Chapter 40

 

International House of Punkettes

 

 

The townships of Vanderlund, Athens Grove and Multch adjoin at the conflux where the sanitary canal drains into the Fourth Fork of the North Branch.  Overlooking this scenic spot is the Carrefour Shopping Center, less highfalutin than the Green Bridge or New Sherwood, yet of greater stature than a stripmall.  Among its eateries is an IHOP frequented by students from many different schools, and understood (like Vegas by the Mob) to be a neutral site where no rivalry-shenanigans are permitted.  This rule is enforced with rigid impartiality by bouncer-sized management, as Brad Faussett learned a couple years ago when he spilled a pitcher of mulberry syrup while staging a fake epileptic attack, and had his splattered ass ejected from the premises.

 

One of the IHOP booths is perpetually reserved for a certain party, upon whose entrance anyone sitting in it is either told to move elsewhere at once, or wise enough to do so without prompting.  A plate of not-on-the-menu palačinkas, specially prepared with Old World flair, is swiftly delivered to this party’s placemat and eaten with no outward show of enjoyment, though down to its last jammy morsel.

 

(Here’s to you, Beata Maria.  Almost tastes the way you used to make them.)

 

The party in question is always accompanied by one or more companions who sit in the same booth but get served regular IHOP fare.  None is ao foolhardy as to ask for “just a taste” of the crêpe-like palačinkas, since the party is (as Mickey the trainer called Rocky the boxer) a Very Dangerous Person, and recognizable as such by even the dimmest-bulbed—regardless of the party’s being a five-foot-four-inch girl aged only seventeen.

 

“Everything to your liking tonight, Miss Antoinette?” a bouncer-sized manager sidles over to ask.

 

“Not bad,” replies Bunty O’Toole.

 

Who may look as Irish as Dennis Desmond, given a snubnosed colleenlike face that even Dennis wouldn’t dare try to steal a kiss from; but is far more Mitteleuropean by nature, filled with subtle intrigue instead of reckless blarney.  This trait had leapfrogged two fallow generations in New Bohemia, a grandiosely-titled hamlet in western North Dakota where Czech was the spoken tongue and cattle shipping the chief occupation.  There the Kostelecky clan had eked out a bovine existence, driving more soft bargains than hard, till a resurgence of crafty shrewdness enabled Anton Kostelecky to chisel kickbacks as a supply sergeant during WWII.  He parlayed this nest egg into a thriving polka-band agency based in Fargo, where his daughter Bibi (christened Beata Maria) was treated to a Beer Barrel Hoop-de-Doo upbringing.

 

At Holy Rosary School the lovely Bibi befriended the lively Harriet (“Hay Fever”) Flynn, headache to every nun and exploiter of many boys.  “The Lord helps those who help myself,” Hay would say when asked about trinkets-of-remembrance acquired from those boys, “and that’s nothing to sneeze about.”

 

After graduation she and Bibi roomed together and pursued a Laverne & Shirleyish lifestyle, working at a creamery—“delicious dairy products, fresh from the farm”—and searching for Mr. Right (Bibi) or a tolerably generous sugardaddy (Hay).  Neither found her object of desire in Fargo; and Bibi fell the furthest short by being impregnated by Clarence O’Toole who was obliged to marry her at the prodding of Anton Kostelecky’s shotgun, despite Clarence’s objections to purchasing a cow he’d previously milked for free.  Bibi’s honeymoon was further curdled when her parents had to hit the road back to New Bohemia (Anton having shaved a polka band too close for comfort) and Harriet Flynn also made plans to depart, staying just long enough to stand godmother to Bibi’s ominously-named baby:

 

“Marie Antoinette, vade in pace et Dominus sit tecum.

 

“Amen,” from those in attendance.

 

“(All that ‘hafta get married’ bullshit, ‘n’ you couldn’t even gimme a son!)” from Clarence O’Toole.

 

“(Please don’t leave me ’n’ the baby here with him,)” Bibi implored Hay.

 

“(Soon as I make my fortune, I’ll send for you both,)” Hay pledged.

 

Shortly thereafter she set off to seek that fortune in The City, becoming a popular callgirl (billed as Helene Favray) whose price rose steadily over the next arduous decade.  When Hay turned thirty she still looked twenty, but knew there wasn’t much time left to be borrowed before it would catch up with her—and then what?  Never one to pray in earnest, Hay wished upon the first star she saw every night; and Fate (as Jiminy Cricket chirped) can step in and see those who do this through their troubles.

 

In Hay’s case she struck gold by resuscitating the potency of Aloysius Walsh, owner of the Hudden & Dudden Pub at Multch’s Crossing.  He also had a hand in sundry other operations, being an eminent member (known as “Alley Mushmouth”) of the North Side Gang, which the Cavanaugh Family had spent forty years rebuilding from the ashes of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

 

Al Walsh secured Harriet-alias-Helene’s exclusive services, setting her up in a plush pad at the Vacamonte on Vanderlund’s Panama Boulevard.  And Hay, like Maybelle Grayling a generation earlier in L.A., obtained a guarantee of income for life—dependent on her absolute loyalty to Alley Mushmouth and the North Side Gang, plus their continued survival vis-á-vis law enforcement and the South Side Outfit.  (Playing it extra safe, she salted away a percentage of each month’s largesse in blue-chip assets.)

 

It was a sustainable competence but not a fortune, so Hay/Harriet/Helene didn’t send for anyone in Fargo.  She and Bibi O’Toole did keep in touch, each knowing the other was being less than candid about what went on in their real lives.  During Clarence’s extensive truancies and infidelities, Beata Maria devoted herself to the bottle (not of milk or cream) and to the daughter she called “Bunty”—possibly an abbreviation of Bye Baby Bunting since daddy was often gone a-hunting, though not for any rabbitskin to wrap little Antoinette in.

 

Thirteen years after leaving North Dakota, Hay returned there for Bibi’s funeral—to which her widower brought a date, arriving after the mass and leaving before the reception.  Clarence took no notice of his daughter, who ignored him and was unresponsive to Hay’s consolatory overtures, yet not wholly standoffish.  As a just-turned-teenager about to be packed off to St. Wenceslaus School in New Bohemia, “Bunty” was slightly pearshaped and puddingfaced and reticent on every topic except her late mother’s nurturing:

 

“I’ll miss her dumplings.  And braided buns.  And pancakes.”

 

Harriet Flynn may have had a heart of gilded ormolu, but it went sufficiently out to Bibi’s lone lorn child that she gave Bunty her actual address in Vanderlund rather than the P.O. box number Bibi’d corresponded with.  “Let me know if you ever need my help, hon.”

 

Bunty said nothing but pocketed the address.

 

And as a blizzard raged the following winter—on the same day, as chance would have it, that Parnell Travers got plowed into his transformative snowbank—Hay was alerted by the Vacamonte doorman to the arrival of a young wayfarer who’d spent Christmas vacation hitchhiking a thousand miles on I-94, in the middle of a global gas crisis to boot.  Unlike the original Marie Antoinette, Bunty’d come through this tribulation with a head on her shoulders, plus considerably more aplomb than she’d shown at her mother’s funeral:

 

“Mind if I crash here awhile, Aunt Hay?”

 

Taken aback, Aunt Hay did mind, and not simply at the prospect of inconvenient intrusion by a strange teen.  Lurking behind Bunty’s casual veneer was a shrouded presence like a bird of prey, a falcon or seahawk waiting to swoop upon some quarry… such as Hay’s not-altogether-hardboiled conscience:

 

“You said to let you know,” Bunty added.  “If I could ever use your help.”

 

Clarence O’Toole didn’t want her.  The Kosteleckys had problems of their own, Anton having picked the wrong time to invest in Dakota petroleum.  St. Wenceslaus was more than happy to sever ties (“Please don’t send her back here!” beseeched a long-distance nun).  And Hay had accepted solemn godparental responsibility for Bibi’s Baby Bunty.

 

So Antoinette was installed at the Vacamonte and Vanderlund Junior High, where she quickly came to the attention of Vice Principal O’Brien for shaking down younger students, jimmying open lockers, pilfering classroom supplies, and being “a disgrace to the Irish.”  When Hay’s attempts to scold and chastise her had no effect, Bunty was sent to the Hudden & Dudden Pub for a last-chance talking-to by Al Walsh, accustomed to smacking around dames of all ages if they didn’t toe the line.

 

“Want me to take my belt to you, kid?” he blustered.  “Is that what you need, a good hiding so you’ll play nice?”

 

“How ‘bout you give me a job instead?” parried brazen Bunty.  “Y’know, to keep me ‘out of mischief.’”

 

“A job!  Whaddaya think I am, a social worker?  This is a bar, kid!  You shouldn’t even be in my office!  Got no use for a brat your age!”

 

“I know how to do a thing or two,” Bunty remarked.  “Had a grandmother, Maudie O’Toole, who ran a boardinghouse in Dilworth, Minnesota.  She was accused of poisoning four men—not all at once; at different times.  Never admitted doing it.  Never got convicted.  My old man said she was just a lousy cook.”  Sedate staredown: “Got anybody you want me to cook for, Uncle Al?”

 

Fist thumping desktop: “Don’t try to smartmouth me, you little geebag!”

 

Momentary gleam in the no-longer-sedate eyes across the desk.

 

Lasting just long enough, and Linda Blairishly enough, to send a chill of fear through the ironclad gut of Alley Mushmouth.

 

Damn shame she ain’t a boy.  With a whammy-glance like that, a boy could rise to the top of the rackets if they didn’t knock him off for using it—

 

Oh knock IT off and put me to work.

 

Again that gleam from those hawkish eyes; again that fearsome frisson through Alley’s entrails.

 

Better keep this one out of the kitchen…

 

Put her to work?  Doing what, exactly?  The North Side Gang had never trafficked in prostitution (except as patrons) or anything involving jailbait, so no dice there.  Even though the kid wasn’t bad-looking in a somewhat pudgy way, and like too many girls nowadays had on a nondescript blend-into-the-crowd sort of outfit…

 

“How good can you be at not getting noticed, kid?”

 

“Try me,” said Bunty.  Fading into the pub office’s background without leaving her chair.

 

Al tested her skills at inconspicuous observation, giving Bunty penny-ante spying and tailing assignments.  She aced them all, adroitly evading traps he’d laid for her plus one or two he hadn’t foreseen.  Little by little Al broadened the scope of her commissions and deepened their attendant pitfalls; not once did Bunty let him down or do anything that might implicate herself.

 

This extended to school life at VW, where Mr. O’Brien (try though he might) could no longer catch her red-handed in any suspendable act.  Bunty’d learned the benefits of covert discretion, which greased the wheels of conducting untrammeled activities.  More and more of these were intermediary in nature as she began to gather underlings and set them up in businesses reporting to her.

 

Bunty’s first second banana was Lola Svoboda, a fellow Bohemian girl with a gift for forgery.  Limited till now to counterfeiting excuse notes and hall passes, Bunty had Lola advance to the far more gainful manufacture of fake IDs, which launched their classmate Rula Hradek on an Erotic career when she used hers to dupe a Lakeside Central tavern into believing she was of age.

 

(“You meet such interesting people on Campus,” said Rula, posting her first trysts and conquests in a brand-new ledger.)

 

Next to sign up for the O’Toole crew was Gordon McGillah, heir to a funeral parlor but far more interested in the production of pirated tape recordings.  He fell hard for Bunty even before she bankrolled his Memorex infringements; and she always said the best thing about Bootleg was his knowing from the very start which one of them was Boss.

 

Indeed, he called her neither Bunty nor Antoinette but “Blondie Johnson,” derived not from her hair color (which was darker than light) but a Late Movie where luscious young Joan Blondell rose from hit-upon drudge to kingpin—make that queenpin—of a criminal gang.  “That could be you, Blondie J!” Bootleg told her.  “This City’s gonna be your oyster and I’m gonna help you open it!”

 

An ambitious goal, towards which Blondie/Bunty/Antoinette started paying dues by scrupulously donating a share of every profit to her Uncle Al.  He was both amused by and approving of this unbidden tribute from a natural-born wiseguy—or wisegal.  Their professional connection remained strictly hush-hush; Alley Mushmouth risked ridicule (at the very least) by dealing seriously with a teenage girl.  Even so, he viewed Bunty O’Toole as a secret weapon in his own arsenal, unsuspected by rivals or the law.  Which might be an outlandish notion, but outlandishness never fazed an Irishman.

 

As time went by Al gave her weightier tasks and duties, laying more intricate traps to test her along the way; and Bunty made consistent three-point landings, with nary a loss of cargo or crew.  The latter grew as it drew from other schools in the northeast suburbs, mostly on the inland side, and mostly (like Bootleg McGillah) hunkish boys of Celtic blood.

 

From Athens Grove came Long John Shanahan, a budding piano virtuoso whose family owned a sloop suitable not only for racing the Pilchards’s King Oscar, but also clandestine transit and small-scale smuggling.  From Multch West came Tommy the Torch Dwyer, son of a Presbyterian minister but with more of a vocation for vandalism, sabotage and pyromania.  From Multch South came Ford Lennox (aka “Fort Knox”) of the freshman Buccaneers, who could strongarm anyone from a wide receiver to a defaulting loan recipient.  So mighty were his biceps that they gulled him into thinking he could mutiny against Bunty O’Toole (whom he mocked with gynecological rhymes) and take command of the crew.  Till the Boss had her boys collar Fort Knox in the Wee Grotto at the All Creatures Great & Small pet cemetery, where with newly-grown finely-honed talons she curtailed him to a mere Ox.

 

(Or so it was whispered.)

 

(Dispelling any doubts about her Very Dangerous Personhood.)

 

When Bunty moved up from VW to VTHS, Mr. O’Brien sent Principal Stabeldore a thick dossier concerning her ways and means.  Cool Hand Luke called her into his office for a little chat of few words by either participant: he issued no warnings, she uttered no threats.  Mr. Stabeldore did suggest she put her obvious formidability to “healthful” use by taking up tennis; Bunty said she would think about it.

 

But most of her exercise over the next two years came from taking care of business while rolling down the highway in Bootleg’s new Galaxie Sports Hardtop.  By the age of seventeen she held a key go-between role in the distribution of primo weed to NESTL(É) students, with Skully Erle as her chief retailer in Vanderlund.  Bunty maintained the specialty enterprises for Lola’s IDs and Bootleg’s tapes; subcontracted odd jobs for Long John and Tommy the Torch; and oversaw Junior-Achievement-level gambling, extortion, and loansharking at every public high school in the area except Hereafter Park.  That was Traverser terrirory, along with preppy-havens Startop and Front Tree; as were also the regionwide cheating rings and non-weed drug trade.

 

Though Bunty and her Uncle Al had plans for the latter.

 

Quaaludes might be of small-potato interest, but cocaine was far more consequential.  Just where the Traversers were getting theirs in such supply was the question of the day.  Most likely Lakeside Central, given their collegiate ties; yet any and all contacts were kept close to their collegiate vests.  Bunty’d been told (and would’ve done it anyhow) to reconnoiter blow-by-blow goings-on so that the Traverser source might be traced and its flow siphoned off.

 

There was, to coin a phrase, a lot of money in that white powder: more expensive in The Cityland than California, New York or Miami.  Here the street price could range up to $100 a gram, depending on quality—a trifle beyond your average schoolkid‘s budget.  But this was Vanderlund, where allowances (especially among shorefolk) were well above par and ripe for the plucking.  Your average schoolkid might be content for the time being with beer and pot, but that simply meant your coke-hook would have to be properly weighted and baited.

 

(Mental talons tick-tock-tap the keys of a cerebral calculator.)

 

Cutting the product with adulterants would reduce its price and expand the clientele, boosting your bottom line—particularly if you could monopolize the supply side.  As you’d already accomplished with the vending of NESTL(É) weed: competitive dealers were either absorbed or eliminated by Juicer Lynch, strongarm successor to Fort Knox.  Want to get ahead in business and stay there with impunity?  Find yourself a market and bogart it—just as IHOP had by cornering the international flapjack griddle.

 

Up to and including special-order palačinkas.

 

(Savor the aftertaste of plum jam.)

 

“S’go,” Bunty told Bootleg, who was mopping up his pigs-in-a-blanket.  They were due to swing by a shindig, but seldom partook of anything offered at social affairs; much wiser to eat, drink, and smoke trustworthier provisions beforehand.

 

Bootleg piloted the Galaxie out of Carrefour and on up Panama, past the bridge turning onto Pottage Road (though that was their party destination) and eastward to the Tunnel of Sighs beneath the Expressway overpass, then north on Collinwood Lane into Hereafter Park.  There they found a hodgepodge of cars—including a telltale Toyota Cressida—jumbled outside the home of Renee Shackleton, which (apropos for a skater) resembled a two-story Art Nouveau igloo.

 

“Another snortastic Saturday night,” said Bootleg, parking across the street.

 

“Last week at Jive’s joint.  Next week at…?”

 

“Won’t know till they know.  Can I slash Hasleman’s tires?”  (Bootleg bitterly envied Flake’s array of high-tech tape decks: cassette in the Cressida, open-reel for rivalrous concert recording.)

 

“Not yet,” Bunty gnarled.  “That’s a goodbye kiss.  We haven’t said hello yet.  Go greet the guests.”

 

Bootleg, not daring to grumble, got out and went over to check license plates by the light of a silvery Rayovac.  Bunty meanwhile pondered the latest report from Rula Hradek’s snooping trysts at Campus bars: plenty of wannabe users, a few plausible sharers, but no clue as to a wholesaler.  Who, of course, would have to be pretty stupid to let any clues slip—

 

Pause as a sentinel face appeared at an upstairs igloo-window.

 

Even in the dark and from a distance, it clearly wore a smirk and was framed by long red hair.

 

“Her again,” groused Bunty as Bootleg slid back behind the wheel.  “Little Sees-All-Knows-All.”

 

“Yeah—and too psyched-up to be bushwhacked.”

 

“Well, they may call her the Queen Bitch, but there’s only room around here for one of those.”

 

“Fuckin’ A, Blondie J.”

 

Bunty outstared the face at the igloo-window until it withdrew from view.  Not as a retreat, though; more like a flanking maneuver.

 

Circumvent it with one of your own.  Nod at Bootleg to crank up his less-high-tech-than-Flake’s-yet-more-powerfully-speaker’d cassette deck.  Blast forth the McGillah tape of Aerosmith at Comiskey, inundating Collinwood Lane with “Same Old Song and Dance” till the Galaxie gets shed of the Hereafter and swerves west onto Triville Avenue:

 

 

Gotcha with the cocaine they found with your gun
No smoothy face lawyer to getcha undone—

 

—just the smirky face of a weatherman’s daughter who must know which way the blow goes.  And, thus far, has shown no chink in her coppertopped armor, nor any hint that she can be daunted by a gleam from swooping-falcon eyes.

 

 

You could look, but you ain't gonna find it around…

 

Forget Aerosmith.  Tonight’s license-plate checklist turned up nobody new, just the rich-kid regulars.  Among them, the double act of Groningen & Hasleman was pivotal—probably not as the coke-source, but doubtless involved in the coke-flow.  Take them away (especially her) and the Traversers would revert to a negligible lollygagging ludehead cult.

 

“(Britt’s not one of them, not really.)”  So said that muttersome Weller girl, Fiona, who claimed to have crossed swords with Queen Brittch and fought her to no worse than a draw, but said once was more than enough.  Bootleg had first vouched for Fiona a few weeks ago when she’d held out for a one-on-one parley regarding her vintage-auto-arson request.  (Tommy the Torch had relished pulling off that caper, and kept asking for more like it.)

 

Fiona and Marcie “Cramps Aplenty” Loftus had a punk rock band performing at Robin Neapolitan’s Sweet Babboo Jambalaya, to which the Galaxie was now zooming as Aerosmith played “Walk This Way” and Bootleg bellowed along.  Bunty took little interest in music of any genre, but there’d been indications that Uncle Al planned to make her assistant manager of the Vinyl Spinnaker and two other stripmall discos.  (Mr. Poliakoff, their current proprietor, owed him money and favors.)  And while punk rock would never play at discos, there was an AnaRCHonda Pit down in The City that might be persuaded to “welcome” investment by the North Side Gang and its teen auxiliary crew.  Fiona said the Starwood night club (and drug emporium) in Hollywood was run by mobsters, which seemed on the button for a punk hangout.

 

Make that “on the nose.”  Whether punk or disco, a cocaine concession would generate a helluva lot more revenue than any club’s cover charge.  Coke sold like hotcakes at discos, even a cheese factory like the Vinyl Spinnaker; and while the punk crowd could be absurdly particular about what they’d ingest (“only dirty hippies smoke pot!”) they were hardly likely to turn up their noses at affordable blow.

 

Almost affordable.  Terminate the competition and you could write your own ticket.

 

Find someone who could go undercover, who Britt Groningen wouldn’t be on her guard against—so not Fiona or Robin or Cramps or that crazy Petula Pierro.  Someone dismissable as harmless, humdrum, even simpleminded; yet capable of picking a figurative lock and purloining the necessary paydirt.

 

Someone who wasn’t Gordon McGillah, singing “Toys, toys, toys in the attic!” with the band and the crowd on the tape as he parked on the edge of another hodgepodge-jumble, this one outside a garage where cars were outnumbered by motorcycles.  The night, though, was eerily quiet—had the bash been busted?  No, a pulsating rhythm could be felt underfoot.

 

“They got a soundproof basement,” Bootleg explained.

 

“Convenient,” Bunty was about to comment—when they heard a blow being struck, and a body crashing to the ground, and the sound of gaggy-gaspy-sobby blubbering.

 

Approach warily around the corner of the garage, to find one figure bent over a prostrate doubled-up other.  “You could cut yourself with this thing, Wanda Lynn,” the bender was saying.  “I better hold onto it for you—”

 

“It’s Razor!” said Bootleg, meaning not the assailant (as you might expect) but the casualty and her confiscated property.  “Drop it!” Bootleg ordered the bender, who unhastily straightened up without any sign of fear, guilt, sorrow, or prop-droppage.  “C’mon—hand it over!”

 

“Hand what over?”

 

“Yourself,” said Bunty in a flat-as-roadkill voice.  “Here.  Now.”

 

The figure stepped across Razor Reid (still gaggy-gaspy-sobby) and into the light above the garage doors, to be revealed as a rabbity girl who’d evidently taken up residence in a briar patch—or at least behind a dense overgrowth of tousled bangs.

 

Bunty glanced at Bootleg, who shrugged.

 

Rabbit Girl chomped on a wad of gum, in lieu of a carrot.  Ehhh… what’s up, doc?

 

“Who’re you?” Bunty inquired.

 

“Me?  I’ve been called ‘Harelip.’”

 

“By Razor?”

 

“Oh, we go way back.”

 

“That why you popped her?”

 

“I asked if she had a cigarette.  She mouthed off at me.  So I gave her a poke.”

 

More like a grand-slam in the solar plexus.  “Harelip” was of no more than medium height or weight, but appeared to be in athletic shape.

 

“Do that often?”

 

“Wanted to, but haven’t till now.”

 

“You take her shiv?”

 

“Is that what it’s called?”

 

“Toss it over here.  On the driveway.  Between me and him.”

 

Leisurely compliance.  Bunty picked up the tickler, folded it shut, pocketed it, and nodded at Bootleg to go look after Razor Reid, who’d regained enough breath to vomit with.

 

“Blecch,” echoed Bootleg.

 

“What are you, finicky?” Bunty asked.  “Make sure she doesn’t choke.”

 

“You done with me?” Harelip wanted to know.  “We’re missing the Jambalaya.  Robin’s getting her Plymouth Fury tonight.”

 

“You know Robin Neapolitan?”

 

“Course.”

 

“How ‘bout Fiona Weller?”

 

“Feef?  Oh sure.  We were all in the same bunch, back at VW.”

 

(Interesting.)  “And Britt Groningen?  Know her too?”

 

“Yeah, but she won’t be here.  Hasn’t been since the Rosa Dartles broke up last spring.”

 

“Seen Britt lately?”

 

“Now and then, at school.”

 

“Talk to her much?”

 

“Me?  Hardly ever.  She hangs around with Gigi Pyle—the one who kicked Wanda Lynn there out of her cheerleader clique.  ‘Member that, Wanda Lynn?”

 

Incoherent abusive noises from Razor, clutching her midriff as Bootleg helped her up and leaned her against the garage wall.

 

“Can I have her shiv?” asked Harelip.  “In case she tries to give me a poke?”

 

Bunty regarded the rabbity girl.  “Ever use a razor, kid?”

 

“On my legs and pits.”

 

(Snortle.)  “No payback,” Bunty informed Razor.  “Get me?  Leave this one alone, or I’ll have Juicer ‘talk’ to you.”  Turning back to Harelip: “Know who I am?”

 

“Oh, everybody does.”  (Chomp.)   “Wish I could be as badass as you.  Nobody takes me seriously, unless I give them a poke.  Which I never did, till tonight.”  (Chomp.)

 

Go and find a rabbitskin to wrap a secret lockpick in.

 

“Want to work for me, kid?”

 

“Depends,” said Harelip.  “Got a cigarette?”

 

*

 

 

Forget the sound barrier, forget the speed of light
this car is charged up and’ll rocket outta sight
there ain’t a single limit we won’t smash through—
we’re gonna break ev’ry street taboo!

 

So Downbite clamored in the soundproof Villa cellar at Robin Neapolitan’s Sweaty Sixteen Jambalaya, before Fat Bob drove her beribboned Sweet Babboo up from Loopy’s Lot for climactic presentation.  Robin’d decided it should stay robin’s egg blue, lest a paint job imperil their meant-to-be affinity; and had even urged that this color be worked into the lyrics of “Street Taboo.”

 

“(Like how?)” Fiona’d grimaced.

 

“I don’t know!  ‘Robin’s egg blue’ rhymes with ‘taboo,’ doesn’t it?  Do you expect me to write the whole damn song for you?”

 

Fat Bob knew he couldn’t prevent her from taking Il Dolce Babu out then-and-there for an inaugural spin, and that a motorized Robin was more than a match for any skulking Mad Bludgeoner; but he forbade her from giving rides to anyone he didn’t pre-authorize.  Bunty O’Toole he knew by repute, and also for having bought Juicer Lynch a Harley Super Glide for cold hard cash; so Fat Bob gave a polite thumbs-up to her conveyance when Bootleg didn’t return after taking Razor Reid home.

 

“When he shows up, tell him I left,” Bunty instructed Fat Bob.

 

Nobody was boneheaded enough to ask if they could join her in the Plymouth’s spacious backseat; but she summoned Fiona to come along, telling Robin “Corner of Whierry and Bittercress.  Got a stop to make.”

 

Robin, like a good cabby, let her passengers converse privately while she communed with the mobile Babboo in Italian babytalk: “Tu sei mio, tutto mio, tutto mio, oh siiii…

 

“So,” Bunty said to Fiona.  “Tell me about this Harelip girl.”

 

“(Not the one in Huckleberry Finn?)”

 

“No.  The one with bangs hanging down to her nose.”

 

“(Oh—that’s Laurie Harrison.  Yeah, I heard she got called ‘Harelip’ by snots back in grade school.)”

 

“One of ‘em Razor Reid?”

 

“(Could be.  When Razor was Gigi Pyle’s flunky—Gigi picked on Laurie the most.)”

 

“Picked, or picks?”

 

“(Not any more, I don’t think.  Gigi kind of fell apart when we left VW.  And Laurie’s changed too.)”

 

“Hold that thought.”  To Robin: “Turn in here.”

 

Directing her to drive around behind the McGillah Brothers Funeral Home, where only a skeleton staff (so to speak) was present this late on a Saturday night.  Plus a Galaxie Sports Hardtop, parked vacantly by the locked gate to the loading dock.

 

Robin was handed a spare car key that Bootleg didn’t know Bunty had, just as Bootleg’s father and uncles were unaware of the unsanctioned key he had to their mortuary.  “You know about engines, right?  Go yank his distributor cap and leave the hood up.”

 

Said matter-of-factly, without any sense of malice or rancor, though Bootleg’d most likely brought Razor here to “hose her down” and “tend to her wounds.”  And while Wanda Lynn Reid might’ve been a calcified grapefruit since her eviction from Gigi Pyle’s clique three years earlier, she still bore the makings of a cheerybabe underneath her punkette carapace: like strawberry frills below black leather.  Bootleg’s craving for such a layering didn’t vex Bunty, who allowed him off the leash to hump freely—though not if that meant being delinquent in his duties.

 

“He wants to be late?  He gets to be late.”

 

Cap yanked, hood left open, and Robin’s hands fastidiously wiped before resuming contact with her Sweet Babboo’s steering wheel, they drove on up Panama as Feef completed mutter-briefing about Laurie Harrison as-she-used-to-be.

 

“(Gabbled nonstop for two years, then clammed up all of a sudden—about a month ago.  Changed her looks too, especially her hair—like she’s trying to hide behind it.)”

 

“Any guess why?”

 

“(Some guy or other, maybe.  She used to always keep getting her heart broke.  But always let everybody know about it, endlessly.  Not this time.)”

 

“So she just mopes around?”

 

“(Well… in Bio she’s got this asshole lab partner, Lenny Otis, who’d hassle and hit on her.  At first she’d complain about him, but just yesterday he acted afraid of her and not like it was a joke.  Dimancheff even thanked her for ‘muzzling Mr. Otis’s membranes.’)”

 

“As if she’d got under this asshole’s skin?  Like a tick or chigger?”

 

“(Could be.  Really weird behavior, though, for Laurie Harrison.)”

 

Pause as Robin, still tutto-mio-ing, eased off the boulevard into the Vacamonte’s entranceway.  Then Bunty asked:

 

“Think she could get under Britt Groningen’s skin?”

 

Drymouthed spit-take by Fiona.  “(Britt’d eat her alive!)”

 

“Then, or now?”

 

I got this!!” Robin snapped at the Vacamonte doorman as he reached for her pristine door handle with an ungloved hand.  She leaped out, Bootleg’s distributor cap (swaddled in a clean rag) under one arm, and used the other to pull the seat forward so her fare could egress.  But the fare stayed put, awaiting Fiona’s answer—which sure as hell had better be accurate.

 

Finally: “(My bet’d have to be on Britt.)”

 

“We’ll see,” said Bunty O’Toole.  “Cool car,” she told Robin while disembarking, and “Somebody’ll be by for this, sooner or later,” to the doorman as he received the swaddled cap.

 

Then falcon-eyes raked the Sister Dopesters like talons feinting at a pair of sparrows.  I am a predator, they were reminded.  You two could be prey at any time, any day.  Nothing personal—strictly business.  Be aware of that.

 

And with no further word or glance, a Very Dangerous Person took her leave.

 

*

 

Early Sunday afternoon Fiona phoned Athens Grove, rousting PoonElly out of bed and eventually into Le Heap for a trip to the Carrefour IHOP and indulgence in a belated brunch.

 

Poon was still jubilant from Downbite’s tour de force at the Jambalaya.  “Bring Out Your Stupid” had kicked ass faster! louder! brasher! than ever.  Sheila Quirk’d sat in on rhythm guitar and swung a hardcore axe, but wouldn’t commit to longterm participation since she found Epic Khack personally repugnant and musically discordant.  Tayser’s insisting “That’s the point!” hadn’t squeegeed S-Q, which didn’t make much dfference since Downbite had no future gigs lined up anyway.  Poon dwelled instead on the gusto of last night’s shriekfest (having provided most of the shrieks) while she devoured a tall stack of buttermilks drenched with boysenberry syrup.

 

Fiona spent more time watching Poon gourmandize than picking at her own plate of hash browns.

 

The day had dawned (well after dawn) with a call from the Neapolitans, loudly interrupting each other as they wrestled for the handset.  Fat Bob’d discovered a crust of dried puke beside his garage that morning, after Robin had sworn! an! oath! that neither booze nor drugs would cross the Villa threshold last night—but here was upchuck-evidence sullying the Villa concrete!  Robin broke in to hotly deny it’d been spewed by any of her guests; how did Fat Bob know it wasn’t an eruption from one of his biker-buddies?

 

Fiona, asked to attest about substance abuse/absence at the Jambalaya, listened to them trade shouts until she hung up unnoticedly, knowing she’d be treated to lots more on this subject later.  In the meantime she pulled on her eggplant suede jacket and Deep Purple patent leather combat boots, and rousted out their purchaser for some belated brunching:

 

“Arntcha glad I talked you into doing that Chinese number?  Didn’t I say it’d rock ‘em better’n anything by them dumbass Dead Boys?  Fess up, Sugar Pop—I’m forfuckingever on the damn ball!”

 

With a smack of boysenberried lips, licked by a buttermilky tongue.

 

Her so-called Chinese number—“I Ain’t No China Teacup (But You’re Still Just a Mug)”—had been loosely adapted from a Late Movie where W.C. Fields, arriving by autogyro in the Celestial Empire, asked “Is this Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri?” and added “Don’t let the posey fool you” when a foppish chap answered “Wuhu!”

 

“Hey, this here’s an International House too!” Poon realized.  “I oughta jump up on the table like them gals in that roof garden and sing it all again!”

 

“(You oughta lay off the syrup, Elly May.)”

 

“But dontcha think we kicked serious ass last night?  That Quirk chick can really riff.  We gotta find a way she can stomach playing with Epic‘Quirk-‘n’-Khack’d be a killer guitar comboand where does she get off acting all prissy-pantsed about poor Ep when she came to the bash with that Grossius Maximus guy?”

 

“(Alvin Dobbs.  They call him ‘Avalanche.’)”

 

“Yuck!  Well, if she does join Downbite and we get a gig in Aspen and she brings him along, we gotta make sure he stays on the kiddie slope!”

 

“(A gig in Aspen?)”

 

“Don’t it sound like a punk hangout?  ‘The Asssspen Pit!’  And hey, didn’t that Claudine Longet chick waste her boyfriend there?”

 

Initiating a gleeful dissertation on celebrity lovercide.

 

Fiona would’ve preferred to talk about Laurie Harrison and Bunty O’Toole; but Poon didn’t know Laurie and had only heard rumors about Buntymostly in relation to Long John Shanahan, whom Poon’d known for years and derided as a piano-plinker who couldn’t steer a sloop to save his life.  Stories about his smuggling and getaway escapades must be wild exaggerations.  As for the firebombing of Zagnut-the-Trashman’s Mercury coupe, Poon had shared no more speculations since the day after it happened, other than “Outta my sight—outta my mind.”

 

(Her words, not Feef’s.)

 

So PoonElly, shrieking I been a torso-tosser / with lotsa flesh to feel! last night in the Villa basement, hadn’t been jolted (much less j-o-l-t-ed) by the sight of Laurie Harrison descending the cellar stairs at Bunty O’Toole’s elbow.  Or of Laurie lingering there through the Jambalaya, till Susan Baxter took her and Susie Zane and Patrick Baxter home.  Or of Big Sue seeming to offer the Bootlegless Bunty a lift in the Baxters’s Vista Cruiser, which Bunty declined—in order to grill Fiona about “Harelip.”

 

Who, apparently, was under consideration for enlistment by the O’Toole crew.

 

And who, though she might be Feef’s least-favorite member of the old lunch-bunch, still qualified as somebody to be concerned about.

 

They had the same lunch period this semester, 4B, during which (up till a month or so ago) Laurie’d engaged in the same tablehopping she’d done last year at VW.  Fiona didn’t dine too often in the VTHS cafeteria; she and Cramps and Razor Reid and occasionally Epic and Tayser (when the latter ditched homeroom) spent 4B in a variety of places, including inside Bootleg McGillah’s Galaxie.  When they did kill lunchtime as cafeteriagoers, Laurie’d always waved at Fiona with a transient “Hi Feef!”  Never sat at their table, probably to avoid Razor who’d been a grade-school friend till Gigi Pyle enticed her away—and later alienated her from being Wanda Lynn into becoming Razor.

 

Who’d disappeared early from the Jambalaya.  To be taken by no-show Bootleg to his funeral parlor for “hosing down” and “wound tending.”  With a lump of dried vomit discovered next morning beside the Villa garage.  After the local teen mob’s Bossa di Tutti Bossi expressed sinister interest not in sweet silly Laurie Harrison, but a “Harelip” thought to be capable of getting under Britt Groningen’s—Britt Groningen’s—pale freckled skin.

 

Connect the dots…

 

Any guess why?

 

Some guy or other, maybe.

 

Such as Dennis Desmond, whom Laurie’d flipped over at that impromptu gathering at Vicki’s, tagging along with him when he went to House o’ Chopsticks for that takeout of Szechwan shrimp.  Then coming to school the very next day in a pushed-up flame-colored blouse and pushed-out charcoal-tinted skirt, as though she were trying to outstimulate provocative types like Carly Thibert or Isabel Carstairs who dressed like that all the time.  Laurie and Fiona both had Fifth Hour Biology (pefect timing: right after lunch) and that day Feef saw Laurie’s pushed-out booty getting squeezed by Dennis outside Room 208 before class.  (Talk about being “smitten.”)  She barely made it into the lab before Dimancheff locked the door, after which her heaving pushed-up bosom distracted all the hornyboys from any talk of cellular structure—including Feef’s lab partner Ewan “Haystack” Dobbs, the not-so-little-brother of Avalanche Alvin.  Which didn’t bode well for Feef’s Biology grade.

 

But the very next day after that, Laurie began to change and not just her clothes, though she wore no more racy outfits to school.  From then on she was clammed-up instead of gossipmongery, with hair in drooptails instead of trademark poofs, and bangs hanging down below her eyebrows as if she were Epic Khack’s sister instead of Tippi Lingerspiel.

 

Fiona’s mind refused to connect the dots that brought about this overhaul.

 

Though it was easy to surmise who was responsible for the causing.

 

Vicki Volester’d been traumatized just getting caught in a thunderstorm at the drive-in with Dennis Desmond.  There was no telling (or imagining) what might result from anything more “interactive” than that.  Yet what else could’ve led to the debut of a “Harelip” who, incredibly or not, had dispatched Razor Reid to a funeral parlor and impressed the likes of Bunty O’Toole?

 

“You sitting there paying me no-never-mind, Sugar Pop?” PoonElly pouted.

 

“(Just thinking of the china teacup you claim you ain’t.)”

 

“Feel more like a six-pack of Old Style Lager!”

 

“(Gag,)” went Fiona.

 

That evening she seized the Palace phone away from Chloe and got hold of Joss, who’d known Laurie longer than anyone.  But Joss didn’t have any classes with Laurie that semester and had scarcely seen her to talk to since the Szechwanfest at Vicki’s a month ago.  Joss hadn’t even been aware that Laurie was at last night’s Jambalaya; and though saddened (if not surprised) that another caddish rotter’d dunked their favorite blabberyap into a blue funk, Joss was frankly thankful not to spend every lunchtime hearing about it.

 

“I still get acid flashbacks of her moaning over Tyler Canute.  And Chipper Farlowe.  And Mack ‘The Arm’ Pittley.”

 

As for Laurie’s mutation into a henchgirl (or even a hitwoman) called “Harelip,” Joss told Feef not to fret:

 

“I say this wirh love, but she doesn’t have the smarts for anything more combative than volleyball or basketball.  She might get tricked into doing a hit job, but our Laurie’s just too gullible and naive to pull it off.  Any target could take advantage of her—maybe literally, if it was in a James Bond movie.”

 

Not heartened by this, Fiona (paying no-never-mind as Chloe yammered for the phone) called Burrow Lane and got Vicki, who wanted to chat about the Jambalaya and Downbite and Robin’s Sweet Babboo and Mrs. Mallouf’s grades on their Crucible essay papers.  Feef couldn’t get a mutter in edgewise till exerting her boogie-diva voice; but Vicki, once she was acquainted with the whole Laurie-as-Harelip heaviness, picked up on its jeopardies right away.

 

“I knew I should’ve worried more about her acting so weird!  I kept meaning to, then setting it aside till later, and now it’s maybe too later.  I bet you Dennis did do something to her—she even warned me to be careful when I went out with him, though she already wasn’t talking to me then like she used to, but I didn’t listen.  Except I remember asking ‘How do you feel about him?’ and Laurie getting all shrill about ‘He’s the one who did the feeling!’ even though getting her bottom squeezed outside the Bio lab shouldn’t’ve been enough to weird her out so much, I mean guys were always grabbing at her back at VW and she’d just think they were being ‘romantic’—”

 

Vicki,” Fiona re-exerted.

 

“…yeah?”

 

“(Be cool.  And tell me if there’s anything we can do—without messing with Britt, or Bunty O’Toole,)”

 

“…I dunno.  Sammi and Rachel and even Jerome haven’t gotten anywhere with her lately, and they’re her best friends aside from Susie.  Maybe Alex’ll have an idea, if I can figure oit the right way to fill her in about this so she’ll understand without freaking.  Maybe Joss’ll have an idea how we can do that…  Gahd, this is getting complicated.”

 

“(I know,)” Feef mutter-sighed.  “(And probably there’s nothing any of us can do.)”

 

“I know,” Vicki agreed.  “Whatever happens, we’ll just have to hope Laurie can see it through on her own.  Without freaking.”

 

*

 

We must bide our time.

 

So the still small voice had told you, from the middle distance of your inner ear.

 

So you abided for fifteen days from that afternoon after practice in the Girls Gym.

 

Then your time came in the same place, midway through the rematch with Hereafter Park’s Blue Angels.

 

Just why your time should’ve come when it did was not, of course, for you to say.  Yet when it did you knew it, and without having to be still-small-middle-distant-inner-earful told.

 

Coach Celeste sent you in for Sammi, who was way off her game and kept prattling about how she gotta talk to you.  It was a relief to get away from her and into the match, though by then the Angels had as big a lead as they would’ve had on their own home court with its crooked refs.  Marilyn Mansfield zeroed in on you, just as she had on her cousin Isabel at H.P.; but unlike Is, you returned Jive’s lobs without trouble or effort, spiking them at her feet or those of her girl-goblins.  Jive bore down, looking like Cruella de Vil when she chased the van full of Dalmatian puppies: a scene that’d given you nightmares when you’d seen it with what’s her name, Ingrid Morton, back in second grade.  Now you just smiled and bore up and smacked that volleyball back at the Angels till they quit aiming at your zone and scored a few aces at the other end of the court to win the match.

 

Then you sat in the bleachers during the varsity’s loss and watched Mauly the Mauler, examining her resemblance to Cousin Marilyn who ought to have been called Lily Munster (not to be confused with Lillie Guldbaer) while Sammi kept whining on and on about that Cherry Picker Chamberpot till you finally told her to put a cork in it.

 

As you had to do again the next day, twice: first when Rachel (at the library) and then when Jerome (over the phone) both nagged at you to go waste the afternoon at their lame-assed Literary Society Pop Party.

 

Instead you went to Timonoff Park for NESTL(É)’s cross country invitational meet, where Susie got multiply devastated.  Despite being the Ladybug captain she came in fourth behind the Bobbsey Triplets, Karen Lee and Caroline and Taters Quirk; while the team as a whole not only came in seventh among the girls but scored worse overall than Patrick’s squad did among the boys.  Meaning Susie’s squad would have to do all the scutwork at the postseason banquet, which Patrick gloated about till Susie kicked him in the shin and put their romance on hold.

 

Susie cried herself to sleep that night, which was annoying and spurred you to drag her by the ankles out of bed very early Sunday morning to go out for a run.  She balked; you prevailed.  She protested about the chill and damp; you set forth in your star-spangled Mean Mary Jean shorts and a plain white T-shirt, even though it was sure to turn see-through if rained upon.  Which didn’t happen, but wouldn’t have bothered you if it had.

 

Not this time.  Not now that your time had come.

 

Before reaching the end of Grouseland Street, you heard (and felt) a familiar thud! thud! thud! and told Susie “C’mon,” escalating your pace and hers till for once, at last, you kept ahead of Susan Baxter’s broadjump strides till everyone hit the brakes on the bank of the sanitary canal.

 

“Good job,” said Big Sue, eyeing you with terse curiosity when you responded with no more than a brusque nod.  Then during Monday’s intrasquad scrimmage, she and equally closemouthed Louisa Lang led the Biguns in testing you with a bombardment; but you retaliated wallop for wallop and won a starting spot in the JV lineup for Tuesday’s match against Emery Ridge.  You, rather than Natalie or Kirsten or Alex or Pebbles or Michelle or anyone on the bench, led the JVs to victory over the Scarlet Royals and then to annihilation of the Screaming Eagles at Multch East on Thursday.  For these triumphs you accepted praise as Big Sue or Louisa would: with a slight silent smile but no harping on events.  People like Lisa Lohe and Coach Ramsey said you “must be growing up.”  You didn’t enlighten them about your time having come—Sheila-Q would be sure to say What, your time of the month? and then you’d be tempted to lash out at her.

 

Which you didn’t want to do.  Not to S-Q.

 

Not when there was such a long list of people ahead of her on your get-even-with agenda.

 

The first to get checked off was Lenny Otis early Friday morning, when he gave your caboose a goose in the school lobby.  You twirled around and pinned him to a trophy case with the point of your elbow deep as could be in the small of his back, making Lenny go “Ooh! Ooh!” for real as you hissed in his unclean ear:

 

“(Don’t be surprised if you pee blood for the rest of the day.  Try anything again and I’ll make sure you pee blood for a week,)”

 

Lenny, still nursing his kidneys in Fifth Hour Biology, kept his crummy interjectional mouth shut through an entire Dimancheff lecture for the very first time that year.

 

“Did you find some method of muzzling Mr. Otis’s membranes, Miss Harrison?” Mr D asked.

 

You flicked your bangs at Lenny; he flinched in a manner that might’ve been comical, but wasn’t; and the appreciative Mr. D said “On behalf of the class, I thank you.”

 

(Il n’y a pas de quoi.)

 

But there was more to it than that.

 

When you’d bawled out Kim Zimmer a year ago, the resulting adrenaline rush hadn’t lasted very long and left you feeling number (not dumber) than a zombie.  This time (yours having come) the exhilaration burned like that Biblical bush on the backside of the desert; you wanted to kick off your shoes and dance barefoot in its flames.

 

It burneth, but consumeth not.

 

Dance all the way to Villa Neapolitan: driven there Saturday night by Big Sue along with Susie and her reconciled “Puddin.’” who deserved a lumbar puncture of his own for all the grief he’d given her plus the designs he harbored on your own bod.  But the s.s. voice advised you to hold out for bigger, better game—and who should show up to fill that bill outside the Villa garage but Wanda Lynn Reid, the good spoiled Nellie Oleson of yore.

 

Lag behind as the others head for the cellar.  Ask Wanda Lynn for a smoke; get a disparaging refusal.  Plus a flourish of that straight razor she’d never used (so far as you knew) to actually cut anybody.  So duck and dodge like a good Lady Gondolier and jab her in the breadbasket, with all the oomph of a megaspike by Boomer Wrang.

 

And stand over Wanda Lynn while she writhed on the gravel, struck down as if by a tempest of hail and lightning like ancient Egypt between those frog and locust plagues.

 

FLASH-FLASH-FLASH went the lightning in your heart.

 

clatter-clatter-clatter went the sheet of hail before your eyes.

 

Through which you peered, like an extra layer of bangs, while being questioned by the shortish yet imposing punkette you recognized as Antoinette O’Toole.  (Not “Bunty”—too close to “bunny”—for someone nobody’d think was like a rabbit.)

 

Want to work for me, kid?

 

If I can be as badass as you.

 

And leave the bunny rabbits down their holes.

 

Your badassification began Monday morning in Contemporary Living.  This class, a hybrid crossbreed of Home Ec and Social Studies, touched on everything from household budgets to teen suicide (one can lead to the other) and was taught by Ms. Derwent, a fearless New Zealander rumored to have Maori tattoos.  When Superintendent Billings tried to save a nickel by purging Contemporary Living from the VTHS curriculum, Ms. Derwent shrugged him off as a scodey doongi (definitely not Down Underish for Scooby-Doo) and.won the day.

 

Badassery in action!

 

That Monday she assigned you to work on a new relating-to-peers project with Lola Svoboda, a senior known all over town for peddling fake IDs.  You’d been a bit fearful of Lola in the olden days, unwilling to break the ice on any topic except Ms. Derwent’s Kiwi accent or who Lola’s cousin Carly Thibert was currently going with.  Now, however, you were relating-to-a-peer—and one who’d been delegated by Antoinette to orient you to the O’Toole crew’s ways and means.

 

Badassery in progress!

 

The s.s. voice harmonized with most of Lola’s tutelage, intimating a few variations that you kept to your sangfroidy self.  Along with the hailstones that continued to drum upon your consciousness, like Robin’s sticks beating Robin’s skins at the Jambalaya; a promise that you’d be let loose before long to pummel a skin or two without compunction.

 

Get a head start Tuesday at the Multch North rematch, which you pretty much won singlehandedly; tying the Hurricanes for first in the Shoreside Division and as second seed in the upcoming JV tournament.  Again you accepted kudos with a slight silent smile, this time while Alex Dmitria harped on the event:

 

“I told them you’re galloping straight and true!  They were all worried about you, Vicki and Joss and Fiona, but I told them you’re just a lot more focused now—doing instead of talking—not that you didn’t do things before, of course—”

 

Tune her out and focus on the s.s. voice going g-r-r-r-r at the names of the worriers.  Oh yes, you’ll worry them all right, “worry” with your jaws and teeth like a terrier on a rat—

 

—or a vole—

 

But the voice said: All in good time…

 

For right now, practice the Drop.  In your head as well as with your hands.  Again.  Again.  The Drop had to seem unintentional, an awkward accident—like trapping your hiked-up skirt in a jammed locker door.  When that’d happened you’d gone Don’t look! Don’t look!, same as when you got caught on your bike in the downpour that turned your clothes transparent.  This time, however, you wanted them to look; as if you were Carly or Isabel, who apparently enjoyed having their underpants ogled.  Although the Drop didn’t involve exposing any lingerie or arousing any hornyboys.

 

No indeedy…

 

Wednesday in Contemporary Living you demonstrated it to Lola, not using the actual bait but items of similar size and weight—your compact, your keychain.

 

“Don’t go all to pieces,” Lola said for the benefit of Ms. Derwent’s other students, and “(Not bad)” confidentially to you.  “(Maybe give it a try, if you get the chance.  Just a taste, remember.)”

 

Peer-relating nod.

 

Then more mental rehearsals: practice makes perfect, especially when it’s supposed to look imperfect.  Again.  Again.  Till the 4A bell rang and you headed for Study Hall, detouring midway into the second-floor washroom.

 

Where you bumped into Gigi Pyle and Britt Groningen.

 

Literally enough that you lurched forward and sent an object sailing out of your purse to skitter across the tiles.

 

“Shoot!” you went, bending not-too-rapidly to retrieve it in almost-full-view of Britt and Gigi; allowing them sufficient look-see for the object to be identified as a money clip (actually a large metal barrette) loaded with one twenty-dollar bill folded Jackson-faceup over a wad of indistinct singles.  “(Lucky the floor’s sort of clean,)” you murmured, as if to your I-am-so-dumb self, wiping the clip and shoving it back into your purse.

 

Drop accomplished, go quickly through washroom motions and emerge from the stall to join Britt and Gigi at the sinks.  Noting (from behind bangs and hailstones) how Gigi’s Everglade-eyes went all okeefenokee as they darted sidelong toward you, then shiftily down to your purse as she rinsed her magnolia hands—

 

—and you felt an abrupt surging impulse to plunge your worrisome teeth into her magnolia throat: How’d you like a Harelip hickey, Miss Dixie Cups??

 

who blanched and winced and reached fidgetishly for the paper towel dispenser, her halftucked blousetail slopping over the waistline of her wrinkled gaucho pants, which seemed to sag in back as though she’d lost some buttweight: all very uncharacteristic for Lady Prideful Pyle.  Nor did she give you a wordless huff upon exiting—with her head not up, her shoulders not squared, and her hips not swaying like a steady pendulum.

 

Britt, contrariwise, regarded you and your purse in the mirror with a persistent sleepy-smily attentiveness, and again told you “Later” before strolling off.

 

Just a taste, remember.

 

Yet as with pancakes and popcorn and potato chips, one taste is never enough…

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Return to Chapter 39                          Proceed to Chapter 41

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2020 by P. S. Ehrlich

 

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