Disclaimer: Familiar characters, spells and names belong to J.K. Rowling.
A/N: Thanks and hugs, as ever, to Mistral.
“…with further snowfall expected in the afternoon. Stand by for cancellations after the seven o’clock news…”
The wireless clicked on with a burst of static and the shrill tones of Seraphina Skeeter. The young announcer’s voice was unduly excited, overly cheerful and designed to penetrate the deepest of sleeps. Ginny groaned and rolled over in bed, dislodging the covers as she did so. The cold December air on her bare shoulders came close to rousing her completely. Curling up against Harry’s warm back, she buried her nose against him and threw one leg over his thigh. He let out a deep, sleepy sigh and covered her hand with his own. They were each reluctantly stirring, although the combination of warm skin and snowy weather urged otherwise.
“...bring you this morning’s breaking news...shocking developments in the so-called ‘O’clock Killings’ case. Confirming widespread fears, the anticipated ‘three am murder’ has taken place – two-fold! In the last hour, reports of violent crime in both London and Dorking have reached the studio; a clock, hands frozen at the death hour, has been discovered at each scene. The number of fatalities and the identities of the deceased are as yet unknown, but a connection with the Ministry of Magic is expected to be established. The unprecedented double homicide has already raised questions. Could escaped convict Marcus Delltorio have an accomplice? Is there a copycat killer at large? Speculation is rife that Minister Scrimgeour predicted this appalling turn of events as early as September and failed to make provisions for the safety of the public. Our reporter Jane Francis joins us now, live from the gates of the Ministry. Jane, what…”
Ginny didn’t hear what Jane had to say; she was out of bed and struggling into her thickest Weasley jumper. Without a word, Harry shrugged into his coat and snatched up his wand.
Three minutes later, their paging charms activated, vibrating against Ginny’s collarbone and Harry’s belt buckle.
They were already in mid-Apparition.
The Department was a hum of activity, both inside and out. It was fortunate, Ginny thought as they pushed through the mill of people, that the Ministry’s sound-proofing spells operated both ways. Her breath came easier as the shouts and protests of the press faded from earshot. Half the newspaper staff in the country appeared to be gathered at the main gates, armed with Quick-Quotes quills and short tempers.
“There you are, Potter.” Ben Harlow, wand tucked carelessly behind his ear, swooped in on Harry and seized him by the sleeve. “These are no times for sleeping in, you know,” he chastised in his warm brogue, before looking at Ginny with mischievous eyes. “Not that I’m blaming you, kid. Hallo, young Ginny, how’re you?” He nodded toward the back conference room. “Longbottom’s here already; we’re heading straight out to Dorking. Nice caves there, I’m told. And a very good pub. Crawling with reporters, I don’t doubt. How the bloody papers got onto this so quickly… Well, hurry up, then!”
Harry, used to Harlow’s rapid-fire speech, gave Ginny’s hand a quick squeeze and let himself be hauled toward the inner door. She watched as he spoke to Ron, who was flipping impatiently through a filing cabinet, before disappearing to join Neville in the conference room. Ginny couldn’t help enjoying the sight of her brother battling paperwork. He’d been just a little too smug at the Burrow last weekend, teasingly referring to her as Tonks’s secretary and proudly, to their Mum’s utter horror, brandishing his latest “battle scar”. Unfortunately for Ron, an exasperated Hermione had eventually let slip the truth of his glorious new wound: an ill-advised attempt to cook her breakfast in bed. The incident with the bacon and eggs had caused particular amusement. That little disclosure had been greeted with untold glee by the twins, but didn’t entirely soothe Ginny’s ruffled feathers. She was growing steadily more restless with her role at work; so far, the only marks she sported were Impermeable Ink stains.
A portly wizard strode past, one thin file tucked under his arm and a determined expression pasted on his face. Ginny recognised him as Rufus Scrimgeour’s personal assistant, although she couldn’t recall his name. Weaving in his wake, an adolescent office boy with damp eyes and a harassed mouth struggled with a four-foot stack of loose papers. Every few steps, another sheaf dropped to the floor, leaving a snail-trail of confidential documents. Rolling her eyes, she followed the mismatched pair to the door, bending and scooping as she went. The boy – who, she guessed, was five frosty comments short of a nervous breakdown – murmured a hasty “thanks” as she handed them over, and then rushed after his boss.
“Ginny!” Tonks was hurrying down the hallway, her face white and tense. Ginny was rather shocked by her appearance. She’d seen Tonks in her natural state before, of course, but she’d never seen her so very…colourless. Her brown hair was woven into a tight plait, and she wore a simple black jumper and neat grey slacks. No one would associate this sober young woman with yesterday’s vibrant, rainbow-hued prankster.
“Tonks, we heard on the news this morning…” Ginny began, frowning at her friend in concern.
“I’m sure you did; there’s blasted reporters everywhere… Don’t take your coat off!” Tonks didn’t bother to slow her steps, merely grabbing Ginny’s elbow as she sped on. “Have you seen Seamus this morning?”
“No,” Ginny said, half-running to keep pace with Tonks’s long legs. “But this place is such a crush; he might be here.”
“He’s probably late, the little bugger.” Tonks sounded more annoyed than affectionate, Ginny realised in surprise. The older witch usually had all the time in the world for Seamus’s…faults. “If he isn’t on duty by ten, I’ll have his balls for biscuits. I’ve left instructions; if he turns up here, he can follow.” She caught Ginny’s curious look and shot her a forced grin. “We’re out in the field today. That’ll make you kids happy, yeah? I know you’re ticked off with the paperwork.”
There was an odd tone to the words: it was cold and flat. For the first time, Ginny could hear the ruthless chill of the Black family in Tonks’s voice. It shocked her to her toes, and she found herself pulling back against the tight grip on her arm, dragging them to a halt.
Tonks swung around impatiently. “Look, kiddo, we don’t have time to…”
Ginny shook her head, glaring right back. She’d had enough of this secretive rubbish. Even the bloody newspapers knew more than she did. “Tonks, what’s going on? It was true, then, what they said on the wireless?”
Tonks appeared to have a snappy retort brewing at the back of her tongue, but – after one horrible, quiet moment – she finally huffed out a huge sigh, the coldness leaving her face as the air rushed from her lungs. Casting a quick glance about, she pulled her wand and muttered the familiar syllables of their favourite privacy spell. It was a practiced precaution, although probably unnecessary. They had left the throngs of personnel behind; besides themselves, only a pair of middle-aged wizards stood nearby in conversation, and Ginny had already identified them as notably pompous officials from Scrimgeour’s Cabinet. The idea of eavesdropping on the chatter of young witches simply wouldn’t occur to them.
“I’ve made…” Tonks paused, watching her fingers as they twirled the wand. Her hand slipped, and it clattered to the floor; she swept it up with a muffled curse. “I made a mistake,” she said shortly, before giving a harsh laugh. “A mistake. God.”
“Tonks…” Ginny frowned and shoved back a strand of loose hair. “What…”
“The press got the bare facts straight. For once,” Tonks muttered, ignoring her bewilderment. “The identities of the victims won’t be released to the public until tomorrow when the families have been informed. The body in Dorking is Albert Hughes,” she continued flatly. “Fifty years old, native of London, former Auror for the Ministry. Went jogging every morning at dawn with a neighbour, hence the reason his murder was discovered so quickly. Clock discovered in the bedroom, the hands stopped at three am.”
Ginny waited for a moment, but Tonks had retreated into a pensive silence.
“And there was another murder?” she asked warily. “In London?”
“Yes. And there was a murder in London.” Curls had begun to slip from Tonks’s severe hairstyle, as if her usually outgoing personality was stirring beneath the cool reserve. Now, as Ginny watched, a thick streak of furious red appeared in the brown strands. “He killed Nancy and John Cowley last night.”
The names meant nothing to Ginny, but obviously a great deal to her friend. From the escaping curls to her flashing green eyes, Tonks was radiating anger.
“He?” Ginny thought she recognised that particular bitterness. “Delltorio?”
“Delltorio,” Tonks confirmed. “Officially, we’ve picked up a copycat killer. And officially,” she said, stressing the word and lowering her voice to a masculine monotone, “we are ‘yet to ascertain the crime of the real killer’. If you listen to Roderick - which, by the way, Ginny, I’d advise against – the other murderer is just some loony bugger jumping on the bandwagon.” She snorted rudely, apparently unimpressed with their superior’s theory.
“And unofficially?” Ginny asked immediately, failing to stop a quick smile at the dead convincing imitation.
“Off the record,” Tonks told her, “the Dorking case is our ‘three am’. Roderick can spout as much shite as he likes; it won’t change anything. Delltorio murdered Nancy and John Cowley. And if he has anything to do with the other murders, I’ll…” She sought for a suitably hideous punishment. “I’ll snog Dawlish.”
“I’m sure Remus will be thrilled to hear that,” Ginny said dryly, before regarding Tonks with serious eyes. “What did you mean when you said that you made a mistake?”
Tonks sighed and pocketed her wand. She stared at the opposite wall for several seconds before her words burst forth in a rush. “Look, I know I can be a right pushy cow sometimes. I’m not good about accepting ‘no’ for an answer – Remus would be the first to admit that.” A wicked glint briefly lit her expression; in the next instant, she’d sobered once more. “Sometimes I’ve regretted not being a bit more…tactful. Other times,” she paused, taking an unsteady breath, “I’ve regretted that I didn’t push for something. When every instinct you have is pointing one way, Ginny, don’t argue the toss.” With a deft movement, she yanked at her hairclip. As she shook the curls free, a moody violet colour surged from the roots. Still pale, but looking much more her habitual self, Tonks finished, “The Cowley family ought to have been in the Ministry Protection Programme. I knew it in my gut, and I gave in to their decision. And I’ll never forgive myself for that.”
Ginny touched her arm in comfort. “Who were they?”
“To the Ministry, they were nobody at all,” she replied frankly. “They had few political connections, and they weren’t wealthy. The public wouldn’t see them as likely targets for Delltorio, and Roderick won’t hear of it. John Cowley was a confectioner; Nancy was a wand-maker. One of the best in England, after poor Ollivander, although she kept a low profile. John’s mother, on the other hand, did not. The name Lizzie Cowley ring any bells?”
Ginny looked up sharply. “Lizzie Cowley? The Lizzie Cowley? Of the Magpies?”
Tonks smiled at her awestruck face. “The best Chaser of the last century, yeah.”
“Until she took a bludger to the head in the 1953 World Cup,” Ginny said instantly, and Tonks laughed.
“Weasleys and Quidditch, eh?”
“Not just Quidditch, Tonks,” Ginny corrected. “Chasing. And Lizzie Cowley. Bill gave me a poster of her when I was four. I think I still have it somewhere.” She stopped suddenly, hit by an intense wave of nausea. “Lizzie Cowley was murdered. I remember listening to the announcement on the wireless with Mum. That wasn’t…”
Tonks was nodding grimly. “Just one of Delltorio’s many attempts to grab headlines away from Harry. We never established a personal connection – probably some imagined slight or other. Mrs. Cowley was still a public figurehead, despite being a bit…” She shrugged. “Well, you know.”
“I didn’t realise that it was Delltorio,” Ginny said quietly, feeling a bit ashamed. She’d worshipped the elderly woman as a child.
“Your family had enough to worry about at that time,” Tonks responded emphatically. “It was a few months after the war; nobody would have expected you to follow the story. We were all a bit numb then.”
“So – what? He wanted the whole family?” Ginny asked, frowning.
“No.” Tonks’s voice hardened. “I don’t imagine he would have lowered himself to killing John and Nancy, if he hadn’t thought…”
Tonks straightened her heavy coat. “We should go. We were supposed to be at the Cowleys’ house fifteen minutes ago.”
“Tonks.” Ginny stared at her pointedly.
A burly wizard pushed past, muttering profanities into his bushy mustache. Tonks stepped out of his way and sighed.
“Delltorio’s a theatrical bastard. He likes to stage his murders as if they were sacrificial killings. He’d usually stun his victim and Apparate with them to a hiding place. On the night of Lizzie Cowley’s slaughter, he broke into her home and Stunned her. He then transported her to a clearing in Sherwood Forest, lit some candles, gathered some cronies, and murdered her. You’re presumably planning to eat lunch later today, so I’ll spare you the details. We knew that he had a hideout; we’d even narrowed its likely location down to Nottinghamshire. But we didn’t know exactly where or with whom he was involved. And God knows how many other people would have died before we figured it out.” Tonks looked at Ginny. “We got a break. Delltorio is careless. He was unaware that he’d taken someone else along for the ride. That person escaped and came straight to us. It’s taken him years to find our source, but it was only a matter of time. And shits like Delltorio hold a grudge.”
“And he thought that person was Mr. or Mrs. Cowley?”
“Yes. He believed the source was either John or Nancy Cowley.”
“He just killed them both without knowing the truth.”
“Two bodies for the price of one. Probably Delltorio’s idea of a Christmas bargain.”
When the tugging sickness and the blur of Apparition faded, Ginny found herself standing, knee-deep in snow, before a small, weathered cottage. It was very old and slightly decrepit, but could have been lifted straight from an English postcard. Thatched roof and all. The garden was small and surrounded by a fence of wooden posts. A pair of tiny Wellingtons stood by the front door. And, as far as she could see, every home on the winding country road was almost identical.
Her first thought was that she should have worn her own boots; her second was the realization that they were definitely not in London.
Tonks appeared at her side with a pop and an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Oh, good. You got the coordinates right.” She grinned at Ginny’s expression. “I don’t know what you’re looking so miffed about. Given past events.”
“What happened in Hampshire could have happened to anyone,” Ginny retorted crossly, feeling her skin heat.
“Absolutely,” agreed Tonks, nodding firmly. “At some point in our lives, we all attempt to Apparate five minutes down the road and wind up breaking international customs laws. I never asked, how was the air in Marseille, anyway?”
Ginny exhaled huffily.
“And leaving your lips behind was quite impressive, you know. Harlow once left his ear in Devon, but I think you topped even that.”
“Are you done?”
“Finding one bright spot in a sodding awful day? Yes, unfortunately.” Tonks frowned up at the cottage, her smile fading.
“I thought we were going to the Cowleys’ house,” Ginny commented curiously as the other witch reached for the Gryphon-head door knocker.
“This is the Cowleys’ home,” Tonks said over her shoulder. “Nancy and John were in London on business. Thank Merlin.”
Before Tonks could release the knocker, the door was flung open, releasing a small blur of whirring arms and shrieking curses. Ginny instinctively threw up a shield charm; Tonks, caught off-guard, was not quite fast enough. The tiny creature with the piercing voice brandished her wand and struck wildly at the air.
A bolt of electric blue shot from the tip and exploded in Tonks’s astonished face. Ginny, recovering from the surprise, immediately returned a Jelly Legs Jinx, and their aggressor collapsed to the ground with an indignant howl.
Ignoring the writhing heap of aprons, lacy cap and insults, Ginny swung around. “Tonks! Are you…all right?”
Tonks was bent over at the waist, her hands grasping at her temples. The cascade of disheveled hair was morphing into a mottled shade of icy grey. Rocking back and forth, she tried to reply, but was able only to offer an agonized “Gahh!”
“What was… Oi!” Ginny broke off sharply and pointed with her wand. “Do that again, and we’ll take you in.”
For a few embarrassing minutes, she’d believed they were being attacked by an enraged house elf. Now, with time to breathe and see properly, she realised that it was a woman who was climbing to rest on unsteady feet. The housekeeper, judging by the dour clothing and matronly sneer. Ginny had never seen a more elf-like human. The scarlet-cheeked woman was even shorter than she was herself and was glaring from bobble-like eyes. Her wispy hair was stuffed ineffectually into a dowager’s cap, and bony ankles disappeared into miniscule black shoes. Gnarled fingers flexed on her wand.
“Vultures!” she screeched back, her bust wobbling with fury. “Murderers! Gutter press! You’ll leave this instant, or I’ll set the dogs on you!”
Blinking at the unexpectedly high-brow accent, Ginny scrambled for words.
“Out!” roared the housekeeper.
“Aurors!” Ginny shouted in return, giving up on the subtle approach. She flashed her identification tattoo, biting back the irritation. The woman had just lost her employers, after all. Although it seemed more than likely that she always acted like a hung-over Hungarian Horntail.
Their reluctant host stared at her with suspicion. “Aurors?” she asked. At the confirming nod, her brows drew together in black ire. “Ministry scum, then,” she spat.
Ginny rolled her eyes.
Tonks struggled to an upright position, one hand still pressed to her forehead. Without opening her tightly scrunched eyes, she stated firmly, “We’re here to see the children.”
“Oh, no, you’re not.” The reply was implacable.
Tonks carefully tested her vision, wincing as she did so. “Look,” she said to the housekeeper. “We’re dreadfully sorry for what happened to John and Nancy.” Her gaze sharpened. “But if you want those children kept safe, you’ll take me to them.”
Ginny watched silently as the two witches glared one another down, one iron will pushing against the other. Finally, the older woman gave a murmuring sigh, and her face fell into sad, resigned lines.
“You’d better come in.”
The house was snugly warm and extremely quiet. Ginny followed Tonks through the dimly lit hallway, their feet noiselessly treading the worn carpet. Mrs. Adams, as the housekeeper had succinctly introduced herself, knocked gently on the furthest door.
“Elizabeth? David? There are some people here to see you, pets.” She nodded at Tonks, a respectful bob to her head now. “I’ll be in the kitchen when you’ve finished. You’re not taking them away, mind?”
“Not without you, ma’am,” Tonks returned evenly.
Mrs. Adams smiled faintly. “All right, then. Oh – and I apologise for what happened earlier,” she said stiffly. “We’ve been expecting trouble all morning. And I won’t have anyone bothering my babies.”
The warning was clear.
“We’re not here to badger them,” Tonks promised, and the housekeeper appeared satisfied with that. As they watched her squat form disappear through another door, Tonks cast Ginny a side-long glance. “And speaking of not badgering people… If you tell anyone at the Department that I was brought down by the Ice Cream Headache Jinx,” she threatened through gritted teeth, “I’ll have you docked half a day’s pay. And reassigned to Dawlish.”
Ginny pressed her lips together and tried not to look too amused.
Tonks turned the door handle and ushered her into what was clearly the nursery. The walls were painted a dreamy yellow, and a stream of exotic animals marched into constant parade around the frieze. Several spongy armchairs were arranged beside the flickering fireplace, and a profusion of toys was scattered about the floor. Her eyes catching on an overflowing bookcase, Ginny’s brows rose. The titles seemed to range from Teddy’s Day at the Circus to Advanced Charms. There was even a dog-eared copy of Hogwarts: A History on the children’s table. If she squinted a little, she found herself thinking with amusement, she could almost see a little girl with bushy brown hair and protruding teeth. She imagined that Hermione had grown up in a room very similar, although probably more tidy.
Ginny at first thought the nursery to be empty. Tonks, however, turned in a purposeful circle.
“There you are,” she said in a relieved voice. Walking toward the fire, she crouched before the largest armchair and gazed solemnly at the seat. Ginny followed hesitantly; it wasn’t until she was standing just a few feet away that she saw the small ball of grey fur. Hovering on its hind legs, its front paws tucked neatly under its chin, the mouse watched Tonks with large, gleaming eyes.
“Hallo, Elizabeth,” Tonks said quietly. “I’m not sure if you remember me.”
There was a short pause before the mouse stretched upward and smoothly transformed with a practiced ease that Minerva McGonagall would envy. Ginny caught her breath, both impressed and amazed. A young girl of about thirteen or fourteen now sat in the chair, her knuckles white against the arms. She had deep green eyes, a round face and masses of corn-silk curls. Her voice was deeper than her youthful appearance warranted and, like Tonks’s, was a shade husky.
“I’m so sorry, kiddo.” Tonks stretched out a hand, and Elizabeth took it, squeezing tight. Her eyes were dry but shone with strong emotion. Having experienced it more than once herself in the past years, it didn’t take Ginny long to recognise undiluted terror. Still holding the girl’s hand, Tonks introduced them, and she found herself on the receiving end of a wary stare.
A small motion in the corner of the room caught all of their attentions, and Tonks smiled as a little boy crawled from beneath the table. He looked about four, although he could easily be younger; he was skinny and pale. A cowlick of brown hair hung into his frightened face. His mouth opened, and he slowly edged his thumb inside, his chest moving with quick, shallow breaths.
“And this must be David,” Tonks said brightly, extending her other hand toward him. “Hallo there, young sir. I’ve heard a great deal about you.”
“It’s okay, David,” Elizabeth said softly, and her brother crept forward.
Resting on her haunches, Tonks waited until she had his attention before spiking her hair into long peaks. David watched in fascination as she flicked through the colours of the rainbow in rapid succession. His lips curled when Tonks tugged on her nose and it grew a good six inches; he gave a small smile when she waggled one ear and her eyebrows turned purple. She poked out her tongue, turned her eyes into kaleidoscopes, and he finally gave in and chuckled. Curling sticky fingers about hers, he clutched at her with heart-hurting urgency.
Tonks wrapped one arm about each child and drew them to her. Over their bowed heads, she looked up. Ginny swallowed. Hardened Aurors or not, they were both an instant away from tears.
She glanced at the Advent Calendar on the wall. Seven days until Christmas.
And what a merry world it is.
Tonks’s favourite pub in London was busy, loud and smelled of deep-fried grease. It was also cheerful and a welcome change in atmosphere after the solemn white walls of the Department of Child Welfare and Protection. They had left Elizabeth, David and their fierce minder in the care of Aurelia Sutcliffe, the bubbly young Children’s Minister. Tonks had been visibly reluctant to leave them alone, Ginny scarcely less so. Aurelia, however, was one of those rare entities in the Ministry: a person who managed to inspire both confidence and affection. She had sworn to the Cowleys’ safety and was currently trying to find a suitable foster home. The Burrow was still on the list of war-time refuges, and Ginny truly hoped that Aurelia would secure permission to send Elizabeth and David to her mum. Nobody could comfort a grieving child like Molly Weasley.
A white-faced Tonks had suggested lunch and beers at the Three Fiddlers. Ginny had heard herself protest that they were still on duty, before blinking. Tonks had been equally taken aback, and they’d agreed that she’d better stuff her mouth with food before any more Roderick-esque statements came out of it.
Seated by the blazing fire, Ginny tugged her scarf from a knot of hair and absently watched the Christmas shoppers striding past the window. The sight of bulging parcels and rolls of wrap should probably have created a festive spirit. Instead, it was a reminder that she hadn’t bought many gifts herself, and time was running short. Smoothing back her long ponytail, she looked at Tonks across the table. The other witch was playing with the candle, her crimson curls flickering gently in parody of the flame. She looked emotionally exhausted.
“They’ll be all right with Aurelia,” Ginny said softly, hoping that was true. The memory of haunted eyes watching their departure would stay for quite some time. “And hopefully she’ll get them in at the Burrow. Mum would love it, having more children to spoil. You should see the mountain of clothes she’s knitting for Fleur’s baby.”
To her dismay, Tonks seemed to grow more depressed. “Oh, right. It must be due soon?”
Ginny bit her lip. “January. Although all of the others have been early, so who knows?”
“She’s really popping them out, isn’t she?” Tonks said with a forced laugh. “Don’t know when she finds time to have a career. Or how she can be the size of an elephant and still look bloody gorgeous.”
They exchanged glances and burst into genuine, albeit reluctant, giggles.
“It’s maddening, isn’t it?” Ginny managed through her snickers. “Annoys Mum no end.”
“Your mum has nothing to worry about,” Tonks stated loyally. “Molly’s a lovely-looking woman.”
The jovial Spanish waiter brought their food with a gold-toothed smile and plenty of flirtation. Tonks thanked him and picked up her fork, poking at the thick curry. Ginny took a bite of chicken and cleared her throat.
“Is everything okay, Tonks?” she asked, swallowing and reaching for her glass. “I mean, other than work – is there anything wrong? You just seem really…down today.”
Tonks fiddled with her straw. “I’m just a bit tired. Full moon last night,” she added.
“Oh.” Ginny’s face cleared. “Right – God, sorry, I didn’t even notice! Is Remus all right?” she asked, concerned.
“He’s fine. Seriously grouchy, but fine.” Tonks smiled faintly. “We’ve been having a spot of bother with the decorations, as well. If I can’t fix it by the weekend, I’ll ask Hermione to take a look.”
“The decorations?” Ginny grinned. “You wouldn’t, by any chance, have used a charm from the same book as that furniture reupholstering spell?”
“Eat your roast,” Tonks said, flushing. “And yes, actually. The damn stuffed reindeer keeps running away. And the Christmas fairy’s been coming on to Remus all week – little hussy.”
Ginny snorted on a mouthful of salad, and a smirking Tonks passed her a napkin.
She was loath to bring back the morning’s melancholy, but something had been niggling at Ginny’s mind for the last hour.
“Listen,” she began finally. “You said that someone witnessed Lizzie Cowley’s murder.” She watched Tonks’s face close over but pushed on regardless. “It wasn’t John or Nancy Cowley who spilled the beans on Delltorio…was it?”
It took several moments for Tonks to cast the strongest privacy spells she knew. Ginny laid down her fork and prepared to listen; she was already fairly sure of what she would hear.
“When I first met Elizabeth Cowley,” Tonks said quietly, “she was nine years old and had already mastered the Animagus transformation. She’s brilliant – a prodigy, really.”
Tonks shrugged. “If she sat her NEWT exams tomorrow, there’s no doubt in my mind that she could wipe the floor with Hermione’s scores.”
Ginny whistled. That brilliant, then.
“On the night of her abduction, Mrs. Cowley was baby-sitting. She was enormously proud of Elizabeth’s morphing talents, I’m told. When Delltorio broke in, her granddaughter was in the pocket of her dressing gown.”
“She saw everything,” Ginny whispered, horrified.
“Yes,” Tonks agreed shortly. “There was nothing she could do, although she tried, brave kid. Delltorio’s minions jumped ship quickly when we brought them in. Ratted on him faster than you can blink. Apparently, all hell broke loose at the clearing that evening. Hexes flying everywhere, and they weren’t all from the bastards’ wands.”
“She was just a little girl.”
“She’s still just a little girl.” Tonks looked grim. “Delltorio’s not stupid. He could still find out about Elizabeth. At the moment, they’re just orphaned kids. I doubt he’s given them a second thought. But if he does find out…”
“Elizabeth’s an unregistered Animagus, and her more extraordinary skills aren’t widely known. The longer it stays that way, the better. I’ve privately put her on high security alert at the Ministry.” Tonks scowled. “I should have made sure that John and Nancy were safe. I’m telling you now, though, he’s damn well not getting to those children.”
Ginny nodded. “Agreed.” She hesitated. “The Burrow still has powerful wards on it from the war, but I s’pose that doesn’t necessarily make it safe. There isn’t anywhere else they could go?”
Tonks sighed. “They don’t have much family left. And their godfather is Horace Slughorn - ”
“Professor Slughorn?” Ginny interrupted in astonishment.
“If you’d rather.” Tonks cocked a derisive brow. “I have no doubt he’d take Elizabeth; she’d make a perfect trophy for his collection of overachievers. There’s no way in Hades he’d want David, though.”
“Why not?” Ginny asked hotly. She was already extremely fond of the shy little boy.
“Slughorn’s never been wild about half-breeds. He’ll tolerate them in society, but the man’s a coward. He wouldn’t share his home with one for all the pineapple sweets in the world.”
“David’s a werewolf, Ginny.”
Back at the Department, a disheveled Seamus was sitting on Tonks’s desk, waiting for them. He immediately went into charming mode, flashing his most apologetic smile.
“Sorry! Sorry. You wouldn’t believe what happened to me last night…”
Tonks shot him a dry look. “Hold that thought. I don’t think my nerves can handle it today. Ginny will catch you up on what’s happened; I have a meeting with Roderick in ten minutes. And I can see the vein in his temple throbbing from here. The poor man’s head will probably explode if I’m late again.”
“Great.” Seamus clapped his hands together. “Well, got my coat and gloves. Where are we going?”
Tonks smiled sweetly. “All the way to your desks. You wouldn’t believe how many new files have arrived from storage.”
Seamus’s face was almost comical in its dismay.
“Sorry, mate, the field trip’s over. Class is back in session.”
“You’ll have to go through all the papers again, kids, sorry.” Tonks reverted to seriousness, ignoring Seamus’s protests. “Because of Albert Hughes’ death, we have a new name. I need to know every case, every mission, every trial – any situation in the past that involved all of the O’clock victims.”
“So, basically, the more bodies we have, the more we can narrow this down?” Ginny asked, disconcerted.
“’Fraid so. Of course,” Tonks continued, “the sooner we can isolate names, the sooner we’ll catch him. Or her.”
“Her?” Seamus sounded a bit sullen. “Roderick doesn’t think a woman would be capable of this.”
“Roderick wouldn’t understand a woman’s capabilities until she shoved her wand up his…” Tonks let her voice trail off. “I’m not ruling out the possibility that the perp’s a female. And don’t sulk, Seamus. It ruins your pretty face.” She gathered an armload of folders and checked her watch. “Okay, let’s get to it. No time to waste.”
Seamus brightened. “Right-o. Because we’re racing against the clock, yeah? Get it? The clock?”