The Magic Quill #17: The Bette Noir Affair, Part 5

by Robbie Fischer, concepts contributed by: “Misheal”

“As Joe Albuquerque’’s killing curse echoed down the corridor,” Spanky continued as his audience hung on every word, “something large and heavy crashed to the floor behind us. Ms. Noir and I spun around. It must have been almost on top of us when Joe stopped it. It was an acromantula, big enough to eat me for dinner and Ms. Noir for dessert. It’s amazing that we didn’t hear it sneaking up behind us. Now it was twitching its last, its hairy legs splayed beneath its enormous body.

“’That was close,’ said Ms. Noir, as Joe ripped off his Nigel makeup and tossed it on the dead spider. ‘Thank you for saving us, but the mystery deepens. If you’ve been here to protect us all this time, then who is really trying to frame me for stealing the Gryffindor Sword? I’m sure whoever it is let that thing into the house. They’re obviously trying to kill me!’

“’I daresay it’s Mr. Spankison they’re after,’ said Joe. ‘Because he should have figured out by now who the real culprit is. I figured it out just ten minutes ago, as I was thinking over a comment Spanky made when I met him at the airport.’

“’Me? I?’ I stammered. ‘You think I know who done it?’

“’What was the first thing you said to yourself when you got off your plane?’ Joe asked, tossing his white-haired wig aside and accepting a brandy from the real Nigel, who had arrived along with four house-elves and a wheelbarrow to remove the giant dead spider from the corridor.

“I racked my brains. Then I said, ‘I suppose it was something like, “Gee, it’s awfully cold here. I would never have expected southern Cal-…”’

“’No, no, I mean what you said to yourself out loud,’ said Joe.

“’Er…’ I gave it some more thought. Then it came to me. ‘Oh, yeah. I said, “Confound that Iovanescu for telling me to dress…for warm…weather…”’ My voice trailed off. The knut, as they say, had just dropped. ‘Merlin’s beard!’ I gasped. ‘How could I have missed it? He told me to dress for warm weather before I went to the Blokebury Office! I hadn’t done my unpronounceable potion, or discovered the bit of fuzz from the hotel towel, or any of that. How would he have known that I was going to California unless…”’

“’Unless Iovanescu was the one who stole the sword and planted the evidence in the first place,’ Joe exclaimed, shooting sparks out of his wand in an excess of emotion. ‘But why would he want to cause trouble for Ms. Noir?’

“We both looked at her. She shrugged, looking blank. Then it came to me. ‘It isn’t her,’ I said, staring at an icon from a Russian cathedral that had been torn down by the Soviets. ‘It’s us. We made him look like a fool. Remember that Penguarts case? You called him something like an inkwell-swilling, quill-pushing, useless git of a desk jockey…’

“’I think I used stronger language than that, to his face,’ Joe admitted ruefully.

“’And I suppose he never expected a rookie like me to blow the whole case wide open like that. Maybe he was in with the Penguarts coven all along; maybe he wants to discredit us; and maybe he wants the sword to make another stab at gaining power for the dark forces…’

“’And maybe,’ said a thickly accented voice behind us, ‘He wants to leave with a certain iron gauntlet.’ We all turned to look at the speaker. It wasn’t Nigel. It was one of the house-elves, a fat little fellow. Only it wasn’t a house-elf at all. It undid a couple of zippers, cast aside its tea-towel, and unfolded into my Romanian station commander, Iovanescu. He must have been hobbling around on his knees for hours, disguised as that house-elf! ‘And you thought Joe was a master spy,’ Iovanescu sneered at me. ‘And you,’ he said to Joe, leveling his wand at my friend’s face, ‘you thought I didn’t have what it takes to make it in the field. And you, madam,’ he concluded, turning toward Ms. Noir, ‘thought there had to be a motive for picking on you. And you’re right.’

“’But I’ve never seen you in my life,’ Ms. Noir said, looking shocked. The other house-elves unzipped and unfolded into two witches and a wizard, also brandishing wands at us and the unfortunate Nigel.

“’Oh, it’s not personal. That’s why it was so perfect. You were too busy guessing which man you had done wrong and who was trying to even up the score, that you didn’t bother looking at any other theory. I just needed someone to lead me to you and that lovely gauntlet of yours. My master will find it ever so helpful to his plans. A new world order is arising, my friends. Too bad you won’t be around to see it. Now get downstairs, all four of you. I believe you have a silicon steel vault that seats four.’

“At this dreadful pronouncement, poor Nigel clutched his chest and went down. As Ms. Noir and I hurriedly crouched down to help him, the old man winked and slipped my right wand out of his sleeve.

“’Leave the old fool,’ barked Iovanescu.

“The old fool gestured with his head for Ms. Noir and me to duck. Then he tossed a handful of dungbombs at Iovanescu. He was totally splattered, and the stench made his accomplices stagger. In that moment of disorientation, we regained the upper hand. Joe, Ms. Noir, and Nigel had a wand each. I had two. That gave us a five-to-four advantage, and we began using it immediately.

“It was all over in about thirty seconds, during which more things happened than I have time to tell. Sadly, some priceless works of art were scorched, drenched with ink, or turned into confetti. Part of the floor became thin ice with a freezing pond under it (which disposed of one of Iovanescu’s accomplices). The dead spider down the corridor surrendered a jet of sticky web material which bound up the other two accomplices. It was Iovanescu who managed to fire a killing curse at Joe before I hit him with a giant wad of sticky chewing gum from my right wand and covered him with toilet paper from the left. Then I turned to see what had become of Joe.

“Miraculously, he was alive, but Ms. Noir was down, struggling for breath, clutching the lapels of Joe’s Nigel-suit. Joe was sobbing. ‘Why did you do it?’ he asked her. Apparently she had thrown herself in the way of Iovanescu’s killing curse.

“Her last words were, ‘Because I love you more than my own life.’ Then, either because a killing curse is too much even for a woman who has taken a draught of immortality, or because she had finally found true love and it freed her from the curse of being immortal, she gave up the ghost. The labored breathing slowed, seemed to stop; she took another couple of breaths, then no more. The cynical look faded from her face, leaving her as beautiful and peaceful-looking as an angel in that altarpiece she had rescued. Joe hugged her to himself, and Nigel clutched at her feet, and they both wept. I must say, even I got a little misty.

“And that is the tale of the Bette Noir Affair,” Spanky concluded sadly.

Sadie, Endora, and Harvey sighed.

The wizard who called himself Merlin, however, rapped on the table indignantly. “You call that an ending?” he demanded. “What happened to Iovanescu? Did he get punished? Did he get the Dementor’s Kiss? And what about all those art works? Did Joe get over his loss?”

Spanky shrugged. “Those American wizards take a different approach to magical crime. They wiped Iovanescu’s memory and put him to work shoveling dragon dung at the Magicland Theme Park outside Bakersfield. It’s a terrific place, by the way. The Muggles who go there think everything is atrociamoronic. I mean, animatrocious. Well, anyway, they think the beasts are just lifelike machines. All the ticket-takers, mechanics, and cleaners are convicted criminals. I think it’s an idea that our country should try.”

“I don’t know,” shivered Sadie. “I find Dementors to be highly deterrent.”

“I don’t know about highly,” Merlin chuckled.

Spanky went on as if they hadn’t said anything. “When Joe and I went back to the mansion a few days later with a team of art authenticators, we found nothing on the site but a stretch of redwood forest. The mansion, the grounds, everything was gone. As if it had never been there.” He sighed.

“And what about Joe?” Merlin pressed. “Did you see any more of him?”

“That,” said Harvey firmly, “is a tale for another night.”

“Isn’t that my line?” Spanky asked.

“It’s getting late. Or rather, early,” said Harvey, conjuring a mantel clock out of nowhere. The minute-hand pointed between the ten and eleven, and the hour-hand stood away from it in a straight line. “Sleep it off, all of you. If you come to this parlor a week from now, I may have a proposition for all four of you. If you don’t see me–who knows what may come up in a week’s time–then by all means, continue with your fascinating stories. And now, farewell!”

With a twitch of his bandanna-covered nose, Harvey vanished.

Endora yawned and said, “Well, I suppose he’s correct.” She made sure every last drop was drained from her goblet and then disappeared with a pop.

Sadie pounded her pipe on the end of the table, cleared her throat thunderously, and said, “All right, then,” and disapparated.

Merlin put his hand on Spanky’s shoulder, and squeezed. “Well, mate, good night,” he said, and he was gone.

Spanky stayed where he was, staring out from under his deep hood. Then he sighed, stuck his wand into his empty goblet, shot a fountain of firewhisky into it, and raised it to his lips. After a long drink and an even longer pause to work the sparks out of his nostrils, he sighed again and muttered, “Poor old Joe.”

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