Rob was about to down his third Firewhiskey, when a hand the size of a cauldron picked him up by the shoulder and spun him around. A huge Troll stood peering down at him. Its massive head was touching the rafters, and it held an equally large club in the hand that wasn't holding Rob.
Rob froze in shock, unable to speak. His mind refused to work. Fear and panic filled his head and started his heart racing.
This is it, he thought to himself. After all the narrow escapes and unlucky breaks, it was going to end under a Troll's club in a seedy bar.
"Hello Rob," said a very high-pitched nasal voice.
Rob's mind was still faltering. He could have sworn he did not see the Troll's mouth move, but it was speaking to him.
"Down here idiot!" said the voice, and something sharp poked Rob's leg.
Startled out of his paralysis by the pain, Rob tore his eyes away from the menacing face of the Troll and looked down at what had just stabbed him in the leg.
Standing to one side was a house elf.
Unlike any other house elf Rob had ever seen or heard of, this house elf was not dressed in traditional cast offs or scraps of clothing. It was impeccably dressed in a fine blue dragon skin suit and wore soft leather shoes. In one hand it held an ivory cane, which it had evidently used to get Rob's attention. The other hand was carrying a very battered, dirty brown bag. Rob's heart beat even faster and his mouth suddenly went dry.
Terrifying as the Troll was, he would rather face a dozen of them than that elf.
Its name was Slave, and it belonged to a very mysterious master who few had ever seen in person. Rob sincerely wished he had never laid eyes on either the elf or its master.
"Master wants you to know he is very disappointed with you Rob," said the elf in a crisp British accent.
Rob was struggling to talk. The Troll, who Rob now noticed was also wearing what could be described as a blue suit (but if you were very drunk or half blind), tightened its hand on his shoulder painfully. Rob knew he was in deep trouble.
"Please," he begged, "it's not my fault! Their security was too good!"
The Troll tightened its grip again and the elf smiled. Rob would have sunk to his knees had he not been held up by the Troll.
"Come," said the elf pleasantly. "Let us sit down and talk about how you can make amends."
Nobody in the tavern commented on the spectacle of a Troll carrying a human to a table while an immaculately dressed house elf led the way. It was that sort of a place.
In fact it was the sort of place where the persistent rumours that the fat, balding, publican was actually a vampire attracted clients rather than scaring them away. A sign above the entrance warned werewolves to stay away during the full moon because the publican was sick of cleaning up after the wild parties and now owned a silver dog leash that he intended to use on the next creature that shed fur, or clawed the leg of a table.
When you ordered a meal at the Tub o' Lard, you didn't ask for the menu, as there wasn't one, and you ate what you were served quickly before it got ideas and tried to eat you instead.
Rob sat nursing his shoulder while the elf sat opposite sipping a Butterbeer. His spilled Firewhiskey had been replaced, but he was too nervous to drink it. The Troll stood in a corner of the room, getting ignored by everyone. Even the publican raised no objections to having such a foul brute on his premises, despite its tendency to pick rather large pieces of food from between its teeth and dump them on the floor, where they sometimes crawled away to fight with the rats.
It really was that sort of a place.
"You were given a relatively simple assignment," said the elf quietly, "and you appear to have failed utterly. We wish to know exactly what happened."
Its mannerisms were a replica of its master's. Rob didn't know if it had been told to act and speak this way, but he felt fairly certain the elf enjoyed doing it. It certainly was different from the usual fawning and politeness of others of its race and was probably his master's idea of a joke.
Rob hated this. Years before, he had become indebted to the elf's master. Before that he had been a petty crook doing nothing more than lifting a purse or two. One run of bad luck and now he was almost as much a slave as the creature sitting before him.
"You were to break into a new, practically unprotected shop, and take a very valuable item from their safe," Slave continued, taking another sip of beer. "We provided you with tools and intelligence, and even a distraction to keep the Aurors away. Why did you fail?"
"Like I said, it was too well protected," answered Rob.
The elf appeared to actually get angry at this and slammed his beer down, spilling some over the side.
"There were no protections!" it spat. "We scried thoroughly and found no spells apart from a few simple anti-apparition and alarm wards. We even saw you enter the building after disabling the wards and picking the lock! WHAT HAPPENED?"
Rob looked around hastily to see if anybody paid any attention to the elf's outburst. Nearby a couple of hags where fighting something that was trying to climb out of the cauldron. Obviously it objected to becoming their lunch.
He had not known his employers had been watching him that closely. It made sense of course, but it unnerved him. This job had been one of the strangest assignments he had ever been given, and its failure was the worst he had ever experienced.
"I got in no problem," he answered sullenly. "That's when the trouble started."
Rob silently closed the door behind him. It was well oiled and new, an unexpected bonus. The inside of the shop was very dark and he could barely make out the rows of shelves and their contents. Carefully threading his way through to the back of the store, he stopped briefly at the counter.
Sitting on the bench was a cash box of the kind small shops often used to empty the till at night after closing, to be then put into the safe.
It had to be a trap.
Rob didn't know anything about the shop or its owners, but he knew enough about people to recognise something was wrong with what he was now seeing. The elf had told him the operators were very smart, but naïve; something to do with their relative youth apparently. Rob, however, thought they might be a good deal cleverer than the elf had told him.
Almost anybody breaking into the barely defended shop would not hesitate to grab the cash box that, for all intents and purposes, looked like it had accidentally been left on the counter. When they touched it, Rob felt sure, a magical trap would be sprung that was sure to be inescapable. The lack of outer security had concerned Rob, but now he knew what he was dealing with. The owners of this shop were anything but naïve; they were exceptionally cunning.
Tiptoeing past the counter, Rob reached the back room. Here at least he could use the small lantern he carried in his bag. The dirty brown bag had many little tools and gadgets to help in his work, and the little magical lantern was one of his favourites.
Rob closed the curtain that separated the store room from the front of the shop and opened the shutter on the lantern just enough to fill the room with a soft glow.
Opened boxes and shelves crowded the room and were, he realised for the fist time, filled with sweets. There were hundreds of different kinds of chocolates and lollies, all colours, shapes, and sizes.
Taking a handful of goblet shaped lollies from a bench and popping one into his mouth, Rob started searching for the safe he had been told existed. As he munched the delicious sweet, he marvelled at its unusual flavour, but kept searching. It was in this room, but where exactly he did not know. Methodically, he began to move the light of his lantern over every part of the room. Almost at once he noticed a doorway behind some boxes.
Carefully, Rob moved the boxes out of the way and examined the door. It was locked, but a quick wriggle with a tool from his bag and that obstacle was overcome. He opened the door and looked in. There was another even smaller room, almost a cupboard. A table and chair sat against the wall and Rob could see the outline of a very large, old safe under the desk. Swallowing the last bit of the lolly and gripping his bag, he slowly edged into the room.
And then he was suddenly standing in a dark field surrounded by hedges that stood twenty feet tall.
Rob dropped to a crouch and spun around. The door and room were gone. He was all alone on a grassy field under a night sky.
For a second he thought he had been caught, and he began to panic. When nothing happened for a few minutes, he was not so sure.
"Illusion!" he thought, standing up straight. Obviously, the door to the room had been set to cast an illusion if anybody entered without saying the right counter spell. Rob confidently walked towards where he thought the desk should be sitting, ignoring the illusion of the hedge.
It poked him in the eye.
'Ow!" he yelled grabbing his face and dropping the lantern and bag. Illusions didn't hurt!
This was something different.
Rob reached out his hand and touched the stiff branches of the hedge. It felt real. He picked up the lantern and looked around. For the first time since he had seen the fake cash box he smiled, but it was a weak sort of smile.
The shop owners had been very clever indeed, he thought. It was a maze. Obviously, to get into the room you had to pass this maze. Ingenious.
He started walking towards a light he could see shining up into the sky in the distance. It looked like it might be a marker to help guide him to the centre of the maze where he would find the exit, and be returned to the room.
That was how these things usually worked. It would probably be tricky, but not impossible.
After a few minutes he thought he was making good progress. The light was getting closer all the time. It was actually quite a simple maze, a child's maze.
Then he turned the corner and nearly walked straight into a giant spider.
Rob froze, a scream of fright on his lips. For a full second he stood staring at the giant beast. It had fangs longer than his forearm, and long hairy legs that could have stepped over him with no problem.
It hadn't moved.
He stood perfectly still holding his breath.
Still the spider didn't move, but it made a noise.
"ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ," it said.
Incredulously, Rob stared at the spider. It was asleep! This was another obstacle, one that he had no idea of how to get past. Luckily, it had not woken when he blundered around the corner.
More careful than he had ever been in his life, Rob walked past the apparently sleeping spider. At one point, one of its legs was so close to the wall that Rob touched it as he tried to shimmy past.
"Mghhmmmfff," said the spider, stirring slightly.
Rob sucked in his stomach, held his breath, and squeezed through the gap between wall and leg.
Once on the other side, he ran as fast as he could without making a noise. With a couple of turns between him and spider he sat down on the ground to rest.
This was turning out to be much harder than he had expected. If that spider was as real as the hedges, and Rob had no reason to think otherwise, it could easily have killed him. This store was well protected indeed, and in ways he had only heard of in children's stories.
Once he recovered his breath he started walking towards the light that looked very close now.
Turning another corner he was faced with another obstacle. Floating ahead of him and filling up the space between the hedges, was an odd, golden mist. There was no way around, except for possibly climbing over the hedge, and Rob didn't think that would be a good idea. There was bound to be something to stop people from seeking that avenue of escape.
With no other choices, Rob walked into the mist.
The world turned upside down. He was hanging from the ground, with his hair on end. Below him the dark, star-spangled heavens stretched endlessly. Rob screamed and tried to throw himself onto the grass that had now become the ceiling. As soon as his feet left the ground the world righted itself and he was lying on the ground beyond the mist.
Panting, Rob stood up. Not far in front of him stood a golden sphinx. It had the body of an over-large lion and the head of a beautiful woman.
The sphinx stood perfectly still. It would have been easy to think it was a statue, but he knew differently. Elaborate spells like this did not contain statues for show. Everything in here would be deadly.
Robert slowly took a step closer, and the sphinx started to speak in a deep, hoarse voice.
"Answer a single question correctly and you shall pass, answer all four wrong and you shall die!"
Rob gulped. To try and get around this creature would be suicide, but he could not go back, not when he could see the glow of the exit just around the next bend.
"What did one mountain say to the other mountain?" asked the sphinx
"What kind of a stupid riddle is that?" asked Rob.
"Answer!" demanded the sphinx.
"That's not a riddle, it's a joke!" argued Rob.
"WRONG!" shouted the sphinx, and took a step towards him.
"The correct answer is: Let's meet in the valley."
Rob was stunned. That was possibly the silliest riddle he had ever heard in his life. It was also impossible to work out.
"How do you change a pumpkin into another vegetable?" she asked menacingly.
Another strange riddle, but at least Rob had some idea when it came to magic. He searched his memory for the name of the correct spell.
"Hurry human or you will forfeit!" she growled.
Rob panicked again.
"You use a Transfiguration spell!" he yelled.
"WRONG!" she shouted again, and took another step closer to him. "The correct answer is: You throw it up in the air and it comes down squash."
Rob tried to back away and found the hedges had closed in behind him. There was no escape. The riddles were the most ridiculous he had ever heard. This was a dead end, and he was going to die.
"Why is Dracula so unpopular?"
"Because he is a bloody VAMPIRE!" Rob shrieked.
"WRONG!" it yelled, and took another step towards him. It was now standing so close he could feel its breath as it spoke. Enormous claws flexed dangerously.
"The correct answer is: Because he's a pain in the neck."
Sweat poured from Rob. The next question was his last chance. All thought of completing his mission were gone now. He just wanted to survive. If only the riddles actually made sense instead of being so childish!
"What did the toilet say to the other toilet?" whispered the sphinx in a low voice full of anticipation.
Rob closed his eyes, refusing to look at the beautiful face that was to be his death. His mind was racing. He had heard this one, many years ago, while he was still a child at school! Everybody had to stand in front of the class and tell a joke. Fatty Robinson had told this one, and had won a gold star for it. Even the teacher had laughed.
Rob did not find it remotely funny now.
"Answer human," the sphinx whispered into his ear, "or you will forfeit, and I will feast on your flesh!"
A huge, long tongue crept out of her mouth and licked his face.
Think Rob think! He told himself, ignoring the tongue that was now tickling his ear. He could see Fatty standing in front of the class. Everybody including the teacher was laughing. Then the teacher summoned the gold star and stuck it onto Fatty's chest. What was the punch line?
"A few seconds more human," said the sphinx, "and then you shall be mine!"
Rob concentrated, dragging the details from his memory. Toilet. What does a toilet say? What does a toilet do? It flushes. Flushes. FLUSHED. He had it!
"You look a little flushed," he yelled, opening his eyes. "You look a little flushed!"
The sphinx screamed and reared up onto her hind legs. Her front paws clawed the sky in fury, and then she exploded into a multitude of golden stars!
Rob didn't wait. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him. Around the next corner there was a clearing with a golden goblet standing on a pedestal. He ran straight to it and grabbed it with both hands.
Instantly, he was transported back to the shop, and found himself standing in the doorway leading to the smaller side room where the safe sat under the table.
Without a second thought, Rob turned and ran from the room. He bolted out the door of the shop and didn't stop running until he had reached the Tub o' Lard.
Rob finished his tale, sat back in his chair, and looked at the elf. He had long ago emptied his bottle, and could have really done with another one. The elf had also finished his drink, but didn't seem to notice. It was sitting, pondering Rob's tale.
Suddenly it stood up, making Rob jump nervously.
"Very well, then," it said, signalling to the Troll. "I will take your report back to the master."
"What about me then?" Rob asked.
"You will be paid the agreed amount. The circumstances were extraordinary. Good day."
Rob sat back down. He had expected to be punished, but it looked like he was going to come out ahead. All in all he had survived a very harrowing experience virtually unscathed.
"Oi!" he said quietly, before the elf walked too far away.
"Say hello to Mr Zonko for me."
In a little shop on Diagon Alley, the day started off normally.
"I think I've gotten the problem with the Triwizard Tournament Toffees sorted," called Fred from the side room. He was unlocking the safe and taking out a very large magic book that was the cornerstone of the Weasley's joke shop. In it, they wrote all of the recipes and spells they had invented.
"If I reduce the amount of magic mushroom in the mix, the hallucination should be weaker, and you will be able to break the spell any time you want."
"Excellent!" answered Fred, picking up the cash box sitting on the bench and unlocking it with a large brass key. Oops, forgot to put this away last night! he thought to himself.
"We are going to have to find somebody else to test them for us though. Nobody wants a second go after that last batch. Took Ron two days to get past the spider". He collected up the pile of goblet shaped lollies from the bench and deposited them into the rubbish bin.
They laughed for a while at the antics of their arachnophobic brother, and then continued to work, preparing the shop for another day of hectic trading.
Neither noticed the small lantern lying on the floor. Much later, their assistant threw it into the bin in the alley behind the shop.