Author's Note: Not that it matters, but much of what is described actually exists. Manythanks to my betas.
"In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer."
— Albert Camus
New Hope, Pennsylvania. Mid-December, 1958.
He didn't fit in any categories of her usual customers. Miranda recognized that immediately as the bell jingled and he came through the front door, a blast of cold wind whooshing in behind him. Nor was he a tourist — it was only Thursday after all, still too early in the week for those. She thought he might be a local official, the tax assessor perhaps, but not in those clothes. His suit wasn't all that expensive, but his black topcoat, a wool and cashmere blend, certainly was. After running through several possibilities, she decided he was there to sell her life insurance. As it turned out, she was right, but not in the way she expected.
"I'll be with you in a few minutes," she said as she finished up with a customer who actually was a regular. The man in the topcoat waved his hand and shook his head, signaling that he wasn't in a hurry. She wondered if that were true. Despite his apparent calm as he scanned the shop's shelves, there was something calculating, even single-minded, in his demeanor. He was constantly assessing and reassessing his surroundings; browsing, certainly, but with a purpose. She began to revise her earlier hypothesis: he wasn't a typical salesman. Whatever he did for a living was more complicated than that.
She rang up the purchase on the ancient cash register and watched as the regular left, not feeling all that comfortable with the prospect of being left alone with the man in the topcoat. He was young, less than half her age, and not from Philly she guessed. More like New York. Definitely New York. Dark-haired and good-looking, he was the sort who would seem right at home on Madison Avenue. One of those sleek, fast-talking ad executives, she thought. Perhaps he was here to promote the town. The folks who ran the old mill-turned-playhouse across the street were always looking for publicity and new ways to attract tourists. Which was fine with her: tourists spent money, especially around the holidays.
"May I help you?" Miranda asked pleasantly from behind her proprietor's smile though she doubted she really could. What could someone like him possibly want to purchase here? Her shop was filled with herbs and oils, candles and potions and various items for Wiccan rituals. The sparkly baubles and the cute little stuffed witch dolls in the window were there for the mundanes, but the rest of her wares were genuine and intended for serious use. At the moment, a pure white cat lazed among the dolls, positioned to best exploit the warm bright shafts of afternoon sun.
"You have an interesting place, here," he said, returning her smile. She was too polite to ask him to define "interesting," but she was tempted. "I like to think it has charm," she replied, enjoying her double entendre.
"Indeed it does," he agreed. He caught her eye, demonstrating that he could match the shop in that department, himself. "If you don't mind, I'd like to see something from the case."
He indicated the one near the register and at first, she thought he meant the row of athames, all sheathed at the moment, their hilts lined up like little soldiers waiting to be summoned. But as she followed the line of his pointing finger, she realized he meant a display of rings next to the more lethal-looking blades and bolines. He was pretending to shop, and so, dutifully, she brought out the little velvet lined tray and pretended with him.
There were at least three dozen men's rings. A few were large, some were expensive, and most were elaborate, encrusted with gemstones, images of dragons, skulls or pentagrams. As she looked over the group herself, she tried to find at least one or two which might be appropriate to someone in a business suit.
"What is your sign?"
"Zodiac sign. When were you born?"
"Oh." He nodded, understanding. "I was born in January."
"A Capricorn." Miranda touched a conservative garnet in a polished square silver setting. "Then, perhaps your birthstone…"
But his interest was drawn by another, nestled next to it and he picked it out: a plain gold band with a brilliant blue star sapphire. He slipped it on his ring finger, found it didn't fit, then transferred it to his pinkie where it fit perfectly.
"That seems like it was made for you," she observed, a bit surprised herself. "Star sapphires are very powerful stones. They're also very lucky."
At this, his lips tightened into a thin, rueful smile. "I could use some luck." He sucked in a breath, as if making a decision, and said, "Miss Fee —"
That caught her off-guard. She understood they'd been going through the motions as buyer and seller, but she hadn't expected him to know her name. How did he know it and what else did he know?
"You have me at a disadvantage," she told him stiffly.
"My name is Solo," he said, "Napoleon Solo." Automatically, he reached under the lapel of his topcoat, into his breast pocket, and as he did, she glimpsed a glint of dark steel — A gun? Did she really see a gun? Was he carrying a gun? — He produced an identification card. "I'm an agent representing an organization called the U-N-C-L-E."
"U.N.C.L.E.?" The card was gold, and while the symbol of the skeletal globe with a man standing beside it was intriguing, the image meant nothing to her. "Are you from the government?"
"Not one in particular. We're multi-national and work to protect and defend all nations, great and small."
"I see," she said, handing back the card, although she didn't quite see, not yet anyway, and she couldn't disguise her unease even if she tried. He didn't seem to mind — indeed, he seemed prepared for it — so she pushed on. "Mr. Solo, obviously you aren't here to purchase jewelry or anything else I sell, so would you please tell me what you expect me to do for you?"
"I need information and I've been told you might be the best person to provide it."
"Told by whom?" she demanded. New Hope was an artists' colony and tourist destination that not only boasted an active Wiccan community, but also attracted motorcycle clubs from around the area on weekends. The town had a scenic bridge on one end and a well-known regional theater on the other, with an eclectic collection of specialty shops, booksellers, and cafes in between. Everyone minded his or her own business and somehow, got along, but like every small town, there was still gossip.
"A couple of folks." He cocked his head toward the window. "The owner of the Christmas shop —?"
"Steve Clancy?" she said, providing the name. She counted Steve as a friend.
"— He told me you once worked for a man named Max Littlejohn. Littlejohn owns a home about five miles northwest of town."
It was more than a home, she remembered. It was a mansion centered on twelve acres of gorgeous real estate: fields of wild flowers, stands of stately oak trees and even small lake that attracted migratory geese in the fall.
"I was his housekeeper," she said simply, not bothering to elaborate.
"Why did you quit, if I may ask?"
No, she wanted to say, you may not ask, but suppressed the desire. She wasn't going to go into it with a stranger. "It was … complicated."
"I'm sure it was." He paused again as he made a decision. She could read it in his eyes, which she rather liked because, even when he was serious, they betrayed a certain warmth and humor. "What is your opinion of Mr. Littlejohn?"
He pronounced the words evenly, but she suddenly realized that up to now, all of it — the browsing, the pretext of shopping, their exchange over the rings — had been a kind of test. He wasn't just assessing his surroundings; he was assessing her through his surroundings. He'd been trying to decide whether to trust her and now this last question was the final exam. She treated it as such and answered without equivocation or hesitation.
"I think he's a very evil man, Mr. Solo."
"I appreciate your honesty," he replied, obviously satisfied. "Then you won't be surprised to hear that Max Littlefield is actually Captain Maximilian von Leithauser, an ex-Nazi and rocket engineer. He was attached to a research group under Werner von Braun during the war. Afterward, he was brought to America as part of Operation Paperclip. Dr. von Braun is now working for the U.S. government, developing rockets for its budding space program. You may have seen his picture on the cover of Time magazine. Von Leithauser, on the other hand, has become a successful and prosperous arms dealer.
"A much more lucrative pursuit," Miranda observed. "He does appear to be very rich."
"And bound to become even richer after this weekend. He's throwing a Christmas party on Sunday night —"
"Oh, I doubt that," Miranda said, chuckling dryly. "We don't celebrate Christmas."
"We witches." She didn't mind the word and she enjoyed how it startled the mundanes to hear it. She took a step back from the counter. "Isn't it obvious?" With her cascading mane of bright red curly hair, dark mascara-lined eyes and flowing dress imprinted with moons and stars, she deliberately looked the part. Not only did it suit her taste for the theatrical, but playing to an audience was good for business. "Mr. Littlejohn fancies himself a wizard."
"Congratulations. You said that without sarcasm."
Solo shrugged. "I've been all over the world and I've seen a lot of strange things. I've learned to reserve judgment. So: do you think he is?"
"He aspires to be."
"But not there yet."
"Well, in any case, he's throwing a party this weekend at which he intends to auction off some highly classified top-secret government documents."
"That doesn't sound good."
"No," Solo admitted, shaking his head, "it doesn't, not at all. These documents could potentially destabilize the balance of power between East and West and threaten the security of the world. My mission is to stop him — by stealing the documents before he can sell them to the highest bidder." He looked at her levelly, so she could see he was in earnest. "And since you were his housekeeper, I'm hoping you will be able to describe the house to me and tell me what I need to know to get in and out safely."
"There's a lot of security."
"I'm aware of that, yes. I'm going in as a waiter, an employee of the catering company hired for the occasion."
Now, it was her turn to decide whether to trust him or not. She took her time, considering. Then, she said, "I'll tell you what, Mr. Solo — if you're really who you say you are."
"Who do you think I am?" he asked so innocently it almost made her laugh.
"Someone who lies for a living and is probably very good at his job. Nevertheless, I will agree to help you if you do me a favor in return."
She tapped a long fingernail against the top of the glass case. "See these knives here? They're called athames. They might look like weapons, but they're more than that. They conduct and direct energy — they're the working tools of my Craft— "
"Basic equipment," he confirmed with a conspiratorial grin.
"Exactly. Much like that gun that's tucked against your arm."
He cocked an eyebrow, then tipped his chin at her, granting her the advantage. Touché, his expression said.
"Mine was taken away by Max Littlejohn and I want it back. When you steal those documents, I want you to also bring back my athame. It will look like a double-edged dagger with a silver and ebony hilt. Since your documents and my athame are both equally valuable to him, I strongly suspect he will keep them in the same place."
"You have my promise," he said, extending his hand to hers over the counter. "I will retrieve your knife."
"Athame," she corrected him and they shook on it. "Come back tonight after the shop closes at eight, and we will talk some more."
"After eight," he agreed. "I'll see you then."
It wasn't until he was out the door and long gone that she realized that he was still wearing the ring.
She did better than merely describe the house. Over a plate of cookies and a pot of freshly brewed green tea, she told him every detail she could remember and then drew him a diagram, indicating where she thought the security alarms would be. She hadn't worked for Littlejohn in over two years, but her memory was sharp even if her information was a bit dated.
"And you say he has a wall safe?" Solo asked between sips.
"Yes, in his office. But it has a false wall. When you first open the safe, you'll probably see money, some jewelry, and a coin collection. But that's not everything. There's another secret compartment behind the obvious one and that's where the real valuables are kept."
"And how do I open that compartment?"
"There's a trigger built into his desk, in the upper left hand drawer. If you slide your fingers underneath the top of the desk, you'll feel it. Of course, it's connected to the alarm system."
"I'll find the wiring and cut it first." Solo set down his teacup. They were sitting on either side of a small table in a room located at the back of the shop. The room was cozy with a log crackling in the fireplace and candles flickering on the mantle.
"I have to ask: if you know about the safe, why didn't you break into it yourself?"
Miranda sighed. "I'd been planning to, but I think Mr. Littlejohn guessed that I was snooping around and fired me before I had the chance."
"Are these documents really that important?" she asked soberly, although she didn't really expect him to tell her. He nodded.
"It's actually only one document. About so big —" he stretched his thumb and index finger apart "— about the size of a Diner's Club card. The Secret Service nicknamed it 'the biscuit.' It contains the codes that a U.S. President uses to launch a nuclear missile strike."
Miranda set down her cup with a loud click. "Oh, my word! But how did someone like Max Littlejohn get hold of something like that?"
"It was still in the president's coat pocket when his suit was sent to the dry cleaners."
"I wish I were."
"Well." She exhaled a deep breath, taking a moment to digest his information. "Let's hope you have better luck than I did."
"Let's hope," Solo said, as if echoing her statement would make it come true. "Ahh — that reminds me. I forgot to return this ring —" He began to tug at his pinkie, but Miranda waved him off.
"Keep it. As I told you before, star sapphires are powerful stones. They can enhance intuition, aid in healing, ward off evil, and promote love and friendship."
"Really?" Solo regarded his splayed fingers. "That's some hell of a ring."
Miranda made a face. "Now, you're being facetious."
"Sorry," he said and his regret sounded genuine.
"You should be. It has a history. Interested?"
"I'd rather not know."
"Well then, what you should know is this: that the ring — or any talisman, for that matter — doesn't do anything by itself. It merely strengthens and channels what is within the owner already. You didn't choose that ring; it chose you. And considering the risk involved in your 'mission,' I'd say you'll need all the back-up you can get."
He knew what she was getting at and he snorted. "I prefer to work alone. Lately, I've been losing too many people."
Miranda nodded sympathetically. "The death of someone close. Was it your girlfriend?"
"No, she just walked out on me. It was a colleague, another agent." Solo looked up at her sharply. "How did you know that?"
"Oh, I have my sources, too." After a moment, she added: "I read your tarot."
"Funny," he said, leaning back in the chair. "When I first saw the sign outside, I expected to see decks of cards and disappearing coins."
"You didn't notice the spelling of Magick Shoppe?"
He shrugged. "I thought it was just an attempt at being quaint."
"Well, it isn't," she said rising, taking the pot to heat more tea, "and I don't do 'tricks.'"
"But you believe in magic— "
"— that's Magick with a K, and yes, Mr. Solo, I do. Care to know what else the cards said about you?"
"No," he replied firmly. When she arched an eyebrow, he added quickly, "No disrespect intended, but I don't want to be second-guessing myself. When you're on a mission, an agent must operate in the moment." He smiled, lightening the mood. "You work magic your way, and I'll work it in mine."
"Very well, Mr. Solo," she said from the stove. "I shall try not to talk of the past or the future, only the present." As she busied herself, his eyes wandered about the little room. Part kitchen, part living area, part storage, it was both utilitarian and hospitable and expressed even more of her character than the shop itself. The mantel was adorned with evergreen branches, sprigs of holly, and red ribbons and, in the center, stood a little robed and bearded figure that looked like one of the ghosts who appeared to Scrooge sporting a crown of holly.
"I thought you didn't celebrate Christmas," Solo mused idly.
"I don't," Miranda said as she returned with a fresh pot of tea and a bottle of brandy to go with it.
"But what about the decorations?" He pointed to the mantel. "And isn't that a version of Santa Claus?"
"The decorations are for Yule, which is not quite the same thing," she explained as she poured two more cups of tea and then stirred in a few drops of brandy. "It's in celebration of the Winter Solstice which is scheduled to arrive Sunday night —
"— The night of the party," Solo said, suddenly understanding.
"It's also the longest night of the year."
"So what is it exactly that the bastard is celebrating? That is, in addition to increasing his own Swiss bank account and possibly destroying the world as we know it." Solo reached for the bottle of brandy and tipped a bit more into his tea. He really needed it.
"The return of the light. The rebirth of the Oak King. Some call him the Lord of the Greenwood, others, simply the Green Man."
"Him?" Solo asked, indicating the little robed figure on the mantle.
"No, that's his twin, the Holly King. The Holly King rules from midsummer, but as you can see by his long white beard, he's grown old and tired. At this time of year, he does battle with his brother and then retires to the underworld, only to be reborn again." She smiled. "It's the movement of seasons, the cycle of life, and even though the two brothers struggle, they need each other, they complete each other."
"Yin and yang."
"Yes, something like that. It's the way ancient people translated the waxing and waning of the sun. But at the solstice, the sun stands still — that's what the word means after all." She reached across the table and patted his hand. "Perhaps right now, you're in a similar place. A friend died, your lover left, and you find yourself standing still, alone and maybe feeling a little lost. But change is coming —"
"The cards told you that, did they?" he asked, but not unkindly.
"They didn't have to. Change happens. It always does. Believe that."
Somewhere, a clock chimed, prompting Solo to glance at his watch. They'd been talking for four hours. "Well, it's midnight and I believe it's time to get some sleep. There's only a little more than two days left before that party and I have a lot to prepare."
Automatically, they rose together. Solo pocketed the notepad he'd been using while Miranda retrieved his topcoat.
"If you need any more information —" she said.
"No, this should do it." He slipped his arms through the sleeves, settled the shoulders and then reached for her hand to shake it. "Thank you so much. I do appreciate all your time and information."
He chuckled. "That, too." Miranda escorted him to the back door. "Remember my athame," she reminded him.
He nodded. "You'll have it back by Sunday night."
And even though she resisted saying so aloud, she didn't doubt it.
New Hope. December 21, 1962.
Three nights later, on Sunday, December 21, 1958, the Littlejohn mansion blew up at 9:07 p.m. Miranda had been standing beside the grandfather clock in the parlor of the historic Wedgwood Inn when it happened, so she was able to mark the time exactly. The sound of the explosion sent most of the town residents scurrying into the streets to see what had occurred, but all that was visible was an eerie orange glow in the northern sector of the clear night sky. Ten minutes later, the local fire squad had climbed aboard two engines and were racing to the scene, but by the time they arrived, there was not much they could salvage. A few days later, the weekly newspaper gave an account of how elegantly dressed party-goers shivered in the cold as the blaze took the mansion and then a substantial swath of nearby woods.
She never found out what happened to the man who called himself Solo or even if that really was his name. Not only was he absent from any hospital rosters — no one died but there were a number of minor injuries and cases of smoke inhalation — but none of the firemen she spoke with could remember seeing anyone who fit his description.
The only thing Miranda was sure of was that he survived. When she returned from her own Winter Solstice party later than night, she found her back door jimmied and her athame waiting for her on the little table in the back room.
And now it was four years later and she was back at the inn again, surrounded by friends, celebrating yet another Solstice night. There was quite a gathering, including several groups from across the river, and the first floor was completely packed.
Sitting at the end of a long banquet table, she almost didn't see him as he carefully maneuvered through the crowd, heading in her direction.
"Miss Fee," he called out over the din.
"Mr. Solo!" She waved back, pleased to see that he looked well — more than well — hale and hearty and so much more content since last they met. As she'd predicted, things had changed and obviously, for the better.
"I knew you'd be here," he said, smiling. "I saw the lights and the Solstice banner strung across the porch and I just knew I'd find you here." He turned to a man who materialized beside him. "Didn't I tell you, Illya?"
"That you did. Very pleased to meet you, Madam." The second man was blond and blue-eyed and looked vaguely Slavic — almost the exact opposite of his companion, like a living negative image. He tipped his chin politely at her, causing Miranda to laugh aloud.
So it seems the Green Man has found a Holly King after all, she thought. She poured a glass of claret for each of the newcomers. "Have some wine, Mr. Solo, and tell me what you've been up to these last few years."
"Saving the world, of course," he declared brightly, and as he reached for the proffered glass, she couldn't help but notice a flash of blue that gleamed ever so briefly in the candlelight.
And she laughed yet again, because she saw that he was still wearing the ring.