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 2

June, 1986. Manhattan. Manhattan Memorial Hospital.

Blair stirred in her sleep.

She was dreaming of blue waters, warm and clear.

She swam. Someone swam beside her. Someone lithe, and bronzed from a bright Italian sun.

"Jo," she murmured.

Blair reached out her arms, intending to pull the other swimmer to her.

"Jo. My Jo …"

There. Jo treading was water nearby. Blair swam toward her lover … but somehow, Blair couldn't quite reach her.

Jo's dark hair was wet with sea water. She smiled at Blair, such a loving smile, and her eyes sparkled.

"Jo … Jo, come to me," Blair murmured.

She swam toward her lover, faster, harder, but as she swam toward Jo, Jo receded from her …

Someone touched Blair's cheek. Not Jo. Blair could see Jo swimming further and further away from her, further and further out to sea.

"Blair," said a deep, rich voice, just in her ear. "Blair, dear, are you awake?"

Blair's eyelids fluttered open.

There was a man sitting at her bedside, touching her face, gazing at her with such kindness, and such concern in his sapphire-blue eyes. His dark curling hair was a little wild, as if he hadn't bothered to brush it for some time.

"Alec," Blair said weakly.

"Yes," said Alec. "God's teeth, you gave us a scare, Aphrodite!"

"Leave her alone, Alec."

Tootie's voice.

Tootie joined Alec at Blair's bedside, sat on the arm of his chair.

"Blair – are you really awake?" Tootie asked anxiously.

"I'm … Yes," said Blair.

She tried to nod, but her head hurt like hell. She winced.

"Best not to move too much," Alec advised. "No doubt you're still a tad groggy from the anesthetics."

"Anesthetics?" Blair asked weakly.

"You were in surgery for hours," said Tootie, taking one of Blair's hands.

"Then I …" Blair's mouth felt so dry. She swallowed. Cleared her throat. "Then it really happened. Daddy. That man. The gunshots."

"We only know what Natalie and Snake told us," Alec said apologetically. "But yes. That sounds like what they described."

Blair tried to sit up against the pillows, but her head hurt so much, and it felt heavy, full of sand.

"Steady on, Aphrodite," said Alec. "Here – allow me."

He slid a brotherly arm around her shoulders, gently helped her to sit up against the pillows.

"Thank you, Apollo," she said. "So," she looked around the stark white room with its grey and lime tiles. "In the hospital. Again."

"Manhattan Memorial should offer us a volume discount," Alec said lightly. "Invite you to join their loyalty program, any road."

Blair smiled at him. She squeezed Tootie's hand gratefully.

"So … Surgery. Were they able to remove the bullet?" Blair asked her friends.

"They didn't have to," said Tootie. "It went right through you. They doctors called it – what did they call it, Alec?"

"Damned if I know," he said.

"Oh, yeah. They called it an 'in-and-out' wound," Tootie said. "They just had to patch up you up where the bullet went in, and where it went out, and check for internal infections. Or something like that."

"Natalie will give you the play-by-play when she sees you," said Alec. "She knows all about it. Natalie asked the doctors question after question. She found the whole thing fascinating."

"Well," Blair said philosophically, "if my injury can help Natalie with her medical studies, something good came from it."

She glanced down at herself. Ugly green hospital gown? Check. Needle for an IV drip shoved into a vein? Check.

I don't even want to imagine what my hair must look like! Blair thought. She shuddered delicately.

Her stomach ached dully, and her lower back.

The entrance and exit wounds, she thought. And the wounds will hurt more – a lot more – when the drugs wear off. But I'm alive …

"Tootie," Blair said, "I can't seem to move without feeling like my head is going to explode. But I want to hug you. Can you hug me?"

Tootie hugged Blair warmly.

Alec followed suit.

"Aphrodite, dear, please promise me you're finished with your father," Alec said seriously. "I don't know what more he can do to show you he doesn't care about you, other than finishing the job and murdering you."

"What he said," Tootie agreed fervently. "From what Snake told us about what went down last night, your 'Daddy dearest' has gone completely off the deep end. As Jo or Boots would say, he's gone all 'Darth Vader dark side of the force'."

"Daddy wouldn't even look at me," Blair said bitterly. "And when he shot Pauly, and tried to shoot Jo, he –" Her eyes widened. "Pauly? My God – is Pauly all right?"

Alec and Tootie exchanged guarded glances.

"He's … They're still assessing Pauly," Alec said cautiously. "But there's every reason to be hopeful."

Tootie punched Alec's shoulder.

"Ow!" he complained.

"Never say 'There's every reason to be hopeful,'" complained Tootie. "That's, like, the kiss of death."

"He was badly hurt?" Blair asked, eyes welling with tears.

Pauly. Shy, gentle giant Pauly. Doing so well at Bronx Community College. Planning to become a teacher. Shot by David Warner, trying to protect her and Jo …

Alec put an arm on Blair's shoulder, and Tootie hugged Blair again.

"Pauly's been in and out of surgery," said Alec, "but there's no reason to start despairing. He's a strong young man, in excellent health. And – "

"Don't say 'There's every reason to be hopeful,'" said Tootie.

"And the doctors think he has a good chance," Alec finished a bit lamely.

Blair covered her eyes, let the tears fall.

Alec and Tootie let her cry for a moment.

"All right," said Blair. She sniffed, rubbed her eyes. "Enough of that. I presume," she asked Alec and Tootie, "I presume Daddy was arrested."

"He was," Alec agreed.

"But he's out on bail now," said Tootie.

"Already?" Blair was incredulous.

"See, since Alec and I weren't in the room when David went all Terminator, we had to play a lot of catch-up," said Tootie. "We're still pretty hazy on what happened in room 606. But we're pretty up to speed on what's happened since."

"Your father and his companion were unconscious when the police arrived," said Alec. "The police transported them to the hospital for a medical evaluation and first aid, and then arrested them. But when we called this afternoon to be sure they were still incarcerated –"

"Remember how the police didn't warn us when they released Dina?" asked Tootie.

"I certainly do," Blair said grimly.

"We didn't want any surprises," said Alec. "We thought it was prudent to verify that your father and his crony were behind bars. And, to no one's real surprise – "

"Someone sprang them from the hoosegow," said Tootie.

Blair nodded. "I remember … Daddy's under the protection of a gangster. Someone powerful called the Sensei. Snake knows all about him."

"Yeah, Snake kind of filled us in on that," said Tootie. "It's a whole thing right now. Snake's father is a big gangster, like Jo always suspected, but Snake says he's never really been part of that scene, but Nat doesn't know what to believe, so she's not talking to Snake."

"Because we don't have enough drama," Alec said drily, "with the gunshot wounds and underworld machinations. We need star-crossed lovers spats blended into the mix."

Tootie punched his shoulder again.

"Dammit, Tootie – "

"Don't swear at me, Lord Nethridge. And don't mock Nat and Snake's relationship problems."

"Snake was wonderful," Blair said quietly. "He got us up to Daddy's room. He helped protect us. He did the best he could do. I believe what he said, about not being part of his father's organization."

"Great," said Alec. "Then you can help broker peace between him and the fair Natalie when you're feeling better."

Blair sighed. "I suppose last night's incident is all over the newspapers. It wasn't enough the Warners and the other old families lost their fortune to B.Z. Becker. Now Daddy's in the paper as a gangster, and I'm in the paper again – shot instead of stabbed this time. Well, no one can say my bad press doesn't have variety."

Alec grinned. "It so happens," he said, "that my dear mother, the duchess, came through with flying colors, as you Yanks are wont to say."

"When have I ever said that?" asked Tootie.

"Hush," Alec told her severely. "Aphrodite, dear, my mother reached out to her friends in high places at the Times. And, as the Times goes, so goes New York journalism."

"There wasn't anything in the newspapers?" Blair asked incredulously.

Tootie held her index finger half an inch from her thumb.

"A little paragraph," Tootie said, "buried in the police logs."

"Gunshots at the St. Angelo," said Alec. "Hardly anything new."

"They didn't, they didn't mention my father's name? Or mine?"

"Not a syllable," Alec assured her. "However, if and when this disaster gets to trial, well … Journalism is a big-bellied beast, my dear. At some point it must be fed. Remember all of the hullabaloo once Mona's case went to trial?"

"I certainly do," said Blair. "But at least … Thank you, Apollo." She smiled at him. "You've given us a bit of privacy and breathing room while we recover."

"You know, my dear girl, that I live to serve."

"What am I?" Tootie demanded. "Chopped liver?"

"Tootie has been my invaluable sidekick," Alec said indulgently.

"Sidekick?" Tootie put her hands on her hips. "Sidekick?"

"Yes," said Alec. "My invaluable and highly irritable sidekick."

He ducked as Tootie launched a pillow at his head.

Blair felt a wave of dizziness wash over her. She closed her eyes.

"Blair!" cried Tootie.

"I'm fine," Blair said. "Just …"

"You're going to be tired for several days," Alec told her. "And woozy. They're still medicating you. And they said the pain is probably going to get worse."

"I think I need to sleep soon," Blair said, eyes still closed. "I just want to, to get things straight before I'm out again. My father was arrested, but he's out on bail, and so is his, that, that thug?"

"Correct," said Alec. "And before you ask, there are police officers stationed outside of the hospital rooms, and there's a police officer making periodic sweeps past River Rock."

"Mrs. Garret and Drake?" asked Blair.

"In Los Angeles. And we haven't called them yet."

"We didn't want to bother them until we had a better idea what's going on," said Tootie.

Blair nodded her approval.

"Natalie and Snake are fighting," said Blair, "but I'll help settle that once I'm well. Pauly isn't out of the woods, yet, but he's got a fighting chance."

"Well put, dear girl," said Alec.

"Has anyone told Jesse?" asked Blair.

"Blair – Jesse was there," said Tootie. "In room 606."

"She was?"

"I guess you were already unconscious when she arrived. Nat said she was weeping over Pauly, and telling him he couldn't die, and it was both incredibly violent and touching."

"So," Blair sighed, "Jesse probably wants to kill me for getting Pauly involved in my family drama."

"Well … " said Tootie.

"That's not an incorrect statement," Alec confirmed. "But remember – there's an officer stationed outside your hospital room. Whether it's an assassin dispatched by this Sensei fellow, or Jesse holding a blunt object, no one will be allowed access to your room."

"And police protection has always worked out so well for us in the past," Blair said wryly.

"Which is why," Alec said, "Tootie and I have been keeping watch by your bedside."

"So that leaves Jo," said Blair. "And you don't have to tell me where my hard-headed Neanderthal is. She's no doubt riding up and down the streets of Little Tokyo threatening to knock everyone's block off if they don't tell her how to find the Sensei and my father. Please tell me, at least, that Snake is riding shotgun with her."

Alec and Tootie were silent.

Blair opened her eyes.

Alec and Tootie were looking at each other, having a silent conversation.

Since they'd performed together in Italy, they'd developed a sixth sense for what the other was thinking. They could speak without words, sometimes, the way Blair and Jo did.

"Don't tell me you don't know where Jo is," Blair said.

"No. We know where she is," said Tootie.

"My God." Blair's hand flew to her chest. "Is she, is she in jail? Or was she – did they hurt my Jo?"

Alec put an arm around Blair's shoulders.

Tootie took her hand.

Oh, this is not good, thought Blair. This is very, very not good.

She set her chin.

"Tell me," she said resolutely. "Now."

"You were unconscious," Alec said gently. "You didn't realize what had happened."

"What happened?"

"See, the bullet went through you," Tootie explained.

"I know," Blair said impatiently. "You already told me that."

"You were protecting Jo," said Alec. "Snake said you twisted on top of our Artemis. So when the bullet went through you …"

Blair's heart stopped beating for a second.

"The bullet went into Jo," she whispered.

"Yes," Alec agreed. "The bullet went into Jo."

"Where?" Blair whispered.

"Her ribs," said Alec. "Left side."

"So the bullet …"

"It's in her heart," said Tootie, tears springing into her eyes. "In her heart, or near her heart. They aren't sure yet. Oh, Blair. We didn't want to tell you. We hoped you'd just assume Jo was out looking for, for justice, and you wouldn't ask too many questions!"

Tootie laid her head on the bed near Blair. Tears streamed down the young girl's face.

Blair looked at Alec. He was manfully biting his lip as he stroked Tootie's hair in a comforting fashion.

"This must be tearing you up, Apollo," Blair said quietly.

"Me?" He shrugged. "Just because Artemis is the best damn friend a ne'er-do-well chap ever had? Just because she and I owe each other our lives?"

"Jo is very strong," Blair said. "She has a heart like a lion."

"Of course she does. I, ah," he cleared his throat, "I'm supposed to be comforting you, Aphrodite."

"We'll comfort each other," she said.

"Very well."

"What did the doctors say?" asked Blair. "Just tell me straight. I want to know."

"They said," he cleared his throat again, "that not being a blood relative, I have no bloody business asking."

"They didn't!"

"They did. The only reason I know so much about your condition, my dear girl, is that I'm playing the phony fiancée card again. Unfortunately, if I'm your phony fiancée, I can't be Jo's phony fiancée as well. Unless I tell them I'm starting a Turkish harem."

"I told them I was Jo's half-sister," said Tootie, sniffling, "but they weren't buying it. I don't know why. I had the Bronx accent down pretty good, if I do say so myself."

"You nailed the Bronx accent," Alec told her, still stroking her hair. "Those doctors were imbeciles of the first water."

"Jo is being treated by imbeciles of the first water?" asked Blair.

"Where people are concerned," Alec said hastily. "Not where medicine is concerned. Blair, you know I don't like to splash my fortune about – too vulgar. But I've engaged the very best heart surgeons for our Jo."

Blair leaned forward and hugged him. The movement made her woozy … There was a buzzing in her ears … She almost fainted … But she had to hug him.

"You're wonderful," she told him. She kissed his cheek.

"Blast it, yes, I am," teased Alec. "At long last, one of the Musketeers acknowledges that, rather than abusing me."

"Don't give him a swelled head," sniffled Tootie.

"He can have as swollen a head as he wants today," said Blair. Her brow wrinkled. "So … You're paying their fees, but they won't tell you anything about Jo's condition?"

"Medical red tape, confidentiality clauses, all that rot," said Alec. "But they will tell Rose, if we can ever find her. No one seems to know where the hell Mama Polniaczek has gone to."

"She asked for a few days off from the Coffee Spot," said Tootie. "But her boss doesn't know where she went."

"She's at Meg's ceremony," said Blair. "I don't know what it's called. Meg's becoming a full-fledged nun. Since Meg is my sister, and Rose is trying to accept that Jo and I are together –"

"And since Rose is mad for Catholic ritual and ceremony of any stripe, ergo, she's attending Meg's whatcha-whosit," said Alec. "Brilliant! Where is the convent, Blair?"

"St. Elmo's Convent," said Blair. "It's north of Peekskill somewhere."

"I'll get a map," said Alec. He glanced at Tootie. "Well, my dear sidekick – Care to accompany me to Meg's whosa-whatsit?"

"I'd better," said Tootie, drying her tears. "I don't know what those nuns are gonna make of you, milord."

"They shall find me enchanting," he said.

"Hmm. I don't know. Your charm seems to get lost in translation with serious types like mother superiors. And my mother."

"It's true that Justice Ramsey is not a member of the Alec Anviston fan club," Alec admitted. "But I don't stay up nights letting it worry me, Tootie. And I predict that I will charm the pants, well, the habits off of the entire female population of St. Elmo's convent."

"Just get Rose," Blair said weakly. "Bring her back. Jo's going to need her."

"Of course," Alec assured her. "We're leaving this minute …"

When Alec and Tootie were gone, Blair turned her face into the pillow and wept hard.

Her shoulders shook. Her face contorted as she wept, until it ached.

Jo, with a bullet in her heart, in it, or, at least, near it. Jo lying somewhere in the hospital, perhaps dying.

It went through me. The bullet went through me, and into Jo. And I put Jo in that damn room. To be sure my father was all right. As if he isn't always all right! Always.

Eventually, Blair's sobs subsided.

She wiped her eyes and nose, and settled against the damp pillow.

I will never forgive my father, she thought. We are through now. We are through forever.

And if anything happens to Jo … I will never forgive myself …


"Tootie, dear," Alec said tersely, "would you be a dear and stop folding and unfolding that map like a demmed Chinese puzzle box?"

"I'm trying to find where we are," said Tootie. She opened one half of the map, smoothed it out, then folded it into several strips, and unfolded another side of it.

"It's very distracting," Alec complained. "And I know where we are. We're on Pine Lane. What we need to know is where in the bloody hell is St. Elmo's Convent?"

"Don't yell at me," said Tootie. "It's not my fault Jo's hurt. I'm trying to help."

"But could the help involve less rattling of paper?" Alec demanded. "Is that too bloody much to ask?"

"Stop swearing," said Tootie. "And stop yelling. How am I supposed to find the convent with you being such a crank?"

"A crank?"

"A crank!"

"Well better a crank than a Yank!"

"That doesn't even make sense."

"I'm insulting your country, my dear Tootie. I'm insulting the U.S. of A., which produces ill-bred young ladies who rattle maps and keep unfolding them and blocking the driver's bloody peripheral vision."

"Well excuuuuuuuuuse, me!" Tootie said in her best Steve Martin impression.

"I will not excuse you. Find St. Elmo's, once and for all, or put the damn map in the glove box."

"Make me."

"I will."

"So do it already."

"I'm driving," he said through gritted teeth. "Attempting it, any road."

"Oh yeah? Well, you can just – oh!" Tootie jabbed at a dot on the map. "I found it! St. Elmo's. It's off of, yeah, OK, we're on the right track. Follow Pine Lane for another mile, where it meets Mountain Road, and then turn left. It'll be another two miles after that."

"Bully."

Alec stepped on the gas.

"You're welcome," Tootie said, folding the map into a tiny rectangle, which she tucked into the glove box.

Alec grunted.

"You really are a crank," she said. "Being mean to me isn't going to make Blair heal any faster. It isn't going to help Pauly or Jo."

"This is one of those times," muttered Alec, "when I wish you had a 'Mute' button, dear girl."

"Ha!"

"I'd click it right now," he said. "'Click'. And then … blissful quiet."

"Oh, I can give you blissful quiet," said Tootie, folding her arms across her chest. "You can have blissful quiet all the rest of the drive. You can have blissful quiet until it starts to drive you nuts."

"Still waiting," said Alec, "for the blissful quiet."

Tootie hit him with her stylish little beret. "You are so mean!"

"Typical abuse," said Alec, "but still no blissful quiet."

"Why can't you just cry?" asked Tootie. "Or yell at the universe? Why do you have to be mean to me?"

"Because, my dear, as the mountaineering fellow said about Everest, you are here. You are in the line of fire. And you can like it or lump it."

Tootie hit him several times with her beret.

"Ow. Ow. Ow! Tootie, you're going to make me drive off the road."

"Good!"

"'Struth!"

"And stop saying those stupid British things!"

"Stupid? The language of Shakespeare?"

"Well." The thespian in Tootie relented. "Maybe not stupid."

"I should say not!"

Tootie buried her face in her hands.

"Alec – Jo could be dying. Right this minute."

"I know," he rasped. "Dammit. Don't talk about it, Tootie. I can't … I can't deal with that just now. We have to focus on Rose. We need to go get Rose. And we need to put on our little song-and-dance for her. Bright shiny faces, big smiles. We don't need Rose going 'round the bend."

"Meg will want to come back, too," said Tootie.

"She can't, I'm sure," said Alec. "She just pledged her life forever and ever to the Lord. Do you think they'll let her rush down to the city?"

"Her sister was shot," said Tootie.

"True," Alec conceded. "Maybe it's a liberal, understanding sort of medieval institution."

Tootie said something under her breath.

"Pardon? I didn't catch that, Miss Ramsey."

"Be glad," she said.

Tootie subsided into a sulky silence. Alec saw the sign for Mountain Road, turned onto it so abruptly, his little coupe almost tilted onto two wheels.

Tootie remained silent the rest of the journey, until the grey towers of St. Elmo's Convent appeared through the green of the early summer leaves.

"At last!" Alec said. "We're here, Tootie, dear."

"Hmph," she grunted.

Alec decided that, on the whole, he preferred her irritating conversation to her sulk.


When Blair woke the next morning, Natalie sat at her bedside.

"Now, whatever you do, don't overreact," Natalie said.

Blair frowned.

Whatever you do, don't overreact. No. That's not a good first sentence to hear when one awakes.

Blair took a deep breath. She was still groggy, but a keen pain pierced her haze. A pain of the soul.

"Jo's … Jo's dead," she said, a tear slipping down her face.

"No!" said Natalie. "No, no, no, no."

Blair exhaled. "Thank God!"

"There's someone here to see you," Natalie explained, "who might raise your blood pressure a few degrees."

"If it's my father," Blair said stoutly, "I refuse to see him."

"If it was your father," said Natalie, "Jesse would already be kicking him unconscious in the hall. No. It's, well – it's Boots."

"Boots?"

"Boots."

"But how does she know I'm here?"

"It seems your father has been contacting some of the families B.Z. Becker ruined. Your father is inviting them to join him in taking Becker down."

"That's unusually generous of him," said Blair. "Even before he became associated with Tokyo gangsters, he was a lone wolf when it came to business."

"I'm being diplomatic," said Natalie. "Invite is maybe a little … nice … for how your father is actually phrasing it. It's more like, 'join me in taking down Becker, or feel my wrath!'"

"That sounds like my father," said Blair. "But why would he talk to Boots? I thought she was still living in the Village with Mizu."

"She is. That's where your father's holed up now."

"In the Village?"

"You have to admit, no one's going to look for him there. The Village is hardly a hot-spot for gangster desperadoes."

"To put it mildly."

"He ran into her in the grocery store."

"Well isn't that quaint!"

"They were both getting milk at the dairy case. He recognized Boots. He told her he'd been trying to reach her father, but he couldn't find a current address, and if her father doesn't get on board with taking down Becker, your father's going to crush him."

"The St. Clairs have already been crushed," Blair said bitterly. "Like the rest of us. What more could my father do?"

Thinking of Jo, lying ill, perhaps dying … When she thought of losing Jo, money and family status seemed so empty, and so ridiculous …

"I haven't got the faintest idea what else your father could do," Natalie said. "Color me stumped. He was threatening Boots' family, but leave it to her to treat a menacing threat like a social occasion! Instead of running for the hills, she asked after you," Natalie continued, "and that's when your father told her you were in the hospital."

"Did he tell her why?" Blair demanded, nostrils flaring. "Did he tell her he shot me, and Pauly, and Jo?"

"I don't know any more details," said Natalie. "That's all I managed to get out of Boots. Well, all that was intelligible, anyway."

"I'm sorry, Nat." Blair reached out and took her friend's hand. "Here I am grilling you, and I haven't even said 'Hello'. And thank you. So, thank you. I know you helped keep all of us alive until the paramedics could get there."

Natalie blushed. "Aw – pshaw," she said, waving one plump hand.

"You're going to be an amazing doctor someday, Natalie Green."

Natalie's blush deepened.

"Double pshaw! Look, never mind what an amazing doctor I'm going to be. Let's focus on more immediate things. Like, what do you want me to tell Boots St. Clair?"

Blair sighed.

"She really wants to see me?"

"I know. Go figure! Considering the highly public blow-out you and Jo had when Boots crashed Tootie's graduation party, you'd think Boots would keep a million miles away from you. But no one ever accused Boots of being an Einstein. She says she won't rest until she's sure her 'Warnsie' is OK. She says she knows you hate her, but she has to see you."

"I don't … hate her," said Blair. "I'll just never forgive her for making a pass at my woman. Passes, I should say. Multiple passes at my fiancée. Including an unforgivable morning grope."

"So … You want me to get rid of her?"

"No. No – send her in."

Natalie lifted her eyebrows. "Really?"

"Somewhere in Boots' dear little soft-scrambled brain," said Blair, "is information about my father and whatever his plans may be."

"So – you're going to pump Boots for information?"

"That's exactly what I'm going to do."

"Pretty clever, 'Warnsie'."

"As Jo always tells me," Blair said softly, "I have my moments …"

Boots looked as odd as she had at Tootie's graduation party. The spindly former preppie wore black jeans and a black T shirt emblazoned with a skull. The skull had a bullet hole in its head, trickling blood.

Boots' slender face was hollow-cheeked, and pale. Her eyes were caked with smoky liner and mascara. Where Boots would have once worn simple pearl stud earrings, safety pins dangled.

She smelled of a heavy, exotic scent that almost knocked Blair back against her pillows.

"Boots, dear," Blair greeted her, managing to smile. "How sweet of you to inquire after me when you met my father."

"But of course, ma chere amie!" said Boots, leaning down to air-kiss Blair, first the right cheek, then the left. Boots settled gingerly on the edge of Blair's bed, as if ready to leap up should Blair suddenly attack her. "Gravy! You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw your father at the grocer's! I simply had to inquire after your health. You were so, ah, distraught when we last met. And I felt badly about it."

Blair gritted her teeth.

Keep your temper, she told herself. Focus on father – not Boots and Jo.

"Image my shock," Boots swept on, "when your father told me you were in the hospital. Again! My poor Warnsie! If it's not one thing it's another with you. Stabbed, shot … People really seem to want you dead."

"Seems like it," Blair said tightly, through her glued-on smile.

"That's how it is sometimes," said Boots, shaking her head. "Some of the sweetest people just make other people see red! You just want to strangle them!"

"I know what you mean," said Blair.

"I wonder," Boots tapped her bottom lip thoughtfully, "I wonder, Warnsie, if you aren't paying off some karmic debt? Is it possible that you were someone awful in one of your past lives? Like, like, that Borgia woman! Or Eva Braun!"

"Anything's possible," Blair said tightly. Her face was beginning to ache from forcing a smile. "Boots, dear – did my father look well?"

"Don't you know?"

"I haven't seen much of him." That was true enough! "He's been very occupied with, with business since he returned to the states."

"You're telling me!" Boots said fervently. "He's going to give that terrible B.Z. Becker his comeuppance. Finally. Talk about your karmic burdens! Becker must have been Nero in his past life. Or even Caligula. He deserves everything your father is going to do to him. Still, your father's taking it all a tad overly seriously, if you ask me. Your father said very unpleasant things about my father."

"I'm sure my father was just … overwrought," said Blair.

"Overwrought? Gravy! Your father was downright menacing, Warnsie. He was saying that he hadn't been able to find my father, and that my father had better contact him soon. And if my father isn't with him, my father is against him. A real 'or else' proposition! And he said my father would be very sorry if he didn't join him. He said, 'Your father thinks he's sorry now, but he doesn't know how sorry he can be.' Now – I ask you; is that any way for a man to talk to one of his daughter's best chums? Well," Boots ducked her head, "former best chums."

"My father's years out of the country seem to have … changed him," Blair said carefully. "He's become rather bitter."

"Bitter and menacing."

"Yes," Blair agreed. "Father has definitely become menacing."

Her stomach and back were aching this morning, much more than they had the day before. Aching and itching where the bullet from her father's gun had pierced her.

It had entered more or less where she had been scarred by Dina Becker's knife wound. So her only consolation was that while she now had a scar on her back, she had no new scar on her belly. It would all fold into the same ugly mark …

"You should have a little chat with him," Boots suggested. "Tell him he'll snare more flies with honey."

"Sure," said Blair. "I'll be sure to tell him that when I see him again. Listen, Boots …" she tried to sound casual, "what with being, you know, shot, I seem to have misplaced my father's address. Where did he tell you to have your father call on him?"

"It doesn't matter," Boots said sadly, "because I don't know where my father is just now. He and mummy move from relative to relative, and they aren't very communicative, and when they do communicate, they can be a little vague. They're sweet, my parents, but a tad simple."

"Are they?" asked Blair, just holding her temper.

"Yes – terribly. You know. You've met them."

"Boots," said Blair, "I'm sorry you can't find your parents. But I would like to find my father again. And you know how to contact him, I believe?"

"Oh! Of course. Yes, I do."

Blair waited. And then, "Boots?"

"Yes?"

"The address?"

"Well, you see, that's just it. Your father didn't exactly give me an address."

Blair restrained herself from lifting the spindly former debutante over her head, and throwing her out of the room.

"What, ah, what, exactly, did my father give you?"

"He gave me a telephone number," said Boots. "Your father told me to tell my father to call the number, day or night, and he'd be given – that's my father – instructions about how to meet your father." Boots blinked. "Is that clear?"

"Um … Yes," said Blair, head spinning. Keep focused, she told herself. Don't get tangled in the washing-machine vortex of Boots St. Clair's mind! "And what is the number?" Blair asked through a toothy smile.

"That's an excellent question," said Boots. "I wrote it down on the grocery slip. And the slip is back at Mizu's and my apartment. But it was something with a lot of fives. Or eights."

Blair closed her eyes. Yes; if only she could lift Boots over her head, and toss her, like a javelin, out of the room …

"I suppose that doesn't help you much," Boots said. "The telephone number being back in my apartment."

"Not much," Blair agreed.

Boots snapped her fingers. "I know! I'll call Mizu. She can read us the number."

Blair hesitated. Mizu was sharp as a tack and mean as a snake, and she had no love for Blair or Jo or any of their circle other than daffy little Boots.

"Will, would Mizu be home?" Blair wondered aloud.

"Yes," Boots said – rather forlornly, Blair thought. "She was supposed to get that billboard, but it went to another model. Her engagements, even her go-sees and call-backs have sort of … dried up, lately. She's usually at home, listening to Black Flag and beating herself at chess."

Blair nodded at the phone by her bedside. "Very well," said Blair. "Call her."

Boots lifted the receiver, dialed a local telephone number.

She waited. And waited.

"Well," Boots said finally, "I suppose she must have gone out. Maybe," she brightened, "she had a go-see! Maybe – oh. Mizu, dear. Hello."

Thank God, thought Blair. I want father's number …

"Mizu, dear, you know how I told you I ran into David Warner? And he gave me his number, and I wrote it on the receipt? Well, I need you to find the receipt, dear, and read the number to me." Pause. Boots' brows knit. "Mizu, you know I don't care for that sort of language. Remember yourself, dear. Yes. Yes, I understand. But … Yes. I'm sitting here at Warnsie's bedside, Mizu. No. No!" Boots sounded shocked. "Not like that. She's in the hospital. I told you. Yes. I did. I told you. You weren't listening, I suppose. Warnsie needs the number, Mizu. To call her father. What? Gravy! How should I know? Just find it."

Boots covered the receiver with one spindly hand.

"Mizu's going to find the grocery slip," Boots reported to Blair, then lifted the receiver to her ear again.

There was a long pause.

Boots toyed with the telephone cord.

Blair plucked at a loose thread on the sheet.

These are not Egyptian cotton, she thought.

"Yes?" Boots said suddenly. "Wonderful! Top drawer." She turned to Blair. "Ready?"

"I'm ready," said Blair.

"Go ahead," Boots said into the phone. "Five. Five. Five. Eight. One. Two. Eight. Can you repeat that? Thank you. Five-five-five, eight-one-two-eight." She glanced at Blair. "Do you have that, Warnsie?"

"I have it," Blair assured her. "Please tell Mizu 'Thank you'."

"Warnsie says 'Thank you'. Mizu. Now, really. Is that any way to – Well it isn't right. Warner's one of my oldest chums, and – all right. All right." She lowered her voice. "We'll discuss it at home, dear."

"Boots," said Blair, struck by a sudden thought, "ask Mizu if she's ever heard of someone called 'the Sensei'."

"The sunshine?"

"The Sensei. Sen-sigh."

If the Sensei is a powerful gangster from Tokyo, thought Blair, Mizu might have heard of him when he lived in Japan ...

"Mizu, dear? Blair wants to know if you've ever heard of some Sen-sigh person. Mizu? Hello? Hello? Oh. Good. I thought we lost the connection." Boots turned to Blair. "Mizu wants to know why you want to know."

"Tell her my father is working with the Sensei. Working with him, or for him. It has to do with bringing down B.Z. Becker. I think."

"Mizu, dear, David Warner is working for this Sensei person. It has to do with B.Z. Becker. I see. Oh. I see."

"What do you see?" Blair asked impatiently.

Boots gave her a reproachful look.

"Blair, please let me finish listening to Mizu. You know it's hard enough for me to follow one conversation, never mind two."

Blair bit her tongue.

"Yes, Mizu, I'm listening," said Boots. "Yes. I see. I see. Very well. I'll – yes. Yes, I'll tell her. Are you dressed yet, dear? Good." Boots lowered her voice. "Don't let it get you down so much, dear. Everything will be fine. It will. Yes. I love you too."

She hung up the receiver.

She sighed.

"Well?" asked Blair.

"I'm worried about her," said Boots. "She gets so down in the mouth. She's very hard on herself."

Blair clenched her hands.

"Boots … Please focus. What did Mizu say about the Sensei?"

"The Sensei? Oh. Right. He's a powerful underworld warlord in Tokyo. Mizu said your father should watch his back, if he's mixed up with the Sensei."

"Why should my father watch his back?"

Boots looked at Blair as if Blair were a little slow. "Um, because the Sensei is a powerful underworld warlord."

"My father is a powerful, menacing businessman with nothing to lose. Maybe my father is scarier than the Sensei."

Boots made a tisking sound. "Warnsie, Warnsie, Warnsie. Does your father have people beheaded if they cross him? Because according to Mizu, that's the Sensei's specialty."

No wonder father's gone so cold, thought Blair. What lovely company he's been keeping.

"Let's suppose your father was Darth Vader," Boots continued. "That's pretty bad. But apparently the Sensei would be the Emperor. It's a whole other level of bad mojo."

"But Vader defeated the Emperor," said Blair. "I hate that I know that, but I do." Jo had made her sit through a "Star Wars" trilogy marathon at the Mystic.

Boots quirked her lips. Clearly she didn't like being one-upped by Blair when it came to "Star Wars". But she had to admit Blair was right.

"Touché, Warnsie. Touché. Vader did kill the Emperor."

"All I'm saying," said Blair, "is that it might be the Sensei who needs to watch his back."

"Or her back," said Boots. "Mizu said the Sensei's identify is a big mystery."

"It could be a woman?"

"Sure. And whoever he – or she – is, they're absolutely ruthless. Out for world domination. Practically a Bond villain!"

"So," Blair said thoughtfully, "if the Sensei's hell bent on world domination, knocking out a big player like B.Z. Becker might be at the top of the to-do list."

Boots shrugged. "I suppose. I don't have much of a head for business. Or crime. Or politics."

Or much at all, Blair thought unkindly.

Her stomach and her back twinged, suddenly, sharp, stabbing pains.

Blair winced, put a hand to her belly.

"Warnsie!" cried Boots.

"I'm … I'm all right," Blair lied.

"It's all this unpleasant talk," said Boots. "Gravy! Warlords and beheadings and B.Z. Becker. No wonder it's upsetting you."

"I'm not upset," Blair grated, pressing on her stomach. Pressure seemed to reduce the pain, albeit very slightly.

"Of course you are! Well, I know when to leave." She air kissed Blair. "Adieu, Warnsie. I'll see you tonight."

"Tonight?"

"Yes. Mizu's going to visit you this afternoon. She wants to talk to you about the Sensei."

"Mizu wants to talk to me?"

Wow, thought Blair. That can't be good.

Boots blew Warner another kiss. "Feel better, Blair. And don't worry about me taking advantage of, of Jo. I'm sure she's out of her mind with worry for you, but I'm not going to rush to her side to comfort her. I know you couldn't handle that. And I'm trying to mend my ways, Blair. To be worthy of both your friendships. I truly am."

Blair sighed. "Boots … Boots, I believe you," she said.

Do I tell her Jo's here as a patient? Lying in this hospital, fighting for her life? No. That will worry Boots, and create more complications than any of us needs to deal with just now …

"Adieu, Boots."

"Adieu. Ciao. Sayonara, Warnsie." Boots blew her another kiss.

After Boots departed, a nurse bustled into the room.

Her starched uniform rustled.

She looked efficient from the tips of her clean fingernails to the soles of her orthopedic shoes.

She held a long needle in one hand. It glinted in the morning sunlight.

"Time for your injection," the nurse said.

"My what?"

"Your injection, Miss Warner. For the pain."

Blair gazed at the long needle.

She pressed harder on her stomach, which was hurting very badly now.

"I … I'm not feeling any pain," Blair lied.

The nurse shook her head.

"If I had a nickel every time I heard that. Hell – if I had a penny!"

Blair watched in horror as the needled descended …


She dreamed again of swimming in the blue Italian sea.

It was that summer … that long, hot summer when she and Jo spent so much time getting to know each other. The summer she taught Jo to swim.

It was hot and bright in the sea. Sunlight quivered on the water.

Blair swam toward Jo, but Jo laughed, and kicked her legs and darted away.

Blair was a fine swimmer. She had won medals as a girl. She swam faster, carving an arrow-straight line through the mild waves.

But Jo was faster, somehow. Blair could never quite reach Jo …

And then Jo was gone.

Blair paused, treading water.

She looked out to sea, the infinite blue horizon.

She looked toward the shore, the cliffs and their colorful little houses, pink and blue and yellow, tumbling down toward the water.

Jo was nowhere to be seen.

"Jo!" called Blair. "Jo!"

No response. No sign of her lover.

Blair was alone in the blue cove.

The air grew hotter, and hotter, and sun shone brighter on the sea.

Blair squinted against the light, it was dazzling.

Everything was white, and brilliant.

Blair could feel that she was treading water, but she couldn't see anything.

Moving toward her, through the incandescence … a female form … not Jo.

A woman. Tall. Voluptuous. Nude … No. Not nude. Wearing a suit of mail so finely wrought, the links so minute and delicate, that the woman might as well have been nude.

Hair the color of honey, long and curling in almost Medusa-like ringlets and tendrils.

She drew close enough so that Blair could see her face. It was perfect. Large dark eyes, strong dark brows, a full mouth, a proud nose. Her skin was impeccable. Not a blemish. Not of this world.

"Are you …" Blair asked, dazzled. "Are you … an angel?"

The woman laughed, rich and musical.

The beauty of her laughter made the damp hairs on the back of Blair's neck stand up. Blair went goosefleshy.

"I am not an angel," said the woman.

"What are you, then?"

"I am a goddess," the woman intoned, with a modest inclination of her perfect head.

"A Greek goddess?" asked Blair.

"I am your goddess," she said. "I am everything beautiful within you. I am your spark of the divine."

"OK," said Blair, trying to absorb that. "Can you help me find Jo?"

"Jo isn't lost," said the goddess.

"But I can't see her anymore."

"Jo isn't lost," the goddess repeated. "You are lost."

"No I am not," objected Blair.

"Aren't you?"

"Of course not."

"Then where are you?"

Blair looked from left to right. She looked up and down.

Everything was blazing white light, without landmark or form.

"I … I don't know," Blair confessed. "Where am I?"

"Deep within yourself."

"Why isn't Jo here? Where did she go?"

The goddess stretched forth one perfect hand, and touched Blair's face.

"No matter how much we love others, Blair, deep within ourselves, at our core, we are always alone. It is the mortal condition."

"But," Blair gazed about, "everything is … blank."

"Because you have not yet constructed your life. You have not yet found your path."

"My path is to love Jo," Blair said firmly. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, goddess lady!

"Yes," the goddess agreed, "that is one of your paths. The path of your heart. But you haven't found, yet, what you will make of your life, what your unique and beautiful purpose is."

"I'm going to support Jo," said Blair. "In every way that I can. She's an amazing person, she can do so much good in the world. Anything she needs …"

The goddess gently shook her perfect head.

"You cannot live through another," she said. "Of course, we know you will do all that you can to help the people you love. It is in your nature to love. But there is a purpose out there that is your purpose. Your purpose alone. And you will find it, in time. And you will fight to fulfill it – at all costs."

Blair's breath caught in her throat.

"Is … Are you trying to tell me that Jo won't make it?" she asked, eyes welling with tears. "Are you preparing me for a life without Jo?"

"Shh."

The goddess placed her hands on Blair's shoulders.

"Pay attention to your instincts," she told Blair. "For you, instinct is more important than logic."

She pressed her soft mouth to Blair's forehead.

She released Blair's shoulders, and floated away, into the blinding light.

"Wait!" called Blair. "Where are you going?"

The goddess' voice rolled like music from the light.

"I am always within you, Blair …"


"So … She was like a really beautiful Glinda the Good Witch," said Tootie. She sat in a chair at Blair's bedside.

"Sort of," said Blair, propped up against fresh pillows. "She was younger than Glinda. And even though she was beautiful, with that chain mail she looked tougher than Glinda. Jo would say she looked like she could 'kick Glinda's ass'."

"It sounds to me like that nurse over-dosed you," Natalie said skeptically. She sat at the end of Blair's bed. "Where's your chart? I want to see what they gave you – and how much."

"Nat – you're not a doctor yet," said Tootie. "You're not even a med student yet."

"Who says I am? But I do understand basic medications and dosage."

"The heck you do, soul sister."

"I do. Kind of. A little bit."

"Ha!"

Blair put a hand to her head.

"Please, Snoop Sisters, could you keep it down to a dull roar? I don't know if they overdosed me, but something gave me a hell of a headache."

"It was your inner wisdom," said Tootie. "We all have it. That inner voice. But your medication just gave it a, sort of a – "

"Personality," suggested Natalie.

"Exactly," Tootie said.

"Whatever it was, it was fascinating," said Blair. "But it was just a dream, or hallucination. We have to deal with reality now. Cold, hard reality."

"And it's pretty cold. And hard," Natalie said grimly. "Guess who they fished out of the East River last night?"

She tossed a copy of the New York City Gazette to Blair.

Blair lifted it hesitantly. Do I want to know? she wondered. But, yes. She had to know.

"Hotel Manager Found Drowned" screamed the headline. There was a grainy photo of a body under a dark tarp, an East River dock in the background.

Blair read aloud.

"Angelito Morkosky, long-time manager of Manhattan's infamous St. Angelo Hotel, was found drowned in the East River late yesterday evening. Police report that they have no leads at this time, although a minor shooting recently occurred at the St. Angelo." She lowered the paper. "Minor shooting?"

"Hey – we all wanted it kept out of the papers," Natalie said reasonably. "When Alec's mother has a story killed, she has it incinerated."

"Cremated," said Tootie.

"Got to hand it to the woman," Natalie said.

Blair felt ill. The hotel manager had been repellent, obnoxious, and, according to Jo, was responsible for encouraging the most disgusting and dangerous illegal activities on the premises he managed, for a slim cut of the profits, and protection from his bosses. Even so …

If Jo and I hadn't gone there to find my father, this man wouldn't have been killed. Not on our account, anyway …

"The guy was a slimeball," Natalie told Blair, correctly reading her friend's stricken expression. "I saw him. After you were unconscious. He was vicious. He was a vicious, blubbering mess. If he could have stuck a knife in any of us, he would have done it without batting an eyelash."

"I've still got blood on my hands," Blair said quietly.

"Let it go, Blair," Tootie advised. "We've got too many plates spinning as it is."

"Speaking of which," said Natalie, glancing at her watch, "Meg will be here soon. Rose went right to Jo's bedside, of course. And Meg went with her. Rose thought it would help, a nun praying over Jo."

"You never know," said Blair. "I'm in favor of anything that could help her."

"Meg promised to stop in and visit you after she said a few prayers with Rose. In fact – "

They all lifted their heads, hearing footsteps in the hallway. Loud, crisp footsteps. Like a nun's sensible shoes.

"That's probably Meg now," said Natalie.

"We'll give you and your sister some space," said Tootie, standing.

"Sure," said Nat. She stood too. She waved a little slip of white paper with numerals written on it. "We'll telex this phone number to Eduardo at the ranch, have him look into it."

"Let's be sure it's Meg who's here, before you clear out," suggested Blair.

"Are you expecting someone else?"

"Well – "

The visitor was stopped by the police officer posted outside the door to Blair's room. There were low voices, some slightly acrimonious exchange. They couldn't hear the words, but they heard the tone.

And then Mizu sauntered into the room.

She was as drop-dead beautiful as ever, with her usual "fuck off, world" scowl.

She wore black combat boots, black leggings, a long black sweater that fell to her knees. Her hair was an ink-black waterfall.

Mizu was thin, much too thin, under the black sweater.

She needs a good meal, thought Blair. She and Boots, both. I hate to feel badly for them, but …

"So – what's this shit about the Sensei?" Mizu sneered in her perfect, upper-crust British accent.

"Nice to see you too," Natalie told her coolly.

"Yeah," said Tootie. Not one of my best retorts, she thought. But she gave Mizu a killer glare to make up for the lame comment.

Mizu snorted.

"Christ," she told Blair. "With the Bobbsey Twins on the case, why do you need my information?"

"Mizu – sit down," said Blair. Her voice cracked like a whip.

Mizu's eyebrows rose. She laughed – but with her usual jaguar-like grace she dropped into the chair Tootie had just vacated.

"Aren't we butch?" mocked Mizu. "That little Pollock is rubbing off on you."

"You have no idea how much," Blair said, eyes narrowing.

"It's a rather refreshing change," said Mizu, "from your usual mealy-mouthed debutante pose."

Blair's eyes flickered to Tootie and Natalie. "Please let me know what you find out about that number," she told them.

Natalie and Tootie nodded.

With dark glances at Mizu, they left the room.

"Is that the number Boots gave you?" asked Mizu.

Blair nodded.

Mizu whistled. "D'you have those two little geese tangling with the Sensei? Or with your father? Because you'll probably never see them again."

"They're handing the number over to someone whom I trust," said Blair. "My attorney." She pictured Eduardo's kind, wise face, with its network of wrinkles, his shock of white hair. Eduardo, who had always been more of a father than David Warner ever was.

"I hope it's someone with a lot of firepower," said Mizu. "You've seen 'Scarface'?"

Blair nodded. Yes. She'd seen it with Jo, that terrible Christmas when their families were freezing them out, when her father kept breaking Jo's nose.

"The Sensei is like Scarface multiplied by ten. Pitiless. Ravenous. And a ghost, to boot. No one knows who he is – or who she is. Or who they are. There is speculation that the Sensei is more than a single person. A criminal oligarchy, if you will."

"You seem to know a lot about it," said Blair.

Mizu shrugged. "The Sensei's been terrifying Japan for a decade. Mothers tell their children to be good, or the Sensei will get them. He's taken over banks, shipping, mining, energy – legitimate businesses as well as criminal."

"Your father had dealings with him?"

"My father and I gave each other a wide berth," said Mizu. "Our mutual disdain, you see. But several times over the years, when I was home on holiday, I heard my father's lieutenants mention the Sensei."

"So your father has some connection to him."

Mizu leaned forward. "Miss Warner, my father could be the Sensei."

Blair turned that over.

"Your father was an expat in Tokyo," Mizu continued. "My father is one of the wealthiest and most ruthless businessmen in Japan. Hell," she snorted, "on the Asian continent. It's not inconceivable that your father, one of the most ruthless business bastards in America, should reach out to my father for assistance."

"A reasonable speculation," said Blair. "So – if your father is the Sensei, or has dealings with the Sensei, how does that help me? You asked to see me – remember?"

Mizu cracked her knuckles.

"I want money," she said.

"I wish I had some," Blair said evenly.

"Your man – your trusted attorney, Eduardo. He can put his hands on some money. I only want a pittance. Just enough for Boots and I to survive until I sign a fat contract."

"What do you consider a pittance?"

Mizu named a figure.

Blair nodded.

"Eduardo could lay his hands on that," she agreed. "I don't like to think of you and Boots withering away in the Village."

Mizu flushed. "This isn't charity," she sneered. "I'm selling you information."

"Call it a helping hand," said Blair. "So far I haven't heard any information worth buying."

"I'm coming to it," said Mizu. "Every time I heard one of my father's lieutenants mention the Sensei, my father went off to a yacht party. Always the same yacht."

"The Sensei's yacht?"

"I don't know if it's the Sensei's yacht, or just a place the Sensei meets people. But it seemed more than coincidence."

"What's the name of the yacht?"

"The Golightly. You know 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'?"

"Yes." Blair nodded. "All right. That's something. I'll see Eduardo wires you the money. Although I'm not," she gestured to her green hospital gown, the IV jabbed into her arm, "in the best condition to fly off to Tokyo in search of a yacht."

"The yacht is here," said Mizu. "New York Harbor. I saw it last week, when I was auditioning for a photo shoot at the Yacht Club."

"The yacht is here in New York?" Blair asked excitedly.

"Yes."

"So that means the Sensei is probably in New York too."

"And, possibly, my father." Mizu scrounged in the pocket of her leggings, withdrew a half-smoked Silk Cut and a lighter.

"There's no smoking in the hospital," said Blair.

"Fuck the hospital." Mizu sparked the lighter, lit the half-smoked butt.

"What do you get out of this?" Blair asked curiously. "I mean, besides a little money?"

"I'll never understand," Mizu blew a narrow stream of smoke, "why you Mouseketeers always need to analyze everyone's psychological motivations. I hate my father – all right? Always have. He's always been a bastard. And when he disowned me, after Oxford, instead of using his power to put it right … Fuck him. I don't think you can take down the Sensei – assuming that's even what you're trying to do. But you and your little Girl Guide troupe have pulled some rabbits out of some hats in the past. If you can do anything that takes my father down, even down one single peg – good on you. And on that note," she stood up, "I take my leave."

Mizu paused in the doorway. "Say 'Hello' to your Jo," she called to Blair, like an afterthought.

"To Jo?" Blair asked, incredulous. Mizu was jealous as hell of Boots' crush on Jo. The last time Blair had seen Jo and Mizu together, they all but tore each other's heads off.

"She's less an asshole than any of the rest of you," said Mizu.

Her combat booted footsteps retreated down the hall …

Blair dialed Natalie's parents' apartment. Nat and Tootie were staying there while Jo and Blair were in the hospital.

"Hello? Mrs. Green? How are you? Yes. Yes. I'm mending, Mrs. Green. Thank you for asking. No, we …" Blair kept a strong grip on herself. "We don't know yet about Jo. Listen, Mrs. Green, I believe Natalie and Tootie will be arriving soon. Could you please give them a message? Thank you. Yes. I appreciate it. Please ask them to telex a name to Eduardo, when they telex the number. Yes. A name with the number. When they telex Eduardo. E-D-U-A-R-D-O. Yes, that's correct. The gentleman who arranged Mona's defense. The name they should telex is 'Golightly'. Like Holly Golightly. Yes, that is a wonderful film. Tell Natalie and Tootie to tell Eduardo the Golightly is a yacht. And it's in New York. Yes. Thank you. Thank you. Goodbye."

Blair hung up the receiver.

She settled back against the pillows, took several deep breaths.

It was ridiculous how much the act of telephoning had tired her.

She put a hand to her forehead. It felt feverish. And her stomach and back were beginning to ache again.

That nurse might have overdosed me … But it's already wearing off …

Someone tapped gently at the door.

"Blair?" asked a soft voice.

Blair opened her eyes.

"Meg!"

Blair threw her arms wide. Meg leaned over the bed and hugged her sister gingerly.

"Let me look at you, Meg," said Blair.

"What do you think of my convent couture?" laughed Meg, turning around in a circle. "Tres chic – non?"

"Well, non," Blair teased, taking in the dark skirt and blazer, the black-and-white head cover. "But it's chicer than some I've seen."

"We're reasonably progressive at St. Elmo's," Meg said proudly. She lifted her hand, let the hospital room's fluorescent lights glimmer on her wedding ring. "I am a true bride of Christ now."

Blair took her sister's hand, admired the ring.

"Meg – I'm so happy for you," she said. "Those terrible things I said in the past – "

"Water under the bridge," Meg said firmly. "Never to be mentioned again."

"I'm pleased they let you visit me so soon after your ceremony," said Blair.

Meg settled herself in the chair next to Blair's bed.

"I'm on a 24-hour pass," she said. "Like the military. Alec's driving me back early tomorrow. Now," she took Blair's hands, squeezed them tightly, "enough about me. How are you feeling, Blair? You look feverish."

"Me? I'll be fine." Blair waved a dismissive hand. "Meg – Tootie and Nat said you saw Jo. How is she?"

Meg averted her eyes.

"Blair …"

"Tell me the truth," Blair said, lifting her chin. "I can take it. I need to know."

"Rose is still with her," said Meg.

"That's not an answer."

"I'm not a doctor," Meg said.

"That's not an answer either."

Meg smiled.

When she and Blair were young, Meg's smile was frequently wicked, as she led her step-sister on rebellious little adventures.

Now Meg's smile was soft, and kind. It seemed to have an inner light to it.

Blair rubbed her eyes. I'm still half-drugged, she thought …

"The doctors don't know about Jo yet," Meg said gently. "But everything possible is being done. She's still unconscious, and they're monitoring her heart."

"They haven't operated yet?"

"They want to be very sure, when they do. The bullet is … apparently it's in a very delicate place."

Blair couldn't breathe for a moment. A very delicate place, in her heart …

Meg smoothed a strand of hair off of Blair's forehead.

"My dear sister. It's a waiting game now. The worst kind of game there is. You have to be strong. For yourself, and for Jo."

Blair nodded.

"How is Rose taking it?" Blair asked huskily.

Meg spread her hands.

"She's beside herself. But she's holding up very well. We prayed together, at Jo's bedside."

"That must have brought Rose a lot of comfort."

"I think so. I hope so."

"At a time like this," Blair toyed with the loose threads on the sheet, "I wish I weren't so cynical about God."

"You can't force faith," Meg said philosophically. "You can't force it, and you can't fake it."

"I don't want to do either," said Blair. "I just wish I had some. Meg?"

"Yes?"

"When do you think I could see Jo?"

Meg frowned.

"If it were up to me," she said, "this minute. But you know how hospitals are. You aren't Jo's mother, or aunt, or sister. You aren't immediate family. You aren't family at all."

"I'm only her fiancée," Blair said bitterly.

"Someday the world may be ready to understand that relationship," said Meg. "But today is not that day."

"If I were a nun," said Blair, "they'd let me see her."

"Yes," Meg said thoughtfully. "Yes … They would – wouldn't they?"

Blair's eyes narrowed. "Meg? What are you thinking? You have that look that you always had right before you got us in trouble when we were kids."

"What are they pumping into you?" asked Meg, examining the bag of fluid feeding Blair's IV.

"Drugs," said Blair. "And antibiotics. They bullet went through me. They don't want the wound to become infected."

"So, we probably shouldn't unhook you," said Meg.

"Um, probably not. But if it was only for a few moments … and if it involved a way for me to see Jo …"

Meg placed her small black travel valise on the bed, and unzipped it …

Several moments later, Meg pushed a wheelchair down the halls of the Intensive Care Unit.

In the wheelchair sat a young nun dressed precisely like Meg – dark skirt, dark top, and a black-and-white headdress – but with hospital slippers instead of sensible black shoes.

The nun had a lovely, if somewhat feverish-looking, face.

As Meg pushed her, the young nun rolled an IV stand alongside the wheelchair.

They passed several doctors along their route, and several patients taking a stroll.

Everyone deferred to them, stepping aside so they could pass.

"Good evening, sisters," everyone said.

"Bless you, my children," said the young nun in the wheelchair.

It almost appeared at one point – but the doctor who thought he saw it realized he must be imagining it – as if the older nun pushing the chair rapped her knuckles on the young nun's headdress.

"Ow," Blair said.

"Don't talk," Meg told her. "This isn't going to work if you talk."

"You don't think I make a convincing nun?"

"No," said Meg. "Not if you talk. Nuns don't go around blessing everyone and calling them children, except on TV."

"Oh."

"And if you talk, someone on staff is going to recognize your voice. And the jig, as they say, will be up."

Blair mimed locking her mouth, and throwing away the key.

A few moments later they reached the Intensive Care Ward.

Meg rang the buzzer.

A strict-looking old nurse answered the buzzer. When she saw Meg, she relaxed.

"Here to see Miss Polniaczek again?" asked the nurse.

"Yes."

"Her mother will be so happy. And you've brought …"

The nurse looked inquiringly at Blair.

"Another sister," Meg explained. "She's in here for a procedure. She's familiar with Mrs. and Miss Polniaczek, as well. I'm certain Mrs. Polniaczek would be comforted to see her."

Nothing Meg said, Blair realized, was technically a lie. Blair was a sister – not a religious sister, but Meg's step-sister. Blair was indeed visiting the hospital for' a procedure,' although Meg had made it sound significantly less serious than recovering from a gunshot wound! And Blair did know Jo and Rose, and Rose would be comforted to see her.

"You're good," Blair told Meg admiringly as Meg wheeled her along the Intensive Care corridor.

"Always have been," Meg said calmly. "Here." She turned the wheelchair toward a door that was half ajar. "This is it. Room 585."

There was a cop outside the room. He gave Meg and Blair a keen glance, then, recognizing Meg, and deciding that two nuns, one of them a family friend, one of them in a wheelchair, did not register as a deadly threat, he waved them toward the door.

Blair took a deep breath.

I have to be strong. No matter what Jo looks like, or how Rose is handling it. I have to be strong, for my love, for her mother …

Blair pushed the door completely open as Meg wheeled her forward.

Rose was sitting at Jo's bedside, holding Jo's hand.

Tears rolled down Rose's face.

She looked over at the door when Meg and Blair entered.

"Oh, Meg, I'm so glad you're back. If we could say the rosary again. Just once through. If we – "

Rose's eyebrows shot up to the top of her forehead as she recognized the "young nun" Meg was wheeling toward the bed.

"Blair?" Rose goggled.

"Rose, I'd like you to meet Sister Aloysia."

Blair pinched Meg's hand in an extremely un-nun-like manner.

"Ow!" said Meg.

She released the wheelchair, and Blair rolled toward Rose, stopping her forward momentum by grabbing the rail of Jo's bed.

"Was that necessary?" Meg asked Blair.

"Was it?" Blair asked sweetly. "My name is Sister Aloysia?"

"I'm improvising," Meg said defensively.

"Well you're as good at improvising," complained Blair, "as I am at being a nun."

Meg shook her head.

"Dear father, give me strength," she prayed under her breath.

She closed the door to the room most of the way, so no one walking by might hear and recognize Blair's voice.

Blair took Rose's hand, and then leaned forward to embrace the woman who was, for all intents and purposes, her mother-in-law.

"I'm glad you came," Rose told her. "I was going to visit you later. But Jo's pulse, it hasn't, it's been pretty unsteady the last couple hours. I didn't feel comfortable leaving her."

"Of course," said Blair.

"Oh, Blair," said Rose, burying her face against Blair's headdress. "They don't know if they can, if they can do anything."

"Shh. They will," Blair said encouragingly. "They'll find a way to operate."

Rose sniffled. "Have you heard something? Have they decided on a plan?"

"No," said Blair. "But you just, well, it's like Meg says. You just have to have faith."

Rose laughed and cried at the same time.

"Blair – I think that get-up is brainwashing you."

"Must be," laughed Blair.

She held Rose, let the woman cling to her. In part, because she cared about Rose, and she was glad to comfort her. In part, because it gave Blair another moment before she had to face the woman lying unconscious in the bed.

"They told me," Rose said quietly. "Alec and Tootie. About how you tried to shield Jo. How you blocked the bullet."

"I wish it didn't go through me," Blair said. "I wish my ribs had stopped it."

"Don't," said Rose. "You're my daughter now, too. Both of you. I hate, I hate that either of you is hurt."

"We'll mend," Blair told her. "Both of us."

Blair drew a deep breath. Yes. She was ready now.

She turned her full attention to the woman lying in the bed.

She looks so small, Blair thought, tears pricking her eyes. Her hand went to her mouth. Jo looked waif-like, lost under sheets, with tubes and wires stuck into her, and an oxygen mask taped over her mouth.

Jo's chest rose and fell, but so slowly, so slowly.

The heart monitor beeped haltingly.

Blair brushed away the tears that came unbidden. She took another deep breath, took herself in hand.

"I know," Rose said, squeezing Blair's shoulders. "She looks awful. I've been sitting here a couple hours now, and I'm still not used to it."

"Why should you be?" Blair murmured. "Jo shouldn't be here. It's … wrong."

"You protected her as best you could," said Rose. "You almost gave your life for her."

"It's my fault we were there in the first place," Blair said bitterly.

"Alec and Tootie explained it all to me," said Rose. "Blair – you wanted to be sure your father was OK. That's flesh and blood. You did the right thing."

"If we hadn't gone there – "

"You did the right thing," Rose insisted. "Let it go."

Blair gazed at her lover, swathed in sheets and tubes and wires, so vulnerable, so weak, so broken.

Blair's jaw set hard.

"I'm going to make it right," Blair said. "I won't rest until I do."

"Shall we say a prayer?" suggested Meg. She had given the two women their privacy, but now she moved closer to them, took one of Rose's hands, and one of Blair's.

"The Hail Mary," suggested Rose. "The holy mother's prayer."

"Very good," said Meg.

Meg and Rose made the sign of the cross.

Blair followed suit absently. She had learned to make the sign of the cross several years before, when she and Jo became serious.

But Blair didn't know the Catholic prayers.

She moved her lips, pretending to pray, in case anyone popped in.

"Hail Mary," said Meg and Rose. "Full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb – Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

The sign of the cross again.

Rose sniffed.

"We are sinners. All of us. But Mary protects us. Mary cares."

Meg put a comforting hand on Rose's shoulder, another on Blair's.

Blair reached out, hesitantly, and touched Jo's face.

It was cold. Almost as if …

But, no. Jo's chest rose and fell, slowly. She was alive.

"Blair," Meg said regretfully. "I think – "

"I know," Blair said. She caressed Jo's cold cheek.

I love you Jo. I love you. I won't rest until you're well. I won't rest until you're avenged.

"All right," Blair told Meg. "Let's go."

"I'll return shortly," Meg told Rose. "We'll say the rosary."

"All the way through?"

"All the way through, Rose."

"God bless you, sister," Rose whispered. "God bless you both."


When Blair woke the next morning, Eduardo was snoring in the chair at her bedside.

He looked uncharacteristically rumpled, as if he had flown much of the night on his small jet, from the Bar-B Ranch in Texas to New York City, and then rushed immediately to her bedside. Which, Blair later learned, was exactly what he had done.

One of his wrinkled, coppery hands lay on the bedsheet, near her hand, as if he had been holding her hand comfortingly when he fell asleep.

She smiled at him.

"Eduardo," she whispered.

He jolted awake as if she'd fired a rifle near his ear.

"Blair! Mi pequeña!"

He grasped her hand, squeezed it. He leaned forward and kissed her temple.

"You could have telephoned," Blair told him. "I told Natalie and Tootie to have you call. You didn't have to fly all this way."

"Of course I did, niña. Of course I did. Where else would I be? I must be at your bedside. And Jo's. And I must be in New York City," he grimaced, "where your father has dared to 'rear his ugly head,' as the saying goes. He must pay, niña. I will see for you that he pays in full."

"Did you see Meg?" asked Blair.

Eduardo nodded. "She looked in on you not long ago, before she left. Lord Nethridge is driving her back to the convent. Señorita Meg, she is a saint. She is my favorite of your sisters, and of David Warner's step-children."

"She snuck me in to see Jo," said Blair.

"Yes." Eduardo nodded again. "Señorita Meg is a saint."

"Has anything … has anything happened during the night? With Jo?"

"No," said Eduardo. "I have represented myself as Miss Polniaczek's attorney. I am therefore a privileged person, and have left word that I am to be appraised of any changes in her condition."

Blair winced. Her stomach ached, and itched, and her back, too.

"Have courage," said Eduardo. "It is almost time for your morning injection."

"Those injections," complained Blair. "They give me strange dreams."

"They help you to heal," Eduardo said severely. "Always, you have been a bad patient, niña, from the time you were no taller than my knee."

"Only because I hate being ill. Or injured. But this is old hat now," she said, trying for bravada. "Stabbed, shot – I'm getting used to being a pincushion. Bring it on! They can't stop Blair Warner."

Eduardo shook his head fondly. "Always the spitfire."

"Always," she agreed. "Eduardo," her voice grew serious. "What did you find out about the telephone number? And the yacht?"

He leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingers.

"When you call that telephone number," Eduardo said, "you reach a Japanese restaurant in lower Manhattan. A restaurant called The Sensei."

"Well … They aren't going for subtlety."

"No," said Eduardo. "When I said I wanted to arrange a meeting with Mr. Warner, I was told that there was no such person at that number. When I persisted, and identified myself as the attorney for a family that B.Z. Becker had destroyed – technically true, my dear, since Becker destroyed your family – I was told again that Mr. Warner was not at that location. However," Eduardo wagged his finger, "they suggested that while it was no business of theirs, I might, might want to take a stroll near Pier X57 at six p.m. tonight."

"Pier X57," Blair said thoughtfully. "That wouldn't happen to be – "

"A yacht club berth," Eduardo said, nodding, "for none other than the Golightly."

"And you're going? Tonight?"

"Yes. And I am bringing operatives with me. Whatever is transpiring aboard the Golightly, whatever your father's connection is with the Sensei, we will soon have answers."

Blair closed her eyes. In her mind's eye, she saw Jo's cold, pale face, the oxygen mask taped around her nose and mouth.

Answers are one thing, she thought. Vengeance is another.

"Have you involved the police yet?" Blair asked. "I mean, the police know Jo and I were shot, and they're guarding us, but, I mean, have you shared our information with them? About the Sensei, and the yacht?"

"I have not," said Eduardo. "You know that I like to build a sure and water-tight case before I play my hand."

"Wonderful," said Blair. She nodded. "That's perfect, Eduardo."

"You must rest," Eduardo told her firmly. "I will keep you apprised of all developments. Leave this to me, my dear. You and your friends … This matter has become too big, too dark, for any of you."

Blair nodded. "All right. You know I trust you, Eduardo. With my life. With our lives."

"You are the daughter," he said simply, "that I wish I had had."

"I'm the daughter you have," Blair said, smiling. "Even though I've been bratty, spoiled, difficult – "

"Let us not forget disobedient and impossible," Eduardo said, eyes twinkling.

"All of that," said Blair. "But you're stuck with me."

"And you with me, niña. Now – sleep again."

"But I'm not even tired," Blair objected.

"Always, always with the disobedience," Eduardo said severely. "Sleep. Rest. My dear Miss Warner, I very much fear that soon there will be little sleep for any of us."


June, 2013. Manhattan. Le Train Bleu, Bloomingdale's.

Bishop Blair Polniaczek stirred another lump of sugar into her cup of Earl Grey tea.

Rose lifted her eyebrows. Her hair had gone snow white over the years, but her eyebrows remained surprisingly dark.

"I know what you're going to say," Blair told her mother-in-law. "And I am watching my sugar intake. But today," she ate a bite of Le Train Bleu's rich Crème Brulé, "we're celebrating."

The bishop was taking tea with her wife and daughter and mother-in-law at Bloomie's hidden gem, the restaurant housed in an elegant vintage train car on Bloomingdale's sixth floor.

"What are we celebrating?" Rose asked curiously.

"The Supreme Court overturned DOMA," said Jo. "And California's Prop 8. It almost makes a jaded politician like yours truly believe the system works. Sometimes."

Rose looked lost.

"DOMA," said Blair. "The Defense of Marriage Act. And Proposition 8. By overturning them, the Supreme Court is paving the way for equal marriage rights across the country."

"A lot of California couples have been waiting a lot of years to get their marriage licenses," said Jo.

"And in honor of this historic ruling," Blair told Rose, "this historic step toward recognizing and domesticating the love that dare not speak its name, your cynical daughter and I are going to renew our vows."

"And all of our assorted wacky friends and family are invited," grinned Jo.

Rose's hands flew to her heart.

"You're really renewing your vows?"

"Yes. Yes, we are," Jo said, with a dazzling smile.

She gazed lovingly at Blair.

Blair gazed lovingly at Jo.

Charlotte, sitting on her grandmother's lap, waved her chunky little fists and laughed, not wanting to be left out of whatever was making her two mothers look so happy.

Rose hugged her granddaughter. She dabbed at her eyes with one of Le Train Bleu's linen napkins.

"Girls – you don't know how happy this makes me."

"We're pretty happy about it too," grinned Jo.

"Have you chosen your invitations yet?" asked Rose.

"Oh, we don't need to bother with invitations," Jo said airily. "We'll just tell everyone, like we're telling you."

Rose lifted her eyebrows and looked at Blair.

Blair gently shook her head.

"Hey," said Jo. "Wait a minute. You mean we're sending invitations?"

"Certainly," said Blair.

"But it's just a renewal. I figured – "

"I know what you figured, darling." Blair patted her cheek affectionately. "Jo, dear, one doesn't organize a vow renewal ceremony with the carefree informality more appropriate to organizing a tailgate party."

Jo groaned.

"There, there," said Blair. "I'll handle the invitations."

Jo brightened.

"You're the best," she told her wife. "You know that?"

"I am," Blair agreed. "I also want to ensure that the invitations are in simple font, on cream-colored stock, and as opposed to 'Star Wars' or 'Battlestar Galactica' or football-themed invitations."

"Come on. Do you really think I'd send 'Star Wars' invitations?" Jo sounded rather hurt.

"Yes, I do. I can see it now, Jo: Your face PhotoShopped onto Han Solo's body, my face cut-and-pasted onto Princess Leia."

Jo looked thoughtful.

"No," Blair said firmly.

"But when you put it like – "

"No."

Jo sighed.

"We are not sending Wookie cards or Cylon cards or New York Giants cards. We are sending simple, elegant invitations, in keeping with the simple beauty of the ceremony."

"Why don't we just let our hair down for this shindig?" suggested Jo. "Make it a barbecue. I'll throw some dogs and burgers on the grill, we'll cater the booze. Everyone can be relaxed and have a good time. 'Simple beauty' always ends up being so complicated. And time-consuming. And uncomfortable. And expensive."

"You don't have to renew your vows with me," Blair said pointedly.

"Simple beauty it is," grinned Jo.

"What's the date?" Rose asked excitedly. "I want to mark it on my calendar when I get home."

"Soon," said Jo. "Whenever Tootie finally comes back from her mysterious journey."

"Natalie had a rather cryptic text from Tootie yesterday," Blair told Rose. "It's not quite clear, but it sounds as if Tootie might be back on U.S. soil in the next several weeks."

"And we hope," Jo crossed her fingers, "Natalie and Snake might be reconciling in the next couple of weeks."

"And Lexi has a break from touring soon," said Blair. "So, all in all, you can anticipate we'll be renewing our vows at the end of July."

Rose sniffed. "My two girls. My two beautiful girls."

Charlotte laughed and waved her hands again.

"My three beautiful girls," Rose amended.

She lifted her granddaughter, cradled the child in her arms. Charlotte was particularly lovely in her petal-pink dress and small coral shoes. Her hair, dark as Jo's, fell to her shoulders. She had Blair's fine dark brows and tip-tilted nose. Although her eyes had been blue during the first months of her life, they were darker now. Her scowl was uncannily like Jo's, her smile uncannily like Blair's.

"Choc-it," Charlotte said firmly, reaching for the half-eaten slice of chocolate cake on Rose's plate.

Rose gently took the chubby hand, pretended to bite it.

Charlotte squealed, delighted, attention distracted from the cake.

"Grandma's gonna eat your hand," said Rose. "Grandma's gonna eat your hand!"

Jo and Blair exchanged glances.

Rose is so good with Charlotte, said Blair's glance.

She is. She's wonderful, said Jo's.

"Will Charlotte be in the wedding party?" Rose asked her daughters.

"Vow renewal party," said Jo. "And, uh, I guess so?" She looked at her wife. "Is Charlotte big enough to be in it?"

"Far girl!" cried Charlotte. "Shar far girl!"

Jo and Blair exchanged glances again.

"She must have heard me talking with Natalie," said Blair. "I was saying perhaps Charlotte could be our flower girl."

"Little pitchers have big ears," said Rose, pinching her granddaughter's chubby cheeks.

"Guess we're gonna really have to start watching what we say," laughed Jo.

"Charlotte does seem to follow our conversations now," Blair agreed.

"I remember this age with Jo," said Rose. "You forget they're there, 'cause they're so little. But they hear everything. And they repeat everything, whether they understand it or not."

"At inconvenient moments, no doubt," Jo said wryly.

"All part of the magic of parenting," said Rose. "Enjoy it, girls. It goes so fast."

"Fass!" cried Charlotte, clapping her hands.

Jo put an arm around her wife. Blair leaned against her. They gazed happily at Rose and Charlotte. Rose began a round of pattycake with the child.

"What do you have on your calendar this afternoon, your grace?" asked Jo.

"I'm speaking to one of the confirmation classes," said Blair. "At St. Adelbert's, as a matter of fact. I was going to ask Rose," she turned to her mother-in-law, "if she'd like a ride to the old neighborhood today with me and Charlotte."

"I'd love it," said Rose. "But why is an Episcopalian bishop addressing a Catholic confirmation class?"

"It's this new thing," said Blair, "the Interfaith Council is trying. Church leaders are reaching out to other churches, sharing ideas and traditions."

"Beats the hell out of bombing everyone who doesn't agree with you," said Jo.

"Amen, darling," Blair agreed.

"So what do you have going after the confirmation class?" Jo asked her wife.

"I have three speeches to write, two budget reports to read, a presentation to run through – "

"My, they certainly keep you busy," said Rose.

"Running a diocese is like running any large business," said Blair. "Except we have a fairly altruistic mission statement. And our chairman of the board," she glanced upward, "is exceptionally good at pulling strings."

"You can do all that at home," Jo told her wife. "Writing speeches and reading budget reports. You can use my study," Jo said magnanimously. "And you can try out the presentation on me and Charlotte and Ma."

"All right," said Blair. "But why the rush to get me home today? And the study, by the way, is our study, darling."

"I've got this, I don't know what," Jo said. "An attack of domesticity, I guess. Sitting here, with you three. The world just feels right. I want us to have a nice supper tonight, an honest-to-gosh home-cooked supper, and sit around and talk and just, just enjoy being with each other."

"You aren't, ah, you aren't planning to cook – are you, darling?" Blair asked cautiously.

"For crying out loud! Of course not," laughed Jo. "I'll call ahead to Rory, ask her to do up a meatloaf or pot roast or something homey like that."

"Then count me in," said Blair. "After the confirmation class, I'll swing by my office for the speeches and reports, and Charlotte and I will be home for an early dinner."

"Ma?"

"Count me in too," smiled Rose.

"Who would have thought," marveled Jo, "who would've thought, all those years ago, we'd all be sitting down to a nice homey meal, us four? Who could've imagined?"

"Not me," said Rose. "Enjoy it, girls. It goes fast. It goes so, so fast ..."


June, 1986. Manhattan. The Wall Street district.

Blair arrived at two p.m. precisely, just as the note had told her.

She sat a table near the door, in full view of everyone in the coffee shop, and of passers-by looking through the big plate glass window.

Whatever this is about, she thought, I'm not sitting in some dark corner where someone can clonk me on the head or drag me out a back door. Life with Jo has taught me some street sense.

She lit a cigarette. She kept promising Jo she'd quit, once-and-for-all, but when Blair was under stress, she lit up. And lately, there had been a lot of stress in their lives. Much too much.

The wounds on her stomach and back ached under their bandages.

The doctors had told her she was out of the woods in terms of internal infection. She had been released. But she still had to report to the hospital every other day to have the wounds cleaned and monitored as they healed.

Blair was at the hospital every day, anyhow, visiting Pauly – much to Jesse's dismay.

And when Rose was there – which was most of the time – Rose got Blair into Intensive Care to see Jo.

Rose – uber-Catholic Rose – told the nurses an outrageous lie about Blair and Jo being distant cousins who'd known each other since childhood.

Pauly was alert, and reasonably healthy – but he couldn't move his legs. The bullet had nicked his spine in just the wrong place. Exploratory surgeries hadn't given the doctors any clue thus far about how, or even whether, they could restore the gentle giant's ability to walk.

Jo remained unconscious. Alec had engaged heart surgeons from around the world to examine her, but the consensus remained grim. Put baldly: No one knew how to remove the bullet in Jo's heart without killing her.

The drowning of the St. Angelo hotel manager had quickly faded from the news.

Blair's father, after being spotted in the Village by Mizu, had run to ground somewhere.

Eduardo and his operatives had visited Pier X57 as arranged. The Golightly, home port Tokyo, was a 190-foot long mega-yacht built in Norway. It was indeed anchored at Pier X57, but no one seemed to be aboard but a cantankerous watchman. The watchman steadfastly refused any knowledge of a David Warner, and refused to allow Eduardo or his operatives aboard the vessel.

"Someone tipped off your father," Eduardo had told Blair grimly. "Someone warned him off."

"The Village is the key," Blair had said. "My father must be hiding out there. It is an unlikely place to find David Warner."

"Yes. Yes, as a hiding place, it has its merits," Eduardo had agreed.

"He looks the almost the same as ever," said Blair, "except he's lost weight. He looks fitter. He looks … hard. He was always ruthless, but he had a soft spot for family, like, well, like me. But now, he's ice cold. And one of his hands might be broken. Snake hurt it taking the gun away from him."

"Any additional changes?" asked Eduardo, taking meticulous notes on a legal pad.

"He has a ponytail now," said Blair.

"Que?"

"A ponytail."

Eduardo shook his head.

"It might be, I don't know, a samurai thing," said Blair. "I don't think it's a yuppie thing. That was never my father's style."

"And this accomplice, this crony, who was hiding in the baño? Do you recall any mas about him?"

"Young. Youngish. Mid-twenties, I suppose. A little older than Jo or myself. Black hair. Ponytail, like my father was wearing. Snake hurt his hands, too, so he might be wearing bandages or casts. He's very fit. Sort of a Rambo complex, the way he burst out of the bathroom wielding a gun in each hand. He stood there, for a moment. It was like he was posing."

"Ah!" Eduardo's eyes lit. "You might have said something very significant there, my dear Señorita Warner."

"Did I?"

"He appeared to pose, did he?"

"Yes."

"Then perhaps he is an actor. An actor, an athlete – a wrestler, perhaps, or body builder. Someone with a connection to show business."

"He didn't look all muscle-bound," Blair said thoughtfully. "So I doubt he was a body builder. Maybe a martial artist."

"I will have my staff assemble information on Japanese martial artists with underworld connections," said Eduardo. "Perhaps we will find him that way …"

By late June Eduardo had been unsuccessful, but he seemed confident that he would be successful in the end.

"They can only stay underground so long," he told Blair. "A young man who poses with pistols, he can only stay out the limelight so long. And if your father wants to take down B.Z. Becker, he must emerge at some point."

Eduardo had engaged a modest hotel room for Blair close to Manhattan Memorial, at his own expense. She had balked at first, but –

"You cannot travel back and forth from River Rock each day," Eduardo had told her. "And you can, if you like, consider this a loan. You can pay me back when we recover your inheritance, my dear. Which, I promise you, we shall do."

Alec, Natalie and Tootie had returned to River Rock, where a Peekskill officer made random patrols, and Alec walked around carrying a cricket bat, ready to leap to his roommates' defense should the occasion require it. They attended their summer classes, but "I think we're all gonna flunk this semester," Tootie had confided to Blair during one phone call. "None of us can concentrate worth a damn."

According to Tootie, Snake was visiting River Rock every chance he could get, and staying the nights in Natalie's room.

With Jo still in a coma, Blair had finally called Mrs. Garrett. Mrs. Garrett had, of course, wanted to fly back to New York to sit at Jo's bedside, but Blair had convinced her to remain in L.A. and finish shooting the next season of "Edna's Edibles".

"Honestly, Mrs. Garrett, it's a waiting game. We don't know, we don't know when they'll be able to operate. Rose sits with her, and I sit with her. She doesn't seem to be in any pain, or have any idea what's happening."

"You call me," Mrs. Garrett had said sternly. Blair could hear over the telephone how the feisty redhead was fighting back tears. "My wild, beautiful Jo. If she needs anything. If anything changes, Blair – "

"I'll call you," Blair promised. "You'll be the first call …"

After she was released from the hospital, Blair had visited Pier X57 herself.

She hadn't told Eduardo. "Out of the question!" he would have told her.

She couldn't afford a taxi all the way to the pier, but she had become fairly familiar with New York's train and subway system during her sojourn in the Bronx.

Blair stood under the towering yacht, and whistled appreciatively. She had been on quite a few yachts during her short, privileged life, and the Golightly was a beauty. It was a luxurious work of art. Only someone rich beyond even a billionaire's dreams could have a yacht like the Golightly built.

"Hey! You!" a grizzled watchman leaning over the rail called down to her. "Move it along."

Blair had put a hand on one hip.

"This pier is open to the public," she'd called saucily.

"I said 'Move it along,' girl!"

"Make me," she challenged.

He'd turned red faced, and reached toward his hip – which made Blair shrink back a step.

But instead of a gun or knife, he'd pulled a battening pin from his belt. He hefted it with a menacing air.

"Get another one of those," Blair had called sarcastically, "and you could juggle."

"Move it along, you sassy wench!" The watchman had waved the battening pin in her direction.

"Now you listen to me," Blair had said, putting both hands on her hips, "I want to see David Warner, and I want to see him now. David Warner is trying to bring down that bastard B.Z. Becker. Becker ruined my family. I'm David Warner's only child, dammit! And I want a piece of whatever pound of flesh my father is going to carve out!"

The watchman had muttered something to himself. He had bashed the battening pin against the rail in a frustrated manner.

"I'm not David Warner's personal secretary," he'd yelled. "I'm sick of people coming down here asking for him! You can all go ---" He launched into a stream of anatomically impossible suggestions.

"If you want me to go away, just tell me where he is," Blair had called up.

Muttering to himself, the watchman had disappeared into the ship.

Hopefully, Blair had thought, he's checking with someone. With my father. Hopefully he's getting the information I need …

Light footsteps had approached Blair. Someone wearing sneakers.

Blair had tensed, ready to run or lash out should the situation demand it.

"I gotta hand it to you, Farrah," Jesse had said. "That was truly freakin' suicidal."

Blair had relaxed. Jesse. What does she want?

"What are you doing here?" Blair had asked the tough young brunette.

"I followed you. You ain't exactly the most inconspicuous person on the trains, you know."

"I can see that you followed me, Jesse. But to what end?"

"To what end? To what end. Jeez, how I love the way you guys talk in ye old snobbo city! I'll tell you to what end, Blondie: Good old-fashioned revenge! What else? Your goddamn father shot my, shot my," Jesse's voice broke, but she quickly regained her composure. "He shot my fiancée, dammit! And your father's gonna pay."

"How about me?" Blair had asked. "Are you going to shove me into the harbor? This was all my fault – right?"

"You're not even worth it," Jesse had said scornfully. "It was your father shot Pauly. Pauly was just tryin' to protect you. And Jo. Bein' the good guy, as usual. And your goddamn father," she'd clenched her fists. "You just wait 'till I get my mitts on him!"

Great, Blair had thought. Just what I need – a completely unpredictable Calamity Jane along for the ride.

"You don't gotta like it," Jesse had told her. "And you don't gotta invite me along. But I'm stickin' to you like glue, Farrah. Where you go, I go."

"You should be with Pauly," Blair had said sincerely. "He needs to keep his spirits up."

"You don't tell me about whether I need to be with Pauly, or anythin' like that," Jesse had said. "If I'd been with Pauly that night, he wouldn't of got shot. But he did. So all I need to be doin' now, is makin' it right."

"You do understand," Blair had said, "that I'm not actually going to let you shoot my father?"

"Ha! Like you could stop me!"

"I'm going to get evidence so that he can be arrested. Be arrested and stand trial."

"What kind of friggin' Fantasy Island do you live on, Farrah? Crooks like your father, guys hooked up with gangsters like the Sensei, they can buy and sell the cops and the judges all day long."

"I don't believe that."

"Like I said – Fantasy Island!"

A movement on the ship had caught Blair's eye, and she'd turned.

The watchman was at the rail again.

"Here!" he'd shouted.

He'd thrown something at her. Not the battening pin. A big knife. It winked in the sunlight, and the blade thudded into the wooden post next to her.

There'd been a note tied to the haft.

Blair had unfastened the slip of paper.

Jesse had pried the knife out of the post.

"Nice," she'd said, testing the blade on her thumb. She'd tucked the knife into the back of her waistband.

Blair had read the note. A smile had spread slowly across her face.

"Wow," Blair had said. "This is fortuitous. This is perfect."

"Well – what's it say?" Jesse had demanded.

"It's a time. And a location. It appears my father has agreed to meet me."

"Beautiful. What's the time, what's the location?"

Blair had crumpled the paper into a ball, thrown it into the harbor.

"Nice," Jesse'd said. "Real mature-like, Farrah. But you ain't gettin' rid of me. I can follow you all the live-long friggin' day."

"I'm not going to help you shoot my father," Blair had said. "Do you think I want you getting locked up next? For murder? You are one of Jo's best friends."

Jessed had clasped her hands to her heart. "Aww – you care! I'm freakin' touched. Sincerely."

"Fine. Follow me," Blair had shrugged. "I wash my hands of your involvement. You're an adult. It's your funeral. If you want Pauly to be all alone while you're in prison, with every other girl in the neighborhood beating down his door – "

"Hey! Can it!" Jesse had said. "Zip your lip, Farrah."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Well you ain't gettin' my pardon. How do you like them apples?"

Blair had fumed silently, nostrils flaring.

I will not lose my temper, I will not lose my temper …

Blair had returned to her hotel without saying another word to the former Young Diablo.

Now that she knew Jesse was following her, Blair noticed the brunette trailing her all the way back to the hotel.

Get ready for a boring evening, Blair had thought a little smugly. Because I'm not leaving my room until it's time for the meeting ….

Blair had left the hotel very early the next morning.

Jesse had been sprawled in an easy chair in the lobby. She looked asleep.

But Blair hadn't been on the subway more than a few moments when she spotted a flash of denim in the next car. Yes; Jesse was following her.

Blair had exited the subway near the intersection of Water and Wall Streets.

She'd stood on the corner, gazing up at what had been, for well over a century, the Warner Building.

The old-fashioned base … the modern glass-and-steel spire rising high into the blue sky …

It was the Becker Building now. B.Z. Becker's new headquarters.

The note on the knife had named a coffee house near Water and Wall.

It was, coincidentally enough, the coffee shop where Blair had met Charlie Polniaczek for coffee several years before, back when Rose and Charlie were freezing out Jo for loving a girl.

And it was the coffee shop where Charlie had met his second wife, one of the shop managers.

I hope this meeting goes better than my meeting with Charlie did that day! thought Blair.

Blair ordered a coffee, black, and drank it while she smoked a cigarette.

As usual, the place was crowded with eager young financial professionals in dark business suits.

The bell over the door jangled time and again as people came and went. Few customers lingered. They had places to go, things to do, money to make. There was a new era dawning. You could feel the energy of it in places like this coffee shop. People were tired of gas rationing and layoffs and sit-ins. People were tired of peace and love. Everyone wanted to get ahead now. Everyone wanted to be a millionaire.

The bell over the door jangled again, and a tall man in a dark suit entered the shop.

He looked like every other corporate warrior, except he was older than most of the other customers, and his suit, while beautifully cut, hung on him, as if he'd lost a lot of weight. And he wore a dark fedora. The other men in the coffee shop were hatless. He wore a dark fedora and a pair of sunglasses.

Daddy needs a few pointers on going incognito, Blair thought wryly.

He sat down at her table.

"Mind if I join you, miss?" he asked in his deep, hard voice.

Blair shrugged.

"It's a free country."

He laughed – a harsh, barking laugh – as he sat. He smelled of his beautiful and expensive cologne. One hand was wrapped in a bandage, where Snake had hurt him to wrest the gun away.

"Always the idealist," he said mockingly.

"And you're always the cynic," said Blair.

A waitress paused at the table. David ordered coffee, black, and a plain bagel.

"I'm off cream cheese," he told his daughter. "That's partly how I lost the weight."

She blew smoke rings.

"That's great," she said. "But I didn't want to meet you to ask your miracle weight loss secrets."

He grunted.

The waitress returned quickly with his coffee and plain bagel. She topped up Blair's cup.

David bit into the bagel. He ate a few bites.

"Do you remember, Blair, when we ate at Lutece?"

"Which time?" she asked, flicking ash into the little tin ashtray on the table.

"The night before you moved into Langley. You remember?"

"Oh. Of course I remember. I'm surprised you remember."

"That was the first time," said David, "I talked to you seriously about business. You were starting college. It was a whole new chapter in your life. Your mother had had you for eighteen years, she taught you everything about fashion and culture and charm. And then, well, then it was going to be my turn. To talk you under my wing. So you and your husband could run the Warner interests someday."

Blair remembered. It seemed like a million years ago. It seemed like something that had happened on another planet, to other people.

"Well," she said. "That all worked out really well – huh?"

David grunted again.

"I didn't intend," he said, "to shoot you the other night. Or the young man. I don't know his name. It wasn't in the newspapers."

"He might not walk again," said Blair.

"That is … unfortunate. I admired the way he protected you. Is he a bodyguard?"

"He's a friend," said Blair. "And he was protecting Jo as much as he was protecting me."

David's face spasmed. He looked for a second as if he was in the most intense pain, and then his face was blank.

Blair leaned slightly forward, fascinated.

"Jo," she said quietly.

David's face contorted again, then settled back into his usual poker face.

"Stop saying that name," he muttered.

"She's in a coma, Daddy. You put a bullet in her heart. They don't know how to help her."

David bit savagely into the bagel.

"Why do you hate her so much?" Blair asked.

"She doesn't belong with you," David muttered.

"No." Blair leaned forward even more, studied his face intently, below the fedora and behind the dark glasses. "There's something else. Why does she get under your skin like that?"

David shrugged. She watched his face spasm again.

"I'm not here to talk about … her," he said. "I'm here to talk about B.Z. Becker. I thought that's why you wanted to meet."

"If there's a way to bring Becker down," said Blair, "I'd love to hear it. But, Daddy … You're going to have to pay. You know that, right? For shooting me, and Pauly, and Jo."

"You have a lot to learn," he said grimly, "about how things work."

"So everyone tells me."

She lit another cigarette.

"Those things will kill you," he said disapprovingly.

She blew smoke rings at him.

"Tell me," she said, "about Becker."

David nodded. He turned his coffee cup between his perfectly manicured hands.

"When Becker buried us, I vowed to return the favor one day – and the sooner the better. I had just enough warning to liquidate some assets and jet to Tokyo."

Just enough warning, thought Blair, thanks to Jo and me. Not that he'll ever thank us.

"Your mother fled to Zurich," said David, "because she has lazy, ne'er-do-well cronies there that she knew would feed her and clothe her in the style to which she is accustomed. And find her a new meal ticket."

"She landed Bailey Hammond."

"I know."

"I saw her at the Palm Court several weeks ago. She's having Hammond's baby. Any day now."

"Yes. It boggles the mind." David shuddered. "I fled to Tokyo," David continued, "because I knew that to take down Becker, I would need money. A great deal of money. And at least one extremely powerful ally. I decided to cultivate Tokama. Of Tokama Farms, Tokama Steel, Tokama Light Industrial – "

"I get the idea," said Blair.

"He was poised to take over most of Asia. I'd been putting out feelers to his organization for some time. So when B.Z. Becker dropped the hammer, I decided to throw in with Tokama, lock, stock, and barrel. Having been ruined by Becker, I couldn't offer Tokama money or assets. But I could offer him," David tapped his temple, "my acumen. I signed on as his operational consultant. His chief advisor."

"Tokama is a crook," said Blair. "His own daughter despises him."

"He and I have that in common, too," David said bitterly. "Blair … You're too old now to cling to fairy tales. Business is ruthless – all business. It's survival of the fittest, and cleverest, and the one who's willing to do whatever it takes to come out on top. Concepts of 'legal' and 'illegal' are arbitrary at best. They vary by culture and country and era."

"Tokama is a gangster," said Blair. "Any time, anywhere. And you joined his staff."

"I was his right arm," said David. "Am his right arm. I've taken his organization to heights even he never dreamed of. And now we're establishing U.S. operations. And we're going to knock B.Z. Becker down into an abyss so dark, he'll never see light again."

"And you're strong-arming the families he ruined into join in the fun."

"No." David shook his head. "It's too delicate an operation to open up as a free-for-all."

"But you told Boots to have her father call you."

"Oh. Yes. That imbecile St. Clair. When I saw his daughter, I was reminded of Mr. St. Clair. He's always been a great admirer of Tokama's business genius. I asked young Betsy –"

"Boots."

David waved a hand, dismissing the matter of Boots' name. "I asked her to have her father get in touch with me. If he does, he might be a useful stooge, a loyal pawn, when Tokama and I make our move against Becker. If doesn't, well, no harm done. The St. Clairs are so dim, by next month neither the girl nor her father will even recall my invitation."

"Boots has a better memory than you might think," said Blair.

He waved his hand again, consigning the St. Clairs to the devil.

"Naturally I've said nothing to the Von Schuylkills or Messerschmitts or any of the other gods of New York. They're so delusionally noble," David said contemptuously. "They'd rather gnaw a crust of bread than do what it takes to climb back on top. They lived so long on their old money, they don't have the stomach any more for what it takes to rule."

"'Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven'," said Blair.

"That's precisely it." David lifted his coffee cup, took a deep drink. "I've been keeping a low profile in the city, because we don't want to tip our hand. Becker is so drunk on his past successes, we should be able to catch him off guard, but we need every advantage we can manage. I had planned to contact you when it was time to drop the axe on Becker. Your little … visit … to the St. Angelo was quite a surprise."

"So we surmised."

"I was so stunned to see you, and those strangers, and that, to see …"

"Jo," said Blair.

He looked down at the table.

"Someday," said Blair, "you'll have to tell me why she upsets you so much."

"It's immaterial," he said harshly. "Blair – you are my only heir. Do you know why I suggested we meet here?"

"Because it's just down the street from the old Warner building," she said.

"That's correct. And soon it will be the Warner building again. I wanted you to see it, remember it, contemplate it, before we spoke. I invite you now, as I invited you at Lutece three years ago, to begin acting like my heir, to learn from me, to become a sort of junior partner."

"Me?" Blair put a hand to her chest. "Little old idealistic me?"

"This is no time for childish humor. Naturally you still have a lot to learn about the realities of life. But I can see that you're far stronger and shrewder now than you were before I went to Tokyo. It was good for you, having to stand on your own. It's always been good for you, that I haven't coddled you."

"Coddled me?" Blair laughed, a rich, musical sound. "Coddled? Well, no – not exactly."

"We're striking against Becker soon, Blair. Are you in, or are you out?"

"In the first place, what, exactly, are you planning to do to Becker? And in the second place, what will it mean if I say I'm 'out'?"

"If you're out, Princess, you're out."

Princess. He hasn't call me that, in, well … Years.

"I won't tell you how we're bringing down Becker," he said, "or where I hid your inheritance funds."

"That's all right," said Blair. "Eduardo's been working on that. He'll find where you hid my inheritance."

David laughed. "If that self-righteous old fool could have found any of the money, he would have found it by now."

Blair's jaw tensed.

"Oh, that's right," said David. "I always forget how you idolize that foolish old Don Quixote. And what do you have to show for it, Blair? Living penniless in Peekskill with that, that … woman. Cast your lot with me, Princess." His voice softened. "I'll see that your inheritance is restored to you. I'll introduce you to Tokama. You'll finish your studies, go to Harvard Law, like your old man, become my junior partner – "

"Stop." Blair held up her hands. "Oh my God. Just stop. If you think I would ever join Tokama's organization, you haven't been paying attention since, well, my whole life."

"I'm going to do this with you or without you. Blair … I'd rather do this with you."

"Is Tokama the Sensei?" Blair asked abruptly.

David looked startled. "Tokama? He's part of it."

"So it is a group – not a man or woman," Blair said thoughtfully.

"Are you in," David asked her, "or are you out?"

"Oh, I'm out, Daddy. I'm one-hundred percent out. I just wanted to hear what you had to say for yourself. Which, I'm sorry to say, wasn't much."

His nostrils flared. A fine vein pulsed on one temple.

"You think I'm bluffing," he said, "but I'm not. The life I've led has hardened me."

"Yes. I sort of noticed that when you were shooting me and my friends."

Blair dropped a five dollar bill on the table. She stood.

"Breakfast's on me. Thank you for meeting. It's been … illuminating. And Daddy?"

"What?"

"You need a haircut."

David banged one hand on the table – his bandaged hand. He winced.

Heads turned curiously in his direction.

"Blair – if you walk out right now – "

"I'll never see you again?" she asked.

"Exactly."

Blair smiled.

"Promise?"

He banged the table again, this time with his good hand.

Blair pushed open the shop door. The little bell rang. She stepped out onto the sidewalk.

"Blair," her father called, "if you don't – "

His voice was cut off as the door swung shut behind her.

She didn't think he would follow her. He was too angry, and too proud.

But she walked a few yards down the block and waited, just in case he stormed out after her.

He didn't.

She spotted Jesse lurking behind a magazine kiosk.

"Hey. Calamity Jane," called Blair.

Jesse ignored her, pretending to read one of the papers. It looked like the Wall Street Journal.

Blair approached Jesse, who ducked behind the paper.

"How are your stocks doing?" Blair asked.

"Get bent," said Jesse.

"No, really," drawled Blair. "You invest heavily in GE – don't you?"

"When's he comin' out?" asked Jesse.

"He'll probably sit there for awhile. He won't want to run into me," said Blair.

"So. You told him off?" Jesse's voice held a grudging respect.

"I gave him the snobbo city equivalent of 'get bent'," Blair agreed.

"The old 'turn blue'?"

"Pretty much."

"He say anythin' about shootin' Pauly?"

"Yes. He's sorry about it."

Jesse snorted.

"He is," said Blair. "Well … after his fashion. He actually admired how Pauly tried to protect me."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Jesse snorted again.

"So what? Doesn't change anythin'. Your father's a freakin' psycho, Blair. And he's gotta pay."

"I agree." Blair slipped one arm through Jesse's elbow.

"Hey. Whoa-freakin'-whoa," said Jesse. "Let's put the brakes on, right freakin' now. I think I've made it real clear I don't swing that way."

Blair rolled her eyes. "I'm not propositioning you, Jesse. I just have something to show you."

"Like what?" Jesse asked suspiciously.

"I want to show you how my father is going to pay."

Jesse slipped out of Blair's grasp, but she reluctantly followed the blonde down the street, around a corner, and into a narrow alley.

"What is this?" Jesse demanded. "Am I gonna get jumped, or somethin'? What the hell are you pullin'?"

"Just follow me. You want my father behind bars, right?"

"I want your father dead, Farrah."

"But you'll settle for him behind bars."

"Nuh-huh. He'll just buy his way out."

"Not if there's airtight evidence."

"Which, last time I checked, we totally don't got."

"Come on."

Blair led the tough brunette down the alley, which stank of refuse, thanks to the large garbage bins that lined it. An alley cat perched on one of the dumpsters hissed at Jesse.

"Yeah, this is a real garden spot you found here," Jesse said sarcastically. "Where the hell we goin'?"

"Here."

Jesse followed Blair's gaze.

They were at the back door of the coffee shop.

Blair knocked – three sharp knocks, a pause, three more sharp knocks.

"Whaddya got, a clubhouse goin' back here?" asked Jesse.

Blair shook her head.

A moment later, the door was pushed open.

Jesse goggled.

"Mr. Polniaczek?"

"Hey, Jesse," he said. "You still keepin' out of trouble?"

"She is," Blair told him. "Other than trying to assassinate my father."

"What gives?" Jesse demanded.

Charlie stepped aside so Blair could enter the coffee shop's kitchen.

Jesse followed Blair.

Charlie closed and locked the door behind them.

Grill cooks in white uniforms bustled about. Every few seconds, they slide a tray of food and beverages through a long window in the wall. "Order up!" they called, and a waiter or waitress materialized and grabbed the tray.

Blair and Jesse followed Charlie to a long table near the back wall. A couple of employees were sitting at it, smoking and wolfing down bacon and eggs.

Charlie dropped into a chair. He held up a large black videocamera, the kind people used to record home movies and vacation movies.

"You got it?" Blair asked eagerly.

"I got it, beautiful. I got it all."

"Got what?" asked Jesse.

"Blair!" A plump, motherly looking woman in a white apron bustled over to Blair, hugged her soundly. "Are you feeling better? How are you doing?"

"Much better now," Blair assured her.

"What the hell is goin' on?" Jesse demanded.

"Jesse," said Blair, "please allow me to introduce Carol Polniaczek, Charlie Polniaczek's second wife. She manages this establishment. So I placed a few calls last night …"

Jesse glanced at the big black videocamera in Charlie's hand.

"You filmed it!" she said. "You freakin' filmed it! Blair and her father talkin'. You got it all on tape?"

Charlie nodded. He gestured toward the long slot in the wall, the order window where the wait staff made their pickups.

"I had a beautiful view from there," he said. "And Warner never noticed."

"But how'd you pick up their voices?" asked Jesse. "From that far away? If it's just them flapping their gums, like a freakin' silent Charlie Chan movie, I mean, what's that gonna prove to anyone?"

"First of all," said Blair, "I think you mean Charlie Chaplin. And second, Carol and Charlie told me what table to sit at when I arrived. They planted a microphone in the fake flower on the table."

"They didn't!"

"They did."

Jesse hugged Blair hard, then, recovering her senses, all but shoved the blonde away.

"So, yeah. That, I guess that was kind of a clever thing to do," Jesse said casually.

"I was playing back some of the tape before you got here just now," Charlie told Blair. "It all came through, perfect."

"It's wonderful," said Blair, smiling at Charlie, "to have a father-in-law whose wife manages a restaurant."

"Yeah, I pick 'em good," grinned Charlie – that charming, roguish smile that reminded Blair so much of Jo's smile.

"So." Charlie slapped the side of the camera. "What do you want me to do with this tape?"

"I want you make several copies of it, and then bring one to the police," said Blair. "Store the original and the other copies someplace safe."

"How about the safe here?" Carol suggested.

"That's perfect," Blair told her. "Thank you."

"Want me to do it right now?" asked Charlie.

"Not this dead second, but, today, if possible."

"You've got it, kid." He lightly ruffled Blair's hair.

"So, wait a sec," said Jesse. "Charlie turns in a copy of the tape, the cops have unavoidable evidence that David Warner is a shooter and a criminal mastermind and a first-class psycho. But, they still don't know where the hell to find him!"

"He's being followed even as we speak," said Blair.

"That so, Blondie?"

"Yes. That's so."

"Who you got tailin' him?"

"Natalie, Tootie, and Alec," said Blair.

Jesse scowled. "They're gonna lose him."

"They can't all lose him," Blair said reasonably.

"Sure they could. You shoulda had me tailin' him. I know what I'm doin'. And, he hasn't seen me in years – not since he broke Jo's nose at the flippin' Dakota. Not like he'd recognize me. Those richies. He wouldn't even have given me a second glance. People like me, we're invisible to a creep like that."

"All excellent points," said Blair. "But Natalie, Tootie, and Alec have a stable track record. Whereas you are a tad bit unpredictable."

"Unpredictable?"

"A tad bit."

"Well if that don't beat all!"

"Plus, as I've told you several times, I'm not going to let you kill my father."

"Hey," said Jesse, glancing at Charlie's video camera, "is that thing on? Is it, like rollin'? Cause who said anythin' about rubbin' out Warner? I didn't say anythin'."

"I guess I was hearing things," Blair said blandly.

"Yeah, well, you should be careful about that, Farrah. You hear the wrong thing, and you could put someone in freakin' lockup."

"So you're not going to hurt my father?"

"Furthest thing from my mind."

"You'll let justice take its course."

"One hundred percent." Jesse shook her head. "I hate to say it, Blondie, but you done good on this one. Wait 'till I tell Pauly how you got your old man sewed up. Wow. You got sand, girl. No lie. You got some ice water in your veins to pull off somethin' like that, on your own flesh-and-blood."

Blair shrugged. "My father shot Pauly," she said. "And he shot Jo. And he meant to shoot her. I can't let that stand."

"A-freakin'-men to that, Farrah."

Part 3

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