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Villain of the Piece

Part 3  Waiting Games

- Chapter  38 -

 Chapter 38:   The New Potion

30th September to 1st October 1981

It was at breakfast the following morning that his arm began to burn.  Breathing slowly, he sat back, laying the knife and fork softly onto the plate.  Sliding his newspaper towards the edge of the table, he scribbled two words on the corner of a page and tore it off.  Then ignoring Minerva’s frosty stare he walked around Dumbledore’s chair and showed him the scrap of paper, holding his hand cupped and beneath the table top so there was little chance of the message being seen by others.  Dumbledore read the words ‘It’s happening’ and gave Severus a sharp glance.

“Right now?” he asked, his eyes troubled.

“Yes, as we speak” Severus murmured.  “I should not ignore it much longer.”

“Then go now.  Right now” Dumbledore murmured back.  “I will tell Minerva you are indisposed.  She will arrange cover.”

Minerva looked suspicious as he abandoned his half-eaten meal and walked briskly away, stuffing the newspaper into a pocket as he went.  His first call was to his bedroom, where he destroyed the note and the newspaper, and checked his pockets to ensure he had his mask and the potion supplies he habitually carried.  Then he pocked his camera and sprinted to the school gates, wondering what to do next.

You know what to do, he said to himself.  You’ve been told what to do – focus your mind on the Dark Lord and Disapparate.  He will draw you to the destination … This is awful!  What if I don’t like the destination?  What if it’s too far for me to manage?  What if I Splinch?  I’ll look such a fool!  Get a hold of yourself, man – you could do Scotland to London when you were a mere boy.  What are you worrying about – just do it!

Severus didn’t know where he was when he arrived.  The room was as dark as if it was late evening.  Only one candle burned, held by a squat, ugly wizard who smelled of drink and who held his wand threateningly in front of him.  His upper face was masked, the lower part showing a swarthiness that hinted of two-day old beard on skin that looked sweaty.  As for the room, it looked like it might be a storeroom, all Severus could see were boxes and all he could smell was dust.

“You took yer time” the wizard said gruffly.  His wand flicked nervously as he spoke, emitting a golden spark.

“It was necessary to concoct an excuse” Severus sneered.  “I cannot just walk out – I have a position to maintain.  Anyway, who are you?  And I would appreciate it if you would put down that wand!”

“I’m yer host” the masked wizard replied.  “Down ’ere … This way.  Yer don’t need yer mask, but don’t light yer wand! … Watch yer step.”

They descended a flight of filthy wooden stairs that had no handrail, and came to rest on the stone floor of a cellar.  In comparison with the room above the cellar was crowded.  A wand and a blue candle were burning, and Severus could see Bellatrix Lestrange, Alecto Carrow, and Ferdinand Jugson.  Between the two witches and being supported by them, was a wizard kneeling on the floor, his head lolling forward.

“Welcome, Severus!” a cold voice said, and Severus knew that the Dark Lord watched from the shadows.  “See what the girls have brought home?” Voldemort continued.  “Alecto found him, but Bella caught him.  Unfortunately she damaged him.  Like an over-eager, mouse-catching cat, aren’t you, Bella.”

“Are you angry with me, Lord?”

“No, Bella.  Perhaps not this time” Voldemort purred.  “Severus can mend matters for you.  Revive him, Severus.  I assume you have the means.”

Bellatrix caught hold of the injured wizard’s hair and yanked his head back, causing his mouth to fall open.  Severus poured a reviving draught into the parted lips and the wizard spluttered and became half-conscious.  His eyes opened slightly, rolled in his head, and closed again.  He groaned.

“Now, Severus” Voldemort said conversationally, “I hope you have brought quill and parchment as well as that little toy of yours, because this has not been set up just for your amusement.  I want you to try a potion and note the effects.  Ferdinand, give Severus that special potion you obtained.”

“O let me!  Let me!  Please!” Bellatrix implored as Ferdinand made to give a potion bottle to Severus.  “Please, Lord!”

“What a child you are, Bella” Voldemort sneered.  “I’m not sure you deserve any treats.  Does she, Alecto?  She deprived you of your prey … so … what do you think?”  Alecto giggled stupidly, saying nothing, and Voldemort smiled, pretending to give in.  “Very well, just this once” he sighed.  “But feed him just a drop!  I need enough left for Severus to analyse.  Don’t overdo matters, or it will be the last thing you ever do.”

In a nervous silence Ferdinand passed the potion bottle to Bellatrix and she poured half an egg-cupful into the wizard’s mouth.  Then she held out the bottle to Severus with a triumphant sneer.

“All yours, Snape” she said mockingly.  “I get the fun – you get the work.  Poor Sevvy-wevvy.”

She turned her attention back to the slumped wizard, as did they all because he was starting to gasp.

Severus pulled a notepad from a pocket.  “Cork the bottle for me, and give me a little light” he said to Jugson.

Ferdinand Jugson obeyed, holding his lit wand near to the page.

The observation lasted not much more than half an hour.  Severus took a photograph and made copious notes, sniffing the potion bottle before re-stoppering it tightly.  It smelt strongly of stewed Streeler.  “I’ll have to try a bezoar soon” he said, sounding as casual as he could.

“Oh no” Voldemort replied sweetly.  “We are going to take this to the end.  Why do you think we are not masked?”

“But if you let him die he’ll not be able to reply to questions” Severus pointed out, keeping his eyes on his notes and feeling as if he was treading on eggs.

“We don’t need to ask him anything” Voldemort said smoothly.  “All I need now is his corpse.  Alive, he is totally superfluous.”

“Are you sure?” Severus mused.  “Who is he?”

A pain like a tongue of flame licked along the Mark on his arm.  “Manners, Severus” Voldemort said dangerously.  “Do not presume to question my decisions.”

Bellatrix suppressed a smirk but Alecto looked frightened, and they continued in silence broken only by occasional sounds from the injured wizard.  When the man was dead and Severus could glean no more data he was told to owl his findings to Lucius by the end of the following day and that for the present his job was done.

It was over as fast as it had begun.  The unshaven wizard conducted Severus upstairs and told him to Disapparate from the dark storeroom.  Severus took his time, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom.  Still nothing but dusty boxes came into view, but faint sounds reached his ears; there was a street twenty to thirty feet away, he was sure of it.  He could hear voices but no traffic except possibly the rumbling wheels of a cart.

“You’re done ’ere.  Git goin’ ” he was told.

Severus Disapparated, although not very far, trying to aim for the street.  If it’s full of Muggles I’m in trouble, he thought grimly.

It was not full of Muggles, it was Diagon Alley.  He was close to the empty shop above which Nobody’s Perfect had once been based.  Thirty yards down the Alley a toffee-apple seller was putting the break on a cart, its wheels slipping sideways on the cobbles.  Severus smiled a small smile and Disapparated again, heading for the school gates and home.

 

Dumbledore was pacing about his office when Severus knocked.  He was saddened by the news.  As he drank a beaker of very hot, very black coffee Severus described the injured man as best he could.

“No, I do not know him” Dumbledore concluded.  “I do not think he is – was – anyone in the Order, but naturally I’ll check.  When can you have the photograph developed?”

“By the end of today, Headmaster” Severus said.  “Err, will we have to report the murder?  If I do, it will point the finger in my direction.”

“Yes, I know” Dumbledore agreed.  “No, I do not use official channels.  Excuse me just one moment.”  He was gone for five minutes and then returned.  “It is done” he said.  “Have no worries on that score.  Analyse the potion and write up your findings.  For me, and for Voldemort.  Let me have a copy of the photograph as soon as you can.”

“And my classes?”

“Minerva took the first one, and Aurora is covering until after lunch.  But she cannot do more than the first period of the afternoon, so she and Minerva have agreed to split your seventh-year double.  But if you feel able to cut in again…  Perhaps after lunch?  It would save the awkward split, and Aurora is not wholly confident about taking the seventh-years.”

Severus went straight to the dungeons and to his office.  Apart from an occasional murmur no sound came from his classroom, so he dunked the film into developing potion and then began re-writing his notes and analysing.  At twelve minutes before noon a cool female voice floated to him though the closed door to the classroom.

“You can finish up now” he heard Aurora say.  “Leave your answer sheets on your desks.  I will collect them later.  QUIETLY, now!”

The bell sounded and there was a rumbling as the students got up and left.  When Severus entered the room Aurora turned and smiled.

“Note-taking and then a short test” she said.  “Bit of a waste of a double period, but it’s all I can offer.  I’m no potion-maker, I daren’t let them lose with cauldrons.”

“What’s the test?”

With a wave of her wand she summoned the answer sheets and they formed a tidy stack on the desk in front of her.

“That was neat” he added, his eyes narrowing.

“Antidotes!” she said smugly.  “That’s why I let them look things up first, and make notes, because I was sure you’d not have covered this yet.  I thought antidotes on your terrible thirds was appropriate.  It kept them quiet.”

“I’ve a few other things in mind to try on them” he muttered grimly.

“Yes, but no doubt illegal” Aurora chuckled.  “Are you better?  You look orright.”

“Yes, quite recovered” he assured her.  “Thank you for this morning – I’ll be alright from now.  Although I could most definitely do with some lunch now.”

He said it with feeling, suddenly realising that his interrupted breakfast had been a long time ago and he had only had coffee whilst with Dumbledore.

“See you in the Great Hall, then” Aurora said; and suddenly she was gone and he was alone.

As Severus made his way to the Great Hall he realised that he did feel better.  The morning had been one of increasing strain, culminating in a death he had to witness rather than prevent, but he felt in control of himself and able to carry on normally, even to the extent of eating lunch.  It was clear that Dumbledore appreciated how the grim events might have affected him, and Severus did not want to show any signs of weakness – he wanted to look tough, cool, and resourceful, like special agents should.

You said you would do great things with the Dark Lord, he reminded himself – you’ll sail through this, and worse than this if need be.  Besides, who else would provide you with such an unusual potion to play with?

He had no chance of sitting next to Aurora at lunch; she was between Wilbert and Ted Kettleburn again, and Wilbert had as usual left a vacant chair next to Minerva.

“Err, sorry I couldn’t help out this morning, Severus” Wilbert said.  “Minerva said you were under the weather.  I’d ’ve lent a hand if I wasn’t already choc-a-bloc.”

“No matter.  Minerva and Aurora covered for me” Severus said graciously.  He turned and thanked the Deputy Headmistress, and assured her that he required no further aid.  She gave him a small smile.

“So, you’re back in harness?” Wilbert continued.  “I must say you look a bit seedy.”

“Wilbert!”

“Sorry, Minerva, but he does” Wilbert said defensively.  “Might as well be honest.”

“If you mean I look pale, I always look pale” Severus insisted.  “I am unfortunately indisposed at times, but once over these bouts I’m perfectly able to function again.”

“No cure, then.”

“No, Wilbert.  As with the common cold – as with a migraine – there is no permanent cure.  These things will occasionally crop up.  Now, what’s for lunch?  I’m starving.”

It was cauliflower cheese, and salad.  Oh well, he sighed inwardly, can’t win ’em all!  The house-elves must be on an economy drive.

The afternoon lesson passed in a kind of dream.  Severus floated above it, leaving the seventh-years to follow his written instructions, but regrettably he found his mind straying to the events of the morning.  After further work on the photograph and the analysis, and a fine dinner of lamb cutlets with redcurrant and rosemary jus, the Headmaster asked to see him.  When he got to Dumbledore’s office he was not the only visitor; a young wizard of about thirty-something was already seated by the fire.  He stood up to greet Severus.  Dumbledore introduced the visitor as Bill Ogden of the Magical Law Enforcement Squad, and referred to Severus as Mr Black.

“Tell us again, Bill” the Headmaster said wearily.  “Tell us your worst.  And let me get you a drink.”

“No, not for me thanks” Bill said.  “I’ve still got hours till my shift ends.  Okay, the bad news is we drew a blank.  No one at that shop when we arrived.  Scuff marks on the floor, broken glass and a nice sticky mess.  And one interesting box!  But not a shred of evidence in the cellar.  Someone did a thorough clean up down there.”

“I wouldn’t have expected Bellatrix Lestrange to hang around” Severus said ruefully.  “She’s far too fly.”

“The box of bottles was interesting, though” Bill informed them and he pulled a bottle from his pocket; it looked like brown ale.  “This is the hard stuff” he said.  “This is the infamous dark chocolate schnapps.  The sticky patch turned out to be the white.  We think this shop might be a kind of depot.  I reckon they were trying to clear the shop and had to leg it.”

“Is this such a great find?” Severus asked, thinking that illicit alcohol was a far cry from Death Eater torture and murder.

“Oh yes” Bill assured him.  “This is quite dangerous.  Kids are started off on the white.  It’s even given away almost for nothing, slipped to them in pubs and places.  But after their first taste, they start buying.  Can’t help it – they crave it just enough to go searching.  But every time they buy the white they also get a token.  Collect fifty tokens and you get a cut-price bottle of dark.  Once they do that there’s no turning back.”

“So it wasn’t a wasted journey” Dumbledore observed.

“By no means!” Bill assured him.  “This wizard you saw, Mr Black – the one who said he was your host – did he look like this?”

From another pocket he pulled a poor quality photograph.  It showed a wizard in a tavern.  It looked like The Lone Dragon but the wizard was partially in shadow; nothing was distinct.

“Yes, I think that’s him” Severus said cautiously.  “I only saw his mouth and chin.  And, frankly this photograph is not much more help.”

“No.  He’s a way of avoiding cameras” Bill agreed, “Like he can sense them.”  He looked at Dumbledore sharply and added “I take it, it’s okay to name names?”

“I’d be grateful if you would” the Headmaster replied.  “Then if Mr Black hears the name from other sources he will be able to help fit the pieces together.  Like we are doing now.  I think we should share as much as we can.”

“Okay” Bill agreed.  “This handsome geezer is Feodor Carrow.”

“The father of Amycus and Alecto?” Severus asked.

Bill looked blank, but Dumbledore nodded.  “Carrow senior has two children” he explained.  “They are both Death Eaters.”

“But Feodor isn’t?”

“Not as far as I know” Severus said to Bill.  “He might be – as I’ve explained to the Headmaster, I don’t know them all.  Quite possibly only the Dark Lord knows them all.”

“Yes, he might be a Death Eater” Dumbledore said mildly, “Or he might simply be contributing funds to their operations.  Not all of Voldemort’s servants are rich.  They need sources of finance.  The distribution of this evil drink would be a huge help.  Voldemort, as far as I know, has no particular source of income, although he might exist on extortion or blackmail.”

“He seems to rely on the hospitality of his Death Eaters” Severus explained.  “He is housed and fed by them.”

“The Malfoys and the Lestranges could do that” Dumbledore pointed out, “But not families like the Carrows – not on a long-term basis.”

Finally Severus drew out his photograph.  He felt uneasy about doing so.  It was one thing to show it to Dumbledore, but to lay it before a Ministry employee was not what he had bargained for.

“In terms of clarity I didn’t do much better than you” he admitted.  “But you can see all of the man’s face.  Do you know him?”

“No.  Can I take this, Mr Black?”

Severus looked at Dumbledore who nodded and said “Let me have just one more thorough look … No, he isn’t known to me.  You can take it, Bill.  Please be discrete about how you came by it.  The usual rules.”

“Are you going to arrest Jugson?” Severus asked Bill, wondering what ‘the usual rules’ were.  “He was there, and he has a known place of employment.  The Ministry.”

“No.  Can’t” Bill replied.  “We’ve no evidence other than yours.  There’s no other face in this photo but the victim’s, and even if there was it doesn’t tell much of the story.  We can only nab Jugson if we catch him in flagrante.  Unless you want to stand up in court and accuse him.  And then it’s only your word against his – a nice, public slanging match that’d be!  Anyway, I gave my word to Albus that you’re to be kept out of anything like that – that’s the deal we made when we started to work together.  We go a long way back, don’t we, Professor.”

“We do” the Headmaster agreed.  “And – for your benefit, Mr Black – I must explain that I have also worked with Bill’s father and even with his grandfather.  The Ogden-Dumbledore alliance was invaluable in the Grindelwald days.”

Severus nodded attentively.  “I appreciate your discretion” he said, “I’m only sorry that it seems to be hindering your progress.”

“Don’t shed too many tears” Bill insisted.  “It’s quite useful to be able to observe Jugson – he might yield more that way.”  He looked from face to face.  “I think we’re all done, Albus” he said happily.  “My thanks to you both.”

“Are you off now?”

“Yes.”

“I fear I share Mr Black’s, opinion – we haven’t given you much.”

“A photo of the victim” Bill said proudly.  “Good enough for anyone who knows him to recognise him.  And a possible lead to where Feodor Carrow hangs out!  I’m feeling hopeful about that.  I’ve reason to believe he’s linked with one Alun Rosier, and Alun Rosier dabbles in imports.  I’ve got a hunch where this trail leads.  If we can only stop the Dr Hooke that’d be something!  Good night, all!”

He pocketed the photograph and used Floo powder to leave from Dumbledore’s hearth in the anteroom next to the main office.

“Now we will have that nightcap” Dumbledore said, opening the drinks cabinet.  “I’ll summon some coffee, and I’ve got a good cognac in here that Horace gave me last Christmas.  It’s been rather an awful day, one way and another.  I think we need a pick-me-up.”

The coffee was welcome and the Napoleon brandy fiery and bracing.

“I presume Bill Ogden knows my true identity” Severus said, sounding as though he hoped the opposite was true.

“Oh very probably” Dumbledore agreed.  “But Bill will play the game.  Play it as adroitly as ever you and I can.  I’ve grown to trust him absolutely.  Just as I did his father and grandfather.”  He paused to savour the brandy, and then asked “Well, how is the analysis coming along?”

“Pretty well finished” Severus said proudly.  “If you don’t mind I’ll just go and get my notes.”

He returned in less than five minutes, a little out of breath but eager to show his findings.

“I’ll owl this early tomorrow” he said, showing the report to Dumbledore.  “As you see, the substance is a kind of dementation draught, but still very rough around the edges.  It kills quite fast.  And that makes me think something is lacking.”  Deep in thought, he finished his cognac without even noticing.

“You think you could brew better?” Dumbledore suggested.

“Better?  Perhaps” Severus replied wistfully.  “I was wondering what is actually missing – I doubt that this works as desired.  Whoever would want to use this would want to prolong the agony – why else make it a dementation draught?  But I hope I won’t be asked to perfect this.  I’ll be in a fix if I am.”

“You cannot refuse.”

“Exactly.”

“Which means there will be testing … and, therefore, victims.”

“Exactly.”

“Which will not distress you unduly, Severus, because you are a master of clinical detachment.  You will enjoy taking the photographs – assuming Voldemort lets you.”

“He will surely let me take some” Severus agreed.  “He knows observation is my weakness; my passion.”

“Yet in spite of that you are still ill at ease.”

“Involvement makes me a murderer” said Severus, “As well you know, Headmaster.  Even today, although I was only an observer, although Ferdy supplied the poison and Bella administered it, I was an accomplice to murder.  I am only too aware of that.  And unless I wish to sign my own death warrant I will have to face this situation again and again.”

“Yes” Dumbledore sighed.  “Unless you decide to say no to Voldemort, I don’t think you have any choice.”

“To say no is suicide” Severus pointed out.  “Besides … you do not want me to say no.”

“I would prefer you to continue as a Death Eater” Dumbledore admitted, “But I am giving you – right now – the right to say no to him.  In all conscience I cannot take that right from you; it would be wrong even to try.”

“Thank you, Headmaster” Severus said softly.  “I understand.”

“You must make your own decisions, as events unfold” Dumbledore added.

“…Yes” Severus agreed.

 

That night Severus lay awake for hours.  Scenes kept going through his head – the late-night talk with Dumbledore, the events in the cellar, the meeting with Bill Ogden, and the analysis of the potion.  He also kept debating whether to get up and take a sleeping draught or just stay put and wait for sleep to come, but he seemed incapable of making a decision, or even of getting his mind into a stable train of thought.  Despite his excitement about the mystery potion’s possibilities, it was memories of the cellar that kept returning, haunting him in a way that he didn’t expect.

At the hospital the patients had arrived already injured or ill, and apart from his desire to observe their condition his expectation of himself had always been to assist with their cure.

It was not so with the events in the cellar – he had to watch a man being harmed; and he was not allowed to try to save him.  Severus did not share the delight of Voldemort and Bellatrix.  He might be clinical and inquisitive but he did not share their sadism.  To learn that of himself was, paradoxically, a blow – because he had not expected to feel so troubled by Death Eater activities, nor so trapped by them.

The image of Dumbledore saying ‘you have the right to say no’ also kept returning.  The old man had bound him by a vow of obedience, and yet his instructions would be fair.  He was an honourable man.  He expected Severus to act – at a fundamental level – according to his own conscience, and it sounded as though he would not use the power of the Unbreakable Vow to run counter to whatever conscience might dictate.

“I do have clinical detachment” Severus insisted in the silent darkness of his dungeon bedroom.  “That’s what made me so right for a medical career.  I may be low on empathy, but I’m no full-blown sadist.  I may be curious about pain and death, but after this morning I must face up to the fact that I am not excited by it.  And I do not relish being forced into the position of being a criminal!  But … if I do not carry out the Dark Lord’s instructions, someone else will, and I will have thrown my life away by disobedience to him.  Damn this!  Who said conscience was a hard task-mistress?”

 

Severus rose early to owl the report to Lucius.  Then, as it was too soon for breakfast, he went to the staff room.  A copy of yesterday’s Prophet was lying on a coffee table and he took it to catch up, having destroyed his own copy the previous day.  While he was reading, Professors Vector and Sprout came in, surprised to find the staff room occupied.

“Good morning, Severus” Pomona said brightly.  “Have you ordered tea?”

“Good morning” Severus answered.  “No.  I was going to wait until breakfast.”

“Want some now?” Septima asked in her doleful voice.  “We’re going to; so if you want to change your mind, now’s the time to do it.”

“Thank you; no” Severus decided.  “I’ll wait.”

“Right you are” she replied.  “Well, don’t mind us if we just chat.”

She went to the refreshment table, tapped a stubby wand twice against a battered tea caddy, and within a minute a tray of tea for two appeared, sent up from the kitchens.  She and Pomona settled in chairs near to the window.  It looked as though it was their favourite spot.

“So he couldn’t say, then, what happened?” Pomona said to her, evidently carrying on some private conversation.

“No” Septima insisted.  “All he spoke of was claws.  Fighting off claws.  But his cuts are full of gallicia sap.”

“How long will they have to keep him in?”

“Some weeks I think.  Anyway, his memory might come back by then.”

Severus tried not to eavesdrop.  The witches didn’t speak loudly, but it was hard not to tune in to odd, interesting bits of their conversation.  The two women were different and yet oddly alike; Pomona strong, sturdy, and down to earth, Septima more wistful, and yet not impractical.  The weather was colder and so, for her socks, had made an appearance – remarkably both the same colour.  And leather clogs had replaced the sandals.  Pomona already had soil on the hem of her robe, and the day had hardly begun.

His mind turned to Aurora in her smart, spotless robes – she wouldn’t wear socks, and certainly never unmatched ones.  Did she wear tights or stockings?  Stockings required suspenders…  No, don’t set off down that path, he told himself severely, it’s no way to start a working day.

Author’s Notes

I’ve often wondered just how much of a bad man Snape is.  Sirius said he didn’t think Dumbledore would let Snape work at the school if he had ever worked for Voldemort.  Dumbledore said Snape was a Death Eater, and that he is now ‘no more a Death Eater than I am’ and that has got to mean something.

So here is my attempt at making it mean something – Snape is curious about pain etc and low on empathy, but he is not a full blown sadist.  And I think also that if that is true of him he wouldn’t necessarily be proud of it; that he might prefer to think of himself as a cruel, dark wizard, that he has fallen short of some ideal in his own mind and given us – by chance – the character that we love – the dark and secret wizard who is inexplicably on the side of right.

In Rowling’s world he might turn out to be a villain – he might be the kind of restless, rootless person who turns and turns again, but I hope not.