Ron had been right, Harry discovered. Florean's hot toffee sundaes were delicious. He had never realized before how exquisite something both icily cold and richly hot all at the same time could be.
Fred and George had met them there as arranged, but did not stay long. Their shop was doing so well Lee could not handle the trade on his own, and they wanted to get back and help him. Harry was pleased to see this evidence of financial success in the Weasley family.
Harry was just allowing the last warm, velvety flavours to slip down his throat when he saw another familiar figure sweep past.
"Look," he hissed, straightening in his seat.
Ginny, Ron and Hermione jerked their heads round.
The man was too tall to lose himself in the crowd. He was completely muffled by a voluminous cloak and hood. But the four Hogwarts students were entirely capable of recognizing the distinctive swooping walk of their Potions Master when they needed to.
"Snape," Ron muttered, an ugly look on his face. "What's he up to? I'll bet he isn't doing his Christmas shopping….doubt he's got anyone to buy presents for anyway!"
"I'm following him," Harry said suddenly.
He flung some coins on the table and dashed after the man he was sure was Snape. His friends followed, Hermione with noticeably less enthusiasm than Ron or Ginny.
Their quarry looked neither to right nor left. Diagon Alley heaved with customers, but Snape simply strode on his way as though they were not there. The crowds parted hastily to allow him passage. His four pursuers wriggled after him. "Excuse me – "; "Sorry." "Excuse me."
Snape approached Gringotts and turned down a murky little side-passage.
"That's Knockturn Alley!" Hermione exclaimed. "We can't go down there!"
"You go to the bookshop then," Ron said to her, his eyes still tracking the back of Snape's head. He was eager to catch Snape in some nefarious activity, and prove to the Order once and for all that the man should not be trusted.
Hermione hesitated, then gave an exasperated sigh and followed after her friends.
Knockturn Alley was every bit as unsavoury as Harry recalled from his previous involuntary visit, when he had Floo'ed to the wrong fireplace. It was darker and dingier than the main street. There were still plenty of shoppers about, but they lacked the festive cheer of those in Diagon Alley. In fact the whole place was uncannily quiet for the number of people thronging around. Even the streetsellers seemed not to like to conduct their business too noisily. Huddled shapes watched them intently from dark porches. It gave Harry the creeps.
The four of them ignored all attempts to sell them items such as shrivelled body parts, mummified eyes, and vials of a dark sticky substance labelled "liquefied hearts". Harry was uneasily conscious that they looked out of place here. They did not exactly blend into the crowd. What with Harry's well-known features and famous lightning scar, two flaming redheads, and a girl with a great bush of hair, he was sure they would be memorable figures if anyone cared to ask about them.
And this was a place, he was sure, where all information was available for a price.
It was not a place for honest business. Snape was surely up to something… Then it occurred to Harry that he would feel very stupid if all Snape did was visit the apothecary to collect Potions ingredients not readily available elsewhere. What those ingredients might be, made Harry feel rather queasy.
However, the shop Snape finally ducked into was so covered in grime it was hard to tell what its business might be.
They looked at each other. What next?
"We can't all go in," Harry said in a low voice. "We'd be far too visible. I'll sneak in and try to hide behind some of the shelves, see if I can hear what he's up to."
The others didn't look too happy about this arrangement, but saw Harry's point. Harry pulled the hood of his robes well forward over his face, and crept quietly through the shop door. He tried to make his entrance silently, but as he slipped into the shop he realized this was not necessary; a jumble of noises met his ears -- groans, muffled screams, sobbing - that Harry didn't want to think about too closely.
Harry stood in the shadows, and peered about from under his hood, hoping there would be somewhere to hide if necessary. Snape was not in view, which hopefully meant he could not see Harry either.
It seemed to be some kind of junk shop, stuffed with peculiar, mis-matched items. The odd and distinctly unsettling noises seemed to be coming from these, in some way. Harry stole forwards, and peeped round the corner of what looked like a wardrobe. Snape was standing at the front of the shop, staring ahead of him and drumming his fingers impatiently against the counter. Harry drew back, and had no difficulties at all lurking unseen behind a large cabinet wedged unevenly against the wall. Inside the cabinet, he could hear a faint, angry wailing. Harry swallowed. Still, he supposed it would hide the sound of his breathing, which seemed suddenly very noisy in his own head. He did not care to contemplate Snape's reaction should he realize Harry was there.
However, this was a perfect place from which to overhear Snape's conversation. Harry waited, tensely. He heard footsteps coming from the depths of the building. That must be the proprietor of the shop.
"Yes, master. How may I serve you?" The shopkeeper's voice was husky and obsequious. For some reason, it made the hairs on the back of Harry's neck stand up.
Snape said a word. Harry blinked, puzzled. What Snape said had been perfectly audible. Harry had heard it perfectly. Except – at the same time he hadn't heard it at all. He had no idea what word Snape had uttered.
"Ah! It is you. Master." The shopkeeper breathed. "Yes, Master, we may speak. We are alone."
"Well?" Snape sounded in a bad mood. Harry couldn't find it in himself to be sorry for the shopkeeper, but he knew how he would have felt if on the receiving end of that particular note in Snape's voice.
"I fear, Master, I'm afraid to tell, we have had no luck yet."
"And why is that?" Snape inquired silkily.
"Master, do not blame me! I am but a humble shopkeeper, a purveyor of fine goods. I have tried, yes indeed, most earnestly, most secretly and silently have I contacted my colleagues across the world, yes, right around the globe, and still –"
"Stop blethering," Snape hissed. "Tell me what I want to know briefly. The less I hear of your voice the better."
"Very well, Master, very well, it shall be as you decr – ah – ah – Master, please! Yes. Well. We cannot find it." The shopkeeper abandoned his fulsome manner and spoke baldly.
"You – cannot – find – it. You promised me, do you remember? You assured me on the very essence of your soul in this life and all others –"
"I did not say I could not find it, Master!" The shopkeeper sounded frightened. "I am still awaiting word from Mongolia…."
"You had better hope the word from Mongolia is positive," Snape growled menacingly. "Or I will personally ensure that you – ah – wish it were."
"Yes, Master. Please. Do not – do not – "
"Yes?" Snape was not visible to Harry, but he could well imagine how his eyes would be glinting darkly as he spoke.
"Do not tell..him…that I have failed," the shopkeeper whispered.
There was a long pause. Harry's imagination supplied Snape drumming his long fingers on the table and looking at the shopkeeper as if he were a flesh-eating slug: just the same as when he looked at Harry while he considered what detention to give him.
"For now," Snape said finally. "For now. My patience wears thin, however. Is that clear?"
Snape was moving; Harry could hear him. Harry concentrated hard on being unnoticeable, shrinking against the cabinet and keeping his head well down. I'm not here, I'm not here, he thought as Snape swept past him. Thankfully Snape did not seem to have paused to look around, but headed directly for the exit with his purposeful stride. Harry heard the door banging. He took this to mean Snape had left. He waited a while longer. He could hear the shopkeeper shuffling around. Then those footsteps finally seemed to be heading for the back of the shop, so Harry peeked cautiously out from behind the cabinet.
The place was empty. Harry stole across the shop and let himself out, closing the door behind him with care.
He could see no sign of the others. Presumably they had ducked into hiding when Snape had come out of the shop. Alone, he was even more conscious of the sinister, wordless figures watching him. They seemed to press around him with unspoken menace. He was almost sure he heard one of them whisper his name in a sibilant undertone. "Harry Potter…" But no; he still wore his hooded cloak; he must be imagining it….
Still, Harry hastened his steps as he began to head back towards Diagon Alley, hoping his friends were still around here somewhere. He realized he felt rather vulnerable, here on his own.
To his relief, three familiar figures huddling in a doorway ran towards him. He smiled in relief.
"Harry!" Hermione gasped. "What –"
"I'll tell you later," Harry muttered. He had a strong feeling that Knockturn Alley was not the place to discuss the matters he had just been eavesdropping on.
They scurried up the street. A hag-like vendor detained them for a while, trying to intimidate them into buying her wares. This was a tray piled high with maggoty creatures which blinked up at them with beady black eyes.
"Nice afternoon snack, children?" the hag hissed at them, baring broken, pointy teeth and peering down at them with leering eyes.
They could hear the hag's cackling laughter as they broke away. They looked fixedly at the ground and walked on, in the manner of shoppers everywhere when accosted by unwelcome beggars or traders.
Thus, none of them noticed the tall, hooded figure standing glaring at them a few yards ahead with folded arms.
None of them noticed as he moved smoothly across their path to bar their way.
And, thus, it came as complete shock to them all when Snape reached out a hand and grabbed Harry's throat in his long fingers. The four of them halted abruptly, mouths dropping.
"Oh bugger," Ron could be heard to mutter under his breath. "Harry –"
Snape lightly squeezed his fingers around Harry's neck, who involuntarily raised his own arms to grab at Snape's hand. Harry's eyes were wide, like a rabbit caught in headlights.
"Why, Mr Potter, I believe," Snape said grimly, glaring down into Harry's dismayed face. "You stupid – stupid – boy."
Notes to reviewers –
Dr Huff-Puff..forgot to answer this before, I suppose I thought Harry couldn't consciously do wandless magic and would need a wand to summon a wand.. And Dumbledore most definitely hasn't been telling the whole truth!
Prophetess of Hearts. Well, Harry did try that..Mrs Weasley was just too proud to accept. Percy a DE? Well well, interesting idea…
Barbara Kennedy. Oops, Flourish and Blotts it is. Thank you. And re your character analysis – Harry has certainly never subscribed to the idea that discretion is the better part of valour!
LunaShadows. Yep. Percy is a prat. And as for what's up with Severus..you can't expect me to give my plot away, now can you!
Ecot. I think most of the Weasleys realize that. Will Ron, this is the question….he does so hate being poor, doesn't he!
Mystical Panther. Why is Percy so pissed off? Interesting question. He still doesn't like his family associating with Harry, does he?
CapriceAnne Hedican-Kocur. The traitor has still got some betraying to do before you find out who s/he is….
Oya. Yep, feet first, brains later: that's our Harry. A sort of fatal flaw type thingy.
CastusAlbusCor. Thank you.
Silverthreads. TY for reviews…yes, tension.. more to come, I promise.