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Connell case wrapped last night. I found him holed up in a hotel in the South, still stuffing gold in his pockets when I came through the door. You'd think, with the might of the Dynasty after him, that a man might rethink his priorities, and save his own skin rather than the money, but I suppose if he's stupid enough to go running off with Dynasty gold you can't expect much. His friends at the Club aren't happy with me, they know I dropped names to the bosses. It may be time to keep away from Knockturn Alley for a while.

The rest of the world is going to hell, as usual. After the fiasco of the last election there's a lot of talk about the new party. They call themselves the Campaign for Preservation of Tradition, which would be amusing if they weren't entirely serious. Some people suspect Dynasty backers. I don't suspect, I think it's pretty damned obvious, really. But they're not afraid to show their pretty faces in public anymore, not with the Ministry in the shambles it is. Whoever's leading the charge on the Ministry is playing it smart this time. I guess the boys have grown up from the days of public assassination and thievery.

Rose's trail is cold. She wasn't in deep enough or long enough to make much of an impression. But Kevin clashed swords with somebody and there's a good chance someone knows where he is and how he got there. And Draco has a feeling that Rose would have followed him. She seems like the loyal type. Something about her photograph makes him think of Pansy. It's a stupid thought: Pansy was never that naive and never that innocent. But she had the same vibrant energy, the same ambition. But Rose attached herself to the wrong man and now she has someone like Draco looking for her, which is never a sign that your life is on the right track.

He knows if he finds Kevin it will lead him to Rose. But finding Kevin is proving tricky enough. Someone knows where he is but that someone doesn't feel like sharing. Draco needs a loose thread to pull before he can unravel the whole thing. So he goes hunting. Kevin lives in a dodgy neighborhood. The kind of neighborhood where your neighbor would just as soon curse you as lend you a cup of sugar. The kind of neighborhood where despair lay as thick on the ground as midwinter snow blackened by villainous boots. The kind of neighborhood where a landlord will look the other way while you magic open a door, if your bribe is generous.

Kevin Whitby's flat is dirty and cluttered. Every surface is occupied by discarded papers, dirty dishes, or junk. Draco steps inside gingerly and closes the door behind him, leaving him to navigate the room by the light from the streetlamps outside. He won't risk lighting a lamp and alerting anyone who might be watching. But he has to move slowly, stepping around the crowded floor space, keeping his eyes open for anything relevant. He checks the desk first. Not much here; a few old scraps of parchment, an empty ink bottle, and some letters with an official looking heading. He picks them up and reads them in the dim light. They're from the London University of Magical Occupational Studies. Kevin Whitby as a schoolboy doesn't fit the bill Draco's been writing for him in his head, but the letter clears things up. He's on academic probation for abysmal attendance. So why pay the hefty bills for a LUMOS education if you don't go to class?

IIt's just one more thing in a long list of numbers that don't add up to much at the moment. He'll see what he can make of it later. In the meantime, he tries the kitchen, but is driven back by the smell almost immediately and heads instead to the bedroom.

It isn't any neater here than the rest of the place but it is much colder. The window is open and there's a pile of post on the sill that flutters dangerously in the wind. Draco darts across the room and picks it up before it can blow away. It's damp on one side, the parchment stiff and cold. This post hasn't been touched since it was delivered, sometime during the rain. And the kitchen smells like rotting food. Kevin hasn't been home for days at least.

It's not the worst crime he's ever committed in the course of business and so he doesn't feel any twinge of discomfort as his tears the first envelope on the bottom of the stack open and pulls out the parchment inside. The letter is really little more than a note, written in untidy, blotched handwriting:

Where are you? The boys won't wait much longer. Three days, man.

It was unsigned. He turned to the next. On the page were written a strange series of numbers and symbols:


He had no idea what to make of it but he slipped it into his pocket for future reference. The last letter was not much longer than the first.

You're late. I couldn't keep them off any longer. Low's out for blood. Keep your neck clean.

It isn't threatening. It's short but not sweet. And it's in the same handwriting as the first. Someone was looking out for Whitby, or trying to, but perhaps as much for their own skin as his. Other than that, the flat looks clean. There's a picture of Rose and Kevin together sitting on the coffee table. It's one of the few things in the apartment that isn't dusty or stained but that means very little; maybe it was moved recently. They look happy, young, and he's struck once again by how very out of place they are mixed up in this business. How did they get in so deep? Kevin is a dimwit and Rose an innocent and whoever was pretending otherwise had something to gain for it.

So Whitby had a real friend, somewhere. But where? If he really was enrolled at LUMOS, it's a good place to start. He may not go to class anymore but maybe someone remembers him from before he disappeared and knows why. Draco has had about enough of this place anyway. He has a feeling things will get messy enough soon without lingering here any longer.

The building isn't impressive from the outside; it's disguised as an empty warehouse on a clean but quiet street. But the inside of the University is grand and impressive, with all of the elegance that marks it as a building with ancient magical legacy. The hall is high ceilinged and wide, and his footsteps echo as he crosses it. It's quiet. He's young enough to look like he could be a student but he can't quite erase the sharpness in his gaze, nor the direct and dark confidence that marks him as something else. He never actually attended the school, though for much of his life it had been part of his intended future. Things didn't go exactly as planned. He knows Pansy went for a year or so, until she dropped out to pursue her fortune elsewhere.

He gets past the woman sitting at the reception desk without so much as a second glance. Her nametag reads Wendy, and he makes a note of it. He's looking for some kind of Admissions office, or a room of records, anything that might tell him what kinds of groups Whitby was involved in or who he knew. He has to go down a few halls to find it but eventually he does, a fair sized room with a large plaque reading "Admissions Records".

It's the kind of place where they're likely to have security of some kind but he doesn't hesitate when he opens the door. He learned a long time ago that there's very little a good bluff can't get through, especially with some luck, charm, and gold. Luck is finicky, charm he can fake, and gold he can get when he needs to. And he's always had an eye for people, for what makes their blood boil and what makes them fold like pages of a book in a stiff wind. It's what kept him alive when he had little else of value to offer in the Dark Lord's army and it serves his purposes now.

He steps into the room with confidence. The space is cut in half by a long countertop, behind which a witch sits flicking her wand lazily at a pile of papers which obediently shuffle themselves, and a wizard sits with his quill moving over a very long piece of parchment, looking weary. Behind them are several identical doors leading to what Draco presumes are file rooms, and a short corridor that disappears around the corner. He makes his way past the two behind the desk without looking at them, striding forward purposefully, and he dares to think it might actually be that easy when the woman looks up.

"Excuse me? Sir?" she halts him, and he turns around, fixing a pleasant look on his face.

"Oh, sorry, ma'am. I'm the new file clerk, Wendy just sent me up for training in the back."

She looks confused but not suspicious and sits down without another word. It's strange to him how easily people trust, how quickly they can be convinced of one's honesty with a few words or a meaningless show of emotion. There are too many people who would have plenty to gain by his destruction for him to be so cavalier about his confidences. But the woman at the desk has nothing to fear from him, after all. He's only after one thing, and as soon as her back is turned, he slips into the filing room to look for it.

The drawers are labeled alphabetically. He finds one marked with a 'W' and slides it open quietly. It's almost comical how helpful the labeling is, and he finds Whitby's papers within a minute. He studies the information. Whitby began as a mediocre student and only got worse as time went on. His grades slipped dramatically at a turning point around two months ago. Something happened that distracted him from his studies. There's no mention of any clubs or teams he's joined, nothing that indicates he was particularly close to anyone. Useless. But there, at the bottom of the page, something curious. It doesn't make sense, but the information is clear. Strange.

With a decisive movement, Draco shoves the papers back into the drawer and shuts it again. He retraces his steps, back out past the two behind the desk, back into the hallway and back a few turns, to the signpost that points him in the right direction. Another few turns, up a flight of stairs, and across to a hallway that is divided in two. He's looking for 301. He turns right accordingly and passes rows of identical doors, each neatly numbered. Student dormitories. Some are decorated with posters or messages pinned there by friendly visitors. He walks past a group of students who don't look at him, distracted by the young man in the center showing off something in his notebook. A little further on, a young woman sits in front of her doorway silently, her eyes wide and staring at nothing, but no one pays any attention to her and Draco walks past her without pausing.

Room 301. The dormitory registered to Kevin Whitby, who rents a flat in the slums and doesn't attend classes. Clearly he doesn't need it for living in, so what does he do with it? From what Draco saw of his apartment he's far from wealthy. Chances are he has a roommate. Draco knocks.

The door opens a crack after a long pause and a young man with a blank expression puts his face in the gap.

"Kevin Whitby?" Draco asks, though he doesn't think so.

"Wit isn't here," the young man replies slowly, as though he barely understood the question. He looks Draco over. "You should have a Visitor's pass."

"Forgot to bring it," Draco says. "Have you seen Whitby around?"

"Are you... a client, or something?"

He has no idea what it means but he'll take his chances. It might get him somewhere in this dimwit's mind. "Yes. Where is he?"

Instantly the other man's demeanor changes: he's suddenly wide eyed, respectful, though still slow. "Oh, er, Kevin isn't available. All of his business is being handled by... er, hang on, I have a card."

He pats his pockets and comes up with a grimy business card, the edges dulled. Draco slips it in his pocket. "What happened to Kevin?" he asks again.

This time, the man's eyes shift. He looks nervous, edgy, as though he's trying to think fast through his own thickness. "Don't know," he says unhelpfully. "He just disappeared. Look, I have to go, alright? Check the card." He's already closing the door, backing away out of sight, into the gloomy room. Draco's standing in front of a closed door.

He was lying, and he wasn't very good at it. Draco's seen a lot of liars in his business, and he is one himself, a good one, when he needs to be. But it's harder to tell what exactly he was lying about. He knows something about where Whitby is, but whether or not he himself was involved in Whitby's disappearance is questionable. He doesn't seem to have the grey matter required for an operation like that. But he used the nickname 'Wit', the same as on the notes in Whitby's apartment. He might have sent them. But if he did, his supply of loyalty had run short as soon as a meaner face had showed up wanting to take over Whitby's corner.

A sneer of digust crosses his face. He has no sympathy for this snivelling excuse for a youth. He hasn't got much moral ground to stand on, as far as judgement goes. He operates according to what serves him best and he doesn't risk his own neck or his money bag for any ethical dilemna. But there are a few wands he just doesn't wave and betrayal is one of them. The man who signs his checks is the man he works for and there's nothing else to it. It doesn't matter what he thinks of the man, whether he's a saint or Lucifer himself (and that's a private joke, clever if not particularly amusing). It sounds like Whitby's friends felt otherwise and it leaves a bad taste in his mouth. And they're probably guilty of another thing he can't stand: carelessness. He's lived his whole life walking on thin ice and he's seen plenty of men fall in. You learn to be careful when you rub shoulders with the kind of people who wouldn't shed a tear at your funeral unless they were well paid for it.

And of course, he doesn't tolerate disrespectful conduct in front of witches. That one his mother taught him. She's a fine woman.

The address on the business card is a puzzle. It appears to lead to a blank wall. But Draco's nothing if not persistent and so he takes out his wand and begins to surreptitiously tap the wall, feeling it with his fingers, as the first drops of rain begin to fall from the darkening sky onto the back of his neck. It takes a minute or so, but there- a think line of light appears where his wand touches the stone. He touches it again and traces the line this time, drawing the outline of a door which glows for a second before appearing in the wall.

There's light behind the door but no noise. No telling what might be inside. It's risky, but he's used to it. He turns the knob.

Inside it what appears to be a kind of workshop. He's standing at the end of a short corridor which leads to the larger room. It's clean and warm inside and as soon as he steps into the room he can tell he's alone. There's no sign of the man who supposedly operates here, whose card reads Thomas Coal and gives no indication of his occupation. On one side of the room sits a large pile of crates, on the other, a solid wooden table bearing a wireless and some tools, and a few rolls of parchment. Draco looks around for a moment, double checking that no one waits in hiding. The lamps are lit, but no sixth sense tells him that he's being watched.

He crosses the room to the crates first. They're neatly stacked, and one is left helpfully open. He peers inside. It's filled with unmarked, small boxes. He picks one up and tugs the top open. Inside rests a small quantity of iridescent powder, shimmering in the light of the lamps. It looks like some kind of potion ingredient, maybe. Whatever it is he's not tasting it.

He puts the box back and crosses to the other side of the room, where he picks up one of the rolls of parchment. It's filled with names, as well as several columns with a series of numbers and symbols similar to the one he found in the note in Whitby's flat. He jots down a few of the names on a scrap of parchment and shoves it in his pocket for later reference. It seems like every time he follows a lead, he comes up with ten new questions. It's not a good sign. He's beginning to feel like he should hurry.

He's just considering waiting there to see whether Coal shows his face when he spots something under the table. It's some kind of string, leading behind. He kneels down and picks it up. It's something familiar but he can't place it. He follows it around the table to it's source and then he stands, his hands in his pockets, his eyes cast down onto where the string attaches to the trainers on the feet of the dead man on the floor.

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