Friday, December 19, 2008

14. The Bette Noir Affair, Part 2

Concepts contributed by: Jessica Parker and Aidan Raelyn

The cowled storyteller leaned back in his seat and began swirling firewhisky around the bottom of his glass, looking for all the world as if his tale was done.

After a long, expectant pause, Endora the cloaked witch exclaimed, “That’s it? That’s the tale of the Bette Noir Affair?”

“Hush, dear,” her companion, Merlin, warned.

“I mean to say,” Endora surged onward, “it weren’t much of an affair, was it? Didn’t nothin’ happen...”

“Let the man rest,” said Harvey, whose face was now concealed by a piece of blue paisley silk. “It’s obvious the tale hasn’t begun yet to be told. He needs to gather his forces.”

“Well, really,” Sadie, the veiled witch, spoke up. “If this Bette Noir was such a devilish character, why haven’t we ’eard of ’er?”

“You have,” said Spanky from beneath his deep hood. His voice rang out so sudden, chilling, and deep that the others flinched.

Endora bravely stammered, “N-no, we haven’t.”

“Yes, you have,” said Spanky.


“Oh my, was that your foot?” Harvey said regretfully. “I thought it was one of the landlord’s little pets. Pets, I say, because I am convinced that he keeps them around deliberately. They make the sight of food that hasn’t been nibbled, gnawed, or otherwise marked so unusual, one is tempted to tip extra for it.”

Merlin stopped a piece of toasted bread-and-cheese on its way under his hood, and slowly lowered it to the table.

Harvey’s eyes brightened, and he said, “I humbly beg your pardon. Do go on, my good man.”

Instead, Spanky took a long, slow drink out of his glass, then breathed smoke out through his nose with a satisfied sigh. “I was just thinking about the time my friend, Otis, and I dressed up in suits of armor and went clanking around the castle in the middle of the night...”

Harvey raised a hand to silence the others as they shifted mutinously in their chairs.

“...We had borrowed a certain map from a friend of ours,” Spanky continued, “a map that allowed us to keep tabs on where old man Pringle was, and we all but hemorrhaged from trying not to laugh as we led him this way and that by the sound of our footsteps. Every time he caught us up, we were holding dead still in a corridor or room full of suits of armor. And we just waited for him to finish fuming and cursing, waited till his tiny figure on the map moved off, then began clanking around again. It was great fun till we got to the kitchens, where we met a squadron of remarkably grouchy house-elves armed with can openers, veal tenderizers and refrigerator magnets. It seemed we had disturbed them during their customary hour of sleep. By the time we got away, bruised and dented, we were only too glad to throw ourselves at the mercy of Apollyon Pringle...”

Another sigh, another puff of smoke.

Sadie began banging her pipe on the end of the table.

“At any rate,” Spanky relented. “I’ll tell you what Joe Albuquerque told me, after we had gone back to his office on Peanut Butter Boulevard. He told me about a woman, a beautiful woman, most likely a granddaughter or great-granddaughter of a Veela. A proud, selfish, hard-hearted woman who was born in the twelfth century, and who is still alive and beautiful today. She glided into men’s lives and out again, seldom staying in one place or in one marriage long enough for her agelessness to be noticed. She changed her name, her accent, her hair and style of dress so that she wouldn’t be recognized as the same person. But of course, some people knew. Some people saw through her disguises, or stumbled upon her secret in some other way. And a few of those people passed on the tale--the tale of a woman who had taken a draught of immortality; or, in some cases, the tale of a woman who had fallen under a curse that she should never die until she found true love. And this was a woman, I daresay, who can never love.

“She has held many brave and brilliant men in the palm of her hand, distracting them with her beauty and maddening them with her contrariness, for she is difficult to please. And she often leaves them broken-hearted. But she always leaves them poorer, weaker, and less popular than they were before they met her. She steals their ideas and their works of art, she sells their secrets to their enemies, and when she disappears many treasures disappear with her. She is hard on husbands and cold toward her children. It is estimated that she has married forty-seven times and had eighty-two children. All her daughters use men the way she used their fathers, and all her sons are used by women in the same way. She has been the mother of three Kings of England, the wife of two U. S. Presidents, the star of numerous films under four different names, and an early transoceanic pilot. She also owns more priceless works of art than the Smithsonian Institution--things the Muggle authorities regard as irretrievably lost.

“I know only a few of the names she has been called. In one incarnation, she was an American heiress who married a Welsh industrialist, so she was known for a while as Lou Ellen Llewellyn. A little afterward, she posed as a French viscountess who captured the heart of a brilliant young historian. Her name then was Mercedes Binns--when she left, the poor fellow lost his interest in everything but history. In the 18th century, she and her private army founded the Zoology Bay colony in the Antipodes, where she used the illusion of a vast desert to disguise the largest and richest forest and game preserve in the world. To this day, rich wizards and witches go there to hunt chimaeras and gryphons. At one point she was even made a saint, in the identity of St. Oleomargaret, who magically--or, as it was thought, miraculously--churned sour mash into butter, ruining all the nearby dairy farmers so she could expand her brewery farm. Some say this was how butterbeer was invented.

“Her other aliases have included Hapenelope, a professional widow in the Boer war who married one soldier after another and collected their survivor benefits; Florence Vulture, a Crimean war nurse who picked the pockets of the dying and wounded; Victoria Borgia, the niece of a pope who ran off with the fund to rebuild the Lateran; Ithica de Medici, the wife of an Italian gentleman who drugged him at night and went out to spend his money while he slept; Mary Squeen of Cots, a pretender to the throne of England who got another lady with a similar name into serious trouble; Meretricia Macbeth, who disappeared and left her husband to pay for her crimes; Dyslexia Defarge, a French woman who brought chaos to the French revolution by knitting important, secret messages in a stitch-code that no one could read; Hemlock Golightly, a woman of ill-repute whose popularity made high-society women so envious that dressing like a streetwalker became the height of fashion; Catastrophe Jeanne, a female gunslinger and dueler in the American West who kept a whole town’s eyes riveted on Main Street while her accomplices broke in the back entrance of the bank; Bonnie Barking, who talked her mild-mannered beau into robbing banks for her; and Nausea Comaneci, whose theft of all the gold and silver medals at the 1972 Olympics resulted in cheap brass and pewter ones being handed out instead.

“Joe Albuquerque had known her as Bette Noir, in his younger days. He wouldn’t say much about what happened between them. He only alluded, now and then, to a Corsican statue of a turkey, a hothouse full of snapdragons, a glass hammer, and a dog named Spumoni. Since Joe told me all about her, I have always thought of her as Bette Noir; but I knew that was no more her real name than Lou Ellen Llewellyn or Mercedes Binns. Nevertheless, the name she was operating under when she came into my life was Maleficent Cacklebury. A right appropriate moniker, that.

“On my fourth day in California, I found a small wood-burning stove crackling away at the gate of a high-walled, forested estate somewhere in the Redwood Forest region. I stepped off my rental broom, tossed a fistful of floo powder into the stove, and announced, ‘Mr. Sylvester Stogether to see Ms. Cacklebury’--I was disguising my identity, you know...”

“Yes, we get it,” said the other four figures at the table, in unison.

Spanky nodded. “A very bewitching voice responded out of the flames, resonating in the frame of the little stove. It said, ‘I have been expecting you, Mr. Spankison. Leave your wand and your broomstick in the cupboard next to the gate. And stay on the path until you get over the bridge. My collection of whomping willows is nonpareil.’

“With a lingering creak, the gate swung open upon a deeply shaded lane that curved into the restless trees. I could see nothing else but a thin sliver of sky directly above me, could hear nothing but the crackling of limbs and rustling of leaves and, far away, the faint sound of Latin dance music so inappropriately cheerful that it struck me as eerie. I must have hesitated on my way up the path, because the gate hit me on the bottom as it slammed shut.”

[Originally posted 8/6/04]

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