Chapter 37: Terrors

The scene inside the ice-cream parlor was worse than I'd imagined. It looked like one of those video-nasty movies from the early Eighties, only somehow it had started cleaner and ended gorier in the places the fire hadn't managed to scorch or smoke black. The thing that bothered me the most was that it still smelled, in places, like ice cream. We had to step over a chalk outline of a person's arm that included the fingers but not the rest of the person and ended in a big splash of what had been cartoonish red, and still I could smell mint chocolate chip and caramel praline in the air.

Madam Flourish was standing there stone-faced. Jessie was trying her damnedest not to puke.

"Could you take a look at this?" one of the Aurors asked suddenly, touching me on the arm. I flinched hard and backed away, which startled him. "I mean, this metal thing," he explained. So I looked at it.

"That's a bullet!" Auror Tonks announced cheerfully.

"No, it's not," I felt a little dizzy all of a sudden and really wished I had brought some coffee. Coffee made everything better. Coffee is magical. Coffee meant life and mornings and everyone waking up.

"But…but it must be. It was in the wall behind the –behind the suspect. It came from the Muggle gun."

"So it did. But it's not a bullet," I clarified. "It's a slug. Look at the sides, there's no rifling. This was fired out of a smooth-bore shotgun."

"Can you tell us how fast it went? Or how much killing force it had?" the male Auror asked, a little too excitedly. He was wearing gloves and holding the weapon in question the way my father might cradle a rare first-edition.

"Killing force? Mass times velocity, that's all it's got."

"I mean, when it's fired at a person. How much does it hurt a bad person?"

"…I don't get you," I must've looked pretty dang blank.

"Like, if you shoot the gun by accident, it won't hurt you, but for a bad person, someone trying to kill your child, them it would hurt, right?"

Oh, my stars and garters. Not one of these.

"Listen, Auror…what is your name?"

"Warbeck, ma'am."

"Okay, Warbeck, here's the thing. Guns don't have any magic in them. None. Not a speck. They work by chemical reaction and ballistics. They don't run on magical rules, British laws or emotional power and they have no ethical code. Anyone can use one, they are very, very easy to use and they are absolutely deadly. A gun will kill a bad person or it will blow its' owner's foot right the fuck off. The gun does not care. The gun kills whatever it's pointed at when you pull the trigger."

"The trigger?" Warbeck looked at the gun and brightened. "Oh, that's this bit-"

"DO NOT touch the trigger!" I snapped, whacking the barrel upward toward the ceiling with my sleeve. "You do not…touch…the trigger. Ever. You do not point the gun at anything you are not absolutely prepared to destroy, you must know what you are aiming at and what is behind it, and I want you to repeat this after me, Warbeck?"


"Every gun is loaded."

"Every gun is loaded?" Warbeck looked pale.

"I mean that. Unless a gun has been completely disassembled and is sitting in pieces in front of you, you assume that it is loaded at all fucking times. I don't care if you just shot every shell it holds or if you locked it in the safe a year ago unloaded. You treat it as if it is loaded to kill and you fucking well respect that or you be prepared to cause death, pain and utter destruction of everything you ever cared about. Do you comprehend me, Warbeck?"

"Yes, ma'am," the Auror replied shakily. "Ma'am?"

"Yes?" I half-growled.

"Might I get you some gloves and hand this to you instead?"

"I think that would be best, Auror Warbeck," Jessie nodded. She patted him on the shoulder and he flinched as badly as I had when he'd startled me. "You can set the gun down while you get the gloves."

"Yes, Madam Chairwoman."

Tonks looked at me, impressed and a little concerned.

"Every gun just reloads itself? I didn't know that."

"They don't. There's just no easier way to keep people safe when they don't understand firearms, and even experts can get lazy."

"So…you're an expert, right?" The witch's hair flickered pink, hopefully. I blinked at her, startled, then changed my eye color to dark red just to see what she'd do. She grinned and made her own bright teal. I sighed, put my eyes back and pinched the bridge of my nose where a migraine was starting.

"I'm no more an expert on guns than Jessie's an expert on Quidditch," I sighed. "I know the types, I know how they work, I've used them a fair amount and I know how to store them safely. But I am not an expert. An expert can tell you things like make, model, ballistic speed, weight of the loads, all sorts of important things. I can tell you, basically, 'that's not a Quaffle, it's a Bludger, and you really had better lock it up.' If you're hoping for a grand forensic expert, keep looking."

"I think you'll do for now," Tonks shrugged. "At least until someone better comes along. What kind of gun is this, then?"

I looked at it.

"This is a Winchester shotgun."

"And how did you deduce that?"

"Are we Sherlock fucking Holmes, then?" I spat, incredulous. "I deduced from the size of the barrel –don't look down it! For fuck's sake, Warbeck, every gun is loaded!" The Auror gave me some gloves and I snapped them on angrily, picking the weapon up and making damn sure it was not loaded. "The shape of the break and the lack of a lever arm or bolt," (I mimed where such things would be,) "tell us that this is a smoothbore shotgun. It also has 'Winchester' engraved right here, Captain Obvious. It's a 12-gauge Model 101 with a 28-inch barrel, it's not brand-new and it's been owned by someone who used it very rarely and cared about their kid. What else do you need to know?"

"Where are you getting the 'rarely' and the 'cared about their kid' parts?" Tonks asked.

"The thing's coated in cosmoline. In places, it's even begun to solidify. That's gun preservative, prevents things rusting. People who use their guns often only use a little bit and wipe the excess off. This thing was practically caked in it in some spots, which says that it wasn't taken out and used a lot. As for the kid part, there are little marks here and here. They're from a trigger lock. So this thing was stored unloaded, the owner had to get the lock off and break the barrel the way I showed you to load it, and maybe that was time that they didn't have to waste. But it still beats the hell out of a little kid shooting himself, which is why anyone uses trigger locks."

"We thought it was in the gun safe upstairs."

"So a gun safe AND a trigger lock? This was a careful person, or someone whose spouse was maybe a little afraid of guns. Sensible."

"Do you not like guns?" Warbeck asked, looking surprised.

"Stand over someone who's been killed with an Unforgiveable and tell me how you feel about wands," I shrugged. "They exist, they're powerful, dangerous tools, and some people make piss-poor use of them. Guns are the same. Unless there is a damned good reason to use one, I try not to."

"But…on American television-" I raised my eyebrow at him. "…I get the impression I'm making a big fool of myself, so I'm going to be quiet now," Warbeck half-mumbled.

"Wise decision."

"Sam?" Jessie called, and I hurried over. She and Madam Flourish were standing near a truly upsetting amount of blood. "Did a gun do this?"

I looked at it. There was a big ol' spatter pattern, and just below the center of what must've been an explosion, there was a smashed-up bit of plaster. I took my wand out and Accio'd the slug out of the wall, then looked at the eggshell-colored shards of bone embedded in the wall next to it.

"Yep, that was a gun, alright," I observed, dropping the slug into a little paper evidence bag Tonks held open for me. Jessie and Madam Flourish gaped at my casual tone. "Best guess? That big splody bit near the top was a skull."

Tonks passed Jessie a paper evidence bag so she could hork in it.

"Dear me," Madam Flourish looked a little pale, still, but also calculating. "Madam Redfern, about how much would this weapon cost?"

"New? Eighteen hundred dollars American, probably…" I did a bit of math in my head, "maybe three, four hundred Galleons and some change? It'd depend on the exchange rates."

"Ah." She sounded disappointed. Tonks and Jessie stared at her.

"But this is a really expensive gun," I explained. "Winchesters are pricy. You can get a decent shotgun or a rifle for maybe two hundred dollars American. Less if you go secondhand."

"Two hundred dollars American…" Madam Flourish looked contemplative. I saw Jessie counting under her breath and looking increasingly terrified.

"Maybe forty-two Galleons," I nodded.

"So roughly an hour's business, on a good day…" Madam Flourish seemed deep in thought. "How much are the little metal bits, that go into it, or does it just make them?"

"The ammunition goes in the gun and the gun expels it at deadly force," I tried not to sound irritated. It was only simple to me because someone had taught me, and now it was my turn to teach someone else. Couldn't say fairer. "Depending on what kind of gun you have, and what size ammunition it takes, it could be very affordable indeed."

"Home pitch estimate?"

"Well…for my mother's favorite rifle, about three Galleons buys 20 rounds. For my favorite rifle, a tin of ammunition runs about 28 Galleons."

"So yours is fancier or higher quality, then?" Madam Flourish asked.

"Nope. Mum uses a Winchester Model 1894, top of the line, personally customized by one of the most famous gunsmiths in New Orleans. It cost more than some cars I've ridden in. I shoot a military surplus Mosin-Nagant that predates the victory over Grindelwald."

Really, I did. Mum has a beautiful rifle she received as a gift from the historical society of her hometown after she donated a truly impressive sum to rebuild their museum and shot three of her films there. The resulting tourism helped revitalize a troubled neighborhood and the town elders decided to have a special rifle made for her and presented with much ado. It's chambered for 30-30 ammunition and has a beautifully designed stock plate that minimizes the recoil to something like an excited child's high-five. She loves the thing and has killed hundreds of paper targets, empty bottles and plastic jugs full of water…and nothing else. She offered to buy each of us a similar one when she taught us marksmanship. It's lever-action, easy to use and looks like something Annie Oakley would buy Frank Butler for their anniversary. And yes, I have seriously ridden in less expensive cars.

I, perhaps perversely, rather prefer the 1940 Mosin-Nagant I bought myself at a pawn shop outside of Lodi while Mum was shooting on location the summer I turned eighteen. It was ludicrously cheap and after I checked the action and found minimal slop, examined the barrel for corrosion and discovered it was in fine shape (well, apart from the cosmoline, though obviously it was in good shape because of said greasy mess, that and some long-forgotten Russian soldier who clearly cleaned it after every battle so the corrosive powder didn't mess it up,) well, I'm not ashamed to say I pulled the cute-little-newbie act, criticized the highly desirable hex receiver as ugly and bargained the shopkeeper down to a hundred and two dollars and my phone number. (Sucks to be him; the number connected to a hotel room I'd already checked out of.) One passed NICS check and it was mine. I dropped the last of my vacation money on a spam-can of ammunition and despite shooting more empty recyclables, paper targets and steel target plates over every holiday I ever took…well…I still hadn't quite gotten through half of my original ammunition purchase. Tore through cleaning kits something chronic, but that's mil-surp for you.

It's ugly as a cat's butt, kicks like an automotive collision test and the matching bayonet, the size and the sheer weight of it makes it absolutely lethal even when unloaded, though, of course, the only living thing I've ever killed with it was an unacceptably large spider that had taken up residence in a tampon box on a really bad day, and that was not only unloaded, but with the bolt and bayonet in a whole 'nother room.

I call it Sasha.

"So why the price difference?"

"Mum buys her ammunition in neat little boxes of 20 rounds, for the equivalent of about three Galleons apiece. Mine cost about twenty-seven, yes, but that's for four hundred and forty rounds."

"Four hundred and forty?!" Jessie's eyes goggled. "You mean that many people you could kill, for twenty-seven Galleons?!"

"Well, plus the price of the gun," Madam Flourish pointed out. "If you don't mind my asking, Madam Redfern?"

"Sam, please," I smiled politely. "It cost me twenty-one Galleons, three Sickles and fifteen Knuts. Exactly."

Tonks was looking at me with a mix of awe and horror. Warbeck was counting on his fingers for some reason. Jessie looked like she was about to hork again and Madam Flourish had that awful look people get when they realize something is possible. Awful, but possible. Terrible, but possible.

Homicidal, dangerous, unethical, immoral, bad, and wrong…but possible.

And possibly better than the alternative.

"So let's round up and say fifty Galleons for the gun and the…the metal bits."

"The ammunition, ma'am."

"Yes, that. Is there a long wait for the goblins to make you one?"

This time, Jessie slapped herself in the forehead.

"This is Muggle stuff, Abby. The goblins don't make that stuff, people do. It's all done in factories that turn out hundreds and hundreds of guns a day. Sam's Mosey-Nawhatsit is old Muggle military leftovers from their big war when our folks were all fighting Grindelwald. This stuff can last that long and longer, and it's still just as…just as splodey as the metal bit that took off this person's skull!" Her eyes were uncomfortably wide and she was breathing way the hell too fast. "Sam, I could do with a-"

"Already here, Jess," I held out my Coping Flask and she took a quick nip.

What? Ativan makes me constipated as hell and alcohol goes nicely with cocoa, plus it's been an anti-anxiety med longer. It was a damn magical civil war. Get over yourselves.

Tonks and Madam Flourish declined politely and Warbeck with some regret, so I stoppered the flask and put it back in my robes pocket. Jessie seemed to have collected herself.

"I really don't like the idea of this. Can we just view the remains, arrange for the inquest and get the gory awful bits over with?" she asked. Warbeck and Tonks nodded briskly and started gathering up the evidence packets and whatnot, getting a Portkey to the morgue ready and other such Auror tasks.

"I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," I apologized.

"It wasn't you who made me uncomfortable, Sam. It's the exploded human skull embedded in my friend's shop wall. I don't even know whose it is. I feel like curling up in a ball and throwing up and crying until the ugliness goes away." She really did look rattled. Obviously. "If anything, I'm jealous as hell of you. How the bloody fuck are you so buggered calm?"

"I'm focusing really, really hard on being useful to you and Madam Flourish and Auror Tonks and what's-his-name over there," I admitted. "If I actually stop and think about this, I'll probably throw up, too. This is some scary shit, Jessie. What the hell would a person have to be doing, attack-wise, before a witch would take out a firearm and…and…"

I have to confess to a crippling character flaw, one that Jessie, unfortunately, shares. It's actually common to Ravenclaws and for those who are used to it, it's sometimes calming and even helpful. But for those who are not used to it, well…

"I mean, sister just up n' fired two warning shots, 'Cell Block Tango'-style."

Dark humor. Black comedy. Being insanely fucking inappropriate just because giggling wildly at the horrible thing is the only way to keep from screaming.

"…I wouldn't say 'Cell Block Tango' so much as…as…Smackwater Jack," my old friend giggled maniacally. "Or what was it, the other one…"

"I guess this was the Night The Lights Went Out in Diagon," I chortled just as madly.

And then the singing started.

Seriously. How the fuck did you think we were going to react to exploded skull up in our missing friend's place of business like an incredibly unhygienic glitter mishap? It had already been quite enough of a stressful morning, what with our Loren finding out about Ian and no bloody cigarettes and not enough bloody booze and holy hell, how stupid do mystery writers think readers are? Finding a body, or a place where a person has been converted at speed from a speaking part to a bit of the scenery and some rather gooey props is not my idea of a pleasant day! You get detectives and amateur crime writers and elderly lady sleuths casually perusing a corpse like it was the menu at fucking Fortnum's, upper lip like a Viagra ad and nobody questions that? Fucking hell people react that way. Anybody who can look at a Jackson Pollock executed with people brains and do something other'n barf and cry is either a police detective who's fucking used to that shit or a goddamn sociopath.

Or, it turned out, Abby Flourish.

"Oh, for the love of St. Winifred! Pull yourselves together!"

She gave us each two tight slaps and, weirdly enough, it helped.

"I've seen worse than this when you were still in nappies, Jamesina Tickes. And you, Sam, I'd think you would do a better job of not getting hysterical, seeing as you've used these horrible things before."

"To shoot targets!" I protested. "I go to a range and I shoot at empty bottles and cans and shit! Little paper targets with rings to 'em! I win little colored ribbons for scoring points! I've never shot at a living thing in my life before and I hope to all that's holy I never have to!"

Madam Flourish gave me the strangest look, then crossed herself solemnly.

"From your mouth to God's ears, dearie. You're both overwrought over the missing skull, but that's not even the frightening thing." She gestured over to two, or maybe three grayish char marks on the tile by the register where Florean had always liked to stand. "Unforgiveable Curses leave marks like that."

"Not…no…" Jessie's eyes teared up. "Not the Avada Kedavra…"

"No, dearie," Abby patted her shoulder and let her sob into the shoulder of her coat. "That doesn't leave marks at all, and I ought to know."

I saw the look, then. The hardened, terrifying look of a dear little old lady who sold textbooks and stationery, and yet, who scared me more than any number of Death Eaters.

"Those marks are forced Apparation and Crucio."