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 welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To zblitzreiter@gmail.com

Lost in the Masquerade
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 3

"Chloral hydrate," said Portia. "That's my best guest."

"A Mickey?" Jo demanded incredulously. "Somebody slipped me a Mickey at a swank wingding like this?"

"What's a 'Mickey'?" asked Blair.

"It's chloral hydrate," said Portia. "Usually, anyway. Not fatal in small doses, but if one overdoses … well, it's nitey-nite forever. Mixed with alcohol it renders victims unconscious, and they're nauseated, confused and irritable when they wake. Long a preferred weapon of house girls and sharpers."

"Of whom?" asked Blair."

"Crooks," Jo said simply. "Ow! When the hell does this wear off?"

"Stay in bed for the rest of the morning, Princess," Portia advised. "Drink a lot of fluids. We'll postpone the hockey match; not much point without you." She turned to Blair. "Open that window, will you? Let's give her some fresh air."

Blair went to the bow window, turned the old-fashioned crank handles. The window panels swung outward, admitting a crisp breeze fragrant with fallen leaves, apples, pine and wood smoke.

Jo inhaled deeply. "Nice," she said. "Yeah. That's better."

"You'll be feeling much better by lunch," Portia predicted, "but don't eat too much. Easy does it for the rest of the day."

"Who the hell would slip me a Mickey?" Jo demanded of the world at large.

"I don't know," Portia said grimly, "but as soon as I leave you I'm going to tell Petal what happened. Let's keep this quiet, for now. She might have to call the police."

"Might?" asked Blair. "Might? Someone tries to poison my, my, best friend, and you think we might need to call the police?"

"It's OK," Jo told Blair. "I'm gonna be fine."

"No thanks to whoever drugged you!" said Blair, outraged at the thought of anyone hurting Jo.

"Could've been a stupid prank," said Portia. "Or someone trying to, well, let's just say that in the past some men have used similar means to put women in an agreeable mood."

"That's appalling!" said Blair.

"Yes," said Portia. "Whatever happened, we have to get to the bottom of it. I'll see you at luncheon."

Blair squeezed Portia's hand. "Thank you," she said.

"Anything for Princess. We need her at full power if we're going to the state championship. Princess – rest!" Portia told Jo severely.

"Aye, aye," said Jo, wincing. Resting – not a problem! Don't feel like I could get out of the damn bed!

"I'll see myself out," said Portia.

Blair waited until she heard the main suite door close in the distance, then climbed onto the bed next to Jo. She put her arms around the brunette, kissed her softly.

"My poor Jo," she said. "Whoever did this, we'll get him! Or her!"

"I'll be fine," said Jo. "Don't fuss. You know I hate fussing!"

"I'm not fussing," said Blair. "Do you have enough pillows?"

"Aw, for cryin out loud!"

"Thank God Portia was here. I can't believe there's not a single real doctor at this party. At least Portia's a pre-med senior."

"She's so tiny," said Jo. "I had no idea she's a senior! Gotta say, the one upside of my bein drugged … Portia's got somethin important to think about now, instead of moping about Gerald!"

Blair slowly ran her fingers from Jo's shoulder down to her hip and back again. Somebody tried to harm her. My Jo! "Darling?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"Who would slip you a Mikey?"

"A Mickey. Short for Mickey Finn."

"Who cares what it's called? Who would do that?"

"Dunno. Who have I pissed off more than usual lately?"

"I guess it could've been a prank – a very stupid prank. Or a random thing. But I can't stop thinking about, well …"

"Well?"

"Becker looked so angry earlier. She was glaring at us all throughout dinner."

"Huhn." Jo mulled it over. "Interestin thought. We were pretty mean to her. But does Dina run around carryin chloral hydrate with her? I mean, she didn't arrive here all pissed off. It's cause we teased her at the cocktail party."

"True."

Jo closed her eyes. The pain was lessening, but it still hurt like hell. It was like the top of her skull was being squeezed in a vise. Another wave of nausea washed over her.

"Honestly, Blair, I don't feel up to playin Nancy Drew just now. We need to put the Snoop Sisters on the case. You talked to them yet?"

Blair shook her head. "Just Alec. He knows everyone here, at least by reputation; I knew he'd find someone to help you."

Jo scowled. "Alec. Alec was sittin right near me, come to think of it."

"Jo, Alec did not put a Mikey –"

"Mickey."

" – a Mickey in your drink. You should've seen his face when I told him you were ill. You might not like him, but he thinks a lot of you."

"Yeah, well, give him a medal, why doncha?"

"Don't get all worked up. Portia says you're supposed to rest."

"If you don't want me to get all worked up, don't talk about Alec."

"All right. Calm down, Jo."

"I'm calm. I'm very friggin calm."

"Who gave you the second drink?" Blair asked thoughtfully. "The one you didn't finish? I mean, did one of the guests bring it to you?"

"I don't know. I was kinda drowsy already and I finished the first stinger and suddenly someone was standing near me and handed me a drink and I took it. I figured it was one of the servants but I didn't really look." She smiled ruefully. "Guess I'm really startin to fit into high society, huh? Servants are becomin wallpaper, instead of people."

"Servants aren't wallpaper to me," Blair bristled.

"True, true," Jo said hastily. And it was. Jo had noticed that most rich folks treated servants like they were invisible. But Blair always noticed the people that waited on her, knew their names. "Gimme a break, huh, babe? I'm kinda delirious here."

"What you need," said Blair, skinning out of her silk robe, "is a distraction."

Jo lifted her eyebrows. "Intriguin. What kinda distraction do you got in mind?"

Blair slipped out of her silk pajamas. "This kind."

"Very, ah, resourceful," Jo said approvingly.

Completely nude, Blair stretched herself full length on top of Jo.

"Am I too heavy, Joey?"

"Never." Jo's hands rested comfortably on Blair's hips.

Blair held Jo's face between her hands, kissed her.

"Thanks for takin care of me," Jo whispered.

"Any time," said Blair.

They kissed for several minutes, deep, lingering kisses. Jo's hands drifted up and down Blair's naked back, coming to rest on her posterior.

"So, how's the patient?" Natalie asked brightly, pushing open the bedroom door. "What seems to be the – oh my God!"

Natalie whirled, crashing into Tootie, who was right behind her.

"Retreat! Retreat!" cried Natalie. "Oh, my eyes!"

"What's wrong?" demanded Tootie, craning her neck, trying to see over Nat's shoulder.

"I just saw Blair's butt!"

"Nat, we roomed with Blair. We've seen her butt before."

"Not like this!"

"For Pete's sake," groaned Jo. "Can a poisoned person get a little damn privacy?"

Blair snagged her silk robe from the floor, shucked into it. She hastily tied the silk belt.

"All right," she said, "it's OK now. Natalie, you can turn around. Tootie, you can come in."

"I'll, ah, stay in the doorway," said Natalie.

"Well I'm going in," said Tootie, pushing past Nat.

Tootie found Jo lying under the covers in her blue silk pajamas, dark circles under her eyes, beet red in the face, looking completely pissed off. Blair sat on the edge of the bed, wrapped in a silk robe, hair mussed, looking pretty pissed off herself.

"Hey – the door was unlocked," Tootie said. "We figured with Jo being sick we should just come in."

"We figured with Jo being sick you wouldn't be rolling around like dogs in heat!" said Natalie.

"We weren't 'rollin around' like anythin!" said Jo. "We weren't 'rollin around' at all."

"I saw what I saw!"

"Well, Nat, you've got a very active imagination. Blair was just lyin on top of me. She was just, you know, takin my mind off my pain."

"Hey, whatever floats your boat," said Natalie. "I just don't want to see it."

"Then you might wanna try a little thing called knockin!"

"Everybody calm down," said Tootie. "Why are we fighting? Jo's sick."

"Portia must have left the door unlocked," said Blair. She squeezed Jo's hand. "It's not their fault."

"They could still knock before they bash open the bedroom door!"

"I didn't 'bash open the bedroom door'," said Natalie. "It was ajar."

Blair sighed. "Natalie, Tootie – from now on, just knock before you come into our rooms. All right? Just assume we might be having … an intimate moment. That way nobody will be surprised."

"Perfect," snarked Natalie. "Lesbian etiquette!"

"A little etiquette wouldn't kill you," snarled Jo. "Lesbian or otherwise."

"Fine!"

"Fine!"

"Knock it off – both of you!" said Blair. "Jo, it's very nice of Natalie and Tootie to drop by to see how you're doing."

"I'm gonna be fine," said Jo. "Someone slipped me some chloral hydrate. No big deal."

"Someone slipped you a Mickey Finn? Oh, Jo." Concern conquered squeamishness. Natalie stepped into the room. "Who? Why?"

"Wish I knew," said Jo.

"We're trying to keep it relatively quiet right now," said Blair. "Petal will likely call in the local police. But if the Snoop Sisters want to do a little investigating – "

"Consider us on the case!" said Tootie.

"Dina Becker was giving you the evil eye all through dinner," Natalie told Blair.

"I know. That was one of my first thoughts. But Becker wouldn't just happen to be carrying chloral hydrate."

"Still," said Tootie, "we should do a little digging. Who else is upset with Jo?"

Jo shrugged. "You're the chief snoop, Toot. We'll leave that up to you."

"Boots was all weirdly chummy with you," mused Natalie.

"She wants me to join Gamma Gamma," Blair explained.

"No. I meant Jo. Boots was all weirdly chummy with Jo. Practically sat in her lap after you went up to your room, Blair."

Blair waved one hand dismissively. "Boots was practically sitting in Jo's lap before I went up to my room. She's just very touchy-feely. And maybe she thinks if she's nice to my friends, I'll be more likely to pledge Gamma Gamma house."

"Maybe she thinks if I'm dead, you're more likely to pledge Gamma," said Jo, laughing.

"People do get a little psycho about their sorority or fraternity," Tootie said thoughtfully.

"Aw, come on," scoffed Jo. "I'm jokin. It's a joke!"

"Just do what you do best," Blair told Natalie and Tootie. "Ask questions. Be nosy. Uncover information that's absolutely none of your business."

"You can count on us," Tootie said stoutly. "We can compare notes at lunch. Come on, Nat."

"Take care of yourself," Natalie told Jo. "A Mickey Finn! Unbelievable."

"Eh, I'll be fine. You take care of yourselves. Watch out for Tootie. I don't want someone clonkin you on the heads if you ask the wrong person the wrong question."

"Clonked on the head? Please. Have you met us?" Nat asked. "Nellie Bly and Nancy Drew are on the case!"

"Amen!" said Tootie.

"Christ, Nat," grumbled Jo, "Nancy Drew was always getting kidnapped – and Nellie Bly got herself thrown into the loony bin!"

"But they always got their story! And the crooks!"

"Well just be careful is all I'm sayin."

"You too." Natalie raised one eyebrow, looked significantly at Blair. "Carry on, Florence Nightingale."

Blair actually blushed.


Lunch was a serve-yourself spread of light dishes like cold pheasant and salad, arrayed along a massive walnut hutch in the massive dining hall.

Jo picked at slices of cold turkey and drank glass after glass of water. Blair and the Langley Lions sat with her.

"Damn sorry this happened," Petal told Jo quietly. "The police are sending someone to talk with you. He'll be in plain clothes. If you could keep this quiet for now …"

"Sure," Jo said. "We'll play it close to the chest."

Natalie and Tootie joined them halfway through the meal. Tootie was practically vibrating with suppressed excitement. Natalie looked more serious.

"Guess who has insomnia?" asked Tootie. "And guess who's studying to be a veterinarian?"

"Who?" asked Blair.

"Your old pal Dina Becker!"

"And that's interesting because … ?"

"Chloral hydrate is sometimes prescribed for insomnia," explained Natalie. "And it's a key ingredient in animal anesthetics."

"So," said Jo, "good ol' Becker might be carryin some type of chloral hydrate in her purse. Interestin."

"But don't get too excited," cautioned Natalie. "Apparently Dina left the Great Hall after the first ghost story – right around the time you left, Blair."

"So Dina wasn't around to poison my second drink," said Jo.

"But if anyone had shoved Blair down a staircase, Dina would've been the perfect suspect!"

"I'm tryin to picture Dina as a vet," said Jo. "I can picture her huntin animals, and makin coats out of 'em, but I can't see her takin care of 'em."

"Becker loves cats," said Blair. "And horses. She had a lonely childhood."

"No kiddin! So … who else besides Doctor Doolittle would want to clean my clock?"

"You four just have adventure after adventure, don't you?" Portia asked admiringly. She sighed. "I wish my life were that exciting."

"Gerald will call," Jackrabbit said waspishly. "At least I hope he will. You're becoming very tiresome on the subject, Lefty."

Mrs. Garrett joined them. Although she appeared concerned for Jo, she looked healthier and happier than the girls had seen her look since before her resignation from Eastland.

"What happened, Jo?"

"Eh, someone slipped me a Mickey. I'm fine, Mrs. G. No need to worry."

"Jo, chloral hydrate can be very dangerous."

"Nah, it's nothin."

"Jo Polniaczek, don't try to pacify me. I'm a registered nurse."

"Oh. Yeah. I always forget that."

"People have died from chloral hydrate! We're very lucky you weren't given a stronger dose."

"Mrs. G, you were at the ghost stories last night. You're real observant. Did you see who gave me the second drink?"

"I'm sorry, but no, I didn't. I was focused on the stories, and the people I was sitting with."

"Like that hunka-hunka with the salt-and-pepper hair?" teased Natalie.

"Nat, we're discussin my brush with mortality," groused Jo. "Can we hold off on the hunka-hunka discussions?"

"Natalie is correct, though," said Mrs. Garrett. "I was paying quite a bit of attention to Dante." She smiled. It hit Jo, hard, how long it'd been since she'd seen Mrs. G really smile. "Dante's a TV producer. He's developing a cooking show for the New York morning market." Mrs. Garrett patted her bun of red hair. "He seems to think I might make an interesting on-air personality."

"Mrs. Garrett!" cried Tootie. "That's wonderful!"

"You got plenty of great personality," Jo agreed with a grin. "A cookin show, huh? That'd be right up your alley."

"But it can't just be cooking," said Natalie. "You've got to throw in some of your great advice!"

"I wish I had some great advice to give you now," said Mrs. Garrett, her smile fading. "All I can say is, please be very careful, girls. I'm very sorry someone did this to Jo." She clenched her fists. "It makes me spitting mad, anyone trying to hurt one of my girls! Who could it have been?"

"You know it's not one of the Lions," Jackrabbit said, "for selfish reasons, if nothing else. We need Jo in one piece for the state championships!"

"Don't worry, Mrs. G, we'll get to the bottom of this," said Jo. "Why don't you get yourself some grub? Go on. We'll be OK."

"Well, I am a little hungry. Maybe just a bite …" Mrs. Garrett bustled off toward the buffet.

"I'm so sorry this happened in my home," Petal told Jo. "I've already questioned the housekeeper and the butler."

"Did the butler do it?" Natalie declaimed.

Everyone groaned.

"They assured me that all of the staff members have been here for at least five years," said Petal, "and some of them since long before I was born. All very reliable and professional. No one's been fired or given notice recently."

"Did you hire an outside bartender?" asked Blair. "Mother usually does that for her parties."

Petal shook her head. "Cook prepared all the drinks herself, in batches – she's something of a mixologist – and the footmen poured them out and served them on trays. No outsider touched the drinks. And no one besides Jo was drugged – at least, no one else has reported feeling ill."

"So someone in the room did it," said Tootie. "Wow. This is so Agatha Christie!"

"Glad my poisonin can entertain you, Stretch," Jo said wryly.

Alec dropped into an empty chair next to Jo. He put a hand on her shoulder.

"Jo. I was so sorry to hear what happened."

"Sorry, eh? That an admission?"

Alec blanched. "Jo, I hope you know that I would never – "

"Aw, keep your shirt on, Blitheridge. Poisonin is a pretty cowardly way of hurtin someone. I believe if you were ever really mad at me, you'd have the guts to pop me one in the jaw."

"Thanks. I think." He squeezed her shoulder. "Do you need anything, Jo?"

She glared meaningfully at his hand on her shoulder.

"Done." Alec released his grip on Jo. He slipped his arm around Blair and kissed the heiress' cheek.

"This must be very upsetting for you, dear," he said to Blair.

"I'm fine," said Blair. "As long as we find out who did this, and as long as no one else is hurt."

"Pardon me," said a deep voice.

A tall man in a dark suit stood beside Jo's chair. He was about forty, dark hair trimmed in a military-style buzz cut. "My name is Skip Martin. I'm, uh, an old friend of the Von Schuylkill family."

Sure you are, thought Jo. One thing Jo had learned growing up in the Bronx was how to spot a cop from a mile away. Martin's suit was brand new – it might as well have still had the price tag on it. Obviously he'd purchased it to blend in. But his buzz cut, his cool demeanor and his cold eyes screamed cop.

"Hello officer," Jo said quietly. "Want to join us?"

Martin nodded. Alec slid over, allowing Martin to sit down next to Jo.

"What's your name?" Martin asked her without preamble.

"I'm doin real well, thanks for askin," said Jo. "How's by you."

Martin didn't crack a smile. His expression didn't change at all. "What's your name?" he repeated.

"I'm Jo Polniaczek. The victim. And this is Petal Von Schuylkill." Jo indicated Moose. "Our hostess."

"I filed the report," Petal told the officer. "My parents are overseas and our estate manager is on vacation, so I'm in charge for the weekend. You have carte blanche, of course; do whatever you need to do. But the more discrete you can be …"

"When did the incident occur?" Martin asked calmly.

Yeah … robot-man really blends right in, thought Jo. Her lip curled. She really, really disliked cops.

Blair, sitting on Jo's other side, elbowed the short-tempered brunette in the ribs. Behave!

Jo behaved. She gave the details of the incident without overtly insulting the officer.

As Jo expected, Martin seemed more interested in things like whether she was old enough to drink than the fact that she had been drugged.

"My license," she said, holding it under his nose. "I'm nineteen. See? I'm legal."

"I have to check. Underage drinking is a very serious concern," Officer Martin said coldly.

"So is poison," drawled Petal. "Officer Martin, all of my guests under nineteen were served hot chocolate last night. When my parents allow me to host a weekend party, I take it very seriously. This isn't 'Animal House'. All laws are obeyed."

"Of course," Martin said indifferently.

He took a small notebook from the breast pocket of his new suit jacket. He flipped through it slowly, methodically, finally pausing on one particular page.

"You're from the Bronx," Officer Martin said to Jo. It was a statement, not a question.

And here we go, thought Jo. Let the fun and games begin!

"Yes," she said, keeping a firm grip on her temper. "I'm from the Bronx." And damn proud of it!

"Got into a little trouble there, didn't you?"

"Not lately."

He turned the page. "You were running with, let me see, the Young Diablos."

"Yes," she said.

"Truancy, B&E, and assault."

"The assault charges were dropped," said Jo. "It was self-defense."

"Which time?" asked the officer.

"Every time," she said.

Officer Martin flipped to another page.

"Got into a little trouble in Peekskill, too. Auto theft. Underage drinking. Assaulting an officer."

"I assaulted the officer," said Tootie.

"Tootie was eleven years old," Blair explained. "It wasn't like she stabbed him. She just poured a pitcher of beer on his head."

"Not the whole pitcher," Tootie clarified.

"Who gives a damn who poured beer on whom when they were eleven bloody years old?" Alec demanded, his color high. "A young woman has been drugged, Officer Martin. What are you prepared to do about it? Or do we need to speak to your superiors?"

Wow. Guess jackass really is worried about me, Jo mused.

Martin closed his notebook with a snap. He leveled his steady, almost icy gaze on Alec.

"Lord Nethridge, isn't it? You have an interesting record of your own."

Alec blushed, but he held the man's gaze. "I don't poison young women," he said evenly.

"Not yet," said Martin. "More of a confidence artist, aren't you?" He turned to Petal. "Ma'am, I'm going to talk to your staff – quietly of course – and I'm going to interview the guests that were near Miss Polniaczek when the incident allegedly occurred."

"Allegedly?" asked Natalie. She looked to Tootie. "Did he just say allegedly?"

"Yes. I did," Martin said placidly. "Miss Von Schuylkill, I will keep an open-mind, but when the dust settles I think you'll find you narrowly escaped being the victim of a flim-flam."

"What flim-flam?" Blair demanded. Now her color was rising.

Ah! I see where he's goin now, thought Jo.

"He thinks we're settin Petal up for a lawsuit," Jo explained. "A kinda variation on the ol slip-and-fall."

"What's the 'old slip-and-fall'?"

"When someone falls down in a big mansion," said Jo. "Or a restaurant. Some place with bucks. 'Oh, my back!' Get it? People sue for millions."

"What does that have to do with this?"

"He thinks I'm gonna sue Petal cause I got drugged in her house. Allegedly."

"But that's ridiculous!" Blair turned to Martin. "Now see here, officer. I'll have you know –"

"You're the Warner girl," said the officer. "You were in on the whole Chugalug roadhouse escapade."

"Well … yes. I was fifteen years old!"

"Some interesting incidents in Texas, too. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area."

Blair turned beet red. She lowered her eyes.

She's thinkin of Mimi, thought Jo. That girl she kissed. But I thought they hushed that up?

Jo's foot itched to plant itself squarely on the seat of Officer Martin's pants.

Martin stood up, sliding his notebook back into his breast pocket. "I'll be in the kitchen, questioning the staff," he said. "In case anyone needs me. Miss Von Schuylkill, my recommendation is that you ask Miss Polniaczek, Miss Warner and Lord Nethridge to call it a weekend. Any 'mysterious' incidents will stop as soon as they've left the premises."

After he left, Blair buried her face in her hands. Alec put a comforting arm around her shoulders. He looked angrier than Jo had ever seen him.

"What a colorful crowd you are," said Petal. "And have been for some time, apparently!"

"Petal, I swear to God – " Jo began, but Petal held up one large hand.

"Princess, you don't have to say anything. I don't care what any of you did when you were younger. We all have little escapades tucked away in the odd corners of our permanent records. I know you didn't lie about this. Someone here drugged you – one of my guests – and we need to find out whodunit. Or, at the very least, keep anyone else from being hurt."

Jo grinned. "You're OK people, Petal."

"I'm a good judge of character, at any rate. So … how do we find out who drugged you?"

"I think I got an idea," said Jo. "My brain must be clearin a little bit."

"I'm all ears," said Petal. "Figuratively speaking."

"That's what we need," said Jo. "Lots of eyes and ears – on everybody! We need to turn the whole house into an amateur detective corps, but without freakin everyone out."

"And how do we do that?"

"A murder weekend!" said Blair, catching Jo's drift.

"Exactly!" said Jo. "Tell everyone there's been a 'murder' – a phony murder, of course – and everyone has to be play detective. Look for clues, watch what everyone else is doin."

"I love it!" said Petal. "With everyone watching everyone else, someone would have to be a complete imbecile to try to harm anyone."

"We need a victim," Natalie said practically. "Who's willing to be stabbed or shot or whatever and spend the rest of the weekend in their suite?"

Portia sighed. "I'll do it," she volunteered. "I'm not having much fun without Gerald anyway."

"Ripping!" Jackrabbit said excitedly. "Can I be the killer?"

"Why not?" said Petal. "You do have a sort of desperate intensity. So Portia's the victim, Jackrabbit's the killer … We don't really have to cook up much of a plot, just announce the game and get everyone watching everyone else as soon as possible."

"Let's make it poison," said Jo. "Portia's gonna be poisoned. OK? So everyone'll be payin extra attention to who's touchin their food and drink."

"Brava, Princess," Jacqueline said approvingly. "Consider your slot in Zeta Zeta assured."

Jo blushed. Even after three years of accolades at Eastland, public praise still embarrassed her. "Yeah, OK, let's discuss that after we all get through this weekend in one piece."

"You're pledging Zeta Zeta house?" Natalie demanded. "What next? Is Blair joining the roller derby?"

"That depends," said Blair. "What's a 'roller derby'?"

"I'll tell you later," Jo said. "Now, when are we gonna get the murder game goin? After lunch?"

"Why after lunch? No time like the present," Jacqueline said briskly.

"I'm game," shrugged Portia. "And I've finished my lunch."

"Your poisoned lunch!" Tootie said dramatically.

"Tootie, you're the actress," said Petal. "Why don't you take the lead on this?"

"Me? Well, this is so sudden. And so unexpected. But, all right, I'll –aaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiyyyyyyyyyy!"

Tootie let loose with a blood-curdling shriek that reverberated through the grand dining hall, echoing and ricocheting from the weathered stones.

"God's teeth!" muttered Alec, covering his ears.

Taking the scream as her cue, Portia flopped forward, lying half across her plate of salad and cold duck.

Everyone in the room gasped and turned to stare at Tootie and her friends.

"Portia's been murdered!" Tootie cried, in a voice that carried to the furthest corner of the dining room.

"Eh, don't forget about the poison," muttered Jo.

"She's been poisoned!" Tootie cried. "Some foul drug has been placed in her food or her drink! There's a foul fiend afoot!"

"'Foul fiend,'" murmured Alec. "Tootie, my dear … are you sure you want to be an actress?"

Tootie stamped on Alec's foot under the table. He bit back a curse. Jo stifled a laugh.

"It's supposed to sound phony, jackass," Jo whispered to Alec. "So everyone knows it's a game."

"Ah!"

Sure enough, a jumble of excited voices swept through the room.

"A murder game!"

"The murder game!"

"I told you there'd be one!"

"How thrilling!"

"The butler did it!"

"No, the housekeeper! Why is it never the housekeeper?"

Tootie held up her hands authoritatively.

"We must call in Inspector Smythe! Until he arrives, we must go about our day as we usually would. But we must be very, very careful of everything we eat and drink! And we must be very, very careful to watch everyone around us. For … there is a killer in our midst!" Tootie put a hand to her heart.

The guests broke out into applause.

Tootie blushed, pleased. She made a half-bow.

The guests resumed eating their food or filling their plates at the buffet, talking animatedly among themselves about the murder game.

"Now that was some fine-quality Baltimore ham," Natalie told Tootie, impressed. "They gave you a bigger standing O than you got for 'South Pacific'!"

"Improv is my specialty," Tootie said with mock-modesty, buffing her fingernails on her blouse.

"So now everyone's on their guard," Jo said, nodding with satisfaction. "Nice work, Toot."

"What about me?" Portia asked, voice muffled by the table cloth.

"Oh, you were great," Jo said hastily. "Great work as a corpse there. Soon as the room clears out, you can sit back up normal, and we'll get you up to your room."

"And then," said Natalie, "the Snoop Sisters really get to work."

"Secret poisoner, look out!" said Tootie. "The four musketeers are on the case!"


Jo sighed dreamily, opening her eyes. She and Blair were in a canoe on Lake Peekskill.

Not being a swimmer, Jo had been leery of this little excursion, but Blair promised to paddle close to the shore, which was gloriously ablaze with gold and orange leaves. The water was slate grey, the foliage aflame. Someone was burning leaves nearby, a sweet, smoky scent.

Jo liked the sound of the water lapping against the hull of the sleek wooden canoe, and the feeling of speed as Blair expertly maneuvered the craft with the lake's currents. As Jo watched, falling leaves, brilliant as sparks, see-sawed down from the trees, landing in little puddles of bright color on the lake.

Jo turned carefully on her seat, watched Blair paddle for a moment. Jo was bundled warmly into her fleece-lined leather aviator jacket. Blair was warm in a pumpkin-hued sued jacket, lined with fur, and a little fur cap.

It still turned Jo on, immensely, to watch Blair display physical prowess.

Jo had known from the first day she met Blair that the blonde was beautiful and intelligent and artistic, but when it came to physical activities, she thought Blair was a total dork. Blair didn't do sports; her only athletic accomplishment seemed to be wrestling other shoppers for designer duds at Bloomies.

What a revelation it had been –and continued to be – when Jo learned that Blair was actually a very physical, extremely strong young woman, an award-winning equestrian and swimmer. And now Blair was deftly guiding their canoe past the burning autumn shores of Lake Peekskill.

Jo sighed again. "This is freakin heaven," she said.

"Don't have anything like this in the Bronx?" teased Blair.

"Not exactly. 'Cept maybe durin arson season, when the abandoned tenements are burnin."

"Jo?"

"What, babe?"

"When we get this whole weekend sorted out, there's something I want to ask you."

Jo groaned. "Blair … Why do you hafta do that?"

"Do what?" Blair dug the paddle deeper into the water, turning the blade, guiding them further away from shore.

"You say 'There's somethin I wanna talk to you about sometime.' You know I hate that! If you wanna talk about somethin, talk about it."

"Not yet," said Blair. "We have too much on our plate right now."

"Then why bring it up at all? See, that's what drives me crazy."

"It's not a bad thing for you to learn a little patience, Jo."

"I hate patience! Who has time for patience?"

"Jo?"

"What?"

"I love you."

Jo groaned. "That is so unfair."

"What's unfair?" Blair asked innocently.

"You are a very devious woman."

"Yes, Jo. But you knew that when you proposed to me."

"Blair, you can't just get me to stop complainin about somethin by sayin 'I love you'."

"Of course I can."

"But it's not fair!"

"Not in the least," Blair agreed. She dug the paddle deep again, turned it, guided them toward the center of the lake. "Jo, darling, we're going out a tad bit farther than we originally planned. I want you to see something."

"How far out? See what?" Jo asked nervously. She scooted her behind into the dead center of the seat. "I really, totally cannot swim, babe. Not one stroke."

"I'm a certified lifeguard, Jo. But don't worry, you won't fall out."

Blair didn't paddle them all the way to the center of the enormous lake, but she did take them far enough away from the shore that the Von Schuylkill monstrosity of a "cottage" faded to obscurity behind a screen of pines and birch and smoldering foliage.

Blair set her paddle carefully in the bottom of the canoe.

"Hey," said Jo, "there's water in the bottom of the boat!"

"All craft draw a little water," Blair said. "It's normal." She carefully moved toward the center of the canoe, careful to keep it balanced.

"What are you doing?" Jo demanded.

"I'm going to make out with my fiancée, on this beautiful lake."

"Are you crazy?"

Blair wiggled her eyebrows. "Am I, Polniaczek?"

"We're going to tip over the canoe!"

"We're not going to tip over the canoe."

"But what if we do? And what if the paddle conks you on the head, and we're in the water, and you're unconscious, and I can't swim?"

Blair laughed, a clear, lovely sound, which Jo much preferred to the phony, simpering chortle Blair seemed to use around male admirers.

"Jo, what if a pterodactyl swoops down and carries me off? I mean, really, darling – we could play 'what if' all day. Now come here." Blair smiled seductively.

"Nothin doin!" said Jo. "I mean, OK, say we don't tip the boat – what if someone sees us makin out?"

"Who's going to see us?"

"Someone on shore."

"Jo, even the Bionic Woman couldn't see us from shore – we're too far out."

"The Bionic Woman had a special ear," said Jo. "The Bionic Man was the one with the high-powered vision."

Blair rolled her eyes. "Yes, that's a very important point, Jo. My apologies."

"Well, you sound like a dork when you get it mixed up like that."

"I sound like a dork?" Blair laughed again. She extended one gloved hand. "Come here, my dorky temptress."

Reluctantly, Jo slid forward one seat, until she and Blair were both in the center of the canoe.

"Perfect," said Blair, sliding her arms around Jo's shoulders. "No sudden movements, and we should be all right."

Jo put her hands on Blair's hips, but she glanced nervously toward the shore. "You sure no one can see us? I mean, if anyone does, it's hell to pay. A lotta hell."

"Who could possibly see us out here?"

"Dunno, someone with binoculars? A spy satellite?"

"No one is out bird watching today," Blair said confidently. "No one's around to be bird watching; most of the cottages along this end of the lake are already shut up for the winter. And Jo – if there's a Soviet spy watching us via satellite right now, let's give the poor comrade something to warm him up!"

Blair locked eyes with Jo, warm chocolate (with green-and-gold flecks) gazing into green-blue. Blair grinned mischievously. "So, Polniaczek – are you going to make a move?"

Jo returned the grin. All I've got to do is look in her eyes, and everything is perfect. No matter where we are … no matter what muck we've landed in … it's like … her nineteen-year-old mind groped for a way to understand what her heart and soul were feeling. It's like, she's my shelter. If she's looking at me like that, if I can see myself in her eyes, everything could be exploding around us, but we're safe as houses …

Jo leaned in slowly, gently captured Blair's lips, kissed her tenderly, deepened the kiss, pulled the heiress tight against her. Blair returned the kiss with a smoldering passion, a slow-burn that gradually intensified until she was driving her tongue deep into Jo's mouth.

Jo broke the kiss, panting.

"Blair, not that intense," she said. "We can't … we'll tip the canoe if we try that out here."

"I don't care," Blair said recklessly. Suddenly she felt tears pricking her eyes, rolling down her face.

Jo kissed the tears away.

"I know," she told Blair.

"You know what?" Blair asked.

"I know why you're crying."

"How can you know?" Blair felt more tears sliding down her face. "I don't even know. It's so stupid."

"It's not stupid, Blair. It's, we're both so, like, ravenous for each other. If we didn't have to friggin hide it all the time, if there was some way we could just, let it out into the light. You know?"

Blair burrowed against Jo's chest. "I just want you all the time. Every minute of the day," she whispered. "And most of the time I can't even touch you. Pretending we're just friends, it's getting harder and harder to do …"

Jo kissed Blair's forehead where it peeked out under the fur cap.

"That's why you want to pretend to be engaged to Alec," Jo said. "It's buildin up inside you, like a volcano. All the things you feel for me, for us. You think it's gonna blow. So you want, you want –"

"Someone in place that makes sense. Yes," said Blair. "Because to be honest, Jo, it's getting so hard to pretend we're just friends. It really helps having Alec around. When he kisses my cheek, I can think, 'That's Jo kissing my cheek'. And when he puts his arm around me, it's like you're putting your arm around me …"

"And what am I gonna do?" Jo asked, nuzzling Blair's neck. She gently pushed aside blonde tendrils of hair. "It's buildin up in me too, babe. Am I supposed to get a stooge like Alec?"

"Alec's not a stooge," said Blair, voice muffled against Jo's fleece collar. "He's a friend."

"Blair," Jo said seriously, "if he's really your friend, you gotta stop usin him like this."

Blair sighed. "Do you realize what you've been doing to me, Jo? Do you realize that you're rapidly undoing nineteen years of my parents' self-serving, amoral tutelage?"

Jo smiled. "I certainly hope so, Princess. Listen," she pulled Blair even closer, nuzzled her neck again, "just tell me what you want. In your heart of hearts, what do you want? You've been dancin around it for days now."

"I don't know what you mean."

"Blair. Light of my life. You keep startin to ask me somethin, and then you change the subject, or you say we'll talk about it later. Just ask me."

"I … I can't," Blair said in a small voice. "It's … I don't know what I'll do if you don't like it."

"If I don't like what? Blair Warner, what have you been trying to ask me?"

"I don't know."

"Babe?"

"It's not important," said Blair. "Our friends have much more pressing problems. I mean, Mrs. Garrett – what's she going to do?"

"From what she said at lunch, sounds like she's gonna be starrin in a cookin show!"

"And Tootie's stage fright!"

"She didn't look too frightened when she kicked off the murder game just now."

"And Natalie – she's so lonely."

"Aw, Nat'll probably have two new boyfriends by the time we get back to the house. Blair. Babe." Jo held Blair impossibly tight. "Never mind fixin everybody's else's life. What do you want for us? You can ask me anythin."

Blair sighed. "Jo?"

"Yeah? I'm here."

"Jo, I want us to live together."

"Me too," Jo said. "More than anythin. But Langley – "

"To hell with Langley and those stupid rule," said Blair. "I want us to rent a house. Near campus."

So that's it! A house. Livin with Blair. God! Goin to sleep with her. Wakin up with her. What a flippin brilliant idea. But …

"What that actually means," Jo said slowly, "is you want to rent a house near campus. Cause you know I can't afford anythin like that, babe."

"I'd cover the bulk of it," Blair admitted, "but if you don't pay room and board to Langley next semester, your parents can keep their room and board checks. Less financial strain on them. And the money you would've paid Langley, that can go into our rent. Plus, our roommates would kick in."

"I see. Our roommates."

"Because I miss Mrs. Garrett so much," said Blair. "Don't you, Jo? And I miss Tootie and Natalie. Can't you picture us, in one of those wonderful old Victorian houses on Cross Street? We'd have our room, and they'd have their rooms, and we'd share the kitchen, and Tootie and Nat could kick in whatever they could toward the rent, and if Mrs. Garrett is filming a television program, well, she certainly could contribute. We'd all be living together again! And you and I, I mean, they already know about us …"

Jo kissed Blair. Hard. She beamed at her fiancée.

"Blair, babe, I freakin love it!"

"You do?"

"I do! I seriously, seriously do. The whole family, together again. And we won't have to hide that we love each other, not in our own home."

"Oh, God, you love it. You love it!"

Blair hugged Jo so fiercely that the canoe rocked violently from side to side.

"We're goin into the water!" yelled Jo. But Blair stopped moving, and the canoe stabilized.

"Did my hair turn white?" Jo asked.

"No, darling – but you do look a little green around the gills."

"Eh, maybe it's time to get back to shore," suggested Jo.

Blair lifted the paddle from the bottom of the canoe, began carving the water in long strokes, propelling them back toward the Von Schuylkill mansion.

Jo was silent for a few minutes, clutching the sides of the canoe. When they were halfway back to shore without any mishaps, she relaxed.

"Blair," she said casually, "how many rooms are there?"

"Thirty-four," said Blair, not breaking her rhythm.

"Only thirty-four," mused Jo. "Well, I suppose it'll have to do."

"There are ten bedrooms, and seven bathrooms," Blair said excitedly. "Well, seven and a half. You and I will have plenty of privacy. And if Petal or any of the gang need to move in, there's room. It's halfway between Eastland and Langley, and there's a stunning view of the Hudson, and …" Blair trailed off. "How did you know?" she asked.

"It just sorta came to me," said Jo, "in a blindin flash, on account of I know you, Blair Warner. I know you down to your beautiful bones. So. When did you rent it?"

"After you proposed."

"I see. And it's just been sittin there, empty, for a month?"

"I had … a few things moved in."

"So there's room for all our friends? And I assume you want Lord Stony Broke to move in, too, so he can save his pounds and pence?"

"Jo, I know you don't –"

"No, no, let him move in," Jo said magnanimously. "The more the freakin merrier. But he has to be on the other side of the house from us. In a broom closet or somethin. And I swear to God, if he touches you when we're in that house –""

"He won't. He's too afraid of you."

"Good."

"Jo, you're really OK with this?"

"Bein able to sleep in the same room with you? Bein able to kiss you good morning and good night and bring you breakfast in bed, and stop all this friggin pretendin?"

Blair sighed. "I wish I'd just told you right away, when I rented it."

Jo shook her head. "Nah. You were right, Blair. I know you, but you know me pretty good too. I wouldn't have been ready. I wouldn't have said 'yes' a month ago. I woulda been difficult –"

"You? Difficult?"

"Hilarious! But I, you know, I'm grown up enough to admit it. I wouldn't have been open to movin in with you a month ago. But more four weeks of sneakin in and out of each other's rooms, not bein able to be open about how we feel … I get it. We need our own place. If havin fifty roommates can be classified as havin our own place."

"Oh, I can't wait until you see it!"

"I suppose you've already picked out our room?"

"Well … You'll have input, of course."

"Oh, of course!"

"But there's a cozy little set of rooms near the back. A bedroom, a sitting-room-slash-study, a bathroom. The rooms still have all the original carved wood."

"How 'bout the original moths? Original bats? Or rats?"

"I had an exterminator out first thing, of course. They said the house is clean."

"Well, that's somethin."

"Our suite – pending your approval, of course, darling – is set apart from the other rooms. Perfect privacy."

"Perfect privacy? I love it!"

"You will, Jo, I really think you will! But if you don't like it – "

"If it gives us privacy, I love it!"

Blair's heart sang. She wants to live with me. With us – our family.

"Blair, how are you affording this?" Jo asked curiously. "How can you rent a thirty-four room house? Won't your parents wonder about it?"

"I'm using part of my allowance," Blair explained. "Mother and father never pry into what I'm doing with my allowance."

"That's some damn allowance." Jo tried not to dwell on how wealthy her fiancée was. It was too daunting a thought. But from time to time, it was brought home to her in very concrete terms.

"I will, of course, have to tell them I'm moving off campus. I mean, they're my parents. They're paying for Langley. They have a right to know my address. And that they don't need to pay Langley room and board any longer."

"Do we have to wait until next semester to move in?" Jo asked.

"Of course not. When did you have in mind?"

"How 'bout Monday?"

Blair felt tears pricking her eyes again, but these were tears of joy, not frustration.

"Babe?" Jo prompted.

"Monday … would be fine," Blair said huskily.

She steered the canoe adroitly alongside the Von Schuylkill dock.

Natalie and Tootie were pacing up and down the dock, bundled into their winter coats.

"Have we got news for you two!" said Tootie.

"Why is Blair blubbering?" asked Nat.

"I'm not blubbering," Blair said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.

Jo grinned at Natalie and Tootie. "Guys – we got some news too! We'll share it later – when the time is right."


"I never understood," Natalie said, many, many years later, "why you two picked that afternoon for your romantic little paddle around Lake Peekskill. I mean, all hell starts breaking loose in the house – and there are Jo and Blair, 'la-la-la-la', floating around the lake."

"We needed a break," said Jo. "A little peace and quiet. Someone had just drugged me, Natalie."

"And I was trying to work up the courage to tell Jo about the house," Blair explained.

"I finally got it out of her," said Jo. "It was like pulling teeth."

"Oh my God!" Tootie laughed, eyes dancing. "That's right! That's when we all moved into the house together! Blair, did you have any idea what you were starting when you rented the house?"

"Not exactly. I just knew I wanted to be with all of you, somehow."

"Especially me," said Jo.

"Yes, Jo. Especially you."

"Were you always this needy?" Tootie asked Jo.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."

"She was," Blair told Tootie. "I got used to it. It's kind of sweet."

"Everything the inamorata does," said Alec, opening another bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé, "is always sweet."

"I have a lot of good memories of the house," mused Tootie.

"Don't we all," said Jo. She suddenly flashed one of her old, wicked grins. "Especially Nat! She's probably got some of the best memories."

"We've all got good memories of the house," said Natalie, glancing at her wristwatch. "And speaking of the house – has anyone heard from Lexi today?"

"Not my day to watch her," said Jo.

Natalie made a face.

"Oh, very dignified," said Jo. "As usual, you are an example to us all."

Natalie stuck out her tongue.

"Lexi will call," said Blair, waving dismissively. "She just knows how to be fashionably late."

"You don't have to sound so proud," said Natalie. "We all know that's your influence."

"What do you mean?"

"Lexi being late all the time."

"Fashionably late? Well … " Blair smiled, "perhaps I can take a teeny bit of credit."

"Take it all," Jo said generously. "We know it's not our influence."

On the table, the retro 1950's phone, complete with heavy black receiver, trilled. It looked and sounded like something that was originally used in a Cold War bomb shelter.

"See? There she is. Almost right on time," said Blair.

Alec scooped up the receiver. "Hello, Alec Anviston here."

He listened for a couple of seconds. "Very well," he said into the phone. He held out the receiver. "Lexi wants to speak with her mother."


"Jesus, Joseph and Mary," said Jo. "This place is a friggin nuthouse."

She stood in the middle of Great Hall with Blair, Natalie and Tootie.

Around them, Petal's guests were dashing up and down the stairs, in and out of adjacent hallways, standing on the furniture, looking under the furniture – one young man had propped open the baby grand piano and was examining the strings, creating an eerie, atonal tune.

"Like I told you," said Natalie. "It's 'murder game' mania! They're looking everywhere for clues. Someone broke a Ming vas in the red parlor!"

"A real Ming vas?"

"A real Ming vas!"

"Do I wanna know how much it's worth?"

"No. But I'll tell you. Petal said it would probably bring three million at auction. Now, in fifty pieces – not worth quite so much!"

"We gotta get a handle on this," said Jo.

"Be our guest," shrugged Natalie. "Petal's already tried banging the gong, making announcements – but everyone thinks whatever she does or says is part of the game!"

"Aw, for cryin out loud! Why are people such chumps?" Jo put two fingers in her mouth and blasted out the loudest whistler her friends had ever heard.

Guests froze in their tracks, putting their fingers in their ears. They looked askance at Jo.

"OK, you've got their attention," said Natalie. "What are you going to do with it?"

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," said Jo.

She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Now hear this!" she shouted. "I'm Detective Flanagan! I'm here to solve the murder of Portia Barclay!"

There was a round of applause from the guests.

"Now we'll get to the bottom of this!" shouted someone.

Jo's cheeks burned pink. She really, really disliked being the center of attention. But what the hell else could she do?

"I want to thank you all for your detective work," shouted Jo. "You've done an amazin job."

Cheers rang out as the guests congratulated themselves.

"Unfortunately, ah, we have determined that Portia was poisoned by the, ah, grandchild of Jack the Ripper! Could be a man, could be a woman. So, I need everyone to go get dressed for dinner, and keep your doors locked. Don't let anyone in unless you know them! Your life could depend on it!"

More cheers.

"This is just like a real murder!" the elderly viscountess said with gusto.

Guests filed out of the Great Hall, chatting among themselves about the many strange clues they believed they had found.

Jo looked around the Great Hall, at the overturned chair and sofa cushions, the furniture and curtains all askew, a shattered lamp. "Guess it could be worse," she said.

"Nicely done, Jo," said Petal, striding into the room. "That was inspired."

"Eh, it just kinda came to me. When you're dealin with people who are actin kinda nutty, the best way to get through to 'em is to join in the crazy."

"Pardon me," said a resonant voice. Belmont Keane had followed Petal into the Great Hall. "I don't mean to intrude, Petal, but can I help you with anything? With all due respect to Miss Ramsey," he nodded politely to Tootie, "I couldn't help but notice that this whole murder game seems to be, well – "

"A total crock?" suggested Jo.

"Exactly. My little sister attends Eastland, and I happened to catch Miss Ramsey in 'Showboat' last year. And I can say without hesitation that the hammy performance in the dining room today bore no resemblance to Miss Ramsey's stunning portrayal of Noli Hawks."

Tootie blushed – in part because the Belmont Keane, hunky doctor on "St. Elsewhere", had criticized her dining room improv, in part because the Belmont Keane had praised her "Showboat" role.

"We're flyin by the seat of our pants, here," admitted Jo. "You're Petal's cousin, right?"

"We can trust him completely," said Petal.

"That's what I figured," said Jo. "Look, Biff – "

"It's Belmont."

"Really? OK – Belmont – somebody slipped me a Mickey last night. We don't know who or why but it had to be someone here. There's a Peekskill cop around here somewhere, but he's about as much use as a – "

"About him," said Petal. "He's disappeared."

"What?" demanded Natalie. "Officer Martin disappeared?"

"Poof," said Petal.

"Eh, who needed him anyway?" said Jo. But she felt an icy finger on her spine. Where could he be? He wouldn't just take off – not a prick like him! He'd have to give us a hard time again before he left! So did somethin happen to him? Who would have the stones to disappear a cop? Jeez! Nobody I want to tangle with!

"Funny thing," said Petal, "by which, I don't mean literally 'funny', I mean 'odd'. I called the Peekskill Police Department to complain about Officer Martin's attitude. Let his superiors know how incredibly rude he was. They were staggered. Apparently he's the sweetest fellow – was a priest before he became an officer of the law. They're never heard of him behaving in such a way. And, as far as they know, he's never gone by the name 'Skip'. His name is Bartleby."

"Jeesh, if my name was 'Bartleby', I'd go by 'Skip' too!" said Natalie.

Wrong personality … wrong name … wheels were turning in Jo's head.

"This whole thing smells like Randazzo's in July!" said Jo. Seeing the blank looks directed at her, "Fishy!" she explained. "It's all very fishy. Think about it – How do we know the Officer Martin we met was really Officer Martin?"

"Come on," said Natalie, "don't start getting paranoid, Jo."

"Am I gettin paranoid? Guy shows up, hassles us, disappears, doesn't sound anythin like the guy he's supposed to be. Like I said – fishy."

"She's got a point," said Tootie. "A crook impersonating a cop … Agatha Christie did that in 'The Mousetrap'."

"So – where's the real Officer Martin, then?" Natalie asked reasonably. "Gagged and tied to a train track like in the old cartoons?"

"Maybe his haircut wasn't 'cop'," Jo mused, almost to herself. "Maybe it was 'ex-cop'."

"Meaning what?" asked Natalie.

"Meanin, I don't know, but I don't like it. Sometimes people pay ex-cops a lot of money to do some not-so-pleasant things." His eyes were ice cold … Jo turned to Blair, lowered her voice so Petal and Belmont couldn't hear her. "Will you go up to Portia's room, babe? Lock yourself in? I'll have some food sent up to you."

"Oh, you will, will you?" Blair asked grimly.

"I'm serious, Blair. I got a very bad feelin about this. And I'm thinkin it has somethin to do with you. Think about it … I get knocked for a loop with a Mickey. Next day, this so-called 'cop' tries to discredit me. Why's someone tryin so hard to get me outta the way? So they can get to you!"

"Jo," Blair said quietly, "that's ridiculous."

"Is it? How many millions do you think your father would pay to get you back if you were kidnapped?"

Blair blanched.

"True …" she conceded gravely. "But, if someone wanted to grab me, why didn't they do it last night, when you were drugged?"

"Cause even all goofed up I was able to make it to the suite. And from force of habit, I locked and bolted and chained the door."

Blair bit her lip. "All right. What you're saying does make sense. But I'm not going to cower in Portia's room while you're in danger down here."

"Christ, Blair," Jo lowered her voice to a whisper, "if it's all the same to you I'd rather not marry a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army!"

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"It means, could you please for once do the smart thing instead of the stubborn thing?"

Blair folded her arms across her ample bosom. Her chin lifted defiantly.

Uh-oh, thought Jo. I really screwed that up!

"Pardon me," said Petal. "Jo, do you have a plan of action?"

"How can I help?" Belmont said to Jo. "I'm yours to command."

"A man of action," Natalie said admiringly. "On and off the screen."

Belmont smiled at Natalie. "You're very perceptive. I don't think we've met?"

"Natalie Green. Nat. Editor of the Eastland Gazette."

"A reporter. Well. We'll have to talk later."

"Promise me an exclusive, and I'm all yours."

"Anyway," said Jo, interrupting Natalie's flirting, "I think the best thing to do is to wait until everyone comes down for dinner, and then lock 'em in. But don't let 'em know they've been locked in. Contain the suspects, right? Petal, you're hostess so you need to be there to keep everyone calm in case someone figures out they're locked in. Remember, as long as they think somethin's part of the game, they seem ready to swallow anything!"

"I can handle that," said Petal.

"Belmont," said Jo, "bein an actor you can probably help Petal with that. Nat, Tootie – if people start freakin out, put on the show of your lives! Mrs. Garrett can help if someone faints or has conniptions or somethin, bein a nurse and all."

"So, what are you doing," asked Natalie, "while we're all locked in the dining room with a bunch of 'murder game' nuts?"

"While you're dinin on turtle soup and Vichyssoise, and probably havin a totally delightful, uneventful meal, me and Alec are gonna be searching this place, from top to bottom. We gotta find the real Officer Martin. Or the fake one. Jacqueline can help us. She's a black belt. And, ah, Blair will go along with us so Alec can keep an eye on her."

"Keep an eye on Blair why? Is she in danger?" Tootie demanded.

"Jeez, I don't know. I don't know anythin. In case you haven't noticed – makin this up as we go along."

"But if the poisoner or the, the – what do we think this guy is?" asked Natalie.

"Kidnapper, maybe," Jo said quietly.

"Well what if he's locked in the dining room with us?" Nat demanded. "What are we supposed to do?"

"Catch him! For Pete's sake, you'll have Belmont, Mrs. Garrett, most of the Lions and a nutty mob willin to do whatever you tell 'em. You'll be fine."

"Says you!" said Nat. "How can you be so sure? I really think we should vote on this plan."

"No vote," said Petal, "it's Jo's call. She's the Lions captain."

"You're the captain," Jo corrected her.

"Forget to tell you, old chum. Lions held a secret vote this afternoon. You're the new captain."

Jo blushed. "I'm … really? That's really cool."

Petal looked around the room. "This is my family's house, and my responsibility. And I'm hereby deferring all authority to Jo. What she says goes. We have to have one clear leader in a crisis."

Aw, hell! thought Jo. So if everyone ends up axe-murdered … it's 'thank you, Jo'!

Jo cleared her throat a little nervously. "OK, so, I outlined the plan. Let's get crackin. And Blair?"

"Yes?"

"I swear to God, if you get kidnapped I am not savin you!"


They had been though nearly every room in the Von Schuylkill mansion, from the attic to the cellars.

They were covered with cobwebs and dust and grime. Blair, having broken a heel on an old wooden staircase in the upper reaches of the house, was limping on bare feet and carrying her pumps.

"So," said Alec, "are we happy or unhappy that we haven't found anyone?"

"I honestly don't know," muttered Jo.

Blair snapped her fingers. "Aha!" she said.

"'Aha' what?" asked Jackrabbit.

"'Aha' I just remembered where I heard the name 'Skip Martin' before. Skip Martin is one of the lead singers for Kool & the Gang."

Jo groaned. "A phony cop that names himself after a Kool & the Gang singer?"

"Highly unusual," Jackrabbit said. "Of course … Perhaps he's not such an awful tough, then. By which I mean, if he'd named himself after the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, then perhaps we should be worried."

"Yeah, about that, Jackrabbit … not a lot of cops named Johnny Rotten. Or Sid Vicious. Mighta been kind of a tip-off."

"Precisely!"

"They're probably just finishing the desert course," said Blair dreamily. "Charlotte russe. Everyone's sipping a demitasse of fresh, dark café …"

"For Pete's sake, Blair, I'll mix you up some Maxwell House in the kitchen when we're finished. And you don't need any damn Charlotte russe! We're tryin to protect you here!"

"And I appreciate it. But we haven't found anyone. And I'm starving. And I need caffeine."

Jacqueline was looking thoughtfully at a narrow wooden door in the far wall.

"Anyone notice anything odd about that door?"

Blair shrugged. "You've seen one incredibly boring door, you've seen them all."

"What about the cobwebs?"

"There aren't any cobwebs."

"Precisely!" said Jacqueline, in her crisp, pouncing, Katherine Hepburnesque way. "I ask you: Where are the cobwebs?"

"Can they be in the kitchen, with the food?" Blair asked hopefully.

"Someone's cleared them away," Jacqueline said triumphantly.

"She's right!" said Jo. She clapped her teammate on the shoulder. "Nice work, Jackrabbit!"

"One must do one's part," said the high-strung young woman. She glanced at Alec. "Well. Most of us, at any rate."

"You go first," Jo told Alec. "You're the most expendable."

"Nice to know," Alec said wryly.

"Blair, you're between me and Jackrabbit," said Jo.

"But why –"

"Because I flippin said so!"

Blair took a deep breath. I will not say "Go to hell," I will not say "Go to hell" …

"Look, I'm, ah, sorry I snapped," said Jo. "A little bit tense here."

Blair exhaled. "All right," she said.

Jo followed Alec; Blair slipped between Jo and Jacqueline, who brought up the rear.

Alec pulled the door handle; the portal swung open silently. "It's been oiled," he observed.

"Yeah, thanks, Tin Man," said Jo. She squinted past him. "Looks like there's a light on down there."

The four of them crept down a narrow stone staircase on tiptoe, each holding onto the shoulder of the person ahead of them. The basement below was silent, lit faintly by what appeared to be torchlight.

Christ, thought Jo. Here I go, down to the scary sub-basement. I am now officially one of the idiots that does that! So I deserve whatever I get! As long as Blair gets away safe …

"Bloody hell," muttered Alec, slamming into something that sounded solid and heavy.

"Very stealthy," whispered Jo.

"Well there's a damned cask of wine in the middle of the landing. No, not wine. It's marked 'Amontillado' – but it didn't slosh."

"Amontillado? Open it up, Alec."

"I don't see –"

"It's Poe, meathead. 'The Cask of Amontillado'. Guy gets walled up alive for insulting someone."

"But –"

"C'mon." Jo passed Alec on the final landing, leaped down the last few steps and grabbed a crowbar leaning against the wall. She ran back up to the landing, handed the crowbar to Alec. "You're stronger."

"Is there really something in which I excel the great Jo Polniaczek?"

"Sheer muscle mass," Jo conceded.

Alec fitted the edge of the crowbar into a crevice between the lid and the lip of the cask. He grunted, bent his knees for better leverage; his muscles strained against his shirtsleeves and he pushed the crowbar forward. He grunted again. An inarticulate stream of curses escaped his mouth.

"Now, now, that ain't the way for a duke to talk," chided Jo.

"Listen, when you're prying open a bloody cask of Amontillado, you can bloody well decide what's appropriate language! Until then – "

There was a loud "crack" and the lid tilted open.

Alec hefted the crowbar, ready to strike should a cobra or some other wild creature leap out of the cask.

Nothing happened.

Jo pushed past Alec, peered into the cask. "Holy shit! Poor guy!" She reached into the barrel. "Alec – help me."

Between them they extracted the cask's cargo – a slender, red-haired, middle-aged man in a police officer's uniform. His eyes were closed. He wasn't moving, and a large purple-black bruise across his temple explained why. Gently, they set him down on the damp stone floor.

"He's breathin," said Jo, observing the shallow rise and fall of the officer's chest. "Just barely. Jackrabbit, can you get Mrs. Garrett? She should take a look at Officer Martin, make sure he's OK."

"She can't go alone," Alec said firmly.

"Of course I can," Jacqueline said with spirit. "In fact, I'm the only one that should go alone. Are any of you black belts? No? I thought not." And before Alec could argue, she had darted up the narrow stairs.

Blair had slipped off her blazer, folded it and placed it gently under Officer Martin's head.

"Will he be all right?" she asked gravely.

Jo shrugged. "No friggin clue."

"Tell me he'll be all right."

"OK, Princess – he'll be all right."

"Thank you."

Alec was looking at the stacks and stacks of wine casks and crates at the bottom of the stairs, some whole, some splintered and decaying. "Does this remind anyone of anything?" he asked.

"That damn story last night," said Jo. "The disgruntled employee – what's-his-face – that drowned his boss in molasses. Pissed-off employees … Amontillado … Blair, do you know if your father's fired anyone recently? Or tricked them in some nefarious business deal, or insulted someone?"

"Uh, let me see … that would be 'yes', 'yes,' and 'yes'."

"You're sure?"

"Jo, you've met my father and you've heard me rant about him. David Warner, brilliant and ruthless billionaire? Harvard M.B.A.? Ethics looser than an Atlantic City slot machine? The day he's not firing someone, closing a ruthless business deal or insulting someone is the day my mother and I bury him."

"So, does anyone specific come to mind?"

"I haven't spoken to him all week, Jo."

"But when you last spoke?"

"He was excited about stealing a major contract from Abercrombie Fabrics."

"Devon Abercrombie's family?"

"Yes. But they steal contracts from us, we steal contracts from them – it's business. No one's going to stage some elaborate attack on me because of it. And Devon Abercrombie's not even here this weekend."

"But he wouldn't be, would he? If the Abercrombies hired someone to mess with you, they'd all keep the hell away from this whole shindig."

"You're smarter than you look," said a cold voice.

THONK!!

Alec reeled backward, staggered down the steps. There was a terrible splintering sound and a thud.

"Alec!" cried Blair.

"What the hell?" shouted Jo, looking around. "What –"

THONK!!

Something swept Jo's legs out from under her with blinding speed and a dull pain.

She fell, jammed her arm hard on the stone landing, tumbled down the steps. Her head cracked against the stone floor. Everything went bright white for a second, and then black.

She opened her eyes. Alec was lying next to her on the stone floor, eyes half-open, dazed.

"Blair?" groaned Alec.

Jo pushed herself up onto her hands and knees. Come on, Polniaczek! Keep it together!

Her head throbbed when she lifted it, but she had to see if Blair was all right.

On the landing just above her, Jo saw the real Officer Martin still lying unconscious.

The phony Officer Martin, with his crew cut and his cheap, dark suit, had one hand across Blair's mouth, one arm around her waist; he was trying to drag her up the stairs.

"Dammit!" he swore, pulling his hand away from Blair's mouth. Blood spilled from his palm – Blair had bitten him.

Way to go, babe!

"That was stupid," the thug said coldly, regaining his composure. "Now I have to do this." He grabbed a billy club from his belt loop, raised it above Blair's head.

Jo lunged for the backs of his knees. It was an old trick from her days with the Young Diablos. The hollow of the knee – always hyper-sensitive.

"Ooph!" The fake officer's legs buckled; he went down like a sack of laundry.

Jo rolled on top of him. Her head was groggy, her vision was blurry but if she could pin him ... Jo wasn't a heavy young woman but she was muscular, and she pushed her full weight down on top of him.

But the bastard was strong. He braced his hands on the landing, starting pushing upward, trying to buck her off, as if she were a rider and he was a demonic horse.

"Alec," Jo shouted. "Get your ass up here!"

Alec groaned.

"Now!" she yelled.

Blair was suddenly sitting on the fake cop. Her weight, combined with Jo's, helped to keep him down for the count. But he pushed harder, and harder, growing more and more frustrated. It felt like only a matter of moments before he was going to knock them both off the landing.

Jo fumbled around, trying to find the billy club. Ah!

She grabbed the club, hefted it, cracked the fake cop over the head. There was a loud "crack". Blair gave a little cry of disgust. The cop fell still beneath them.

"Run, Blair," said Jo.

"Jo, I – "

"Run!"

Blair stood up, and promptly tripped over the real Officer Martin. Blair righted herself, stepped over him, and began walking up the steps.

Jo could feel the phony cop already starting to stir under her.

"Run!" Jo shouted to Blair. "Don't freakin stroll! Run!"

Blair ran.

The cop was groggy but pissed off, and full of adrenalin. He snarled. He shoved hard against the floor, rising to his knees. Jo slipped off of him, but dug her fingers into his shoulders.

"Alec – little fuckin help here, maybe?" yelled Jo.

"Give me … a bloody second," groaned Alec, hauling himself to his feet.

"I don't got a bloody second!"

Jo brought the billy club down on the kidnapper's head, but he was shaking her like a dog shaking a toy, and her aim was off; she connected with only a glancing blow, just enough to make him angry rather than hurting him.

"Bastard!" muttered Alec, stumbling up the steps. His head and left arm were a bloody mess.

Sometime during his exclusive boarding school experience, he had learned about the hollow-of-the-knee trick. Alec drove his right hand and shoulder into those sensitive areas and the cop went down again.

Alec threw his more-than-six-foot-tall, muscular frame across the fake cop.

"You stay down now, you bugger!" Alec commanded. "Don't move. God's teeth!" Alec put his right hand to the bruise, already purple-black, on his head. Blood from an adjacent gash was streaming down the left side of his head. "You've marred my face," Alec said with dangerous intensity. "My face is my damn living!"

"Jo! Alec!" trilled Mrs. Garrett, tripping lightly down the stairs, nurse's bag in one hand. "Are you all right?"

"Far from it!" called Alec. "But better than this scoundrel!"

"Is Blair OK?" asked Jo. "Did you see her?"

"Yes, she'll be fine. She's upstairs with Portia right now; I'll examine her after I help this poor gentleman." Mrs. Garrett knelt beside the unconscious police officer, opened her kit.

"Has anyone called the real police?" asked Jo.

"Petal called them. They'll be here soon, Jo."

"D'ja hear that, dimwit?" Jo asked the phony cop. "The real cavalry is comin. And you think a bite on the hand, a couple falls and a couple cracks on your thick head were bad? I can't wait to see what the cops got in store for you! Knockin out one of their own? False imprisonment? Impersonatin an officer of the law? Assault? Attempted kidnappin? Attempted murder? You got all your affairs in order, right? Cause you ain't never comin back from this."

The phony cop smirked. "I'll be well taken care of," he said in his ice-cold voice. "I'll have the best lawyer in New York."

Jo laughed. "That what they told you when they hired you? They are gonna let you twist in the wind, jerk-wad! Paid you in cash, right? No phone calls, right? Ain't gonna be any way to trace you to them. Only way to protect yourself, you got to offer up the people that hired you. On a silver platter."

"This man is in a very bad way," said Mrs. Garrett, taking the unconscious cop's pulse.

"You better hope he makes it," Jo told the kidnapper. "Murderin a cop? You must have a death wish!"

"I'll have a lawyer," the kidnapper insisted stubbornly. "Abercrombie's man promised."

"Abercrombie's man is gonna deny ever settin friggin eyes on you! But don't take my word for it. Wait and see, pal, wait and see."

Jo rubbed her head. It hurt, more and more every moment. And it felt tacky, like paint that had been drying for awhile. Blood, mused Jo, looking at the thick red smear on her hand. I'm freakin bleedin.

She looked at Mrs. Garrett, who was becoming rather blurry. "I don't feel so good, Mrs. G. Maybe after you take care of the cop, and Blair, and Alec, maybe you could, kinda, see if my head's OK."

Mrs. Garrett smiled fondly at the brunette. There were tears in her eyes.

"I can take a look at your head right now, Jo."

"I don't want to, you know, cut the line or whatever. But I feel a little, uh …"

Jo felt, suddenly, very woozy. She toppled over, unconscious. She would've tumbled down the stairs, but Alec grabbed her with one arm, keeping the bulk of his weight on the kidnapper.

Mrs. Garrett gave a little scream. "Jo! Can you hear me? Jo …"


Heaven, thought Jo, wasn't anything like what the priests and nuns at St. Adalbert's were always saying.

It was all green and gold and bright. The colors were sparkly. Swirly. And in the distance there was a forest of pine and maples and birch and elm. It was summer; but it was autumn too. Some of the trees were on fire with autumn colors. Some were a deep, cool green.

Jo was nude. And that made sense, because what did you need with clothes in heaven? And the air was perfect, not cold, not hot. So there was no need for clothing.

Still … Jo felt a little self-conscious. It would be nice to have something to wear. Even one of those sort of gossamer white scraps, like the ancient goddesses wore …

And, by golly, suddenly she was wearing one, a diaphanous white garment grazing her breasts and falling just above her knees.

She was walking by a lake … no, on the lake. She was walking on the cool water, the soles of her feet skimming its surface.

Wow. Am I like, maybe like an angel?

But that didn't make sense. Jo had been a pretty good person, she knew. She'd tried to be. She'd made up for a lot of dumb things she did when she was a kid. But … she knew she was no angel.

She was carrying something in her hand. It was a long bow. In her other hand she carried an arrow.

I'm supposed to shoot something. Someone. But what? Or who?

"Hello, Jo," said a motherly voice.

How did I get here?

Suddenly Jo had left the lake behind. In the blink of an eye, she was in the summer-autumn forest, in a grove, or glade, or glen, or whatever the hell it was. There was a small, white marble temple, Greek in style. There was a woman, no, a goddess, standing in front of the temple.

Jo could tell she was a goddess, because there was a faint white halo around her. She looked astonishingly like Mrs. Garrett, with glorious red hair piled high atop her head, a cherubic face, kindly and wise blue eyes.

"Hello, Jo," the goddess said again.

"Is this heaven?" asked Jo.

"Of a sort," said the goddess. "It's the way you picture heaven."

"You look like Mrs. G. She's a friend of mine. She's like a mother to me."

"I know, Jo. My name is Hera. Do you know who that is?"

"She's the mother of the gods."

"That's right, Jo." Hera opened one hand, held her palm flat. "Do you see these?"

"Yes. They're seeds."

"Watch." Hera scattered the seeds. Even before each seed touched the earth, it began to send out little green shoots that dug into the soft earth, wriggled deep into the soil. Everything happened so quickly. Stalks broke free from the earth, and leaves grew, and buds swelled, and flowers bloomed.

"That's amazin," said Jo. Everywhere the seeds had fallen, there were incandescent white flowers.

"You try it," said Hera.

"Oh, I couldn't. I can't do anythin like that. Grow things. I'm a warrior." Jo held up the bow in one hand, the arrow in the other. "This is who I am."

"Yes," said Hera. "It is who you are. Part of who you are. But you are so much more."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Jo said shyly. "I'm just kind of who I am. That's good enough for me."

Jo heard voices in the near distance. Through the columns of the temple, in the shadowy interior, she saw flickers of white cloth, shadowy figures.

One tall figure, passing between two columns, was illuminated by sunshine for a moment. She was beautiful, skin the color of black coffee, hair braided and coiled elegantly atop her head.

Just behind her was another tall figure, broad of shoulder, stalwart. Her blue eyes, glimpsed for just an instant, were both merry and fierce.

"Who are they?" asked Jo.

"They are your sisters. They are Pheme and Athena. You know your mythology?"

"Yeah. I love mythology."

There was singing in the forest. It was the loveliest voice Jo had ever heard. All the lights and shades of the universe were in it. It sparkled, like sunlight on mist.

"Who is that?" Jo asked. Her heart began to pound in her chest. She felt lightheaded.

"You know who that is," said Hera. "That is Aphrodite."

"That's … that's Blair," said Jo. Through the trees she saw a flash of sunlight on golden hair, a glimpse of generous flesh draped in mauve gossamer, a flicker of warm brown eyes.

"She has many names," said Hera. "As do you, Artemis."

"I love her," said Jo.

"Then go to her."

"Can I?"

"Life is simpler than we make it," said Hera. "You wish to go to her?"

"Yes."

"Then go to her." Hera smiled.


Jo woke with a groan.

Her head hurt … and her legs hurt … and her back hurt …

She touched her head. It was wrapped in thick layers of bandages.

Jo groaned again.

Slowly, she opened her eyes. She was in the master bedroom in her and Blair's suite. Still at the Von Schuylkill manor. Still alive.

The bow windows were open partway, admitting a soft breeze fragrant with all the scents of autumn, cool water and cold earth and ripe apples and dead leaves and wood smoke. Jo inhaled deeply.

It was still daylight, she knew from the light slipping through the shutters, but it was dawn – "magic time" her mother always called it. "Magic time" was dusk or dawn, when anything could happen. Usually nothing did – at least not in the Bronx – but there was always the chance that it could.

Jo felt the warmth of a body next to her. Slowly, because her head felt as heavy as lead, Jo turned to see if it was Blair.

It was. The blonde was fast asleep. There was a purple bruise on Blair's left cheek, and a small bandage on her temple. There were the cruel purple bruises of fingertips on her wrists, where the kidnapper had grabbed her, tried to restrain her.

Blair wore her white silk pajamas, with the "BW" monogram on the breast. She slept on top of the covers. Jo reached out slowly, so damn slowly, to touch her fiancée. It took forever, and as slowly as she moved, Jo still felt lightheaded and nauseated. But, finally, her fingertips reached Blair's face, gently traced the line of Blair's jaw.

"I love you, Blair," she murmured.


When Jo woke again, Blair was smiling down at her.

"You're not dead," Blair said happily.

"Eh … good mornin to you too," Jo managed to croak.

"Are you thirsty?" asked Blair. "If you're thirsty, I'm supposed to give you a sip of water, but not too much. You might be sick."

Jo moaned. She put a hand to her head. "I might be sick without the water," she mumbled.

"There's a pan," Blair said solicitously. "If you are sick."

"No. No, I'm … gonna be OK." Jo grinned up at Blair. "Remember the other day? You were givin me that special treatment? That could be real helpful right now, I think."

Blair laughed. "Well, you must be on the road to recovery, if you're trying to get me to do that!"

"What?" Jo asked innocently. "It was genuinely helpful."

"Hmm." Blair's eyes twinkled. "We'll discuss that later, when you're in better shape."

"How's the cop?" Jo asked, suddenly serious. "The real cop?"

"In the Peekskill hospital. Fractured skull. But he should recover."

"And how are you?" asked Jo.

Blair shivered. "Shaken," she said honestly. "I'm a little banged up, but it's not such a big thing, physically. It's more … I had nightmares all night. About that creep."

"Who could effin blame you? The bastard!"

"He told the police everything," said Blair. "I believe the phrase is, 'he spilled the beans like a canary'."

"Eh – close enough. So, Abercrombie did hire him?"

"Yes. Well, not personally – Abercrombie had his right-hand man make the arrangements. But it was Abercrombie's plan."

"To get at your father?"

"Yes. It seems Daddy was being modest when we spoke. Daddy didn't just steal a contract from Abercrombie Fabrics – he wooed their largest clients away. Abercrombie is finished. Destroyed."

"So that creep was supposed to hold you until your father gave his clients back."

"No. It was beyond that, Jo. The contracts were signed, money had changed hands, the wheels were in motion. Abercrombie Fabrics had already shut its doors."

"So, what good was it gonna be to kidnap you?"

"Jo …" Blair chose her words carefully. "That man wasn't going to kidnap me. Abercrombie hired him to … to eliminate me."

Jo went numb.

"My father destroyed Abercrombie's company. Abercrombie wanted to destroy David Warner's treasure, and, well …"

"That's you," said Jo. "Christ!"

"Petal doesn't really have any security to speak of. The man slipped in late Friday night, dressed like one of the servants."

"He was an ex-cop?"

"Yes. Fired from the NYPD. He did his research well. He knew all about my friends, all about our past, how close we all are. And he knew how you watch out for me. So the night of the ghost stories, he drugged a stinger and stood near you and when you finished one drink – "

"He gave me another. It's flippin diabolically simple! But how do you know all this?"

"Petal and I insisted on observing the interrogation."

"I see." Jo grinned. Didn't matter how irregular it was; not even the police said no to Miss Blair Warner and Miss Petal Von Schuylkill!

"You were all zonked out when you went upstairs," Blair continued. "He followed you. He said you went the wrong way at one point and he waited while you backtracked. The idea was, after you got to our suite, he'd slip in and eliminate both of us. But even zonked out you were too fast for him. You got in faster than he anticipated and you locked and bolted and chained the door. So he couldn't get at us then. Jo … you saved our lives …"

Something was bothering Jo – something besides almost being murdered. "Why didn't he just grab you while I was downstairs listening to the ghost stories?"

Blair shook her head. "That wouldn't have worked. You'd have missed me when you came upstairs, raised an alarm. He wanted to get both of us, at the same time. No one would have noticed we were missing until we didn't show up for meals the next day." She shivered. Jo pulled her close.

"So I lock the door," said Jo. "I screw up his plan. He hangs around. Next morning he sees Officer Martin arrive, bashes the poor guy on the head, hides the body in the empty Amontillado cask."

Blair nodded.

"He couldn't resist the poetry of it," said Jo. "He pretends he's Martin, tries to discredit us with all the dirt he dug up when he was researchin you. Maybe Petal will throw us out, right? And then you'll be a sitting duck! But Petal doesn't boot us. She takes our side. So the hit man lurks around, waiting for another chance to get you alone."

"At that point, he just wants to get me and, and – " I can't say 'kill'. I can hardly think it. I can't say it.

"Shh," Jo said soothingly. "Don't think about it. You're safe and the bad guy's goin to go away for a long, long freakin time. What's going to happen to Abercrombie?"

"Nothing," Blair said quietly. "He took a little stroll off the roof of his factory last night."

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph! That has to suck for Devon! I mean, Devon's a total worm, but you can't help feeling sorry for the kid."

"I feel sorry for everyone caught up in this," Blair said soberly. "But mostly you," she kissed Jo gently . "You were so brave."

"Oh, for cryin out loud." Jo blushed. "What am I gonna to do, hand over my fiancée to every creep who wants revenge on her father?"

"Jo, you saved me. You literally saved my life."

"Well … Let's not make a big deal out of it. And I love how you bit that bastard, Blair. You were doin kinda OK tryin to save yourself!"

"When it comes to dirty fighting, I had a great teacher," said Blair. "Jo?"

"Yeah?"

"You hurt your head pretty badly when you fell down the stairs."

"I did?" Jo made a moronic face.

"Jo, I'm serious. The doctors were talking about brain swelling, brain damage."

"I'm brain damaged? Is this gonna affect my GPA?"

"Not funny."

Jo sighed. "None of it is funny. It's horrible. That's why I'm tryin to find somethin funny in it." She took Blair's hand. "So, seriously: do I have brain damage?"

"They don't think so. Any more than you already had, I mean."

"Ha. Ha."

"But you were really out of it for a few hours."

"I had this crazy dream. Mrs. Garrett was there, and Tootie, and Natalie – and you were there. You were the goddess of love."

"Hmm. Sounds like a pretty good dream."

"Can you hold me, babe? Tight? Well, as tight as you can without givin me brain damage."

"Of course." Gingerly, Blair wrapped her arms around Jo, pulled her closer. "Does that hurt?"

"Not a bit."

"Good." Blair kissed Jo's cheek. "You haven't asked about Alec."

"Because I know he's fine."

"How do you know?"

"Because he's, like, Tarzan crossed with Conan. If I'm OK, there's no way he's not OK."

"He saved your life, Jo."

Jo sighed. "I know."

"You're going to thank him, aren't you?"

"Can I write him a letter or somethin? Does Emily Post have a chapter on that? 'Thank you notes to a jackass who wants to steal your girlfriend but saves your life'?"

"I don't think Miss Post ever wrote a chapter like that."

"Well, not my fault. I guess I can't write him, then. I don't know what to say."

"How about 'Thank you for saving my life'?"

"How about, 'Took you long enough, jackass? I almost got killed! You suck!'"

Blair pursed her lips. "You can just tell him in person. Once he's out of the hospital."

"The hospital? What do you mean, the hospital?"

"He lost a lot of blood when he fell down the stairs. He dislocated a shoulder and gashed his arm, and his head. That's why he was unconscious for a while; that's why it took him so long to help you."

"Why didn't anyone tell me this? He's in the hospital? When is he getting out? He's gonna be OK, right?"

Blair smiled. "You do like him," she said.

"No, I don't. I can't stand him. But the guy did save my life. Sort of. And apparently he was bleeding out while he did it. There's a nobility to that, which I can appreciate."

"I see."

"Blair, don't make a big deal about this. Alec and I are not going to be friends."

"Did I say you were going to be friends?"

"Not in words. But I know your looks, Blair. You did one of your looks."

Blair patted Jo's cheek gently. "I think you're hallucinating a little bit, darling."


Sunday evening, October 30, 1983.

The Great Hall of Petal Von Schuylkill's "cottage" on the lake was bright with candlelight, torchlight, and a ruddy glow from the fire blazing in the enormous hearth.

Guests in every possible type of costume thronged the Great Hall. There were Tarzan and Jane, Boswell and Johnson, Napoleon and Josephine, Mr. Roarke and Tattoo, Lucy and Ricky, Sherlock and Watson. There was Groucho Marx, Michael Jackson, Attila the Hun, Joan of Arc, Donna Summer, Farrah Fawcet.

Monsters were plentiful: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the Mummy, not to mention the Bride of Frankenstein. "The Love Boat" was particularly well-represented, with no fewer than three Captain Stubings, two Isaac the Bartenders, and two Julie Your Cruise Directors.

High above the guests, on one side of the gallery, a stunning female DJ, a protégé of Grandmaster Flash was working her turntables, backed up by a small orchestra and a jazz band.

At the moment, she was blasting Lionel Richie's "All Night Long", boosted by a fat bass sound, jazzy accompaniment, and plenty of scratching. Periodically she mixed in samples of Patti Austin and James Ingram's "Baby Come to Me" and the Police's "King of Pain".

The guests loved the music. Everyone danced with abandon, sometimes almost knocking over the trays of drinks which servants dressed like zombies were circulating throughout the Great Hall.

On the other side of the gallery, across from the musicians, Jo, Blair and Petal stood quietly, observing the exuberant partying in the Great Hall below.

Petal was dressed as the legendary Queen Boadicea, regal in a kilt, breastplate, shoulder armor and arm braces. A five-foot long sword was slung across her back. Her hair streamed down loose, falling almost to her waist.

Blair was a beautiful, if slightly bruised Cleopatra. Jo didn't even want to speculate about how much the costume had cost.

The jet black wig and the kohl under Blair's eyes transformed the heiress. Blair wore the traditional Pharaonic cobra crown on her brow.

The simple white shift, just grazing Blair mid-thigh, was covered with countless little golden and silver squares, so that every time Blair moved, the light hit her a little differently, and the shift sparkled dazzlingly.

Blair even smelled exotic, some heady, spicy scent that Jo had never encountered before.

Jo was, in Blair's opinion, the prettiest Marc Antony to ever grace the earth. Jo's bandaged head was camouflaged by a white silk turban. "It's not really Marc Antonyesque," Blair had fretted. "More Alexander the Great. Still …"

"Cripes!" Jo had said. "Who's gonna know the difference? At least I'm still here to wear it!"

"True …"

Jo's white robes, sash and faux gems – at least, she hoped they were fauxwere period-appropriate, as was the little dagger at her waist. Blair had used eyeliner to draw a pencil thin mustache and goatee on Jo's soft, hairless face. "Very sexy," Blair had said approvingly. "You know, if my parents ever did cut me off, I could probably work as a makeup artist on Broadway."

"I don't know, babe. I mean, what if you had to do the makeup for somethin like 'Cats'? That'd drive me goofy, all that detail."

"It would be fun. Think of the artistry that takes."

"Think of the patience it takes! You can have it, Princess!"

I do look like a pretty hot Marc Antony, Jo had to admit, admiring herself in the bedroom mirror while Blair was putting on her own finishing touches in the bathroom. Blair certainly does good work

"Thanks for letting us hang around up here," Jo told Petal as they listened to the music and gazed down at the guests. "I need to kinda collect myself before I join the party."

"Of course," said Petal. She looked from Jo to Blair. "Have I told you both how sorry I am that you were attacked and almost killed at my house party?"

"Only about fifty times," said Jo. "Have we told you how much we appreciate you believin in us, even though we used to be a bunch of juvenile delinquents?"

"You might have mentioned it ten or twenty times," said Petal.

"So we're all mutually obliged to each other. Let's say we drop it forever," suggested Jo.

"Certainly," Petal said graciously. "I know how much praise and gratitude embarrass you. And you know that as your teammate, I will never do anything that embarrasses you."

Hey … wait a minute, Jo thought suspiciously. The Langley Lions were famously loyal to each other, but also famous for teasing and pranking each other – not being sappy and nice.

"Petal, listen – "

Clang – clang –clang!

Petal was clanging her champagne glass with a little dagger. With the other hand Petal was signaling the DJ and the musicians to wind down for a moment.

Silence fell in the gallery and on the floor below. A hundred guests craned their necks, looking up at Petal, Blair and Jo.

"Oh, for cryin out loud," moaned Jo. She tried to turn, to make a hasty escape through the nearby door, but something was blocking her, something tall and solid.

"Steady on," said a warm voice.

Alec had joined them on the gallery. He wore a white toga; its folds somewhat camouflaged the fact that his left arm was heavily bandaged and supported by a sling. His left temple was bandaged. A slender golden crown circled Alec's brow, gleaming from among his dark curls.

"I'm tyin a damn bell around your neck," muttered Jo. "Always poppin up like a freakin ninja."

Alec turned to Blair. "Is this the famous 'thank you' that's going to begin a new chapter of friendship between Jo and me?"

"I, ah, wouldn't hold your breath," smiled Blair.

"No, no, he should hold his breath," said Jo. "Alec – turn blue!"

"It's not Alec tonight," said Lord Anviston. "Tonight I am Apollo. The sun god. Brother to Artemis – goddess of the moon." He extended his right hand to Jo.

Jo rolled her eyes. Why does he have to be so annoyinly nice to me? Can't I just hate him in peace?

"What a nice gesture," Blair said to Alec. She turned to her lover. "Jo."

It was just one word, just Jo's name, but she knew Blair well enough to know exactly what it meant.

Jo sighed. Reluctantly, she clasped Alec's hand.

"Alec, ah, thanks for not lettin us down" she said.

"My pleasure," he said. He pulled Jo into a brief bear hug.

"Hey! Leggo! Keep your friggin hands to yourself!"

"Of course. Sister."

Below, the guests were growing restive, beginning to murmur among themselves. They couldn't hear what was being said up on the gallery, and they were impatient for Petal to speak.

"Are you children ready?" Petal asked Jo and Alec.

"We'll be good," Alec said. Jo nodded a grudging assent.

Petal leaned slightly over the gallery railing, raising her glass.

"Friends, family, schoolmates – I thank you once again for attending the most interesting house party we've ever thrown."

"Hear, hear!" shouted a man.

Someone whistled.

"We are all indebted to valiant friends who rose to the occasion in a time of real peril. Jacqueline Messerschmitt; Portia Barclay; Belmont Keane; Natalie Green; Dorothy Ramsey; Edna Garrett; Blair Warner; and Jo Polniaczek. Friends – we salute you!"

Everyone raised their glasses and drank deeply.

"Jo Polniaczek," Petal continued, "is, as many of you know, the most valuable player on the Langley Lions field hockey team this year."

A loud burst of applause.

"She's largely responsible for the fact that we are probably going to state this year – and probably going to win! And go on to the national championship!"

Louder applause.

Jo was blushing red as a Maine lobster.

She tried again to cut and run, but Alec continued to block her.

"Get the hell outta my way," she whispered.

"Steady on, old girl," he said encouragingly.

"Yesterday, I decided to step down as the Lions captain," said Petal. A murmur rippled through the crowd. Petal held up one hand. "When I graduate this June, I'll need someone capable to take over the team. Someone with astonishing talent and natural leadership ability. In a unanimous vote yesterday afternoon, the Lions named Jo Polniaczek as their new captain. Effective immediately."

An almost deafening cheer.

Blair stepped closer to Jo, took her hand under the cover of Jo's robes. Blair squeezed Jo's hand fiercely.

I'm so proud of you, gleamed Blair's eyes. I love you, Jo.

Blair's touch had an immediate, calming effect on the bashful brunette. Jo's blush faded. She stood up a little straighter.

"Jo," said Petal, turning to the new team captain, "is there anything you want to say?"

"Speech!" shouted someone who sounded more than a little drunk.

"Yeah, speech!" yelled someone else.

"Yes, Jo, do speak!" called Jacqueline in her well-bred, clipped voice.

Jo cleared her throat. She took one step forward, so she was standing next to Petal, but she didn't release Blair's hand.

"I'm, ah, overwhelmed," said Jo. "I'm really honored. I've been real lucky to make some friends over the years, the kinda friends you have forever. Tootie. Nat. Mrs. G. And my best friend, the best friend anyone could ever have in a million years – Blair."

"Yo, Warner!" shouted the drunk man. Everyone laughed.

Everyone except Dina Becker – Jo picked her out of the crowd, wrapped in colorful silk scarves and shawls, like a fortune teller, frowning bitterly as her enemies received such resounding praise.

"Since comin to Langley, I made some more great friends," Jo continued. "The Lions are just about the most talented and loyal and nice people you could ever wanna meet."

"Hear, hear!" called Jacqueline.

"And I guess I'm just about as lucky as someone can be," said Jo. "So, uh, in conclusion, I'll try not to screw up too much as the captain. And if I don't do a good job, just say so."

"We will!" Lurch boomed good-naturedly.

"Count on it!" called Jackrabbit.

There were hearty applause.

Petal waved politely to the DJ and the musicians. The DJ gave her a thumbs-up. Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" suddenly filled the Great Hall, mixed with slivers of The Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another".

Guests cheered wildly. They split off into pairs and groups, threw their hands up in the air, began to dance with abandon.

"Did I sound like an idiot?" Jo asked Blair.

"Not at all. You were wonderful."

"Really?"

"Really."

Petail drained the last of her champagne.

"Well," said Petal, "I must go circulate. Enjoy the party. These revelries tend to go all night. But you can sleep in as late as you want tomorrow." She glanced down at Jo and Blair's clasped hands. Petal winked at Jo; before the brunette could respond, Petal was descending the gallery stairs.

"Oops," said Blair. "Sorry about that." She released Jo's hand.

"Congratulations," said Alec. "Your secret love is spreading like wildfire."

"Petal doesn't care," said Jo. "We can trust her."

"These things have a sort of critical mass," said Alec. "It's what happened to my great-aunt Vivienne fifty years ago – or so the story goes. At first, no one knows, and then a few trusted friends, and then some trusted acquaintances, but when you hit a certain magic number, you can't contain it any more. Someone lets it slip to someone who lets it slip to someone with an axe to grind."

"Way to bring the party down, Blitheridge," complained Jo. "If you're anglin for a fake engagement with Blair, we talked about it this afternoon and we're both agreed."

"No sham engagement," Blair told Alec. "It will just be too complicated. And unfair. Especially to you."

Alec laughed. "Not to disappoint you, my dear goddesses, but the window closed on that offer last night. If you do want a sham engagement with some fellow, you'll have to find another decoy."

"What does that mean?" asked Jo.

"It means that viscountess Jacqueline Messerschmitt camped out by my hospital bedside all night, scolding me for risking my life, getting wounded, putting myself in danger, and so on, and so forth. I don't think I got a wink of sleep, with her shouting at me all night."

Blair laughed delightedly. "She likes you! That's why she's always so rude to you."

"That's why she got pissed off whenever you pawed Blair," said Jo. "Which, by the way – never fun for me, either!"

"So I'm afraid," said Alec, kissing Blair's hand, "that we must mutually dissolve our fairy-tale romance. With great amiability of course. Since we're both such excellent catches."

"This is friggin great!" crowed Jo. "I mean, except for Jackrabbit, saddlin herself with a jackass like you, Blitheridge. But there's no accountin for taste. Or lack thereof."

"Thank you, Jo," he said with a wry grin. "I knew we'd have your gracious blessing."

"You've got buckets of my blessins! Have you proposed to her yet? You two crazy kids should get married. As soon as possible. Before Jackrabbit figures out she made a mistake."

The music shifted suddenly. The DJ and the bands cut into a song Jo had never heard before, with a bouncing bass line and driving percussion.

"Now we're doin something a little different," the DJ said into her mic. "This is a Melle Mel tune – listen up, Lake Peekskill!"

"'White Lines'!" shouted Blair. "'White Lines'!"

Many of the guests on the dance floor looked a little confused … they had never heard the song before. But the infectious bass and beat hooked them, and pulled them along for the ride.

Blair grabbed Alec's hand and Jo's hand and dragged them toward the staircase.

"Babe – I can't dance to this!" Jo yelled over the music.

"Neither can I," yelled Alec.

"Pish-posh," shouted Blair. As she half-danced, half-dragged Jo and Alec down the steps, she flashed a dazzling smile toward the beautiful DJ, who flipped Blair a thumbs up.

"Everybody be watchin my little Cleopatra," the DJ said into the mic. "She's got the beat down. 'White Lines – Don't Do It!' C'mon, everybody – shout it out!"

"White Lines – Don't Do It!" everyone shouted with the chorus.

On the floor, Blair danced her way through the writhing mass of costumed dancers, Jo and Alec caught in her wake.

"There you are!" Jacqueline said, snaring Alec's elbow.

Jacqueline was dressed as vintage Katherine Hepburn – a mannish-but-stunning 1930's jumpsuit, a shoulder-length auburn wig, red lipstick.

"Are you taking care of your arm?" Jacqueline demanded. "Are you exercising due caution?"

"Bloody hell, woman," said Alec. "I'm not made of glass!"

"Jo! Blair!" trilled Mrs. Garrett, resplendent in her chef whites and tall hat.

She took their hands, kissed each of them on the cheek. "You look wonderful, girls!" She blew them a couple of kisses, then went back to dancing with Dante, the handsome TV producer.

"You do look wonderful," Tootie yelled to Jo and Blair over the music. "Especially considering you were almost deep-sixed." She was one of the Donna Summers look-a-likes, stunning in a sparkling sequined disco dress, platform boots and a massive Afro wig.

"Where's Natalie?" shouted Blair.

Tootie grinned. She pointed to a couple of doctors dancing nearby – a tall, Hollywood-handsome doctor and a pretty, chunky female doctor, both wearing long white lab coats, stethoscopes hanging around their necks. Natalie was dancing with none other than hunka-hunka actor Belmont Keane.

Blair raised her eyebrows interrogatively. Tootie shrugged.

"She says she interviewing him for the Eastland Gazette," Tootie shouted over the music. "That's her big scoop."

"That's her big scoop?" Blair was outraged. "There was a killer on the loose, Jo and Alec saved my life – and Belmont Keane is her big scoop?"

"She ain't askin any questions," Jo observed. "Seems to be conductin her interview by ESP."

"Well, what are you gonna do?" Tootie shouted, shrugging philosophically. "That's boy-crazy Natalie Green!"

"White Lines – Don't Do It!" the guests yelled together with the chorus.

The DJ cut suddenly into Parliament's "Flash Light". The crowd went crazy, cheering and pumping their fists. A single spot light fell on Tootie.

"That's my cue!" she yelled to her friends.

"That's your what?" asked Jo.

But Tootie was already leaping up onto a table in the center of the Great Hall.

Tootie was joined by a Diana Ross and a Debbie Harry, who stood behind her, on her left and her right, like back-up dancers.

"Now I lay me down to sleep, ooh, I just can't find a beat!" sang George Clinton.

Tootie and her back-up dancers moved to the music in perfect synchronicity.

Everyone began singing along with the lyrics. Row after row of dancers joined in with Tootie's intricately choreographed dance.

"They planned it!" Jo shouted suddenly. "They rehearsed this! It's amazin!"

"Flash light, red light, neon light, ooh, stop light …"

About a quarter of the guests had been in on the surprise. They danced their complex step in perfect harmony, Tootie, all aglow, leading them from the table.

The rest of the guests, catching on, crowded around the performers, clapping and singing.

"Most of all he needs the funk – shine it! Help him find the funk …"

When the song was over, a mighty cheer whooped through the Great Hall, along with deafening applause. Tootie beamed. The spotlight stayed on her until she bowed and leaped lightly from the table – an impressive feat in her towering platform boots.

The DJ phased into Blondie's "Rapture".

Jo caught Tootie in a bear hug, an unusual display of affection for the brunette. Jo counter-balanced the hug with a noogie, which, thanks to Tootie's massive wig, was less painful than it could have been.

"That was amazin, Stretch! Amazin! I'm so proud of you!" enthused Jo.

"That's the dance they wanted you to help with?" asked Blair.

Tootie nodded, fanning herself. She was out of breath, but grinning from ear to ear.

"Did you choreograph it?"

"Start to finish," Tootie panted. She took one long, deep breath.

"Well, it was brilliant," said Blair. "Tootie, would you be interested in consulting on the Fever film?"

"For real?"

"For real."

"Wow! Consider me interested!"

"That was top-drawer, small musketeer!" raved Boots St. Clair, darting without warning into the midst of the friends. "Absolutely top-drawer! Spiffing!"

Alec goggled at Boots' outfit – what little there was of it.

Jacqueline glared grimly at Alec. There would be a discussion later about openly ogling other girls.

Jo goggled at Boots too. Preppy, buttoned-down Boots St. Clair was wearing a red loincloth and a skimpy metallic bikini – brass or bronze; it was hard to tell which, in the dim light – and nothing else.

Boots' dark hair was pulled into a ponytail on the top of her head; the ponytail flowed down her nearly naked back.

Gotta admit, Boots always looks so bony with her little preppy outfits on, but in this get-up … son of a gun! She's really rockin that bikini! thought Jo.

"And who are you supposed to be?" Jacqueline asked the newcomer tartly.

"She's Princess Leia Organa," Jo said.

Jacqueline frowned. "Princess Leia would never wear that."

"Obviously you've never seen the third movie," said Natalie, joining the group. Belmont Keane was with her, and, Blair and Tootie noticed, he was holding Nat's hand. "'Return of the Jedi' was totally sexist, if you ask me," said Nat. "Leia's one of the leaders of the alliance – and she's running around in that?"

"Eh, Jabba the Hut made her wear it," said Jo. "Remember? It wasn't her choice. It's not like Leia woke up and said, 'Hey, I'm gonna wear this hot little bikini while I fight the evil empire today'."

Boots smiled warmly at Jo. "I knew you'd get the reference," she said. "Leia is a very complex character. She's this strong, independent woman, but she's shackled by the conventions surrounding her. She's actually yearning to break free. Whammo!"

"Er … yeah," Jo said dubiously. "I dunno if it's that deep."

Blair rolled her eyes. "I am not listening to another minute of yet another 'Star Wars' discussion."

"Hear, hear," said Jacqueline. "It's all so yesterday, what? Who will even remember it in ten years?"

"Now, hang on a second," said Jo, turning to her teammate. "'Star Wars' is a very important cultural phenomenon. People are gonna be talkin about it a hundred years from now."

Blair groaned. And she's off and running … my little 'Star Wars' dork.

"I can settle this," said Blair. Maybe I can wrap this up in a few minutes and get Jo upstairs – away from Boots' little crush on Jo and Boots' tiny, tiny bikini. "All of Leia's fashions were terrible," Blair said decisively. "In every movie. Her hair and clothing. If the fate of the universe –""

"Galaxy," Jo corrected.

"Galaxy, universe, whatever – if the fate of the galaxy hinged on any of Leia's outfits, everyone was doomed. End of discussion."

"First," said Boots, "no one who thinks 'Star Wars' took place in a universe instead of a galaxy can possibly have a valid opinion. With all due respect, Warnsie."

"Good point," Jo said, nodding.

Blair fixed Jo with a carefully calibrated look – the faintest hint of a frown around the mouth, a dangerous smolder in the eyes, the most delicate, dangerous lift of one eyebrow.

"Or, you know," Jo backpedaled hastily, "I guess bad fashion could be considered an absolute."

"Yes," agreed Blair. "It can. Bad fashion is bad fashion in any time … in any galaxy." She looked pointedly at Boots' ensemble. "In any galaxy," she emphasized.

Boots blushed. Her narrow jaw set.

"Isn't it tiresome," said Boots, in her upper-class voice, which was always dancing along the knife edge between shrill and hysterical, "isn't it tiresome the way Halloween parties always inspire someone to dress as Cleopatra? Such a dull choice. Cleopatra hasn't been interesting since Liz."

"I don't know," Blair said unflappably, "I think I carry it pretty well."

"Smashingly," said Jacqueline, ready to throw her support behind anyone opposed to the bikini-clad creature who kept drawing Alec's gaze.

"Beautifully," said the ever-loyal Tootie.

"Splendidly," Natalie said staunchly.

"Blair looks divine, as always," said Alec. "Like she just floated down from Olympus."

Jacqueline glared at Alec. Yes … there would be a long discussion later.

Blair looked to Jo, who had yet to weigh in on the issue. Jo appeared to be deep in thought.

"What do you think about Cleopatra?" Boots asked Jo. "Isn't that a common, obvious costume?"

"Hmm? I'm sorry … I'm tryin to remember Leia's hair from 'Empire Strikes Back'. It was coiled around her head, in that long braid, right? It looked pretty good."

"Yes," agreed Boots, "exactly. She looked wonderful in 'Empire'."

Blair sighed. Jo is now banned from any "Star Wars" movies, TV shows, music or trading cards. The de-dorkification process cannot start soon enough.

"Jo," Blair said quietly. "Do you think I look dull and common?"

"What? Of course not!"

"How do I look?" Blair half-lowered her lids. Her eyes were sparkling liquid chocolate between her long, dark lashes, above the crescents of dark kohl streaking her lower lids.

Jo smiled. "Perfect," she said simply.

"Thank you." Blair tossed an "I told you so" glance toward Boots. You'd better step back, St. Clair!

"How do I look?" Boots asked Jo.

"You look really good," Jo said honestly. "Why don't you ask one of the guys to dance?"

Boots' face fell. Her lower lip pushed out into a pout.

"The men at this party are so dull. And so common," Boots complained.

She really needs a thesaurus, mused Jo.

"I'm not dull. And certainly not common," said Alec.

"I don't want to dance with you, silly," said Boots.

"And I don't want to dance with you, little nitwit. I'm not asking you to dance; I'm defending my scintillating personality."

"You're dressed like a boy," Boots said to Jo. She tilted her head appealingly.

"Yeah, uh, heh-heh," Jo laughed nervously. What the hell do I do? Boots St. Clair is actually comin on to me in full view of God and Society!

"I say," said Jacqueline, scandalized, "this is insufferable! Nobody here wants to dance with you, Miss St. Clair. I suggest you peddle your wares elsewhere."

"You suggest that I what?" Boots demanded.

"I believe you heard me."

"I believe that I did!"

Jeez Louise! This has all the makins of a hair-pullin, shin-kickin preppie girl-fight.

"Boots," Jo said politely, "we're kinda in the middle of somethin here. We don't wanna be rude, but we don't have time to talk right now."

Boots lowered her eyes, disappointed. "I guess I'll see you later," she said.

"Enjoy the party," Jo said encouragingly. "Live it up!" Gotta hand it to Boots; she had the guts to ask me straight up if I wanted to dance.

Boots wandered into the throng of dancers, looking like a disappointed child.

"Good riddance," snorted Jacqueline.

"Jackrabbit," said Jo, "did you really have to be so rude to her?"

"Well, I ask you! That skimpy little ensemble. A woman has to defend her turf. What?"

"Well … you've got a point."

"Too bloody right!" Jacqueline tugged on Alec's right arm – the arm not in a sling.

"Where are we going?" asked Alec.

"We need a chat," Jacqueline said grimly.

Alec turned to Blair. "Help me!" he mouthed.

Blair laughed, shaking her head. "You're on your own, milord!"

"Wow … Alec and Jackrabbit," said Jo. "I give 'em a week before she comes to her sense and kicks him to the curb!"

Belmont leaned down and whispered something in Natalie's ear. Nat giggled.

"What's so funny?" asked Tootie.

"It's, just, nothing," Natalie said. "Belmont and I are going to dance again. C'mon." She took his hand and led him into the crush of dancers.

"Well, at least I have you two," Tootie said to Blair and Jo. "You two won't desert me! Good old Jo and Blair!"

"Good old Jo and Blair? It sounds like we're a hundred years old," complained Blair.

Jo winced, putting a hand to her head. "Kinda feelin a hundred years old," she said.

"Do you?" Blair put a solicitous hand on Jo's shoulder. "We should probably get you up to bed."

"Maybe that would be for the best," Jo agreed.

"Now just a dang minute!" said Tootie. "This party's just getting started. You two are not disappearing upstairs to do things I'm too young to know about!"

"Tootie," Blair said reasonably, "Jo's not feeling well. Think of what she's been through in the last twenty-four hours. If she needs to rest – "

"Actually," Jo confessed, "Tootie's right. I was just kinda hopin, you know – "

"Oh. I see."

"We gotta work on our signals," said Jo.

"Yes. We do."

The brassy strains of Cheryl Lynn's "Got To Be Real" filled the Great Hall, intercut with bits of Michael Sembello's "Maniac".

"Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh!" cried Tootie, jumping up and down excitedly. "'Got To Be Real'! 'Maniac'! 'Got To Be Real'!"

She grabbed one of Blair's hands, and one of Jo's.

"Think she wants to dance?" Jo deadpanned.

"Hard to tell," deadpanned Blair.

"Guys, come on!"

Blair and Jo followed her. They danced.


Monday, October 31, 1983. Halloween.

In the wee hours of the morning, in the sitting room of Jo and Blair's suite, Alec sat on the divan, Natalie next to him. Alec looked bemused. Natalie looked dreamy, eyes half closed as she reminisced about her dances with Belmont Keane.

Tootie sat in an antique chair, holding her Donna Summer wig under one arm. She was bright-eyed and alert in the way that only a teenager can be after a night of dancing.

Jo and Blair shared the love seat. Jo yawned frequently; it had been a rough couple of days, and her batteries were running down. Blair had an arm around Jo, cradling the brunette. Jo's Marc Antony turban sat on the coffee table; her hair was messy, ruffled, streaming like feathers from between the folds of her bandages.

Mrs. Garrett sat in an antique chair, beaming at her girls.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," Mrs. Garrett said. "It's inspired! All of us together, under one roof!"

"Blair, it's the best idea you ever had," said Tootie.

"Glad you like it," said Blair. "Nat? What do you think?"

"Hmm? Oh, it sounds great."

"Great?" Tootie demanded. "Only 'great'?"

"Super. Terrific. Out-of-this-world," Natalie said absently, her mind clearly on something else.

"Natalie would live in a tent," teased Alec, "as long as Belmont agreed to visit her there."

"He said 'I'll be in touch,'" Nat said dreamily. "Imagine that. Belmont Keane. Said to me. 'I'll be in touch.'"

"Eh, that means his secretary's gonna send you an eight-by-ten photo. That she signed," Jo said skeptically. "I wouldn't get your hopes up, kid."

"Secretaries don't send photos anymore," objected Tootie. "Actors have publicists now."

"He said he'd be in touch," Natalie said dreamily. "And he will be. Belmont and I have a profound connection."

"You can tell that after a couple of dances?" asked Jo.

"Oh, Jo. Jo, Jo, Jo. When it's meant to be, you can tell after a couple of seconds."

Blair smiled. She had a sudden memory of meeting Jo for the first time, those terrible, terrible bell-bottom jeans, the fierce blue-green eyes, the pugnacious jaw … the new girl was everything Blair had been raised to look down upon … and Blair had loved Jo simply, cleanly, immediately.

"I'm very honored," Alec said quietly, "that you've invited me to live in the house."

"You should be," snorted Jo.

"You'll be like our big brother," said Tootie. "If we think we hear weird creaking sounds at night, you can go investigate."

"Wow, you're lucky Nat's in a daze!" laughed Blair. "That is so anti-feminist, Tootie!"

"Hey, if we hear weird creaking, you can go downstairs if you want," said Tootie. "Feminist it up, Blair. Go nuts! But I say let Alec do it."

"He is the expendable one," said Jo.

"Consider me your guard dog," Alec grinned.

"Now, there's gonna be rules in this house," cautioned Jo, around an enormous yawn. "And chores and stuff. We gotta be organized about this."

"Jo," said Blair, "how can you manage to make a mansion sound like a work camp?"

"Well, we can't go about this all willy-nilly."

Tootie pegged Jo with a throw pillow.

"Hey!" complained Jo.

Alec laughed.

"This is exactly what I'm talkin about," complained Jo. "We can't be havin pillows flyin all over at the house. There's probably gonna be a lot of expensive stuff there, and we'll just be rentin it."

Tootie pegged her with another pillow.

Blair giggled.

Jo glared at her fiancée. "In case you've forgotten, Blair, I got a serious head wound here. What if Tootie injured it?"

"With a pillow?"

"You never know."

"Jo … With a pillow?"

"Now, girls," Mrs. Garrett said, trying to keep a straight face, but not quite able to hide a smile. "It's been a wonderful night, but we all need to get some sleep before we head back to civilization." She stood up, stretching and yawning.

"I guess," Tootie agreed reluctantly. It had been such a magical night, she hated for it to end …

When everyone had left, Jo locked and bolted and chained the suite door.

She stumbled into the master bedroom, where Blair was already slipping under the covers in only her panties and the Cleopatra wig.

"Aren't you gonna take that thing off?" asked Jo, gesturing toward the wig.

"I don't know." While Jo undressed, Blair settled herself against the pillows. She leaned seductively on one elbow, playing with a dark tendril of hair. "Don't you like it?"

Jo tossed her final stitch of clothing into the corner, flung herself onto the bed.

"Easy, there, Marc Antony," said Blair.

"I think I'm gettin a second wind," said Jo. "And you're right … the wig is good."

"I'm glad you approve."

Jo gave Blair many concrete tokens of her appreciation. The wig narrowly escaped destruction on several occasions. Blair's panties did not survive the night.


Hours later, when they were going from room to room, checking to be sure they hadn't left anything behind, Jo suddenly lifted Blair into her arms.

She kissed the blonde soundly, spun her around a couple of times.

"Jo, what are you doing? You're going to pull something."

"I don't care!"

"What brought on this manic mood?"

"Mrs. G knows about us! And Natalie knows! And Tootie knows! And even Petal figured it out! But they're all OK! Blair – they're all OK!"

Blair smiled fondly at Jo. She gently kissed the brunette's bruised face.

"Feels nice not to hide, doesn't it?" Blair said quietly.

"It feels like we can breathe again!" said Jo. "And, Blair – we're gonna all live together again. It'll be like old times – but even better! And Tootie got over her stage fright – in a big way! And Nat found a guy – in a big way! And Mrs. G's gonna be on TV. And Alec is out of our life, well, our love life, I mean. And you're safe. We're safe and alive and together. What the hell more could anyone ask for?"

Blair kissed Jo again. "Polniaczek?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"After we drop everyone off, I want us to go into the city. I have to tell my mother before anyone else does. About my break-up with Alec."

"You know what, Blair, even your mother can't ruin my mood today."

"And after I talk to her, do you know what I want to do?"

"What?"

"I want to meet you at that bakery. Because you're going to buy me some cannoli."

"You want cannoli? You got cannoli!"

"Joey?"

"Yeah?"

"I love you."

"Right back at you, babe! Happy Halloween!"

The End

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