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That Touch of Magic

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“So, is that new?” Cormoran Strike tipped the neck of his beer bottle towards the bookcase in Robin’s sitting room. Over her champagne flute, Robin nodded.

“Early birthday gift from mum. I brought it back Sunday.” Her parents had insisted she visit them the weekend before her twenty-eighth birthday, the first in ten years she would celebrate without Matthew. They had thrown her a dinner party she had not really wanted. She had come to realize that, even in Masham, most of her friends were also Matthew’s, and the split had made things awkward, even there. Though she would never have told her parents this, she was much more eagerly anticipating the low-key celebration her London friends had planned. It was hard to carve out time for a party, especially mid-week, but Nick and Ilsa had offered drinks, take-away curry and cake at their place. Robin could think of no better way to celebrate than a quiet evening with her agency colleagues, Vanessa Ekwensi and everyone’s respective partners.

With the variety of professions represented in the group, something was bound to go awry with the plans. As it happened, their host and hostess were both delayed, Nick by an emergency surgery call and Ilsa by an unexpected meeting with a recently jailed client. They had invited Strike and Robin to start the party in their absence, since he had a key to their house, but they had declined, instead choosing to gather for some pre-dinner drinks at Robin’s flat. Luckily, she had it to herself, since her roommate had scored a two-week acting gig in Glasgow. Vanessa had joined them, bearing a bottle of chilled prosecco that she and Robin were now splitting. The current plan was for Vanessa's boyfriend, Oliver Bargate, and agency contractors Andy Hitchens, Sam Barclay, and their wives, to meet them at Nick and Ilsa’s at eight. It was just past six.

Strike leaned back on Robin’s couch, grateful for its lack of farting noises, and took another swig of his Doom Bar. The bookcase was simple, with a plain oak finish, but its whimsical contents and the fairy lights strung over each shelf added a dash of personality that oddly complemented the framed theater posters that adorned the walls.

“It may have been not so much a birthday present as a subtle hint to clear some boxes out of my bedroom closet,” mused Robin. “I’ve had things stored there for years, boxes I never bothered bringing to London. It’s nice to finally have a place for it all.” In truth, she had wanted to bring the contents of this particular box when she first moved, but Matthew had scoffed at the notion, claiming that there wasn’t room for “that junk” in their too-small London flat. Besides, they didn’t even have children.

Strike got up for a closer look, and his eyes widened as he realized what books stood between the lightning-bolt shaped bookends. “Harry Potter?” he exclaimed in surprise, his brow crinkling in amusement.

“Yes, Harry Potter!” replied Robin, sounding both amused and a touch defensive. “Is something wrong with that?”

“Oh, no, not at all!” answered Strike. “Didn’t realize you were a fan.” He scanned the assortment of knick-knacks on the shelves. “Bloody hell, what is all this?” he asked, eyeing the assorted pewter figures that sat atop various purple book-shaped boxes. He picked up a three-headed dog, hefting it in his left hand. It was surprisingly heavy.

“Cerberus, is it? Now this would make a decent weapon, in case of intruder. Beats a bronze frog, at least.”

Robin rolled her eyes. “You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?”  Vanessa crossed the room, set her glass on the bookshelf and deftly relieved Strike of the canine figurine.

“His name is Fluffy!” she informed him, replacing it on the shelf. “And that,“ she continued, pointing at another figure of similar size, “is his good friend Hagrid, with Norbert the baby dragon, later known as Norberta.”

“What, you too?” said Strike.

“Yes, me too!” answered Vanessa. “You don’t think bastard exes are all Robin and I have in common?” She pointed to the right of the bookends, indicating a picture of of herself and Robin, both in striped scarves. The plastic frame was lined with wands, brooms and odd triangular symbols. Their mutual fondness for the Harry Potter series had been a major contributor to their fast friendship. One of their earliest outings had been to King’s Cross Station, for selfies at Platform 9¾.

“Of course not,” said Strike. “But I wouldn’t have put pewter toys and children’s books at the top of the list.”

“They aren’t just children’s books!” Vanessa and Robin answered, almost in unison, then laughed at the joint outburst.

“And don’t let my mum hear you call these ‘toys’” added Robin, joining them by the shelf. “They’re commemorative Christmas ornaments. A whole set of them: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, inspired by the books, not the movies. See, this isn’t Emma Watson.” She indicated the Hermione figure, who was holding a red potion bottle. “It took my mum forever to collect the full set for me.”

“Hate to break it to you, Ellacott, but you're a bit early for Christmas,” Strike began to tease her, but a glance at her face made him stop. Robin paused and swallowed stiffly, as the memory of unwrapping the pewter ornaments flickered through her brain. Linda had bought most of them for her during the period she was home, after leaving university. Sensing some awkwardness, Strike took another swig of beer, set his bottle next to the bookend, and cleared his throat.

“So, you actually read these as a kid?” he asked, picking up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and flipping through it.

Robin nodded. “I was twelve when the first book was published. The school librarian told me this was something special. I thought I was a little old for it, truthfully, but over my Christmas holidays, I finally took her advice and read it, and she was right. It was amazing.”

Only twelve, thought Strike, reminded of how much younger Robin was than he. He had already been in the army  then, and remembered hearing only occasional snatches of news about the children’s book series that was taking the world by storm. One Christmas, home on leave, he vaguely remembered Lucy and Aunt Joan debating whether Harry Potter was appropriate for Lucy’s eldest, then five; but he couldn’t remember if they had been discussing the books or the movies. Otherwise, he hadn't paid much attention to the craze.

Vanessa nodded as she took the book from Strike and examined the cover. “I think I started the series when the third one was published. It was all my friends could talk about. Remember the midnight release parties?” she asked Robin.

“Of course!” Robin replied. “My first was for Goblet of Fire, when I was fifteen. I went as Ginny Weasley. Not much of a stretch there,” she said, twisting a strand of her red hair around her finger. “And you?”

“Hermione.” answered Vanessa. “I was always Hermione.” As Robin and Strike regarded her with raised eyebrows, she continued. “Hey, there’s no reason Hermione couldn’t have been black! All the books ever said is that she had brown eyes and bushy hair.” Robin burst out laughing and after a second, Vanessa joined her.

“You’re right.” Robin agreed. “Hermione could very well be black.” She darted back to the coffee table, picked up the prosecco bottle and refilled both their glasses. “To black Hermione!” she toasted, clinking her glass against Vanessa’s. “To black Hermione!” echoed Vanessa, and both took sips of the bubbly. Strike simply shook his head in mild disbelief.

The two women eyed him with sudden suspicion. “Do you mean to say,” Robin asked, setting the bottle on the shelf. “That you have never read these books?”

“Why would I read children’s—”

“They’re not just children’s books!” the women chorused again.

“They are when you’re in the army!” retorted Strike. “Trust me, no one in my unit was going to be caught dead with anything—" he gestured at the seven-volume row on the shelf. “—like that.”

“Then that,” stated Robin. “was a deprived existence.” She adjusted the placement of her Ravenclaw stein, set Strike's beer bottle on one of the Hogwarts coasters next to it, then reached up to center the winged gold clock on the top shelf. She was clearly delighted to have the wizarding treasures on display again.

“Just what is that supposed to be?” Strike asked, nodding at the top shelf.

“My Golden Snitch clock!” exclaimed Robin, proudly. “I won that in a Harry Potter trivia contest, at university. My--my first year.” Her expression abruptly changed and her cheeks reddened slightly, as they often did when the subject of her interrupted university career arose. She turned away and raised her glass to her lips. Strike’s eyes quickly met Vanessa’s, who nodded to let him know that she, too, was aware of the full story.

Robin swallowed another sip of prosecco. “The truth is,” she said, her voice quivering slightly. “Once I was home, Harry Potter was one of the few things that I could still enjoy. You know, I had planned an entire term paper on the psychology of the series. There’s loads of it.” She turned back to face Strike. “The dementors embody symptoms of clinical depression; Mad-Eye Moody is a representation of PTSD; Winky the house-elf has Stockholm syndrome.” She paused and took another sip.

“Well, obviously, the paper never happened,” she continued. “But, when my therapist was trying to help me get past the agoraphobia, I used to pretend he was Professor Lupin, trying to teach me the Patronus charm, so I could drive away my own dementors. It sounds silly, but it really helped.”

Strike laid a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “I’m sure it did. And I’m glad.”

Robin forced a smile. “Even though what I’ve just said makes no sense at all to you, right?”

Strike held up his hands in mock surrender. “Guilty as charged. I thought the elf’s name was Dobby.”

“Dobby’s one of them. So, you’ve seen the movies, at least?” prodded Vanessa, clearly eager to shift the conversation away from Robin’s trauma.

“Yeah, some of them,” answered Strike, rubbing his chin. “There was one where Imelda Stanton plays this real bitch of a teacher, right?”

“Yes, that would be Umbridge,” replied Vanessa. “ In Order of the Phoenix.”

“And the one where Dumbledore died. Which  was that?” He ought to remember, he thought. Charlotte had scored an invitation to the red-carpet premiere at Leicester Square, and he had, most reluctantly, attended it with her, despite a nagging worry that he might encounter his father at the star-studded event. He vaguely recalled being introduced to Daniel Radcliffe, Dame Maggie Smith and J.K. Rowling herself, among others. The three of them, unlike most of the rest of the celebrities, had been tactful enough not to mention his parentage. Still, it had been a miserable evening, with Strike uncertain whether his rented tuxedo or the small talk with Charlotte’s friends were more uncomfortable. His main goal had been to drink himself into a stupor before the film started. Consequently, he didn’t recall much, except a strong sense of camaraderie with a big hairy bloke who getting shit-faced while mourning a spider.

“That was Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince,” mused Robin, her face going serious again. Strike felt a twinge of guilt, realizing what it would have meant to Robin to attend the premiere that he had so despised. But his partner appeared lost in her own thoughts, as she ran one finger down the spine of the sixth volume. She suddenly shuddered, then turned pale.

Vanessa touched her arm. “What is it, Robin?” she asked.

“Nothing, I just realized… When Half-Blood Prince was published, I was…home. So was Matthew, on summer vacation from university. I was still having a hard time leaving the house, but I had always loved the midnight bookstore parties. I hadn’t gone out to any public events, except for court, since… since it happened. But this was the Harry Potter book release party… I thought it would be safe. I thought I was ready.”

Robin set down her glass and turned away from the bookshelf, her pale lips pressed into a line, and took a few deep breaths. Her CBT exercises, Strike thought. Good. Robin pressed her clasped hands to her mouth, then lowered them before speaking again.

“Matthew had gone with me to the release of Order of the Phoenix, the year we took our A-levels. He didn’t read them, and I think he was bored stiff all night, but he went. He said he’d take me to this one, too. I was planning my costume…Luna Lovegood. I worked on it for weeks; mum helped me. I made radish earrings, the butterbeer cork necklace, everything. I finally had a goal—something to focus on.”

Vanessa nodded understandingly. Strike did, as well, though he wondered what a buttered beercork was.

“But then, Matthew found out a university mate of his was having his twenty-first that same weekend, in London,” Robin continued, her voice edged with bitterness. “He asked me to go with him, but it was too much. Driving all the way to London, staying at a hotel, I just couldn’t, not then. So, he went, without me.” Robin paused to take another deep breath.

“Mum and Dad were furious with him. I heard both of them telling him off outside, listening from my window. ‘We’ve been working on getting her out of this house for a year!’ Dad yelled. ‘Don’t you see how important this is to her?’ But Matthew wasn’t going to miss out on a great weekend with his mates, not to attend a bookstore geek-fest with his basket-case girlfriend and a bunch of schoolchildren.”

Robin shut her eyes and clenched her jaw. “Looking back, it’s obvious. Bloody Sarah Shadlock was invited to the party, too.” The tears began to fall in earnest. Strike stepped forward, intending to embrace her, but Vanessa beat him to it, pulling Robin into a tight hug. Strike turned back to the shelf and contented himself with imagining how it would feel to smash the pewter Cerberus, --sorry, Fluffy, he thought-- into Matthew’s face a few times.

After a few moments, Robin stepped back and wiped her eyes. “Mum and Dad offered to take me, of course. Mum even said they’d dress as Molly and Arthur Weasley. But I was 20 years old; I wasn’t going to show up at the party with Mummy and Daddy. So, I stayed in my room, like always. So bloody stupid.”

“Matthew’s the stupid one,” Strike assured her. “Fucking twat,” he muttered under his breath.

“You're well shot of him; he’s a complete flobberworm,” added Vanessa. Strike shot her a puzzled look, but Robin actually laughed.

“You're both right,” she agreed. “Looking back, I should have gone. I think Mum would have made a perfectly splendid Molly Weasley." Vanessa squeezed her shoulders, evoking another smile.

Turning back to the shelf, clearly eager for a new topic, Robin picked up an enameled flying Ford Anglia keychain. “Now this—, ” she said, showing it to both of her friends. “—is from Stephen’s wife, Jenny. She took a business trip to Orlando, just before they married, and brought me this from Universal Studios,” she explained. “Harry Potter and driving, two of my favorites.”

Robin paused, turning the trinket between her fingers as bitterness welled within her again. She remembered how envious she had been of her future sister-in-law’s trip. Throughout all the wedding preparations, she had nursed a private hope that the mysterious, “someplace hot” destination that Matthew had selected for them would be the Harry Potter theme park. In retrospect, she could see that had been about as likely as a admissions letter from Hogwarts arriving by owl. She replaced the keychain on the shelf.

“You know, in a way, Matthew did me a favor. I was so torn up over missing the party, I moped for days. It was around then Dad started to talk to me about taking driving lessons. I thought, I have one, maybe two years until the final book in this series. I decided there was no way anything was going to keep me from the last release party; I’d bloody well drive myself to it, if I had to. So, looking back, a big part of what helped me recover was... Harry Potter.

Strike poured the last of the sparkling wine into her glass and handed it to her. “To Harry Potter, then,” he said, picking up his bottle and clinking it against her champagne flute.

“To the Boy Who Lived,” corrected Vanessa, tapping Robin’s glass with her own.

"And, to the Girl Who Survived,” finished Strike, slipping his arm around Robin shoulders. “Multiple times, in fact.” Robin wiped her eyes a final time.

“At the rate I’m going, I may beat Harry’s record,” she quipped. “Vanessa, did we ever figure out how many different people tried to kill him?”

“Well, it depends on whether you consider the Diary-Tom Riddle a separate person from Vol-“

Strike’s phone buzzed, and he pulled it out to read the text.

“Nick’s on the way home,” he announced. “If the pair of you are willing to rejoin the Muggle world, we can get there about when he does. Tube or cab?”

Vanessa smiled conspiratorially at Robin. “Apparition?” she suggested.

“No, floo powder,” said Robin.

“Portkey.”

“Thestral.”

“Hippogriff.”

“Enough!” demanded Strike. “Are you two going to torment me with Harry Potter allusions all night?”

“Now that you've suggested it, that sounds like a very good plan,” replied Vanessa.

Robin laughed as she pulled on her jacket. This was shaping up to be a fine birthday.

<>----<**>----<>

“Seriously, you’d love them.” Robin insisted, as she unlocked her flat door late that evening. Strike rolled his eyes as he helped Robin off with her jacket, and hung it on the hook by the door.

“I don’t have time to read bloody children’s—”

“They aren’t just children’s books!” Robin responded, for perhaps the tenth time that evening. The topic of Harry Potter had taken up what was, to Strike, a disproportionate share of the conversation at Robin’s birthday gathering. As it turned out, Nick and Ilsa had independently started the series during their professional studies, finished it together as a married couple, and  recently celebrated their anniversary by taking the London studio tour. Sam Barclay and his wife were already arguing about who would have the privilege of reading the books to their baby, who wasn’t yet walking. While Robin had been on her ill-fated honeymoon, Oliver and Vanessa had camped out for IMAX tickets to the final Deathly Hallows movie. Andy had listened to all seven audiobooks when hospitalized for multiple sclerosis; his wife Louise spoke admiringly of Rowling's efforts to raise money for research into the disease. The evening had been full of book discussion, the merits and shortcomings of various film-making decisions, and a new novel called A Casual Vacancy, of which Strike had never heard. Strike had vacillated between amusement at his friends’ borderline obsession, and minor annoyance at being excluded from so much of the conversation.

“J.K. Rowling has a degree in French and Classics from Exeter,” Robin went on. “There’s a man in the United States who’s written brilliant books on Harry Potter's literary merit. I can show you his website. Have you ever heard of ring structure? Literary alchemy? The myth of Orestes?”

A flicker of recognition crossed Strike’s face at the last mention.

“Scar, on the forehead?” Robin continued, tapping her own brow. “Who else has one of those? For God’s sake, most of the spells are in Latin; I know you’ll like that part.”

Robin crossed the sitting room to her bookshelf, removed Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and held it out to her boss. “Just try the first one. I’ll bet lunch at the Gallery Mess that you won’t be able to resist reading the rest.”

Strike’s eyes narrowed. “I am never—" he declared, “—going into the bloody Gallery Mess again." Robin laughed, having anticipated that reaction.

"But, make it the Cambridge, and you have yourself a wager,” Strike continued, remembering his own birthday celebration, almost two years earlier. He accepted the book, regarded the cover briefly, then tucked it under his arm.

“Deal.” Robin extended her hand, which Strike first shook, then raised to his lips for scratchy, stubbly kiss. Robin blushed.

Strike stepped back. After an evening socializing with four established couples—he stopped himself from mentally adding the word other—he was increasingly aware of the extent to which his friends were treating him and Robin as the fifth. Moreover, he had to admit he had not found the experience at all objectionable.

But, he and Robin had an unspoken pact to keep things friendly and professional, for now. Matthew was not making the divorce process easy. It had taken considerable persuasion from Strike, Ilsa and Vanessa to convince Robin that, after a year of emotional abuse plus infidelity, she deserved half of the joint bank account that held the proceeds from the sale of their Hastings Road flat, and needed to be ready to fight for it. She had, with some reluctance, agreed to let Barclay and Hutchins run a bit of surveillance on “the twat,” when their other cases allowed it. They hadn’t yet caught Matthew in another overnight tryst with Sarah, but Robin reckoned it was only a matter of time. There were plenty of lunch meetings, and Tom Turvey had not been spotted in Sarah’s company.

Matthew, unfortunately, was crafty enough to fight fire with fire, and the regular cash withdrawals from the checking account suggested he might have hired a PI of his own. Strike knew Matthew would use anything he could unearth against Robin, if it meant him keeping a bigger share of their assets. A week ago, Robin had noticed a man who appeared to be browsing the newsstand near her flat with alarming regularity, both morning and evening. After examining a picture that she had surreptitiously taken, Strike had recognized him as the incompetent busker that Mitch Patterson had placed on Denmark Street the previous summer. Tonight, as Strike had escorted Robin back to her flat, he had spied a panhandler huddled in a doorway across the street. The sleeves of the hoodie that peeked out from under the ragged blanket were identical to those of the newsstand man, and his canvas trainers had soles that appeared too new for someone homeless.

“The poor bloke’s going to be very disappointed if you’re only here for five minutes,” remarked Robin, once Strike had shared his suspicions. She peeked through her drawn curtains. “And he appears to have quite a nice mobile for a down-and-out.

“I’ll take care of it,” promised Strike.

“Don’t deck him,” cautioned Robin. “I don't fancy spending my pay rise on bail.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Strike, pecking her on the cheek. “Happy birthday, Robin.” He met her eyes for a moment, then turned to go.

“Cormoran, wait!” Robin called as he was closing the door. Strike paused, his heart skipping a beat, wondering if his partner was about to suggest throwing caution to the wind and giving Patterson's man something to put in his report. He glanced back at her expectantly, not daring to breathe. 

“Be careful with that. It’s a first edition; it could be worth a fortune some day!” Strike exhaled, grinned ruefully and gave her a mock salute as he departed. 

Once outside, Strike crossed the road, deliberately choosing a route to the bus stop that would take him past the tramp. He strode by the huddled figure, paused, then turned back to crouch in front of the vagrant's basket, as if planning to deposit some change. He met the man’s eyes and was gratified to see an clear expression of nervousness, rather than the dull stupor he would have expected from a genuine panhandler.

“Tell your fucking boss, and the twat who hired him,” growled Strike, holding up the hardback, its cover barely three inches from the fake tramp’s dirt-smudged nose. “That all I was doing was borrowing a book.”

<>----<**>----<>

One week later.

Robin was sitting at her desk, gathering her red-gold hair up in an elastic band before twisting it into a bun. A surprisingly loud clatter came from the front door, and she glanced over to see Strike, fumbling with his key as he hefted a paper shopping bag over the threshold, wincing a bit as he shifted his weight on his right leg. His black overcoat was shiny and soaked, and fat raindrops clung to his hair. He looked surprised to see her.

“I thought you were working the elder care facility this morning." There was atypical tension in his voice.

“I interview with the volunteer coordinator at half-past ten,” answered Robin. She was going undercover at a nursing home at the behest of a new client, who was concerned that her elderly aunt was getting substandard care. “I decided to wear the glasses and the brunette wig, and realized I had left them in my desk. What are you doing out on a morning like this?”.

“Just needed a few things” he said, brusquely.

Strike seemed in an unusual hurry to get to his inner office, and did not stop to take off his wet coat. Robin noticed, with some puzzlement, that the damp shopping bag bore the logo of the used bookstore where she had purchased her first Owen Quine novel. Before she could ask about it, Strike grabbed for the handles, quickly shifting the package so the logo was hidden from her. In his haste, he jerked a bit too hard, and the bag’s sodden bottom gave way. A number of hardbacks tumbled to the floor, and Robin recognized the covers instantly.

“Bollocks…” muttered Strike, looking away from her.

Robin hurried to pick up the books, snatching up some tissues on her way to blot the covers dry.

“You bought the whole series!” she exclaimed. “I knew it!”

“They’re for my nephew, Jack,” insisted Strike. “His birthday…”

“…isn’t until next spring,” finished Robin, with a satisfied smirk. “And don’t try to tell me they’re for his Christmas, either; you barely remember to buy presents at all, let alone pick them out this early. And..."  She held up Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

“...This one has a bookmark in it. As if someone was reading it on the tube.”

Strike glowered at her, but did not deny it. His ears slightly pink, he turned to switch the tea kettle on, then took the books from her, stacking them on the corner of her desk. His knee ached after the rushed walk in the pouring rain.

“Aren’t you going to be late?” he growled. “We’ll have a hell of a time getting anyone else in there if you blow this interview. You realize there’s a poor old lady who could be—"

“I have time,” Robin laughed as she flipped the short, drab wig over her head. Once the glasses were added, she appeared ten years older, but her smiling face beamed like a schoolgirl’s under the mousy curls. She closed her handbag and slipped on her raincoat, still grinning as she picked up her umbrella.

“Time enough to check out the Cambridge menu on the way," she teased. "I could fancy a nice steak, since you’re paying, and if they have treacle tart—that’s Harry’s favorite dessert, you know.”

“Off with you, Ellacott, now!” shouted Strike, scowling as he tried to suppress a smile, and was only partially successful. Robin departed with a cheery wave. Both her laughter and her footsteps on the metal staircase died away.

Once he was sure she was gone, Strike let his face relax. Buying Robin lunch was hardly an unpleasant prospect. Or, perhaps, she would prefer dinner. He brewed himself a cup of creosote-colored tea, then headed for his office, planning to review his own latest case notes. Cormoran Strike paused, his hand on the inner doorknob, and glanced back at Robin’s desk.

He was largely caught up on paperwork, and his next client meeting was not until noon. He could spare an hour, at least, while he rested his leg. He had promised Robin he would take better care of it, after all. After a moment’s hesitation, Strike returned to Robin’s desk, picked up the Chamber of Secrets, and lowered himself onto the sofa, ignoring its taunting flatulence. He removed the prosthesis, settled his stump carefully on a cushion, and opened the book to the marked page. All in the name of employee satisfaction, he told himself, as he began to read. And, once the divorce was finalized, a celebratory studio tour might well be in order.