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Black Water Hattie

Chapter Text

Even in the present day, with the easy availability of technological devices allowing intercourse with the world community, old wives' tales and old sayings seem to remain deeply rooted among rural communities. Slippery Bottom was such a place. The locals lived by old adages and were wary of intrusions into the realm of old wives' tales that they had started hearing while still nursing at their mothers’ breasts.

One such adage was “bad things come in threes.” The locals of Slippery Bottom resolutely believed this and were now battening down the hatches to face more trouble coming for their community. They had weathered three misfortunes already, starting with the destruction of the only road leading to Slippery Bottom, which resulted in hurting what little economy the town had. Then the storm came, the wind and rain damaging most of the properties in the town. Lastly, the fever arrived with the tempest and carried off a fair number of the town's inhabitants. Vigorous debate among some of the townsfolk erupted about whether the encounter between the vigilante posse that had gone into the swamp to find and hang Hattie and whatever it was that had instead found them could be counted as the first incidence of a second set of catastrophes to befall the town. The majority of those involved in the ongoing debate postulated that because of the responsibility of the townsfolk themselves instigating those events, it could not be counted toward what they now foresaw coming.

No one doubted that the mysterious fires suddenly springing up around the town were, if not the first, then the second event in the new trilogy of calamity coming to vex the residences of Slippery Bottom. The equipment shed near the boat ramp was the first building to burn. The fire started late at night, and by the time someone saw it ablaze, it was far too late to do anything to save the structure. Over the course of the next week, three more fires occurred. Both an abandoned storefront and Old Lady Glidwell's Farm Stand were damaged. Those two fires, both facing the center of town, were discovered and dealt with fairly quickly, before any major loss. The third structure, the small outbuilding which stood in the cemetery behind the Baptist church, wasn’t as fortunate and was completely demolished by the fire. The local volunteer firefighters couldn't discern any apparent causes for the blazes, and the residents of Slippery Bottom were once again scared and on edge.

***

Twilight was gathering around the island that Hattie's cabin sat on. Miranda entered from the small porch she had just finished sweeping to find her Andrea standing at the shelf where they kept their medicinals, transferring items into a small cloth bundle. Glancing around the cabin, Miranda noted a complex Tarot reading laid out on the table. Looking back to her beloved, she noticed that Andrea's eyes looked far away. The older woman had only seen this a handful of times, but she understood immediately that “Hattie” was upon the woman. The spirit or magic or whatever it was that made Andrea like she was had a hold of her and was directing her actions.

“I's gots ta go out,” Andrea said quietly. “Should be back afore midnight.”

Miranda nodded. “Shall I come with you?” she asked.

Andrea shook her head. “Don't knows where I's goin'. Only knows that someone's gots troubles, and I'm sapposed ta help 'em out.

Miranda nodded. “Just be careful, please,” she said. “I don't know what I'd do if anything were to happen to you.”

Andrea nodded. “Don't think I'm leavin' the Blackwater sos should be right as rain.

***

Ezekiel Kagel, eldest son of the middle Kagel brother, Zachariah, skulked, huddled in a small clearing just above the waters of the swamp at the edge of the Blackwater. He was sore from the beating he'd taken earlier, but he knew his Pa wouldn't track him down here. He had been careful to cross over into Hattie's land. His Pa was deathly afraid of the swamp witch and didn't step onto what Hattie claimed as hers unless the eldest Kagel, Jebidiah, insisted on it. The only thing his father was more afraid of than Hattie was his older brother. Ezekiel sighed and tried to nurse his sore ribs and wondered if they might be cracked. He felt mighty sorry for himself. The beating he had taken wasn't even his. He'd gotten between his Pa and his Ma when his Pa was getting ready to whup on her for spending the money he'd planned to spend on booze for baby food instead. He was the eldest child, and he felt it was his responsibility to protect those he loved, his Ma, his sister and the baby, one of his aunts, and some of his cousins. He didn't really think much of his two uncles or his father. He had watched them do as little as they could get away with for his whole life while the rest of the family eked out a hardscrabble existence from the swamp. Soon I'll be sixteen, he thought to himself. I'll be a man and can take on some of the responsibility for the family. Make things better fer Ma, Sissy, and the baby. Fer some o' th' others, too. He looked around and shivered a little as the darkness of night approached. He was, after all, in Hattie's domain. He had never seen the legendary denizen of the swamp, but he had heard all the stories. He had no desire to cross the woman. He hoped that she would be forgiving of his trespass. I just needs a place to hide for a while. In a bit Pa 'll find somethin' ta pawn ta get money to get some booze. Then he'll get drunk and forget he's mad at me. Iffin I wait a couple o' hours, with any luck, he'll be passed out afore I gets back.

He shifted his weight, trying to find a more comfortable position. “Pa wailed on me pretty good.” He grunted, slowly moving the hand he’d held his sore ribs with to the contusion on his jaw. “But better me than Ma I guess.” He heard a small noise and turned his head to locate its source. He froze like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. There not ten feet from him stood who could only be the Swamp Witch herself.

She cocked her head, birdlike. “Yer hurt,” she said quietly, her eyes drilling into him.

He swallowed hard and tried to control his rising panic. It's like she can see right through me. Like she knows everythin' I ever said or did. “I'm... I'm sorry, Miss Hattie. I don't means ta be trespassin',” he managed to stammer out.

“Lie,” Hattie said. “Ya came here a-purpose like. Ye knows yer Pa won't follow here.”

The boy nodded and hung his head, shame-faced.

“Ya done been beat like a dog,” Hattie stated and then smiled. “Ya done the right thing getting' twixt yer Ma and Pa as ya done. He would o' hurt your Ma real bad this time,” she continued. She reached into the small bundle she carried and produced a small, stoppered clay vial and a half-pint mason jar three-quarters full of a pale amber paste. She offered both to the boy. “Drink the vial,” she said casually. “It'll taste godawful but it'll chase th' pain away. Thother's a salve. Put it on yer hurts an' it'll help 'em heal faster.”

The boy watched her fearfully. “I don't gots nothin' ta trade fer 'em,” he almost whispered.

Hattie shook her head and smiled again. “Change is commin',” she said in a way that brooked no doubt. “Th' cards told me ye gots choices ta make an somethin' important ta do. Th' choices er yourn. Ye can be part o' the change or end up like all o' th' men in yer family's line fer th' last hundred years. Thinks on it, Ezekiel Kagle, and choose careful. Yer choices 'll be th' rise or fall o' all those ya love.”

He sat huddled in that small clearing, lost in thought, , long after Haddie left as quietly as she appeared.

***

As all school vacations do, Ms. Swineford’s Academy’s winter break came to an end. As normally happens in such occurrences, the student body dribbled back onto the campus in the few days before classes were scheduled to commence. Caroline Priestly’s return to the school was no surprise to anyone. Cassidy Priestly, much changed and accompanying her twin sister was, however, unexpected. It became the source of much comment and, among Ms. Swineford's inner circle, a matter of no little consternation.

The Priestly twins’ return to the school was considered by many to be even more surprising considering the sensational news of Miranda Priestly's very public termination from her job as the arbiter and icon of fashion and her apparent subsequent meltdown. The tabloid press made sure everybody knew that their mother had, by all accounts, completely lost her mind. Some confusion existed about the order of events, but apparently in a matter of days, she liquidated virtually everything she owned for cash and then promptly disappeared off the face of the earth. A great deal of speculation abounded in the sensational press, ranging from the ridiculous posit that she'd committed suicide and no one had yet found the body to another wild idea that she'd taken the money and run off to some deserted island with a much younger, boy-toy lover. The National Tattler's articles forwarded the supposition that she was using her fortune to buy passage on the alien mother-ship and was returning with them to their home planet to teach the alien super-race about fashion dos and don'ts.

From the outset Caroline and Cassidy did what they always did. They ignored the idiotic stories from the tabloid press as well as the stares and whispers of their classmates and teachers as best they could. Of course, they had the benefit of knowing exactly where their mother was and had seen her, over the last several weeks, happier and more relaxed than they ever had before.

Caroline's return was far less remarked upon than Cassidy's, as she was as her classmates remembered her. She still wore stylish high-end fashion, used makeup, and was almost immediately seen walking around campus holding hands with her girlfriend, Paola. Cassidy's return, however, caused quite a bit of a stir. Gone were the cutting-edge fashion and stylish makeup that had once defined her and instead, she now wore peasant skirts and gauzy blouses in all natural fabrics. Her feet, even in the New York cold, remained defiantly bare. Where she once was as outgoing and engaging as her sister, now she was withdrawn and quiet. Her aura was of someone who was “looking beyond.” It was only a matter of hours after her return to campus before the word started to be passed around among the students that Cassidy had gone all “spooky.” The common wisdom among those that were not close to her was that this alteration in her mien was due to her breakdown and resulting confinement in the loony bin. Those closer to her had all, at some level, begun to understand that Cassidy had made peace with whatever demons plagued her and now, whatever those unseen presences surrounding her were, they were her allies rather than her tormentors.

It was over the next several days, as the student body began to settle into the Spring session and interact in the day-to-day activities of the new semester, that some of the students came to the realization that the school’s administration still had it out for Cassidy. From the first day of classes, Mrs. Swineford made no secret of the fact that she was taking great pleasure in Miranda Priestly's perceived fall from grace. Seeking to curry favor, her toadies singled out Cassidy and regularly sent her to the disciplinarian's office for supposed violations of school rules. With their mother nowhere on the near horizon to protect them, the student betting pool was giving favorable odds for the Priestly sisters experiencing the semester from hell.

***

Two weeks after Doug returned to New York from his hometown of Slippery Bottom, he sat in a claustrophobic, enclosed, soundproofed space, headphones fitted tightly around his head and his new guitar, a gift from Nigel, in his lap. He resisted the urge to fiddle with the microphone pop shield,

as he had just finished spending several minutes nervously positioning it the way he wanted it. Nigel stood on the other side of the glass partition beside Dylan Wurtz, one of the top-rated producers of new musical talent in the United States. Nigel knew Dylan as an acquaintance from running into each other at numerous social functions both men attended to network for their respective careers. While Doug was in Slippery Bottom, Nigel attended such an event and slipped Dylan a CD containing a couple of songs which Doug had recorded. Doug was mortified when Nigel told him what he had done. He knew there was no way a famous producer like Dylan Wurtz was even going to bother listening to an unsolicited CD from someone no one had ever heard of.

Except Dylan apparently not only listened to the CD but liked what he heard. Within just a few days of Doug's return to New York City, he found himself in Dylan's studio playing for all he was worth. Dylan's assessment was that Doug's talent was rough, but that could serve to their advantage, considering Doug's passion was country music. Dylan was not an aficionado of the country genre, nor had he ever produced a country song. His forte was rock-and-roll, but he was looking to try his hand at something new. Dylan offered Doug a contract and, after discussions with Nigel and an attorney, Doug signed it. Dylan was here today, working with Doug on selecting songs to be put on his first professional CD. They had already recorded a rough version of The Legend of Wooly Swamp and talked about what to do when mixing and mastering the recording. Now Dylan was ready for something else.

Nigel keyed the microphone in the control booth, “How about trying the new one that you've been working on? The one about your adventure back home?”

“Adventure?” Doug heard Dylan ask through the open mike.

“Oh yes.” Nigel chortled. “It's almost as much of a ghost story as Wooly Swamp.”

Dylan slid back and forth on the wheeled swivel chair that he sat in at the control board, his hands playing the buttons, dials, and sliders as if they were a musical instrument and he a virtuoso. After having the settings where he wanted them, he nodded to Doug.

Doug took up the melody and sang out:

Black water Hattie lived 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

Way up the road from Hattie's Shack
Lies a sleepy little Okeechobee town
Talk of swamp witch Hattie lock 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

One day brought the rain and the rain stayed on
And the swamp water overflowed
'skeeters and the fever grabbed the town like a fist
Doc Jackson was the first to go
Some said the plague was brought by Hattie
There was talk of a hangin' too
But the talk got shackled by the howls and the cackles
From the bowels of the Black bayou

Early one morn 'tween dark and dawn when shadows filled the sky
There came an unseen caller on a town where hope run dry
In the square there was found a big black round
Vat full of gurgling brew
Whispering sounds as the folk gathered round
"It came from the Black Bayou"

There ain't much pride when you're trapped inside
A slowly sinkin' ship
Scooped up the liquid deep and green
And the whole town took a sip
Fever went away and the very next day the skies again were blue
Let's thank old Hattie for savin' our town
We'll fetch her from the Black Bayou

Party of ten of the town's best men headed for Hattie's Shack
Said Swamp Witch magic was useful and good
And they're gonna bring Hattie back
Never found Hattie and they never found the shack and they never made the trip back in

'Cause a parchment note they found tacked to a stump
Said don't come lookin' again

Doug brought the song to its conclusion and in the following silence, Nigel keyed the microphone and smiled through the glass at the young man he was now certain he was in love with. “Did it really happen that way?” he asked, his tone bemused.

Doug shook his head. “There was more ta it. Things nobody 'ud believe iffin I put 'em inta th' song. There's eleven souls born an' bred in Slippery Bottom. Folk raised in th' swamp. They went inta th' swamp. Went looking fer Hattie when th' fever was on the town. They was gonna hang her fer makin' everybody sick. Somethin' found them. They got out, but those eleven people won't never go back inta th' swamp again, no way, no how. And the town's best men? They went looking fer Hattie, too. And they came back too, their tails twixt their legs. She's still out there. Out in her kingdom in th' swamp.”

Dylan leaned over and spoke into his mic. “That one will work nicely, Doug. I can think of a few tricks to make it sound eerie. Now how about a change of pace? What do you have in the way of love songs?”

***

Over the course of the last several weeks Miranda came to the realization that her life had become quite different from what she was accustomed to. She had entered this new life, living with Andrea in the rustic cabin in the bowels of the swamp, without really knowing all it would entail. Her days now were spent helping with the thousand little tasks which were required to keep body and soul together when living so close to nature. Repair of clothes, cooking, cleaning, helping to gather the plants that made up part of their diet and fishing—all became part of her daily schedule. Andrea hadn't asked her to go hunting with her yet, but she did go out every few days and returned with meat for the stew pot. The day after the twins returned to school, Miranda became aware that she felt able to stop and take a deep breath at will. Something she hadn't considered before. Prior to that moment something always was pressing on her. Something urgent that must be done right away. Some attempt to threaten her power and position which she had to stave off. Runway, and her long struggle to reach and then stay on top no matter the cost, now seemed like a fool's errand. Here, in this primal place, she was finding the thing that filled the void she had always felt. Here with her Andrea, she was becoming whole and, with self-awareness of that evolution, she was looking forward for the first time in her life to seeing where uncertainty might lead her. Here she was able to let go of the outside world that had always both defined and limited her.

A tickling on her cheek woke Miranda from yet another dream. She cracked open her eyes and discovered that what had roused her from her sleep was a colorful moth that had alighted on her face as she napped under a tree just outside the cabin she and Andrea shared. Before her new life she would have been disturbed by any insect landing on her. Now she stayed as still as she could and observed the beautifully patterned wings of her visitor. She turned her face just a few inches and, looking past the creature's delicate wings, saw her Andrea seated on the ramshackle dock with a fishing line in the water, evidently pursuing their supper.

Andrea didn't look up from watching where her line entered the water but she spoke, obviously knowing that Miranda no longer slept. “Ya been dreamin', haven't ya?” She asked softly while jiggling her fishing pole gently, trying to entice one of the denizens of the deep pool that surrounded Hattie's Island to take the bait and the fishing hook along with it.

Miranda moved her hand slowly and carefully, and after a moment she convinced the moth on her cheek to transfer to an outstretched finger. She smiled toward her life partner and nodded even though the woman wasn't looking at her. “I have been having dreams. I think I must be remembering a show I attended. Emily and Nigel are with me, and we are examining dresses on the models.” She continued to look closely at the colors in the moth's wing.

“Tain't a show ya been ta,” Andrea said in a way that Miranda had come to recognize as when the spirit of Hattie was on her and divination was in the air. “Least ways not yet,” she continued.

Miranda moved her hand in a way that encouraged the moth to take flight. She rose from where she sat against the tree and walked the handful of steps to the dock where her beloved sat. “What do you see, Andrea?” she asked.

“Tain't th' first time ya had this dream. Won't be th' last. Ya should pay attention ta dreams. They's tellin' ya somethin'. M'be somethin' important.”

Miranda eased herself down, sitting next to her soul mate. “I can't see how,” she replied. “It's highly unlikely I'll ever attend another fashion show and even more unlikely that I'll do so in the company of both Nigel and Emily.” Even as the words left her mouth, she closed her eyes and tried to draw up imagery from the dream. Her lips curled in a bemused smile. She realized that the magic of this place and of the woman she loved didn't allow her to even doubt what Andrea said. The next time the dream came, she would pay attention.

***

Over the first weeks of the semester word quickly spread that if you crossed Cassidy Priestly, bad things happened to you. The weird thing was that Cassidy was never anywhere near where the bad things took place. It wasn't long before she was being called the Witch of Swineford's. Soon after that, some students started going to her when they had problems they couldn't solve. They'd take her a little something they thought she'd like, and she would read their cards and advise them. The problems of those that followed her advice seemed to magically disappear.

Over those same first weeks of school, Mrs Swineford focused her attentions on sabotaging the Priestly sisters' continued attendance at the institution. She instructed her staff to keep careful watch of the twin girls and to report anything unusual with their behavior.

Cassidy, for her part, was cooperative to a fault. When teachers would send her to the disciplinarian, she didn't demure, or object, or raise a finger. She would sit passively, absently listening to whichever lecture was on tap and not make any kind of fuss. The ghosts were always with her now. A spectral court dancing attendance on her, wanting things from her. Desiring to gain her favor, one or more of her spectral hangers-on would often lag behind when Cassidy was sent back to class, and they found ways to reach across the veil to punish those who had dared to belittle their link to the living world. Caroline knew it was only a matter of time before things came to an ugly head. The school’s headmistress wanted Cassidy, and quite likely her as well, gone. The intense supervision of her sister wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Unfortunately for those persecuting her sister, neither was the supernatural retaliation of those ghosts who sought to either earn Cassidy's favor or acted in a genuine desire to protect her.

***

Irv Ravitz sat gazing out the window of his office high above Manhattan. He sighed and turned to his desk. I won. I finally won. I finally drove that bitch Miranda Priestly out of Runway. Jacqueline Follett has been editor-in-chief for several week already, he thought. He lifted the hi-ball glass of top shelf Scotch from his desk to his lips and swallowed some of the amber liquid. Miranda's ousting and Jacqueline's ascension isn't playing well with some of the board of directors. Attrition in the veteran staff from Runway is off the charts. They're leaving in droves because Miranda isn't there anymore. You'd think they'd be grateful that that bitch on wheels wasn't making their lives a living hell every day. Jacqueline is spending more time chasing around trying to replace the employees the magazine is bleeding than she is working on the next issue.

He turned back toward the window and stared out, not really seeing anything. He took another long pull off his drink. Getting rid of Miranda was necessary. Without her constant last-minute artistic changes every God-damned issue overrunning the magazine's monthly budget and causing audits, my siphoning off of funds will be that much harder to detect. With her gone and the same scam in place in the accounting of all Elias-Clark magazines, in just a few years’ time I'll be as rich as Croesus! He put his glass down and rose from his chair.

He stepped out from behind his desk and began to pace in front of it. My sources tell me Jacqueline's first issue to go to print isn't going to be up to snuff. The magazine's buyers are not going to be happy. A bad first issue doesn't bode well, especially with the standard that Miranda set for so many years. I can explain away one issue, maybe two, but if the magazine profits fall off more than what I've saved the company by firing Miranda and hiring Jacqueline, even my allies on the board will be screaming for my head on a platter. There may even be calls for an investigation.

He slumped in his chair with a sigh. An investigation would be bad. It might involve looking into the financials, which might uncover the embezzlement. If things start to go in that direction, I'm going to need either a quick exit strategy to somewhere without an extradition treaty or someone to throw under the bus. He gritted his teeth, determined to do whatever it took to make sure no one discovered what he was doing. If that meant kicking Jacqueline to the curb, he’d do it. After all, it wasn’t as if Miranda would ever come back, and that’s all he cared about.

***

The cold autumn rain lashed against the dimly illuminated windows of Cassidy and Caroline's dorm lobby. It was the small hours of the morning and likely the only people awake on campus at this hour were the two just above minimum wage security guards who patrolled the grounds during the hours of darkness. It would not have mattered if the two guards had stumbled upon the strange gathering that was taking place in the lobby. Neither of the guards possessed the “gift,” so neither of them could perceive the group of twelve restless ghosts who drifted into the poorly lit space. They formed a ragged circle as the thirteenth, and the last to arrive, drifted down through the ceiling to float ethereally to the center of the group.

The thirteenth ghost, Benjamin Halak, had always been a timid and unassuming individual during his forty-seven years on the living side of the veil between the waking world and the dead. He had been mercilessly bullied throughout his time among the living—by overbearing parents, classmates, co-workers, and finally by life in general. Keeping his position as an associate at the law practice he worked at was often in doubt, as he never seemed to get one of the breaks that would attract the notice of the firm’s partners in a way which might lead to a promotion and perhaps even a long dreamed of partnership position. In his last days, he was assigned by one of the senior partners to, what was perceived by the rest of the firm, a dead-bang loser of a case. It was another blow among a lifetime of disappointments.

Mr. Halak was, however, a diligent individual and always tried his best, no matter the obstacles placed in his path. This time his due diligence plodding through the boxes upon boxes of files the opposing counsel had attempted to bury his client's lawsuit with divulged a smoking gun memo that completely eradicated the opposition's contention of the facts of the case. He was in possession of material that was going to win the case for their clients and make the firm a great deal of money in the process. For once he felt sure he was going to gain some of the recognition he longed to earn. Crossing the street on his way to depositions on an icy Tuesday morning, his life had been cut short in an unfortunate and terribly bizarre accident. Mr. Halak had been crushed between two buses when one couldn't stop on the icy road and slammed into the back of the other one, which had stopped to pick up passengers.

The newly deceased Mr. Halak found himself bound somehow to the law offices he had so diligently served for so many years without him receiving a scrap of recognition for his labors. He haunted the offices, waiting to find out who took over his last case. If they checked his files, they would discover how he had found the information they had missed and finally realize his value to the firm.

No one ever looked at the material he had generated. The firm plodded on with business as usual, and no one really pursued the lawsuit. Whereas Mr. Halak was a milquetoast individual in life, he was now one very angry and determined ghost. As his frustration and fury grew, so did his ability to affect the “real” world on the living side of the veil. The law firm’s offices soon started experiencing some truly unsettling and unexplainable events.

Mr. Halak's ghost was unsure how he discovered Cassidy Priestly. One moment he was causing havoc in the file room of what was once his office, and the next he was among those like himself surrounding the young woman. He arrived during what he would soon discover was an all too frequent session where a teacher and the school disciplinarian were deriding the girl. He was suddenly aware that she could perceive him and later he came to understand that she could hear and communicate with his kind. This led him to believe she might be able to affect the change he desired in the living world. All it would take was a phone call to the law offices. He just needed someone to see the precious file which would re-ignite his last case and make somebody pay attention to his work for the firm. If they could just see his value to the firm, he could lay his burden down and go to his rest. He had hovered on the outskirts of the constantly changing circle of ghost surrounding Cassidy, attempting to patiently wait for his turn. He soon discovered that was not how things worked. Some of the ghosts didn't seem to recognize that other ghosts were present. Some shouted over each other, endlessly arguing their place in line and demanding Cassidy's attention. This went on for several days, and Halak became increasingly frustrated. It was when he lagged behind after another scolding session in the school disciplinarian's office that he overheard how Mrs. Swineford was directly responsible for the organized program of harassment. It was then that he decided to act.

He focused all of his frustration and anger on the single goal of uniting the others like him that were surrounding the link to the living world.

Mr. Halak's ghost spoke to the circle he had called together. “It has taken a great deal of time and energy to reach each of you and make you understand that we have common interests and cause,” he whispered to those that watched him. “It must be evident to each of you,” he continued, “that the head mistress of this establishment is the one that persecutes our connection to the living world. Even the most self-absorbed among you must recognized that if Cassidy's attentions are elsewhere because of the persecution she is being subjected to, she will not be inclined to expend effort to solve whatever problem it is which confines each of us to this side of the veil. Separately we can affect little, but if we join together and combine our abilities we can shake the very foundations of this school. Which of you will join me to protect our Cassidy?”

There was a cacophony of whispering among the ghosts and then silence. The decision was both instantaneous and unanimous. Maxi stepped forward and acted as the spokesperson. “We're in agreement that the situation is intolerable, but if we're going to help, we can't let Cassidy know. At least not at first. She'd tell us to stop.”

Mr. Halak cocked his head and looked curiously at the apparently young girl. “Why?” he whispered.

Maxi shrugged. “She doesn't want to take any chance of getting kicked out of school. She doesn't want to do anything that might disrupt her sister's life and if she has to leave, she knows her sister will go too. That would mean leaving her girlfriend, Paola.”

Mr. Halak looked to the others and nodded. “Then subtlety will be required.”

***

Miranda awoke to the smell of bacon cooking. This was unusual because the diet that the swamp provided didn't include much in the way of cured meat. She moved from the narrow bed she shared with her beloved Andrea and pulled aside the privacy curtain. There before the fireplace crouched her soulmate frying bacon in a cast iron skillet. Glancing to the small table where they took their meals, she noted a number of eggs in a basket. Something she'd once taken for granted was now another unusual treat. She moved gently toward Andrea, knowing that she could not on her best day startle the woman. Andrea always seemed to know what was going on around her. The woman from the swamp spoke softly, a smile in her tone, “Coffee's in th' pot, strong and hot jus' likes ya likes it. Breakfast'll be ready soon.”

Miranda smiled and moving past where Andrea was, she collected the tin cup she had claimed as hers and poured herself a cup of steaming black liquid. She glanced back to where Andrea was cooking. “Bacon and eggs?” she questioned. “Where did those come from?”

Andrea looked up from where she was working with a small smile, and she blushed a bit. “I went ta town an' got a few things. I wanted ta make taday special, it bein' your birthday.” She rose and moved from the fireplace to the table and plated the sizzling bacon from the skillet. “A breakfast like ya would o' had in the big city and a big ol' beef steak likes ya likes fer supper tanight. Even gots some gifts fer ya a bit later.”

Miranda cocked her head. “How did you get these things, Andrea?” she asked mildly, glancing over her coffee cup. “I handle all the money that Lily pays for the flowers, and at the moment there isn't a lot there.”

Andrea looked down bashfully and shook her head slightly. “I didn't steal 'em,” she declared. “I have some money. Ol' Lucius tol' me ta take some o' his afore I went ta join ya in New York City.” She shuffled her feet for a moment still looking down. “I went ta th' Mercantile after they closed. I took what I wanted an' left 'em one o' them there gold pieces on th' counter. Miss Serena said one o' them coins was worth a passel o' money but iffin ya think I didn't leave enough, when ya sees what I gots ya I'll go back an' leave 'em another one.”

Miranda was aware of the twenty dollar gold pieces that Old Lucius buried in caches all over his island. She could imagine in her mind's eye the face of the old man she dealt with on the occasions she shopped in the Mercantile, finding a coin that was worth more than a thousand dollars. Knowing what the Mercantile sold, Miranda knew that Andrea would be hard-pressed to carry away a thousand dollars’ worth of merchandise without help. She smiled and sighed softly. “I usually don't celebrate my birthday,” she admitted quietly.

“Cause ya didn't want yer age bandied about by all them newspapers that never had nothin' nice ta print about ya,” Andrea said as she nodded. “But ya ain't there anymore. Here is only people that loves ya. Next time ya go and sees Miss Lily, ye'll find that yer two lil' birds done sent ya somethin' ta mark th' day.”

It surprised Miranda to realize that she didn't doubt what Andrea had said, even knowing Andrea hadn't had any contact with the outside world. She had no doubt that when she visited the flower shop the next time to deliver cut flowers, there would be something waiting from her girls, celebrating her birthday.

Andrea made quick work of frying up the eggs in the same skillet that the bacon had been cooked in. In just short moments breakfast was plated and the pair sat down to eat their morning meal in companionable silence.

After the breakfast dishes were cleaned and put away, Andrea went and knelt down beside the bed. Reaching under it she drew out two small packages wrapped in festive paper and a larger bundle covered in the cloth that Andrea used to collect things during her sojourns in the swamp. She brought the items to the table and placed them before Miranda. Miranda looked up at her beloved and smiled. “Happy Birthday, 'Randa,” Andrea said softly returning the smile.

Miranda curiously touched the three different packages. The smaller two were rectangular, one as wide as and slightly longer than her palm and the other as long but three times as wide. The package wrapped in the cloth looked to be cylindrical and about the length of her arm. “Is there any particular order I should open these in, Andrea?” she asked.Andrea stepped back and shuffled her feet. “No, no particular order. They ain't much,” she answered softly. “Nowheres near what ya deserves. I hopes ya likes 'em.”

Miranda started on the smallest of the gifts and discovered a package of five artist's charcoal pencils combined with two blending sticks and an artist's eraser. The second package contained a set of thirty-six colored pencils. The cloth-draped package revealed a roll of brown butcher’s paper. Miranda looked to Andrea for an explanation.

“Sos ya can capture what ya sees in your dreams,” Andrea said, answering the unvoiced question. “It's gonna be important.”

Miranda nodded. “Thank you, Andrea. It's been a long time since I've sketched or drawn anything.” She reached up and grasped the collar of the sundress Andrea was wearing. Then she pulled her beloved down to kiss her passionately, thanking her for her thoughtful gesture.

***

Jebidiah Kagel and his two brothers stood hidden in the dense foliage near the edge of town. The youngest of the three, Matthias spoke with a whine in his tone. “They's bein' stubborn sums-of-bitches. All the stuff we torched they's just rebuildin'.”

The middle brother Zachariah nodded as he scratched the several days’ worth of stubble on his chin. “From what I heared ain't one o' them plannin' ta sell to th' fat man. Them two preachers ur stirrin' th' townfolk up. Them an' th' Mayor an' a couple o' others ur organizin' everybody not ta make th' deal!”

Jebidiah stared into town from his hiding spot. “Well,” he said with an angry edge to his voice, “th' fat man ain't gonna pay us what he said he would iffin we don't deliver. He wants th' gud-damned people out o' th' damn town sos his boss can buy up th' land!”

The youngest looked at the eldest. “So what ur we gonna do, Jebidiah?” he asked, his tone edged with fear.

Jebidiah turned his head to look at the youngest. “We're gonna burn bigger stuff. Iffin that don't work, maybe make some of the folk ’round here disappear.”

Zachariah moved up beside Jebidiah “How about we burn the flower shop? That black gal Lily is one o' th' ones talkin' up not sellin'. Gettin' rid o' her would be a step in the right direction.”

Jebidiah shook his head. “Naw,” he responded, “we wait on her.” He smiled nastily. “When we've done run a bunch o' th' other folk off there won't be no one ta notice when we burn the flower shop and take that uppity black bitch back inta the swamp. Then we'll do as we please wit' her 'fore we feed her ta th' alligators.”

The youngest pointed toward the center of town. “What 'bout one o' th' churches?” he asked. “Folks 'ud be mighty upset iffin one o' th' churches was gone.”

Jebidiah again shook his head. “Church is just another fukin' empty buildin'.” He hawked and spat on the ground. “We want ta scare 'em, we start burnin' buidin's that ain't fukin' empty. Tanight, real late, we light up them two preachers’ houses. Burn their gud-damn houses down ’round their gud-damn ears. Scare them two good, real good. Scare their families good too. If they up and run, lots o' the town folk 'll follow.

***

It was a warm morning as Miranda poled the skiff she had claimed as hers through the deeper channels toward Slippery Bottom. It was one of the boats that Hattie had acquired the night the vigilante mob had assaulted the swamp to find and hang the swamp witch. Miranda's mission this morning was a duty she had taken upon herself. Lily no longer went to “Hattie's” stump to pick up the cut flowers and deliver goods in trade. Now, by an agreement that Miranda had negotiated, several times a week, she delivered the cut flowers to Lily's shop in exchange for cold hard cash. She would then go to the Mercantile to purchase whatever she and Andrea might want or need.

Arriving at the docks near the boat ramp Miranda stepped out of the boat and quickly secured the two mooring lines to two of the pilings. She surprised herself with the adroit way she managed the task. Like many tasks she was now performing, it was as if she had been doing them her whole life. Reaching into the well of the skiff she gathered the bundle of cut flowers that she and Andrea had harvested earlier. On the walk from the docks to Lily's shop Miranda mused, With Slippery Bottom being so small, it's curious that no one has questioned me about my possession of the skiff or about my apparent connection to Hattie.

The truth of the matter was that she spoke to very few individuals when she came and went from the town: Lily at the flower shop, the old man who ran the Mercantile and was always glad to see her money, and occasionally the waitress at the diner when she would stop and treat herself to a cup of coffee with cream and sugar. It's hard to keep cream at the cabin, as it lacks refrigeration and in the wilds of the swamp sugar seems to attracts bugs even when it's kept in supposedly airtight containers, she thought. It seems that most of the people in town avoid interacting with me unless they have to. That suited Miranda just fine.

Lily was loosening up a bit, as Miranda had helped in a few business-related matters. On top of that, Lily was fully aware that Hattie had saved her life for a second time and Miranda was somehow directly connected to the Swamp Witch. Miranda consequently used Lily's shop as a mailing address and a place to keep a recently purchased cell phone charging so she could use it when in town. It was useless to consider carrying such a device back into the swamp with her. There was absolutely no reception, as Miranda had discovered the hard way.

The bell attached to the door rang as Miranda entered Lilly's Blossoms, and the storeowner immediately appeared from the back room. Her eyes were cool on Miranda and just a little bit afraid. Miranda moved to the counter and deposited the bundle of flowers. “Good morning, Lily,” she offered quietly. I might as well try to be pleasant to the few who do dare to interact with me , she thought. “I think you'll be pleased with the selection this morning. There are a few stems here that Hattie tells me she doesn't find often.”

Lily moved to the counter and started separating the stems and placing them into water. She looked at Miranda guiltily. “I'm short on cash at the moment,” she said softly. “Ain't been no business all week, and that flower dealer from Palm Beach Gardens ain't due until tamarrow.”

Miranda sighed and nodded. She consciously reined herself in and didn't snap at the young African-American woman. She looked at her and offered a smile, something that until recently would have been unthinkable when she had been denied something she wanted. “That's all right, Lily,” she offered softly. “Just keep track, and we can settle up when you have cash in hand. I hope, after all, that we will be doing business together for a long time.” Lily would pay her, she knew that, but she also knew the reality that Lily couldn't give her what she didn't have. Well, I suppose that anything we needed from the Mercantile will wait a few more days, she thought to herself. She chuckled and shook her head remembering musing about being poor and now she was. All of her holdings were now committed to the goal of acquiring all the land for miles in any direction of Slippery Bottom.

She moved into the backroom of the shop and pulled out the folder of papers and the cell phone from the shelf Lily had allowed her to use. On today's agenda, beyond the usual delivery of flowers and the now aborted visit to the Mercantile to do some shopping was to use the cell phone to keep in touch with a select group of people in the outside world, as she coordinated efforts to foil the land grab scheme. In the course of only a handful of weeks she had managed to deny Mr. Potter's company large tracks of land scattered throughout the acreage the man was seeking to own. Her first call was to her real estate broker’s private line. “Thomas,” she said, “Miranda Priestly calling. How are we doing on the purchase of the land?”

Thomas, who was increasingly caught up in Miranda's quest to derail the fraudulent land deal, answered excitedly. “We've managed to purchase two more large tracts this week. I've forwarded plot maps to you overnight but as I understand it, where you are at the moment is so rural that there is no such thing as overnight. I would expect delivery tomorrow or the next day. I imagine that you will sign the documents electronically again?”

“Yes, as soon as I have reviewed the hard copy documentation,” Miranda answered, unfolding a large map of the local area with detailed drawings of the various parcels of land. “Which parcels did we buy, and what’s happening with the parcel I specifically asked about?” she inquired beginning to feel the old stirrings of her competitive nature. While her need to control and dominate her environment was no longer foremost in her mind, her unseen rival was attempting to steal Hattie's home. This simply wasn't going to be permitted. This contest of wills allowed that part of Miranda which hungered for the thrill of the competition she had relished as she climbed the corporate ladder in the outside world to be satisfied. Each time she took another parcel of land away from her opponent, she felt a thrill of victory. It was only a matter of time before Mr. Potter's agents would have to contact Miranda's agent. When that happened Mr. Potter would find out that he must have his people deal with her directly. She looked forward to the day when she would be able to look one of Mr. Potter's agents in the eye and tell them, “no.”

Thomas relayed the plot numbers of the two tracts of land that she had purchased, and Miranda carefully identified them on her map, adding them to the growing patchwork of shaded in areas that were no longer available to Mr. Potter's machinations. “About the parcel you asked about, there has been a bit of a complication. Seems it is owned by a dead person. Weirdly there was a sort of trust set up. It's administered by First Bank in a town called Moore Haven, which is the county seat for Glade County. Virtually all of the land we're interested in is located in Glade County. Seems this person bought that plot thirty or so years ago and set up a trust designed to continue to pay the taxes on it. I suppose whoever the previous owner's heirs are, are now the rightful owners, but nobody seems to know who they are. The taxes get paid on the parcel every year by the bank like clockwork, so neither the county nor the state are complaining. I've got everybody I know in Florida researching who now can sign off on the sale of that particular parcel.”

Miranda grit her teeth. That particular parcel was the most important of the whole lot. It was the parcel that both the Orchid Pool and Andrea's cabin were located on. “I'm close to the situation here, Thomas, she stated. “Perhaps I can find something out about the heirs. What is the name of the previous owner?” she asked.

“Clay,” Thomas responded across the telephone connection. “The previous owner's name was Lucius Clay.”

Miranda finished the call and sighed. “I suppose,” she said quietly to herself, “that I'll have to pay a visit to the old bastard at his shack sometime in the near future. Get the information from the horse's mouth as it were.”

***

Maxim, Nigel?” Emily asked, her tone surprised. “I would have thought you would have gone someplace in women's fashion.”

Nigel shrugged. “After being part of Miranda's inner circle?” he responded, wishing that he hadn't finished his drink. “It's not like Anna at Vogue is ever going to hire me and after being with Runway everything else is second rate.”

“What about Elle?” the Englishwoman questioned.

Nigel glanced up from the table at the bar where they had agreed to meet and watched Doug and Serena on their way back to the table with the second round. “Their offices are in Paris,” Nigel answered. “Doug is just getting his singing career off the ground. His future is here, and truth be told, right now in my life he and his future are more important than the job.”

Emily sat back and followed Nigel's line of sight. Her face broke into a beautiful smile as she watched Serena approach. “There was a time when I didn't think anything was more important than the job, but now I know exactly what you are saying,” she confided.

“What about you?” Nigel asked. “Have you found anything yet?”

Emily shrugged “There is a small design house that I interviewed with this last week. It looks promising but no offers are on the table yet.”

Nigel nodded knowingly. “It's hard waiting to hear.”

Emily sighed and shook her head. “It’s ridiculous I know,” she said, her tone exasperated. “It was never the case, but somehow I always felt that I'd work for Miranda forever.”

“Take it from me. It doesn’t matter where you go or how long after leaving Runway, your heart will pound every time you see the back of a white-haired, well-dressed woman. It’s Pavlovian.”

“Or hear the click-clack of high heels on the floor.” Emily shivered.

“Or smell freesias!” Nigel chuckled. “God, she hates them.”

Emily shook her head. “Bullocks. I’m going to miss that feeling of terror and awe. No one can measure up to Miranda.” Nigel could do nothing but agree.

***

Ezekiel Kagel tracked his father and his two uncles at a distance through the dense brush near the edge of town. He knew it was worth the granddaddy of all beatings should he get caught following his elders when they were “out doin' business,” but being born and raised in the swamp he knew how to track them through the gloomy night and follow without getting caught. Things is changin', he thought to himself as he moved stealthily through the dark. Hattie herself done told me so. The problem is that Pa an' my two uncles won't tell nobody nothin'.

His mind continued to spin as he made his way through the vegetation to a place where he watched his sire and two uncles as they furtively entered the town carrying the jerrycans of gasoline that they'd lugged all the way from the island they all lived on. Something's comin', his gut told him. I can feel it in my bones, an' it feels important that I'm ready for it when it comes. That means knowing what's going on, and if I wait for Pa and my uncles to tell me anythin', I'll never know nothin'. He moved from where he'd concealed himself, having lost sight of the three men he was following. He moved carefully into town, clandestinely slipping from shadow to shadow. He was well aware that his family wasn't well liked here 'bouts, and to be slinking around this time of night was just asking for trouble. About the time he spotted his relatives again he watched as Jebidiah tossed a lit match and with a whoosh of flame, a wall of the house his uncle was standing in the shadow of ignited. Ezekiel had to think a minute.

Picturing the town during daylight, he realized that his uncle had just set fire to one of the two preachers’ houses. He turned his head to look toward the other holy man's house and watched his father copy his uncle's action and set the other house ablaze. He shrank back into the shadows. This is wrong, his mind screamed at him. Those two holy men ain't never crossed us. Ain't no cause fer us ta be burning them out! He stayed still and as quiet as the grave while he watched his three relatives hastily slink back out of town, disappearing into the vegetation. He saw clearly that both houses were now well and truly alight. If somebody didn't do something quickly, there wouldn't be any saving the buildings and perhaps no saving the people inside. He counted off another thirty seconds and then ran toward the first of the burning buildings. He got up onto the porch and then to the front door. He pounded on it while yelling “fire!” at the top of his lungs. Turning to the other fire he noticed a small flowerpot on the porch railing. He grabbed it and dodged out into the street. He ran across the way to the other burning building. Taking aim, he threw the flowerpot through the second story window that he dearly hoped was the master bedroom and again screamed “fire!” as loud as he could. Then he ran for the edge of town, again moving from shadow to shadow. When he was almost to the line of greenery that delineated the demarcation of town to swamp, he turned back to see the front door of the first house fly open and people spill out. Lights were coming on in the other building and people were beginning to tumble into the street. He knew he'd have a hell of a time explaining what he was doing in town at this time of night and under these circumstance, so he turned again and disappeared into the brush. I'll take the long way home, he thought. Stop an' do some night fishin'. That's where I'll tell Pa I was iffin he asks.

***

Mid-morning found William Marstan, the Baptist minister, standing close beside the Evangelical pastor, John Campbell, in the town square. Their clothes were dirty, soot-covered and wet. Both men smelled strongly of smoke. They looked around at the gathered majority of Slippery Bottom’s population, most in similar circumstance. The two Ministers' congregations had roused themselves from their beds pre-dawn this morning and gathered to make a valiant effort to save the two preachers' homes after the cry of fire was raised in the dead of night. The efforts of Slippery Bottoms’ citizens were more successful with saving the Campbell residence over the Marstan's home, but both homes suffered significant damage. The two men watched a good number of the female town population comforted their families, telling them they needn't worry. A place would be found within the congregations to house and provide for them until their homes could be rebuilt. “It's fortunate that someone cried fire,” one of the townspeople said to the two ecclesiastics. “Have ya found out who it was?” The two religious men shook their heads. “I'm glad they did, whoever they were. If it hadn't been for them, I and my family might not have made it out.”

A grumbling was heard from one of the individuals in the crowd. “I'm tellin ya, it was that Gud-damned witch! Drownin' us an th' damn fever didn't work, so now she's tryin' ta burn us out!” the blowhard that had organized the mission to hang Hattie groused.

Pastor Campbell looked at the man disdainfully. “Rufus, don't start up with that again. We've all seen what Hattie can do. If she had wanted to burn our houses, she wouldn't have needed gasoline to do it! You can smell the gas all around both of our houses! Somebody set the fires on purpose, but it wasn't Hattie. We're the first generation in a long time that doesn't need to fear her. We leave her be, and she’ll leave us be.”

A woman's voice was heard from the crowd. “But somebody wants us gone.” Mabel, the waitress at the diner, was the one who spoke up. “Whoever it is doesn't care iffin somebody gets hurt. Maybe what we need ta do is ask Hattie fer help. Maybe ask her ta use her powers ta protect us...”

Reverend Marstan looked to the woman who had spoken. “How would you contact her, Mabel?” he asked. “Take an offering out to Ol' Lucius' shack and whisper to the breeze?”

Mabel shook her head. “That fancy city lady comes inta that diner fer coffee sometimes when she comes inta town. When she ain't in town she's out there with Hattie. M'be next time she comes, I'll ask her ta ask Hattie ta help us.”

Another man in the crowd spoke up. “Iffin you're gonna do that Mabel, m'be we all best put our minds ta what we c'n offer Hattie.”

There were murmurs of agreement from other individuals in the assemblage.

***

Miranda sat at the small table in the cabin and worked feverishly by lantern light to capture the image she had seen in her dream. The dream itself was much the same as it always seemed to be. She was backstage at a show with Nigel and Emily, but now paying attention she realized that she wasn't there as a viewer. She was making last minute adjustments to the garment on a model before the model walked the catwalk. She focused on the garment and realized she had never seen the designer before. Now, in the waking world she used sure strokes of her charcoal pencil on a piece of the butcher's paper to define the basic lines of the clothing she dreamed about.. She stopped and considered what she had drawn. It was a good start. There were many factors to consider. What textile to use, color, texture, her mind played out a hundred possibilities, almost instantaneously sorting and discarding ideas until a cohesive vision of the garment was all that remained. She reached for the colored pencils and drew out the brown one, vividly remembering the pattern and colors on the moth's wing she had examined some days before. “All natural fabrics,” she murmured to herself as she began to sketch in the broad lines of the pattern for the fabric the dress would be made from.

Andrea lay quietly, concealed from where Miranda sat by the privacy curtains shielding the narrow bed. She smiled wickedly into the dimness. “It's begun,” she whispered to the four winds. “Mark this day, Irv Ravitz,” she continued her tone amused. “ The phoenix has done woken among th' ashes.”