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FROM THE MINUTE she walked in the joint, Mrs. W was the belle of the ball, the queen of the hop, the star of the show. She was the top.

Fiona looked on in floods of pleasure and relief, though she'd known it was going to be a triumph from the instant she and Brian had climbed into the limousine and seen what Mrs. W had decided on for her persona this evening. It was perfect, it was inspired, it was her. And now the assembled guests of GRODY, in their turn, were being knocked out by it.

The GRODY party, as every year, was taking place in a rented party hall in Soho, a big barnlike space on the third floor of a recent building, accessible only by one special elevator, so that all of security could take place down in the small lobby and be over and forgotten by the time the elevator doors opened onto March Madness.

As usual, the walls of the party space had been decorated this week by GRODY staffers, so that everywhere you turned there were blown-up cartoon drawings, many of them suggestive but none actually filthy. A band consisting mostly of amplifiers scared away the demons down at the far end of the room, pumping out music one certainly hoped would not turn out to be memorable, and a few partygoers danced in a cleared space within its near vicinity, though not exactly with or to it.

Most people, as usual, stood around and shouted at one another, holding drinks in their hands, a surprising number of those drinks' being soft, in cans. All of this activity was building toward fever pitch by ten-thirty, when the elevator door opened and Mrs. W stepped out, followed by the completely unnoticeable Fiona and Brian, whose Reverend Twisted was now reduced to nothing but a tall Munchkin.

Yes; that was it. The clunky black lace-up shoes; the black robe; the tall conical black hat; the outsize wart on nose; the green-strawed broom held aloft. It was Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz to the life; to the teeth. "And that goes for your little dog, too!" she cried, exiting the elevator and announcing her presence.

She was an instant hit. Awareness rippled outward through the hall, and people were drawn as by magnets in her direction. People crowded around her, people applauded her, people tried to hold conversations with her, people gave her about thirty drinks. The only sour note in the event, as it were, was the band's attempt to play "Over the Rainbow"; fortunately, most people didn't recognize it.

The first excitement and delight soon passed, and the party returned to approximately where it had been before Mrs. W had made her appearance, only with an extra little frisson created by this new presence in their midst. It isn't every party that has a drop-in from the Wicked Witch of the West, perhaps the most beloved and certainly the best-known villainess in pop culture.

When the first flurry was over and the partygoers had returned to their earlier activities and conversations and the band had gone back to whatever it was they had been assaulting, Mrs. W turned to her companions, thrust her broom at Fiona, said, "Hold this," then turned to Brian and said, "Hold me. I want to dance."

"Yes, ma'am." Wide-eyed, Brian was even forgetting to leer.

Off the two of them went, and Fiona had to admit that, unlikely couple or not, they did make something of a statement out there on the dance floor, the wicked witch and the wicked priest. Mrs. W danced like someone who'd learned how at parties long ago in eastern Connecticut, and Brian danced like someone who'd learned how at backyard barbeques in southern New Jersey, but somehow the blend worked.

Fiona stood watching, feeling she knew not what, and a guy came by, looked at the broom, and said, "Do you do windows?"

"Ha ha," she said, and went off to find the bar. She knew how she felt; forlorn.

Brian did dance with Fiona a little later, to a somewhat slower number, during which he said, "Mrs. W is really something, isn't she?" He had his leer back by now, which gave the statement a strange coloration.

"I never knew," Fiona said, "she could dance."

"Oh, sure, that's the WASP world she comes from," he said. "They learn all those social things, like they're aristocrats. Remember, they call dances 'formals. »

"Everybody calls dances 'formals. »

"Not around here."

"Well, that's true," she admitted.

And something else she had to admit, if only to herself, was that, while the GRODY party was the same old party it always had been, somehow this year it seemed more benign, more interesting, more fun. It was still the same completely unhomogenized crowd, the callow staff nearly invisible in the sea of outsiders, the twentysomethings dressed as X-Men or Buffy, the thirtysomethings with their more creative versions of roadkill or Messalina, the fortysomethings in their fangs and harlequin masks, the fiftysomethings in their red bow ties and shipboard gowns, the sixtysomethings dressed for some completely different party, but this year it didn't seem fake and strained, it just seemed like people letting their hair down at the end of another damn long winter.

Fiona realized that the only thing that had really changed was her perception. It really still was the same old party, too loud and too late and far too much of a mixed bag, with no coherent reason to exist, but this year that was okay. And it was okay because of Mrs. W.

Fiona watched Mrs. W swirl by, having learned by now how to dance while holding her green broom aloft, and now paired with Brian's shaggy boss, Sean Kelly, who this year had come either as a hobbit or Yoda; impossible to tell. In any case, he danced like a man in a gorilla suit, but nobody seemed to mind. Mrs. W beamed upon him as they swirled along, and Sean, his grinning face as red as a stoplight, yakked away nonstop.

"Brian," Fiona said, "this is fun."

He leered at her in surprise. "You didn't know?"

Mrs. W didn't want to go home. The party was winding down, the bar closed, the band endlessly packing up like NASA after a moonshot, one a.m. just a memory, and so few people left in the place you could hear each other at a normal tone of voice. But Mrs. W didn't want to go home.

"I have just the place," she said, as they descended in the elevator after she'd called her driver to come pick them up. "I've never been there, but I've read about it. It's supposed to be the most in place ever, in the West Village."

"Oh, Mrs. W," Fiona said. "Are you sure? It's so late."

"New York," Mrs. W reminded her, "is the city that never sleeps."

"And tomorrow," Brian said, still with a residual leer, "is a day off."

"Exactly so."

"But, the… the costumes."

"Our hats can stay in the car, Brian's and mine," Mrs. W said, "and so can my wart. We'll keep our coats on."

"Fiona," Brian said, as he held the limo door for the ladies, "let's do it."

"I guess we're going to," she said.

The ride up and over from Soho to the West Village didn't take long, and Mrs. W, more girlish than Fiona had ever seen her, chatted away the whole time. She had apparently been particularly taken by Sean Kelly. "A remarkable comic mind," she pronounced.

"He can be pretty funny," Brian agreed.

And now they were in the West Village, driving slowly down Gansevoort Street while the driver looked for house numbers, and when Fiona looked ahead she saw a group of men coming out of a building up there, and thought, well, we're not the only night owls.

They'd come out of a garage, in fact, those five men, and as they stood on the pavement talking together the green garage door slid downward behind them. They were so animated, even at this hour, all talking at once, pointing this way and that, shrugging their shoulders, shaking their heads, that Fiona couldn't look away. The limo drove slowly past them, and Fiona watched out the window, and one of them was Mr. Dortmunder.

No. Could it be? She tried to look out the back window, but it was hard to tell at this angle.

Could that really have been Mr. Dortmunder? The five men walked off in the opposite direction, all still gesticulating and talking a blue streak. They were certainly passionate about something or other.

Fiona faced front. There were so many things she didn't understand. Mrs. W had shown an entirely different side of her personality tonight. And now, had that really been John Dortmunder?

"There it is!" Mrs. W sang out.

"Oh, good," Fiona said, and swallowed a yawn.

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