Eleven files were now on her desk. Eleven bodies found across five different countries with a black feather connection. Whoever this person was, they had been quite busy over the past two months and Fleur was at something of a loss, which was unusual for her.
There was a distinct non-pattern with the victims that, in and of itself, was a still a pattern. To the Auror, the obvious irregularities would generally mean a reduced chance of detection, but that only made sense if there wasn’t a signature. The killer had hopped across a span of one thousand miles. They had diversified their victims across muggle, magical, female, male, tall, short, black, white, and all of the above. There was no “type,” essentially, which was frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as the murders themselves.
Outside of France, there was only one murder that had a similar cause: the Killing Curse. All other murders were committed across a range of means; poison, manual asphyxiation, pummelled to death with a blunt object, knife wounds, gunshot, and various dark curses that she had never even heard of.
The range and breadth of all comparable factors was mystifying, and it just didn’t make sense. Fleur had been wracking her brain for weeks. Who goes through all of that—all of that effort to incorporate varying victims and methods in a manner that would be otherwise impossible to track in any semblance of order or relation —only to leave a huge, stinking thumb print that connects them easily? What was the point? If there was no meaning to each kill, then fine, there was no meaning, but the obvious links were meaning in some regard. What was the statement if there was no trend across kills? Was the absence of a statement the statement? It felt like the only possible explanation at this point, but it also meant that she was nowhere near being able to get a glimpse at the killer proactively. How do you stop someone with no discernible pattern?
You don’t. Maybe that’s the point.
The only thing she had to go on were these fucking feathers. The forensic teams came back after a few days with some details on them, thankfully. They were from a single raven tail.
That was it: a raven tail. Her entire investigation was riding on the meaning behind that. She spent ages poring through various literature references and historical accounts for the significance behind a raven, and there was a surprising amount of complexity to wade through. They were seen as an omen more often than not, but that was a characteristic commonly associated with black animals. Still, the omen signification was somewhat obvious from her perspective. Eleven bodies, eleven omens. Sure, easy. The killer could have an omen thing.
The raven also symbolised omniscience and knowledge. They were considered to be wise, prophetic animals in some cultures, and the gatekeepers to the spirits of the afterlife. Fleur wasn’t quite sure how that fits into her victims, but it was still a reasonable consideration and something she’d have to keep in mind.
Overall, the case was providing too little and too much. There was too much to cover in terms of victim placement and yet there were no underlying patterns she could detect, even with her enhanced skills. She had visited a few “witnesses,” but they had conveniently all been busy, didn’t notice anything unusual, or forgot what they were doing at the time.
All she knew, without any shred of a doubt, was that she had never wanted to strangle a fucking bird more than she did now.
Beau was one of the few people in her line of work the Raven could trust. He went by a few names, depending on what he was needed for: Slug, Boomer, Goose, or Sleepy, but she liked to call him Beau, much to his chagrin. If you ask her, she thought he was secretly flattered by her personal nickname, but he'd just never admit it. Really, he would never admit it.
If you need it spelled out for you, Beau was a dealer of all things not sold at your friendly convenience store. His main choices of merchandise were guns, explosives, drugs, and poisons (hence the respective nicknames), and he was exceptionally not interested in the what happened to any of the products he pushed. Hermione liked that best about him.
Beau was probably close to seven feet tall, and about as wide as a barn door. He had thick, curly brown hair that hung in tight ringlets in a loose afro, one big diamond earring on his left ear, and biceps just about as thick as her thighs. He was a pretty domineering figure, to be fair, but the brunette knew he had a soft side somewhere in there. Granted, she had yet to really find it, but she was pretty sure he liked her. Well, mostly sure. Hermione had only seen him smile once when a guy came in to buy some Special-K and tried to talk him down on the price.
Oh, that was another thing: Beau had set prices. You didn't barter with the best, and he knew he was the best. He had a fair fee for everything and everyone knew it. Well, not that one guy, but everyone else knew it. The massive shopkeeper threw the guy outside as easily as if he were taking out the trash. On his way back in she asked if she would get the same kindness if she tried to haggle, and he smiled at her. It was more alarming than anything, like he'd never actually smiled before, and it came across as more of a menacing jeer so that was the first and last time she asked. The shop was in London, which always made her feel jumpy since she had a higher risk of being recognised, but there was nowhere else she would rather go.
Her vacation had ended over for over a month ago now, but she did end up enjoying it. She returned to work with a renewed vitality and promised herself she would take them more frequently. It was good to fool around sometimes, and though she hated using memory charms on people she slept with, it was a necessary evil. In her earlier years she got a little too close to some women and it came around to bite her in the ass. At least she had gotten rid of her hallucinations by the end of her holiday. Now that she was back, though, she'd have to refocus again. She picked up a few good surveillance jobs that helped ease her back into a routine, and just yesterday got offered a big hit she was fairly excited about.
Hermione was in the back of his shop in her usual disguise here—short brown hair, slightly longer nose, no freckles, and tattoos covered. The shop was basically just a garage, and about the size of a large shipping container. Beau only opened between midnight and sunrise for fairly obvious reasons. The shopkeeper had worked the space so there were sectioned areas depending on your interests. She was currently fiddling with a switchblade in what she called the "Pointy Things" aisle. The spring on hers was getting a little worn so she was in the market for a new one. She snapped it open again and rolled it expertly between her fingers a little, testing out the weight.
Beau was in his normal stance at the register with his arms folded. He looked guarded and a little displeased, but he pretty much always looked like that. Hermione threw the open knife in the air and watched it spin before she snatched it at the handle with her left hand. She rolled it some more between the fingers on that hand before snapping the blade shut with a satisfied hum.
She pulled out her wallet and walked over the shop owner.
He looked down at her final choice, "You look at the double action OTF?" he asked in his low baritone.
"Nah, too high tech for me. I like a bit of nostalgia."
He snorted. Hermione liked to count those as laughs in her head (she was up to thirteen now).
"Right, so what do I owe you?" she asked, putting the knife on the counter and pulling out some bills.
He looked down at her again and answered, "Two-hundred."
Hermione stopped counting and looked up with a frown, "That's not enough." These knives were military grade. It should run her close to double that.
He didn't move, but his black eyes bored into her, "My price is my price."
The brunette just shrugged with a small smile and handed over the cash, "You're too good to me, Beau."
He just grunted in response, laying the bills neatly into his money tin.
She made to leave, slipping the knife in her back pocket and grimacing as she looked out at the rain pouring down outside. Fucking England, she thought, just as her normally mute arms dealer spoke again.
"I heard a rumour," he rumbled behind her. She turned around, with a polite yet questioning look at her enormous mountain of a friend.
"A rumour?" she asked. This was unusual for him. You never talked shop in the shop—that was his general modus operandi.
"A rumour," he repeated with a curt nod, "You've heard about the hits here and across Europe."
It wasn’t a question. Hermione nodded slowly, her eyebrows coming together as she crossed her own arms. She had heard. The hits were starting to gain some notoriety in more unfavourable circles, but she was pretty clueless as to the details beyond that. She didn’t really pay a lot of mind to anyone else’s work.
"There's been a black feather left at each scene," he said simply.
"A black feather…" she said slowly. Her brain started to do that thing it always did. Everything was quiet but so, so very loud as she sifted through a hundred scenarios in the span of a few seconds. Beau kept quiet about a lot of things, but he was damn insightful, and she knew he could put some pieces together. She wasn't surprised he had guessed her little character and it's not like he knew who she was beyond that.
But the feathers. Logically, she knew what it meant, but after running a few estimations she came up blank to any sort of sensible answer. The Raven was discreet; she kept out of everyone’s way and did her own thing. Sure, she’d made some enemies, but this? She must be missing a variable somewhere. Some detail that would shed some light on an overarching theme.
Something. Someone. Fuck, think!
She couldn’t come up with an answer. She had a few vague ideas, but they were weak and she doubted they would come to any fruition. It couldn’t be that. All she knew was that this couldn't be good. Nodding to the shopkeeper again, her mind was still elsewhere as she made her way out of the shop and into the rain.
The Raven would have to check. She’d have to make sure it was true, and if it was– fuck, fuck, fuck!
"Oi," Beau called to her once again, his voice carrying across the empty parking lot despite the rain slapping against the puddles at her feet. She turned again and waited. He uncrossed his arms, shifting a little on his huge feet. "Take care of yourself," he said reluctantly.
The Raven, despite her erratic thoughts, cracked a smile at him. Her hair and clothes were soaked now as rain pelted her, but a little warmth spread in her chest at the display of kindness by her odd companion.
"Always do, Beau. I'll see you," she said, and heard him grunt before finally walking out of view and disappearing from London again.
There were always people you had to know in this line of work. Beau was the guy for the muggle “bad girl” goods, but at least he kept quiet. Petra was her contact for intelligence, but she couldn't keep her damn mouth shut, ironically. That's pretty much why she was so sought-after, though. She was a rumour-mill, always sticking her nose into other people's business and trading their secrets. And that was her currency. She didn't take cash, she took information. You had to give in order to get, and it had to be useful. Hermione had used her services a few times out of necessity, but generally speaking, she hated the business model. She liked keeping to herself and even though she wasn't giving Petra her own information, the more one person knew the more dangerous they were in her opinion.
This, however, was another necessity. Black feathers left at a dozen murder scenes? That was hardly a coincidence and she needed to backtrack and figure out who was trying to set her up. There were no friends in this game. Eventually, the people you trust turn on you. She had learned to see everyone as a threat to her, just at different stages of retaliation. Some wanted her head on a platter for dinner tonight while some still thought she could join their agency. All were dangerous, but time was the deciding factor in terms of defensive prioritization.
She reached a green door and knocked three times, paused, then knocked two more times. Her disguise was the same as the last few times she was here: a middle-aged woman with a blonde pixie cut and rather crooked teeth. She waited as three deadbolts and two chains were removed before the door cracked open and a brown eye stuck itself through the small gap.
"Petra," Hermione said with a nod.
"Ahh, you are back," said with a slight Swedish accent. The door opened further, finally revealing the occupant. Petra was…a weirdo, basically. Most of the Swedes she'd met were, but Petra was a different breed of weird. Not just in appearance, either. Hermione didn't judge based on that. She was only about five feet tall, but her spiky green hair gave her an extra inch or two so that the top of her head came up to the brunette’s chin. She had one blue eye and one brown that wasn't aligned properly so she was slightly cross-eyed. Her face and ears were covered in piercings, and she had a pet iguana that hung out on her shoulder like it was the most ordinary thing in the world.
Hermione stepped over a broken shoe rack and slipped off her boots before following Petra into her living room. The carpet was littered with soda cans and empty crisp bags. Broken and dismantled electronics were thrown haphazardly into a teetering pile the corner, and a guitar with no strings was propped against the only wall not covered with wires and screens. There were six huge desktop screens set up next to one another across three desks that nearly took up all her other space. A single office chair was stationed in the middle of them, facing two of the monitors covered with complex code.
The green-haired, glorified gossip was a freelance software developer by day, but basically a hacker and internet sleuth on the side. Interestingly, she was one of the few witches the Gryffindor had met who preferred Muggle technology to magical. She said she found it more useful to her needs, despite not being Muggle-born, and she made a better living off of it. Her ability to gather information started in this very chair, but she learned she was able to build on it by maintaining "partnerships" with other unfavourable individuals in the business.
Why, considering the danger it invited? She was just ridiculously nosy and bored, at the end of the day.
Petra went to sit in the chair, and the Gryffindor took the sofa on the opposite side.
"Nej tack," the Raven replied, turning down her offering for water.
"So, what do you need?"
"No shit," she jeered. Hermione switched her gaze to her blue eye and curbed a biting comment.
"I need to know more about the murders and who is trying to pin them on the Raven."
Petra leaned back in her chair, and the iguana shifted so its tail didn't get squished. Its beady little eye was looking right at her. She stared back at it until its owner spoke again.
"How do you know the Raven is being framed?"
Hermione just gave her a look as if to say, "Do I look like a moron to you?"
"Fine, fine! I have heard about it, yes. What can you give to me?"
"I have a few things you might like. Firstly, Conor McCarthy is running guns now out of Edinburgh."
"Really?" Petra asked, her hand coming to rest under her chin in contemplation.
"Yes, he got a shipment from Israel."
"Who?" Her eyes widened.
"Un-uh," the brunette rejected, "Answers first. Who is trying to pin the murders on the Raven?"
Petra shifted a little and the iguana moved its gaze to the corner of the room, "I don't have anything concrete yet. Just rumours. Most in the business know she’d being staged, but no one is talking too much. Some say it's Poling based on their history."
Hermione stifled a snort. Westin Poling was an idiot and she knew it likely wasn't him, but she couldn't deny that remark. They definitely had their history.
Petra continued, "Some say it's Nicolai Sandoval. The Raven is good and takes a lot of the clients from them these days, as I am sure you know."
"Hmm, okay," she nodded to herself, "Have they found anything on her yet?"
Petra clicked her tongue at her, and Hermione rolled her eyes.
She held up one finger, "Shipment was from Aviv," and then a second finger, "Kinberg is feeding information to the Polish Ministry for immunity," she stated quickly, giving her two payments. Petra's eyes widened again in glee.
"Really?" she asked, too entranced by the overload of gossip to form a decent question.
The Raven just nodded in response and waited.
Petra looked down at the lizard on her shoulder and cooed at it briefly before responding, "They don't have anything on the Raven, as expected. Even with everything I know, I don't have a clue as to who she is," Petra suddenly stopped and looked at her with her brown eye, as if she just realised she was a real person in her living room.
"Hold on. You wouldn't happen to know who the Raven is, would you?" she asked breathlessly, "The amount of information I would give you for her name is…well, let's just say I would be wildly indebted to you." Her eyes were wide with hope, but Hermione just quirked an eyebrow. She always anticipated this question.
"I don't know the Raven. I work for someone who would sorely miss her, however," she replied.
Petra's face fell a little bit, but then she was sparked again by the small nugget of information she could cling on to.
"You work for the Americans, then?"
Hermione gave her a stern look, and Petra sighed in defeat, waving her hand for her to continue. She had one more question to cash in.
"Who is heading the investigation?"
The green-haired woman hummed, "I heard the French had a team tackling it internationally, but each nation is required to have their own internal investigation, as I'm sure you know."
"I meant specifically. The lead—do you have a name?"
"Oh! Nej, buuuuut," she spun her chair around and started clicking away at her mouse, "I can find out," she said confidently.
Two of her enormous screens changed to a black background and Petra's hand was flying across her keyboard and green, pink, and white code started swallowing up the space. Hermione just stood and watched as the far screen to her right suddenly changed.
A large logo filled the screen with a login box that read: Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure. Petra was still smashing at her keyboards and the code was running some sort of algorithm as numbers and letters filled the screen faster than Hermione's eyes could keep up.
After a minute or two, the login box was filling itself out with little black dots and the far screen changed again. Petra was humming a what sounded suspiciously like a Disney tune to herself as she gained access to the French intelligence portal as easily as if she were playing solitaire. A few more searches and key words and she clicked her tongue again, indicating she found what she was looking for.
"Okay, so…the investigation is being tackled by the Parisian Police Department officially, but considering the magical victims they are using someone from the Ministry to head it under their agency," she explained, staring up at one of her screens.
"And who is that?" Hermione's eyes were trying to read from the opposite side of the room unsuccessfully.
A few more clicks and she was on another page.
"A Fleur Delacour, apparently. Head of International Crime and Counterterrorism at Parisian Police. I imagine she does something similar with the Ministry."
Of-fucking-course she does.
The veela could tell she was being followed. They were pretty sly, truth be told, but she had an eye and an ear for this sort of stuff. The first indication was a shadow more than anything. On the way to work, she spotted the distinct shaded outline of a person in an alcove across the street from the place she normally apparated to. On this particular day she was about ten minutes early, but once she rounded the corner to get a look into the alcove she was disappointed. It was empty except for a few cardboard boxes, and the shadow was gone.
Fleur knew it was Hermione. It made her want to laugh that the Golden Girl, as clever as she was, didn't realise she had a nose like a bloodhound—she could smell her from a hundred yards away. Being a quarter veela meant she didn't transform, but she still carried certain creature traits. Her reflexes, strength, and sense of sight and smell had always been far above human capabilities, and her thrall was quite inhibiting when she needed it to be. All things considered, it wasn't too difficult to pick out who was tailing her. It helped that she had all but lived with the woman for over a month at one point, in which she memorised her scent as much as her ex-husband.
When she first got to Shell Cottage, the Gryffindor smelled of freshly laid asphalt. The dark magic flowing in her veins was so thick and oppressive and it made her dizzy with how strongly it filled the room. By the end of her stay she knew her true scent, however. It was something reminiscent of the smell before rain, coffee in the morning, and worn books with cracked spines. Admittedly, Fleur grew to love her unique fragrance. It was light, yet musky, and it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up when she got a whiff of it a month ago after seeing her in France.
So, Hermione was tailing her. She'd caught her scent around the Ministry, near her home, and all places in between. Fleur apparated randomly sometimes to throw her off, and somehow the woman still found her within the hour. Days had passed now, however, and the veela was expecting the brunette to come up to her at some point. Talk to her. Leave a message. A fucking writing on the wall. Anything! She must have had a reason for the incessant stalking, but as the week crept on Fleur was getting more frustrated with the lack of initiation. She had tried spotting her, but she had only seen the shimmer of a Disillusionment charm once. Every other time it was just a faint, faraway scent - like she was in the air or something.
She wished she was more patient. It had been five years, yes, but she had her limits and this was starting to feel mildly invasive. Now, it was late afternoon, and she left work a little early to get a head start on the weekend. She apparated to a narrow allow by her flat that was nearly always empty. Fleur tried not to scowl when she caught the familiar aroma as the breeze shifted. She was here, of course.
The blonde kept walking, keeping her expression neutral as she crossed a busy intersection and skirted down a smaller lane to get home. She was in jeans, sneakers, and a lavender blouse, and silently thanked her choice of outfit because enough was enough already. A week of this and she was done. She wanted answers and she was going to get them. Why the hell was Hermione following her? What did she want? And why didn't she just stay last time if she was so interested in what she was doing? Couldn't they just catch up like normal people?
Fleur took her normal route home for a while, knowing the brunette was following her familiar pattern easily now. She could tell by the strength of her scent that she was closer today. On foot, hopefully. The blonde took a left turn at the light post. Another left. Straight, to the end of the road, then a right after the fire hydrant. After turning the corner, she took a detour to the right and hid in a small nook where the entryway for three apartment doors met, surrounded by grey stoned tiles. Then she waited, holding her breath.
She couldn't see her, but a wave of coffee and rain wafted by, and the veela flicked her wand to remove the impressive invisibility charm the brunette had placed on herself before grabbing her wrist and pulling her into the nook with her. The only thing she saw were brown eyes widening in surprise before Fleur threw her into the wall and slammed her body against her, using her moment of imbalance to her advantage. Her front pressed tightly to the brunette's back, she moved again to keep her there.
One of Fleur's hands remained tight around her right wrist, pinning it to the wall. The brunette's other arm was trapped in between her body and the wall at an awkward ankle. From what she could see and feel, Hermione didn't have a wand, but the blonde assumed she was probably more than adept at wandless magic by now. Fleur quickly slid her hand down further, wrapping it over her closed fist so she couldn't manoeuvre her exposed fingers. The veela's other hand—her left—had her wand pressed sharply under the Gryffindor's exposed jawline. Fleur pushed her chest forward harder, spreading her feet and positioning herself more securely. She heard a groan as the younger woman struggled against her.
"Rebonjour 'Ermione,” she said in a mockingly sweet voice, “It’s lovely to see you too. Now, may I ask why you are following me?” She kept her voice low lest they were overheard. Thankfully, this little neighbourhood was nearly always deserted during the daytime, but it didn't mean they couldn't get unlucky.
"Fleur, get the fuck off me," Hermione gritted through clenched teeth, bucking her hips back and trying to pull the hand out of her grip. The blonde had to admit she was strong, but it would take a lot more than this. The veela's muscles were already shaking in anticipation; the mostly dormant creature in her blood readying for a fight or flight response from the brunette. She gripped her fist tighter, feeling a knuckle pop as she pressed her wand farther into her neck.
"Non, tell me why you are following me," she whispered harshly in her ear. The brunette’s cheek was pressed firmly against the wall, but Fleur could see her intelligent eyes darting side to side, calculating her way out. She readied herself for an attempt to escape, but brown eyes closed for a moment before she spoke again.
"Mere curiosity. Now get off of me, or I am going to hurt you," she said between sharp breaths. Her voice was low and impatient, and the veela stilled at the threat, her heart fluttering for a moment before she regained her composure.
Now that she was closer, the veela was stunned by how striking she looked and her scent was nearly overbearing as it invaded her sharp senses. Hermione was wearing a pair of fitted jeans and a black cable-knit jumper. A few tattoos of some strange symbols snaked up the side of her neck, covering the few scars Fleur knew were still there, and she had three small silver hoops dangling from her ear. Her hair was up in a loose bun with a few wisps framing her face, and a little dark makeup around her amber eyes made them stand out against the grey tiles.
"I don't think that you are in a very good position to make threats, ma cherie," Fleur replied haughtily, “Tell me what you want,” she pushed her hips in farther and the brunette groaned again against the wall.
"I'm warning you, Fleur" she growled through her teeth, her eyes still closed shut.
"I want to know why you are following me," the veela repeated, but her arrogance got the better of her when the back of Hermione's head slammed into her nose a moment later.
"Putain de merde!” she yelled, losing her hold on her as she instinctively grabbed her nose. Blood starting to run into her mouth. She looked back at the Gryffindor, but she was gone from the wall.
What the hell…?
Her legs suddenly buckled, and she fell to her knees onto the stone floor. Her wand arm was grabbed and twisted behind her back as an arm wrapped tightly around her neck. Hermione kept bending the arm back and tightening the chokehold.
"Drop it," she said firmly from behind her, her tone leaving no room for discussion. Fleur was feeling riled, however, and considered not letting go of her wand. Evidently, Hermione caught onto her line of thought and she tightened her hold even further. Blood was dripping down the back of her throat and the constriction around it was making it hard to breathe. As much as she hated to submit, she really didn't want to pass out right now. With a strangled groan she dropped it, hearing it clatter and roll somewhere to her left.
"I told you to get off me," the brunette said simply, relaxing her grip slightly. The blonde took a deep gulp of fresh air.
She's just as arrogant as me, she thought before she took another half-breath and braced her core. Fleur tucked her chin under the brunette's arm and simultaneously reached up behind her with her free hand. She gripped the back of a sweater tightly and crunched her body down as best she could, knowing it would throw off her captor's balance. Pulling hard on her sweater, she ducked a shoulder, feeling her weight roll over her as the momentum pulled the Gryffindor over the kneeling blonde and flat onto her back on the stone tiles.
"Oooft!" she heard as the air left her lungs upon impact.
Fleur stood up, spitting the pool of blood that had collected in her mouth into the corner of their semi-private stone nook. She walked over to the brunette breathing heavily on the cold floor. She stood over her, looking down at bright eyes that were completely indiscernible, but blazing with intensity.
"And I,” she grit out between blood-soaked teeth, “told you to tell me why you are following me."
A slow smile stretched across Hermione's face.