Author Note: Written for T. Costa for the Genesis Awards Winter Gift Exchange 2011. Set post-Deathly Hallows, a murder mystery of my own creation. This story has already been finished, and I'll be posting approximately a chapter a week.
Hermione Granger straightened her skirt, dusted off any imagined or real particles she found on the wool, and smoothed her hopeless hair over the top of her scalp. An hour at the office, and strands were already crawling out of the braid to freedom.
She hated to have to make an impression on Terry Boot, of all people, but after being job-locked at the Ministry for three-and-a-half years, desperation had started to take its toll.
She lifted one hand and knocked, lightly, professionally.
"Enter," her superior called in self-important tones.
As she closed the door behind her, Terry gave her his best I'm-Your-Boss smile. She knew that somewhere below the surface, the Ravenclaw thoroughly enjoyed lording his power over her. It was probably why she'd been stuck in the same dead-end department for two years and counting. Smart people could be incredibly petty when their intellects were bested.
He'd never get over her earning two more NEWTs than him.
"Hermione," he said, using her first name despite her repeated instructions for him to call her Ms. Granger, "I trust you're having a productive morning?"
"Yes, sir. You wanted to see me?"
He frowned, still managing to look friendly as he did so. She tried not to scowl at him. No one needed to be this happy at eight in the morning. "None of that 'sir,' nonsense, Hermione. We've known each other for years. Call me Terry, for Merlin's sake."
"You wanted to see me, Terry, sir?"
"Have you been reading the papers?" He pushed that morning's copy of the Daily Prophet across his desk.
"Do you mean Ernie MacMillan's election to the Wizengamot? I don't see what you—"
Terry glowered at her. "Don't be a wise-arse. Below that."
FORMER HEAD INQUISITOR FOUND DEAD IN LONDON HOME screamed the headlines. A photograph of Dolores Umbridge smiled and waved obsequiously at the camera. She blinked and looked back to Terry.
"I have a case for you, Hermione, a very special case." His habit of addressing her by name in almost every sentence made her molars grind. Her parents would be horrified. "If you can handle this one, we might just have a promotion in store for you."
Yes, the promotion that's been in store for me for every case in the last two years, she thought bitterly. "What do you have for me, sir?"
Terry turned, his crisp black robes rustling as he reached into a drawer of his desk and removed a thin file. As he handed it to her, she noted how light it was. There seemed to be almost nothing in it. "Ah, careful. The pictures are a bit, well – you'll see."
This didn't sound like the typical crystal ball theft or misuse of Muggle artifacts case. She opened the file, and immediately thanked her past self for running behind and skipping breakfast. Anything in her stomach would have been ejected at the sight that greeted her.
She covered her mouth with her hand and set the file down for a moment.
Terry's eyes sobered, his professional smile fading a bit at the corners. "Do you need to sit?"
"Ah, no," she said, gathering her wits somewhat. "What do we know?"
"It's all listed in the file, but to give you a brief rundown: Dolores Umbridge was found yesterday afternoon, in her home, like you see. She didn't show up for work, and she hadn't called in sick, so we sent someone 'round to her place to check things out, and well. You see."
Cautiously, she picked up the file again and studied the picture.
Dolores Jane Umbridge's corpse slumped at her table, cold toast and eggs on the plate next to her face. Past the abandoned breakfast, her death-fogged eyes stared into the camera, wide and frozen, and her mouth opened in a silent, ghastly scream. The fear and pain etched into her final moments had stretched her lips and eyes to an abnormal degree. Her prim curls looked flattened to her head with sweat, and her little pink hat had rolled across the table.
For a murder scene, it was rather tame. The intense fear and horror on Umbridge's face, however, made Hermione's stomach turn.
Thumbing past the pictures, she breezed through the scant details collected.
Terry cleared his throat, and she looked up. "Forensics has been scanning for foul play. Obviously, she didn't die of natural causes."
"Obviously," she parroted, dry. She decided to cut to the chase. "Terry, why me? Why this case?"
His eyes flicked away, then back to hers. He smiled. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"I've been here for two years wasting my time on cases like Mrs. O'Leary's magical teacup stolen by the neighbors' children, and now you want me to put me on the murder of Dolores Umbridge? It doesn't add up, Terry. Why?"
He deflated, suddenly. "I wanted to give you this case because it'll be good publicity. It doesn't look good for Harry Potter's best friend to be stuck in a tiny Ministry department for as long as you have."
Her lips thinned, and she stared down her nose at him with her best Molly Weasley imitation. "I've been here this long. Why now?"
"Don't mistake me. I'd keep you here if I could," he said, with a little smirk. "But Shacklebolt told me to put you on this case, so here you are. Now get to work. We can chat once you've got it all figured out."
An eerie quiet greeted her when she Flooed into the house. Not even the kitten plates mewed at her in greeting. They tracked her movements with huge, sad eyes.
Hermione attempted, in vain, to push back the feeling of her skin prickling.
Through the living room, the shadows of the dining room beckoned. With a couple of quick spells, Hermione had lit the lamps and encased her hands in a thin golden barrier to prevent crime scene contamination.
Umbridge's aborted breakfast gathered dust on the table in front of her. To her faint disgust, she noticed that the tea service was done in pink china, inlaid with darker pink flowers, and the plates harboring the eggs and toasts were the same shade. She noted with surprise that the utensils were a regular metallic color.
The corpse had been removed from the scene and relocated to the Magical Bureau of Investigations' forensics department, but everything else had been left intact. Chewing her lip thoughtfully, Hermione pulled from her beaded bag several smaller, clear plastic bags and containers.
Sometimes Muggle inventions really were the easiest route when combined with some helpful magic, Hermione mused as she took samples of the food and placed stasis charms on them. Most wizards hadn't yet discovered the wonders of sandwich bags.
As she collected the cold tea and placed a bit of it in a sealed thermos, she noted that the cup had Umbridge's distinct shade of coral pink lipstick smeared on the rim. The only other item that had been touched at the table was a piece of toast with a small bite mark on one side.
Hermione drifted into the other areas of the house, eyes jumping from object to object in search of anything overlooked by the MBI. None of the windows, doors, or the chimney showed any sign of forced entry, and the attic, once she pulled the string and took a peek, appeared undisturbed. The layer of dust up there didn't show signs of movement for many months, and a quickrevealing charm failed to display any magical cover-ups.
Two thorough passes through the house gave Hermione nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Sighing in the realization that this was definitely not going to be an easy case, she stepped into the fire place, threw some Floo powder, and called, "Forensics Department, Ministry of Magic!"
She stumbled, and a steadying hand clapped onto her shoulder. "Whoa, there, Hermione! You all right?"
"Thank you, Hannah," she gasped, blinking to clear the spinning from her eyes. "Sometimes flooing creeps up on me."
Hannah Longbottom helped brush the soot from Hermione's clothes and smiled warmly at her. "It gets me sometimes too, no worries. How can I help you today?"
"I'm here on case work," she replied. "I, er. Well, I need to see Dolores Umbridge."
Hannah's eyes tightened a bit, her smile drooping. "Ah, yes. Right this way."
Through the heavy oak doors, Hannah led her into the examination room, heels clicking smartly as she made small talk. "You really ought to stop by and see us sometime soon, Hermione," she was saying as they rounded a corner and she held open the door, "Neville's been asking after you. He'd like you to come to Hogwarts and see some of his new experiments."
"The last time I met one of Neville's experiments," Hermione said, no small amount of humor in her tone, "I almost lost my left thumb."
Hannah blushed a bit, at that. "Erm, yes, he told me about that one. Nevertheless, you should stop by for tea soon so we can catch up. We haven't seen you in ages."
"That sounds lovely, Hannah. I'll Floo you soon, yeah?"
Whatever Hannah said in reply, Hermione wasn't listening. The sterile, stale smell of an antiseptically-charmed room smacked her in the nose as she entered and the door closed behind her. Several witches and wizards were gathered around a table, casting spells and talking low amongst themselves.
"Hermione Granger?" asked one wizard, approaching and extending a hand to shake. The golden barrier dissipated, and she clasped his hand in hers.
"Yes, and you are?"
"Sterling Conners." He was a graying wizard of seventy or so, with a small chin and thick eyebrows. "I expect you're here to see Umbridge."
"I am. What have you found so far?"
"It's the damnedest thing," he growled, launching into an explanation with zeal, "we can't seem to find anything. We've checked for curses, hexes, potions, poisons. Nothing's coming up."
"I've some samples of her food and tea from that morning," Hermione said. "Would you like to take a look?"
He waved a hand. "We've already checked them ourselves. We can't find anything there either."
"Would you mind if I take a look?"
His three companions moved aside for her as she drew her wand and cast some diagnostic spells. As time passed and she discovered nothing of import, she became more and more frustrated.
What happened to you, Umbridge?
Conners' voice floated to her ear from somewhere behind her shoulder. "Any ideas?"
With a start, she realized the entire forensics team was watching her work. Turning, she frowned. "No. I looked for Unforgivables – nothing. No physical damage inside or out. No indications of poisons, no organ failure, no hexes or curses. It's like someone just sucked the life right out of her."
She kneaded her temples, letting her eyes slip closed. She had no choice but to relocate to the lab.
"Fumus," Hermione murmured. The base solution to her Potion-Detecting-Potion vaporized and wafted into the container poised in her hand above it. She felt, at times, that the art of potions-making could be a bit silly in its exacting instructions.
Holding the phial upside down, carefully, she corked it, then settled in to wait until the solution cooled and liquidized again. It would only be a completed, functioning potion after it settled.
The investigation department's lab was blessedly empty today, so she let the silence and the weak sunlight from the windows wash over her as she pondered. Hermione was convinced Umbridge's death was a result of some sort of potion. She had run every diagnostic spell for the purpose of detecting cast magic that she knew. And she knew quite a few. The war had made sure of that.
Vial in hand, she patted the bench absently for her eyedropper. She hated sharing a workspace with the other Ministry employees – they didn't know how to properly organize a bloody workspace. Sighing, she realized the tool was several feet away on the adjacent wall, lying on a shelf.
To make matters worse, it still had the residue of some other potion clinging to it. With disgust, she cast a quick scourgify, sucked up some of what she had mentally dubbed "PDP," and dropped it into a petri dish containing a portion of the tea sample she had taken.
It bubbled, and with several audible pops, cycled through the different colors of the rainbow before settling on a deep, luminous violet.
Hermione frowned. I've never seen this color before, and the recipe only lists red, green, and blue…
Indeed, violet was not included in the color results for this potion. Had she brewed it incorrectly? She retraced her steps and came to the conclusion that she had most certainly done it all right, which meant that the PDP was doing its job and detecting a potion; it just wasn't any sort of potion that the creators of the recipe knew about.
Hermione cleaned her work station properly, put away her materials, bottled the PDP-plus-tea, and pulled on a cord around her neck. A worn Galleon gleamed dully at the end. She tapped it with her palm and watched as a reply formed a few seconds later.
Hefting her beaded bag, she made her way to the stations to Apparate.
The Three Broomsticks wasn't crowded on a Tuesday afternoon, not two hours after lunch, so spotting Harry and Ron in the usual corner was easy enough.
Rosmerta greeted her at the door. "Hello, Hermione. You look tired, love. Long day?"
Hermione smiled weakly at the friendly bartender as she shouldered out of her autumn jacket. "You could say that, Rosmerta. Could I get a pint of butterbeer?"
"Don't worry, Harry and Ron already ordered one for you."
The two of them sent her little waves when she looked over, and she smiled, stronger this time. They knew her too well. She made her way over.
"'Mione!" Ron said, his mouth already full of whatever soup was on special for the day. "'e 'issed 'oo!"
"Swallow your food, please, Ronald." She rolled her eyes and attempted to sit, but he swooped in and wrapped her in a big bear hug. Harry slapped her on the back, taking quick stock of her appearance and allowing her the space.
"I said," he repeated, after he had managed to gulp, "that we missed you."
"You saw me last Tuesday," she protested as he pulled out her chair, ushering her into the seat.
"Yeah, but only for an hour. You're always so busy. We got you some butterbeer," he chattered.
"How's Lavender? Is she still at St. Mungo's?"
A shadow crossed Ron's face, then. "She's at home now, but she's still feeling a little under the weather. The Healers keep saying she needs to stay off her feet, but telling Lav what to do's like trying to pin down a greased Kneazle."
Hermione took a couple of generous swallows of her drink and wiped her upper lip. "Is the baby all right?"
Ron and Lavender had married a few years out of Hogwarts. Having three of Ron's children one right after the other had significantly matured the pretty Gryffindor, and she was now a force to be reckoned with in the same category as Molly Weasley. It had taken some time for Hermione to get over her rivalry with Lavender, but breaking up with Ron once and for all had gone a long way toward that.
"Healer Lewis said if she can just manage to rest for a month more, they can induce the labor. We can't have any more after that, though."
Harry leaned in. "Four should be enough, though, right? At least four's a good, even number."
Ron grinned. "Nothing wrong with three, Harry. Still holding out for another?"
"Yeah, but Gin's not budging."
"Can't really blame her," Hermione said, "seeing as all the kids have your big head, Harry."
"Oi!" He tried to elbow her and she redirected his arm, laughing. After a moment, he tipped his glass at her. "All right, all right, you may have a point. Don't imagine it's much fun squeezing a baby out of your—"
Ron spluttered, Harry smirked, and Hermione tried not to choke on her butterbeer.
After a moment of companionable silence, Harry said, "All right, Hermione, cough it up."
"I don't know what you mean," she said, staring into her almost-empty glass. She motioned to Rosmerta that she'd like another.
Ron scratched his patchy red beard. "Come off it. You don't order butterbeer at two in the afternoon unless something's up."
"It's just butterbeer." She regretted the touch of defensiveness in her tone.
"You're a lightweight," he pointed out.
"Fine," she sighed. "Terry's got me on a new case."
"And?" Harry asked.
"It's Umbridge," Hermione continued, "somebody's killed her, and I'm supposed to be figuring it out."
"That's great!" Ron crowed. At her quelling look, he said, "Well, I mean, I don't want anyone dead, per se, but it's great Terry's giving you a real case for once. Maybe now you'll get that promotion you've been wanting for years."
"True. Merlin knows I'm overqualified for this position."
"You know you could just ask me or Kingsley—"
"Harry—" Her tone spoke of an oft-repeated argument— "I can't always ride your coattails. I want something on my own merits."
"Terry's only keeping you there because he gets off on ordering you around, Hermione," Ron muttered into his now-cold stew. "Wanker."
Hermione's protests died as Harry nodded emphatically, his lips thin. She huffed. "Yes, you're right. But like you said, maybe this is my chance. I've got to do this one right."
"So what's the problem, then?"
"Who says there's a problem?"
Harry squinted behind his glasses. "Your bottom lip's all chewed up, and your thumbnails are down to nubs."
"You're eating yourself again? Oh, this must be a good one." Ron peered at her hands, and she hastily put them under the table.
"Stop that, both of you."
"Well, are you gonna tell us or not?"
She resisted the urge to let her head thunk onto the table. "I'm not supposed to share case details with anyone who's not—" She stopped, saw them rolling their eyes in tandem, and decided it wasn't worth the effort. She needed their help. "I'm not sure what's happened to her. It looks almost like a Dementor's kiss, or even Avada Kedavra, but tests show neither of those."
"Besides that, we got rid of the last Dementor in June. Unless we missed any," Harry mused.
"Thank goodness, too. Nasty things." Hermione rubbed at her arms, her spine tingling. "In any case, I have no idea what it is, I just know it's a potion, and someone put it in her tea."
She didn't bother telling them about the PDP. They'd just fall asleep in their glasses.
"Too bad Snape's not around to help you out," Ron said, chuckling at his own poor joke.
Hermione had almost forgotten the remark come three days later, when all her searching had led her practically nowhere. She had looked for any tome containing the recipe for the specific PDP she had created and found next to none. The few that did mention it had nothing to say about the color of her potion. Searching for any potion which garnered the same results as her mystery potion also yielded nothing. She'd even stopped in to Hogwarts and visited their vast library, but she had hit a dead end.
The idea to ask a Potions Master flitted idly into her head, and she dismissed it. The only one she'd heard of was somewhere in Belgium and reportedly a hidden hermit. No one had spoken to him in years, and only the Belgian Ministry seemed to have reports on whether he was living or dead.
"Too bad Snape's not around to help you out."
A strange, awed smile came across Hermione's face, then she dashed to her fireplace to make some calls.