The Magic Quill #52: Smart Food

by Robbie Fischer, concepts contributed by Jack Blanton

Spanky found himself, once again, poking around on the skirts of the Forbidden Forest, within hailing distance of Hogsmeade. “Curious,” he muttered to himself, as he followed several sets of tire marks that seemed to go in parallel gorups of three. “The tricycles must be bigger than I remembered. And what’s this?”

He stooped to examine a burn mark on a long tussock of grass. “I don’t remember them being motorized,” he mused aloud. “Could they be growing?”

“Perhaps they’re not the same ones,” answered an unexpected voice nearby.

Spanky jumped. His face reddened as, too late, the relief of recognition set in. “You gave me a bit of start,” he said to his companion.

“Did I?” Harvey said coolly as he tucked in the last corner of the handkerchief that concealed the lower part of his face.

“But other than the size,” Spanky added, indicating the tracks in a patch of mud, “the tread marks are very similar to the ones I found on my cloak after last week’s, er, accident.”

“One never runs out of puzzles and mysteries to ponder,” said Harvey. “At least, that is so if one never gives up on solving them. And you strike me as a man who must always be solving something.”

“I have spent so much time working puzzles until now,” said Spanky, “that it hardly seems possible to break the habit.”

“And what, besides the provenance of these tracks in the mud, is puzzling you right now?” Harvey asked, and in an odd way he already seemed to know the answer.

Spanky shrugged and turned back up toward the high street. “I suppose I’m just anxious to know what you want with all of us.”

“Oh, that,” said Harvey with a vague chuckle. “In due time, Mr. – do I call you Spankison or, whatsit, Dandruff Baldric…?”

“Spankison will do,” Spanky said, almost snappishly. “I was always Spanky to my friends, all the way back to the primary school days on Mr. Niblet’s manor. And my father was called Spanky too, so it’s as much my real name as that absurd thing on the parish registry. Whenever a head pops up in my fireplace and asks for Mister or Missus Ethelbaldricson, I know the head is attached to some vile peddler in Knockturn Alley, and I close the grate on him.”

“I’m delighted to hear it,” Harvey replied absently, half his mind deciding that it might not be too late to halt plans to use Floo Powder communication to solicit business for some of his concerns. “And how is Mrs. Spankison these days, then?”

“More beautiful than ever,” Spanky said with an oddly bashful grin.

“It’s too bad about your children, though, isn’t it?”

Spanky looked startled and offended. “How did you know about that?”

Harvey hastened to pacify him. “I do my own share of sleuthing, dear man. I meant no harm, truly. I believe you have nearly found a way to break the curse, at any rate?”

“It’s nearly under control,” said Spanky. “It’s the sort of thing you have to expect when their mother has been in the strange places she has.”

“Yes, indeed. I am dying to hear what you have to say about that.”

“Just as I am dying to hear about our mission together,” Spanky retorted. “You have a gift for evasion.”

“It’s a necessity in my career,” said Harvey. “Trust me, if I were to tell you more than you need to know at any given time, you would be faced with a choice that I would rather spare you. One day you will thank me for parceling out the information in this way.”

“That remains–” Spanky began, but he was startled again by a hoarse yet piercing shout nearby:

“Oy, there! Walk up and sample the very latest revolution in victuals! Be among the first to try SMART FOOD!”

“Oh, dear,” Harvey groaned. The two men rounded a corner and found Sadie, veil and all, standing at a booth on the pavement, pressing tins on passersby—tins that poured forth murky smoke that smelled equally of overcooked cabbage, turpentine, and ozone. The veiled witch nodded politely at her acquaintances and then resumed bawling at the top of her harsh voice:

“Straight from the newly-rebuilt dungeon laboratory of Wizard Miles O’Roughage, what burnt down under most mysterious circumstances after being struck by thirty-four bolts of lightning in the space of an hour! Try it—it tastes better than it smells! In fact, it tastes like whatever you fancy having right now! That’s the beauty of it, mates! Dr. O’Roughage specially cur-…hem. I mean, charmed each and every tin to respond to the subtlest variations in your tastebuds, memories, and desires to taste exactly like your heart’s desire. Plus, it gives you the exact nutrition your body needs, no more, no less; and the last spoonful leaves you feeling pleasantly full.”

As a dirty-faced child walked away from Sadie clutching an armload of sample tins, Harvey made a sign to Spanky. The latter slipped off after the child and sent him home, tearful and emptyhanded, but better off in the long run no doubt.

Meanwhile, a passerby who had stopped to try a tin had begun complaining. “Look here, witch,” said the stooped wizard. “This tinned what- have-you won’t stand still. Every time I poke my fork at it, it dodges out of the way. What do you mean by it?”

“Er,” Sadie stammered. “Perhaps a few wrinkles have to be smoothed out, yet.”

“I daresay your friend Miles made the food a bit too smart,” Harvey quipped. The crowd around the booth tittered. Even through her nearly opaque veil, Sadie’s glower was meant to turn Harvey to stone. Instead he added, “I know what to do. Let’s give some of it to that mangy old cat and see what comes of it. Perhaps the cat can catch it.”

The cat, though nimble for its years, had enough difficulty catching the lump of what looked like gray aspic that kept wiggling around on the pavement. The crowd gapsed, giggled, gossiped, and minced out of the way of the cat and the aspic until a final pounce ended the chase.

“Oh, dear,” said Harvey, after the cat had belched and turned into a slightly spoiled haddock. “That would seem to be another wrinkle; the food doesn’t know when to stop changing itself.”

“That gives fresh life to the words, ‘You are what you eat,’ that does,” sneered a portly witch, as the crowd dispersed. Some of them, in departing, dropped the sample tins they had been given. Others more or less threw them at Sadie, who sheltered herself behind the booth. “Take care!” she rasped. “If that gets on my skin, I’m done for!”

“You would be well served,” Harvey said, vanishing the stand and all the tins with an angry twirl of his wand.

“I think it’s rather good, actually,” said a hag (this time Harvey jumped in surprise). The hag smacked her lips and crushing up her empty tin. “I’ll give you eight shrunken heads for a gross of them.”

“Enough of this,” Spanky said, pushing up the sleeve of his cloak up to his elbow to reveal an RMB armband. The hag stomped away disgruntled.

“You came back in the very nick,” Harvey said, patting Spanky on the shoulder. “Now, my dear Ms. Sadie, I perceive that you are very upset, but I won’t apologize for spoiling your business venture. Take it from one who knows, it never pays to sell a product that can go so wrong so quickly. Why, suppose someone had turned into a steak-and-kidney pie, right there in front of everyone; you would have been finished! Don’t you agree?”

“I beg your pardon, sir,” Sadie said with a very painful-looking smile, then followed the two men toward the Hog’s Head muttering something that sounded like, “Interfering busybodies…”

“We’re quite early for tonight’s symposium,” Harvey observed as the gory pub sign hove into view. “I don’t suppose there’s much chance of the others arriving so early. I wonder what we shall do until Merlin comes, when he can continue his interesting story.”

“I’d like to hear more from him,” Sadie grumbled, with a sullen nod toward Spanky.

Spanky pretended to be taken aback. “What more is there to hear?”

The dark, dingy, greasy interior of the Hog’s Head public room enveloped them. Cloaked, masked, and veiled faces looked up briefly from their whispered conversations and brooding, solitary drinks. The proprietor scowled and slammed three empty goblets on the bar, looking as if the new customers were the next-to-last misfortune he could possibly bear.

“Well,” Harvey said cheerfully, surveying the pub as if he owned it. “I, for one, am eager to hear your account of how you located your beloved Ilona…”

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