Lucius Malfoy will arrive at Hogwarts in a few minutes, so I have just enough time to get into my part. I think I've come up with a very believable approach.
Once again I could not use Miss Marple's highly effective doddering old lady act. But I had come to realise that the essence is not the old lady. It's the prejudices and ill-conceived notions people have. Miss Marple played with those, and I followed her example.
I made a mental list of the more common delusions regarding spinster school teachers, and very soon I found a perfectly suitable one.
You would be amazed how often it has been suggested (and, in the case of some singularly unpleasant mothers, actually said) that a teacher's pupils are a wonderful compensation for missing out on motherhood. I well remember the many occasions where mothers told me they 'simply knew I would look after the dears as if they were my own children'. I've never actually said, "No, I don't. I teach them manners." But the temptation was strong.
My plan of action where Lucius is concerned plays on exactly this notion of 'motherly devotion'. I will inform him that I know about the friendship between Stan and the Malfoys – I will have heard it on the Wizarding grapevine. A very fruitful one, and Lucius will not doubt it.
I will then inform him of the connection between Stan and Mundungus, as observed by Rosmerta. I will remind him that Stan was in my House once, that I'm still very concerned about him, especially after the problems he's had in the Voldemort years, and that this liaison between poor, innocent Stan and wily Mundungus worries me very much.
I will ask Lucius to talk to Stan – give him advice. If necessary I will tell him Stan would sooner listen to a man he looks up to than to his old teacher. I may even use the words 'man of the world'. Oh, I'll be all motherly concern.
And then I will observe his reactions.
One of the things people tend to forget when it comes to schoolteachers, and especially Deputy Heads and Headmistresses, who have to manage large numbers of adult staff as well, is that we are exceedingly good at spotting lies.
Believe me, after more than half a century in which both students and staff have tried every possible excuse under the sun, I know the difference between a lie, a half-truth, and true innocence.
Lucius clearly felt ill at ease.
He looked at the hearth rug with discomfort.
He looked at the tea with distaste – though it was an excellent, fragrant Earl Grey, the blend he is very partial to.
And he looked at his spoon with the guilt-ridden expression of someone who has taken sugar on day one of their diet.
That, more than anything, convinced me of the absolute truth of what he told me.
Never, ever believe people who look straight into your eyes with a pleasant, open expression. If they give you a firm handshake as well, it's worse.
The story Lucius told me was one he would much rather not tell – because it was the absolute truth.
Lucius was selling out. "Not everything – not the manor, Merlin forbid," he hastened to tell me. "But there were damages from the time … from the last months of that time," he said, and I nodded my understanding of which time he meant.
"And then the Ministry used it for several years. They were too busy to bother with maintenance – or to care. I don't hold with all of the Ministry's new Muggle notions, but in the Muggle world, the government does seem to realise that places like this are part of the nation's heritage. It's a notion singularly lacking in our powers-that-be.
"The roof needs repairs. The roof always does, and the costs are crippling. There's a spot of dry rot in the rafters – that needs addressing very soon. And the garden needs work or there will not be a garden left. A design by Capability Brown, you know. Surprising, really, that the Muggles never realised just what sort of talent made him so capable. "
"He was one of us?" I asked in spite of myself. Completely beside the point of my investigation, but I've always been an admirer of his work.
"Borderline Squib, from what I gather of my great-grandfather's notes. Very intelligent, great vision, a keen eye for Transfiguration – and not much strength behind his spells. At our place the old man had to step in and do most of the work. On Brown's instructions, of course – the vision was his. But that's what a lot of wizards resented: having to do what they saw as 'manual labour' themselves. In the Muggle world Brown could just ask for an army of gardeners and workers. But I digress.
"Since we've returned to the Manor, I find myself in need of quite considerable sums. Unfortunately, most of my income goes to the Ministry – reconciliation payments, they call it. That situation will last for several years to come, and given the alternatives, we did get off lucky; I'm fully aware of that.
"However, I do not wish to be the Malfoy who loses the estate. So I have taken the only course open to me: I've sold off some of our artefacts. To Muggles. They pay more, and the Ministry stays out of it. Even with the little I've sold I've diminished Draco's inheritance, but it was the only option left.
"I have used Fletcher to make the initial contacts. Fletcher has done this sort of thing for years, you know. Whenever something was too hot to handle in the Wizarding world, he flogged it to Muggles.
"Once the contact was firmly established and an opening offer was made, I took over myself and dealt with the final negotiations and the transfer of the goods.
"Fletcher probably knows Stan and Draco are friends. Neither one of them makes a secret of it, and they occasionally go to the Leaky Cauldron for a pint.
"You're right to worry about that connection, Professor. Fletcher is a little … an unspeakable little crook, and Stan can be influenced quite easily. If Fletcher has thought of a way to steal objects from the Manor, he may well want to use Stan. It's exactly the sort of thing he would do.
"Is there a way of stopping this without my … business dealings … being discussed in any way? You see, I … I didn't tell either Narcissa or Draco. They would hate the idea. Draco might want to try to prevent it. Draco's sense of family obligation has landed him in terrible problems before. And Narcissa would be worried to death that Draco would try something. She … she should not worry about Draco again."
"Let me see," I said, nodding understandingly. I needed a few moments to compose my thoughts after this surprising story.
The salient facts were these: Mundungus knew Cavendish, since he set up the book transaction between Cavendish and Lucius. And while doing so, he may well have met Mrs Cavendish, too. And Mrs Cavendish is the only one who truly has a completely convincing motive for nobbling Mrs Norris.
Also, whenever Lucius spoke about Stan, there was sincere warmth in his voice. He liked the lad for what he had done for Draco. True, there had been more than a touch of the 'my faithful servant' attititude in Lucius's tone when he mentioned the boy, but for my designs that wasn't a bad thing. If Lucius would feel that noblesse oblige, I could make him my ally. And a very useful ally, too.
Too bad this has turned out to be another 'Mundungus Did It' case, though. After Augusta's evidence, I had had high hopes of Lucius as a culprit. Now that would have been one for the books. Instead, he had been …
"Sorry, what did you say?" asked Lucius. "Something about a herring?"
Oh, dear. That's what comes from being alone quite often – one sometimes whispers to oneself.
There was nothing to be done about it. I told Lucius the whole story – I had planned to do that, anyhow. But now that I knew him to be not guilty, I included that I had thought of him as a possible culprit. With a very weak motive, true, but with an astonishing number of opportunities and connections to the case. Finally, at his request, I explained the Muggle detective notion of a red herring.
"I see," said Lucius, grinning at my discomfiture. "Well, I absolutely refuse to end up as 'the red herring'. If I must play a part in this investigation, it will be as a second-in-command, at least. Do they have a word for that?"
"Side-kick," I told him.
"As in, I'm at your side to kick the living daylights out of Fletcher?" he suggested.
"We'll have to think about a suitable way to deal with Mundungus, but it will be very useful if he believes that either of us might do just that," I said.
We both agreed to bring Argus Filch in on our discussion – we would pool our information and set up a plan. I therefore went to fetch Argus and brought him up to date with the latest facts. Once we were all sitting in my study with a fresh supply of tea, we went down to business.
"I knew Stan had participated in a Muggle Cat show," said Lucius. "It would seem that he had heard about them from you, Mr Filch."
"Aye," said Argus. "The lad takes me there, usually. With the Knight Bus. I send an Owl to his digs, and he picks me up, seeing as how …"
Seeing as how Argus couldn't use a wand to summon the Bus. Lucius and I both nodded.
"Mind, I always paid for it," said Argus. "Stan offered to take me for free. He's kind-hearted, Stan is, and that's what gets him into trouble. I had to explain that giving free rides to his friends were the same thing as stealing from his boss. But that's how he knew about cat shows, all right."
"Draco helped him complete the registration form," Lucius told us. "Stan didn't want to ask you, Mr Filch, since he was afraid that you would disapprove. Of having two magical people at a Muggle event, I mean."
Poor Argus looked extraordinarily pleased at being called 'magical'.
"Now, the first meeting between Professor Cavendish and Fletcher took place in March, and that was at a cat show, too," said Lucius. "I think it may well have been the show where you won, Mr Filch."
"And Mundungus must have recognized me. He probably heard what Mrs Cavendish had to say about us winning, and that weren't pretty, I'm sure," said Argus. "And then the little shit – sorry, Professor – Mundungus realised that he could go to Hogwarts and nobble Mrs Norris, and Mrs Cavendish couldn't. And he set it up."
"Quite," Lucius agreed. "This means that we'll need to deal with Mrs Cavendish. I suggest I take care of that side of things. Mrs Cavendish is the most frightful snob – she was positively gushing when we met. Said she would love to see me at her house. Well, she'll have that pleasure – and I will make it perfectly clear that I know what she's been up to. And that any further attempt will result in public exposure. Very public exposure. That should stop her."
We agreed this was the best solution. I would not have minded exposing Mrs Cavendish then and there, but that would lead to a great number of difficulties – we would have to give evidence of the nobbling to whatever authority exists in the world of cat shows, and the evidence involved two wizards and the most secret magical residence of Britain.
"Now, about Mundungus," I said. "We can't expose him to the Muggle Cat Show authorities – for the same reasons, and besides, exposure wouldn't be a punishment for him. And unfortunately shaving a cat is not a deed that will bring him before the Wizengamot. If we could prove that he had endangered the Statute of Secrecy – but we can't. Not without explaining why he was at a Muggle event to begin with. What can we do to make him pay – surely there must be something?"
"He fair hates honest work," said Argus.
"Argus, my dear fellow, what an excellent idea," said Lucius. I noticed it was 'Argus' now – who would have thought it? Lucius really took to his fellow-conspirators part with the greatest possible gusto.
"I will summon Fletcher – he'll be pleased to come, he'll think I have another commission. And I'll tell him I know what he did to Mrs Norris. I'll tell Fletcher how excessively displeased I am with his behaviour. And I'll suggest that spending – say – a week or two working for Mr Filch might be just the sort of atonement I'd like to see. I'll get him to understand that only the most glowing of reports from Mr Filch will stop me from performing … quite a different type of atonement on him."
"Will stop us I corrected Lucius.
"Us?" he asked, looking somewhat surprised.
"I would not dream of doing anything illegal," I told him. "But Mundungus finds it particularly hard to believe that there are people who live within the law of their own free will. We have crossed wands before, Mundungus and I, and on that occasion I have reminded him of my war record, and I've assured him that if he gave his victim any further trouble, I'd know where to find him. He'll remember that occasion. It may well be why he wanted poor Stan as a scapegoat."
"I see," said Lucius. "I had wondered about that bit with the over-large tip. So unlike Fletcher. You must have made quite an impression."
"He couldn't sit for a week," I said.
Both men smiled. "That's all right then," said Argus. "He'll be scared stiff of Mr Malfoy, and if that wears off at some point, I'll remind him that I haven't told you yet, Professor, but that I just might. With Mr Malfoy to back up my story. That'll keep him busy for a week or two. The boiler needs cleaning. And the gutters. Nice job for him – he can fly up on a broom."
"And you can supervise on the lawn," I said. "In a deck chair."
Argus positively beamed at the thought.
"I will drop by occasionally," said Lucius. "For a chat with you, Argus. A very visible chat. Fletcher must know that I take a … continued interest in your welfare – and that of Mrs Norris. You may even have more visitors – young Stan would be most eager to share the story of his triumph with you – if you allow me to tell him you're in on the Cat Show Secret? Draco and Stan will come for lunch this Sunday, and I know he'd be most relieved to hear you know all and are not angry with him or Fifinella.
Fifinella? Stan Shunpike had called his cat Fifinella? How utterly amazing.
"Fifinella?" asked Argus. "Where in Merlin's name …"
"My wife's idea," said Lucius. "It was she who gave Stan the kitten. She said it looked like a Fifinella, and Stan was rather enamoured of the name."
"I see," said Argus. "Ladies can be a bit whimsical in their notions, sometimes."
"I can see you are a man of the world, Argus," said Lucius. And with those words he bowed his way out of my study and out of this story.
And now I finally have a perfect title. The Case of the Red Herring.
Unfortunately, it would give far too much of the plot away.
And it would upset Lucius.
No. Whatever his many faults, he has been a true ally in this case. This story will remain The Case of the Cat Show Corruption.