Mundungus Fletcher wasn't usually a scrupulous man. On Sunday mornings and at Christmas, he would occasionally adopt morals, but he had never conceived of a set of his own. He was fully aware of his lack, but found it as distressing as the lack of a virulent growth.
But last night he had spoken with someone whose morals were his favored children. This man had had a passionate love affair with decency that would put Casanova's exploits to shame. There had been warmth in that handshake they had shared, there had been conversation over a few card games (not played for money--the first time in years that Mundungus hadn't played for money), and then there had just been conversation. Mr. Claret's morals had been paraded before him like the photos in an enthusiastic family man's wallet, his agenda explained with the exuberance of one expounding on his son's Quidditch practices or his daughter's music lessons. Just watching the love that had been lavished on this cause had made Mundungus feel a guilty twinge. In those moments of discussion, he'd wanted principles of his own.
And it was bearing all of this in mind that he tentatively knocked on the door of the London Center for Lycanthropy Victims.
The door went unanswered for thirty seconds. Mundungus quelled the urge to turn around and go home--this was not how he had planned to spend his Saturday afternoon. But instead of walking down that short gravel drive and back into his world, he grasped the metal doorknocker and rapped it firmly against the green-painted wood of the door. Adjusting his flamboyant black and violet suit, he stepped back and waited.
After a few seconds, the door opened, and a thin man with a thinner comb-over peered at Mundungus through a large pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. He looked Mundungus up and down, opening his mouth and closing it again several times as though chewing what he was trying to say and not liking its taste. "Are you . . . from the Ministry?" he ventured. He opened the door a bit further and gestured Mundungus inside. "Only we weren't expecting an inspection . . . if you'd like to see our papers--"
"I'm not from the Ministry. I'm here to help you." He couldn't quite bring himself to pass through the doorframe. That would require commitment. Dedication.
"We can't afford to pay employees; I'm sorry, son." The man made to close the door, and Mundungus swallowed his pride.
"No--that's not it. I'd like to," he swallowed again, "volunteer."
The door opened a bit more, and the odd man wiped his spectacles on his blue flannel shirt. "A volunteer? Do you know anything about medicine, or teaching?"
The port into respectable citizenship loomed, and Mundungus walked through it. He shut the door behind him. "Not exactly, not as such, no," he answered, and swept the room with a glance.
It was a resident's common room. A rack of much-used magazines stood on an end table by the large, sagging, mustard-brown couch. Various chairs were scattered around the room, easy chairs or hard wooden seats or steel folding chairs. One behemoth of a recliner sat in a place of honor by the fireplace. The fluorescent lighting and black-and-white tiled floor seemed incongruous against the warmth of the furnishings. The receptionist's desk in the back of the room hinted at a time when this had been some sort of waiting room.
"Is there anything in particular I could do?" Mundungus asked. He felt as out-of-place as the lights overhead and the floor underfoot.
"First, sign your name here." A clipboard was thrust at his chest, and taken cautiously. Mundungus scribbled an illegible signature with a proffered quill pen. There was a trace of pride in the flourishes with which he drew the swooping curves of his name; his clients had never been able to decipher his handwriting.
Bespectacled brown eyes perused the various loops and lumps. "Mundungus Fletcher? Hmm. Have you got any special talents or such that the people here might learn?"
"I've never lost a game of chance, if you know what I mean . . .." Here, that sounded very weak. These people needed job skills, not card tricks. They needed futures.
But the man was smiling grimly. "That may be useful. Come with me--I'll introduce you to our residents."
The hallway behind the common room was lined with doors, each with a paper nametag on the front. The first one they passed read "Jenny Kirk" in large script, surrounded by stars and simple smiling faces in black ink. Mundungus didn't have to ask--that was a child's room. The next door bore a simpler nametag, with "Morris Murphy" written on it in plain block writing. This was the door that the man opened.
"Morris? You have a visitor," he called, and poked his head around the door. A voice from the other side murmured something, and after a moment, the head was withdrawn. "You can go in now, Mr. Fletcher."
"What was your name?" Mundungus asked as the man made to leave.
"Er, Stephen Livingstock." Mr. Livingstock smiled a little, and then made his way back down the hall.
Left alone, Mundungus cautiously opened the door. The lights were off in the room, but the place was full of an eerie, flickering glow. A man sat on a cot, his back to the door, staring at a box of pictures that was the source of the glow. A lump in silhouette near the man's knee might have been the head of someone sitting on the floor. The box of pictures suddenly went dark, plunging them all into blindness.
"What did you bloody do that for?!" Irate and thick and as Irish as a shillelagh, the voice thrust blindly into the darkness, intent on smacking the miscreant who had made the box go blank.
Right. Mundungus had been in a Muggle house before, and knew exactly what to do--he groped through the darkness by the side of the door, and eventually hit the little lever that made light appear.
The man who had been sitting on the cot was now standing, gesticulating at the pictures box and the person sitting next to the cot. He looked up at Mundungus, blinking small, dark eyes in the sudden light. His hair was greasy, and his nose was red despite the fact that the cold season had been two months ago--this Irishman, Morris Murphy, was a drinker. He frowned. "Who are you?" Morris demanded, squinting.
For the first time in his life, Mundungus Fletcher said, "Um . . .."
The Board of Directors -- Department of Magical Law Enforcement
15 Government Boulevard
Wizard London, UK
D. Ms. Fletchley,
The Board of Directors has received a petition for the reinstatement of Captain Macmillan of the Hit Wizards. While we are considering his case, we request that you provide a valid reason for his abrupt dismissal and complete Form 8b.ii. You are obligated by force of law to comply within forty-eight hours.
No legal recourse is being taken against you at this time. You may be brought to court for testimony at a later date (unspecified).
Head of the Board of Directors -- Department of Magical Law Enforcement
"Christine? Christine? Chris?" The voice registered, and Chris jerked up from the letter. A face swam into focus.
"Heh . . . Cleatus?" She shook her head to clear the image of crabbed handwriting.
He raised an eyebrow and indicated the folder in his hand. "I have the name--Lemuel Claret--and his file. And I had to bother the Japanese DMLE to get it; you have no idea how difficult it is to sift through their bureaucracy to find one man! And they lump vampires in with everyone else over there, so he was immeasurably hard to locate. To say nothing of the language difficulties I had! There's me with my head in the fireplace, watching them yammer at each other in Japanese while they looked for a translator; I finally got a man who spoke English, but he--"
Chris squinted at the faint red mark on Cleatus' throat. "What happened to your neck?"
His free hand touched the thin, inflamed line of raw skin. "Nothing."
There was a moment of unease, and the man's eyes flickered to the side. "Er . . . I cut myself shaving this morning." He put the folder on Chris' desk. "From what I've read--from what I've been able to read is more accurate, really, as so very much of this is in Japanese--Claret is a businessman. He's famous for leading a vampire's protest about twenty years ago. He served in some military endeavors, but with the layout of these reports and a typical 'if we lost, it didn't happen' approach, I can't tell exactly how many wars. He got a traffic violation three years ago, if it helps us at all."
Chris examined the neat lines of print or calligraphy, frowning. "Don't you know Japanese? Weren't you speaking it when we went out for dinner last month?"
Cleatus hefted a sigh. "We were in a sushi place. Unless there's a mention of seaweed on his permanent record, my linguistic skills are useless."
The desk drawers were singularly devoid of highlighters; Chris felt at a loss. Then wizarding education took the place of Muggle habit, and she took out her wand. "Anglo textum luminus!" And then, the lack of highlighted English words apparent . . . "Why don't we have all-language translator spells yet? Send a memo to Charms and Curses about it. It's not as though they have anything more important to do."
Cleatus clapped a hand to his forehead. "Oh! Some fellow from the Dark Resistance branch told me to tell you that a woman on the Committee was found dead in her house today. Mr. Lee isn't sure if it's a Dark crime or a general crime . . . you dealt with that mass-murderer three years ago, and so they thought you might like to look into it."
"Why would I like to 'look into' it? I'm not on the patrol force anymore. I'm not supposed to 'look into' cases. Anyway, I have to deal with this bloody mistake before I can do anything else--do you see this?" She thrust the letter from the Board of Directors at Cleatus' stomach. "I only fired Macmillan this morning, and he's already applied to get back in! One dead woman . . . it's sad." Softness crept into her voice. "It's sad, and I feel sorry for her family, but one dead woman isn't enough to get my personal attention."
"The thing of it is, it may well be more than one dead woman." Chris conjured a chair, and Cleatus sank into it. "You remember that your murderer always left an X carved into the bedroom doors of the women he killed?" She remembered. She remembered the bodies behind those doors, and shuddered. "Well, this murderer has left his own X--there was some kind of image floating over the house. I didn't get many details; you'll have to ask the blokes in Dark Resistance to tell you more. But it seems to me that murderers only 'sign' their work if they intend to do it again."
The woman in the bed . . . a bag of flesh and organs, all of her bones turned to liquid . . . blood on the sheets . . . that horrible X, carved into the flaccid skin of her stomach . . .."I'll do what I can. Anything I can." Her mind shied away from those memories, scampering to the safety of the papers on her desk. "Now. Claret. How do we make him speak with us?"
"We could be on to something, though," Yariv contended. "Muggle phones don't work in the wizarding world, you know, but if we use magic to make something that works like a phone . . . it's convergent wossname. Evolution."
"And then, we patent!" Waldenius cackled. Clouden was laboring over a dictionary, searching for the right phonetic symbols. He muttered something about dots that 'didn't ought to be there' and scritched at his paper. "Hah! Look on this, lads!" He presented them with their log, the ink still wet on the new entry.
Yariv examined the thing critically. "You've got the upside-down 'e' backwards." He corrected the letter with a quick spell. "And you didn't take down the wand motion."
Sirius waved a hand. "Don't listen to what the Charms professors say. It doesn't matter how you swish or flick your wand; it just matters that you say the spell the way you're supposed to. Who wants to clean up?"
There was a discordant pause. The floor was covered with string, twine, and yarn of all types and colors. Cans of root beer, YinGo soda, and soup lay discarded across the surfaces of the room. A puddle of beef stew sulked in the corner by the counter. All combinations of empty cans and string had worked satisfactorily, though the wizarding soda cans coupled with waxed twine had been the most effective. These particulars had been jotted down on a paper that wasn't visible at the moment; Sirius suspected that the trial-and-error sheets were under the shredded fibers that had littered the place when he had accidentally shouted "sunderitwinus". Bloody useful spell if you were tied up, but it only added to the mess now.
No volunteers were forthcoming. Sirius flipped to the first page of the log and read the first entry. "You'd think I'd know this by now . . . ablutium totalis!" he muttered, flicking his wand.
A firm knock at the door tore their attention from the clutter that was drifting to the cabinets. Johan Kantes stepped in, grimaced at the state of the room, and announced, "Mr. Callahan's calling a conference. He says you can leave your work." He stared at the yarn. "Er . . . macramé?" he guessed. "Thought you were on the communications project?"
"We'll explain at the meeting. Is it five o'clock already?" Yariv dug out his pocket-watch. "It's only two-thirty. Why's the meeting early?" Johan shrugged. "Your hair is back! But why is it . . .?"
He ran a hand through the scintillating mass of silver-green locks--the same hue as the scales that had once covered his scalp. "We're working on it. I was about to do a dye charm when we got called to the meeting." With a follow motion, he led them to Room 521.
The aroma that hit them like a mallet as they walked in announced succinctly that Hildegard had reversed her scent-dampening charm. Stanislav was smirking--Leonhart had probably failed to create the perfume charm. The woman had something of a block when it came to the feminine arts; she had so far bungled the lipliner, slimming, and 'support' assignments in quick order.
Callahan entered the room, followed by a man wearing a black uniform with a red cape. Their expressions were carefully blank, but a tic throbbing over Callahan's left eye sold his secrets. He took his seat, and the stranger stood behind him.
For a moment, there was pure, apprehensive silence. Callahan opened and closed his mouth several times, but said nothing. At length, the stranger spoke.
"I am Constable Yancy of the DMLE, Dark Resistance division." He indicated the badge pinned on his cloak. "I'll be very blunt: Ms. Olga Ingenborg is dead."
"Not Olga!" Hildegard shouted, leaning over the table. "No!" Anger in her eyes.
"Her body was found in her house by a neighbor this morning," Constable Yancy continued relentlessly. "Now, none of you are suspects--I just need for you to co-operate with me. I'll be asking you a few questions, all right?" His eyes scanned the shocked faces. "Which of you is Sirius Black?"
Sirius couldn't speak. This was too much to take in quickly--only hours ago, he had been laughing with Yariv about how Olga would look, sound, or smell at the closing meeting. Only yesterday, Olga had brought everyone tea and sweets. True, the sweets had been rock-hard and the tea only lukewarm, but her intentions had been good. Last week, she'd given Natasha a birthday card with a cheerful little message--no one else had even known that Stanislav had birthdays. Because that was the kind of person Olga was--blustering, jolly, considerate, and firmly convinced that the right attitude made up for less than perfect results.
Sirius stood. "That's me." Constable Yancy smiled in sympathy.
"Come with me. I promise to make this as painless as possible."
Mr. Livingstock leafed through the account records. He was so sure they'd gotten a larger sum from the Ministry last year--he couldn't recall any reason that the government would have had to reduce its usual funds. If anything, monies should have increased. Hadn't the Center become overpopulated and understaffed? How did the Ministry justify an account transfer of only sixty-eight sickles, twelve knuts, and some suspicious foreign currency?
Three measured, resounding knocks brought his head up from the records. Stephen scurried out from behind the receptionist's desk and answered the door--he'd had fantastic luck last time; maybe opening the door would be equally successful this time.
He was a bit dispirited to see a face that he knew well. "Ah, Mr. Lupin. Teaching job not panning out?" he inquired. Remus shook his head.
"The job's going splendidly, actually. Professor Grimes says that in two years, I should complete my education, and then I can teach professionally in Muggle schools," explained the werewolf. "I may never need to stay here again."
"And they never asked about your records from primary and secondary school?" Mr. Livingstock inquired--this was far too good to be true.
Remus grinned. "No--but why should they? I want to teach classical mythology. They beg for people willing and able to fill that position."
"So . . . if you don't need to stay here . . .."
"I thought I ought to give something back."
Stephen's mind danced across the accounts. "I don't suppose you know anything about account records, and . . . and government donations, and such?"
The short man behind Remus put out a hand. "I do. I work with the Bureau of Loopholes. Peter Pettigrew."
They were led inside and to the desk. Stephen handed Peter a sheaf of papers covered with sums and numbers, which were accepted gravely. "The thing of it is, I can't see why we get less every year. Taxes have gone up--I should know--and failing a war, money to charities like mine should have followed."
Peter's brows drew together. "But there is a war! For goodness' sake, don't forget about You-Know-Who."
"Who? There's . . . been a war?"
Remus looked from one to the other. "Not really a war. There's been a string of attacks on branches of the Ministry dealing with Muggles in the last . . . perhaps nine years; the Muggle Protection Division was decimated my last year at Hogwarts. The government thinks that one person or organization is behind it, but they can't find the culprit. So we call him You-Know-Who. How couldn't you have heard of it?"
"I'd had no idea . . .." All color went out of Mr. Livingstock's face. "You know that I'm not usually in the magical world at all . . . I haven't used my wand since, oh, '75 . . . even when I do associate with wizards, they never breathed a word to me." But, as with many men who have lived a long time on next to nothing and expect to live a lot longer, pragmatism immediately followed the emotional reaction. "It's just been attacks on the Ministry . . . just on the Muggle branches? And there haven't been any, er, private citizens hurt?"
"There's no threat to you or me that I can see," Remus said.
Three sheets of paper fell out of Peter's hands. "Ah--pick those up for me, will you, sir?" Stephen bent, a joint cracking unpleasantly as he stood. "These will get you a bit more money--see, you've got foreign residents who aren't UK citizens . . . so you're allowed to apply for donations from their home countries. And this one . . ."
Remus let Peter do what he did best, and walked to the corridor that housed some of London's poorest werewolves. His feet almost carried him to the second door on the right; it bore a different nametag now, though, and he had a different address.
Morris, though, was still in residence. The man couldn't keep a job for more than a fortnight at a time, and he spent what money he made on drinks. Stephen used to always say that he'd throw Morris out on his ear in another week . . . but Stephen never threw anyone out. Remus touched the doorknob, fancying he could hear Morris' beloved tee-vee through the door--some loud program. He turned the knob.
The loudness was people. People shouting and waving wands, dropping dice and slapping cards on the floor, people shooting off sparks and swilling drinks and cheering.
At the hub of this activity sat a man in a rather expensive-looking outfit, his back to the door. He laughed as loudly as the drunks and slapped Morris on the back as though they'd been friends for years.
"And listen, you have your wand--right--up your sleeve! And just say the words, and you've got straight sixes!"
"Mr. Fletcher?" The man in the violet suit's head jerked up, and he grinned.
"Remus, is it? Remus, look! I'm doing good!"
Constable Yancy had a piece of paper and a streamlined quill out on the table between them, and beckoned for Sirius to sit.
"How well did you know Ms. Ingenborg?" he asked, and the quill took down his words.
"I . . .." How well had he known her? "She's worked here a little longer than I have . . . I met her here, and she was always very nice to me. To everyone."
"Did you ever interact with her outside of the workplace?" the constable prompted.
"Not really . . . I once saw her in Diagon Alley, and we waved at each other." It sounded so stupid to say that. And it seemed suddenly stupid that he had lived like that. Why hadn't he tried to get to know her in the real world?
"Did she ever talk about what she did outside of the workplace?"
"Er, she was always talking about Muggle music, and she said she liked to shop in Soho. And . . . well, she must've been to Diagon Alley at least once."
He nodded, and the quill noted that as well. "Do you know if Olga had any enemies?"
Sirius thought about this question. It asked, do you know any potential suspects? He suspected that the grocer Olga had always despised wasn't the kind of enemy that Constable Yancy meant. "No, I don't know." He looked pleadingly at the man across the table. "I'm sorry I don't know any more."
"It's all right. When you go back into the conference room, would you send Waldenius Clouden in here?"
When he was halfway through the door, the constable called, "Wait--turn 'round."
Sirius turned, slowly, and saw a card with a picture of a skull on it . . . a skull with a snake coming out of its mouth. "Have you ever seen this before?"
He peered at the image, trying to summon a memory. "I think I saw something like that in a film once . . .." But Constable Yancy shook his head.
"Thank you for your time."
"We can't say that, Christine! It's tantamount to a threat!"
She scratched out the section she'd just written with irritation in every penstroke. "I don't know how else you'd say it. The situation will worsen for you and for your supporters if you do not accept this invitation to discuss . . . to discuss . . . er, Cleatus?"
"To discuss the unfortunate events of Friday. But we can't just say that the situation will worsen . . . It sounds as though we're proposing to worsen the situation." He hunched over the paper, staring at the words as if willing them to phrase themselves properly and save him the effort.
"All right." She crossed out the last sentence. "This invitation to discuss the events of Friday can serve as a platform for you, and you will also seem to be on the side of law in Wizarding Britain. If you can't threaten them, bribe 'em, as my sergeant used to say."
"Sergeant Toland?" Chris nodded. "He would say that." She wrote a bit more.
"You've spelled opportunity with only one 'p'."
Chris surveyed the letter. It was covered with the thick black marks that edited a piece of writing in the way that something large and blunt edits a block of chalk. She passed the final product to Cleatus, and his eyes passed over it with an alarming brand of frank astonishment. But at last, he just nodded.
"You'll have to write it over, of course."
"I know. But is it all of this that I should be writing over?" He looked at the page again.
"Yes . . . and if I were you," he said, very slowly, as he felt the echo of a solid kick to the chest, "I would also request the names of everyone we killed, and personally send my condolences to their families."