From the corner of his eye he continued to observe the three expensively robed businessmen at the next table. They were still watching his girlfriend. He had pointed them out to her during their main course.
‘They’re being about as discreet as a shark in a paddling pool,’ he’d told her. She had simply laughed, turned, and given the three middle-aged wizards one of her sultriest smiles.
Her curly brown hair was fastened up in an ornate pile and her face was, as usual, immaculately made up. He found himself staring at her lips. They sparkled in the light, there seemed to be glitter in her vibrant pink lipstick. She was talking animatedly, the way she always did. He watched and smiled and nodded. It was pointless trying to interrupt her, he knew that. She’d been waving her arms whilst making an important point about current Muggle fashions—a point completely lost on him—and the bateau neckline sweater dress she was wearing had slipped sideways down her arm revealing a bare shoulder. The wolf bite on it was barely visible.
When she paused for breath, he again looked around. The Wand and Thistle was a traditional and rather old-fashioned Wizarding establishment and, in deference to their sedate surroundings, the majority of diners were wearing robes. As usual, he and his girlfriend were different. Although some of the other, younger, diners were also in Muggle clothes, they were a tiny minority; and absolutely no one was dressed like she was.
They were both casual-smart, or so she told him. He was wearing black chinos and a pale green polo shirt, clothes which she’d bought him for his birthday. She wore tight black leggings which were lace trimmed below the knee, stilettos, and the bright pink sweater dress. Despite it being loose at the neck, below her bust the dress was glued tightly to her curves and it barely covered her bottom. Because of their clothing, they had created something of a stir when they arrived. He was used to it, as his girlfriend always liked to be the centre of attention.
She stopped talking long enough to daintily eat the last morsel of her dessert. Once finished, she neatly placed her spoon and fork into her empty bowl, and placed her hands on the table. The false fingernails she wore were the same shade of glittery pink as her lips, and her shoes. He was about to comment on the fact when she spoke.
‘That was very nice,’ she said. ‘How was your apple tart, Mark?’
‘Good,’ Mark told her. ‘But there really wasn’t enough of it, which is a pity. You know how much I enjoy eating a tasty tart, Lavender.’ He kept his face straight as he gazed into her violet eyes. Lavender giggled.
‘Are you finished, sir, madam?’ the young waiter enquired as he arrived to clear the plates. Mark gave a rueful nod. Even after all these years, it still astonished him how much better the service was when he was dining with Lavender.
‘Yes, thank you,’ she said. She gave the waiter a vibrant smile and then turned back to Mark, stared into his face and sighed dramatically. ‘At this time of the year, I wish I was in Australia, or even Antarctica,’ she told him. ‘Sixteen hours of night! Seventeen if I stay at your place! That will be the longest ever for me. I hate winter with its long nights and short days. I hate Christmas.’
He reached across the table and squeezed her hand consolingly. ‘At least it isn’t the night of Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, Lavender,’ he said. ‘It’s the night of the twenty-third tae twenty-fourth. I’ll be with you all night, you know that. Nice nails, by the way, they match your shoes.’
Lavender flashed a brief smile and her eyes gleamed momentarily, but she was determined to remain a martyr to her condition. He was used to that, too.
‘It’s all right for you, Mark,’ she grumbled petulantly. ‘You’re not the one who turns into a wolf every full moon night.’
The young waiter dropped the dessert bowls and took two hasty and horrified steps backwards. The bowls landed on the floor with a silence-inducing clatter. One of them broke. The background murmur of conversations halted, an expectant hush fell across the restaurant, and everyone turned to see what was going on.
‘Clumsy fool,’ said one of the three businessmen.
The corners of Lavender’s mouth drooped and she looked down sadly. That was stage one, Mark knew. By the time she had raised her head, glared at the man and bared her teeth in a snarl of rage, Mark was already at her side. He gently placed a finger on her lips. To his surprise, it worked.
‘I’ll have the bill, now please,’ Mark told the waiter firmly. ‘My girlfriend and I will wait for it in the foyer, and I’d like the maître d’ tae bring it tae me!’
‘Mark…’ Lavender growled.
‘I’m no’ letting ye malky the wee scunner, Lavender,’ said Mark, dropping into the broad Scots he used only when he was annoyed. He spoke quietly, but loudly enough for the man to hear. ‘This place is full of families enjoying a nice meal. It’s only a few days to Christmas. We’re not going tae make a scene and spoil everyone else’s evening, okay?’ He stared anxiously down into his girlfriend’s face and watched as her eyes flickered around the busy restaurant taking in the hustle and bustle.
‘Make a scene and you’ll lose the high ground, Lavender,’ he told her. ‘And you know how much you like tae be on top.’ Lavender giggled again.
She took the hand he proffered and allowed him to pull back her chair and help her to her feet.
‘Thank you, Mark,’ she said. ‘It’s nice to know that there are still some gentlemen in the world.’ She took his arm, stared at the waiter through disdainfully narrowed eyes, and flounced indignantly from the room.
The foyer of the inn was almost deserted; the only person in the room was the reception witch. She looked up from her desk when they entered, and continued to surreptitiously stare. It was the clothes, Mark realised.
‘Malky?’ she asked.
‘It means thump, beat up, assault, that sort of thing,’ he told her. She chuckled.
He was heading toward a sofa, but Lavender forcefully guided him toward a large leather armchair. She almost pushed him into it, kicked off her stilettos, climbed into his lap and hugged her shins, her chin resting on her knees, her lips in a petulant pout.
Mark simply enveloped her in his arms, one hand caressed her hip, the other her bare foot. She leaned sideways into his chest.
‘Bigot,’ she grumbled into his sternum. ‘I was having a lovely time, and he ruined it! He’s an idiot.’
Mark hugged her tightly and kissed the top of her head. ‘Everyone in the world is an idiot except you and me,’ he said.
‘And sometimes I’m not certain about you,’ added Lavender immediately.
Mark smiled; it was an old and pathetic joke which they’d shared for a few years now. He said the next line automatically.
‘No, you must be the idiot; you’re going out with me, aren’t you?’ he asked. As he completed the exchange she lifted her chin from her knees and smiled. Sliding her arms around his neck, she kissed him. They continued to kiss until they were interrupted.
The head waiter cleared his throat loudly and said, ‘Excuse me sir and madam, your bill.’ He handed them a receipt on a silver tray.
‘No, he’s Mark and I’m Lavender,’ said Lavender flippantly. The maître d’ wasn’t amused.
‘Your waiter needs tae learn some tact,’ Mark said, taking the bill from the tray and looking at it carefully. ‘He shouldn’t be dropping plates and running away like that. It upsets my girlfriend.’
Lavender was looking tearfully up at the man. It was an impressive display of emotion, but the maître d’ remained impassive.
‘I think that she deserves an apology,’ said Mark. ‘And this bill is wrong.’
‘Wrong, sir?’ the maître d’ affected surprise.
‘You’ve added the optional service charge tae this bill. I dinnae see why I should leave a tip for the person who insulted my girlfriend,’ said Mark forcefully.
‘Are you guests at the hotel, sir?’ the maître d’ asked.
‘Does it make a difference?’ Mark asked sharply. He was becoming annoyed. If the man asked them to leave, he would identify himself. ‘The hotel restaurant is open tae the public. We are entitled tae be here.’
‘Indeed, sir. But this is a private building and The Wand and Thistle Inn can choose to refuse service to anyone,’ said the maître d’ smoothly. ‘You are indeed, our guests, but we are entitled by law to remove disruptive persons from the premises.’
‘Disruptive!’ said Lavender scornfully.
Mark felt the temperature rising. Lavender was already simmering and, unless the head waiter turned down the heat, she’d soon reach boiling point. He released her from his hug. She sprang from his lap and stood staring at the man. The maître d’ was a big man, both tall and wide, he towered over Lavender, especially now she was barefoot, but he looked worried. He should, Mark thought as he sprang to his feet and stood behind her.
Do you really want me to be disruptive?’ asked Lavender quietly.
Mark stepped alongside Lavender, put an arm around her, and reached into his pocket for his Law Office Identity Card.
‘My name is Mark Moon and I’m…’ Mark began, but the sudden sound of crying children silenced him.
The maître d’ looked past them and his eyes widened in concern. They were instantly forgotten as both the maître d’ and the reception witch began to move rapidly towards the sound. Mark and Lavender turned and saw the Potters. Harry was carrying James, who was sobbing into his father’s shoulder. A howling Albus was resting on Ginny’s swollen belly, and rubbing his snotty nose on the collar of her coat.
‘Everything okay, boss?’ Lavender asked loudly.
‘Obviously not, Lavender,’ Ginny snapped. ‘And don’t call him boss.’
‘Hi, Lavender, hello, Mark,’ said Harry, raising his voice in order to be heard over his children’s cries. ‘We’re having a minor family crisis. I was going to call in to your office after we get the boys settled, Bailiff Moon. Who’s the duty Bailiff? Or … do you have plans? Are you going somewhere special, or would you like to come up to our suite and have a coffee with us?’
Mark saw the head waiter’s look of alarm. The moment Lavender had shouted her flippant greeting to Harry the man had realised that the werewolf he’d been about to eject was also an Auror, and now he also knew that Mark was a Bailiff of the Law Office.
‘This idiot was just about to throw us out,’ said Lavender, smirking at the maître d’. ‘So we’d love to come up to your suite, Harry.’
‘I’ll have your bill corrected and sent up to the Potter’s suite, madam,’ the maître d’ gave a cursory bow and left.
‘You should speak tae your waiter about his attitude toward werewolves, too,’ said Mark. The man’s back stiffened.
‘Can someone arrange for a pot of coffee for four, and two hot chocolates, to be sent up to our suite,’ Ginny called after the man.
‘Of course, Mrs Potter,’ said the reception witch.
Mark watched the maître d stride into the restaurant. Lavender ignored the man. It appeared to Mark that she had forgotten all about the incident in the restaurant. She was busily fussing over the Potter boys.
‘Hello little Jamesy-wamesy,’ Lavender cooed, pitching her voice very high. ‘What on earth is the matter, sweetie?’
‘I’m sure it wasn’t really Santa…’ Lavender began. A scorching stare from Ginny instantly silenced her.
‘We’ll tell you what’s happened when we get upstairs,’ said Harry, pointedly glancing at the children.
As Lavender scooped up her stilettos and meekly followed the Potters into the lift, Mark looked curiously at Ginny Potter. He had never been able to silence Lavender like that. Not even Don Brown, Lavender’s father, could shut her up that quickly. It was astonishing. But what was Mark found even more astonishing was what James Potter had said.
‘This … er, man, er … Santa,’ Mark began cautiously. ‘Was he stunned first, and then shaved?’
‘Yes.’ Harry sounded surprised. James stopped sobbing and stared at Mark.
‘And you tried, but you couldn’t make his beard grow back using magic,’ said Mark.
‘How do you know that?’ asked Ginny suspiciously.
‘What do you know?’ Harry demanded.
‘Yeah, wha’choo know?’ James parroted. Al had twisted around in Ginny’s arms and was also gazing at Mark. He suddenly wondered whether he’d said too much. It could simply be a coincidence, although if it was, it would be a very strange one.
‘Juno oodiddit?’ demanded James. It took Mark a second or two to process James’s question.
‘It sounds like it’s the work of the Beard Hunter, James,’ said Mark seriously. ‘But it’s too late in the year, and, anyhow, it isnae our turn until next December.’
‘Beard Hunter!’ Lavender snorted with laughter. ‘You’re making it up…’ Once again Ginny glared her into silence.
‘Beard Hunter?’ asked Ginny urgently.
‘Why is it too late in the year? And what do you mean, not your turn?’ demanded Harry as the lift doors opened. He then prevented Mark from answering. ‘We’ll talk when we get into our suite,’ he ordered, leading them along the corridor.
Mark tried to gather his thoughts. This was the Potters! Lavender knew them well, very well. She’d been in the same House, the same class, as Harry Potter, and now she worked for him. Mark had met the Potters a few times, initially through his job in the Scottish Law Office. But unlike Lavender, he didn’t consider himself to be a friend.
Over the years, Lavender had taken Mark to a couple of parties at the Potter’s home, but he wasn’t good at parties, and he hadn’t seen them since before Al was born. With two young children the Potters didn’t socialise much.
Harry had only just unlocked the door to his suite when the maître d’ himself arrived with a silver tray containing their order.
‘Your drinks, Mr Potter,’ he said, placing the tray on a table in the richly appointed lounge. ‘Shall I pour, Mrs Potter?’
‘No, thank you,’ said Ginny.
The head waiter turned to Mark. ‘I’d like to apologise, on behalf of the Wand and Thistle Inn, Auror Brown, Bailiff Moon. I’m afraid that there was some misunderstanding between your waiter and myself.’
Mark rolled his eyes, and silently paid the bill.
‘Hot chocolate, and then bed for you two,’ Ginny told her boys firmly. She tested the drinks, gave one to James, cooled the other one with her wand and poured it into a child cup which Harry had retrieved from a suitcase.
‘Now, tell us about this “Beard Hunter”, Mark,’ Harry ordered the moment the waiter left.
‘Yes,’ said James, again mimicking his father. ‘Tell ‘bout beard hunner, Mr Mark.’
Mark looked at James and Al; the boys looked serious and rather worried. Mark wondered what had happened.
‘Yes, tell us all a lovely story, Uncle Marky,’ said Lavender smiling sweetly.
‘This will probably sound rather silly,’ began Mark. He took a deep breath.
‘Eight years ago, at the end of November 1999, I was on patrol. I was walking back tae the office when I heard a man wailing. I went tae investigate and found an elderly man sitting on the cobbles. He’d been stunned, and his beard shaved off. He was annoyed, and embarrassed. He’d tried tae magically grow the beard back but it hadnae worked. I suggested that he report it as a crime, but he refused. He’d been stunned, but otherwise he hadnae been harmed, and nothing had been taken, apart from his beard. I told the sheriff when I got back tae the office, and he said that he’d seen the same thing, three years earlier. That time the man had reported it. But of course, that was in ’96 and we assumed that it was someone looking for a disguise.
‘On the first of December ’02, the same thing happened again. I didn’t find out until several days later, because it was another Bailiff who found the latest victim. That time, like the previous time, the guy refused tae press charges.’
‘Are you making this up, Mark?’ asked Lavender suspiciously.
‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘It was crazy, once every three years, at the end of November or the beginning of December someone was stealing a beard. Everyone told me tae forget it, but silly things fascinate me…’
‘I’d never have guessed,’ said Ginny, casting a sly glance at Lavender. Fortunately, Lavender laughed.
‘Other than the incident in ’96, no crimes had been reported, so there was nothing tae investigate. As you know, Lavender, in ’04 I took a transfer tae York. That’s when I met you again. Well, not long after you and I started … seeing each other … the same thing happened in York. I thought that someone was playing a joke on me. But I spoke tae a couple of the York Law Office staff and discovered that it was happening there, too, every three years.’
‘You’re nuts, and that’s crazy, Mark,’ said Lavender. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Because I thought that you’d tell me I was nuts, or crazy,’ he told her drily. Ginny chuckled. Lavender smiled up at him and leaned against his arm.
‘Do you know where the third place is?’ Harry asked. Mark looked at the Head Auror in surprise. Harry Potter really was taking this seriously.
‘Yes, Cardiff,’ Mark told him. ‘The beard thefts happen every year: Edinburgh, Cardiff, York, then back tae Edinburgh.’
‘So, this year it should have been Cardiff,’ said Harry.
‘It was Cardiff,’ Mark said. ‘I’ve got a friend, Rhys Owen, who’s a Bailiff in Swyddfa Cymru, the Wales Office. He’s the guy I contacted about it when I was in York. And in York Rhianna Wrigglesworth keeps Rhys and I informed.’
‘Rhianna from York? Why haven’t you ever mentioned her to me before?’ Lavender demanded.
‘Let me get this right,’ Harry said. ‘Every year, in late November…’
‘Or very early December,’ Mark interrupted.
‘Or early December, a man gets stunned and has his beard shaved off,’ Harry continued. ‘And this has been happening since, when, do you know?’
‘The earliest one we’ve found was fifteen years ago, York in 1992,’ said Mark.
‘You’ve been researching this?’ Lavender chuckled. ‘I knew that your life was boring before I spiced it up for you, Marky. But really, chasing stolen beards?’
‘We deal with a lot of crazy pranks in the Sheriff’s offices, Lavender,’ said Mark firmly. ‘I know we’re not Aurors, but we get our share of weird stuff. You know how easy it is for a witch or wizard tae get from place tae place. Rhys, Rhianna and I have known each other for a few years. We meet up three or four times a year for a drink and we discuss cases. Everything from new methods used by housebreakers tae the spate of Densaugeo attacks on we had earlier this year.’
‘I used to like that spell,’ said Lavender, smiling at some long-forgotten memory.
‘Aye, well, anyway Rhys caught the tooth fairy … that’s just what we called her…’ Mark hastily explained to the two little boys, under a searchlight glare from Ginny. ‘Because she attacked people’s teeth. She wasn’t the real tooth fairy. Anyway, Rhianna and I passed information on tae Rhys, and he caught her. We’d love tae catch the Beard Hunter, or at least figure out why he’s doing it.’
‘Do you have any theories?’ Harry asked.
‘The only theory we’ve come up with is that he works as a…’ Mark looked carefully at Ginny, then addressed the Potter boys directly, ‘pretend Father Christmas in a shop. He always takes long white beards. We wondered if, perhaps he makes a false beard with them.’ Mark shrugged helplessly. He looked worriedly at Lavender and saw realisation light up her eyes.
‘Merlin’s beard! You’ve checked, haven’t you?’ she laughed. ‘You have actually checked! You’ve gone out and questioned the Father Christmases! How many Santa’s beards have you pulled, Mark?’
‘Snot funny,’ said James. ‘You is hobbible.’
‘Hobbible,’ Al confirmed.
Lavender was crestfallen; she looked to Ginny and Harry for support, but didn’t get any.
‘She’s simply making fun of me, boys. Not Santa,’ said Mark. ‘She didn’t really mean it, she knows that naughty girls dinnae get presents. We will help your Pa find out what happened, won’t we Lavender?’
Lavender woke slowly. Mark’s bed was warm and snug. Despite its stark lack of colour, frills, and a steel cage to house her transformed self, his bedroom was a place which was now as comforting to her as her own. He wasn’t there; she could still smell their mingled scents, but the smell of Mark was absent, as was the soft sound of his breathing.
As the full moon approached Lavender’s sense of smell was heightening. She breathed deeply and caught the distant smell of raw bacon, he was making breakfast. Naughty girls do get presents, she thought as she lazily and contentedly opened her eyes. It was still dark, but that was to be expected, it was the Solstice, the shortest day. Today there would be a scant seven hours of daylight in Southern Scotland.
Lavender stretched, revelling in the feel of his sheets against her bare skin. She again inhaled. The distant smell had changed and strengthened. Her nose now told her that the bacon was frying. She slipped from the warmth of Mark’s bed into the cool air of his bedroom and wondered if it had snowed overnight. She opened his curtains and stared out into the grey darkness. The faintest flicker of dawn was lightening the eastern skyline; the sloping roofs of Edinburgh’s Old Town formed an irregular horizon of chimney pots, gables and ridge lines against the skyline. It was a grey day, but there was no snow.
She thought back over their previous evening. They had promised the Potter boys that they would help their daddy to find the man who had stolen Santa’s beard. It was ridiculous, but both James and Al were convinced that the man they’d met was Father Christmas, and because Harry and Ginny had encouraged that belief the boys were very worried about what would happen on Christmas Day. Mark had taken it all ridiculously seriously. He had even taken Harry to the Scottish Office, where the Sheriff had confirmed Mark’s story.
Shaking her head, Lavender opened Mark’s chest of drawers and selected the trousers and shirt her boyfriend would wear that day. The pale green polo shirt he’d worn yesterday lay on the floor where she’d thrown it the previous night. His trousers and underwear were still at the bottom of the bed too. She picked up his polo shirt and wriggled into it. Picking up her handbag she left the bedroom and took three steps across the tiny hall into the bathroom. She’d shower later, she decided. She rapidly re-applied her make-up and, while doing so, she wondered whether she should buy Mark a bedroom mirror for Christmas.
She entered the kitchen as Mark was placing crispy bacon and fried tomato slices onto a piece of dry toast. He spread brown sauce onto a second slice of toast and completed the sandwich. He passed her the plate. It was her favourite breakfast, and he knew it.
Mark was almost always nice, but he was being especially nice, which meant…
‘I’ve made coffee,’ he said, interrupting her thoughts. ‘I can make some tea if you’d prefer.’
Lavender took a bite of sandwich, looked at him and smiled. He was being very nice indeed.
‘My lovely Emm mmm…’ she began, pronouncing his initials as a throaty purr.
‘We promised those two little boys that we’d help, Lavender,’ he reminded her. ‘You promised your boss, too. Mrs Potter won’t Apparate while she’s pregnant…’
‘And using the Floo network makes her puke, I know, Mark! That’s why they’re using one of the flying cars.’ Lavender sighed. ‘And that’s why they’re going to investigate Side Way see if they can catch the Beard Hunter, and find this mysterious Santa who fled from them when Ginny’s spell failed. But we’re not at work. We’re on holiday and we’re supposed to be going Christmas shopping together,’ she reminded him. ‘We could go to Diagon Alley and do our shopping first, and then travel to Cardiff and York. We could talk to your Law Office friends after we’ve finished shopping.’
‘We should really…’ began Mark.
He got no further. Lavender had interlocked her fingers and raised her hands above her head. The motion lifted the shirt she wore, his shirt, an interesting few inches. It was enough to silence him. She lowered her hands over his head, stood on tiptoe, and kissed him. ‘Please say yes, Emmsy-wemmsy. Pwetty pwease … with a Lavender on top.’
Charing Cross Road was busy and it took them some time to cross to the Leaky Cauldron. The bright and cheerful pub was packed to capacity. They were forced to squeeze their way through the crowded bar and had almost reached the door to the rear yard when Lavender heard a snatch of conversation.
‘…it’s Merlin’s beard, genuine!’ a male voice said. ‘S’an amulet what protects ‘gainst fieves.’
Lavender pulled Mark to a halt and motioned him to remain silent.
‘Blimey, Stan,’ she heard a woman reply. ‘Wha’ my gonna do wi’ choo. ‘Ow mu’ choo waste on a bit o’ white beard?’
‘On’y fif’een Sickles, Bella,’ the man protested.
Curious, Lavender grabbed Mark’s hand and made her way toward the voices.
The man was holding a thin chain, which appeared to be silver. A glass lens about an inch in diameter dangled from it, and something was floating inside the lens.
‘That’s pretty,’ Lavender lied, smiling at the couple.
The man was in his thirties, skinny and unshaven. His equally thin companion was probably a few years younger. Her mousy brown hair was hanging lankly over her left eye in what she obviously believed was a fashionable haircut.
‘I’s a protecshun amulet,’ the lank-haired witch said eagerly. ‘I’s yours for a Galleon.’
‘It’s rubbish,’ Mark began. Lavender hissed him into silence.
‘What’s that inside it?’ asked Lavender.
‘At’s what makes it so powerful,’ Bella said. ‘They’s ‘airs off Merlin’s beard, they is.’
‘Really?’ Lavender expressed wonderment. Sensing that Mark was about to speak again, she squeezed his hand tightly.
‘I’s go’ a guarantee and everyfin’,’ said Stan. He handed her a square of parchment.
Lavender quickly read it, and somehow managed not to laugh.
Amulet of protection against thievery!
This amulet will prevent the wearer from being rooked, bilked, hoodwinked or otherwise bamboozled by ne’er-do-wells!
The presence of six strands of hair from Merlin’s Beard* guarantees efficacy!!
My name is my guarantee!!!
Felonious Crookes, *Merlin’s Beard, Cornwall.
‘Who did you buy it from?’ Lavender asked curiously.
The couple exchanged a wary look.
‘I’ll give you a Galleon, and you can keep the amulet, if you tell me,’ offered Lavender.
‘A bloke’s sellin’ ‘em outer a suitcase down Knockturn Alley,’ said Stan, eagerly taking the coin Lavender offered him.
After leaving the pub they walked slowly down Knockturn Alley; the top end of the street, the section nearest Diagon Alley, was bustling with shoppers. Despite the chill the pavement cafés were busy. Ever since Justin Finch-Fletchley had bought up the old Borgin and Burkes and opened his clothing store—Finch—in the building, the seedy street had begun a slow transformation. The Finch name and the Chaffinch brand, which specialised in selling Muggle fashions to young witches and wizards, were making Justin a fortune.
The surrounding shops had begun to move upmarket. Several other clothing shops had appeared in the last couple of years. The tendency of many younger people to wear Muggle clothing had initially excited a lot of comment, not all positive. However, as Harry, Ginny, and most of the DA wore Muggle clothes, even to Ministry events, times were changing. Once they had passed “Finch” the street slowly began to return to type, becoming more dingy and depressing. They passed a tattoo parlour and entered an area inhabited by stalls where all sorts of cheap, and possibly stolen, goods were being hawked. Lavender saw the little man with his suitcase first.
‘Damn,’ whispered Lavender. ‘You’re going to have to take the lead, Mark.’
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Because that’s not “Felonius Crookes”, it’s Mundungus Fletcher. He’s well known to the Metropolitan Law Office, and to us. A lot of the older Aurors arrest him “on suspicion” whenever they see him.’
‘On suspicion of what?’ Mark asked.
‘On suspicion of being Mundungus Fletcher, and therefore up to no good,’ she explained, smiling. ‘I’ve arrested him once myself, and he never forgets a face, so he’ll scarper the second he sees me.’
Mark released her hand and strode forward. Lavender watched him go, cursed him, and reached into her handbag. Her boyfriend was a nice bloke; he was sort of good-looking in a peculiarly angular way and, thanks to her unceasing efforts to ditch his old wardrobe and completely replace it, he was even becoming well-dressed. Mark was kind, thoughtful, conscientious, tidy, and a great cook. He was also obvious. The determined way he strode forward was alarming several stallholders and Mundungus Fletcher was instantly alert. He took one look at Mark, slammed his case shut, and fled, ignoring Mark’s demands that he stop.
Mark looked apologetically over his shoulder at her and set off in pursuit. Fletcher was dodging in and out of the stalls. Attempting to stun him in the crowded street wasn’t an option, but Lavender wasn’t concerned. She was confident that the Ministry-imposed anti-Apparition spell across the entire Diagon Alley area meant Dung Fletcher would need to lose his pursuer. She pulled her Auror wallet from her bag. The standard issue wallet contained an Undetectable Extension Charm and a lot of useful equipment. Fishing out her broom, she Disillusioned herself, and set off after them.
Mark was some distance ahead, but because of his height he was easy to spot. She flew rapidly down the alley. At the point where it forked, Mark turned left, toward Knowe Place. Lavender turned right into Awls End, landed, stowed her broom, and made herself visible. The tiny lane curved in a crescent, ending at a narrow passage which led back into Knowe Place.
A sign halfway down the passage identified the door as an entrance to the “Ducking Stool Tavern”. Three underdressed witches stood near the passage. The eldest of them, a hard-faced harridan in her forties strode angrily towards her.
‘This is our spot,’ she said threateningly. ‘If you wanna do business, find somewhere else to do it, or else.’
‘I’m staying,’ Lavender said, showing the woman her Identity Card. ‘Lavender Brown, Auror Office, I’m in a different line of work to you. Have you seen Dung Fletcher?’
The woman didn’t answer, but she didn’t need to, as Fletcher ran out of the door and sprinted toward her.
‘Hello, Dung,’ said Lavender, drawing her wand.
Fletcher turned on his heels, but Mark had followed him from the pub.
‘I ain’t done nuffink,’ he protested.
‘Maybe not, but you can tell that to Harry,’ Lavender told him. ‘You’re selling bits of beard, and Harry knows someone whose beard’s been stolen. He’ll want to speak to you.’
Mundungus Fletcher swore. ‘I’ll come quietly,’ he said. ‘I don’t want no house-elf after me.’