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The Magic Quill #16: The Bette Noir Affair, Part 4

by Robbie Fischer, concepts contributed by: Nymphadora T., Chris Pachuilo, and Scott Riddle

‘What is your relationship with Joe Albuquerque?’ I asked her. My flesh crawled with dread as I waited for Bette Noir to answer.

“’I met him in Egypt,’ she replied, leading me out of the vault and up a great, curving staircase. ‘He was disguised as a Pakistani carpet trader. I was in the identity of a film actress–I thought you would recognize me, but it must have been before your time–pretending to be visiting a spa for my health. Actually, I was trying to steal a magnificent stele that had been looted from a Pharaoh’s tomb years ago and was in the hands of a private collector. Joe was on the trail of Abdul Aberber Amir, the chieftain of the great…’

“’Flying carpet cartel,’ I finished for her. ‘I remember that. Biggest rug-smuggling ring in recorded history. The bust was all over the Daily Prophet, and the trials didn’t end until I was at Hogwarts. I didn’t know Joe worked on that.’

“’He is a master of undercover work. I’m sure you know that by now. He obtained the trust of one of Abdul’s chief suppliers, a brutal wizard named Furmahl de Hyde, who brought in hundreds of black-market house-elves and forced them to hook an endless succession of rugs. Joe bought tons of carpets from him and sold them all over Cairo to dummy buyers, who were actually RMB agents like him. He was hoping to get introduced to Abdul Aberber Amir himself.’

“By this time, we had passed several landings and entered what must have been the fifth floor of the palace. The broad, high-ceilinged corridor was hung with glittering chandeliers lit with pumpkin-scented candles. It was another art gallery, but this one contained great works thought to have been destroyed in fires, wars, and other catastrophes. Some of them were supposed to have been hoarded away by Grindelwald–when he fell back in ’45 no one expected to find them again. Yet here they were: the altar-piece from a shelled-out church; a manuscript of the completed last movement of the “Unfinished Symphony”; a string of jewels that supposedly went down with the Lusitania; and a whole shelf of first-edition books by Savanarola, Hus, and others that were burnt by the Inquisition. We stopped in front of a darkened alcove, protected by a pane of curse-proof glass that was embedded in the wall.

“‘The prize of my collection,’ she said, and waved her wand. The alcove lit up. ‘This,’ she said, indicating the thing behind the glass, ‘is what finally brought Joe and me together. Or rather, it tore us apart. Do you know what it is?’

“It looked like the hand and forearm off a suit of armor. It sparkled brightly. Its workmanship was very fine, and tiny links of chain-mail showed at the joints. It appeared to be lined with leather on the inside. ‘It’s just an old gauntlet,’ I said, bewildered.

“’Just an old gauntlet!’ she cried. ‘This is the gauntlet of Roland de Mudd, a mighty Norman baronet who fought in the crusade with Richard Lion-Heart. Unfortunately for him, he crossed a wizard rather badly. Somewhere in Macedonia, it is said, he burned and looted a hermit’s farm, not realizing that his victim was a warlock whose dying curse touched Roland’s gauntlet. This gauntlet makes its wearer invincible. No one stands a chance against him in mortal combat. However, it also takes control of the wearer’s will, filling him with ambition and greed until he destroys all good feeling toward him, leaving him utterly alone and destitute. Yet by enslaving the will, the gauntlet also ensures that the wearer will not get rid of it and claim his life back. Everyone who has worn it died miserable and friendless…and died wearing this thing.

“’The private collector who had my stele,’ Ms. Noir continued, ‘was a vicious man named Furmahl de Hyde: a man so feared and hated that no one but slaves, suppliers, and dealers had anything to do with him. Joe was posing as his number-one dealer but was really trying to establish a connection between Furmahl and Aberber. One night, when Furmahl was supposed to be test-driving an Aladdin-78 with a prospective buyer, I slipped over the wall into Furmahl’s compound and levitated myself up to the window of his private study. Unfortunately, as I floated through the window, I bumped heads with Joe, who was coming in the window on the opposite side.

“’The resulting crash awoke Furmahl’s blind, tongueless steward, who immediately shot sparks into the sky. Before we could escape, we were surrounded by Furmahl’s burly guards. Moments later, Furmahl apparated, yanked Joe’s fake nose off, and challenged him to a duel. Joe refused. Next, Furmahl made a very inappropriate proposal to me, which I also refused. Infuriated, Furmahl opened a safe in his wall–one of those goblin safes that devour anyone who touches it except the person who owns it–and pulled out a delicately painted ceramic egg. He muttered something over it and tossed it at Joe. By instinct, I grabbed Joe’s arm and tried to stop him, but his instinct to catch the egg prevailed. He caught the egg, which turned out to be a portkey. We were both whisked away and landed in a place of utter darkness. Worse yet, a crunching sound told us that the egg had shattered when we hit the ground.

“’It was not only pitch-dark, but the air smelled dead, as in a place closed up for centuries. We felt our way along a winding passage, eventually realizing we were in an impenetrable maze. From the way parts of it sloped up or down, we deduced that it was inside one of the great pyramids. The worst part was, we couldn’t disapparate! Those Egyptian wizards left no loopholes in their vile curses. Furmahl had imprisoned us in an ancient King’s tomb. Entombed us, rather. It looked like we would never get out.

“’Til now, Joe and I had not even been introduced. In the days that followed, we really got to know each other. I don’t know how he felt about being entombed forever, but it was the ultimate horror for me. At least he would eventually die–sooner rather than later, I realized, because we had no food and only a half-full wineskin that Joe kept as part of his disguise. I refused to drink from it, and he took only sips, but soon it was all gone and he became desperately thirsty. Somehow, for some reason I cannot explain even to myself, I feared losing him more than anything else. Because after that, I knew I would be alone for eternity. I did what I could to make every moment with him mean as much as possible. I’ve never been more open, more attached, more desperately close to a man. But at last, he began to die. He grew weak and delirious.

“’Without even a wand to provide light, I had to find some water for him. I unraveled the hem of my dress and tied the end around his finger, then carefully walked through the maze, making sure to keep just a little tension on the unraveling thread at all times. I felt high and low. Finally, I found something. I tripped over it, rather. It was a skeleton–the skeleton of a man whose head was crushed by a fallen stone. The clothes it wore felt modern, and in one of its pockets was a little metal flask that had some liquid in it. I was willing to risk whatever state that liquid might be in, just to wet Joe’s whistle. As I was pulling the flask out of the skeleton’s pocket, I brushed against something else metallic. I felt it carefully and realized that it was a gauntlet–thisgauntlet. I wondered what a man in a modern suit would be doing in an ancient Egyptian pyramid wearing a piece of medieval Norman metalwork…’

“’You could tell it was Norman workmanship in the darkness?’ I asked.

“’Well, anyone could, who had spent as much time visiting, pilfering, and donating to museums as I have. I brought it back to Joe with the flask. He drank it and it revived him a little. Then I let him feel the gauntlet. I should have stopped him from putting it on…’

“’He put it on?’ I gasped. ‘Then…’

“’Yes,’ said Ms. Noir. ‘I have no doubt that this gauntlet is a big part of his motive for using you to frame me. He can never forgive me for taking it from him; but it really was for his own good. After he bashed a way out of the pyramid for us, he fainted dead away. I took him to a sanitarium, where I left him in the hands of the healers. I took this away with me. I spent years studying it, learning of its origin and its dreaded powers. I have always wondered whether I would see Joe again, returning to claim it from me…or, at least, to avenge himself on me for breaking his heart. Oh, thank you, Nigel.’”

“Nigel?” said Sadie, the veiled witch whose pipe was now emitting a dense cloud of bright purple smoke. “I fought you was going by Sylvester somefink. What’s she fankin’ you for, anyway?”

“She wasn’t thanking me,” said Spanky, taking advantage of the interruption to down the rest of his goblet of firewhisky. “She was thanking the little, wizened, stooped butler who had appeared at her elbow with two glasses of brandy on a silver tray. We walked away from him, sipping our brandy, looking at the other works of art as we continued our conversation.

“’So obviously,’ Ms. Noir said, ‘you’re here to do the dirty work, the frame-up. The genius of it is, you don’t even know it. You’re just an honest lad, probably full of the same ideals you had when you went through school, trying to bring justice to a chaotic world. But Joe…well, I fear even the brief time he wore the gauntlet, though he used it to hurt no one and to save lives…’ She sighed. ‘Who knows how fast it can take over a man’s will? Or how strong and lasting its hold may be? I hoped Joe would have gotten over it by now, with the strong character he seemed to have. Obviously, I was wrong. He wants to put me away forever. He wants power. It’s the only… Nigel, what are you doing?’

“We both froze in our tracks. The feeble old butler had come out of a doorway ahead of us–I would never have dreamt that he could be so agile, getting ahead of us through the connecting rooms and all. He was pointing his wand straight at us.

“’Don’t move,’ said the old man. Only it wasn’t the elderly voice of Nigel that we heard. It was the familiar, deep growl of Joe Albuquerque. ‘Not one muscle,’ he added.

“I tried to go for my wand, and she for hers–but we weren’t fast enough. We didn’t even have time to draw before he lifted his wand and screamed, ‘Avada kedavra!’”

Far from the scene in Spanky’s story, a witch named Endora knocked her goblet over with a clunk. Fortunately, it was empty.

“Blimey,” said Endora, picking up the goblet nervously.

The others at the dark little parlor table held their breaths, waiting to hear what happened next.

What happens next? Send us your idea in 150 words or less, and tune in next week for another installment of the Magic Quill.