Saturday, December 27, 2008

144. Jude the Insecure

Contest winner: Quercitron

The Out of This World Outfitter was certainly out of the way. It lay three turns out of Diagon Alley, in a dingy cul-de-sac lined with boarded-up shops and littered with broken roof tiles. It was situated below street level, its entrance hidden behind a gruesome, never-melting ice sculpture depicting the beheading of the Gang of One, the hydra who had terrorized the neighborhood during the Lawlessness that had followed the Third Goblin Rebellion. Its entrance was marked by three signs, falsely identifying it as Ermengarde's Weevil Shop, claiming to be closed for structural repairs, and warning trespassers to beware of Acromantulas.

To get through the outer door, one had to knock three times using one's elbow, because anyone touching the dragon's head knocker risked getting a faceful of forgetfulness powder, and anyone whose knuckles touched the door would fall through a trapdoor into a ticklefish-infested pool guarded by a dwarf named Jeremy, who would only let them out if they guessed his name or paid him a sickle.

Through the first door was a small courtyard with a fountain and a second door on the other side. One had to throw one's wand and any other weapons, magical or otherwise, into the fountain before approaching the second door, which would then open automatically to a short corridor and a final door. It was here that one needed to speak the password of the day, which was only known to the proprietor and those he had personally invited.

How did one arrange to be invited to the Out of This World Outfitter? One wrote to its owner, requesting specific items and offering to purchase them on his terms. One sent the letter by owl to the Post Office in Diagon Alley, care of General Delivery. There a postal elf named Gandy would check it for curses, poisons, and anything else liable to cause loud noises or sudden movements. Gandy would also check the name of the letter's author against the Who's Who of Wizarding Britain, to make sure they were on the up-and-up. If time permitted, Gandy might even recopy the letter onto juju-proof parchment. Then he would deliver the letter through the only pneumatic tube currently operating in the wizarding world. Return letters inviting the would-be customer to visit the shop would be sent back the same way.

Only one customer could visit the shop at a time. This was to ensure that its proprietor could never be outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and overpowered.

A lone man in a dark cloak approached the first door today. His hood was raised, hiding his face in shadow. He knocked on the first door with his elbow: knock, knock - pause - knock. The door opened itself, and the dark man passed through. He took two wands, a long silver knife, a blowgun, and a slingshot from his pockets. Together with a waxed box full of darts (for the blow gun) and a string bag of return-to-me stones, he placed these weapons in a boat he had made from the front page of the Daily Prophet and set it afloat in the fountain. Magically, the boat steered clear of the jets of water and stayed dry, upright, and afloat.

The second door opened as soon as the boat floated out of the cloaked wizard's reach. He entered the small corridor, waited for the door behind him to close, and whispered one word to the door ahead: "Rincewind." He didn't know what it meant, but according to the letter he had received, that would be today's password into the Out of This World Outfitter. Sure enough, the third door opened.

Surprisingly, the shop within was brightly lit, spacious, and comfortably full of browsing customers. The cloaked wizard understood that these wizards and witches were under an enchantment, condemned to wander the Outfitter's shop eternally, as punishment for demanding an insultingly low price for something the proprietor had procured for them. Customers had friends and families. Friends and families had feelings about their magically imprisoned loved ones. And so, obviously, the wizard who now approached the dark man - the wizard with two wildly swiveling, electric-blue eyes and an ill-concealed stash of spare wands tucked up his sleeve - had enemies. It isn't paranoia, the new visitor thought, when everyone really is out to get you.

"Julian Cribble," said the proprietor, bowing politely but not offering to shake hands, as his magical eyes rolled in opposite directions to check the perimeter. "Some call me Jude the Insecure," he added. "Those who want to stay on my good side call me Mr. Cribble."

"What do your friends call you?"

"I'll let you know if we ever become friends," said Cribble,

"Dandelionel Ethelbaldricsson," said the cloaked wizard, lowering his hood. "Everyone calls me Spanky Spankison."

Cribble looked relieved to recognize his customer's face. He nodded discreetly to someone behind Spanky, who realized that the customer behind him hadn't simply been checking out a display of armor-piercing spitballs. She pulled her hand out of her pocket and moved away. Spanky mentally kicked himself for not noticing that the witch had a wand in her pocket.

"Would you like to see the item I found for you before settling?"

"That would be ideal," Spanky admitted.

"Tough luck," snapped Cribble. "By crossing that threshold, you agreed to the terms in my letter. Payment first. Then you can leave with your item. Or...you can look around the shop..."

"How can I be sure it's the right item?" Spanky snapped back.

"It's a risk we both take," said Cribble.

"Where's the risk for you?"

Cribble's right eye studied the ceiling while the left continued its slow 180-degree search pattern. "The price may be high," he said, "but so was the cost to me. Procuring this kind of item isn't easy and it isn't cheap. I can only make a living if I get plenty of repeat customers."

After a long, tense silence, Spanky said, "I'll accept that."

"Good," said Cribble. "It's getting crowded in here. Shall we step into my office for the weighing of the gold and whatnot?"

On the other side of a narrow, curtained doorway was a wedge-shaped sliver of a room with a pneumatic tube terminal on the wall. Light and heat came from a charcoal brazier on a raised stand. A wide standing desk, littered with parchment and broken quills, occupied most of the space. The only other furniture was a life-sized stone figure of a burly goblin with a broad, vicious grin. It stood with one hand extended, palm upward. As the curtain fell shut behind them, the sound of the customers' shuffling feet and occasional, tortured moans was cut off, and all that remained was the crackle of fire in the brazier and the purring of a plump cat curled up asleep in a painting above the desk. Spanky could suddenly hear his own breathing. Ashamed of the noise, he tried to breathe more slowly and calmly.

"Place your gold on the goblin's hand," Cribble said, his soft voice magnified by the strange acoustics of the room.

"I'm willing to offer you a bit more than your asking price," Spanky said, pulling two bulging bags of coins out of his pocket.

Cribble's eyes suddenly focused front and center - which had an oddly unsettling effect. "What for?" he asked suspiciously.

"Information about an item you sold to one Madam Solfeggia d'Arezzo."

"Which..." Cribble bit his tongue. "I mean, I do not discuss my dealings with other customers."

"So..."

"Nor can I confirm or deny that Madam Solfeggia has ever been my customer," the shopkeeper added hastily.

Spanky flashed a smile that, during his career in the Rogue Magic Bureau, had made several suspects suddenly decide to confess. "You've just confirmed it. Otherwise, how would you know that she prefers to be addressed by her first name?"

"If there is a law against what I do," Cribble said furiously, "show it to me. Otherwise pay up, take your item, and go. Exact coin only."

"You were about to ask which item I want to know about," said Spanky. "That tells me you have sold more than one item to Madam Solfeggia. I'll be interested in that, too, but for right now the one I'm curious about was a live creature."

"You don't want me to decide that this is bargaining," Cribble warned. "I prefer to do my bargaining at a safe distance."

"I'm offering you more money," said Spanky. "How is this bargaining? What I'm asking for will cost you nothing.

"This isn't what we agreed upon," said Cribble, his eyes rotating out of control. "People who go back on agreements make me feel unsafe. Bad things happen to people when I feel unsafe."

"You're quite safe with me," said Spanky, opening the front of his cloak to show the badge on the front of his shirt. "I work for the R.M.B. I am sworn to protect..."

"It was just a ruddy nightingale," Cribble shouted, hurting Spanky's ears. He quickly turned to face the painting of the cat, though Spanky felt sure his eyes were still aimed at him through the back of Cribble's head.

"You may have meant to send her a nightingale," Spanky said gently, "but something else was delivered."

"Mistakes do happen now and again," Cribble growled.

"This was a rather big one," said Spanky. "I'm interested to know how you managed to confuse a yak with a nightingale. Did you even look inside the box? Wouldn't you have wondered why it came in such a big..."

"Don't be foolish," Cribble snorted. "I saw the bird myself. Its gilded cage might have stood on this desk. No yak could..."

"Did anyone else handle the cage between here and the Post Office?"

"My sister Branwen handles all my owl-order business. She would have personally seen the cage to the owlery, like every other item she handles."

"Was she the one out there?"

Cribble nodded. "You won't want to interrogate her, though. Fellow named Rabastan Lestrange gave her a rough time when she was a girl. Since then, she refuses to speak to men. Hates the lot of us, she does. Only says 'Yes' and 'No' to me, and I'm her twin brother."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Is it possible the direction for the nightingale was accidentally switched with that of another package?"

"Not once the owls are in the air, it isn't," said Cribble defiantly. "I'm telling you, nobody but my sister touched the cage between this shop and the owlery."

"Do you know this by asking her a specific, yes-or-no question?"

"I know my sister, Mr. Spankison. She keeps clean books. Besides, we haven't sold a yak in years."

"You have sold one, then? To whom? Could he have intercepted an owl?"

"Slow down," Cribble said, wincing as Spanky's voice hurt his hears. "I'll look it up in the register." He swept some rolls of parchment off the desktop, then pulled the cat painting away from the wall. Behind it was a shelf crammed with heavy, leather bound books. The wizard tugged one of them out onto the desk and began paging through it. Once opened, it covered the whole surface of the desk.

"Here it is," said Cribble after some minutes' search. "One Tibetan yak, sold to the Himalayan Gardens and Preserve of Mangeford."

Spanky laughed. "Excuse me? Where was that again?"

"Mangeford," said Cribble. "To the attention of Sir Lionel..."

"Niblet!" Spanky suddenly had to bend over and put his head between his knees.

"Always the usual suspects, isn't it?" Cribble drawled, enjoying Spanky's reaction with a wobbly-eyed sneer.

Spanky shook his head, upside-down, and grunted, "On the contrary."

"Well, now you know, you can fly off and question him. But first, settle up."

"Wait," said Spanky, pulling himself upright. "What about the other items you have sent to Madam Solfeggia? Was there ever a custom-made knife?"

"Certainly," said Jude the Insecure. "Only we didn't send it to her. The lady came here and picked it up in person."

Spanky had thought he was past being astonished, but now his jaw dropped. "Alone?"

"How else?"

"Was there any music playing around her, somehow?"

"Not as I recall."

"And she was in human form?"

Cribble frowned thoughtfully. "Most of my customers are."

Spanky shook his head again. "That wasn't Madam Solfeggia."

"Maybe the lady sent a lady friend in her place?"

"I'll warrant that she never bought - would never have bought - such a knife."

"Well, my letter could only have been opened by her. And only by reading that letter could she have learned the password to come here. If she didn't want the knife, she must at least know someone was angling to get it, and with her name engraved on it too."

"One way or another, someone must have intercepted your letter. Can you describe the woman who presented herself to you as Madam Solfeggia?"

Cribble's magical eyes turned figures of eight while he thought. After a minute he gave a brief description that exactly matched Madam Solfeggia's piano-playing parlor maid, Fifi.

"All right, that's enough to go on with," said Spanky. He had received as much disturbing news as he could digest in one day. He dropped one sack of coins in the stone goblin's outstretched hand. The statue came to life and popped the sack into its mouth. A moment later, coins could be heard rolling and sliding down a sloping surface, a sound that went on for a long time and only gradually faded away.

"These are for your extra kindness," Spanky added, handing the goblin the other sack of coins. "Now, if it isn't any trouble, I'll take my luggage and my leave."

"It's waiting for you in the courtyard," said Jude the Insecure, patting the goblin's head while it spat out two empty purses. "If I know the world it came from, it will have collected all your personal items from the fountain, and you needn't worry about carrying it, because it will follow you on its own feet."

"Wonderful stuff, that sapient pearwood," Spanky said wistfully.

"If you still think so after you've had it for a while," said Cribble as he held the curtain open and the sound of the clientele's mournful shuffling returned, "perhaps we can do business again."

"It would be my pleasure, Mr. Cribble," said Spanky, but he did not look pleased. Nor, as he patted the top of the wooden trunk that stood by the fountain - stood, mind you, on a hundred tiny feet of its own - did he feel especially pleased. Once again, his faith in one of his oldest friends was shaken.

What story would Sir Lionel tell him this time? Would he believe it?

+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #146 +++

You can help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill! First, go to the forums, or send Robbie feedback [EDIT: Rather, leave a Comment]. 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: Which of the gifts Merlin received in TMQ #141 should he use next?

CONTEST: Describe the talisman Signor Maledicto stole from the goblins? (See TMQ #141 for more info.)

[Originally posted 10/27/08]