Please note: the following contains some rather strong language because of the "realism" of the setting.
"Dawlish. Shacklebolt. You two are with me."
I look up from my desk to see Cornelius Fudge standing in the doorway of Auror Headquarters. It's getting late, and I was about to get off work. Damn it, this is going to take all night -- with Fudge it always does. I grab my cloak off the back of my chair and glance at Kingsley Shacklebolt. His tall frame is shrugging into a cloak of his own. His face reveals nothing about what is about to happen; but given Fudge's choice, I can tell he expects trouble. Percy Weasley is waiting in the hall with Fudge, his face alight with excitement. The two of them are nearly giddy. Shacklebolt joins us in the hall, and we begin the walk to the Atrium. I can tell by Shacklebolt's deep set scowl that he sees the same thing I do -- Fudge is itching for a fight; only he's not the one who's going to be doing the fighting.
The Atrium is basically empty, only Eric, the night watchman, is there. He has his feet up on his station, and his nose stuck in a Quidditch magazine. He doesn't even bother to look up as we sweep across the floor. We reach the line of fireplaces, and Fudge grabs a handful of Floo powder. A feeling of dread settles into my stomach. This is going to be a rough night. I can feel it already.
"Headmaster's Office, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
This whole thing started with a girl. Things like this always do. She was young; couldn't have been more than five years out of Hogwarts. She reminded me immediately of Kay. The girl's long, dark hair was pulled back from her pale, angular face. Her blue eyes were so dark they were almost black. She was thin – really thin. It was almost unhealthy.
Kay hadn't cared about the cause; she hadn't believed in it. She had just been a kid rebelling. Messing around with the Dark Arts to piss our parents off. She'd still had Half-Blood and Muggle-born friends that she'd kept in contact with. She hadn't truly believed and she'd paid the ultimate price. Voldemort had needed to set an example early on. She had been it. You believed - you followed -- you did it completely. There was no halfway.
They had dropped her mangled body in our front lawn, but only after she'd been missing for a week. Merlin only knew what they'd done to her. Kay hadn't cared about blood. She'd joined up for the fun, the adventure, the power, and the lure of the Dark Arts. She'd joined up because Mum hadn't wanted her to. Bloody ridiculous reason to die.
"Why you doing this, kid?" I asked forcing Kay out of my thoughts. I was working to break up a smuggling ring importing illegal potion ingredients. They weren't brewing or selling the potions, but most of these things were dangerous on their own. Combine or store them in the wrong way and they would become deadly.
"Fuck off and die."
We were in a seedy backroom of a dirty bar in one of the rougher parts of Wizarding London. What a lot of people don't realize is that not all of the wizarding world is Diagon Alley with its family friendly atmosphere. Even Knockturn Alley is relatively tame. It's impossible to get the really bad stuff that close to the centre of Wizarding London. There are too many people around, too many Aurors popping in and out, for anything really illegal to be safe or profitable. The bad stuff happens farther away from the prying eyes of the Ministry. Places where people like me don't often show up uninvited.
She was struggling against her bonds. Straining hard, trying to get a hand free. I wasn't worried though. There's no way she could get loose without a wand, and I had hers. The room was dark, lit only by her wand and a torch by the door. Crates were stacked in rows, filling the smallish room. I used my wand to crack one of the crates. Sheets of human skin lay piled neatly inside the crate. Merlin, this kid was in way over her head.
"You keep doing this you're going to end up dead, or worse in Azkaban. It's three months just for owning a piece this size," I said, grabbing the top sheet out of the crate. It's dry and rough in my hand, but it stays in one piece. "It's a year if you get caught selling it, and three years if you're trafficking it."
"Azkaban is worse than death?" she scoffed at me, rolling her eyes. She thought I was just trying to scare her. I wasn't, but I could. Maybe if someone had scared Kay, she would still be alive today. I moved back across the room to her, and sat on a nearby crate. She stared up at me in defiance.
"Let's imagine the worst case scenario. Let's say the rumors are true and You-Know-Who is back and gathering his Death Eaters to him. They come busting in here to ransack your little cache of goodies." I motion to the dark potion ingredients all around us, subtly reminding her that someone already has.
"You aren't anything to them. They'd probably hit you with a couple Cruciatus curses, and then they would end you. Ten minutes of agony and it's all over." I pause, letting the pictures form in her head, letting her imagination show her exactly what a Death Eater attack would be like: the panic, the pain, the terror, the torture, and finally, a flash of green -- then nothing more.
"That's nothing compared to Azkaban. The island isn't even really an island. It's really just a giant rock sticking out of the North Sea. The prison is made completely of stone. The cells are small, probably a third of the size of this room. The prisoners never get to leave their cell. The only things in the cells are a bed and a toilet."
I got up and moved to the crate I had opened, and took out a piece of skin the size of a page of parchment. I tried not to imagine where it had come from, or how it had been taken from the body it belonged too.
"Having something like this in your possession is three months. Selling it is a year. Trafficking is three. Three years in a room the size of a closet. It's always cold; the charms keep the prison livable, but nothing more. Can you imagine living three years of your life in a single room, never able to leave?" I let her think about that for a minute. I noticed she was a shade paler than she'd been five minutes ago, and I knew it wasn't the temperature getting to her. Maybe some of this was getting through.
"What's the worst thing that has ever happened to you?" I asked, changing tactics, knowing she wouldn't answer. I paused, letting every bad memory she had flash through her mind.
"The day you lost a parent? A sibling? A Lover? A friend? The day you joined up with this rabble to make a quick Galleon? You don't even need to remember it clearly or at all; the Dementors will drag it out of you." She gasped. She'd forgotten about the Dementors. I had her so worried about the little tortures of Azkaban that she'd let the biggest one slip away from her.
"Every day, all day, you'll relive it. The pain you felt then will be back, but this time it will be worse. There won't be any time passing to grieve, to move on, to accept what has happened because you'll see it again in the morning, and after lunch, and again just before dinner. No respite from the memories."
"People that go to Azkaban, come back changed. They've been to hell on earth, with the dark and the cold and the stone and the Dementors. There's no way to come out of that unscathed. People that are only there for a couple of months can usually get back a pretty good imitation of what their life used to be, but they're quieter. They don't smile or laugh as much as they used to." I went slowly, letting it all sink in as I explained just how bad Azkaban was.
"Just after a year is the first breaking point, the people with the weakest minds crack. They can't take it anymore, the pain and the sorrow, their mind shuts down and they go completely insane. The people that crack early, they crack hard. They usually don't survive the second year. Did you know that if you die in Azkaban, you don't get a real burial? Your family doesn't even get to see your body. They don't get to hold a proper funeral. You're buried in an unmarked grave on the island. The only people there are a pair of gravediggers. There is no ceremony, no flowers. No one says anything. A hole is dug, they put your body in and cover it up. That's it. Your family usually doesn't even find out until after it's happened. When they do find out, they get a letter from the Ministry, expressing their condolences; 'To Whom It May Concern, We are sorry to inform you that your son, daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister, whoever has died in Azkaban. We are extremely sorry for your loss. Sincerely, The Ministry of Magic.' Then it's signed by Fudge." She stared at me, open-mouthed, but I was not done. She was going to get every last detail.
"If you can survive the first year, you can usually do the first five. The five-year mark is the second breaking point. I've never seen anyone do five years and come out sane. The strong ones can still live some semblance of life, but not much more than that. Most of them are terrified of the dark by this point and have trouble getting more than a couple hours of sleep at a time. St. Mungo's has a whole ward that you never hear about, for people that survived Azkaban, but can't function in normal society. People like Sirius Black and Bellatrix Lestrange, who have done ten years or more, are complete nut jobs. I don't know how sane they were when they went in, but they're completely gone now. They rave and scream and howl like demons. The only thing they have left is pain, pain and the bad memories."
I stood and banished the crate I'd been sitting on. It would reappear in the impound at Auror Headquarters, where the crates would be marked, inventoried, and stored until trial. If the case never got to trial the Ministry would claim any restricted substances that they find useful; the rest would be destroyed. The girl hadn't moved or spoken since I'd finished talking. I continued to