Joe Albuquerque had walked around the hogshead barrel in the late Bette Noir's vault for the 100th time, occasionally pausing to knock on it or to try some other means of guessing what it contained (short of opening it), when something started to happen in the very corner where he had been hiding when the barrel was delivered.
Sadie stepped away from the pile of enormous money bags and joined Joe on the far side of the barrel. Together they watched from behind a rack full of fur coats as the jumping-juniper barrel rocked itself back and forth. Nearby, a sack writhed and shuddered as if someone was trapped inside it. Sadie chewed the end of her veil. Joe watched with his fists clenched. A few minutes earlier, he had been disguised as a money bag only a few feet from the one that was now coming to life. Now his attention was focused on who might be coming out of it, focused to razor keenness by the hope and dread of seeing a woman he had loved and lost many years ago.
So when an entirely unknown person came out of the bag, he almost cried out with relief. Or, perhaps, disappointment.
The unknown person was preceded by a fountain of galleons, shooting out of a burst seam below the neck of the sack. This was followed by a hand, which tugged on the outside of the sack to make the rip wider; then an arm, and another; then the head and shoulders of an extremely thin young man; and finally the rest of him, flowing out of the coin-clogged sack in one rapid movement. This, Joe was certain, was no one he had ever met . . . yet there was something familiar about him. Joe watched silently, meaning to learn as much as he could about this newcomer before revealing himself.
Meanwhile, Sadie had recognized the signet ring on the young man's finger. She nudged Joe and pointed it out.
Oblivious to their presence, the young man chanted some very precise shrinking charms, reducing the size of the great wriggling barrel until it would fit in the palm of his hand. He pocketed this. Then he prised the lid off a crate and pulled out a glass votive holder. This was evidently not what he needed. The youth put the votive back and opened another crate. This one was full of squat, beeswax candles. With a grin of success, he sealed the crate and shrank it until it would fit in his other pocket. Then he went back to the split money bag and burrowed into it. A moment later his kicking legs disappeared into the pile of coins still remaining in the sack, and the sound of rattling galleons ceased.
"Who was that?" Sadie blurted before the last echo had died. "And where did he go with - er - whatever it is?"
"Only one way to find out," said Joe, pushing the rack of furs aside. He began digging in the sack of galleons, and quickly struck upon a wooden surface. Clearing the coins away, he found that, on the inside, the sack was only one end of a canvas lining of a chest or strongbox of some kind. The lid on top was unadorned wood. Even with all the contents scraped out on the floor of the vault, the chest was too narrow to accommodate someone of Joe's size. He pulled his head out of the split sack and looked at Sadie. "You might be scrawny enough," he remarked.
"Thank you very much," she snapped. She stretched and flexed, throwing her bosom out as if to prove that she had one.
"Well, maybe if we wrap a tight bandage around your chest," Joe conceded.
Sadie seemed mollified. "That's all right," she said. "I can get through some tight spaces. Let me see what you have there."
Before Joe could stop her or discuss their plan of attack, Sadie swarmed into the sack headfirst and was gone, slamming the lid of the chest behind her.
Swearing, Joe pushed the lid up and tried to see out of the top of the strongbox. "Sadie," he hissed. "What are you doing?"
When he received no answer, Joe sat back on his heels and waited. After a while he grew bored, so he opened the crate of votive holders the young stranger had rejected. These were narrow glass cylinders, open at one end, and decorated with a painting of some medieval saint cradling a wounded bird in his hands. Beneath the picture, a short rhyme was picked out in curly, thread-like letters:
Here is the bird that never flew.This meant nothing to Joe. He sighed, went back to the corner behind the fur coats, wrapped one of the coats around him, and took a nap.
Here is the tree that never grew.
Here is the bell that never rang.
Here is the fish that never swam.
What Sadie found when she emerged from the narrow strongbox was a lady's bedchamber in a very fine, old house. There was no mistaking it, even with dustcovers over everything and the windows veiled by smothering curtains. The draped shapes included a four-poster bed, a chair beside a workbasket, a wardrobe, a dressing table (on which the strongbox was situated), a cold, dark fireplace, and a washstand. The dust covers were a good idea; they were heavily soiled with dust, as was the floor, except where the young man's feet had come and gone.
Sadie carefully stepped in the youth's footprints and followed them across the dusty floor. Slowly, mindful of even the tiniest creak, Sadie pulled the door open and peeked out into the room beyond. Again, smothered windows and dustcovers over all: a lady's sitting-room. Beyond that was a deserted hallway, from which dim light and the sound of voices filtered as if from some distance. She crept along the hallway, looking into the rooms she passed. In some, the curtains were pulled aside, revealing an improbable variety of vistas. From a child's day-nursery she saw a winter landscape with snow on the ground and trees glittering with icicles. From a small library, the windows gave a view of a gravel driveway, green lawns, towering hedges, and an iron gate. The music room (where a piano and violin seemed to have been abandoned by their players only a moment ago) commanded a view of a khaki-colored waste dotted with cactus, agave, and sagebrush. But the view that made the breath catch in her chest was in the dining room.
It wasn't so much the vast window overlooking the Thames at night, with the lights of the city in the distance; nor was it the painting on the other side, the painting of a Dark Lord of recent (but not blessed) memory; nor the vase of shriveled, putrid-smelling flowers under it. What made Sadie draw back around the corner was the vast figure wedged into a massive chair at the head of the dining room table, surrounded by a crowd of platters and tureens from which it ceaselessly ate while the skinny youth from the vault stood by his elbow, speaking.
"...exactly as planned," the young man was saying just now. "I will begin infusing the napple cordial into the candles tomorrow. Then, with..."
"Today," belched the monstrous figure at the head of the table.
"All right," said the youth, scarcely looking put out. "Today. Then, with the St. Mungo commemorative votives stuffed with suicider-scented candles, we can proceed to the next stage. The healers will find the missing crate of votives, conveniently but plausibly misplaced in their regular candle-supply closet. The fundraiser will proceed as planned. Every do-gooder wizard this side of the Channel will buy one to support the hospital's expansion project. Next thing they know, St. Mungo's will be flooded with unexplained comas. That's when you will - er..."
"You'll see," gobbled the thing beside him with a wicked gleam in its little eyes. It continued feeding while the young man fidgeted nervously.
"Surely, Uncle," the lad cried out at last. "That is to say, Auntie - or whatever - surely the plan has ripened to the point where I'll need to know what comes next."
A huge, meaty paw slapped the young man, knocking him headlong into a heap of discarded crockery. "Be still," the paw's owner warned, his wobbling face turning puce with anger. "When Uncle or Auntie is ready to reveal that he or she still lives," it continued, in defiance of its ordinarily ravenous appetite, "the world will know soon enough what we want. Until then, give us a reason to doubt your loyalty, and you will become" - the speech broke off in favor of a long, rich belch - "an item on the menu."
As soon as Uncle or Auntie Leslie had resumed stuffing, the skinny youth picked himself up and limped out of the room, passing within inches of the stuffed panda whose shadow concealed Sadie. She gripped the bear's fur, eyes wide as saucers, trying to make sense of all that she had just seen and heard. After several minutes of uninterrupted gross noises coming from the adjacent room, Sadie plucked up her courage and slipped back down the hallway, in search of the lady's bedchamber from which she had somehow entered the stronghold of a dark wizard whose death had been reported long ago.
Five minutes later, Sadie knew she was lost. She recognized none of the rooms she looked into, and now some of the doors were locked. Backtracking didn't help; when she went back to a door she was sure had been, moments earlier, a dairy stocked with rounds of cheese and brimming butter molds, it had become a breadroom thick with the smell of cooling loaves. As she wandered, discouraged, through increasingly unfamiliar corridors, Sadie's ears picked up to the sound of approaching footsteps. She threw herself through a door...
...stumbled, in near-darkness, down half a dozen brick steps...
...and only realized she was outdoors when a flash of lightning brightened the sky. Sadie turned around, quickly reestablishing her bearings, but it was too late. The door she had come out of was on the retreating side of a rough-hewn, wooden shack. A shack that was running away from her at surprising speed, running on ten thousand chicken feet.
Sadie said something not very dainty and began to race after it.
+++ Double Challenge for #139 +++
You can help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill! First, go to the forums, or send Robbie feedback. Then, in 250 words or less, answer the following Survey and Contest. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest answer that Robbie likes best, will turn up in the chapter after next. [EDIT: This discussion is now closed.]
SURVEY: How did Joe and Sadie get into Vault 1036 at Gringotts? (See chapters 135 and 136 for more background.) A: The goblins let them in because they had a warrant from the RMB. B: Joe had a key because Bette Noir gave it to him. C: They hid inside a deposit bag. D: I dunno, some type of magical means of entry. (Suggestions are welcome.)
CONTEST: Describe a clever, magical security measure that could trip up even an experienced burglar like Sadie.
[Originally posted 5/25/08]