Most people along a particular stretch of Seven Mile Road assumed the cracking sound was a car backfiring far away, or maybe fireworks. It was, after all, the fifth of July—surely not too late for fireworks after the people of Detroit had heard them now for nearly a week. Some feared it was the sound of gunfire and sprung from their beds to check on their sleeping children.
In fact, the sound was something few would have expected. It was the appearance out of thin air of a lone figure. He was slender, of average height, and quite old. His long white hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and he wore a gray suit and walked with a plain wooden cane. His name was Athanasius Towne, and he was on a mission. He pushed his wire-rim glasses higher on his nose and glanced around the empty street until his eyes rested on a shabby looking bar—the only business still open at this hour.
He crossed the street and reached to open the door when out barged a couple of figures far stranger looking than himself. They were each about four and a half feet tall. Despite the July heat they wore furry black boots. Most unsettling of all, there was something not entirely human about their faces. Their eyes were set close together and deep in their sockets. Their noses were unusually long, thin, and red. Their bearded chins seemed improbably weak. From the correct angle, they would have looked more like baboons than humans. Even so, Mr. Towne showed not the slightest surprise to see them. The tiny figures started when they saw him, however. They pushed past him, eyeing him suspiciously and whispering to each other in hushed, nervous tones.
The rest of the bar's clients were almost as odd. Two women in tall pointed hats sat at a corner table chatting. A man in a shiny green robe sat at the bar conversing with the bartender as he toyed with a glass of smoking red liquid.
The old stranger noticed the man in the corner. He sat alone in a booth, reading a newspaper but clearly keeping an eye on everything happening around him. Mr. Towne approached. This secretive man was broad shouldered and wore a plain dark suit. His beard was neatly trimmed and his upper lip clean-shaven. He seemed entirely out of place in a bar. He would likely have seemed out of place nearly anywhere but an old country churchyard.
The old man sat down across from him.
"Good evening, Jacob."
He continued to pretend to read his paper.
"Your partner told me you'd be at the Wendigo Inn."
Jacob still didn't answer. A waitress came by to refresh the big man's coffee and take the newcomer's drink order. He asked for a butterbeer and a bowl of peanuts. Then he turned his attention back to the unspeaking man.
"I take it you're interested in the red dwarves?"
The man called Jacob put down his paper. His coffee snarled and quivered as he poured in a dollop of cream. "They prefer 'nains rouges.' It sounds better in French, I guess. They've been on edge for a month."
"And they do seem to have an uncanny ability to foresee catastrophes," the old man added. "The Auror Division is smart to keep tabs on them."
"That's why I'm here," Jacob volunteered.
"And yet, if you received my owl you already know what has set them off. And why they've gotten worse in the past week and a half."
The waitress returned with the butterbeer and the peanuts. The old man pushed a gold coin toward her and told her to keep the change.
"I read your letter. But I also know what they're saying in the British papers. But I take it you believe it?"
"The kid seems a little shifty to me."
"Jacob, unless I'm mistaken every 'kid' in the world seems a little shifty to you. I, of course, have never met the boy—although I'm sure we're both familiar with his story."
The bearded man shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He took a sip of his coffee, then grimaced as he forced a swallow.
"You never answered my letter. I need to know your decision."
He leaned forward, glancing around to see whether anyone else was listening. "Mr. Towne," he said. "You don't want me to teach at your school. I'm an Auror, not a teacher. I never even liked school…"
"Yes, I recall that rather vividly," the old man interrupted.
"…I can't stay cooped up behind a desk. I wouldn't know a lesson plan if it jumped up and kissed me. And trust me, you wouldn't want me attending staff meetings."
"Is there anything else?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact." He clenched and unclenched his fist. "I don't like children. Actually, let me rephrase that. I can't stand them. I like orderliness, discipline. Children and orderliness go together about as well as lapiths and centaurs."
The old man paused long enough to take a sip of his butterbeer.
"I understand, Jacob, that I am asking a lot of you. Please don't assume that I make my request lightly. The fact is, however, I fear for the safety of my students. I would be much obliged if you would join the faculty, for their sake. We need someone like you. Someone who'll keep his eyes open for trouble—and who knows what to look for."
Jacob grumbled. After a long silence he said, "So you really believe what the boy is saying?"
"I have no reason to believe him or disbelieve him, Jacob. But Dumbledore? I both know him and trust his judgment. If he says there is reason to believe that You-Know-Who has returned, then that is good enough for me."
"I still don't like this. What about Louis?"
"I'm sure your partner will carry on without you. I take it he's very good."
"One of the best."
"Yes, his wife brags on him quite a bit. And I'm led to believe that you trained him." There was a subtle emphasis on the last three words.
"I guess I did, Mr. Towne," Jacob conceded. "But that was different. That was—"
"As near as I can tell, you took a young wizard under your wing and instructed him in all the skills he needed to rise through the ranks and become a competent Auror. Or have I misunderstood?"
Jacob knew he was trapped.
"Alright, Towne. Let me clear this with my supervisor. If she'll give me a leave of absence…"
"In fact, Jacob, I have already corresponded with Ms. Drudge. She and I are both convinced that your gifts are greatly needed at Malkin Academy."
He shook his head. "Should have known I wasn't going to win this one."
"Mr. Malleus, I think in time you'll discover that both of us will win from this arrangement."
"With respect, sir, I believe I'll withhold judgment on that."
Author's Note: This is a gift for my daughter. You might like it, too. Anything you recognize belongs to J.K.R., of course.