Warning: Strong language. Prepare yourself accordingly.
Chapter 3: Groundwork
It had taken me three apparition points just before dawn to reach my favorite collecting grounds on the green rolling hills and canyons of the Klickitat River. Early spring was the time to collect, when the wildflowers covered the hillsides and the potions-grade plants I was looking for showed their colors.
The wind was setting the grasses rippling like waves across the broad backs of the hills and carried snatches of meadowlark trills back and forth over the canyons. I hunted and dug grass widows and water hemlock, manroot, balsamroot, bitterroot, and biscuitroot, shooting stars, larkspur and death camas. I was clambering over a rock outcrop to reach a stand of scylla-onion when a loud mechanical buzzing to my left stopped me dead. I turned to the noise with my wand out. A small rattlesnake coiled in a cleft in the rocks a couple of meters away was giving me ample warning not to approach. Polite creature. I ought to leave it in peace.
I had no reason to approach, after all. No reason for the light stunner, the cooling charm that left the snake inert. I worked it free of the rock cleft. A young one, freshly emerged from hibernation, scales looking burnished and new. There wasn't any need to collect it, pack it carefully in my sack, and bring it home. But I did.
I sat at my kitchen table, looking at the unconscious snake in front of me. No need for any of this. I could stay peacefully in my refuge. I could change my appearance again and wait for the rumors to die down. Instead, I was finding a box to pack the snake, applying cushioning and cooling charms to keep it dormant. Apparently, I was a fool.
One snake in good condition, a replacement for the ancient House mascot, Maxwell, who had finally kicked off from old age. Millicent Bulstrode had informed me in the call arranged by Shaklebolt last month that would settle my debt to the House. And it was a very small price to pay for the minimum of honesty and guidance that they had needed from me and I had failed to give them. I owed them. There was so much I could never repay, if I could take this one chance and pay this one debt…
I didn't like to think about the other debt. Lucius' contract. It was the reason I'd brought up his case with Shacklebolt, after all. I owed him too. But the thought of being back in that place, and perhaps worse, of speaking to his portrait; it had brought back dreams of that last year again, of all the corridors closing in around me, the burning room with the trapped boys in it, all my enemies, friends, and all my friends, enemies.
It wouldn't be like that. A simple errand in an empty building. A delivery of a payment. Retrieve a bloody piece of paper. And then back to my own private peace. But I knew that if I wanted the errand to be simple, I would have to lay the groundwork carefully first. Using Shacklebolt's Portkey directly into Ministry offices was out of the question. He would put me under 'security,' which meant my every step would be watched. Completely unacceptable.
My other options weren't much better. Shacklebolt knew of both my aliases, Dr. Cyril Ramson and Mark Anderson. Any legal entry into the country under those names would alert him. No, I would have to find other means, and that meant a visit to the dark market.
I had planned to lay low off the market until any rumors featuring my name had faded, but I had no way of knowing when or if that would ever happen, and I didn't want to wait.
I spent a few minutes putting Mark's Boston accent back on, then dressed as him with hooded jumper, trainers and cap, packed far too much money from my emergency supply, and wandered through the Undercity until I spotted a market regular on the corner near Kosti's.
"Anyone out today?" I asked as I looked at Kosti's playbill.
"A few, a couple. Under the West Seattle Bridge."
I slipped him a folded bill as I went down the block. I apparated out to the west end of the bridge. That day the market was set among the towering concrete bridge supports and obscured by Notice-me-not charms and the roiling clouds of steam from the nearby wood pulp plant.
The guards, who knew Mark as a regular, let me in without comment. Perhaps Shacklebolt was right and the rumor would die without any effect on me. I couldn't quite shake the feeling of eyes following me as I made my way through the stragglers.
I spotted Chuck at the base of a concrete pillar near a busking fiddler. He was shifting from foot to foot, making the bundles of plastic water bottles tied to his waist sway and rustle. I couldn't quite tell if he was attempting to move with the music. Either he was just trying to keep warm or he had no rhythm. His gaze was fixed somewhere up in the bridge supports.
I watched him. I wasn't looking forward to this. Unauthorized Portkeys were expensive, crossing national boundaries was exorbitant, and reliability on top of that was outrageous. Chuck was the only one in the area who could manage all three. He could name his price, and I was sure he would.
He didn't take notice of me as I approached, his gaze following the billowing steam clouds as he swayed.
"You got a trip for me?"
"All kinds, we've got all kinds."
"England. With a return."
"Got all kinds. Or if I don't got it, we can do a custom job, takes a couple days."
"So, have you got it?"
"Depends where you're going."
"England," I said impatiently.
"Where. In. England?" he said, very patiently. His vague blue eyes finally wandered down from the bridge supports and almost focused on me.
"Anywhere out of the way." Once I was over the border, I had plenty of apparition points in my head to work with. It didn't matter where I set down.
He twisted, muttering, "England, land of kings…" and worked a cluster of water bottles free from the tail of the plaid blanket he wore over his shoulders. He spun the bottles on their string and chose one with an egg-sized grey rock at the bottom.
"It crosses all wards, undetectable. Open return from any origin point once activated. Three-thousand."
Damn, he had no competition and he knew it. He wasn't going to budge. "Fine," I muttered. "Where does it go?"
"Out of the way. Above the way. Llangybi. Lampeter."
Where was that? Somewhere in Wales, by the name. Close enough. "Fine," I said again. I handed over the cash, far too much. Chuck leaned forward to let the sides of his blanket shield the money from view as he counted it, twice. Finally satisfied, the money disappeared into some inner pocket and a clasp knife appeared in his hand. He sawed at the twine around the neck of the bottle until it snapped free.
We took hands for a Good Faith. Over his left shoulder I could see the tall blonde woman known as Janson watching me carefully. I had bought a backup unregistered wand from her a few weeks ago. She didn't seem to have any concerns about me then.
"Three-thousand American dollars, paid in full, for one Portkey, open return, destination Llangybi, undetectable, direct unbroken travel guaranteed, delivered now," he said as he handed me the bottle. We shook to seal the Good Faith. Business done, he went back to cloud-gazing almost immediately.
I hurried off through the sellers' stalls and bridge pilings. I paused in front of a display of scrying glasses. In one of the full-length mirrors, I could see Janson still behind me, leaning forward to talk to one of the other sellers as she kept one eye on me. Shit. Harmless rumor my arse.
The scrying-glass stall butted up against one of the concrete pillars; I couldn't edge around. I walked as quickly as I could without hurrying around the side of the pillar towards the side of the market. Two more rows and I could apparate. As I passed the pillar a hand took me very firmly by the elbow and pulled me almost off balance.
"Talk to me for a minute, Mark."
I held up my right hand to show I wasn't holding my wand. It was Sam, head of the market guards.
"Sure, Sam. What is it?"
He wasn't rough, but his grip didn't loosen. He placed me with my back against the pillar and removed my wand from my sleeve and the bottle with my extremely expensive portkey.
"Janson says she knows you."
"Uh, well, I've bought from her a couple of times."
"Not like that."
Janson came around the side of the pillar at a jog. "You got him!"
"We're going to talk this through, Janson."
"You can see it's him."
"See what?" I put in.
"He was one of Skeez's last clients before he split," said Janson.
"How do you know?" asked Sam
"Skeez's having me work his base while he's out."
Sam looked at me.
"Yeah, I did a little business with Skeez. Come on, Sam, that's nothing new. You know I've bought from him before. What's the trouble with that? I've been in plenty of times since then."
Sam looked at Janson.
"You know why Skeez went. Raids. And you know who the papers say turned them in. Snape."
Sam looked at me.
"Look at him," said Janson.
I sighed and let my arm relax.
"It's my fucking nose, isn't it? Like I haven't heard that before."
"It's him," said Janson.
"I can't believe you're holding me up because of some stupid tabloids! You believe that crap?"
The seller Janson had been talking to before and a couple of customers were watching from a few feet away. "Get back to your stalls," said Sam. They drifted back a few feet but didn't disappear altogether.
"When I read about it in the papers, I looked up his picture. You can see it's him," said Janson. Those damn photos.
"Oh, bullshit. If it was, wouldn't I hide my face? I'm not wearing a glamour and I'm not juiced up. You can test me."
"That doesn't help anything," said Sam, "if it's your real face that looks like him."
"What the hell, Janson?" I said, "I've paid you on all my orders!"
"This isn't about your orders, this is about someone flipping."
"All right, that's it," said Sam, "you're both coming with me." Janson's voice had been a bit loud, and talk about flipping on the dark market could cause real trouble. If Sam was convinced that I had led authorities to raid sellers, he would bloody well beat my skull in right there in the center of the market and no one would lift a finger to stop him.
Sam pulled me by my elbow to the edge of the market and up against the chain-link fence around the factory grounds, Janson sticking close to us.
"No one says I flip," I hissed at her.
"You're him," she said. Sam waved over a couple of the guards on the market perimeter.
"So that's it? Her word against mine?"
"Test him," said Janson. Yes, test me.
"Kevin, keep the rubber-neckers off us," said Sam.
"Minh's got some Veritaserum. Use that on him," said Janson.
Veritaserum, perfect, I had trained on that for years. Veritaserum was powerful, but it could be tricked. It was simply a matter of mental discipline, practice, and building up a resistance to the calming elements of the potion. Of course, I hadn't been practicing regularly since my supposed death… I would need to get my thoughts in order, quickly.
"You consent to a Veritaserum test?" asked Sam.
"Hell no! She set all this up! She wants my personal information!"
"Kevin, hold him," said Sam. Consent wasn't so important after all, it seemed.
Sam's grip on my elbow was replaced by Kevin's forearm across my collarbone, pushing me back against the fence, where he held me at wandpoint. Sam, Janson, and the seller who had followed us – that must be Minh – entered into a brief negotiation out of my earshot.
"This is bullshit," I told Kevin. Kevin kept his opinion to himself, and his arm on my chest.
What were they going to ask me? About my name and identity. I ran some sentences in my head; it wouldn't do to have the pauses show.
Sam was back holding a small paper cup and a vial. He cast Aguamenti to fill the cup and added three drops from the vial.
"Mark, you're taking this."
"No! That Minh is her friend. Who knows what they've put in that!"
"Mark, it's my product," said Minh calmly, "you know my products are good."
"They're good, Mark," said Sam.
"Nose, Kevin," said Sam.
Kevin made a face and pinched my nose closed. I twisted, but Sam got the dose down me and held my jaw until I swallowed. Perfect.
"Bitch," I spluttered, "see if I ever buy from you again!" Janson didn't look particularly heartbroken.
Sam leaned in to check my pupils. "All right, we're set. What's your name?"
Severus Snape, I thought, but now I'm known as, "Mark," I said.
"What's your last name?" asked Sam.
Snape, but now I use, "Anderson," I said.
Sam sighed. "Well?" He turned to Janson.
"Names can change," she said stubbornly.
Sam turned back to me. "Have you ever been known as Severus Snape"
Yes, but I want to tell you, "No," I said.
"It's not the name that matters if he's flipped," said Janson.
Sam looked at me closely. "Have you given any information to the authorities that's led to arrests or raids?"
Yes, but if I want to get out of here alive, my answer better be, "No!" I said.
"Right, that settles it," Said Sam. Janson didn't look mollified. "Janson, Minh, you say one word about this and I'll double your seller fees." The sellers pooled together to pay for the market guards and the fees were stiff. No one wanted underpaid guards who might be tempted to sell information to the authorities.
The two women moved off without another word, but Janson was giving me a very long look. Sam leaned in close to my ear as he handed back my wand and the portkey. "And you, you better find another market or another face, whatever your name is." He shoved his hand hard against my chest for a moment before he and Kevin turned and left.
It was a warning, and it was a good one. Even if Janson and Minh kept their mouths shut about their suspicions, several people must have seen me being pulled aside and questioned by Sam. The guards might not blacklist me, but the sellers probably would. After the Canadian raids, no one on the market was in the mood to take chances.
I apparated to three intermediary points and then home. Mark was dead to me now, at least as far as the Dark Market was concerned. Any rumor about my real identity was probably enough, but worse, any connection the 'Mark' might have to an anonymous tip that led aurors to bust dealers and put go-betweens at risk of arrest – that was unforgivable on the market. I would be worse than blacklisted; I would be in real danger if I went back. Damn, it had taken Mark more than a year to build up contacts and become an accepted regular. The thought of starting all over with a new face and name was exhausting.
I had set this up and now it was coming back to me with interest. I wanted access to a dark market! Vancouver's was off limits to me, Spokane's was sub-par, and Portland's prices were too high because of the Russian mob. The next decent dark market was Oakland, and that was a two or three day broom trip, depending on the weather.
I had intended to save some time and buy a few doses of polyjuice to have on hand as back-up, but now I would need to brew my own. Not so difficult, as I had all the ingredients, but now I would be delayed by a month. At least I could use the time to brew several batches and make my preparations.
In a month, I had my store of emergency potions, maps, a spare set of clothes and my broom, shrunken, and the brumating snake. And money. The sodding Ministry and their currency controls made galleons out of the question; one could only get galleons changed at Gringotts. Pounds were easy enough, however, so I tucked away an emergency supply, along with my little store of protean notes and the small box with Shaklebolt's portkey. None of it would be needed; it was just a simple errand. I left Shacklebolt's other box, still untouched on the table.
In the back garden, I sawed through Chuck's plastic bottle with my cheapest kitchen knife, pried it open and touched the stone.
A/N: Thank you very much for reading. And thank you to my reviewers!