Everyone was supposed to be good at something.
For a long time, Pansy hadn’t known what her something was. She knew she was meant to have some skill, some distinguishing feature that set her apart from the crowd. When she was growing up she thought it was that she could fight tougher than all her friends. She could throw better punches and leave bigger bruises than the biggest boys she knew—but soon, they got bigger, and she stayed short, and suddenly her grazed knuckles didn’t mean as much.
When she was at Hogwarts, she thought that she might’ve been a born leader. There was no doubt that her roommates flocked to her as the boldest personality, the loudest talker. She started dating Draco Malfoy, the irrefutable leader of the boys. No-one dated a leader except another leader. And she was Head Girl, which confirmed it, but Hogwarts wasn’t forever. In the wake of the war, the Parkinsons were exposed as Death Eaters for the world to see, publicly shamed and cast out of magical society. There was no redemption for the likes of them, no glory. Pansy tried for jobs at the Ministry, and although they never said so explicitly, she always came second to someone with a more glowing background, a Gryffindor or a Ravenclaw or, Merlin forbid, a fucking Hufflepuff—and it got tiring, so, so tiring. She wanted to be a leader, but she couldn’t even get a job as a paper pusher.
Pansy took on dodgy jobs with dodgy dealerships, working her way through society’s sewage, directing trade between people with even fewer scruples than her. She languished in these jobs, longed for something bigger, but nothing bigger ever came. So she branched out, roped in her friends to help her—Daphne, Millicent, Tracey, all with their own dodgy jobs and dodgy dealings—and fashioned herself into a leader again. But that wasn’t it. This wasn’t like when they were teenagers; the four of them each had their own strengths. You couldn’t lead a square from the corner. They had to work on equal footing.
What, then, was Pansy’s something? It was the meaning she’d been fighting for her whole life, the question she asked herself every time she put on her gloves for a job so her nail polish stayed pristine, and so she’d never have grazed knuckles again. Everything she’d done, she’d done because she wanted to be the best, but the best had eluded her, leading her on a wild goose chase that did nothing for her status.
It made her stronger, though. At the end of all of it, that was what she had to conclude. She was tough, she was bold. She wouldn’t play by anyone else’s rules. Pansy Parkinson was good at doing the wrong thing. She was bad.
Which, in hindsight, was what had gotten her into this situation in the first place.
“A little further,” Daphne said into Pansy’s earpiece, a nifty find from a Muggle hardware store. “A few more—”
Beneath her fingers, Pansy felt a satisfying clicking noise as the final bolt in the safe slid unlocked. She kept her hands where they were, holding the door closed, just in case there were any traps they’d missed. But they had been thorough; years of experience had versed Pansy in the sorts of spells that wizards used to protect their treasures.
“That’s it,” Pansy said. “This had better be worth it.”
“I got this from a reliable source,” Daphne said. Pansy could practically hear her folding her arms. “You can trust me if you want.”
“Merlin, I trust you,” Pansy grumbled, “but I don’t trust any vault that gives up its secrets so easily.”
It had been easy—there were no surveillance spells on the mansion, nothing to trigger any alarms. The way to the vault had been clear and no-one stirred when they passed the doors with light coming from beneath them. There might as well have been cats’ eyes marking the corridors to the vault.
“Who cares?” Tracey elbowed past Pansy, knocking her hands off the safe door in the process. “Let’s check it out.”
Sighing, Pansy stepped aside and let Tracey do the honours. She was impatient, and sometimes you just needed to let her go ahead with whatever it was she was trying to do. It usually worked out for the best.
“Well there’s nothing in here,” Tracey said. “Just a fucking rock.”
Pansy pushed Tracey out of the way. “Let me have a look.”
She wasn’t lying. There, in the middle of the safe, was a fucking rock.
“Ugh,” Millicent said. She effortlessly made the space between them her own and reached into the safe, picking up the rock. “Let me see this.”
“You gonna tell us what kind of rock it is?” Tracey teased.
“Yeah, idiot,” Millicent said.
Pansy was always a little impressed by how much Millicent knew about the most obscure things. There was no doubt that she was their muscle—the only one who could break down a door with a well-placed shoulder—but she also had the kind of brain that could make her a living from pub quizzes alone.
Millicent squinted at the rock. It was almost round, and no bigger than a quaffle. “Well. It’s a rock.” She tapped her wand against it. “Probably volcanic.”
“This was a waste of our fucking time,” Pansy said. “Let’s put it back and get out of here.”
“You will do nothing of the sort,” Daphne said, her voice going shrill as it shook Pansy’s earpiece. “Take the rock.”
“It’s just a—”
“Take the fucking rock, Parkinson!” Daphne paused, breathing in. “Pansy. I wouldn’t have passed on this tip-off if I thought there was nothing of value in it. Just take the damn thing.”
“Alright,” Pansy said, “keep your bra on. I’ve got it.”
She opened her shoulder bag, no bigger than a reticule but blessed with an extending charm that could fit all the water in the Great Lake, and let Millicent slide the rock into it. Snapping it shut, Pansy gave the vault one last accusing glare.
“Don’t worry about it,” Daphne said. “We’ll check it out when you get back.”
“Okay, girls,” Pansy said, “let’s go.”
They left the way they’d come in—still, there were no obstacles. Pansy was getting impatient with this job, eager for it to be over. There was something that didn’t feel right. Not just the mansion. The rock, Daphne’s contact. It was all off.
“Don’t worry about it,” Tracey said, slapping her on the back. “We’ve done our part. Now it’s someone else’s problem.”
Sometimes, Zacharias felt like he had the best job in the world. He’d spent years cultivating his reputation to something untouchable, the heartless bastard behind the least-scandalous administration since Wilhelmina Tuft had been Minister, and hers was only so quiet because nothing had bloody happened. It was not for want of scandal—simply that Zacharias was exceedingly good at making sure the scandal never made it to the press. And he was competent, hard-working and ready for anything, but…
… other times, on days like today, he was quite convinced that in fact he had the most boring job in the world.
It was an off day for scandal. It was an off week. An off season. Nothing had happened since the Weasley clan had produced its latest infant. He supposed he ought to be grateful for that. There were no staffers running around throwing insinuations at each other. No-one plotting the Ministry’s downfall from the inside. Even his office was empty—the rest of the PR department were sluggishly slow to arrive that morning, and so it fell to Zacharias to man their office that morning.
He took advantage of the quiet, putting his feet up on his desk and leafing through the Daily Prophet, turning the pages noisily. There was no real news. Nothing was happening anywhere.
And he was just getting relaxed when the door swung open.
“Mr. Smith, I’m so sorry to barge in—”
“As you should be,” Zacharias said. He kept his cool, putting down the Prophet. “What’s the problem?”
It was only an intern. He was out of breath, supporting himself against the doorframe. “There’s been a robbery at Mulciber Mansion. I’ve got a message for you from Zeller—they’re publishing the story in the evening edition.”
Zacharias untangled his legs and kicked the Prophet, getting to his feet. “Well, we can’t have that, can we?”
“I,” the intern stammered, “I don’t know. Can’t we?”
“We absolutely can’t,” Zacharias said. “Did Zeller tell you anything else?”
The intern shook his head. “She just said it was important that someone at the Ministry knew, and since you liaise with the Prophet, I thought—”
Zacharias cut the intern off, swearing loudly to himself. This was a cock-up. This wasn’t a message meant for him—but unfortunately, he knew exactly why the message had been sent.
“Mr. Smith? Is there a problem?”
“No, no problem,” Zacharias said. He squared his shoulders. Maybe he could turn this around. “Tell Zeller her message is in safe hands. Let her know it’d be even safer if she held off until tomorrow—and that the story of her summer in Milan will be safe too.”
That was the best part of having a bad reputation: Zacharias was not above blackmail, but he was generally above reproach whenever he played that card.
“I’ll pass that on,” the intern said, looking confused.
He backed away and disappeared down the corridor. Zacharias watched him leave with a sinking feeling of dread. This was bad news. A slow week would’ve been better than this. Anything would’ve been better than this.
Pansy was livid. Really, she didn’t need to react so… reactively to everything. It could get tiring. But then, this was why Daphne worked behind the scenes on their jobs. This was why she was communication and not action. Because she was better at talking than working, and because she couldn’t be fucked putting up with Pansy’s hysterics sometimes.
Daphne did consider the three of them her best friends, but they regularly drove her up the wall. This was worse than normal.
“Listen,” she said, “I can’t disclose the name of my contact, because the fewer people who know, the better. And I can’t tell you what I was expecting to be in that safe, because my contact doesn’t know either.”
They were sitting one at each edge of a small square table, the rock they’d acquired the night before positioned between them. Leaning forward, Millicent picked it up for the thousandth time, turning it around in her hands. “It really is just a rock.”
“Yes, thank you, Milly,” Daphne said. “I think we know that.”
“But—” Millicent cut herself off, glowering at the rock. “I’m not happy with this.”
“None of us are,” Pansy said. She kicked at the leg of her chair. “Damnit, Greengrass. This is all your fault.”
Daphne rolled her eyes. If Pansy wanted to play it this way, then fine. “That’s quite alright,” she said. “Keep me in mind next time you’re looking for a job. Remember everything I’ve done for you.”
“I’ll try not to,” Pansy snapped.
The silence rapidly turned awkward. Millicent was still holding the rock. She looked like she wanted to smash it open. She probably could, with those powerful arms. Tracey was deteriorating into boredom—Daphne recognised the signs, the way she drummed her fingers in time to that one Muggle song she was always listening to on her CD player. Daphne didn’t know who it was by, but she knew it off by heart. Being so close to someone, you got to know them a little better than you really needed to.
“Well,” Tracey began, “if that’s all—”
It wasn’t all. The old bakelite phone by the window started ringing. Daphne wasn’t particularly a fan of Muggle technology beyond the strange radio with the earpieces that Pansy had forced her to use for jobs, but she had conceded that a phone was useful to have around. Some of her less ethical contacts preferred to conduct all their business by phone, because wizards, unlike Muggles, weren’t familiar with it, and hadn’t yet worked out a way to listen in. They’d never really needed to.
Daphne picked it up, twirling the cord around one of her fingers. “Jade speaking.”
She recognised the voice. It was the contact who’d primed her for the hit on Mulciber Mansion, a man who went only by “Menthe,” the French word for mint. In their business, everyone tended to come from the honourable house of Slytherin, and they chose their pseudonyms accordingly; traders from other houses colour-coded themselves too, and international traders working in Britain were expected to adopt a shade of purple in their own language. What Menthe’s name told Daphne was that he came from a French background but had attended Hogwarts—which, really, could’ve been any pureblood.
“I take it your agents’ job was successful?” Menthe asked.
Daphne frowned. “You could say that.”
Menthe seemed to miss her nuance entirely. “So what was in the safe?”
“I’m about to disappoint you,” she said. “Please don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“You’ve warned me,” Menthe said. “Get to the point, Jade!”
“It’s a rock,” Daphne said. She could hear Tracey snickering behind her, and Millicent tapping the rock against the table. “It’s a big brown lump of earth.”
There was a deadly silence on the other end. “A decoy, then,” Menthe said eventually.
“I don’t know,” Daphne said. “We have no way of telling whether the rock has any innate power—”
“Of course it doesn’t have any power, you idiot!” Menthe spat. “It’s a fucking rock! Your agents are worthless, and you—taken in by a decoy! I must admit to being unimpressed. I doubt I will be putting any faith in your team in the future.”
Your loss, Daphne thought.
“I’m sad to hear that,” she said evenly. “I gather, then, our sale is off.”
“You fucking imbecile!” Menthe said. “Of course it’s off! Merlin, I don’t know why I bother. Keep your fucking rock. I’m done. I’m done here.”
He hung up.
“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” Daphne said, then hung up.
The parlour was heavy with words left unspoken as Daphne turned back to her colleagues. Her friends. Pansy looked like a vein might burst in her forehead, so apoplectic with barely-repressed rage. Tracey was tapping her fingers even faster now. And Millicent—
Millicent smashed the rock down on the table, and it split neatly in half down an even equator. The two sides toppled benignly to the surface. One of them would have rolled onto the floor if Pansy hadn’t caught it and picked it up wonderingly.
It was hollow. The inner walls of the outer shell were lined with glimmering amethyst crystals in every shade from dark to almost translucent, packed densely enough to make a small fortune on any black market. Daphne stared, unable to take her eyes off it. Against the lacewood table and the chartreuse wallpaper, the celadon vases, the indoor ferns and the black and white diamond tiles, it looked messy, out of place. Daphne’s house was designed to be perfect in every aspect, and this rock, this geode, had the audacity to waltz in and turn everything upside down. And it was practically glowing with magic. Well, she wasn’t having it.
“We need to get rid of this,” she said. “I need to find a new buyer.”
Pansy’s eyes were wide with amazement. “I take it back, Daph. This is the best thing you’ve ever had us steal. We’ll be millionai—a new buyer?”
“You heard me on the phone,” Daphne said. “My contact isn’t interested anymore.”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Tracey said, thumbing her bottom lip. “Why didn’t your contact know what the item he wanted was? Why is it so heavily disguised as something so normal?”
“You’re being paranoid,” Pansy said. “Anyway, once we sell it, it’s not our problem.”
“That’s what I said to you when we stole it,” Tracey said, “and now we’re down a buyer and stuck with a fucking magical geode. I’m not convinced.”
Millicent held the two pieces close, and they fused back together. She tapped it on the table, and it split again. Fuse, split, fuse, split. “At least we can disguise it for now,” she said.
“Exactly,” Daphne said. “And you can all forget about it. Leave the deal to me.”
She wondered if she wouldn’t regret making that call.
In a few select offices at the Ministry of Magic, there was a copy of a list. The lists all appeared identical, written on scraps of old parchment, and they updated when someone added to the original. The original was kept in the Department of Mysteries. It was pinned to the notice board just above their lunchroom fridge, its casual location belying the gravity of what it itemised.
(You needed to get past sixteen layers of wards to even come close to the Department of Mysteries lunchroom, anyway.)
The first item on the list was the Philosopher’s Stone, crossed out. Beneath it were more powerful artefacts, with their locations noted in brackets where known. Some artefact didn’t have known locations. One item on the list, though, had only the location noted:
17. ??? (Mulciber Mansion)
One copy of the list was in the Minister’s office. One with the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, one with the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes. And one was in the drawer of a desk in the Department of Public Relations—because it was one thing having the wizards to clean up a mess, but how were you to find the needle if the haystack was lit up with firecrackers?
Only three people working there had seen the copy of the list in the Department of Public Relations: one was Adrian Fawley, the head of the department. One was Maureen Selwyn, who had been working there for longer than anyone else. The other was Zacharias Smith, who’d wandered half-drunk into the wrong office and opened the drawer, looking for a memo he was meant to be following up. Instead, he’d found a list of objects and locations, none of which made any sense to him. But he’d sobered up pretty quickly, trained to read and recognise and remember, and a few of the items on the list had stuck in his mind.
The next morning, he had apologised to Adrian for knocking over his wastepaper bin on the way out, and by the way, what was that list in his drawer?
“Padma, have you seen this?”
“I have,” she said, without having to ask what. She’d been into work early, and had seen the readings on the Magiometer—there was a trail of activity spikes in south-west London, somewhere on the District Line, which was about as precise as the damn thing got. So far, she had narrowed it down to a stop on a Richmond service. It was funny how these location spells worked sometimes.
Quinlan Tappet was responsible for the upkeep of the Magiometer, but he’d never let it follow him home. “What do you think it could be?”
“We don’t have anything tracking in that region,” Padma said. “None of the artefacts on the watchlist are around there either.”
“It’s probably just a rogue incident,” Quinlan said. “I’m sure the IUMO are onto it. Or it’s a Muggle kid coming into their power.”
Padma hummed, putting aside her work. They’d certainly seen this happen before. Padma had even found the logs from Harry Potter’s childhood, once, and all the spikes the old Magiometer had recorded in Surrey.
“It could be,” she said.
“But you don’t think it is.”
She didn’t. “This is the biggest reading we’ve had since 1998. Whatever did this—it’s not some ten-year-old with a lot of pent up power. This is like… a thousand angry ten-year-olds.”
Quinlan raised an eyebrow. “And our angry ten-year-olds are all under control?”
The Department of Mysteries had a list of possible problem Muggle children, as well as a list of dark arts practitioners who were still operating uncaptured. They kept tabs on every source of rogue magic in Great Britain and even Ireland, and their databases were nothing short of comprehensive.
So why could nothing explain this?
“I suppose we can check on the artefact watchlist,” Padma said.
She wasn’t happy about it. The watchlist wasn’t her domain—it usually fell to the most senior Unspeakable to maintain the most obscure part of the DoM, and that was Croaker, but Croaker was out with the flu. He’d been training Padma with all the watchlists and archives, since she was the youngest there, and least set in her ways. Now, she was beginning to regret agreeing to that.
It was a job that would take the whole morning. She was just breaking out the collection of thick folders associated with each item on the watchlist when the visitor alarm went off.
“You get it, Tappet,” Padma said.
He gave her an ironic salute and made for the door.
Once he was gone, Padma opened up the folder on the top of the pile: the Lestrange Sceptre. It was a relic from the sixteenth century, when Enguerrand Lestrange had declared himself King of Wales and had a crown and sceptre fashioned for him by the Cornish Goblin League. The crown had been a useless but expensive trinket, long since gone, melted into pieces that were now sitting in the Ashmolean Museum, replacing some Roman artefacts that had been lost in an unfortunate incident involving two very drunk wizards who had been reading Ancient History at Oxford in the 1930s. But the sceptre—Lestrange had imbued it with so much power that he could have subjugated the Welsh, if his cousin Clariandra hadn’t stolen it and locked it up in a vault deep in Gringotts. The goblins were only too keen to have it back.
Padma was distracted by a sentence on the ensuing conflict between the Cornish Goblin League and the estate of Enguerrand Lestrange that she missed the door to the research office she shared with Quinlan opening.
“You’ll have to ask Patil,” he was saying when she tuned in. “She’s much more an expert at these things than I am.”
“Expert at what?” Padma asked, not looking up from her folder.
“Archives,” Quinlan said. “Specifically, the watchlist. We’ve had an alert on—well, Smith will explain it to you.”
Padma jerked her head up so fast she could hear her neck cracking. As a rule, the DoM was off-limits to everyone except people from R&D, and maybe the DMLE if something had gone seriously wrong. It was certainly not the place you’d expect to find someone from PR.
That, and she’d gone through Hogwarts with Zacharias Smith. His bad reputation didn’t start with his career at the Ministry.
“Long time no see, Padma,” he said.
“Zacharias,” she said, strained. “What brings you here?”
He paused, pressing his fingertips together nervously. “How much do you know about the artefact stored at Mulciber Mansion?”
“Not much,” Padma said. “Nobody knows much about it.”
How do you know about it? she wanted to ask, but for now, she held her tongue.
“I was worried you might say that,” Zacharias said.
Padma frowned. “Why do you ask?”
“I had a message from someone at the Prophet this morning,” Zacharias said. “Actually, I don’t think it was meant for me, but I got it anyway—Mulciber Mansion was burgled late last night. Before you say anything, that’s all I know. I managed to get publication delayed until tomorrow. Basically, this is my business now, and I want to know how big an issue it is.”
There was no point sugarcoating it. “It’s big,” Padma said. “It’s really big.”
While Daphne spent the morning going through her phonebook, Pansy was at a loose end. There was nothing to do in Kew. She was sure the gardens were very pretty, but they were so pedestrian. Growing up, her family home had boasted a garden to rival whatever the Muggles were doing these days. But Daphne loved it—inexplicably, she loved this weird little suburb, and she chose to live here instead of the Greengrass Estate.
Worse than that—Daphne had put them all under house arrest. Technically, they could leave at any time they liked, but Daphne was a force to be reckoned with when she got like that, and Pansy didn’t want to push her boundaries. Maybe one day she would give it a try, but this was not the time.
“This blows,” Tracey said. She was lying on the floor under a cluster of particularly vicious ferns, staring up to the ceiling. “I’m in half a mind to throw the damn thing out the window.”
“You do that,” Pansy said, “and I’m pretty sure Milly will kill you.”
Millicent had appointed herself Guardian of the Rock. She’d even built a little nest of cushions for it on one of Daphne’s expensive French sofas. Daphne didn’t seem to care that it might get dirty and, in return, the rock didn’t impart any dirt on the cushions.
“I don’t get it,” Tracey said. “I don’t like it, and I don’t get it.”
“Well, get over it,” Pansy said. “We’re stuck with this.”
Daphne chose that moment to appear in the doorway. “Not for long, girls.”
Tracey perked up. “You’ve got a buyer?”
“I think so,” Daphne said, “but it’s not going to be pretty.”
“Let’s just keep it,” Millicent said. “I’ve grown rather fond of it.”
Daphne spared her a momentary glare before returning to business. “I need to make a phone call, and out of respect for your efforts I’ll allow you to stay in the room while I talk, but I need absolute silence.”
Dutifully, they did not reply.
Phone behind her ear, Daphne dialled a number and waited. After a moment, she answered: “Avocado. It’s Jade.”
Clearly all the good shades of green had been taken, Pansy thought, stifling a laugh.
“Ah, you’ve heard about that,” Daphne continued. “Yes, it’s unfortunate, isn’t it.”
“A good guess. Yes, I am calling about the geode. It’s recently come into the possession of some friends of mine, and—”
“Oh goodness no,” Daphne said, grinning at the three of them, “do you really think I could convince them give it back for free?”
It was ransom. She was ransoming the rock to its owner and she was passing the buck to Pansy, Millicent, and Tracey. You had to admire her style.
“Let’s arrange terms,” Daphne said. “You bring four thousand galleons to exit 4 of Leicester Square station at ten tonight—”
—just under twelve hours from now—
“—and we’ll return the geode to you.”
The price wasn’t as good as they’d been hoping for from the last contact, but it was good enough for something that wasn’t much more than a pretty rock. Or, if Tracey was to be believed, there might have been something else to it; Pansy wasn’t in the habit of believing Tracey, though. She could be a bit sensational sometimes.
“I am sorry about this,” Daphne told Avocado, presumably a Mulciber, “but my hands are tied. My associates have given me no choice, so can I count on seeing you at ten tonight? Yes? Marvellous. Thank you dearly, Avocado. Yes, I will pass on my next tip-off to you at the earliest convenience.”
That, Pansy didn’t like. She tried to tell herself that this was the back-up plan, the last resort. There would have to be some compromises. And since Daphne had sold it as unavoidable blackmail, it suited her to appear contrite.
“Alright, Avocado,” she said. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
Hanging up, Daphne let out a sigh she must have been holding in the entire time. “Thank Merlin I pulled that off.”
“Great,” Tracey said, brushing her hands together, “so now that it’s done, we can all fuck off and—”
“Oh, no,” Daphne said, “absolutely not. We don’t know how big this is. We need to lie low for the next twelve hours. No-one leaves, and no more than two of us can let the geode out of our sight at any one time. Need I remind you that this is business?”
Zacharias left the Department of Mysteries with a growing sense of discomfort. Padma had told him to leave the case with her and her colleagues, that they’d take care of it—he tended to be of the mind that once something was brought to his attention, it was his business. He knew he ought to tell his superiors about it, and make absolutely sure that this never made it to the news, but he decided not to. He decided to keep it to himself, even though that would probably prove problematic if it ended up becoming a big deal.
He just had to hope it wouldn’t become a big deal.
Typically, he had no such luck. On his way back to PR, he was stopped in the corridors by someone else he’d known back at Hogwarts. This, at least, was a relief, because Susan Bones was also one of his closest friends. Zacharias was content to think that she was stopping him for a catch-up, until she opened her mouth.
“Zach,” she said, “I heard you’ve got yourself involved in this Mulciber Mansion business.”
“I—what—how did you—”
Susan laughed. “Oh, don’t look so shocked. We’ve been monitoring it down the DMLE since the break-in was reported late last night. We’ve got a local trace on anyone talking about it.”
“Delightful,” Zacharias said.
Shrugging, Susan took him by the arm and steered him off course. “Well, now that you’re in, you’re in, so there’s no point tying yourself in knots over it.”
“So, er, where are you taking me?”
“Oh,” Susan said, “Auror office. We’ve narrowed down the location of our robbers from Padma’s work downstairs, and there was a tip-off about some abnormal activity in Kew this morning from one of WIT’s Squib Squad.”
Zacharias raised his eyebrows. “What sort of abnormal?”
“The agent was driving down a quiet suburban street when his mobile extendible ears picked up someone talking about the artefact trade in one of the houses,” Susan said, “so he paused his cab for a bit to listen in on the rest of the conversation, you understand, since WIT put out an alert on all sorts of antique and artefact dealing after the robbery last night. Turns out the people in this house were having an argument about whether to sell something or hold onto it.”
“It’s tenuous,” Zacharias said.
“When you’ve been an Auror for as long as I have,” Susan said, “you’re thankful for circumstantial evidence.”
Zacharias knew for a fact that the crime rate had been dropping steadily since 1998, and that Susan was only thankful for the evidence because she needed all the work she could get, but he said nothing.
“Anyway,” Susan went on, “WIT are looking into any recent items that have come on the market, but it’s a little bit early for the object to floating around, we thought, so we’re doing it the old-fashioned way.”
For Aurors, the “old-fashioned way” usually involved breaking down someone’s door. The Wizarding Intelligence Taskforce could spend months monitoring the market, but sometimes the only way to get closure really was to break down a door. Zacharias could appreciate that.
“I’m presuming you know exactly what house it is, down to the street number,” Zacharias said.
“Of course,” Susan said. She frowned. “But you’re not going to like it.”
“Why not?” Zacharias asked.
He had a flash of horror that somehow it was his house, co-opted by the black market artefact trade—which wasn’t impossible, because his best friend Tracey was involved in the sorts of business that Zacharias wilfully ignored, and it would be easy for her to get into the house, given that Anthony was away on a work trip and Zacharias may have taken to sleeping in his office some nights out of his tendency to supplement a lack of human contact with excessive productivity. Also, Tracey had a spare key.
“Merlin’s pants, Zach,” Susan said, “it’s not your house—and don’t look at me like that, I know what you’re thinking.”
“Very funny,” he said, remembering that his house wasn’t anywhere near Kew. “Who lives there, then?”
There was a knock on the door.
“Just a second,” Daphne called. They were in the kitchen, just down from the entrance hall. Whoever was knocking would’ve heard.
It was a little early for lunch, but since Daphne insisted on keeping them under house arrest, they were forced to rummage for scraps in her pantry, woefully understocked.
“Merlin’s crusty nuts,” Tracey said, “you really don’t keep anything, do you?”
Daphne shrugged. “Have you seen these tiles? It would be such a shame to damage this kitchen. Takeaway is the only clean option. Or better—dining out.”
“Mental,” Millicent said.
But she didn’t have a fancy kitchen—after her father died in the war, Millicent had inherited a country estate full of fine art of dubious origins and, more importantly, house elves to do all her cooking and cleaning for her. She was used to dining well. Actually, so was Pansy, but she appreciated Daphne’s fondness for reckless spending on takeaway food. Of all of them, Tracey was the most averse to it. She’d grown up working class, and she still never looked entirely at home in all the posh houses they burgled.
“Oh, well,” Daphne said, “I suppose we’ve got enough for grilled cheese sandwiches.”
From down the hallway, the knocking came again.
“Just a second,” Daphne snapped.
“I can live with grilled cheese,” Tracey said, “on the condition that you let me make it.”
“Open up!” called someone from the doorway.
Pansy rolled her eyes, trying not to show that she was a little worried. “Are you going to get that?”
“I said I’d get it in a—”
There was a crash and then a thud, the sound of the front door dropping to the parquet floor.
“Motherfucker!” Daphne swore. “Do you know how much that’s going to cost to replace?”
“Um, I have some more immediate concerns,” Tracey said, “like who the fuck is breaking into your house and why aren’t we doing anything about it?”
Millicent was the first to react. “The rock,” she said, and ran for the parlour. Pansy was watching from the kitchen door as a squad of Aurors stopped Millicent in her tracks with a full body-bind spell. They had their cover stories all planned out, as they did for every job, but Pansy didn’t want it to come to that.
She didn’t need to say anything else, and she didn’t wait to see where the others went. She took a chance, and backed towards the kitchen window. Housebreaking had given her a few skills she hadn’t known how to use back at Hogwarts. She’d watched Draco swanning about on his broom, when they were still a Thing, and she’d been so envious of what seemed like natural athleticism. Now she knew how much work went into getting that good—Draco had simply started younger.
She didn’t jump out the window. She wasn’t a fool. She knew there would be Aurors crawling around the neighbourhood, and she didn’t want to use magic for concealment, just in case they had spells up to detect it. With the sort of casual disregard for the length of her skirt that she’d cultivated over the years, she scaled the side of the house by grabbing onto overhanging tree branches. The Aurors would look up the trees. They wouldn’t look on the roof.
Panting—Merlin, she was out of practice—Pansy found a flat stretch of slats and lay down low, hopefully low enough that she couldn’t be seen from the road. Below, she could hear yelling, and the unmistakable screams of Daphne duelling. The girl wasn’t subtle.
Then, seconds later, it all went quiet.
Pansy chanced a glance over the edge of the roof. At the front door, she saw the Aurors regrouping, and her three friends standing limp between them. A flare of anger spiked through the nonchalance she’d been putting on, out of some misguided attempt to deal with the situation. But she kept her head cool—she waited until the Aurors had Disapparated before acting. And there she was, exposed on the roof of a suburban house, with old people and stay-at-home mums prowling the streets.
Trying not to think twice about it, Pansy Apparated to the one person she knew could help her deal with this. It wasn’t quite a favour but even so she didn’t want to call it in. She needed to, though. These were her friends, and as the self-proclaimed leader of their gang she should’ve been able to stop this. She should’ve realised that the wards on Daphne’s house weren’t strong enough, that it wasn’t the best place to store an artefact as allegedly valuable as the geode—
No. Now wasn’t the time to think about what she could have done better.
Pansy disappeared from Kew with a crack, and landed outside a warehouse in London’s East End. This was do-or-die. She pressed the intercom button. The static crackled for a moment, before a bored receptionist’s voice came through: “Westminster Infrastructure and Technology, how can I help you?”
“I’m here to speak to Blaise Zabini,” Pansy said. She cleared her throat. “It’s about a highly personal matter.”
“Just a second,” the receptionist intoned.
Pansy waited thirty-four awful seconds before there was a buzz overhead, and the click of the door unlatching.
“Come on in. Mr. Zabini will see you shortly.”
Millicent was quickly coming to the conclusion that she didn’t much like being imprisoned. She had initially thought it might be alright—after all, the Slytherin common rooms were in the dungeons, and this was clearly some sort of dungeon. It wasn’t alright, though. It was the opposite of alright. It was pants. And she wanted out.
They had taken her wand, but worse than that, she had lost the rock. Her rock. Well, it wasn’t really her rock. But she had been its guardian. Its legal guardian while they waited for one of Daphne’s contacts to pick it up. She had been responsible for that rock, and she’d rushed forward like a fool and let the Aurors take it.
The three of them weren’t kept in the same cells—of course they wouldn’t let that happen—so Millicent was left alone with her own thoughts. Left alone to process the fact that Pansy had escaped being captured along with the rest of them. Pansy, of all people… well, she was good at what she did. She was. Irrational, sometimes. It wasn’t a bad thing. It was just a Pansy thing.
At least she didn’t have Millicent’s rock.
Millicent sat in silence for what could’ve been an hour, could’ve been ten minutes. It was excruciating. She was the kind of person who needed to be doing something. She was close to banging on the cell door and yelling, “TORTURE ME!” when she heard the turn of a key in the lock.
“Millicent Bulstrode,” she corrected. “Yes.”
This was an Auror low down the pecking order. His grey robes were pristine—definitely not one of the ones who’d brought her in—and he even had a little scroll of parchment, tapping a quill against it. “You’re to come with me,” he said.
“Where?” Millicent asked politely, because she reasoned it would be good to know.
The Auror didn’t seem to think so. “None of your business,” he said, bristling.
That was what she wanted to tell him too. Her business was not his problem. (Technically, it wasn’t even her problem. It was Daphne’s problem.) Millicent had her line, though, part of the long-running and never-tested contingency plan, and she would stick to it. And for now, that involved going along with whatever the Aurors wanted.
“Alright,” she said. She wasn’t the sort of person who could act meek, but in any case, she did her best to appear less than abrasive.
The Auror walked her down the dark corridor outside the cells. Although this was clearly an old part of the Ministry, the doors looked new. There were hatches that someone could open to look in, but no way of seeing out. Millicent had no way of telling where Daphne and Tracey were. She didn’t like that.
Millicent didn’t have much experience with the Ministry. Her father had never been a Ministry person—unlike the rest of pureblood society, he had preferred to stay out of politics. He was never a big name Death Eater, either. He just got along with it, knowing that whatever happened he’d have his sizeable inheritance to fall back on. Millicent supposed she was much the same. She wasn’t a leader like Pansy. She liked having friends and having hobbies to keep her busy, but she liked good food and fine art more.
She wished, now, that she’d been a little more keen, maybe even visited the Ministry with her mother, when she was still alive. But that was almost two decades ago, and Millicent didn’t remember much else from that age, so why would she remember the Ministry? It was a waste of time to nurse regrets.
At the end of the corridor, they turned a corner, and the space suddenly opened up into a small-scale courtroom, with just one desk in the centre. Millicent had, at least, seen the Ministry courtrooms. The Malfoy family trials—that hadn’t been a fun time.
In the courtroom sat two bland-looking Aurors. The one who’d escorted Millicent there left. Two against one was a little better than three against one, but not by much.
Millicent steeled herself. Stick to the story.
Blaise was not used to having visitors in his office. He was not used to having visitors, because he was a field agent, and technically no-one was supposed to know he existed. He was not used to having people in his office, because he was a field agent, and he was barely ever in his office. But this one was too interesting to ignore.
WIT was a little further ahead than the rest of wizarding society—they had cameras at the entrance, transmitting images of whoever pressed the intercom buzzer. Blaise couldn’t really be arsed to find out how it worked. He liked the mystery of it; that something so incomprehensible, to him at least, could be the source of something so useful. And there, on his strange screen, was an image of Pansy Parkinson.
“Let her in,” he said. The receptionist broke their connection, and Blaise sat back in his chair, waiting for a knock at his door.
He should’ve known—Pansy never knocked.
“Blaise,” she said.
“Can I stop you there?”
She pouted. Adorable. “You can,” she said, “but make it quick.”
“Alright,” Blaise said. “Let’s both make this quick—I had only intended to stop by my office for a few minutes, and you’re damn lucky you caught me at the right time. I’m a busy person with a lot of work to do, Pansy, so would you care to tell me what’s so important that you had to interrupt me at work?”
“I’ll try to keep it quick,” Pansy said thinly. “Last night, there was a robbery at Mulciber Mansion.”
“Oh, yes,” Blaise said. He’d seen the alert come up on their internal memo system, but he hadn’t followed it up. Pureblood politics. Not his division. “I suppose that was your doing.”
Pansy shrugged. “Like I said in the passive, there was a robbery. The object that was taken seemed like it was worthless, at first, but there were people interested.”
“Like who?” Blaise asked.
“The Mulcibers, for one,” Pansy said. “The contact who gave Jade the tip-off about this object. The Aurors who showed up at Jade’s this morning.”
Blaise resented her talking in code—he knew what she meant, after his brief stint investigating what ultimately turned out to be a dead end thread in a big antiques case. These nicknames were so childish. He understood why she fell back on it; you didn’t have to be a genius to work out how many cameras were dotted all over the building. But Blaise’s office was clear.
“Who else?” Blaise said.
With a scowl, Pansy said, “Emerald and Pantone 362.”
“I suppose all the good names were taken,” Blaise said.
“This isn’t a joke, Blaise,” Pansy snapped. “The three of them were taken in by the Aurors, along with the—the object.”
Blaise was unimpressed. “So, let me get this straight. You’ve come to me because you and your little gang have been involved in something considerably less than legal, and you expect me to help you out? With what? You want me to bust them out of the Ministry for you? Get that object back so you can sell it on to someone else with a stupid fucking nickname?”
“There’s no need to get all high and fucking mighty,” Pansy said. “Whatever else you are, Blaise, you’re one of my oldest friends. And I need all the friends I can get right now.”
Pressing the heel of his palm into his temple, Blaise let out a shuddering sigh. Straight for the emotional manipulation. That was Pansy for you. She knew how to get what she wanted—and the worst part, she knew that everyone knew what she was doing, and she knew that they would go along with her anyway.
“Alright,” he said. “Alright. Just tell me what you want me to do?”
“I want facts,” she said. “This has been dangerously nebulous so far. Mulciber Mansion was too easy to crack, and at the end of it all we found was a big fucking rock. And then…”
She trailed off. Blaise fixed her with a glare. “And then?”
“It was some sort of geode, on the inside,” Pansy said. “Looked like amethyst. Expensive, sure, but enough to warrant an Auror sting?”
Blaise nodded. “It does seem unlikely that they’d put so much effort into a trinket. I’ll check our archives. In the meantime, you—you stay right here. You’ve got a mobile phone, don’t you? We can swap numbers in case anything happens.”
“You are not putting me under house arrest,” Pansy said.
“No, I’m not,” Blaise agreed, “I’m putting you under office arrest. And I think we can both agree it’s a damn sight better than being put under actual arrest.”
For all that she always had to win, there wasn’t much better than the look on Pansy’s face when she realised she’d lost.
The Auror office, Zacharias decided, had been designed with his own personal hell specifically in mind. It was large and open-plan, with neat rows of desks staffed by white-robed wizards, constantly in and out, weaving their way through the desks like a maze. It could’ve been an exam hall if there weren’t loud conversations happening at every second desk. There were floating chalkboards too, and the scratch of writing seemed to follow Zacharias around the room.
“Remind me why I’m still here,” he said, trailing behind Susan like a lost child.
“This is going to be big news tomorrow,” she said. “We would’ve needed someone from PR on site to make absolutely certain that the right details made it out, and nothing else. Just—to make sure nothing confidential accidentally hits the Prophet. And since you’re here, I’m putting you in contact with the head of operations.”
“If you say Harry Potter, I’m going to—”
Susan cackled, almost tripping over a desk as she passed it. “Harry has bigger fish to fry than the artefact trade,” she said. “Merlin, is that what you were worried about?”
“I—” Zacharias said, “of course not.”
Susan might have taken that opportunity to make fun of him, but they had reached the other end of the space, where there were more offices, closed off from the rest of the workroom.
“Here we are,” she said. “Sulpicius Burke, head of the Antique Fraud and Artefact Trade Squad. Or Old FArTS, for short, but don’t say that to his face.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Zacharias said. He would sooner point out the irony in a Burke looking into the artefact trade.
With Susan waiting behind him, he knocked on the office door, and then entered before anyone could respond, because that was how his job worked. There was a small desk off to one side, staffed by a man with an angry moustache who was writing on parchment with an even angrier flourish of his quill.
He looked up sharply at the intrusion. “Bones. Who is this?”
“You must really live under a rock,” Zacharias said, taking the liberty of sitting on the edge of Burke’s desk, just because he had taken an instant dislike to the man. He extended a hand. “Zacharias Smith, public relations. Here to supervise the reporting of the Mulciber Mansion incident.”
Burke shook his hand stiffly. “Of course,” he said. “I know you by reputation.”
“Naturally,” Zacharias said. “I’ve had a preliminary briefing from Susan on the Mulciber Mansion artefact, including an update on the arrest of the three suspects. I don’t suppose you could fill me in on the rest?”
“He needs to know the background,” Susan said, “and a little bit about the progress of the case. Keep him informed as it goes.”
As though this was the most distasteful task on the face of the earth, Burke’s nose wrinkled in a frown. “Very well,” he said.
“Great!” Susan said, cheerfully ignoring his reluctance. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Once Susan was gone, Zacharias felt a little more vulnerable. He got off the table and sat down on one of the chairs facing Burke.
“I like these,” he said, tapping the arm of the other chair. “Are they antiques?”
“French, sixteenth century,” Burke said.
“I suppose you need a keen eye for things like this in your line of business,” Zacharias said.
“Of course, but these have been in the family for a long time,” Burke said. “I’m not stupid—I know my department is oft maligned by the rest of the Aurors for dealing with matters that they find boring. But at times like this, all the purebloods come running to us. They know that we take care of all their most valuable assets.”
At this point, Zacharias was a little creeped out, but he knew better than to point out just how bad Burke’s attitude was. “Naturally,” he said. “So since this object that used to be in Mulciber Mansion is so important, I’m sure you’ve been following it keenly.”
Burke’s scowl could’ve started a forest fire. “The Mulcibers are not purebloods,” he said, “as listed by the Pure-Blood Directory, a seminal work of the twentieth century you’ve no doubt heard of. Wealthy, yes, but supporting the cause from a weak position.”
“Supporting the cause” was not a phrase Zacharias liked to hear this side of 1998. He dug his fingers into the side of the chair, forcing down a rude comment or five.
“Despite that,” Burke continued haughtily, “you’re right to assume that I’ve been following the case. You may know that the object is on a watchlist in the Department of Mysteries, but that no-one quite knows what it is. Or rather, knew, until this afternoon.”
“So you’ve had a report on it already?” Zacharias asked.
“That’s right,” Burke said, his expression souring. “Apparently, the Aurors who raided the house in Kew obtained an object with such magical potency that it can be no other. It was… quite a disappointment, I gather.”
“Why? What is it?”
“It’s a rock,” Burke said. “A big, round rock.”
Zacharias immediately saw the problem. This would not look good in the press release. Wealthy family’s mansion burgled—and, by the way, all they took was a fucking rock. Unless this rock turned out to be something truly extraordinary, there was no nicer way to spin it.
“Well,” he said, “thank you for your help. I think I’ve got enough to work with.”
Burke almost looked disappointed. “You won’t be staying around? Bones said I would need to keep you informed on the developments.”
“And you can,” Zacharias said, “when I come back in—an hour? Two hours?”
For now, he was long overdue for something he’d wanted to do since he heard about the raid on Daphne’s house. He had to check in on some old friends of his.
The object from Mulciber Mansion had been presented to Padma as “the rock,” but with a bit of brute force she very quickly established that it was not a rock, but a geode. An amethyst geode, at that, and a big one too. There were markets where this would fetch a lot of money. But more than that—there was enough magic emanating from this geode to subjugate the Welsh. It was unlike anything Padma had ever seen.
At the other side of the office, Quinlan was paging through his finds from the archives, trying to find some history on the object. For something which had been largely a mystery until a few hours ago, there was reassuringly little literature on it. Despite that, Quinlan had managed to find an entry in the Pure-blood Directory, of all things, which spoke about the Mulciber family’s fall from favour. It was just a paragraph hidden in the long and indubitably embellished history of the Avery family, outlining their historic association with the Mulcibers, who were great artefact traders, but had very little going for them as wizards. The Directory mentioned that, sometime in the late 1920s, a woman named Fern Avery had acquired something of extraordinary power, although she would not say from where, and it was later bought by Moss Mulciber. Padma had an inkling those weren’t their real names—it was a little too twee to be real.
It seemed that this reference was as far back as they could trace it. The rest fell to Padma.
The geode lay in its two halves on her workbench. She had tested it with all the spells she knew, and half the instruments in the office, and could make neither hide nor hair of it. She’d even sent it off to the R&D labs, since a second opinion was always valuable, but they’d sent the geode back without any note. Which meant they hadn’t found anything. The problem was that it had to do something. So much magic in one place was always a bad sign. This was how you got your Elder Wands and Philosopher’s Stones. Objects like this had names, histories.
“Any luck?” Quinlan asked.
Padma shook her head. “Nothing. This must be magic of a sort we’ve never seen before.”
“It seems unlikely that something like that would just show up,” Quinlan said. “I’ve been trying to trace it beyond this first mention, but… nothing.”
Nothing. It seemed like that was a recurring theme.
“I wonder,” Padma said, thinking aloud, “if the magic is the trace.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a lot of power coming off this thing, but we don’t know what it does.” She tapped the side of one of the geode halves. “What if the power went into making it?”
Quinlan whistled—a bit melodramatic of him, Padma thought. “Creating something from nothing,” he said. “That would make it very unique indeed.”
“Right,” Padma said. “From a scientific perspective, I would love to be the person to rediscover this power.”
“I was more thinking that collectors would pay a lot of money for something like that,” Quinlan said.
Padma wrinkled her nose. “If this was truly created from nothing—or a little bit more than nothing—I’m not letting it out of my sight.”
“We could steal it,” Quinlan said. “Sell it on the antiques market.”
“I do hope you’re joking,” Padma said.
Quinlan tapped his nose. He always did that when he was considering something. It made a weird damped sound that Padma couldn’t stand. “We’d need some of these stupid nicknames, though,” he said. “Fern, Moss… what’ll you go for, Padma?”
He probably wasn’t considering it seriously. Was he? Padma was. She was horrified with herself, but she was. It was likely that this useless but shiny object would be relegated to the DoM shelves, where no-one would look for it again once they could access an archived file on it. That was how people were at the Ministry, even among the scientists of the basement. And if they replaced it with a plain old rock, which was basically what it was—
Padma pursed her lips. “Plants? Green things? What’s the naming convention?”
“Alright,” said one of the dull Aurors, “let’s start with a simple one: where were you last night?”
He was tapping his quill against the edge of the table between Millicent and the Aurors. It was distracting, and her gaze was torn between the quill and the Auror’s bored grimace.
“I stayed over at my friend Daphne’s house,” she said.
“The address in Kew where you were picked up this morning?”
Tracey rolled her eyes. “Obviously. Where the hell else would Daphne’s house be?”
The Auror who’d asked the question just looked confused, but the other’s lips puckered as though she was sucking a lemon. Tracey had been hoping she’d at least get some fun Aurors for this—no such luck. She should’ve known. There was no such thing as a fun Auror.
“Of course,” the first Auror said, having taken a moment to get to grips with her question being answered with a question. “And you stayed over? All three of you?”
“All three of us,” Tracey confirmed.
“Was there any special occasion for this?” the second Auror asked, disrupting her sphincter of a mouth for a brief moment.
Shrugging, Tracey said, “Did there have to be?”
“Do you think it was a fucking slumber party?” Daphne snapped.
“Well,” one of the Aurors said, “it’s a bit strange that three women nearing thirty would still sleep over at each other’s houses.”
He was getting impatient. That was fine by Daphne. Impatient people were less likely to be thinking sensibly, and the longer they beat around the bush, the less likely it was that they’d ask Daphne any of the right questions. Honestly—they were working on the assumption that all three of them had conducted the robbery. Didn’t they know how the trade worked?
“One,” Daphne said, “that’s sexist—but I wouldn’t expect a man like you to understand. Two, there are a lot of reasons why people sleep at each other’s houses, gossiping and painting each other’s nails notwithstanding.”
The Auror narrowed his eyes at her, like he wasn’t quite sure what she was getting at. At least he was asking questions, though. His partner was just sitting there dumbly.
“So you were staying over together that night, and you didn’t go out,” the first Auror said, “yet, somehow, the stolen object in question came into your possession.”
“You, in particular, seemed very attached to that rock.”
Millicent shrugged. “I was intrigued by it.”
“Surely there’s more to it than that,” the Auror said. “When we showed up to the house this morning, you ran towards it, shouting, ‘The rock!’”
“It was a sudden worry,” Millicent improvised. “I realised it might have been planted there to frame us, so I wanted to get it out of the way.”
“Planted,” he mused. “What makes you say that?”
Before Millicent could say anything the second Auror spoke for the first time. “How did you come by it?” she asked. “It seems very convenient that you were all together in the same place at around the time the object was stolen.”
“It only came to us the morning after,” Tracey said, hoping that the others all remembered that part of their cover story. “Not long after we’d woken up, someone rang the doorbell. But when I went to answer, there was only this rock sitting there.”
“So, it was you who answered the door?”
Damnit, sphincter-mouth was perceptive. “That’s right,” Tracey said. And if she was lucky, none of the others would be asked a question like that.
Neither of the Aurors looked convinced by this story, but there was no way they could argue with it.
“Why was it sent to you, then?” the confused one asked.
“That should be obvious,” Daphne said. “I don’t really see why you need to ask me.”
The first Auror heaved a pained sigh. “Listen—whether or not you’re culpable, one of the formalities of questioning is to ask you questions. It would save us all a lot of time if you could answer them.”
“And this question is a waste of time,” Daphne said. “Everyone knows that my family has historically been involved in the black market antique business. There’s no point in denying that. It seems likely that someone thought I was in a prime position to carry on the family tradition. Which I can assure you, I am not.”
“We’ll take your word for it,” the second Auror said. “Still, it seemed like you and your two friends were keeping a pretty close watch on that object. You sure you weren’t planning to sell it on?”
Daphne gave a non-committal shrug. “We knew that it could be valuable,” was all she said.
These Aurors really were clueless. They were asking all the wrong questions—trying to work out the why of it, when a good investigator would have been much more interested in the how. Plus, they were missing one crucial detail: there was a fourth person in the house with them, and with any luck, she would be working on clearing their names as they spoke.
It had been almost half an hour since Blaise had left his office to raid the WIT archives, and Pansy was long past boredom. She had hit disenfranchisement and sped alarmingly quickly through existential apathy, and now she was wallowing in anger. The sooner Blaise came back, the better. She would get her information on Mulciber Mansion and the rock and then she’d get the hell out of there and work on the hard part—clearing her friends’ names.
After far too long, she was spared. Blaise came through his office door with a swish of the absurd cape that everyone in WIT had to wear when they were off duty and set a bundle of files down next to her.
“Your information,” he said.
Was it Pansy’s imagination, or was he out of breath?
“Thank you,” she said sweetly, getting up from where she’d been lying down on his desk. “This is a decent amount to get through… perhaps you’d like to stay and help me.”
Blaise gave her a withering look. “I got you the damn files. Do you really need me to babysit you while you read them?”
“Babysitting is such an over-the-top word for it,” Pansy said. “I much prefer to think of it as studying together. We did that a lot back at Hogwarts, in case you’d forgotten.”
“I hadn’t,” Blaise said. “I was more than happy to study with you when our grades were hanging in the balance, but I’ve got no vested interest in this. I got you these files out of the goodness of my heart—now look at them yourself.”
“So cruel,” Pansy said.
She noted, though, that he didn’t make any move to leave. He sat at one side of his desk, and Pansy took up the chair at the other. She took the file from the top of the stack, and he took another.
The first file was a history of the Avery geode. This was a level of classified beyond anything Pansy had even set eyes on before—even holding it in her hands sent a shiver of excitement through her. The file didn’t contain much of interest, though. It briefly outlined the creation of the object by Fern Avery in 1927, although there were no specifics as to what the object did, or why exactly she’d created it. All they knew was that she had, and had gone on to sell it to Moss Mulciber in 1931. Moss Mulciber was a well-known player in the artefacts trade, and the file gave the reference for another file which contained the full history of his known transactions, as well as a list of all the items currently in the Mulcibers’ possession.
The next file she picked up was a case file. “Huh. Looks like the Aurors have known about this thing for a while.”
“That would be the Old FArTS,” Blaise said. “Or, the Antique Fraud and Artefact Trade Squad, for the uninitiated. Not my favourite Aurors, but at least they don’t get in the way.”
“I don’t appreciate being referred to as ’the uninitiated,’” Pansy said, “but I’ll take your word for it.”
At the head of the file, she saw that the chief investigating Auror was a Burke—that caught her interest immediately. The uninitiated might think that this didn’t matter, but to Pansy, who had been in the trade for some time now, it was a red flag. Or rather, a green flag. The Burkes had a long history of wheedling for antiques from other purebloods, and selling them on with their cousins the Borgins. And Burkes always, always underpaid.
So what was this Burke doing working for the very people who should, by all rights, have been investigating him?
“Daphne wouldn’t deal with a Burke, would she?” Pansy mused.
“How the hell would I know?” Blaise said, lazily winding back the scroll he was reading.
“Unless she didn’t know he was a Burke,” Pansy said. She twisted her lips to one side, contemplating this new development. “Blaise, have any of your files got a history of the various trade pseudonyms the Burkes have used over the years?”
“Not even WIT can keep track of that bullshit.” He paused, looking back at the stack of scrolls. “But there might be a mention of it in one of these files.”
“Well,” Pansy said, “I guess we’ll just have to read them all, then.”
Something wasn’t adding up. In theory, Zacharias had all the facts. He knew that Daphne and company had stolen the Mulciber Mansion artefact, because who else? He also knew that none of them would own up to it—the Aurors were wasting their time—so he could leave the culprits out of his press release with a clear conscience. (He would have left them out anyway; it was just a matter of whether or not he could do so without feeling like he was half-arsing his job.) He had even spoken to that objectionable Burke fellow about the artefact. He had news about a rock coming in from the Aurors on the one hand, and the DoM on the other, telling him the rock was actually a geode.
It should’ve been the complete picture.
The thing was, everyone seemed desperate to get their hands on what was essentially a big lump of nothing. The Aurors had files on it going back years, even though it was safe as could be in Mulciber Mansion. The DoM, on the other hand, were unusually clueless about it, even though they gave it a different name. Had someone been keeping information from them? And in that case—had it been the Aurors?
Zacharias knew he shouldn’t let it worry him so much. There were question marks on the watchlist; that didn’t mean there needed to be question marks in his press release.
He wasn’t even meant to be involved in this. He’d seen the watchlist by accident, got the message from the Prophet by accident, and only been dragged deeper in by Susan—which was fair enough, since they usually had someone in PR assigned to high-profile cases like this. But that was generally decided by an open process of negotiation, not by letting the Aurors recruit whoever happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t like being the one responsible for this case. His friends were involved. That surely warranted a conflict of interest.
That was what was missing—it was his friends whose livelihoods were at stake, and Zacharias hadn’t even spoken to them about it yet. As much as he theoretically didn’t approve of their careers in the artefact trade, he also didn’t necessarily want them arrested and confined to the rough-shod Azkaban replacement in the Ministry basement for Merlin knows how long.
And Pansy was still out there somewhere… but he would get to her later. For now, he had to focus on the culprits he had on hand.
As much as he wanted to go straight to Tracey, he knew that she would just steal his guards’ skeleton key and then break the other two out, and she probably wouldn’t be able to give him any information either. She was his best friend, after all, and she knew how to distract him. They hadn’t done a proper catch-up in a while.
Putting the draft press release to one side for now, Zacharias made his way to the cells in the basement. It wasn’t hard for him to get access—it helped, when everyone in your workplace was a little scared of you—and he went straight for Daphne’s cell.
There were a lot of flaws with this prison system. They confiscated prisoners’ wands on arrival, and there were strict wards up that meant no magic could be used within a whatever-metre radius of each cell. In a good bit of luck for more unscrupulous sorts, like Zacharias, this also meant that the Ministry couldn’t employ any of its usual monitoring spells, and the day they gave in to Muggle security camera culture would be the day hell froze over. Apparently extendible ears were out of the question too, although WIT seemed to have no problem with using them.
What security they had consisted of a guard or three wandering the corridors, and guards couldn’t be everywhere at once.
Zacharias unlocked Daphne’s cell and hung back by the door. “Greengrass,” he said. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“I could say the same to you,” Daphne said. “I don’t suppose you come here often.”
“I don’t,” Zacharias said. “I make an exception for friends.”
“Oh, we’re friends now? You should’ve told me. I’d have arranged for tea to be set out. A proper reception.”
Zacharias waited for the nearest guard’s footfall to be well out of hearing range before he replied. “You don’t want to be stuck in here for much longer. Tell me what you know, and I’ll get you off the hook.”
“I’ve already been questioned by the Aurors,” Daphne said. “I don’t think I have it in me to recount the whole story again. Davis and Bulstrode were staying over at my house last night. This morning, someone rang the doorbell and—”
“You can cut the bullshit,” Zacharias interrupted. “We’re not being monitored. They haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”
Daphne laughed. “I do so love the work this Ministry does. So public-minded.” She dropped her smile abruptly. “Alright. Yes, we took it. We weren’t meant to have held onto it for so long, though. When we saw that it was just a rock, my initial contact flaked on the deal and we were stuck looking for another buyer.”
Zacharias checked over his shoulder. Still no sign of any guards.
“And did you find one?”
“Eventually,” Daphne said. “It’s not going to be pretty when he realises we can’t deliver.”
Zacharias frowned, thinking it over. Something wasn’t adding up. “How did you hear about this thing in the first place? Everything I’ve found points to it being something painfully obscure. Not even the Mysteries people know what it is.”
“It was my first contact who tipped me off,” Daphne said. “Goes by the name of Menthe, if that means anything to you.”
“Obviously it doesn’t,” Zacharias said. “But it gives me somewhere to start.”
The sound of footsteps grew from the far end of the corridor.
“You’re really getting involved in this?” Daphne asked.
Zacharias shrugged. “At this point, I don’t think I have any choice.”
Tracey felt like she was going to rot if she was stuck in this cell for much longer, so it was a good thing she heard the click of the door opening—if it was another Auror, though, she was going to scream. What a fucking waste of space they all were! If they hadn’t taken her wand, Tracey would’ve hexed them into the middle of next week.
Mercifully—both for her and for the Aurors—her visitor was not an Auror. It was only bloody Zacharias Smith, her best and arguably oldest friend. Tracey would take him over an Auror any day, but she had to wonder—
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
Zacharias laughed, visibly relaxing. “Funny you should ask. It’s been a long day. I thought I could do with some good company.”
“You’re losing your touch,” Tracey said. “Come on. Why are you really here?”
“I was talking to Daphne, and I thought you warranted a look-in,” he said. “But seriously, I’ve been assigned as PR for your case—or rather, the case of whatever the fuck it was you stole. Why did you do that, by the way?”
“Hey,” Tracey said, “I just do the legwork. Whatever I’m told.”
“And what were you told?”
Tracey wasn’t sure how much she could tell him. Best friend he might have been, but he still worked for the Ministry, and was essentially the person in charge of the steady release of classified information to the media.
“Information trickles down,” she said vaguely. “It was an easy job, though, I’ll tell you that. Too easy. We were in and out in under forty minutes. Would’ve been quicker if P hadn’t started freaking out about the rock.”
“Almost like you were being set up to succeed,” Zacharias said.
“Can’t be,” Tracey said. “After D’s contact pulled out of the deal, the buyer she found was a Mulciber looking to buy it back. A good bit of ransom. Or is it extortion?”
“I think there might be a little bit of both involved,” said Zacharias. Know-it-all.
“Well, either way, it’s going straight back to him. Avocado’s his trade name, if you’re really serious about digging into this.”
Zacharias was silent for a second. “I am. I am serious about it.”
Tracey got up from the cell bench and walked to the door—Zacharias didn’t make to block her path, and seemed unsurprised when she reached out to shake his hand.
“It was good talking to you,” she said. “I’ve missed you lately. We should catch up more often.”
“We should,” Zacharias said, “once you’re out of here.”
Tracey hummed, unable to keep the smile off her face. “Might be sooner than you realise.”
One of Zacharias’ many redeeming features was that knew when not to ask questions. With a wave, he was gone, shutting the door securely behind him. Tracey appreciated that he was busy with his job, especially being stuck with this case, so it was good of him to take the time out to visit her.
And he hadn’t even blinked when she’d picked his pocket for the skeleton key they gave to people who were there to visit multiple cells, something he’d mentioned offhand in a conversation about the dodgy new prison system maybe two years ago.
Dropping hints, opening up windows of opportunity—that’s what best friends were for.
“Your key,” said the guard.
Zacharias reached into one pocket, and then the other. “Oh—shit, I think I must have dropped it. Fucking Merlin, if I don’t get back to PR soon I’ll have to—”
“Not to worry,” the guard said hastily, “I’ll send someone back there to look for it.”
Relieved, Zacharias let out a breath. It was reassuring that the key wasn’t there. Tracey was nothing if not predictable. “Thanks so much,” he said. “Pity we can’t use a bloody Accio charm down here, isn’t it?”
Susan was just about ready to quit her job, never mind heading home for the day. It was nearing the half of the afternoon that people designated as “late,” and she felt like she’d done a week’s worth of work in the last few hours. Meatier cases were few and far between these days, so she should’ve been used to dealing with theft, and with the endless paperwork that it entailed, but somehow it still managed to be endlessly tiring.
She had clocked off and was just leaving the office when an Auror in stiff grey guard’s robes came rushing up to her.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but we’ve had an incident in the cells,” he said.
Of course. Tracey Davis was down there. Of course there’d been an incident.
“What’s happened?” Susan asked, like she didn’t already have an inkling.
The guard managed to take her by surprise. “I’ve lost a skeleton key,” he said.
“Is that all?”
“Well, that Smith fellow from PR was down to visit some of the prisoners—you know the one, I think he said he was in charge of reporting on some case? Anyway, he couldn’t find his key when he got back to the front entrance, figured he must have dropped it. So I went looking, got my guards to comb the floors, but we didn’t find anything. Seeing as we can’t use any magic down there, I was wondering if I could requisition some extra feet on the ground to help look for it. Wouldn’t do well to let word get out that we’ve lost a skeleton key.”
Knowing Zacharias, word would never get out about this. There was no way the key was lost—Susan had a sinking feeling that while the guard was up here telling her about the lost key, there were three witches down there who were dropping it back at the front desk on their way out.
“I’m afraid we can’t spare any extra officers at the moment,” Susan said. “It’s just one key, so I would suggest that you get back to work and let the other guards go about their slow search.”
“Fair enough,” the guard said, eyebrows furrowed. “But I’m worried that one of those thieves nicked the key. And since we haven’t got magic down there, you know, there’s no way to tell.”
Once this case was over, Susan was going to push for a review of the prison system. Trying to jail wizards without magic was like trying to catch a butterfly in a tennis court net. “I don’t think you need to worry about that,” she said. “I’m just on my way out—how about I go down there and make sure everything is in order?”
“I can’t thank you enough,” the guard said.
“Don’t mention it,” Susan said. “Let’s keep this between ourselves for now, shall we?”
The guard gave her a grateful smile, and led the way down to the basement. With each step Susan took, she could feel her feet getting heavier with regret. She hadn’t done anything this stupid since she was at Hogwarts, and breaking the rules was only a bit of fun. This was different—it was her career at stake if anyone picked up on what she was covering up.
Actually, it was all Zacharias’ fault, she decided, for letting one of them—probably Tracey—steal his key in the first place. That gave Susan a time limit to find some way to clear their names, even though they were obviously guilty. It was a lot of pressure, and what if the guard had come to someone else? What then? Then there would be a prison break scandal, on top of everything else, and it would all be Zacharias’ fault, but he’d manage to smooth-talk his way out of any culpability, and the Ministry would tie itself into knots trying to fix the situation.
Susan just wanted to go home to her cat and last night’s casserole. This wasn’t what she’d signed up for.
The guard lent her a skeleton key, tying it to her wrist with a little ribbon—“We won’t let this happen again!”—and sent her on her way. Susan tried not to spend too much time in the Ministry prison. There were no Dementors, but the atmosphere was no better than Azkaban. The anti-magic wards were stifling, and in the current climate most of the cells were empty. Every sound rattled off the walls, almost like a threat.
Tracey was theoretically being held in a cell right near the back of this maze. Susan didn’t bother with a knock, because she knew there was no-one in there; she unlocked the door and let it clatter against the wall as it swung.
“Look at you, making an entrance,” someone said. “What’s this about?”
It was Tracey.
“I—” Susan stammered to a halt, suddenly unsure. “What are you doing here?”
“What do you mean?” Tracey asked, squinting at Susan.
“Okay, one thing at a time,” Susan said. “Let’s stop asking questions. I thought—Zach’s key—”
Tracey burst out laughing, rocking backwards on her cell’s bench. “Did you seriously think I would run at the first opportunity? Merlin, Suse, you are smart—I have it—but you’re an idiot too.”
Deep breaths, Susan told herself. She wasn’t paid enough to deal with this shit. “Alright, listen. I’m trying to do my job here. I suppose I ought to have expected you to be a cut above the usual petty criminals we have in here.”
“Exactly,” Tracey said, “given I am neither petty or a criminal.”
“Nice try,” Susan said. “I know you’re at least one of those things. But I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, for now. Don’t make me confiscate that key.”
Tracey smiled sweetly. “What key?”
Pansy made no secret of her dislike of anything that had been near Hufflepuff house. She had made an exception once for Cedric Diggory, but that was because the alternative was supporting Harry Potter, and most of the Slytherins would rather have faced the dragons themselves than acknowledged him as a Hogwarts champion.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. Pansy’s three closest friends and business associates were locked up in the Ministry—she was pretty sure that constituted a desperate fucking time. And when Zacharias Smith had owled her—really, who sent owls these days?—asking to meet for tea and “a chat,” well, Pansy had realised with a heavy heart that this was the sort of desperate measure she was going to have to stoop to. Zacharias could be a useful contact. He worked in PR, so he had access to all of the Ministry’s most intimate secrets. She might get something other than her friends’ release out of this, if she was lucky.
She had replied to his owl with specific conditions of her own, including where and when they would meet. If she was going to do this at all, it would be on her terms. That, and he’d inconvenienced her enough already; they weren’t used to getting owls directly into the offices at WIT. After the owl had shat all over Blaise’s desk and half the classified files, he’d got in a bit of shit himself. Pansy had set her meeting time with Zacharias for as soon as possible so that she could escape Blaise’s ire.
From the WIT headquarters, she took the tube into the city. A few years ago, Pansy might’ve had trouble blending into a crowd of Muggles. Now, she’d all but eliminated robes from her wardrobe, and she’d learnt to tap on and off with her Oyster card and pay for her coffee with pounds and pence. It was easy to play the Muggle role when she reminded herself that most Wizards hated her.
She was meeting Zacharias in Soho, a place she’d taken a liking to soon after she’d stopped hating Muggles. He was there early, waiting outside the coffee shop with his arms folded—Pansy had been hoping he would’ve looked a little more conspicuous, a bit embarrassingly magical, but he was in a simple grey suit and the only thing that distinguished him from all the businessmen getting a coffee on the way home was his height.
“Don’t tell me I’m late,” Pansy said, making a show of checking her watch.
“No, right on time,” Zacharias said. “Thanks for coming.”
Pansy fixed him with a glare. She had to crane her neck upwards to do it. “You could’ve sent a more subtle invitation.”
“I think we’re long past the point of subtlety,” Zacharias said.
“Fair,” Pansy said. “Let’s discuss it over coffee.”
They got seats at the window, looking out onto the street. Pansy ordered a long black—Zacharias spent a good three minutes trying to convince the bored barista that there were more types of tea than just “black” and “green.”
“I am quite certain I specified afternoon tea in my letter,” he said, sitting down on the stool beside Pansy.
“Shouldn’t have let me choose where we met, then,” Pansy said.
Zacharias looked despairingly into his cup of miscellaneous black tea. “Alright, whatever,” he said, snapping out of it, “I’m not here to talk about tea. I’m here because I’ve been assigned to the Mulciber Mansion artefact case, and I know you have something to do with it.”
“Assigned in what sense?” Pansy asked. “I thought you worked in PR.”
“Exactly,” Zacharias said. “Haven’t you ever wondered how the Prophet decides what they should and shouldn’t publish? They don’t. We do. Especially for high-profile cases like this one.”
“If you’re going to report on it, then at least get your facts right,” Pansy said. “It’s called the Avery geode, not the Mulciber Mansion artefact.”
“The Avery geode,” Zacharias repeated. “No-one at the Ministry called it that. Where did you get that name from, Daphne’s contact?”
Pansy gave him a look out of the corner of her eyes. “How do you know about Daphne’s contact?”
Zacharias shrugged. “Asked her about it. She said his name was Month, or something.”
“It’s Menthe, you fucking philistine,” Pansy said. “French for mint.”
“Well it sounds the same to me,” Zacharias said. “You traders with your stupid nicknames—I suppose it’s meant to confuse outsiders, but honestly? I think it’s a little bit—wait, did you say French?”
“Yes, French,” Pansy said. “I can’t help it if your upbringing didn’t include any education in a foreign language.”
“What does it mean that it’s in French?” Zacharias asked. “I know all the shades of green mean you’re from Slytherin.”
“It just suggests that the trader has some French heritage,” Pansy said. “It’s nothing complicated.”
“See, that interests me,” Zacharias said, “because I was talking to the head of the Old FaRTS this afternoon—er, that stands for—”
“I know who the Old FaRTS are,” Pansy said impatiently, “and I know that they’re headed by one Sulpicius Burke. Don’t waste my time, Smith.”
“How the hell do you know all this?” Zacharias paused, his lips pursed. “No, you know what, I don’t want to know. The point is—it could be nothing, but Burke mentioned that these posh chairs in his office were French, and they’d been in the family a while…”
Pansy twirled her spoon through what remained of her coffee as she thought it over. “You think Menthe is Burke?”
“I know that someone gave Daphne the tip-off about this object, and why would they do that unless they had a vested interest in buying it? Burke had files on it going back decades, not that there was much in them. And since Menthe had to ask, it suggests that he doesn’t have people on hand to do jobs for him, and has to go through other traders. An Auror, especially one so senior, definitely wouldn’t want to risk cutting the middleman. On top of that, he seemed disappointed that the object was just a rock, even though the DoM have been calling it a geode, which I think is something a little different.”
“You make some good points,” Pansy said. “Frame him for it.”
Zacharias choked on his tea, coughing into the back of his hand. Pansy rested her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand, waiting for him to finish.
“I can’t just frame people at your whim, Parkinson,” Zacharias said.
“Not with that attitude you can’t,” Pansy said. “Listen, we both want Daphne, Milly, and Tracey out of custody, don’t we? So it stands to reason that someone else has to pick up the slack for this job. From what you’ve said, Burke is a good suspect. I don’t give a shit if he’s Menthe or not. Make him Menthe. Give Menthe some fabricated footpads.”
Zacharias went quiet. Pansy hoped he was considering it seriously. This was the break she’d been looking for.
Eventually, he said, “Yeah. Alright. I’ll give it a shot.”
“I knew you had it in you,” Pansy said, neglecting to mention that this was the best bit of luck she’d had in at least the last six months. “See to it that you do it quickly, though.”
“I have to,” Zacharias said, “since the Prophet are planning to report on this in tomorrow’s—”
Pansy’s mobile phone began to ring, cutting him off. “Just a moment,” she said, flipping it open. “Hello?”
“Pansy, it’s Blaise.”
“I should’ve known,” she said. “Very few people have my number.” She ignored the way Zacharias was staring at her unbelievably stylish phone—not so Muggle-passing now, was he?
“Lucky I got it off you, then,” Blaise said. “There’s been a development. Some traders have put an item on the market, described as ‘a rock on the outside, holding a myriad secrets on the inside.’ Apparently ‘the real value is in the creation of such an artefact.’”
“Where are you getting this from?” Pansy asked.
“These traders, they’re not subtle,” Blaise said. “They put a call out to a few interested parties, apparently, and the one we heard from is a WIT undercover agent who’s been working the trade for a few months—and no, Pansy, I will not tell you their trader pseudonym.”
“Can you at least tell me the names of these traders?”
Blaise snorted. “Yeah, they’re going by Goldenrod and International Klein Blue. Ever heard of them?”
“Fucking Merlin,” Pansy said, “that’s the biggest load of wank I’ve ever—no, I haven’t heard of them. Yellow and blue. Not really my territory.”
“I noticed that too,” Blaise said. “Seems a bit sudden. Anyway, I thought the Avery geode was with the Ministry.”
“So did I,” Pansy said. “I guess the market is moving a little faster than we’re used to.”
“People are falling over themselves for this thing,” Blaise said. “I don’t know what you’ve got yourself involved in, Pansy, but be careful.”
“That’s sweet of you,” Pansy said. “I won’t.”
She hung up.
“Zacharias. Have you never seen a mobile phone before?”
“Not one that flips open like that,” he said. “I only ever use a landline, myself.”
“One of those might be useful,” Pansy said. “How about we go back to your place and make a call?”
“Why can’t you just use your flipping mobile?”
“In this business,” Pansy said, “obscurity is everything.”
Now that they were back at Padma’s flat and all the necessary calls had been made, the guilt was beginning to set in. She had stolen Ministry property. The geode was sitting on her dining room table, and Quinlan at a chair beside it, fingers itching next to the phone.
“I can’t believe it,” he kept saying. “I can’t believe we just did that.”
“I know,” Padma said. “If we get caught—”
“We won’t get caught,” Quinlan said, more assured now. “Have you seen how lacking the notes from the Aurors were? They barely monitor it themselves.”
“And it’s in the DoM for good, now,” Padma said. “At least until we get test results back.”
“Which we never will,” Quinlan said, “because there’s nothing to find—except what we already know.”
“Right,” Padma said. “Right. We’ll be fine.”
“We’ll be fine.”
The phone rang.
Quinlan let out a shout, almost overbalancing backwards in his seat. Padma jumped too, but she regained her composure faster and reached over Quinlan to pick up the phone.
“Padma, hi!” It was her sister’s voice down the other end of the line—a scare over nothing. “So you know how the other day I was looking at sofas for mum’s birthday? Well, I was back today and I thought, maybe she’d prefer the armchair? So I—”
“Parvati,” Padma said, “I’m really sorry to interrupt you, but now is not a good time.”
“Huh? How come?”
“I’m waiting on a call,” Padma said. “Can I get back to you… um, tomorrow?”
“Mum’s birthday is tomorrow,” Parvati said, irritated. “I may as well ask you about the present after I’ve given it to her. What’s so important that it can’t wait?”
“Ah, it’s a work thing,” Padma said.
“This is your home phone,” Parvati said. “I didn’t know you were working from home now.”
“It’s just a one-time thing,” Padma said, “so, um, if you don’t mind, I need to get back to—”
“Alright, alright,” Parvati said. “Go do your job. But try to call me later tonight, yeah?”
“I’ll do my best,” Padma said.
No sooner had she put the phone back in its cradle than it began to ring again. This was stressful. Padma made a mental note to ignore whichever instinct had led her to make this bad decision next time it came calling.
She gestured for Quinlan to pick up the phone, but he was giving her a pained look.
“I thought you were so desperate to take a call,” she said.
Quinlan looked away. “I’ve changed my mind.”
Sighing, Padma picked up the phone again. “Hello?”
“Is that Goldenrod?”
The speaker was female by the sounds of their voice, and had a familiar accent that Padma couldn’t quite place.
“No, this is his associate, International Klein Blue,” she said. “Are you calling about the artefact?”
“That’s right,” the caller said. “You don’t know me—I go by Malachite. I got your details from a contact. I’m calling about the Avery geode.”
It was like an alarm bell going off in Padma’s head—the Avery geode. She and Quinlan had made certain to advertise the geode as a mysterious rock, giving nothing more away. As far as they were aware, no-one else except maybe the previous owners would’ve known that this was a geode, let alone one created by Fern Avery. Was Malachite a Mulciber, or just someone who knew too much? Either way, Padma was instantly wary.
“What about it?” she asked.
“You’re selling it, aren’t you?” Malachite said. “I’m interested in making a purchase.”
This was the frightening part, but they had planned for it. Now Padma just had to pull it off. “We’re asking twenty thousand galleons,” she said.
“Twenty thousand—what the fuck? Listen, Ravenclaw, I know you’re new to this, so I’ll give you the low-down: twenty thousand? It’s too much. I wouldn’t pay twenty thousand for a fucking Monet. This thing is just a rock.”
“Ah,” Padma said, “but it isn’t just a rock, is it? You can vouch for it yourself—you called it the Avery geode, which isn’t a name we chose to broadcast to any of our prospective clients. I would wager that you know this rock’s secrets as well as we do.”
“You got me,” Malachite said. “I do know a bit about it. I also know that it was seized by the Ministry this morning, so whoever you are, I know where you work.”
Padma froze. Stay calm, she told herself. Keep breathing. “Do you?”
“Oh, for—keep up!”
“You don’t need to work in the Ministry to steal from the Ministry,” Padma said, her heart thumping in her chest, “as I thought you would know, being in this business.”
There was silence. For a moment, Padma thought she’d lost Malachite, lost their only potential customer, but then—
“Alright. Ten thousand, on the corner of Moor Street, where it turns onto Old Compton Street. Seven-thirty sharp. I’ll leave the money in a briefcase, and you leave the geode in a paper bag.”
Ten, not twenty. And a busy part of London on a Friday—she was clever, this trader. Padma felt a little out of her depth. But she would do it, and she’d make Quinlan come with her. They would finish what they’d started, and then they’d be ten thousand galleons richer. Simple.
“Deal,” Padma said.
It was only a quarter to seven when Pansy made it into the city. There was still time to get a drink before she made the trade—or, rather, stole the geode before there could be any trade to be made.
A seven-thirty meeting gave her ample time to get dinner before catching up with Avocado. Pansy had called around until she got her hands a number for International Klein Blue, and they’d negotiated. After that, she’d made a few more calls to get Avocado’s details. It had taken longer than she would’ve liked. She wasn’t going to teleport back to Kew for Daphne’s phonebook, just in case there were Aurors monitoring the place, so she had to go off the few numbers saved on her mobile. And she couldn’t tell anyone that she was asking because Jade was in prison, because that’d blow Daphne’s cover. But Malachite was almost as respected in the trade, so a few calls to the right numbers got her what she wanted, and she told Avocado that she’d be there in Jade’s place.
Zacharias was pretty mad that she’d run up his phone bill, but he would just have to cope with it. His fancy Ministry salary would cover it. Plus, his house was kind of big and worryingly empty, like he’d just moved in. Pansy figured he would be glad for the company, even if it was her.
Now, with half an hour to kill, she wandered around Soho, looking for a bar where it mightn’t take too long to get a cocktail made. She was distracted, though, by a familiar face.
Padma Patil wasn’t someone Pansy had ever spoken to at Hogwarts, or after. Rumour had it that she became a recluse after the war, working in the Department of Mysteries. Pansy couldn’t blame her. But here she was, in the middle of Muggle London, with a man walking close by her. She was on a date, and Pansy could never resist an opportunity for a bit of teasing.
Stopping in her tracks, Padma turned around. “Pansy Parkinson. Of all the people I expected to see here…”
“It must be a smaller world than we think it is,” Pansy said.
“Well, our world is pretty small.”
It was Padma’s date who’d spoken. Pansy locked into him, grinning.
“And who’s this?”
“A colleague,” Padma said coldly.
“Surely you’re not working this late at night?” Pansy said. “Or… is it a date?”
“It’s been nice catching up,” Padma said, “but actually, I am working this late at night. I’m sure you’re on your way somewhere too, so I’ll leave you to it.”
No fun. Pansy frowned, resigned. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“Maybe,” Padma said, grabbing her not-date by the arm and pulling him towards Shaftesbury Avenue.
“It’s her,” Padma said.
Quinlan gave her a curious look. “Who’s her?”
“Malachite, Pansy Parkinson, same person,” Padma said quickly. “She’s associated with the three who were arrested this morning. I’m surprised she wasn’t with them, honestly—I should’ve guessed.”
“So what do we do?” Quinlan asked. “Can we trust her?”
Padma’s mouth hardened into a line. “We don’t have any choice. We have to make the trade.”
Lingering around the corner of Moor Street with a cocktail in her hand and a disillusionment charm keeping her invisible from the Muggles, Pansy set up her detection spells. As soon as the geode was nearby, she’d be alerted. Given that International Klein Blue had come off as such an amateur, she probably wasn’t taking any of the necessary precautions to make sure the trade happened fairly. Pansy would be ready to pounce on any mistake.
She had left an empty briefcase by the corner. International Klein Blue and her partner Goldenrod wouldn’t check it for weight, because there were charms that made things lighter. And with any luck, they wouldn’t open it on the street either. They would need to check it with spells, but Pansy was counting on the fact that they were too green to think of that.
Or, worst case scenario, she would use brute force and an Accio charm.
It was getting closer to seven-thirty when Pansy saw Padma and her not-date turning off Old Compton—hadn’t they been heading towards Shaftesbury? When they stopped to linger at the corner, it clicked.
Padma was International Klein Blue. And Pansy was about to play her to the tune of ten thousand galleons.
She watched as Padma picked up the briefcase and lifted it up and down. She seemed to find the weight satisfactory, and handed the case to Goldenrod. Then, from a purse around her shoulder that must have been packing an expansion spell on the inside, she pulled a paper bag. There was no mistaking it. This was the geode.
Then, Goldenrod opened the briefcase. Pansy’s breath caught in her throat as the scene before her unfolded—each second slowed to a torturous length. Goldenrod must have seen the empty briefcase, because he shouted something and put a hand on Padma’s arm. The paper bag never touched the ground.
In an instant, Pansy was back to full alertness and drawing her wand. “Accio Avery geode!”
The geode did not fly into her waiting hands. They’d blocked the spell. Padma and Goldenrod flickered out of her vision—had they Disapparated? No, they were still there, but blurred around the edges, the hallmark of a disillusionment charm.
But Pansy was under the effects of the same charm, and they couldn’t see her either. Maybe she could play that to her advantage.
Making her way to where she’d last seen them, she swiped her hands through the air as she walked, not bothering to avoid Muggles. A shout went out as she hit a passing stranger—he seemed to think it was someone else, and within seconds they broke into a brawl. As far as Pansy was concerned, that was just extra cover for her.
Eventually, she hit on something tangible but invisible. Grasping around in thin air, she felt a hand pressing against her, trying to push her away. Pansy backed off the offensive, instead reaching to find the hand. It was a right hand. Which meant, if she could locate the left hand, she would have the geode.
Pansy hadn’t been in a fistfight since she was a kid. It was thrilling, sure, but it didn’t make sense. “Why aren’t you just Apparating?” she asked, clutching at what she thought might’ve been a paper bag.
“We can negotiate,” Padma said. “If you’d just stay here, we can talk.”
A larger hand closed around Pansy’s upper arm. “You want to bargain? Think you’ll get a better price out of me?”
“I would certainly hope so,” Padma said, strained. “I may be new to your trade, but I know that even thieves have a code of honour!”
That, Pansy thought, was where she was wrong. Pansy had no loyalty except to her friends, but trust someone who’d fought in Potter’s Army to assume the best of people.
“Well, you know what they say,” Pansy said. At last, both of her hands closed on a round form secured in a paper bag. “Never trust a Slytherin.”
With the geode clutched to her chest, she Disapparated.
As it transpired, framing someone was hard work. Zacharias was no stranger to working late, but this wasn’t work he enjoyed. It was past seven, and he hadn’t eaten since… since when? That was a bad sign. There was no food in the Ministry archives, though. There was no reward for digging up all the dirt he could on Sulpicius Burke, except the satisfaction that he was helping clear his friends’ names of a crime they absolutely had committed, but didn’t really deserve to be jailed for. At least, he thought they didn’t. Or did he think that because he cared about them as people? Would he be putting in this much effort if they weren’t people he knew? Did it matter, since it boiled down to rich people robbing other rich people, and no-one really lost anything?
Zacharias really needed something to eat. And maybe a stiff drink, or five.
But, when it came down to it, he had accomplished what he’d set out to do. He had a folder full of flattened scrolls, evidence of the Burke family’s long-running involvement in the artefact trade, and he held it under his arm as he made his way down to the Auror office.
He had expected it to be mostly empty, but there was Susan, sitting at a desk near the front and reading through a scroll.
“You’re here late,” he said. He was trying to be conversational, but his voice came out weird and croaky.
Susan looked up, her face blank. “So are you.”
“I’d be inclined to tell you to bugger off home, but I need your help with something. One last thing. Then we can walk to the tube together. Maybe get dinner.”
“Sure,” she said. “That sounds… wait, what do you want me to do?”
Zacharias sat on her desk and put down his folder. “This is all the evidence I have that Sulpicius Burke is involved in the artefact trade. We—I think he’s ‘Menthe,’ the person who gave Greengrass the tip-off about the Mulciber Mansion artefact. Or the Avery geode, as it’s apparently called. Don’t ask how I know that. I think Burke has been suppressing information on it.”
“Wow, Zach,” Susan said. She had picked up the first of the files on Burke, and was scanning it as he spoke. “It looks like you’ve got this case wrapped up. I don’t know what you need me for.”
“Well, I’m,” Zacharias said, struggling to find the words, “I’m not an Auror, am I? I’m not really meant to have done any of this digging. All I have to do is write a press release by tomorrow morning.”
“So you need a face,” Susan said.
“Your face, preferably,” Zacharias said.
She closed her eyes momentarily, sighing. “Alright. He’s still in his office, I think. Let’s do this.”
They crossed to the other side of the room for the second time that day, this time with less hesitance and more purpose. Zacharias felt confident that he wasn’t framing someone innocent—the evidence was adding up, and it looked like Burke had been suppressing information on more than just this artefact in order to get the sales redirected to himself. And Tracey had told him that it was too easy to break into Mulciber Mansion. Combined with Avocado Mulciber being so keen to buy it back… Zacharias was convinced that Burke had done something to the wards around the mansion.
Now all he needed was a confession.
Susan knocked on Burke’s office door. “It’s just me and Smith again,” she said.
“Come in, come in,” Burke said. “What are you doing here so late? Surely most of the work on this case has been done?”
“We still haven’t extracted any confessions,” Susan said, “which leads me to believe that they’re not guilty after all.”
“That’s impossible,” Burke said. “We know they did it.”
“How?” Susan said. For someone so tired, she was doing a damn good job. “We overheard a conversation about the artefact trade at one of the suspects’ residences. We know they discussed selling an object which, by their accounts, only came into their position when someone dropped it on the doorstep that morning. Unless you have any other evidence you’re not sharing with us?”
Burke went quiet. Zacharias was so impressed with Susan—this was as good as an admission of guilt.
“I don’t have any other evidence,” Burke said. “I was only speaking based on their history, and—”
“And what about your history?” Susan said. “Don’t think I don’t know that you’ve been—ah, shall we say you’ve been editing what makes it into the case files? There’s a lot in the archives that doesn’t show up in the reports you’ve written. Makes me think you know more than you’re letting on.”
“What are you suggesting?” Burke demanded. He slammed his palms down on his desk and pushed his chair backwards, standing up. “I am a reputable Auror. I’ve been the head of this squad for—”
“For too long,” Susan said. “It’s about time you answered for your negligence.”
“Which you will,” Zacharias said, “in the Prophet tomorrow.”
“You can’t publish something with no proof,” Burke said, “and you can’t prove I’ve had anything to do with the Mulciber Mansion robbery!”
Perhaps, Zacharias thought, it was a bad idea to tell him that most of the time the Prophet went ahead and published stories with no proof either way. Instead, he walked up to one of the sixteenth century French chairs and ran a hand along the top rail.
“You said this was French, didn’t you, Menthe?”
Burke stopped in his tracks.
“I thought so,” Zacharias said with a satisfied smile.
After that, it was up to Susan and the few Aurors who were there on the night shift. They took Burke down to the cells, and Zacharias forgot all about his promise to walk to the tube with Susan and maybe get dinner. Finalising his press release and sending it off to the Zeller at the Prophet, he left as soon as he could. He didn’t even bother with food. There would be something in the fridge at home. Probably.
He didn’t find food in the fridge. He found Pansy Parkinson sitting on his couch.
“Before you say anything,” Pansy said, “I stole the geode from Goldenrod and International Klein Blue—who turned out to be Padma Patil, would you believe it?—and now I need somewhere to lie low just in case they come looking for the ten thousand galleons I promised them.”
Zacharias stared at her. “And you chose my house?”
Pansy shrugged. “You had some leftovers in the fridge. I was hungry.”
“That’s not an explanation,” Zacharias said. “Come on, put that thing somewhere safe. We’re going out for a proper meal. And you’re paying.”
Susan always felt a great sense of relief at the end of a case, when she could lift the weight from her shoulders and banish all thoughts of background checks and paperwork from her mind. So she had stayed a little late finishing this one off—that was fine. She had got some old acquaintances off the hook, and she’d cleared the Ministry of one more dusty pureblood supremacist. All in a day’s work.
The casserole in the fridge would have to wait a little longer, though. There was one more thing she had to do.
When she got down to the cells, the guards had changed, and there was a bored-looking elderly woman with a copy of the Daily Prophet draped over the front desk.
“Hello,” Susan said, “don’t suppose I could grab a skeleton key? I need to check in on some prisoners who’re due to be released.”
“Sure,” the guard said. She put down her newspaper slowly and rummaged around in one of the desk drawers for a key.
“No extra precautions?” Susan asked. The guard was just handing it to her. “No ribbons?”
The guard looked at her like she was mad. Oh well. Some things were better left forgotten, Susan reasoned.
Key securely in her pocket, she made her way down the echoey corridors for the second time that day. After briefly ascertaining that Daphne and Millicent were still in their respective cells and letting them know they’d be released soon, she came to Tracey.
“Look who’s back. My favourite Auror.”
“I can’t tell if you’re joking or not,” Susan said. “The key, if you would.”
Tracey jumped up, pointing an accusing finger at Susan. “I thought we agreed there was no key.”
It was all Susan could do to keep from losing her cool. “Come on, Tracey. You’re hardly in a position to argue about this.”
“I absolutely am,” Tracey said. “There’s no magic down here. You’ll have to fight me for it the old-fashioned way.”
“No, I won’t,” Susan said, and she could think of nothing worse. “There’ll be a guard coming around in a few minutes to let you out. I’d hate for them to discover that you’ve got a skeleton key on you.”
“I don’t believe you,” Tracey said. She folded her arms, stepping closer to Susan. “Why can’t you just release me yourself, if that’s true? Why am I being released, anyway?”
Susan barely held herself back from swearing. “Not just you—all of you are off the hook. We’ve arrested the man behind the robbery, and no-one knows who his agents were. I think he’s realised that if he compromises one trade persona, the rest will follow. And since all of your stories match up, we can’t convict any of you.”
“Menthe? Really? You got Menthe?”
“We did,” Susan said. “Got anything to say about how competent we Aurors are now?”
Tracey shrugged. “You’re alright, I guess. Maybe work on your powers of observation.”
“Check your pockets,” Tracey said.
There, in Susan’s right pocket, were two skeleton keys. “How did you—”
“Tricks of the trade,” Tracey said, tapping the side of her nose.
Susan left the cell disoriented. Back at the entrance, the guard was still reading the Prophet. “Oh, don’t worry,” Susan said, reaching over the desk to the drawer, “I’ll put the key away myself.”
From inside the dark cell, Daphne couldn’t tell the time, but she could tell that it had been approximately too fucking long since Susan had come past to assure her that she would be released soon.
“Excuse me,” she called, standing right up against the thick wooden door, “I believe I’m due to be released?”
Silence, and then, “Daphne? Is that you?” It sounded like Millicent’s voice.
“Milly? Daphne?” That was Tracey. “Bones said we were going to be let out.”
“She did,” Daphne said. She did not appreciate yelling. “And yet, here we are.”
“Are there any guards around at this hour?” Millicent shouted.
No-one responded for a few moments, and Daphne could swear she heard a drop of water fall in the damp corner of her cell. The sound reverberated like a plucked string on an out-of-tune piano. It was going to be a long night.
The Department of Mysteries was completely empty at nine in the evening, except for Padma and Quinlan returning from a failed mission. It had been a failure on more than one count—not only had they lost the Avery geode, an item of allegedly great significance that was meant to be joining the other artefacts kept in the DoM, they had failed to make any money off it, which had been the goal of smuggling it out in the first place.
Back in the office, Quinlan collapsed at his desk and spread a handful of pebbles out in front of him.
“Where did you get those?” Padma asked.
“Your driveway,” Quinlan said, shrugging. “I was thinking we could have a go at transfiguring them into the geode. We have to replace it somehow.”
“But there’s no way we can replace the amount of magic that went into that,” Padma said. “We don’t even know what it did.”
Although it could’ve been created from nothing. Padma was still entertaining the idea, but there was no way to prove it now. She’d really buggered it up.
“There are no proper records on the damn thing,” Quinlan said. “Let’s just transfigure it and be done with it.”
He had a point—there were no records on the magic of the geode, only its history. All they had was what Padma had written down that morning. They could conceivably get away with transfiguring a rock and loading it up with a few useless but potent spells.
“Alright,” Padma said, “do you want to do the transfiguration, or shall I?”
“I’ll do it. It was my best subject back at Hogwarts,” Quinlan said.
Despite that, it took him a few tries to get it right, waving his wand around until the rock was as big as they remembered the geode. Then, he severed it down the middle and got to work on transfiguring the insides into a cluster of amethyst crystals—the hard part.
While he worked, Padma sat down at her desk. She was considering rewriting a few of her notes from the morning to fit what she’d put into the new geode when she noticed a memo with the R&D stamp sitting on the corner of the desk nearest the door.
Re: Artefact #359127, DoM watchlist #17 – Mulciber Mansion object
Nature of object: amethyst geode, appears to be a rock from outside, round, 11 ⅖ “, breaks neatly in half
Notes from DoM: Unsure what this is. Obviously it’s a geode—two halves fuse together when touched and break apart cleanly when hit with some blunt force. Lots of magic in here. No way to tell what the magic does. Maybe it does nothing. Any input appreciated. – P. Patil
Notes from R&D: At first we thought you might’ve been right, that there really was nothing to it. Then we started thinking that all this raw power was because the object had been created from nothing, but that theory didn’t stick either. It’s a geode, and it always has been. But it seems like the roundness is artificial, and ultimately that’s what set us on the right track. Just now (19:16), our instruments finally finished processing the results they got from this object. We traced it back a little, and it seems like the Big Spell went into this split-and-fuse mechanism the geode’s got going for it. Very nifty! A lot of magic was used to make sure it goes back together cleanly every time. Hope this clears everything up! Thanks for giving us a good challenge! – R. Hilliard
Padma stared at the memo in disbelief. An alignment spell? A spell to fit two halves to a whole? She had thought it was a little unusual that the geode split and reconfigured itself perfectly every time, but did it really take that much magic? Whatever the mechanism was, it was clever. And it wouldn’t be hard to recreate.
“Well, Goldenrod,” Padma said, ignoring how Quinlan flinched at the nickname, “it looks like our geode really is no more than a fancy rock.”
“All that effort for nothing? And those purebloods were all so desperate to get their hands on it? Merlin, the artefact trade is a strange place,” Quinlan said. “I’ve had enough of it for one lifetime.”
Padma wasn’t quite sure that she had, but she kept that to herself. “Either way—give me a few days, and I should be able to recreate that split-and-fuse spell.”
She could always ask R&D for more details, and say that she wanted the spell to use around the house. Or she could create more objects with an incidentally inordinate amount of magic in them, and sell them on the black market. Maybe she’d even ask Pansy Parkinson for advice, since apparently International Klein Blue was an amateur.
Whatever Padma decided—she would sleep on it—there was one thing she could do for certain, now. She left Quinlan to his transfiguration and went to the lunchroom, making an amendment to the watchlist hanging above the fridge:
17. Avery geode – useless but beautiful, advanced split-and-fuse spell (Department of Mysteries)
Everyone was supposed to be good at something.
Pansy had been given a whole day to think over it—she was the best at this, but was it the best for her? In the last 24 hours, she’d robbed a mansion for a shiny rock, her best friends had been jailed for it, she’d dipped her toes into the business end of the artefact trade, and accidentally had a high-up Auror exposed for playing the double agent.
And now Daphne, Millicent, and Tracey were stuck in the Ministry’s prison cells overnight. There was a garbled voicemail on her mobile phone from Susan Bones: “Hello Pansy, so sorry about this, but I think I was really tired and forgot to sign the release forms for Tracey and the others? Anyway, sorry for calling so suddenly. I got your number from Zach—by the way, he says to tell you thanks for dinner, he’ll call you about next Sunday—and… what was I saying? Oh, uh… sorry about Tracey. And, um, Daphne and Millicent. Sorry about that, really! They’ll be out tomorrow morning!”
Thank Merlin Pansy had been able to get in touch with Avocado and put together a contingency plan. She had some time to spare after dinner, so she caught the tube to Leicester Square instead of Apparating and lingered around exit 4.
She would recognise Avocado by a green pin on the lapel of his black robes. At any other time, a man in black robes would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of Muggle London, but Leicester Square on a Friday night was worse than a Hogwarts Quidditch crowd, and noisier.
While Pansy was waiting, she turned her purse around in her hands. Although it was small, any robber worth their salt was good with an extension charm, and the Avery geode sat safely inside. What Pansy had been through to get her hands on it… she’d go through it all again, she realised. Even for something as useless as the geode. She’d do it, because it was what she loved.
People didn’t usually do bad things because they loved to. They did it because they were forced to, like Zacharias lying and framing someone to cover for his imprisoned friends, or because they saw an opportunity, like Padma trying to get in on the black market and sell the geode. But they weren’t bad like Pansy was. She had meant what she said to Padma—never trust a Slytherin. Padma and Zacharias had done bad things with for their own reasons, somewhere on the skewed edge of the morality compass, but that compass was a lot simpler in the artefact trade. There was no good and bad, really, no black and white, just different shades of green.
When the station clock hit ten, a tall, elderly man appeared from the ticket gates. She recognised him—most of high society recognised each other—but it was good etiquette to pretend that she didn’t. As he approached, she watched him pocket an Oyster card in the folds of his black robes. On the lapel, there was a green pin. It looked like a bundle of spring onions—Pansy wondered what the Mulciber family trade name had been before “Avocado.”
“Malachite, I presume,” he said, approaching as she waved him down. “You have the object?”
“If you have the money, Avocado, I have the object,” Pansy said.
Avocado produced a briefcase. “Four thousand galleons, as agreed with Jade.”
“Thank you,” Pansy said. She took it from him—as expected, it didn’t weigh more than an empty briefcase. In return, she handed him her purse. “It’s in here. Not really your fashion accessory of choice, I’m sure, but at least it’s discreet.”
He nodded. “You’ve been discreet too, given the rather unfortunate circumstances of this transaction. Ransomers or not, at least I know you’re reliable. I will keep you and your associates in mind the next time an opportunity comes up.”
“Well, what can I say?” Pansy grinned. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
The money in her hand and the feeling of satisfaction running through her as she Apparated back home was enough to confirm that this was it, her something.
Pansy Parkinson was the best at being bad, and there was no-one worse.