Polly Protheroe walked into the Devonshire Arms.
'Ain't seen you for weeks, Poll, and I don't fink I've ever seen you at lunchtime,' said the barmaid. 'Usual?' Polly nodded, and the girl began to pull a pint.
'New tat, Trish?' she asked, looking at the barmaid's forearm. The grim reaper, scythe in hand, grinned back at Polly.
'Yeah, you like it?' Trish replied, placing the pint of Hobgoblin on the bar and taking the money Polly had proffered.
'Nice artwork, but not my choice, I've never really been into the reaper stuff,' Polly replied. She took her change and waited for Trish to top up her pint.
'I've always meant to ask, what's that?' The barmaid pointed to Polly's neck.
'Raven's claw,' Polly told her. 'It's the first tattoo I ever got. It's a private joke. I'm not a lion or a badger or a snake.'
The barmaid looked puzzled. Polly simply grinned and walked away from the bar.
The pub's lunchtime clientele was not what she was used to. When she came in the evening the place was always busy and noisy. It was inevitably packed with goths and metalheads: black leather, piercings and body art. Now, it was quiet. There were a few people she knew in the place. A couple of purple-haired girls and their long-haired, leather-jacket-wearing, boyfriends waved to her. She smiled at them, but rather than join them, Polly went over sit behind the screen which divided the main part of the bar from the pool table and dartboard.
She strolled past five workmen, all but one were wearing jeans and scruffy t-shirts. The five men sat near the pool table, having a lunchtime beer and a sandwich. The only one not in a t-shirt wore a faded check shirt. He was in his forties, thin, sandy-haired and balding, and he seemed to be in charge. Polly looked at the men curiously. They were a mixed bunch. An unfeasibly black-haired man in his late forties was obviously stuck in the 1980's; he wore his hair in a mullet. He was talking to a skinny, balding man in his fifties who wore his thinning grey hair in a pony-tail. Next to them was an extremely overweight bald man. The fifth man, a spiky-haired and heavily tattooed punk in his thirties, was wearing a Rancid t-shirt; he winked at her as she passed.
When she'd ordered her drink she'd observed the men in the mirror behind the bar, she had watched the punk while he watched her.
It was a warm summer day. She wore her front-buckle knee boots, a pair of ragged black denim shorts, and her old leather greatcoat. She shrugged off the greatcoat, revealing a purple string vest over a violently pink crop top, and most of her tattoos. Throwing her coat on the bench she sat, placed her pint on a beer mat, and pushed herself right into the corner. The punk was, once again, staring at her. She ignored him.
Polly positioned herself carefully. The wall behind the pool table was scratched black plastic, but you could see everyone who entered the bar in the distorted reflection. From this spot you could also see the large mirror behind the bar, and in it, most of the rest of the room. Polly sipped her pint and waited.
At exactly half past twelve the door opened and, reflected in the black plastic, Polly saw the first member of her team enter. This was someone who had been imposed upon her. Polly watched the shadowy reflection moving and noted with approval that the girl didn't hesitate, but walked straight across to the bar. Mullet-man nudged his pony-tailed colleague, and all five men turned to watch.
Polly leaned sideways, peered past the screen, and looked at the curvy girl at the bar. Curly brown hair tumbled down her back. She wore an ankle-length flower-print summer dress. The halter top revealed her smooth, pale shoulders and upper back. The dress, Polly realised, was of a very thin material. The workmen could make out the silhouette of her legs through the dress, hence their interest. Polly sat upright and watched the men watch the girl. When she looked back towards the bar she saw trainee Auror Lavender Brown watching her in the mirror. Lavender smiled, turned from the bar and walked across to join her.
'I had no idea what to order,' Lavender said cheerfully, placing a pint glass on the table and sitting opposite Polly. 'But I saw you in the mirror. You were watching those blokes who were watching me. I told the barmaid that I'd have whatever my old friend Polly was drinking. What is this?'
'Wytchwood Hobgoblin, strong ale,' Polly said.
Lavender burst out laughing. 'I've got the t-shirt,' she said. 'I inherited it from Harry. I was in his bed in my underwear, and I needed some clothes, so he found me a t-shirt.'
Polly, who knew the story behind Lavender's infection and subsequent recruitment, was amazed at how entirely accurate, yet completely misleading, that statement was.
'You wouldn't dare say that in front of the Harpy,' Polly replied.
'The Harpy?' Lavender smiled. 'That's a good one; I'll have to remember it. It might even needle her, but I doubt it, especially not now she's got his ring. So, have I passed? Did I manage to walk into a pub and buy a drink without attracting attention?'
'No, you attracted a lot of attention,' Polly told her. She paused for a moment and watched Lavender's face fall. 'From the blokes,' she said. 'But that's because of your dress, not because you failed to act like a Muggle. You'll do. Now come and sit next to me, right here, and we'll wait for Susan.'
'Susan!' Lavender exclaimed. 'No one told me that I was going to be working with Susan Bones! We can't work together, we argue about everything.'
'That's what Susan said, too. But Robards has imposed most of my team on me. You weren't my choice, but don't let that bother you, neither was Bobbie.' Polly added hastily, 'Like I said, you'll be fine. Susan is my own choice. Not that I had much choice. I couldn't control Harry, no one can.'
'Except Ginny the Harpy,' observed Lavender. Polly nodded and continued.
'I hope you can work with Susan, Lavender. I don't want one of the old duffers, and now that we've finally caught little Colin's killer, Ron and Nev are working their notice. That leaves me one of the other trainees, fresh out of Hogwarts and, unlike you, completely inexperienced, or Susan, or Terry. I need a fully qualified Auror, and Susan is qualified, and efficient. She was my partner during your field training, remember? So my only alternative is Terry, and he is—I really have no idea what Terry is. Does he iever/i speak?'
'Not often,' Lavender admitted. 'But when he does, he's usually worth listening to.'
Polly sat back and watched Lavender thinking.
'What's the problem? I thought that you and Susan were close,' Polly asked.
'We were after the Battle, when I was in a wheelchair. We were very close. But since Parvati went to India Susan's decided that she's going to try to keep me on the straight and narrow.' Lavender tailed off.
'So, she doesn't have an issue with your … condition?' Polly asked.
Lavender laughed dismissively. 'No, Suzy B isn't bothered about me being a werewolf. The problem is that the ice maiden doesn't approve of how I treated Seamus. I'll admit that both Parvati and Susan were both right about Aidan, he was a mistake, but they're wrong about Jacob, he's different! Anyway, it's my life, not Susans, or Parvati's. And on top of that Susan drives me crazy, she never relaxes! She never stops, she works like a…'
'Hufflepuff?' Polly suggested.
Lavender laughed again. 'Yes, exactly.'
'I trained with Tonks, she was like that, too; she never stopped working. But Tonks had … quiet, here she is,' Polly said.
'I fink yer in the wrong bar, darlin',' Polly heard one of the leather jacketed metalheads call.
'Really? I believe you are wrong. This is a public house, and I'm a member of the public.' Susan Bones spoke precisely.
'Ooh, that's me told, isn't it?' the man said, drawling sarcastically. 'In that case, it's my birthday, darlin', and I'm skint, so if yer buyin' mine's a pint of lager.'
Polly heard the man's friends sniggering. Lavender began to stand, but Polly grabbed her shoulder and forced her to stay seated. They heard footsteps.
'I would like a glass of orange juice, please,' Susan said.
'What about us? We're yer friends,' the man continued. 'Aren't yer gonna buy us drinks?'
'My friends, at least, my work colleagues, are sitting behind that screen, hiding from me. I'm sure that they think that this is as amusing as you apparently do,' said Susan coolly.
Polly grinned, stood and looked over the screen. The long-haired man looked at Polly, then Susan, and then back again.
'Yes,' Polly confirmed. 'Unlike you, you lazy layabout, I have a job, and I work with Susan.'
'Really?' the young man looked surprised. 'What d'yer do?'
'Susan will tell you,' Polly said, and sat down.
'We're civil servants,' said Susan. 'There is no dress code in our office, as you probably can tell. But there are interviews this afternoon, be honest who do you think will be promoted, me, or Polly?'
'Neither,' the young man said. 'The little hippy bird wiff the nice knockers has got it in the bag.' Lavender smirked.
Susan huffed, and strode silently across to join her colleagues. She wore her Auror uniform, black knee-length skirt, white blouse and grey cravat. Her fine blonde hair was tied into a tight bun.
'Well, that's us told, Susan,' Polly said loudly. 'Of course, he's never done an honest day's work in his life, so he knows nothing.' She was rewarded by a hoot of laughter on the other side of the screen.
Susan placed her orange juice on the least torn beer mat on the table and carefully examined the available seats. The bench was stained and torn orange plastic. The padded stools were equally stained. She spotted a plain wooden stool at the next table, carefully ran a finger over it and, satisfied, lifted it across to Polly's table.
Susan perched carefully on the edge of the stool, knees together and back ramrod-straight. She placed her handbag on her lap and put her hands on her knees.
'Homenum revelio?' Polly asked. Susan nodded.
'I knew someone was here before I walked in. It's a fairly obvious hiding place,' she announced. She looked around. 'It has a reasonable view of the entrance, and of the bar. This is an—interesting—pub, do you expect that we'll be visiting this type of establishment often, Polly?'
'I spend a lot of my free time here, Susan,' Polly said. 'I like it.' Susan lifted her fine blonde brows in surprise, but said no more.
'I can see that this job is going to be a lot of fun. Cheers!' Lavender lifted her pint in both hands and took a dainty sip. She grimaced. 'Interesting,' she announced. She licked her lips, savoured the aftertaste, and took a large gulp. 'I think I like it,' she announced after some reflection.
'What, exactly, do you see us doing, Polly?' asked Susan. 'I don't want to be stuck in some silly little team running around after capricious Muggle nonsense, not getting any really interesting work. I have some ambition; I don't intend to remain a field-Auror forever.'
'I'll remember that, Susan,' Polly said, while Lavender rolled her eyes.
'I'm quite happy to be stuck in some silly little team,' declared Lavender. 'At least, until I meet the tall, handsome and extremely rich man of my dreams. Then I'll fall madly in love and, when I'm married, I'll quit and have lots of children.'
'Money isn't everything,' said Susan sharply.
'And rich men tend to be cocky gits, Lavender,' said Polly.
'Cocky is good,' Lavender giggled. She watched for Susan's reaction, but the blonde's face remained impassive.
'I thought that you already had a boyfriend, Lavender,' said Susan waspishly, managing to target the sting on the word boyfriend.
'Jacob is gorgeous,' Lavender admitted, 'and experienced, but, I don't think that he's the one. I know how interested you are in my sex life Susan, as you don't have one, but I suppose you do have a point about this job.' She turned to face Polly. 'What do you think we'll be doing? I reckon that old Robards has shuffled you, me, and Bobbie into this deliberately. We're three people he doesn't know what else to do with. I can understand why Susan might not want to work with us.'
'We're here for two reasons,' Polly said. 'First, I wanted to be sure that you could pass as Muggles, most Aurors can't, and second, Bobbie might have found a job for us already. I thought that a little field trip might be useful.'
'Job, what sort of job?' asked Lavender, leaning forwards excitedly.
'She'll tell you when she gets here,' Polly said. 'Bobbie's got a lot of ideas. She wants to put some sort of system in place to try to catch odd events in the Muggle world. Right now, we've got no idea whether there will be no work, or more than we can cope with.'
Polly leaned forwards and spoke softly. 'Before the war I looked into a couple of Muggle-killings, I couldn't solve them, because no-one would help. Tonks offered, but I said no, because she was really busy working for Dumbledore. I think that this is a good idea, and I want to make it work, so, we'll see how things go today, okay? If you want to leave now, Susan, that's fine. I'll try to find someone else.'
'If Bobbie has a case for us, I'll stay,' said Susan. 'But that doesn't mean that I'm joining the team. I simply want to find out what sort of thing we might be doing. Okay?'
'That's good enough for me,' said Polly.
There was a cry of "filth" from the other side of the partition.
Bobbie Beadle stepped into view. 'I'm in plain clothes and they still recognise me,' she said sadly.
'It's the way you walk, Bobbie,' said Lavender.
'Care to join us, Uncle Bill?' Bobbie called across to the table full of workmen. The thin, balding and sandy-haired man in the check shirt stood and strolled across.
'This is my uncle, Bill Howard, he's a builder. Bill, meet Polly Protheroe, Lavender Brown, and Susan Bones. They are the paranormal investigators I told you about. Tell them what you told me.'
Bill Howard looked at the three young women in disbelief, and returned his attention to Bobbie.
'This is a wind up, isn't it, Bobbie?' he asked her.
Bobbie pulled up a stool and sat next to him. 'It's not a wind up, honest, Uncle Bill. I told you on the phone, I've been transferred out of Kensington and Chelsea division. I'm going to be working with these three, looking at weird stuff.'
Polly nodded vigorously, her dreadlocks tumbling over her face. 'I can understand why you might be concerned, Mr Howard,' she said. 'But we are experts, I'm a witch, Lavender is a psychic, and an expert on divination and Susan is our sceptical scientist.'
'I'll read your palm now, if you want,' Lavender offered, smiling. 'Your future is in your hands.'
'Just ignore their witchcraft nonsense,' said Susan earnestly.
Polly was pleased to see how quickly Lavender and Susan had accepted the roles she'd given them. They, like her, would need to be able to improvise quickly and come up with vaguely believable cover stories.
'Please tell us your story,' Susan continued. 'I'm sure that there will be a reasonable explanation.'
'I doubt it.' Bill Howard shook his head.