have just snapped the waistband of his own underpants against his hips. Rose sinks slowly out of her chair and onto the kitchen floor, crying with silent laughter.
“Right,” says Xavier. “I didn’t realize you two were, er…”
“Banging each other like a couple of bongos?” says Jasper’s voice, completing the sentence for Xavier. “Yeah. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled about letting you get with her, but she said she wanted someone to help warm her up for me, so.” I can picture him shrugging superciliously.
“Right,” says Xavier again. There’s a long silence, and then he says, a little hotly: “Well, you can tell her to tell Potter to lay off me, okay?”
“What?” Jasper’s voice falters slightly. “Did Potter do that to you?”
“Yeah, he did,” replies Xavier coldly. “I guess I’ll be off, then.”
“Ciao,” drawls Jasper.
Rose gathers herself quietly back into her chair, and the two of us wait in silence for Xavier to Floo away. Then Jasper bursts through the kitchen door and flops into his seat without bothering to get dressed again.
“James Potter punched Fioran!” he announces, grinning enormously. “This is the upset of the century.”
“He punched him?” says Rose, looking as baffled as I feel.
“Oh, yeah, he sure did,” says Jasper vehemently. “You should see him, Fee, he’s got one hell of a black eye.”
Rose and I stare at each other in blank surprise.
“I suppose he must have Flooed over to Fioran’s after he came and found me at the Burrow,” says Rose, squinting slightly. “I mean, to be honest, it’s not that surprising. He always was, like, really serious about the whole chivalry thing. A little too serious if I’m being perfectly honest. You remember that time Jody Gudgeon told Albus he thought I was good-looking, and James challenged him to a duel?”
“Yeah, but that was when he was in fifth-year, or whatever,” I reply. “He was a sea of raging hormones, we all were.”
“Hmm, true,” admits Rose.
We all fall silent, contemplating this odd phenomenon.
“‘Thank you, Jasper,’” mutters Jasper after a while. “Said nobody.”
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