Friday, December 26, 2008

109. Murder on the Hogwarts Express

Concept contributed by Dragonic
Contest winners: _houdini and pdhorner

The silence that awaited the end of Merlin’s story was so complete, it hardly seemed that anyone could be breathing. It didn’t last long. After squeezing Endora’s hand and taking a sip of firewhisky, Merlin carried on:

“As we dashed across the ground-level chambers and offices at Gringotts, naked except for Anatoly’s animated skin camoflage, the next few moments are blurred together in my memory. I remember feelings of confusion, panic, embarrassment, and above all such desperation that I might have killed any goblin who tried to stand in my way. Whatever happened, whether it took thirty seconds or thirty minutes, my next clear memory is of running down Diagon Alley on a bitterly cold January morning. Somehow I had got Rigel riding me pig-a-back. Signor Subito was doing the same on Signor Boccachiusa’s back. Another thing that mildly surprised me was that we had all stuck together.

“It was too cold to stay out in that weather, even for long enough to make the hike up to the Leaky Cauldron. So I yelled, ‘This way!’ and crashed through the front door of Madam Malkin’s robe shop, only a few doors down from the bank. It didn’t take Madam Malkin or her assistant, Miss Nickleby, long to understand our distress. We were herded into a back room with a cozy fire and a lot of warm blankets. New robes and cloaks were purchased for all, on Orion Oldmanson’s account. We had several visitors over the next few hours, including Mr. Olivander, who set us up with replacement wands. Someone else furnished us with bowls of hot soup and tankards of butterbeer. I missed a lot of what went on, since the combination of exhaustion and the lovely feeling of something in my stomach sent me right into a deep sleep.

“In my moments of consciousness I picked up an idea that Madam Malkin was hooked into some kind of underground, figuratively speaking. We had seen enough of the literal kind. The next day some trolls carried us all in a closed litter to the back door of the Leaky Cauldron, where we stayed for about a week. No one took our pictures or asked us for our story. No Ministry agents interrogated us. Even when we sat in the saloon at mealtimes, no one bothered us or even seemed to look at us.

“Then one day, a car came for us. It was one of those little German cars with room in the backseat for all nine of us, plus Don Pagliai’s hair, which almost counted as a tenth passenger. The driver wore the hood of his cloak up so we never saw his face. He drove us to King’s Cross and put us on the Hogwarts Express. The train would have had two or three other passengers that day, but the bloke in the hood talked the other lot into postponing their trip to Hogsmeade, so we had the whole train to ourselves, except for the cloak bloke.

“We all woke up when the train whistle blew, coming into Hogsmeade station. I heard the Durmstrang lads open their door, just down the train from the compartment Rigel and I were sharing. Someone yelled out. I sprang out of my seat and into the corridor, where all the clowns and Durmstrang lads were already standing over a dead body.”

Joe Albuquerque choked on a mouthful of Butterbeer and coughed, “Whose dead body?”

“A pale, blond, blue-eyed man with a ferocious expression frozen on his features. A huge, silver-bladed dagger stuck out of his chest. The oddest thing was that he was naked, his skin looking waxy in the moonlight that came through the carriage windows. And the man in the hooded cloak had gone.”

“Maybe the naked fellow WAS the hooded cloak bloke,” Sadie suggested, her words slightly garbled by the pipe stem held between her teeth.

Spanky sighed impatiently, but said nothing.

“But where did the cloak go?” asked Merlin. “We searched up and down the train. The only other people on board were the driver and the beverage cart lady, whom we found sleeping with earplugs in and a mask over her eyes. By this time we had stopped in Hogsmeade, and the local law wizards were interrogating everybody. Apparently they were satisfied that none of us had done the murder, but they didn’t like the vagueness of the rest of our story — who we were, where we had come from, what we were planning to do in Hogsmeade, and so forth. Luckily, before they could pry the whole story out of us, Orion Oldmanson showed up and whisked us all off. We never found out who the dead blonde fellow was, or what he was doing on the train naked with a knife sticking out of him. And of course, we had no idea how the cloak bloke was connected. What’s more, we never read a word about the murder, or heard about it from anyone. It was as if it never happened.”

“So it really had nothing to do with your escape from Gringotts,” growled Spanky, unexpectedly.

Merlin flinched a bit, then said, “No, I suppose not. It just seemed interesting, that’s all.”

“Then stick to your story,” Spanky advised, a bit less testily.

“All-all right,” Merlin stammered. “Well, Old Man Oldmanson took us round to his house and nursed us all back to health. We were shockingly malnourished, you know, and our nerves were completely shot. The quiet country life was just the therapy we needed. After a little while of having nothing to do but play croquet with a set of Quidditch balls, we couldn’t wait to get back to a life of sheer terror.

“Orion gave the clowns and the Durmstrang lads some traveling money — and I rather think, more than just traveling money — and they all left to begin their new lives. I stayed on a bit longer, helping Orion make a few arrangements for raising Rigel all over again. I engaged a private tutor named Professor Biddle, who sent his head to the Floo in Rigel’s day-nursery promptly at 9 a.m. every day, not to teach him a lot of stuff he had already learned during his first childhood, but all the things he had missed: manners, ethics, philosophy, stories of heroic halfbloods and Muggleborns to counteract all the Dark stuff his mother had drilled into him. I also stocked up on a new line of parental discipline aids from the Purple Papoose.”

Spanky had pulled out a quill and parchment and was adding a third line under the name “Biddle” when he asked, “What kinds of aids?”

Merlin scratched his head, not having expected his audience’s interest to lean this way. “Er. Let me see. There was the Nag, sort of a disembodied voice that follows the brat around, lecturing him about proper behavior. Saves you a lot of breath, does the Nag. Then there was the MagiBANd, a sort of charm bracelet that squelches a child’s magical powers until Mum or Dad says the magic word that takes it off. Force the kid to live like a Muggle for a while, and he won’t forget the lesson.

“My favorite, of course, was the self-spanking paddle, which could be programmed to swat a little bum whenever it did anything on a customized list of crimes. While those things lasted, Rigel had a bit of discipline, without Old Man Orion having to run himself to death chasing the child. Actually, though, I bought these things on my own initiative. I don’t think Orion would have thought of disciplining Rigel the second time around, any more than he had done the first time.

“The old man wanted me to settle down on his estate, help him raise the lad, but I was dying to get back to London and catch up on all the people and jobs I had lost track of. Did a lot of cross-country broomstick racing, cockatrice hunting, Hippogriff handling, anything I could do out of doors. And that was what I was doing when, where did Harvey go?”

Everyone glanced around and shrugged. Sadie suggested the loo.

“Hmm,” Merlin said.

“Hmm, indeed,” said Spanky, exchanging a worried glance with Endora.

+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE for TMQ 111! +++

Next time, The Magic Quill will share some of the responses readers sent to the latest challenge, as to whether TMQ should continue. The week after that — at the risk of giving away the results of the previous challenge - theMagic Quill will feature the winning entries to the Survey and Contest below. Robbie picks the Contest entry he likes best; the Survey answer that gets the most votes wins.

SURVEY: Now that Merlin’s tale is complete, what should be the next “top priority” tale from the back parlor of the Hog’s Head? (A) How the murder on the Hogwarts Express is connected with Spanky’s unfinished tale about a werewolf. (B) How Sadie made and lost each of her successive fortunes. (C) What happens to Harvey after he takes a drink of his Live-Backward-In-Time potion? (D) Other: _____ (write in your own idea, or vote for someone else’s write-in idea).

CONTEST: What unusual things might you find in a well-to-do witch or wizard’s garden?

Please, don’t wait for inspiration to strike: come as you are to the TMQ discussion forum, and add your “off the cuff” Survey & Contest answers to help Robbie (and the Quill) come up with ideas for the chapter after next! [EDIT: This discussion is now closed.]

[Originally posted 12/28/06]

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