Actions

Work Header

Black Water Hattie

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

But I couldn't believe it.
I just had to find out for myself.
And I couldn't conceive it
'Cause I never would have listened to nobody else.
And I couldn't believe it.
I just had to find out for myself.
There's some things in this world you just
can't explain.

 

The Legend of Wooley Swamp – The Charlie Daniels Band


“I want this location, Nigel,” Miranda demanded imperiously, one perfectly manicured fingernail tapping the grainy Polaroid photograph on her desk as she glared at cowering staff members surrounding her. “It's perfect for the Agua Bendita swimwear shoot for the Spring issue. Yet, even after giving the job of securing this location to half of the staff, we still don't know where it is. I cannot comprehend such incompetence. Although a simple assignment, every one of my employees seems incapable of delivering what is required.” She glared at her long-time associate and friend. “I don't want excuses. I want the location. We shoot next week. Arrange for our use of it. Do what is necessary. Pay whatever it costs.”

Nigel glanced again at the photograph on the desk. Miranda always did have an eye for the perfect photo shoot location. This one was a beautiful setting. The dark water of the pool depicted was so still that it acted as a mirror, reflecting the moss-draped cypress trees and the hundreds of orchid blossoms growing from every nook and cranny of the densely populated foliage surrounding the black water.

Nigel had seen this coming. He had correctly assumed that the assignment would eventually be dumped in his lap. That was the way of things when Emily failed to deliver. He knew that Emily had been in tears yesterday afternoon when she couldn't do as Miranda had demanded. Knowing that Miranda would be calling on his talents, he had struck preemptively by making some telephone calls and determining that a freelance nature photographer had brought the picture to Elias-Clarke, perhaps thinking to sell it to the publishing titan for the new nature magazine it was considering starting. Miranda had acquired the Polaroid photo during a board meeting, and since that moment she had focused on it like a laser-beam, desiring to obtain the necessary permissions and to set up a photo shoot before the orchids lost their magnificent display of colorful blossoms. Nigel then had obtained the contact information for the nature photographer from the paperwork the man had filled out when he'd submitted his portfolio of photographs for sale to Elias-Clarke.

There was speculation that the beautiful pool might be found in Louisiana, North or South Carolina, Mississippi, and there was even one person from one department who was absolutely certain that it was in Delaware, even though any idiot should know that orchids were not native to states with cold winters. Although everyone before him had failed even the task of determining exactly where the location was, Nigel knew. He knew for a fact that it was located somewhere in the swamp on the western edge of Lake Okeechobee in central Florida. He had the word from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

The nature photographer was a man's man. A rough and tumble outdoors type. Just Nigel's cup of tea. Nigel had spent a most enjoyable evening wining, dining, and seducing the man into his bed. During pillow talk and with the promise of future dates when the man was in town to sell his photographs, Nigel had learned the secret of the elusive Polaroid. The photographer had gotten the grainy photograph from the owner of a flower shop in a jerkwater little town called Slippery Bottom which sat just on the edge of the swamp.

*****

Miranda sighed and clutched her glass of single malt scotch on the rocks. She stared out of her darkened office window, watching the lights of the city coming on during the late twilight. Her life seemed bleak at this juncture. For two decades she'd been at the helm of Runway. Twenty years of blood, sweat, and tears spent making what had been the laughing stock of fashion publishing into the premier fashion magazine in the world. Twenty years building a failing publication into the powerhouse profit center of the Elias-Clarke publishing empire. And was she appreciated for her efforts by the powers that be at Elias-Clarke? For the past half decade her control of the magazine had been under siege by Irv Ravitz, the C.E.O. of the company. Her every expenditure and decision subject to question and review. The openness of hostilities between the two had increased exponentially over the last two years as Irv Ravitz's resistance to her leadership role at the magazine she had dedicated her life to continued to increase. Irv was like a spider, quietly pouring poison into the ears of the board of directors, and with each new drop of malice delivered, a little more of her ability to dictate how the publication that was both her heart and soul needed to be run was whittled away.

Six months ago his latest gambit had nearly stolen everything from her when he had almost successfully brought in that upstart Jacqueline Follet to replace her as editor-in-chief of Runway during last year’s fashion week in Paris. It was only through calling in a significant number of favors she was owed from famous designers and models that she had staved off the threat. Favors owed for being the individual who had originally recognized their talent and had first featured them in a national publication. She had won the loyalty of many of the most beautiful and talented people in the industry, and she used that loyalty against Irv by giving him a list of those famous names that had promised to follow where she led. She saved herself through possession of that list and through the betrayal of her dearest friend's hopes and aspirations. She had turned on Nigel to save her own skin and arranged for a job he had desperately wanted to be awarded to the woman who had threatened to take her job. Irv's attempted coup had been thwarted, but at a terrible personal cost.

Nigel had said he understood what had happened once she had explained the stakes. He even had said that he forgave her, but she wondered whether, if their positions had been reversed, she could ever have truly forgiven what had been done. Deep inside she knew that she still hadn't forgiven herself for the actions and decisions she had made at a time when, while repugnant, she had believed necessary.

On top of her deteriorating situation at work, during Paris Fashion Week her third husband, Stephen Tomlinson, spineless coward he was, had called her while she was out of the country to inform her that he had filed for divorce. Stephen's departure from her life hadn’t been a terrible loss. There was never truly any love between them. Their marriage had been more of a business transaction where neither party was satisfied once the contract had been entered into. She did, however, worry about the effects of her choices on her beloved twelve-year-old twin daughters, Caroline and Cassidy, born of her first marriage. Although they had, at best, barely tolerated Stephen as their stepfather, when news of the pending divorce had become public, the pre-teen girls had begun to act out in unacceptable, dangerous, and potentially self-harmful ways. Miranda and the girls' father had met repeatedly with the twins' therapist, and it had been decided, over Miranda's deep concerns, that the twins should go away to a boarding school specializing in providing a stable environment to troubled preteens and teenagers. The girls had apparently settled into their new school environment, and guarded reports from their teachers provided hope that the twins were accepting the changes in their lives and beginning to improve their grade point averages.

Miranda took another deep pull of her scotch, turned to her desk, and pressed the intercom button. “Emily, call Nigel,” she declared into the device. “Tell him we leave tomorrow afternoon to shoot the Agua Bendita swimwear collection. Call Alice Hawkins' office and tell her to have her crew ready to leave. She's the perfect one to shoot this, and she owes me. Notify the models who were selected to appear in the shoot, and make sure that they are ready to travel. Make travel arraignments for everyone involved. Make arrangements for us to spend tomorrow evening in West Palm Beach, Florida. From there we'll make final preparations to make our way by car to the shoot location the following morning. Do not bother to notify Irv's office about our plans. I'll deal with him once we return.”

She turned from the intercom, knowing that her first assistant would carry out her instructions without fail, particularly since Emily wanted to remain gainfully employed. She glanced out the window again and picked up her highball. She was taking a risk. She did not know the exact location of the beautiful pool in the Polaroid photograph. She had only Nigel's assurance of its approximate whereabouts and a starting point for finding it. Normally she would send a scout to determine the exact location to make sure it was suitable for their purposes, but time was not on her side.

The next issue due to go to print was less than spectacular. It was lacking a centerpiece. Something to encourage people to buy it. It being the Spring issue and needing something impressive, Miranda had decided to take a busload of beautiful women and dress them in next to nothing amid beauty that was breathtaking. It made her feel cheap to sell sex this way, pandering to lesser sensibilities, but with such an article she could be sure of a spike in the magazine's circulation. That would translate into increased revenue, which would impress the Elias-Clarke Board of Directors. That, in turn, would get Irv off her back for a little while.

*****

Miranda was not amused. After nearly two hours of car travel, the last half hour across uncomfortable rural roads, the picturesque and quaint little Southern town she had envisioned on the banks of Lake Okeechobee was neither picturesque nor quaint. Nigel had put it best upon his first viewing of the few rundown buildings scattered along what was purported to be the main street as he had exited the rented limo they had traveled in from their accommodations in West Palm Beach. “Looks like someone forgot to flush,” he'd quipped quietly to Emily as Miranda had stood looking around in horror.

Her position as editor-in-chief at Runway was already somewhat tenuous, and she was gambling heavily on this photo shoot being something that would push the next issue over the top as far as earnings were concerned. She had directly disobeyed one of Irv's most recent directives and significantly exceeded her allowed budget by bringing models and crew to this desolate third-world rural town in the bowels of Florida. She had comforted herself in her darker moments that if the ”Orchid Pool” as she had dubbed the location in the Polaroid was not to be located, she could find a location suitable for the shoot and justify the additional expense when Irv went running to the board complaining about her spendthrift ways. Looking at her surroundings she silently hoped that she hadn't painted herself in to a corner. She glanced at her assistant and, pursing her lips, said in a chillingly quiet voice, “What are you standing there for? Go find the hotel and then the flower shop. God knows I hope it's not beyond your capabilities. There are not enough buildings here for it to be too terribly difficult.”

Emily, a long-time survivor in the trenches of Runway, immediately seemed to recognize Miranda's mood as both volatile and dangerous. She answered, “Yes, Miranda, right away,” as she hurried off up the street. The bus carrying both models and crew lumbered into town up the uneven, badly paved road and parked behind the limo, followed closely by two vans full of equipment. Miranda sighed, the stirrings of a full-blown migraine starting behind her eyes as people resembling characters out of a bad country music video began to drift out of the buildings and gather in a curious circle around the caravan of vehicles.

*****

Thirty minutes later Miranda had been shown to her room in the local “hotel.” As a young woman she had once been forced to stay in a rural roadside motel when a car she'd been traveling in had broken down and it had taken a day to get the necessary part to repair it. That rundown highway-side establishment had been a significant improvement over this room in which she would spend the next several days. The air conditioner didn't work, and there was what resembled mold-encrusted water stains on the ceiling tiles of the dimly lit small room she was housed in. The one, Emily assured her, which was the best the hotel had to offer. As if that weren’t enough, she had discovered that the hotel, the only one in town and the only one for many, many miles in any direction, was so small that the models and the photography crew were having to double and even triple up to get everyone accommodated. Exasperated, she strode down the muggy street, Emily hurrying behind, trying to keep up in her six-inch stiletto heels, highly unsuitable for the alternating mix of sandy and muddy conditions underfoot, as approaching dark clouds threatened with flashes of lightning and rattling sounds of reverberating thunder.

The flower shop was somewhat more impressive than the hotel. The front of Lily's Blossoms, while humble, showed care in its upkeep and an attempt to merchandise and create interest in the products sold inside, although Miranda could not imagine how a community this size could support a business solely devoted to flowers. Opening the door, she stepped inside as a bell attached to the door’s closing mechanism announced her presence. A young white man in his early twenties, fairly fashionably dressed in well-fitting, acid-washed jeans and a subtle print cotton, short-sleeved shirt stopped strumming the guitar on his lap and looked up, his eyes widening in surprise. A pretty black woman stepped through a beaded curtain from what was likely the store's back room. She was dressed in a colorful summer dress with a matching turban wrapped around her head. She pulled the look off quite well. It made her look exotic, and Miranda's lips quirked upward briefly.

The young woman stepped up behind the counter and said, “Hello. Welcome to Lily's Blossoms,” with a bright smile. “What can I interest you in today?”

Emily, who had followed hard on Miranda's heels into the store, stepped around her employer to shield Miranda from having to deal with one of the plebeian masses. She shoved the Polaroid photo under the colorfully dressed woman's nose. “My employer wants to know where this picture was taken,” she demanded snootily.

The woman behind the counter looked at the photograph and then raised her eyes to the condescending redhead in front of her. “That was taken somewhere back in the Black Bayou,” she answered quietly, her voice sweet with a honeyed Southern intonation and accent.

The young man had stepped up behind Miranda and, seemingly not wanting to disturb the business going on at the counter, said very quietly, “You're Miranda Priestly, ain't cha?”

Miranda half turned and regarded him for a moment. “I am,” she answered.

The young man shuffled and held tight to the neck of his guitar. “Well, don't that beat all. Miranda Priestly here in Slippery Bottom.”

“You know who I am?” she asked, suddenly curious and amused.

“Yes, Ma'am,” he answered, obviously both embarrassed and in awe but still country courteous. “I get your magazine.”

“How do we get there?” Emily demanded imperiously of the woman behind the counter.

“You don't,” was the pretty African-American woman's answer.

Emily looked at her as if she'd just started speaking in tongues. “What do you mean we don't?” she demanded, her voice rising an octave. Failure was not an option with Miranda standing in the room. There would be no time to craft excuses that might save her job. “You sold the picture to a photojournalist, yes?”

The woman nodded. “I did,” she answered guardedly.

Emily nodded, thinking she was getting somewhere. “And you know where the location is?” she insisted.

“Generally,” was the answer from the woman behind the counter.

“So how do we get there?” Emily asked again.

“You don't,” was again the resolute reply.

Emily stood there and stared dumbfounded for a moment. She glanced at Miranda and then turned back to the female shopkeeper. “Don't you know who this is?” she asked, indicating Miranda.

The woman glanced at Miranda and answered, “Don't know, don't care. Nobody goes back into the black water. I wouldn't send my worst enemy in there.”

A chill travelled down Emily’s spine at the conviction in the woman's words. What she had said, she believed without hesitation or doubt. She was very afraid of something out there.

Regardless of the feeling of foreboding she felt, Emily stubbornly shook her head. “You don't understand.” A note of pleading entered her tone. “We need to use the pool in this picture as the location to do a fashion photo shoot. We'll pay you for the information. The photo spread in Runway will make your little town famous. You'll have people coming in from all over, wanting flowers. You'll have more business than you can handle,” the redhead improvised, seeing her life flash before her eyes as her chances for getting the information Miranda had demanded slipped away.

“What are you afraid of?” Miranda asked in her so soft voice.

“The black water belongs to Hattie,” the young woman said almost in a whisper, her eyes glancing frantically around as if the very walls might hear her confession.

Miranda nodded. “And who is Hattie?” she asked softly.

The woman behind the counter went mute, stubbornly shaking her head no. Suddenly the chords of a guitar were heard as a melody formed. The young man's firm voice took up song.

“Doug! No!” the young woman hissed softly, but the young man sang out:

Black water Hattie lives back in the swamp,
where the strange green reptiles crawl.
Snakes hang thick from the cypress trees,
like sausage on a smokehouse wall.
Where the swamp is alive with a thousand eyes.
An' all of them watching you.
Stay off the track to Hattie's Shack in the back of the Black Bayou.”


Glancing at Miranda, Emily noted with great surprise that the editor had her eyes closed, her face a mask of concentration. Emily looked back at the young man, Doug, the shopkeeper had called him, as if he'd just gone off his trolly. Doug, who had looked at Miranda with awe in his eyes and who had admitted that he subscribed to Runway in this barren wasteland of a town, was trying to answer Miranda’s query through song.

Now way up the road from Hattie's Shack,” he sang,
Lies a sleepy little Okeechobee town.
Talk of swamp witch Hattie locks you in when the sun go down.
Rumors of what she'd done, rumors of what she'd do,
kept folks off the track of Hattie's shack,
in the back of the Black Bayou.”


He stopped suddenly and nervously took the guitar from around his neck carefully, setting it down on the chair he'd been occupying when they had entered the store. He looked down at the guitar, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes and shook his head. “You don't want to go back there, Ma'am,” he said softly to Miranda. “It ain't a good place.” He suddenly picked up his guitar and almost ran from the shop before anyone could reply or question him further.

“Swamp witch?” Emily nearly screeched, her tone condescending. “Surely you're joking!” she continued pointedly to the woman behind the counter.

The African-American woman stiffened, and her face firmed. “If you want some flowers, I can help you. If you're not gonna buy anything, then I'd like you ta leave my store,” she said frostily.

Emily goggled at the woman, “But this is Miranda Priestly! Editor-in-Chief of Runway magazine!” she insisted urgently. “The Miranda Priestly!”

“She don't mean nothing to me,” the colorfully-dressed woman said, “unless she's gonna buy a mess of flowers. Now get outta my shop!”

“But!” Emily said frantically.

“Emily!” Miranda said sharply. Then more softly she continued, “We've worn out our welcome here. Come along. We’ll go back to the hotel and regroup.” She turned elegantly and walked back out on to the dark street. Thick black thunderheads covered the late morning sky, and the air was thick with the smell of a coming storm.

Emily looked at her employer and idol with terror in her eyes. “Miranda, I'm so sorry, but you saw. The woman was unreasonable, and she wouldn't budge!”

Miranda stopped in mid-stride and turned to look at her assistant. “She is frightened, Emily. Terrified of something out there,” she said, glancing out beyond the imaginary dividing line between the edge of the town and the rising, dark green vegetation of the swamp beyond.

“But really, Miranda,” Emily insisted. “A swamp witch?”

Miranda moved her shoulders slightly, elegantly. Her version of a shrug. She turned and resumed her journey up the street. “Belief has power, Emily. And that young woman believes very, very strongly. Believes that there is something lurking out there that is capable of harming her or those she loves if she angers it.”

“But, Miranda,” Emily began again.

“Enough, Emily,” Miranda said. “We must now turn our attentions to finding someone else in this ….place, who is willing to help us find the location of the Orchid Pool.”

Emily nodded at Miranda's back and fell silent, following Miranda up the street.

*****

Miranda, Nigel, and Emily spent the afternoon questioning every local they could find about the possible location of the beautiful pool depicted in the slightly bent Polaroid photograph without any success. They finally joined many of the others in their party in the crowded greasy spoon diner that was the town’s only restaurant. Miranda managed to order something and to eat about a quarter of it before she strongly felt the need to get some air. She left the small comfort of the air-conditioned diner and walked down the street toward what looked like a dock.

A disreputable young man, unshaven and in dirty coveralls, stood in the shadow of a dilapidated building at the edge of the dock. He looked Miranda up and down. “Hear y’all are lookin’ fer a pool back in the Black Bayou,” he smiled through yellowed teeth.

Miranda nodded cautiously. “I am,” she answered.

He nodded. “What's it worth ta ya?” He asked.

Miranda watched him closely. “What do you want?” she replied.

The shady character continued to grin unpleasantly. “A hundred and fifty dollars, cash money,” he answered. “And nobody else here'll help you. They're all afraid of the swamp. I can take ya there, though.”

Miranda looked back up the street. “I'll just go and get a few of my people, and we can...”

“No,” the man said sharply, his grin gone from his face. “Just you. If anybody else here finds out I helped you, they won't like it. It'll make my life difficult. These are my neighbors, ya understand? I gotta live near em.”

Miranda nodded. “So, what do you suggest?”

He grinned again. “I'm going into the swamp tonight, just after dark. Meet me here at ten with the money in hand. You can hold it till we get back. We'll be back just afore dawn. You'll know where the place you're looking for is, and then I get my money.”

Miranda nodded. “I'll be here at ten,” she said turning away.

“And don't you tell nobody!” he said sharply after her. “You tell anybody, anybody at all, and I won't take ya. You'll never find the place ‘cause no one else here will go inta that part of the swamp.”

Miranda stopped and, turning, nodded. “You have my word, Mr....?” she said.

“Kagel,” he answered “Jebidiah Kagel.”

She nodded once brusquely. “I will be here at ten o'clock, Mr. Kagel,” she replied before walking back up the street toward the diner.

Outside the diner she found Douglas sitting under a tree strumming his guitar. It was evident to her, with her knowledge and love of music, that he was trying to work out the chords of a song. He looked up at her and smiled. As she approached closer, he sang to her in his smooth voice:

Listen at night and hear the sound.
As the swamp moves in and settles down.
Shadows move, see the cypress frown?
Swamp don't want you hangin' round.”


“Do you not want me hangin’ round, Douglas?” she asked softly.

He shook his head. “I like havin’ y'all here,” he answered softly. “Just wish y'all wasn't so fixed on findin' that place. It ain't what ya think it is. And if ya do manage to get there, it likely won't bring ya no happiness.”

“Hey faggot! Stop botherin' normal folk!” Jebidiah Kagel said, striding up the street. “Or me and my brothers 'll have ta beat your ass again!”

Douglas stopped playing and gathered up his guitar. Miranda reached down and touched him on the shoulder. She shook her head slightly. “Don't mind him, Douglas,” she offered quietly. “A redneck fool, whose words mean less than nothing.”

Douglas looked at her, pain in his eyes, “Hard bein' the only gay man in a town this size. Kind of paints a big ol' target on my back.”

Miranda nodded. “You should go and make the acquaintance of my art director, Nigel,” she smiled. “I think that he'd likely enjoy your music.”

“Art director, huh?” Douglas asked. “Is he important to your magazine?”

Miranda chuckled. “He's my right arm. I wouldn't get a single issue out without what he does for the magazine, but please don't ever tell him I said such a thing.”

Douglas smiled and got up from where he was sitting on the ground. “Maybe you could introduce me to him? It'd be nice to be able to talk ta someone else who’s gay.”

Miranda linked her arm through his. “I believe that Nigel is in the diner finishing his dinner. Why don't we go and get you two acquainted.”