by Robbie Fischer
Concepts contributed by Dragonic, greyniffler and Linda Carrig
The house-elf grumbled about this, too. He liked to grumble, actually. He grumbled about the absurdity of Master’s explanation of why Carpet had to be picked rather than swept – something about the sweeper causing wear and tear on the rug’s ancient, delicate fibers – when it was manifestly obvious that Carpet was of the flying variety. Anyone could tell this by the way it kept wrinkling in the middle or curling on the edge, at just the right time and place to trip a body up. And the way Master anchored it down with heavy objects, like the ornate marble lampstand, and the enormous alabaster vase – formerly a spittoon, now home to a flourishing umbrella tree that already sported an unripe crop of walking sticks. And yet, these things often moved from one place to another when no one was in the room; and on one memorable occasion, the wing chair on the corner of the rug nearest the window had fallen into the hearth and started to burn, all by itself. The elf nodded and grumbled with satisfaction as it crawled around, picking barely visible specks out of the rug. Carpet was alive enough – and Master’s spell barely kept it asleep. Running a sweeper over it would probably tickle it awake. Then, no doubt, one would see more exciting disturbances than a singed chair or a crop of walking sticks rattling in the tree where there was no wind whatsoever.
When the rug was finished, and all the fibers had been smoothed down from north to south, the house-elf walked out of the study in search of its next job: straining fish droppings out of the aquarium, which were then to be spread with exquisite care over the . . . “Braces and garters!” cursed the house-elf, spotting the puddle on the bathroom floor as it hurried past. Once again, the bucket was nearly dry, this time over a foot away from where the water was falling. Why would someone move it? The house-elf’s grumble turned into a snarl as it scrubbed the tile dry and put the bucket where it belonged.
This done, the snarling house-elf cleaned the fish tank and spread its dreck in a thin, consistent layer over the roots of Mistress’s favorite plants in the garden. Nearest the house was the barnacle tree, whose barnacle-like fruit opened in late summer to reveal a newly hatched gosling. Below that, along the gazebo path, was Mistress’s raskovnik patch, a type of grass whose blades could open anything closed or locked, and which treasure-hunters had all but picked to extinction. Close to the wall at the bottom of the garden lived a flowering fern whose blossom opened one night each year and brought good luck to whoever picked it. And finally, wiping the fish dreck off his hands, the house-elf passed through the postern gate and spent a good hour combing the fleeces of a grove of borometz plants as they baaed and grazed and swayed on their stems.
His snarling subsided to a grumbling as the house-elf circled round the side wall of the garden to the kennel, where it let out the simurgh for its three-times-a-day exercise. The creature barked and chased its tail gaily, getting the lead tangled up with the elf’s legs, before launching itself into the air on powerful wings and flying up and down the length of the garden, snapping at birds in flight and marking each chimney it passed. The house-elf sighed at this, but as this was rather an improvement on grumbling, one might suppose the simurgh’s behavior cheered him up. Fortunately, he had a very long lead on the beast, so he was eventually able to reel it in and take it indoors for its bath.
He rolled his eyes as they entered the bathroom. Once again, the leaky pipe was dripping on the floor. This time, however, there was no need to wonder who would move the bucket out from under the leak. It was the leak that had moved, half a yard closer to the toilet since the elf had last gone by.
There was no point in clearing it up now. With strength belying his small size, the house-elf engaged the simurgh in a heroic struggle and, at last, succeeded in wrestling the great winged dog into the bath. The simurgh dripped miserably, its rejoicing considerably dampened, as the elf shampooed it, combed it for fleas, toweled it dry, and brushed it all over. Then, with a furtive look over his shoulder, the house-elf banished the simurgh to its kennel with a snap of his fingers, a loud POP, and an abruptly silenced yelp of surprise. This left another mess for the house-elf to clean, and for once he forgot to mutter as he mopped up spilled bubble-bath, feathers, and dog hair.
An hour later, the house-elf lay face-up along the top rung of a tall stepladder, trying to find the leak in the ceiling pipe and fix it. He loosened connections – got squirted in the face – tightened connections – hammered – screwed and unscrewed the brackets that held the pipe up – caulked – tried everything he knew how. The leak only seemed to drip when he wasn’t looking for it. He gave up, lined the floor with buckets from one end to the other, and went off to cook supper.
As soon as the house-elf left the bathroom, a tiny voice said something like, “Whew! I thought we’d had it back there!” It was very muffled, so one can’t be quite sure. The pipe on the ceiling began to rattle, shake, and bang around in its brackets. Condensation flew in all directions. Water squirted out of every joint. Something inside the pipe made a slow, laborious progress toward the ell above the toilet tank. Then it rattled around the ell with even more violence. Finally the water in the toilet tank gave a “plop” – something in the water gave a fishy cough – someone in the tank said, “Thanks for the ride” – and the porcelain lid over the tank began to lift slowly off.
A pair of eyes peered out through the gap under the lid. No one was around. The lid rose higher, and beneath it rose the head and torso of a young woman wearing a wetsuit. A demure veil covered her entire face below her eyes. Her eyes, however, were anything but demure.
Slowly and silently, the catfish burglar climbed out of the toilet tank, unconcerned by the fact that she couldn’t possibly fit inside it. She unzipped her sweatsuit, tossed it back into the toilet tank, and replaced the lid over it. Under the wet suit, she had worn a black, form-hugging leotard that looked virtually identical to the wetsuit. The form it hugged was firm yet feminine. She moved gracefully, silently, with an alert, listening look in her eyes. Before she reached the door, she knew there was no one in the corridor outside; so she darted directly into the nearby study and began a methodical search of the desk.
Her ears perked up: voices approaching. Seconds later, a barrel-chested man with a bushy beard swept in with a younger, leaner woman on his arm. From her perch in the walking-stick tree, concealed by her leotard that had taken on the same pattern of colors and shadows as the branches around her, the burglar recognized the woman and almost gasped.
“But my dear niece,” said Bushy Beard, “I still do not understand – why the urgency? You were going to inherit it from me by and by. Rather soon, I should think.”
“You know I would never ask this but in the direst emergency,” the woman replied. “Please, Uncle Radu, do not ask me to explain what need this is. All you must know is that it exists.”
Radu shook his head. “But you, Ilona? Even you would use this?”
“It will work if you give it to me freely,” said Ilona. “I do not need to wait for the inheritance.”
“That is not what I mean. Can anything be so urgent? I ask you. You, who entrusted it to me with the strongest warning that it was never to be used!”
The younger woman started to reply, hesitated, and cast her eyes downward in shame.
For some reason, this was all the persuasion Uncle Radu needed. He opened the humidor on the bookcase behind his desk and pulled out a slender cigar. Peeling the label off, he revealed a silver ring that he now removed and handed to Ilona. Then he bit the end off the cigar, snapped his fingers, and used the flame on the tip of his thumb to light the cigar, puffing firmly.
“It is yours from now on,” the old man said. “I am too old and weak to shoulder such a responsibility. I hope – I hope you will consider any other way to do the thing that you must do. This artifact tries you, tests you always. Once it finds your weakness, it will push there, harder and harder. I fear that once you start using it . . . ”
“Everything will be fine,” said Ilona. She kissed her uncle three times. “Thank you, Uncle.”
Sadie waited until they had left, then had a fit of coughing that rattled the walking sticks in her tree. Before the house-elf could come in and investigate the disturbance, she had climbed out the window above the desk. Climbing down the smooth wall of the house, swimming across the inky, icy moat, and scaling the slimy wall that surrounded the moat were no problem for the catfish burglar; but after jogging four kilometres over uneven terrain in the darkness of an overcast night, she had a twisted ankle and a stitch in her side, and she almost missed the camp. Spanky caught her just in time to keep her from plunging off a cliff into the swift river.
“Did you get it?” he asked.
“I got there too late,” Sadie reported miserably.
Spanky looked stunned. “What happened?”
She was about to tell him when Ilona came out of the tent, carrying a cup of chocolate and a plate of biscuits. Ilona faltered at the sight of the hatred in Sadie’s eyes.
“Well?” cried Spanky.
“She got out of there fast, didn’t she?” Sadie said acidly.
“Who got out of where?” Spanky said, looking from one woman to the other in befuddlement. “What are you talking about? Ilona and I have been right here ever since you left.”
“Then there must be two of her,” Sadie said, plunging through the tent door and jogging Ilona’s elbow into the bargain. “And the other her has the ring,” her receding voice added, before a slamming door (in the two-bedrom bungalow inside the tent) cut off any further conversation.
Ilona gave a cry of dismay and spilled the chocolate on the ground. “What can she mean? How would I…? I mean, even if I could, why would I…?”
Spanky gathered his wife under his arm and ushered her inside. “Nevermind,” he said. “It’s all coming together now. We know only one person who could pull off a caper like this: Joe Albuquerque. Only, he wouldn’t. But I would be surprised if dear Joe didn’t know someone else who could. Where did you stow that floo powder, dear?”
Meanwhile, camped just across the river and a few dozen yards upstream, another Ilona Spankison relaxed into a chair and began to peel her face off. A new face emerged from beneath the old one – a face whose owner Joe Albuquerque didn’t know existed. Which was too bad, really, considering that they had more than talent in common. The slender, smooth-faced young man admired the signet ring on his finger with a bitter smile. He didn’t spend much time admiring it, though. He had work to do.
Dear Mr. Fistley, he wrote, Please have a barrell of suiCider transferred into jumping juniper casks, to ensure the potion is continuously stirred, and delivered to Gringotts Vault 1036. Mention my name at the front door, and the goblins will take the casks from there. Then forget all about this matter. Destroy this letter immediately. Cordially, Lee Shore, esq.
The young man grinned as he dripped a wafer of sealing wax on the letter and embossed with the signet ring, knowing that even if the letter went astray, he could not be touched. His real name, after all, was not Lee Shore.
It was Chat Noir.
+++ A NOTE FROM ROBBIE +++
Perplexed? All right. Go back and look at The Magic Quill chapters titled “Titus Fistley,” “Madrigal Unchained,” “The Catfish Burglar,” and even farther back to “The Bette Noir Affair” and “Meet Joe Albuquerque.” Don’t despair at not remembering all this. I wouldn’t remember it either, if greyniffler and Linda hadn’t brought it all up in the discussion on TMQ #133. It took me a while – yes, me! – to track down the details of the chapters they were referring to. So if I can do it, so can you!
In the meantime, enjoy this DOUBLE CHALLENGE, by which you can help determine the shape of TMQ Chapter 137…
SURVEY: Which previous Magic Quill villain is Chat Noir working for? (A) Minimillian. (B) Il Comte di Bestemmia. (C) Avarice Exion. (D) Bette Noir. (E) Uncle or Auntie Leslie. HINT: Don’t worry if they’re supposed to be dead.
CONTEST: Supposing that some wizards share the same religious practices as many Muggles, name and describe a particular sin, saint, miracle, or shrine that is especially significant to churchgoing wizards.