Cho Chang/Harry Potter Original Female Witch/Ron Weasley
Harry Potter Original Female Witch Original Male Wizard
Action Suspense
Children of Characters in the HP novels
Published: 04/12/2003
Updated: 05/05/2003
Words: 178,786
Chapters: 22
Hits: 20,126

Presents from the Past

Horst Pollmann

Story Summary:
Thirteen years after Hogwarts. Eight years have passed since the last time we saw our heroes. The number of children walking or crawling through the scene has grown from three to more than a dozen. And some of them are in the focus of attention - this way or the other ... Harry and Cho moved from California to Ireland. One of the reasons was to have the same time zone as Paris, where some other people are found, and some other children. However, it's their old place where the first dark clouds appear ...``A fic most of the characters known from the previous one - well, except for all these shorties somewhere between ten months and eleven years ...

Chapter 06 - Task Force

Chapter Summary:
Harry gets the opportunity to study the case files of the previous kidnappings. He sees his suspicion confirmed - there is some magic involved. So he talks with the detective lieutenant about the next steps to go.

06 - Task Force

Laila Belezikijan, personal assistant for the Groucho Biochemicals CEO, clapped her boss' shoulder. "All right, Ramon, don't move while I'm off in that Irish minefield." With a grin he couldn't see but hear, she added, "And don't tell anyone, it would damage your macho reputation."

He looked up at her with an angry expression in his face. "This isn't funny, and my machismo is the least of my worries."

She nodded solemnly. "Yeah, unfortunately so, otherwise you would've found a way long before to make my job a bit more - er, personal."

Into his flushed muttering, Laila pressed the top-left button on her porty's keyboard. She came out from the portkey transit in the entrance hall of the Groucho headquarters in Dublin.

The joke hadn't even caught with herself; it had been part of her job as much as her own way of handling touchy issues. Her job, this meant taking burdens off Ramon's shoulders and keep his head free for strategical thinking. And doing her duty, she had made this remark, which could only be rated ridiculous, considering yesterday's events.

Ramon, as an ex-cop, should be used to seemingly rude remarks in the view of death. But Laila had found out earlier that all good cops were hopeless romantics and that the protective layer of cusswords was wearing thin quickly. For herself, though, an ex-sergeant of the Israeli army, this technique represented an integral part of her habit.

Three people shot, one of them a friend of Harry, and all this to save a baby girl from being kidnapped ... Laila had seen her share of casualties, among them quite a number of children. If it was the other side's work, they were shredded to pieces by explosives, or torn apart by the debris sent flying from such a bomb. If it was her own people's work, using bullets, the result looked a bit cleaner, otherwise as deadly and equally indiscriminating toward children and adults.

Quitting the army and joining Groucho had been the best thing in her life - well, aside from some other things closely related to that change, among them her transit from a Muggle to a witch. Yet even as a witch, Laila had kept her sergeant's role, in a way. Ramon as a commanding officer was the right man in the right place, and she would gladly take care of the cumbersome details, of the footwork.

Working together for such a long time, it was inevitable that they were physically attracted by each other. Laila would have extended their scope of teamwork with pleasure, at one occasion or another, except that this wouldn't have worked out well.

Mostly because of Ramon; his sense of honour didn't cover such games. Otherwise ... Laila met his wife often enough, and for all she knew, Marie-Christine had no trouble imagining some arrangement, in particular one that might involve herself - as long as it was kept within limits.

But not with Ramon. And so Laila solved the problem and released the tension simply by complaining about his obvious lack of interest every once in a while, preferably at occasions when his mind was caught by other concerns. It worked - quite well, actually. Short of the real thing, of course.

Which didn't mean she was in short supply of the real thing, oh no. For herself being a single, with no regular lover, it wasn't the touch of a hand away like for a married woman - but then, was it always that close for them when they needed it? That had to be more fiction that fact, according to what she heard, and not heard. However, it was within reach.

Sometimes even in Ireland. With the same people that were responsible for the wonderful changes in her life, eight years ago. Not often - just on occasion, one might say, and these occasions happened less and less frequently. Had to do with their children - too old for not having their own thoughts, and too young otherwise.

Besides, Laila considered it impossible to hide anything from these monsters. Granted, they were the nicest kind you could find, though monsters nonetheless. And according to this logic, they knew already, so what was the sense in shying off from a threesome once in a while?

But logic was one thing, and an unrestrained libido was something else, as she had been told.

The same person who'd made this remark had given her the porty, and thanks to this wonderful piece of technomagic, other possibilities were also within reach. For example, there was the island of Haiti, where another single in the services of Groucho Biochemicals could be found. Her name was Beatrice, and it just so happend they had a similar taste, and Haiti was a good place for finding two decent men in search for a weekend of romantic adventures, and Beatrice had a house, and what's more, she had a thrilling potion, quite helpful to reload your accu for the days to come.

Or to empty it, depending on from which side you looked.

And if their search was unsuccessful, if the figures they met were just too distasteful ... When it happened for the first time, they looked at each other, and the first suggestion had been to scan somewhere else, maybe in Jamaica. Only they didn't know the promising places there, and time was running ... And when their eyes met, they recognized the same idea in the opposite face.

Since then, they had raised their standards a bit, and called this game Haitian roulette - something like the inverse of Russian roulette, maybe comprising two cartridges, except that guns and cartridges didn't participate in that game.

But guns had participated in the issue at hand. Walking down the corridor, Laila decided to talk with Rahewa first. This was her own kind of approach - when pushed into the centre of the action, she wouldn't feel out of place, only if there was time, she would behave like any good sergeant - carefully stepping closer, using every cover she could find, exposing herself not a second earlier than unavoidable.

Rahewa had nothing to do with Biochemicals, unless you would count her husband Clemens, the genius behind the most widespread potion on earth. But Rahewa was frequently in touch with Cho for professional reasons, and with Harry for private reasons. Also, Laila got along well with her - only that Rahewa wasn't bothering much with cover of any kind.

Not in her style of conversation either. "You're here because of Tony, right?"


"Ireen's in Carron Lough, together with her daughter, probably for a while. Harry's in Santa Monica, working with the police, or so he said, because I'm not sure the police has the same view of things - well, and Cho's so happy about that, she's all song and dance today."

"He wants to catch them by himself, huh?"

Rahewa's glance was answer enough. Then she said, "I wish I had an assistant of my own, so I could pass the job over for a few days and join him."

"To hunt kidnappers?"

"No - to sit in the sun and jump into Tony's pool, twice per hour." Rahewa's smile softened the effect from her sharp voice. "I know by myself what a poor detective I am, and probably the hardest part would be to get Harry's agreement, but the thought drives me crazy."

Laila grinned. "I wonder what Cho would say - would she be glad that someone's covering his back, or more the opposite? At any rate, those guys are pretty quick with their guns, so maybe I'd be qualified better for that task."

"Yes, probably." Rahewa sighed. "Although - you know, I was twelve when someone shot at us, Harry and myself. So my experience isn't totally zero."

Laila knew this story - a lunatic who had tried a kind of showdown with Harry, and who had killed himself later.

When Rahewa was done with her daydreaming and changed into a young businesswoman again, Laila asked whether she knew more than what the newspapers had reported. Listening to Rahewa's description, Laila felt helpless rage and caught herself, too, wishing she could join the hunt.

Then she said goodbye and went for Cho's office.

Reaching Cho meant passing Chrissy Vanzandt, Cho's assistant. Playing an ante-room dragon seemed a strange role for the person with the second-highest level of influence in the Groucho enterprise. However, in most cases Chrissy made no attempt to block the way, for example because Cho herself might have overruled her. It was just her method of keeping in touch with her bosses' doing.

And today was special anyway. So Chrissy just looked up and said, "Hi, Laila - it's not Bio, is it?" and continued her own work when Laila, obviously as expected, shook her head.

Cho was talking over her desk-o-mate, a desk model of a phony with a larger display that showed pictures of, and data about, the person at the other end of the non-existent line. Seeing Laila enter, Cho blew her a kiss, which looked weird because she didn't stop talking in a sharp tone.

Shortly afterwards she finished and gave Laila a smile. "Hi, soldier girl. What's your trade today - chemicals or guns?"

"Guns, and not my own - that's what you meant, right? I could say I was sent by Ramon. It isn't entirely true, but it isn't wrong either, because he didn't like the idea of discussing it over the phone. So we decided that I should be the one to nose around while pretending to express sympathy."

Cho nodded approvingly. This style of conversation - an exchange of grumpy remarks - was their way of expressing deeper feelings in the shortest form possible. Probably quite un-Chinese, but as Cho used to say, the one in charge of politeness was Harry ... or Gabriel, since recently.

Then Cho asked, "You know the details?"

"Yep. I just met Rahewa."

"Testing the ground, huh?" Cho grinned wryly. "And saving my time. Although - I'd like to rant and wail myself, and at length, from my very personal perspective - about someone who right now is just where you came from. But I can't help thinking you're the wrong person for that."

Laila nodded. "In more than one way. And I'm not alone with that. If Rahewa could, she'd be there too."

"Tell me something new!" Cho's eyes were flashing, then calmed down again. "Tell me why wizards would use guns!" Seeing Laila's puzzled expression, she added, "Harry says he found proof of magic involved."

"Really?" The beaming in Laila's face seemed badly suited to improve Cho's mood, so Laila hurried to say, "Maybe they tried to hide their nature. Or simpler still - for a Muggle, looking into the muzzle of a gun is much more impressive and threatening than looking at a wand."

"And maybe because they're faster."

Laila shook her head. "Only in western movies." She walked over, grabbbed the armrest of Cho's chair, and turned it around. Then she bent down and planted a light kiss on Cho's mouth.

"Guns aren't fast, wands aren't fast - it all depends on the person behind, and in this regard, you can stop worrying."

"You're prejudiced," replied Cho, but her voice was soft.

"Yes, I am, but it's true anyway." Laila straightened. "How's Ireen?"

"Well enough so we could leave her in the castle." Cho's head made a movement toward Chrissy's room. "We told her, there's a babysitter just a call away, in case she has business in California - "

"Beverly." It was no question.

"Right. It's not as though Winky couldn't handle the girl, but a house-elf mightn't be everybody's cup of tea, and besides ..." A faint amusement was sparkling in Cho's eyes. "Anyway - if you want to say hello to Ireen, go ahead. Right now you might find her at the beach - but first you should prepare yourself, in order not to melt away in tears."

"That bad? But you just said - "

"Oh, she's okay." Cho's smile was a mix of sympathy, gloating, and something else. "But you'll find a certain flute player at her side, and his tunes are more than an ordinary human can handle, even at the best of times."

Laila found her decision in an instant. "Then I'll skip that - he does a better job in consoling her, and I guess she does a better job in mourning and weeping."

* * *

Harry dropped the file on the desk and leaned back, suppressing a pained groan. He wasn't used to paperwork, certainly not under these conditions - a wooden chair lacking all comfort, a simple desk, harsh light from the ceiling, and nothing around that would invite him for a five minute break.

Today was his second day in this particular task. He had read every single line in these case files. And now, after having gained an overall impression, after having found a few hints, he would read them again - to confirm or deny his suspicions.

There had been four cases before; the Chee massacre, as the press had dubbed the crime, marked the fifth. But these numbers only included known cases; nobody knew whether some other family had paid silently without informing the police afterwards. Nothing in the kidnappers' instructions said anything about keeping silent after the child was back home safely, and Seeger felt pretty sure there were no others, only he couldn't exclude them either.

But then, would it change the vague pattern Harry thought he could recognize?

The Waylon case had been the first. Amanda Waylon had hit the movie scene like a comet, shining and brilliant. After three movies, she took a baby break, without bothering to marry the father. When the baby was six months old, Amazing Amanda returned to the set. When the baby was fifteen months old, a TV repair truck arrived at her house. The kidnappers beat the nurse unconscious, or so she said afterwards, when awakening from something which most likely had been a drug trip similar to that of Tony's lawn mower boy. At any rate, the kidnappers were gone with the baby.

Amanda Waylon called the police. Then she refused to cooperate with them, which meant she delivered the money - two million dollars - without telling them in advance what was going on, reporting what she'd done only after having received her baby back.

Then she sued the security company that protected the residence in which her own house was one of eight. The lawsuit was still pending, but observers had little doubt who would be the winner: Amanda Waylon.

All these facts together provided excellent food for the media. However, they were badly suited to raise much emotion in public. Some actress who earned twenty millions for a movie role had lost two of them and was about to gain back ten more from a lawsuit - wasn't this exactly how things were going in God's own country?

This public impression changed a bit with the King case. Solomon King, a big fish in the show business pool, famous for fantastic stage events, had a young and beautiful wife who gave birth to a son pretty soon after that marriage. Rumour had it that for Solomon, close to his sixties, this came as much as a surprise as his stage orchestrations to the audiences. In public, however, Savvy Solomon wasn't tiring to praise his luck.

This luck faltered a bit when, shortly after the boy's first birthday, his wife received a phone call that her husband would expect her, together with the baby, in the Regent's Inn hotel for a press event - his car was on the road and would pick her up in ten minutes' time.

There was indeed a car, looking exactly like her husband's, which wasn't difficult because it was one of these VIP stretch limousines, black, tinted windows. The wife came awake from her own drug sleep under some trees, lying in the grass, without remembering more than a hooded figure pressing something onto her face.

Solomon King called the police and cooperated with them. He collected the two million dollars, let the police do their preparations at them, and when the call came, he went into his car and drove off, armed with the money suitcase, a gun, and some electronic equipment.

The next call told his wife where she could find the car, her late husband, and a suitcase with the wrong content - and that they would offer her one last chance, still for two millions but this time unprepared and unregistered.

She did as ordered. When she was driving in her car and received the call over her mobile phone, she hurried to tell the other side that she suspected to be followed by a police car, against her own will. And right she was, but only for ten more miles, until the voice told her now the air was clean and which exit she should take.

The civil car was found later as a wreck, apparently from an explosion that killed the driver. The second detective had survived the blow while not the two bullets found in his chest and his head.

The police reacted by replacing the officer in charge. The couple targeted next, movie stars both of them, reacted by keeping the police out until their child was back.

Same in the fourth case. Hazel Sue, a singer born as Hazel Simmons, the brain behind a successful female band and single mother of a girl, had also the good sense of keeping this special business private until her baby of sixteen months was back home.

All this had taken place within a period of four months, with all cases located in California. Although no state boundaries were crossed, the FBI was trying to get a foot in the door, or several of them, because kidnapping counted as a federal crime. Or maybe it was just pretense; the police had almost no clue.

All parents played some role or other in the show business. It came as no surprise, first because this was the valley with the world's largest collection of movie enterprises, closer related to the music industry than ever before, and also because these people traded their family affairs in public - with the exception of Tony, and this difference was one of the items on Harry's list.

The children were all quite young. On the other hand - handling a baby wasn't any more difficult than handling an older kid, more the other way around, for example because a two-year-old was useless as a witness and wouldn't remember a face, or a place.

Normally, as Seeger had explained to Harry, kidnapping crimes had two weak spots. One was the communication between the kidnappers and the parents, the other was the money. Or the way how the kidnappers were spreading money around, afterwards - even if the serial numbers hadn't been recorded.

In these cases, however, there was nowhere an unusual outburst of a sudden and unexpected wealth. Although meanwhile the rewards totaled up to a quarter of a million dollars, none of the street contacts could point out a promising trail.

And the communication - in the era of mobile phones, tracing back a phone call was nearly impossible. To destroy even the slightest chance, criminals used stolen mobiles for calling like they used stolen cars for driving.

However, the items on Harry's list had nothing to do with attempts of tracing back the events. Instead, he was aiming at the origin. Maybe this approach seemed like searching a needle in a haystack, but then, it was only one haystack, even though a big one.

The door opened. Lieutenant Seeger came in and sat down opposite. He looked tired.

"How's your progress, Mr Potter?"

"Well, better than expected. I was planning to go through the files once more, but now that you're here - can we talk?"

The detective leaned back. "Sure. Go ahead."

"It takes a bit longer."

A humourless laugh. "I've got all the time of the world - I just don't know where to get a hook into this mess. You sound as if you might have an idea."

"Yes, indeed." Harry looked around. "I'd like to discuss it in a better atmosphere than this room can offer - "

Another harsh laugh. "I can offer my office, only there we'll be interrupted every second sentence." Seeing Harry's look, the detective shook his head. "No - no restaurant, no cafe, nothing where I don't know who's listening."

"That's understood." Harry checked his watch. Three o'clock in the afternoon, that meant eight o'clock at home. "Well, I can offer a decent conference room in the Groucho building, but if that's fine with you, I'd prefer my own home."

"Your own ..." The lieutenant's face showed something like incredulous suspicion. "In Ireland?"

"Yes - there isn't any difference in jumping a few miles or across that distance, only that in Carron Lough it's evening."

Slowly, an expectant grin was spreading on the detective's face. "Carron Lough, that sounds so inviting." He stared at the files on the table. "Do we need them?"

"Well, you said, they're not supposed to - "

With a quick movement, Lieutenant Seeger snatched them under his arm. "Maybe I meant, I'm not supposed to lose them out of eyesight. All right, ready."

After such a long time in an air condition not quite up to the standards used from the Groucho buildings, Harry felt the need for a bit fresh air. He also suspected that for a Muggle like the detective, it might appear more natural to come out under an open sky. So he programmed the ashtray on the table for the short path between the bay and the castle and said, "Here we go - touch it." Then followed into the soft pop of Seeger's disappearance.

Wrong he'd been. The lieutenant looked around and examined the flight of stairs leading up to the castle, then he said, "That's cute, really! Couldn't you have sent us upstairs?"

"Sure. Just a sec."

Just then, however, the plaintive sound of a flute reached them, coming from the direction of the beach. The detective craned his neck, listening. Then he turned to Harry.

"That's really Ireland, isn't it? Some piper wherever you go."

"Well, it depends." Harry grinned. "That's my son, down at the beach. He's as Irish as you and me."

"Oh - sorry, no offense intended." The lieutenant listened more. "Although - if you'd said, there's a stranded sailor, homesick, I'd believe you every word; it fits so perfectly to the scene here. How old is he?"

"Seven, going eight."

"You joking?" The detective eyed him suspiciously.

Harry shook his head. "I'd like to introduce you, only he's no doubt sitting with Ireen - Tony's widow. That's their way of mourning, and it's everybody's guess whether this song is Irish, or Japanese, or Gabriel's own invention."

Lieutenant Seeger's glance was slightly abashed. "Well, no - maybe later, when they're finished."

Harry hadn't expected any other answer. He programmed a piece of rock. "Here - that saves you from climbing all the stairs."

"That's kind of you. Tha - " The rest probably was finished up in the small frontyard.

Harry followed, then guided the lieutenant into the entrance hall, where he took a second for sensing around.

"We're pretty much to ourselves. My wife's still in the office, I guess, and my daughter's upstairs in her room."

"That's fine with me." The detective looked around as if missing something, a note for example.

"Say, how do you know? Some signal system no one else can decipher?"

"It's much simpler - for us, I mean." Harry smiled apologetically. "We're a bit special - since you'll hear more about that when I'm going to present my ideas to you, I might as well tell you right away. Well, you know, I can feel the presence of my family, or their absence."

He was rewarded with a sharp look. "Pretty cool. Does it work the other way around, too?"

"With Sandy and Gabe, yes, they know already that I'm here with a guest. But Cho, that's my wife, she's a bit - er, more conventional." Harry had to grin inwardly - if Cho would hear him.

"By the way, I'm no mind reader ..."

The lieutenant twitched.

"... no, really, but I know that everybody asks that himself, after such an announcement. I can sense presences, and strong emotions, to some degree - on the other hand, you as an experienced detective can do the same, probably better than you think yourself."

"But not through walls." It sounded more like a protest than a complaint.

"Just a matter of training."

Harry led the way to the library, where they sat down in comfortable armchairs. He registered with appreciation how his Muggle guest quickly adapted to things like glasses of brandy appearing out of nowhere.

Raising his own glass, he said, "Is it okay with you to drop titles? My name's Harry."

"Just what I thought - mine's Carl. Cheers, Harry, to oil the senses - " The detective stopped and laughed. "Does it work with your sensing?"

"Like for anyone else, Carl - only the first one's improving them."

"That's reassuring, somehow."

Harry smiled. "In most regards, magicals are quite ordinary humans. There are just a few things special - we'll have to discuss them anyway, when I come to my conclusions, so - ready to listen?"

"Shoot." The detective leaned back, an expectant look in his face.

"I think the most important aspect is what I told you already yesterday. These kidnappers are wizards, or at least some of them are. There are details in the reports, for example what the witnesses said in their interviews, how it felt when they were stunned, and so forth. But equally important is the fact that they took pains to hide their ability. That raises two questions."

"The first one's obvious, why did they hide themselves?" said Carl. "But what's the second?"

"How much do they hide?" Seeing the blank look in Carl's face, Harry explained. "Look - the magic skill among wizards is as different as - er, maybe the skill with a gun. One guy hits a bird at hundred yards, another one won't hit the next Thursday. Now, in these cases, they didn't invest too much of magic, and I wonder, did they use all they can muster, or is there something they could do but avoided for some reason, maybe because it might have revealed their skill instantly."

The detective thought for a moment. "Let's see whether I can follow. Could they have jumped directly into the houses, rather than creating artful hoaxes in order to catch the children?"

"Maybe not - you know, you can jump only to places you've seen before - real, I mean; pictures won't do. But the money transfers, for example - they could have made it much simpler, not this endless sequence of driving and phone calls and redirecting - except that then, everybody would have known that it could only have been an apparition."

The lieutenant looked wondering. "What's so important in their skill? Does it make any difference?"

"Maybe not for the crimes," replied Harry, "only I'd like to know better what kind of people they are ... to form a picture of them." He looked at the other man. "It's said some people smell a cop no matter how, and where. Is it true?"

"Yes." Carl nodded. "Maybe not a rookie in his first months, but it sticks quickly. Yes, I see what you mean. There's a gap in your profiling, right?"

"At least in this regard. Otherwise - they kill without much hesitation, we can take that as a given. But still I wonder if killing Tony wasn't an act of panicking."

"You mean, they heard the sirens outside and felt caught between two fires?"

Harry nodded. "Something like that. The disappearing of the girl in front of their eyes - they must have realized that this was an artful piece of magic, quite unsettling even for an experienced wizard. Maybe they were frightened to step into another magical trap any moment." He shrugged. "Might not be important in general, only for myself."

The detective kept silent for a moment, then said, "Let's come back to the first question, why they were hiding their magical nature. What do you think is the reason?"

"Just one reason, but a good one: if you look for Muggles, you ignore wizards. Even if not, there are thousand times more Muggles than wizards around."

"Something else?"

Harry shook his head. "I can't see any other motive."

"Me neither." The detective sipped at his brandy. "But even looking for wizards - their number isn't that small, and besides, they might hide it all the time. I remember a story about a lieutenant who did that for quite a while."

Harry gave him a short grin, which was replaced by a grim expression. "I have means for recognizing a wizard, Carl."

"Is it like, it needs one to know one?"

"No - an ordinary wizard has no way to figure that out, as long as the other one avoids magic. But - well, I'm not an ordinary wizard."

"No?" The detective made big eyes. "That's a real surprise, that is."

"Actually it's not my own skill. I have - " Harry interrupted himself. "We'll come to that later. I'd like to discuss other common factors first. For example, all cases took place in the show business."

Carl raised his hand. "Wait, wait - we didn't sit idle, you know, waiting for the next kidnapping. Scanning for common factors, that's a built-in reflex, in a way. So we checked around. What's the same in all these cases? Same agent - same lawyer - same doctor - same school, maybe. Aside from the obvious facts, that the children are about the same age, that the crimes took place in and around Los Angeles - "

Harry interrupted him. "What about the agents?"

"Not even two in common."

"But - " Harry pointed at the case files Carl had deposited on the table. "These stories smell of insider knowledge. There must be something - agencies behind the agents, I don't know, something like that. The kidnappers are part of the show business - for me, that much's for sure."

"I'm not yet convinced," replied the detective. "The victims they picked are public figures. By just reading newspapers, or maybe some showbiz magazines, you can learn enough to find the proper targets."

"The others, maybe." Harry leaned back again. "But not Tony. He himself as a director and producer, sure - but not with Tanitha, or Ireen. Show me a magazine with a picture of the girl, or just an article! There isn't any. He didn't hide them, his crew on the set could see them more than once, but that was all. No yellow press interviews."

"Hmm ..." The lieutenant looked thoughtful. "Okay, let's assume there is a common factor, only so small, or so hidden, that we missed it. Then how to find it?"

"With footwork, and with paperwork." Harry pointed at the files. "We have three cases directly in the movie business - two actors, I mean a single actor and a couple, and a director. Someone will start at Tony's business - scanning for names, figures, companies. I'd say - the last two or three years first, because that's the age of the children. Tony's movies in that time, then the movies in which these actors had a role - scanning for a name that appears in both lists. There'll be some, obviously so, and then we'll visit them and ask them questions."


"Well - I'm ready to team up with colleagues of yours, Carl, but I'd prefer to do it with you."

"I feel flattered." The detective grinned wryly. "And you're the common factor in that, huh?"

"Yes, because of the - er, magical part."

"And this paperwork?"

"Someone who's good at this kind of research. Someone who knows the movie business. Someone who's authorized to come along and ask questions." Harry had been counting with his fingers. "A team of three, or two if one of them fits two roles. Of course, the one with the authority must be a cop."

"Aha. And the others?"

"I know someone with a knack for this kind of work - going through lists and files and papers. Plus someone from Groucho Entertainment who's familiar with these names ..." Seeing the detective's look, Harry added, "Carl - they'll work for a salary, paid by myself, plus a premium if they strike gold. I used this approach in the past, and it was successful."

"There is already a reward offered - a quarter of a million, might be raised even higher with this new case."

Harry waved dismissively. "Whatever - the money's unimportant, it's there, and I'm going to spend it."

"Fine, fine." The lieutenant raised his eyebrows. "And then? Assume this someone comes up with a name - so we pay them a visit, say hello, we'd like to ask you some questions. They can tell us a lot, or just laugh at us - and if they're innocent, it could be even the genuine thing. How to nail them down?"

"Ahh ..." Harry grinned. "Well, you know, it so happens we'll also be a team of three."

"Will we? And who's the third man?"

"Not a man - it's a she, her name's Nagini."

"Sounds promising, Harry, with that name. Let me guess - slender body, almond eyes, her voice warm and gentle ..."

Harry laughed. "Not bad - except for the voice, since no matter how you look at it, nobody would call it warm and gentle."

The lieutenant grinned. "So what, nobody's perfect. And when will I have the pleasure to meet that lady?"

"In a moment." Harry grinned back. "Only - it's not exactly what you might expect, because - well, you know, Nagini is a snake."

* * *

Gabriel was lost in the fourth dimension: memory. The experiences were not his own; they were those of Ireen, sitting next to him. They weren't events either, just emotions, feelings of joy intermittently changing with sorrow, the painful sense of loss, the desperate knowledge of a love whose object was beyond reach forever.

Except in memory.

He wasn't playing music in the conventional sense. He was riding the waves that came surging into his mind, accentuated by the waves breaking on the beach in front of them. Still, it was music that came out, although Gabriel wasn't the musician - he provided just the instrument, tuned by Ireen's remembering, the bamboo flute in his hands not more than its resonating part, a line of holes opening and closing almost by themselves.

It was magnificent nonetheless. Gabriel felt his music touching Ireen's thoughts in reverse, and this feedback was driving him to heights he hadn't climbed before.

He had imagined them, yes. Occasionally when playing solo, once or twice when he and Héloise had really been in sync, pushing each other to a daring sequence of chords.

Now he felt Ireen awakening from her trance. Rather than breaking abruptly, Gabriel held the tune, improvising still a minute or two - like a bird slowly sailing to the ground, circling with outstretched wings, losing height, and finally disappearing behind a cliff, leaving it to everybody's guess whether it would touch down a moment afterwards or start climbing again.

When the last tune had faded, Ireen turned to him. "You're incredible."


"You play exactly what's going through my mind. You can carry me through the pictures of my memory - it's as if your music's sharpening them to an almost unbearable intensity."

"That's simple." Gabriel held the flute up like a proof. "It wasn't really me, playing. It was you - I just added the breath, that's all."

Ireen smiled at him. "Oh, really? And who opened and closed the holes at the right time? Must have been the seagulls, huh?"

Gabriel imagined one of these birds sitting on the flute, just in front of his face, trying to cover one of the openings with its claw, and the thought made him laugh.

"That was funny," he said, recovering. "I wish I could do that."

"Do what?"

"Telling funny jokes and make other people laugh. You're so - er, even now, you can do them. You know, just like that, without thinking long."

Ireen put an arm around his shoulder. "Don't worry. I couldn't do that either when I was your age. I still couldn't later. It was Tony who showed me how to look at the funny side of things." Her face came around, revealing what Gabriel had felt already an instant before - Ireen could talk about her lost husband without bursting into tears again. "And now that he's gone, maybe it's my job to teach you the same."

"Yes, please."

Ireen looked up into the sky on which dusk was falling. "You know, it's as though he's sitting somewhere, cloud number nine or so, and telling me, c'mon, honey, don't make such a fuss, our daughter's safe, life goes on, so just give it a rest."

In his mind, Gabriel saw another picture - a cloud in which the feet would sink in, with a pole, on it a shiny brass plate with the engraving No. 9. It was funny too, only it didn't feel right to laugh now. So he said, "But Harry won't give it a rest, and I think Tony would agree to that."

He could feel Ireen's tensing, so he quickly added, "He'd do it anyway, you know ... And if it takes a bit longer, then at least we have time so you can teach me joking."

"Because afterwards I have to leave quickly, right?"

"No!" Gabriel felt his cheeks flushing, having fallen for this trap question.

Ireen pressed him tenderly. "You see, Gabriel, making jokes most often implies someone feeling a bit embarrassed. And that's why you have trouble with jokes - you're such a gentle boy, you don't want to embarrass anyone ... So that's been today's lesson about jokes."

Still uneasy, Gabriel said, "But you know that you can stay as long as you want, don't you? You and Tanitha."

"Are you speaking for yourself, or for the entire family?"

"For - " Gabriel stopped to examine her face. "You're joking again, right? You know that I can sense what the others feel, and that they all think the same."

"Yes, my little piper, I know. But that's not just common, this ability, as you know perfectly well - actually it's quite astonishing, and sometimes a joke's the best method of coming to terms with something you're not used to at all." Ireen smiled. "See - that's been the second lesson already, and if we're going to proceed that way ..."

Gabriel caught the thought, smiled back. "Then we can send you off pretty soon."

"That's my boy! Fluting or joking, changing with the tide."

Gabriel felt pleased, even though his senses told him that Ireen was caught again by her own tide of emotions, and that her last remark had been more forced than genuine. In search for a less sensitive topic, he suddenly saw a possibility to solve this problem with another one. "Ireen?"

"Yes, Gabriel?"

"Do you know Japanese?"

He had her full attention. Rather than answering, Ireen examined his face, Gabriel could feel how her thoughts were racing. Then she smiled.

"You know what I just tried to do, don't you? I tried to play Harry's game, to find the question behind the question that lies behind the question, and to answer that, ignoring all the steps in-between. Only I couldn't - I can't do it with other people, least of all you."

A thought struck him. "Is it more difficult with me? Because, you know, Harry never plays that game to me - he always answers just the question I asked."

"Yes, that might be the reason."

But Gabriel could feel, she wasn't entirely serious with her answer, something not quite unusual among people talking about him and his father. "Well, then - do you know Japanese?"

"Not much, Gabriel. Yes, my family is of Japanese origin, and I like holding to certain traditions, but I'm not really fluent. I mean, I get along - I won't poison myself in a Japanese restaurant, if that's what you mean."

"Have you ever been in Japan?"

"Yes, several times."

Gabriel could feel her growing curiosity, and a slight trace of impatience, although Ireen's face didn't reveal any sign of it. However, not unlike his father, he accepted such a kind of pressure from just one person, and that was his mother, not Ireen. So he asked, "Have you heard about our planning for a xylophone?"

"Er - yes."

Lacking his knowledge where these two seemingly incoherent topics met, Ireen was at a total loss to foresee the next twist of their conversation. And again, Gabriel felt little mercy, more a kind of satisfaction, while no need to relish it any longer.

"Could you imagine a visit in Japan together with me?"

"I certainly could, if you'd ever tell me what's this all about."

Hadn't he just ... no, not at all, as he realized. "It's about a xylophone ..."

He saw her inhaling, vaguely aware that the same behaviour could be seen from people talking with his father.

"... and you know, I asked our Music teacher, and looked it up in the Internet, and the best xylophones you can find, they're built by Miyikura, that's - "

"Come again?"

"Miyikura - they're found in Akashi, and that's where they have a large hall with an exposition, all models they offer, it's quite a lot, actually - there was a picture on their home page, it looks so great, all these xylophones, and enough room between them - "

"And you want to visit this exposition and find the right xylophone for yourself, I assume?"

Gabriel nodded eagerly. "Yes, because you know, in stores here around - I mean Paris, or Dublin, or Santa Monica, they have just one or two models, not more, because there aren't that many people who play xylophone - well, and now that Harry's so busy, er ..."

"Yes, I see." Ireen kept silent for a moment. "Where is Akashi?"

"In the south. The next bigger city is Osaka. It's pretty close, actually."

She looked approvingly. "You're an experienced traveller, huh? Know exactly what to look for. Say, does this company make vibraphones too?"

"Oh, no! Just xylophones." Gabriel smiled. "For vibraphones, that'd be Yamaha, and for them, you wouldn't need to go to Japan. Yamaha of America is almost bigger than the original company, and they're at home in Buena Park - that's just next to Santa Monica."

Ireen looked alarmed. "That doesn't mean you should visit them alone - particularly not now, not in this area."

"Of course not." Gabriel's voice sounded patient, nonetheless hinting that he wasn't stupid, that he knew, and besides, who had brought up the issue of vibraphones? As far as he was concerned, this was a conversation about xylophones.

Ireen calmed down. "So it's Osaka, then. Are you aware of the time difference?"

"Nine hours." It came matter-of-fact.

Ireen blushed a bit. "Sorry - I forgot that you've been travelling around much more than I'll ever do, probably. Anyway - what do you suggest, how to match reasonable times here and there?"

"This exposition, it's open from nine to seven, all week long. So we could do it in the morning, Saturday or Sunday - only that during the weekend, there's a lot of people there, their home page said something about - er, so many thousand visitors per year ..."

Strange, how large numbers slipped his mind, creating a vague spot in an otherwise accurate report.

"... so coming in the morning's probably better, and this could be any day of the week, and for us here it'd mean midnight."

Ireen looked at him, and Gabriel knew what she was thinking - a seven-year-old, well, okay, seven and a half, jumping around the world at midnight local time.

He added, "And for Tanitha - you know, there's Beverly, she was my babysitter some years ago, we could ask her, I'm sure she'll come over, I mean she'd probably stay overnight in the castle, but that's fine with her."

"Yeah," said Ireen, "so I heard."

Gabriel sensed some amusement, but was too close to his own goal to bother with that. "So what do you think of it?"

"Your planning's perfect, my dear piper." Ireen raised her eyebrows. "All that's missing, for what I can see - did you ask your parents about that?"

"No, of course not." Maybe she had joked again, only Gabriel felt too preoccupied now. "First I wanted to talk with you."

"Yes, sure, what else? All right, Gabriel, I'm with you in that business, so maybe we should get the permission together." Ireen grinned. "Who shall we ask first?"

"Harry." It came without hesitation.

"Certainly, that'd have been my guess too. And - is it fine with you if I'm going to ask him about that?"

Gabriel beamed. "You're joking again, aren't you?"

"No, I'm totally serious." But her eyes were sparkling. "This kind of joke is called irony - if you ask for something that's fairly obvious, it's called a rhetorical question, but most often it goes with some irony."

This was really interesting, only right now Gabriel couldn't care less about the fine art in rhetorics.

"So I'm going to ask him, okay?"

Gabriel nodded. "Yes, that'd be great. Thank you, Ireen - and once this is settled, I'll talk with Fleur."

"Fleur? Why, what's her role in that?"

Gabriel looked astonished. "But ... because of Michel; he's supposed to come with us. Wasn't that clear all the time?"

Ireen started to laugh. "Maybe so, except ... Anyway, I shouldn't wonder."

"No, definitely not. We play together."

"That's not what I meant." Ireen ruffled his hair. "You're as much a Chang as you're a Potter - and for them, negotiating the tricky way is a built-in reflex."

Examining her face, Gabriel knew - this had been no joke, even though it had sounded like that.