It was almost closing time, and Sherrinford Shiftlet had abandoned the front room of the Lethifold’s Lair
Acknowledgements: Some of you might recognize Sherrinford Shiftlet from Partisan Warfare. This piece takes place approximately three years before that story happens.
The SQ Workshop offered invaluable assistance. Thank you, all.
It was almost closing time, and Sherrinford Shiftlet had abandoned the front room of the Lethifold’s Lair. He hadn’t had lunch – he’d been working on his files, as he’d obtained a few new playthings that day, and he wanted to start his preliminary analyses early so he could leave them running overnight. Maintaining files on every artifact to come into one of the best Dark Arts shops in the world was time-consuming – not taking his providing information to Albus Dumbledore on the movements of former Death Eaters into consideration – and years of practice had taught him to be efficient and thorough at the same time. Whenever his concentration broke for a moment, his thoughts had turned longingly to the sandwich he’d shoved into his pocket as he’d left his flat that morning. It was rare that Shiftlet could get really fresh food in Knockturn Alley without visiting Fustian Wilberforce’s place. As he’d had to call in a few favors from Jackdaw Mullins a few months ago to get Wilberforce to give him some information that the fat expatriate owed him about his connections with the American Mafia… Wilberforce wasn’t feeling too kindly towards Shiftlet, and Shiftlet wouldn’t have put it past the greengrocer to lace his purchases with some nasty potion.
Although, thought Shiftlet as he unwrapped the pastrami-and-Muenster-on-sourdough and heated it with a twist of his wand, if he was in any condition to see Jackdaw Mullins after he’d eaten something out of Wilberforce’s shop, he could call on Mullins again to see that Wilberforce never sold another stalk of celery. Perhaps he’d go back to Wilberforce’s establishment once he’d obtained and ingested a few necessary antidotes.
The sandwich had heated beautifully, and Shiftlet caught a strand of wayward Muenster with his finger and ate it. A rare blissful feeling came over him, and he smiled. It was amazing, the good feelings that honest-to-god real food could inspire in a man. He had half a mind to go to Wilberforce’s place and offer any information the American boor might want about his competitors, gratis. Salivating, he lifted the sandwich to his lips and opened his mouth. Oh, this would be brilliant…
He heard the door of the Lethifold’s Lair open with its distinctive, ominous creak.
It was almost closing time; whoever it was could wait. He began to take a bite of Paradise.
An insistent "hem, hem" came from the front room.
Scowling, Shiftlet put down the sandwich on his desk. It wouldn’t be as good on reheating. Whoever this was in the front room, whatever they wanted, they had just assured themselves a ten-Galleon hike in price. He’d just tell them it was a sandwich tax, and Merlin help them if they asked any more questions.
He straightened his shoulders, made sure the ratty lace at his cuffs was hanging the right way, and stalked out of the back room.
There was a giant toad in the middle of his shop, staring in distaste at the collection of death masks hanging on the west wall.
Shiftlet raised an eyebrow.
"Mr. Shiftlet?" sang the toad in a simpering voice. He supposed that meant it was female – and the disgusting flowery robes it wore seemed to agree with that conclusion. "You are Mr. Shiftlet, correct?" The toad looked him up and down, and the stub that he thought was its nose crinkled in what was probably supposed to be disgust.
Shiftlet leaned up against the wall. "Yeah," he said, affecting indifference. A toad who came in five minutes before closing wearing a jumble-sale tablecloth had little call to be judging Shiftlet on his own appearance.
Not like he cared.
"I was told you would be able to help me," laughed the toad. "I’m looking for an artifact."
Shiftlet grunted. This was surreal. Toads weren’t supposed to be able to talk – not without some damned good charms, anyway.
The toad waited expectantly.
Shiftlet could play that game.
The toad finally cleared her throat with another "hem, hem" and said, "I’m looking for a quill."
"Dervish and Banges is in Diagon Alley." He wanted his sandwich.
"I don’t think they have what I’m looking for."
"There are other stationers in Diagon Alley. Good day." He turned to the back room – maybe the sandwich hadn’t cooled entirely yet.
"Someone sold you a quill this morning," the toad stated unctuously. "I want it."
The hair on the back of Shiftlet’s neck sprang to attention. Jackdaw Mullins had brought him the quill – said he didn’t trust anyone else to dispose of it. That even for a Dark artifact, it was a nasty piece of work, and it was better off destroyed. The preliminary analysis had shown him that it was responsible for twelve deaths – blood poisoning. There was just enough lead in the nib to send the writer into fearful agonies after prolonged use. Shiftlet had thought that morning, as he stood over it with its new file in hand, that it was one of the most subtle instruments of torture that he’d ever seen. In his line of work, that was saying a very great deal.
Shiftlet turned around and let his words drop into the room like ingots of lead. "I don’t sell anything to anyone I don’t know." Which was a lie, of course, but it was an excuse to drive the toad away. He had a bad feeling about her. Most of his clients were less flashy; it was almost as though this woman wanted to attract notice – to catch flies, maybe.
The toad said, "My name is Dolores Umbridge." She gave him what he thought was supposed to be a sweet smile. "And now you know me."
That name was familiar – he’d seen it in the Daily Prophet recently, but for what? He racked his brain. To stall for time, he said, "Not well enough."
"I can’t imagine, Mr. Shiftlet, that in your – hem – line of work, you need to know very much about anyone." Her fat face flattened even more as her smile grew insidious.
"If you want to buy from me, you tell me what I want to know." Shiftlet would not back down.
Umbridge stared at him – there was something about those beady eyes –
And then he knew. She’d recently been promoted. It was on one of the back pages, and those beady eyes had been staring out from a small picture. She was the new Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic.
Dolores Jane Umbridge, a Ministry employee, was in Knockturn Alley, wanting to buy a Dark instrument of torture from the reviled Sherrinford T. Shiftlet.
"I won’t be telling you anything you don’t need to know, Mr. Shiftlet," Umbridge hissed, and Shiftlet knew then that she knew he’d recognized her. "You’d be well advised to sell me that quill, and to do so quickly."
Shiftlet folded his arms. The toad was threatening him. She ought to know that the Ministry was too scared of him to try raiding the Lair. All the same…it had been a while since anyone had tried that sort of tactic. "I’m not through assessing everything on that quill. I won’t put it on the market until everything’s done."
"Oh, but you will," said Umbridge, reaching in those frightful robes and pulling out a roll of parchment. "This is a warrant, Mr. Shiftlet, and I’ll call in the Aurors to raid your – establishment. I must have that quill, and I must have it now."
Times were changing.
Shiftlet turned on his heel and went into the back room. The quill was lying among the other artifacts that Mullins had brought in this morning, sharp and black.
Shiftlet was struck with the urge to pick up the quill and gouge Umbridge’s gimlet eyes out of her potato-shaped head. He knew nothing good would come of selling that quill to Umbridge. He didn’t want to do it.
He muttered the Levitating Charm and floated it out to the front room.
Umbridge was smiling, satisfied.
"Forty Galleons," said Shiftlet flatly. The ten-Galleon sandwich tax was included.
"Oh, no no no," said Umbridge, saccharine again. "You’ll sell it to me for…two Galleons."
Shiftlet raised an eyebrow. The quill froze in the air.
Umbridge waved the gaudy-ringed hand holding the Ministry warrant slightly.
Shiftlet inclined his head, feeling cold.
The toad withdrew two coins and flipped them onto the ground. She then pulled out a short, stubby wand – much like her fingers – and shifted the quill over to her hand.
Umbridge snatched it from the air; the point was the last bit Shiftlet saw of it as it disappeared into the floral jungle.
"Good day to you, Mr. Shiftlet," smiled Umbridge, and she sashayed out of the Lethifold’s Lair.
As soon as she had gone, Shiftlet snapped the wards up on the door, and charged back into the back room. He wanted to go home. It wasn’t the thirty-eight Galleons that left him feeling ill – not entirely. He felt like he’d been had in more ways than one. He felt – and it occurred to him in a twist of dark humor that the sensation was really rather ironic for a Knockturn Alley shop owner – unclean.
The analytic spells were still running on his other artifacts. He made sure they’d last the night. Shiftlet wouldn’t be telling Albus Dumbledore about the quill, as he would about some of these other artifacts. Umbridge’s appearance in Knockturn Alley was a harbinger of an administration that would soon gasp its last in a storm of corruption. That was all.
Or so Shiftlet tried to convince himself as he dropped his forgotten, lifeless sandwich in the trash on his way out the door.