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 15 - Kidnappers

Chapter Summary:
Sandra reads the protocol she got from Frédéric - the old police protocol of Harry's interrogation after Gérard's death. Aside from some other things, Sandra finds hints about her own role in the fight against Voldemort - at a time she wasnt even born.

15 - Kidnappers

Walking back, Sandra felt a deep satisfaction. She had completed her side of the deal, and something interesting was waiting to be read. More importantly, she had finished the last phase of a process in which the boy who was walking at her side had been thoroughly evaluated, coming out crystal-clear.

Yes, one step was still missing, and Almyra had set a deadline for that - presenting Frédéric to her parents. However, this didn't count as a test, only as a careful navigation along the idiosyncrasies of some adults.

They were walking hand in hand. Frédéric had suggested to light their path, using the wands as magical candles, but Sandra had said no, had shown him how to recognize the path from the faintest differences of grey in dark. At first, Frédéric had muttered this was nonsense, she just knew the way and was showing off. "Not really, only the direction," Sandra had answered, this way dismissing his suspicion but raising a greater worry as replacement.

Shortly afterwards, however, he'd caught the trick, and since then was taking care to lead the way for both of them.

Aside from that, they were silent, savouring the memory of the encounter, each from his personal perspective. Because for all Sandra could sense, Frédéric seemed not the least bit dissatisfied with his performance, despite the remarks it had raised from the Centaur's side.

She didn't even remember the first time she met Firenze, knew about it only from her father's tales. She had been two years old at that time, had helped to lure a Unicorn closer to Harry so he could take a syringe full of Unicorn blood - the beginning of the Great Plot which, eventually, would lead to a unified world of Magicals.

Since then she met Firenze about once a year, most often for no particular reason, just when she was around and felt like it.

Then, one day, Sandra had visited him to proudly present her new wand. The Centaur had pulled one of his long mane hairs out, had fixed it around the wand, and told her about the effect. Coming home, her mother had looked at it and said, "It's obvious to everyone that you can twist him round your little finger, but I'd never expected him to document it so clearly."

Her father had grinned. "He's very special with his jokes. Must have infected himself one day, but I don't think it was me who did it, so I guess it's been someone else - "

"Shut up," her mother had cut him short, and it had taken Sandra quite a while to squeeze the story out of her father - about Cho, dizzy from a head injury and tranced from a Veela shawl, talking free-style poetry to Firenze.

As if reading her thoughts, Frédéric took this moment to say, "It's amazing - I'd never have thought he'd be that funny. The way he disappeared ..."

Sandra smiled in the darkness. Frédéric's remark clearly had been an attempt to raise a comment from her side, no doubt for gaining more information, or just to revive Firenze's teasing - she didn't fall for such an easy trap.

"But what he said before," continued Frédéric, "was more serious. Does he always give you messages to your father?"

"No - at least none that specific. Greetings, yes." Sandra thought it over. "Although - it's not impossible this has been just another joke."

"A joke?" Frédéric's voice revealed his disbelief.

"Yes, because - you know, when my father was a student here and was fighting against Voldemort, the other Centaurs always thought him doomed, after having read the stars. And Firenze was the only one to contradict them - but later, when the fight was over, he confessed to my father that he hadn't read anything different. So maybe it's just a joke about the Centaurs and their stargazing."

Frédéric's voice came firm. "It didn't sound like a joke."

Yeah, well, maybe not - Sandra's mind was focused on other things.

But Frédéric seemed to catch fire on this topic. "Think it over," he said, "what he told your father - this might have been a joke, and if so, it was an excellent one, wasn't it?"

"So what," replied Sandra impatiently. "He can be funny, as you noticed by yourself, and sometimes he's joking. Big surprise. Wow. And now that this's settled, let's come to another surprise, maybe a smaller one."

Frédéric stared at her. "If it wasn't your voice, I could have sworn that's been Héloise talking."

When Sandra's step came to a halt, he added quickly, "Okay okay - you're right, that was no surprise yet ..."

She couldn't help chuckling.

"... so let's come to the real thing - er, well, wasn't there still the question about your doing without a wand?"

It made Sandra really stop. "Wasn't there something from your side in that deal?"

"Sure, why?" Frédéric pulled her forward, had to use a bit more force. "You'll get it in a minute, but it's dark here, isn't it, so how can you read, and you said yourself we're not supposed to make light, but what's wrong with talking in the meantime?"

Hard to beat, that argument, only ... "Yes, I can do spells without a wand, you know it already, so where's the surprise? If you want to talk, let's talk about family visits."

Sandra could sense his but, only it didn't come, which was wise of him. Instead, Frédéric asked, "Visits? You mean more than one?"

"What about your family?"

"Hmm ..."

Was she really looking forward to meet his parents? Sandra didn't think so; it had been more of a counterstrike in their conversation than serious interest. On the other hand, it might become a question, too important for stupid remarks like, wasn't she good enough for an invitation?

Lights were shimmering through the last trees. They had reached the border of the Forbidden Forest and would arrive at the Hogwarts buildings in a few moments.

Frédéric stopped. "About my family - er, please don't take offense, but at home I'd like to tell them first thing that I met him - your father, I mean, but of course I won't call him that way."

"Hey, that's clever." Sandra smiled at Frédéric admiringly.

He didn't register, still his voice sounded relieved. "I'm glad you understand. Now" - he reached in his pockets - "if you want to jump directly, I think you should do it right from here, before we enter the locking field. Here - that's the protocol, a copy I made - you can keep it."

Sandra felt more than she saw it - a few sheets, doubly folded. "Well, thanks - but I thought we'd read it together."

"Oh no!" The idea seemed to have a frightening effect on Frédéric. "I mean, I know it, and ... No no, you better read it alone." He pushed the sheets into her hand. "Take it - see you tomorrow. Er, that's been a terrific day." He turned and quickly walked off.

"Good night," called Sandra after him, earning just a wave of his hand.

Well, she thought, maybe he was right, maybe this paper really was something to be read alone. In this case, there was no sense in wasting any second here around.

She apparated into the castle.

Into the dining room - and just had the presence of mind to store the paper in her own pockets before entering the family room, to find her mother and Ireen. Hello she said, and greetings from Almyra - just good Nagini wasn't around, this artful mix of as good as true and almost accurate might have caused a hissing.

Yes, she had eaten, of course, sitting with Beverly, which wasn't a lie either. No, it hadn't been a monologue, why, Beverly with her friends could talk like anyone else. Asking about her father, Sandra was told he'd be still in California, no sense in waiting for him, which she took as the opportunity to say good night and to reach her own rooms.

Sandra's suite - her mother had invented the term, instantly taken over by the rest of the family. It wasn't really true, just a bedroom and a workroom, the latter simultaneously serving as her library and her office and the place where she could watch TV with friends - quite large, actually. Yes, and a bathroom of the spacious kind, plus a clothes cabinet you could walk through, with a door at the end leading to a tiny storage room with the treasures of her childhood. In this large castle, nobody could call it a claim beyond measure, wasn't that so?

A mental call reached her from Gabriel. She responded by sending the pictures of Firenze, and Frédéric, and something equivalent to a thumbs-up sign.

Her brother seemed interested in exchanging some more details, only Sandra wasn't, put him off for tomorrow. It was okay for Gabriel, and finally she was alone.

Contrary to what her father had told Thionnay, Sandra was no eidetic. Looking at a page for a second was not enough for her to remember every word. Even so, her eyes were racing across the sheets, slowed down only by the clumsy font of a police typewriter giving equally much space to all letters.

Having finished the last page, she felt a bit disappointed. In a dry style, the paper told a story about a few students, some from Hogwarts, some from Beauxbatons, meeting at a ball, meeting again, meeting for the third time in a lethal encounter. Always at a ball, as it seemed. At the second time, a row had developed - the row and of course the final fight were described in greater detail. And somewhere in-between, a sexual intercourse had taken place, between Harry and Marie-Christine.

Incredibly exciting, this terminology.

Then Sandra read the protocol again, slower, taking her time to accompany the words with her own knowledge, with guesses, even conclusions. Suddenly the tale became more interesting, a bit juicier too, and at the end, it offered a thrilling mystery.

Filling in the gaps ... This intercourse, for example, it took place after the second ball, at Hogwarts - hear, hear - and somehow Fleur had helped by providing a guest room. But Harry had joined the ball with Cho, so please, what had happened to her?

Sandra wasn't ready to believe that Harry had dropped Cho in some corner, to reach the guest room together with Marie-Christine. Sandra's lack of experience in sex - or what it did with people before, during, and after - was more than compensated by her knowledge of the people involved ... of course, with one notable exception.

Thinking it over, adding what she had seen, sensed, and overheard at one occasion or another, she felt pretty sure to know where Cho had been at this time.

Well, well, well - it was a bit breathtaking. Apparently, Marie-Christine had been the driving force, leaving it to everybody's guess how much force had been necessary to drive along ... Because this Gérard couldn't come to terms with her body, preferred the sportive type.

But there were some steps missing. One, in particular. Her father had stated that he owed Marie-Christine too much to accept the risk of Gérard killing her the next day, or the next week. And Cho too. What was it?

Marie-Christine had specialized in dark magic, before starting a career as an actress. Obviously, she had provided some help. Which could only have been some information.

All of a sudden, a tale resurfaced in Sandra's memory - how Marie-Christine had been the first to predict Aram'chee's motive in searching for the spirit she had felt in the Crusader castle ... which had been Sandra herself, at the age of two.

And both of her parents had felt obliged to Marie-Christine, very much so. What was the common factor among parents? Their children, of course, despite the fact that this had taken place years before Sandra's own birth. Which meant, this Voldemort had planned to do something with the child of his worst enemies ... And Marie-Christine had found out, and then Harry had taken measures to destroy the plan, by destroying its inventor.

What had Voldemort intended? With herself - a creepy thought, making Sandra shudder for a moment. It had to be something horrible, her parents had never told her a single word about that, except that some remarks, only halfway remembered, suddenly seemed to put more light onto this mystery.

Lying in bed, Sandra felt excited. She would discuss the mystery with Frédéric - if nothing else, it would explain and simultaneously avoid the other topic.

And she would look for the next opportunity to talk with Marie-Christine. Alone.

* * *

Ramon Garcia hadn't listened to the morning news, first because he preferred newspaper over radio and also because the excited chat of the local newsspeaker was rasping his nerves. He didn't wonder either that his assistant was late - there was nothing special scheduled, and Laila strongly believed in the need to know principle, keeping details of her dentist's appointments, shopping tours, and late night adventures to herself.

So it took until the lunch break before Ramon became aware that something had happened the evening before. Hearing other people's remarks in the canteen, he kept listening for a moment, carried his lunch into his office, and ate while watching the news channel in spector TV.

The flow of comments told him that nobody knew nothing, only the pictures of that building were proof that something had taken place, miraculously managed without leaking the slightest hint toward the media. To the effect that today, the news people were screaming in outrage.

Some details of what Ramon saw and heard were pretty unusual. He had left the LAPD years before, still didn't think the methods had changed that much. Which could only mean, they had used unusual methods.

Not to be confused with unknown ones, not unknown to Ramon.

And suddenly he had a fair guess about Laila's reasons to be late. Gripped by curiosity, he moved his hand to call her through the intercom when another thought made him hesitate. Why hadn't she told him first thing this morning?

Because something had gone wrong? Something bad, maybe? Most unlikely, Laila never fell to the common mistake of so many assistants who reported bad news at the last possible instant. "A sergeant's greatest joy," she used to say, "is telling a lieutenant bad news." So why else?

From what Ramon heard in the spector, the success in legal terms was limited, if any. Only this shouldn't have been Laila's problem, or if so, she would have interviewed him - after all, he knew a song or two about the difference between catching people and convicting them.

Well, sooner or later, she would come through this door for some question or another, and Ramon would wait until then. Using the time to find an innocent opening ... Somehow this was nonsense, why didn't he just walk over and ask?

Because he was a boss proud of his tactfulness. Because he had learned the hard way how stubborn his assistant could be.

Only that Ramon's work was suffering from his lack of concentration. Instead, half-forgotten memories of his own time came up - scenes with SWAT people, the scene when he, a wizard in camouflage, had used magic to save another officer.

"Hi, boss - time for me?"

Ramon's standard answer would have been, Always. What he said was, "More than you might appreciate."

"Is this a promise or a - " Seeing his face, Laila dropped her attempt of playing their habitual game with meanings between the lines. For an instant, it looked as if she was steadying her shoulders, then she came over and sat down. "Well, then - business first or later?"

"Is it important?"

"Not really."

Had this been Laila's move to start this conversation? Could be. "Then tell me why you're torturing me. Why didn't you come to me the moment you were in the office?"

"Well, boss, you know ..."

"My name's Ramon, remember?"

This way forced to a private chat, Laila leaned back and drew a face. "Maybe I couldn't find the right words. Yesterday I killed a guy, and somehow that's been my only reasonable contribution, and ... You know how it is, don't you?"

Ramon went to a cabinet and came back with a bottle and two tumblers. He filled hers with twice his own portion. "Here, to oil the cords."

Laila took it. "Cheers, Ramon. To the bad old habits."

Having emptied her glass, she waved him off when he offered a refill, then started to talk, telling him the story from her own perspective. It was a kind of battle report with a personal touch - she made no efforts to make her own role look better than it had been, especially at the moment when her broomstick went over the roof.

When she had finished, Ramon asked, "Still some bruises?"

"Only in my pride. Harry took care of the lost skin."

"And how's he?"

"Maybe he's stopped spitting fume by now." Laila showed a wry grin. "He thinks he should have found a better way to handle the two guys coming out, because now the police is a bit short on living suspects. I for my part, I think they provoked it, didn't really expect to come through, and - well, they were right."

It crossed Ramon's mind that Laila, in her own active time, probably had seen many suicide attacks. He said, "I think you three did an excellent job, Laila, and if Seeger didn't express his thanks to you, let me do it for him."

"Oh, he did. Still - thank you, Ramon." This time, she accepted another filling of her glass.

Ramon said, "In a way, it's the old conflict. What exactly's a cop's job? Catching criminals, collecting evidence, and delivering both to the attorney? If it works that way, fine. But if not - the main goal was to stop the kidnapping, and to do it without losses on our side. You can't say that in public, because it's politically uncorrect. What a pity."

"Cheers to that." What Laila's voice lacked in determination, she balanced out by emptying the glass and rising from the chair. "As long as it doesn't develop into a habit ... The same goes for the booze, but this one came just right."

Alone again, Ramon thought about his assistant's drinking. Calling it a habit of hers was wrong - it was a lost habit, dropped shortly after joining Groucho Biochemicals, only that you never were going to lose this particular habit.

As Ramon himself knew all too well, and getting in touch with death and violence was reinforcing it quicker than you could shout Stop.

Well, they both had, just in time.

Keeping that bottle in his own office was Ramon's ongoing test toward himself, and the few sips he'd drunken to join Laila were already starting to make him pay dearly ...

Not because of their bad taste, oh no, sir.

Knowing yesterday's story wasn't suited well to improve his concentration on his work. He felt distracted, pictures of his own past in the service mixed with pictures of himself in some bar, shabbier every week. At least they were good to ban the thought of the bottle in the cabinet.

Finally, Ramon gave up - doing his job seemed impossible today, and doing a secretary's work instead was no surrogate either. He apparated home.

When he returned home earlier in the past, Marie-Christine used to ask him whether he was trying to catch her with her lover, adding he'd left minutes before. Ramon hadn't heard that joke any more since the time Esmeralda joined the family. The knowing grin, though, still could appear in his wife's face.

There was no grin today, because there was no wife. No children either. Ramon was alone in their home.

Had Marie-Christine gone shopping with the kids? Maybe so, only she hadn't mentioned it, and such trips at a moment's thinking weren't common to her.

Or some appointment with Carlos or Esmeralda Ramon had forgotten about? Or some sudden illness, a visit at some doctor?

He only had to call her in order to find out. Except that Marie-Christine's response to such checks was awfully bad. "Why don't you fix a finder on me," she had said once, "one of those things used by undercover agents? Or better still, I should implant one - you know, like with a pet dog, right behind the ear."

Ramon went down to the garage. His wife's car wasn't there.

Either an emergency shopping, or an emergency visit at some doctor, he decided. The latter alternative was worrying him a bit, not too much, considering the excellent health of the two children, actually less than the situation altogether.

Because - if it was really serious, she would have called him.

For some minutes, Ramon tried to find something that might kill the time, growing more restless by the minute. Ten more minutes, he thought, then I'm going to call her, and if the reply she'll give is burning my ears, so be it.

Three minutes were left to this deadline when his phony rang.

Finally! He seized it and pressed the button. "Yes, hello?"

A woman's voice indeed, while not Marie-Christine's. Ramon's instant disappointment was quickly replaced by something much, much worse.

"Mr Garcia," said the voice, "if you're looking for your family - they're here."

"Here? Where's here? Can I talk with Marie-Christine, please?"

"Unfortunately not." There was no trace of regret in that voice. "But they are well, and now listen carefully to keep it that way, Mr Garcia."

Cold ice was climbing his spine - these words, or similar ones to that extent - he'd heard them before, recorded, reported - but never spoken to himself, and about his own -

"I'm sure you want to have them back - unhurt, I mean. This can be arranged - at some price, as you won't be surprised to hear. And under some conditions I don't think I have to tell you, a former police lieutenant."

"What - "

"Keep this business confidential, Mr Garcia, otherwise we would have to cancel the negotiations, and I'm sure you want to avoid that under all circumstances. Do I express myself clearly enough?"

"Yes." Ramon swallowed. "How much?"

"Ah, we come to terms, very good. Five millions, Mr Garcia - dollars, in bills no more than hundreds - "

"Five? But - I don't have that much money, that's totally unrealistic!"

"I'm sure you'll find a way, Mr Garcia. I could imagine your employer will help you out, if you ask, and we didn't expect you to keep him off anyway. Get the money, then we can talk more."

"Wait - wait a sec!" Ramon tried desperately to remember the rules he had recommended often enough to other people. "How do I know it's true what you said? And before we get any further, I want some proof that they're still alive - "

"They are, take my word for it." The voice was very cold now. "We both know you believe already what I said, and if not, just wait a few hours."

"Even so - " Ramon stopped, because the line was dead.

He felt like choking. With trembling fingers, he pressed the button for Marie-Christine's phony. No answer.

That couldn't be. Not to him, not to his family. Not right after these kidnappers had been smoked out. Had they?

Some minutes from now, he would go bonkers. That mustn't happen. Who to call first? Not the police, certainly not - never, they'd mess up, he wasn't going to risk ... What time was it in Ireland? Deep in the night - could he call them now?

Yes. No. Ramon didn't know. All he knew, he was losing track, couldn't think clearly. Rule number one: have someone with you to keep common sense, you as the one involved can't trust your judgement.

He pressed another button.

"Yes, Ramon?" Laila's voice, a bit astonished.

"Laila - my ... I'm at home - can you come? Now?"


Seconds later, the doorbell rang. Ramon twisted up, then he remembered - Laila had a portkey to this building, but only to the outside, had been her own instruction, at that time raising some jokes from his side and not so funny remarks from Marie-Christine. He went to the door and opened.

Laila saw his face, came in without a word, closed the door herself. "What happened?"

"They ... my family's kidnapped - Marie-Christine, the children, all three of them."

"What? But - " Laila stopped herself, pulled him into the next room, which was the kitchen and pressed him onto a chair. Then she filled a glass of water.

"Drink this."

"Water? Give me a drink, a real one."

Somewhere a blow, and only his burning cheek told Ramon that Laila's flat hand had hit his face.

"I swear, Ramon - if I see the bottle in your hand, I'll kick you in your privates. And now drink this."

He grabbed the glass, his fingers shaky. Took a gulp, another, downed the rest. "Yes ... Yes, okay, you're right."

She filled it again and put it into his hands.

While he sipped slowly, Laila went out. Ramon heard her murmuring in the next room. Who was she - for God's sake, she wasn't calling the ... He was up and reached her. "Who did you call? Did you call the cops?" He wished he had the strength to shake her.

"Of course not." She took him and pulled him close to herself. "Who may I have called? The best help I can think of, and you too - if you can think, that is."

No Ramon couldn't, but didn't need that to know whom to expect. In a while, the thought might give him some relief, while right now a strong body, soft at the same time, somehow totally different from Marie-Christine, was taking off the tension that had kept him at the edge of breaking.

Some minutes later, Ramon saw that his guess had been only halfway correct. Yes, Harry was here as expected. And with him, not quite as expected, Cho.

* * *

Somehow, Cho thought, the old saying had failed here. God, as it went, punished small sins instantly. Only a threesome was no small sin, because it wasn't a sin at all, and even if so - the punishment had to be in proportion, wasn't that so, rather than this horrible nightmare here.

But then, maybe the punishment was to be caught out of bed, still in the afterglow of their lovemaking, except that it had been Cho's own decision to come with Harry, if you could call it a decision, because she couldn't imagine any other reaction, hearing about Marie-Christine being kidnapped together with her children.

Had to be a merciless God, if there was any, using close friends as the tools of fate.

Which was nonsense, this wasn't an action directed toward herself, Cho shouldn't have such egocentric thoughts, not with Ramon sitting there, deceptively calm. Small wonder - Harry had tranced him a bit and now was interviewing him to get the exact wording of this phony conversation, while Laila kept writing it down.

In a corner of her mind, Cho wondered if Laila had registered where she'd called Harry and herself from. There hadn't been time to shower, to get rid of the smell. Anyway, it didn't matter, Cho didn't gave a damn, pushed off the crazy thought of small punishments, concentrated on what Ramon was telling.

Watching the scene, her mind was distracted again - not entirely this time, it had more to do with the methods and tools used here. Laila had to write because there was no tape recorder, no dictapen either - sure, a short jump into the office would have brought such items over, only none of them felt in the mood, and for the few remarks, there was no real need.

Something else would have been more useful, something she would remember, and discuss with her engineers. Why wasn't there a recorder function in these phonies? Just the last ten calls or so, with that, they could have listened to the exact intonation, to the voice of that woman.

A woman ... Strange, wasn't it? In the first moments after arriving here, Cho couldn't help thinking that yesterday's heroes - if this was the proper term - had messed up thoroughly, the kidnappers were still around, Laila's call the most obvious proof. She didn't think so any longer.

This woman - was she a mother of her own? Had anybody beside Cho herself registered this detail which seemed to be significant? That right now, for Marie-Christine the situation was considerably better than for her husband? Because she was with her children, didn't have to endure the mind-tearing experience of being kept off, knowing them in the hands of other people.

If she was still alive.

The former kidnappers had established some kind of standard in this regard, only they didn't count any longer, this case was different in so many aspects ...

For a fleeting instant, Cho pondered the most horrible alternative - the children dead and Marie-Christine alive, fully aware of it. She dismissed it at once, somehow it was too unrealistic and, more importantly, an unbearable thought.

Another detail of the phony design kept her mind busy for a short while. If the caller - or the called person, for that matter - didn't want to be identified, the phony obeyed. A phony was a magical device, and the magical power was the same in each of them - as a consequence, there was no way to overrule one phony's decision by another one.

This design had been crucial for the success of Groucho Communications, actually the one and only key factor. In an era of nation-wide authorities with questionable morale, running wild with billion dollar budgets, spying out the most private details, the promise of untraceable communication had been the major force in the decline of conventional cellular phones. The competition had tried everything to break the argument, without success.

Against knowing better, Cho wished they had built different levels of power - if only for a few, well selected people. And Ramon would have been one of them, and now they would order his phony to reveal the origin of that call, the name of that woman ...

They'd never do it, the business risk was uncalculable. And Cho was never going to discuss the idea with Harry, knowing all too well how he would react. Still, right in this second ...

The others were done with interviewing Ramon under his trance. Harry woke him up, and the glassy look in Ramon's eyes changed to a dark glow, now turning into her direction. He started, "Cho - the money, the five millions - "

"Save it," she interrupted him. "I'm going to call the bank in a while - I'd do it now, if not for some other things we have to talk about first."

His gaze didn't falter. "You know that I can't pay back?"

She dismissed the sharp reply that had crossed her mind first. Before she could find a better answer, Harry said, "They've involved Groucho right from the beginning. They did it on purpose, look what this woman said. It means something, except I have no idea what. Does anybody have a suggestion?"

Laila said, "Pretty simple - money. They want to get rich at once, probably planned it as a one-timer."

"Hmm ... Could be." Harry looked dissatisfied. "Somehow it doesn't sound right, only I can't see anything better. But while on the subject ..." Checking the other faces, he asked, "Who thinks these are the same people as in the previous cases?"

Holding his stare, Ramon said, "Don't ask me, because I wish to God they were."

Harry nodded. "Yes, of course. But wasn't this answer enough?"

Ramon exchanged a glance with Laila, then turned back to Harry.

"You two, you've been there. Tell me honestly, why isn't there the slightest doubt that you caught the right people?"

Harry looked at Laila. "You first."

Laila sniffed. "What can I ... okay, Ramon, listen. You've been a cop, tell me what it means. They have an intruder alarm on the roof, they hear the loudspeaker, and what then? No sign of surrender, not a single word of discussion, they try to kill the people in that vehicle, kill their own people, and when they realize apparating doesn't work, they blow a hole in the roof and try to escape. If these weren't the kidnappers, who were they? Some crazy sect?"

Without answering, Ramon's eyes turned to Harry.

"My own argument is the exchange with that guy in the van," Harry said. "Not even the words - just what I felt in his mind. There hasn't been the slightest trace of a question, about why I'm there, what I want from him - he knew, he knew I knew, as simple as that."

Wondering in his voice, Ramon said, "So these are copycats, then?"

Cho said, "I don't believe it. Maybe they were inspirited somehow, but to me it looks so different. What's really common? Just the crime, kidnapping - is a murderer a copycat just because people kill people all the time?"

Into Harry's and Laila's glances at her, after she had presented this unwelcome picture, Ramon said, "You're right. These are fake similarities, I shouldn't have fallen to that mistake, only that I'm too preoccupied - "

Cho said quickly, "That woman, Ramon - could you try to classify her a bit? Or is it too early to ask?"

"No. Yes, but later it's too late ..." Ramon looked desperate.

Harry stepped behind his chair. "Lean back - I'm not going to trance you, just a bit soothing."

Ramon obeyed, closed his eyes, and exhaled. After some seconds of silence, he said, "Well educated - her choice of words, totally different from the common pattern, that's no second edition of Bonnie and Clyde. But she's a mean old bitch, no denying that - past her forties for sure, if not older."

Suddenly he opened his eyes, looked perplexed. "Jesus!"

"What?" Almost unison from three people.

"The accent." Ramon seemed close to embarrassment. "I'm so used to it, it nearly slipped my attention." He stared at Harry, then at Cho. "She must be British."

Cho wasn't the only one for whom this information put an entirely new light onto the events. What she had thought some minutes ago, that someone was using Ramon and his family just as a tool for some other purpose, went through her mind again, stronger than before.

Who was the real target, or what? Groucho? Harry? Then why Ramon? Ramon meant Biochemicals - was this an indicator for something else, which could only refer to the Great Plot?

Or maybe Ramon was only the borderline figure, and Marie-Christine played the more important role. Cho tried to dismiss this thought immediately, because thinking in that direction made the money irrelevant, only that she couldn't wave off events of the past. Marie-Christine had once been the target of a killing attempt - well, a single figure, dead for a long time, but some people might not have forgotten. Marie-Christine had been the one who revealed Voldemort's devilish plot, and as incoherent as it seemed, children and kidnapping and higher purposes were the common factors Cho couldn't deny.

She would talk with Harry about her thoughts, but only with him alone. It wouldn't help Ramon to see himself - or his family - as some chess figures, moved or knocked down as some players felt suitable. And maybe this was all nonsense. Only she didn't think so.

A British woman ... It seemed as if some memory from the past was trying to gain her attention, to offer an explanation. Only Cho had no idea how to catch it - no matter which figures she remembered, there was just no woman among them that might qualify as a suspect. At least not in the foreground.

* * *

Laila listened to Harry's and Cho's attempts of drawing a profile of the kidnappers, something useful to work with. As if this would help - yes, maybe later, to catch them, only this was their least worry at the moment. All that mattered was getting Ramon's family back home, alive and unhurt.

Well, in this regard, they did their best. Laila had registered how Cho just barely suppressed a hissing remark when Ramon tried to talk about the money. Five millions - manageable by Groucho, sure, however quite a sum. Because it had to be cash, what else, and Groucho's resources were stressed to the limit with the expanding GTS business at one side and the ever-hungry Great Plot at the other. Only it didn't matter - not if Marie-Christine was involved.

Marie-Christine, who couldn't do wrong. Aside, that was, from having the clumsiness to fall into the hands of kidnappers.

Was it jealousy? And if so, to which side? Cho? Harry? Or maybe Ramon?

Yes it was, although none of the conventional kind, had nothing to do with sex. Marie-Christine had been able to predict Voldemort's strategy, and this was the reason why both Harry and Cho would never stop doing everything for her.

And for her children too - remembering them, Laila felt a sting of shame about her thinking. Only she was no mother, didn't want to, she only wanted to do something as important as Marie-Christine had done for these two people talking with Ramon.

From this perspective, other issues were trivial. For instance, that Marie-Christine had been their lover. Besides, thought Laila, maybe she had to be thankful for that because without this first experience, her own relationship with them - especially with Cho - might have turned out differently.

Probably so - only a sense of obligation was the worst thing to fight a sense of jealousy, so much for sure. And while on the subject - there was little doubt her call had found them two at the worst time, so to speak.

No, not quite. But right afterwards.

Just then, Cho stood up and said she was going next door to talk with her bank. Turning to Laila, she added, "Please come with me, I guess you'll be the one to take it from the bank."

Was she? Coming awake with another sting of guilt, Laila followed.

Contrary to Laila's expectation, Cho called the local Gringotts residence, rather than the Muggle bank. Listening to the surprisingly short conversation, Laila became aware why - a sentence like, five millions, in bills no larger than hundreds, was good to trigger the most unpleasent attention. Except you said it to Goblins, and your name was Potter.

Cho finished, "Thank you, Mr Garaudin - and we agree this is a Groucho transaction, not a private one, don't we? .... Good ... Yes, thank you again and goodbye."

At the risk of burning her mouth, Laila asked, "What does it mean, a Groucho transaction?"

The glance she earned told her, asking had been a mistake. But oh wonder, next instant Cho flushed and said, "The Goblins refuse to charge our private account with any expense. And of course they knew at once what it meant when I said, bills no larger than hundreds." Keeping her voice low, Cho added, "Please don't let Harry know that you know."

"Er - yes."

Somewhat baffled, Laila wondered why this was so embarrassing, dropped the thought - the mysteries of the relationship between the Goblins and the Potters were an issue for another occasion.

Now Cho surprised her again, by hugging her and whispering, "That you called us right at the spot, that was great, Laila. We owe you for that."

Into her hot rush of joy, Laila asked, "Why? Wasn't it obvious?"

Cho stepped back to look into her face. "Not quite, and you know it. Maybe tomorrow, or eventually, yes - but you didn't even ask for permission. That's the fine difference I won't forget." Watching Laila's face, Cho asked, "You weren't surprised to see me here, were you?"

"Well, er - at your time of day, er, night, I mean ..."

A sparkling appeared in Cho's eyes. "You know what I like at you so much? You've got the most tactful way of being blunt."

Laila felt herself flush.

"I for myself never managed that style. There are only few occasions where I miss it, but this might be one of them." Cho bent closer. "Can you stay with Ramon? Overnight?"

Laila hadn't planned to leave soon. She had made no plans at all. Hearing Cho's words, registering them, she suppressed a gasp, totally helpless against the burning of her cheeks.

"You thought it was only Marie-Christine that brought me here? And the children?" The look in Cho's face was far from teasing, showed only tenderness.

Laila nodded.

"You forget Ramon's role in my own kidnapping. Maybe it was a minor one, he'll be the first to emphasize that, except I'm as bad as Harry in scaling obligations."

Had this just been proof that Cho could well be tactfully blunt? At this moment, Laila felt it difficult to cope with the pace of her emotions.

"It's the right thing to do," said Cho, "you know it. And now, before we walk over - would you please look where you left your poker face?"

Good question, really, and quite a joke that Cho was asking that, after her own - but she was right, by all means ... The beeping of a phony in the other room solved Laila's problem at once.

Somehow they managed not to get locked in the doorframe.

But it was only Harry's phony. They heard him ask, "Where is it?" and for a second Laila thought the kidnappers had contacted him.

Then he switched off and looked up. "That was Sheila. The van driver's going to be released tomorrow morning. I have to look for that place now, to be ready when he's coming out."

Then he had to explain what he was talking about. Finishing, he muttered, "Somehow, and all of a sudden, that seems the most unimportant thing."

Minutes later, Harry and Cho left, and Laila was alone with Ramon, who looked up from his brooding. "What about you?"

"I'll stay."

That rattled him. "To do what?"

"To keep you off the booze." It had been the first thing that came to her mind, short of the truth. Seeing his face, Laila added quickly, "And myself too."

Ramon glared at her, deep suspicion in his face. "You're a liar, Laila Belezikijan. I mean, thank you for your help when I needed it, but you should go now."

How right he was. "Why?"

Ramon looked under himself. "Because I might have stupid ideas. But I promise you - an Alka Seltzer will be the strongest drink."

"I know that, Ramon." Laila swallowed. "Only ... I promised your boss to - er, take care of you."

His head twisted up. He stared at her, saw she was serious, made a sound like a short laugh. "That's good, really! Yes, that's her - only, funny as it sounds, this alone will make sure nothing will happen." Ramon's head was shaking slowly. "Jesus ... Well, okay, so we'll give each other company - in this case, maybe we should eat something. Problem is, I don't think I can manage a bite."

"I'm not hungry either."

"Then what?"

Laila had an idea, felt unsure whether this was the right time, only she knew from experience that it was never too early to be prepared. "I think we should discuss your strategy for the exchange."


Feeling uneasier by the second, Laila said, "When you pass over the money. Some schedule to make sure they aren't cheating, not more than ... You know, when to ask for a proof they're still ..." She wasn't able to finish her sentence.

But it worked - halfway, at least. "Yes," said Ramon, "you're right, we mustn't leave all the initiative to the other side ... It's like in one of these hostage cases, isn't it? For each thing they get, they have to give something in return."

After a few seconds silence, he looked at her. "But I can't, Laila. Not now. All I can think - I'll do everything they say."

She stood up, walked over, took his hand, pulled him after her into the guest room she knew from earlier visits. She made him lie down on the bed - a single one, however French size. She took off his shoes, murmuring something about making sure Marie-Christine wouldn't chide them. Then she stripped off her own shoes, laid down at his side.

He was lying stiff like a corpse.

She rolled around, pulled him to his side, took his head into her arm. "Come, my Latin macho, weep a bit."

"Why should I?" It came muffled.

"Because that's what Latin machos are supposed to do. Either they fuck, or they weep, so I've been told. And - well, since you've excluded the other so categorically ..."

"That's crap, is what they told you."

She didn't answer.

After a minute or so, he said, "Maybe I was a bit rash in excluding some options."

Laila still wondered if Ramon was trying to encourage himself when she heard his first sobbing.

It took a while until he could calm down. At the end, the thing in her arms no longer felt like a piece of wood, resembled more a male body. Very much so, actually, at least from her own perspective. She said, "Talking about options - ever so slowly, I could do with some food."

Ramon rolled onto his back. "Yes, I might even join you."

None of them moved.

After a while, she said, "Ramon?"


"It looked like a good idea, what Cho suggested, but I think it doesn't work. Not - er, for us. We aren't as reckless as them, that's the difference."

A moment's silence, then, "Yeah, could be. I think I'm as brave as the next best man, but ... Although, I have to admit, I'm a bit scared of tonight."

"Are you?"

"I don't think I can sleep. Lying awake alone - I'll be nuts after two hours."

"And not alone?"

"Erm - well, you know, could be that time works for itself, if you know what I mean ..."

"But only after two hours, huh?" Laila's voice had risen in pitch.

"What - "

She was up. "That's exactly what to expect from a bloody lieutenant! Yes, maybe, perhaps, repeat no under no circumstances, except in case of emergency - I didn't leave the army to hear that crap again, and I'm not going to roll around two hours until ..."

Maybe her shouting had started as a joke, only to change into burning rage, and then to something else. At any rate, and although she couldn't see well through the tears of fury in her eyes - a fury with an unclear target - she had started to unbutton shirts and unzip trousers with a fierce determination.

She found no resistance, and after a short moment of shock and surprise, she found even support.