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Alexandra Quick and the World Away

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In the last week of October, as they were preparing for the Halloween festivities that the wizarding world celebrated with as much pageantry and spectacle as Muggles celebrated Christmas, Roger Darby failed to arrive one morning. Neither Helen nor Rachel had seen him at the Floo stop when they left Chicago.

When he didn’t show up the next day, or the day after that, everyone assumed he was sick.

Except, Alexandra thought, wizards didn’t get sick. At least, hardly ever.

When Roger didn’t return by the end of the week, she asked Madam Erdglass about him.

“I haven’t received a note,” Madam Erdglass said.

“Don’t you even ask when a student doesn’t show up to class for a week?” Alexandra demanded.

Madam Erdglass said, “I submit a weekly attendance report. The Department of Magical Education will investigate any Muggle-borns who aren’t attending day school.”

“To take away his wand, you mean?”

Madam Erdglass’s face was a blank mask, as if she didn’t understand the question, or why Alexandra would be concerned about it.

Everyone else seemed indifferent to Roger’s absence, but to Alexandra, the boy’s disappearance seemed like a dark portent, and it made her feel a little sick. It was too much like Bonnie’s disappearance all over again, except she didn’t think that Roger had run away. She remembered his name on Mr. Brown’s list and watched Madam Erdglass with cold suspicion, wondering how much the old woman knew.

She didn’t know exactly where Roger lived, only that he was from the Chicago area. She asked Rachel and Helen, but both girls shrugged. They only ever met him in the morning at the Floo station.

That evening, she looked up every Darby in Chicago. There were a lot. She started calling them, one by one, but of those who answered, none had an eleven-year-old son named Roger. She did speak to a Professor Roger Darby who was quite irate with her. He believed her to be one of his students until she explained that she was in tenth grade and not a student at the Moody Bible Institute, whereupon he hung up. Another Roger Darby was bemused at being called by a teenage girl. She hung up on him when he asked what she was wearing. After two hours, she hadn’t gotten through half the Darbys on the list, and those were just the ones who lived in the city of Chicago, not the greater metropolitan area. She wasn’t going to find him this way.

She wondered if an owl would find him. That hadn’t worked with Bonnie, but Roger was a wizard. She also wondered if she was unnecessarily imagining dire significance in Roger’s absence when there might be some entirely mundane reason. Was she just determined to find Roger because she hadn’t been able to find Bonnie? But whether or not something had happened to him, she meant to find out why he and Lila Hill and Forrest Fleming were written in Mr. Brown’s notebook.

The following week they would be going to Chicago, and visiting the Territorial Headquarters Building. Years earlier, Alexandra had snuck off to the Census Office during a sixth grade field trip to the same building, and started to unravel the secrets of her parentage. Could she do the same thing again, and discover what happened to Roger by finding the Accounting Office?

She could already hear her friends scolding her about taking risks and getting into trouble. But she knew something was wrong here, and she intended to find out what.

I’ll have a plan this time, she told herself. And maybe I’ll even have a little help.

“I don’t know,” Pete said dubiously. “This seems awfully sketchy. Especially asking Helen to steal from her old man’s shop for you.”

Instead of drilling them on spells and dueling techniques that morning, Alexandra had gathered everyone around her in the Pruett School cafeteria and told them about Mr. Brown’s notebook, with Roger’s name written in it.

This had proved less convincing than she’d hoped.

“I'm not asking her to steal anything!” Alexandra said hastily, as Helen’s face clouded over with anxiety. “I’m going to pay.” She smiled reassuringly at Helen. “I just need you to buy them secretly.”

Helen’s involvement was, in fact, the weak part of her plan, but she was hoping the girl could manage to acquire what she needed, in the week they had left.

Helen nodded slowly, but still looked worried. “I’ll help you, Alexandra. But I don’t know where Papa keeps Polyjuice and Hasten Potions.”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure you can find them.” Alexandra patted Helen’s hand, ignoring the disapproving stares she got from some of the other kids.

“Hasten Potions? Those take a year off your life!” Freddy said.

“No they don’t,” Alexandra said. “That’s just a rumor.” She didn’t actually know if this was true.

“Aren’t you just going to get yourself in trouble again?” Rachel Ing asked.

“If I get in trouble, it’ll be on me,” Alexandra said. “All I need you to do is give me a chance to get away.”

“And get ourselves in trouble,” Silvia said.

“How can you get in trouble?” Alexandra asked. “All you have to do is say nothing.”

“We can get in trouble for that,” Rachel Cohen said.

“You can get in trouble for being a snitch, too,” Jamal said.

“What do you mean?” Rachel asked.

“I mean, bad things happen to snitches,” Jamal said, slowly wiggling his wand back and forth as if to suggest some horrible curse. Rachel Cohen, who was bigger than Jamal, stuck her lip out defiantly.

Alexandra said, “If I’m wrong, and I get in trouble, I’ll swear none of you knew anything. But if it was you who disappeared, you’d want someone to care, wouldn’t you?”

“You don’t know he’s disappeared, Alexandra,” said the older Rachel. “All you know is he’s dropped out of school. It happens. Maybe he moved. Maybe his parents decided they don’t like the wizarding world. Maybe —”

“Maybe he just stopped coming to class one day, without saying a word to anyone, and it’s purely a coincidence that his name was on a list carried by a Confederation goon who hates Muggle-borns and wants the school shut down,” Alexandra said. “And maybe you’re just afraid to find out.”

“You’re crazy,” Freddy said. “You’re just a sophomore. Let’s say there is some sinister reason for Roger disappearing. What do you think you can do about it?”

“Maybe nothing,” Alexandra replied. “But all you have to do is let me slip away when we’re at the Territorial Headquarters Building.”

“You act like you’ve done this before,” Rachel Ing said.

“I have.” Alexandra gave them her most convincing smile, the one that had always worked with Brian. “Look, all I’m asking for is your silence.”

“And a distraction, and for Helen to steal — sorry, secretly buy — restricted potions for you,” Freddy said.

Alexandra stopped smiling. “When you disappear,” she said, “I hope someone helps me find out what happened to you.”

Freddy stared back at her, then looked away. “Man, you are one crazy witch,” he said.

Rachel Cohen said, “What if she’s not crazy?” She adjusted her glasses. “Sometimes… sometimes you have to break the rules, when things aren’t right.”

Everyone looked at her, then at Alexandra.

“Welcome to the resistance,” Penny said with a smirk.

Helen brought Alexandra a silvered glass flask four days later. She handed it to her furtively when she arrived in the morning, but there was an unmistakable look of pride on her face.

“I had to be sneaky,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how. I’m sorry, Alexandra, I could only get Polyjuice Potion. Papa doesn’t carry Hasten Potions, because they become inept… inedible…”

“Inert? Ineffective?” Alexandra said.

“Yes, that. They don’t keep.” Helen chewed her lip anxiously.

Alexandra took the flask and smiled gratefully at Helen. “That’s fine, Helen. The Polyjuice Potion is what I really needed. The Hasten Potion would have been useful, but I can do without it. You did great. I knew you could.”

Helen beamed.

Now it was Alexandra’s turn to be sneaky, but fortunately, Madam Erdglass’s office still appeared to be unwarded. Alexandra crept into the office after lunch, while she was supposedly using the restroom.

Mr. Brown had been in here often enough that he’d left physical traces of his presence. Beard follicles, skin flakes, and to Alexandra’s disgust, fingernail clippings all swirled through the air when she cast a modified Summoning Charm. The residue gathered on a piece of glass she’d prepared for the purpose, and she pressed another piece of glass over it before hurrying out of the room, feeling a powerful urge to wash her hands.

Brewing the final stage of the potion required undisturbed access to a cauldron. The next morning, Alexandra arrived early, borrowed a cauldron and a jar of lacewings from the Alchemy lab, and crept upstairs.

“Who’s there?” demanded Goody Pruett.

Alexandra pointed her wand and said, “Pictogel.” The spell she had learned at Charmbridge from the Mors Mortis Society froze Goody Pruett in her frame. Alexandra proceeded to the third floor loft.

She’d never brewed Polyjuice Potion, and even the final step was supposed to be difficult and tricky. With the contents of the flask Helen had obtained for her bubbling in the cauldron, and other kids arriving downstairs, Alexandra added the lacewings to the mixture, completed the necessary stirrings and wand gestures, and with a grimace, produced the detritus she’d pressed between two glass plates. She scraped these into the mixture.

“This is going to be so gross,” she muttered.

The brew thickened and turned pinkish-white. Bubbles formed on the surface and spattered goo. The potion resembled lard boiled in bacon grease, and smelled like rancid oil and sweat. Alexandra let the cauldron cool and poured its contents into a single bottle. The thought of having to drink the concoction made her gag. She was going to have to get over that before next week.

On the day of their trip, each student from the Pruett School threw a handful of Floo Powder and declared, “Chicago Floo Stop!” before entering the old boiler. Alexandra wondered how Madam Erdglass meant to chaperone twelve adolescents with wands about Chicago. The old woman hardly seemed able to step into the boiler unassisted.

Alexandra, uncharacteristically dressed only in plain witches’ robes and underwear beneath, was the last to enter the Floo before the teacher. She tumbled and spun through space, feeling as if she were about to hit something, before stumbling out into a large chamber in an annex of the Chicago Wizardrail Station. There were square iron Floo furnaces lining the walls on either side of the room, with witches and wizards stepping in and out of them amidst a constant swirl of green smoke.

A bubble of silence surrounded her, despite the commotion all around. The other kids were not talking at all. She saw that Madam Erdglass had somehow preceded her here, but that wasn’t the reason everyone was silent.

A misshapen woman loomed over Madam Erdglass like a giant, twisted reflection of the smaller witch, dressed in the same shade of black and purple and wearing a wide-brimmed black hat in the style of a witch, but with a short, rounded peak. The huge nose, protruding teeth, and greenish skin marked Madam Erdglass’s companion as something other than a witch, however.

Alexandra stared. All the other kids stared.

Alexandra was the first to speak. “You’re a hag.”

Rachel Ing said, “Wow, Alexandra. That was pretty rude even for you.”

“No, she’s really a hag!”

“Yeah, I think we can see that,” said Freddy.

“Quite so,” said the hag cheerfully. “Your friend is right. My name is Anya, and I have been assigned by the Central Territory Juvenile Welfare Office as your escort.”

“I feel like a cow that’s been assigned an escort from Burger Barn,” Freddy whispered, not very quietly. This was greeted with nervous titters from the other kids. Anya smiled indulgently and folded her hands.

“Young man,” she said, “you have obviously been influenced by pernicious lies and half-truths told about my sisters and me. I hope you’re aware that Central Territory is a participant in the Confederation Campaign for Awareness of Non-Homo Sapience. ‘Jokes’ like that are not only offensive and hurtful, but actively harmful to innocent Beings living as peaceful, law-abiding members of wizarding society.”

“Are you kidding?” Alexandra said. “Every hag I’ve ever met wanted to eat me.”

“Really? Every one? Wanted to eat a scrawny little girl like you?” Anya’s yellow-orange eyes widened. “What a high opinion you must have of your own scrumptiousness. I hope the rest of you will appreciate your visit today to the offices that administer our laws and protect our rights and combat the sort of unthinking bigotry advocated by your ignorant, speciesist friend here.”

“What?” Alexandra snorted. “I am not a… a ‘speciesist.’”

Every hag I’ve ever met wanted to eat me,” Anya repeated, mimicking Alexandra’s voice with startling accuracy. “What sort of person says that about a Being they’ve just met?”

“That was kind of a nasty thing to say,” Rachel Cohen said.

“How many hags have you met?” asked Jamal. “Like, just standing there on the street they tried to eat you?”

“No, of course not,” Alexandra said. “Okay, maybe not every hag literally tried to eat me —”

“Ah,” said Anya. “So in fact you have met hags who were minding their own business and did not try to eat you, but you thought it was appropriate to make a figurative statement about every one of us being monsters who devour children.”

Alexandra flushed. “Look, I know some of you are supposedly law-abiding. I read the literature from HAGGIS.”

“’Supposedly,’” crooned Anya. “Oh, dear. Well, all of you had better keep an eye on one another, just in case someone disappears.” Her yellow eyes fixed on Alexandra as she said that. “Also, if anyone takes their wand out or uses any kind of magic, I’ll eat you.” She bared her teeth and clacked them together. Helen squealed and the youngest kids flinched away.

Throughout this exchange, Madam Erdglass remained silent and unmoving. Now, like a Clockwork suddenly brought to life, she lifted a hand. “Please follow Anya to the Territorial Headquarters Building. Do not fall behind or take any side trips.”

As they walked through downtown Chicago, Alexandra stared hard at Anya’s back. The hag forged ahead, trailed by the twelve students and Madam Erdglass. Muggles veered out of her way as if avoiding a runaway SUV, but no one gave her a second look. No one registered shock at her approach. They couldn’t really see Anya, or what they saw was something mundane, an image charmed to deflect their interest and attention. Which made Alexandra wonder how the hag accomplished this without a wand. Did Anya wear an enchantment that let her walk among Muggles, or had some other witch put a spell on her? And how many hags walked secretly among Muggles?

She was a little stung by Anya’s accusations, but not convinced. All right, maybe hags weren’t all cannibalistic thugs, loan sharks, and dealers in Dark Arts. Just the ones she’d met. She’d read HAGGIS’s pamphlets, and even joined the hags’ rights organization last year — albeit mostly as a gesture of spite toward Mrs. Middle, her Wizarding Social Studies teacher at Charmbridge.

She didn’t say anything else as they wended their way through the crowded streets. Nor did she dart away on a mission of her own, as she had during previous school trips to Chicago, though she was tempted, just to see if Madam Erdglass, slowly shuffling along at the tail end of their procession, would notice.

Anya stopped in front of the Territorial Headquarters Building and waited while the students gathered around her. Other pedestrians detoured around the group of students, scowling with annoyance at the impediment to sidewalk traffic.

“This is it?” Leah asked. “It looks empty.”

“It’s got a Muggle-Repelling Charm on it,” said Rachel Ing.

“What keeps non-magical people from just walking inside?” asked Chris.

“What part of ‘Muggle-Repelling Charm’ do you not understand?” Freddy asked the younger boy.

“Now, first we’re going to visit the Trace Office,” Anya said.

“Those are the jerks who send owls when we try to practice magic at home?” asked Taylor.

“They monitor the use of underaged magic in Muggle communities for everyone’s protection, wizard and Muggle alike,” said Anya.

“Right… that’s why purebloods can get away with it but we can’t,” said Penny. “For everyone’s protection.”

Anya smiled, then ushered the kids inside. Alexandra trailed behind, with only Madam Erdglass behind her.

It was almost a repeat of her sixth grade field trip. They took the elevator up to the Trace Office on the seventh floor. The woman who greeted them was a middle-aged witch who showed little enthusiasm for being their guide. She led the students around the large chamber where robed clerks peered at crystal balls and scribbled notes on parchment. In the center of the room, wizard technicians adjusted a pair of large, gleaming brass tripods that mounted lenses and carved rods above a ceramic-tiled pool of water, next to a pit with steam rising out of it.

These latter features aroused Alexandra’s curiosity, and the other students too began to press forward. But as everyone gathered around the scrying devices that dominated the Trace Office, Alexandra realized that this was her best chance to slip away. Anya’s gaze was fixed on the magical equipment, their guide wasn’t paying particular attention to any of them, and Madam Erdglass’s back was finally to her.

Her absence would be noticed, of course — eventually. But what could they do? Expel her?

Alexandra shuffled behind Pete and Rachel Ing, as if hanging out with the two older teens. Pete looked over his shoulder and winked. In no hurry, and without looking back, Alexandra took three steps toward an unmarked side door and stepped through it.

She paused after closing it behind her. No one called out and she heard no sounds of anyone coming after her. She stood in a hallway decorated only with a series of stark duo-colored posters, animated with minimalist line drawings.

“WHO WATCHES THE WATCHERS WHO WATCH YOU? WE’RE WATCHING ON YOUR BEHALF!” announced a red and white poster with a wide unblinking eye set in a stylized Doric column. The logo at the bottom read: “Office of Magical Over-Sight,” with eyes in each of the capital Os. As Alexandra walked past, the eye in the Doric column followed her.

“Creepy,” she muttered. The eye did not waver or blink.

A blue and yellow poster reminded Trace Office workers that “Magic and Muggles Don’t Mix!” The graphic showed a young, fat, stupid-looking boy with a wand standing amidst the wreckage of a living room with a forlorn expression on his face. As Alexandra paused in front of this poster, a hand weakly pushed its way through the debris that the boy had brought down upon his home. A dead dog lay crushed beneath a gigantic television set of the sort manufactured decades ago.

“Seriously?” she said. This carnage was the implied consequence of allowing Muggle-borns to use magic at home?

The yellow-outlined boy looked at her with sad, slack-jawed incomprehension of what he had wrought.

Knowing she didn’t have time to waste studying the Trace Office’s “motivational” posters, she hurried down the hallway. If she could just reach the elevators outside without running into anyone else —

She turned the corner into the juncture of corridors emanating from the elevator, and almost ran into Madam Erdglass.

“Why Miss Quick, you seem to be lost,” Madam Erdglass said.

Alexandra stopped dead and stared at the old woman in frustration and confusion. How had she gotten out here? The ancient witch stood there as if she’d been dozing on her feet, just waiting for someone to bump into her. But moments ago, she’d been inside the Trace Office with everyone else.

“I had to go to the bathroom,” Alexandra said.

“You shouldn’t wander off without telling someone,” Madam Erdglass said.

“I told Pete and Rachel to let you know.”

“Did you?” Madam Erdglass’s face shifted beneath her aged skin, a wrinkled echo of amusement.

“Well,” Alexandra said, “um, I’ll be back.”

“Yes. Hurry back,” Madam Erdglass said.

Alexandra walked down the hall, now forced to go to the lavatory instead of the elevator. She looked over her shoulder. Madam Erdglass still stood there, watching her. Unless she was asleep — it was hard to tell.

Alexandra rounded the corner and went to the men’s room. She opened the door and peeked inside, waiting for someone to shout at her, but it was empty. She quickly slipped inside and locked herself in one of the stalls, and set the bottle of Polyjuice Potion on the back of the toilet while she cast an Enlarging Spell on her robes and shoes.

Several wizards entered while she sat in the stall, with her now-enormous robes draped over her like a tent, bracing herself to drink the contents of the bottle she held on her lap. She waited until she was alone in the bathroom again, then closed her eyes and with a deep breath, tilted the bottle back and poured the Polyjuice Potion down her throat.

She almost threw it and everything else in her stomach back up. It went down like chunks of half-melted fat, congealing in her mouth and throat and forcing her to swallow repeatedly. Heedless of whether anyone else was in the bathroom, she burst out of the stall and ran to the counter, stumbling in her enormous shoes and almost tripping over the robes that now wrapped around her legs and feet and practically fell off of her before she reached the sink. She thrust her head under a faucet to drink directly from the stream of water and wash down the rest of the potion. Her stomach lurched, rolled, and rebelled. She felt her entire body bloat and turn squishy as nausea seized her and almost forced her to her knees. With the greatest effort of will, she closed her mouth and kept from vomiting only by clasping her hands over her throat.

In the mirror, she watched with horror as her face swelled and seemed to explode. Her entire body bubbled and rippled grotesquely. Her head blew up like a balloon, then took a somewhat more solid form and began sprouting hair all over her neck and jaw and cheeks. Her hair writhed and turned stiff and greasy; her scalp crawled unpleasantly. Her feet grew ten sizes larger. Her arms and legs became enormous things attached to her body like dead weights, and her chest and stomach felt as if lakes of lard had been pumped beneath her skin. Everything jiggled and shook when she moved. For almost a full minute, she staggered comically about, bumping into walls and sinks and feeling sick and disoriented. No one else entered the bathroom, so she wasn’t forced to stumble back into a stall, but she would have been completely incapable of speech or coordinated movement.

At last her flesh stopped twitching and rolling, and she was able to take several heavy, ponderous breaths. Air seemed forced by a great bellows in her chest past constricting pipes that constantly threatened to choke it off, and she remained dizzy even when she was able to stand straight and lift her head, and stare into the mirror at the face of Franklin Percival Brown.

“Mr. Brown” looked shabby, disheveled, and unkempt. Her Enlarged robes and shoes fit him poorly. Her Polyjuiced form looked like Mr. Brown had just thrown something on and Apparated to the Territorial Headquarters Building in a panic.

“Miss Quick!” she said, testing her transformed voice. It rumbled out of her an octave lower than she could ever manage naturally. She coughed, and it was a shattering, phlegmatic sound. Her entire body shook and she felt rolls and bumps moving in places she didn’t think humans were supposed to have rolls and bumps. The effort of moving at all seemed like a trial; how did Mr. Brown heave himself around all day? She was still unsteady on her feet, and nothing felt normal or moved naturally. Everything was wrong.

Two men in formal robes entered. They stopped and stared at Alexandra. For a moment she felt wild-eyed panic at being caught in the wrong restroom. Then she cleared her throat, which almost made her double over.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” she said, in Mr. Brown’s voice. It came out a little bit squeaky.

“Afternoon,” said one of them. “Are you lost?”

“NO!” she boomed, causing both of them to flinch. She took another breath. Her body seemed to convulse internally, but as far as she could tell, nothing unnatural happened externally. “I AM ON MY WAY—” She stopped, and tried speaking more softly. “I am on my way to the Accounting Office. I just had to use the mens’ room. Because… you know.”

The two wizards stared at her.

“Are you all right?” asked the first man.

“OF COURSE I AM ALL RIGHT!” she bellowed. They flinched again, and looked at each other. “Excuse me,” she said. “I have in fact not been feeling well. I may have eaten something that disagreed with me at Goody Pruett’s. Yes, I am not feeling entirely well. After I conclude my business here, I shall go home. Your concern is duly appreciated. Thank you, gentlemen, and good day!”

She waddled to the door, pushed it open, and stepped outside. There were three people in the hallway, and they all looked at her oddly as she walked in an awkward side-to-side gait, arms swinging clumsily, so they were forced to press themselves against the walls as she squeezed past.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Forgive my, uh, size.”

She wasn’t doing a great job of pretending to be Mr. Brown, but so far no one had challenged her.

When she entered the elevator, she said, “Accounting Office.”

“Please identify yourself,” said the elevator.

Alexandra said, “I am Franklin Percival Brown, III!”

“Please show your Seal,” said the elevator.

“My seal?” Alexandra blinked, then remembered the card. It was difficult to reach into her pocket with those enormous hands, but she fumbled for the business card she’d taken from Mr. Brown’s notebook. She held it up, showing the Seal of the Confederation, and the elevator began moving.

The dial went all the way up to the 13th floor before the doors opened, and Alexandra found herself looking down a very dim corridor. She stepped out of the elevator.

There were doors to her right and left, two on each side, and one at the far end of the corridor. None of them were labeled.

The first two she tried were locked. The third was a lavatory. The fourth door opened into a dark storage room. She was about to close the door, but caught a glimpse of stacked books with shiny gold lettering. Curious, she cast a Light Charm and stuck her head inside.

Three long, metal, multi-level shelves filled the room, one against each wall to the right and left of the door, and one down the center. To the right, Alexandra saw piles of neatly folded dark cloaks and red vests. Sitting on the center shelves were rows of intriguingly heavy, dark, hardwood chests, and there were some glass boxes against the far wall. To the left were stacks of pressed vellum, rolls of parchment, and closest to the door, the stacks of books. Impulsively, Alexandra grabbed one and saw an Auror Authority seal on the cover, and the words, “Field Training Grimoire.”

“Whoa,” she said. It sounded like a groan, coming from Mr. Brown’s throat. Auror spells! She bet this would be a lot more useful than her stupid Young Wands textbook.

She realized belatedly that this was exactly the sort of book that might have a Thief’s Curse cast on it. She hesitated, then decided that if the book was cursed, she’d probably already triggered it. She dropped it into the voluminous pocket of her oversized robe and shut the door.

She turned to the last two doors just as she heard the elevator chime. Making a quick decision, she stepped to the door at the end of the corridor. She turned the handle and it opened into a neat, brightly-lit office lined with cubicles. Piles of paper sat on every desk, and scrolls and vellum ledgers filled all the shelves Alexandra could see. A pair of house-elves staggered about balancing books on their heads, but unlike many of the other offices in the Territorial Headquarters Building, there were no Clockworks.

She stepped quickly inside and almost tripped over her own feet, which were too large and clumsy. She caught herself by grabbing the doorframe, and wondered how Mr. Brown managed things like running or jumping. Probably he didn’t.

She was wondering how to ask whether this was the Accounting Office without seeming too suspicious when a witch in robes that looked more like a tunic approached her. Dark gray and brown, a dull ensemble that seemed to fit in with this clean, dull, orderly place. “Mr. Brown? We weren’t expecting you here today.”

Alexandra coughed again. She could still taste the Polyjuice Potion and feel the sensation of little globs of fat and slime trickling down her throat. Her stomach burbled. This time it wasn’t her imagination: the other witch wrinkled her nose, just a little.

“I am here for some files,” she said, staring at the witch and wishing they wore name tags in this place.

The witch blinked rapidly. She was perhaps Livia’s age, but her face was more lined, her blonde hair on the verge of gray. “What files, Mr. Brown?”

Alexandra thought she heard a tremor in her voice.

Alexandra gave the names of the three children: Lila Hill, Roger Darby, and Forrest Fleming. “Would you be good enough to fetch them for me?” she asked. “The files, I mean. Forgive me, I’m not feeling well.” Her stomach made another, louder noise, and it was echoed in her bowels. She was actually beginning to feel very unwell. She knew that Polyjuice Potion could last anywhere from minutes to hours, and suspected she was running out of time. “I will be leaving immediately once I have taken care of this business.”

The witch cleared her throat. “Yes, sir. Wait here.” She walked around a corner, still clutching a sheaf of papers to her chest. Only one of the other workers looked up at her, an older wizard with pudgy, drooping cheeks.

A few minutes later, the witch returned. She seemed to have gone a shade paler.

“Those files have been relocated,” she said, with a peculiar emphasis on the last word.

“Relocated,” Alexandra repeated. She made it a statement rather than a question at the last moment.

The witch said nothing. Alexandra tried to think of a way to pry an explanation out of her without blowing her ruse.

“Are you sure they’re gone?” she asked. “I really need to see them.”

“They’ve been relocated,” the witch repeated. “You can try to retrieve them from Storm King Mountain, but — I don’t understand why you need them? You — shouldn’t you be aware of this?” A crease formed between her brows.

“Indeed,” Alexandra said. “I was just verifying. Making sure everything is proper and as expected. There have been some irregularities lately. You know, dealing with Muggle-born children.”

The other witch blanched.

“Thank you for your assistance, my dear,” Alexandra said. The woman’s face twitched in what Alexandra thought was a barely-suppressed expression of disgust. “I shall be going now.” A gaseous sound erupted from her, and the other witch couldn’t help backing away with a distressed look on her face. “Pardon me!”

Alexandra retreated through the door, closing it behind her. She waited to see if the witch pursued her, but she didn’t.

She felt her body roiling and shifting as she took the elevator back to the seventh floor. She barely made it to the mens’ room again as flesh seemed to slough off of her, leaving a noxious cloud behind. A man standing at the urinals had his back to her as she staggered into a stall, already mostly transformed back to her normal self, with her oversized robes and shoes once again nearly falling off of her.

It took several minutes before it was safe for her to emerge and creep out of the mens’ room, once again in her actual body and with her clothing restored to its proper size. The book she’d taken from the storage closet barely fit in the pocket of her shrunken robes.

Relocated, the witch in the Accounting Office had said. The ominous significance of that word was not Alexandra’s imagination, she was sure.

Storm King Mountain. She didn’t know where that was, but she was going to find it. For Roger.