Marlow looked over his shoulder and frowned in annoyance. Silhouettes flitted across the ginnel mouth, indistinct and threatening. His escape route was effectively blocked, and the six Aurors working their way towards him were rapidly narrowing his options. As yet, shrouded in murky darkness as he was, they hadn’t seen him. However, a sudden movement was sure to catch their unwanted attention.
Slowly he edged around the corner of the wall, setting foot in the wider thorough-fare. A distant wand tip stuttered into life and he paused, waiting for the curse to be thrown. Instead a low whistle echoed on the air and a reply came from away to his left. They were gaining on him! The only way out was up onto the rooftops, and they were entirely inaccessible unless he Apparated.
He considered it for a heartbeat, before deciding against it. Apparation was for the law-abiding. It was far too easy to trace and he would have Aurors from four different nations knocking on his door within an hour. He would use it only as a last resort.
He withdrew his wand from his back pocket and tensed, ready to spring the moment a spell came his way. A sensible wizard would have attacked while he had the advantage, but Marlow never cast the first spell in a duel; it was a matter of principle.
He gripped the long, slim column of wood tight and steadied his breathing. His back was to a large window. It was an easily defended position, but one with no way out. Any stray curses that hit the glass would reflect at an equal angle. As long as the Aurors were far enough away when they cast their first spell they stood more chance of hitting their colleagues with a rebound than their actual target.
The wind roared along the knotted alleyway and he looked up at the sign squeaking overhead. The peeling paintwork read “Borgin & Burkes”. A humourless smile crossed his lips. He had done the odd piece of work for these gentlemen in the past. More often than not it was basic acquisition of contraband material. They had always been satisfied with his work, but he didn’t care about their evaluation of his performance. He could clearly remember Mr Borgin mentioning a passage from their cellar right to the entrance of Diagon Alley. It was the perfect bolthole for the purveyor of illegal materials, and it would suit his needs nicely.
Inching right he reached out a hand to the door handle and smiled as it turned smoothly. Borgin and Burkes did not keep to customary opening hours, and he was grateful for their idiosyncrasies. The bell over the door was rusted tight and its squeak of protest was lost in the blustery air. He opened the door just enough to accommodate his slim frame and slipped into the shop. An untrained thief, careless in panic, would have run into the shadowy depths of the showroom, but Marlow eased the door shut before walking further into the shop and out of direct sight.
‘How can I…?’ Borgin halted, his oily smile fading from sight when he saw who stood in front of his counter, wand pointing straight at his heart. ‘Marlow, you reprobate! I keep telling you that Burke has the money. I can’t pay you for Thelsa’s staff until he returns!’
Marlow nodded once in understanding, but the wand didn’t waver. Borgin shifted uncomfortably and a patina of sweat broke out across his brow. ‘Now look.’ His tongue darted out across his lip. ‘There’s no need to lose your temper. We will pay you. It’s just, you know how it is -’ Borgin’s voice became a whine. ‘The Ministry is always sniffing around here and I hardly have time to open the shop these days. How’s an honest businessman supposed to make his living, eh?’
Borgin bent his knees, trying to peer under the low brim of Marlow’s hat and see the expression on the face beneath. A sharp movement from the wand had him raising his hands in a calming motion. ‘Now look. I heard what you did in Rome. The Ministry won’t stand for that here, you know.’
Borgin swallowed fitfully and his eyes rolled in panic. ‘What do you want? If it was money you would have just taken it by now. What do you want? Hey, what are you doing with that?’
Marlow had picked up a medallion from the counter. He turned it over once or twice, carefully examining the beaten metal for the markings that would prove it was genuine. ‘I’m taking payment.’
‘That – that’s nothing but a trinket,’ Borgin stammered, making a tiny noise of complaint as it disappeared into the mercenary’s pocket.
Marlow turned his head at a noise from the street. He eased back behind some merchandise and peered out into the darkness beyond the window. The Aurors had met in the middle, but rather than the confused rabble he’d come to expect they appeared to be having some kind of conference. He didn’t have long.
‘Is the passage in your cellar still there?’
‘I’d – I’d like to help you, Marlow, but I can’t! The Ministry raided this place about a month ago. It’s been collapsed. I – I swear it!’ Borgin squeaked. He’d steadily been lowering his right hand for his wand. He froze as Marlow moved and, in a second, a wand was resting against his jugular.
Outside there was the sound of feet approaching and Marlow swore quietly to himself. His brilliant escape plan had gone up in flames, and Borgin and Burke’s was not the ideal place to lie low. ‘You haven’t seen anything. If you let anything slip, Borgin…’ He left the threat hanging and wove his way among the display cases.
A drab curtain hung against one wall and he twitched it aside. A tiny antechamber lay beyond it, little more than a stock room filled with worthless miscellany. It would have to do.
The bell over the door squeaked again and Borgin clapped his hands together. ‘Mr Weasley! What a pleasant surprise. What can I do for you?’
Marlow peered through a gap in the curtain and rolled his eyes. Red hair and freckles seemed to be a trend tonight. ‘Someone broke in to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and they came this way,’ the Auror stated, sparing no time for the shop-keepers niceties. ‘What have you seen?’
‘Don’t lie to me, Borgin,’ Weasley said calmly. ‘I’m sure you don’t want to be inconvenienced by another Ministry raid, do you?’
‘Now, Mr Weasley. There’s no need for that. I haven’t seen any miscreants come this way. I was in the back room until only a few moments ago.’
‘Then why were you by the counter when I came in?’
‘Just – just picking up some stock. Believe me, Mr Weasley, if I could help you, I would!’
Borgin made a tiny gesture towards the curtain and Marlow bit back a snarl. The Auror had followed the motion and was considering his hiding place with calculating blue eyes. ‘Thank you, Borgin. You’ve been very helpful. I take it nothing has been stolen recently?’
‘Nothing of consequence, Mr Weasley. A small medallion of pressed gold has recently gone missing, but I am sure that it will find its way back to me eventually.’
‘I’m sure it will,’ the Auror mumbled, withdrawing his wand and pointing it directly at Marlow’s hiding place.
Borgin turned and rushed into the back room. Marlow heard the bolts slide home on the door and shook his head in disbelief. Against all likelihood Borgin had sold him out, the scum. This Auror had to be something to cow the hardened wizard into snitching like that, but he barely looked old enough to be out of school!
Marlow looked around desperately, taking a rapid inventory of his surroundings. The anteroom was small and lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. A high, rickety ladder led to a grungy sky light in the roof. A sketchy idea began to form in his head. It wasn’t perfect, but he could improvise. He snatched a crystal ball from the shelf and tapped his wand to the surface, charging the object with two different spells until it hummed and quivered in his hand. He climbed the ladder two rungs at a time and heard Weasley break in to a run. As soon as the wizard ripped the curtain back Marlow threw the crystal ball forcefully at the floor and ramming his hat down hard on his head to shield his eyes.
The ball smashed into glittering pieces. Spells exploded outwards, filling the air with a dazzling white light and a roar that shook his ribs and forced the air from his lungs. The rush of air from the explosion blew the skylight out, and Marlow clambered up the ladder blindly until he reached the rooftop.
Despite the protection of the hat, purple spots danced in front of his eyes and his hearing was shot to pieces. It was only a temporary effect, but his adversary would be blind and deaf for at least an hour. He loathed using flash-bang orbs even when he was prepared. The spells inside had to be powerful enough and contradict each other to cause serious agitation. As soon as the container burst, the spells rushed outwards in a mass of destructive energy. Once he’d detonated one in his pocket by accident. To this day he was amazed that he hadn’t lost some vital equipment during that accident. The memory of the pain still made his eyes water.
Looking over the edge of the roof he saw figures running into Borgin and Burkes. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was clear that they were rattled. No one was going to poke their head over the edge of the skylight to see if he was still there. Not unless they had a death wish.
He crawled across the rooftop on his belly. A more cavalier individual would have stood upright and taken each rooftop at a running leap, but that was inadvisable. All it took was one Auror to look skywards and they’d see him easily. Besides, his ears were ringing and there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t collapse if he tried to get to his feet.
The tiles beneath him were covered in moss, slick from the rain. There was a smell of rotting vegetation coming from the gutters. By the time he got back to his rented room in the Leaky Cauldron he would stink, but it was better than the alternative: a jail sentence.
The buildings surrounding Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley were steep and, like the alleys themselves, they formed a maze of hidden alcoves, a precious sanctuary for someone trying to escape notice. It was easy enough to get back to Diagon Alley as the roofs neatly interlocked, almost colliding with one another in places.
After awhile Marlow’s progress slowed as the passageways between each building grew wider. He was forced to leap from one roof to the next, and more than once he found himself hanging from the gutter by his fingertips. Halfway through his tortuous journey a group of Aurors passed by below. The red haired man was being lead by two others, and Marlow could just about hear his litany of curses over the humming in his ears.
‘He was right there! Right there!’ Weasley shouted, gesticulating wildly.
‘Ron, don’t wave your hands around like that. You’ll have someone’s eye out,’ a woman said, her voice only just audible.
‘He can’t hear you,’ a deeper voice said. ‘Moody’s going to go spare when he hears about this.’
‘Screw Moody! Whoever it was had a weapon we weren’t expecting. I’ve not seen anything like it before. Do you know what it is, Kingsley?’
‘No, but we’ll find out. Maybe we can put them to use ourselves. They’d be superb for breaking up riots.’
‘Only if the effect is temporary!’
‘For Ron’s sake you’d better hope it is.’
They walked past his position and he hugged his body close to the tiles, keeping his breathing shallow and slow. Only when he was certain that the coast was clear did he continue to inch forward.
The rain had petered away to a fine drizzle by the time he reached the Leaky Cauldron. The windows on the ground floor were brightly lit, and the sounds of revelry rang out. Men were guffawing and people’s voices were rose in song. He didn’t want to risk squeezing his way through the press of half-drunk bodies. Any one of them could be an Auror, or a previous acquaintance.
He looked up to the window of his rented room and smiled in satisfaction. As usual he had the good sense to leave it open. Carefully he jumped onto the outhouse roof, and from there on to the ivy clad wall. The creepers groaned softly and a tendril peeled away from the wall. It uncoiled slowly before lashing out at him, delivering a stinging blow to his cheek. Further creaks and the slither of wet leaves had him wincing at his thoughtlessness. Other tendrils had already begun to loop around his ankles and waist, tightening to choke the life from him.
He tried to focus on the leaves that still clung to the wall in front of his face. There were seven barbed points to each and they were flexing towards him. Another, thicker tendril wrapped around his leg and pulled, trying to drag him from the wall. He was either going to be crushed to death or smashed to pieces on the cobbles below.
He sucked in a breath through his teeth and groaned as his ribs were squeezed together. He could taste blood and his spine was contorting painfully. It was a shame to have come this far, only to be killed by a vicious houseplant.
He dragged his hand up his leg and pulled his wand out of his pocket. The plant shook him fiercely and slammed him against the wall, making him curse in pain. He waited until the plant recoiled and aimed his wand at the stems on the wall.
The frost burst out from his wand tip, spreading rapidly from leaf to leaf. The tendrils surrounding his neck went slack and he lunged for the wall, hanging on by his fingernails as the plant fell away. Wizards had spent centuries breeding effective killer plant-life, but most could be reduced to slime by a sudden cold snap.
The distant vines were whipping back and forth in frenzy, and nearby leaves were already shaking themselves free of the icy prison.
Hastily he scrambled up the remaining vines and climbed through the open window before sagging to the floor, probing his ribs gently. Nothing felt as though it was broken, but his body was battered and bruised. The rain had finally soaked through his coat and he shivered before stripping it off. The hat was tossed across the room and he ran his hand though his hair, dislodging the leaves that still clung to him and removing the last, thin strands of ivy that were trying to strangle him.
He would have to discuss his fee in greater detail with his employers, he decided. He did not risk life and limb for a pittance. True, he had been warned about the Aurors, but his initial evaluation of this job had been lacking. It hadn’t involved crawling across rooftops and being attacked by ivy, for one thing. Staggering to his feet he closed the window and made sure the door was locked before he kicked off his boots and lay on the mattress fully clothed.
In minutes his face relaxed in sleep and his breathing slowed as the adrenalin of the night faded, leaving him drained. His eyes moved rapidly behind his eyelids and the frown of concentration was smoothed away from his brow.
Only his right hand showed sign of anything but peaceful slumber.
He gripped his wand so tightly that his knuckles were white and his short fingernails dug into his palms, as though he were prepared, even in sleep, to fight his enemies.
Every day a façade hid the truth and every night his tortured soul lay bound in sleep, haunted by the memories of the daylight hours. Eventually he forgot which face belonged to him, and which face was just another mask.