Hermione waved her wand, and her nostrils went numb. The spell ensured she wouldn't be able to smell the reek that was about to pour from the house. She'd smelled death too many times to count, but that didn't mean she wanted to.
Ginny peeled back the wards layer by layer, and the instant they fell a hearty wind slammed into the witches. Maybe the reek wouldn't be as horrendous as Hermione imagined. The wards had hermetically sealed the house.
To preserve the freshness of the bodies, Hermione thought. In that case the killer had probably posed his victims. He wanted others to see what he'd accomplished, and he wanted that accomplishment to last. Hence the need to place the bodies in stasis, where neither time or decay could touch them. Of course, she could be wrong; she hadn't stepped foot into the house yet. But she didn't think she was wrong.
When she was a rookie, such dark thoughts would have made her skin crawl. Nowadays morbid thoughts like this were just another day on the job. With enough contact a person could grow accustomed to anything, no matter how horrific.
"Thanks for cracking the wards, Gin," she said, but she was distracted. She was on the threshold, about to enter the killer's domain. Excitement burgeoned in her belly. One thing she never told another soul was that she was more interested in the killer than the victim. She cared about the victims, but it was delving into the killer's mind that fascinated her most.
Ginny dropped a hand onto Hermione's shoulder. "Don't become too lost in work. You promised you'd come to dinner tonight."
"I'll try," she said, without glancing back at her friend, and took that first, crucial step over the threshold. Her stomach couldn't decide whether to leap into her throat or plunge into her bowels. The mixture of dread and anticipation was always a thrill.
This was something she'd learned about herself-she was a thrill seeker. A boring desk job would have never satisfied her.
The need for a thrill started her first year at Hogwarts when Harry and Ron defeated the mountain troll in the loo. Granted, she'd cowered in the corner, but that jolt of adrenalin had skewered through her all the same. That year, and every year following she lived with the spice of looming danger, and she acquired a taste for it. Robbing Gringott's and invading the Ministry were examples of the rush she'd grown accustomed to.
And then there was "eighth" year. To say that it was dull would have been a gross understatement. Voldemort was dead and the spice was gone. She wanted to crawl up and down the walls she was so restless. The lack of stimulation was mind-numbing; not even her studies excited her in the way she needed. Which was why she promptly joined the Auror training program after graduation.
Her career eventually led her to the most frightening, and therefore most fascinating, realm she had ever encountered: the mind of a killer. What was it like to crave killing? To fantasize about cutting or strangling or chopping another human being? What was it like to be devoid of a conscience? And most interestingly, what caused a person to become so twisted? Was it nature or nurture or both?
The mind, save the universe, was the last undiscovered territory. Hermione saw herself as an explorer, wandering through the depths of the killers' Darkness.
Don't become too lost, Ginny had said. She had no idea how right she was when she warned Hermione of that.
Hermione moved down a corridor and paused when it spilled into a vast parlor. A stained glass window hovered upon the far wall. It depicted a black rose nestled amongst vines and thorns and leaves. Sunlight spilled through the glass, casting colored beams of light upon the bodies. Each beam spotlighted specific body parts.
She whistled. If anyone else had been present they would have been taken aback by how impressed that whistle sounded. She had seen many weird things during her career, but this was a new one. The killer deserves a gold star for creativity, she mused. It was a difficult feat indeed to introduce her to something original.
The victims were frozen in a carnal act-it was like looking at a photograph in a Muggle porn magazine. Both were Caucasian, attractive, and in their early to mid twenties. They were nude and locked in the missionary position, having been posed after death as she'd suspected. But rather than being posed in a bedroom, which would be the logical place, they were left 'on display' in the parlor.
Their faces were set into expressions of extreme pleasure-what Hermione regarded as mid coital bliss. This was how a person looked right before climax, when the nerves were alive and raw as they swept toward the inevitable peak.
Her gaze flowed about the rest of the room, and a flash of blue caught her attention. Resting on a nearby table was a carafe filled with a sapphire colored liquid. Beside it were two shot glasses. Tiny puddles of the blue liquid were at the bottom of the glasses, and one glass had red lipstick smeared on the rim.
Knowing better than to touch the carafe, she performed a number of diagnostic spells to determine if it was cursed or hexed or otherwise afflicted with a malefic spell. It was not. Even so, she Shrank and Levitated the carafe without making physical contact, and once it was safely stowed inside an evidence pouch, she slipped the pouch into her evidence kit.
"This is a new one," said a voice, but she didn't jolt. She had expected Draco to make an appearance. When she called him on her two-way mirror prior to entering the residence, he was otherwise engaged-in other words, he was in bed with yet another witch. He had a busy social life, at least where the ladies were concerned.
Two years after Draco graduated from Hogwarts, Minister Shacklebolt allowed him to join the Auror training program. Draco was denied a number of times prior, so his sudden acceptance made Hermione suspicious. Sometimes she wondered if he bribed Shacklebolt, but she had never asked.
Before Draco entered the field, the division's mind healer suggested that he and Hermione would be compatible partners. Based on that recommendation, she and Draco were forced into their partnership. It was rough going at first, but in the end the mind healer was correct. They worked very well together, even better than she'd worked with Harry.
She knew why. Draco, much like herself, was comfortable exploring the Darkness. Harry was not after having a mental link with Voldemort all those years. Not that it really mattered any more, as last year Harry became head of the Auror division. He had the desk job Hermione would have despised, but which seemed to suit him just fine.
Draco leaned down to examine the bodies, a deep furrow between his brows. "Who found them?"
"The homeowner, Ms. Wintlow, returned from holiday and couldn't enter the residence because of the wards." Hermione was positive the killer had erected the wards in order to preserve his handiwork and prevent Ms. Wintlow from entering the house. The wards were an advanced type, which was why the division had called in Ginny to crack them. "Ms. Wintlow was clever enough to perform a magical scan, which alerted her that two dead life forms were inside. She contacted the division after that."
Hermione pointed to the shot glasses. "Do you recognize the blue substance?"
Draco was much better at identifying potions than she was. This was something she never would have admitted prior to their partnership, but now she depended on his keen mind to help her solve cases. Their solve rate was the highest of the division, so Harry always assigned them the worst of the lot. Neither Hermione or Draco complained since they preferred a challenge.
From the corner of her eye she watched him move over to the glasses to examine the liquid inside. Was it possible for a man to be so perfect he was no longer as attractive as he otherwise would have been? Yes, it was, and Draco was proof. No matter where her gaze landed there was nothing to see but absolute flawlessness.
In her opinion the occasional imperfection enhanced a man's attractiveness rather than detracting from it. Severus Snape was an excellent example of this. His nose was too large, but somehow it had made him striking. It helped that he had other features that were attractive.
Were being the operative word, as he died in the Shrieking Shack during the final battle. To his dying breath he cherished Lily Potter's memory, and his capacity to love had left an indelible impression upon Hermione.
More than once she'd wished a man could love her as fiercely as he loved Lily, but it wasn't to be. Hermione worked an average of twelve to sixteen hours a day. The only man she was exposed to on a regular basis was Draco, but she wasn't attracted to Draco in that way.
Luckily she was much too busy to worry about how lonely she was.
Severus Snape had left another impression on Hermione as well-it was because of him that she invented her immersive technique. Prior to his death, Professor Snape gave Harry a batch of pensieve memories. Until Harry described what the pensieve memories contained, she thought Snape was a cold-blooded killer. But once she learned what his life had really been like, and how he had suffered, her perceptions of him shifted drastically. She felt as if she finally understood him.
Which had given her an idea.
Her immersive technique was similar to Muggle criminal profiling, but was much more in-depth. In order to better understand how the mind of a killer worked, profilers learned how the murders were committed, studied the killers and their victims, and interviewed the killers themselves. After compiling this information they began to notice patterns of behavior, which would better help them predict the behavior of killers in general.
But Hermione was not as limited as Muggle profilers. She took it a step further and collected actual memories from killers-everything from moments from their childhoods to the murders they committed-which she viewed in her pensieve. The more memories she viewed, the easier it was for her to slip into a specific killer's state of mind.
While Draco was busy examining the mystery liquid, she noted another detail about the crime scene. The victims' clothing was neatly folded and left on an end table. She didn't upset the piles, but it appeared to be organized according to victim. The female's pile consisted of a jumper, skirt, bra, and a pair of modest, black flats. It didn't escape Hermione's notice that the knickers were missing. Perhaps the killer had taken them as a trophy.
The male victim's pile contained a black t-shirt with a white logo on the front-she couldn't quite see it because the shirt was folded, but she thought it might be a flower of some kind-trousers, boxers, white socks, and trainers.
There were no robes in sight, but this wasn't a surprise. A few years after the war it became trendy to abandon traditional wizarding garb. Even the upper echelon of the wizarding world had begun to wear Muggle inspired fashions. It wasn't unusual to see witches in dresses and gowns that had recently been shown on a Muggle catwalk.
If the killer had avoided using magic, folding the clothing like this had taken several moments to do. He folded them by hand, she thought a second later. She wasn't sure why she was so certain, only that her instincts told her and she believed. Sometimes she experienced flashes of insight that had no logical explanation, but were eventually proven correct. She'd learned to trust them.
Next to the clothing was a wand. Either one of the victims was a Muggle, or the killer had taken the other wand along with the knickers.
"I recognize the potion," said Draco.
She had forgotten he was in the room. For a moment there she forgot she had a physical body. The process had begun-the immersion into the killer's frame of mind. Sometimes it swallowed her whole.
Draco had gone pale, and that was saying something considering his alabaster skin. The fact that he had a visible reaction at all was out of the ordinary; he had the unreadable Malfoy mask honed to perfection. What had caused Draco's marked response?
"This potion is my father's creation. I overheard him discussing it with Mother once when I was a boy. Later I snuck into his lab and examined the potion. It looked and smelled exactly like this. He called it Compulsion. "
Ah. That explained Draco's unusual reaction. He often reacted out of character when Lucius Malfoy was involved.
"Your father invented potions?" She knew Lucius had an affinity for them-an affinity he had passed down to his son-but she didn't know he had that level of skill.
"He used to dabble."
That would be during the brief peace between Voldemort's defeat by an infant Harry Potter and his subsequent resurrection during the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Or so she guessed. She couldn't see Lucius "dabbling" after Voldemort returned to the flesh.
"What does Compulsion do?" she asked, though she was beginning to have an idea based on the crime scene.
"Father never actually perfected it," said Draco, and swallowed so hard his Adam's apple bobbed. "Someone must have found his notes..."
"Why are you avoiding the question?"
He managed a faint smirk, though there was a sickly cast to it. "I do appreciate your bluntness."
"It saves time." She stared at him then, prodding him to continue with her eyes but willing to be patient. It had been a long while since she'd seen Draco so visibly ruffled, so she would not be blunt and terse, not when he was upset like this.
They had been partners for seven years, and one day she'd woken up and realized he was her best friend. It was to be expected considering she spent more waking hours with him than anyone else in her life, and vice versa. Ginny often joked that Hermione and Draco were "attached at the hip."
No one believed them when they said they'd never shagged, Ginny especially. If Hermione had a galleon for every time Ginny demanded the naughty details of the shagging that never actually occurred, she would be far wealthier than she was.
"Father developed it to enhance sex," said Draco. "He wanted it to prolong orgasms, but the potion didn't work the way he envisioned."
"Then what does it really do?"
Draco didn't look quite as disturbed as he had before, which Hermione was glad to see. "The cause of death offers the answer to that question."
Hermione had yet to perform the CoD spell. It was her routine to examine other details of the crime scene first. Draco apparently had performed the spell, though. "How did they die?" she asked.
"They starved to death."
She frowned. "Are you saying they literally shagged for so long they starved to death? They didn't stop, not even for sustenance?"
"One of the reasons Father abandoned the potion was because it caused compulsive behavior, hence the name. It constantly stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, that area where an orgasm is actually created. His test subjects-and before you ask, they were lab rats-ended up like this." Draco gestured to the victims, frozen mid coitus. "They were so absorbed in the pleasure they literally forgot to eat or drink."
"Constant copulation," she said, and quirked one side of her mouth. "Sounds like your private life, Malfoy."
Sometimes a joke helped to alleviate tension, and it worked in this instance. Draco's body relaxed a little, and this time he managed a full-on Malfoy smirk. "If you'd ever like to find out for yourself-"
"Not going to happen." She turned away then to collect her thoughts. "Our killer administers the potion to his two victims. Then he sits back and watches them shag each other to death." She pointed to a nearby arm chair. "He sits here and watches his own personal porno."
"Why doesn't he join in?"
"This chair has been moved." She showed Draco the indentions in the carpet where the chair had once rested. "He has moved it as far away from the couple as he can without actually leaving the room. The back of the chair is touching the wall, almost as if he fears the nearness. It is what he wants more than anything…to touch. But he is too intimidated."
"Why would any man be afraid to touch a beautiful woman?"
Hermione made one of her intuitive leaps. "Rejection. If enough beautiful girls rejected him while he was growing up, they would be seen as something he desires, yet something that brings pain. The fear of pain overrides the impulse to touch, but not the sexual impulse in itself. So he became a voyeur. He was probably caught peeping through someone's window at one time or another. He might have a record."
"He's definitely meticulous," said Draco. "Everything is clean and in order. He even cast a number of cleansing spells on the victims. He wanted them to look attractive."
"This is an intelligent man, whoever he is. He planned this to the smallest detail. He handpicked the victims and brought them here to this place." She was immersing again, slipping away. She blinked, forcing herself back to reality. "Start identifying the victims. We need to figure out how they were lured here."
She wasn't his boss, and if he wasn't in the mood to acquiesce he would tell her so. He didn't object, so she continued. "I'll be in Azkaban if you need me."
The name of the prison made Draco's fingers twitch. The tiniest bit, but Hermione saw.