Finding Jack was a simple task. The Hog's Head was open, even though it was Christmas, and Jack was snoozing in a corner booth, a half-empty bottle in front of him.
"Wake up, you lousy bum," said Provenza harshly, shoving Jack's shoulder roughly.
Jack snorted as he sluggishly corrected his posture. "What the hell – wait, I know you."
"Yes, I've been unfortunate enough as to make your acquaintance," said Provenza, seating himself in the booth. Tao took a seat as well, boxing Jack into the corner. "I'd like to discuss something of great importance with you."
Jack blinked heavily and tried to focus his eyes unsuccessfully. He lolled his head to the side to put Tao in his line of vision. "Who're you?" he asked, sounding as though his tongue was made of lead.
"Name's Tao," Tao answered. "Not that you'll remember it," he added lowly.
"'S this about Sharon?" Jack asked, hiccupping in the middle of his wife's name.
"The drunk can reason!" said Provenza. "It's a Christmas miracle!"
Jack winced at the increase in volume.
"Mind if we ask why you're still here in Hogsmeade?" asked Tao.
"I plan on visiting my kids," Jack slurred. He looked at his watch, which he certainly could not read. "I've got some time before dinner."
"You're not going anywhere near Emily or Ricky," said Provenza.
"In case you've forgotten," said Tao as Jack's face fell to confusion, "your wife, who has sole custody of your children, has forbade you from coming anywhere near them."
"Ah, she's jus' got a stick up her ass, like usual," said Jack dismissively. "She'll take me back. She always does."
Provenza and Tao both looked beyond disgusted with the grin that came over Jack's face and the chuckle he emitted before grabbing his bottle.
Provenza swiped the bottle and set it well out of Jack's reach. "Now you listen here, you sick, perverted neanderthal," he said through gritted teeth. "You're going to pack up your measly possessions, pay your tabs, and get the hell out of here by noon tomorrow or I will make it my personal mission in life to make you as miserable as possible."
"Doin' a pretty good job of that right now," said Jack with a pompous waggle of his head. He made to grab his bottle of booze, but Provenza slammed him back into the booth.
"We know you tried to poison your own kids and frame your wife for it, Jack," said Tao. "As of now, we haven't told our partners, but we will if you're not gone tomorrow."
"Believe me when I say that we're cute little puppies compared to our partners when you get them rattled," said Provenza.
"And trust us, they'll be good and rattled after we tell them how you tried to use your own children as leverage for whatever plan you've concocted," Tao added. "I don't think your bosses would be too happy to hear about it either. I'm willing to bet they'll also frown upon the fact that you're more than a year behind on child support."
"You threatening me?" Jack asked.
"Now you're getting it!" said Provenza cheerily, smacking Jack on the shoulder. "Noon tomorrow, Jack, or your life's going to get a hell of a lot more complicated." He scooted out of his seat as Tao to do the same.
"Oh, and, before we forget," said Tao, straightening his shirt, "if we catch wind that you're spreading rumors about Sharon or bragging about how you duped her, we'll arrange for you to lose every job you might find on this side of the Mississippi."
"Have a merry Christmas, Jackass," said Provenza with an overly charming smile. He slammed Jack's bottle down in front of the man, then left with Tao.
"So we tell Julio and Andy once he's gone?" Tao asked lowly.
"We tell them at 12:01 tomorrow whether he's gone or not," said Provenza.
Jack was gone by the time Provenza and Tao checked up on him the following day. They proceeded back to campus to inform their roommates, both of whom were absolutely infuriated by the news given. Provenza had to guard the door to keep Flynn from leaving to go after Jack for the better part of the day, and Sanchez shouted at Tao for not telling him earlier for more than an hour.
Despite their initial rage, Flynn and Sanchez both eventually agreed not to let Raydor know that they had been told and to act as though nothing had happened. They kept their word, although both had become more protective of Emily and Ricky.
By the time New Year's Eve rolled around, Raydor was almost completely back to herself. She went to sleep and woke up at her normal hours and ate regularly. She had been thrilled to come home to tell Hobbs that she had confirmed Jack had left town. She would, from time to time, zone out and tear up slightly while watching her children play, but she usually corrected herself before anyone but Hobbs noticed. Emily had forgotten almost entirely about her father's existence and her disappointment over his not showing up for Christmas. Ricky was too busy with all his new toys to think of anything else.
The team, plus Morales, thoroughly enjoyed celebrating the start of the New Year. In fact, they stayed up so late talking and playing games that Raydor and Hobbs agreed to let all the men stay in the living room, rather than trek all the way back to campus, or home, in Buzz's case.
The following morning, Raydor made her way through the gauntlet of limp arms and legs that had become her living room to gain access to her kitchen. She happily set to work making pancakes as quietly as she could manage. Once again, she felt herself to be completely content with her situation in life. The days leading up to Christmas and the day or two after had been incredibly taxing on her, but she had had the unwavering support and camaraderie from her friends to keep her going. Raydor did not particularly care to think what state she might have ended up in after Jack's tricks if she had not had her team.
"Good morning," said Flynn hoarsely, entering the kitchen while rubbing his eyes.
Raydor laughed lightly at Flynn's disheveled appearance. "Good morning, Andy."
"Want some help?" Flynn asked after yawning.
"You can scramble the eggs Julio brought back from his mother, if you'd like," said Raydor.
"How long have you been up?" asked Flynn as he walked stiffly about the kitchen. He grabbed a skillet, spatula, and bowl before pulling the eggs from the fridge.
"About thirty minutes," answered Raydor, beginning to flip the bubbling batter on her griddle.
"And you're dressed and cooking already?" Flynn asked with furrowed brow. "It's a holiday, Sharon! Don't you know how to kick back and relax a bit?"
Raydor smiled amusedly. "I am very relaxed, Andy."
"In jeans? I don't think so."
"Jeans are better than slacks and heels," Raydor pointed out. "They're also better than the same clothes I was wearing yesterday," she teased.
"I hope you get little bits of shell in your eggs," said Flynn in response, cracking an egg as he did so.
"I'd be impressed if you managed to get mine alone," Raydor admitted. Her body jarred as the sound of someone knocking on the door reached her ears. "Oh no," she breathed.
"I'll get it," said Flynn through his teeth.
Raydor leapt in front of Flynn and put a hand on his chest to push him back. "No, Andy, you won't."
"If Jack's back – "
"Then I will deal with him," said Raydor firmly. Her hair hit Flynn in the face as she whipped around and went to her door.
"Raydor," said the gruff voice of Moody. He walked in without invitation.
"Mr. Moody!" said Raydor, clearly surprised. "Happy New Year."
Moody grunted in response and hung up his travelling cloak. "Flynn!" he barked.
Flynn hurried to the entryway and greeted his supervisor.
"I want to see bodies moving," said Moody. "I need everyone gathered and awake within ten minutes." He went off to the kitchen without further instruction.
Flynn hung his head. "Well this is a great start to the year," he said.
Raydor gave a sad, close-lipped smile as a response. "I'll wake everyone up if you keep working on breakfast," she offered. "I think we'll need it."
Flynn sighed, then nodded and dragged his feet as he headed to the kitchen.
Raydor gently woke Provenza by shaking his shoulder and calling his name softly.
"Do you know what time it is, Raydor?" Provenza asked grumpily. "I know this is your house, but my God!"
"Not my call," said Raydor. "Moody's here."
"Damn," muttered Provenza as he pulled himself into a sitting position.
"Can you wake the rest of the guys while I get Andrea? Andy's in the kitchen with Moody already."
Provenza nodded and waited until Raydor had disappeared up the stairs before kicking the lump on the floor that was Sanchez.
"Nice of you to join us, Hobbs," Moody growled. Hobbs was the last person to enter the kitchen and had done so five minutes later than Moody had wanted.
Hobbs looked at Raydor, who shook her head almost imperceptibly, before swallowing her smart reply and sitting down.
"Got an assignment for you," Moody announced.
"Um," said Morales, "I don't really work for – "
"You do now, Morales," said Moody gruffly. "I chose the lot of you carefully for this job. I started work to put this team together over a year ago. You, Hobbs, and Watson I chose especially carefully because I knew you could handle the seriousness of this situation. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal," said Morales unenthusiastically. He looked unhappily at those gathered with him. "I knew you all were trouble."
"There, there, Morales," said Raydor, putting a plate before him. "Why don't you follow your food's example and smile?"
Morales looked down at his pancake to see butter had been smeared on it to make it look like a smiley face. He flashed Raydor a very forced smile before slashing the pancake in half.
Raydor rolled her eyes before continuing to distribute pancakes, eggs, and a limited amount of bacon.
"There's a serious underground network in place within our world," said Moody. "Nearly ten years ago I started noticing some strange connections between departments, odd friendships that don't usually happen. Five years ago certain rules and regulations started coming into effect that didn't make much sense and didn't work to the advantage of the general population."
"Sounds like normal government crap to me," said Provenza. "Why give when you can take?"
"You done, Provenza?" Moody asked harshly.
Provenza bowed his head slightly, though he wore an irritably smug expression, and gestured for Moody to continue.
"I started investigating discreetly," said Moody. "I've concluded two things. One, someone, or a small group of someones, is pulling a lot of different strings to make things go their way by use of blackmail. Two, the collection of said blackmail begins at Hogwarts."
"With a network of people with only ten years of experience, maximum, how could whoever this is have enough pull to influence the making of laws?" Flynn asked. "Ten years really isn't that long, in the grand scheme of things."
"Since the creation of the Continued Education Program, mentors in the government have become increasingly common and important," said Hobbs, running her thumb along her pinky as she thought. "I've studied cases where assistants were blackmailed to get dirt on their bosses. Why not pull the same kind of stunt to get kids that are fresh out of school to flip on their mentors?"
"Well we all know that our legal system isn't flawless," said Tao, "but I find it hard to believe that someone could have created a network so elaborate that it would nullify all our checks and balances, sir."
"It's that belief, Tao, that has encouraged many people to turn a blind eye to this problem," said Moody.
"Mr. Moody, if you perhaps gave us some specific instances which have led you to your conclusions, maybe we'd find it easier to come to the same understanding you've developed," Raydor suggested reasonably.
Moody produced a wiggling notebook tightly bound with a belt. "This is the one and only copy of my research," he said. "If any of this information gets out, I know the leak will have come from in this room and I will act accordingly. Am I understood?"
"Yes, sir," said Raydor, answering for her entire team.
Moody pointed his wand at the notebook and it stilled, then he handed it over to Raydor, who started flipping through the pages with Provenza at her side.
"There's another thing," said Moody, "and I haven't written it down. About a year ago, just before I started forming this team, I had a witness – the only person in ten years that I've found willing to talk with me about all this. Shortly after meeting this witness, they disappeared."
"Who was this witness?" Raydor asked, glancing up from the notebook while Provenza turned another page.
"I'll hold that information for myself a while longer," said Moody. "Whoever made off with them cleaned their tracks well. I haven't been able to tie the witness to anything or anyone of note."
"So you want us to investigate the Hogwarts angle of this massive blackmail scheme," said Raydor.
"According to your notes, it's outgoing seniors that are targeted," said Raydor.
"That applies to none of us," said Provenza. "Missed the mark by a few years."
"I've got some seniors that'll be working with you," said Moody. "They'll be here soon. The lot of you aren't only going to be looking at students, you're going to be looking at staff."
"You think the professors are in on this?" asked Flynn. "They're job is to help students, not back them into a corner."
"Raydor, you know something about people not doing their jobs properly, do you not?" asked Moody. "Perhaps you could explain a thing or two to Flynn."
Raydor sighed and set all her weight on one leg, then gave Moody a calculating look. "You said you've been working to put this team together for nearly a year," she said finally. "And you now say that you want us looking into people that have become our friends and colleagues. I have to say, Mr. Moody, that I feel – "
"Brings back memories of your time with Internal Affairs, doesn't it?" Moody asked smartly. "Yes, Raydor, I knew I wanted you on the team long before you applied. I wanted someone that knew how to investigate those who know the law. I pushed for Internal Affairs to start taking interns. Once you'd gotten in and I watched you for a while, I'd hoped to leave you in IA, get you a TA position, and keep Johnson, but I realized my strategy needed to change once she hanged her career. I'd covered for her enough since taking her on, and she'd become too much of a liability. This situation requires finesse and subtlety, which are things Johnson did not in abundance possess."
Raydor sucked in her cheeks and looked at Moody with narrowed eyes. "You manipulated the system."
"No, Raydor, I manipulated you," said Moody callously. "It took a lot of subtle hinting to get you to transfer to the Auror department. You never wanted such a dangerous job – you've got kids to take care of! Idid everything in my power to change your mind from behind the scenes.
"Do the lot of you really think you were thrown together by coincidence?" Moody asked the room at large. "Since the CEP started, have you ever known a lawyer to be attached to a team of investigators so consistently? Has such a hodge-podge of interns with such a variety in specializations been together for such a long period of time? Has a researcher ever been brought on as more than a consultant, like Watson? No! I made it happen, and I did it to put an end to the plot you see laid out in that notebook."
Tense silence settled in the kitchen until a tired little voice announced to its mother that it was hungry.
"Ricky, honey, take this banana and go eat it in your room," said Raydor, grabbing a banana out of her fruit basket and beginning to peel it before handing it to her son.
"But I want pancakes," Ricky argued. He glowered at Morales, who currently had his mouth stuffed with the carby, sugary goodness.
"I'll save you some, I promise," said Raydor, running her fingers through her son's hair. "Mommy and her friends have to finish this grown up meeting, then I'll call you down and you can have all the pancakes you want. Now please go back upstairs and play by yourself for a little bit."
Ricky, banana in hand, turned with a pout on his face and left.
"Riddle me this, oh great supervisor," said Provenza as though the interruption had not occured, "why have you chosen each of us, specifically? What is it about us that makes you think that we are the key to cracking this instead of your already highly trained and experienced Aurors?"
"Once I pinned the origin of the blackmail to Hogwarts, I knew I needed a team there," said Moody. "Couldn't trust students with it, couldn't get Aurors in without being suspicious. CEP was the perfect opportunity. So I waited for the right combination of people. Johnson could lie like no tomorrow and get whatever information she wanted. Raydor can handle pressure incredibly well and has the capability to investigate people that need to be checked, regardless of their standing, connections, or job. You, Provenza, know exactly how to push people's buttons, spin the truth as necessary, and cover you ass and those of your teammates. Flynn knows addicts – you'll need to make note of any and track them, by the way – and has the ability to make friends with all sorts. Sanchez, with his extensive knowledge of gangs, has the ability to figure out the hierarchy of organizations that exist outside the law and the know-how to turn people involved in said organizations to his advantage. Tao's understanding of forensics is extensive, and I wanted to make sure I had someone on this team that could observe and test evidence that might come up before it got the chance to be muddled up by the system."
"So we're all just cogs in your machine?" Flynn asked.
"Welcome to the real world, Flynn," said Moody unapologetically. "There's a job to be done and I found the people I believe can do the work."
"Where do Andrea, Buzz, and I fit into all this?" Morales asked after finishing his food and wiping his mouth.
"I've got some old Examiners' files for you to look through, Morales," said Moody. "My witness can't have been the first to go missing on account of all of this. I want to see if there's a link between the living and the dead that's been overlooked."
"By you," said Morales with a cheeky smile. "I'll do it, but I want you to understand that I am not yet licensed, which will cause all sorts of trouble if or when this all goes public."
"Noted," said Moody. "As for Hobbs, you'll need legal counsel through this process. She's got the know-how, plus she knows how to go into an uphill battle and turn things to her advantage. She digs to the bottom and makes sure things get done. Watson is on the cutting edge of melding Magic and Muggle technology. Whoever's responsible for all this knows how to get around magical countermeasures, but perhaps not Muggle ones, and certainly not a combination of the both. That's new grounds for everyone."
"Well, Mr. Moody," said Raydor diplomatically, "we'll certainly do what we can, but this is not a simple task you've given us, and we have a very limited time frame to try to get to the bottom of something you've been studying for a decade."
"Then you'd better get started," said Moody. "I will stay for a while longer, introduce you to the seniors you'll be working with, but then this investigation is yours. You cannot confer with anyone in the government or anyone on the Hogwarts payroll. I don't even want you talking to me about it unless there is a massive break in the case."
"You do realize that you're asking us to commit career suicide if this all falls through?" asked Hobbs.
"And if it works out in your favor you'll be able to get whatever job you want without a problem," Moody replied.
"That's a mighty big 'if,'" Provenza pointed out.
"What about our families, sir?" Sanchez asked. "If people connected to this have been disappearing, then our investigating it puts our loved ones at risk."
"No government involvement," said Moody.
Raydor's face hardened and she abandoned the notebook full of evidence all together. "I'm afraid that's a deal breaker, Mr. Moody," she said firmly. "We've all got families to worry about and if they can't be protected while we're investigating this – "
"I hate to burst your bubble, Raydor," said Moody insincerely, "but your families are always going to be at risk. You want their guaranteed safety, you're in the wrong field.
"Let's discuss some potential laws currently being debated, shall we?" Moody suggested before Raydor could try to argue. "There's a bill in motion right now that would forbid the making of deals with gang members to get them to flip on their fellows. Sanchez, how much trouble would that cause, eh? Another would make attendance of magical elementary schools mandatory for all children. Homeschooling and Muggle schools wouldn't be an option anymore. There's a bill close to being passed that would open thousands of documents, kept secret for the protection of witnesses, to the public. None of these should have made it past the first few stages of the legal system. Do I need to go on, or do you understand the significance of what I'm telling you?"
Silence settled before the doorbell rang and Moody left to go answer it.
"I don't think we can ignore this," said Hobbs. "If there really is something going on this big, it could crumble our entire legal system and set our world hundreds of years back."
"Moody's paranoid," said Flynn. "We all know he sees threats everywhere."
"But that doesn't necessarily make him wrong," Sanchez argued. "His paranoia's done him a lot of good over time."
"The least we can do is double check Moody's findings," said Tao reasonably. "Depending on what that turns up, we keep going with it or we abandon it."
"Much as I hate to say it," said Provenza lowly to Raydor as their teammates continued debating, "Hobbs is right. If there is a blackmail network in place, it has to be brought down."
"I know," Raydor admitted. "I'd be lying if I said I'm not terrified, though." She showed Provenza her eyes, which were alight with deep concern. "If we go through with this, we're going to make a lot of very powerful people very angry. I came here to provide a safer, better life for my children and I just can't – I can't – "
"Look, Sharon," said Provenza as Raydor trailed off, "we're going to do everything we can to keep this quiet and protect each other. We haven't failed in that yet."
"It's the 'yet' that makes me nervous," said Raydor.
Before Provenza could reply, Moody reentered the kitchen with two seniors, one of which was very familiar.
"You can't be serious!" Provenza burst. "Sykes is one of the seniors you're giving us?"
"Nice to see you too, Mr. Provenza," said Sykes smartly.
"The lot of you know Sykes," said Moody. "This is Chuck Cooper. He'll be your other source. They know the stakes, they know who to report to, and, most importantly, they're experts in stealth."
"You kidding me?" asked Flynn with a cheeky smile. "Goody-two-shoes, suck-up Amy Sykes is an expert in stealth?"
"You two are almost out of dog food," said Sykes, quirking an eyebrow. "I took the liberty of feeding Dodger this morning when Cooper noticed you hadn't come back last night."
"Stopped at a pet store on the way over," said Cooper. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny pouch. With the wave of his wand the small object swelled into a thirty-pound bag of dog food. "This is the stuff you usually get for Dodger, isn't it?"
"Not a word to anyone outside this room," said Moody as Flynn and Provenza's jaws dropped and several others stifled laughter. "And I was never here." He left without saying anything more.
And so the real plot begins! Tricked ya before, didn't I? Maybe? I dunno.
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