"Ginny, I swear I
didn't do anything!" Mariah pleaded for the umpteenth time, but
the girl in front of her felt as if she could murder her on the spot,
not believing a single word Montgomery said. How could she plead
innocence when the evidence they had pointed clearly to her?
"Then how did the Cloak get in there? You did not leave the compartment until now, did you?"
Ginny turned to stare at Harry, who was walking back from the toilet. "How can you possibly know that?"
Harry shrugged. "I saw her in the corridor when I arrived, remember? She was standing between you and Vane. Ginny, may I have a word with you, please? In private?" he added, pointing to the toilet the witch had been occupying previously.
The girl nodded. "Excuse us, Mariah." They entered the toilet and closed the door.
"Muffliato!" Harry pronounced, pointing carefully through the ancient keyhole to the part of the train external to the toilet. He then faced Ginny. "First of all, Mariah didn't do it. Or at least, she's not a very probable candidate."
Ginny was suprised at his certainty. "How can you be so sure? I mean, we found some hairs of hers in the guy's hand after all..." she trailed off, uncertain of what was going on.
Harry shook his head. "Mariah's way too short for that guy, she could not have attacked him that way. Besides, I think he'd not have been able to grab her hair. We're a bit too cramped in here, but we can try to demonstrate that. He looked around at the tiny cubicle. "Here," he said, turning the magical wastebin on its side, "I'll stand on this, so the difference between our heights will be more or less the same as theirs." With her help, he stepped on the bin, facing away from her. "Now attack me."
"Easier said than done," Ginny huffed, pressing herself against his back in an attempt to simulate an attack. "It's a bit awkward like this, you're way up there, even though the bin's thin!"
"Can you take a step back from me and stand there? That's not how he was attacked."
Ginny did so. Even with Harry standing on the bin as far away from her as possible, they were still too close. "I'll press myself against the door," she said, and stood with her back completely against the door. "We're still fairly close, Harry!"
The boy looked at her over his shoulder. "That'll have to do. Can you put a hand or an arm around my neck and another pointing at my back now? Use your wand if you want to." She did so, rather awkwardly due to their height difference. Harry flailed both arms in an attempt to grab her hair, but it proved impossible. Ginny's eye level barely reached his shoulderblades, and he simply could not reach that far down. Harry looked satisfied when he stepped down from the bin, put it in its place and faced Ginny, still pressed against the door to allow for his movement.
"See? Unless the guy was made of rubber, he'd never have been able to grab her hair. Mariah's out."
"Couldn't we have done this outside, with space?" she protested.
"We could, if I didn't have something else to show you. Take a look at this, Ginny," he said, extracting something from his pocket.
Ginny was baffled. "What is it?"
Harry looked somber. "I just found this note in the toilet bowl. Read it." He extended a piece of parchment to her, obviously repaired, but still legible.
Winchester, 7th June
My dear son,
Our Lord's spy forces have notified me of an outrageous occurrence. It seems like a certain Mr. Marius Austin has decided to show his true allegiances. As it turns out, he was spying for the Order of the Phoenix, giving them inside information on our plans.
As you've so wisely learned, there is no place in this world for traitors of any sort. All of them must be banished, and the race purified. As a recent inductee, this will be your first task to show your value to our Master.
According to Snape, Austin is going to board the Hogwarts Express in order to get to London unsuspected. It will be your mission to find and kill him, leaving no trace behind whatsoever. It would be advisable for you to leave his Mark showing; with a stroke of luck, those foolish things that call themselves Aurors will end up chucking a Light supporter in jail.
I enclose the family dagger within this letter. It can be retrieved with the usual incantation. Its properties to a first-time killer are immeasurable, so I must insist you use it. Don't forget to destroy this letter as soon as you have finished reading it.
Ginny was gob-smacked for a moment. "Well, this is what I call a stroke of luck…" She turned to Harry. "Let's send this to Tonks straight away! She'll know what to do!"
Harry, however, bit into his lower lip and didn't answer, averting his eyes from her. Ginny looked at him incredulously.
"Harry! We've got proof that the murderer is Zabini, what are you waiting for? We've got everything we need..."
Harry still looked unsettled when he replied. "Except that this doesn't make sense."
"This doesn't make sense, Ginny! Zabini wouldn't be this careless with such highly incriminating evidence, he just wouldn't. An Incendio would have done the trick, why chuck it in a toilet and risk being caught? For that matter, why would he bring this into the train at all? This note was written two days ago, and the writer stated explicitly that it was to be destroyed immediately after being read. So what is it doing, two days later, waiting to be found near the crime scene? Surely Zabini isn't that imbecilic!"
"Well, how do you explain this then? It's a note, Harry, written by his father and telling him to kill a guy that has conveniently appeared dead here, inside a compartment no one could predict he would occupy! Face it, Zabini forgot about being cunning for once. We've found Marius Austin's murderer."
Harry shook his head vehemently. "Honestly, I don't think so. It's a huge mistake to make. Slytherins never compromise their clan, the prestige of their name, their position in society. There's just too much at stake here. Zabini didn't dispose of this message, someone else did."
Ginny felt extremely sceptical. "Someone who wanted to cover for him? But then there are two people in on this! It can't be, Harry, someone would've noticed."
Harry made a sound of impatience, lifting his hands to his head as he shook it and pulling on his hair. "No, Ginny, not to cover for him, to incriminate him!"
Ginny's eyes widened in disbelief. "Now I know you're talking nonsense. No one with access to this would want to incriminate Zabini, Harry. Snakes take care of their own. Parkinson and Goyle are the only Slytherins in this carriage, and they and Blaise Zabini certainly seem very cosy!"
Harry sighed and slid down the wall until he was sitting down on the toilet floor, his legs propped up against the other side of the cubicle in an uncomfortable position. "Ginny, let's think about this, all right? Have you ever read a letter written by Giles Zabini?"
The girl frowned. "Apart from this one, no. Why?"
He looked up at her. "Then why are you so sure it was written by him?"
Ginny looked at him doubtfully. "You mean someone else killed Austin, then wrote this and planted it in the toilet for us to find? Why would anyone do something like that? For that matter, how could they know the victim's name or that he would be on the train?"
Harry shrugged nonchalantly. "They didn't?"
She rolled her eyes before staring down at him. "Harry, I'm serious here!"
"Me too!" he huffed from the floor. "Don't you think the note sounds suspicious? I mean, it's way too explicit, for one. Surely, if Zabini's father really wanted Marius Austin dead, he would have been a bit more subtle in case the letter was intercepted?"
"Well, yeah, but that doesn't mean the letter's fake, just that Zabini's father is as dumb as he is!" Ginny pleaded irrationally, punching the wall of the toilet for effect and looking exasperatedly at Harry, who gave her a rather cynical look and shook his head.
"Look, I know Slytherin isn't made of fluffy white rabbits, but you're being extreme about this, Ginny. This letter is way too verbose for something urgent and discreet, and the only other person with connections to the Death Eatlers it mentions is Snape, of all people, and everyone now knows he was a spy for the Dark till he... anyway, the point is, whoever wrote this didn't know what they were doing, did they? It sounds a lot like an attempt to make Zabini seem guilty. I'd bet anything Zabini didn't know Marius was on the train, that he didn't even know the man was a traitor!"
Ginny looked triumphant. "There you have it, Harry! Zabini kept the letter and planted it in the toilet in case the body was found before the journey ended! Or he may even have forged it himself!"
"Who would forge evidence that pointed, even remotely, towards themselves?" Harry scoffed. "Surely he wouldn't take the risk. No, this was someone else. Do you know of someone that has something against the Zabinis?"
Ginny thought for a moment and sat on the toilet seat after pulling the lid down. "You sure?"
"Ginny, I'm almost sure this is someone with a grudge and not only against the son, but the father too. Please think, is there someone who could wish them harm, I don't know, some rival clan, anyone?"
Ginny pressed her lips close together. "Well, there might be someone, yes..."
Harry narrowed his eyes. "I sense a 'but' coming..."
"We've already eliminated her, that's what. Giles Zabini was suspected of collaborating with Greyback on three crimes, including the Death Eater raid on the Montgomery family home, remember? He was acquitted by the Wizengamot."
Harry made a face that betrayed his surprise. "What? How come I never heard anything about that?"
That surprised Ginny. "Professor Dumbledore didn't tell you? Or the Order? That's weird, dad... all right, never mind that now," she hurried to add, seeing how Harry's expression had fallen considerably at the mention of the headmaster. "The Ministry hushed it all up, with the Zabini name being as influential as it is and all that. Couldn't have such a scandal connected to that family, now could we? I mean, no one has proof of what happened Mrs. Zabini's previous husbands, even though we all have a pretty damn good idea. But this case would possibly be more outrageous than all those put together – there would be proof the family was directly connected to a vicious murder aboard a train full of school children. People would want to have both theirs and the Aurors' heads for endangering their precious offspring!"
Harry shook his head incredulously, apparently figuring the rest out for himself without further prompt from her. "Of course not. Especially when Greyback's name was also connected to those crimes. It would drag their name through the mud in some circles even if it weren't true – they might be influential, but there are much bigger bullies in the playground, aren't there? It's amazing, you know - whenever I think these guys couldn't get any more corrupt, they always manage to find a way to prove me wrong."
Ginny agreed wholeheartedly, but she knew she did not need to put it into words. Harry certainly wouldn't expect any less of her.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Harry asked suddenly.
"That depends on what you're thinking," she replied, confused.
"Mariah Montgomery. She could have murdered Austin in an attempt to incriminate Zabini!"
Ginny twisted her nose in disagreement. "Absolutely not! We've proved he couldn't have grabbed her hair himself, and she wouldn't have planted her own hairs in his hand. You said it yourself, Harry, no one would choose to incriminate themselves, how foolish would that be?"
Harry bit his lip. "OK, so let's get some things straight. First of all, the person we're looking for is definitely in this carriage. They have inside information from the Ministry, probably from a family member or close friend, since they were trusted with confidential information about the Zabinis. They are probably at OWL level at the very least, though I'd bet they are in their sixth or seventh year. They had to be among the first ones to be let into the carriage, otherwise the others would have noticed them passing by, since the entrance is at the back of the carriage. And they have something against the Zabini family. Possibly the Montgomery family too, since Mariah's hair was planted in Marius Austin's hand. Essentially, we're looking for someone who incriminated Mariah and, knowing of the enmity between the Montgomery family and the Zabinis, faked her incrimination of Blaise. Oh, and whoever it is isn't a dwarf. So..." He finally paused, looking at his companion. "Where does that lead us?"
Harry had just described a person, though Ginny had absolutely no clue who it might be. They had to find out who were the people connected to the Ministry first. "Hey, Harry, where did you put the other copy of the list we sent Tonks?"
The boy rummaged in his pockets for a moment before producing a very crumpled piece of parchment. "Found it!" he exclaimed before handing it over to her.
Ginny's annoyance must have shown on her face, judging from Harry's blush. "Well... it's still legible, isn't it?" he offered coyly.
Ginny bit her lip and didn't answer, focusing instead on the list she was holding. "People with connections to the Ministry..." she muttered. "Are you going to help or what?" she snapped at him, spying the guilty grin that spread across his face from the corner of her eye.
Harry would not admit it even to himself, but for a moment there, when Ginny had proved so knowledgeable about the Montgomery case, he had suspected there was something she was not telling him about the murder. However, those worries were quickly dispelled when he realised Ginny had been one of the last to come into the train, which meant that, had she been the murderer, she would have run a higher risk of being seen than if she had been one of the first to enter.
That particular thought filled him with relief. He didn't know what he would have done if he had trusted Ginny just to find out she was the one he was looking for in the first place.
Sighing, he focused on the task at hand. The trouble was, he knew next to nothing about half the people on that list, so he would be hard-pressed to find out whether or not they had connections to the Ministry.
"I'm sure about the Batesons, their father works in the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad, but the others..." Ginny shrugged.
Harry pointed out another name. "Marietta Edgecombe. Her mother is part of the Department of Magical Transportation, remember?" he stated bitterly.
"That bitch!" Ginny spat, hugging her knees to her chest so her feet were also resting on the lid.
"I don't know about anyone else," said Harry, dismayed.
"Yeah, me neither," Ginny said with a puzzled look on her face.
Harry huffed exasperatedly. "Well, there must be someone else. None of these people had a motive to kill Marius Austin. Perhaps they told someone else, who in turn told someone else – you know how gossip spreads fast in Hogwarts." He scowled.
Ginny bit her lower lip. "But that leaves us with nothing again!"
Harry buried his hands in the untamable mane that was his hair, resting his elbows on his knees. "We must focus on what we know. There's no escape."
His companion looked at him from her seat. "I thought we were doing that."
The boy shook his head. "Those were suppositions, not facts." He fell silent for a moment, trying to remember the crime scene. Something popped into his mind. "Gin, did you see anything on the seats? Had they been sat on, for example?"
Ginny shook her head. "No, nothing. I noticed that while you were inspecting the body. There's blood on them, sure, but nothing else had touched them, that much was clear."
"Not even feet?"
"Not even feet." She reassured him. "If the killer had stood on them, they would have left a mark and then tried to flatten the whole thing, wouldn't they? And you know how old these seats are, it would have been impossible to do that and leave everything exactly as it was. I wonder who sets those things right every year…"
Harry made a face. "Forget it, Ginny. Whoever it was did not stand on the seats and then flatten them – they would have spread the blood on the seats, even if they had done it with magic. There was just too much of it, and it was too fresh."
Ginny shot him an inquisitive look. "Well, nothing new there, right?"
Harry bit the inside of his cheek and disentangled his hands from his hair. "It's just… Marius Austin wasn't a tall man – even I'm taller than him!"
"Barely," Ginny muttered, catching the toilet paper roll he threw at her in defence of his manly honour.
"As I was saying," he proceeded, ignoring Ginny's giggles, "whoever killed him has to be taller than I am, right? Otherwise the wound would be more horizontal, not at a downwards angle!"
Ginny consulted the list. "Well, that pretty much leaves the boys, I'm afraid. Zabini, Justin, McLaggen and Dean." She flashed him a triumphant look. "See? Zabini's name keeps popping up!"
Harry frowned. "Give me that, will you?" Ginny handed him the list. "You forgot a few names, Ginny. Michael Corner, Leanne, Edgecombe, Goyle...?"
Ginny waved her hand dismissively. "You, Michael, Edgecombe and Leanne are almost the same height. There wouldn't have been that big a difference to justify the angle of the stab wound."
Harry's eyebrows shot up. "Michael's much taller than me!"
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Not anymore, I'm afraid. You had a bit of a growth spurt this year. Trust me, I know. I spent seventy-five percent of my time with my eyes glued on you."
For a moment, Harry thought about teasing her and asking about the other twenty-five percent, but he managed to restrain himself. The way things were going, his resolution to stay away from Ginny romantically wouldn't last the day. "All right, so I'll take your word for it. But what about Goyle? He's tall, bulky, and ruthless."
Ginny shook her head again. "Honestly Harry, whoever did this had enough sense to cover their tracks. Goyle can't tell his mouth from his arse, remember?"
Harry was forced to concede defeat, albeit grudgingly. "So we've got Dean, Justin, McLaggen and Zabini. Now what? It could have been any of them."
Ginny looked stunned. "You can't possibly think either Dean or Justin had anything to do with this, Harry! We know them, they'd never kill anyone!"
Harry looked up at her. "Wouldn't they if they thought there was a Death Eater on the train, ready to strike? I don't know, Ginny. I just know one thing: it wasn't McLaggen. The guy is all talk, he'd never have the nerve to kill anyone in spite of all that muscle. And I still think Zabini, for all his faults, is innocent."
Ginny made an irritated clicking noise with her tongue and didn't respond.
"Gin, that note was written after my conversation with the witch, of that I'm sure. We'd both been in here before, we'd both flushed the toilet. There was nothing there back then. Then I talked to the witch, and forgot to put up silencing charms. Someone must have heard us, hence the mention of Marius Austin's name in the letter Zabini's father supposedly wrote him. So my best guess is that the piece of parchment was planted in this toilet while we were inside that compartment. We'll have to ask around to know who left their compartments recently. Unless you saw anyone in the corridor...?"
Ginny looked pensive. "No, I didn't see anyone... AH!"
The train had lurched violently once again, sending Harry sidewards against the base of the toilet and causing him to almost hit his head. Ginny wasn't so lucky. Her back collided with the water tank and her head bent backwards at a dangerous angle, hitting the back wall of the stall.
Harry's furious swearing was drowned by a scream coming from one of the compartments outside. Instinctively, he shot to his feet as quickly as he could, a task made difficult because of Ginny's legs, and hurried to open the door. There was a big commotion, apparently originating in the back left compartment. Harry turned to Ginny, who was massaging her head and neck and seemingly trying hard not to cry. "Will you be all right?"
"Yeah, yeah, go on, I'll be right behind you..."
Sending her one last concerned look, Harry darted out of the stall.
"It's there!" cried little Anne Clearwater, hugging her legs against her chest, feet on the seat, and pointing shakily to the space under the row of seats opposite her. Harry crouched low and peered under the seat she had pointed at. What he saw was another piece of the puzzle. Only that piece did not seem to fit.
Under the seat was a bloodied silver letter opener.
"Has anyone got a clean handkerchief...?" he asked, remembering his own was already stained with blood. He didn't want to risk mixing samples, especially when he was not sure they had even come from the same donor.
McLaggen handed him a dark blue handkerchief with a C embroidered in what looked like gold. He looked more smug than ever, though only Merlin knew why.
"Do any of you recognise this?" Harry asked the students surrounding him, who all shook their heads. Looking at them, Harry had to admit that none of them were the type of person who carried a letter opener with them at all times, and certainly not one as fine and delicately ornated as that one. It seemed a very feminine thing to possess, but there were certainly no girls tall enough to fit with what they knew of the murderer.
"Are you sure? Has it been stolen from one of you, perhaps? You can tell me, I'm not going to jump to conclusions."
Once again, the answer all of them gave was negative and, looking at their faces, Harry couldn't tell if any of them was lying; they all seemed sincere, each in their own way.
"All right. And did any of you leave this compartment? I mean, after the body was discovered but before the letter opener got in the compartment?" Another negative answer from all of them.
"Did you see anyone leave one of the other compartments?"
The two Bateson children, Katie's friend Leanne and her younger brother Liam, looked pensive for just a moment before they both shook their heads almost simultaneously. Cormac McLaggen was evidently racking his brains in an attempt to give Harry something useful, just so that he would be effectively taking part in thet murder investigation, but Harry could tell he had nothing to give him. Anne was still looking at the blood-covered object in Harry's hand, as if she feared it would come alive and attack her. Justin Finch-Fletchley just shook his head, an apologetic look on his face. Meanwhile, Ginny entered the compartment silently, still rubbing her head.
"There was a girl... younger than us, don't know her name," said Morag MacDougal, a Ravenclaw fifth-year, suddenly. Harry remembered that they had come to Hogwarts in the same year, but Morag, a Muggle-born, had been withdrawn a month later by his parents due to a grave illness. He had repeated his first year at the request of his parents, since the teachers had offered to give him some extra lessons so he wouldn't fall behind. Morag didn't seem very upset back then, though, so everyone had eventually stopped talking about him and accepted his situation. "I think she is in the same compartment as my cousin Natalie," he offered.
Harry turned to Ginny. "Ginny, do you have the map with you?"
The girl gave him a disgruntled look. "Yeah, because I usually just leave everything lying around, don't I? Anyway, that's my compartment. What did she look like, Morag?"
The boy frowned. "Erm... shiny black hair, I think. Makeup. About this tall." And he placed his hand in line with his shoulder.
Ginny frowned. "Wait, that's Romilda! Are you sure?" she asked Morag.
"Well," he answered, "I'm not sure about the makeup. But the rest, yeah, I'm pretty sure."
"But they're in the compartment directly in front of the victim's, how did you see her?" Harry asked.
Morag pointed calmly to one of the two seats next to the door. "That's my seat. You may sit, if you wish. I like corners, they allow me to rest my head on the wall." Harry sat and assumed the position. From there, Morag could indeed see not only the compartment he had said the girl had exited but also a fair bit of the corridor. He looked at the other occupants of the compartment inquisitively. All of them nodded their heads, confirming the story.
Harry looked at Ginny, confused. That didn't make sense at all. Thanking Morag and the others, they exited the compartment and slid the door completely shut in order to calm Anne, who was terrified another bloodied object would come through any opening they left.
Once in the corridor, Harry looked at Ginny, who just nodded. Together, they strode to her compartment and slid the door open. It became immediately apparent that a Silencing charm had just been dispelled. Michael Corner and Romilda Vane were in the middle of a shouting match, apparently over Ginny, and were throwing hot wand sparks at each other. Zabini sat comfortably in his place, seemingly highly amused by the argument, while a frightened Natalie had climbed into Mariah Montgomery's lap, who in turn had erected a shield charm around them and was awkwardly trying to soothe her.
Ginny pushed past Harry with a yell. "That's ENOUGH!" Corner and Vane fell silent as if someone had simultaneously slapped them in the face. "Michael, thanks, but I know how to defend myself. Vane, honey, the only whore here is you. Harry," the boy looked at her in alarm, "do the honours."
Ignoring Zabini's impression of a salivating dog, Harry took a step to join Ginny. "Guys, did any of you leave this compartment after I was here?" They all shook their heads at once, but then everyone turned to stare at Romilda, who looked like a deer caught in the headlight.
"So...?" Harry verbally nudged her.
"Yeah, I went to the toilet, Harry. You know... to reapply my makeup." Romilda shot Ginny a dirty look.
Harry narrowed his eyes. "Really? Come here, please." Romilda's expression turned extremely smug, and she walked the few steps that separated them with a ridiculous sway to her hips that sent Zabini into hysterics, making her scowl at him before she stopped in front of Harry, placing her hands on the front of his shirt. "Yes?" she asked, turning her head to him with a wide grin.
Harry pushed her hands away as gently as he could and took Giles Zabini's supposed letter, placing it in front of her eyes. "So you want me to believe that you've never seen this letter in your life?" he asked.
Roimilda didn't answer immediately, but a telltale redness spread through her cheeks as she faced the parchment. Finally seeming to find her voice, she said. "Of course I've never seen it, do you think I know what Death Eaters get up to?! I'm very much on your side, Harry!" she said, trying not to sound shrill, and failing.
"Don't make things harder on yourself, Romilda. I know you wrote this," Harry stated, ignoring Ginny and Blaise Zabini's expressions of surprise and ill-disguised curiosity, respectively.
Before his eyes, Romilda's posture betrayed defeat. "Yes, I did. But Harry, I was only trying to help!"
Harry was sure his incredulity must be evident in his face. "Help? Romilda, you forged evidence against another person! How do you think that helps?!"
"But can't you see, Harry? He's the only one who could possibly have done it!" Romilda's eyes were practically bulging out of their sockets as she pointed a resolute finger in Zabini's direction. Zabini's eyebrows shot up past his hairline.
"Is that a compliment, Vane?" he asked caustically.
Romilda's flush turned, if possible, even less pretty. "Well, there are only three Slytherins in this carriage. Goyle's got no brains, Parkinson is only talented in bed, so that leaves you, doesn't it?"
"Why does it have to be a Slytherin, Vane?" retorted Zabini with a scowl. "And while I'll agree that Goyle has yet to learn to string two syllables together and Pansy finds it quite difficult to restrain herself, I should point out that not only intelligent people are killers. In fact, some of them are quite stupid, which I guess leaves you in quite an uncomfortable position, doesn't it, Vane?"
"People," admonished Harry, "do we need to send you back to kindergarten?" And turning to Romilda, "I hope you realise the Aurors will have to talk to you. What you did was quite grave, I hope you're aware of that." He then stepped back to face the rest of them, leaving a teary-eyed Romilda Vane to sink back into her seat, looking as if Christmas had been cancelled.
"Now that we cleared that up... who put my Invisibility Cloak inside Mariah's trunk?" Harry asked. Silence fell in the compartment, save for Romilda's now full-blown sobs and Mariah's whispers of comfort to the wide-eyed second-year on her lap. As Harry watched, Natalie slid back to her original seat besides Mariah, looking around the compartment to see if someone confessed to moving the Cloak from Romilda's trunk.
Harry sighed. "Look, guys, if you don't tell me, I'll tell the Aurors and they'll get it out of you anyway. So what's it going to be, me or Veritaserum?"
Again, silence. Harry looked at their faces one by one. Natalie had an air of innocent curiosity about her, and there was nothing she could gain by framing Mariah. Mariah certainly wouldn't be so stupid as to try and frame herself, specially given the hairs someone had placed in the hand of the victim. No, she wouldn't run that risk. So who? It hadn't been Corner – he, too, was looking around curiously, not a trace of guilt in his face, and Harry knew him well enough to know he was not a good actor. Although, he thought jealously, to be fair, most of that knowledge stemmed from what Ginny had told him. Well, she would know, wouldn't she?
Harry woke up from his semi-reverie to feel Ginny discreetly elbowing him. Looking at her inquisitively, he saw her looking expressively in Zabini's direction. Glancing at him, Harry noticed his defiant expression, the unwavering glance focused only on him, the little cynical half-smile on his lips.
"Clan rivalries, Zabini? I thought you wouldn't want your name involved in such a petty business. You know, the Aurors are aware I'm trying to figure this whole thing out in here. I'm sure they won't let anyone out of this carriage without interrogating them first, even if they have to use Veritaserum." Harry's voice lowered more and more with each word, until it was barely more than a whisper. "Make no mistake, I know it was you who planted the evidence against Mariah. I'll tell the Aurors and you'll have to confess to it anyway. Now, what do you think, Zabini?"
"I think you set way too much store by your own thoughts, Potter." Zabini sneered. "Be careful, that inflated ego will be the death of you one of these days."
Although he was boiling with anger inside, Harry tried to master his features to show a cold expression. "We'll see, won't we?" he retorted with fake sweetness. Turning back to face the others, he then asked, "Did any of you see anyone go into that compartment, by the way?"
Romilda immediately nodded her head. "Him!" And she again pointed at Zabini, who scoffed.
"And when was that, crybaby Vane?" he spat.
The venomous look Romilda shot Ginny spoke for itself, so Harry looked intently at Zabini.
"Well, the hairs didn't get there by themselves, did they?" he said maliciously, but it was Harry who he was staring at, not Romilda. Harry suddenly knew what the Slytherin was doing: he was admitting to a crime for fear of being accused of a much more serious one. Murder. One Harry was increasingly more convinced he had not committed.
"Anyone else?" Romilda looked scandalised at being so readily dismissed while the others all shook their heads.
From his side, Ginny spoke for the first time since she had ended Corner and Vane's argument. "Which one of you entered the train first?" she asked, placing a calming hand on Harry's arm.
They all looked at each other, probably trying to remember who had and hadn't been there when they had arrived. Except for one.
"I was the first one to enter this compartment," Michael Corner said promptly.
Ginny looked directly at him, smiling, and for a moment Harry just wanted to forget everything about their investigation and punch the guy in the mouth. "Did you see anyone in the train back then?" she asked him.
Michael remained silent for a moment. "Well... there was Marietta. She was coming from the toilet when I was about to enter the compartment. Didn't notice me, I think."
Harry and Ginny looked at each other, perplexed. "And did you notice something out of place about her? Anything at all?" Harry enquired.
Michael scratched the back of his head and Harry couldn't help but wonder savagely if he had washed it in the last year – surely those stupid spiky effects couldn't be caused only by hair gel? "Uhm... there was something, yeah. She was barefoot." He said, to their bemusement. "Her shoes were in her hand, couldn't get a good view of them. Seemed high-heeled, though."
Harry's eyes widened in surprise. If those high heels truly existed, they could change everything. He exchanged an excited look with Ginny and, without even thanking anyone, he exited the compartment, the redhead hot on his heels.