If you had been out walking in the High Street of Hogsmeade on a moonlit evening half past the month of September in a year three-quarters past the twentieth century you might have remarked on the delightful tranquility of a British village at sleep. The shops were closed up for the night and the sidewalks had been swept clean of the flotsam and jetsam of trade. The air was edgy with the suggestion of frost and somewhere an owl wondered, “who?”
If you had followed the High Street to just beyond the post office and turned right you would have found yourself in a dim, unmarked lane. It was really more of an alleyway, which smelt strongly of cabbages and cats, and the accidental tourist likely would have beat a hasty retreat. If, however, either resolve or curiosity compelled you to follow this alleyway to its top you would have found yourself face to green door with the Hog’s Head Inn.
The Hog’s Head was an ancient establishment. The atmosphere had been carefully cultivated over the centuries in order to appeal to a certain, select quality of people. The publican prided himself on the class of clientele he served; in general, his patrons were salt-of-the-earth folk, witches and wizards who held in common a comfortable, loose interpretation of the laws of the land, and could boast not an untarnished reputation among themselves.
More, much more, than just the buying and selling of stout and sandwiches went on here. The Hog’s Head was the place to go if, say, you had a shipment of hot wands you needed to unload fast. If you were looking to buy a Transylvanian House Elf on the cheap or a dragon egg at any price you had only to put the word out and, within a fortnight, you could find yourself across the table from a bloke in a balaclava in a room back of the bar doing business. There were Ashwinder eggs and Billywig stings to be bartered and high-stakes Quidditch pools to throw in on as well, and most business was conducted on the spot, over a game of dominoes and a pint of Brunhilda’s Best Bitter.
On the particular September night of which we are speaking, at twenty-three minutes past eleven, the door of the Inn swung open and out of the crack of warmth and light that spilled from within a man stepped, melting into the shadows as the door swung shut behind him. He sagged against the rough, cobbled wall of the pub and for a moment he didn’t move at all. Then he pulled a grimy handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his face. He tried hard to assimilate what had just happened inside, but his mind seemed to be working in slow motion which made for rather disjointed thoughts. He took a deep, steadying breath and when that didn’t work he took a deep, steadying pull on his hip flask instead. This man’s name was Aberforth Dumbledore and he, himself, was owner and proprietor of the Hog’s Head Inn. Or at least he had been, until thirty minutes ago.
“Aberforth,” the man muttered to himself, “Aberforth, you’ve gone and done it this time. You’ve made a right bloody balls of things, you have.” He squinted into the darkness, trying, through an alcoholic haze, to recall just what had unfolded in the last few hours.
He had lost the Hog’s Head, that much was clear to him. The single-malt had been to blame, he decided. That, and the Cuban cigars the stranger had plied him with. The stranger, the American named House, had come in early in the evening. He’d ordered the lamb stew and a pint, and had bought Aberforth one as well. They’d struck up a friendly conversation. Aberforth had never visited America himself and had many questions. Mr. House seemed to have just as many about Britain, this being his very first visit.
Business had been slow so they’d played a friendly game of cards, then another. To keep things interesting, they’d played for pocket change. Aberforth hadn’t wanted to take the money of such an agreeable foreigner who, by his own account, was new to the game but the gentleman had good-naturedly insisted. He’d been a quick study too, because, four pints and four hands later, Mr. House had, somehow, won all of Aberforth’s Sickles and Knuts.
The American had then offered the landlord a chance to win it all back; a very sporting offer, Aberforth thought, seeing as how House, being such a novice at the game, didn’t lay good odds against an old hand like himself. They had switched to drinking Scotch and, strangely enough, Abe had lost again. And again. And that was when he’d started to get angry. He’d raised the stakes.
A crowd began to gather around their table and as the cards were shuffled, dealt, played, then gathered and shuffled and played over and over again, the pub had begun to grow very quiet. Aberforth remembered the uneasy hush, the gentle clink of glasses in the background, his ferocious certainty that the next hand was going to be the one…that at any moment, his luck would turn.
Only, it hadn’t happened.
At last, his damnable temper had gotten the upper hand, and he’d stood up. “That’s it!” he’d cried. “I’m goin’ for broke. I’m puttin’ the whole shebang on the table!” It had taken everyone a moment or two to figure out what he meant. Then, the murmurs had started, whispers at first that spread and grew like ripples on a pond.
“He don’t mean the pub?”
“Not the Hog’s Head!”
“Abe, yeh can’t give up yer inn!”
“Don’t do it, Abe, it’s not worth it!”
He had been deaf to them all. He was losing, and he never lost. Lady Luck was in his corner now. He could feel her cool breath on his cheek, whispering that this was his moment, that he was going to win it all back in the next hand. He had never been more certain of anything in his life.
The cards were dealt. He had a pair of deuces and a pair of sevens. Mr. House had three eights.
Aberforth remembered the curiously numb feeling as he’d stared at the seven cards that lay, face up, on the table. The crowd had melted away then, in uneasy silence, and everyone watched him from the corners of their eyes as they sat at their tables, toyed with their drinks and feigned disinterest.
House had leaned forward then, his eyes oddly black and glittering, and not nearly as guileless as they had appeared four hours ago.
“We have a little saying in America,“ he’d said in a low voice, “’The House always wins. Now, Mr. Dumbledore,” he’d shifted his chair closer, “It seems that I have the upper hand here. What say you and I go somewhere a little more private, and talk turkey.”
Talk turkey? Aberforth wasn’t familiar with the phrase but he knew, from the gleam in the American’s eye, that he had something very specific in mind. He understood then that this whole evening had been carefully orchestrated to culminate in this very moment. And he saw that it hadn’t been about winning the Hog’s Head Inn at all. The Hog’s Head was small potatoes. There was something else Mr. House wanted.
They’d slipped off to a musty back room then, and House had made his offer. It was a long shot, but it was a way for Aberforth to win back the Hog‘s Head. Abe didn’t know if he could deliver or not, but he knew he wanted his inn back. Desperate times, as they said, called for desperate measures, and by Hester Starkey, if the job could be done, he‘d find a way to do it.
He looked at his pocket watch. 11:47. He had twenty-four hours and thirteen minutes to save the Hog’s Head.
He took another pull on his hip flask, for courage, then pushed himself away from the wall, settled his greasy cap more firmly on his head, and shambled off down the street, in the direction of Hogwarts. He was going to see a man about a unicorn.