I am lying in a soft but unfamiliar bed in a strange bedroom and I am wearing an uncomfortable undergarment; never a good place to be, but once again, here I am.
His soft sibilant snores have woken me from a fitful slumber. My tongue is a thick, dry, lump in my mouth, and my head aches. I had far too much to drink last night. I carefully open my eyes, and look up at a plain white ceiling with a single black lampshade dangling at its centre.
I turn and look at the figure lying next to me. His back is towards me; all I can see is a head of black and tousled hair.
I was dreaming about my boss before I woke (not something I do often—honestly—and it wasn't that sort of a dream anyway). Even so, for a horrified and paranoid fraction of a second I think that I am lying next to him. My first thought is Ginny will kill me; my second is, don't be so stupid, and my heartbeat returns to normal.
Harry is the only man I know who doesn't appraise other girls. He watches us, and he notices stuff; in fact, he rarely misses anything. But I've never caught him looking in lustful admiration at any woman but his wife (and I've tried to catch him, believe me). He will look admiringly at you, true. He does it when you've been clever, when you've done a good job. The look of lust, however, is reserved for Ginny; it's even more obvious now that they are married.
The last time I saw Ginny she was so big that she could hardly walk. She was waddling alongside Harry and cursing the late August heatwave. Harry was, impossibly, even more dotingly attentive than usual. Ginny knows how Harry looks at her; it's no wonder that she can be insufferably smug sometimes.
I look again at the still snoring man beside me. Even in the low and limited light available in this curtained room he looks nothing like Harry. He's a Muggle and his name is—damn!
I try to remember the previous evening—Dave—his name is Dave. He picked me up in a bar in the West End last night.
I am in his flat; he'd called it his "penthouse apartment" when he was chatting me up. By the time we had arrived at his front door, sometime after one o'clock this morning, it had become his bachelor pad. As I look around it in the cold light of morning I realise that "top floor flat" is a better description.
The bedroom is neat, luxurious and impersonal. I suddenly wonder if he is married. I suspect that he might be. He is in his late twenties and appears wealthy, but there is nothing in this room to identify him, no photographs, nothing at all to give the room a personal touch. Possibly this is because he does not spend much time here.
His name is Dave? His name might be Dave, but realistically, I only have his word for that.
The digital clock on the bedside table tells me that it's 9:07. I've had almost seven hours of sleep, which is more than enough. I silently slip out of bed and start searching for my clothes. I am still wearing my tightly laced corset, but nothing else. I didn't let him remove it last night. Actually, he didn't want to and he didn't even try. He had been surprised to find it, and it had turned him on. Most men are the same in my experience (though I am rather out of practice at this sort of thing). A corset, however, is bloody uncomfortable nightwear.
I find my clothes scattered across the floor—red stilettos, red dress, red handbag. Not much, but it's almost everything I had with me when I went out last night. I pick up my clothes, but I don't dress, not yet. My knickers aren't here. If I remember correctly, they're on the sofa.
My clothes smell—everything smells. Everything always smells to me because I suffer from enhanced olfactory awareness. My nose is oversensitive—that's part of my curse. I sniff softly. I can smell myself, the room and him. Sometimes I hate my nose. When we were together Seamus used to tell me that it was "a cute little nose," but that was—Merlin—that was four years ago.
The smells begin to overwhelm me. I smell sweat. Mine I am used to, but his is sour and unpleasant and I long to wash it from me. Mingled with the sweat are the smells of stale alcohol and something vile and greasy. Then I remember that we'd shared a kebab in the cab on the way here. I'd smelled it and identified the constituent meats and "meat-related products" (that means brains and eyeballs and … you don't want to know). I'd known what was in it, but I'd been so drunk that I'd eaten some of it anyway. My stomach lurches at the memory.
I spot a dressing gown hanging on the door. As I pad silently across towards it I pick up other faint smells. The scent of a female who isn't me wafts towards me; I trace it to the fluffy white dressing gown. His sour sweat is on the dressing gown, too—I cannot bear it, so I cannot wear it. There is also the smell of rotting fruit. I remember this, too. We knocked over his fruit bowl in the living room last night, during the initial excitement of our arrival, and I accidentally put a stiletto heel through an apple.
From the open door I look back around the bedroom. The bed and the table are the only furniture in the place, though there is also a built in wardrobe along an entire wall. The wardrobe doors are a wall length mirror—I avoid looking in that direction as I definitely do not want to see myself. Otherwise, the room is white and anonymous. The man I know only as Dave grunts and rolls over, but he does not wake. With my clothes bundled in my arms I turn away from him and peer through into the other room, a combined lounge and kitchen.
The living room curtains are open and rain falls softly on the windows. I am naked but for the corset, but I can see nothing other than rooftops and slate-coloured sky through the distorting drops pattering on the panes. The sun is invisible, hidden behind thick clouds and I know that last night's waning crescent moon will be long gone from the sky.
I peer across the room and out into the gloom of another dreary day. I am confident that no one will see me, though I really don't care if they do. I need to get moving before he wakes, so, "en déshabillé" I silently stroll into the lounge; boldly displaying most of my body to an uncaring grey wet world.
The living area is as starkly unfurnished as the bedroom. One of those new, and very expensive flat screen TVs is fixed to the wall. A black leather sofa and a low table (a modern construction of glass and chrome) stand on the polished wooden floor facing the TV. Next to the table a broken black fruit bowl lies on the floor. A stiletto stabbed apple, surrounded by shattered splinters of pottery. The apple has been dripping sticky brown juice onto the floorboards.
I look towards the other end of the room. The kitchen area is fully fitted; clean worktops, sink, concealed appliances, knife block, the usual stuff—but it all looks unused.
I am thirsty, and there is a vile taste in my mouth. He offered me a cold beer when we arrived. Perhaps, despite all the drinks he'd bought me, he thought that I wasn't drunk enough. Dropping my clothes on the sofa, I go to investigate the kitchen area more closely. Because of last night's offer of beer, I find the fridge at my first attempt.
This is definitely a man's place. The only food in the fridge consists of half-a-dozen lion stamped brown eggs and an unopened pack of back bacon rashers rapidly approaching their sell-by date. There are, however, drinks aplenty—four different brands of lager in various cans and bottles, a half full plastic four-pint milk carton, and a tall square litre carton of supermarket brand grapefruit juice. I shake the juice carton; it's about a third full. I unscrew the cap and sniff. It smells fresh and it's always safer than milk. I've no idea where he keeps any glasses and I don't want to search so I simply drink from the carton. The juice is cold and quenching and its tartness temporarily removes the unpleasant taste from my mouth.
I empty the carton, leave it on the bench, and look around the room. Once again I try to get my bearings. That is the door we entered through last night so this—I push the door open—leads to the bathroom. Jackpot!
Unlacing my corset, I return to the centre of the living room and add it to the pile of dirty clothes on the sofa. I pick up my handbag and hurry into the bathroom.
It is a wonderfully strange bathroom; pale grey tiled walls, floor and ceiling. It is lit by over a dozen discreet spotlights in the ceiling. On the wall next to the door the toilet and sink sit next to each other. Centrally on the opposite wall there is a huge fixed shower head, but no shower cubicle. It seems that the intention is for the entire stone floor to be covered with water, as the drain is central in the room.
I rummage through my handbag and find my potions pouch. It contains four small vials. The vial of contraceptive is empty as I took it last night. I drink the hangover cure and feel better immediately. The other two vials each contain a dose of the potion I use to manage my condition. I won't need those vials for three weeks, but I must carry them everywhere; it's a legal requirement.
I begin a once familiar morning toilet ritual, one which I haven't done for a year. I "make myself comfortable" as Mum still says, then roughly remove the smeared and sad remnants of last night's make-up. I rummage for my toothbrush and toothpaste. I carry a toothbrush in my handbag, doesn't everyone? As I clean my teeth vigorously I discover that grapefruit juice, hangover cure and toothpaste do not combine well together, but I persevere. Eventually my mouth feels clean.
I find a towel, turn on the shower, and then find soap and shampoo. I intend to shower quickly. Perhaps I can still get out of here before he wakes, but getting clean is more important. If I don't manage to escape while he's still sleeping, I will use my back-up plan. I'd let him see me naked. That never fails. He'll be horrified and he'll be happy to see me go.
The shower pounds powerfully down on me and I try to marshal my thoughts. Why? Why had I done it?
I know the answer, of course.
I did it because I am lonely and pathetic. I did it because I haven't had a proper boyfriend since—have I ever had a proper boyfriend—was Seamus the last? Until last night I had been celibate for over a year. I had been trying to repair my reputation after spending almost two years proving to everyone that I'm the wild, flighty and tarty member of Dumbledore's Army. I stopped that behaviour only when Parvati told me that I was being compared unfavourably to Romilda Vane.
I argued with Parvati at the time. I even tried to blame her. I claimed that I only went off the rails because she had gone to India. Parvati left me in London while she went on a year-long sabbatical to learn Indian healing techniques. She left two days after the third anniversary of the Battle. Then, when she came back, she was married and everything had changed.
I angrily pummel shampoo into my hair. The viciousness of my attack on my own scalp creates a cascade of bright white bubbles which run down into my gasping mouth. I spit out the soapy water.
Parvati's husband, Parindra, is a nice bloke, but I hated him at first. I had fallen out with my "bestest friend in the world" the girl I'd first met when we were eleven, the girl I had shared all of my secrets with, the girl who never ever teased me about my hopeless crush on (Merlin's beard!) Ron Weasley. I was behaving badly, but it couldn't be my fault, so it must be Parvati's new bloke who was the problem. I didn't even go to their wedding in Hyderabad, though I was invited. Padma begged me to go across with her, but I said no.
I refused to attend my best friend's wedding.
Of all the nasty, horrible, stupid things I've done in my life that was the worst.
Dave has a loofah, a real loofah. When I was a little girl my daddy used to scrub my back with one of those. Oh, Dad, I'm sorry that I'm such a disappointment to you. I use the loofah. It is rough and hard on my skin, so I scrub and scrub until my flesh tingles.
I didn't really make up with Parvati until Harry and Ginny's wedding last year—Ginny helped me. After we'd made up and had a long talk, Parvati forgave me. But now I seem to be determined to return to my old ways. Parvati will lecture me again, and I will deserve it. Harry says that's what real friends are for, to tell you things that you don't want to hear.
If I do this again, I will stick with Muggles. Harry has covered for me too many times already. He will always cover for me because he thinks that he owes me. He thinks that I saved his life when I took the bite, but really, he saved my life by getting me my job. He does not need one of his most controversial appointees to get her name in The Daily Prophet, again.
I stop scrubbing and stand unmoving, hoping that the torrent will wash away my woes with the bubbles.
A lot of my friends are married: Parvati and Parindra, Dean and Frankie, Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny, Neville and Hannah. More are engaged; Seamus and Michael brought their girls to the latest wedding, which was last month, and both announced their engagements. So, when Seamus finally marries, the number of unwed Gryffindors from my year will be just one—me.
Even straight-laced Susie-B has a bloke. The ice maiden is definitely melting. She brought him to the wedding, too. He's a Quidditch Chaser called Jonny Summerby – he plays for Tutshill and Wales. I didn't even find out about Jonny until the wedding. Susan had managed to keep it a secret from me, even though she sits at the desk next to mine in the office.
I am losing my touch; how did I miss that piece of gossip?
The last wedding was just over six weeks ago, and that's when I began to crack. I cracked simply because I didn't have a boyfriend, and I couldn't find an "and guest" to be my escort.
There has only been one wedding this year, fewer than in the two previous years, but next year is looking busy already. This year's only "occasion" was to celebrate big, ugly Terry's marriage to big, ugly Fenella. A match made in heaven—if their kids have Terry's ears and Fenella's nose they'll beat all records for ugliness.
What a bitch I am! They're happy together and I hate them for it. Besides, I have to admit that Fenella looked good, damn good, at her wedding. All girls do, it seems, even short-sighted hook-nosed six-footers like Fenella. Who'd have thought that she was hiding that figure under that slumped slouch and those shapeless robes. Will I look good at my wedding? The better question is will I ever marry? Who would want me?
I should never have made the "ugly" crack to Parvati, not given my own imperfect appearance. I think that Fenella heard me. Luna certainly did – "But if they have Terry's nose and Fenella's ears they could be very good looking," Luna told me in that matter-of-fact voice of hers.
Bloody Luna! Why does she have to be so—so—bloody Luna! What will I do if Luna finds herself a new bloke? I am still angry about Seamus' announcement. Even though it was I who dumped him and there's been nothing between us for years, I felt somehow cheated.
But Luna's not worried about the fact that her ex, Michael, is engaged. Luna doesn't care that she doesn't have a bloke, or that everyone (except Harry and Ginny, and the lovely and married Neville) still thinks that she's completely barmy. She never worries about anything. Perhaps I should become more like Luna Lovegood.
I turn off the shower, laughing silently to myself. I'm in a better mood than I've been in for days, and it's not because I've spent the night with a man. It's because, thanks to my power shower ponderings, I now realise that this Muggle manhunt is a mistake. It will not take me anywhere that I want to go. I need to find a different way to deal with the fact that I don't have a boyfriend.
It has also been a sobering revelation to realise that Luna is happy being Luna, but I'm not happy being me. It's a shame that I only ever see her at weddings.
I enjoy my job, but it's been very quiet at work recently. No big cases, no undercover work, nothing exciting, nothing to keep me busy and stop me moping.
Everything else about my life, I hate. My friends are getting married and I don't even have a bloke. I'm not likely to get one, either. No wizard would have me and the only Muggles I've dated are as unsuitable as the one whose bed I've just left.
I can change I tell myself.
Oh, the irony of those words. I do change, once a month, that's the problem.
As I towel my hair dry I hear the TV being switched on. He's up.
'Want any breakfast, darlin', or d'you want me to join you?' possibly-called-Dave shouts through the bathroom door. He tries the door, sounding hopeful, but he's already become a bad memory to me and I'm glad that I locked it.
'No,' I shout back, answering the second question first. 'A cup of tea, please.'
'Okay, darlin',' he calls. Can he remember my name? Does he want to? Does he care? Do I care?
I know the answer to that last one. No!
I fish out my wand, a bra, and a pair of clean knickers from my handbag. That is not a reflection on my personality; every girl I know carries spare underwear in her handbag. I know that Hermione carries a week's supply in hers, "just in case", and that at least two of those pairs are in Chudley Cannons colours. The things we do for men!
I magically dry myself, slip into my clean underwear and prepare to shock my host.
When I pull open the bathroom door and step out into the living room he is in the kitchen area and, thank Merlin, he's wearing a dressing gown. It's the thick, fluffy white thing I saw hanging on the door and he's not really macho to carry off the look. It makes him look pale and rather wimpy. He turns and looks at me. My lower body is screened from him by the microwave so he stares at my boobs; most blokes do. They're fairly impressive; they're up there with Ginny's, though they are the merest foothills compared to Hannah's mountains.
I step sideways and he looks lower. His jaw drops and so does the mug of tea in his hand—it crashes to the floor and breaks. Hot tea splashes his leg, but he doesn't even notice.
'Jesus Christ!' he exclaims. 'What the hell happened to you?' He looks at me with a mixture of horror and pity and disgust. They always do.
I tell him the truth; I always do that, too. I look down at my abdomen, at the five deep and jagged red scars which I usually hide under one of my many corsets—I have a large collection. The claw marks stretch from my left side, passing just under my ribs and cross my belly in raw and ragged lines. They end several inches beyond and below my belly button. The lowest scar disappears down into my knickers.
'These are the reason why I never wear a crop-top and always wear a corset,' I say matter-of-factly. 'I was attacked by a werewolf and thrown from a balcony just after my eighteenth birthday. I was in hospital for months, in a wheelchair for years, and then I accidentally found the cure for wolf-cursed wounds.'
I point to the bite mark on my shoulder. It's barely visible, but is-he-really-called-Dave noticed it last night. He tried to cover it with his own teeth but couldn't. Several other guys have done that to me, too.
Last night I'd told him that it was a dog bite. Now I would tell him the truth.
'Werewolf bite,' I say, smiling broadly in order to show him my sharp and now very clean white canines. I need to emphasise the point. 'When I finally got bitten the earlier curse wounds healed. If I'd known that sooner, these,' I point at my scarred abdomen again, 'probably wouldn't be so bad. But don't worry, I only turn into a real bitch once a month.'
He smiles in embarrassment and it's obvious that he thinks that I'm joking. Muggles always smile disbelievingly at me; wizards inevitably back rapidly away from me. I'm too scarred and ugly for Muggles, and too cursed for wizards.
'Great story,' he says softly and sadly. 'You don't have to tell me what really happened if you don't want to.'
He is genuinely curious and he even manages to sound concerned. Perhaps I've misjudged him. But I don't tell him my usual lie because I've stopped listening to him. The TV has distracted me; it's tuned to BBC News 24 and there's a reporter on the harbour at Whitby. The words "boat," "storm," "large dog," and "man's body tied to controls," have attracted my attention. The reporter, with the inevitability of the next full moon (twenty nights away), adds the words "vampire" and "Dracula," too.
In the background, behind the reporter, I notice a door open and close, but there is no one there. That could mean one of three things: a prank, an invisible wizard, or the reporter is correct.
I ignore probably-not-called-Dave, pull my purse from my handbag and step back into the bathroom. A job! I'm saved. I'm likely to get a call, probably within minutes.
I lock the bathroom door and open my purse. Then I really open my purse, unfolding it into a two foot by one foot rectangle. I reach deep inside and find the bag containing my uniform. I pull on my black stockings, button up my white blouse, slip into my black pleated skirt and fashion my grey uniform cravat into a choker, because that way I can show more boobs. I slide my wand into the concealed pocket in my much-shorter-than-regulation-length skirt before slipping on my flat black shoes. After refolding my purse into its easy access wallet configuration I make certain that it is secure in the inside pocket of my coat. I place my official Ministry identity card in the coat's breast pocket and, finally, I settle the ankle length black coat onto my shoulders. I don't put my arms in the sleeves; I prefer to wear the coat like this as it looks more cloak-like.
As I unlock the bathroom door I hear a bell ringing. It is my mirror, which is still in my handbag. I step quickly back into the living room, ignoring Dave's questions, and pluck my handbag from his curious grasp.
He wants to know several things. Where did I get the change of clothes? What's going on? Who am I? He doesn't need to know any of these things. In fact, it's probably best that he stops asking questions.
I pull the mirror from my handbag and hold it to my ear, as though it was one of those mobile phones that the Muggles use.
'Brown,' I identify myself, opening the connection.
'Auror Brown,' the operator begins. 'We have received a report from the Muggle-Monitoring Service.'
'Whitby,' I interrupt. 'It's on the television.'
'The Muggle Interface Team has been assigned. Aurors Bones and Beadle have been contacted and are en route to the Yorkshire Sheriff's Court. Please attend immediately.'
'What about Harry?' I ask curiously. Deputy Head Auror Potter (he prefers to be called Harry) has assigned us to deal with Muggle-world incidents, but given the nature of this case, a potential vampire killing, I would expect him to attend too. There can only be one reason why he isn't going to be with us—Ginny.
'Mrs Potter is in labour,' the operator tells me. I'm happy for them, I really am. 'Do you require any additional information, Auror Brown?'
'No thanks, Hilda, you will tell us when there's news about Ginny's baby, won't you?' I've finally connected a name to the operator's voice—I used to be much better at doing that. Calling her by name should be enough to ensure that Hilda does let us know. 'I'm on my way to York now.'
'Good luck, Auror Brown,' Hilda tells me before breaking the connection.
I drop the mirror into my inside coat pocket, pick up my handbag and give the bewildered Muggle my most wolfish smile. It makes him take a step backwards; at least I haven't lost my touch.
I look around his living room. Yesterday's knickers, my red dress, corset and stilettos still lie on the sofa. It is an untidy pile in varied shades of red; last night I had literally been a scarlet woman. Those clothes are no longer important. I like the shoes, but not enough to delay my departure.
'What…' I'll-never-know-if-he's-really-called-Dave begins again.
'You can keep the clothes,' I interrupt, 'as a memento of a scarlet woman. I've got to go, emergency call. Who better to catch a vampire than a werewolf, a witch and a policewoman?'
It's probably nothing, just another boring false alarm. I mean, really! A storm tossed boat in Whitby harbour? It's such a cliché! Nevertheless I've got a job to do and, if I'm lucky, prey to hunt. I open the apartment door, step out onto the stairwell and slam it shut behind me.
'I'm Lavender Brown, the werewolf Auror, and I'm off to hunt for a vampire,' I whisper to his closed door before Disapparating. Whatever he is really called, Dave will have a good story. Especially if, as I expect, he opens the door to find out what the noise was. The clothes I've left behind will back up his story—but no one will believe him.
No one ever does.