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Chapter 4 : Holiday Catastrophes
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Cornelius Fudge came puffing into the room, a pair of witches in fiery orange twinsets and lavender-tinted pearls at his heels. One of the witches was plumpish with mousey hair worn in a bun. The other Harry recognised as the black Hit Witch who, summer before last, had taken Constable Pascoe off after the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol rescued her and Harry from Professor Snape (whom they had mistaken for Sirius Black). The three of them stood gaping at Harry, the witches in pure astonishment and Fudge looking as though he'd just been told Christmas wasn't going to be cancelled after all.
'Harry, what happened to you?' said Fudge. 'We thought you were dead!'
Harry swung his legs off the table he'd been lying on and brushed the soot from his clothes. He was inside a tiny, stone-walled room, whose only other furniture was a battered desk and a shelf of peculiar-looking objects. His whole body felt stiff and sore, as if he'd slept on the ground all night.
'I ... had a row with the Dursleys and went out for a walk,' said Harry guardedly. 'Where am I? How did I get here?'
'You were lying in an alley under six inches of snow,' said the brown-haired witch reproachfully. 'I shook you and shook you, but you didn't answer me!'
'I thought you were my Aunt Petunia,' Harry told her.
'Minister, I don't understand it,' the wizard broke in. 'He was cold as ice, he had no pulse ... I performed the Sickle test, you watched me, and the water didn't smoke. Then when I cast the Thawing Charm to start the post mortem, he woke right up!'
Harry frowned at his jumper. 'You set my holly on fire.'
'Harry,' said Fudge, 'think carefully. Can you remember anything -- anything at all -- about the person who attacked you?'
'What?' said Harry, staring at him. 'No one attacked me. I walked for a couple of hours and stopped to rest. I must've fallen asleep. Did the Dursleys report me missing?'
'You were out in that weather with nothing but a jumper?' said the black witch.
'Four jumpers,' Harry corrected her. 'I didn't have a Muggle coat.'
Four jumpers and his Invisibility Cloak, which he spotted hanging on an iron hook near the door.
The black witch eyed Harry uneasily. 'Minister -- do you think -- is it possible he simply froze to death?'
'On the same evening as the attack on Azkaban and the robbery at the British Museum?' said Fudge. 'You'll forgive me if I have difficulty believing in that sort of coincidence. Good God, the Daily Prophet would've had a field day!'
'Robbery at the British Museum?' said Harry. He quickly added, 'Attack on Azkaban?'
'Never you mind that,' said Fudge firmly. 'Lichfield, look after him, we don't want him dying again. I must notify Ormesby of this at once. White, Sargent, if you could spread the word to the rest of the Ministry ... you know how stories travel around here ... wouldn't want any unfortunate rumours reaching the ears of the wizarding public ...'
Fudge bustled out of the room. The two witches gawked at Harry for a moment longer, then hastened after him.
Lichfield began rather timidly to examine Harry using the instruments from the shelf in the corner. He dithered over each selection, as though genuinely frightened that Harry would drop dead once more if prodded in the wrong place with the wrong object. The mediwizard was tapping Harry in the kidneys with a small glass hammer when Fudge returned with Ormesby in tow.
Harry sat up, his heart beating faster. Ormesby had been the leader of the squad of Hit Wizards who had come to Privet Drive looking for Sirius Black. The short, innocuous-looking wizard had a notably sinister reputation: according to Ron, Ormesby had, years earlier, been thrown out of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol for brutality. Sirius' escape, however, had brought about his reinstatement, apparently to a position of some authority. All things taken into account, Ormesby was one of the last people Harry would have wished to run into the morning after breaking somebody out of prison.
Ormesby raked Harry over with beady eyes.
'Is he fit to answer questions?' he demanded of Lichfield.
'I -- well -- I don't know,' floundered Lichfield. 'He seems to be in good health, apart from being dead five minutes ago.'
Ormesby shot Lichfield an irritated look and turned to Harry, who tried to appear as recently deceased as possible. The more ill he was reckoned to be, the less likely he'd be suspected of having anything to do with Azkaban.
'Sargent spoke with your uncle,' said Ormesby grimly.
There was a long pause.
'I -- I hope he wasn't too horrible to her,' Harry finally said.
Uncle Vernon's opinion of black people was scarcely a notch less low than his opinion of wizards, and Sargent's hair -- which stood out nearly a foot from her head in all directions -- would have been another very serious strike against her.
Plainly this was not the response Ormesby had been expecting.
'Your uncle told Sargent you threatened your cousin with hexed chocolates and ran off when he confronted you,' he said sharply.
'I didn't threaten him,' said Harry indignantly, 'I offered him one. I didn't realise Dudley was scared of sweets. And they weren't hexed -- just ordinary Chocolate Frogs.'
'If that's the case, why did you run away?' countered Ormesby.
'Because I was sick of being blamed for everything that went wrong around there,' said Harry bitterly.
'We'll be checking the frogs for jinxes, you know,' said Ormesby, watching Harry carefully for his reaction.
'Had you eaten any of them yourself?'
'Yeah,' said Harry. 'Not that day, but I'd bought the box on the Hogwarts Express.'
'Hmpf,' grunted Ormesby. 'Where did you go after you left your relatives' house?'
'Just -- around,' said Harry. 'I was waiting for the Dursleys to fall asleep before I went back.'
'So you'd have been keeping fairly close track of the time?' said Ormesby, for the first time sounding truly interested in what Harry had to say.
'Er, yes ...' said Harry. 'The Dursleys usually go to bed at eleven. I stopped in Magnolia Crescent about a quarter before ...'
'Roughly the same time the alarms went off at Azkaban,' said Ormesby thoughtfully. 'Did you see anyone else while you were out walking, or notice anything out of the ordinary?'
Harry shook his head.
'I'll have the Patrol check for signs of magical concealment,' said Ormesby to Fudge. 'Definitely a suspicious set of circumstances, and not only due to the timing. A fifteen-year-old boy was gone the whole night and most of the next day, yet his family made no attempt to find him? We'll want to examine them for curses, as well.' (Harry had to stifle a snigger, imagining the Dursleys reaction to that.) 'We can put Potter up in one of the spare offices until we're convinced it's safe for him to return home. Under guard, of course, and Lichfield should stay with him tonight.'
Ormesby pointed his wand at the door and sent a silver arrow shooting out of it into the corridor. Minutes later, a dark-haired, square-jawed man wearing Hit Wizard's robes came strolling in. In a few terse sentences, Ormesby explained the situation to the newly arrived Hit Wizard, who was called Lamplough.
Lamplough escorted Harry and Lichfield down a maze of narrow, torch-lit corridors, up a stone staircase and along another, wider passageway. Through the windows of open offices, Harry saw that darkness had fallen again. A number of harried-looking Ministry members were still at work; they gaped at Harry as he passed.
When they reached the spare office, Lamplough laid claim to the chair from the desk and stationed himself outside the door. Lichfield magicked the remaining furniture to one side of the room, conjured up a camp bed with two thick eiderdowns and started a roaring fire in the grate. Clearly he was taking no chances on Harry freezing to death a second time.
Once Harry was under the eiderdowns, Lichfield knelt and stuck his head into the fire, emerging shortly with a floating tray clenched between his teeth. He carried the tray to Harry's bed. On it was bowl of turkey soup and, to Lichfield's annoyance, a small dish of trifle.
'Now, really,' he said, upon spotting the latter, 'I specifically told the house-elves, no puddings!'
'Oh, go on,' said Lamplough. 'It's Christmas.'
'Be that as it may,' said Lichfield stiffly, 'I don't feel he ought to be having such rich food so soon after being dead.'
He turned to see Harry scraping the last dollops of custard from the bottom of the dish. Fourteen years of living with the Dursleys had left him practised in the art of wolfing down his food before it could be taken away from him.
Whilst Harry ate his soup, Lichfield used a Summoning Charm to bring a stream of potion bottles sailing into the room, until there were nearly a dozen lined up on the mantelpiece. Harry was afraid the mediwizard might make him drink them all, but Lichfield finally settled on a single one, which proved to contain the same foul-tasting Wizard Tonic that Harry had been dosed with in autumn by Madam Pomfrey. When Harry finished the potion, Lichfield let him have the empty bottle as a vase for his surviving sprigs of holly, on condition that he lie down and get some sleep.
Harry rolled onto his side and pulled the eiderdowns over his head. The Ministry thought someone had tried to kill him. Tomorrow they'd be combing Little Whinging for evidence. That was all right -- Harry had burnt the Cleansweeps and all his gear, except for the brass compass, which was still in his pocket. There was nothing to left to connect him with Azkaban ...
In the morning Lichfield took Harry back to the room in the basement for another examination. After that Harry was questioned to see if he had recalled any more details about the previous evening, first by Ormesby and then by the other Hit Wizards who were in on the investigation.
Unsurprisingly, they had found no clues to the identity of Harry's attacker in Privet Drive. Various odd theories were being put forth to account for this; Harry spent the next two hours failing to provide corroborating evidence for any of them. No, he had not noticed the moon turning pink, or a strange tingling in his earlobes, or the smell of burning beetroot (not that he would have recognised this odour if he had smelled it).
At lunchtime the whole Weasley family crammed themselves into the spare office to visit Harry, all of them looking highly upset.
'Out in the snow with only a jumper on, what were you thinking?' said Mrs Weasley in a trembling voice. 'If you'd died, on top of everything else ...'
'It was four jumpers, actually,' said Harry, but nobody was listening.
'It's all our fault,' said George bitterly. 'We should never have let you spend Christmas with those Muggles, we knew what they were like.'
'Do you remember anything about what happened to you on Christmas Eve?' said Fred tensely.
'Nothing happened to me,' said Harry, 'I walked around Little Whinging for a couple of hours and --'
It dawned on him that Fred and George must be mad with worry about Percy, particularly if they believed as the Ministry did that Harry had been attacked by Dark wizards.
'I did meet a man,' said Harry, keeping his voice offhand but locking his eyes on George's. 'He was a bit grotty-looking -- homeless, I suppose -- but I gave him some Muggle money so he could, you know, make it to a night shelter. I expect he managed to get where he was going ...'
'Ah,' said George, 'good.'
Mr Weasley gave Harry a look of keen interest.
'You met a man?' he said. 'Can you recall what he looked like?'
From the corner of his eye, Harry saw the Hit Wizard who was guarding him quietly get up and slip out. His heart sank.
'Well, I didn't really get a good view of his face, as he was all wrapped up from the cold.' Hoping to change the subject, Harry continued, 'Fudge said there was an attack on Azkaban. Have you heard if Percy's OK?'
Mr Weasley sagged. 'No, we've had no word. The Ministry's still trying to reason with the Dementors and having very little luck. The prisoners the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol managed to remove haven't been able to give us much information either. Perhaps when they've had a day or two to recover --'
'Reason with the Dementors?' said Harry in puzzlement. 'I thought Fudge said Azkaban had been attacked.'
'It was,' said Mr Weasley, 'we think. There was damage to the fortress the Dementors couldn't have done themselves, and several of the prisoners say they saw wizards flying around outside.'
'Er -- anyone they recognised?' said Harry.
'Why, yes,' said a cool voice from the door. 'Father Christmas and his reindeer and a partridge in a pear tree. All barking of course -- time in Azkaban obviously affecting their minds. One of them even swore she saw Dumbledore.'
Ormesby swept into the room, scattering Weasleys in his wake.
'Now tell me about this man you met.'
Harry's main concern in the interview that followed was to say nothing that might lead the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol to Percy. He kept his descriptions vague, telling Ormesby that the man had worn a long, shabby, light brown coat (George had got Percy a new black puffa jacket) and that his hair and face had been hidden by a woolly hat and a long scarf, both also fraying and brown, or possibly olive. Harry did admit that the man had been taller than he was. Few fully-grown wizards weren't, Ormesby himself being a notable exception.
'But I'm sure he didn't attack me,' said Harry. 'I definitely would've remembered that.'
'He may not have needed to,' said Ormesby. 'If you'd been cursed, the Improper Use of Magic Office should have detected it, and they report no unauthorised spellcasting in the area that night.'
He fastened a gimlet eye on Mr Weasley.
'We're leaning towards the theory that an enchanted object was used. There was a patch of ice near the place he was found, as if the snow was melted and then froze again. It's likely something was burnt there with a magical igniter. A blanket with a built-in Sleeping Charm, for example: toss it over him, leave it for an hour and the cold would do the rest. We'll be requesting the assistance of your Office in tracing it. A list of all confiscations over the past seven years, for a start ...'
'Yes, certainly,' said Mr Weasley.
As Ormesby turned to go, Mrs Weasley spoke up. 'We were hoping that Harry could come and stay with us once you'd finished questioning him.'
'No, I don't think so,' said Ormesby. 'He'll be remaining in protective custody until the wizards behind this are apprehended.'
The Weasleys had brought Christmas presents for Harry, including a box of Chocolate Frogs from Ron, a bag of assorted Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes from Fred and George, a wreath of mistletoe from Ginny, a fifth hand-knitted jumper from Mrs Weasley and a large and fancy Christmas cake. After watching Harry open them, Mr Weasley returned to his office and Mrs Weasley took the rest of the family back to the Burrow, except for Ron, Fred and George, who were staying to keep Harry company.
As soon as his parents had left, Ron rounded on Harry. 'What did you think you were playing at, sleeping rough in the dead of winter? You could have died! Don't you think we've got enough to worry about, with Percy in Azkaban and all?'
'Ron, we need a word with you,' said Fred.
He and George seized Ron by the arms and hustled him out of the room. When they came back, Ron seemed very much subdued.
'Look, I'm sorry I shouted at you,' he said to Harry. 'Have some cake, it'll make you feel better.'
'Did you tell him?' Harry muttered to George as Ron was slicing the cake.
'That you'd tried to top yourself because you couldn't patch things up with your relatives?' George muttered back. 'Yeah.'
Harry was surprised that Ron would believe this story, being well aware of how little Harry cared for the Dursleys. Harry's close brush with death must have severely shaken him. Harry felt a surge of guilt for the additional distress he'd caused the Weasleys. He should have gone directly to number four after burning the Cleansweeps; it had been stupid to stop for a rest in such icy weather. He was lucky he really hadn't died.
Harry noticed Ron staring at him anxiously, and forced a cheerful expression onto his face.
'So -- what's all this about a museum robbery?' he said brightly.
'Someone broke into the Department of Magical Antiquities at the British Museum,' said Fred. 'Got caught by a Tangler Charm and blasted their way out. Made a huge racket and set off the Muggle alarms --'
'Happened right as our party was winding down,' said George. 'The Ministry had to send every wizard they'd got, to conceal the damage and put Memory Charms on all the Muggles who were turning up. Only as it was Christmas Eve, practically no one was on duty. It would have been a real catastrophe --'
'Worst breach of Clause 13 since the Statute of Secrecy was passed, Dad reckons,' Ron put in.
'-- except the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol had a squad on hand they'd been rounding up to send to Azkaban,' said Fred. 'The alarms there had gone off about an hour earlier, but only damage detectors, no intruder alerts. Nobody realised it was an attack -- they thought the fortress had been struck by lightning or something.'
'As they didn't think the situation at Azkaban was all that urgent, they were waiting for a few more Hit Wizards to show up,' said George. 'Then, of course, all available Ministry members had to be diverted to the museum. It was Christmas morning before they got things under control there and could send someone out to Azkaban to investigate.'
'Yes, what about Azkaban?' said Harry. 'Your dad said something was up with the Dementors?'
'The Dementors have gone mad,' said Fred. 'Attacked the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol immediately they landed. The first squad of Hit Wizards had to fly back to London and fetch more people for a full-scale assault. They pulled several prisoners from the outer cells and captured a Dementor for questioning, but the prisoners couldn't tell them much and the Dementor refused to cooperate.'
'Not that they would've got much out of it in any case,' said George reassuringly. 'Dementors can't see. They can identify people they've encountered before by their auras , but Dementor testimony isn't considered reliable. They'll say whatever they think will get them more prisoners.'
'Why aren't the Dementors cooperating with the Ministry, though?' said Harry. 'D'you reckon they've all joined up with Voldemort?'
There was a sharp hiss of indrawn breath from the guard at the door.
'Dunno,' said Fred. 'The Ministry's not sure if the museum was a distraction for Azkaban, or Azkaban was a distraction for the museum. They're still cataloguing to see what was stolen and what was just smashed.'
'Then there's you,' said George. 'Somebody sent an anonymous owl yesterday afternoon telling the Ministry to check your house. Sargent and White learnt from your aunt and uncle that you were missing. Sargent's been specially trained to handle Muggles -- she went house-to-house while White searched the neighbourhood. White noticed a funny-looking mound of snow, stepped in for a closer look and tripped right over you.'
'An anonymous owl!' said Harry, sitting up in astonishment. 'But -- I don't understand. Who could've sent it?'
'Fudge reckons it was the killer,' said Fred. 'Wanted to be certain the body turned up in time for the Boxing Day Prophet. "Harry Potter Found Dead on Christmas Day" -- he thinks it's all a plot to get him thrown out of office.'
'But there wasn't any killer,' said Harry.
He was sure there hadn't been ... but then who had sent that owl?
Disclaimer: All characters and concepts from the Harry Potter series copyright J K Rowling.
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