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The London Auror Office is probably my favorite place on Earth.
Forget Hogwarts and all its whimsical charm, forget my childhood house and its unparalleled coziness -- this matrix of cubicles, papered with leering photographs of dark wizards and witches, radiating pure stress, is exactly the home I’ve always wanted. Sure, nobody ever seems to smile here, and the tension hits you like a wave as soon as you step off the elevator. But that’s fine by me: it feels like adventure here.
I never minded all the hard work in school. Rose and Jasper were always smart enough to skive off a class every now and then, but I rarely went with them. I was fine with every painfully boring History of Magic lesson, every teacher’s rambling lectures, because I knew that all of it would get me here one day.
“You’ll be reporting to Ragnar Svanstrom,” says the lifeless department assistant, trudging through the maze of cubicles. I bounce along excitedly behind him. “He’s a senior Auror, so whatever you’re working on is bound to be high-profile.”
He stops at a tiny cubicle that seems to have been wedged at the end of the row as an afterthought. “This will be your desk.”
“Great,” I say -- a bit too enthusiastically, perhaps, because the department assistant frowns at me. “Er, thanks for your help.”
“Sure,” he says, already trudging away.
I sit down at my desk, and turn to smile at my neighbor, who’s a sallow, middle-aged wizard who looks like the kind of person who doesn’t take kindly to nonsense. He doesn’t look up from his work.
Before the hour is up, I’ve received my first memo, which informs me that Ragnar Svanstrom is calling a team meeting in five minutes. I make my way to Incident Room C room, my heart pounding with a combination of excitement and nerves. The room is large and sleek, with a round wooden table, several blackboards, and various silver instruments propped up on stands in a corner.
A couple of men in their thirties look up at me. One is dark-haired and strikingly attractive, with a strong, square jaw; the other is mousy-brown haired and looks more or less unremarkable.
“Hi,” says the first, raising his eyebrows. He steps toward me, extending a hand for me to shake. “I take it you’re the new blood.”
“Yeah,” I squeak -- then clear my throat, and start again like a normal human being. “I’m Fiona.”
“I’m Darren Grimm,” he replies, and then points over his shoulder, indicating the other man. “This is Charlie Holcombe.”
“Hi,” says Charlie, with a wave.
Before I can properly greet Charlie, the door is thrown open again, and another couple of people storm into the room. One is a woman -- short-haired, tan, businesslike, probably in her late thirties. The other can only be Ragnar Svanstrom. He’s tall, with blond hair that’s going silver around his ears, and bright blue eyes. He’s got to be at least forty, but his face is perfectly unlined. In short, he looks like some kind of Viking god.
The two newcomers are in the midst of an argument:
“You can’t keep the press out of it,” Ragnar is saying, coolly but firmly. “It’s unethical. Frankly, it’s impossible.”
“But they’re going to make a mess of all this,” says the woman, her eyebrows knitted together in frustration. “We can’t give them any facts, so they’re going to do a lot of guesswork and stir up a panic.”
“I’ll have a word with Terry Boot,” says Ragnar, “see that the Prophet deals with this responsibly. We have no control over the other news outlets.”
“Like The Quibbler, for example?” says the woman. “What do you think they’re going to do when they get their hands on this story? Do you think they’ll deal with it responsibly? Or will they do what they always do, and bang out some mad conspiracy story to make a few Galleons?”
Ragnar turns away from the woman, and looks at me for the first time. I straighten my shoulders, meeting his gaze directly and trying not to quake too much under it.
“Fiona Smith,” he says -- it’s not a question.
“Yes,” I reply, trying to imitate his succinctness. “Nice to meet you, sir.”
Ragnar nods, somewhat distractedly. He turns his back on me, and walks over to the corkboard wall, where he begins to pin up a few photographs. My heart sinks -- I was hoping for a slightly warmer welcome.
The tan woman takes pity on me.
“I’m Ada, crime scene specialist,” she says, offering me her hand to shake. “It’s great to have you on board. Don’t let Ragnar scare you, he thinks being aggressively inhospitable to newcomers helps to harden them up.”
Behind me, Darren whispers something to Charlie, and the two of them snicker. Adas eyes snap up to look at them, and she frowns.
“Twenty-one hours last night,” says Ragnar in his commanding voice, drawing everybody’s attention. “Ms. Rachel Harris has been having dinner with a friend. She comes home to her flat, and finds…”
Darren, Charlie, and Ada crowd around the corkboard to inspect the crime scene photos, and I follow their lead, standing on my tip-toes to get a look over Darren’s shoulders.
It’s a gruesome scene. The pictures show a tidy sitting room, the spick-and-span kind of place you’d think only exists in furniture advertisements. But something’s gone horribly wrong. Four bodies are splayed out across the floor, the carpet and furniture splattered with bloodstains. A large carving knife is held fast in the hands of one of the corpses.
“Ms. Harris knew her husband had been planning to have three friends over,” continues Ragnar, as we all take in the chilling images. “They were old friends from Hogwarts, as close as they get according to Ms. Harris.”
“So, what, they had a bit of a domestic?” says Darren, his tone a bit sardonic for my taste, considering we’re discussing the deaths of four human beings.
“The Healers at St. Mungo’s reported signs of magical trauma on their brains,” says Ragnar darkly. “The kind of trauma you’d see on the brain of someone who’d been under the Imperius Curse, for example. But I checked all four of their wands, and none of them had performed the Imperius Curse.”
“So somebody else broke into the flat and Imperiused them,” says Charlie.
Ragnar shakes his head. “They kept a load of money in the house, apparently, and they were worried about theft. So they’re not on the Floo network, and the flat’s under about fifty protective spells.”
Charlie opens his mouth again, but before he can even get his words out, Ragnar interrupts him:
“None of the money was touched,” he says, and Charlie’s mouth snaps shut. “So -- where to begin?”
The room falls silent for a moment. I can practically hear the humming of all five of our brains as we think hard. I know it’s a bit daft, not to mention callous considering we’re dealing with a murder case -- but I feel a little thrill of anticipation run over me. I’m a Half-blood, so I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie novels. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve longed to feel the thrill of the chase, the kind of excitement you can only feel when there’s danger lurking somewhere nearby. This puzzling case, gruesome as it is, promises exactly that excitement.
“Why don’t I take Fiona with me to have a look around the crime scene?” suggests Ada.
Ragnar’s steady, ice-blue gaze falls upon me again. His eyes bore into me, appraising. “All right,” he says finally. “The response team’s already run all the usual spells, but maybe you’ll pick up on something they didn’t. Grimm, Holcombe, you’re on house-calls. I’ve got a list of friends and family for you to interview -- I’ll see that it finds its way to your desks.”
Darren groans audibly.
“If there are no questions, I’ll be off to see Terry Boot,” says Ragnar, nodding meaningfully to Ada. Then, before anyone has time to get a word in edgewise, he’s gone.
I look around quizzically at the others. “Is he always so, er…”
“So intense and caustic?” says Charlie helpfully. “Yeah, pretty much. It’s sort of his aesthetic.”
“Don’t you love how he uses twenty-four hour time in everyday conversation?” says Darren with a cheeky grin. “I always imagine him talking to his wife, you know, ‘yes, darling, I’ll be home for dinner at exactly nineteen hours.”
Charlie snorts. I smile uncertainly.
“You can poke fun at Ragnar all you like,” says Ada disapprovingly, “but you’ll still be the ones stuck doing house calls all day.”
She marches out of the room. Darren and Charlie roll their eyes at each other.
“As I’m sure you’ve noticed,” says Darren, “Ada’s sort of a woefully stuck-up bitch. I hate how she has to say ‘crime scene specialist’ every time she introduces herself. It’s like she thinks it’s part of her name.”
“We’re pretty sure she’s getting it from Ragnar,” says Charlie with a smirk.
My smile fades. “Er,” I say. “I thought you said he was married?”
They both stare at me as if I’ve suddenly sprouted a large pair of antlers.
“Ragnar’s marriage is a total sham,” says Darren. “He and his wife hate each other, sleep around like a couple of rabbits. Don’t you read Witch Weekly?”
“No, I don’t.” I hesitate for a moment. It’s only my first day, and I’m not eager to make enemies of my new coworkers -- but I’m not going to let these two think that I’m impressed by their attitude. “Actually, I thought Ada seemed cool,” I say decisively, and exit the incident room. I can hear Darren muttering something as I exit the room, and I feel a pinching anxiety.
Get a grip, Smith, I tell myself. After all, I’ve got more important things to focus on than a couple of gossiping coworkers.
“All right,” says Ada, nodding to me. We’re standing in front of her desk, which is decorated with a few family photographs, and cutouts from Daily Prophet articles, presumably featuring cases that Ada worked on. At the center of the desk, there’s a large, almost offensively ugly, chintz teapot with a cracked spout. Ada points at it. “Our friends at the Portkey Office have just dropped this off. It’s an authorized Portkey that’ll take us to and from the crime scene. Don’t use it without permission from Ragnar. Clear?”
“Clear,” I say, feeling as if I’m back in Professor McGonagall’s class at Hogwarts.
“Great,” says Ada, all business. “Let’s be off, then.”
She extends a hand toward the Portkey, motioning for me to do the same. At the same instant, our fingers connect with the hideous teapot, which tugs us off on a stomach-turning hurtle through space. As we’re spun uncontrollably toward our destination, I struggle to keep my facial expression calm and composed, despite the fact that I could vomit at any second. Finally, the Portkey lets us off in a smallish kitchen with a cheerful pineapple motif.
Ada tucks a single, stray hair behind her ear. She’s clearly very used to Portkey journeys. I, on the other hand, feel as if my legs are about to melt straight into the ground.
“You all right?” she asks me, because apparently I’m not doing a very good job of looking collected. I nod. “Cool,” she says, already heading for the door. I follow her through it, and walk straight into a scene straight out of a nightmare.
There’s blood everywhere. So much of it that as I look around, it actually becomes hard to process the fact that I’m looking at real, human blood. I’ve already seen this room in photographs, but the real, living reality of it is much harder on my head. Maybe it’s because, looking around now, I can really feel the fact that this room was lived in. There are photographs on the shelves, fragments of shattered teacups on the carpet, a book still propped open on the coffee table -- its pages splattered with red droplets.
A wave of dizziness hits me hard. I take a deep, steadying breath.
“Ragnar said they’ve already checked all the usual stuff,” says Ada, edging toward the center of the room. She looks completely calm, totally untouched by the terrible vision that surrounds us. I suppose she’s probably well-used to the sight of blood at this point in her career. Still, I can’t imagine ever being able to look at a scene like this and feel absolutely nothing. “So we’ll just do a few spells and have a look around. Seems like there was definitely some Dark Magic involved, so we can do some spells and check--”
Ada looks around at me, and stops talking abruptly. I realize that I’ve been staring fixedly at the open book on the table.
“Sorry -- I’m listening,” I say quickly.
“You’ve gone really pale,” says Ada, frowning at me. “Are you okay?”
“Er, yeah,” I lie. In truth, I’ve rarely been less okay. My head feels like it’s full of buzzing insects. My fingertips feel cold.
Ada sighs, shaking her head at me. “No, you’re not,” she says. “You’re freaking out. It’s written all over your face.”
Damn you, Ada. I chant internally. “I’m a bit shook up, I guess,” I admit, “but I’ll be fine. I just--”
“You should go home,” she interrupts me, putting a hand on my arm. “This is a lot to process. Everyone loses it the first time they see something like this. It’d be weirder if you weren’t upset, honestly.”
“No, no,” I say quickly, “it’s fine, I--”
“Go home,” she interrupts me again. “You’ll have to walk downstairs and Apparate from the lobby. Get some rest, and come back tomorrow ready to face this. I’ll cover for you.”
“I insist,” she says firmly, offering me a small, comforting smile. “I’m looking forward to working with you, Fiona.”
“So she told me to leave,” I moan, stuffing an enormous bite of pasta into my mouth. “So she probably thinks I’m an incompetent dimwit and can’t wait to get me kicked off the case.”
“It sounds like she was just being cool,” says Rose firmly. She’s just come from work, and she’s looking very competent with her mane of red hair is tied up in a gigantic bun overtop her head. “Don’t overthink it.”
“At least you didn’t vomit,” adds Jasper helpfully.
“And anyway,” says Rose, “on the bright side, the flat looks lovely.”
We’re having dinner at my kitchen table. I’ve spent most of the day unpacking my things and moving into the flat in order to distract myself from thinking about my first day of work. I cried a fair bit, and ate a load of chocolate biscuits, but at least the flat has ended up looking fairly nice.
“Thanks,” I sigh. “And thanks for bringing dinner.”
Rose waves a hand in the air. “The really important issue at hand, as we all know, is which eligible London bachelor you’re going to get with now you’re back.”
I frown at Rose. “What? You mean dating?”
Jasper snorts. “Think this one’s a bit rusty, Rose,” he says between bites of food. Though Jasper has never had a relationship that’s lasted more than three days, he’s a fairly successful romance novelist, and therefore considers himself to be an expert on the subject.
Rose and Jasper have been the shepherds of my love life since the beginning of time. Rose has always had Scorpius Malfoy groveling at her feet, and Jasper’s dark, handsome features have won over many a lady. I don’t know what it is about me, but people simply don’t seem to swoon at the sight of me the way Scorpius does for Rose, or any number of girls do for Jasper. My mum always says it’s because I don’t smile enough -- to which I always say that I’ll smile when someone says something worth effing smiling about.
“Look,” I tell the two of them. “I know you’re trying to help, but I’m honestly not ready to date again.”
“Ugh, groans Jasper disgustedly. “It’s been a year, Fiona. James Potter’s busy snogging the face off his new girlfriend, by all accounts, so you’re not going to get him back anytime soon.”
“Fiona wouldn’t take James back even if he wanted her,” says Rose, stoutly coming to my defense. “He’s sufficiently proven himself to be a human piece of asparagus.”
“I actually don’t mind asparagus so much,” says Jasper thoughtfully. “Especially when you get it roasted, you know, with a bit of lemon juice.”
“I think Isacc Goldstein’s a strong possibility,” says Rose, ignoring Jasper. “Good looking, works for Gringott’s, always struck me as a decent bloke.”
“What about Michael Bloom?” says Jasper, swirling his wineglass elegantly.
“Are you joking?” snaps Rose. “Are you honestly going to look me in the eyes and say you think Michael Bloom could satisfy the sexual and emotional needs of another human being?”
“We don’t really have to talk about my sexual and emotional needs,” I mutter, but neither of them is listening.
“No, I think Isaac Goldstein’s the way to go. Or,” Rose snaps her fingers, excited, “Sylvan Abercrombie?”
“No,” says Jasper firmly.
“On what grounds?”
“Er, his eyebrows?” says Jasper. “Have you seen them? Looks like some tosser’s just taken a big paintbrush and drawn a squiggly line across his whole face.”
“Never mind Sylvan Abercrombie’s squiggly eyebrows -- I don’t have time to date anyone,” I say more loudly. “I’m working on a case right now, remember?”
Rose glares at me. “Fee. We’re not trying to get you married. We’re not saying you have to go on three-week vacations in the Caribbean, or anything. All we want is to get you laid.”
“I know,” says Jasper, slamming his fist down on the table so that Rose and I jump. “Let’s throw a housewarming party.”
“It’s my house,” I remind him dryly.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says brightly. “Yeah, it’s going to be a big fucking party, and we’ll have a lot of Firewhisky, and Fee will get laid.”
I roll my eyes.
“What’ll the theme be?” says Rose, a devious grin spreading across her face.
“The theme…” Jasper drums his fingers on the table. “Okay, so it’s a homecoming party. Home is the place where you sleep… When you’re asleep you have dreams… Weird stuff happens in dreams… Jellyfish are weird -- that’s it!” He grins maniacally. “The theme is jellyfish.”
Rose and Jasper high-five. I spend the rest of the evening listening to the two of them plot their jellyfish-themed party, which, apparently, they're going to be throwing in my flat. I roll my eyes at them and make faces, but in truth, it's nice to be playfully bickering with my two best friends, talking nonsense about boys and parties. The truth is, I wish this evening could last forever, and I'd never have to leave the warmth of my kitchen and return to the Auror Office.
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