“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE” [PG-13] – Chapter Nine

 

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER NINE

WORLPORT, ORD MANTELL

Anakin glanced out of the window of his hotel room and watched the rain beat upon the windowpane. Apparently the rain had failed to cease, despite a new day. He wondered if it would ever stop before his departure from Ord Mantell. Twenty-five years ago, he would have rejoiced at such weather after dealing with Tatooine’s hot and dry climate. But he had not set foot upon Tatooine in eleven years. And advancing age and experience has taught him to appreciate . . . variety. 

A quick glance at the chronometer informed Anakin that it was now eight minutes past seven in the morning. The hotel’s restaurants should have opened by now. Familiar with Ord Mantell, Anakin knew of a quaint café located eighty centimeters east of the Hotel Grand. Like The Burning Musk in Corellia’s capital, the Blue Jewel Café provided abundant meals at a low cost. The small restaurant happened to be a favorite of both Anakin and Han’s.

After an early morning shower and a change of clothes, Anakin left his bedroom and made his way into the suite’s living room. Normally, he and Han would not have checked into such an expensive room. But Senator Dahlma had wanted them nearby and was generous enough to pay for half of the suite’s rates.

The living room remained semi-dark, despite the glimmer of light from the rain-stained windows. Loud snores drifted from inside the suite’s other bedroom. Anakin allowed himself a brief smile. His young Corellian partner remained asleep. As he inched toward the door, Anakin nearly stumbled across a pair of long legs stretched across the floor. The former Jedi Knight closed his eyes to sense the presence of the legs’ owner. Chewbacca.

Anakin finally made it to the door and stepped out of the suite and into the corridor. He glanced to his right and spotted a petite, dark-haired female with her back facing him. For a moment, Anakin believed her to be Igraine Colbert. Until he recalled that the Maldarian woman and her employer resided in the suite to his left. Anakin frowned at the woman’s back. A tingling sensation raised the hair on the back of his neck. Why did she look . . .?

A loud thump from inside the suite interrupted his thoughts. Anakin turned away from the woman and opened the suite’s door. “. . . careful with those legs, you big furball!” Han’s voice boomed. “I nearly broke my neck!” A loud roar followed.

Anakin heaved a long-suffering sigh. Apparently, Han and Chewbacca had finally awaken. And it also looked as if the addition of the Wookie to their crew promised to make their lives a lot more interesting. Anakin re-entered the suite, as he prepared to act as mediator between the Corellian and Chewbacca.

——–

The loud thump from behind startled Padme as she prepared to lock her hotel room. A man’s voice cried out, “. . . careful with those legs, you big furball!” A roar or a fearsome growl followed.

Padme frowned. That last voice sounded like it belonged to a Wookie. She had not laid eyes upon one since her years as a Galactic senator. Senator Yarua of Kashyyyk had been one of the Galactic Senate’s more distinguished members. She whirled around and spotted a tall man clad in dark clothes enter one of the rooms along the corridor. A tingling sensation pricked the back of her neck. The man had a familiar air about him – his height, his stance and the color of his ha . . .

“Ready for breakfast, I see!” a familiar voice boomed. Padme glanced over her shoulder and found Bail and Master Olin striding toward her. The Alderaanian prince frowned. “Is there something wrong, Milady? You seem . . . perturbed.”

Padme allowed herself a brief smile. “Good morning, gentlemen.”

Bail returned her greeting. “Good morning. Is there something wrong? Just a minute ago, you had this odd expression on your face.”

Padme glanced at the former Jedi padawan and noticed the dazed expression on his face. “You mean, like Master Olin?”

“Ye . . .” Bail paused, as he stared at Olin. “Ferus, is there a problem?”

With the slight frown still stamped on his face, the former Jedi answered, “I don’t know. I had sensed something. Someone. A presence I have not felt in . . . years.”

“You too?” The two men directed their gaze at Padme. She added. “I felt a similar sensation.”

Bail released a gust of breath. “Well, this is very odd. Why don’t we all discuss this during breakfast, downstairs?”

Padme wanted to investigate the man she had briefly spotted a few minutes ago. But she decided that Bail’s idea seemed the best course of action. Knocking on some stranger’s door to learn whether she knew him seemed out of place for someone of her character. She gave Bail a warm smile. “Breakfast, it is.”

Nearly twelve minutes later, the trio found themselves sitting at a table in one of the hotel’s restaurants on the ground floor. Master Olin glanced uneasily around the dining room. “Are you sure that it is wise to have breakfast in such a . . . public place, Your Highness?”

“Don’t worry Ferus,” Bail replied with a reassuring smile. “This restaurant has just opened and there is barely a soul, here. Besides, it has been eleven years since Senator Amidala has been seen in public. She is not dressed to attract attention. I doubt that anyone, aside from a Jedi, would recognize her. Especially in a haven for smugglers like Ord Mantell.”

The former Jedi nodded. “And what about you, Your Highness? You’re still a highly visible public figure.”

Amusement glittered in Bail’s dark eyes. “I must say that you are vigilant, Ferus. I have picked the right man for the job. Don’t worry. I have a cover story . . . in case someone does recognize me.”

Olin responded with a wan smile. But it seemed clear to Padme that he was not appeased by Bail’s assurances. A waitress appeared at their table and asked for their order. Once the waitress left, Padme spotted Zoebeida Dahlma and another woman entering the restaurant. The Maldarian senator acknowledged Padme and Bail with a polite smile and continued on to another table.

Bail’s gaze remained fixed on the Maldarian women. “Padme, do you have any Maldarian ancestry, by any chance?”

“Not that I know of,” Padme replied. “Why?”

“You and Zoebeida Dahlma’s aide strongly resemble each other. Perhaps she has Nabooan ancestry.”

Padme glanced at Dahlma’s aide. The young woman seemed to possess her height, coloring and full mouth. But Padme saw a difference. “You really think so? Her eyes are different. Green. And they’re smaller. In fact, she reminds me of Queen Apailana.”

Bail shook his head. “Poor Apailana. When I had learned of her death, I thought it was a shame that she had died so young. How old was she?”

A small ball of guilt wormed its way into Padme’s chest. “She had been twelve when she had succeeded Jamilla as Naboo’s queen.” She sighed. “I’ve always regretted convincing Apailana to call for an election in order to force Jamilla from the throne.”

“Why did you do it?” Bail asked.

“I began to suspect Jamilla of developing sympathies toward the Separatists.” Padme allowed herself a slight, bitter smile. “I thought she would lead Naboo against the Republic. Little did I know that I would harbor similar sympathies within a year. And poor Apailana would end up being assassinated by the Empire at such a young age.”

A frowning Bail shook his head. “Exactly how did you learn that the Empire had killed her? I thought only a few of us knew, considering the official word was that she had been assassinated by terrorists.”

“Someone . . . a close acquaintance had informed me.” Inwardly, Padme recalled learning the news from her family during a secret trip to Naboo. “My grandmother had died around the same time.”

To Padme’s surprise, Master Olin added, “I was there. When Queen Apailana had been killed. His Highness is aware of this.”

Bail nodded. “Ferus was with a group of Jedi fugitives, at the time. Their presence attracted the attention of Lord Rasche.”

“The Emperor’s apprentice had killed her?” Padme demanded.

Olin shook his head. “No, it was a sharpshooter. A member of the 501st Legion under Rom . . . Lord Rasche’s command.” The former Jedi revealed how the Imperials had captured him on Coruscant, during an attempt to seek another Jedi fugitive. “I had met someone named Inquisitor Malorum, who was interested in you, Senator Amidala. He believed that you had given birth to a child before your death. A friend helped me escaped and we learned that Malorum was on his way to Naboo to question your family. I suspect . . .” He paused, wearing a grave expression. “I suspect that Malorum was responsible for your grandmother’s death.”

Padme felt her heart twist. Once again, her actions ended up having a negative impact upon someone close to her. This time . . . her grandmother. Her family had revealed that an inquisitor had been responsible for Ryoo Thule’s death. But she had no idea that her marriage to Anakin and her children’s existence was responsible.

According to Olin, the Empire became aware of the Jedi presence on Naboo. “We befriended a Gungan pilot, who introduced us to his leader, a Boss . . .”

“Boss Nass.” Padme nodded. “Yes, he is an old friend of mine.”

Olin continued, “Boss Nass and I decided to acquire Queen Apailana’s help in getting rid of Malorum and the Imperial presence on the planet.” His face grew tight, as he looked away. “Although I did managed to kill Malorum, the Empire managed to defeat us. They killed the Queen and the Jedi with her. We left Naboo, after that.”

Bail heaved a mournful sigh. “Poor Apailana. I’m surprised that the Emperor did not place a strong military presence on Naboo.”

Padme quietly said, “According to my contact, the new queen Kylantha had decided to openly accept the Imperial explanation that a terrorist group had killed Apailana. I can only assume that she did not want to deal with a heavy Imperial occupation.” She turned to Olin. “What happened to you, once you left Naboo?”

The former Jedi stiffly replied, “Nothing much. I simply continued my activities against the Empire. Until I . . . parted ways from my friends.” A gust of breath left his mouth. “Will you please excuse me? I am not feeling hungry at the moment.” Olin bowed at the two friends. “Your Highness, Milady.” And he walked away.

Padme’s eyes remained fixed upon the former padawan’s retreating figure. “Something is bothering him. And it has nothing to do with Naboo.”

“Perhaps it is that familiar presence he had earlier spoke of,” Bail suggested.

“Perhaps.” Padme took a sip of water. “But there is also the matter of Mon. Remember? She claimed to have seen Master Olin on Coruscant.” Padme paused. “Recently, I might add.”

Bail’s dark eyes bored into Padme’s. “Are you suggesting that Ferus Olin might be an Imperial spy?”

The incredulous expression on Bail’s face led Padme to wonder if she had been mistaken. Until she recalled Master Olin’s uncomfortable expression when Mon Mothma had questioned him about Coruscant . . . and his reluctance to discuss his life following his experiences on Naboo. “I realize the man is a former Jedi, Bail,” she continued, “but my gut feeling tells me that he has something to hide.”

A sigh left Bail’s mouth. “Padme, Master Olin has lived on Alderaan for almost four years. And ever since Lord Rasche’s unexpected appearance, ten years ago, we have kept a close surveillance on any outbound communication between Alderaan and other systems. It was Cousin Raymus who had suggested that Ferus accompany me on this trip.”

In other words, Ferus Olin could not have recent contact with Coruscant . . . or be an Imperial agent. Padme felt slightly embarrassed. “Oh dear,” she murmured. “My mistake.”

“I understand. You’re simply being careful.”

Padme added, “Or perhaps eleven years as a fugitive has made me . . . paranoid.” She glanced to her left and spotted their waitress. “Oh look. Our breakfast has arrived.” On that note, the two friends ceased their discussion of their Jedi protector and began to discuss another topic.

———

MALAG, MALDORE

Mako Spince descended the Alastian Star’s ramp, as his new client entered the hangar. “Here she is!” he declared. “The Alastian Star. One of the fastest ships in the galaxy.” Then he stared pointedly at the other man. “And you’re fifteen minutes late.”

Looking slightly pinched, Chattal Rahm responded in a tight voice, “I had no choice. The Imperials are still in the city and I believe they are searching for me. The sooner we leave the bet . . .” A slight thump interrupted his last words. The Maldarian frowned. “What as that sound?” He stared at Mako. “Didn’t you hear it?”

A perturbed Mako sharply replied, “Yeah I did. And I think you better board the ship. Now!”

Rahm had not taken two steps toward the Alastian Star before a squad of Imperial stormtroopers materialized from behind columns of crates, stacked near the wall. The Maldarian whipped out a blaster pistol and began to fire. Mako followed suit. At least two troopers caught the blasts of their weapons before a third trooper shot Rahm squarely in the chest. The Maldarian fell to the ground with a cry on his lips.

Mako shot a horrified look at his fallen client and rushed toward the Alastian Star’s ramp. He overheard a voice from behind cry out, “Stun him!” Before the Corellian could reach the boarding ramp, he felt a blast of hot energy strike him in the back. A grunt escaped his lips before everything went black.

END OF CHAPTER NINE

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“Crossroads of the Force” (PG-13) – Chapter Eight

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER EIGHT

MALAG, MALDARE

“Corellian ale!” Mako Spince barked at the bartender. The latter nodded at the smuggler and turned away. He returned a few minutes later with a mug of Corellian ale. 

Mako grabbed the mug. He took several swigs of the ale before he allowed his eyes to peruse his surroundings. The Omega Hole did not seem like much in compare to the Lumati Hotel’s swankier establishment, the Twilight Star. But the former happened to be one of Mako’s favorite bars throughout the galaxy. It was the type of place where a smuggler could make contact with new clients. Only . . . no one seemed interested in hiring him, tonight.

Several more swigs of ale followed before Mako’s mind settled upon the dark-haired young woman who had interviewed him, last night. The Corellian had hoped that a little charm would convince her to hire him for whatever job she had planned. But apparently the old Spince charm seemed to have lost its luster.

Or had the woman’s employer recognized him as the disgraced son of her colleague, Senator Ticho Spince? Mako had certainly recognized Senator Dahlma, when he spotted her and the young woman approaching Set Horus’ ship in the hangar, this morning. So Dahlma’s aide had hired Horus and Han. The revelation had left Mako feeling stunned and a little resentful. It irked him that the senator decided to hire the pair over him.

As Mako reached for his mug, a man appeared at his side and slid upon the empty stool next to his. The Corellian immediately recognized his new companion – the same man who had recruited him for an interview with Senator Dahlma’s aide. Only now, the man looked nervous. And slightly desperate.

“Still searching for a spacer?” Mako politely asked. He took a swig of his ale. “Or have you found your man?”

The stranger gave Mako a sharp glance. “Excuse me?”

Mako allowed himself a knowing smile. “You don’t remember me, do you? You tried to recruit me for a job, but apparently I didn’t satisfy your employer.” He paused, as he took in the man’s growing desperate air. A thought came to him. “Or maybe you’re looking for another spacer. Need to get off this rock?”

Recognition finally gleamed in the man’s eyes. “Oh, now I remember you.”

“I should think so.” Mako’s smile disappeared. “Perhaps you remember taking me to one of the suites at the Lumati Hotel, last night. To be questioned by a young woman, who was in need of a pilot.” Again, he paused. “Only I never heard from either of you.”

The man’s face turned slightly red. “Oh yes. Um . . . apparently my mistress had someone else . . . in mind.”

“And may I assume that your mistress happens to be Senator Zoebeida Dahlma of this . . . illustrious rock?”

Surprise flicked in the man’s eyes. “How did you . . .?” He broke off and shot a suspicious stare at the pilot. “How did you know? You never got a chance to meet her.”

Mako revealed that he had seen the good senator and her aide board a freighter, earlier this morning. “From what I had overheard, they were bound for Ord Mantell. Now why would a prominent senator want to visit a disreputable place like that?”

Casting a furtive glance over his shoulder, the man replied, “Look, you were right. I am looking for a pilot. I need to leave Maldare as soon as possible. And since you happened to be a pilot, perhaps I can hire you to fly me to Ord Mantell. We can leave tonight.”

“Tonight?” Mako scoffed at the man’s suggestion. “It’s nearly morning. Midnight. I’ll need at least a few hours sleep, first. We leave in the morning.”

The stranger’s mouth formed a thin line. “Fine. I’ll simply find myself another pilot.”

“Good luck,” Mako retorted with a snort. “As you can see, this place is nearly empty. And right now, most pilots are either barely sober, sleeping off their drink or indulging in other nocturnal activities.”

A heavy sigh left the man’s mouth. “All right. We leave tomorrow. Unless you have a problem. I’m willing to pay you five hundred credits.”

The fee satisfied Mako. He instructed his new client to meet him at the Vox Avenue hangar in the morning. “My ship, the Alastian Star, should be the only one there.”

The man gave Mako a hesitant nod. “Thanks. For your help.”

Anxious to return to his drinking, Mako waved the man away. “Yeah. Sure thing.” The two men bid each other good night. After his new client left, Mako summoned the bartender. “Get me another mug of Corellian ale. And this time, leave the bottle.”

———-

WORLPORT, ORD MANTELL

“This . . . friend of yours has two children?” Inside the casino nightclub, Anakin stared at his companion in disbelief. “And what exactly am I expected to do with them?”

Voranda Sen shrugged. “Become their friend? I don’t . . .”

“Oh no! Thanks, but no thanks” Anakin retorted. “I have just spent nearly a decade raising Han. As far as I’m concerned, my stint with fatherhood is over.”

With a snort, Voranda shot back, “As long as Han continues to breathe, fatherhood will never be over for you, Set.”

“Perhaps you’re right. But I do not need more responsibilities in my life. I love Han like a son, but one is enough.”

Another dancer appeared on stage and began to perform. The wild orange-red hair, the close-fitting body suit and hoofed feet allowed Anakin to recognize her as a Human-Theelin hybrid. She struck him as a competent dancer, but not as sensuous as the Twi’lek. Bored, he eventually looked away.

Voranda continued to regard Anakin with knowing eyes. “You know, for a man of your temperament, you seem very determined to distance yourself from life. It almost seems as if you don’t care.”

“Perhaps life . . . or the galaxy is better off if I don’t care.” Then Anakin clamped his mouth shut, realizing that he had said too much.

Green eyes narrowed with curiosity. “Now what made you say that?”

Fortunately for Anakin, salvation arrived in the form of a grinning Han and Chewbacca. The young Corellian immediately sat down in an empty chair and declared, “You’re looking at the proud winner of 20,000 credits.” He turned to the table’s sole female with a nod. “Voranda! Good to see you, again.”

Smiling, Voranda replied, “The same to you, Han. You’re looking handsome than ever.” Her smile widened, as Han’s face turned slightly red.

Anakin decided to come to his young partner’s rescue, aware of Voranda’s habit of flirting with the Corellian. “I guess that game of sabacc turned out pretty lucky for you.”

“It was more than luck,” Han boasted. “It was my skill as a gambler. There was no stopping me.”

Amused by the younger man’s cockiness, Anakin rolled his eyes. Then he noticed that Chewbacca had remained standing. He pulled out the last empty chair. “Have a seat.” The Wookie nodded gratefully at the former Jedi and sat down. Anakin then introduced him to the red-haired pilot. “Chewbacca, this is an old friend of ours, Voranda Sen. Voranda, meet our new partner and co-pilot, Chewbacca.”

Voranda and the Wookie exchanged friendly nods. “How long have you been with Set and . . .” She paused, as her eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute! You look slightly familiar. Have we met?”

Chewbacca gave her a questioning stare and growled. Han translated. “He wants to know where you know him from.”

“Perhaps we’ve never actually met,” Voranda explained to Chewbacca. “But you do look familiar. I believe it was somewhere in the Abrion Sector, about a year ago. Were you ever with the crew of a freighter called the Drunken Dancer?”

Nodding, Chewbacca growled. Anakin glanced at Han, who said, “Chewie was with the Drunken Dancer, until he fell into the hands of the Imperials, three months ago. Uh . . . Set and I helped liberate him from slavery.” Han shot a look at Chewbacca. “Um, he wants to know you know of the ship’s most recent whereabouts.”

“On Tatooine, I heard that the Drunken Lady’s crew had recently disbanded,” Voranda replied. Anakin noticed the dismayed expression on Chewbacca’s face. The redhead continued, “Apparently they had been searching for a missing crewman, until a close encounter with an Imperial ship in the Alderaan Sector had convinced the captain to disband the crew.” She paused before adding, “Did you know that the captain’s daughter and several of the crewmen were former Jedi?”

Both Anakin and Han exchanged startled looks. “Really?” Han finally asked. “What was her name? The captain’s daughter?”

With a shrug, Voranda replied, “Honestly, I forgot.” She nodded at Chewbecca. “Perhaps he knows.” Anakin glanced at Chewbecca, who seemed lost in his own thought. The redhead added, “However, I have another matter to discuss.”

“Which is?” Anakin asked.

After a brief pause, Voranda continued, “I plan to hold a meeting, tomorrow afternoon. With a few pilots I’ve encountered here in Worlport. It’s regarding a matter I want to propose to all of you. It should prove to be very profitable.”

Han frowned. “What is it? A smuggling job?”

“More like a smuggling operation,” Voranda corrected. “Possibly a long term operation for several years.”

Again, the two partners exchanged looks. Although Anakin felt leery of being part of a long term operation, he also saw the potential for greater profit. He asked, “When is this meeting?”

The redhead replied, “Tomorrow afternoon. In one of the casino’s private rooms, around three o’clock.”

Anakin nodded. “Fine. I’ll be there.” He stared at his two colleagues. “Han? Chewbacca?”

“I’m game,” Han said. The Wookie growled. “And Chewie says the same.”

A bright smile illuminated Voranda’s face. “Great! I’ll see you three, tomorrow.” She stood up and directed a flirtatious smile at Han. “By the way Solo . . . congratulations.” And she walked away.

The two men and the Wookie watched the red-haired pilot recede into the nightclub’s crowd. “You know,” Han began, “I have this odd feeling that she’s interested in me.”

A smile touched Anakin’s lips. “And is that a bad thing?”

“I’m at least twenty years younger than her! Are you serious?” Han retorted.

“So? She looks very attractive for a woman twenty years your senior,” Anakin slyly continued. “Since when have you ever been averse to older women?”

Han shot back, “When they’re old enough to be my mother!”

Still smiling, Anakin said, “Really Han! You need to be a little more open-minded.”

Han dismissed Anakin’s teasing with a wave of his hand. “And what about this job of hers? The last thing I want is to get involved in some big smuggling operation on a permanent basis.”

“Who said it was permanent?” Anakin replied. “Voranda has not told us everything.” His eyes fell upon the stage. The Twi’lek dancer had returned. Anakin felt an inclination to remain in the nightclub. But the fatigue in his body reminded him that he needed sleep. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m going to bed. Good night.”

Both Han and Chewbacca bid him goodnight. Anakin shot one last glance at the dancer and slowly made his way out of the lounge.

——-

MALAG, MALDORE

Three Imperial stormtroopers entered The Omega Hole’s empty barroom. One of the them headed straight toward the pudgy-faced bartender, who was in the process of cleaning the bar’s long countertop.

“Hey! You!” the senior stormtrooper barked. “We’re looking for someone. A human. This is him.” He switched on a small holoemitter that projected the image of a stocky man with dark, curly hair. “His name is Chattal Rahm. Have you seen him?”

The bartender immediately recognized the image. Despite his instinct to lie, he remembered his employer’s policy regarding the authorities – cooperate at all times. The bar came first – especially over any customer in trouble with the authorities. “Yeah, I’ve seen him,” he replied wearily. “Nearly two hours ago. He had been talking to another customer.”

The stormtrooper demanded, “Where did Rahm go?”

“How would I know?” the bartender retorted. “I didn’t follow the guy.”

A small stretch of silence followed. Then the stormtrooper asked, “What about the other customer? What were he and Rahm talking about?”

“What makes you think the other customer was a man?”

The stormtrooper removed his helmet and glared at the bartender with dark and intimidating eyes. He reminded the latter of a Mandalorian bounty hunter he had not laid eyes upon in over a decade. “Don’t play games with me, Barkeep!” the trooper growled. “Who was this other customer and what were they talking about?”

The bartender sighed. He had done the best he could to protect Mako. “Okay, the other customer was a man. A spacer, I think. This Rahm fellow had hired him for passage. Don’t ask me where, because I didn’t hear everything.”

“What did you overhear?”

After a brief hesitation, the bartender answered, “Well, the spacer’s ship is located in the Vox Avenue hangar. It’s called . . . the Alastian Star, I think. And they’re supposed to leave tomorrow morning. I swear it’s all I know.”

The stormtrooper gave the bartender one long stare, before breaking into a cold smile. “Okay. Thanks for your . . . help.” He donned his helmet and barked at his companions, “Let’s go!”

The bartender heaved a sigh of relief, as the stormtroopers marched out of the Twilight Hole. Good riddance, he thought. Now, if only Mako Spince never learn who had ratted him to the Imperials.

END OF CHAPTER EIGHT

“The Power of One” [PG-13] – 10/20

 

“THE POWER OF ONE”

PART X

Phoebe could not accompany her sisters and the other three to the Halliwell manor, since she had to return to work. But the other four found themselves standing outside the salmon-colored house nearly a half hour later. 

The two witches, the Vodoun priestess and the half-daemon entered the house, as Piper cried out Donna’s name. When a faint voice responded, the quartet headed toward the Solarium. There they found the nanny on the sofa with her charge, watching television. Donna glanced up and smiled. “Piper! What are you doing here?”

“Oh, uh . . .” The Charmed One became speechless, for Olivia had suggested that they did not directly confront the nanny.

Olivia came to Piper’s rescue. “I’m here to borrow some herbs from Piper. We just came back from lunch.”

Piper smiled weakly. “That’s it. Uh, you remember Olivia and Cecile, don’t you? Paige told me that you had met them.”

Donna smiled at the redhead and the black woman. “Oh yeah. Nice to see you, again.” Then her gaze turned to Cole.

“Oh,” Piper added, “and this is Cole. Cole Turner. He’s Olivia’s boyfriend. Cole, this is Donna Thompson. Wyatt’s new nanny.” Olivia noted that the Charmed One failed to mention the half-daemon’s past link to the Halliwell family.

The nanny smiled at Cole. “Nice to meet you.”

“Same here,” Cole replied politely.

“So,” Piper continued, “how is Wyatt doing?” She reached for her son, who had been sitting in Donna’s lap contentedly. As Piper drew Wyatt into her arms, he gurgled happily. “Hel-lo sweetie! How are you? Hmmm. Well, he seems to be doing fine.”

Donna added, “Aren’t you going to get those herbs for Olivia?”

“Huh?” Piper’s eyes widened in confusion. It took all of Olivia’s efforts not to roll her eyes at the Charmed One’s attempt at deception. She noticed that both Cole and Cecile did not bother suppress their efforts.

Olivia then spied an empty glass of water on a nearby table, and an idea came to her. “While you’re at it, Piper, could you get me a glass of water?”

The other witch nodded. “Sure.” Then Piper left the Solarium, while Olivia and her other two companions indulged in small talk with the nanny. Cole politely talked about his job at the law firm, and his relationship with Olivia. Cecile talked about Vodoun practices in New Orleans and Olivia regaled the nanny with hers and Cole’s experiences in babysitting Wyatt – much to Cole’s obvious embarrassment. Eventually, Piper returned with a glass of water for Olivia. And a brown paper bag.

“Thanks,” Olivia said to Piper. Then she deliberately paused and glanced at Donna’s neck. “Oh by the way, Piper. You should see Donna’s necklace. I saw it yesterday, and it’s gorgeous. Right Donna?” She smiled at the nanny.

Donna’s eyes blinked. “Huh?”

Olivia pointed at the leather strap around the nanny’s neck. “Your necklace. The one that you had dropped, yesterday. Why don’t you show it to the others?”

Donna hesitated. “Well . . .” The other three stared at her. “I guess. Uh, it’s . . .” Slowly, she withdrew the object from underneath her blouse. “I bought it at the Red Pyramid. It’s supposed to be some kind of ward against evil. After that daemon had attacked us, I thought it would come in handy.”

Olivia peered at the amulet. It took one glance for her to realize that it was not the one that Donna had worn, yesterday. Obviously, the other woman had made a switch. Or the other amulet was somewhere hidden in a pocket or something.

Both Piper and Cecile glanced at Olivia, before gazing at the amulet around Donna’s neck. “Very nice,” Cecile commented. “Don’t you think, Piper?”

The Charmed One added, “Yeah. But . . .” She directed her gaze at Donna. “But why keep it around your neck?”

“Like I said, it’s a protection ward,” Donna explained. “Don’t want to expose it, if I’m attacked.”

“Oh.” Piper handed the glass of water and paper bag to Olivia. “This is for you.”

Keeping her disappointment in check, Olivia began to drink her water. Wyatt picked up a small rubber ball and threw it at Cole, attracting everyone’s attention. Olivia glanced at the empty glass on the nearby table, and an idea came to her. While the others continued to focus on Wyatt and Cole, she dumped the rest of her water into a potted plant. Then she placed her glass on the table, whipped out her handkerchief and snatched up Donna’s empty glass. As she quickly stuffed the glass into her purse, Cole glanced at her. He frowned. Then Olivia glanced at her watch. “Oh, I better be getting back.” The others stared at her. “Say Piper, could you give me a lift back to the store?”

“Uh . . . sure.” Piper turned to Cole and Cecile. “You guys need a lift as well?”

Cecile nodded, while Cole replied, “I wouldn’t mind.” He continued to stare at Olivia.

The four people then bid both Donna and Wyatt good-bye and left the manor. As they marched down the stoop leading to the sidewalk, Piper asked, “Was that the amulet that you saw?”

Olivia shook her head. “Either she had switched amulets, or I was mistaken. It did look similar to the one that she wore, yesterday.”

“So much for Wyatt’s nanny being a danger,” Cecile commented.

“I’m not so sure.” Olivia reached the black SUV, first.

Cole added, “I assume you’re talking about that glass that you had put in your purse.” Olivia smiled at him.

Piper frowned. “What glass?” Olivia explained what she had done with the glass of water that she had received from Piper. And the glass that she now held inside her purse. “You have one of my glasses?”

“Don’t worry,” Olivia told her. “Just as soon as Forensics check the prints, you can have it back. Meanwhile,” the three women and the half-daemon climbed into the jeep, “can you drop me off at the precinct?”

————

Piper’s voice rang over the telephone. “Nothing happened, Phoebe. We all got a good look at Donna’s amulet. Especially Olivia. It wasn’t the same one that I saw around that demon’s neck. And Olivia claimed that she saw a different amulet, yesterday.”

Phoebe heaved a sigh, as Piper’s words sank in. So much for her suspicion of Donna Thompson. Then an idea came to her. “Wait a minute, Piper. There’s a good chance that she may have switched amulets. Especially after what happened between her and Olivia, yesterday.”

“Phoebe . . .” Piper’s voice hinted skepticism.

“C’mon Piper! Don’t tell me that isn’t possible!”

Another sigh filled Phoebe’s ears, as Piper continued, “Yes, it is possible. In fact,” she hesitated, “that’s what Olivia thinks. Which is why she had decided to steal a glass that had been used by Donna. She’s going to have the police check the prints. She’s still concerned about two Donna Thompsons being born on the same day and in the same year.”

Phoebe exclaimed, “Thank God someone is showing sense!”

“Thank you very much, Phoebe, for that little reminder. Are you now saying that I’m not showing the proper concern for my son?”

Oh God, Phoebe thought. Time for another round of ‘Piper’s Defense Mode Number One’. “Honey, I didn’t say that.”

“Really? Then what?” Piper added, “Look, I’m just as concerned for Wyatt as anyone else. Even more. And at least I haven’t abandoned him to fulfill some kind of lame ass destiny.” Thoughts of Leo flashed in Phoebe’s mind. “Besides, it’s been at least three days since I had hired Donna. Why hasn’t she done anything yet?”

Phoebe sighed. “I don’t know, Piper. Maybe it’s like Cecile had said. Maybe she’s got some elaborate ritual planned. And what about that demon who had attacked you? Nairn?”

“What about him?”

The middle Charmed One continued, “Maybe we should look into this guy. Find out if Donna had hired him.”

This time, Piper sighed. “I knew you were going to say that. I wish I could, Phoebe, but I’m going to be busy, tonight. And tomorrow night, as well. I’ve booked this local band that’s becoming big, and there’s a good chance I’ll have a large crowd on my hands.”

“Well, Paige and I . . .”

Piper interrupted, “Phoebe? You’re not going to drag Wyatt all over creation just to hunt down information on some demon that’s already dead.”

Again, Phoebe sighed. “All right! We’ll keep an eye on Wyatt. At home.” Then another idea came to her. “Or . . . I can ask Paige to get Harry, so they can look into . . .”

“Phoebe, I wouldn’t even bother.” Piper hesitated. “Cole said that he and Andre would look into Nairn’s background. Olivia and Cecile will be busy tonight. And since it has to do with some coven meeting that Paige told me about, I suspect that Harry will be taking her, as well.”

Cole. Well, of course he would be the right man for the job. Phoebe sighed. As she always did whenever she thought about her ex-husband, these days.

“Phoebe?” Piper’s voice expressed concern. “Are you okay?”

The younger woman answered, “Yeah, I’m fine. I guess it’s been a long day for me and it’s not even three o’clock yet.”

“Maybe you should leave work early today,” Piper suggested. “I’m sure that Elise would . . .”

Someone knocked on the door, causing Phoebe to glance up. Jason poked his head inside her office. “Phoebe, are . . . Oh! I’m sorry to interrupt.”

“No, that’s okay.” Phoebe returned her attention back to her sister. “Uh, Piper, I’ll get back to you, later. Bye.” She hung up the telephone, before Piper could respond and smiled at her boyfriend. “Jason! Hi! What can I do for you?”

The newspaper magnate returned Phoebe’s smile with a suggestive one of his own. “I have something in mind, but I don’t think that this is the right moment for it. I missed you at lunch.”

“I’m sorry, baby. I had lunch with Piper.”

Jason headed toward Phoebe’s desk and leaned over. “I came to ask if you’ll be free, tomorrow night.”

Phoebe frowned. “Tomorrow night? Not tonight?”

“I have a business meeting, tonight,” Jason explained. “Something special.” He paused. “Well, to be honest, tomorrow night also has to do with business. Jack McNeill is having some kind of cocktail party, which has to do with that deal between McNeill Corporation and Olivia’s friend. Cecile. The deal that you told me about.”

“But what does that have to do . . .?”

Jason interrupted, “I had asked McNeill if he could get Olivia to re-introduce me to her friend. Instead, he invited me to the party. I must say it was pretty decent of him . . . considering how my relationship with Olivia had ended.” He added, “And I was hoping that you would join me.”

Disappointed that Jason did not have romance in mind for tomorrow night, Phoebe mumbled, “Cecile’s computer software must be that great, if you want to meet her that badly.” A thought came to her. “Wait a minute! Haven’t you met Cecile before? When you were dating Olivia?”

“Once. But we never really became acquainted. Besides,” Jason smiled curtly, “Olivia and I only dated for about two months. I didn’t see Cecile again, until a few years later at Bruce’s wedding.” He paused and gave Phoebe a pleading look. “You don’t mind, do you, baby? Joining me for tomorrow night?”

Phoebe stared into Jason’s dark blue eyes and sighed. How could she resist? “No, I don’t,” she finally said. “As long as I’m with you. But on Saturday, you’ll take me to some place special. Right?”

“Whatever you say.” Jason leaned even further and planted a light kiss upon Phoebe’s forehead. “I’ll pick you up around seven, tomorrow night. Bye.” He blew her a kiss and left the office.

Another sigh escaped Phoebe’s mouth, as she leaned back into her chair. She thought about Piper’s refusals to heed her warnings; and being forced to sit back and wait, while Olivia and Cole deal with the Donna Thompson situation. And now, Jason wanted to use her as the Token Girlfriend for the McNeills’ party, tomorrow night. Despite being a powerful witch and successful career woman, she was beginning to feel pretty useless.

———–

Strains of a jazz band filled Andre’s ears, as he and Cole entered the elegant nightclub on Powell Street. The houngan glanced around the establishment, recalling the last time he had visited Vorando’s – for Bruce’s bachelor party, last spring. He still could not help but admire the nightclub’s Art Deco-style interior.

Upon making their way to the bar, he and Cole ordered drinks. Andre asked for a Black Russian, while Cole ordered a whiskey-and-soda. After the bartender served their drinks, Cole added, “By the way, is Riggerio here?”

The bartender’s face became mask-like. “Who?”

Rolling his eyes, Cole retorted, “Just tell him that an old friend from Portofino is here to see him. He’ll understand.”

Looking slightly uneasy, the bartender nodded and headed toward the back of the club. While the pair sipped their drinks, Andre said, “Guess what? I finally bought the ring, today.”

“What?” Cole stared at his friend.

Andre sighed. “The engagement ring. For Cecile?” He continued, “Olivia and old Mrs. McNeill had convinced me to go ahead and ask Cecile to marry me.” He shot a quick glance at the half-daemon’s stoic expression. “I suppose you think that I shouldn’t bother.”

Blue eyes widened, as Cole protested, “I never said such a thing. In fact, the reason Cecile wanted to break up with you in the first place was because she wanted to get married . . . and thought that you didn’t.”

The news took Andre by surprise. “What? Do you mean to say that I’ve been worried all this time for nothing? Damn man! Why didn’t you . . .?”

“Hey! We were interrupted,” Cole shot back, looking defensive. “When Olivia and Cecile had shown up for dinner. And you kept disappearing on me, after that!”

Andre opened his mouth to protest, but the bartender returned. “Uh, Riggerio can see you, now. Follow me.” He led the houngan and the half-daemon toward an inconspicuous-looking door at the far side of the nightclub, and ushered them inside an office.

Although different in color tone, Riggerio’s office had also been designed in the sleek, Art-Deco style. The club’s owner sat behind a large desk, peering at his computer and obviously enjoying the music that came from the live band. The moment the two visitors stood before his desk, the handsome-looking daemon glanced up and smiled. “Well, look who’s here! Andre!” He nodded at the bartender and ordered another round of drinks, before the latter disappeared from the office. “When Frederico mentioned Portofino, I had been expecting only Belthazor.” He stood up and shook Andre’s hand. “How are you, my friend? I have not seen you in . . . what? Three months?”

Andre smiled. “Actually, four months. Not since you had hired me to find that missing . . . friend of yours. And I believe I had ended up finding his corpse, instead.”

Riggerio turned to Cole and shook the latter’s hand. “Belthazor. What brings you here? Is the lovely Signorina McNeill with you?”

Cole smiled wryly at the mention of Olivia’s name. “The . . . lovely Signorina McNeill is doing fine. Unfortunately, she and her family are attending some kind of meeting for their coven, tonight. Cecile had joined them.”

“Ah! The beautiful Signorina Dubois is in town, as well.” Riggerio nodded, as he repeated his earlier question. “So, what brings you two here?”

Cole paused, before answered. “Information.” Andre noticed how Riggerio’s face quickly became businesslike. “Have you heard of a daemon named Nairn? He used to be an assassin.”

Riggerio frowned. “Used to be?”

Andre explained, “He was killed a few days ago. While trying to kidnap the Halliwell baby.”

Surprise illuminated Riggerio’s dark eyes. “Nairn is dead? This is certainly news to me. Did the Charmed Ones kill him?”

“The oldest sister,” Cole murmured. “Piper. Along with some Vodoun priestess, who happens to be the baby’s nanny.”

Riggerio seemed saddened by the news of his fellow daemon’s death. And yet, Andre could not help but feel that Riggerio’s grief did not seem genuine. “Poor Nairn,” the daemon said with a shake of his head. “I knew that his luck would one day run out. I supposed that going up against a Charmed One was a lot more difficult than the head of the Lehme Order. Still, accepting an assignment involving the Halliwell child.” Again, he shook his head. “Very dangerous for a mid-level daemon. Even one as skilled as Nairn.”

“Did you know that he had protection, all those years?” Cole added. Riggerio stared at him. “Some kind of amulet that blocked the powers of others.”

“And yet, he still ended up dead?”

Cole sighed. “That’s another story. Right now, we need to know who had hired him.”

The other daemon shrugged his shoulders. “How would I know? I did not know that he was dead.” He paused, as his eyes hardened. “Not that I mind, to be perfectly honest. That bastard had killed a member of our coven, back in the late 70s. He has been on our shit list, ever since. As to who may have hired him,” Riggerio’s expression became less hard, “I don’t know. But . . . I have a pretty good idea who can provide you with that information.”

Andre warily eyed his host. “Exactly how much is this piece of information is going to cost us?”

Riggerio stared at the houngan, before he threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, my friend! You know me too well.” He quickly sobered. “Do not worry. This information will cost you nothing.”

“So, who is this person that can give us the information we need?” Cole demanded.

Riggerio paused before he replied, “A witch.”

Both Andre and Cole exchanged shocked looks, before staring at the daemon in disbelief. “Say that again?” Andre demanded.

“I said a witch.” The daemon continued, “After Nairn had killed a member of our coven, we began searching for him. We never managed to catch up with him, but not long ago, one of my . . . colleagues discovered that a witch named Esmerelda Ross had acted as an agent for him. All of Nairn’s jobs had been arranged through her.”

Andre wondered if he had heard correctly. “You mean to say that a witch is associated with a demonic assassin? Are you sure she’s not a warlock?”

Riggerio shook his head. “No, my friend. Signorina Ross is neither Stregheria, Wiccan or a member of any other recognized Pagan religion. She belongs to a sect that . . . well, practices a darker view of mysticism. Which means that she has not broken her oath, as a witch.”

“And which is why she’s a witch and not a warlock,” Cole added. “Is she some kind of Satanist?”

“No, no, no. From what I had learned, her kind – like the Wiccans and the Streghore – does not believe in the concept of Satan.”

The bartender returned with another round of drinks for Andre and Cole. He also served a glass of white wine to Riggerio and left. Andre turned to Riggerio and asked, “Where can we find this Esmarelda Ross?”

With a sigh, Riggerio replied, “Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question.” He took a sip of his wine. “I have no idea where she lives. I only know her name.” The daemon turned to Andre. “But if I were you, il mio amico, I would go back to that little investigation you had done for me. The ‘missing friend’, whose corpse you had found, was the one who had told me about Signorina Ross. He had disappeared not long after our last conversation.”

Andre continued to sip his drink, as he contemplated Riggerio’s words.

END OF PART X

“The Power of One” [PG-13] – 9/20

 

“THE POWER OF ONE”

PART IX

McNeill Corporation’s corporate officers filed out of the boardroom, as they chatted happily over the new deal that had been reached. Even Cecile felt better than she had in the past week. Especially since her business deal with the corporation had concluded successfully. Crescent Software’s list of clients has just spread beyond the Lower Mississippi Valley and the Southeast to include the West Coast. Cecile allowed herself a smile, as she followed Cole and the McNeills to the CEO’s office.

“That went off well,” Jack McNeill declared, as he settled into the leather chair behind his desk. “Once the contracts are signed and processed, we can set about arranging training sessions for our employees. Um . . .”

Cecile interrupted. “I suppose we can discuss the training schedules, later.”

Harry corrected, “Sure. But just to let you know, your employees can train our tech people who are employed at the corporate level. After that . . .”

“You will provide training to all of your companies,” Cecile finished. “That’s fine with me. But right now, I feel like celebrating.”

Cole shot her a penetrating glance. “Well, you’re certainly in a good mood, today. A first this week, isn’t it?”

Cecile’s smile faltered, thanks to the half-daemon’s cool observation. She suspected that he was thinking about Andre. “Yeah,” she said, staring at him. “I guess I am.” Cole looked away. “Of course, I . . .” Her cell phone rang. Cecile retrieved it from her purse. “Excuse me. Hello?”

“Hey Cecile, it’s me! Olivia! Are you busy?” The redhead’s voice rang in her ear. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for the past hour.”

The Vodoun priestess commented, “I’ve had my cell phone turned off. What do you need?”

“I’m just calling to let you know that I’ll have to take a rain check on our lunch, today,” Olivia continued. “Something has come up.”

Suspicion glimmered in the back of Cecile’s mind. “Does that something have to do with Donna Thompson?”

A brief hesitation on Olivia’s part followed, before she finally answered, “As a matter of fact . . . yeah. It does. Why? Do you want to help?”

Cecile glanced at Cole. “Well, I was thinking about lunch with Cole and Harry.”

“Bring them along. Especially Cole.”

“Uh . . .” Cecile faced the others. “I’ll ask.” She removed the cell phone from her ear. “Are any of you guys interested in helping Olivia with a little investigation, this afternoon?”

Harry answered, “Sorry, but I have an appointment. Business.”

“So do I,” Mr. McNeill added.

Once more, Cecile glanced at the half-daemon. “Cole?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Why not? My schedule is free.”

“Cole and I will join you,” Cecile informed Olivia. “Where do you want to meet for . . .?”

Olivia told her. “Meet me at P3 in about an hour from now. I have to get something from my apartment. I’ll see you then.”

“I’ll see you.” Cecile disconnected her telephone. Then she turned to Cole. “Olivia wants us to meet her at P3.”

Looking slightly confused, Cole demanded, “Why? By any chance does this have to do with Wyatt’s new nanny? I remember her trying to talk about this Donna, during last night’s dinner.”

Cecile sighed. “I’m afraid so. Olivia had an encounter with her, yesterday. And now she’s become paranoid over the woman. And when she gets like . . .”

“Yes, we all know how Olivia can be when her paranoia gets the best of her,” Mr. McNeill wearily added.

Cole murmured, “But she usually turns out to be right.”

“Can’t deny the truth,” Mr. McNeill shot back. Then he added, “By the way, Gwen and I will be holding a little cocktail party, tomorrow night. To celebrate today’s deal. It’ll start around seven.”

Cecile frowned. “Not tonight?”

“Our coven is holding a meeting, tonight. At Phil Bannen’s home.”

“Oh. I’ll be there.” Cecile turned to Cole. “Ready?” The half-daemon nodded, as he and the Vodoun priestess bid the McNeills good-bye, before setting out for their new destination.

———-

Family always mattered to the Halliwells. It certainly mattered to Piper, who loved her family very much. But there were moments when her family could be the biggest pain in her ass. Like now.

“Phoebe,” the oldest Charmed One said in her most patient voice, “please stop this. Please? I’m trying to finish this inventory of liquor and you’re still going on about Donna.”

The younger woman had dropped by the nightclub to invite Piper for lunch. Unfortunately, the club owner had no choice but to decline her sister’s offer due to her heavy workload. Between checking the inventory, booking new acts for the next two months and finding a new manager, Piper really had no time for ninety minute lunches. But instead of leaving, Phoebe decided to hang around the club . . . and nag her to death about her son’s new nanny.

“But Piper, don’t you find it strange that she was the last applicant to arrive? One would say that it was pretty convenient that she was around to help you vanquish that . . .” Phoebe glanced around to ensure that no one could hear them. “. . . that demon.”

Piper rolled her eyes. “A demon that she had allegedly hired to attack me?”

“Yeah.”

“Phoebe, if Donna had hired a demon to attack us, why did she help me vanquish him? Why did he attack her?” The younger sister’s mouth fell open. Piper moved in for the kill. “With me dead, no one could have stopped Donna and that demon from taking Wyatt. But that didn’t happen, Phoebe. I’m alive and we still have Wyatt with his powers intact – thanks to Donna. And she hasn’t made a move in the past few days. Can you explain that?”

Uncertainty replaced the fervent gleam in Phoebe’s eyes. “I don’t know, Piper. But I can’t help how I feel. There’s just something wrong about her.”

“Something wrong about whom?” a third voice asked. Both Piper and Phoebe looked up and saw two figures descend the nightclub’s staircase. It was Cole and Cecile. As usual, Phoebe’s face turned slightly pink at the sight of her former husband. The two newcomers approached the sisters. Cole added, “Were you two talking about someone?”

Phoebe remained silent, while Piper sighed. “Wyatt’s new nanny. Donna. Phoebe thinks there’s something suspicious about her.”

“Oh no!” Cecile groaned. “Phoebe too?”

Piper frowned. “What do you mean?”

The Vodoun priestess continued, “Olivia is also suspicious. Something to do with a necklace or amulet that she thinks your nanny has.”

An uneasy thought entered Piper’s mind at Cecile’s mention of an amulet. “Are you saying that Olivia believes that Donna has that demon’s amulet?”

Footsteps clattered on the staircase. Seconds later, Olivia appeared before them, carrying a thick book. “Hi guys! What’s going on?”

“You tell us,” Cole said, as he greeted her with a light kiss. “You asked us to join you here.”

Piper added, “We’re talking about Donna. Whom Phoebe seems to think has designs on my son. And now, Cecile tells us that you’re also suspicious.”

Olivia placed the book on the bar’s flat surface. “And you’re not?”

“What for? She hasn’t done anything! I’ve been trying to tell Phoebe, but she won’t listen.”

Phoebe retorted, “She hasn’t done anything . . . yet. For all we know, she might be biding her time. I mean, this is Wyatt we’re talking about. Donna probably has some special potion to strip his powers.”

“Or a special ritual,” Cecile added. Everyone stared at her. “Look, I’m no more suspicious than Piper. So far, I haven’t sensed anything threatening about her and I’m a telepath. But if this Donna is planning on stealing Wyatt’s powers, she would probably use some kind of ritual. I know I would.”

Feeling slightly annoyed, Piper exclaimed, “Okay, this has gone too far! Neither Phoebe or Olivia have any real proof that Donna has some . . . ‘nefarious’ scheme planned for Wyatt. Or do you?”

Olivia exchanged a glance with Phoebe before she declared, “Well . . . here’s something that you might find interesting. Did you know there are . . . or were two Donna Thompsons born on March 14, 1968? One of them died back in 1996 and the other happens to be Wyatt’s new nanny.”

Everyone – including Piper – stared at the redhead. “Meaning?” the oldest Charmed One asked, feeling suddenly uneasy.

The other witch revealed what she had learned from the city’s police records and the Department of Motor Vehicles. “I can understand if there are more than one Donna Thompson in the world. But two that were born on the same day? And in the same city? What’s even more suspicious is the fact that I could only find two driver’s licenses issued to your new nanny. And the first one had been issued about two months after the other Donna’s death. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that seems to be taking coincidence a bit too far. Don’t you think?”

Stunned by Olivia’s revelation, Piper exclaimed, “Are you trying to tell us that my son’s nanny is a fake?” The red-haired witch merely responded with a silent shrug.

“I think that’s exactly what Olivia is trying to tell us,” Phoebe added. “I haven’t been able to sense any emotions from her for the past two days or so.”

Piper retorted caustically, “Lucky woman!”

“I’m serious, Piper. I haven’t sensed anything from her. And considering my lack of control over my empathy, I should be able to.”

Sighing, Piper demanded, “So, what are you saying? That Donna isn’t even human?”

“There’s a good chance,” Phoebe murmured. Piper glared at her. “What?”

“Nothing!” Then, “I just . . . I just find it hard to believe that Donna is a demon. I mean, that demon who had attacked me, nearly killed her.”

Phoebe shot back, “I wouldn’t be surprised if your nanny had arranged that little attack.”

Olivia opened the book that she had placed on the bar. “I don’t know if she’s a daemon or not. I’m still wondering about the daemon that had attacked you.”

“Is that your Book of Shadows?” Piper asked, staring at the thick book.

“Yeah. I wondered if you would be able to identify him.”

Piper shook her head. “I’ve already checked our Book of Shadows. He wasn’t in there.”

“But he might be in mine,” Olivia added. “Your description of him reminded me of someone I had once seen about fifteen or sixteen years ago.”

Believing that she was wasting her time, Piper heaved a sigh, as she began to peruse Olivia’s book. To her surprise, it did not take long for her to find the demon that had attacked her. Olivia had added a rather well drawn sketching the demon on the book’s 14th page. “Oh my God,” she murmured. “That’s him! That’s the demon who had . . .” She stared at Olivia. “How did you . . .?”

“I had spotted him during a family trip to Scotland,” Olivia said. “Just before he had killed an old friend of my grandfather and Cousin Keith’s. A wizard named Adolphus Grant. Since I was the only one who had spotted him, I added a drawing of him in my Book of Shadows. Only, no one knew his name.”

Cole approached the bar and peered at the book. “I know him,” he commented. His name is . . . or was Nairn. A demonic assassin. A soldier-of-fortune.”

“Like you used to be,” Phoebe added. Piper noticed the plaintive tone in Phoebe’s voice.

Apparently, Cole did not. He continued, “Actually, I was never really a soldier-of-fortune. Especially since I had worked for the Source. And the Thorn Brotherhood directly. Nairn, on the other hand, was a true soldier-of-fortune. He worked for anyone who would hire him. He had been on the Source’s hit list for over forty years. Ever since he killed the head of the Lehme Brotherhood, back in the late 50s.”

Curiosity gleamed in Cecile’s dark eyes. “He managed to kill the head of a demonic order?”

“Don’t ask me how he did it,” Cole said with a shake of his head. “Granted, Nairn was a top assassin. But he was also a mid-level daemon. His assassination of Bosaal became the talk of the Source’s Realm over the next forty-two years.” The half-demon assumed a rueful expression. “Until I killed the Triad.”

“Why would he risk the Source’s vengeance with such a job?” Olivia asked. “Who hired him?”

Cole replied, “It turned out that a powerful witch coven in Norway had hired Nairn to kill Bosaal. The latter had killed their leader in order to steal their sigil. Which is supposed to be a source of great power for the coven. The coven summoned and hired Nairn, who completed his job. After Bosaal’s death, the Source retaliated by putting zoltars on his trail and tried to destroy the coven. Unfortunately, Nairn killed every zoltar who crossed his path. And the coven proved difficult to destroy. Only a few members were killed, but their sigil proved to be very effective in protecting them.”

Phoebe stared at her former husband in shock. “Wait a minute! Are you saying that witches had hired a demonic assassin?”

“Yeah.” Cole nodded. “And Nairn completed the job. Just as I had told you.”

“But witches?” Phoebe paused, and shook her head in disbelief. “I can’t believe that they would . . . Were they evil witches?”

Cole rolled his eyes in contempt. “Sorry Phoebe,” he said sarcastically, “but the Bla Mane Coven are known throughout the Asatru world as decent witches. The death of their leader had . . . somewhat affected them, I think. At least the coven’s council members. Besides, didn’t Prue and Piper once work with a zoltar to hunt me down? And none of you didn’t mind working with me, for a while.”

Oh God! Piper heaved a mental sigh. She always tends to forget about Krell, the zoltar who had been after Cole after the latter had killed the Triad. She began to fear that little alliance might haunt them forever.

“Oh yeah,” Phoebe murmured. “Krell. I forgot about him.”

Piper added sarcastically, “I wish I could.”

Cecile continued, “So, this Nairn had no trouble being hired by witches? I’m surprised that he didn’t try to double-cross them in the end.”

Cole replied, “The Bla Mane witches had something to offer Nairn in return for Bosaal’s death. Which is why he didn’t double-cross them. Besides, he’s not in the habit of double-crossing his clients. That’s how he stayed in business for nearly a century.”

“Too bad his last client didn’t follow the same policy,” Phoebe muttered.

Cecile shot back, “You don’t know if Donna Whatshername had hired this Nairn.”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

The frowning Vodoun priestess retorted, “How? How is it obvious? Look, I’m not denying that there is something suspicious about Wyatt’s nanny. And I’m not denying that she could have hired that daemon. But we don’t know for a fact that she did. And before we start assuming, I suggest we find more proof.”

Hands on her hips, Phoebe glared at Cecile. “What more proof do you need?”

Cecile glared back. “A hell of a lot more than you do! Has anyone ever told you that you have a bad habit of jumping to conclusions?”

Phoebe opened her mouth to retort, but Olivia interrupted. “I’m more interested in what the Bla Mane coven may have given to Nairn.” She turned to Cole. “Do you have any idea what they gave him?”

Cole shook his head. “Sorry, I haven’t the foggiest idea.” His eyes narrowed. “What do you think they gave him?”

With a shrug of her shoulders, Olivia replied, “An amulet perhaps? One that once belonged to a dominion spirit named Caspiel?” Everyone stared at Olivia, as she revealed what she had noticed about Donna’s necklace, yesterday. Along with her grandmother’s book on the supernatural and her knowledge of dominion spirits.

The revelation flabbergasted Piper. She could not believe her ears. “Dominion spirits? Why hasn’t Leo ever told us about them? And if this Nairn had been wearing the amulet of one . . . Oh my God! No wonder I couldn’t just easily vanquish him!” She frowned at Olivia. “You really think that Donna now has the amulet?”

Olivia sighed. “I don’t know, Piper. I don’t know for certain that she has it. For all we know, it might still be somewhere inside your house. But if the amulet had originally belonged to a dominion spirit, I doubt very much that it had been destroyed, when you and Donna killed Nairn.”

Piper glanced at her watch. It read twelve fifty-one. “So . . . I suppose you want to check to see if she has that amulet?”

Again, Olivia shrugged. “It would be a good idea.”

END OF PART IX

“The Power of One” [PG-13] – 8/20

“THE POWER OF ONE”

PART VIII

“Are you sure that he’s here?” Elise McNeill asked her granddaughter. The two women climbed out of Olivia’s BMW convertible and approached the Union Square shop. 

Olivia sighed. “I don’t know. Last I heard, Andre went for a walk, last night. And according to Cole, he was missing this morning.” She placed her hand on the shop’s doorknob. It turned easily. “I guess he is here.” Olivia opened the door and the two witches entered. “Hello? Andre?”

The houngan emerged from the back of the shop. “Yeah, I’m here.” Andre strode toward the women.

“How long have you been here?” Gran demanded.

“Since five-thirty, this morning.” Andre paused, looking slightly uncomfortable. “I had trouble sleeping.”

Olivia sighed. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you about Cecile!”

Shaking his head, Andre replied, “No, no! It’s okay. At least I won’t have to waste my time with a wedding proposal.”

Both women reacted with distress at Andre’s remark. “You can’t be serious!” Oliva protested. “I mean . . . don’t you have a ring selected? Gran told me.”

Andre leaned against one of the shelves. “Yeah, I know. But since Cecile’s no longer interested in me . . .”

“Before you decide that’s true,” Gran said, interrupting, “why don’t you see how Cecile will react to your proposal?”

Olivia added, “May I see the ring?”

With a sigh, Andre moved away from the shelf and headed over to the one of the display cases filled with jewelry. He picked up an object and handed it over to Olivia. “That’s the ring I had planned to give to Cecile.”

A quick appraisal by Olivia enabled her to recognize that the ring had a French design and that it dated sometime back in the seventeenth century. She had studied Art History back in college. “Very nice,” she murmured. “There’s nothing supernatural about it, is there?”

“No,” Andre quickly said. “It’s perfectly fine.” He sighed. “So, you think I should ask her to marry me, anyway?”

Both women answered at the same time, “Yes!”

Andre turned to Olivia. “Well Livy, you’re about to make your first profit. I understand that the ring costs around a hundred-and-eighty dollars.”

Olivia walked over to the cash register. “I’ll get the receipt pad and cash box. By the way, did you guys find anything interesting?”

Gran replied, “We found a lot of interesting items. Especially that dagger with those markings on the hilt. Remember Andre?”

Looking slightly distracted, Andre nodded. “Oh. Yeah, I . . . uh, remember. The dagger that belonged to a dominion spirit.”

“A what?” Andre’s news took Olivia by surprise. “Did you say a dominion spirit?” She placed a tin box and the receipt pad on the counter. “Did anyone touch it?”

Gran added, “Andre did.”

“And he didn’t burn? Or get hurt any other way?” Olivia shook her head in disbelief. “Objects like that contain great power, and they usually affect beings who are lesser than dominion spirits – daemons of all kind . . . and mortals.” She paused. “Did the marking show to whom the dagger originally belonged?”

Andre snapped out of his distracted state. “I’ll show you.” He disappeared toward the back of the shop, while Olivia began to write the receipt for the ring. A few minutes later, the houngan returned with a bejeweled dagger.

Olivia reached out to take the dagger. Gran exclaimed, “No Livy! Don’t touch the . . .” She broke off, as her granddaughter grabbed hold of the dagger. “Goddess! You two?” She frowned. “I don’t understand. Neither of you were affected.”

“Maybe you’re wrong about it belonging to a dominion spirit,” Olivia said, as she examined the dagger’s hilt.

Shaking her head, Gran replied, “I can’t be. I saw the marking, myself. It belonged to Caspiel.”

“The dominion spirit associated with fire?” Olivia asked.

Realization lit up the elderly witch’s gray-blue eyes. “Of course! That’s why you two . . .” She turned to Andre. “Are any of your psi powers based on the fire element?”

Andre frowned. “Well, I’m an atmoskinetic. Which means that two of the powers I control – fire and electricity – are based on the fire element.”

“And Livy is a fire witch,” Gran finished. “No wonder you two weren’t affected. If that dagger had come from a dominion spirit associated with another element – like Carnesiel, who deals with the spirit element – you would have been in serious danger.”

Olivia turned the dagger over and spotted the marking on the bottom of the hilt. She gasped. “Is this Caspiel’s mark?” she demanded.

“Yeah,” Andre answered. “Why?”

“I think I may have seen it, before. On something else.” And idea came to the red-haired witch. “I’ve got to go.” She returned the dagger to Andre and headed for the shop’s entrance.

Gran demanded, “Where are you going?”

“To the station. There’s someone I need to check on.”

———–

The images of Donna Thompson removing hair from Wyatt’s brush continued to plague Phoebe’s mind. She found herself becoming so obsessed with the new nanny that she found it difficult to do her work.

Why did Donna’s actions bother her? Why did a knot in her stomach form every time she thought about the other woman? Piper had been right about one thing. There was nothing sinister about cleaning a baby’s hairbrush. So, why did she feel there was? Had it something to do with Donna’s reaction, when she had entered the nursery? Or that flash of guilt and fear in the other woman’s eyes?

Phoebe shook her head. She realized that she was allowing her imagination to get the best of her. If Donna had really wanted to harm Wyatt, she could have done it by now. Besides, the woman did help Piper save Wyatt from a demonic attack. If she had been interviewed before the demon, Piper would have been dead and Wyatt . . .

The middle Charmed One’s thoughts came to a screeching halt. “If she had been interviewed before the demon . . .” Of course! Phoebe shot out of her chair, as the epiphany struck her.

Donna must have arranged for the demon to attack Piper. Phoebe recalled her older sister stating that the Vodoun priestess had been the last to arrive that morning. It all made sense. Donna finds out about Wyatt and the position for his nanny. She arranges for a demon to pose as an applicant. Both the priestess and the demon make arrangements on the order of arrival. The demon attacks Piper. Donna comes to Piper’s rescue. Only Donna double-crosses her partner and helps Piper vanquish the demon before the latter can escape. And the priestess is hailed as a heroine and rewarded with the position of Wyatt’s nanny. Only . . . only Donna has not made any move against Wyatt. And Phoebe could not help but wonder why. Had Donna’s lack of action anything to do with future plans that involved Wyatt’s hair?

She had to warn Piper. Now. Phoebe reached for the telephone and dialed the number to P3. An employee answered and informed her that Piper was in a meeting with a liquor merchant at the moment, and could not be disturbed. Frustrated, Phoebe hung up and reached for her purse and coat. As she marched out of her office, her editor – Elise Rothman – materialized in her path toward the elevators. “Where are you going?” the older woman demanded.

“Lunch,” Phoebe replied. “I’m taking an early lunch, today.”

Elise glanced at her watch. “At ten forty-five in the morning? Aren’t you a bit early for lunch?” Her dark eyes penetrated Phoebe’s.

Oh shit! Phoebe realized that the editor had decided to become difficult, today. “Well . . . yeah. But see, I have this family emergency . . .”

“What kind of family emergency?”

“Um . . . Piper. She’s . . .” For once, Phoebe’s imagination failed her.

Elise smirked. “When you can remember the nature of your . . . family emergency, let me know. Meanwhile, I think you can forgo your early lunch for today.”

Annoyed by the older woman’s tone, Phoebe protested. “Elise! I’m not a schoolgirl, you know! So, do you mind not treating me like one?”

“I’m treating you like an employee who was forty minutes late for work, this morning!” Elise retorted. Her stare remained relentless. “Now, unless you can provide me with a genuine excuse, I suggest that you continue work.”

For a brief moment, Phoebe felt tempted to use the “boyfriend” excuse. But instinct told her that Jason would not cooperate. Especially after a few employees had spotted them indulging in foreplay inside her office, two weeks ago. She realized that if she had decided to use Jason to get her way, the other employees – especially Elise – would resent her. And make her life at work very miserable. A sigh left Phoebe’s mouth. “Fine. I’ll stay.”

“Good.” Elise flashed a bright smile at the younger woman and continued on her way. Unless she can find a way to contact Piper, Phoebe realized that the next hour and ten minutes might prove to be very long.

———

Darryl strolled into the squad room, followed by two members of his team – Carlotta Trujillo and Marcus Anderson. While the other two went toward their desks to deal with a suspect they had just arrested, the police lieutenant was surprised to find his partner seated behind her desk, staring at a computer screen.

“Olivia? What are you doing here?” he demanded, as he sat down in the chair, next to the redhead’s desk. “I thought that you had taken the day off to work in your shop?”

Her eyes still glued to the computer screen, Olivia curtly replied, “I did. An emergency had popped up. Regarding a certain nanny.”

“Huh?” Confusion whirled in Darryl’s brain, until he realized that Olivia had referred to Piper Halliwell’s new nanny. “Wait a minute. Are you talking about Wyatt’s new nanny? What about her?”

Olivia glanced up. “There’s something strange about her. Something I can’t put my finger on. And it has to do with an amulet that had allegedly been destroyed and a dagger in my shop.” Darryl’s partner then told him about her suspicions that had arisen from the nanny’s odd behavior and a magical dagger that bore a mark to the one she had spotted on the nanny’s amulet. “I’m checking our records to see if there’s anything on Donna Thompson.”

“And?”

With a sigh, Olivia finished, “So far, nothing. Well, I did come across three Donna Thompsons. But none match the description of Wyatt’s nanny. Also, one of them is dead.”

Darryl made a suggestion. “Why don’t you check the Department of Motor Vehicles?”

Olivia did as he had suggested. Within less than ten minutes, the pair received Donna Thompson’s DMV records. They also discovered that the nanny lived in the city’s Bernal Heights neighborhood. And that she had been born on March 14, 1968; in Oakland, California. The birth date seemed to have struck a familiar note with Olivia. “Wait a minute,” she murmured under her breath. “That date.”

“What is it?” Darryl asked.

The witch minimized the DMV page, before returning to the police department’s records. Olivia typed in the nanny’s name. Darryl gasped as he read the file. One of the Donna Thompsons in the Department files had also been born on March 14, 1968. In Oakland. Only this Miss Thompson had died on January 21, 1996. “I’ll be damned,” Darryl murmured.

“No kidding,” Olivia shot back, as she smiled broadly. “I’ve got her! Two Donna Thompsons born on the same day and in the same city? How often does that happen?” She switched back to the DMV site. “The driver license for our Miss Thompson will expire in March 2008. Which means that her last license had expired in 2002. Now, that previous license had been effective between March 1996 and March 2002. Which means that she had received this previous license about two months after the other Donna Thompson’s death.”

Darryl shook his head. “You know, this reminds me of Rex Buckland and Hannah Webster.”

“Who?”

“They were two warlocks who had gained control of the auction house that Prue worked at, some five years ago. These warlocks had murdered the real Rex Buckland and Hannah Webster, before assuming their identities. It could be that your Donna Thompson may have done the same. What does the Department’s files say about the dead Donna?”

Olivia returned to the police database. She whistled. “Wow! For someone who had died two months short of her 28th birthday, she sure led a full life. Arrested four times for possession of drugs between the ages of sixteen and twenty. She spent three years at the Valley State Prison for Women for pushing cocaine. Arrested in October 1995 for drug trafficking. Unfortunately, no conviction could be made. Three weeks after she was acquitted, someone murdered her by filling her capsules with drain cleaner. Probably her employer.”

A stunned expression appeared on Darryl’s face. “Wait a minute! Are you saying that Wyatt’s new nanny might be some kind of drug dealer?”

“Of course not!” Olivia protested. Then she hesitated. “Then again . . . I don’t know. But I do have a gut feeling that the real name of Wyatt’s nanny is not Donna Thompson. I think she may have been using that name to avoid detection.”

Darryl shook his head. “Yeah, but there’s something I don’t understand. She’s already close to Wyatt. She’s been close for the past three or four days. What the hell is she waiting for?”

Olivia sighed. “I wish I knew, Darryl. I wish I knew. And I dread the moment when we find out before it’s too late.”

END OF PART VIII

 

“The Power of One” [PG-13] – 7/20

“THE POWER OF ONE”

PART VII

While Cole busied himself with putting the finishing touches to the Lamb Kidneys Madeira that he had prepared, Andre entered the penthouse’s kitchen. “Is everything ready?” the latter asked.

“Yeah,” Cole replied. He picked up the platter of lamb kidneys and carried it over to the dining table. Andre placed a dish of Artichokes Bernaise on the table, next to the kidneys. “I only hope this doesn’t get cold, before the ladies arrive.”

Andre shook his head in disbelief. “Man, how in the hell did you find the time to prepare all of this?”

“Left the office, early.” Cole’s eyes closely examined the table’s settings. He spotted one of the knives out of place and corrected the mistake. “Don’t worry about Cecile. I had dropped her off at Macy’s downtown for some shopping. Olivia should have picked her up, by now.”

Andre shot back, “I didn’t ask.”

“Yet.” Cole glanced at his friend. “So, how was your day?”

The houngan’s mouth opened momentarily. Then he shut it. “Oh, what the hell!” he finally said. “I’ve already told Olivia and her grandmother.”

Cole frowned. “Told them what?”

A brief pause followed, before Andre declared with a smile, “I plan to ask Cecile to marry me.”

After Cecile’s revelation of her plans to dump Andre, Cole realized that his friend’s news came as a great surprise. The half-daemon stared at his friend with a stunned expression. “Say that . . . Are you serious? You really plan to marry Cecile?”

“Well, if she accepts my proposal.” Andre sighed. “I know. You’re a bit surprised. To be honest, I’ve been thinking of marrying her ever since Bruce and Barbara’s wedding. But . . . okay, maybe I was a little afraid over how she would react. You know Cecile. She tends to keep her feelings to herself, sometimes.”

Cole murmured, “No kidding.”

Andre stared at him. “What?”

“Nothing.”

The other man continued, “Anyway, I wasn’t sure if Cecile might be interested in marriage. She always seemed so independent, sometimes. You know – ‘me against the world’.” Andre frowned. “God, I hope I’m wrong.”

Cole replied before he could think otherwise, “Don’t worry. You’re not.”

Once more, Andre stared at the half-daemon. Hard. “Now, what in the hell did you mean by that?”

Realizing that he had nearly broke Cecile’s confidence, Cole shook his head. “It’s nothing. I was just . . . Never mind.”

“No, you were about to say something about Cecile. What?”

Cole muttered a silent oath. For once in his life, he had failed to keep his big mouth shut. Perhaps he was growing soft in his increasing age. He took a deep breath. “Look, I don’t know how to tell you this. But . . . Cecile plans to break up with you.”

“What?” Disbelief shone in Andre’s eyes.

“She plans to break up with you,” Cole repeated. “Cecile’s tired of being a girlfriend. She told me that she wants . . . more. Something better. She then told me that what she really wanted was . . .” The doorbell rang. Cole turned away. “Huh, looks like they’re here.” He walked over to the door.

Andre cried out, “Hey! What exactly does she want?”

But Cole barely heard his friend’s words. Opening the door, he found Olivia and Cecile standing in the hallway – dressed for dinner. “Ladies,” he politely greeted. “Dinner is ready.”

Both women nodded mutely and entered the penthouse. Judging from their expressions, neither seemed to be in a positive mood. Cecile wore a sullen expression. And Olivia looked as if someone had stunned her with a cattle prod. Cole shot a quick glance at Andre and noticed that the latter did not look any happier. The half-daemon sighed. It promised to be a long and difficult night.

———–

Daley closed the book on her kitchen table, with an air of satisfaction. Then she held up the amulet that hung around her neck. She had no idea that the object she now possessed, held so much power. The amulet had been created by a dominion spirit named Caspiel. According to the book she had just finished reading, Caspiel’s amulet blocked the magical and psychic abilities of all beings – aside from fellow dominion spirits. Caspiel had also created a dagger that could kill any being – magical or otherwise with a mere stab wound. That is . . . any being aside from a dominion spirit or deity. Apparently, Caspiel had lost track of both the amulet and the dagger, a long time ago. Daley wondered if he still existed.

The amulet did present one problem. Olivia McNeill had spotted it. And seemed very curious, when Daley tried her level best to make sure that she did not have a chance to examine. The sorceress realized that she had to do something about that. Killing the witch seemed out of the question. At least for the moment. However, replacing the amulet with another that bore a strong resemblance seems like a possible solution. Not only would Daley be able to fake out the curious witch, she could hide the genuine amulet in a pocket.

A quick glance at the calendar on the kitchen wall told Daley that the half-moon would arrive on the day after tomorrow. She had everything needed to perform the ritual – except for one item. A strand or two of Wyatt Halliwell’s hair from his hairbrush should do the trick.

Once she manages to acquire the infant’s powers, one last task was needed to complete the ritual. Namely the baby’s death. Daley winced inwardly at the idea of killing a nine month-old baby. But it had to be done. With Wyatt still alive, the danger of someone reversing the ritual would remain constant. Especially since the baby’s mother happened to be acquainted with a Vodoun priest and priestess. The moment she finally possess the infant’s powers, Daley would have to kill Wyatt. The only question remained was . . . how.

————

Cole woke up the following morning with great reluctance. He would prefer to remain in bed. Especially after last night’s near disastrous dinner. But he had a job to deal with. And there was the conversation that he and Andre needed to finish.

Hardly a soul had exchanged a word, last night. Except to praise Cole’s cooking. Or comment about some recent incident – like Cecile’s business deal with the McNeills or the latest demonic attack upon Wyatt Halliwell. Olivia had brought up the subject of Wyatt’s new nanny, but one glare from Cecile had ended the topic. Yet, not once did anyone discuss the cause of the tension that had sprung up between the two couples. With emotions seemingly at the breaking point, no one dared.

Once Olivia and Cecile had left, Cole had intended to finish his conversation with Andre. Only, the houngan decided that he needed a breath of fresh air and left for a walk. By the time he had returned, Cole was fast asleep.

After the half-daemon took his morning shower and dressed for work, he went into one of the guest bedrooms to talk with Andre. Only the houngan was nowhere to be found. Either the latter had failed to return from his walk. Or Andre had left early to avoid another conversation. Cole heaved a frustrated sigh and continued to finish preparing for work. After gathering his trench coat and suitcase, he beamed to the floor below the penthouse and rang the doorbell to Olivia’s apartment.

The redhead immediately opened the door. “Hi,” she greeted quietly.

“Hi.” Cole flashed a brief smile before exchanging a light kiss with Olivia. “Is Cecile ready?”

Olivia’s expression became strained. “She will be in a few minutes.” Then she stepped aside, and allowed Cole to enter the apartment. Once she closed the door, she added, “Uh . . . I realize that it seemed a bit tense at dinner, yesterday. And the reason is that Cecile had told me some weird ass news. It seems she plans to break . . .”

“. . . break up with Andre,” Cole grimly finished. Olivia’s green eyes widened in surprise. “Yeah, she told me the day before yesterday.”

“What? You mean to say that she told you first?”

Cole sighed. “Olivia, I had noticed that she had been acting weird, so I dragged it out of her.” He paused. “And I just told Andre, yesterday.”

Shaking her head, Olivia commented, “No wonder he seemed subdued, last night. So much for his plans for a wedding.”

“Oh, so he also told you about that?” Cole heaved another sigh. “Hmmm. Well, I guess it won’t happen, after all. Just as well, I guess.”

Olivia stared at him. “What do you mean by that?”

Oh God! “What I mean is . . .” Cole broke off, as Cecile entered the living room.

The New Orleans woman eyed the couple suspiciously. “What’s going on with you two?” she demanded.

“Nothing.” Cole returned her gaze with an innocent expression. He wondered if the Vodoun priestess knew that he and Olivia had been discussing about her and Andre. “Are you ready?”

Cecile murmured in a morose voice, “Yeah. Let’s go.” Before she reached the door, she stopped abruptly and glanced around. “By the way,” she said with a frown, “where’s Andre?”

“He wasn’t in his room, when I woke up,” Cole answered. “I guess he decided to head for Olivia’s shop a little early.”

Olivia added, “It’s possible. He has a key.”

Cecile sniffed. “Hmmm. Well, let’s go.” She started toward the door. Cole followed. “See you, Livy.”

As he followed Cecile into the hallway, Cole overheard Olivia’s voice. “I’ll call around lunch.” But Cecile was already halfway down the corridor.

———-

A quick glance at the radio clock on her night table told Phoebe that it was thirty-seven minutes past eight, this morning. And that she was running late. She bit back a frustrated sigh and continued to dress. Since it seemed obvious that she would not make it to the office on time, she might as well not bother to rush.

Once she finished dressing, the middle Charmed One picked up her purse and briefcase, and left her bedroom. She marched along the hallway, when she heard humming from one of the bedrooms. From Wyatt’s nursery. Phoebe decided that a quick good-bye kiss to her nephew would not hurt. She peeked inside the room and found Wyatt fully awake and playing with a red ball inside his crib. The new nanny sat in a nearby chair, fiddling with Wyatt’s hairbrush.

“Good morning!” Phoebe cheerfully greeted.

Ms. Thompson – or Donna, as she preferred to be called – glanced up with a gasp on her lips. “Oh! Uh . . . good morning. Um . . . don’t you usually leave a little earlier?”

“I’m running a bit late, this morning.” Phoebe strode into the nursery. “That’s a nice tune you were humming. I’ve never heard it, before.”

Donna’s shoulders sagged with relief. Curious. “Oh that,” she replied. “It’s just an old tune that my mama used to sing to me. I think it goes back to the time of slavery.”

“Oh . . . uh, how . . .” Nearly at a loss for words, Phoebe finished lamely, “How historic. Huh. Oh well. I . . . I just wanted to say good-bye to Wyatt.” She approached the crib and lifted her nephew from the crib and into her arms. Then she rocked him for a few seconds, before planting a light kiss on his forehead. “I’ll see you later, young man,” she said in a baby voice. Phoebe returned Wyatt to inside his crib and turned to Donna. “I guess I’ll be seeing you later.”

The nanny responded with a polite nod. Phoebe headed for the door. For some unexplainable reason, she paused and glanced behind her. And saw Donna remove a strand of hair from Wyatt’s brush and place it on . . . something. A handkerchief? A piece of paper? Suspicion welled within the Charmed One. What did Donna want with . . .?

“Phoebe!” Piper’s voice cried from downstairs. “Let’s go! You’re already ten minutes late!”

Donna glanced up. Phoebe shot the nanny a quick smile and disappeared into the hallway. The Charmed One found her older sister in the foyer, donning a suede jacket. “Well, it’s about time!” Piper grumbled. “Next time, learn to set your clock before you go to bed. What the hell happened to you, this morning?”

A breathless Phoebe reached for her coat. “It’s nothing. I . . .” Memories of Donna’s actions continued to tug at her thoughts. “Piper, are you sure that you did the right thing in hiring Donna?”

Piper frowned at the younger woman. “What? Did you have a premonition or something?”

“No, I . . .” Phoebe hesitated, before she proceeded to tell her sister what she had witnessed just a few minutes ago.

A mixture of disbelief and scorn filled Piper’s dark eyes. “C’mon Phoebe! You’ve got to be kidding! You’re suspicious of Donna, because she was cleaning Wyatt’s hairbrush?”

“I think she was placing his hair in a handkerchief, or a napkin or something,” Phoebe indignantly shot back. “Don’t you find that strange?” She donned her coat.

“No. But I do thank her for being neat,” Piper sarcastically replied. “Phoebe, has it ever occurred to you that she was preventing Wyatt’s hair from falling on the floor?”

Phoebe opened her mouth to protest, but could not find an argument to Piper’s suggestion. “I guess not.”

“Okay honey,” Piper said, patting Phoebe’s shoulder. “You’ve had your shot at being Nancy Drew for the day. It’s time for you to be ‘Dear Phoebe’. Let’s get to work.”

A sigh left Phoebe’s mouth, as she followed her older sister out of the door.

———–

The moment that Phoebe Halliwell’s figure disappeared from the doorway, Daley heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief. Talk about close call! For a moment, she feared that the amulet no longer worked on the seer.

She overheard the front door slam shut. The sorceress smiled and resumed her task. After removing the last strand of hair from Wyatt’s brush, she placed it on the handkerchief in her lap. Then she folded the piece of cloth and placed it, inside her purse.

Daley’s smile stretched wider. Mission accomplished.

END OF PART VII

“The Power of One” [PG-13] – 6/20

 

“THE POWER OF ONE”

PART VI

The moment Chris orbed into the Halliwells’ living room, the doorbell rang. Several seconds passed, but no member of the family appeared to answer the door. Again, it rang. This time, Chris decided to open the door himself.

The whitelighter found a tall, brown-skinned woman standing in the doorway. She smiled politely. “Hi. I’m Donna Thompson. Piper Halliwell had hired me as a nanny, yesterday.”

“Oh! Uh . . .” Chris hesitated, wondering how to introduce himself. “I’m, uh . . . I’m Chris. Chris Perry. A friend of the family.”

Ms. Thompson’s smile widened. “Really? May I come in?”

“Uh . . .”

Piper suddenly appeared and shook Ms. Thompson’s hand. “Hi! Donna! Glad you could make it.” She pushed Chris aside. “Come on in.” The newly hired nanny entered the manor. “You’re early,” the Charmed One continued. “It’s only twenty minutes to eight.”

“I guess I’m a bit too eager, this morning,” the other woman replied sheepishly. “Nerves.”

The oldest Charmed One frowned at Chris. “What are you doing here?”

“You didn’t know that he was here?” Ms. Thompson asked, looking slightly confused.

Sighing, Piper replied, “Uh, not really. You see . . .”

“I had let myself in,” Chris added, hoping to save Piper an explanation of his status.

Piper rolled her eyes. “Chris is my whitelighter. He’s also my sisters’ whitelighter.”

“Oh! Like your guardian angel, or something,” Ms. Thompson said, staring at Chris. “Never met one, before.”

Stunned by Piper’s revelation, Chris stared at her. “Wait! You told her about me?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Chris!” Piper protested. “She knows I’m a witch. I know that she’s a Voudon priestess. And she knows about Wyatt. I don’t see any reason to keep you a secret.”

Annoyed by Piper’s lack of discretion, Chris fumed in silence. Meanwhile, the other two Charmed Ones appeared on the staircase. “Was that the doorbell?” Paige asked. Both she and Phoebe were dressed for work.

Chris watched as Piper introduced them to the newcomer. “Guys, this is Wyatt’s new nanny – Donna Thompson. Donna, these are my sisters, Phoebe and Paige.”

Ms. Thompson shook Paige’s hand. “Nice to meet you.” Then she hesitated, before shaking Phoebe’s hand. “I’m a big fan of yours,” she added. “I’ve read your column in the BAY-MIRROR. In fact, one of my friends had written a letter to you, over a year ago.”

Phoebe smiled happily. “Thanks. It’s nice to meet a fan. I’d talk a little more, but I have to get to work.”

Nodding, Ms. Thompson said, “Of course.” She continued to smile, as Phoebe and Paige headed for the front door. Chris noticed that the Voodoo woman’s shoulders sagged with relief. Only, what would she be relieved about?

After the two younger sisters left, Piper turned to the new nanny. “Well, let’s get acquainted with your new charge, shall we?” She led Ms. Thompson toward the staircase. Chris followed. As they turned the corner, Piper paused, and frowned at the whitelighter. “Where are you going? Shouldn’t you be leaving now?”

“But I just got here,” Chris insisted.

“Chris . . .” Piper hesitated. Then she sighed. “Never mind.” She continued upstairs, with Ms. Thompson and Chris in her wake. Once they reached the nursery on the second floor, the trio found Wyatt playing with his toys, inside his crib. “There he is,” Piper cooed. “Hel-lo honey!” She smiled at the infant, as he gurgled at the sight of his mother.

Every time Chris saw mother and son together, he found it difficult to reconcile the happy infant with the grown man from his future. How could it even be possible that Wyatt would . . .

Piper lifted her infant son from the crib. She carried him over to Ms. Thompson. “Hey Wyatt, remember Donna? You met her yesterday. She’s going to be your new nanny!”

Wyatt regarded the other woman with curious eyes. Ms. Thompson smiled at him. “Hi Wyatt,” she said cheerfully. “Remember me? It’s nice to see you, again.” The baby responded with silence.

“Maybe he doesn’t remember you,” Chris added. The two women stared at him. He decided to remain silent.

Ms. Thompson said to Piper, “May I?” Chris held his breath, as the witch handed over her son to the other woman. Then the nanny bounced the baby in her arms for several seconds. Chris let out a gust of breath, as Wyatt began to laugh.

“Well, it’s nice to see that he still likes you,” Piper commented.

The nanny smiled. “Yeah. For a moment there, I was worried.” While Wyatt began to play with the buttons on her blouse, she continued, “Uh, is there a schedule for Wyatt, while you’re away? You know, his meals and naps.”

“Yeah.” Piper paused, as she stared at the whitelighter. “Do you mind, Chris? This is business. I’ll meet you, downstairs.”

Chris hesitated. Then, “Um, yeah. Okay. I’ll . . . uh, I’ll be downstairs.” He left the nursery and reluctantly returned downstairs. Several minutes passed before Piper joined him in the living room. “Where’s Ms. Thompson?” he asked.

“Doing her job,” Piper curtly replied. “Now, what do you want?”

Chris informed her that the Elders were pleased that the Charmed Ones had managed to vanquish the demonic shape shifter. “It turns out that he was an assassin and they would like you to find out who had hired him.”

“As it so happens, it was Donna who helped me vanquish him, not Phoebe and Paige.”

Surprised by the news, Chris nearly became speechless. “Oh. Uh . . .”

Piper continued, “As for finding out who had hired him, I’m just as interested in that little tidbit as the Elders. So, you can go back and tell them. Now, if you don’t mind . . . good-bye.”

Chris stared long and hard at her. “Look, I realize that you guys still resent that I had replaced Leo as your whitelighter. But it’s not my fault that he had decided to . . .”

“Good-bye Chris.” Piper glared at him.

A sigh left the young whitelighter’s mouth. He got the message. After shooting Piper a wry smile, he orbed out of the house.

———

Inside Olivia’s new store, Andre lifted a dagger from one of the glass display cases and held it up in the air. “Hmmm. Interesting. And very beautiful.” The dagger’s hilt had been carved from silver. It was also studded with polished gems.

“Do you recognize it?” the elderly Mrs. McNeill asked.

With a shake of his head, Andre replied, “Nope. Looks like . . .” He paused, as he spotted an insignia on the hilt’s bottom. “Huh.”

Mrs. McNeill frowned. “What?”

“Do you recognize the insignia on the bottom?” He displayed the bottom of the dagger’s hilt to the elderly witch.

Softly, Mrs. McNeill exclaimed, “Dear God and Goddess! That’s . . .” Andre placed the dagger on the counter, while she reached for a book on sorcery called ‘The Lemegeton’ that she had brought from home. “That’s the mark of a dominion spirit named Caspiel. Very powerful. And I’m sure that you’re familiar with dominion spirits.”

Nodding, Andre replied, “Oh yeah. An immortal more powerful than daemons like Cole and Leo. Don’t they rule over other daemons, including the Elders and the old Source? I also know that they are responsible for the cosmic order, and for maintaining a balance or something. I wonder how the shop’s previous owner got his hands on this dagger. Which element is he supposed to be the great spirit of?”

“Fire,” the elderly witch replied. “Which is why I won’t touch it. There’s also a medallion or amulet that belonged to Caspiel. Fortunately, it hasn’t been seen in ages.”

Andre let out a low whistle. “Definitely something that should remain locked up.” He and Mrs. McNeill continued to examine the other daggers inside the case. Then they moved on to another – one filled with jewelry. After examining a pair of earrings and a necklace, Andre picked up a ring. It was a small, silver ring with a turquoise stone in the center. Andre could not help but feel that the ring would fit perfectly around Cecile’s finger.

Mrs. McNeill glanced at it. “Very lovely. Looks like it had been made in the 17th century. I can tell by the design.”

“Yeah, it is nice.” Andre continued to examine it. “Do you think it has any magical properties or . . .?”

“Do you see anything odd on it? A symbol or writing?

Andre used a magnifying glass to examine the ring more closely. Other than a phrase in French on the inside that translated into “Love forever”, he could find anything out of the ordinary. And said so. “You know, this would make a great engagement ring for Cecile. Don’t you think so?”

Mrs. McNeill nodded. “Definitely. Why don’t you go ahead and buy it?”

A quick glance at the ring’s price tag revealed that it cost nearly two hundred dollars. It seemed pretty cheap for a piece of jewelry over three hundred years old. “I guess I will,” he said. Andre imagined the expression on Cecile’s face, when he finally presented the ring to her. And smiled.

————-

Olivia and Cecile climbed the manor’s stoop, before the former rang the doorbell. “Just a minute!” a voice bellowed from inside. Over a minute passed before the front door swung open, revealing Paige. She greeted the two friends and ushered them inside the house. “So guys, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here to pick up a certain item that you were supposed to return to me,” Olivia coolly replied. “Like my dragon brooch?”

Paige dark eyes reflected a touch of guilt. “Oh! Oh yeah. I was supposed to drop it off, yesterday. Wasn’t I?”

A smile touched Olivia’s lips. “I believe so.”

The Charmed One led the two visitors toward the kitchen. “Would you mind if I hold on to it, a little longer?”

Olivia heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Yes Paige, I would mind. You’ve had it for nearly a week, now. I don’t know if you realize this, but you’ve developed a habit of borrowing a lot of my stuff. I get the feeling that I’m becoming some kind of pawn shop on legs to you.”

“Oh come on, Livy! I’m not that bad.” Paige turned to Cecile for support. “Right?”

A ‘don’t look at me’ expression appeared on Cecile’s face.

The three women entered the kitchen, where they found a strange woman plopping a baby’s bottle into a saucepan. The woman glanced at the newcomers, while Paige made the introductions. “Guys, this is Wyatt’s new nanny – Donna Thompson. Donna, these are friends of mine – Olivia McNeill and Cecile Dubois.”

Both Olivia and Cecile shook hands with the nanny. The redhead noticed that Ms. Thompson had hesitated, before grasping their hands. Interesting. The nanny asked, “Are you two witches, like Paige and her sisters?”

At first, Olivia seemed astounded by the woman’s question. Until she remembered Cecile and Cole’s account of yesterday’s events – “Wait a minute!” she exclaimed. “You’re the one who helped Piper fight off that daemon! Right?”

Ms. Thompson nodded. “Yeah. I, uh . . . I’ve had similar encounters before. With daemons. I’m a . . . a mambo. A Voudon priestess.”

Olivia smiled, as she patted Cecile’s shoulder. “Small world! So is Cecile. And you were right about me. I am a witch.”

A chuckle escaped from Ms. Thompson’s mouth. “I’m beginning to feel even more at home. You can call me Donna, by the way.”

“I better get that brooch,” Paige said with a sigh. Cecile, who expressed a need to visit the bathroom, followed her out of the kitchen.

Once they were alone, Olivia asked Donna, “So, where exactly is home? Here in San Francisco?”

“Oakland,” Donna quickly replied. Olivia noticed that her fingers automatically began to finger a leather strap hanging around her neck. “But I’ve been living in San Francisco for the last three or four years. Expensive.”

Olivia’s eyes narrowed. “Is that a necklace around your neck?”

“Huh?” Donna’s hand immediately dropped to her side. “Oh. Uh . . . yeah.”

“May I see it?”

For a brief moment, anxiety flashed in Donna’s eyes. And Olivia wondered why. “Oh . . . uh, sure.” The nanny – very slowly – began to remove the leather thong from around her neck. Olivia saw that it held an amulet.

Paige entered the kitchen, holding a small red velvet box. “Okay,” she said, “here’s your brooch. But . . . are you sure that you want it . . .?”

At that moment, Donna dropped her amulet. Both she and Olivia kneeled to pick it up. The nanny’s hand reached the amulet first. Before she could snatch it from the floor, Olivia managed a quick peek.

“Olivia, about that brooch,” Paige insisted. “Are you sure that you won’t change your mind and let me use it a little longer?”

Olivia forgot about the new nanny and the amulet, as she turned her attention to the Charmed One. “No Paige, I won’t. Why don’t you buy your own brooch? In fact, I’m sure you have a few nice pieces of jewelry, upstairs.”

Paige sighed. “Yeah, but I love your brooch.”

“Well, find one that looks like it. I’ll see if I can get you a nice discount.”

After handing over the brooch to Olivia, Paige retorted, “I’ll hold you to your promise.”

Cecile returned to the kitchen. “Did you get your brooch back?” she asked Olivia.

The redhead nodded. “Yeah. I . . .” Her eyes caught Donna tucking the amulet behind her blouse. Then the nanny removed the baby bottle from the saucepan. Suspicion of the other woman reasserted itself. “Yeah,” Olivia slowly replied. “I did.”

“Good. Let’s go. I had a small lunch, today. And I’m looking forward to Cole’s dinner.”

Paige’s face perked with interest. “Cole’s cooking dinner?”

Cecile nodded. “Yeah.” She turned to Donna and held out her hand. When she noticed that the other woman’s hands were full, she smiled politely. “Well, it was nice meeting you. I hope we get to meet again, before I leave San Francisco.”

Donna smiled at Cecile. “Same here.” Then she faced Olivia. “And it was nice meeting you, too.”

“Yeah. Keep up the good work.” Olivia gave Donna a quick nod. Then both she and Cecile said good-bye to Paige, before leaving the kitchen. Once they were earshot from the youngest Halliwell and the nanny, Olivia commented, “You know, there’s something odd about her. Wyatt’s new nanny.”

Cecile rolled her eyes. “Really? Don’t you ever stop being a cop?”

“I’m serious! There’s something odd about her.” The two women left the manor. As they descended the stoop, Olivia continued, “You should have seen the way she had reacted, when she dropped this amulet that was around her neck.”

“It’s probably some kind of good luck piece for her,” Cecile muttered. “Can you blame the woman? She had just recently survived a daemonic attack.”

Olivia added, “And that’s another thing . . .” The two friends reached Olivia’s BMW. They climbed inside the convertible.

Cecile leaned back against the passenger seat with a sigh. “What other thing?”

Olivia hesitated before she finally continued, “I don’t know. Why would any woman even bother to accept the job of Wyatt’s nanny, after what happened? I realize that she’s also a magic practitioner. But Piper wasn’t even able to hold on to some elfin nanny, after an attack on Wyatt. It just doesn’t make any . . .”

“Good grief, Olivia!” Cecile cried out. “Could you please give it a rest?”

Startled by her friend’s outburst, Olivia stared at the Vodoun priestess. “Excuse me?”

Cecile continued to rant. “Why do you always let your paranoia get the best of you? So what if . . . Donna had accepted the job? The woman is a mambo. A Vodoun priestess, and obviously an experienced magic practitioner. And considering that she even bothered to answer Piper’s ad only tells me that she was desperate for the job. So, please! Give it a rest!”

A long pause followed, as Olivia switched on the convertible’s engine. “Jeez,” she finally muttered. “Who stuck a crowbar up your ass?”

“Meaning?”

Olivia guided the convertible away from the curb and proceeded to drive it down Prescott Street. “Meaning, you’ve been acting like Miss Broodmeister of 2003, since you got here. What the hell is the matter?”

A large sigh – her third – left Cecile’s mouth. “I’m . . .” She paused. Then, “I’m thinking of breaking up with Andre. And I don’t know how to tell him.”

Stunned by her friend’s revelation, Olivia shot a surprised look at the other woman. Seconds before she managed to avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming green van.

END OF PART VI