DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television. No infringement is intended. Original characters belong to the author. Historical characters belong to history.
SPOILERS: References and some spoilers FOL Seasons 1 5. Reader feedback is always appreciated.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To zblitzreiter[at]gmail.com

Goddess on the Mountain Top
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

June, 2013. Manhattan. The Artemis Club.

Snake almost cancelled the meeting.

A half-dozen times during his drive to the GPS coordinates Jo had texted him, Snake almost texted back some excuse for why he couldn't make the meeting.

But he didn't cancel.

You couldn't cancel on Senator Jo Polniaczek

Well, you could … But she would find you. And she wouldn't be smiling when she did.

The GPS coordinates Jo had sent him led Snake to a narrow brownstone in Manhattan, a handsome relic of old New York squeezed between two towering skyscrapers.

Snake eased off the gas pedal of his Porsche, pulled up in front of the brownstone.

A beautiful young woman in a dark blue uniform stood at the curb. She tipped her cap to him when he unrolled his window.

"Where do I park?" he asked the young woman.

"I'll park it for you," she said.

Snake grinned.

"Sorry," he rumbled, "but no one touches the Porsche but me."

"Very well," the woman said pleasantly. "We're sorry you won't be able to join us today. I'll communicate your regrets to the Senator."

Snake groaned.

He pushed his expensive leather driving gloves through his mane of salt-and-pepper hair as he pondered his choices.

Hmm … Trust this girl with the Porsche, or piss off Polniaczek?

There wasn't any contest, when he thought about it.

He climbed out of the car, tossed the car keys to the uniformed girl.

"Scratch my baby," he told the young woman, "and it's your ass."

"Very well," said the girl, sliding into the driver's seat. She slipped a key into the ignition. "I'll communicate that to the Senator."

"Nah, nah," he said irritably, "you don't need to communicate anything to the Senator. I'll communicate with the Senator. I'm here to see here, aren't I?"

The young woman turned the key and the engine purred. Her eyes lit.

She stepped on the gas pedal, and the sports car tore off down the street, banking suddenly to tear around a corner.

"Christ," thought Snake. "I hope I get my baby back in one piece!"

He climbed the steps of the brownstone. At the top of the stairs stood another pretty young woman in a uniform of dark blue.

"Name?" she asked coolly. She wasn't as friendly as the valet had been. Snake noticed that her muscles were lean and impressive under the rather tight-fitting navy-blue blazer.

Interesting, he thought. Why the muscle, I wonder, at some little tea house? Answer: It's not just some little tea house.

A brass plaque next to the front door read "Artemis Club" in bold script.

"Name," the young woman repeated.

"Snake Robinson," he said. "Of Robinson Trucking."

The girl's eyebrows lifted. She was one of those cool blondes, with eyebrows so pale they were almost invisible.

"Full name," she said.

Snake groaned. "For Christ's – look, I know the Senator. She invited me. I'm expected here. Even the valet who just jacked my Porsche knows who I am and that I'm expected."

"Full name."

"I've known Polniaczek since she was a little punk. She knows me as 'Snake' Robinson."

"Full name," the young woman said firmly. "We can bat this back and forth all day if you want, but I have other things to do—don't you?"

Snake sighed.

"Sean Robinson," he said.

"Full name, sir. We have to be one-hundred percent certain you are the guest indicated on the guest list."

"Well how many damn Sean Robinson's who own Robinson Trucking are supposed to be stopping by today to see the Senator?" he groused.

"Full name, sir. And then we can check you off the list."

"I'll check you off a list," he muttered. "Full name? Christ. The Senator put you up to this. Didn't she?"

"I can neither confirm that nor deny that allegation," she said.

It appeared to Snake that the young woman's eyes were twinkling.

"Of course you can't," he muttered.

"Full name, sir."

Snake sighed again.

"OK. OK. My full name is Sean Nathan Andrew Kerry Edmund Robinson. Happy?"

"Ecstatic." The young woman's tone remained cool, but it seemed to him that she smirked.

She unlatched the door, stepped back, and held so Snake could pass. "If you'll enter, please, sir. You'll be received in the foyer."

Snake muttered something under his breath.

"Pardon, sir?"

"Nothing," he rumbled. "Forget it."

As he entered the brownstone, the door closed abruptly behind him …

They foyer was empty. Snake clenched and unclenched his beefy hands, and turned in a slow, complete circle to take it all in.

It was a grand entrance hall, much broader and taller than he would have suspected based on the brownstone's exterior. The floor was checkerboard marble. A crystal chandelier glittered overhead. Elegant halls stretched off in several directions, and a grand staircase swept upward to other levels.

Some damn foyer, he thought, impressed. Well, well, Senator. If you had to go and insist on a meeting, you picked a nice place to meet.

He caught the scent of very fine cigars, and very good whiskey, wafting down the halls.

Jo's really learned how to live the good life over the years, thought Snake. He grinned approvingly.

Someone coughed discreetly at his elbow – yet another young woman in a dark blue uniform.

"If you'll follow me," she said …

The halls seemed endless, one leading into another. They traveled deeper and deeper into the brownstone, which, he soon realized, had to be a front. The brownstone exterior was real enough, but the interior wound deep into the adjacent skyscrapers on the block …

The halls grew narrower as they progressed. The scent of good liquor and fine cigars grew stronger. And there was the scent, also, of delicately prepared gourmet dishes.

When they reached a door marked "Senator's Salon" his guide rapped twice on the wood panels, and opened the door.

"Here you are, sir," the young woman told Snake.

He hesitated for a fraction of a second, then entered the room.

It looked like an Edwardian drawing room – not as fussy as a Victorian chamber, but still plenty crowded with fine wooden furniture and gleaming bric-a-brac and potted plants and richly hued carpets.

There were maybe two dozen linen-draped tables at which well-dressed women sat conversing quietly.

At the table dead ahead of him, Senator Jo Polniaczek sat alone, perusing a menu card.

She looked up, grinned at him – that million-watt grin her friends all knew and her enemies never saw.

He hesitated. Jo looked too happy to see him, he thought.

If I had any brains, I'd turn around right now and leave. I'd –

But he heard the door bump closed behind him, and he thought he heard the "click" of a lock sliding home.

He was trapped. With the canny, powerful, unnervingly happy-looking Senator Jo Polniaczek. And they appeared to be very much on her turf.

The occupants of the other tables glanced idly toward him, then glanced away again, without breaking their quiet conversations. He was no one they recognized. He wasn't a player in their world.

Snake walked slowly toward Jo's table.

"Senator," he said warily, as he dropped into one of the elegant chairs. He was a tall, strong, mountain of a man, even at the half-century mark. He just fit into the chair. It creaked a bit when he settled onto it. He hoped it wouldn't break.

"Welcome, Mr. Robinson," said Jo, still grinning that dazzling grin.

She looked good, he thought. Damn good, as usual. Better in person even than she looked on TV.

Jo wore a dark business suit, custom-cut, he thought, with the faintest of pinstripes, over a crisp white shirt.

Her dark hair was cut in a stylish mane. She wore the faintest makeup, just a touch of mascara to bring out her blue-green eyes, a touch of color on her expressive mouth. Her fingernails weren't painted but they were nicely manicured and glossy.

Camera-ready, he thought. So … What the hell does she want from me?

Jo handed him the menu card. Everything was in French, Italian or German, in fancy script, and there were no prices listed.

A bus girl in a dark dress ghosted up to the table, dropped a fine linen napkin on his lap, filled his water glass.

"Something to drink, sir?" she murmured.

"Uh, sure," he said. He glanced at Jo. "Any recommendations, Senator?"

"The whiskey's good here," Jo said. "But I think you'd prefer," she addressed the bus girl, "a plain old Guinness. In the bottle. Cold."

"You'll have your regular, Senator?" the girl asked.

"Please."

The girl drifted away.

Jo regarded Snake thoughtfully. She steepled her perfectly manicured fingers, and leaned her chin on them.

Snake shifted restlessly in the elegant but almost-too-small chair.

It was making him nervous how Jo wasn't opening a conversation. What the hell did she want?

"So … What's your regular drink?" Snake asked Jo conversationally. "I heard through the Musketeer grapevine that you've been off the sauce for awhile."

"For a couple years now," Jo agreed. "My regular now," she said, "is a soda-and-lime mocktail. It doesn't have much kick, I've got to admit. But it keeps Blair from having a drunk for a wife. And it gives little Charlotte a sober mother."

"Only one sober mother?" kidded Snake.

"Touché," said Jo. "You're right. I'm off the sauce, and Blair doesn't drink anything but sacramental wine. We're both very square these days."

Snake laughed.

"Wow. That, I don't believe."

"It's true," said Jo. "We're like, I don't know – 'Mothers Know Best'. Very wholesome and G-rated. That's how it is with family. Family is the most important thing in the world."

Snake groaned.

Shit! This is what I was afraid of. She wants to break my chops about family.

"What, uh, is this place?" he asked, glancing around and feigning a far greater interest than he felt.

"Didn't you see the sign?" she asked.

"Sure. The 'Artemis Club'. But that doesn't mean anything to me. What is it?"

Jo leaned back in her chair.

"It's a private club," she said, "for women in various fields. It's a place we can meet, with each other, or our guests, to come to a meeting of the minds."

Snake laughed.

"So this is where the powerful women of New York hang out to make the big deals."

"Not just New York," said Jo.

"You've come a long way from the Bronx, kid," Snake rumbled admiringly.

"Snake?"

"Yeah?"

"Can the small talk."

The bus girl returned, setting down Jo's soda-and-lime mocktail, and then Snake's cold bottle of Guinness.

The waitress glided to the table to take their orders.

"Steak and peas for me," Jo told her politely. "And keep the mocktails coming, please."

"Steak and peas, that sounds great," Snake told the waitress. Steak and peas did sound good, plus he hadn't been able to read a word of the menu, so he wouldn't have known what else to order.

When they were alone again, Jo fixed Snake with a steely gaze.

Ah, he thought. Crap. Now we're really getting down to it.

"Charlotte must be getting big now," he said, desperate to divert the conversation from where he thought it was headed.

"Charlotte is big and bonnie for her age," Jo agreed evenly. "Seems to take after Blair that way. I was a scraggly kid. I'll bore you with Charlotte's baby pictures later. I've got about a thousand on my cell phone. But right now –"

"How do you manage to watch her?" Snake asked. "With you in Washington half the time, and Blair with all her, you know, bishop duties and all that?"

Jo looked annoyed by the interruption, but Snake could see she couldn't bring herself not to answer a question about her daughter.

"Blair lugs Charlotte along with her most of the time, to church, to committee meetings, to fundraisers, all that. I think Charlotte's cute little mug has raised more money for church charities than Blair's charm ever did! And we've got a great nanny. But Snake, man … You aren't going to throw me off course."

He sighed.

"Jo –"

"And don't 'Jo' me," she warned.

"What does that mean?" he asked. "I can't say your name?"

"You can't say it all pleading and wheedling. It's not going to work. I've got your number, pal. So does Blair and, if we knew where the hell Tootie was these days, so would she."

"Where is Tootie?"

"Stay on topic, Snake."

"Jo, look – whatever you're gonna say, it's not any of your business," the big man rumbled.

"We're halfway through 2013, Snake. Time is marching on – for all of us. None of us is getting any younger. Or any prettier. Except Blair. She gets prettier. You, pal – not so pretty."

"Ouch," he said.

He ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper mane. It wasn't as long as it had been when he was young. The pony tail was gone, but he still wore his hair longer than most men his age. His face still had a craggy Irish charm. He wasn't typically handsome – never had been – but he had a sort of aging Kurt Russell/Snake Plissken thing going. And he hadn't run to fat. He had to work his ass off in the gym now, more and more hours, but he kept more muscle than flab on the old bones.

"Look at you," said Jo. "Look at how you're dressed."

He glanced at his leather driving gloves, his well-cut suit and silk tie.

"I'm not Park Avenue," he said, "but I'm not exactly something out of the rag bag, either."

"You're a business man," she said. "An aging business man. With a fancy red sports car and a fancy suit and a young girlfriend to make you feel young. Guys like that are a dime a dozen in this town. Your looks are going, pal. Enough's enough with this mid-life crisis. You've got a family that loves you, a wife and kids that need you. Snap out of it, pal. Chop-chop."

Snake drew a deep breath. He clenched the linen napkin in his giant hands, so he wouldn't be tempted to clench Jo's neck.

"First," he said between his teeth, "I'm a truck driver. I'm a long haul man. That's all I've ever been. Yeah, I own the trucking company, and I hire a guy to crunch the numbers and file the taxes, and yeah, I hire other drivers, and I treat myself to a good car and a good suit from time to time. But I'm just a simple guy."

"Exactly," said Jo. "That's what I'm saying. You're a nice, regular schlub. So don't be dressing up mutton to look like lamb."

"Second," he said, "I don't know what the hell that means. That sounds like one of Alec's stupid British sayings."

"It means –"

"Never mind what it means, Polniaczek. I don't really care. And, third, Natalie doesn't need me. She's never really needed me."

"She loves you like hell," said Jo.

"But she's never needed me."

"Snake, you're the love of her life. Yeah, so, she's independent. So what? I've got an independent wife. A strong woman is a hell of a lot better than some helpless clinging vine."

"Natalie's never been home," said Snake. He took a deep drink of his Guinness. "Never. For years. Always at the damn clinic. Oh, I know, I know." He held up one massive hand to forestall Jo's next comment. "Nat's amazing. She's a saint. The saint of the Bronx, with her free neuro clinic. Patching up brain damage and gunshot wounds and saving lives left and right. They should make a goddamn TV show about Nat, and Tootie should play her. It'll get the best ratings ever. It'll get Emmys. Everyone will be downloading it and RV'ing it –"

"DVR'ing it," corrected Jo.

"Whatever. And streaming it, and whatever else people are doing these days to watch TV besides actually turning on the damn TV set. Dr. Natalie Green, Saint of the Bronx. Do you know what it's like to be married to a saint?"

Jo sipped her soda-and-lime. "Well, I mean, being married to a bishop – kind of-sort of. Duh."

"Oh. Yeah," said Snake.

"Look, you've got the wrong audience if you want to cry about a busy, high-profile wife," said Jo. "We all went into demanding careers. We all have a million obligations and pressures and all that stuff. And throw kids in the mix – yeah, some days it sees impossible. It would've been kind of cool when we were young, you know, if someone had taken us aside and said 'Enjoy this, kids – you'll never have any freedom and free time again!' Being a grown-up is demanding as hell, Snake – but you don't just run away from being a grown-up. You find ways to make it work."

"Who's running away?" Snake demanded.

"Who's running away? Who spent months shacked up with some chick on his long-haul route in East Freaking Nowhere, Alaska?"

"That was … Look, that's over," Snake said uncomfortably. "That was a mistake, yeah, and I already told Nat I was sorry."

"And she forgave your sorry ass."

"Because she didn't care," Snake said miserably.

He drained his Guinness. He set the bottle on the linen table cloth, twisted it between his big hands.

"Snake … That's not even remotely true," Jo said quietly.

"She didn't. She didn't give a damn. Jo, I know you mean well, but you don't got your facts straight. Nat's been having an affair for years, not with a guy, but with that damn clinic. Sure, she managed to squeeze out some time for the kids over the years. And she loves the kids like hell. But even they lost first place to that clinic."

"Yeah. You're right about that," Jo said. "Blair and I were the ones had to watch your rugrats when Nat ran off to play 'Doctors Without Borders' – remember? So I'm not saying Nat's going to win 'Wife of the Year' or 'Mother of the Year' or anything like that. But who would? Nobody's perfect, Snake. When you love people, you've got to, you've got to, like, get past the imperfect stuff. You've got to accept and compromise and just look for the silver lining."

Snake sighed.

"Are you gonna start singing?" he asked. "Cause it sounds like you're working up to some sappy song that has nothing to do with real life. Look for a silver lining? Polniaczek … Sometimes there just isn't one."

Jo blew out a big breath. She looked frustrated … But she didn't disagree with him.

They sat in silence for a minute.

The waitress brought Snake a second Guinness, and freshened Jo's mocktail.

"Remember why Nat became a brain doctor?" Jo asked.

"'Course I do. Mona's stroke."

"I've known Nat a long, long time," said Jo. "And Blair's known her longer. And Nat's just an obsessive, crusading kind of person. She's all into causes, and advancing human knowledge, and all of that. She's got this really fun side, but it can get lost in the shuffle. So as her husband, you've got to help bring that fun side out. And you can't do that on a long haul. And you can't do that shacked up with some teeny-bopper in the Klondike."

"She wasn't a teeny-bopper," said Snake. "She was twenty-three."

"Compared to you, pal, she was a teeny-bopper," said Jo. "Believe me."

"I like the open road," Snake said defensively. "Always have. When you get out there, on those long, long runs, out in the parts of the country where you can drive damn near all day without passing another car, when you get that fresh air in your lungs – that's freedom. Damn." He took a deep breath. "Why should I have to give up long hauls? Why does Natalie get to keep working twenty-four hours a day, but I give up my career?"

"You sound like a kid," said Jo. "'Life isn't fair. Boo-hoo. Pass me the damn Kleenex'."

"Don't avoid the point," Snake said. "If I cut down on the long hauls, Natalie needs to cut down on the clinic hours."

"You own the trucking company," Jo said reasonably. "You've got a whole staff of truckers. You don't need to do all the long hauls you do."

"But I like the long hauls."

"So you do one or two a year."

"Natalie owns the clinic," said Snake. "She has doctors on staff. She doesn't have to do every single damn complicated surgery that comes through the door."

"You're right," said Jo. "And you should help her understand that. Start by setting an example. Walk the talk, pal. She'll never ease off until you do."

Snake made a petulant face.

"You'd think by now," he said, "you'd have gotten your nose out of me and Nat's private business," he complained. "You were always an interfering little – "

"Hey, now," she laughed, "let's not say things we can't take back."

"Oh, I won't take it back," he said.

"Who gave you Nat's number?" asked Jo. "All those years ago. So you could call her and ask her out."

"That card's played out," said Snake. "I paid you back more than double for that favor, over the years."

"Ha! Giving you your future wife's phone number? That card will never be played out. You'll always owe me, bub."

"I don't know what makes you Ann Landers," Snake complained. "You and Blair have sure had your ups and downs."

"That's why I know what I'm talking about, dimwit. If I had a nickel for every dumb thing I've done …"

"I mean, remember when Blair dumped you?"

"She didn't 'dump' me," objected Jo. "She suggested a separation."

"Blair dumped your ass," said Snake. "Natalie gave me all the dope at the time. Blair left you in the dust. And then she goes and – "

"Hey, we're not here to talk about me and Blair," said Jo. "That was ancient history."

"So you can dish it, but you can't take it," said Snake.

"I can take it," said Jo, "but I won't take it."

"You politicians, and your fancy double-talk."

"Then let me make it clear. Bring up me and Blair again, I'll give your big fat Irish mouth a big fat Irish lip."

"Wow. I must've really hit a nerve, there," Snake observed a little smugly.

"Never mind trying to distract me, or get a rise out of me," said Jo, "I'm on a mission here. And, like I said, it's not just me talking to you. Blair would've been here if she didn't have a children's charity meeting. But she's here in spirit, and she gave me some pointers on how to stay on topic and not end up throwing you out, or tearing your head off."

The waitress brought their salads.

They were quiet during the ritual of adding dressing and seasoning.

They ate about half their salads, then pushed the bowls aside.

"So, I apologize about the 'big, fat Irish mouth' crack," said Jo.

"I apologize for bringing up ancient history," said Snake.

"So, bottom line, Snake – your kids need one of you home more. Both of you would be better. One will do. Brenda is in a bad way. Little Syd was such a sweetheart, but he's starting to get off track too."

"Syd? What's wrong with Syd?" asked Snake.

"His grades are slipping," said Jo. "And he's running with a different crowd of kids."

"Syd will be fine," said Snake. "He's got a good head on his shoulders. He's smart, like his mother."

Jo sighed. "I wish Blair was here," she said. "I'm just not getting through. Snake – kids aren't just automatically fine. I don't care who they take after. It's like the saying: 'Parenting is a verb' pal. You've got to talk with them, spend time with them. You've got to connect."

Snake's eyes narrowed. "Is Natalie getting this speech, too?"

"Sure," said Jo. "Blair and I are equal opportunity buttinskis. I've got you here, and she dragged Nat to the children's charity meeting. What I wanted to do was lock you both in a room until you came up with a schedule where you're off the road most of the time, and Nat's out of the clinic most days. But I wouldn't want to get arrested for kidnapping or unlawful detainment. So we're doing this Blair's civilized way."

"Jo, it's nice, as well as really, really annoying," rumbled Snake, "that you and Blair care so much. But you just don't know. You don't know. I mean, say Nat and I were home more. We'd drive the kids crazy."

"So what? You'd be there. If parents aren't driving their kids a little crazy, they aren't doing their job right."

"And, you know, there's also the thing of, well," Snake twisted the bottle of Guinness between his paws, "what would Nat and I say to each other? What do we have to talk about any more?"

Jo nodded. She stabbed at her salad with a fork, took another bite.

"That, ah, that ancient time you alluded to. When Blair and me had been apart. When we patched it up finally … It is awkward at first. I get that. You have to learn how to be together, all over again."

"I just don't know," said Snake, "if there's any more 'together' for me and Nat. I think we might've run through all the togetherness."

"No way," Jo said firmly. "Snake – It can be scary, trying to rebuild, but it's an opportunity. What I'm saying, pal, is you need to win her back. You need to win her back, and she needs to win you back. You have to fall in love again. You have to remember back, way back, to how it was."

Snake chewed on that. He drank more beer.

"Are you gonna sing that song?" he deadpanned. "The Streisand song? About 'The Way We Were'?"

Jo glared at him.

The waitress cleared their salad bowls and delivered their steak and peas.

"Me and Nat, we're not the same people as when we were kids," said Snake.

"You aren't," Jo said around a bite of steak, "but you are. Some stuff is different, some stuff is the same. There are still things, those things that made you fall in love with each other, that are there. You just have to scrape off some barnacles to see them."

"Huhn." Snake swallowed a mouthful of peas. "That's something worth thinking about, I guess."

"Sure it is!" Jo said encouragingly. "What's the first thing, the first thing, that really caught your attention about Nat?"

"Well, she had nice gams," Snake rumbled, thinking back to when he rescued Natalie and Tootie from his dangerous neighborhood north of Manhattan.

"Eh, never mind the gams and things," Jo complained. "I don't need to hear that. I mean about her personality."

"She was funny," said Snake. "She made me laugh. And she had this feistiness. She was headed for her grandmother's trial, and nothing was gonna stop her."

"OK, see – you're already on a roll," said Jo. "She's funny, she's feisty. That's still part of who she is, Snake. Set up, like, a date night with her. And just talk. And focus on that humor, and that spirit, and how much you love that in her."

Snake scowled. "Sure, you make it sound easy. But I'll probably screw it up."

"Why do you say that? Christ, Snake. Where's your confidence? You really are having the mid-life heebee-jeebees."

Snake shrugged. "I mean, yeah, I am."

"This is just sad. Pull it together, pal. You've got a wife to woo."

"Way to sympathize."

"You don't need sympathy. You need a kick in the keister. Snake Robinson, you stop off for a good bottle of wine on the way home. And you have Brenda bring Syd to a movie or something. And you just sit with Nat, and you talk with her. And you start getting comfortable with her again."

"I thought I was supposed to spend more time with the kids? Why am I sending them off to a movie?"

"You need to spend more time with the kids, but you and Nat have to patch things up first. You've got to get yourselves back in gear, and then you spend more time with the rugrats."

"Yeah. See," Snake pushed a few peas around his plate, "this sounds complicated."

"It's not, Tarzan. Look – Tarzan be nice to Jane, then Tarzan and Jane be nice to the kids. I'm sorry, Snake, but I can't make it any simpler than that."

"And you think Nat will let me talk with her? I mean, take up her time, when she could be at the clinic?"

"Yes. But you've got to reach back, like I said, back to the mists of time, and woo her. Make it like a date. Tell her how pretty she is."

"She is pretty," Snake said wistfully. "She's always been so damn pretty. And she still has those great gams."

"Never mind about the gams. Don't tell me about the gams – tell Nat about the gams. And how she's pretty. Talk about when you met, and all the good stuff you love about her. And, you know, take it from there."

Snake drank the last of his second beer. He stifled a belch with his hand.

"D'you ever miss it, Polniaczek?"

"Miss what?"

"Being young?"

"Ha! Only every day. Whenever my knee's playing hell. As I watch my six-pack fade into obscurity. I never thought much about having a six-pack, until it finally started to fade. But mostly," she said, "I like being older. I like whatever age I'm at. Blair and me have had a crazy life, but we've made a good life. You can't get in a rut, or run away from stuff. You got to be in there, making it work."

"I miss being Nat's hero," Snake said wistfully.

"You'll always be her hero."

"I don't know. You live with someone, year after year, you get to seem … ordinary to each other. Nat saves lives. But what have I done? I'm just the guy who leaves the cap off the toothpaste, and forgets to hang up my towel, and then goes on the road for weeks on end."

"You've worked your ass off building a business that puts bread on the table," said Jo. "It's something Brenda or Syd can take over someday. Something legitimate. For a guy coming from a family like yours was, that's pretty damn heroic, if you ask me."

"Yeah. Yeah, when you put it like that …"

"You know why Nat reads all those trashy romance books?" asked Jo.

"She's bored," said Snake. "She's lonely, I guess."

"No. She reads them because all those big pirate lugs, those big outlaw lugs, all those bigger-than-life, rough-and-tough guys that the heroines swoon over – that's you, pal. That's how she sees you."

"Shut up."

"Hey, it's true."

"What the hell do you know about trashy romance novels?" Snake asked suspiciously.

"Absolutely nothing," Jo confessed. "But Blair explained it to me."

"You'd think," said Snake, stabbing a large chunk of steak, "that a bishop and senator would have a lot more pressing issues to discuss than butting into me and Nat's love life."

"You'd think so," Jo agreed. "But that's how much we care about you guys."

"Blair's really talking to Nat about all this?"

"Even as we speak."

"So if I go home with a bottle of wine, and try to talk with Nat, she won't totally ignore me, or laugh in my face?"

"Look, I make no guarantees. But let's say Blair is smoothing the way. And Blair is pretty hard to resist."

"Huhn."

"By which, I know you mean to say, 'Thank you, Jo and Blair, for taking an interest in my mid-life stupidity'. And, pal, you are welcome."

"Jo?"

"Yes?"

"When you and Blair got back together – "

"Ancient history, pal. Ancient history."

"But, was it you who caved? Or Blair?"

"See, it's not about caving," said Jo. "It's about two people being mature enough to sit down together and work things out."

"So … You were the one that caved," said Snake.

"Basically. Yeah," sighed Jo. "I guess you could say that. But it was the right thing to do, Snake. I'll never regret it."

"Well, if you could do it," said Snake, "I guess it won't hurt if I pick up some wine and, you know, sit down with Nat tonight."

"And woo her. The wooing is important," said Jo.

"How did you woo Blair?"

"That, Snake, is none of your damn business. Now," Jo lifted a small, cream-colored menu card, "what should we have for dessert?"


June, 2013. Manhattan. Archbishop and Senator Polniaczek's Central Park West Penthouse.

They had sang to Charlotte, and played peekaboo, and watched Charlotte pick her way around her room, clinging carefully to the furniture. At just over one year old, Charlotte was already highly, if rather cautiously, mobile.

Jo fed Charlotte her "nite-nite" bottle while Blair held her.

Charlotte's blue-green eyes, with their great long lashes, grew heavier, and sleepier, and finally closed.

Her little rosebud of a nose whistled as she slumbered.

Blair and Jo tucked her into her small bed.

"Good night, Charlotte dear," Blair called from the doorway.

"Good night, Charlie," called Jo.

They closed the door most of the way, leaving it slightly ajar, so a thin band of light from the hallway was visible to light Charlotte's way should the child wake up and decide to ramble in search of Mama Blair and Mama Jo.

In their bedroom, Jo and Blair prepared to retire.

"Our daughter is perfect," said Blair.

Blair slipped out of her silky lavender robe, and draped it over the bed post.

"More than perfect," Jo said, slipping out of her silky blue robe, and tossing it onto the rocking chair in the corner. "And speaking of 'perfect' babe," she took Blair in her arms, "you look exceptionally perfect today." Jo kissed her wife.

Blair smiled after Jo broke the kiss.

"Jo, darling … " She slipped her arms around Jo's neck. "Please provide details about this so-called 'exceptional perfection'."

"Well …" Jo gazed dreamily at her wife, "your hair looks amazing today."

"I did visit Damon this afternoon," said Blair, "for a touch-up."

"And your face … Your beautiful face …" Jo said dreamily. "And your eyes, all chocolate, with those little green-and-gold flecks …"

Jo leaned in. They kissed for a long, long time, slowly, exploring each other's mouths with a comfortable intensity perfected over years of marriage.

Blair pushed her hands through Jo's mane of dark, silver-streaked hair.

Jo pushed her hands through Blair's short crop of silvery hair.

They kissed; their bodies drew closer together.

"Let's make love," breathed Jo, when they finally came up for air.

She lifted Blair into her arms, laid her gently on their bed.

"When we were young," said Blair, slightly reproachfully, "you wouldn't have said anything. You would have thrown me down on the bed and ravished me."

"Of course, we don't have to make love," said Jo.

Blair arched her back so that her heavy breasts looked especially provocative and beckoning.

"Take me, darling," she said.

Jo laughed softly. "You know," she said, "just because I've learned a few manners over the years, doesn't mean I can't still ravish you like in ye good olde days."

She leaped onto the bed, straddling her wife. Jo wasn't exactly the lithe young jock she had been thirty years ago, but she was far from an ancient crone.

Blair closed her eyes. She loved the feeling of Jo pressed against her, Jo leaning over her.

"Oh … Joey," she murmured.

Jo grasped roughly at the silk covering the full breasts, pulled it, tore it, shredded it.

She leaned down and kissed the pale swells of Blair's breasts, nuzzling and nipping and biting. She squeezed the large dark nipples between her fingers.

Yes. Every time. Right on cue. Jo felt hot between her legs. Nothing in the world pleased her more than pleasing her beautiful wife.

Jo pulled at the lavender nightgown, tore it clean off of Blair, exposing her snowy thighs and fine patch of dark brown ("light blonde" Blair continued to insist) hair. Jo grazed Blair's damp nether lips with her fingers, roughly, just a quick touch to tease her.

"Jo, please – "

"Not yet," Jo said firmly.

Jo shed her own nightgown, throwing it into a far corner.

She lay down on top of her wife. Jo spread her legs slightly, her slick sex sliding against Blair's thigh. She took one of Blair's nipples in hand, stroking roughly, nipping and biting at the other breast.

"Jo, I'm, I'm so wet. Please …"

"Not yet," said Jo.

She kissed her way roughly down Blair's torso, biting and nipping.

She descended so close, so close to Blair's sex. Blair could feel her wife's hot breath there, warming her clitoris, her damp nether lips. It was so tantalizing … Blair made whimpering sounds.

Jo placed the lightest kiss on Blair's clitoris. Blair almost thought she had imagined it. But then Jo follows up with another gentle kiss, with slightly more pressure to it, and then, without warning, she drove her tongue deep into Blair's wet center.

"Jo!" cried Blair.

She arched her back, her hips.

Jo grappled with Blair's breasts, made fierce love to Blair with her tongue.

Then, as suddenly as she had attacked, Jo lifted her head.

Blair wriggled.

"Jo. Please. Please, Jo," breathed Blair.

Jo kissed Blair's inner thighs, her belly, her fine brown hair. Jo kissed her way all around her wife's sex, steadfastly, maddeningly refusing to do what Blair so desperately needed her to do.

"Jo. Jo …" Blair moaned.

Jo smiled a wicked little smile.

Jo released one breast. She brought her free hand to Blair's center. She touched the nub of the clitoris so lightly, with such tenderness … Blair stifled a scream.

"Jo. Now. Touch me. Do it, Jo."

Jo stroked the nub, slowly, up and down, up and down.

She leaned forward, tongued her wife slowly, gently.

Up and down … her tongue inside Blair, her fingers stroking the nub.

Up and down, up and down …

"Darling … Please …" Blair begged. Her voice was ragged, full of such need.

Jo slid her fingers inside her wife.

Blair gasped.

She arched her hips upward, at a seemingly impossible angle, almost as if she was possessed. She brought them down, then arched them up again.

Jo's tongue slipped in and out of Blair, alongside her fingers, and her thumb traced rough circles around the nub.

I love how she tastes, thought Jo. I love how she feels, like velvet inside, so soft, so warm, so perfect. My wife. My woman …

I love how she touches me, thought Blair. I love how she surprises me, and how she takes control of my body, plays it like an instrument. My Jo. My wife …

It wasn't long before Blair cried out her pleasure, and fell back against the pillows, panting.

Jo grinned.

She kissed her way up Blair's body, lazily nuzzled the breasts, then buried her face in the soft crook of Blair's neck.

Blair drifted off, as she had always been wont to do since they first began making love.

She would wake soon, refreshed, and take her wife.

Jo had never minded waiting …

By midnight they had made love three times. Jo pleasured Blair, Blair pleasured Jo, and then they pleasured each other together.

"Wow!" said Jo, wrapping an arm around Blair's comfortable waist, pillowing her head on Blair's comfortable bosom.

They were sheened with a light sweat.

They had the central air on in deference to the summer weather, but they kept it moderately cool in the apartment, not Arctic.

"That was … Wow," Blair agreed.

She lifted one of Jo's hands, kissed each finger.

"Did you ever think," asked Jo, "we'd just get better and better at this?" asked Jo.

"No," said Blair. "But I knew it would always be good between us. I hope," she said dreamily, "I hope Nat and Snake are making love tonight."

"For crying out loud!" complained Jo, squeezing her eyes closed. "How am I supposed to get that out of my head now?"

Blair laughed.

"Don't be such a prude, darling."

"It's not about being a prude. It's about … Dammit." Jo squeezed her eyes even more tightly closed.

"You look like you're having a stroke," Blair observed. "Jo, after all of our hard work today, trying to get Nat and Snake back together, don't you want them to reconcile?"

"Of course I want them to reconcile. You think I'd waste a great Artemis Club lunch on Snake if I wasn't serious about trying to get those two crazy kids back together? You don't think I've got better things to do? But I don't want to think about them together. That's, they're our friends. You know I hate thinking about that, that stuff."

"Certainly," said Blair. "As I said – you're a prude."

"A prude, huh? After I just, you know, the thing I just did. You know, when we just, this last time."

Blair smiled fondly at Jo.

"Yes, Jo. I noticed."

"Would a prude do that?"

"You're not a prude with me," Blair clarified. "Thank God! You're just a prude about sex in general. It's not your fault. It was your old-fashioned, Catholic, blue-collar upbringing."

Jo snorted.

"Well, we can't all be hedonistic nudists from snobbo city," she said.

Blair laughed.

She ran her fingers through Jo's hair.

"Babe?" asked Jo.

"Yes?" asked Blair.

"You know how, well, we're parents now?"

"Certainly," said Blair. She smoothed Jo's forehead. "I had noticed the patter of little feet around our apartment this year."

"And how we're not getting any younger," said Jo, "and kind of, well, starting to fall apart even, a little bit."

"Well, darling, I refuse to be included under that umbrella," Blair said.

"It's just how it is, babe," said Jo. "I mean – look." She arched her hips.

Blair smiled mischievously at Jo's tangle of dark hair.

"I like what I see, darling."

"No, I mean, my stomach," said Jo. "See? I keep doing the sit-ups and crunches, babe, but the six-pack doesn't seem to be coming back."

Blair ran a hand over her lover's flat stomach.

Jo was right … The six-pack was not in evidence. Jo seemed to have more of a four-pack thing happening.

"Jo, you're beautiful," Blair said firmly.

"Duly noted. I'm not saying I'm Quasi Modo, Blair. I'm just saying, it's the march of time. You know?"

"Darling … Where is this headed?" Blair asked curiously.

"Well, see, when I was talking to Snake, he was asking about how we handled it."

"Handled what?"

"When we were, you know, separated." Even now, after so many years, it was tough to talk about.

"Oh," Blair said softly.

"Snake wanted to know how we got back together. Got through that initial …"

"Awkwardness," said Blair.

"Exactly."

"But what does that have to do with you losing your six-pack?"

"Sorry, babe, I'm not explaining this too well. What it got me thinking was, I know we're getting on in years, and we're settling into this great, square, 'Leave It To Beaver' kind of life – but I love it! Being young can be overrated. You know? When you're young, you're always trying to learn something, and prove something, and you make stupid mistakes –"

"Again – speak for yourself, darling," said Blair.

"Come on. Be honest. I know I'm not saying it eloquently, but you get where I'm headed?"

"That old age has its rewards," said Blair, "and youth isn't always what it's cracked up to be."

"In a nutshell: Yes." Jo kissed Blair's shoulder. "I wouldn't trade a minute of what we have now – you, me, Charlotte, our wisdom, our commitment to each other – I wouldn't trade a minute of that for being young again. Hell – we still even have great sex!"

"We certainly do," smiled Blair.

"People talk about the good old days," said Jo, "but when I look back on our good old days, I mean, yes, they were good. Some of them were really good. Unforgettable. But there were also times when people were treating us like garbage, and even attacking us, trying to kill us. We had to hide how we felt about each other. There was always so much drama. Everything was so unsettled."

"Well," Blair said, turning that over, "we certainly had our challenges."

"Challenges? That's putting it mildly," laughed Jo.

"But," Blair played idly with Jo's dark mane, "it was all worth it to get where we are now. I don't think we could have this, Jo – our marriage, our child, our, our wisdom as you put it, our contentment – if we hadn't gone through hell and back when we were younger. Everything led us to this point, darling. I don't thing I regret anything we went through. Even … even …"

"The separation," Jo said quietly.

"Even that," Blair agreed. "It made us stronger. It proved how much we loved each other, and how much we were meant to be. I don't think I'd change anything that happened, even if someone gave me a magic wand, or magic lamp."

"Me neither," said Jo.

"Except …" Blair said. "Except …"

"Except what?" Jo asked curiously.

"There is something I'd change," said Blair.

Her hand moved from Jo's hair to Jo's rib cage, to a puckered scar on the left side.

"The one thing I'd change," said Blair, "is I wouldn't have gone to check on my father at the St. Angelo. Or I would have gone alone."

Jo shivered.

"Christ! If you'd gone alone, you would have died."

"Daddy wouldn't have hurt me."

"I'm not thinking of your father. I'm thinking of Buredo."

"Daddy wouldn't have let him hurt me."

"Daddy didn't have much control over that psycho."

"Jo," Blair said reproachfully.

"Sorry," said Jo. "Listen, babe – if you didn't love everyone and want to take care of them, you wouldn't be who you are."

"But if I had it to do over again," Blair said, "if we could visit some alternate timeline, like in your science fiction shows, I wouldn't have gone to see my father that night, with or without you."

She stroked the puckered scar on Jo's side.

Jo caught her hand, kissed it.

"Hey. You were just thinking of your father, worrying about him. You were always a better daughter than he deserved."

"I put everyone in danger."

"I put everyone in danger, Blair. Me. I was the commander of that little suicide mission. I was arrogant enough to think with me and Pauly along, we could keep you safe. Keep everyone safe. See? That's what I'm talking about, about being young. I thought I could handle stuff that was hell and gone out of my league. My cojones were too big."

Blair giggled.

Jo laughed.

"Are you serious? Saying cojones makes you giggle?"

Blair giggled again.

"I thought it was 'nads'," chuckled Jo. "Isn't it 'nads' that always turned you into a giggling school girl?"

"It's not so much the word," said Blair. "It's the way you said it. Jo – I'm so glad you don't have cojones. I love all your parts just the way they are."

"Well, this is how they're staying," said Jo. "So do with them what you will."

"I will, darling." Blair kissed her lover. "I certainly will."

They kissed for long minutes, and then, somewhat regretfully, Jo crossed to the closet, and pulled out fresh nightgowns, a lavender and white gown for Blair, a silvery one for herself.

Charlotte generally slept through the night. But now, in the wee early dawn hours, she sometimes padded down the hall to visit her mothers. And Jo and Blair had both agreed that they wanted to be properly dressed when their daughter paid them these surprise calls.

"I think I understand now," Blair said wryly, "why parents slept in separate beds in those old 1950's family shows. To avoid temptation."

"Well, I can tell you right now, we're not," Jo yawned, "getting separate beds, babe."

"Perish the thought," Blair agreed. "We'll just have to conquer temptation."

Blair lay in Jo's arms, listening to her wife's heart beat slow as Jo drifted into sleep.

When Jo was snoring softly, Blair traced her wife's eyelids with a gentle finger. She kissed her lover's closed eyes.

Yes, thought Blair. That was the one thing I would take back. That night we went to the St. Angelo, to be sure my father was all right. But who could have known how far he'd fallen? Who could have known the path he was on?

June, 1986. Manhattan. St. Angelo Hotel.

Jo, Blair, Pauly and Snake stood in the foyer of the decrepit St. Angelo Hotel.

The scent of urine was overpowering in the foyer. Blair wrinkled her nose.

Cobwebs hung from the foyer lamp in which a low-watt light bulb flickered.

Blair refused to look down at the cracked tiles which were sticky under her shoes. She had no desire to learn the details of what was on the floor, or how long it had been since the floor had received a good mopping – or any mopping at all.

Blair drew closer to Pauly; Jo's cousin was serving as Blair's escort on a mission that was fast becoming, in Blair's opinion, very ill-advised.

Thank God Jo insisted on coming with me to find Daddy, thought Blair. And thank God the cavalry came along.

Jo glanced at Blair.

"Last chance to pull the plug on this crazy caper," Jo whispered.

Blair shook her head. Despite any misgivings she had, her kittenish chin was firmly set.

"No," Blair said quietly. "If Daddy's here, I have to see him."

Jo nodded grimly. "OK," she told her fiancée. "You know my policy, babe. You want it, you got it – no matter how nuts it is ..."

Jo and Snake, as the alpha "couple," and the two who seemed most at home in a slummy dive, entered the lobby first. Blair and Pauly followed on their heels.

The lobby was a hazy den of threadbare carpet and cracked and pitted tiles. More cobwebs. Less of a urine stench, Blair was happy to note – the eternal cloud of cigarette smoke seems to absorb it. Low-watt bulbs flickered in cheap lamp fixtures that appeared to have been installed in 1908. A bulletin board flecked with smashed insects bore a collection of outdated F.B.I. "Wanted" posters.

Behind a wooden counter on the far side of the lobby, a grotesquely fat old man read a horror comic book and chomped on a hoagie sandwich that smelled, even from this distance, like pickles and cheese gone bad. In between chomps of the hoagie, he sucked at a cigar.

If Alec was here, Jo thought, he'd say somethin' clever to keep our spirits up. He'd look at Gruesome behind the counter, there, and say, "Ah – the noble concierge!"

Jo wished like hell that her best friend was there, in the lobby, to lend his muscle as well as his quips. But –

Nah, she thought. Better Alec's out there guardin' Nat and Tootie. Never could forgive myself if anythin' happened to those little lugs …

There was a hiss of static from behind the counter. As they drew closer to the counter, Jo realized the old guy was listening to the Yankees game on a radio with bad reception.

Wow, what a freakin' genius, thought Jo. He can eat and read a comic book and smoke a cigar and listen to the Yankees game all at the same time. MENSA, you're missin' out! Come and get him!

Alec would've put the insults a lot classier, Jo knew. But Jo's mental quips were keeping her nerves calm, even if the insults didn't have the same Alec-caliber elegance.

Blair shrank even closer against Pauly, wishing she could cuddle against Jo instead.

What on earth have I got us into? Blair wondered.

She had never been in a dive hotel this bad.

Well … If she was going to be totally honest with herself – And I might as well, since I'll probably be knifed and killed any second! – she'd never been in a dive hotel at all. And I certainly haven't been missing anything …

Jo and Snake knew how to handle themselves in a dive. You were tough. If you weren't tough, you were pegged instantly as prey. So you made sure everyone knew you had cojones. But you weren't too tough. You didn't want to challenge whoever the head thug was, and end up in a death match. You wanted to be just tough enough to be left the hell alone.

Pauly tightened his grip around Blair, pulled her closer.

He must feel me trembling, thought Blair.

Blair wished it was Jo's arm around her. Sure, Pauly was a foot taller than Jo, and a foot wider than his cousin, and almost as muscular as man-mountain Snake – but Blair still would have been more comforted with Jo's arm around her. It wasn't about muscle – it was about love. If this was going to be the end of Miss Blair Warner's short life, Blair wanted her fiancée at her side.

Snake and Jo walked to the counter, arms wrapped around each other's waists, looking ready to grab concealed weaponry should the occasion present itself. Their shaggy hair, hard-as-diamond glares, and Snake's tattoos were intimidating. They stood proud and tall.

Snake slapped the counter with an open hand. The sound cracked like a gunshot.

"Hey, let's freakin' look alive there," Jo griped to Gruesome behind the counter. "How about some freakin' service?"

"Yeah. What she said," Snake rumbled in his intimidating bass voice.

The old man glanced up from his horror comic. He had bits of pickle and tomato snagged in his droopy yellowy-white mustache. He looked at Snake and Jo with ice cold eyes that said, "Try me, punks. I've seen it all."

"We're lookin' for a clown," said Jo, "owes our boss a lot of loot. You give us his room number, we get the loot and we give you a little finder's fee, maybe."

"You don't give us his room number," said Snake, "we're gonna break heads. Startin' with yours – not that it'll make you any uglier."

The old man actually cracked a chilly smile. He took another bite of his hoagie.

Cheering erupted on the staticky radio. The Yankees had batted in a run.

"Our guests value their goddamn privacy," the old guy said in a thick Brooklyn accent.

He grabbed something next to his chair – an old wooden baseball bat. Its surface was dented, and a little cracked, and there was some dried maroon stuff, blood maybe, streaking it.

With the bat, the old man pointed toward the foyer.

"Beat it," he told Jo and Snake, "or I'll beat you into liverwurst."

Jo planted her feet. She put her hands on the counter, and leaned forward, toward the old guy, grinning. Her eyes were cold as aquamarines. She looked like she was thinking about taking the old guy's head off his shoulders, and liked the idea. A lot.

"Just give me a reason," she growled.

Snake grinned at her, like a boyfriend proud as hell of his squeeze.

"See, my girl has her heart set on gettin' the money back for our boss," Snake told the old man. "And what my girl wants, my girl gets."

"And anyone in our way, what they get is stomped," Jo said.

She flexed her fingers on the counter, popping her knuckles with loud little cracking sounds.

God Jo – don't provoke him! thought Blair. She and Pauly hung back in Snake's shadow. Jo, darling, be careful.

Jo had been in enough fights with enough dirty fighters to have a sixth sense for a cheap shot.

She sensed a shifting of the old man's balance as he lifted his old bat and brought it down toward her fingers.

Jo pulled her hands out of the way, shifted her own weight, and grabbed the bat. She jerked it right out of the old guy's hands.

"Hey – whaddya know?" Jo grinned. She hefted the bat.

The old guy looked, for the first time, a little nervous. Instinctively he took a step back from the counter.

Jo swung the bat a few times, in tight little arcs.

"Nothin' like the feel of a bat in your hand," she said cheerfully. She dipped her chin, grinning at the old man. "C'mere, dipwit. I wanna do a little battin' practice."

"Look – I was just kiddin'," the old guy said.

"Sure you were," said Jo. "But I ain't."

"She doesn't kid around," Snake agreed. "You shoulda just given us your freakin' cheerful cooperation, old-timer."

Jo swung the bat again, a vicious swing that missed the old man's head by mere inches.

He took a little hop backward, which was funny to see, in someone so grotesquely huge.

"Who's not cooperatin'?" the old guy demanded. "I'm happy to cooperate. You don't give a guy a chance."

Jo swung the bat again. The old man took another hop back. His back was now, literally, up against the wall.

"Oops," said Jo. "Nowhere to run to, now, Gruesome."

"Look, I said I'd cooperate," said the old man. "How can I cooperate if you crack me in the head?"

"He does have a point," Snake rumbled to Jo. "Prob'ly you shouldn't waste him till we get the room number."

"Why not?" asked Jo. "We can look up the room after we ice this piece of crud."

A spark of hope gleamed in the old man's eyes. He lifted his hands, pointed both index fingers at his shaggy temples.

"See, that's just it," he said. "There ain't any book. That's part of the privacy we offer our clientele, see? The room numbers are all in here." He jabbed dramatically at his temples. "All in here. You off me, you'll never find who you're lookin' for."

Jo shook her head. "Well whaddya know?" she asked the world at large. "All the room numbers are in your head, huh? How'd ya got room for all that information, what with the comic book crap, and the baseball scores, and everythin'?"

Snake laughed, a deep, rumbling sound, like distant thunder. "Good one," he complimented Jo.

"Nah, it's true – I swear," the old man said. "I got all the room numbers memorized. It's my security policy."

Jo swung the bat again. This time it missed the old man by a mere inch. He made a little whimper.

"Buddy, I think you're policy's just about lapsed," Jo said. She swung the bat behind her head, got ready to land a final blow.

"Babycakes," Snake said thoughtfully, "maybe we don't waste him. Yet."

Jo shot Snake an icy look. Babycakes? Freakin' babycakes?

Snake's eyes were dancing with laughter.

Oh, man, Snake Robinson, you're gonna pay for that, Jo's eyes told the big truck driver.

Sure, said Snake's laughing eyes. You'll make me pay. But it'll have to be later. And it was worth it.

"Yeah, listen to your old man," the old guy told Jo. "He's talkin' sensible. Listen to him."

"Why shouldn't I just ice this old coot?" Jo snarled at Snake.

"Because, babycakes, I believe him about the room numbers. Let's let him gives us the info, see – and if it turns out to be a crock, then we waste him."

Jo pretended to turn that over. She darted a glance at the old guy. He was sweating now. If he wasn't the scum of the earth, running a place known for every depravity on the road to hell, she would almost feel a little sorry for him.

Jo banged the baseball bat on the counter. The old guy jumped.

"OK, OK, you just bought a few more minutes of your rat's ass-sorry life," Jo growled. "Make with the room number and maybe we don't scrag you."

"Yet," Snake rumbled helpfully.

"Right," said Jo. "Yet."

The old man swallowed hard.

"Sure," he said. "Who you lookin' for? Just name him. Or her. Whoever you want. I'll serve 'em up on a silver platter."

"The name," said Jo, "is David Warner."

The old man blanched. Literally. All of the blood drained from his fat face.

My God, thought Blair. What is it about Daddy that would have such an effect on a person? Has Daddy been murdered?

"David," Jo repeated, glaring at the old man, "Warner. His room number."

"Now," growled Snake.

"We, ah," the old man licked his lips, "we don't have any – "

Jo banged the bat on the counter. The old man jumped. So did Blair, for that matter.

"Don't you freakin' lie to us, you son of a bitch," said Jo. "You tell us what room David Warner's in, or I'll crack your head like a walnut, and we'll call our friends, and we'll all tear this whole goddamn place to pieces. We'll bash up every son of a bitch in this place. Do you get me? Even if you survive, your masters ain't gonna be any too happy with the shitstorm you let rain down on this dive." She banged the bat on the counter again. "You get me?"

The old man cringed back against the wall. More beads of sweat rolled down his face.

Blair, who was much less familiar with the underworld than Jo, felt a pang of pity for the old man.

This is Jo's hard side, thought Blair. The side she had to cultivate to survive a childhood in the Bronx. The face she's always kept carefully hidden from me. I know she's playacting now, and she's doing this for me, but she's starting to go too far …

Instinctively Blair stepped forward, to put a hand on Jo's arm, but Pauly pulled Blair back, pulled her close against him.

"Don't blow it," Pauly cautioned her. "Let them handle this."

Blair had learned over the years that while Pauly was a young man of few words, he was a young man of good sense, especially street sense. If the gentle giant said "Let them handle this," she'd let them handle it.

She held her tongue.

Jo slammed the bat on the counter again.

"You believe this piece of crap?" she asked Snake.

"Nah." Snake shook his head. "You know, I guess I don't believe he has all the room numbers in his head. Guy this stupid couldn't possibly remember all those numbers and names."

"So we should waste him," Jo said.

"Sure," said Snake. "Have at it. Knock his block off."

"Wait!" The old man held up his hands. He was shaking now. "Wait! Wait! It's not that I don't want to tell you. But I can't."

Snake made a kind of rumbly "tisk-tisk" sound.

"Total freakin' lack of cooperation," Snake said ruefully. He looked at Jo. "Whyncha whackin' him, babycakes?"

"No!" cried the old man. "No! It's, if I tell you where Warner is, every gangster in Little Tokyo's gonna be tap-dancin' on my ass! You understand?"

"Nope," said Jo. She swung the bat back, like she was getting ready to hit a home run.

"Warner's a lamb!" shouted the old man.

Jo lowered the bat. She and Snake exchanged glances.

Daddy's a what? wondered Blair.

"He's Little Tokyo's lamb?" Jo demanded.

The old man nodded vehemently. "Yeah. They got him under their protection. Word is, anyone messes with Warner – "

"Yeah, yeah – every gangster in Little Tokyo's gonna tap-dance on their ass. But who in Little Tokyo?" Jo waved the bat menacingly at the old guy.

"Some new player," said the old man. "They call him Sensei. He's runnin' the whole place now."

"All of Little Tokyo?" Jo asked skeptically. "That's a lotta gangs to rule."

"This Sensei character's runnin' the whole show. And Warner's under his protection."

"Why?"

The old guy laughed helplessly. "Why? You think anyone tells me why? I'm a freakin' babysitter. I'm nobody."

"Not nobody," growled Snake. "You're the man with the room number. Right? Only thing keepin' us from crackin' your skull."

"Crack it," said the old man. His shoulders slumped. "Do what you gotta do. But I can't tell you which room Warner's in."

Jo tossed the bat from hand to hand, looking thoughtful.

"So, how's about this," she said. "You tell us Warner's room number, we make you our lamb."

The old man laughed a little hysterically. He mopped the sweat off his pasty forehead.

"Your lamb?" he laughed. "Ha. Ha. You know, you run a dump like this, you think you've heard it all. Then some punks come in and … ha. Ha. Your lamb! You gonna take on the Sensei?"

"Why not?" Jo asked coolly. "Our boss could eat this Sensei joker for freakin' lunch. One bite. Like a cracker."

"Yeah? That's hilarious, kid. Freakin' hilarious. Who's your boss – King Kong? Godzilla?"

Jo opened her mouth to rattle off a phony name. It was pure bluff – but she was an ace poker player with an ace poker face. If Snake backed her, she thought they could convince the old creep that they worked for a powerful new gangster – someone more powerful than the Sensei.

But before Jo could say anything, Snake stepped in front of her.

Dammit, she thought. First he calls me babycakes, now he's goin' rogue. I'm runnin' this mission. A freakin' house divided cannot stand.

"You know all the gangs in New York – right?" Snake asked the old man. "From the whales to the minnows."

The old guy nodded. "Sure. From the whales to the plankton. How could I run this crap-hole if I didn't know all the players? This is neutral territory. Like Switzerland. Or hell."

"S'what I thought," said Snake. "So, cast a gander at this."

Snake lifted the hem of his shirt. He had – no surprise – a ripped six-pack. Tattooed just above his belly button was a jet black tattoo, a raven carrying a crown in its beak.

The old man blanched again. More cold sweat poured down his face.

"Damn," he said quietly.

"Damn right," said Snake, nodding. He lowered his shirt.

"I wish I never got out of bed this morning."

"I'll bet," rumbled Snake.

"You're the goddamn Lost Prince," said the old guy.

"Yeah," said Snake. "And the goddamn Lost Prince is tellin' ya you've got my father's protection. So make with Warner's room number before I get my father and uncles and brothers down here for a good ol' ass-kickin' good time. And my sisters. Can't forget them. And my grandmother, who's a fiend with a knitting needle."

The old man shivered.

"Room 606," he said.

"What – Room 666 was taken?" snarled Jo.

What the hell just happened? she wondered. Who's the Lost Prince?

But whatever the tattoo meant, and whatever con Snake was pulling, it had worked. She had to hand it to the young man – he knew his stuff.

"Nice," said Snake. "Room 606. Me and my girl and our pals will just nip up there and pay Warner a little visit. And you're comin' with."

"Me? Why me?" The old man looked terrified. He looked like Snake had just said "We're bringing you to meet Satan."

"Of course we're bringin' you," said Jo. "So you don't call your crumbum bosses and goons the second we head upstairs. So you don't freakin' ambush us!"

"Swear to God," said the old man, "I won't call nobody. I won't do nothin'. But leave me down here. Please! Leave me out of it. I don't wanna get between Robby Robinson and the Sensei."

"Yeah?" Who the hell is Robby Robinson? wondered Jo. Light was beginning to dawn. Damn. Not the Robby Robinson! "You're already between 'em," Jo told the old guy. "You're right in the freakin' thick of this, and you're takin' the full ride."

"But, but, but, I've gotta, you know, I've gotta watch the desk," the old man almost blubbered. "I've gotta watch who's tryin' to get in."

Jo laughed harshly. "Jesus Christ! Check him – he's gotta watch the desk! Now you listen to me," she banged the bat on the counter, "if a freakin' rabid dog foamin' at the mouth dragged itself in here on two bum legs, that'd be the classiest damn visitor this dump ever got! You hear me? Gotta watch the desk? You better watch your ass, that's what you better watch! Now move!"

The old man scrambled out from behind the counter, fell into step next to Snake. As towering and menacing as Snake looked, somehow he seemed less frightening to the old man in that moment than Jo, who was brandishing the bat and glaring at him like she was about to use him for batting practice.

I've never seen Jo like this, Blair thought. It was unsettling but it was rather magnificent. There was a dangerous, feral side to Jo that Blair had thought she'd seen before – but Blair realized she'd been mistaken. This was a whole new level of feral danger, of rough-and-tumble Jo-ness. This was Jo in her natural, hellish habitat, fronting like mad to survive.

Years at Eastland and River Rock had smoothed a lot of Jo's rough edges, but on some deep level, Blair realized, Jo would always be dangerous.

As if underscoring Blair's thoughts, Jo jabbed the bat into the old man's huge belly.

"Come on, Jabba the Hut. Get the lead out, you slimy bastard. Room 606. Chop-chop!"

The old man looked up at Snake. "You're sure your father will protect me?" he pleaded.

Snake's lip curled in disgust, but he nodded. "If I say so," said Snake, "he will. Even though Robby Robinson usually doesn't protect freakin' rodents."

"OK. OK." That seemed to satisfy the old man. He headed for the tilting, leaning staircase, with its threadbare, bordello-red carpeting.

Snake and Jo followed immediately behind him. Jo jabbed the old man in the back every once in awhile with the bat, keeping the old guy on his toes.

Blair and Pauly brought up the rear.

Daddy, thought Blair. We've found him. We've really found him. But, my God, what sort of trouble is he in, to be hiding in a place like this, and associating with Tokyo gangsters?

Part of her was wishing they hadn't found David Warner. And part of her was wondering what it was going to cost them.


"OK," said Nat, "that's it. That's all I can stands, I can't stands no more! We need to call the police. Where's a phone? Where's a payphone?"

Natalie sat in the driver's seat in the cab of Blair's truck, staring out the window toward the blinking red neon sign of the St. Angelo.

Tootie sat in the passenger seat, looking fabulous in the cap she'd squashed down over her hair to look the part of a waif-like thug. Tootie put a reassuring hand on her best friend's plump arm.

"Nat, they've only been in there five minutes. Five minutes."

"A lot can happen in five minutes," Natalie said darkly.

"Hey – we haven't heard any screams. Or gunshots. Or sirens. That's a good sign in a neighborhood like this. Let's think positively, Nat. Everything's gonna be fine."

"No," said Natalie. "A thousand times, no! Tootie – how can you say everything's gonna be fine? How many times do I have to explain it to you guys? Never think positive! That just angers the Fates!"

Tootie sighed.

"God's teeth," complained Alec. He leaned against the hood, near the passenger-side window, smoking a cigarette and trying to look tough in his dark watch cap. "Can we have even a moment of silence during this stakeout? We're supposed to keep what is referred to in the Yank underworld as a 'low profile'."

"Ha!" said Natalie. "A lot you know about the underworld, milord—Yank or otherwise!"

"Apparently," said Alec, "I know more than you do. Now belt up – please – my fair Natalie, or I'll have to gag you."

"Did you hear that?" Natalie asked Tootie, outraged. "Did you hear what he just said to me?"

"So what am I – his mother?" asked Tootie. "And he does have a point."

"Great!" Natalie threw up her hands, exasperated. "Everyone's against me."

"No one's against you," Alec grated. "I'd just like you to turn the volume down. 'Off' would work."

"This is the great land of America," said Natalie, "and we have a little thing here we like to call 'Freedom of Speech'."

"Yes, dear," said Alec. "You adopted it from a little country I like to call 'England'."

"Why do you have to be so patronizing?"

"Why do you have to be so loud, love?"

"Why don't you both shut up?" said Tootie. "Honest to God! We're supposed to be keeping lookout. How can we keep lookout with you two at each other's throats? And over what? So, OK, you're both worried. And scared."

"I'm not scared," objected Alec.

"Maybe not, but you're frustrated," said Tootie. "You want to be in there, helping Blair and Jo, making sure they're OK. Instead you're stuck out here babysitting us."

"Babysitting?" demanded Nat.

"A figure of speech," said Tootie.

"Listen," Alec's face softened, "I love you both like the sisters mummy never gave me. Of course you can always count on me to protect you." He reached through the passenger window, took one of Tootie's hands and squeezed it in a brotherly fashion.

Tootie felt her heart skip a beat.

Oh – please, she scolded herself. What am I – some doe-eyed ingénue?

She was annoyed at herself for feeling gushy about Alec taking her hand, so, naturally, she took it out on the young lord.

She squeezed his hand so hard there was a faint "cracking" noise.

"God's teeth," he swore, pulling his hand away. "Why are you so violent, Tootie Ramsey?"

"Artistic temperament," Tootie said. "Look, Alec, can the flowery speeches. We know you care about us, but we get it. Of course you're torn. Of course you're worrying about Blair and Jo, and wishing you could be in there helping them."

Alec nodded, nursing his hand. "I am honored to serve as your knight protector on the mean streets of Manhattan. Truly. But, yes, I am worried out of my head about what's transpiring in that nefarious hellhole."

"So much for canning the flowery speeches," Tootie sighed.

"I say we call the cops," said Natalie, repeating her original suggestion. "Call the cops, or go in ourselves. I can't just, just sit here any longer, wondering what's happening. You know how I can be a little anxious sometimes?"

"Right," Tootie deadpanned. "Sometimes."

"Well, take my usual level of anxiety, and multiply it by ten, and then multiply that by twenty."

"Ye gods," said Alec. "That would amount to a level of anxiety bordering on the thermonuclear."

"We're all anxious," Tootie told her best friend sympathetically. "But I think Jo and Snake were right. I hate to admit it, but we're probably more help out here, as lookouts, than getting into the mix in there."

"Sure, you, maybe," said Natalie. "You're still a kid."

"Excuse me?"

"You know what I mean. You just graduated Eastland. I'm a woman of the world now, Tootie. And my man is in there, in danger."

"Your man?"

"My man. That man of mine. Fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly."

"And you've got to love one Snake till you die?" asked Alec.

"Mock if you must," said Natalie, "but Snake's my man. And I can't help lovin' that man of mine. And he's in there putting his life on the line for my friends – our friends. And meanwhile I'm out here cowering in the truck! How am I going to be a doctor or a journalist if I'm cowering in a truck during a crisis?"

"Not 'cowering,' dear girl," objected Alec. "'Kvetching. Complaining. Shredding my last nerve. But not 'cowering'."

"And what are they going to do if they find Blair's father?" wondered Natalie. "Is there a point to this mission? If my man is hurt, will it be in a worthwhile cause?"

"They just want to be sure Mr. Warner's OK," Tootie said reasonably. "I'm sure nothing bad is going to happen. It's just, this neighborhood, the lousy hotel – Blair and Jo just needed some muscle along, you know, just in case. Everything will be fine."

"Stop saying that!"

"What the hell is all this squawkin'?" demanded a surly voice.

Alec whirled, bunching his hands into fists, taking the stance he'd learned as a younger man when his father the Duke had him tutored in the pugilistic arts.

Jesse laughed.

"What the hell are you supposed to be?" asked the tough young brunette, taking in Alec's dock worker outfit and watch cap. "Holy Christ! It's Little Lord Dork-eroy!"

Alec sighed, lowering his fists.

"Jesse, my dear. How lovely to see you – insults notwithstanding. Any dear childhood chum of Jo's, however rough around the edges, is a kindred friend of mine."

Jesse shook her head. "Never know what the hell you're sayin', Jeeves. Crack open a dictionary sometime, why doncha? Learn some good old American lingo." She punched Alec's shoulder. It was meant affectionately, but it was a solid hit. Alec winced.

"Why," Alec asked the dark, starry sky, "am I always left alone with the cranky, violent women-folk?"

"Eh, get bent, Northridge," laughed Jesse.

"Nethridge," he corrected her.

"Like I give a damn. You're freakin' one hoot after another, dude." She punched his shoulder again. "C'mon. Don't be a baby. Be a man, dude."

Alec sighed.

"Pauly didn't tell us you were coming," Tootie said, leaning out of the passenger-side window. For some reason, it was annoying her, the way Jesse kept insulting Alec. And hitting him. Alec was being a perfect gentleman.

"Pauly didn't tell you, 'cause Pauly didn't know," said Jesse. "He called me tonight to cancel our date, some crap about crammin' for an exam. You know what a sweetheart Pauly is, he can't lie for shit. I knew somethin' was up, and I put two and two together and got four. Figured he was rushin' off to help the Muscatels and Leopards."

"Musketeers," Tootie said coolly. "And Lions."

"Whatever. Lar-di-da. We're at this point now, see, me and Pauly, where we're gettin' real serious, and suddenly he's startin' to treat me like a freakin' dandelion or somethin'. Like I'm a freakin' helpless damsel."

"How droll," said Alec.

"Freakin' totally annoyin'!" Jesse complained. "So, I figured he was prob'ly rushin' off to help you guys with one of your crazy life-or-death things, and he was tryin' to protect me. So I freakin' trailed his van." She buffed her fingernails on her worn denim jacket. "Yeah, I'm better than a freakin' Texas tracker. You bet your ass! Didn't lose him till right around here, he gave me the slip. I had to go up and down some side streets, I did like a grid pattern. Then I spotted his van, and Blondezilla's truck, and 'Bam' – here I am!"

"Where's your bike?" Alec asked curiously, looking up and down the dimly lit street.

"Couple blocks up."

"We didn't hear your approach."

"Like I said," Jesse grinned, "I'm better than a Texas tracker. I ever can't hack it in college, maybe I'll drop out and become a bounty hunter. Damn – I could pull some presidents doin' that!"

"It's nice to have goals," Tootie said coolly.

Jesse shot her a look.

"What's got Pippi Longstocking's braids in a twist?" Jesse asked Alec.

"I beg your pardon," Tootie bristled.

"We're all just a tad bit on edge," Alec said hastily, deftly interposing himself between Jesse and the passenger-side window of the truck. "They've been inside the St. Angelo for a goodly time, now, and we're on edge wondering what's happening."

Jesse went stone-cold serious.

"Hold up. Hold up, hold up," she said, eyes narrowing. "Who's in the St. Angelo havin' a good time?"

"Jo and Snake," Natalie said absently. She was chewing at a hangnail, focused more on the exterior of the hotel than on the bickering between Alec and Tootie and Jesse. "Jo and Snake, and Blair and Pauly."

Jesse drew a deep breath and squared her shoulders.

"Whaddya mean?" she asked quietly. "Blair and Pauly – shackin' up at the St. A? What … the … hell?" Her hands bunched into fists.

"Jesse," Alec said placatingly, "what Natalie meant –"

"I knew it," snarled Jesse. "I knew Blondie had eyes for my guy! All flirty, and flippin' that Farrah 'do, and gigglin' like a jibberin' moron. Well, I got a coupla things to tell Miss Man-Stealin' freakin' Warner. I got her 'Boom' right here!" Jesse lifted her right fist. "And I got her 'Slam-Pow' right here!" Jesse lifted her left fist.

Tootie rolled her eyes.

"Hello – have you even been paying attention the last couple of years?" asked Tootie. "Blair doesn't want Pauly."

"Why wouldn't she?" Jesse asked dangerously. "Why wouldn't Blair want Pauly? Pauly's a catch. Pauly's got a freakin' heart of gold! Any girl'd be lucky out of her mind to land Pauly!"

"And, congratulations – that girl is you," said Alec. "Pauly is head over heels for you, dear."

"And Blair is a lesbian," Tootie said pointedly. "L-e-s-b-i-a-n. She loves Jo. Pauly's like a, I guess kind of like he's Jo's cousin, it's like now he's Blair's cousin, too."

"Cousin-in-law," suggested Alec.

"Yeah," said Tootie. "Pauly's like Blair's cousin-in-law."

"So how come they're in there havin' a good time?" Jesse demanded. "Don't try to snow me!"

Alec shook his head. "Goodly time. I said they've been in there a goodly time. That means a rather long time. That means we're getting worried rather about them."

"Well why the hell didn't ya say so? Why can't you speak normal? For cryin' out loud!" Jesse gazed across the street at the St. Angelo's bright red neon sign. "So what the hell's goin' on over there? Why are they in there? Why are you worried? What the hell did you get my Pauly into?"

Tootie looked at Alec. "You want to take the first three questions?"

"I should be delighted."

Jesse pounded her fist against the side of Blair's truck.

"This ain't funny. You two, you're always doin' your goddamn comedy act. What's goin' on?"

"We're only doing our comedy act," Tootie said crisply, "to keep our spirits up. We're all worried, Jesse. We all have people we care about in there."

"So what are they doin' in there?"

"They're trying to find Blair's father," said Natalie, still gazing anxiously at the hotel's front door.

"Oh. Christ. Might've known!" Jesse threw her hands up in disgust. "If it's a bunch of deadly danger, puttin' everybody's head on the choppin' block, must be everyone's riskin' their life for goody-goody Farrah!"

"Her father abandoned her," Tootie said, losing her patience. "For a couple of years, Blair hasn't known where her father is, or how he is, or anything about him. She just learned he's been in Manhattan, hiding out. She wants to be sure he's OK. Can you wrap your brain around that?"

Natalie looked over at Tootie.

What's with her? Natalie wondered. Tootie had always looked up to Blair, but Tootie didn't usually get this fired up about defending the older girl.

"Hear, here," Alec said approvingly.

He squeezed Tootie's hand. It was a quick gesture. It was an absent gesture. It just seemed like the right thing, in the moment, the natural thing, to do. Tootie had put the insolent Jesse in her place; Alec took Tootie's hand and squeezed it briefly and released it.

Jesse didn't notice. Natalie didn't notice. Alec didn't really notice his own gesture.

But Tootie felt like her hand was on fire.

"I ain't sayin' Blondie ain't been ground through the mill," Jesse said, turning to Alec. "I watched her kinda turnin' into a real live person, when she was workin' at the Coffee Spot. I feel for the little snot – OK? But if she wants to go lookin' for her pop, why's she gotta drag my Pauly into it?"

"No one dragged your Pauly into it," Tootie snapped.

Her fingers felt like they were tingling, where Alec had touched them. It was a lovely feeling – but very confusing.

"Pauly's helping because he cares about Blair," Tootie continued. "In a cousinly way. That's what people do when they care about each other. They help each other. They put themselves on the line for each other."

"Well thank you for clearin' that up, Sonia freakin' Bernhardt!"

"Sarah Bernhardt," Tootie corrected. "Sarah freakin' Bernhardt."

"Will everyone shut up?" Natalie demanded, tearing her gaze away from the St. Angelo. "Where is all this drama getting us? Huh? Alec – how long have they been in there?"

Alec consulted his wristwatch. "Fifteen minutes," he said.

"That's too long," said Natalie. "That's way too long."

"Too long for what?" Tootie asked reasonably. "We don't know what's happening, so we don't know how long it should take. Keep it together, soul sister."

"Natalie's got the right freakin' idea," said Jesse.

"I do?" Natalie asked, surprised to hear Jesse taking her side in anything.

"Sure. You got the right idea. Are we gonna sit here on our asses all night while who knows what the hell is goin' on in there? Or are we gonna go in? Are we men, or are we mice?"

"There's no need to lose our heads," said Alec. "It's frustrating, but Jo and Blair need us out here. We're the only ones who can fetch help, if something goes awry."

"But how the hell do we know if somethin's gone all cock-eyed?" Jesse demanded. "We're totally in the freakin' dark out here. Look, you ladies stay put, and follow Farrah's orders. Do your knittin'. I'm goin' in to see what the hell's goin' on."

"I'm going too," Natalie said decisively.

"Nat!" said Tootie.

"Look, I just can't stand the suspense," Natalie said. "I have to go in. Like Jesse's saying – my man's in there."

"Amen, sister," said Jesse. "Now someone's talkin'!"

"Tootie, Alec's here for you if anything happens out here," Natalie said. "You understand – right?"

Tootie sighed. "I guess so."

But not really, she thought. I don't know what it's like to have a man in deadly danger, to feel like I have to rush to be at his side.

"Tootie, you and Alec are our only hope if something goes wrong inside. We'll," Natalie racked her brain, "we'll give you a signal or something, if there's something wrong inside. We'll flick a light on and off, really fast."

"That'll work," Jesse said, nodding. "All right. Let's go, Natalie. We gotta make sure the menfolk are OK. A woman's job is never freakin' done. Not half done, even!"

Natalie opened the driver's-side door of the truck, climbed out, closed the door quietly behind her. Jesse walked around to the front of the truck and gave Natalie a friendly punch on the shoulder.

"Ow!" said Natalie.

"You guys are such damn cream puffs," complained Jesse. "Christ, Nat – you gonna be any good if there's a scrap?"

"If Snake's in danger," Natalie said firmly, pushing up her sleeves, "I'll be plenty good in a scrap!"

"Atta girl! That's what I wanna hear. C'mon. Let's go see what's what!"

The plump girl and the short, tough brunette, crossed the street and walked toward the St. Angelo.

"This is not a good idea," said Tootie, shaking her head.

"Isn't it?" Alec asked drily. "Our dear, neurotic Natalie, and Juvenile Delinquent #3 from 'West Side Story' storming into the lowest dive in the city without any plan or back-up? Why would that be a bad idea?"

"I wish Blair had one of those car phones in her truck," said Tootie. "We could call for help right away if we needed to. Alec – if something really bad happens, what are we going to do?"

He sighed. "Honestly? I don't know. But we'll do what Nethridge and Ramsey do best, Tootie – we'll improvise."

"No one improvises like us," Tootie agreed, somewhat heartened. "Although, just a technical point, old chap – it's Ramsey and Nethridge – not Nethridge and Ramsey."

"The deuce it is!" he laughed.

"I can't help being the headliner," Tootie shrugged. "It's not my fault I'm the most talented. We don't ask for these burdens. Fate thrusts them upon one."

"You little minx," Alec laughed. "Ramsey and Nethridge, is it? You're comparing your singing to my transcendent, virtuoso performances on the piano? The sheer cheek of it!"

Tootie smiled. "Well … I guess you're not too awful."

"What an enfant terrible you are, Tootie, dear. I resign this instant. I refuse to be unappreciated," he teased.

She smiled at him. He smiled at her. It was a nice, companionable moment.

"Damn!" Alec said, turning away from Tootie, gazing at the hotel.

"What?" she asked, startled. She followed his glance.

A light was flicking on and off, very fast, in one of the sixth floor windows.


The carpeted staircase smelled more horribly of urine than the foyer had. Blair wouldn't have believed it possible if she weren't experiencing it for herself.

It must soak into the carpet pad, Blair thought, shuddering at the thought. Oh, how I can't wait to return to clean, clean River Rock. What are a few dust bunnies, compared to this hell hole?

The old man balked a few times, as they climbed the stairs, but Jo re-motivated him by jabbing him in the back with the baseball bat.

"Keep it movin', Jabba," she growled.

The old guy had asthma or bronchial issues of some kind, because he was wheezing and red-faced when they reached the sixth floor landing. He mopped the perspiration off his face.

"Have your stroke after you show us the room," Jo snapped. "Move it. Move it."

It was the last room along the hall.

The old man lifted his hand to knock.

"What are we, visitin' the Queen?" asked Jo. "Unlock it. Now."

The old man fumbled with a massive ring of keys, selected one, slid it into the key hole. Hand trembling, he turned the key.

There was a click.

The door opened a crack.

"Who's there?" demanded a deep, imperious voice.

Snake grabbed the back of the old man's collar, shoved him forward.

"You first," Snake rumbled.

The old guy's belly pushed the door open. As Snake propelled him into Room 606, the old man lifted his hands as if he was surrendering to the cops.

"It wasn't my idea," the old man told the occupant. "This is Robby Robinson's kid! It's the Lost Prince. He and his crazy bitch made me let 'em in. They made me."

"Stop sniveling," snapped the imperious voice.

Jo followed Snake into Room 606, bat held at the ready.

Stop sniveling. She knew that arrogant, well-bred voice – the voice of the man who'd broken her nose – twice – when he found out she loved his daughter, or, more to the point, that his daughter loved Jo.

It was David Warner's voice.

Snake stepped to the side, making room for Jo to stand next to him when she entered the room. Snake kept a tight grip on the old guy's collar, and kept the gruesomely heavy man positioned like a shield in front of him and Jo.

Jo hefted the bat. She grimaced at David Warner.

There he is – alive and breathin' and everything.

While Jo was glad for her lover's sake that David appeared unharmed, she had mixed feelings about it.

Anyone who could abandon Blair and stay out of the country, incommunicado, for so long … Jo wished she could crack the bat over David's head.

"Is he, is Daddy there?" Blair asked softly from the hallway.

"Yeah," Jo called over her shoulder. "In livin' Technicolor."

"Is he all right?" Blair asked hesitantly.

"Come on and see." Jo turned slightly, reaching back with her free hand.

She felt Blair's hand close on hers, warmly – the hand of her lover, a hand she knew so well.

Jo continued to brandish the bat in David Warner's general direction, but with her other hand she gently drew her fiancée into the room.

Was David Warner OK? He had certainly changed in the couple of years since they last saw him, thought Jo.

For a man who'd fled the country after being ruined by the ruthless, treacherous B.Z. Becker, David looked like he'd landed on his feet. He wore, as was his custom, a beautiful dark suit, bespoke, a perfect fit. David had been going paunchy, but the paunch was gone now. He'd lost thirty pounds, maybe, Jo guessed. He'd lost the fat and built up muscle.

His face was handsome, lean, clean shaven. He smelled of insanely expensive cologne. His fingers drummed on the arm of the leather chair in which he sat, the fingernails perfectly manicured.

Yes – a couple of years of exile had left David leaner and stronger than when he'd fled.

The one "off" note was his hair. It was still perfectly barbered, dark except where it was flecked with bits of silver, and silver at the temples, like the markings of an old wolf. But he wore a little pony tail now – a pony tail! Like those freakin' yuppie Wall Street types, thought Jo.

The last time Jo had seen David, he'd been drunk and uncharacteristically emotional, babbling about how it was his fault Blair was a lesbian.

Now, David's dark eyes gazed coolly at Jo.

Her grimace deepened.

"Don't stand up or anythin'," Jo said. "Don't make such a big fuss about seein' me again. I know you're thrilled."

"Still the comedian," he said coldly.

"Well, I don't know how funny I am," said Jo. "But I do know a joke when I see one."

David's nostrils flared. Just like Blair's nostrils flared when she was pissed off.

Score one for me, Jo thought with satisfaction. That got a rise out of him.

Jo stepped closer to Snake, making room for Blair.

Blair stepped forward, still holding Jo's hand.

Blair looked down at her father, observed him sitting in the banged-up leather chair as arrogantly as if it were his throne and he were a king.

David's eyebrows lifted. His face spasmed briefly.

Christ – he gonna cry? Jo wondered. Like the last time I saw him, before he fled the country?

But no. David bit his lip. His poker face descended again.

"Daddy," Blair said quietly. "Are you all right?"

He nodded curtly. He looked down at one hand, examined his perfect fingernails.

"Why didn't you tell us you were back?" asked Blair. All the hurt of a lost child was in her quiet voice; not a lost child, but one who'd been abandoned.

David shrugged.

"That's not much of an answer," Blair said.

Jo snorted. "That ain't an answer at all!"

Blair squeezed Jo's hand, a light, warm pressure. Darling – I can handle this, said the pressure.

Jo glanced at her girl. I know you can, babe.

Blair looked around the room.

Battered furniture, a window propped open with a wooden stick, bilious curtains fluttering in the summer night breeze – but it could have been much worse.

The room smelled of her father's expensive cologne. The bed was neatly made up with an expensive duvée and, as Blair could see at a glance, Egyptian sheets and pillow cases with a high thread count. Clearly, David had either brought or bought his own bedding.

Jo was looking around the room, too, not examining the décor, but rather making sure no one was hiding behind a curtain or bedpost ready to pop out and riddle them with bullets.

The room had two narrow doors, one to the left of the bed, one to the right.

Closet and bathroom, thought Jo.

Both doors were closed. There was no noise within the adjacent rooms, but there was a band of light under the bathroom door.

Jo nudged Snake in the ribs. She tipped her head toward the bathroom door. Snake nodded.

"How long have you been back in the United States?" Blair asked her father.

He shrugged again.

"Were you going to call me? At all?"

He shrugged a third time.

"I'm so sorry for this," babbled the old man, who clearly found David's silence chilling, and took it as a sign that things were really going to hit the fan. "It was him. It was him." The old guy jerked his head back toward Snake.

David looked thoughtfully at the young man.

"Are you truly Robby Robinson's son?"

"One of 'em," Snake growled.

"The Lost Prince? The one who wouldn't accept the crown?"

"We're not here to climb around my family tree," Snake said sharply.

"Freakin' right," said Jo. But I'm gonna do some climbin' around later, Jo thought. I knew there was a freakin' story, Snake. I knew there was somethin' you weren't tellin' us.

"I'm under the protection," David told Snake, "of a Tokyo warlord called the Sensei."

"Yeah, well," Snake said, "we're a damn long way from Tokyo."

"The Sensei has established a U.S. operation," David said, "based in New York. And as I am, well … Let's say I'm an operational consultant. As one of the Sensei's consultants, I'm under his protection. In the parlance of this world, I'm—"

"Yeah, you're a 'lamb'. Good for you."

"The Sensei will not be pleased to learn that Robby Robinson's son kidnapped the concierge of this hotel, and broke into my room with lowly companions," David's eyes flickered toward Jo, "wielding blunt weapons."

Snake grinned, showing his not inconsiderable teeth. It was not a nice smile.

"Dude, I don't approve of my father's way of life. Never freakin' have. That's why I went my own way. That's why I'm the Lost Prince, and not the Heir Apparent. But let me tell you, whoever your Sensei is, my dad'll shred his liver and feed it to the dogs before your Sensei can move a muscle."

David laughed. "Ha. I see. Well. Loyalty is a virtue in a child." His eyes flickered toward Blair, looked away quickly.

Blair squeezed Jo's hand, hard this time.

Daddy's ignoring me. He's utterly freezing me out …

Jo couldn't keep quiet any longer.

"Listen to me," Jo told David, "you goddamn, high-and-mighty son-of-a-bitch. We're only here in this hell hole riskin' life and limb to be sure you're OK. Blair was worried about you. She's a little crazy that way, you know? Would it kill ya to tell her 'Hello'?"

"Jo," Blair said softly.

"He freakin' looks OK to me," Jo told Blair. "Looks like he's been livin' the high life, just like your dear old mother. Don't know why you ever worry about these snakes. You gotta be more saintly than Mother Teresa! You don't ever gotta worry about your parents, Blair. They know how to take care of number one, that's for sure, and to hell with what happens to their daughter!"

David darted a look of pure venom at Jo.

"Let's not spark any tinder here," Snake told Jo in a low voice.

"Why not?" asked Jo. "It's the same old tune, ain't it? We try to help him, and he spits in our faces. Well, fool me a hundred times, shame on you, fool me a million times, shame on us. Or somethin' like that." Jo squeezed Blair's hand. "Come on. Let's get outta this dump before it gets raided or somethin'."

"Not just yet," Blair said. She drew herself up to her full height. She took a deep breath. "Daddy, I have something to say to you."

David continued to glare at Jo. He ignored Blair completely.

"It's my fault," David told Jo. "The way Blair is. I accept that. It's my burden. But you've exploited her weakness. You've fastened on to her like the parasitic opportunist you are."

SLAP!

David's head rocked back.

A handprint burned red on his pale face, where Blair had slapped him.

Blair turned to her fiancée.

"All right," said Blair. "I know he's in good health, now. We can go."

"You got it, babe." Jo turned to Snake. "You can release Jabba, here. We should prob'ly lock him in here with Warner so they can't call anyone to kick our ass while we're makin' our getaway."

"Way ahead of you," said Snake.

There was a heavy duty black phone sitting on a table near the door. Snake lifted it, gave it a jerk, pulling the phone cord clean out of the wall. "Nobody's callin' anybody for awhile."

"Good thinkin'" Jo approved.

Snake planted a boot on the old guy's huge butt, gave him a powerful kick. The old guy stumbled, wobbled, almost like a Weeble doll, collapsing in the rickety chair next to the window. The chair creaked like it was going to collapse.

Jo hefted the bat.

"What a freakin' pleasure it's been," she said. "But all good things gotta come to an end – thank God. So without further ado, we must freakin' bid you – "

Pauly saw it first. He'd been hanging back, quietly, as was his style, watching the hallway, and glancing back into the room every few seconds, guarding two fronts at once.

He still lived in the Bronx, every day. His senses where perfectly whetted, street-sharp.

He saw the shadow move under the bathroom door, and David's sudden motion, a glint of metal.

"Down!" Pauly shouted, launching himself into the room.

Snake dropped to his knees, raising his fists like a boxer.

Jo grabbed Blair's shoulders, pulling her down to the floor and rolling on top of her to shield her from danger.

Pauly dove for David, just as the gun went off.

There was a loud BANG!

Smoke.

A burning smell.

Pauly fell to the floor in a heap at the foot of David's chair.

"For Christ's sake," muttered David, clearly annoyed at having shot a stranger, instead of Jo.

The bathroom door banged open.

A tall young man, Japanese, wearing a silk bathrobe, hair pulled into a ponytail like David's, stood in the doorway. He wielded guns in both hands. He froze for a moment, as if posing for a photograph.

Snake was ready for him. Still crouching, he swept the kid's legs out from under him.

The young man fell, taken completely by surprise.

Snake was on him instantly, pinning his wrists to the floor, squeezing hard, so bone cracked, and the young man cried out, and the pistols fell from his damaged hands.

Snake knocked one pistol across the floor, into the bathroom. He grabbed the other and tucked it into the back of his waistband.

David, eyes narrowed, was sweeping his gun from Snake to Jo and back again, trying to cover both of them.

"Don't … don't hurt the boy," David muttered to Snake.

"Don't hurt the boy? You gotta be kiddin'!" said Jo.

David leveled the gleaming handgun at Jo.

There was something in his expression …

He and Jo locked eyes. All the loathing he felt for the young woman was clear in his dark eyes. It was like looking through a pane of glass into his dark soul.

No … This time he wouldn't break her nose. This time he would end it …

"No!" said Blair.

The debutante twisted, rolling to shield Jo, as Jo had just shielded her.

As Blair rolled, David pulled the trigger again.

Blair cried out.

She fell against Jo, who caught her.

Deep red blood stained the back of Blair's shirt.

Snake grabbed the heavy phone off the table, hurled it at David's hand. There was a crunch of fine bones breaking, and David dropped his gun.

"No, no, no," Jo was saying, her hand already slick with blood where she pressed it to Blair's back, trying to staunch the flow. "No, babe, no, no …"

David stood up, legs shaking, and cradled his broken hand.

He looked dazedly from Pauly's body to his wounded daughter cradled in Jo's arms.

"For Christ's sake," David muttered. "For Christ's sake."

Snake caught the young Japanese man in a headlock, squeezed just hard enough to render the young man unconscious.

Snake stood, stepped over his wounded friends, and caught David in a headlock. The ruined billionaire made gurgling sounds in his throat.

"Oughta tear your damn head off," Snake hissed. But he settled for a sleeper hold. David slumped to the floor, unconscious.

"Pauly and Blair are both hurt. Bad. Go for help," Jo told Snake, voice hard but shaking. "Go! Now!"

"I'm on it," he rumbled.

But there were already footsteps running down the hallway toward the room, pounding ever closer.

Natalie and Jesse appeared in the doorway, breathless, hair wild.

"We thought we heard shots," said Natalie. "Is everyone – oh my God!"

"Pauly!" shouted Jesse.

She shoved past Jo and Blair, dropped down next to her boyfriend.

"Pauly! You son of a bitch! You better not be dead, Pauly!"

She cradled him in her arms. Blood ran down her sleeves. "Jesus, this is a mess!"

Natalie folded Snake in a bear hug. "Are you OK?"

"I'm fine, doll. Gotta get help." He dropped the briefest of kisses on her hair, pushed past her and ran down the hall, boots pounding.

"Pauly, you better answer me. You hear? You better answer!" Jesse shouted. Tears ran down her face.

"Hang in there, babe," Jo whispered to Blair. She pressed her lips to Blair's closed eyelids. "Whadja wanna do that for? Huh? Doncha know you're worth five of me? Ten of me?"

Natalie crossed to the nearest window, wrenched open the curtains. She reached for the lamp, began flipping the light switch on and off, on and off, on and off …

"Hey! What gives?" Jesse demanded.

"I'm signaling Alec and Tootie," said Nat. "Like we said." She flicked the switch on and off, on and off, on and off. "OK, that should've grabbed their attention. Now," Nat knelt between Pauly and Blair, "who's hurt worse?"

Jesse dashed at her tears with one hand. "You gotta be kiddin'. Who's hurt worse? They're bleedin' out, whiz kid. They're freakin' dyin' – both of 'em."

Blair's eyelids fluttered open for a second, fell closed again. She mumbled something.

"What is it?" Jo asked, leaning close to Blair's mouth. "What is it babe?"

"Save … Pauly …" Blair whispered.

Jo tightened her grip around Blair, pressing harder on Blair's back, trying to staunch the blood. It was a nightmare. It was like being back at the Fever, when Blair was stabbed by psycho Dina Becker.

"Shh," Jo said soothingly. "We're gonna save both of you – 'K? It's all good, babe. It's all good."

Jesse slapped Pauly across the face. "C'mon, dammit, stay with me. Stay with me, or I swear to God," her voice broke, "I'm gonna kick your ass!"

Natalie took a deep breath.

She reached out, took Blair's wrist with one hand, Pauly's wrist with the other. She counted …

"Pauly's pulse is still strong," Natalie said. "Blair's isn't good. Jo – you've got to take, uh," Natalie looked around the small room, didn't see anything suitable, slipped out of her own jacket. Natalie bunched up her jacket and handed it to Jo. "Use this, Jo. Try to slow the bleeding."

Jo took the jacket, held it against Blair's back, pressed hard. Blair made a little whimper.

"Sorry," Jo told her. "Sorry, but we gotta stop the blood, babe."

"I … I know … Jo, is Pauly, is he …"

"Pauly's gonna be fine," Natalie told her friend. "Blair, try to take some deep breaths, OK? Some deep, calming breaths."

Jesse slapped Pauly again. "Don't you die on me, dammit! You're think you're gonna get outta the weddin'? Well forget it? You hear me? You just –" Jesse's throat closed. She couldn't speak for a moment.

"It's cool," Jo told her friend. "They're gettin' help."

"It ain't … cool," Jesse hissed at her. "You didn't have any right, Polniaczeck. He's my guy. He's my man. I swear to God, If he dies tryin' to help Farrah …" She let the threat hang.

Jo pressed harder on Natalie's jacket. It was soaking through with blood. Blair was pale, so damn pale.

"We ain't gonna lose Pauly," Jo said fervently. "Not Pauly, not Blair. They're gettin' help …"

But where the hell was the help? And what the hell had just happened? Why did David shoot Pauly? Who was the young man who burst out of the bathroom like Rambo? One of the Sensei's goons? David's bodyguard?

Footsteps thundered along the hallway, drawing closer.

"In here!" Natalie shouted. "Two gunshot wounds!"

"Sorry – just me," Snake said, his mountainous form appearing in the doorway. "But I called an ambulance from the lobby. Tootie and Alec saw your signal. I sent 'em to find a cop."

Natalie smiled up at her boyfriend. Tears stood in her eyes. "Thanks," she said quietly.

"Dude, you gotta hogtie David, or somethin'," Jo told Snake. "And the other guy. Case they come to. All we need's someone else gettin' shot!"

"You're right," Snake said.

He yanked the phone cord out of the heavy black phone, wound the cable around one arm. He knelt next to Blair's unconscious father, and used the phone cord to bind David's hands and feet. Then he played out the slack, and used that to bind the young thug.

"There." Snake squinted critically at his work. "That should hold the sons-of-bitches OK."

"It better," muttered Jo.

She leaned down to Blair, gently kissed the soft face. Blair's eyes were glassy.

"I think she's in shock," Natalie said. "I don't think she's feeling any pain."

"Sure," said Jo. "I guess we're all kinda in shock."

Jo felt tingling from head-to-toe. Like that tinglin' feelin', she thought, when your foot falls asleep. But she felt it all over her body. Especially her left side. It almost … It almost hurt. In fact … it did hurt.

Jo swooned.

"Jo!" Natalie said sharply.

Everything went black for Jo, for a second, and then she could see again. But everything was blurry now, and she was lying on the floor, next to Blair.

Ow. My side … It really does hurt like hell.

Jo's hand lifted feebly to the left side of her rib cage.

"Dammit!" Natalie swore.

Jo's hand touched something slick and sticky, seeping through her shirt, between her fingers.

"Nat, I, uh," Jo's ears were buzzing. "Nat, I think the … think the bullet went through Blair when she tried to shield me. I think the old bastard got me … after all."

"I know, I can see," Natalie said tersely. "Jesse," turning to the young brunette, who was holding Pauly tight in her arms, "give me your jacket."

"Screw you," muttered Jesse.

"Here," Snake told Natalie. He tore off his denim vest, tossed it to her.

Natalie caught the vest, crumpled into a ball, and pressed it against Jo's side.

"Jo, I don't think it's too bad," Natalie said.

"Never mind me," Jo muttered. "Help Blair."

"Can you hold this against your side?" Natalie asked Jo.

"I got it. You keep trying to stop Blair's bleeding."

"Of course."

Jesse held Pauly. Natalie tried to stop Blair's bleeding. Jo, groggy, barely conscious, pressed the crumpled vest to her side.

Snake crouched over the unconscious David Warner and the Tokyo thug, ready to crack skulls if either of them recovered and tried to start trouble.

A siren wailed in the distance, drawing closer and closer.

"About time," Natalie muttered. "How long does it take to get some medical attention around here?"

"Nat, doll," Snake said over his shoulder, "when the cops and the emergency guys get here, don't call me 'Snake'. And don't mention my last name. I'm Jack, if they ask. Jack Crown."

"Jack Crown?" Natalie demanded, tending desperately to Blair. "As in, 'Jack fell down and broke his crown'?"

"Yeah."

"Who cares what your friggin' name is?" Jesse demanded venomously. "They're dyin'! My Pauly, and Jo and even stupid Blondezilla."

"I just figured," Snake rumbled, "I might be more help out here than locked in jail."

"So … You are a Shamrock Lord," Natalie said quietly. "Just like Jo always suspected."

"I'm not," said Snake. "And I'm never gonna be. But the police know who Snake Robinson is. And we got more important stuff on our plates, than me gettin' sidetracked with a visit to the N.Y.P.D. right now."

Jo mumbled something.

"What is it, Jo?" asked Nat, leaning closer to her old friend.

Jo mumbled something else. It sounded, Natalie thought, like something about "Prince".

But before Natalie could decipher what her friend was trying to say, Blair began trembling and then convulsing.

"Dammit!" Natalie swore. "Where are the paramedics?"

Part 2

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