Harry would be the first to admit he had a tepid interest in magical creatures. While he took The Care of Magical Creatures and got a respectable ‘Exceeds Expectations’ O.W.L. on the subject, he didn’t expand his knowledge since leaving Hogwarts.
That said, Harry had something related to magical creatures that he had wondered about. A bugging question that refused to go away.
“Why would anyone want to breed a basilisk?” Harry asked.
“That’s what I want you to find out,” Kingsley Shacklebolt, acting Minister for Magic, intoned. “Before you ask, we’re pretty sure it involves a basilisk. Normal de-enchantments were ineffective, and only the most potent Mandrake Restorative worked on the petrified victims. All who remember seeing ‘two glowing yellow eyes’ before losing consciousness. But we don’t know who did it, let alone why.”
“You don’t want me to find out who?”
“I would love for you to find out who, but you’re still technically a trainee.”
“Sounds like I shouldn’t get involved at all,” Harry said.
“There’s nothing wrong with a trainee looking into the potential motive.” Kingsley clasped his large hands. “I also thought this could serve as a good showcase for the forensic crime lab you’ve been lobbying for. It would certainly give me an idea on what we need to build one.”
Harry did his best not to jump prematurely. The last time Harry sat in a meeting that discussed his request for a crime lab, he got the impression the current head of the Department of Law Enforcement didn’t grasp the need, let alone the concept, of forensics. Instead, she had a lot of questions on why it was taking Harry so long to pass the Auror Exams.
Speaking of his failures: “It’s a pity Dawlish won’t waive the physical. We’ve done it before, and Lestrade was of the opinion you can pass the Muggle-equivalent with flying colors,” Kingsley remarked.
Harry was of the opinion Dawlish didn’t want the problems and pitfalls of having Harry Potter in the Auror Office for the remainder of his career.
“I’m thinking of dropping out and going to medical school.”
“Don’t be hasty.”
Harry sat back and crossed his arms. “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a kid. I got accepted to the University of London and University of Liverpool. Dr. Dame Sue Black promised to mentor me. Besides, Scotland Yard is more than happy to support my future career as a medical examiner.” Take that, Harry thought.
In the end, Harry accepted the case, but only after Kingsley promised to have a serious talk with Dawlish about the possibility of Harry going Muggle. (Something no one wanted.)
“I’m going to medical school even if I qualify,” Harry said as he rose from his seat.
“Consider me warned,” Kingsley replied, and wished Harry good luck.
The first thing Harry did after leaving Kingsley’s office was texting Ron, his handy gauge for the ‘average wizard’. He expected Ron’s response to proclaim: Harry, your spectacular ignorance in wizard culture is showing!
Ron called an hour later and gave Harry the squint. This meant he was questioning the question itself.
“There are nutters who breed snakes that can kill you with just a look?”
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them mentions dark wizards who do, despite the dangers,” Harry reminded him. “Doesn’t say why they breed them in the first place.”
Ron scratched his head. “Bragging rights? Stupidity?”
Those were good, standard reasons for most crime. In Harry’s (thus far short) experience in investigating Muggle crime, he’d seen criminals do stupider things out of macho pride.
Still, breed a monster snake you can’t control and can kill you with eye contact for the flex? There had to be a better reason.
Harry asked his other wizard-raised friends and got various answers that ranged from exotic pet ownership, to prestige (again), to poison collection (Harry forgot about its venomous fangs). After wondering if he could compare the toxicity of basilisk venom against, say, a box jellyfish or an Inland Taipan, Harry sat down and imagined how he’d control one without the benefit of congenital parseltongue.
One could learn parseltongue. Like other human languages, one could train to recognize and interpret snake speech, Dumbledore confirmed as much. But unlike, say, Mermish and Troll, training material weren’t readily available. When Harry asked Kingsley, he was told while learning parseltongue wasn’t illegal, per se, the distribution and access of related literature was highly regulated.
“We keep the limited volumes in circulation with a strong tracing spell. That way we can keep a list of potential black market Runespoor egg brokers.”
Harry’s blank look elicited a smile from Kingsley.
“Runespoor eggs are a key ingredient for mental agility potions.”
Harry looked up Runespoors later. They were snakes that had three heads and laid eggs via their mouths. More relevant to the case, Runespoor eggs had been a prized potion ingredient since the middle ages.
Anyway, if he traced those who checked out parseltongue material, he could track those who were interested in basilisk breeding. After he sifted out those who were into the safer and more profitable business of selling Runespoor eggs.
Seriously, though. Basilisk breeding. Who does that?
“Perhaps this is my inner Sherlock talking,” Harry muttered whilst spooning pureed butternut squash into Beatrice’s mouth, “but maybe there’s a serial poisoner going about murdering people with basilisk venom. I doubt it, though. That stuff destroys like universal acid. I should know.”
Benedict, who was feeding himself, nodded sagely. “Like the Hi-Fi murders.”
Harry cycled through the familiar: What in God’s name was Sherlock thinking?! Why would Sherlock tell Benedict, age five, about the 1970s case where several men raided a Hi-Fi shop in Utah and attempted to kill their hostages with industrial drain cleaner (i.e. hydrochloric acid)? Unlike the Dirty Harry movie they got the idea from, the drain cleaner didn’t kill their victims instantly, but made them choke and gag as their mouths blistered. A painful 22 hour death would have ensued, had the murderers not gunned their hostages down out of impatience.
Then Harry remembered his own upbringing and wondered why he was at all surprised. Perhaps he should’ve feigned greater trauma over his childhood criminology lessons. Clearly, Sherlock decided since Harry turned out okay, he could freely discuss gruesome crimes with his younger children.
Harry went on to speculate what prompted the lecture to begin with. He fancied Benedict did what a lot of other toddlers did: get into dangerous cleaning supplies out of curiosity. He guessed Sherlock felt the need to elaborate when Benedict inevitably retorted: “why?”
“Your lives are going to be so absurd,” Harry told his siblings as he wrapped lunch.
Harry deposited Benedict and Beatrice in Mrs. Hudson’s care and spent the next few hours ruminating over reasons a person would want a basilisk for.
He went exactly nowhere. Not even the powers of sleep, walks, and long showers brought additional insight.
He needed someone to bounce ideas with. This used to be easy; he’d rally all of his closest friends to the Music Room and they’d discuss. Now he needed to work around everyone’s schedule and set up meetings. (Alas, adulthood!) Harry quickly learned to limit the number of friends to invite because juggling over three people was asking for failure. That brought the question of whom to ask.
He decided against Ron and Hermione, the former because he was Harry’s barometer for the ordinary law-abiding wizard, and the latter because she was by nature Lawful Good, therefore lacking in devious imagination. Devious Imagination brought up George and Fred, but something made Harry hesitate. The lack of criminal knowledge and law enforcement background, perhaps? He certainly couldn’t see them helping Harry with the tedium of evidence gathering and processing. Neville would be happy to help with evidence gathering, but he was a master of plants, not potions. Harry always imagined having an army of potioneers in his (so far mythical) crime lab and consulting Neville on a need-to basis.
He needed someone who had Hermione’s prodigious intellect and attention to detail, Fred and George’s imagination for rule breaking, and who had a specific set of skills. At least, someone had the potential to gain them.
He could think of only one such friend.
“Hey, Julia, can we have lunch tomorrow?”
It took a day and half of text exchanges to settle on a date, time and place. While coordinating, it hit Harry all over how much he missed seeing Julia daily.
The year Harry had been preparing to take the GCSEs, and a trainee Auror at the same time, Julia was still in Hogwarts, finishing her final year. He had been busy, often to the point of forgetting to eat or sleep, but he always wished he could still go to the music room and know he would find her there.
Now it took a monumental work of coordination to meet. How did their lives become so divergent?
They met up at a Starbucks, because it was easier for Harry to have private conversations in the Muggle world. Even now, Harry attracted a gaggle of eavesdroppers and rubberneckers whenever he ventured into, say, Diagon Alley. (He could don a disguise, of course, but why bother?)
“Are you still working at Cixin’s laboratory?” Harry asked while they waited for their drinks. The moment the words left his mouth, he knew she wasn’t. She didn’t have the unique perfume of someone who spent the majority of her time inside a potions lab, full of the preservatives and dried herbs that composed the many potions proliferating today.
Julia swiveled her right hand. “Still working for Cixin, but not in the potions lab.”
“I’m working on magical tattoos.”
Harry felt himself leaning towards her as whatever agendas he’d had dissolved into the pit of Irrelevant. “What?”
Julia explained the history of tattoos among wizards with relish. How they were yet another alternative to wands, and that when it came to spell-casting reliability, it was the conduit that trumped all others.
“But, of course, with permanence comes rigidity,” Julia said. “If your tattooist cocks up, you’re screwed.”
Harry’s mouth twitched. “Gotta make sure your tattooist isn’t out to sabotage you.”
The barista called out their names. Harry and Julia picked up their lattes and commandeered seats at the bar. Harry urged Julia to continue after he cast a wordless muffliato.
“I wondered if there was a way to get the benefits of tattoos, but not its static nature,” Julia said. “I mean, you can categorize spells according to a set of… themes. Purposes. Like, we have an entire family of charms that are basically about moving an object, and another family of charms that’s about changing colour, and so on.”
“Therefore, if you ink the root of a spell, all derivatives could branch from there,” Harry finished. “It would be great if it worked out. I can see it benefiting people who have a magic equivalent of learning disability, say.”
“My thoughts, too.” Julia beamed. “So are you an Auror yet?”
Julia frowned at him.
Harry stared out the shop window and watched the cars and people pass by.
“Failed the physical. Twice.” He clutched his cup. “There’s this exam called Hell Week. You run around in the bush without food, sleep or rest for ten days, trying to capture your designated dark wizard before they can kill you.”
“Ten days is not a week.”
“They wanted to call it the Fortnight in Hell, but the death toll got too high.”
“Death toll, not the failure rate.”
“Well, basically everyone failed, so.”
Harry took a fortifying sip of milky espresso before facing Julia again.
She was still frowning, but at something else.
“I don’t see how anyone can last that long without sleep. Don’t you go psychotic after 48 hours without it?”
“That’s why there are so few Aurors.” Harry opted to not voice his opinion that pure luck determined which trainee qualified after Hell Week. “If it ended the moment you capture the dark wizard, I would’ve been fine. But you have to stay in the bush for ten days. No exceptions. That’s where I don’t make it.” Harry’s stamina lasted him two days; more than enough to capture his dark wizard, and all that of others, but not enough to last in the bush.
Julia’s frown transformed into a full-blown scowl. Like she was about to hunt down the Auror Qualification Board and rain Shin Family vengeance on their heads. It was warming to imagine, even if inadvisable.
“Doesn’t sound fair. Or applicable to real life.”
“Kingsley agrees with you.”
Julia took a small sip of her green tea latte (oat milk, dark brown sugar). Harry watched the way her face smoothed back to neutral.
“So what are your plans now?”
“Medical school. Doctor was always my first career choice. Not sure what I want to specialise in, but Dr. Dame Sue Black promised to mentor me in human anatomy. Dr. Dick Shepherd is another person I might study under.”
“Two forensic medicine heavy weights you name-dropped there.”
“Got your dad to thank for that.”
Julia smiled behind her cup. “But then?”
“Kingsley brought me this interesting proposal: can you build a forensics lab for the Auror Department?”
Now it was Julia’s turn to freeze, lower her drink, and lean in with bright eyes.
“He wants you to build a magical forensics lab?”
Harry told Julia about his endless bemoaning over the lack of forensics education in the Auror curriculum, the appalling lack of formal forensics in the wizard legal system, and Kingsley’s idea of using Harry to demonstrate the need of a forensics lab through the curious case of the phantom basilisk.
“I don’t know what’s more disturbing,” Julia said after a beat. “That the Auror Office functions without forensics or that there are people who might breed basilisks.”
“It’s not that Aurors don’t do forensics,” Harry said. “They collect evidence. They interview witnesses and take down their testimonies. But there’s nothing formal about the processing and the storage, let alone presenting the evidence in court. As for basilisk breeders, I don’t the foggiest clue why anyone would want one. Well, one that doesn’t involve terrorism or dark wizard peacocking at any rate.”
Julia nodded as she regarded Harry with a frown.
“Have you seen the bodies?”
“I heard about the case only after the victims were de-petrified via mandrake restorative.”
“Are you sure it’s a basilisk?” Julia probed.
Harry opened his mouth to say yes, but something stopped him.
“Kingsley said ‘all the victims recalled seeing a pair of glowing yellow eyes before losing consciousness’.”
“A lot of things can have a pair of glowing yellow eye-like things,” Julia pointed out.
This was why Harry needed teammates to bounce ideas with. It hadn’t occurred to him to question the description. “And the eyes may not belong to the culprit.”
Julia nodded. “What I find interesting,” she said, “is that the Ministry was able to de-petrify the victims so quickly. I mean, back in our day, didn’t it take six or seven months before Madam Pomfrey got her hands on a mandrake restorative?”
“Not a lot of people cultivate mandrakes,” Harry said. “They’re a hazard with limited practical usage.”
“True,” Julia said. “But that makes the Ministry’s ability to restore the victims in less than six months even more unusual.”
“Definitely something to look into. I actually don’t know when the incident took place, or how long it took the Auror-in-charge to de-petrify the victims.”
“Well, then,” Julia said. “Your first order of business is to talk to the Auror-in-charge. Then you’ve got to find out all the monsters that can petrify a person so severely only a mandrake restorative can undo the curse. I can think of two creatures besides Basilisks off the top of my head: Gorgons and catoblepas.”
“What’s a catoblepas?”
Julia showed him a picture of what looked like a wildebeest with a bowed, absurdly top-heavy head.
“Things you don’t learn at school,” Harry muttered. “Okay, it could have been a different gaze-turns-you-to-stone creature. Jury’s still out why anyone would want that in their secret lair. I also need to ask the Auror-in-charge how they procured the mandrakes and find out who brewed and administered the restorative. The supplier could have been the breeder who had them in case things went tits up.”
“Sounds like a lot of work,” Julia said. “This is all unofficial, right? You’re doing this on your own time.”
“I have the Minister for Magic’s endorsement, but no, I’m not working in an official capacity.”
“Do you realize you’re in the same situation as Clarice Starling?”
Harry didn’t until now. “No way. I’m not pretty enough, and I have no serial-killing cannibals to interview.”
Julia glared. “Why stick your neck out like this? Why is it so important to you to establish a real, functioning forensics lab that you’re willing to put your life in jeopardy? Because if it really is a basilisk you’re hunting, you know damn well that you could get killed while looking for it. Why?”
Harry had to take a moment to parse his words. He never really thought about what made him harp over forensics and medical examiners throughout his Auror training. Why it bothered him so much that the supposedly elite group of dark magic investigators had such a blase attitude towards forensics.
“Sirius broke up with Dr. Hooper,” Harry began, words pouring out in a jumble. “She stabbed his hand with a fork. A plastic fork, but still. It left scars.”
Julia nodded without comment.
“She stabbed him when he refused to tell her why he’d vanished for three months without a word or warning,” Harry said. “I can sympathize; if he just went on and on about how he was going to make up for it without a plausible excuse, I might have stabbed him, too, just to shut him up.”
Julia continued to say nothing. Just waited.
“It wasn’t the first time he pulled a vanishing act on her,” Harry continued. “There were several. He usually spends them as a dog. Other times, even Sherlock doesn’t know where he faffed off to. He doesn’t know why he does it. But I can guess: Azkaban flashback induced episode.” He loosened his grip around his disposable coffee cup, which was leaking because he was squeezing it too hard. “He needs therapy. So much therapy. But he can’t see a Muggle therapist because there’s a real danger of him transforming into a dog in the middle of a session. He can’t see a wizard therapist because mental health professionals aren’t a thing.”
Harry clenched his fists.
“Whenever I see him in these moments, I can’t help but think… if they just f***ing looked at the f***ing evidence, this never would’ve happened. If they just held a f***ing trial, maybe he wouldn’t have rotted in prison for ten years.” He slowed his breathing. “Not bloody likely, I know. Not when everyone knew he was a murderer. But if there had been someone whose job it was to look at the evidence objectively, maybe…”
Harry trailed off. Julia reached over and covered his hand. Rubbed her thumb over his knuckles in soothing circles until they stopped being so white.
They sat like that for an extended beat.
“When will you examine the crime scene?” Julia asked at last. “I need to give Cixin at least a day’s notice.”
There was nothing Harry wanted more in the world than having Julia at his side. However, “You know you don’t have to, right? Listening to me babble on and giving me ideas is already going above and beyond.”
Julia gave him the ‘Harry, you stupid f***wit’ look. She had given it to him several times in the past, most notably before he tried to confront Voldemort alone. Whenever Harry persisted in his stupidity, (and, God, he could be so f***ing stupid), he usually ended up stunned and waking up only after it was too late to prevent Julia from getting involved in his mess.
“I’ll ask Kingsley now.”
To be continued…