The Bette Noir Affair
Concepts contributed by: Jessica Parker and Clare
"...I was out with some old schoolfellows, celebrating somebody's last weekend of bachelorhood. After chasing around one noisy, upbeat place after another, we found a certain quiet little pub to be a pleasant change and were catching up."
As Spanky paused for a sip of firewhisky, the veiled witch called Sadie chimed in: "Catching up on what? Drinks?"
"That too, but mainly each other. Some of us had gone quite separate ways, and of course I was a couple years younger than most of them, so I was really out of touch. The groom-to-be was doing very well but that was no surprise. He was one of the most powerful wizards of my generation and a fine scholar in his day. His best man came from old money and was always mentioned in the Hogsmeade society pages. Both of them had high-paying jobs that kept them in the headlines. The groom was marrying his Hogwarts sweetheart, on whom we had all had a crush at one point or another, and some of us still did. So we had a lot of toasting to do, and a great deal of roasting, and a bit of inebriated prognostication-for those of us who could still remember any of our Divination course work. A late night was already turning toward early morning when the gents came round to asking what had become of me.
"I replied that my career was progressing slowly but surely. But the interest that was riveted on me, as I described my work, surprised me. Their reactions were so out of proportion, I wondered if I was saying something wrong. For instance, one of my friends was an out-at-the-elbows sort who was scraping just enough to live on, working as a human test subject for animal tranquilizers. The worst part was that he could only work one day a month--for safety reasons, he said. Well, when I said that I had gone into the Bureau expecting an exciting career destroying vampires and werewolves, only to find myself spending a lot of time chasing down petty dragon smugglers, this fellow slammed his drink down on the table and stood up. At once the groom and the best man pulled him aside and they talked among themselves for a while before coming back to the table. I tried to dismiss a worry that my old friend was smuggling dragons and kept talking as naturally as I could.
"By then I was finishing my tale about Penguarts and suiCider and was saying something like, 'But it's not always that exciting. Most weeks I don't do anything more dangerous than serve a citation on, say, an unregistered animagus. Small-time stuff.' At that another of my old friends, a chubby little guy with beady eyes, started choking on his ale and it was the best man who surged to his feet, only he just went off by himself for a while, until the groom got anxious and went to fetch him.
"At that point, conversation had moved on to the good old days at Hogwarts, and all the people and traditions there that we used to find silly and annoying. My mate Otis was just finishing a long rant about how stupid it was that we had to bring our owls up on the school train when they could have flown back and forth perfectly well, when the best man and the groom came back to the table. When Otis paused for breath, I cut in and said I thought the stupidest thing at Hogwarts was the whomping willow and whoever had it planted there was without a doubt a complete and utter wanker.
"God help me, I don't know what I had said wrong, but at these words the bridegroom-to-be lunged across the table and tried to get his hands around my throat. Ale splashed, glass crashed, tables and chairs went flying, and before the tapster hit us all with body-bind spells we were all rolling on the floor, punching anyone we could reach. The party broke up after that, and a lot of those guys wouldn't speak to me for a while."
As Spanky paused for another drink, Harvey's eyes smiled at the others, and he tapped the side of his handkerchief-covered nose.
"So I went home to sleep it off and instead spent half the morning lying awake, trying to work out where I had gone wrong. And that was when I got paged."
"Paged?" Endora asked, perplexed. "What's that?"
"It's a little way the RMB have of keeping in touch with their agents. Out of thin air there's a burst of purple flame and a rolled up bit of onionskin paper appears. This one flamed up right above my head, and the scroll hit my chest before I could flinch. I unrolled the page and read in the spiky handwriting of my superintendent-you remember Iovanescu?-that my leave was canceled, as I was urgently required by the local office. I was given coordinates to apparate and instructions to dress for warm weather.
"I changed my robes and popped in to the local office, which wasn't really so much a Mission as a public liaison office. They handled complaints, stored old records, and handled security arrangements for the Gryffindor Trust. But there wasn't anyone on staff who had actually had the business end of a wand brandished at him. They had never had a crime that couldn't be solved by going to the local jail, bailing out the most hungover wizard, and telling him they would drop all charges if he would put all the statue's body parts back where they belonged. One time a wizard had turned the standing stones near Salisbury into a set of draughts and hundreds of tourists had needed memory charms after that. But nothing really dangerous had ever happened around Blokebury-on-Rye, nothing really valuable had been stolen. Until now.
"The superintendent at Blokebury is a skinny chap who looks like a skeleton with skin stretched over it. Everyone calls him Hungry. He must be my father's age, but from the moment I walked into that office, I felt that he was in awe of me. It was a strange feeling, but it started to make up for the lousy night I'd had.
"'What's the problem?' I asked him. 'Haven't they told you?' he asked back. Why, the sword had been stolen from the Gryffindor Museum at Godric's Hollow. Not the sword, you know, not the one that belonged to the great man himself, but the perfect replica that was forged in the 18th century when the Trust bought the land back from a hop farmer named Snipewell. No one knew where the real sword was, but the Trust worried that the fake would be misrepresented as the real thing, used in some horrid fraud, or perhaps melted down and sold for scrap. Fake though it was, it was worth more galleons than any of us, saving your honor, has ever clapped eyes on."
Harvey nodded at the compliment and snapped his fingers to conjure another round of firewhisky.
"The honor of the RMB was at stake," Spanky went on. "No one knew better than Hungry, who had personally designed the web of enchantments that was supposed to make the sword impossible to steal. Whoever had done it must have been a dark witch or wizard of nearly unheard-of mastery. The one thing that soothed Hungry's anger was the fact that our culprit, amazing as he or she was, had not avoided leaving a trail. A tiny speck of fuzz had stuck to the felt pillow on which the sword had lain.
"I pulled a cauldron and portable fire out of my handy, four-dimensional pocketbook and began whipping up a potion. It was one that had already served me well on several occasions. I can't tell you what it's called, because I learned it in Moldova where they haven't discovered vowels yet; but the active ingredient is powdered pickled starfish. Put a bit of anything in it and it grows back the parts it has lost. Of course what you get can be no larger than your cauldron, so if you put in an elephant's toenail you'll end up with a cauldron-sized elephant with a really bad case of ingrown toenails. So don't think of making this stuff at home, it can lead to big problems.
"After the solution cooled, I dropped in the bit of fuzz, stirred it around for a while, and went out for a pint with Hungry. By the time we came back, the bit of fuzz had grown into a towel embroidered with the words Bilge Vista Hotel-Santa Perdita, California.
"'Very impressive,' said Hungry. 'And useful, perhaps.'
"'Thanks,' I said.
"Hungry beamed at me, holding the towel as though he wanted to rub himself with it. He said, 'This looks like the break we've been looking for. When can you leave?'
"'Leave?' I squeaked. 'Me?'
"'Who else?' Hungry said. He wiggled his wand over his desktop and an airplane ticket appeared there. 'Too far to go by floo or apparition,' he explained, as if answering my unspoken arguments, 'and you never want to assign a Portkey to a place you've never seen. As for flying on a broom, by the time you got there, the trail might be cold. Don't worry, this is an Air Merlin flight. Pumpkin juice cocktails, hinkypunk patÃ©, acceleration-free, normal-air-pressure, levitation-powered flight. The flight attendants are all at least one-quarter Veela. And you can spend your frequent-flier miles at Quality Quidditch Supply.'
"'That's not what I'm concerned about,' I said.
"'What's the matter then?' asked Hungry.
"'I know someone in Santa Perdita,' I said. 'Someone who might be able to help in this.'
"'Excellent. Because your flight leaves in forty-two seconds, so you'd better go right now.'
"I went. I apparated on the plane, business class, with two seconds to spare. The flight to California seemed endless; it must have taken at least forty-five minutes. I don't know how Muggles put up with it, especially without the bigger-on-the-inside flight cabin. I arrived in California sweaty from a tennis match I played against one of the flight attendants, and discovered that I was underdressed after all. Santa Perdita is a small city on the coast of Southern California, and against all expectations, it was cold there. At least ten degrees cooler than in Blokebury. It was a sunny, breezy day in September and I was shivering in shorts and a polo shirt. My first thought was to curse Iovanescu for telling me to dress for warm weather. And then who should I find waiting for me at the gate but Joe Albuquerque, disguised as a flight attendant!
"'You're kinda cute,' I kidded him. 'That half-veela look really works for you.'
"'Well, it's a pain in the knickers, so hurry up,' Joe growled. 'Come on, I've got a portkey to the motel, but we can't use it in front of all these people. Do you see anything that looks like a broom cupboard?'
"I hurried after him as he walked away without giving me more than a glance. 'How did you...' I stammered. 'I mean, when did...or rather, where are we...?'
"'No time to explain,' Joe grunted. 'If the person behind this is who I think it is, your window of opportunity is closing fast.'
"'Who do you think it is?' I panted. 'What window? Why is it closing?'
"Joe snorted with exasperation. 'Will you shut up with the questions? Ah! Good! A janitor's closet. Watch your step, that mop is wet. Okay, touch this. Three, two, one...'
"While my head was still spinning from the whirl of wind and changing colors, Joe hopped over a low stone wall and approached the front doors of a sprawling, badly painted building whose garish neon sign proclaimed Bilge Vista Hotel-Vacancy. I shook the dizziness off and hopped after Joe. By the time I reached the reception desk he was already paging through the guest sign-in book.
"'There she is,' Joe said, jabbing at a page with his thumb. 'Maleficent Cacklebury, stayed two nights, September 4th and 5th. Room 226. It's a fake name of course, but it's like her. Just like her, in fact.'
"'Just like who?' I said impatiently.
"Joe batted his fake Veela-eyelashes at me, as if he pitied me for what I was about to learn. He almost seemed to be apologizing for the trouble that was going to happen, before it happened. And when he said, 'Her real name-or at least the name I first knew her by-is Bette Noir,' I new it was a name that would trouble my sleep for many nights to come..."
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