Saturday, December 27, 2008

139. Don't Kid a Kidder

Contest winners: Dragonic and Linda Carrig

Joe Albuquerque showed his key to the goblin in charge. The goblin looked up the number of the key in a huge ledger. "This vault is retained by a Bette Noir," the goblin sneered. "Would that be you?"

"Albuquerque's the name," said Joe. "I inherited the vault and its contents from Ms. Noir."

"Making a withdrawal, are you?" the goblin pried, glaring at Joe suspiciously. "Only, you made a deposit yesterday."

"My mother-in-law was visiting," Joe said smoothly. "Never goes anywhere without that niffler of hers. We simply wanted to put a few things out of the niffler's reach until she had gone, which she has." He smiled blandly, which irritated the goblin even more.

"Sprocketlip will escort you," the goblin in charge replied, muttering something foul under his breath.

"Thank you," said Joe, as a goblin with astonishingly large ears stepped forward and beckoned to him with a brusque gesture.

Sprocketlip did not make much conversation until they reached Vault 1036, where he squealed: "Key!" Joe handed it over. Using the key together with a number of secret gestures known only to goblins, the creature released the locks and booby traps on the door. It slid open with a soft grinding noise.

Joe walked into the vault, nonchalantly ignoring racks of furs and shelves laden with rare artifacts. He went directly to a large sack of treasure in the corner, hefted it, shoved it into a pocket in his cloak (where, of course, it made no bulge whatsoever), and walked out of the vault.

As they rode their ore cart back up toward the bank lobby, Joe cried: "Wait! We have to go back!"

The goblin's ears curled at this news, but it said nothing. At the next turning the goblin steered the cart around on a track leading back down toward the lower vaults. The next word it shrieked was, predictably, "Key!" - though Joe had already taken the precaution of handing it to him.

Joe winced, walked back into the vault, and pulled a sack of treasure out of his coat. "My wife would have fed me my liver," he said cheerfully as he exchanged it for an identical sack of treasure. "She's been telling me all week how she wanted to switch to her grandmother's silver service. I ought to be able to take a hint by now."

The goblin made no audible response. Perhaps it didn't speak English.

This time their trip back to ground level was uneventful, and Joe walked out of the bank. He stopped for a pint at The Leaky Cauldron, then disapparated.

Spanky started when Joe appeared in his study. "How did it go?" he asked, recognizing his visitor with relief, and going back to the report he was writing.

"Everything went smoothly," said Joe. His voice broke a bit at the end of his phrase. "Excuse me," he added. "Frog in my throat."

"I quite understand," said Spanky, unlocking the large, lower drawer of his desk. Joe pulled the treasure sack out of his cloak and dropped it into the drawer, which Spanky locked again.

Joe gagged, made some horrible retching noises, and finally pulled a small frog out of his mouth. "That's better," he added, only now in the voice of Spanky's wife Ilona. He set the frog in an aquarium furnished with grass, pebbles, and a bowl of water, then began peeling his face off.

The fake hair and skin that had made Ilona look like Joe Albuquerque (wouldn't you like to know!) rolled up quickly into a small bundle, which Ilona handed to Spanky. "I think I'm getting used to this," she said, as her husband helped her out of a wizard's robes and into attire more becoming a witch - which look exactly the same to untrained eyes. "If Joe doesn't watch his back, I may come after his job."

"I hope he and Sadie will be all right," Spanky said as he stuffed Ilona's disguise into a cupboard. "I have a feeling they're about to meet some dangerous characters."

"We will hear from them if anything bad happens," Ilona said firmly. "Don't worry."

"Was anything out of order in the vault?"

"It was hard to tell," said Ilona, taking the pins out of her hair. "I couldn't be sure, from Joe's description. But the goblin-in-charge was suspicious. Evidently someone besides Joe was there yesterday with a deposit."

"Well, then," said Spanky, "we must be on the right trail. Whoever stole that ring from your uncle must be connected with Bette Noir after all."

At that moment, Joe and Sadie were receiving their own confirmation of this as Sadie pursued the thin young wizard through the treasure sack which opened directly into a false-bottomed chest in the house on chicken feet.

Sadie swore a not-very-ladylike oath and ran after the retreating house as the rain began to fall. She might not have caught up to it if a stone fence hadn't appeared in its path. As the feet turned under the house and prepared to run in a new direction, Sadie caught up and burst through what seemed to be a side door. She found herself at the intersection of two corridors; and when the door slammed behind her she turned and saw, instead of a door, another wing of the house lined with mysterious, closed doors.

Voices and footsteps approached. Sadie plunged through the first unlocked door she came to and pushed the door shut as quietly as possible. She listened, eyes shut, as the voices and footsteps approached, past, and faded away. On opening her eyes again, she saw one of the eeriest rooms she had ever been in.

It took Sadie some moments to learn the size and shape of the room. It was an oval-shaped space, about the size of the public room at the Hog's Head, eerily lit by dim oil lamps set in recesses on the wall. This glow was repeated in dozens of gilt-framed mirrors that lined the walls. Spaced throughout the room were about twenty life-size figures carved out of pieces of wood - smooth, featureless figures standing in a variety of poses. Each was dressed in costly finery, with circlets on their heads, necks adorned with ropes of pearls and jeweled chains, bracelets and rings on their hands...

Sadie gasped when she realized that the ring she was looking for might be in this very room. Before taking a step away from the door, however, she took a good look at everything around her. Knowing the security spells and magical traps used by other wizards of means, Sadie was reluctant to move a single toe until she knew what was safe and what wasn't. She had gotten to be quite good at this. For instance, any of these dummies might be jinxed to poke her in the eye, or snatch the wand out of her fingers. Sadie carefully pocketed her wand. Or perhaps that rug - the one in front of the one nearly naked dummy - might have a spell on it. She guessed that, if she stepped on it, she would instantly find herself trapped in a rolled-up carpet.

Keeping as much distance as possible between herself and the dummies, Sadie tiptoed across the room to the naked dummy. On the first finger of its upraised hand it wore a heavy, silver signet ring. Taking care to walk clear of the carpet, she circled behind the dummy and stretched her hand over its shoulder, reaching for the hand with the ring. At the last moment, she put her foot on a tile that looked like any other...and felt a sudden tug. "Oh, no."

When the portkey spit her out, Sadie expected to land heavily on the ground. Instead, she felt herself jammed into a space so small and confined that she had to curl herself up to the limit of her considerable limberness. Every part of her ached. She had her fast reflexes to thank for not being instantly crushed to death. With a groan, she twisted around and put her hand out, feeling for an opening...

...and gave a stifled scream as another hand grabbed hers and tugged. She fought to pull her hand free, but she had no where to flee to. Soon she gave in to her helpless position and allowed herself to be pulled free of what turned out to be a trunk with a false bottom, and into the Gringotts vault she had left minutes earlier.

Joe Albuquerque - the real one, as evidenced by his disguise as a major in the Swiss Guards - helped Sadie to her feet.

"Are you all right?" he cried.

"Give me a moment," she said, and began checking herself for injuries. "You've changed," she observed.

"I got nervous," Joe said apologetically.

"Well, I hope you brought a lot of disguises," said Sadie, "because I have news that will turn your hair white. First, I've seen the ring, and I almost got it back."

"Well done!" Joe cheered.

"But," Sadie added, "I don't know how I'm going to find it again, especially with His or Her Horridness alive, well, and at large in there." She pointed toward the collapsed treasure sack Joe had helped her out of.

Joe's jaw dropped. "You don't mean..."

"I do," said Sadie. "I would rather not go back there, but in a minute or two, I will. But you know, I would feel a lot better if I had your whistle with me."

Joe opened his mouth to argue, stopped, closed his eyes, and shook his head. Then, reaching under the collar of his Swiss Guards uniform, he pulled out a slender chain made of individually carved slivers of dragon bone. Threaded on the chain was a small whistle carved out of a small, highly polished fang.

"I guess you'll need this more than I," he said gallantly as he handed it over.

"Thanks," said Sadie, putting the chain around her own neck. "While you're waiting for me, look around this place. Maybe you'll find something just as useful for yourself." Then she took two deep breaths, like a diver, and swarmed back into the empty sack.

Joe Albuquerque sighed as her feet disappeared. "I need to raise my fees," he muttered.


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: What is the scariest curse in the Harry Potter books?

CONTEST: Rumor has it that a potions expert can "bottle fame, brew glory, stopper death," etc. Describe something that would be really unusual to find in liquid form.

[Originally posted 7/4/08]

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