Tuesday, 26 July 2022 00:00

Bittersweet Tea

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Bittersweet Tea

By Bek D Corbin
Edited by Steve Zink

 

Give 'em an inch, and they'll take a mile.
Classic Folk Adage

 

There have always been people who believe that they have a God given right to take anything that isn't nailed down. And if they can pry it off the floor, then it wasn't nailed down. They genuinely believe that they can push everyone around. And, for the most part, they're right.

But I found out something early on - if you look real close, these grabby types aren't really that strong. They just trick people into thinking that they're strong. I got the school bully to back off by handcuffing him to the boiler in the basement of the school and leaving him there over a long weekend. He left me alone after that.

As a matter of fact, I've found that tripping up bullies and petty tyrants can be quite profitable. These people tend to rely so heavily on aggression and their intimidation factor, that they don't keep their ships in trim. I earned an MBA in college, and got the obligatory bottom rung job at an investment brokerage. But instead of toadying my way up the ladder, I used the brokerage's resources to spot the grown up versions of that punk that I handcuffed to the boiler. My first few ventures in 'giant-killing' brought me only chump change, because I had to use the brokerage's money to do it. Then I spotted that Edgar Puckett asshole, who'd managed to pull a very profitable 'Ponzi pyramid' in real estate. I went out on a limb and hocked myself up to the eyeballs and positioned myself in one of his scams. When the SEC came calling (gee, I wonder how that happened?), his pyramid came tumbling down, and I wound up the sole owner of several very profitable properties for pennies.

After that, I actually had money with which to go 'giant killing', and I've done pretty well by myself. One thing is, I don't really need to go that far to find my prospects. All I have to do is hang around in the bars along whatever financial district that I might be in, and listen to the moaners. And there are always moaners. Four times out of five, they're just squeezing sour grapes, but that fifth time is usually worth listening to. And when the tyrant that I'm tackling is a particularly vile bastard, not only do I have people pointing them out, but I also have people leaking me information. There have been a couple of situations where the employees threw parties when I kicked their old boss out the door.

As a matter of fact, my new venture dropped in my lap because Ken Palmer, a Junior Vice President in a company to which I was selling my latest acquisition didn't want to send his daughter to this pricey high-toned Finishing School in Virginia.

I didn't read anything into it at the time; it was just another case of somebody unloading to a trained listener. But when he started talking about the headmistress of the school, and the hold that she had on his wife, I heard a trace of something familiar: Fear.

I started to pump him about the headmistress and her school. He was only too willing to vent about it. It seems that Miss Wilks was the long-time headmistress and absolute ruler of the Rutledge Academy for Young Ladies, in a small town in backwater Virginia that bore the same name. The Rutledge Academy was one of those 'legacy' finishing schools where mothers send their daughters, because their mothers and grandmothers, and sometimes GREAT grandmothers had gone there. The place was supposed to give the girls 'breeding and character'; from what Ken was saying, it was really supposed to take snooty little Old Money brats and knock the snot out of their snouts. So far so good; I've had to deal with some of those Old Money kids - they could only be improved by doing a stretch in a high-falutin' reform school.

But what really got to him was the high cost of sending and keeping his girl there, not to mention all the so-called 'benefits' and 'fund-raisers' that being connected with the Rutledge Academy seemed to involve. Oh, and there was something else there, I could tell it, but I couldn't put my finger on it. When I asked him why he just didn't pull her out of there and put her in a school that only charged a finger and a toe, he shuddered. "No, I just couldn't do that. I want to, but I can't."

'I couldn't do that. I want to, but I can't.' To me, that is like the sound of a Geiger Counter clicking to a uranium prospector; it means Money.

I put my right-hand man Marvin Cameron on it. He came back with a story that would have been too good to be true, if it weren't so weird. Miss Hannah Wilks, the headmistress, was also the functioning owner of the Academy, through a daunting maze of Governing Boards and Trustee Committees, none of which had apparently actually met since Eisenhower was President. The place was triple-mortgaged up to its cupolas and had been for decades, but there was no sign of any interest being charged on the mortgage, let alone any attempts to collect on those loans. The last time that any money had been paid, it had been in 1963, when the entire amount had been paid in full; five years later, another mortgage was taken out.

A check of the Boards of Governors and Trustees listed a Who's Who of low-level social, financial and political Lions in Washington, Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, Charlotte, Atlanta, Savannah and Augusta, including a long-sitting US Congressman from North Carolina. Then I checked these guys against known Alumni of the Rutledge Academy. Four out of five of them had daughters, nieces, sisters, aunts, mothers or grandmothers who were 'Rutledge Girls'. Miss Wilks controlled, if not directly owned, a widespread fortune in stocks, bonds, commodities and real estate. The lynchpin of this seemed to be the Rutledge Academy, which was the de jure owner of all this. And yet, the school was constantly holding 'fund raisers'.

My amazement increased even more when I managed to get an illicit look at their tax records - neither the School nor Miss Wilks herself had paid a dime in taxes, either at the Federal, State or County level, since the Spanish-American War.

I smelled blackmail, and lots of it. Miss Wilks had probably 'grandfathered' into some kind of genteel upper-crust blackmail ring, where the 'girls' brought in all kinds of 'gossip' about their families and associates, which the power elite of the school used to their financial gain. And of course, the school probably had blackmail on the 'girls', so they'd keep sending their daughters, perpetuating the scam. It had probably been going on since the Civil War, so it had acquired a veneer of tradition and respectability, which was why they managed to get away with so much.

This was the kind of setup that changes wolves into lions. Miss Wilks' position was actually very delicate - it was just that there were so many people who didn't dare to upset the apple cart. But I had no intention of using any of that blackmail. Nope, blackmail is a mug's game. When I found whatever proofs she was holding over all of them, I'd just send them to the people who 'owned' them, with a courteous note that this was the last that they would hear about any of this. Nobody loves a blackmailer, no matter how well bred she is. They'd be so glad to get the Academy off their backs and out of their wallets that they wouldn't raise so much as a peep when I scooped up all those lovely assets. Hell, if this Miss Wilks is the ironhanded termagant that I picture her as, I might even get invited to join a few of those Clubs that you hear so much about.

I won't bore you with the details; let's just say that I carefully bought up a lot of paper using second and third parties. These documents individually didn't do much, but collectively and in concert, put me in exactly the proper position to both kick over the apple cart and catch the fruit when it fell. Best of all, I waited a couple of months before making the moves that put me directly in control of all those lovely promisory notes, and there wasn't so much as a peep from Miss Wilks' support structure. When the time came for my TKO punch, Miss Wilks' wouldn't know what happened to her.

When all the 'I's were dotted and the 'T's crossed, I sent Marv over to Rutledge to give the old biddy the bad news. I needed her to react, so that I'd see who would and wouldn't rise to her defense. Then I could take the next steps in kicking the pins out from Miss Wilks' house of cards.

Instead, I got a phone call from Marv. "Guy, you gotta get over here. Something unexpected has come up."

"Like what, Marv? Has this bitch sicced the local sheriff on you, or hoked up some kind of bogus charge that she's trying to get to stick? If so, I can get my lawyers to get it shuttled over to the Federal Court; she may have the local judge under her thumb, but there's no way that she's got that kind of clout on the Federal Circuit!"

"No, Boss, it isn't like that. Believe me, you won't understand unless you come over here and see it for yourself. There is no way that we take these people on and walk away. Guy, just sell the paper that you have for what you can get to whoever will buy it, and walk away."

"Okay, Marv, you win."

"You're gonna toss it?"

"No, I'm gassing up the limo and I'm coming over there. Since you're there, get rooms at the best hotel in that town for me, yourself and George. Also, find a garage where George can take the limo, where they won't pull the usual idiot tricks. George almost spent a month in jail the last time that some grease monkey tried to pull the old 'sliced fanbelt' schtick on him."

"Are you absolutely sure about this, Guy?"

"Marv, what did this bitch do to you? C'mon, Ace! We've taken out experts in intimidation! What can an over-bred blue-blooded schoolmarm show us that's new?"

George and I drove from Washington, through the Blue Ridge mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley to Rutledge. Rutledge is one of those little towns that the Old Money types like to keep backwards, so that they can have country places that seem to be 'unspoiled'. The place seemed to resent having to admit that the Civil War was over, and only grudgingly acknowledged that WWII had ever happened. It was one of those 'step back in time' places, where the Information Revolution, Women's Liberation and even the Civil Rights Movement were just nasty rumors.

The best hotel in Rutledge looked like it had been somebody's big old house that they'd converted too long ago to remember. George hauled our luggage upstairs, without giving the bellhop even a chance at it. He's my driver, bodyguard, gofer and occasional leg-breaker. We've earned each other's respect, George and I. He's done some things for me - I won't bore you with the details - and I made sure that he's stayed out of jail. I know that George will stand up for me, and he knows that I'll back him up. It's the kind of employee/employer relationships of which most businessmen dream.

I made sure that I had a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast before meeting with Marv. I wanted to be on the top of my form when I bearded the dragon in her den. When we sat down to breakfast, I noticed something different about him. "Marv, did you do something stupid at that school, like get stuck in a broom closet with a student?"

He almost jumped out of his skin. "What? What are you talking about Guy?"

"Marv, you're acting like we're going to land on Utah Beach during D-Day. What did that bitch Wilks pull on you?"

"Boss, you're going to have to meet her in order to understand. She has connections like you wouldn't believe! I really think that we should just drop this and take a loss on it. Guy, it's a high-toned girls' school - there's no way that you can get any sympathy from the community for what you're going to pull. Wilks actually has the support of the locals, so you won't be getting any help there."

I grinned at Marv over my scrambled eggs. "Actually, Marvin, that local sympathy is exactly what I'm counting on."

Marv got more and more nervous as we drove over to the Rutledge Academy. I got my first look at the actual buildings coming around a bend and through a break of trees. I was greatly disappointed that it was a clear day and there was no crash of lightning. It really was one of the kind of buildings that Roger Corman is always looking for to make spooky movies in. It had probably started out as some planter's mansion in the Nineteenth Century; the front part of the building looked like it was from about just before the Civil War. After it was converted into a school, they apparently added a few new wings and a couple of outbuildings. As we drove up, I had to admit that the place had a real presence. It was definitely the last place that I'd want to go if I were a rebellious sixteen-year-old girl.

Leaving George with the limo, Marv and I went up to the main door. I was impressed when, as we walked up the steps, I noticed several young girls in what was probably the school uniform doing gardening work. When we went in, I noticed another girl painstakingly waxing the intricate fretwork on the elaborately carved ballustrade. Marv showed me to the office, in what had probably originally been the front parlor. The woman working in the office told us to wait in the hall, and she'd get Miss Lambert.

Pathetic. The old 'waiting game'. Everybody knows that old dodge. I turned to Marv. "Who's this Miss Lambert?"

"A teacher and Miss Wilks' primary assistant. Apparently she handles all the outside business, so that Wilks doesn't have to be unnecessarily bothered."

I thought it more likely she was the current de facto power in the place, using the old dragon's reputation as a tool while she built one up of her own. That theory was quickly dispelled when I met Lambert. Natalie Lambert was fortyish, attractive, charming, and far too accomodating to be the power behind the throne around here. Everything that I'd learned about this place led me to believe that whoever was in charge was the type who'd want everyone to know exactly who was the boss, straight off the bat. We chatted a bit, and Lambert tried to put me off, saying that Miss Wilks was busy.

"Tell Miss Wilks that if I don't get a firm commitment from her as to the complete payment of the Mortgage, I will take immediate steps to foreclose and seize all attendant holdings to cover the unpaid balance." I figured that Wilks would try to make a couple of trivial concessions to buy time while she put her machine to work on levering me out of the picture. That was just what I wanted. I knew exactly which concessions I wanted her to make. They didn't seem like much at first, but after she made them, I'd be in a position to lay claim to the whole kit and kaboodle. "Miss Lambert, I don't want to take unfair advantage of this situation, but I must have a written commitment to a payment schedule. And only Miss Wilks is in a position to make such commitments."

She had us sit down and wait for another long while. Marv wasn't taking all this waiting very well. Finally, Lambert came back and told us that Miss Wilks would see us. She led us toward the back of the house, down a long narrow hallway. On either side of the hallway were a set of four large portraits of formidible grand dames of the Ante-bellum, High Victorian, Edwardian and WWII Eras. While their faces were markedly different, there was a strange similarity to all of them. My curiousity piqued, I stopped and took a long look at each of them. The similarity was there, but for the life of me, I couldn't put my finger on it.

Miss Lambert walked us to what's called the 'south parlor', which is supposed to be where ladies sat in the warm sunshine during the cold winter months. Which was ironic, because the south parlor was shuttered and draped into almost total darkness. I couldn't find my 'hostess' in the darkness. As my eyes got used to the dark, I noticed that not all the darkness was because of the shades being drawn; the place was thick with cigarette smoke. The smoke was thick, and I became aware of a hint of clove and other things mixed in with the tobacco. My eyes were still getting accustomed to the gloom and fume, when a voice cut through. "Exactly who do you think you are, Mister Hastings?" It was a strong, steady voice, accustomed to giving orders. The only trace of weakness was a touch of raggedness to it.

"I know that I am an honest businessman, who is taking time out from his busy schedule to deal with an overdue debt."

"I owe you nothing."

"I disagree. Eighteen years ago, you took out a substantial mortgage on this school and the attendant properties. Your stated reason for taking out the mortgage was building renovations. Really, Miss Wilks - this place hasn't seen a contractor in fifty years! Moreover, in those eighteen years, you haven't put forth so much as a penny to cover that legal debt."

"I took out that mortgage with the First Old Dominion Bank, not you!"

"True enough. But, as a lending institution, Old Dominion has a right to sell debts and notes, especially if they think they won't be able to collect. I bought the mortgage on this place at face value. But, it has been eighteen years - what with late fees, accrued interest and changes in the lending rate, the note on this place is worth THREE TIMES what I paid. I have a legal right to collect, Miss Wilks. And I will."

"You are a shark, Mister Hastings! A Pirate! A Thief, stealing a poor old woman's only home!"

Okay, the first volley had been exchanged. It was time to up the ante. I got up and walked over to one of the windows. I pulled back the curtains and raised the shade, letting the late morning sun in. Then I turned to face her. I could finally see her through the remaining murk of her cigarette smoke. She was an old woman, ninety if she was a day. She was well dressed and coifed, even if her tastes were stuck back in the fifties. And she was small, tiny even - her feet barely touched the floor as she sat in what was obviously her favorite chair. But there was nothing frail or delicate about her. She sat up ramrod straight in her chair, and held her cigarette as if it were a token of authority. I had a flash of recognition, which took me a while to place. The portraits in the hall, I saw the similarity now - it wasn't the face or the figure, it was the expression on the faces. They all had the same clenched fist expression of regal disdain and displeasure. And the eyes! They all had these iron-hard, gun-barrel eyes that tried to diminish everything they saw. I knew that trick, it's an old one. They try to set themselves up as the judge of what's right and fit, so they can pass judgement on you and find you wanting.

Keeping the sun at my back, so that she'd have to look into the light that she obviously didn't like, I countered with, "Poor, Miss Wilks? Hardly. According to my findings, you're worth more than some insurance companies that advertise on national TV."

"You're insane! I don't even have a checking account!"

"No, but through this school and several shell corporations - oh, by the way, Miss Wilks, you really shouldn't insist on using the names of Old Southern Aristocracy families for your front companies - you are a very wealthy woman. And you are cheap! Look at those girls out there trimming and weeding, while their parents are paying through the nose to send them here! And all so that you won't have shell out the money for real gardeners."

"Those girls are doing yard work, for the same reason that there are students doing cleaning, laundry and helping in the kitchen. For discipline and self-reliance. When they come here, they're lazy, selfish and spoiled. They have no idea of how to fend for themselves, or of their own self-worth. By having them help with the upkeep of this school, they learn something about responsibility, about dedication and about the value of work. They learn to respect those who do work, and so to respect themselves. They learn to appreciate this school, and their homes as well. A little floor wax is a small price to pay for the remarkable improvement in these girls' attitudes."

"Bulls- Horsefeathers! You use every cheapskate trick to keep from paying everything except the most rudimentary expenses, and then you have all those 'fund-raising benefits'. Miss Wilks, you pinch your pennies until Lincoln bleeds. And I just want the money that I'm owed."

"Well, Mister Hastings, I'll have you know that I've done some checking up on you as well! You're a financial jackal, who rips apart companies that can't defend themselves! I wonder what the Securities Exchange Commission would find if they started poking around in your affairs!"

I found a comfortable chair - not an easy thing in that room - and dragged it to a spot where the sun wasn't in my eyes, but still in hers. I settled myself in and regarded her with a smile. "Go ahead! Make the phone call! But it won't do you any good. You see, Miss Wilks, I conduct my business in a rigidly legal and ethical manner. This is because I specialize in taking down crooks and bullies; the only way to handle weasels like that is to be scrupulously honest."

"You! Scrupulous! Honest! HA! I'd be surprised if you ever kept less than three sets of books in your life!"

I widened my grin. "Miss Wilks, the SEC went through my affairs with a fine toothed comb not three months ago. Not only didn't they find anything wrong, the auditors admitted that I maintained the highest standard of ethics.

"BUT, since you raise the topic of the SEC, let me say that you wouldn't do too well if they got interested in you. You have a very interesting investment record - you have a history of investing at just the right time in companies that have officers that are members of your Boards of Governors and Trustees. And of selling out, just before similar companies hit the rocks."

She glowered at me from the hollow of her chair. "Get out. Get out of my sight!"

I stayed solid as a rock. "Miss Wilks, in case you're waiting for me to leave so that you can call your good buddies Sheriff Watkins, Judge Halsey and Mayor Hurst, let me warn you of something. Before I came to Rutledge, I left documents concerning the Culpepper Investment Trust. You know, that investing firm that leveraged their funds as to buy out those tech stocks at pre-crash prices? That little debacle profited absolutely no one, except a small investment group consisting of Sheriff Watkins, Judge Halsey, Mayor Hurst - and YOU. So, if I get jailed, or 'shot trying to escape', or even if I have 'an unfortunate accident', you can expect a visit from the FBI. And your old buddy J. Edgar ain't running them anymore. And once the FBI shows up, the SEC will follow, and after that, can the IRS be far behind?"

Mis Wilks sat back in her chair with a fulminating pout. You could almost hear the cogs going around in her head shift gears. She gave me one of those 'if I only had my father's horsewhip' looks, and sighed. "Very well," she grumbled, "let us discuss terms." She rang a small china bell. A hefty, middle-aged black servant came in. "Elisheva, would you brew up a pot of Bittersweet tea? I'm feeling bitter today."

With that, we started haggling in earnest. We were discussing the possibility of her transferring control of one of her shell companies in lieu of actual cash. I was more than willing, but the shell company that I wanted wasn't the one that she was offering. Then the housekeeper - or whatever she was called in this place - came in with the tea. Miss Wilks poured herself a cup, and held the pot over a second cup. "Mister Hastings, will you join me in a cup of Bittersweet tea?"

"No, Miss Wilks."

She shot me another one of her penetrating glares. "It is the civilized thing to do."

"Maybe. But still, I don't think so."

"What's the matter, Mister Hastings? Don't you trust me?"

"No, Miss Wilks, I don't."

"You're insulting, Mister Hastings!"

"And you, Miss Wilks, are a murderer."

"That is slanderous, Mister Hastings!"

I kicked back, took my PDA out of my vest pocket, and scrolled down to the 'Brass Knuckles' file. "Miss Wilks, people who get on the wrong side of you tend very quickly to get very dead. In 1993, the Treasurer of the North Carolina Heritage Foundation questioned your use of Foundation funds to effect repairs to this dump. Not surprising, considering that the NCHF's charter specifically states that funds are to be used for the renovation of historical homes and buildings in North Carolina only. Not to mention the actual state of repairs in this place. She visited, and two days later had a reaction to her PMS medication that triggered a fatal heart attack. I called the coroner in Winston-Salem. He said that the decision of 'Death by Misadventure' was sort of pressed on him by your good friend Congressman Leverett.

"In 1986, the father of one of your students - one Marcus Phillip Royce to be exact - not only pulled his daughter out of your school, but was calling for a review of the financial dealings of the Boards on which he was serving, and had even drawn up papers to divorce his wife! He committed suicide by drinking a poisonous concoction that included a variant of Deadly Nightshade. Though his wife - who was visiting you at the time - swears that the suicide note was written in his handwriting, his business partner says otherwise. He also says that Royce wasn't in a suicidal state of mind. Also, the detective at the scene noted that Mister Royce hadn't taken any of the usual 'Preparations'. It seems that suicides usually do certain things, like people who are going to jump take off their watches and glasses, and leave their wallets on the ledge - things like that. Oh, and Miss Wilks? Isn't 'Bittersweet' a name of a plant that grows in these parts that's a species of Deadly Nightshade?

"In 1973, the Comptroller of the Greater Chevy Chase Bank was making noises about calling in a long overdue note. Then, for no reason, he just stepped out into the middle of the street, where he was run down. The man who hit him just happens to sit on one of your boards, and has a wife and daughter who are alumnae. Ironically, all the witnesses either sit on one of your boards, or work for one of the companies that you control, or are alumnae of this school."

Miss Wilks smirked superiorily. "Mister Hastings, I'm an old woman. When you live long enough, things happen. They may seem strange if you lump them all together, like those people who go looking for conspiracies, and try to somehow link the Kennedy assassination up with the failure of the Edsel."

I smirked back at her. "Old Woman? Please! You're the Godfather in drag!" I checked my PDA again. "In 1931, your predecessor, Miss Clara Glenville - whom everyone knew to be as healthy as a horse - just picked up and died, leaving all her money and holdings, including her controlling interest in the school, to you. You immediately left on a two-year around-the-world trip. Upon your return, to immediately took over as Headmistress, despite the fact that you had only graduated from college just before Miss Glenville's death. Since then, there has been an average of five deaths of students here, from one cause or another, every three years. In each case, the girl was heavily insured, and the benefit was paid either directly to the school, or to a 'charity' that you or one of your flunkies control. Since 1953, you've even gone so far as to start insuring people in the Rutledge area that aren't even connected with the school!"

"So? It's one of our charities. Many people can't afford the payments for decent insurance. Their families need the coverage."

"Oh? Then why do all the people that you so charitably provide coverage for drop dead within six months of getting the insurance? And why is it that the benefits are never paid to the families? I see that while the local insurance agents actually sell you the policies, they make sure that they foist them off on other insurance providers, as far away as possible. That's how I stumbled on that little bit of information - Glen Alderidge, one of your local stooges, is having a hard time getting any of the big providers to take your latest claim." I folded up the PDA and stashed it away. "Miss Wilks, as you say, you're an Old Woman. I doubt that either prison or death really frighten you. _BUT_ I am in a position to start proceedings that would strip away the three things that you really do care about - Your Reputation, Your Power, and Your Money. If I make my findings known, your assets will be seized, your accounts will be frozen and examined with a microscope, your allies will disassociate themselves from you, and this school will be closed down. Your name will become an anathema. Stripped of all that, I'm sure that you will die. And Miss Wilks? I really do hope that there's a Hell, just for you.

"Drink your tea, Miss Wilks? Ma'am, I'm not completely comfortable breathing the same air as you!"

What little pretense of civility vanished. Miss Wilks opened up with a venomous barrage of abuse and accusation. It wasn't anything that I hadn't heard before. Indeed, this is a standard part of my dealing with petty tyrants. They empty out their bags of bullshit mindgames, and I laugh at them.

Finally, she petered out. I stood up and prepared to take my leave. "Miss Wilks, I'm staying at a local hotel. I'll come back tomorrow. I want the preliminary papers on your desk, ready to be signed. Miss Wilks, it all comes down to this - YOU LOSE."

Without waiting for permission to leave, I strode out of the south parlor. I swear that the cannon-bore eyes on those damn portraits were glaring at me. I looked back, and saw Marv standing there, as if he couldn't make up his mind whether to stay or go. "Marv! C'mon! I don't wanna have to stay in this firetrap any longer than I have to!"

Marv caught up to me and followed me out to the limo. George was under the hood of the limo, checking something out. But then, he would be. George loves that car; if I let him, he'd sleep in it. Reluctantly, he stopped fiddling with whatever it was he was fiddling, wiped his hands first the right, then the left, then the right again, all very precisely, and got behind the wheel. As he revved up the engine, he asked, "So, Boss - how'd it go?"

"Y'know, George, sometimes I wonder if I'm really all that different from the assholes that I take down. Then something like this comes along. George, even if there weren't a tanker-load of money involved, I'd still take this bitch down. It's got to be done. She's gotten away with her crap for too long."

Marv looked at me worriedly. "Guy, you mean that you're not going to cut her a deal where she just signs over one of her shell companies?"

I gave Marv another long look. "Marv, are you okay? She didn't slip you any of that Bittersweet tea, did she?" Marv shook his head. "Marv, there's an old California saying - 'Never wound a Grizzly Bear; you either kill it, or you leave it alone'. I have to take her down and get her out of the market. She's too well connected, and her pride's involved. No matter how much it would cost her, she'd get me back. Hell, she'd probably kill me, and try to collect the insurance."

I could feel Marv's discomfort like a bank of smog in the car. I had to get him out of there. That bitch had gotten to him somehow. If I let her, she'd get her claws into him and try to use him against me. But there's no way that could have happened since yesterday. I just had to send him back to Philadelphia and get him out from under her thumb. Once I'd pulled her fangs, and she was just another nasty little old lady, he'd be fine. Time to change the subject. "So, guys - anyone got any ideas of where to go to eat?"

"There are several good restaurants in town."

"Aaahh... Marv- somehow, with Miss Wilks, I'm not really comfortable eating anywhere near where she might have influence."

George perked up. "Hey, Boss - on the way here, I saw an old fashioned burger stand on the road between Rutledge and Stuartsburg. The sign said 'old fashioned ice cream milk shakes'!" George considers himself a connoisseur of junk food, and he's not far wrong on that.

"A suggestion of genius, George! Head out that way, and order yourself the most outrageous banana split that you can come up with, as a bonus for the suggestion!"

'Hubie's Burger Grill' was one of those shoddy little places that manage to survive in the nooks and crannies with which the big franchise places can't be bothered. It was barely a booth with just enough room for the grill and the freezer, and a patio, but it still had a certain funky charm. Especially after the relentless over-cleaned, over-tidied order of the Rutledge Academy. The burgers were thick and juicy, the fries were good and greasy, the shakes were - as advertised - real ice cream, and George ordered himself a concoction that looked like Willy Wonka threw up. I thought that the bad food binge would help get Marv out of his funk, but if anything, he was strung tighter than the F string on a new fiddle. George gave a mock 'restaurant critic review', giving it 4& ½  burps, deducting a half-burp because the onion rings didn't have a bar-b-q option.

With lunch stowed away, we piled into the limo and made for the hotel. I'd start putting out feelers as to Miss Wilks reactions as soon as we got to our rooms. I don't really trust cell phones - it's too easy to tap into a frequency. Give me land lines for the sensitive stuff. Then I felt my stomach turn itself into a knot.

I doubled over with pain, I heard George call out 'Boss!', and then almost throw up himself. I felt the limo pull over with a jerk. I felt Marv feel my forehead and neck. Then I heard the limo doors opening and shutting. The engine turned over again, and we were moving again. I yelled out, "Marv! Head straight for Washington! I don't want to be taken to any hospital at which that bitch Wilks has any friends!" It would take a couple of more hours, but it would be worth it to be safe.

As we drove along, I tried to get my mind off my stomach by figuring out how that bitch had managed to pull this one off. I hadn't eaten or drunk anything at her place, and there was no way that she could have known that we'd go to the other side of town to eat at Hubie's. Then it hit me - her cigarette smoke. It was probably laced with something. Jeez, I'd meant the crack about not feeling safe even breathing around her as a joke! It was probably mixed with something in that stupid tea of hers to create this poison. Probably a common local herb or spice, which Hubie used in his burgers or fries. But Miss Wilks had made a mistake - it had been the better part of an hour since George and I-

Wait a minute.

George wasn't in that stupid room with me. Marv was. Marv got just as much of that smoke in his lungs as I had, and he's driving the car...

I forced myself to sit up and look out the window. We were driving through Rutledge. But we'd been between Rutledge and Washington when George and I first felt the poison... So we were driving in the other direction... Back toward the Rutledge Academy... And Miss Wilks...

It was Marv. Somehow, Marv had snuck something into our food when we'd stopped at Hubie's. It wouldn't have been easy, we hadn't been paying any attention. Somehow Wilks had gotten her hooks into Marv. But _How_? It had been barely two days! Marv had been with me for years! We had a bond! If he wanted out of his job, I'd have let him go, no problem! He knew that! So why is he doing this?

I broke off that train of thought, when I realized what Wilks must be up to. She gave us a slow acting, very painful poison. She'd use the promise of an antidote and other curatives to sweat the name of the lawyers that I'd left my evidence with out of me. And then, since she's the kind of greedy bitch who never let an opportunity to get a little more money slip through her fingers, she'd sweat the numbers of my accounts and PIN numbers out of me, too. Okay, Wilks, you're slicker than I thought. But then, I'm slicker than you could ever imagine.

Breathing hard to keep my focus, I pulled out my PDA and linked it up to my satellite phone. Normally, as I said, I prefer land-lines for this kind of thing, but needs must be met as the devil drives. Carefully, I punched in the code-sequence for 'Amscray'. I waited a few minutes, and my phone showed me the responses. I had just automatically transferred all my liquid assets to pre-arranged accounts in Switzerland, Portugal, the Bahamas, Hong Kong and Singapore. My static assets would require my signature to release them. And Gordon Hawley, the lawyer that I'd left the evidence with, was recieving an E-mail to give the authorities the goods on Wilks. Bitch, you just pulled the trigger on the gun that was aimed at your own head. With the last of my strength, I hit the sequence to wipe the memories of the PDA and the cell phone. Then I passed out in the back seat of the limo.

I smelled something harsh and acrid. The smell roused me out from my stupor. I shook my head to get the stench out of my nostrils. My eyes came into focus. I was back in Wilks' office, looking into the glare of the afternoon sun. I could tell that I was seated in a low-backed chair, with my hands and feet lashed to the chair. I barely managed to make out Wilks sitting calmly in her chair. A hand pulled the smelling salts away.

Wilks said smugly, "Well, you're awake."

I worked the kinks out of my tongue and managed to say, "Y'know, Wilks, I really thought you were smarter than this. Didn't I tell you that I'd left a nasty little package back in civilization? Even if you kill me and bury me in the rose garden or something, my disappearance is gonna cause you more problems than _I_ ever did! I named you as the prime suspect if I just upped and vanished."

If anything, Wilks' voice was even smugger. "That has been taken care of."

Then I heard a snarl of frustration. I heard Marv off to the side. "There's a problem, Miss Wilks. His PDA is empty."

"His what?"

"His Personal Data Assistant. It's like an electronic notebook and Rolodex and personal calendar combined."

"So what? A useless electronic gadget. Why would we need it in the first place?"

"Miss Wilks, Guy didn't just keep his dentist appointments and phone numbers in here - he keeps all kinds of important financial data in there, especially the file numbers and passwords for his secured files. Knowing Guy, if we try to access those files without exactly the right password within three tries, the computer will execute some kind of elaborate scrambling program. If we don't get it just right the first time, we'd have to send in an expert data programmer to untangle it all, and even then it'd be iffy."

I couldn't help but grin. "That's not all, Marv, you gutless backstabbing worm! While you were driving, I managed to initiate an automated transfer of all my funds to accounts overseas, and tied up all my physical assets too. In order to get all that out of the tangle that I just put them in, I'll have to show up in person to sign papers clearing it all up. Marv, if Miss Grundy over there promised you all my worldly goods in exchange for selling me out, then you screwed up even worse than I thought! Y'see, there's a lot of people who are gonna be real put out when my arrangements don't come off as planned. They're gonna want to know where I _am_. And the last place I was known to have been going was _here_."

Wilks made a dismissive noise. "Fiddle-faddle! He's talking through his hat! There's no way he could have done that."

Marv sounded worried. "No, he could have done that, and knowing Guy, he would have done it."

Wilks just made a harrumph and said, "This changes nothing. You'll just have to work harder for your money, that's all, Mister Cameron. All it means is that we can't waste time shilly-shallying around. Well, Mister Cameron, you've held up your end of our bargain. Now it's time for me to hold up mine."

She rang that stupid bell again, and that housekeeper, or whatever she's called, brought in another pot of tea. She put the pot down, and then she helped Marv pull my head back. With an expertise born of considerable practice, she lodged a wooden wedge between my back teeth to keep my jaws open.

Wilks got up out of her chair and picked up the teapot. "Mister Hastings, you refused my offer of tea before. You won't be so rude as to refuse me this time." She walked over and carefully poured the tea down my open throat.

I struggled, gasped, choked and coughed. Wilks calmly walked back to her chair and settled in. She gestured, and the housekeeper wheeled me - apparently, I was tied to a wheelchair - closer to her chair. She reached out her left arm and laid her hand on my shoulder. Then she closed her eyes and canted her head back. Many long minutes later, she opened her mouth wide. It was like the top half of her head was on a hinge and she just opened up. Then a large, glossy black spider slowly crawled out of her mouth.

The spider crawled down her chin, over her shoulder and down her arm to her hand. It crawled over my shoulder and up my neck. It was cold. Nothing living should be that cold. I tried to struggle and shake, but Marv and the hefty housekeeper held me still. I could feel its prickly legs as it moved over my skin, past my chin and it gingerly stepped into my mouth. I tried to move my tongue to push the damn thing out, but it wasn't moving. I even tried vomiting - which should have been my natural reaction as it walked down my throat - but again, nothing was happening.

I could feel it picking its way down my throat and deep into me. I felt it latch onto something, something I couldn't name. I felt that something come loose and slowly be dragged out. I knew that something was very wrong inside me, and wasn't likely to be made right anytime soon. Some vital part of me was gone, and that damned spider was dragging it out. I couldn't feel any bleeding, and my heart was still beating steadily - if frantically.

I felt the spider crawl out of my mouth, down my chin and across my shoulder. The housekeeper let my head go, and I twisted to see the spider crawling across Miss Wilks' arm. It was carrying a large golden moth in its jaws. It was mostly still, but it occasionally gave a brief flutter of its wings. I knew it would have been frantically beating its wings if it could.

The spider crawled back into Miss Wilks' mouth, taking the moth with it. A few minutes after it disappeared down Wilks' throat, she closed her mouth and opened her eyes. She smiled a dry, smug smile and stood up. She walked over to a cabinet and took something from it. It was a tall eight-sided glass and brass filigree - Jar? Cage? Bottle? I could just barely see a bright flickering inside the cage. She pulled a small brass tube up from the top of the cage. She reached into her mouth and pulled out that poor, still golden moth. She looked at it for a moment, then placed the moth in the tube, and pushed the tube back into the cage. I knew somehow, that the moth was now inside the cage, with God only knows how many others.

Wilks put the cage back in the cabinet with an air of finally putting something aright.

Then she turned back to me. "Now, for the next part. Elisheva, go to my medicine cabinet and bring me the green phial." The servant padded out silently, and a few minutes later returned with a small clear bottle filled with a dark green liquid. Wilks took the bottle and filled the glass dropper built into the lid with a measured dose of the liquid. She put one drop each in my eyes, each nostril, and my ears. Each orifice burned with the touch of the drops. Then she refilled the dropper and dropped the entire load down my throat. It was like my belly was on fire, and the fire was spreading out to every part of my body. "Take him to the Black Room."

The servant took the wooden wedge out of my mouth and wheeled me out of the room. She took me up a rickety looking elevator up to the third floor, and then wheeled me down the hall to a door. She unlocked the seven locks on the door and wheeled me in. Behind the door was an eight-sided room, maybe ten or fifteen feet across, all painted in flat black. There was no window and not even a switch on the wall for a light. She positioned me in the exact center of the room. Then she unlashed my feet, and undressed me from the waist down. Then she refastened my straps and repeated the process with the upper part of my body. The best that I could do in resisting her was writhing around, and I didn't have any real control over that. The servant folded up my clothes and stood by the door holding them. After a bit, Miss Wilks showed up at the door, impatiently flipping through a magazine.

"Good Gracious, you'd think that there'd be at least one that would fit the bill..." Then she found something that suited her. "Oh! That's not bad. But the picture's all wrong. Lambert!"

"Yes, Miss Wilks?"

"Go look through all the girls' magazines of about, oh, five years ago, and bring me all the pictures that you can of this Christina Ricci (she pronounced it REES-ee) person. Well? What are you waiting for? I haven't got all day!" Lambert skittered off to find the magazines. Wilks turned to the servant. "Elisheva, take those clothes to Mister Cameron. He's in the Senatorial Guest Suite. Oh, and then help Lester with his chore."

Several minutes later, Lambert came back in carrying an armload of magazines. They began leafing through them. Finally, Wilks found something that met her needs. "Well! Not perfect, but it will have to do." She tore the picture out, folded the edges smooth, and slipped it into an empty picture frame set on the wall.

While she was doing that, Lambert clipped a light onto the back of my chair so that it shone its light on the picture. As a final touch, Wilks put a small brass incense burner on the floor beside me, filled it and lit the incense. A pungent aroma slowly filled the small room, but didn't obscure my sight of the picture on the wall. Then she left, closing the door and leaving me in complete and utter darkness, except for the spot of light on the wall, which made the picture of Christina Ricci the only thing that I could see. The door shut, without even a bar of light under the door, and I heard the seven locks click shut, each in turn.

The picture on the wall was the only thing there was to look at in that room. Almost against my will, I found myself looking at it, taking in every detail of the from-the-waist-up photograph. Slowly, inexorably, it began to take up more and more of my attention. I wasn't studying it; it was simply filling every bit of my awareness. My sense of reality became blurred. Things became indistinct, all except that goddamn picture. I started to forget who I was, what my name was, what I did, what my own face looked like. Time lost all its meaning. I had a strange sense of reality becoming plastic and malleable, of my own body losing its definition and consistency. And it all went on and on and on...

God himself only knows for sure how much later I was stirred from my trance by the sound of the first lock turning on the door. By the time the seventh lock turned, I was still groggy, but what attention that I could muster was firmly set on that goddamn door. It opened, and Miss Wilks walked in. She made a face, and fanned the air away from her face, as if beset by a horrible smell. She came over and looked intently at my face, as she would if she inspecting a melon that she wasn't sure that she wanted to buy. Then she started poking my body, starting with my neck and working her way down. There was something very wrong about the way that I felt when she did that.

She nodded, as if satisfied. Not pleased, but satisfied. "Elisheva, cover her and get her into her room."

The hefty servant came in with a blanket and covered me with it. Then she wheeled me out of the black room and over to the elevator. She took me down a floor and then out into the hall. As we were coming out of the elevator, I saw a man come out of one of the rooms. He was tall, athletically trim and darkly handsome. He had a long face with regular features, a straight nose, and a strong jaw. His clothes, while well-tailored, looked like he'd slept in them. As he was adjusting his tie and watch, he saw the servant wheeling me along. A look of stunned recognition crossed his face, but he covered quickly. Miss Wilks walked up, and was uncharacteristically pleasant to him. She looked up at him and said, "Well, Mister Hastings, how was your night?"

He gave a mild chuckle and said, "Rough, Miss Wilks, very rough. But after a good sleep, I feel like a new man."

I couldn't place the voice, but it was somehow familiar. Then, as the servant was wheeling me out of the front part of the building into one of the back wings, I suddenly recognized him.

He was ME.

I woke up in a bed. I couldn't place where I was, but I was overjoyed to have woken up from that hideous nightmare. That awful woman, the spider crawling down my throat, someone else walking around in my body - I wondered what I'd eaten to get a dream like that!

Then I pulled the sheets down, and got a look at my body!

I was small, maybe five foot two or three. If I weighed more than a hundred pounds then I was very compact. I was wearing a long, linen nightshirt - or nightgown. I looked at my hands. They were dainty girl's hands that I would have been able to completely wrap my old hands around. I tried to bolt out of the bed, but my legs weren't having any of it. I collapsed to the floor as they folded under me.

I hauled my self to my feet, and forced my legs to be steady. I was as unsteady as a newborn colt as I wobbled around the room. I struggled to the mirror over the dresser. I was so short that my chin barely reached over the top of the dresser. The face that I saw peering back at me wasn't mine. I flashed back to the insanity that had happened yesterday. Miss Wilks was real, not a nightmare image. She was some kind of witch; that must be how she managed to keep so many people under her power. A deft combination of greed, secrecy, blackmail, murder, fear and the darkest sorcery was what kept her little empire running. That thought brought a lot of things into place. She could steal the very identities of anyone that crossed her, and give it to someone who obeyed her.

I wondered who the guy who was walking around looking like me was. Then I remembered; he was wearing my dark blue Brooks Brothers suit, with the metallic gray silk tie. That was what I'd been wearing yesterday. That is, until that housekeeper had stripped me. What was it that Wilks had told her? 'Elisheva, take those clothes to Mister Cameron. He's in the Senatorial Guest Suite. Oh, and then help Lester with his chore.' Marv? Was that what she'd promised him? Not only my money, but everything I had, even my reputation?

Then something clicked into place. I've never been what you'd call a 'golden boy', the type for whom everything comes easy: sports, school, social life, girls, like that. But some people thought that I was. Y'see, I'm a hump-buster. I see what I want, I plan for it and I keep working at it until I get it. By going an extra mile and a half, I not only kept up with the Golden Boys, but I passed them, because I had real endurance and discipline, which they didn't. Marv, on the other hand, is one of those guys who have to go an extra two miles just to come in dead last. He could go to a gym and work out from sun-up to sundown for a year and still walk out a shrimp. In his social life, he's the kind who couldn't break into a conversation on a chat room. And girls? Well, Marv couldn't pick up a weedy little wallflower if he were the only guy at a singles' dance. Wilks somehow sold him on the idea that not only would she make him look like me, but she'd somehow pass along that 'magical something' that he thought that I had.

Well, there went my emergency flare. Marv knew about Gordon Hawley, and had probably called him immediately to get him to hold off on sending that evidence to the authorities. Now that he looks and sounds like me, he can tell Gordon to send the evidence to him - and from there to an incinerator.

Dammit, Marv, it isn't bad enough that you have to sell both your soul and me, but you have to sell us for a pig in a poke? Wilks can't give you that edge you want. And, even if she could - after this, who am I to say what she can and can't do? - she never would. You don't muzzle one wolf, just to set another wolf free. Nope, Marv, no matter what she sold you, it ain't gonna be what she delivers. You screwed yourself over just as royally as you did me.

I looked hard in the mirror at the face I now had. I looked to be young, maybe sixteen or seventeen, with a pale delicacy that hinted at maybe even younger. The hair was jaw-length, straight and midnight black, enhancing the delicacy of my face. I remembered what Wilks had told Lambert about getting a picture of Christina Ricci. I tried to remember what she looked like from the few pictures of her that I'd seen. The face was like hers, but not exactly like hers. It was the same basic shape, but the nose was sharper, the chin was stronger and the cheekbones were higher. I lacked the high vaulting forehead, and I think my eyes larger. The harder I look, the more I think that I can see some of my old face in there, like my face would show up in my daughter's face.

Daughter.

I reached under the nightgown and felt my groin. Nothing. Just a hairless slit. I ran a finger over the lips, and shuddered with the sensation.

Female. I was female. The bitch had taken everything!

My reality check bounced, but bad. I went catatonic for a while there. The next thing I knew, I was being shaken by the shoulders. "Valerie! Snap out of it." Then I felt a sharp slap on my face.

I shook my head, getting my bearings again. It was Lambert, Wilks' flunky. She was standing over me, glowering down at me. "Well, it's about time you got up, Miss Ramsden! You may be used to getting up at whatever time you were good and ready, but at the Rutledge Academy, we have regular hours that you will keep!"

            Hunh? Miss Ramsden? "What the hell are you talking about, Lambert?"

Lambert gave me a wide arcing slap that knocked me back on the bed. "Ten Demerits for not getting up on time! Five Demerits for being familiar! And Twenty Demerits for swearing! That's thirty-five demerits on your first day, Miss Ramsden! That's not a very promising start to your stay here! Now get dressed, you've already missed your first class, which is another Fifteen Demerits! That's Fifty Demerits, Miss Ramsden! Are you trying for a record for the most Demerits earned on your first day?"

As if she were guiding the simpleminded, Lambert guided me through getting dressed in the school uniform - a plaid skirt, a white linen blouse with a lace edged collar, a droopy tie, a solid red vest, a matching blazer with the school crest on it, knee socks, and low black shoes. I looked like an extra on The Facts of Life. Fortunately, I'd had a little experience with brassieres (from the other side), so I managed to get that on without too many problems. A hundred strokes of a hairbrush, and Lambert said that I was ready to meet the 'other' girls. Thank God, they didn't allow the girls to wear makeup at this place. That and the rules against the students wearing high heels are practically the only breaks that I ever got at that place.

Once I was 'presentable', Lambert marched me down the hall and introduced me to a roomful of post-pubescent dominatrixes in training as 'Valerie Ramsden', who was supposed to be a 'transfer student' from a school in the west. From the ripple of amusement that ran through the classroom, I got the distinct impression that at this school, 'transfer student' was a euphemism for 'fresh meat'.

I thought the fact that I'd graduated with an MBA from a well thought of school would give me a little breathing room. It didn't. The Rutledge Academy was very big on the more frou-frou aspects of the Humanities, about which I knew exactly dick. And what advantage I did have, in regards History, Math, Grammar and the Sciences, just meant that I had more free time to spend working off those demerits.

You see, the way that the Demerit System worked was that different chores got different values attached to them: comparatively pleasant chores like doing a little light weeding in the garden were worth One or Two demerits; the real work jobs like laundry and vacuuming, were worth Four or Five demerits; the nastier jobs like scouring out the toilets and scrubbing pots and pans were worth a whopping Ten points. If the instructors liked you, you got to choose whether you'd spend a long time whittling away at your Demerit Total doing light chores, or take on the really heavy chores to get the Demerits out of the way. If not, you usually got assigned whatever needed doing the most. I was on a first name basis with every toilet in that ramshackle dump by the end of the week.

To add humiliation to hard labor, Demerit Totals were printed up on a board, and the girl with the most demerits on Friday nights was 'crowned' as the 'Demerit Queen'. Guess who had to wear a tacky paper 'crown' all Friday night? Of course, a girl who had even one Demerit couldn't go into town, or play the piano or enjoy any other diversions.

And just to make things absolutely perfect, there was this double standard that said that while it was wrong to make some other girl do the work while you took the credit for it, it was worse to snitch her out for doing it. And of course, trying to keep anything a secret from Miss Lambert was worth beaucoup Demerits. Let's not even talk about Miss Wilks.

Of course, since I was the 'new girl' as well as the 'Demerit Queen', I was the butt of everyone's jokes. This position at the absolute bottom of the pecking order was only reinforced when Miss Wilks made me her special project. Once a day, she would call me into her office and spend the better part of an hour telling me over and over again, what a stupid, lazy, ungrateful, selfish, clumsy, spiteful brat I was. She would just keep drilling into me all these imagined faults, over and over. But I had an edge in this battle, if only this battle - I knew what she was trying to do. She was trying to wear me down. But I knew that it was all a lie, and that she could only win if I let her win. I would just sit there, and let the abuse wash over me without getting under my skin. Every day, I'd walk out with another Ten Demerits for 'Obstreperous Attitude'. Odd thing is, I actually came to welcome these sessions, because when I'd leave, I feel this rush of triumph. In this one arena, I was winning, and the dreaded Miss Wilks was losing. That feeling of victory, along with the satisfaction of imagining Wilks' frustration was all that was keeping me going.

In the middle of my second week as an involuntary student at the Rutledge Academy, I was pulled off scouring the pans from breakfast to go to Miss Wilks' office. At Rutledge, this is a bit like being told to go straight to the Gas Chamber, and be quick about it, or things will be even worse! I pulled my hair from the net that I had to wear, and took off the gloves, but left the apron on. As I left, I noticed Elisheva, the cook and Miss Wilks' personal servant, taking a swig of something. But I got the impression that it wasn't booze.

I walked down that hallway again, and I still got that creepy feeling that the eyes in those god-awful paintings were glaring at me. I was about to knock, but the door opened just as my knuckles were about to hit. Miss Lambert let me in. The office was curtained into darkness again, and what light there was, was obscured by Wilks' damn cigarette smoke.

Not being in a position where I could open the curtains this time, I just stood there and waited for my eyes to get used to the gloom. It was early for my daily verbal abuse session, but maybe Wilks had plans for that evening - a Satanic Mass, or something. Then from out of the gloom, came Wilk's iron-edged voice. "Miss Ramsden, your Guardian is here. Your antics are causing him great distress."

Guardian? She's muscled one of her lickspittles into being my guardian? As my mind raced trying to map out the implications of that, I peered around the room to see who she'd gotten to be the pigeon. Tuitions at this dump weren't cheap, and neither were the life insurance policies. Finally, I saw someone seated in one of the chairs.

"Hello, Valerie." It took me a second to recognize the voice as my own. It was Marv, walking around in my clothes, trying to look like me, and not quite pulling it off.

"Hello, Marv." I just barely managed to bite off a laugh, but I couldn't keep the grin off my face.

"Marv? Is that some kind of joke?"

"Oh, it _is_, Marv - a very bad joke. But what's funny is that the joke is more on you than it is on me!"

Marv straightened his - or should I say, My - tie, and turned to Miss Wilks. "Ah, Miss Wilks, could I have a few minutes alone with Valerie?"

Wilks gave a saccharine mockery of a smile. "Oh, of course, Mister Hastings! Lambert!" Miss Lambert scampered in, anxious to be of service. "Show Mister Hastings and his ward to the Front Parlor."

The Front Parlor was open, sunny, airy, and - for this dreary pile - cheery. When Lambert left us, Marv turned to me and smiled benignly. "Now, Valerie..."

"Shove it up your Ass, Marv. Get me the fuck _out_ of here!"

"I can't _do_ that, Valerie. Among other problems, it seems that somebody moved all my liquid assets to unnamed accounts abroad, and has tied up my physical assets in ways that require that I produce passwords that _I don't have_!"

"Oh, dear!" I replied with utterly unconvincing, wide eyed ingenuity. "Now, Who could have done such a thing?"

"Dammit, Valerie, this isn't funny! You have a lot of enemies out there, and they're starting to get the idea that I'm in some kind of trouble! It won't be long until the sharks start circling. If I go down, then I can't protect you any longer, Valerie!"

"Oh, you've been protecting me, Marv? First I've heard of it!" I snickered. "What's the matter, Marv? Heavy lies the head that wears the crown? Being a bigshot Wall Street wolf not as easy as you thought it would be?"

He picked me up by the shoulders and shook me. "God DAMN IT, VALERIE! What are the PASSWORDS?"

I looked him right in the eye with a glare that could have frozen Miami in August. "Oh? I'm supposed to just give you the _one thing_ that's keeping me alive? I'm supposed to trust you to keep sending Wilks the tuition money, so that she can keep using me as an unpaid scullery maid, instead of killing me for insurance money? I didn't become a multi-millionaire by making loser deals like _that_, Marv. Now here's what's gonna go down - you are going to arrange a fifteen million dollar Trust Fund for your ward, Valerie Ramsden, to be made completely available to me when I turn twenty-one. You will _not_ be named Trustee or Executor of that Fund. The Executors of that fund will be... oh, let's see now... Marcy Finson and Sarah Brandt - they're stand-up broads. Then, I will tell you the locations of the funds and give you the passwords to which will move the funds. Then, you will transfer me _out_ of this dump, and into a girls' school that isn't run by a God Damned _WITCH_! When I am safely enrolled in whatever snobitorium that you find - I want something nice and safe in New England; Vermont or New Hampshire would be best, she doesn't have any contacts there - then I will give you the procedures and passwords that will unfreeze the physical assets."

"You're asking for a lot, Valerie."

"You took _Everything_, Marv. I walked into this firetrap a multi-millionaire; I am not going to walk out Little Orphan Annie!"

"There's a small problem, Valerie - thanks to your 'arrangements', I don't have fifteen million to put into a Trust Fund!"

I smiled sweetly. "So borrow the money from your good buddy, Miss Wilks!"

Marv all but broke out into a sweat. "Miss Wilks?... I ... don't think that that's such a good idea."

I grinned evilly at him. "What's the matter, Marv? Did you suddenly realize what you cut a deal with? Admit it, Marv - you want to get the fuck _out_ of this mess as badly as _I_ do. But, at this point, I can't trust you to not just take the money and run, leaving me in this over-furnished spider's web. Cut the deal, Marv - you already sold your soul to her, why not take out a second mortgage on it?" With that, I left the parlor, and went to finish scrubbing the pots for dinner.

Strangely, my life took a remarkable turn for the better after that - all my Demerits mysteriously disappeared, Miss Wilks stopped calling me into her office for those daily verbal abuse sessions, and I actually had time to myself for a change. I knew that this was - Wilks, setting me up. She wanted me to relax and feel like I'd won. Then, when she had Marv put my name on whatever document that she was planning, she'd swoop down and do something horrible, to get me to sign over control of the Trust Fund to her. It would be just her style, to try to get control over as much of my - or should I say, Marv's - money as possible, while keeping control over the money that she was supposed to be loaning him.

I resisted the urge to kick back, relax and enjoy the peace. That was what Wilks wanted me to do. Instead, I took advantage of the - comparative - tranquility to get an idea of how the place was set up. What really struck me was something that I'd noticed at the very first; the place was hopelessly outdated. The wiring was antiquated; the plumbing was absurd (the girls had pitchers and basins in their rooms with which wash their hands. They filled the pitchers from taps in the bathrooms), and as for communications, forget it. No TV, no radio, no Internet connection, no fax and a grand total of three telephones. Trips into town were closely controlled. I wasn't sure whether Wilks was intentionally strictly isolating the students from the outside world, or if she just didn't like modern technology. Maybe she didn't understand modern technology. Maybe she couldn't understand modern technology.

Admittedly, the freedom from the distractions of TV and the other modern media sort of forced the students to concentrate on the traditional pastimes: reading books, making their own music, conversation, parlor games and like that. It's sad to say, but it seems that only boredom will compel the average American girl to literacy.

Not that I was drawn into any of this; while the stink of Miss Wilks' disapproval had lifted, I was still very much the 'new girl' and an outcast. I was kept out of casual conversations, and I could tell that I was the subject of a lot of speculation. I noticed one girl, a slight, plain looking redhead, who watched me a lot, as if she were trying to make up her mind about something. What little I saw of her, she was also something of an outcast. Maybe she was trying to decide whether to wait until she was accepted by an in-group, or risk forming a 'pariah's bond' with me. I thought about forcing the issue - I need a second set of eyes and ears, and God knows I could have used the company.

When the time came, Lambert came and took me to Miss Wilks' office. Once again, the place was all darkness and murk. Marv was there, looking rather happy with himself. "Well, Valerie, it's all set up. The money is ready and the papers are all drawn up. Now, where are the funds that you hid?"

"Let me see the papers."

"What?"

"I want to see the documents. I want to sit down and read them. Only when _I_ am satisfied, do you get what you need to move the funds."

"Valerie, I assure you..."

"Oh, Please! Do you honestly think that I trust anybody in this room any further than I can drop kick them? Let me see the papers, you back-stabbing scumbag!"

Marv handed me papers that would form the Trust Fund. I went over to the window, raised the shade, and opened the window to let some air in. Then I settled myself in a comfortable chair, and started reading as the 'grown-ups' glowered at me.

"Okay... Let's see now." <riffle> "Uh- hunh. Very good. So far, so good-" <peruse> "Ah-Hah!" <delete> "Oh, did you honestly think that I wouldn't spot that?" <scratch out> Oh, who do you think you're kidding? <amend> "Now where did you get that, an old episode of Perry Mason?" <tear out, wad up and throw in wastebasket> "Okay, so much for the first read through..." <start over at page One>  "Oh, I didn't spot that the first time around!"

Finally, I handed Marv a much shorter document than the one he'd handed me. "Okay, when I see a notarized copy of that document, signed by both Finson and Brandt, and witnessed by the notaries at their firms - and I know the notaries at their firms - then I'll give you the passwords." I gave him a dismissive smile. "Until then, have fun living on the credit cards."

With that, I flounced out of the office. Suckers!

Three days later, when Marv handed me an unamended version of the Trust Fund charter that I'd okayed, with the signatures and notarizations that I had asked for, I gave him what he thought he wanted. "Okay, Marv, go to Alvin H. Gardner at the brokerage firm of Shelly, Byron & Coleridge and ask for the account of 'E. Dantes'; the password is 'Le monde c'est mois'. I'm sure that Miss Wilks will recognize it from 'The Count of Monte Cristo'.

Miss Wilks sniffed at the plebeian literary reference. I'm sure she would have preferred something from Balzac, Schiller or Flaubert.

"Everything is automated from there. No signatures, no authorizations, no notarizations, no nothing. I set up the 'E. Dantes' account protocol in case one of my projects backfired badly, and I needed a place to stash my assets in a place where they wouldn't get frozen or confiscated. And you know how the SEC is about fancy maneuvers like that, so I also had the computer geek build in a function where everything would return to normal in a quiet, 'business as usual' way. The right password, and it would take a battalion of CPAs to prove that I'd done anything."

Marv looked at me as if he were hurt. "Why didn't you tell me about it? I was your right-hand Man!"

"Two reasons - One, you don't build a secret door and then tell everyone about it; Two, if you didn't know about it, then you couldn't testify to it."

When I left Miss Wilks' office, I found that I had mysteriously gained a Hundred Demerits. Still, Miss Wilks didn't start up her 'special sessions' again, and that was a relief.

About a week later, I was working off the very last of my Demerits by cleaning the outsides of the windows on the third story. The hard way, hanging halfway out of the window, without a net. Suddenly, a pair of hands grabbed me and pulled me in. I was stunned to recognize George! I started to say something, when he grabbed me by the hair and started to frog-march me down the hall. "George! What are you doing?"

"Shut up, bitch!"

"George! George, it's me! Guy Hastings!"

"I said, SHUT UP, BITCH!" He slammed me upside my head with his free hand.

Okay, something's seriously wrong here. George may not be some quiche-eating 'Mister Sensitive' type, but he has very definite ideas about how you treat women, let alone little girls. He wouldn't hurt a girl, not even if I ordered him to. Well, maybe if she had a gun and had just put a bullet in him, but even then, he'd feel bad about it.

This wasn't George. He looked like George. He sounded like George. God knows he had George's strength and bulk, but he wasn't George.

Then I remembered what Wilks had said to her servant as they were leaving me in that goddamned eight-sided room: "Elisheva, take those clothes to Mister Cameron. He's in the Senatorial Guest Suite. Oh, and then help Lester with his chore." Of course. Marv couldn't fool George for a minute. Besides, George would know something was up, because Marv had poisoned him, too. And it would seem strange if 'Guy Hastings' just came back from Rutledge alone, with both Marv and George mysteriously gone. So, Miss Wilks got Lester - whoever the hell Lester was - to take George's form.

That meant that George was around here somewhere, in another form. That was the best news that I'd gotten in weeks. Even being dragged into Wilks' office by 'Lester' here couldn't take the shine off that piece of good news. Lester half-dragged me down the stairs to the first floor and into Miss Wilks' office. For once, the place wasn't choked with cigarette smoke. I could plainly see Marv pacing agitatedly to and fro, and Miss Wilks sitting in her chair, looking like the Judge of the Damned. When Lester all but dropped me in the middle of the room, Marv stopped pacing and snarled at me. He shook a sheaf of computer paper at me. "Is this some kind of sick Joke?"

I smirked. "WowDeja Vu, all over again! Y'know, Marv, that was almost exactly what I said when I first saw you wearing my face!"

"You know what happened when I went to Shelly, Byron & Coleridge and gave them the password to the 'E. Dantes' account, do you? An automated protocol was triggered, all right- one that processed FIVE separate and distinct mortgages for each and every piece of property that I own!"

"You mean, for every piece of property that _I_ own, don'cha, Marv?"

"And THEN all the proceeds of those loans were automatically shuttled through more Internet accounts than even _Bill Gates_ could keep track of, and then - knowing you - deposited in yet more offshore bank accounts! Dammit, Valerie, that's Illegal!"

I shrugged nonchalantly. "And what's this to me? You're the one that's gonna havta explain all of this to the SEC, not me." I looked him straight in the eye. "Marv, even if I could trust you to transfer me out of this blue-blood's reform school - which I didn't - I knew I could never trust Wilks over there to let me out from under her thumb. Marv, she never lets anyone out from under her thumb. It's against whatever passes for a religion with her. Not me, not you, not George, not Lester, not Lambert - nobody. Even the girls who graduate from this place are still firmly under her thumb, no matter where they go, no matter what they do. Hell, I doubt anybody who's come under her gaze is even safe from her in the grave." At this, Wilks made a snort that might have been what passed for a chuckle with her.

"Since I knew that I'd go right back on the rack after you got the money - that is, if she hasn't arranged for my life insurance yet - I decided to arrange for a life for myself after I get out of here. That's what the Trust Fund was all about. And, I know that I'm going to survive to get out of here. I took out an insurance policy of my own. Y'see, the day that I gave you the bogus password, I sent letters to Marcy Finson and Sarah Brandt."

Miss Wilks snorted. "HAH! It's a bluff! I monitor all the letters that leave this school! She has never even been allowed letter writing materials!"

"Of course not! I got the stamps and envelopes by snitching the letters that Janet Ennis and Nichole Cordell had written home and bleaching off the addresses. I slipped them into the outgoing mail. I told Finson and Brandt that I was shocked to find out that Guy Hastings had been made my Guardian, especially since my 'father' and Mr. Hastings were deadly rivals. I told them of the strange circumstances of the disappearances of both my parents. No Death Certificate, no Coroner's Inquest, no funeral - it was as if they had never existed! Then I told them of the strange nature of the Trust Fund that you had set up for me. I suggested that you might be using me as some kind of front or laundry for illegal funds. While only a simple schoolgirl, I could never explain in exact terms what I thought was wrong, I was sure that savvy experienced businesswomen such as they are would be able to find out what you were up to. I also mentioned my concern at being enrolled at this strange school. I sent them the names of the girls who have died here mysteriously, and the fates of the people who have meddled in Miss Wilks' affairs. I also sent them Polaroids of me, courtesy of Sherry Randall's camera."

Wilks gave a dismissive smirk. "So what? The paranoid delusions of an overly romantic girl, who is still distraught over the loss of her parents, and holds an irrational grudge against her legally appointed Guardian. I doubt that they even bothered to finish reading the letters before tossing them in the trash, where they belonged."

I laughed out loud. "Wrong! You obviously don't know either Finson or Brandt! There are five things that you should know about them: One, Marcy and Sarah have known each other since boarding school, where they had the bonding experience of scuttling Sarah's uncle's attempt to embezzle her trust fund. Two, both of them take things like Guardianships and Conservatorships deadly seriously. Three, neither of them trust boarding schools, especially high-toned girls' boarding schools like this, in the slightest. Four, Sarah is absolutely paranoid about poisons of all kinds. And lastly, Five-"

Marv interrupted me disconsolately. "And lastly, five, both Finson and Brandt hate his guts. Either one of them would come after me loaded for bear, if they thought that I even jaywalked. If both of them thought that I had victimized a schoolgirl by betraying my trust as her Guardian, neither of them would rest until they had my head pickled in brine."

I gave Wilks a snide smile. "I used to date Marcy. It ended badly."

Wilks steepled her fingers. "What kind of women are Finson and Brandt?"

Marv sulkily answered, "They're nobody's fool, either of them. Finson is an International Finance lawyer, and Brandt is a Corporate Fraud investigator for Continental Providers' Reinsurers' Group. They're both tough and shrewd, and they're absolute bulldogs when they get a sniff of something."

Wilks furrowed her brow. "Where do they come from?"

"Boston. They operate out of there, too."

Wilks gave an annoyed hiss. Boston was well out of her circle of influence, which while hideously influential where it reached, was almost powerless north of Baltimore.

Feeling very pleased with myself, I said, "Why do you think I chose them? Heck, what did you think that I was doing all that time, while I was scouring out toilets and scrubbing pans? Crying in my pillow? I was racking my brain, working out every detail, picking and choosing my exact options." I carefully avoided telling them that I had also promised to send them letters regularly. My letters were all written in longhand on lined paper. In those few classes where I had to turn in written work, I'd made a point of printing my writing out in block letters; my work would be useless in providing a base for forgery. Of course, Miss Wilks still had samples of my old handwriting to work from. I hoped that she did; the difference in hand and finger size made for just enough difference to be obvious to someone looking for it. And Brandt was just paranoid enough about that kind of thing to spot it. With a creepy-crawly as wily as Wilks, I had to set every trap that I could; but I didn't dare be obvious about it.

Wilks glared at me. "You think that you're very clever, don't you, Miss Ramsden? Well, you are very right about _One_ thing - no one ever gets away from me. That which is mine, is always mine! Forever! No one can take away that which is mine! And you are mine, Miss Ramsden, now and forever. No matter what silly tricks you play, you will still be mine." She got up and walked over to that cabinet, and pulled out the cage. "Even if, somehow, you managed to get away from here, I would still have you - in here. That little spark of the divine that most people mindlessly waste, I keep nice and safe, in here. You are in here, Miss Ramsden. So are Mister Cameron, and your driver, and Lambert, and Elisheva, and all the others; you're all in here - forever. No matter how far you run away, I will always have you- in here.

"And as for your little threat with those inane cows in Boston - well, there are things that I can do to remedy that!" She snapped her fingers, and looked at Lester. "Take her to the Black Room."

Lester twisted my arm behind my back and marched me back up the stairs. Didn't even bother to take the elevator. As I was hauled up the stairs, I wracked my brain for something to do to keep them from putting anything in me again. God alone knows what that bitch can do with her potions and philters!

I shouldn't have bothered. Lester just tossed me in, and someone turned the keys in the seven locks in turn. There was no light this time, and no picture to look at. It was complete darkness and utter silence. Wilks didn't need potions or philters. She had a perfect place for Solitary Confinement. Solitary is a very effective punishment. No drugs are needed, nor torture, nor even effort. All that you have to do is let the darkness, and the silence and the aloneness go to work. The Hole has broken tougher men than I am.

But then, those men were mostly tough in street fight and brawling ways. I'm tough in ways that would leave those hardcases quivering in their boots. I face down the biggest hardasses on Wall Street, and laugh in their faces! At least, that's what I told myself as I sat there. In the darkness. Listening to the silence. Alone.

I ran through all the usual 'whiling away empty hours' things, and finally was reduced to trying out that Yoga that I'd taken a few courses in, to relieve stress. At least listening to my heartbeat and counting my breaths was better than listening to the silence. The silence might start saying something, and that's bad.

I'd lost track of time, and was perfectly relaxed, though not sleepy. My ears had become perfectly accustomed to the silence. That was the only reason why I heard her come. To ears not accustomed to the perfect silence, she would have been silent herself. But to my ears, each step of her spindly legs was like the thunder of a buffalo herd. I heard her stomp her way through the miniscule crack under the door. I heard her tromp across the wooden floor. I was trying to get up, when I felt her climb up on my leg. That snapped me right out of my Yoga induced paralysis. I kicked, and knocked her against the far wall. I managed to get to my feet, the sound of my own rising almost deafening me. I lucked out - she came slow and sneaky this time. It gave me time to regain my hearing. She came, one cautious thud after another, across the floor. I silently raised my foot, and waited for her to move to the exact spot under my foot. I took a lot of effort, standing there on one foot, waiting for that sneaky bitch to haul herself into the right spot. But it felt so GOOD when I put my foot down and squished. I ground her down into the wood, relishing the feel of her under the sole of my shoe.

Then the feeling wasn't there. I checked under my shoe. Nothing. I felt for a greasy spot on the wood. There wasn't anything except a cold spot, without any real substance left behind. I sat down and tried to sort it out. As much as I wanted to, I couldn't make myself believe that I had just killed Miss Wilks. I just don't have that much luck these days. But on the other hand, the chances that a spider would just happen to find its way in here, make a bee-line for me, make a re-try after I kicked it across the room, and leave absolutely no trace when I squished it were just slightly higher than that of Adolph Hitler being elected Prime Minister of Isreal. Of course, it could have just been a hallucination. People have imagined weirder things than that after a session in the Hole.

But I doubted it. I don't know what Wilks was up to, but it struck me as being right up her alley. Then something struck me. Marv wasn't acting like Marv. He was acting like this weird, twisted, distorted version of Marv. Maybe one of the tricks in Miss Wilks' bag was to put somebody into this room and get them in a highly suggestible state of mind. Then she crawls in as a spider, climbs into their mouth, and.... Does what? Pulls at this part, twists at that part, ties off another part, and viola! She has this twisted version of that person, shaped and molded to suit her whim. Come to think of it, there seemed to be two kinds of people in Wilks' orbit - your basic cowed and crushed drones, and these strange, twisted out of shape personalities, like Marv and Lambert. It would go a long way toward explaining Marv's betrayal.

And that gave me hope. Personalities like Wilks don't want capable people around them. Competent people make them nervous. They want nice, tractable people. People who can be bullied and cowed. People with 'tells' that they can read, and 'triggers' that they can pull. Now, I've made a study of 'tells'. Up to now, these people have been a mystery to me, because I couldn't read their tells. I couldn't read their tells, because I didn't know what had happened to them. Now I did. I settled down and started my Yoga again. But now, person by person, case by case, I reviewed every person that I had met at Rutledge Academy, and tried to suss out their 'tells' and 'triggers'.

I had no way to keep track of the time, but while I was in there, Miss Wilks came six more times. I came to look forward to it. She came in fast. She came in slow. She approached directly. She approached running zigzag. She approached in an oblique angle. But each time she came, I sent her back the same way - through the floor. I just hoped that it hurt each time.

As the long, well you can't really call it 'Night', dragged on, I recalled everyone at the school as best I could, and did a pretty good job of figuring them out. Then I started on the most important one of all - Miss Wilks. For the life of me, I couldn't place her at all. She was too old, too powerful and too alien to read at all.

God's teeth, I couldn't even be sure what she was. There were those eyes, and that spider. I could imagine that spider crawling out of one body and taking up residence in another. Who was she, really? Somehow, I doubted that she was really the Hannah Wilks who had been born in 1908. I had an image of the - being - known as Miss Wilks crawling out of one body and into another, but greedily holding onto the wealth and position that it had built up at Rutledge Academy. Those eyes in the portraits in the hallway to Wilks' office. A line of women who had been the headmistress of the place, going back to the bad old days of slavery. Who had 'Hannah Wilks' been originally? One of the Rutledge women, tenaciously holding onto her position as complete mistress of her house and all the people in it? Was she some former slave voodoo priestess, intent on stealing the power of the slaveholders, by stealing one of their bodies? Was she even human? Maybe the spider wasn't just some psychic manifestation of Hannah Wilks' mind; maybe the spider was the real being, and the women - the bodies, the faces, the names - were all just like dresses that it wore.

Whoever - whatever she had been originally, she was the spider now, for all intents and purposes. She sat here in the school that was her web, and she fed on everything that blundered into that web. We were all food to her, or bait to lure more food into her web. But now she had caught a dragonfly in that web - me. And she had to kill me before I ripped her web apart, because spiders never let anything leave their webs. She is a spider - I know how to deal with her now.

Once I had figured out Miss Wilks, I had nothing to meditate on, but the thing that I feared most - myself.

I was well on my way; I had a real grip on several aspects of my personality that had bugged me for the longest time, when the thundering sound of the locks turning snapped me out of my reverie. Isn't that just classic? When I desperately want the door to open, it stays shut. When I could actually use a few more hours alone, then it opens up!

I endured the sounds of the next six locks opening, and I got to my feet. The door groaned open, and a blinding shaft of light flooded the room. Elisheva, Wilks' personal servant, stood in the door. Wordlessly, she gestured me out of the room. My eyes blinking in the unfamiliar glare and my ears ringing with the thousand small noises that we normally ignore, I teetered down the three flights of stairs to Miss Wilks' office. For once I was glad of the muted gloom of that office - though I could have done without the thundering ticks of that damn clock.

Miss Wilks took a long draw from her cigarette, and glowered at me. "Miss Ramsden," she boomed, "you have the Luck of the Damned. You will resume the normal course of instruction. But do not think that you have beaten me, or gotten away with anything. Elisheva, put Miss Ramsden on a sustenance diet. I think that after a week or two of nothing but bread, water and beans, she'll be more inclined to be respectful."

As I teetered to my room, I looked at the Demerit board out of habit. My Demerits had all disappeared. That meant something, but I was too groggy to figure out what it meant. I was out of my uniform and into my nightgown and just about to hit the sack, when there was an echoing pounding at the door. When I opened it, Elisheva shoved a tray in my hands. On the tray was a glass of water and a plate with a slab of cornpone bread the size - and hardness - of a domino, exactly twenty-eight half-baked black beans in a thin sauce, and a multi-vitamin. I gobbled down the beans and tried to soften up the bread with the water. Oddly, I wasn't hungry before I started eating, but the second that the first bean hit my stomach, I was absolutely ravenous. The meal took the teeth out of my hunger, but it still kept me awake for a while growling at me.

The next morning, my senses were back to normal, except for my sense of hunger, which was still operating at full blast. For breakfast, all I got was another plate of cornbread and half-baked beans. Wilks didn't work me very hard, probably because she didn't want me fainting. It occurred to me that all Wilks really had to do was keep sending me back to the Black Room; eventually, it would break me, whether the spider ever crawled into my mouth or not. So, why wasn't she? She said something about the Luck of the Damned. Maybe this was all that she thought that she could get away with. Why? Ah! Finson and Brandt, of course! They got my letters and took them seriously. It had been a gamble, but it must have paid off. Neither Marcy or Sarah would be foolish enough to come down here - I had made a point of suggesting that the local cops were under Wilks' thumb - so they must be making inquiries from a safe distance. Maybe they sent a couple of investigators down here to check it out. That's why it's so important that I be seen walking around the school, so that these investigators can see me. Of course there's no way that Marcy and Sarah can afford to have the place under 24-hour surveillance, but Wilks is just paranoid enough to not take the chance that they might.

Of course, while this means that Wilks can't shut me up in that room, or load me down with ridiculous amounts of work, it does mean that she can use invisible coercion like hunger on me. Of course, _I_ had a new tool, too. Between classes, I went around, testing my theories about the 'tells' and 'triggers' on my classmates. I wasn't perfect, by any means, but my reading was close enough on target that I was able to tweak them. I faced down the school 'bitch-queen'; not Wilks, just this nasty piece of work called Fallon Herrick. It only set her and her clique against me, but it destroyed the prevalent idea that I was someone that just anyone could kick for their amusement. I also went around 'borrowing' things from the girls whose 'tells' suggested that I could get away with it. I 'borrowed' an apple, a banana, a bag of peanuts, and a couple of candy bars over the course of the day. It put a dent in my hunger, but when Elisheva locked me in my room at the end of the day, my stomach was still growling.

I sat on my bed, fighting hunger with one hand and boredom with the other. Then I heard a key slowly turn in the lock. I snapped to, all attention. The door quickly opened, and that slight, redheaded girl slipped inside carrying a big paper sack. I held a finger to her lips for silence, and listened at the door. She silently padded over to me, and handed me the sack. "I thought you might need something."

I looked in the sack. Inside was a good try at a Dagwood sandwich: two slices of thick bread with what looked half the refrigerator between them. There was also an apple, a few stalks of celery, a large muffin, a pint carton of chocolate milk and a large fudge brownie. At the very bottom of the sack was a thick book. I didn't recognize the title, but I was so bored that I'd take a whack at War & Peace!

The girl watched me intently as I dug into the sandwich and demolished the rest of the meal. As I started on the brownie, I realized that I actually might not have room for it. So, I broke it in half and offered one half to my benefactor. She took it, wolfed it down, and then did something peculiar. She brushed her hands clean - first the right, then the left, then the right again, all very precisely. Normally, I would have ignored that, but I had been focusing so intently on 'tells' lately that it registered. "Oh My God - George - is that you?"

She looked at me, tears brimming in her big gray eyes. "Boss? Is it really you? I wanted to believe it so bad, but I didn't dare hope!" She threw her arms around me and started crying.

"Oh, George, what has she done to you? Oh, God, what has she done to us all?" I held her tight and let her cry herself out.

When she had sobbed herself out, George pulled back and asked me, "Boss, what the fuck is going on? How did this happen? Who are those two assholes walking around with our faces? Where's Marv? What are we gonna do?"

I settled her down and tried to explain what had happened and what I had figured out. As I listened to myself, I doubted that anyone who hadn't gone through what we had would believe a word of it.

When I explained about Marv, George couldn't believe it. "Marv? But why? He was our friend! We were buds!"

"Yeah, Marv was our bud. I don't think that he really wanted to do it. Before they did this to you, did Wilks do her 'spider' trick with you?"

George shuddered, and nodded her head.

"And then she put the screws to you, telling you what an asshole you are?" George's face went hard, and she nodded again.

"Did you crack?"

She shook her head with an air of triumph.

"I think she did that with Marv, and he did crack. And when he did, she sent that spider down his throat, and she kind of twisted everything inside him around. She took the part that admired us - and you can't admire someone without a trace of envy - and she tied off the part that liked and respected us. Then she pumped up that part that wanted what I had. George, the guy running around calling himself me, isn't really Marv, after all. He's just all that's left of poor old Marv, after Wilks got done with him. Maybe that part of Marv that was our friend is still in there, down deep, but I don't know how to get to him. No, I don't think Marv is really alive anymore, George. I think that bitch Wilks ate him."

We sat there, on my bed, and mourned the passing of Marvin Cameron. He was a good man and a good friend. And I sent him here to his doom.

After a while, something occurred to me. "George, how the hell did you get in here?"

George smiled, and reached into a pocket. She pulled out an old fashioned latchkey. "The Housekeeper, Miz Kimball, has the keys to all the locks in the house. There are three master keys that fit all the locks. If one of the master keys doesn't fit a lock, one of the other two will." One thing that I should mention - I hired George as my driver on the recommendation of his parole officer. Despite his size, George was one of those people who got an adrenaline rush out of breaking into places where they're not supposed to be. George had done three years on a five to ten burglary rap, and was out on good behavior. Working for me had kept him out of trouble - and jail - but once a B&E junkie, always a B&E junkie.

"George, aren't you running a real risk coming in here? What if somebody saw you in the hallway?"

She shook her head smugly. "Not bloody likely, Boss. Y'see, everybody goes to bed at nine around here; the Staff and Faculty go to bed at 9:30. I guess Miss Wilks doesn't like people walking around and doing things while she's asleep. Anyway, while I was working off Demerits with Miz Kimball, I found her spare set of keys, and had them duplicated in town-"

"They let you go into town?"

"Yeah, if I don't have any Demerits. Anyway, I've been spending time snooping around, trying to find anything that might help."

"Good Man. Have you been in the office?"

"Wilks' or Lambert's?"

"Both. Either."

"Both of 'em."

"Do you know where the filing cabinets are?"

"Yeah."

"Are there safes in either of them?"

"Both. Lambert's is a modern safe that uses a pin tumbler lock. _But_ I know that she keeps the keys to it in the drawer of her desk, which I can open with a letter opener. Wilks' safe is harder - a 1924 Chubb safe with a secure key. It can't be picked, and I don't know where she keeps the key."

I thought for a second. Where would Wilks hide the key? She wouldn't keep it on her, and she'd want to be absolutely sure of where it was at all times. Remember, she's a spider - the safe probably contains her blackmail material, so she'd want the key to it well at hand, but where no one else would look for it. Then it clicked. "George, do you remember that cage where Wilks put the... y'know...?"

George shuddered and nodded.

"All right, I think the key is in the same cabinet as the cage."

"Are you sure? That thing gives me the creeps!"

"You and everybody else. That's why Wilks put it there. Does anyone have a copier here?"

"Yeah, Lambert. She has a copier, a word processor, a printer for the processor, and a five-year-old cellular phone."

"I'll lay you odds that Wilks only lets her have them as long as she doesn't use them around her. I don't think Wilks likes electronics. Okay, George, here's what I want you to do. When you're sure, and you have a lot of time to work, I want you to go into their offices and get into the safes. I'll bet the blackmail material and other 'black hat' stuff will be the stuff at the back of the drawer. Start with Lambert - photocopy the stuff, put it back and bring me the copies. Lambert probably doesn't have anything really juicy, but it will look better if we can sic the Feds on Wilks with something comparatively minor, and a search warrant turns up the really incriminating stuff in Wilks' safe."

"Sheesh! Boss, you don't ask for much, do you?"

"Okay, start off small. Smuggle me in some writing stuff - lined paper, a pen, an envelope and some stamps." I explained my situation with Finson and Brandt.

George smiled at me sweetly. "Boss - that's why I've stayed with you all these years; nobody keeps the drop on you for long! You want me to mail these letters this weekend?"

I mussed her hair up. "George, with you on my side, that withered old sow doesn't have a chance! So, did you find anything interesting in your midnight perambulations?"

"Well, I found a gun."

"A gun?"

"Yeah. Miz Kimball, again. It's a .357 long-barreled revolver. She had it in one of those fancy-schmancy locked boxes lined with felt, along with forty rounds, a cleaning kit and an instruction manual. It was supposed to be theft-proof. It took me forty seconds to open. I left the box at the bottom of her closet. I got the gun and twelve rounds hid in my hidey-hole."

"You have a hidey-hole?"

"Sure! Down in the basement. There's a loose brick just to the left of the water boiler, right behind the pressure gauge. You don't think I'm fool enough to keep these keys in my room, or on me, now do you?"

I asked her about the other things she'd found in her prowlings. Most of them were trivial. Some of them might be useful in blackmailing a few of the girls into doing things with which neither George nor I wanted to be associated.

We were about to wrap up, when I remembered something. "George, when I was scrubbing pans, I noticed that Elisheva, Wilks' slavery-throwback, would drink some of this liquid just before and just after she went in to do something for Wilks. You got any ideas what that's about?"

"Not really. I noticed that too, and I checked it out. It's that weird tea that she made me drink, just before that spider ...y'know..." <shudder> "She brews up a big pot of it every day, and drinks at least half of it herself."

            Hunh? That didn't make any sense. I filed it under 'yet another mystery'.

With that, George put all the traces of my meal into the bag and was out the door with barely a click to note her passing. I hefted the book in my hand. Oh yes, things were definitely looking up.

My suspicions were piqued when I was suddenly allowed to eat with the other girls again. My suspicions were confirmed when, at dinner, Elisheva tried to finesse a special plate of food on me, which was kept separate from the other plates. I only spotted it because I noticed one of Elisheva's 'tells' - she only looks any of the girls in the eye if she's doing something to them on Wilks' say-so. She looked me straight in the eye. She was as poker-faced as ever, but I could tell that she was paying special attention to me. I managed to pull a switcheroo with the plates - Elisheva had the sense to make the 'special plate' look just like all the other plates, so it wasn't that hard.

So, Wilks was trying to be subtle. I wondered what scam of hers I had upset by not eating her food. I doubted that it was anything so prosaic as poison - Wilks wanted me alive, so that Finson and Brandt wouldn't have charges to bring.

Even after my first full meal in weeks, I was looking forward to George's snack run. The cuisine there at Rutledge was rather along the lines of the old Catskills' joke: 'The food here is lousy! And such small portions!' While the extra food was a definite bonus, I was really looking forward to having a little time with George. There's nothing like being alone in a crowd of zombies to make you appreciate the company of a real human being.

But that wasn't to be. Lester, the goon who was wearing George's face and ruining his name, stopped me on the staircase. "Mr. Hastings wants to talk to you."

Lovely, just what I needed right after eating - another face off. I sighed and turned to go down to the first floor. Lester grabbed me by the arm, pulled me up the staircase and onto the second floor.  He near dragged me to the 'Senatorial Guest Suite', where my 'Guardian' usually stayed during his increasingly frequent visits. Lester knocked on the door and shoved me inside when it opened.

The Senatorial Guest Suite was decorated with restrained, if dated, taste. It was a refreshing middle ground between the excesses of the spartan students' room and the baroque clutter of Miss Wilks' office. I looked around and almost broke out laughing. Marv was standing there, mixing drinks, wearing a silk dressing gown. He looked like he was trying to pull off a 'sophisticated batchelor' number from an old Rock Hudson/Doris Day romantic comedy. Jeez, no wonder Marv can't pick up chicks!

Marv turned, saw me and said, "Ah! Valerie! You're here!" with a bright expression.

I lost it, and started giggling uncontrollably. "Geez Louise, Marv, who're you supposed to be, Hugh Hefner? All you need is a pipe!" Marv's eyes reflexively flickered over to a side table, where a meerschaum pipe was smoldering. I almost collapsed, giggling.

I struggled over to a loveseat and sat down. "Okay, Marv, what's this all about? Why did you have Lester haul me in here?"

"Lester?"

"Y'know, the big goon that you have driving my limo around?"

"Valerie, that's George. You know George."

"Oh, I know George, all right. I can't say where George is right now, but that ain't George. George would never wrench a little girl's arm out of its socket dragging her around. George would never slap a girl around. And, George would never let the limo get into the state of repairs it's in right now! The front suspension is shot, the transmission is out of whack, the fan belt is loose, and the carburator is sticking! And that's what _I_ can tell, just from my window. George would have a heart attack if he could see the limo now! He loves that car! If you were thinking straight, you'd know that!"

"What do you mean, 'thinking straight'?"

"Marv, you're not thinking straight. You're screwing up seven ways to Sunday. You're letting the limo go to hell. You're spending more time here, dancing attendance on that bitch Wilks, than you are in New York, Washington or Philadelphia. They haven't arrested you because of that stunt that I pulled with the multiple mortgages, so you must have found out a way out of that. _But_ if you had weaseled out of that by yourself, you wouldn't always be here, so Wilks bailed you out. So Wilks owns you now. Go ahead, Tell me that being Miss Hannah 'Daughter of Satan' Wilks's dogsbody isn't screwing up, I Dare you!"

"This is all YOUR fault, you know!"

"MY fault? How do you figure that?"

"You came here, looking for a fight that it turned out that you couldnt' win. I Tried to warn you, but NO, you wouldn't listen! I told you that we should have gotten away-"

"We WOULD have gotten away, if you hadn't spiked our hamburgers!"

"I did what I had to! I had no choice! I wanted to run away, but, I just couldn't do that. I wanted to, but I couldn't."

" 'No, I just couldn't do that. I want to, but I can't' - those were Ken Palmer's exact words. It's a goddam mantra around here." I stood up and peered deep into Marv's eyes. "Marv, I know that you're in there, somewhere. This Wilks bitch doesn't control you, she's just _tricked_ you into thinking that she does, like she's tricked everyone else around here. FIGHT her, Marv!"

"No, I just couldn't do that. I want to, but I can't."

<sigh> "We're back to that. So, now what?"

Marv shook the look of consternation off of his/my face and put his face of cheery optimism back on. "NOW, we make the best of things. Things aren't really that bad-"

"Easy for you to say - you're not the one who looks like Wednesday Addams."

"Honestly, Valerie, your problem is that you're so used to winning that you don't understand that losing isn't the end of the world. So, Wilks won - so what? She wins at everything! So, if we get on her good side, then we can start winning again - just on her terms. And her terms aren't that bad. There are a lot of people in the South who are living very well, on Miss Wilks' terms."

"Marv - they aren't living, they're existing. There's a difference. They live in a state of terror. If any of them put so much as a toe out of line, Wilks lops it off. And they only live as well - or as long - as it profits Wilks for them to."

"I disagree. _You_ got me into this situation, but _I_ am making the best of it. I suggest that you do the same. You think you're being clever by getting up in Wilks' face. You're not. The thing that you're pointedly ignoring, is that you're a _girl_ now. Get used to it. Hell, enjoy it!" He walked over and sat my me on the loveseat. "You know, you should be thankful. You're young, you're healthy, and you're pretty." He stroked my cheek with a finger. "Very pretty. Wilks didn't have to make you pretty, you know. She could have made you fat, or ugly, or halt, or lame, or even blind. She could have made you old beyond years, or turned you into a little baby. But she didn't."

I didn't like the way that this was going. Wilks made me young because she wanted me under her thumb as one of her schoolgirls. She made me beautiful because she she was too cheap to buy a magazine of her own, and bummed the picture she used from one that a teenage girl paid for. And I'm healthy because I went to a gym on a regular basis. The only thing that I owe Wilks is a certain death.

Marv kept going on, building up steam. What he was headed toward, I wasn't sure, but I didn't like the neighborhood. "Yes, you are VERY pretty. And you'll become even more beautiful as you mature. You have all the makings of a great beauty..."

I could feel Marv focus all his energies on me. There was this tremendous surge of raw male energy pointed right at me. I'd been on the recieving end of that kind of power before, but I'd been male then. Now I was female, and it affected me differently. I just kind of locked up and couldn't do anything. My mind was working all right, but my body just wasn't kicking in.

He leaned in, his mouth coming toward mine.

"Please, Marv - No."

"When a woman says no, she really means yes."

"Please, Marv - don't do this."

"A Man has to take that which is his."

I started to say something more, but he silenced me with his mouth over mine. He kissed me, mashing his lips against mine. I experienced this weird schizoid disassociation - on one had, I couldn't escape the reality that a man was clutching at me and trying to ram his tongue down my throat. On the other hand, my rational mind was kind of standing aloof from all of it, saying things like 'don't vomit - who knows when you'll get another full meal?' and 'If this is how he kisses, it's a small wonder that he can't get laid.'

Then I felt his hand slip under my blouse and cup my breast. Now, my breasts aren't all that big - biologically, I'd say that I'm only a sixteen-year-old, and the boob thing hasn't quite run its course. But, my nipples are very sensitive! I gasped with discomfort as he mauled my left tit with his hand. He mistook it for passion. He started pushing me toward his bedroom.

"Please, Marv - No." I kept up the feeble protests all the way to his bed. He pushed me down on his bed. I tried to struggle, but somehow that power he was radiating kept me from focusing well enough to do anything. He ripped by blouse open, popping half of the buttons, and dragged my bra down to reveal my tits. He slobbered all over them, as I feebly wriggled under him. I was trying to get the fuck away from him, and he took it for passion again.

Then he reached under my skirt and pulled down my panties. For some bizarre reason, he didn't pick up on the fact that I was trying to kick him, and he got them off. Then he pulled back and dropped his trousers. Okay, whatever shortcomings this new version of Marv may have, a lack of manmeat isn't one of them. Mind you, this was not something that I was pleased about.

He took me. Okay, he raped me. I don't like thinking about it, so I will spare you the details.

He shot his wad into me, and lay there looking so pleased with himself that I just wanted to gut him like a fish. After enduring a few sloppy kisses, I managed to extricate myself and get out of there. I took the back stairs to get to my room - I didn't want any of the other girls seeing me like this. I just didn't want to be seen at all. I felt dirty. I changed and went to the nurse's office for a box of 'feminine hygiene product', and used up four of them trying to make sure that absolutely all of his sperm was out of me.

Then I curled up on my bed and desperately tried to think of nothing. I lay there, on the verge of tears, until I heard the key turning quietly in my lock. George came in with one of her bag dinners.

"So, Boss, what did that ratsass Marv want to-" Then she saw me curled up tight. "BOSS! Boss, what did he do to you?"

I looked at her, my face scrunched up from trying to keep in the tears, "He- He fucked me, George! He Fucked me! I tried to stop him, but I couldn't! I couldn't move, I couldn't scream, or do anything? Honest, George, I tried! Oh, Gooooddd...!" I couldn't hold it in anymore and I cried.

George ran over and held me tight. "That fucking bastard! I'll KILL him! I'll kill 'im, I'll kill 'im, I'll kill 'im, I'll fucking KILL 'im! I'll get that gun and blow his fucking balls off!"

That snapped me right out of it. "GEORGE, NO!" If I didn't stop her, George would do just that. She's even smaller and slighter than I am, but I have no doubt that if she put her mind to it, that she would shoot and kill him. And then she'd shoot that bastard Lester, and then she'd try to shoot Wilks. And Wilks would eat her alive. "George, killing Marv won't change anything. And Wilks will have you thrown in jail - that is if she doesn't just squash you like a bug! George, you're all I have now! I couldn't bear it if I lost you! George, I need you! You're my only hope! George, please, please don't leave me!" Then I lost it again, and broke down crying.

George cradled me like a baby. "Okay, Boss, okay. I'm not going anywhere. But we gotta get out of here, oh, God, we gotta get out of here!"

To add insult to injury, Wilks called me into her office the next day. "Miss Ramsden, your Guardian would like to have a few words with you."

Marv was standing there, looking very pleased with himself. I felt my blood ringing in my ears. My eyes felt too tight for their sockets. My breathing became shallow. I mastered myself and didn't go straight for his throat. Then I looked at Wilks, and I could just tell that she knew all about it. Hell, she'd probably arranged it! Then it clicked! That 'special plate' that Elisheva had tried to foist on me - it had been laced with something! She'd probably given Marv some kind of potion to increase his male power - the stuff in the food was probably supposed to have increased my female susceptibility to it. They'd planned on Marv sweeping me off my feet, and me falling into a state of adolescent infatuation. By their calculations, I should be head over heels in 'love' with him, and would do anything that he wanted.

I thought about telling him to cram his head up his ass. But if I've learned anything, it's that obvious resistance to Miss Wilks only makes her try something even viler in retaliation. I had to make her think that she'd finally won. Then she'd stop trying to break me. That would give George and me time to sift through her files and find something that we could send to Finson and Brandt that they could use to slap these scumbags down so hard that they'd have to pry Wilks' dentures out of the floor with pliers. Then we could finally get out of here. George was taking risks every night, sneaking into those offices; I could deal with the distasteful chore of enduring Marv's hands on me again.

Marv smiled at me in what I think that he supposed was a charming way. "Valerie, dear, I'm running into some problems."

"What's that, Marv?" I tried to put a soft lilt to the way that I said 'Marv'. I worked. His smile went predatory.

"Well, due to those little tricks that you've been pulling, I'm running into some very embarrassing complications. Deals that you spent months putting together are falling apart, and banks are starting to make noises about calling in Letters of Credit."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Marv!"

"Well, if this keeps up, I may not be able to keep coming over here to see how you're doing."

"Oh, NO!"

"Well, I don't like it anymore than you do..."

"Is there anything that _I_ can do to help?"

"Well, now that you mention it, you could tell me where those accounts that you shuttled all that money into are, and what the passwords are."

"Well, sure, Marv! Just let me get online, and-"

"I'm afraid that that would be... inadvisable, Valerie. What if you just wrote the addresses and passwords down?"

"Aw... Gee, Marv, it isn't that simple! I don't just keep those addresses and passwords in my head! I mean, I could remember them, but I'd have to sit down and think about it for a while - even then, it isn't sure that I'd get every stoke just right. And you know that with these high security quick-transit accounts, you have to get the code-sequence just right the first time! It might take me a week, or even a month to get it just right, working it out on paper." I gave him sad puppydog eyes.

"Why so long?"

"Well, I've been distracted lately." I looked him up and down.

Wilks jumped in, a tinge of sadistic satisfaction under her tone, "Well then - maybe Mister Hastings should leave, so that you won't be so distracted!"

I rushed against him, wrapping my arms around him. "Noooo!!"

She smiled viciously. "Well then, Child - you'd best remember all that computer argy-bargy quickly, hadn't you? Otherwise, it will be a long time before you see Mister Hastings again, won't it?"

Lambert peeled me off of Marv, and sent me to my room, to start working out the code-sequences. As soon as the door was shut, I leaped on the bed and buried my face in the pillow. Only when I heard Lambert's steps fading in the hallway outside, did I let myself start giggling into the pillow. Oh, Wilks was sending Marv away as a punishment! *Boo-hoo!* The irony was too rich - I just _had_ to tell it to George!

George thought it was funny as hell. To offer the attentions of the man who had raped me as an incentive, and use sending him away as a threat! We had a good laugh over it.

Freed from the distractions of classes and chores, I spend all my time in my room, trying to 'remember the proper sequences'. Well, actually, I spent the time kicking back, reading the newspapers from Miss Lambert's office that George smuggled in to me. I was a couple of days behind the times, but better a couple of days than a couple of months. Every day, I would take a couple of sheafs of paper into Miss Wilks, and ask to talk to Marv on the telephone. She'd ask me if I was absolutely sure that the sequences would work. I'd say 'no', and she'd refuse and send me back to try again. Sucker.

A couple of weeks later, it all came together. "George, that idiot Marv just gave me exactly what we've been needing!"

"What's that, Boss?"

"THIS!" I held up a spider-webby looking piece of lingerie. "Marv sent it in the mail. Either he enjoyed what he got, or Wilks thinks that I need a little motivation. Or both."

"Boss, I'll agree, if we could get anyone to believe that he sent it, it would raise a few eyebrows, but..."

"George, check out the card that he sent with it."

The card was a Victoria's Secret® card that came with the lingerie when it was gift-wrapped. Their logo was on the card. On the inside was: 'Valerie, I can't get the wonderful night that we had together out of my mind. I hope that this little something will help you remember, and that you will wear it the next time we're together- Love, Guy.'

George looked at me, her eyes sparkling. "It's even in his own handwriting! He damn near flat out says that he fucked you!"

I grinned evilly. "Not only that, but the doofus even left the reciept with his credit card stencil on it! AND, there was this-" I held up a slip from the store, with the product name, model number, and a suggestive picture of a model wearing the lacy thing, on it, "-in the box. When Marcy Finson sees this card, along with the receipt and this tag, she will go _Ballistic_! I'm going to send these to Marcy, along with a letter suggesting that 'Guy' has been making a pest of himself, and I'm going to send these-" I held up the photocopies of some of the files that I'd finally selected, "-to Sarah. Between them, we should be out of here soon!"

"Boss, are you sure that those are the files that you want to send? I mean, they don't really prove anything."

"_Exactly_, George, exactly. George, we are now teenage girls! Nobody listens to teenage girls if they make a direct accusation! On the other hand, if a teenage girl hems and haws, and makes out like she is quite sure what's going on, _then_ they're all ears! George, we have to give them something that they can use to locate the same stuff that I originally held over Wilks' head. Once they have _that_ they'll come in here with Search Warrants and tear the place apart! With the blackmail stuff that Wilks has in her safe, a lot of people are going to jail, especially Miss Hannah Wilks and Mister Marvin Cameron, a.k.a. Guy Hastings! By the way, George - just in case, did you put those copies where I told you?"

"Yep - rolled up and shoved into an empty tube of sink cleaner!"

I grinned again. "First place the Cops look. Can't be too careful. _Man_, I hope this goes down before Wilks gets tired of my word-games and brings Marv back! I do _not_ want his to be the next man's hands that are on me!"

George looked at me with fear in her big gray eyes. "B-boss- what do you mean, 'the next man's hands that are on you'?"

I rolled over on my stomach and looked her close in the face. "George, I am not going to let that sleazebag accountant be the only man who ever has me. I had to sit and think about this real hard, and this is what I've figured - if I have to be a woman, then I'm not going to be a woman who lets a shit-stain coward like Marv ruin my life by shutting off my sexuality. Maybe I'll turn out to be a lesbian - I dunno. But I'm not going to blithely assume it, just because of what he did. For all I know, Wilks wired this body with a normal woman's sexual reactions. I won't know until I find out for myself."

George was almost on the verge of tears. "But, _Boss_! When we get out of here, won't we find someone to change us back?"

"Nice thought, George. But _how_? Where would we find someone like that? There aren't exactly 'Spells R Us' shops in every mall, y'know! And even if we could find someone who could reverse the spell, how could we trust them? We could spend decades, and waste all the money that I've managed to squirrel away, and find Jack squat! And forget trying to twist Wilks' arm into undoing this - she'd probably turn us into flies and use us as fish bait! No, George - we're stuck. No gettin' around it."

George broke down and cried. I pulled her to me and let her cry herself out. "There, there, George - it isn't that bad! Half the world lives like this, and they make out okay!"

"But, Boss - if they shut this place down, what will happen to me? I mean, you got that Trust Fund and those overseas accounts - Me? Either they'll send me to live with those folks that Wilks muscled into paying my tuition and board, or I'll have to go to an orphanage! Boss, I got nothing!"

I took her hands between mine. "George, after all that we've been through, I would never leave you in the lurch. I've already told Marcy Finson that there's this girl here who's in a real fix. She was taken out of an orphanage by these Society types, but sent her right here to stay. They never come to visit her, and they never write. And I've heard from the other girls here that girls like this come, stay for a while, and then mysteriously die in an accident. I'd be real surprised if Wilks doesn't pull exactly that kind of scam every so often. It's bloodthirsty and ruthless enough to keep her minions in line, but doesn't whittle down their numbers, or give a grieving parent enough strength to break free of her. And it's a few hundred grand more in her pocket, so she wins all around. Yep, I'd say the only lie in there is the part about the girls talking about it. Nope, they'd keep as mum as churchmice.

"There's no way that Marcy or Sarah would let those zombies take you or leave you in an orphanage with a story like that. Since I'm technically an orphan, I was gonna try and wheedle Marcy into adopting me, anyway - why not both of us? Marcy will probably move us to another Girls' school, anyway. I'm gonna need someone who knows who I really am, just to keep me sane - so, George, will you be my little sister?"

George's only answer was to wrap her arms around me and hug me tight. Every girl should have a little sister like George.

"Oh! George! While we're on the subject, what name did they give you? I should add it to my letter to Marcy."

George blushed. "Cressida Palmer. No middle name."

"Cressida? Well, that knocks out any chance of you being a replacement for those mooks' daughter - only Wilks would come up with a name like that! Well, at least now I'll have a reasonable excuse for calling you George." I added the bit about 'poor Cressida Palmer' to my letter, sealed it and handed it to George. "Geo- Cressida, <snicker> are you going to have any problems getting to a mailbox? Wilks has yet another of her 'benefits' going this weekend, and they don't let the girls go out to the town on Benefit weekends."

George smirked. "Well - Valerie - I already got that covered! On the Fridays before those 'Benefit weekends', Elisheva has some of the girls go with her when she picks up the vittles for those lunches to help carry the goods. One of her regular stops is only a few blocks from a mail box. I managed to sneak my name onto the list of girls that are going. I can be out to the box and back before anybody notices anything. Not only will you letter get sent, but it'll be out of town with the last post."

I mussed up her hair. "My little sister - what would I ever do without you?"

Come Friday, the school was in its usual dither. The students were dragooned into the frenzy of getting the place looking like it wasn't a health hazard. Not that it really mattered, but Wilks had this thing about appearances. She justified putting the girls to this extra effort by claiming that it taught them to deal with emergencies.

I was dealing with one such emergency - the gladiolas were beginning to wither - when Miss Lambert stopped me. The way she looked at me stopped me cold - one of her 'tells' is that she plays with bits of her clothing when she's doing something vile for Miss Wilks. She was dressed for going out, but she was nervously running a glove through her hands. "Ah! Valerie! Just the girl that I was looking for! I need to go into town to run a few errands, and I need somebody to help me carry things. And, well, you've never been in town, now have you?"

Of course not. Wilks wouldn't let me out of my room if she didn't have to!

She bustled me into her car and drove into town. After months of being shut up at the Academy, even being in a dinky little burg was kind of agoraphobic, sort of surreal. I was paying so much attention to being outside that I didn't pay attention to Lambert's non-stop monologue. That really should have warned me. Rambling is one of Lambert's tells - it means she really doesn't like what she has been told to do. As I tuned her in, I noticed that she was going on and on about girls who think that they're so clever, and how their cleverness got them into big trouble.

"For instance, there's this one girl at school who thinks it's clever to go picking locks and go skulking around the school after hours." Suddenly, Lambert had my complete, undivided attention. "Her name is Cressida Palmer." Oh, Shit. "Actually, she's that lunk of a driver that you first came here with. But then, you knew that." Double Shit. "You really should have cleaned up after your little snack parties better." Triple Shit.

Lambert drove to a residential street just off the shopping area and parked. With a sense of incredible foreboding, I noticed that a mailbox was just across the street.

We waited there for the better part of an hour, as Lambert nattered on and on about 'clever' girls and the unneccessary trouble they cause. Then she pointed and said, "Oh, look. There's Cressida Palmer. She really shouldn't have left the provisioning party." She pulled out her cellular phone and hit the Redial button, let it ring three times, and hung up. I spotted George in her Rutledge school uniform, innocently walking down the sidewalk. She already had the envelopes in her hand.

The second that George's foot hit the curb on the far side from the mailbox, Lambert hit Redial again, and hung up. I immediately saw movement down the street - a long car quickly pulled out from where it was parked. I tried to get out of the car to warn George, but the power locks on the door were shut. I slammed the palms of my hands against the glass and shrieked for George to watch out, but between the glass' tinting, the car's soundproofing, and the distance, there was no way that George would have noticed.

When George was in the middle of the street, the limo lurched forward into her. George had just enough time to turn, see the car and scream. The limo hit her square on, and threw her a good five feet. She landed like a sack of potatoes. The two envelopes that she'd been carrying landed a few feet away from her slack hand.

The limo stopped, and Marv got out, all concern and regret. Lambert finally unlocked the door, and I scrambled out. "George!" I ran over to where she lay. Frantically, I felt at the side of her neck. No pulse along the carotid artery. She was dead, or she would soon be.

Marv began to blither, "She just jumped out in front of us! We tried to avoid her!"

"Oh?" I snarled, "Then why did you speed up?"

Miss Lambert calmly walked over, picked up the envelopes and tucked them in her purse. "The child is delerious with grief," she said, and dragged me over to her car. She left me there while she and Marv dealt with the tedious details of filling out the accident report for the benefit of a thoroughly cowed insurance investigator who would just rubber stamp it, anyway.

When she was finished, Lambert got back into the car. She gave me a frosty glare as I sat there sniffling. "It's all your own fault, you know." All the way back to the Academy, she nattered on and on about 'clever' girls and how they wound up hurting the people that they supposedly cared about.

When we got back to the Academy, I was taken directly to Miss Wilks' office. As usual, it was thick with Wilks' cigarette smoke. How can anyone who smokes like she does, be so damn healthy? Why doesn't she cough, like a normal human being? Is her body even alive without that damn spider pulling its strings?

Lambert chucked me down into a chair, and handed Wilks the envelopes. Gingerly, expertly, Wilks opened the envelopes with the nail of her pinkie and took the letters out. She read them slowly, as if taking in every nuance that she could. She nodded a couple of times. She pulled out the card, the receipt and the slip, and chuckled to herself. She looked at me, the eternal look of disapproval gone for once. "This is very good. Very good, indeed. You cover yourself expertly, Miss Ramsden. If these had gone out in the mail, you would probably have been out of here inside of a week, and Mister Hastings would be in jail. Even now, I have to be very careful of how I handle you."

She stopped, and looked at me for a long while. A look as if she were noticing something for the first time crossed her face. Then a slow, sly smile creased her face. "I don't like you, Miss Ramsden. I don't like you, but I do admire you. You are tough, young lady. They don't make many that tough, in any generation. And you're smart, you're quick, and you have the killer instinct."

I flipped a snarl at her. "I'll have to concede that you're the master at that last bit, you murdering bitch!"

Wilks chuckled dryly. "Oh, yes, and most importantly of all - you know the only way to deal with a threat is to confront it and be rid of it. Most people are sheep, Miss Ramsden, who think that the wolf won't follow them if they move a few feet. And of course, you understand all these electronic and computer things. I don't understand them, I admit it. You've been able to use that against me, very adroitly. I thought I would be safe if I distanced myself from all that electrical trash. And I was right, for longer than you've been alive. But it has caught up with me, and there's no way I can avoid it any longer. So, I will use your tactic, and turn the problem on its head - I will arrange so that it is no longer my problem, but my opportunity! Lambert!"

Lambert was up, dancing attendance on her mistress.

"Lambert, first open these windows and let some fresh air in here. Then go down to the kitchen and tell Elisheva to brew up pot of Bittersweet Tea. Tell her to bring two chocks. Lastly, go find Miss Herrick, and tell her to come here right away - I have good news for her."

Lambert handcuffed me to the chair and left on her chores. I sat there, glaring hot hatred at Wilks. This bitch had killed George; hell, probably the only reason that she'd kept her around in the first place was to kill her for the insurance money. I hoped she was late with premiums. Naaahhh... Those are probably the only bills that bitch ever pays, and you could probably set your clock by them.

Then Lambert came in with Fallon Herrick, one of the nastier Alpha-bitches among the girls. Fallon looked scared out of what mind she had, but she obediently sat down where Wilks indicated.

Wilks regarded Fallon with her usual brand of bully's contempt. "Miss Herrick, for about a year now, you have borne a signal honor. I am afraid that I must rescind that honor. Not because you have failed in any way, my dear, but merely because one more worthy of that honor has proven herself."

Fallon looked around, not getting the gist of this any more than I was. She really wasn't sure whether to be happy or run for her life.

Then Elisheva came in with that teacart. "Ah, the tea. Will you have a cup of tea, Miss Herrick?" Fallon accepted the cup reluctantly, and sipped from it. She had just finished the cup when her eyes snapped open and her face went slack. She slumped back in the chair. Elisheva came over, opened her mouth and slipped in one of those wooden wedges. Then she walked behind, expertly grabbed my head and forced my mouth open. Miss Lambert inserted another wooden wedge into my jaw with considerably less skill.

When the wedge was securely in my mouth, Lambert went over to Fallon and pulled the girl's arm toward Wilks. Wilks closed her eyes, took several deep breaths, and canted her head back. Once again, that never-sufficiently damned spider came crawling out. It crawled down Wilks' arm over to Fallon's and moved along that to her mouth. It gingerly stepped down into Fallon's mouth and disappeared for a while.

I was completely lost here. What was Wilks up to? Signal honor? Fallon?

Then the spider came crawling out of Fallon's mouth, dragging something. Elisheva kept an iron grip on me while Lambert pulled Fallon's arm and mine together. As the spider crawled up Fallon's arm, I got a better look at what it was carrying. Its burden was tiny, but long and sinuous, with the one end that the spider had its grip and slightly larger and triangular in shape, like a teeny little snake.

The spider dragged this tiny snake down Fallon's arm. I tried to pull my arm back, but Lambert had the leverage, and held it still. I felt both the spider and the snake as they traveled down my arm to my neck. They were both cold and clammy. Lambert still held onto my arm, and Elisheva made double sure of her grip on my head. The spider dragged the snake up my neck to my mouth and went in. Again, I wanted to vomit, but my body's natural defenses weren't working. I felt both the spider and the snake going down my throat into places where such vermin shouldn't be allowed. I felt this little cold ball form in the place that had felt hollow after the spider had taken out that 'moth'. Then the chilly prickling of the spider came back up my throat alone.

Lambert laid Wilks' limp hand on my cuffed one and the spider crawled back into its rotting nest. Wilks' mouth closed, and her eyes snapped open. She sat forward, with a smirk of amused triumph on her face. She gestured at Fallon, and Lambert pulled the groggy girl to her feet, and helped her out of the room.

Finally allowed the control of my own body, I choked and gasped. Wilks looked down at me with that razorblade smile of hers, and her spider's eyes glittering. 'Yes, Mister Hastings, I did a very good job on you. Young, strong, quick, healthy and pretty. You know, this old wreck of a body was once young, strong, quick, healthy and pretty. Hard to believe, eh? Now, a smart young girl like you has probably wondered, 'How OLD is that old bat, anyway? Well, Mister Hastings, I'm older than you could imagine, let alone guess. When I first came here, I only took the bodies of those women who were already wealthy and powerful in their own right. But they were old, and I had to leave those bodies after only a few decades. By Hannah Wilks' time, I had spun my web well enough that I could afford moving into a fresh young body. And also, I knew that the world was changing. Hannah Wilks understood that world. <heh> She understood it too well - that's why her father sent her here. She was strong and quick of mind, as well of body, so I took her. The fact that she had a good-sized fortune in her own right didn't hurt, either. And she understood the world as it stood back in 1931. Oh, to be young, healthy, pretty and know what the world is about. <sigh> I miss it." She flickered her eyes at me.

"I know, most old fogies gas on like this. One of my real problems is that I do love my patterns. Once I find something that works, I tend to keep at it. But, as you've proven time and again, that makes me predictable. Predictable is dangerous. Also, I have a hard time keeping up with changes, especially in this new world that seems to be determined to twist itself into something that I can't even recognize. I am hidebound.

"But you are not. No, if anything, Mister Hastings, you seem to have a talent for - what is the buzzword? - oh, yes - 'thinking outside the box'. And you understand all these electronic and computerological gimcracks. You see - Valerie - I don't just crawl into bodies, I also crawl into minds. I will crawl around inside your brain and learn all there is that you know - INCLUDING the whereabouts and nonsense connected with all those millions that you've squirreled around the world. AND any other little tricks that you may have up your sleeve."

Okay, I admit it, she had me freaked.

"Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to move in right away. I have no interest in staying at this school as a student. No, I can wait a few more years. Besides, that snake that I just put in you has to have enough time to work. Its still asleep just yet, but soon it will wake up and start eating away at a part of your soul, rather like the Dragon gnawing at the roots of the World Tree. When it has done its work, then I will move in. But, in the meantime, Miss Ramsden, while that snake is in there, you WILL OBEY ME. No matter how much you hate it, no matter how hard you try to wriggle around it, no matter what tricks you may have up your sleeve, _YOU_ WILL_ OBEY_!"

She settled back down in her chair. "Now, you will complete your course of instruction here. Then you will attend a college, paying special attention to courses in the new technologies. By the time you finish your college, the snakeling will have done its work, and I will move in. In the meantime, I will be making preparations. This school was a very effective base of operations in its time, but that time has passed. It is time to spread my web out into - what do they call it? Oh, yes!" A broad smile creased her face. It wasn't a pleasant sight. "The Digital Web."

Elisheva unlocked the handcuffs and pulled me out of the chair. As she took me from the room, "Oh, and Mister Hastings?" Wilks called after me. "Miss Ramsey, it all comes down to this - YOU LOSE."

I was sitting on my bed, sniveling. Hey, if in the space of three hours, you had seen a plan for escape that you'd been working of weeks go up in smoke, seen your best friend smashed into road pizza, get a goddamn snake crammed down your throat, and have the filthy witch responsible for it all tell you that she's going to take over your body, you'd snivel, TOO!

Then there was a knock on the door. I ignored it. What were they going to do if I didn't answer? Shove a snake down my throat?

The door opened. It was Lester. "Mister Hastings wants to see you." OH, lovely! This day just keeps getting shittier and shittier. On top of everything else, Marv is gonna try and get in my pants again. Saying nothing, I walked past Lester to the 'Senatorial Guest Suite'.

Well, at least this time, Marv wasn't playing the Swingin' Playboy. He gave me this 'concerned father figure' look and said, "Valerie, I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about the accident with your friend, Cressida."

"Cram it up your ass, Hastings! Her name wasn't Cressida, it was GEORGE! Y'know, your friend George, the one who's face and body _Lester_ over here is wearing? George, the one who always helped you out, whether he had orders to or not? George, the one you poisoned and betrayed?"

"Valerie, this is the first time that you've called me 'Hastings', not 'Marv'."

"That's because I USED to think that there was something of Marv Cameron in there; but there isn't. You're just a puppet that that spider inside of that rotting carcass called Miss Wilks uses to get my money. But you're not Marv. Marv was a stand up guy. Marv was a mensch. I won't tax my imagination thinking of new similes for the lowness that you are."

Hastings started spinning damage control - it was an accident; he didn't mean to hit George, just scare her; it was all Wilks' fault; etc. I shut him out and focused on something else, anything to block out his blathering. I noticed a full ashtray on the nightstand beside his bed. Wait - Marv didn't smoke! So why... I reflexively took a sniff at the air. The window was open, but there was still a faint hint of something familiar - cloves. Cloves and other things that weren't tobacco. Wilks' cigarettes. I saw a small wooden box full of homemade cigarettes by the ashtray. But why would Hastings risk Wilks' wrath by snitching some of her custom blend cigarettes? He wouldn't, because he could go into Rutledge and order some from the Tobacconists who made the order. Again, why? Why pick up a habit that he already hated? Around here, the first answer that pops up to every question is: because they're afraid of Wilks. But how would Wilks' cigarettes...

Then I remembered how Wilks always had her office choked with that goddam smoke. The only times that I ever saw it without that thick blanket of smoke were the times that _I_ opened the windows, and the times that she let the spider out! I vaguely remembered articles I'd read about how tobacco hadn't been smoked by the Natives for pleasure; they'd used it because they said that it had powers to attract benign spirits - and repel malignant spirits. And then I remembered how Caribbean voodoo types are constantly using tobacco in their rites. Mambos and Papa Loys are often portrayed as having a cigarette, cigar or pipe dangling from their lips.

Then another image hit me. Elisheva slugging away at that 'Bittersweet Tea'. While Wilks had pushed that stuff on me when she fished out my 'moth', and on Fallon Herrick when she fished that snake out of her, she never actually drank the stuff herself! Wilks had said that the 'snake' was 'asleep'- maybe it was the Tea that put it to sleep! Maybe she put a snake or something inside Elisheva years ago as a way of keeping her under her thumb, and Elisheva drank the tea to keep whatever Wilks had put in her under control. Of course, she still obeyed Wilks' in everything - no sense in risking the spider's wrath by crossing it.

So, Wilks is afraid of vengeful spirits, eh? So, she surrounds herself with smoke from a special blend of herbs and whatall, which she only does without when she sends the spider out to do her dirtywork, and she 'drugs' the spirits or whatever they are with the Tea when she wants to use them to control people. Maybe she put one of those things inside Hastings, just to be sure. It's just the kind of thing she would do. So, Hastings figured out about the smoke - he would, he spends a lot more time with her than I do - and figured that there was only one Tobacconist in Rutledge. So he smokes these things because he doesn't have access to the Tea, like Elisheva does. To keep safe.

I finally had the tools to get the hell out of here. That bitch Lambert was right about one thing - it was my fault that George died. I was so busy playing leverage games with Wilks that I forgot the most important thing - to get the hell out! George and I could've been out of here weeks ago, but I was afraid of Wilks just sending the cops after us. Well, I'm gonna take that risk now. Wilks just made a very stupid mistake - she put me in a position where I literally have nothing to lose.

Hastings snapped me out of my reverie when he grabbed me by the shoulders. "Valerie, I want you to know, that I'll protect you. I'll always be there for you." Then he kissed me. Well, he didn't have Wilks' Mega-Macho potion or whatever this time. He was too tall for me to knee him, so I punched him in the groin.

"You Bastard!" I snarled. As he keeled over, I started screaming and trashing his room. The third thing I knocked over were his ashtray and cigarettte box - after pocketing a handfull of cigarettes first, of course. I was really venting and screaming when Lester came and and dragged me out.

As punishment for my mistreatment of my Guardian, I was locked my room without dinner, and would stay there all weekend. Of course, that meant that I couldn't attend the Gala Benefit. Oh, *Boo_Hoo*! Suckers!

I waited until well after Midnight before I started. As a precaution, George had shown me how to pick the locks in these doors. Not that I would need to do it that much - if Wilks had found George's stash or knew about her keys, she would have rubbed my nose in it. No, she probably thought that George was going around and picking locks. Hastings would have told her about George's past, and the thought of the keys falling out of her control wouldn't have pleased her, so she ignored the possiblity.

The first thing I did was go to down into the basement. Man! What a rat's nest! Wilks was obviously the sort who never threw anything away. There were newspapers and magazines that must have gone back at least thirty years! There's no way that a fire marshall would have let this mess pass inspection! And the 'fire safety system' was a joke! A couple of pipes clearly marked 'sprinklers'. I had an image of Wilks, once she was in my body, taking out a huge fire insurance policy and torching the place. What was it that George had said? 'A loose brick just to the left of the water boiler, right behind the pressure gauge.' I felt around the masonry and found the loose brick. I reached my hand in, dreading the possibility of accidentally grabbing a spider. The keys were there! And some other stuff, too! There was the gun that George mentioned, a box of bullets for it, a penlight, a lighter, a roll of duct tape, a roll of electrical tape, babyfood jar full of tacks, a roll of transparent fishing line, a powerful bar magnet, a set of handcuff keys, a wicked looking cutthroat razor, a screwdriver, a sock full of ball bearings, and a couple of credit cards that I doubted were still any good but could be used to slip some kinds of locks. I don't know where George found all this stuff, but trust George to assemble as complete a burglary kit as she could!

Then I found something that George had put there that wasn't part of her B&E kit - the keychain to the limo, with the Fleetwood logo on it. I almost lost it. George had loved that car. She always complained bitterly that Lester was running it into the ground. And that goddamn bastard ran her into the ground with it!

With effort, I wiped the tears from my eyes and tucked George's sad little treasure in my pocket. I'll never forget you, little sister.

With the keys and the penlight, I made my way into the kitchen and looked around. It took a bit, but I found it - Elisheva's jar of Bittersweet Tea. It was a quart and full, so that she would have enough for that first cup of the morning without it being bitter. I poured the top half into a measuring cup, and the bottom half - with the settlings - into a saucepan. I set the saucepan to boiling. I was going to need that Tea to be as strong and powerful as I could. I knew that I was running the risk of poisoning myself, but there you are. I put the part in the measuring cup back in the jar and filled up the rest with water. It would be weak, but then, working for the Devil is chancy work.

I boiled the strong Tea down to about a half pint - four times as strong, and poured it into a pickle jar. Well, that's that. It's do or die time.

I padded my way back up to my room and relocked the door behind me. I opened the window and looked around. No one around, for whatever that's worth. I got the basin that we're supposed to wash with, and had it ready. The moment of truth had arrived.

I took a sip of the Bittersweet Tea. It was bitter as hell, but where was the sweet? I took a larger swig. A touch of fear hit me - I'd blown it! It wasn't going to work! Then I felt that little cold scratching that I'd felt all afternoon subside. I took another swig, and it went away completely. The snakeling was asleep. Guarding the light with my hand, in case anyone should see the light, I lit one of Wilks' cigarettes and inhaled deeply. And then had to supress the coughing with my pillow. God, I hate smoking! I forced myself to go through all five cigarettes before I felt the reaction that I was hoping for. I could feel a pushing, as if something were trying to get out.  The smoke was repelling the snake inside me. Time to take it to the next level!

I took a big swig of Bittersweet Tea, and poured some in the basin. The second that the bitter foul brew hit my stomach, I hurled it right back up. I could feel the snake come up with the spew. I looked in the basin to confirm my feeling, and there it was, weakly wriggling around in the Tea. I emptied that babyfood jar of tacks and filled it with what Bittersweet Tea was still pure. Then I used the screwdriver to nudge the snake into the little jar, and sealed it. The Tea would keep the snake sleepy, but still around, just in case Wilks has some kind of affinity with the damn thing. Didn't see that one coming, didja, Wilks?

I took the risk of flushing what evidence I could down the toilet, and then hid the rest of George's tools as best I could. The little of the Tea that remained stung in my stomach, but I didn't care; I'd just trumped Wilks' ace. She was almost out of cards, but I still had a few up my sleeve.

I was woken up the next morning by Lambert and Elisheva. They didn't look pleased with me, but then they never did.

"Oh, go 'way! I'm under house arrest, remember? I'm not even allowed to help out with the Benefit, remember?

"You're not supposed to sleep in. This is supposed to be a punishment."

I sniffed at the breakfast that Elisheva was carrying. "Aren't these eggs punishment enough?"

I wondered why they were watching me eat. When I finished, I found out. Lambert grabbed my right arm and handcuffed it to the bedpost. "That is to keep you from getting clever notions about climbing out the window. Oh, and just in case you manage to get out of these handcuffs, I should warn you that Elisheva will be doing work inside the house all day today and tomorrow." In other words, she be pulling security guard duty. Thanks for the warning, Lambert. Maybe I'll kill you last.

Wilks, you're right about one thing - you are hidebound and predictable. As soon as they were out the door and down the hall, I reached over, pulled the handcuff key from George's stash from under the bedstead where I'd taped it, and unlocked the handcuffs.

I spent the day sitting next to my door, listening for Elisheva's footsteps and reading a book. Given the layout of the Academy, I was able to figure out the most likely route that Elisheva might take, and I got a rough idea of her schedule. This also gave me time to sit down and think about Elisheva. The woman bothered me, on many levels. Unlike Hastings, Lambert and Mrs. Kimball the housekeeper, I couldn't peg her relationship with Wilks. She obviously had been with Wilks for years, and was trusted with such secrets as the recipe for Bittersweet Tea; but Wilks also had placed a snake or something in her, so she wasn't completely trusted. And there was her name - Elisheva. It had an old-fashioned ring to it. So old fashioned that I could easily have come from Slavery days or a little later. And there was the way that she was so completely under Wilks' control, obeying her completely and without comment. Come to think of it, I've never heard her speak so much as a word. No, I couldn't place Elisheva, not in the slightest. And given the situation that I was in, that meant that she could have been anything. Hell, for all I know, she could have been the slave who first brought the spider into Rutledge house and started all this. But the real problem was that she had the keys to everything. Kimball the housekeeper should have had those keys, but Elisheva did. And I needed those keys. The keys that George left me only opened the doors, not the desks and safes. The keys that were normally kept in Wilks' and Lambert's desks would be with their owners, and I need what was in those desks and safes. Elisheva had the keys to my freedom. Elisheva had to die.

Maybe I'm rationalizing, but I can't help but wonder how many men and women Elisheva has helped Wilks destroy and kill. You could argue that she didn't have a choice; but then, neither did I. At least I have the minor justification that she wasn't that good a cook.

This was the third 'Benefit' that I'd had to wade through at Rutledge. I'd carefully watched how they were run, because they made for such a great chance at escape. I'd noticed a few things - the proceedings were run on the other side of the building from the office, the wings were closed off from each other during the proceedings, the girls were used wherever they could in place of hired servants, and there was this one 'sweet spot' where people who wanted to leave early bribed the parking attendant to put them. Oh, yes, and the visitors never turned on their car alarms for fear of upsetting Miss Wilks.

Also, since these things were basically genteel shakedowns, there was an unofficial schedule that was strictly adhered to. They all showed up at the very last minute, but well on time. They made nice-nice. They sat through the 'entertainment'. They applauded at the right times. When Wilks put the squeeze on them, they all trotted out their checkbooks and wrote out the requested amount - and not a penny more. And the minute that they could without being obvious about it, they got the hell out of there. If Wilks' schedule didn't jump it's rails, they should all arrive at about 1:30, and go for their cars at 5:45.

The great day dawned, and Lambert and Elisheva did exactly the same thing that they had the day before. Miss Wilks does love her routines, God bless that ONE aspect of her otherwise revolting personality. At noon, I was in my nightgown, handcuffed to the bedstead, when Elisheva came in to bring me lunch and take me to the toilet. At 4:10, Elisheva checked on me. When she locked the door, I look off the nightgown that I had over my clothes, and the game started in deadly earnest.

I slung the large purse with all my stuff over my shoulder and left the room. I padded over to the back stair on the side far from the proceedings and went to the flight between the second and first stories. The flights were the steepest and longest there. On the third step from the top, I carefully laid down as many of the ball bearings as I could and still use George's improved sap. I tied a length of the clear fishing line to one of the posts on the banister, strung it across staircase, fixed it with the electrical tape that was almost invisible against the black paint and tied off the end on the same post. I stashed my purse just below the landing, and took out the sap and the straight razor. Then I went hunting for Elisheva.

Elisheva must have worked for Wilks for a very long time - she was just as regimented as her employer. She came chugging down the hallway on the third floor, on schedule, regular as clockwork.

I made a production of trying to hide from her and letting her see me. She came charging after me, but I'm both a lot younger and lighter than she is, so I was able to set the pace of the chase. I lit down the staircase, and even had to fake stumbling so that she could think that she had a chance of catching me. When I got to my boobytrap, I was able to jump over it without her seeing me. I stopped just below the turning of the landing, sap in hand.

I needn't have bothered. Elisheva hit the line strung across the stairway and went down like a sack of potatoes. She landed face first, twitched a bit, and went still. I checked her neck - no pulse, no reaction, no nothing. You know, I never heard her speak even once, not even to cry out as she died. Wilks, I hope losing Elisheva hurts you half as much as losing George hurt me. But I doubt it.

I got her keys from her belt and gave her a quick pat down, just in case. I didn't find anything. Elisheva had torn the electrical tape from the wall with her fall, so all I had to do was cut the line from the post and gather up the ball bearings with the magnet. Except for the lost keys, it looked like just another accident.

Well, there's no going back now. Odd, how comforting being committed can be. I made my way down to the kitchen and got one of those thick clear 'zip-lock' baggies. Then I went into Lambert's office. Thanks to George, I knew exactly where the files I wanted were. No, don't think about George now. Cry later.

I had an unexpected turn of luck; I found my PDA in Lambert's desk. Hastings, Wilks and Lambert all thought that I had wiped the PDA's memory. They were supposed to, I planned it that way. Actually, part of the 'Amscray' sequence is that the memory of the PDA is stored in a hidden file that looks like part of the operating commands. Besides all the personal information that I couldn't use any longer, the PDA also had all those incriminating facts that I'd threatened Wilks with when all this started. And, most importantly at this point, it also had the serial numbers of a number of Traveler's Checks of differing denominations that totaled a whopping $150,000. Traveler's Checks aren't taken out in names, so all that I had to do was report a stolen Traveler's Check with the right serial number, and American Express® would replace it, no questions asked. What can I say? The Kid plans ahead. Given the kind of people that I deal with, I have to.

I looked at the clock. It was 5:03. Time was running out. I went into Wilks' office. Feeling every inch the little girl way over her head, I approached the cabinet. Using Elisheva's key, I unlocked the cabinet. The only things in the cabinet were the key to the safe - and the cage that held all those 'moths'. Oh screw it; say it- It held the immortal Souls of hundreds, if not thousands, of Wilk's victims. Including George's and mine. I took out both the key and the cage. I emptied out the blackmail and dirty tricks section of Wilks' safe. The only clothes that I had were on my back, but I was hauling around about twenty pounds of documentation.

In one drawer, I found $15,000 in small bills. It was tempting to take all of it, but a young girl having that much money in cash would raise questions. Besides, Wilks would wonder why I didn't. Still, I took $500. Hey, money is money! Wilks would say that I stole it all, anyway!

And now for the coup de grace, the thing that would really hit Wilks were she lived - that is, if she was really alive.

I picked up the cage. It glowed with a lovely, soft light. For the first time, I understood why Wilks keeps these things around. Looking through the brass filigree and glass, I saw something that had the fascination of flawless gems, the awe of a sunset over the Pacific Ocean, and the warmth of a mother's hug. Souls.

But these Souls don't want to be here. They want to be home.

I examined the cage, first the top and then the bottom. There was no way to open it. It had only been designed to have Souls put in through that little cylinder, not to ever let them out. There was only one way.

I opened all the windows. I held the cage over my head and brought it down with both hands onto the edge of the top of the safe. The cage broke in two, one end in each hand. Streams of glorious, golden sparks poured from each end, and blossomed into lovely 'butterflies'. But for all that splendor, there was one spark that I wanted more than any other - my own Soul.

The cascade of sparks filled the room and flowed out the window, but none came to me, asking to be let home. Then, finally, as the very last of them flowed out of the cage, one came fluttering up to my face. Hoping beyond hope, I opened my mouth and called my Soul home. It fluttered in, and I felt a warmth, a wholeness that I hadn't felt in months. I was whole! No matter what else Wilks had done or would do to me, I was whole!

It was 5:24. I dumped most of my 'burglary kit' to lose unneeded weight, and went to put the keys back on Elisheva’s body. As I tucked the keys under her body, I noticed her mouth move. Jesus, she was still alive! No, her lips parted, and a fat red frog with bulging black eyes crawled out. I spent precious minutes smashing the ungodly thing into mush with my foot. Gathering my wits, I left the building. I casually walked to the Lexus parked in the 'sweet spot', and prepared to break in. Guess what? I didn't need to! It wasn't locked! These people probably felt that no car thief in his right mind would steal a car from Miss Wilks' place. I crawled onto the floor of the back seat and covered myself with a car blanket.

As I waited, I took out the revolver that George had stolen from Mrs. Kimball and loaded it. I mean, it wasn't like these people would never look under this blanket! Then I put the gun in the thick 'zip-lock' baggie, taped the part of the bag around the barrel tightly with electrical tape, and poked a hole for my finger. It wouldn't act as much of a silencer, but in this 'road-sound' proofed car, it would do. And it would keep the sound of the shot from deafening us, and keep my clothes from getting gunpowder on them. Hey, when you're going to carjack somebody, you have to think of these things.

It was a very long wait. You know the kind of thing that I'm talking about - you're half convinced that you're already rumbled and you almost jump out of your skin at every sound. Finally, I heard the sound of the doors opening and people getting in. The car started up, and began to move.

"Thank God that's over!"

"Hush, Roger! Wait until we get completely off the school grounds!" Obviously, she was an alumna.

The car moved along, and finally Roger and his wife felt that it was safe to talk freely. They bitched and moaned about Wilks and her 'Benefits'. He complained that it was so hard to deduct the expense on his Income Taxes. She complained that the food was just like she remembered from school - poor in quality and small in portion. They vented for a while, and then Natalie - that was the wife - said, "So, do you want to go straight to the hotel, or stop off at a restaurant first?"

Oh, shit - they were staying in Rutledge overnight! This was not in my plans!

I popped up out from under the blanket and pointed the gun at Natalie. "Belay that last order, Roger! Set course for D.C., and don't break the speed limit!"

"Young lady, what do you think that you are doing?"

"I think that I'm escaping from that place while I can! AND I'm carjacking you to D.C.."

"And what if I miss the right turn onto the Expressway?

I fired a round into the glove compartment. "Don't."

Their names were Roger and Natalie Chapman. They were comparatively nice people. I told them that I was an orphan that Wilks had muscled someone into 'adopting' and bringing to the Academy. When I told them that Wilks had taken out a large insurance claim on me, they knew that I had no fear of death, and would shoot them both if they didn't drive me where I wanted to go.

I took their cell phones, and had them drop me off in front of the Washington Bus Station. At the bus station, I hired a cab to drive me to Philadelphia. It cost me two hundred and forty bucks, but that's where having a big wad of cash comes in handy. In Philly, I felt safe enough to ditch the gun and call Marcy Finson. I waited around until business hours and made a collect call to Marcy's brokerage house. The receptionist told me that Marcy was in Europe for the next two weeks. Shit! Then I made another collect call to Continental Providers' Reinsurers' Group. They told me that Sarah was in Nova Scotia, investigating a ship incident. Double Shit!

Nine days later, I walked up to the front desk of the Continental Providers' Reinsurers' Group, carrying a large document file. I was rather pointedly not wearing the Rutledge Academy uniform that I'd left in. I was wearing an oversized black leather blazer, a T-shirt of a band that I never heard of before and probably wouldn't like, a black pleated skirt, black tights, and those clunky black shoes that are so much a part of 'the look'. If I was wearing too much makeup, or I didn't have the shades just right, well, that was part of 'the look', too.  I smiled a little too perkily for my clothes at the guard behind the front desk, gave my name as 'Valerie Ramsden' and asked for Sarah Brandt.

He checked a list, smiled at me and called up. He told me that she'd be right down.

Right down? Why wouldn't Sarah let me come up to the office? Why would she disrupt her schedule even more by leaving the office to talk to me down here?

I quickly looked at the door to the building security office. It opened, and Hastings walked out. "Valerie!"

I spun around and ran for the lobby door. One of the other guards beat me there. He held me while Hastings called for the limo. When Lester showed up, Hastings smiled at the friendly security guard and shook his hand - there was a large wad of cash hidden in the handshake, no doubt. Lester grabbed me by the collar and toted me over to the limo and threw me in the back. I am really starting to dislike that guy.

Hastings climbed in the back seat next to me. He smiled and waved to the guards as we drove away.

"So, Hastings, what did you tell them?"

"Only the truth - that you are a very confused young lady, that you are my ward, that you ran away from the boarding school that I sent you to, and that I thought that you might try to bother Miss Finson with something."

"I notice that you tactfully refrained from bothering them with the annoying details that you kept me in a place where I couldn't make phone calls and my mail was intercepted, so that I couldn't contact the Executors of my Trust Fund. Or that you are trying desperately to keep me from showing either of those Executors proof of your malfeasance."

"Malfeasance? See? That school is good for you - how many sixteen-year-old girls can you think of, who can correctly use 'Malfeasance' in a sentence?"

"Most sixteen-year-olds don't need to know how to use it! _I_ not only need to know how to use 'Malfeasance' in a sentence, I need to know how to pop the trunk of a car, so that I can escape to civilization before that bitch Wilks arranges yet another 'accident'."

"Now, Valerie, you know that Miss Wilks would never hurt you!"

"Oh, yeah? Tell that to George!"

"George?"

"You know, 'Cressida Palmer', the short little redhead that you ran down like a dog? I always called her George."

"Now, Valerie, you know that was an accident..."

"Oh? Then why did you speed up, just before you hit her? Why is it that nobody in the Palmer family ever visited her? She told me that she wasn't really a member of the Palmer family. Did Miss Wilks take out one of her insurance policies on her? Was that the only reason that she was there at all?"

"Val, I don't think that it's a good idea to go around talking like that."

"I notice that you aren't arguing the point."

"Miss Wilks has me over something of a barrel at the moment. Your embarrassing 'escape' has cost me a lot with her."

"Hastings, you shoulda known going in, that nobody gets the better of the bargain when they make a deal with the devil."

"Dammit, Valerie, I can't protect you if you keep antagonizing Wilks!"

"Oh, you're protecting me, Guy? Like you did that night, when you dragged my panties off and took my cherry?"

"It wasn't like that."

"It was EXACTLY like that, Hastings! I oughta know, I was the one who got _raped_!"

"Oh, stop playing the victim! You enjoyed it!"

"Oh, you'd like to think so, wouldn't you? If I liked it so much, how come I kept begging you to get off of me?"

"It wasn't like that - it was a special moment. For both of us."

"Oh, believe me, Guy - a girl never forgets the night that she got raped!"

"Valerie. I want you to know - I love you."

I looked at him hard. "Is there a paper bag in here anywhere? I think I'm gonna be sick."

                       

The rest of the long drive to the Rutledge Academy was strained, even by those beginning standards. Hastings would try to be pleasant, and I'd slap him down by reminding him in detail how much he'd done to screw me over. The worst thing was, all through the ride, he kept telling me that he loved me.

It was about one in the afternoon when Hastings picked me up in Boston. By the time that we got back to the Rutledge Academy, it was well into the evening. Lester all but dragged me into Wilks' office. I swear that the eyes in those damn portraits were even more piercing than usual.

Wilks was sitting in her chair, as always. But the air was clear. Wilks glowered at me. "Miss Ramsden, you are a great deal of trouble."

I shot her a wiseacre smile back. "It's always good to know that your work is appreciated!"

"And what is that outlandish looking outfit that you're wearing?"

"Oh please, Wilks! Even you must have heard of Goth by now!"

"It's ridiculous!"

"You can wear that outfit with those shoes, and talk about my fashion sense?"

"Enough of this foolishness! Miss Ramsden, when you left us, you took many things of great value-"

"At least that's what you told the insurance companies, right, Wilks?"

"Mister Hastings, did she have all the missing files with her?"

"No, Miss Wilks. She had this-" he held up the accordion file, "-but most of the files are still missing."

I grinned. "Need I add that if I don't turn up at a certain place at a certain time, that the Boston Globe will be getting an anonymous tip about a bunch of documents proving the existence of a widespread fraud, inside trading and influence peddling ring operating in the South?"

"ENOUGH! I have played this game with you before, Miss Ramsden! I refuse to play games with you anymore! It is time to make the final move in our little chess match!" She rang her oh-so-refined china bell, and Mrs. Kimball came in. "Kimball, brew up a pot of Bittersweet Tea."

I raised an eyebrow. "Kimball? What happened to Elisheva?"

Wilks raised an eyebrow back at me. "Elisheva is dead."

"What happened? Did she try her own cooking? Or did you take out an insurance policy on her?"

"She had an accident. The very same day that you left."

"Oh? Well, you know what they say - the majority of home fatalities happen in the safety of your own dungeon!"

"You can laugh, Miss Ramsden, but Elisheva had been with me for more years than you've been alive!"

"So who's laughing? Why, I'll miss her merry laughter and sunny disposition..."

Wilks sat back sourly in her chair. "Such a razor wit in the face of ultimate defeat. Ramsden, I would admire you, if I didn't loathe every fiber of your being."

Kimball finally came up with the Bittersweet Tea.

"Wilks, before we do this, there's something I gotta know-"

"-Have to know." Trust Wilks to grab that last little bit of one-upsmanship.

"Okay, Have to know: When you set up that phony 'accident' with Cressida Palmer and the limo - did you give the Kill order to Hastings, or to his driver?"

Wilks paused over the teapot for a moment. "Cressida... Palmer... oh yes, your little redheaded friend." Her little spider eyes glittered with the thought. "Oh, I specifically told Mister Hastings to make sure of it. Never depend on the servants to do the really important things. Well, enough of that!"

Hastings grabbed my right arm and Kimball grabbed my left. Lester pulled my head back by the hair and pried my jaws open. Then he inserted one of those damn wooden wedges. Then they all forced me to my knees.

Wilks stood and picked up the teapot. With a gleam of triumph and vicious anticipation on her creased face, she came over and poured the Tea down my throat. As I coughed and gasped, Wilks sat back down and canted her head back. It crossed my mind that it wasn't taking her as long this time. Maybe she wasn't taking certain precautions this time. Maybe this time, she didn't plan on coming back.

And there it came, that big glossy black spider filling Wilk's mouth as it came out.

That was what I was waiting for. I reached into the pocket of that big leather blazer and pulled out that babyfood jar. With an ease born of hours of practice for this very moment, I opened the jar with an elegant twist of one hand and dropped it. The snake came out. I had carefully drained the jar of the Bittersweet Tea last night, so the snake was wide-awake and looking for something to eat. The spider and the snake spotted each other at exactly the same moment. The spider scuttled back up Wilks' chin as the snake zipped across the floor, up her leg and over to her mouth. The snake went down Wilks' mouth a second after the spider did. Pity the spider hadn't taken those precautions.

Wilks' eyes jerked open, and she shuddered spasmodically. Haltingly, she lurched over to the teapot. Hastings, Lester and Kimball let go of me to help her. Finally free, I beat them all to the punch and slapped the teapot out of her hands, sending the contents spilling. I clawed the wedge out of my mouth and yelled. "NOW! She's seen you, and she's trying to commit suicide by drinking the poison!"

Lester tackled me to the ground. Hastings grabbed me by the hair and yelled, "WHAT DID YOU DO?" Then he saw the hearing aid shaped listening device and receiver hidden in my ears.

I glared red-hot hatred at him. "CheckmateAsshole!"

He pulled out the devices and crushed them under his heel. He looked at me with pained confusion. "Why, Valerie? I love you!"

"You Love me? Hastings, you stole everything that I have, even my manhood, and you sold me out to that thing,  you _raped_ me and now you say that you love me?! But that's not why I hate you, Hastings; I hate you because you murdered George. Not only did you murder the girl I loved like a little sister, but you killed her with the limo! She loved that car! And you killed her with it! That couldn't be an accident, it could only be an intentional cruelty! You knew who she was, and you deliberately chose that way of doing it, just to hurt her! And that's what I'll never forgive you for!"

Hastings was bringing down his fist on my face for the third time when the FBI agents came bursting through the door. Lester got up off of me and went roaring at them. Whoever Lester is, he can't be that used to being a big guy. One short G-man took him down without firing a shot or raising a sweat. Two of the other Agents pulled Hastings off of me. Hastings looked around as the FBI team started looking around and the Federal Marshals produced their Search Warrants and "John/Jane Doe 1-XX" Arrest Warrants.

He looked bewildered at me. "What IS this?"

I was helped up and took an offered cold compress for my face. "Well, when I first blew this gilded snakepit, you pulled some strings to get Marcy Finson and Sarah Brandt out of the country. That was obvious, the timing was too perfect. So, I reasoned that you were trying to force a decision on me. You knew that I'd go to one or the other of them, but you couldn't be sure which one. So, you arranged for Sarah to come back before Marcy, knowing that I'd go to her as soon as I could. Again, that was obvious. So, I caught a train back to Washington, and managed to get to see Senator Thurwell. With the documentation that I had, I convinced Thurwell that Wilks' man in Washington, Congressman Leverett, was up to his eyeballs in an Insurance Fraud ring. Wasn't that hard - Thurwell hates Leverett's guts, and wants to be there when the FBI busts him. Hey, doing your homework pays! Anyway, Thurwell got in touch with Finson and Brandt, and confirmed my story. The rest was a matter of waiting for you to make your move, and of me getting to you say the right things for the listening devices. Why do you think I pulled that 'One thing I gotta know' number? Damn nice of Wilks to admit to arranging a cold-blooded murder."

One of the Agents tending to Miss Wilks shouted to the SAIC (Special Agent In Charge), "She's going into convulsions! Get an ambulance!"

I yelled, "She's faking! She's trying to weasel out by pleading poor health! She never drank any of the Tea, I made sure of that."

The SAIC looked at me. "Maybe, but we can't take that chance. At her age, even a slow poison like Nightshade could be fatal. We'll take her to a the prison ward at the nearest Hospital."

"Take her to Bethesda, in Maryland. She has too many people under her thumb around here. Even if they don't arrange an escape for her, they might kill her so that she can't name them."

The SAIC didn't like the thought of taking orders from a sixteen-year-old girl, but saw the wisdom. "Speaking of which, even with that antidote that we gave you this morning in your system, I'm going have to insist that you have your stomach pumped."

"Oh, Happy, Happy. Joy, Joy," I grumped.

Then Marcy came in and started fussing over me. Then she saw the bruising on my face, and she almost lost it. She fired up a verbal chainsaw and started using it on Hastings. The G-men had mercy on him and took him from the room. As he was being taken out, he gave me a long last 'but I love you' look.

With Hastings gone, Marcy softened up. She came over and looked at me. "Valerie, I know that you've been through a lot. You've lost your family, your friends, and you were put through this nightmare. That bitch Wilks even did a number on your paperwork - we can't find any trace of you! It's like you just dropped out of nowhere! But I'll take care of that. Val, what I'm trying to say is, I know that I can never replace your mother or your father. But, maybe - Val, maybe you could be like my little sister?"

Okay, the 'little sister' bit got to me. I wordlessly wrapped myself around her in a fierce hug. Oh well, Marcy wasn't really all that bad - maybe she'd cut her 'little sister' more slack than she'd cut her beau.

We stood there a while. Then Marcy kissed me on the forehead and went to take care of some details. On a whim, I went over to the cabinet. Inside, there was a plain glass jar with a few bright fluttering lights. Impressive - she actually managed to catch a few back in the nine days since I let them all free. I took the jar over to the window and opened it, setting them free.

One of the Federal Marshals saw me. "What's that?"

"Fireflies. Wilks always liked keeping bright pretty things near her, no matter what it did to them."

I looked out into the gathering darkness, watching the Souls flutter away. I saw them join others out in the trees that ringed the cultivated area of the lawns. There were hundreds of them. Why were they still here? They must be waiting for Wilks. They were what Wilks had been afraid of all those years. They were the reason that she always had that thick curtain of smoke around her.

But Wilks still had one last card to play, and so did I.

I went to the front of the building and watched as the students and teachers were taken off. 'Detained for questioning'. The FBI didn't want anyone in the building fudging with any possible evidence. They really shouldn't have bothered. They had all the evidence that they really needed in the documents that I gave them. Wilks wouldn't have any bodies buried in secret graves in the basement - it's not her style. All her victims were properly buried in cemeteries - those that she didn't have cremated, so that the remains couldn't be examined.

I went over to the SAIC. "Do you mind if I go down into the basement? I want to look and see if Wilks has anything of mine down there. When I leave here, I don't ever want to have to come back."

He nodded. "Okay, but I'll have to check everything that you take, just for the records."

The other agents were too busy to go with me, so I went down into the basement alone. I knew what Wilks' last card was. Though I'd sicced that snake on the spider, that wasn't the last of her, not by a long shot. In a toe-to-toe battle, my money was on the spider over the snake, every time. It would take her a while, but eventually the spider would crawl out of Hannah Wilks' body and leave it to die. Since she couldn't just crawl into somebody's mouth and take over - she needed that whole elaborate procedure for that - she was stuck as a spider. It would take her a long while to get back here, but she'd find a way, I'm sure of that.

I'm sure, because this house is Wilks' last card. It's her web, her place of power. Eventually, she'd crawl back here and hide in all the nooks and crannies. And eventually, she'd arrange to crawl into a suitable mouth, and it would all start over again. As long as she has this web to return to, she's a danger.

It doesn't really matter if Wilks - or whatever her true name is - comes after me, looking for payback or not. Like I said when I started all of this, 'She's gotten away with her crap for too long'.

First, I went over to the electrical junction box, and fiddled with the switches a little, so that the FBI guys wouldn't notice anything. Then I opened the fuse box, and removed a few strategic fuses. I placed pennies in their sockets, closed the box and put the switches back in the proper order.

Then I got a bucket and stood up on it to reach the pipes that were clearly labeled 'Sprinkler System: Don't Touch!' I slowly shut the main valve off, so that the change in water pressure wouldn't set off those unearthly groans. Then I rearranged the bales of inflammables, so that they were right next to the badly overloaded wiring. It would take hours, but inevitably, the wiring would short out and start sparking. That would ignite the boxes, and the fire would start.

All those hours, the students here polished and waxed all that wood that made up this place. The thing is, the more you varnish or wax something, the drier the wood under the finish gets. And parts of this place are over a hundred and fifty years old. The place would go up like kindling. There's no way that the local fire department could get here in time. There would be nothing but the brick foundations. There would be no web for which the spider to return. But Wilks wouldn't know that. She'd bust her hump to get here, and her web would be ashes. But the Souls would still be here, patiently waiting for her. For their revenge. And why not? Some of them have been waiting for a hundred and fifty years!

And that's MY last card, Wilks. I trumped your play without so much as straining.

Now, for the next great challenge. Living.

I looked around the basement, and actually managed to find the books that George had brought me to read. I gathered them up and took them out of the basement.

As I waited for Marcy to get her car, I watched the Souls out in the trees, flickering like fireflies. On a maudlin impulse, I pulled George's Fleetwood keychain out of my pocket and looked at it. From somewhere, one of those flickering 'fireflies' came and landed on the keychain. "George?" I whispered. The 'firefly' fluttered a bit and then flew off. She didn't rejoin the other Souls in the trees. She rose up, to - I hope - a far better destination. I love you, little sister, and Good-bye.

 

FINIS
Read 601 times Last modified on Sunday, 24 July 2022 13:59

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ReadingIsGood
1 week ago
Creepy, yet sentimental. He...now she, remembers her friends and finishes her enemies.
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