THE CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS
based on the works of J. K. Rowling
(with a reverent nod to Agatha Christie, the queen of crime stories)
~ § ~
“But inside your sob-sodden Kleenex
And your Saturday night panics,
Under your hair done this way and that way,
Behind what looked like rebounds
And the cascade of cries diminuendo,
You were undeflected.
You were gold-jacketed, solid silver,
Nickel-tipped. Trajectory perfect
As through ether.”
― Ted Hughes
~ § ~
PROLOGUE – The Journal
16 March 1998
New York City, USA
If you didn’t count the fact that it was the end of the world, it was just like any other Monday, really. Too hot for winter, too cold for spring.
The promise of rain hung over the never-sleeping anthill of Manhattan, and the Star-Spangled Banner rattled on the neighbouring building like a windsock. A No-Mag cargo ship had got wrecked in the harbour, and its crew was desperate to save an entire load of what seemed like tea.
Bertrand L. Carneirus had been following the ship’s vicissitudes from his office window since 8.54 AM, to be exact, and he was definitely rooting for the sea. At least he would not be the only one to go bankrupt today…
Not that he wished for all that delicious tea to be lost, of course – Bertrand L. Carneirus was a benevolent man. This was merely an observation in statistics: A Most Likely Turn of Chance.
The antique wall-clock struck ten; and the tall, square-shouldered wizard turned away from the window with a sigh, running ink-smudged fingers through his greying hair. The night shift was over – it was time to engage his daily tasks as Chief Editor of the reputed New York Ghost…
No one really knew what the Editor was doing whenever the lights went down in his office, and his writers and lectors and redactors went home to their loved ones. Bertrand L. Carneirus, for his part, did not have any loved ones: he had a newspaper, an age-old name, a (some would say) ridiculous sense of duty, a No-Mag painting of George Washington on the wall, and – most importantly – a gigantesque budget deficit. But the show had to go on; papers had to be written and printed and delivered; and people needed to be informed, even if no one was really buying The New York Ghost anymore.
The hidebound, black-and-white paper encompassed the entirety of perceptible universe, as far as Bertrand L. Carneirus was concerned – his father had edited it, and his grandfather, and his grandfather’s father before them; it was only natural that he should, too. Even if people did not truly care about “should”-s these days…
“So it has come down to this, eh, Georgie?” The editor muttered absent-mindedly under his breath. He folded his notes on The Siren’s Surreptitious Stockings with mild disgust before locking it in his drawers with a flick of his wand. “Pulp fiction reviews. I could just as well change my pen-name to Groggy Gerald.”
“Interesting,” said George Washington’s portrait in a sly voice. “I think I’d go for Naughty Neville. Or, Néville le Néfaste. Everything sounds better in French.”
Carneirus could not decide what was more surprising – the fact that a No-Mag portrait had just spoken to him, or that glancing up, he found that the bewigged figure of George Washington had been replaced by a blonde, cheery-faced painting of a medieval bard. At second glance – the editor realized – it wasn’t even replaced; the figure of the bard had merely walked over Washington’s, claiming all the place within the thin golden frame.
“Mornin’, Neville,” said the bard leisurely. He took a sip from a neatly painted crystal glass of what looked suspiciously like whiskey (the colours were much brighter than his own). “How are the Haughty Hags today?”
“How did you know…?!” Carneirus choked. “You – are you spying on me?! Who are you, anyway, and what are you doing here?”
“Oi, My Beard!” The painting gasped in mock surfeit. “Even Poirot went one question at a time, you know. I should probably make you suffer for each and every morsel of information like a Sphinx, but –” here, he took another sip of whiskey, “as you may have noticed, I’m not a Sphinx. I’m Myrddin. As in, Myr-ddin, with a nice rolled ‘r’. And the reason I am trespassing at Uncle George’s is that I have something for you. I think they call it A Letter to the Editor.”
Carneirus blinked stupidly. “A letter… from a reader?”
“More of an aspiring writer,” said the painting with a sigh. “My apprentice. Worst luck you can imagine. She is probably going to be murdered in a few days, poor girl. Most of my students were, to be honest… but her, that’s one I do regret. She didn’t turn Dark, you see – at least, not full-time. A smart one, too. Anyhow, she’s got a story for you, which I am to deliver without making fun of your face. I’m pulling a real effort here, not that you’d care, of course... Will you at least close your mouth, my boy…?”
Carneirus complied, with a rush of motion that knocked his teeth awkwardly against each other; and he gave a short, nervous laugh.
“All right, sir, just to be clear – you would have me believe that you are a portrait of Myrddin – the Myrddin, as in Merlin the Wild, the legendary warlock we know from our Chocolate Frog Cards – and that you have a so-called apprentice who is… why am I wasting my breath anyway?!”
“Just the thing I was asking myself,” said Myrddin emphatically. “You have quite the reading to do.”
With that, the painted figure sank its hand into the pocket of its cloak, and revealed a thick, purple-ish journal, which seemed ostentatious, somehow inapposite on the canvas. Leaning closer, Carneirus thought he could see why – it was as neatly lined, as clear and sharp as a photograph. So clear and sharp in fact, that it seemed almost… real.
“Come on, Neville,” Said the portrait, handing the picture forward. “Are you a Muggle, or what? Take it!”
“What…?” Carneirus barked. “You want me to reach into your portrait? But that is impossible! I, a living person, cannot reach…”
“And I, a bulk of brush-strokes cannot – within Gamp’s Third Law of Transfiguration – trespass into a Muggle portrait which is not even my own, yet here I am,” said Myrddin, visibly bored. “Then again, Gamp was an invalid. Any other questions on magical theory, Neville?”
“My name is Bert,” said Carneirus, slightly offended, but he extended his hand all the same. As soon as his fingers touched the canvas, he felt a surge of warmth; and the thick, hardcover journal slid into his palm. Shocked, aghast, he stumbled back; the book slipped from his fingers, and landed unceremoniously on the floor, right in front of his feet.
“How on Earth…”
This was inexplicable, impossible – this was unlike any kind of magic he had ever seen. Intriguing. Mysterious. Frightening. Carneirus’s heart was beating fast as he lifted the journal from the floor and paged it through with trembling fingers. It was a simple thing of a popular No-Mag brand, filled from the first page to the last in small orderly letter. The editor’s eye recognized the type when he saw it – it was the work of a well-travelled hand, prone to saving paper.
Glued to the inside of the front cover, he found a letter folded into four (also written on No-Mag paper, which, coming from an apprentice of Merlin, was surprising at the very least). Carneirus detached it and smoothed it out. It read:
14 March 1998
Dear Mr Carneirus,
I am writing to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed your review on Rita Skeeter’s latest bestseller, ‘The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore’. I understand that the book is getting popular in the States, and I feel obliged to offer two capital corrections:
One: Dumbledore was not killed – he had staged his own death.
Two: The British Ministry of Magic did not “change policy via democratic transition”. The British Ministry of Magic has been overtaken by a psychopath who calls himself the Dark Lord, has two weirdly cut holes as a nose, and harbours a teenage girl obsession over every single person who has ever crossed him in any way. And let’s face it: he won. I don’t know if you have heard our current Minister for Magic speak through the radio or anything, but next time you do, I advise you weigh the chances of a) him being perpetually on heroin or b) him being under a nice thick Imperius. I’ll let you calculate the probability of each.
You might ask, of course, how do I know anything about this – well, that’s what this journal is all about. To be brief: in May 1993, Cornelius Fudge, then Minister for Magic, asked Albus Dumbledore for advice on how to abolish Ministry debts towards Gringotts bank. Dumbledore suggested the reopening of ‘The Sequestrum’ – a series of ancient vaults which the Goblins have long abandoned due to their extremely dangerous nature. My friend, William Weasley and I were requested for the job as experts, and we have accepted. Unknown to Fudge, I made a further agreement with Dumbledore: essentially, he wanted a spy in the Ministry, and I wanted to get rich.
I started writing this diary in the winter of 1995, after a long and dangerous mission for the Order. My life had turned upside-down, and I needed to clear my head (that’s why women write diaries in the first place, isn’t it?). I had no idea what I was doing, or where it was going to take me. It felt like writing a book – I am quite skilled at mind control, and that allows me to recall things a lot clearer than most people can. Writing events down had always felt like living through them again: sometimes thrilling, sometimes funny, sometimes heart-warming…
…until everything turned into one perpetual nightmare. Today, Dumbledore is dead; The Dark Lord has won; the Order of the Phoenix is scattered; and I am scribbling this note in a dark cellar, alone with my fancy Death Eater mask.
In my diary, I have announced the end of the world multiple times – when my wand was broken, when I promised Moaning Myrtle that I’d be her flatmate in the plughole, when Sirius Black asked me to marry him, and so forth – but now it really IS here, and I need to part ways with this diary. To throw the proverbial cat…
You know what? I want you to publish this bunch. I want everyone to read it. I want everyone to see it… and most importantly, I want someone suicidal enough to carry on with the things I would still have to do if I wasn’t going to be killed.
The very thought of people plunging into my past – my preconceptions, my sex life, my journeys, the things I’ve seen – makes my head spin, but I don’t think I have a choice. I know the power of spotlight; and this diary might be the only proof, the only living testimony you’ll ever hear about Magical Britain today. Which is, to be quite honest, totally fucked.
Have a good read,
P.S.: Sorry about whatever Myrddin might have said/done to you.
P.S. 2.: We also have this ongoing debate about who is whose apprentice. Choose a side.
Carneirus took a deep, shaky breath. Lucy Dawlish was not the kind of name he had expected to find at the end of such a letter – it sounded too simple. Too ordinary…
“Why… why me?” He managed, eyeing the painting on the wall. “If this is all true, then – then this is quite the story… a scandal… a sensation…”
Myrddin laughed merrily. “You will find out.”
Carneirus wetted his lip. His eyes stopped above an entry from December 1995, which began with the words Dear Sirius Black. Again that name, Sirius Black…
“Is it – is this real, though?” He said in a throaty voice. “Or fiction? Because if it is real, then…”
“Look – I cannot, in good conscience… hullo? Myrddin…?”
No one answered; and when Carneirus raised his head to reprimand his unwanted visitor, he found himself staring into the grave face of George Washington again, frozen into the speechless eternity of No-Mag portraits.
Journal in hand, the editor sank into his favourite chair, and started reading.