"...disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business..."
Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues 1976
"Wow," said Lysander Crocus, who had become a good friend in the six weeks Hermione had spent working in the admin office serving the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee. "You look rough."
This was what she got for a second successive night of research. She used to have such stamina! Was she getting old?
"Charmed, I'm sure," she said tartly. Then she narrowed her eyes and looked around, before asking in a lower tone of voice, "Do I have make-up on?"
"Don't think so," Lysander said, after leaning in to peer at her face. "But I'm not really an expert."
"Damn it. Knew I'd forgotten something." Hermione huffed a sigh. She never usually bothered with more than a flick of mascara and some neutral lipstick, but since she'd got the job, it had become a morning ritual. And it did make her feel a bit professional. "Ah well. Let's call it a take-me-as-you-find-me day today."
"Wouldn't worry about it," he told her. "We're going to be busy. Joint staff meeting, first thing. We've got an incident!"
"Really? Great!" Hermione hesitated, then winced. "I mean, not great. Incidents are bad. Very bad. And potentially harmful." Lysander snorted at the effort she was putting in to not being pleased. "Sorry. But we haven't had something to get our teeth into for more than three weeks. Not since Persephone Kingston from the Wimborne Wasps had her broom sabotaged."
"This one's going to be trickier than a Quidditch star crash-landing in some rich git's swimming pool," Lysander said.
"What's it about, then?"
Lysander drew himself up and tucked his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets. "How would I know?"
"Same way you always do. Someone gossiped and you listened."
Lysander gave her a look of mock-outrage which Hermione met with raised brows. He gave in and smirked, then he glanced at the wall clock. "Sorry, dearheart. You'll have to wait for the briefing. If you want coffee first, anyway."
Hermione considered: coffee, or knowledge she did not yet have? It was a close run thing, and coffee might have won out had the two options not been potentially inclusive.
"Tell me while I get my coffee?" she coaxed.
"Oh, all right." Lysander grinned. He was obviously itching to tell her all about it. Leading her through to the kitchenette, he said over his shoulder, "So you know the big story that broke on Monday? Front page of the Prophet?"
"Blaise Zabini's mum and the Muggle millionaire Philip Richmond," Hermione supplied. "Yes, I heard. You know, I always thought he was gay. Richmond, I mean. In his fifties, never married? Great suits and impeccable grooming?"
"Watch your stereotypes," said Lysander with a feigned glare. "Some of us pride ourselves on our appalling dress sense."
"Oh, you don't have to tell me," she fired back. "Orange and turquoise?"
"What's wrong with it?" Lysander said, tugging at his waistcoat.
"Nothing. I like it when my eyes bleed." They shared a grin. "We're getting sidetracked."
"We are. Point is, this thing with Philip Richmond and Jossinia Trelore has caused a problem."
"What did she do?"
"Oh, it wasn't her. Nothing to do with her or her Muggle paramour. But the reporter from the Prophet who snuck into the event last Saturday? He's landed himself in a whole heap of trouble."
"Go on," she encouraged, as she sniffed the coffee in the pot, found it fresh enough to drink and poured herself a mug.
"Okay, this reporter – he got talking with some of the other people at the event. Tried to impress the ladies with hints that he knew who the mystery woman with Richmond was."
Hermione rolled her eyes at Lysander. Blokes could be so dick-led.
"Thing is," her friend went on, "one of said ladies turned out to be another undercover reporter. A Muggle one. And since she, too, was desperate for the scoop of this mystery woman's identity, she followed the Prophet's scribbler when he left the venue."
"Ah. I see. And there we have our incident. This woman saw something awkward, did she? What did he do, Disapparate in front of her?"
"Um – no. Or not exactly. He claims – the reporter, that is, our one, Quentin Bittercup – he claims he knew he was being followed. So he walked around to the back of the place where this ball was being held – some posh hotel near Charing Cross – and made sure he tucked himself out of sight before he Apparated."
"Okay." Hermione frowned. "So what's the problem?"
"The problem is that his story doesn't match up with what this Muggle reporter is claiming to have seen."
"Hard to tell – her story's a bit hysterical. But about twenty minutes after the Prophet's man claims to have Apparated away, this woman stumbles in to the reception of the hotel, seriously shaken up. Hairdo all mussed, clothes scuffed and dirty. Claims she's been assaulted."
"So the hotel's duty manager, he calls the Muggle police. The woman gets interviewed. She says she was following someone away from the event, then everything goes hazy. Says she loses a few minutes. Next thing she knows there's a man nearby in a hood and a cloak who does something that involves what she's calling a 'silvery light'. She says she made a noise. You know, in surprise. Which made the hooded man notice her. And according to this woman, he pointed a 'stick' at her."
"Okay, this is sounding more like a spell than a drunken hallucination," Hermione acknowledged.
"Right. She says she collapsed after that. She reckoned he must have hit her with his stick – she was on the ground, see. Lost another few seconds, then she says she saw him toss his hood back and drink something. And it made him change appearance. One minute he's dark-haired, next minute he's blond."
"Would be the obvious explanation. Then this wizard – I think we can call him a wizard – takes off his cloak to reveal that he's wearing a white-tie tuxedo. The reporter says she must have made another noise, because the man waves his wand – I mean, his 'stick' – at her again. The next thing she knows, she's come to and found herself alone in the back lane, head pounding, scared half to death. So she gets to her feet and stumbles round to the hotel entrance. And that's her whole statement, pretty much."
Hermione frowned. "If this wizard attempted an Obliviate that didn't quite work, that would explain the trauma. I believe it can feel as though you've been thumped in the head."
"Which is, of course, why we have a trained department of specialists for memory work." Lysander didn't seem to notice Hermione's self-conscious shuffling. "Now this whole incident would be easy to contain if it weren't for the location. One woman's testimony can be undermined quite readily. But at an upmarket hotel in central London? There are security cameras."
Hermione nodded. "Of course there are. I take it none of them were situated close enough to the action to conveniently blow up when this wizard started casting?"
"Right. Why would the fates make anything that easy for us?"
"Why indeed? Fortunately, the cameras were therefore far enough away for some of the footage to be less than clear, too. But they did record the whole thing. Which is why the woman's story was believed. And investigated. And now the police are trying to get their heads around the fact that on the security footage the hotel has provided someone in a cloak makes silvery trails come out of his pointy stick, then appears to turn into someone else."
Hermione sipped at her coffee. "Okay, so that's the incident. Magic witnessed not just by a lone female journalist but by a state-of-the-art hotel security system."
"And everyone who's seen the footage. Which, between the hotel staff and the police officers, is now more than a dozen people. We're going to have to move fast on this one. Mr Arnold said that he's favouring your idea from two weeks ago – the hypnotism thing?"
"Maybe," Hermione said, as her thoughts turned over. "Not sure. Mass hypnosis is plausible in certain circumstances, but you need every witness to have been in the same place at the same time so they could be primed to behave in the same way." She frowned. "Which hotel was it?"
"Um – Savoy?"
"Near the Strand. Okay." A glimmer of an idea began to emerge. "Ah! Close to theatre-land, of course."
Hermione chewed at her lip, just for a couple of seconds before she noticed what she was doing and forced herself to stop. "How did Magical Law Enforcement find out?"
"The police report. Certain key-words get flagged up at the Ministry. You know – stuff like 'broom' or 'magic' or 'invisible' or 'wand' or whatever."
"But this isn't being reported by the Muggle media, is it? I mean, the event was at the weekend and we're already up to Wednesday. I haven't seen anything about an assault near the Savoy in the Guardian."
"In the whaty-what?"
"Muggle newspaper. Left-leaning broadsheet." At Lysander's blank look she added, "Never mind."
"Oh. So anyway, yes. I mean, the whole thing's being kept quiet in the Muggle press. The reporter – the Muggle one, I mean, the woman – shouldn't technically have been at the event, and the hotel apparently gets lots of rich, influential guests who like to keep things discreet."
"And you say this bloke from the Prophet claims he isn't responsible?"
"Adamant it wasn't him. Unfortunately for Mr Bittercup, the hotel's cameras caught him behind the hotel before he turned a corner and seemed to vanish. The Apparition didn't register on camera, but the Muggle police are very interested in identifying and interviewing the shifty-looking bloke who was skulking about minutes before an alleged assault."
"Plus, Bittercup's got no alibi after leaving the hotel on Saturday night. I've got a pal, Linus Mickle, works in MLE for the Improper Use brigade – that's, um, how I sort of got the gen up front on this thing. Anyway, Linus reckons the high-ups at Improper Use all think Bittercup's lying through his teeth. Isn't the first time he's come close to breaking the Secrecy Statute, apparently."
"So has he been arrested? Interrogated?" Hermione asked.
"Not yet. These days MLE need to formally charge him if they're going to submit him to Veritaserum. They're trying to move away from the whole fascist dictator thing the Ministry had going during the war. Bit more softly-softly."
"Hmm." Hermione nodded. "Okay. I don't think the hypnotism excuse will do the job here. The main evidence is on film, though, and stuff on film can be faked. Muggles are used to that idea. Plus – cloaks, and waving a wand around?" She arched a brow at Lysander meaningfully.
"Abracadabra? Um – please welcome on stage the lovely Debbie McGee?"
He looked at her blankly. "Don't get it," he said.
"Never mind. Just the kernel of an idea." She shook her head and sighed. "I will do much better when I've finished this coffee.
Lysander glanced at the clock on the wall. "Hurry up, then, dearheart. Meeting's in three minutes."
"Any other thoughts?" invited Balthazar Arnold, the Chair of the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee. His large forehead was shiny with perspiration; he looked frazzled after an hour and a half of listening to all the reasons why each and every proposed solution to 'the Savoy incident' was inherently problematic.
Lysander nudged Hermione. She shot him a warning look.
"We've agreed," Arnold said, "that we can't Obliviate all the witnesses. More than three days have gone by. That window has closed. And we've noted that the 'gas leak prompting mass hallucination' explanation is too far-reaching, given that several hundred hotel guests as well as the attendees at this charity ball failed to show any symptoms."
Beside Arnold, Jasmine Churlish, the deputy department head at Improper Use of Magic, shuffled in her chair. She was a sharp-faced woman with prematurely silvered hair, who carried herself with stiffly-set shoulders and an aura of authority. It seemed that she was getting annoyed by the lack of progress. Next to her was Quentin Bittercup from the Prophet, who had agreed to attend the meeting but remained resolute in his stance: he was not responsible for the actions witnessed by the Muggle woman. (There were very few people around the table, Hermione herself included, who weren't convinced he was lying his arse off to get out of trouble.)
Arnold sighed. "Miss Granger has pointed out, and Madam Churlish agrees, that the hypnotism idea would only serve for a group of witnesses who saw everything at the same time."
Lysander nudged Hermione again.
"What?" she whispered.
"I know you've got something. Go on!"
"Sod off!" She shifted uncomfortably. "Look, I'm just a junior office worker. I'm not even on the committee."
"You've got something!"
"Mr Crocus?" Arnold put in, perhaps inevitably given the volume Lysander was now employing. "Do you have something to contribute?"
"No, sir," Lysander said. "I'm trying to persuade Miss Granger that her idea should be heard."
Hermione cringed as the dozen other people around the conference table all looked at her. Damn it. Just as she'd trained herself not to throw her hand in the air with every answer she could offer, this happened. There was irony at work here. Or sod's law. Or something.
"Um," she managed.
Arnold, to his credit, looked kind and encouraging, though his expression might have been tinged with desperation. The rest of the meeting's attendees weren't so forgiving. There were plenty of people present who thought Hermione had got this job only because of her connection to Harry and to Kingsley Shacklebolt. (Unfortunately, those people were probably right.)
"Miss Granger, this is an open forum," Mr Arnold said. "Whether through Mr Bittercup's actions or some as yet unidentified wizard, we've been hexed into quite a body-bind here. Time is a factor. Please – speak."
Hermione sighed, tried to order her thoughts, then she lifted her chin.
"The Savoy backs on to the Strand," she said. "Just across the road from the Burleigh Theatre. Which, if memory serves, is currently being used as the audition hall for contestants wanting to appear on the new series of Make Me a Star." She registered twelve blank looks. "It's...a Muggle television programme featuring people who want a career in the entertainment industry. It's basically a televised audition platform. So they do singing or dancing or whatever, and a panel of celebrity judges decides who is best."
"How does this help us?" Jasmine Churlish demanded.
"We pretend Mr Bittercup was a contestant," Hermione said.
"It wasn't me! I'm not even a part of this!" Quentin Bittercup exclaimed.
"Or whoever," Hermione went on. "It doesn't have to be, you know, whoever it actually was. We just need someone to turn themselves in and say they were there last Saturday. Preparing for an audition. Practising their act."
"There wasn't any singing or dancing," Arnold pointed out.
Hermione smiled grimly. "No. No, we tell people that what this..." She glanced at Bittercup and sighed. "This unidentified man was doing was...well, magic."
There was a fifteen second uproar, during which everyone seemed to talk at once. Several people laughed nastily. Mr Arnold looked disappointed. Even Lysander muttered, "Oh, Hermione."
Over the tumult, Mr Arnold said, "Miss Granger, I'm aware that you are very new to this job, but I had hoped you'd grasped the central principle behind our committee's role." His voice was necessarily growing louder as the tumult failed to abate. "Our job is to divert Muggle attention away from magic, not to–"
In fact it was Jasmine Churlish who snapped everyone out of it with a "Quiet!" Even Mr Arnold shut up and looked startled. Once peace was restored, she narrowed her eyes at Hermione and said, "Explain."
Hermione gathered her courage. "It's like this. There's one thing guaranteed to make Muggles fail to believe in magic, and that is claiming that something is magic. The minute you say that's what it is, they're looking for the sleight of hand, the hidden wires, the big illusion."
She paused. Churlish considered this, then nodded for her to continue. The tuts and huffs around the table were quietening.
"So – given the location," Hermione added, "we've got an excuse for a stage magician to be practising his act nearby. It's a quiet, out of the way spot in a part of London that never really stops being busy. Five minutes away from a theatre which had rolling auditions for this TV show. You could probably spin it, with a bit of fast talking. All we have to provide is the stage magician himself. I think it's a matter of organising three things."
"Those being?" Mr Arnold invited.
"First we need to destroy the security footage, both from the hotel's system and from police evidence. We don't want anyone looking too closely at the actual events of Saturday evening. Once the footage is no longer available, everyone who ever saw it will start questioning themselves. Believing the explanations. Laughing at their own gullibility. The memory cheats, after all."
"Very well. Priority number one is eradicating the evidence. Easily done. I'm guessing Madam Churlish can organise that?"
"Of course," Churlish agreed curtly.
"Good." Hermione was in her stride now. "Secondly, we need to set up our so-called magician. He will claim that he found a quiet spot where he could warm up for his audition. He'll say he was in the middle of this when a woman challenged him. He tried to explain, but she collapsed. He assumed she'd had too much to drink, since she was wearing an evening dress and had the whiff of champagne about her. He wondered about calling an ambulance, only the woman started snoring away quite happily so he thought he'd just let her sleep it off. He continued practising his act. The woman was still sleeping soundly by the time he had to get across to his audition, so he left her there. Only he was worried about her, so after his audition he went back to check on her. She was no longer in the alley behind the hotel. At this point he saw all the police cars and uniforms, and he learned that a woman was claiming an assault had taken place. He panicked and left. Then he began to feel guilty, and thought things through, and decided he had to come forward. So he could provide what information he had."
"All well and good, but you can find someone else to be your stooge. I'm not going to pander to a bunch of Muggles!" Quentin Bittercup stated.
Churlish was narrowing her eyes as she looked at Hermione. "Actually, Mr Bittercup, I think you're right. I'm quite certain you do not qualify for this role. We're going to need someone with charisma and skill, aren't we?"
While Bittercup shuffled and mumbled his indignation, Hermione nodded her agreement. "We'll also need memory-charm experts to nip over to the Burleigh Theatre and deal with the people running the auditions – just to plant the false memory of a stage magician auditioning for the show on Saturday evening."
"Yes. Good point," Mr Arnold said, and gestured at his personal assistant to make specific note in the meeting minutes.
"Whoever we choose to do this," Hermione went on, "he'll be asked how he did the things on the footage. He will say he can't reveal his stage secrets. We can set up a charm that does the silvery thing so he can 'prove' that it was him. When the police look gobsmacked and say 'How did you do that?' our magician says 'Magic.'"
"And, er, that's what convinces them it wasn't magic? Just to be clear?" Mr Arnold put in.
"Exactly. And when the police get stroppy about the answer, which they clearly don't believe, the magician says that if he reveals his secrets he'll be chucked out of the Magic Circle.
"The what?" Arnold said.
"It's a Muggle thing."
"And if they insist?" Madam Churlish asked.
"I'd suggest our magician claims it's done with a combination of liquid nitrogen and a laser pointer. I mean, it's lazy chemistry, but the ideas will be familiar enough to be plausible to the police."
"And what is the third element of this subterfuge?" Churlish pressed.
"Well, I'm guessing Magical Law Enforcement need to know who actually caused this Muggle journalist such harm." She shot Quentin Bittercup a dubious look, then sighed at his defiantly lifted chin. "Which means that we need more than the grainy footage of a security camera – we need the woman's memories. One of the ranking officers in Obliviator HQ can take care of this, I believe?"
"I'll be organising a visit to this Muggle anyway, to fit her memories to the cover-story," Churlish agreed.
Everyone thought this over. Hermione found herself blushing and dropping her head.
"Right then," Mr Arnold said. "We need a wizard who can pretend to be a Muggle stage magician. That means someone who has at least partial Muggle background, an ability to think fast on their feet, a competence with charms, and a tendency towards theatricality." He looked around at the table. "Any thoughts?"
Hermione had a thought. Not a helpful one, though. Severus Snape fit the bill in every way except the one that mattered: he wouldn't do it in a month of Sundays.
That afternoon her two-hour Charms lesson was uneventful, save for the fact that Professor Flitwick once again tried to insist that Hermione was ready to sit her NEWT. Given that she'd already achieved what she considered to be two rather fortunate 'Outstandings' for Arithmancy and Ancient Runes, a third early try had to be pushing her luck too far. Such was Hermione's view, and none of the arguments made by Professor Flitwick – nor indeed by Headmistress McGonagall, who was making the same case for Transfiguration – could persuade her otherwise.
At three thirty Hermione Floo'ed over to St Mungo's for her Potions tutorial. These Wednesday lessons were a little odd, in that they involved a Severus Snape who would actually answer questions. The tutorials generally proceeded thus: someone would mention an issue that had arisen in the most recent brewing lessons. Snape would offer some insight or advice, and a discussion might ensue. If the discussion was of interest then you were welcome to take part. If not, then Snape was unconcerned; he was tolerant of his students using the time to read or research or write their coursework. Or indeed to absent themselves from the tutorial entirely.
Today, Draco wanted to talk about the methods of preparing ginger root. He'd had difficulty maintaining a uniform slice when dealing with something so fibrous, and was interested in how different modes of preparation could affect the efficacy of the Aqua Sedatis potion; he'd read an article in Brewmaster Monthly on a similar subject. Hermione followed along for a while, but she'd read the article herself and then researched the article's references – something Draco had not done – so when Snape began to expound on these writings, Hermione acknowledged that listening to Snape's voice for the sake of its sonorousness would be an indulgence. She began to work on her current essay, keeping half an ear on the discussion.
Around halfway through the tutorial, at a point where Terry Boot had changed the topic to stirring patterns, a brisk rap at the laboratory door made everybody fall silent and spin around. The incident was noteworthy. Hitherto, no one at the hospital had dared interrupt a Snape-class.
"Enter," Snape ordered, managing to make the word about as grudging as it could possibly sound.
The door opened to reveal a young man in Mediwizard robes. He looked at Snape, quailed at the raised eyebrow directed his way, coughed, then, alarmingly, made straight for Hermione.
"Apologies for the interruption, Professor," the Mediwizard said. "Urgent communiqué for Miss Granger from the Ministry."
Hermione frowned. The Mediwizard offered a tiny rolled-up scroll that had clearly arrived by owl.
In a scornful drawl Blaise Zabini said, "Don't tell me. A nest of Glumbumbles has appeared in the level one records vault and only Saint Hermione can save the day."
Silence. Zabini looked around at his fellow ex-Slytherins, annoyed.
Draco said, "Dear Hermione. I'm writing to you from my shitty job at Excuses, so you get this note this afternoon and feel important in front of the class. Hope things are well. Love Hermione."
Bulstrode cackled. Even Nott smirked. Zabini looked even more annoyed.
Hermione turned her back on them, busy unwrapping the letter. Once unscrolled, the parchment expanded thanks to its own integral charm. She scanned the words:
Please attend the offices of the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee once your afternoon's classes are concluded.
She folded up the parchment and tucked it away, then nodded her thanks to the Mediwizard.
"Is there a reply?" he asked. "Only the covering note said 'urgent'."
"No, thank you," Hermione replied. She was beginning to feel embarrassed as the eyes of the entire class were upon her. "I appreciate your time." The Mediwizard nodded and turned to leave.
Draco said, "Aw, aren't you going to give him an owl-treat, Granger?" The poor Mediwizard's ears went red as he hurried for the door.
Riled into a response, Hermione said, "Insult the man if you want, Draco, but next time you burn yourself on a cauldron that might be the medical professional seeing to your injury."
Draco drew breath to fire back, then thought better. The door closed quietly behind the Mediwizard.
Snape said, "Is your vaunted presence required elsewhere, Miss Granger?"
"Not at the moment, Professor," she replied as neutrally as she could.
"Then perhaps we can continue without further disruption. Mr Boot was asking about the figure-of-eight stirring pattern." He shot her an annoyed glare and then turned back, with a swish of his coat, to the other side of the laboratory.
She gritted her teeth. It wasn't her fault Mr Arnold had sent her a note! She wondered what this evening's meeting was going to be about.
The tutorial settled again. The discussion became interesting and Hermione set her essay notes aside in order to participate.
And then there came another rap at the door.
This time everybody stopped, glanced at the door, then turned to look accusingly at Hermione. Severus Snape, as it turned out, was perfectly capable of expressing the phrase, 'What the fuck?' through the medium of a glare.
The door opened without invitation. It was Healer Montague. Hermione's heart sank; she'd been hoping very much that this second intrusion would have nothing to do with her.
"Might I borrow Miss Granger for a moment?" Gloria Montague asked Snape.
"You'll have to ask her yourself," he grumbled in return. "She appears to be in high demand today."
Hermione stood up. She almost asked permission to be excused; such was the protocol for leaving a lesson at Hogwarts. Instead she offered a simple, "Excuse me a moment, Professor." She walked to the doorway and stepped through with Gloria.
"Am I sensing some tension?" the Healer asked, when the door was closed and they enjoyed some privacy.
"Oh, it's just...it's nothing. I got a note from my boss at the Ministry half an hour ago. Now you've dropped by. My classmates probably think I'm trying to make myself look important, and the Professor is cross that his tutorial has now been interrupted twice."
"Ah. Sorry. I'll make it quick." Gloria glanced around at the corridor and then said, in a lower tone of voice, "Joseph and I had lunch today. We always do on a Wednesday. He admitted that there's been a further theft. Monday evening, he thinks it was – you remember he decided to stay late and keep an eye out?"
"He didn't see anything untoward while he was there," Gloria explained. "But he did the rounds of all the habitats he could, to make sure nothing else had happened that he'd overlooked. Several ashgrass patches were due for harvest this week, he told me. Only when he looked at them on Monday evening, four of them had already been stripped of seed-heads."
"He's sure it happened on Monday evening?"
"He'd examined the plants that very afternoon and they were intact."
"Did he ask his colleagues about it?"
"He did. Casually. As in, 'Thanks for taking care of those plants, but I had it on my to-do list.' No one has claimed responsibility."
"So he's thinking – another theft."
"What else can he think, given the context?"
Hermione sighed. Once again, an apparent theft on the long-term storage level had happened on the same day as a Potions class at the hospital. "Wand activity on the level?"
"Does not, alas, rule out anyone we have already ruled-in."
She grimaced. "Damn it."
"Indeed." Gloria sighed. "Just wanted to let you know, anyway. In case knowing the extra ingredient helps pin down the elusive recipe. If there's a recipe."
"I have a few lines of enquiry underway," Hermione said. Mr Everswain's treatise, procured from the Knockturn bookshop, had proved interesting, as much for the penned notes in its margins as the text itself. She intended to visit the Hogwarts library on Saturday morning, when most of the students would be in Hogsmeade. "I'll pop round at the weekend, if you like – we can have a review."
"Make it Saturday evening, if you're free. William will be out at his pub-quiz, so the house will be quiet. Will you have some supper with me?"
"I'd be delighted."
The Healer smiled, patted Hermione on the arm, then rapped briskly at the door again and stuck her head inside. "Apologies for the intrusion, Professor," she called. "I think you'll agree that your student's medical care is of importance, though." With that blatant lie, Healer Montague ushered Hermione back into the class and then closed the door.
Hermione returned to her seat. Zabini said, "Have they finally discovered a healing charm powerful enough to shrink your inflated ego, Granger?" and looked around, expecting smirks. He was not happy with the way everyone, Hermione included, ignored him.
Michael said quietly, as she passed his desk, "You okay, Hermione?"
"Fine," she assured him, hating the heat in her cheeks. "Old injury. Just a change of appointment."
She sat back down and looked over at Snape, expecting another glare. None was forthcoming. For a moment, as he studied her without expression, she wondered whether she was witnessing Severus Snape offering some concern.
Hermione willed the tutorial to start up again around her, which – thankfully – it did. It struck her that in the last week her life had become extremely busy and not a little bit complicated.
"May I present Dane Booth," said Balthazar Arnold, gesturing to the wizard who stood at his side. He was maybe thirty, with dark wavy hair and pale blue eyes, dressed in a Muggle-style business suit made interesting with a rather nice claret-coloured shirt.
"Hello there," Hermione said.
"Dane grew up as Muggle as they come," Arnold went on. "Unfortunately he did so in New Zealand–"
"Hey!" complained Booth.
"Now, now, I mean no disrespect to your fair homeland," Arnold swiftly put in. "I merely mean that the magical education system is rather lacking in the antipodes. Besides the school in Australia. Um – Parrathingie."
"Parramatta," Hermione said, remembering an aborted interview at that school on what had turned out to be one of the worst days she'd had in her life. She turned to Booth. "You weren't schooled magically?"
"Not till I was fourteen. That was when my parents stopped pretending there was nothing weird going on with me. Fortunately my Great Aunt on my mother's side also has magic. She got wind of what was happening, flew us over here on the pretext of her seventieth birthday celebrations. Took me aside, figured me out in three seconds flat and then set me up with some private tutors. Two years later I was up-to-speed enough to finish my education at Beauxbatons."
"Hogwarts only takes registered witches and wizards, as they appear in that big book of theirs. Wouldn't recognise me. Auntie knew Madame Maxime, though, so I had an 'in' there."
"The reason," Mr Arnold said pointedly, breaking in to the conversation, "why I have asked Dane here this evening is because, as a teenager, he developed something of a stage magician's act."
Hermione raised a brow at Booth. "As a teenager? Very enterprising."
Booth grinned. "It's easy to look impressive as a stage conjurer when you can cast actual spells."
"Where did you perform?"
"Cardiff, mainly, where my Aunt lives. Pubs and clubs. I was, what, fifteen? So I used a glamour to up my age a few years. Soon got some regular gigs. Remember the Great Soprendo?"
"I...was the 'Great Dane'."
"Of course you were," she said with a chuckle.
"Hey, don't knock it. Earned a nice amount of pocket money. Kept me in eyeliner, hair-spray and frilly shirts."
"Ah. The eighties?"
"What gave it away?"
Hermione smiled at Dane Booth, whose easy amiability was like a breath of fresh air after a fraught few days.
Mr Arnold said, "Such youthful indiscretions are now well behind Dane, of course–"
"Indiscretions?" Hermione put in.
"Ah, yeah," Dane said. "I got found out. Ministry wasn't impressed." He gave a shrug. "Went a bit too far with a disappear-the-audience-member trick, one night. Couldn't reverse the Disillusionment in good time. Improper Use called in Excuses, and big BA here went to bat for me." Dane clapped Mr Arnold on the arm. "Got me off the hook. Owe him bigtime."
"We all do foolish things when we are young," Arnold said with a rueful smile. "The point is, given Dane's history we seem to have ourselves a candidate with the relevant skills."
Hermione nodded. "You've been advised of what we need?" she asked Booth.
"Yep. Good call. We can pull this off."
"Excellent, excellent," said Arnold. "Now the reason I wanted you involved, Miss Granger, is because you have more of an insight into the workings of Muggle culture than most of us on the committee, and Dane here will need someone to help him work up his, er, 'act'. I thought you might be willing to be Dane's liaison."
And wasn't that just perfect? Hermione swallowed a weary sigh. She had four (maybe five) NEWTs on the go, an entire research project involving dark texts and the theft of potions ingredients, and a part-time job. The last thing she needed was a load of overtime spent coaching a fake conjurer. She was, on the other hand, very new at a job many thought she did not deserve. And the fake-conjurer idea had been hers in the first place. It seemed rude to hand-wave it all off on to someone else.
"The first thing we'll need is a copy of the footage from the hotel security cameras," she said. "We need to match Dane's appearance and his act to the things this reporter witnessed. Ideally, if we had access to our witness's actual memories as well, we'd get an even clearer picture."
"Just so, just so," Arnold agreed. "Madam Churlish is on her way back here with both those items. I've requisitioned the portable Pensieve from MLE – it's all set up in my office." He untucked a large silver pocket watch from his waistcoat and studied the face. "She should be here any moment."
Hermione looked at Booth. "We're going to need to get you an outfit. With a cloak and hood that match the man at the hotel."
"I'm a wizard," Booth said. "Cloaks are standard outer-wear. You think this silvery-light thing might have been a Patronus?"
"Possibly," Hermione replied. "Hope so, given the whole pure-of-heart thing a Patronus demands – at least we'd be sure we aren't dealing with a stray Death Eater. Actually I was wondering whether we could get a clearer look at the charm on the footage. If it is a Patronus then the shape of it could give us a clue as to the caster."
"Right. Well, we're going to need a different charm for me, I'm afraid. Never mastered the Patronus. And not 'cause I'm a Death Eater, by the way. Just not very accomplished with the wand-wiggling. Late-starter, you see."
"We'll figure something out," Hermione assured him.
At that moment the door to the offices was flung open. Jasmine Churlish strode in, followed by a stern-of-face Kingsley Shacklebolt.
"Acting Minister," Arnold said. "This is a surp..." He gave up on stating the obvious and moved on to more salient questions. "Has something happened?"
Churlish glanced tiredly at Shacklebolt, then handed off a CD-ROM to Hermione. "All the footage is on this, er, item," she said. "I take it you have the means to activate it?" Hermione nodded assent. "Against my better judgement, it has been decided that we need an informed Muggle-born viewpoint, and we need it quickly. The Minister..." Churlish and Shacklebolt glanced at each other. She looked annoyed; he looked determined. "The Minister tells me you're intelligent and trustworthy."
Hermione said, "Oh. Um, well, I'll certainly do what I can."
Shacklebolt paused only long enough to give her a supportive smile, though it was gone as soon as it arrived. Then he said, "Matters have escalated. Madam Churlish and a member of our Obliviator squad were dispatched to a flat in Lewisham this evening to deal with the Muggle woman who claimed to have been assaulted. Her memories were to be altered in line with the plan – the one I believe you were instrumental in conceiving, Miss Granger."
"I'm just part of a team," Hermione mumbled.
"Of course. Unfortunately, the plan has now changed." Shacklebolt pinched at the bridge of his nose. "The woman was already dead at her property when Madam Churlish got there. The Aurors were called in. The body was inspected. Large quantities of alcohol and traces of baneberry."
"Oh, lord, she was poisoned?" Hermione said.
"Looks like. The Auror's time-stamped Specialis Revelio informed us that an Imperius curse had been cast there in the last twenty-four hours."
Hermione nodded. An Imperius would explain how the murderer got the poor woman to drink something as unpleasant as baneberry poison, even if she was three sheets to the wind beforehand. "She'll have died of heart failure. The baneberry extract will break down in her stomach to look no more suspicious to a Muggle pathologist than cranberry juice."
"That's something, I suppose," said Arnold, perhaps focused on the Muggle-worthy excuse viewpoint.
"Not helpful to the victim, though," Hermione said, as gently as she could.
"Nothing could be done to help her," Churlish said. "She'd been dead for at least twelve hours. But Mr Arnold is right – this will look like an accidental death to the Muggles. A misadventure with too much vodka."
"It does not look like that to us, though. We've opened a murder investigation," Shacklebolt said.
Churlish frowned and looked down at the floor. Hermione suspected that this was the difference of opinion that she and Shacklebolt were having.
Arnold blinked his surprise. "A murder enquiry? For a Muggle?"
"Indeed. Murder is murder," Shacklebolt said. "I'm surprised I need to argue that point with you, Balthazar."
"Oh, you don't, of course you don't," Arnold said. "It's just...well, I can't remember it happening before."
"It hasn't," Churlish offered. Rather pointedly. "But my under-staffed and under-resourced team is, of course, delighted to expand our jurisdiction to include sixty million more people."
"Jasmine," Shacklebolt said gently. He met her challenging look. "You will be supplied with replacement officers as soon as they are trained. Would you prefer to keep the ones who disgraced themselves during the war?"
Churlish sighed, and conceded. "Of course not." She gave the Minister a resigned nod. "We'll manage."
"Surely there's always been some overlap between the magical and the Muggle, when it comes to criminal investigations," Hermione said. "Harry got pulled in front of the Wizengamot for hexing his horrid auntie."
"That was because some people wanted to harm Harry, not because they wanted to protect Muggles," Shacklebolt said. "Jasmine is right. The Ministry has never been very good at acknowledging the damage that spills out into the Muggle world. It isn't set up to deal with such things. I know it is asking a lot, but I think it's time that changed. Does anyone here disagree?" He looked around at the gathered group. Nobody said anything. "Good. Madam Churlish will be the lead officer in this investigation, though I wish to be kept informed of progress. It isn't so long ago that Death Eaters were murdering Muggles for sport. I'm concerned there is a link."
"Another dark wizard?" Hermione asked in a small voice.
"Any wizard capable of casting an Unforgivable and murdering a Muggle is, by their nature, dark," Churlish argued.
"Not everyone agrees with you on that," Hermione replied. She tried to ignore the churning sense of dread prompted by the idea that she had not, in fact, seen the last of the Death Eaters. "Actually, large sections of the magical population view Muggles as a lesser species."
"Change takes time," Shacklebolt said. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to achieve it. Meantime – a murder investigation means confidentiality. All who know of the incident at the Savoy must be advised of this." He glanced at Churlish and she nodded abrupt approval. "This includes your people, Balthazar. I do not need this to turn into a debate on whether crimes against Muggles are worth investigating. Discretion, please, for the time being."
Balthazar Arnold nodded. "Of course. And my department will assist however we can."
Churlish said, "Unfortunately we no longer have access to the best source of evidence – the witness's memories."
"Might that have been the point of the murder?" Hermione suggested.
"I'd say so," Shacklebolt agreed. "Working theory is that whoever cast those spells at the hotel found out about the police report. He decided to tie up what he thought was the only loose end."
"It makes sense," Churlish said. "If we hadn't already brought the Savoy business to the Muggle-Worthy Excuse office then this murder might have escaped our notice."
"Quite so. But this is no longer an issue of some wizard failing to maintain the Secrecy Statute. We're hunting a magical killer." Shacklebolt drew himself up. "I want him found, I want him brought to justice, and I want the press reporting the outcome with a sense of outrage that, so soon after the war, a wizard could commit such a despicable crime. Even against a 'mere' Muggle."
Kingsley Shacklebolt might have been the acting Minister for Magic, but he'd developed quite the statesmanlike demeanour since his promotion.
"Speaking of the press – Quentin Bittercup?" Hermione prompted.
"Is in custody," Madam Churlish provided. "Pending a warrant for Veritaserum. I shall be conducting his interrogation myself." She shot a more amused look at Shacklebolt. "With, of course, two other officers present to ensure a fair and unbiased procedure."
Shacklebolt offered a nod and a tight smile.
"Um." Dane Booth still stood to one side and looked less than confident. "Don't want to intrude on all this high-powered important stuff, but – you guys still need me to do my Great Soprendo tribute act?"
At home that evening, Harry caught up with her when she was halfway up the stairs.
"You're late. Thought I'd have to head out without you," he said with a hint of rebuke.
"It's Wednesday," he informed her, as if she was being a bit slow.
"Oh!" she realised. "Curry night. God, are we that far through the week already?"
"Yup. I'm meeting Ron at seven, so you can either come straight out with me or we'll meet you there. Order you a lassi?"
Hermione thought about the prospect of a lengthy evening with her two best friends as they all shared a curry: something that had become their weekly Wednesday ritual. Harry was bound to ask her about the two nights of research she'd been doing, especially since she'd dodged all his questions. And with Ron there too, ready to grab on to a mystery: the two of them would gang up and bully it out of her in no time at all. She couldn't risk it.
So it was just as well she had a really good excuse. "Actually, I'll have to give it a miss tonight," she said. "Got something on. Need to head over to Banstead."
She turned and ran up the rest of the stairs.
"But it's curry night," Harry said behind her, disappointment in every syllable.
She held up a hand to wave, but she didn't look back. "Have fun! Don't eat too much!"
The front door slammed as he left. Hermione tried not to take it too personally. There was only so much of herself that she could spread around, after all.