Chapter 1: Pre-Prologue
Somewhere, there's a monster waiting in this story.
Once you finish, you'll wonder:
Did you find the monster?
Or did it find you?
Chapter 2: Prologue
In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.
I'm not playing a major part in this story.
At least not in the first chapter.
I'm mentioned briefly, although it's just a poor reflection of my true potential. It's not until the third chapter that I truly make an appearance.
The prologue, however, belongs to me alone.
Thursday, 13th August
Remus Lupin woke gradually from his daze, taking in his environment with burning eyes.
He recognized the outline of his living room and he felt infinite relief flowing through his veins like the injection of something pure and nice. For a flicker of a moment, he was convinced that everything before had been a mere nightmare.
But he was wrong.
His eyes fell on the petite frame of his wife and their six-year-old son. They were sitting on two dining chairs, back to back, looking at him with eyes dilated from shock.
Both were pinioned, their mouths closed with adhesive tape; Tonks' hair was sticking to her sweaty face and cheeks that were wet from tears. Crusted blood adorned a wound on her forehead.
"Dora!" Remus tried to crawl towards her, but he realised his hands were bound behind his back. He tried to rear up, but it was a lost cause.
He raised his face once more to look at his wife, saw the way her light brown hair fell into her face, terror written all over it. Her natural complexion was pallid and ashen and there was no trace left of the rosy skin he loved so much. Little Edward looked much the same. His small body shook from the effort of screaming against the tape. Seeing his family so helpless and frightened, shattered his heart into a million pieces. His whole body was trembling from blind rage but Tonks wasn't looking at him.
Remus followed her glance.
There was another man in the room.
He was occupying Remus favourite armchair, an old memento that he had kept in the family for years. Long legs, encased in an inflated looking suit, were crossed right before Remus' eyes. Italian leather graced his feet that looked as frightfully expensive as the black leather gloves that covered his long fingers, resting on the armrests of the chair. Surprisingly the face of the intruder wasn't covered or masked. He was beautiful for a man, even Remus couldn't deny that, with long eyelashes and an elegant haircut that made his hair look just the right amount messy to provide him with a certain kind of flair. His cheekbones were high and his facial features were overall youthful but masculine, full lips gracing his mouth. The only indication of the monster lurking within were those piercing, emotionless eyes and the cruel smile on his lips.
"I'm glad you decided to join the party, dear Remus." The smile was plastered on the stranger's face as he rose from the armchair and approached Remus in a light-footed manner. His voice flowed like liquid honey through Remus' mind. He grabbed the rope that bound Remus' wrists together and yanked him to a kneeling position. Then he crouched next to Remus, leaning down to his ear with one hand on the ropes and the other on the back of his neck.
"Shall we start?"
The stranger gripped the tape covering Remus' lips and violently yanked it off a second later. The pain was searing and the skin around his mouth felt like raw flesh, especially in the places where his moustache had been. He clenched his teeth and his muscles tightened in rage, but no sound escaped his lips. He didn't want to tempt the psycho or play into his perverted fantasies. All he prayed for was that Tonks and Edward survived this.
"What do you think about death, Remus? Do you think our lives will flash before our eyes when we die? That we'll witness our mundane existence once again? Do you believe in the story with the light at the end of the tunnel? Do you think your family will go to heaven once I've killed them?"
The stranger's voice sounded light, almost amused and it turned Remus' stomach inside out. He could taste bile on his tongue and with every breath his nasal wings bloated. He strained against the ropes on his wrists but failed, again.
Remus felt utterly helpless. They lived near the forest, isolated from the next village and so nobody would hear their screams. His last hope was that somebody would miss them. Sirius would come looking for him. If he didn't show up for work without any explanation, Sirius would appear sooner or later at their door. But how long would it take? How much time had already passed?
His eyes followed the man who stepped around the armchair and leant forward to reveal a big garden tube attached to an iron barrel. He picked it up with both hands and returned to Remus' side.
Remus finally found the strength to ask, voice a mere whisper, "Why are you doing this?"
The stranger narrowed his eyes to slits.
"Are you familiar with the Ten-to-Ninety rule? Ten Percent of our life are things happening to us and ninety per cent are actions we perform ourselves. That is of vital importance. The answer to why I'm doing this is insignificant."
The voice was piercing and unlike any sound Remus had ever heard. It chilled him to the bones. No emotion whatsoever lingered in the stranger's lifeless grey eyes. All Remus saw was a dead end.
Remus was used to perversion and killers in general. You couldn't be an MI5 agent without getting your hands dirty with blood and gore. But he had never met someone that could compare to the ghastly man in front of him.
A dangerous, manic glint shimmered in the stranger's grey eyes as he dug his fingertips into a spot on Remus' cheek, right under his eye sockets. Then he started to press until tears gathered in Remus' eyes.
"Everyone's always whining, but no one really understands the true meaning of the word pain. When I start to lose interest in this, I'll kill you all."
The stranger's voice was sharp at first, then calm, nearly loving. The pressure on Remus' cheek increased and the fingers started to push the flesh apart, tearing at it in the process. Then finally, he released the face out of his unrelenting grasp.
Remus needed to blink several times until the dark spots receded from his vision. Everything was blurry and it took him a second to see the stranger clearly again, just in time to observe him dragging the armchair closer. The man sat down and took the garden tube in his hand again, using it as a pointer to emphasize the words from his thin lips.
"I want to let you in on a little secret, Remus. Just you and me."
There was a pause in which the stranger clacked his tongue against his palate, a sound that echoed in the tense air.
"You're part of a game. A riddle you could say."
The man grinned as if he had said something terribly amusing, like a pun Remus didn't catch.
"Let me explain the rules for you. As you may have noticed by now, you're the only one without tape on your mouth. The reason for this is simple. I'll ask you a single question. Who will die tonight? Two of you will die and I don't care who."
The end of the garden tube was pointed directly at Remus' face.
"Possibility one. You die first. Now if you think I'd have the generosity to let your son live and kill your wife, let me tell you that mercy was never one of my virtues. I'll kill you first and your son dies next."
There was a certain chill to his tone that made Remus believe his every word. He swallowed hard. The stranger seemed to take his silent fear as a sign of comprehension because he continued in the same voice.
"Possibility two. I kill your wife and your son. I'll cut your rope and you'll be free to go. I think your freedom would leave a bitter taste in your mouth, but I wouldn't judge you if that'd be your decision."
There was another pause as if the man wanted to make sure the words sunk in.
"Possibility three. I'll kill your wife, afterwards I kill you but your son will stay alive. I'll call the police and they can pick him up right here. He may suffer some emotional and psychological damage, but he'll be free to live his pathetic unimportant life as long as God grants it to him."
The man made a dismissive gesture with the tube, but Remus saw the glint of something deceitful in his eyes.
"Now that's the fun part. You see Remus, this would be the ideal outcome for both of us. I need you to do something for me. I'll kill your wife, but I'll let you live just a tad longer. Because I need you to deliver a, hm…let's call it a gift."
His hand reached to the other side of the armchair which was hidden from Remus' sight and retrieved a box. It was no bigger than a paperback, carefully wrapped in brown paper. The stranger set the box aside and focused back on Remus.
"Now that you know the rules and possibilities, I want to make it absolutely clear, that under no circumstances will two of your family members get out of this alive. Should you break any of my rules or refuse to play, I'll make you watch while I skin both of your loved ones - first your wife, then your son - alive I might add. I'll take my time. They'll beg me to kill them. They'll beg you to kill them. And you'll wish you'd have done it yourself to spare them the agony I'll make them feel. Do you understand?"
Remus cringed under the ferocious hiss. The stranger leaned back into the comfy embrace of the luxurious armchair, mimicking his earlier appearance as he crossed his left leg over his right knee.
"Marvelous. Shall we begin then?"
Remus lifted his gaze from the stranger and looked over into his wife's eyes and knew they were thinking along the same lines. If just one of them could survive, it had to be Teddy. Tonks' eyes spoke volumes and Remus understood.
I love you. I understand. It's okay.
The love of his life closed her eyes and lowered her head.
Remus opened his mouth but made no sound. He couldn't bring himself to speak the name and he racked his brain, trying to find a solution, so all of them could live.
But there was none. Remus didn't have a choice.
He opened his mouth again and spoke hesitantly in a broken voice, barely above a whisper: "Dora will die first. And afterwards- afterwards I'll do whatever you want me to do."
At first, the stranger remained silent and the clock's ticking seemed to become louder with each passing second. Then he started to laugh; hollow and blaring, a noise that rattled Remus' bones to the core. The man raised from the chair in a single elegant fluid move and took the iron barrel in one hand, placing it carefully before Tonks feet which were tied to both legs of the chair. The barrel was small but contained at least 5 or 6 litres. Of what? was the obvious question and Remus could feel the upcoming terror in his guts. His stomach flipped.
The stranger took the tube in one hand and pulled a knife out of his pocket. He pushed it gently against Tonks' cheek and for one horrible second Remus thought he'd skin her face.
What followed was even worse.
The knife cut the tape on Tonks' mouth with surgical precision, where her lips met, leaving a small hole behind just wide enough that he could fit the tube in. The man pushed the tube through the hole and down until Tonks started to gag, then pulled it back some millimetres and took the tape-roll from the nearby table to attach his construction, so that the tube wouldn't slip free.
"Say goodbye to your darling wife, Remus. This will be the last time you ever see her beautiful face."
Panic was written all over Tonks' face and mirrored in Remus'. Edward was tearing at his shackles, eyes blown wide. Remus urged him to close his eyes. The stranger bowed down and loosened the valve on the barrel. The tube started to fill with something. Remus could see how it swelled slightly with the liquid that flowed through its canal. By the time it reached Tonks' mouth and throat Remus knew that this would end in bestiality he had never witnessed before.
Tonks' insides were consumed with torrid flames and she buckled desperately, her eyes a plea. She screamed against the tape and tube, choked on spit and everything that gathered in her lungs. Her nose moved rapidly, enough to look like a bull panting. Her eyes bugged out, red-swollen, rolling uncontrollably. The skin of her throat protruded and melted like wax. She was shrieking mutely. Remus saw her fingernails scratching the wooden armrest until they started bleeding. Her face inflated, turning violet and veiny, all the while the stranger laughed maniacally right into Remus' ear.
He pulled the plug on the barrel and Remus started to scream, tried to stem himself against the rope on his wrists to reach Tonks but everything he tried seemed to be in vain. His voice failed when his throat started to feel raw. Despair filled his bones and he couldn't continue looking at Tonks any longer, so he pinched his eyes shut, spilling his tears.
However, the stranger didn't grant him the rest. He heard footsteps on the floor and then slender fingers dug into the flesh of his cheeks and eyelids, ripping them painfully apart so he was forced to witness the savagery in front of him. He tried to press them shut again but the grasp of the man was too strong.
Tonks' body flailed and then collapsed in the chair. The skin on her stomach bulged, becoming fat and pink like a sausage. It fissured and the flesh clung to her organs in raw shreds; spilling oil, blood and scorched entrails on the hardwood floor.
"Look at it, Remus," the man breathed against his hair. His expensive aftershave was a biting contrast to the outrageous smell of burned flesh and hot oil. "Look at the pile of molten flesh. Perhaps she's still living. Do you think she's dreaming of heaven right now?"
Remus tasted vomit on his mouth and the man released him a second later so he could throw up right before his knees. He was still coughing when the stranger took his place on the armchair again, completely indifferent to the barbaric cruelty in front of them. Instead, he almost looked smug. Remus threw up once more.
The nerves of Tonks' corpse caused the remains of her dead body to tremble a moment longer and Remus prayed to God that she had been dead the minute the oil had hit her stomach. Tears shook Remus and he sobbed Tonks' name until the sound died and his lips desperately formed the syllables over and over again. No sound escaped.
"Let's move on to the second part of our little game."
Excitement swung in his voice as the stranger took the packet back into his hands and started to tap his fingers in a melodic rhythm on the cover.
"I told you before I need you to deliver this little package. It's just a trifle, nothing important." He made a derogatory hand gesture and continued, completely ignorant of Remus' distress and loss. "It's a bomb and I want you to take it to the MI5 headquarters. There are a lot of people I still owe something to and wouldn't it be great to pay all my debts at once?"
Remus' body convulsed uncontrollably but his sobs had already died on his lips. His eyes darted to Teddy, but the boy was unconscious on the chair. The terror and the brutish stench had pushed him over his limits.
"Do I have to remind you," the stranger said, tone piercing and face cruelly distorted, "That, if you're not following my orders, your son will die next? There's enough hot oil left in this barrel to melt him down to a puddle of his own excrements. I'll make you watch. Your death will neither be fast, nor easy, but more painful than you can even imagine. You'll beg for mercy and that's when I'll feed you the remains of your family. Perhaps if I'm feeling gracious, I'll take the knife and kill you."
The grey in the stranger's eyes was replaced by a dangerous shimmer and each word echoed through Remus' numb body. A hand yanked brutally at his hair and he couldn't prevent the reflex squeal leaving his lips.
"I'll ask you one last time, Remus, will you do this for me?"
Remus tried to form the words in his mouth, but nothing escaped. The man's nostrils bloated from the deep breath he took, then he stepped over to Edward. Gently, his fingers ran through the child's brown hair that reminded Remus so much of his mother's. The eyes of the man remained blank, without any emotion.
"Be assured that it'd break my heart to hurt little Edward here. I love children, I really do. Preferably when they're screaming in agony. But I'll spare him, as I promised. All you have to do is to deliver the package."
"A-anything," Remus finally stammered between sobs and blind panic. He added, desperately, as if the words would give him strength when spoken out loud, "I'll do anything, b-but please spare him, please."
The leather-coated fingers froze in their movement. The man looked up, clearly satisfied with his answer. He gave Remus an approving nod; his voice a sneer, "Good."
A second later the man was at Remus' side, hoisting him up to his feet, steadying him with one hand on the shoulder, the other firmly on the rope and his shackled hands. He could feel the cold metal of a blade between his wrists, a ripping cut and then his hands fell slack to his sides. Marks of the rope were still seared on his flesh but he couldn't rub at them to disperse the numbness spreading in his wrists and fingers. A shove on his back made him stumble over his own feet but he found enough balance to resist the urge to fall down. The package was pushed into his hands and Remus took it without hesitation, clutching it carefully as though it could break.
Another shove brought him close to the door but Remus risked a last glance at his son, who still sat unconscious on the chair. His voice broke again and he had to repeat the words twice more until they were finally audible enough in the sticky room.
"You promise that he'll survive when I do this?"
The man bared his teeth, chuckled as if it was the most amusing thing Remus could have said in such a situation, and for a moment Remus noticed how young his face was. No more than thirty he'd guess. Almost like an old friend, the stranger tapped his hand on Remus' shoulder and pushed him to the door. He said, "My dear Remus, do I look like someone who doesn't keep his promises?"
Tears gathered in Remus' eyes once more but he blinked them away.
"I'll deliver your package."
Then he turned around and stumbled out of the house without another look back.
The stranger remained in the empty entrance for another minute. He waited to hear the distant engine of Remus Lupin's car drive away. There was no need to follow Lupin, he knew exactly what was going to happen at the MI5 headquarters once he arrived. The sensors he'd applied on the outdoor walls some hours ago would set the alarm on the bomb via satellite. Two minutes later it would blow up the whole headquarters, leaving nothing behind but ashes and dust.
An important note, carefully packed into a fireproof bag, would also be found, though not until the forensics came crawling out of their caves to investigate the crime scene.
The stranger turned around, his footsteps resonating on the wooden floor as he approached little Edward again. His leather-covered fingers ran once more through the boy's brown hair, the other hand curled around the infantine chin and cheeks.
Edwards' eyelids fluttered and a moment later the boy opened his eyes. He blinked, disorientated, but when he caught sight of the stranger, the horror returned.
Remus Lupin wouldn't say a word. He wouldn't respond to direct questioning. He'd be semi-coherent, at best. He wouldn't dare to betray him. No one ever did.
For a second a cruel smile ghosted over the stranger's lips. Then he twisted his hands to opposing sides, and snapped the boy's neck in a fluent motion. He felt the split of the boy's neck through his leather gloves, as well as the ripping of the still soft, infantile muscles. The blood-curdling cracks of the boy's breaking spine didn't bother the man at all.
Neither did the blue eyes of the boy which held no life anymore.
Perhaps you read this brief introduction and think you already know me.
I'm a shadow behind closed doors. The grim reaper your parents warned you of. I can do things you can't even begin to imagine. I possess powers, skills and abilities beyond human comprehension.
You'll recoil in my presence, oppose the agony and anguish I'm raining down upon you. You'll be challenged and you can see it as a game or a never-ending struggle.
Soon enough you'll ask yourself: What's the point of this? What's the point of a game with so much violence, so much bloodshed and cruelty?
I can't explain my motives, not immediately from the start.
Not even the main characters know that they've entered my maze of terror.
But they'll learn.
Pain and agony will lead them on their path through my endless aisles.
And I'll lead you through the same.
'Will it be worth it?' some may ask.
'Not for everyone' I'll answer.
Will you step inside my labyrinth?
Chapter 3: Chapter I
Who in his mind has not probed the dark water?
John Steinbeck, East from Eden
Let's do some maths.
The world mortality rate totals approximately 500,000 per day. That equals 348 deaths a minute.
5.7 deaths a second.
No one can say exactly how many people die due to criminal acts. But according to recent studies, at least every tenth person dies at the hands of a murderer.
Half of these killings consist of single naive opportunists. Mostly with trivial motives and feelings like revenge, passion, religion or hate. The other half contains organized premeditated serial killings.
If we align that theory to our previous results, we realize that 17.4 people die each minute at the hands of a serial killer.
25,000 deaths each day.
Nine out of ten serial killers cite some ulterior motive to satisfy their own nefarious needs.
The last one, though, is a special kind of creature.
Thursday, 14th August
41 Days until the next murder
Lee Jordan's voice sounded strangely distorted over the muffled crackling of Hermione's old radio in her second-hand Volkswagen Beetle. Usually, there were no problems in receiving BBC London 94.9, but the closer she got to the Lupin house, the worse the radio reception became.
"- attack on the MI5 building as the morning rush hour drew to a close. A bomb went off around 9 a.m at the MI5 headquarters. Twenty-three people have been killed, and more than a hundred injured. Let's listen to the recording of yesterday's press conference by Secret Intelligence Service Chief Albus Dumbledore."
The crackling intensified as Hermione took the next turn to the right, following the rural path deeper into the woods. Enormous trees prevented any sunlight from breaking through. Lights were dancing on the thicket of colourful foliage, illuminating the path sparsely. The Volkswagen rattled over the stony path, and Hermione rolled down her window, inhaling the fresh scent of fir trees and morning dew.
"Yesterday was a crude blowback that showcased the audacity and brutality some men possess to damage our beloved city and country. Today, we recognise the incredible courage and leadership of so many Londoners in the wake of a terror attack at the heart of our city. We offer our deepest gratitude to the courageous firefighters, police officers, medical professionals and spectators who, in an instant, displayed the spirit London was built on and helped the injured to leave the crime scene. Be assured that we will not stop until we find the culprit and take him off the streets. London's streets will-…"
The radio spurred, then screeched. Static was all that followed.
Hermione turned the radio off. She knew the speech already. She had seen and heard it yesterday afternoon on a little television in the corner of the E.R, while she was waiting for her medical examination. After the building had been cleared, all of them had been transported to the closest hospital: St. Thomas, on the Westminster Bridge. Fortunately, she hadn't had any major injuries; just scratches and a bit of smoke in her lungs from running around and trying to help her wounded colleagues at the heart of the mess. When crisis came, it was often solved the way they were solving it now: doing their best with what they had.
She remembered the deafening sound of shattering glass and a clamorous bang that shook the whole building and her body alike. The ground was quaking for seconds, and for a fleeting moment, she thought the ceiling would fall down and crush them all. Then she started running. She was still new at the SIS, even though she had worked as a profiler for three months now, but their department had been on the other side of the building, far enough away for them to escape without any further incident.
At 28 years, and a newbie to fieldwork, the first few months of her professional life had been entirely spent behind desks and archive records under a superior who never took her brightness for anything more than a coincidence. She was all the more surprised when James Potter had called her an hour ago and personally asked for her participation on this special case revolving around one of the man's best friends. She didn't want to disappoint him.
Hermione shook the memories off and followed the path in silence until she reached the house at the far end.
The Lupin's home lay between giant fir and birch trees that warmed them in winter and provided shade in summer. Those trees also secluded them from their neighbours quite a bit. It wasn't a mansion, but big enough for a small family. During autumn it offered a picturesque view of sunrays reflecting on green and brownish colours. Now, barricades had been erected in front of the home, starting at the street.
Hermione counted five cars altogether; two patrol cars from the MI5 branch, two from the forensics and an older Peugeot 406 Break which she knew belonged to James Potter. She used to be really close to Harry, James' son, and she remembered this car has been in the family for ages. College years had made them grow apart but they still kept in contact through e-mails and phone calls. Last she heard, he'd gotten engaged to Ginny, which made her happy because the girl had always brought out the best in him.
She turned off the lights, grabbed her bag from the passenger seat and got out of the car. She took her MI5 badge out and showed it to the guards who were standing at the barricades, already waiting smugly for a reason to send her off again. One of the officers skimmed the ID with narrow eyes and let her pass a second later. Two more were waiting inside the perimeter right before the house, scanning the area with two white-clothed forensics at their side. They were searching for any hints as to who the murderer was, and counting the evidence-numbered place cards spread across the yard, but, they hadn't been all that successful yet.
Forensics was a dirty job. It was all about bodily fluids, decay, blood. And people at their worst. Sometimes, it was about giving a report with too little information, and even the most trained crime scene tech was still never trained enough to deal with everything at once.
She shut it all out and entered through the unhinged front door.
A stench, so despicable that tears gathered in her eyes, pierced the room. Bile rose in her throat when the overwhelming reek reached her nose in hot humid waves, until she felt as if she was drowning in a sea of innards. Hermione wrinkled her nose, squinting her eyes in the process.
She kept walking.
The entryway floor was bright hardwood. Quiet, polished, squeak-free. Three men, clothed in white plastic overalls and latex gloves, rushed past Hermione to leave the house. The only remaining one was currently talking to James.
James was already waiting for her, sleeves rolled up and burgundy tie loosened. The man was in his late forties with uncharacteristically messy hair, much like Harry's, and it looked as if he had run his hands through it several times. Wrinkles graced the dark skin around his hazel eyes, reflecting grief and shed tears. She could see the tense muscles that tightened the corners of his mouth and the way his shoulders were slightly lifted, his slender body stoic.
There was another man right beside him, even taller and lanky, clothed in the white forensic overall, fingers encased in baby-blue clinical latex gloves. The hood of his overall was down and shoulder-length black hair hung limply on both sides of his face. A hooked nose was prominent on his weathered features. The man had black eyes which held a lot more wisdom than Hermione would have given him credit for. The moment she stepped closer, said man stopped speaking and gave her a once over, clearly judging her.
Well, what a start.
James followed the man's glance and upon seeing Hermione, he managed to shape his mouth into something almost resembling a smile.
"Hermione, good to see you. I'm glad you made it." His tone was hopeful, almost desperate, and it burdened her greatly.
"The traffic was disastrous, but I managed to make it through." She gave them a small smile and with pain shadowing her eyes she added, "My sincerest condolences for your loss, James."
Hermione had met Remus and his family only twice. Once, at one of Harry's birthday parties some years ago and then again last year at a summer barbecue at the Potter's. She remembered them as kind and loving people, the ones you would call when you needed help. She knew James had been close to them, as well as Sirius, Harry's godfather. It must be hard to lose a friend when they were as close to you as brothers. She couldn't imagine losing Harry, even though they'd grown distant.
James took a deep breath and swallowed hard, clearly still shaken up by the circumstances. But he was brave and thus nodded before he thanked Hermione for her understanding.
They stood in awkward silence for some seconds before the man at James' side cleared his throat vigorously and pointed at the file in James' hand with a single crooked finger. It stirred something in James because he took the file up once more and finally introduced them to each other.
"Right. Hermione, this is Chief Crime Scene Analyst Doctor Severus Snape. He's our counterpart at the Forensic Science Service for the Voldemort cases. Snape, this is Hermione Granger, she's-"
"I know who she is," Snape interrupted harshly and continued bluntly, "let's hope Miss Granger's work is even half as promising as it's reputed to be."
His voice sounded almost hoarse, like a tape that had been repeated too often and had lost its volume in the process.
Hermione felt her cheeks redden, but it challenged her inner intellect and she vowed to prove him wrong. His words left a bitter taste in her mouth and she couldn't completely hide her own animosity towards him.
"I will try to do my best, Doctor." She forced a smile but even to her own ears her voice sounded pressed, offended, like it always did when someone tried to question her work ethic - let alone her brain.
She thought she saw Snape frowning, but it might as well have been her imagination. The man had a strangely stoical face, which made it difficult for Hermione to read him. But deciphering him was not her job. Not today at least.
The horrendous stench still clung to her nose when James stepped forward and lead her to the adjacent living room. The room was spacious with a darker wooden floor and a vaulted ceiling. A matching dark couch was facing the entrance door and an odd-looking armchair was neatly placed beside the couch, but its cushion pattern didn't really match with the other furniture. Large double-paned windows looked out over a manicured lawn and brought bright daylight into the otherwise gloomy room.
It was obvious that the Lupins were trying to impress by blending in, not by standing out.
Two chairs were set back-to-back in the middle of the room, covered with white dust sheets, a deep crimson-brown stain on the wood under them. Like a dried puddle of blood; dark, thick and congealing.
James stopped awkwardly in the middle of the room and handed the file to Hermione, his eyes trying to avoid contact with anything that could stir up unpleasant memories. Hermione took the file cautiously and flipped it open. Her eyes skimmed the text in a matter of seconds as she switched into her professional mood with ease. She took a notebook and a pen out of her bag and started to ask her questions.
"The corpses were identified as 37-year-old Mrs Lupin and her 6-year-old son. Both were found last night at 10:37 p.m by Special Agent Black - has he already made his statement?"
Hermione looked up, but James stayed silent. She waited, granting him a moment, and sure enough, the man started to talk after a few seconds.
"Sirius found them. After the SIS found out that Remus was the bomber, Sirius insisted on bringing the message to Dora himself. I wanted to accompany him, but the mess at headquarters made it impossible for both of us to leave. When he arrived he found -… We didn't think that -…" His voice broke again and it took a lot of effort for him to proceed, shakily. Grief coloured every word. "Albus sent him to the medical department to undergo a psychological test before he can return to the field."
"I'm sorry, James…" She placed a hand delicately on James' upper arm and pressed her lips into a thin line. It was a small gesture of solace but he seemed to value the support.
He gave her a small smile and nodded his head in acceptance. His eyes were locked with hers, and even though his voice was grateful he seemed miles away. "Thank you."
"Which department did Remus work for?" she asked quickly and bit down on her lower lip a second later, as if to punish herself for her intrusive question.
He worked at the Technical Operations, Analysis and Surveillance Department - wait.
Hermione raised her eyebrows at that, clearly surprised. Her voice sounded shocked as she asked, "Wasn't that the department that got bombed?"
James nodded and grimaced, clearly uncomfortable with the topic.
"To the world, it will look like Remus really did it. The news has already leaked, his name was in the online edition of The Sun this morning."
Hermione could read the denial and wrath in his posture, so she gave him space to breathe and relax again. But he didn't. Instead, his words heightened the already heated state that caused him to talk himself into a rage.
"It won't be long before the media twists his name and actions. And nothing remains but blatant lies. They're defiling his reputation, and even if we can link this slaughter back to Voldemort, we have nothing to link him to the bombing. It's utterly frustrating!" James' voice was pure venom and he spat the words in frustration, while his hands were clenched into fists. His body was so tense that the vein on his neck was pulsating. Hermione took a step back, watching the outburst from a safe distance.
The fire died as fast as it rose and the man looked suddenly older, exhausted. The number of wrinkles on his face seemed to increase, his eyes pleading desperately. Fatigue was written all over his features. It pained Hermione to look at him and see him so broken.
Her voice was calm when she asked, confusion seeping into her tone, "Voldemort?"
"What?" James snapped out of his jumbled thoughts, as her question caught him completely off-guard.
"This is the second time you're mentioning that term. Voldemort."
James curled his fingers into a fist and pressed his lips into a thin line. "We have reasons to believe that this was the next homicide of a serial killer who calls himself Voldemort."
"There has already been one?" she asked intrigued.
"More like five."
She abruptly stopped writing on the blanched paper of her notebook, and glanced up, eyes wide. "Five?" Her tone was a whole pitch higher, and she bit down on her lip once more to cover up her obvious astonishment. She was trying to catch James' gaze but he pointedly avoided looking into her eyes.
"Yes. This…barbarous cruelty bears his signature. The murders are depraved, disgusting and usually we find a riddle attached to the victims, signed with an alias. Lord Voldemort. But this time we haven't found one. Not yet."
"A riddle? About what?" The question was shot right back, and she couldn't hide her excitement anymore. Some people would find this news macabre. To her, it felt exhilarating.
Finally a chance to prove myself.
Hermione's interest was piqued, but James looked angry. He snarled, his voice a strange mixture of fury and horror. "Different kinds of things. Sometimes he cites a fairytale, sometimes another book. Once he even sent three full pages of a bloody book and we needed two weeks to find out which one it was. Even Albus didn't recognise it."
"So we still don't know what the riddles are supposed to tell us?"
"Albus has a suspicion," James continued and faced Hermione for the first time since she had entered the room. His jaw clenched a few times before he settled on his next words, as though he were unsure about them. "He thinks the riddles lead to the next victims."
Hermione nodded and scribbled some details into her notebook. Like intelligence, arrogance, haughtiness and pride.
"Are there any other patterns he follows?" Or she, Hermione added in her thoughts.
"He murders every 41 days."
Odd number, prime number, n2 + n + 41, Leonhard Euler?
Her brain was working at high speed and she felt a tingle of anticipation shooting down her spine.
James gave a dry laugh, frustrated. "We don't know."
Circling the number on her pad three times, she made a mental note to take another look at it once she had all the information about the other homicides.
"Is there any other relation between the murders? Between the victims perhaps?"
James shook his head in defeat and Hermione sighed, her own frustration growing. Pinning her pen to the notebook, she fixed her determined gaze on James.
"I need to have a look at all the files. The older ones, too."
"Of course. Once the mess at headquarters has been cleared, your SIL will get raised for the archive-"
A sudden ringing interrupted James' speech and he took the phone out of his pocket. Reading the caller ID, he held up his index finger to signal that he needed to take that call, before he left the room to accept it.
Snape emerged from the shadows next to the wall and stopped next to the covered chairs. "I think we should start with the crime scene investigation. Are you ready, Miss Granger?" The man's voice was as indifferent as his facial expression, his former rudeness concealed.
"Yes." The agitation was apparent in her eyes; it emphasized the confidence in her voice. She was ready for this.
My first real case.
Snape looked her over once more, but there was no trace of derision left in his dark eyes. It was a mixture of curiosity and pity now. A second later, he grabbed the blanket and pulled it back to reveal the chairs.
She waited for a moment until Snape had removed the dust sheet completely and set it aside, neatly folded. He retracted to the shadows once more and Hermione blocked out everything else, concentrating on her job.
Her pen flew over her notebook, taking notes, while her eyes scanned the room. Everything besides the chairs and the carpet was clean and nice, but unimaginative.
No luxuries. Middle-class.
She smelled blood, rotten flesh, and the heavy stench of melted skin. It burned her nostrils, a slightly painful experience that watered her eyes and made her blink several times until her view cleared again. A cloying copper taste rested on her tongue, like a mouthful of pennies that she couldn't get rid of no matter how many times she swallowed.
Even with every light in the house switched on, the atmosphere was muted. Something cruel had happened here. Terror had filled the air. People had been brutally killed.
The fear was still palpable, sharp and strong; the carnage, too.
There were no indications of a fight, even the smallest details were still perfectly arranged, like the framed photographs on the wall or the vases containing orchids and lilies on the sideboard. Hermione saw a man and a woman in the photographs, together, smiling and getting a bit older in each one that followed, until they were holding a baby that grew into a young boy. The last picture seemed to be the most recent.
The living room continued on the right towards the back of the house, seamlessly blending into the dining room, with the same dark wooden flooring. A mahogany dining table sat under a chandelier hanging from a long black chain attached to the high ceiling. A single white French door beyond the table led into the kitchen.
Again, all very unsurprising. Pleasing, but not personal.
Ahead of her was a stairway, zigging right to a landing, then zagging left to take you to its destination - the second floor. A door beside the big windows on the far east of the living room led to the backyard.
How did he enter?
"Did you find any indications of forced entry?" she asked casually and stepped closer to the chairs, crouching down to get a better look at the dried stains.
"Aside from the unhinged front door that Black kicked in with the force of a rampaging bull yesterday night? No." Snape's voice was dripping with sarcasm and Hermione mentally rolled her eyes, ignoring the jab at Sirius.
"What about the backdoor?"
"Intact and locked."
What if he had a key? Relative? Friend of the family? No key could perhaps lead to the postman.
She nodded and her eyes landed on the blood stains again which were pooled in a way that looked as if the person sitting on one of the chairs had bled to death. There were burns on the wood in an oddly brown-reddish colour, probably from the melted flesh and muscles of a body. Or at least what remained of it.
Hermione flipped through the file once more and looked at the pictures. Her stomach turned and she could taste the biting flavour of vomit on her tongue again. The boy's body looked intact, with bruises from cords around his ankles and wrists standing out grotesquely against his infantile skin. His head, however, was twisted at a terrible angle, nearly 180°, so much that the back of his head lay on his shoulder. His eyes were wide and bright blue, a terrible look of horror imprinted on them.
The other crime scene photos were even worse. Tonks' torso had nearly completely been corroded, her body was slumped on the chair, her face horrifically distorted. The skin hung loose, in shreds, starting from her cheeks down to her abdomen, where the rest of her innards had gathered in a puddle of flesh, pus and a thicker fluid. Her wrists and ankles also showed marks from ropes.
Two different killing methods. Fracturing the boy's cervical vertebra points to sympathy for children; unhappy childhood, perhaps negligence. Tonks' murder was far more perverted; could indicate a hatred for women. Perhaps they're oblivious of him, leading to a lack in self-confidence - though that would oppose his other behaviour. But two different MO's could also mean two murderers…
She looked around and inspected the rope around the chairs.
Both had been constrained. What about Remus?
"How many ropes did you find?" She turned her head to look at Snape over her shoulder, who raised his eyebrows, evidently surprised.
Two adult victims and a child - one of them an MI5 officer - how did he manage to overwhelm them?
She nodded and focused her attention back on the chairs and the stains. It looked like some evil creature had used Tonks' flesh as a lifeless puppet in a sick game. Whoever did this had controlled and manipulated the body with such ruthless abandon, that Hermione hoped the poor woman had been dead from the start.
Months of being a profiler, and even before as a student, had taught her to always keep a pair of fresh gloves in her bag, which she took out and put on, so that they covered her slender fingers like a second skin.
With her index finger, she rubbed at the crusted spot, testing the condition of the substance. It was still moist, nearly creamy, with clots in it.
Coagulated blood and…oil?
"How long will it take for the laboratory to send the results of the DNA tests back?" Her voice was curt and professional as she stood up, flipped back to the main report and read over the neat handwriting to gather important information like time, clothes and evidence.
Snape grimaced. "At least three days, perhaps four. The mess at the headquarters will cost us some days."
Hermione frowned for a split second, annoyance clearly visible. She sighed deeply. "Alright. Did you find any sign of the killer?"
"No personal traces." Snape stopped, both turning their head when James re-entered the room, putting his mobile away hastily. Hermione continued her consultation undisturbed and stayed focussed.
"We found a five litre can right beside the chairs. It was still half full."
With oil, she added in her thoughts, and jotted it down on the notebook, too.
"Did someone take samples? Perhaps we can trace the distributor."
"Contrary to you, Miss Granger, today's not our first day on the job."
"No fingerprints, I guess?" she asked only half-jokingly, but Snape just raised an eyebrow in answer.
James inserted himself into their conversation, moving closer to both of them. "We never find any trace or evidence that leads back to him. Everything's always impeccable."
Too clean, almost clinical.
"What about the outside? Tire tracks? Footprints?"
"Nothing." Snape shook his head. His hair hung like a limp curtain around his face and Hermione wondered whether he just hadn't had time to wash it or if he simply couldn't care less about his appearance.
So the killer had observed the family long enough to have known their daily routine and environment.
James waited for her to speak again, but she didn't have anything else to ask at the moment, so he continued. "The SID called me; they have found a fireproof bag amongst the ruins with a riddle inside."
Snape emitted a strange guttural sound, a mixture between a grunt and a snort, and when he spoke his voice was strangely stricken. "So it's official now. This is the next Voldemort case."
For the fragment of a moment both men locked eyes, and James gave a sharp nod.
Her interest was piqued once more. A strange desire to get her hands on a personal note from the killer sent a tingle down her spine.
"What does it say?" Her voice was greedy, her eyes alert and sharp.
"Don't know yet, but we can have a look at it as soon as the forensics are finished with it."
"Alright." She felt the thrill flooding her nerves, something she hadn't felt since having made the decision to become a profiler in order to hunt killers.
Her gloves made a squeaking sound as she ripped them off of her hands, crumpling them in the process. She kept them in her hand to remember to throw them away later.
Hermione handed the file back to James hesitantly, holding onto it a tad longer than necessary.
"I need a copy of the records, as well as all the documents and medical reports you have. I need the riddles, the photos and the liberty to research my own way."
She was already composing a dozen arguments in her mind in case James refused any of her demands, but the man surprised her.
"Of course," he said as though it was the most normal thing in the world. She waited another moment but he continued unaffectedly. "I'll talk to Albus tomorrow, he'll give you clearance for the security level you need."
"Thank you." Excitement and gratefulness were clearly audible in her voice. She was determined to find a pattern in the homicides, or at least a clue in the riddle the killer had left behind. She bit down on her lip, tearing at the thin layer of skin in the process. It was a bad habit she tried to control most of the time, but forgot about the moment she experienced emotional upheaval.
James put the file away and asked curiously, "So, what did you find out?" His voice sounded hopeful, like he was desperate to hear details or explanations he hadn't heard before.
"Not much," Hermione answered immediately. She flipped through her notebook again and stopped at the last page, shaping her thoughts and notes into intelligible sentences. The pen rested in her hand and served as a pointer for her explanations. "Male or Female, probably around the same age as Remus. Charismatic, or at least manipulative enough to get a family to let him enter their house during the early hours. There was no evidence of a forced entry which tells us someone let him in deliberately - perhaps they knew him, but it's more likely that they just didn't find him suspicious enough which again points to charisma." She listed information off from what she had gathered and her tone and voice grew faster and louder, thrilled with every word that escaped her lips. "There was also no sign of a fight, hence he probably took Remus out first. Afterwards, he stunned Mrs Lupin, then the boy. Perhaps he used narcotics, but that's for the laboratory to find out. He's likely mediocre to highly intelligent and holds a high position at work - if not, his genius is underestimated, but I need more data in order to be conclusive on this."
She turned away from James to face the chair, pointing with her pen at it while she continued with her speech. "High intelligence also accounts for the clinical state of the crime scene. He planned this meticulously down to the tiniest detail. He feels safe and is aware of his superiority -"
"How could you possibly know that?" interrupted Snape blatantly, but Hermione proceeded unapologetically.
"The canister. He left it behind because he knew that even with the facts right before our eyes we would never find him. Not like this." She took a deep breath, a smug expression tugged at her face as Snape fell silent. "Deducing from this crime only, I'd say he has a flexible job and is athletic, or at least sporty enough to run a few miles. Perhaps his hobbies contain something similar to jogging or running. He most likely came by foot, through the woods and obliterated his tracks when returning the same way. Roughly estimated, someone with a bit of training needs at least half an hour to an hour, starting from Wallington."
Her eyes caught the glance shared between Snape and James, and she took the opportunity to inhale deeply. Her voice got slightly hoarse but the excitement pushed her on, eager to share her observations. She turned the page on her notebook and continued.
"Back to the job. The timing and complexity of the crime tell us that the killer works on a freelance basis or at least has a job with flexible hours. The crime happened yesterday. Wednesday, a business day, in the early morning hours. The boy was still in his pyjamas, Mrs Lupin's nightgown was found in close range of the chairs. The bomb exploded around 9 a.m. The distance from here to the department adds up to half an hour if you take the car. Why wasn't the boy in school? Why weren't Mr and Mrs Lupin at work? The answer is simple: the murderer came in the early hours. Probably even before breakfast. The kitchen table is not set - we could argue that the murderer cleared it up before leaving but I highly doubt that, considering that he left the canister behind. I doubt Mrs Lupin was still alive when Remus drove away. Neither do I believe that the boy survived for longer than ten minutes after Remus was out of the house. He needed the boy to convince Remus, but as soon as he was assured that the bomb was on its way…"
She left the rest unsaid and cleared her throat. The words were spurting out of her mouth and she suddenly felt like she was back in college, when her thesis was double the length that had been requested and her professors rolled their eyes each time she had another question. But neither James nor Snape, whom she could definitely imagine as some grumpy chemistry teacher, said a word. Instead, they listened closely.
"This place is quite isolated. I'm not too hopeful of getting any information by interrogating the neighbours. This is mostly conjecture, considering that I don't know anything about his other murders yet. I'll need to have a look at the other crime scenes and reports to say more about his choice of victims. In a nutshell: our suspect is probably male, in his mid to late forties, slightly sporty, most likely successful in his job but socially withdrawn. He's intelligent, manipulative, unscrupulous, boastful."
Her cheeks flushed a light reddish-pink as her speech came to its climax and she stopped at the last syllable, mauling her lip again. "Of course, everything's absolute speculation as long as I don't have the remaining facts," she added like an afterthought.
Abashed silence spread over them and Snape was the first one to find his voice again, but he still sounded just as annoyed as before. He took a step forward and his arms crossed right over his chest with ease, a manner he seemed to have refined years ago.
"I'll apply some pressure on my men and ballistics. If you're lucky, you'll have the results and reports by Saturday."
James nodded automatically and rolled the file in his hand, fidgeting with it. A habit to cover up his tension, Hermione thought.
"Miss Granger." Snape tilted his head in what might have been an appreciative nod, but most likely was merely a sign of politeness. He left before Hermione could say anything else. She turned to James once more, the cruelty of the room weighing heavily on their shoulders. A dark glimmer reflected in the photographs and she could see how James' eyes rested on the middle one; a picture of him, Remus and Sirius during their college years. They all looked incredibly young and she noticed the obvious similarity between Harry and his father. There was another boy in it, but Hermione had never seen him before and had the good conscience to refrain from asking the question.
Instead, she asked something personal and her voice changed from professional to vulnerable in a matter of seconds.
"How's Harry?" She felt the familiar concern for Harry's wellbeing. She was used to it by now. You couldn't be friends with Harry Potter without worrying about a dozen things all at once.
"He'll be fine," James offered, a tad pressed, but voice unwavering. He ripped his eyes off the picture and looked at Hermione again, hiding his emotions behind glasses as big as his eyes. Hermione knew this mode of behaviour all too well. Harry used it all the time. "You could visit him."
"Perhaps I will." She gave him a reassuring nod, which he reciprocated after a few seconds.
"Well, let's hope Snape will bring the reports soon. Do you need a ride back to London?"
"No, it's fine. I came by car." A small, calm smile graced her full lips as she declined politely but joined James nevertheless to leave the vile crime scene behind.
They left the house in comfortable silence and fresh air hit her nose. She hadn't even noticed that her sense of smell had adjusted to the horrendous stench in the Lupin household; the clean air felt strange at first and it tingled the inside of her nostrils, leaving an almost burning sensation at the back of her throat. The officers standing guard put the crime scene tape back on the door. James escorted her to her car, where he saw her off a minute later as his phone started to ring again. The man would certainly be busy these next few days.
Hermione opened the vehicle door, needing to put a lot of effort in the act since it jammed all the time. She sat down on the cushioned car seat, closed the door behind herself and slapped her bag onto the passenger seat. Seconds passed and she needed to hold onto the steering wheel for a moment. Nausea from the horror she had just experienced nearly overwhelmed her.
The odour that filled the car was a mixture of the lemon concentrate from her windshield washer system as well as her own perfume. She inhaled deeply, in and out. Several times. But the disgusting stench of melted flesh and bile that clung to her nose stayed with her.
She turned on the radio and started the car.
Static was all that followed.
On a scale of cruelty, the Lupin murders certainly reached one of the highest levels.
However, it isn't the worst I could have let them experience.
In time you'll learn that you should expect much worse from me.
I'm not just any killer.
And I win.
Chapter 4: Chapter II
Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer. Nothing more difficult than understanding him.
The world has definitions and categories for everything and anything: for plants, for animals and even for trivialities such as the breeding of paramecia. Since 1880 profilers try to divide murderers in so-called murder criteria; certain key characteristics that represent the abyss of human nature. There are seven categories, all with corresponding definitions. The seven sins of murder.
First: Satisfaction of Sex Drive
So-called sex killers kill their victims to reach climax during the slaying. Sometimes they kill the victim first and satisfy their needs on the dead body - it's called necrophilia.
Here the killer is driven by greed that is increased to an unhealthy, uncommon and debauched extent. Sometimes they murder to spare expenditures.
Third: Base Motives
This is a vast division. Emotions such as revenge, envy, hate, anger, racial hate, sexual disappointment, compulsive narcissism, and way more belong to this category. Something is called a base motive as soon as it's driven by unrestrained instinctive self-interest. It's reprehensible to common people, despicable even.
A murder is called malevolent when the killer considers his victims to be harmless and defenceless and takes advantage of that during the killing act. It's also counted as malevolence if you kill someone out of the blue or from behind.
When the murderer exposes its victim to particularly severe physical or mental tortures due to a relentless and callous mindset, it's categorised with the murder criteria cruelty.
Homicidal is defined as using resources that you are unable to control in their entirety during the killing act. Their application is often used to kill or hurt a lot of people at once. For example through arson, explosions, gasifications.
This is the darkest and by far the most gruesome of them all. Someone who kills out of bloodlust has an unnatural pleasure to wipe out another human life. The only purpose this person has is the death of another, mostly unknown, human being. They kill out of curiosity, out of idle boast or pure amusement. The only silver lining in all of this is the fact that those kinds of murderers are few and far between.
MI5 Headquarters, Chief Dumbledore's office
Saturday, 16th August
39 Days until the next murder
Chief Dumbledore's Office was surprisingly disorganised - though not really untidy, it was just short of being so. The room was spacious. However, every little corner of available surface was scattered with books; his table was cluttered with papers and files, boxes of chocolates and boiled sweets were strewn everywhere, as well as a Newton cradle that was still swinging. She couldn't quite identify which wood the furniture was made of, but it was fair and nearly yellowish – probably spruce, she guessed.
A quick glance to her watch told her that she had already been waiting for half an hour. She sighed exasperatedly, huffed through her nose and crossed her arms.
The door opened just a few minutes later. Hermione rose mechanically and adjusted her blouse once more before taking the extended hand of Chief Dumbledore. The man was in his late sixties, but years as the head of the MI5 had worn him out. Hermione could see wrinkles and dimples around his eyes and the corners of his mouth; silent witnesses to the misery this man had already seen in his life. Surprisingly, his appearance stood in sharp contrast to his office, almost bitingly so. With his backcombed hair and trimmed beard, the man looked sophisticated with a certain kind of wit lurking behind his glasses in those bright blue eyes - the suit he was wearing only highlighted all of this even more.
"Miss Granger, I'm glad we finally found the time to meet in person." His handshake was firm and warm, as was his voice. Hermione could see why people seemed to idolise this man, and how he could command everyone's attention in any room with ease.
"Chief Dumbledore, the pleasure is all mine, I assure you."
"I'm afraid our time is limited. There are a bunch of interviews I will need to give later." He sighed as if to emphasise how much he despised being in the spotlight. Reporters were already asking obnoxious questions to which there were no answers anyway. Hermione was almost under the impression those bloodhounds just sat around in their rooms all day, trying to find questions that nobody could possibly find an answer to.
"James told me you were involved in the Lupin crime scene investigations?" Dumbledore continued as soon as he placed himself in a large desk chair, which was half-covered in blankets, worn sack coats, and surprisingly, a lot of ties.
"Yes, Sir." The upcoming pictures of the scene were so grotesque and savage, yet still so vivid before her eyes that she needed a moment to dwell on her words, turning them over on her tongue before she finally added, "It was … nightmarish."
Dumbledore didn't even grimace.
"I saw the pictures." His voice was calm as a river and nearly emotionless, as if he tried to shut it out. But his eyes were something else entirely; nearly gleaming with something wild and determined. "I think we agree that he must be stopped?"
He leaned back and gave her a nod while he searched for something on his desk. He grabbed a sheet of paper from under a pile of books. "James gave me a brief summary about your presumptions of the murderer."
"You mean Lord Voldemort?"
"Yes. Impressive indeed."
A decent blush graced both of her cheeks now, and once more she bit her lip as her fingers played with the hem of her blouse. Her fingertips rubbed over the silky material in a nervous manner. She wasn't used to so much praise from people in higher positions; mostly she was frowned upon, sometimes even scolded for her higher intellect and unconventional ways of thinking. A compliment like this, especially from someone like Albus Dumbledore, felt awfully out of place for Hermione. Like praise she didn't yet deserve. So she mumbled, humble and a tad nervous, "It's all just that, Sir. Presumptions. As soon as I get the older files, I'll be able to make a better profile."
"Right. That's why I called you here in the first place." A serious tone mixed with the playful sound of the Chief's voice. His left hand seemed to open a drawer and rummage through it, but Hermione couldn't see anything from her position before the desk and her growing unease increased with every passing minute. A second later Dumbledore took his hand out of the drawer and revealed a golden badge. It was the same size as a police badge, with a gilded surface and a bird of prey Hermione had never seen before; the beak was longer and a lot more pointed than a hawk's, the tail feathers were curved and peacock-like and in a delicately curved scroll were the letters OotP engraved. "This is the badge for an investigative commission I assembled myself. The Order of the Phoenix."
Her eyes were still entranced by the golden badge when the Chief reached over the desk and laid the cold metal in her smaller hands. Reverently, her thumb brushed over the gilded surface, drawing the peaks and valleys of the medal absentmindedly. Her mind was racing when she asked hesitantly, "Thank you Sir, but I don't quite understand?"
"The Order of the Phoenix includes the brightest minds of the MI5 Miss Granger, all of them chosen to stop Voldemort. The badge gives you access to the archive and every other information you'll need."
The answer sounded far too smooth, too rehearsed as if he said it a dozen times before. Scepticism blossomed in her chest and she looked up to meet Dumbledore's glance, her voice reluctant. "But why me? Certainly, you had another profiler - what happened to him?"
She could sense the obvious reluctance in the Chief's voice, but his eyes never left hers. A clicking sound reverberated in the hollow room and she could almost feel how he chose his words carefully which made her just all the warier.
"Let's say he couldn't handle it anymore. I'm afraid that's all I have to say about it." Dumbledore stopped any further protest with a wave of his hand. A sigh left his lips the moment he noticed the growing suspicion Hermione expressed via her body language. He cleared his throat and started once more, "Miss Granger, James told me you noticed clues and evidence in this crime scene that nobody else picked up on. You're a very clever girl and I'm confident -"
The door suddenly burst open and a second later revealed a strict-looking woman in her late fifties with rigorous eyes and a severe sense of fashion - her pencil skirt was tight, her hair in a bun and small, narrow glasses were perched on her nose. The woman gave Hermione a mere nod before she turned to Dumbledore again, voice almost chiding, "Sir? Apologies to interrupt you but your interview with the Daily Prophet waits."
"Give me a sec Minerva, I'll be there in a minute." They waited for Minerva to leave the office again before he resumed his speech, this time far more concerned than before with an urgent tone. "Miss Granger, I trust in your abilities, and perhaps you should, too. The world is a dangerous place to live in, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it."
Einstein. He's well-read, but not arrogant.
They rose simultaneously from their chairs. Hermione cleared her throat and added, "I'll try my best, Sir."
They shook hands once more but everything felt a bit too rushed; as if he wanted to get rid of her. Perhaps it was just her imagination, after all the man was the Chief of the MI5 and he certainly didn't have the time to have afternoon tea parties. Upon leaving the office, Dumbledore grabbed one of the striped ties.
"I'll attend the meeting as soon as James sets the time. Until then, Miss Granger."
He led her out of the office with a strong hand on her shoulder that pushed her out of the door and she followed his lead. McGonagall was still sitting on her desk when both of them entered the lobby, rising up as soon as she spotted the Chief right behind Hermione. A quick glance at the topmost papers was sufficient enough to realise that they were dealing with Voldemort. Most certainly a press conference of some kind.
"Goodbye, Sir." She gave a last nod to the head of the office and retreated to the far end of the lobby where a glass lift was already waiting to take her back down to her private office. She pressed the button and waited, the golden badge still shimmering in her hand. It was obvious that Lord Voldemort had to be stopped, she needed to find a clue to bring them closer. With a loud ping, the lift came to a halt and opened. After entering it, she pressed the button for the archive. As the glass doors were shutting closed again, she noticed that Dumbledore never once called him Lord. Just Voldemort.
MI5 Headquarters, Archives
Saturday, 16th August
39 days until the next murder
The archives were subterranean and reached from the West to the Eastern riverside of the River Thames. They had been built in 1884, renovated once in 1947 right after the Second World War, and a second time in 2012 to relocate the main base where they kept older files and special folders. There had been a debate some months ago about whether or not all the files should be exclusively converted into digital data. But the vote was split, so they kept both.
The lift stopped and Hermione stepped out of it while trying to wrestle the wild mess on her head into a ponytail - obviously, the thick bulk of locks wouldn't be so easily tamed and she needed three more attempts until they finally obliged. Her eyes darted over the different paths that the hallway divided into and decided to take a sharp left turn, to the Ongoing Unsolved Cases department.
Upon arriving at the information counter, she showed her newly obtained Order badge and was led into a separate compartment by a young man. The room was large but crowded, with shelves full of boxes and files. A bunch of desktop computers were neatly placed side by side, forming some kind of wall. Hermione got closer to the desk and waited until the man wearing a brown cardigan turned around.
"Hey, Neville." She raised her hand to give Neville a small wave and leaned over the counter that was right in front of her. Some of the files needed to be pushed and moved aside so she could at least have a decent look at Neville, but finally she found a place to rest her arms.
"Hermione, good to see you. How are you?" The boy in front of her looked nothing like the boy she met in high school; his slightly chubby body had matured into an athletic shape over the years, his round chin had given way to a pointed facial structure with beautiful eyes that reminded her of a teddy bear. Even the still remaining geekness added to his charm now. His voice was deeper than she remembered it, but friendly nevertheless.
"I'm fine, thanks. How are you doing?" She gave him an honest smile and couldn't hide the excitement that crept into her voice.
"The usual - coffee and Internet, what could I want more?" A small laugh left his lips, a mixture between a dark vibrato and slightly croaky; something that had a strangely nice ring to it and she couldn't help but join in his laughter. It felt good when the weight on her shoulders was lifted for a few short seconds.
"Listen, can you gather everything you have in the records about Lord Voldemort for me?" Without giving further instructions her hand slid into her jeans pocket and pulled out the shiny golden badge that still looked like it was fresh out of the press.
Neville's eyes widened in amazement and for a second Hermione really thought he was genuinely surprised, but then he opened the top drawer of his desk and took the same badge out from between some Snickers and staples. Overall, the badge looked banged up and dusty, the golden shimmer non-existent. It reminded her of old gold that had dimmed over time.
"Wow, you got promoted, huh? Seems like we're both riding the crest of a wave. I got my badge some days before Remus blew the whole department up… I mean, before… you know, the incident." His tone changed rapidly, excitement and guilt switching and Hermione needed to suppress a laugh at Neville's clumsiness and the way his teenage self seemed to come out when he's flustered. She almost felt thrown back in time to her high school years, when she constantly paired herself with Neville so neither Ron nor Harry could take advantage of her intelligence during the tests - after all, she was the only one of the trio that studied to get good grades at all. Neville had always been this alien kid with eyes as big as a deer in the headlights, and it amused her terribly that some things never really changed.
"Anyways," Neville changed the topic and raced from his office chair to the front of the counter, his tone far more relaxed than mere seconds ago. "I put anything from the cases in a special folder, I'll go and get it."
Standing up he was even taller than Hermione remembered and she stared disbelievingly at his broad shoulders that seemed to fill the narrow space between the shelves. She tapped her badge against the plastic-covered counter incessantly to keep her hands busy while her eyes cast furtive glances down to the records on Neville's desk.
"Have you talked to Harry, yet?"
His voice surprised her. She looked up to find his brown cardigan still half hidden behind one of the metal shelves. She exhaled and put her badge away, being obviously uncomfortable with the topic. Her mind was racing and a good portion of guilt crept into her consciousness. She tasted the bitter taste of betrayal on her tongue. She hadn't spoken to Harry yet. She hadn't even phoned him.
Clearing her throat, she dwelled on the words that felt biting on her lips, almost corrosive, trying to walk on eggshells to find the right words.
"Haven't had the chance, the case keeps me very busy." A pause and then, "What about you?"
His head emerged beside the racks. He sighed, then shook his head. A second later he disappeared again, this time further away but his voice was still audible over the boxes of cases and investigations.
"But I met Ginny yesterday, she said he keeps it together. But, you know Harry, he wants to go after the bastard."
Considering Harry's bad luck he'd just end up dead in a pitch.
She bit her lips and thought about their last summer during college, when a life like this had seemed far away and no one had paid their future any mind except her - always the know-it-all, the reasonable one. Her mind drifted away but was brought back to reality soon enough when Neville surfaced out of the blue with records and files on his arm, none of them thicker than a poetry journal. Wonderstruck at the light literature, she accepted them and stacked them on her arm, nudging the badge back into her pocket. Neville was strangely amused and gave her a cocky smile, leaning his hip against the counter.
"There you go. Oh, the new results haven't reached me yet, but I think they'll arrive during the day. As soon as I have them, I'll send them to your office." With his free hand, he opened the door so she could pass.
"Thanks, Neville. See you soon."
The records in her hand felt strangely heavy and with every step, her excitement grew more and more. Finally, she'd be able to find something. To get a hint of what might go on in his mind. She was already halfway down the aisle when Neville's voice followed her, reminding her of future meetings.
"Bye, Hermione. Oh, and next time bring some coffee!"
MI5 Headquarters, Hermione's office
Saturday, 16th August
39 days until the next murder
The coffee mug from Florean Fortescue's was gripped hard between three fingers and her thumb while her index pressed the doorknob down to reveal her office behind the door. It was small, but comfy with a huge empty bookcase at the east wall which reminded her subconsciously of a box full of books which still needed to be cleared out. But for now, the spot on the floor right beside the bookcase seemed like a good place for it. The furniture was low-key; an office chair from the mall, desk, bookcase and a shelf from Ikea. Everything else was souvenirs from her travels, trifles that were gathered from various departments during her first years as an intern. There was even a mobile metal pin board with sharpies and pins opposite of the bookcase and Hermione couldn't for the life of her remember where she got it. By now she was sure it had just added itself to her collection.
With a loud thud, the records were placed right on top of her notes from Remus' case while she put the mug on the side so it wouldn't wobble on top of the files. She peeled the blazer off of her shoulders and hung it neatly on the little coat rack behind the door. Her fingers fumbled with the scrunchy to tighten her hair before she went back to her desk and rolled the sleeves of her simple white blouse up to her elbows. She granted herself a last sip of coffee before her hands were grabbing for the records.
Four files were spread out in front of her and covered her desk as well as the keyboard of her laptop. She started the computer and a second later the synthetic blueish light lit up the brownish hardcover-paper that protected each page of the records that they belonged to. At the head of each record was the name of the victim as well as the number under which the file was registered - the handwriting was identical on three of them, the fourth had a beautiful cursive style, almost italic and Hermione was sure she had seen it before, but she couldn't put her finger on where she might recognise it from.
Organisation was her utmost priority, so she started to flip all the records open and shifted them around until they were assorted in chronological order - starting with the first victim and ending with the last. Or rather, the one before Remus.
To her amazement, each sheet was marked with the case's number so she could easily remove one of the pages for further investigations and still know to which case it belonged - handy when she'd have a dozen of sheets on her dash later.
First glances through the records confirmed her thoughts that they were assorted from pictures to reports and at the end of each file was a sheet protector which contained the riddle that was found on the crime scene. The dates were exactly 41 days apart from each other, the locations sounded familiar - all of them were in London - but none was connected to the one before, neither to others from the list.
She opened the last drawer of her desk to take out a map, neatly folded so that it wasn't bigger than a usual letter. Carefully as to not rip the paper, she unfolded it and left her desk to advance towards the metal pinboard - the thing would be useful after all. She spread the map over the whole surface and tightened the corners with magnetic pins that Harry had given her as a gift some years ago - they showed famous little quotes of great minds like Voltaire and Rousseau. There even had been one with a quote from Queen Mum, but Hermione had lost it soon after, so she paid them more attention now.
Some quick steps brought her back to the desk where she withdrew some smaller pins from the first drawer, just some simple knobs that she labelled from one to five and applied to the map a minute later. Each knob showed the place where the victims had been found - but nothing seemed to connect them. Knob number five for the Lupin Case still rested in her open palm because the map showed only the capital of Great Britain and not the outer or inner boroughs of the county.
Taking a step back helped her to get a better look at the whole map that was spread out in front of her. The crime scenes weren't related in any way; neither by distance nor by names or environment. Instead, it seemed all pretty random at first glance. The only thing that linked them was the fact that they had all been found or killed in the capital - with a time lag of 41 days.
All of them had been found in London, so why did he kill Tonks and Edward in Carshalton? Except…
Her glance rose upwards and caught the address of the MI5 building; central London, Albert Embankment.
Unless Tonks and Edward weren't the victims in this case. They had been collateral damage.
She spun the pin between her thumb and index finger a few more times, but after a while, she realised, that this had to be the right conclusion - as macabre as it was. She pinned knob number five right over the bridge on the River Thames. Sadly it didn't bring her a step closer to a better explanation about how the murders must be connected, because even with five pins on the pin board she couldn't find a pattern or a design behind it.
A deep sigh left her lips as she pressed them into a fine line and suppressed the urge to start to gnaw on the thin layer of skin again. Another gulp of the coffee helped her to clear her head for a while and she sat down at her desk, opening the first record. Ready by her side lay her notebook with a pen so she could jot down some fast notes should she need to.
The record was titled Lavender Brown, the file reference was following right after in capital letters and numbers written in fairly messy handwriting - the same that was on the following two records. It was by far the thinnest folder of them all, containing a handful of photos from the crime scene as well as an autopsy report, a report from the police officers that had found her, a report of the SID and the sheet protector along with the riddle.
Hermione started with the general facts that were easily identified in the police report. Lavender Brown. 25 years old. European. Born and raised exclusively in Britain. Average height and weight. Intern at a prestigious law firm. Found by a jogger in the Guy Street Park, near London Bridge Station. The riddle had been put neatly in the left socket of her eye, laminated so no blood would smear the paper.
While skimming the text, she took the photos and spread them out on her desk to get a better grasp on the crime she'd only read about until now. The girl lay face down on the lawn, arms beside her head with bent shoulder- and elbow-joints. Her clothes were immaculate, nothing pointed towards a fight or any other external forceful impact. No dragging traces. No footprints in the mud. Nothing.
As if she had fallen from the sky.
Her coat was open, sweater and shirt were slightly dishevelled and revealed a small strip of pale skin right above her skirt - pale but unharmed. The report clearly stated that there were no corporal traces, no sexual imprints.
Not a sexual offender.
Head and face, however, were bathed in blood with extensive abrasions which covered the skin completely as well as the bridge of her nose, nasal wings and cheekbones. In addition to the considerable injuries to her face, the upper and lower lids on both eyes were heavily discoloured in dark violet and blue due to a perianal haematoma. The first autopsy report stated that fly eggs had been found under both lower lids. Flies tend to lay down their eggs in the first eight hours after death, preferably under eyelids, in nostrils or in mouths, especially during warm weather. Rigour Mortis hadn't set in, yet.
Furthermore, the report noted that both her upper and lower jawbones were unnaturally flexible, as though those joints were made of rubber hinges. Another glance at the photos showed the girl's maimed face in all its glory; her oral cavity was filled with blood and her teeth swam in it, the nasal bone was fractured as well, the auricle was smeared with blood and there was a note saying that a dark black liquid had seeped out of her ear when they had turned her around.
Basal skull fracture.
The most terrifying feature was on the next picture: the officers had pushed her eyelids back to reveal the eyes - but there were none. The report read that the murderer had removed the eyes one by one, carved them out with surgical precision. Furthermore, both eye sockets had been smashed post mortem and the cerebral area there had been no more than a bloody, mushy bulk that rested in the hole of the eye socket like a scoop of ice cream. There had been a foamy bloody fluid in her trachea and in her lungs - a sign of vitality and forensic proof that the victim had been fully conscious during her torture.
It made Hermione sick to her stomach.
More pictures of the autopsy followed but nothing of importance caught Hermione's eye other than the gouging of her eyes. It was indeed a known criminal behaviour that profilers called depersonalisation. A desperately hostile and humiliating act against the victim. The aggressive and brutal approach of the murderer often leads to extreme mutilations that make the victim almost completely unrecognisable. The perpetrator wants to anonymise his victim, to deprive it of its identity.
Did he know her?
Or she, Hermione added in her thoughts but an instinctive feeling told her that the killer was male. Next, she grabbed the sheet protector and carefully took out the paper. It was incredibly mundane in the end, a clear bleached sheet, no bigger than half a page with a typed message in its centre. The script was Arial instead of Times New Roman - or Helvetica if he used a mac – which was unconventional.
The thing sizzled as hot metal dropped in water while I twisted it like an auger.
Puzzled, Hermione read the message again and again but she couldn't glean more from it than what the decrypter and Neville had already worked out. The text belonged to the Odyssey, book nine if she remembered correctly, when Odysseus gouges the Cyclops' eye out.
Could be a reference to the murder.
The code, however, was nothing like what she expected at all when James mentioned it some days ago in Lupin's house. Neither the structure of the letters nor the length of it gave any hint to anything on the case - the text didn't either. A quick glance at the attached report told her that the cryptography department had tried any known cypher method to decode it - algorithmic, symmetric, asymmetric.
She made a photo with her mobile camera and jotted the notes as well as the whole riddle down in her notebook before she grabbed the next record to continue her investigation - after all, she couldn't afford to waste any time.
The second record read Mykew Gregorovitch accompanied by the corresponding file reference number - just like before. This one was a bit thicker than Lavender's and Hermione suspected it to be due to the fact that they hadn't anticipated Lavender's murder to belong to a serial killer. The reports changed from the official London Police Department to MI5 files right after the first page and this time there were a lot more photographs than in the one before.
Everything in this file read surprisingly mundane; Mykew Gregorovitch. 61 years old. Professor at the London Metropolitan University. Teaching chemistry. Russian. Born and raised in the city of Kazan and immigrated nearly forty years ago. Found by a farmer of Freightliners Farm in Paradise Park - or at least what had been left of him. The only remains they had found, had been his head.
Bulged eyeballs, impaired cornea, pale skin that looked almost green and grey due to the decomposition, exposed nasal bones and septum. Both auricles intact, as well as the jawbones and all of his teeth - they were affected by his age, but not due to the manner of his death. Unfortunately, no further details were discernible because of the decomposition that had erased all shapes and contours of his face. Only his five o'clock shadow identified him as male.
His head must have been preserved in a water tank or something similar in order to expedite the deterioration of the visible facial parts, and had been brought to the crime scene after that. The body had never been found and the agents responsible for this case identified Gregorovitch through his natural dentition with the help of his local dentist. For a second, Hermione searched for the dentist's name and breathed out in relief when she read neither her mother's nor her father's name.
The photographs were just as bad as the ones of Lavender. The bright flashlight illuminated the crime scene grotesquely, which made it look all the more disturbing, yet strangely artistic. The water had macerated the skin and transformed it into a greyish substance that reminded Hermione of rubber. The glassy, almost pupilless eyes protruded from their eye sockets. The left side was distorted in a ghoulish grimace and looked as though an animal had gnawed on the flesh, exposing muscles and the edge of a wound on his neck that looked very clean and sharp, as though the killer had been careful.
Any vitality signs which would have shown up if the head had been decapitated antemortem or postmortem, couldn't be found during the investigations. It was impossible to determine the murder weapon based on the structure or the pattern of the wounds - for example, a saw, an axe or anything alike would have left traces on soft tissue and bones - but the water had washed out all the blood on the margins of the wound, if there had been any at all.
With a frustrated groan, she ran her hand over her eyes and flipped through the record once more to take a look at the riddle. She stopped midways, however, and gazed at a little note which she had overlooked the first time. In the same curvy handwriting that she had already seen on the label of the last record was written: steel rope, 0.6 diameters.
A mixture of excitement and the thrill of the hunt raced down her spine. Her hands were already busy searching for the picture of the wound; if the clean cut on the skin fit, the steel rope would answer the question as to why the wound was so clean.
But why wasn't it in the official report?
Her notebook almost seemed to fill itself with her thoughts and observations. When nothing else could be deduced from the papers she put them away and took the riddle that was still waiting in the protection sheet.
The first thing she noticed was that the paper and the script were the same as the other one. However, the riddle was three pages long this time. Hermione recognised the text after only a few lines. She remembered talking to James about it and him mentioning that no one else had recognised this text – not even Chief Dumbledore. For a second she wanted to call all of them uncultured swine.
How on earth could they not have recognised Borges?
Again, she couldn't find a connection to the murder so she went on to the letter, but there was nothing in it that rang a bell.
cozycjbmhbangbpumal - Perhaps I need to consider every second letter? Maybe every third?
She looked through her notes, but she didn't see anything that might lead to a solution, so she ripped the page out and threw it in the bin.
Her shoulders felt suddenly tense so she rolled them a few times before she reached for the next file and skimmed the page for facts. You could clearly see that the MI5 took this one far more serious than the others before. The structure and even all the careful details that were listed inside pages spoke volumes. Sheets and sheets of research from the SID were attached but none of them held any information that would give them a lead in their investigation.
The victim was female, again, and for a second she thought that she had found a pattern in rotatory genders - first a female victim, then a male, female again… a quick glance at the next record confirmed her suspicion at first - the next had been a male again. But then she reminded herself that Remus had been male too, and so her theory went down the drain.
She sighed deeply and started to read again.
Hepzibah Smith. 56 years old. Unemployed. American. Born in Kansas and raised in Westminster. Average height and obese figure. Found in the Royal Botanic Gardens by a gardener in the early morning hours.
Hermione took the photographs out of the file and spread them all over her desk again. An action that she regretted a second later when her eyes got caught on the ghastliness and ferocity in which the woman had been disfigured. Her lower jaw had been completely broken out of its bone settings, probably with the same saw that had been used to remove her upper jaw. Both maxillas, as well as the jaw joints, had been ripped out of their structures so the killer could scuff the skin from her nasal wings all the way down to her neck. The vocal cords were exposed, the flesh from chin and mouth hung in tatters. Because of the missing jawbones, her face looked like a shrivelled balloon.
It looks like a death mask.
Everything was soaked in blood, especially the grass and earth underneath her. The blood made it look like a giant red sponge. But the woman's skin was pale, almost without any colour due to the high blood loss. Both of her hands had been cut off sharply in the middle of the wrist bones – both were missing, just like the jaws. The autopsy report also said that they discovered a blood aspiration in her lungs - in other words, both jaws had been sawed out while she was alive and blood had run down her throat and larynx, causing her to choke on her own blood.
A shiver went down Hermione's spine and she shuddered due to the sudden coldness in the room. She could taste bile on her tongue. The disgust she was confronted with right now flipped her stomach. She took another gulp from her mug. She didn't even realise that it had gone cold during the last hour.
Whoever killed the woman was no fool, by any means. Many killers gain their knowledge from detective novels or Hollywood movies and most of them thought that by pulling all the teeth from a body the identity of their victims would be veiled. Only a few knew that this merely complicated an investigation but didn't stop it. The removal of both the jaws and the hands lead her to believe that the murderer was a professional.
Another note was attached to one of the pictures of a bleeding stump, stating the same as in the last file: steel rope, 0.6 diameters.
This could indeed explain the clean cuts but since it hadn't been confirmed, yet, she jotted it down in her notebook for further investigations.
More reports and files followed. Hermione skimmed the texts, read over notes that James had written down in his messy handwriting, searched for anything that piqued her interest but nothing seemed to contain a clue or further indications. It seemed she was just as clueless as James. In the end, she went on to the riddle.
This time, the text was far smaller and she wasn't really surprised to find the same bleached paper, and script. She recognised the text at first glance.
You think perhaps this is the Duke of Athens, who in the world put you to death. Off with you, monster, this one does not come instructed by your sister, but of himself to observe your punishment in the lost kingdom.
Dante's Inferno, XII, 16-21. But the letters are still a mystery to me.
The only thing she had noticed so far, was that none of them had been a prime number, nor did they have anything to do with the number 41. She googled the quote of Dante on her laptop, but nothing made sense concerning either the barbarous murder of Hepzibah Smith or the code at the end of it.
The lines belonged to Virgil, Canto XII is called Inferno, 16-20 in comparison with the numbers? What am I missing?
She circled Canto XII at least four times with her pencil before she let out an exasperated sigh. Her eyes felt heavier and heavier with each passing minute. She rubbed the tiredness from her eyes and pushed the files to the far end of her desk to reach for the last one. She wanted at least to have read over all of them today. She could battle the riddles later.
The last folder was the one with the neat handwriting on it and astonishingly it was remarkably orderly and tidy - reports were assorted by date, pictures were accompanied with notes from the reports and important facts were even highlighted in yellow so she didn't need to skim the text several times to grasp all the vital data. It looked almost too perfect - if it wasn't for the horror that was depicted in those photos that lay right in front of her.
The first thing she noticed was a burned corpse which had been downright skeletonized by the flames. Arms and legs were bent in a foetal position, as if the victim had tried to protect itself from the blaze - but no posture could protect you from such a fire. The explosion had swept across the victim with such destructive force that even their incisors were burnt. Bones had splintered from the cranial roof and charred brain tissue was oozing from the hole. It was repulsive, at best.
Her first instinct was to flip the file shut and take several deep breaths to calm herself down again. While her mind was racing so fast that it made her dizzy, she kept drinking the cold coffee until her mug was empty. She needed to focus again - and ignore the chill that crept over her spine from time to time. This killer was far more dangerous then she had first thought - and she wasn't sure if one man or woman alone could manage to perform all of these murders. They were unique, if not exceptional and so impressive that she had no idea how just one individual could embody all of this. It was thrilling, certainly, but it was frightening, nevertheless.
Her heart slowed down again and she waited until the silence of the room stopped to threaten and instead welcomed her. She picked up the record and read over the first page, the one with the vital information that she'd skipped half an hour ago.
Cedric Diggory. 22 years old. Sports student at Cambridge. European. Born and raised in London. Tall. Found in front of St Thomas Church by a nun in the early hours of the morning.
The heat of the flames had melted off all facial features until he was unrecognisable, the body was merely a framework of seared bones over which his charred flesh spread like a patchwork rug. The whole adipose tissue and muscles seemed scorched - not surprisingly since the fat of a human's body contained oily components which burn at high temperatures. The skin was nearly non-existent and the shreds of flesh that still clung to his bones were burst open and red underneath a carbonised black surface.
Almost like lava in a volcano.
The report had a remark that stated they couldn't reconstruct his body size or weight because the fire had burned down all the important components. Testimonies confirmed later, that he was a good looking boy with an athletic scholarship.
The whole cranium was ash-grey in colour with empty eye sockets that reminded her of a skull. Upper and lower jaw were both in ruins, several teeth were completely burnt and the tongue was reminiscent of cooked flesh. His locomotor system - elbows, cartilages, sinews - was singed to a black mass that looked like the rubber of a car tyre.
The pictures showed a black-brown, molten amorphous masse, upon which just the skull, as well as the remnants of arms and legs, were faintly reminiscent of a man. Apparently, the explosion hit the boy on the front because his chest cavity was blown open. Three rips were completely smashed from the fire, the others were black and protruded from the torso like the planks of a burnt down ship.
She could see the lungs and the diaphragm. They were shrunk to a quarter of their usual size and because the heat had warmed up the air in the intestines it had caused to pop from the pressure. Parts of the small bowel had gushed out of the wound. The black mass lay spread over the whole lower stomach.
Along the smell of scorched flesh from the chest and abdominal cavities, the records talked about another penetrant scent that had leaked out: petrol. The first thought that came to her was that this could hint that the killer had used a combustive agent. But a second glance at the report showed her that someone had already made a note about this - the same one that had noticed things before.
More reports and pictures followed, one more callous than the next and she flipped to the end to have a look at the riddle which seemed almost innocent in comparison to the sadism she had just witnessed.
The Abbey burned for three days and three nights, and the last efforts were of no avail.
She recognised the text but couldn't categorise it at first so she looked it up in the file and was surprised to see that it was an excerpt from 'The Name of the Rose'. It had been ages since she had read that book and it was quite obvious that the first message referred to the killing method.
It's pretty obvious that the messages are describing the procedure of the murders.
A frustrated curse left her lips and she shut the laptop exasperated, leaning back against her office chair.
The records didn't give away much - or anything at all. The murders had been savage and brutish at best; no traces had been left behind, no clues or hints were contained in these riddles. The killer was very clever, ingenious even and that made him dangerous and perilous. This one was no normal murderer.
He's not just any serial killer. He's a true predator.
Her hand ran over her hair that was still tightened in a ponytail and she let it down to lift a bit of the tension that had built around her temples and announced a soon to follow headache or worse, a migraine. Her eyes burned from hours of reading under halogen light and her bones weighed down with weariness.
Better to combat the fatigue with a mug of coffee. Or even better with an espresso.
She pushed her chair back and stretched her arms far over her head, blinking several times.
She couldn't fight the yawn that escaped her dainty lips.
MI5 Headquarters, Hermione's office
Saturday, 16th August
39 days until the next murder
The mess of wild curls jumped up in alarm. Her eyes were blinded by the bright neon lights and made it difficult to identify the looming figures standing right in front of her. How could this be possible? Had she even slept at all? She felt disoriented, her mind was a bit blurred and she needed to blink several times before the fuzzy edges finally became sharp.
"James? I'm sorry, I didn't hear you." Her voice was rough from sleep, almost a slur when she rose and tried to stack the files on her desk. She was thankful for the shadow that James cast on her, shielding her from the blinding light. As soon as the tiredness left the rest of her body she looked up into James' eyes and was immediately met with concern that was evident in his stare.
"Well, you were certainly busy it seems." A nod in the direction of her desk was enough to remind her why she had been so tired. A deep blush started to build on her cheeks and she felt the burning skin heating up while her fingers were busy bundling the records back into their usual shape. In the meantime, James put a new record on top of the older ones labelled with Lupin's ID.
"Here, the new files of the Lupin family and the bombing just arrived. I thought I'd bring them to you, considering that I needed to talk to you anyway." His voice was stern, serious and he couldn't quite hide the grief that was apparent in every word he spoke. For a second Hermione's sense of compassion kicked in, but she suppressed the urge to tell James that everything would be okay. Perhaps it never would be.
"Still the swot, aren't you?"
Upon hearing the gravelling voice that had just entered the room, Hermione swirled around and found herself face to face with a beautiful sculptured man: high cheekbones and grey eyes, a top model haircut with platinum blond hair.
For years the man had made her life as miserable as it could possibly be. His rich, presumptuous demeanour, as well as his boastful and snobbish yet bossy attitude, had more than once been the reason to start an intellectual duel.
Out of habit, her voice turned sour and bitter and she forgot the good manners she was so fond of.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous, Malfoy."
"And what might I be jealous of, Granger?" His reply was amused but sharp as a razor blade, the same conceited distance coloured his tone as it had done years ago. He leaned on the nearby desk and Hermione closely followed his hawklike eyes, noticing the way they gathered information from nearby records and loose pages. She felt her body tensing, her hackles rising at the sudden intrusion,as if she was a cat waiting for an attack. James stopped her, however.
"Okay, that's enough", James intervened and put a stop to their childish banter. Even if Draco acted unaffected now, Hermione at least had the decency to blush. Another sigh escaped James' lips. He crossed his arms over his chest and pushed the glasses on his nose up a bit; a habit Harry had adopted some years ago that always made her wonder why he never bothered to buy a new one that fit better. "Seems like I don't need to introduce you to each other."
They shared a quick glance but neither dared to answer, so they kept quiet and waited for James to go on. A comfortable silence stretched between them. James waited for more protests but when no one said anything, he continued in a calm voice. "As you surely know, we work in teams. Always two by two."
Hermione had a bad feeling about this, in fact, the following was vaguely perceptible and her eyes already begged James to drop the subject.
Please don't say it out loud.
But of course, she was met with cruel faith in the worst shape possible.
"Hermione, Draco will be your partner for an indefinite period of time."
There it was.
She struggled hard to keep her face emotionless but she grimaced, groaning in exasperation.
"Isn't there any other option?"
"I'm afraid not", James replied but he didn't look worried nor sorry, instead she thought she could see amusement in his voice. "Believe it or not, Draco is an excellent Intelligence Officer and has worked on the Voldemort case since the last victim."
"Splendid." Her voice was dripping with sarcasm as she spared the supposed James Bond a glance who was still leaning against her desk. She could sense him observing her out of the corner of his eyes. Hermione found it utterly disturbing what reactions he could trigger in her with a single glance. She was neither stupid nor blind. Draco had always been handsome, even during their college time in Oxford. But the masculine jawline and the wild hair gave him a dangerous edge which made her weak in the knees and caused her pulse to speed up. She hadn't seen him in years. The last time had been when she walked out of him with one hand on her suitcase and the other clenched from unshed feelings.
Unfortunately, while flipping through one of the files, the man in the leather jacket immediately ruined it all when he casually said, "Come now, Granger. Your brains, my good looks and LV will be faster behind bars than anyone can speak his exorbitant name out loud."
"Perhaps you should start calling him by it instead of shortening his name to the initials of some inflated fashion brand." The verbal brushoff left her lips before she could stop herself but Draco didn't react to it, merely batted it away like some bugging fly of no importance and continued to read through the record without a second glance or any indication that he had, indeed, heard her. She sighed in frustration.
"Anyway." Her hand snatched the file that Draco studied out of his hands and put it back where it belonged; chronologically. "Let's get to work. There's still a lot to do."
Even before the last syllable had left her lips, Draco had taken off his dark leather jacket, that looked far more expensive than anything Hermione owned, and hung it on the back of a chair before he sat swiftly down. He grabbed the record again from the pile that Hermione had just organised a minute ago. James caught her attention, nodding to the door.
"Hermione, a word?"
She frowned one more time at Draco's direction, but she refused to let him anger her again, so she turned around and followed James out of the room.
The door closed with a faint thud and James looked visibly uncomfortable. He cleared his throat several times, making Hermione feel out of place and causing her to tap her foot nervously.
"The funeral will be the day after tomorrow." He stopped as if to think about a way how to best phrase his next words. "Everyone will be there, including Harry, and I thought you should be there, too."
He paused once more and Hermione felt the weight of his words settle heavy on her shoulders. A subtle question that was really a demand which she needed to think about first. Funerals were always a heavy thing. Sympathy and emotions could easily cloud your perception.
Her mind was racing and when it finally stopped she nodded, replying in a murmur, "It's alright. Of course, I'll be there."
The uncertainty dropped from James' shoulders at that moment while Hermione's only increased. The man had already turned to leave, hand in the air in a waving gesture.
"Good. I'll see you there."
Hermione watched him take a couple of steps when she saw him stop and turn around, his expression clearly conflicted just like his voice. "Oh, and regarding Draco; give the man a chance. I know he can be-"
"Boastful? Presumptuous? Vain?"
"- hard to handle. But he's good at his job. Believe me." His smile was weak, it seemed almost forced but there was something in his eyes that made her reluctantly believe his words.
Hermione didn't even try to hide her obvious disdain for the man with whom she'd be forced to share an office for the foreseeable future. Her tone mirrored her facial expression.
With a frown, she said, "We'll see about that."
There she stopped and gave him at least a small smile that she hoped was somehow reassuring because of the fatigue that was written all over his face and was apparent in his posture. Hermione scolded herself inwardly that she hadn't noticed it sooner.
"Go home, James. Say hi to Lilly for me."
"I will. Good Night, Hermione."
As she watched him disappear behind the wall on the far end of the hall, her mind calmed down enough to give her a chance to drift off for a few seconds. Working with Draco would be a living hell after everything that happened back in college. But perhaps together they'd finally find a clue that'd lead them somewhere.
Minutes had passed but she was still standing in the same spot James had left her in. An all-consuming silence enveloped her like a thick cloak of shadows. Instead of feeling afraid she embraced it gladly. The distant clacking of heels ripped her out of her stupor. Draco was waiting. A deep weary sigh left her lips as she turned around and faced the door to her office once more.
She took the handle and pressed it down.
As a murderer, you should always consider how you perform your killings.
You need to fit the norm because the worst that can happen to any kind of profiler is when the murderer doesn't fit one of their patterns. They search for you in the wrong people, in the wrong classes, in the wrong circles. Your case will be put away to the Cold Cases because it was too hard for them to think outside the box.
It's hard to be a good killer.
Not everyone has what it takes to be the next Jack the Ripper.
Profilers categorise murderers in seven different groups. This system doesn't leave a wide margin for killers to make unconventional decisions.
I always wonder which category I fit into.
Which one of the seven definitions is actually appropriate for what I do.
Considering all of the seven categories. I realise that I'm not someone who seeks satisfaction. I don't care about avaricious or base motives like hate, envy or revenge. I strictly adhere to my own principles.
I WANT my victims to see me. To recognise me.
They should absolutely know who brought death to their doorstep.
So malevolence isn't accurate either.
With time I noticed that my capabilities are virtually outstanding when it comes to the categories of cruelty, violence and bloodlust. However, I abhor categories and the people who try to label me or print my name in headlines just to get the next scoop. Their dense little brains can't grasp the message behind my work.
They should at least show me the respect I deserve, right?
They should open a new category just for me.
Chapter 5: Chapter III
Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.
Amid the osseous skull lies the encephalon which operates the mental and cognitive functions alongside the unique controlled emotions of each human being. They characterise us and enable people to be distinguished as individuals.
No other part of the body shows the true nature of a human being as precise as the head, which is, alongside the heart, the only other organ whose existence is essential for the survival of the entire human organism.
Almost every organ can be transplanted or surgically replaced.
All of them - except the head.
Saint Bartholomew's Hospital
Tuesday, 19th August
36 days until the next murder
Finding a space in a London car park during the morning rush hour was nearly impossible. For Hermione, it felt as if half of London was on its way to make her morning an unforgettable disaster. She cursed in no less than three different languages as some upper-class office executive, in a carmine-red BMW roadster, snatched the last space from right under her nose. It took ten more minutes, before Hermione finally found a hidden spot behind the Barts Hospital to park her Volkswagen Beetle. However, the moment she left the car, her red Converse bogged down in a puddle of old London rain and dirt on the streets.
She cursed once more.
A text message flashed on the screen of her iPhone, as she grabbed the mobile from her bag of the passenger seat, shutting the door with a sway of her hip. She skimmed over the message while she locked the car.
Where are you?
9:31 a.m., DM
The message in the grey speech bubble flashed brightly on the white screen of her mobile and she didn't even need to look up at the name to know that it had been from Draco. Her eyes flickered up to the digital clock on her phone. The Lupin funeral had already started, and she would bet everything she held dear that the whole MI5 department would be present already - everyone except her.
It had been a tough choice, deciding that she wouldn't attend the funeral with the other members. Seeing the masses of grieving people and friends would lead to rising sympathy in her; she couldn't risk her feelings clouding her professional view of the case.
Feelings lead to assumptions, assumptions lead to mistakes and mistakes lead to death.
She sighed. Her thumb was already tapping on the screen to send an answer, while she hurried around the corner to the front of the hospital.
I'm following a lead. Sorry, can't make it. Call you later?
9:32 a.m., HG
Alright. I'll text you when this is over.
9:32 a.m., DM
His answer followed without any delay, and she wondered if his fingers were trained due to the year-long texting under his school desk; she reminded herself, however, that he had never been one for doing things in secret, so she came to the conclusion that it was pure bravado and a considerable portion of arrogance.
Droplets of rain started to pelt on her head, so she hurried along and entered the hospital via two enormous wooden doors, which creaked at the hinges. She needed to throw the weight of her upper body against them to push them open. She stumbled in and switched her mobile to mute while the doors closed with a dull sound behind her back.
King Henry VIII's influence and ascendancy were clearly visible to anyone who had a decent knowledge of British history. The age of the building held a certain kind of charm. The staircase led Hermione to the hospital's great hall, a double-height, Baroque-styled room with a few paintings on movable stands to adorn the walls. In the middle stood a circular desk which served as the reception. Hermione approached a thin, dark-haired woman with energetic strides, while her drenched Converse left squelching sounds with each step on the cold tiles.
"Good morning, I'm searching for Dr Riddle?" She took her badge out of her back pocket, and the woman's eyes widened, which gave her a horrible horse-like look. Hermione's eyes rested on the name-tag for a second, a habit she had maintained throughout the years to memorise the names of the people she met.
Petunia, as the woman, with a neck twice as long as usual, was named, pursed her lips and pointed towards the far end of the aisle. Her voice was jarring and for a second Hermione thought of nails scratching over a chalkboard.
"Follow the hallway to the right and take the elevator down to -2. Dr Riddle should be in his office."
It was obvious that the woman was interested in what someone like Hermione could possibly want from one of the doctors, but Hermione didn't bother to carry on with the conversation. Instead, she bid her goodbye and followed Petunia's instructions until she reached the elevator, which was, unsurprisingly, out of order. An annoyed huff escaped her lips as she turned around and took the stairs.
The basement was dark and narrow, far darker than Hermione had expected. Flickering, yellowed neon lights were casting gaudy shades on the ceiling. She followed the aisle past a bunch of doors, which lead to exam rooms and other offices that were currently unoccupied, until she reached a metallic double door with little windows to grant a look at what lay hidden inside. A bright light was filtering out from the inside and she spotted a patch of dark hair that was bent over a table, obviously in the middle of some kind of examination. She pushed the doors open and stepped inside.
The room was, to her utter astonishment, modern and clean, almost clinically sterile with white walls and tiles that covered the whole room. She could spot a metallic autopsy table in the middle of the room with several delivery boards that held medical and scientific equipment. A man was hunched over the corpse on the table, his blue-gloved fingers buried inside the chest. The room was enormous and the voice of the man who dictated something to a nearby voice recorder echoed, making a hollow sound. Her unannounced arrival didn't seem to startle the doctor at all, because he continued with his examination unaffected, almost ignorant of her presence.
"Female, central European, estimated age due to the status of her internal organs between fifty and sixty," he said, and Hermione wondered for a second if he hadn't noticed her entrance. She cleared her throat, but his slender hand, still clothed in a sky-blue medical glove full of blood, shot up and silenced her before the first syllable had even left her lips. She pursed her lips, sulking, but the man exuded indifference once more and continued.
"Objective criteria, such as rectal temperature and performance measurements, as well as the ambient temperature at the crime scene, point in conjunction with rigour mortis and cadaveric lividity to the onset of death, which was a maximum of thirty-six to forty-eight hours ago." He lifted the skin on the stomach to reveal little, white eggs that nestled on the pinkish raw flesh around her navel.
Hermione suddenly felt sick and she turned her head around to rest her gaze on a set of metallic instruments, all of them clean as a whistle and almost innocent-looking. Looking at crime scene pictures was one thing but it was another to stare at a corpse seated right before her eyes, close at hand. After all, she was a profiler, not a pathologist.
Five cases, seven deaths in total, and little time left before the next victim showed up at their front door. The profiler before her hadn't found any clues. They had no Behavioural Analysis Unit in Britain, sadly, so she was mostly on her own. They had already crossed the time limit four times; she'd make certain they wouldn't cross it a fifth time.
After a while, the doctor straightened himself and flipped both external skin-flaps over the opened stomach and intestines again. He didn't stitch it back up, so Hermione assumed that he hadn't finished the autopsy yet, but rather stopped it out of politeness. She observed out of the corner of her eyes how the man took off his gloves from his long, slender fingers with a squeaking sound, before he reached over the steel sink to wash and disinfect his hands with a special kind of liquid soap. It held the typical clinical hospital smell that seemed to cling to the walls and staff in the same way cheap perfume stuck to a stripper's skin and hair. Hermione could smell it even though they were standing some feet apart.
When he turned around to finally face her, hand outstretched to turn off the tape recorder in one fluent move, he was not what she had expected. All the online articles and pictures could never do justice to the beauty of the man's actual face. His nose was incredibly straight and aristocratic, and split his face into two perfectly symmetrical halves, with high, razor-sharp cheekbones. His eyes were of a strange bright grey colour, with dapples of steel-blue around the iris. They seemed focused, highly attentive of her, as they roamed over her body and stopped at her face again. They were shielded by long black eyelashes, which would make any girl jealous. Perfect, full lips graced his overall sculpted face and Hermione didn't even notice that she had stopped breathing the moment he had stepped closer.
"I don't recall any reporters or student interviews scheduled for today. This place is usually closed off for lurking spectators, so I'd suggest you leave the building before I'll call the security guards, Miss." His voice was suave but smug, almost thick like honey and something warm spread through her body, something pleasurable, even though his tone was clearly dismissive. An expensive cologne floated around him and she found herself ensnared by the delicious scent.
"Forgive me, Mister Riddle, but I'd have introduced myself sooner if you-" she started, but was interrupted mid-sentence by his snarl.
"Doctor. And I'm not interested in your excuses, just leave." Even though the words were meant to be polite, the chill in his tone was unmistakable.
"Doctor Riddle," Hermione corrected herself, wondering if he had got out of bed on the wrong side this morning. She fished her badge out of her back pocket and hastily flipped it open. His eyes shortly glanced at the shining metal and she suddenly felt as if his behaviour had got even colder than before - if that was even possible. "My name is Hermione Jean Granger, I'm a special agent for the MI5 and I'd like to ask you a couple of questions, Doctor."
"Special agent?" he asked, almost a tad derisive, which felt an awful lot like an insult to her. She was almost sure that his intense gaze had darkened just seconds ago, but it vanished almost immediately, so she dropped it. Slowly, he extended his hand towards her and she took it in a short, firm shake. His grip around her delicate fingers was firm and solid; confident. "And how do I deserve such an honour?"
"I'd like to have your opinion on a recent case," she said matter-of-factly and pushed a single strand of her bushy hair behind her ear.
"So the MI5 can't even find consistencies on its own?" A dark chuckle accompanied his sarcastic words and she noticed that his tone hadn't changed; it was still frosty and confrontational. Almost gleeful.
"That's not what I meant!" she countered immediately, feeling her frustration with the man growing with each passing minute. Perhaps flattery would ease his mood. "You are an expert on the decay of the human body, as well as on anatomical and forensic autopsy. I have read a lot of the papers you have published and I'd like a second opinion on some of the victims."
A strained silence fell over the room and Hermione started to count the seconds ticking by on a nearby clock. Their eyes were locked and she didn't know what exactly the doctor was looking for, but he seemed to have found something because after an endless amount of time he straightened even further.
"I see." His eyes never left hers and the gaze from his pale grey eyes was more than just intense. It was intoxicating, devouring, and something far more powerful, something hard and stoic. Something dangerous. He didn't avert his gaze, not once. He mentioned casually while pointing to the still-open corpse on the autopsy table, "Unfortunately I don't have any time to spare today. As you see I'm quite busy. Call the department office for collaboration on police investigations and get an appointment." He had already turned around and left her standing like a little child.
"You don't understand, Mister Ri-" she started again, and was promptly interrupted once more, this time with far more venom and spite in his voice.
"Doctor," he emphasised the word while facing her with a hiss, almost as if he was trying to teach her some respect. The white coat swirled shortly as he turned around, but then the thick fabric laid flat against his body again. His temper died soon after.
"Doctor Riddle." She gritted her teeth, and the word left a bitter taste in her mouth. She didn't know why he was so obsessed with the title.
He's 32. A genius, but still young, far younger than most doctors with the same achievements, working in the same field as him. Could mean that he constantly feels the need to prove himself to the world.
Hermione snorted, dissatisfied. "I don't have any time to waste, Doctor Riddle. Clearly, you read about the bombing in the paper a few days ago?" She waited for the man in front of her to nod, once, shortly, before she continued in the same accusatory tone, "National security depends on this."
"National security is always in danger as soon as the MI5 is attacked," he said, and it sounded as if he didn't take the matter seriously. Not in the slightest. To cap it all, he sneered, and with sarcasm dripping from his voice, replied, "So let's see, how can a humble pathologist like me help the Crown, Miss-?"
"Granger." This time Hermione was sure the doctor had mocked her; there was no way that he hadn't caught her name at the start of the conversation. Her mood had reached point zero by now and she didn't even try to hide her disdain for the way he treated her. Her eyes slid shortly over to the corpse, but found their living counterpart again soon enough. "Could we perhaps move this conversation to your office? I'd find that a tad more comfortable."
Slowly, he turned his head to have a look at the corpse, then his eyes wandered back to look down on her with a good portion of scorn.
"Of course. Follow me." His tone was still charming, but something else swept around the edges, something taunting and scoffing, almost as if he was speaking to a child.
A sudden blush crept into her pinkish skin and reddened her cheeks.
Splendid. What a start.
Riddle turned around but never took his eyes off of Hermione, pointing to a nearby door which was strangely hidden next to a cupboard - she hadn't noticed it before. He led the way through the wooden door and she followed blindly, putting away her police badge in the process. Her childish nature rose to the surface because she was tempted to make a face or a grimace and she barely refrained herself from doing so. There were too many glass walls and mirrors in the room that could give her away and she didn't want to push the man's ego even more.
Upon entering the office she first noticed that it was astonishingly small and unfurnished. It couldn't be bigger than a storeroom, which surprised her, considering his name and reputation. The room held a desk with a leather office chair, as well as a couple of lockable file cabinets. It was flooded with tomes on nuclear medicine, as well as autopsy reports, handwritten papers and notes, neatly glued yellow post-its which were written in such a straight and accurate way that it looked like someone had held a ruler underneath it while writing. Riddle pointed, most likely out of politeness, to the office chair, so Hermione could sit, before he went on to the rearmost wall, which contained something like a kitchen unit; a little sink and barely enough space for a fully automated coffee machine and a small fridge underneath.
"Coffee? Water?" he asked, while he had already pushed the button on the coffee machine so it could warm itself up. It began to grind the beans with a nasty, raucous sound and Hermione waited until the noise had died down before she addressed him again.
She grabbed her bag, opened the zip to take the files out and then put them on her lap. She didn't want to push the things on his desk aside and jumble them in the process; she detested it herself if someone just suddenly messed with her desk. Better to let a person sort out their own belongings.
She had heard about the man before. Read about him, too, but this was the first time she had encountered him and got to experience his magnetic personality for herself. Not much was known about his past. He was a prodigy and came from old money. The name Riddle was known in many fields: medicine, law, politics. They practically owned Little Hangleton, a little town just outside of London. It intrigued her, the name Tom Marvolo Riddle, one known and spoken about all over Britain, with people falling over themselves to talk about the man. Charisma was a dime a dozen with doctors, but with Riddle, it was almost cheap to call it mere charisma.
She could see why now.
A quick glance didn't give much away about the man. Just a pair of reading glasses that lay on top of a pile of books, one of which was written by himself.
Unfortunately, she was the one who wanted something from him, not the other way around. She needed to cut the man some slack.
"May I ask why of all people you chose me to help you with this?" Riddle drawled, almost amused, putting a coaster under a fresh glass of fizzy water. The cup of coffee he had made for himself rested in his left hand. It hardly even trembled when he bowed down to draw out a wooden stool from underneath the desk. He sat the cup effortlessly on the only place on the table which wasn't covered with any documents or files and made just enough space for her to deposit her records.
It was clear that he wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of helping her out. She could read it not only in his tone and behaviour, but even more in the way he pressed his lips together and furrowed his brows. Or the way these long, perfect legs were crossed next to her. He was dominating the room, too.
Chin up, chest out, shoulders back, enigmatic smile. Clearly dominant posture. He feels annoyed for some reason. No, not exactly annoyed. Rather … doubtful.
"I was given this case myself just mere days ago. I would prefer to have another pair of eyes. A neutral doctor's. Take a look at it to see if you can catch something that no other has. This killer is highly unusual, so I need one of the best doctors around. And your records speak for themselves."
Flattery usually helped to ease the mood, but the man didn't take the bait. Instead, he took the first case from the pile in Hermione's lap, pushed the elegant reading glasses onto his nose and started to skim over the words and pictures.
The silence brought peace to the room and it felt strangely comforting to watch Riddle's facial muscles work in perfect unison. She leaned back in the, admittedly really comfortable, office chair and observed the way his grey eyes read over the lines with a rapidity she had seldom seen before.
She remembered that she had read, in one of the online articles that Google spit out, that he had attended Oxford and graduated with some of the highest grades ever, with the best first-class references one could hope for. For a split second, she wondered whether he ever strove for more than this position at St. Barts, publishing a book or two and making ingenious scientific discoveries now and then.
"No external corporal harm besides the obvious basal skull fracture, extensive abrasions on the skin and nasal wings. Perianal haematoma on both eyelids due to the removal of her eyeballs." His tone was casual, almost bored, while he recited the obvious wounds and his conclusions. Then he added thoughtfully, "It's a rarity, though, to see someone killing with such brutal force and yet such precision."
He arched a single, perfectly shaped eyebrow as soon as Hermione started to rummage through her bag. She had found her notebook easily, but the cheap ballpoint pen she used was missing from its usual spot. She gave a sheepish smile as long, slender fingers held a sleek, silver Montblanc pen out for her that looked far more expensive than the entire contents of her whole bag. She took it hesitantly and started to write down her notes.
Riddle's eyes fixed on hers again and he added, a tad cynical, "Usually, predators like him would more likely prefer to leave their victims in one piece to marvel at them. Such a rush of anger and rage that led him to smash their heads to a pulp doesn't match with the precision and patience he clearly showed while cutting the eyes out of the sockets."
"Well, he's no Charles Albright, that's for sure," Hermione snorted, fiddling with the clasp of the pen.
"No, he's not," Riddle replied reluctantly, frowning. He paused and then added, "How about Albert Fish?"
"Fish was a paedophile." She wrinkled up her nose in disgust, but writes the name in her book, nevertheless. More comparative data and analysis could always help the case. In the end, if he'd prove unnecessary she could just cross him from the list again.
"But his perversion and sadism resemble that of your cases, don't they?" Riddle prompted, taking a sip of his coffee. A challenge flashed through his pale grey eyes and Hermione was suddenly reminded of her time in college when she immersed in a debate. This felt like mental warfare and she realised that he wanted to test her intelligence.
"But Fish was a lust-killer. This one is … different." Her hands were still busy with the clasp of the pen and she had started to gesticulate with it, turning it between her fingers.
Voldemort is no lust-killer. He doesn't seek sexual satisfaction in his acts.
At this point, Hermione even doubted that he sought any emotional satisfaction in his kills.
"Oh?" The grin on Riddle's face widened. He lifted his chin even higher in the air.
Mimicking body language, firm and precise movements, straightened spine. What a clever man.
Hermione wished she could punch the smugness off his face.
"Well, it's too early to make assumptions of course, but nothing indicates towards anything of a sexual nature in his murders so far."
That seemed to be enough because the man returned his attention to the file in his hands.
"How do you know so much about the cases?"
He arched a perfectly curved eyebrow and regarded her with a side glance. "I read The Times, Agent Granger."
Of course you do.
Her hackles rose, but she didn't take the bait.
He closed the folder shortly afterwards and reached over the distance between them to hand her the copy back.
"For more precise answers I'll need to have a look at the corpse myself." Even while his voice was back to its usual distant tone, his posture was still attentively directed towards Hermione.
"That's impossible," she admitted hesitantly while shifting uncomfortably in the chair. Her tongue ran over her teeth. "No one knew at that point that the girl would be the first in a line of victims of a serial killer, so the parents cremated her."
For a split second Riddle's face went completely blank. Hermione wondered if he had some kind of neurology-based opinion on cremating; sometimes pathologists reacted strangely, almost attacked as soon as the topic came up.
He composed himself quickly enough though, before closing the discussion around Lavender Brown.
"Well, I'm afraid that on the basis of these pictures I can't tell you any further information." It almost sounded belligerent to her ears, but she didn't comment on it.
She flipped through her files and handed him Diggory's record, the thickest so far, and leaned back again to wait for further deductions. Riddle scanned the pictures, as well as the medical reports, and she wondered, not for the first time that day, what went on behind those highly vigilant eyes of his. Her gaze wandered over the piles of books and records on his desk. Medical books mixed with mythology ones and even a rare edition of Anais Nin. It was tempting her to run her fingers over the old leather.
"Even experienced and highly intelligent pathologists, like my humble self, can't deduce anything from victims with a burn above the fourth degree, besides the fore accelerant or the location of the impact of the explosion. An identification of the victim is extremely rare," he finally said, faster than Hermione expected.
"Depersonalisation of his environment seems to be an important subject in his works," she retorted immediately. But Riddle looked smug, his smile sharper than a butcher's knife, that fit perfectly with his high cheekbones. It was a mix between a sneer and a smile; Hermione wasn't sure if she should feel praised or offended.
"It's a superior form of art, Miss Granger. It's a concept that modern performance artists like Gormley or Abramovic love to push and showcase nowadays, but its roots go way back, in literature and human nature, too. Take Eliot's for example." He pushed his reading glasses up and tapped thoughtfully on the thin, metallic frame.
"If you're talking about T. S. Eliot's theory here, you need to include Freud's as well and then we have a whole other subject. Freud was clearly stating that every human being has the need to express their natural instincts through some form of neurosis, while T. S. Eliot was talking about the distance a poet brings between himself and the view presented in his poem - Eliot depersonalised himself in the act." She huffed and leaned forward, ready to defend her point of view if necessary.
But Riddle simply shook his head in some strange sort of sadistic amusement, and when he spoke his voice was darker than before, deeper, with a certain kind of bite at the edges.
"Eliot depersonalised his subject, not himself. It doesn't matter if we're talking about a poem or a contemporary art piece depicting the decay of the human body in modern times; in the end, both end up depersonalised and stripped of any connection that's left to the human world."
And Voldemort does the same.
Hermione's mind started to race. With a flick of her tongue, she wet her dry lips and suppressed the urge to tear on the sensitive skin there again.
If depersonalisation is not just a part of him that tries to bring distance between the victims and the world, instead, if it is some kind of way to arrange his murders so as to bring distance between himself and the victims, then it'd mean-
"So you're basically saying that he's trying to talk to us through his art?" She felt the dots connecting in her mind even before she could grasp the vital information herself.
"Merely offering another point of view. Wasn't that exactly what you were asking for, Miss Granger?" Riddle said, closing the file once more. He reached over the table, eyes fixed on her, almost hawk-like. Even though Hermione was busy scribbling down notes, she noticed the way his previous behaviour vanished under a cover of interest.
He almost sounded sorry when he added, "As far as identification goes, however, I'm afraid I won't be of much help, considering the state of the body."
"We already identified him," she shot right back, then added casually, once his eyes widened in surprise, "We were lucky that some of his fellow students could help us out. A DNA test confirmed it."
"Huh. What a coincidence." His tone was flat and didn't give much away, but Hermione didn't notice either way; she was too busy completing her notes before handing over the next two files. Riddle took the record out of her delicate hands and flipped it open, but his eyes rested secretly on the woman in front of him for a few more seconds. He observed the way she bent over her notebook, eyes transfixed on the words that came pouring out of the pen. His eyes traced the veins in her neck that were throbbing slightly faster than they were just mere minutes before. He savoured the moment, then focused on the folder in his hands.
"Our investigations reveal no clues about the murder weapon. I was hoping you could help me out with identifying it." The silver tip of the pen pointed to one of the pictures, which showed a terrible, weathered head on special foliage, with a small evidence-numbered place card right beside it. Riddle seemed to be searching for all the vital information in the files because it took some time before he spoke again.
"Clean, precise cuts. No fringes or shreds of skin on either side. No recesses, most likely dissevered in one blow. Knives and swords always leave behind little edgings of skin - no blade is sharp enough to make such a clean cut. Not even a guillotine. Besides, a guillotine would be rather incongruous for the murderer's needs. Hm." He stopped abruptly, and his pupils dilated for a split second. His face was strangely blank again, and the fake fluorescent light made him look unhealthy and even paler than before. When he finally spoke, his words were carefully chosen, almost weighed with a good portion of respect, "Your idea, Miss Granger?"
Hermione followed his indication and spotted the memo at the edge of the paper, small and in perfect, clean handwriting.
Steel rope, 0.6 diameters.
"Yes," she said, the lie on her tongue solid and firm. She didn't even blink. She didn't know who had written the memo, but she didn't really care at the moment. No one would mind if she'd borrow it.
Riddle leaned back, the file light in his hands, and gave her a calculating look.
"I'd definitely consider your method. It's an unusual method but it'd explain the clean ends on the stumps. Butchers often use this method to cut meat and steaks in perfect portions. It's also used in car repair workshops to cut windscreens out." When he spoke, his voice was dark and admiring, accompanied with a genuine note of respect.
His eyes darkened further and the balance in the room shifted noticeably for both. Hermione wet her lips once more. Had the air in the room been this stifling before? She took a sip of water, which had long stopped fizzing by now. All her attention was on Riddle, who leaned forwards now, clearly showing interest.
This man knew how to use his body. He was seductive, mesmerising; he was a weapon.
"However, to make a better deduction, I'd need a comparable cutting wire, as well as both parts of the body to examine." His voice finally cut through the tension in the room, and he added, almost immediately, words thick with sarcasm, "Please tell me the MI5 has at least these two corpses and their components to do a professional autopsy?"
"I'm afraid we don't," Hermione murmured, rasped almost, so she drank another gulp of water and then set the glass aside on the coaster. She suddenly felt hyper-aware of his presence around her, so she straightened up, cleared her throat twice, before addressing him again. "The murderer took the stumps from the second victim and the third… well, let's just say we haven't found the body, yet." She wouldn't dare say that they didn't have any hope of it turning up now, not after nearly ninety days. "I could arrange for you to take a look at the remaining body parts if that would help," she added hesitantly, while her fingers were busy toying with the clasp in her hand.
Riddle stopped her with a wave of his long, bony hand. A small frown appeared on his forehead and he said, lips pursed, "I'm afraid it won't. Without the stumps or the torso, it's almost impossible to deduce the murder weapon with certainty."
Nodding absentmindedly, she flipped through her notebook, which contained pages of differential equations as well as coding systems to break the code on the riddles, but also some questions she had put down for herself to remember later on. It was a bit disorganised and she decided to sort through it in the near future, when she found the page she was looking for.
"Is it possible, as a woman, to procure the required strength to chop someone's head off with the cutting wire? Or am I right in assuming that the killer must be male?"
"Well Miss Granger, Newton's Second Law teaches us that it's not a matter of the gender. Neither of them would be able to do it alone." There it was again, the flicker of something curious and dark, something challenging.
So does this means there are in fact several killers? No, that doesn't make sense. The profile clearly points to a single offender. Newton's Second Law… Wait. Force is the product of mass and acceleration. So that'd mean-
"The killer used the body weight along with high acceleration as some kind of mechanism to behead the victim," she said, voice barely above a whisper. Her right hand tightened around the silver metal clasp until her knuckles stood out, white.
"A human alone would never be able to find the strength to decapitate someone, as funny as it looks in the Sleepy Hollow movie. We always need a force or movement that provides the strength for the act. It doesn't matter if it is a woman or a man who pulls the trigger," he retorted smugly, the sly grin on his features almost invisible. Riddle, once again, looked strangely satisfied, which gave her the feeling of being in a tutorial rather than an MI5 consultation.
"And we don't have any lead to determine the secondary driving force behind it?" For a split second she kept her hopes up, but the man shook his head slowly. He leaned further towards her and grabbed the bright yellow post-it notepad, which brought an exquisite scent into Hermione's nose. His aftershave mingled with something else this time; the scent of a fresh and dewy cleaning agent that pleasantly tingled her nose and embedded itself in the back of her mind. It was delicious.
"Not if the torso is missing. With the aid of the body and the head together I could have determined what kind of force was needed to separate both body parts. With neither the body, nor the murder weapon, we don't have all the data needed for our equation." His fingers touched hers briefly, as he withdrew the pen from her hand. He started to draw and write an equation on the post-it notepad to explain his words. When he was finished, he took the liberty to pull the note off and give it to her along with the pen, before he concluded his theory. "It differs from the guillotine, where the weight of the body didn't matter."
Hermione took a look at the post-it in her hand.
F=m*a. Basic physics. What does he think I am? A child.
She huffed annoyed and stuck the note neatly in her notebook. She twirled the pen between her fingers; it was still warm.
"Well, if I remember correctly, the guillotine wasn't always reliable enough to kill a person with the first blow, either. Not to mention that I doubt that it'd leave clean edges," she said and lifted her gaze back to Riddle's pale grey eyes.
A dark chuckle left his lips and she spotted a row of perfect, white teeth. He seemed to think for a moment, then he said, perhaps a tad too enthusiastically, "Did you know that French doctors made some macabre experiments during the French Revolution? They took recently severed guillotined heads - which were a dime a dozen during that time - and exposed them to light and sound stimuli to document any possible reactions."
"What did they learn from it?"
The tension in the small office - better, storeroom - was thick and overwhelming, almost touchable by now, and she felt her pulse speed up whenever Riddle's dilated pupils wandered from her eyes to her neck, or worse, to her lips. She wet them in a ludicrous attempt to cool down the heat that had risen in her cheeks. When he finally spoke again, his voice was a dark rumble, almost seductive.
"What do you think, Miss Granger?"
She cleared her throat twice before dwelling on a reasonable response. She had read statements by several persons who had spoken of Riddle's impossible allure, an especially profound effect he had on anyone who dared to come too close to him.
Like a fatal attraction.
She felt almost like a fly caught in his web, but she wasn't ready to be the fly.
"I think modern medicine has proven to us that a head can't survive without its body," she finally replied and the answer must have been good enough because he nodded once, thoughtfully, and not as sharply as before, then leaned back again.
He observed the way she tapped the clasp against the files on her lap for a couple of seconds, "You can say decapitations run like a golden thread through art and literature alike. Caravaggio, Luini, Gyula - they all painted Salome with Saint John's head. Caravaggio also painted Judith Slaying Holofernes."
"Gentileschi drew that, too."
"Gentileschi had a whole other perspective of the female nature and power balance which she used in her work," he countered immediately, and even though the tension between them was still palpable, he refrained from misusing it again.
Hermione's eyebrows lifted, surprised.
He thinks women are equal to men; gender doesn't matter to him. That's rare, coming from someone in his field of work with so many privileges.
"I think we should keep that topic for another time. Is there anything else you want me to look at today?" Riddle added nonchalantly and far more conversationally than a few minutes ago. She noted that his posture had completely changed, too; his legs were no longer crossed anymore, his attitude still dominating, yet also intrigued.
Remus' case came to her mind and she could feel the weight of its presence in her bag, but the papers hadn't been approved for further investigations, yet. She shook her head and put the cap on the pen.
"No. That's about all for now."
Out of the corner of her eyes, she observed how he took the reading glasses off his perfect, straight nose to put them back on the table. She arranged the files neatly again, before placing them in her bag and when she closed the notebook in her lap her eyes fell on the outline of her leather wristwatch; it was almost 12:30 p.m.
The funeral must be long over and a quick glance at her silenced phone showed new messages from several people - Draco, Harry, Draco, her mother.
"Wow, I didn't notice how quickly the time went by," she murmured, and threw the notebook, along with the pen, hastily into her bag. "Thank you for your time, Doctor Riddle. This will be all."
"I'll give you my mobile number," he said and reached over her head into a hidden clothes rack, to pull a shining, silver étui out of his coat. It had a nice embossing on the top, some kind of emblem, with a snake that bit itself in the tail. He flipped it open with his index finger and revealed a set of high-quality business cards. He handed her one.
"Should there be any new questions don't be afraid to contact me again."
"You helped me already," Hermione took the card from his long fingers. The paper was heavy and thick, a creamy ivory colour, while his name stood out in black. It was minimalistic, yet mirrored him perfectly. She smiled and put the card into a special pocket on her bag, so it wouldn't fold or crease. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Doctor."
They shook hands once more and the warmth of his skin felt strangely comforting.
"The pleasure was all mine," Riddle said, letting go of her hand. He accompanied her to the door that led back into the hallways of the basement and he opened them chivalrously to let her pass. For a second he remained at the door and surveyed her thoughtfully. His voice was strangely strained, almost a bit excited, when he added as a final statement, "Let's hope this time you'll be one step ahead of him, Special Agent Granger."
A brief pause hung between them as Hermione left the room. She turned around once more to give him an encouraging smile, which was meant more for herself than the man before her. "I'm trying to. Have a nice day."
Hermione turned around and proceeded along the corridor at a fast pace. Her footsteps reverberated, hollow and noisy, from the walls. An uncomfortable chill gnawed at the back of her neck, almost as if someone was observing her.
She hadn't heard the door closing behind her. Neither did she dare to turn around and check.
The pen, however, rested warm and intrusive in her bag.
A body without a head - this spectacle terrifies and fascinates people since the beginning of time.
Did you know that a head can at least operate its motor skills for some seconds after decapitation? It is scientifically proven that a large number of decapitated people have blood deep in their respiratory tracts. Which is theoretically impossible, since the separation between head and body cuts any communication between the respiratory centre in the brain and the remaining peripheral nervous system. Any breathing activity should stop abruptly, as soon as the head is cut off.
However, during autopsies of decapitated people, we often find blood that continues to the pulmonary alveoli - for which a functioning brain is usually required.
Hence, it's ultimately proven that even victims which are killed by a train running over them are actually, for a split second, still alive.
Almost like chicken, when you decapitate them and their nervous system still works. They start to twitch and some of them even run without a head through the streets until they finally collapse from exhaustion.
Do you think Gregorovitch twitched, too?
Chapter 6: Chapter IV
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
Mammal. Primate. Homo Sapiens.
Humans are lower animals, a non-relevant species that lives by convincing themselves that they are some higher form of existence. No other species thrives on a sense of superiority alone, as does the human being.
Stuff food in your mouth during lunch hour.
Break bones and back for your family to make a living.
Satisfy your partner in bed so they won't cheat on you.
Wake up. Work. Get home. Wash. Sleep.
Humans are in a frenzy.
Like puppets, they're letting society pull their strings, trying to reach the next level.
No one is truly satisfied with what they were born with.
It's a myth.
Humans always long to be more.
It's simply in their nature.
Humans need. Humans crave. Humans ruin.
And so the cycle continues.
Three Broomsticks Nightclub
Friday, 22nd August
33 days until the next murder
"Listen, I've already told your colleagues everything I remember the last three times they've asked me."
The metallic clatter of the tray was barely audible over the deafening vibrations caused by rhythmic drums that made up the background noise of the nightclub and sounded like the beat of a 90s house song. Parvati Patil looked tired, Hermione noticed, as the girl pushed a strand of blue-dyed hair behind her ear. Her dry complexion was accentuated by a fine layer of makeup on her dark brown skin, while slightly violet circles were visible under her eyes; not even the thick layer of concealer could cover them. With one hand, the girl wiped over her sweat-covered forehead.
The Three Broomsticks would open in a few hours; the DJ was already setting up his equipment and Hermione could see the manager of the nightclub running around with his phone glued to his ear. The club wasn't exactly exclusive, but the last few months had been good for business. People talk.
"Miss Patil, please be assured that we wouldn't ask these questions if they weren't absolutely necessary."
Parvati Patil was a skinny, Indian woman, who looked far younger than she really was; their information said twenty-six, but Hermione felt certain that she was barely of age. A little silver ring pierced her nose and the girl brushed her knuckles against it each time a new question was raised by either Hermione or Draco.
The internal turmoil was visible on the girl's face while she was busy wiping the bar counter with an old, white rag. She gripped it harder than needed. Again, the brush against the nose ring.
"Miss Patil, you were the last person who saw Lavender before she encountered her killer. Please, help me close this case." Softly, Hermione laid her hand on Parvati's and stilled her wiping movement.
Parvati froze. She studied Hermione with apprehension and narrowed her dark brown eyes to slits. They stared at each other for a while; Parvati growing calmer, Hermione growing more impatient. A nagging voice in the back of her head reminded her constantly that lives were at stake here – it was hard to fake composure when you had such a burden on your shoulders.
The girl behind the counter, however, seemed to finally grasp the urgency of Hermione's tone. Parvati sighed and nodded weakly, before chucking the old rag under the counter. She rounded the bar and sat down on one of the stools. Nervously, she wet her lips twice. "All right, all right. I'll try my best but… it's been so long, I don't really know how I can be of assistance. I barely remember anything."
Different neon colours, blurred and hazy, cast Parvati's face in shadow as someone adjusted the spotlights. Eyes wide, arms crossed, chin down; she looked scared.
A second later they passed and the tinted ceiling lights dipped the room into a soft, yellow glow again.
"Just tell us what you know," Hermione prompted cautiously, taking her notebook out of her pocket. She searched for a pen and grabbed a sleek, silver one that stopped her dead in her tracks. Slowly she pulled it out and watched with growing horror as the recognition sunk in. On its front, in swirling, curved letters was Dr Riddle's name.
Oh God. I stole his pen.
"We had an appointment," Parvati started hesitantly. Hermione grabbed another pen and flipped to an empty page in her notebook. She started writing.
"You know, we didn't have a lot of contact in the months before– before–" The girl made a vague gesture in the air.
"Before she died?" said Draco, helpfully.
Parvati took a deep breath and swallowed. Another weak nod.
"Yeah." She wet her lips again and continued. "She was always busy. Law school. Her internship. We've known each other since third grade. Been friends ever since. So when she called me the day before- and said she felt lonely, I just – I thought it'd be good for her to–" Parvati's eyes glistened with tears; blurring her vision. She furiously brushed them away.
No, she's not annoyed. She feels guilty.
"Miss Patil–" Hermione started, but Parvati raised a hand and stopped her mid-sentence. The girl swallowed and took another breath.
"I know what you want to say, Agent Granger. I've received the pity and heard all those insincere words of comfort already. Save it." She flexed both hands over her thighs, which were clad in black skinny jeans. "I told her I was free at 11 p.m. Lavender showed up around 9 p.m and asked me to make her a Bloody Mary. She ordered a second one right after and went to the dance floor. I lost sight of her shortly after."
"How many people were here that night?" Draco asked.
"I don't know," Parvati replied, with a sigh. "Around 300 maybe. We had a lot less traffic back then compared to now, but 200 at least."
"And you didn't see her after that?" Hermione asked as she wrote the times down in her notebook, marvelling at how they matched the ones in the case folders. Even though they were similar she noted them down, since she liked to have her own notes ready at hand, too.
"She came back to the bar at around 10. She said she'd met someone and well... she asked if I'd mind delaying our plans for the next day. I said that I wouldn't and that she should go and have fun. She was so overworked that I thought it'd be good for her to just let it go for a while, you know?"
"Did she mention anything about the person she had met?"
Parvati thought about it, but shook her head slowly – then suddenly she halted mid-movement, as if she had just remembered something.
"What is it?"
"N-Nothing. Just…" Another brush against the nose. "She didn't say his name or where they wanted to go, which was pretty obvious at that point, you know? But… she said something really strange."
Hermione looked up at that. "What was it?"
Rattled, the girl started to fidget with a yellow elastic bracelet around her thin wrist; she pulled at it and let it snap back against her skin several times, until it looked raw, red and swollen.
The nervousness increases.
"His eyes." A flick of a wet tongue over her dry lips. "She mentioned his eyes. She said they were– wait, what did she say? Piercing. Yeah, she said piercing. As if his eyes alone could kill."
A rather macabre metaphor in light of her death.
Wordlessly, Hermione jotted the piece of information down in her notebook.
"Anything else? Colour perhaps?" Draco was flexing his hand rhythmically beside her. Parvati shook her head in defeat once more. Suddenly, the girl looked more exhausted than ever. Her dark skin had taken on a strange ashen colour, and her eyes were still red and glazed from withholding tears. There was nothing more to press the girl with, except...
Hermione fished a couple of pictures out of her pocket. "Just one more question, Parvati." The girl took the pictures carefully out of Hermione's grasp, with cold and sweaty hands. Her nails were brittle and had been bitten here and there. "Take a look at these pictures. Do you recognise anyone?"
Patil looked at the pictures diligently, but then she passed them back to Hermione. Not a flicker of recognition had crossed her face.
"I'm sorry. No one seems familiar."
She hasn't met any of them before.
"All right." With a crestfallen sigh, Hermione took the pictures back and put them away. Draco gave her a sideways glance, but made no further comment.
Parvati cleared her throat. "Is that all? The club will open up in an hour and I still have a lot to do until then." The girl on the bar stool looked incredibly small. By then, her exhaustion was almost palpable.
"Yes, Ms Patil. Thank you for your cooperation." Hermione nodded and tried to muster up an encouraging smile.
Parvati was up and behind the counter before anyone could have said another word.
It must be hard to blame yourself.
Draco was the first to turn around and leave the obscure building. Hermione followed closely behind.
They were both greeted by fresh air and bright sunlight as they left the world of the Three Broomsticks behind them. Draco inhaled deeply and pushed all the air out of his lungs with a single breath. He turned around, fixing his gaze on her face; his eyes shimmered warm and golden, reflecting the sunlight. But the cool shade of icy-grey that lingered beyond gave them a tainted, almost muddy look. Nevertheless, they were still beautiful.
"So, piercing eyes, huh?"
"Well," Hermione started and took a black, satin, elastic hair tie out of her pocket to gather her hair in a complicated looking knot. "Psychopaths often make very intense eye contact with their chosen victims. Depending on gender, preferences or even eye colour, people may feel strongly attracted to a psychopath. Victims often report this kind of looks to resemble that of a predator about to consume their prey – 'reptilian gaze', 'laser beam stare' and the infamous 'piercing' eyes are just a few names for this phenomenon."
"So let me guess, women often confuse this gaze with sexuality and find it attractive."
"Just for the record, men are affected by it as well."
"Yeah," Draco snorted and pushed a pair of silver Ray-Ban aviators up his aristocratic nose. "Still creepy."
"Well, many films depict seductive yet immoral creatures as having a very strong, psychopathic stare. Psychopaths are parasitic after all – almost like vampires."
They reached their separate cars and Draco stopped right beside Hermione, his face showing disbelief.
"So what, you're telling me that Edward Cullen was a psychopath now?"
For the first time, in what felt like forever, Hermione felt the weight of the dead lifting from her shoulders. She threw her head back, baring her throat and laughed.
The soft smile playing on Draco's lips was entirely worth it.
Hepzibah Smith's old flat
Saturday, 23rd August
32 days until the next murder
At first glance, Isleworth looked like any other London suburb. The truth, however, revealed itself once you saw past the manicured lawns and white, picket fences. At the far end of the town, Twickenham Road had plenty of older brick houses; rusty buildings crammed together without the usual suburban flair. Moss broke through from between the concrete slabs and not even the warm August sun could brighten up the cold neighbourhood.
Hermione exited her car and closed the old door with enough force that the whole vehicle shook. The second round of interrogations of Lavender's parents and the staff of the law firm hadn't brought forth any new clues. In fact, Hermione hadn't believed for a second that they'd just randomly stumble across some new evidence. The officers working on this case were professionals and had years of experience under their belts. Sometimes, though, trying to put yourself into the victim's shoes by reconstructing their lives as best as possible helped a profiler to get a clearer picture of the killer.
Hepzibah Smith had led a lonely life in Isleworth. She had shared the block of flats with five other families; her's was the third flat on the right. Unfortunately, none of the original tenants was still living here, aside from the janitor. People had taken to calling it the 'House of Hell', even though she hadn't been killed here. Nowadays, word spread fast and with the aid of the internet, the police weren't always able to withhold all critical information. On top of that, Hepzibah's, as well as Lavender's, old flat had a new tenant by now, making the situation even more difficult.
Shouldering her bag with one hand and typing on her iPhone with the other, the girl stepped onto the tiny, dirty, overgrown path that led to the house.
You're sure you don't need me?
11:21 a.m, DM
I can handle this. Is the weekly Malfoy family dinner getting out of control?
11:45 a.m, HG
You should send me words of encouragement so I don't end up murdering someone.
11:45 a.m, DM
Just remember there's no Netflix in prison.
11:46 a.m, HG
Smiling, she put the phone away and knocked on the janitor's door. The door opened just an inch and an old, wrinkled eye regarded her suspiciously from within.
"Mr Filch?" Hermione asked, and took her badge out of her back pocket. "I'm Special Agent Hermione Granger from the MI5. May I come in and ask you some questions, sir?"
The pale eye widened considerably, but he shut the door. Hermione could hear the metallic clatter of a door being unlocked before Filch fully opened the door again.
Argus Filch, as Hermione knew from the records, was a strange creature. Tall, but bent over, he was almost at eye level with Hermione; his curved back gave the old man a crow-like appearance. His hair hung down in filthy, grey clumps; almost thin enough to look through. Spots and wrinkles were visible on his skin. He had prominent bags under his eyes and the dark circles were so violet they looked bruised; the white of his eyes was as yellow as the couple of teeth he still had left. Instead of moving aside to let her in, he just stood there and stared at her; like the reincarnation of an Irish gnome. Hermione sighed.
"Mr Filch, I want to talk to you about Hepzibah Smith–"
"Smith, you say? Never liked her. But at least she had been a good tenant; kept the staircase clean and always knew the dates for the litter service. No loud music, no special visitors at night. Not like Peeves, the little punk who lives in her flat now. What a waste." The man had an Irish accent and he slurred the words while talking in such a high-pitched voice that it became difficult for Hermione to follow him. As if to prove a point he jerked his head up towards the staircase and clicked his tongue. "The scum doesn't even pay his rent on time. Can't you do something against that, officer?"
"Special Agent, sir," Hermione said with a sigh. Perhaps Draco had been right about nothing good coming from this. "And I'm afraid that's not my division."
"Ah, yeah you wanna know about Smith, the kidnapper huh? I told your colleagues already, everything I knew."
Kidnapping? There had been no remark about a kidnapping – not in the entire record.
Filch snorted snarkily, but stayed silent. A grey-striped cat appeared between his legs and the man picked her up in his arms with the greatest care Hermione had ever witnessed.
"Poor Mrs Norris here had to endure half a day in Smith's flat before daddy found her - yes, my sweet, daddy found you, didn't he?" His hand was constantly busy fondling the cat's fur. The animal thanked his efforts by rubbing her head along his arm.
Great. I'm talking to a crank. This will lead to nothing.
Forcing an investigation under these circumstances would lead to false information from the victims, perhaps even to false facts in the murderer's profile. Hermione couldn't risk that – not every piece of information obtained could help in an investigation. Visiting old neighbours or family members could help to create a better profile, but that did not always help the case.
Sometimes, it was better to stick to the simple facts.
And well, Filch was obviously one of those kinds of neighbours, ones that lived to snoop and gossip about you as soon as they had the chance.
"Mr Filch," Hermione interrupted his heart-breaking monologue about the kidnapping of Mrs Norris. "I'm sorry, sir, but could you take a look at these pictures, please? Have you seen any of these faces around perhaps?" Not giving him the chance to protest – or worse continuing his kidnapping-story – Hermione pressed the same pictures into his hands that she had given to Parvati before.
They were simple photos, about three inches high – enlarged passport photographs of all the victims, including Remus. For a profiler, pictures were important to form a bond with the victim. To connect. Hermione liked to know about the wrinkles and creases on someone's face – as well as their habits or quirks. Understanding your victims was usually the first step in understanding the killer. Perhaps some relative would see a connection to one of the victims. It would be a start, at least.
Filch's eyes darted over the pictures, not really paying attention to the details. He dismissed everything with a quick glance and pulled back his shoulders, pressing Mrs Norris to his thin chest in the process. The cat mewled, satisfied.
"Never seen them around here. Are these the suspects?"
"No." She put the pictures and her badge away. "These are the other victims." That silenced the man, even if it was just for a while. There was no pity in his pale eyes.
What a sad world.
"I'll take my leave now, Mr Filch. Sorry for taking up your time."
Argus Filch had had nothing to offer. Malfoy had been right, this was a complete waste of time. She turned around to leave when–
"Will you do anything about the kidnapping now?"
Hermione stopped dead in her tracks and looked slowly up again, where the man was still leaning against the doorframe, the cat tightly held in his hands. Hesitantly, she said, "Mr Filch, Ms Smith is already dead. There's nothing I can do about … the kidnapping."
"But someone needs to be punished." The man watched her eerily, his pale eyes even wilder in the half shadows of the staircase.
He can't be serious?
Hermione sighed deeply and rubbed her face. This was really not what she had signed up for when she'd started studying criminology.
London Metropolitan University
Monday, 25th August
30 days until the next murder
Draco arrived twenty minutes late; she could hear the engine of his car as soon as he rounded the corner. The car was a sleek, black monster with a wide-mouthed lower bumper, smoke-patterned rims, white stripes like a racecar and other minor tweaks – just as pretentious as its owner. Recaro bucket seats, wrapped in an expensive material, held Malfoy in between; he stopped the car right in front of her in the no-parking zone.
An Aston Martin. Of course.
It was the first thing Hermione threw at him, once he finally stepped out of the car. Draco didn't let her harsh tone bother him but instead closed the car with a button on his keys. Slipping into his leather jacket, he came to a halt beside Hermione, who was still leaning against the dusty bonnet of her Volkswagen Beetle.
"Morning, sunshine. I'm still amazed your rust bucket made it through all these years." He flashed her a row of perfect, white teeth – probably bleached. "Isn't the job paying you enough to get a decent car at least?"
"Perhaps, I just don't see the appeal of paying for designer things when the normal stuff does its job just as well. Besides, the car still works fine–"
"You said so back in university too." He ignored her statement from before and jerked his head in the general direction of the London Metropolitan University. "Ready to go?"
Boy, was he grating on her nerves. Annoyed, she pushed herself off the car and made her way across the campus. She could hear his footsteps echoing in sync with her own on the gravel a second later. They didn't talk again until they reached Flitwick's office.
"Special Agents Granger and Malfoy," Draco said, as soon as the professor opened the door. He flipped his badge open, long enough for the professor to see the shiny, golden medal, before he put it back in the back pocket of his skinny jeans. "We have a few questions we would like to ask you."
Filius Flitwick eyed them both over the rim of his round glasses as he opened the door eagerly. He gestured enthusiastically with his unoccupied hand and waved them in.
"Ah, yes, we spoke on the phone, didn't we? Please come in, my time is precious and I don't want to waste a single minute." He didn't even wait for their answers, but turned around and marched right back into the room. Draco shrugged beside her and closed the door once they had entered.
Flitwick was a small man; a thin, brown patch of hair laid flat on his head and covered the growing baldness that showed on the back only sparsely. A rather impressive straight nose held his glasses up over dark brown eyes, while the man shuffled books and papers energetically into his dark leather satchel.
"I knew you'd return sooner or later– not that your colleagues haven't done a great job already, but since his office is still closed for further investigations I figured I haven't seen the last of you. Nice to see you again Mr Malfoy – you look good, been on a holiday recently?"
It was startling to hear the man talk with such rapidity in such a short period of time without stumbling over the words. Draco made a weak affirmative noise from the side, but the man was already talking again, all the while moving books around on his desk.
"But let's get back to Gregorovitch - glorious, brilliant Gregorovitch - do you know how many lessons I have had to cover now that he's gone? This university has been understaffed for a few years, and God forbid if we talk about hiring another teacher; the administration would rather spend more money on the useless netball team than use it for another tutor. When the director asked who would take on Gregorovitch's lessons I was the only one who dared to give it a try – and I haven't even studied chemistry. How sad is this?"
Sarcasm has it hard on him, huh?
Hermione blinked, confused. Then, she asked incredulously, her voice a whole octave higher than usual, "Wait, you haven't even studied chemistry?"
"Of course not, I studied history and linguistics. But I had perfect chemistry grades during high school. And I have faith in myself that I can do it. Besides, the students need me now. More than ever."
During your short life span, you meet a whole range of different people. Hermione knew this all too well. As a profiler, you are trained to notice a person's quirks and edges. To learn their habits, their ways, their thinking patterns. To study them. But one thing Hermione was absolutely sure of: she had never met a person as utterly self-centred as Filius Flitwick. Sadly, the man thought himself to be some kind of saint; scientists called this kind of behaviour covert narcissism. Covert narcissists are very good at pretending. They pretend in order to get what they want, be it power, success, money, fame – they are the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing.
Typical aggressive behaviour – no, annoyance. Gregorovitch was popular amongst the students and a rather admired colleague – Flitwick seems to hold a grudge. But would he be capable of killing Gregorovitch?
The little man descended from a wooden stool and battered the dust off his knees. Then, he continued right away. "You shouldn't waste your time with the Voldemort cases, I'm sure he wasn't a victim of this lunatic. I knew that something would happen sooner or later; keep coming drunk to your lessons and–"
"Why do you think that?" Hermione interrupted the man mid-sentence and got a rather nasty glance from the small man in return.
"Well, I didn't want to say anything, but you leave me no choice. I see things, Miss Granger." Flitwick rolled his eyes as he approached her, until the peaks of his polished shoes nearly brushed Hermione's. "Mykew Gregorovitch was not just a simple tutor. He was involved with the Bratva."
Three things happened simultaneously after this statement: Hermione glanced dumbly towards her partner, Draco beside her just rubbed his face in annoyance and Flitwick in front of her still nodded to himself as if he had said something momentous. Annoyed, she bit back a comment and let a long, noisy breath out of her nose.
Lord give me patience or an untraceable gun.
London Metropolitan University
Monday, 25th August
30 days until the next murder
"I've never seen any of them, I'm afraid." The boy handed the pictures back to Hermione. He was honest, that much could she tell, but she felt like he was still keeping something from her. She remembered his name from one of the records.
Oliver Wood. He plays netball, goalkeeper. Saw Gregorovitch on the day of his disappearance. Said he was throwing some balls with a friend on the courtyard then. Height and build could match, but the boy's far too mediocre and not bright enough to kill Gregorovitch.
"Okay," Hermione said with a sigh and added with a small smile, "Thanks for helping me out, Mr Wood. Have a nice day."
She was already turning around when the boy stopped her with a hand on her elbow.
Hesitantly, he retracted his hand and scratched at his clean-shaven nape, reluctance reflected in his stance. The boy nibbled at his lips. Granted, he looked rather posh, clothed in designer jeans and a white Yves Saint Laurent polo shirt, his skin a flawless mask that screamed of upper society, with a golden - no, honey brown - choirboy hairdo.
"My mother always says you shouldn't speak bad of the dead–"
You don't say.
"–but well, you know, people talk." Oliver stopped and wet his lips; his hand was still busy at his nape, scratching nervously. "Some say that Gregorovitch would give you special treatment if he liked you."
This boy is no threat. This boy is a goody-two-shoes.
"Yeah." Quickly, he glanced around, as if to make sure no one was paying attention to them, before he continued, "Well, I won't mention any names but– he was giving out dope."
Hermione's eyes widened in surprise.
There were cracks here. She just had to make sure she found them.
London Metropolitan University, Gregorovitch's office
Monday, 25th August
30 days until the next murder
"Wood was right." Hermione pointed to a perfect row of plants which stood on the windowsill of Gregorovitch's office, standing together like an army of dope. "He really did have cannabis."
Draco snorted and didn't even look up from his place at the bookshelf, where he was pulling out book after book to flip through. "I doubt any one of the students will confess that their teacher drugged them."
Hermione hummed in agreement, then turned around and focused on Gregorovitch's old desk.
The room was sticky and stale – no one had aired it in the last month. A trace of the pungent odour of moss was lingering in the air, alongside the typical, rotten smell of something that was dead. Gregorovitch's study was neither large nor comfortable – it gave the feeling of something ancient. Dark, walnut wood all around made the already small room seem even smaller. Books and papers were scattered all over the place and a couple of dirty cups were already stuck to the wooden surface of the table.
What a mess.
Draco sat down on an old, ragged leather couch that presided in the corner and threw a hideous tartan Oxford over the armrest.
"Were there more lying clothes around when you were here the first time?"
"Yeah, I think another shirt and a couple of ties. The forensics took them to see if the DNA matches the one from the head."
"So he probably slept here."
"Brilliant deduction, Granger," Draco drawled amused, his lips curving into a taunting smile. "I see the Commonwealth hired you for your amazing powers of observation and keen attention to details. Perhaps you should read the records once more, I pointed this out already."
"Oh fuck you, Draco," Hermione muttered, pushing a wild caramel brown lock behind her ear; it didn't stay there and sailed down her cheek again. She hadn't meant to attack him this bluntly, but god, did he grate on her nerves sometimes. He didn't need to remind her about his intelligence. She knew that all too well.
Draco wit-is-my-middle-name Malfoy smirked at her from the other side of the room. He watched her from beneath his half-lidded bedroom eyes, and lowered his voice deliberately a whole octave.
A sudden deep, peachy blush crept onto her cheeks and coloured her creamy skin. She was momentarily furious and lashed back, both hands pressing down on the cool wood of Gregorovitch's desk.
"Instead of throwing around half-hearted innuendos you should make yourself useful and search for something that will help move the case forward." With a sharp twirl, she turned around and started to go through the drawers, paying no attention to the man on the other side of the room. She was furious and her mind was clouded by anger.
About time to calm down.
Draco eventually got up and examined the rest of the books and shelves. She could feel his grin on the nape of her neck. She ignored it.
They searched in silence for a while. Silence was fine with her. Her mind was already racing – not just because of Wood's remark, but because she needed to focus on putting herself into Gregorovitch's shoes.
Hermione was already going through the last drawer and was just about to close it, when she saw an unusual indentation, not bigger than a knife point, between the bottom and the front of the drawer.
Could it be...?
Carefully, she took the sleek, silver letter opener from the desk and pushed it into the small opening. A single, strong push was enough and the thin piece of wood indulged her. Hidden beneath was a second compartment with a variety of letters; medical bills, hospital bills, examination records.
"Draco, look," she called him over, as she flipped through the pages. He stood behind her and read the letters over her shoulder.
"So, Gregorovitch was sick."
Hermione shook her head and said impatiently, "No, not just sick. He was seriously ill."
Dihydroergotamine. Triptans. Patient requires nerve blocking anaesthetics and pure Oxygen inhalations–
"Cluster headaches," she whispered slowly, her voice barely audible in the room. Draco took the papers out of her hands and flipped through them himself before he handed them back with a sharp nod.
"Yeah. Judging by the dosages, they had been getting worse during the past six months."
Hermione nodded hesitantly and packed the papers away.
"It explains the cannabis–"
But something felt off. Something itched her; a nagging suspicion that something was still lingering under the surface. Something she hadn't cracked yet. She wet her lips and started to chew her chapped lower lip.
"–but it could also change the profile. Were any other victims sick?"
Draco narrowed his eyes but seemed to catch onto her trail of thought pretty fast because the pale grey of his irises widened a moment later.
"I don't think so. Neither the forensics nor we have found anything."
"We should make sure to verify that."
Because if the illness is important to the killer, it means he kills people who are already pretty much dead. This would make him some kind of Angel of Death, which narrows down the profile quite a bit. The medical experience would speak for him once again.
"Kind of ironic how he was killed, don't you think so?"
"Ironic or intended."
Beheading. Cluster headaches. Yeah, Voldemort does seem like the type for this kind of inside joke.
"Did you know," Draco started again, leaning his long body against the desk, "that beheadings were actually reserved for the upper class? At least after the guillotine had been invented. Having a fast and nearly painless death was what the rich people wanted for themselves. Thieves and murderers were usually killed in a far more painful way."
This piqued Hermione's interest.
"So you think he used a guillotine?"
"Why not? It would be easy if you know how. Just a couple of wooden pillars, a rope and a sheet of metal from the next hardware store."
"I'll have to pass on that. I'll take my chances with the steel rope."
"Steel rope?" Draco looked up, surprised.
"Yes." The girl raised her nose triumphantly in the air and smiled defiantly. "A steel rope would explain the clean cuts."
"Oh?" Amused, Draco crossed his arms over his chest and flashed his pearl white teeth like a shark's bite at Hermione. The grin spread wider across his face as he tilted his chin upwards. "By all means, please explain how you came to that conclusion."
Something was off about the way he said it, as if he knew more than Hermione was aware of. It ticked her off and challenged her inner know-it-all.
"For one, the head was most likely dissevered in one blow. But no blade is sharp enough to make such a clean cut without leaving behind little edgings of skin – not even a guillotine. I consulted a specialist on that subject–"
"You consulted a specialist? Who?"
"Doctor T. M. Riddle. He's pre-eminent in the field of human decay and–" But Hermione couldn't finish her sentence because Draco had already rolled his eyes in disgust and snorted in a way that showed his contempt. His whole posture shifted from nonchalant to tense in under five seconds.
"Riddle doesn't even live up to his reputation."
"Doctor Riddle. And I don't think you're in the position to judge someone like him, Draco." She pushed a single brown curl behind her ear, the one that always slipped free. Her tone was defensive – belligerent – but by all means, she couldn't hold it back anymore. Who was Draco to judge?
Draco, however, was fairly unimpressed and appeared more annoyed than ever. Hermione couldn't quite understand where this sudden anger and hate was coming from, but it seemed to radiate from the blond in waves. He was pissed.
"Riddle's a farce, Hermione. You, as a profiler, should have noticed it." Draco fixed his eyes on her and clicked his tongue. He clenched his teeth until his jaw was unusually pale.
"You don't even know him!" Voice jarring, her exclamation echoed loudly in the stuffy, abandoned room. Draco observed the way her shoulders rose and her breath hitched from the sudden rage that flared up in her; her face brightened up to a delicate, dark red and he suppressed the urge to wrap his long, slender fingers around her chin and cheeks and push her dainty lips up to meet his. He blinked.
With a dismissive wave of his hand, he turned around, throwing the papers on the desk. All Hermione could see, was his leather-clad back that disappeared behind the door as soon as it closed. As the minutes passed, she finally took a deep breath and rubbed her hands over her tired eyes, before she started to put Gregorovitch's letters in special evidence bags that she always kept in her purse for such occasions.
What's the matter with him? Why does Riddle rile him up so much?
The scent of Draco's far too expensive aftershave still clung to the inside of her nostrils, long after he was gone.
Wednesday, 27th August
28 days until the next murder
They were sitting pressed close together on a monstrous double couch that was coated in a creamy, pastel coloured cotton cover to protect the fabric from possible dirt and dust. Across from them, Mrs Diggory was sobbing uncontrollably into her already wet handkerchief, while Mr Diggory held her tiny hand between his own. They were both still devastated by the death of their only son.
Meeting relatives tended to make it difficult for a profiler to distance yourself emotionally from a case. Keeping a level head when facing people who loved the victims is imperative – your own personal emotions should never taint the act of gathering evidence and facts to complete your profile. On that account, Hermione tried to suppress any feelings that cropped up inside of her at the sight of Diggory's parents.
Somewhere an old grandfather clock chimed two o'clock.
"I don't want to interrupt you, Mrs Diggory," Hermione started hesitantly, observing the way the woman pushed another plate of citrus scones towards Hermione and Draco, "but we really need to have a look at Cedric's room now." Draco beside her stilled in his movements as he leaned forward to grab another biscuit and watched her with a mixture of confusion and amazement.
Perhaps he thinks I'm impolite. Well, I don't care.
If you find the cracks in something, you need to push until it breaks. If you can't find any cracks, keep searching.
The Diggorys didn't present any cracks to push into right now. That's why Hermione needed to see Cedric's room.
Mrs Diggory pursed her lips and straightened her back. The incredibly complex knot on the top of her head looked flawless and severe, not a single hair was sticking out of it. Age had clearly nothing on the woman's face, who still looked like she was in her mid-thirties. Mr Diggory looked far older by now with a flat, lifeless patch of grey hair on his head. Both of them were still clothed in black, their grief palpable in the thick air around them.
"Of course. Please follow me." Mr Diggory rose from his place and accompanied both of them up to Cedric's room on the second floor. There was a strange tension between them and Hermione was glad when the man took his leave and she could close the door behind him. Once inside Cedric's room, she pressed herself against his door and took a single, deep breath.
The air in the room was neither stuffy, nor did it smell of death like Gregorovitch's study did. In fact, Cedric's room looked, surprisingly, completely the same as it did in the pictures in her case file.
They've made a shrine out of it. Parents often tend to do this once their only child dies to preserve their memories.
A book about sports medicine laid properly beside the keyboard of his iMac. Hermione flipped through the post-its that flooded out of it, but nothing special was to be seen.
"The forensics confirmed the use of a combustive agent when they analysed the debris from the blaze with a gas chromatograph."
"A what?" With a thud, she closed the thick tome in her hands and turned around to face Draco, who was in the middle of checking out Cedric's drawers.
He looked up once he felt her gaze tingling the little strands of hair in his nape and shrugged, his tone nonchalant.
"A gas chromatograph. Snape said they use it to separate different substances from each other. Different materials have different boiling points. A chromatograph can point them out."
"Huh." She watched Malfoy curiously and observed how he turned back to the drawers again to keep looking for anything that might connect the cases. They had already asked the Diggory's before, but none of them had recognised any of the other victims. Draco busied himself with going through Cedric's mail once he had finished looking through the drawers. Sometimes, the man was a mystery to her.
The room was spacious, but rather modestly furnished. There was nothing extraordinary or rebellious that personified Cedric; everything looked too clean, too perfect for his age. His wardrobe was filled with tons of different jerseys, all of them in the bright colours of the Chudley Cannons. Nibbling at her lower lip, Hermione examined the rest of the room with a rather clinical view. She ended up at the window and watched an idle breeze rustling the reddish foliage of a nearby cherry tree.
Wait, didn't Marcus Flint say something about a campus party?
Flipping through the record to Flint's testimony, she read it twice.
So if Cedric really wanted to go to the party, as Flint claimed, and his parents last saw him at 8 p.m, that means that he could have just climbed down the tree and made his exit that way, instead of going through the front door – a bit cliché, but still possible. This means that Cedric could have been abducted on his way to the party, too.
"Was it Cedric's car?"
"Yes. Brand-new. His parents had just paid for it."
"So this Flint guy," Hermione started, and turned around to face her partner again, who was still busy with Cedric's wardrobe, "was he honest during his testimony?"
Draco gave an affirmative grunt and murmured, "Yeah. Don't think he lied. After all, he was still on probation when Cedric was found."
"Cambridge takes convicts now?"
"He's not a student at Cambridge. He's just someone that Cedric knew."
What? You don't say. Seems like Cedric wasn't the good old goody-two-shoes mummy and daddy think he was.
"Why do you ask?"
With a jerk of her head, Hermione nodded to the tree that grazed Cedric's window.
"Do you think he could have climbed that?"
Draco appeared beside her and took a long look at the tree, before leaning against the window frame and shrugging.
"Who knows? Reminds me of an American teen film, you know?"
"Your obsession with films never ceases to amaze me, Malfoy."
Draco huffed and twisted his mouth into a pout, but didn't say anything else. Hermione took it as a win.
"I think we have everything we can get." Hermione completed the notes on her notebook and put the pen, as well as the pad, back into her bag. Cocking her head to one side, she looked back at Draco, who was still leaning against the windowsill. "We need to start on Remus' case now. I think I have a good idea of the murder profile so far."
"So we should start with Potter and Black then."
"Yeah, and maybe Harry and Lily, too," she mused, more to herself.
"You really think saint Potter can help you there?"
Oh yeah, the feud. I almost forgot.
"We'll see. I can talk to him alone if it bothers you so much. Considering your history. Tell me, how many times did Harry beat you at tennis?"
"He didn't beat me. It was a draw."
A snide snort was the only thing that came her way from the man beside her and she couldn't help the grin that spread over her features and lightened up her eyes. Her wild, untamed hair was still entwined in thick curls and they fell around her face in cascades.
Draco was mesmerised; he wet his lips unconsciously and raised his hand, almost as if to brush her hair behind her ear – but Hermione turned around without noticing. Her phone started to chime with the ludicrous melody apple devices are set to use and she took the call without a second glance, signalling him to wait for a second.
"Doctor Riddle, thank you for returning my call so soon. I have a question that–" The rest of her voice was drowned as soon as the door clicked shut.
Draco's hand stopped mid-air and dropped, clenching at his side. Riddle. Of course.
He sighed, deeply. "What are you doing to me, Granger?"
He waited for another five minutes. Then, he followed her silently out of the room.
Have you ever killed someone?
You should try it.
Humans are so … fragile. So extinguishable.
How often have you thought about killing your annoying neighbour who washes his car every Sunday at 8 a.m? How often have you thought about wringing your mother-in-law's neck when she nags you? Your boss? Your siblings? Your spouse? Your children?
A lot of people fantasise about it, but they'd never do it.
They follow reason and so-called common sense like all the other human beings on the planet.
Can you imagine how satisfying it feels to see the light in someone's eyes die out? To feel their last breath rattle under your fingers? To see the terror in their widened irises when you're about to slash their guts?
Can you imagine it?
Human life is such frailty in another human's hands.
Killing is nothing more than a small gesture – a gift.
The rush of something forbidden, the extreme sense of striving towards a larger goal, to make this world a less monotonous place -
your hand is able to make a difference.
Do you understand?
Human lives are ephemeral.
Death is eternal.
You depart this life and leave a sea of nothingness behind.
So, do you want to stay weak?
I remained too much inside my head and ended up losing my mind.
Edgar Allan Poe
Everyone has three versions of themselves: a public life, a private life and a secret life.
Watch any kid and see how he acts with his friends at school. Ask his mother what he's like at home. Try to get her to believe the same kid robbed the corner store. "Not my boy", she'll say.
And she's right.
Because her boy wouldn't do that.
But we are different things to different people, in different contexts.
If you're bad, people think you're evil. If you're evil, you're not a human being anymore.
You're a monster.
And evil monsters need to be destroyed to save the good humans.
Unfortunately, it's not as simple; we don't fall into good or bad people.
An example of this pointless stereotypical thinking is the black civil rights activist Martin Luther King. He risked his life to ensure that future generations of black Americans wouldn't suffer the same cruel racial discrimination as he had. He was one of the good.
But did you know that he had a lot of affairs?
His wife knew about them, and suffered silently.
Isn't it "bad" to cheat on your partner, hurt her in the process, but still not stop? Was Martin Luther King a womaniser who hurt his wife deliberately and for whom sex was more important than her suffering?
Or is he a hero who sacrificed his life for a worthy cause? Or is he both?
Does one good deed balance out a bad one?
Let me answer this question for you.
Martin Luther King was human. Not good, not bad. Just human. A person with unique flaws and quirks.
Now, you should ask yourself, if you're really as good a human being as you secretly believe yourself to be.
MI5 Headquarters, James Potter's office
Friday, 29th August
26 days until the next murder
Can we meet?
9:16 a.m., HP
9:21 a.m., HP
I have work to do. The case needs my full attention and I still have to work on the profile.
9:22 a.m., HG
I haven't seen you in months.
9:23 a.m., HP
9:31 a.m., HP
Hermione's eyes darted over the slick surface of her iPhone. Her thumb traced rhythmic circles over the screen, smudging the thin layer of grease over the reflecting glass. It wasn't fair to ignore Harry, she knew that. But meeting Harry would lead to emotions and emotions would let her conscience reign instead of logic - and that would mean she would start to feel. The stakes for feeling were simply too high at the moment.
Behind her, Draco entered the room. She put the phone in the left pocket of her navy blazer without another glance.
As usual, Draco took a seat at her side, a package of books neatly tucked underneath his left arm. Hermione could see an old, rusty-looking cover peeking out from under the rough fabric of his dark leather jacket, but she tore her eyes away, fixing them on James. The silver nametag in front of her supervisor shimmered warmly in the yellowish light.
"Now that everyone's here we can finally start." After a short glance and a nod at Draco, James went back to business mode.
Being the inspector in these investigations must be hard when faced with such a personal tragedy. Above all, when you're being interrogated by one of your subordinates.
Hermione absorbed these observations as swiftly as she ignored another buzz in her pocket from Harry.
Draco made no move to start the interrogation, and instead crossed his legs and put the books in his lap. There were three now, Hermione saw from the corner of her eyes, but she didn't pay too much attention to it. Instead, she focused on James again.
"It's important to know if Remus had any known enemies."
James shook his head, but then–
"Never. Everyone loved Moony."
For the first time since Hermione had entered James' office, she turned around to face another man, sitting hunched over, at James' desk. Broad shoulders and narrow hips, clad in black jeans. A white, fancy v-neck that stopped right over the waistband, showing a dark walnut leather belt, obviously from some kind of designer brand. Simple, wooden beads hung around his slender neck and the shaggy hair looked dishevelled; he had run his hands through it a few times. The usually blue eyes were bloodshot and glassy, almost as if he had rubbed them too often. Sirius Black.
"Moony was a good guy. No fights. No debts." His voice was shaky, thin flinders on the frozen surface of a sea. He clenched his hands a couple of times, determined and guilty, both at once. "If I had… If I just… I could have saved him–"
"We don't know that," James interrupted, but Sirius didn't believe him. It just further inflamed him. Surprisingly, Sirius clenched his jaw but remained silent.
Suppressed sense of guilt, anger towards close ones, denial. Obvious reactions to the loss of a close friend.
"What about the pictures?" asked Draco from the side, cocking his head in interest, while Hermione was still busy writing down her observations on a fresh page in her notebook.
This time, both inspectors shook their heads.
No recognition, like all the other times. Does this mean the victims are not connected at all?
She tucked a strand of stray hair behind her ear.
Serial killers without a pattern are rare. This one's far too intelligent to ignore the idea of a bigger pattern behind his kills. And considering all the different riddles that he has left behind, he's definitely up to something. The question is just, what exactly? Choosing random victims may smudge and blur the links, but I will find him. I will.
Draco started with the obvious questions – Did Nymphadora have any enemies? Has Remus mentioned any changes in his life? Has he been sick? – but none of the questions had helpful answers. As Hermione had already noticed in the Lupin household, Remus and his family were completely ordinary. Nothing special. Nothing outstanding.
When Draco asked about his health status, James kept silent while Sirius informed them that all three had been as fit as fiddles. It was painfully obvious that Sirius tried his best to defend his friend. There was more than just adoration in his voice. There was love.
"Remus drank," James suddenly said, interrupting Sirius mid-sentence and getting a nasty glare in return.
She didn't doubt that James loved Remus to the same extent that Sirius did, but he was the one who had his feet on the ground, anchored to find the truth. Not putting his friend up on some kind of pedestal. For that, Hermione was glad.
Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. The squeamish feeling of touching delicate subjects with weary minds and careful questions was branded and tainted by the stark contrast of Sirius sudden anger that lashed out against James. Hermione cast a sideways glance at Draco, who returned the look hesitantly. It was getting harder to breathe.
"After hours, never during work time. And, come on Prongs, he never drank that much."
"He used to drink a lot, Sirius. After the accident during college–"
"That was ages ago. He didn't start agai–"
"Yes, he did. Remember Tonks calling when he went missing last year? Three days without a word–"
"Everyone's allowed a low moment at some point." Frustrated, Sirius slapped his flat palm on the wooden surface of James' desk. A couple of pens vibrated in a gigantic, ceramic bowl that was shaped like a rubber duck and was being used as a jar to keep them organised. James looked at him with a mixture of frustration and exhaustion. Neither Hermione nor Draco said anything for a while; the only sound made by Hermione's pen - Riddle's pen - scratching over blank pages.
So Remus was an alcoholic. Does Voldemort consider alcoholism as some sort of sickness? We still don't have the results on Lavender and Hepzibah's health status.
"Did Remus work on the Voldemort case?"
"Barely. He was not knee-deep into it as we are, but he knew some pieces here and there. Dumbledore put him in the Order, but well." James fidgeted with some files in his hands. "He wasn't used to this kind of psychopaths like Sirius and I am."
So he could have been a random victim. I doubt it, but we shouldn't drop that possibility entirely.
A quick glance at Sirius and then back to James, and Hermione decided to drop the interrogation for now.
Sirius is obviously biased; it will only taint our investigation if he keeps twisting or hiding things like that. Tonks and Edward were not the victims, that much is clear by now. Remus had been the target.
"I think we have everything for now." With cool finality, she shut the notebook on her lap and ignored the questioning look Draco threw in her direction. This would lead to nothing. Better to stay out of their fight.
Sirius didn't move an inch, didn't even budge, his face hard and bitter. James, at least, had the decency to look apologetic. And tired. The exhaustion was clearly written on his face. Hermione could swear the man had aged since she had seen him the last time at Lupin's house. Considering the circumstances, he probably had.
"I appreciate your enthusiasm. Do you two think you'll have a profile up by next week? Albus wants us to have an official statement for the press ready when the conference of the European Commission for Terror Attacks is over this weekend."
How could I forget? It was an attack on an official British building after all. Of course, they'd hold a conference.
"I think we'll be good," Draco answered for both of them, and Hermione agreed, nodding silently. They said their goodbyes and left the office, side by side, shortly after. Draco strode along, as usual, the tomes jammed between his arm and body. Sirius stayed behind. As soon as the wooden door closed with a final thud behind both the agents, Hermione let out a long breath.
"That was weird," Draco broke the silence.
"One of the worst feelings in the world is having to doubt someone that you thought was unquestionable."
"You mean the saying people use? That loyalty makes you family?" Draco murmured into the corridor, to no one in particular, but Hermione still felt herself agreeing.
"A person that's truly loyal – that utterly loves you – will never let that image of you go. No matter how hard the situation is."
Draco hummed, but remained silent for the rest of the walk.
Could I be as loyal as Sirius?
She thought about it, while her feet dragged her to her office by default, the small messenger bag at her side swaying with each step.
I cut people out of my life with no explanation, no hesitation and no warning if I have to. I make mistakes and I don't hold onto people and things that I don't want when I can feel them ruining me. No. I'm not made to be loyal.
The buzzing cadence of her iPhone reminded her, that she still had a conversation to finish. She fished the device out of her blazer pocket and put her code in, blind. The screen flashed and a second later, green and transparent bubbles appeared. Harry again, of course.
9:51 a.m., HP
With a sigh, she finally gave in and texted back.
Perhaps, I am. Perhaps, it's already written on my bones.
Sunday, at Fortescue's, 2 p.m. Don't be late.
10:03 a.m., HG
Sunday, 31st August
24 days until the next murder
Harry was late.
Of course, he was.
Annoyed, Hermione glanced down at her wristwatch. One minute passed, then the next. Five minutes over the scheduled time. Couldn't hurt to go and order a coffee already. At least she'd have something to drink.
Sunday was a busy day for Florean Fortescue's. Couples and groups gathered in the large hallway of the coffee shop, flirting, chatting and spooning ice cream in the corners. Young and old were both enjoying a quiet day off in the warm August sun. Florean Fortescue was a chain of coffee shops spread all over the world. Generations of people swore daily by their pumpkin spice latte and butterbeer frappés.
Hermione queued up behind an elderly couple, and let her gaze wander around the room. She found a flat screen in one of the corners, flashing news and reporters, as well as important, well-known faces, from all over Europe.
The European Commission for Terror Attacks.
In the rush of the last few days, she'd completely forgotten about it. Keeping track of Voldemort got harder and harder with each passing day, instead of easier. They still had no clues, still no more leads. It was devastating.
Absent-mindedly, she watched the rapidly changing faces of arriving heads of states or their representatives. Some of them were easily recognisable, like Dumbledore, who arrived in a suit similar to the one he had worn when Hermione had met him – hideous pink tie included. Then Pomona Sprout, the current Chancellor of Germany. On the bright blue glare of the flat screen, she looked like a nice, older lady in an olive suit, chubby but elegant. Probably grandmother material. The type that slipped sweets in their grandchildren's pockets.
The screen flickered back and forth, between Russia's President Karkaroff, to Britain's Prime Minister Slughorn, and finally, President Delacour from France - all of them set for the upcoming terror of Voldemort. Europe didn't often face such horrible terror attacks like the MI5 bombing. For now, the threat of Voldemort had not spread all over Europe. Great Britain, or more precisely London, had been his playground. But who knew how long it would take until he'd change the country. Hence, it provoked hatred in people's minds – the fear and the anger due to the unknown. Terror attacks were always handled with particular caution, so as not to enrage the wrong people – or worse, looking like not having acted fast enough in the face of obvious danger. A conference with the head of states of different European countries, together with the current leaders of their secret intelligence agencies should help to calm the people. Hermione bit her lip in frustration, dragging the hard, straight line of her teeth over the soft cushion of her lower lip.
Do they not understand that giving him so much attention will just turn him on? He's a narcissist, for God's sake.
She couldn't understand the commentary from her place in the queue, but she doubted it would be informative at this point. After all, the members were still arriving at the scene of the crime, so to speak.
"Miss Granger, what a nice surprise to see you here."
Hermione spun around in a swift motion, alarmed and startled by the smooth, deep voice. Her eyes widened as soon as she realised who had addressed her; pristine, white oxford, sleeves rolled up to the elbows and the top button open, which revealed the slightest hint of a slender neck. Dark jeans, perfectly coiffed hair, his build tall and lean, and just as devilishly handsome as she remembered him to be – Riddle.
"Dr Riddle." She gave him a small smile.
He shot her a sharp, knowing grin and a deep, probing look from his steel-grey eyes. That kind that made a girl's heart beat faster. The one that meant that he could look right into your soul, know your darkest parts and turn them against you. The one that meant trouble.
One of the customers behind him cleared his throat with an annoyed huff and a pointed look, indicating that they move along the queue. Hermione did. Riddle followed right behind.
"Not protecting national security along with the other members of the government today, Miss Granger?"
"Can't save the Queen every day, Dr Riddle."
He gave her a smug smile but didn't comment on it. Instead, he pointed elegantly towards one of the signs. She wondered if there was anything Tom Marvolo Riddle didn't do elegantly.
"Coffee, Miss Granger?"
She looked around for Harry, but he still hadn't arrived.
"I'd love that. I had an appointment, but he's running late anyway. And I can't say no to free coffee, can I?" She tried to flash him a charming smile, but failed miserably. Flirting had never been one of her strengths. "How about you, Dr Riddle? Are you enjoying a day off?"
"Pathologists never have a day off, I'm afraid; it's a full-time business. People die every day." The man said it with such causality and apathy that Hermione had the urge to look into his eyes. The look of disgust present therein was noticed by her, but it was half-ignored and half-overlooked.
They both moved further along and gave their orders; a latte cappuccino for her, black, two sugars for him. He paid for both of the drinks before Hermione could even attempt to take out her wallet.
While they waited for their orders to be readied, she felt him staring at her, with an intensity that burned through the layers of her clothes. Piercing. Fine, drizzle-like sweat was forming at her nape.
"A gentleman should never run late on a date."
The statement made her laugh, dry and humourless.
"By all means, he's no gentleman."
Riddle raised one of his perfect, straight eyebrows and Hermione felt as if his dark stare got even more intense. Then, as if in a moment of clarity, his eyes followed swiftly after.
Oh no, he thinks Harry and I–
As if to brush off any other assumption, she said, perhaps a tad too hasty, "He's just a friend. Someone I knew from school, a long time ago."
"I see." Riddle's smirk was as sharp as a razor, eyes glinting with something mischievous as if she had said something really funny or stupid. Probably both in his eyes. Bastard.
"I would never let a woman wait in line."
She snorted at that.
"Of course you wouldn't."
Hermione doubted he was anything less than perfect under his tailored shirt and his 500-pound shoes.
She turned halfway to get her steaming paper cup, but Riddle beat her to it. His tall, slender body leaned gracefully over the long counter to clasp both cups between his long, bony fingers. He reached over and she took hers out of his waiting hands.
Cuts on the fingertips, healed and covered by new skin. Most likely from some kind of scalpel. 5-6 weeks old, new ones less than three days. Leading back to his job as a pathologist. Serial killers who just start out tend to have cuts all around their fingers. Someone who kills regularly knows his instruments and knows how to hide these injuries. Does Voldemort have–
She stopped, startled, eyes wide open. She reminded herself, harshly, that she couldn't go on seeing Voldemort everywhere. At this rate, she'd suspect Draco in a week, Dumbledore in a month. Riddle leaned over, his expensive aftershave catching in the back of her throat, sticking like warm honey. Musky. Manly. Fresh, like peppermint.
"I could prove it to you, Miss Granger. Dinner?"
A deep peach spread over her cheeks, heating her skin rapidly. She pushed him aside, taking some steps away from the counter to let the next customer get his drink. The warm paper cup steamed with the scent of freshly brewed beans. Riddle's aftershave stayed.
"Dr Riddle I don't–" She stopped mid-sentence, brushing a single strand of curly hair behind her ear. Of course, it didn't stay there and sailed right back, lying against her cheek. Unnerving. Even her hair betrayed her at such a moment. "I don't think that would be a good idea. I have a lot of work coming up in the next few weeks..."
Riddle didn't say anything else, just looked at her with the same intensity as before. His fingers started to tap against the cup of coffee in his hand. Something calculated flickered in his gaze and she was reminded of their first meeting, when he had dominated the room with a flick of his hand. Now, here in Fortescue's coffee shop, Riddle was once more the one in power. The people all around them didn't bother him at all. His voice was a singsong, deep baritone, like a sweet melody.
The worst part was, she didn't even know if he had really asked her out or whether he was joking.
She didn't find out either, because suddenly someone called out for her from the end of the queue. A young black man, with dark, corkscrew curls on his head, sides shaved and hideous hipster glasses balanced on his nose.
Hermione gave a small wave, something tentative, accompanied by a smile. Riddle turned around and glanced over him once, then addressed himself back to her again.
"I see he finally found his way around."
"Yeah." The answer was lame, but she didn't know what else to say. The blush was still creeping at the edges of her golden skin.
Riddle gave her a nod, a sign that he'd take his leave. Before he bid her goodbye, however, he said, "My offer still stands, Miss Granger."
Every inch of her was frozen to the ground, her heart hammering almost painfully against her ribcage. Between the closeness and intensity that Riddle was radiating in waves, Hermione felt terribly, terribly small. She didn't like it. She didn't know what to do of it either. The man was a mystery to her. Outside of his study, he was everything her mind desired. Hesitantly she nodded, curling her fingers almost painfully around the paper cup until her knuckles stood out, white.
"I will think about it."
"A man knows when to take his best offer. Good evening, Miss Granger."
As fast as Riddle had appeared, he vanished between the masses of people, like a shadow escaping from the living. The place he occupied a second before filled with people as if he had not been present at all.
Hermione breathed in, deep and rich. Slowly her skin stopped to tickle with anticipation.
Harry joined her a minute later, a bright orange tropical smoothie in his hands, slurping on the straw.
She considered the question for a second but shook her head in defiance.
"Not in the slightest."
Her heart, however, this treacherous thing, missed a beat.
Sunday, 31st August
24 days until the next murder
Sometimes a hot, steaming shower could do wonders for tensed muscles and those little knots that had built up over an exhausting and stressful week. Mostly, Hermione liked the feeling of fresh skin; scrubbing dirt and dust off your overworked flesh was the first step to feel alive. To feel reborn.
As any profiler knew, distancing yourself from the facts and gruesomeness which you were confronted within your work was important to keep your sanity intact. Hermione also knew, from experience, that she tended to forget everything else around her as soon as something intriguing caught her interest. Call it macabre or not, Voldemort was by far the most intriguing thing that had ever happened to her. So the showering ritual was even more important to clean her mind.
The meeting with Harry had been... rough. First, they had dealt with the common questions – What have you been up to? How are you? Anything new in your life? How's Ginny? Oh, you're working with Draco now? – before Harry had finally mustered up the courage to ask her about what he wanted to from the start. The funeral.
A profiler's view can easily get tainted as soon as personal emotions and feelings start influencing the case. One wrong equation, one wrong guess and the profile crumbles. It's the same as Edward N. Lorenz' Butterfly Effect; the slightest miscalculation can lead to a whole other end. Once it is in motion, you can't stop it. It's inevitable.
She turned the water off.
Crookshanks rubbed his shaggy fur along her bare legs and made her skin tickle. She threw on a pair of comfortable shorts and a simple, honey-mustard coloured, sleeveless top. It was a hideous thing that she had bought at a market in Ankara, but she liked the thin cotton on hot days like these. It was form-fitting, yet light.
Ten minutes later she was already sitting cross-legged on her sofa, a piece that was far too big for a single person alone. She had to admit, it was more for the aesthetic purpose than it was necessary; a large piece of furniture went with the open room. Her flat was in the middle of London, merely ten minutes away from the MI5. It was in one of the most expensive areas of the city, and she had been lucky enough to find it right after college. The landlady was nice and the rent was surprisingly affordable; sometimes she thought about moving, but she liked the claustrophobic feeling of her own little paradise in the midst of the city.
A cup of freshly brewed coffee was sitting ready on the table, bearing 'Keep calm and drink coffee' in bright colours of the Union Jack. A gift Ron had given to her ages ago, right after she moved in. The cup was slowly steaming and she breathed it in, deeply, and out. Crookshanks was already making himself home in her lap, rubbing his shaggy fur along her thighs this time. She was too tired to be bothered about it.
With an exhausted sigh, Hermione carefully grabbed the first of the tomes Malfoy had lent her. They were neatly stacked alongside her notebook on the wide surface of her sofa, waiting to be used. First Edition releases, all of them. Quite valuable. She had asked Draco to bring them along for comparison and investigations one night, when they had worked over the riddles for long hours, in her office. Of course, she had all the books herself too – The Aleph and Other Stories, The Name of the Rose, Dante's Inferno – but often, first editions held some bits and words that had been changed during the time of new releases. She wanted to see for herself if she could spot any differences. Unfortunately, even the Malfoys didn't have first editions of the Odyssey or House of Leaves.
Remus' riddle flashed in dark ink from the bright, white notebook pages.
Here then – the aftermath of meaning.
A lifetime finished between the space of two frames.
House of Leaves, author Danielewski. Years ago, when it was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper which would occasionally surface on the Internet. The format and structure were unconventional with unusual page layout and style. Ergodic Literature. It contained footnotes, references of books and films and articles and every few words or lines of text arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story.
Claustrophobic effect, multiple narrators, nearly countless plotlines growing into each other. A horror story at its best. Danielewski's sister made a companion piece if I remember correctly. What a mess.
She opened the first book to search for the passage of the riddle.
Lost in the books for about an hour, flipping carefully through brittle pages while comparing them to her own notes, she stopped without any new clues. Without the code, she couldn't do much about the riddles.
Time to read them all again. Psychopaths – the prototypes of evil. Charming, intelligent beasts. Why a psychopath? Couldn't it have been a normal killer for once?
She had worked on smaller cases before, none too prominent. A profile here, an opinion there - when the MI5 asked for her expertise less than 6 months ago she had seen the chance of finally doing some good with her degree.
Forcefully, she tried to rub the exhaustion off of her face, pushing her skin up and down, left and right. Both eyes opened reluctantly, staring absently at the iPhone lying on the crystalline table in front of her.
She tried to imagine a life in which she hadn't chosen to become a profiler. Would she have lead a normal life? Working eight hours a day, having the weekend and evenings off, going out, meeting friends, having dinner with a charming someone – Riddle, for example.
In another life, would I have been able to accept his invitation?
Hermione snatched the phone from its place, the cool metal steady in her cold hands.
A profiler should never lose their mind over a case. A profiler should be able to separate their work and private life.
She wet her lips once, and her other hand started to fondle Crookshanks' fur, at the special place behind his ear, the one he loved so much. He purred. Her heart started to pound between her ribs, her breath caught, behind a row of sharp, white teeth.
Hermione was used to it by now. Being that girl. The one who read books while other girls were sunbathing in a public pool. The one who helped Harry and Ron through secondary school instead of going on a road trip through Europe with Victor when she had had the chance. The one who stayed at home on a Sunday evening, alone.
Her fingers found Riddle's number in her recent caller list by default and she couldn't help the terrifying, claustrophobic feeling of her heart swelling. It was disturbingly hypnotic to feel the beat of her pulse drumming in the tips of her fingers. Crookshanks in her lap meowed once, then started to purr. He threw himself on his back, giving her more space to fondle the thick, shaggy fur on the underside of his belly.
She didn't want to end up alone.
Or worse: lonely.
So why not enjoy life at least?
She pushed the green phone button on the sleek screen and waited until the electronic dialling sound echoed from the line. The striking sound of the phone ringing on the other side started.
The swelling crescendo of her heart between her ribs, however, didn't stop. Instead, it felt as if it would tear her apart.
It's not too late. I could just hang up.
Riddle answered on the third ring.
"Riddle." The voice on the other line was a smooth, velvety baritone, that not even the static could taint.
Her mouth dried out instantly. She swallowed around a lump in her throat.
Some people make you feel special. Deftly layered. Intrigued. Striking. Hypnotic. When she heard the steady breathing on the other side of the line, she wondered, what it was that made her feel so utterly engrossed in Tom Marvolo Riddle.
There are no good or bad people.
But what are you? What am I?
It's like the question for the meaning of life. There's no real answer.
People have tried again and again to dictate certain standards upon us as human beings. They claim we need rules and prohibitions to live a safe life. All together.
It's a lie.
They control us.
They control you.
I don't rate humans as good or bad.
We are what we are. We do what we want. We're animals.
Ultimately we're all just a group of strung-together atoms and raw instincts. Those instincts are deep-rooted in our veins. Long before our atoms even collided. When we didn't knew how to differentiate. When no one was around to tell us that what we do has consequences;
take some rules, shape yourself into a better being.
The essence of our existence has always been brute force. Society just covered it.
Covered by faith like the burning of witches, inquisitions and crusades.
Covered by politics like in wars, revolutions and freedom.
Covered by justice like in the death penalty.
They all kill.
Why not me?
Why not you?
As some people that follow me on tumblr know already, this story is actually a planned original novel. I don't feel like finishing it anymore and I might drop it to finish the actual novel instead. Thank you all for your support.
Chapter 8: Chapter VI
I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity.
Edgar Allan Poe
Perception is a mirror of yourself.
A mirror that detects certain impressions that we, as humans, see. Certain actions that provoke reactions and turn into emotions like crying, laughing, furious pounding and even indifference. We devour them, then swallow them, then learn to live after them.
Let's take the murder of a loving wife.
It doesn't matter how it happened; people say things like:
What a gruesome fate. How can someone be so cruel? How can someone kill their own wife?
But murder is murder, and nothing less. Your perception is tainted by your own reasoning and conduct. You're objective.
Now let's talk about the murder with another killer.
Will he inquire about the circumstances of the crime? Will he ask if it was a crime of passion? Perhaps he even gives improvement suggestions.
A killer would never condemn you. After all, you share common interests.
Perception is highly objective.
The human behind always matters.
MI5 Headquarters, Official Media Conference Room
Tuesday, 2nd September
22 days until the next murder
News in London is like the evening rush hour; every time you think you're moving forward, you're actually just stumbling into the next jam. Some years ago there had been sly loopholes the police could use to withhold information, but nowadays people were lead by mistrust and apprehension, so the MI5 couldn't just go ahead and withhold anything that might save a life. And lives were at stake.
James Potter was reciting an official statement displayed on a small monitor in front of the podium. The hall was crowded with all kinds of reporters - vultures circling around, lying in wait for the first to collapse. All of them thirsty enough to pick at every sentence and question James tried to answer to the best of his abilities.
"Neville told me the department's fancy network got a fancy virus," Draco said, leaning his slender body against one of the old pillars. "Someone was downloading porn and it had a spartan or something."
"Trojan," Hermione corrected automatically.
"Whatever. They're all Greek to me."
She snorted, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. She didn't have time to throw out some witty remark before James left the podium and strode in the general direction of their hiding place behind the stage.
"Ready to deliver the profile?" James looked at her, eyes set and strangely nervous. She could spot the uncertainty lingering in the creases on his forehead. Draco cast a sideways glance at her, but Hermione's focus was already outside, in front of the crowd.
Okay, this is it.
She undertook the short distance in long, confident strides, shoulders squared under the grey blazer that made her look bigger than she was. The unease followed her until she could take her stand in front of the crowd.
Eyeing the room from a different angle brought a certain kind of nervosity. Hermione folded her hands over the sleek, hard surface of the wooden podium. She faced the sea of microphones, notebooks and fountain pens with an icy mask of self-trust. The reporters were waiting impatiently - she could read it on their bodies. Tensed eyes, pressed thin lips, bored slouches in their seats. Most of them were clad in suits and pencil skirts but she could see some in casual wear as well. It always depended on the magazine, she guessed. Someone was playing with an iPhone in the second row. So much indifference for people with so much power at their fingertips. It could be lethal, in the wrong hands.
"Thank you for coming. I'm Special Agent Hermione Granger and I will be briefing you about how to handle the media coverage on this case." Whispers went through the rows, but Hermione could see how the individual audience members became attentive.
"As we can confirm now, all the mentioned murders were done by the same killer. He calls himself Lord Voldemort, but please, refrain from giving him any kind of title or name in your articles," she said. "Calling him by name will diminish the impact of the murder and will give him the kind of recognition he obviously searches for."
"Do I understand you correctly, Ms Granger, that you want us to keep quiet about this whole mess? Sweep it under the rug?" Perfectly curled hair, bright, magenta glasses on top of a straight, sharp nose and vicious, green eyes daring her to disagree - Rita Skeeter. Star column reporter of The Sun. In a room full of vultures she was the alpha.
Such a gnat - someone should trap her in a jar.
"As a narcissist, Voldemort lives for any attention people throw at him. I don't want you to sweep it under the rug, Miss Skeeter," Hermione said, spitting out her name like it was something foul in her mouth, "But believe me when I say that he'll roll around in the praise and we'll end up with even more corpses at our doors."
Skeeter didn't look convinced, but she pursed her lips and flattened her lilac dress over the knees.
Hermione suppressed a triumphant harrumph. The white, bright spotlight blinded her shortly.
"Voldemort is a high-class serial killer. He's intelligent, cunning and most probably charming. We think he builds some trust between his victims and himself before he kills them. Not deep trust, but rather on a kind of interpersonal basis - you wouldn't suspect him upon meeting."
Sociopaths usually have a couple of entries in the records. I need to remind James to check for anyone suspicious in the last few years, if they haven't already.
"How does he-"
"Not he," Hermione interrupted Skeeter immediately. "While Voldemort uses the title Lord the possibility of a female offender is not yet disproved. I don't mind if you're using male pronouns when addressing your questions at me, but I implore you to refrain from using any gender pronouns in your published articles."
While I'm sure that he is indeed male any male gender pronouns in their articles could lead people to feel false security in the presence of female strangers.
Skeeter stretched her obscenely coloured lips over the front row of her teeth.
"Apologies. How does Voldemort," she said the name like she wanted to say disgust, "choose the victims?"
"We can't define the victimology yet-"
"So what you're saying is you neither know what gender Voldemort has, nor can you say which people are in danger? It's reckless of the MI5 to leave us ignorant." Hermione could see half of the room agreeing in silence with Skeeter's dismissive interjection.
"Well, Miss Skeeter if you continue to complain about the MI5 but praise the killer, he certainly won't stop. Please refrain from using your personal opinions in your articles. Don't egg the killer on. As I said, a couple of times already, he's highly dangerous and narcissistic. Voldemort doesn't feel remorse. On the contrary. Shaming the MI5 for your next big coop will definitely endorse his behaviour and perhaps his next victim will be a reporter of The Sun."
Frustration rose in Hermione. A sliver of rage showed on her face as her cheeks reddened. The room was covered with a heavy blanket of silence. Even Skeeter paled slightly. Hermione breathed out.
In the front row, she could see how Lovegood made a quick note on his iPad. This would end up in The Quibbler, a lunatic tabloid published weekly. They were famous for their conspiracy theories and odd articles about the bad work of London's police force. Someone had blown a bomb at their headquarters some weeks ago. The official statement said they wanted to avenge for a rude, sexist caricature of Christian faith. The only thing Lovegood did was publishing the next issue with an even worse caricature. Provocation as defence.
"Listen," Hermione threw a quick glance over at Draco and James, and then her attention was fully on the reporters again, "Voldemort is unlike any killer we have encountered these last few years. He has no particular approach, no particular preferences. He's your worst nightmare in human skin. Tell everyone to pay attention to your surroundings. Go out in groups. Don't trust strangers lightheartedly. We assume that he observes his victims at least for days, if not weeks. The MI5 declares him as security grade six - the highest grade for serial killers out there. Nobody is safe."
They couldn't give out a full profile yet. Any leaked information, like his age or professional group, could lead Voldemort to go in hiding for months. The only thing people needed to understand was that nobody was safe. Not as long as Voldemort was out there.
There was nothing more to say.
Just as Hermione was about to leave the podium, some young girl beside Lovegood spoke up.
"How can we protect ourselves?"
The girl had shoulder-length hair: dirty blonde, almost sandy. She shared Lovegood's hollow eye sockets, as well as his curved nose and bony fingers. They were obviously related. Strange copper baubles dangled from the girl's ears and reflected the bright light from the spotlights.
"You can't." Hermione turned around, with cold professionalism. "At least not in the traditional sense. Stay wary, don't trust strangers blindly, try to stay in your comfort zone." She flicked her tongue over the dry cushion of her lower lip. "A cornered cat can be like a natural disaster - it can wreak everything in its way. Other cats, bugs, garbage, even little dogs. Someone like Voldemort, when provoked, is even worse."
No one dared to ask another question.
Few people are able to deceive their own perception. Most are prejudiced and chained to their point of view. They are insular and won't see further than the end of their noses. Moving inside of a cluster, they repeat everything the majority decides.
Those people are the most dangerous. They condemn you at a whim.
Not long ago I talked to a friend about how important it is to stay open-minded and to not let yourself be lead by your perception. His answer was unsurprisingly boring and predictable.
Humans always are.
No one can look behind your mask if you know how to conceal it. Their perception makes them feel safe.
It's easy to hide among a crowd.
No one can see me before it happens.
Do you think you can?
Chapter 9: Chapter VII
A lot of people that follow me on tumblr asked me if I'd at least give some kind of closure to this story even though it is actually planned as an original novel. So yeah, it will probably take a while but I decided to rewrite part I differently than the original novel and give this part some kind of closure. I can't tell you how much all of the support means to me! Thank you so so much, for everything.
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
How well do we really know someone?
The art of disguise is a big part of today's society. You blend into flocks and groups and try to find one you can fit into.
Sometimes you're the hero. Sometimes you're the nerd.
Peer pressure is more important than individuality. The individual you drowns in the process. Every human being tries to fit into the social norm. You're adjusting yourself to a certain kind of standard that masses of brainwashed people dictate to you.
The rich never leave their circle. Some will fall, but most will stay on top.
As a part of the middle class, you keep your head down and do as your superiors tell you.
Find a partner.
Raise a family.
Move to a big house.
Don't forget to have a successful career by your forties.
If you're lucky, you'll get to see your grandchildren growing up before you die of a heart attack.
The lower class tries to reach the top.
But don't be blinded by society's empty promises. Prejudices and established social rules ensure that rats can never be a part of high society if they don't wear the right masks. Because people always wear masks that they switch on and off and alter according to need.
One for the job. One for the family.
They try to trick each other into believing that they're something they are not. That's just the way it is.
The perfect father for his kids, the best employee in the job, working late hours without asking for a raise. The first to be there, the best husband and lover.
But what if the mask cracks?
What if that cold, nasty, vile face we wear beneath reaches through the chinks and fissures?
You see how they really act once the money is out.
When their anger boils with clenched fists, ready to blow.
When they snap under pressure and cry and shake and break into little, pathetic pieces.
Marriages fail, children grow up unloved, friendships turn to hate.
The truth is that the more intimately we know someone, the more clearly we see their flaws.
The truth is, the moment our masks finally drop, we're naked and able to see each other as we truly are.
Hakkasan Hanway Place
Wednesday, 3rd September
21 days until the next murder
Hermione calmed down as soon as she stepped over the golden threshold of the restaurant, an establishment far too posh for her liking. Her drenched coat felt cheap in contrast to the opulent light and fleur-de-lys print curtains. The ferocious blush on her cheeks was due to a mixture of shame and from the effort she had exerted to reach the restaurant on time. Rush hour traffic and roadworks in the middle of London had forced her to be ten minutes late, something she had never been before.
When Riddle first suggested the Hakkasan Hanway restaurant Hermione didn't know about the gold-plated entrance or perfectly tailored uniforms the staff had. Everything looked minimalistic, yet superior and perfectly chosen, starting with the white marble tiles to the little golden satin handkerchiefs waiters had in their breast pockets. Trays full of deviled eggs and little hors-d'oeuvres with bacon or artichokes, as well as glasses full of bubbling champagne, passed her on her way through the room. The moment she spotted Riddle at the far end of the room she let out a breath she didn't know she had been holding.
Riddle didn't look annoyed in his highly expensive, tailored sports jacket and designer chinos. His dashing face split into a charming smile and upon her arrival, he instantly rose from his chair to greet her with a warm handshake and a kiss on either side of her cheeks. He took her coat off her shoulders and passed it to one of the waiters. The rich, musky smell of his aftershave - sandalwood and syringa - played in her nose and clung to her nostrils even long after she had sat down on the chair he had pulled out for her. Feathery, the rough skin of his fingertips brushed the patch of naked skin on her back where her dress showed a speck of skin.
Riddle took the place across from her and smiled sharply.
Okay Hermione, no profiling tonight. Just try and have a good time.
"I'm dreadfully sorry I'm late, Dr Riddle," Hermione flattened her dress over her knees. Everything about her was discreet: the little black dress that showed just enough skin, the finely curved eyebrows, the transparent varnished fingernails, her clear voice, the decent little beads on her ears. She wore barely any makeup and her hair fell down her back in long, soft cascades - not an easy task if one considered the hours and masses of products she had slapped into the mostly untameable mess of curls during the past eight hours. A touchy topic she didn't want to address.
"There's no need to apologise, Miss Granger. London can be quite tricky during rush hour." Riddle gave her another of his charming smiles that made her heart miss a beat. Carefully he reached over the table to hand her a book, wrapped with a red satin ribbon.
Guillotine; Its Legend and Lore by Daniel Gerould.
It was plain with reddish leather, obviously freshly ordered because Hermione couldn't believe that any bookshop would just happen to have this book waiting on their shelves for desperate history-lovers to buy.
"Just a little something I thought you'd like. We briefly talked about the topic in my study, if you remember?"
"Of course I do. I'm speechless, thank you so much," she brushed her hand over the pristine cover and had to suppress the urge to pull the book up to run her fingertips over each page.
"Hopefully it'll be of help for your investigations."
When she looked up his eyes were chuckling with good humour, drawn from something intense and dark. She could feel the bones inside of her twinge.
His whole posture is different than back in his study. Palms open, Shoulders square but not intimidating. He's still trying to dominate the situation, but a sort of interest has taken over.
She was saved by one of the waiters who brought the menu cards and a single wine card too. Riddle had good taste in both, meals and wine. He proved it with a Coche-Dury Genevrieres - a wine far too expensive for Hermione's usual taste. Even the first sip left an explosion of rich, succulent grapes on her palate.
During the entree - Caprese di Astice e Burrata for her, Shrimp Ceviche Lettuce Cups for him - they talked about daily trivialities first, sipping at their glasses, Hermione's slender hands playfully tracing the shape of the crystalware again and again. Riddle looked in his element. They talked about Oxford and their hobbies and the restaurant - but not about work. His voice was dark and had such a different tone from that time in his study. He was not mocking her, but rather showing general interest.
Pretty fast they fell from Dr Riddle and Miss Granger to Tom and Hermione. It felt as if her tendons were twined around his tongue, her body cradled in the cage of his teeth with each word he was saying. Utterly ravishing.
"Why profiler?" Riddle suddenly asked as the waiter brought the main course and two additional water glasses. "Someone with a mind as versatile as yours would have certainly been proficient in the legal field. Why deal voluntarily with so much cruelty and human perversity?"
"I've always been fascinated by how people's characters work. Why does this person have these special traits? Why did they make that decision? Why do they act like that and not differently? How does one's personality link back to traits of friends or partners?" She cut through an extremely persistent piece of asparagus; her fork screeched on the white plate. Rarely had someone before shown so much interest in anything she had said. She remembered all the times she had had to force herself to tone down the intensity of her interest in order to make the boys stay and not run away with pity in their eyes. Riddle merely smiled, all mysterious, and with a hint of hunger, urging her to move on. Something inside of her caught fire. "Do you know the method of psychological bricks, Tom?"
"I'm afraid I've never heard of it."
"A psychological brick is a human trait that we can describe or translate in psychological terms." She swallowed another bite of her fish and continued with reddened cheeks, "For example, let's say someone you meet tells you exaggerated details about their career, their excellent entrepreneurial skills and how many luxury goods they can buy with loads of money they get every day. What could you learn from that?"
"That they're presumptuous and probably a fraud. Or a liar."
She couldn't help the little wicked smile that played around the corner of her mouth.
"Definitely. But I mostly translate the behaviour and speaking mannerisms in terms of traits, like fear of failure, arrogance, seeking approval. Simple, instinctive catchwords. So-called bricks."
"So, what happens next?"
"I put them in order and start to build a fundamental. It's not so different from Lego actually. You have different bricks that belong to different psychological patterns. Shyness and fear, for example, are both environmental emotions, while arrogance is a personal feeling mostly born out of wealth or superiority. Each pattern has a lot of single psychological bricks which describe impressively and sometimes hidden human traits. With Lego, you can use one set to build a knight's castle, and another one to build a hospital. But you can also take the bricks from both and build something else entirely. That's what I'm trying to do. Taking bricks and trying to build a person until I have a clear understanding of them."
Quickly she took a sip of her water to stop herself from continuing to talk about her work all night. Hermione doubted Tom would really be interested in any of these things at all, but to her surprise, the man was nearly devouring each word she was saying. He had finished his plate and was leaning on his elbows towards her, hands folded, chin on top. His eyes were dark around the irises but the cold grey was still piercing through a mysterious shadow; it was captivating. Hermione felt her veins contracting, her heart keeping up a hammering beat.
He's genuinely interested. Why is it that he makes me so undone?
She leaned back when the waiter arrived to take their mostly empty plates - she had left some soybean sprouts on the edge - and waited for him to return with two crème brûlée and the same coffee order they had had days ago in Florean's; a cappuccino and one black, two sugars.
"What about you, Tom? Why pathology?"
She had read a lot about his career before asking for his opinion on the case. And by a lot, she meant nearly everything. Online articles, reviews and even the three books he wrote about pathology. But she really couldn't rub that in his face. Even if it was, indeed, true.
"Fascination with the human being." He ripped both sugar packages open over the cup and flicked his spoon around until the crystal sand had melted into the black drink. "The human body can tell us its whole history if we know how and where to look. While you compartmentalise human behaviour into bricks, I dismantle the body into stories. I actually developed this way of thinking thanks to my mentor Prof. Dr Grindelwald. I was lucky to be one of the prodigies chosen for his lectures." There was a certain kind of pride in his last words with the bitter overtone of arrogance. Hermione didn't particularly care. It didn't make him any less attractive. It was hard to resist such brutal charm after all. "In the end, I'm nothing more than a court reporter reciting facts."
"I don't think so. You're not simply reciting dry facts. You're crafting life. You're building chronicles and narratives and, to some extent, history. You're a storyteller."
For a second Hermione thought he wouldn't answer. His hand stilled around the handle of the delicate porcelain cup. He watched her intensively, with eyes half hidden in the dark. It had something mesmerizing. She felt desire. When he spoke again it was low, almost as if he led her in on a secret she didn't catch yet.
"I suppose you can say that."
They finished their dessert chatting comfortably. As they left the restaurant Tom not only paid for their meal and helped her into her coat, but also insisted on bringing her back to her car. He offered his arm and Hermione snaked hers into the crook of it.
"We don't want you to end up as the next Voldemort victim, do we? Besides, your colleagues would suspect me as the murderer and I really don't want to read about it in one of Rita Skeeter's infamous columns." A flash of razor-sharp teeth; a half-smile in the dark.
"Oh god, you read it?" With terror, she remembered the disastrous briefing from the day before. She didn't have the time to read the article yet, but Tom's words were colourful enough to imagine the outcome. Tipsy from the wine and in good spirits, Hermione rolled her eyes openly. "I can already see the headline: Incompetent MI5 profiler killed by own profile."
A soft chuckle left her lips. Tom's smile got wider. Skeeter was a joke - how could she possibly take anything seriously that came from that woman?
The warm August wind brushed over her cheeks and brought a wave of different scents to her nose, including a whiff of Tom's costly aftershave, something that stuck in the back of her mind. She could barely keep herself from burying her nose into the fabric of his jacket. So she concentrated on the early autumn smell instead.
Even the silence between them was, much to her amazement, comfortable. She suddenly realised how much she had missed London by night and its shabby, grease-covered streets that reeked of gasoline and wet leaves. Streetlamps flickered their orange lights on the pavements. The streets were nearly deserted; not many people were out with a psychopath like Voldemort on the loose. But soon enough people would forget.
It's only natural. After so many days they'll think nothing will happen again. Once everything settles and the 41 days are over the next body will lie at our feet. It's a catch-22.
"Here we are." Tom ripped her out of her thoughts and stopped a foot before the old, battered VW Beetle. She was strangely fond of the antique design.
"Both alive," she added playfully, and finally let go of his arm just to regret the loss of his warm body almost immediately. Tom let out a soft laugh, something between a dark chuckle and an amused smirk. Her throat dried out immediately. Wild eyes, a warm, red blush on her cheeks - she could see her own reflection in the silver metal of a street lamp.
"I think we should meet again. Just to make sure that we're still alive." His hand reached out and slid along her fingertips, up to her wrist. Her elbow. Her shoulder. Her neck. His fingers stayed there for a moment, feeling her pulse fluttering beneath the soft of his thumb.
"I'd like that," she breathed, not able to do much more. The little voice inside her head that usually warned her was completely blank and overwhelmed from Tom's presence all around her. The way he pulled his body closer, out of hunger and desire, without disturbing the air around him, was enough to shift the ground beneath her feet. A soft brush of his fingertips against her chin to tilt it up and her eyes were transfixed on the tender cushions of his pink lips.
Tom leaned down and brushed his lips against hers.
It was a simple connection, almost like a sweet caress, and before she could react, he was already gone. They looked at each other, hungry eyes and muscles, like animals beneath human skin.
Hermione surged forward. Tom did too.
And then she was undone.
Both of her hands found their way up to his thick, dark hair and - oh god - each strand was as soft as it looked. She pulled at the ends and pressed her nails into his scalp, earning a grunt in response. The next thing she felt was the hard metal of her car's door handle pressing into the small of her back - she didn't care. Tom wrapped both his arms around her waist and pulled her flush against him, fingers creeping up her sides. There was still too much space between them. Her world started to spin and she couldn't quite blame the lack of oxygen or the way he tried to rip her breath away and keep it locked between his own teeth. It felt as if her name was safe inside his mouth.
It was utter bliss.
When they finally broke free her hands were buried in the woollen collar of his sports jacket; his were still clinging to her waist. There was an expression of utter fascination on Tom's face, almost as if he had just experienced something completely unbelievable for the first time in his life. Like the breaking of a frozen lake, with millions of little fissures and rifts where the light and sun broke through - and then, for a split second, there was nothing but dark, black, emptiness. It was gone, almost as fast as it had come and Hermione wasn't sure if the street lamp hadn't just played a trick on her, so she brushed it away and watched the mischievous sheen return to his eyes.
He took a step back and she allowed him to open her car door.
"You should call me if your schedule gives you some time off," he added, watching her climb into the driver's seat.
"I will." Her cheeks were bright red and she could feel her heart beating with lethal animalism.
When he closed the door, and finally vanished from the rear-vision mirror, Hermione breathed out.
Her heart, however, was still drumming his name in morse.
The perfect date.
Looking behind someone's mask. Finding the real self beneath.
What do they think? What do they feel?
It's hard to uncover the skin beneath a perfectly crafted mask. Everyone wears them at dates to conceal their ugly traits.
Perhaps you bring a gift that you don't even like. Trusting that the other person will be taken by your generosity. To keep your mask choose the right atmosphere and place for the first date. Does the location fit the image you're trying to impose? You can't pretend to be a businessman in expensive, tailored suits when the restaurant of choice is part of a fast food chain. Know your facts.
Not everyone is easy to handle.
People are versatile. People crave something.
You have to learn how to flatter with a simple gesture. To read people and see exactly how lonely they are in their little apartments, living with no one else besides their work and cat. If you're looking behind someone's mask it's easy to manipulate them and have them do exactly what you want them to do.
Looking back, I wonder if I should have seen the signs that night.
When I kissed her, something dark and animalistic possessed my body.
Like an infectious disease that you can't get out of your system anymore.
The sweet curve of her mouth tasted like every dark need I ever had.
Perhaps, I was blinded, too.
Chapter 10: Chapter VIII
Sometimes human places breed inhuman monsters.
Everyone has a conscience.
The threshold that no one should cross.
Your moral judgement that shows you right from wrong and good from bad.
Something, that derives from values or norms and that leads to feelings of remorse when a human commits actions that go against their morals. Social norms that chain and prevent us from reaching our full potential.
The so-called "voice within" that paralyses you as soon as you go astray. It's lurking, always, right under the surface, waiting to interfere with your everyday life.
You can never escape. You can never break out.
An oppressive feeling, isn't it?
MI5 Headquarters, Conference Room B7
Friday, 5th September
19 days until the next murder
A neatly folded file slapped down on the desk in front of Hermione. She glanced at the brown folder holding a couple of papers in place, before her eyes found their way back to the whiteboard at the end of the room. There was no need to open the file.
When Dumbledore gave her the badge, inducting her as an official secret member of the Order of the Phoenix, Hermione hadn't known what would be expected of her. Now, sitting in a room with over twenty officers of different ranks, sweating in the early September sun that pushed unyieldingly through giant windows, she was certain it had not been this. The meeting had been going on for over an hour, with no new evidence coming forth to catch her interest. Everyone was becoming more and more frustrated, the frowns on their brows and tension in their shoulders a clear sign to read. Sirius and James were counting the few details and pieces of evidence that the forensics had found at the crime scene of the Lupin household days ago - pictures of the rooms, the chairs, the blood splatters. None of it added anything new to Hermione's pre-existing profile so far.
James drew a perfect black circle around the general area where the Lupins lived, as well as four other similar circles in different parts of London. Including the MI5 bombing, all the victims were found between three to ten miles apart.
"Previously, we thought Voldemort only attacked in London. The last murder negates that theory, however."
"He shifted out of his comfort zone, which means he's getting bolder," Sirius added. "Another indicator of this is the time between the bomb and Ted— ... Edward's time of death." His hand stopped hovering over the whiteboard. Knuckles white, he pushed the pen down with more force than necessary as he wrote the approximate timings of their deaths.
Nymphadora - 7:40 a.m.
Edward - 8:15 a.m.
Remus - 9:00 a.m.
"I don't think so," Draco said, before Hermione could object, fingers toying with the bottle top of his Perrier bottle. He leaned back until his long legs were stretched out in front of him, as if they had done something to offend him. "The bold part I mean."
"Aunt Dora and Teddy were collateral damage, nothing more. His target had always been the MI5."
Hermione couldn't help but agree with him, eyes rigid, nod short.
Draco's right. Compared to the other murders Remus died somewhat peacefully. He didn't care about his death as much as he did with the first victims. The bomb was a message. For us. It said 'You cannot stop me. You are vulnerable and you're only alive because I want it'. He only killed Edward and Nymphadora to hurt the people left behind. - Wait. Aunt Dora?
"You have no right to call her that!" Sirius spat immediately. James shot him a hard look. His hand on Sirius' shoulder tensed subtly before he steered him back into his chair.
"Believe it or not, Black, but you're not the only one who lost someone that day," Draco countered dryly. Draco didn't mourn, not exactly, but a certain kind of sadness rested amidst the hard lines of his cheekbones; his teeth were clenched too hard. Out of the corners of her eyes, Hermione could see how Sirius snarled at Draco's comment. She was not sure how much of Draco's grief was real and how much was just pretence.
Sirius shook James' hand off his shoulder, violently.
Draco was unfazed. He fell silent again and wore a carefully chosen mask of boredom. Hermione couldn't hold it against him.
The following minutes were heavy with people agreeing to disagree, facts that were chewed up and spit out a dozen times until no one could stomach them anymore. The forensics hadn't found anything useful at the Lupin household and the interrogation of the neighbours came to nothing as well. The dreadful feeling that time was running out on them sat between their tensed shoulders. Nineteen more days. A clock counting down to the next murder.
Neville, their IT-specialist, was the last one to report. But neither surveillance cameras nor their archives could bring some light to the darkness. It was like picking crumbs in a chicken barn. Lord Voldemort was a ghost. It seemed he could materialise out of thin air, leave a body behind and vanish before any authority could get their hands on him. It was utterly frustrating.
Hermione was sure that something was still hiding in the archives. But without the faint glimmer of a clue, they wouldn't get around to find what they were looking for.
"Thank you, Neville," James said, resigned, shoulders slouched. The morning light played tricks on his dark skin and his cheeks seemed to sag due to of lack of sleep.
Pessimism was slowly drowning the room and Hermione could feel their hope dropping like sand in an hourglass. When Dumbledore turned around to face her, she could feel a lot of other eyes shift to her as well. It was an unnerving feeling, like spider legs tickling her nape.
"Miss Granger, I think it's time to hear the profile," Chief Dumbledore said. There was a curious glint in his periwinkle eyes and Hermione felt strangely tense, almost as if she were being tested.
She gave a short nod, picked up her satchel and rose, her chair screeching across the linoleum. All eyes were set on her when she took James' place at the whiteboard and she felt a sudden rush of dizziness. Almost as if the ground under her feet had shifted and she was free-falling. She hesitated. She searched for a fixed point and found Draco's eyes, calm but frozen like a lake in winter. She took a breath, and looked away, back to the other officers.
"To understand Lord Voldemort we need to understand the man who wears his name. What was his environment? What made him think like this? What is his social background? Why did he choose these victims?"
She opened her satchel and pulled out a few sheets of paper and a couple of pictures that she put on top of the crime scene ones, almost completely covering all the gruesome scenes. The pictures were from the victims, all taken shortly before they had been murdered. All of them wore happy faces: a slight smile on Lavender's profile, a goofy one on Cedric's. Even Gregorovitch, who usually looked grim and grumpy, had a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
"All of these victims were people before they became bodies. We, as officers and agents, tend to forget that. But Voldemort didn't. There's a certain kind of fascination that Voldemort nurtures for people who tell a story."
The words snagged slightly in her throat—she was surprised by the emotion in her own voice.
Admiration. A reflection of his nature. A God playing with inferiors.
Hermione could see how some of them perked up - above all James, and even Snape. Dumbledore, however, was still as unreadable as ever. His eyes were worn, with dark bags under his glasses, and he looked more tired than the last time she had seen him hunched behind his office. The Voldemort case seemed to be taking a toll on everyone these days.
"What you're saying Miss Granger, is that Voldemort acts according to his social environment—„
"Or perhaps he just really likes to kill happy people," Sirius interrupted Snape.
"Nonsense, a sociopath doesn't care about people's feelings."
"Well, perhaps he's a sociopath who does care—"
"That's even more absurd, Black. For God's sake would you for once read the papers—"
"Voldemort is no sociopath," Hermione blurted and winced as the room immediately fell silent. The ticking of the clock on the wall sounded unusually loud in the room, almost taunting. James stopped fidgeting with the papers in his hands. Dumbledore arched a grey eyebrow, and Hermione was sure she saw the flicker of a smile at the corner of his lips.
Snape rolled his eyes, clearly annoyed. Hermione's hackles rose.
"I don't know if you haven't read the files either Miss Granger, but Dr Moody already diagnosed Voldemort as sociopathic in his last profile."
"Yeah, and he paid for it. He died, didn't he?" Hermione's temper was rising, her blood raging in her veins, and she could feel the colour in her cheeks intensifying. Moody might have been a great psychologist with an almost zero error rate, who had reformed the field of profiling single-handedly—but he had been wrong about Voldemort.
"I'm still not convinced that Voldemort didn't kill him—and yes, Snape," she said, putting a stop to the objection that was already on his lips, "I know that the reports say suicide, but we all know that for Voldemort it would have been a piece of cake to make it seem like one. Oh, and just for your information, I read all the files. That doesn't mean they were accurate. Voldemort is not a sociopath. He never was."
Snape's mouth snapped shut. Everyone else in the room watched her with growing interest, even Sirius. Dumbledore gave a small half-praising nod in her direction; she felt strangely angry.
If he knew this already, why didn't he say anything? Is he aware that lives are at stake?
But it was not her place to question her superiors. Not yet.
"We have to deal with a psychopath of the worst kind," McGonagall said short and crisp, her lips pursed and eyes sharp. It was the first time Hermione had heard her speak today. She looked the same as that time in Dumbledore's office. Her shoulders stuck out under the navy blazer and made her look even more intimidating than usual.
"A high-functioning one, yes. While I agree that there are a lot of sociopathic symptoms, I firmly believe that Voldemort only wanted us to think he's a sociopath. It is all part of his game. There are simply too many clues pointing to his psychopathy to miss." She cleared her throat and turned around to the whiteboard to start writing her notes. "The essential feature of a psychopath is a pervasive, obsessive-compulsive desire to force their delusions on others. Hervey Cleckley lists sixteen different psychopathic symptoms, while Robert Hare lists four more. They overlap and clash a couple of times, but if we're going with these two, we can clearly see how many apply to Voldemort."
The pen screeched loudly over the white surface. Everyone was watching her with interest, shoulders strained; even Snape and Black had stopped bickering to listen to her. She wrote all of Cleckley's points on one side, and Hare's on the other. Then she started to cross out which ones didn't apply until the words that remained on Cleckley's list read: superficial charm, absence of anxiety, pathological egocentricity, general poverty of lasting emotions, lack of any true insight, ingratitude for any kindness, no history of suicide attempts. On Hare's list, it read: superficial charm, grandiose self-worth, proneness to boredom, pathological lying, manipulativeness, lack of remorse, shallow affect, lack of empathy, early behaviour problems, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility.
"These are the symptoms that fit Voldemort's character. Please notice how I crossed out every symptom that even vaguely talked about antisocial behaviour or poor judgement of his environment." She turned around again and started to write some of the symptoms she crossed out before and started a new list including from Cleckley and Hare. It read: No sense of responsibility, quick mood shifts, impersonal sex life, poor behavioural controls, promiscuous sexual behaviour, many short-term relationships. "For these parameters, we don't have enough data yet. We cannot confirm that the lack of rape in both female victims was indeed coming from his lack of sexual desire, but rather intended to present the victim. Same goes for the other points."
She watched as some people took notes.
"Voldemort has no sense of morality in a human way. For him, there is no right or wrong. Only what is convenient." Hermione turned around, the black pen almost painfully gripped between her hands. "He views the world in a deeply cynical, distrustful and self-centred way. He mocks what we call common sense and seeks entertainment in his actions. For him, humanity is a resource to be milked and individual humans are to be used and discarded when no longer needed."
"Bloody psycho," murmured Neville, toying with the ribbon of his leather wristband.
"I think he prefers creative," countered Draco dismissively.
"Didn't you say that we shouldn't call him by pronouns so as to not set him off?", another officer asked while she was taking notes on an iPad. Hermione recognized her as Emmeline Vance, a special agent of the MI5 and a legend who had already worked on numerous older cases. Hermione had read about her success, above all else, in the Crouch case. She was a plain woman, without any makeup to cover her proud face. Her nose was slightly bigger and broke the symmetry—it added to her charm and elegance.
"I did. However, that was mostly for the press, because I didn't want Voldemort to know we have a lead on him."
"You think Voldemort is male?"
"Yes," Hermione answered, without hesitation. It was not only a feeling anymore; a lot of little clues indicated that the murderer was indeed male. "The decisive factor is the name he gives himself. Lord Voldemort. Not only Voldemort. But he adds the Lord, and not only to give himself some kind of authority or nobility. This might have been to set us on the wrong track, but I don't think so. He's boastful, arrogant and cocksure of himself. There's no way he would have slipped with the name. He even wants us to know his gender. And he wants us to know that he's far ahead of us, therefore he left the oil barrel in the Lupin house. He knows we have nothing on him, yet."
"But shouldn't we tell the people?" Neville asked.
"It would only give him recognition. He wants to put fear into London's heart, and we can't let that happen. Best if we don't react upon that and try to catch him without media coverage."
Neville nodded and even James agreed silently, flattening the papers on his desk. The only thing that was still unknown was his age. She couldn't quite pinpoint when he was born, there was a gap stretching from the mid-twenties up to the early fifties. Sadly, she simply needed more data.
"What symptoms were crucial for your profile?" Vance asked, but it was without venom. Curiosity peaked in her words and Hermione was glad to offer some insight on her thoughts.
"As I said, there were a lot of common symptoms that raised my suspicion from the start: outstanding intelligence, notable charm, no indications of irrational thinking, considerable self-consciousness and an absence of fear or nervosity. Following the so-called red thread of his murders, it was obvious that Voldemort manipulated his victims in a brilliant and slick manner." Hermione earned a few second glances, but those were mostly because all of this information was nothing new. Her fingers flexed around the pen. "As officers and agents, we tend to forget that sometimes these murderers are cleverer than us. Faster. More reckless. We start to think because we're on the good side, justice triumphs. But here's the deal. We are not better. We are not fast enough to catch him. And if we continue like this, we will fail." She paused to emphasise her words, and wet her lips. Only when she was sure she had their complete attention, she continued. "Voldemort is always ten steps ahead of us. He's never speechless. He's never shy or inhibited. He fakes empathy while searching for vulnerability in his victims. Pathological egocentrism. No sign of remorse or shame. Indulgence of deep emotions. Hunger for experience and a need for stimulation. Excessively searching for risks to push his limits. It was all right in front of us, but we couldn't see it."
"I don't want to interrupt, Hermione," Draco suddenly said, and sat straight in his chair until his hair was completely illuminated by the sun rays that shone through the large windows, "but how can it be that he acts with such careful planning? Aren't psychopaths known for being impulsive and lacking the patience to plan their murders to the tiniest details?"
Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see Neville get up and open one of the large windows to let some fresh air into the room. The sticky scent of too many people crammed in a small space slowly cleared. Draco opened up a second bottle of Perrier water and refilled her glass too. She nodded thankfully.
"And therein lies the clue. As I said, almost every brick fits with sociopathy—but not all. I don't think he fits that category. And I think that's what made Dr Moody think he was a sociopath." Her hands were steady, but her heart was beating frantically. She inhaled like she was preparing to dive into deep waters. "Voldemort plays us. He's a highly-functioning psychopath, able to control not only his emotions but also his life. In fact, I'll even go a step further. My profile says he not only has a stable job, but is also excelling in his career. Voldemort is a manipulator who knows exactly what makes us tick, and knows how to influence and exploit our feelings. He epitomises the dark triad in perfect balance: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy."
An awkward silence fell over the room again. Dumbledore was the one to address Hermione first. His voice was careful as if it would be the bane of their existence.
"What do we have to look for Miss Granger?"
Her eyes started to burn as excitement curled through her veins.
This is it. My first real profile.
"Look into doctors. Any people in white-collar jobs that studied any subject in the medical field during the last forty years. Also look into double majors. Into medicine minors. Look into their sons and nephews. Their sons-in-law. Look out for prodigies in any of the aforementioned fields. There's a big chance his intelligence has been noticed and perhaps even advertised by his parents."
Everyone in the room started taking notes simultaneously, even Draco. Dumbledore stared at her knowingly. He had a kind of way of looking at her. So deeply like he could see right into her soul. Worry knotted inside of her and she couldn't quite pinpoint why. She could vaguely remember a flicker of something, like a lit matchstick, fluttering before it vanished, as if it had never been there. When she caught herself profiling the man, she stopped and turned her face away.
"What else can you tell us?"
"As I said: Male. Probably white. Fit, lean built. Charming. Remember, when you go out there you're not looking for Voldemort. You're looking for a man who wears a perfectly crafted mask. People will love this guy. Men will fall over their feet to be his friend. Popular with the ladies. Single. There's no special someone in his life. Many acquaintances. He has little to no real friends. Perhaps one or two, but I doubt that they would know anything about his second life—even if he lets them in, they'll only see what he wants to show them. Or what he wants them to know. He lives big and spends his money mostly on things that will show his wealth. Clothes, a luxury car, Italian leather shoes, expensive restaurants. Either an owner-occupied flat or his own house already. He lives here in London. London is his patch, London is his playground. If any of these features fit someone, please report back to Neville, so we can check on him. Never go after him on your own. You will come in the range of this man's interests, and believe me, that is a risk. No one can guarantee your life after that."
"So anyone can still be in danger," James said matter-of-factly, and Hermione could only agree silently.
"He chooses his victims randomly, according to how much they appeal to him—as soon as you cross his path you're in his story too."
"What about his age?"
Hermione bit her lip and drooped, feeling ashamed. Something she didn't know.
"I can't pinpoint the age yet. There are too many variables. Anything from the mid-twenties up to the early sixties." Surprisingly no one attacked her for it. Everyone was too glad to finally have a starting point to nitpick at her profile.
"Okay," James said when it was clear that Hermione wouldn't add any more details. He put his pen down. "We should talk about how much we will tell the population—„
"We cannot give any of this information out. Voldemort stages everything—from Gregorovitch's head to the way we found Edward on the chair in the Lupin household. Voldemort is too intelligent, too deceitful and cunning—either it will uplift him or it'll encourage imitators who are just waiting for a chance to let their own beast out."
People are monsters if you let them. Better not to urge them on.
"Miss Granger is right," Dumbledore said and looked over to McGonagall, who was already typing feverishly on her iPad. "We will publish an official statement that we still can't give any information out. It will give us time to hopefully catch Voldemort during the next twenty days."
James grimaced, but gave in. He slouched back in his chair and looked dissatisfied, and, beyond that, terrified. Hermione could practically feel his terror, a fiercer version of the radar-like ripples caused by stress. She understood him all too well. She wasn't keen on leaving people in the dark either. But a national panic would only help Voldemort.
"This new information will hopefully be what we'll need to find and catch Voldemort. I think we should all go back to work now. Minerva will send you a note as to when we will meet again." Dumbledore rose from his chair and everyone else followed, even Draco. The room was suddenly bright and bursting with energy. Everyone was in a good mood leaving the room and Hermione could almost feel her bones pulsating with their vigour. She grabbed her papers and was stuffing them back into her satchel when Sirius interrupted her and asked why she hadn't been at the funeral days ago.
"I… I'm sorry, I was doing some research for the case—" Hermione was caught off-guard. Dread made itself at home between her bones. Her chest tightened. Breathing got harder.
He stared right at her for a long moment before finally saying, "Everyone was there. Even Snape."
And Hermione, who was so good at picking things apart, at understanding how they worked—how people worked—looked at the man and felt... conflicted. Because she didn't have to pick Sirius apart to see what was so obviously raging inside of him. Grief, as Hermione knew, was something quite violent. It had done something to Sirius that twisted his once handsome face into a cruel mask.
When no enemy is around you start to lash out at your allies.
She wasn't surprised that he asked her now, of all things. Agony needed days to nestle in your heart. When they had met in James' office some days ago Sirius had yet to realize that Remus was, indeed, gone. Now, nearly twenty days without the man at his side, despair had finally taken over.
Someone suddenly brushed by her side and it took her a moment to realise it was Draco.
"She went and consulted an expert, Dr Riddle. He's a known specialist in many medical fields and brought certain details into consideration that helped to make the profile of today. The one that should help find Remus' killer—isn't that worth enough?" He was standing at her side, one foot slightly in front of her, almost as if he wanted to shield her. It was the most she had heard him speak today, even if every word dripped scorn.
"Of course it is. Good job Hermione," James said soothingly, and put a hand on Sirius' shoulder, to guide him out of the room. Dumbledore stood nearby and his face was unreadable once more. He left the room with a last glance at their direction, face solemn and stoic. Sirius didn't look back. His head was hanging and James was murmuring to him. Hermione watched them go, Sirius' man-bun bobbing as he followed James out.
Draco considered her for a moment too long and smirked enough for dimples to appear at the corners of his mouth.
"Lucky I was around."
"So you think I wouldn't have been able to handle that myself?"
He looked at her strangely, almost curiously, a glint of something in his gaze. For a moment, Draco didn't seem ruthless or uncaring at all. She could see the carefully layered mask that years as a Malfoy heir had created, glinting in the grey of his eyes. Then he blinked and it was gone.
"I think," he said, sounding honest, "You can handle anything, with that thick head of yours."
And then he smiled and laughed lightly, the sound low and deep and colourful enough that it almost hurt between Hermione's breaths. The smile was like a symphony that carried through the harsh wind—a beautiful sound that fought against the howling and whistling with its simplistic perfection.
Her heart stuttered. Muscle memory.
"Come on, Granger," Draco said, and started walking. "I need a big cup of coffee now and I think you can do with one too. My treat."
He turned and left the room without waiting for her to follow. She stared at his retreating back wondering since when she had been holding her breath without noticing.
Friday, 5th September
19 days until the next murder
Surprisingly, when they arrived at Florean Fortescue's, the shop was almost empty. Afternoons were usually a busy time with lots of chatter and people gathering en masse to order ice frappés or their famous Florean's Three-Scoops-Surprise. Not this afternoon, however.
There were two men standing with their backs to the entrance, wearing expensive suits, while waiting for the barista to wrap up their order. A little boy was eating a double chocolate parfait with white crisps, while his grandma sipped a cappuccino on ice. A handful of boys and girls—obviously students—wearing big headphones were spreading their laptops and some grey-coloured study books over the tables, using the free Wi-Fi to work on their essays, which were most likely due at the start of the new term.
Draco was in the middle of a story about Blaise and Pansy and how he had to bail them both out of a French jail - after she had slapped an officer for staring at her breasts too long - when it happened. Hermione had got distracted for a moment watching at Draco's face, which had looked easy-going and open a minute before, but reminded her of a perfect Greek statue now. Closed off. Cold and unmoving.
He faltered and stepped back, putting more space between them. Hermione's gaze focused.
Hermione turned to the direction of the voice, the bun of wild hair feeling awfully like an untameable mess on her head. She froze to the ground. The two men standing in the queue a minute before were slowly coming their way, each holding a large cup of Florean's best coffee in their hands.
"I thought you said you had a super important conference to be at. Looks super important to me, huh?" One of them said, raising his cup at Hermione's direction. The man was as blond as Draco, with an undercut hairstyle that was slicked back with a lot of styling gel. Tall. Handsome. Energetic. Athletic. There was something cute and sweet and harmless about him. The resemblance to Draco was striking; the same sharp bone-structure, same straight nose, same grey eyes—they even had the same shade, between grey and green. The only difference was the clothes. While Draco swore on Henleys and his leather jacket, this man was clearly born to wear a Westwood suit. There were few men who could wear a suit without the suit wearing them, and this one was definitely one of them.
But it wasn't for him that Hermione's steps faltered and her breath caught behind her row of perfect teeth. The second man was approaching her with a lightness of step, lips curled up into an amused grin—Tom. There was pleased interest behind his grey eyes and Hermione felt suddenly drawn back into the centre of his gravitation. Her lips tingled with anticipation. Her mind flashed vividly with the pictures of their kiss. When he leaned forward to press a dry kiss on her cheeks she stood perfectly still. Her skin flared up an instant later.
"Hermione," Tom said and his velvety voice sent shivers down her spine. That bone-deep kind of shiver that had less to do with cold and more to do with desire. The space between them had dwindled into nothing. His gaze was intense. It was an electrifying feeling, as if every fibre of her body had been waiting for him to breathe life into her.
"Tom," she smiled and tried to hold onto the warmth that his name left inside her mouth. Her voice was more certain now than it had been days before. Less she wished and more she wanted. She felt the sudden urge to adjust the mess of hair on her head.
Draco on her left side clenched his fists until the veins stood out in blue. He was silent as a grave and glared daggers in Riddle's direction.
"Care to introduce us, Tom?" The man accompanying Tom seemed, obviously, to not be expecting any answer from Draco soon, so he turned to Tom with raised eyebrows and a curious glint behind his eyes.
"Forgive my manners. Abraxas. This is Special Agent Hermione Granger. Hermione, this is Abraxas Malfoy. A good friend."
A Malfoy. Of course.
Hermione took Abraxas' outstretched hand slowly. The skin looked pristine and soft, the kind you only had from a life predestined in wealth, without having to endure hard labour.
"My pleasure Miss Granger," Abraxas said and flashed her a smile to shame the sun. It was honest and pure and, most importantly, open to any kind of vulnerability—which was even more rare to find in a Malfoy. There was something else lingering at the corners, almost something mischievous and knowing. "Tom speaks of you in the highest of praises. I must admit I've never seen him quite so fond of a girl before." A spark lightened his eyes; he seemed to recognize her. From where or when Hermione didn't quite remember. He winked at her, "It's a shame Draco never introduced us before. He speaks of you as highly as Tom does."
Slowly, flashes of long forgotten memories returned to her. She remembered Abraxas, vaguely, waiting in a black Mercedes Cabriolet in the parking lot of Oxford to pick Draco up for the weekend. Back then she had thought Draco a snob. He still was, but there's always more than meets the eye.
Abraxas' phone started chiming with the discreet default music, but he put the call on hold.
"We're actually running late, but I'd love to continue this conversation another time."
Hermione could see that he was dwelling on something before he made up his mind. His eyes lit up and did a strange thing to his face; it became younger, more playful. Comparing it to Draco's, it was a miracle how brothers could look so much alike and at the same time so different from each other.
"I'd love to invite you to my exhibition this Sunday. It's nothing big, just a couple of new age artists I'm presenting in one of our cottages outside of London. There will be friends of the family and art lovers."
"I… feel honoured, thank you." Hermione had never been invited to one of these parties before. It would be a good place to do some research on their social circle. Do some nosing and digging around. Perhaps, Voldemort would be around, too.
If my profile's right, this will be exactly the kind of company he searches for.
"We could go together," Tom suggested casually, but his tone implied something else. It was more than just a casual question. There was a hint of desire lingering at the edges. A peculiar tingling sensation crawled over her body. They hadn't had the time to talk about their last date. Work had interfered with both of their lives, and so they had been too busy, except for superficial texts and the common how are you - fine, you? - me too. Tom was still smiling at her; his rich, dark hair caught the too bright sun, bringing out different shades of brown. He was like a magnet and Hermione could feel herself drifting towards him.
She felt dazed and distant.
"I'd like that," she said, a blush creeping up her skin. The blood under her cheeks felt searing hot. Somewhere in the room, someone's chair scraped back an inch, but no one stood up.
Hermione's attention was dragged back to the brothers that looked so alike and were anything but.
"It's a date then," Abraxas glanced down at his watch and tapped Tom's shoulder shortly before his eyes found Draco's again, "I'll see you tomorrow at dinner?"
"Yeah, see you tomorrow."
Curiously, she watched how Draco pulled himself apart and put himself back together, then forced his lips into the smoothest, coldest smile he could manage. It looked fake. Almost painful. He tipped his chin up as soon as he saw his brother make his way around them, already talking on the phone.
Something about medical attention. Abraxas was twisting his voice in a deep, commanding baritone, but his face, even in the blur that was his expression, was composed and cold. Riddle gave her an apologetic smile and leaned forward to brush his lips against her cheek once more. His breath was warm and inviting as he whispered his goodbyes. It smelled of fresh mint. She shivered.
There was something defiant in Draco's eyes and dangerous in the lines of his jaw.
Hermione risked a glance over her shoulder to look at Abraxas' reaction—but he was already gone.
Draco's forced smile, however, stayed for the rest of the day.
Imagine a life without a conscience.
No limiting emotions, for whatever immoral action you have taken.
A world without a second wasted on thinking about the wellbeing of family members. Or friends. Or strangers.
No ballast. No internal restraints, whatever you do.
A life without constraint.
You're not held back from any of your desires. Pure creativity flows through your veins and shows you a twisted tale of ambition and imagination. People think conscience is universal amongst human beings—let them accept their burden without question.
Hide the fact that you are conscience-free with charm and good humour. No one will ever confront you for your ruthlessness. The cold blood in your veins is so bizarre, so completely unlike their personal experience, that they will never suspect you to be different.
To be better.
You can do anything you want.
Complete and utter freedom.
Welcome to my life.
Chapter 11: Chapter IX
You see what power is - holding someone else's fear in your hand and showing it to them.
An oppressive feeling.
You're bathed in cold sweat. Your throat constricts. Panic sets in. You can't scream. Can't run. You're shackled to the ground. You cannot break out. You try to remember, by all available means, that fear is only a product of your thoughts. That you need to ignore the symptoms. Cut them off.
But you fail.
It's the big monster inside your head.
Fear makes you do things, think things, feel things, that you have never experienced before.
It paralyses you. It limits you.
Danger is real. Fear is a choice.
Alastor Moody's House
Wednesday, 10th September
14 days until the next murder
It was almost late afternoon when Draco arrived.
He had squeezed himself into one of his slim designer jeans and left his car just around the corner; Hermione's VW Beetle occupied the place in front of the house.
Here on the outskirts of London the weather was grey and overcast and suited the sombre mood that permeated Britain. It was the kind of mood you experienced at a wake, where nobody wanted to talk to anyone else because there was nothing to say. The sun had been missing for the last couple of days and a storm was hanging over them like a thick blanket of a long forgotten promise. Draco scrunched up his nose in delight.
"You're late," Hermione greeted him with growing irritation. The fine curve of her lips was pressed into a thin line and her arms were hidden inside the thick ochre sweater that she usually wore at home. It was frayed at the collar and the sleeves due to old age, but it was comfortable and cosy and it did the job of keeping her warm. She could feel her hair getting frizzy from the humidity.
"I'm never late, nobility always arrives after the plebs." Draco flashed her a toothy smile, all pearl-white peaks, his eyes glimmering mischievously before he led the way towards the entrance. He fished an old key out of his jacket that had the yellow forensics badge still dangling from its loop. He looked too handsome, too childish. When he opened the door he waited politely and held it wide for her to enter.
"Home sweet home."
Hermione ignored him and entered the dark hallway.
The house was small and hidden behind enormous birches at the end of the lawn. It had been constructed with bricks and wood that layers of rain and mud and stone held together. The windows had been replaced some years ago and stood in stark contrast to the old bricks and withered ivy vines that crept along the gutter. In front of the door lay an old doormat that had lost all its colour to the sun, but read in thick bold letters: Come back with a warrant. The entrance opened into a long corridor that led first into a lounge area, then into a kitchen. Stairs were in one corner with an old carpet that had once been blue or green, but was reduced to grey dust and dirt by now. A large flat-screen TV dominated the living room with a single couch that had been worn from sleeping on it. The air was dusty, curtains were closed. Everything reeked of onions and garlic, and most importantly, death.
"Does anyone look after it?" Hermione made her way over to one of the piles of books and read the titles upside down.
"Neville hasn't found any relatives," Draco said from somewhere behind her.
Hermione hummed, then stepped carefully through the room. Her eyes darted around but didn't falter. Everything was in pristine order, if you ignored the dirt and dust that had accumulated over time. Maroon cushions carefully placed on the couch, a pair of old slippers still standing neatly placed aside. Every book and magazine was stacked accurately to the millimetre. The man had been nuts, sure, but who wasn't in their job?
No relatives. Lonely. Single. Not many friends. Not accepted in his neighbourhood. A hermit.
There had been a long and hard discussion with James the day before and it still made Hermione's shoulders tense when she thought about it. It had taken all of her persuasion skills - and eventually Dumbledore's approval - but eventually she had been given permission to search Moody's house. James called it a waste of time; she called it profiling.
Moody had been one of the first profilers in Europe, known as a legend in their circles and pioneer of profiling as they knew it today. Born and raised in Edinburgh, Moody had served in the British Military and had made it to the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major. In the field, he had served as a sniper and earned several awards, including the Victoria Cross. He'd transferred to the MI5 in 1982, where he applied criminal psychology and called it profiling. In 1999 he started to give lessons at Oxford, but only to a handful of people he carefully chose himself. She had had the luck of attending one of his rare college lectures when she'd still been a student. The man had fueled her fire for justice. He had impressed her deeply. His knowledge of murderers and his skill for creating a profile down to the tiniest detail had been admired by a lot of people. He had written five textbooks for criminal profiling classes and Hermione knew them all.
No one knew Voldemort quite as Moody did. No one knows Voldemort quite as she does now.
It felt strange to see that Voldemort had been one step ahead of him.
I wonder if he's one step ahead of me as well.
She picked up a framed photo on her way to the kitchen. The picture showed a much younger Moody, thirty years at least, in a particular kind of fisherman outfit and a forest green raincoat. Fish hooks dangled from his hat. It was the first time Hermione had seen the man with both of his eyes and without the eyepatch he had worn since after the London Ripper accident years ago. Moody had been in active field work back then and while his profile managed to save countless lives, he had lost his eye to the killer.
Had his life been the price this time?
Another man was in the picture as well. His auburn hair illuminated by the early morning sun. He wore a brightly coloured coat and held a fish that was at least fifty centimetres long. He looked all too familiar.
"Yeah, that's him." Draco appeared suddenly next to her, hands buried in the pockets of his jeans. "They were friends. Pretty close, I heard. It was hard for him when Moody was found dead."
That's why he reacted poorly when I asked him about the last profiler.
He held out a folder that he had been carrying all the while without Hermione noticing and pointed at a particular line. Hermione stared down at the pages filled with texts and information. There was a remark in a copy of Moody's will, in the same handwriting as the steel rope note, that said: sole heir A. Dumbledore.
"Did Dumbledore found the Order of the Phoenix before or after Moody was found dead?" Hermione stepped into the kitchen and looked around, but couldn't find anything that piqued her interest. Pots and empty Tupperware boxes were meticulously stacked on top of the shelves. Everything looked tidy and minimalistic.
Military training. Compulsion Disorder. Suffers severe psychological trauma. These emotions stirred in him for years, probably decades. Side effects of the war. Or his job.
"After," Draco said, watching her every step intensely. "Does it matter?"
After means that Dumbledore takes it personally. As soon as you take things personally you tend to make mistakes. Emotions lead to rash decisions, rash decisions lead to mistakes, mistakes lead to the next death, the next death leads to emotions. It's a catch-22.
"Where did you get these copies?" She waved with the folder he gave her a minute ago. She opened the wooden drawers one after the other, but couldn't find anything helpful.
"They're mine. Moody's death was the first time they called me in."
Moody died mid-July. So Draco came just after Diggory, but before Lupin. Wait -
"The note is from you?" She straightened, hastily, and turned around to look at Draco's face. He stood innocently some steps away, like a pillar of smugness, arms crossed before his chest and a smirk that made Hermione's blood pressure soar right pass comfortably. She straightened her spine.
"The steel rope, this - " She waved with the folder once more, energetic and almost accusatory, "-it has all been you?"
The steel rope note, the combustive agent, the crisply kept records and files after Diggory's murder - it had all been Draco. Flashes of her college time came up along with memories of homework and pristine notes in Draco's spiky handwriting.
Hermione felt stupid.
It was as if for the first time she could clearly see him.
Draco leered at her, his grin stretched into a dangerous smile. Hermione felt her cheeks heat up. Her expression grew serious.
"Stop that or I will strangle you."
"Can you even reach my neck?" He arched his perfectly curved eyebrows and flashed her a simpering, saccharine smile.
Hermione's cheeks blushed in soft peach. Something pushed deeper inside of her, through her bones and between her muscles, rooting itself somewhere beneath her heart or between her lungs. She pushed whatever bloomed inside of her aside.
She walked down the stairs to the basement since that was where Moody had died according to the report and tried to block anything remotely reminding her of Draco's presence out.
Okay Hermione. Focus. Suicide, single shot right through the left half of his brain.
The room was almost completely cleared out and empty. Hermione kept her eyes forward. Two rows of rusty pipes were stuck on the wall facing her. The room was paved with white tiles and stone, chipped and discoloured by age and use. Ceiling. Floor. Walls. All sluiced with the heavy scent of disinfectant and fear. Soiled by blood and death. The fluorescent lights flickered and cast a bluish tint on everything. The air was wet and smelled of mould and misery. A big splash of dried blood was still visible in the middle of the room and filled the faint trace of a chalk outline almost to the rim. She spotted old smears of motor oil and dry soil in the shape of car tires near the garage gate.
"Where is his car?"
"Dumbledore has it. We found it in the driveway when we arrived."
Hermione nodded lost in thoughts. She stepped closer to the dark stain and looked into the folder once more.
No forced entry. No traces of a fight. He was found sitting on an old chair in the middle of his basement, facing the garage door. No prints on the gun except his own. Close range shot right through the brain. It looks more like an execution than a suicide. Furthermore, he cleaned the house and took the car out. As if he died willingly. But why did he chose shooting?
"Talk to me, 'Mione." The nickname slipped from Draco's lips like an old habit.
Hermione looked up surprised. She couldn't help but notice that the name felt comfortable in a mildly intimidating way. He flashed her a small, coy smile that made all her senses tingle. When Draco stepped closer, he didn't blink.
"What's going on in that pretty head of yours?"
She dwelled on her response a little longer.
"Shooting yourself is a brave thing. Not many people can do it. It's the most forceful and brutal way of killing yourself. Drugs are easy. Sleeping pills too. They usually lull you to sleep before you even have the chance to realise that it's over. Most people cut their wrists the wrong way so they don't even die from that. Gas taints your senses and you die almost peacefully. But shooting…" She lifted her chin and stared at her reflection in the filthy silver of the pipes. "Shooting is a harsh method. A hateful one."
"You don't think he did it." It was less of a question and more of a statement. She worried her lower lip between her teeth until it hurt.
"I'm just saying that it seems to contradict the other facts we have."
"Moody's file speaks for him. He lost more than just an eye back then. He never completely recovered and started to take hard antidepressants. Even his psychological evaluation said that he should have been taken out of active field long before he started working on the Voldemort case. Anyone on antidepressants has a hard time focussing on reality, you know that."
"Yes, I know but—" But what? She didn't know exactly what she wanted to say, but there was something screaming wrong in bold letters at her. She sighed and popped her lower lip out before the skin broke and it started bleeding.
Shooting yourself is messy. The clean state of the house and the missing car don't add up. Why did he take that road?
Draco didn't press the matter. Instead, he leaned forward and took the folder back into his hands and flipped through it nonchalantly. Hermione realised he probably knew the file by heart.
"But something's not right." He closed the folder and looked back at her. His eyes were steady and calm.
"Yeah," she agreed somberly. She couldn't pinpoint what it was exactly, but everything seemed like it was presented as a show, not an actually planned suicide. Her instincts were screaming at her.
Voldemort could have easily arranged this.
When there was nothing else left to do Draco led them away, this time all the way up to Moody's old office. He took the stairs two at a time and Hermione had a hard time catching up with his long legs.
He opened the door and let her pass first.
Hermione thanked him with a nod, then strode through the room and looked through the large shelves stuffed with old tomes and books in different languages. Most of them were frayed at the edges and the leather spines were hanging in tatters. In one corner she found three of the titles from Voldemort's riddles: The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, The Name of the Rose -
"Did you see this?"
"Seems like the old Moody had been on the right track."
She took one of the books and skimmed distractedly through it, never resting at anything special. Moody had not added any notes. She handed Draco the book when he stepped closer while she opened the large desk that occupied the room. On top of a couple of pens were files in different coloured folders, smudged with ink at the edges.
"Everything about the case has already been added to the files," Draco said. He put the book back into the shelf and shook off the dust that had settled on his leather jacket.
"I know." Moody's files had been a mess. Hermione remembered that she had to put dividers in for documents, crime scene pictures, evidence and suspects; otherwise, she would have never stood a chance at making it through the chaos the man had left behind upon his death. She started to twist the broad silver ring on her hand thoughtfully.
Our profiles match, mostly. Early thirties to sixties. Highly intelligent. Planned. Medical knowledge. He only had three cases to compare so he missed out on the sociopath. But the gender-
"Moody thought Voldemort was a woman, right?" She knew the files by heart and this little detail had been nagging at her ever since she had started to create the profile. Her instinct had told her it had been a man. It was just a feeling, but she held onto it as if it were her lifeline.
"Yeah. We even had a suspect, but that didn't work out."
"Lestranges' file is classified. I couldn't access it."
"I'm not surprised. Her husband came into the headquarters waving his prosecutor badge in one hand and a lawsuit charge in the other. Dumbledore got involved. Things got messy. James had to let her leave without a word."
"Did you put surveillance on her?"
"Not enough evidence. Besides, she had an alibi for two of the murders."
Can't hurt to look into her again. Perhaps I'm missing some facts.
Hermione rummaged a bit longer through the drawer and put pens and highlighters from one side to the other. Between the pages of an old address register flashed a yellow post-it. She turned it around.
Barts? Like the St. Barts hospital?
Hermione put the post-it in the back pocket of her denim shorts and shut the drawer close.
"I think we're done here."
Draco nodded and led her out of the house. Death hid behind closed doors once more.
Outside, the sun was about to set and a brisk, faintly wet breeze had begun to whistle through the cramped and crooked streets. The smell of fresh air cleared her mind almost immediately. She tugged the sleeves of her warm sweatshirt down over her knuckles.
"Do you know why people call suicide a sin?" Draco stretched his arms far above his head, until the bones cracked.
Hermione shook her head. Religion, much like any belief in the supernatural, had never been one of her strengths.
"Because it gives us control. We are born, we live, we die—all without having control about any of these things. But suicide changes that. It's the only thing in our lives we have complete control over. Kill yourself and you beat God at her own game."
"So God is a woman?"
Draco, who was a few steps ahead, looked back at her. Old green shutters with slowly peeling paint flew open and swayed on their hinges, slamming against wooden window sills and long-neglected flower boxes. At her feet, a few fallen leaves fluttered. Then a gentle breeze carried them high above the fence, blowing them into the distance.
"What else would she be?" His eyes traced her face with softness in them. His smile was sincere.
She gave him a quick smile that tugged at the corners of her mouth.
Spreading panic and fear is an art.
It gives you control.
You put people into a kind of trance. They become helpless creatures and return to primitive patterns. They wind and coil in your presence. You can manipulate them. You can force them to do things they would never do otherwise.
Hold a gun between their eyes and watch panic settle in.
Watch the sweat run into the crooks of their skin.
Watch their lips tremble.
Watch how they become marionettes in your game.
Fear gives you power.
All that's left to do is to pull the trigger.
Chapter 12: Chapter X
It is only in love and in murder that we still remain sincere.
You meet someone.
You are fascinated.
You listen to each and every word they say. Be it undecided or not.
You exchange numbers. Pictures.
You call each other.
You try to deceive the other one with putting yourself in the best light.
You meet again.
You cross lines.
The world couldn't be more colourful.
But your friends don't like them. Your family neither.
But you do.
You back them.
Every word they say is true. They? They would never lie to you. The world lies. Sure as death.
Do you move in with them or do they move in with you? Doesn't matter. Table. Chairs. Plates. Everything will be thrown together. Does your favourite book get a place at your common shelf, or does it get sorted out to rot in a box in the basement? Another person takes place in your life. Forcibly.
At that moment you might ask yourself if you're ready.
And you look at that person and think: of course I am.
Because you back them.
You throw your cautions in the winds. You are flooded with love.
After some time the being together is inevitable.
You take out a loan.
You stand bail for them.
You talk about marriage.
Growing old together.
And perhaps there's that tiny little voice inside your head which asks you:
Is that me?
Or is it love that does this to me?
Malfoy Summer Mansion
Saturday, 13th September
11 days until the next murder
When Tom helped Hermione out of his car she felt taken back to America's Roaring Twenties.
The Manor was softly illuminated, pillars and stairs sculptured out of white natural stone dipped in a warm yellow glow. A thick burgundy carpet was rolled out from driveway to threshold and swallowed every step of her high heels. The air was rich with the scent of fresh water and hundreds upon hundreds of lilies that were draped along the handrail and windowsills.
One could not have found a better scene for such an exhibition.
Gatsby himself couldn't compare. The Malfoy summer mansion was everything and more.
A butler stood stoically at the entrance and checked the invitations of each guest with a grim face and a flick of his eyes. His back was slightly bent and his nose looked as if it had been broken a couple of times without ever having healed correctly. When it was their turn he didn't even ask for an invitation. Instead, a smile softened the hard lines around his eyes.
"Young Mister Riddle, it's nice to see you. Master Malfoy awaits you and your company."
"Good evening, Dobby, I will go and find him then." Tom returned the smile and lead the way into the house.
Gems and gold were flashing in the light of an enormous diamond chandelier that hung from the ceiling. Fiddles and violins played from somewhere in the house. The hall was filled with people, probably a hundred guests, if not more, who spread in a sea of haute couture and evening dresses. Here and there an artwork hung on the wall and installations were built in the middle of the room. People gathered in groups and some were already hogging the bar that was temporarily built near the giant glass-doors leading to the garden. Waiters in perfectly tailored tailcoats served rose-coloured champagne and little chocolate truffles filled with raspberry-mousse.
Hermione's fascinated gaze darted through the room.
The mansion was filled with famous guests as far as her eyes could see. Faces she only knew from the news; delegates, judges, lawyers - haute monde from all over the world. Some had arrived from surrounding European countries, some from overseas. One designer gown after another was on display, their colours ranging from peach pink to midnight blue.
Hermione, clad in a 50-pound dress off the rack, felt out of place and slightly embarrassed. Tom took her hand. It was warm and a pleasant reassurance that calmed her instantly.
"Bonjour - ah, Miss Granger, what a pleasure." Abraxas strode through the room and leaned close to her to place kisses to either side of her cheek. His grin was radiant and shamed the sun. He didn't greet Tom at all but rather treated him amicably like a family member. Like a brother.
A waiter arrived at his side with three glasses of bubbling champagne on a silver platter. Abraxas pushed two of them into their empty hands and took the third for himself.
"I'm glad you could make it."
"The pleasure is all mine," Hermione said. She took a sip of the sparkling liquid in her glass. It tasted ripe and expensive. "You have a nice mansion, Mister Malfoy."
"Please, call me Abraxas. Mister Malfoy makes it sound as though I'm in my forties, or worse, my father. Both are nothing to look forward to." His charm was as sharp as an arrow and was aimed to strike true. "Thank you for the compliment. The Mansion has actually been in our possession for over two hundred years. We use it as a summer vacation haven only - mother loves to decorate the garden outside. This year Tuscany is in great demand." His grey eyes betrayed nothing. It was like looking into an empty mirror.
Piercing eyes. Keen wit and charm, superfluous pretending to be someone he's not on the surface. No emotions displayed. Doesn't show his intentions. No bricks to build upon. Hates his father - or is that just youthful rebellion? It is well known that the Malfoy sons have their grievances with the responsibilities that come with their heritage.
"Abraxas it is," she says smiling, and added a beat later, "but then I have to insist on you calling me Hermione."
A clear, sharp-edged laugh left Abraxas' lips. Then he hooked Hermione's arm under his own without any protest and led the way through the masses of people. Tom followed, but was strangely quiet during the process. She threw a glance over her shoulder at him. His face was unreadable and his eyes were fixed on Abraxas' hand on hers before he looked up to her face. He broke the stare and put his drink on one of the counters that were spread throughout the room without even having nipped at it.
For the greater part of the next half hour, Hermione was dragged from one artwork to the next, canvas after canvas, some collages of shades of black side by side and strange constellations of hues of blue and dark tones that ripped through the surfaces. Half hidden faces on white paper seemed to stare at her and contemporary art queued one after another. They passed a row of delicate little pieces in watercolours that pictured different parts of the face- Everything looked bizarre and abstract. She overheard a couple of upperclassmen fawning over the brilliance of a white canvas that read 'I can't explain and I won't even try' - she felt at an utter loss to find any meaning at all.
"Some people go to art college and all they get is an attitude," Tom murmured on her side when they've reached a particular canvas that was basically painted in waves of Prussian blue and dips of white. She laughed softly.
Just then the doors swung open behind them and Hermione turned around to see a young man strolling in. He looked unlike any other guest since he wore a sports jacket and skinny jeans, ripped at the knees. She doubted that it was due to frequent use but rather to mime an aesthetic. The man was about the same age as Tom and Abraxas and had a perfectly angular face with cutting cheekbones. His black hair shone in all the colours of a raven's wing as it was illuminated by the diamonds of the chandelier.
"Regulus," Tom greeted him first, eyebrows raised. They shook hands and Tom introduced Hermione as his date with a firm hand at the small of her back. She tasted the word date on her tongue and felt unbelievably ecstatic.
When it was her turn she noticed how long and slender Regulus' fingers were. Dry clumps of acrylic were still sticking under his nail beds and his skin was a bright shade of red in some places as if someone had put yellow highlighter on it. There's something confusingly enthralling about his eyes, which were a striking shade of blue.
He's one of the artists.
"I didn't know you would be able to make it. Why didn't you say anything?" Abraxas searched for one of the waiters but Regulus stopped him with a wave of his hand, showing 'no alcohol please'. He shrugged nonchalantly.
"I thought it couldn't hurt." His voice was low and raspy from smoking. Something about him looked very familiar but Hermione couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was.
Former alcoholic. Just back from rehab. Little cuts around his fingers which could be from his art instruments - or medical ones. Introverted. He pushes his shoulders in, instead of out. Lips are bitten raw. Scratches around his neck and knuckles - probably a habit when he's nervous.
"We were just on our way to your piece. Care to join us?"
Regulus looked uncomfortable for a moment. He dwelled on his response a tad too long to shrug it off. In the end, he gave in and followed Abraxas who, once again, led the way. Tom seized the moment and took Hermione's warm hand into his own. His thumb rubbed circles into her skin.
Abraxas led them into a small nook that was elegantly arranged. Two white spotlights were drawn to the centre of a large canvas that dominated the wall.
It was red.
Red as ripe pomegranate seeds.
Red as Baccara roses.
Red as blood.
On closer inspection, one could see the white ends where the thick layer of colour dripped down like a liquid. It looked like blood that seeped out between fingers. Spatters right out of a crime scene gave the artwork more depth. The fitting title read Divine Violence.
"Disturbing, isn't it?" Abraxas' grin was razor sharp. His eyes were spellbound on Hermione's face. As though he was testing her. Waiting for a certain kind of reaction.
"Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable," Tom said, and took the liberty to add arrogantly, "Cesar Cruz, author of Nortenos/Surenos."
Hermione nodded slowly but couldn't keep her eyes off the canvas. Something ached inside of her. When she spoke she didn't even turn around.
Someone once told her the right question for an artist was never what they wanted to express. Art, much like pain and pleasure, demanded to be felt. The why was important. Why this medium. Why this colour. Why.
"I bared my heart and it meant nothing to him," Regulus said at her side, his voice carefully tread with an icy undertone. His eyes never left the canvas, almost as if he was forcing himself to not let his gaze waver. Hermione turned her head around until she could see his profile clearly against the spotlights.
Clenched fists and teeth, rigid composure, a slight shake from aggression that sits between his shoulders. Bare emotions on his face, but he tries so hard to keep his expression hard. Considering he's talking about a he it either means he's either gay or bisexual, biromantic at very least. Which means-
"He hurt you." It was something between a question and a remark.
"Not exactly." Regulus swallowed. His gaze became unfocused. Hermione could see the strained muscles in his neck. He rolled his shoulders, then cracked his knuckles.
"I just-" he stopped mid-sentence and threw a quick glance over Hermione's shoulder before he turned around again, eyes fixed on the canvas, "I don't want to talk about it."
He's nervous. Something itches under his skin but he forces himself to conceal it.
She wanted to reach out to Regulus but dropped it. It was not her place to dig things up today. So she settled on a smile that she hoped did look encouraging.
Tom observed them silently. When he stepped closer to Hermione, Regulus turned away seamlessly. Hermione didn't even notice; Tom dominated the space around him.
After a while, Abraxas turned to the next artwork, but Hermione stood still. Something about the piece held her captive. It was mesmerizing.
"What do you see?" Tom asked.
She tried to put her feelings into words, but she couldn't. In a world full of descriptions everything was blank. For the first time ever, she was at a loss for words.
"It's not about seeing. It's about feeling."
When it comes to art it's important to show everything as it truly is. Naked. Flawed. Painful. Mad.
"Well, what do you feel?" His breath was warm on her cheek.
"Too much," she said. She could feel her pulse like a steady drum on her neck when he leaned into her.
Tom hummed in agreement. His fingers splayed at her waist.
It didn't last long before the next one came and engaged Tom in conversation, and while he always introduced Hermione as his date, she was happy enough to observe the guests and take mental notes.
Regulus had been the first one who had piqued her interest. While a lot of people were gathering in the Malfoy Mansion, just a few fit the profile she had in mind. She hadn't even known how many politicians and lawyers Britain had to offer, but as soon as Tom had introduced her to one of them the next one came around the corner. She could feel that Voldemort was around. Like a bad omen.
After a while, her mind slipped away.
"Excuse me for a moment," Tom said suddenly from her side and pressed a kiss to her cheek. He joined another man across the room and shook hands with him before they fell into a soft conversation.
"He has always been much loved by everyone." Abraxas closed in on her and exchanged her empty glass with a new one. The champagne fizzed greedily.
"How long have you known each other? If you don't mind me asking."
"I don't mind at all. Honestly, I'm glad he finally found someone he seems to like. Besides, he has had to deal with so many girlfriends of mine that I'm all about exacting revenge." When he laughed the sound was still sharp and edgy. It sent shivers down her spine. Something dangerous tinged his voice.
"We met in primary school. Went to Eton together. Then to college. We both studied medicine. My parents love him. Always have. I think sometimes they wished he was their own flesh and blood." They both watched Tom from afar and how he easily slipped from one conversation into another. "Tom is a good sort. People simply love him - and he's always eager to help people out."
When Tom looked over his shoulder at Hermione their eyes locked. Next to her Abraxas snorted almost nastily.
"You look good together. Don't forget to make me godfather of your firstborn."
"It's not-" Hermione spluttered and ripped her eyes off of Tom. Her cheeks were bright red and she could feel her pulse quicken.
Abraxas laughed out loud. This time the sound was not dangerous at all, but carefree. Something about him made her shift uncomfortably.
He's wielding his words like weapons and shifts between masks. He doesn't want someone to know his real face. I wonder if Tom knows.
"Sure it is. But I get it. Some people are meant to be but even if everyone else does see it, they don't." He put his now empty glass on one of the platters when a waiter passed them. "Make sure you don't miss the opportunity, Hermione. You both deserve it."
He gave her a long look that unsettled her bones. Luckily, Draco chose that moment to show up behind her.
"Rosier is looking for you." Draco nodded to the general direction where a small group of people stood in a circle. Abraxas gazed over. Something changed in his posture when he looked back at Draco. The tension between the brothers was almost palpable. Abraxas' face closed off and he suddenly wore his bones ready for war. "I should take my leave then."
He turned around to join the circle at the far end of the room. He threw himself into the next conversation with a tall man who spread his smile widely, teeth glinting like knifepoints.
Strange. He's burying something behind his behaviour. What is he hiding?
Only when his brother was out of earshot Draco finally turned to her. A smug grin tug at the corners of his mouth.
"Hey," she didn't want to admit it but she was glad to see him. Tom was still deep in conversation but was alert enough to look back to her. She gave him a quick sign.
Draco led her out into the garden.
Much like the rest of Malfoy Manor, the garden was illuminated by numerous lights and seemed to shine softly under the starless sky. There was a pool. Its azure blue water reminded Hermione of the Tuscan bungalow she had spent a holiday with her parents. Some people were smoking in a corner. The music died as the glass doors slid closed and blessed silence enveloped the garden. Only the steady flow of the water against the white stone tiles could be heard.
"Abraxas can be quite intrusive." Draco leaned against one of the pillars and tilted his head just enough to look at her.
"I wouldn't call it intrusive."
"Pushy? Bothersome? Obtrusive?"
"Energetic," she finished with a grin and watched him roll his eyes affectionately. The way he wore his suit was different from his brother and Tom. More like armour. Like a mask he had to maintain. Another piece of information to add to the mystery that was Draco Malfoy.
They stood in comfortable silence for a while until the fresh air had cleared her mind again.
"So. Riddle." Draco said and it was more of a spat than a remark, but before she could object he had already continued. "Are you here because of him or because of Lestrange?"
"Lestrange is here?"
"Of course she is," he turned slightly around, just enough for Hermione to follow his line of sight. Sure enough, just mere meters away stood Bellatrix Lestrange with a glass of sparkling champagne in her hand.
"She can't see us," Draco murmured and tugged Hermione a step closer until she was almost flat against his chest. They were hidden by the pillar and two enormous palm trees that his mother had placed there last summer, while Lestrange was on the other side of the glass windows talking to Abraxas and the one Draco had called Rosier. Another man was at Bellatrix' side and she had looped her hand around his arm. Gold Hermès bracelets with diamonds were dangling from her wrist. She was clad in a form-fitting little black dress and the soles of her heels were as devilish red as her Coco Chanel lips.
Her posture screams murder.
Hermione watched Bellatrix for a while, oblivious to the fact that Draco observed her instead.
Could she really be Voldemort? I doubt it.
"Who is the man?"
"Rodolphus, her husband. He's the crown prosecutor."
Hermione had heard of him. A sly man in his early thirties. There were rumours about blood money and shady business deals, but no proof. Someone from old money with a clean slate. Someone you shouldn't mess with.
He fits the profile. I need more information about him.
"How does Abraxas know them?" She watched his brother, sharp and elegantly, twist story after story until Tom and his conversation partner joined them, too. Dread filled her gut.
"They're friends. Abraxas has always had a lot of people come over. Most of them have taken the same classes. Run in the same circles. You know. One knows the other, who knows another one - they went in and out at home." Draco shrugged it off, but Hermione could see something flicker behind his eyes.
When the group split up she turned around and took a tentative step back. Draco shifted until he leaned against the pillar again. The group of smoking people had left, too, leaving them alone out in the dark. The water still shone brilliantly azure behind them.
"Have you seen the red canvas?" she said after a while just to say anything at all. She didn't mind the silence between them, but she was genuinely interested in his opinion.
"You mean Divine Violence? It's a special kind of artwork, isn't it."
"Yes, it is. I wonder who hurt him so much."
"He didn't tell? That's strange. Usually, he's pretty eager to tell anyone who listens long enough." He gave a small, strangled laugh. "It's about the case. He claims he saw Voldemort one night."
"What?" Her heart stuttered hard enough to make her flinch.
Draco rolled his eyes and heaved a heavy sigh.
"Don't look at me like that. You can't seriously think he saw Voldemort, 'Mione. Just look at him. I talked to him twice. I don't think we should take his story for granted. Besides, he's a Black. Sirius put him through the mill often enough already. He even was in Nottingham for mental treatment. For weeks. They said they couldn't do any more for him. Creative minds are rarely healthy." He made a pause to push his hands deeper into the pockets of his slacks. "I suppose he shouldn't be promoting murder, but we all have our flaws."
He's a Black. That's why he looks so familiar.
Her mind was racing in time with her heart. But Draco didn't catch what she caught: the once-black cloud of her view on Regulus was beginning to change. When she turned around to search for him in the crowd he was nowhere to be seen.
Damn. I need to remember to talk to him. Even if he hasn't really seen Voldemort it might lead somewhere.
Steps emerged out of the dark behind her. Tom appeared at Hermione's side.
"That's my cue," Draco said, clenching his teeth.
"Draco," Tom greeted in his usual drawl.
"Riddle." Draco pushed away from the pillar, but turned to Hermione. "I'll see you tomorrow."
He left before she could answer him, his hands clenched until his knuckles turned white.
She watched his retreating back with a frown and worried her lower lip between her teeth again. Tom tilted his head but looked innocent. The animosity was painful to watch. She felt as if a bomb was about to explode, and when it happened, she hoped she wouldn't be around.
"What happened between you two?" She looked up at Tom but he was watching her with a careful expression, half-hidden in the shades of the palm trees. The soft light of the lamps flickered orange in his grey eyes.
"I'd dare to say his hostility stems from years of neglect. He thinks I took his brother from him." He reached for her hand and brushed his finger over her knuckles and the small silver band she wore around her finger. Nothing dear, just a plain silver ring her mother gave her when she graduated. "But who's the profiler of us two?"
She smiled sadly.
Who is indeed?
"It seems I'm bad at profiling as soon as personal emotions are involved."
"Emotions, hm?" Tom pulled her closer until his lips met her forehead. She could feel his smug grin. She closed her eyes and hummed in agreement.
They stood in silence for a while, only the night sky above them. When he spoke again his lips brushed her forehead, leaving goosebumps in their wake.
"Where do you want to go?"
She looked out into the depths of the azure pool and how the lights were slowly swallowed.
On the road to Hermione's flat
Sunday, 14th September
10 days until the next murder
Riddle drove his car much like he did everything else in his life: with a calm expression and utter precision. Hermione sunk deeper into the warm seat and smelled leather and honey-wax used to keep them in shape. The evening had been spectacular and she felt the tension that stitched her shoulders slowly slipping away to the tunes of the radio. She felt numinous.
"It was special," Hermione said and leaned back into the cushions of the car, her nose almost touching the leather. "I have never seen such extravagance before."
"It had its own charm, I suppose. Abraxas likes to dwell in gold and glamour. He has a peculiar taste in art. Nothing I'd buy, I'm afraid."
"So you're interested in art?"
Tom's lips stretched into a small grin that made his face look younger and mischievous around the little laughter lines that drew on the corner of his lips.
"I suppose. I visited the Tate Gallery of Modern Art last month. They had an interesting exhibition going on. Normality. Vincent van Gogh said Normality is a paved road-"
"It's comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow," Hermione finished. Tom's grin stretched wider. She wanted desperately to impress him and if she did, she waited for his praise. Her skin started to tingle with anticipation. "But who has the right to entitle normality. To put a label to the norm. It's limiting."
"It's boring," Tom said. His handsome face was half hidden in the shadows of the night, half lit from the changing street lights. "As soon as you're not what they call normal, they start to call you a monster."
Hermione snorted. Tom met her gaze with an elegantly curved eyebrow and held it for a second before he concentrated back on the road again. He was interested.
"You seem to disagree."
"Humanity is fast to paint someone a monster, but people rarely are. Even if they sometimes do horrible things for the wrong reasons, there's always a human being right under the skin. People aren't born monsters. People make them."
"What about Voldemort?"
The question took her by surprise. She weighed her answer slowly as if she had to make sure that the words were chosen with utter care. Tom's eyes were hard on the street but Hermione couldn't help but feel strangely tested. As if she was walking on eggshells. It was tantalising.
"I think," she said as Tom shifted gear, "that Voldemort wants to tell us a tale. A twisted tale of ambition, desire and human perversity, for sure. But I think he doesn't see himself as the monster. More as the hero of his own story. And I think while that makes him dangerous it doesn't necessarily make him a monster. A threatening force, certainly. But not a monster."
"So what does it make him?"
"Lonely." Her words felt heavy and sad inside her mouth. She turned her head away and watched the streetlights come and go like a play of colours.
When Tom stopped the car Hermione needed a second to understand that they had already arrived at the doorstep of her cosy apartment in the heart of London. Rain that had hung over this part of London like a thick blanket, dripped from the old theatre billboard on the other side. Now the clouds had moved on but the humid air was still slipping through the pores of the brickwork.
"So," she said and smiled nervously, brushing some stray locks that had given into gravity back behind her ear. She risked a glance to the side and looked at Tom, who had turned slowly toward her. He didn't look peaceful either, but his breathing was low and even.
So there is a way to make Dr Riddle nervous it seems.
He hummed in agreement, a low dark chuckle that made her straighten up, and brushed his long fingers over Hermione's freezing hand. Even in the dim orange light of the streetlights, she could clearly feel the intensity of his eyes on her face. She breathed in and out, steadily, like a heartbeat. The clock ticked on.
"It was a nice evening. I would really like to meet you again, Hermione." He traced each knuckle on her hand with his index finger, slowly, deliberately as if he wanted to imprint each and every dip of her skin. It was a warning. She could feel a blush creeping into the flesh of her cheeks.
"I would really like that," she said after a beat.
"Coffee? On Tuesday?" His finger stopped at her wrist and drew circles around her veins. Carefully she nodded, her breath locked behind her teeth when she caught his gaze staring at her. She wondered if it was even possible for his eyes to get more intense than at this moment. She sincerely doubted it.
He brought her hand to his lips and took the time to brush a kiss to her knuckles before he leaned in to brush another to her lips. She tipped her head and felt his body slowly leaning into her, his hands finding their way behind her head and pulling her closer. The kiss was like an instinct neither of them could deny. It was a wild mess of lips against lips, breath against breath. It was harsh. Urgent. Warm.
The contact broke far too early and she felt herself leaning into the space that he had occupied a second ago. Tom's face appeared and disappeared in her field.
When she left the car her centre of gravity split. Her lips were wound-bitten and her hair was a mess where he had run his long fingers through. Suddenly everything of her was drawn to him like water to the pond.
"I could really use some coffee right now," and she stopped mid-sentence with her feet pushed together and one hand still on the metal of the car door. "How about you?"
In the distance, the billboard's broken light flashed from orange to yellow and back to orange again. Tom's face was cast in shadow. Something dark and haunted. In a blink, it was gone.
His bright eyes were searching for something in her face.
"I'd love that," he finally said, drawling the words with more emphasis than necessary. He flashed her a devilishly handsome grin. As he locked the car the lights illuminated the pavement at her feet.
They made their way up to her flat in comfortable silence even though every nerve in her body was on fire. She let them in with her keys and closed the door carefully behind her back. Her heart was drumming like a beast. No one had ever made her feel so carnal.
Tom looked around in the half-dark but his eyes soon found their way back to her face again. He leaned back into her personal space and trapped her between his arms and his body, long fingers splayed at the wooden door. Hermione felt her grin itching at her cheeks.
"I want to kiss you", his breath tickled the heated flesh of her cheeks.
"What keeps you from doing it?"
"I think if I kiss you now I won't be able to stop."
"Then don't," she said, voice betraying her as she leaned closer, standing on her tiptoes and clutched the lapels of his sports jacket with her freezing fingers as though she was afraid he would just disappear if she wouldn't hold on.
Something dark flashed behind Tom's grey eyes. Something possessive. He lunged for her and pressed their bodies flat against the door until the wood pushed achingly into Hermione's back. She didn't mind at all.
It shouldn't have been different from any other man she'd ever kissed, including Victor who had meant the world to her for the length of a summer. It should have felt sloppy and warm and somehow similar to all the kisses before. But it didn't. Instead, it was toe-curling, messy and wet in the way only the right kisses were.
She buried her hands deeper into his rich dark hair and closed her eyes against reality. When their lips met she was sure that her heart belonged unconditionally to him.
He tasted like the edge of the galaxy and the waves tried to push her under.
Everything around her sank away when the ocean took her.
Falling in love is to become a monster.
How else can you love so hungry, so rough, so devoted - until you fall apart?
I wanted to kill her.
Of course I wanted to kill her.
She - I didn't thought she'd be worth it.
Why would she? No one was before. No one is. No one can be.
But I was wrong.
God, I was so wrong.
The things she said, the things she thought made me reevaluate her value. I was in love with her mind. Murder and torture were clean-cut for me, but love, love would always be a mystery.
A serious mental illness.
How could one word, one sentence turn throw everything into retrospect? What else would she say that would turn my view upside down?
I made a decision that day that changed the outcome of our story. I let her live, just a tad longer, to hear what else her beautiful, complicated, and broken mind would come up with.
Like a countdown.
A sentence bought her a day.
But Fish was a lust-killer. This one is … different. - another day to let her live.
Steel rope, 0.6 diameter. - another day.
Do you know the method of psychological bricks, Tom? - another day.
You're a storyteller. - another day.
To put a label to the norm. It's limiting. - another day.
But not a monster. - another day.
Lonely. - another day…..
Chapter 13: Chapter XI
Remove my sin, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Kneel and pray.
Pay your toll to slip purgatory.
Atone for your wrongs.
Wash clean from your sins.
How many people follow this pattern? How many people beg for absolution daily?
They search for the one and only God who forgives their crimes. But where is he? Law and order play God and represent his voice. But who said that their decisions are those which God has destined for us? Isn't it in the meaning of God that we grant forgiveness?
To err is human.
Sunday, 14th September
10 days until the next murder
When her alarm went off at exactly 07:30 a.m, Hermione wished the world would stop. She rolled on her back until she could see the morning sun filter through the shutters, watching the dust motes dance in the light. Somewhere in the flat, the shower was running. She stared up at the ceiling and forced herself to inhale, exhale.
She saw white.
She felt white.
Plain and small and trifling to the problems the world was facing. For the first time what felt like weeks the case threatened to overtake her. She felt wretched.
She wanted repose. Just one day to unwind.
The clock showed 07:40 a.m. She turned around, closed her eyes and listened to the water.
Tom's presence was everywhere: in her sheets, on her body, in the sound of the water that moved like him and clung wet to skin. Hermione touched the place where he had slept and brushed her fingers over the soft cotton of her sheets longingly. They were still warm. He'd not been gone for long. It was strange how easily he had bent himself into the crooks of her morning.
She got out of bed and reached for her panties and an old battered Oxford shirt, one of her favourites to sleep in. It had once been navy but the colour had long faded to a peculiar kind of greyish denim-blue. The collar was frayed and a sliver of skin showed through a little hole at the end. She was aware that she should have thrown it out ages ago, but she was strangely fond of the old tee. Nostalgia, perhaps.
Crookshanks called her attention from the kitchen. He was noisily complaining about more food and as soon as Hermione entered the little kitchen, he scraped his shaggy fur along her naked legs, leaving goosebumps in the process. He didn't stop until the bowl was filled to the rim.
While she prepared the coffee table for breakfast her mind was blissfully still. The abstract ceramic vase Ginny gave her for her last birthday, which had its place in the middle of the table, made place for cups and pastel-coloured Tesco cutlery. The books Draco lent her were put on the couch. Beagles and salmon and cucumber were combined with tomatoes and dry-cured ham. Orange juice, strawberry oatmeal for her -
"Need some help?"
When she turned around, Tom was fastening the buttons on his oxford with utter precision, then hitched up his sleeves. Even though he was still wearing the clothes from the night before, they looked immaculate on his body. He'd probably change them in his office. People tended to have spares. His hair was still damp and curled softly around the edges. It flattered his high cheekbones. Hermione's breath caught.
"I'm almost done. Coffee needs to finish," she waved the knife vaguely over to the fully automated coffee machine that grunted loudly.
He closed the distance between them with grace and took the knife skillfully out of her hand. His other hand curled around her waist and tugged her closer until her fingers came up behind his hair, toying with the little, wet strands. Her inner turmoil settled like waves on the shore.
"How about I'll finish up and you get ready for work?" He leaned down until his lips brushed the sensitive skin of her neck and sucked it in, just to flatten his lips over it again. Hermione bit her lower lip nervously, toes curling against the hard tiles of her kitchen.
"Sounds good to me." Her smile widened when she said it, shifting into that genuine, contagious grin that made her cheeks hurt. As tempting as it was to cling to Tom's warmth she had to let go. Reluctantly, she disentangled herself and made her way to her small bathroom.
When she closed the door behind her everything hit her like a ton of bricks. Even without his expensive cologne and other different products he might use, the room was practically drenched in his presence. She noticed little changes here and there. The way the towel hung precisely folded over the glass-wall of her walk-in shower, the way her Nivea products were neatly arranged alongside a little cactus she had bought out of decoration purposes and the bottle of her J'adore perfume - it was overwhelming and almost too much.
She stripped herself bare and turned the water on. When she stepped under the jet of water her tension slowly slipped away. Tentatively she rolled her shoulders, but no bones cracked.
When people were talking about the first day at school or work, they tended to use terms like 'fresh start' and 'new beginning'. When she started at the MI5 months ago she wouldn't have thought to end up where she was now. Tom gave her the feeling of intimacy. He folded himself inside her life with ease and she realized she didn't mind. Perhaps this was her opportunity to redefine herself and get rid of her old image.
She didn't know how long she had been standing under the water. Her skin was tingling from the warmth. Time was fleeting. She turned the water off.
The weather had changed overnight and the rain had brought a chill to London. When Hermione arrived in a pair of black leggings and a grey oversized sweater, Tom was leaning over one of the books; his long fingers were splayed on the leather cover and he held it close to his face, eyes squinted. Every time he turned the pages he did it with utter care.
Right, he doesn't have his reading glasses with him. But he knows how expensive they are. Probably recognized first editions by their covers.
"Found anything interesting?" She came up to him and wrestled her mess of hair into a dark satin hair tie. They were still damp even though she had blow-dried them for almost ten minutes.
He looked up at her and shut the book gently. The sun shone brightly through the old windows and dipped his hair in different shades of brown. His smile was lethal and didn't match his voice.
"Not particularly. Are they for the job?"
"Yeah. Nothing useful, though." She took the book out of his waiting hands and put it on the pile of sinfully precious first editions that lay waiting on the couch. "It's frustrating because I know that he wants to communicate with me. But I cannot see what he's trying to tell me."
Tom came up behind her and worked his hands skillfully over the hard knots in her neck. His thumb pressed down on one spot until it hurt, but it was a good ache. Hermione closed her eyes and let him knead.
"Is there any reason why you chose these books?"
"The messages he leaves lead back to passages in the books." It already leaked that Voldemort left riddles at the crime scenes. There was no reason to hide this fact from Tom. She could speak openly about some things.
"What do the passages tell you?"
"The M.O.", she said and leaned back until her shoulders were met with resistance. He gave a low rumble that vibrated on her back. He smelled of fresh water and the lemon soap she had bought last week. "But I don't think that's what he wants to tell us. There's more."
Tom's clever hands stilled.
"Huh." The sound barely reached her. He continued his advances.
First, Hermione could feel the tickle of his fingertips around her throat, then the warm spread of his palm. His thumb dug under her jawbone with more force than necessary, and pushed her face back until her head laid on his chest. Her pulse was visible beneath her skin, stretched taut from the angle. A choked up sea welled inside her; she arched herself from intense sensation.
Tom watched her eyes with a peculiar sting of desire. The grey of his irises was nearly completely eaten by the black of his pupils. She wasn't able to make out what was going on behind his eyes. A dull hunger rolled through his body and the strength of it flushed her cheeks. She swallowed, but the saliva stuck in her throat. Her heartbeat was ripping frantically under his fingers.
Time passed in tandem with their breaths.
The moment broke when Tom's mobile started to ring with an incoming text message.
He leaned down and brushed his lips to her forehead.
"You'll find out, love." He gave her time to bend her head back before he stepped into the kitchen. "Tea or coffee?"
"Tea. Coffee for breakfast is a crime against humanity, Tom." She scoffed, but the smile around her lips was secret and gracious when she sat down on the table to twirl the spoon in the bowl of oatmeal.
MI5 headquarters, Hermione's office
Sunday, 14th September
10 days until the next murder
Draco heard her coming.
Among the officers who slipped their cheap sneakers over the thick rough carpet, her footprints almost made music to him. He could pick her out among a dozen people. It was nearly pathetic what it said about him.
He peered through the huge window blinds, surveying the parking lot of who was coming or going until the door opened. Hermione entered the office they'd shared for a couple of weeks balancing two cups of Florean's frightfully expensive coffee in one hand, and her phone in the other, replying to whatever message she got. When she looked up his breath stopped.
"Morning Draco," her smile was like sunshine on a rainy day for his soul. A faint rose blush painted her cheeks, lighting up her whole face. He could feel Riddle around her like a dark cloud. Something inside of him crunched dangerously.
"Morning." His teeth clenched until his jawbone started to hurt. The exquisite pain of wanting someone so unattainable was eating him up from the inside. "You look like you had a great time last night."
"Not that it would be any of your business, but I did." Her tone was playful and held no bite. She didn't pay attention to him. Instead, she took her place behind the desk and set her cup aside, before she shed herself out of her black leather jacket.
Draco watched the sun that filtered through the windows and set upon her wild locks. The urge to run his fingers through the mess on her head and push her closer to his centre was overwhelming. He wished he could. He wondered how many times Riddle had run his hands through it last night.
His fingers clenched until the knuckles stood out in white.
"You think you're doing the right thing?" The whiteboard creaked under his weight when he leaned against it and crossed his arms over his chest like a cornered animal. The clasp of the pen between his fingers pressed through the thin cotton of his henley, into his skin.
"What are you talking about?" Hermione rose her bushy eyebrows until they nearly met her hairline. She was in the middle of flipping through her notebook and stopped somewhere in the middle, palm flat over the pages.
Something changed. The muscles in her face tightened and her expression closed up. Her grip on control thinned out. Her tone was cold like a winter's dawn.
"None of your business."
Draco stared at her, unimpressed at first. His eyes narrowed, but all he said was, "Didn't take you for someone who'd fall for looks and money."
"You're ridiculous." Hermione shut the notebook with more force than necessary and spun around. The brown of her eyes was almost completely on fire. Rage coloured her cheeks in a particular shade of raspberry red. "It's not like that. He's gentle, very brilliant-"
"- Machiavellian, erratic, enigmatic-"
He snorted and choked back a cruel laugh.
"He's hiding something, Hermione. All this perfection and cold brilliance. He's kind of inhuman."
"You don't even know him!" She leapt to her feet in a sudden rush of anger but kept the distance between them. Tom's face flashed in her mind but she pushed the memory away. Her eyes didn't fall away. Fury and sadness and fear and frustration clung to her gaze.
Slowly Draco unwinded his arms.
"I think I know him better than you do."
"Stop projecting your anger about Abraxas' -"
"What the hell does Abraxas have to do with anything?" he interrupted immediately and flicked his wrist in a derogatory wave.
"Tom told me."
She bit down on her lip until she could feel the familiar pang of pain. Draco and she never talked about private things; it was too painful to let memories in that were long buried. She had never thought to see him again, yet alone here in the MI5 of all things. Both had agreed to bury whatever happened in college. Or rather whatever didn't have the chance to happen. The past was past. Pressing something personal out of him that he hadn't even told her was a fickle thing.
This was uncharted territory. This was not allowed.
"Told you what?" Draco's eyes narrowed but he didn't waver. He never wavered. It was one of the things she used to admire about him.
Hermione considered to just drop the bait. She steeled herself and rubbed her hands over her arms that were covered in the thick grey sweater.
"You think he's taking Abraxas away from you. He doesn't."
"Bollocks. I definitely don't have any brother complexes. Just for the protocol: Abraxas and I are not even that close."
"You don't need to justify yourself-"
"I'm not- bloody hell, I'm trying to open your eyes!"
"My eyes are wide open Draco!", she bleated, voice desperate enough to chill his bones.
A sudden realization hit Draco that turned his face in a cruel mask.
"Oh God," he gritted his teeth and something dawned behind his eyes. "You're in love."
The accusation was like a slap in the face. Hermione flinched visibly, until the hard wood of her desk pressed achingly into her back. Every nerve, every sense that had been on fire before drowned as if a bucket of ice-cold water had been spilt on her. A numb feeling spread from head to toe and she sucked her cheeks in, painfully, to bite the flesh. Panic and fear tore through her and something howled inside of her that screamed awfully he's right, he's right, he's - She lost her ground. The world shook.
The computer screen flickered into hibernation. They stood in silence for a while; the only sound came from the exposed air ducts near the ceiling, twenty feet above, as cool air poured from the vents. The weight of it was almost too much for her shoulders.
"Did I ever had a chance?" Draco's expression tightened and grew sharper around the edges. The way she spoke to him made his skin crawl. He prepared himself for the last blow.
Hermione watched his face in the bright shine of the fluorescent light of her office. She could barely feel the swift beating of her heart. Something inside of her lurched into bitterness.
"That's the sad part," she said carefully, her lips moving on their own. Everything was blurred; her eyes burned. "You did once."
This wasn't the boy she remembered from their days back in university. When they sat hunched over books and theories and ate cereals out of the box. When they talked about politics and maths and crimes and shared frozen yoghurt over Moody's homework assignments. When they ate Chinese takeout on the steps of the Bodleian because they had been expelled after a particularly loud discussion about human rights.
This wasn't the boy who told her his dreams about becoming a crime investigator instead of a doctor like all Malfoys had before him. When they sent emails back and forth with book recommendations. When he showed up with a copy of '10 things I hate about you' and a lopsided grin after a disastrous family meal. When he slept on her couch with his face crunched in her favourite fluffy pillow that afterwards smelled of him even days after.
This wasn't the boy who decided to go to France and leave her behind before they even had the chance to become more. When he left her a voice message on her mailbox, saying nothing but 'I'll call you'. When she sat waiting with her phone between her fingers until she finally stopped. When he never called.
This wasn't the boy she used to love. He was more. But she couldn't allow herself to be hurt again.
She looked up in the black of his pupils and watched them grow large and round. Draco grabbed blindly for his leather jacket with slippy fingers. She observed him clenching the rough material until his knuckles stood out in white. His shoulder tensed under the olive henley, the muscles in his neck and collarbone flexed in tandem. The pain echoed inside of her.
He ran before Hermione could stop him.
The bang of the door sounded unusually loud in the small office, and strangely finite. The rest was swallowed in privateness.
The tip of her tongue traced her front teeth, then she sank them into her lower lip until she bled.
It was warm, but the taste of it felt like a warning and an omen at once.
I am divine.
I am God.
You, your neighbour, the postman that startles you out of your sleep - Everyone one of us could be God. What sets us apart from those who judge us?
They are like each and every one of us.
Sinners in a saint's clothing.
So why do we stay silent? Let's rise and judge about each other. Become an executor. Just as I do.
Death doesn't discriminate.
I am God.
Just like you.
Chapter 14: Chapter XII
No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness is always there first.
The coffee shop is loud. Everyone talks. On the opposite table. Over the counter. All around you. The group two tables left exchanges everything. Private things. Secrets. Lies. Details no one else should know. They laugh. They cry. They're angry. They're disappointed. But whatever they are, their trust is sewn in the stitches trailing their spines.
Now imagine someone disappointed you.
Someone betrayed your trust. Once. Twice. Three times.
Listen close to that voice inside of you.
Do you feel alone?
A tight feeling in the chest. A dry throat.
Can you feel tears coming up?
There's something there in the dark of your mind that comes in lonely moments. Moments like waking up in an empty bed at 2 a.m. and feeling like the world eats you alive. Moments like when people ask you why you flinch so hard when someone takes a playful swing at you instead of asking if there was a time when someone wasn't playing.
Trust is such a fragile thing. Once broken, we're never the same.
How does it sound to be broken?
You hear nothing, right?
Tuesday, 16th September
8 days until the next murder
If there was one sound Hermione hated, it was the rapid clattering of Neville's fingers against the keyboard in the otherwise silent room. Waiting came always down to patience -a characteristic she didn't quite possess.
She had arrived at his flat half an hour ago with a large cup of Florean Fortescue's famous pumpkin-chocolate Frappuccino and one of the biggest favours she ever had to ask. Bellatrix Lestrange's folder was classified since all charges had been dismissed due to lack of evidence. No matter how hard Hermione tried to access them, her request was always denied. For someone like her, it was unbelievable that certain documents were not visible for the case. She had to find a way to get them. And Neville was her way.
Hermione was sitting cross-legged on the end of Neville's couch with a cup of black tea between her fingers. The pillow next to her was a biting, fluffy green that smelled of coffee, earth and one of Neville's grandmother's famous chocolate cookies; the smell was overwhelming enough that she was certain one of those would fall out if she'd dare to lift the pillow up.
"So there's this guy I'm kinda having problems with...", she said to say anything to break the silence.
Neville stopped working his fingers over the keyboard and Hermione bit her lips hard enough to whiten them. When she didn't continue he looked up from the line he was reading.
"Like his dead body won't fit in a trash bag kind of problems or you kinda like him problems?"
"I guess it's a bit of both?" She started to rub her knuckles together, almost as if they were freezing and she wanted to warm them up.
"Are we talking about Malfoy?"
"Is my private life that obvious?"
"No, but I've seen the way he looks at you. And how you don't look at him."
"And I thought you'd have hacked my text messages or facebook account." She smiled, but it was half-hearted. In the aftermath of their conversation, she had not talked to Draco yet. The feelings between them were still raw and she didn't want to be the one pouring even more salt into the wound.
"Facebook stalking is so passé," Neville said and sipped on his straw. "I'd stalk your WhatsApp. It's free and easier to hack than most apps. Their encryption is as pathetic as ours in the MI5."
"Shouldn't the MI5 strengthen their firewalls or something? If someone like Voldemort could hack and read them-"
She snorted and drowned her upcoming sorrow in more black tea.
"I already spoke to Dumbledore about it. Apparently, the problem is known but no one feels responsible enough to pay for it. Over 90 per cent of cyber crimes are treated like minor crimes these days. It's useless to fight a war you'll lose before it even started." Neville's half-hearted grin flashed blue from the laptop screen. It was rueful and a little bitter too. Hermione couldn't blame him; the management floor always threw budget cutbacks out when something was not in their interest.
"So what about Malfoy."
A sound left Hermione, low and hurt. The instinct to flinch was palpable. She ignored it.
"No I mean," she said and straightened her back against the warm cushion of the couch, "We had a bad fallout. Apparently, he still has feelings for me."
"Come on Hermione, you can't be that oblivious. You're a profiler for God's sake - shouldn't you be the first one to notice the people around you?" He looked up from the screen and Hermione felt suddenly blank and naked in front of him. He was right. She should have known. She should have felt it. She should have seen.
"I guess I just thought-" But she had no explanation.
I thought he wouldn't feel that way anymore? I thought we were done? I thought he forgot about me?
All of them were true, even if barely. But all of them were not enough. Her fingers tightened around the empty mug between her hands until the warmth bled into her skin.
Neville sighed and put the screen a bit down to have a proper look at her.
"Hey, it's fine. Malfoy will come around eventually. He's a clever guy. He knows people can't do anything against their feelings."
Hermione nodded in agreement but her mind was miles away.
"Sometimes love isn't meant to be."
But this one was once.
"You're right," she said hesitantly and turned the mug between her hands. Neville continued with his work. The silence was answer enough.
Tuesday, 16th September
8 days until the next murder
Sometime in the afternoon Hermione got off the couch and looked around. Neville's living room was filled with ceiling-to-floor bookshelves bursting with textbooks, academic journals, old mystery and crime stories but also comic paperbacks. Profiling helped to clear her mind so she stuck to the obvious things that she could spot.
Teen influences in his adult life. The plushy tiger slippers he wears, the comics all around, the gaming tee with Mario's face under his checkered shirt - all of these show a clear block out between work and home. A distraction from his - our - work. A beautification and naivety that he keeps in his own rooms and out of his flat. I'm sorry I brought him into this mess.
Some loose papers were sticking between a couple of books. Instead, she picked up one of the comic books and flipped through until she stopped at one of the stripes that showed Donald being chased around by Chip and Dale.
"You only need the Lestrange records, right?"
She could feel him looking up from the armchair not far from her.
"Yeah. For now."
His fingers flew across the keys once more and she continued to read the comic in silence.
"Wouldn't have thought you a Ducktales girl. Would have guessed you'd be more interested in serial killer interviews or something."
"I had enough of those during training," she said, amusement curving her lips.
"I can imagine. How's the case going?" His voice was tentative, almost as if he'd fear to step on ice that would break any minute. The tip of a tattoo flashed on his collarbone - a quote written in Hebrew. Hermione couldn't read it.
"Horrible. I feel like I want to stab everyone. Including myself." She put the comic book away and ran her hand along the office shelves, fingers trailing over the cloth and leather spines.
"Okay," he paused and took a sip from his cup, licking the milk foam from his upper lip. "Just try not to get any blood on your clothes. Would be a shame for the wool."
"You're an agent. You shouldn't be condoning this."
"Don't tell me how to live my life," he said laughing. The laptop balanced barely on his knees. A moment later a printer started to rattle loudly somewhere in the back of his flat. He put the laptop away and vanished into the hallway; his plush tiger-slippers swallowed every sound on the tiles. He returned with a couple of papers in his hands. "Look at this. I can transform caffeine into success."
"Okay Julian Assange, what do you have?"
"I feel insulted...but also quite impressed that you know that name."
There was energy returning to Hermione's eyes. Her heart lurched from the news. She reached out and took the papers out of his hands; Neville didn't protest. But he rubbed at his brow.
"You know we're walking on thin ice here. Do you have solid evidence to suspect her again?"
Neville leaned back, shoulders resting against the large bookshelf.
"Then I hope you come up with something because her husband takes lawsuits out of his designer pockets faster than I go through coffee cups."
"I'll think about something. Don't worry Neville." She smiled, flashing knifepoint teeth. The folder was not big and barely contained anything. A one-page transcript of Bellatrix' testimony with James and a screenshot. The screenshot showed a corner, recorded from a surveillance camera close to St. Thomas Church showing Bellatrix cutting across a side street. The timestamp matched the results from the forensic bureau.
"You are the best. Remind me that I owe you." She grabbed her bag in a hurry, the folder carefully rolled in her other hand. She was already halfway out of the door when his voice followed her.
"Don't worry. I will."
Friday, 19th September
7 days until the next murder
Hermione examined the powder blue ceiling of Bellatrix Lestrange's office. It showed a painfully accurate painting of both hemispheres in white. The artist had included minimal details like names and right ascensions and apparent magnitudes. In the east corner was a signature that started with a sharp R and B, but it was too small to decipher correctly.
When Bellatrix didn't show, impatience grew on Hermione. She cast her way around the office but couldn't find anything obvious except the rather narcissistic touch of Lestrange's desk that sat right under the Orion constellation. A couple of photographs were put on display on the desk. Bored, Hermione turned them around one by one to examine them carefully.
Let's see what your pictures can tell me about you.
One of them showed Bellatrix in her teens, kissing a man wearing the navy uniform of Oxford's polo team. One could trace the muscles of his neck down to his biceps that held Bellatrix firm in his arms. There was no makeup on her face and they both looked young and carefree. Hermione almost didn't recognize her. The soft face on the picture was not comparable to the hard cut of Bellatrix' cheekbones nowadays.
Exemplary classification. Good parental home. Privileged. The boy must be Rodolphus Lestrange. So they are childhood sweethearts. His posture is honest and faced towards her, openly. The old cliché stereotype of the athlete with much muscles but less brain doesn't count for him. You cannot become crown prosecutor without having the wit and ruthlessness for it. And knowing that he's a Lestrange I dare say it runs in the family.
The next picture showed them both slightly older on their wedding day. She was wearing a sleeveless Alexander McQueen dress that fell in cascades to the floor. Her lips were tinted red like blooming dawn, matching her pink cheeks. Rodolphus was a striking contrast in darkness on her side. They looked calculated, but happy.
Her posture changed. She doesn't look hopeful or eager. She tries to show elegance and a kind of sexiness she didn't put on display as a teen. The whole picture is put in scene by Rodolphus' dominance. No pictures of children. Career driven. But murder as a common hobby in marriage?
There was another photograph on the edge of the desk. It was obviously important to Bellatrix, as it was carefully placed in the line of her vision. It showed a group of ten people in front of the Royal Opera House. Hermione followed each person with her eyes and named them in her head: The man Draco had called Rosier. Bartemius Crouch, the son of the former British Prime Minister that was arrested for illegal gambling a while ago. Rodolphus and Bellatrix Lestrange. Another man that looked exactly like Rodolphus, probably his brother. The man Tom had talked to on Abraxas' party. Another man she didn't know. Regulus Black. Abraxas. And of course Tom.
It was a scene right out of a Dolce Gabbana advertisement. None of them looked out of the picture. One perfectly cut suit was lined up to the next and even Bellatrix blended perfectly into the middle. The picture couldn't be older than a year at most, Hermione guessed.
So this is the circle Draco was talking about.
All of them were flashing the same calculated smile towards the camera. She looked at Tom and the way he controlled the viewer's attention even while standing at the edge. His smile was lethal, sharp from arrogance; Abraxas was laughing brightly at his side. Even Regulus fit right in their midst.
The atmosphere looks relaxed. No trace of bad blood between them. All of them are people of position and title. If I remember correctly the Lestranges are Lords.
There was something that bugged her about the man looking so much alike to Rodolphus, but she couldn't quite pinpoint what exactly the feeling was trying to tell her. Her gaze drifted towards Bellatrix who wore her dress ready for attention. In comparison to the first picture, she looked different. Rodolphus held Bellatrix half in his arm and close to his body, more like a trophy than a wife.
Her composure changed since college years; the ease is completely gone and replaced by a cold and hardened surface. She didn't just become more mature. She became a whole other person. It's no surprise Lestrange took her out of the case so fast. They can't afford a scandal in their uptown. It only makes Lestrange even more suspicious. I should do some researches about the group to get a better picture of them.
Hermione was still staring down at the photograph when she heard the door open behind her.
Bellatrix Lestrange radiated control in every tilt of her body. The world around her seemed smaller, duller than before. Her lips were darker than ripe cherries and they looked as if they never had been made for anything else than advertising this shade of Chanel.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Granger. Since we didn't had the chance to be introduced at the Art exhibition last week." A perfectly manicured hand with matching nails reached out and took hold of Hermione's hand, giving it a firm squeeze.
"The pleasure is all mine, Mrs Lestrange."
Hermione took the seat in front of the desk and watched Bellatrix on the other side. She crossed her legs elegantly without touching the hardwood and gave Hermione an expectant look, studying her.
"How can I help you?"
"I'm here in an official matter, Mrs Lestrange," Hermione showed her police badge. In the flicker of emotion, something passed over Bellatrix' face, but it was gone as soon as Hermione packed the badge away. "It's about the Voldemort cases."
"Forgive me but I was under the impression the accusations against me have been withdrawn?" Bellatrix tilted her head ever so slightly, looking like a shark out of water. A small golden cross lay still on the sharp outline of her collarbone. Hermione recognized it; it was the same one that she wore in the first picture back in college.
"They are. I just have a couple of questions that I hope you can fill me in for the profile I'm working on."
"Of course." Her smile was wide and brilliant and boastful. 32 teeth in two rows in dazzling white held by perfectly tinted lips that were neither smudged nor faded. Hermione felt tension crawling up her spine when she took her notepad out of her bag.
This only makes you more suspicious.
"On the night of the twenty-eighth June, a surveillance camera close to St. Thomas Church took a picture of you at ten p.m. That was also the approximate time when the victim's car was set on fire. Between the corner you've been seen and the church is less than fifty meters." Hermione took the folder out of her bag and flipped through the record until she found a screenshot of the video she was talking about. "When special agent Potter interviewed you, you said you haven't seen a thing."
"That is correct."
"Judging by the angle of the camera however that is nearly impossible." She put the picture down on the desk and slid it close enough to Bellatrix.
"As I already said Mr Potter back then, I was in a hurry." Bellatrix shrugged her off. "I don't see why we should discuss this again. As I already told you, my husband-"
"You are not under suspicion Mrs Lestrange," Hermione eventually said. This was just like any other hunt. She only needed to make sure to catch the right loop.
At least not officially.
"I am simply gathering information and details that might help me to create Voldemort's profile."
There was a beat that drew on while Bellatrix seemed to weight her options. In the end, she said, "Alright. Go on then."
There was no humour in her tone. Her words were flat and cold, almost guarded. From the other side of the desk, Hermione watched the tension slipping into Bellatrix face. She smiled, knife-sharp.
"You said you didn't hear anything. In your testimony when asked why you were in the area you said you have been at St. Thomas Church to pray."
"That is correct."
"Why St. Thomas Church? You live in Knightsbridge. That's half an hour away. Why driving so far just to pray?"
"You're not the Catholic type, are you Miss Granger?" Bellatrix watched her under guarded eyes. The dark brown bleed into the black of her irises and made her look dangerous and intimidating at once. Hermione felt like prey.
"I believe religion is a weapon, that, wielded in the wrong hands can cause horror and fear."
"Belief is always a matter of trust." Bellatrix smiled but it didn't hold any emotion. "I trust Father Thicknesse. And I have for years. I don't mind the travel and time if it means my faith will be in good hands."
"I see. Coming back to the night of the murder, while praying, did you hear anything out of the ordinary?"
"I don't think so. The church was empty and I was deep in prayers. I heard the wind and the creaking of the bench. I didn't notice anything strange if that is what you mean."
"And when you left?"
There was a pause. Rattled, Bellatrix touched the cross and twisted it between her fingers.
There it is.
Validation made itself room between Hermione's bones. She leaned back into the soft cushion of the chair and copied Bellatrix' former attitude by tilting her head.
People often reach for something emotional attached that grounds them. The cross betrayed you, Lestrange. But what exactly are you hiding?
A second passed. Then another. The clock on the desk ticked loudly away like a countdown. When Bellatrix spoke her voice was restrained.
"Now that you're mentioning it...I didn't exactly hear something."
"Any detail could be important."
"When I left the Church something felt off."
"I cannot describe it. It just felt-" Bellatrix was searching for the right word, flattening the cross against her skin just to pick it up and toy around again.
"Dangerous?" Hermione tried to help.
Bellatrix closed her eyes for a moment and fear flared through her. Hermione could feel it echoing in herself. But the moment Bellatrix opened her eyes again it was gone. She was back in complete control.
"Well I wouldn't exactly say I felt in danger, but I certainly felt uncomfortable."
"I see. On the tapes your steps are rushed. Haunted. Was there anything else bothering you?" Hermione chased up, but Bellatrix was already shaking her head.
"No, I'm sorry. I was just in a hurry to go home."
"Did you see the car when you left the Church?" It was nearly impossible not to; they found it parked right in front of the Church.
"I did see one, but it was dark and nothing looked unusual about it. It was parked on the other side, half hidden in the shadow where the streetlight couldn't reach it."
"Has it already been parked there when you arrived?"
"I'm not sure, but I don't think so. There were still a lot of cars around when I arrived and none of them had been of dark colour."
Something about that statement rose Hermione's interest. She stopped the pen and tapped against the paper while thinking. Then, she asked, "But when you left, this one was the only one around?"
"Yes. The street was empty except that car."
"And it was not on fire."
"No, it wasn't," Bellatrix answered mildly annoyed by now.
Words scraped Hermione's throat, but none were bubbling up. Suddenly it was as if she could feel the cold of the night of the murder around her.
Voldemort must have been there already. Time stamps cannot lie. Facts cannot lie. People do.
She looked up at Bellatrix.
But she's not lying about this. Her breathing, her mannerism, her posture. All of these scream lie but not about when she left the Church. I am certain Voldemort had already been waiting in the dark. But Bellatrix had not been his victim. Still, something feels were fishy about this story. It sounds too recited. Too learned. She's either knowingly withholding information or she suppresses something for any reason.
"Would that be all? I am sorry to cut this short Miss Granger, but I have another appointment." Bellatrix let that sentence die, but the threat was clear. Her patience and Hermione's time were up.
"Yes. I'm sorry I held you up." Hermione stuffed her notepad and pen back into the bag and grabbed for the file on the desk. She took one of her business cards from her pockets and slid it across the table. "I will leave you with my card. Sometimes our memories stay buried and come up in the most unexpected times of the day. If you ever remember something, no matter how small, please give me a call."
For a while, Bellatrix watched the piece of paper like an intruder or something equally terrifying. It was strange how a piece of paper could hold so much power over someone. But surprisingly she took it and put it into the first drawer of her desk.
"I will certainly do that." When she rose from her chair the golden cross went flat on the tip of her collarbone again. She accompanied Hermione and showed her to the door. "It's a shame that we meet under these circumstances. You and Thomas should definitely come and have dinner with us soon."
It was a decent offer that held no bite. Tom was obviously important to her. The smile on her face was genuine, not fake. Like a warning.
"That is very generous of you, Mrs Lestrange."
"Please. Any friend of Thomas is a friend of mine. Have a nice day Miss Granger."
Hermione bid her goodbyes and left the medical centre with weary bones. The sun was up high in the sky. The light spilt all over the entrance, dipping trees and cars and all the fallen leaves in melting colours. The road ahead was empty. Fresh air flooded her lungs, crisp and cold, and for a second she felt numb from the bits of information Bellatrix gave her between the lines.
I should definitely look into their circle. Maybe Tom can help me.
She took her phone out of her bag and wrote a message to Tom.
Can I call you after work?
11:12 a.m., HG
I have a meeting tonight running late. Florean Fortescue's tomorrow at 8 a.m.?
11:14 a.m., TR
It's a date.
11:14 a.m., HG
She wrote another message, this one for Draco, hovering over the send message for a tad longer than intended.
B. Lestrange is absolutely terrifying. You're invited to my funeral if she ever stabs me.
11:15 a.m., HG
For a while there was nothing. Hermione waited for another minute and just as she decided to put the phone away an answer came.
Will there be food?
11:19 a.m., DM
Her breath shuddered from relief. The heavy feeling of crushing ribs lifted ever so slightly and made room for her mind to calm. Her smile for the rest of the day was sincere and easy enough.
People say I have a lot of qualities.
One of these is the ability to make people trust me. Trust makes you powerful. If someone else trusts you with their secret you have the power to destroy them. It gives you the feeling of complete control. It makes the other person dependent. Above all, it makes you major. As soon as you have their trust you have them. You dominate them. They are a puppet on your strings and you make them dance and laugh and cry as you wish. The blood that rushes through your veins when you feel that power for the first time is bliss. With the word trust you create a silent command.
Trust is a weapon. A gun. You hold it to someone's head and decide if you pull the trigger - or not.
We all wield this weapon. But only some of us are willing to use it.
Do you think she trusts? Do you think she trusts me ?
Chapter 15: Chapter XIII
There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humour and hurt.
A tragedy is a treacherous kind of thing, synonymous to many words in our language.
Agony. Despair. Misery. Inevitable.
It can be small, like the fallout with your partner that announced itself during the last couple of weeks when you fought every other day. Or big like the car crash when you warned your best friend to take a taxi but he insisted to drive home himself, drunk enough that he could barely stand. The only thing that a tragedy leaves is the hollow feeling of having failed miserably and you wonder: Could I have done anything otherwise? Could I have saved whatever happened?
You watch it grow and in front of your eyes like weed in a beautiful garden.
You can do nothing to stop it from growing.
You can do nothing to stop it from ruin.
The only thing left to do is to mourn what could have been.
Saturday, 20th September
6 days until the next murder
"You look distracted."
Hermione looked up in time to see a perfect brewed cup of Latte Macchiato be placed right in front of her. The smell was rich and earthy and filled her to the throat.
"I'm sorry. It's just that the Voldemort deadline is expiring soon," she said, dragging the cup closer. Her hands warmed up around the hot carton that held the coffee. It was a soothing feeling.
"Right. Someone at work mentioned it the other day. It's only a week now, isn't it?" Tom took his place on the other side of the table and looked at her with more interest and intensity as she ever saw on a man looking at her. He was everything she ever wanted love to be. And it felt glorious to be at his centre.
"Six days," she said and grimaced from the sheer pressure that answer held. Six days were a blink of an eye. Six days were the warming phase for someone like Voldemort. She bet he'd sit somewhere and prepare for his next big spectacle while all of them were slowly getting insane with each passing hour. It was almost as if she could hear a clock in the back of her mind, ticking slowly to something big. Her skin prickled in anticipation. She took a sip from her cup and noted with pleasure that he thought about adding sugar into it.
Tom placed a hand upon one of hers to run his thumb over her skin in a soothing way. His fingers were warm and soft. She entangled her hand with his.
"You do your best, Hermione. I'm certain you will hunt him down soon."
"Not soon enough." She took another sip from her Latte with her free hand and traced the mounds of his knuckles with her index. "While we're on it, I wanted to talk to you about Regulus Black."
"What's with him?"
"Do you happen to know where I can find him?"
"I have little hope for you to actually find him anywhere," Tom let out a small laugh but it was neither pleasant nor friendly. The sound was a bitter taste of something that tainted the conversation and it stirred something in Hermione that she couldn't quite place.
"What makes you say that?"
"Regulus… He had a hard time the last year." Tom leaned back, out of her reach and sighed. "There were problems with his mental health in the past, but last year was particularly difficult. One day he suddenly cut all ties with us. No more calls. No more messages. No more visits. It was as if we never existed for him."
It was easier to place the sound of his voice now: worry. Hermione reached out and took his hand carefully into his again and Tom let her.
"That's why I'm particularly surprised that Abraxas could somehow persuade him to come to that exhibition last week."
"Have you heard anything since? I tried to get some information in the bureau, but they could only tell me his last known address was five years prior." She had phoned Neville last night but he wasn't able to find anything useful about Regulus Black. A couple of therapy sessions. A lot of different physical addresses, but none current. Some petty offences but none grave enough for a conviction; most of them for scandalisation after rallies. As far as the PDN gave away, Regulus Black was nowhere to find.
"I can give you an old address. But I'm afraid I don't have any other pieces of information about his whereabouts. Perhaps you can ask Abraxas. Somehow he must have gotten him to attend the exhibition after all."
"That will do. Thank you."
"Anything for you, my love." He took a new fountain pen out of his jacket pocket and scribbled the address on a notes page of his weekly calendar. When he handed it over it was pristine and sharp, just like everything else about him. "I heard Bellatrix was smitten by you?"
She laughed lowly in response but didn't give anything else away.
A smirk was on his handsome face and while it would have scarred anyone else it fitted him like a second skin. The clean-cut slope of his lips suddenly reminded her that she didn't fell in love with his looks, but with a brilliant mind. She leaned closer and kissed him over the steaming cups between them.
Kissing him was closing her eyes and sinking into a warm embrace of the sea on the first day of July when the sun was high and hot and spelling love on your shoulders. It was easy to lose control. She didn't mind how dangerous that made them.
Last known address of Regulus Black
Sunday, 21th September
5 days until the next murder
Hermione was knocking on the front door for the third time, but there was still no answer. In the dim light of the grey morning, the block of flats looked deplorable and unspectacular and as if no one had lived in it for quite a while. Brick and stone spalled from the exterior wall where large, wet spots were shimmering through. One of the windows was broken and taped with something that looked like baking paper and each time the wind whistled against it, it left some sort of grotesque melody.
"I don't think you will have luck with that one, girl."
She turned around and saw a man limping towards her. His clothes were shreds and dirty, with holes in the hem of the coat. He was old, and exhausted. Yellow teeth were showing between split lips. Life on the street painted him in grim colours.
"That bloke. Haven't seen him since weeks." He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, leaning his body against the handrail. When he looked at the door he didn't seem concerned.
"Weeks? Are you sure about that?" Hermione approached him and flashed her police badge. He looked surprised, but it was gone when the second passed.
Seems like Regulus got a lot of visits from the police. I couldn't find as much in the files. I wonder if Sirius has anything to do with it. I need to get Neville on that track.
"Absolutely, Detective. Five days a week I'm around this area. The church gives free food out for the homeless and I never miss a meal." He showed his teeth again and the dimples on his old skin made him look ten years younger.
Hermione wanted to tell him that she was a special agent, no detective, but let it slip. Her profession clearly wasn't the most important part of this conversation.
"Do you know him?"
"Barely. He was a nice one. Gave blankets out when the temperature dropped below zero." He sat down on the cold steps and stretched his leg out. Slowly he started to rub the knee on the limping leg. "He was an artist. In summer you could find him on the streets sketching people. But lately, he was sort of distant. Good ol' depression got him I say."
She nodded thoughtfully. It wasn't uncommon for artists to fall into some kind of depression during winter. But she doubted it was the only reason for Regulus' change. To get a look inside the flat however, she needed a warrant.
"Did he ever mention Voldemort?" she asked the man and watched his eyes go big and round of fear. Nearly everyone knew of Voldemort these days. It was concerning that a name alone could bring so much terror into people's minds.
"Not to me," he said solemnly. Then, he added as an afterthought, "He didn't like to talk at all."
So Regulus was a loner. No ties to friends or family. Helpful, yet withdrawn.
Hermione nodded slowly, already deep in thoughts when she bid her goodbyes.
The melody of the broken window followed her all the way to her car.
Sunday, 21th September
5 days until the next murder
At some point in between the commercial about toilet paper and the teaser for the next episode of Grey's Anatomy, the pizza came. She paid the delivery guy 10£ as a tip and poured herself one of the cheapest red wines she had on hand into a large Ikea glass. It tasted fruity, but far too sweet.
Crookshanks took his place between her legs once she sat cross-legged on the couch. His shaggy four left goosebumps on her legs. He loved the small cramped space. Especially when Hermione was close enough to ruffle his fur.
Her phone buzzed with a new message.
Did you catch Regulus?
11:24 p.m., TR
Sadly not. He was not around. The people in the area haven't seen him in a while. Are you out of work?
11:25 p.m., HG
I got out a couple of hours ago. Had some errands to run. Abraxas cornered me after work and I used that opportunity to ask him about Regulus. Seems like he met him in an art gallery three weeks ago and invited him spontaneously. He said he thought it would bring us all closer again, but his plan didn't work out.
11:26 p.m., TR
Abraxas also wants us to go on a couple date with his latest fling.
11:26 p.m., TR
Thank you for asking him. I'll try his brother next.
11:26 p.m., HG
What did you say about the date?
11:26 p.m., HG
11:27 p.m., TR
Is this against his girlfriend or against couple dates in general?
11:27 p.m., HG
Both actually. But in Abraxas' case: girlfriends. Plural. I don't see the appeal about spending time with someone that will be forgotten and replaced in a week again. He could actually accept the loss of the love of his life and continue with his own, if he wouldn't be so adamant in denying it.
11:29 p.m., TR
Love is not as simple. And never easy I guess.
11:29 p.m., HG
Love should be easy, dear. Like breathing.
11:32 p.m., TR
Love was easy with Tom.
It was one of the reasons she trusted him so effortlessly. She felt as if she didn't need to be soft anymore. She could be fierce and strong and bold with him, without being afraid that someone would hurt her for it. There was no disguise, no mask. No shift between them.
Crookshanks was still purring between her legs. Hermione fondled the place behind his ears until he rolled himself on his back, stretching the sensitive bump of his underbelly up. She continued to tickle through his fur, slowly relaxing into the soft cushion of her leather sofa.
The movie she was watching before went on, but she barely recognized it. Her eyes weighed down with each passing minute. She was considering sleeping right there.
Suddenly her phone rang.
Tired, she pushed the pizza box away and reached over the table. It was almost midnight by now and she was about to pass out from exhaustion, but the thought alone that it could be Tom was enough to make her heart flutter. The caller ID, however, flashed Draco's name and picture. She thought about putting the call off and ignoring it for now, but it was Draco and that reason alone was enough to get it.
There was an absolute absence on the other side, except for the heavy breathing. For a second she thought someone else had called her, but the caller ID was still the same. Something like dread made itself room between her bones. This spelt trouble.
"Draco, what happened?"
"I'm sorry," he said and the static echoed barely in his voice. She could hear him breathe, heavy and burdened. "It's Ron."
Her world started to spin. She could hear Draco's voice but it meant nothing. At that moment, in that clarity, something grew in the pit of her stomach. Fear. Then the world simply stopped. And she fell into darkness.
A tragedy always leaves the taste of blood on its trail.
I am sure she could taste it too.
I could have been a lot of things that day. Kind. Lenient. Humane. I chose to be merciful instead.
Mercy is such a painful thing to show, don't you agree?
Mercy always leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
Because you realize once a tragedy is in motion, not even mercy will stop it.
Chapter 16: Chapter XIV
The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.
Did you know that the human heart beats approximately 4000 times per hour?
Each pulse, each throb, each beat is another token that keeps us alive. It's neither lame nor slothful. We work, we endure, we love. All of it, ensured by an organ so small. So fragile.
We're oblivious to its daily efforts until one day the curtain falls.
When your grandfather tips over in his chair.
When a mother loses her cancer daughter.
Or when a father shoots his own son while practising with his gun.
In the fragment of a moment, we realize how frail our lives are. Similar to crystal vases that can break into a million flinders.
Shouldn't we cherish the time we have? Shouldn't we reflect each morning when we wake?
Think about it.
Today your heart beats approximately 4.000 times per hour.
96.000 times in a day.
St. Thomas Hospital, A&E department
Monday, 22th September
4 days until the next murder
Hospitals had a way of being sharp-edged in the way scalpels were: blinding and clean-cut.
Hermione smelled the clinical bite of antiseptic as soon as she crossed the threshold of the old, wooden entrance door to St. Thomas Hospital. It was quieter at night, with little to no people waiting. Nurses were running around in their blue uniforms, scribbling down on their clipboards. Somewhere monitors were beeping in a monotonous rhythm.
Draco waited for her in the casualty department, which was confusing and sterile but intimidatingly filled with robotic sounds of more beeping machines and the rattling of old monitors. The rooms were divided by walls. There were nurses behind the desk and in front of it and a doctor or two caught mid-motion between one task and the other.
"What's wrong with him? Where is he?" Hermione said as a form of greeting, breathless from running.
"He's in surgery right now." Draco had his notebook in one hand and she could see some of the notes he had made while he'd been waiting. A woman was sitting on one of the visitor chairs; her hands were clean-scrubbed but the clothes still looked like a massacre. Blood was clinging to the thick fabric of her jacket and tinted the colourful green a dirty brown. Fear clung to her cheeks and hollowed her eyes out. The colour of her skin was greenish and sick.
"What happened?" Hermione asked, looking from the woman back to Draco. He didn't look any better than she felt; his hair was dishevelled and a little astray and his eyes were red from the lack of sleep.
"He was found close to Hercules Road, lying unconscious by the kerb. The woman found him and called the emergency services." Draco said mechanically. Hermione was glad for his tone; it made the realization that the victim was known more whimsical. Less personal. Less real.
"Hercules Road? That's not even half a mile from here!" Her head was spinning. Her thoughts raced; there was no time to think, no way to bring order into the chaos. Too many pieces of information chased each other, connecting, yet bringing no further explanation. Her profiling skills choked. She could taste the rancid tomato sauce of the pizza she'd had for dinner slowly creeping up her throat.
Draco gave her the notebook, then grimaced. He had a way of speaking volumes in tone and mime. She flipped through his notes but all of them were clinical and without anything that screamed Ron in her face.
Witness: Tracey Davis. 27. Web Designer. On her way home from parental yoga. Found the victim lying motionless on the road. Victim: Male. Found close to Hercules Road. Puddle of blood. Skin in shreds. Broken bones. Agonizing pain. Unconscious -
In this case, Ron was just someone that had been hurt. Another broken body. Another victim.
Draco said, "We can't do anything right now. Let's just wait until the doctor comes and -"
Draco was saying something else. Hermione was sure because she saw his lips move and the muscles in his jaws work. But there was no tone that reached her ears. The blissful absence of sound made everything easier to digest. There was nothing before and nothing after. There was silence, and cold, and the sensation of a phantom pain that throbbed dully somewhere between her ribs. Then she shut down and there was nothing. Right now, she was not cut out to be around people.
St. Thomas Hospital, A&E department
Monday, 22th September
4 days until the next murder
Seven hours and four cups of bad vendor coffee later, the door to the surgery rooms opened. Hermione's hands were still shaking when one of the doctors finally made her way over to them.
"Doctor," Draco greeted the woman. They both rose from the cheap visitor chairs that were hard as steel.
"You're the agents on this case?" The doctor looked tired. Her navy blue scrubs looked sweaty and well-worn, as if she had been wearing them for a long time. Dark circles under her eyes painted a stark contrast against the blinding white of the hospital lights.
"Yes. What can you tell us?"
"We stopped the internal bleedings and treated his wounds and ruptures. Nearly all of his bone fractures were compound, so we had to stabilize them with screws and spirals. There was no anaesthetic in his blood values so I can't even imagine the pain he must have felt during the torture."
Hermione let out a breath she didn't know she'd held. Slowly her world that was broken and torn sewed itself back together again. This time she found her voice.
"So he's over the worst?"
"For now." The doctor smiled, strained. Still, it was a glimmer of hope for Hermione that she held onto. "But there's another problem."
"What is it?"
"While his head does not show any surgical interventions, we found precise cuts around his eye socket and in his left eyeball. We sent him for an MRI but we had to interrupt the check because he began to spasm and haemorrhage. While the results are mostly useless, we could identify some kind of foreign object inside of him." The doctor handed over a folder to Draco; Hermione hadn't noticed it. By the look of its thickness and length, she'd guess it must be the patient's clinical record. Ron's, she corrected herself harshly.
"I am reluctant to do any other examinations without a neurosurgeon to look over it. Unfortunately our own is out for continuous medical education and even if we call him back it could be up to two days before he arrives."
"We will send one of ours," Draco said immediately and flipped through the folder before he handed it to Hermione. She did the same as him, flipping through pages and only stopping here and there to make a mental note. Six broken ribs, orbital fracture, internal bleeding - The MRI reports were not usable, just as the doctor had said. Blurred images with black dots where a brain should have been. A couple of scans were attached too, that showed a small black patch of nothing where bones and cerebral matter were supposed to be.
The precision indicates someone in the medical field. Yet, the barbary of some wounds don't match the extraordinary diligence of some of the other trauma. Does that mean we have two offenders?
"Will he wake up?" Hermione flipped the folder shut and gave it back to Draco.
"We've put him in an artificial coma for now. He wouldn't endure the pain." The doctor turned, ready to leave. But then she stopped and searched for something in the pockets of her scrubs. It was a small item. Draco reached out to take it.
"I almost forgot. One of the nurses found this stuck between two broken bones. Whoever it was is a monster. Maybe you can make reason of it. I need to go and inform the family now." With that she left them alone, vanishing behind snow-white corridors and sterile wards that were impregnated with agony and the deaths of the patients who came before.
Draco folded the note apart. It was hard to decipher anything. Blood had seeped into the paper and drenched it red. The black ink of the typewriter was barely visible. Still, Hermione read the message over Draco's shoulders:
But the blood it pumps—the blood it has pumped for five thousand years,
the blood it will pump for the rest of his life—is nearly human blood.
"Voldemort," they said, in unison. Every written word was a bitter slice of reality. There was an echo of fear that made the growing anger more painful to her.
This can't be, he can't be the next victim, it's too early, not Ron, not Ron, not Ron -
The world around her rattled and everything drained away - then it sharpened again. The smell of medicines got under her skin, enough to push the thought of death closer. She was close to suffocating now. Draco reached out, once, and squeezed Hermione's hand. His hand lingered, maybe for a tad too long. Hermione didn't mind. She liked the reassurance that she was not alone in this.
"I'll go and phone the office," he said after another beat and took his leave. The sudden absence of his warm hand was harsh. She stared down the corridor, even long after Draco left, caught up in her thoughts.
The note in her hand weighted heavier than it physically should. The blood had softened the roughness of the parchment and she kept herself from clenching her fist so she wouldn't damage the paper any more than it already was.
This can't happen.
Something hungry and red-raged made itself home inside of her. Her mother always told her to keep it on the inside. It was one of those lessons Mrs Granger had taught her between afternoon brunches and business dinners with her father's colleagues. Girls shouldn't let their anger get a hold of them. Girls should smile and keep it locked and hidden away behind perfect teeth and eyes that knew too much.
Right now, smiling was impossible. Illness and decay, which were nestling between those walls, wiped off any smiles like chlorine.
Here, now, she couldn't wrestle down the feeling of anger that rose like bile in her throat. Her face felt like stone but her eyes watered under the pressure.
Anger, as Hermione knew, was better than tears or grief or hurt. Or guilt.
Anger made her focused. Anger made her dangerous.
This time Voldemort wouldn't get away with it.
St. Thomas Hospital, ICU
Monday, 22th September
4 days until the next murder
She hadn't seen Ron in years.
She tried to remember this, desperately. Harshly. Their last real conversation had been four years ago at Harry's birthday party between beer pong and Lavender Brown's miserable karaoke attempt of 'I'm a believer' from The Monkees. He had looked different back then. Happy. Cocky. Alive.
Ron's family arrived when his bed was pushed into the ICU. Hermione saw glimpses of him; the damp sheen of red hair, the grey tone of his skin, the white from bandages and the steel of screws all over his body. The nurses were busy fixing tubes and infusions to his unmoving body and the doctor gave the same explanation to his parents that she had given to Draco and her before.
Harry found her close to a wall. He put his arms around her and Hermione was thankful for the comfort. They stood silently, grieving quietly into the other's shoulders. They merely wept. They didn't speak.
Sometimes it was better not to talk at all. About anything, to anyone. Sadness was like a disease. Like a drug. Once someone was infected, it devoured everyone close by.
Molly stepped into the room while tears squeezed out between her eyelids. Her sniffle was a muffled noise before she swallowed and reached out to run her hand across Ron's ashen face. Her thumb touched the small patch of skin over the oxygen mask before she brushed his greasy hair away from his forehead.
Arthur, Ginny, Bill, Fred, George, Percy - too many people crammed into the small room; grief made flesh and pressed into the smallest place.
Charlie was by the front door with his hand on the knob, staring down at his fist twisting it around. He slammed the door hard enough it rattled against the frame. Then he pressed his head against the door and turned away from his family.
For a moment the room was completely still, as if everyone simply turned off inside and attained perfect peace.
Then the monitor over Ron's bed chirped.
And Ron slept on.
St. Thomas Hospital, waiting room
Monday, 22th September
4 days until the next murder
Draco found Hermione huddled asleep in the mustard-yellow armchair of the waiting room.
She looked a bit of a mess - hair tousled in a messy bun, dark circles from the lack of sleep, mouse-grey cardigan rumpled from the few hours she'd slept in it. Draco watched the slow rise and fall of Hermione's chest, the way her lips quivered each time she breathed out. He was momentarily reminded of a time where she'd fallen asleep on the green sofa in his dorm. Her hair was different - longer - but other than that, she looked the same. As if the last ten years hadn't touched her at all. The memory alone was enough to rattle him, hurt him. Slowly he reached out to caress her cheek. It was enough to wake her.
"Hey," Draco said.
"Hey." Hermione blinked drowsily, then sat up. "How long have I been out?"
"Just a couple of hours, don't worry. How are you feeling?"
"Tired." She looked out of the window again, watching the storm. Draco followed her eyes. The soft drum of rain accentuated the lightning that flashed brightly through the dark evening sky; it threw white shades on half of her face. As a boy, he had loved storms like this one. It had been a reminder that even the sky could mourn.
"James' here," he said after a while. James had arrived half an hour ago. He was waiting close to Ron's room now. The emotional support was important to Molly and Arthur.
"Right." Hermione's face was still hidden in the half dark of the room. She got up and stretched her neck, rubbing her hand over the tense skin. Draco watched silently. They stayed like that for a while, her watching out of the window and him watching her. He wondered what she was thinking about. Then she turned around and left the room to search for James. Draco counted to five before he followed.
"Hermione, good to see you." James greeted her as soon as she was close enough to hear him. The pristine white of his shirt yellowed under the old hospital lights. "Draco filled me in. Do you think you can stomach this?"
"Don't worry, I got it. What do we have so far?" Her tone had changed from concerned to professional in a matter of seconds. It was always strange for him to see her flip through emotions.
"Severus sent us the first results; typewriter type and ink are the same as in the other Voldemort cases so we can rule out the possibility of a copycat killer." James held a report in his hand that was printed on official MI5 paper. Draco looked over it noting the different statistics comparing the former riddles Voldemort had sent to the latest one they found in Ron's bones. They were identical.
"So it really is him," Draco said absently. His mind was connecting dots and data. He frowned. Something was not right. The date. Ron. The way they found him. He could see it, clear as glass, could feel the cold hand of death crawling up on them. It was like being thrown from a pleasant dream into a nightmare. Like a wave of sickness that came over you and devoured your senses, one by one.
"What is it?" Hermione asked, biting her lips until they were thin and white. He looked up at her and saw the vein in her temple twitch.
"What does it mean if someone like Voldemort lets its prey escape?"
"Why do you think he let him? Maybe Ron could fight him off and flee." The urge to defend Ron stole through her, so simple and quick, she didn't notice herself. But Draco did. He scoffed, almost ridiculing.
"We both know that's not what happened."
Annoyance rose inside of her, taking a sudden sharp turn into anger. Every part of her body, every bit of her that was leftover from being one of Ron's good friend from back in the day wanted to lash out at Draco and try to find the flaw in that theory. Then something dawned back into her because she turned away from him and towards James.
"Where are we on the neurosurgeon front?"
"We're still looking. Our own was a victim in the bombings last month and is still on sick leave. And the other one will take until Wednesday if we fly him in."
"But we can't let Ron vegetate like this." She frowned and peered over at Draco, voice tight with frustration.
Draco glanced at James who looked much the same as Hermione, then he crossed his arms. He could count four neurosurgeons in and around London, from which two were unavailable. One of the remaining was good, but this case was important enough that good alone would not be enough. Then there was another one-
"What?" Hermione looked up, restless limbs and blown eyes. She looked as if Draco had given her the answer to all of her prayers in a single name.
"My brother," Draco said, taking a deep breath. The tension in his chest grew. It took all of his self-control to continue speaking. "He's a neurosurgeon at Barts. I am sure he would lend us a hand."
He didn't like bringing Abraxas into this. His brother was a parasite with an unquenchable helper syndrome. But they didn't have a choice.
"Good. You call him, I'll talk to Arthur and Molly."
There were other important questions to ask. How and why and when, at least, seemed relevant. But James was already entering the ICU with a smile that turned soft-edged and reassuring.
Draco slid his hands inside his pockets to fish for his phone when Hermione reached out. Her hand was lingering on his arm, fingers and thumb pushing at the muscle there. Words were on her tongue but nothing came out. Draco understood. He squeezed her hand long enough until she smiled - a little crooked, a little broken. His head was a storm and his chest blissfully empty except for her warmth. It was enough for now.
St. Thomas Hospital, ICU
Monday, 22th September
4 days until the next murder
Ron had scars Hermione would never have.
Not physical ones; they both shared enough of those already. No. Skin sewed itself back together in roughly five weeks. That was a glimpse of the time a sane mind needed to stomach great loss or hurt.
Physical scars healed with time.
Mental ones never healed completely out.
By the time Hermione stood by the large windows to look into Ron's room, Draco had washed his face and ran and his hand through his fair hair a couple of times too often. He had his phone in one hand and was frowning down at it before the sound of approaching footsteps made them both look up. Two men were entering the ICU wearing expensive black coats; Abraxas and Tom.
"Dr Abraxas Malfoy, at your service," Abraxas said, flashing pearl-white teeth to the Weasley family. He took Arthur's hand with a firm shake. "My brother was kind enough to forward the file already, so I know the key data. I am certain that we can help your son."
Molly made an ugly sound, something between a sob and a cry. All her anguish trembled between her lips. She grasped at Arthur's arms and he tried to hold her or hold himself. Hermione watched, hurt but unmoving.
"Hey," Tom murmured when he reached her. There was a darkness in his voice that was like a blanket, laid all warm and thick across Hermione's worried-thin nerves. He kissed her temple and his hand slid around her until his palm was flat against the small of her back. It was warm. "I heard from Abraxas. I just wanted to make sure you're alright."
"I am now," she said. She kissed him because he was there. Because she could. Then she leaned into his shoulder, breathing deep in. She smelled death on him.
"Riddle," Draco greeted, tone sharp. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see the way his arms were crossed and his teeth were clenched.
"Draco," Tom answered undisturbed. His hand ran circles on Hermione's back.
Abraxas was still talking to Arthur and Molly, then James. A minute passed, and another, and then Abraxas made his way over to them. He clasped his hand on Draco's shoulder, squeezing it tightly. Hermione watched the cotton of Draco's shirt wrinkle, then smooth out.
"Wouldn't have thought you for someone who has so little confidence in his own abilities that you arrive along with attachment," Draco said grimly to his brother. He gritted his teeth like he could snap the words into pieces.
Abraxas' answered razor-sharp. "I thought ahead. If I fail, Tom can do his job."
"We have our own pathologist, thanks." Draco's smile was so instant and so smug it was almost offensive. Through the open doors of Ron's room, the mechanic beeping of his machines swayed over.
Hermione wanted to stop their fighting. She felt her words lurch, but Tom beat her to it.
"Don't mind me. I'll be off in a minute." He smiled, all fanged and predatory charm. His utter focus was on Hermione. When he spoke his eyes were honest and concerned. "I only wanted to make sure you were alright?"
"I am, thank you." She brushed her hand over the collar of his coat. The faint scent of his cologne was deeply woven into the material but couldn't overcast the stench of rot and sanitizer. Not entirely.
Abraxas turned away to talk to the doctors; Draco followed with Ron's folder rolled between his hands.
Tom retracted his hand and she instantly missed the warm presence of him around her. Before he could take a step away she reached out and grabbed his hand.
"Please stay." The growing distance between being here with him or being here without him made her chest start to hurt.
"If that's what you want." He took her hand and kissed her fingers one by one. His lips were cold. She nodded, slowly. The earthquake-tremble of her hands was nothing against the hummingbird-flutter of her own heartbeat.
She leaned back against his shoulder and turned away from Ron's pale face that flashed through the glass windows.
St. Thomas Hospital, operating theatre
Tuesday, 22th September
3 days until the next murder
The operating theatre smelled of antiseptic, sweat and blood.
Forty red, velvet folding chairs spread on three levels to overlook one of the best equipped operating rooms in England. Below them, a couple of doctors and nurses were standing between machines and tubes and Ron's bed. One of them was Abraxas, but Hermione couldn't recognize him yet; all of them were wearing the same blue surgery tunics and masks. His blond hair was hidden.
For the first time in the last twenty-four hours, she could see Ron on the large television in one corner. It showed a close-up view of his face that looked white as a sheet under the fake neon lights. His skin was tinted in different shades of blue and red with stitches along his jaw and forehead. Blood had gathered inside his eyes and pushed outside in a dark crimson bulge; probably the aftermath of a blow with a blunt object. The damage was limited to his left side but various scars were a variety of smooth lines, dips and bumps. Each scar, each wound spoke to her in Voldemort's voice.
I will break you, little boy, she heard. I will rip you apart.
I won't let you. Not again, her mind answered.
"Have you ever watched a surgery? It can be quite disturbing." Tom looked down through the large windows, his focus completely on the doctor's doing their work. Here in the midst of despair, he looked utterly at peace. Hermione supposed it came with the job.
"I saw dozens of forensic photographies during my college days. I think I can handle a little surgery."
"It's something else to see it live. To see someone you know."
"I'm not some delicate flower Tom," she said but her tone sounded strangely flat. Neither amused nor annoyed. She was still analyzing Ron's face on the screen with her eyes.
"No. You're not." He leaned over then to kiss her temple. His lips twitched when he felt the point of her strong pulse.
Chief Dumbledore entered the room when the rest of them took their places. All around the room the heads were turning, even her own. Next to her, Tom tensed imperceptibly. If she hadn't known him for some time now she wouldn't have caught it. But she felt the twitch of his fingers, saw the clenching of his teeth.
"Good evening Miss Granger," Dumbledore said when he arrived next to them. "Tom."
He smiled when he looked at Tom, but it was one of those smiles Hermione couldn't place. It was neither happy nor exactly cold. Neither guarded nor entirely open. One of those smiles that showed one thing but meant another.
"Albus." Tom greeted back, stiff.
"I didn't know you'd be here today," Dumbledore said and while the smile was still on his lips the tone left no doubt that Tom was unwanted.
"I invited him," Hermione said immediately, tone defensive. She felt as if she would have to give account for something terribly wrong. She did not like the feeling. "Dr Riddle helped a lot in refining the Voldemort profile."
For a long while, Dumbledore said nothing; Tom flashed his usual charm. Then Dumbledore turned around to take his seat, saying, "I see. We will talk later Miss Granger."
Artificial light buzzed harshly overhead; Hermione focused, drawing Tom in sharp relief. After a bit of awkward hesitation, Hermione asked, "You know each other?"
"Barely." A shadow flickered over Tom's face, but it was gone a second later.
Barely? Since when do you greet someone with their first name when you barely know them?
She made a mental note to ask him again later in private. For now, she settled down into one of the chairs and waited.
When Abraxas put the first cut close to Ron's eye socket Hermione looked away. Tom went to get her a glass of water but she doubted it would help.
"Don't worry," Draco said when he slumped into the seat where Tom had sat seconds ago. Exhaustion spread over his face, but he smiled. It was enough for her that the world didn't feel terribly bleak anymore. "Even if he doesn't look like it, Abraxas knows what he's doing. He was always the one of us that had the Malfoy blood running in his veins."
Memories of long discussions about family traditions and the heritage of a family name that not only meant wealth but also responsibility bubbled up in her. The Malfoys had always been doctors. His parents had not taken Draco's decision to break the tradition too well back then. But she was glad to have him here.
They sat close without speaking. Draco's warmth bled from him into her. Their arms were touching on the armrests. She only looked up when he moved, and then watched him go just before Tom took the place again.
The surgery was a blur in the background. Hermione saw bits here and there; Abraxas' hands and a puddle of blood when he uncovered sinews and muscles and the macabre bone of a skull - Ron's skull - underneath. There were flashes and glimpses and hands and tubes and instruments working on the large screen. Her mind was far away. Fatigue spread in her bones and with each passing minute they became heavier.
Then, after what felt like hours, something changed. Voices down in the surgery room. Long needle-esque forceps were pushed between flesh and bones. Someone gargled behind her in the operating theatre. Between all the blood and the torn flesh, Abraxas extracted something. A thing.
Flat, tiny, black.
"A memory card," she murmured, half in awe, half in disgust. Her stomach was tight and empty. Her entire chest vibrated with the effort of her racing heart; it felt as if it was knocking against the inside of her breastbone, echoing in pulses against her ribs.
In the corner of the room, the television hummed with static. It was low enough and hard to notice, but the sound filled Hermione's head and followed her for the rest of the surgery.
Appearances define the perception of the people you meet daily.
The bags under my eyes, the flush of my skin after running, the tone of my voice when I laugh - each of these things humanize me. They show that I breathe, every day.
That I live.
I have always been interested in humans beings as creatures. Though I never knew how they worked until I took one apart. I knew the facts - 214 bones, 18 organs, over 100 billion neural cells - But I always came back to one oddity my research couldn't explain.
What is the difference between to live, and being alive?
What does it mean to be alive? When does one feel alive?
Is it when we suffer?
When we love?
When we feel pain?
Or is it the moment, the part, the knifepoint when we feel every fibre and sinew in our body?
When your blood pumps. Your ears rush. Your skin flushes. Your pulse hammers in your throat. It's a different experience for everyone.
For me, it's an art.
I seize the idea.
I structure a plan.
I decide on date and time.
Every murder is like a shot of adrenalin.
When will your next shot be?
Chapter 17: Chapter XV
God sends meat and the devil sends cooks.
Why do we show interest in something as morally reprehensible as murder?
Society condemns bloodshed and still, we are excited, even enthusiastic, to watch a ninety minutes movie where an ex-police cop shoots and kills his way through masses of Russian mobsters to get his daughter back. Or tv shows where a group of detectives tries to find serial killers with the aid of a profile they created.
The bloodier, the better.
Isn't it macabre that over 47% of people that watch regular tv or streaming providers search explicitly for this kind of content as a pastime? Does that mean this kind of perversity lies dormant in every one of us?
Maybe it only breaks out with some of us.
Not with anyone.
Everyone carries darkness. Everyone carries a monster.
It's just a matter when it breaks out of you.
MI5 headquarters, conference room 13
Wednesday, 24th September
2 days until the next murder
Hermione sat straight as a rod on the barely comfortable office chair in the meeting room, high on caffeine and adrenaline and ready to catch a serial killer. The air was stuffy and reeked of sweat and non-washed clothes. Too many people were crammed inside the meeting room; not only people of the Order but also agents that helped with investigations and the media. Abraxas had a seat too. Dumbledore led the meeting, asking questions and reading reports. They were still talking about the memory card that could lead them closer to Voldemort. The lost hope slowly crept back into each of them. An upcoming headache bloomed behind her eyes. Someone nearby was chewing too loudly.
"It's password secured, but I'm on it. Shouldn't take me more than a day," Neville said after Dumbledore asked him if he had made any progress with the decryption. Hermione had no doubt that they would know it soon. Neville had a way with computers that no one else had. She trusted him.
"It's necessary that we get to see the data as soon as possible. Whatever it might be, it could help us to finally pin Voldemort down."
More people were talking. James. Sirius. Severus. But the voices were blurred. The mass of information that they shared with each other was nothing new to Hermione; she had heard and read everything that there was about this case.
She stifled a yawn that threatened to bubble up.
It had been a short night. She had slept roughly two hours when the sun was already up in the sky, shining through thick grey clouds. She had told herself repeatedly that she had to finish one more thing and then sleep; one more piece of research, one more page, one more, one more, one more - until her head had tipped towards the computer and the movement had jerked her back awake again.
So, she slept. Poorly. For two hours.
"When will we be able to move victim 6?" Dorcas Meadowes asked from the other side of the table, clicking her pen against the notebook in front of her.
Victim 6. Not Ron.
Hermione bristled in her chair, scratching her nails over the hard plastic of the armrests. She wanted to lash out but stopped herself. Calling the victim by a number rather than his name dehumanized not only the torture Ron suffered, but Voldemort too, but it was a common tactic used in police work.
Yet, Hermione thought, it's his humanity that makes what he does so terrifying.
She bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted copper, but she didn't say a word. All of their nerves were running thin.
"Tomorrow should be fine. It will be easier for me to tend to him once he's with us at Bart's." Abraxas ran the length of his index over the bottle of water in front of him, playing a tune. A habit he shared with his brother, Hermione noticed. Probably something they'd both picked up from childhood- piano lessons.
They were talking about the case and reports for twenty more minutes before Dumbledore dismissed them with the words, "All of you did great. Take the day off. Longbottom will call."
With Ron as his latest victim, there was no reason to fear another murder soon. Voldemort would not break his pattern. He simply could not break it. It was in his nature.
Hermione rose from her chair and stretched her arms wide over her head until they nearly popped. Draco came over from the other side of the table, ducking away before his brother could catch him in something akin to a hug.
"Are you awake?" he asked when he reached her.
"I'm moderately functional," she said, smiling. Euphoria radiated from her in small waves, drowning the slumbering unease inside her guts. Ron's escape was a small victory in the war against Voldemort, but it was a victory nonetheless.
"I'll take that as a yes." He turned around and grabbed for an empty paper cup of Florean Fortescue's coffee to go; the logo of the MI5 and a caricature of someone that looked like Abraxas were drawn in Draco's ballpen black on the carton. His tone was playful but tired. "Will you go home?"
"Not a chance." She knew herself better; she was not the type to sit at home waiting. In her office, she could at least work on a couple of things. Maybe refine the profile. Mistakes made a profile sharper, just as revenge made a profile obscure.
"I'll get us coffee." He crumpled the paper cup in his hand, threw it to the bin, where it bounced off the opening and rolled a meter before it stopped. He didn't bother picking it up from the floor but left the room quickly before his brother reached him. Hermione watched him go, giving Abraxas an apologetic grin before she followed.
MI5 headquarters, Neville's office
Thursday, 25th September
1 day until the next murder
Neville's office was a sparsely lit eight-by-eight square with a wall of different screens and computers and tubes and wires. There were only two old office chairs that looked like the department had thrown them out years ago, with dry and cracked leather cushions on the top. This far into the building there were no windows and only a poor ageing ventilation system that circulated sweat-warm air into the room. The smell of damp old mould filled the small space overlapping neatly to the diluted smell of a day-old aftershave and cinnamon scented shampoo.
"I extracted the data a couple of hours ago, and at first I couldn't find anything. Which was impossible, considering the high data volume on the chip. So I started to run some backup programs and-"
"Longbottom," Draco cut in impatiently. Hermione said nothing, simply breathed. An unwelcome feeling was seething inside of her. She didn't like it.
Neville looked apologetic, scratching the back of his head.
"Right, sorry. Anyways I found a recording in the data that I could restore."
That piqued her interest.
"What was on it?"
"You should see it yourself, though I should warn you. It's-" Neville stopped mid-sentence and struggled for words. He grimaced as if it hadn't quite sunken in what had happened before. Something inside of him retched furiously, enough, that even Hermione noticed. He took a deep breath, then started again, tone gravelly. "It's just brutal. I showed it Dumbledore and Potter an hour ago and both were disturbed by it. They said to call you two to see if you can find something useful."
He was opening files and programs on the screen in front of them, adjusting the volume. But he hesitated just before pushing the play button. His eyes were haunted, slightly widened from terror.
"Just push the damn button, Longbottom." Draco crossed his arms and looked at the screen. Hermione watched Neville first, who looked as if it would take an enormous amount of courage to push the button, then she looked back at the screen. She could hear the click when Neville pushed the switch and the screen flickered to life.
At first, nothing happened. The screen stayed black for several seconds. Then the black was replaced by a fake, blinding light and dots in black and green and brown. It took the lens time to adjust to the sudden change of light incidence and mimesis. Slowly, the sharpness crept into the picture.
They could only see the black outline of a person wearing black spandex gloves blocking half of the shot. He had something in his hand that he put away - the cover of the lens - then unwrapped a conglomeration of medical instruments; scalpels, scissors, syringes, tweezers, clamps.
"Voldemort," answered Hermione. She didn't know why she said it, but she knew it was true. The precision, the self-display, the provocation. Everything about him screamed the name in capital letters to her. Cold dread ran down her spine.
Voldemort polished his instruments, then left the shot to reveal what the frame of his body had covered behind him. Ron was sitting on something like a dental chair. He was fixed with broad belts that held him in place at arms, legs and waist. A knot of rags was in his mouth, gagging him. Old, dried blood was on the left side of his head, probably from a blow to knock him out.
The room was barely recognizable and looked much like any other basement in London; brown stones with a layer of greenish moss here and there, and grey cement that crumbled between. Cuttings and strange drawings hung on the wall, that turned out to be maps on closer inspection. Hermione could only pinpoint that they showed London from the general shape and her own knowledge about the country. The recording was too blurred to discern details.
Voldemort was taking his time. He never showed his face to the camera, only his upper body and hands, both clad in black. Everything was staged to perverse accuracy, from the way Ron was facing the camera to the looming shadow that was named Voldemort.
He wants us to watch. He wants to say: look what I can do. I live in these shadows. This is my show.
Ron whimpered and screamed through the lump in his mouth. When Voldemort yanked it out, he gasped desperately for air. Then he screamed for help. Voldemort didn't seem impressed, in fact, he didn't seem to mind Ron screaming. He reached for one of the scalpels as if he had all the time of the world. Screaming would not stop what was coming. It would only spur him on.
Hermione froze. All of her muscles contracted and hurt at once. Thinking became harder; it was as if her mind was trying to shut off because it knew what would follow.
Voldemort stepped behind Ron and held his face with one black-gloved hand clutched in red hair, and the other with the scalpel pressing into Ron's cheek. Blood flowed and ebbed under the metal in time to Ron's horrific pleads. It swelled out of the wound while the scalpel sank deeper and deeper into the pale flesh.
It was all a blur. A cruel, violence-filled blur in red and flesh and black. Between sobs and pleads and the hoarse cry, someone started to hum. Hermione's legs shook. Her stomach heaved.
Then she ran.
She could hear Draco's voice from far away, like a song playing from another room, but she couldn't stop. She stormed out of Neville's office. She didn't look back.
MI6 headquarters, Hermione and Draco's office
Thursday, 25th September
1 day until the next murder
For what felt like an hour, Hermione stood outside of Neville's office where the air was a cool, blissful, sweet-smelling relief from the crush of overheated screens and computers inside. The quiet of the darkness gave her space and time to sort out the things washing around her brain.
Grotesque pictures bloomed up in front of her eyes, each of them more ghastly than the one before. Despite her efforts to banish them from her mind they kept flashing behind her closed lids: Ron's face warped into a desperate cry, the blood leaking out of every pore, Voldemort's black-gloved hand with a shiny metallic instrument reflecting the fake halogen lights - Anger like bricks in her gut, and blood in her mouth from clenching her teeth too hard, she stood near motionless, hands folded in front of her, eyes ahead but unfocused. Around her, the department was lost.
Vomit and bile crept in the back of her throat. She swallowed against her instinct, making her skin crawl with disgust. Her mouth tasted rancid. All of her operational training had not prepared her for that moment. The perversity and intimacy that Voldemort used, grabbed any glimpse of hope she had felt during the last hours and choked it dry.
She was still collecting her breath when the door to Neville's office opened and closed. Converse on the carpet floor, lightfoot yet proud. She knew those steps. Draco.
"Alright?" Draco asked, leaning close enough to shield her full body. It was a nice warmth that bled from him. It was as if he tried to physically build a wall between her and the world. Slowly Voldemort's horror washed off her, trickle by trickle, until only Draco's presence remained. She breathed in, deep, then out, and heard how he did the same in front of her. They stood like this for what felt like forever, with only their breaths shared over the small space between them.
Draco's scent was familiar to her; she knew the sharpness of his aftershave and the smell of coffee on his breath. She could trace the fine note of lemongrass from his shampoo and the freshness of the fabric conditioner his maid used on his clothes. Everything about it was familiar until it became intimate. When she opened her eyes he stood in front of her in sharp profile. The grey of his eyes was blown from worry. She could see the horror of the video flickering inside of them. Oddly, she thought of Tom.
"Everyone always says we can't protect everyone, but we have to try Draco. What else are we good for?" Her hand automatically flew up to her mouth, but before she could start to nibble on her lips Draco grabbed it.
"I know. We try." He ran his thumb over her wrist and palm. It was a habit from a time long gone. The urge to bite her lips decreased. She let it happen. "How about you drive home. See if you can get some sleep."
"Thank you," she said after a moment of consideration. She didn't like the idea of leaving him here alone while she tried to get some rest, but she knew that she was no help in this condition. She was grateful for his offer.
He was still holding her hand and Hermione took comfort from it. By now, all of the horrid images from the recording were an echo inside of her. Still noticeable, but lost in a greyish filter. Something that could not reach or hurt her for now. She would deal with it tomorrow, or later after she had slept and eaten something.
When she broke away from Draco, she could still feel his eyes following her even when she had already left the building. It was more comforting than it should have been.
Did you see how she reacted?
That dread. That repulsion. That anger.
She felt what everyone does when a loved person becomes the victim of a horrible crime. Of a killer. A monster.
Do you think she will still call Voldemort a lonely human?
Or do you think she will give in and call me a monster?
She looks so mundane, so horribly normal on the outside. But on the inside, oh, she's so deliciously rotten on the inside. Like a puzzle that is missing a few pieces. I just need to carve the right pieces to complete her. It's satisfying and titillating.
She condemns ME without knowing it. I am the ghost in the back of her head that haunts her day and night. She will have dinner with me, lie in my arms and have sex with me, without knowing that I am the hideous monster she tries to catch.
Loving the monster always ends badly.
What's the difference between a monster and a lover?
Chapter 18: Chapter XVI
Nothing can drive one closer to his own sanity than a haunting memory refusing its own death.
The perfect victim requires precision.
A lot of tactfulness. It's not a random casualty, not killed on impulse.
For a serial killer, it's the same procedure as for someone that subscribes to a dating app.
They look for the same target: a human being. Be it to murder or to fall in love. The precise selection that they aim for, remains the same.
Do they fit my ambitions? Will it be hard to persuade them? Will they fall for my charms?
It's like a vicious cycle where you wait for time to run out to find the perfect person.
Like a countdown on a bomb.
Will you be the next choice?
Tick tock. Tick Tock.
St. Thomas Hospital, Ron's room
Friday, 26th September
Day of the murder
If Hermione had slept through the dreary lull of the time she spent half-sitting, half-lying on the visitor's chair in Ron's hospital room, she might have felt relieved. Instead, she was left awake, back to the wall and legs stretched out in front of her with the bruised knowledge of Voldemort's cruelty in her heart and the burning phantom pain of Ron's tormented eyes.
She had gone home just as she promised Draco. Had showered, fed Crookshanks, put on some new clothes. When the nagging feeling had become too much she had grabbed her purse and went to Ron. At least here, she felt as if she was useful. If just for mental support.
She had been here for hours. It was a miracle to see Ron sleeping peacefully in front of her. No lasting harm had been done that could not be repaired. There were no marks on his face except the pristine stitches of the scars Abraxas left behind. The only evidence that the whole horror happened was the blood under Ron's fingernails, and the blue- and violet-coloured tinge large parts of his body were showing. Even the screws and the steel that throned out of some places were temporary. She made a mental note to ask Draco for the testimony of the woman that found Ron, Tracey Davis.
It was hard to look at him without seeing horrific flashbacks of the video in front of her, but the machine in one corner of the room that beeped in rhythm with Ron's heart made it easier to replace the cruelty with the reassurance that somehow everything might become better.
Somewhen after 6 a.m., the door opened and Harry walked in with two large cups of coffee. He gave her one and took the place on the other side of Ron's bed, where still Mr Weasley's jacket waited over the armrest. He went out for a walk some minutes ago, probably checking on Molly. She had not left the room since Ron came back from surgery except for sleep, a shower and some meals. Hermione expected her to let those things drop too if they weren't essential.
"Are you okay?" Harry asked after a while.
Always the same question.
"I'm fine," Hermione said with a small smile.
Always the same lie.
They sat in silence that was only rarely interrupted by the noises of the machines inside the room. Hermione looked away. The mere sight of Ron made her bones ache and her guts knot. Her mind was blissfully silent for once. No thoughts. No reflections. No connections or profiling or victim hunting.
She could blink between the curtains. It was still dark outside. The sun hadn't even started to rise.
Her phone started to vibrate in her lap.
Tea and an almond croissant for breakfast?
06:59 a.m., TR
Sounds nice, but I can't make it. Ron will be shifted to Barts today.
07:02 a.m., HG
Dumbledore will give a speech later and I want to stick around for it. It should be done by 10:30 a.m., I'm free afterwards.
07:02 a.m., HG
It seemed to take a monumental amount of effort for Hermione to glance away from her phone when no answer followed. She wondered, not for the first time if her non-existent socializing skills were at fault. For a minute she felt frustrated, then resigned, and finally, she sighed as if it pained her. Harry looked up, but she waved it off.
On her phone the app showed the symbol for new messages from her Mom to read and one from Draco, probably asking how she was. She hovered over the symbol but refrained from pushing it. She was about to put the phone away when it vibrated again.
Lunch at Hakkasan? I'll come and get you.
07:11 a.m., TR
It's a date.
07:11 a.m., HG
A smile crept up on her face; breathing became easier.
"Must be some good news," Harry said, hiding his grin half behind his cup of coffee. The beeping of Ron's machine was steady and firm, just like his heartbeat.
Hermione laughed. "The best in a while."
MI5 headquarters, Neville's office
Friday, 26th September
Day of the murder
Draco paced from one end of the room to the other. His arms were crossed in front of his chest and his eyes were fixed on the screens that played Voldemort's horror show like an endless loop; fast forward, slow motion, then rewind again. The smell of blood and death was so heavy in the air that it turned his stomach but there was nowhere to retch his guts out. So he paced and held his breath.
The recording showed the same thing over and over. An operating table. A shelf with medical instruments. Pipes and a stone wall in the far corner. Some maps were drawn on the wall that gave no destination. Over and over, streets and cities and the whole of Britain. But everything was blurred from the video, everything half-frozen in the background. Voldemort himself was a black shadow in the record. Literally. He wore black spandex gloves over a long-sleeved black sweater that gave no exposure to his real shape. He could be slim, but there could also be hidden muscles under the darkness. The video was too blurred, too whimsical. His face was always hidden over or behind the shot. There was no tone except the horrible screams of Ron when Voldemort cut into him, and faintly the low humming of a tune Draco knew but couldn't remember the name of. He tried to imagine Voldemort's face while humming, but all he could come up with was a mouthful of bloody teeth that smiled, cruelly.
When Voldemort reached for the pincers, Draco muted the volume.
Nearly a whole day had passed. Exhaustion spread slowly through his body; his shoulders pulled him down and his eyes watered from the brightness of the screen. He had slept a few hours but they were not enough. That's what happened when you were responsible for lives other than your own; you did what you had to do.
On screen, Ron screamed silently. His face was distorted in pain, showing teeth and blood and exposed muscles over his left cheek.
During the last couple of years, Draco has seen the scum of humanity. He thought, erroneously, that he had seen the true face of atrocity in London's seedy underbellies. Rotten, festering. An open wound, gushing out all things foul. But now, faced with Voldemort, he realized that maybe true atrocity lay right in front of them.
Ron stopped screaming. His head tipped forward and his body went slack. He was unconscious now. Draco turned the volume up; Voldemort was still humming.
He knew what would come. Voldemort would fix Ron's head and start with the surgery. Afterwards, he would wave into the camera and turn it off. Three hours of Voldemort's horror picture show and not a single clue.
"Damn it," he slumped down into the office chair and ran his hands over his face. He looked at the video but didn't notice what happened on screen. The greenish, brown colours of the background blurred to dots. Only the tune and the occasional sound of a mechanical instrument could be heard. Until, after minutes, the screen went black.
Draco sat in silence with his eyes still fixed to the screen that showed nothing. His fingers tapped a melody on the table as if they were playing on piano tiles. He groaned when he realized that it was the same tune Voldemort had hummed. Then something clicked.
His eyes followed his fingers that, apparently, played the melody by heart. Draco tried to remember his lessons; he could feel the hardwood from the bench under him again, the warmth of the room from the sun that filtered through the large windows, slender fingers upon his own moving his little fingers in time to the metronome that played its repetitive ticking from its place in the corner of the room, Abraxas voice singing "London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down"-
His heart dropped; his blood froze.
St. Thomas Hospital, Entrance
Friday, 26th September
Day of the murder
Death had a scent.
Hermione had smelled it for the first time in her third semester when they'd examined the corpse of an elder man that died from a heart attack and gave his body for medical studies. Some people in her year said that death smelled like rotten fruits, or rancid. But for her, it always smelled like something intoxicating. Something that you know is bad, but you can't stop to inhale. Sickeningly sweet and overwhelming in its sincerity.
She was on her way out of the hospital when she smelt it. First, it was just a faint sidenote between all the antiseptics and cleanness of the hospital. But it became clearer. Firmer. With every step closer to Dumbledore and the press, Death became more ineluctable.
She took her place close to Dumbledore and looked out to the people that had gathered. Rita Skeeter, Xenophilius Lovegood. A good bunch of other people she remembered from the press conference a couple of weeks ago. All of them familiar faces in a sea full of strangers. A couple of meters behind them a crowd of spectators were waiting too, held in charge by some police officers. They were all waiting for some good news that Dumbledore hopefully would deliver.
The clock on her phone showed 10:25 a.m. Draco had written her a message about twenty minutes ago, writing something about London Bridge and that they'd need to talk later. She looked around to find him, but he was nowhere to be seen. Instead, she could see Tom in the middle of the crowd. She smiled when she saw him, and he did too. They were connected for a second in eternity; then she blinked. In the corner of her eyes, she could see Dumbledore taking his place at the podium. Hermione's heart raced, stuttering furiously. The stench of Death became unbearable.
Something feels off.
Abraxas was waiting at the ambulance, flirting with one of the nurses; Ron was still in the ICU and would be brought down after the press conference. He was still in an artificial coma, but they'd wake him up at the start of next week.
Abraxas looked over and Hermione followed his gaze. Someone was pushing through the officers now. When she turned her head she could recognize Draco's leather jacket and his fair blond hair. He was showing his badge, explaining something but he was too far away for Hermione to understand. Slowly, she focused her head back to the crowd again, finding Tom. She watched the sun tinting his cheekbones in white light, blurring any human features. She blinked, irritated.
Then, somewhere behind her, a nasty bang went off that pulled her off her feet. Noise. Rumble. Ashes. Panic. Blood. And then, the world went dark.
Profilers have a flaw they simply cannot shed; their pride.
In the end, their job is just a tool. With it, they try to extract the directory of a serial killer in order to find their perfect victim. The golden ticket.
It is remarkable, yet despicable. They play a game, filtering masses of personal data with the aid of a couple of facts when they try to search for the personal note, the personality and character of a killer. But they will never understand what it really means to find the perfect victim.
I chose carefully.
Diggory, Gregorovitch, Smith - even Weasley.
Everyone, even their grieving families, are pieces in my game.
I wove a maze out of nightmares and fears and put them inside. I watched them fight. I watched them scream. I watched them claw their way through paths and misery that I created.
And now you strolled into my labyrinth and can't find your way out.
Soon every inhale and exhale requires my presence.
I told you, I don't kill randomly.
I have a plan. I always have.
Are you ready for part two?
Chapter 19: Epilogue
It's so strange that autumn is so beautiful, yet everything is dying.
BREAKING NEWS - The Quibbler
September 26th updated 11:55 AM GMT by Xenophilius Lovegood
Bomb explodes in St. Thomas Hospital - kills 34 patients, severely injures over 59 people
LONDON, England - A bomb detonated inside St. Thomas Hospital during the early morning hours. Horrified witnesses described a loud noise, a white flash and ashes flying everywhere. Actual footage from the scene shows dozens of patients fleeing and screaming in panic with blood covering their bodies and tears running down their faces.
Police said the explosion took place inside the hospital, close to the ICU, triggering chaos inside.
"We understand that feelings are very raw right now and people are looking for answers," Chief Inspector Dumbledore from the MI5 said, who was present at the time of the detonation, condemning the attack as "callous" and "cowardly" in an emergency press conference.
62- year old Bathilda Bagshot, who was a patient herself, told our News, "When it exploded it went right through me. Within seconds it was chaos and people were panicking, screaming, running to try and get out the door. The detonation, the blood and those who were running around panicked, with body parts and bits of skin missing, will not be leaving my mind anytime soon."
Police said emergency services received over 100 calls after the incident and victims were taken to four hospitals.
Leaked news say the attacker was most likely Voldemort. However, police have declined to comment on this yet. [read more]
Here, at last, we reached the end of our story.
Did you find the monster?
Did it devour you, too?
Here's a thing no one tells you about monsters:
their claws are hidden behind handsome faces,
their teeth are hidden behind soft smiles,
their cruelty is hidden underneath soft skin.
Here's another thing:
they don't lurk in your closet or under your bed
or between the sharp-edged words of a story.
They live right down the hall.
Just around the corner.
In the house next to yours.
they look like me.
They look like you.
So, this is it. No more chapters, no part II uploaded as fanfiction, no more Murderer’s Maze updates. If you want to know how the story finishes, how part II plays out and more, visit my tumblr to know more.
To everyone that has spent the last years going on this journey with me, to all of you who have joined somewhere in the middle, or to the ones that find this story later: thank you. It was an amazing experience that gave me as a writer so much growth, so much fun and so much support that I never thought I’d get when I started this journey. I have greatly enjoyed all comments, all asks you sent me on tumblr and all thoughts concerning the story. You made this story so special to me and I hope I could make it magical for you.