— CHAPTER ONE —
A Grim Situation
'Well, I could certainly use more Hinkypunk gizzards,' sighed Mr Borgin. 'But seven Sickles an ounce? No, I'd be bankrupt within the month if I paid those sorts of prices. But do come back if you decide be more reasonable, Mr Lupin.'
Remus Lupin exited the dimly-lit shop, shaking his head sadly at Borgin's tightfistedness. Once outside, he dropped his air of mock sorrow and let the very real exhaustion and worry that he was feeling show through. After nearly an entire morning spent prowling about Knockturn Alley, he'd not got a single new lead on Harry's whereabouts.
Direct enquiries into rumours of strange occurrences (made ostensibly for the purpose of scrounging a Dark creature extermination job) had turned up nothing. The Ministry had surpassed itself in keeping Voldemort's latest atrocity hushed up -- in the fortnight since, not so much as a whisper had got out, even in the Dark community. Lupin's other, subtler means of gathering information -- offering for sale, under the counter, potion ingredients that were usually strictly controlled by the Ministry of Magic -- had also failed to reveal anything of importance.
Notorious for his overcharging, Lupin was considered a source of last resort by most of the shopkeepers in Knockturn Alley. When trade was slow, they seldom even bothered to haggle with him. When they were actually willing to meet his grossly inflated prices, he knew something really serious was afoot. Though Lupin had had no takers today, all the people he'd spoken with had treated him extremely politely, which indicated that the demand for Dark ingredients was brisk, but not yet urgent -- yet the wizards whose business it was to anticipate such things believed it might soon become urgent.
As they'd been acting much the same way for a number of weeks, however, this told Lupin fairly little he didn't already know. Perhaps Borgin's voice had been a tad oilier this time ... or perhaps it was just Lupin's imagination. Lupin rubbed his forehead tiredly. Even if Borgin truly was growing more deferential, there could well be an innocent explanation for it.
When Lupin required an immediate excuse to talk to a particular shopkeeper or look around inside a particular shop, he would feign a pressing need for gold and sell off his wares at prices as ridiculously low as they normally were ridiculously high. Borgin might merely sense the possibility of a bargain in the near future -- Lupin probably did appear quite close to desperation.
Without a doubt, the previous month had been one of the worst in his life. Lupin had known that Dark days were looming on the horizon from the moment Sirius had shown up at his house bringing news of Voldemort's return, but he'd never dreamed the Dark Lord would strike so swiftly or so devastatingly.
Lupin could still vividly recall the ashen expression on Dumbledore's face when, little over a week later, he'd come by to tell Lupin and Sirius that Voldemort had somehow got past protections which ought to have been unbreachable to demolish the house in which Harry was living. What was more, Harry and his relatives had vanished without a trace, and the best efforts of both Dumbledore and the Ministry of Magic had so far proved insufficient to find them.
Dumbledore hadn't stopped for long. Lupin and Sirius couldn't do much to help him. Lupin had made his weekly trip to Knockturn Alley the day before the attack occurred, and hadn't observed anything out of the ordinary. Neither he nor Sirius had expertise in the kinds of powerful protective charms that Dumbledore had employed to try and keep Harry safe -- those had been Lily's specialty, when she was alive. If Dumbledore himself didn't understand how his magic had failed, neither of them was likely to figure it out.
Nor were they able to offer any fresh suggestions about places where Harry might be hiding, or to which he might go once he decided the coast was clear. The obvious locations -- Privet Drive, Diagon Alley and The Burrow -- were already being watched by far less suspicious persons than a shabby, greying werewolf and a giant black dog.
It had been every wizard's worst nightmare when Voldemort was in power that a friend or relative would disappear in this manner, for no one so taken by the Dark Lord had ever returned alive. On rare occasions a body would be recovered, but invariably in such horrifying condition that the grief of the survivors was only increased.
Sirius had gone off into trance of despair. For three days he'd wandered the house as a dog, sniffing in corners and whimpering forlornly. Then he too had vanished, leaving no word behind as to where he was going. There'd been nothing for Lupin to do except notify Dumbledore, and ask specifically after Grim sightings the next time he was in Knockturn Alley.
The former action at least had met with some success. Night before last, Dumbledore had brought Sirius back to Lupin's house, giving him a stern lecture about staying out of sight and warning him that it would do Harry no good for his godfather to get himself killed, or worse. Lupin still wasn't clear on where Sirius had been or what he'd been doing; he hadn't been able to get any proper answers out of him once Dumbledore left.
Lupin had originally planned to cancel today's journey to Knockturn Alley -- he'd not thought it a good idea to leave Sirius alone. Sirius, however, had begged him to go on, in the desperate hope that this would be the day Lupin finally found some sort of clue ... and now Lupin had to return home and tell him he hadn't.
Lupin heaved a weary sigh, collected his thoughts and Apparated. He tapped the kitchen door with his wand to open it and stepped into the house, calling out, 'Snuffles, I'm --'
'Stupefy!' roared a voice behind him.
Lupin opened his eyes, gazed around in puzzlement and sat up. He was in an unfamiliar room, empty except for a fireplace, several cloaks hanging from iron hooks in the stone walls and a very small, very angry-looking wizard wearing green robes embroidered with the crest of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol. The wizard glared down at Lupin, wand at the ready, Lupin's own wand stuck in his belt.
'Remus Lupin, you are wanted for questioning by the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol,' he said coldly. 'You have been wanted for questioning by the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol since nine o'clock this morning. The first wizard sent to fetch you said he heard a terrible growling from your house, and that he refused to enter a dwelling with a transformed werewolf inside -- this despite it being broad daylight not four days past the dark of the moon. The second returned in a state of nervous collapse, having apparently peered through a window and seen the Grim.'
The wizard paused to draw a deep, outraged breath.
'I don't know what you think you're playing at, but if spending the day in Azkaban for obstructing the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol in the course of its duties is what you're after, you are very close to getting your wish.'
Before Lupin could respond, a loud, furious barking filled the air. An enormous, shaggy black dog (gone slightly grey from soot and ash) was clambering out of the fire. The wizard wheeled about and pointed his wand at it.
'Snuffles!' said Lupin brightly. He scrambled to his feet, hurried over to the dog and flung a restraining arm around its neck. 'It's all right, Snuffles, good boy. Mr -- er --' ('Ormesby,' the wizard supplied) '-- Mr Ormesby just wants me to assist the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol with one of their investigations.'
The dog stopped its barking, but continued to survey Ormesby with a most unfriendly glint in its eyes.
'This is my dog, Snuffles,' Lupin explained. 'He must have followed us through the Floo powder. I've been off shopping all morning, and he guards the house while I'm gone. I do apologise if he frightened your men.'
Lupin smiled pleasantly at Ormesby (whose face had turned an alarming shade of purple) but inside he was quite upset.
This was not because he'd been taken in for questioning by the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol -- that had happened to him a number of times over the years. Being anywhere within fifty miles of the scene of a crime whilst a werewolf was considered highly suspicious behaviour by them. Usually Lupin was let go again after an hour or two. Calm, reasonable and polite answers from a dangerous monster tended to put the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol completely off its stroke.
It wasn't himself Lupin was concerned about, but Sirius. Sirius Black was at the top of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol's most wanted list. The last place he should be was inside their very headquarters, and Lupin didn't trust him to keep his head down. Sirius was even more reckless and impulsive as a dog than as a man, which was saying something, and Harry's disappearance seemed to have thoroughly unhinged him. Lupin had to get him away from there as quickly as possible.
'I'll just take Snuffles back to the house, shall I?' said Lupin. 'Shouldn't be gone half a minute ...'
'You won't,' snapped Ormesby. 'I've had enough trouble getting you here.'
Ormesby shoved his wand inside his robes and swept towards the door.
Lupin trailed after him, protesting feebly, 'I really don't think ... a good dog, but he can be quite boisterous ... not used to being indoors for so long ... or around strange wizards ...'
Ormesby gave no sign of having heard him. He poked his head out the room and looked up and down.
'Mr Snape!' he called out sharply.
'Yes?' came the reply.
Ormesby strode into the hallway. Lupin followed him, Sirius at his heel. There, in a bench along the right-hand wall, sat Severus Snape.
Lupin wasn't sure whether to be relieved or more worried yet to see him. Snape was on their side; he'd be able help Lupin cover up for Sirius. On the other hand, Snape's presence suggested that there was something more going on here than the mere fact that Lupin was a werewolf. The only connection between Snape and Lupin was that the pair of them were working for Dumbledore against the resurrected Voldemort. If the Ministry had got wind of this and was determined to put a stop to it, they could all be in very deep trouble.
'We'll interview you as soon we've finished with Mr Lupin,' Ormesby told Snape. 'He'll be leaving his dog here -- see that it doesn't go wandering off.'
'You remember Snuffles, don't you, Severus?' said Lupin.
Snape's eyes flashed with a momentary, swiftly suppressed rage. Then, keeping his face carefully blank, he gave the dog a long, appraising look.
'Now that I think of it, I have seen the beast around Hogwarts,' he said. 'I'd not realised it belonged to you. Nor do I believe that animals are allowed in the offices of the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol --' Snape turned to Ormesby, '-- and I would strongly advise that you not make an exception for Lupin's dog. It has been running wild in the Hogwarts grounds for over a year; I certainly cannot take responsibility for its behaviour.'
'He's quite right,' said Lupin to Ormesby. 'If you'd just let me bring Snuffles home ... I could be there and back again in no time ...'
Ormesby completely ignored him. 'If you don't think you can handle the dog by yourself, I can send someone to stay with you,' he said to Snape.
'That won't be necessary,' said Snape in an icy tone.
'You stay with Severus, now, Snuffles,' Lupin told the dog sternly. 'Don't give him any trouble and don't go roaming about. You were a bad boy to follow me here ... a very bad boy indeed.'
Sirius shot Lupin an almost human look of disgust, but obediently stretched himself out on the floor at Snape's feet.
'Lupin, come along,' said Ormesby irritably. After one last glance back at Sirius, Lupin set off down the corridor after him.
Disclaimer: All characters and concepts from the Harry Potter series copyright J K Rowling.