Alexandra Sutton and the Death Eater's Snitch
London is the world's biggest tourist destination and the British Museum is one of the city's greatest attractions. But as it is one of the world's largest museums, the hoards of tour groups stick to a carefully chosen worn route as they try their best to be in and out in under forty-five minutes - the Parthenon Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the Portland Vase, the Sutton Hoo treasure and, most importantly, the gift shop. This means it's surprisingly easy to wander off to some obscure gallery and leave the crowds far behind. Somewhere where you can be alone with the ancient treasures of some distant county where the British once went with guns.
The next morning, soon after the museum opened, I was in one of those galleries (Room 80 - Ancient Greek Ceramics.) I had spent days wandering the museum during the school holidays I spent in London with my Uncle Charles, so I was able to find my way there without bothering to look at the museum plan. It was brightly lit, with ruthlessly modern display cases that held many hundreds of pieces in regimented rows; each exhibit had a small card indicating only its date, probable attribution and some code number. There was none of the modern museum nonsense of interpretative displays for kids and half-wits, or video monitors showing some actor in ancient garb pretending to paint a pot. The BM was sending its visitors a message: "If you don't already know what you're looking at, you have no darn business being here. Bugger off and buy a book; come back when you've read it!"
I wasn't alone long. At precisely the appointed time, Dumbledore and Snape strode into the gallery. Behind them, there was a young woman I didn't recognise; they didn't introduce her. Assuming she was a witch, she looked young enough to have overlapped slightly with me at Hogwarts - perhaps sixth or seventh year when I was a firstie.
I wasn't used to seeing the Professors in Muggle clothing, but they managed to dress themselves better than wizards often manage. Unsurprisingly, Snape wore a sober black suit. Dumbledore's antique tweed three-piece, leather gloves and broad brimmed hat made him look eccentric, but that was hardly out of place here. He resembled the sort of distinguished elderly academic who had long ago stopped caring about other people's opinions of him. Which, I suppose, was completely true.
Dumbledore sat on one of the bench seats in the middle of the room and motioned me to sit beside him. He looked tired. And he looked appallingly old - a strange thing to say about somebody known to be past his hundred and fiftieth birthday, but it had never quite seemed true before. Snape stood impassively behind him. The woman, after inspecting the rest of the gallery, had strolled off to a spot from where she could watch both entrances while pretending to examine a display case. She caught my eye and gave a half-grin, as if we were sharing some private joke.
"I apologise for meeting you like this, Miss Sutton," said Dumbledore. "Unfortunately, I'm such a well known figure that I doubt I could meet you anywhere that wizards congregate without the fact being noticed and commented upon. And I couldn't ask you to come to Hogwarts without the risk of somebody seeing you and wondering why one of last year's seventh years had returned. As it is, Professor Snape and I can easily absent ourselves for an hour or two with nobody being any the wiser."
"The Weasleys said you wanted to discuss something with me, Professor."
"I do, Miss Sutton, something of great importance. But as we shall be taking you into our confidence, there is a formality we must go through before we begin. It will be very unpleasant so you may end this meeting now, if you wish...."
In for a penny, in for a pound! I shook my head. Before I had a chance to wonder if leaving would really have been the better choice, I was looking along the length of Snape's wand.
"Legilimens!" he barked.
The effect of it was instant. I knew I was still in the British Museum, or I thought I did. It felt like the half-awake half-dreaming state when you're still in bed but don't quite know where you are or what's going on. Except dreams tend to be random leisurely affairs, this felt like a quick, brutal and methodical search. I was in Professor Cathcart's Anthropology lecture, just last week... now I was ten years old, puzzled by an odd letter that had mysteriously appeared. Mother was looking strangely anxious - she said there was something important she had to explain... now I was with some Hufflepuff friends and we were celebrating the end of the NEWTS by lying under the stars and sharing a bottle of Firewhiskey.... I was in the Roman Sculpture gallery of this very museum with my Uncle Charles. We were examining a Roman stone grave marker while he gleefully described a similar one he had just sold to a wealthy German dealer he detested. They were similar in all respects apart from authenticity.
Then it stopped, as suddenly as if somebody had pulled the plug of a movie projector. The gallery seemed to snap back into existence around me. I glared at Snape. Was the grubby voyeuristic bastard enjoying this? His face was expressionless.
"There's nothing out of the ordinary, Headmaster," said Snape, brusquely insulting both my mind and its contents. "She has no memory of ever being placed under Imperius and there are no obvious signs of modification, indicating such a memory might have been removed."
Dumbledore looked genuinely apologetic. "I regret this deeply, Miss Sutton, but we cannot be too careful. Our opponents are intelligent and resourceful, and they have deceived us in the past."
No guesses needed for the identity of these 'opponents'. What the hell was I getting myself into? I felt like saying I needed to go to the toilet, then climbing out the window when nobody was looking.
"Miss Sutton, we represent a group that has been actively working against Voldemort and his followers for a great many years. It must be clear to you why we have come to see you."
I nodded, dumbly.
"Has anything struck you about your attack, last week?"
"I was lucky," I said shortly. I was still pissed off at him for letting Snape casually browse through my head like it was a second-hand book he was thinking of buying.
But at least he was being direct. He wasn't calling it 'Your unfortunate incident.'
Dumbledore sighed. "You must understand that only a few of our students choose to go to university each year. Your decision to look beyond our sometimes claustrophobic little world was admirable. But it marks you out as different, what some would call a blood traitor."
That's bastard pure-bloods for you. "You don't belong here, dirty half-breed. Piss off back to the Muggles," they say. When you take their advice, you're suddenly a "blood traitor." Frankly, it's confusing.
The woman finally made a contribution to the conversation.
"It's all about terror and intimidation. By attacking a student, they would be sending a message to all the other witches and wizards who are working or studying in Cambridge, those who they think are far too cosy with the Muggle world. You're of mixed parentage, that's not unusual, but you've clearly chosen the Muggle world over the wizard and the fact you're ex-Slytherin, like so many Death Eaters, may have been why they picked you."
In retrospect, this was all pretty obvious; I should have realised it. I know I was never a big name during my time at school - not like bloody Potter who seemed to be constantly on everybody's lips - so I assumed the wizarding world would neither notice nor care when I decided to leave it behind. Up until last week, Cambridge had seemed impossibly remote from wizardry and the war. Even the attack had seemed as random as a lightning strike. But now I was being told the Death Eaters knew who I was. Somebody had pointed at my name on a list and said, "We'll do her tonight."
I knew what I had to ask next, though I was reasonably sure what the answer would be. It wasn't easy. When, after a couple of tries, I managed to voice the words, I was surprised at the calmness of my speech.
"May I expect them to try again, Professor Dumbledore?"
"Not immediately, and perhaps not you, Miss Sutton. But they won't have forgotten Cambridge."
"Death Eaters are few and ... busy. You're simply not that important, Sutton," contributed Snape.
So I have to wait my turn - first good news I've ever heard from him!
There was an awkward pause, perhaps they thought they should give me a chance to take in what I had been told.
"Miss Sutton," began Dumbledore. "Death Eater attacks may appear random, but they are methodically planned and only take place if they are sure there is no chance of resistance or ambush - hardened killers are always very careful about their personal safety. They will spend days, even weeks, gathering information on a victim, until they know his habits, the layout of his house and so on. Often, they will then break into a victim's house when he's out and take him by surprise on his return."
"But that didn't occur in your case." said the woman. "They Apparated straight to your office, when you were alone, late at night, in a large empty building."
"Obviously, you think somebody told them how to find me."
"That's the only explanation. We suspect somebody local did the reconnaissance then passing on the relevant information to the Death Eaters. Almost certainly, it's one of the university students who are ex-Hogwarts pupils and they're acting unwillingly under the Imperius Curse. Until we find out who it is, you're all in danger."
Let it not be said we Suttons are slow on the uptake.
"You mean, 'Until I find out who it is?'"
"You are much better placed to do this than any of us," said Dumbledore.
True. And possibly more expendable. But what was I to do? This lot had made staying at Cambridge sound like a death sentence. I would have to turn my life into a race - find the squealer before he or she passed on enough information to the Death Eaters for them to have a go at another of us. Or worse, have another go at me.
"I agree, Professor Dumbledore. Tracking down their source is the only possible course of action."
Snape looked at me sharply, but said nothing - I had kept a straight face but I think my tone was a little too compliant. What I was really wondering was how long it would take to empty my savings account and buy a one-way ticket to Australia. If I hustled, I could be standing at a check-in desk in Heathrow by late afternoon, it was a tempting idea. Perhaps not now, but it was something to keep in mind as a back-up plan.
"That's splendid! I knew we could count on you, Miss Sutton," said Dumbledore. He smiled encouragingly
"We've made a list of everybody we know of in Cambridge with wizarding connections," said the woman. "We know you can't Apparate so we also brought you a Portkey that will take you to a place of safety in an emergency. It's unauthorised, so don't even think of using it unless whatever you're fleeing from is worse than three months in Azkaban."
Oh bloody hell! This just gets better and better!
"Unfortunately, we're so hard pressed right now that we can't give you much more help than that. But we'll continue to use the Weasley twins to keep in touch so if you send a message through them, we will do what we can. Are there any questions?"
I shook my head. It seemed I would be my own, aside from a list and an occasional visit from some red haired bastard bearing an encouraging message from Dumbledore, but I had guessed that would be the case. I suppose I should have felt proud they considered me capable of the task. Instead, I felt slightly ill.
"Excellent!" proclamed Dumbledore. "Unfortunately, we must all remain here for another half-hour or so. There remains the slight chance you have been replaced with an impostor using Polyjuice Potion. An informant, even one only loosely connected with our order, would be of immense value to the Death Eaters - they will go to any lengths to gain such an advantage."
"But Professor Snape has just seen my memories, not those of some-"
"No, Sutton," interrupted Snape, with the I'm-tired-but-not-too-tired-to-snarl tone he reserved for particularly inept first years. "The Headmaster has already told you we are not dealing with amateurs. A competent Occlumens, disguised with Polyjuice, might have shown me any images he or she chose. You may be certain I have better things to do than waste time here, but we must be completely certain of your identity."
I thought about the endless hours I had wasted, listening to Snape's tedious droning about his precious Subtle Art. Then the little devil Alex sitting on my left shoulder had an idea. The little angel Alex on my right was shocked but she kept quiet - perhaps Snape had annoyed her as well.
"I understand. But rather than just stare at the wall for half an hour, we could occupy the time productively if I gave you a brief talk on Hellenistic Ceramics. Would you like that, Professor Snape?"
Dumbledore looked interested, the woman looked amused and Snape looked aghast - I took this as a cue to carry on.
"We mainly see, in this gallery, what is called red-figure pottery. The transition from the black-figure to the red-figure style of painting - around 550 BC - is the key event in Greek ceramics. Now this piece is a type referred to as a volute krater. Its painting shows Hercules doing the first of his twelve tasks - wrestling the Nemean Lion - and is by an anonymous early pioneer of the red-figure technique, known to scholars as the Androkides Painter. As an early example, it is interesting for several reasons..."
Soon, a small group of museum visitors had accumulated around us as people meandering through the galleries paused to hear what I had to say: mostly things I had picked up from Uncle Charles rather than learned during my course. I discussed the subtle stylistic nuances that make the work of the Lysippides Painter unmistakable; I delved into what made the circle of Phintias so influential; I made them follow me into an adjoining gallery so I could talk about the earlier black-figure and geometric period pottery. At one point (after making sure no kids were there) I lightened things up with a risqué joke about the painting that decorated a wine cooler. It showed a very naked male Satyr who was arching back in a crablike stance, with his hands and feet planted firmly on the ground, and was doing a bizarre, but very clever, balancing trick with a wine cup. When the audience's sniggering died down, I noticed the woman was pointedly looking at her watch so I wound things up, feeling very proud that I had managed to fill twenty-five minutes with my extemporised lecture. There was a brief smattering of applause and the crowd dispersed.
Only Snape seemed to look disgruntled, I imagine he was disappointed I had failed to metamorphose into a Death Eater and he therefore couldn't hex me.
During the hour-long train ride back to Cambridge, I looked at the list they had given me. A few names I knew - mainly people in my year; other names were unfamiliar. None had been a particular friend at Hogwarts. What was I to do? Find each in turn and say "Hello there, we don't really know each other, but could you tell me if anybody's performed the Imperius Curse on you recently?" And it got worse. Dumbledore seemed sure the twenty or so ex-Hogwarts students were the most likely candidates but there was no reason why it couldn't be a Muggle working under Imperus; there could even be more than one. Finding who it was looked like an impossible task, made worse by the fact that every day I took left every one of us at risk.
Who had known how to find me? Conceivably anyone; Cambridge is a small town. When going to and from lectures and tutorials, you constantly passed people you knew in the street. When I met somebody from Hogwarts it was common politeness to stop and chat for a minute even if we had barely spoken to each other in school. Anybody could know that I was studying Archaeology and in Peterhouse College. I got the uncomfortable feeling that I'd more than once mentioned my part-time work in passing and joked that my Runes NEWT was finally coming in useful. Whoever it was would have only needed to follow me for a couple of days to establish my routine.
To distract myself, I tore open the envelope I'd been given and carefully tipped out the Portkey. It was an old (well oldish -it was Victorian) silver shilling with a hole drilled near an edge to make a pendent, a crime against taste as well as being the sort of desecration that makes serious coin collectors grind their teeth. I put it on, under my T-shirt, taking care only to touch the thin silver chain. It didn't matter if the Portkey touched my skin because you had to hold them to set them off. The little cold disk on my chest felt reassuring.
It was nearly lunchtime when the train reached Cambridge. But the beginnings of a plan were forming in my mind. I briskly walked round to the Archaeology Department and went straight to the pigeon holes where they put the students' mail. Pawing through the letters for Sitwell, Swannick, Somerfield and several Smiths revealed only one for me. But I knew it was there because I hadn't bothered to take it when I'd last checked my mail. I knew who'd sent it and I had been carefully ignoring their monthly news-letters since the start of term. Now it looked like the first bit of luck in a week.