The large tabby cat with the distinctive spectacle markings round its eyes was waiting by her front step when Alicia Smallwood dismissed her driver. Despite protocol, he drove off immediately, before she could unlock her front door. Tuesday night, of course. Quiz night down at his local. Anyway, no-one seemed about to leap out of the bushes, and frankly, if anyone did try anything tonight, they wouldn’t know what hit them.
The cat shot through the door like a streak of tabby lightning. Alicia moved towards her bedroom, unbuttoning her jacket and kicking off her shoes as she went.
“Milk in the fridge and Ardbeg in the pull-out cabinet next to it,” she tossed back over her left shoulder. “Help yourself.”
“Maybe just a wee one. And for yourself, since I’m pouring?”
She grimaced. “With the day I’ve had? An honest-to-God ginormous one.”
She showered swiftly, and threw on skinny black jeans and her favourite draped jersey top, the one she could never wear again in public, not after the PM’s photo-opportunity. Blast the woman. Even if she had no eye for what went with what herself, couldn’t MI6 have lent her T?
No. To Hell with the PM and her leather trousers. Thinking about it was pure displacement. Keep honest, at the very least.
She applied a spritz of Claire de la lune behind each ear, drew a deep breath, and returned to the living room.
Professor McGonagall was sitting in the Eames chair Jim had picked up for a song in a Northampton showroom, years ago, when Alicia had still been young enough for elderly relatives to drop smiling hints about the convenience of low-armed chairs for nursing mothers.
The roiling fear which had surged up at the tabby cat’s first appearance forced her to speak.
“Don’t be alarmed. dear. Your sister is doing splendidly. Indeed, if her work with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee doesn’t bring her the Order of Merlin, we’ll all be very surprised. Here, take your dram. You’re looking peaky.”
The Professor’s brittle, cheerful manner set all Alicia’s well-trained instincts quivering. Though she sipped the whisky obediently, like a well-behaved child taking cough medicine, it did not distract her from the matter at hand.
“Well? If it’s not Samantha, what is it?”
“Official business, I’m sorry to say.” The older woman sighed. “Of course, Kingsley would normally take this kind of thing up with your Prime Minister, but most regrettably the handover from that pink, shiny man seems to have been terribly bungled. None of us know for sure if your new P.M. even understands the Minister for Magic is real, can you imagine that?”
Alicia could, all too easily. “Try talking to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They still can’t understand their own Secretary of State is real.”
The Professor sniffed. “Be that as it may, since you have your position, and Samantha is who she is, Kingsley thought it best to keep things all in the family.”
It was all Alicia could do not to snap. This simply wasn’t fair. It wasn’t, as Professor McGonagall herself admitted, even her job. She was at home, in her off-duty clothes, the warm bite of a good Scotch on her lips and an excellent Chinese meal just a few keystrokes on her iPad away.
When all of that was said and done, though, she was still a Government servant, and she knew when words meant things. She downed the last of her drink and put the cut-glass tumbler down on a side table with a decisive ‘click’.
“So, then. Official business. Spit it out.”
Her own housemistress would certainly have rebuked her for slang, no matter how many years stood between her and Cheltenham Ladies College, and Professor McGonagall looked as if she were repressing a similar impulse. However, after a moment, she said, “Well, it turns out there’s been an unpleasantness. A complicated unpleasantness, at that.”
“A complicated unpleasantness?”
Professor McGonagall sighed. “The Enlightenment has a great deal to answer for.”
Alicia blinked. “What?”
The Professor shook her head. “I’ll try to explain. In the old days, before the Statute of Secrecy, when someone like your sister was born into a non-magical family, terrible things could happen. Sometimes the child would be presumed to be possessed, and subjected to horrible abuse. Beatings, starvation, exorcisms – .”
Alicia wondered if she ought to say something about the disturbing reports from some South London charismatic churches which crossed her desk from time to time. Professor McGonagall, however, seemed too caught up in her thoughts to be interrupted.
“Bad times, indeed. But even worse was when the children themselves started to think of themselves as wrong. As something that had no business existing.”
Memory stabbed her between the ribs. “Samantha said something, once –”
Professor McGonagall patted her arm. “Yes, dear. She told me all about it in her first term at Hogwarts. She also told me how her big sister Alix climbed up to where she was sitting astride the roof-ridge of your house, and told her, ‘Of course you’re not wrong. You’re right in a different way.’ To tell you the truth, I’ve borrowed those words more than once. If more families had been like yours, things would have been a great deal easier for many of our Muggle-born students.”
Alicia lifted her chin. “Perhaps your world not trying to exterminate them might also have helped.”
The seventies had been a dark decade. As the IRA mainland bombing campaign increased in ferocity, she had suffered like any other London commuter under the petty erosions of comfort and dignity which heightened security entailed. As a civil servant on the fast-track, posted to Intelligence, she had known how futile gestures like removing waste-bins were, against the complex, shifting, multi-dimensional landscape of the Northern Ireland problem. But more than that, as a loving sister, she had listened to Sam’s warnings of a nameless fear, growing and brooding in the shadows, and she had learned to take other precautions beyond kneeling to check parked cars and never taking the first or the second cab that presented itself.
Then, in the last half of the nineties, Sam had told her the nameless fear had returned, and half-forgotten routines must be dusted off again. That might have been nearly twenty years ago, but these things were cyclical and complacency helped no-one.
Professor McGonagall sighed. “I can’t deny there’s truth in that, much as I might like to. We’ve not protected Muggle-borns or those with half-blood as we should have done. Indeed, if he’d not been abandoned to the Muggle world for the first eleven years of his life, little Tommy Riddle might have grown up a better man. And that also might have spared us our present troubles.”
Alicia tamped down the small voice that threatened to wail, “Is he back too?”
“I thought you blamed the Enlightenment?”
The tabby cat flickered momentarily into view, before Professor McGonagall reined in her temper and resumed her human shape.
“If you kept hens, as my mother did, you’d know your best layers aren’t the ones you set to incubating the eggs.”
Alician lent forward. “So you’re saying the egg the Enlightenment laid was hatched by Voldemort?”
Uncharacteristically, the Professor avoided her eyes. “Before the Statute of Secrecy, it was so much easier. Children like those I was describing might not like knowing they were witches or wizards, but at least they knew that was what they were; or, if they didn’t, there’d be someone in their village to tell them. That in itself was often enough to give us at Hogwarts a chance to send someone to explain to them about magic. And to offer them an education, of course. But that all ended when we chose to go underground.”
Professor McGonagall topped up her own whisky and gestured with the bottle towards Alicia, who, after a moment’s pause, accepted.
“By the 20th century Muggles had forgotten that the magical world existed. Everything had to have a scientific explanation, and if no known science fitted the facts, it just meant you had to dig deeper. And, I’m afraid, nothing is more dogged than a scientist wedded to an untenable hypothesis. You should have heard Nicholas Flamel reminisce about the Royal Society, back in the phlogiston days.”
One of Alicia’s sub-committees held a watching brief over Baskerville Hall. Recalling some of the more alarming presentations she had been subjected to as a result, she grimaced sympathetically.
“Then Freud came along.” The Professor shook her head gravely. “The results of applying psychoanalysis to a child struggling with emerging magic are far from pretty, I’m sorry to say.”
Another stab of memory: Samantha screaming and her father, determinedly upbeat, saying, “Calm down, Sammivel. That’s no way for a big, eight-year old girl to carry on. No-one’s going to hurt you. He’s only a special sort of doctor who wants to talk to you about those dreams you keep having.”
Alicia’s fingers clenched white on the cut-glass tumbler.
“What kind of results?”
Profound pity suffused the Professor’s voice. “Magic, driven inwards, will always find a way out. A terrible way, in some cases. Any such child is in the gravest danger of becoming an Obscurial, carrying within them an Obscurus, a dark, uncontrollable force which manifests itself in times of stress or panic as a strong wind flattening everything in its path.”
Alicia’s stomach lurched. “A strong wind?”
Professor McGonagall’s brow furrowed. “Yes. Or a swirling cloud of smoke. It wreaks terrible destruction when loose, whatever form it takes, and so often the poor child who is its host is consumed in the process.”
A thick curtain seemed to have descended between Alicia and the Professor. The latter was saying something else, now, something about Dark wizards seeking out such children, in the hope of harnessing the chaotic power they carried. It was too far away, and too detached. Too irrelevant, in the final analysis. Alicia knew, now, why Professor McGonagall had come to her and to no-one else. Those words, “a strong wind” were the key to it all. She only needed to do one more thing to confirm it.
She raised her hand. “Professor McGonagall. Excuse me a moment. I need to make a phone call. Official business.”
Anthea answered before the second ring. Yes. Mycroft Holmes had been almost ten minutes late to his 20.00 check in. Text, not voice call: unusual, though not unprecedented. Codes of the day all present and correct. An uncharacteristic placement of a semi-colon. Not sufficient probable cause to escalate beyond a Category Four at present, but – here Anthea dropped her carapace – if there was even a comma out of place on the next check in, she personally would let slip the dogs of war, no matter who tried to overrule her.
“Upgrade to Category Nine. My authority. Immediate effect,” Alicia said. “And alert the Met Office. Tell them if I have not countermanded the order personally by then, they must use the other inshore waters forecast in the 00.55 bulletin.”
She flicked “End call” on the screen, and turned back to Professor McGonagall.
“Tell me. Is Mycroft Holmes alive?”
She had first met Professor McGonagall the day Samantha turned eleven and they had returned from Guides to find the big tabby cat with the spectacle markings round its eyes sitting on their front step. In all that time she had never succeeded in disconcerting her. Nor did she now. The Professor regarded her coolly over the rim of her whisky glass.
“I certainly hope so. The Aurors promised to put their best man on protecting him, and speaking for myself, I’ve always found Potter very reliable.” There was a suspicion of a twinkle in the Professor’s eyes. “Except, of course, when it came to staying in his dormitory bed when there was trouble he could be getting into out of it. But, if you’re anything like your sister, I don’t suppose that’s something you’d hold against him.”
Alicia felt her tense shoulders sag with relief. Still, she could not afford to let her personal feelings overrule her public obligations.
“And Euros Holmes?”
The Professor hesitated. “There, I think, it would be best if you came to see for yourself. But you’d better put on a pair of good, stout shoes. One never knows what the ground will be like underfoot. And whatever you do, don’t forget your umbrella.”
The swimming, sick feeling of Apparation eased. Alicia released the Professor’s hand and sat up. She had only been here once before, but she recognised her surroundings. The smell of seaweed and the cold, concrete exhalation of despair were dead giveaways.
“Sherringford,” she murmured.
“Azkaban,” Professor McGonagall countered.
The Professor’s voice was very dry. “Did Samantha never mention it? Our Ministry also tried putting criminal lunatics on a rock in the sea, there to contemplate their sins and repent.”
“Did they?” Alicia knew the answer already. She just needed to hear someone else say it.
“What do you suppose? They contemplated how much they hated those who put them there, instead. And when someone appeared who offered them a chance to escape –” Professor McGonagall spread her hands expressively. “They jumped at it. At whatever the cost. To them or anyone else.”
Alicia nodded. They stood on rabbit-grazed turf, dotted with sea-pinks. From the dark bulk of the prison complex to their right to the cliffs dropping away to their left, no-one stirred. The only sounds were the cry of gulls and the pounding of waves on the beach below.
“Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle, to keep the lamp alight,” Alicia murmured, “As we steer’d under the lee we caught/No glimmer through the night.”
The Professor’s lips were set in a grim, tight line. “That would, indeed, seem to be about the size of it. Stand back.”
She pulled her wand from her sleeve and murmured something. A bright white light burst from the wand tip, formed itself into the shape of some great cat – cheetah or leopard, Alicia could hardly tell – and raced towards the prison buildings.
“There,” she said. “That ought to fetch someone.”
For one eternal second they waited. Then, with a “pop” like the cork coming out of a prosecco bottle, a man materialised in front of them. His conventional jeans, trainers and bomber jacket made the wand he was holding in an alert, deullist’s posture all the more obvious. He was, Alicia judged, in his mid thirties, slightly under medium height. He wore glasses, through which astonishing green eyes regarded them with wary courtesy. His dark hair flopped over his forehead in an disarmingly boyish manner.
“Professor.” His eyes widened as he took in Alicia. She heard the sub-text. But who’s she?
“Before we go further,” Professor McGonagall said, “may I introduce Lady Smallwood? She’s acting as our Muggle liaison here.”
He extended his hand. “Harry Potter. I should warn you, though we’ve secured the site, there are bodies.”
Mycroft she wailed internally, even as the armour-plating of her professional identity closed tight around her.
“How many? What sexes? Identification? Probable cause?” she rapped out.
Something subtly shifted in Potter’s stance. He had heard her combat-ready tone for what it was.
“Eight so far. We’re still checking.” He began ticking off on his hands. “The prison governor and his wife. Gunshot wounds. Three at the foot of the cliffs below the prison. Men. Killed by the fall, so far as we can tell. The driving licence on one of them gave the surname Garrideb, and the other two look close enough like him to be relations. That’s five. Two –”
His eyes flicked to Professor McGonagall’s face, then back to Alicia. Clearly his old teacher’s expression had conveyed permission to speak frankly.
“Two women – they were guards, I think – bore the marks of an attack by an Obscurus.”
His voice tailed off.
“And the eighth?” Alicia had been taking sitreps since before this one was born.
Potter had the grace to look abashed. “The last one – another guard, from the gun and the uniform – had no marks on him whatsoever.”
“Dear God.” Professor McGonagall’s hand went to her mouth. Alicia’s head swivelled round.
“What does that mean? Tell me.”
“Someone used Avada Kedavra. The Killing Curse. And, I’m very sorry to say, that could not have been the work of that poor child. That spell requires a highly trained magician. You listened to what I’d been saying about Dark magicians latching on to Obscurials? I’m very much afraid that’s the situation we have here.”
“Someone did DisApparate just as we got here,” Potter said. “I sent a team after them, but they lost them. But I think they’ll try to regain control of the Obscurial, so we’re working on picking up its trail and hoping it’ll act as bait.”
“Her name,” Alicia said, “is Euros Holmes.”
He ducked his head, acknowledging the challenge.
“If anyone can help her, it’s Luna. As soon as I knew it was an Obscurial we were dealing with, I contacted her. She and Rolf are on the case. And they’ve got access to all Newt’s papers – to Newt himself, though he’s very frail now.”
He opened those green eyes wide. “Trust me, Lady Smallwood. We are doing what we can. And the best expertise our world can put together on Obscurials is at my team’s disposal. But we have to find whoever’s been manipulating her, too. He or she is the bigger danger. I need anything you’ve got.”
“Ah.” Alicia drew a deep breath. As near as she could expect, that was an admission that Potter, however massive his reputation, was floundering around doing the best he could on the fly. Well, she could empathise.
“CSI found a partial thumbprint at a murder scene in Holland Park. Strangulation case. A psychoanalyst, apparently. The cleaner found her stuffed into the under stairs cupboard. When they ran it through the computer, the nearest match records threw up was Euros Holmes. That meant it got fast-tracked straight to me, of course. But the prison governor said Euros had never left her cell and CCTV records confirmed it. I knew those could be faked, so I called up all the air traffic records for the period. No aircraft in any relevant air corridor which could have brought her and returned her, and the time window was too narrow for it to have been done by water. So I – like an idiot, it never occurred to me to consider magic.”
“No use crying over spilt milk, my dear.” The Professor shook her head. “I don’t doubt you had a great deal else on your plate. The prison governor – poor man – must have been under Imperius for weeks – months, probably.”
“Definitely,” Potter said. “Arthur Weasley’s new number two is a genius at Muggle electronics. He wound back some of the routine footage and you could tell instantly. Something about the eyes and the way he walked. So were the guards, probably. The two killed by the Obscurus might simply have been collateral damage, but the final one may have been killed to prevent us using Veritaserum. Which means whoever was working this must have been close at hand. You can’t control multiple Imperius subjects remotely. Can I have details of where the murder was and who’s handling it in the Muggle police?”
As if in a dream, she dialled Greg Lestrade. His voice sounded sharp with worry and fogged with lack of sleep, both at once.
“Lady Smallwood? Where are you calling from? Is it about Sherlock and John? Have you spoken to Mycroft? What the hell’s going on?”
Good questions all of them, and all, for different reasons, equally unanswerable.
She muted the phone and looked across at Potter. “Have you found Mycroft Holmes yet?”
A slightly uneasy expression crossed his face. “Yes. He was locked in a cell near the bodies of the two guards killed by the Obscurus. He – Lady Smallwood, he’s not in a good way. Not physically – there’s nothing wrong with him that a Healer couldn’t fix in a couple of minutes – but he’s been through a lot. He didn’t say so, but I could tell.”
A sharp intake of breath from the Professor betrayed how significant that statement was, coming from that quarter.
“Take me to him. Now.” Alicia unmuted the phone. “Greg, I’m just about to see Mycroft. But from your end, you need to take a new look at the Holland Park strangling. You know the victim was John Watson’s analyst? I need you to pull up everything you’ve got: security footage, appointment records, everything. I’m sending you someone called Harry Potter, who’s got a line on the case which may help him spot something you’ve missed. He’s been working in the field, in a highly classified area, so he won’t be up to date on current Scotland Yard protocol, but trust his instincts, please.”
Greg swallowed. “Yes, Lady Smallwood.” His voice turned plaintive. “But for the love of God, when you do get to talk to Mycroft, ask him where the hell he thinks Sherlock and John have got to? We’re all doing our collective nut back here, though don’t whatever you do tell him I said so.”
“I will, Greg.” She paused, and then, after a moment’s thought, added, “I can’t tell you where I am either, but it’s a multiple murder site. The perpetrator, whoever they are, is exceptionally dangerous, and very good at deep penetration and assimilation tactics. Don’t assume Scotland Yard’s immune. And – no matter how bizarre Potter’s advice may sound, I advise you to take it. Especially if he tells you to duck. Or run.”
On the far end of the phone she heard Greg Lestrade muttering, “Another one! She’s bleeding well sending me another one!” She cut the connection before he could realise it was still open.
“Now,” she said, “take me to Mycroft.”
They found him in the prison governor’s office, slumped in an armchair by the window, his head in his hands. He bore numerous scrapes and bruises, but it was his air of overwhelming defeat that struck Alicia most forcibly. Every line of his body showed him a man crushed by overwhelming forces, chief among them his own self-loathing.
He raised his head as they entered, and fixed on Professor McGonagall. “Who’s that?”
Alicia didn’t hesitate. “Professor McGonagall. A very old friend. My sister’s former housemistress, now Head of her old school.”
Explanations were going to be tricky enough as it was. Best to give him some lifeline to the familiar to cling onto.
He rolled his eyes. “A teacher? You brought her here? To a top secret facility? To a murder scene?”
“Well, you brought Jim Moriarty.”
The words came out before she could stop them, and then she would have given anything not to have further wounded a man so self-evidently beyond raising even a token defence. She strode across the room to his side, and dropped her hand to Mycroft’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry. That was unfair. Don’t blame yourself, Mycroft.”
“Are you putting forward any other candidate?” His bitterness almost had a texture of its own.
“Well I, for one, can name quite a few.” Professor McGonagall sniffed. “Starting, I’m sorry to say, with your great-uncle. Rudolph Vernet may well have been the daftest wizard ever to serve as Muggle Liaison Officer and, I can tell you, that’s against some very stiff competition indeed.”
His head jerked up. “Uncle Rudy, a wizard?”
His tone suggested the rumours of his performance as Lady Bracknell had fallen well short of the mark. Professor McGonagall arched an eyebrow, as if contemplating challenging him to hand bags at dawn. Her own voice sounded even more emphatically Morningside than usual.
“Indeed so, Mr Holmes. He and I were in the same year at Hogwarts. Och, take that goldfish expression off your face, man. If this is what it takes to convince you –”
The next moment the tabby cat with the spectacle markings round its eyes was sitting on the prison governor’s hearthrug.
Mycroft went a nasty shade of pale green. Automatically, Alicia turned towards the water cooler and filled one of the paper cones with water. He waved it away and staggered to his feet.
“We’ve got to get out – hallucinogenic gas – Euros’ last booby trap–”
Alicia caught his wrist and pulled him back down to his seat. “No. It isn’t. Mycroft, you are simply going to have to trust me on this. There is an entire world – the magical world – running in parallel with our own, amd most people are ignorant of it.”
“And I’m not on the need-to-know list?” His outrage at that suggested, at least, that normal service was being resumed.
Professor McGonagall returned to human shape. She regarded him very severely over the top of her spectacles.
“Perhaps, Mr Holmes, there was some cause for concern about how you might have used that knowledge, had you possessed it.”
A low blow, that, and lower because – from hints Samantha had dropped – Alicia knew it had the full weight of truth behind it. She did what she could to soften it.
“The relations between the two worlds have been pretty tense over the years, Mycroft. I wouldn’t have been on the need-to-know list either, if it hadn’t been for my sister.”
“Your sister –? Ah. I see. You introduced – Professor McGonagall – as her former teacher. Do I understand, therefore, your sister can also turn herself into a cat?” He looked at Alicia in a frankly speculative manner, and she felt the beginnings of a blush.
“No, since you ask. I’m not magical at all. Also, Samantha isn’t an Animaga.”
“A – what?”
“A witch or wizard such as myself. Someone who can turn themselves into an animal, Mr Holmes,” the Professor said. “Incidentally, I’m not the first you’ll have met, though I doubt you’ll have known it at the time.”
“I suppose I should have realised Uncle Rudy had unplumbed depths. Though given what the plumbed ones revealed, I suppose one can hardly be blamed for not going deeper.” He shuddered, delicately.
If the windows had not been of glass tough enough to withstand mortar shelling, the Professor’s snort would have cracked them.
“No Mr Holmes. I can assure you that your great-uncle had absolutely no bent in that direction. His strengths, such as they were, lay in Divination. No, I’m referring to the family who lived next to your old home. It was a tradition in the Trevors; every generation or so they threw up an Animagus or two. Good ones, at that. Almost too talented, one might say.”
Mycroft’s eyebrows went up. “Too talented?”
There was a touch of tigerishness about about Professor McGonagall’s smile. “I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘So sharp he’ll cut himself’ Mr Holmes?”
“Not since I advanced beyond the junior ranks of the civil service.” That touch of self-deprecation warmed Alicia’s heart. He must be coming back to himself.
“The Animagi transfiguration is extremely dangerous. It isn’t taught at Hogwarts, save to exceptional students under my personal supervision. Furthermore, all Animagi should be registered at the Ministry.” Professor McGonagall sighed. “And, I’m sorry to say, a fat lot of use the register is. As I said, the transfiguration is risky, and it isn’t taught, but that’s never stopped a few of our students learning it clandestinely, nonetheless. And, from time to time, they pay the price.”
It was idiotic, Alicia thought, both her and Mycroft waiting on the Professor’s every word about long-ago magical catastrophes, when who knew what was happening to Sherlock and John. Or, for that matter, to Euros Holmes and the unseen mage who battened off the dark storm she carried inside her.
Not to fret. Potter’s on the case she thought, hard, and said aloud, “What happened? Who paid the price?”
Professor McGonagall took up her story again. “A few years after the Trevors moved away from Musgrove, it happened. A very sad case. The elder Trevor boy – the only Trevor boy, by that point, which made it all the sadder – bungled the transfiguration, and despite the best efforts of the Magical Reversal Squad, we weren’t able to get him back.”
“He died?” Mycroft sounded as if he had selected tone and expression out of a catalogue, from the section headed “Detached Concern.” Given the circumstances, especially the eight corpses stashed somewhere about Sherringford, Alicia wondered if she would have done any better.
Professor McGonagall shook her head. “Oh, no, Mr Holmes. He simply remained stuck as a toad. His father, poor man, simply wasn’t able to cope. In the end, we had to find the poor Trevor boy a foster home with one of our older magical families, where there wouldn’t be the constant strain of memories of how it used to be for either party. But his father was quite broken by the whole affair. Changed his name and became a recluse. After Voldemort returned, Professor Dumbledore tried to recruit him for the Order of the Phoenix, but the poor man simply didn’t want to know. A great pity. It would have been a great help for poor Nymphadora to have had a fellow Metamorphamagus on the team.”
To his credit, Mycroft merely blinked. Then his voice hardened. “And the younger Trevor? You said the older boy was the only one left by the time of the – incident. What did his parents say tell you had happened to the younger boy?”
Professor McGonagall’s lips set in a thin, unhappy line. “Those were very dark times. One didn’t ask for such information if people didn’t volunteer it. All I knew was that Victor Trevor was scheduled to arrive at Hogwarts and then –” She spread her hands. “He was not.”
Mycroft’s deep, ragged breaths made it sound as if he’d been running, reaching the end of a long race with plenty of uphill stretches. “Do you think the Trevors even knew themselves what had happened to him?”
That got through where all Alicia’s previous efforts to get a rise out of Minerva McGonagall had failed. She frowned, thoughtfully, as she assimilated the idea. After a while she gave a slow, reluctant nod. “It might well be they did not. But your great-uncle will have known. As I said, Rudolph Vernet’s strength lay in Divination. As the Muggles discovered, when we sent him to you as Muggle Liaison Officer.”
“We call it analysis.” Mycroft’s voice had an edge to it. “He excelled, of course. I had to work very hard to live up to his reputation. I feel rather better about that, now I know he cheated.”
She bobbed her head in acknowledgement. “I can very well imagine, Mr Holmes. Regrettably, Rudolph’s talent caused him to develop a settled belief that in any given situation he was the one who knew best, and that the best place for all the rest of us was in the dark.”
A flicker of rueful amusement crossed Mycroft’s exhausted face. “ Mens sibi conscia recti. The family motto, on my mother’s side. Some of us translate it more freely than others.”
“He Knew He Was Right,” Alicia murmured, and became momentarily distracted by wondering how Mycroft would respond to a suggestion that what he really needed was a peaceful few hours curled up in bed with his favourite Trollope.
“Quite so.” The Professor’s tone was drier than Alicia had ever heard it. “Divination is an imprecise art, to begin with. Worse, though, I’ve found its practitioners never make their predictions and leave it there. They meddle. One might almost think they thought prophecies had to be helped along.”
Mycroft gave a sharp intake of breath. “I was surprised to see you in Baghdad this morning, because I knew I had an appointment with you in Samara this afternoon.”
“Indeed. Your sister’s name is Euros, is it not? May I venture a guess that was your great-uncle’s suggestion?”
He did not need to speak. His appalled look was confirmation enough. The Professor smiled slightly. “Neither legilimency nor divination, Mr Holmes. Just knowledge of Rudolph. And she was born in 1975?”
He nodded, tight-lipped. Alicia wanted to reach out and put her arm around his shoulders, but he would never forgive that, not with a stranger present. Something of his pain must have reached the Professor, because her voice softened.
“You needn’t blame your Uncle Rudolph for taking –” She hesitated for a moment. “For taking an unorthodox approach to certain matters.”
Mycroft’s voice was silky. “You must forgive me: I am unfamiliar with correct protocol in this area. What ought to have been his approach?”
“Why, he should have registered the prophecy at the Ministry, of course. And he should have told Professor Dumbledore. He, of all men, would understand what it is like having an Obscurial in the family. Also, when she was born, Rudolph falsified the Ministry records, so the existence of a magical child in the Holmes family came to no-one’s attention.”
He sat up, abruptly. Alicia, with a flicker of malicious amusement, wondered if it were in outrage at knowing he was not the only, or perhaps even the most ingenious, data-faker in the family.
Professor McGonagall’s voice dropped. “In any other time and place, no hole would have been deep enough to spare him my wrath. We work so hard to ensure no child with the talent to attend Hogwarts is deprived of the chance to do so. But – as it turned out – that action very probably saved your life, Mr Holmes. And that of your brother and parents. And – most certainly – that of your sister.”
Abruptly, Alicia was back in the 70s. Disco and hot-pants. Punk and safety pins. Rock against racism. Cricket: bouncy uncovered pitches, no helmets and the fast bowlers wreaking havoc – Lillian Thomson, Austrailyar’s finest flower/A maiden bowling overs at an ’undred miles per hour. And always, as a counterpoint to all the rest, taking precautions. Surrendering one’s bag for a search at Covent Garden, risking the knees of one’s tights to check under the car before unlocking it; waiting for Death Eaters swooping from the eaves at night.
She stretched out her hand to cover Mycroft’s. “You should believe her. I remember what it was like back then.”
He turned towards her. “But after it was over? Couldn’t he have said something then? When did this state of emergency end?”
“31 October 1981,” Professor McGonagall said, promptly and precisely.
“Oh.” Nothing could have equalled the desolation in that single syllable. “If only it could have been a week earlier. For both their sakes.”
Anything Alicia could have said stuck in her throat.
Mycroft looked across at the Professor. “Please spare me the lectures about proper treatment for shock, but if you could possibly magic me up a very stiff drink, I would be eternally in your debt.”
“Very wise, if I may say so.” She reached for her wand, but before she could do more Potter materialised on the hearthrug, towing another dark figure alongside him. In one smooth move, the Professor switched the wand into a duellist pose, covering the prisoner.
The dark-haired wizard looked exhausted; as if he had packed a full day’s work into the last fifteen minutes. There was some gold object hanging round his neck from a chain; as soon as he saw the prisoner was under guard he slipped it inside his shirt, out of sight. Alicia would never have pegged Potter as the gold medallion type. Also, she would have gone bail he had not been wearing it earlier. She made a mental note to ask Samantha a question or so.
He spoke very quickly. “It was Hermione who taught me always to check the security footage myself. She said that wizards don’t expect cameras, and Muggles don’t know what to look for and don’t believe it if they see it. And she was right. There were three frames the Muggles had discarded as corrupted footage, but when I looked at them, I knew what I was seeing. After all, I’d seen Tonks change her appearance often enough. That’s what the camera had caught: a Metamorphamagus mid-change. After that, the rest was just checking the records and making sure we were waiting where we expected him to appear. Luna and Rolf had everything covered from the Obscurial end. We caught him between us.”
He let the figure drop to the hearthrug. Alicia recoiled; Mycroft, either too ignorant of his own danger or too caught up in that of his sister and brother, leant forward.
“Who the hell are you? What have you done to Sherlock and John?”
The prisoner laughed. “They did it to themselves. You all did it to yourselves. You were the worst of the lot. So caught up in your fantasy of your sister, the deadly siren who could control anyone’s mind, just with her voice. The woman so brilliant that in five minutes unsupervised conversation with a criminal genius the two of them could plot a long con which would take five years to unfold. And yet none of you spotted what was right under your nose.”
His face started to flicker, taking on and sloughing off remembered personalities in an eye-watering sequence. A crafty old trawlerman, a minor Whitehall functionary, one of Jim Moriarty’s henchmen, Moriarty himself, a Sherringford nurse, a guard, Euros Holmes –
“Stop that!” Professor McGonagall snapped. “James Armitage, this is when you have to stop running.”
His face collapsed in on itself; became the face of a man in his late sixties, pouchy and ill, graven with deep lines.
“I stopped running when I lost my son,” he said. “My elder son, that is. All three of them gone in five years. My wife, and both boys. Where had I to run to? What did I need to run from?”
Professor McGonagall lent over him, looking severe. “Be that as it may, it was very wrong of you to encourage your sons to try the Animagus spells so young. Even though your wife was dead, even though you wanted something to remember her by – it was badly done, Mr Armitage. Badly done.”
He did not even pretend to misunderstand her. “I didn’t encourage them. It was all my elder boy’s idea. He was sensitive about what form his Animagus took. I suppose he thought that if he got his little brother used to being transfigured into an Irish setter, the shape would carry over when he was old enough to start practising the Animagus spells for himself.”
“Dear God! Transfiguring another child?”
“An Irish setter?”
Twin expressions of outrage broke from Professor McGonagall and Mycroft simultaneously. Alicia concentrated on Mycroft. “What’s an Irish setter got to do with anything? There’s nothing about a dog in the Euros Holmes file.”
“That’s because there was no dog.” Mycroft blinked, irritably. “My father has terrible allergies to animal fur. Sherlock had his heart set on having a puppy, but it simply wasn’t possible. So he invented one for himself. He refused to acknowledge it wasn’t a real dog. He talked about it constantly. He called it ‘Redbeard’, but then, that’s what he also called his best friend. Sometimes, it was hard to know which he was talking about at any one time.”
Exasperation seized her. “Honestly, Mycroft, has it ever occurred to you actually to listen to Sherlock once in a while? Even when he’s got half a chemistry lab running through his veins, he’s better able to tell the difference between what he’s actually seeing than what he’s supposed to be seeing than you are when you’ve taken nothing stronger than Whitehall coffee.”
“I strongly recommend that you don’t call up the toxicology reports on Whitehall coffee,” he murmured. “In a moment of regrettable curiosity, I once asked Baskerville to run the analysis.”
She ignored the attempted deflection and turned to the prisoner. “Mr Armitage. I appreciate this is a painful subject, but we all need to know the answer. When you – lost – your younger child –Victor, wasn’t he? – what did you believe at the time had happened to him?”
Unexpectedly, the prisoner’s face creased up. His next words were forced out between sobs. “Poor William. He came to me – he told me all about it. He’d done something terrible, he said. He’d transfigured Victor into a dog, and then the dog had run off along the beach, playing, with Sherlock and Euros. But then he’d fallen asleep – we were all of us sleeping badly at that time, with the horrors that were going on all around us, so we did keep nodding off at odd times – and when he woke up Sherlock and Euros were coming back along the beach, the tide was going out and there was no sign of Victor. We searched, all of us searched, William and Sherlock too, we were out searching all night, even Rudolph joined in when he got back from the Ministry, even though it was almost midnight by then, but we didn’t find him. We thought – we thought perhaps he’d been run over by one of those Muggle cars, or stolen by someone who wanted a dog. We tried the untransfigure spells over and over, hoping he’d pop into view, but he didn’t. Poor William. He never got over it. I don’t think he’d have grown up so reckless if he hadn’t still blamed himself for Victor.”
Hating herself for doing it, Alicia pressed him. “And when did you hear a different explanation?”
He lunged for her, she recoiled and both Potter and the Professor yelled, “Petrificius totalis!” at the same moment. He fell back onto the rug, stiff as a board.
“I’ll just unfreeze his lips and his lungs,” Potter said. “I’d like to hear his answer, too.”
He made a wriggling gesture with the tip of his wand, and Armitage gave a great wheezing gasp. Then he lay there glaring at them. Potter nodded to her.
“Lady Smallwood. Please ask your question again.”
“Mr Armitage. When, and more importantly, how did you start to believe that Euros Holmes had been responsible for your son’s death?”
He blinked up at her. “How do you think I found out? He told me, of course. Except he hadn’t the nerve to tell me, face to face. He waited until he was dead. Six months after his death, I got a message from him, explaining about that little bitch being an Obscurial, and how he’d protected her all along. She murdered my son, and he joined the search for him knowing all the time that she had –”
Something had been troubling Alicia for some moments, and now it crystallised. She held up her hand. “Stop there, Mr Armitage. You said Rudolph Vernet came straight from the Ministry and joined the search well after midnight. If he’d been working late, how could he have known what had happened to Victor some time during the afternoon? What exactly did his letter say?”
“In – in my pocket,” Armitage muttered.
Potter bent over him. “Which pocket, sir?”
He pulled out a creased piece of parchment, and passed it across to Alicia. She shook her head, and indicated he should pass it to Mycroft.
“Is that your great-uncle’s handwriting?” she asked.
He looked down at it, as though he had never seen anything like it before (and, indeed, the idea of parchment used for a routine letter and not kept in a display case somewhere no doubt did strike him as strange. After all, it wasn’t as if he’d had owls coming in with letters every week, like she’d had when Samatha had been at Hogwarts.)
“Yes,” he said. “Uncle Rudy died nearly six years ago. And that is his handwriting. But you’re right. He says Euros is an Obscurial, and apologises for never having been able to find Victor Trevor’s body. But he doesn’t say why he knew she’d killed him. Or how she’d done it. All he says is, ‘Forgive me for not stopping her. I can never forgive myself.’”
Potter’s face was a furious mask. “Professor McGonagall – Minerva – this is all wrong. It’s – it reminds me of what happened to Sirius. And what could have happened to me, if Professor Dumbledore and Mrs Figg hadn’t showed up at the Wizengamoot. No-one bothered to check anything. Rudolph Vernet said what he thought had happened –”
“And everyone fell in line.” She nodded. “And he had his prophecy to support him – and his family motto. Nothing more convincing than a man who has convinced himself.”
“Oh, please,” Armitage sneered. “How many more bodies do you need, to know Euros is an Obscurial?”
Professor McGonagall nodded. “She is now, Mr Armitage. But was she then? After all, we have no evidence at all as to how Victor Trevor died. Such evidence as we do have is that his brother had turned him into an Irish setter. That’s a big dog for a little girl to cope with, especially a nervous little girl who is trying to cope with magical powers she can’t understand and which all the adults around her tell her can’t be true. If he had jumped up at her, or even just barked loudly, it’s easy to see how something might have happened; something not even she was able to explain properly.”
Armitage’s voice was strained to the point of desperation. “This is ridiculous. The woman is a murderous lunatic. We even have an eyewitness. Tell them, Holmes. How did the prison governor die? Or his wife? Or the Garridebs?”
Mycroft cocked his head on one side, as if listening for something in the silence. Then, he gave a small nod, as someone who sees everything falling into place.
“You’ve forgotten the psychoanalyst.”
“I – what?”
“The psychoanalyst. John Watson’s psychoanalyst. She was found dead in a cupboard. And we’re expected to believe that Euros impersonated her in at least one analysis session with John, while simultaneously flirting intensely with him at busstops and carrying on what I believe they refer to as ‘an emotional affair’ by text. Now, John has never been noted for his observational skills, so I have no difficulty believing that he could be completely unaware that he was dealing with the same woman under two different wigs.”
“So? Your point?”
“It’s just this. You see, Mr Armitage, I did have the benefit of reviewing the autopsy reports. It was a strangulation case, as I’m sure you know. Manual strangulation. And the hands that did it were simply too big to have been my sister’s. And yet the only man to have entered the consulting rooms all day, according to the security footage, was John Watson. And judging by the state of the body, the psychoanalyst had been dead at least an hour before he arrived for his appointment. So, while I accept Euros has done terrible things, I do know you’ve carried out at least one murder which you’ve tried to pin on her. And I would really like to know exactly where she did get the idea for the last twelve hours from.”
Professor McGonagall drew herself up to her full height. “Potter, would you be kind enough to contact Luna and find out how she’s been getting on. I think we’ve seen enough at this end. Lady Smallwood, can I ask you to accompany me? I think it’s high time we found that poor creature and brought her home.”
They DisApparated in front of a ruin: a Gothic silhouette foregrounded by preposterous, leaning gravestones. She found herself being guided firmly into the remains of the house and up a staircase.
“Stay behind me,” the Professor hissed, forcing Alicia into the angle of the chimney breast and pulling her wand out.
The roof had been destroyed long ago. In the moonlight its charred beams cast zebra stripes across the precarious floor of the haunted attic space. There, in the midst of that space, were two figures, frozen in motion, stiller than marble effigies on a tomb. The tall man, kneeling, and the figure limp in across his body, her arms around his neck.
Soundlessly, heralded by nothing more than a shimmer in the air, a woman materialised in the room. Her long hair fell down her back in a sheet of palest gold (Welsh gold Alicia thought, and spun the wedding ring she still wore round her finger.) She moved towards the tableau in the middle of the room, walking delicately, as if shod in swansdown. She bent over the tall man, and the still, slender burden he cradled. Her voice, when she spoke, had an Irish lilt.
“We trapped the Obscurus. She’s free of it now. I don’t think she’ll say anything, not any more, but then, I don’t think she needs to. She’s quite peaceful. The storm has blown itself out. Dawn’s coming, and it will be a stronger, cleaner, brighter dawn than she’s ever known. You’ll have to put that into music for her. Music’s what she will always be able to understand. Even where she is now.”