CHAPTER ONE

THE DEPARTMENT OF MAGIC

I really had no idea what I was going to find when I got to England.

That's partly because I'd never been there, but mainly because no one at the United States Department of Magic had any idea either, which should be one good indication of the catastrophic disarray the Department was struggling with at the time. For another, the five remaining Trans-Atlantic Portkeys in the Department's locker (a hairbrush, a serving spoon, two clothes pins and a cassette tape labeled "Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits") were suspect and could not be used. Without a TAPKey, I had to travel as a Muggle. This wasn't as much of a problem for me as it might have been for others; I came from a Muggle family and had traveled on airplanes several times as a boy, before I found out I was a Wizard. But the trip wasn't a whole lot of fun, either.

When I got to Dulles International, I was the perfect college student, wearing jeans, a vest, and cross-trainers. I had my backpack, a rather large rollie-case, and in my head, reams and reams of memorized contingency instructions, most of which I hoped I would never need. My wand was concealed in the sleeve of my shirt with a simple sticky-charm, which would let me use it, if necessary, without exposing it to view. The Interim Secretary of Magic had personally supervised the concealment spells and assured me that they would prevent the wand (and several other things) from being noticed, and anything from setting off any metal detectors. I hoped very hard that he was right.

At the British Airways counter, I waited in line behind a family with three small children who were driving their parents nuts by demanding toys and things that had been carefully packed away, and a tall man wearing a black cowboy hat, a fleece-lined leather coat, and cowboy boots of some grey-green leather I didn't recognize. The family got their tickets fixed up, and their luggage checked ("No, honey, it's in the suitcase, and the suitcase has to go now, we'll all go get a nice juice in just a moment…") after an amazingly long time. The tall guy had grizzled grey hair, a long square chin, and sounded like a Texan when he spoke. He soothed the frazzled attendant and had his bag checked and his ticket in hand with smooth efficiency. As he turned away, his boot collided with my rollie-case.

"Oops! Sorry, son!" He gave me a brief smile, which somehow didn't reach his pale grey eyes. I almost asked him what his boots were made of, but thought better of it. Least said, soonest mended. I had over-riding orders not, on any account, to draw attention to myself. He strode away toward the gates and I took my turn at the counter. I remembered wearing cowboy boots once in a school play. They were stiff and awkward – I don't even want to remember what the pointy shape did to my toes! – and really hard to put on. But he had the real thing, and I admired them, regardless of what they skinned to make 'em. I also admired his assured, experienced, confident manner. I could use some of that where I was going.

Security, at least, was no problem; I simply walked straight through the gate looking at my ticket. On the plane, though, when I found seat 38-B, I used some bad language under my breath, thinking of Loretta Peebles, the fat secretary in Magical Transportation. She never stopped talking except to eat a piece of chocolate, and had assured me repeatedly that she knew just how to handle flight reservations. I made a solemn vow that if I ever had to endure this painfully slow method of travel again, I would book the ticket myself.

A middle seat in a group of three is bad enough, but the window seat was overflowing with a very fat older woman wearing way too much makeup, and the aisle seat was taken by a skinny balding man with a pinched face, who seemed to disapprove of the world in general, and looked annoyed at me in particular. Once in my seat, I discovered that he smelled like he'd chugged a bottle of Old Spice. The fat lady smelled like a florist's trash can.

Still, I was not unprepared. I reached up and turned on the air vent, while muttering 'Ozonius Continuum' under my breath. The smells receded, and I reflected that I'd learned something useful, at any rate, at dear old IWU. Then I pulled a pair of earbuds out of my shirt pocket, screwed them into my ears, settled back and closed my eyes. The earbuds weren't connected to anything, but they effectively stopped my seatmates in mid-gush and mid-complaint, respectively.

I pretended to pay attention to the safety procedures lecture while actually ignoring it. If the plane got in trouble, I was going to have a whole different list of options, most of which were so terrifying they didn't bear thinking about. Eventually, we took off, climbing and turning, and headed out over the Atlantic. I closed my eyes again, and thought back over the incredibly crowded and astonishing 72 hours I had just spent.

This was in mid-May 1998, only a couple of weeks after the Big Meltdown. Like everyone else who was still coming to work at the Department, I was trying to pick up the pieces and reassemble the threads of my section, filling in for people who were no longer at their desks – or in a shocking number of cases, no longer alive.

Interim Secretary of Magic Alistair Blackstone was actually a retired Admiral in the U.S. Navy, and up until the dragon dung hit the High Velocity Air Circulation spell, he had held what everyone thought was a mostly ceremonial post as Director of the National Magical Research Administration. They did some theoretical research, studying old scrolls for forgotten spells, developing safety features for incantations used in classrooms, that kind of thing. And as the highest-ranking military Wizard, he also administered the one and only battalion of United States Wizarding Marines, who stood sentry duty at Department buildings, escorted dignitaries, and provided an honor guard for ceremonies.

We all knew Blackstone was personally interviewing and vetting all the remaining departmental personnel, but I had expected him to take a lot longer getting around to me, since I was so new and so very junior. And that morning, I felt sure he wouldn't send for me, because I'd been given a special job. I was actually in old Nosey's (former) office, trying to undo the locking spell he'd put on his private file cabinets, when one of the famous Kentucky Cardinals zoomed in through the transom. It landed neatly on the desk lamp, opened its beak, and spoke in the Interim Secretary's gruff voice:

"Now hear this. Mr. Jenkins! Report to my office at six bells in the forenoon watch – oh, dammit, I mean eleven a.m. Do not discuss this appointment with anyone. And do not – repeat, not! – Apparate. That is all."

The beautiful scarlet bird cocked its head expectantly, and I dove into my pockets, looking for mealworms. All I had on me were some grubs I'd brought, hoping to get in a little fishing after work, and I wasn't sure what he would think of those. But he gulped one down immediately, winked, saluted crisply with his right wing, and flew out.

The clocks in the room were still useless, either stopped altogether (at different times) or spinning madly. I glanced at my watch and saw it was 10:40 already. I put down my bellows and clapped the cover on the brazier, smothering the charcoal briquette I'd just gotten up to a nice glowing red. There was no time to let it cool down, so I left it on the desk and put the packets of herbs back in my cloak pockets. Wishing mightily that at least one of the mirrors in the room had been properly cleared of enchantments and scraped clean of paint, so I could check my face for smudges and comb my hair, I went back out in to the anteroom and put my personal seal back on the office door. There was nobody in the corridor, so I took a moment to put my seal on the anteroom door as well. Slipping my wand back into my sleeve, I headed for the stairs.

The tall, cylindrical Department of Magic tower is still one of the most beautiful buildings in Washington, and it's really a pity that Muggles can't see it in the reflecting pool – all they see is the thin needle of the Washington Monument, of course. But I could see it in the still waters, as I passed one of the great curved-glass windows, and shook my head once again at the image of the great building with its top three floors reduced to burned and blackened rubble. The smoke had stopped, so it didn't look quite so much like a great white colonnaded cigar stuck into the ground.

After the U.S. Wizarding Marines had suddenly turned from faultlessly turned out, spit-and-polish manikins usually regarded as part of the furniture, into heavily armed, coldly efficient soldiers and fought their way up to the top floor of the building, killing Secretary Parboil, Admiral (Ret.) Alistair Blackstone had taken over the 52nd floor, the highest level still fit for human habitation. We had all seen the recording of the President in rumpled pajamas, looking worried and harassed, holding the order he had just signed and reading it aloud in a soft hoarse voice, putting Blackstone in full charge while the Department was reorganized. By now, those of us still working had quickly learned to treat the Interim Secretary's orders as, well, Admiral's orders.

Climbing the four flights took ten minutes in itself, and the other ten were taken up showing my Pass and Wand at five different sentry stations. The last one was manned by a hard-eyed Marine Lieutenant, who took a long time casting his challenge-spells and minutely examining the results. I was afraid I'd be late, but he finally nodded and pointed his wand at the office door, which vanished. It reappeared behind me as I stepped inside. A large brass bell inscribed "USS SALEM" was hanging from a stand in the corner. All by itself, the clapper suddenly moved. It chimed six times – dang-dang, dang-dang, dang-dang! – and the Interim Secretary looked up from a docket he was studying.

"Ryan Jenkins, sir."

"Ah. Very good. Sit down, Jenkins." He was a grey-headed, clean-shaven man with wide shoulders, dressed in a U.S. Navy Admiral's uniform, except that the tunic was bright red. Muggles, of course, always saw it as the appropriate color, according to the season, the occasion, or what the SOPA was wearing. He nodded toward one of two armchairs in front of his desk, and I sat, hoping I didn't look too disheveled. "You smell like smoke. I thought the Auror's office didn't ignite. What have you been doing?"

"Sorry, sir, I was trying to find out how to unlock the private files in the Chief Auror's office." The Interim Secretary's bushy eyebrows went up, and I hastened to explain. "Captain Mahan put me on it this morning, sir, because I took a Minor in Forensic Magic at I.W.U. I was getting ready to try a particulate-pattern analysis of the spells involved, because we thought smoke particles might be too lightweight to trigger any destructing, encrypting, or confunding components in the privacy spells."

"Hmph. Reasonable, in theory, but I hope you hadn't gotten too far."

"I had just got the charcoal going, sir. I hadn't burned any dropwort or sensing powder yet."

"Good! Lefferson tried much the same thing down in Accounting, and just now reported that when he opened the file drawer he was working on, all the expense vouchers for last September had been transfigured into cooked kohlrabi." The Interim Secretary ran a hand through his thick gray hair, and the gold in his shoulder-boards glittered. "In any case, I've got another job for you. I've just been looking through your file. That was a nice piece of work you did on old Nosey."

I didn't worry about his scrutiny of my personal records, because I was too surprised at his use of a nickname I had thought was confined to a very few of the most junior Aurors. It must have shown in my face, because the Interim Secretary barked a quick laugh.

"We've been learning a lot about what was really going on in this building, and I'll tell you right now that I don't propose to trust anyone who didn't use that name – or something worse! – for former Chief Auror Nostradamus Seward." He leaned forward and speared me with his hard grey eyes. "Just how did you manage to take him down?"

"It was just luck that I got a chance, sir. But – well, I guess I was ready to try something. I'd only been here a couple of months, but I'd found out right away that something was – wrong, I mean really wrong, in the Department, and Seward was deeply involved. Any student in my Auror classes would have been on him in a heartbeat! He—he smelled like black magic. He was thick as thieves with Parboil, and he was getting nastier every day. He'd suddenly pop into your room, acting mysterious and superior, gloating and giving orders like he was a king or something."

"So I've heard. Repeatedly. By that time, they were apparently being told that everything was in the bag, all sewed up, and they were beginning to come out from behind their cover stories. Getting over-confident. That's what put us on High Alert."

Being told? The thought leaped at me, but was overshadowed by my growing astonishment at the Interim Secretary's friendly confidentiality. He was known for giving orders, not explaining, and coming down hard on people who dithered or talked back. I didn't know what to say, and after a moment he took me off the hook by saying, quietly, "So you had him tagged for a wrong 'un. That's good. Now tell me how it went down."

"Well, that morning, I was at my desk when the surge came – I can't think of what else to call it – and of course we all felt that sudden wave of terror and release."

"Yes. Caught me in the head. Better than any laxative potion I ever heard of. Go on."

It took me a moment to realize the old sea dog wasn't speaking of his mental reaction, but I plunged ahead. "I found out later that Seward had Apparated straight up to Parboil's office. He was one of the few who could do that. We all poured out into the corridor, asking each other what the hell that could have been, and after a little while I took the opportunity to go to the, uh, head, sir."

"Mens' room is fine, son. This isn't a ship, and you're not in the Navy. Yet, anyway."

"Yes sir. I was in there when I heard the crack as Seward Apparated back onto our floor, and heard him shouting, 'Back to work, all of you! NOW!' I opened the door and looked out, and he had moved down the hall so his back was to me. Jenny Madigan was heading toward the Ladies' room, and he yelled 'None of that you!' And then he – he raised his wand and used the Cruciatis Curse on her, sir."

"So you confirm that Seward used an Unforgivable Curse on a Department employee?"

"Damned right I do!" The memory of my anger made me forget where I was for a moment, and I added "Sir," a bit late.

"Then what happened?"

"Jenny screamed, but I had my wand in my hand, sir, and I used Expelliarmus on him."

"Not Expellio? It saves a syllable."

"I learned Expelliarmus at school, sir, as a boy, and it just leaped out, I guess. I always thought it was more powerful."

"Not according to our Testing Bureau. But wait, you wouldn't have the military version, would you? Maybe you were right."

"Yes, sir. Anyway, his wand flew out of his hand and he staggered, coming around to face me. He looked horrible. His face was kind of blotchy, all purple and white, kind of green around the mouth, and his eyes were wild. He screamed, more like an animal than a man, and lunged toward me, and that's when I used the Twisted Snakes on him."

"The Twisted Snakes? Never heard of it."

"It's a Cherokee curse, sir. It makes any rope-like object within reach wrap itself around a person until they're immobilized."

"Ah. That explains Sergeant McGillicuddy's report." He picked up a paper on his desk and read from it. "…Seward's wand was found sticking, point first, into the acoustic ceiling tile, and he himself was discovered on the floor in the corridor, securely immobilized by the cords from four Venetian blinds, six standard D-plug AC power cords, four eight-foot telephone cords with RJ-11 connectors, five Ethernet cords of various lengths with RJ-45 connectors, six leather belts, two sets of suspenders, two pair nylon stockings, one three-and-a-half foot necklace of amethyst beads, sixteen gold chains of various lengths (for which I have given a receipt to Miss LaWanda Toumbe) and over 30 yards of quarter-inch spun yarn from a braided throw rug, which was continuing to unravel and wrap itself around him."

"Yes sir."

"And since you cast the spell, that explains why you were the only one in the office whose trousers hadn't fallen down. Where in the name of Davy Jones' waterlogged spell book did you learn that?"

"From Jamie Two Eagles Cogburn, sir, he was my roommate for three years at I-WU."

"An Indian?"

"One of the people of the First Nations, yes, sir." I suddenly realized I had just corrected Interim Secretary Blackstone, and felt a wave of anxiety pass over me. Just a year out of Auror school, and here I was bandying words with probably the most powerful Wizard in America!

But the Interim Secretary just nodded, thoughtfully. "Can you teach it to me?"

"I think so, sir, but you have to learn the Cherokee pronunciation, and get the rhythm just right. It helps a lot if you know something of the Cherokee language, and especially if you learn a couple of their ceremonial dances."

Blackstone shook his head, a little ruefully I thought. "I think we'll pass on that for now. But tell me, why didn't you use the body-bind curse? Petrificus Totalus?"

"I thought of that, sir, but I was afraid that he might have had some guard-spell or defense against that. I've heard that the Marines have a reflecting charm that can make curses rebound on the Wizard who casts them. Everybody knows about Petrificus Totalus, and I figured maybe the Cherokee spell wasn't very well known and might not be included in the action-decision list in the reflecting spell's program."

"Yes. Kevlarus Reflecticum. I suppose it isn't much of a secret since that article appeared in Popular Enchantments. Smart. Was there anything else after that?"

"Not really. That's when you interrupted us, sir."

"So I did."

The first explosion had made the whole building shake, and brought down a shower of dust and the plastic covers from several fluorescent light fixtures. The Interim Secretary's voice, magically amplified, had echoed in every nook and cranny of the tower.

"NOW HEAR THIS. THE MARINES HAVE LANDED. THIS BUILDING IS UNDER MARTIAL LAW. ANY RESISTANCE TO U.S. WIZARDING MARINE PERSONNEL WILL BE MET WITH FORCE. ANYONE ATTEMPTING TO APPARATE OR CAST ANY SPELL WILL BE ARRESTED. RETURN TO YOUR OFFICES, PLACE YOUR WANDS ON YOUR DESKS, AND WAIT THERE UNTIL YOU CAN BE INTERVIEWED."

And that's what most people did. The exceptions were people who fainted, people who suddenly collapsed or died at the moment Secretary of Magic Sylvester K. Parboil met his demise, and a few people who tried to run. None of them got very far. They couldn't Apparate, the elevators weren't working, and the stairs were full of Wizarding Marines in full battle dress, wands at the ready, some of them carrying M-16(W) assault rifles with Never-Empty magazines full of silver homing bullets.

Interim Secretary Blackstone seemed lost in thought for a few moments. Then he looked at me and actually smiled! I think my mouth fell open, because he chuckled. "Well done, Jenkins! Better done than you could have known, in fact. Now look here." He was suddenly very serious. "What I'm about to tell you is confidential information. For the present, you will not discuss it except with me, and in the future, you will not discuss it with anyone who has not been authorized to know it by me. Is that clear?"

"Yes sir." I felt very junior again.

"Most of Parboil's gang died with him on the top floors, or were found dead later – apparently a very nasty security spell killed them when he went. Do you know what actually happened to him?"

"Uh, not really, sir. There's been a lot of rumors."

"No doubt. But my people hold their tongues. The assault group tried to take him alive, but their Reflecticum spells didn't work – not on Parboil, at close range at least. He knew all about them, of course, and somehow got through with a countercurse. He killed the first three Marines who entered his office with Avada Kedavra."

"Oh God."

"Or His opposite. The fourth had an M-16(W) on full automatic, and pretty much cut Parboil in half. Removed his face, too." I felt queasy. Maybe I looked it, but the Interim Secretary took no notice. "When he died, a lot of our people all over the country – his people, I guess I should say, died where they stood, or – transformed. Some of them fell over, went catatonic. Three of those have woken up so far, over at Bethesda Wizarding, and they seem to have no memory at all of anything after a certain point in their lives, usually soon after they joined the Department. Quite a lot were found dead, but except in a few cases, not freshly dead – their bodies were found to be in various advanced states of decomposition, including five, so far, who were simply small piles of dust inside their robes. A smaller number have been found alive and awake, but suddenly many years older, and quite insane. Nosey Seward was the only member of the top group to survive apparently intact. Do you think that Cherokee snake spell had something to do with that?"

"Uh – I don't know, sir. Maybe it did, though. Jamie told me it was used to 'keep an enemy safe,' he said, until you could get around to disposing of him or..."

"—or interrogating him. Or whatever the Cherokees wanted to do to him. Hmmm. Where is this Jamie Two Eagles Cogburn now, do you know?"

"He wanted to go back to his people on the rez – the reservation, sir. He was studying Healing, and after his advanced training up in Salem, he wrote me that he got accepted for a Healing Potions fellowship at the Magical University of Virginia. He may be still there, I'm not sure how long that lasts, sir."

The Interim Secretary nodded, pointed his wand, and a pen leaped out of its holder and made notes on a pad. "Well, we've got Nosey stupefied over at Bethesda, and I hope we can find out what he knows. But something – either Parboil's security spell or your Cherokee curse, has locked his mouth closed. They've got him on a feeding tube. Perhaps your friend can help."

I don't know how he did it. He was a friendly, almost fatherly figure, at one moment, and then suddenly he was In Command.

"All right. Jenkins, I like you. One of the first people to die in the battle upstairs –shriveled up into a pile of bones right in front of the assault team – was Undersecretary for Foreign Wizarding Relations Silas Willowmoan, and you are hereby appointed his replacement."