Alexandra Sutton and the Death Eater's Snitch
As always, many thanks to my brilliant beta, Ozma. Go read her stuff now, it's brilliant! Don't worry, I'll wait for you.
Despite the pleasantly ancient surroundings, Cambridge is mostly like any other university: work and exams, parties and promiscuity. The effort devoted to each depending on the conscience of each individual student. But it does have some unique ancient institutions that attract some very peculiar people.
Among these are the dining clubs; some are old but they are entirely unofficial. They tend to have pretentious names and exclusive memberships. They meet six or seven times a year to drink and dine expensively. Blokes must go in full formal evening dress, complete with white silk waistcoat and a long black tail coat; girls have to find a floor length evening gown from somewhere. Supposedly, it's a time for erudite conversation and the sort of delicate ritualised table-manners that were last on show when Queen Victoria came to dinner. In reality, the evening usually ends with a bunch of impeccably dressed, braying drunks wandering the streets at three in the morning, throwing up in people's front gardens, slapping parked cars to set off the alarms and throwing one another in the river.
Understandably, other students view the clubs with derision and claim members are rich cliquey twits who think they're something out of Brideshead Revisited. They say it's only a big game of dress-up and pretend with everybody play-acting as Edwardian aristocrats. Needless to say, I had done my best to avoid dining clubs and the sort of people who join them. But that hadn't stopped me from being made automatically a member of the most exclusive of the lot. It was so exclusive you couldn't be elected to it, you didn't get in by completing some bizarre, drunken initiation ritual. You had to be born the right way; you had to be ex-Hogwarts.
Of course, they had a silly pretentious name; they were 'The Magi'.
So you'll understand how low on enthusiasm I was feeling when early on Saturday evening, a few days after I met Dumbledore, I was trying to manoeuvre both myself and an electric blue evening gown out of a taxi without falling on my face. It felt like I was wearing a taffeta parachute and the treacherous combination of high-heels and damp cobblestones certainly didn't help. The dress was so long I could have worn my Doc Martens and nobody would have noticed, but the woman in the formal-wear hire shop insisted I take the matching heels. In some ways, I'm easily bullied. Especially when I'm dealing with an expert in a subject I know practically nothing about.
It was also the first time in months that I had bothered with the limited contents of my make-up bag. So I tottered across Trinity Street, past a group of gawping Japanese tourists, feeling like I was some kind of drag queen. Actually, this evening was costing me seventy pounds plus the hire charge for the frock, so make that a gullible drag queen, and one who wanted to be anywhere rather than here. But I hadn't a choice - practically all the other wizards and witches at the university would be there so, as a chance to scrutinise the likely suspects, it couldn't be missed.
The venue was a private function room that was upstairs at one of the city's best restaurants. The room was panelled in dark oak and decorated with some decent portraits that I decided I ought to look at closer if I got the chance. A single long table, with room for about a dozen, ran down the centre of the room. The table cloth was painfully white and the meticulous perfection of the table setting suggested somebody had spent most of the afternoon setting this up.
I was early and members were still gathering. A waiter presented me with a glass of sherry and a bloke in full evening dress gracefully slid over to introduce himself and to confirm I wasn't a crasher. He was cultivating a floppy fringe and an easy, proprietorial air.
"Dominic Harland, Wine Secretary of The Magi. I'm sorry, but you are...?"
"Oh, of course! I'm delighted you've come at last. We thought we'd never get a chance to see you."
"I've wanted to come," I lied. "But the last couple of dinners clashed with things I couldn't get out of. But it looks like a good turnout tonight."
"Yes, most people are going to be here. Though thank goodness, there're no Muggles this evening."
I raised my eyebrows.
"Oh, of course we don't mind Muggles," he said, too earnestly to be convincing. "Members often bring Muggle guests, but it always seems to stifle the conversation and makes people feel a little... uneasy. People enjoy coming because our dinners are a little break from the Muggle world so they resent having to be on guard all evening, just because a member brought along a Muggle boyfriend or girlfriend."
"I see. There's a different wine with every course, isn't there? I bet remembering not to tell the latest rip-roaring Goblin joke is a bit tricky by the time you get to the Port and cigars."
He snorted. "Quite... Do excuse me, there's somebody I must speak to." He strode off to loudly greet a new arrival.
It seemed he resented my implication that The Magi were just a bunch of drunks. Anyway I felt snubbed, but I was also angry with myself. I was here to gather information, not have fun by annoying these people (no matter how much a temptation.) This was not a good start. So, hoping to do better, I looked around for somebody else to talk to. I exchanged waves with a team-mate from the Cormorants reserves on the far side of the room - I would speak to him later. Right now, the important thing was to get acquainted with those I didn't know so well.
There was a short, pug nosed girl, standing on her own. From what Harland had said, she couldn't have been a Muggle, but I still couldn't place her. She had a boyish cut of red hair that was too intensely coloured to be natural and made her look like the sort who liked to stand out from the crowd. She had a bright-eyed look of alert intelligence (she had quickly spotted me as a newcomer) but from her expression, she looked like she was having as little fun as I was. I skulked over to introduce myself, thinking we might have something in common.
"Hello, I'm Alex Sutton. Sorry I've got an appalling memory for names, you're..."
"Sophie McAuslan." She held out a hand. "I remember you well. I used to see you in the library at all hours when I was cramming for my NEWT's and you were doing your OWL's. You were in Gryffindor, weren't you?"
She whistled. "That makes you a rarity in these parts! It's mostly us former-Ravenclaws plus a few Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors, who decide to do a degree. The joke is that it's all those Muggle-borns who are still capable of saying: 'Thanks, but no thanks,' after seven years of indoctrination in the wonders of magic."
She spoke with a smile, but there was a hint of vehemence in her words that made me wonder how much of a joke it really was. It was easy to see which line to take if I wanted to be friendly with her.
I grinned. "You don't have to be Muggle-born to think that. It's a route out, isn't it? Wizard qualifications must be a secret in the Muggle world so even the most brilliant scholar at Hogwarts would be lucky to get a job digging ditches. A Cambridge degree neatly solves that problem."
I've known Ravenclaws who are tolerant and easy going. And I've known some who are caustic, arrogant pedants - stating the patently obvious is a good way of finding out which kind you're talking to. Sophie just smiled an nodded.
"Is this the first time you've come to a Magi dinner?"
"I've avoided these things until now. But I thought I should come to at least one, if for no better reason than morbid interest."
She sighed. "My other half likes them." She pointed to a tall chap, across the room, who was loudly guffawing with a group of friends. "He's been dragging me along for the last two years. Oh sure, for one evening, you have the sort of food served at a state banquet. But then, to make up for what we've spent, I must spend a month eating mainly noodles and those fruits and vegetables the shops sell cheaply because they're bruised."
"I'm surprised you're still prepared to come."
"Oh you know... if I make one big concession to him, then for weeks afterwards, my word is law. It's worth it."
As my own love-life was currently a yawning non-event, I didn't think it was my place to criticise how somebody else ran theirs. But despite this, she had an infective cheerfulness I liked. If we had known each other in school, I would have wanted us to be friends.
Still, that was not a reason why I couldn't ruthlessly use her.
"Seeing as I'm the new girl...could you point out who's who? I only recognise one or two people from my year."
"You've met Dominic, our fermented grape juice man; I saw you talking to him."
I nodded. My first impression was of a rude condescending snob, but I didn't say that. There was always the remote chance he might turn out to be Sophie's best chum; though, from first impressions, it seemed more likely these two cordially loathed each other.
"Have you heard of Harland's of Kensington? His family have been wine merchants for about 200 years," she continued. "The firm is very exclusive - royal appointments galore. He was made Wine Secretary because the club spends about seven grand a year on drink and he gets it at trade prices. He runs the club in all but name because this year's President decided her exams were more important; she keeps her distance and lets Dom get on with it."
It sounded to me like Dom had access to all the club's money and had a dangerous lack of supervision. But, if there was a scandal waiting to happen, it wasn't my concern; I had more important things to worry about.
"Who does the newsletters?" I inquired, casually - a complete mailing list would be a very useful asset to the informer I was trying to find.
Sophie made a grimace. "My boyfriend, Connor. He was silly enough to volunteer to be Social Secretary last year. When he found out it was a thankless drudge job, he roped me in to help."
So, she had come to Cambridge expecting to get away from wizardry. Now she was slaving over a hot photocopier because, once a month, her boyfriend wanted to stuff his face and talk about Quidditch. No wonder she was ticked-off!
"That's Claire Cox he's talking to," she continued, indicating a tall, but slightly plump girl in a russet coloured gown.
"I remember her slightly - she used to run the Charms Club, didn't she?"
"That's her. She's this year's President of The Magi, she's secretary of the university Bridge Club and Student President of her college. She's one of nature's committee members."
Oh... one of those. An organiser.
"I suppose I should say hello before the evening's out."
Sophie grinned; I think she spotted a hint of reluctance. "Do that. But remember to feign a grand-mal seizure when she mentions they're looking for volunteers to be on next year's Magi Club committee."
"You mean writhe on the ground, foam at the mouth and lose bowel control? No problem, that was Saturday night entertainment for us in Slytherin."
At that moment, the president herself loudly announced, like a kindergarten teacher addressing a bunch of boisterous five-year-olds, that we should take our places as the feeding was about to start. There were a few minutes of confusion as people found the cards with their names and sat at their allocated places.
I read the menu card. Soup - consommé with sorrel. Then potato galettes with smoked salmon and dill cremé fraiché; venison poached in Burgundy with pepper cherries; quail stuffed with fresh morel; asparagus salad with vinaigrette. Finally desert, cheese, coffee and Port. The list of wines was spread over two pages.
"That's the diet buggered," I said to my neighbour. "I'm Alex Sutton, by the way...Oh, don't tell me... you're Ken Towler, we were in Care of Magical Creatures together, back in fifth year."
"I prefer Kenneth."
You can take a Gryffindor out of Hogwarts, but you can't take the pomposity out of a Gryffindor!
I remembered Ken Towler as another unremarkable face I saw in class a few times a week, but took little notice of. We might have talked once - about homework probably - friendly chit-chat between Slytherins and Gryffindors was never encouraged. Yet we were both in the small minority that had chosen to come here; it was possible we had more in common than I thought.
"So, Kenneth... I think the last time we met, we were either watching doxy eggs hatch or trying to feed bowtruckles without getting bitten. What are you up to now?"
"I'm in King's College; I'm doing law."
"Really! I thought the way to get into law was to sign on as an apprentice to one of the law firms in Diagon Alley?"
"You can do that," he admitted, " but unless you happen to be a son or daughter of one of the partners, you'll be spending five years making tea and running errands while your family pays the firm a thousand Galleons a year for the privilege."
"Let me guess... Wizard law is a family business and said families like to keep it that way?"
He nodded. "Luckily, most witches or wizards who go before the Muggle courts - say if they're being sued by a Muggle neighbour - prefer to be represented by a wizard. So there are good openings for people qualified to practice Muggle law."
I tried to look like I was interested - I had my elbows on the table and my chin propped on the back of my hand. But I whipped it away and sat up when I realized that it might look like I was coming on to him. He didn't notice though because he was deep into a detailed comparison between the Muggle and Magic legal traditions that it sounded like he had told it to people before. I charitably assumed there must be some interesting bits but he stopped long before he got to them with an almost audible screech of brakes, and asked about me. Possibly he was genuinely interested in what I'd being doing since Hogwarts. More likely, he suddenly remembered being told that women are universally unimpressed by blokes who only talk about themselves.
"What subject are you doing?"
"Archaeology and ancient history - I'm in Peterhouse."
I noticed with a cringe that the neck-line of my gown had become an object of interest for him. I pretended I hadn't noticed as it would have been poor table etiquette to hit him at that point. Besides, despite my embarrassment, that's probably the effect the dress designer intended; the amount of cleavage the dress put on show was something I might have noticed myself if I had been prepared to spend more than seven minutes in the hire shop.
"A Slytherin winds up in Peterhouse College," he grinned. "I shouldn't be surprised - the stereotypes correspond beautifully."
He laughed, I pretended to. Merlin's tits! That was another reason for avoiding this bunch - at least my Muggle friends didn't rub my nose in the bloody house I was in every five minutes!
I was saved from further conversation by the arrival of the soup course and the first wine. Now, my ignorance of wine is almost total. I've heard wizards gush about elf-made wine (which is vile, by the way - I don't know how the elves make it, but I bet it doesn't involve grapes!) There was none of that here. The expensive French vintage served by The Magi was older than I was and was unlike anything I had ever had; it was an explosion of taste - warmth and sunshine in a glass. The knowledge I could only allow myself a few sips made me want to burst into tears - there were many more courses and wines to come and I could not permit myself to get even slightly drunk. I wondered if I should ask a waiter for a doggy bottle.
Ken was busy slurping his soup so I turned to my other neighbour, it was Sophie's boyfriend.
"Hello, I'm Alex Sutton." Bloody hell, I'm saying that a lot tonight.
"I know, Sophie pointed you out to me; Connor Boyde."
He had a strong chin and a profile that would have looked good on the face of a coin. A soft Northern Irish accent told me where he came from. A trickle of vague memories associated his features with a Ravenclaw tie and a Prefect's badge. Since Hogwarts, he had acquired the relaxed, articulate, convivial but self-assured manner that seemed the trademark of Cambridge blokes. But I suppose you can afford to relax when you know you're smarter than most of the people you'll ever meet and your future career is practically assured. He and Sophie probably had fun sitting in coffee bars, swapping satirical quips about the world around them that would go straight over the heads of nine out of ten people.
"You're not sitting with Sophie?"
"No, the seating plan deliberately splits up acknowledged couples. The theory is they must spend at least one evening talking to people other then their beloved. This is supposed to have started because of a couple, years ago, who were notorious for spoiling other people's digestion with their terms of endearment."
I grinned. During much of my sixth and seventh years, I had been going out with a Hufflepuff chap called Ben Stebbins. It wasn't so much "precious poopsie schnooky-lumps," more like "clumsy great drooling moron" and "sullen four-eyed Slytherin freak." We enjoyed the way it confused people.
"Sophie mentioned I have you to blame for all those news-letters that clog up my pigeon-hole." I said, with friendly mock resentment (to disguise my real resentment.)
"Sorry about that; I was a mug for agreeing to do them," he admitted. "Although it doesn't take long - I just write a couple of paragraphs describing what a fantastic time was had by people at the last dinner and give the date for the next one. I fill up the rest of the space with random bits of gossip then make two dozen photocopies. It's advertising really, trying to get as many people as possible to come. Though, much of it is wasted effort as only about half the Hogwarts people at Cambridge bother to turn up regularly."
"Really! The food is excellent."
And it was. I'd already finished the soup and was looking around hungrily, wishing the waiters would get a move on with the second course. Serpent like, a subtle temptation wound its way through my head and whispered that I might consider coming to the next dinner - assuming some Death Eater didn't nail me first.
Boyde shrugged. "It is good isn't it.- the club's old and pretty well off so you're only paying about half the price of what this costs. You'd think people would be anxious to come and take advantage, but some simply don't want to. I guess some people come to Cambridge with the sole object of breaking all contact with wizardry."
Is that me he's talking about?
"I imagine people come to Cambridge for all sorts of reasons," I retorted, coolly. "Hey, is that the second course?"
The venison, the quail, the asparagus and the desert came and went; the general hubbub of conversation grew noticeably louder with each course. Although it had been rather formal at the start, the affair was now quite relaxed. Nobody minded if you got up between courses to stretch your legs, change seats, go outside for a cigarette or go to the toilet. I was grateful for this, I could spend five minutes in private, furiously making notes. The bare list of names I had been given by Dumbledore was slowly filling out with information - who was at which college, who was friends with who, who had the messy break-up with who last autumn. I scrawled it all down not knowing what might be useful.
When I returned, my Quidditch crony was frantically beckoning to me to join him. So I strolled over and plonked myself down beside him with a sense of relief that I could skip the company of Kenneth for the last part of the evening. Like most wizards, The Magi took their food and drink seriously; it was now past eleven and they showed no signs of slacking. At the bottom of the table, a group was singing a song that would have made the Brotherhood of Goblins write a whole sackful of stinging letters of protest to the Prophet, if they had heard it.
"Hello, Matt. Having fun?"
"I always think I'll enjoy these things more'n I actually do," he complained. "But I never learn; I still keep coming back. Why do I do that, Sutton? Answer me."
"Because you have to keep some very big secrets from even your best Muggle friends," I thought. "After a while, that can turn into an awful lot of stress. So occasionally you need the company of people you can be completely open with, even if you think most of them are twits. "
"You're not drunk enough, Matt. Look, Harland seems to be having a grand time." I motioned towards the top of the table where The Magi's gleaming cynosure was holding court.
"Shakespeare would've 'ad a field-day with him," said Matthew - who had obviously drunk plenty or he wouldn't have been so frank. "Imagine... a Muggle-born bloke from a rich family who only wanted to work with dragons. But his folks said, 'We didn't mind this wizarding business to begin with, but enough's enough and flying lizards are quite beyond the pale. You will be doing a degree in business studies and helping to run the family firm afterwards, or everything will be handed to your Muggle younger brother and you'll be discovering what it's like to live on whatever they pay dragon keepers.'"
"Champagne tastes and a beer salary; or rather, a butterbeer salary. That's tragic, that is."
"Isn't it just," he sneered. "Oh, I dunno why I waste time talking 'bout him - he was an arse three years ago in Ravenclaw and he's an arse now."
We were interrupted by the arrival of the Port decanter and Matt courteously filled my glass. The Magi were still collectively sober enough to remember some of the protocols. The Port is passed clockwise round the table. Only chaps may handle it - if there's a woman next to them they pour for her - and they may only hold the Port in their left hand.
"Matt, that former-Gryffindor bloke you share a flat with - what's his name?"
"Where is he tonight? Don't you mention once you usually come to The Magi's dinners with him?"
Matthew looked uncomfortable - worried and guilty. I was reminding him of something he had successfully forgotten during the course of the evening.
"You didn't 'ear about him, Alex?"
Well it was pretty bloody obvious that I hadn't. But I said nothing and let him continue.
"Paul was attacked a few weeks ago. The police found 'im unconscious in the street sometime after midnight and took him to Addenbrooke's Hospital. He went home for two weeks to recover and only came back yesterday. They think it was a mugging - some druggy after 'is wallet."
He noticed nothing wrong because my expression of shock was exactly what he would have expected it to be. Of course, it wasn't shock at the brutal street crime. It was the realization that it was quite possibly me that had done it.