Note: Written for the 2010 takingitinturns exchange (theme: keeping secrets) on LJ.
Warnings: First person, present tense POV, Raymond Chandler-esque style, and an ambiguous ending that may lead you to think there's more to come. There isn't.
The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. --Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder"
It's around half-six in the evening with a damp chill and fog rolling in off the Thames. Early April, yet it feels like late November. I'm wearing thick-soled brogans over knobby wool socks - a Christmas present from my granddaughter - dark blue flannel trousers, and a light blue button-down shirt under my grey flannel waistcoat. No coat. My scarf and gloves are sitting on my desk back at Auror HQ. My wand rests in a disguised pocket holster at my hip. I look like a bloody middle-aged law enforcement officer who spends most of his days riding a desk or prowling Ministry corridors. Well, maybe not quite middle-aged. Give it a decade or two.
I should be at my desk now. I'd got a call this morning from my contact at New Scotland Yard about a body they'd pulled from the river. I don't hear from her often, so when I do, she gets my immediate and full attention. The poor sod was definitely one of our lot, though evidently not from these parts. No identification on him, of course. No identifying marks of any kind except a burn tattoo behind his left ear. A nine-character series of letters and numbers, all done in mirror images. Clearly not a local chap.
I'd been shuffling papers, waiting for the coroner's report, when she entered my office. A redhead. I'm a sucker for redheads. Especially when the redhead comes packaged with a matched set of body and mind like hers and calls me "Harry, love" and kisses me with lips that taste of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Lip Balm before I've had a chance to ask why she's come. She told me after the kiss. Horseradish-flavored. Suddenly, my anonymous corpse wasn't so interesting anymore.
I left Auror HQ in a bit of a hurry. That's why I'm out here by the river without a coat or gloves. At least I've got my invisibility cloak. While it shields me from view, it does nothing to protect me from the damp and the cold. I cup my hands before my mouth and blow on them to keep them from getting too stiff; I may need to act quickly tonight.
Footsteps approach. Knee-high boots, leather, with square toes and inch-high heels, encasing slender, firm calves. The ground here is uneven but the steps are quick and sure, no stumbles. The mist parts and she comes into view.
There's a old car dealership on the corner, a relic of better times. The showroom has been empty for years, but above the plate-glass windows "Smithson's Motors" flickers in green neon. The woman pauses beneath it to get her bearings. Her skin looks pale in the sickly light, but it can't diminish the blazing brilliance of her long hair. Her hair demands fingers to tangle themselves in it. Her brown eyes are bright with intelligence and humor. They take in her surroundings with a glance, not missing a detail. She is short of stature but projects a greater height. Though she wears a cloak, I know the form of her body beneath it as well as I know my own hand. It's the kind of body that could inspire a man to use a Time-Turner just for the chance to discover and memorize every inch of it anew.
Ginny raises her hood, covering her hair, and steps out of the corona of light. The tip of her wand flares to life under a Lumos spell. I can scarcely see it through the fog. It won't be night for a while yet, but down by the river, surrounded by run-down warehouse flats and half-empty office buildings, gloom has signed a long-term lease and started unpacking its boxes. Shame how quickly all that urban renewal near the end of the previous century fell apart. I've seen graveyards with less decay and more cheer than this neighborhood.
I didn't come here for the ambience. I keep my eyes on Ginny's disembodied wandtip, bobbing along like a half-drunk firefly as she goes down a narrow flight of stairs. Before the fog can completely swallow it - and her - up, I pull my invisibility cloak close around me and follow.
The mist around here smothers sound almost as well as an Imperturbable Charm. Every now and then I hear a bell ring on one of the buoys marking the river channel; they sound miles away. If I listen hard I can hear Ginny's footsteps on the cobblestones. It's not quite so hard to imagine her legs in motion, with thighs that can grip a broomstick or a man's waist with equal strength. Thinking about her legs makes me hard. Reluctantly, I make myself stop.
The streetlamps provide fleeting glimpses of her as she moves purposefully through the narrow streets. Though she remains cloaked, I know her by the way she moves. At a corner she darts a glance over her shoulder but does not break her stride. Afraid she has twigged to me despite the invisibility cloak, I duck into an alley.
I don't let her out of my sight, but hug the damp walls as I maintain pursuit. I'm so intent I nearly trip over a drunk passed out in my path. I don't know how I couldn't hear his snores as I approached. I've seen Bat-Bogey victims with less congestion than this sorry bloke. Hell, I've seen Piccadilly Circus with less congestion. His phlegm-corked snores continue uninterrupted. He hasn't even noticed me. Neither has she.
Ginny pauses beneath a sign hanging from an iron bracket and glances once more over her shoulder. I hide in a doorway this time, holding my breath though I am slightly winded from trying to keep up with her. I'm overdue for another round of physical training, but she's as fit as she was when she retired from the Harpies nearly a quarter century ago. Only someone very close to her would even know where to look for evidence of the three children she's given birth to since then. Someone who's slept beside her nearly every night for over thirty years. Someone like her husband.
I watch in silent anticipation, like watching one of my boys tear into a much-desired birthday present, as she takes a slip of paper from her pocket, reads it, then looks up at the sign. The lettering is cracked and faded, scarcely legible. In some neighborhoods pub owners spend extra money to manufacture that look; here, it's age and neglect, entirely free of charge. Attracting custom isn't a priority. People don't come here except on purpose.
Ginny pockets the note. I don't need to read it to know what it says; I wrote it for her. She lowers her hood and pushes open the door beneath the sign. Light from within splashes briefly on her lovely freckle-brushed face as the dull hum of conversation pulls her inside. I want to follow, but this is the point where I need to let trust take over. It's the most difficult part for me on any mission; having my wife as point man only makes it all the more so. I know Ginny knows what she's doing. I know she can take care of herself.
I also know she would be furious with me for not letting her do this on her own. I know - all too well - what a dangerous woman she is when she's angry. All the same, the instinct to hover over her, to guard and protect her, is a powerful impulse. I compromise: I flick my wand at the wall opposite, exposing the room within to my view. I will watch, but I will not listen. I will not interfere. I will only intervene if there's trouble.
Whether because of the brilliance of her hair or the beauty of her face, Ginny stands out like a Hungarian Horntail at a chess tournament. She draws attention like a desert oasis draws caravans, but she is no shimmering mirage; she is as real and as refreshing as a tall glass of ice-cold pumpkin juice on a midsummer's evening after a day spent working on the motorbike with my godson. Ginny strides confidently past the other patrons, looking neither left nor right as heads turn in her wake, but straight ahead. Her attention is fixed on a booth at the rear of the pub. Beerfoam-flecked lips hum in appreciation and approval like honeybees in a field of clover as she passes. No one dares accost her.
The man she's looking for, the man I sent her here to meet, looks up as she approaches his booth. He raises his hand as if to shield his eyes from her radiance, like a miner emerging from his cave into the midday sun. He has the kind of face only a mother's stepbrother's adopted child's dog could love, the kind of face that breaks cameras and puts them back together. I warned Ginny about his face. She does not flinch when she looks at it.
He's not a wizard, but a warlock. He's a one-time Death Eater and a thief and con artist who could cheat Mundungus Fletcher out of his own undershorts and one of my most useful snouts. I once saved his life after he swindled the wrong goblin clan. Keeping me informed about goings-on in the wizarding underworld is his way of repaying me. It's a dubious honor, but I'm not above taking what's handed to me on a tarnished - and probably stolen - silver platter. Whatever it takes to keep the peace.
He's also an autodidact on what seems to be every possible subject under the sun, from the history of the abacus to the life cycle of the Zanzibar fruitfly. In all the years I've known him, I have yet to present him with a knot he can't unravel, a puzzle he can't solve, a code he can't decipher, or a question he can't answer. If he can't enlighten Ginny about the contents of the anonymous parcel she received care of the Daily Prophet, no one can. I bloody well can't.
The next part goes as we rehearsed it in my office. She holds out her hand, revealing something cradled in her palm. She says something. Her manner is direct, her gaze firmly on his ugly visage, her introduction brief. I told her to give him my name. He takes what she has shown him and examines it. She sits opposite him and waits.
I've seen enough. Events from this point on are beyond my control. I need to let Ginny handle this on her own. My contact will make sure no harm comes to her. I wave my wand to restore the wall to its impenetrable brick façade and Disapparate home to wait for her return.
Picture the scene: a man sits in his favorite armchair snoozing by a fire. He's getting on a bit in years, though he hasn't quite gone to seed yet. The glasses he has worn nearly all his life are now bifocals. His black hair is flecked with grey, but remains as impossible to tame as ever. His wife tells him the grey makes him look distinguished. What she means is that she finds it rather sexy. Creases appear in his face when he smiles. She finds these sexy too. He's not one to argue with such a clever woman. It would be like wrestling a troll with one hand tied behind his back - ugly, painful, and a bloody great waste of time.
He wears the blue trousers, flannel waistcoat, and knobby socks from before, but he has exchanged the brogans for bedroom slippers. A paperback lies face-down on his chest. A cat keeps watch from its perch on the back of the chair; on the table beside him, a cup of tea has grown cold.
This is the tableau that greets Ginny when she returns home. The thump of her bag on the floor rouses me and startles the cat. It leaps to the floor with a hiss and runs off to sulk among the cobwebs and dustbunnies under the wardrobe.
Still half-asleep, I blink Ginny into focus. My mouth tastes like the stale corned beef sandwich I had for supper. I run my tongue around in my mouth to get rid of the taste; there'll be no help from the half-empty cup of cold tea beside me. Ginny rests her hands on her hips and shakes her head at me. It's a familiar sight for both of us.
"Waited up for me, did you?"
"Mm-hm." I yawn and stretch my arms above my head. The book slides to the floor. "What time is it?"
"Gone midnight." She picks up the book and looks at the cover. Her lips curve up slightly. "You didn't use to be much of a reader."
"I didn't use to have a best-selling novelist for a daughter." I shrug. "There are worse ways to spend a quiet evening."
She puts the book beside the cup and settles into my now-empty lap, draping her arms around my shoulders. We kiss. No matter how often or how long we've kissed each other over the years, it still feels like that first memorable kiss in the Gryffindor common room. Sometimes I think I can even hear Seamus cheering in the background.
"Your lips are cold," I say a few moments later. Cold, but tasting of peach cobbler.
"Your hands are warm." I slip a hand around the back of her neck, my fingers combing her hair. The other slides beneath her skirt to caress her thigh. There's more than one ticket to paradise. She shivers and tightens her arms around me. It's good to know I can still bring out this response in her.
I wouldn't mind staying like this for a while. I consider suggesting we take it upstairs, where we can stretch out on the bed. I'm not as flexible as I once was, and the floor is hard on my back and knees. Curiosity is as potent a force as desire, however. I can wait fifteen minutes. "What kept you so long? I expected you back hours ago."
Her mouth twists. "Why didn't you stick around to find out for yourself?"
I'm impressed. She knows it, too. "You knew I was following you?"
"I can always tell when you're nearby." Her brown eyes gleam with mischief. "Besides, I'd be disappointed if you hadn't done. You've never been able to keep a tight rein on those protective impulses of yours."
"It's a curse," I sigh in mock aggrievement.
The same thought crosses both our minds at these words. I know this by the way her gaze flicks briefly to my forehead. The scar is still there, though nearly translucent with age. She does not lift her hand to trace the jagged line. Though we each bear scars of the past, neither of us sees the need to dwell there. We're a forward-looking pair.
I am reminded, all the same, of what a lucky man I am to have Ginny. Of how lucky I am to be had by her.
"So did you find out anything useful?" I ask, breaking the spell. My hands withdraw to neutral territory as reluctantly as an ant passes by spilled jam.
"I did," she says with a note of triumph. A flip of her wrist and a soft command Summons the mysterious object from her bag. For something that has aroused such curiosity, it is an unexceptional curio: a terracotta figurine in the shape of an animal, with traces of paint on the extremities. Incised on its base around the creature's feet are symbols that are obviously meant to represent words, but in no language I have ever encountered before. Had it not ended up in Ginny's hands under such unusual circumstances, I might not have ever cared to know of its existence.
"You were right to send me to him. He had no trouble identifying the lettering."
"And?" I can hardly contain my interest.
Her answer surprises me. I am no more enlightened now than I was when Ginny first showed it to me. I take it from her hand and examine it in the firelight, turning it over and over. "Huh. What does it say?"
She hesitates just long enough that I look up at her. "That's the odd part. He wouldn't translate it for me. He obviously knew, though."
My eyebrows go up at this. It's unlike him to withhold information. "How could you tell?"
"Call it reporter's instinct, call it my nose for B.S." She taps the side of her nose. "Anyroad, he told me right away what language it was. But when I asked what the inscription said he went all shifty-eyed on me. He wouldn't even take a bribe."
"He wouldn't anyway. Not his style. He prefers to deal in favors." My thumb strokes the surface of the lettering. "Interesting." I hand it back and lean my head back against the chair. "It took him four hours to tell you that?"
"I was at the pub for only twenty minutes. The barman wasn't too chuffed when I left without buying a pint."
"I suppose the rest of the time you were shopping in Diagon Alley."
My pathetic attempt at humor provokes the threat of a new ice age. "No. I went to the Ministry archive to do some research."
"Of course. Can't imagine why I didn't guess that first."
"I went there because of something he did tell me." She gets off my lap and bends over to pick up her bag, presenting me with a pleasant vista. My gaze doesn't quite shift fast enough when she straightens. It's not the first time I've been caught with my hand in the biscuit tin. "It's part of a matched set. There should be two of them."
"And they're not supposed to be separated. Something to do with how their magic works." She's got a look on her face that tells me she's drafting her acceptance speech for next year's journalism awards banquet. Reckon I'd better dig my dress robes out of the back of the wardrobe and send them to the cleaners. "Unfortunately, I couldn't find any information in the archive before they closed. Not even a line item in a bloody index."
"Maybe the Hogwarts library will be more useful."
Her mood brightens. Warmth returns to the world. "I had the same idea. That's why I'm going up there tomorrow."
I sit up. "Yeah?"
Her eyes narrow in appraisal. It's like being on the business end of a disciplinary board and having just been caught telling a whopper of a lie. The boys often say that whenever Ginny looks at them like this, it feels like she's using Legilimency. She isn't. She doesn't need to; she just knows. Her mother had the same talent. Must be a Prewett trait.
A smile sneaks over her face. "Yeah."
"Apparate, Floo, or fly?"
She appears to consider the options, but I'm not fooled. "I reckon I'll fly. Care to join me?"
My grin matches hers. "Thought you'd never ask."
She holds out her hand to pull me to my feet. It's not been quite fifteen minutes, but who's counting? Upstairs beckons, like a low, sultry laugh and the vision of tousled red hair on a pillow.