|SIYE Time:16:29 on 21st September 2018|
Strangers at Drakeshaugh
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Category: Post-Hogwarts, Post-DH/AB, Post-DH/PM
Genres: Drama, Fluff, General, Romance
Warnings: Mild Language
Story is Complete
Summary: The locals in a sleepy corner of the Cheviot Hills are surprised to discover that they have new neighbours. Who are the strangers at Drakeshaugh?
Hitcount: Story Total: 184866; Chapter Total: 2543
Awards: View Trophy Room
Henry was still talking about James’ party when we drove to school the following morning. He simply wouldn’t shut up about it.
Over breakfast, in between mouthfuls of Frosties, he’d told me–as he had on the journey home the previous evening and again when I’d put him to bed–that he wanted “lots an’ lots of Lego” for his birthday and “no rubbish boring books”. He was obviously thinking about his birthday over breakfast, because when we set off for school he added a request for the same party games as James, and he wanted Rosie and Hugo to come to his party, too.
‘Rosie an’ Hugo, yes,’ Annie agreed with him.
‘Rosie and Hugo live a long way away,’ I reminded them.
‘An that chock-lit was really nice,’ he added hopefully.
‘Yummy chock-lick,’ his sister added.
‘I’ll see what I can do, Henry,’ I assured him.
As I drove, I considered the possibility of inviting Rosie and Hugo to the party. Like James’, Henry’s birthday was a Thursday. They probably wouldn’t come; it was a very long way to drive. Although Harry’s friends and family seemed to be prepared to travel ridiculous distances to visit. The Weasleys, or Granger-Weasleys, lived way down south, yet they’d arrived unexpectedly on James’ birthday. Perhaps they would come.
That was when I realised that I hadn’t seen Hermione’s Mini at Drakeshaugh. If they hadn’t driven, how had they travelled? They could have flown, and got a taxi from the airport. But that would not have been cheap and, despite what I’d been told, Ron didn’t come across as a high-flying businessman. Then again, Harry didn’t come across as a tough investigator and war veteran. In fact, were it not for the scars I saw every Saturday at the pool, I wouldn’t believe it myself.
It was a long way, but Ron and Hermione were James’ godparents; perhaps that was it. They were simply being conscientious about their duties. We’d made Mike’s sister one of Henry’s godparents. I should’ve realised what a mistake that was when she had to be pushed into attending the christening by her parents. Since then, nothing. She didn’t even bother to send him a birthday card.
When I pulled up outside the school, Harry’s big black Range Rover was parked outside. As I lifted Annie into my arms, he strode out from the school gates, his long black overcoat flapping in the chill wind. Annie shouted a hello. When he saw us, he gave us a cheery wave and waited next to his car. We strolled down towards him.
‘Morning, Charltons,’ he said cheerfully.
Henry didn’t bother with a polite good morning, or even a hello. ‘Want lots an’ lots of Lego for my birthday,’ he announced firmly.
‘That was my son being subtle,’ I told Harry apologetically.
‘Well, I do!’ said Henry.
I smiled apologetically at Harry and shook my head in despair. ‘I assume Ginny has spoken to you about Henry’s party, Harry, Guy Fawkes night, at Lintzgarth. You’re all invited, and the birthday boy would like Rosie and Hugo to come, too.’
‘An’ me,’ Annie added.
‘And Annie would also like it if they could come, sorry, Annie,’ I said. Harry smiled at my kids. ‘I’ve told them that Rosie and Hugo live a long way away, but both Henry and Annie insisted that I invite them. Would it… Could I…’ I tried again. ‘I’d like to send them an invitation, but I don’t have an address.’
‘Lego, eh? Very popular, those little bricks,’ Harry told Henry cheerfully, before turning his attention to me and winking. ‘They’re already on James’ Christmas list, and Ron’s, and Ginny asked if I wanted some, too!’ Running his fingers through his untidy hair, he added. ‘I’m sure Ron and Hermione would love to come to Henry’s party.’ He stopped. ‘That’s okay, isn’t it?’
I laughed. ‘Of course,’ I told him. ‘Rosie and Hugo aren’t going to get here by themselves, are they?’ I smiled at him and shook my head. ‘I should have mentioned them, sorry. When did I stop thinking about the parents? When did we become the pluses to the kids’ invitations instead of the other way around?’
‘In my case, about five minutes after James was born,’ Harry told me with a smile. ‘Ron and Hermione live at The Roost, Green Lane, Oakford Fitzpayne, Dorset. I don’t have a … a pen with me, but if you can’t remember the address, I’ll give it to you tomorrow.’
‘I’ll remember,’ I said. ‘I’ve a very good memory.’
Harry gave me an assessing look, and nodded. ‘I’m sure they’d love to come, especially as Ron’s providing you with…’ he glanced down at Henry, ‘fireworks for the party.’ Henry clapped his hands and danced his happy dance. ‘We haven’t discussed wood for a bonfire, either. Ginny mentioned it to me, but with everything else going on, I forgot all about it. I’ll try and sort something out for you. Henry’s birthday is four weeks away, isn’t it?’
I nodded. ‘About tomorrow…’
‘Swimming? It shouldn’t be a problem this weekend. I’m not planning on going into work tomorrow, so Ginny and the kids won’t need a lift from you. We’ve had some good news at last. Not long after you left last night I got a call to say that there’s been some progress in restoring Frances’ memory. I don’t want to be overconfident, but I think we’re finally closing in on the killer. I’ll find out when I get to work, so I’d better be on my way.’ He looked meaningfully across at the school gate. ‘So had you, otherwise Henry will be late. Bye.’ Giving me a cheery wave, he walked around his car, climbed in, and set off.
While Harry and I had been speaking, I’d seen Mary pull up. I watched her daughter, Helen, climb out of the car, pick up her school bag, and walk up the path towards us. Her mother didn’t get out of the car and, the moment Helen disappeared through the school gates, Mary drove off. Unfortunately, she wasn’t paying attention and she pulled out directly in front of Harry. I gasped, anticipating a crash. It didn’t happen. Astonishingly, he somehow managed to stop his car almost instantaneously, avoiding a collision. Harry didn’t sound his horn and Mary drove on, seemingly oblivious.
Relieved, I followed Helen up into the school and hurried Henry into his class.
That afternoon, while we were waiting for the end of another school day, Ginny confirmed what Harry had already told me; they would be making their own way to the pool with us the following afternoon. ‘But we’ll be heading off to Mum’s as soon as we’re dry,’ she said. ‘And we won’t be back until late on Sunday. We’ll be away the following Sunday, to another party; Dominique will be seven.’
‘Doesn’t your mum live in Devon?’ I asked.
‘It must be four hundred miles!’ I said. ‘And you’re planning on doing that journey two weekends in a row?’ I shook my head in disbelief.
‘We’re flying,’ Ginny told me. ‘I know it’s a long way to go, Jacqui, but it’s family.’
I was about to ask more, but Ginny pointed down the road. ‘That’s Mary’s car, and she hasn’t got out. Do you think we should go and speak to her?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘What would we say? What could we say? “Hello, Mary, we know you’ve been being a total “B one T C H” to us, but now we’re wondering if it’s because your husband is having an affair.” That’s not going to go down well, is it?’ I asked anxiously. ‘If it’s true, it seems she doesn’t want to talk about it. I gave her my number, but she hasn’t contacted me. Perhaps she’s unburdening herself on someone else, or perhaps it’s simply not true. And if it isn’t true, we’re the nasty you-know-whats.’
‘We could just say that we’ve noticed she’s staying in the car instead of holding court–no, better make that chatting, or socialising–at the gate, and ask her if there’s something wrong’ Ginny suggested.
‘Socialising!’ I smiled at Ginny as I nodded my agreement, but still failed to keep the sarcasm from my voice. ‘Good idea.’
We were about to set off, but too late. The school bell rang, and we had missed our opportunity.
On Saturday, after lunch, we set off down the valley to the pool. When Mike started his car, the CD player began blasting out “The singer out of Slipknot went to Rome to see the Pope.” His expression, the colour of his face, and the speed with which he ejected the CD meant only one thing; this was a song that the kids definitely shouldn’t hear.
The opening lyrics had made Annie sit up, and the subsequent silence annoyed her. She demanded that we play music. I tried to tell her that there wasn’t any, but she pointed out that I was wrong. There was Daddy’s music, she’d just heard it.
By then we were already on the road, and I hadn’t transferred any of the nursery rhyme CDs from my car into Mike’s. Frantically scrambling through Mike’s glovebox, I found four more CDs. Unfortunately, they were Trouble over Bridgewater, Back in the DHSS, Voyage to the Bottom of the Road, and Fiends of Dope Island. It was obvious from the glances I exchanged with Mike that none of them would be suitable for pre-schoolers.
I was about to retune Mike’s radio from Radio 4 to Radio 2 in the hope that some classic pop would be okay, when I spotted one of my own CDs–The Sky Didn't Fall–poking out from under a cloth in the side pocket. I wondered how long it had been there. I’d been looking for it for weeks, and Mike had denied all knowledge when I’d asked him if he’d seen it.
I was about to berate him, but by then we’d reached the track leading to Drakeshaugh, and Annie’s complaints were increasing in volume. I saw the Potters’ car. They were parked at the entrance, waiting for us. Mike gave them a friendly toot as we approached. I waved, and distracted Annie from her complaints by encouraging her to wave too. They waved back and pulled out behind us.
‘I hope you like this, Annie,’ I said, pushing the CD into the player.
Mike gave a murmur of protest when the CD began, but I pointed out that it was the only CD in the car without any language issues, and I’d asked him if he’d known it was there weeks earlier, when I’d first asked him. That shut him up.
I encouraged Annie to listen to the harp, and to Kathryn Tickell talking about her favourite place. It wasn’t a complete hit. There were more instrumental tracks than Annie liked and, although she listened quite intently to the pipe and harp music, she was much happier when the singing started.
We were only a few minutes from the pool when Felton Lonnen came on. When Henry and Annie heard it, they both joined in. I was pleasantly surprised by how many of the words Henry remembered. Annie was almost word perfect, but she was thrown by the fact that the song was about “me laddie” because I’d always sung “me lassie” to her. Even Mike recognised the song, though he didn’t join in.
‘The kyes cam yehm but I see not me hinny, the kyes cam yehm but I see not me bairn,’ I sang along with my children.
‘You used to sing them to sleep with that song,’ Mike observed. ‘But are you sure there aren’t any “language issues” with it? You always encourage the kids to taak proper, and that isn’t proper taak.’
‘I still sing this, don’t I Annie?’
‘Yeh…’ Annie confirmed.
‘And while it’s important that the kids can speak properly,’ I told him firmly. ‘It’s…’
‘I’m teasing you, Mammy,’ he said as he pulled into a parking space. ‘We’re here, kids, never mind singing about cows coming home. It’s time to go swimblerating!’
‘Yay!’ they shouted. I sighed.
Our swimming sessions were beginning to fall into a routine. Ginny and Mike spent most of their time splashing about in the small pool with Lily and Annie, while I tried to teach Henry and James in the main pool. Harry and Al, meanwhile, shuttled between the two groups. I felt sorry for Harry’s middle child. Poor Al was getting bored in the small pool, but he couldn’t touch bottom in the main pool, and he wasn’t confident enough to be left unsupervised for even a second when he was out of his depth.
‘How’s Frances?’ I asked Harry when he and Al came over to join us.
James and Henry were practicing their underwater somersaults. Harry was moving slowly toward me, one hand under Al’s tummy to support him. Al, who was also holding onto one of the two new kickboards Harry had bought on his way into the pool, splashed his way nervously through the water.
‘She’s recovering,’ He told me. ‘Susan’s team spent all day yesterday questioning her. She’s provided us with a lot of useful information.’
‘Do you think…’ I struggled to remember the name. ‘…Gaheris Robards is still alive?’ I asked.
‘I hope so,’ Harry told me, surprised by the question. ‘We’ll find out within the next couple of days, I’m sure of that.’
‘Star float,’ I said as my mind moved back to the events occurring in front of me.
‘Pardon?’ Harry asked.
‘Al,’ I said. ‘He’s holding onto the kickboard as if his life depended on it, and you’re holding him up; he isn’t floating. The board is supposed to be an aid, not a lifesaver. Al needs to know that he will float. Just a minute.’ I swam over to James and Henry, took them to the edge of the pool, gave them each a kickboard, and set them away to race two lengths of the pool. Pushing off from the wall, two strokes brought me back to Harry and Al, and well in front of the older boys.
‘Hello, Al,’ I said. I glanced at Harry, making certain it was okay for me to interfere. He nodded, so I took Al into my arms, took the kickboard from him, and handed it to his dad. ‘I’ve got you,’ I assured him as I lay him on his back in the water. I kept one hand on the small of his back, and the other under his head to support him. ‘Don’t worry, just look straight up at the ceiling,’ I advised.
While I was talking, I was also trying to keep one eye on James and Henry. It was a race, and James had gone off at full pelt. He had a good lead, and there was no doubt he would reach the far end of the pool first. Because of this, I could see that he was already tiring. Henry, showing a lot more tactical skill than I expected, wasn’t pushing himself, but neither was he letting James get any further ahead. Satisfied that they were safe, I returned my attention to the black-haired little boy I was supporting.
‘Can you make a star, Al?’ I asked. ‘Arms and legs apart.’ He did as I asked, and I slowly lowered my hand from under his back.
‘If you’re worried, Al, take a deep breath,’ I told him. ‘As much air as you can.’ I noisily sucked air into my own lungs as a demonstration. ‘Now, hold your breath.’ The moment he did so, I carefully lowered my hand from under his head. His eyes widened, but he relaxed when he realised he really was floating. I watched his smile banish his concern.
‘All that air in your lungs helps,’ I told him, ‘It’s like having a float inside your chest. Perhaps Daddy could help you practice floating on your back.’ I turned back to Harry. ‘Stay at the top of his head. Try to encourage him to breathe, but only little breaths. If he panics or starts to sink, support his head, not his back,’ I advised. ‘If you think he’s confident that he can float, then you could ask him to turn the star float into a pencil float.’ I raised my arms above my head and put my palms together to demonstrate. ‘But only if you think he’s happy. Making sure he’s confident is the priority.’
‘Thanks, Jacqui.’ Harry’s grateful smile was midsummer sunshine, but I had no time to bask in it, because the other two were on their way back, and Henry had just overtaken a now struggling James. I kicked my way across to them, just in case James began to really flounder. He was tired, but too stubborn to give in. When he finally struggled to the edge of the pool, he was panting, and almost a full body length behind Henry.
‘Well done both of you,’ I said.
‘I won,’ Henry said happily. James was close to tears, and Henry noticed. ‘But James was winning most of the time,’ he added generously.
‘If you do real races, when you’re older, I think you could both be winners,’ I told them both.
‘Can’t have two winners,’ said James unhappily.
‘You can if there’s two races, James,’ I said. ‘Some races are like this one, to the opposite end of the pool and back again. But some are only one length.’
‘And James got to that end first,’ said Henry. I was proud of him.
‘So we both sort of won,’ said James hopefully.
I nodded. ‘When I was eight, I started swimming for a team,’ I told them. ‘And if you ever swim for a team, maybe you’ll both win. One in the short race, and one in the long race.’ I pointed to James and Henry in turn. ‘And then you can both be champions.’
‘Two champions,’ they told each other happily.
‘Sprint and distance,’ I told them. James was smiling again. He’d already forgotten his annoyance. They were holding onto the edge of the pool and had turned their attention to Al and Harry. To give them a rest, and to try to give Al more confidence, I suggested they try to do star floats.
It took Henry and James no time at all to discover that by slowly bringing their arms down to their sides, they could lazily drift about, and soon they were encouraging Al to do the same. Harry and I stood and watched.
‘The news has gone quiet,’ I said. ‘It’s like everyone has forgotten about the case.’
‘There’s nothing happening for them to report,’ Harry said. ‘The man we’re looking for…’
He hesitated, so I supplied the name, ‘Jason Jones.’
‘You heard a lot more in the woods than you let on, didn’t you,’ he told me sharply.
He was a professional investigator, and I’d fallen into his trap. I nodded guiltily. ‘I didn’t mean to,’ I apologised. ‘We were playing tig and I didn’t know who was on, so when I heard someone, I hid.’
‘I shouldn’t really have told Ron,’ Harry admitted. ‘But the fact you know the name isn’t important, because that’s not his real name. It’s simply the name on his Ministry ID Badge; although that’s worrying enough, because getting a fake ID Badge should be impossible. Frances issued it, because he is–or was–her boyfriend. She compromised Ministry security for him, and he was messing with Michael’s … computer system. It’s little wonder we weren’t getting anywhere. Jason was using it to misdirect us.’
‘Should you be telling me this?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he admitted. ‘But you were there when Frances arrived, and you keep finding things out. Also–so far as I can tell–you haven’t told anyone what you know. I’m trusting that you won’t say anything, Jacqui.’
‘I won’t! So how did Frances end up with the invitation?’ I asked. ‘I mean, I assume that this Jason character somehow pinched it from Michael. You said that he was working with him.’
‘That’s what we believe,’ Harry admitted. ‘Frances found the invitation in his pocket and asked him about it. He told her that “a friend of his” had asked him to find our address. And that’s when Frances finally got suspicious of him. If she’d reported him then, we might have stopped the last two killings, but instead she tried to follow him and catch his accomplice. I suppose we should be grateful that she managed to lift the invitation from his pocket and hide it in her boot.’
‘She went after two men, herself?’ I asked.
‘She’s always wanted a job in our office, so she tried to prove herself. It was stupid. She managed to track the accomplice, but got caught, and ob–well, she lost her memory. Two people died, and she was lucky she wasn’t the third.’
‘At least you have names and, presumably, descriptions,’ I said.
Harry nodded. ‘And… Ginny told you that Robards worked in a museum, didn’t she?’
‘Jason’s father works in the same museum... I’d better get Al.’
James and Henry were encouraging Al to paddle away from us, and Harry’s younger son was now getting far enough from us that Harry was worried. He was right to be careful, as Al didn’t have a float. Cursing myself for getting so distracted–the case was interesting, but not as important as the kids–I swam across to Henry and James and tried to get them to leave Al and Harry in peace. Setting them to work on leg drills proved easier than I thought. As soon as I told them that a good kicking technique would help them swim faster that, too, became a contest.
I didn’t get another chance to talk to Harry. Al was practicing his own leg kicks in the small pool, and both Annie and Lily wanted to do the same. They were still there when the buzzer went and we had to leave. While we were changing, Mike told me that the Potters were driving straight to the airport from the pool and then flying down to Devon. Henry and Annie were both a little gloomy as we dried them. And Henry complained about the fact that he wouldn’t see James until Monday.
‘I coulda gone wiff him,’ Henry said as I dressed him.
‘No room in the car, and no plane ticket, sorry Henry,’ I told him. ‘We could go to Cragside for the day tomorrow. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?’
He wasn’t keen, but it was the best we could offer.
Harry was looking very cheerful when I saw him on Monday morning. For once I’d arrived before him, but only just. I was watching Henry hang up his coat when Harry and James arrived. After making sure that the boys were settled, we walked back to our cars together.
‘How did James’ other birthday party go?’ I asked.
‘As noisily as I expected,’ he told me smiling. ‘A full complement of Uncles, Aunts, and cousins, plus his grandparents and Hermione’s parents–they’re sort of his adopted grandparents,’ he explained, seeing the unspoken enquiry on my face. ‘It was complete mayhem, and a lot of fun.’
‘I can tell,’ I told him. ‘You look more relaxed than you have since… well, since that young couple were killed.’
He acknowledged the last murders with a sad smile. ‘Hopefully, it’s all over. I got a message from Terry before I set off this morning. Jason’s in custody, and so is his father. I’m off to see what they have to say.’
My first question to Ginny that afternoon was, ‘How’s the case going?’
She shook her head. ‘I’ve no idea, Jacqui,’ she told me, looking me straight in the eye. ‘Did you speak to Harry this morning?’
‘Then you’ve spoken to him more recently than me,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t phone me with updates during the day, you know.’
‘Oh, um, sorry,’ I said shamefacedly. ‘Of course he doesn’t. I’m an idiot. I should think before I speak.’
Ginny put a hand on my shoulder, squeezed it, and smiled at me. ‘I’m as curious as you are, Jacqui,’ she admitted. ‘All I can do is hope that no news is good news. Look, there’s Mary, sitting all alone in her car again. Should we go and have a word with her? We have our own little mystery to solve.’
We set off, Ginny pushing the buggy containing Al and Lily, and me holding Annie by the hand. When we peered in the window, Mary’s head was back against the rest. Her mouth was open and her eyes were closed. I hesitated; Ginny didn’t. She rapped on the passenger side window. Mary jumped, opened her eyes, and looked at us in horror. Without waiting to be asked, Ginny opened the car door. We were greeted by a waft of booze.
‘Oh, Mary,’ Ginny said.
Mary started to swear, and I protested loudly. Ginny pulled Al and Lily back from the door, away from Mary’s curses. Reaching down into the buggy, Ginny muttered something that sounded like, ‘Mumble Womble.’ She was a little behind me, so I couldn’t see what she’d been looking for in the buggy, but it didn’t matter, because Mary suddenly fell silent.
‘You can’t drive,’ I told her.
She glared but, apparently tongue-tied, said nothing.
‘Are you going to behave?’ Ginny asked over my shoulder. ‘No more swearing in front of the kids?’
‘Good,’ Ginny told her.
Mary made a clacking sound, clapping her tongue onto the floor of her mouth. It seemed to startle her back into speech. ‘It’s none of your business what I do,’ she protested.
‘You can do what you want,’ I told her forcefully. ‘We can’t stop you from endangering yourself, Mary, but we will stop you from endangering others. If you drive in that state, you’re a danger to Helen–and to anyone else on the road! You pulled out in front of Harry on Friday morning. Was that because you’d been…?’
‘There’s just us two here,’ said Ginny quietly. ‘But most of the Mums at the gate are watching us. You know what this place is like for gossip. In fact, you’re an expert. But we’ll say nothing, if you don’t want us to. Is it your husband?’
Mary was horrified. Her nod was almost non-existent. ‘What’m I going to do?’ she asked.
‘You’re coming to Drakeshaugh,’ said Ginny firmly. ‘You can leave your car here. The walk will do you good. I’ll sit here with you until everyone else has left. We’ll say that…’ Ginny looked at me for assistance.
‘We’ll say that one of your warning lights has come on, and your car’s telling you not to drive it,’ I suggested.
‘Can this car talk?’ asked Ginny in surprise.
‘No,’ I shook my head in amusement. It seemed that Ginny knew even less about cars than I did. ‘But it has all sorts of warning lights and smart systems on it. Any one of them could mean something’s seriously wrong. That’ll work, won’t it, Mary?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Thanks,’ she added in a whisper.
‘Jacqui can tell that to anyone who asks, and we can wait here until everyone else has left.’
I walked back up to the school and explained that Mary had car problems, and that it had upset her. When Amanda expressed concern, and offered to help, I told her that Mary was in a right fettle and didn’t want to be bothered by any more nosey parkers. It worked.
Everyone left, and when the last of the mini-buses finally drove off, Mary clambered unsteadily out of her car.
‘Thanks, Jacqui, but I can manage,’ Ginny said when I offered to walk back to Drakeshaugh with her. ‘You just get Annie and Henry home.’
As I looked into Ginny’s face, I realised that protesting wouldn’t get me anywhere. ‘If you’re sure,’ I said hesitantly.
‘Certain,’ Ginny told me.
I looked at Mary and her daughter. Helen wore a thick and expensive coat over her school uniform. Ginny and her kids were also well wrapped up, but Mary was in a blouse and a light jacket, and she was already shivering.
‘I’ll get my old jacket,’ I said. Hurrying ahead of them, I opened the boot of my car, and grabbed the worn old Barbour jacket Mary had once been so dismissive of. When they reached us, Henry and Annie had climbed into their car seats. I handed Mary the jacket. She pulled a face, but took it from me.
‘Thanks, Jacqui, see you tomorrow,’ said Ginny gratefully.
‘Thanks, Jacqui,’ Mary echoed, although there was no gratitude in her tone.
It had taken all of my willpower not to phone Ginny the previous evening. I’d been a little earlier than usual getting down to school, and I had arrived at the same time as Harry.
As James and Henry walked into school, I asked Harry about Mary.
‘She’d left by the time I got home,’ Harry told me. ‘Ginny said that she and Mary had a long talk, and that it looks like there’s going to be a messy divorce.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘But you should really talk to Ginny.’
I fell silent and listened to Henry and James loudly chattering about all the Lego they would like. We watched our sons take off their coats and hang them up, and when they walked off into their classroom without a backward glance at us, we looked at each other in mutual commiseration.
‘Redundant already,’ Harry observed.
‘Not completely, we’re still their taxi drivers,’ I reminded him. He laughed.
Harry was still in a good mood, and as we walked back to our cars–Annie toddling along at my side–I plucked up the courage to ask him about the case. Before I could formulate a question, a bell tolled. It was a teeth rattlingly deep tocsin. The loud, ominous chasm of noise made Annie put her hands over her ears, and it silenced me before I’d even started to speak. It silenced everyone in the vicinity.
It wasn’t a simple clang; it was Big Ben tolling the hour. The noise seemed to have come from Harry’s pocket, and it had drained the colour from his face. I was looking at a man who’d been suddenly drenched by a thunderstorm of anxiety. His face was ashen, and his jaw slack. The cacophonous chime was still reverberating through me when an urgent female voice spoke over its dying seconds.
‘Code black. All Auror alert! Code black: Emergency Portkey in five…’
As the bell faded, before the voice began to speak, Harry was looking everywhere. He glanced at me, then his gaze swept across the rest of the school gate mums. It was as though he was looking for somewhere to hide. It was impossible: everyone was staring at him, their attention drawn by the bell.
Hauling out his wallet, he yelled, ‘Cancel,’ just as the woman said the word five.
The voice stopped instantly. It looked to me as if it was the hardest decision he had ever made. Pulling out his phone, he looked down into it and said, ‘Martha!’
‘Oh, Harry,’ a woman answered instantly. She sounded close to tears.
‘I’m not secure,’ he told her. He turned his phone around. I got the briefest glimpse of a thin-faced and curly-haired woman, perhaps ten years older than Harry, before he turned it back and stared into the screen. ‘Who?’ he asked.
‘We don’t know, Harry.’
‘Where?’ he tried.
‘A derelict hotel on Fullwood Road.’
‘Polly’s team! What’s…’
‘Hold on, Harry. I have Terry on another line, he’s on site now.’ I watched Harry dance in frustration. ‘We have twenty-eight, um… agents at the … helping Terry, and two Hea… er… medical staff. Collapsed outbuilding… Oh, Harry… All four members of Polly’s team are missing, apparently buried under the building, but Terry says “only three lives detected.”’
‘Four?’ Harry asked.
‘Polly, Dennis, and Trudi had the trainee … Miss Cattermole … with them.’
‘Ellie?’ Harry slumped. ‘I heard the triple-A; it was a code black. Has A-K been confirmed?’
‘A-K? … Oh! The er… wait one second,’ Martha said. The wait was little more than the second she’d promised. When she came back, she stifled a sob. ‘Anne White’s with Terry, she says “A-K confirmed,” oh, Harry.’
‘I’m on my way in. Find out if anyone didn’t respond to the triple-A, and get them into the office anyway. No excuses, I don’t care what they were doing. And… find all four addresses for me, please.’ Harry was shaking so much that I placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. He gave me a grateful smile. ‘Keep me updated, Martha,’ he ordered, before pocketing the phone.
I had no idea what the jargon, acronyms, and abbreviations he’d used meant, but it was understandable that I wasn’t supposed to know. While I wondered what sort of emergency could be codenamed “Portkey”, I continued to look into Harry’s face. It was apparent that he was badly shaken.
‘You need to take a minute before you drive anywhere,’ I told him firmly. ‘Let’s face it, Harry, you’re not going to be able to get to Sheffield quickly. Give yourself a minute or two to calm down. Do you want to tell me what just happened? You don’t have to.’
He shook his head, but answered anyway. ‘It’s possible … probable … that one of my people has been killed,’ he said quietly.
I’ve always been a hugger, so I stepped forwards and hugged him. ‘Oh, Harry, I’m so sorry.’ He hesitated for a moment before returning the hug. I spoke into his shoulder. ‘You’ll catch them, I’m sure. But please drive carefully. Sheffield’s a long way.’
‘Thanks, Jacqui,’ he said. Placing his hands on my shoulders, he gently pushed me a way. He was, if anything, even more downcast. ‘I’m not going to Sheffield. I’m the boss, it’s…’ his voice caught. ‘It’s my duty to inform the next of kin. I really must go.’
‘If you–or Ginny–need anything, anything at all, phone me,’ I told him.
He nodded and, with slumped shoulders, hurried off to his car. As he headed towards the gate, the other Mums looked into his face and let him pass, then they descended on me like locusts.
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