In Conversation with Madmen
One would be hard-pressed to find a Black, any Black at all, even the disgraced ones, who was not sensitive about his or her appearance. This first meeting with Mr. E. Cadogan – E., E. What could it stand for? – was crucial to my future. If I couldn’t get a position with him, I wouldn’t be able to eat for the next week unless someone took pity on me again. Just like– I shoved Moody from my consciousness and drove another pin into my hair. A tight bun, prim and proper. Business-like, but still feminine clothing. A pair of spectacles for effect. Better to be bookish than sensual. Yes, this was perfect. How could he not hire me straight off? I definitely looked the part.
Five minutes early. It was not a good thing to be early for a job interview. Showed too much eagerness, and no one wanted a too-eager tour guide. They would tire you out before lunchtime, running you through the sites before you even had a chance to figure out how to pronounce the name of the place. You’d be whipped through Egypt before you’d stepped off the boat at Alexandria.
He was an early type too, it seemed. Pleasant voice, too. I set him in the key of G major.
I turned in the direction of his voice, not at all sure what I was expecting to see. He was extremely pale – Hassim had not be exaggerating on that point – but it was not a sickly sort of pale; it was just one of those complexions. Came from being a red-head. He was also very tall, towering over me like a crane, all angles. There was a stoop to his shoulders that showed how conscious he was of his height; he wanted to fit in. It was his eyes that grabbed my attention. Bright, bulging, and blue, the kind that stared right through a person.
Not handsome, I’d never say that, but he definitely stood out from the crowd.
He deserved every inch of smile I gave him.
“You must be Mr. Cadogan.” I offered my hand. In the most cliched way possible, he brought it to his lips instead of shaking it, but it was an anything-but-insolent action.
Moody, I would have smacked as hard as I could. With this man, I almost simpered. What was coming over me?
“Have you been in Egypt long, Mr. Cadogan?”
Everything about him said no, but I was trying to be polite. Vamp him up a bit. All his black clothing certainly screamed “foreigner,” though I’d seen a lot of stupid tourists who at least knew to wear light colours in the sun.
His smile was lopsided. Must have been positively endearing as a child.
“I have only arrived recently, Miss Black. It is an enchanting country, is it not?”
Enchanting. Not a word I would have used. It implied a certain amount of fairy tale that hadn’t existed for most of Egypt’s occupants. How very colonial of him.
“Most definitely.” Small talk. The death of intellectuals everywhere. “Now, excuse me for being forward, Mr. Cadogan, but why–?”
He waved a hand – huge it was – to silence me. Against my better judgement, I complied.
“I require someone with intimate knowledge of this area and its history. I was referred to you as a suitable candidate for the position.”
I resisted the temptation to ask who. No one around here was insane enough to refer me to anyone else as a “suitable candidate” unless it was for the most menial of tasks. Intimate knowledge of the area and its history? Not bloody likely.
“What would you like to know, Mr. Cadogan? My education? Accomplishments?” I hoped he wouldn’t ask. Hogwarts was not a recognized institution among Muggles.
Narrowing my eyes, I tried to figure out if he actually was a Muggle. It was not all too obvious, which triggered some suspicion. Some wizards were highly skilled at hiding in the Muggle world, working as spies or in other covert roles in order to better control the Muggle population. If this was one of them, or a wizard sent in search of me, I couldn’t tell. The closer I could get to him, the better.
He waved his hand again. One used to getting what he wanted, I presume. Lots of servants and lots of money to keep them happy enough.
“That is not necessary, Miss Black. I already see that you are perfect for the position.”
How? I didn’t recall having cited the Pharaoh’s in chronological order in his presence.
“Perhaps we could start with the general environs?”
He offered his arm, but I pretended that I had not noticed it. I was in his employ as a tour guide, nothing more. It was something to do, and I hoped he enjoying eating all the meals of the day (sharing them with me, of course).
Unlike others I had led around the area, Mr. Cadogan betrayed no interest in the museum nor in the numerous tombs I led him through. His eyes would glance for a moment at the carvings and decorations, then glance away into the shadows, as though expecting a mummy to come prancing out. I gave him the grand tour, from the grandest temples to the most interesting night life the area had to offer. But the stoic Mr. Cadogan seemed to take no pleasure from any of it.
If ever I asked him about what he would like to do next, he would turn to me, his eyes staring through me.
“You are the expert, Miss Black. I am in your capable hands.”
As this was always spoken without a hint of sarcasm, I put aside any curiosity and went on to the next important location on my list, which was, I might add, conveniently taken from an old edition of Baedeker’s. But why would anyone come to this place without showing any interest in the sites? He was here alone, from what I could tell, so there was no excuse of being dragged along by a mad relative. Most of the time we were together, I felt like I was talking to myself.
Someone like Moody would have made a comment about me being the prettiest guide in Egypt. I did catch sight of that bastard once or twice, but I happily avoided him, even taking Mr. Cadogan’s arm at one point when I was sure that Moody was looking. Petty, but worth it.
Mr. Cadogan did not require my services on the Friday after he first paid his way into my company. Of course I ventured down to the tomb, taking a seat on the retaining wall close to the tomb entrance. An elderly couple glared at me as I settled into a hollowed out section of stone, but I was clueless as to why. I was not dressed like a belly dancer or anything otherwise inappropriate. I had even remembered to wear my hat.
A wooden chest was then carried out of the tomb on a stretcher, and I stopped caring about most everything else.
It was a beautiful thing, all inlaid wood and precious materials forming images of pastoral scenes. The people around me gasped in appreciation of the object, only one example of the greatness to be found within that tomb. Merlin, I wanted to be in there, the first eyes to gaze upon each object. It was probably a wretched hole carved into the rock, something quickly put together for a pharaoh who should not have died for another few decades, but it was the objects within it that mattered. The funerary equipment, the furniture, the statues, even the simple items for use in the afterlife.... Green with envy, I sighed in what must have been a most pathetic manner because the elderly couple once again glared at me. What did they think of me?
I left soon after. The old woman took my place on the wall, parasol in hand.
Wandering down the Valley, I took in the barren, stony walls and crowds of tourists in stride. Neither truly wanted the other to be there, but really had no choice in the matter. Come to think of it, the walls did have more of a choice – they could crumble down on top of the tourists at any moment, crushing them all to bits. That would certainly rid the area of a number of problems, yet also cause more to the economy.
“Fancy meeting you here, Miss Black.”
I closed my eyes. Now here was someone who ought to have been crushed long ago.
“Ugh, not you again.” Of course I should have known that insults only attracted him like a fly to dung.
He grinned and loped along beside me. “Off looking at the tomb?”
“Just a guess.”
I said nothing. Maybe if I ignored him for long enough, he would go away.
“I heard that you’re showing around someone with lots of cash.”
A growl emitted from my throat. “Only an American would come up with a word so vulgar as ‘cash’ and why would you care about who I work for? I certainly don’t as long as he pays well.”
I regretted those words too soon after they tumbled out. The connotation they held was too embarrassing. He was good at bringing out all the wrong in me.
“People are talking about strange goings on around here.” He wisely changed the subject. “The usual talk about curses and mummies and such, but now I’m thinking there’s a bit more truth to them.”
I shrugged. “Probably the hotel owners trying to rack up business. Curses always get people coming in droves.”
His eyes were full of laughter. “Now, Miss Black, you’re the last person I’d expect to be believing in curses.”
Oh, if only he knew the beginning of it. “Most of the parchments I study contain curses and spells of different sorts.” Should I have said papyri, instead? What was the proper term for those things?
“But you don’t believe in them, do you?”
Yes, I used to practise them on a daily basis. Not that I was going to announce my proficiency in Defence Against the Dark Arts (better known to all Slytherins as the Dark Arts class. No better way to learn all the good curses except to learn the counter-curses), not to a Muggle. The Ministry would be on me in a second.
“That would be silly, Moody. Curses, of all things!”
My voice quavered a bit, betraying more hysteria than I was aware of experiencing.
“You know that you’re one of the strange things I was talking about.” His manner was careless, but his eyes betrayed a greater seriousness.
Must deflect. “Only because you’re trying to seduce me.”
He took the bait.
“Not at the moment.”
“Then would you mind going away?”
“I’m not done yet.”
“But you just said–”
“I’m talking, not seducing.”
“Then please get to the point. I don’t have time for this.” Actually, I did, seeing that I had nothing to do at the moment, but I was not going to lead him on further.
“You’re a difficult person to put a finger on.”
“Literally or metaphorically?”
He stopped and glared at me. “Please have patience, Miss Black. I am genuinely curious, and perhaps even worried for you.”
I stood facing him, my arms crossed in front of me. He looked far better with a glare than a grin. Instead of making him look unworthy of trust, the glare made him appear intense, emphasising his sharp features. The glare also meant that he had his mouth closed, that is, until he opened it to ask:
“Who are you?”
I laughed, tossing aside a surge of fear. “Do you have selective amnesia, Moody?”
He waved this aside, but not in the masterful way of Mr. Cadogan. “No, I know what name you go by, and as for your real name I couldn’t care less.”
So he didn’t actually believe I’d given him my real name. Surprising.
“Then what do–”
“Perhaps that was not the best question.” A flush coloured his throat. It was rewarding to have the upper hand for once. “What
A witch. Yes, Moody, I am a witch and will now erase your memory completely while I prance off to another country.
That would go over well. If he didn’t see the truth in the name I’d given him, my own these last twenty-three years, then I didn’t see him believing that I was part of a secret society that possessed more power than any Muggle empire. Off to the madhouse for you, Helen.
Moody was waiting for my answer. The longer I held off providing it, the most suspicious he would become.
“I could ask the same of you, but it’s none of my business, isn’t it?”
I walked away too quickly, my footsteps guided by instinct more than reason. My reason was busy interpreting the clues, the things he had given away in the short time I had been acquainted with the irritable Alexander Moody. The way that he mentioned curses and persisted in asking questions made me wonder if he had been sent to find me.
Yes, I was more than a little paranoid about being chased down by my parents and/or Canis Malfoy. Unlike the City cousins, there was no tapestry for our branch of the family. If they wanted to write me out of inheritance, they’d have to prove either my death or my willing abandonment of the family. In keeping the name Black and continuing to practise as a witch (and definitely not dead), I fit into neither category.
He was good at chasing after me, wasn’t he? But I still didn’t see him as the hired vigilante type. Too damn genuine in his words, actions, and emotions. It would have made him an expert assassin or a very innocent man.
Either way, he was not one whose company I desired. Not a male of the species, nor as a Muggle. I had principles, too.
I rather enjoyed eluding him a second – not quite third – time. He did follow me for a short while, but vanished by the time I reached the Valley’s entrance. Most unfortunate. I’d been looking forward to a merry chase across the desert. Instead of running home to bed, I circled back to watch more of the tomb proceedings. The old couple had left (presumably for an afternoon nap), so I settled in for a nice afternoon in the sun.
They were hauling out another box, this time of ebony and red-painted wood. It was possibly a jewellery box, about the same size and shape as my mother’s overstuffed box of jewels. A Pharaoh’s jewellery would be different from hers: not gaudy Victorian things, but instead representations of deities and lotus blooms all in coral, lapis, and turquoise. The box disappeared into Seti’s tomb, the excavation’s on-site workroom, and the crowd drifted away again. It wasn’t likely that anything else would be removed today.
The light was already fading. A whole day gone, already? It’d be back to leading Mr. Cadogan around places he wasn’t very interested in seeing. Perhaps I needed to try interrogating him a bit more, requesting more information about why he was here.
And then he walked past, on the other side of the Valley. I knew it was him; his height and red hair left no doubt. It shouldn’t have been surprising to see him here, another tourist doing the rounds of the Valley, except for the fact that we’d walked the Valley the day before. Nothing in his manner had betrayed any desire to return, but then again, he had the face of a statue. Not that he deserved such coldness from me; professional jealousy was getting in the way.
I stepped forward to call out his name, but he had stopped to speak with someone from the tomb, one of Mr. Carter’s assistants. He was nodding at whatever Mr. Cadogan said, then pointed to a location further down the Valley. Just asking for directions, that’s all.
Mr. Cadogan looked back, as though sensing my voyeuristic gaze. I ducked behind a pile of debris – the place was littered with such piles – bumping into a woman about my age, who was reapplying her lipstick.
“Sorry about that.” I cringed, hating to attract notice.
She gave a lazy shrug, dabbing at her lips a second time. “You’re likely going to be the only interesting thing that happened today. Who’re you hiding from, if I may ask?”
Was I that obvious? Hiding, indeed! Perhaps she was just a perceptive sort; the accent gave her away as pure Oxbridge material. A bluestocking, dragged here instead of to the Greek isles for Christmas hols?
Her quick perceptiveness meant I needed a lie. A good one.
“It’s my fiancé.” I took on a similar tone, as though consumed by ennui. “Been evading me since catching sight of that actress at the Palace. Did you see her, all dark and mysterious?”
All good lies require some truth. That actress was real enough, probably looking to play Cleopatra in some version of Shakespeare’s play.
My new friend’s expression brightened. Finally, something interesting in the world! Oh please, if only she knew how interesting the world could really be. It’s hard to have ennui when you’re too busy counting every penny.
There was the bitterness again. Must control it better.
“Oh! I saw her, quite a looker.” Or it could have been hooker she’d said. Hard to pay attention when trying to keep an eye on too many things at once. “Which one was your man?”
“Red hair, tall, just walked down that way.” I pointed around the corner.
She frowned. “Missed him. Drat.” After a pause, which I spent peeking out from behind the rock – still talking to the assistant, good – she pointed in the opposite direction. “And there’s the actress. Probably coming to see the tomb for herself.”
My contrived scenario was sounding better by the minute. Had I accidentally performed some act of Legilimency, calling the actress to this spot at the exact right moment?
The girl was nattering on. “It’s really too perfect, you know. He waits here for her, both acting like tourists, meeting by chance. Then you arrive in disguise–”
Was that what she called my dusty trousers and wind-blown hair? Practical, yes. Unconventional, most definitely. But a costume? Don’t tell me that this girl had achieved higher education than myself. She must have read too many novels.
“And now there’s that lovely man over there watching you. This is fun!”
My heart skipped a beat. Lovely man?
It was Moody, assessing me with the most curious of expressions. At the sight of him, I started to wonder at this girl’s sanity. Lovely, really?
“Well, I’m afraid I’ve got to run. Thanks.”
What I was thanking her for, I did not know. Perhaps for the insight into the modern Muggle female. It might come in handy if I ever needed a disguise, a real disguise, that is
I rushed off into the crowd, but they were all moving in the wrong direction. It was like trying to plow through a herd of sheep on the road, except that in this crowd, one could not kick the sheep aside. These sheep would bite back. Was there any place these people didn’t go?
Mr. Cadogan was no where to be seen. It was possible that he had gone the other way, but I was certain that I would have seen him in the crowd.
My feet halted as my head turned about, looking for any sign of Mr. Cadogan.
A wind passed through the Valley, making all the hair on my arms tingle and rise. It was the magic again, playing at the sand on the ground, swirling it up in alien patterns around my boots. I stepped back, hand reaching for my wand. Muggles be damned.
Voices from further down the Valley, out of sight, calling out in alarm. Had the wind reached there already?
Wand in hand, I stepped back, ready to face whatever it was using the sand to take on a corporeal shape. It chose that moment to vanish, the sand dropping to the ground. Never harmless, but silently waiting for the next breeze to make it come to life. I kicked at it.
“Miss Black? I was not aware you were here today.”
All that time looking and Mr. Cadogan had found me instead.
I started to innocently brush off my clothes when I realised that my wand was still in my hand. He was looking at it with too much interest, but no surprise. Dammit, he knew
“Oh. This. Just a silly souvenir. You know the strange things they sell in the market.”
Play the fool, Helen. Go ahead.
After a painful moment, he gave a smile that would have dazzled me on a better day.
“Ah, I see, drawing designs in the sand to attract the sight of the gods?” His voice was so light, almost dancing across the words. “I have heard that doing so requires a special artful rod, and certainly yours is made of very nice wood.”
In other words, not some cheap souvenir, not when it was made out of mahogany. Whatever he was saying about drawing designs in the sand was utter tommyrot.
“Um, yes. This location is just the right spot for these things, you see. The lay lines are right.” Could one safely combine Druid lore with Egyptian history? I quickly shoved the wand in my pocket – what was that Auntie Druella had said about wands in pockets? – and deigned to match the brightness of his smile.
There was a moment when he seemed about to say something, but his eyes flickered away to the place he must have come from: a narrow offshoot from the main Valley. How had I missed seeing him in there as I passed?
He offered his arm. I blinked, mind working too slowly to catch up to what was taking place around me.
“Perhaps some dinner is in order, would you not agree, Miss Black?”
My own hesitation was concluded by the sudden grumbling in my stomach.
He was laughing now, and the arm under my hand was relaxing. So he had been tense, too, had noticed something in the air. Perhaps that wind–
“That is more than enough of a response for me, Miss Black.”
There was something compelling in his charm. I couldn’t deny it.
“Please, call me Helen.”
He pulled me rather closer to his side than I preferred, but I did not resist. That look in his eyes when he saw my wand. I would have to stay close to him from now on.
“And I am Emile.”
I took one final glance at the sand. It remained on the ground.
Where it belonged.