Ernie Prang glanced up as the Knight Bus careered into Trafalgar Square, and hastily jabbed his foot on the brake to prevent an overshoot. He managed to stop his vehicle before it forced Nelson's Column to jump out of the way, but it was a close-run thing. He definitely saw one of the lions sidestep.
Harper, the conductor, sniggered at him, and leapt off onto the pavement with a cheery "Goodnight, Speedy!" A couple of passing tourists spared the man a brief glance as he walked away chuckling, but paid no attention to the way he'd seemed to appear out of thin air as soon as he stepped away from the bus -- nor indeed to the bus itself, a large purple object a mere ten feet away from them. The powerful distraction charms that surrounded it were obviously holding up nicely.
Ernie scowled. Even if the Muggles wouldn't be likely to notice, why on earth had they insisted on switching crews in the most public place in London tonight? Would it have killed the night shift to wait in the Leaky Cauldron, and let him go a bit further on down the road? Were they worried he couldn't manage to park the bus anywhere less open or something?
He sighed. Ar, likely they were. Even Ernie had to admit he hadn't been on his best form recently. It was a worrying time all round.
He scribbled his signature on the driver's sheet, picked up his wand, and stepped off the bus more sedately, as befitted his age. Harper was a complete pain in the arse, always had been. He'd been glad to get rid of him when Stan Shunpike was taken on. All right, Stan had been annoying at times, but at least he hadn't kept calling Ernie 'Speedy', or made jokes about his dangerous driving.
"Evening, Ern," said Varney as he hopped on. "Who've you had in the back of your bus today?"
Ernie half-smiled to himself. That question had become a Knight Bus tradition over the years, asked out of habit on every changeover. Come to think of it, he'd started it. "Just the usual, Varn," he said. "Er, Madam Marsh was on ... might check if anything needs cleaning back there. Harper couldn't do a decent Scourgify to save his life."
"Right. Got you." The two drivers shared a knowing look, and Varney snorted as he inspected the list of prior bookings. "First call Hogsmeade for Northampton? Bet that's old Willy Croaker getting trashed with his mates again, and not trusting himself to get home without splinching. You'd think an Unspeakable would be more careful, wouldn't you?"
Ernie raised his eyebrows. "Didn't know he were one of those," he said uneasily. "He won't be bringing his work on the bus with him?"
Varney shrugged. "Wouldn't be surprised. You never know with them lot, do you? Night, Ern."
"Night, mate. Keep an eye on him."
Ernie leant against the fountain in the Square and watched as the bus started up again, and then disappeared with a loud bang. He felt sure he was the only person in Trafalgar Square to notice, and snorted. Like Stan had always said, Muggles didn't notice 'nuffink' did they?
Well, all right, maybe they noticed the mist hanging round the place at the moment. Even if they didn't have any idea what it was. Ernie's shiver had nothing to do with the chilly night air.
He made his way along the Charing Cross Road towards the Leaky Cauldron, from where he would have access to the Floo network. He wasn't keen on Apparition, never used it unless he absolutely had to. It was one reason he'd applied for the Knight Bus job in the first place. But you just didn't ride the bus yourself, looking over the shoulder of a fellow driver. It wasn't sporting. Another Knight Bus tradition.
And for another thing ... he bloody needed a drink.
Tom, the elderly landlord, greeted him with a wave and a look of relief as he came through the street door. By the time Ernie had reached the bar, there was a pint of the usual ready for him.
"Evening, Ernie. Haven't seen you in here for a while. Ethel and Melanie all right?"
Ernie nodded, pleased that Tom remembered his wife and granddaughter. "Ar, they're fine. How's business?"
Tom shook his head sadly, and Ernie looked around to see an almost deserted pub. A couple of people were sitting in corners, apparently lost in their own thoughts, but there was no hint of the cheerful bustle of a few short months ago, "Not good, then?"
Tom sighed. "Not good, Ernie. Hasn't been since You-Know-Who came back. It's been the way it was getting before young Harry Potter went and did him in. Well, the first time, anyway."
Ernie hesitated, not sure what to say to that. He'd been as terrified as anyone during the previous war. He'd also paid a heavy price in personal losses. The news of Halloween 1981 had brought first euphoria and then relief, but he still hadn't been able to truly relax over the following months until the clean-up operations had been completed. He slurped down half his pint in one go, then glanced around cautiously before asking, in a lowered voice, "You reckon he's the Chosen One then? For real?"
"I hope so, Ernie. You know what people say -- well, maybe you don't, stuck on that bus of yours." He ignored Ernie's look of surprise and carried on. "The Ministry types, when they bother to come in here ... well, they all seem to think that prophecy thing was significant. Got to be something that lot know, hasn't there?"
"Ar. Suppose." Ernie sipped his drink more slowly. "Let's hope so, Tom. People scared, do you think?"
"Must be," said the landlord in mournful tones. He nodded towards the back door of the pub. "What with all the shops closed out in the Alley, and that mist --" his voice lowered "-- they say it's Dementors breeding and all that ..."
Ernie winced. "Leave it out, Tom. Those things give me the willies." He drained his glass, trying not to shudder at a sudden image of tall cloaked figures that left you remembering your very worst moments.
"Sorry, Ern. Another?"
Distracted as he was by the thought of Dementors, he was startled when a hearty voice behind him said, "Let me get that for you, Ernie!"
He turned, and blanched. "Mr R?"
Tom looked equally surprised, and almost equally alarmed. "We don't usually see you in here, Mr Robards."
"Oh well, all work and no play make Gawain a dull boy, eh?" said the recently-appointed Head of the Auror Office. The broad smile on his face had failed to make it as far as his eyes. "Yours is a pint of bitter, Ernie, isn't it?"
"Ar," he muttered.
"Excellent! One of those for Ernie, Tom, and just a Butterbeer for me. Can't be getting drunk on duty, can I? And have one yourself."
Robards scrutinised him while Tom was getting the drinks. "So, how are you doing since Stan Shunpike was so sadly forced to leave you?" he asked finally, as Tom pressed a bottle of Butterbeer into his hand.
"Not bad, Mr R." He felt somehow shrunken, and took a gulp of his bitter to counter the feeling.
"Good. Could we have a word, do you think? Catch up on old times? Maybe over there." He nodded in the direction of a small corner alcove, well away from the other customers, and set off without waiting for a reply.
Ernie shuffled after Robards to the table. The senior Auror made himself comfortable, then waved his wand around a few times; what little noise there was in the pub from the crackling of the fire faded out, and Ernie felt sure that whatever they said could not now be overheard.
Robards took a swig from the bottle of Butterbeer, then leant forward, and stared at Ernie without speaking for long enough to make him feel thoroughly uncomfortable. "Do you know why we were investigating Stan Shunpike in the first place, Ernie?" he said abruptly.
"Nar ..." He finally dropped his eyes to his pint under Robards' steady gaze.
His companion snorted. "Didn't think so. You see, we had a tip-off that maybe someone on the Knight Bus wasn't all they should be." Ernie gulped. "So, we had all of you watched. Looks like they were right, doesn't it? We heard your young friend --" he somehow contrived to make the word seem vaguely accusatory "-- hinting at what his Death Eater colleagues were planning to do. In that seedy pub in Birmingham, as it happens."
Ernie hesitated, wondering whether or not to argue; he had a nasty feeling it might get him into trouble -- or since he already seemed to be in trouble, into worse trouble. Then again, it might look bad if he didn't say something ... "Look Mr R," he began, "young Stan, he ... well, he shoots his mouth off a bit, impress the witches, you know that, don't want to take everything he says seriously ..."
Robards inspected him again. "So you mean there might be someone else on the Knight Bus who isn't loyal to the Ministry?" he asked smoothly.
Ernie closed his eyes in horror. "Er, no, Mr R, I didn't mean that, like ..."
"Good." Robards took a perfunctory sip of his Butterbeer. "You know, Ernie, you could be very helpful to us."
"In what way, Mr R?" Ernie had a sinking feeling that he knew what was coming.
The Auror smiled, although to Ernie's mind it seemed more like a dragon baring its teeth. "Ernie, we in the Ministry are a bit worried about loyalty. Dangerous times we live in. We need to know that we can trust people. Especially those in public positions."
"Ar, I see," he said unhappily. He did see, and didn't like it at all. He'd been urged to 'help the Ministry' before, during the first war, and no good ever came of it. "But what can I do, Mr R?"
"Well, the Knight Bus travels to wizarding locations all over Britain, Ernie. And no doubt you talk to the other drivers. You people must surely get to see and hear quite a number of things. Who's talking to who. What they're talking about. Where they're going. That kind of information could be very dangerous in the wrong hands. It certainly was in the last war, when Rookwood was at large. Remember seeing him, Ernie?"
Ernie shuddered and took a large swallow from his glass. He hadn't been the only one haunted by that pockmarked, disdainful face staring out from the front page of the Prophet during his trial. He'd never expected to actually encounter the man afterwards. He certainly hadn't expected an encounter he remembered with perfect clarity nearly fifteen years later. "Can't ever forget it, Mr R," he mumbled.
Robards smiled maliciously. "I imagine not. Well, this time around, the Ministry have decided we can learn lessons from Mr Rookwood's methods of operation. That kind of information could be very valuable in the right hands. We don't intend to let the Death Eaters be the only ones with a flock of little birds talking to them."
Ernie sighed, and sipped at his bitter for a moment while he decided how to answer. "Mr R, you don't really think that ... well, You-Know-Who's lot, they'd ride on the bus? Or let me overhear things they shouldn't?"
That was met with a shrug. "You never can tell, Ernie. But that's not all you can help us with. We know Ministry workers ride it. They don't always check to make sure no-one's listening when discussing information that should be kept secret. And people talk all the time about what their friends and neighbours are up to, pass on little bits of gossip that they've heard. Minor details about what's going on that they never tell to anyone from the Ministry, things that could be very useful to us. I'm sure you can understand that."
"Well, I suppose ..."
Robards' dragon-like smile became even wider. "Excellent. So you'll help us then. Pass on anything you hear." It was definitely a statement, not a question.
"But ..." He didn't quite know how to answer. He did know it was going to make his life a very great deal more complicated. "What if people saw you talking to me?" he said desperately. "Give it away, won't it? Anyone could have seen you come in here tonight!"
Robards snorted again, this time with some contempt. "Don't be an idiot, Ernie. Why do you think we got you to stop in Trafalgar Square tonight? We wanted to make sure no-one was following you, of course." He waved a hand at the few other patrons of the pub. "Everyone here is known to me. You do want to make up for the bad reputation of the Knight Bus after the sad case of Mr Shunpike, don't you?"
"Ar," said Ernie, with considerable reluctance. He added quickly, "But you don't hear as much as you'd think, Mr R. People right at the back or on the top decks, you know, can't usually tell what they're saying. Don't expect too much." It was a cheering thought.
Unfortunately, Robards didn't seem to think it was a problem. "Oh, we can get around that easily enough, Ernie," he said breezily. He dug into the pocket of his robes, took out a small purple box, and dropped it onto the table between them. "This is a handy little invention by ... ah, you might call them one of the Ministry defence contractors. Our people liked the idea so much we told the Stores Department to lay in a stock."
"Extendable Ears?" asked Ernie, putting on his glasses and reading the lime green lettering on the box with trepidation (and some difficulty). He took off the lid and found himself looking at what appeared to be a number of pale pink worms. "What are they?"
"Oh, they're very simple to use, Ernie," said Robards, still smiling insincerely. "One end goes in your ear, the other is left dangling somewhere you want to overhear things. They wriggle into any convenient gaps, so I'm sure you could arrange to place them unobtrusively. You can listen to anybody then!"
Ernie stared at the box, aghast. He'd been counting on the difficulty of overhearing to avoid trouble, and now the Extendable Ears had suddenly stripped away his only excuse for not listening. It might be fanciful, but in his imagination they looked as they wanted to leap out of the box and throttle him. "I suppose so ..." he said unwillingly.
"Excellent!" said Robards again. He finished his Butterbeer and stood up. "Well then! I'll see you around sometime soon, Ernie. Same time next week, in fact. We'll see the Bus ends up at a convenient spot for you."
For you, more like, thought Ernie with resentment. As Robards turned away, he burst out, "Anyone else getting asked to do this?"
Robards turned back. "Might be, Ernie. You know how it goes. There are people whose loyalty has -- unfairly, of course -- been called into question. Naturally, we like to give them the chance to prove the doubters wrong, by doing their duty and showing their commitment to being useful to the Ministry." He caught the eye of Tom, the landlord, and smiled broadly.
"That's very kind of you, Mr R."
"I know." He waved his wand and the noise of the fire became audible again.
Ernie watched him go with a feeling of utter nausea. He'd never been one for danger, he knew. His daughter and granddaughter had often teased him -- mocked him, almost -- because of that. But there was no two ways about it, his life had just got ten times more complicated and dangerous. If he didn't do what Robards asked, the Aurors might be displeased, and in the current climate their displeasure might mean a one-way trip to Azkaban, just on suspicion. If he did do it, the Death Eaters might be displeased, and he had a strong suspicion that their displeasure might take the form of a Dark Mark above his house when he returned home one night.
Ernie decided, then and there, what he was going to do if push ever came to shove. The thought of Azkaban had always been terrifying, but it now dawned on him that what he had really been afraid of was its guards. With them no longer haunting the place ... arrest had to be the lesser nightmare.
But it was going to be dangerous driving for him whatever happened from now on.
Ernie froze in the act of gathering up his things before handing over the bus. His questioner's voice was hesitant, and one he'd only heard a few times before, but he recognised it immediately. He'd been expecting to hear it for weeks, and had dreaded this moment.
He stepped off and turned to the thin, pale, miserable-looking woman waiting for him. "Hello, Mrs Shunpike."
"Oh thank you! I didn't know if you'd remember me." Her relief was so obvious it left Ernie feeling extremely guilty. He certainly couldn't tell her anything she'd want to hear. "Mr Prang, I've been hoping to talk to you about our Stanley ..."
"Right," he said unhappily, glancing up to see Varney trying, and failing, to look as if he wasn't eavesdropping. "Er, let's go somewhere private and let Varn get on with it, eh?"
"The Leaky Cauldron?"
"Er ... nar, over there, look, love." He pointed to one of the benches on the far side of the square, just across the road from that big Gallery place. Every time he'd been told to stop in Trafalgar Square, one of Robards' boys had been waiting for him in the pub. Well, this time they'd just have to wait a bit longer. Likely they had someone watching, but he couldn't help that; there weren't many pedestrians at this time of night, and the noise of the traffic should stop them being overheard. Not that he wanted to tell all that to Stan's mum, of course. He racked his brains trying to think of her name as they walked across the Square.
"Have you heard anything about Stanley, Mr Prang?" she said desperately as they sat down. "Are they going to release him?"
He finally remembered the name, just in time. "Don't think so, er, Cicely ..."
To his dismay, she burst into tears. Ernie looked at her helplessly; he had no idea what to do about that, and did the best he could by patting her on the shoulder a few times.
She looked up at him after a minute or two and said, "But they must know Stanley isn't a ... a ... a Death Eater!" She looked around nervously as she said it, as if expecting masked figures to appear out of thin air and curse her. "He was only repeating silly gossip to try to impress people! He always did! Can't we get him out, Mr Prang? Couldn't you speak up for him? Put in a word, tell them he was always a good boy?"
Ernie closed his eyes for a moment. He'd been expecting something like this, true, but he hadn't realised just how bad it would make him feel. "Not me, Cicely," he said slowly. "I can't. They'd have my head too and I'm not sticking it in the firing line, not even for Stan. Can't they get him to take Veritaserum or summat?"
He hadn't expected that suggestion to make any difference, and it didn't. "I asked them that," she said with a sniff. "I don't think they let him. Said he might have learnt ways of getting round it from his ... well, you know. Them. Oh, my poor Stanley, stuck in that place, all alone ..."
"Come on, Cicely. It's probably not so bad now those ... things aren't there any more." As always, that thought made him shudder. "It's probably my fault," he added uncomfortably, getting up. "He did listen to gossip, I shouldn't have encouraged him. You know what Stan's like, he always exaggerates things ..." Cicely Shunpike looked as if she was about to start crying again, and he added hastily, "Look, if I run into anyone from the Ministry, I'll see what they say. Can't promise any more than that."
He managed to extricate himself with a few more vague promises, and quickly made his way to the Leaky Cauldron. Sure enough, the pub was deserted except for a bearded, grim-faced man he recognised as an Auror, who nodded briefly to him from the corner and then walked out. After a pint or two, Ernie followed him to the private room that Tom had been 'asked' to set aside.
"Been in contact with Cicely Shunpike, eh, Prang?" he said in an unfriendly manner as Ernie sat down.
"She weren't doing nothing," he said hastily. "Just wanted to know about Stan, like. Whether he'd be let out."
"I see." He didn't explain what it was that he saw, which made Ernie nervous again.
"Er, I mean, not that it matters, I'm sure you know best ..."
"We do. Now, what have you got to tell me?"
He sighed. He knew he had to tell them something, however trivial, to get them off his back; even if he was sure it had nothing to do with the real Death Eaters out there. "Not much. This bloke Bole, he was saying ..."
"Oh look, Granddad, they've made another arrest!"
Ernie looked up from his breakfast. His granddaughter was reading the front page of the Daily Prophet with shining eyes. "Who is it, love?"
"Some man called Bole. It says he's been spending all his time going around talking to ordinary people and trying to persuade them that the Death Eaters are setting about things the right way. They think he could be one of You-Know-Who's leading propagandists ..."
"Melanie, love ..."
"Isn't that wonderful?"
"Ar, suppose so." Ernie exchanged a resigned glance with his wife that their granddaughter, absorbed as she was in the report, didn't notice. Ever since she was a little girl she'd had a bee in her bonnet about seeing Dark wizards caught (not that he could blame her really, under the circumstances). He knew she'd always dreamt of being an Auror, or at the very least working in the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol. Ernie had sympathised with her when she failed to achieve the N.E.W.T. grades she needed to get in, but was secretly very glad. She was a lot safer that way.
"You'd better get going, Melanie," said his wife, glancing at the clock. "Don't want to be late, do you?"
"Oh yes, Gran, because the Broom Regulatory Control would just grind to a halt without its junior assistant," she said sarcastically; but nevertheless she grabbed her wand and her handbag and disappeared into the fireplace in a burst of green flames.
Ernie watched her go with a sombre expression. The thought of what might happen to her and Ethel if the Death Eaters ever thought he was giving away information about their movements terrified him. But he didn't dare tell them that. They had no idea of the bind he was in.
Ernie was surprised at how soon he settled into his new routine for working on the Knight Bus. At the beginning of every shift, he would joke with the driver handing over to him, wait until Harper left him alone, then release the Ears into the little cracks between the seats. While driving, he would try each Ear in turn and listen to anything that seemed like it might be interesting (never quite daring not to, in case a particularly juicy conversation was being staged in order to test him, although he didn't intend to report in detail on anything that might make a target of him or his family). And if that occasionally meant he missed a turning -- well, the collision avoidance charms on the Knight Bus were as good as ever. Finally, at the end of the shift, he would wait until Harper had gone, put the Ears back in their box, and joke with the driver he was handing over to.
It had almost become another Knight Bus tradition.
Of course, the other traditions still held. "Who did you have in the back of your bus then, Varn?" he asked one morning. The night shift was often good for interesting tales.
Varney snorted. "Had that Croaker on, out of his tree again. Daft bugger. Started whining about having lost a load of 'prophecy glasses', whatever they are. Said the Boy-Who-Lived and his pals smashed up the place they keep them last summer. His mate was trying to shut him up -- don't reckon we're even supposed to know there is one."
Ernie raised his eyebrows. He didn't quite know what to make of that. "Oh ar? All that Chosen One stuff in the Prophet were true, then?"
"Dunno. Used to think the kid was a nutter, but now ... I don't know, Ern. Reckon the Minister must believe it. Croaker was saying that the gossip is he's trying to get the boy on their side. He'll be lucky if you ask me."
This was intriguing, even if it was mostly old news. "I had that Harry Potter in the back of my bus once. Well, twice actually," he offered in return.
"Yeah?" said Varney with interest.
"Ar. Wanted it all kept hush-hush, like. First time, he gave Stan a false name. The other, he had an Auror come on with him, waving a badge and telling us we had to bump him up the queue. And that were when they were all saying he was mad. There's summat funny going on there."
Varney scowled at this tale. "Bloody Aurors. Always throwing their weight about. You don't want to trust them further than you could throw the bus."
"You don't want to trust them Unspeakables neither," said Ernie darkly. "You never know what they're really up to, do you?"
"Reckon not." Varney hesitated and looked around, as if worried that there might be a Death Eater spy listening, then lowered his voice. "You think this Chosen One stuff is right? Croaker was babbling something about them not being able to tell any more. I wish he'd get a bloody move on and finish You-Know-Who off if that's what he's supposed to do. Put an end to all this."
"So do I," said Ernie fervently. "So do I, Varn. I can hardly sleep at nights sometimes."
"How you doing without Stan in the back?" asked Varney. "That must have been a bit of a blow to you. Don't suppose he liked having Harry Potter riding with you if he was on their side?"
Ernie sighed. Having the Boy-Who-Lived on his bus made for a good story, but he could have done without it. A fleeting sense of guilt caused by a recollection of Cicely Shunpike's tears prompted him to say, "Nar, Varn, you got it wrong. Stan, if he met anyone famous, he talked about it for ages. He just liked it, you know? Make himself seem big?"
"You think that's why he got in with them then? Or don't you?" Varney was watching him with a surprisingly shrewd expression on his face. "I reckon you don't believe he did, do you, Ern? I'd never heard Stan had any thoughts on politics one way or the other."
"Well, he used to sneer at the Muggles a bit ..." Ernie said defensively. "But I mean ... don't we all from time to time ..."
"Oh yeah?" Ernie bit his tongue as he remembered -- a few seconds too late -- that Varney's parents were Muggles. Fortunately, he didn't seem to be taking great offence, although his next words were pointed. "You want to watch yourself there, Ern. Ministry could be after you next for saying things like that."
Ernie shuddered. "Sorry, Varn. I'll just have to show them I'm all right, won't I?" A sudden suspicion made him ask, "Didn't have a go at you after they arrested Stan, did they?"
Varney laughed bitterly. "Yeah. One of those wankers from the Auror Office tried to get me to spy on people. Said they didn't know how loyal I was, had some sort of eavesdropping gadget they'd bought that you could stick in your ear? I told him exactly where he could stick it. Got to stand up to these people, haven't you? Haven't heard anything since, at any rate. You don't know what they're doing, do you?" He sounded slightly uneasy.
"Nar, not really," mumbled Ernie.
"Oh well. Whatever they're doing, they don't seem to be having much luck catching You-Know-Who, do they? See you tomorrow, Ern."
"Ar. See you, Varn."
Ernie waited until his fellow driver was well out of sight; then, with a sigh, he poked the Extendable Ears into their gaps. He watched with a look of faint disgust as they wriggled into place.
The next time Ernie visited the Leaky Cauldron Robards was there in person, standing at the bar chatting to Tom with a smile on his face. He didn't know whether that was a good or a bad sign, and when Ernie followed him out after a little while, he opened the door of the private room with trepidation. Robards beckoned him in with a surprisingly genial wave of the hand.
"So, Ernie, things have gone well then," he said as he sat down.
"They have?" asked Ernie, not quite sure what to make of that. It sounded like he was getting a personal pat on the head, right from the top.
Robards looked almost hurt. "Of course, Ernie. Congratulations are in order. What you told us about Mr Bole was very helpful. Certainly confirmed what we'd heard from elsewhere, most important. We wouldn't want the Death Eaters planting false information on us, would we?"
"Nar." He felt a bit guilty now about what he'd told the Aurors regarding Bole, even if he hadn't realised the use they would make of it. Hesitantly, he said, "You know, reckon he were only mouthing off on the bus 'cause he was angry, Mr R? Don't think he really meant that, you know, them lot were right. He were just having a moan about Muggle-borns who come into our world, taking jobs from pure-bloods who've been brought up here all their lives. Lots of people complain like that, don't they? And I think he lost his position at Nimbus, bit too fond of the Firewhisky ..."
"Well, who knows what could cause a wizard to go over to the Dark Side, Ernie?"
"I wouldn't know, Mr R," he muttered. "Just saying, it's like Stan, you know? Likely didn't mean it, just letting off steam ..."
"You're not defending them are you?" asked Robards. His dragon teeth smile was back again. "Giving aid and comfort to the criminals in our midst is a very serious business, Ernie."
"No Mr R! I mean, yes Mr R. I mean ... I didn't want to mislead you, like, have you make mistakes with what I told you ..."
"We'll be the judge of that, Ernie."
"Yes, Mr R. I understand."
Regardless of how well Ernie might or might not have understood what the Aurors wanted, for the next few weeks he felt a great reluctance to pass on any information that might be used against his passengers or their friends. His position was impossible, he knew that. He consoled himself with the thought that it didn't actually seem to be getting any worse.
Until one night ... it suddenly did.
Ernie knew something was up as soon as he arrived home. The tension in the air all but hit him in the face the moment he walked in the door.
Ethel greeted him with relief. "Ernie! At last. Talk to our granddaughter, will you?"
He looked between them with a sense of foreboding. Melanie had that mulish look on her face, the one that had always meant she was digging in her heels about something and refusing to listen to her grandparents. Ethel was tight-lipped, and clearly outraged by whatever it was she'd come up with this time.
"What's going on, Melanie love?" he asked weakly.
"Going on? I'll tell you what's going on!" cried Ethel before Melanie could open her mouth. "Our granddaughter has decided to ..."
"Do something useful for a change!" interrupted Melanie, eyes flashing. "It's about time somebody did!"
Ernie winced. "Melanie, no need to talk to your Gran like that ..."
"What Gran's bursting to tell you is that I've left the broom control job and signed up for the new Patroller training programme," she informed him, brushing aside his recriminations with the air of someone both ready and willing for a fight on the subject. She stared at him defiantly. "And I've done it now, so there's nothing either of you can do to stop me!"
"The Patroller ..." Ernie had to stop for a moment to work that out, and when it dawned on him that she meant Magical Law Enforcement Patrol, it sent a chill down his spine. "But ... Melanie, you're not qualified, you didn't get the N.E.W.T.s for it ..."
"I nearly did," she said. "And they need all the people they can get now, with the war on. If they think you might be able to do it they're willing to take you and train you up!" Ernie's heart sank at her enthusiasm, and it must have shown in his face, because she added in a hurt tone, "I'd have thought you'd have been proud of me, Granddad. This way, I can help fight the war, not just sit on the sidelines. Maybe if I'm lucky I'll get the chance to do something to pay those bastards back for what they did to Mum and Dad!"
Ethel gasped. Ernie went white. She surely couldn't know that she had just named their worst fear. "Melanie, love," he said desperately. "Don't you see how dangerous this'll be? You're an easy target. We lost them. Couldn't bear to lose you too, can't you see that?" He took off his glasses to wipe away a tear that had found its way into the corner of his eye.
"I'm sorry, Granddad." Melanie's eyes were moist too, but she obviously wasn't going to back down. "I'm not going to do anything stupid. But I need to do something, not hide away and hope it all blows over. Because it won't, will it, not just like that? We've all got to do what we can, haven't we?"
Ernie exchanged hopeless looks with Ethel. "That's the sort of thing your mum and dad would have said." It had also been the sort of thing that had meant they had found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he knew that his granddaughter was well aware of that and more than willing to ignore it.
"I hear your granddaughter is going to join us, Ernie. Congratulations!"
Ernie half-nodded. Robards himself had come to meet him again tonight, which presumably meant that something he'd passed on had been useful. He wasn't sure if he wanted to know what. "She insisted, Mr R."
"You must be very proud of her, making a stand like that?"
"Ar. She's a good girl, Melanie is." That consideration hadn't shaken his cold terror at the thought of what might happen when she was set on watch in Diagon Alley, or sent to patrol the streets of Hogsmeade. But at some level, her confident declaration had left him feeling confused, and oddly shamed by his recent behaviour. Ever since then, despite himself he'd found that the information he passed on to the Aurors had begun to be increasingly detailed. It was an odd feeling, one he wasn't sure if he actually liked or not. "I try to help, Mr R."
"Well, you did, Ernie. You have my thanks for that. In confidence --" Ernie's stomach lurched, that sounded like something he'd have to be very careful to pretend not to know afterwards "-- you might have given us a good lead on the Abbot case. Her neighbours never told us people were coming round asking them questions about the family beforehand, so now we've got an excellent description and something we can look into."
"Ar. That's good." Privately, Ernie was sure the questioners, if they were who he thought they were, would have made themselves scarce as soon as they found out that the investigation was taking place. At least it kept them out of the way. He still didn't have to tell everything he knew, at least not immediately.
"That's three arrests we've made already this year. Three Death Eaters off the streets." Robards seemed to be in an expansive mood, and although a picture of a weeping Cicely Shunpike flashed through Ernie's mind he didn't try to argue the point again. "All because people gave us information. People like you, Ernie. I've been a bit hard on you sometimes, I know, but we do have to have our sources. After all, we know the Death Eaters must have theirs, the same as they did in the last war."
"No kidding. That Rookwood, you mean," muttered Ernie darkly.
Robards chuckled. "Yes, indeed. Proper little organisation, his was," he added reminiscently. "We never even had a scent of it until afterwards. Gave us some good ideas we could use, though." He gave Ernie an appraising look. "Brought us together, Ernie, didn't he? That's why I thought of you this time around. Remember meeting him?"
Ernie shuddered and drained his glass. "Wish I didn't, Mr R." He rather wished Robards hadn't either.
"He's back there now, you know. Didn't stay out long."
"Good." Even Ernie was surprised at his vehemence. The meeting Robards was referring to had haunted him for years ...
By the time Augustus Rookwood had been brought to justice, one of the last Death Eaters to be captured, the Prophet's court reporting had become perfunctory as public attention moved onto other matters. Rookwood's trial had changed all that.
People read the reports avidly as the nature of his network of informants was laid bare by the testimony of recanting Death Eater Igor Karkaroff. Neighbours looked uneasily at each other, wondering if Rookwood's interrogation would reveal that they were living next door to a traitor. Ernie himself had observed people on the bus reading the paper and then glancing around at their fellow passengers with deep suspicion, and nervously wondered what the outcome of the trial would be.
And then Rookwood, when questioned, had just sat in the prisoner's chair and sneered at the court, refusing to name a single member of his organisation, nor even confirm or deny the membership of those such as Ludo Bagman who had been accused of being part of it. None of the threats or inducements Barty Crouch had tried to bring to bear had had any effect. Rookwood, like the Lestranges, seemed to believe that his Dark Lord would return some day, and might need his old resources.
That had scared people.
So when Ernie encountered the man a few days later, it was both unexpected and unpleasant.
The booking written at the top of the sheet when he came on duty told him to go to a place he didn't recognise, on the far north coast of Scotland. Whoever had taken the booking had scribbled a note next to it: 'Do this one before you pick anyone else up. Standing start. Sooner you than me, Ernie.' That didn't sound encouraging, especially the 'standing start' comment. It suggested he was being sent somewhere too small for the bus to move normally.
Ernie told Harper to brace himself and hit the control that moved them to the indicated spot. He was astonished to find they had arrived in what looked like a small cove with a shingle beach, into which the weight of the Knight Bus was slowly settling. There was little enough space to park it, let alone move, and there was nothing of interest to be seen except for a little jetty extending out into the sea.
He exchanged puzzled looks with Harper and got off the bus to investigate. The place was surrounded by high cliffs, and seemed to be completely deserted. It was fully five minutes before anything happened; and then he jumped as several people suddenly appeared out of thin air in front of him.
It was an odd-looking group, half-a-dozen Aurors surrounding a thin man in plain grey prisoner's robes who was staring at his shoes. One of the Aurors tossed away an old bottle, then nodded to Ernie and Harper, muttered something to his companions and detached himself from the group. As he did so, Ernie caught sight of the prisoner's blemished face, and couldn't manage to stifle a gasp.
The noise made Rookwood look up, his eyes first resting on the Knight Bus crew and then flicking past them to take in the incongruous sight of the violently purple bus itself. Ernie froze as the man stared at them, his bored expression suddenly giving way to a cruel mocking grin and then to loud laughter, as if at some very funny private joke. He didn't quieten down until one of the guards gave him a shove and threatened to use a Silencing Spell, but nevertheless he still continued to chuckle maliciously to himself.
Harper swore quietly. "You know where we are, Speedy?" Ernie shook his head. "Must be where they transfer prisoners to Azkaban. They send one out, we fetch one back."
"Well spotted, Mr ... Harper, isn't it?" The Auror had joined them; his look of malicious humour almost matched that of his captive. "We're sorry you had to wait. Shouldn't be long now before your passenger gets here."
Ernie felt his heart sink. His conductor didn't seem too pleased either. "Why us?" he asked the Auror. "Why don't you just take him back yourselves, the same way you got here?"
"He refused," said the Auror with a look of scorn. "Wanted to be out of our hands as soon as possible. Doesn't trust us for some reason. Sorry you were inconvenienced, Harper."
The other Aurors were gazing out to sea nervously; but a minute or so later, to their evident relief, a small boat came into view. As it approached the jetty, Ernie could see that it contained three passengers. One was curled up near the bow, apparently trying to stay as far away as possible from the other two. They were the ones that caught the eye; impossibly tall figures in black cloaks with shrouded faces.
He realised that Rookwood had suddenly stopped laughing and glanced across at him. The man was also watching the hooded figures in the boat, with a look of increasing fear, and as the boat slid smoothly against the jetty their nature suddenly hit Ernie like a physical blow to the gut.
Azkaban guards. Dementors. A name of terror.
It was a summer's day, hot as a furnace and with the sun high in the sky, but as the passengers disembarked the light seemed to dim and the entire cove turn icy cold. The man who had been cowering at the front of the boat lurched past, ashen-faced, without even a glance at them; he stumbled onto the bus and collapsed on the first seat he came to. Rookwood's last trace of defiance faded away as the Dementors glided towards him, and as they seized an arm each and began to carry him to the boat he started to shake violently. Even the Aurors seemed under deep strain.
Ernie glanced at Harper, who seemed to be of one mind with him; they turned and positively ran back to the bus to get as far as possible from the Dementors. It didn't help. Perhaps the creatures could sense their panic, or perhaps they merely wanted to take a parting shot at the man who had travelled with them from Azkaban. They turned towards the bus, and from underneath their cowls came a sucking sound that was like a death rattle.
"Granddad, when are Mummy and Daddy coming home?"
"The Knight Bus travels all over, Ernie. You must hear all sorts of things. Who talks to who. Where they go. That information could be very valuable to the Ministry ..."
"Abigail, love, don't you see how dangerous that'd be? You're an easy target there! They know where to find you!"
"You didn't realise what was going on? Of course you didn't, Ernie. But you know now. So you'd best remember it, hadn't you?"
"Mr Prang, we regret to inform you that your daughter and son-in-law have been killed in a Death Eater-related incident ..."
He was shaking ... no, being shaken ... no, both at once ...
"Ernie! Are you all right, mate?"
Harper's face swam into view. Above him. Chalk white. More frightened than he'd have believed possible. Things slowly coming into focus. Boat had gone. Sun was shining as brightly as before. Cold, so cold. Seemed to have soaked into his aging bones ...
"Here." An amused voice. Above him. The Auror. He'd spoken to them earlier. Holding out ... chocolate? "Eat this. Those things can affect you badly, if you're on the weak side."
Ernie bit into it and was surprised at the sudden warmth it brought. He crammed the rest into his mouth and climbed to his feet, still shaking. "Thanks, Mr -- er ..."
"Robards. In charge of the team investigating Rookwood's little network. Last either of us will see of him, I hope." His gaze suddenly sharpened. "You're Ernest Prang, aren't you?"
"Ar," said Ernie suspiciously.
"I see. Well, I'm sorry I didn't warn you, then. I remember hearing about your recent loss. Dementors home in on that sort of thing." He didn't look especially sorry, but at least he'd stopped grinning. "Do you think you're fit to drive? Could be dangerous in your condition."
He was feeling light-headed, as if a terrible curse had only missed him by that much, but he wasn't going to let Robards know that if he could help it. "Won't be no more dangerous than usual. Bus more or less drives itself."
Harper gave a weak laugh. "Come on then Speedy, get us out of here. These nice gents are waiting for a lift back to town. We'd better drop this poor sod off first, though." He nodded at the man slumped on the front seat of the bus, pale and thin with hollow, haunted eyes, and lowered his voice. "How long did he have to put up with them? What did he do?"
Robards turned to look at the ex-prisoner and frowned. "Do? Barker here? Offered to supply dangerous contraband to the Death Eaters, but committed the elementary error of making the offer to one of our undercover teams. And unfortunately for him, that meant he didn't have any useful information to bargain himself out of Azkaban with. We really didn't like that. Five years imprisonment. I tell you what, though, he won't do it again."
"I bet." Harper looked almost as shaken as Ernie felt. "Off you go then, Speedy. Swansea for him."
Ernie hit the control with enormous relief. The Knight Bus immediately jumped from Scotland to Wales, leaving the Dementors hundreds of miles behind. But from then on, they remained lodged in Ernie's nightmares.
"Made a sweet little OFFER for a-goblin, she did, if she could ONLY play with my WAND ..."
Ernie grimaced. He had the night shift this week, and that usually meant at least one trip taking Willy Croaker home from whatever wizarding pub he'd been attempting to drink dry. He didn't need Extendable Ears to hear his off-key (and usually off-colour) singing. And he wasn't sure he wanted to hear, let alone pass on, anything the Unspeakable might say about his work while in his cups.
As the bus jumped hundreds of miles and appeared on the main road leading into Northampton, he suddenly shivered. It seemed unusually cold for the time of year. Even the Muggles in the cars passing by on the other side of the road looked chilly and uncomfortable. And it was darker than he'd expected ...
He looked up in horrified realisation to see the two tall, black-cloaked, hooded figures that were hovering in ambush on either side of the road.
Ernie slammed his foot down hard and the Knight Bus accelerated past them, but the cold didn't seem to be going away ... He tapped the rear-view mirror with his wand and it widened to show the Dementors gliding in pursuit at high speed.
"Faster, Speedy! They're catching up!" moaned Harper from the back of the bus. Ernie could tell that for himself, from the steadily growing cold alone. The few passengers on the bus all seemed to be whimpering in fear. And then he felt it for the second time in his life; the sickening, disorienting sensation as the Dementors leached away all traces of happy thought, leaving only the terrors that stepped from the shadowed places of his mind ...
"And people talk all the time about what friends and neighbours are up to, pass on little bits of gossip they've heard."
No Mr R, please, don't ask me that ...
"Maybe if I'm lucky I'll get the chance to do something to pay those bastards back for what they did to Mum and Dad!"
No Melanie, no, no, please love don't do that ...
"Of course you didn't, Ernie. But you know now. So you'd best remember it, hadn't you?"
No Mr R, you don't mean that ...
There was a bright flash at the back of the bus, and a misty silver shape flew from the rear window and made the Dementors hesitate; Ernie felt the cold fade slightly, and as his mind cleared he suddenly realised that there was only one thing he could possibly do. He hit the controls hard and the bus made another huge jump to its next planned destination. He slammed his foot on the brakes and spun the wheel frantically; gradually the vehicle slowed to a modest cruising pace along the road, no longer causing trees and hedges to jump out of its path.
He pulled over at the first convenient spot and stopped. His heart was beating so hard it felt like it would burst out of his chest.
"Bloody hell, mate. Bloody hell," said Harper, making his way past scattered beds to the front of the bus and looking thoroughly shaken. "I hoped we'd never have to see them again. Where are we?"
"Somewhere in Kent." Ernie gripped the steering wheel hard. "What were that silver thing?"
"A Patronum whatsit. That Unspeakable bloke cast it. What do we do now?"
"Take me in to the Ministry." The hoarse voice startled them; it came, appropriately enough, from Croaker, who appeared to have been sobered up quite effectively by recent events. "I have to report the Dementor attack anyway. And I don't want to get caught out again while I'm still not capable of casting a proper Patronus. You never know, this might have been planned by someone who knew my schedule."
"What for?" asked Harper.
"A threat perhaps. Or a warning shot. Send a message."
"No kidding. Heard it loud and clear," muttered Ernie. He adjusted the controls once more and sent the Knight Bus leaping back to London.
"What were you saying about Elladora Guffy the other day, Freda?"
Ernie pricked his ears -- and his Ears -- up at this. Freda Mordaunt had always been an incorrigible gossip, and her ramblings were usually good for a supply of trivial material that could be passed on to the Aurors. Ever since the encounter with the Dementors, he'd returned to his old policy of being very wary indeed about passing on anything that might relate to real Death Eater activity, and thus get him into trouble if the source of the information was traced back. He wasn't proud of it, but ....
"Ooh, it was terrible, it was!" The statement was belied by the relish with which Madam Mordaunt said it. "Her old man, they say in the village someone held him up at wandpoint when he was taking the Crup for a walk. Told him to tell his wife she shouldn't cross people who had important friends." She managed to make the last two words sound darkly mysterious.
"Elladora? What for?" asked her companion, who by contrast sounded thoroughly sceptical. "She's no-one special, is she?"
"Well you know what she's like," said Madam Mordaunt, who was clearly enjoying herself. "Oh, doesn't she think she's the funny one! My Ethelbard, he was so mad at her, but she didn't care, oh no. Put Sticking Charms on all our garden furniture, it ruined his best outdoor robes when he sat down, it did! I said to him, one of these days she'll end up trying on one of her little jokes with somebody who'll do more than just write to the paper about it."
"I see." Her companion sounded impressed. "Well, I hope she doesn't go too far. What do the authorities think about it?"
"Hasn't told them, she hasn't."
"What? Why ever not?"
"Doesn't trust them, she said. Ever since they fined her for turning the back of a Patroller's robes transparent when he came to investigate a complaint. He was walking round the rest of the day with his bum showing. I felt sorry for him, I did," she added, not entirely convincingly.
"Well, I hope someone puts a stop to it."
"Oh, there's probably nothing to it. Just someone playing games, I should think, giving Ella a taste of her own potion. I don't suppose we'll hear any more of it now they've warned her, we won't. Oh, this is my stop!" Ernie glanced up to see where they were and hastily jabbed his foot on the brakes.
No proof. There's no proof. Ernie was trembling as he removed the Extendable Ears later. Might just be a wind-up. That's all. He put them back in the box and tucked it into his pocket. If they're for real, wouldn't like me talking about it to Robards' lot. His conversation with Varney was quite perfunctory as he got off the bus. No proof, Ern. No proof. You stuck your neck out a bit with the Abbot stuff. Should have known better. You never should have got carried away.
The bearded Auror was waiting for him in the Leaky Cauldron. "Anything to tell me, Prang?"
"Well ..." No proof, Ern. No proof. "Not much really. Sorry, lad."
Ernie had more or less dismissed Freda Mordaunt's tittle-tattle by the following Tuesday morning. So when his granddaughter opened the morning edition of the Daily Prophet and gave a horrified yelp, it startled him.
"There's been another one!"
"What's that, love?" he asked, his attention still mostly on his breakfast.
"Another Death Eater attack! Some family called the Guffys, found murdered in their own home with the Dark Mark set over it!" She rapidly scanned the report and snorted. "No-one in their village saw or heard anything, Oh no, of course they didn't. No-one ever does, do they?"
"Well ..." A chill was creeping up his spine.
She sprang up, a hard look on her face. "I'd better get in to work, they might need the trainees to help out with routine stuff." Ernie looked up at that and she held up a weary hand before he could say anything. "And don't start telling me it's dangerous, Granddad, please."
"But it is, love ..."
Melanie shocked him by spitting out a swear word she'd never used in their company before. "I don't care!" she screamed. She had a wild expression, as if something inside had finally snapped. "I've had enough of this crap, Granddad! Those bastards killed mum and dad, remember! Don't you care? Don't you want to pay them back too?"
Ethel had turned white. Ernie was sure he had, too. "Melanie, you don't understand," he said pleadingly. "You really don't understand the trouble I could get into -- could get you into ..."
"So you're happy just to sit here and be terrified? Treat me like a little girl as always, and hope somebody else's kid is the one to get killed?" The honest answer to that question was yes but Ernie didn't dare say so while his granddaughter was in this state. "Do you know, I met someone I knew from school on patrol in Hogsmeade the other day? She's fought them, she's already lost people, she's got loved ones in the firing line. But she still grits her teeth and does it!"
"Look, anything they'll let me do probably isn't dangerous, but even if it is, it's my duty to do it if I can. Remember that? If I have to sit back and do nothing any longer I'll go stark raving mad! And I'd rather you did something if you ever have the chance instead of always making the excuse that you're worried about me!" She had grabbed a handful of Floo powder from the jar on the mantelpiece and thrown it in the fire before Ernie could come up with an answer, and as she disappeared into the flames he stared helplessly at where she'd been only a few moments before.
"How could she talk to us like that?" said his wife, bristling. "I never would have thought she'd be so ungrateful ..."
There must have been something in his voice, because she trailed off and looked at him in silence for several minutes. Ernie hadn't realised quite how long it had been until Ethel said his name tentatively.
He turned his head in her direction. "Ethel?"
"Ernie ... what's the matter, love?"
He felt sick. That was what was the matter. But there was no way to tell his wife why he felt sick without revealing things he'd never told her, things he knew would both disgust and terrify her, and he couldn't bear to hurt her like that. No, that wasn't true. He couldn't bear to say them out loud at all. "I drove a Muggle car once when I was young, Ethel, did I ever tell you?" he said finally, his voice hoarse.
"Er ... I don't think so, no ..."
"Gave me the collywobbles, it did. You've got to be spot on with those things! Can't afford to get in some other car's space, they just hit each other, not get out the way! How anybody can learn how to drive in cars like that I don't know. It's dangerous, driving like that. Well, everything I'm doing's dangerous driving now."
"What are you talking about, Ernie?" Ethel sounded alarmed, as if worried for his sanity.
"Nothing, love. I just hate this bloody war. Maybe Melanie has got the right idea. Always the young ones who think it's easy, isn't it? She's a good girl. Abigail would have been proud of her, wouldn't she?"
Ethel blinked away a tear. "Well, she's her mother's daughter. I ... well, it terrified me when Abigail and Ben told those scum where to go, but I suppose I was proud of them, too. And in the end it was --"she swallowed "-- really just foul luck that they got caught up in an incident, wasn't it?" That was true, but of course it had never made Ernie feel any better about it. "Melanie ... well, she's braver than we ever were at her age, when it was all Grindelwald. I'm scared, Ernie, I'm scared, but ... I'm proud of her too, in a way, for doing something. Are you?" Tears were running down her face now.
Ernie put a comforting arm around her. "Ar. I am, Ethel love. That I am." He stared into the flames of the fire, which were still sparking with occasional emerald flickers from leftover grains of Floo powder.
He'd been vacillating all year, sometimes doing one thing, sometimes another.
He'd been making excuses, just like Melanie said.
He decided, then and there, what he was going to do next, and shuddered.
Ernie left through the back door of the Leaky Cauldron, taking a deep breath of the night air and tapping the stones on the wall with his wand. As it slid open, he passed into Diagon Alley with what was almost a spring in his step. He'd just told the Auror every little thing he'd heard on the bus that week; it wasn't much at all, admittedly, but you never knew -- they might find something useful there, and he'd come to realise that there really wasn't much chance of it being traced back to him. And despite everything the Auror Office had done to him, they were definitely the lesser of two evils.
And even if the information was traceable ... what was done was done now, and he was feeling strangely reckless. He didn't know how long the feeling would last, and suspected he might bitterly regret acting on it later, but he intended to make the most of it while he had the chance.
Diagon Alley was more or less deserted at this late hour, apart from the occasional restaurant patron preparing to return home, and a solitary uniformed goblin in the distance on guard duty outside Gringotts. That suited Ernie; he preferred not to have an audience on the rare occasions he needed to Apparate. Although splinching himself would be extremely embarrassing regardless, considering where half of him would end up.
He took a deep breath, focused very hard on his intended destination, and felt the horrible squeezing sensation that told him he'd succeeded. He opened his eyes to see the familiar small forest clearing, and the by now far too familiar sight of the huge blond man standing there waiting for him.
"You're late, Prang," he said without preamble.
"Sorry, Mr Y, the Auror contact were there waiting, weren't able to get away till now ..."
"Well try harder next time! You think I like standing around in the middle of nowhere, waiting for one of Rookwood's little pets to show up whenever he happens to feel like it? They can send that useless tosser Gibbon again next time. He seems able to put up with you." Yaxley's right hand was twitching as if he wanted to grab his wand and start throwing curses, and Ernie hastened to distract him.
"Nothing much happening this time, Mr Y ..." He gave the man an outline of what he'd just told the Auror, but left out anything that had sounded like it might be important, and mixed in much detail that was irrelevant and just a little that was actually untrue. Yaxley was soon tapping his feet with impatience, and when Ernie started talking about the domestic arguments of a wizard living just outside Basingstoke he cut him off with a disgusted sound.
"I waste my time for this? We expect better from people like you, Prang! We've had Aurors getting close to finding people they should never have stood a chance of finding!"
"Can only tell you and Mr G what I hear, Mr Y ..." He hesitated, then, amazed by his own daring, added "You mean the ones who did in Mrs Abbot?"
Yaxley looked at Ernie with narrowed eyes. "What do you know about the Abbot affair?"
"I know they had a lead," he said stubbornly. "I heard people saying the Aurors had been round, asking about the ones who'd been there ... I told Mr Gibbon, he said it didn't matter ..." He suspected Gibbon had actually only said that to put him off asking any more questions, but in Ernie's opinion, anything that might put his two 'handlers' at odds was well worth the trouble. Sure enough, Yaxley didn't take it well.
"We should have killed the witnesses too," he growled. "That's two good people we had to send into hiding. Don't even think of repeating that, Prang."
"I won't, Mr Y."
"You'd better not. Remember, what happened to your daughter could happen to her brat as well."
Ernie gritted his teeth and tried not to react. That had been Rookwood's approach too, way back in the first war; threats brought to bear as soon as Ernie had realised that the information Rookwood had asked him to collect wasn't being passed on to the Ministry as he'd originally thought. "Ar, I know," he said aloud.
"Good. We don't like leaks, and when we get them we deal with them. Gibbon might not have told you that, but he fancies himself as a subtle man. I don't."
"I know, Mr Y. I do know." He didn't know if the Death Eaters would really bother to follow up on the threat and risk losing a source, or if it was just routine intimidation. He certainly didn't know if what he was doing made sense, or if he was getting himself in too deep. But what he did know was that somehow he could no longer sit back and do nothing, even if the 'something' he was able to do wasn't much.
But any seeds of doubt he could sow in the minds of his handlers had to be worthwhile ... "Are you sure no-one's passing on stuff, Mr Y? When Robards asked me to spy for him, sounded like he knew summat about me, even back then. Must have got that tip about the Knight Bus being a security risk from somewhere ..."
Yaxley snorted. "Are you still going on about that? We fixed it for you, didn't we? Told that spotty loser a few things, let him fantasise like you said, tipped off the Ministry? What else do you expect?"
Ernie winced at the reminder. Of all the things he'd done over the last year, that was perhaps the one he was most ashamed of, but he persisted. "No, but ... it were like he knew I were doing this, that I'd done it before. Maybe someone your end tipped him off, like?"
"Not me. And even that imbecile Gibbon shouldn't have said anything, he can usually keep his mouth shut better than that," said Yaxley shortly. That was an admission he shouldn't have made, but Ernie reckoned the blond git had always relied on his intimidating presence and let his wand and his fists do his thinking for him. "And I don't want you telling Robards anything we don't tell you to tell him, Prang, got that?"
"But Mr G, he always said I had to pass on all that stuff to keep my cover, like," said Ernie, again surprising himself with his nerve. "He were definite about that." Gibbon had in fact suggested something of the sort, probably while congratulating himself on his subtlety, but he couldn't help wondering if the other man would take it badly.
"Was he?" sneered Yaxley. "Well, I'm telling you not to. We don't want any more leaks around here. I'll have a word with Gibbon and make sure he keeps his mouth shut. And if I think anyone's out of line ... well, I might arrange a little accident for them one dark night. So remember that, Prang."
"Ar, Mr Y. Anything else?"
"No. I can't stand talking to you any longer. Same place next week, and be on time." With a final disgusted look, the Death Eater spun and Disapparated, leaving Ernie alone in the clearing.
He waited a few minutes before returning to Diagon Alley the same way he'd arrived, and then made his way back into the Leaky Cauldron. The Auror was still there, in the private room at the back; still looking at him with the same deep suspicion he'd shown before. "You're early."
"There weren't much he wanted to listen to. But I made sure I told him all you said to tell him." Quickly, he outlined the conversation with Yaxley; and if he made it sound more heroic than it had actually been, that was his own affair.
"Right. You'd better keep telling him what we want you to tell him. You've got a long way to go before we trust you again, Prang my lad."
"I know, Mr O."
Confessing his situation to Robards had been one of the hardest things he'd ever done. He hadn't known whether the Ministry would even be willing to do a deal with him, or if they would just send him on another trip to Azkaban, one from which he would not be making a return journey. But unlike Barker fourteen years ago, he'd had information to bargain himself out of Azkaban with, low-level admittedly but a rare open door into You-Know-Who's intelligence operations. Not to mention a willingness to pass on whatever misleading information the Ministry requested him to pass on.
He had no idea if what he'd said tonight would produce any results, but it had been worth a try.
And he was tired of making excuses for himself. He finally had the chance to do something.
It would be dangerous driving for him whatever happened from now on. But at least some of the roads would now be of his own choosing.
Notes: The idea for this story came from idly reading the passage in PoA where Harry takes the Knight Bus, and wondering why its driver would be so worried about Azkaban and the Dementors. When I re-read the Pensieve scene in GoF and saw the mention of Rookwood's organisation, the outline of a fic started to take shape. The original crack idea of DE!Ernie ended up being toned down to this.
Many thanks to lazy_neutrino for betaing the draft version.
For the record:
- Robards is mentioned as the new Head of the Auror Office in HBP (A Very Frosty Christmas), but AFAIK has no other mention.
- Yaxley is also referred to in HBP (Spinner's End) and is and is probably meant to be either the blond DE firing curses everywhere in the Astronomy Tower fight (as here) or the brutal-faced DE Harry Petrifies on top of the tower.
- Gibbon is the one the blond DE kills with the AK that narrowly misses Remus.
- Croaker is mentioned as an Unspeakable along with Bode in GoF (Bagman and Crouch).
- The Mordaunts and Guffys are quasi-canon characters according to the Lexicon definition, appearing in the fanclub newsletters from 1998.
- The names Harper, Varney, and Cicely are references to the, erm, 'classic' British sitcom On The Buses