Ginny's plan to celebrate her letter from the Games and Sports Department was forgotten in the swirl of activity and the tension that surrounded her. She wasn't really part of it, but Harry let his mind stay open as he and Saliyah organized the two parties of Aurors and Unspeakables that would be setting out. One group of Aurors, led by Harry, and one Unspeakable would accompany the Pensieve on its journey to London. Harry was to ride in the cab next to Percy. Hagrid, Amander Croaker, and two Aurors would ride in the back with the Pensieve.
Meanwhile, Ron and his team would Apparate down to Godric's Hollow together with the other Unspeakable, Julia Sprout, to investigate the house and the room where Harry and Ginny had found the mysterious wooden disk. And now they knew what it was. When Hagrid had lifted the Pensieve off the table where it had been sitting, Professor Flitwick had let out a loud squeal and ordered Hagrid to put it back down. Harry saw immediately that the object was identical to the one in Godric's Hollow, except that there were no runes on it. Flitwick did not know the purpose of the disk or the missing runes, but he knew that something was wrong.
Head Auror Ushujaa asked several of the portraits to find Professor Dumbledore, and he returned a short time later from the Ministry of Magic where he had been receiving reports from St. Mungo's about Professor McGonagall. He frowned when the Charms professor told him what they had found under the Pensieve, and turned pale when Harry told him what Ginny and he had seen in the house in Godric's Hollow.
"The runes are intended to strengthen protective spells around the Pensieve and keep the memories intact," he said. "A few months ago, after Minerva began to use it on a regular basis, I suggested that she create the disk." He thought for a moment. "I think we have found the explanation for how it has come to be so erratic and unstable. But who did it, why, and how it ended up in your parents' house, Harry . . ."
Ron and the Unspeakables examined the blank disk and found it to be completely devoid of magic; it was a simple slab of pine. They decided that they could move the Pensieve without risk since it had already been without its protection for an unknown length of time.
So now they were down in the entrance hall preparing for trips to London and the West Country. At a word from Harry, Hagrid lifted the Pensieve and proceeded out the oak doors and down the steps to the waiting lorry. Everyone followed, including Ginny. Hagrid stopped a few feet behind the rear of the vehicle and gazed at the latch holding the doors closed.
"Does anyone know how to open this?" he called out.
There was silence as the assembled talent pondered the back doors of the Volvo FL. Justin was about to reach up to turn the handle, when someone from the rear called out, "Alohomora!" and the doors flew open, knocking Justin and both of the Unspeakables aside and smacking Ron on the side of his head. As the affected parties picked themselves up, everyone else looked back and saw Emma and Claire grinning in the doorway. Emma's wand was still pointing at the lorry.
Popeye strode from the doors of the Great Hall toward the twins, a look on his face, but Harry waved him away.
"It's fine," he laughed. "They're Unstoppables."
Popeye glared at them for a moment while everyone else snickered, except both of the Unspeakables. He retreated to his post by the Great Hall and muttered something to Seamus, who just grinned.
Justin and Ron climbed into the cargo compartment and Hagrid lifted the Pensieve gingerly onto the tailgate; he pushed it inside where the two Aurors steadied it. Hagrid heaved himself up and maneuvered the Pensieve to the front of the compartment, bending double under the low ceiling. He sat with his back to the front partition and braced the Pensieve with his legs.
"She's all set, Harry," he called. "Tell Percy not to hit any bumps."
Ron climbed down and Parvati joined Justin inside; they sat on the floor near the back doors. Harry and Ron helped Amander Croaker up. He crawled to the front, conjured a cushion for himself and sat warily next to Hagrid, his wand in his hand resting on his lap.
Harry turned to Ron who stood with his team of Dennis Creevey and Tom Trenton. "You have the counter-charm for the seal I put up?"
"I know your magical style, mate. It's as good as broken."
"Thanks," Harry muttered. "You're fired."
"No problem. Ernie Macmillan is next in line for my job."
Harry thought it best not to respond, so he said to Ginny, who was at his elbow, "I'm sorry, sweetie, it's great news about the team. But if you can wait up, I should be home before midnight."
"That's okay." She gave him a hug and a quick kiss. "I'll make us a nice late supper and we can talk."
"Good. How about that macaroni and cheese recipe? I love it."
"Sure. I have all afternoon. It'll be ready when you get home."
Harry held his wife for a moment, closing his eyes and inhaling her fragrance. At moments like this, when Ginny's happiness and enthusiasm for pleasing him filled his heart, he marveled that, as bizarre as so much of his life had been, he had ended up with the perfect woman as his mate.
Hardly perfect. Ginny giggled in his arms, but she was pleased with his thought. "Be careful," she said.
"You know I always am. Besides, all we're doing is taking a spin down to London."
"That's what I'm talking about. Percy. He hit a Muggle car on his way up here." She pulled Harry to the side of the lorry and pointed to the smudge of paint on the front bumper.
Harry grimaced. "Brilliant." He took out his wand and repaired the damage. "Well," he sighed, "I think there's enough room in the cab for two passengers, so I'll keep someone else with me to help look out." He looked back at the group of Aurors standing around at the foot of the steps. "I'll put someone else inside and have Justin sit with me. He's most likely to know the Muggle traffic laws."
Saliyah approached them and Harry nodded to her. "I know, we need to get going."
"Right," the Head Auror said. "Professor Flitwick doesn't want to keep the students locked up much longer." She glanced at the Athair twins, still standing at the top of the steps watching everything. "Those two are going to be filthy rich someday. They'll either be wealthy businesswomen or wealthy criminals."
Harry and Ginny both laughed. Harry kissed her once more, told Ron to wait for him at the Ministry after he finished at Godric's Hollow, and checked the passengers inside the back of the lorry.
"Go get Seamus," he said to Dennis. "Tell him he's coming with us. Justin." He beckoned to the Muggle-born Auror. "Sit in the cab with me. We need help with Muggle traffic."
In a few more minutes everything was set. Justin climbed into the cab and sat next to Percy. Madame Maxime handed Parvati a sack of sandwiches and several flasks of water that she had Summoned from the kitchen, and finally Harry closed the rear doors and got in the cab. Ginny came around and kissed Percy goodbye as he revved the engine loudly, producing a scowl from Harry.
They pulled away from the castle steps and proceeded slowly down the drive to the gates, which Susan and Padma opened as soon as they spotted the lorry. They rolled down the lane to the train station and bumped across the tracks into the village. Several dozen people on the High Street and in doorways gawked as they passed.
"I got here around five in the morning," Percy said as he navigated up the street, "so nobody saw me. I guess they've never seen a lorry in the High Street before."
Harry peered ahead toward Zonko's, idly wondering if George would be outside, if for no other reason than to shout a few choice insults at Percy. Suddenly Justin jabbed him in the side.
"Look!" He pointed to a figure hurrying into Honeydukes. "He was standing by the road and ran inside when he saw us."
"Who?" Harry had not seen the person's face, but now he sat up when he saw a blue cloak disappear inside the shop.
"Dung. Is he living up here now?"
"Stop!" Harry cried and was out the door before they had completely halted. He ran into the sweet shop and looked around but saw only two or three customers, residents of the village who he knew well. "Where did he go?" he shouted. "The man in blue?"
"Out back, I think," said one, a stout witch who, Harry knew, spent a lot of gold in Honeydukes. "I think it was Mundungus Fletcher. Hildegard!" she called to the witch behind the counter. "You'd better check your inventory. Mr. Fletcher just ran out the back door."
Harry dashed through the room and down a short hallway. As he banged open the door at the end and looked out onto the back field, he heard a loud pop and knew that Fletcher was gone.
Swearing, he turned back and met Justin inside the shop. "Too late. He Disapparated. This is not good. I need to get a message to Saliyah and Ron, if he hasn't left. Get back to the castle as fast as you can and tell them both to come here."
Justin turned on the spot and vanished. Harry went back to the lorry and saw Percy standing next to it; Seamus and Parvati were by the open back doors, watching Harry.
"A short delay," he told them. "Mundungus Fletcher was here. I have to tell Saliyah and Ron. I think Ginny and I saw him at Godric's Hollow yesterday."
"Speaking of whom . . ." Parvati pointed behind Harry, and he turned to see Ginny hurrying towards them from the direction of Hogwarts. She arrived a moment later, out of breath and looking concerned.
"What happened? Why are you still here?" She peered inside the lorry. "I thought you'd be out of the village by now."
"Mundungus Fletcher was loitering outside Honeydukes," Harry said, "wearing a blue cloak."
Ginny put her hand to her mouth. "No! Do you think it was him at the house?"
Harry nodded. "When you left the castle, were Ron and Saliyah still there?"
"Saliyah was. Ron and his team walked down to the gate with me and Disapparated. They're in Godric's Hollow by now."
Harry swore again. "This is turning messy. We'll have to send someone or . . ." He looked across the street at the Post Office. "Close it up," he ordered Parvati and Seamus, pointing at the lorry. "I don't want anyone to see what or who is inside. You two stay here and keep people away. Damnation! And Percy, take that idiotic hat off!" Percy ignored him and climbed back into the cab.
Harry pulled Ginny towards the Post Office. "Come, we'll have to send an owl."
"Why not your Patronus?" Ginny asked as they crossed the street. "Or someone could Apparate."
"We're only supposed to use Patronuses for emergencies, and I can't spare anyone."
"And this isn't an emergency?"
They were almost at the Post Office and Harry was about to speak, when the door opened and Chadwick Chamberlain walked out, almost bumping into them.
"Harry!" he exclaimed, smiling broadly. "How are you? I was just sending a letter off to my wife. And this must be Mrs. Potter. How delightful! I am Chadwick Chamberlain, husband of Patience, a dear aunt of Fleur's. I remember you from her wedding. Your dress was very beautiful. I believe we will have the pleasure of visiting your charming home this weekend."
Charming indeed, Harry thought, making Ginny smile. The man was bubbling with as much cheerfulness as he had displayed two days ago in Professor Flitwick's office. He took Ginny's hand and kissed it.
"I've heard about you from Fleur," she said, curtseying and returning his smile. "Pleased to meet you. I hadn't heard that you would be coming."
"Ah. I will have to speak to Mrs. Chamberlain. She must have forgotten to return the invitation. But Fleur will know. She and my wife are very close."
Ginny nodded. Chamberlain was still holding her hand, smiling; he seemed to be expecting a response of some kind. Ginny looked at Harry who was holding the door open. "I'm sure it won't be a problem. Fleur's family is always welcome at our—my parents' house."
They heard a window opening around the side of the building, and an owl shot past, its wings laboring as it rose into the air. It swerved to avoid the lorry, climbed, and disappeared towards the south.
Chamberlain lowered his eyes from the sky where he had been following the bird, and released Ginny's hand. "Well, I must be off. I have an appointment with your brother, you know." He directed his smile at Ginny for a moment, and hurried away. Ginny started to walk inside the Post Office, but stopped when Harry stood at the door, watching Chamberlain until he sprang up the steps to Zonko's Joke Shop and went inside.
"Why were you watching him?" she asked.
"That owl was carrying quite a large parcel to be just a letter to his wife."
"Ask Mr. Rastlebuck what it is."
Harry came inside and closed the door behind him. "I can't do that. The post is private, and besides, he hasn't done anything wrong. But that reminds me. I wanted to talk to George or Angelina about him. They might know why he became a joke merchant."
He stopped talking when they heard a window closing, and the ancient Postmaster, Rathbone Rastlebuck, appeared from a back door.
"Mr. and Mrs. Potter, how are you?" He walked a little shakily to the counter. "What can I do for you? Official business?"
"I need a really fast owl to take a message to the West Country. And yes, it's official." Harry took a parchment from a stack sitting on the counter and wrote his message while the Postmaster returned to the back room. He came out a moment later with a Tawny owl perched on his arm. Harry finished writing the message and handed it to Rastlebuck. "It's for Ron Weasley. He's in Godric's Hollow, and it's very important."
The owl raised its leg and, while Rastlebuck tied the parchment on, puffed its chest at Harry, who had to smile at the bird's sense of self-importance. When he was done, Rastlebuck carried the owl to a window, opened it, and tossed it out. For a few seconds they could hear wings beating as it flew off.
Back outside they found Justin, Saliyah and Popeye standing with Seamus and Parvati next to the lorry. Harry told them what had happened.
"Do you really think it was Dung you saw inside the house?" the Head Auror asked. "I can't imagine why he would be there or what he could be doing with that disk. Merlin, he's supposed to be retired."
"Yeah, but retired from what?" Popeye growled. "Maybe from the Department, but not from lining his own pockets with shady deals."
Saliyah looked at him thoughtfully, and said to Ginny, "We might need you to pay him a visit. Do you think you can put the charm on him again? I know you've done it in the past."
"I'd hate to get him in trouble." Ginny spoke to Saliyah, but also directed her reluctance at Harry's mind. "Maybe it was someone else we saw."
The Head Auror sighed. "Well, you have to get on the road. You've lost time and you'll be traveling a good deal of the way in the dark. I'll send Popeye down to join Ron. At least he'll get there before the owl does, if not Mr. Fletcher."
The Aurors climbed into the back of the lorry, Harry closed it up, and gave Ginny yet another goodbye kiss. He motioned Justin to get back into the cab.
"See you tonight," he said to Ginny. "I'll probably be Flooing in from the Ministry." He slammed the door shut, waved to her, and turned to Percy who was sitting in the driver's seat looking out the front window. "Let's go, Percy. We've already lost too much time."
Percy gave a start; he nodded and revved the engine, as he had when they were leaving the castle. Harry just grinned out the side window at Ginny. She waved and blew him a kiss as the lorry pulled away.
They drove to the top of the High Street and turned right, down the lane past The Hog's Head. They continued slowly past it, bumping over rough, grassy ruts until they came to the lane that led away from Hogsmeade towards the east. Percy stopped the lorry.
"What's wrong?" Harry asked. "Turn left."
They followed the lane that led past the field behind the inn and some outlying wizard farms for about two miles until they came to a two-lane Muggle motorway. Percy stopped again. He hadn't said a word since leaving Hogsmeade.
Harry looked left out his window. "It's clear this way." When the lorry didn't move, he looked across Justin at Percy who, once again was staring out the windshield. "Look, I'm sorry I yelled at you. I'm a little on edge, that's all."
Percy nodded. Justin nudged him and pointed to the right. "South," he said. "We want to stay on this road until we meet the A9 above Perth, and then we just follow the signs to Edinburgh."
Percy revved the engine and whipped the lorry across the road to the southbound lane. There were shouts of protest from the back, and Harry scowled at Percy. "Take it easy, mate, there's fragile cargo back there." Percy grunted but said nothing. Harry shrugged, knowing that his brother-in-law could be a bit touchy at times.
"So you know the roads pretty well?" he asked Justin, more to pass the time than because he wanted to know.
"Yep," the curly-haired Auror replied. "Mum and Dad were a bit, well, snobbish about taking the Hogwarts Express up to school. They drove whenever they needed to be here, so I learned the roads. I had to ask Dumbledore to work a few spells so they could see the lanes when they turned off this road." He grinned. "Once one of those hippogriffs that Hagrid keeps buzzed them just outside Hogsmeade. Scared them half to death."
Harry chuckled. He appreciated Justin's down-to-earth attitude. His parents were wealthy, well-meaning Muggles who kept their only son well-supplied with all kinds of gifts that he didn't need or want. He often gave the electronic gadgets and other Muggle artifacts to Arthur Weasley for his collection. Harry knew from his visits to the Burrow that Molly was not happy about it, because the overflow from the shed in the yard was starting to find its way into the house. She was constantly dropping obvious hints to Ginny to get Harry to stop Justin from "donating" his parents' largess to Arthur. Both Harry and Ginny figured that it was her father's problem, not theirs.
Harry and Justin passed the time chatting for half an hour, until finally they fell silent and watched the glorious Scottish Highlands pass by. An hour later they heard banging from the back.
"Time for a rest stop," Harry said. "Pull over, Percy." He indicated the shoulder a few yards up from a small petrol station.
They rolled to a stop by the side of the road, and Harry and Justin got out. Harry went around back and opened the doors. Parvati and Seamus jumped down, but Hagrid and Amander Croaker remained sitting.
"Don' worry about us," Hagrid's booming voice echoed in the compartment. "We're havin' a nice chat about all the lovely creatures in the Forbidden Forest." He winked broadly at the Unspeakable, who smiled at Harry.
"Mr. Hagrid is an illuminating gentleman," he said. "I'm glad I had this chance to make his acquaintance and spend some time with him."
"We don't want to stop too often," said Harry. "There's a place right down the road, and if you have to use the facilities . . ."
They waved him off, so Harry went around the lorry and asked Percy if he wanted to stretch his legs. He just shook his head. Harry waited for a moment, but when Percy ignored him, he returned to the back where Justin was waiting.
"Keep an eye on Percy," Harry said quietly. "He's acting funny."
Justin shrugged dismissively. "He's always standoffish, as far as I can tell." His face flushed. "Sorry, Harry. It slipped out."
"It's okay," Harry smiled. "He's actually a decent chap as long as you let him think he's in charge. He's probably annoyed because I'm the one giving the orders."
Seamus and Parvati returned from the petrol station, and Harry and Justin walked down to use the facilities. Harry also took a water flask to refill. A few minutes later they were back on the road.
The miles slipped by, and now both Harry and Justin watched the road and Percy. He had pulled his chauffeur's cap down low and sat erect with both hands on the wheel, looking neither left nor right. Harry kept glancing at him, trying to get a closer look at his face, but Percy just stared straight ahead.
There was nothing wrong with his driving, at least. He followed Justin's directions, although Harry was pretty sure that Percy knew the roads, since he had come north on them just a few hours ago. He kept within the speed limit and followed all the traffic rules, as far as Harry could tell.
They passed through villages and one or two small towns. Harry wanted to avoid the larger cities, and happily Justin knew a way to skirt Perth. They halted every hour for a few minutes to let everyone stretch their legs, but other than that they pressed southward without stopping.
Hagrid and the Unspeakable never left the cargo compartment, even after they had been driving for several hours. Harry didn't know how they could go that long without needing a loo, but since they didn't complain and didn't take advantage of any of their rest stops, he didn't ask.
Hagrid seemed relaxed, sitting with his back against the front partition, the Pensieve braced between his legs, and Amander Croaker always had a serene smile whenever the back door was opened and Harry looked in. Maybe, thought Harry, these Unspeakables stayed inside the Department of Mysteries for days on end, and had trained themselves to abjure bodily functions. Now that he thought about it, he didn't remember ever seeing a loo on the ninth level of the Ministry.
They approached Edinburgh in the late afternoon and crossed the Firth of Forth at Queensferry. They zipped around the capital city and rolled on towards England. The monotony started to put Harry to sleep; the day had been long and stressful. He conjured up a pillow and rested his head on it, leaning against the window. He closed his eyes and dozed off.
He awoke with a start when something poked him in the side. He looked around into the gloom; a glow of sunlight on the horizon was all that was left of the day. He looked at Justin who also seemed to have just awoken. His wand was in his hand, and he had just jabbed it into Harry's ribs.
"Where are we?" Harry peered out the side window, but he couldn't see any buildings or lights. They had pulled off the road; cars were speeding by in both directions.
"We're lost," said Justin, and indicated Percy with his eyes.
"What? Weren't you watching the road?"
"I couldn't keep my eyes open. We were on the main trunk south, so I told him—" he jerked his thumb at Percy "—to stay on it and wake me when he started seeing signs for London. But here we are . . ."
The lorry was stopped on a hard, broad shoulder. Harry stared past Justin and Percy out the driver's side window, across the motorway, and across a wide beach. In the twilight he could see open water stretching into the distance. It took a moment to sink in, but then he said, "If that's the sunset, then that's the Irish Sea. How in the effing name of Merlin did we get this far west?"
Percy didn't move. He was staring, once again, through the windshield. In the deepening gloom Harry could not see his face, partly hidden by his cap.
"I think he's Imperiused," Justin said very quietly.
A chill went up Harry's spine and a jolt of panic filled his belly. He reached over, turned the engine off, and removed the key. Percy did not move or look at him.
Harry opened the door and jumped down. "Open the back and tell everyone what's going on," he ordered Justin, and stepped back to let the Auror clamber out of the cab. Justin ran to the rear and Harry heard the doors bang open. A moment later Amander Croaker was standing next to him, peering into the cab at Percy.
"This is very inconvenient," he muttered.
"It's at least that!" Harry snapped. "I'll have to use my Patronus now, and there's no bloody cover. Every Muggle on the motorway will see it."
The Unspeakable turned and waved his wand in a large circle. Suddenly a mist formed around them. It grew thicker until Harry could not even see the lorry in front of him. The fog became almost like a wall, blocking out the remaining twilight in the west, enveloping everything in an impenetrable murk.
He faced away from the road with his wand extended, pictured Ginny the last time he had made love to her, and called, "Expecto Patronum!" His stag shot out of his wand, paused for a split second as Harry formed a mental picture of Saliyah Ushujaa sitting in her office at the Ministry of Magic, and flashed across his mind the message he wanted to send. The stag shot away and disappeared into the fog.
Tires squealed loudly behind him on the motorway. A car horn blared, more tires squealed, and a loud metallic crunch caused everyone to jump. Harry raced around to the road and waved his wand. It took a few seconds for the fog to clear, but as it rolled away towards the sea, he lit his wand and his heart sank.
Before him were two automobiles. One, about ten yards down the pavement, had its boot caved in. The other, right in front of him, had its front completely smashed. Steam rose from under its crumpled bonnet and a green liquid ran from underneath onto the road. Other cars passing in both directions slowed and steered around the damaged cars. The passengers peered out, but no one stopped. As Harry watched, a dazed Muggle opened the car door and stumbled out. Harry rushed to catch him before he fell.
"Are you alright? Is anyone else inside?" He peered into the car but could see no one. "Here, sit for a moment." Without thinking, he conjured a chair and sat the man to it.
"Sodded dog," the Muggle said, sitting and taking a breath, "I've seen fogs along here but never like that. Where in bloody hell did it come from?"
Harry glanced at Croaker, who was standing next to the lorry, his eyes wide, a stricken look on his face. The other Aurors had gathered at the back of the lorry holding up lit wands. Hagrid was also there, peering out from the shadow of the cargo hold.
Footsteps sounded on the motorway as another Muggle ran towards them from the other car. "Is anyone hurt?" he cried, but skidded to a stop on the road and stared at the wizards in their robes, their raised wands lit like torches. His eyes bulged when he saw Hagrid with his wild hair, bushy brows, and bushier beard staring back.
At that moment, another figure came from around the side of the lorry. "Percy!" Harry yelled. His brother-in-law leaped into the cargo compartment, his cap flying off. As Hagrid turned, a loud, echoing boom came from the hold. Hagrid shouted. His head disappeared and the whole lorry bounced on its tires. Seamus and Parvati jumped into the compartment, but they were all too late. The sound was still reverberating inside the lorry, and Harry knew that the Pensieve was gone.
Amander Croaker shrieked and ran to the lorry. He held onto the lip of the tailgate, swaying dangerously until Justin put his arm around his waist. Hagrid appeared and shook his head.
"He Disapparated, Harry, an' he took it with him." Seamus and Parvati also stood in the opening. Everyone, including the two completely befuddled Muggles, looked at Harry.
He took a deep breath. He was engulfed in disaster, but he had to keep his head and prevent things from getting worse. "Everyone get inside!" he said loudly. "Justin, you're driving. Get him in, now!" He pointed to Croaker who was leaning against Justin, trembling, his eyes glassy, muttering incoherently. Hagrid reached one hand down and grabbed him under his armpit and lifted him effortlessly. He moved out of sight into the compartment, dragging Croaker with him.
Harry heard a distant siren; the police would be here soon. He needed to get his team away, as quickly as possible. He looked at the Muggles. Their mouths were hanging open, their eyes wide. Harry realized he had no choice.
He yanked the first Muggle out of the chair, pulled him to the side of the road, and before the poor man could utter a word, pointed his wand at him. "Obliviate!" he muttered. The Muggle swayed and started to fall; Harry Summoned the chair and plunked him down. As he looked around wildly, Harry quickly hexed the other one, ran around the front of the lorry and jumped into the cab.
"Get us out of here!" he shouted as he slammed the door closed.
Justin stared at him in panic. "Harry, I haven't driven for almost five years. And I never drove one of these."
"Just do it!"
Justin took a breath, threw it in gear, and floored the pedal. The lorry's wheels spun and squealed as they fishtailed onto the motorway. He kept the pedal down, and the engine roared as they picked up speed.
"Careful." Harry pointed ahead at the rapidly approaching flashing lights. In a moment a police car sped by going the other way, and Harry breathed a sigh of relief.
They drove in silence for five minutes. Harry leaned his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes. He tried not to think about what had just happened; Saliyah would not want him to dwell on it right now. There would be time later to analyze the catastrophe, to figure out what had gone wrong. Now he needed to get them back to the Ministry without more of the sky falling down on them.
It was almost completely dark, and their headlights lit the road in front. Justin glanced at him. "Where do we go?"
"Back to the Ministry, but we have to make sure we don't get stopped by the police. Someone was bound to have noticed us, and it won't take them long to realize we must have seen the accident." He peered out the windshield. "Pull over as soon as you see someplace that's sheltered from the road."
They kept driving, but now houses started appearing and traffic became heavier. Soon they were in the middle of a small town. Harry kept looking around anxiously for the police, wondering what he would do if they were stopped. A patrol car passed them and he held his breath, but the officer inside gave them no notice. They kept on for twenty more minutes until they came out on the other side of the town. Justin accelerated, and Harry again breathed a sigh.
They were moving roughly east, away from the sea, through suburban estates. They were passing a cluster of larger buildings that looked like an office complex, when Harry pointed towards one of them. "Pull in here. Those offices are closed and no one's around."
Justin jammed on the brakes and swerved into the driveway. The tires squealed and the lorry swayed. There were thumps and cries from inside the cargo compartment, and Justin swore. "Sorry," he mumbled. "You didn't give me much warning."
They came to a stop in a dark corner of the car park, in the shadow of the building. Harry jumped out and ran to the back. The door was already open and Parvati climbed down.
"Bit of a rough ride," she grinned. "It's a good thing you stopped. Mr. Croaker needs to relieve himself." Seamus got out after her, and he helped Croaker to the ground. The Unspeakable stood there rubbing his head and looking uncomfortable.
"We're in a car park," Harry said to Parvati. "We'll have to put up a wall or partition of some kind for him."
"Don't trouble yourself," the Unspeakable scowled. He stalked away until he was lost in the shadows.
"He's pretty angry, Harry," said Seamus. "He figures you lost the Pensieve."
"Bugger him. If he hadn't cast that damn fog we would have been fine."
Seamus nodded. "That's what we all think, and Hagrid called him a bloody old fool to boot." He chuckled. "If you hadn't stopped I think he would have peed himself."
"Why did we stop?" Parvati asked.
"I want to disguise this." Harry pointed to the lorry. "I'm afraid the police will be looking for us. Hagrid! I need to close the doors!"
As the Hogwarts gamekeeper clambered out, Harry couldn't help noticing his dark look. He stared off in the direction of Amander Croaker, who was just a dark shape next to the wall of the building about thirty yards away.
Harry shut the rear doors, took out his wand, pointed it at the vehicle, and began walking around it. As he moved, it changed from white to pale green with light blue trim, the same color as the lettering on the side. He finished up back at the rear doors.
"Harry," said Parvati with a smile, "I didn't know you were such a talented decorator. That's a very attractive color scheme."
He acknowledged her with a roll of his eyes and walked over to Hagrid, who stared off into the night, not looking at Harry.
"Don' try to sweeten it fer me." He turned and glared fiercely at Harry. "It was my responsibility, and I screwed up."
"It was not your responsibility," Harry shot back. "It was mine. But regardless, it wasn't your fault. And it also doesn't matter whose fault it was. We don't work that way. No one will point a finger at you or anyone else."
Hagrid heaved a giant sigh that sounded like a foghorn. They saw Croaker look at them as he adjusted his robes and started walking back. He paused when he was a few feet away, but not within reach of Hagrid, and pointed his finger at Harry.
"This is your doing, Mr. Potter," he said angrily, his eyes flashing. "There will be repercussions, and your reputation will not help you. Someone will pay for this, do you hear me?"
Hagrid stepped in front of Harry and grabbed the extended finger in his huge fist. Croaker's eyes bulged in fright and he tried to pull away, but Hagrid yanked him back. The Unspeakable yelped and cringed as Hagrid bent down and thrust his bearded face directly at him.
"Ye'll do no such thing!" he bellowed, and Croaker's head snapped back as though he had been punched in the nose. "Harry's in charge here, not you, yeh pathetic, brainless fraud. No one told yeh t' put up that stupid fog. If yeh hadn't, none of this would have happened." He let the finger go and Croaker stumbled backward, tripped on his robes, and fell on his back.
Hagrid bent over and picked him up, set him on his feet, and brushed off his clothes. Croaker pushed his hand away, glowering at both him and Harry. He stalked back to the lorry, pointed his wand and the doors flew open, almost banging into Justin who had to quickly step aside. The Unspeakable clumsily and with difficulty pulled himself up and disappeared inside.
"You shouldn't have done that," Harry said to Hagrid in a low voice, "but thanks."
"Yeh didn't do nothin' wrong, Harry." Hagrid frowned under his bushy eyebrows at the lorry. "He was pleasant as sunshine until somethin' went wrong, then all he was innerested in was coverin' his own bum."
"Well, we'd better get going. I think we're near Liverpool, which means we've still a long way to go."
He gathered the Aurors together. "There's room up front for another person, but given the mood around here, I think it's best if you two ride in the hold," he said to Seamus and Parvati. "I expect he'll behave, but I don't want to take any chances."
"Do you think he'll Disapparate?" Seamus asked. "Maybe we should Bind him."
Harry shook his head vigorously. "Merlin, no! Let him, if he wants to. But, Hagrid, don't sit next to him. You two sit between them," he said to the Aurors.
Harry watched as the seating arrangements were worked out, then he climbed into the cab and soon they were on the road again. They drove through another suburban estate and came out on a wide motorway.
"I know where we are," Justin said. "We'll hit the ring road around Liverpool soon and we can cut off on the M46 and straight down the M1 right into London."
"How long?" Harry asked, biting his lip. The longer they took, the more likely it was that Saliyah would send someone out to look for them, and he didn't want that to happen, he didn't want this to become any more complicated. They needed to get back as quickly as possible and start looking for Percy and the Pensieve.
"Maybe four hours, maybe a little longer," Justin replied after a moment. "Unless we hit traffic, but it's getting a little late for that." He paused for another moment. "There's one other thing. The way I'm thinking of going is the fastest, but part of it's a toll road, just before we get to Birmingham."
"That's okay. I always have Muggle money with me."
They sped on into the night. Traffic picked up as they neared Liverpool, but it wasn't heavy and they were soon past it. They navigated the M6 toll road, drove by Birmingham and a few smaller cities, and entered London just before midnight. At last they pulled into the deserted street where the old telephone box stood, the public entrance to the Ministry of Magic. Harry indicated a run-down warehouse a few buildings down, and Justin rolled to a stop. He maneuvered the lorry so that they were backed against a battered overhead door covered with graffiti. Harry pointed to the ignition, and Justin turned the engine off.
Harry breathed a final sigh into the silence and closed his eyes for a moment. "Thank Merlin this is over. The road trip from hell."
He climbed down and walked to the building. He looked up and down the empty street, pressed three bricks in succession with his wand, and the door vanished. The lorry, with its motor off, rolled silently into the warehouse. As soon as it was completely inside, Harry followed it and touched the wall next to the metal jamb with his wand. The door reappeared; they were inside.
The cargo doors swung open and the Aurors and Hagrid climbed out. Amander Croaker held back until everyone else was on the ground. Waving away Hagrid's offer of assistance, he stepped off the tailgate and floated to the floor. Without a word he strode stiffly away into the dimly lit warehouse.
As he disappeared into the shadows, three figures appeared, walking towards them. Saliyah Ushujaa stopped and looked back at the Unspeakable. Hermione and Ron almost collided with the Head Auror when they also peered at Croaker's back. They hurried to the group standing next to the lorry.
"What—" the Head Auror began, but Hagrid's booming voice cut her off.
"He's a screw-up!" he bellowed, pointing into the dark. "And Percy Weasley was Imperiused! That one there fouled up this whole operation!" He took a step so that he was between Harry and Saliyah. "He'll be blamin' Harry fer this, sure as a Skrewt smells like a rotten carp. But I'm tellin' yeh, Sal, he's the git that lost us the Pensieve."
"Lost what?!" The Auror's mouth fell open and she stared at Hagrid. Ron murmured a very audible swear word, and Hermione's hand flew to her mouth.
Harry pushed past Hagrid. "Let's not talk here," he said as calmly as he could. "We need to get to the office, now."
Saliyah nodded and turned on her heel. Harry waved to his Aurors and they followed. He took Ron's left and Hermione's right arm and walked with them a few yards behind the others. Hagrid brought up the rear, muttering loudly to himself.
"Wasn't that lorry white?" Ron asked, glancing back. Their footsteps echoed in the empty warehouse.
"Yeah," Harry said grimly. "I had to change it, and I had to Obliviate two Muggles. Their cars were wrecked also." He sighed. "It's a total mess."
Ron and Hermione glanced at each other. "Where is Percy?" Ron said in a low voice.
"Dunno. He Disapparated." Harry didn't look at his best mate. He had lost a member of his team, which was bad enough, but that it was Ron and Ginny's brother made it ten times worse. "With the Pensieve."
Ron swore again. "Does anyone else . . . Does Audrey know?"
Harry shook his head, but didn't answer. They had caught up to the others in front of a lift. He didn't want to say anything else without Saliyah being able to hear it, but he was also silently letting Ginny inside, letting her know what had happened. He had kept his thoughts quiet throughout the day, not wanting to be distracted while events needed his full attention. That was what he normally did while at work, especially when he was out in the field. But now he had a moment of quiet, and he needed Ginny to know.
At first Harry felt only stillness and gentleness from her, but she reacted when he showed her with his thoughts what Percy had done. Imperiused, came back at him instantly. Percy would never do that. Impossible.
Harry knew she was right. Even if Justin hadn't also said it, Harry could see now that all of Percy's actions today were completely out of character. He would not have cared about Harry's yelling at him about his chauffeur's cap; he would have stiffened his back and flaunted it. He would have been talkative during the ride. And he would not have got lost.
Harry felt a gentle nudge in his mind. Percy was not Imperiused when you left Hogwarts. It happened in Hogsmeade.
He frowned at that. He had left Percy alone in the cab while he chased Fletcher, and again when he went into the Post Office. Dung could have done it, but Justin hadn't said anything about the man using his wand. The perpetrator could have been anyone; someone could have been hiding in any building along the High Street. Or, it could have been Chadwick Chamberlain.
Harry's frown deepened. He had intended to ask some questions about the former Beauxbatons professor, but it had slipped his mind; it had not seemed all that important. And although any motive Chamberlain could have for doing something like this was totally unobvious, Harry did not like the fact that he had shown up just at the time the Pensieve started to go haywire, and he had also been at the scene where Percy was most likely Cursed. If Harry could get his hands on the man's wand, it would be easy enough to find out if he was the culprit.
A lift came and they rode it down to the second level of the Ministry. Everyone was silent except Hagrid. He squatted and bent over to fit under the ceiling until Saliyah waved her wand and the ceiling rose another fifteen feet. He stood and started muttering ill-disguised imprecations against the entire Department of Mysteries. As they stepped out into the corridor, Saliyah fixed a scowl on him and he stopped speaking, although Harry could tell that his friend had not said everything he had to say.
They filed into Saliyah's office. The antechamber was empty and Saliyah waved them into her inner room where they all took chairs in front of her desk. Hagrid sat heavily on the floor off to one side, leaning against the wall.
"When did you eat last?" the Head Auror asked, looking around. Ron started to speak, but Hermione, anticipating him, jabbed her elbow into his side.
"A while ago," Harry said as Ron massaged his ribs. "We needed to make time after the, um, accident."
Saliyah fixed a questioning look on him, but said nothing. A moment later two house-elves came through the door, bearing trays piled high with sandwiches, pastries, and bottles of butterbeer. They put the trays down on the desk and bowed themselves out. Hermione whispered thanks to them, but everyone else tucked into the food.
No one spoke much while they ate. Hermione kept glancing at Harry, and Ron, who waited until everyone else had taken food before helping himself, kept his head down although he was clearly upset. Harry didn't notice, though; he was lost in his own thoughts. With Ginny's help, he was trying to re-create every moment of the two times he had been in the presence of Chadwick Chamberlain. He also didn't notice that Saliyah was watching him.
After a few minutes the Head Auror cleared her throat. "We'd better start. We have a missing person and a very valuable missing object to find. Harry, tell me everything that happened."
He felt Ginny withdraw, leaving his mind clear. He recounted the entire trip, even the parts at Hogwarts and Hogsmeade where Saliyah was present. He did not emphasize his encounter with Chamberlain inside the Post Office, leaving it to Saliyah to draw her own conclusions. When he described Croaker's invocation of the fog, her lips tightened for a moment. She glanced at Hagrid when he issued a rumbling growl, but she said nothing.
Harry finished and leaned forward. "I'm positive that Percy was Imperiused, and that it happened in Hogsmeade. He definitely was okay before we left Hogwarts, and it was only after we were on the road that he started acting strangely."
"But Harry," Hermione said, "there was no one around to direct him. Or . . ." She hesitated and said almost fearfully. "Or was there?"
"Croaker?" Harry looked at her intently, then at Saliyah.
Hagrid jumped up, almost smashing his head into the ceiling. "There yeh go! I knew that half-brained slug was up to no good! He put that bloody fog out there just to give hisself a chance to make poor Percy skeddadle with the Pensieve. If I—"
"Hagrid!" Saliyah had to bellow to be heard over him. "Thank you! We'll consider that possibility! Please!" She motioned him to calm down, and he dropped to the floor with a thud.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "But I ain't gonna let him pin this on Harry." He glowered at the Head Auror.
"No one is pinning anything on Harry or anyone else," she said. "But we all need to hear everything that happened. Ron?" She nodded to him.
Ron looked at Harry. "We spent two hours at your house in Godric's Hollow. The seal you put up was still there, still intact. Someone had tried to break in, though."
"Who?" Harry asked sharply, sitting forward and staring at Ron. "Could you tell?"
Ron nodded. "Mundungus Fletcher. He left enough magic around to kill a dragon. It was definitely him."
Harry felt both his own and Ginny's dismay. Mundungus was a sticky-fingered scoundrel, no doubt, but the Department had managed to keep him on a leash for the past five years, ever since he had developed that puppy-like attachment to Ginny when she handed him a slice of cake at her seventeenth birthday party. He was an invaluable go-between to the magical underworld. Now, not only did it appear that he had stepped over the line again, but Harry was beginning to wonder if Fletcher, as well as an unknown number of others, was involved in Dark Magic.