DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television, no infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is sort of an alternate ending to the 4th season episode "Ain't Miss Beholden," in which Jo loses her scholarship to Eastland but refuses to accept help from Blair.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Della Street
Fishing around for a suitable tip, the blonde gestured vaguely toward the porch. "That will be fine," she declared. "Don't worry; I'll find someone else to carry them up to my bedroom."
"Hooray," the cab driver said. The last of nine suitcases landed with a thud on the wooden slats.
She folded a bill and slipped it to him, then reached for her makeup tote. She didn't want Jo to think she was unwilling to lend a hand with her own bags. A bit excited as always for the beginning of a new semester, she hurried into the living room, then picked up speed, dashing through the dining room and up the stairs.
"Jo?" she called out. "Jo, I need help with my bags."
"Jo?" she called out. "Jo, I need help with my bags."
The roommate in question wasn't there. How annoying and, in some odd sense, almost disappointing, Blair thought. Neither were the others. She regretted not phoning ahead to ensure a proper welcome.
Her new designer sheets and bedspread had arrived from Bloomie's right on time, she observed, and thank you, Mrs. Garrett had been washed for her and laid out nicely on her bed. As she dropped the duffle onto her comforter, she glanced over at Jo's bed. "What in the world?" she laughed. The much-despised drab brown blanket had been replaced with something that a female might actually own, a pleasant floral design that, although cheaper and off the shelf, looked somewhat like Blair's own.
In another pleasant surprise, Jo had actually put away her grimy belongings for once. The banged up toolbox, the random motorcycle part that "needed some workin' on" Jo had, after two years of pleading, found a place for them outside, presumably, or perhaps back in the Bronx where they belonged.
The absence of her preferred luggage carrier created a dilemma. Trudging up and down the stairs multiple times herself was out of the question, of course, but she didn't want to leave them on the porch, either. Fortunately, she was spared having to make a decision by the familiar sound of three roommates tromping down the hall. Rushing to the door, she greeted the arrivals with open arms. "Tootie! Natalie! San . . . dy." To Blair's dismay, the third arrival was not her porter, but rather a sophomore, Sandra Cooke. Blair peered down the hall, but no one else was there. "Where were you guys?" she asked.
"Grocery run," Tootie said. She held out her arms. "I'm glad you're back."
Blair moved on to hug her other longtime friend "Natalie!" followed by a brief embrace of Sandy Cooke. "Hi, Sandra," she said. "Good to see you."
The newcomer dropped down on Jo's bed. "How was your summer, Blair? I'll bet you did all sorts of exciting things."
"Of course!" Before she regaled them with tales of Enrique and the coast of Spain, though, a word of warning was probably in order, she decided. "I wouldn't do that," she advised. "Jo isn't much for sharing."
"Her bed," Blair clarified. "I took a nap there one day, and you would have thought I'd stolen the Crown Spark Plugs."
Natalie frowned at her. "Jo isn't here, Blair," she said.
Natalie frowned at her. "Jo isn't here, Blair," she said.
"Of course not," Blair replied. "Otherwise, Sandy would be in several pieces."
Tootie shook her head. "No, Blair," she explained, "she means that Jo isn't here. At Eastland."
Good grief. "Early bird Jo is the last to arrive?" Blair said. "Is she waiting for a release from her parole officer or something?" She laughed at her own joke. She'd have to repeat it when Jo was around.
"Blair, Jo is not coming back," Natalie snapped.
She stopped hanging her lovely new forest green blouse. "What do you mean?"
"She lost her scholarship, remember?"
How could she forget? The ensuing arguments had been even more uncivilized than usual. "Of course," Blair replied. "But she was going to . . . earn it or something."
"You knew she couldn't come up with that kind of money!" Natalie said. "Where was Jo going to get six thousand dollars?"
"Don't be silly," Blair scoffed. "Jo always lands on her feet."
"Yeah, well, not this time," Natalie said. "No scholarship, no Jo."
Blair's heart thudded painfully as silence fell over the room. Sandy's voice finally broke it. "I'm your new roommate," she said excitedly. "I know you and Jo didn't like each other, but I know we'll get along great. Who would have thought it, me rooming with Blair Warner?"
There had to be some mistake. "I spoke to Jo's mother several times over the summer," Blair said. "She never said Jo wasn't coming back."
"Did you ask her?"
Gently, Tootie suggested, "Maybe Rose thought they would find a way . . . ."
Was it accusation that Blair saw on her old friends' faces, at least Natalie's? "I offered her the scholarship!" she said. "She wouldn't take it."
This had been building for days, evidently. Natalie erupted, "You could have put in a word for her!"
"She said she didn't want it!" Blair replied. "What was I supposed to do, send it in anyway?"
"Yes!" Natalie said. "Or something! You were supposed to do something!"
That wasn't fair. "She would have hated that!" Blair defended herself. "She told me not to interfere. She wouldn't even let me buy one of those sweaters she was selling, remember?"
"Which would you prefer," Natalie said, "Jo here and not speaking to you, or never seeing her again?"
Never seeing Jo again? That was crazy. Of course they would. She was like a bad penny, always turning up, the proverbial thorn in Blair's side.
With a disapproving frown at Natalie's tone, Tootie walked over and laid a hand on Blair's shoulder. "It's not your fault, Blair," she said. "Mrs. Garrett talked to Mrs. Polniaczek. Jo told her she wouldn't have taken the money from you."
Natalie nodded. "Tootie's right, Blair," she said. "I'm sorry I yelled at you. It just won't be the same here without Jo."
"Well, not that I care if Miss Neanderthal comes back here or not, but I will not take the blame for this," Blair said. She headed for the stairs. "I'm calling Rose."
With the other girls trailing behind her, she picked up the receiver and dialed Jo's number. Six times she had tried to reach her boorish roommate over the summer only because she happened to be bored at that moment and wanted to rub her European vacation in someone's face, not because of any real desire to talk to her but each time there was no answer, or she found herself making polite conversation with Mrs. Polniaczek.
"Jo?" she said hopefully when the phone was picked up on the third ring.
"She's not here right now," came the reply.
"I'm sorry," Blair said. "You two sound alike. This is Blair; I'm calling because my roommates have a crazy notion that Jo isn't coming back to Eastland this semester."
The sigh on the other end of the phone told Blair everything. "She's not," Rose said. "She lost her scholarship."
"I know that, but I thought . . . ." Blair closed her eyes. "I thought . . . ." I thought she would always be here. "My father's company offers a scholarship," she said. "She wouldn't take it."
This couldn't be happening. "What is she going to do?" Blair asked.
"She's working in her uncle Sal's garage," Rose said.
"She's not going to school at all?" Hadn't they been through this already when Jo was thinking about dropping out and marrying that Eddie? Blair had talked her out of that, thank goodness, but here they were again. Images of Jo the high school dropout filled her head: trudging home from some undignified job every night, probably getting drunk or high or whatever dropouts did, eventually shacking up with some other loser like Eddie. "I can't believe it," she said.
Warmly, the other woman told her, "You were a good friend, Blair. I know she misses you."
Mrs. Polniaczek obviously did not comprehend the true nature of their relationship. "I'm not sure that Jo felt exactly the same way, but thank you," Blair said.
"She needed someone like you, someone classy," Rose continued. "She can't get that around here."
Yes, Jo was in need of a role model, Blair agreed. She decided it wouldn't be polite to say that to one of the people who was supposed to serve that function. "Jo's not like anyone I ever met before," she said. "We sort of . . . ." Almost, kind of, liked each other once in a while.
It couldn't end like this. Jo leaving Eastland without so much as saying goodbye was like a boxing match ending in a draw after only three quarters.
"Listen, could you ask Jo to call me?" she said, determined to talk sense into that thick Polish skull. If she could just speak with Jo, she could fix this. If she had to, she could simply order Jo to return.
"I'll tell her."
"I'll tell her."
Jo would listen to her, Blair felt certain. Sure, there might be some growling and grumbling, but Jo would come around in the end. She always did. How many times had Jo groused at her, "How did I let you talk me into this?" All it would take was a captive audience on the other end of the line, just once. Maybe twice.
No call came that evening. Or Monday. Or Tuesday. Over the next several weeks, Blair spoke with Rose Polniaczek and her answering machine more than her own mother. "Hi, Rose, this is Blair," she tried again one evening. Slightly out of breath, Mrs. Polniaczek picked up just as Blair's date knocked politely on the door and strolled in with a toothy smile and a passable corsage.
She held up a finger to warn him that she was in the middle of something more important than he. "Hi, Rose, it's Blair. I don't suppose Jo is there."
"No, I'm sorry."
"Did you give her my last message?" Blair had added an "It's very important" to that one.
"Then why . . . ?
Rose didn't sound very happy. "Look, Blair, I don't mean to discourage you, but . . . ."
"She's not going to call me."
"I don't think so," Rose said. "It's a pride thing. She says that Eastland was a speed bump on the train ride and she's done with it."
Todd tapped impatiently at his watch.
"A speed bump?" Jo Polniaczek thought she could stomp in here and ruin all their lives and then just write them off as a speed bump?
"She's . . . ." Rose seemed hesitant to say it.
Stepping closer, Todd urged her, "Come on, Blair, we're going to be late."
Blair ignored him. "She's what?" she asked.
"She's . . . back with her old gang."
Shocked, Blair exclaimed, "The Young Dodos?" Could this get any worse?
"I don't know what to do." Rose sounded helpless. "She's . . . she almost seems worse than before she went to Eastland. Angrier."
"I thought she was through with that kind of thing!"
"I'd hoped she was," Rose said. "I sent her to Eastland in the first place to get away from all that before she got killed."
Killed? This was a nightmare.
"Come on, Blair!" Todd urged her.
She placed a hand over the receiver. "Go away," she instructed him.
"You." She aimed her index finger at him, then at the door. "Away. Something has come up."
"Something always comes up," he protested.
Blair turned her back on him and laid her forehead against the wall. She had bigger concerns at the moment.
Aak! Blair was startled to see the sophomore pop out of nowhere and smile adoringly at her, although she should have grown used to it by now, she supposed.
"I was doing some laundry, so I threw in your sheets and pillow cases."
Blair mustered up a smile. The girl really was nice. Really, really nice. "Thanks," she said.
"I thought I might make us a treat. You like sugar cookies, right?"
At last! Blair eagerly tore open the only package in today's mail, then pried open the lid of the container inside and inspected its contents. Perfect. A perfect 14 karat, three-strand graduated freshwater pearl necklace. She should have ordered it gift wrapped, she realized now. Oh, well. She had managed to do a presentable job on the bigger package; she could Scotch tape some paper around this one, too. Recalling the occasion when Jo shoved a grocery sack with a bow on it at her with a grouchy, "Merry Christmas," Blair was fairly certain that her former roommate would not judge a gift by its wrapping.
Eventually, she remembered Sandy's words. "Oh, yes, thanks," she said. Dismissing the other girl, she picked up the phone. "Todd? It's Blair."
She waited for him to regain the ability to speak. Men.
"Remember when you offered to take me to a Broadway show?"
"Good. I'm in the mood tonight." To be clear, she added, "For a show."
"Tonight?" he squeaked. "I thought you weren't going out tonight."
"Well, that's all right," she said sweetly. "If you can't drive me, I'm sure I can find someone else."
"No! No, don't call anyone else!" he pleaded. "I'll drive you."
"An early show," she said. "Which means you'd better leave . . . ." She checked her watch. "Now."
To his credit, in less than twenty minutes a newly washed blue BMW pulled up in front of the house, and out stepped a rather dashing young man in a neatly pressed tuxedo. Not bad, Blair had to acknowledge. She gave him extra points for the wax job.
He gestured grandly toward the car. "Your carriage, Princess," he said.
She deducted a point for lack of originality. She'd heard that one too many times to count. Ironically, the only person who ever showed originality when inviting her into a vehicle, be it a grungy motorcycle or Mrs. Garrett's Volkswagen, had been her former roommate. "If your ass ain't in this car in five seconds, you'll be haulin' it into town yourself." "Get your seat on that seat." "BW, VW. Now." Granted, Blair had occasionally whirled around and stormed right back into the house, but at least there was variety.
The dinner was acceptable and the show surprisingly good, considering that they had to settle for one that wasn't sold out. "This has been a great evening," Todd said as they walked out of the theater. "I knew it would be."
"Yes, it worked out quite well," Blair agreed.
"When we get back to Peekskill, I know a place with an excellent view of the city," he said. "Have you ever been to Walters Point?"
Walters Point? He was asking her to Makeout Point on their first date?
"We could lower the top," he coaxed.
So that everyone in the other cars could see them? Terrific. Another guy who wanted to get Blair Warner into the back seat, and to make sure everyone knew that he had. The modicum of guilt that Blair had been experiencing over what she was about to do evaporated. "I'd love to, Todd," she replied. "Maybe next time." Which would be never. "Unfortunately, I have an errand to run, so I'll have to catch a cab now." She extended an arm toward the street.
"An errand?" He seemed confused. "You're not going back with me?"
"An errand?" He seemed confused. "You're not going back with me?"
A Yellow Cab swerved across three lanes of traffic and pulled up to the curb.
Giving Todd a peck on the cheek, Blair said truthfully, "It was a lovely evening." A lovely means to an end. She waited expectantly, tapping her foot as she peered into the passenger window. Finally, the driver seemed to pick up on her body language. He hopped out onto the street, hurried around the car, and opened the door for her. Was that so hard? she thought. She gracefully ducked her head and made herself comfortable on the ugh vinyl seat.
Waggling her fingers through the window, she gave Jo's address to the driver as Todd, still a bit dazed, waved back at her.
"You sure you got the right address?" her driver Fayez, according to the sheet taped to the back of his seat questioned.
"I'm sure," she said.
It was the right address but the wrong time, as it turned out. After some initial confusion in her attempt to locate a doorman, Blair stepped into the noisy and not-swept-recently elevator. She started to reach for the 5, then on second thought dug around in her purse for a handkerchief, winding it around her index finger before pressing the button. As the noisy lift began its journey, she stepped into the spot that appeared to be the farthest possible distance from each wall.
She wrapped the handkerchief loosely around her knuckles to knock on the door of apartment 507. "Come on, Jo . . . ," she whispered to herself when no one answered. In the back of her mind, Blair had understood that Jo might not be there, but she had preferred to play the role of the headless optimist that Jo always accused her of being.
Mulling over her options, she walked across the hall and knocked on another door. No answer. Three apartments later, someone was finally home, or at least admitted to being home. The door opened a couple of inches and a suspicious eye peered out at her. "What do you want?" an elderly woman's voice asked.
"Sorry to bother you," Blair said. "I'm looking for Jo Polniaczek."
"Haven't seen her." The door slammed shut.
Through the paneling, Blair hollered, "What about her mother? Hello?"
This wasn't how her evening was supposed to end. Approaching the rickety elevator, she hesitated, then opted to take the stairs instead. Another mistake, she soon realized. She smiled uneasily at two men in Yankees jackets leaning against the rail in the stairwell. Their conversation came to a halt when she appeared.
With a small wave, she said, "Hello!"
They stared at her.
That had gone well, Blair decided. Now that she had established a rapport, she tried her luck again. "Do you happen to know Jo Polniaczek?"
They did not answer.
"I'm looking for her," Blair elaborated. "She's a friend of mine."
They eyed her mink coat and diamond-sequined dress and heels.
"From school." She laughed nervously. "Well, I won't keep you," she said. "It's been nice chatting with you."
Fayez was, as expected, waiting at the curb, chatting with someone as Blair crossed the sidewalk. "And you!" he yelled. When he noticed his passenger approaching, there was no delay this time; he jumped out and opened the door for her.
"Thank you," she said absently, trying to figure out her next move. She didn't really want to take that long train ride home alone. "Can you drive me to Peekskill?"
"Peekskill?" he repeated. "Are you kidding me?"
A thought occurred to her. "Wait!" It wasn't that late. "Maybe she's at the garage!"
The driver seemed more than happy to consider some destination other than a rural town hours away.
"It's a garage for mechanics," Blair said.
He stared blankly at her.
Curses! Weren't cab drivers required to know the city? "A place to fix cars," she tried again. "In the Bronx."
"Lady, there's more than one garage in the Bronx," he said.
What had Rose said? Think, Blair. She's working at . . . "Al's!" Blair said triumphantly. "Al's Garage."
He drew out one of the tattered phone books beneath his seat and ran his finger down the As. "Al's Service?"
"You sure about that?" he said. "That's not a nice part of town for a girl."
Blair pointed up at Jo's apartment building. "Neither is this." Happily, she ordered him, "Al's Garage, please."
She would not leave the Bronx empty handed, not if she could help it. Actually she patted the bag with two wrapped packages that she had been carrying all evening she hoped she would leave empty handed.
As he wound through the streets, Blair watched people out of the window. So this was where Jo had grown up. It explained a lot.
Not much seemed to be going on in this area, she noticed after a while. Very few businesses, and fewer by the minute, were lit up. That didn't bode well for finding Jo at work. Oh, well. If she wasn't, they could just go back to Jo's apartment and leave the packages with the doormawith Rose, if she was there. Or maybe that neighbor, if she would open the door again. Blair could stuff the gifts through the crack.
"This can't be right," she said when they eased over to the curb. This clearly was not a working garage. It was instead an empty building that did not appear to have been occupied any time recently. Most of its windows were broken. So were those on the building that shared its narrow driveway.
"Al's Service," Fayez insisted.
"Is your phone book from the '50s?" For the second time that evening, Blair wasn't sure what to do. She would not be defeated by Jo Polniaczek's stubbornness. "Maybe I got the name wrong," she allowed. There was a payphone across the street under one of the few functioning street lights. "I'll make a call." She got out of the cab and walked over to the phone, which, by some miracle, worked.
Drat. Once again, Blair found herself conversing with Rose Polniaczek's answering machine.
"Hi, Rose," she told the device. "It's Blair. I'm in town tonight, and I was hoping to see Jo. No one was home at your apartment, so I tried the garage, or what I thought was the garage. It's Al's, isn't it? Anyway, I'm going to swing by the apartment again before heading home. I have some things for Jo. Hope to see you soon."
From behind her, a hand reached out and pressed down on the cradle, ending her call.
"Excuse me," Blair said. "I was using this."
"Not any more."
Dismayed, Blair spun around to give the inconsiderate person a piece of her mind, only to discover that she was surrounded by half a dozen young males. She glanced over at her cab. Fayez sat stiffly in the driver's seat, windows up, sizing up the men lurking near his passenger.
"If you wanted to use the phone, you could have just asked," Blair said.
The one nearest to her laughed. "We don't want the phone." He looked her over. "You lost, Chica?"
Was this one of those street gangs? Blair wondered. Judging by the poor manners, it seemed to qualify. She summoned the only words she might have that would appeal to a criminal. "I'm looking for Jo Polniaczek," she said confidently. "She's a friend of mine." That's right. I know one of your gangster pals.
"Polniaczek?" One of the hoodlums, sporting a buzz cut and obscene tattoos on both arms, stepped forward. "You're a friend of hers?"
"That's right," Blair said. "A close friend."
"A close friend?" he repeated. "And Father Tom says I ain't livin' right."
Blair did not know why the others found that so funny.
Turning back toward the cab, the man caught the driver's attention and jerked his thumb toward the street.
Fayez shook his head. He rolled down his window a few inches. "Come on, Man, let her go," he called over.
The gravity of the situation in which she found herself sank in for the first time when Blair heard the smashing of glass, and one of the gang members reached into the back seat of the cab.
Jo's gifts! "Hey!" she objected. "Those are mine!"
Another window shattered, this time the one opposite the driver. The right headlight went next. With an apologetic look at Blair, Fayez threw the cab into reverse and turned around, tearing down the street.
Another window shattered, this time the one opposite the driver. The right headlight went next. With an apologetic look at Blair, Fayez threw the cab into reverse and turned around, tearing down the street.
"No!" she called after him. He was leaving her?
The window breaker handed Blair's packages to the man she had concluded was their leader. The necklace impressed him. "Nice," he said. "Trina's gonna like this." To Blair, he said, "How much does something like this cost?"
When she did not reply, he gestured at the man standing beside her, who grabbed a handful of hair.
"I said, how much did this cost?" the man repeated.
"Five hundred dollars."
"You fucking kidding me? For Polniaczek?" He studied her. "Must be a very close friend."
Blair kept her mouth shut. Jo, where are you?
He tore open the larger package next, unfolded the coveralls that had been intended to keep Jo clean at work, and examined the two letters stitched in pink above the left pocket. "Aw, ain't that sweet?" He leered at her. "Ain't you sweet . . . ."
Sitting casually near the pool table, Jo scanned her fellow patrons for potential victims. Where was Jesse with the damn beer? Jo's aim was always a little steadier after her first bottle.
Unexpectedly, her mother's face came into her field of vision. Surprised, Jo said, "I thought you had a double shift tonight."
"I do," Rose replied. "I'm late."
"So what's up?"
What? That was the last thing Jo expected to hear. She leapt to her feet, looking around for a spoiled heiress sticking out like a sore thumb.
"At the apartment," Rose clarified. "She called while I was in the shower. She'll be there in a few minutes."
Calming down a little, Jo shrugged her disinterest. "Thanks for the warning," she said. "I'll make sure not to be there."
"Just spend a few minutes with her," Rose pleaded. "She really wants to see you."
Yeah, well, we don't always get what we want. Jo kept the thought to herself. She hadn't quite developed Jesse's comfort level at smarting off to her own mother yet. It was irritating enough that, in spite of clear instructions, Rose insisted on informing Jo each time that Blair called. Didn't she get it? Blair was then, this was now.
Why the hell Blair was still bugging her was beyond Jo's comprehension, anyway. Granted, Jo's thoughts strayed to her ex-roommate now and then, maybe to one of their arguments, or something funny that Blair did, or how pretty she looked some evening as she left for a date, but that was different. Blair was part of something larger that Jo had given upthat had been taken from her, actually. Jo, by contrast, had never been a big part of Blair Warner's life.
She walked away from the pool table. She didn't want Jesse to hear any of this when she returned with the brews. She still caught shit from her friend at times for having attended the same school as that stuck up blonde. True as the characterization was, Jo didn't like to hear it.
Her mother was going to keep at her, apparently. "She came a long way to see you," Rose said. "She has something for you."
Figures. That ticked Jo off even more. Unlike her mother, Jo wasn't impressed by Blair Warner's money. The Polniaczek women had argued about that, too.
"She tried to look for you at work, but she got the wrong address," Rose went on at her now. "She went to some place called Al's."
Jo rolled her eyes. Air brain. Al's? The only Al's that she knew was over by . . .
"If you really want to get rid of her, why don't you see her?" Rose said. "Otherwise, she's just going to keep calling."
No, she wouldn't. Blair's attention span was just slightly longer than a gnat's.
"I have to go," Rose said. Clearly disappointed with her daughter, she turned and walked out of the bar.
A short while later, Jesse arrived with the beers, but Jo wasn't thirsty any more. Maybe Ma was right. One meeting with Blair, to tell her in person to butt out of her life once and for all, maybe that was the right thing to do. Jo was getting tired of not answering the phone just because it might be Her.
"Thanks," she said absently when Jesse handed her the beer. "So, listen, Ma was just here."
"Yeah?" Jesse took a sip. "What'd she want?"
Jo considered her next words. "One of the girls from the school is comin' by the apartment," she said.
"One of that bunch?" Jesse sneered. "What for?"
"I left some stuff there, I guess," Jo said.
"Is it Blondie?"
"She didn't say." Jo grew uncomfortable under the interrogation. "She's gonna drop the stuff off, and Ma's gotta go to work, so she can't be there . . . ." She handed her beer to her friend. "Watch this til I get back."
Jesse grinned at her. "Sure, I'll watch it."
Once outside the bar, Jo started to jog. After six months, she would be seeing Blair Warner again. She was irritated by her own anticipation. She should turn around, she told herself, but her legs betrayed her.
Seeing Blair again. Would it be the same between them? Jo thought about what she was wearing. A hole in the sleeve, and not even close to her best shirt. She mentally reviewed the clean t-shirts in her closet. She did have that blouse, the blue one that Blair said she looked good in. She'd never hear the end of it if Jesse saw her, but she could change again before heading back to the bar. What would it hurt? It would be one less thing for Blair to make snide comments about. She would probably have time to get changed before Blair showed up. She took the stairs two at a time.
"Hi, guys," she greeted the occupants of 208 on her way up.
"Hey, Jo," Paolo called after her. "Some blonde chick was looking for you earlier. Said she was a friend of yours."
She turned back around. "Overdressed and clueless?"
He nodded. "That chick is smokin'," he said. "She like dark meat?"
Laughing at him, his cousin Georgi said, "She was lookin' for Polniaczek. Maybe she likes pie."
Jo wasn't touching that one. "I'll tell her you guys are available," she teased them. She took off again for the fifth floor. She might have time to check the answering machine, too. Occasionally, when Rose wasn't there, Jo would play back one of Blair's messages. Dumb, she told herself each time. Eastland wasn't entirely out of her blood, she supposed. Rose had walked in on her once, forcing Jo to improvise, stabbing at buttons with a sharp, "How do I delete this crap?"
At the landing, Jo noticed something nailed to the outside of her mother's door. Her stomach fell as she drew close enough to see what it was: a driver's license, issued two years ago to Blair Warner in Peekskill, New York. Jo yanked out the nail and studied it. Blair loved the camera and, Jo could not deny, the camera loved her. Unlike Jo's driver's license photo, which Blair had compared unfavorably to that of an escaped mental patient, the blonde's was elegant. She ran a finger across the image.
Blair hadn't left this. If she had left anything, it would have been one of those airy "Sorry you missed me" things. This was . . . .
She sagged against the wall. Al's. She remembered the old Al's that hadn't been in business since her childhood. Not as a service station, that is. To those in the know, it was a convenient place to buy drugs, among other things. Jo hadn't been there for years, not since the Wolves had claimed it and the surrounding blocks as their turf.
She pressed the laminated card against her chest. Vinnie had Blair. No, it was worse than that. Vinnie had Blair, and somehow knew of their connection. Jo assumed that Blair, beautiful, naive Blair, had blabbed it, as she had with Paolo and Georgi. She wouldn't know the difference between a friend and an enemy. Vinnie would never have ventured into Young Diablo territory just to get back at Jo; he was smarter than that. His revenge had come to him.
Jo rushed down the stairs and covered the nine blocks to the bar in under four minutes, weaving through traffic, ignoring the occasional honk of an irritated driver. She hurried through the entrance, nodding to the bouncer, and sought out her childhood friend.
"That was fast," Jesse said. "I ain't even finished your beer yet."
"Your brother still sell hardware?" Jo asked.
Surprised by the abrupt question, Jesse replied, "You kiddin'?"
"I need one."
"Why?" Jesse asked. "You don't carry."
"I need one," Jo repeated. "Fast."
Jesse chugged the last of Jo's beer and handed the other untouched bottle to the man with whom she had been chatting, then followed Jo outside, where she demanded, "What's going on?"
"I think Vinnie has Blair," Jo said.
It took the other girl a moment to place the name. "Blair?" she said. "The blonde bitch?"
Jesse snorted. "What do you care?"
"I care, okay?" The realization had hit Jo like a mack truck the moment she saw that license. A lump formed in her throat.
Jesse rolled her eyes. "Whatever," she said. "Don't tell me; Dumbass was struttin' around waving her tiara at everybody."
It could be about money, but Jo doubted it. "I think it's payback," she said.
"Latesha?" Jesse said. "She dumped his sorry ass months ago."
"For another woman," Jo said.
Jesse laughed. "No way! Oh, man, is that royal!" she exclaimed. Her smile faded. "Wait a minute. It wasn't"
"No," Jo interrupted, "but Vinnie thinks it was."
"Why does he think that?"
"'cause Tesha and I spent time together," Jo said. "She told me what she was thinkin'. I told her to go for it. Better a girl than Vinnie."
"Better a dog than Vinnie." Jesse thought about it. "So, Vinnie thinks you were doin' his girl."
Jo nodded. During a break in traffic, she darted out to the center island.
When Jesse caught up to her, she went on, "And he thinks Blondie is a friend of yours?"
Even for a Friday night, this was unacceptable. Blair knew the rules. Edna picked up the phone to call Bates Academy.
"Bill, I hope I didn't wake you," she said. "This is Edna Garrett at Eastland. Do you know when Todd Vanderbilt is expected home?"
"Todd?" the major replied. "I think he's in the TV room."
What? "When did he get home?"
"A couple of hours ago."
Wasn't that the boy with whom Blair had gone to the city? "Can I speak to him?" Edna asked.
An errand, the cadet said. Blair had decided to run an errand in New York City after the play? Her usual haunts would be closed. Her parents were both out of the country (separate continents, of course). It didn't make sense. Unless . . . . An image of strips of wrapping paper in the trash came to mind. On a hunch, Edna dialed Rose Polniaczek's number. No answer.
An hour later, there was still no answer, and no Blair. After two more unsuccessful attempts, Edna picked up the phone again, hoping for a lecture from New York's finest about overreacting. Central dispatch made note of her concern, although a teenage girl missing curfew by a few hours did not seem to alarm them, and gave her the number for the station closest to Jo's neighborhood.
"18th precinct," a voice answered.
"This is Edna Garrett from the Eastland School for Girls in Peekskill," she said. "I'm worried about one of my girls. I think she might have been visiting a friend of hers in the Bronx."
"Eastland? That school for rich kids?"
"Well, I suppose."
"And she's got a friend in this precinct?"
Was that so hard to believe? "Yes," Edna replied. "Jo Polniaczek. Joanna."
"Polniaczek?" He seemed to recognize the name.
"Yes!" Edna said. "Do you know her?"
"Oh, yeah," he replied. His tone suggested that it was not a happy memory. "What's she got to do with this?"
"Well, I don't know," Edna conceded. "I'm not sure that Blair was going there, and I can't get hold of Jo. The girl I'm worried about is 18, blonde, wearing a tan mink coat, formal black dress"
"Wait a sec," the detective interrupted. "Blonde girl in a mink?"
Oh, no. "Yes." Edna could hear the rustling of papers. With a sense of dread, she asked, "Has something happened?"
"Your relationship to this girl is what, again?"
"I'm the" The school nutritionist? That wouldn't get her any information. "Her legal guardian," she lied.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am. We got a call a couple of hours ago from a cab driver on the south side," the detective said. "Passenger of his, pretty blonde girl in a mink, went out to make a phone call and got grabbed. He left to phone it in, but when he went back for her, they were gone."
"Gone?" Edna panicked. "What do you mean gone?"
"It's not confirmed, but she was in Wolf territory," he said.
"It's a gang," he said. "The cab driver wasn't local, or he wouldn't have let her out there."
A gang? "Like the Young Diablos?" she asked.
"Not exactly," he said. "There's bad blood between those two."
Edna felt sick to her stomach. "Blair's father is David Warner of Warner Industries," she said. "I'll call him." Maybe Mr. Warner, with all his resources, could think of something, even long distance. Edna didn't know what else to do.
Partway up the side of the brick building, Jo leaned out as far as she could, holding on to the window sill with one hand, and peered around the corner. No one outside. That was something, at least.
She wasn't sure what she was going to do, or how she was going to do it. It depended on Blair. If Blair was okay, this was going to be tricky: Get in, get the girl, and get out. If Blair was not okay Jo didn't want to think about that it would be a lot easier: Get in, kill Vinnie, and who cared what happened after that.
Jesse had offered to come with her even though she couldn't stand Blair, a gesture that Jo appreciated. They could round up more help in a matter of minutes, she had also suggested. It was tempting. Jo wasn't looking forward to taking Vinnie on by herself. More like she was scared shitless. But taking her crew into Wolf territory would start a war, undoing all of Jo's efforts over the past six months to negotiate deals with Vinnie and other leaders over real estate. Until the Latesha fiasco, things had been going pretty well. If one of the other gangs thought the Diablos had invaded someone else's turf, all bets would be off. No one who wandered into neighboring territory would be given the benefit of the doubt. That was how kids and other innocent people got killed.
Before ditching Vinnie for good, his ex-girlfriend had repaid Jo with one last favor"just in case," she said. If Vinnie flipped out and grabbed Jo, he would bring her here, Latesha predicted. She would pry open the paint-sealed window in the upstairs crawlspace before she left. No one ever went up there, she said. That was more than two months ago. Jo prayed that it was still unlatched.
This was a hard climb. Jo rested for a moment, clinging to another sill two stories up. She was starting to sweat, and her hands felt slippery. She didn't dare look down. If she couldn't get in the window, she would be trapped on the roofassuming she could manage the final swing up and over the ledge. That would require a feat of balance and arm strength that Jo wasn't sure she had left in her, not after fifteen minutes of digging fingers into cracks and pulling herself up one stretch at a time.
She gave the window more of a yank than it needed, and it nearly knocked her off her perch as it swung open. Jo paused again to catch her breath. She let go with one hand just long enough to wipe it on her shorts, then, with a deep breath, hauled herself up the rest of the way, squeezing into the narrow space as quietly as she could. Just as Tesha had said, a makeshift ladder along the south wall led up to the ceiling, like anyone would ever bother to repair the roof in this place. There was no sheet rock to conceal her, only crisscrossed two by eights. If anyone happened to look up, she was screwed.
From the middle of the room, Jo heard Vinnie talking to someone. Carefully, she crawled out onto a beam for a better look.
"You like it, Tri?"
She peered down to see Vinnie's younger sister modeling a knee length black dress with rows of shiny sequins across the chest. Jo had seen those sequins before.
"How do I look?" Trina replied.
"Classy," he praised her. "But I think you deserve the whole outfit, Kid."
She could see Blair now, standing a few feet in front of them. Jo closed her eyes for a moment. Blair was standing there, hands crossed in front of her chest, wearing only her undergarments. Her beautiful Blair, in front of all those guys. Think of it as a bikini, Blair.
"Off," Vinnie said, gesturing toward Blair's bra.
Blair shook her head.
"Take it off, or I'll take it off for you."
Jo did some quick calculations. Seven Wolves, not counting that useless Trina; six bullets in her gun. Even assuming perfect aim something Jo seriously doubted, since the only shooting she had ever done was in an empty parking lot with friends and a keg she was underequipped.
"I can't," Blair said tearfully.
"You can't?" Vinnie taunted her. "Come on. I wanna see what Polniaczek sees."
"Why are you doing this?"
That's it, Blair. Gimme a little more time to think of something.
"Why don't you ask her next time you see her?"
"Jo won't see me," Blair said. "She won't return my calls."
"That why you buy her such expensive shit?"
"It was an early Christmas present."
"And now I want mine," Vinnie taunted her. "Do it."
Desperately, Blair said, "Not in front of them." She indicated the other gang members. "If they leave, I'll . . . ."
There you go, Blair. Come on, Vinnie . . . .
"I'll . . . ."
"You'll what?" he persisted.
He could grill her all night, and Blair wouldn't say it. Jo knew that much.
"You'll give me what you give Polniaczek?"
Blair seemed genuinely bewildered. "Why do you keep saying that?"
Because he thinks I'm doin' you, Blair.
Scornfully, he said, "She must like what you got down there" he pointed at a portion of her anatomy, then at her head "more than what you got up there." He waved the others off. "Out." When they muttered their discontent, he added, "Don't worry; you'll get your turn."
Jo scrambled backwards on the beam and over to the ladder. She hoped Vinnie's attention would remain focused on Blair, and a glance over her shoulder confirmed that it was. Drawing her sleeves over her hands, she placed one palm on each side of the uprights, lifted her feet, and slid all the way to the ground.
"My father is a wealthy man . . . ," Blair began.
Vinnie was standing directly in front of Blair now, reaching for her. They were both shocked when, out of nowhere, Jo suddenly clasped her left hand over his mouth, jabbing a gun into his side with the other.
"Jo!" Blair's relief was palpable.
"Shh," Jo hushed her. "Get up the ladder." She jerked her head toward the wooden contraption.
Blair looked at the ladder, and then up to the bare crossbeams to which it led. "That? I can't"
"Get up the fucking ladder, Blair!"
"Jo, I can't!" Blair whispered. "You know I can't!" Fearfully, she took a step toward the wall.
"Wait," Jo said. Blair was right. Her princess might be dignified and classy, but she was also a klutz. Even if she managed the ladder, she'd never make it down the side of the building or onto the roof without breaking her neck. What were they going to do?
Vinnie mumbled something against her hand. Maybe Jo could talk him out of this. She eased up the pressure slightly. "Keep it down and I won't use this," she said.
"I'm gonna kill you."
That wasn't helpful. "Look, Vinnie, you got this all wrong," Jo said. "Tesha and I weren't like that. Neither is she." She indicated Blair.
"It wasn't me, Vinnie." Jo hated to drop someone else in it, but she had no choice. She could give Latesha a heads up later. "Think about ityou seen Doris since Tesha left?"
"Doris?" he snorted. "Lame. Everyone knows she moved home with her ma. Why don't you just man up to it?"
Jo looked over at Blair. "Where are your shoes?" she asked.
"That . . . creature has them," Blair replied.
Vinnie stiffened at the insult to his sibling. Shit. Not now, Blair.
Her motorcycle was just down the street, having been rolled a couple of blocks with the engine off into a decent hiding place behind a beauty parlor. They might make it, if they could get past the other Wolves. How was she supposed to do that? Jo had no freaking idea.
"You've crossed the line," Vinnie said.
"You crossed the line when you took her," Jo said, indicating Blair. "Family's off limits. You know that."
"It's on now," he declared. "The Wolves and the Diablos."
"The Diablos got nothin' to do with this," Jo said. "I quit them."
"Bullshit," Vinnie growled into her palm. "I'm gonna kill you."
"Yeah, yeah." She needed to think.
She glanced over her shoulder toward the door. How far away were the others? What would they do if . . . ?
"And I'm gonna fuck Blondie."
"Lay off her already," she warned him. She studied the doorway again. It was pretty wide . . . . "Blair, get over by the door," she said. "No, the other side."
Jo's index finger twitched. She couldn't miss at this distance, but . . . . She wasn't sure she could do this. She closed her eyes.
"And then I'm gonna let my boys have her."
She pulled the trigger. Shoving Vinnie away from her, she sprinted over to where Blair stood frozen, gaping at the blood beginning to seep onto the concrete surface.
Jo grabbed Blair's shoulders. "Get ready to bolt," she said.
The door burst open an instant later and, as Jo had hoped, the others ran instinctively to the body lying on the floor. "Vinnie!" Trina shrieked.
Jo shoved Blair into the next room and on through to the chilly outdoors. Clasping Blair's wrist, she pulled her down the sidewalk toward her bike. They had made it less than half way when the first shot rang out. She let go of Blair's hand. "Keep going!" she yelled. "I'll come back for you!"
"No! Don't leave me!" Blair begged her.
There was no time to reassure her. Running as fast as her lungs could handle, Jo reached her Kawasaki, grabbed the key from beneath the wheel well and jumped on, kickstarting it in a single motion and tearing out of the hiding place toward Blair. Vinnie's guys were closing in on her. Jo revved it, screeching to a halt and fishtailing the back wheel to change directions. Another shot whirred past them. "Get on!" she shouted, but Blair was already ahead of her, scrambling to position herself behind Jo on the seat.
Bullets clanked against Jo's motorcycle as they peeled out. She could hear other bikes firing up. Fuck. She sped through the streets, heading for at least the relative safety of Diablo territory, when suddenly her engine began to knock. What the . . . ? The bike sputtered and died.
"What are you doing?" Blair asked.
It was hard to see in the dark, but there appeared to be a trail of something dark along the street behind them. "Off," Jo ordered. Steadying the bike with one hand, she used the other to feel the exterior of the fuel tank, where shit she found two small, round holes.
"We're out of gas," she said.
"Out of gas?" Blair echoed in disbelief.
"Don't start with me!" Jo snapped. She pushed the bike to the edge of a loading dock and let it roll down out of sight. "Sorry, Princess, but you gotta run."
"I don't think I can," Blair replied. "There was glass back there . . . ."
Jo laid her hands on Blair's shoulders. "I'm sorry, but you gotta. If they catch us" Did she have to repeat Vinnie's foul threat? "Which foot is it?"
Blair raised her right ankle. Maybe . . . Jo reached around her waist and pulled her close. "Lean on me," she said. After a while, they developed an awkward rhythm, limping through back alleys toward Diablo territory. Not that a boundary would stop Vinnie's crew tonight.
They were both exhausted by the time they approached the familiar building. The Wolves would look there, Jo knew, but if she could just get to a phone, get some help
In the distance, she heard Vinnie's cousin Mike calling out to someone.
She half-carried Blair to the front door of Sal's shop. Jo's key ring only had three keys on it including the one to Mrs. Garrett's house, which she couldn't bring herself to throw away and it took only an instant to select the silver one and insert it into the lock. "In here," she said.
She could hear their pursuers clearly now, five or six of them. Looking around, Jo noticed the Lincoln with the cracked bell housing parked on the lift. She yanked open the back door and shoved Blair into the seat. Racing over to the lever, she activated the hydraulics. Blair yelped in surprise as twin inverted cylinders began to raise the car.
The door! Jo hurried over and re-locked it, then ran back to the platform and jumped, barely catching hold of the driver's side spring. After a brief struggle with gravity, she forced her tired muscles to do one last favor for her, pulling herself up and dropping into the back seat on top of Blair. At 85 inches above the ground, the car jerked to a halt.
She laid a finger across Blair's lips. "Shh," she warned.
For a moment, Jo heard nothing other than Blair's soft breathing against her neck. Then the door burst open. Blair buried her face in Jo's shoulder, but there wasn't much Jo could do to calm her down. She stroked Blair's hair as best she could in the confined space.
Seven feet below them, vengeful gang members trashed her uncle's place. Sorry, Sal.
"Not here," Mike finally said. "Let's try Rose's."
Blair stiffened, but Jo whispered in her ear, "She ain't home." They wouldn't hurt her ma, anyway. That was one code that no one violated. They all had mothers.
"And Dirk's," another suggested.
Jo really hoped they would rethink that. Otherwise, they were about to run into about two dozen Young Diablos just polishing off their Friday night six-packs. Film at eleven.
More gratuitous destruction followed Jo winced at what sounded like a baseball bat against Sal's beloved display case until finally they moved on. After several minutes of silence, Blair whispered, "Are they gone?"
"For now." There was a pretty good chance they would return, though, when they couldn't find their quarry anywhere else. After one embarrassed "Sorry," she managed to climb over Blair's body and peer out the car window into the garage. Jesus, what a mess. There was hundreds of dollars worth of damage. They had even bashed in a side panel on the MG that had just come in today.
"Should we call someone?" Blair said.
They probably should, Jo figured. Unfortunately, the only means of doing so lay in pieces in front of the counter.
"Phone's busted," she said. "There's a payphone down at the corner."
Blair grabbed Jo's t-shirt. "No, not a payphone. They'll see you." She tugged Jo down beside her again.
Yeah, they might, Jo thought; that intersection was well lit. "I could bust into the pawn shop and use theirs," she considered.
"Maybe it has an alarm," Blair said excitedly. "The police might come!"
That was true. "Yeah . . . ," Jo said.
"Don't you wantoh, Lord. They won't arrest you, will they?"
"I shot a man, Blair," Jo replied. "Sometimes they arrest people who do that."
"Won't they be looking for you anyway?"
"For us, you mean."
"Us? I didn't kill him!"
"He ain't dead," Jo said. She was reasonably sure about that. "There's a hospital a mile away. They get lots of gunshots." Returning to the original subject, she said, "We'll be all right. Vinnie won't finger me; otherwise, the cops will find out that I was there to get you."
A palm gently caressed her cheek. "Thank you for doing that, Jo."
Too much emotion too close to the surface. As always, Jo resorted to a safer means of communication. "Well, I shouldn't have had to," she sniped. "What the hell did you think you were doing, running around the south Bronx like a kindergartner?"
"Well, if you had shown even the common courtesy of returning a phone call, I wouldn't have had to," Blair countered tartly. "I would have been in Peekskill tonight instead of freezing to death in a car after being attacked by your hoodlum friends!"
Oh, heck"Are you cold?" Jo asked, concerned. Of course she was, wearing almost nothing like she was. She took Blair in her arms, hoping to transfer some of her body temperature. The garage was well insulated, but they didn't waste money heating it at night. "I'll go turn up the thermostat."
"No, stay here." Blair clung to her shirt. "It's not bad. You're warm."
The argument a moment earlier was forgotten as Jo considered the situation. Blair's feet were in no condition to run any more, and certainly not fast enough to get away if they were spotted. Jo also couldn't rule out the possibility that one or more Wolves had been stationed outside to watch the place. Vinnie had done who knew what with Blair's purse, and Sal cleared out the cash register every night, so there was no money for a cab. The best thing for now, she figured, was to stay put.
"We'll be all right here for a while," she said. Blair did not object. They'd have to do something about the accommodations, though. "Not much room, is there?" she said.
"Very little," Blair said. "I don't think it's made for two people to lie down."
"Well, not in" Jo thought better of the crudity.
"Not in what?"
"Not in this position," Jo finished lamely.
She could crawl up in front, Jo mused, but she wouldn't be able to recline the bucket seats all the way with Blair back there, and sitting up straight wouldn't do much for hiding. Lying across the console would murder her back. Guess they were okay for now. "Let me know if you need to go to the bathroom," she said.
"How would I get down?"
"I'll jump out and let you down," Jo said. "We'll get back up the same way we did before."
Blair seemed content to stay where she was. "I went to the powder room at the theater, so I'm all right," she said.
"You went to the theater tonight?"
"Oh." Stupid, Jo. What did you think, that Blair came into town just to see you?
"Your present arrived today, so I thought I'd come in and give it to you. Todd drove me."
"Todd Vanderbilt?" Jo had never liked him.
"Yes." Blair shifted her position, forcing Jo to move her hand quickly or else be holding more of Blair Warner than she should. "Can you believe he suggested Walters Point on our first date?"
Makeout Point? Creep. "Did you go?"
"Do I look like I'm at Makeout Point? Our first date was tonight." She swatted Jo. "You know better than that, anyway."
Yeah, she did. Blair was a good girl, through and through. "So what happened?"
"Once I got into the city, I didn't need a ride any more," Blair said. "Now, I know what you're thinking"
That Todd Vanderbilt should get run over by a bus?
"but don't worry; he got his money's worth."
"Yeah? What'd he get?"
"Face time and profile."
"Sitting beside me at the play," Blair explained. "He had the benefit of my perfect nose and chin for two hours."
This was familiar ground. "Trust me, Blair, I sit next to you all the time," Jo said. "It ain't that big a prize."
Blair pressed herself further into the back of the seat. "Do you have enough room?" she asked.
Not really, but the only way to get more room would be towell, it wasn't an option.
"You can move closer if you want," Blair said. "I won't bite."
"What's the occasion?" Jo's ribs were already starting to ache, though, and the invitation proved irresistible. She nestled into Blair. Ah, much better. Her whole body was on the seat now. Blair rested her face in the crook of Jo's neck. They lay there for a while, not speaking.
Jo's brain was churning. She had missed Blair so much. Her sarcasm, her insults, her grouchiness in the mornings. Her gorgeous face. Her deep brown eyes. 'Blair, I'm sorry,' she wanted to say. Sorry about rebuffing Blair's attempts to salvage their friendship, about not calling her back, about Vinnie terrorizing her for something she had nothing to do with. Jo wanted to say all those things, but she didn't. Instead, she asked, "Vinnie didn't hurt you, did he?"
"You saw most of it," Blair replied. "He took the Christmas presents I brought you."
"What were they?"
"A fabulous three-strand from Tiffany's!" Blair gushed. She obviously liked the piece. "For formal occasions, of course."
Because Jo went to so many of those.
"And for informal occasions, some Calvin Klein coveralls. They said 'Jo'."
Something a little more practical. "That sounds nice," Jo said. "Thanks." Wait a minute . . . . "Calvin Klein makes coveralls?"
"He made these." Blair frowned. "They would have looked so cute on you. Now you won't get to wear them."
Uh oh. Jo could feel the sap coming. She didn't really want to get into this.
"I've missed you Jo," Blair said. "I tried to call you a dozen times. I couldn't believe it when you didn't come back."
"Yeah, well" Jo bit back the barb. Blair wasn't trying to lord anything over her; she was just being honest. "I wanted to," she admitted.
"And I wanted you to." Blair curled a lock of Jo's hair around her finger. "It hasn't been the same without you. Sandy Cooke moved into your bed."
"Sandy Cooke?" Jo said. "Sandy Cooke that has a crush on you?"
"She does not have a crush on me," Blair denied. "She sees me as a role model, and rightly so."
"'Oh, Blair, you're so pretty,'" Jo imitated in a falsetto. "'Oh, Blair, I wish I had hair like yours.' 'Oh, Blair, you're so perfect.'"
"All true," Blair pointed out.
"Besides," Blair added, "all of the girls at Eastland say that. Except one."
"You didn't miss us at all?" Blair asked.
Guess it wouldn't hurt to come clean. "Kinda," Jo said. "Even you sometimes."
"So why didn't you return any of my calls?"
Jo sighed. "It was hard enough giving all that up," she said. "I needed a clean break. It just hurt more every time you called."
"I didn't mean to."
"I know," Jo said. "I was just . . . I . . . ." Love you. A moment passed, and then she said, "Sandy Cooke does too have a crush on you." When Blair didn't deny it, she suspected the blonde was less oblivious than she pretended. "Lemme guess: She does your laundry."
"Not every time."
"She runs errands for you."
"She knows how busy I am."
"She carries stuff for you."
"Natalie went out with Evan Bridger last week."
"No kidding!" Jo allowed the change of subject. "Way to go, Nat!" Which raised another question. "How about you? You and Todd Vanderbilt, huh?"
"Hardly," Blair replied. "No one in particular. What about you?"
"No one in particular." No one at all, really. Jo kept plenty busy working and hanging with Jesse and the guys. "You're the first back-seat action I've had in a while," she joked.
"Figures," Blair said. "My first time in a back seat, and it's with a girl."
"Your first time?" Jo asked. "I mean, I know you haven't . . ., but haven't you at least . . . ?"
"Not in the back seat," Blair said. "If I let them have a little, it's always in the front. Less temptation that way."
"Afraid you'll lose control, huh?" Jo quipped. She imagined some guy fending off an amorous Blair. Not that anyone would ever be dumb enough to do that.
"Temptation for them, not me," Blair replied. "I mean, what guy wouldn't want as much of this as he could get?"
Jo wasn't sure exactly what 'this' referred to, but having seen Blair naked a few times, she could form her own conclusions. She was forming a few right now, in fact. "From the neck down, maybe," she said.
"Poor Jo, still woefully out of touch," Blair declared. "I am widely regarded as the best kisser in Peekskill, if not all of upstate New York. My lips should be enshrined in the Romance Hall of Fame."
"They can't be," Jo said, "'cause they'll be with your mouth in the Pain-in-the-Butt Hall of Fame." This gossip session, something she would have sneered at back in Peekskill, was kinda fun, she decided. "So, you ever let a guy get to second base?" she asked.
"Second base being . . . ?"
"You know . . . ."
"I've never been entirely clear which base is which," Blair said.
Oh, for cryin' out loud. "You do know why they called Helen Wheelwright 'Home Run Helen,' don't you?"
"I know that one."
"Second base is your . . . ." Jo debated how to say this. "You got two of 'em."
"You mean putting your hands on my . . . .?"
"A guy doing it, yeah."
"Then no," Blair said. "Not intentionally."
"It doesn't count if it's accidental," Jo said. Heck, it had even happened to the two of them a few times in that tiny bathroom in Mrs. G's house. Jo had inadvertently felt Blair up a time or two reaching for the astringent or whatnot, and vice versa.
Blair didn't say anything further, and Jo wondered if she hadn't stirred up bad memories from earlier tonight with her prying. Her suspicion was confirmed soon after when Blair said quietly, "He really hates you."
Jo recognized it for the question it was. She probably owed Blair an explanation. "He thinks I talked his girlfriend into leaving him."
"No, she . . . ." Jo didn't know why she felt embarrassed. "She likes girls."
As the silence extended, Jo became acutely aware of her body pressed intimately against Blair's. They had never been this physically close. An arm around each other during a rare truce, perhaps, but nothing like this. What a weird night.
Blair had apparently spent her time formulating another question. "So, how were you involved?" she asked.
"Involved in what?"
"In his girlfriend leaving."
How to explain . . . . "I knew Latesha from way back," Jo said. "When she started . . . thinkin' about stuff, she told me."
"Was she thinking about you?"
The directness was a bit surprising. "No, but Vinnie saw us hanging out before she left," Jo said. "He put two and two together and came up with eight."
Another pause followed while Blair thought up more interrogation. "Was there any particular reason that she confided in you?"
"I'm not gay, Blair."
Indignantly, Blair said, "I didn't say that you were! I just thought that, perhaps, you and she had been . . . close."
"And that's different how?"
"If you ever read anything other than Grease Monkey Monthly, you would know," Blair said in her irritating 'I Know Everything' tone. Jo had really missed that. "No one is a hundred percent. I read it somewhere."
"No one's a hundred percent what?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't have asked."
"No one is one hundred percent straight or gay."
Whoa. This was hitting a little close to home now, Jo realized. She tried to think of something to distract Blair. Maybe she should ask how many pearls were on that necklace . . . .
"There's a scale," Blair went on. "From one to a hundred." A pause, and then, "Where do you think you would fall?"
One hundred and fifty at the moment, Jo thought. "Well, before I was lyin' in a back seat on top of another girl, my answer mighta been different," she quipped.
"You're not exactly on top of me."
"I could be." Shit. Sometimes the joking went too far between them.
"And then what?"
Okay, this wasn't amusing any more. "And then what, what?"
"What would you do if you were on top of me?"
"I wouldn't do anything because I wouldn't be," Jo fumbled.
"Fine." Another long moment passed before Jo admitted to herself that she didn't really want to let this topic of conversation drop. "Thirty," she said. That sounded like a safe number. "I mean, 30 the other way."
"Thirty?" Blair said. "How did you come up with that?"
"I don't know," Jo griped. "You said pick a number, I picked a number. What about you?"
"I don't know."
"You're the expert," Jo said.
"I'm not an expert," Blair protested. "I just read an article."
"Well, what were some of the factors?"
"I don't remember! I didn't memorize it!" Blair went into her noisy-thinking mode. "'Have you ever thought about kissing a girl?'"
"Do dreams count?"
Crap. "I don't think they should count," Jo said. "I mean, you dream about stuff that would never really happen."
"'Have you ever wanted to spend all of your free time with one girl?'"
Like the two of them? "Wanted to or had to?" Jo asked.
"Good point," Blair said. "I think it's more of an intuitive thing, anyway. I'll give myself a thirty, too."
"Well, since we're being honest, I have thought about kissing a girl," Blair said. "And I dreamed once that I was in bed with her, although it wasn't clear what we were doing."
Holy hell. "An Eastland girl?"
"Anyone I know?"
"As if I would tell you."
A look of distaste crossed Jo's face. "Please tell me it wasn't Nat or Tootie."
Blair smacked her again. "Please! I grew up with them!"
Jo couldn't resist. "Mrs. G?"
"I'm not going to continue this conversation."
It could be any of three hundred girls, Jo's brain told her, but she had to wonder . . . . Summoning her nerve, she said half-jokingly, "Was it me?"
"Was what you?"
"I said I wasn't continuing with this conversation."
"That's not fair!" Jo declared. "I told you stuff."
"No, you didn't."
"Was it me you thought about kissing?" Blair countered.
"Yeah!" Oh, shit. There was her big mouth getting her in trouble again. "Well, not really thought about," Jo backpedaled. "I mean, not when I'm awake or anything. It's usually right after I dream that I'm a pirate that turns into a cat or something."
"Usually?" Blair said. "You've dreamed about it more than once?"
"What do you expect?" Jo said defensively. "We practically lived on top of each other for two years. It's one of those universal dreams, like showin' up in class naked."
With a smirk, Blair asked, "Have you thought about me showing up in class naked?"
Jo began to disentangle herself. "I'm movin' up front."
"Oh, for goodness' sake," Blair said. She tightened her grip. "You can dish it out but you can't take it."
"It's not funny."
"Jo, this has been the worst night of my life. I thought I was going to die. I thought you were going to die. Then I find out that you've thought about kissing me."
That was part of the worst night of Blair's life? Disappointed, Jo said, "Yeah, well, don't sweat it. I'm not gonna try anything."
"You really are thick," Blair said. "Kiss me, Jo."
Kiss her? Lord knew that Jo wanted to, but this was freaking huge. Momentous. Dumb. Reckless. "Kiss me." Boldly, she lowered her head until her lips touched Blair's. Sweet. Blair parted her lips, and Jo groaned.
When it ended, Blair murmured, "Well, now we know."
Jo's heart was pounding like never before. Forget Eddie, forget study partners. She had never experienced anything this fantastic in her entire life. She wondered if Blair had enjoyed it. Should she ask? Uncertain what to do, Jo edged back a few inches. She didn't want to come off like one of those overheated guys Blair was afraid to get into the back seat with.
"Yeah, we know," she said.
She didn't know what it meant, or what, if anything, they would do with the information, but she knew. Her life had changed tonight.
"We should probably try to get some sleep," Jo said. Blair hadn't moved since the kiss, but Jo refrained from trying it again. She had no idea what Blair was thinking. "After tonight you'll know if you ever wanted to be on a submarine," she rambled. Lame, Polniaczek. Say something, Blair.
"I don't know," Blair replied. "I'm feeling kind of . . . ." She ran a thumb across the pulse in Jo's throat.
I know what you're feeling, Jo thought. But it wouldn't be right. Blair Warner was a nice girl who didn't do that kind of thing. Jo had punched more than one guy who tried to claim otherwise. It was part of who Blair was. She wanted to wear white and have it mean something. And even if she made a different decision some day, she wouldn't want it to be in the back of a stranger's Lincoln. Jo owed her that.
"Almost gettin' killed, it gets your adrenalin goin'," she said. "Makes ya do things you wouldn't do otherwise. Things you might regret later."
Blair studied her.
"You ain't gonna get your twelve hours of beauty sleep," Jo said.
"Fortunately, I can skip a day and still look spectacular."
She could skip the rest of her life and still look beautiful, Jo thought. "We're gonna be wasted tomorrow."
"I suppose." Blair's hand was still on Jo's neck. "I'll never forget this."
"I would hope not," Jo said. "I know it ain't the annual shoe sale at Bloomies, but a lot of people would consider almost gettin' killed memorable." Not to mention kissing their best friend, or whatever they were.
"I'll make a note," Blair said sleepily.
To Jo's surprise, she was able to drift off almost immediately, and was still sound asleep when, with a lurch, the car began lowering to the ground.
"Wake up, Blair!" she said, trying to free herself from the other girl's clutches before her uncle opened the"Oh, hey, Sal," she said casually, as if she always slept in the back seats of cars on top of half-naked girls.
Realizing what he was seeing, Sal spun around as Blair, now wide awake, crossed her arms in front of her chest.
"Hang on a sec," Jo said. She leapt from the car and hurried over to her locker, working the combination lock and pulling out a work shirt. She sniffed under the arms. A clean one, thankfully. She carried it back to the car and tossed it into the back seat, then stood guard to give Blair some privacy.
"Look, Jo," Sal said. "I don't care if you . . . ." He waggled his hand in Blair's general direction. "But not in the shop, okay? My boys got the same rule."
Wearing a newly buttoned advertisement for Sal's Fast and Friendly Repair, Blair stepped gracefully out of the car. The tail covered her other assets, Jo was glad to see.
"Hello," Blair said with surprising dignity.
Sal turned back around.
"You must be Jo's uncle." She extended a hand.
Not knowing what else to do, he took it.
"Blair Warner, a former schoolmate of Jo's," the socialite introduced herself. "Jo has told me so much about you. Ouch!" Shifting her weight, she raised one foot in pain.
Jo reached out to steady her. "Careful," she said.
"What happened to her shoes?" Sal asked, but then withdrew his own question. "Never mind. I don't want to know."
"Look, Sal, Vinnie grabbed Blair last night," Jo said. She pointed at the mess. "His people did this."
"Oh, my Lord!" Blair was getting her first look at the carnage. "My father will reimburse you for this," she said.
"You kill Vinnie?"
Sal's question startled Jo. How did he? Following Sal's gaze, she looked down at her shirt and saw a series of dark splotches that hadn't been visible in the dark. She laid a hand across the largest of the stains, hoping that Blair wouldn't notice it.
"I don't think so." Jo wrestled with how much to tell him. "But I gotta split," she said. "Otherwise, there's gonna be trouble."
He nodded his understanding. "Where you going?"
"I don't know."
Blair squeezed her arm. "Jo . . . ."
Turning back to her uncle, she shrugged. "Peekskill, maybe. For a while."
"I'll tell your ma," Sal said.
"Listen, can I borrow a few bucks for train money and something for her to wear?" Jo asked. "I'll pay you back."
"My father's executive secretary can have the cash hand-delivered to you with one phone call," Blair hastened to assure him.
"No need," he said. "I know Jo's good for it." He took the roll of morning cash from his pocket and peeled off some twenties.
Blair made the call anyway from the lovely "second-hand goods" shop next door. She hadn't even limped all the way back to Sal's, Jo's arm around her waist, when a Warner limo sped into the parking lot and slammed on its brakes.
"Good grief, Allen," Blair chided the driver with a smile. "You must have run every stop light in Manhattan." She looked at the other man, but apparently did not recognize him. "Hello," she said. "Blair Warner."
"We were already here," Allen replied. "All of the fleet drivers have been driving around the Bronx since last night looking for you." He picked up the car's handheld. "Car 3 reporting in," he said. "Tell the boss we've got her." He eyed Blair's skimpy attire. "Are you all right, Miss Warner?"
"I am," she confirmed. "I'm just glad it's over."
He wanted to know where the young woman's clothes were, Jo could tell, but he was well trained not to question a Warner. He met Jo's gaze, but neither he nor the other man with him said a word as Blair urged her into the car.
Blair leaned back contentedly. "A limo is like a security blanket," she said.
In a way, Jo could relate to that, she decided. Her bike was kind of likeoh, shit. "My bike!" she remembered.
"Oh, dear!" Blair reached up and tapped Allen's shoulder to get his attention, although Jo suspected he was well aware of their conversation. "We need to get Jo's motorcycle," she said. "Could you drive us to" She turned to Jo. "Where is it?"
Easier to show than tell, Jo figured. "Flip a U and head west til I tell ya," she said.
Seeing this neighborhood in the dark was bad enough; seeing it in living color was downright scary. Jo had to give the limo driver credit; even while his expression soured as they descended into the worst part of the borough, he kept his thoughts to himself.
"Hey, listen," Jo warned him, "you might have to jam it."
"So I noticed."
"No, I mean really jam it, if we . . . run into some people."
Apparently, Blair hadn't considered that possibility. She grabbed Jo's hand. "We shouldn't be here!" she said. "What if they see us? I can't go through that again!"
But Jo couldn't leave her Kawasaki there. Not her bike. She took Blair's hands into her own. "Look, if we run into 'em, he floors it," she said. "Hey, Al," she called up to the driver. "We got any protection?" Like Warner would send limos into the south Bronx without it.
The driver nodded toward the other man, the one Blair didn't know. He tapped his jacket, right above where a holster would usually fit.
"See? We're okay," Jo said. "I gotta get my bike, Blair."
Early deliveries had come and gone at whatever shop this was, but her H2 750 was still there, lying on its side where someone had rolled it out of the way and dropped it.
The unnamed individual riding shotgun with them was a kindred spirit when it came to motorcycles, Jo learned as they examined the frame together. When his fingers encountered two obvious bullet holes in the gas tank, he looked over at her.
Jo shrugged. "Bad night," she said.
That wasn't the only damage. In addition to a new tank, it would need a new paint job, some body work, and maybe a new exhaust. Yep, it would be lots of hours fixing this baby. She smiled happily.
Suddenly, two bare legs appeared beside her. "Whoa, Blair," Jo said. At eye level, that shirt tail wasn't much help. Shotgun politely made a show of examining the front wheel again.
"Can we just get it in the car and go?"
"Get it in the car?" Jo repeated. "And how is this" she patted the motorcycle "going to fit in that?" She pointed at the limo.
"Then why did we come here?"
"I'm gonna roll it somewhere til I can get back here with Sal's truck."
"No, you're not!"
"Yes, I am!"
"You are not wandering around this neighborhood this neighborhood," Blair emphasized.
"And you are not telling me what to do! I'm not leaving my bike here."
"I'll buy you a new one."
Not that again. "You are not"
"Jo, please," Blair said. "I don't want to be here."
Aw, hell. She should have thought about how Blair would feel coming back here. "Okay," Jo said. "We'll come back later. It'll probably still be here."
"I radioed in for a tow," Allen informed her. "Tom can wait for it."
Jo wasn't sure about that. The guy was armed and all, but she didn't want him stuck here by himself. As she debated what to do, another limo appeared. The second car shut off its engine, and two beefy men got out. That Al thought of everything. Jo nodded her thanks at Tom. To Allen, she said, "Let's get Her Highness out of here."
It was a little much to expect him to drive them all the way to Peekskill, Jo thought, but Blair thought nothing of giving the order. She turned to Jo. "Now, you can wear my things until you get some of your own," she said. "Or we can stop at the CheapMart or the hardware store, wherever it is you buy your clothes."
Jo couldn't bring herself to burst Blair's bubble by reminding her that nothing had changed, moneywise. She had still lost her funding. Her own attitude had changed, and she would be willing to accept anything Blair offered now, but the Warner scholarship had already been given out, unless they had another one . . . .
"that tan two-pieceyou're not any taller, are you?"
This would probably be nothing more than a weekend visit, a pit stop until she could figure out what to do next.
"and I looked fabulous. They say his new line is even better, but the catalog won't be out until"
She couldn't go home, not any time soon. If she showed her face again in the Bronx, it would be a shooting gallery between the Young Diablos and the Wolves.
"a semester ahead of you, so you'll have to ask Mr. Parker about advanced placement classes and take an extra load next semester if you want to graduate with me. You might like the new history teacher, whatever his name is; he's rather uncouth and"
Jo almost laughed when, mid-sentence, a thick sheet of glass between the driver and passenger compartments began to rise.
Blair looked over at the limo driver.
"For your privacy, Miss," he said with a straight face.
"You got another one of those back here?" Jo quipped.
He smiled at her in the mirror before disappearing from view.
"Finally!" Blair said. She scooted over next to Jo.
Um . . . "What are you doing?"
"He can't hear anything," Blair said. "I wanted it to be his idea."
"Yeah, but what are you doing?"
"Don't you think we should talk?"
When asked by Blair, Jo's standard answer to that question was always no. "About what?" she asked warily.
"About last night."
"What about it?"
Blair frowned at her. "You, me, making out in the back seat of a car?"
"We didn't make out!" Jo exclaimed. "It was just one . . . ." She glanced toward the partition. ". . . you know."
"He can't hear," Blair reiterated. "So, what did you think?"
"Think about what?"
Blair crossed her arms and gave Jo the look, the one that, for inexplicable reasons, always overrode sound judgment and bent Jo to the other girl's will. Damn it. Jo had been fairly certain that Blair would "forget" all about that kiss once the south Bronx was in the rear view mirror. "I don't know. I mean . . . it was great," she admitted.
"I thought so, too."
"Don't look so smug," Blair said. "I didn't say it was the best."
"Yeah, well, neither was yours."
"So, what now?"
Jo wasn't sure that she understood the question.
Blair spelled it out for her. "Do we pretend it never happened, or do we do something else?"
Like Jo knew. It depended on what the 'something else' was, she supposed. She ran her gaze down Blair's legs.
"What do you want to do?" Blair asked.
Should she try honesty? She didn't have much to lose. "I don't know. Do it again, maybe?" Jo said.
And then they werea loving, exhilarating, indescribable kiss that quickly turned passionate. Jo buried her hand in luxurious blonde curls as they explored each other.
She wasn't fully aware of when her hand began to caress the nape of Blair's neck, and then the glimpse of skin at the top of the button up, and then down Blair's chest to her
"What do you think you're doing?"
Jo looked down at where her palm covered Blair's breast. "Uh . . . ."
"You know how I feel."
Yeah, you feel great, Jo almost said, but she didn't think Blair would appreciate it. "About what?" she said.
"About certain activities before marriage."
"But . . . ." What was Jo missing here? ". . . we can't get married, Blair."
"That's no excuse for just jumping into bed."
"We don't even know if seeing each other is going to work out."
This was getting confusing. "Help me out, Blair," Jo said. "The plan is to . . . ."
"See each other for a while, and see how we like it."
See each other naked? Jo held back that flippant response, too. "See each other, as in . . . ."
"As in go places together, watch TV together, spend time together."
"You mean like we've been doing for two years."
"Yes, plus kissing when we can get away with it."
That was more like it. Unless . . . . "Just kissing?" she asked.
"Until we feel that we, and our relationship, are ready to move on to the next step."
Jo wondered if her hand's current location was enough of a hint about her opinion on that. Come to think of it, Blair hadn't exactly ordered her to remove it yet.
"Perhaps when we're twenty-one," Blair's speech concluded.
"What? Half my neighbors had two kids by then!" Jo didn't think so. She leaned in for another heated kiss, risking a slap by caressing Blair through gray cotton. Oh, yeah . . . . Eventually, she drew back to enjoy her friend's flushed, erratic breathing.
"Or we can play it by ear . . . ," Blair decided.
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