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A Bunch of Punxsutawney Phils

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Cyndee kept her head down while she cranked, but Kimmy still heard her whisper.

"I think something bad musta happened to him. He hasn't been out of his tube in days."

Kimmy thought it was closer to a week since they last saw the reverend—not nearly long enough, if you asked her. She'd be fine if he never came back at all. But he did have the only key to the provisions room, ever since he caught them dancing with Can Man. And they were getting low on peaches.

"Well, what are you telling me for?" she whispered back. It was Donna Maria's turn to sleep, and she seemed to need it more than any of the younger girls did. "What am I going to do about it? Go ask Gretchen to knock on his hatch. You know he doesn't get mad at her the way he does us."

"I did! She said he's probably in there praying for our souls and we can't stop him or we'll go to—you know! Oh, Gosh, forgive me for even thinking of it!" If she hadn't needed to keep cranking, she probably would have fallen to her knees. "Kimmy, you have to go check on him."

Eye-rolling was one of the Devil's signs, Kimmy knew, but she couldn't help herself. She finished slicing the sausages and dumped them into the stew. Wiping her hands, she stomped over to the tube and started scuttling along on her hands and knees. At the end, she straightened the plastic license plate with a finger, then knocked on the hatch. It rang under her knuckles, hollow and cold.

"Reverend Richard," she said, putting her mouth right up next to the seal. "Reverend Richard, you gotta come quick! It's Gretchen! She's—"

She couldn't think of what Gretchen could be that would bring him out in any kind of a hurry. He hadn't cared when Cyndee burned her hands on the stove, or when Kimmy accidentally set the last of the newspapers on fire, or when the smell of burning flesh came billowing out of the air filters. Didn't bother to even look at Donna Maria's ankle when she turned it climbing down into the baptism room.

Kimmy hung her head and took several deep breaths, trying to keep her temper from bubbling up. Punishments still weren't as bad as they had been before Gretchen came, but the promise was always in the air.

She knocked again, hard enough to sting her knuckles. "Reverend! You come out here, you hear me? We need you out here." She could barely force the last part out.

Still no answer. She heard scuffling noises behind her and craned to look. At the other end of the tube, Gretchen's skirts tangled with Cyndee's as each girl kicked and fought to get past the other. One of their hands clawed at the inside of the tube, trying to get a handhold.

Kimmy banged on the hatch. "Reverend, I mean it! We're right on the verge of eternal damnation out here!"

She grabbed the handle to give it a good shaking. Her hands already ached from pounding on the heavy hatch. Instead, the handle swung easily in her grip. Something clunked deep inside the metal and the hatch started to swing toward her with the familiar creak that sent that sick feeling down deep inside her. She pushed it to the side of the tube. Kimmy wasn't really expecting to be struck down by Gosh or Jeepers—if they could see into her heart, they would've done it years ago—but she still had to talk herself into sticking her head and shoulders into the Reverend's private sanctuary.

"You can do this, Kimmy. You can do anything for ten—"

She lost her balance and fell forward, hitting her head on the floor as she landed in an ungainly heap. Birds chirped around her head, like in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, but... No, not birds. Music. Something she recognized from the radio.

Kimmy untangled her feet from her skirts, pushed to her feet, and cursed.

"That son of a bee-sting!"

...

"Pack your bags, lil' lady, we're goin' to El Paso!"

Veronica narrowed her eyes at her father, who tipped an imaginary cowboy hat and did a shuffle-step. She pointed her spoon at him before he could start twirling any imaginary lassos.

"You only break out the hoedown for the big tickets. This the sticky-fingered studio exec or that guy with the basement full of weed?"

"That's for me to know and you to find out ... when we get to El Paso tonight." He shook his head. "That was a lot snappier in my head."

"Not that I'm not dying to get the heck outta Dodge at all times, but you do know I have school tomorrow, right?"

Keith stole the last piece of ham from her plate and wiggled it at her. "I know if I leave you here, you'll be tailing Jake Kane tonight, with or without Backup."

She gasped. "How dare you, sir?"

"So you wouldn't be parked outside Kane Software within thirty minutes of dropping me off?"

"Please, it takes at least forty to get all the way out there from the airport, and that's if there's no traffic from the stadium."

He made a soft noise, either agreement or capitulation.

"I book the tickets; you grab the go bags?" Veronica was typing on her laptop before he finished nodding.

"Deal." He wiped his hands on a napkin before pulling on a jacket and fishing around in a pocket for his keys. "Yours still under your bed?"

"Right next to all those vintage Playboys I've been hoarding."

"I was always more of a Cosmo man, myself."

"Ewww."

Keith pressed a kiss to her hair. "Back in a few. No Blazers. No Broncos!"

"Yeah, yeah."

She waited until the door closed behind him and rubbed her hands together. "But he didn't say no to all equine variants. One Mustang convertible, coming right up."

The phone rang.

"Mars Investigations! Uh-huh, yeah, Keith Mars is our lead investigator." Veronica was only half-paying attention to the caller. "I'm sorry, can I put you on hold for a second? Thanks!"

Lariat's website made about as much sense as a straight-edge kid at an 09er party, probably on purpose. It was all too easy to double-book if you weren't careful. The last time she rented a car online for her dad, it took two sobbing calls to the CEO's private line to reverse the duplicate fees. Two! Veronica was still insulted she hadn't nailed the routine in the first ninety seconds.

Veronica found the car she wanted and clicked to book it. A few keystrokes later, the confirmation was on its way to her email.

Putting the phone back to her ear, she grabbed a pad of paper with her free hand and tested the first pen she grabbed.

"Sorry about that. Which warrant is this? For plants, really?" she asked the caller. "Uh-huh, well that's a little far out of Mr Mars' usual territory, but—"

Her customary next question was to find out what the bounty would be, whether expenses were covered, and other very important financial questions no PI in their right mind would leave to negotiation at a later date. But the caller offered it all up before she could.

"Well, that's very interesting. I'll make sure Mr Mars knows right away."

She got the contact's phone number and dropped the receiver, already onto the next problem: how to get the Lariat rental pickup location moved to the nearest airport to Louisville, Kentucky.

And the one after that: explaining to Keith Mars why he'd need to save his boot-scooting for another day.

...

Florida was nothing at all like Ron expected, nothing like the brochures. Inland, it was hot, muggy, flat, ugly. Rude Muggles everywhere. The Magic Kingdom? Talk about false advertising! The closest thing he'd seen to magic on the entire trip was the bathing suit Hermione packed for the beach. It covered more skin than most of her pants did, but oh, when she came strolling out of the water... To say he'd dreamed about it did such little justice to his imagination, let alone the reality.

Of course, it wasn't all sun-drenched, sandy-legged frolics. For a honeymooning couple, there were far more outdoor activities than Ron had bargained for. Hikes through mosquito-infested pine forests where Hermione's guidebooks marked out encounters between generous natives and desperate Europeans. An entire day at the tourist-clogged concrete and steel mass of a Muggle spaceport—a far cry from the elegant and massively expensive lunar portkey lounges featured in glossy magazines at home. Long rides along swampy roads and tree-clogged rivers where they gawked at lazy alligators and spindly birds, Hermione reciting their names and attributes, Ron wondering why no one mentioned the ruby snidgets flitting over their heads to snatch bugs out of the sky.

The alarm went off before Ron had even started thinking about how best to coax his new wife—wife!—from sleep. He groaned and dragged a pillow over his face.

"Can't we have one day of sloth?" he whined.

Hermione waved a hand at the alarm and knocked the pillow off his face before fitting herself to him under the scratchy white sheet. Her breath was stale, but her lips and hands were soft. "I suppose I could be persuaded to forego the Muggle science museum."

Ron felt rather like he were the one being persuaded, but who was he to argue?

They emerged into the thick humid day shortly after noon. Hermione had her bushy hair twisted up on top of her head. Little corkscrews came loose to brush against her long dark neck. She dug around in her handbag and squinted at the personal fellytone she'd been issued by the ministry.

"Sorry, Ron, two seconds. It's the Liaison's office." She kissed him hurriedly and walked back into the lobby vestibule to answer.

The Floo network had never quite caught on this side of the Atlantic, and Hermione would never know how to take more than two days off in a row. If he were honest, Ron was still surprised she made it all the way through the wedding without stepping outside for a conference.

Hermione rang off her call. "It seems they've already called in the collection request but they're still waiting for someone to sign off on the... The other thing. I'll have to check in again later," she explained.

"I thought you had to set it up with that bloke from ... was it Texas?"

"Apparently his name set off alarms with the authorities, so they went to someone in California," Hermione said. She kissed him again. "Let's worry about that later. I'm starving. Want to try the Italian restaurant we saw the other day?"

"Sure." Ron patted his pockets to make sure he'd brought the folded wallet stuffed with Muggle money. "Or we could get sandwiches and eat them on the beach?"

The restaurant Hermione suggested was slightly too far to walk, and well out of the way of the only public transport they'd found in town. They had hired a car to use—well, for Hermione to use. Ron hadn't been behind the wheel of anything since the Anglia booted him out on the lawn at Hogwarts, and he was certainly in no rush to try it again.

Hermione rubbed her nose and shifted the strap of her handbag from one shoulder to the other. "We could do that tomorrow before we head back to the portkey lounge? I'd quite like to get away from the hotel for a bit. Is that all right?"

"We've barely even been in the hotel!"

"Well, we're hardly likely to come back to Florida either! We're only here this time because—"

Ron frowned. They were only here because it was the cheapest of all the holiday packages they'd looked at. Between Hermione's salary and what Ron brought in as the junior partner in the shop, it was months of scraping before they had the Galleons together for this. Even then Hermione had had to agree to be temporarily seconded to the Liaison's office while they were in America to make up the last bit of difference. A few nights at a fancy beachside hotel in exchange for some phone calls and a brief conversation hardly seemed worth protesting.

"Never mind," Hermione said. "I'm sorry. You know I don't care where we are. It's just..." She squared her shoulders. "I thought you and I could have a proper meal in a proper restaurant and pretend that we're two proper adults on a proper honeymoon!"

He pulled her to his side and kissed her temple. "You couldn't be anything but a proper adult, no matter how hard you try."

Hermione squawked in mock outrage and dug her fingers into his ribs until he jumped away, laughing.

After a mostly uneventful drive, they found the restaurant cozy but crowded. After a quick look round the dining room, Hermione asked their server to package up their meals with everything they would need to eat outside.

"On the beach. See? Compromise," she said to Ron's unasked question. "Didn't your mother tell you how necessary it is to any successful marriage?"

He groaned. "Did she ever stop?"

...

Veronica and Keith had an almost embarrassingly easy time apprehending their man, once Keith got over the whole my-word-is-my-bond and I-don't-like-calls-from-guys-I-don't-know thing. That her bond-jumper was worth at least triple his went a long way to smoothing his ruffled feathers, too.

The jacket on the guy had him as a run of the mill opportunist: big ideas, small execution, all of it despicable. Reverend Ponytail was wanted on all kinds of warrants for everything from petty theft and fraud, hence the religious pretensions, to some kind of agricultural crime and assaults of various kinds. When Keith ran him down in the stands of a junior high football game, the guy offered up his name—not really his, of course; instead it was one courtesy of an 80-year-old Korean War veteran who had no idea he'd spent the summer bouncing back and forth across the Ohio River—and thought he was slick enough to talk Keith into looking the other way. When that didn't work, the man slid on a pair of thick glasses and slithered through the bleachers to land on his ass in the gravel underneath. Where Veronica, inspired by some of the more repulsive charges listed in the file, was waiting to administer a well-timed shot to the junk with her taser.

("I was aiming for his shoulder!"

Keith shook his head. "Honey, I haven't been stuffing that college fund all these years for you to be flunking basic anatomy.")

Still, once he came to, handcuffed in the back of a boring four-door rental sedan, Reverend Ponytail spent most of the drive back to Louisville grinning vacuously and humming old soft drink jingles. He was a jolly little bond-jumper, this one. Veronica had to sit on her hands to keep herself from shoving him out a window.

They were bumping along a road that Keith's gas station map had marked as a shortcut. At the bottom of a rocky hill, the radio died with an ignominious burst of static—hardly surprising. They were surrounded on all sides by trees and hills so tall Veronica had been surprised by the sight of them. Not that she'd thought about it extensively, but she always pictured everything between the Rockies and the East Coast as a vast flat plain covered with beans and cows and corn.

In the silence, Reverend Ponytail began another off-key rendition of an old commercial jingle Veronica thought might be even older than Keith. She groaned and thumped the radio, which declined to react at all.

"Indiana is a stupid state."

"No argument here." Keith glanced at the map spread on Veronica's lap and cursed. He pumped the brakes and executed a neat U-turn that barely edged off the gravel. "Keep your eyes peeled, honey. There's supposed to be a turnoff here somewhere."

By the time they finally made it back to the tiny town on the river, the so-called reverend was slumped against a window, snoring. Keith flipped on his blinker as they neared the motel where they'd left their bags.

"What time's our flight?" he asked.

"Lift-off at 3:30, and your El Paso man will be waiting for us at the fountain seven o'clock local time. And we're, what..." Veronica popped her fingers across the map. "Maybe two hours away if we stick to state routes? How about you buy me lunch and I'll do the driving. We're not in the middle of nowhere, but we can see it from here! Whaddaya say?"

"As long as there aren't any cliffs between here and Louisville, Thelma."

"You're such a spoilsport, Louise."

"I'm not the one who's got to get up for school tomorrow."

Keith laughed when she pouted, and parked in a space near the motel's front doors. He reached to turn off the ignition and the radio crackled, then a voice slid out of the static.

"—NOT A TEST. Authorities are urging everyone in the great—"

As quickly as it came, the voice was gone. Soft static filled the car.

"I'm sure it's nothing," Keith said, but he slipped the transmission back in gear and rolled slowly out of the parking space. When the signal didn't come back, he shook his head and parked. "Probably a storm or something."

There wasn't a cloud in the sky, but who knew how the weather worked out here. It was freaky enough driving west for hours without ever reaching the ocean.

"Listen," Keith said, when Veronica started fiddling with the tuner, "you run in for the bags and I'll get us checked out. Maybe the lady inside's got a weather radio."

"All right, deal."

When Keith turned off the engine, Veronica opened her door. The car made a frantic dinging noise until Keith removed the keys from the ignition. In the backseat, their runner shouted in his sleep, "Gosh! I knew you hadn't forsaken me!" He mumbled something else, then said, "Jeepers! Same to you!"

Keith and Veronica locked eyes. She bit her lip to keep her giggles in, then clapped a hand over her mouth just in case. There were no more outbursts while they both got out of the car, and Keith locked the guy inside. He stood with his hands on his hips, peering through the window as the man sank into more mumbling.

"You didn't hear this," he told Veronica, "but I wish we could just lock him in a box and ship him back to Neptune. I can't do another twelve hours of cheesy 70s jingles, Veronica. I'm the only one allowed to hum cheesy 70s jingles!"

"Well, the good news is if you didn't put a return address on the package, Lamb would never figure out it was you."

"Good point. Wait for me when you're done?" It would have been a command, once. Maybe you could teach an old dog new tricks.

"I wouldn't get in there alone even if a taco as big as my head materialized inside."

"A taco that big? I'd be kinda disappointed if you didn't get in there to claim it."

"I might make an exception for a pony, too," she said in a stage whisper.

Not even a groan to go with his dismissive wave. She was finally wearing him down.

...

"Gretchen, if you say one more word I'm gonna let Cyndee think you're Lou Albano again!"

Kimmy stomped to the other side of the cooking area and rubbed her forehead. It felt like her brains were about to come right out the front of her head. She was still steamed, like her blood was boiling right there in her heart. They'd searched every inch of the bunker and the reverend was nowhere to be found. The whole time they thought he'd been praying for their eternal souls? Gone. Vanished. Gretchen kept arguing that he must have been taken in the Rapture, and their sinful girly ways had condemned them all to the Hell on Earth that was to follow. Donna Maria sat next to the broken table and stared at the hatch that led up to the surface.

Cyndee mostly cried.

"Okay," Kimmy said. "Even if he did get raptured, which he didn't, how do you explain all those worldly goods in his tube? The VCR, the bubble lights? I heard the radio, Gretchen, I swear to Gosh Himself."

"Kimmy!" All three of her companions crossed themselves.

Kimmy threw up her hands. "He has alcohol in there, for crying out loud!"

"That doesn't mean anything! None of that stuff even works."

"Maybe not now, but it must be working some of the time! I heard that music, and those beer cans are still cold!"

They went back and forth for a while without getting anywhere. Cyndee graduated to whimpering and hiding her face behind her hands. Donna Maria stood and smoothed out her skirts, then walked over to the crank.

"Donna Maria, it's not your turn," Gretchen spat. "Cyndee's not done yet."

Donna Maria shrugged, and started cranking.

From the end of the tunnel, through the Reverend's open door, the music started up again. All four women were frozen for a long minute, while a guitar and drum fought with each other until a woman's voice spoke over them:

"This is WDUR, coming at you large and in charge on this beautiful afternoon!"

"I told you!" Kimmy crowed.

Cyndee rushed down the tunnel and fell into the tube with a loud thud. Even Gretchen looked shaken by the colorful lights spilling toward them and the new song that wailed through the bunker.

"Why would he lie? Why would he lie about any of it?" she asked no one in particular. Her face was pale and she seemed like she'd shrunk several inches. Even her hair looked flatter.

Kimmy didn't have any answers, which made her almost as mad as everything else. She followed Cyndee back to the tube, this time managing to swing herself around so she stepped down into the reverend's space.

"There has to be a way out of here," she declared. "He didn't get out the way we came in. We would have seen him."

Gretchen and Donna Maria slipped in behind them.

Pointing at the opposite corners of the room, Kimmy suggested everyone start working their way to the middle of the room. They needed to find a hatch, or a vent, or a door, or even just a key.

They turned up videotapes with covers that made Cyndee and Gretchen nearly burst into flame from looking at them. A guitar, three different silky black robes, a book of poems dedicated to Donald Trump. Behind a curtain, they found a safe with another video tape and a long knobbly stick inside. No phones. No keys. And no exits.

Kimmy sat in the very center of the floor and crossed her arms. "There has to be something."

"But where?" Cyndee asked.

Gretchen stomped her foot. "There's no escaping the end of days!"

In the corner, by the bar, Donna Maria was looking at the stick. She turned it over, stared down the length of it with one eye. She waved it in front of her face and said, "Alohomora!"

"Gesundheit," Kimmy said.

Donna Maria rolled her eyes and nodded toward the far corner. "No, pendeja. Alohomora. ¡Mira!"

Kimmy turned, and felt her brains fall right out the back of her head. Where the reverend's cheesy bar had stood, there was now an opening in the wall, and a ladder leading up, with sunlight pouring down to spill on the floor. She heard birds singing. No lakes of fire, no swirling demons or showers of ash, just the sweet smell of air that hadn't been through dozens of feet of rat droppings and other people's lungs.

There was a mad scramble to be the first up the ladder—Gretchen lost her apron; Cyndee tore two nails; Kimmy was pretty sure she'd have a heck of a shiner. Donna Maria ignored their fighting and stuck her weird stick behind her ear, then tucked her skirts into a knot and started to climb.

...

Veronica stopped at a gas station about half an hour outside Louisville. The reverend had finally stopped humming, singing, and mumbling to himself, but the radio still wasn't working. They had enough gas to get to the airport without having to pay the exorbitant refueling fee, but she had to pee like a mother. A phrase that was much funnier when her mother was still around to snicker at it with her.

Keith handed her a five. "Get some sodas on your way back, will you? Diet for me. I've got to keep up this girlish figure of mine somehow."

She finger-gunned and clicked her tongue.

"Don't call me soda-pop," Keith said with a groan.

Veronica scoffed. "Would I ever?"

"And twice on Sundays."

They got out of the car together. Veronica nearly groaned at the feel of solid ground under her feet. It felt like she'd been in a car or on a plane for half her life in the last day.

Keith stretched with his hands in the small of his back. Even over the road noise she could hear the pops as his vertebrae did whatever it was that they did— Maybe he had a point about the anatomy unit. Nevertheless, Veronica filed away the evidence of his decrepit old man body for the next time he wanted her to rent a sedan instead of something with a little leg room and cushy seats.

The bathroom was thankfully clean, although a bit ripe. Veronica washed her hands and dried them on her pant legs rather than risk the germ blower. Getting the door open without using her newly clean hands was trickier, but she managed it. Managed to find the coldest sodas in the cooler, too, along with enough junk food to use up the rest of the cash.

Keith was waiting for her at the counter.

"Oh, goody," she said, dumping her haul in front of the counter clerk, who hardly looked up from her copy of Circus. "If I can't have a pony, you could at least spring for a hot dog."

"Sure, okay." Keith nodded, but he was barely paying attention to her. All his attention was directed out the window at their rental car, and the ponytailed weirdo in the backseat. Keith had that look on his face, like he always got when the pieces of a puzzle started falling together.

Veronica shrugged and shoved a couple of hot dogs from the rolling grill into buns, and then into paper bags. A handful each of ketchup, mustard, and relish packets followed.

Keith kept staring. The clerk turned another page.

"What's up, daddy-o?"

"This guy, he said something back at the motel... Something about the girls were waiting...."

Keith's voice trailed off and didn't pick up again. Veronica dropped the hot dogs on the counter with the rest of the food.

"Just this," Veronica told the clerk, who started punching things on her register without losing the magazine. On the cover, Megadeth's Dave Mustaine really wanted to rock.

Veronica poked Keith, who pulled another few bills out of his wallet and handed them over without looking. He rubbed his chin, and tilted his head back to look at the ceiling.

Eureka. Classic gotcha pose.

"We gotta head back across the river," Keith told her. Impatient now, he didn't wait for the clerk to finish peeling a plastic bag open and swept half the chips and candy bars up in his arms. Veronica grabbed the rest and followed.

"What's across the river?"

"That's what I'm afraid to find out."

...

Hermione groaned and rolled to her stomach. "I don't think in sickness and in health meant you should let me eat my weight in bolognese, Bilius."

With a smirk, Ron patted his own belly, comfortably stuffed full of manicotti and sweet rolls of chocolate pastry and a cream of some sort.

They lay in the dunes on a scratchy blanket Hermione had unearthed from her never-ending handbag, with the detritus of their meals secured against the wind with their shoes and a large piece of driftwood. The sun was already dropping down below the hotel at their backs. Shadows crept toward them across the sand. The wind off the water made the sticky humid air feel almost clammy. Within an hour or two it would be chilly enough to pretend they were somewhere at home, though home never had such delicate golden beaches.

Hermione's handbag rang.

Ron covered his eyes with his arm while she took the call, hurrying past the pleasantries to ask brusque questions he was glad weren't directed at him. They'd crossed paths at the Ministry only once before he'd left the Auror Corps. He still sometimes dreamt of it, and not in any good ways. He didn't envy anyone who got the full work-mode Hermione aimed squarely at them.

"What do you mean, a Muggle?"

Somehow she managed to make the word sound positively Malfoyish. Ron shivered.

"No, listen," Hermione told the unlucky sod at the other end of the line, "this is unacceptable, do you hear me? The man is a quarter Veela, who's been dabbling in bloodroot grow operations for decades! His apprehension should have been under the purview of a properly trained field operative. I don't care what qualifications this detective has..."

She was quiet for a long moment, then shrieked, "He took his daughter?"

Hermione leapt up and started stuffing her feet into her shoes. The wind caught a plastic bag filled with napkins and dirty plates and sent it tumbling into the air. Ron chased after it while Hermione gave her contact both sides of her sharp tongue. By the time he'd caught the trash and brought it back, she had terminated her call and was rummaging through her handbag. A small pile of objects littered the blanket around her: two light coats, the hired car's keys, a folded piece of paper that looked rather like Harry's old Marauders' Map, a larger map with cheerful logos stamped all over it, the modified Remembrall she used to send sensitive messages to her supervisor, a Muggle device they had hired with the car, and Ron's old Auror kit bag.

Picking up the bag, Ron shook it near his ear. "Hey, are those no-touch restraints still in here? Or did we lose them that time at..."

Hermione swatted his arm and shushed him, looking at a small group of children playing in the sand nearby.

"I'm guessing we're not heading upstairs to recreate that night?" He gave her an exaggerated leer, and she giggled.

"I can't tell you everything that's going on, obviously—" she said, but he cut her off.

"When have I ever needed all the details before I did something stupid?"

She smirked. "I would have said courageous."

"Well, you have to keep up appearances so no one realizes what a nitwit you married, Mrs Weasley."

Ron hauled her to her feet, and kissed her. Her hair was tumbling down around her face and tickling his hands. She was so beautiful when she was righteous. Letting her go, he snagged everything she'd spread out on the blanket and helped her into her coat, then tucked the rest into the slightly less voluminous outer pocket of her bag.

He couldn't resist the urge to pull her close by the lapels of her coat and press another kiss, or twelve, to her lips. "Point the way, madam. My wand is at your command."

Hermione giggled again and buried her face against his chest, but he could still hear her clearly.

"Why didn't we add that to your vows?"

...

The first thing Kimmy saw was green. Just, green. Everywhere. So many shades of green that it hurt her eyes and her brain and her heart. She saw individual blades of grass, so clearly she thought she could have counted them all. Leaves on the trees, and a thick knot of moss on a trunk at the edge of the clearing. The peeling paint on the side of a trailer and the sleeveless shirt worn by its occupant, Walter Bankston, who she recognized from the IGA. He always made sure she got a sticker when they checked out, even after she was technically too old to be collecting them.

Overjoyed to see another human being—alive, unharmed, unclaimed by Gosh or Jeepers or whatever other nonsense the reverend had tried to pound into her head—Kimmy raised her arms and shouted his name.

Walter stepped out of his trailer and looked around, but he didn't turn in their direction.

"Can't he see us?" A sudden terrifying thought struck her, weakening her arms and legs. "Oh, no, are we dead? Is that why we could get— Ow!"

Gretchen sniffed. "I never saw a dead person react to getting pinched."

"Maybe I can feel it when you do it because you're dead, too, did you think of that?"

"¡No estamos muertas!"

"Gesundheit."

Donna Maria threw her hands up and walked away, muttering. Kimmy stared after her, not entirely sure what to do next. If she was dead, could she fly? Could she close her eyes and open them again wherever her mother was? Could she see her home again, or was there an angel already waiting to take her to Heaven? She was going to Heaven, right?

The air around Donna Maria shimmered gold, then purple, then gold again, then disappeared. By his trailer, Walter dropped the bike tire he held.

"Holy shit," he yelled. Gretchen scowled. Cyndee crossed herself.

"Lady! Hey, lady, yeah, you in the weird-ass dress, where'd you come from? You come from up there at the DJ's house? You okay, lady?"

"How does he see her and not us?"

Kimmy didn't wait to see if Gretchen or Cyndee had any idea. She picked up her skirts and raced after Donna Maria. Halfway across the grass, she felt a shiver race over her exposed skin and her vision flashed purple for a split second.

"Holy shit," Walter yelled again when he saw Kimmy. He fumbled in his pockets and flipped open a cell phone. "How many girls he got up there? Yeah, officer, it's an emergency. I think I found some of those girls that went missing. You better get up here. Durn's Tern Acres, lot 47."

He disconnected the call and propped his hands on his hips. "Holy shit," he said, grinning. "You girls want some water or anything? I got some of them juice pouch things, too. My grandbaby likes them."

A car slid to a halt in the parking area at the far end of the trailer. Not a cop car, a white sedan with a windshield full of bug splatters. A small blonde girl and a stocky man got out, both holding their hands up to show they weren't carrying anything.

"You girls all right?" the man said as they came closer.

"They've been worse, I'd say," Walter answered. "You cops?"

"No. Just passing through."

"He's a private detective," the girl piped up to say. "Used to be a cop, though."

"What, like Columbo?"

"Sure. He's even got a trench coat."

Walter nodded, like that was a given. "I called the cops," he told the new arrivals, "but I didn't tell 'em it was white girls I found, so they'll probably be a while getting out here. You guys want some juice, too? I got plenty."

The man shot a look at the girl, who smiled and said she'd help.

Turning to Donna Maria and Kimmy, he said, "I'm Keith Mars. That's my daughter Veronica. We apprehended a man earlier today who's wanted on several warrants. He led us to believe that he may have left some ... family members in a precarious situation. Do either of you know a Wayland Richardson, sometimes goes by Don or ..." He looked at a notebook he'd pulled from somewhere. "Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne?"

Donna Maria spat out a long stream of Spanish. Kimmy translated.

"That's the j-word who kept us locked up in his stupid bunker!"

"J-word?"

Kimmy gritted out the word. It wasn't like Gosh was going to strike her down now, was it? She could say jerk as much as she wanted. She could say anything she wanted with no stupid jerks telling her what she could and couldn't do.

It was such a tiny word: jerk. She'd thrown it around all the time, before. Without even thinking about it. But now that one word unlocked the first bits of hope she'd felt in months. She could do anything now, anything at all!

Something tickled her nose, and she brushed it away with the backs of her hands. It was wet. Tears. She was crying, for the first time in years, tears streaming down her face, but she was the least sad she'd ever been in her entire life.

Donna Maria slipped her hand into Kimmy's and squeezed. Mr Mars offered her a wad of tissues he pulled from his pocket.

"It's gonna be okay," he said, and Kimmy could almost believe him.

"Was there anyone else with the two of you?"

"Yeah, Gretchen, and Cyndee. They're right over..." Kimmy let go of Donna Maria to point them out, but when she turned, all she saw was bright green grass surrounded by trees and dilapidated trailers. "They were right here! Gretchen? Cyndee!"

She had a terrible thought. "Oh, no! Where's Reverend Richard? Did he get them again? We have to help them!"

"He doesn't have them," Keith told her. "He's in restraints in the back of our car. He's not going anywhere."

Donna Maria made an angry noise and walked toward the car, her stick raised like a pointer.

"Whoa there!" Veronica yelled, while Keith tried to keep Kimmy from following.

Veronica hurried down the trailer's steps and ran to intercept Donna Maria, a juice pouch clutched in each hand. "Why don't you stay over here, with me and Dad, and we'll figure out what to do when the cops get here. Is that okay?"

" ¡Voy a romperle los cojones!"

"Wait! Here, take this." Passing off one of the drinks to a confused Donna Maria, Veronica dug in her bag with her free hand. "Look, Sparky here? Already took care of it for you." She pressed a button and electricity crackled at the end of the thing she held.

"¿Y lloro?"

"Like a baby."

"Me da gusto," Donna Maria said. She tucked the stick up her sleeve and sat down with Walter to drink her juice.

...

"Have you found it yet?"

"I'm trying," Hermione said, frustrated. "I think it must be a modified Immobulus. The clenched hands are a classic sign, but their eyes..." She trailed off into muttering, flipping pages so fast she was bound to rip one sooner or later.

They had apparated in only moments earlier, thanks to an incredible invention the Muggles called a jeepiyus. It had put them down a few yards away from what was marked in official records as a long-since-abandoned farm house. It had the telltale shimmer of an incognito spell, marking it as an obvious wizardly residence to anyone with eyes. And magic, obviously.

Wands out, Ron and Hermione had expected that they would have to fight their way in, but in the middle of the clearing a hatch stood wide open, and two young women lay in the grass next to it. Down a gentle hill a cluster of people gathered around two more women wearing dresses that wouldn't have been too out of place back home. Great-aunt Gilfrida had preferred something remarkably similar.

Ron shouted, but no one seemed to hear him. He took a few steps toward the group, keeping his attention on the ground. What was it Robards said to watch for? A gentle springing up of materials around an invisible— There! A thin line ran through the grass, counter to the directions in which the blades grew, and too small to be anything natural. He marked it for several dozens of feet to either side of the initial point. A boundary charm of some kind. Nothing as powerful as that which hid Hogwarts from prying eyes, but it did the job well enough to isolate them by sight and sound.

He held out his wand and coaxed a gentle stream of power toward the barrier. It rebounded with a purplish spark and the smell of burnt toast.

"Shit." Ron went back to Hermione, who was now kneeling next to the girl with the tallest hair and waving her wand. "I think they hit the barrier. If he was confounding them to keep them from getting suspicious, they were already pretty fragile. Blowback when they crossed the barrier could be enough to knock them out."

Hermione sat back on her heels and pushed her hair out of her eyes. "And the others? They don't seem to be affected."

"Maybe he didn't work them as much. Or maybe they didn't fall for his charms so easily. Want me to call Bill? He dealt with this loads of times in Egypt. The pyramids were full of traps like this. Closest I ever got to this kind of blowback was when Harry tripped the perimeter on Oggers' camp."

She fished out her fellytone and tossed it at Ron. "Press the button that says four until the screen lights up. That will connect you with Bill's floo."

"Or," a deep voice said from behind them, "you could give me a couple of minutes to clean this all up and get back to whatever you were doing."

The good thing about Auror training was even when you quit, the reflexes stayed with you forever. Well, that and fighting the darkest wizard of all time all through your adolescence, that helped too. Hermione was certainly no slouch in the self-defense or disarmament department. She had the man who'd spoken firmly in the grip of an Incarcerous, his knapsack abandoned on the ground by his feet, before Ron had even managed to knock the man's wand out of his hand.

The wand he realized a few seconds too late didn't exist.

"Where—"

"Different kind of magic here, dude," the man drawled and wiggled his fingers. He sounded like one of Ron's brothers doing an impression of a cowboy.

"Who are you?"

"Dean Win‐"

Hermione shouted, "Winchester! Of course! I thought your voice sounded familiar. Ron, this is the Texan I was telling you about." She twisted her wand to recall the thin cords that bound the man.

Ron narrowed his eyes. "The one who didn't get the contract? Who was explicitly told someone else would take care of it?"

"Let's just say I'm not so good at following instructions." Dean grinned. "Kind of a family thing."

Ron would have continued to press, but Hermione waved her hand. "Oh, please, you can size each other up later. What do you know about this barrier? How can we wake these women?"

Dean shrugged. "Nothing to it. We see these all the time. These end times nutsos, stockpiling ravioli and nubile women? They're way more concerned with keeping people inside than they are with anybody wandering past. Memory charms, coercion spells, and a hefty dose of paranoia. You get blowback like this all the time. Once you knock out the barrier, they should snap right out of it."

He picked up his knapsack and brought out a large metal can with a plastic lid. Out of it, he pulled a handful of what looked like rock salt which he flung in an arc around him. It sparked against the barrier, more of those purplish flashes and the acrid burning smell. After he'd done this for a few feet, a sickly purple-black shadow rippled in the air, climbing up over their heads to shrink to a pinhole, then disappear with a pop.

Ron whistled. "What have you got in that salt, vervain?"

"Sage, mostly. My dad's recipe."

Hermione interrupted Ron's reply. "There will be plenty of time to coax him into a licensing deal later." She dropped to the ground again and smoothed the hair back from one girl's forehead before sending a brilliant red flash at—

"YOU GET AWAY FROM CYNDEE," someone bellowed.

...

Even before she started moonlighting for Mars Investigations, Veronica loved photography. Not so much the developing, or the color correcting, or even deciding whether to use the 85mm or the 100. That was all fun, too, but not as much as looking through the viewfinder to frame the perfect shot. Finding the right combination of light and shadow, the perfect juxtaposition of movement and stillness, telling a little story with every shot. It helped her to define the world, putting it within dimensions she controlled.

But not even that would have helped today.

She saw what happened, of course. She was standing right there next to it—or staring at it in shock, or sprinting toward it, or trying to pull it off a bushy-haired woman with a stick that matched the one Donna Maria kept waving around. It was all kind of hard to miss. One minute they'd been listening to Kimmy talk about all the things she wanted to do now that she could, and in the next both Marses and Walter were pelting across the lawn after her as she howled bloody murder and tackled the poor woman who'd been giving first aid to her friends.

Who knew a girl Kimmy's size could even bellow like that?

"I'm sorry," Kimmy said again. "I overreacted."

"You think?"

Keith's concerned dad look turned a little sharper for a second. Veronica took the not at all veiled hint and left him to help Kimmy make her statement to the police.

"She all right?"

Veronica smiled at Ron. He and his wife Hermione had the kind of cheerful, open faces that usually made her skin crawl, but something about them just felt ... right. She felt like she could trust them, but couldn't put her finger on why, exactly.

"She will be, I think. How are you? Looked like she got a pretty nasty knock in when you tried to get her off your wife."

Ron rapped on his temple. "Takes more than that to dent this hard head. I grew up with five older brothers and a vicious little sister."

"I'll tell her you said that," Hermione promised.

"Good! Maybe she'll finally learn to pull her punches."

They descended into what sounded like well-rehearsed bickering, peppered here and there with lingering touches and quick kisses. Veronica left them to it, and went to sit with Walter in the lawn chairs beside his trailer. He handed her another juice pouch—tangerellogrape, by the label.

"Tall dude get away okay? Took that ponytailed son of a bitch with him?"

She nodded.

"Good. You know he's not real FBI, right? That badge came straight out a Cracker Jack box. I've confiscated much better fakes at work."

"I don't know. It looked to me like he might work part-time grinding on bachelorettes in his g-man g-string." She pulled her own wallet, and flipped it open to show him her version of the federal ID. It had taken almost six painstaking hours blinding herself with the lightbox to get the watermark so clean. "What do you think of this one?"

"Not bad," Walter said, leaning in to squint at it. "I bet you can do better though. And remember to wash the little face paint heart off all the way before you take the picture."

Veronica pulled the ID back and peered at the tiny photo, where, sure enough, the faint pink and black outline of the heart was still visible. "Dammit!"

She narrowed her eyes at Walter and shoved her wallet back in her bag. "I don't suppose I could convince you to give me a few more pointers, could I?"

"Yeah, you probably could. You on the internet? My wife just got me an email on that AOL."

"I am indeed. Dad's got cards with all our info on them. I'll make sure he gives you a couple before we go."

They sat quietly for a while, sucking on their juice pouches and watching the bustle of activity around them. A media truck pulled up behind the line of emergency vehicles, satellite tower already groaning upward before the doors opened.

"Well, I guess I oughta go make a statement," Walter said with a sigh.

"To the news? Why?"

"You're sitting in a town that's been trying to pave its own river for two decades. Pave the river. You better believe I'm gonna get in there before any of these yahoos gets on camera and makes us look bad."