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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.”

 

Chapter Text

Night fell and since it was a very small town, the sidewalks rolled up about dark. Nothing was open except the hotel, which was noisy with all the big city folk who had descended on this rural hamlet.

Miranda had freed Emily from her duties right after she had introduced Douglas to Nigel. She had told Emily that she was going to bed and would see her in the morning. Other than that, she was not to be disturbed.

As she left the diner she saw Serena watching Emily from across the restaurant with hungry eyes. Miranda wondered when her assistant would get a clue about how the magnificent Brazilian goddess that worked as an editor in the Accessories department felt about the red-headed English woman. Miranda shook her head. It would never work between the two of them, she thought. Serena was fiery, passionate and spontaneous, unpredictable. Emily was a stereotypical Englishwoman—staid, a planner with everything thought out to the nth degree before undertaking the simplest of tasks. They'd likely kill each other within a week of starting a relationship. She walked back to her room and fortified herself with a large scotch while she waited for the appointed hour to meet Mr. Kagel.

*****

Nigel, a number of models, some of the Runway staff, and part of the photographer's crew sat around the darkened front of the hotel listening to Doug play his guitar. Doug was in heaven as these city-folk had accepted him unconditionally. They treated him not as a freak, but as if he were one of them. They applauded his music and encouraged him to perform. Nigel sat close by and had actually possessively chased another man off, a member of the photographer's crew if Doug wasn't mistaken, when he'd made a pass at Doug. Doug knew who he was going home with tonight, relishing how Nigel fondled his leg. Doug saw Jebidiah Kagel walk toward the dock and, feeling invincible, decided to take a shot. He changed the tune he had been playing to the new one he was still working on—the one he had sung a stanza of to Miranda Priestly earlier this evening. He raised his voice and sang out at the man stalking through the darkness:

Ocher Poacher, what 'cha doin' tonight?
Goin' out huntin' with a gun and a flashlight?
Why you shoot a ‘gator when you know he's such a sight?
He said, 'I never met a handbag I didn't like."


“Watch your mouth, faggot! You remember me and my brothers know where you live!” shouted the man moving away through the darkness.

“Rude!” shouted one of the beautiful models.

“And ugly! Doug, play for us some more? Please?” said another.

Doug sat there, among people he'd only just met, and for the first time in his memory, other than when he was with Lily at the flower shop, he felt at home.

Nigel leaned over and kissed him on the lips gently. “Yes, please play for us some more,” the bald man said softly.

Doug began to play again and wondered at his sudden good fortune.

*****

Miranda had been in the shallow boat for more than an hour and a half as it slowly made its way deeper into the swamp. In the close confines of the small craft she realized that not only were Jebidiah Kagel's clothes dirty but the man himself smelled bad. She sat as far as she could from him in the boat, but it wasn't far enough. Their encounter at the dock had been brief. Kagel had made her show him the one hundred and fifty dollars and then quickly had herded her into the small vessel, apparently in a hurry to be off. He'd again reiterated not wanting to be seen, as the people of Slippery Bottom would be angry with him for taking her to the Orchid Pool. No one had seen their departure and now, out in the wilderness, Miranda Priestly, normally so sure of herself and in charge of everything around her, began to doubt the wisdom of her choice to allow this man to take her through the swamp.

Kagel cut the small engine and nosed the craft up onto a small island. He got out of the boat and looked at Miranda. “Well, come on,” he said.

Miranda looked around. There was no way this very small island could house the Orchid Pool. She looked at him from where she sat. “The pool isn't here,” she said softly.

“No, it ain't,” the man agreed, his yellow teeth reflecting the cast-off light from the big flashlight in his hand. “Here's where I get the other half of my payment. Now get yo' ass out of that boat and get yo' skirt off. I've always wanted to try me one of you big city gals. Y'all think yourselves so smart, but it was easy enough ta get you out here. Now iffin ya don't want ta end up ‘gator bait, you'll do as I say. And ya best be real good and real grateful or I'll just leave ya out here ta die.”

Miranda, for the first time in a very long time, was afraid. “You intend to rape me?” she asked, shocked to the core at the very notion.

“By God I told you, yous city gals was smart.” He casually shifted the rifle he had carried across his lap for most of the trip and pointed it down at the ground but in her direction. “Now get yo' ass out of that boat, and get to undressin'. I wanna see ya before I fuck ya.”

Miranda looked at him uncertainly. She had been played for a fool. She had given her word in a business deal, so she had told no one that she was coming out here with him. He had a gun, and he spoke as if he would either kill her or leave her here to die if she did not do exactly as he said. The idea of him touching her was repugnant in the extreme, but she could see no other alternative except to let him have his way with her. Perhaps she could convince him she wouldn't tell anyone if he'd only let her live. She had to survive. She had to see her children again. She rose slowly from the boat and stepped onto the small island.

He directed the wide-beamed flashlight on her. “Now strip!” he ordered harshly.

She was grateful that she couldn't see him as she fumbled taking off her blouse and the slacks she'd chosen as appropriate attire for a boat ride into the swamp. Her fashionable clothing had, of course, not been at all appropriate for the rigors of the trip. Soon she stood shivering in the hot, humid night in matching La Perla bra and panties, the bright beam of the flashlight spotlighting her shame.

“Well, I'll be God damned!” he exclaimed. “I tol' my brothers I'd tear a piece offen one of you city gals, and I got me the highest and the mightiest of you bitches. I hear you big city sluts know all kinds of tricks. An’ I'm gonna make sure you show me all of yours. Now get them drawers off, and show me some sugar. Make it quick, or I'm gonna come over there and whup on ya some.”

Miranda closed her eyes and felt tears burning behind them. She had to survive. She had to live for her daughters. Biting her lips, she reached behind her for the clasp of her bra and began to undo it when she heard what sounded like an unripe melon hitting the ground, reminiscent of when Cassidy had tossed one from a shopping cart at the supermarket. She opened her eyes and saw the flashlight lying on the ground beside the crumpled form of her would be rapist. Behind him stood the spectral apparition of a pale, young woman in a tattered, white wedding dress, dirty with grass and mud stains. The apparition dropped a broken log as thick as Miranda’s shins and calmly picked up the rifle where it lay, tossing it into the water where it sank out of sight with a splash. “I done tol' you Kagel boys 'bout huntin' 'gator back here!,” the specter proclaimed angrily, violently kicking the downed figure and then hawking and spitting on Kagel's head. It looked up at Miranda, and in the rays of the flashlight she could see the most fascinating doe-brown eyes. The ghostly figure stared at her. “Y'all should be gettin' dressed or the bugs 'll eat ya alive,” it said in a sweet, feminine voice laced with the Southern drawl of the region. “Best ya should hurry, too. Where there's one of the Kagel boys, there's like to be more 'en one sooner than later.” The apparition knelt down and turned Kagel's body over.

Miranda moved up across from her unexpected savior as she struggled back into her clothes. “Is he dead?” she whispered, surprising herself with just how fiercely she wished it to be so.

The ghostly figure shook her head. “He ain't mine ta kill,” she answered quietly. “That's for Ol' Lucius to do, when he decides the time is right.” She took a straight pin from the bodice of her dress and scratched a complex design into the downed man's forehead deep enough to draw blood. As she worked, she chanted softly under her breath. When she was done, she stood again. “He ain't mine ta kill, but nothin' says I can't make his life hell. He won't be puttin' it to no woman ever again. His pecker won't go up.” She chuckled and turned. “Come on, quick now, I'll get ya someplace safe where your people 'll be able to find ya.” She strode a few paces to the edge of the island and picked up a bundle wrapped in what looked like an old blanket, looking back shyly at Miranda before leading the way.

*****

The journey back through the swamp was surreal. The young woman in the wedding dress traveled quickly on foot through shallow waters and over hummocks rising out of the swamp, creating islands. She was sure-footed, knowing exactly where to step and careful to point out to Miranda where hazards and deeper pools of water were. Miranda's heels, however, were not realistic for traveling in this environment. After the third or fourth time she had stumbled, nearly falling in to the water, her traveling companion sat her down on an island and knelt before her, taking her Manolo Blahniks off her feet. Then the girl took her own shoes, which looked like a battered pair of army surplus boots, and gently placed them on Miranda's feet. The shoes were too large for Miranda, but with the laces tied tightly and the extra lace wrapped a couple of times around the neck of the boot at the ankle, she was able to walk in them. Miranda was amazed at the gentle kindness of the act as the girl’s deft fingers arranged and tied the laces. “What about your feet?” Miranda asked, surprised at the level of genuine concern she felt for this stranger's welfare.

The ghost-girl laughed, the rich, vibrant sound tingling down Miranda's spine as the woman carefully placed Miranda's likely ruined shoes in the bundle she carried. “M' feet'll be okay. I grew up walking barefoot hereabouts.”

“Who are you?” Miranda asked quietly, feeling herself slipping under the spell this young woman seemed to weave simply by her presence.

“Folks here'bouts call me Hattie,” the girl replied offhandedly, rising up and offering her arm to help Miranda up.

*****

They continued their journey during the long hours of true dark, Hattie patiently helping Miranda along. This girl was part of the swamp. She had no fear of the snakes hanging in the trees or the alligators hiding in the pools of the swamp. Some of the gators she even called out to in passing, naming them. “Ol' Toothless was the biggest of them”, she’d confided to Miranda after the beast's sudden movement taught Miranda that harmless looking logs floating in the water in a Florida swamp were not necessarily inanimate.

Come the first rays of the dawn the girl broke the cover of vegetation, and Miranda could see what appeared to be a beautiful day dawning. Hattie pointed to a stump of a cut down Cyprus tree. “That's my stump. You wait here and somebody'll be by for ya afore too long.” At the foot of the stump she carefully laid the blanket down and, unfolding it, she laid out a large bunch of freshly cut exotic flowers, some unlike any Miranda had ever seen before. In this light, Miranda could see the woman called Hattie was a pale-skinned brunette beauty, taller than she was, perhaps a size four.

Her savior turned to her and fidgeted, looking abashed. “Don't mean to be no Indian-giver, but I'm gonna need m' boots back. They're the only pair I got.”

“The only pair of boots?” Miranda asked, shocked at the idea of the poverty this young woman likely lived in.

“The only pair of shoes,” the girl answered without pretense, as if such were simply the normal order of things.

Miranda nodded and, using the stump for support, quickly unlaced the boots. As she took them from her feet she mused on the differences in their relative stations: she, who likely had three-hundred and fifty pairs of shoes in her closet, and her companion, who had one pair of army surplus boots that had seen better days. As she lost herself in thought her eyes came to rest on the beautiful young woman pulling the boots on to bare feet. Miranda felt something she had long thought dead stir inside herself. She was attracted to this wood nymph that had risen out of the swamp to rescue her from being raped and possibly murdered.

The girl called Hattie stood when she'd finished tying her boots, and suddenly Miranda discovered that they were very close together. Brown eyes found Miranda's blue ones, and the girl/woman blushed. “You're about the prettiest thing I ever did see,” the now not ghostly figure whispered, gently touching Miranda's face. She pulled her hand away as quickly as she'd placed it there and turned, gathering up several items arrayed on the other side of the stump where she'd placed the flowers. Miranda noted a can of lantern fuel, some candles, several different kinds of canned food, a box of waterproof matches, and she especially noted the pleased sound that Hattie made when a couple of candy bars were discovered among the items waiting for her there. Hattie carefully wrapped everything up in the blanket, creating another bundle she could sling over her shoulder. She turned and looked at Miranda. “You stay here,” she said forcefully. “Don't go nowhere. You get lost out here, what'll find ya is likely ta eat ya.” She glanced out over the water. “Miss Lily is already on her way. She'll see ya safely back ta town. And you stay away from them Kagel boys. They's nothin' but trouble.” With that she and her bundle quickly began to disappear into the darkness of the vegetation covering the swamp.

“Wait!” Miranda called out after the retreating figure. “When will I see you again?”

The figure stopped in the dawn's rising light and turned back uncertainly. “Would ya want ta?” Miranda's companion asked, and Miranda could feel the desire couched in the question.

“Yes,” Miranda answered, letting her own feeling show in her tone. “Very much.”

The woman called Hattie nodded. A smile to rival the beautiful sunrise occurring over the water split her face. “Then I'll be seein' ya!” she replied. She stopped suddenly and held her head as if she were sniffing the air. “Miss Lily is almost here. I hav' ta go now.” And with that she melted into the dense vegetation, quickly disappearing from sight.

Moments later Miranda saw the young black woman from Lily's Blossoms poling a small, flat-bottomed punt. The woman, Hattie's “Miss Lily” Miranda assumed, nosed the boat up onto the little beach and used a rope to moor the small craft. Stepping out she moved directly to where the cut flowers lay. She had started gathering them up before the sound of Miranda clearing her throat startled her so badly she dropped the bunch of flowers she had in hand. Wide-eyed the young woman demanded, “What are you doing here!?” of the muddy, wet, and exhausted Icon.

“I need to see the local police immediately,” Miranda answered. “Could you take me to them?”

Lily looked at Miranda with concern. “Maybe you better tell me what happened first. You're on the wrong side of the water from town, and I don't see no boat. Only way to get here is by water or the roundabout way through the swamp.”

Miranda stiffened. She didn't want to publicize her stupidity by announcing to the world at large that she'd very nearly gotten assaulted by putting herself in a dangerous position with a man she didn't know. However, she also realized that she was desperately in need of Lily's help. She raised her chin and, head erect, answered directly. “I paid a man named Jebidiah Kagel to take me to the Orchid Pool. Instead he attempted to assault me. I want him arrested.”

Lily's eyes went guarded. “Local Sheriff won't do you no good. He's afraid of the Kagel boys. Everybody round here is afraid of the Kagel boys.” She cocked her head, almost bird-like, and looked at Miranda. “You said he tried to assault ya. Ya mean rape? How'd ya get away?”

Miranda watched the woman carefully as she nodded and answered, “Hattie saved me.”

If Lily's eyes had been shocked before at the discovery of Miranda at Lily's and Hattie's rendezvous point, they were even more shocked now, and Miranda detected terror in Lily's body language.

Lily's eyes searched their surroundings as if expecting something bad to come rushing out of the swampy forest.

“You obviously have some kind of relationship with Hattie. Why are you so afraid?” Miranda asked the frightened woman softly.

Lily looked at Miranda and then, looking down, started gathering up the flowers again. “My Granddaddy fishes in the swamp. He was saved from a snakebite by Hattie forty years ago. Five years ago he got a glance of her, and she hadn't aged a day. People round here know her power. They get potions, curses, and cures from her, but nobody ever sees her,” she answered softly, as if the swamp witch she was so fearful of might hear her.

Miranda nodded. “But your relationship with her is different,” she stated confidently, her sharp mind linking things she'd seen and making her feel sure of her assumption.

Lily shook her head violently in negation. “Not really,” she insisted a bit too emphatically. “When I opened the store, things didn't go well. No business. Nobody buyin' flowers from me. I finally landed a big wedding in the next town over, but I didn't have no money to buy the flowers for the arrangements. So I did something stupid. I figured I'd go inta the swamp. Cut the flowers I needed and not have ta pay anything for 'em. I left really early in the morning without tellin’ no one. Got myself good and lost back there. Was gone long enough that I was really hungry and afraid that I'd have ta spend the night. I was so afraid when she found me. She took me back to her place. Fed me, washed me clean...” She hung her head, her demeanor ashamed. “Then she kissed me...”

Miranda leaned in and listened intently, her powerful focus completely on the story she was being told and adding it to what she had observed about the fascinating young woman she had met in the swamp.

“It was obvious she wanted more,” Lily continued, her voice small. “I could tell cause o' the way she touched me as she bathed me. But even with her savin' me, I couldn't give her what she wanted. Two women together...It's a sin the way I was raised...” She shook her head again and sighed. “She brought me out of the swamp the next mornin'. I figured that I was done. Wasn't gonna be able to fulfill my contract fer th' weddin'. Was gonna lose the store. I went inta the shop the next morning, and it was full o' flowers. Nobody had seen her come inta town. Nobody saw her leave. The thing I could never figure is how she knew what it was I needed. I never told her why I was in the swamp. She just seemed ta know. Now she brings me flowers here. I sell ‘em to a big flower dealer for real money ‘cause you can't find what she brings me just anywhere. At first it was enough ta keep my head above water until people got ta know what I could do. Now I make a pretty good livin'. I try ta be fair, though. I bring things here that I figure she might need or be able to use.”

Miranda smiled, “She appreciated the candy bars especially,” she said softly, moving to help Lily gather the flowers. “Will you allow me to ride with you back to town?”

“Of course,” Lily answered watching the woman cautiously. “What's your story? How did she treat you?”

Miranda continued to pick up flowers and didn't look at Lily as she answered. “I'm not sure yet. I'll let you know after I see her again.”

*****

Emily had been concerned when Miranda had not appeared for a breakfast planning meeting and quickly went to Miranda's hotel room to make sure her employer was all right. Letting herself into Miranda's room with the duplicate key she had, she was shocked to find Miranda's bed not slept in. Rushing back downstairs into the lobby of the hotel, she was flabbergasted to see Miranda, muddy, wet, and limping slightly on a pair of ruined Manolo Blahniks, one with a broken heel, coming into the building. She stood staring, her mouth frozen in an “O” as the Icon resolutely approached her.

“Emily,” Miranda snapped in her commanding, quiet voice, “stop gawping. Get everyone scheduled to attend the meeting this morning to be in the diner in thirty minutes. The agenda will remain the same as previously planned: deciding how to proceed.” Miranda didn't wait for a response as she continued on up the stairs toward her room. Emily shook her head and turned to enact her employer's directives. She decided almost immediately that she hadn't seen what she'd seen. Miranda Priestly had never looked like that. It just didn't happen.

*****

Miranda opened the door to her small hotel room, looking forward to a warm shower and clean clothes. Almost immediately she stopped in her tracks as she spied the piece of yellowed parchment lying on her bed. She moved closer to where she could see what was inscribed on its surface. It was a crude map. At one end was a childlike drawing of the town. At the other, a stylized representation of a pool surrounded by flowers. A chill ran down Miranda's back. Lily’s words came back to haunt her. Lily hadn't told Hattie why she had been in the swamp, yet the next morning her shop had been full of the flowers she’d needed. Miranda hadn't mentioned her need to find the Orchid Pool, yet here was a map showing her the way. She looked nervously around at the walls of her small hotel room and wondered if the swamp witch did indeed somehow hear everything that was said.

She undressed and turned to the shower. At least now when she met with the senior members of her staff, the models’ managers, and the principals of the photography crew, she knew without a doubt how to proceed. By this afternoon they would be at the Orchid Pool and would commence the photo shoot.

*****

Arranging the logistics to get all the necessary equipment and personnel to the Orchid Pool had been a challenge even for someone with Miranda's capabilities and drive. She had found it necessary to have her people deal with many of the townspeople on an individual basis while attempting to rent virtually anything that would float. Even with the means finally in hand, no local was willing to guide them to where the map led. Having to deal with each difficulty as it arose, the morning and early afternoon slipped away. A violent afternoon thunderstorm ended any possibility of traveling to the location that day. Miranda chose to deal with the delay by sending one of the vans to the nearest large town with the mission of gathering equipment that would make the models more comfortable at the shoot site. A number of large pavilion tents would act as dressing room, make-up area, shelter for the photographic equipment, and a lounge where people could escape the sun’s heat. Miranda also instructed her agents to obtain catered food for the crew to ease dealing with the rigors of the location shoot.

In the late afternoon Miranda stood on the portico of the hotel looking out into the heavy rain as Nigel ran across the street, holding his jacket over his head and trying to keep from getting drenched. He came up beside her and shook some water off his clothes. Then he took his glasses from his face and wiped them with his handkerchief. He glanced at her and then back out into the storm. “I talked with Doug. He's scared, but he's willing take us into the swamp.”

Miranda nodded, only half hearing her art director, her attention focused on ”out there” and wondering how and where “her” Hattie was weathering the downpour. It then struck her that she had just thought of the woman as hers. She hadn't felt so attracted to anyone since she had been a young woman and certainly not to any of her three husbands. She turned her head and looked at her long-time friend and her right-hand at Runway. “And how did it go with you and Douglas last night, Nigel?” she teased.

Nigel smiled ruefully . “I'm going to take him with me when we leave here, Miranda,” he answered quietly. “There's nothing for him here. And he's quite talented.”

Miranda chuckled as she refocused on the rain. “Is that what they're calling it these days?”

Nigel laughed and shook his head. “No, I mean he's really talented. I know a few contacts in the music industry. I think he has the potential to make it. I'm going to take him to New York and make introductions. I don't know if the people I know can help him, country music being his passion. If it becomes necessary, though, I'll make arrangements to send him on to Nashville.”

Miranda turned her head once more and looked at Nigel speculatively. “Nigel,” she began curiously. “Are you falling in love?”

Nigel flushed. “Don't laugh at me, Miranda,” he answered crossly. “I haven't felt this way in forever. It might not last, but while it does, I'm going to enjoy it.”

Miranda's eyes returned to the edge of the swamp in the distance. “I'm not laughing at you, Nigel,” she answered softly. “I'm experiencing something very similar. There's something about this place...”

Emily came out of the lobby of the hotel. “Miranda, Irv is on the phone for you. He's demanding to speak with you immediately.” Her tone telegraphed Irv's mood on the other end of the line.

Miranda took the proffered cell phone from Emily's outstretched hand with a sigh and roll of the eyes.

*****

Night fell on the small town of Slippery Bottom. Miranda had managed to choke down some of the nearly inedible food the diner had served, and now she stood among many of the models and crew under the hotel portico, sheltered from the rain as she nursed her second scotch. Irv had been livid. He had discovered that she had willfully disobeyed him and arranged this unauthorized expenditure, putting her considerably over budget for the month. He had already run to the Board of Directors and had informed her that when she returned there would be consequences. It was more important than ever now that this shoot be something that would be talked about for the next few years. Everything depended on tomorrow and the Orchid Pool.

Miranda took another long pull from her scotch and noticed Serena sitting alone, eyes sadly on where Emily stood talking with some of the models. Miranda shook her head and sighed. Was she as foolish as Serena? Was she suddenly chasing a pipe-dream? What did she know about this strange girl/woman that lived in the swamp somewhere? She then glanced to where Douglas sat softly playing his guitar with Nigel close to his side. How she longed for that kind of connection. She had never had it. Not even with her first husband. She sighed, and feeling as if the weight of the world were on her shoulders, she went inside and up to her room.

Opening the door, a thrill went through her when she found the blossom awaiting her on her bed. It was large and exotic, unusual and beautiful. Its subtle fragrance filled the room, and suddenly Miranda felt her worries slip away. She'd been here. Her Hattie had left it for her. Miranda felt now that she could lie down and sleep, and in the morning she'd do what she’d come here to do. Irv hadn't beaten her yet, and she wouldn't let him. She was Miranda Priestly. She dictated what happened, what Runway was. Not a corporate worm like him.

Chapter Text

It was a difficult trek from the town to the proposed location for the photo shoot. It proved, however, to be more than worth the effort and discomfort. The Orchid Pool proved to be more beautiful than the pale representation provided by the Polaroid photograph that had brought everyone here.

The photographer, Alice Hawkins, who had photographed some of the most beautiful locations in the world, sat down and openly wept upon first seeing the beauty laid out before her. Miranda almost felt as if she couldn't breathe surrounded by the resplendent scenery. Nigel was ecstatic. As Runway's Art Director, he knew in his bones that this photo shoot would be something the industry would be talking about for the next ten years. Both he and Miranda had agreed that they had no intention of letting anyone else know where this place was. Ever.

It was a matter of half an hour for part of the photography crew and some of Miranda's staff to raise the pavilion tents on the high ground of a flat area overlooking the pool. The catered food that had been brought in with the pavilions was laid out on tables in one tent. Photography equipment was prepared in another. The models retreated into the third for make-up and wardrobe. Miranda stood on the edge of the raised area and looked up. From this raised platform of earth and rock she could see the magnificent blue sky without the interference of the swamp's stifling canopy of vegetation. The pool itself was enclosed by magnificent, old, moss-draped red mangroves and sweet, bay magnolia trees with literally dozens of orchids nestled in the nooks and crannies of each individual tree. The place was unlike any Miranda had ever stood in before. It was a place so naturally beautiful and untouched by human hands that she felt wrong being here with these people for the purpose of a photo shoot. She shook her head at the unwanted thought and focused on the job at hand.

*****

The photo shoot had begun. The models were arrayed around the beautiful pool, and Alice Hawkins and her crew were performing their magic. Serena encountered Emily as they both approached the lounge tent. Emily was engaged in talking with a model who was in between shots. The subject was one of Emily's favorites, her newest weight loss plan. “I wait until I feel like I'm about to faint,” the redheaded English woman said, “and then I eat a cube of cheese. I think I'll make my goal weight by the first of...” Serena followed the pair into the tent and saw a young, brunette woman in a tattered, faded sundress on the far side of the catering table. The image Serena took in was, in her opinion, somewhat comical, as the pretty woman had custard and chocolate smeared about her lips from an éclair in her hand.

“What's this?!” Emily demanded of the strange vision before her. “You yokels have some bloody gall! You're all so scared of this place that you won't help Miranda find it, and yet you'll come here to steal from the catering table!? I don't bloody well think so!” She advanced angrily on the girl.

The girl in the faded sundress reached out and, guiltily grabbing a large handful of baked treats from a platter, broke for the tent flap. Emily was having none of it and moved to block her way. The brunette girl tried to dodge, but Emily caught her at the waist. “Thief!” Miranda's assistant exclaimed. “We'll see about this! I'll call the sheriff!”

The girl, momentarily trapped in the redhead’s arms, struggled and growled like an animal. Serena, born and raised in equatorial Brazil and more supernaturally in tune with her environment than most of the spiritually sterile-minded employees of Runway, felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. “Let her go, Emily!” She called out urgently, suddenly aware that something bad was building in the confined space.

The girl freed her hand containing the stolen treats and smeared them all over Emily's lush lips. “Fatter!” she hissed, then she brought her boot-clad foot down solidly on the instep of Emily's new Prada pumps. Emily howled, and the girl, suddenly free, was gone from the tent like a shot.

Miranda, overseeing the shoot from near the make-up and wardrobe tent, turned in time to see “her” Hattie barrel out of the lounge tent and disappear into the brush. She hurried over while calling out to the obviously fleeing woman, but to no avail. In the time it took to cross the raised area the tents sat on, the woman the locals thought of as a swamp witch was gone.

Miranda turned toward the lounge tent now determined to find out exactly what was going on. She entered the tent to find Serena and one of the models tending to Emily, who was holding one of her feet and crying. “That bitch ruined my brand new Pradas!” Emily screeched.

Miranda took a moment to take in the scene and felt anger build in her. “What, exactly, happened here?” she demanded, her tone and demeanor showing exactly why one of the most popular sobriquets for her was Ice Queen.

“One of the local rubes was in here stealing food,” Emily said petulantly while massaging her foot. “When I tried to stop her, she assaulted me.”

Miranda glanced at her first assistant and noted the chocolate and custard smeared across the lower part of her face. Miranda stalked to the catering table, and it took only a glance to determine which plate had been the source of the ruination of Emily's make-up. “Was this the plate she was eating from?” Miranda demanded, her tone dangerously mild.

Emily had worked for Miranda long enough to know when storm clouds were gathering. “Yes, Miranda,” she almost whispered.

Miranda picked up the half-full plate of delicate baked goods and hurled it at Emily. “You idiot!” she snapped. “She is the reason we're here. She's the one that showed me the way! She could have eaten everything in this tent, and I would have gratefully sent out for more!” Miranda continued, her voice deadly quiet, silencing the three other women in the tent. “It amazes me, Emily, that I've kept you as long as I have because you always somehow manage to disappoint me!” With that Miranda turned on her heel and stalked from the tent, every line of her body language communicating her anger, leaving Emily shocked speechless. The model who had witnessed the incident quickly faded away. Serena stood there helplessly, trying to find a way to comfort the woman she secretly loved.

Within moments of Miranda's leaving the lounge tent, the still air gave way to a stiff breeze and the clear blue sky quickly clouded over with ominous-looking thunderheads. Fat raindrops began to fall, turning into a torrential downpour and forcing the models and crew to take shelter in the tents.

Miranda stood in the doorway of the wardrobe and make-up tent watching the conflagration outside, cursing her luck and the shoes she wore, so inappropriate for this environment. If only she hadn't worn heels she would have been faster. She could have thanked Hattie. Talked to her again. Perhaps even asked if the woman might like to come to dinner with her. Now that chance was gone. Hattie wouldn't come back here again while they were present. Likely wouldn't come back to town again either to leave Miranda another flower on her bed. Miranda's thoughts turned to how best to punish her errant assistant. A brilliant flash of lightning split the sky followed quickly by a reverberating clap of thunder that shook the very ground. It was as if the bolt of energy had struck Miranda directly as her thoughts snapped from one track of her extremely organized mind to another. If Mohamed wouldn't come to the mountain, then... She forged out into the pouring rain and started searching the tents until she found Nigel and Doug standing close together in the lounge tent. “Douglas,” she begin without preface, “where does Hattie live?”

Word of the incident in the lounge tent had spread, and Douglas blanched at the question. “Nobody knows, Ma'am,” he answered, his demeanor one of fear and awe.

Nigel put an arm around Douglas and moved slightly, almost as if to put himself protectively between the young man and Miranda. “He's frightened, Miranda,” he said. “He believes Hattie brought on the storm because she was thwarted from getting something she wanted.”

Miranda found the protective action charming. Her friend was falling in love with this young man. Because of Nigel's feelings, she modulated her tone and tried again. “It's all right, Douglas,” she offered. “Hattie is the one who gave me the map to get here. It's obvious that she wanted us here.”

Douglas shook his head. “Forgive me, Ma'am, but it's obvious she wanted you here. That don't say nothin' 'bout the rest of us. Don't say nothin' 'bout our protection neither.”

“Your friend Lily told me that the local people deal with Hattie for potions, curses, and cures,” Miranda said, trying a different tack.

Douglas nodded. “Yeah, desperate people sometimes deal with Hattie.”

Miranda nodded, believing she might be getting somewhere. “If no one ever sees her as Lily told me and no one knows where she lives, how are these deals arranged?” Miranda asked gently.

“Folk's go and leave offerings at Ol' Lucius' place. Tell their troubles to the breeze there. Somehow Hattie hears and iffin she agrees, what they want or need just sort of shows up where they live.”

Miranda nodded, her powerful mind turning quickly in her head. “She mentioned Old Lucius to me. Apparently he doesn't like the Kagels.”

“You've talked to Hattie!?” Douglas exclaimed. “You've seen her, and you're here to tell the tale!? Ma'am, I've been tryin’ to write a song 'bout her fer years, but I can't get further than the first couple of verses. Can ya tell me what she's like!?” he asked, suddenly excited.

“She saved me from some unpleasantness,” Miranda said as if the matter were of no importance. “We spent some time together. That is all I can tell you for the moment. I'll have more to tell you once I've seen her again,” she said, looking at Douglas. “Now, you help me, and I'll help you. Tell me about Old Lucius,” she commanded quietly.

Douglas nodded and turned to fetch his guitar from its case. The people from the tent gathered round with the promise of some music to draw their minds away from the violent storm outside. Douglas quickly tuned the instrument with the air of a man who had done so many times before.

“Hattie indicated she believed that one day Lucius would settle his grievances with the Kagel family,” Miranda said as she watched the man's fingers play easily over the strings of the instrument.

“That'd be a good trick, Ma'am,” Douglas replied absently, his mind on his music. “Ol' Lucius been dead for more 'n twenty years.” Then he began to play.

Well, if you ever go back into Wooley Swamp,
Well, you better not go at night.
There's things out there in the middle of them woods
That make a strong man die from fright.
Things that crawl and things that fly
And things that creep around on the ground.
And they say the ghost of Lucius Clay gets up and he walks around.

But I couldn't believe it.
I just had to find out for myself.
And I couldn't conceive it
'Cause I never would listen 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 old man lived in the Wooley Swamp way back in Booger Woods.
He never did do a lot of harm in the world,
But he never did do no good.
People didn't think too much of him.
They all thought he acted funny.
The old man didn't care about people anyway.
All he cared about was his money.
He'd stuff it all down in mason jars
And he'd bury it all around
And on certain nights
If the moon was right
He'd dig it up out of the ground.
He'd pour it all out on the floor of his shack
And run his fingers through it.
Yeah, Lucius Clay was a greedy old man
And that's all that there was to it.

The Kagel boys was white trash.
They lived over on Carver's Creek.
They were mean as a snake
And sneaky as a cat
And belligerent when they'd speak.
One night the oldest brother said,
"Y'all meet me at the Wooley Swamp later.
We'll take old Lucius's money
and we'll feed him to the alligators."

They found the old man out in the back
With a shovel in his hand,
Thirteen rusty mason jars
was just dug up out of the sand.
And they all went crazy
And they beat the old man,
And they picked him up off of the ground.
Threw him in the swamp
And stood there and laughed
As the black water sucked him down.

Then they turned around
And went back to the shack
And picked up the money and ran.
They hadn't gone nowhere
When they realized
They was running in quicksand.
And they struggled and they screamed
But they couldn't get away
And just before they went under
They could hear that old man laughing
In a voice as loud as thunder.”

“And that's been twenty years ago
And you can go by there yet.
There's a spot in the yard
In the back of that shack
Where the ground is always wet.
And on certain nights
If the moon is right
Down by the that dark footpath,
You can hear three young men screaming.
You can hear one old man laugh.”


As Douglas repeated the chorus and brought the song to an end, Miranda blinked. The Kagels had lost a number of their family twenty years ago, she thought. The generation that apparently bullied everyone around here must be the children of those that the swamp had claimed that night so long ago. But Hattie spoke of Lucius as if he were alive. A search for the woman starting at the site of Lucius’ shack seemed a reasonable course of action. She nodded and, smiling a small smile, she asked, “Douglas, can you show me where Lucius’ shack was?”

Douglas nodded, “Yes, Ma'am, I can do that, once it stops rainin'. It's sorta on the way back ta town.”

*****

The next morning Nigel, Emily, Serena and a number of other Runway staffers sat crowded in the largest booth the diner had to offer, drinking bad coffee and going over plans to complete the photo shoot. Nigel was confident that with a little luck and if the weather held, they could be done before nightfall.

Emily had been quiet this morning. The expected axe hadn't fallen. After Miranda's outburst in the lounge tent nothing more was said about the incident, and Emily had mentioned how she was certain that was not the end of Miranda's anger. Nigel noted that not only did Emily seem upset, but also bloated. He wondered whether her latest fad diet had backfired—after all, you couldn’t pay him enough to consume cheese, even just one cube a day. Glancing at Emily, Nigel was surprised to see her eyes widening in surprise. She looked quite comical, her mouth dropping open in a most unattractive way. She made a strangled and inarticulate sound that caused everyone at the table to look at her. Nigel was the first to follow her line of sight, and he flatly didn't believe what he saw. Miranda Priestly approached their table dressed in of all things a coarse, heavy cotton plaid workman's shirt hanging open over a wife-beater tee shirt. Her legs where encased in a pair of common jeans and her feet were in a pair of what looked like clunky work boots. On her head was a floppy brimmed hat like soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam had worn. The outfit was not fashionable in the least but had been chosen with an eye to coordinating the colors, and somehow Miranda managed to pull it off. Nigel sat marveling at the elegance that Miranda brought to whatever she wore, now believing that the woman could indeed put on a burlap sack and look chic in it.

Miranda glanced around the table at everyone’s shocked expressions, her eyes daring anyone to say anything. “Nigel, I'll be taking the small punt,” she said abruptly. “Please have all equipment moved from it to the boat I would have otherwise ridden in. When we reach the cut that leads to the shack we were shown by Douglas yesterday afternoon, I'll be going there while you finish overseeing the shoot.”

It was Nigel's turn for his jaw to drop. “Miranda....” he began, “is that...wise?”

Miranda did her version of a shrug. “Wise or not, it is what will be. You are perfectly capable of delivering pictures that I would have in our magazine. Now get everyone together and get them to the boats. We leave in fifteen minutes.”

*****

Miranda cut the small engine of the punt and then struggled to pole the craft the remaining yards to the shore of the island that the dilapidated ruin of a shack stood on. The place had an eerie quality, as if the sun never truly shined here. The sounds of the swamp were hushed as Miranda explored the small island. The only thing she found that seemed as if someone might have been here recently was a bouquet of flowers stuck into an old mason jar on what looked to be a small, crudely constructed platform by the water's edge. She raised her head and looked around, readying herself to break the silence by adding her voice to the “breeze” and hopefully summoning Hattie, when the girl stepped from behind the shack.

“M' name's not Hattie,” the girl/woman said softly. “It's Andy. M' momma was Hattie, as was her momma afore her and her momma afore her.” She nodded toward the flowers on the altar. “Momma's been with Ol' Lucius a long time now.”

Miranda nodded. “Do you live here?” she asked, approaching the girl.

Andy shook her head. “No, over that way a fair piece,” she answered, indicating the general direction of the Orchid Pool.

Getting ever closer to where the girl stood, she asked another question that came to mind. “Then why are you here?”

Andy smiled. “Cause I knew you'd be here. I've been waitin' on ya a long time. I thought that Miss Lily might be the one, but she t'weren't. First time I laid eyes on you after I laid out that Kagel boy I knew you were the one that I'd been waitin' fer.”

“Why didn't you come to me at the Orchid Pool yesterday?” Miranda asked.

Andy shook her head. “Didn't want all them others there. It's not a place for people. It's our place.”

“Our place?' Miranda asked confused.

Andy nodded. “The place you'll be happy, really happy for the first time in a long, long time. And the place I won't be alone no more.”

“How do you know all this?” Miranda questioned.

“The cards told me,” the brown-eyed girl answered. “The cards tell me everything, although sometimes I can't understand what they're tellin' me right away. Sometimes things sorta have ta happen in their own time. Then you c'n see what the cards was sayin'.”

Miranda watched the girl, now less than an arms-length away. This was madness. She didn't know this girl who sounded like a backwoods hick. They couldn't possibly make anything between them work. They were from two different worlds. What common interests could they possibly share? But deep inside, her soul screamed at her that this was right. Was meant to be. As Andy had said she was waiting for Miranda, Miranda suddenly had realized that she had been waiting for Andy.

She took the girl in her arms and kissed her soundly.

*****

As late afternoon fell on the Orchid Pool, Nigel found himself growing more and more concerned about the fact that his employer and friend had not arrived. Drafting three of the burlier of the Runway staffers and begging Doug's aid to act as guide, he dispatched a search party to the site of Lucius Clay's shack. An hour and a half later the men returned to report that they had found the punt Miranda had used beached near the shack. They had thoroughly searched the island and found no trace of the fashion icon. Nigel signaled the end of the workday, and the models and crew gathered up belongings and equipment, heading for the boats. As Nigel oversaw the loading of the boats to make sure all equipment and personnel were accounted for, he hoped against hope that Miranda had chosen, for some inexplicable reason, to return to town rather than to return to the shoot location.

*****

Miranda had always believed the myth that swamps were dismal places. As Andy led her on a trek through some of the most beautiful landscape she'd ever seen, she was forced to reevaluate her obviously mistaken assumptions. Andy pointed out beauty at every turn. Even those loathsome creatures, such as snakes hanging in the trees and spiders in their webs, were somehow integral to the whole and added to the magnificence of the scenery.

Andy suddenly stopped mid-wade and pointed at a hummock rising out of the water. “Home,” she said softly, a smile lighting her face.

Miranda's eyes swept over the surface of the heavy vegetation covering the island and at first couldn't see any sign of habitation. She wondered for a frantic moment if her companion lived in the trees as did the other denizens of the swamp that they had encountered. Then her eyes, partial to color, picked up a pattern. Clusters of flowers tightly bunched. A closer inspection revealed them to be growing in containers. Looking beyond the blossoms, she could make out the mostly hidden walls of a rustic cabin. Andy led the way out of the swamp water they had been wading in and into the cottage. Inside it was warm and homey.

Andy immediately busied herself, babbling nervously while she moved about the small space. “M' momma always said ladies drink tea. But...I don't have no tea. Miss Lily ain't never brought me none.” She poured coffee beans into an old fashioned hand-cranked coffee grinder and began to crank the handle. “I hope coffee 'll be okay.”

Miranda, curiously investigating this strange girl's living space, looked up and smiled. “I prefer coffee to tea,” she answered.

Andy met her eyes and smiled. “I'm glad. I want everythin' to be perfect. I've dreamed so long 'bout today.”

Miranda watched her. “Because you won't be alone anymore.”

Andy nodded as she carefully measured ground coffee into a battered, old steel coffee pot and added water from a pitcher. “I been 'lone a long time now. I was little when Momma went to be with Ol' Lucius.”

“Your Mother died...” Miranda said, horrified at the idea that this beautiful creature had been left alone out here as a child.

Andy shrugged and put the coffee pot on a grate in the fireplace. “Momma loved Ol' Lucius. When he was gone she couldn't go on. She tol' me one day that she was goin' to go be with him. She tol' me to wait for her here.” Andy's eyes went sad and far away as she continued her story. “I was a little, so I waited two days and two nights. Then I made my way to Ol' Lucius' shack. I found Momma there floating face down in the pool where it was said Ol' Lucius drown. I buried her there next to where we had buried him.”

Miranda's felt her heart squeezed. “You say you were a little. Do you have any idea how old you were?” She asked as she watched Andy check on the progress of the coffee.

“I was five when Ol' Lucius went away,” the girl answered. “I'd just had m' ninth birthday when Momma followed him.”

“You've been alone since you were nine...” Miranda whispered, horrified that this young woman had virtually raised herself.

*****

Nigel Kipling was not a man prone to panic. Lasting twenty years at Runway under the leadership of the women the press called the Devil in Heels simply didn't allow for it. Had he not possessed both a thick skin and a passion for what he did, he would have either been fired or quit long ago. However all rules were defined by their exceptions. After checking with the hotel and looking in both the diner and flower shop, he was very close to running blindly down the street screaming. Miranda Priestly, fashion icon, publishing titan, friend, was nowhere to be found. She had gone into the swamp alone and had not returned.

To make matters worse, Nigel had been informed by a panicked Emily that there had been another call from Irv Ravitz to inform Miranda of a directive from the Elias-Clarke Board of Directors instructing her to return to New York immediately. Distressed, his eyes scanned the vegetation that marked the boundary between the town and the swamp, willing his missing employer to appear.

He returned to the hotel and found Doug waiting for him in the lobby. Doug looked at him with worried eyes. “If she's out there, Hattie has her,” the young man said gravely.

Nigel nodded. “You said that one can contact Hattie by going to Lucius Clay's shack,” he answered, his eyes on Doug's. “Can you get me there in the dark?”

Doug looked nervous, but he nodded, “Yeah, I can get ya there,” he sighed. “I just hope Ol' Lucius isn't feeling frisky tonight.”

*****

Emily Charlton was obsessed with her weight. This was a simple fact of life and had been so since she had discovered the world of fashion as a preteen. She had, since that time, been all too conscious of the fact that she was an ugly duckling and that she'd never be one of the “beautiful” people. Her flaws were countless. Her nose a touch to long. Her legs a tad too short. Her waistline not perfect. She couldn't do much about the length of her nose or her legs, nor could she change the fact that she was an awkward ugly duckling instead of one of the beautiful swans like Serena. But a waistline she could control. Once she had left home at eighteen she had tried every eating plan, fad, and lunatic fringe diet she'd encountered. She often wondered, in a half joking way, why she hadn't been lucky enough to develop anorexia or bulimia. The problem was that Emily liked to eat. She enjoyed food passionately, but she denied herself that pleasure with an almost iron-willed determination in an attempt to reach the magical size of zero. This time she had almost made it. The cheese-cube diet, coupled with the additional stress of Irv Ravitz’s increased machinations to remove her idol Miranda Priestly as editor-in-chief of Runway since last fashion week had created a situation, while difficult in the emotional sense, was successful in the dieting realm. She was within two pounds of her goal weight.

A year ago when she'd received her work bonus, she had splurged and bought herself a present. It was a state-of-the-art bathroom scale, small enough to fit in the bottom of her suitcase. It was shock-proof, and its accuracy was guaranteed to within a single gram margin of error. Emily carried it with her when she traveled as if it were some sort of good luck talisman. Tonight she stared at the digital readout as if it had reached out and slapped her. She had been faithful to her diet, no solids other than the odd cube of cheese, and she had denied herself water during the day to make up for the two drinks she had nursed last evening as she had socialized with the models in the hotel lobby. What the traitorous readout of her state-of-the-art device screamed at her couldn't be true. It just couldn't! In tears, Emily felt on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Having focused only on trying to please Miranda and retain her dream job at Runway, Emily had denied herself any kind of real personal life since leaving England. Consequently she hadn't allowed any close friendships or attachments to develop since her arrival in New York City. Frightened and feeling completely alone in the world she sought out the one person who always tried to make her feel better when things went wrong at work. She sought out Serena.

*****

The knock on the hotel room came in the early hours of the evening. Serena was alone in the room she was sharing with one of the models, the other young woman being out on the hotel's small veranda partying with the other people from the photo shoot.

Serena rose from where she was reclining on her bed fantasizing about a certain red-head and the life they could have together and crossed the room, opening the door. Before her stood the subject of her daydreams in the condition she most often saw her, in tears and in desperate need of emotional support. This caretaker role is what Emily had delegated Serena to. The red-head appeared when she needed Serena's shoulder and was never around when Serena needed one. Although the relationship was horribly one-sided, Serena had admitted to herself some time ago that having any part of Emily was better than no part at all so she suffered in silence.

“I've gained five pounds since yesterday,” the Brit wailed tearfully, falling into the beautiful Brazilian's arms.

Chapter Text

Miranda watched the gathering gloom through the small, open window of Andy's shack. The smells from the fireplace were mouthwatering. Miranda had been careful not to watch too closely what had gone into the kettle on the iron arm that swung in and out of the fireplace.

It was evident from things she saw in the kitchen area of the shack that Andy's menu was likely largely dependent on what she'd caught in the swamp. Andy sang softly in a beautiful voice as she cut vegetables and put them in the stew pot. Miranda, soothed, closed her eyes and recognized the song as an old French lullaby she herself had sung to her daughters when they were babies. Opening her eyes she turned back to her host. “Tell me about yourself,” she requested.

Andy looked up, startled. “Nothin' ta tell, really,” she answered. “Born in this here shack. Lived here all m' days.”

Miranda watched the young woman nervously dump more chopped vegetables into the simmering stew pot. “Was Lucius your father?” she asked softly.

Andy violently shook her head. “Momma wished it so, but twern't true ,” she answered, her tone conveying her sadness. “M' daddy was one of them no good Kagel boys. One night they caught Momma at Ol' Lucius' place when Ol' Lucius wasn't around. They raped Momma, tryin' to steal her power. I came along nine months later. Ol' Lucius,...well, it ain't good ta speak ill o' the dead, but while Momma loved Ol' Lucius, Ol' Lucius didn't love nothin' but the gold he buried all over his island.”

Miranda hung on every word as the young woman continued the mundane task of preparing their meal. Suddenly the fire in the fireplace flared and then almost died out as if starved air, and Andy's head came up from her task, her eyes rolling up in her head so that only the whites were visible. As if in a trance, Andy walked to the small table where Miranda sat.

From a carved wooden box on the table Andy drew a silk bag, and from the bag a large deck of cards. Apparently unseeing she drew a card from the deck and placed it on the table. Having seen Tarot decks before, Miranda immediately recognized the divination cards. Miranda saw the card placed on the table was The Queen of Swords. “The Querient,” Andy murmured as she shuffled the deck and then placed it before Miranda. Miranda, fascinated by this turn of events and the seeming trance the girl was in, cut the cards and reassembled the deck. Andy took the cards from her and began to lay out the cards silently.

Andy laid out a complex spread in the form of a cross and a vertical line of cards to the cross' right with the practiced hand of one who had done so hundreds of times before. The first card was placed on top of The Queen of Swords as Andy muttered, “This covers her,” under her breath. The second card was laid across the first as Andy muttered, “This crosses her.” Andy continued, “This crowns her.” More curious phrases followed as each card was laid on the table. Miranda couldn’t really understand what any of it meant.

When the last card was placed on the table the chill in the room passed as quickly as it had come, and Andy's eyes suddenly were their normal warm and inviting doe brown. She glanced at the cards on the table and then at Miranda. “Are you all right?” she asked.

Miranda nodded. “Frightened, but all right,” she answered. “What was that?” she asked.

Andy glanced at the cards. “Ol' Lucius came ta tell me that there are folk on the way to his cabin,” she replied, touching one of the cards she had placed on the table in the vertical line of cards to the right of the spread. “They're lookin' fer you. The bald man and the guitar player.” Miranda could see Andy's eyes quickly traveling over the rest of the reading before looking up at Miranda with sad eyes. She touched the card that made up the right arm of the cross. Miranda could see it was the card called The Devil. The girl shook her head, and tears welled up in her eyes. “You're goin' back,” she said, her tone accusatory. “It won't bring ya no happiness. He's there waitin' on ya.” she said, her finger touching the card laid across the first card of the spread. Her fingers traced quickly over the rest of the cards laid out on the table. “This is a bad readin', Miranda. You've got a storm comin' inta your life if'n ya go back. If ya go, you'll lose everythin',” she continued, running her finger down the four cards she had laid down in a vertical line to the right of the cross.

Miranda looked at the cards and then at the woman across the table from her. “I have to go back,” she said softly. “My career is there. I have responsibilities.”

Andy shook her head in negation. “That life is endin',” she insisted pointing at the four cards she had just touched. With tears in her eyes she put her finger on the card at the bottom of the stack. “This card is you.”

Miranda looked at the card she had indicated. It was titled The Fool. “You think me some kind of clown then?” she asked, her voice going cold.

Andy shook her head. “The cards don't mean what's on the face of them!” she exclaimed. “See, here like this it means a bad choice!”

Miranda cocked her head and considered the cards on the table. “Perhaps you should tell me what you see.”

Andy nodded. “The center of the cross is the beginning,” she explained. “The first card is the The Devil. It means a tough choice has to be made. An' iffn ya make the wrong one, it'll destroy ya. The card crossin’ it is the King of Swords. That's what you're up against. He's a black-hearted, back-stabbin' bastard. He's waitin’ on ya where you're goin'.”

Andy looked at her with sad eyes. “The card that the cross stands on is the foundation of the readin'. It's the Six of Wands. It means bein' rewarded fer hard work.”

Miranda nodded again. “I have worked hard to get where I am,” she murmured, speaking mostly to herself,” and I do enjoy the perks my position grants me.”

Andy pointed to the left arm of the cross. “This is the recent past. It's the Seven of Pentacles. In that position it means hard work and effort that makes somethin' grow.

“The card makin’ up the top o' th' cross is called the crown. It's what ya hope will come of this readin'. The card is The Sun. It means happiness, getting most everything ya want out o' life.”

Miranda nodded. “That makes sense. That's what running my magazine gives me,” she said softly, but for the first time unsure if she spoke the truth with her statement.

Andy then moved her hand across the spread to the left arm of the cross. “This shows the near future. It's The Eight of Wands. It means travel, but it also c'n mean pride goeth before a fall.”

Her hand then moved back to the card that started this discussion. Her fingers caressed The Fool. “This card represents you in this here readin”. It means a bad choice. Your vanity is gonna be yer undoin'.”

Her hand traced to the next card in the vertical stack of four cards. This card is the world around you. It's The Knight of Cups. It's the bald man's card. He's comin’ to find ya. On his way to Ol' Lucius’ shack now. It only makes sense that if he's comin' inta the swamp in the dark o' night that the Guitar Player is leadin’ him ta where he's headed.”

Her hand moved up again to the next card in the stack. “This card shows your hopes and fears. It's The Wheel of Fortune. It means a ill wind is blowin' inta yer life.” Her eyes rose from the cards and looked into Miranda's. “The last card shows the eventual outcome of the readin'. The card is The Ten of Swords, one of the blackest cards in the deck. It represents pain beyond tears, Miranda. But it can also mean a rebirth out o' that pain.”

Miranda watched the young woman as she interpreted the cards and realized that Andy wholly believed every word she said. Miranda, however was a woman of the twenty-first century. Cards that supposedly read the future were the province of fortune-tellers, new age mystics, and charlatans. Such things did not dictate the actions of a woman as powerful and in control as Miranda Priestly. She glanced out the door of the cabin. “You'll need to take me back to Lucius' shack. If Nigel is going there, I should be there to meet him,” she said softly.

Andy tried one more time as she gathered up the cards and placed them into the silk bag. “The readin means that iffn ya make the wrong choice now you'll lose everything ya care about, Miranda. Yer life won't be nothin' but pain an' more pain.” After pressing the silk bag to her lips, she placed it back into the wooden box on the table.

Miranda stood silently and pursed her lips.

Andy nodded her acquiescence to the demand.

****

Traveling through the swamp at night was frightening to Miranda. Andy again moved sure-footedly and without hesitation, but she was much less communicative than she had been earlier in the day, speaking only to warn Miranda of difficulties or dangers along the path.

It took a bit longer to traverse the distance from Andy's shack to Lucius' island, the darkness held at bay only by a feeble globe of lantern light, but Miranda and Andy arrived there before Nigel and Doug did.

Miranda moved to the beach where she'd tied up the small punt she'd used and turned to find Andy sadly contemplating the small memorial she'd erected to her mother and Lucius as a child. Miranda moved over beside the near-feral young woman. In the near distance the outboard motor of a boat could be heard approaching. Miranda glanced in the direction the noise emanated from. Andy's eyes followed Miranda's, seeking the source of the sound. Miranda turned to her companion. “I won't be leaving for days yet. I'm certain that it will take at least that long to finish the photo shoot. We'll have more time to talk... and to figure things out.”

Andy shook her head and looked sadly back the way they had come. “The Knight of Swords summons you. He's plotting and he has the upper hand now. You'll go. You'll have ta iffn you're gonna try ta hold on ta that life.”

“I have to go back. My life is there,” she offered in a hushed, troubled voice.

Andy looked up miserably. “Ya won't find no happiness iffn ya go back there, only pain and trouble,” she answered just as softly.

Miranda could now see Nigel holding a lantern over the bow as the boat made its way through the darkness. Miranda quickly reasoned that something major must be afoot or Nigel would never have dared to come into the swamp himself at night; that's the sort of thing that local police were for. Miranda looked back to the woman and thought of the strange concurrence of events that had brought them together. This almost fay girl/woman had risen from the swamp to rescue her from being ravaged by one of the great unwashed. She had ghosted into and out of town to bring Miranda the map to the Orchid Pool and the magnificent flower. She had known Miranda would be at Lucius' old shack and had been there waiting for her. Now she said that there was someone back in New York plotting against her and who presently had the upper hand. If Miranda was to return to New York and successfully hold onto what was hers, she wanted, no, she needed this woman at her side. Not only for the woman's mystical abilities but because Miranda knew the truth of the fact—fate meant for them to be together.

“Come with me,” Miranda offered to the shadowy figure that had taken a few step out of the protective sphere of lantern light and into the twilight shadow of the dense vegetation surrounding the path they had traversed. “Come with me,” Miranda said, hearing a tone in her voice she was unfamiliar with. One of desperation, willing to beg if it was required.

Andy's eyes went wide. “Come with ya? Ta the big city?” she replied, her tone frightened. “I've never been farther than Slippery Bottom. What would I do there?”

Miranda turned and glanced at the approaching boat. Nigel was waving now that he could apparently see Miranda in the light of the lantern at her feet. “The same as you'd do here. Be with me. Build a life together.”

The girl took a half step into the edge of the light. “Card's don't say we'd be happy there. Say we'd be happy here. At the flower pool.”

“Here, there, what difference would it make? We'd be together. I have a lovely home there. I could give you a life so much better than the one you have here. You'd have no worries, no unmet needs or desires. Come with me, Andy.”

The girl stepped back again into the darkness. “You don't like m' name,” the girl said evidently intuiting Miranda's distaste for things rude and provincial. “M' given name is Andrea Louise, but nobody but m' Maw ever called me that.”

“Andrea,” Miranda breathed, placing the accent on the second syllable and speaking the name as if it were a precious jewel.

Andrea was suddenly in the light. She kissed Miranda hard, all passion and fire, and then she was gone, fleeing back into the dense swamp foliage and the darkness.

*****

Nigel found Miranda standing in the feeble light of an old-fashioned candle lantern, not even a kerosene one like he'd used to help Doug navigate the treacherous byways. The woman, still clad in the ridiculous outfit she'd worn into the swamp that morning, stood regally in that primal place looking over her shoulder into the dark foliage beyond, and Nigel could have sworn as she turned to him that she wiped away a tear from her cheek.

“If you're here at this time of night, Nigel, I imagine that there must be some kind of emergency,” the Ice Queen in all her cold glory said.

Nigel nodded and braced for the coming encounter. “Irv called. The Board of Directors has ordered that the shoot be terminated and all Runway staff are to report back to New York as soon as possible. You and the senior staff are to return immediately. Irv wants to see you in his office as soon as you get back to town. I've got a really bad feeling about this, Miranda. Irv was way too smug on the phone. I'm afraid that this is going to be trouble.”

Miranda gave her Art Director and friend a look that sent a shiver down his spine. Then she turned her head to gaze back into the dark foliage. “Irv Ravitz doesn't know what trouble is yet,” she said darkly.

*****

Preparations for the Runway staff to leave Slippery Bottom, Florida, could at best be said to be hurried. Chaos was likely a better description. The powers that be had called and demanded Miranda's immediate return to New York. On her return to town, she had, in turn, waspishly instructed Emily to gather her senior people and be ready to leave within half an hour. She instructed that she wanted to be in the air and out of the Palm Beach Airport by dawn. The rest of the staff, the models and the photography crew, were to follow the next morning. The Dragon Lady's tone and demeanor had spoken volumes to her long-suffering first assistant. Miranda was both quite unhappy and very, very angry. A dangerous combination for any employee who wished to retain her job at Runway while coming into contact with her. Miranda's desires were neither to be questioned nor denied. Emily worked frantically to make everything happen as Miranda had decreed.

As things quickly geared up, Nigel made arrangements for Doug to follow him with the people coming the next day. Then he said his goodbyes, assuring the young man that they would see each other tomorrow before dinnertime and that Nigel would introduce him to the City that Never Sleeps' nightlife.

As Miranda slipped into the back of the limo in the wee hours of the morning, Emily realized with horror that no one had been left in charge of the Runway personnel that were to follow the next day. She knew asking Miranda any question at this juncture with the mood the woman was in was tantamount to asking to be fired for incompetence. As she slipped into the car behind her employer she dialed Serena's cell phone. It rang several times before Serena's answered. “Serena,” she hissed quietly. “Wake up and listen. Miranda and the senior staff are returning to Manhattan tonight. You're in charge of getting everyone back there tomorrow! Do you understand?”

“Yes, English,” was Serena's somnolent reply.

The rest of the car ride to Palm Beach Airport was silent as Miranda stared out the window and Emily busied herself with seemingly a thousand e-mails to prepare the Runway offices for Miranda's return.

*****

Serena stood by the door to one of the buses and spoke to another Runway employee, making sure that the last of the equipment had been loaded on one of the vans. She scanned over the list of to-dos she'd created just after Emily's call in the wee hours of the morning. Everything on it had been checked and double-checked. Every employee had been loaded in the appropriate vehicle and was ready to go. Even Nigel's new boyfriend was aboard the second bus with his guitar and a paltry backpack that he assured her contained everything important to him that he owned in the world. She'd arranged flights to get everyone back to New York. The sudden influx of so many people from the photo shoot without any significant notice required that a few were going to have to lag behind and take a later flight, but other than that small difficulty Serena was satisfied that she had done all anyone could do. She had not let Emily down. After a last quick look around she boarded the bus, and the caravan making up the remainder of the Runway photo shoot pulled out of Slippery Bottom.

Serena was seated in the front of the lead bus when about ten minutes out of Slippery Bottom the vehicle came to an abrupt stop on the rural back road. Serena looked at the driver. “What's wrong?” she asked.

“Some woman's standing in the middle of the damned road,” the chartered bus driver exclaimed. Doesn't look like she's planning on moving anytime soon either.”

Serena glanced out of the bus windshield to see the young woman from the baked goods incident in the lounge tent at the photo shoot. She stood in a tattered sundress with a bundle of some kind slung over her shoulder. It was almost as if she were waiting for something. Waiting for them.

Serena dismounted the bus and carefully approached the woman, who, on closer inspection, looked lost. “She's already gone, ain't she?” the almost ghostly figure asked in a small voice, full of pain at the prospect her words imparted.

Serena was not detached from the Runway gossip circuit, nor had she ignored what her own senses had told her about the events that had transpired over the last several days. The whispers among the models and the Runway employees claimed that Miranda had gone into the swamp looking for Hattie and had found her. The rumor mill also said that Miranda had returned from that little excursion entirely discontent. Emily, along with wailing about her weight gain, had confided to her that Miranda had, in fact, gone alone into the swamp on more than one occasion and returned from one of her trips in hundreds of dollars worth of designer clothing and shoes that were so befouled with the muck and the stink of the place that they’d had to be burned. Serena had witnessed with her own eyes what had happened in the lounge tent regarding Miranda's reaction to this ghost-girl being chased off.

In this single moment in time Serena didn't doubt her instantaneous decision and went with her first instinctual response. “Yes,” she answered, knowing with a certainty that it was Miranda the girl was speaking of. “She had to go on before us. But my name is Serena, and I'm to bring you to her.”

The ghost-girl's eyes twinkled as she looked the beautiful Brazilian up and down. “Ain't quite a lie,” she replied softly, “but mostly.”

Her words caused a shudder to ripple down Serena's back, and the Brazilian woman felt chilled to her very bones even though she was standing in the muggy heat of Florida day. She could feel this woman's power crawling across her skin.

The girl's eyes were still fixed on Serena, and Serena found that she couldn't look away. She got the uncomfortable feeling that this woman knew everything about her including her darkest secrets and desires. “Look's like m'be I c'n help you and m'be you c'n help me,” the girl said breaking eye contact, shouldering the bundle she carried, and stepping toward the bus. “Folks here'bouts call me Hattie...”

Chapter Text

Serena kept Hattie back with her when the first plane containing the rest of Runway's employees as well as Doug, all of the models, and most of the photography crew departed. All that were left were her, Hattie, and a couple of the low-level camera handlers from Alice Hawkin's crew. Serena worked a bit of her charm on a male airline employee at the check-in desk to arrange for her and Hattie's seats on the plane to be well away from anyone who might be talking to any Runway employees. In an airport bathroom Serena had Hattie redress in jeans and a blouse that Serena had purchased out of her own pocket at an airport shop so the girl didn't stand out in her tattered clothing. Hattie seemed to accept the necessity of these things without question or comment, but Serena could see that the girl was both fascinated and frightened by all the unfamiliar things she saw around her. There were likely more people in this small international airport at that moment than Hattie had ever seen in her entire life.

Having a couple of hours to kill, Serena took Hattie to lunch at an airport restaurant and watched captivated as the girl became enthralled by all the pictures on the menu of foods she'd never tried. When the waiter asked what she wanted to eat she pointed to an ice cream sundae, and Serena could not help but smile while watching the girl devour it as if it were absolutely the best thing she'd ever eaten.

After they had finished in the restaurant Serena took Hattie wandering through some of the stores that the airport terminal contained. Hattie ghosted about in silence, looking at things curiously. Finally she came upon a bar of scented bath soap in a display. She seized it and, holding it to her nose, she inhaled deeply. Then reaching out she showed it to Serena. “I want this,” she said reaching quickly into the neckline of her tee shirt with her other hand and drawing out a leather pouch on a thong about her neck. She opened the evidently heavy pouch and drew out a coin, thrusting it into Serena's hand.

Serena took the proffered coin. Opening her hand she looked at it curiously, thinking that the girl couldn't have two nickels to rub together. Her eyes opened wider as she realized that what she held was a gold coin. It weighed heavy in her hand, and she saw that the denomination on the coin showed it to be an old-fashioned twenty dollar gold piece. She remembered reading somewhere that the gold pieces were minted when an ounce of gold was worth twenty dollars. In the present market the coin in her hand was worth well over a thousand dollars. Her eyes snapped to the girl who was seemingly entranced with the bar of soap, again holding it to her nose. “How many of these do you have?” she asked quietly.

The woman she knew as Hattie cocked her head in a birdlike manner. “Ain't that enough?” she asked, again reaching for the pouch.

Serena reached out and stayed her hand. “It's enough and more than enough,” she answered. “It's worth a lot of money. If you have any more of them you should be careful. There are people that would cut your throat for one of these.”

The woman calling herself Hattie nodded. “Jus' like them Kagel boys back home,” she sighed. “Gots me a double handful of them there coins. Asked Ol' Lucius if I could take some, and he said I should.”

Serena had been in the tent when Doug had explained that Ol' Lucius had been dead for more than twenty years. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. In this moment in time she had no doubt that this woman conversed with him regularly. Serena reached out. “Let me buy it for you. When we get to where we're going, I'll help you cash one of these in so you'll have some money you can spend,” she offered quietly, her tone sad. While they continued to look around the store, Serena whispered,“You cursed Emily,” fear making it almost sound as if it were an afterthought.

The woman calling herself Hattie glanced up at the beautiful Brazilian and offered her a small, wicked smile. “Was that her name?” she asked. “She shouldn't o' laid hands on me. I wasn't hurtin' no-one.” She looked hard at Serena, as if reading her. “You in love wit' her, ain't cha? Gonna be more fer ya ta love. Lot more,” she said chuckling and still clutching the bar of soap in her hand.

Serena's eyes teared up at the witch-woman's words. “She's worth loving!” she challenged, “I'm helping you. I'm taking you to Miranda. I need you to help me. I need you to lift the curse you put on her. She'll have a nervous breakdown if she gains much more weight!”

Hattie eyed her. “She don't love ya,” she said emphatically. “That one don't love nothing. She don't know how to. Thinks she loves her job, but she's just foolin' herself.”

The beautiful woman hung her head. “Then my love for her will just have to be enough,” she whispered. “I just want her to be happy, and I know that she's not,” she answered. “I know that I'll wait as long as it takes, be there for her in whatever capacity that she'll have me. The way I feel about her, I don't have any choice.” Serena suddenly felt as if she were being judged.

"I c'n help you with that,” Hattie said cryptically. “But it's dangerous. Ya gotta be sure of what it is ya want. Cause once ya goes down that road, there ain't no goin' back,” she replied, her eyes glittering.

Serena looked up at the young woman, something like hope showing in her eyes. “You can?” she asked breathlessly.

Hattie nodded sagely. “Like I said. It's dangerous. When we gets to where we're goin', we'll see if we can't find what I need ta make ya a love potion,” she said handing Serena the soap. “But I warn ya, love magic is the most dangerous and unpredictable kind o' magic. You think on it. I'm good to m' word. Said ya all help me, and I'll help ya all, and I'll do 'er.”

The rest of the trip to New York was more or less silent. Andy hadn't flown before and was fascinated by looking out the window. Serena was lost in an internal mental debate on the ethical dilemma of whether or not it was moral to dose Emily with a love potion in order to insure the young Brits' future happiness with a partner who was quite willing to die for her. With a sigh, Serena closed her eyes to the future. She would face it soon enough.

*****

Miranda had spent her morning explaining to the board of directors why she had disobeyed Irv's directive to not do photo shoots that put her over her budget without first clearing it with the C.E.O.'s office. Miranda had been adamant. She had explained that she could not and would not work that way. That often her creative process demanded quick decisions about changing something in the upcoming issue, and adding the step of clearing something through a bureaucracy would impede that process. She very carefully demonstrated that Runway was the only Elias-Clarke publication that consistently made profit each month, and considerable profit at that. She told them in no uncertain terms that it was because she was at the helm and knew what the magazine required to continue being successful. Then she showed them the photographs from the Orchid Pool shoot.

The old men of the board were confronted with beautiful models in skimpy bikinis in an unbelievable tropical paradise. The pictures were pure gold, and everyone in the room knew it. They worked their expected magic. Everyone in the room could see how an article containing them would boost circulation, making profits far in excess of the unauthorized expenditure for the shoot. Consequently Irv's argument for punishing Miranda went out the window for the moment. But only for the moment. Miranda was all too aware that the balance of power on the board of directors had been shifting slowly through attrition. The last few members to retire from the board were replaced with people of Irv's bean-counting mindset rather than individuals focused on the artistic vision of the corporation's publications as Miranda was. At the moment Miranda still had one more ally on the board than Irv did, but if Irv ever managed to get another one of his cronies elected to the board, she could be in for a rough time in the future. With this in mind, Miranda determined that she would work harder to insure she did not lose all that she had built.

*****

LaGuardia International Airport frightened Andy, and a taxi ride into Manhattan frightened her even more. Serena had chuckled to herself when Hattie had admitted to never imagining that so many people lived on the whole world, never mind inhabiting a single city. Serena got them past building security by signing Hattie in as a visitor. Upon arriving on the eleventh floor of the building which housed the executive offices of Runway, Serena was immediately aware that everything was at code red. Everyone was scurrying around and trying to look busy. She watched as Miranda's latest second assistant practically ran down the hallway in tears. As Serena entered Miranda's office she saw that Emily's desk was empty, an unusual state of affairs when Miranda was evidently on the warpath.

Serena took Andy by the hand and moved to go through the doors into Miranda's outer office. At the last minute the young girl from the Florida swamp dragged her heels. “What if she don't want ta see me?” Andy almost begged, fear evident on her face. “What if what she was sayin' wasn't what she was meanin'?”

“Can't you see what she'll feel about you being here?” Serena asked, curious.

“Always hardest ta see things about yourself,” Andy answered in a small voice just as the door to Miranda's office snapped open.

The Dragon Lady was standing in the doorway ready to breathe fire. “Serena!” she demanded. “Where is that useless second assistant of mine? You'd think the girl had had a lobotomy. She can't even handle the simplest of instructions...” Miranda stopped mid-rant. “Who is that hiding behind you? Is that Emily? Useless girl! Imagine calling in sick when we're just back from a photo shoot and when Irv is plotting!”

Serena turned and took Hattie's hand, gently pulling her around to where Miranda could see her.

Miranda looked stunned. “Andrea,” she said, the surprise evident on her face.

“Randa,” the girl ducked her head quickly in greeting and offered a timid half-smile.

Andrea? Serena thought. Who the heck is Andrea?

“I thought....” Miranda started and then paused. “When you ran off I thought you'd refused my offer,” she finally continued, still standing stiffly in the doorway.

“Had ta run home and git m' things. Can't go visitin' without your things,” the girl explained, her tone frightened, as, clutching her bundle, she still tried to conceal herself behind Serena.

Serena then saw what she never would have believed she'd see. The emotional ice wall surrounding Miranda Priestly cracked, and stepping forward quickly, Miranda reached around Serena and pulled the woman she had called Andrea out from behind where she hid to catch her up in a bear hug. I thought she was beautiful before, Serena thought as Miranda, really smiling for the first time in Serena's memory, practically lifted the girl from the swamp off the ground. “You came,” Miranda repeated quietly, one hand reaching up to caress the now smiling girl's face.

“’Course I came,” the girl replied, leaning into the touch on her face. “Told ya we're meant ta be together. . .Least ways for a bit. . . Ain't no changin' that.”

Miranda glanced at Serena. “I owe you for this,” she said softly still holding in her arms the girl Serena had brought to her.

Serena turned and left the two of them alone in the office, heading back for her own desk. All was right with the world at the moment. Hattie had promised Serena that she would help her with her quest to win Emily's heart, and Miranda seemed truly happy for the first time Serena could remember. All in all, a good day's work, she thought with a smirk.

*****

Miranda led Andy into her townhouse, and Andy looked around in disbelief. “Ya live here? By yerself?” she asked, her voice small.

“I live here with my two girls. They are away at the moment at a boarding school,” Miranda answered.

Andy shook her head. “They was taken from ya. Ya never wanted them ta go ta that school. Ya wanted them here with ya,” she said quietly. “The cards told me that, too.”

Miranda was shocked that the woman even knew she had daughters. “My daughters are troubled. The school they are at is good for them. It provides stability,” she said, internally trying frantically to justify the decisions that she had known at the time were not the ones she had wanted to embrace.

Andy shook her head. “Ya can't lie ta me, 'Randa. I know your soul. Just like ya know mine. All ya need do is open yerself up ta yer feelin's,” the girl said softly as she moved off to explore this new-found world.

*****

Miranda stood at the doorway to the largest of the guest rooms the townhouse had to offer as she watched the fey girl/woman examine the furniture and accoutrements. Andrea turned and looked curiously at her hostess, her demeanor one of slight disappointment. “Kinda thought we'd be sleepin' tagether in the same room,” she said softly. “I really liked kissin' on ya, and I've heard all sorts of stuff 'bout what lovers do when their sparkin'. I'm really curious 'bout it all. ”

Miranda had already experienced a horrifying revelation when she had considered the fact that this young woman was going to be living with her in the townhouse with the expectation that, at some point, they were going to become lovers. Of the two of them, she, God help her, was the one with experience in romantic relationships, even if those relationships to date had been more disastrous than not. Although she desperately wanted the young woman in her arms, she had immediately determined that they should take things slowly. Get to know one another. Build a foundation between them so that they might have a chance at some kind of a long-term future. She licked her lips and sighed softly. “I think we both need some time, Andrea,” she offered as gently as she knew how. “I think we need to take things slowly. Get to know each other...”

The girl looked at Miranda and smiled. “Yer scared,” she said softly, “cause ya don't understand yet. Cards say we'll be lovers. That's what's gonna be.” She nodded, more to herself than to Miranda. “But I c'n wait fer ya a while longer. Till ya do understand that it's what's sapposed ta be." She smiled, un-shouldering her bundle of possessions and placing it on the bed. “G' night, 'Randa,” the girl said.

Miranda nodded. “Good night, Andrea,” she said softly, turning from the guest room door and, wondering when she'd lost control of her life, she retreated quickly to the sanctity of her own bedroom.

*****

In the days that followed Miranda took Andrea with her to Runway each day. She felt that keeping the girl close was important. However, she found the time she could dedicate to her new-found companion severely limited. She was under siege at Runway. Irv had stirred the board of directors up, and although the issue going to print was almost guaranteed to make the profits come rolling in from increased circulation, she found that the board continued to impose further restrictions upon her, severely curtailing her ability to do her job. Each day became a battle royal to hold on to all that she had built over more than two decades.

Further complicating matters was the fact that her first assistant, Emily, had seemingly lost both her mind and all of her fashion sense since their return from Florida. The woman was practically wearing Muumuus to the office each day. On top of that horror, she was virtually useless for some reason any time that she was in the same room as Andrea.

As far as the fey girl from the swamp was concerned, Miranda quickly determined that Runway's offices were really no place for her. As beautiful as she was, she really had no concept of how to wear any of the magnificent couture that was the magazine's forte, nor did she have any experience with the make-up that was a staple of the women who worked at the magazine. In these things, she was like a child out of her element. This was proved to Miranda on Andrea's second day at the office. One of the numerous crises that was all too common to the production of the magazine had called Miranda out of her office. When she had returned for the purpose of the scheduled run-though she had found that the fey girl had discovered sample make-up that had been brought to Miranda's office for the run-through. Members of her staff scheduled to present at the run-though had already arrived in Miranda's office and had found the girl that most of them knew as Hattie clownishly looking like a seven-year-old who had gotten into her mother's make-up. That story seemingly made the rounds of the Runway office's gossip circuit at the speed of light, and the titters and whispers that followed Miranda and her Andrea in the halls were difficult to bear. The hard truth of the matter was that the naïve country girl simply couldn't fit in with the clackers that were the mainstay of the Runway workforce. Their life experiences were too different, too alien to each other. Consequently, for the most part, Andrea spent her days sitting quietly in Miranda's office, paging through issues of Runway or the other periodicals that were delivered to Miranda each morning.

Curiously, the one exception Miranda found to this situation was Serena, who seemed almost eager to spend time with the girl. Several times over the first couple of days of Andrea's presence the beautiful Brazilian who had brought Andrea to her assured Miranda that she would be happy to take time and try to help the girl from the swamp learn about and adapt to her new environment. Serena was, in fact, even willing to engage with Andrea outside of the office. Almost too eager, Miranda thought as jealousy awoke inside her, but what was she to do? Miranda's time was curtailed on every side by demands of her job, and it wasn't fair to Andrea to keep her as if caged. On the third day of Andrea's coming to the office, Irv demanded a lunch meeting. Miranda, desirous that Andrea enjoy her new life in New York and all too aware of the limitations being placed on her, relented and allowed Serena to give Andrea a tour of Runway's offices and take her to lunch in the building cafeteria. Serena was quick to sweep the girl from the swamp off for the "nickel" tour.

*****

Rumors about the girl from the swamp that was now apparently somehow attached to the Fashion Goddess Miranda Priestly were rife through the hall of Runway. Prior to bringing Andy down to her office, Serena, who was usually one of the most affable and easiest Runway employees to work for, did an impressive impression of Miranda, informing her staff of exactly what the consequences would be if any one of them made the rural girl from Florida feel either unwelcome or like a freak.

Once Serena had Hatt...Andy in the privacy of her office, she closely questioned the woman some believed a swamp witch about what she could do to lift the curse she had laid on Emily.

The strange young woman shrugged, looking around at this new environment curiously. “I laid it, I c'n take it up again,” she answered, smiling a small, wicked smile. “And I will, too. As soon as she says she's sorry for layin' hands on me.”

Serena knew Emily. Knew the girl's foolish pride and her stubborn English nature. Requiring an apology for what she had considered her duty to Miranda and Runway was asking for a miracle. “She won't apologize,” Serena said to the girl from the swamp. “She can't. It's not in her nature.”

Andy nodded at her. “It's a conundrum, ain't it?” she asked lightly. “Ya love her, yer willin' ta do almost anythin' for her, but she won't even do somethin' as simple as sayin' sorry.” Andy shook her head. “As things is, she won't never say sorry ta you neither.”

Serena was nearly in tears. “She's gained fifteen pounds in four days! She can't stand it! She'll lose her mind!”

The woman called Hattie shrugged again. “Then she needs ta either learn her lesson or suffer the consequences,” she replied calmly.

Serena, with tears in her eyes, spoke sharply. “You said you'd help me. You promised! Do it damn-it! You don't have to do anything else for me, no love potion, nothing! Just save Emily before she hurts herself!”

The fey girl/woman nodded, and a small, sad smile graced her beautiful face. Her chocolate -brown eyes were full of compassion. “Ya really love her,” she said softly.

“Yes!” Serena almost shouted, anger swelling inside her. “I love her! I'll do whatever I have to just to have crumbs from her!”

The woman called Hattie continued to smile. “I had ta make sure,” she said looking seriously into Serena's eyes. “Like I tol' ya, once ya start down this road, there ain't no goin' back. Love magic is the most dangerous and uncontrollable kind o' magic there is. If ya were ta give her a love potion, binding her to ya, and then run off and leave her, she'll waste away and die. I had ta be sure that yer ready to be with her fer the rest o' yer life. Cause she won't love nobody like she'll love ya. And if'n you die first, best make sure she has a mighty powerful reason ta stay here, else she'll find a way ta follow ya before yer in the ground.” She nodded , more to herself rather than for Serena's benefit. “I'll make m' peace with your Emily this very afternoon. Now git yourself somethin' ta write with, and I'll give ya a list of what we'll need ta make ya a love potion.”

*****

It was, Emily thanked God, close to the end of her day. In just a little while she would be able to leave the office and let that worthless excuse for a second assistant wait to collect the Book and deliver it to Miranda. Nothing was right in the world. For the last several days she had been starving, but she dared not eat anything. Her weight was increasing at an insane rate even without her doing more that drinking water.

She sat nervously at her desk, and again her eyes flicked to the clock. At the moment things were even worse here at Runway than they were out in the wider world. She had received a purse of the lips from Miranda this morning before a word was ever spoken between them. Emily knew immediately that the cause was her attire. She had purchased the clothing from a street vendor last evening on her way home from work. It was a colorful African print in a loose flowing robe-like garment made out of what they claimed was Egyptian muslin. The material was beautiful, the garment, however, was shapeless and made her look like she was wearing a colorful burka without veil or headdress. And things between her and her employer had gone downhill from there. Emily was so distracted by her sudden weight gain that she seemed unable to focus on anything else. She had screwed several things up, and if it hadn't been for Miranda being distracted by Irv's plotting Emily wouldn't have had time to catch her errors and correct them. That would have translated to her not only being an unfashionable, fat cow but also being unemployed.

To make matters worse, Miranda had left a few moments ago under a full head of steam intending to “berate,” that translated to “fire” in the Runway word equivalence lexicon, the head of the accessories department for sending up an article for an upcoming issue that was apparently blissfully unaware of the latest hot trend in braided metallic belts.

Miranda being out of the office meant that, that woman....the one who had ruined her brand new Pradas, was in there...inside Miranda's office...and not on any kind of leash. That thought was truly frightening because on some level Emily subconsciously realized that her troubles had started the moment she'd crossed the young woman's path at the photo shoot.

The woman was Miranda's close companion now. She came with Miranda in the morning and left with her in the evenings. If Emily was superstitious instead of a modern woman, she might be tempted to believe the ridiculous Clacker gossip that the girl was indeed a witch who had somehow bewitched the iconic fashion editor. But that was as ludicrous as believing that the girl had cursed her and that's why she had gained so much weight so impossibly quickly.

She was so deeply involved in her own thoughts that she started and very nearly screamed when she looked up from her desk and the focus of her thoughts had materialized there silently as if she were a ghost.

“Someone tol' me I ought ta say "sorry" fer th' bad blood twixt us. Tol' me you was only doin' what cha thought was the right thang fer 'Randa.” She lifted the pair of Chain-Maille Snake Sandals from Manolo Blahnik's newest Spring collection and placed the beautiful shoes on the desk. “'Randa said I could have anythin' I wanted from th' room ya all call the Closet. Said I could do with what I took as I pleased. I want ya ta have these here pretty shoes. I think they'll even fit ya good.”

Emily looked at the shoes on her desk. They were a pair that she, like all the other Clackers, had lusted after the moment she saw them, but like many things in the Closet they were out of reach. Top of the line, terribly expensive, incredibly sexy, very photogenic, and in high demand, they'd be out of fashion before Nigel let them go. At five times the cost of the Pradas she had bought, which were themselves a "I just won't pay most of my bills this month" extravagance on her salary, Emily had viewed them as something that she would simply have to want but not own. An itch never to be scratched. And here they were on her desk, being given to her by a woman from her nightmares who, apparently, was trying to say she was sorry. The only thing Emily could think was that the "someone" who had told her she should say she was sorry was Miranda. Emily's heart swelled that the Fashion Icon would even notice her discomfort. She reached out and gingerly accepted the shoes from the fey girl/woman's hand. “Thank you,” she stammered.

Then the woman known as Hattie very deliberately stuck the tip of her thumb into her mouth and wetting it, then pressed the tip of the damp digit to the middle of Emily's forehead. “Thinner,” she whispered.

Emily recoiled in horror at the unsanitary contact. The place the woman had touched her both burned and tingled. “Ya gonna be sick a little while,” The ghostly young woman said quietly. “Sicker 'n a broke dick dog.” With than the woman smiled wickedly and then turned and retreated back toward Miranda's office. 'But things'll be better after,” she concluded over her shoulder just before disappearing into the dragon's lair.

Emily shook her head and, glancing at the clock, realized that she could leave. She quickly gathered her things and fled for the elevator. She was on the subway when her stomach first roiled. She was nauseous as she fumbled with her keys, attempting to open her apartment door. She barely made it to the bathroom before she emptied her stomach of the water she'd consumed over the course of the afternoon. She spent the next several hours crouched over the toilet trying to throw up parts of her she was fairly certain were attached.

*****

That night Serena sat on her bed in her bedroom and considered the list of things needed to make the potion. Andy had assured her that the list would have posed no difficulty if Andy were in her natural then element of the swamp. The problem was that they weren't there; they were in metropolitan New York City. Some of the more obscure botanicals were likely to require some creativity in finding a place to obtain them, but Serena had an idea that she might be able to get those in one of the medicinal herbalist shops located in Chinatown. Some of the other items, however, were simply going to be a pain in the ass. Such as where in this city did one obtain things like lizard's tail and graveyard earth collected at the dark of the moon? Being a woman of the 21st century, Serena's first instinct was to go to the internet to find what she needed. Opening her laptop computer and doing a search on “spell components,” “retail,” and “New York City,” she found a number of stores in Manhattan claiming to be suppliers for witches and Wiccans. Making notes of their addresses, she knew that now all she would have to do was wait for Miranda to be involved in the running of the magazine and to need someone to take care of Hatt...Andy for a few hours.

*****

Emily awoke predawn, exhausted on the bathroom floor of her apartment. Such a thing hadn't happened since her wild partying days in London before coming to America, before following her dreams of working for Miranda Priestly and Runway. But that was all gone now, she despaired. The way she was gaining weight she couldn't hide it much longer. If she were lucky, Miranda would just think she'd gotten herself knocked up, and she'd be fired in shame for that. It would, in her mind, be a better outcome than being fired in shame for gaining twenty pounds in under a week. That would make her the company joke. A laughing stock among her once upon a time co-workers. She pulled herself up and glanced at her traitorous scale where it sat on her bathroom floor. Dreading what she knew she must do, she stepped onto the device. The digital readout didn't make any sense. What it read simply wasn't possible. She closed her eyes, shook her head, and then opened her eyes again to reread the digits on the scale's display. The numbers hadn't changed. They still read the magical size zero goal weight that she had been striving to achieve since she could remember.

*****

Mid-morning at Runway saw Nigel and Serena summoned to Miranda's office hours earlier than expected. A meeting had been scheduled for immediately after lunch to discuss the technical difficulties involved in what make-up could be applied to models that would stay on them while said models were hosed down with water and photographers captured the scene with their cameras.

As Nigel hurried into Miranda's inner sanctum, Serena, not having seen Emily before that moment, paused and glanced at the woman who was her heart. Her breath caught in her throat. There was simply no other to say it...Emily...looked...amazing. She wore Mark Jacobs, every line of it just as it should be. Just as it would be in one of Miranda's picture-perfect photo shoots for Runway. Emily was speaking to her, and Serena struggled to make sense of what Emily was saying as her eyes again ran up and down the now perfect shape of the woman. She's far too beautiful to be an assistant, Serena thought to herself. She should grace the cover of Runway every month...be Runway's spokesmodel. The magazine's face and voice.

“...is already in a black mood!" Emily said urgently. “Irv called and has thrown off her whole schedule by demanding a meeting at lunchtime! Bloody office politics is going to give me a breakdown, it is!” Emily ranted.

“You look beautiful,” Serena whispered.

Emily stopped mid-rant, her mouth forming a small "o". “What did you say?” she asked breathlessly.

Serena swallowed and then used her tongue to try and wet her lips, but with her mouth as dry as it had suddenly become it was a wasted effort. “I said you look beautiful...stunning... amazing,” Serena managed to stammer.

Emily actually blushed. She looked down, “Well, yes...” she said softly. “I've finally managed to reach my goal weight,” she smiled and pirouetted, showing off the designer finery she was wearing. “I nicked it from the Closet this morning,” she confided quietly. “I've been dying to wear it ever since it came in, but it was a size zero, and I could never get into it before this...” She looked up at Serena. “You know that woman, the one Miranda brought back from the swamp, said I'd be thinner...” She shook her head. "Guess she might know something after all.”

Serena shook inside. Andy had said she'd make her peace with Emily, and now here was Emily at the idealized size zero she'd been struggling to reach since Serena had known her. Serena's blood ran cold. Apparently even being a woman of the 21st-century didn't negate the scared of the dark feeling she felt knowing for a fact that swamp witches might actually exist and wield some kind of mystical power in this modern-day world. “Wouldn't hurt you to say thank you to her. Let her know you appreciate her good wishes,” Serena said, turning to hurry into Miranda's office.

Emily gazed after the retreating figure of Serena who she always thought the loveliest of the clackers. “Oh I couldn't do that,” Emily said quietly to herself. “But maybe I could get her a little something, sort of as a peace offering, she continued, remembering the girl with the eclair clutched possessively in her hand.” She glanced at the second assistant, “When you run your errands later today I want you to make a small stop me,” she demanded dispassionately. “Considering your massive size, I'm sure you'll know where to find a candy store or a bakery. I want you to pick up a small box of something sweet. A gift box, something nice,” she continued absently, reaching for her wallet in her purse, her eyes going to the now closed door of Miranda's office.

*****

Inside the office Miranda paced like a caged leopardess, her discontent shown in ever line of her body.

"Let's get this over with,” she almost snarled. “Irv has demanded a lunch meeting out of the building, as if I really have time for such a thing with next month's issue going to print and the following month's barely started yet.”

“It's bad, isn't it, Miranda?” Nigel asked. “Irv really has a hold of something this time, doesn't he?”

“Irv Ravitz is a talentless, unimaginative, artless cretin. I won't let his desire to save a few pennies ruin this magazine,” Miranda declared. She glanced over to where Andrea sat near the window paging through an old issue of Runway. “Now I suppose my poor Andrea will have to have lunch by herself here in my office.”

It was precisely the moment Serena had been waiting for. She glanced up at Miranda. “I can take her out to lunch,” she offered.

Miranda's eyes turned on Serena. “That's very kind of you, but I wouldn't want to impose,” she said.

“It's no imposition, Miranda. I enjoy spending time with Hat....Andy,” Serena replied.

The green-eyed monster of jealousy suddenly roiled around in Miranda's chest, but she restrained her initial reaction and glanced to where Andrea sat. She knew that the girl must be bored, sitting in her office day in and day out. Miranda knew everything that happened in Runway's offices. It was one of the ways that she maintained her iron-fisted control of her employees. She knew that when she was out of the office Andrea would sneak downstairs to visit with Serena in the department she headed. She knew that Serena and Andrea were often closeted alone in Serena's office. Her eyes went coldly to Serena as, speaking to Andrea, she said, “Andrea, would you like to go out to lunch with Serena?”

Andrea's head came up from the magazine she was looking through, and the girl's face glowed with one of her smiles that lit up a whole room. “I'd like very much ta go ta lunch with Miss Serena, 'Randa,” the fey girl/woman answered.

Her eyes now glittering icy fire directed at Serena, Miranda said, “By all means, take Andrea to lunch. Just see to it that a workable solution for the make-up for the models on this shoot is on my desk when I return from my meeting with Irv.” She rose stiffly from her chair. “And I mean make-up that will stay on the models if I choose to use a fire hose in this shoot,” she continued coldly, walking toward the door of her office. “Nigel, walk with me,” she commanded.

Nigel looked worriedly at Serena and gave her a small shrug as he rose and followed where Miranda led.

*****

Miranda strode angrily toward the elevator with Nigel close on her heels. Once she reached the elevator doors she violently pushed the button. “I want know what Serena thinks she's doing, Nigel,” she said in her dreadfully quiet Runway voice.

Knowing better than to argue when Miranda was feeling like this, Nigel did the only thing he could do. “I'll get right on that, Miranda,” he said softly and turned to find his way back to his own office.

*****

Serena recognized full well that there was no chance of she and Andy traveling through Manhattan and then back to Runway within the allotted hour she had for lunch. Luckily,she was certain that Miranda's meeting with Irv would cause them to be out of the building for than an hour. With travel time to and from the restaurant Irv and Miranda would go to, Serena likely had something in the order of two hours to get the girl back to Runway with Miranda none the wiser.

*****

Irv had gloated during the entire fifteen minutes that Miranda was able to stomach lunch with him. The board had again sided with him on budget matters, and Runway was going to see additional cuts to their funding for future issues starting with the October printing. Emily's call to remind Miranda of a minor matter proved fortuitous, and Miranda ended the lunch by pleaded an imaginary emergency that was recalling her to the office.

On Miranda's return she looked for Andrea, hoping for the fey girl's smile to raise her dark mood. But Andrea was not in evidence. Miranda glanced at the clock. She had been gone from the office for fifty minutes. Andrea had left at the same time she had, so Serena should return with her during the next ten minutes...

*****

After an hour and a half of running all over Manhattan and visiting three stores, Serena was becoming concerned. Her only experience with such things was a visit with an older sister to a see a supposed witch during Carnival in Brasilia, but even she could tell that the witch and Wiccan stores they had visited were nothing but tourist traps and the items sold in them fraudulent.

The woman who told all who asked that she was known as Hattie was, apparently, singularly unimpressed, especially when the last of the shop attendants, a young man in all-black apparel approached them, introducing the black cat he carried as his familiar.

Andy looked into the young man's eyes and then into the eyes of the cat. She frowned. “Tain't no familiar,” she said clearly, if quietly. “Cat don't have an ol' soul. Got's ta have an ol' soul ta be a familiar.”

The young man looked at her arrogantly. “Obviously an unbeliever,” he said superciliously, sticking his nose up in the air and turning his back on the pair of potential customers. “Get lost. I don't want your negative energy in the store. It upsets those of us in tune with the mystical powers.”

Serena has seen Andy look like she did at that moment once before. Just before Emily started her "gain five pounds a day without eating" diet. Quickly, she got hold of the fey woman's arm and pulled her from the store.

Andy stopped on the sidewalk and looked back through the window of the store, her head cocked and her eyes determined. “That boy's Mama should o' taught him manners,” she declared quietly.

“Yes,” Serena agreed, “but we don't have time to speak to his manager right now. I have to get you back. Miranda will be back soon.”

“Manager ain't what I was talkin' 'bout,” the woman from the Florida swamp said darkly.

*****

Miranda had been waiting an more than an hour. More than a long anxious hour. Miranda hated waiting for anything, but she discovered she especially hated waiting for a beautiful, vivacious, young Brazilian woman to bring “her” Andrea back to her. Her mood had been foul before she had ever met Irv for lunch and was even worse on her return. Waiting for Andrea, with her sweet smile and charmingly simple heart-on-her-sleeve affection, Miranda discovered that she had been counting on the girl to raise her spirits, and her absence had made her mood truly black now. Miranda's usually so organized mind started running scenarios, and once started she couldn't seem to stop them. She thought back to how Serena had conveniently “found” Andrea on the road when leaving Slippery Bottom. How Serena had purposely delayed her and Andrea's leaving West Palm Beach International Airport. The two of them had been alone together there for hours.

Now it seemed that Serena was all too anxious to spirit Andrea away from Miranda's office on this or that pretense any chance she got. They had been gone nearly two hours. Miranda remembered romantic workday room service luncheons served in posh hotel suites, gourmet food consumed among rumpled sheets and few clothes in the company of this or that suitor. She felt the green-eyed monster roiling around inside her. Andrea was hers. The girl had followed her to New York. Had said that they were meant to be together...at least for a while.

Serena was an interloper, trying to take what was hers, just like Irv was. At this moment she wasn't in a position to punish Irv for his machinations against her. But Serena...Serena was within easy reach..

Chapter Text

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.

 

Swamp Witch - Jim Stafford



Serena and Andy got off the elevator on the executive floor of Runway and walked into Miranda's outer office. “Where have you been?” Emily hissed frantically to the two women. “Miranda's been back for more than an hour, and she's been waiting for you! Over the last 20 minutes she's asked where you were five times! Why was your cell phone off?!”

“Miss Serena was jus' showin' me some of the big city, Miss Emily,” Andy said happily, heading for Miranda's office.

Emily watched her go and then turned to the Brazilian beauty. “If I were you I'd make myself scarce. Miranda is looking for blood, and I think it's yours!” she stage whispered.

*****

Miranda looked up from her desk, pursed her lips, and struggled to control her inflection when she spoke. “Where have you been? I've been worried sick!” She said, her tone low and urgent.

“Miss Serena got me some lunch an' took me shoppin', 'Randa. Showed me th' way ya all do things in New York City,” Andrea said quietly, her smile faltering as she saw Miranda's demeanor .

“Really?” Miranda responded, a sharp edge to her tone. “What did you have to eat?"

Andrea's eyes narrowed in concentration. ”I had somethin' called a hot dog. They sell 'em from little carts on the street. It was really good. Miss Serena tells me they ain't made o' dog though.”

“Why on Earth did she have you eat such a thing?!” Miranda exclaimed testily.

“She was kinda in a hurry ta get ta where we was goin',” Andy replied, softly, her tone indicating that she had started to have some inkling of Miranda's agitated mood. “Said we needed ta be quick cause she had ta get me back 'fore you got back.”

"Where did she take you? Bergdorf Goodman? Henri Bendel? Bloomingdales? Intermix?” the older woman demanded.

I don't think she took me ta any of them places. Least I don't recollect none of them names.”

Miranda stiffened. “Do you remember a name like the St. Regis?” she asked coldly.

“I don' think that was a place we went, neither,” Andy responded innocently. “What kind o' stuff do they sell there?” she asked.

“They let rooms, Andrea,” Miranda said callously.

“Does Miss Serena need a place ta stay, Miranda?” Andy replied curiously. “I'd a thought she'd a have one, livin here an all.”

“Roy is waiting downstairs with the towncar,” Miranda said coldly. “I want you to go back to the townhouse and wait for me there. I'll be home some time this evening.”

Andy cocked her head and, apparently realizing what Miranda was implying. She looked at her . “You got the wrong idea,” she said softly. “An' you're 'bout ta make a dang fool o' yerself.”

“Don't argue with me Andrea. Do as I tell you,” the fashion queen demanded.

Andy flinched as if struck and complied, gathering the meager things she'd brought with her, she silently left the office.

Miranda strode around her desk and irately stabbed a perfectly manicured finger down on the intercom button on her telephone. “Emily, tell Serena that I want to see her immediately...”

*****

Andy wandered restlessly around the empty townhouse late in the afternoon. Upon returning to the townhouse She had changed out of what she considered the "fancy" clothes that Miranda had laid out for her this morning and put on one of her familiar tattered sundresses. Her time since had been spent laying out numerous Tarot readings as she tried to divine what lay ahead for her. As she had told Serena, trying to see into her own future was the most unreliable part of her gift. She was frustrated but acutely aware that something important was coming on the wings of an impending thunderstorm. Her cards, spread on the front room coffee table, had, however, been uncooperative in communicating what it was that was approaching with the coming tempest. The storm was close now, she could smell the lightning in the air and feel the trembling of the thunder on her skin, even though no lightning had flashed or thunder sounded over the city yet.

She heard the opening of the front door, and she rushed toward the sound, hoping that it was Miranda so she could explain what it was that she and Serena had been doing and defuse Miranda's ire at her only friend in the city. She rounded the corner into the foyer of the townhouse, and there stood two sullen-looking identical twin girls, both dressed exactly the same in plaid skirts and white blouses with ties and dark blue jackets.

With them stood a very hoity-toity-appearing woman, nose in the air. Andy could feel the arrogance coming off her in waves. She made a quick shy bob of her head in a timid greeting, this not being her home to welcome some unknown into.

The woman looked her up and down disdainfully, obviously not impressed with what she saw. “You are one of the domestics, I take it?” the woman demanded in carefully enunciated English.

Andy silently shook her head, too embarrassed to speak. This was one of those fine ladies that Momma had warned her about. One of the ones that drank tea and spoke proper.

“Then the nanny,” the woman insisted, as if Andy wasn't standing there listening. “Caroline and Cassisdy have been suspended from Mrs. Swineford's Academy for starting a fight in the cafeteria. They will be allowed to return to the campus on Sunday evening so that they can attend classes on Monday.”

Andy bobbed her head again, acknowledging what was being said to her.

“She's NOT our Nanny!” one of the mirror images said stridently.

“Oh,” the proper woman said, “I see. Perhaps an undocumented domestic that doesn't understand English? Habla Espanol?” she asked, her tone exasperated.

“No, Ma'am,” Andy replied, her voice quiet and the rural Southern inflections in her accent very prominent. “I speak American.”

The woman rolled her eyes. “As I was saying, The twins have been suspended and will not be permitted to return to the campus until Sunday evening. Their father, who I am informed should be responsible for them this week, is apparently away on business. His domestic staff were unwilling to take charge of the girls so I have brought them here to their mother's home.” She again, doubtfully, looked the girl up and down. “You will have to take charge of them until their mother returns from work.”

Andy nodded. “I c'n look after 'em,” she answered. “But I ain't workin' fer Mizz. Priestly. I'm here visitin',” she explained.

“You can't leave us here with her!” one of the twins asserted. “We don't know her! She's not somebody that Mom would have here! She might be a burglar!”

The woman cocked her head. “Now girls, I've had enough of your fabrications,” she declared stridently. “You were less than truthful about what happened in the cafeteria, and you neglected to mention that you knew full well that your father was out of the country!”

The twins looked resigned to the verbal defamation when Andy, who had been watching the trio in the foyer, shook her head. “Yer wrong ta talk to 'em like that,” she stated, her tone suddenly strong and sure. “They didn't do what ya think they did. It's the one that told on 'em ya need to look to. Under her roommate's bed ye'll find th' proof.”

The twin's escort defiantly shook her head. “The investigation has already been done, and the girls had a hearing before the Student Disciplinary Committee. They were found responsible. They were properly suspended by the rules of the school...” she insisted.

Andy met the woman's eyes and she smiled a small, wicked smile. “That's what ya want ta believe, but as sure as the others are, ya ain't sure.” She looked at the twins and jutted with her chin. “Them is 'Randa Priestly's children. How'd ya think she's gonna react when she learns ya have punished them falsely? Ya really want ta be one of tha ones on the receivin' end when Mizz Priestly brings em back ta school on the Lord's Day?” Andy chuckled, an unearthly and sinister sound. “I wouldn't want ta be one o' them. Mizz Priestly ain't 'xactly th' forgivin' sort.”

The proper woman paled, and the twins looked at Andy dubiously. Andy cocked her head the other way. “Y'all run along now. Ya leave th' girls with me. I'll see ta what they need till their Mama comes home. By th' way,” Andy asked, as if it were an afterthought, “what is y'all's name? I'm sure Mizz Priestly's gonna ask me, so's I needs ta know.”

“I am Miss Isabel Simmons,” the woman said somewhat nervously. “I am the vice principal, female student disciplinarian, and the twin's etiquette instructor.”

“Miss Isabel Simmons,” Andy repeated. “I'll be sure ta tell Mizz Priestly that y'all was kind enough ta bringing her young-uns home.”

The woman paled again and, after saying a quick farewell to the twins, fled out front door.

Andy turned and gazed at two virtually identical sets of eyes staring back at her, one hostile the other curious.

“Who are you, and what are you doing in our house!?” Demanded the one with mannerisms so much like her mother's.

“ 'M Andy,” the woman from the swamp said sullenly. “And I ain't no burglar,... 'm a witch...”

*****

The summons to report immediately to Miranda's office arrived almost as soon as Serena had reached her desk. She quickly gathered notes on everything she was working on so that she would have answers immediately at her fingertips for whatever questions Miranda might have. She rushed to the elevator and endured the seemingly longest two-floor trip of her life. She knew that Miranda was actually intending to call her on the carpet, and she suspected why.

When she arrived in Miranda's outer office, Emily wouldn't even make eye contact, and Serena suddenly wondered if her quest to win the Englishwoman's heart might have just gotten her fired. She decided that her only choice was to brazen it out and face the Dragon. Walking into Miranda's presence with her head up she asked, “You wanted to see me?”

Miranda sat at her light table, using a magnifying glass to inspect negatives from a recent photo shoot. “I want to know what you think you're doing,” she said in a tone that Serena knew screamed to duck and cover.

Serena sighed softly. “Not what you think Miranda,” she answered softly. “Andy is helping me with a personal problem.”

“Personal problem?” Miranda virtually whispered. “What kind of personal problem could a girl who's lived her whole life in the nineteenth century help you with Serena?” She asked incredulously. “You're a modern woman, and she...she is a child out of her element.”

Serena's eyes widened and, letting her fiery Brazilian temperament flare, spoke without thought for possible consequences. “Miranda,” she shook her head and replied impassionedly, “she's not a child. You need to understand that. She came here for you. Left everything she's ever known because she wants to be with you. That's the only thing that's in her heart. Anything she does for me is because she feels she owes me for bringing her here!”

Miranda stiffened in her chair, “I think,” she said, her tone low and dangerous, “that you are forgetting who you're talking to.”

“I was here, Miranda,” Serena replied emphatically. “I saw how happy you were when I first brought her into your office. I saw you regain something you thought you'd lost. God, Miranda, I thought you were beautiful before that moment! But in that split second that she came around from behind me, you lit up. I saw what I thought was perfect truly achieve perfection. No one has ever been as beautiful as you were in that moment.”

“You saw nothing!” Miranda growled quietly. “It is fairly important to your future employment in this industry that you remember that, Serena,” she continued ominously. “I rely on your discretion. In fact I insist on it.”

“You'll have my discretion, Miranda,” Serena answered, and then the woman from Brazil sighed and looked away from where Miranda sat. "You have nothing to fear from me in regard to Andy's affections. I have lost my heart to another. It is that which Andy is helping me with. She will do a spell for me to win the heart of the person I love.

Miranda glared at the woman before her. “Are you telling me that you believe Andrea is a witch?” She demanded incredulously.

“Don't you?” Serena asked, surprised. “Open your eyes and your mind Miranda! Certainly you can see that she's not like anybody else you've ever met! There is something primal and unworldly about her. Something not of the here and now.” The Brazilian beauty shook her head and met Miranda's eyes. “I was born and raised in a place where the other world and those with a connection to it are things that are quietly accepted,” she said. “I believe in her power. It's not a joke. It's what she is. And If you cannot bring yourself to believe in it, you can't believe in her. If you can't believe in her, Miranda, then she won't be able to stay here with you.”

Comforted by twenty-first century surroundings and memories of the primal fear she'd felt while in the swamp fading into forgetfulness, Miranda looked at the woman before her disbelievingly. “She is nothing more than a disadvantaged girl from a backward place,” the icon asserted in her terribly quiet Runway voice. “And you shouldn't be entertaining her fantasies.” At that moment the telephone on Miranda's desk buzzed. Miranda looked at it angrily, having instructed Emily not to disturb her, however there was one reason that Emily would disobey Miranda's injunction. The Icon reached out and pushed the intercom button.

“Miranda,” said Emily's voice through the electronic speaker on the intercom, “Your daughter Caroline is on line one.”

Miranda stabbed the lighted button on her phone and picked up the handset. “Bobbsey, how lovely to hear from you,” she said into the telephone handset. Glancing at the beautiful Brazilian standing before her deck, she covered the telephones mouthpiece and said, “We'll finish this discussion later. That's all.”

Serena's nod acknowledged that what was between them wasn't finished. She turned and, with dread in her heart about the coming confrontation, left the office.

Miranda turned her attention to the telephone call from her daughter. “Is everything all right, Bobbsey?"

“Mummy, there is a strange woman in the house,” the girl all but whispered from her end of the telephone line.

“In the house?” Miranda replied. “Bobbsey, where are you?”

“I'm at your house,” the girl said softly, her voice trembling a little.

“At my house?” Miranda said, confused. “Why are you not at the school? And if not the school, why are you not at your father's? Isn't it his week?”

“We got suspended, but it wasn't our fault!” the young girl on the telephone said with tears in her tone, evidently aware her mother was going to be angry. “Daddy is away on business, and his housekeeper wouldn't take responsibility for us. So Miss Simmons brought us here, but the Nanny and the Housekeeper aren't here, and there's this strange woman. Mummy, she says she's a witch!”

“She's not a witch, Bobbsey” Miranda replied softly. “She's a confused girl from a backward place. Her name is Andrea.”

“But Mummy, what is she doing here?” her daughter asked.

“She's...,” Miranda started, and then the truth tied her vocal cords. The situation was ludicrous. How was she to explain, even to her own children, that she had fallen under the spell of a rural, uneducated backwater girl half her age. She could not reasonably explain the situation she found herself in, even to her daughter. “She's helping Mummy out with an article for the magazine, Bobbsey,” Miranda answered, smoothly lying to her child. “Mummy is doing a before and after piece,” the plausible excuse flowing all too easily past her lips. “Now Mummy needs to get back to work. I'll be home this evening, and we will discuss this suspension you and your sister seemed to have earned yourselves. In the meantime, be kind to Andrea. She is a long way from her home, and I'm sure she's finding things very strange.”

“Yes, Mummy,” Caroline answered, and Miranda hung up the phone without so much as a goodbye, her mind turning to the endless work she needed to attend to.

*****

“She has golden hair, 'n she's a bit older than y'all,” Andy said, stroking the Tarot card she had just laid on the table.

Cassidy excitedly watched as the strange young woman again went to the deck and added another card to the growing reading she was doing. “Yeah, she's a real skanky bitch,” Cassidy offered flippantly, her eyes watching for the young woman's reactions to her use of the harsh words.

Andy's hand paused, card half way to the table. “Don't rightly know what that word skanky means,” she said quietly, “But I 'spect that your Mama would pin your ears back if she heard ya use that other word.” She looked at the girl. “Ya gots the blessin' of a real education. Been taught ta talk proper 'n ladylike. Y'all should use what'ch learned. No reason fer ya ta be a stupid, ignorant gal like me.”

Cassidy looked with surprise at her mother's guest. “You're not stupid,” she insisted. “You can read the Tarot and do spells and stuff.”

Andy shook her head sadly. “Never had no schoolin'. Can't read nor write neither.”

Both girls looked at the young woman in shocked surprise.

*****

Miranda stood fuming, watching twilight fall on the cityscape, visible from her office window. She was angry with herself, and, for the first time in her memory, she was frightened. She was Miranda Priestly, the very epitome of focused action. She hated indecision more than anything. Yet she didn't know what to do about the yearning inside her.

She had sent Andrea away after lunch and yet, somehow, it was she, Miranda, that had suffered punishment. She was trapped in a conundrum. She was in love with a woman she really didn't know. A backwoods girl that had no idea how to comport herself in Miranda's world. Miranda was the Ice Queen, the Dragon Lady, the pinnacle of the fashion industry and a favored subject of the paparazzi. She was under siege in her position at Runway, her power base diminishing while her nemesis Irv Ravitz' was growing. The two sides of herself were at war. She dared not tell the truth about the young woman staying in her home. To do so would make her the laughing-stock of not only the tabloid press, but of the social circles that she associated with. Under attack as she was in the office and struggling to keep her power, she knew that she could not afford the kind of public ridicule knowledge of her relationship would generate. The masses would assume that Miranda had brought this ignorant, poor girl from the swamp to be her sex toy. Such speculation would weaken her position severely. Trapped between what her heart wanted and what her rational mind was telling her, she came to the decision that at least for the foreseeable future Andy must remain her “dirty little secret."

*****

Caroline and Cassidy watched Andy as she mixed beans into rice, and the heavenly smell of baking corn bread that they had helped make from scratch wafted up from the oven. The afternoon had passed easily in this strange woman's company. Caroline had been lured in by hearing Andy read Cassidy's cards and then allowed the woman to read hers. She was amazed at how insightful the card reading was as to whom she was and what she was feeling. A cold shiver had run down her back, and Andy's eyes had come up from the cards as if she herself had felt it. “Ya don't needs ta be a-feared of me, Caroline,” she said softly, her face lighting up in a warm smile. “I'll die 'fore I let either of ya ever come ta harm.” Caroline thought of the fact that this ragged dressed vision had not mistaken one girl for the other all afternoon, simply knowing which identically dressed twin was which. A skill that no one but their Mother seemed to possess and which Andy seemed to do as naturally as breathing.

The girls had fun taking Andy around the house, trying to glean what she did and did not understand of their world. This had begun when they tried to get her to play on their video game console with them, and they realized Andy had no idea what a television was. They watched with interest while she gazed with fascination at the flickering images on the scene.

After that it was a race around the house, showing her items that they could not imagine living without. Washing machine, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, a stove that didn't have to be lit with a match. They intuitively realized Andy could help them sort through and understand the complex emotions and confusion they were experiencing from their feelings of abandonment due to their mother's multiple divorces and her grueling work schedule. They were also contending with what they were experiencing physically with their bodies changing as they entered puberty. All of this language they had picked up from hours spent with therapists that had never done either of them a lick of good, as the therapists were happy to spout it out but never really took the time to understand that what they might need to do was some hand holding by explaining things in simple terms to a couple of scared and lonely little girls. The twins realized that Andy could help them, and they could help this woman adjust. They could teach her about their world and help her make sense of items in the house that she apparently had never seen before. Before what Andy had called a wash day dinner was served and thoroughly enjoyed, the twins had made a new friend.

*****

In the back of the town car on the way home Miranda again ruminated on her workplace situation. Things had not gone smoothly at Runway during the remainder of the day, and she found herself leaving later than she had intended. She was surrounded by incompetence at work and seemingly had to micromanage far more of the decision-making process than she should have to considering the salaries she paid her department managers. That, coupled with the fact that she was virtually under siege from the political machinations of Irv Ravitz's plotting, caused her mood to sink completely into discontent.

To top it off, Andrea's sweet smile and quiet encouragements had been absent since she had sent the girl to the townhouse just after lunch. It had made the afternoon hard to bear. Miranda's quandary had, if anything, become more tangled since her decision of this afternoon to keep her association with Andrea a secret from the public at large. It would require that the girl no longer go into the office with her each day. Which in turn would mean that the girl's soothing smiles, comforting short caresses, and calming words would not be available to Miranda when she might desire and need them. In the back of the town car she consoled herself that tomorrow was Friday and she would have the weekend in Andrea's company; then she remembered that her daughters had been suspended from their school and would be home with them for the next three days. She closed her eyes and sighed softly. So the secrets must be kept even within Miranda's intensely private home-life.

She was roused from her reverie when the car came to a stop in front of the town house, and her chauffeur, Roy, opened her car door for her. She stepped from the car, and after dismissing Roy, she stalked to the front door. Opening it with her key, she stepped inside and encountered something she hadn't heard in her home for some time. She heard her children laughing. Surprised by the sound, she moved quietly towards its source and found her girls and the fey girl from the swamp engaged in a no-holds barred tickle fight on the floor of the formal living room. It was evident that even against two determined opponents, Andrea was holding her own. Caroline was down, and her ticklish midsection was being mercilessly tickled by not only Andrea but by her twin sister as well. This went on for a moment until Cassidy, seeing her chance, pounced and started tickling a distracted Andrea, who apparently was also quite ticklish. Caroline, gaining a moment's respite, regrouped and joined the attack on the laughing Andrea.

Miranda's heart swelled. Here, this fey creature from a primal place had brought her little girls' laughter back into her home. She swallowed hard against tears forming at the edges of her eyes. She stood in the doorway silently until Cassidy noticed her. There was a brief moment of the uncanny silent communication between the twins, and her daughters' laughter ceased. The game was suddenly over. Andrea looked up at the two preteens. “It's just yer Mama,” she said, trying to catch her breath from being tickled relentlessly. “She don't mind that we's playin.”

The twins looked solemn, and Andrea smiled up at Miranda from where she was stretched out on the floor. ”Hey, lil' birds,” the young brunette woman said, “y'all run ta yer rooms. Yer Mama and I need to have words 'fore she says som'thin' she's gonna regret.”

Miranda pursed her lips. “Andrea,” she said in that terribly quiet Runway voice that she used to terrify her employees. “I need to speak with my daughters about their behavior at school.”

Andy looked at Miranda and then smiled at the twins. “Git,” she insisted.

The twins, seeing a moment's reprieve from their mother's scathing diatribe, fled upstairs.

Miranda watched them go and then turned on Andrea. “You have NO right,” she said hostilely. “They are MY children!”

“An yer about ta make a fool of yerself in front of 'em. Bad enough ya did it in front of Miss Serena, but yer children are scared of ya. Unsure that ya love um. We needs ta fix that right quick, 'Randa” Andrea answered quietly in a practical sort of voice.

Miranda was taken aback. “They misbehaved at school. They were suspended. As their mother, it is my responsibility to see to their discipline...” she temporized as she tried regain control of the conversation.

Andrea cocked her head and smiled a small, knowing smile. “That nice Miss Simmons from th' school will be callin' in a bit,” she offered casually. “She'll tell ya that there's been an awful mistake. That yer girls didn't have nothin' ta do with what happened other than bein' in the wrong place at th' wrong time.”

Miranda looked at her guest skeptically. “How do you know this?” she demanded.

Andrea shrugged and toed the carpet with her beautiful bare feet. “Cause I told her where ta find the truth o' what happened, and she's more a-feared o' you than o' that nasty Mizz Swineford. That woman don't like you. Not even a lick. She's jealous o' what ya have and she's takin' it out on yer girls. She heard that yer girls started the ruckus, and then what really happened didn't matter no more. She didn't want ta hear the truth. She wanted ta punish yer daughters cause they're yer daughters.”

Miranda narrowed her eyes. Any attack on her daughters was simply not permissible. She held her tongue and watched Andrea stare down shyly at her feet.

“Miss Simmons didn't believe yer girls did anythin' wrong,” Andrea continued almost absently, apparently enjoying the feel of the lush carpet against her bare toes. “But when she tried ta speak fer em, she was overruled by all those lickspittles that want Mizz Swineford ta promote them ta the open position.” Andrea again cocked her head and looked up at Miranda. “What's th' open position, Randa? I don't understand that part,” she asked curiously.

Miranda stared at the girl. “How do you know what you know Andrea?” she asked. “How did you come by this? Did Miss Simmons tell you?”

Andrea shook her head. “I have the knowin', 'Randa. It's m' gift. I was born with it, just like m' Mama and her Mama and her Mama before her. I knows it same ways I knew that the bald-headed man was comin' ta find ya at Ol' Lucius' place. Just as I knows what's gonna happen twixt us when th' time comes.”

Miranda was distracted by the sudden ringing of the telephone. It sounded very loud in the nearly silent house. She turned and moved toward the kitchen so she could answer it. “We'll continue this discussion after I answer this call and have talked to the girls,” she stated.

Andrea drifted along behind her, almost as if dancing to a music only she could hear. When they passed the staircase leading to the second floor, Andrea turned and placing a lightning quick, feather light kiss on the older woman's cheek, she then bounded up the stairs. “We'll be waitin' on ya, 'Randa. Think ya may have som'thin' ta say ta yer daughters soon enough,” she said laughingly as she ascended the stairs.

Arriving in the kitchen, Miranda picked up the telephone receiver and put it to her ear. “Miranda Priestly,” she said into the mouthpiece.

“Ms. Priestly?” an unknown nervous voice said. “This is Miss Isabel Simmons. I'm the assistant principal in charge of discipline for female students at Mrs. Swineford's Acadamy? I brought your girls to your home this afternoon...”

“Because they were suspended for some transgression of the school's rules,” Miranda tersely
finished for the caller, suspecting that the woman on the other end of the phone was on the verge of babbling, for which Miranda had no patience. “What is it you have to tell me, Ms. Simmons?”

“Ms. Priestly, I'm afraid that there has been something of a miscarriage of justice,” the woman on the other end of the telephone call explained timidly. “We of the discipline committee had been led to believe that your daughters had started a violent altercation in the school cafeteria, but on further investigation we have discovered that we were mistaken and that the girls were not at fault. In fact, they tried to stop the confrontation when it occurred.”

“And where did you find this proof that you did not have it before your disciplinary committee suspended my daughters and returned them to my home without so much as a phone call to me?” Miranda asked, her voice dropping into the tone that often made people she used it on pale and quake in their shoes.

“I left your girls in the capable hands of one of your domestics, although if I were you, I'd look into hiring someone else. The girl can't speak properly and actually had the nerve to claim she was a guest in your home,” Ms. Simmons chuckled on the other end of the call. “Imagine, dressed like a rag-a-muffin and a guest in the Miranda Priestly's home!”

“Andrea is, in fact, a most welcome guest in my home, Ms. Simmons,” Miranda grated, now struggling to control her temper. “And how she chooses to dress during the day when no company is expected is of no concern to you!”

“Of...of course, Ms. Priestly. I'm sorry, I spoke out of turn,” the now frightened woman on the telephone stammered.

“As my daughters are apparently not suspended from your school, you can tell the attendance monitor that I will return them to the campus on Sunday. I expect them to be given full credit for all class time that your disciplinary committee’s incompetence caused them to miss. You can also tell Mrs. Swineford that I will expect her to meet with me and also to personally apologize to my girls upon my returning them to the school Sunday afternoon!” Miranda said in a deadly quiet tone. “Now Ms. Simmons, you said you'd found the evidence that cleared my daughters."

“Yes, Ms. Priestly.” Miss Simmons answered. “It was a video recording of the incident on one of the student's cell phones. The phone is the property of the roommate of the student that accused your daughters of starting the incident. The video makes it quite clear that your girls were not the ones to start the fight, and when it did begin they did their best to intervene and stop any violence. What I don't understand, Ms. Priestly, is how the young woman who was at your house could have known about the cell phone and was also able to tell me where it was hidden. As you know, students at Mrs. Swineford's Academy are not permitted to have cell phones on campus.”

“Andrea is a young woman of many unique gifts,” Miranda answered. “Good night, Ms. Simmons." And with that, Miranda disconnected the call, while herself wondering exactly how Andrea could have known.

*****

The twins were sulking in the playroom. “She's gonna kill us, then she's gonna ground us, like, forever,” whined Caroline.

“No she ain't,” Andy said softly as she rubbed Cassidy's back. “Ya needs ta relax, gal,” she said gently into the ear of the girl whose shoulders she was massaging. “Ya don't want ta have one of them panic attacks like ya done had before.”

Cassidy turned to look at Andy, and Caroline's surprised eyes also found her. “I haven't had one of those attacks for almost a year. How do you know about them?” the younger of the Priestly twins asked.

Andy shrugged. “I just knows stuff I needs ta know,” she answered earnestly. “It's sort o' like somethin' whispers stuff in m' ear. Like right now I know that if'n ya don't calm down an' breathe, yer gonna have one of them attacks, and we'll have a bunch o' men in blue uniforms muddying up your Mama's carpet ta bring ya air ta breathe from a bottle. An yer Mama wouldn't like that. Not a lick.”

Cassidy looked down. “Mom is gonna be mad. We got suspended,” the girl almost whispered as her breath became shorter. “Once she's off the phone, she's gonna rip us a new one.”

Andy smiled. “No she ain't,” she said gently, touching the scared young girl's face. “Cause that there telephone call that just came? It was your Miss Simmons tellin' yer Mama that it was all a big mistake. And yer Mama gave that woman a right piece o' her mind, she did.”

The girls' eyes followed Andy as she rose from where she'd been rubbing Cassidy's back and watched as the fey young woman moved languidly toward the door to the hall. “Yer Mama is comin' ta talk ta ya. Yer gonna see everythin's gonna be all right,” Andy said as she passed out the door just before Miranda entered. “I'll go down an' make sure ya have some hot dinner waitin' fer ya when ya's done talking ta yer daughters,” Andy offered to Miranda in passing.

“Girls,” Miranda said softly, looking at the scared faces of her two prides and joys. Her heart wrenched, and she realized that Andrea was right. Her girls were scared of her, and in that moment she knew that the existing state of affairs of their relationship was completely unacceptable and must change in the immediate future. “That was Ms. Simmons...” she began, making sure her tone was gentle.

*****

Miranda sat at the kitchen table, surprised at the amount she'd eaten. Usually she picked at her food, but tonight she'd eaten with appetite. The food was common. Beans and rice and cornbread. A tasty green salad completed the meal. Everything was delicious, and it was the best meal Miranda could remember having in a very long time.

Although her daughter's had eaten earlier, they had sat at the table with their mother and Andy and enthusiastically engaged in conversation with the two adults, including sharing the story of how the salad had contained dandelion leaves, which they had never before heard of, and how they and Andrea had gone out into the neighborhood to collect the greens to include in their dinner. It was the first time in a very long time, in Miranda's mind, that there had been laughter and a feeling of "family" at the kitchen table. It was a feeling that she had to admit to herself that she had missed.

Now her girls had gone upstairs to prepare for bed, leaving her and the girl from rural Florida alone in the kitchen. She was acutely aware of Andrea sitting at the other end of the table and shyly watching her eat. “You were very good with my girls this afternoon,” she offered as she sipped a cup of after-dinner coffee that Andrea brought her.

Andrea nodded. “They's good girls,” she answered earnestly. “And things is gonna be all right now fer a bit,” she continued as she lifted a ripe strawberry from a small plate before her and sensuously bit into it.

Miranda watched the red juice on the beautiful young woman's lips and felt a strong urge to stand and go to her. A wanton image formed in her mind of her tongue licking the nectar from the pink lips, and as her body clenched in reaction to that image she imagined licking the sweet sticky juice from other parts of the luscious body before her. “What are you doing to me?” the older woman whispered, almost unaware that she'd spoken aloud.

“I be witchin ya,” the fey girl replied softly, looking across the table and deeply into Miranda's eyes. “I be weavin' m' love and carin' about yer heart and bindin' it ta the love and carin 'round mine.”

“Are you saying you are casting a spell on me?” Miranda asked, feeling as if she were in a dream.

Andrea shook her head. “Can't use spells on ya fer love nor hate,” she answered, her eyes smiling. “Wouldn't work. Fate says we're ta be tagether. Nothin' me nor you do can make no difference.” The girl rose up from her chair and stalked slowly, like some beautiful predator, toward Miranda's seat. “'M gonna kiss on ya some now, Randa, like you did me when we was at Ol' Lucius' shack.”

Miranda watched her come as if in a dream. She desperately wanted to taste the fey girl's lips again. Desperately wanted what she had experienced momentarily while in that primeval place. That perfect clarity, that childlike joy, that feeling that everything was so simple and all she had to do to live the rest of her life in total happiness was to give in and naively run away to some patch of wilderness and live with this beautiful fairy there. Her mind turned, reason reasserted itself, and something slammed shut inside her. “If you're not casting a spell on me, then what are you doing?” She demanded quietly.

The girl stopped, just an arm's length away, and her demeanor was suddenly more reserved and tinged with a touch of sadness. “I was lettin' m' heart sing ta yourn. Lettin' ya feel me. Feel what I'm feelin',” she answered, her face no longer radiating the unbridled joy it had been a moment ago. “Ya could do tha same,” she said sadly, “iffin ya'd just let go an' allow yerself ta.”

“Such things are fantasy, Andrea,” Miranda stated flatly. “One cannot see into another's heart,” the older woman said, taking refuge in her Ice Queen persona.

Andrea shook her head sadly. “Ya just won't let yerself see,” she said quietly. “There's only so much time, 'Randa, an' when it's gone, it'll be gone...”

*****

Upstairs the twins had chosen to bed down together as they often did if uncertain about anything. The school, of course, forbid this. They had even gone so far as to assign the girls to separate dorm rooms, each with their own roommate. There was a polite fiction maintained among the students living in the dorm that the twins actually slept in their separate rooms and didn't live together.

Laying on the bed, Cassidy looked across the narrow space between her and where her sister lay. “What do you think of Andy?” she asked in a whisper.

Caroline, lying on her back, stared at the ceiling and whispered her reply. “Did you notice that she's known us apart all day? Right from the first she's never called you by my name or me by yours.”

Cassidy nodded and smiled. “She knows stuff too. Those readings she did with her Tarot cards were amazing. All those things she knew about us. About our lives...”

Caroline shivered. “She knew that Miss Simmons would find that phone and that what was on it would get us out of trouble with Mom. And she knew about your panic attacks...” The elder of the twins turned to face her younger sister. “How can she do that?” she whispered, her eyes scared.

“She told us, silly,” Cassidy answered. “She's a witch...

Caroline looked away. “You think maybe she would have a spell or something that would make Mom happy?” The elder twin whispered.

Cassidy snorted. “Mom happy?” she asked incredulously. “That would take more than a witch; that would take a freaking miracle...”

*****

The early light of dawn Friday morning found Miranda leaving the townhouse and on the way to her office, uncomfortably aware that she no longer held the upper hand at Runway. A late night telephone call from one of her allies on the board of directors had alerted her to Irv Ravitz' latest machinations. Irv had arranged a breakfast meeting of the board, and Miranda had again been warned that undermining her control of her beloved magazine was on the agenda. As the editor-in-chief of a major Elias-Clarke publication, Miranda had the right to attend any board meeting called. Although she wouldn't have a vote in the outcome, she could certainly be there to state her magazine's case and do what she could to minimize any damage Irv intended to inflict.

*****

The twin's, no longer in trouble with their mother, ergo, no longer grounded, were free to do as they pleased with the sudden long weekend. Waking leisurely, delicious unknown smells tempted them from their beds and drew them down to the kitchen where they found Andy at the stove. The woman turned and smiled at the girls as they entered the room. “Fixin' breakfast fer y'all,” she said, her voice singsong. “Somethin' tells me y'all are gonna like m' griddlecakes. Even found some black strap molasses ta go on um.”

The girls watched fascinated as Andy poured batter into a hot frying pan and swirled her wrist to make the batter coat the bottom of the pan. In just moments she flipped a griddlecake onto a plate, handing it to Caroline. “Ya don't eat no meat, so this here griddlecake gots cheese and green apples in it. Ya goes ta the table and put some of that molasses on that an' take a bite.” She turned to Cassidy as she poured more batter into the pan and then crumbled crisp bacon into the cooking cake. “Yours'll be done in a flash with lots 'o bacon, just as ya like.”

The girls were once again amazed at Andy's seemingly intimate knowledge of each of them. They did as instructed, and in moments they were moaning their appreciation for the hot treat on their breakfast plates. As Andy poured milk for them, one of the twins asked, “So, what you want to do today?”

There was silence in the room, as Andy, not realizing the question had been directed at her, waited to hear what was said.

Caroline chimed in, “Would you like to see some of the city? I'm sure mom wouldn't mind us showing you a little, as long as you're with us.”

Andy thought for a moment, and then, with eyes glittering, answered, “Well, if 'n you're sure yer mama wouldn't mind, I would like ta go see a cat 'bout teachin' a man good manners...”

Chapter Text

It was easily done. After breakfast was over and the girls had convinced a skeptical Andy that she didn't have to wash the plates and pots by hand, that the dishwasher would, in fact, do that job for her, Cassidy got the name of the store from Andy, Cassidy got on the internet, and in just a few minutes they knew which subway lines they needed to take. A quick discussion about money, and Andy had given the girls one of her twenty-dollar gold pieces for a twenty-dollar bill. Then the three were off.

Thirty minutes later found them far across the city from the townhouse and looking at a store that advertised itself as a place for Wiccans to get anything they might want or need. Andy looked at the twins. “Ya all go on inside and have a look 'round. Then one of ya ask the man with th' cat for a bundle o' sage. When he goes ta get it, the other of ya open the door as if yer comin' back out here. The cat'll shoot out o' the door like its tail's a'fire, an' I'll have a chance t' have a word with it.”

Caroline looked at the woman they were with. “You're going to talk to a cat,” she stated flatly.

Andy nodded. “Won't send its soul to that other place without askin' its permission. I just needs ta know that it's all right ta borrow its body fer a little while. Boy think's he's a witch. Says he gots a familiar. But a familiar gots an old soul. Cat ain't got no old soul. So I'm gonna give it one fer a bit. I wants the boy ta see what a familiar really is. I wants him ta learn what he's messin' with. What's out there in th' dark, so's he'll stop thinkin' he knows everythin'. I wants his soul safe so somethin' that is out there don't eat it."

Cassidy looked at Andy with awe. “You really are a witch, aren't you?” she asked breathlessly.

“Mama called it bein' a wise-woman, but most call it a witch,” Andy answered, her eyes focused on the front window of the shop. “Buy th' bundle o' sage, Caroline. We'll burn it when we gets back ta the house and bless th' rooms. Chase off some of th' bad spirits that all th' unhappiness that's happened there has called up.”

Caroline nodded her understanding as she turned toward the shop. Cassidy continued to look at Andy. “Do you have a familiar?” she asked, still awed by this other-worldly woman.

Andy nodded, her mind still focused on her purpose. “Yep,” she answered absently. “His name's Ol' Toothless, an' he's the biggest gator round 'bout the parts where I live.”

Cassidy listened to the fey woman's answer and then followed Caroline across the street and into the store.

*****

Cassidy watched from just outside the store's doorway as the cat stopped in its headlong journey to Andy only long enough to look both ways before crossing the street.

Caroline stepped outside the door and handed her sister a small bag. “When we get home,” she said to her twin quietly, “watch what she does with the sage. I bought a second bundle so we can take one back to school with us and do our dorm room, too.”

Cassidy looked at her sister, surprised, “I thought you didn't believe in all this witch stuff,” she said, taking the bag.

Caroline shrugged. “Maybe I don't, but maybe I'm starting to believe in Andy,” she almost whispered, her eyes going across the street and observing the strange fey woman holding a conversation with a cat that was peacefully seated before her and looking up as if hanging on every word.

A moment later the cat again crossed the street, but there was something different in the way it moved now, its gait a strut, its back arched, its demeanor as if it had all the time in the world and would do exactly as it pleased. Arriving at Caroline's feet, where she stood close to the door, it looked expectantly up at her and meowed loudly. Caroline opened the door. The cat looked at the man dressed in black and hissed conspicuously before, tail up and twitching, it entered.

Andy crossed the street to join them, a satisfied little smirk on her face.

Cassidy glanced up at her, eyes worried. “The cat will be okay won't it, Andy?” She asked in a small voice.

Andy smiled down at the girl. "Cat's name is Cockroach-Hunter-Pounces-From-Shadows. And he's visitin' fer a bit with his kinfolk that have gone on to that other place. When he come's back, he won't 'member nothin' 'cept that it was a good dream.” She glanced into the front of the store. “Now that boy will learn what he's messin' with, 'fore he can hurt hisself or anybody else.”

*****

The rest of the morning was spent wandering Manhattan with the twins excitedly showing Andy their favorite places. Eventually, they retired to the townhouse, and Andy started to teach them how to make chicken with biscuits and gravy for dinner.

*****

Friday afternoon about three o'clock, Serena saw her chance to connect with Hattie again. Emily was tied to her desk as some kind of Runway-related crisis was occurring that did not involve Serena's department. When Serena stopped by to say hello, Emily lamented over the fact that the second assistant was going to have to leave her desk to gather Miranda's Saint Bernard, Patricia, from the groomer's and return her to the townhouse. “I don't know what I'm going to do,” Emily said, obviously perturbed. “Miranda wants this done before she leaves, and with that bloody girl out of the office, I'll have to watch the phones as well as try to get this report corrected!”

Serena nodded. “I don't have anything on my desk that can't wait a few hours,” she said, smiling at the redhead she was so gone on. “Why don't I go get Patricia and take her to Miranda's place?”

Emily looked up at the beautiful Brazilian woman. “You'd do that?” She asked, almost breathlessly.

Serena nodded. “I mean,” she said, “it won't be any trouble, right? Andy's there, so I don't even need a key. I'll just pick Patricia up from the groomer, take her home, and ring the doorbell. Andy can let the dog in, and I'll come right back to finish my work day. If you get done early enough, maybe we could even manage to stop for an after-work drink at that place you like.”

Emily smiled at the woman and, almost as an afterthought, she opened one of her desk drawers and rummaged around, removing a small, festive candy box from one of the trendy upscale chocolatiers on Fifth Avenue. She pushed the box across the desk. “If you're going there, would you give this to her?” Emily asked. “Tell her.....” she paused and then nodded to herself resolutely, "tell her that I'm sorry for us getting off on the wrong foot and I hope in some small way this gift will help us get along better in the future.” The English woman smiled. “Also,” she said, swinging one of her toned and luscious legs from under her desk to display what Serena knew immediately were unquestionably the sexiest pair of shoes she'd ever seen on any woman's foot, anywhere, ever. “Tell her that they fit just like she thought they would, and they're even comfortable to wear.”

Serena swallowed hard and nodded dumbly. Taking the small box of chocolates, she rushed from Miranda's outer office and back down to her desk before leaving to pick up Patricia. Last night she'd managed to find the last of the botanicals on the list Andy had dictated to her in an obscure herbalist shop in Chinatown. Now all she was lacking of the ingredients for the love potion that Andy had said she'd need was the lizard's tail and the graveyard earth, gathered at the dark of the moon. Serena still hadn't made any headway in where one might purchase such things in twenty-first century New York City. She gathered up the bag that contained the spell components and hurried on her way, anxious to talk to the Swamp Witch and see if the woman might have any insights on where to get such items.

*****

Serena stood at Miranda's door with Patricia docilely panting next to her, and after taking a deep breath, she pressed the doorbell. She could hear the faint sounds of someone running down the stairs before the door was wrenched open. A young redhead with blue eyes stared at her a moment before extending her hand for Patricia's leash. Blinking, Serena said, “Hi. I'm Serena. Are you Caroline or Cassidy?”

“I'm Cassidy,” she replied. Then she looked at the woman impertinently. “I haven't see you before,” she said haughtily. “Did Mom fire another assistant?”

“No,” Serena smiled. “I'm just helping out because things are busy in your mom's office, and her assistants are needed there right now.” She glanced in the doorway. “Would it be all right for me talk to Andy for a few minutes?” she asked, now wondering how she was going to keep Miranda's daughter from mentioning her visit to Miranda. Serena had a strong intuition that Miranda would not react well to the knowledge that she had come here to see the woman from the rural South.

“You know Andy?” Cassidy asked inquisitively.

Serena nodded. “I was with your mom on the photo shoot in Florida when she met Andy. I traveled with Andy when she came up here. We're friends, sort of.”

Cassidy took Patricia’s leash and nodded . "Why don't you come inside? Andy's reading Caroline's Tarot cards.” The girl before her smiled mischievously. “Caroline is trying really hard not to believe that Andy's a witch, but Andy's been telling Caroline stuff about herself all morning that nobody but Caroline and me know," the young girl said excitedly.

Serena nodded. “I don't suppose that there's any way you might not mention my visit to your mother?" she asked. “She might not like me stopping to say hi.”

Cassidy looked at the woman suspiciously. “Why would mom be mad at you? You brought Patricia home.”

“Yes,” Serena replied, “But it's really your mom's assistant's jobs, and I'm trying to help one of them out so she can be at her desk, taking care of what's going on there.”

Cassidy looked at the woman warily as if considering what had been said, and Serena, having heard the stories Emily had whispered about the pranks the twin terrors had inflicted on Miranda's hapless assistants who had entered their domain, was suddenly concerned about what she might have to do to buy her silence.

“Yer Mama thinks Miss Serena an' me m'be sparkin'. She done already read Miss Serena th' riot act 'bout it fer misunderstandin' her takin' me ta a store so's I could get some stuff fer potion makin',” Andy said, smiling at the beautiful Brazilian woman from the doorway to one of front rooms of the house.

“Sparkin?” Caroline asked from directly behind Andy, and the mirror image of the girl Serena was following stuck her head around the dark-haired woman and peered at her.

“Kissin' 'n huggin' 'n th' like. Ya know, stuff what goes on twixt lovers,” Andy answered simply and without pretense.

Caroline looked at Andy and then Serena. “That would mean that you liked girls rather than boys,” she said softly.

Andy looked at Caroline meaningfully and nodded. “Yep," she answered gently. “The cards told me so a long time ago, an' I's never had no reason ta doubt what they said. Told me that m' true 'n forever love 'ould be a woman, 'n that I had ta wait fer her comin' ta fetch me near the Black Water."

“You're going to be making a potion?” Cassidy interrupted excitedly.

Andy turned to Miranda's other daughter and nodded. “Iffin' Miss Serena brought all the stuff ta make it,” she answered, again without artifice.

“I have everything but the lizard's tail and the graveyard earth,” Serena replied softly.

Andy looked at her and shook her head, her lips firming into a frown. “Potion ain't gonna work without those two things,” she said flatly.

“I don't know where to get them, Andy,” Serena whined. “It's not like you can just go to a store and buy what I'm missing! I've been to every Wiccan and Voodoo shop in the city. I scoured every herbalist in Chinatown and most of the plant shops in the city just to find the other components,” the beautiful Brazilian complained. “It's not stuff you can just find anywhere!”

Andy shrugged, “Till we does find it, we won't be makin' ya no love potion,” she answered.

“A love potion! That's soooo cool!” Cassidy exclaimed.

Caroline had fallen silent, her eyes on Andy. She smiled shyly and, stepping closer to the woman from near the town of Slippery Bottom, inconspicuously slipped her hand into Andy's.

“So," Cassidy said. “What is it you need?” she asked, her eyes twinkled mischievously as she looked at Serena. “And who are you giving the potion to?”

“I don't think that's really a proper question to ask someone,” Serena replied, suddenly feeling very trapped.

Cassidy smiled wickedly. “Sort of depends on if you don't want Mom to find out about your visit here today, doesn't it?” she answered, with a cat-to-canary smile.

Serena swallowed. “Lizard's tail and graveyard earth, gathered at the dark of the moon,” she answered, feeling silly telling this to a girl not yet half her age, almost as if she were whispering ghost stories around a campfire.

Cassidy merely glanced toward Andy, who seemed to be having a quiet word with Miranda's other daughter, before looking back, her expression calculating. "And who is it for?"

Serena groaned, and her shoulders slumped. Well, if she hadn't been sure of Cassidy's parentage before, that sharp look and air of expectation pervading the girl was enough to convince her that she would not be leaving the townhouse with her secret of unrequited love kept safe an unrevealed.


*****

Miranda returned home from work after seven P.M.. Entering the kitchen of the townhouse she was surprised to find her daughters setting the table and wonderful smells emanating from the stove, where Andy stood in one of her tattered sundresses, stirring a pot. Again her two beautiful daughters were laughing and, if Miranda had to consider how to describe their demeanor, joyful. They turned and smiled at their mother in a way that she had not seen in such a very long time. The beauty of it made Miranda's heart ache. She knew, deep down inside, that the slip of a girl who sometimes called herself Hattie, had bewitched her girls every bit as much as she had bewitched her.

*****

Late in the evening found Caroline and Cassidy lying side by side on Cassidy's bed in her room. Cassidy was very aware that her sister had been somewhat quiet during the evening. Caroline was usually the ringleader of the two, the one who instigated things, but tonight she had been reserved, almost withdrawn. Cassidy knew something was bothering her sister. “So what's eating you, Caro?” she asked softly.

“Why do you think Mom would be upset if Serena was interested in Andy romantically?” Caroline virtually blurted.

It was Cassidy's turn to go quiet, surprised by the question. She considered it for a moment. “Haven't got a clue,” she answered. “Why do you think so? Besides, why would you care?”

Caroline nodded. “Andy knew something about me that I haven't told anyone,” she said, looking at her sister with wide, scared eyes.

“Nobody but me, you mean,” Cassidy replied, knowing that they shared everything.

Caroline shook her head. “I've been trying to tell you for a while, but every time I've thought I had the nerve, I've chickened out.”

Cassidy rolled over and looked at her sister, her best friend, her other self. “You can tell me anything, Caro, you know that. We're part of each other."

Caroline shook her head. “I'm not sure you'll want to be part of me anymore if I tell you,” she whispered, and through the intimate bond they shared, Cassidy could feel her sister's fear and could tell her mirror image was about to break down into tears. “Hey,” she said softly, reaching out and stroking her beloved sister's cheek. "Whatever it is, it'll be okay. This is me, remember? All for one, and one for all?”

Caroline swallowed hard and closed her eyes, a single tear escaping and running down her cheek. “I think I'm gay,” she whispered. "I've thought so for a while now, but I was afraid to say anything to anybody. When you left the room today to answer the door, the cards told Andy that I was. She's okay with it. She told me so when the cards told her. And later, after Serena left, she told me that the cards have told her that the only person she'll ever love is another woman. She told me that Serena's not the one, but she came here from where she lives in Florida to be with the one that the cards say she's supposed to be with. And she's living here in our house, with Mom, who's never had anybody other than us and those stupid men she married after she divorced Dad live here.”

“And we both know she didn't really love those two losers,” Cassidy answered, her tone bitter. Her thoughts continued to turn on what her sister was saying, and her eyes opened wide with astonishment. Her jaw dropped open. “Don't you think she's a little old for you, Caro?” she exclaimed, only half joking.

“I was thinking more along the lines of don't you think she's a little young for Mom?” Caroline swallowed, the words flowing out, almost against her will.

Cassidy's eyes opened wider and her mouth was a perfect “O”. She knew that Caroline was a lot more like her mother than she was. She knew that her sister could read her mother's moods and what she was thinking a good deal of the time. “Are you saying you think she's here for Mom?” she asked.

Caroline shrugged. “I think it might be a good thing if we considered the possibility,” she answered. “Mom went down to Florida, went into the swamp where Andy lives. Brought Andy out and back here with her...”

Cassidy thought for a long moment and then looked at her sister. “If you are gay,” she said quietly, “it doesn't make any difference to me. You're my sister and my best friend forever. If you want to date girls instead of guys, it's no big thing.” She stopped for a moment before continuing “And if Andy could make Mom happy, her being with Mom wouldn't be any big thing, either.”

Caroline reached over and fiercely hugged her sister to her. “I love you, Cass,” she whispered.

I love you too, Caro,” Cassidy answered just as quietly.

*****

Saturday was a day of revelations for Miranda as she watched her daughters interact with Andrea. The three of them played together and beckoning, drew Miranda into their games. By late afternoon Miranda was forced to admit that playing with her daughters and Andy had made her feel more alive than she had in as long as she could remember. After the twins had gone to bed, she and Andy continued to enjoy each others' company, and Miranda tarried a long while at Andy's bedroom door when they were preparing to part company for the night.

“T'morrow night, girls'll be gone,” Andy said, smiling her beautiful smile. “No reason fer us ta be partin' then.”

Miranda nodded. “Till tomorrow night then, Andrea,” she said softly and, leaning in, kissed the young woman goodnight.

*****

The doorbell to the townhouse rang just before ten o'clock Sunday morning. Opening the door Miranda was surprised to find Oliver Trumbleson, an elderly, extremely influential member of Elias-Clarke's Board of Directors and one of Miranda's longtime allies. He smiled at her wearily. “I'm sorry to drop by unannounced, Miranda, but I was hoping that we might have a few words.”

Miranda nodded. “Certainly, Oliver. Why don't you come inside. There's fresh coffee just on," she said, leading her guest into the front room of the house. “Andrea,” she called out. “Would you please prepare a tray of coffee? I have a guest.” Motioning to a comfortable chair, she took the one opposite.

“What brings you here today, Oliver?” she asked.

“Miranda, Irv's power among the board is growing. There will come a point,” he sighed, his demeanor regretful, “that he'll gain the upper hand. When that happens, his first goal will be to depose you and rework Runway.”

Miranda nodded. “I am aware of the power dynamic, Oliver. And I am also aware, as the board should be, that if Irv ever manages to have me removed as editor-in-chief, Runway will suffer. His attempt to put Jacqueline Follet in charge proves that. French Runway is losing market share in the European market with her at the helm. Elias-Clarke is profitable on the whole, but the majority of the magazines we publish do not generate a stable profit profile, as the year end reports have clearly demonstrated over the last several years. Runway is by far the most successful of those we have that are profitable consistently. Runway is the bedrock of Elias-Clarke's continued success.” She looked up as Andrea, smiling and dressed in a colorful cotton print Spring dress that Miranda had purchased for her to wear around the house, breezed in with a coffee service on a tray.

Andrea placed the tray on the coffee table, immediately and expertly preparing Miranda a cup and placing it in her hand. “Strong 'n hot, 'Randa, just like ya likes it,” she said, her rural Southern accent strongly flavoring her words. Then she turned to the man seated across from Miranda and smiled at him. “How does ya likes yer coffee, Mr. ...?”

Oliver smiled at the comely young woman before him. “ Trumbleson,” he replied pleasantly, “Oliver Trumbleson. Black with two sugars, please Miss...?”

Andrea prepared the cup and turning to hand it to Miranda's guest, continued to smile. “Most folks call me Hattie,” she replied. Oliver reached out and moved to take the cup and saucer from the young woman before him. As his fingers touched the edge of the saucer he felt a jolt of energy, like a spark of electricity but not. The girl before him started and a small amount of coffee sloshed out of the cup and into the saucer. Her eyes went dark, and the smile faded from her face. “I'll just leaves y'all ta yer business,” she said softly, quickly leaving the room.

“You hire charming help, Miranda,” the older man offered., a curious smile directed at his hostess.

“Andrea is not a domestic, Oliver, but a friend of the family, visiting from out of town,” she replied absently, having noticed Andrea's change of mood and wondering what it might portend.

Oliver nodded. “Back to the reason for my visit. Miranda, you need to understand that Irv doesn't care about Runway's profit profile as long as it remains in the black. He hates you with an unholy passion, and the fact that you've continued to get the better of him for years now only exacerbates matters. He wants you out, and he's bound and determined to get what he wants by hook or by crook. He seems to believe that he can weather whatever downturn in profits that might occur long enough for Runway to recover from losing you.” He shook his head and looked down into his cup of coffee. “Over the last three years we've seen quite a bit of attrition on the board of directors due to age. Each time Irv has put up the name of someone who owes him, and each time that individual has been elected to the board. As the balance of power stands now, I am the deciding vote in your favor. I won't be there forever.”

Miranda nodded. “Fortunately for us, Oliver,” she chuckled, “we are both still quite a few years from retirement.” She sipped her coffee and continued, “But I hear what you are saying. I am aware of the situation, and I am grateful for a friend and ally like you on the board.” Miranda looked up to see Andrea hovering in the doorway to the room.

“Ya gots a boy,” the woman from rural Florida said, obviously directing the observation at the older man.

Oliver looked up, surprised. “Yes, I have a son,” he answered, his tone melancholy.

“Ya ain't seen him in quite a spell. Ya ain't talkin' ta him,” the woman stated, her delivery absolute and without hesitation or doubt. She advanced on where he sat and, reaching across the space that separated them, grabbed his upper arm in a tight grip.

“Andrea!” Miranda said, flabbergasted. .

Oliver's eyes showed his shock and then his features relaxed. He looked at peace.

“No,” Oliver answered, “It's all right, Miranda. The young woman is correct. My son and I had a falling out some years ago. We haven't spoken in some time. I'd be curious to know how you know that, Ms. Hattie.” His eyes were on her with a look one could only call awe.

Andrea looked at the man, her eyes sad. “Ya needs ta go see him,” she breathed tightly. “Ya needs ta put the past behinds ya. Ya can't rests easy till ya does.” Again, her tone, although sympathetic and regretful, still brooked no doubt or question in what she said.

Oliver nodded. “I understand,” he said softly, offering the girl a sad smile and a nod of his head. The girl moved to stand in the doorway, stared at Oliver with an unreadable look in her eyes for several moments, and fled the room.

“Oliver,” Miranda offered softly, evidently embarrassed by the rural girl's outburst.

“It's quite all right, Miranda,” the man offered softly, gathering his coat and hat. “I hope you'll think about what I've said today. And it was an unusual pleasure meeting your guest.”

Miranda saw him out the door and after they had said their goodbyes she went to find Andrea, an uncertain dread plaguing her thoughts.

She found Andrea in the kitchen, sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth, looking out the French doors that led to the small backyard garden. “Andrea,” she said, more sharply than she had intended, “You can't...” The girl turned and looked up at the woman standing over her, and Miranda was shocked to see tears running down the beautiful face before her.

“He's sick 'Randa,” she almost whispered. “Dyin' sick. Ain't no cure, and he knows it. Has known it fer a while. Time now for him ta be puttin' paid ta things. Came ta ya taday ta try an' get ya ready fer what's comin'.”

“Sick?” Miranda stammered. “But how do you....you can't...”

Andy shook her head sadly. “I done tol' ya that I have th' knowin' 'Randa. Ya jus' won't allow yerself ta believe. It's my gift, as it was my Mama's a'fore me an' her Mama a'fore her and her Mama a'fore her an so on back. Been lots o' Hatties down the long years.”

Miranda looked up and toward the front door of the house. “So what you are saying is that Oliver came here to say...”

The woman who called herself Hattie nodded sadly. “He cares 'bout ya, 'Randa. Came ta warn ya and say his goodbyes ta ya. He knows he don't got long. He needs ta make his peace. With his boy 'specially, or he'll not rest easy, and the boy 'll blame himself from now till Judgment Day.”

Miranda reached out to help Andy up. As her hand closed on Andrea's shoulder, Andy gasped, “No, 'Randa, don't touch me!” But it was too late. Wave after wave of nausea and dizzying pain overwhelmed Miranda's senses. She suddenly felt exhausted, and she didn't understand what was happening to her. Suddenly she was afraid. Afraid of the coming darkness. She quickly removed her hand from Andrea as if burned. As soon as she was free of contact with Andrea, the pain, fear, and sick feeling receded from her. She looked at the girl on the floor with wide, frightened eyes.

“He's been carryin' it fer a long time 'Randa,” the girl rocking on the floor continued dolefully. “Been carryin' th' sick and th' pain and tryin' ta stomach th' poisons they've been pumpin' inta him ta try and cure what's been eatin' him from the inside out. Been all alone, knowin' that he's dyin' with no one to help him shoulder the load. I took it from him fer a little while. Took the sick and the pain and the fear. I'll carry it till he sees his boy. Better his boy's last remembrance of his daddy be a good 'un rather than one o' him sick and dyin'.”

Miranda swallowed hard. “What you are suggesting is not possible,” she whispered.

Andrea shook her head mournfully as she continued to rock and stare out the window. “Not where y'all come from,” she whispered dejectedly. “Cause ta do what I do, ya gots ta believe. And ye won't. Ye won't let yerself believe. It's gonna be the death of what's twixt us when the time comes, iffin ya can't bring yerself ta believe.”

Miranda, shaken right to her core, left Andrea sitting on the floor of the kitchen and retreated to her study with much to think about. She thought back over the last several board meetings she had attended and her recent meetings with Oliver. The man had changed, slowed from what he had been. Become quiet in the boardroom. His pallor had changed, and Miranda hadn't seen it. If Andrea was right, if Oliver was sick and not going to recover, not only was she going to lose one of her few friends, her tenuous hold on her position as editor-in-chief of Runway was in far greater jeopardy than she had believed when she had woken up that morning.

*****

The trip to return the twins to Mrs. Swineford's Academy so that they could attend their classes the following week turned into an impromptu dinner in a roadside restaurant and much laughter among the gathered family. Miranda was somewhat shocked that she was already thinking of Andrea as family, but being honest with herself, she also had to admit being both pleased and excited at the prospect. Her daughters had been most considerate during the trip, having recognized that Andy wasn't feeling well, and had both been quite solicitous about her welfare and comfort during the trip. Over the course of the drive to the school, they had begged shamelessly to be allowed to return to the townhouse next weekend to spend more time with Andy and their mother. Miranda, excited by the prospect that her daughters wanted to come home for a visit, was already considering things that the foursome might do the following weekend. The twins hadn't been to the zoo in a long time, and Andy had been fascinated by photographs of some jungle animals that Caroline had show her in a magazine the previous evening.

When they had arrived at the school just before dusk, Miranda left Andy with the twins in the girl's dorm room when she went to speak with Mrs. Swineford about the incident that had the twins wrongly suspended and to make very sure that such a thing never happened again.

Once in the dorm room, Cassidy immediately went to a calendar where it hung on the wall. She ran her finger across the displayed page. “Dark of the moon is Wednesday night,” she said, licking her lips. Then she glanced at Andy. “Is there some ritual or something that someone needs to do when they gather graveyard earth?”

Andy, who had been quiet much of the car ride, shook her head no. “Just needs ta be careful o' the spooks that'll be there. Always lot's 'o spooks 'round a boneyard.”

“And lizard tail, can it be any kind of lizard?” Cassidy asked curiously.

Andy nodded, apparently feeling unwell enough that she wasn't paying close attention.

A few minutes later Miranda arrived and, kissing her daughters goodbye, telling them that she had made arrangements for them to be sent by train back to Manhattan after their last class on Friday, and advising them that Roy would be on the platform to collect them for their return to the townhouse where Andrea would be present to greet them, she gathered up Andrea and left for home.

“What are you up to?” Caroline asked once their mother and Andy had departed.

Cassidy shook her head. “Nothing too serious, just going to arrange for another one of mom's employees to owe us big time.”

Caroline smiled evilly at the idea.

*****

Andy sat quietly beside her in the car on the return drive. Miranda was uncomfortably aware that Andrea was in severe discomfort. The girl had hidden it well from her daughters, but Miranda was good at reading people. She glanced in the rear view mirror and then at Andrea.
“Andrea,” she asked softly. “What is it, exactly, that you did for Oliver?”

“Told ya, 'Randa,” she answered. “I took his sick fer a time. I'm just feelin' what he's been carryin' around fer quite a spell.”

Miranda focused her eyes on the road. “Do you know what illness he has?” she asked, not quite believing that she was having this conversation.

“Don't rightly know what it's called,” the girl answered. “Know I ain't got the particular gizzard he's sick in. Know that the sick has spread from where it was ta his liver. It's the spread that's gonna be th' death o' him. Angel o' Death is just waitin' on him now, allowin' him ta do a couple o' things he need's ta do. Man o' strong will, Mr. Trumbleson. My hope is he'll be able ta lay his burden down 'n rest quiet when he goes on.”

Miranda listened to the cryptic answer and thought about what she'd heard in the car and at the house. Oliver was being eaten from the inside out and pumped full of poisons to try and cure him, according to Andrea. That smacked of cancer to Miranda. Now the witch-woman said that she didn't have the organ that he was sick in and that it had spread. Miranda wondered if Oliver might be suffering from prostate cancer that had metastasized to his liver. If that were the case, and if chemo wasn't working, Miranda had little doubt that it might be a death sentence. “Will you taking it on yourself hurt you, Andrea?” she asked worriedly. “I don't want you risking yourself.”

Andrea shook her head. “Long as I don't keep it fer too long, won't hurt me none. Not my sick. I's just carryin' the feelin's fer a bit. Lettin' him feel better, so's he c'n do what he needs ta do. ”

Miranda was quiet for most the rest of the trip home. When they arrived at the townhouse, Miranda looked at her guest. “If I touch you, will I feel sick again?” she asked.

Andy nodded sadly. “I'd hoped we'd share a bed tonight, but ain't a good idea. If we were ta touch, you'd take on part of the load I'm carryin'.”

“If I were to take part of what you are carrying, would it be easier on you?” Miranda questioned.

The woman who sometimes called herself Hattie nodded. “Be less fer me ta carry, but you'd feel the sick and the pain and the fear. It ain't a pleasant thing ta be burdened with.”

Miranda nodded. “Oliver is my friend, Andrea, and you are dear to me. It's time that I took some of your load.” She reached out her hands. “Let's do this, and then we can hold and comfort each other thought the night."

Andy reached out her hand and, clasping Miranda's, it was done.


*****

“Emily,” Miranda said immediately upon exiting the elevator to the floor her office was located on. “I want you to schedule a meeting for me with Irv Ravitz and a lunch with Oliver Trumbleson. Move whatever needs to be moved around on my schedule to make those two things happen this week. The sooner the better.”

Emily scratched the instructions onto her pad as she followed Miranda into the office. She was curious of Miranda's appearance, and she impatiently waited for the right moment to glance at Miranda again. The woman looked pale, and Emily wondered if she was going to need to slip out at lunch and purchase a paler shade of concealer. Where Miranda Priestly led, the fashion world followed, and one of the biggest perks of Emily's job was the fact that she was the first to be in the know when Miranda changed the perception of what was fashionable. If Miranda was going with a paler shade of makeup, Emily would follow in a heartbeat.

Miranda continued her normal litany of tasks for Emily to oversee and accomplish, and at the end she said, “And Andrea wished me to give you her thanks for the gift you sent over. She and my daughters shared it after lunch yesterday. Andrea especially appreciated the chocolate-dipped strawberry. She'd never had one before, and she declared that it was the best thing she had ever eaten.” Miranda's eyes raked Emily up and down. “First Serena and now you have apparently taking a shine to Andrea," she said in a dangerously soft tone. “Is there something I should know, Emily?”

Emily felt Miranda's eyes on her, and she could swear that the temperature in the room dropped significantly. She glanced up at the fashion icon she idolized. “She came to me, Miranda, and said that you had suggested that she and I make peace,” the first assistant stammered. “She brought me the Manolo Blahnik Chain-Maille snake sandals, which are to die for, from the Closet. She said that you had said she could take anything she wanted and do with it as she pleased. She said that she thought that they would fit me, and she hoped I'd like them. Later I remembered that she liked sweet things, so I arranged to have a box of candy picked up. I had it dropped off to her on Friday afternoon when Serena dropped Patricia off at the townhouse.”

“Serena,” Miranda said dangerously. “What was Serena doing dropping Patricia off? That is not in her job description.”

Emily immediately realized she had made a misstep. “Friday afternoon we had the meltdown around the quarterly report misprint. I was tied to my desk, and the new second assistant was barely handling the phones successfully. Serena was kind enough to offer to help out since her projects were ahead of schedule.”

“Really,” Miranda said coldly. “How interesting,” she replied, and Emily could swear she saw ice crystals hanging off the words.

*****

Miranda retreated to her office and fumed. Serena had told her that she had no interest in Andrea. That Andrea was only helping her with a personal problem. Miranda felt the green-eyed monster roil around inside her. She felt that Serena was much younger and far more desirable that she was. Why would Andrea want to stay with a foolish old woman when a young beauty like Serena was on the prowl. Miranda sat down at her desk and pursed her lips. Last night she and Andrea had held each other. Slept in each others' arms. Even though she felt physically ill, she had managed a more restful night than she had in her memory. It was as if the girl from the Florida swamp was a balm to Miranda's troubled soul.

The young brunette's interplay with her children over the weekend illustrated what a loving caretaker the girl could be. And her involvement in drawing Miranda in to playing and interacting with her children in a way that she hadn't managed for years told Miranda clearly that Andrea's presence was a good thing for her family. She stared out the window. She had three marriages behind her. All three had failed, partially because Miranda had difficulty trusting the men she'd chosen to marry. Granted, her mistrust had been justified in each case since all three of her husbands had cheated on her with other women. She didn't believe Andrea was like that. Andrea had told her how the cards had informed her that Miranda was the one she would love and be with until death parted them many years from now. Well, that was what Andrea had told Miranda would happen if they had made their home at the Orchid Pool. Here, Andrea didn't know exactly what would happen. Especially if Miranda couldn't bring herself to believe in Andrea's powers, a difficult thing to do for a woman of the twenty-first century, even having seen what she'd seen. Her rational mind wanted to believe that it was the power of suggestion or some kind of shared delusion, but a small voice inside of her cried out for her to put her preconceptions aside, to grab onto Andrea and hold on for dear life. In that moment she decided to ask Andrea directly about Serena and what the two of them were involved in. And then she would do the hard part—take Andrea at her word.

*****

“A love potion?” Miranda asked, her tone disbelieving.

Andrea nodded from across the dinner table. Still feeling horribly ill, neither of them had managed to eat more than a few bites of food. “She's sparkin' your Emily, but your Emily ain't sparkin' back. It's got Miss Serena real flustered. She done lost her heart to the gal. And the poor gal don't know how to love nothin'. So I'm doin' them both a kindness. Love potion'll fix things right up twixt em.”

Miranda looked down. “Are you sure, Andrea? Are you sure that Serena isn't sparking on you?”

Andrea looked up at Miranda and smiled. “Wouldn't do her no good if she was,” the girl from outside Slippery Bottom answered. "Cards have said it's you and me. That's what is an' what's gonna be.”

Miranda nodded. “all right, I won't fire Serena. And I won't interfere with this potion the two of you intend, but for God's sake don't poison my first assistant. The second assistant is absolutely hopeless, and I need Emily...at least for a while longer.”

*****

Dark of the moon meant it was dark crossing the grounds of Mrs. Swineford's Academy, but scared as Cassidy was, she was also resolute. She had something to prove. She needed to show Andy that she could do what others couldn't. She wanted to show Andy that she too had what it takes to become a wise-woman. Being out after curfew was a suspendable offense, and she really didn't want to get caught and hauled in front of Mrs. Swineford. There was a cemetery about four blocks from campus toward the little town of Salem, New York, where the school was located. Cassidy thought it prophetical that the town was named Salem and that she would perform her first acts to prove she was worthy of following Andy's footsteps in this place. She had already subtly probed her Biology teacher finding out that the lizards kept in a tank in the classroom would regrow their tails should one of them lose said tail. It was Cassidy's intention to encourage one of the lizards to do just that on Thursday evening. She was going to put the tail in a plastic bag with some ice and take it to Andy on Friday when she went home for the weekend.

Making it to the edge of the school property, she stepped off the grounds and hurried down the sidewalk. In less than half a block she was able to leave the sidewalk and move into the edge of the woods that ran toward the direction where the cemetery lay. She wanted to be away from the road because she didn't want to be seen by either one of the school staff or the local police, who regularly rounded up students from the Academy that were trying to run away.

*****

The bed check had been unexpected, which was somewhat unusual. Often the girls in the dorm that Caroline and Cassidy lived in would get word in advance that there was going to be a curfew check, and it allowed Caroline to be in the room she was supposed to be in and Cassidy to do likewise. It also allowed the girls living in the dorm to make sure any kind of contraband that they weren't supposed to have in their rooms was well-hidden. Caroline heard Miss Simmons down the hall doing a room check. “Shit!” she said aloud. Thinking quickly, she stripped down and threw on her robe. Grabbing her toiletries bag she stuffed a few clothes into it before waiting by the door. When she heard Miss Simmons stop before it, she threw it open. “Oh, Miss Simmons!” she said, as if startled to find the woman before her door. “I was just getting ready for bed and thought I'd get a quick shower."

Miss Simmons, evidently also startled by the sudden opening of a door on which she was about to knock, nodded. “And where is your roommate, Jade, Caroline?” she asked.

Caroline smiled, “She was down in Marissa's room earlier. They were working on that group project history paper for Mrs. Cleaver's class. It's due tomorrow, and I don't think they got started on it as early as they would have liked,” she lied smoothly. “Feel free to look around,” she continued, opening the door wider, “I'm going to go shower.” As Miss Simmons entered the room, Caroline walked down the hall. When she heard the door to her room close, she broke into a run. Arriving in front of Marissa's door, she knocked quietly. The door opened. and she came face-to-face with the girl her sister was supposed to be rooming with. “Bed check,” she said quietly. “Is Jade here?” Marissa nodded and stepped aside. “I've got to go run the shower, and then I'll be back. I told Miss Simmons that you and Jade are working on that paper for History. Cassidy isn't back on campus yet, so as soon as the shower is going, I'll be back here to pretend to be her when Miss Simmons gets here."

Marissa nodded. “We'll be ready when she gets here,” she grinned.

As Caroline ran for the shower room she mused on how much fun the girls in the dorm had pulling a fast one on the staff of the school. She twisted the handles of the shower so the running water could be heard, and steam fogged up the room. Hurrying back she slipped into the room that Marissa and Jade really shared and, dropping her robe, quickly dressed in some of Cassidy's clothes. She stuffed the robe into her toiletry bag and stashed it under the bed as she sat down. She looked up and saw that Marissa and Jade reclined on the other bed in the room with History books open and pads of paper with notes on them strewn about. Jade had her computer open, and a copy of the paper they would turn in the next day pulled up on the screen. A few minutes later Miss Simmons knocked.

Marissa again rose and opened the door. “Miss Simmons,” she said, smiling. She stepped back, allowing the woman a clear view into the room. Miss Simmons entered to see Jade obviously working on a homework project and the other occupant of the room, Cassidy Priestly, lying on her bed with headphones on, apparently listening to an Ipod.

After a quick look around for any obvious signs of things that the girls were not permitted to have in their dorm room, she left. Caroline pulled off the headphones, and after counting off about thirty seconds, she stuck her head carefully out the door. “As long as she doesn't go into the shower room, we should be okay,” she said to the other two girls in the room.

“I'll do you one better than that,” Jade said, pulling out a cell phone she wasn't supposed to have on campus. “I'll call Sabrina down at the end of the hall. If she makes a noise or something, Miss Simmons will go down there to look. Then if you hurry, you can get to the shower room, and she can see you coming out after your shower.”

Caroline laughed. “Thanks, Jade. That's perfect!”

A couple of minutes later there was a loud crash from the far end of the hall, and as predicted Miss Simmons immediately rushed past the shower room and to the area where the crash had occurred. While her back was turned, Caroline slipped out of the room that her sister was supposed to be living in and ran on silent feet into the shower room. Throwing off her clothes, she stepped into the shower and wet herself all over. Turning off the shower, she again donned the robe and stored her sister's clothes in the toiletry bag. Wrapping her hair in a towel, she exited the room just as Miss Simmons was about to enter. “Nobody else in there, Miss Simmons,” Caroline offered helpfully, carrying her toiletry bag back toward her assigned room. “Goodnight,” she called pleasantly over her shoulder.

*****

Cassidy had discovered that the gate to the graveyard had been locked at dusk. She had walked the perimeter of the small cemetery and found a place where she could shimmy up the trunk of a tree and grab hold of some of the lower branches. From there the step to the top of the wall wasn't difficult. She dropped soundlessly into the confines of the cemetery between two graves. She swallowed hard. Here she was, alone in the dark of night, in a place where they buried the dead. Andy talked with spirits. Ghosts essentially. Cassidy felt her heartbeat quicken. She was in a place where there were likely lots and lots of ghosts. She peered into the darkness as a breeze stirred up some dead leaves. Cassidy considered her position.

“Hello ghosts,” she said to the empty air. “I don't mean to be disturbing you. I'm just here for a little dirt that a friend of mine needs to make a potion.” A barn owl suddenly called out repeatedly into the night. “It's a good potion! A love potion! So a friend of my friend can make the person she loves love her back!” She rose from her crouch and stepped further into the graveyard. “Great, now I'm babbling like an idiot,” she groused to herself. “You can do better than this, Cassidy Priestly. Andy wouldn't be afraid.” The breeze rose and whistled mournfully through the trees. "Just gonna be here long enough to get a little dirt,” she reiterated to the graves around her. She was careful as to where she stepped, making sure to do her very best not to walk on anyone's grave.

When she figured she was far enough into the cemetery to insure what she took was graveyard earth, she used the tablespoon she had "borrowed" from the school dining hall to dig up the dirt she had come for. Opening a zip lock plastic bag she had brought for the purpose, she knelt down beside a grave. Glancing at the headstone, she couldn't make out any of the writing because of the darkness. “I'm just going to dig a little bit here right next to where you're lying,” she whispered to the stone. “Not digging on your grave.” She pushed the tablespoon through the grass and pried a bit. A tuft of sod a little larger than the tablespoon came away. With that Cassidy began to dig. In a few minutes she had what was likely a cup of earth in the plastic bag. Rising up, she stood and whispered, “Thank you, and I hope you rest well,” to the stone.

She just had turned to make her way back toward the wall when she heard a male voice shout, “You there! What are you doing? Stop where you are! You're trespassing!”

Cassidy turned to look, and she saw the lights on top of one of the local police cruisers suddenly flash red and blue. A flashlight beam from a dark shape beyond the cemetery gate swept the inside of the graveyard, near where she was standing. She turned and made a dash for the far wall that she had climbed over when she entered. Reaching the wall she realized with some horror that she hadn't considered how she was to get out of the graveyard. No trees on this side of the wall had any conveniently low branches right next to the wall. Hearing a man cursing and the chain on the gate rattling as if he might be struggling with the padlock that secured the gate, she didn't stop. She charged the wall and leapt, reaching her hands out for the leading edge of the wall's capstones. She knew from the moment she left the ground it was hopeless. She was going to hit the rough stone that made up the wall and hit it hard, well below the rim that she needed to catch in order to hopefully pull herself up and over to escape. She was going to hurt herself and get caught, and mean old Mrs. Swineford would suspend her again. Her mom was going to kill her for being out of her dorm at nearly midnight. Suddenly, when there was no hope, something cold grabbed the back of her jacket at the neck and belt at the back and heaved her over the wall. She suddenly found herself in the same branches she had used to step onto the rim of the cemetery wall. She looked into the graveyard and saw that the police had gotten the gate open and were pulling the patrol car into the grounds, likely to use the vehicle's headlights to aid in the search for the trespasser. Caroline dropped to the ground only to realize with horror that in her headlong flight she had dropped the precious bag of soil. She felt like falling to her knees and crying. Something flew over the wall and landed at her feet. She looked at the impossible bag of soil lying before her. Her rational mind tried to tell her that she had dropped the bag of earth as she crested the wall. That it had fallen on top of the wall and a breeze had blown it down. But there was no breeze . Everything was still. It was then she thought she heard a ghostly laughter. Snatching up the bag of dirt, she ran for the tree line, wanting to get as far from the graveyard and the road as she could before the local police began driving around, looking for whoever had been seen in the cemetery. “Flowers,” she said aloud as she ran. “So help me, when I get a free period this week, I'm going to town. I'm gonna buy a pretty bouquet. I'm gonna find that grave. And I'm gonna put flowers on it!” she vowed to herself.

*****

Thursday morning Andrea had a not completely unexpected visitor at Miranda's townhouse in the form of Oliver Trumbleson. When she answered the door bell, the man stood silently for a moment before speaking. “Ms Hattie,” he started and then paused. He drew his hat from his head in a sign of respect. “What did you do to me?” he asked softly.

“Best ya come inside for a spell,” she answered, “an' I'll tells ya what ya wants ta know.”

*****

Oliver was making cappuccinos with Miranda's espresso machine. “So you took my pain,” he said softly, “took it so I could go see my son and make peace with him.”

The woman who called herself Hattie nodded as she watched him steam and foam the milk. “Randa, too. She loves ya in her way. Can't never say that to ya, though. That's her way, too,” she said sadly. Then she smiled. “Yer boy'll make somethin' of himself in what he's doin'. I knows ya didn't think he'd make a livin' actin', but he will. Gonna be real good at it. Gonna win somethin' called an Oscar a few years down the road. He'll talk 'bout his daddy and how bad he misses him when he makes a speech that night.”

Oliver nodded. “He and I have talked over the last few days. For the first time I allowed myself to really listen to the passion he has for what he's doing.” He looked at the woman standing beside him. “I gave him my blessing, and it was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

“Offen his, too,” The woman he knew as Hattie answered.

Oliver looked down. “I don't have long, do I?”

Hattie shook her head sadly. “No, not long. The Angel's been waitin' on ya so's ya could make peace with yer boy. Wouldn't a been right iffn ya had gone on and left things twixt ya broken with ya all lovin' each other so much.”

“You know so much about me, about my relationship with my son. How is that possible?” Oliver asked.

The woman from the swamp shrugged. “I was born with th' knowin'. It's a gift and a curse my family's born fer a long time.”

Oliver looked at the woman before him. “Do you know what's beyond?” he asked softly.

Hattie smiled. “She's waiting on ya. She died too young, and she's like ta give ya an earful when ya get there fer keepin' her waitin' so long.”

“My son is going to be all right, and my wife is waiting for me,” Oliver returned the smile. “You've done so much for me, is there anything I can do for you?”

The woman before him shook her head. “If there was, ya already would'a done it. No way you can spike Mr. Ravitz's wheel. He'll do what he's gonna do when yer gone. And the thing you and 'Randa built together will suffer 'cause of it.”

Oliver nodded sadly. “I'm ready to take back what's mine now. No need for you and Miranda to carry it for me any longer,” he said, reaching out for her hand.

Andy reached out and touched him.

*****

Early Friday afternoon, Oliver Trumbleson stood up Miranda Priestly for their lunch engagement. In her grief, she had to concede that dying was probably a legitimate excuse for leaving her sitting alone at Smith and Wollensky, and he really couldn't be considered rude.

Chapter Text

Mid-morning on Friday Cassidy had a free period between her geography and civics classes. She took the time to borrow one of the bicycles that students at the school had available for them. She rode to town and bought a bouquet of mixed flowers at the local supermarket before riding to the cemetery where she'd had her adventure. Entering was easier this time, as during the day the gates to the place were open so that people of the town could visit the resting places of their loved ones.

The graveyard looked very different in the light of day, and it took a bit of doing for Cassidy to find the grave where she'd collected the soil. If she hadn't deduced which tree she'd used both entering and escaping the cemetery, she wouldn't have managed to find what she was looking for in the limited time she had. Knowing where she had entered the graveyard, she retraced her steps and found the small hole she had dug into the earth. She glanced up and saw the stone she'd promised to place flowers on. The stone was old, weathered, and begrimed with years of neglect. A sad, forgotten grave. She knelt beside it, and it took her tracing the faded carving with her finger to allow her to read what it said.

Maxine Jewell Lovelace

Born September 12th, 1916 Died September 12th, 1929

An Angel, Too Soon Gone to Heaven.


Cassidy did some quick calculations in her head and then sighed softly. “You were just older than me,” she said sadly. “Just turned thirteen, and you died on your birthday.” She shook her head and carefully placed the flowers she brought against the stone. “I just wanted to say thank you. You really saved my butt,” she all but whispered to the mossy stone. Looking around from where she squatted, she reached out to pick up a small stick and, using it as a makeshift tool, cleaned out the inscription on the stone. “Next time I come, I'll bring some stuff and clean up your grave properly,” she said to the empty cemetery. “You shouldn't be all alone and forgotten here. And you won't be anymore.” Finishing her self-appointed task of removing the concealing accumulation of grime from the engraving, she set the stick down next to the hole she had dug. Looking down she noticed something in the hole. A glint of something metallic. Picking up the stick she had just put down, she inserted its end into the hole beside the grave and gently pried at what she saw there.

*****
Oliver Trumbleson had not gone quietly to his death. That is not to say that he did not die peacefully. The fact of the matter was that once he'd met the woman he knew as Miss Hattie and taken steps to do as she had suggested, he had laid his burdens down and for the first time in many a year he'd found peace and a quiet, dignified acceptance of that which he couldn't change. He took steps to complete tasks that had weighed on him. He also took the time to say his goodbyes to friends. These goodbyes took the form of one last pleasant encounter or telephone call so each of those people had a good memory of their last association. It was such an encounter that had brought Margaret Taylor, another board member of Elias-Clarke Publishing, to stand at the front door of Miranda Priestly's townhouse. Her last encounter with Oliver had been of him excitedly telling her of an unusual woman he had encountered and how her mystical gifts had lifted his spirits.

Margaret and Miranda were not friends. They often exchanged tense words in the boardroom. Over the ten years Margaret had been on the board, they had locked horns more than once, but professionally they respected each other. They both understood that they saw the needs of their areas of responsibility quite differently. Their disagreements were rooted in Miranda's focus on the continued market dominance of the magazine she was responsible for and Margaret's on balancing the needs of the publishing giant as a whole.

Margaret had been born and raised in New Orleans, and her beliefs and spirituality had been shaped by that raucous city. She had sent her assistant to Miranda's office this morning to make sure that Miranda was, in fact, there. And more importantly, due to stay there long enough for Margaret to complete her mission. She had no wish for anyone to know that she was here to consult with a witch. She reached out her finger to ring the doorbell when the door unexpectedly swung open. “I been waitin' on ya, Miss Margaret,” the young brunette woman in the doorway said. “The cards told me ya was comin'. Most folks call me Hattie, but I s'pect ya already knows that. I s'pect Mr. Oliver done told ya so.”

*****

Irv Ravitz was furious. Virtually absolute power at Elias-Clarke Publishing was within his grasp. The last piece of the puzzle was within reach, and Oliver Trumbleson had managed to lock it away so that for the moment the CEO couldn't realize his dream. Irv had known for a year about Trumbleson's terminal illness. He felt that he had waited patiently for the stubborn old man to get on with dying, even if he had fantasized about what he'd do as soon as the old man died nearly every day. Now that Trumbleson was gone, he should be on top and running the show. Trumbleson, however, had spent his last hours on Earth calling in a career's worth of favors owed. He'd contacted the other board members and informed them of his illness, telling them that he was fighting it but that the chemotherapy and radiation treatments were taking their toll on his abilities to meet his professional responsibilities. At his recommendation, the board members had agreed to appoint an interim board member to temporarily replace him. The board had made the proviso of a tenure of six months. As soon as it was discovered that Trumbleson had passed on, Irv had called an emergency board meeting. Unfortunately, he found the members of the board resolute. They had agreed on a six-month tenure for the man that Trumbleson had recommended, and even though Trumbleson had died virtually immediately after arranging the ridiculous situation, the board felt duty-bound to honor their agreement with a dead man. Irv was just going to have to wait another six months to realize his ambition of running the publishing powerhouse and finally getting his revenge on Miranda Priestly.

*****

Caroline again examined her bandaged finger. It was a small injury but a painful one, the tips of the digit being full of nerve endings. She had been surprised that the pretty gray lizard with red spots could bite as hard as it had. She supposed she had deserved the reprimand from the foot-long creature, seeing she had teased it to the point that it had dropped its tail. The most repugnant part of the exercise had been that the tank's agitated inhabitant had chosen to strike at the exact moment she had been picking up the still flopping and squirming tail; so, not only did Caroline end up with a disgusting piece of squiggling flesh in her hand, she also ended up with a pound and a half of angry reptile hanging from one of her fingers, jaws clamped firmly shut.

She sighed softly. Cassidy had asked her to retrieve the lizard's tail, using the reasoning that since she, Cassidy, had been asking about whether tails would grow back and felt she needed plausible deniability and an airtight alibi when one of the biology department's specimens suddenly became tailless, therefore, she reasoned, Caro needed to do the deed. Meanwhile, Cass had been meeting with her French teacher about what theme to use on the paper she would be writing over the weekend during the time that Caroline was injured.

Looking out the train window, Caroline saw that they were pulling into Penn Station. She gathered her things and roused her sister, who was dozing in the seat beside her. She stepped from the train car and, looking around for Roy, saw Andy's smile as she stood there beside their driver. Something warmed inside her. She was unsure about Andy being a witch. She simple didn't believe in that sort of stuff like Cassidy did. But the woman had come to the train station to meet them, which was an unusual act for the adults in their lives; they were usually too busy to be there when she and Cass arrived. Andy, however, seemed to want to be there for them. Wanted to listen to them and to help them with the difficulties involved in growing up in this very confusing time. Caroline knew that Andy wanted to be her friend, and she was now certain that she wanted to be Andy's friend, too.

*****

Miranda sat in her office and stared out the window. She had canceled all her meetings for the afternoon. She needed time to think, to plot, and to plan. Oliver's death had given Irv Ravitz the upper hand. Oliver had bought her some time, six months in fact, by arranging to have an interim board member appointed in his place. Six months, however, was not a terribly long time in the greater scheme of things. In six months Irv would likely manage to get another one of his cronies elected to the board, and the balance of power would shift against her. She had six months to find a way to secure her position and her legacy as editor-in-chief of Runway or else she could very possibly lose everything she had spent her professional career building. In the meantime, she resolved to play nice, hoping to throw Irv off balance and allay any suspicions that he might have that she was on to his plans.

*****

Margaret Taylor had gone to see a witch, and she'd gotten the answer she had been seeking. She had been aware for some time that her husband had been leaving his office each day at lunchtime in the company of a younger woman. She feared she was losing him, so she had hired a private investigator and had them followed. Her husband and his companion had not gone anywhere near a restaurant each day, nor had they gone to a hotel. They had instead gone to a private, rented space in an office complex, and although the private eye had gained access to the virtually empty, concrete-floored room, he had been unable to determine what they were using the space for. Hattie had looked at her deeply with compassion in her eyes and said, “Yer man loves ya. The woman ain't such a good 'un. She's after his money and 'ud bed yer man in a minute iffin' he was interested, but he ain't. He's just usin' her ta learn ta dance so's he c'n take ya dancin' fer your anniversary. Knows ya luvs ta dance and knows he gots two left feet.”

Margaret had looked at Hattie askance and then offered to pay for the reading. Hattie had looked offended at the offer. Margaret had left immediately to go to her husband's office, deciding to test the validity of her new mystic's pronouncement. Some of those in that line of work were, after all, charlatans. As she suspected, she found her husband out of the office for lunch. It had only taken a little bullying of his executive assistant to get a look at her husband's day planner. Reservations for the dinner and dancing cruise aboard the World Yacht sailing along the Hudson River had already been inked in on their anniversary date. She wouldn't say a word to him about it, would never let on that it wasn't a complete surprise, but she also resolved that she was going to find ways to make his life more pleasant in the immediate future. The afternoon wasn't half over before Margaret was on the telephone with one of her friends, singing the praises of the new psychic she had discovered.

*****

As Caroline stood nearby watching the exchange, Cassidy nervously held out the plastic bag containing the lizard's tail. She had already given Andy the bag containing the soil she had collected in the graveyard. Andy looked at the young girl, cocked an eyebrow, and grinned a knowing grin. “Somethin' ya wants ta ask me, lil bird?” she inquired softly.

“Teach me,” Cassidy almost whispered, her tone reverent. “I want to learn to do what you do. I want to learn to be a wise-woman.”

Andy closed her eyes and stood silently for a long moment before nodding. “Ye has the gift. The cards already done told me so. They ain't so forthcomin' on what shape yer gift ul take, sos we're gonna have ta be watchin' fer that." Andy looked down at the girl, “Iffin' learnnin' ta follow the old ways is what ya wants, then I'll help ya. There's gonna be rules though. Yer schoolin' comes first and foremost. Yer Mama 'ud have a conniption twere otherwise. Ye works double hard at yer formal schoolin', or I'll stops teachin' ya witchin' faster than ye says 'ow' when ya gets burned.”

Then the wise-woman opened the bag and, without even flinching, pulled out the tail to inspect it. “Ain't never seen no lizard gray with red spots,” Andy stated, raising the limp piece of sinew and bone and sniffing it. Then to Caroline's shock and disgust, the woman's pink tongue appeared between her lips, and she tasted the tip of the flaccid piece of disembodied flesh.

“Gross!” Caroline asserted emphatically.

“Just meat,” Andy replied offhandedly. “Iffin' I'd caught this lizard in th' swamp, th' tail 'ud go inta the potion caldron, and the rest 'ud go inta the stew pot.”

“You'd eat lizard?!" Caroline asked, her voice rising.

Andy chuckled, “Sometime's it ain't easy ta gets by where I comes from, lil' bird. Iffin' ya don't wants ta go hungry, ya eats what ya catch. I've e't worse.”

“Worse than lizard?!” Caroline exclaimed.

Andy nodded. “Ate grass and bugs when I was a bit younger than you. It was what I could catch. Somethin' like lizard or snake was a treat then. Or what was left of somethin' that some other animal had done kil't."

Cassidy looked at the woman sadly. “We've really had it easy all our lives, haven't we?” she asked.

Andy looked at the girls intently. “Your Mama takes care o' you like it's sapposed ta be,” she answers. “You gots a good Mama, and she loves ya and 'ud do anythin fer ya. Ya should be grateful fer that. And ya should let her know that ya are.”

Andy left both girls sitting in the kitchen looking thoughtful.

*****

Cassidy dug around under the kitchen sink, piling bottles of cleaners, soaps, and sponges on the floor. Every so often she would stop and read a label.

“What are you looking for?” her twin asked, sitting at the kitchen island and watching her sister's search with curiosity.

“The housekeeper keeps all the cleaning stuff down here. I need something that will polish metal to clean a piece of jewelry I found,” her sister answered, continuing to root though the cabinet.

“Jewelry? Caroline asked, “What jewelry?”

Cassidy reached below the neckline of her blouse and pulled out a small locket so tarnished that it was almost black, hanging from an equally tarnished chain. “I washed the dirt off it, but soap and water didn't do anything for the oxidation. I want to polish it up, see what color the metal is.”

“Where did you find it?” Caroline asked curiously.

Cassidy paused for a moment. "At school," she answered, for the first time in her life lying to her other self. Finding the squat can of metal polish and a rag, she moved to the island next to her sister. She read the instructions on the can and, after opening it, dabbed a little of the cream onto the rag before rubbing it on the tarnished metal.

*****

“So's, tamorra night 'Randa goes ta some big fancy shindig. She'll be gone fer hours. Plenty o' time fer brewin' a potion,” Andy said into the telephone.

Serena's breath caught at the other end of the call. “What about the lizard's tail and the graveyard earth?” she asked, excitedly. She was trembling with anticipation, the thought of finally having Emily's affections overwhelming her.

“Seem's a lil' bird done took a fancy ta yer plight. Took some risk and brought home what ya needs,” Andy answered. “So iffin' ya brings the stuff ya gathered, we should have everythin' fer ta make th' potion.”

Serena noted her increased heart rate and quickened breathing. “Is there anything else I need to bring?” she asked, feeling at that moment as if tomorrow evening couldn't come soon enough.

“Well, th' last part o' yer potion comes from you," Andy answered. “A lock o' hair or nail clippings, fer love o' th' body. A drop o' blood fer love from the heart, or the liqueur from yer nether lips when ya touches yerself, iffin' it's her lust that ya seek,” Andy answered, sounding almost clinical about the matter.

Serena blushed scarlet on the other end of the phone. Her mind spun with the idea of Emily lusting after her. “Blood,” she answered quickly. “Blood for love from the heart.”

“Then all we'll need is a needle ta prick yer finger with. A drop or two o' blood inta th' caldron 'll do er, and th' potion 'll be complete. Soon as it's cooled down, ya can gives it ta her,” Andy added.

“I'll be there tomorrow evening then,” Serena answered. “But I'll make sure I wait until Miranda's gone. We don't want to press our luck.”

*****

Serena sat back on her bed as she hung up the telephone. She closed her eyes, and the vision she carried of the beautiful, red-headed woman she loved again played behind her shut eyelids. Tomorrow, Serena thought. Tomorrow Andy will make me a love potion, and Emily's heart will be mine.

She thought for a moment about what Andy had said about the last ingredients for the potion. A drop of blood for love from the heart was a must. Serena already knew that Emily was infatuated with the way she looked, making a lock of hair or a nail pairing unnecessary in the potion. She knew that Emily envied her beautiful, lithe body while the Englishwoman considered herself a fat cow, so unlike the "beautiful swans" she dealt with each day at Runway. Serena shook her head. If only Emily could see herself through Serena's eyes. Serena was certain that as Emily worshiped at the altar of the size-zero Runway aesthetic, so she found Emily's feminine curves far more appealing that the stick-thin models and clackers that the two women worked with each day.

Emily's lust, however, was another matter to be considered. Serena had lusted after Emily for months, but she knew Emily was an almost stereotypical staid and proper Englishwoman, and Serena suspected, somewhat prudish in her ideas about sex. Serena allowed herself to image the beautiful redhead coming on to her, pressing up against her, hands roaming, fingers nimbly undoing clothing, of touches and tongues. Serena's hand found its way down the fleece pajama pants she wore as her at-home lounging wear, and she began to touch herself. Liqueur from yer nether lips from when ya touches yerself, Andy had said. Serena began to masturbate in earnest, her breathing coming quicker.

I'll add a little something extra to the potion, she thought, visions of Emily doing to her what she was doing to herself flowing through her mind's eye. There won't be any harm, her thoughts continued as she increased her tempo and her breath quickened. Emily and I will be together from now on, and this little addition will just insure a hot sex life. Her orgasm was intense, and after resting a long moment she reached for a tissue from the box at her bedside. Cleaning herself up by dabbing at her sex, she knew she'd harvest a small piece of the soft, absorbent paper for inclusion in the witch's brew.

*****

The twins followed along at some distance behind Serena, who followed Andy into Miranda's kitchen. Serena told them in an excited voice how she had lurked down the street from Miranda's home and hidden when she had seen the town car pull up to whisk their mom off to whatever fabulous event that the Icon was attending that evening. Then, she had waited another ten minutes before approaching the front door, just to be sure that Miranda was, indeed, gone for the evening.

Once Cassidy saw the two women enter the kitchen, she glanced to her sister. “I'll keep them busy; you look in Serena's purse,” she hissed quietly.

“What is it I'm looking for?” Caroline whispered in return, as the two hung back.

“Hairbrush or a comb,” Cassidy answered. “See if there isn't some hair caught in it. All we need is a single strand.”

Caroline looked confused. “I thought she was going to add a drop of blood to the potion. The whole love-from-the-heart thing,” she breathed.

Cassidy nodded. “Yeah, but you know how much of a stuffy tight-ass Emily is,” she answered sotto-voce. “If we add the hair too, she'll have Emily loving the way she looks along with the love from Emily's heart." She smiled wickedly. “This will help loosen Emily up. It'll better Serena's odds. All we have to do is to drop it into the pot when nobody's looking.”

“You really believe in this stuff, don't you?” Caroline asked her mirror image.

Cassidy reached up and clasped her hand tightly around the antique locket she now wore. “Sis,” she answered seriously, “you have no idea.”

*****

Clear, clean water, blessed with the smoke from a smoldering bundle of sage and a cleansing spell Andy had spoken, steamed in the witch's small copper potion caldron over a low gas flame on one of the stovetop burners. It waited for the botanical components that Andy was preparing. With a sure hand, she used one of Miranda's super sharp ceramic knives to chop each ingredient into a fine powder on one of the cutting boards. Before Serena's arrival, Andy had cooked the graveyard earth in the oven long enough that it crumbled to a fine dust when rubbed between the witch's fingers.

Serena and Cassidy stood watching, fascinated, as Caroline, seemingly less invested in the proceedings, wandered, apparently aimlessly, from room to room. This gave her the opportunity to stealthily look through the contents of Serena's handbag and, spying a travel hairbrush, she carefully harvested several strands of hair. Wandering back through the kitchen, she subtly passed off her prize to her sister.

One by one Andy stirred the different plant-based elements into the simmering liquid. As each finely chopped item was immersed into the gently bubbling caldron, fragrant steam rose, scenting the kitchen with the smell of herbs. Andy then added a pinch of the graveyard earth and unceremoniously plopped the lizard's tail into the pot.

Turning to Serena, Andy smiled. “Give it a minute ta brew 'n we'll prick yer finger. A drop o' blood inta the pot, an' the heart of ya true love 'll be yourn.”

Serena nodded as she watched the shimmering liquid. “Andy,” she asked, “do you think I might have a glass of wine?”

Caroline watched as Andy nodded. “ 'M sorry,” the woman from rural Florida answered. “I gits so wrapped up in witchin' that I forgets ta be hospitable.” She turned, crossed the kitchen to the wine cooler, and opened it, rummaging around inside. “I don't know nothin' 'bout wine, 'cept it comes 'n red and white,” she said as she pulled out a bottle of rosè and glared at it suspiciously. “Which kind ya want?”

“Either will be fine. If there's one you like better, open it, and we'll both have a glass," Serena answered.

Caroline watched the beautiful Brazilian out of the corner of her eye, the woman's behavior somehow suddenly suspicious. Caroline had a strong intuition that something sub rosa was occurring here.

“Red then.” Andy answered, “'Randa likes red, and iffin' I'm gonna stays with her, I should tries ta like it too. Cassidy,” she asked, “whichin o' these is the one yer Mama likes so much? The one she takes a glass o' ta the bathtub with her?”

Cassidy moved over beside Andy and glanced into the wine cooler, pulling out one of several identical bottles. “This is the one that Mom likes to drink,” she said, offering the bottle to Andy. “Can I have some?”

Andy busied herself with opening the bottle and readying two glasses. “Ya an' yer sister can have a sip o' mine,” she answered, "but just a sip, mind. I don't wants yer Mama pinnin' m' ears back 'cause I lets ya have more 'n a sip.”

Caroline watched as Serena took the momentary distraction to surreptitiously drop a small square of something resembling tissue paper into the bubbling brew. The caldron suddenly hissed, and Caroline watched as the color of the liquid changed from a muddy green-brown hue to a violent, bubbling red. Aware that neither Andy nor Cassidy had seen what she'd seen, she glanced at her sister who was watching Andy carefully pour two glasses of wine and excitedly waiting for a sip of the forbidden liquid. Catching her sister's eye, she received a patented Priestly glare and a slight motion of her sister's head, indicating that her twin expected her to carry out the next part of their plan. As prearranged, Caroline drifted out of the kitchen again and to a window at the front of the house. She quickly counted to one hundred, and then she called out with urgency in her voice. “Andy! Serena! I think Mom's home!” As the twins had suspected they would, the two adults rushed out to join Caroline by the window.

A dark car pulled away up the street, and the three figures at the window relaxed. “Guess I was wrong,” Caroline said easily after Cassidy shot her a thumb's up sign to let her know she had taken the opportunity provided and successfully added their extra ingredient to the mixture brewing on the stove while Andy and Serena had been otherwise occupied.

Returning to the kitchen, Caroline watched as Andy completed the task of pouring two glasses of wine and then offered one of them to Serena with a smile. "Have a sip o' yourn wine ta calm yerself, and then we'll prick yourn finger.”

Serena drained off about half the glass she'd been given, and after carefully setting the delicate crystal down, she moved up beside the small caldron on the stove and offered her hand, index finger outstretched, to Andy. Serena winced as Andy stuck her with a needle that the swamp witch had heated over one of the gas burners until it had glowed a brilliant orange and then had set aside to cool before she had ever put the kettle that now contained the brewing potion on the fire.

“By the pricking of my thumb...” Caroline offered from where she stood near the doorway to the kitchen. She smiled at Serena, “That's from Shakespeare. A witch says it. We studied the play last semester.”

"Yeah," Cassidy said. “It's from Macbeth, but nothing wicked is going to come from this. This is a love potion!" she added enthusiastically.

*****

“Love magic is the most dangerous and unpredictable kind of magic,” Serena answered hollowly, parroting what Andy had told her. Suddenly she was having grave doubts about the wisdom of this course of action.

Andy squeezed the tip of Serena's finger over the pot. A single ruby drop fell into the pot. As soon as it hit the surface of the softly boiling liquid, the top of the kettle erupted in a thick vaporous cloud. Andy quickly let go of Serena's hand and grabbed her wooden spoon. She stirred the liquid, and the dense fog hanging over the caldron dissipated. Andy glanced into the pot. “Now all we has ta do is wait fer it ta cool,” she said softly to Serena and the twins where they stood and watched. “See? It's already gone clear; gonna be a powerful potion. Faster a potion goes clear, more powerful it's gonna be. This un is gonna be a doozy.”

Fifteen minutes and two glasses of wine later, Andy carefully decanted the cooled potion through a funnel lined with a paper coffee filter. Cassidy had suggested the filter when she saw the stained, ragged square of linen Andy was going to use. Andy was amazed that there were such paper items and vowed to obtain some for her potion-making in the future. She then carefully wiped the ornate, leaded glass perfume bottle that Serena had brought to carry the potion in. The small glass container was three quarters full of a clear, amber liquid. Glancing at the amount in the bottle, Andy smiled. "You gots enough in that bottle ta give yourn Emily three times over.” She grasped Serena's hand as the blonde woman reached for the bottle. “You remembers all that was said? You remembers that once ya does this, there ain't no turnin' back. She'll be yourn and yourn alone frum now 'til the day ya or she dies.” Serena nodded, and Andy pressed the bottle into her friend's hand. “Yer life is 'bout ta change, Miss Serena. Ya is 'bout ta gets just what yer heart's been dreamin' of 'n what ya deserves.”

Serena sniffed the bottle. “This smells disgusting!” she said, making a face. She quickly sealed the small bottle with its heavy ornate glass stopper.

Andy nodded and smiled. “It's not meant fer ya. Fer who it's meant fer, it'll smell and taste like th' thing they loves best in the world.” She picked up the small caldron from where it sat cooling beside the stove. Turning to Cassidy she smiled. “Iffin' yer fer sure and true set on learin' ta be a wise-woman, then yer first lesson is always ta clean up as soon as yer done potion-making. Ya don't want no one getting' some o' what's left over, accidental-like.”

Cassidy moved quickly to take the small caldron. With the focused concentration of a chemist working with volatile chemicals, she carried the small pot to the sink and rinsed it thoroughly. Then with a strange kind of reverence, she began washing it with dish soap.

Andy smiled at the girl. “Don't knows how yer Mama's gonna feel 'bout you wantin' ta be a wise-woman, but ya gots the touch. Now we's gonna have ta look fer what yer gift is.”

*****

Just before eleven that night, Serena stood before the front door of Emily's apartment. The thirty-minute transit time via a bus and a subway line from Miranda's townhouse to the redhead's apartment in Greenwich Village had been spent in an intense moral quandary. Do I have the right to do this? Serena wondered again and again. I know that Emily is unhappy. That she struggles each day to put on a brave face and not let anyone know how inferior she feels. I know that she's lonely, but she doesn't know how to reach out and make friends. All I want is to love her and take care of her for the rest of our lives. But do I have the right to give her a potion which will take the choice from her? The thoughts circled in her head again and again, and she was still motionless in front of the portal struggling with the dilemma when Emily suddenly opened it from the inside, a bag of trash in hand.

“Serena!” Emily squeaked.

Serena looked at the woman she loved in a condition she'd never seen her in before. Sans make-up, barefoot, dressed in yoga pants and an old T-shirt, casual, at home, domestic. She had never been more beautiful to Serena.

The moment was awkward as Serena stood before the redhead while clutching the small, colorful perfume bottle . “What are you doing here?!” asked the flustered Brit.

Suddenly being faced with the object of her fantasies and still uncertain of the ethical morality of her mission, Serena hemmed and hawed for a moment before wordlessly showing the woman before her the small, cut crystal bottle in her hand.

“You've brought me perfume?” Emily asked, her tone surprised.

“It's not...perfume. It's a potion....a potion that Andy made for me...for me to give to you," Serena spluttered.

“A potion?” Emily asked as she took the heavy crystal perfume bottle from Serena's hand .”As in a 'double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and caldron bubble' potion?"she continued after a brief pause, her tone a mix between disbelieving and amused. “What went in to it? Snips and snails and puppy dog tails?”

Serena wordlessly waved at the bottle. “Herbs and blessed water, graveyard earth and lizard's ...” She paused for a moment and, shaking her head, continued, “this was a mistake," while struggling to keep the tears she felt burning behind her eyes from coloring her voice and an embarrassed blush from flaming her cheeks. “I have no right to do this...You should just pour it down the sink.” She shook her head and took a step backward, fear making her flight response strong. “Just pour it down the drain,” she reiterated.

“If it's a potion, what is it supposed to do?” Emily asked, her eyes narrowing as her suspicious nature became evident in her tone. “Make me prettier so you and the others at Runway don't have to look at my fat, disgusting self?” she added, her voice rising at the imagined offense.

“No!” Serena exclaimed. “You couldn't be more beautiful, Emily! I'd never imply such a thing about you!” She hesitated for another moment. “It's...” she stammered. "It's a love potion. I've loved you for a long time, and I just wanted you to love me too...”

Emily's shock at the admission was clearly evident from the expression on her face, and not being able to take the Englishwoman's rejection at that moment, Serena turned and fled from the apartment building.

*****

Andy had helped the girls get ready for bed. She had already tucked Caroline in and was tucking Cassidy in when the younger girl steeled her nerves to ask the question that had been plaguing her all evening. “Andy, what would happen if you added extra stuff to that potion you made tonight?”

“Depends on what kind 'o stuff yer takin' 'bout,” the girl from rural Florida said, tucking the comforter up around Cassidy's neck.

“Well,” she said slowly. "What if you added, oh,...I don't know, some hair or a nail cutting to the pot?"

It 'ud depend on whose hair or whatever it was ya added. If twern't Miss Serena's then it 'ud break the magic, and th' potion wouldn't ever go clear. If it was somthin' of Miss Serena's...,” Andy's eyes narrowed as she continued, “it 'ud make th' potion a whole mess stronger. What was in that lil' bottle 'ud be enough for nine doses instead 'o three."

Cassidy's eyes widened. “And if someone took three times what they were supposed to?”

Andy shook her head “Love magic is the most dangerous and unpredictable kind o' magic. It'd likely make Miss Emily crazy for Miss Serena. Could be crazy jealous an willin' to hurt anybody that looks at Miss Serena sideways. Is there somthin' ya needs ta tell me, lil' bird?"

Cassidy looked up from her bed with scared eyes. “I was only trying to help Serena. Emily is such a mean stick-in-the-mud. I though putting some of Serena's hair in the pot would help Emily loosen up and love Serena more!” she exclaimed, her voice on the edge of tears.

Andy nodded. “I knows ya was just tryin' ta help, but ya were also messin' with somthin' that ya don't understand yet. It's somethin' we all do once or twice when we're learnin' ta be a wise-woman. I'll call Miss Serena an' see iffin' I can't fix this right quick. You an' I are gonna talk about this some more 'cause you needs ta know that you has a lots more ta learn afore you start fiddlin' with another witch's brew.”

Cassidy looked at the fey woman as she turned to leave the room. “Does this mean you're still going to teach me to be a wise-woman?”

Andy turned back to Cassidy, who was holding her breath anxiously, and nodded resolutely. “Someone's gotta, or you'll be spillin' your gift without knowin' how ta control it. That c'n make fer a hard life. Accidental-like hurt th' people ya love. I figure that teachin' you is part o' the reason I had ta come here rather than stayin' at the flower pool where your Mama and me 'ud be happy. Right now I's gotta go call Miss Serena afore somethin' bad happens."

****

Serena stood on the subway, head down, angry at herself for this evening. She'd seen the easy way out of her predicament and tried to take it. It had seemed so simple at the time, and she'd been caught up in the supposed magic of the thing. The truth, though, was that now she'd ruined everything. She could see in Emily's eyes that the thought of Serena loving her had never entered the Englishwoman's mind. At least she could take some small comfort in the fact that she'd done the right thing by telling Emily to dump the content of the perfume bottle down the nearest drain. Hearing her cell phone ring, Serena reached into her bag and withdrew the device. “Hello?”

“Miss Serena, it's Andy. Have you done give Miss Emily th' potion yet?” Andy asked from the other end of the call.

“I....” Serena hesitated, after all Andy had gone to some trouble to help her, and she had decided not to go through with their plan. “I told her to pour it down the drain,” she divulged quietly. “When I was face to face with her, it just didn't seem right to force her to do something she doesn't want to do.”

“It's a good thing ya did as ya did,” Andy replied. “A lil' bird done tol' me that someone added somethin' ta' tha brew, an' that 'ud make what it would 'a done a whole different kettle o' fish.”

Serena swallowed hard. “I didn't mean to do anything wrong!” she blurted into the phone. “You said that if I touched myself and added...it would...make her lust after me....I thought it would guarantee us a hot sex life!...” Serena suddenly wondered when she took up stammering as her speaking style.

“You added somethin' to it too?!" Andy exclaimed. “Ya needs ta go back right now and make sure she done as ya told her. Cause what's in that bottle has all three parts of ya in it. It's liquid dynamite iffin' she were ta swallow so much as a drop o' it. Ya needs ta get that bottle back, pour the potion down the nearest drain, an' boil the bottle 'cause even the leavins in it could make Miss Emily plumb crazy fer ya!”

Serena sighed. “I can't go back there tonight. You didn't see her face when I told her I loved her and had for a long time. I couldn't face that...face her again right now.”

“Then ya has ta take responsibility fer whatever comes,” Andy replied ominously. ”A year-and-a-day. That's how long the madness 'll last iffin' Miss Emily should even sip o' that bottle. After that year-and-a-day, the potion will work as it was sapposed ta. But if Miss Emily tastes of it, ye'll have lil, peace fer that year-and-a-day."

With a heavy heart, Serena disconnected the call. She had told Emily what had gone into the bottle. Told her to pour it down the nearest sink. There was no way that the Englishwoman would drink it. It smelled horrible. Comforted that there was no danger of Emily partaking of the potion, she changed her thoughts to how she could spin what had occurred between them and convince Emily that all she wanted was her friendship. Brokenhearted and feeling foolish, Serena went home alone.

*****

An Englishwoman's prerogative was a glass of sherry when she was upset. Emily's grandmother and mother had both indulged in sherry during emotionally stressful times. After retrieving a sherry glass from her kitchen cabinet, Emily was less than pleased to discover that the bottle of sherry she kept for such occasions was empty from her last indulgence when she was sure that Miranda was going to fire her for gaining so much weight so suddenly. She had intended to replace the bottle but hadn't gotten around to it.

Sighing, she moved toward the kitchen sink and un-stoppered the cut crystal perfume bottle, intending to follow Serena's instructions and pour its contents down the sink. A sweet, rich alcohol smell tickled her nose, and moving the neck of the bottle under her nostrils, she inhaled deeply. She recognized the smell immediately. Irish Mist, a fifty/fifty mixture of fine Irish whiskey and honey. She had been introduced to the expensive liqueur the Christmas before last when Miranda had received a bottle from a minor designer as a Christmas gift. The fashion icon unexpectedly called her into the office and poured her a glass. It had been the high point of her year, standing nervously in Miranda's office and sharing a glass of the best thing she'd ever tasted with her employer while receiving holiday wishes from the fashion goddess.

You little fraud, she thought to herself, considering the woman from rural Florida. Pretending to be a witch, and when Serena came to you for a love potion, you raided Miranda's liquor cabinet and filled a bottle to give to her. Of course you'd tell her that all sorts of witchy things went into it.

She glanced from the heavy crystal bottle sitting by the sink to her sherry glass. Why not? she thought, tears beginning to run down her cheeks. She emptied the small bottle into the glass. She was entitled, after all. Something to ease her emotional distress. How could Serena?! she thought. I thought she liked me enough to at least be honest and not to play cruel tricks! I work so hard just to try and fit in at Runway, and I'm always on the periphery. I'm not one of the beautiful swans. I try, I try so very hard, but I'm just not and never will be!

Lifting the glass to her lips, she savored the sweet warmth of the liqueur on her lips and tongue. It was as smooth as she remembered, and it tingled differently down the back of her throat. The first sip made her sigh softly, her thoughts suddenly languid. Serena, she thought, now there is a beautiful swan. She's perfect, just perfect. She should model for Runway. I should suggest that to Miranda. She lifted the glass to her nose and inhaled the warm sweet fragrance. No, I should insist on it!

She again brought the glass to her lips and sipped. This draught tickled her nose and warmed her stomach. She paused for a long moment, sadly considering her past. I haven't had a date since I went to work for Miranda and Runway. There simply hasn’t been any time to date with my work schedule. I've been alone for so long now, I can't even really imagine being with anyone. Every relationship I've ever tried to be in before I came to America was a complete disaster. Every lover always told me that I was self-centered and emotionally unavailable. Let's face it; I just don't know how to love or be loved.

Emily carried her glass with one more mouthful of the wonderful amber liquid in it as she moved from her kitchen to her sofa. She considered the earlier encounter with her co-worker. Serena isn't like the other clackers, she thought. She's never been petty or vindictive or cruel. She's never been anything but there for me. I've run to her any time I've had any kind of breakdown, and she's been there for me every time. She always has nice things to say about the way I look, and she's always encouraging me to do things to better myself. For a moment a guilty twinge went through her. I've never reciprocated her caring. I'm always telling her my problems, and I've never been there for her. That needs to change.

Emily paused for a long moment, replaying what Serena had said. She said she loved me. She said she has for a long time. Her heart made a funny little double beat, and she felt warmth suffuse her chest. She said that she'd gone to that little fraud witch to get a love potion so I'd return her feelings. SHE SAID SHE LOVES ME!! The voice in her head shouted. The warmth she was feeling flowed into her extremities. She felt a little lightheaded and giddy. For the first time in a long time she felt valued, really valued beyond the tasks she accomplished in the workplace. She closed her eyes and smiled, letting her imagination play with the thought of she and Serena as a couple. We might dine out late after we leave Runway for the day. On the weekend perhaps a walk through Manhattan, stopping for a coffee and then for a visit to the Met. It would be so nice to have someone to care about. Then Sunday mornings, perhaps the paper in bed with a hot pot of tea...

She lifted the last sip to her lips and swallowed the sweetness found there. It was like there was an explosion of fire behind her eyes. Suddenly it was that imaginary Sunday morning, and she clearly saw Serena kneeling, naked, straddled over her face. In her mind Emily was looking up the front of Serena's magnificent body, the Brazilian beauty's back arched, her breasts prominent, her head thrown back in pleasure. Emily's mouth was on Serena's sex, her tongue teasing the delicate bundle of nerves at the center of her lover's pleasure. She could taste Serena's nectar on her tongue, and she had to have more. She'd simply die if she didn't have more. Serena rose up and away from Emily's urgent ministrations. Emily saw her arms snake up over Serena's thighs and grasp her about the waist pulling the wonderful source of nectar back down to her hungry tongue. Serena moaned and called out Emily's name as she came for the fourth time.

Emily's eyes snapped open as she experienced the greatest epiphany of her life. She wanted Serena. She needed her. She was deeply in love with the beautiful Brazilian. Now she had to figure out how to undo the damage she had done by not responding when Serena had confessed her feelings, causing Serena to flee. She had to fix this. Everything that mattered to her depended on it. Sleep wasn't on the horizon either near or far so there was no point in going to bed. Runway waited. The office where Serena had said earlier in the week she would be spending the usually quiet time of the coming Saturday morning catching up on some paperwork. Emily had much planning to do between now and when she saw Serena at work tomorrow. Such planning, however, could be accomplished in the closet at Runway while she searched for the prefect thing to wear for when she confronted her soon to be lover and took possession of her heart.

*****

Andy sat at the kitchen table and laid the last card into position in the Tarot reading she was building. She went back over the results again with a frown. The message had not changed from the one the reading had disclosed as she'd laid the cards down in sequence. “Ya done it ta yerself, Miss Serena,” she sighed and shook her head. “I warned ya. Now ya done sown the wind an' ye'll reap the whirlwind. I hope yer ready fer what's comin yer way,” she whispered. She allowed herself a small wicked smile. “'Randa said don't poison Miss Emily. She didn't say nothin' 'bout Miss Emily's mind bein' on things other than her job,” she chuckled to herself.

Andy carefully gathered up her precious Tarot cards and reassembling the deck, she kissed them and reverently placed them in their silk bag. Glancing around the room, she allowed her mind to wander for a moment. An image of Miss Emily and Miss Serena sparkin' came clearly to her mind's eye. Don't seem fair, she thought to herself. Miss Serena and Miss Emily getting' what they want, and 'Randa and my bed's cold and lonely. An idea struck her, and she set about making it a reality.

*****

Miranda had stayed longer at the event than she had intended. The winds among the corporate lords of Elias-Clarke were blowing against her, and she knew that such circumstances required her to do things she would not usually do, including spending hours at a corporate function that she would normally only have deigned to appear at for fifteen minutes. She had been horribly bored by the plebeian individuals, and she had been severely aggravated when she had noticed Irv Ravitz's smirking at her from across the room.

She entered her home, certain that both her daughters and the fey woman she had welcomed into her life would be sound asleep. She discovered a candle burning on the small table at the side of the foyer and the start of a trail of rose petals leading deeper into the house. Removing her wrap, she followed curiously. The trail led into the kitchen where she was surprised to follow it up from the floor onto one of the kitchen island stools and to the island itself. There in a circle of rose petals a chilled glass of wine beading twinkling jewels of condensation sat beside another burning candle. Miranda lifted the glass of cold wine and gratefully took a sip.

Taking the glass with her, she continued her investigation. The trail of rose petals continued on the other side of the island, leading Miranda to the stairs. There, yet another candle gently glowed, lighting her way. She followed the delicate trail up the steps to her bedroom where the door stood welcomingly open, emitting a gentle glow. Entering her bedroom she found her Andrea, dressed only in a simple white cotton shift, sitting on the edge of her bed.

Andy immediately rose as Miranda arrived. “Yer bath is ready, burnin' hot, just as ya likes it and with yer favorite good smellin' oils in th' tub. Once yer bath relaxes ya some, I'll rub some o' th' herbal ointment I made fer ya inta yer back, and after ye'll sleep like a newborn babe."

Miranda was patently not used to others offering her help and comfort, and she was inherently distrustful of those that did so because in her experience it always meant that whoever was offering wanted something from her. This wisp of a girl from the Florida swamp, however, had asked for nothing save the occasional kiss. Miranda nodded silently to her guest, and immediately the young woman began gently to help Miranda out of her evening gown. Before Miranda knew what was happening, she had been undressed, draped in a silk robe, and assisted into a scalding hot tub of water. Miranda had been a guest at some of the best spas in the world, and all of the care at those expensive resorts paled in comparison to Andrea's care while bathing her and washing her hair.

As she stepped out of the bath, she allowed Andrea to dry her and wrap her naked body in one of the luxuriously thick bath sheets. Miranda could not remember a time when she had felt more relaxed. As Andrea led her to the bed, Miranda experienced a fleeting fear that her daughters were in the house and that they might catch the two women in bed together.

Andrea pushed her gently down onto the bed and took hold of the edge of the towel covering the older woman's body. “They's asleep, 'Randa, and I'll be long back in my room afore they wake,” the fey woman said softly, seemingly reading her mind. "Let me finish relaxin' ya. A nice massage with th' ointment I made fer ya.”

Miranda nodded and turned onto her stomach as Andrea drew the bath sheet away. Miranda felt her last concerns slip away as the younger woman straddled her. The ointment smelled fresh and was warmed by Andrea's hands as she spread it on Miranda's back. Miranda dozed pleasantly for a moment as the herbal ointment was worked into the bath-relaxed muscles. She awoke to Andrea nibbling on her ear lobe. “Teach me how ta love ya, 'Randa. Teach me how ta touch ya, ta please ya,” the young woman whispered hotly into her ear.

Miranda turned over beneath the woman straddling her body. All cares gone, she reached up and pulled her young, soon-to-be lover to her and into a searing kiss.

*****

The halls of Runway were fairly empty on a this particular Saturday morning. Serena hurried down the hallway toward her office, unsure whether she wished to encounter the red-headed Englishwoman she had lost her heart to. Last night had been emotionally taxing, and even after tossing and turning all last night, she still didn't have a clue as how to undo the damage to whatever relationship she had with Emily. Head down, she slunk into her office and walked around the desk. She looked up quickly as she heard the office door close.

Emily stood at the door with her back to her. Serena clearly heard the lock on the office door click home. Emily, dressed provocatively, turned around with what could only be called naked hunger in her gaze. “I've been waiting for you,” the Englishwoman purred as she stalked predatorily toward the Brazilian woman. “I thought about you all last night,” Emily continued. “Thought about how you've teased me with the way you look, the way you dress, and how you move. Thought about all the times I should have kissed you. All the times I should have taken you home and made love to you."

The British woman was just on the far side of the desk, her eyes fixed on Serena, who could feel her heart nearly beating out of her chest. She watched as Emily carelessly swept the top of the desk clear of the things on it, scattering items across the length and breadth of the room. “It's not a bed,” she husked, “but it will do.” Her eyes came up hungrily. “You can strip, or I can rip your clothes off you,” she offered helpfully.

“Oh my God! You drank it! You drank the potion!” Serena screeched.

Emily continued her advance, and Serena realized she was quickly running out of room to escape. Not that she really wanted to, but this seemed wrong.

“Oh your little fraud witch,” the Brit laughed licentiously. “She's cute enough, I suppose, with her country bumpkin act, but she's not the woman for you, Serena. I am. I always have been. It's just taken me this long to see it.”

Serena froze, the words she'd so longed to hear now spoken aloud out of the mouth of the woman she loved.

Emily's arms were about her in a heartbeat, and the Englishwoman's lips were just as soft as Serena had always imagined. She felt Emily guide her to the desk and press her back onto the desktop as the Brit's clever fingers unbuttoned Serena's blouse. Her last coherent thought before yielding to Emily's hunger was that although she knew making love in the Runway offices was a bad precedent, she just couldn't bring herself to care.

Chapter Text

Miranda felt a feather light movement and awoke in the early light of dawn to see Andrea standing at the side of the bed, pulling on her simple cotton shift. Miranda was pleasantly sore and fatigued from hours and hours of lovemaking. Andrea had been an innocent when she had come to Miranda's bed last night. She had proved an apt and willing pupil, learning quickly, showing an inventive, imaginative, and uninhibited nature. Last night Andrea had taught Miranda something she had never thought possible. How to laugh joyfully while making love. Miranda could picture many such nights in the arms of her beautiful young lover. She reached out to pull Andrea back into the bed.

“Et,” Andy hissed quietly and playfully slapped the reaching hand away. She smiled as she quickly turned her body and stepped just out of reach. “I promised ya I'd be back in m' room afore yer lil' birds stirred from their beds. I have ta go now 'r we're like ta be answerin' questions ya ain't ready ta answer yet.” The fey woman almost danced to the door of Miranda's room. She turned back toward the bed and smiled again. “Girl's 'll be goin' back ta that fancy school tamarraw night. There'll be a week o' nights where we c'n spark and a week o' mornin's where we c'n wake in each others' arms.” She stopped for a moment and looked a bit sheepish. “Iffin that's what ya wants, that is.” she offered uncertainly, anxiety flashing in her eyes.

“I can't think of anything I'd like better, Andrea,” Miranda answered softly. She offered the young woman a rare smile as the girl silently ghosted out the door. Stretching, the older woman rose from her bed and moved into her bathroom to shower and start her day. She had intended to go into the office for the morning and then spend the afternoon and evening with her daughters and Andrea, but in this moment, she wondered if she could let go of her professional life for a weekend and simply spend it with her family. She decided she could.

*****

Cassidy awoke from a very strange but pleasant dream. In the dream she had been here, in her room, listening to an ancient record player, playing an old timey song. The melody remained in her head, and she could hear the chorus sung by a man.

"Here is the drag
See how it goes
Down on your heels
Up on your toes
That’s the way to do the varsity drag!"

"It's hotter than hot!"

"Newer than new!
Meaner than mean!
Bluer than blue!
Gets as much applause as waving the flag!"


Her guest had taught her to do a fun dance called The Varsity Drag, which was very different from the dances the girls at school taught each other. She had laughed with the girl that had been teaching her, and they had comfortably talked about anything and everything. It was almost as if she had been talking with her sister, Caroline. The girl in the dream, however, was not her other-self, and now as the dream faded into the light of the morning sun spilling into her room from behind the curtains, she found that she couldn't recall the face of her companion. One thing she did remember laughing about with her dream friend was that Andy and her Mom believed that Cassidy and her faceless friend didn't know that the two older women had spent the night in each others' arms. The day was just beginning, but Cassidy knew without question that it was going to be a good one.

*****

Serena had repeatedly tried to come up for air, but Emily was insatiable. The whole of the day had slipped away as they made love on the desk, in the desk chair, on the floor, up against the glass office door, and on the credenza that sat behind the desk. Emily was a demanding lover. She demanded Serena's pleasure over and over and over again.

Serena's thigh muscles trembled with fatigue. “Emily,” she gasped. “No more. The day has fled, and we should think about getting something to eat and going home.”

Emily raised up on her knees from where she had once again, catlike, been stalking her lover. “You want to leave me?” the English woman asked, her tone hurt.

Serena looked into the eyes of the woman she loved, and she smiled as she shook her head. “I meant either your home or my home. We can grab something for dinner on the way, and then we can fall into bed and sleep.”

Emily licked her lips and glanced around the office. “I suppose that we've made love on everything we could have made love on in here,” she commented. “And it will be nice to have you in a proper bed. Do you have larger than a double? Mine's only a double, and we're going to need some room to maneuver.”

Serena saw that the fire and the naked hunger in the Brit's eyes had not diminished one iota from this morning, even with the constant slaking of their shared sexual thirst. She shivered. “I have a queen-sized bed at the moment, but perhaps tomorrow we could go shopping for a king-sized one."

Emily squealed, the sound amazingly reminiscent of a little girl full of laughter and joy. It was a sound that Serena had never heard the woman make before, and as she found her arms once again full of the English woman and Emily's lips glued to hers, she vowed to herself it was a sound she was going to find a way to hear often. Tomorrow was for thinking about the future and which apartment they would chose to inhabit as a couple. Tonight was for some decadent takeout food and cuddling under the blankets of their newly-shared bed.

*****

Days and then weeks flowed by. It was a golden time in her home life in Miranda's mind. Each weekend the twins begged to come home to the townhouse to be with their mother and Andy, even to the point of resisting the time they were supposed to spend with their father. The time that Miranda managed to spend at home on those precious weekends was as close as she had ever come to the feeling of family. She, Andrea, and the girls interacted and played together, forming a strong bond.

Each night that the girls were away at school, she would come home from work in the late evening to find the fey girl from the Florida swamps in her bed, waiting for her. Many nights Miranda found herself too exhausted to make love, but her young lover seemed to instinctively know what she needed before she could ever voice her needs. On those nights Andy would cuddle her and soothe away the stress of the day at Runway.

Conversely, Runway became increasingly stressful each and every day. While her home life was better than she could ever remember it being, she was under constant siege in the workplace. Within weeks of Oliver Trumbleson's death, Irv managed to schedule a discussion on a board meeting's agenda about how the nationwide downturn in the economy was likely to affect the corporation's bottom line and urge proactive planing to limit any loss of market-share. It was evident to Miranda's allies on the board during this discussion that the new temporary member who had replaced Oliver was in over his head.

In his defense, he told the Board that he was voting the way he believed Oliver would have voted. Unfortunately for Runway, this meant he had sided with Irv's faction. He explained that, after considering the information Irv had supplied about how other corporations were struggling, he believed that frugality was a prudent policy for the greater good of Elias-Clarke as a whole. The single vote majority decreed cuts to the operating budgets of all Elias-Clarke publications. With Runway having the largest budget of any of the corporation's enterprises, the board decided that the magazine must be slated for the biggest hit. The fact that Runway was the only one of Elias-Clarke's magazines that was consistently profitable month after month apparently didn't enter into the equation during the decision-making process.

Oliver's replacement's pattern of conservative thinking and lack of understanding of Runway's preeminence as Elias-Clarke's flagship publication continued month after month. With Irv courting the man and praising his wisdom as each board decision went against Miranda's interests, her ability to run the magazine she had raised up from near ruin continued to erode. Each day that passed required Miranda spend just a little more time at the office trying to hold off the onslaught and maintain her place as the reigning fashion icon.

In her few spare moments at the office, Miranda would sometimes muse about her assistant, Emily. The girl had quite simply lost her mind. The first assistant had continued to do her job adequately over the last several months, but it was a very near thing. Should the silly girl even get a glimpse of Serena, she acted moon-eyed and became absolutely useless for hours, if she didn't disappear for said hours all together. Early on, Andrea had tried to explain that there had been a few unexpected additions to the potion she and Serena had created for Emily, which caused it to be far more potent than originally planned, consequently causing Miss Emily to be caught up in the throws of passions she couldn't control. Miranda had listened politely and then promptly dismissed the effects of any potion ingested by the Brit. She was of the considered opinion that Serena finally had managed to break through Emily staid English exterior, seducing the woman, and now the young Brit could simply not get enough of her Brazilian lover. Miranda herself was acutely aware of how suddenly having feast where before had been famine, as far as bedroom games were concerned, could be distracting, so she tolerated Emily's plight for the moment with some mild amusement.

*****

Andy's perception of this time living with Miranda and her daughters was somewhat different from Miranda's. Although happier that she had ever been, she was far more aware of the storm clouds gathering on the distant horizon and the possibilities of what coming events were likely to eventually portend for her relationship with Miranda. The days and nights in the here and now, however, were very different than her past had been. She was no longer alone, and she was intent on enjoying their relationship for as long as it lasted.

On weekends she would spend time with Miranda and her children, She and the twin girls forming an increasingly strong bond. She became a person Caroline could come to and discuss her budding sexuality without fear of censure or judgment.

Andy spent weekends teaching Cassidy about the world and those unseen powers that flowed through it. The young girl's education into becoming a wise-woman began with long walks through the city and learning plants and herbs by sight, feel, smell and taste. Andy had promised that once Cassidy could identify them reliably, she would teach her apprentice the basics of potion making and which combination of herbs or plants would provide whatever effect was desired.

Andy watched with some sadness as Miranda spent less and less time with her daugher and her lover. Miranda increasingly felt it necessary that she return to her office in the evening and on the weekends. Andy understood that Miranda was fighting to retain all she had built, but Andy also knew what the outcome of that struggle was going to be. She mourned silently for Miranda's pain and did all she could to mitigate it, knowing the battle already lost.

Left to her own devises at the townhouse during the week while Miranda worked at Runway, Andy's days were not empty. After Margaret Taylor had visited Andy she'd phoned a friend. That friend had visited Andy within days of that phone call. After their visit, she too had called a friend who, in turn, had visited Andy and then called a friend. Within a few short weeks Andy had people arriving on the townhouse doorstep several times each day, seeking her counsel.

*****

Each supplicant who showed up at the townhouse brought questions, doubts, and fears, along with their wallets. Each expected their new psychic, witch, wise-woman, gypsy, or whatever they considered the young woman who opened the door when they rang the doorbell on East 73rd Street, to demand tribute in the form of a cash payment. Each was surprised when the fey woman read their cards, advised them on their concerns, and then refused to take any money. Since Hattie read Miranda's housekeeper, Mrs. Weigman's cards on a daily basis, helping the woman navigate a difficult time in her home life, the housekeeper kept her silence to her employer, causing Miranda to be none the wiser to the daily stream of visitors to her home.

Three months to the day of Margaret Taylor's first visit to Miss Hattie, Portia Ravitz, the CEO of Elias-Clarke's second and much younger wife, rang the bell, seeking to speak to the psychic that all of her social circle were raving about. She, as a rule, didn't believe in the paranormal, but since her friends were adamant about the woman and her prognostic abilities. Portia Ravitz had a question she wanted the answer to, so she suspended her disbelief and made the trip.

The witch, Hattie, opened the door and looked down on the bleached blonde woman. “I cain't helps ya, Mizz Ravitz,” the dark haired woman said softly. “Ye already knows th' answer ta what ya come ta ask. He'll cheat on ya sure as he cheated with ya on his last wife. Ya ain't stupid, no matter what he says. Time will come when ya know more then he wants ya ta. On that day ye'll be a place where ya c'n makes a choice. Ye'll be able ta bring him down an' let him go, er ye'll choose ta stay cause o' the things he gives ya. Choose wisely when that day comes, 'cause it will mark th' path ye'll walk for the rest o' yer life.” With that, the witch closed the door.

Portia Ravitz had her answer.

And so it went, day after day, month after month.

*****

For Caroline and Cassidy the weekends went all too quickly and the weekdays all too slowly. School was, as it had been since they had first arrived, something to be endured. They had been confused and angry when their parents and their therapist had decreed that this school for troubled girls was necessary for their well-being. In their hearts they knew that their mother wasn't happy with this solution. But with their barely tolerable step-father Stephen's exit from their lives, they had reacted to the press frenzy surrounding the divorce. As young girls on the cusp of adolescence, they had already had quite enough drama in their lives. With the renewed paparazzi deluge and the ludicrous tabloid stories, mostly condemning their mother, they had coped with their anger by acting out. They had given their parents a number of scares and even worried their usually unflappable therapist.

After completing their first semester and starting their second, they were now fixtures at the school. They, like most girls of their age, had a number of friends, a number of acquaintances, and a handful of rivals. Students involved in rivalries often played nasty tricks on each other as a way of increasing their status and social standing among the other girls. It didn't make things any easier that both the twins, as well as the rest of the student body, knew that they were on the Head Mistress's watch list. Any infraction of the school's rules that either of the twin's made was brought directly to Mrs. Swineford's attention. Consequently, Cassidy and Caroline had made an agreement that they wouldn't involve themselves in any pranking because they didn't want to get into any more trouble.

The odd thing was that over the last several weeks, any time a prank was aimed against either of the twins, it somehow went disastrously wrong for the person trying to prank them. And, much to Mrs. Swineford's frustration, anytime anything happened to one of Cassidy's or Caroline's rivals, which was becoming increasingly frequent, both of the twins had air-tight alibis and neither they, nor any of their regular circle of friends, had been anywhere near where the pranks had befallen the victims. Cassidy and her dream friend would spend a good deal of time laughing about this.

At the beginning of the twin's second semester, a new transfer student from Brazil was introduced into several of Caroline's classes. The poor little rich girl, Paola by name, was lost in many of her classes because of a very dysfunctional home life. Her parents, mired in their own problems, had ignored her academic difficulties for years. Caroline took to helping her in class, and a tenuous friendship started to grow between them. When it became obvious to the teaching staff that the new student was going to need more help than could be handled in the classroom, school staff decided that tutors were desirable. Caroline was immediately the first choice for language arts, social studies, and art appreciation. Caroline and Paola began to meet several times a week. As the weeks passed, it wasn't long before their friendship began to grow into something more.

Cassidy was pleased to see her sister experiencing her first romance. Paloa seemed nice, and there were no overtones of any kind of cruel mind games that many of the spoiled girls of the student body played on one another.

First loves are often all-consuming. Caroline spending virtually all of her free time with Paola left Cassidy to her own devices more of the time than she was used to. She found herself surprised that she didn't feel alone and abandoned. She even found that she didn't need the company of other friends or acquaintances. She had always loved to read. She could be quite content scouring the library for new reading material and then visiting and caring for the grave where she had gathered the dirt used in the love potion.

She found the lonely plot of ground in the cemetery a restful place and began to spend a good deal of her free time there. She would sit with her back against the gravestone and somehow the lonely place evoked the desire to read aloud. After several visits, she become aware of fleeting shadows and blurred images just at the edge of her peripheral vision. They would seemingly gather around her as she read, but when she would turn her head to look, nothing would be there.

After increasing incidences of these phantom images, she feared it was a problem with her eyesight. She decided to talk to her mother about it when she went home for the next weekend.

*****

Excited at once again finding Andy waiting for their arrival on the train platform, although Andy had not missed a single arrival since that first one, Cassidy didn't think to mention her concern about her eyesight. Miranda, of course, upon hearing of what her daughter was experiencing, immediately called Emily and demanded that she book the first available appointment with the girls' ophthalmologist.

Saturday morning at breakfast Andy was privy to Miranda and Cassidy discussing plans to take the girl to the doctor. When Miranda excused herself to get dressed to leave, Andy spoke up. “What kind o' doctor?” the young woman from the swamp asked.

“One for my eyes. I've been seeing things.” Cassidy said as she dug into the cereal in her bowl.

“What kind o' things?” Andy inquired.

“Like shadows at the edge of my vision. But when I turn my head, there's nothing there,” the beautiful young girl replied around a mouthful of cereal and milk.

Andy rose from her place at the table and moved up beside where the girl sat. Putting a hand over Cassidy's face, covering her eyes, the swamp witch closed her own eyes and slowly exhaled. Opening her eyes and taking her hand away from Cassidy's face, she smiled. “Ya-all go on ta that doctor with your mama. He ain't gonna find nothin' wrong with yer eyes, an' knowin' that'll make your mama feel lots better. When ya-all gets back, you and I'll talk 'bout what's really goin' on."

“You know?” Cassidy asked breathlessly.

“Yep,” the woman from rural Florida answered frankly. “Yer seein' spooks.”

“Spooks!?” Cassidy swallowed hard, breakfast suddenly forgotten.

“Spooks.” Andy asserted with a curt nod.

*****

Miranda was relieved that the eye doctor, one of the top rated in the country, had run every test he could think of, twice, and had found her precious daughter's eyes to be in tip-top health. Twenty-twenty vision and no indication of any kind of organic problem, he had assured Miranda. He mentioned that the symptomatology of dark shadows at the periphery of vision smacked of cataracts. Cataracts, however, were easily detectable, and Cassidy showed absolutely no signs of that particular problem. He did not have an answer as to why Miranda's daughter was experiencing what she reported, but he assured Miranda that whatever it was, it wasn't the girl's eyes.

Comforted that her daughter's eyes were all right, Miranda turned her mind to discovering what was causing her daughter to see things.

*****

Andy looked at Cassidy where she sat in the Priestly family room. Caroline was downstairs talking to Paola on the telephone. Miranda was enjoying a bubble-bath with candles and wine that Andy had prepared for her. It left Cassidy and Andy with half an hour during which they would not be interrupted.

Tell me everythin' ya seen an' done since ya noticed yer seein' these shadows,” Andy urged, sitting down next to the young girl on the sofa.

Cassidy thought hard for a minute and then nodded. “At first it was just one shadow. I saw it in my room sometimes when I'd been lying there reading. But when I turned to look at it, it was gone. When I go to the graveyard there are lots of shadows at the edges of my vision.”

“Graveyard?” Andy asked. “Is this th' place you done got the graveyard earth?”

Cassidy nodded. “Something happened there when I got the dirt. Something I haven't told anybody about.”

Andy nodded, her eyes on the girl before her. She was silent, waiting for Cassidy to tell the story in her own time.

“I got to the graveyard about midnight,” the young girl said. “I found the gate chained shut and locked, but I was determined that I wasn't going to let any obstacle stand in my way. Walking around the graveyard's perimeter, I found a tree close to the wall. I climbed up it and jumped from it to the wall and from the wall to the ground on the other side. I was so excited about doing something I might impress you with. About doing something to convince you to help me become a wise woman that I didn't think it through, and it wasn't until I was in trouble I realized that I hadn't figured out how I was going to get out of the cemetery. I got the dirt, and I quickly realized that I was trapped. I was already scared. I was out after curfew, and I knew that Mrs. Swineford was gunning for Caroline and me. Just about then a flashlight beam swept through the graveyard. I looked toward the gate and saw the silhouette of a police car. I heard them rattling the chain that held the gate padlocked shut, and a man yelled for me to stay where I was. I didn't want to get suspended again. I turned, and I ran full speed for the for the wall where I'd come in.” Here the girl hesitated for a moment, and then she continued. “I jumped as hard as I could, but there just wasn't any chance. I knew as soon as I left the ground that I was going to hit the wall rather than catch the top edge of it. Just when I thought there was no hope, something got a hold of me and picked me up. It threw me into the tree. There I was, suddenly on the right side of the wall and with an easy way to the ground. I jumped down and realized that in my flight I had dropped the bag of graveyard earth. I was about to cry, and then that bag of dirt that I'd dropped as I ran just flew over the wall, all on its own, and landed at my feet."

Andy nodded solemnly. “Tain't th' whole of th' tale, is it?” she asked. "Tell me 'bout th' rest.”

Cassidy looked confused. She thought for a moment and shook her head. “That's it,” she asserted. “I ran like crazy to get back to campus. I snuck in, and I went to bed.”

The woman from rural Florida swamp arched an eyebrow. “Ya didn't do or say nothin' else?” she inquired gently.

Cassidy thought for another few seconds. Then her eyes lit up. “On the way back to the dorm, I said I'd take flowers to the grave. I promised I'd take flowers to the grave.”

“An' did ya?“ Andy asked.

Cassidy nodded. “The following Friday. I went to town between classes and bought some flowers. I went back to the cemetery and put them on the grave.”

'Tell me 'bout th' grave,” Andy said, something in her tone, urgent.

“The grave?” Cassidy asked, confused. “It was just awful Andy,” she said, her voice filled with emotion. “She'd been forgotten there. She was just my age when she had died, and the grave hadn't had anyone to look after it in forever. It was so moss and grime-coated you couldn't even read her name...”

Andy nodded and waited for the girl to continue.

“I used a little stick and cleaned out the engraving. Then I promised that the next time I went I'd take stuff to clean up the space properly. I did too. Now it looks better now than most of the graves in that cemetery. I go there when I don't have class. It's a nice quiet place to read. The funny thing is when I'm there I read aloud for some reason.”

Andy reached out and lifted the copper locket that Cassidy now never seemed to be without.
“Ya found this, didn't ya?” She said, obviously already knowing the answer.

Cassidy nodded, looking at Andy and wondering what this all meant.

“At th' grave,” Andy continued and Cassidy nodded again, her eyes a bit frightened now. “Are ya dreamin' anythin' unusual?” Andy asked, her hand still holding the locket that was around Cassidy's neck.

Cassidy laughed. “Just about a friend that doesn't exist. It's almost like I have an imaginary playmate.”

Andy let go of the locket. “She ain't imaginary,” she asserted. “And she's like ta scare ya some, real soon. Ya know her name, so's ye'll be able ta talk with her when she shows herself. Likes ta be at night. Likes ta be somewheres shadowy th' first time.”

Cassidy shook her head. “I don't understand, Andy,” she whispered.

Andy nodded and smiled. “We knows what yer gift is now. Yer like me. Ya c'n see the dead. That's what them shadows 'ur at th' edge o' what ya see. Them that ain't gone on. Told ya, always lots o' spooks in a boneyard. They come ta listen ta ya read. As ya grow more inta yer gift, ye'll likely be able ta hear 'em as well as see 'em. But her, she's chosen ya. Ya promised, an ye kept yer word. She liked that after bein' alone and forgot fer so long. She's like ta be with ya from now till the day ya die.”

“Are you telling me that the girl I'm seeing in my dreams is a ghost!?” Cassidy squeaked.

Andy nodded. “She's been comin' ta ya in yer dreams ta sip at yer life energy. Little sips that won't hurt ya none. It's makin' her stronger. One day soon, she'll appear ta ya outside yer dreams. It's like ta shock ya near ta death. Ye'll likely be able ta see right through her like a pane o' glass. Ye'll be the only one who can see an' hear her, lessen someone else there has th' gift."

Cassidy nodded. “What should I do?” she asked quietly.

“Couldn't hurt iffin you could learn all you c'n 'bout her. Know who she was, how she died. Anythin' you c'n find out,” Andy answered.

Cassidy nodded, her mind turning on how one would go about finding out about a girl not old enough to have done anything notable and who had died more than eighty years ago.

*****

Later that evening Andy slipped into Miranda's study where Miranda was on her computer doing research online, trying to determine what might be causing the shadows at the edges of her daughter's vision. Andy approached the desk. “ 'Randa,” she offered softly, “ain't no doctor gonna fix what's ailing Cassidy's eyes. Can't be fixed, cause ain't nothin' wrong with her.”

Miranda looked up from the computer screen and over the top of her reading glasses. She spoke in that oh-so-quiet voice that terrified her employees. “Andrea, my daughter is seeing shadows at the edges of her vision. The idiot doctor from today says that there is nothing wrong with her eyes. But if she is seeing something, there must be some cause for it. It is my duty as her mother to find out what is causing it and what can be done to correct it so that I know my little girl is healthy and safe.”

Andy shook her head and reached out, resting her hand on her lover's shoulder. “She's like me 'Randa, She's got th' gift, and it's comin' inta flower. She's seein' things others cain't 'cause they ain't got the sight. Cain't see what she sees.”

“So what are you telling me, Andrea?” Miranda demanded. “That my little girl is seeing angels or demons?” The older woman shook her head. “Nonsense!” she asserted. “This is the twenty-first century. No such things exist.”

Andy shook her head sadly. She turned away from the cold voice, feeling tears brimming behind her eyes. “I'm tellin' ya th' 'cause o' what she's seein'. And it don't need fixin'. She has th' gift, just as I has it. She's asked me ta' teach her th' old ways. Ta help her down th' road ta' bein' a wise-woman.”

Miranda sighed. “I knew I should have restricted her reading of those ridiculous books on the occult. She has been fascinated with that nonsense since she was a little girl.”

Andy got her back up and stamped one bare foot on the carpet. “Taint nonsense, Mizz high-an'-mighty 'Randa Priestly," she answered, asserting herself. “There's things in heaven an' earth that you ain't even dared dream o'. Them that ain't gone on 'ur near about everywheres. Your daughter sees um. Iffin her gift is near as strong as I'm think'n it might be, she's gonna be able ta hear em an' talk to em too.” Andy shook her head. “Ya saw fer yerself what a spook that can manifest feels like. An Ol' Lucius weren't even exertin' himself. Ye don't have the gift, yet it reached out from beyond an' touched ya. Made you know he was there and was powerful. Made you afraid.”

Miranda shook her head in negation, “I was hypnotized by the place and by the company. You wanted me to believe it happened, and I allowed myself to be swayed. It was a fantasy, a dream best forgotten.”

“Yer a fool “Randa,” Andy snapped. “Ye know it tweren't no dream. Ye know it in yer heart an' yer soul. Ol' Lucius is a vengeful sort o' spook. Iffin ya continue ta deny he reached out an' touched ya, ya can expect ta see him in yer dreams.”

Miranda placed her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. “Andrea,” she said, her tone tinged with ice. “I don't want you to encourage Cassidy's fantasies. I forbid you to teach her witchcraft.”

Andy shook her head violently, ”'Randa, yer daughter is seein' spooks,” she almost begged. “They ain't goin' ta go away. Those that have stayed behind have somethin' they need ta do or say. They'll recognize her gift, an' they'll seek her out, tryin' ta satisfy what it is they needs ta do. If she don't get taught how ta deal with 'em, it'll make her life hard. Cause she's gonna be seein' folks other folks cain't see!”

Miranda shook her head and smiled. “Andrea,” she said softly. “You've left that uneducated, superstitious, rural life behind. You are in the most modern city in the world. Science creates new miracles here every day. My girls are children of this century, not of the eighteenth-century.”

Andy stubbornly turned away. “I thought that th' fates had brought ya ta me,” she said softly. “That ya'd stay wit' me at the flower pool an' we'd be happy,” she offered bitterly. “Then ya asked I come wit' ya. Come ta this here place. Now yer girl needs me. Needs what I c'n teach her.” Andy glared at Miranda. Teachin' her is what th' fates want. It's why I was brought here. So's I c'n show her how ta live wit' her gift. And ye say ya forbid it!” She shook her head. “Yer her Mama, iffin you say I cain't, then I won't. Th' decision is yourn. But hear me 'Randa Priestly. You do this thing, an' you'll be makin' one o' the biggest mistakes o' yer life, and yer lil' bird is the one gonna pay th' piper.”

Miranda looked at the girl before her, standing straight and proud, beautiful in her anger and defiance. She felt her heart melt, but this decision was about her daughter's welfare. “You will not teach Cassidy any more of this ridiculous nonsense,” she commanded imperiously, as if she were standing behind her desk at Runway and issuing orders to her minions.

Andy flinched as if struck by the coldness in Miranda's voice. She nodded her understanding of Miranda's words and turned on her heal, leaving Miranda's study.

*****

Miranda watched the girl go, wondering how the conversation had seemed to have gone so wrong. That was when she heard the front door slam shut. Andrea, her Andrea, had left the house and gone out into the late night of New York City, a place she was ill-prepared to handle. She rushed from her study to the front door of the townhouse. Throwing it open, she frantically looked up and down the street. The brash and imprudent girl was nowhere to be seen. Miranda silently cursed herself for a fool. She had long wanted a lover with Andrea's capacity for understanding and tolerance of Miranda's acerbic nature. Now she'd picked a fight on truly foolish grounds. If Andrea was to stay with her, would she not need to contribute to the raising of the twins? Be, in fact, a second mother to them? And did that not mean teaching what she knew? Miranda rushed back to her study and called Roy. “Roy, I need you here immediately,” she demanded the moment the call was answered. “That's all.”

*****

Barefoot, Andy strode quickly down the sidewalk, moving from one pool of street light to the next, not really paying attention to her surroundings. She muttered angrily to herself as she went. “Mizz high an' mighty 'Randa Priestly. Know-it-all. Thinks she knows what's best fer her lil' bird...”

She had been hurrying along for some time and had covered a fair distance. Her surroundings were unfamiliar. It was a surprise when the two men stepped out of a darkened doorway, one of them brandishing a knife. “Give up your money, bitch, and you won't get hurt!” the knife wielder demanded in a harsh voice.

Andy took a step backward, her eyes darting this way and that, looking for an avenue of escape. “Ain't gots no money,” she answered softly. “Don't wants no trouble.”

The man with the knife laughed, a dark and nasty sound. The other man licked his lips. “Well, everybody that comes across our turf has to pay a toll. You ain't got money, so how you going to pay?” He said, looking at Andy's body, clad in her thin sundress, up and down. “I know; we'll just take it out of your ass.”

Andy moved to bolt back the way she had come, but the knife wielder was too quick and had a hold of her upper arm before she could get away. Andy tried to scream, but the other man clamped his hand over her mouth before the two dragged her into the darkened doorway. One of them grabbed the collar of her sundress and ripped it. “I'll be damned,” he said excitedly. “No bra! Look at them titties!”

Andy growled like an animal from behind the hand clamped over her mouth, and tried to calm herself enough to call on her gift. That was when the second man punched her in the stomach. “You're going to be the sorriest and the sorest bitch in town in the morning,” he laughed. “Now do as we say, or we'll really fuck you up!”

The wind knocked out of her and her vision blurred with pain, Andy closed her eyes and let her mind scream out her desperation.

*****

Cassidy was in the middle of one of the wonderful dreams she had nightly now. She was with her friend in her bedroom. They had just listened to another old-timey song on that ancient portable record player. Her friend was laughing about something that Cassidy had said when her face became serious. She looked away and then looked back at Cassidy sadly. “I'm sorry," she whispered urgently. “I'd never mean to hurt you, and you'll thank me later!” she said before plunging both her hands into Cassidy's chest.

Cold fire ran along Cassidy's nerves and permeated every muscle. For a moment she couldn't breathe. Then her friend pulled her hands back.

“I have to go!” the girl exclaimed. She moved, flowed, like a mist moved by a blast of air. For one brief second her visage changed into something truly terrifying, before, wailing, she was gone through a solid wall.

Cassidy awoke in her bed with a start, her breathing shallow and rapid, her entire body covered in sweat but chilled so badly that her teeth chattered. The places on her chest that her friend had touched felt burned. She rose on unsteady feet and quickly discovered that she couldn’t support her own weight. She fell back across her bed, frantic to call for help. Call for her mother, call for Andy. Her eyes too heavy to stay open, she was unconscious in seconds.

*****

Roy had been cruising the surrounding neighborhoods for three-quarters of an hour as Miranda sat in the back of the town car, staring out the window. They had started with the block immediately around Miranda's townhouse before Miranda had directed what was obviously a systematically enlarged search area. Roy's first thought was that they were looking for the twins, but Miranda's was not frantic enough. One of the side effects of having been employed by the Devil in Prada as long as he has been was that he'd developed a certain ability to read her. Roy chuckled internally at the though, because those that were not intimately aware of Miranda Priestly's moods would never think of the woman as capable of ever becoming frantic. Roy knew otherwise. The few occasions where Miranda had had to take one of the twins to the hospital emergency room after typical childhood injuries had shown him that Miranda. Roy knew that Miranda loved and worried about her children, and that she was as protective of them as a momma lioness. If one or both of the twins were on the street in New York City after dark, Miranda would be showing myriad, almost undetectable small signs of the stress it was causing her. Using process of elimination, Roy deduced that all that was left was Miranda's house guest, Miss Hattie. As he turned down another neighborhood street, he allowed his mind to wonder as to the events that had brought them to this situation.


*****

It was dark, dirty, and it smelled of urine and worse. The alleyway was littered with debris as the two men dragged Andy further into the secluded space, tearing the remaining rags of her sundress from her body. “Damn!” one of the men shouted. “No panties either! This is one hot bitch!” he mocked, his hands running rudely over her exposed breasts.

The knife wielder closed the folding weapon and stuck it in his pocket. He slapped Andy full across the face. “Should have carried some money, girly,” he said excitedly. “If you'd just given up some money, we would've let you skate. But as I told you, nobody crosses our turf without paying the toll.” He reached down and roughly touched Andy were only Miranda's hands were allowed to be.

The other man's hand, clamped across her mouth, loosened for a split second, and getting purchase, she bit down till she tasted blood. He screeched and loosened his hold around her middle as he tried to retrieve his hand from tearing teeth. She shifted her weight and rolled away. Suddenly free, she turned and tried to run, but her other attacker blocked her avenue of escape. Raising his fist, he struck her brutally to the ground.

The temperature in the immediate vicinity dropped suddenly. A whirlwind of a luminescent pale blue mist erupted out of the ground between Andy's prone form and where her attackers stood over her. It swirled violently, whipping trash up from the alley's floor in a miniature cyclone. It shifted, roiled, and gained size. Taking form, it pushed the man who had wielded the knife backward, though whether from some physical force imparted by this phantasm or from the sheer terror the vision before him must have instilled, no one would know. It was a luminescent, pale blue nightmare form. Indistinct, never still, its smoky mass flowed like a sheet caught in the wind. Its upper body gave a skeletal impression, its arms and the fingers on its clawed hands impossibly long and reminiscent of the bare, bleached branches of dead trees. Its base rising up from the ground underneath it was less distinct, resembling a column of illuminated blue fog. Its head was the most defined part of this spectral apparition, skull-like with a mouth full of sharp pointed teeth and a pair of points of blue lights, burning cold at the centers of the dark hollow sockets of its eyes. It shrieked, the sound otherworldly and full of rage. Raising its arms it charged the now off-balance figure of the knife wielder, who was struggling to get his weapon back out of the pocket of his jean. The specter moved as if blown before a hurricane-driven wind. This seemingly incorporeal thing scooped him up as if he weighed nothing at all and flung him with force into one of the alley's brick walls. The sound of the impact was sickening and wet.

The other man, being no fool, was scrambling to get away from the nightmare vision that suddenly turned and rushed him. It was on him in a heartbeat and, screaming, he was driven to the ground. He writhed as it roiled and swirled around him cutting him a hundred times.

When the man on the ground ceased struggling, the phantasm turned and flowed over to where Andy crouched on the ground. Where before it was cold, now it warmed the air around the woman from Slippery Bottom. It drew the rags that were once the young woman's sundress up, covering her nakedness. Andy closed her eyes and let what she knew was a ghost do what it was going to do. She did not know the origin of this spirit or what it might want of her, but she could feel that it meant her no harm and had, in fact, come to her rescue.

*****

Miranda was thrown violently forward against her seat belt and then slumped back into the rear seat of the town car as Roy brought the car to a screeching and unexpected stop in the middle of the road. He was out of the car before she could even think of berating him. She untangled herself from the confining belts and opened the car door, stepped out. She glanced around to see Roy down on the ground looking under the car. “Roy,” she said, her tone marking her at her most aggravated, “what on earth...”

Roy looked up from where he held himself just off the pavement of the road. “I'm sorry, Miranda,” he said, his tone frantic. "There was suddenly a little girl on the road! Right in front of the car! I hit the brakes, but there is no way I didn't hit her. She was just too close!” He again looked under the car. Not seeing anything, he stood and looked around frantically. “I don't see her, but she has to be here!”

Miranda looked around the street. “Roy, we weren't going very fast. If a girl was here, she'd have to be very close by." At that moment she looked up and, for a split second, thought she saw a girl of about her daughter's age beckoning from the mouth of an alley. The odd thing was the young girl was dressed in vintage fashion instead of something that was presently in style. It wasn't Halloween, and Miranda could not imagine why a girl that age would be dressed in a knee-length straight dress with a drop-waist and beaded overdress. She even wore a cloche hat with a feather adornment. Such clothing hadn't been in fashion since the flappers from the 1920's. The girl turned and disappeared down the alley, and Miranda pointed. "There, Roy,” she urged. “I just saw a young girl go down that alley.”

Roy was immediately on his feet, and he and Miranda gave chase across the street and down the alleyway. The alley ran though to the next street, but it also had an access road running between buildings that fronted on the two parallel streets. Roy glanced each way while hurriedly crossing the access road, and apparently not seeing anything resembling their quarry, continued on toward the next street. Something caused Miranda to pause a moment, and looking to her left, she saw Andrea holding the rags of her dress about herself and slowly hobbling across the dirty cement and asphalt littered with broken glass and other detritus. A quiet, anguished sound came to Miranda's ears, and she suddenly realized that she herself was its source. She rushed forward to Andrea's aide. The two's eyes met. Miranda's hands came up, and she was suddenly fiercely embracing the woman from the swamp to her, not caring who might be watching or what might be said.

Andrea trembled in her arms. “People here 'bouts are no better than them no account Kagle boys back home,” she whispered, her tone trembling and angry.

Miranda was horrified. It was clearly evident from the torn rags her young lover was holding together to cover herself and the bruise forming on the side of the woman's face near her eye that Andrea had been assaulted. Miranda felt like she couldn't breathe, couldn't speak coherently. Almost immediately Roy was once again beside her. Seeing his usually so in control employer seemingly uncertain of what to do, he took charge. Doffing his dress jacket, he placed it across Andrea's shoulders and gently guided her toward where the car sat in the middle of the street. “Do you need to go to the hospital, Miss?” he asked courteously. “Are you injured?”

Andy shook her head. “I'm all right," she said, nodding farther up the alley. "Them others tweren't so lucky. Thinkin' maybe they're goin' ta need a sawbones.”

Hearing a groan, Roy glanced up the alley, seeing a pair of legs sticking out from behind a dumpster. He moved quickly to where one of the downed men lay. In his early sixties, as a young man, he had served in the military and seen some of the fiercest fighting in the war in Vietnam. Only those long ago days of comrades fallen in combat had prepared him for the injuries he saw. He looked up at Andy. “How did this...what the hell did this?!” he exclaimed.

The woman who often called herself Hattie shook her head. “Somethin' came ta protect me,” she whispered, glancing around. Then she looked toward Miranda. “At first I thought it was Ol' Lucius, but it tweren't him."

Miranda moved up beside Roy and paled at the carnage spread before her.

Roy had his cell phone out of his pocket, ready to call the police when Andy reached out and took it from him. “You go on an' take 'Randa home, now, Mr. Roy,” she said, her voice country courteous and calmer than it had been. She shrugged off the coat Roy had given her and handed it back to him. “Them folk's that writes all the bad stuff about 'Randa 'll be busier 'n a one armed monkey with two peckers iffin they hear that she was near this. You take her on home now, an' I'll deal with the sheriff. I'll tell 'em what they wants ta hear.” She then turned to Miranda, and reaching out she smiled sadly. “I'll take care o' this and then come ta your house.”

“She's right, Ms. Priestly,” Roy said formally, gently guiding the icon away from the horror in the back of that alleyway. “Page Six would have a field day with you being here. Best they never find out you were anywhere close to this mess.”

Miranda nodded, obviously shaken and not at all displaying her usual self-assured demeanor. She allowed herself to be guided back to the car. Roy glanced back to the lithesome woman standing in the ally. “You just dial the numbers nine-one-one, Miss Hattie,” he offered, opening the rear door of the town car for Miranda to enter.

The woman many knew as Hattie nodded her understanding. She offered Miranda a sad smile and spoke. ”Randa, you look in on yer lil' birds when ya gets home. It'll make ya feel loads better.”

*****

In a moment Roy was behind the wheel, and the town car disappeared up the street. Andy struggled for a moment with the unfamiliar device in her hand and then looked at the strange symbols on the buttons. She first glanced down at the unconscious man and then at the whimpering, groaning injured man on the ground. Squatting down beside him she showed him the cell phone in her hand. “Ya-all shows me which o' these is a nine and which is a one, an' I'll get ya-all some help,” she offered courteously.

*****

Miranda had looked in on Caroline, comforting herself that her oldest by minutes daughter was all right. Caroline was perched under her covers, reading before she turned out the light. She shared a hug with her mother, and Miranda moved on to see her younger child.

Entering Cassidy's room she saw her daughter in obvious distress. She was laying on top of her bedding, her body failing, her body soaked in sweat. She moaned in her troubled sleep. Her mother was quickly by her side and, knelling down, Miranda gently shook her by the shoulder. “Cassidy...Bobbsey, wake up. You're having a bad dream,” she said softly in order to not further traumatize her child.

Cassidy startled awake, grabbing onto her mother's arms. “Oh Mom! It was horrible,” she wept. “What a horrible dream!”

“Oh my poor Bobbsey!” Miranda exclaimed pulling the trembling girl into a firm hug. She noted that the girl was deathly pale, and her body was cold to the touch. “Do you want to tell me about it?” she asked carefully.

Cassidy nodded and spoke quietly into her mother's throat. “I was in a dirty alley somewhere in the city. Two men were there. They had dragged a woman into the alley. I couldn't see her face, but I knew her. I knew they were going to hurt her, going to....” she swallowed hard, “you know. I had to stop them! I showed myself, and the two men were suddenly afraid. I reached out, and picked one of them up, and threw him like he weighed nothing at all. I threw him into a brick wall, and I heard his bones break when he hit it. Then suddenly my fingers were like knives, and I was on the other man, and I cut him again and again!” She dissolved into tears.

Miranda sat on Cassidy's bed with her arms wrapped tightly around her daughter until the girl had cried herself to sleep. She tried hard to focus on her daughter's needs, but the horror of what she'd seen in that filthy alley, coupled with Cassidy's describing the imagined events leading up to that carnage in stunning detail with no possible way that her daughter could have known what had happened there, frightened Miranda terribly. Andrea and her strange and inexplicable powers were the only explanation. Those men had accosted the woman from the swamp, and she had somehow used those otherworldly powers to defend herself. Now the problem had become that Cassidy's near idolization of the woman from rural Florida had created some kind of connection that had seemingly so linked her daughter to Andrea that Cassidy was being negatively affected. Miranda frowned. This could not be allowed. She would speak with Andrea as soon as the young woman returned to the house. There would be no more occult nonsense under her roof, and that was simply that.

*****

After many hours with the police, Andrea had returned to the townhouse. She tiredly informed Miranda that she had told the authorities that she was visiting from her home in Florida and that those two men had accosted her, had struck her, dragged her into the alley, and intended to rape her. She told them she had then passed out and when she awoke, the men had been in the condition the first officers on the scene and the ambulance crew had found them in. The fact that her clothing was torn to shreds, that she was bruised, and that not a speck of blood was on her anywhere had supported her story that she had had nothing to do with their injuries. “Wouldn't o' believed th' truth no-how,” was all she would say about her experience in dealing with the people at the police station.

The next morning, Miranda had made it quite clear to Andrea that there would be no more potions, spells, or talk of magic. No talk of ghosts, or spirits, or anything else that smacked of the occult. She decreed, without exception, that such subjects were off-limits in regard to either of her daughters, but especially with Cassidy.

“She's your child, “Randa. You're her Mama, and you gots th' right ta say how she's ta be raised," Andy conceded. “But yer makin' a bad, bad, mistake. One your girl, Cassidy, is goin' ta pay fer, an' one yer goin' ta regret right down ta yer bones.”

Miranda ignored the warning. As far as she was concerned, the matter was closed.

*****

The following weeks Miranda found herself pressed even harder at Runway than she had been before. Her days at the office became longer and longer as she fought to hold on to all she had built. Saturday and Sunday became just other work days. She saw little of her family; even her Andrea was often asleep when she came home. Granted each time it occurred, the girl was on top of the bed covers dressed in her simple cotton shift, having obviously tried to wait up for Miranda's return.

It was at another meaningless Runway function among the sycophants, supplicants, and toadies that Miranda learned an unpleasant truth. She had been cornered by Amelia Torvin, an extremely wealthy member of the terminally-bored leisure class.

“Dearest Miranda, how fortunate you are,” offered Amelia exuberantly, going through with the traditional ritual of air kisses close to Miranda's cheeks. “Imagine, having your own psychic living with you right there in your house!”

Miranda returned the insipid gesture, and sipping from the glass of inferior champagne she had been served, glanced across the crowded room to where a clique made up of Irv's cronies on the Elias-Clarke board surreptitiously watched her. She turned her attention back to the woman speaking to her. “What on earth are you talking about, my dear?” she asked, although she was not truly interested in the subject under discussion.

“Why Miss Hattie, of course!" The woman virtually gushed. “Half my social circle seeks her advice on....well, on just about everything!”

“Miss Hattie?!” Miranda exclaimed, surprised that this woman even knew the name of her houseguest. “Amelia, my dear, I have no idea what you're talking about,” she continued, feeling her heart sink.

“Oh, aren't you the cagey one,” Amelia smiled wickedly. “You have the golden goose living right there with you. If it were me, I'd be having my cards read morning and night! What is your arrangement with Miss Hattie, anyway? I heard that Carol McWilliams offered her a brownstone of her own if she'd allow Carol to become her patron, and Miss Hattie turned her down cold.”

Miranda stiffened. “Miss Hattie,” she said tightly, “is a guest, staying in my home. A friend of the family.”

“Well just everyone is going by your place for Miss Hattie to advise them. I myself was planning on stopping by tomorrow. Where on earth did you meet her, Miranda?” Amelia continued as Miranda, shocked by the implications of the conversation and the probability that her privacy and the sanctity of her home may have been violated, tuned the woman out.

*****

“ANDREA!” Miranda called out angrily as soon as she entered the townhouse and locked the door.

In a moment Andrea was at the top of the stairs. “Yes 'Randa,” she asked, smiling down at the woman.

“Have you been using my house as a...a...fortunetelling establishment?!” she demanded of the young woman from the rural South. “Are you running a business out of my home?!”

Andrea started down the stairs towards Miranda but stopped about halfway down, apparently realizing Miranda's mood. “Tain't no business, 'Randa. Folks come, and I helps 'em with their worries. Don't takes no money fer what I do.”

“You have had strangers into my home...MY HOME!” Miranda asserted quietly, using the quiet terrible tone that she often used on her employees at Runway. “There will be no more of it! No more fortunetelling! No more spells or occult nonesense."

The woman sometimes known as Hattie looked at the white-haired icon before her and shook her head sadly. “I'm a wise-woman, 'Randa. Cain't not be one. God or the Devil done give me these powers, an' I've gots ta use em fer good best I can." A tear ran down the fey woman's cheek. “Ye don't wants me here no more,” she said, turning back up the stairs. “Ya don't wants me ta be me. I embarrasses ya, and ya knows I don't belong. Ya keeps me here in this house, hidden away like a caged bird, ashamed o' what's twixt us. Yer so focused on keepin' that which is passin' out o' yer life that ye cain't see all yer 'bouts ta lose.” She ran up the stair and stopped in front of the guest room she had kept her things in since her arrival at the townhouse. “Ya have made yer choices, Miranda Priestly. I fear they'll bring ya no happiness, but ye've made 'em clear,” she said, entering the room and slamming the door behind her.

Miranda went to the door, upset with herself for upsetting Andrea, whom she realized that she loved, but also still angry with the young woman for taking such liberties with the hospitality she had given.

Trying the door knob to the guest room, Miranda found it locked. She decided to try and deescalate the situation. Once she and Andrea had calmed down, she was certain that they could come to some equitable and reasoned settlement. Andrea was right, Miranda suspected, that she had been keeping the young woman hidden away. The girl was a precious innocent and as recent events had clearly demonstrated, New York City was no place for an innocent. “We'll speak again in the morning,” Miranda offered through the closed door. There was no reply. Already missing the girl's easy smile, Miranda went to a lonely and troubled bed.

*****

The next morning Miranda found the door to the room Andrea had taken refuge in open. Entering, she hoped to find the girl and make a promise that they would talk when she returned from work that evening. After the restless night she had spent, she wanted to tell Andrea that they would work out some sort of compromise. Looking about the room she found the clothing she had provided Andrea neatly folded and sitting on the end of the bed. A quick look in the closet and the dresser made her blood run cold. The few things that Andrea had brought with her were nowhere in evidence. A search of the house revealed that neither was the young woman from Slippery Bottom.

Andrea was gone.

Miranda sighed and steeled her emotions. This was the way of things. People left her. She drove them away. During the various divorce proceedings, all three of her ex-husbands had accused her of being both work-obsessed and emotionally unavailable. In those instances she hadn't understood. They had known who and what she was when they had married her. They had known that she was the icon who ruled her magazine empire with an iron hand in a silk glove. The last two had, in fact, counted on her being so. They had wanted to tame the infamous dragon lady and display to the world the fashion goddess on their arm. Miranda had never aided them in fostering any such illusion. She remained herself and consequently, the marriages quickly declined, becoming more sham than reality.

Andrea had been different. She had followed Miranda back to New York from her home in the swamp. The young woman had struggled with the strange new world she had found herself in and found it impossible to fit in. Miranda remembered all the times that Andrea had told her that their time together was limited unless Miranda could bring herself to believe in Andrea's powers. She had seen evidence of them repeatedly, yet she had comforted herself that she was a woman of the twenty-first century and not subject to the whims of being scared of the dark in her rational and explainable world.

Miranda realized that she was to blame for her lover's departure and that cut her the deepest of all. Andrea had warned her that their time was running out, and Miranda had not listened. Andrea had warned her that her struggles trying to hold on to her position at Runway would come to naught and all her efforts would result only in greater heartbreak. The fey girl had begged that Miranda open her mind and reach out to her children, but Miranda had gone so far as to forbid Andrea from teaching Cassidy what she had to teach. She had even forbidden Andrea to continue having those silly women who came to have their cards read, back . It was the one time Andrea had become angry and fought back rather than simply accepting Miranda's will. She could remember a hundred promise she'd made and broken to the young woman. She wouldn't work so late tomorrow night, she'd be home for dinner, she'd....It didn't matter now. The girl was gone, and that was that.

Tomorrow was Friday. Her girls would return from school, and she would have to tell them that Andrea was gone. She was not looking forward to it.

 

Chapter Text

Winter had come early to New York state, and it suited Miranda's mood perfectly. Desolate and cheerless, the landscape passed slowly by as she stared out the window of the town car. It hadn't even had the decency to snow. Just miserable cold and inconvenient freezing rain. Five months had passed since Andrea had departed. Five months that had seen Miranda's life spiral further and further out of her control.

The usual fifty-minute ride from Runway's offices to the Four Winds Hospital in Westchester, New York, had taken more than twice as long this afternoon due to what was likely an ice-related automobile accident slowing traffic down on I-684. This had given Miranda far more time to ruminate on the last year of her life than she wished.

Today had been a prime example of her continued struggles to maintain her dominion over Runway. Grinning like a fool at this morning's meeting, Irv jovially had informed her of additional cuts to Runway's budget, to be accomplished in the form of more staff layoffs. Such cuts had, of course, been approved by the board. The vote margin was, as it had been in all the votes that had gone against Runway's interests since Oliver's death, a single vote majority. Miranda's deceased friend's hand-picked replacement had been completely won over by Irv's smarmy manipulations and now sided with Elias-Clarke's CEO on every decision affecting the corporation. That meant that every decision regarding Runway's interests had gone contrary to Miranda's best judgment of what was good for its continued success. Today was the third time in five months budgetary cuts had dictated staff layoffs, and Miranda would not be able to avoid letting go at least one in four of her employees.

Deep cuts in every department had, of course, impacted staff morale, and every remaining manager was having to do more with less. That, in turn was affecting the quality of the magazine Miranda put her name to each month. The thousand little cuts Irv had arranged were bleeding the creativity out of the artistic process required to keep a magazine like Runway on top. The writing was on the wall, and it was only a matter of time before Elias-Clarke's flagship publication would lose so many market shares that any employee who had any choice would be looking for a way out. Miranda was subjected to watching all she had toiled over for decades slowly collapse in on itself.

She raised the privacy screen and bit down on the inside of her lip, fighting back the tears at the edges of her vision. Even before the most recent difficulties, Miranda had recognized that she had made a terrible mistake. Without Andrea's presence, without the loving care and devotion her young lover had lavished upon her, she was bereft. It seemed the only thing that had been preventing the tidal wave of difficulties and disappointment from drowning her was the daily kindnesses that Andrea had offered her. The girl's smile had been a balm against the steady rise of her opposition at Elias-Clarke.

On top of that, today was a Friday. With the weekend looming, Miranda was forced to consider another thing that she had lost. After Andrea's departure, things between Miranda and her daughters quickly became increasingly strained. Demands at work caused Miranda to be largely absent during weekends, and without Andrea being present at the townhouse, the twins soon decided that coming home on the weekends served little purpose. Things, in many ways, had reverted back to the way they had been before the strange fey woman had ever entered her and her daughters' lives.

Four Winds was one of the top-rated private children's psychiatric hospitals within commuting distance of Manhattan. It was certainly a significant improvement over the establishment that Mrs. Swineford's Academy had first sent her beloved Cassidy to on a seventy-two hour involuntary hold. Apparently her daughter had experienced a serious breakdown at the school just over a month ago. Miranda had arranged to have her daughter moved from the facility nearer the school to the top-rated one closer to the city as soon as the initial three-day hold had expired. Four Winds had insisted on a compulsory four-week commitment in order to conduct the necessary evaluation and stabilization process. This process had limited the number of times Miranda had been allowed to see her daughter, and Caroline had simply not been allowed to visit her sister at all.

Immediately after Cassidy's involuntary commitment, Miranda had spent several days trying to divine what had happened to her daughter. The initial consultations with the psychiatrists at the hospital where Cassidy had first been confined spoke of terrifying possibilities. Words were bandied around such as schizophrenia, affective psychosis, and dissociative disorders as possible causes for her daughter's erratic behaviors.

Miranda had spent nearly a full day at Mrs. Swinford's Academy attempting to discover exactly what had occurred and how she had been blindsided by the fact that her beloved daughter was in crisis. The staff said that her daughter's behavior had, over the course of several months, become increasingly bizarre. According to some of Cassidy's friends at the school, at first she had become reclusive, obsessed with a particular grave in the local cemetery. She'd spent a great deal of time going through the local newspaper office's microfiche collection and the local historical association's archives to find out anything she could about the person buried there. Although her schoolwork hadn't suffered, she had begun spending more and more time off campus. Students had observed her, several times, apparently having one-sided conversations with imaginary people. At some point she'd stopped sleeping. Just prior to the public meltdown that had resulted in Cassidy being committed, the staff of the school had confined her to the school grounds in an attempt to prevent Cassidy from spending every moment, when she was not directly involved with school activities, at the grave she had become obsessed with.

Having finally arrived at the hospital, Miranda now stared out a window in the visitation room at the bleak and forlorn ice-covered garden which lay below. She had hoped to arrive at the hospital in time to talk to her beloved daughter before the afternoon round of medications was administered, but today that was not to be. As she waited to see her daughter in that depressing, poorly decorated room, she knew she'd find her little girl so doped up that it would be difficult to carry on a coherent conversation.

The door to the visitor's room opened, and a nurse in a starched uniform led the heartbreaking form of her drugged, dull-eyed, lethargic child. Miranda braced herself, struggling to smile and greet the young girl she continued to fail so badly.

*****

Near dawn on Saturday morning, Cassidy sat huddled on the floor in her hospital room, her hands covering her ears and her eyes tightly shut. There were six ghosts at the moment dancing attendance on her, all six of them talking at the same time. All six demanding her attention. This wasn't an unusual circumstance anymore. She couldn't remember the last good night sleep she'd had. The dead were with her morning, noon, and night. All of these lost souls wanting something. They wanted her to do something, or find something, or tell someone something. They all wanted her to effect some kind of change in the living world that they, themselves, could not manage.

It was really all very confusing. The problem was that she had been forced into her new reality with little in the way of guide posts. What little she knew came from reading books on the subject, and she very quickly had discovered that most of what had been written by the supposed experts were utter crap written by people who'd never seen a ghost.

Cassidy had begun to realize that many of the ghosts didn't even recognize that other ghosts were present. It was like some of them existed in their own little reality and couldn't see or hear anything outside that little bubble. Others would argue endlessly with each other about their place in line and why Cassidy should help them first. She had also had to deal with the fact that some of the ghosts that came to her were truly frightening to look upon. Some with mangled and horrific appearances. She had begun to surmise that those who had died suddenly or violently were often the ones who did not go on. They were the ones with something left to do which kept them on this side of whatever it was that lay beyond the living.

Her ghostly friend Maxie had tried to be sympathetic, tried to help wherever she could, but the fact of the matter was that she was really of little use. Cassidy had realized early on that Maxie was afraid of the other ghosts. Cassidy believed it was because the young girl ghost had spent so much time alone at her grave. Her companion alternated between dearly wanting to pretend she was still alive and occasionally floating the idea that Cassidy should kill herself so that they could be together forever. Cassidy had patiently explained to her ghostly BFF that she simply couldn't leave her twin sister, so the idea of killing herself was just a non-starter.

Cassidy's had struggled for months, trying to figure out the best way to handle her gift as her powers bloomed and she could see and hear more and more of the dead. Each and every day she dearly wished she had Andy around to guide her. Andy had managed to get a message to Cassidy and Caroline after she'd left. She'd sought out Serena and asked the Brazilian woman to say goodbye to the twins for her and to assure them that they had had nothing to do with Andy's departure. She had made sure Serena would assure them that sometimes things happened between adults causing lovers to go their separate ways. The twins had been through it before with all three of their mother's divorces. There were two differences this time. One was that the paparazzi weren't prowling around because no one knew about their mother's romantic involvement with Andy. The second was that this time they missed their mother's companion. The message also had explained to Cassidy that her mother had forbidden her to continue her instruction in becoming a wise-woman. Cassidy understood the extreme regard Andy held for the station of motherhood and that Andy could not and would not defy her mother's prohibition.

As things became progressively more crazy, she'd quickly recognized that her behavior at the school had drawn more scrutiny than usual. At first it had been the other students commenting on her having one-sided conversations with unseen companions. Then questions had begun about the amount of time she had been spending at the graveyard and the research she'd done into who Maxie was and how she'd died so long ago. The school librarian had reported to Mrs. Swineford about Cassidy's upsurge in reading about the paranormal and the inter-library loan requests for a significant number of books on the subject. Mrs. Swineford had instructed the librarian to not order any of the requested books, and Cassidy suddenly had found her reading material being censored. Soon after, Mrs. Swineford had decided that Cassidy's visits to the cemetery were unhealthy, and she had ordered Cassidy to be confined to the campus. That was hard because Maxie's gravesite was the one place where all the other ghosts would leave her alone. It was Maxie's place, she was strong there, and she could protect Cassidy for a little while, allowing her a modicum of peace and quiet.

Cassidy understood she was on thin ice and decided to do all she could to make things appear normal. She thought she'd been doing pretty well until that damned Algebra test. Mathematics in general was not her best subject, and she'd been struggling in the class for most of the semester. The night before the test, the damned ghosts hadn't let her study, and then they had been in the classroom, standing around her desk and arguing while she was trying to write the test. Question number four just didn't make any sense at all, and she'd lost her cool. She loudly and tearfully had told them all to shut the hell up. The teacher had reported the incident to Mrs. Swineford, and the next thing Cassidy knew, she's been locked up in the loony bin.

When she was committed the hospital staff had taken all of her personal possessions. That included the copper locket that she'd found at Maxie's grave. Cassidy had learned that the locket was Maxie's focus. It was what allowed the ghost to be with Cassidy away from where her body was buried. With the locket not in Cassidy's possession and no living being wearing it, Maxie's visits became, by necessity, short in duration, as they used considerable energy of the ghost-girl's limited resources. After each visit, Maxie would have to return to her grave and spend some time there to recoup her energies.

Even worse than that, they hadn't allowed Cassidy to see her twin sister since they'd locked her up. A few carefully monitored telephone conversations were all they had allowed, so she hadn't been able to communicate a number of things she really had wanted to say. She knew her sister better than anybody, and even though Caroline tended to be the follower in their relationship, Cassidy clearly understood her twin's fierce need for fairness. Caroline's overwhelming compulsion to protect and to care for Cassidy whenever she perceived her sister was in trouble convinced Cassidy that Caroline was planning something. The problem was that when Caroline did plan things, they tended to be both elaborate and over-the-top.

Cassidy glanced through the security window grate to the dull gray dawn beyond. The nurse would be by before too long with her breakfast and her morning dose of medication. With any luck, once the pills were in her system she would be able to nod off in the day-room. It was Saturday, so it was likely that her Mother would come by for a visit sometime in the afternoon. She tended to visit on weekend days. Today Cassidy would ask that Caroline be allowed to visit. She needed to make sure her sister wasn't up to anything too outrageous.

*****

On Monday afternoon Caroline sat, depressed, in the library at Mrs. Swineford's Academy. She was ruminating on everything that had occurred since she and her sister had returned to the school after Andy's departure.

For a brief time Caroline had resisted her sister's explanation of what was happening to her. Over the course of several weeks, however, she had witnessed firsthand evidence of supernatural activity revolving around Cassidy with her own eyes. In a long talk one rainy Tuesday evening, Cassidy had explained to Caroline Maxie's otherworldly nature and Cassidy's relationship with the ghost. She had informed Cassidy that Maxie was the one behind keeping them from being pranked and in turn pranking their rivals. Her twin had even shared the secret of the copper locket she now always wore, it being Maxie's focus for allowing her to recharge by tapping in to Cassidy's life energies, allowing her to spend more time away from her grave.

Cassidy had tried to tell her that she was seeing other ghosts too and, soon after, was hearing them as well, but Caroline had been so happy and caught up in her romance with Paola that she had been blind to her sister's increasing distress. Caroline was very angry with herself because she had been so involved in her own pursuits that she hadn't realized how bad things had gotten for her sister before Cassidy had had her meltdown.

Then just over four weeks ago everything went to hell, and Mrs. Swineford had had Cassidy carted off to a mental hospital.

Things had started to get really weird two weeks ago. Caroline had been studying in the library after dinner and, while walking back across campus to the dorm, she had crossed through a shadowy copse of trees. Hearing her name, as if whispered by the wind, she had turned and seen her. Pale blue, translucent, dressed in vintage clothing. She had been able to clearly see the park bench beside the path through the apparition. She had realized immediately and without question that this was Maxie, come to communicate with her. She had stopped and watched as the specter struggled to speak. It had seemed to take everything the ghost had to whisper, "You must save her.” Then, the vision had disappeared.

Two days later, in a spiral-bound notebook that Caroline had been studying notes from the night before, she discovered a scrawled note that read, 'You must take her to Andy'. Days after that, she had dreamed of Maxie. Where before the girl was ghostly in appearance, in this dream she was as Cassidy had describe her. Real, solid, in living color. Maxie had not spoken to her in the dream, but she had held up the copper locket her sister always wore. Caroline was aware that when Cassidy was first put in the hospital, all of her personal effects had been taken from her. She remembered her mother telling her about bringing Carolyn's things home and how hard that had been. The locket had to be at the townhouse.

Upon waking the next morning Caroline immediately had gone to the school office and placed a request to go home the following weekend. She had called her mother that evening and told her that she'd like to come home for a visit. Her mother had informed her that in between work and visiting Cassidy at West Chester, she would not be home much over the course of the weekend. Caroline had told her that she understood, and it was all right. She reassured her mother that during the days of the weekend she would spend time at the library doing research for a school project, and in the evenings they could perhaps spend some time together. Her mother had agreed readily, pleased that Caroline wanted to come home, and told her that she would call the school in the morning and approve the request.

Last weekend Caroline had found her sister's personal possessions laid out carefully on the dresser in Cassidy's bedroom. She had taken the locket and secured it around her own throat, hoping that whatever magic allowed the ghost to renew itself from Cassidy's life force would allow the spirit to do the same from hers. She had an inkling that she was going to need both Maxie's cooperation and help to execute the plan that was beginning to form in her mind.

Last night's customary Sunday evening telephone call from her mother hadn't gone as she'd hoped. Her mother had visited her twin sister at the hospital twice over the course of the weekend, and she had told Caroline that the doctors had not seen the progress they had hoped for in her sister's recovery. They had told her mother that Cassidy should be committed for at least an additional four weeks and be kept under observation. She also told Caroline that, although her sister had virtually begged that Caroline be allowed to visit, the doctors didn't think it a good idea at this time.

During the call, Caroline had once again tried to tell her mother that Cassidy wasn't crazy. It was just that she was being overwhelmed by the sheer number of spirits that were constantly demanding her attention. The damn ghosts wouldn't even let poor Cassidy get a decent night's sleep. She had begged her mother to contact Andy and ask her to return to help Cassidy get through what was happening . Her mother, of course, hadn't wanted to hear it and had forbid Caroline to say more, telling her that she, too, might be placed into the hospital if the wrong people heard her saying such things.

Adding to Caroline's level of depression, winter break was on the horizon, and she and Paola would be parted over the month-long vacation due to Paola's returning to her family's home in Brazil. Paola being away might be for the best, though. Caroling had something important to do, even though what she was planning would likely get her grounded until she was a senior citizen.

Paola reached across the library table and took Caroline's hand in her own. “How long do you think you'll be out of touch?” the girl asked, concern in her voice.

Caroline shook her head and sighed. “No way to tell. I don't have any idea how long the trip will take,” she replied, her fingers nervously brushing her girlfriend's palm.

Paola nodded. “You know, if you get caught, your mother is going to be furious,” she said, repeating an admonishment she had voiced often since Paola had become privy to Caroline's plan.

Caroline had also shared her intentions with her few confidants among the student body. Paola's concern was strictly for Caroline and her safety. Caroline's other friends had been more excited about the adventure the girl had planned and had aided and abetted her at every turn.

Jade, the girl that was supposedly Caroline's roommate and one of her best friends at the school, walked up to the table and dropped a paper-wrapped package in front of Caroline.

“What's this?” Caroline asked, looking at the label on the wrapping. She couldn't imagine why there was something evidently mailed to Jade from Medicalsupplyexperts.com sitting on the table in front of her.

Jade smiled. “It's a candy striper's uniform! It's not really candy-striped. They don't do that anymore, but it's an authentic uniform! When you go to spring Cassidy from the hospital, it will allow you to move around without raising suspicion! Marissa brought one of her older sister's wigs back with her from her weekend visit home. Without your head full of red hair, nobody will notice the resemblance between you and your sister, and in clothes that belong there, nobody will look at you twice! It should give you enough time to find Cassidy and figure a way the two of you can get out of the loony bin!”

Caroline smiled. “You're a great friend Jade. Marissa, too!”

Jade smiled and shivered excitedly. “You said that the witch who stayed at your house told you Cassidy was talking to ghosts. I believe in ghosts; ergo, Cassidy isn't crazy,” she offered emphatically. “It's just the Gestapo that runs this place all have their noses so far up Mrs. Swineford's butt that they don't dare believe anything that isn't absolutely vanilla. Not even with any sprinkles or anything! If they dared to, nasty old Mrs. Swineford would fire them.”

Paola looked at Jade and then again at Caroline. “It's a long way from New York to Florida,” she offered quietly. “And you, yourself, have said that this Andy lives out in the middle of a swamp somewhere. How are you going to find her?” she asked worriedly.

Caroline shrugged. “I've got the name of the town that's nearby. I'll get Cassidy that far. After that, I have to admit that I'm kind of hoping and praying that Andy will finds us. She always sort of knew what was going on around her before it ever happened.”

“I'm afraid for you Caroline,” Paola offered softly, squeezing her hand. “I know you have to do this. That your sister is closer to you than a normal sibling because she's your twin. But I don't know what I'd do if anything bad happened to you. I...I love you.”

Caroline's heart swelled with joy. Paola cared about her! Really cared! “I'll be careful, Paola,” she promised quietly. “But I have to do this. I can't leave things the way they are. My sister is locked up because nobody will believe that all the ghosts talking to her all the time won't shut up and leave her alone long enough for her to even get a decent night's sleep. Cassidy can't go on like that. You saw how run down she was before they took her away. On the phone last night Mom said that she hasn't gotten any better, so I have to get her out of that place and take her to where Andy is. Andy is the only one that can help her. The only one who can teach her to deal with what's happening to her.”

Paola nodded, “I wish I didn't have to go home. I wish I could make this trip at your side.”

Caroline leaned over and dared to kiss Paola on the cheek. “It's enough that only one of us is going to get in trouble for this harebrained scheme,” she smiled.

At that moment Caroline and Cassidy's other friend, Marissa, walked up to the library table, an older girl close on her heels. Caroline didn't really know the older girl but vaguely recognized her from around campus. Marissa slid into a seat across from Caroline and smiled. “Caroline, meet Brianna. Brianna, Caroline.” The two girls warily regarded each other. “I thought you two should meet and talk,” Marissa added. “I think Brianna might be able to give you some information you'd find useful.”

“What kind of information?” Carolyn asked curiously.

“Oh floor-plans, staff schedules, where the security guards are likely to be,” Marissa grinned. “I knew if I asked around this place, I'd find somebody who'd spent time in Four Winds. Brianna was there about two years ago."

Caroline looked at the new girl at her table. “Anything you could tell me would be really helpful."

Brianna regarded Caroline as if sizing her up. She licked her lips. “Do you really intend to break your sister out of there?” the girl asked.

“I'm going to try,” Carolyn affirmed.

Brianna considered her for brief moment, and then nodded. “Do you know what ward they have her in?”

Caroline nodded and answered, “C Ward.”

Brianna sighed. "If she's in C Ward, they probably have her on suicide watch. That means an orderly will look in on her every fifteen minutes. Once you get to her, you're not gonna have a lot of time. I'll draw some floor plans and write down what I can remember. I can show you how to jigger the locks in the rooms. If you can get her by security and out of the building, I also know a quick way off the hospital grounds. Some of us used it to sneak in and out of the hospital to go to town."

The girl sat down next to Paola and, pulling a notebook out of her backpack, began to sketch a crude floor plan.

*****

Serena was starving. There hadn't been time for breakfast this morning, as Emily would not let her out of bed until they both were very nearly late for work. She stuck her head out of her office and carefully surveyed the accessories department. Emily was nowhere in sight. Serena had to move cautiously. Andy had been right when she had warned the Brazilian beauty that love magic could be dangerous. When Emily saw her, the Brit often couldn't control her reaction. Serena had lost count of the number of places they had furtively made love in the Elias-Clarke building.

She hurried her steps across the department, made it to the elevators undetected, and pressed the down button. She would go out to one of the street vendors and buy herself some breakfast. She'd buy Emily some too, but she'd find some imaginary errand necessitating sending one of the clackers that worked for her in the Accessories department up to Miranda's office to deliver it. That way Emily would know that Serena was thinking about her and caring for her welfare without them having to see each other face to face.

She felt pretty good about her plan and just the tiniest bit invincible, as, still unobserved by the determined English huntress that stalked her through the hall of Runway, the ding sounded, announcing the elevator car's arrival. The doors swept back to reveal her lasciviously grinning redheaded stalker. Hands snaked out of the elevator doorway, pulling her into the car, and the doors closed behind her.

*****

Nigel sighed as he walked away from the security gate at the airport. He'd just seen Doug off. Nigel was used to Doug traveling at this juncture in their relationship, and oh, my, yes, it had become a relationship. A committed one, with all the attendant promises to each other. Being that Doug was just beginning his career as a county music artist, usually he would only be gone for short stints to sing in some of the smaller venues. A tour was on the horizon, but that would be in support of Doug's first album and was still in the early stages of development.

This trip was different. Doug's friend Lily had called the day before yesterday. There was apparently trouble in Doug's hometown. Lily was being pressured to sell her shop, as were the owners of all the other businesses in Slippery Bottom. Doug felt the need to go and support Lily. Consequently, he had no planned return date.

If he had had the liberty, Nigel would have taken vacation days and accompanied his lover, but with Miranda as caught up as she was in the crisis that her home-life had become, and with Irv's plotting gaining ground, Miranda was distracted. It fell to Nigel to do all he could to hold off the forces conspiring to ruin the magazine to which he'd dedicated his professional life. He would stay in touch with Doug by phone and do all he could to help Doug from here in New York. He had no intention of being separated from his lover any longer than was absolutely necessary. If it turned out Doug was gone any significant length of time, Nigel would take personal days and follow.

*****

It had been easier than Caroline would've imagined. The candy striper uniform, a long black wig, some pale concealer, black lipstick, and dark eye makeup, and she didn't look anything like herself. She had walked through the main doors of the hospital at change of shift and, because of a plethora of directional signs at every corridor intersection, found her way to C Ward with no one questioning or stopping her.

Once in C Ward, it was simply a matter of walking down the hallways, looking at the patient room doors. Each door had a handwritten name tag in bold black magic marker inserted into a holder on the door. Caroline had done her homework and knew that arriving with the three o'clock shift change would mean that the patients would, soon after, be moved back from the day-room and placed in their individual rooms. This was done to facilitate the staff distributing prescribed medications to their patients, routinely scheduled for four o'clock. Caroline loitered near the door to Cassidy's room until the hall was empty. Then she entered and did what she could to conceal herself by sliding under the utilitarian metal bed frame. Approximately fifteen minutes later, her twin sister was led into the room. The orderly that was with her gave her a gentle push through the doorway and then closed it behind her. Caroline could hear the click of the door lock being turned. She counted off thirty seconds before sliding out from her hiding place. “Cassidy,” she whispered, gaining her sister's attention.

Her twin looked at her, obviously struggling to focus. “Caroline, what are you doing here?” she asked. "They don't let visitors back into patient rooms.”

Caroline nodded, and smiled at her other self. “Wouldn't be much of a rescue plan if anybody in authority knew I was here, would it?” She reached for her throat and undid Maxie's copper locket that she had worn since she'd taken it from her sister's dresser. “I don't know if my wearing it helped or not. I was hoping that Maxie would be able to take energy from me. Get strong, because we could certainly use some supernatural help to get us out of here.”

“Maxie? You...you've seen Maxie?” Cassidy stammered. “Caro, everybody keeps telling me that what I see and hear isn't real. That I'm mentally ill, and my mind is playing tricks on me.” Tears were forming in Cassidy's drugged eyes. “I'm a mess, Sis. I don't know what to believe anymore. And Maxie hasn't come to me in a long time. I still have a bunch of others, but I thought Maxie liked me. I thought she'd be here with me. To help me through this.”

Caroline nodded. “Without you wearing the locket, she hasn't had the energy to be here while she's been coming to me to tell me I had to get you out of here. I think it takes a lot out of her to make me see her. I don't have your gift. I think she has to spend a lot energy, and without you wearing her locket, she just hasn't had the energy.”

Cassidy shook her head. “You need to get out of here. If anybody catches you, you'll be in big trouble. God! Mom will skin you alive!”

Caroline nodded her understanding of her sister's concern. “You're right. Mom is going to be furious with me before this is over, but Maxie says that the only person that can help you is Andy. So, Mom being mad notwithstanding, I'm taking you to Andy so she can help you.”

Cassidy shook her head, perhaps trying to clear the fuzzy feelings the drugs produced, as Caroline went over to the door and pressed her ear against it. “You're crazy,” Cassidy asserted. “Even if we can get past that locked door and out of the hospital, how the hell would we get all the way to Florida? The hospital will have the police out looking for us as soon as they know I'm missing, and when Mom finds out, she's likely to do something like phone the governor and have him call out the National Guard!”

Caroline, still concentrating on listening to what was going on in the hallway, smiled knowingly. “Getting to Florida is the easy part. I bought a car," she answered easily.

“A car? You don't even have a license!” Cassidy exclaimed.

“I've spent a lot of time on the driving simulator at school over the last two weeks.” She moved quickly from the door to beside the bed. She crouched down and spoke softly, “They're coming with the medication cart. Don't swallow any. I need you on your feet and able to move, at least until we get to the car.” She then lay flat on the floor and slid partway under the bed.

Cassidy leaned over and stared at her sister under the bed. “You know this is nuts, right? If you do this, Mom will ground you for so long that you'll be old and gray before you ever see the light of day again. And you can forget about being allowed to date Paola!”

“It's already too late, Sis,” Caroline whispered as she disappeared from sight. “In for a penny, in for a pound. Now do whatever you normally do when they come with your meds, and don't let on that I'm here.”

Cassidy huffed and, turning toward the door, sat on the end of the bed.

A few minutes later a key rattled in the door lock, and Gary, one of the creepier hospital orderlies, stood on the threshold, holding a medication cup. She had heard from some of the older girls in the day-room that Gary would cop feels and sometimes even offered extra drugs for sexual favors. Cassidy considered herself fortunate that she was apparently younger than he liked and she had not had to fend off any such advances.

He stepped in to the room and held out the small paper container with her afternoon medications in it, stretching out his hand and imperiously rattling the pills in the cup. It was then Cassidy felt things change. The three ghosts that had been dancing attendance on her at the moment shrieked and fled through the walls, and suddenly Maxie was there, standing protectively between her and the orderly. The temperature in the room dropped like a stone into a deep well, and Cassidy could see her breath. Maxie reached out and ran her hand through the man standing in the doorway. He jerked back, dropping the cup and scattering the pills across the floor. His entire body trembled, he paled, and goosebumps rose on his flesh. He took a staggering step backward toward the door, and then thought better of it. Looking, unseeing, past where Maxie stood before him, he snarled at Cassidy, "Take your damn pills. I'll be back later to check and make sure you did." He slammed the door to Cassidy's cell. The sound of the key rattling in the lock was loud in the quiet room. Maxie, more substantial than Cassidy had seen her in quite a while, turned and hugged her. Cassidy sighed softly as the chilly caress encircled her. She was safe now; her twin and her otherworldly BFF were here with her.

Caroline slid out from under the bed and rose to a crouch. “Is Maxie here?” she asked, glancing nervously around the room.

Cassidy nodded. “She's here in front of me, giving me a hug.”

Caroline moved from beside the bed to the door. “We have about fifteen minutes before they come to check on you again.”

Cassidy chuckled bitterly, “You don't need to worry. Gary's the orderly tonight. He's about as lazy as a human being can be. He won't look in on me until around lights out at the earliest. The creep tries to catch girls changing into their pajamas. ”

Caroline slipped a credit card out of the pocket of her candy striper uniform. She approached the door and carefully slipped the plastic rectangle between the door and the doorjamb just above the level of the lock.

“What are you doing?” Cassidy asked, moving toward the doorway.

Caroline closed her eyes and, obviously concentrating, drew the card down slowly. “One of the older girls at school was locked up here for eight months a couple of years back. She told me that this is how a bunch of girls from another ward used to get out of their rooms so they could sneak out and go into town to party.”

Cassidy watched with interest as Caroline drew the card level with the locking mechanism. There was an audible click and Caroline smiled. “I'll be doggone; it worked!” She exclaimed. Being careful to hold the card where it continued to keep the latch-bolt depressed, she opened the door far enough to stick her head out. She glanced up and down the hall. Pulling her head back in she turned and said to Cassidy, "All's clear. Now listen, we're going to the stairwell at the end of the hall. We go down to the ground level and out the door. Go left and stick close to the building. When we come to the end of the building, we run for the tree line on the other side of the yard. Once in the trees, the wall is just about fifty feet. If you step up on the back of the bench, you can reach the top of the wall and pull yourself up and over. The car I bought is parked just up the street on the other side of the wall.”

Cassidy shook her head, “I knew you'd have this planned to the nth degree,” she chuckled. “I suppose you have a plan as to what comes after we get to the car?”

Caroline looked at her sister and licked her lips. “Maxie told me that Andy is the only one that can help you. I have maps to get us to the little town near where she lives. After getting there, things get a little fuzzy. I'm sort of counting on Andy finding us or Maxie finding Andy.”

Cassidy turned her head, listened to Maxie for a moment. She smiled and turned, speaking to her sister. “Maxie says that she's really impressed with you. That she wants to thank you for all you're doing and that she wishes that she had a sister like you.”

Caroline smiled. “Just tell her that whatever she can do to run interference so we get out of here without anybody knowing for a little while would be appreciated. I'd like to have a few miles between us and anybody who's looking for us.”

Cassidy laughed softly. “You just did, Sis,” she said. "She can hear everything you say. She's been close to you ever since you put on the locket."

Caroline's eyes widened, and she blushed scarlet Cassidy smiled wickedly. “Yes, she saw your little make out session with Paola. Good going, Sis. I didn't know you had it in you."

Cassidy grinned as Caroline muttered darkly under her breath while leading them out of the room and down the deserted hallway. Quickly they traversed the stairwell and reached the door that led to the outside. Again, Caroline used the credit card, this time to unlock the door. She motioned Cassidy through, following after carefully closing the door behind her. The click of the lock was clearly audible when the doors fully shut. Even though the hour was only early evening, it was dark out. The sun set early this time of year, and the overcast gray days accompanying the recent foul weather helped obscure the hospital grounds. Caroline pointed along the length of the building and started moving in that direction. Once at the end of the building, she paused as Cassidy grasped her shoulder.

“What's your plan for handling the guard dogs?” Cassidy whispered.

“Guard dogs?” Caroline squeaked, “What guard dogs?”

“There are two guard dogs that they turn out inside the grounds about dark every evening. I heard them barking every night since I got here.” Cassidy looked hard at her sister. “You do have a plan for dealing with the dogs, don't you?”

Caroline cursed softly under her breath. “Brianna didn't say anything about guard dogs! Maybe they didn't have them when she was a patient here.” She sighed heavily and glanced across the open yard to the tree line on the other side. “No help for it now. We have to make it over the wall and get to the car.”

Cassidy was quiet for a moment as Maxie spoke to her, smiling in relief. “Maxie says she can keep the dogs off us.” She took a deep breath and, stepping from the shadow of the building, she started across the yard at a brisk jog. Caroline was close on her heels.

About half way across the open space, a shape suddenly bounded rapidly toward them out of the darkness. It was somewhat indistinct in the dim light, but Cassidy could make out a broad chest and lean flanks. It's head was up, and it had standing pointed ears. She was fairly sure that it was a Doberman Pinscher, a breed she knew was favored as a guard dog. She turned her head and concentrated on making the tree line, urging Caroline to follow quickly.

The dog was simply too fast. Cassidy heard Caroline cry out, and she whipped her head around to see that the dog had nipped at Caroline's heel, causing her to fall. Cassidy was terrified that the dog would have her sister in its jaws in the next few heartbeats. That didn't happen, though. Cassidy saw Maxie run in front of Caroline, shielding her from the guard dog while she got up. The dog shied away from Maxie, whining. Cassidy watched with relief as Caroline scrambled to get herself upright, turning her head and looked at the dog that had so nearly had her. It was down on the ground, as flat as it could make itself, eyes wide with fear, shivering and whimpering. It didn't appear hurt, just terrified. Catching her sister's eye, Cassidy grinned and ran toward the trees A few steps later, Cassidy pointed out the bench where it sat against the wall. It was but a moment's work, and both were up and over.

Minutes later Cassidy stared, unbelieving of what she was seeing. Under a streetlamp sat a nineteen-ninety-nine Pontiac Sunfire Coupe. Its body showed three different colors of paint, mostly purple, with one quarter panel in an electric blue, and numerous splotches where gray primer paint had been used to treat rust. “You have to be kidding,” Cassidy said flatly.

“Hey, what do you want for eight hundred dollars?” Caroline exclaimed defensively. “It goes. That was the major criteria. That and buying it privately, for cash, from someone that didn't ask too many questions. I found it in a newspaper ad. It's still registered in the previous owner's name, and it still has his license plate on it. The older girl who pretended to be me when she picked up the car, told him that Mom was going to register it for me on my birthday early next month. He thinks it's going to be sitting in a body shop having work done on it and getting repainted until then!”

Cassidy shook her head again, amazed at how much thought her sister had put into this rescue. She turned and smiled at her other self. “You know, I couldn't have done better than having you for a sister,” she laughed, opening the passenger door.

“Oh, I don't know,” Caroline beamed under the praise. “You could have been Rhianna's or Beyonce's twin.”

Cassidy struggled for a moment with the front passenger seatbelt. She again looked to her sister, who was now behind the wheel buckling her own seatbelt, and shook her head. “I wouldn't trade you for both of them,” she said from the heart.

Caroline crossed her fingers on her left hand and put the key in the ignition. She closed her eyes, and Cassidy began to get nervous. “I take it, it has trouble starting?” she asked.

Caroline nodded. “The guy said the alternator is going, among a few other things. But he said it should be good for one more long trip!” She turned the key. The engine struggled a bit before catching. Caroline engaged her turn signal and after carefully looking up and down the deserted street, pulled out of the parking place to start their journey. Cassidy fervently hoped that they could find Andy and that she could help her deal with what was happening to her.

*****

Lily stood behind the counter of Lily's Blossoms and stared back at the fat, sweaty man who stood on the other side of the divider. He mopped his brow with a handkerchief from his breast pocket of his light colored suit jacket. “Now, Mizz Freedman,” he continued, “the offer on the table for your shop is quite fair, generous even, considering the depressed economic condition of this town.”

Lily grit her teeth. “Business here wouldn't be depressed if the company you represent hadn't convinced the Florida Department of Transportation to give you the contract to rebuild the road from the highway into town. You tore up almost the entire length of it four months ago. It's virtually impassible, and nobody has done any work on it since!”

The fat man continued to smile his unpleasant smile. “The road needed considerably more work than was originally anticipated,” he explained. “We discovered that the roadbed had deteriorated, and replacing it just wasn't in the originally bid job. We had to go back to the officials at the Department of Transportation. They, in turn, had to go back to the legislature to have them approve the additional funds necessary. And you know how long it takes for the legislature to approve anything these days,” he said superciliously.

“And of course, it wouldn't have anything at all to do with the fact that the company you represent wants to buy up all the swampland around here for some cockamamie development scheme,” Lily retorted.

“Mizz Freedman,” he replied, “I'm sure that I have no idea what you're talking about."

Lily snorted, glancing at Doug, who was sitting in his usual chair with his guitar in his lap, just as if he'd never left Slippery Bottom. Doug's eyes were on the man, and Lily knew that he was recording their conversation with a tiny pocket tape recorder that his boyfriend had given him. She wasn't alone anymore. Doug was here to help her figure this thing out. “You can tell your boss, Mr. Potter, the same as I told you last week and the week before that and the week before that. My shop ain't for sale,” she snapped.

“That is most unfortunate, Mizz Freedman,” the fat man replied, "because I understand that the offer on the table has a shelf life. Soon things will change around here, and I fear that the amount offered for your property may drop sharply.”

“You could offer me twice what you're offering. In fact, you could offer me twice what it's really worth, and I still wouldn't sell to you,” Lily proclaimed. "Now get the hell out of my store.”

“I fear you will live to regret this decision, Mizz Freedman,” the fat man said ominously before striding angrily from the shop.

*****

It just ain't th' same, Andy thought to herself, as she dropped her fishing line off of the end of the hummock that her cabin sat on. Before she had been lonely, but she hadn't realized how lonely she'd been. Now without Cassidy and Caroline and, most importantly, without Miranda in her life, her soul was being crushed under the weight of her loss. On returning to Slippery Bottom, she had thought to make Miss Lily her friend, but Miss Lily was just too afraid of the legend of Hattie and of the closeted attraction the African-American woman bore for her own sex. Andy shook her head. She couldn't understand why so many people outside didn't understand that God loved all his children and he made each and every one exactly as they were supposed to be. It seemed so simple to her. He couldn't make mistakes; that's why he was God.

She had tried to read the cards, to see what came next, but as always, trying to read her own future provided only dim glimpses. Momma had always told her that it was so. What you could do for someone else as easily as breathing was hard when it came to looking inward. She sighed. Upheaval was coming, things were going to change violently, and she couldn't see how they were going to turn out. It made her uneasy to say the least.

Her familiar, Ol' Toothless, only his eyes and leathery back above the surface of the water, his long reptilian tale swishing a lazy “S” pattern, glided out of the tall grasses on the far side of the pond around the island, driving a school of good-sized fish before him. Andy smiled. At least dinner tonight wouldn't be a problem.

*****

It was predawn when Miranda received the telephone call from the hospital, informing her Cassidy's disappearance. She was informed that it was only at shift change at midnight that her disappearance was discovered. The hospital staff was certain that her daughter couldn't have gotten far, as the nighttime orderly reported that he had been checking on her every fifteen minutes, as was policy for patients in Ward C. The hospital administration had immediately initiated a search of the hospital and the grounds, figuring she had to be close by. When the missing patient hadn't been found after three hours of searching, the local police were notified and began searching the areas surrounding the hospital. Now, almost five hours later, Cassidy was nowhere to be found.

Miranda, knowing her daughter, guessed that Cassidy would seek out Caroline. Each of her daughters were calmer and able to think more clearly in their sister's presence. If Cassidy had been upset enough to flee the hospital, she would need the comfort her sister could provide. Caroline had left the school, yesterday afternoon, at the beginning of the term break. She had told her mother a week ago that she had decided to spend some time with her father during the first week of the vacation. Miranda called her ex-husband right away, only to discover that he was out of the country on business and not expected back until early next month. A cold chill ran down Miranda's spine. Caroline had lied to her and was evidently involved in Cassidy's escape from the hospital.

Caroline had been forbidden to visit Cassidy at the hospital. Cassidy's psychiatrist, insisting it was for Cassidy's good, had directed Miranda to not allow them to see each other. Miranda was aware how this had been hard on both girls. They depended on each other. Caroline had repeatedly told her that Cassidy shouldn't be in the hospital. She claimed Cassidy's problems were supernatural in nature and no amount of psychiatric treatment was going to fix what was troubling her. Miranda had dismissed the idea. She had placed her faith in the certainty that the mental health professionals would find a way to help Cassidy, and then they would return her to her normal life.

Now both of her darling daughters were missing. The twins hadn't returned home, so they must have had a plan to help Cassidy. For the life of her, though, she couldn't figure out what their plan might be. It was ludicrous even to consider that they would try and find Andy. They couldn't possibly think they could get to Florida. They had to know she would move heaven and earth, looking for them. They were so young. They'd have to use public transportation. She reached for the telephone and called her first assistant. “Emily,” she said as soon as the telephone was answered. “Apparently, my daughters have decided to run away. Contact the police in Salem, New York, immediately. Tell them to check any and all forms of public transportation in and around the town. Tell them I have a suspicion that the twins may be heading south. That's all.”

*****

Caroline drove until she felt that she couldn't drive safely any more. They had made it almost eleven hours on the road and pulled off at a rest stop just past Smithfield, North Carolina. They parked under a streetlamp, and after using the restroom facilities, they returned to the car. Cassidy watched Caroline reclined in the driver's seat and scooted her body down in it, laying her head back against the headrest. “I'll just get a few hours sleep, and then we can go on,” she said.

Cassidy nodded. “How far do we have to go?” she asked.

“We're not quite halfway yet. It's probably about another twelve or thirteen hours. We'll know we're halfway when we see a tourist trap called South of the Border,” her sister offered sleepily.

Cassidy smiled and reclined in her own seat. She was just about to drift off when she became suddenly aware of a new presence in the car. Turning around and looking into the back seat, she saw a middle-aged black woman sitting quietly beside Maxie, looking back. Cassidy glanced to where her sister slept and back to the woman. Placing a finger to her lips and nodding to her sleeping sister, she motioned for the woman to follow. She quietly opened the car door and walked to a picnic bench. The woman and Maxie didn't bother with the doors and just sort of flowed out of the vehicle.

Cassidy watched them come to where she sat. Maxie nodded to the woman, and the woman sat down across the picnic table from Cassidy. “I need your help,” the middle-aged woman said in a ghostly whisper.

Cassidy was never quite sure if she actually heard what the ghosts said to her with her ears or if it was some form of telepathic communication where she heard them with her mind. It seemed that virtually all the ghosts she conversed with only were able to whisper, although a handful of others seemed only able to scream at her. Maxie was the exception. She spoke with the same range of volume and inflection as any of Cassidy's living friends. If Maxie was allowing this ghost close to Cassidy, she figured Maxie was okay with this and maybe even sympathetic to whatever this ghost's plight might be. Cassidy nodded. “I'm willing to listen,” she offered.

The older woman nodded. “My husband is a tractor-trailer driver, parked back in the big-rig parking. He's not taking care of himself since my passing. He's a pre-diabetic, he's not eating right, not getting enough exercise, driving too many hours, and he's been drinking. I need you to let him know I'm okay. That I'm still here with him and will be until the Lord decides to call him home. But I don't want that reunion sooner than it has to be. Our daughters have young families, our girls need their daddy, and their children need their granddaddy. Would you go over there with me? Help me talk to him? Please?” she asked.

Cassidy looked at the woman. It was obvious that this was important to her. She sighed. “You realize it's likely if I go over and knock on the door of his truck, telling him that you want to talk to him, he'll think I'm nuts.”

“I can tell you things that will make him believe you,” the ghost woman said. “He's a good man, a religious man. He believes in the hereafter. I could have gone on. To heaven or whatever it is that comes next, but I knew that my illness had weighed on him. I was sick a long time, and he couldn't stay home with me. He had to be out making a living for our family. He was hauling a load cross country when I passed, and he hasn't forgiven himself for not being with me.”

Cassidy looked to Maxie, who was unusually quiet. “What do you think, Maxie?” she asked.

“I think that a good deed might see you through in a time of need,” the ghost girl answered cryptically.

Cassidy was getting used to the fact that if she asked a ghost a simple question, she was likely to get a riddle for an answer. It just seemed to be the way things worked. She sighed again and got up. Looking around, she saw the signs indicating the direction to where the trucks were to park. “Okay,” she said tiredly. “Maxie, would you please stay close to the car and keep an eye on Caroline as she sleeps?” she asked her ghostly friend. After Maxie agreed, Cassidy turned to the spirit who had asked for her assistance and continued. “Come show me which truck your husband is in, and we'll see if I can convince him that you're here and want to have a few words with him.”

*****

With the middle-aged ghost's coaching, it took Cassidy all of about fifteen minutes to convince the woman's truck driver widower that his wife's spirit was indeed still on this side of the pearly gates. For the next hour she played conduit, allowing the spirit to express her fears about his behaviors and the toll they were taking on his health. When she left them, sitting side by side in the cab of the truck, he understood that his wife's ghost was with him and would remain at his side until his time came. Tears and thank yous from both parties were present as Cassidy left to return to the car. She slipped quietly into the passenger seat and settled herself. She, too, was feeling the need for some sleep. She felt the cool caress of her ghostly companion and heard the girl singing to her softly as she drifted off to her first untroubled sleep in a very long time.

*****

A recurring, struggling, grinding sound disturbed Cassidy's slumber. Bleary-eyed, she was pulled from sleep, and turning, she noticed her sister's panicked face. Caroline turned the key in the car' s ignition, and Cassidy identified the sound that had woken her as the engine struggling but not catching. The sound of the engine struggling to start became weaker and weaker each time the key was turned until there was nothing but a click. Caroline closed her eyes, and a tear ran down her face. "He promised me that it had one more long trip in it. He promised!" She turned her sister. "All I wanted is to get you to Andy. I planned so carefully, and I tried really hard."

Cassidy smiled at her sister, reaching out to brush the tear away from her sister's face. "You did fine, Caro," she said softly. "I wouldn't have gotten anywhere near this far without you." She turned and looked at the passenger that Caroline couldn't see in the back seat. "Is this what you meant by a time of need?" she asked her incorporeal friend.

Maxie shrugged. “I knew something was coming, but not what it would be," the spirit replied. “When the other...ghost...” she hesitated, never liking to acknowledge the fact that she wasn't just a normal, living teenage girl, “showed up, I knew that she would be able to offer something to help you.”

With a nod, Cassidy turned to her sister "Sis, I think I know where we might be able to get a ride," she offered.

Chapter Text

Every Runway employee with any authority at all regarding the Chelsea Pier photo shoot were gathered in the conference room and trembling in anticipation of Miranda's wrath. The manager of the accessories department, Jocelyn's, subordinate, Bambi, had sent the items necessary for their shoot to a different shoot in Central Park by mistake. The delay caused by straightening out the error had cost the photographer the afternoon sunlight he had counted on using to get the particular ambiance in the shots Miranda had demanded. That, in turn, necessitated that the shoot be pushed to the next day at an exorbitant cost overrun. It was the kind of snafu that often became legendary in the halls of Runway for the sheer number of heads that would roll as a result. All in the room, Nigel included, were, no doubt, mentally updating their resumes and waiting Miranda's wrath. Miranda sat, with every eye on her, only half listening to the reporting on yet another bout of total incompetence by an employee of Elias-Clarke's flagship publication. Her thoughts were far more focused on the fact that her daughters had not been seen or heard from in nearly twenty-four hours.

The law enforcement agencies responsible for the areas around the Four Winds Hospital had checked with all forms of public transportation, and there was no indication that the twins had boarded or traveled on any bus or train. Inquires were being made with the local taxi companies, but to this point no driver questioned had any memory or record of picking up any unaccompanied minors and certainly not identical twins.

The school administrators at Mrs. Swineford's Academy had checked on attendance, and no student at the school, other than Caroline, was unaccounted for. Mrs. Swineford personally assured Miranda that school personnel were questioning Caroline's and Cassidy's friends, and any information they discovered would be immediately passed on to the proper authorities.

Miranda had made sure that her girls' father was included with several of the conference calls. He had told her that the twins had not contacted him, and he had no idea where the girls might be or how they might be traveling.

Miranda took a moment during Bambi's recitation of this latest litany of professional ineptitude to consider the impossible. What if Caroline was right? What if Andrea did have some sort of supernatural powers. When Andrea had spoken of her abilities, she had couched them as both a blessing and a curse. What if those things she had discounted, those experiences she had during her visit to Slippery Bottom, were real and not imagined? What if her poor Cassidy was afflicted, as Andrea claimed her to be? What if her daughter truly was seeing ghosts?

Distracted, Miranda sighed. She glanced up from where she sat as the now completely terrified Bambi whimpered and continued to drone on about how the mistake had occurred and wasn't her fault. Much to everyone in the room's surprise, Miranda simply rose silently from her chair. “Fix it,” was all she said as she swept out the conference room door, no longer interested in hearing more.

Back in her office, Miranda glanced around. There were a thousand things that Runway required of its Ice Queen editor, but Miranda just couldn't bring herself to care. She cocked her head and considered the feelings running through her being. For the first time in her memory, she just didn't care about her career or Runway or the pinnacle of power she had achieved. It all really didn't matter in the greater scheme of things. Soon after, she left the office for the day with the crisis at the Chelsea Pier photo shoot still in play. She chose to forego verbally eviscerating anyone. No one lost their job. She had uttered nothing more that those two words: “fix it.” It was truly a day that would go down in the annals of Runway history, a day about which the employees would whisper to each other in their hallowed halls.
*****

A Kenworth semi-tractor, pulling a trailer hauling forty-four-thousand pounds of bottled maple syrup from Vermont and bound for a grocery store distribution center in Miami, cut its way down the Interstate-95 corridor through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and into Northern Florida. The hours passed with the drone of tires on pavement and the gentle roar of the big diesel engine as it shifted gears.

The driver of the big rig was Odell Moss, husband and widower to Aurelia Moss, his beloved wife of twenty-seven years. Aurelia's ghost was the one that had brought Cassidy to the cab of the truck to, in a sense, play marriage counselor, as the deceased woman was afraid for her husband's health and the choices he was making since her passing. Odell was reluctant to believe Cassidy only for a short time before he accepted the notion that his wife's ghost was still with him, and then he seem comforted by the idea.

When the twins had realized that they were stranded at that rest-stop off of I-95 in Northern North Carolina because the car Caroline had purchased wouldn't start, Cassidy had returned to the truck and determined that the big rig was headed in the same direction they were. Then, with Aurelia's aid, she had convinced Odell to take them with him.

Cassidy was keenly aware that Aurelia was here, with them, in the cab of the truck, although the spirit was not manifesting her physical presence in any way. The young teen could feel the ghost's power here as if it were electricity tingling on her skin. Maxie was not present in the truck at all, and Cassidy had the impression that some sort of ghostly etiquette that she did not understand was occurring. Cassidy had begun to understand that ghosts, away from where their bodies lay, needed a focus. In Maxie's case it was the copper locket that Caroline had returned to her. Cassidy now suspected that Aurelia had made her focus the truck itself. It made sense because her widowed husband spent most of his time within its confines.

Aurelia's presence was central to her husband's decision to allow the two young teens to continue on their way. Through Cassidy, she had reminded her husband that he had daughters of his own, and although they were quite a bit older than the twins, she reminded him that he wouldn't want his two girls stranded at a rest stop along the roadside. The twins insisted that they were on their way to visit family. Once Odell had admitted that the town of Slippery Bottom wasn't too far out of his way and he was already a little ahead of schedule as far as delivery of the freight he was hauling, the twins had no trouble convincing Odell to make a slight detour and deliver them safely to their destination. Now, over the last ten hours, Caroline and Cassidy shared the passenger's seat as the truck made its way south into the heart of Florida.

*****

Miranda staggered to the wet bar in her study and with a shaking hand, poured herself two fingers of whiskey, spilling as much as she managed to slosh into the hi-ball glass. Her heart was palpitating, and she couldn't seem to get her panicked breathing under control or stop trembling. She raised the glass to her lips and drained off the fiery liquid. She quickly poured herself another. She had woken up, wanting nothing more than to scream her terror to the empty house, yet she had been robbed of the breath necessary to do more than allow a pathetic whimper.

Andrea had warned her. Warned her that Lucius Clay was a vengeful spirit and if she refused to acknowledge that she had experienced the reality of his existence, he would make her pay for her denial.

He had come to her tonight in her dream. In the arms of Morpheus, she found herself on that dark island in the Florida swamp, her feet frozen to the ground in the shadow of the ruin of his dilapidated shack. Everything was deathly still, the atmosphere thick, humid, airless in the muggy darkness. She could hear the sounds of the swamp all around her. She felt as if she would choke on the thick smells of rotting vegetation and stagnant water. Suddenly the cacophony of nature's symphony fell silent. Nothing moved, nothing sounded, all was hushed. After what seemed an eternity, a bolt of lightning struck the ground near the water, where Miranda knew that Lucius Clay's body was buried next to that of Andrea's mother. Momentarily blinded by the flash, Miranda felt the earth shake with the almost instantaneous roll of reverberating thunder.

Dream Miranda opened her eyes, seeing the scorched dirt where the bolt from the heavens had crashed into the ground, creating a small charred crater. The ground cracked and pushed upward, outward, and a bony hand protruded. A second hand followed and then a grizzled head. The figure of a bent old man slowly crawled from the earthen grave. The ghostly figure swung its head, and pale, glowing eyes pierced Miranda, chilling her to the bone as she stood, trapped.

“Yer a foolish ol' woman, 'Randa Priestly,” snapped the specter in an otherworldly voice. “Ye had everythin' yer heart ever wanted, and ye let it slip through yer fingers! Yer cold an' loveless bed was finally full of someone that ya loved and that loved ya in return. Yer daughters were comin' ta see ya as a momma and not as a stranger. Ye could o' warmed yerself at that fire. Could o' reclaimed all those feelin's of yer youth that ya thought ya had cast aside an' had lost forever. All ya had ta do was to let go o' somethin' what's time had come.”

Miranda, even in this terrifying dream-scape was still Miranda, and she pursed her imaginary lips as she spoke her mind. “Do not presume that you know me, nor what I have or have not done. You don't know me; you know nothing about me,” she bit out.

The whiskered old man turned his pale head, and Miranda could clearly see where worms had burrowed their way within the corpse. The ghost laughed, a sinister and unearthly sound. “Oh, yer wrong Mizz 'Randa Priestly. We're the same, you and me. We're both damned. We both cling ta somethin' that'll never love us in return. An' both in hell cause o' it. Hattie could o' saved you. You and she were meant fer each other. If ye could o' laid your burden down and joined her at the flower pool, ye could o' had what yer heart has secretly craved since ye was a lil' child.”

Miranda bristled, but stayed silent, for in her heart, she knew he was right. Her competitive nature had driven her to strive to achieve her place at the pinnacle of the corporate world. She had not allowed herself any compromise in her long, hard climb, because as a woman in a male-dominated industry, she knew she had to be better than her competition to be considered equal. To dominate the industry as she did, she could not allow any quarter. That, coupled with her own childhood in a dysfunctional family, devoid of good role models in the realm of inter-personal relationships, had left her ill-equipped to negotiate that aspect of her life. Her marriages to the men in her life had been expected. Another step on her path to the top. Her daughters were the only part of the equation not used to focus on her goal. She had come to realize over the course of the last few years that her focus had been misplaced and that her family had always been what was important. Still, habits of long practice and her need to best opponents had diverted her attention, and now, this sad, pathetic, damned old man was telling her that it was too late for her, too.

“See yer future, Mizz Randa Priestly,” the phantom laughed scornfully. “See th' hell yer choices 'll condemn ya ta haunt!”

Miranda abruptly found herself elsewhere. The long hallway was familiar but much changed from when she last saw it. She strode toward the doorway she knew so well. Two clackers exited the doorway. They did not look at her fearfully, as would be the norm. In fact, they didn't look at her at all and walked past as if not even seeing her. She moved through the open door and glanced around the outer office. The decor was quite different from what she had directed when she had become editor-in-chief. Curiously, there was only one desk in the outer office, and from the clutter, it was apparent to Miranda that either more competence or more help was needed. A harried looking young woman, decently dressed but not to Miranda's demanding standards, rushed from the inner office to answer the ringing telephone.

“Jacqueline Follet's office,” the clacker said into the telephone receiver. Miranda's lips pursed.

“Yes, Mr. Ravitz, she's just getting ready to leave for the boardroom.” The girl on the telephone swallowed hard, obviously uncomfortable. “Yes, Mr Ravitz, I'll relay the message.”

Miranda's hated rival, Jacqueline, stepped out from the inner office, carrying what must be years' worth of financial reports related to Runway magazine. She looked twenty-five years older than Miranda had last seen her. The dark-haired woman had pronounced lines on her face and a prominent gray streak in her coiffure. Her makeup was not hiding the effects of whatever had aged her so. “They're going to do it this time. They're going to shut us down,” Jacqueline almost whispered.

“You've done all you could Ms. Follet," the assistant said. “With the way the board kept cutting everything, the magazine just didn't have a chance,” she continued. Miranda noted the defeat in the clacker's tone.

Jacqueline shook her head. “Ten years. Ten years since I took over, and it's been all downhill. She glanced back into the inner office. “That bitch Miranda would have found a way to keep it going. They never should of fired her. Without the profits from Runway, all of Elias-Clarke is teetering on the brink. The price of company stock is in the toilet. If they do close the magazine, the rest of the company won't be far behind.” She sighed.

“Mr. Ravitz asked me to tell you to, and I'm quoting here, 'move your fat, useless ass.' They're waiting on you,” her assistant offered sympathetically.

“I can't believe that I slept with that repulsive, fat little toad to make sure I got this job,” Jacqueline huffed, making her way toward the elevators.

Suddenly Miranda was back on the island in the middle of the Florida swamp. The old man stood near where he had risen up out of the ground and grinned maniacally at her. “Ten years ye'll watch, as all ya built crumbles inta nothin'. No one 'll be able ta see ya, nor hear ya. Ye won't be able to touch or move nothin. All ye'll be able ta do is watch. Then ye'll watch as the whole o' the goddamned company goes belly-up. After that, ye'll wander an empty building till they tear it down. Once it's gone, ye'll go too. Inta nothingness. The mighty Mizz 'Randa Priestly 'll be no more.”

Miranda stood shivering in the shadow of the shack. What he described truly was hell. To be present, but unable to effect change. To be forever a voyeur without voice or the ability to affect anything, and then to be...gone. Oblivion. It was unacceptable. “Damn you,” she snarled.

The ghost laughed. A full, long, terrible, belly-laugh. “Been damned. Damned for years 'fore I died and fer more 'n twenty years since. Damned that I couldn't feel the love your Hattie's momma had fer me. Damned that all I could love was m' gold.” The vision turned on her. “You can escape yer fate. You can escape an' free me too. Ya knows what cha' needs ta do. Ya feels it in yer innards. Ya still has time ta choose...” The apparition flowed slowly toward her, its visage becoming less human and more horrible with every second. The cold of the grave washed over her in a wave as it approached. It reached out with a clawed hand to touch her face...

She woke in her bed, trembling, short of breath, panting, unable to scream. She clawed her way from the bedclothes and, managing to stand, had made her way to her study. Now, after downing her second drink, she reached for the telephone. Her call was answered on the second ring. “Emily,” she said without waiting for any kind of greeting. “Cancel my schedule for the foreseeable future. Get me a plane ticket to West Palm Beach, Florida. First available flight, I don't care if it's cabin class. Have a car with a navigation system available for me when I reach the airport. Call that horrible little hotel in Slippery Bottom and reserve me the best room they have available. I will call Nigel and inform him that he is at the helm of Runway until my return. I will very likely be out of touch for a time. That's all.” She disconnected the call without awaiting a reply.

*****

Serena sat, wide-eyed, in the darkness of her and Emily's shared bedroom. She glanced at her soundly sleeping English lover beside her and wondered how to most gently explain the set of instructions that just had been dropped in her lap. She reached over and gently stroked her hand up and down her lover's shoulder. “Emily, Beloved, you need to wake up now,” she said softly.

*****

The pull on Andy had been strong. Stronger than she had felt in quite some time. It had drawn her from her shack and out into the swamp. She knew that she wasn't just wandering. She knew that the powers her family had been both blessed and cursed with were guiding her to where she needed to be. The call to her soul-spirit hadn't been this intense since Miranda's arrival in Slippery Bottom. She ghosted through the shallow swamp waters, moving surely in a direct line toward town.

*****

The big truck lumbered off of State Road 78 and onto the rural cutoff that ran into the swamp and eventually led to the town of Slippery Bottom some three or so miles down the narrow, winding avenue. Odell masterfully negotiated the claustrophobic artery and managed about a mile on the ancient and ill-paved blacktop before he was forced to stop. Two wooden saw horses and a motley collection of neon orange traffic cones sat spread across the width of the narrow track. A temporary highway department traffic sign, nailed to a precariously leaning wooden post, had been hastily and inexpertly pounded into the sandy soil. The sign proclaimed “Road Work Ahead.”

Odell climbed down from the cab of the big rig, followed closely by the twins. Peering beyond the paltry barricade, they saw that the road lay in ruin. A rusty jackhammer lay across broken pavement, and the road stretched as far as the eye could follow into the lush vegetation of the swamp which rose up on both sides of the narrow thoroughfare. Caroline sighed softly. “Who'd tear up the only road into town?” she asked, confusion in her tone.

Odell shook his head and laughed. “Every state Department of Transportation I've ever encountered criss-crossing this country for thirty years, hon,” he answered.

“So how do we get into town?” Caroline asked.

Odell shook his head. “The truck ain't going down this road. I'd blow every tire inside a mile if I didn't do a whole lot worse damage. If there ain't another way round...”

Cassidy , who had been very quiet for the last several miles, looked to the sky and then down the road. “We walk,” she said. “There's enough ground on either side of the road that it won't be any problem on foot. It's what? A couple of miles? If we hurry, we can be there before the storm hits.”

Odell looked at the beautiful clear blue sky and then back to Cassidy. He found it slightly odd that he had no doubt that if they didn't do as she suggested, they would, in an hour or so, be sitting in the cab of his truck, watching the rain come down. He'd accepted that the girl spoke with the dead, and he'd begun to suspect that her strange powers might go a good deal further than that. He glanced at his watch. “We'd best get a move on then,” he offered. “I've got a schedule to keep to get the load I'm hauling to Miami. If I shake a leg, I can get you two to your relative and be back on the road in an hour and a half.”

Caroline shook her head and said, “You don't need to do that. It would be one thing if you could get the truck to town, but we don't want to inconvenience you any more than we already have.”

Odell chuckled and shook his head. “My momma raised me to be a gentleman. If I were to leave you two stranded here in this wilderness, she'd beat me black and blue. No. I'll see you to your destination." He looked around and then meaningfully at Cassidy. “Is Aurelia here?” he asked quietly. “

Cassidy nodded. “She's standing by the driver's door of the truck,” she answered.

Odell walked over to the area beside the door and held out his hand to the empty air. “Will you walk with me, wife?” he asked softly. It warmed Cassidy to see the ghost smile as she took her husband's hand.

Odell lead the way around the edge of the barricade where it was set up and started down the narrow side of the road. Caroline followed close behind. Cassidy paused for just a moment, looking out from the road and into the dense foliage that curtained the swamp. She had never been here before, but she had a very strong feeling that she'd come home.

*****

A little under an hour later the twins and their self-appointed protector passed a sign welcoming them to Slippery Bottom, Population 207. Caroline and Cassidy looked at the scattered collection of ramshackle buildings up and down what purported to be the main street. Caroline shook her head. “So, where's the town?” she whispered rhetorically to her sister.

Cassidy shrugged. Her mind was elsewhere. There was something pulling on her consciousness, demanding her attention. She looked down the street and saw Maxie standing there, pointing to a door of a building. Cassidy, almost trancelike, started to move toward her ghostly best friend.

Caroline immediately felt the change in her sister and glanced at her worriedly. “Where are you going?” she asked, concern lacing her tone.

Cassidy pointed to the small brightly painted building. It looked like it was the only well-maintained structure in town. “There,” she said, her voice far away. “The woman in that place knows how to find Andy. She can help us.”

“You just know that?” Caroline asked, hurrying to keep up with her sister's pace, her eyes reflecting her uneasiness.

Cassidy nodded, looking a little spooked herself. “Like somebody just whispered it into my ear,” she replied, harkening back to Andy's words about how the gift sometimes provided information one needed to have.

The bell over the door to Lily's Blossoms chimed as the trio entered. An attractive African-American woman was up on a step stool, dusting carefully around a display of colorfully glazed porcelain pots. A young man sat in the front part of the shop, strumming on a guitar.

Cassidy walked up to where the woman on the step stool towered above her. The woman turned and gave a pleasant smile as she put the feather duster she was using down on the shelf she was cleaning. “Welcome to Lily's Blossoms,” the woman said jovially and smiled. “Can I interest you in some nice cut flowers today? Or perhaps a gift for a loved one?” She glanced from one girl to the mirror image close behind. “Well, don't you two look alike,” she offered, her honeyed Southern accent flavoring the words and adding a feeling of welcome.

Cassidy looked up at the woman. “We need you to help us get in touch with Andy,” she said softly.

The African-American woman looked confused and stepped down off the stool with exaggerated care. “Don't rightly think I can help you,” she said, looking at Cassidy curiously. “Only person named Andy I know used ta own the gas station here in town, but Buddy Henson bought it from him, and he moved away to someplace in Georgia. Been gone, must be close on ta ten years now.” The man with the guitar stopped his strumming and listened to the conversation.

Caroline reached out and touched her sister's arm. Leaning in she whispered softly in her sister's ear, too quietly for the others to hear. “Hattie, Cass, they'll know her as Hattie.”

Cassidy nodded and glanced around the room. Maxie was poking around behind the counter where the cash register sat. Cassidy turned her attention back to the woman in the shop. “You'd know her as Hattie,” she said quietly. “Most folks call her Hattie.”

Odell, who'd followed the twins through the door of the shop, watched as the African-American woman paled. She swallowed and took a deep breath. “I.....I don't know no Hattie,” the woman exclaimed breathlessly.

Caroline noticed that her twin had a faraway look in her eyes as Cassidy cocked her head and responded to what the woman had said. “The candy-bars, there behind the cash register, you have them to trade for the flowers she brings you. You know she likes candy. You know she has a sweet tooth.”

Odell could see the woman's fear as Cassidy continued. “We don't mean you any harm, and Hattie will want to know that we're here. All you have to do is tell her when she comes to where you pick up the flowers.”

“I don't see her,” the woman exclaimed. “Only the once when she saved me in the swamp. Never since. What if I take you there?” the woman asked. “Then you could deal with Hattie.”

Odell looked at Cassidy and then to Caroline. He shook his head skeptically. “You two haven't been completely straight with me, have you?” he asked, placing his hand on his hips. "Just where does this relative of yours live?”

“No, Mr. Moss, we haven't been,” Caroline swallowed and nodded guiltily. “Andy isn't exactly a relative. She lives out in the swamp someplace.”

“So the two of you thought you'd just run off to the back end of nowhere to come see this Andy? What is she to you? Your Mama must be worried sick!”

Caroline shook her head violently. “Andy's a witch. She's like Cassidy. She's the only one who can help Cassidy! My sister doesn't understand her powers or know how to control them. Andy had started to teach her, but then our mother messed that all up! That's when Andy left where we live and came back here to where she lives.” She looked to where her sister was still trying to convince the young woman that owned the store to help them find Hattie. “I had to bring her here. If she doesn't get some help with this gift of hers, it's going to kill her...”

*****

Andy watched the main street of the town from her hiding place just inside the line of trees that demarcated the edge of the swamp. This was a spot she was familiar with, since she often spent hours hidden here watching the people go about their lives. Today was curious, as the streets were more empty of people than usual, even for the sleepy little town. She wondered if it might have something to do with the fact that the road into town had been all dug up. She'd seen the broken road, and it had caused a profoundly uneasy feeling in her. She couldn't release the feeling that this was part of some momentous change that was coming.

She'd always been careful about going into town during the hours of daylight. She could count the number of times that she had done so in her life on one hand. Mama had explained to her how people were afraid of Hattie because of what she could do. Out in the swamp, that fear provided a measure of protection, but Mama had also explained that people in a group were something called a mob and could be very, very dangerous, especially to something they were afraid of.

The pull on her was stronger than ever, and it was pulling her right toward the center of town. She felt like she couldn't wait until nightfall to ghost in and discover what was so important. She went carefully, just inside the tree line, moving from hiding place to hiding place. She skirted the edge of town until she was as close as she could get to Miss Lily's shop, then, calling on the spirits to help her, she went quickly to the building's back door. Locks on doors never seemed to pose a problem for the women in Hattie's clan. It was as if whenever they needed to get in somewhere, someone had left the door unlocked for them. In just a few heartbeats, she was safe inside the backroom of Miss Lily's shop. She stopped and listened for a moment to determine who might be present and if any danger was in the air. She heard the voice of a man she didn't recognize and then a voice she thought never to hear again. One of her lil' birds was here! And if she were here, could her Mama be far behind? Andy's heart swelled. Had Miranda come back for her? She moved on silent feet to the beaded curtain that hung between the backroom and the front of the shop.

*****

“Dammit!” Odell swore, looking unconvinced. “You're a couple of runaways, ain't cha?!” he said, sounding put out. “Does your Mama have any idea where you are?” he demanded.

“They's safe; they's with family,” came a rich voice, Southern courteous, from the archway to the back room, and Hattie stepped through the beaded curtain.

Lily gasped, one of her hands fluttering to her chest. Odell immediately noticed that the already pale African-American woman paled further. Doug stood from the chair in the front window of the store, drawing his guitar protectively up across his chest and wrapping one of his arms around it as if embracing a lover.
The woman in the archway was a sight to behold in her tattered and faded sundress. She looked at the owner of the shop and spoke gently. “Means ya no harm, Miss Lily. Ye gots nothin' ta fear from me. I only come fer my lil' birds.”

“Andy!” Caroline turned and said excitedly, rushing toward the woman in the archway. “I knew it! I knew if I could get us here, you'd find us!”

Andy's eyes scanned the room. “Where's your Mama?” she inquired, the question directed at Caroline.

“At the office, most likely,” Caroline answered, stopping her advance close to Andy, her tone suddenly bitter. “Seems like she's been living there since you left. There, or at the hospital they locked Cass up in.”

“Hospital?” Andy asked with some alarm in her voice, her eyes turning to where Cassidy stood, two ghosts standing close by the young girl. “Is ya sick, lil' bird?” Andy continued, obviously concerned.

“She's not sick!” Caroline exclaimed passionately. “Everybody thought she was crazy because the damn ghosts wouldn't leave her alone for a damn minute! You told her what was coming. But nobody listened!”

“Yer gift,” Andy said sadly, shaking her head. She continued looking to Cassidy. “I tried ta warn yer Mama. Tried ta tell her that you were gonna be powerful gifted. They're afraid out there in yer world. They've lost the knowin' that th' veil twixt this life and the next is mighty thin, and some folks just ain't ready ta make the trip ta th' here-after. They gots stuff they gots ta do 'fore they c'n lay their burden down an' rest easy.”

Odell shook his head. “Lady,” he said sternly, obviously addressing the woman that the locals in the room knew as Hattie, “these girls need to let their Mama know where they are. I bet she's worried sick.”

“She likely doesn't even know we're gone,” Caroline snorted bitterly.

Andy closed her eyes, and a strange little smile graced her features. “Yer plumb wrong, lil' bird. Your Mama done already took wing ta find her lost chicks.” She opened her eyes and looked to Miss Lily. “I needs ya ta make a telephone call fer me, Miss Lily,” she continued softly. ”Ya needs ta find th' telephone number of Runway magazine in New York City. Ya needs ta call there an' ask fer Miss Emily Charlton. Ya tells her that Miranda's daughter's 'r safe an' with me. Ya tell her that Miranda c'n come get um. Miranda 'll know how ta find me."
Lily nodded, apparently not trusting herself to speak. Odell glanced at the individuals assembled in the room. “If you think I'm going to let these girls just go off with you, you are out of your mind,” he said softly.

Andy turned and looked at him, her eyes dark and something about the aspect of her face changing to something sinister. “Yer a good man, Mr. Moss,” she offered softly. “Ya done whats ya was supposed ta do an' brought my lil birds safely ta me. Now yer part is done.”

Odell Moss looked a little confused, but his body language still clearly showed that he was ready to contend with anything he felt a threat to the twins. “How do you know my name?” he demanded.

“Yer wife just done whispered it inta my ear,” the swamp witch answered. “She want's ya ta go back ta yer truck now. Get there 'fore the rain comes. Gonna be a real gully-washer.”

Lily moved quickly up beside Odell. “You need ta go now,” she said to him softly. You don't want Hattie angry with you. It would be... bad.” The last word was whispered as the woman's eyes fearfully watched the woman she knew as Hattie from across the room.

“Come on, lil' birds,” Andy smiled at the twins. “Time fer us ta go home.”

The twins immediately stepped up next to Andy. Odell took a protective step forward. Something in the room changed suddenly. It seemed as if the lights dimmed, and the temperature dropped. The air became heavy and pregnant with something. Cassidy heard both the ghosts that had been her companions shriek, and she saw them flee through the walls. Then there was another ghost in the room. Huge, horrible, incorporeal, terrifying. It swirled about Doug, Lily, and then settled around Odell Moss. She could see that its presence chilled him to the bone. Although she knew he could not really see or perceive what it was that touched him, he knew it was there.

“Ya don't wants ta gainsay me 'n this, Mr. Moss,” Hattie said darkly. “My lil birds have come ta me, an' with me they will go. Ol' Lucius 'll see ta that.” At that statement, Lily gasped, her eyes rolled up in her head, and she fainted dead-away. Odell turned to the fallen woman as Doug dropped his guitar and rushed to Lily's side. In the handful of seconds it took Odell to turn back, the woman called Hattie and the twins were nowhere to be seen.

“What the hell was that?” Odell Moss asked, his breath short and his heart hammering inside his chest.

“That was Ol' Lucius,” Doug responded, kneeling beside where Lily lay and tending to her. “He's been dead more 'n twenty years, and if the stories I've heard are half truth, he weren't a nice man ta begin with. I'd suggest that ifin ya wants ta remain healthy, that ya goes on about yer business, and leave Hattie ta hers.”

*****

About the same moment in time as the drama unfolded at Lily's flower shop, the wheels of a Jet Blue 737 touched down at West Palm Beach International Airport. Without a first class option, Miranda Priestly's assistant had booked her into the first row of the airplane. She had also purchased the seat beside Miranda, one of the few seats on board that had extra legroom. The flight attendants on board, responsible for service to the passengers, had spent the length of the flight in the presence of the Devil in Prada. Miranda had been in full iconic mode, not speaking at all for the length of her time confined aboard the airplane. She communicated with abrupt hand gestures when asked if she desired food or drink. She ignored the existence of the person seated beside her on the aisle and spent her time staring out the window as if lost in her own thoughts. She was one of the first out of her seatbelt when the wheels of the aircraft touched down, and one of the first to leave the cabin since she had no carry-on luggage with her.

She strode through the small airport with purpose, knowing from Emily that a rental car would be waiting for her at the Hertz car rental desk. She would make the drive to Slippery Bottom, check into her hotel, go to the same little store where she had purchased clothing appropriate to the swamp's environs before, and buy what she needed. Then, if enough daylight was left, she'd rent a boat and head for Old Lucius' shack.

Later today or tomorrow morning, latest, she would once again be in touch with Andrea. Andrea would help her find her wayward children. Once she knew her children were safe, she could consider what the next steps were. She felt monumental change coming in her bones, and for once, she sought to embrace it rather than to fend it off to protect what she had. It was a strangely liberating sensation, and Miranda felt as if a weight was being lifted from her shoulders.

*****

Irv Ravitz paced angrily in front of Emily's desk. He again demanded to see Miranda. “She's not in the building, Mr. Ravitz,” Emily answered the query for the second time. “I'm afraid I don't know exactly when she's due to return.”

Irv stopped his pacing and looked at the first assistant expectantly. “But you do know where she is, don't you?” he asked pointedly.

“No, sir,” the first assistant answered. “Not exactly. Miranda often doesn't confide her plans in mere subordinates. I can reach her via her cell phone if there is an urgent need, but she has asked not to be disturbed without a serious need to do so. Shall I call her for you?”

“No,” Irv smiled wickedly, his voice smooth and self-satisfied. “That won't be necessary.” He turned and left the office.

Emily immediately picked up her phone and called Nigel's office. “The little weasel is up to something,” she said urgently into the receiver as soon as the phone was answered.

*****

The twins waded barefoot through the shallow water of the swamp as Andy guided them to her home. The place they saw was magical. There was life everywhere. Birds and snakes in the trees, small animals rustling thought the vegetation on the hummocks rising out of the water, fish and other little aquatic creatures swimming below the surface of the dark water and tickling their toes. Cassidy wasn't saying much, but Caroline could feel her sister drinking it all in. It felt to the younger of the Priestly twins as if this place belonged to Cassidy, or that she belonged to it.

Cassidy looked to her sister and smiled beatifically, then she looked to Andy. “I've come home,” she said softly, her tone full of joy.

Andy cocked her head and nodded sagely, “I reckon ya have, Hattie. I reckon ya have,” the swamp witch replied, much to Caroline's surprise.

*****

Miranda scowled at the makeshift roadblock that stretched across the road that led into the town of Slippery Bottom. The road beyond was all torn up. Miranda smiled evilly as she climbed back into the off-road jeep with oversized tires and a lift kit that Emily had rented for her. When she had first seen the monstrosity she was to drive, she was going to fire the girl; now, for Emily's foresight, she was going to give the girl and her lover a long weekend away in a luxury hotel, somewhere beautiful. Miranda struggled with the heavy wooden sawhorse that blocked one lane of the road to move it out of the way and walked back to the utilitarian atrocity she was driving. Climbing up and again taking her place behind the wheel, she took a long moment to read the instructions on the gearshift console that told her how to shift the vehicle into four-wheel drive. Satisfied that she understood what she was doing, she shifted gears and eased forward, continuing on toward her goal in town. The tall jeep's big wheels rode up and over the large chunks of shattered pavement as if it weren't even there, and Miranda experienced a strange sense of exhilaration. She had conquered another obstacle set between her and her goal.

*****

The fat man in a light-colored suit stepped carefully out of the boat. He had traveled a great deal farther into the swamp than he had ever wished to be, but when Mr. Potter wanted something done, you did it. At least you did if you wanted to keep your job.

What Mr Potter wanted was for the people of Slippery Bottom to sell their properties to him at a reasonable price. Reasonable, that is, to Mr. Potter, which translated to far below fair market value. Considering that the real estate market in Slippery Bottom was already severely depressed, his employer was basically demanding that the locals turn their property over to him for a mere pittance. It, therefore, didn't surprise the fat man that several of the locals had refused Mr. Potter's “generous” offer. The fact that the local population was being difficult changed nothing. Mr. Potter had to have title to all the land in and around Slippery Bottom. In fact Mr. Potter intended to buy up all the swampland this side of Lake Okeechobee. With financing from wealthy foreign investors, he planned to fill in the wetlands and build a huge hospitality community. Roadside attractions, shopping venues, restaurants, motels, places where middle-class American tourists could spend their precious vacation dollars. Cheaper than Disney World, it was an attraction that would potentially pull in millions, at least in the text of the initial prospectus documents. His employer already had a line on purchasing the huge empty acreage of swamp through some shady dealings with officials in state government. Being a shrewd business man, Mr. Potter was just waiting a few more days, letting the involved officials in the state government to sweat a little, so that their final price per acre would come down. The fat man strongly suspected that the whole thing was a scam and that there would be a lot of foreign investors that would lose huge amounts of money to Mr. Potter's bank account. They were, after all, arranging to sell swampland in Florida. He turned to the ragged looking young man that had been the pilot of the boat and his guide to the meeting he hoped to have. “What did you say your name was again?” he asked the boy.

“Ezekiel,” the boy said sullenly. “You're gonna pay me the money you promised, ain't cha?” he whined. “Ten dollars, ya said, fer bringing ya ta m' older brother Jebidiah. This is where ya can find him.”

“You get paid after I talk to your brother,” the fat man said, looking around distastefully at the deplorable-looking compound. Ramshackle buildings in various states of disrepair stood in a field of scattered detritus that took up virtually all of the island on which they stood. Several thin mongrels strained at the ropes that held them leashed to a tree as they barked incessantly. A plain young woman, aged beyond her years and many months pregnant, stood in a ragged sundress, tiredly hanging wet laundry on a drooping clothes line. “Jebidiah!” shouted young Ezekiel over the din the dogs were making. “Man's got a business proposition fer ya!”

A disreputable and dour-looking man came out of one of the buildings, a pump action shotgun hanging from one of his hands. The barrel was pointed at the ground but aimed in the fat man's direction. A second man came out of another one of the shacks and then a third man. Those were the Kagel brothers, men whose services, the fat man's sources said, could be purchased to do the dirty job of driving out those property owners in Slippery Bottom that didn't have the good sense to sell out to Mr. Potter. In a week or ten days, the fat man's job would be complete, and he could return to civilization, the generous bonus that Mr. Potter had promised for success in this land acquisition scheme safely in his bank account. “Mr. Kagle,” the fat man said, smiling his salesman's smile, his eyes drawn to the strange scar on the man's forehead. “I hear you and your brothers are men who can handle delicate work if the price is right.”

Jebidiah Kagel spat on the ground and nodded as his two brothers flanked him, one on each shoulder. “I'm listenin',” he snarled.

*****

Caroline watched as Cassidy moved around Andy's living space. She suddenly had a very strange feeling that something she didn't understand was occurring right under her nose. It was like Cassidy already knew where everything was. As if she'd spent a good deal of time here before, but Caroline knew that her sister had never been anyplace in Florida except for Disney World in Orlando. The other odd thing was that Cassidy hadn't stopped smiling for the last hour. Caroline turned to where Andy stood making something for the three of them to snack on. “Andy,” she asked, “why did you call Cassidy Hattie?”

Andy glanced to the window where Cassidy stood looking out and then turned and smiled down at the young girl beside her. “Because she'll be Hattie,” the swamp witch answered. “I ain't never gonna have no children. No daughters ta continue th' line. So Cassidy has come, ta be Hattie after I'm gone.”

Caroline looked incredulously at Andy and then her sister. She was torn. She had brought her sister here to have Andy train her so that she could learn to live with her powers, but if Andy or Cassidy believed for one minute that her Mother was going to allow her twin sister to stay in the swamp and pretend to be the swamp witch Hattie, they were both out of their frickin' minds.

*****

Miranda Priestly sat in a booth at the diner trying to eat a salad that was mostly a wedge of iceberg lettuce and stale croutons, drowned in some kind of commercially manufactured salad dressing that purported to be a honey mustard vinaigrette. It was, however, a far preferable choice to the rest of the offered menu. She had arrived in town too late in the afternoon to attempt to travel to Old Lucius's shack, so she had bought several outfits of clothing appropriate to a journey through the swamp and checked in to her hotel room. While trying to choke down some sustenance, she was witness to some sort of community meeting. She imagined that the diner was sort of the informal community center in this small town because of the available seating and plentiful availability of coffee. She was only half listening to the back and forth of the individuals that spoke, but what she garnered from what she heard was quite clear. Someone was trying to buy up the town and was placing pressure on those who did not wish to sell. None of the individuals at the meeting were happy about it for the simple reason that even those with an inclination to cooperate and sell their property weren't being offered a reasonable amount of money. From what Miranda understood, the offers were well below fair market value.

Miranda intuited from the various conversations around her that a major land grab was going on in and around Slippery Bottom. What Miranda couldn't imagine was why such a thing would be happening. Financially, the land was virtually worthless. From some personal investment dealings involving rental condominiums within the state, Miranda was aware that builders here already had dug ponds on various properties in order to gather enough earth to build a stable foundation for a single building. To back-fill this area so that anything with a stable foundation could be built on it at this juncture would require a great deal of earth as fill. To bring in enough dirt to fill a swamp? You'd need to dig up a good portion of the southern United States and truck it in at a huge expense. It simply didn't make sense from any kind of cost-effective perspective. Miranda left the remains of her meal on the table as she exited the restaurant, cell phone in hand. She dialed her real estate broker in Manhattan. “Thomas,” she said, as soon as he'd answered the call, “there is some kind of real estate scam occurring in the area just south and west of Lake Okeechobee in Florida. Look into it, and report back to me as soon as you have anything. That's all.”

*****

Later that night the clouds overhead darkened, accumulated, and roiled. A dark, moonless night became pitch black, until spectacular bolts of lightning split the sky again and again. The thunder rolled, and fat raindrops fell. Soon it was a torrential downpour, and the sound of the water hitting the roof and walls of the hotel made it difficult for Miranda to sleep. During the early evening she had called Emily in New York and determined that no word on her daughters had been heard. As she sat, sleepless, on the edge of the uncomfortable hotel bed, she only hoped that the morning would bring weather that would allow her to start her journey into the swamp to find Andy and, hopefully, learn where her children had gone.

The light of day didn't bring the desired change in the weather. Heavy rain continued throughout the morning and into the early afternoon. Even the formidable Devil in Prada, who felt driven to continue her quest and find Andrea, didn't dare attempt to procure a boat and try to navigate the channels of the swamp to Old Lucius's shack when that boat might very well be swamped by the deluge outside. So, as difficult as it was, she waited. Seated in the diner, drinking her umpteenth cup of bad coffee, she watched as the men of the town gathered and discuss those places in and around town that would need to be sandbagged if the rain didn't stop soon. Plans were made, and several of the men left to prepare and stage the necessary flood control items. Within minutes they were back, complaining about unusually large swarms of voracious mosquitoes that made being outside unpleasant in the extreme.

The incessant rain and the plague of biting insects continued into the dark of that night.

By breakfast the following morning, rain or no rain, Miranda had had enough of waiting, and, intent on renting a boat, she made her way to the diner, which seemed to her to be the logical place to talk to a local about her need and her willingness to pay cash. The diner, in her experience, was usually a loud and raucous place, with clinking dishes and a certain level of rambunctious conversations, each overlaying the other. This morning an unnatural pall seemed to blanket the place. She felt a shiver run down her back as she saw townspeople gathered in small, hushed groups at different booths, and she recognized that the usual boisterous ambiance was missing. It was then that she overheard conversations about the first cases of fever.

*****

Cassidy looked out the window of Andy's shack at the driving rain. She turned and looked to Andy who was busying herself tidying up the already neat cabin. “You're sure?” she asked.

Andy nodded. “She gots ta town sometime near dark day afore yesterday,” she answered. “She's worried sick abouts ya all bein' missin', but she's stuck there just like we's stuck here. I wonders why Miss Lily didn't tell Miss Emily that y'all was with me like I asked her ta. That 'ud settle yer Mama's nerves some.”

Caroline, who had felt somewhat claustrophobic in the small cabin, had stepped outside to watch the rain from the covered veranda. Stepping inside she looked to Andy. “There's a big alligator up on the edge of the island,” she announced, her voice urgent. She absently scratched at an angry-looking mosquito bite on her thigh, just under the edge of her shorts.

“That'll be Ol' Toothless enjoyin' the rain,” Andy answered, distractedly. “No needs ta worry 'bout him; he's a good un. Been with me lots o' long years. Helped me fish when I was a young 'un. Saved ma life more 'n once.”

Caroline nodded uncertainly. “It also looks like the water is rising around the island,” she continued nervously.

Andy nodded. “The black water was high ta begin with. We're like ta get wet feet 'fore it's all said and done,” she replied, her gaze shifting out the window by the front door of the cabin. “Rain don't feel like it's gonna let up anytime soon.”

*****

The sand bagging operations undertaken by the men of the town had been less that successful as far as Miranda could see. The main street of Slippery Bottom couldn't be called a mud hole because of the sandy competition of the soil, but it was certainly sodden and treacherous underfoot. The swarms of biting insects continued to plague anyone who dared venture outside, and the fever that had suddenly come to the small town was on everyone's lips, especially since a citizen of Slippery Bottom had apparently succumbed to the illness and died during the night. Granted the man who had perished was eighty-four years old, but he also was, unfortunately, what the town had for a doctor. Now, with the fever apparently spreading throughout the population like wild fire, what they had possessed as the town's skilled medical help was the first inhabitant of a makeshift morgue since they couldn't connect with anyone outside their small town.

Miranda still didn't dare brave the trip into the swamp on her own. She realized that she required reasonably fair weather for such a mad jaunt. It wasn't like she was skilled in handling an open boat in uncertain conditions. She was forcing herself to wait until the following morning and hoped that if she could not make the trip to Old Lucius's island, than Andy would make the journey into town to find her. Somehow she didn't find it at all strange that she knew with certainty Andy was aware of her presence in the town and only the foul weather was keeping them apart. She arrived in the diner, and with a cup of coffee in hand, she mused for a long moment that they never should have parted ways in the first place. In her heart she had accepted that her driving need to keep her hold on the artificial kingdom of Runway which she had created during her career was the sole cause of their separation. She realized that she had been thoughtless of Andy's wants and needs. She spent some time musing on what might happen if she were to let it all go. If she pursued what her heart wanted rather than what her mind insisted. She spent the next hour pleasantly imagining a bucolic life with Andy. It was a rising and angry conversation at another booth that brought Miranda out of her daydream.

“I'm tellin' y'all, it's that guddamned witch!” an angry male exclaimed. She's th' cause o' the fever. She done brought this down on us!”

A woman's voice followed. “My lil' one is sick with it. I'm so scared. I heard that six died last night!” she added to the conversation in a tremulous tone of voice.

“Hattie's been th' cause o' all our woes fer as long as I c'n 'member!” added a bitter-looking old woman. “It's long past time that someone do something 'bout that ol' witch!”

“Yeah,” one of the men in the diner took up conversation. "We should hang th' bitch!” he shouted.

A wave of agreement followed.

The atmosphere in the small establishment was becoming very ugly, very quickly, and Miranda was extremely aware that the lynch mob mentality was growing as more and more of the townspeople entered the diner. She thought quickly, running through a list of possible resources she might access to stop the burgeoning madness. The local law would be no help, just as they hadn't been any help in the situation with the Kagels. The law officers here were only interested in protecting their own skins and wouldn't say “boo” to a mob intent of finding and hanging a woman they perceived as a swamp witch. Of the other people she knew in town who might prove useful, Douglas was the only one she could recall, but as far as she knew, he was with Nigel in New York. Lily was just as frightened of the legend of Hattie as the majority of these ignorant townsfolk seemed to be, and she was as likely to join the mob as to aid her in warning Hattie of the danger.

Miranda was suddenly certain that it was up to her and her alone. She rose from her table and threw some money on its surface to cover the coffee she had consumed and a tip. Striding from the restaurant and into the rain, she glanced down to the dock. The boats that were out of the water were upside-down, and all looked too heavy for her alone to lift. The boats that were in the water and tied to the dock were all half full of water. Several already looked in danger of sinking. She glanced to the line of vegetation that marked the divide between the town and the swamp. Hattie had taken her on foot through that jungle-like environment, but she'd also been careful to point out to Miranda the dangerous places of quicksand and deep water. Walking without a knowledgeable guide was out.

Frustrated, Miranda glanced up the street toward the hotel, and her eyes rested on the monstrosity with which Emily had saddled her. The wide tires on the jeep brought to mind something her daughter Caroline had watched on television when she had entertained a young male friend at the townhouse. The sport was called “mudding,” and it involved driving similarly equipped vehicles in swamp-like conditions. If they could do it, then so could Miranda. She was beside the jeep before she had realized she had moved, and she climbed up into the cab without hesitation. The engine caught easily, and Miranda put the car into gear. She rolled it down the street and over the gravel that surrounded the small building beside the dock. On the other side of that building, a gentle slope ran down to the water's edge. In just a few short moments. the jeep was axle deep in swamp water, and Miranda was driving away from the town of Slippery Bottom into the unknown.

Chapter Text

“Things is bad in town,” Hattie said, staring out the window of her cabin and into the deluge of rain.

She watched as her familiar, Ol' Toothless, soundlessly slipped off the edge of Hattie's Island, and the giant gator's leathery back moved purposefully away. “Water's risin', and fever's come,” she continued under her breath.

*****

It wasn't often that Miranda Priestly experienced true, gut-wrenching, primal fear. Oh, she experienced it, as has every mother the first time their children become sick or injured. Normally, however, any level of fear was alien to her emotional landscape. Primal fight or flight, life and death fear was, to her mind, an unnecessary distraction in the world of societal order in which she resided. Ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks were nearby in the event of any emergency. Such was the benefit of living in a nation state, which provided security, stability, and disaster relief when required.

Her ordered, twenty-first century world had not prepared her for the situation she found herself in. She had enacted a quickly concocted plan that had seemed reasonable at the outset. It was simple. Emily had rented a jeep for her use that was equipped for the muddy and water covered conditions of the swamp that Miranda was visiting. The vehicle had huge tires and a suspension that lifted it high up off the ground. One practically needed an extension ladder to climb up into the passenger compartment. She had been peripherally subjected to watching some video of a pastime called mudding one time when she’d chaperoned the visit of a young man with her daughter at the townhouse. The pastime involved driving vehicles equipped much as the one she had rented into extremely muddy conditions. It seemed to Miranda, at the time she had thought of this idea, as simplicity itself. She would drive the jeep through the swamp to Andrea's abode.

She had not anticipated getting lost; nor had she counted on getting the vehicle stuck in a pool so deep that the doors of the jeep’s passenger cabin were half submerged in the rising waters. The machine's big engine growled as Miranda tried to ease the vehicle back and forth, attempting to rock it out of whatever it was mired in below, only to feel her heart leap as the passenger's side tires sank deeper into the muck. She thought back to Andrea's warning of quicksand pool as they traversed the swamp together. She noted with trepidation that water was seeping into the cabin, quickly covering the floorboards and rising at an alarming pace.

The engine sputtered and died, and for a brief moment, the only sounds she heard were the rain and the cacophony of frogs. With the evidence mounting that the jeep was not going anywhere, save settling deeper into the muck under it, Miranda moved to act on the situation she found herself in. She struggled to open the cabin door to allow herself escape from the sinking vehicle. When the pressure of the water surrounding it would not permit the action, she rolled the window down and shimmied out, climbing up onto the roof of the mired four-wheel drive. The sky was black, and the rain was still falling in buckets, making seeing more than an arm’s length in front of her a near impossibility. Within minutes she realized her situation was far graver than she had realized. The platform that the roof of the jeep had created and which, for the moment, was serving as her only means of staying out of the water, was listing significantly to one side as the passenger side of the conveyance continued to sink faster than the driver’s side. With the smooth surface she was standing on rain slicked, her footing was becoming more and more treacherous. In moments she knew she was going to end up in the water. She wondered briefly if she needed to swim away from the sinking jeep, her fear being that it would pull her down as might a sinking ship. Her eyes opened wide as she realized that the pool she would soon be immersed in had a number of logs floating in it, any one of which, as she had learned during her journey through the swamp in Hattie's company, might be an alligator waiting in ambush.

Staring through the driving rain she could see two things that she could identify as 'gators. One, the smaller of the two, was closer to where the roof of the jeep she was standing on would soon submerge under the water.

The other, terrifyingly large one was farther out, but most definitely headed in Miranda's direction at speed.

The surface she was standing on shifted again, and for a brief second she was weightless as she fell and splashed down into the black water. She struggled to the surface and right into the open jaws of the smaller of the two alligators. She turned her head, closed her eyes, and waited for the inevitable clash of teeth. Something struck the smaller of the alligators, and by the time it snapped its jaws shut, Miranda was no longer within reach.

The larger of the alligators exploded from the water some ten feet from where Miranda bobbed in the liquid. It was majestic, rising to half its body length above the water's surface. A primordial sea monster erupting from the depths. Clamped in its jaws was the throat of the smaller 'gator. At the apogee of the big alligator's thrust from the water, it stretched and turned its body, slamming the body of the smaller alligator between its bigger mass and the surface of the water. There was a violent splash as the two combatants battled. For a moment, they were both underwater; then the larger of the two ‘gator’s tail broke the surface and slapped down, propelling the leathery giant deep under the water, taking the smaller 'gator with it.

The sound of the multitude of singing frogs had ceased. There was a moment of pregnant silence, disturbed only by the sound of the rain on the water and Miranda's fearful, labored breathing. Then, splashing, the big 'gator again broke the surface. It turned toward Miranda, and in seconds, it brushed close by her. Close enough that its cool hide rubbed against the wet clothing Miranda wore. Instinctively Miranda reached out and got a hold of the alligator as it swam by her. Frantic, blind, lizard brained, survival instinct informed her adrenaline fueled body that it was better to ride the monster rather than fall under its jaws. If she could hang on to the alligator's neck behind its head, then its jaws wouldn't be able to reach her. The big 'gator seemed to ignore the added weight clinging to it. It lazily straightened out its body and swished its massive tail. Miranda found herself being dragged through the deeper channels of the swamp. She hung on for what felt like hours as the beast moved with purpose, continuing toward wherever its destination was.

She knew she had to do something. Her future was in her own hands. Any chance of survival she had was down to the choices she made in the coming moments. Noticing that the 'gator she was being towed by had broken out of a reed choked canal and into a larger pool, Miranda held her breath and let go of the beast. It continued its course to the edge of an island some thirty yards distant. Glancing at the island, she immediately became aware of the illuminated windows of Andrea's cottage. The big 'gator climbed halfway out of the water where the shallows met the shore and stopped moving. Miranda, eyes never leaving the prehistoric beast of nightmares, swam carefully across to the island. Moving to where the dilapidated pier broke the water near the front of Andrea's cottage, she pulled herself up onto the land, crawling up to where she was completely out of the water. She collapsed, resting for a moment while attempting to get her heartbeat back to where it wasn't racing and to allow the sick feeling from adrenalin flowing through her overtaxed body to ebb.

She noted that someone knelt down beside her in the pouring rain. She looked up into the worried eyes of one of her daughters. Seeing her child safe, she gave into the stress and fatigue of the last few frantic days and promptly fainted.

*****

The diner, the usual meeting place of the townspeople, was closed, dark, and locked, the owner not wanting to risk contagion. Those frightened townspeople still willing to gather in groups had retreated to whichever one of the two houses of worship where they normally attended on Sundays. Those two houses of worship sat opposite to each other across the small town square, close to the end of the sparely populated main street of Slippery Bottom. In the midst of that square, a few of the townsfolk met amid a very nasty sentiment. Fear had brought mob mentality to the usually peaceful town.

*****

It was a stupid idea, but Doug was desperate. Lily had taken the fever. She was as sick as anyone Doug had ever seen in his entire life, and no one in town had any idea of how to deal with the outbreak. Several of the townspeople had already succumbed to the pestilence. No matter what, he wasn't going to let his best friend die. He didn't see anyone on the street during the walk from Lily's Blossoms to the slip where Lily kept the flat bottomed punt that she used for her forays on the waters around Slippery Bottom. Wrestling the waterlogged tarp cover from the small vessel, he glanced out into the dark foliage beyond the town. Making his way to Ol' Lucius' place would be tricky. The rain was hard enough that it might swamp the boat as he attempted the journey. He needed Hattie, however. At this moment in time, he hoped and prayed that the swamp witch would be willing to strike a bargain with him for Lily's life.

*****

Miranda struggled up from the darkness toward the quiet voices of her two daughters and of her beloved Andrea. She hoped, in the depths of her seemingly endless well of sad loneliness, that it wasn't just another deceptive dream.

Suddenly she was standing on that gloomy little island where she had encountered Lucius Clay. The old man, in his less terrifying aspect, bent, ancient, in ragged and stained clothing, was down on his knees, his back toward her. He was digging barehanded in the sandy soil. A mason jar full of gold coins sat beside him. “Ya gots ta say it, ya knows.” His rough voice carried over the cacophony of bird calls, frogs, and other natural sounds.

“I believe.” Miranda whispered to the breeze that blew across the island.

“Ya gots ta mean it!” the specter insisted, not turning away from his work. “Iff’n yer gonna save yerself and save me, too, ya gots ta believe and mean it! Everythin' is going ta change fer ya! Iff’n ya does this, nothin' is ever gonna be the same!”

“I believe!” Miranda said, her voice stronger.

The old man turned suddenly and stood up. His aspect went from the old man that had been digging in the earth to something horrifying and terrible in less than the span of a heartbeat. The spectral monstrosity rushed at her, all chaos, wind, and storm. She closed her eyes, and her arms involuntarily covered her face. “I believe!” she screamed into the maelstrom that was buffeting her body. “I believe in Andrea! I believe in her power!”

She opened her eyes to a dimly lighted room, a single kerosene lamp, set low, burning on the small table by the bed she lay in. She couldn't see anyone, as the privacy curtain that separated the bed from the rest of Andrea's small cottage had been drawn. She could hear quiet conversation nearby. “Ye drinks all of it, Caroline,” Andrea's Southern drawl came sweetly to her ears. “Holds yer nose iff’n ya has ta. I knows it don't taste good, but it'll keep the fever from ya. Yer mama’ll be wakin' up soon. Then we'll see what there is ta see.”

Miranda cast off the light coverlet that covered her and rose from the bed. She stepped to the edge of the privacy curtain and pushed it aside. Her eyes fell on the beautiful woman that she had thought gone from her life, standing at the fireplace and stirring a small copper kettle that was hanging over the embers of a low fire. Glancing around the small cabin, she saw both of her daughters, apparently safe and sound. Tension that Miranda had been feeling for days seemed to flow out of her like water out of an overturned bucket. She felt tears well in her eyes. “Andrea,” she cried with relief, rushing into the young woman's open arms.

Andrea wrapped strong arms around Miranda, who was now openly crying, and held her close, as Miranda's face nestled in the crook between the younger woman's neck and shoulder. The woman from the swamp's words were soft and reassuring. “You's safe, 'Randa. You's been safe since ya came inta the Blackwater. Nothin' that swims, crawls, flys, 'r walks here is gonna be allowed ta hurt ya. This was sapposed ta be yer place.” The words spoken by Andy were gentle, but the twins could hear the pain the last sentence contained and could see the agony of loss in the swamp witch’s gaze.

“I want to go back,” Miranda whispered, raising her face from the protection of the warm, soft skin of Andrea's neck.

Andy unwrapped her arms and stepped back, nodding. She took a deep breath, evidently centering herself. “Weather 'll break. Then ye and yer girls can be on yer way.” she replied. “Back ta Slippery Bottom and from there ta yer New York City.”

Miranda shook her head, tears still tracking down her face. “No,” she whispered. “I want to go back to the orchid pool! Back to the beginning! I've been such a god damned fool!” She looked up at her Andrea. “It's not too late, is it?” she asked, her voice smaller than what anyone who had ever known Miranda Priestly had ever heard before. “Can I please have another chance?”

Andy looked at the woman before her, something akin to wonder in her eyes. “Ya wants ta stay here with me? Stays with me ferever and a day?”

Miranda nodded, seemingly beyond the ability to reply verbally at that moment in time.

“Get a hold of something, Caro,” Cassidy whispered urgently to her sister. “The world as we know it has just changed, big time.”

Andy shook her head. “Ye knows that there won't be no goin' back.”

Miranda nodded again, her composure slowly returning. “You told me one of the first times we met how that life was dying.”

Andy nodded, the joy on her face morphing into sadness. “It's already dead, 'Randa. The King of Swords has done seen ta that.”

*****

Nigel hurried into the elevator and, punching the button for the top floor of the Elias-Clarke building, headed for a hastily called meeting with Runway's C.E.O., Irv Ravitz, in the man's executive office. When he arrived, Irv's executive assistant kept him waiting in the outer office for fifteen minutes, which Nigel experienced with growing dread. He knew something bad was coming.

Finally allowed into Irv's office, he found Irv seated behind his impressive desk, leaning back in his chair, a smoldering cigar in his mouth and a snifter of something amber on the flat surface in front of him.

“Ahh, Nigel, good of you to come,” the sleazy little man behind the desk gushed. Nigel knew immediately that it was way worse than he had anticipated.

“There were some rather momentous changes made at the board meeting this morning,” Irving continued, puffing self-importantly on his cigar. “Some changes which mean that certain individuals in our organization are going to have to make some decision on where their loyalties lie.”

"Board meeting?" Nigel asked, curiously. "I happen to know that at least two board members are out of the country at the moment. How did you have a board meeting without a full complement of the board members?"

"We had a voting quorum," Irv answered with a nasty grin on his face. "That's all we needed. Miranda is out. Her reign of terror is over. Jacqueline Follett is already in the air from Paris and will be the new editor-in-chief of Runway magazine the moment she sets foot on American soil."

"You stupid son of a bitch," Nigel grated, half rising from his chair. "Jacqueline Follett cannot do what Miranda does for Runway! Haven't you been watching the numbers for Runway France? They've been in decline ever since Jacqueline took over!"

"We can pay Jacqueline half of what we pay Miranda," Irv defended, sliding his chair backward a bit from the desk, retreating from the angry man in front of him. “She'll be easier to control. Do what she's told as far as following the directives of the board.”

"Jacqueline isn't worth half of what you pay Miranda! Jacqueline isn't worth a tenth of what Miranda is worth! She can't do what Miranda does!" Nigel ranted, unable to sit still, and pacing angrily before the desk. He struggled to modulate the volume of what he said, but his tone spoke of his rage. "You incredible, gutless coward! You waited until Miranda was gone, searching for her missing children! Then you called a rigged board meeting to get her fired! You stupid asshole! You've just cut the throat of the one publication that makes money for this goddamn company every month!”

"It's a pity you feel that way," Irv replied, his supposedly good humor now gone, his eyes flat and unfriendly. "Jacqueline was hoping you'd stay on board, at least for a while. You could've made her transition easier."

"I wouldn't work for Jacqueline Follett on the best day she ever had,” Nigel said, struggling to keep himself from shouting it in the smug little bastard's face. “She is a no talent hack who wouldn't know high couture if it bit her on the ass!" Nigel stopped pacing, and he stood before the desk at his full height, pulled down on the front edges of his suit coat, and took his time straightening out any wrinkles. He looked Irv Ravitz straight in the eyes. "If I am not fired, you have my two week’s notice, effective immediately."

"That won't be necessary," Irv said, smiling nastily again. "This little display of yours has shown exactly where your loyalty lies. The things you said to me are grounds for insubordination, and you're employment is terminated, effective immediately, for that reason. You have until the end of the day to clean out your office. Oh, and by the way, you can tell that little redheaded bitch who has been Miranda's lapdog that she's fired too.”

*****

Miranda struggled to pull herself together, waiting for Andrea's reply to her request that they start over. Somehow it didn't surprise her that she was ready and willing to beg if it became necessary. The old Miranda Priestly would never beg, but a new Miranda Priestly was struggling to be born. She closed her eyes and, for a brief moment, her mind jumped to Emily. Her first assistant had a mantra. Miranda wasn't supposed to know that Emily would endlessly repeat, “I love my job, I love my job,” over and over again as a talisman against bad days at Runway. Now Miranda understood the power of such an act. Under her breath she began to chant her own new mantra. “I believe, I believe, I believe.”

Andy looked at Miranda for an endless moment that was comprised of only a few seconds of formal time as humankind understands it. She nodded, tears of joy coming to her own eyes. “Ye means it!” she said, her eyes filled with wonder as she focused them on the woman before her. “Yer gonna let it all go! Yer here with me now! Now and ferever and a day!” She caught Miranda up in a bear hug, and she wasted no time kissing the smaller woman all over her tear-stained face.

*****

Doug eased the nose of the flat bottomed punt up onto the bank of Ol' Lucius' island. The rain was still pouring down, and he had done as much bailing as poling to get the little boat safely through the downpour. He'd had his hands full and little time to think what he would offer as payment to the swamp witch in exchange for his best friend's life. Lily was lying in her bed, in her apartment, behind Lily's Blossoms, alone, racked with the fever that had laid the town low.

He hadn't wanted to leave Lily alone, but there was no one willing to come into contact with someone that had the fever, unless that someone was a loved one. The sickness that had come with the rain was tearing the fabric of the small community apart. Soon it would be every man for himself. He stepped from the boat onto the island. He knew that he didn't own anything of any real worth. Nothing worth the life of one of the dearest people in the world to him.

Doug wasn't like those who were cowering in town. “You do for those you love,” he muttered. He had his guitar, his music, and his soul, and Hattie could have any one or all of them if she'd save Lily's life.

He quickly walked through driving rain to the small alter of stacked stones where locals left offering for Hattie when they wanted something from her. He set his guitar case down before it. “I needs yer help, Hattie,” he whispered to the breeze. The rain concealed the tears running down his face. He closed his eyes and blew out a breath. “Hattie,” he prayed earnestly. “This here is the only thing I gots that's worth anythin'. It's the only thing I own that I care about. Lily is sick. She has the fever. Please…please take my guitar…take my music if ya must, or even m' soul, but please, please save my friend!”

*****

“They're coming for you Andrea,” Miranda insisted. “They're forming a lynch mob. We need to get away from here!” Miranda, finally cleaned up from her adventure through the swamp, stood wrapped in the coverlet from Andrea's bed and glanced worriedly out the small window in the front of Hattie's shack.

Andy shook her head. She turned from the piece of Miranda clothing that she was diligently washing in a pot of water near the fireplace and nodded toward the window. “They may come inta th' swamp, but they won't gets nowheres near th' Blackwater. Not in this weather. ‘Sides,” she continued, “they knows better than ta makes Hattie angry. Bad things happen when they makes Hattie angry.”

“But you're Hattie,” Caroline said, confused.

Andy shook her head. “More ta Hattie than just me. My Momma was Hattie 'fore me, her momma 'fore her, and so on back. The Blackwater is part o' Hattie, and all that grows, walks, swims, flies, and crawls there is part 'o Hattie too.”

“Gaia,” Cassidy whispered, suddenly understanding. “Hattie is Gaia.”

Andy turned to her disciple and looked confused. “I don't knows no Gaia,” she said, curiosity in her tone. “Is she another wise woman?”

“Gaia is an idea, Andrea.” Miranda said, looking at her daughter and considering what she'd offered to the conversation. “In ancient Greek mythology, she was the earth. She was also the mother of most of the other gods and of the titans as well. It's where the idea of Mother Earth comes from. Nowadays, it represents the concept that all things that live and the very earth itself are all interconnected and actually make up one huge organism.”

Andy considered for a moment and then smiled and nodded her head. “I reckon that Hattie gots another name.”

Cassidy breathed in sharply and stiffened suddenly. Her mother turned in alarm and discovered her daughter's face slack, her eyes rolled up in her head, the same milky white that Hattie's had been when Miranda had encountered Lucius Clay's unearthly influence for the first time.“They've come into the swamp,” the girl said, turning her head as if she were listening to something a long way off. “There are a bunch of them. They're desperate and really afraid.”

Andy closed her eyes and took on the aspect of listening closely. She nodded. ”Iff’n they comes inta the Blackwater, God helps 'em. Ol' Lucius won't tolerate townfolk comin' inta the swamp with violence toward Hattie in their heart.” She sighed softly as she opened her eyes, her expression saddened. “He's likely ta kill 'em all,” she whispered.

“Maxie,” Cassidy called out, urgently. “Go! Now! Send them home, but don't hurt them! They shouldn't suffer because they're too scared to think straight!”

For a few brief terrifying seconds there was something electric in the air, and the temperature in the room dropped. Miranda shivered and could see her breath in the humid air. What she thought at first a trick of the light surrounded Cassidy. Then it took shape. A vague transparent outline of a girl about her daughters' age, in vintage roaring twenties clothing stood just before her unseeing daughter. The apparition nodded, acknowledging the instructions and changed, swirling into an angry indistinct storm swept mass before disappearing through the wall.

“What in the world was that?!” Miranda whispered, not completely trusting her voice.

Caroline had moved up beside her sister and caught her as Cassidy sagged. “That was Maxie, Mom. Get used to her. She and Cass are sort of a package deal from here on out.” She looked into her sister's now normal eyes. “Can I take the locket for a while? Let Maxie take what she needs from me?”

Cassidy nodded as Caroline helped her sister to the narrow bed that her mother had so recently vacated.

Andy was suddenly beside Miranda and placed a comforting hand on her arm. “Yer lil' bird 'll be alright,” she offered softly. “Her Maxie won't take no more 'n she needs, and Cassidy c'n take it. She's made o' stronger stuff than ya think.”

*****

Ten residences of Slippery Bottom had been whipped into a frenzy of fear by the biggest blowhard and braggart in town, who now led them on their self-imposed mission. He had marshaled enough courage into them to risk the storm and take to boats with the intention of finding the swamp witch. Their plan was to hang her when they found her. For twenty or so minutes the small flotilla of four boats continued to pole deeper into the wilds beyond the town’s boundaries. What little light from the few street lights in town was quickly lost behind the screen of vegetation, and each small boat became its own lonely island of light in the expansive gloom of the swamp on the moonless rainy night. Suddenly every piece of the thick surrounding verdure was an ominous and threatening shadow.

An unearthly howl broke the pervasive noise of heavily falling rain. “What the hell was that?!” a man in one of the boats cried out.

A woman in the second boat shook her head wildly. “I ain't never heard nothin' make a sound like that!” she exclaimed.

Ear-piercing laughter that could only be called a cackle sounded across the water.

Those in the boats frantically looked in every direction, trying to determine where the sound came from.

Whispers ghosted the darkness all around them, and each of the individuals in the boats felt as if the sinister murmurs were directed to their very ears, meant for them and them alone.

There was a sudden noise from the third boat. “Look out!” a man's voice called out. A splash sounded, and the kerosene lantern the boat had been using for illumination suddenly extinguished. A second louder splash instantly followed. “Harley's fallen out of the boat. I can't see him! I can't see nothin!” a different voice called out urgently.

The unearthly cackling came again, louder, closer, but still indefinable as to where, exactly, it originated.

Another demonic howl sounded, and this one was followed by several answering howls in the distance. The close howl sounded again, as if responding to the cacophony of the group of howls, calling out to them, showing them the way. To the growing terror of those in the boats, the far-flung pack of howls sounded again, only this time drawing nearer. A woman in the forth boat screamed.

“Harley! Harley, where are ya!” someone called out.

“Get me th' hell out o' the water,” Harley's voice cried. “There's 'gators in here!”

“I gots him,” someone called out. “I'm pulling him inta my boat!”

“Be careful!” a man in a different boat exclaimed. “Ya don't want to capsize your...”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” the voice that said that he had Harley cried out urgently, and a second man cursed and a woman screamed, followed immediately by several contiguous splashes. The electric lantern the second boat had been carrying sank eerily beneath the swamp water, disappearing into the mud at the bottom. The uncertain play of light and shadow as it sank revealed the second boat upside down and four bodies splashing frantically in the water. The cackling, now identifiable as a woman's voice, sounded again, seemingly coming from every direction at once.

The woman in the fourth boat was so terrified she was gibbering now, nearly hysterical. The man in that boat yelled, “Fuck this!” Turning the boat sharply, he poled back toward town as quickly as he could manage.

“Coward!” the nominal leader of the group, the biggest windbag in Slippery Bottom, yelled from his place in the first boat to the retreating boat.

The third boat was among the people struggling in the water trying to offer aid, but with those already crewing the small craft, there just wasn't enough room to take in four additional bodies.

“'Gator!” Someone shouted. “’Gator in the water!”

“Get me out o' here!” another man screamed frantically. “I don't want ta die this way!”

The sinister laughter was everywhere now, drowning out the rain and the screams and the cries of the lynch mob.

Chaos reigned.

“Swim fer it!” someone yelled. “Swim fer town!”

The third boat, with two of the men in the water hanging on to its sides, made a hard turn and, with both men in the boat rowing as if for their very lives, they set their course for Slippery Bottom. The other man and woman in the water started swimming frantically back towards town.

In the first boat, the braggart cursed and called out to the others, who at this point were in full retreat. “We have ta find th' witch!” he yelled. “Ya cowards!” The woman who was riding in the boat with him made a strangled sound somewhere between a whimper and a moan. He looked to her ashen face and then followed her line of sight. There, standing just above the prow of the boat, was a luminescent and transparent figure of a girl of about thirteen.

The apparition looked at him and smiled a hideous grin. “Get out!” she hissed.

The woman in the boat didn't waist even a second. She rose from her seat and, turning, dove cleanly off the stern, swimming for town as if all the demons of hell were chasing her. The braggart tried to back up, but there is only so much room in a small boat. He went ass over tea kettle into the water, capsizing the boat in the process. After thrashing around a bit, he, too, swam desperately for home.

Maxie, now floating over the prow of the capsized boat, smiled to herself. It had been a good few minutes of work. Her friend, Cassidy, would be pleased, and Hattie had gained two new boats to help make their family's life in the swamp easier.

*****

Miranda stood, holding the threadbare curtain that provided some privacy around Hattie's narrow bed, aside. She watched her daughter Caroline soothingly stroke Cassidy’s forehead where the troubled girl lay. She turned to speak to Andrea and found her by the cottage door, placing a blanket, shawl-like, around her shoulders.

Andy looked at her. “I has ta go out,” she said guiltily. “I gots ta go inta town.”

Miranda looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. “Andrea,” she exclaimed. “You can't go into Slippery Bottom. The people there are terrified! They've become a mob, Andrea! And that mob wants to hurt you!”

Andy nodded solemnly and sighed. “Miss Lily's taken th' fever. I has ta go 'r she'll die.”

Caroline was behind her mother immediately. “If you're going into Slippery Bottom, we're going with you!”

Andy looked at the girl and saw the Priestly determination in her eyes. She sighed. “I c'n see yer mama's fire 'n yer eyes, sos I reckon that there ain't no use in arguin' wit' ya. Ya all 'ud just follow me iff’n I told ya ta stay here.”

Cassidy rose from the bed and quickly stepped up beside Andy. She nodded. “Maxie says the way is clear. Those that came into the swamp are hightailing it back to town.”

“Good,” Andy replied. “We'd best gets goin' then. Caroline, ya grabs that sack there by th' door, and Cassidy, you gets the washtub by the fireplace. There's a passel o' things we needs ta gather twixt here and there.”

*****

The long and terrifying night, the darkest any of the town's residents could remember, had passed into a false dawn, the sky leaden gray and the heavy rain still coming down. The new day broke over a town that had lost hope. The townspeople huddled in their homes, those who had not yet come down with the fever praying for one more day so that they could attend to those that had fallen ill. More than three-quarters of the town was sick, and a third of that number was so ill that each required near constant care. The meager governmental infrastructure the town possessed collapsed completely when the last of the three elected officials and one of the two ministers who called Slippery Bottom home fell ill.

Other than Hattie's comings and goings, nothing stayed secret in the small town. Nothing went unobserved. It was common knowledge that those townspeople who had traveled righteously into the swamp to find and deal with the swamp witch had returned to town with their tails between their legs and considerably the worst for wear. Their tales of seeing the swamp witch's fury only became more magnified with each telling until the eleven who had poled out into the swamp were claiming that they had seen Hattie standing amid the fury of the storm and directing things straight from the gates of hell against them. The townfolk now believed that they had made Hattie even angrier and that there would be no mercy from the dark power of the swamp witch.

William Marstan had been Slippery Bottom's baptist minister for near twenty years. He had come to this small community straight from his training to become a priest. This morning he started the short walk from his house, just off the main street, through the small town square and to his church, as he had thousands of times during his tenure. This day, however, his progress was halted as he came across something in the center of the square that didn't belong. Seated on a smoldering low fire sat a huge black cast iron pot, it contents steaming. Fear ran through him. It's Hattie's doin', he thought to himself. She brought it here.

Considering, he realized that the caldron that sat on the fire did not, in fact, come from the Blackwater. It had only come from as far as Lily's Blossoms, a fair way down the street, its normal place outside the store's front door where it served as planter, decorating the shop's entrance. The heavy iron pot had somehow been emptied and moved into the square, and a fire built beneath it. As he moved closer to investigate what was bubbling inside the vessel, he noticed that two other members of the small town had also discovered the new addition to the square.


Within a mere fifteen minutes the great majority of the ambulatory population of Slippery Bottom stood in a ragged circle around the caldron. The gathered individuals whispered among themselves, as if speaking at a normal volume might disturb something that no one dared to disturb. It was clear to the minister that the consensus of the townsfolk believed the gurgling brew to be the product of Hattie's witchcraft, originating from the Black Bayou. There was a growing argument about what the witch's brew might be and what should be done with it. The man who had led the expedition into the swamp to lynch Hattie spoke out, his voice the first at anywhere near a normal conversational volume. “That Damned witch brought it! Dump the caldron and get rid of the poison!” he insisted

Doug, who had only recently left Lily's bedside, arrived in the square and spoke from his place at the back of the circle of onlookers. “He's right that Hattie brought it here,” he said to the assembled group. “But it ain't poison. It's the cure ta th' fever! Hattie gave some o' it ta Lily last night, and she's on the mend this mornin'!”

"Cure?!" a woman's voice asked. "All three o' my littles has the fever! The baby is really sick!" . Looking worn beyond her years, she weaved through the gathered people. "Get me somethin' ta put some o' this in!" she called out to anyone who might be listening.

A man standing nearby emptied what was left in a mug of coffee he had in his hand. "Here, Mildred," he said, handing it to her.

The woman stepped to the bubbling vat and scooped up a cup full of the viscous green liquid. She turned back the way she had come and moved off with hurried steps.

"Ya all can't be crazy enough ta drink that stuff," the man that had led the lynch mob shouted. "That goddamned witch brung it!"

The woman who worked as the waitress in the town's only diner hurried off and was back in a moment with a stack of plastic cups. She tore a cup from the top of the stack and handed the balance of her burden to the minister. She too ran the cup over the surface of the kettle, filling it. Raising the cup, she drank deep. She made a horrid face. "It tastes foul," she asserted.

"Ya all are crazy!" The leader of the lynch mob groused loudly. "Why would Hattie help us?”

Doug shook his head violently. "She's helpin' us ‘cause I called ta her. I made a deal. Lily would o' died otherwise!" He made an emphatic gesture towards the caldron. "I made a deal fer Lily's life, but Hattie came an’ brewed enough fer everybody!"

"Ya actually seen Hattie?" an old timer asked in wonder.

Doug nodded, his mouth suddenly dry. "Last night," he answered. “I was stayin' at Lily's bedside ‘cause she was so sick. I must o' dozed off. I opened my eyes, an’ she was there. She spoke ta Lily so gently. Whispered ta her that she was her only friend here as she spooned some o' that concoction inta her mouth. Then she noticed that I'd woken up." He shivered all over. "She told me that what's in this here caldron 'll cure the fever."

“Da ya believe her?” the old timer asked.

“Lily's a heap better this mornin'. Fever broke almost as soon as Hattie spooned some o' that inta her. Now she's sleepin' without tossin' and turnin'. The sweats are gone too,” Doug offered softly. “So, yeah, I believe her.”

A ripple ran through the group, and they crowded around the bubbling vat. Then the townspeople went crazy, grabbing at the stack of cups in the minster's hand and for anything else that could hold some of the precious fluid. A few even risked scalding themselves as they plunged cupped hands into the bubbling liquid. Those in the square all struggled to get their turn at the deep green brew and, after taking a sip themselves, hurried off through the driving rain to help friends and loved ones too sick to get away from their beds. Within an hour of finding the black iron kettle, all the residences of Slippery Bottom had sipped of the witch's libation.

*****

Later that morning the rain stopped and by the next day the sky over Slippery Bottom dawned clear and blue. As the town came to back to life in the early morning, the streets filled. All those who had been as sick as they had ever been were again in the bloom of health. The diner opened, and as the residences of the town made their way to it for their morning coffee, an impromptu town meeting took place.

"Damn it," the mayor swore, "I'm tellin' ya that Hattie done saved this town!" He lifted his coffee cup. "If she hadn't come and brought that cure..."

Another man nodded resolutely. “We needs ta do somethin' fer her.” He looked to where Doug sat with Lily, making sure that she ate her breakfast. "You said ya made a deal with Hattie, boy. What did ya haf ta promise her?”

Doug sighed. “I had ta give her m' guitar,” he answered softly.

The man who had asked the question nodded as the minister who tended the town's evangelical congregation spoke up from where he sat. “If it weren't fer this boy's sacrifice and fer Hattie's mercy, I and several others here would likely being buried today rather than havin' breakfast.” He glanced out the diner's window toward the swamp. “Maybe it's time we changed things. Hattie's been livin' out there alone longer than livin' memory. Maybe it's time that we bring her inta town. Make a place for her here among us.”

The mayor nodded. “Ya all put tagether a party o' men ya trust ta go and see it they c'n fetch her. I'd do it, but I gots ta meet with that fat man that works fer that sum-a-bitch Potter. He's still tryin' ta buy up the whole damn town.”

*****

The weather had cleared almost immediately after Andy, Miranda, and the twins had completed their clandestine adventure into town to brew the cure for the fever. Miranda had been surprised by the fact that she, Andy, and her daughters had functioned like a well-oiled machine, gathering the components that were needed for the medicine, sneaking into town, emptying and moving the heavy iron cauldron, finding enough dry wood to build the required fire, brewing the potion, and then sneaking back out of town just before dawn. The entire frightening, adrenaline-fueled endeavor had left her feeling more alive than she had in years.

Some time during that frenzied evening, she became aware, somehow, that the life she had lived in New York had passed into oblivion. She knew without question that she had been ousted as editor-in-chief of the magazine she had dedicated her life to. She was unable to get a cell phone signal out of the swamp and, on top of that, she had lost her own cell phone when she had abandoned the jeep as it sank in the swamp. So, for the moment, she couldn't verify what she instinctively knew. The next time she went into town, she would have to borrow one of her girls' phones and call Nigel to confirm what she felt in her bones. Surprisingly, although she would have thought that the lost of Runway would have destroyed her, she strangely found a sensation of peace in the knowledge that those labors were behind her now. She found herself feeling more relaxed than she could ever remember being, and there was a sense of bubbling contentment within her that she just couldn't seem to contain. She knew in the depths of her soul that, that part of her life was over and a new and more exciting adventure had begun.

Staying the last two days in Hattie's small cabin had been curiously domestic. The sleeping arrangements had been roughing it as far as the Priestly trio's experiences went. Hattie's bed was narrow and didn't really accommodate two adults comfortably unless they were spooned incredibly close together. Miranda found having Andrea wrapped protectively around her seemed to provide the most restful sleep she'd had for many months. The twins were making due with hammocks that Andrea had improvised.

As she had been during the first time she was in the cabin, Miranda was careful not to pay too much attention to what went into the fare that Andrea diligently prepared for meals. Her earlier suspicion was confirmed that most of the ingredients for their repast came from what Andrea hunted, fished for, and gathered in the swamp. The source notwithstanding, each meal was both filling and delicious, and the companionship around what she now thought of as the family table made each mealtime seem like a feast.

Miranda spent part of the time with her family studying the interaction between Andrea and her daughters. She could feel the closeness between her girls and her lover. Watching her twins negotiate this alien place was both entertaining and informative. Caroline was obviously out of her element, here in the wilderness of the swamp, but she was game to try and deal with the challenges it imposed. She tended to stay close to the cabin and close to Miranda. Cassidy, on the other hand, begged shamelessly to be allowed to accompany Andrea anywhere the woman went. It was obvious that a teacher/student relationship had come into being. Miranda found herself glad that her daughter was so interested in learning what her Andrea had to teach.

She realized that the line of thought she was following was rooted in the fact that she had finally come to believe in Andrea's power. Her daughter was as gifted as Andrea was, and Andrea was teaching her little girl to control her abilities so that Cassidy could use her gifts to greatest effect and still remain both safe and sane.

In the early afternoon Miranda stood on the small porch of the cabin musing that there was something indeed about this primal place that had completely seduced her. She, a woman of the twenty-first century, was going to leave that modern world behind to live here in rustic simplicity with her lover, and, for the moment, she was completely at peace with that fact. Andrea and her girls were at the other end of the small island, fishing for what they would eat for dinner, and she could hear their laughter and quiet conversation. It lulled her into closing her eyes for a moment.

When she opened her eyes, she found herself standing before Lucius Clay's shack, but this time, although dilapidated, it was not in ruin. For the first time that Miranda had been there, beams of sunlight cut through the tree canopy in places, making small islands of brilliant light grace the ground, dispelling the pervading ambiance of gloom she had encountered each of the other times she'd been there. The old man sat in a rocking chair on the porch. He looked at her with his too bright eyes. “She wants ta do right by ya,” he croaked in his rough voice. “An iffin ya let her, she's 'bout ta make the granddaddy o' all mistakes, thinkin' she's fillin' a need o' yourn.”

Miranda knew now that this was real. She was somewhere else, in the company of a dead man who, in his way, had Andrea's best interests at heart. “You know I'm new to this,” she said curtly. “So speak plainly. Make me understand what you see coming so I can help you help Andrea,” she answered.

The old man nodded. “They's comin' fer her. Them fools from town. Thinks they knows now that Hattie is one o' them. They's sendin' a delegation. Sheriff, Fire Chief, and the high muckety-mucks. Gonna offer her a place among 'em.” He shook his head, hacked, spat on the ground, and picked up a jug that was sitting on the floor of the porch by the rocker. He unstoppered it, took a long pull, and replaced the cork. “She'll go with them, thinkin' that ya needs people about ya. That ya needs their society. They'll offers ya both a place in town, and fer a while they'll try ta accept ya among 'em, but twon't work. They's too afeared o' Hattie, and they won't accept two women sharin' a lover’s bed. They'll drive wedges twixt ya and then drive ya out. It'll kill the happiness ya all are due.”

The sky dimmed suddenly, and the comforting islands of light disappeared. The sinister gloom that was Miranda's earliest impressions of the island returned. She closed her eyes and opened them to chaos. Agony was suddenly her companion. She looked down at her burned arms and torso, blackened with hot tar as jeering townspeople covered her in feathers. The mob cheered and ranted around her. She looked up from where she knelt and saw that they had stripped her Andrea naked and hanged her from the street lamp post. She closed her eyes again, denying the vision. Opening her eyes, she was again standing before the old man in his rocking chair. Miranda pursed her lips and nodded. “I won't let that happen!" she declared. "Tell me what I need to do,” she continued decisively.

“Stop em from findin' Hattie. Stop 'em from findin' her shack,” the old man said, grinning.

Miranda closed and opened her eyes again and found herself standing on the porch of Andrea's cabin. “Cassidy,” she called out. “Would you come here, please?”

In a moment Cassidy was standing before her. “You need something, Mom?' she inquired.

Miranda nodded. “Can you get me to town?” she asked. “There are a couple of things I need to do.”

Cassidy nodded. “I know the way,” she said. “Andy showed me.”

Miranda nodded. “I saw a big piece of paper inside on the shelf near the door. It’s old and sort of yellow. Get that and a piece of charcoal from the fireplace. Grab a nail from the can on the same shelf the paper is on. Also, bring your sister's cell phone. There are a couple of calls I need to make when we get to where I can get a signal. I'll go tell Andrea and Caroline that we're going.”

*****

Doug looked at Lily and sighed. “I'm really torn,” he said to her. “Ya needs me here, and Nigel needs me back 'n New York. He's really stressing out over bein' fired.”

Lily nodded her understanding. “Late night bus runs from th' bus stop out on the highway at ten. It'd have ya in West Pam Beach before the mornin'. Ya could catch a flight and be with him by lunchtime.”

“But ya needs me here,” he complained, stamping his foot like a little kid. “That Potter fella is still tryin' ta take your store!”

Lily shook her head. “I ain't sellin', 'n neither is anybody else in town that I've talked ta. So there ain't much he c'n do. Ya needs ta go be with yer man.”

Doug hung his head. “I know ya don't approve...” he started softly.

She grabbed his chin firmly and made him look her in the eye. “Don't ya ever think that, Doug! Yer m' best friend fer as long as I c'n remember, and yer the bravest man I ever met. Ya never been scared ta be who ya are. Ya never been scared ta say ya are as ya are. Ya never let these narrow minded bigots that live here make ya say or act different. I wish I had that kind o' courage, that kind o' strength. I might be a whole lot happier than I am iff’n I did.” She sighed softly. “Ya needs ta go home ta your man and help him through what he's goin' through. Everythin' 'll be okay here.”

*****

As Cassidy showed her the way through the swamp to Slippery Bottom, Miranda explained to her daughter what Lucius Clay had told her and what her intentions were. Finding a likely spot to enact her plan, she looked up the narrow canal from near where the trunk of a fairly substantial tree thrust far out and hung low over the water. A boat with men in it could just make it under the trunk if those in the boat ducked a bit. She looked at her daughter. “You're sure they'll come this way?” she asked.

Cassidy nodded. “If they’re coming by boat, this canal is the most direct route. It's also the route that they're not likely to run into Ol' Toothless. He likes deeper water,” she answered.

Miranda nodded and, holding the piece of paper against the trunk of the tree, began to use the charcoal to write on it. When she was done, she looked to her daughter. "Do you think that you can climb up that tree trunk and nail this out over the canal where they'll be sure to see it when they come by?"

Cassidy looked at what her mother had written and smiled. “Mom, that's perfect!” she exclaimed. “It looks like something Hattie would write!” She quickly scampered up the tree trunk as if born to do it and nailed the makeshift sign to it out over the water.

*****

Later on, after she and her daughter arrived in town, Miranda made the necessary call to Nigel.

When he recognized her voice, he spoke hesitantly. “Miranda,” he said.

“Don't mince words, Nigel. I already have some idea of what's happening there. How bad is it?” Miranda demanded.

Nigel sighed. “The board voted the day before yesterday. You have been removed as editor-in-chief and Jacqueline Follet has been appointed the new editor-in-chief of Runway.

Miranda sighed. “Not unexpected,” she replied quietly. “What’s the collateral damage?” she asked.

Nigel was momentarily silent, apparently surprised by the question. “Emily and I were both fired the same day Irv told me about you being ousted. Serena handed in her notice the next morning. I've heard that Jocelyn and Lucia have also both put in their notice, but I haven't spoken with either of them directly to confirm that, yet. I've spoken with my lawyer and am already in negotiations with the board of directors to assure that Emily and I get a fair severance package. The board seems receptive to the proposal because they know that Emily and I have a pretty good wrongful termination suit if we choose to pursue it.” He hesitated for a moment. “Did you find your daughters? Are they alright? When are you coming back?” he asked, rapid fire.

“I'm with my girls, Nigel,” she answered. “They're fine, thank you for asking. As for when I'm coming back? Well, there doesn't seem to be any urgency for me to do so now, does there?”

Again, Nigel was silent for a moment. “Will you fight it?” he asked, his voice almost breaking.

“No.” Miranda answered. “My time at Runway is over.”

“What will you do?” he asked, concern lacing his tone.

“Contact my lawyers,” she replied. “They'll make sure that the board honors its commitments as far as my guaranteed severance package. I had negotiated quite a significant golden parachute to be added to my contract the last time it was up for renewal. It's going to cost Elias-Clarke a pretty penny to sever their relationship with me, I can tell you that.”

“But what will you do?” Nigel asked again.

“I'll take some time, decompress and regroup. Then, I'll decide what comes next,” she answered. “I'll call you in a few days. If you talk to Emily, let her know that when I am contacted for a job reference, she will have my highest recommendation, as, of course, will you. Please thank her for me for her loyalty. I need to go Nigel. I have several other calls I must make. Please know that your loyalty is also appreciated. That's all.” She disconnected the call and immediately dialed her real estate agent.

“Thomas,” she said as soon as he answered the call. “Do you have the information I wanted?”

“Yes, Miranda,” he answered. “You were right. There is a land grab going on. Somebody named Potter is trying to buy up the whole area. The scuttlebutt is that he's planning to develop the whole area southwest of Lake Okeechobee. He's pitching to foreign investors. He's promising it's going to be a discount Disney World.”

“Buy the land,” Miranda directed softly.

“Excuse me, Miranda?” Thomas asked, sure he must have misheard.

“Undercut this Potter character. Buy the land. All of it,” she repeated.

“Miranda, I know you are a wealthy woman, but you have to realize that even at the price that is being floated at the moment, with the amount of acreage involved, it would take everything you have to make the deal.”

“Put all the properties I own on the market. The houses in London, Vale, the Hamptons, and the townhouse in Manhattan. Sell the rental properties as well. I'll contact my broker and have him sell the content of my stock portfolio. My business manager will handle liquidation of the content of the different houses as well as the art I own. Other than my daughters' trust funds and their possessions, I'll liquidate everything. If the proceeds from what I have in the bank and selling everything I own won't cover the purchase price, I'll find the rest. I want every square inch of the land that this man Potter is after, except the properties in the town of Slippery Bottom. I have it on good authority that the owners there already do not plan to sell to the man. Go in at the asking price if it is necessary. If it becomes a bidding war, so be it. What is critical is that you get the purchase agreement accomplished before Potter can do so. There should be enough liquid assets to be able to make a significant down payment and seal the deal.”

Thomas hesitated on the other end of the phone. He had a fiduciary duty to Miranda who had been a long time client. He spoke what was on his mind. “Miranda, you do realize that the land is worthless,” he said worriedly. “It's swamp. Potter is running some kind of scam. The land can't be developed in any kind of cost effective manner, and as far as my inquiries go, there aren't any natural resources worth mentioning. You'll end up with a huge acreage of worthless swamp.”

“You don't understand, Thomas,” she answered. “This land is the most important purchase I'll ever make, and its monetary worth has nothing to do with whether I'll ever profit from it. I am instructing you, as my agent, to do this. If you can't or won't, tell me now, and I'll find someone who will fulfill my wishes,” she said firmly.

“No, Miranda,” he answered. “I'll do as you ask. I'll get on it right away.”

“I'll call my lawyer, business manager, and broker as soon as I'm off the phone with you. You will act as point on this, and I will tell them that they are to cooperate with you in any way you require. I'll call you in a few days for a progress report. That's all.” With that Miranda terminated the call.

Dialing the first of the other calls she needed to make in order to derail Mr. Potter's plan and facilitate the purchase of all of the swamp around Slippery Bottom, she wondered idly what it was going to feel like to be poor.