"Do you need anything, Mrs. Longbottom? Can we get you some tea?" Shacklebolt started to reach out to put a supportive hand on the older woman's shoulder, but her look stopped him awkwardly mid-motion, making him suddenly feel like a sycophantic rookie on his first day on the job. He cleared his throat, taking a seat across the interrogation table. "Anything?"
"No, Kingsley, I'm not here for a luncheon." Her long, salt and pepper hair was still loose over her shoulders, her nightgown still smeared and spattered with blood, but the tailored green robes and crossed wands seemed to hang on her in the ghosts of memory as crisply as his own. "Have you caught the fourth yet?"
It was an accusation, not a question, and he looked away on the pretense of adjusting the quill already recording every word. "Not as yet."
"Search muggle hospitals and clinics. One's distaste can quickly be overwhelmed by one's desire not to take up residence in Azkaban, but if you haven't found him unconscious within a hundred yards from blood loss, he's had it treated somewhere."
They were checking Muggle clinics, of course, but he merely nodded, letting her see him take down the note. "Shall we start from the beginning then, Mrs. Longbottom? When did you first suspect that something was wrong?"
"The moment I heard of the incident at the Potter's, I knew Frank and Alice would have been alerted, but it was not the move anyone had expected Voldemort to make, so I understood that matters would be chaotic for a while, especially when it became clear that the child had survived." She spoke slowly and clearly, but without a hint of shock or grief. "I ascertained that there was no need for me to do anything, and I've been in this business long enough to know that more hands in the cauldron are not always helpful. I went to bed."
"So you didn't hear back from them last night?"
"No. When I woke up this morning, there was still no word from them, but the morning news was in all manner of uproar about Mr. Black, and I became concerned, especially when I attempted to Floo them directly and there was still no answer."
"Why did you -"
"Because, Mr. Shacklebolt, the Potters, as you know, were not the ones that we were planning on being the target, they were simply included to give him the intended illusion of free will and pander to his ego. Mr. Black knew this, and he was their closest friend. If his grief and shock was such that he would attack poor little Peter Pettigrew and accuse him of collusion, then do you really consider it unreasonable of me to expect that he might have had similar suspicion of those who were the intended bait for the trap?"
Shacklebolt felt his cheeks heat, thankful for his dark complexion and the questionable lighting of the interrogation room as he nodded as if she was saying nothing they hadn't all considered, when in fact, it was the first time he'd heard of such an idea. It had all been such madness these past twenty-four hours, but if maybe someone had thought to check on Frank and Alice sooner, there...nevermind. Past was past, they were going to be fine once the Healers had some time with them, and all he had to do was collect a deposition. "You believed, then, that Mr. Black might have assaulted them first?"
"It was a consideration," she agreed, "and as a trusted member of the Order, they would not have been automatically defensive, especially after being informed of his recent lost. Alice in particular was a very compassionate woman. She would have opened her home to him in comfort without a second's hesitation."
"I see," he made another note on his tablet, not letting himself think of the times that he himself had been the benefactor of her hospitality, nor of how he had seen her last. "Yet I must ask, Mrs. Longbottom, if you thought that the assault had already taken place, why you arrived as you did?"
"Because," her eyes could have given a dragon a frostbitten tongue, "I do not make assumptions that I am correct."
"After you arrived and realized others were present, why didn't you call the Aurors immediately?"
"Perhaps, Mr. Shacklebolt, you have the benefit of youth and idealism, and perhaps you haven't been in this country long enough, and perhaps your coworkers in Cape Town were utterly above corruption, but the last thing I needed was for them to receive reinforcements while the situation was still so imbalanced."
He chose to ignore the biting implications, raising one eyebrow coolly. "You didn't consider that you might benefit from reinforcements yourself?"
"None were necessary."
"One got away."
The faintest glow of a smile smoldered at the back of her eyes. "Three did not."
"The Lestrange's solicitor is alleging the use of excessive force in the arrest." He opened the folder beneath his tablet, finding a copy of the complaint and sliding it across the table to her. She didn't look at it.
"He may wish to improve his research skills. I did not arrest them. I've been retired for twenty-eight years now."
Considering what the medics had found when they arrived at the home that morning, as well as what he knew personally she had done for the past decade with the Order, he decided not to argue as to the definition of retirement. Instead, he took the paper back, replacing it in the folder. "Do you feel like you may have used excessive force?"
There was a long pause. She leaned forward very slightly, placing both hands flat, palms down on the table in front of her. A slight breeze ruffled the edges of the documents in the windowless room, and he felt the hairs of his arms stand on end. "My son has a broken orbital bone, six broken fingers, eight missing toenails, burns to the soles of his feet, and had two molars removed with less than ideal dentistry. My daughter in law has facial lacerations, all her fingernails missing, cigar burns on her breasts, and four broken fingers. Both are showing evidence of bleeding in the brain and are currently incapable of communication and in medically induced comas after setting a new known record for exposure to the Cruciatus curse. My grandson is still missing."
It was remarkable, at six foot four and thirty-three years old, how small she made him feel. The air was thick with the smell of ozone, but duty necessitated risking the lightning storm tidily contained in the staidly reserved woman across from him. "Please answer the question, Mrs. Longbottom."
"That. Would. Be. No."
"Do you understand that we might require you to remain in custody while we continue to investigate this matter?"
"I would strongly recommend against it."
He took a deep breath, meeting her eyes evenly with the reminder that despite all his respect for her considerable ability, he was still officially the authority figure in this situation. "Are you threatening me, Mrs. Longbottom?"
To his surprise, she chuckled as she stood and came around the table to stand next to him. She reached down and took his quill, granting him an almost patronizingly maternal smile as she twisted her hair into a knot at the nape of her neck and secured it with the pen. "Young man, my grandson is missing. He is less than eighteen months old. He is the son of a powerful witch and wizard whom he may damned well have witnessed being tortured half to death last night. If he is scared and does not want to be found, your people are not going to find him, but he may reveal himself to his Gran. There may not have been any sign of his blood nor evidence of kidnapping, but a child Neville's age can die of dehydration or exposure in a matter of hours. Do I need to threaten you?"
"I understand that you've had a terrible -"
She was already to the door, one hand on the latch. "No, Mr. Shacklebolt, you do not understand at all. I am leaving right now, and you are not going to make any ridiculous attempt to stop me, threaten me, or any other silliness. I have given the rule of law my oath, fifteen years of my life, my only child, and three of the most wretched excuses for human beings I have ever encountered prepared like Christmas parcels this morning. It may have another afternoon of my time and a full debriefing when I have my grandson in my arms alive, healthy, and safe."
He was supposed to tactfully but firmly refuse to let her go. According to regulations, she was the principle witness in a case of conspiracy, assault, double attempted murder, and a dozen other charges, and gathering a full statement for her had to be done as expeditiously as possible. By the letter of the law, he absolutely couldn't allow her to leave the premises yet. There was no room for negotiation.
Shutting off the recording, he stood, closing the folder and tapping the door with his wand to release the lock, though he held no illusions that it was anything more than a gesture when it came to whether or not she left. "How can I help?"
Her nod was perfunctory, as though there had never been any other potential outcome, but the gratitude was there in her tone, setting the seal beyond doubt that he had made the right choice. "Meet me at my son's house in ten minutes with a carton of chocolate milk and a dinosaur toy that makes noise."