A string of spittle fell from Freddie’s lip and onto his copy of the Daily Prophet. He wiped his mouth quickly and casually looked round the waiting room to see if anyone had noticed and, to his dismay, found his nephew smirking at him. Freddie returned the smirk, as if to suggest that he intended for Nigel to catch him slobbering all over the newspaper.
“Ahhh, how interesting,” Freddie said to his paper, even though he really meant to address the other people sitting in the room. On this day, Freddie was trying much too hard to play the part of “smart chap,” what with his reading the newspaper and his excessive use of pomade on his mangy hair.
“Well go on then,” said Nigel’s father, James. “We can all gather that you’re just aching to share the news with us. What titillating information have the sports writers got in store for us today? Has Harry McDowell been traded over to the Russians?”
“I read other things besides the Quidditch updates!” Freddie said resentfully. “This here’s an opinion piece from one of Nigel’s professors: ‘Muggles: Their Underestimated Power,’ it’s called.”
Freddie commenced with struggling to read aloud from a passage that was a touch too verbose for him:
“‘For too long we wizarding folk have cast aspersions at non-magical people – so-called “muggles” – as being inherently backward and unsophisticated. Most of us, however, have at best only a rudimentary understanding of how the non-magical world works. In fact, my own research has shown that, to a certain extent, non-magical people can perform many of the same miracles that we wizards can. This is especially true in modern times, where the latest technology has made it possible for doctors (their term for Healers) to detect – and even sometimes cure – diseases that kill thousands of magical and non-magical people each year…’
Hear that, Penny? Apparently you and James are no better than some muggle doctor. What rubbish!”
“Do you know what amazes me?” Penelope asked her brother. “Is how you can sit there, reading that paper, acting as though nothing is wrong.”
“You obviously have no frame of reference for understanding what Professor Quirrell is saying,” Nigel said to Freddie.
“This family is being torn apart,” Penelope lamented. She dressed as a funeral attendee might: in all black, as if to mourn the imminent loss of her brother to Azkaban prison and the loss of her son’s innocence after having been violently attacked by a grown wizard.
“For example,” Nigel continued, “if you’d bother to read the muggle papers or watch their news, you’d know that they don’t need magic to kill one another.”
“My own brother, performing wicked spells on his nephew!” Penelope went on. “His flesh and blood!”
Nigel fought to be heard over his mother. “In fact, muggles have developed more efficient means for mass murder than I think even we magical people have. Have you heard of these things called nuclear bombs? Or this napalm stuff the Americans have been using in Vietnam? If that’snot dark magic, then I don’t know what is.”
A pimply young clerical worker entered the waiting room. The McPhersons and Patils waited anxiously for the Ministry lad to make an announcement.
“Anderson?” He called out to the room. “Mr. Anderson?”
From the back of the room a mangy old fellow made his way slowly to the secretary. Meanwhile, everyone else who had been waiting slumped back in their chairs, deflated; once again, they had not been called into trial.
“How’re you feeling there, Nigie?” James asked his son.
“Oh, just fine thank you,” Nigel answered.
James secretly bristled at Nigel’s sarcasm, but made a strategic decision to ignore it. “Er, look, don’t be cross with me for saying this, but I’ve noticed you’ve been wearing lots more muggle clothes recently…”
Nigel looked down at his yellow turtleneck and jeans as though he forgot what he’d put on that morning.
“Now, you know I normally don’t mind how you dress,” James continued, “but I just wonder if it was the right decision to wear those clothes today. You’re not trying to be provocative or anything, are you? Because I fear your appearance isn’t really going to score you points with the judges. They’re a highly conservative lot, after all.”
“I thought you and mum said I don’t have anything to worry about?” said Nigel. “It’s not my fault that that slug over there decided to toss me round the alley in front of a muggle, is it?”
“Of course, of course, it’s just…”
“Stop it, James!” Penelope ordered her husband. “Nigel is probably on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown right now; he doesn’t need to hear your needless worrying.”
“Yeah, you do look a bit like a hippy, Nigel,” said Freddie.
Penelope and James in unison: “What did we say about talking to our son?”
“But he was tryin’ to argue with me just a moment ago!” said Freddie, like a child trying to pass blame onto another sibling.
“What did we say?”
“Fine.” Freddie returned to Professor Quirrell’s op-ed, adding some sneers and guffaws as he made his way through the professor’s arguments.
Nigel rubbed his still-aching chest. Though his bruise from the fall had gone down some, it remained rather large and painful.
It had been a week since his uncle attacked him in the presence of the muggle Mrs. Robinson. A flurry of activity had followed from that incident. When Nigel and Dipesh returned to their respective houses, they found letters from the Ministry and some very distraught parents waiting for them. The letters informed them that the boys had been suspected of using magic and were facing expulsion from Hogwarts; however, they were to be given the opportunity to defend themselves in court, as was customary. (The reader will recall that, utterly confounding as it may be, the Ministry is only able to detect the use of magic in the proximity of underage wizards, as they still have the Trace on them; yet their Trace analysts cannot definitively connect a spell back to a specific wand owner. Therefore, even though it was Freddie who cast the spell, it was initially Dipesh and Nigel who were suspected of using magic.) Meanwhile, the search was on in the Ministry for Mrs. Robinson, who hadn’t been seen since the incident and who, the Ministry feared, was about to spill the beans to the whole world about what she saw. (The Ministry investigators apparently failed to ask themselves a very simple question: who in their right mind would believe Mrs. Robinson’s story?).
Luckily for Dipesh and Nigel, their parents needed little convincing to believe that Freddie was the real assailant. The Patils and the McPhersons – respected names in many elite magical circles – wrote pleading letters to contacts of theirs at the Ministry, defending their boys’ innocence, claiming that it was all ne’er-do-well Freddie Ferguson’s fault. Some Ministry officials ignored the letters, but many wrote back. And all who did basically wrote the same thing: “we believe you, but nevertheless a trial must be held. The Ministry takes these matters very seriously.”
For a few days, Nigel and Dipesh felt rather gloomy about their situation. Though their parents were confident that they would quickly be found innocent and Uncle Freddie guilty, they had taken abuse from adults for too long to hope for a speedy trial. With his long hair and bohemian dress, Nigel was the poster child for youthful rebellion, and Dipesh was guilty by association. The boys felt certain, then, that the authorities would scheme to find any way they could to have them expelled – perhaps even locked up.
A glimmer of hope arrived when, just two days before the trial date, one of James’ mates at the Ministry wrote to inform him that Mrs. Robinson had finally been located. Supposedly, after some time of running down the streets and screaming about magic and floating teenagers, the muggle police picked her up and had her sent to a mental institution. Ministry agents, disguised as doctors, infiltrated the facility and rescued the poor muggle woman – who they knew was very much sane, albeit in an acute state of shock. They told her they believed her story, but that she would need to come with them for a time before she could be released back to her family. Relieved to be free from her wrongful imprisonment, Mrs. Robinson was prepared to fully cooperate with her strange liberators.
What this meant for Nigel and Dipesh was that they now had a witness who could corroborate their stories. A muggle would make a rare appearance in magical court in order to confirm that it was indeed Fred Ferguson who cast the Levicorpus spell – after which point the boys would be free to resume their normal lives, and Freddie would face whatever punishment the judge deemed appropriate. And Mrs. Robinson, her memory altered, would be free to return to her family – having no idea that, thanks to her, two teenagers’ promising young lives were saved from legal ruin.
“Ferguson, McPherson, and, er…PAH-til?” The young Ministry clerk had returned to finally call out the names of clans McPherson and Patil.
“That’s us!” Freddie said uselessly, as the two families had already begun to rise from their chairs.
Nigel thought that his uncle looked far too gleeful for a man who was likely about to be hauled off to Azkaban. Had he no sense at all? Did he even understand what was happening? How serious a thing like a court trial is?
With the Patils in the lead, the two families followed the clerk down a wide, low-ceiling hallway. Here in the lower levels of the Ministry, where court proceedings took place, all the courtrooms, waiting rooms, and alleyways were intentionally poorly lit so as to instill in court-goers a fear of magical law’s might. The hallway that the Patils and McPhersons walked down was only just saved from total darkness by a few dungeon-like lights scattered across the length of the passage. To be sure, the designers could have placed some charms throughout this floor to give it the appearance of radiant daylight washing through the building; but then those who stood accused of crimes might have their moods brightened, and who would want that?
Mr. and Mrs. Patil adopted an air of resolute confidence as they prepared to enter the courtroom behind the young clerk. They seemed to hope that their demeanor might have an effect on their son, who was visibly trembling. As well, they might have simply been wishing for the judge to see them as the upstanding magical family that everyone surely knew they were. Penelope and James McPherson attempted to mimic the example set by the Patils, their neighbors and longtime friends.
As for Freddie, well, he sort of just wandered into the courtroom, as though he had stumbled upon the place through happenstance. He gazed with dumb awe into the unending darkness above the court, nearly stumbling over a seat as he did so.
At the front of the court, just before the judge’s bench, Nigel and Dipesh and Freddie took their places at opposite ends of one another. Nigel’s and Dipesh’s parents regretted that they could not sit alongside their sons, but such was the law.
Nigel dug in for a legal haranguing; he fully expected that the trial would go on well into the night – perhaps even into the next morning. His throat was parched, as he had intentionally avoided having a drink, for he expected that there would be no breaks. His body ached in some places, and was numb in others. His heart, meanwhile, felt as though it had contracted into a shriveled prune, pulsating wildly but futilely as it tried to keep oxygen flowing through him. A few yards to the left of him, he could hear his uncle sniffling here and there while the judge casually shuffled through some papers. He knew well this tick of Freddie’s; sniffling was to Freddie as hair flipping was to Nigel.
The judge cleared his throat before beginning. “My apologies for the slight delay, we have had many cases today and I have been forced to quickly catch myself up to speed just now.”
Nigel and Dipesh looked at one another. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Did the judge honestly just say that he had only just now familiarized himself with the case at hand?
“Now,” the judge continued, “it appears that you lads here have been accused of using magic outside of school – which is, of course, a very serious breach of magical law. However, it would seem that the three of you – that’s you, you, and you” (he pointed at each of them in turn) “were not alone in that alleyway in which the scene of the crime took place. There was a muggle there as well, who apparently witnessed the entire scene, and who claims that it was Mr. Ferguson who in fact was the one to use magic that day. I understand that…” The judge looked over at his bailiff. “I understand that we have the witness with us today?”
The bailiff, a stout bald man with harsh features, nodded. “The honorable Judge Hampton calls forth Mrs. Robinson to the witness stand.”
Heads turned to the back of the courtroom, where two inspectors and Mrs. Robinson rose from their seats and began making their way to the front of the court. The muggle woman looked peculiar in the witches’ robes that had been provided her (as her other clothes were by now rather foul-smelling), but otherwise she appeared surprisingly calm. After the week that she had been through, it seemed that nothing could shock her anymore. A dragon could burst through the brick wall from behind the judge’s bench, sending the bailiff flying with one swish of its mighty tail, fire spewing from its nostrils, and Mrs. Robinson might simply say: “Ah, are there dragons as well, then?”
“Mrs. Robinson,” the judge said, “we thank you for agreeing to be here with us today. I understand that this week has likely not been an easy one for you, and that all of this must be quite a shock. On behalf of the entire magical community, I apologize for any distress this situation has put you through.”
Mrs. Robinson, unsure if she should respond or not, gave the judge a slight bow from where she sat.
The judge continued. “I am just going to ask you to provide the court a testimony of events as you remember them, Mrs. Robinson, and then we will have you back to your normal life as soon as possible. Now, let us begin with this: when you were outside taking out the trash, who was it that you saw performing magic? Can you point to this person?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Robinson replied – again, with a degree of confidence that must have surprised the witches and wizards in the room (Nigel, for his part, was starting to think to himself that he might fancy this woman). “It was that man, right there.” She pointed a finger directly at Freddie.
“Are you sure of this?” the judge asked.
“I am quite certain,” she said.
“And can you recall what happened when this man used magic?”
“Yes, I can,” Mrs. Robinson answered quickly. “He came out of nowhere to surprise these two boys,” (Nigel was disappointed that she referred to him as a boy) “then he said something, not in English, it may have been…Latin? And when he said this, that boy there rose straight into the air.”
Excitement shot through Nigel’s very center as she pointed at him – even if she did call him boy again.
“Can you remember precisely what it was that Mr. Ferguson said before Mr. McPherson rose into the air?” the judge asked. “It is important for the proceedings of this case that the witness testimony be as exacting as possible.”
Mrs. Robinson struggled with her memory. “It was something strange – again, not English at all. Levi…levi-something. Levitatus?”
The judge coaxed her along. “Might it have been ‘Levicorpus’?”
“That’s it! Levicorpus!”
Freddie looked ready to protest, outraged that the judge was feeding the witness answers. Surely there was a law against that?
“Very good, Mrs. Robinson,” said the judge. “That is the spell that our Trace analysts picked up that day, in that very location. Please continue with your account.”
If the judge expected Mrs. Robinson to know what he was on about with “Trace analysts,” she made no indication that she’s understood this comment. She resumed her testimony anyway, recounting how she made a run for it when the wizards noticed her standing there – at which point the oldest of the three tried to hit her several times with a spell called “Obliviate” (again, she struggled to remember the name of the spell; again, the judge helped her remember it; and again Freddie was outraged that the judge was aiding the witness).
“Right, then,” the judge said once the testimony was complete. “I believe that is all we need from you, Mrs. Robinson. Again, I thank you for your time and I assure you that haste will be made to have you returned to your family. Inspectors, please see Mrs. Robinson out, and do be sure that she is treated with care.”
There was a pause in the courtroom while the judge returned to looking over his papers. After some time, he looked up at the three suspects sitting in front of him, appearing surprised that they were still there.
“Mr. Ferguson, please stand,” he said. Freddie did as he was beckoned, sniffling as he did so. “Mr. Ferguson, it has been shown definitively that you used magic to attack an underage wizard who had no way of defending himself. What is more, you did this in the presence of a muggle. You therefore have two very serious charges against you: attacking a minor, and doing so with a non-magical individual in full view. It is very fortunate indeed that the spell you used against Mr. McPherson did no serious damage. It is doubly fortunate that the Ministry was able to track down the witness in order that she might have her memory altered. And I daresay it’s triply fortunate that you were unable to hit Mrs. Robinson with a Memory Charm, as the use of such a spell by an undertrained wizard can have disastrous psychological consequences for the person being targeted! Now, Mr. Ferguson, though by sheer luck you’ve managed not to inflict as much damage as you might have done, what you did to this boy is inexcusable, and you have drained precious Ministry resources by obliging us to put our investigators on a wild hunt for Mrs. Robinson, that poor soul. As such, I am sentencing you to six months in a standard-security prison for witches and wizards.”
A strange noise issued from Penelope as the judge said this. Nigel couldn’t be sure if the sound she made was a sigh of relief, or if she was gasping for air because she had been holding her breath throughout the entire trial.
The judge went on. “If the magic deployed had been more serious, Mr. Ferguson, you would very well have been sent to Azkaban. Consider yourself lucky, sir.” (Freddie did not appear to.) “In addition, upon your release from prison, this court orders you to devote sixty hours of service to the magical community. Since, rather conveniently, your sister works as a Healer at St. Mungo’s, might I suggest that you volunteer your time there? I am sure the hospital is always in need of extra help.” The judge then turned to Nigel and Dipesh. “As for you, Mr. McPherson and Mr. Patil: the court apologizes for the confusion that has surrounded this case, and the inconvenience such confusion may have delivered upon your life this past week. The court is grateful too, for your patience. You both are, of course, free from all suspicion, and your expulsion from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is, I am happy to say, hereby rescinded.”
The judge used his gavel to announce an end to the trial.
“Well that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Dipesh remarked as the two families filed out of the courtroom.
“Strange, eh?” said Nigel. “I was expecting a full-fledged interrogation from that judge. What do you think explains it?”
Though Nigel was asking Dipesh, his father was the one who answered.
“I think that the judge has more serious matters to attend to than the idiotic actions taken by your idiot uncle,” James said.
As they exited the courtroom, the Patils and the McPhersons were immediately met by a trio of rough-looking Ministry wizards. They all three had greasy black hair and were of pasty-white complexion. Keys rattled somewhere in their filthy black robes when they moved closer to Nigel’s uncle.
“Excuse me,” said Penelope, “but what are you lot on about?”
“Apprehendin’ the prisoner, o’course,” said the largest of the Ministry henchmen.
“You can’t be serious…already?” Penelope asked in disbelief.
“You got a better time?” another of the ruffians joked.
The biggest of the three spoke up again. “If we don’t take ‘im now, the bloke might very well try an’ escape ‘is sentence, won’ he? This way, he won’ be apparatin’ to Australia or anythin’ like that.”
They bound Freddie’s wrists in heavy chains and relieved him of his wand – a tool that Freddie had made poor use of over the years anyway.
Freddie smiled manically as his family watched him being taken away by the Ministry thugs. He turned to Nigel and said, “Don’t worry, Nige! I’ll write to you all the time I’m away! You’ll hardly notice I’m gone!”
Nigel hazily watched the spectacle of his uncle being dragged away. Seeing Freddie manhandled by those Ministry roughnecks gave Nigel neither sadness nor pity, but he also didn’t feel any real sense of joy. Ambivalence wouldn’t suffice to describe his present reaction, either; for somewhere inside him there was a hint of disappointment over the lightness of Freddie’s sentence. Although he didn’t seriously want his uncle to be chucked into Azkaban, he still wished for heavier punishment to be met upon Freddie – not just for what he did in the alleyway, but for all his wrongdoing over the years. To Nigel, this ought to have been less a straightforward trial concerning the criminal use of magic and more an indictment of Freddie Ferguson’s character. The more Nigel advanced in years, though, the more he learned just how elusive real justice could be.
Like a vessel passing over the horizon, the figures of Freddie and his jailers finally disappeared into the darkness of that expansive hallway, and still Nigel and company stood watching them. But as soon as Freddie was gone, a new set of shadows emerged to replace him: two slender Ministry men whose tall bowler hats screamed “EVIL DEEDS” in Nigel’s mind.
And what have we here? Nigel asked himself. Two shady characters out on the prowl for radical types? No doubt they’re on their way to sentence some more Ministry opposition to life in Azkaban…
The two nefarious men came closer. Setting Nigel’s heart on fire, they tipped their ludicrous hats as they passed by him and his family – a mocking gesture, Nigel knew.
“Shall we go then?” Mr. Patil asked, wondering why everyone was still rooted to this spot in this dungeon of ill omens – or so that was the atmosphere created by the Ministry’s criminal justice section.
Everyone followed Mr. Patil’s lead back to the main floor, where they would find a fireplace to return them to Lovers Row. Along the way, Nigel kept his eyes trained on the two shady men who walked just ahead of them. He saw them turn into a bathroom and at once decided that he would follow them inside.
“I suddenly feel as though I must go to the toilet,” Nigel announced.
“It can’t wait until we get home?” James said. “I should like to be out of this place sooner rather than later.”
“I’m afraid not,” Nigel said. “The shock of the trial must be bringing it out of me. I won’t be long, I promise.”
He crept quietly into the bathroom: a small one, equipped with only two urinals and one stall. The two Ministry officials occupied the urinals, so Nigel moved swiftly and silently as a cat into the stall (for obvious reasons, he did not want the two men to know that a youngster was among them). Once in the stall, he pretended to do what people do when they’re on the toilet.
While the Ministry men made a splash on the porcelain, they carried on a conversation that Nigel was sure would portend evil tidings:
“…never a dull moment these days, indeed,” said the one to the other.
“Quite,” said the other.
“If you ask me, Hogwarts has become nothing but a hippy place, and that Dumbledore is hardly lifting a finger to stop it.”
“And why would he? He’s encouraging it!”
Nigel heard some flushing, and then the Ministry men continued their conversation at the sinks.
“Too right. I always suspected that the Headmaster was a sodomite…and quite an enthusiast of You-Know-What, if you catch my meaning.”
“I’m afraid I do.”
“One wonders if the Minister could be doing more to rein in that old rascal.”
“Oh, just you wait. I think he’s got quite a few plans for that school this year.”
“Well go on, then! Out with it!”
Their voices started to trail off as they left the bathroom. The last thing Nigel could make out was: “You know I can’t say!” After that, he heard nothing but muffled bickering. Nevertheless, he’d heard enough to know that some conspiracy was brewing. He hurried out of the stall to tell Dipesh what happened, but he was quickly disappointed by his friend’s lukewarm response.
“I dunno,” Dipesh said after Nigel quietly recounted his tale, ensuring that the parents couldn’t hear as he did so. “Don’t you think it’s perhaps nothing more than two blokes running their mouths? Just because they’re reactionaries doesn’t necessarily mean they’re up to something wicked.”
“I know what I heard,” Nigel said defensively.
Or did he? Was his grasp on reality not loosening somewhat of late? Even as he professed outward certainty to his friend, inwardly Nigel doubted himself. Why, for instance, did he think he had made up the existence of Mrs. Robinson, when she was in fact a flesh-and-blood woman who lived on his very street? (He impulsively started to play the famous Simon and Garfunkel song in his head.) For a fleeting moment, he speculated that Mrs. Robinson was in fact a figment of his imagination, that she wasn’t in the courtroom with them at all. But no, that would be impossible. Dipesh saw her, Freddie saw her, and during the trial the judge directly addressed her. What about these two Ministry blokes, though? Wrong. Madness. Dipesh saw them, and so did Nigel’s parents (Penelope recoiled when they tipped their hats in her direction). But perhaps what Nigel heard in the bathroom was not what was actually said. Perhaps the conversation he thought he heard was a mere projection of what his subconscious wanted to hear. Perhaps the real mystery was not what those men were up to, but who was playing this mind game on him? Who was casting devious psychological spells on him, and why? No doubt it was someone in the Ministry, someone powerful, plotting to stamp out any resistance at Hogwarts by driving opposition members insane.
Either way, Nigel concluded, a conspiracy was afoot; and all signs pointed to the Ministry.