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Driving the scooter that the Order of Phoenix had helpfully provided her, Sirius had to admit to herself that this whole business of the quest wasn’t going precisely as she’d hoped it would go. It had sounded doable when Dumbledore and The Old Lady of Boribunder explained to her what she had to do.

“It’s all quite straightforward, really,” The Old Lady had said. “Just follow the Snitch to the Chembur of Secrets, find the horcruxes, destroy it and then you’re done.” She beamed.

“Follow the what?” Sirius asked.

“We have a spy in Wol D’Mart’s camp,” said Dumbledore, ignoring The Old Lady’s wince when he said that dreaded name. “The Snitch is the spy. He knows all of Wol D’Mart’s hideouts because he’s also a courier. Helpfully, he wears a golden helmet, which is why he’s easy to spot.”

“Which is also why I said it’s all very straightforward,” said The Old Lady of Boribunder, nodding enthusiastically.

“Ok.” Something felt a little wrong about all this to Sirius, but she couldn’t place precisely what it was. “And how do we know that this Snitch will show me the way? That he won’t deliver me to Wol D’Mart or something.”

“No, no, the press release is very clear,” said The Old Lady of Boribunder. “The Snitch will be going to where the horcruxes are.”

“His what?”

The Old Lady pulled out a folded sheet of paper from her blouse and handed it to Sirius. It was an email printout.

“SNITCH MAKING HIS 300TH TRIP TO OFFICE!!!

The Snitch is approaching a never-before landmark in his profession career! Tomorrow, he will be making his 300th trip to work! He is the fifteenth courier to achieve this feat.

“It has been hard work reaching the office every day for the last 300 days, but I’m very proud of not having got lost and finding the place without fail,” said the Snitch. “In fact, I’m so certain that I know the way that if you’re looking to find Wol D’Mart’s headquarters, you can totally follow me on my commute. I’ll lead you straight to our doorstep.”

The Snitch is available for interviews. For further enquiries, please get in touch with Annniiita of Totally True PR – 9812345678.”

“And you think we can trust this?” Sirius asked doubtfully, reading the press release a second time.

“Absolutely. I’d print it,” replied The Old Lady.

“The press release may not be reliable, but the Snitch is,” said Dumbledore. “All our sources say so. But Sirius, be warned. The Snitch is a tough act to follow.”

“Yes, he’s very quick on his bike and after 300 days, he knows the roads really well,” said The Old Lady.

“And don’t forget,” said Dumbledore. “You won’t be the only one following The Snitch. There will be others and they will do everything they can to knock you out of the running.”

“That’s not in the press release,” said The Old Lady, furrowing her brow.

“Knock me out?” Sirius yelped. “Why? If they’re all against Wol D’Mart, then shouldn’t we all be a team?”

“Don’t be naive, Sirius,” said Dumbledore irritatedly. “A lot of Wol D’Mart’s enemies hate him because he’s more powerful than them. They’re not against him. They’re just jealous of him and they’re doing everything they can to get his power so that they can be like him. They don’t want his power destroyed, they just want it for themselves.” He paused for a moment, hesitated and then spoke slowly. “But I suspect the real danger for you is Ute, the voodoo specialist.”

“Oo who?” Sirius asked, feeling a cold prickle at the mere thought of voodoo.

“Ute, she’s a voodoo queen and you better hope she doesn’t pick you as her monthly prey,” said Dumbledore grimly.

“Oh come on,” said The Old Lady of Boribunder. “Ute’s not so bad. She’s even got a pet.”

Dumbledore looked sternly at The Old Lady. “It’s a Rottweiler,” he said. “That dog is not a pet. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. Have you seen its teeth?”

The Old Lady shook her head. “Russ is a cutie pie, Albus. One little tummy rub and he’ll be under your thumb.”

“Except, in the process of trying to give him a tummy rub, you’ll probably lose your entire hand,” said Dumbledore.

“Hand?” The Old Lady of Boribunder snorted. “You’ll be lucky if he hasn’t gone for your jugular. Russ is a dangerous, vicious creature.”

Sirius blinked. “But just now you said he’s a cutie pie.”

“I know. But Ute only paid me to say two nice things about her, so I’ve fulfilled my contract,” said The Old Lady. “Look, I know Russ sounds like the dangerous one, what with his jaws and his running speed, but Ute’s the real one to look out for. Her skill with voodoo is ridiculously good. She uses Russ to get something from the person she’s targeting and then she makes a doll out of them so that she can do her voodoo.”

“Is she with Wol D’Mart?”

“No one knows,” Dumbledore said grimly. “Ute and Russ are difficult to figure out. They sometimes seem to be working with us and sometimes they feel like enemies. All I can tell you is when they’re intent upon causing pain, they’re bloody bastards. So beware.”

“I’d suggest staying away from dogs of any sort and just keeping your focus on the Snitch,” said The Old Lady. “He’s on a bike, you’ll have our scooter. There’s no need to bother with Ute and Russ.”

All of which had sounded entirely doable. How difficult could it be to follow a guy when you have wheels and he has a golden helmet?

Very difficult, as it turned out.

Part of the problem was the scooter. It was ancient. Every time Sirius tried to vroom, it sputtered instead. Like now. Sirius could see The Snitch a few cars away and there was just about enough space for Sirius to weave through the thick traffic and get closer, but instead of going forward, the scooter stayed stationary and belched out a big cloud of black smoke.

When the smoke cleared, Sirius realised to her horror, that the golden helmet had disappeared.

Logically, there was nowhere that the Snitch could have disappeared to because this road didn’t appear to have any bylanes or exits. But the fact was that the Snitch’s bike was much better at weaving through traffic than Sirius’ scooter and right now, neither bike nor rider could be sighted. Somehow, he’d snuck out of this traffic jam and Sirius had no idea what to do now.

“Madam,” said a man who was walking past her. “Be careful with your bag. Anyone could steal something from it.”

Sirius nodded her head in thanks. She’d slung the bag messenger style so that the handle was across her torso and the bag itself was resting on the seat behind her. The man was right. Anyone could reach in and take stuff out. The only reason this didn’t bother Sirius was that there was nothing in the bag worth stealing.

Sirius looked in the traffic again for the Snitch but there was absolutely no sign of the golden helmet anywhere. With a sigh, she reached around for her bag and pulled her cellphone out. It had a new SIM card that the Order of the Phoenix Mills had given her, in case she needed to call for help. Just as she was about to dial Dumbledore, she heard a low growl.

Every muscle in her body tightened, including muscles she didn’t know she possessed. Slowly she turned in the direction of the sound and saw a Rottweiler standing at her side. He was big, he was snarling and he was a weird shade of dark brown that looked almost red.

“Hello Russ,” she whispered.

The dog snarled.

“Ok, so not friendly.”

Sirius wondered whether she was being judgmental with her assumption that this was Ute’s Russ. It could be someone’s pet. Sirius looked around. No one seemed to be claiming the dog. It edged towards her and Sirius saw a glistening bit of drool – or was it froth? – at the corner of the dog’s jaw. That was when Sirius noticed the dog had a collar with a little silver bone-shaped pendant. It said “Russ.” Sirius gulped. Russ growled. Again.

Just then, the traffic loosened a little and Sirius revved the scooter to get the hell away from Russ. There was barely any space but Sirius twisted and turned and swerved and screeched desperately – anything to keep moving. The scooter’s black belch had stunned Russ, but he’d recovered and was scampering towards her.

A cold dread inched into Sirius as she realised the Rottweiler was gaining on her. She looked around and realised she had no idea where she was. Her attempts to lose Russ had only served to leave her lost and that blasted dog was getting closer with every second. Desperately, Sirius made a sharp turn just as Russ lunged towards her.

Everything slowed down.

The brakes on Sirius’s scooter shrieked, the exhaust belched and everything seemed to swing around dangerously as Siriusmanaged to swerve away from Russ, with his froth-flecked mouth and extended legs. The paws looked like flying clubs. His jowls were bared and his eyes were glittering. And just when Sirius figured she was going to die in a Rottweiler’s mouth, the scooter managed to pull out of Russ’s way. The dog could only close its teeth around Sirius’s bag. Sirius felt the tug of the handle as Russ pulled it and her. Without a second thought, Sirius unlooped the handle and flung the bag away. Then she vroomed into the lane before her. It looked less crowded, and that was all she cared about. All that mattered at that moment was to get the hell away from Russ.

It was only after what seemed like a frenzied eternity that Sirius’s pulse and scooter slowed down. She realised she still had the cellphone in her hand. Sirius dialled Dumbledore rode through unfamiliar territory.

“Hello?”

“Albus!”

“Sirius?”

“That bloody dog!”

“Sirius!” Dumbledore sounded worried. “Did Ute’s Russ find you?”

“Yes, dammit. It’s one seriously scary dog,” Sirius bellowed into the phone. “You tell The Old Lady of Boribunder that no amount of money justifies calling that creature a cutie pie!”

“Never mind The Old Lady. Are you fine? Did Russ get you?”

“No, I’m ok. I managed to get away and,” Sirius looked back, “I think I’ve lost him. The dog got my bag though. Which is fine. There was nothing much in it.”

“Think carefully, Sirius. What was in the bag?” Dumbledore asked.

“Nothing of any importance. My notebook, a couple of pens, rubbish film reviewer stuff.”

“Are you sure? Think very carefully. This is important.”

Sirius tried to remember what she’d packed in there. “It’s fine, Albus. That’s all that was in there.” Then she remembered how she’d made her escape from the multiplex. “And I had a Whisper.”

“A what?”

“A Whisper. Sanitary Napkin. With wings.”

Dumbledore was silent for so long, Sirius thought he’d hung up.

“That does not sound very heartening. Best of luck, Sirius.”

“I’ll be fine, Albus. What’s the worst that Ute and Russ do?” Sirius said to Dumbledore. “Ok, I’m going to hang up now. I need to figure out where the hell I am. Bloody dog.”

About ten minutes later, it began. At first, the pain was slight and Sirius thought it was her tummy rebelling. She cursed Dabbu and his tea. But as the pain quickly worsened, Sirius realised this wasn’t indigestion. This sensation was sharp and warm, like a thick needle deliberately skewering her lower abdomen. Sirius exhaled, waiting for it to stop but it didn’t. Now it was like a weighted anchor that was settling deep inside her. Sirius brought the scooter to a halt. The pain was getting worse. Every thought other than the pain receded from her mind. Wol D’Mart, Dumbledore, even the ghastly Bollywood films she’d watched — nothing remained. There was only pain.

“Damn you, Ute-effing-Russ,” she managed through gritted teeth and then, sapped of strength and shivering in pain, Sirius slumped over the scooter.

There was the smell of mint in her nose, and it came from something warm. She knew it was near her face because she could feel the heat. The pain was still there, an unmoving belt of agony that had wrapped itself tightly around her, just below her waist. Sirius managed to open her eyes to see a glass in front of her.

“Sulemani chai, didi,” chirruped a voice that sounded irritatingly happy. “Drink it,” the voice urged. “It’s magic.”

Sirius squinted and struggled to focus on the person holding the glass. It was a small person, a girl and her eyes were so big and so shiny that they reminded Sirius of buttons.

It took Sirius every ounce of her strength to peel herself off the scooter’s handlebar and take the glass the girl was holding out.

“Thank you,” said Sirius. She sipped the tea. It was warm, rich and minty. The pain sputtered. Sirius took another sip. “This is lovely.”

“Are you sick?” the girl asked.

“No,” Sirius replied. “It’s just that blasted Ute-effing-Russ. They’re doing things to me.”

“Who’s Ute-effing-Russ?” the girl asked.

“They’re two people. Well, a person and her dog. Ute’s some voodoo person and Russ is her dog.”

A sharp spear of pain dug its way into Sirius. The little girl didn’t notice Sirius’s wince.

“Ooh! I like dogs,” said the girl, nodding energetically. “They’re man’s best friend,” the girl informed Sirius.

“Yeah? Well, this one is a woman’s nightmare.”

“Do you want to meet my grandfather?” the girl asked Sirius.

“Your grandfather?”

“Yes, he can take away nightmares. People come to him with all sorts of problems – some can’t sleep, some have nightmares, some want to laugh, some want to feel like kids again. They all come to him and he always knows what will make it all fine again.”

There was something in the child’s voice that gave Sirius a sense of renewed hope against the pain that was ravaging her.

“All right kid, let’s go to your grandfather.”

“He’s right over there.” The kid pointed at a little stall. The sign read, “Perfect Second Hand Books.”

*

 An hour later, Sirius was back on her scooter and feeling human again. The little girl had been right. Her grandfather was indeed something special. Perfect Second Hand Books didn’t look like anything out of the ordinary, but the old man who ran the stall was nothing short of a magician. One look at Sirius and he knew exactly what she needed.

“Sit here,” he told her, putting a little stool out for Sirius on the pavement. “Have a rooh afza.”

Sirius had crinkled her nose at the ridiculously sweet-smelling, red drink. She took a sip out of politeness. It tasted terrible and yet, it was weirdly refreshing. The pain loosened its grip over her just a little.

“I know just the book you need,” the old man said to Sirius. “Give me ten minutes.”

He returned half an hour later with two books. One was a map of Mumbai and the other was Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem.

“Read this,” he said to Sirius, handing her the Steinem. “Open it anywhere, but read it carefully. Don’t skip words.”

The moment she took the book from him, a whiplash of pain struck her. “I’m not sure I can manage this,” said Sirius.

“It’s the only way you’ll feel any better about yourself,” said the old man. “So hop to it. Nothing’s going to get better until you’ve finished the first 100 pages.”

So Sirius, silently cursing Ute and Russ, knuckled down to read Gloria Steinem.

 

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