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23 December 2013 @ 09:18 pm
Fic: The Strong Box for chthonya  
Title: The Strong Box
Author: snorkackcatcher
Written for: chthonya
Rating: PG-13
Length: 4150
Characters: Harry, Ron, Proudfoot, a few others
Summary: Harry didn’t know quite what to expect from his first raid as a novice Auror, but all they found was a chess game and a box they couldn’t open.



Harry didn’t know quite what to expect from his first raid as a novice Auror. Even so, ‘anticlimax’ wasn’t really the result he had in mind.

*****

“Brawton! What happened? Where’s Knapman?”

“Er, he got away, sir …”

How? We had him surrounded! Khan, did you balls up the Anti-Disapparation Jinx?”

“No sir! He had a Portkey.”

“MERLIN’S ARSE!”

Harry maintained a tactful silence as the leader of their little group, Edmund Proudfoot, continued to express his displeasure with a level of eloquent profanity that even Ron would have been hard pressed to match. He was quite surprised that he’d managed to avoid being the target of criticism himself.

“Potter! I thought you were supposed to be quick on the draw? Wasn’t this one Dark enough to be worth the effort?”

Or then again, maybe not. Harry arranged his face into a neutral expression. “Sorry, sir. He had just enough of a head start.”

“We had to get into position before going in, Ed,” said Brawton placatingly. “He could have been lying in wait for us behind the door.”

“Bah.” Proudfoot scowled at them. “Another wasted trip, then.”

“Not if we find his records, it isn’t,” argued Khan. “He wouldn’t have had time to do anything special to hide them – and he definitely wasn’t carrying anything but the slipper when he went.”

“Well, at least that’s something. You’re with me, we’ll check upstairs. Brawton, Potter, you search down here.” Proudfoot stormed up the stairs; Khan winced briefly and followed him.

Alphonse Knapman had been reported to them as a facilitator of trade in magical artefacts, with many contacts among the traders of Knockturn Alley and other persons with a strong preference for discretion in their business dealings. In other words, he was a high-class fence, albeit one who rarely kept goods in his own cottage in Godric’s Hollow, preferring to simply match a buyer with a seller and then take a cut. He was reputed to have kept meticulous records as a form of insurance – a practice that had probably kept him from receiving any Death Eater attention during the war, except in the role of clients for his services.

The Auror Office considered that this list would provide a very useful reference to former Dark wizards and other suspicious characters, but without Knapman in custody to question, it was going to be a lot harder to find it. Harry could easily understand why Proudfoot was so exasperated, although he exchanged sympathetic looks with the much older Auror who was left downstairs. “He’ll calm down in a bit,” said Brawton. “Can’t have been easy for him last year. Wasn’t for any of us.”

“No kidding,” muttered Harry, then wished he hadn’t as her face reddened.

“Oh. Right. Er, I’ll start in the kitchen, you have a look round the lounge.”

Harry began to work through the room in the way he’d been taught, looking for objects or places that had no reason to be magical but showed suspiciously strong traces of enchantment. Unfortunately, the only things in the room that registered were routine items like the fireplace, a chessboard, and a collection of photographs, now full of people making offensive gestures at him. “Is there any way to track the Portkey?” he called.

Brawton stuck her head around the door and snorted. “With a bit of effort, yes, but it won’t tell us anything. Soon as he arrived he’ll have Disapparated off somewhere, he’ll be long gone.”

“Oh. Fair point.”

It had seemed a pretty good plan at the time. The residents of the little group of wizarding houses where Knapman lived had petitioned the Ministry for an official Apparition point out of sight of Muggle eyes some time back – but (conveniently for the Aurors) it was out of sight of Knapman’s cottage as well. Harry’s team had arrived there unannounced in what passed for plain clothes among wizards, cast the usual Anti-Disapparation and Anti-Floo Jinxes, and then crashed through the doors of the cottage, but their target had not attempted to fight. Instead, he had simply ducked back into the lounge. The Aurors, following with more caution, had arrived to see him clutching an old slipper, and then suffered the frustration of seeing it glow blue and spin him away.

Harry glanced at the chessboard. It was in an alcove, set up for the kind of remote correspondence game he’d seen Ron playing often enough, with each player having a Protean-charmed sheet of parchment to write their moves on (together with any comments about gambits, threats, and zug … whatever-it-wases they felt inclined to add in order to educate, cow or simply annoy the other player). Knapman appeared to have been interrupted just as he was about to win, which Harry felt was at least a slight consolation. “Jill? Wonder who would be on the other end of this game?”

Brawton came in and took in the situation with a glance. “Now that would be nice to know. Might be as how they could give us an idea where he is now. Don’t know if they can track that though.” She took a small preserving box from her pocket and slipped the parchment into it. “Don’t want them setting fire to the other half, do I?”

Harry shook his head. As Brawton moved away, he looked more closely at the board, and tentatively pushed a white pawn forward to the last row with his wand. It rolled its eyes at him.

You took your time working it out, didn’t you? Queen, I suppose?”

“Naturally,” replied Harry with a grin.

“Hang on then while I put the old crown on and get into drag.” Harry watched as the pawn transformed; the grin was wiped from his face when it added, “Course, a proper pure-blood wizard would have seen that straight away.”

Harry made a rude gesture and moved away. Brawton called from the kitchen. “Hey, Harry, bit of magic under the floor here … Edmund!”

Proudfoot clattered down the stairs, taking in the situation immediately and gesturing for the others to step back. He Vanished the lino; this revealed nothing but floorboards, but it didn’t seem to worry him. After a few moments’ thought he began to use a series of counter-charms, most of which Harry hadn’t been taught yet. Eventually, after removing three separate concealment spells, an underfloor compartment sprang open; inside it was a simple metal strongbox which looked entirely unenchanted, although Harry wouldn’t have bet more than a couple of Knuts on that.

“Now what, sir?” he asked.

“We send for the specialist cursebreaker team, Potter, just to be on the safe side. Arrogant buggers, but they know their job – unless you think you can do it already?”

Harry shook his head, wondering when Proudfoot was going to give this a rest. He’d been irritated from the start at the fact that Harry had been accepted as an Auror without ‘paying his dues’ in the normal way, but given the poor state of the Auror Office after the war there hadn’t really been much choice. A reputation as a hero was all very well, but the next few years were going to be one long course of learning.

“Right. Everybody start looking for the key. We won’t find it because it’ll be on Knapman’s keyring, but we’d better check anyway. Potter, go and call in the curseboys and girls.”

Harry was only half paying attention as he stepped outside, but raised his wand immediately at the sound of someone approaching. As the new arrival turned the corner and saw who was waiting for him, his face took on an expression of almost comical horror; he grabbed for his wand, but Harry had been expecting that. “Expelliarmus!”

The other Aurors rushed out. “What the hell’s going on, Potter? Who’s this?” yelled Proudfoot.

“I’m not sure, but he doesn’t seem pleased to see us.”

That was an understatement, the man’s shoulders had sagged and he looked scared stiff. Proudfoot approached him with a sneer. “Well, well, you look like a man with something to tell us, chum. You can do it back at the office.”

*****

Proudfoot informed them at the next team meeting that there had turned out to be no less than eleven different assorted jinxes, hexes and curses on the box, not all of which had been obvious.

“Is that why Peregrine Cunningham has his legs on backwards now?” asked Khan.

“It’ll wear off. Maybe not being able to see where he’s putting his feet will teach him to be more careful in future.”

“’Constant vigilance’?” said Harry with a grin.

“What? Oh yeah, you knew old Moody, didn’t you? Good man in his day, but he went doolally by the end.”

Harry scowled, but fortunately Proudfoot had turned to pick up a piece of parchment and didn’t see him. “We’re asking around on this chess game thing, by the way, but I don’t suppose it’ll get us anywhere. Certainly no-one’s written on it yet to ask where the next move is!”

“If they can get the box open, it won’t matter anyway,” Khan pointed out. “What’s the progress on that, sir?”

“They’re evaluating the nature of the artefact in order to determine the correct approach to opening it,” replied Proudfoot. “Or in case you’re not familiar with cursebreaker-speak, Wasim, that means they’re tried all the obvious things and got nowhere. I suppose you can’t blame Knapman for being picky about who looks in his precious box – if the word from our informants is right, he must have been getting writer’s cramp scribbling the details of new dodgy deals ten times a day. Of course, with our luck it might turn out to contain nothing but his prized set of signed robes from the Tutshill Tornadoes, but that’s the chance you take.”

Brawton raised a hand. “What about the bloke who turned up at the cottage? Has he given us anything?”

“Hah! He’s not talking. I’m sure you’re all astounded to hear that. However, since he was carrying half a dozen rare spellbooks that went missing from Flourish and Blotts a few weeks back, I think it’s pretty clear what he was there for. OK, you lot, back to work.”

As the others moved away, Harry inspected the parchment more closely, but it didn’t suggest anything in particular to him – just the usual collection of moves and other chess jargon. He thought for a moment, then pointed his wand at it and muttered “Geminio,” putting the spare copy in his pocket.

*****

“The handwriting?” Ron studied it closely, then shrugged. “Sorry mate, not one I know.”

Harry swore under his breath. “Right. Worth a try, though.” There was always the chance that Ron might have been able to recognise the writing; he played a lot of correspondence games of chess, in between helping George get the shop back in order.

“Is this for a live case, then?” Ron tried to make the inquiry sound casual, but Harry knew him too well to fall for that.

“Yeah. The bloke we were after got away, but when we arrived he was playing this game – just about to queen a pawn and win.”

“At least you messed something up for him, then. No idea where he is?”

“No. It might not matter, but that’s why we’d like to find the other player, in case it helps. There’s this box of records we haven’t been able to get into yet, so if …”

“How come?”

Harry hesitated; then lowered his voice and explained what was happening on the case – or rather, not happening. After all, it was tacitly understood that Ron would join the Auror Office as soon as his brother was back on his feet again; anything Harry could do to get him involved had to be a good thing.

*****

The reason nothing was happening on the Knapman case was because even after the curses had been removed, the box itself proved obdurate.

The Aurors hadn’t really expected simple unlocking spells to work, so it was no great surprise when they didn’t, but when a range of successively more powerful counter-spells made no impression either they began to worry. It got worse. Esoteric techniques also produced a distressing lack of results; a Transfigured key in the shape of the lock simply refused to turn however much physical or magical strength was applied to it, and an attempt to invert the inside and outside of the box failed miserably, since as far as anyone could judge it left it looking exactly the same. Soon everyone in the office was having a go, but nothing they tried worked.

Those favouring simple methods attempted to blast the box open in a variety of ingeniously violent ways, but the only result was to send their colleagues diving for cover as curses ricocheted across the office. Kingsley Shacklebolt was eventually forced to put a stop to this with a Ministerial directive, after an unfortunate incident in which the robes of the Austrian Minister were set on fire during a surprise official visit.

Other Aurors took more subtle approaches, for example reasoning that perhaps the box was charmed to open upon physical contact from its owner. Unfortunately, when someone tried this using a combination of an extremely powerful Confundus Charm and Polyjuice Potion made with Knapman’s hair, he got nowhere, although Harry had to give him credit for going above and beyond the call of duty (the hairs had been recovered from the shower).

Harry himself, wondering if the sneers from the chess set held a clue to Knapman’s approach, tried hissing at the box in Parseltongue (at least, as best he could now remember it), but the thing remained stubbornly closed. In desperation they even tried asking the box very nicely in English if it would be so kind as to open. Its silent failure to do so was an eloquent reply.

There were still no clues to the location of Knapman himself, although evidence against him continued to accumulate. The book thief had finally admitted the obvious – that he was there by appointment and had expected to encounter only one man for reasons of business, not an unfriendly group of Aurors – but he swore that he had no idea where the fence might be now. He did suggest that Knapman was rumoured to have an equally respectable partner; this was an interesting titbit of underworld gossip, but it didn’t get them any closer to finding either.

*****

“Any joy getting into the strongbox, then?” asked Ron, as Kreacher bustled around them laying out cutlery.

Harry shook his head. “I wish.” He wondered briefly if he really should discuss the case out of the office, but decided not to worry about it. Ron, Ginny, Hermione, and indeed Kreacher all knew how and when to keep secrets, and number twelve Grimmauld Place (a far more pleasant place now after an extensive redecoration, and the removal of the last of the fixtures and fittings that attempted to kill visitors) was as secure as anywhere in the country. He gave them a brief summary of the situation. “We’ve tried everything we can think of,” he concluded, “but we can’t even work out what sort of thing it might respond to, let alone what.”

Reclude Imperatum?” asked Hermione.

Harry gave her a pained look. “That was one of the first things we tried.”

“Oh. Transparency spell?”

“Couldn’t see a thing, sorry.”

“Dagworth’s All-Purpose Dissolving Fluid?”

“Ate through the desk when we spilt some, but not the box.”

“Yes, well, never mind for now, Kreacher’s ready,” said Ginny hastily. Harry gave her a grateful look; Hermione appeared to be taking this as a personal challenge and seemed set to continue throwing out suggestions all night. “We can brainstorm it after dinner. There’s got to be a way to checkmate it.”

As Kreacher served up the soup, Ron said, “That reminds me, Harry. Did you say you tried to queen a pawn in that chess game he was playing? No wonder the set had a go at you. They don’t like being told to make impossible moves, mate.”

Harry blinked. “Course it was possible. I saw the board, remember?”

“Yeah, well I played through the game from the start just I case I recognised Black’s style – I didn’t, as it happens, but whoever it is isn’t much good. They were claiming a threat on the last move, but it wasn’t much of one with White to play up a bishop and … um, yeah, anyway, the pawns. Nothing to promote there, they were all still in the middle ranks.”

“No they weren’t.” Or were they? Harry racked his memory. “The way I remember it, most of the pieces were clustered at one end of the board.” The idea nagged at him. “Kreacher, could you get me Professor Dumbledore’s old Pensieve? It’s up in the loft.”

“At once, Master Harry!”

Hermione looked at him reprovingly, but Harry pretended not to notice. He supposed he could have just Summoned it instead, but far from overworking the aged elf, he was having trouble finding enough jobs for him to do to stop him from moping. Kreacher returned almost immediately, and Harry drew out a small snippet of memory with his wand. “That’s what it looked like.”

Ron’s face went blank as he touched his finger to the memory, and when he removed it he gave Harry a puzzled look. “I see what you mean, mate. White to play can queen and win, black to play can queen but shouldn’t if he wants to win. This is what it should have looked like. Accio chess set!” Ron’s set flew gently down the stairs – Kreacher looked mildly disappointed – and settled on the table. The position was nothing like what Harry had seen. He began to think furiously.

“Harry?” said Hermione after a minute or two. “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”

“That depends. I reckon I need to go and check the records of the Department of Magical Transportation.”

What?

“I’ve got an idea. I need you to sanity-check it for me …”

*****

“All right, Potter, we’re here now. Let’s hear your bright idea.” Proudfoot’s sarcastic tone nonetheless carried a slight edge of hopefulness, as if he really thought Harry might have come up with something worthwhile.

“OK,” said Harry, his mouth slightly dry. The sarcasm would doubtless be back in force if it turned out that he’d brought them back to the cottage for no reason, although he was pretty sure he was right. “We didn’t look that closely at this parchment, but I got a keen chess player to look at it –” the other Aurors snorted, probably knowing exactly who that was “– and he says that the game on the board isn’t the one written on here. The pieces must have reset themselves – Knapman wouldn’t have had time to do it by hand.”

Proudfoot, Brawton, and Khan exchanged thoughtful glances. The latter spoke. “Good one, Harry, we didn’t spot that. You reckon the key’s hidden in the board, then?”

“Yeah,” said Harry, relieved that they were giving him a chance to explain. “The chess set is already magical, so it didn’t show up as out of the ordinary when we were looking for traces. But … I’m not sure it’s the key in there. I think it might be the records themselves.”

“Huh? What about the box?”

“A decoy, eh?” said Proudfoot. He looked as if he wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed or pleased. “Why wouldn’t he go with the more secure option, though?”

“Well, like you said, sir, he’d have been looking stuff up and writing new stuff down all the time,” said Harry, hoping he was right. “He’d need it to be easy to get at, not hidden under the floor with a dozen curses on it.” That had been a sticking point for him too until Ginny had made the connection.

Proudfoot nodded thoughtfully. “I like that.” He grinned suddenly. “That’d mean our cursebreaker colleagues have been chasing wild pixies all this time trying to open a box that isn’t actually a box at all. Makes them look a bit stupid, which can’t be a bad thing. So, we only have to make the right move to get it out? We should have brought your ‘keen chess player’ along.”

“He made a suggestion, sir …”

Harry pointed his wand at Black’s sole remaining pawn and prodded it forward. It struggled against the move. “Can’t you see it’s white to play, you idiot?” It nodded a tiny head at the surrounding alcove, with the chair indeed set at the white end of the board.

“Humour me,” said Harry. The pawn moved forward, grumbling all the time, and when it stepped onto the last square it began to transform. “No, not a queen,” said Harry before it could finish, “change into a knight, please. That’s check, and gains a tempo.” At least, it did according to Ron; it wasn’t a move Harry would have thought of. He followed the instructions he’d been given for a few more turns, and was relieved to see that when the white king was finally checkmated, the board slid back to reveal a sheaf of densely-written sheets of parchment.

Khan and Brawton cheered, and even their boss looked reluctantly impressed. Proudfoot performed a few checks for curses, then lifted the sheets out and swore fluently as he read a few. “It’s in code! Another runaround. Good call, Potter, but we’ll have to give this to the people who think Arithmancy is good clean fun and read rune texts in their leisure time. They’re worse than the cursebreakers.”

Harry took a deep breath. The next bit had seemed perfectly logical when he was talking it over in Grimmauld Place, and his visit to the Department of Magical Transportation had confirmed his suspicions in his own mind at least, but convincing his colleagues was another matter. “What if we can find Knapman and his associate? Once we actually have them in custody, they’ll probably be willing to turn Ministry evidence.”

Proudfoot snorted. “What a brilliant idea, Potter. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, we haven’t got a clue where they are. Unless you know that too, of course?” His attention sharpened as he took in Harry’s expression. “Bloody hell, you think you do, don’t you? Go on then, spill it.”

“Right. Um, Knapman looked like he knew something might be about to happen – he’d positioned himself to have enough time to grab the Portkey – but he didn’t know about it soon enough to take anything with him. So I was wondering if he got the message via the game?” Harry pointed at the parchment. “There are a few chess comments on this, most of which make sense, I’m told, but that “with threat” against Black’s last move doesn’t fit in the context of the real game. So suppose the other person playing saw us arrive, and that was the only quick way to tip Knapman off to be cautious, without leaving anything too obvious written down in case we found it?”

Khan let out a long, low whistle. “Yeah, that could work … Knapman would have to be alone to meet the bloke with the books anyway, so why not have a quick game of chess to fill in the time while he’s waiting? The Portkey takes him anywhere, then he Apparates back to his mate. But that would mean the other person was a local, Harry. And why would they be suspicious of us arriving in the Apparition point? None of us are well known.”

Brawton coughed. “Harry is,” she pointed out. “Been in all the papers about how he’s joined the Aurors. If someone’s looking out of their window, sees him arrive as one of a party – well, guess what’s going on?”

Proudfoot looked at Harry with a curious expression. “You’re going to need to brush up on your Concealment and Disguise, Potter. Not that it matters here, since this is all pure speculation. Got any evidence?”

Harry took another sheet of parchment from his pocket. “Maybe … I requested a copy of the petition the people round here sent the Ministry to ask for an Apparition point? I’m no handwriting expert, but this Bartholomew Aubrey’s handwriting looks exactly like the writing on the chess game to me. His house is right next to the Apparition point on the map, too. What do you reckon?”

The Aurors studied the two parchments. “I reckon we’ve got enough to ask for permission to set up another raid,” said Proudfoot eventually. “This time, we arrive on the outskirts and walk in.” He nodded to Harry as if coming to a decision. “Nice work, Potter. Welcome to the team.”

*****

Harry didn’t know quite what to expect from his second raid as a novice Auror. But this time, everything went according to plan.
 
 
 
#!/usr/bin/girl: McBadassdelphipsmith on December 28th, 2013 10:43 pm (UTC)
Excellent and very clever adventure! Love all the little details -- a collection of photographs, now full of people making offensive gestures at him, "in what passed for plain clothes among wizards" (heh heh, I can only imagine), "a far more pleasant place now after an extensive redecoration, and the removal of the last of the fixtures and fittings that attempted to kill visitors" -- and I laughed out loud at the pawn, “Hang on then while I put the old crown on and get into drag.” Very inventive approaches to opening the box ("a range of successively more powerful counter-spells...") including Hermione's transparency suggestion, but I'm so glad it was Ron who cracked the case in the end :)
snorkackcatchersnorkackcatcher on November 23rd, 2014 07:58 pm (UTC)
Very late reply because I just happened to remember this comm -- just to say thank you very much!