Dennis and I walk into a nearly empty Auror's office the next day before the morning shift arrives, despite the long hours we had worked the day before. While I'm not happy about missing sleep, the pace of the investigation is familiar to me even if it has been years since the last time I've needed to work non-stop for days on end. Dennis on the other hand looks fresh and rested, much to my annoyance.
"You look like you could use this," he says, handing me a styrofoam cup with a white plastic lid. He has an identical cup in his other hand. "Drink up."
"What's in it?" I ask, cautiously sniffing the beverage. It smells like coffee, but there's no telling what Dennis is using to stay so damn chipper.
"Just good old caffeine," Dennis replies, dashing my hopes for a miracle cure. I scowl at the coffee but take a sip anyway, careful not to take too much and burn my tongue. "Trust me, it makes life better."
"We'll see," I say skeptically. I take another drink and begin walking towards my office, Dennis following close behind me. We pass a couple of Aurors and staff members that greet us and I nod politely in response. The fact that I'm in charge of all of this still seems strange to me and I sometimes can't help but think I'm far too young to be put in control of such an important part of the government. The fact is though that I'm not really young anymore, if I ever was in the eyes of the magical world. They don't see my doubts, my insecurities, they just see someone they can dump their troubles onto and trust they'll be taken care of.
I open the door to my office and motion Dennis inside before stepping in and closing the door. The best part of my office is my chair which has been heavily enchanted to be the single most comfortable piece of furniture I've ever owned. I relax a little bit as I take a seat while Dennis rolls his eyes and places a stack of papers down in front of me. With a flick of my wand the papers fly off of my desk and the sheets attach themselves to one of the walls.
"Alright, let's get started," I say, leaning forward to get a better look at the wall. I point to a picture on the top row that has Joseph Cunningham's face on it from when he was booked into Azkaban. Even in picture form he looks restless, snarling from the frame while his eyes dart from side to side. "Tell me about our friend Joe."
"He's a lifelong troublemaker," Dennis says, "A bunch of run ins with law enforcement since he was a teenager. Minor stuff mostly; fights, drunk in public, using magic in front of muggles, that kind of thing. But then, about a year and a half ago, he got caught breaking into a shop in Diagon Alley."
"Yeah, I remember that," I say, trying to think about the details of the case. "A bunch of shops got robbed, about one a week for a couple of months. They stopped when Cunningham got sent to Azkaban so everyone assumed it was him."
"And as far as I know that's true," Dennis says, "But the interesting part is how the robberies happened. The first ones were pretty simple; smashing in doors to closed businesses and taking what wasn't nailed down, that kind of thing. A month or two later he changed tactics. No more smash and grab, now he's sneaking past defensive spells and going after safes and high value targets."
"Sounds like Joe found himself a partner," I reply, thinking back to the other man we had seen last night. "A smart one."
"And that brings us to the next item on our list, Bradley Maddox." Dennis points to another picture, this one the tall and skinny wizard we saw the night before. The picture must be old, because in it he looks like a teenager and not the full grown adult I know he is. "Maddox took a job as a curse breaker with Gringotts after he graduated and worked there for ten years until he was fired two years ago."
"Do we know what for?"
"No, the goblins still won't share that kind of information," Dennis explains, "But what we do know is that the goblins seized his vault and banned him from ever coming back on threat of death."
"Interesting." The goblins are a prickly bunch, but that kind of punishment is relatively rare and there aren't that many things that would warrant it. Attempting to steal from them is definitely one of them though. "So Maddox is unemployed, broke and in possession of a decade's worth of curse breaking training. How'd he link up with Cunningham?"
"They're cousins," Dennis says. I look over and he's grinning. "And the pieces all start to fall together…"
"Possibly," I say, reluctant to mimic Dennis's optimism. "So they join forces for a crime spree but then Cunningham gets caught and sent to Azkaban for a ten month stretch. Maddox uses the time to scout new targets and when his cousin gets out they're ready to start it up again."
"It fits," Dennis says, knowing that I'm looking for holes in his theory. "The Department of Mysteries were using two key protection spells: the Babkin Locking Charm and the Morelli Detection Array. There were at least five robberies of businesses using those exact charms over the last six months, starting three weeks after Cunningham got let out of Azkaban."
"So they're our thieves," I agree. The evidence does point that way after all. "That doesn't tell us how Pearce got mixed up with them or why they decided to target the Department of Mysteries."
"There's one more thing you ought to know which makes this a little more complicated," Dennis says. "Cunningham was sentenced to Azkaban for two years, not ten months. He got out early after a letter written on his behalf was sent to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement by Karl Osmont, head of the Department of Mysteries."
"Shit." I should have known this would happen, nothing is ever that simple. "I don't suppose we have anything else that connects Osmont with Maddox and Cunningham, do we?"
"Not a damn thing," Dennis says, shrugging a bit as if in apology. "This stinks, Harry. All of it."
"Yeah, I know." I stare at the pictures and documents on the wall for a few moments before rubbing my eyes and standing up to take a closer look. "And we still don't have a clue about what all of this is about. What the hell did they take?"
"Pearce seemed worried that Cunningham and Maddox would damage whatever it is, maybe it's unstable," Dennis says. He's good at working through problems so I wait for him to continue. "Those two are blackmailing Pearce and he's desperate enough to sell his house in an attempt to pay them off. Maybe he's being threatened?
"You think Pearce is just someone else's tool to get into the Department of Mysteries?" I ask. "It's possible, but it doesn't help at the moment. If so it could be anybody. Maybe Greaves trying to keep the project alive because Osmont wants to shut him down, maybe Osmont because he doesn't want Greaves to have whatever it is. Who knows."
"So where do we go from here?" Dennis asks. "Cunningham and Maddox will have all vanished. No chance they show up anywhere we'd be looking for them. Osmont's not going to admit to anything, neither is Greaves."
"Pearce thinks he has until tonight to pay up, even if the cousins are just going to rob him," I say, thinking it out. "They'll be meeting somewhere, probably wherever they've got the item stashed."
"We split up then," Dennis says, nodding along with my line of thought. "Pearce needs the money from the sale of the house, and assuming it does sell he'll have to pick up gold to pay off the cousins. I'll track him down that way."
"And I'll see what I can find on Cunningham and Maddox." I walk to the wall and pull down a sheet of paper which lists Maddox's home address and other information. It's not much to go on, but it's the best I've got at the moment. "Don't walk into anything dangerous without me."
Dennis lets out a snort in response and says "You're more likely to do that than I am." That's a fair assessment given our history of working together. I shrug and don't try to argue the point, letting him win this one.
"The Unspeakables will probably be following the same lead you are," I say, thinking back to the two we saw in front of Pearce's house the day before. "Avoid them if you can, but don't let them push you around. They invited us to this party, we're not about to let them kick us out now."
"Let them try me," Dennis says with a smirk on his face. "I better get going, let me know if you need any help."
"Good luck, Dennis."
He nods and walks out of the office and the door softly clicks shut behind him. I should be leaving soon as well but instead I sit down on the edge of my desk and enjoy a moment of peace while it lasts. My instincts are screaming at me that this case is only going to get more dangerous, but that's never caused me to back off before and it won't now.
I chug the rest of the coffee and throw the cup in a trash can by the door. It bounces off the rim and in before vanishing in a soft puff of white smoke. I am through the door and on my way before the smoke clears.
Bradley Maddox's apartment is in London, only a few blocks away from Diagon Alley and Gringotts. I assume that location was a big part of why he picked it about four years ago when he was still working for the goblins. From the outside, the building appears to be nice enough even if it is completely muggle.
It's still early morning when I get there and the streets are full of sleepy people reluctantly making their way to work. I stand near the entrance of the building and watch them for a few moments. I've charmed myself to appear completely uninteresting to them but most of them seem so oblivious to what is going on around them that I wonder if the spell was even necessary. We wizards like to think that the reason we've stayed hidden for so long is due to our own efforts but sometimes I question that. I wonder how many muggles have seen undisputable proof of the magical world and just ignored it as none of their business or not their problem.
A young woman in heels and a black pant suit walks out of the building angrily talking into her phone and I take the chance to step into the building before the door can shut. The lobby I walk into is nice but rather plain, not the expensive and ostentatious affairs that the richer buildings display.
As I walk over to the elevator and press the up button I glance over to a security guard who is looking my way with a confused expression on his face. He's an older gentleman, probably a retired police officer who needed to make some extra money. A moment later he shakes his head and walks off to continue his rounds. The fact that he noticed anything was out of the ordinary indicates he's very observant and was probably a great officer once upon a time.
The elevator lets out warbling ding and the doors open. I wait as the passengers inside push their way out, none of them giving me a second look. Once it's empty I step inside and press the button for the twelfth floor before leaning against a mirrored wall to wait. I get lucky and the elevator doesn't stop until it reaches my destination.
I walk out into a brightly lit hallway with maroon walls and hardwood floors. My boots click softly as I walk to the right, towards where a sign indicates I will find Bradley Maddox's apartment. At the very end of the hallway I come to a door that looks nearly identical to all of the others. It doesn't have his name on it, as some of the others do, just the apartment number.
I knock loudly on the door a couple of times, deciding to try a peaceful approach to begin with.
"Bradley Maddox, this is the Aurors," I say loudly and forcefully. "Open the door!"
Predictably, nothing happens. I stand perfectly still with my wand by my ear. I cast a spell to enhance my hearing, but even so there is no indication that there is anyone inside that heard me. I hold that position for a minute or two just in case, but there's only silence. As expected, I'm going to have to do this the hard way.
Magical Britain has plenty of laws regarding personal property and when government agents are allowed to conduct searches. In this case, for instance, Aurors would be completely forbidden from entering a property to search for evidence without authorization from the Head Auror. Who, conveniently enough, happens to be me.
My wand weaves a complicated pattern as I calm my mind, opening it up to the magic I am casting and focusing on how it is interacting with the door. I immediately realize the door is protected, though that isn't a surprise considering Maddox's old job as a curse breaker. To be effective in that role he would have to have a solid knowledge of the curses he is trying to break, including what they do and how they are cast.
I soon find that Maddox was smart about the protections he set up. The door can't be practically opened without magic. The force required to blast it open would probably require an explosion that would destroy the rest of the building. That keeps the muggles out and prevents them from coming into contact with the more dangerous and exotic protections he's added. The first one is a kind of blood based tracking charm. Unless I disable it, a modified slicing charm will seek out an exposed part on my body a take a small amount of blood that Maddox could later use to identify and find me. I could beat it, but the process would take time I don't have. I'd rather just let it go off, it's not like I am worried about Maddox knowing I was here.
The next spell is a bit more worrisome. Certain types of magical protections can only be cast on a place the person considers home, and this is a good example of it. By stepping through the door I'll be magically weakening myself to an unknown degree. The effectiveness of the spell is dependent on the caster's connection with the residence and grows over time and with the amount of people living there. Maddox hasn't lived here long and he lives alone, so the spell shouldn't be too strong. This one is probably beyond my capability to reliably disable.
The last spell, at least as far as I can tell, is a rather simple one designed paralyze and capture anyone who steps through the door. Anyone who walks into this one isn't going to be able to get out on their own, however because I noticed it before setting it off and happen to know how to tear it down I am not worried. I start casting a counter-spell and the door frame begins to glow for a moment before returning to normal.
I turn the doorknob and slowly open the door. As I do I feel a flash of pain coming from the back of my hand and when I glance down I see there is a small cut and a few drops of blood. I've set off one of the spells and I briefly worry whether it might do something unexpected, but seeing no evidence of that I decide to move on.
I take a step through the door and can immediately sense a difference. It's hard to explain what exactly felt different, it wasn't like a weight pressing down on me or a feeling of weakness as some people had described it. It was more like a feeling of vulnerability, perhaps as if I had walked into a crowd and suddenly remembered I was naked. Whatever the feeling was I knew what it meant; Maddox's spell had worked and there was some force trying to separate me from my magic.
The door opens up to a living room on my left and a small galley kitchen on my right. Both rooms are a mess with dirty clothes and old food wrappers scattered all over. It looks as though Maddox couldn't be bothered to clean up after himself, even though with magic that task is relatively easy. There's a couch in the living room with a pillow and couple of blankets laid out on it. Dennis and I couldn't find a current address for Cunningham and it seems likely that he had been staying with his his cousin ever since he got out of Azkaban.
A low table in front of the couch had a bunch of old copies of the Daily Prophet on it in addition to the typical trash. I look through them, hoping to see something they all had in common, but the selection appears to be completely random. The oldest issue was from about a year before and the newest was from last week. There weren't any markings on the paper or sheets torn out. I toss the copy I am holding on the floor and give up on the newspapers.
The kitchen is similarly uninteresting. Maddox didn't have much in the kitchen aside from a couple of plates, cups, and a bunch of spoons. No forks or knives to be seen, oddly enough. Not much food either.
Something about the apartment bothers me. Other than the mess, it is almost too normal. There are absolutely no decorations around and the furniture looks cheap. This isn't a home, it's just a place Maddox goes at night to sleep and leaves as soon as he can. But that raises the question, if he isn't spending his days here where is he spending them?
A small hallway across from the door led to a bathroom and the apartment's only bedroom. The bathroom is plain and relatively clean, at least compared to the rest of the apartment. I check through the cabinets and inside the tank of the toilet in the hopes he would have hidden something there but come up empty. With only one room left this trip is feeling like a bust.
The bedroom is by far the cleanest room in the apartment. The bed is made and looks comfortable enough and there is a desk placed in one of the corners. It is just as free of decorations as the rest of the apartment, but missing the debris. Maybe Cunningham was the messy one and Maddox just didn't care enough to do something about it. The one thing out of place is the dresser. All of the drawers have been pulled open and left that way with clothes still hanging out of them. If I had to guess I would say that Maddox made a stop here last night after attacking me to gather his things before going into hiding.
Assuming that was the case, he also had a chance to get rid of any evidence that would be of use to me. Even so, I am not about to just give up. The funny thing about criminals is they never think they're going to get caught and when they do it's not unusual for them to go into a panic. If Maddox was panicking last night he could have overlooked something important.
I turn my attention to the desk and the first thing I notice is an odd statue resting on it. It is wooden and appears to be of a creature I have never seen or heard of before. It is vaguely humanoid in shape, but has features of several animals including fish, goats, and some kind of bird. The eyes are glowing red which is rarely a good sign.
I reach for my wand and cast a couple of detection spells on the statue just in case. They seem to work well enough, despite the apartment's protections weakening my ability to cast magic, and turn up nothing. I remain skeptical that is true; weird magical statues are not usually friendly.
I pull one of the desk drawers open and find an unmarked envelope on top of a stack of papers. The envelope isn't sealed so I pull back the flap and see that it contains about a half dozen pictures. The first picture is of a house, though it was taken from far enough away that it is hard to see any fine details. The house is big though, and looks like is probably owned by someone wealthy. A man walks up to the door, opens it, and then steps inside before the cycle repeats again and again. There is writing on the bottom right hand corner of the picture. It lists what I assume is the date and time it was taken: at 6:12 PM about seven months ago.
The next picture is much clearer and was obviously taken within the Ministry of Magic, specifically just outside Karl Osmont's office. The door opens and for a brief moment the picture shows what's going on inside the office. Osmont's there, reading something and looks mad about whatever it is. His secretary, Romilda Vane, walks behind him carrying a box. Then the door closes and that's it. It's marked, just like the other one, with the same date but a different time. This one says 7:23 PM, meaning it was taken over an hour later.
Assuming the first picture was of Osmont going home and this one shows him at work later it could simply mean that he went back to the office that night for some reason.
The last picture is of Osmont walking through the halls of the Ministry with Greaves at his side. They seem to be arguing about something, but it's impossible to tell what that is from just the picture. This one is also marked with the date and time and was taken a few days after the other two. I stare at the picture for a couple of minutes, trying to pick out details I may I have missed, before I see something interesting. Osmont's coat moves just enough to expose a small object on a gold chain for a moment. The time turner.
Had Maddox figured out that Osmont was using a time turner and taken these pictures as proof? That is what it looks like, but then why would he do it? Osmont wrote the letter that got Cunningham out of Azkaban early, so it would seem they were working together. Perhaps Maddox didn't trust Osmont wanted to find some incriminating information on him just in case.
Whatever the reason, I'll need to talk to Osmont again and see if I can get him to give up some more information based what I know he's done so far. He's taken a vow to not give up the details of the case, but he could still be of some use based on general information regarding the project the vow might not cover.
I put the pictures back in the envelope and place that in a pocket in my cloak. Turning back to the desk drawer, I take out the papers that were under the envelope which turn out to be a bunch of bills of both the muggle and magical variety. According to Maddox's records he paid his bills on time despite not having a job. Obviously the crimes he had committed paid enough to keep him going.
I shut that drawer and move on to the next, but when I pull it doesn't move. I haven't found anything else that is locked during my search of the apartment so this piques my curiosity. Pressing my wand to the drawer, I say in a clear and loud voice "Alahomora." I am quite surprised to hear a soft click indicating the spell had worked, getting in with a simple locking charm just seems too easy.
The drawer slides open easily enough, but as it does the red eyes of the monstrous statue sitting on the desktop directly above the drawer flash. I hear a hissing sound and something flies out of the statue's mouth and hits me in the stomach. There's no pain and I don't feel any different, but that doesn't really mean anything when dealing with cursed objects.
There is a speck of a purple liquid on the front of my cloak and I can feel it soaking through the layers of my clothes to my skin below. I pull the cloak open and pull up my shirt enough to see the purple substance pooling on my skin right above my navel. I don't know what it is, but it's getting bigger.
What was once just a small dot of something that looked vaguely like paint is now about the size of a knut and still growing. I reach down and try to scrape it off with my hand but quickly realize that was a mistake. Now the purple goo is on my stomach and on my hand and they're both still spreading. I walk over to Maddox's bed and grab the pillow to try and remove the cursed material that way, but it doesn't work. The darkly colored liquid remains stuck to me no matter how hard I scrub. And in the time I've wasted the stuff has managed to cover most of my right hand and a circle on my stomach about 20 centimeters across.
I angrily walk back towards the desk where the statue's eyes are still glowing brightly, seeming to mock my predicament. I grab and hurl it to the ground, hoping to break it and perhaps end the curse, but it just bounces off the floor completely undamaged.
"Incendio!" I snarl with my wand pointed at the statue. The fire spell that leaves my wand seems to start off normal, but as it crosses the distance to the statue it quickly loses it's power and becomes weak and anemic. I had almost forgotten about Maddox's defensive spell that is still suppressing my ability to cast spells. The pitiful flames don't do anything at all to the statue.
My gaze falls on the drawer, still open from when I had triggered the statue to attack me. There are a couple of unmarked folders inside it, but I have no idea what documents they contain. I take them anyway, rolling them up and shoving them inside a cloak pocket. Maybe this ordeal won't be for nothing, assuming I can figure out how dispel the strange goo.
I take a closer look at the substance and see it seems to have a fairly consistent depth of about a centimeter. It's spread to cover all of my right hand and nearly halfway up to my elbow while I've been wasting time. The other section has started spreading around my waist and then downwards, its growth happening at roughly the same rate.
I decide to experiment a little and move my wand to my left hand. Holding my right hand in front of me, I cast another fire charm but this time I hold my wand as close to its target as possible. The flames splash against the purple goo but don't seem to have any effect. I can't even feel the heat from the flames. I switch tactics and try a freezing charm, but this is equally as ineffective.
Putting my wand away, I decide to try and think the problem through. Curse breaking isn't a skill that is taught to most Aurors, but we do try to make people aware of possible dangers. Over the years I've sat through dozens of lectures on curses, their effects, and how to counter them as well as reading about many more. It's entirely possible this curse was one of them.
I stand there thinking while what feels like minutes pass, all the while the purple substances is growing and spreading, covering more and more of my body. I'm not sure what will happen when it completely covers me but I know it can't be good. Thankfully, it hasn't started to creep up my neck towards my head yet. I suspect once it does I won't be able to breathe anymore.
It's the thought of drowning that finally triggers something in my memory. A lecture from some International Confederation of Wizards academic-type who was more interested in the history of dangerous spells and artefacts than how to actually deal with them. I saw it sometime during a two-day conference in Paris which was sadly one of the most boring weekends I've ever had in my life.
From what I could remember, the purple stuff will continue to spread until it's covered my entire body. Death comes from suffocation as the substances creates a thick layer that air can't get through. Once the target is dead, the liquid will soak into their body and allow the wizard who set the trap to control the corpse for a few days. It's low level as far as necromancy is concerned, but it's still dangerous.
The wizard I heard talking about the course explained it through a story. I can't remember all of the details but in a couple of people were exposed to a statue a lot like the one I had found which spit something on them. One by one they all died, but the last guy survived by jumping into a lake. They had been on a boat, I think. So was that it? I just have to wash it off? I feel like I'm missing something but I can't remember what it is.
I rush to the bathroom sink and turn on the faucet. There's a shower in the bathroom as well, but I want to test this out before jumping in just in case. I run my right hand under the water and hope for the best, but instead of washing away the purple goo the water seems to be adding to it. It's just getting bigger and spreading faster now. I jerk my hand back and scowl at the sink as if it was the problem.
What am I missing? I am sure that the wizard jumped off of a boat at the end of the story and the water washed away the purple stuff. There must have been more to it than just the water. I look down and most of my body is now covered with the liquid. It My legs up to my shins are still fine, as well as my left arm up to the elbow and my head. Based on how fast this has been happening I guess I've got another minute or two until it starts to cover my mouth and nose, cutting off my air.
The answer finally comes to me and grin spreads across my face. The boat the wizards in the story were on wasn't on a lake, they were sailing across an ocean. The wizard was saved when he jumped in the seawater and the thing that makes that different from the water out of the tap is how salty it is. There's a word for that, but I can't remember what it is. I bet Hermione would know. So maybe it isn't the water that matters, it's the salt.
I sprint out of the bathroom towards the kitchen where any normal person would have some salt. I don't remember seeing any when I was searching the kitchen earlier, but at the time I wasn't really looking for it. The shelves are still as frustratingly bare as I remembered them being.
I spend about 30 seconds tearing the kitchen apart before I realize this isn't going to work and I need to come up with something else. I realize what I need to is get out of here and find salt somewhere else. WIth that in mind, I run towards the door and attempt to pull it open only to find that some of the apartment's other defenses must have kicked in because the door is now locked and sealed tight. I give it an angry kick and it feels more like kicking rock than wood.
My time is running out at this point. I can feel the purple fluid starting to spread up my neck seeking to finish me off.
The door is a dead end. If I am going to get out of here I'll have to do it some other way. I could try and apparate directly out, but with Maddox's defenses and the magic suppressing spell I am not sure I would survive the attempt. I'll keep that in mind as a last resort. There is, however, a window in the bedroom that might not be as well protected as the door. I run back to the bedroom as the purple substance reaches my mouth, leaving me only able to breath through my nose.
I point my wand at the window and try to yell "Reducto!", but because of the purple stuff covering my mouth it doesn't come out right. Between that and the magic suppression my spell does absolutely nothing to the window. I try again, this time casting silently, and a tiny crack appears. It's not enough. I'll be dead before the window actually breaks doing it this way.
I can feel the liquid on my upper lip. I start taking deep breaths in preparation for when it finally covers up my nose. While I do that I look around the room, hoping for some type of inspiration. My eyes finally turn towards Maddox's desk chair. A wooden one that looks fairly sturdy.
As the substance reaches and covers my nostrils I almost gag, but thankfully manage to keep it down. I put it out of my mind and grab the chair and turn towards the window. Using every bit of strength in my body, I swing the chair at the glass and it hits with a dull thumping sound. At first I think it hasn't done anything, but then I see new cracks that have formed. I swing the chair again and the cracks get bigger. I swing again as I start to wonder how long I can hold my breath for. Gripping the legs of the chair tightly, I wind up for another hit and this time the glass shatters and the chair tumbles out of the window down to the streets below.
This is my chance and I don't hesitate to take it. I jump through the shards of broken glass and out of the apartment. Maddox's apartment is on the twelfth floor, high enough that the impact with the ground would probably kill me. Looking down, I can see the ground rushing towards me. I only have a couple of seconds before I hit, but it's long enough.
I fix the destination in my mind and twist in the air. My body briefly feels like it's being squeezed all over and a moment later I am out of the city and crashing down into the body of water below me. I hit the surface hard and it hurts all over, but then I start to sink into the water. I stay below even as my instincts scream at me to get to the surface and breathe.
Nothing happens. I can still feel the purple goo all over me. Deep under the water, I feel the sense of panic rising in me. My mind races and my body begins to shake uncontrollably. Then, all at once, I feel cool water on my skin. I push towards the surface and when my head finally lifts out of the water I take deep, gasping breaths.
It takes me a minute to calm down enough to look around and take stock of my surroundings. I'm in the water maybe a hundred meters away from the beach where I can see quite a few people enjoying the warm August day. I swim towards the beach and soon it's shallow enough for me to be able to stand and walk with my head above the water. As I trudge forward I can see people stopping to stare at the fully clothed man coming out of the ocean.
I can't help but laugh as I consider what they must be thinking about me. But they're magical, they should be used to the weird and unexpected. I've come to a magical section of Watergate Bay which is actually far bigger than the muggles realize. It's been years since I was last here. Ginny and I brought the kids and stayed a whole week camped out in our tent right on the beach. Things were better then, in a lot of ways. The kids were thrilled about the trip and Ginny and I made it through the whole week without arguing. It's hard to remember the last time that happened.
I finally make it out of the water and collapse down onto the sand, laying on my back and staring into the blue sky above me. In truth, it's probably only been less than ten minutes since I triggered the trap in the statue but it feels like an eternity. I'm exhausted and decide to make the executive decision that I deserve a break before getting back to work.
"Are you ok, sir?"
I turn and see a boy in his mid-teens standing over me with a concerned expression on his face. He's tanned with long brown hair and wearing swim trunks. I'm about to wave him off when a word suddenly pops into my head and I start laughing.
"Salinity!" I say, a bit louder than intended between laughs. "It means how salty the water is. I couldn't remember it earlier."
He's now looking at me as though I've gone insane, which I honestly can't blame him for. He watches me for a few more minutes before shaking his head, muttering something under his breath, and wandering off. I finally finish laughing and actually feel mostly normal again.
I push myself into a seated position and pull the folder I had taken from Maddox's apartment out of my cloak pocket. It's soaked and there's a good chance the papers inside are ruined. Pointing my wand at the folder, I cast a drying charm as carefully as I can so as not to do any more damage to the documents. Slowly, the water evaporates leaving the paper dry but encrusted in a thin layer of salt.
Very slowly, I pull out the top sheet of paper to see how bad the damage is. My mouth turns downward into a frown as I take my first look. It's not a complete loss, but a lot of the text has become unreadable. This page appears to be a deed to some property, but I can't make out the address. I wouldn't be surprised if there were spells to undo water damage like this, but I don't know them and am reluctant to try anything that could make the situation worse.
I'm still looking through the pages a couple minutes later when I spot a large, glowing bear running straight towards me. The bear itself doesn't worry me, but why it is here does. The patronus comes to a stop right in front of me and begins to speak with Dennis's voice.
"Harry, you need to drop whatever you're doing and get to Gringotts," it says. "We have a bit of a situation brewing here."
"Really?" I ask it, though I know the communication is one way and Dennis can't hear me. "I can't even get one little break?"
The patronus begins to fade out of existence, it's mission complete. I shake my head and stand up, brushing the sand off as I do. My clothes are still damp from the ocean and I desperately want a shower, but as I am in a hurry I make do with a couple of drying and cleaning charms.
I apparate again, this time without the pressure of my own looming demise, and the trip goes as smoothly as I could hope. My feet hit the ground softly as I arrive in front of Gringotts. Taking a look around, I see that Diagon Alley is incredibly busy today as it often is during August so soon before school starts again. I can see hundreds of witches and wizards out doing their last minute shopping and enjoying the day. Everything looks relatively normal, so whatever Dennis needed me for isn't outside.
Despite the peaceful surroundings, I take my wand out and hold it down by my hip. I've already risked my life once today and am not in the mood to take any more chances.
The tall, white Gringotts building towers above me I walk up the steps that lead to bronze entry doors. I am nearly halfway up the steps when the doors crash open and a man in an Unspeakables uniform comes running out. There is a panicked look on his face as he reaches the top step and begins his descent, but he doesn't get far as a burst of red light flies out of the bank and hits him right between the shoulder blades. The Unspeakable is immediately rendered unconscious and takes a nasty tumble down the steps.
I raise my wand and stalk towards the doors, prepared to deal with whatever threat lays inside. And then Dennis walks out with another Unspeakable pinned in a headlock to his side. The Unspeakable is cursing Dennis and struggling against him but it doesn't seem to be doing any good. I lower my wand and look at my partner with a curious expression on my face.
"Dennis," I ask, as he finally notices me. "What are you doing?"
"Ah, Harry! You must have gotten my message then," he says cheerfully. He walks over to me, dragging the irate Unspeakable along with him. "So, how's your morning been?"
"The usual," I say, shrugging my shoulders. "A brush with death, a nice swim. Typical, really. You?"
"I was able to get confirmation that Nicholas Pearce was indeed able to find a buyer for his house and that the money had already been transferred to his account," Dennis explains. "So I came here to wait for him to come pick up his money, only it seems I wasn't the only one who had that idea. The two idiots were already here."
"And how does that lead to all of this?" I ask, pointing to the unconscious Unspeakable and the one he has trapped who has calmed down in order to listen to our conversation.
"Since I doubted they had discussed their little plan with the goblins, I decided to give them a friendly warning about what was happening," Dennis says. "They are, of course, upset about any wizard thinking they can come into their bank and attack one of their customers. I am moments away from getting them to agree to my plan when everything goes crazy. Pearce had come into the bank while I was talking with the manager and withdrawn the money from his account. As soon as he went to leave these two idiots decided to ambush Pearce."
"I'm surprised the goblins didn't kill them," I reply. Despite our currently cordial relations with the goblins, they really don't like wizards and if they have a valid excuse to come after one of us? They are definitely going to take it, and if someone deprived them of that opportunity they aren't going to be happy. "How mad are they?"
"Quite," Dennis answers, nodding in confirmation. "But at least I was able to shift the blame over to the Unspeakables. They don't have a problem with the Aurors."
"At least there's that," I say. "And what about Pearce?"
"Scurried off during the confusion while I was trying to stop the Unspeakables from getting skewered," Dennis says. "Sorry boss. It was the right call."
"I know, I'm not mad," I assure him. Before I can say anything else I hear a familiar voice shouting angrily at me.
"Unhand my Unspeakable right now!"
Dennis and I turn our heads to face the bottom of the steps and see Greaves stomping up to us. He doesn't even stop to check on the unconscious Unspeakable collapsed on the ground, though an assistant trailing behind him does. Dennis raises his arms and lets the other Unspeakable go.
"What is the meaning of this?" Greaves asks. "How dare you interfere in our business?"
"You know exactly what we're doing, Greaves," I reply. "Conducting the investigation your department asked us to. The real question is why are your men here interfering in my investigation?"
"This has nothing to do with you!"
"Oh, I'm pretty sure it does," I say. I've got no intention of letting him know how much I've discovered, but a good threat now might get him to back off a little. "We were here for the same reason as you, tracking down Nicholas Pearce. He's the key to this whole thing. And once I do have him I'm going to have plenty of questions about just what it is you and Osmont have been doing."
"Will you now?" he asks. His eyes bore into mine, but I meet his gaze without flinching. I know he's looking for something, some sign of what I know or what I don't know. Something I've done must have given it away, though I have no clue what that could be. He scoffs and seems to relax a bit. "I don't think you know anything, Potter. We wouldn't be having this conversation if you did."
Greaves glares at me for another moment before turning on his heel and stomping off, the other Unspeakables scrambling to follow after him. Dennis and I silently watch them leave, both of us suspicious that they'll do something else stupid on their way out. They seem to leave without incident though, and once they're gone Dennis and I relax a bit.
"Those guys are really starting to annoy me," Dennis says, breaking the silence.
"They'll get what's coming to them," I assure him. I'm not sure exactly what Greaves has done wrong, but he's hiding something big and I'm not going to give up on this investigation until I find out what it is. "The day hasn't been a total loss, I got something out of Maddox's apartment."
I hand him the folder and he looks at it with a confused expression as he inspects the damages pages. He squints at the first page and seems to have just as much trouble deciphering it as I did.
"This isn't much to go on," he says. "How'd this happen anyway? And what is that smell?"
I sniff myself and find that I do still smell slightly like sand and salt and the beach. It's not an unpleasant smell, but it is unusual enough that I should have expected Dennis to comment on it.
"I had a rough morning, let's just leave it at that, ok?" I say, not particularly wanting to go into a full explanation at the moment. "Take that back to the office and see what you can get out if. Maddox had it well protected, there must be something important in there."
"And what about you?"
"I think I need to have another talk with Osmont," I reply. "I think I've got enough to put some pressure on him and he's more likely to break than Greaves is. We need something by tonight before Cunningham and Maddox can move their stolen goods. And I get the feeling that once they have Pearce's money he stops being useful and becomes a liability."
"No honor among thieves, huh?"
"Not these thieves, at least," I say. "The answer's in those pages, Dennis. Find it."
"I'm on it," he replies. Dennis walks down the stairs and makes his way towards one the entrances to the Ministry within the Alley. I take a moment alone to consider my next steps. Everything is moving so quickly now it almost feels like things are starting to spiral out of control. There's too many people with too many different agendas involved in this, and Dennis and I are caught in the middle of it with less information than anyone else.
I begin my own walk away from Gringotts considering how many unanswered questions we still have and how much work is still left to be done.
I arrive at the Ministry a little bit later and head straight for Karl Osmont's office. The building is busy, as usual, with witches and wizards running about doing all of the things necessary to keep our government functional. Osmont's office is a bit out of the way and thankfully free of the crowds. I'm in sight of the entrance to his office when I see the door open and Osmont step out.
He turns my direction and when he sees me he literally growls in anger. I'm no stranger to people hating me there is no doubt in my mind that right now Karl Osmont absolutely loathes me. The strange thing is that I don't really understand why he would feel that strongly about me. For a moment, it looks like he's about to start yelling at me right in the hallway but then he has second thoughts and turns around to quickly walk away from me.
As he turns to leave I see a gold chain dangling out of his clenched fist and can see enough to identify the time turner he's holding. A moment later he turns a corner and is out of sight. I rush to follow him but the a strange certainty grips me. Osmont doesn't hate me for what I've done, he hates me for what I'm about to do. I stop and turn back towards his office, certain I am going to find something important inside.
Walking into the front room to the office suite I find it looking the same as the last time I had been here, with no signs of anything out of the ordinary. There's no one here except the figures in the portraits who watch me but don't say anything. I close the door behind me and walk towards the door to Osmont's personal office, and it's then when I hear something.
There's someone talking in the office, but I can't make out what it's saying. There's a noise that sounds like furniture moving, perhaps someone pushing back a chair to stand up. I get the feeling that there's more than one person in there, and knowing what is behind that door is enough to cause Osmont to hate me.
I clench my wand in my right hand and place my left on the door knob. It turns silently and there's no indication the people inside are aware of it. I raise my wand and push on the door, prepared for anything.
Well, almost anything
I'm not sure what I expected, but I know that finding Karl Osmont naked and stretched out on his desk with his equally naked secretary Romilda Vane on top of him wasn't it.