Note: Written for MyWitch for the 2016 round of the SSHG Giftfest on LiveJournal based on the prompt, "Murder on the Hogwarts Express." As this is a finished work that was written for a specific recipient and prompt, concrit is not being solicited.
©2016 Mundungus42. All rights reserved. This work may not be archived, reproduced, or distributed in any format without prior permission from the author. Permission may be obtained by emailing the author at mundungus42 at yahoo dot com. This is an amateur, non-profit work, and is not intended to infringe on any copyrights held by any lawful holders.
It happened on a Tuesday.
Had it been a regular school year, the Hogwarts Express would have run on Monday, but the usual end-of-term activities, exams, O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s had been interspersed with over a month's worth of speeches, memorials, and dedications in honour of the twentieth anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts. Every guest room in the castle, not to mention a number of rooms that had been somewhat hastily converted, was filled with visiting dignitaries, and the Great Hall had been magically expanded in order to accommodate everybody at the traditional Leaving Feast. Apart from some fatuous Gryffindor grumbling that their sixth House Cup victory in a row had been overshadowed by the proceedings, everything had gone to the Headmistress's satisfaction.
She herself was at Hogsmeade Station that Tuesday, chatting with former students and numerous notables who had made arrangements to take the Hogwarts Express back to London. Minerva did not share their nostalgia for the noisy, inefficient conveyance or the quality of pumpkin pasties for sale. Though she supposed that was to be expected, given that she'd ridden the Express more times than she cared to count over the years.
After wishing Kevin Entwhistle—Ravenclaw? Hufflepuff? She was mortified that she couldn't remember— a safe journey, she glanced at the first-class carriages that had been added to the train and was unsurprised to see Lucius Malfoy boarding, resplendent in silver-embroidered green velvet, escorting his wife. She stifled her huff of disapproval when she saw Malfoy extend his hand to assist a visiting scholar who hadn't spoken a word to her all week, and Lydia Ollivander, who had sold Minerva her first wand all those years ago.
Her hand strayed to her pocket to run her fingers over its smooth wooden surface as she walked down towards the student carriages, where the students and less self-important adults were boarding. There were three generations of Weasleys in a noisy clump, the teenagers attempting to hide their embarrassment over the presence of their relations. And the Potters, of course. Harry now had strands of silver in his messy hair and his boyish face had hardened, but he was still quick to smile and returned Minerva's nod before he and his wife departed for the Apparation point on High Street.
Little Dennis Creevey was unsubtly taking a photograph of himself in front of Donaghan Tremlett, whose attempts to Shrink his bass guitar case for the journey were being interrupted by a mixed crowd of Weird Sisters fans.
At last, a trio of conductors shouted for everyone to board, trunks and cages were hastily loaded, last-minute hugs and kisses were exchanged, and the crowd on the platform began to thin, leaving mostly families who would be Apparating from Hogsmeade, and Arnie Bulger, who owned the broomstick repair shop in town, and was sorting through the school broomsticks that Minerva brought him for servicing at the end of every term.
To her surprise, she spied her old friend Severus Snape deep in conversation with Hermione Granger near an enormously full luggage trolley, which Hermione's ex-husband had presumably left her when he took their children to say goodbye to their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Minerva instinctively tucked herself against a lamppost so as not to be obvious about eavesdropping.
"-given up on this foolhardy idea," Severus said, his scowl clearly audible in his voice.
"Even if I agreed with you, which I don't, I have no desire to discuss it with you," Hermione replied. "There really is nothing to be done."
"We shall see."
"You've no right to interfere," said Hermione, her voice low and furious.
"Haven't I?" asked Severus.
"No, you haven't," said Hermione. "And if you try, I cannot be held responsible for what happens."
"And I cannot be held responsible for any complications that you failed to account for," said Severus darkly. "Good day, Miss Granger."
Severus swept off towards the first-class carriages and mounted the steps, leaving Minerva to wonder why on earth Severus thought it wise to bait the head of Magical Law Enforcement. Hermione tutted, Levitated the trunks with an elegant flourish of her wand, and stomped up the steps of the first student carriage.
The carriage doors slammed shut after her, and the conductors made one final sweep of the platform before boarding themselves. The whistle shrieked, and slowly, majestically, the train began to move, sending steam billowing across the platform.
As the last Carriage Cleared the platform, Minerva felt her heart grow lighter with the satisfaction of having successfully completed both the school year and the anniversary celebrations. It had been no mean feat, and Minerva was very much looking forward to summer. As the rhythmic chug and clack began to fade in the distance, Minerva's thoughts turned towards the Three Broomsticks and a celebratory drink, until Arnie Bulger gave a strangled shout.
"Headmistress! The train!"
Minerva spun around to look, and to her shock, the Hogwarts Express had gained top speed and was rising sharply into the air, like a scarlet cobra about to strike.
"Sound the alarm!" she shouted, seizing one of the less-abused school brooms from Arnie's pile, gripping her wand between her teeth, and kicking off the ground.
The broom's balance was slightly off, but it was one of the relatively new Hurricane Sixes that Puddlemere United had donated to the school, and the Headmistress shot towards the Express at dizzying speed.
The train was now completely airborne and veering away from the tracks. Minerva's knuckles tightened around her broom's handle when she realised that it was flying towards the school.
As she zoomed towards the Express, she noticed that the trolley witch, who had been selling sweets on the Hogwarts Express as long as she could remember, was pushing her trolley along the tracks far below, looking somewhat bereft.
She had no time to reflect on this as she flew along the length of the train, trying to hold back her fury at seeing all the terrified faces of her students pressed against the windows. She pulled alongside the locomotive and through the side window she could see the driver with his back against the wall of the cab, clinging to the handle of the coal bunker for dear life.
Minerva pulled her wand from her teeth, Vanished the glass from the window, pulled in her elbows, and flew into the cab.
"Get hold of yourself, man!" she shouted at the driver over the whistling wind.
"I can't stand heights!"
"What made this happen?"
"There's something under the train pushing us upward, but I don't know what. Besides, we're too high! Even if we stopped it we'd all fall."
"Have you tried the brakes?"
"The brakes! Oh for pity's sake! Just tell me where they are!"
He raised a shaking hand to a cable running along the side of the engine room, and Minerva seized it and pulled with all her strength.
There was a shriek of metal on metal as the wheels of the train were forced into stillness, but it had no effect on their speed. Perhaps more direct measures were called for.
She threw open the door to the firebox and was met with a blast of unbearable heat.
"Aguamenti!" she shouted, shooting a jet of water into the flames.
Steam blasted outward, forcing her to protect her face with the sleeve of her robe, but she held on to the water streaming out of her wand until the fire was completely quenched. Unfortunately, there was no immediate effect.
However, something shifted in Minerva's stomach, and she realised that they were no longer ascending, but descending at great velocity. They were now above the Quidditch pitch and terrifyingly close to the castle.
"We've got to get everybody out!" shouted Minerva.
"We can't! There's too much magic keeping people in!" said the driver, whose eyes were now screwed shut. "Merlin, we're all for it!"
"Not if I can help it," said Minerva, re-securing her hat to her head and mounting the Hurricane once more.
Once out of the cab, Minerva veered sharply upwards, attempting to determine precisely where the train would end up, given its current downward trajectory, and felt a complicated mix of relief and fear when she realised that the Hogwarts Express would not be colliding with the school, but rather coming down in the middle of the lake.
She cast a Sonorus Charm on herself.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," she said, "please remain calm and listen to me. The Hogwarts Express will be making an emergency water landing momentarily. Take only your wands and non-flying familiars, and exit through the compartment windows when I give the order to jump. If you have luggage in the racks, Levitate it into the corridor and close your compartment door to prevent yourselves from being injured by it. Release all avian familiars now."
Minerva saw a flurry of activity inside the train. A handful of windows on her side of the train exploded, presumably from Reductor Curses, and a flurry of owls took flight. She could see the surface of the lake rippling just ahead and swallowed hard.
"Exit through a window or door before the train hits the water. If you cannot swim, raise your wand and someone will assist you. If your window isn't already open, please open or break it on my count and jump as soon as you see water below you. Three. Two. One. Now!"
Windows exploded in a satisfying burst of glass, there was a flash of green light from the very front of the train, and passengers began leaping from the windows into the water below.
"NOW!" bellowed Minerva.
The locomotive slammed into the lake with a spectacular crash, sending an enormous plume of water into the air. There were deafening cracks of wood shattering and squeals of metal twisting out of shape as the carriages were crushed up against the locomotive, their orderly line collapsing on itself.
To Minerva's horror, the green light rose into the air and coalesced into a symbol she had hoped to never see again. The Dark Mark looked particularly obscene hanging in the perfectly clear blue sky.
"Everybody, get away from the train!" shouted Minerva, tearing her eyes form the leering skull overhead. "Come on!"
The locomotive was now completely submerged, as were the remnants of the first-class carriages. There were some bits of flotsam to which escaped passengers were clinging. The air was filled with shouts and a few short-lived screams, as well as yowls from some very unhappy cats. They would be fine. They and a number of passengers were already swimming for shore.
She scanned the escapees and was gratified to see the Cattermole sisters assisting several young students who didn't know how to swim. Even Donaghan Tremlett had Transfigured his bass guitar case into a raft and was loading the injured aboard with the help of the Giant Squid, which had an unconscious passenger draped across the top of its head.
Minerva noticed one second-year student being weighed down by her robes and flew in. "Steady on, Chapman," she said, pulling the coughing, spluttering girl up on her broom. She flew towards the boathouse and dropped Chapman on the dock. "Release the boats," she said, and Chapman, bless the child, ran to obey and cast neat severing charms on the moorings.
"Twenty points to Ravenclaw," said Minerva approvingly, as she lowered herself into the prow of the nearest boat. With a wave of her wand, all the boats began to move forward towards the wreckage, which continued to sink. There weren't nearly enough boats for the hundreds who had been on the train, but getting out to them was paramount.
She heard a spell go sizzling past her and was heartened to see Filius Flitwick running down from the castle as fast as his legs would carry him, shooting Duplication Spells at Minerva's flotilla. Other spells soon followed as the remaining teachers and staff poured from the castle to the edge of the lake.
Minerva cast Levitation after Levitation on the smallest swimmers, flying them neatly into the boats, and others who were strong enough climbed in on their own. Satisfied that rescue efforts were proceeding apace, she loaded a tiny first year into her own boat, mounted her broom once more, and rose into the air to survey the damage.
The student carriages were almost fully submerged, and Minerva spotted the unmoving form of Lucius Malfoy being Levitated into a boat by Lydia Ollivander.
Minerva flew alongside the sinking carriages, looking for anyone who hadn't made it out yet, and the knot in her stomach loosened the least bit for every vacant compartment she passed. She did find one fourth-year Hufflepuff frantically digging through a trunk that Minerva sincerely hoped was his own, but all it took was a bellow from Minerva to get him to leap through the nearest window and swim for the boats.
Minerva was about to do one final pass of the train looking for anyone injured when she heard her name shouted by a harsh Mermish voice. She flew over to the patch of flotsam where the first-class carriages had sunk and espied three Mermen gesturing for her to approach, their expressions baleful.
Sweet Circe, in her haste to protect her charges, had she neglected the Merfolk?
Minerva greeted the chief in Mermish, but he waved his hand. "We will help to rescue your people," he said in English. "But you will assist mine in meting out justice."
"Thank you," said Minerva. "Whoever has done this will answer for it."
The Mermen nodded and dove back into the water. Already, Minerva could see greenish-grey hands helping to push passengers into the boats and holding the faces of the floundering above water. Seeing nobody else in immediate danger, she flew to shore, where Professor Longbottom had just arrived, red-faced and panting and carrying a ball of Gillyweed.
"Fancy a lift, Longbottom?" she said, offering him the broom.
"I would," he said, stuffing the Gillyweed into his mouth. "Fanks, Mi'erva!"
"I pray you find nothing below apart from wreckage."
He nodded solemnly, kicked off, and zoomed over to where the back of the final carriage was sticking out of the water. Finally pulled below by the weight of the rest of the train, it sank majestically below the surface, sending a flurry of bubbles up to the surface. Several coughing passengers rose up in its wake, and Minerva could see her Herbology teacher towing them towards the boats.
On shore, survivors were forming clumps, many of them crying, others being seen to by the Matron, who had set up a row of hospital beds along the shore.
"I've called for reinforcements from St. Mungo's," she said to Minerva, healing Millicent Bulstrode's broken leg. She jerked her head at a nearby rolling cart, upon which were set several bottles of essence of dittany. "If you could help with the cuts and bruises, I'd be much obliged."
"Of course," said Minerva, taking the bottle.
"And have a dose of this yourself," she said, tossing Minerva a bottle of Pepper-Up. "I suspect this will be a long night."
"The bounty of Gaia be on you, Hannah Longbottom," said Minerva, tossing back a not-so-wee dram.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. In the end, all passengers but one were accounted for, the wounded were healed or shipped off to St. Mungo's for further treatment, parents were notified of the day's events via owl, the students were delivered to King's Cross via Knight Bus, and a compromise was reached between Hermione Granger and the Mermish Chief, who had got into a spectacular row over the Chief's insistence that the wreckage remain at the bottom of the lake and that the Ministry had no right to enter their waters.
Fortunately, the Merfolk's long-standing accords with Hogwarts were such that Minerva was able to negotiate an unwieldy agreement, by which Magical Law Enforcement would be allowed to investigate the wreck in situ, provided the Aurors were accompanied by one Hogwarts teacher and monitored by one of the Merfolk. No-one was satisfied, which Minerva took to be a sign that the agreement was equitable.
And so the Headmistress found herself staring at the passenger manifest for so long that the names were running together. There was a knock at the door, and she was surprised to find Severus Snape standing in the doorway holding a steaming mug.
"Are you all right, Minerva?"
"Frankly, no," she said.
He set the mug by her elbow—a hot toddy, double-strength, unless her nose deceived her.
"There's news," he said.
"The final passenger?"
"Yes. They found her in the wreckage of a first-class carriage. She was beyond help."
Minerva unhooked her spectacles from behind her ears and pressed her fingertips to her eyelids. "I feared as much."
Severus took the passenger manifest and he ran his finger down the list until he found the name that lacked a check mark next to it. "Edlira Zagreda," he said. "Did you know her?"
"I hardly said a word to her, apart from 'Welcome to Hogwarts, a house elf will bring you to your room,'" said Minerva. "She was observing the proceedings as part of a history project through Magical University of Tirana. I suppose I'll have to Owl the Albanian embassy."
"Or you could let the Ministry do that and get some rest," said Severus.
"They'll want to take my statement," said Minerva. "Hermione said to send for her when-"
"The Aurors still have dozens of statements to take, including mine," said Severus. "They can question you in the morning."
Minerva recognised the stubborn look on her old friend's face and sighed. "They can at that," she said. She took a sip from the toddy and sighed at the familiar burn that warmed her throat. "You always did spoil me. I've had to learn to make my own rum punch since you left."
"I'm sure it could knock a Quintaped sideways."
"Arse over teakettle," she agreed, giggling, then quickly sobered. "Who could have done this, Severus? And why?"
He gave an eloquent shrug, but she glared at him until he scowled. "I think it's obvious that a person or persons unknown want us to believe that the Dark Lord's former associates are responsible."
"That would seem an obvious conclusion," said Minerva.
"But there were hundreds of people on that train from all different backgrounds, yet only one person died. Tom's style was much more, well, directly lethal to whomever opposed him."
"I think you're giving yourself too little credit, Minerva. Nick Bartleby is telling anyone who will listen that the train would have flown into the castle if you hadn't thought to quench the fire. And dozens more could have been crushed had you not facilitated a relatively orderly exit."
Minerva waved her hand dismissively. "I don't know that putting out the flames had any effect."
Severus gave her a look. "False modesty ill becomes you, Minerva. Bartleby's been driving the Express for four decades. I daresay he understands how it works rather well."
Minerva frowned. Had her conclusion been too hasty? It was certainly possible that the train might not respond immediately, given the boiler water's residual heat. "It's not for either of us to say what might have happened," she said. "It's up to Magical Law Enforcement to discover what happened and see that those responsible see justice."
"I couldn't agree more," said Severus. "Well, I'm for bed. You've seen the special edition of The Prophet?"
Minerva sighed and leaned back in her chair. "Do I want to?"
"Arnie Bulger managed to snap an impressive photo of you speeding off after the train. They printed it in colour. Naturally, they have even less information than we do."
"I'll draft a statement," said Minerva, yawning.
"You'll go to bed," said Severus, crossing his arms. "I will dose you with Dreamless Sleep if necessary. Besides, you'll want to consult with the Aurors before saying anything to the press."
"I suppose you're right," said Minerva, taking a final sip from her now-lukewarm toddy. "And thank you. I may wish for happier circumstances, but it does my heart good to see you here."
Severus's usual imperious posture softened momentarily, and she was strongly reminded of the boy he had once been, unsure of how to respond to praise. "I did not relish returning."
"No-one blames you for that. Nor for not wanting to stay. I only wish—"
"Water under the bridge, Minerva," he said roughly.
Minerva could feel tears stinging her eyes. "Forgive a foolish old woman," she said, pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve and blotting her eyes.
He reached out, hesitantly at first, and then took her hand in his warm fingers. "There is nothing to forgive."
Minerva felt her face tremble, ready to crumple and succumb to exhaustion, but she pursed her lips and squeezed Severus's hand.
"We'll speak tomorrow," she promised.
He drew her hand to his lips and kissed it reverently. "Tomorrow. We'll have tea and a game of chess. Now, get to bed, you."
Severus closed the door to the Headmistress's office quietly behind him. Though it had been twenty years since he last walked the castle at night, he found himself treading its corridors silently, wand drawn but unlit, caught somewhere between force of habit and the feeling that he had no right to be there.
Though his own guest room was not far from the Great Hall, his feet carried him on his old patrol, past the hospital wing, the library, and the Astronomy Tower, now silent and empty of students, and finally, to his old quarters in the dungeon. He stared at the closed door, wondering what he would find inside if he were to dismantle the lock. But the moment passed, and he found that the question that had occurred to him no longer interested him in the least.
He pulled his robes close against the dungeon's chill—odd how it had never seemed to bother him before—and walked towards the Slytherin common room, where the door swung open to admit him without having to consider what the password might be. There was no fire in the grate and the hanging lamps were extinguished, but there was a dim glow coming from the windows that looked out into the lake. He approached the window, peered through the thick glass and saw greenish aureoles of light that he assumed had been cast to aid investigating the wreck of the Hogwarts Express. The wreck itself was discernible from the rocky bottom of the lake by virtue of its size, and every now and then, a light would flicker, as if from someone swimming around it.
Severus watched the eerie spectacle for a moment, crossing his arms across his chest against the chill. At last, he shook his head, and swept out of the common room and up the silent stone corridor towards the stairs.
The Great Hall was buzzing with Aurors, several of whom were conducting interviews with those few who had chosen to remain overnight at Hogwarts. There was an enormous glowing diagram of the Hogwarts Express, on which the names of the passengers and crew been inscribed in their initial locations. A number of names had lines with arrows on them them leading into other compartments or to the toilets or other compartments, presumably those who had already made their statements to the Aurors.
Hermione Granger was standing in the middle of a translucent bubble on whose walls were written notes in cypher, photographs, diagrams, lists and drawings. One Auror, Rhince, who had been in Slytherin many years ago, finished with her interview and approached the bubble. She caught Hermione's eye, and an opening appeared in the side of the bubble, allowing her to enter. Severus heard nothing of the conversation once the bubble had closed behind Rhince.
"Hello, sir," said one of the junior Aurors. "Have you come to make your statement?"
"I'd like a word with Ms. Granger, if you don't mind."
A pained look crossed the young man's face. "Are you sure you want to? She's quite focused on the case."
"Ms. Granger's snit is of no consequence."
The Auror gave a shudder. "It's your funeral."
Severus stepped into Hermione's field of view, though she was so absorbed in updating the web of information on the wall of the bubble that she didn't notice him at first.
She met his gaze, and he could see anger simmering in her brown eyes. She finished her discussion with Rhince, and the bubble opened once more.
Hermione beckoned for him to enter, but he paused in the bubble's aperture.
"We should take a walk," he said.
"I have work to do."
"I'm afraid I must insist."
"Oh must you?" she asked sarcastically. She did, however, follow him out of the bubble and seal it behind her.
They ducked into an alcove off the staircase to the Astronomy Tower, and he cast a silent Muffliato over them. "Minerva believes that the train wreck wasn't lethal enough to be Death Eater handiwork."
"Death Eaters without Voldemort aren't exactly known for their bravery," said Hermione. "One need look no further than the Muggle-baiting they did at the Bulgaria-Ireland Quidditch World Cup."
"True, but if she has suspicions, others will as well."
Hermione thought for a moment. "There is still a great deal of wreckage to be searched. Who knows what evidence we'll find?"
"You've got a glib answer for everything," he said grudgingly.
"I've had years of practise," said Hermione with a tight smile. "Is there anything else I should know before speaking with Minerva tomorrow?"
"She wanted to write to the Albanians concerning the untimely passing of one of their citizens, though I convinced her to let the Ministry handle that."
"Good," said Hermione. "You know I respect the Headmistress, but she does have a tendency to take on more than she ought. I'm hopeful she can be convinced to leave most of the investigating to my Aurors."
"The tendency to overcommit does seem to be something of a Gryffindor trait," said Severus, smirking.
"Is that all you wanted to tell me?" asked Hermione, scowling. "Because some of us have work to do."
Severus could see clear signs of stress and exhaustion in her face. "Under ideal circumstances, you will have a trying day ahead," he said. "If I were you, I would consider getting some sleep."
"I'll think about it," said Hermione, spinning on her heel and walking through the Anti-Eavesdropping Charm, which disintegrated with a whisper of magic.
Severus watched her walk back to the Great Hall, passing through the warm circles of torchlight on her way back to the Great Hall. "I rather thought you might," he said softly.
The next morning, Hermione knocked on the door to the Headmistress's office and found her sitting opposite the school Matron. Minerva's face lit up when she saw Hermione.
"Just the witch we wanted to see," said Minerva, Summoning a chair for Hermione. "Hannah has made an extraordinary discovery."
"Congratulations?" said Hermione, bewildered, sitting next to Hannah, who was blushing in a most becoming way.
"It's all because Neville and I have been binge-watching iCSI: Cincinnati/i that I even recognised the signs," said Hannah.
"Muggle cosmetic surgery!"
Hermione's confusion must have shown on her face, because Hannah blushed. "Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. The Merfolk made the Ministry agree to involve someone from Hogwarts in each step of the investigation."
"I'm aware," said Hermione drily.
"Since I'm the only member of the staff who's trained as a Healer, I was asked to observe the post-mortem examination of Edlira Zagreda, the woman who died. Or that's who she claimed to be, anyway. She had extensive surgeries to alter the shape of her face."
"Perhaps she was disfigured in an accident?" asked Hermione.
Hannah shook her head. "There's no sign of that: no notable scars, and no signs of broken or healed bones, even though her bones are quite brittle for a woman of her age, and at some point she lost a considerable amount of weight."
"Interesting," said Hermione.
"I'm not even to the interesting part," said Hannah. "So finding out she'd completely changed her face in such a way that magic couldn't restore it, I wondered if her identity could have anything to do with why she ended up dead."
Hermione coughed back a sharp comment. "That's something of a leap, isn't it? Crashing a train is a pretty imprecise method of killing someone."
"Yes, but she didn't die in the crash," said Hannah. "She was dead before the train hit the water."
Hermione was pleased to see that Minerva looked as shocked as she herself felt. "How?"
"She was killed by a blow to the back of the head," said Hannah. "It's in the post-mortem report. Or will be once the Mediwizard finishes with it."
"The injury is consistent with where she was found," said Hermione. "She was in the corridor practically buried in trunks. They must've flown everywhere when the other passengers threw them out of their compartments."
"That's not all, though," said Hannah, who was practically vibrating with excitement, which Hermione considered to be in rather bad taste, given the circumstances. "At some point between being struck in the head and the train sinking, someone forced clean water into her lungs, probably from casting iAguamentii up her nose. The disparity in microorganisms is unmistakeable. I never would have thought to look, but it was major plot point in the iCSI: Cincinnati/i episode where Colton and Nevaeh discover that victim who was found in the Licking River actually drowned in Folz Fishing Lake. The Healer had no idea what I was talking about, of course, but they don't know anything about Muggle science."
Hermione was silent for a moment as rapid thoughts flickered through her mind and slotted together into workable hypotheses. "Someone would have heard or seen if it was done out in the corridor where her body was found," she said. "That suggests that she was struck and waterlogged in one of the compartments and then moved into the corridor after the luggage was dumped there, making it appear as though she was knocked out by luggage in the crash, and drowned."
Minerva's face was stormy. "So it's murder, then."
"Or accidental death," said Hermione, wondering if Minerva, too had been watching too many television mysteries. "The blow to the head that killed her might not have been intended to kill her."
"The water up her nose certainly was," said Hannah.
"Or it was intended to make the death look less suspicious," said Hermione, with a touch of asperity.
"Well, I think it was murder," said Hannah, crossing her arms.
"Your job was to determine the cause of death, and you've done that, for which I'm grateful. But watching a lot of crime procedurals doesn't make you an expert in criminal justice," said Hermione, her voice hard. "Now, I'll assign someone to look into this woman's credentials. Perhaps they'll offer additional clues as to who she was and why she was here."
"And why someone might wish to kill her," added Minerva, who shot a sympathetic look at Hannah.
Hermione paused a fraction of a second. "And why someone might wish her harm," she said.
Hannah seemed to take this as a concession, and she smiled with the blitheness that Hermione fondly remembered from their Dumbledore's Army days. "I thought we might try something a bit more direct," she said. "It's a bit unusual, but I want to see if one of my diagnostic spells can simulate her original facial structure. It won't be exact, but might provide something to go on."
"Intriguing," said Minerva, and Hermione found herself nodding in agreement.
"If we're going to, we should do it now," said Hannah, rising. "They'll be moving the body to the morgue at St. Mungo's soon."
Minerva glanced at Hermione, who made a deferential gesture towards the Matron. "What I have can wait," she said.
Hannah beamed at them both and led the way to the Hospital Wing, where the Auror that Hermione had assigned to monitor the proceedings, Burbrickle, was looking exceptionally bored. He stood to attention at Hermione's entrance, and she dismissed him with a nod.
The Healer from St. Mungo's had his back to the bed where the body lay beneath a crisp white sheet, and he was examining two samples whose magnified images hung glowing in the air. He glared at the three of them in exasperation. "I'm trying to finish my report."
"Can you do in the next room?" asked Hannah, gesturing to the other side of the room. "I want to perform Compositus on the victim."
"Haven't you wasted enough time for one day?" he grumbled, as he Vanished the images and gathered together the sample phials.
"Apparently not," said Hannah, smiling.
Once the space around the body had been cleared, Hannah gently pulled back the sheet to reveal the face of a witch, somewhere north of seventy with short black hair and a narrow, pointed face.
Hermione cocked her head to the side, but there was nothing at all familiar about the face.
"The hair is dyed, certainly," said Minerva. "Do you know its original colour?"
"From the age of the victim and given the hair's texture, I'd say grey," said Hannah. She waved her wand, murmured a spell, and the body's face appeared in the air above the body, with open, blinking brown eyes, grey hair, and lightly flushed skin.
"That's unnerving," muttered Minerva. Hermione, who had seen similar spells performed, was inclined to agree.
"Now," said Hannah, waving her wand to Vanish the face and reveal the skull, "as you can see, bone has been shaved away from her chin and forehead, and artificial bone has been grafted on to make her cheekbones more pronounced." She returned the lifelike face on top of the skull. "And if that weren't enough, you can see from these small scars here, here, and here, she's had a face lift, moved her ears back, and had upper and lower eyelid surgeries to change the shape of her eyes."
"That sounds like bog standard plastic surgery," said Hermione.
"But for a witch to undergo Muggle surgeries?" asked Hannah. "Doesn't that strike you as suspicious?"
"It's certainly eccentric, but there are legitimate reasons that a witch might go to a Muggle doctor instead of a Magical healer."
Hannah snorted. "Do you really think it's more likely that she had a rare magic intolerance than it is that she wanted to change her appearance in a way that can't be easily reversed with magic?"
Hermione was about to retort angrily when Minerva cleared her throat.
"Let's not speculate motives," she said. "For now, I suggest we stick to the task at hand."
Chastened, Hannah raised her wand. "Sorry. It's easy enough to remove the effect of the zygomatic grafts, since they're made of a different material than the rest of the skull." The floating face flattened slightly, its prominent cheekbones sinking back into the rest of the face. "It's a bit harder to judge how much of the eyelids were excised and how much of the frontal plate and mandible were shaved down, but I can increase them bit-by-bit."
Slowly, the face before them flattened and widened, and its eyes seemed to narrow into an expression of disgust while still protruding from the face.
"No wonder she had work done if that's what she looked like before," muttered Hermione.
"Hannah dear," said Minerva, whose voice sounded a bit odd, as though she were beginning to recognise the person in front of them, "could you make the face a bit fatter, perhaps? You said she'd lost a great deal of weight."
"Of course," said Hannah, and the face began to fill out into familiar looking contours. "You know, she looks a bit like—" she cut off with a gasp.
They were staring at the unmistakable, toad-like face of Dolores Umbridge.
The Minister for Magic was summarily sent for, along with every bit of information the Ministry had on Dolores Jane Umbridge, her meteoric rise through the Ministry and her subsequent fall from grace. Hermione, who was quite familiar with Umbridge's history as head of Magical Law Enforcement, found herself in a four-way conference with Minerva, Minister Finch-Fletchley, and Pikeslayer, which was the English name by which the Mermish Chief preferred to be called, who was attending via Flow Call.
Hermione's brain was whirring, trying to balance the astounding unmasking of Umbridge with thinking methodically about the investigation, the number of interviews that would need to be repeated, and the fact that practically everybody who had been present at the anniversary celebration had reason to hate Umbridge. Her head was beginning to ache from the enormity of the task ahead of them.
She was more than content to let Minerva describe Hannah's discoveries, namely the true identity of the deceased, which made the Minister gasp in shock, as well as the fact that she was already dead before being submerged. Chief Pikeslayer seemed deeply disturbed by the fact that someone had attempted to cover up the crime by forcing water into her lungs.
"Well," said Justin, "that changes some things."
"It does," agreed the Chief, his voice distorted through Translation Charm and Flow Call, which made his rippling underwater image appear in Minerva's fire. "We have no need to be involved in investigating this woman's death. She was no friend to Merfolk and will be unmourned."
Hermione sighed. "Thank you, Chief Pikeslayer. That will simplify matters."
"You must still work with us to investigate the sabotage of your train," he warned. "Several of my people were injured and homes were destroyed."
"Well, isn't that all beside the point?" asked Justin." It seems obvious to me that Umbridge was the one who sabotaged the train and sent the Dark Mark into the sky, but someone caught her at it, whacked her over the head, and then tried to cover his tracks. I think we owe her killer a debt of gratitude."
Minerva's face twisted in disapproval, and Hermione cleared her throat. "That may very well be the case, Minister, but even an awful person like Umbridge is presumed innocent until proven otherwise. I wouldn't be doing my job if we didn't do a thorough investigation. And even though her actions during the war were despicable, it was never proven that she was a Death Eater, so if she cast the Dark Mark, it may have been to implicate someone else."
"Very well," grumbled the Minister, glancing from Minerva to Hermione in turn. "But if you want to be completely fair, I'm not sure either of you should be leading the investigation."
"I beg your pardon," said Hermione coldly.
"My actions toward Dolores Umbridge are above reproach," said Minerva, puffing up a bit.
"You sent her off to the Centaurs, Hermione."
"I was a teenager fighting an authoritarian figure who literally tortured my friends!"
"And you insulted her to her face and openly opposed her," said the Minister, smiling at Minerva. "You might think we student's didn't notice it, but we did. Appreciated it too, but if we're trying to avoid perceived conflicts of interest—"
"Pish and tish!" exclaimed Minerva. "That was in service to the school, which I vowed to protect when I accepted the post of Deputy Headmistress," said Minerva. "And while you're certainly too young to know this, I did the same thing to Armando Dippet when he was being a fool. His portrait still doesn't speak to me."
"Where, precisely, do you hope to find someone competent to investigate who wasn't persecuted by Dolores Umbridge or who wasn't close to someone who was?" asked Hermione, jaw firmly set.
Justin went pale under their combined baleful gazes and began to stammer, when he was interrupted by the sound of a throat being cleared from the doorway.
"Is this a bad time?"
They all turned to find Severus Snape standing in the doorway with a wizarding chessboard under his arm.
"Him!" exclaimed Justin. "You should investigate with him!"
Severus gave him a withering look. "What nonsense are you talking, Finch-Fletchley?"
"I think the idea has merit," said Minerva, looking thoughtful.
"Am I to be the only one investigating this murder who has any idea how to do it?" exclaimed Hermione.
"I worked for Magical Law Enforcement for years before I started teaching, I'll have you know," said Minerva, drawing herself up to her full height. "I was investigating murders before your parents were born."
"Someone murdered the historian?" asked Severus, frowning.
"Yes, our ingenious school Matron discovered that the water in the victim's lungs was not lake water, so it's clear that someone interfered," said Hermione, her voice hard.
"Anyway, It turns out the historian was actually Dolores Umbridge in disguise," said the Minister helpfully. "Remarkable, that. And you're the only one we can think of who can provide useful insight without having skin in the game, as it were."
"Umbridge? How very unexpected," said Severus in a bored tone. "However, if you're looking for someone unaffected by her winning personality, I'm afraid I do not fit that description. Unless you've forgot that I was teaching at Hogwarts during her brief, undistinguished tenure here."
"Yes, but she didn't have it in for you the way she did all the other teachers, probably because you were Head of Slytherin. Sure, you thought she was useless, but you thought the same about loads of us students, and you managed not to kill any of us."
Hermione's head was beginning to ache despite the potion she had taken earlier.
"All right," she said, pressing her fingertips to her temples. "Severus, do you wish to be involved in the investigation, or don't you?"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," he said, smirking.
"Very well. I suggest you and Minerva accompany me to the Great Hall. I'll show you what we've found so far, and we can decide where to go from there. Is everybody satisfied with that?"
Everybody was satisfied, Hermione excepted. This wasn't surprising to her in the least.
Severus, Hermione, and Minerva found the Aurors in the Great Hall gathered around one of the tables, speaking excitedly in low voices.
"What's all this?" asked Hermione in a forbidding tone. Severus suspected that she practised it in the bath.
"Look what Shaw found in the corridor near the victim!" exclaimed Burbrickle, holding aloft a stumpy-looking wand. "iPrior Incantoi showed that it was used to cast the Dark Mark! And these were found in her compartment."
The clump of Aurors parted to allow Hermione to examine the other objects on the table, which appeared to be a toy dragon and a beater's bat.
Hermione waved her wand over them. The toy dragon glowed a bright white-blue.
"Portkey," she said.
"Unregistered," said Rhince grimly.
"Where was it meant to go?"
"We can't tell precisely, since the spell began to degrade immediately after the departure window closed," said one of the trainees, who was taking notes. "But Rhince reckons somewhere in southeastern Europe."
"Like Albania," said Minerva, nodding.
"Or Macedonia. Or Bulgaria. Or Greece," said Hermione. "Is the body still in the infirmary?"
"No, they took it to St. Mungo's an hour ago," said Burbrickle.
"Take the bat and see if the Healer in charge can confirm if it was the murder weapon."
"Right," said Burbrickle, sounding none too pleased to be assigned to corpse duty once more. He Levitated the bat skulked out of the hall.
"Has anyone been through the victim's luggage yet?" asked Minerva.
The Aurors looked guiltily at one another. "We haven't actually managed to find it yet. Well, we may have found it, but we don't know for certain that it's hers yet. Most of it isn't tagged."
"I'll speak with the house elves," said Minerva. "They handled every trunk and valise for the guests. If they can recall any details about Edlira Zagreda's, perhaps we can locate it without going through every piece of luggage on the train."
"Thank you, that'll help," said Hermione. "We did find a handbag in her compartment." She Summoned a clear plastic case from her private bubble. "These are the contents."
The case contained a Mokeskin money bag, cosmetics and a hand mirror, a comb, a small notebook, and a lacy handkerchief with an elaborate M embroidered on it.
"What a lovely handkerchief," remarked Minerva. "I wonder whose it is?"
"Narcissa Malfoy was in the next compartment," said Hermione, leading them over to the enormous diagram of the train. "Between the style and the monogram, I wouldn't be surprised if it's hers."
"Even if it is, I doubt we'll get the entire truth from her simply by asking," said Severus. "Especially once she discovers in whose possession it was found. I suspect Lucius will support his wife's claims, as well."
"Perhaps, but at least we can stack all of Carriage A's lies up against one another for comparison's sake," said Hermione, leading them over to the enormous diagram of the train.
"Why only Carriage A?" asked Minerva. "Anyone on the train could have been involved. The passengers circulate freely."
"That's true of the student carriages," said Hermione, "but all of the conductors confirmed that the three first-class carriages were locked to ensure the passengers' privacy, and only they had passkeys. Richie Cresswell was assisting passengers in Carriage A when the train took flight. Alex Throckmorton was at the far end of the train helping some stragglers with their luggage, and Jill Trimble was in carriage E, the second student carriage investigating the rumour that someone had smuggled a juvenile Hippogriff aboard."
"Poor Throckmorton," murmured Minerva. "He was rather knocked about."
"The Healers at St. Mungo's say he'll make a full recovery," said Hermione, her voice too bright and confident.
"How reassuring," said Severus in as bland a voice as he could muster.
Hermione gave him a dirty look. "I find it interesting that you didn't see fit to mention to the Minister that you were in the same Carriage as Umbridge."
"I wasn't aware that I was a suspect, given my lack of motive."
"You are one of only a dozen people with means and opportunity," said Hermione.
"Then by all means, let me set your mind at ease," said Severus, gesturing towards Hermione's privacy bubble.
Once all three were seated at the small table inside the bubble, Hermione tapped an automatic quill. "Statement of Severus Snape regarding the wreck of the Hogwarts Express. Please state your name."
"Place of residence?"
"Please describe your actions on the morning of Tuesday, June 19th."
"I rose at seven. Dined in the Great Hall at eight. Gathered my belongings and took a Thestral-drawn carriage to Hogsmeade Station for the ten-fifteen departure of the Hogwarts Express. I boarded the train approximately five minutes before the train departed."
"Did you speak with anyone in particular?"
"Yes, your lovely self, as you may recall," he said, smirking at Hermione.
"Do you recall the subject of your conversation?" she asked icily.
"Career advice," he answered smoothly.
Minerva let out a small cough.
"Did you notice anyone in particular when you boarded the train? No detail is too small."
"I mounted the carriage steps and walked to my compartment, ten, which was the third from the end. The door to the toilet was closed, the first compartment door was open, but I don't recall seeing anyone inside, though I didn't really look. The next compartment was occupied by Lucius and Narcissa, who greeted me as I passed. I noticed the conductor coming down the passageway, and not wishing to be disturbed later, I showed him my ticket, then entered my compartment. I closed the door behind me. I didn't open the door again until I realised we were taking flight."
"What did you do then?"
"I entered the corridor and saw that a number of passengers were there to see what was going on. I knew that it would take a great deal of magic to levitate the train, so I cast Specialis Revelio to see if I could discover how it was being done and possibly reverse the procedure."
Minerva was sitting forward in her chair. "What did you discover?"
"That there are a great deal more protection and privacy spells on the Hogwarts Express than I ever knew," said Severus. "The charm also revealed the presence of a powerfully charmed hoop-shaped object on the exterior underside underside of the carriage."
"Where precisely was it?" asked Hermione.
"Under the floor of the second compartment, which I believe was vacant," said Severus. "It appeared be connected to a line of magical energy running forward to the locomotive and backwards to the next carriage. I cast several spells at it, none of which were effective in disabling it."
Minerva turned to Hermione with a frown. "Did you know about this?"
"How the train was levitated? Of course," said Hermione. "I was planning to brief you on it this morning, but you may recall that other things took precedence. The hoop-shaped objects have been identified as flying carriage springs. We believe they once belonged to the school."
"Merlin," said Minerva softly. "Hogwarts hasn't used flying carriages in a hundred years. Headmaster Everard had a herd of Aethonian winged horses that used to fly all the students between the school and Hogsmeade Station. It was grand to see the school from above, and dashed useful to the first years for seeing how the school was laid out. Unfortunately, all that came to an end when Nigel Inglesworth thought it would be a lark to dangle out the window of one and he nearly died in the fall. The carriages were retired shortly thereafter and have been rusting in one of the outbuildings ever since. Anyone could have found them."
Hermione nodded grimly and turned Severus. "What happened next?"
"Then you gave us all our marching orders," said Severus. "I came in from the corridor, closed the door behind me, and blasted the glass out of my window. I flew out of it and landed on the shore of the lake closest to the school, where I assisted the Matron by conjuring beds for the wounded."
"I don't recall seeing you fly off," said Minerva.
"I must have flown out when you were inspecting the other side of the train," said Severus. "And I left the Matron to assist Filius floating the boats to shore," said Severus. "Both of them will be able to corroborate my story."
"Why did you decide to stay here instead of Flooing back to Cornwall?" asked Hermione.
"The Aurors told me to stay until I could be interviewed," said Severus. "Furthermore, I work for myself, so I needn't worry about being sacked if I fail to report tomorrow."
"And now you've been pressed into service," said Minerva. "That'll teach you to make yourself available."
"It's true, I have none but myself to blame," said Severus. "Now, are you satisfied?"
"For now," said Hermione. "Now, I need to—"
"One moment, dear," said Minerva. "Severus, what made you decide to take the Express in the first place? In a first-class compartment, no less. I don't seem to recall it being something you did when you taught here."
If the question surprised Severus, he didn't show it. "You know I am a man of few friends who values privacy," he said. "That's why I wished to have my own compartment next to Lucius and Narcissa. As to why ride the train at all, I used to be something of a railway enthusiast in my youth. The trains that came through Cokeworth were a welcome sign of regularity and predictability. I confess, as a younger man, I didn't care to be reminded of my childhood for a variety of reasons, but those iron divisions separating the different parts of my life need no longer be as impervious as they once were."
Minerva smiled. "Sentiment," she said in a voice of approval.
"If you like," said Severus.
Hermione cleared her throat. "Now, if there are no further questions for Severus?"
"Not at present," said Minerva.
"Good," said Hermione. "I need to brief my Aurors on the victim's identity and cause of death, ask them to recall the other passengers in Carriage A for additional questioning, and draft a statement for the iProphet/i. You're welcome to observe or take part, but it's not going to be particularly interesting."
"The house elves should have further information about Umbridge's luggage within the hour," said Minerva. "Once we have a description, I would be much obliged if you could prioritise locating it."
"I had planned to," said Hermione, smiling tightly at the Headmistress. "Perhaps you might also consult with the portraits and castle ghosts to see if any of them observed Umbridge's alter ego doing anything unusual."
Minerva's smile was unusually full of teeth. "I was planning to do that as well."
"If you like," cut in Severus, "I can take Minerva's statement while you're otherwise occupied. I have seen how it's done, and Minerva's not a suspect, I presume."
Hermione opened her mouth to object and closed it again. "I suppose that would be acceptable," she said.
"Your confidence in my abilities is touching," said Severus blandly.
"Oh, shut up," said Hermione tiredly, sealing the bubble behind her.