kennahijja (kennahijja) wrote in omniocular,

[fic] somewhat lighter sympathy (PG-13; OC, Harry)

Title: Somewhat Lighter Sympathy
Author: Hijja
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: disturbing content
Wordcount: ~6500 words
Summary: Taking advice from the Evil Overlord Guidebook, Lord Voldemort hires a Muggle professional to take care of the Boy-Who-Lived once and for all.
Note: I'm indebted to chthonya for the beta, to waterbird for sorting out the ending, and to beren_writes for the plot inspiration. Written before HBP.

But they had learned from length of strife
Of civil war and anarchy
To laugh at death and look on life
With somewhat lighter sympathy.
(Emily Bronte, Why Ask To Know)

There is something quietly strange about the little man on the other side of my desk. He is balding, portly and looks almost forcefully ordinary in a blue suit, leather loafers and small briefcase. But he wears them with the unease of an aged businessman donning a costume for an office party at Halloween night. A nervous tic pulls at the muscle under his right eye.

I wonder who gave him my name and informed him of my... profession. Of course it requires a strange kind of person to come and inquire about my services. And his proposal is unusual enough to warrant a tic and some reluctance.

It's not so much the sum, which is high enough to keep me from having to accept another contract for more than a year, if I live modestly and keep away from the techno-gadgets. I've been offered more before, though not often. And never for such a target.

I stare down at the photograph that has spilled out of the envelope. Quite a nondescript face under a wild shock of dark hair - most likely black. A fine-boned, almost gaunt face whose childhood features have not quite grown into their adult shape yet. His expression is quite sullen. A nondescript face to go with a nondescript name.

It's the photograph itself that seems peculiar somehow. It looks like a cut-out from a newspaper or magazine, but aren't most papers using coloured print nowadays? And somehow it appears as if it has... frozen the boy in the very act of turning away from the camera, as if the paper were still straining against its object's desperate attempt to pull itself away.

"What are the conditions I'll be working under, Mr...?"

I'm not expecting to hear his true name. But I want to find out something more about this strange little man.

"Wormis," he says after the telltale second of hesitation that indicates he's lying. "Peter Wormis." There is an ironic timbre to his tone, though not, I think, directed at me. Sharp, rodent-like teeth bite down on his lower lip for an instant too fleeting to leave an indention. "He will be watched."

"Bodyguards?" I inquire. That might explain, in part, the height of the sum of money offered.

Wormis - or whatever his real name is - shakes his head.

"Unlikely. Just a few... people, looking out for him. "They..." he hesitates, "they probably won't even notice you."

Me as opposed to whom? Just what are they looking out for, then?

"Are there other things to be reckoned with?"

I know there are. For a job that carries that amount of money, there have to be.

"He is supposed to g-go... on holiday around mid-August," Wormis says. "It will... have to be done by then." Wormis hesitates ever so often and looks down at the tabletop as he speaks. I'm left with the impression that he'd rather not be here. So he's unlikely to be the one who wants the boy out of the way. How interesting that his employers would have sent such a reluctant go-between.

He looks up after another few seconds' pause. "And you will have to succeed on the first try - there won't be another chance. He would be protected and taken away to safety."

I allow the corner of my mouth to curl down.

"I don't usually require a second try, Mr Wormis."

A pink, indignant tinge appears on the pudgy cheeks. No, he doesn't like condescension or correction, this one. Is it because it comes his way too often, or is it something about me?

"Will you want it to look like an accident?" I enquire, playing over the awkward moment. "Like... natural causes," I explain, just in case he doesn't quite follow me.

"No. My Master-" He stops, and the flush is back for a moment. "My employer does not want to hide."

Master? What is this, a lodge quarrel? I've seen enough of those growing up to know that Order politicking can be as backstabbing as all get out, but never going as far as this. Not with that kind of money involved, and the boy is too young to be initiated anyway.

But I just incline my head in response. "Very well."

It will make matters a lot easier, and impulsive curiosity aside, I really don't want to know. In this line of business, it's always risky to be knowing too much. People might consider you a liability, and decide to deal with you in a similar manner as with the original target. It has happened before once or twice, although I've gained a reputation for both discretion and for dealing very sharply with that kind of treatment.

"I will require half the sum up front, and the second half upon completion," I point out, quietly indicating that I'm prepared to accept the commission. Sixteen is not that young. My brother was fourteen when he went out to pick up some fish and chips, and there weren't enough pieces left for a proper burial. No, sixteen is not so young.

"I... I have it here," Wormis says, and I have to suppress a gasp. Not only because he thought he could be so sure of me, but who in his right mind carries around such an amount of cash?

He picks up his briefcase from the floor. It looked far too small to hold half a million pounds when he came in, but my attention must have been distracted. It certainly did not expand, there under the table.

He opens the case and takes out stacks of notes, as blithely unconcerned as if he was handling paper scraps. Most people, no matter how accustomed to handling money daily, will display at least a subconscious sense of apprehension when faced with such a sum, an apprehension that tends to translate into a touch of hesitation in their movements. Not Wormis, however. He looks as if he could just as well be dealing with old supermarket receipts.

"You will contact me on my bomile phone once you've... succeeded," he says. "The number is in the file."

"You mean on your mobile?" I ask, eyebrow lifted a fraction.

He looks at me blandly. "Yes, exactly. How silly of me."

"Before mid-August," he reminds me once the notes have piled up on the desk in front of me, and the briefcase has clicked softly shut.


Since I have enough time, I reserve a day to brood over the file before driving out to Surrey. The more often I go over the few sheets of paper, the less sense they make. He can't be the eyewitness to a crime; Wormis wouldn't have given me two weeks to do the job if the boy could spill his knowledge to the authorities - or their opposites - at any time.

And there is no indication that the matter is connected with his family. I turn the photocopy of his parents' death certificate over in my hands. They died when the boy was an infant - Halloween 1981. The same date... an accident? Murder? Either way, it was fifteen years ago - what relevance could it have now?

So we have an orphan, brought up by his mother's sister and her husband. One cousin. If he had inherited money, it would have to be an incredible sum to go to such extremes for the family to get their hands on it, and his guardians wouldn't have to hang about in a Surrey suburb of all places. And he wouldn't go to a school that's only a step above a juvenile detention centre, judging from a grainy copy - the paper is thick, almost like parchment - of the boy's meagre file with the Local Education Authorities. Even if he's a repeat offender, money tends to take care of such inconveniences, at his age even more than later. I should know - quite a handful of my mates ended up in worse places than this St Brutus's because they had neither money nor connections. I skirted that same fate closely enough myself by escaping into the military as soon as I came of age.

And just who could a lad of his age have pissed off enough to warrant such a response?

No, the bare bones of information I've been given won't get me anywhere - not that it should matter. I shove the papers back into the envelope and put it away into the side pocket of my travelling case. I'll have to go and see this mystery with my own eyes.


I check into the smallest and drabbest of the three bed and breakfast places in Little Whinging. Surrey isn't exactly the tourist Mecca of the South, and Little Whinging is basically the dormitory town for commuters to Epsom and Reigate, a rather mediocre achievement. I introduce myself as an insurance policy salesman in town on business. The disinterested elderly couple that runs the place are unlikely to remember much about me afterwards, and they're the sort who are too lethargic or naive to approach the police on their own initiative.

After locating the address, and memorising the layout of the neighbourhood on the street map, I poke around a little. It's an unfamiliar, alien location - pruned shrubs and trees, manicured lawns, lace curtains and street names that abuse just about every weed in existence. No matter how much I've got around, I'll never be able to imagine what it might be like to grow up in such a sheltered place.

I find an observation spot behind a thicket of shrubbery in the garden of the house opposite. The house itself is locked up carefully, blinds down, the garden swing locked. It is holiday season, after all. As long as I'm careful not to be seen entering and leaving the garden, it should be the perfect place to observe the target, and keep a lookout for the mysterious 'protectors' Wormis has warned me about.

Number Four is a shiny bourgeois jewel among the pearl string of houses along Privet Drive. The walls are freshly painted and their gleam rivals the spotlessly clean windows. The flowerbeds are well-maintained, if slightly wilting in the heat of a midsummer that treads only a little bit more gently than the previous one. The only thing in less than prime condition is the dull, faded wood of the garden fence. The lawn, on the other hand, is so emerald green that, given the temperature, it suggests the owners are given to watering heavily. Probably in the middle of the night, too, hoping to escape the neighbours' notice.

The driveway is dwarfed by a provocatively polished white company car.

The first person to show is a heavily moustached man, probably in his late forties. I raise my binoculars to observe him kissing an invisible someone behind the doorjamb, then unlocking the car after wiping a speck of dust from the bonnet with a frown. He grimaces with effort as he squeezes himself behind the steering wheel. Then the door bangs shut and the car rolls out of the driveway and proudly down the road.

It remains quiet for a long while after that. Hours pass, in which a female silhouette appears behind the curtained windows every so often, staring out for inordinate amounts of time. Her attention seems to be focused on the neighbours at Number Six, getting ready for a picknick in their garden. I'm beginning to understand the reason behind all those immaculately clean windows...

Around lunchtime, I'm beginning to wonder whether the elusive Mr Wormis has given me the correct address, but then the door opens once more and the boy appears behind a huge rubbish bag he proceeds to drag towards the garage. A female voice, shrill in the sun-saturated quiet, yells something unintelligible after him before the door bangs shut again. I optimise the focus of the binoculars and recognise the closed-off, sullen features from the strange photograph.

He disappears into the garage, and I hear him banging about the lid of the rubbish bin. A minute later, he comes back out with a can full of paint, a brush and a few old newspapers. He trots out the garden door and onto the pavement, opens the can of paint, dips in the brush and starts to coat the fence with a layer of fresh light brown paint.

He has done two and a half palisades when the door to the house bangs open again and a heavy-set blond youth who must be the cousin marches out, and also disappears into the garage. After a few seconds, the automatic doors squeak open and he wheels a state of the art racing bicycle out into the driveway.

I watch him sneer at the painting boy before heaving himself into the saddle. He throws a crumpled chocolate bar wrapper at his cousin as he cycles past. My target ducks away effortlessly, and I lift an eyebrow at his speed. His mouth twists into a grimace as the wrapper sticks to the fresh paint of one of the palisades he's already done. I'm too far away to hear anything, but the way his mouth moves tells me that he's cursing as he peels it off. He sneers at the garage door his cousin has left carelessly open, wipes his hands on a bit of paper, and walks over to close it before going back to redo the fence post.

Over the course of the next few hours, I watch him diligently painting the outer side of the fence, before returning to the garden to tackle the inside. It is hot, and his face turns red, dark fringe plastered to his forehead. He really should wear a hat. I'm grateful for my shady retreat behind the neighbours' hedges.

There is a strange bulge in his back pocket that makes me wonder for a while if he's carrying a gun, but it is too tapered for that. And once, when he bends over far enough to paint the underside of a palisade, it peeks out. Wood. Lugging a stick around would have struck me as the resort of a much younger boy...

Around four in the afternoon, he wipes off his fingers again and goes to knock on the door. After a few moments' negotiation with the shrill female voice, a tall glass of water is handed out before the door is banged shut again. He downs it almost to the dregs before putting it down carefully on the garden path and returning to his work.

At around six, when his uncle's gleaming vehicle returns into the driveway, the last of the water is gone, and the inside of the fence almost finished. The uncle gets out, carefully locking the car door, and I can hear him bark at the exhausted boy. I can't hear the words, but the tone is none too friendly. The boy puts the lid back on the paint container and carefully washes out the brush under the garden hose before setting it on a piece of newspaper to dry. After he has carried everything back into the garage, he, too, disappears into the house. A few moments later, I see his silhouette through the window, fetching plates and cutlery from the kitchen.

Deciding that I've seen enough for the first day, I put the binoculars back into their case and check the area before slipping out of my hideout. As I walk back the few streets to where I've parked my car, I mull over the fact that my target, at least at the moment, seems not to be the most popular member of his household. I just hope he's not confined to the house for good - Privet Drive is a touch too conspicuous, and I don't fancy being seen climbing over garden fences while making my escape. There is altogether too much idle curiosity at work in this part of suburbia.


I observe him for several days after that, always keeping an eye out for the mysterious 'people' Wormis has warned me about. I make note of an elderly woman who's traversing Privet Drive a touch too frequently for it to be coincidence. I follow her once, and while she turns out to be a resident of neighbouring Wisteria Walk, her daily route to and from the local supermarket, her bags bulging with cat food cans, does not lead past Number Four Privet Drive by a long shot. And yes, there are an inordinate number of cats lazing about, but none pays me any heed.

There is also a shady-looking little fellow with the air of a small-time crook who turns up once or twice, slinking around after dark. Like me, he tries to keep his presence secret, but unlike me, he isn't skilled at it. The second time I see him, he's talking to a tall black man in an ankle-length trench coat at the corner of Magnolia Crescent. Both clash with the suburban tranquillity of the neighbourhood, but while the black one should look ridiculous, fitted out like this in the height of summer, there is a presence of... charisma about him that makes my neck prickle. This one is dangerous, but he does not turn up a second time.

The boy doesn't seem to pick up on the fact that he is looked after by so many. He finishes painting the fence, and is then set to weeding the flowerbeds, hoeing the dirt under the bushes, cleaning the garden path, refilling the bird bath, and putting on the sprinkler every night. Through the windows, courtesy of the binoculars which make short work of the prim gauze curtains, I see him clean, cook, dust and wash up in the mornings, while his cousin lolls in front of the telly. When he's not working, he disappears into one of the upstairs bedrooms I cannot see into, to my great regret.

And he doesn't sport the ragged look for garden work only. He goes about in faded jeans, ratty T-shirts and trainers so battered that the soles seem to be actively trying to escape from the uppers. He looks less like a member of the family - the cousin sports brand-name clothing, at least that which he's found to fit his size - and more like the son of a poor West Indian housekeeper, except that those tend to pay great attention to their children's appearance. It's unlikely to be a rebellious fashion statement either: for all the family's obsession with appearance, they're blithely unconcerned about their stepchild's. I wonder what the neighbours make of that.

Considering how much they seem to detest him, it even crosses my mind that the father might be the one behind the hit. But he's not the type to inspire the kind of fearful awe I've seen on Wormis's face, and if a company car and a detached house in suburbia is the extent of his achievements, he doesn't have the funds either.

They don't seem to have grounded the boy, however. When dusk falls, and the dishes are washed and put away, he tends to vanish outside and wander the streets. The first time I follow him, on foot, I'm surprised to see him end up in a deserted play park not too far away. It looks quite battered for a medium-posh neighbourhood, as if the local teenagers regularly include it in their vandalism spree. The wooden gate is torn from its hinges, and two of the three swings have been ripped off. The see-saw is missing its handles, and there are bottle shards glittering beneath the roundabout. Of the three streetlamps that light the small park, one is emitting a muted reddish glow and a frantic hum, and another is dark, its neon tube shattered by a well-aimed stone or bottle.

The remaining lamp still provides enough light for me to see him curled up on the last working swing, not swinging but folded into the toy, one arm wrapped around his tucked-up knees, the other hand gripping the chain. He leans his forehead against the chain as well and perches there, unmoving, for the better part of an hour. He looks so expressively miserable that I wonder if I'm about to do him a favour.

I hope he'll be coming back here again. It looks like an ideal place - a bit lonely, lit just well enough to aim properly, easy to hide among the trees, and just as easy to get away from.

He does return the next night, again perching on his swing and staring morosely at nothing. When it is fully dark, I hear shouts and yelling from down the road, and watch a group of teens swaggering down the street and passing through the broken gate of the park. One picks up a rock and hurls it at the remaining floodlight, missing widely to the jeers of his mates.

As they pass under the lamp, I am not quite surprised to see his burly cousin preening himself as the big lad of the group. It looks like the perfect set-up for a spot of bullying, but to my surprise the cousin near-freezes when he sees my target coiled on the swing, and shoos his gang along, completely ignoring one or two pointed fingers. They scamper along to the next street crossing, where they keep yelling and chortling a few minutes longer, setting off a dog in a nearby garden. Then they disperse.

Although I do feel vague sympathy with the solitary boy, I'm honest enough to admit that at that age, I much more resembled the cousin, though at least I never quite rivaled the size of a baby killer whale. And of course I led my mates into a lot worse than just vandalising the nearest park... hurling Molotov cocktails through people's windows for a cause I've forgotten so long ago that I fail to recall now how it could ever have made any sense at all.

The boy has left the swing and follows after his cousin at a brisk pace, catching up with him halfway down the street. He is greeted with a dark scowl, and returns it from under a raised eyebrow with a look of such undiluted arrogance that I wonder afterwards whether it was my imagination or a reflection of light on the lens of the binoculars. I put them into my bag and follow the pair out of the park. They walk down Magnolia Road and into Privet Drive as far apart as the pavement permits, and without exchanging a word. Their eyes meet only once, when they pass a small thoroughfare leading towards Wisteria Walk, as if the inconspicuous little road held some special meaning.


From what I've seen so far, I do not expect the 31st of July, the boy's birthday, to bring much of a change in his routine. He comes out of the house at ten, and exits the garage on a dilapidated racing bike which is too small for him, although handlebar and saddle are extended as far as they will go. It looks half a decade out of fashion compared to the one his cousin is riding, and a lot worse for wear. A basket has been affixed onto the handlebar.

I quickly realise that he's taking the same route as the old biddy of the cat food cans. Not a birthday outing, then - just a shopping trip.

Deciding that this is a good opportunity to pick up a bit of lunch and observe him more closely, I leave the car in the car park and follow him into the supermarket. It's large and modern, a far cry from the cramped inner-city shops I grew up with.I spot him in the vegetable section, pushing a trolley one-handed while scanning several inches of shopping list. Still, for a boy sent out grocery shopping on his birthday, he looks almost cheerful. Of course, just getting out of that house would make anyone happy.

Two elderly ladies with shopping bags and dressed a lot more sharply than the cat-obsessed biddy from Wisteria Walk fix disparaging stares at his back. It makes me wonder whether those glares are inspired by his scruffiness or his reputation as a delinquent. Not that he has done anything to warrant that term so far. Instead, he seems very well behaved - almost penitent - for a hardened hooligan.

Unobtrusively, I watch him fill up his trolley, and decide to get a few things for myself as well - some crisps, a can of ginger ale. It's not as if he's likely to give me the slip with his load.

And then I round the newspaper stand, and someone barrels into me with breath-taking force. The impact knocks the packet of crisps right out of my hand, and I stare into a pair of wide, startled green eyes. There is a thin scar on his forehead that had been hidden by his hair on the photograph. His face and neck look sunburned, and there is a patch of peeling skin on the tip of his nose. He takes a step back, colours slightly and bends down to pick up the crisps and press them into my hand.

"I'm sorry," he murmurs, and I know I should smile and say something dismissive, but I can't. He takes another step back, nervous now, and then slips past me and down the aisle with all the fluidity of a stream of water. I've noted this strange grace before - too natural for a dancer (not that I'd expect either that family of his or a juvenile detention centre to provide ballet classes), but with too little co-ordination for a gymnast. He just walks as if he was used to flying but had decided to stay on the ground for the moment, just for the heck of it.

The sound of crisps crumbling inside the plastic wrap under my grip sounds like someone stepping onto a nest of beetles. I shudder and throw the crisps into a basket with dishtowels. Suddenly, I don't want them any more.

I pay for my drink at the checkout counter and walk back outside. The heat hits me like a flaming club as I climb back into the car. I open the ginger ale, but the acidly sweet taste makes me wince after the first sip.

I've parked so I can observe the exit from the driver's seat, and it takes twenty minutes before he appears in the wide double doorway, loaded with bags.

He puts them down in the shadow of the sliding doors, and digs a small, cheap ice lolly out of one of the bags, which he proceeds to devour, half hidden behind the doors as if any second someone might bear down on him for daring to wring a little enjoyment out of the moment. The lolly disappears quickly, and he licks some stray juice off his fingers before throwing the stick into the nearest bin.

Then he drags his bags over to the bicycle, loads it and begins his wobbly ride back home.


That night, for the first time, he doesn't end up either toiling at home or sneaking off to the playground. Instead, he slips out at dusk to stand at the same street corner where I saw the black man conversing with the crook.

A couple steps out of the darkness and walks up to the boy. They clash just as much with this oasis of manicured lawns and flowerbeds and Saturday afternoon car washings as the boy himself. The woman - hardly out of her teens - wears her hair in turquoise spikes, and is clad in a black T-shirt with a band name I've never heard before, above a jeans miniskirt and no-nonsense boots. She runs up to him, wraps him into a hug and gives him a hearty kiss. I can see the lines of amused embarrassment etched on his face in the lamplight.

The man looks nondescript in a way that reminds me of Wormis. Although his jacket is threadbare, he wears the most normal outfit of the three, but does it naturally where with Wormis it just felt artificial. Nevertheless, this man has the same vague, hunted air, as if they were both afraid of anyone looking at them too closely, and discovering something terrible behind the innocent facade. Different and yet similar, like long-estranged brothers under the skin.

The stranger embraces the lad as well, awkwardly so, and that hesitation dispels my thought that this might be an uncle, or family friend, who considers it amusing to buy the boy the company of a young woman on the occasion of his birthday. On a closer look, none of them fits that picture.

Then the girl takes the boy's elbow and they walk towards an unlit side street between Rhododendron Circle and Magnolia Lane. Overcome with curiosity, I pause in order not to be seen following, and then round the corner after them.

Before me lies Magnolia Lane, lit by one lone streetlamp only, but narrow and lined with houses. No front lawns to climb into, no sound of a door opening or closing, no parked cars to duck behind.

It is a cul-de sac, and it is empty.

The shock of it makes my heart hammer in my chest. That... that just isn't possible. There is no way they could have given me the slip, not in thirty seconds, not in a place as clearly laid out as this. But they have. They have vanished into so much thin air.

I slink around the block for nearly two hours, trying to seem inconspicuous. None of the doors open to spew my quarry out again, and I realise that this might be what Wormis warned me against. The mysterious 'protectors'. He failed to mention, however, that they were capable of vanishing tricks that rival magic.

At last I console myself with the thought that maybe they have only taken the boy for a night out on his birthday, and slipped away to escape his oppressive family. It won't do me any good to draw attention to myself by loitering any longer. So I return to the car and drive back to Privet Drive to keep an eye out should he return. I spend a thoroughly unpleasant night in the car, trying to shoo off fits of sleep and anxiety.

Shortly before four in the morning, my unvoiced prayers are answered. Like a ghost, he slips around the corner off Magnolia Crescent and into the light of the streetlamp, which is already dulled by the first sickly blue of morning. Cool as you please. For the first time, I'm severely tempted to kill him right there on the spot for putting me through a night like this.

He opens the garden gate to Number Four and tiptoes towards the door. It looks as if he pulls out the stick in his pocket to open the door, and it is indeed the most unusual key chain I've ever seen. Then he slips inside and vanishes from sight. The bedroom windows stay dark, and there is no outcry from inside the house, so I assume that his nightly excursion has remained a secret.

Knocked out and with a crick in my neck, I start the motor and drive back to my room.


It is only the shock of almost losing my quarry that makes me realise how badly I've been stalling. Here I am, having observed the boy and his relatives for a week without discovering any reason why anyone would want him murdered, and feeling an ever-growing revulsion about what I'm about to do.

I should not see that boy so much as a person, I tell myself. If he'd been born someplace else instead of the dullest heart of England, he'd probably already be dead - ruined his lungs in a textile sweatshop so some greedy company could save a handful of pennies, or written off as 'collateral damage' in some media-hyped 'just war'.

This is just a job - I've been paid for years by the government for shooting people who'd never done me the slightest harm either. It really isn't much of a change to do the very same thing, and make more than a pittance.

I have agreed to take the contract, and with this amount of money involved, they would just hire another should I step down or fumble it on purpose. My reputation cannot afford that. And I remember Peter Wormis's face as he let slip about his 'master', and know I don't want to face that mysterious someone, least of all with a report of failure. There is no cure for it - if I don't do it, someone else will, and at least I can make sure it will be over quickly.

I do not follow him immediately the next evening, when he slips out through the back door of Four Privet Drive and walks down the road. By now, I know even from his posture where he is headed.

After a minute of purposefully thinking nothing, I walk back to the car and drive the few blocks to the play park. I park a few steps away, and sling the rifle over my shoulder. Its bag is cut to resemble a tennis racket, so that even if someone sees me, they will assume I'm taking a shortcut to a nearby gymnasium. It is already quite dark as I slip between some of the trees at the corner of the park. From there, I can't be seen from the street, but I still have him within range.

This time, he sits on the lowered end of the see-saw which has been equipped with new handles since his last visit, one of which is even still screwed on. Grasped in his hand is something small and flat. The night vision device clicks into place with the softest of sounds. It brings his face into immediate proximity, and when I let the aim travel down, the object he clings to turns out to be a small mirror. It is a strange sight, because from everything I've seen of him so far, there has been no evidence of anything resembling vanity. And yet his eyes are glued to the dull surface. It's an old-fashioned, silver mirror, not a game or some kind of odd-shaped techno-gadget.

He looks terribly lonely like that. Perhaps he will be better off dead. He is not a happy young man. It's that lost quality of his face that makes it almost painful to watch.

After a bit of deliberation, I aim the rifle at his temple, because his half-averted position makes it most accessible.

Then he lifts his head for an instant, as if he could see me through the enveloping dark, and I flinch so badly the gun almost drops from my hand. Yes, he has me thoroughly spooked, hasn't he? His free hand reaches down to touch the wooden good-luck charm he carries in the back pocket of his trousers, and then it drops back to his side as his gaze returns to the mirror.

I feel a sting as my teeth dig into my lower lip. He just hunches there on the see-saw, unmoving in an unspoken invitation. I think of my brother, who walked down that near-forgotten street in a different sort of invitation, and was not even granted the fleeting flicker of consideration I feel for this one.

When my finger slips, there is only a soft cracking noise, more innocent than a car backfiring, and for a second I think I must have missed. He just sits there, as rigid as before. Only when a dark blot blooms on his temple, and spills into dark hair, I realise that I have hit.

I always do, so why did he have me wonder here, just for a second?

And then he slumps to the side, as broken as the see-saw, and slips off the seat and onto the ground with nary a sound. All that is visible, from where I'm standing, are dusty sneakers behind the foot of the toy. Unless his relatives start searching - which I doubt - or the local gang comes to call again tonight, he probably won't be found until well into the morning.

There is a sudden glint in the lamplight, and I raise the gun again, although I have seen the wound in his head, and know there is no way he could have survived it. But it's only the silver mirror, spinning on the ground where it fell. Its glass has shattered, and the shards glint and reflect the light.

I have to fight down the compulsion to walk over and look at the strange thing. It's a stupid impulse, because the last thing I want to leave are foot- or fingerprints, but I know this night will haunt me with or without seeing.

I secure the rifle and stuff it back into its bag with the few sparse moves of habit. Nothing moves, on the play park or beyond, apart from a shadowy feline streaking out from under a car and off towards Wisteria Walk. Even the mirror, from this position, just lies there, blank and unsparkling.

I hope he has found whatever he's been searching for in it.

Briskly I walk back to the car, lock the bag into the trunk, and turn the ignition key. I have already checked out of the bed and breakfast. Tonight, I'll be back at my London flat with half a million pounds more to my bank account.

As I roll down the now-familiar streets of Little Whinging, towards the outskirts and the motorway, I acquiesce to the fact that, no matter how closely I've come to know him over the past week, I'll never find out what was so special about the sixteen-year old enigma that has taken its secret to its grave.

I drive towards the motorway through the dark nothing of a Surrey night, and after a few minutes fish the number Wormis gave me out of the glove compartment. I can make the call during a stop on the way. In a moment's flash of disgust, I fling the paper face-down on the front passenger seat.

I wonder if the strange couple who took him out the night before - was that really less than twenty-four hours ago? - will miss him. I wonder if that family of his will. And I know beyond any shadow of doubt that, after settling the final payment with Wormis and his 'Master', the next contract I take will have to be clear-cut - and an adult.</i>

But as I blend into the impersonal rows of metal and light and concrete on the motorway towards London, moving further away from that particular little town in Surrey, the intensity of memory begins to recede.

In time, the feeling of unease will fade too.

It always does.

~ finis ~

Disclaimer: Harry Potter and his world belongs to J K Rowling. No harm intended, no money made.

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