Saturday, December 27, 2008

119. Farewell to Shmedly

Contest winners: Linda Carrig and dele

After supper at the Sidwells’ spotless -- and conspicuously odorless -- attic flat, Spanky settled into the sofa next to Ilona and patted his belly. “Excellent supper, Endora,” he said. “Beautifully seasoned.”

“It wasn’t too bland?” Endora said, anxiously glancing over her shoulder at the crockery and pewter as it washed and dried itself and arranged itself in the kitchen dresser. “I often err on the side of blandness. I can be a wee bit oversensitive to subtleties in flavor.”

“No, I think you compensated quite well,” Spanky assured her. Ilona seconded this with a nod of her head.

“Me, I can’t taste anything these days,” Sadie admitted before biting the tip off a cigar and spitting it with practiced precision out the open window on the other side of the room. Somewhere in the street below, a woman screamed, a dog barked, a car horn bellowed, and something made of glass shattered loudly. Unconcerned, Sadie continued moistening the end of her cigar.

Joe Albuquerque, disguised as an off-duty guard from Buckingham Palace, had flinched slightly as the spit wad of paper and tobacco sailed over his shoulder. He stroked the beaver hat on his knee, fussy and slightly offended. “Watch it,” he snapped. “I go on duty in three hours, and this all has to look just so.”

Sadie regarded him coldly, lit her cigar with a spark from her wand, then blew a smoke ring at him.

“It feels weird to be sitting here without our masks and such on,” Merlin said loudly as he squeezed into the same armchair as Endora. “Almost doesn’t seem right to be getting together anywhere but the Hog’s Head. It has the only atmosphere for the tales we tell each other.”

“I’ll tell you what atmosphere it has,” said Endora, rolling her eyes. “It stinks!”

“Too true,” said Sadie from out of a thick cloud of smoke.

Endora looked pleadingly at her husband. He sighed and waved his wand toward Sadie. The smoke began to flow toward the open window. Joe coughed meaningfully, so Merlin added another wand-twirl and the trail of smoke made a sharp turn in front of him and went up the chimney instead.

“Well, there’s always next time,” said Merlin. “After all, we do want to stop at the Hog’s Head now and then, in case Harvey tries to get in touch. But maybe, for now, we can turn down the lamps a bit, help set the mood for Spanky’s story.”

“I would rather have them on,” Ilona said, shivering. She seemed about to add: Or talk about something else.

“Very well,” said Spanky. He sipped from a smoking glass of amber liquid, set it down, and continued his tale...

“I heard the voice of the little, angel-faced man from behind me, saying: ‘Easily lured, easily caught.’ But I didn’t turn to face him. I held my hands up to show that I was unarmed, but I kept my eyes fixed on Shmedly. He seemed to shrink under my gaze. I said, ‘I ought to have realized you two were connected. You both have the same tendency to shrug off perfectly sound curses.’

“A bit of color came back into Shmedly’s face then, and he almost grinned. ‘We have your precious patron, Sir Whatsit, to thank for that.’

“I felt a cold thrust of pain at these words, as if Shmedly had run me through with an ice dagger. Just then, when I was almost sure Sir Lionel had betrayed me, may have been the lowest moment in my life – or at least, since locating Ilona. But Shmedly, seeing the look on my face, couldn’t resist twisting the dagger. As the short wizard behind me checked my robes for wands and other weapons, Shmedly gleefully added: ‘What? Didn’t he tell you about the magic-proof orchid he illegally bred in his hothouse? Hmmm? Reeks like a charnel house, but when you rub its nectar on your skin, you become invincible to any kind of magical attack. Only stops working if you break the skin...’

“‘Oh, you fool!’ angel-face sighed sorrowfully, though Shmedly flinched as if he had been screamed at. ‘You poor, dear, fool! Will you never learn when to stop?’

“I was overjoyed. I could have kissed Shmedly just then, as I turned to face my captor, hands clasped behind my head. ‘How did you get around the smell, then?’ I asked him, noting the trickle of blood that had tried on angel-face’s neck after Ilona had hit him with the teapot.

“‘I cannot answer your questions,’ angel-face said regretfully. ‘We only have time for you to answer mine. If you weren’t so secretive, if you had boasted to your colleagues here’ — he indicated the unconscious and dead RMB agents laid out around us on chaises longues — ‘I might have gotten the information without having to trouble you.’

“‘I see,’ said I. ‘This is all my fault, then.’ I darted a glance, out the corner of my eye, to see the ugly house-elves tying up Zichri Goode and the hagmaiden who had come with us. Ilona stood a few paces behind angel-face, aiming her wand at him. Its tip trembled so much that I reckoned any spell she tried might hit me just as easily as him. I stared at her over the top of angel-face’s head, trying to send confidence at her, though I still had no idea why this little wizard frightened her so much.

“‘Have a seat,’ said angel-face. With a flick of his wand he blasted me backward onto a chaise lounge. Straps attached to the seat’s frame wound themselves firmly around my legs. One of the house-elves brought forth a small, cushioned stool, and my captor sat down beside me, beaming benevolently at me, like a kindly doctor visiting a favored patient. ‘Perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is Minimilian Iulianescu. We have never met, though you were a guest in my home for several months.’

“I told him that I doubted it. He smiled even more sweetly and asked, ‘Do you not remember an old castle on the Prut River?’

“‘That ruin?’ I snorted. ‘It hasn’t been anyone’s home for centuries.’

“‘It was your home, albeit a borrowed one,’ Iulianescu pointed out. ‘And it belongs to me, by right of Salic primogeniture. It and everything in it.’ He said this last bit very slowly, to emphasize it.

“‘There was nothing in it except what I brought with me,’ I said. ‘And I took that away with me as well, so I don’t see why it interests you.’

“‘Don’t you?’ purred the little man. ‘I have read your record. You were, even then, one of the RMB’s cleverest and most resourceful agents.’

“‘That’s news to me,’ I said. ‘I didn’t join the RMB until after that assignment.’

“Iulianescu sighed and rolled his eyes. I stole a momentary glance at Ilona, who looked more undecided than ever. I was with her by now; I wanted to know what this wizard wanted. I could worry about escaping later. ‘So you say,’ the little man said with an air of infinite patience. ‘There’s really no need to keep up the charade, now that I’ve read the whole case file. Yes, you were in the pay of the Dragon Squad, Southeast Zone. Yes, you were on loan to the Moldovan Bureau of Worm Control. Yes, your assignment was ostensibly to patrol the Romanian border for signs of dragon-egg smuggling. But it was only a cover for your actual work for the Rogue Magic Bureau — pray, don’t act surprised!’

“The madman laughed sweetly at the look on my face, and raved on: ‘The case file wasn’t even particularly difficult to steal, and you’re mentioned on fully two-thirds of its pages. So let’s dispense with the subterfuge. The RMB has been hoping to pick up a little artifact that my great-great-great-great-grandfather secreted in the castle walls. They want it almost as much as I do. To my certain knowledge, it was still there when you began your border patrol, and it was not there when I went looking for it shortly after you left. The RMB hasn’t given up looking for it. So I can only conclude that you found it, moved it elsewhere, and prudently refrained from mentioning it in your report. I have hoped all these years that you would seek me out and strike a bargain with me...’

“‘Well, for starters,’ I snarled at him, ‘I haven’t the first clue who you are. And for finishers, I wasn’t undercover then; I didn’t work for the RMB; and I don’t know what artifact...’

“‘I’m sorry,’ Iulianescu said in a gentle voice that somehow chilled me to the marrow. ‘I should have mentioned that I don’t suffer fools. For example: Avada Kedavra!’

“He said the Killing Curse in a conversational tone, with his wand pointed casually toward Sid Shmedly, who was still holding the tip of his knife against Silver Conkling’s throat. A hideous, green bolt of light hit Shmedly in the chest before he could even scream. He crumpled, landing half on top of Silver, and pulling her chair over sideways. Silver made a horrible, wet gasping noise, twitched several times, and lay still. I was so stunned by this sudden and heartless murder, both of my oldest enemy and one of my friends, that I forgot to breathe. A minute later, the little monster gave me a gentle slap and brought me round, gasping, staring at him in horror.

“He continued speaking exactly as before. ‘I might have understood your concealment before this, but now that I have revealed what I know, there is no sense in continuing to pretend. It is simply foolish. You are not a fool, are you, Agent Spankison?’

“I swallowed something that might have been either a scream or a sob, and said, ‘No.’

“‘Good,’ said Iulianescu, shining on me with a smile so bright that it should have given me sunburn, though it made me feel colder than ever. Over his shoulder I saw Ilona square her hips and aim her wand at him. Bless her, just as I was falling apart, her hand became steady.

“‘Are you ready to make a deal, then?’ Iulianescu asked, while Ilona looked at me questioningly.

“I looked into her eyes and said: ‘Yes.’”


SURVEY: Spanky’s stay at Minimilian’s castle was previously mentioned in TMQ #11. He clearly doesn’t remember working for the RMB at that time. So which of the following is true? (A) Spanky was so deep undercover that he himself didn’t know he was working for the RMB. (B) Someone tampered with the records to make it look like Spanky was working for the RMB. (C) Spanky had nothing to do with the RMB, but he was mentioned in their report because his investigation crossed paths with theirs. (D) Spanky is mentioned in the RMB reports because they were considering whether to hire him. (E) The RMB believed Spanky was their informant, but it was actually Ilona (who, you may recall, was stationed just across the river).

CONTEST: What sort of “artifact” might lie hidden in a wizard’s castle for seven generations, and what magical power might it have?

[Originally posted 5/29/07]

No comments: