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Death Duty
By Della Street


"This way. No, this way." Jo waved her arm in a circular pattern again. "This way, you ditz."

Normally, traffic control was a relatively straightforward job. Jo had a knack for it, and people tended to behave themselves, not so much because an officer of the law was giving them an order, but because they realized they would get to their ultimate destination faster if they just followed instructions.

Today, though, was something else. This was the first time she had signed on for a task in which all of the drivers had the same destination.

"Death duty is the worst," her partner had warned her; unless she really needed the money, she should pass. But Jo did need the money. She had enough for first month's rent when she eventually moved out of the house, but utilities at even the shitty places she could afford were going to be a killer. Money aside, though, she would have signed up for this one anyway.

She waved another limo through, signaling with her hand gestures that, once the driver deposited his passenger, he should proceed down the block to one of two designated waiting areas. He nodded his understanding. Jo wished that all of the bereaved had delegated their transportation to people who knew what they were doing.

Her radio crackled. "How did these people get driver's licenses?" her partner's voice asked.

Raising her right hand to halt someone who probably wasn't used to being told to halt, Jo used her left to press the reply button. "Bought 'em," she guessed.

After a while, Dale buzzed her again. "Remind me to thank you for talking me into this."

She hadn't, of course. He needed the dough as much as she did. Time for the second line to move, Jo decided. She beckoned the cars forward, then reached for her mike again. "You'll get your reward when you hand over the extra cash to Amy," although it had always been hard for her to imagine her partner's rather stern wife 'rewarding' him. Still, she must have on occasion, given that they had two kids.

"You didn't tell her the cut for this job, did you?" he said.

She didn't answer right away, as she was attempting to communicate with another clueless arrival without the finger she was most tempted to use. "This line or that one," she said, pointing at one line with each hand, trying to articulate clearly with her lips, in case the woman might actually start paying attention to the traffic control officer. Remembering her partner's question, she replied when she had a free second, "Gimme some credit." After how supportive Dale and the other guys had been about her plans to dump Rick, even offering Jo a temporary place to stay – with his wife's blessing, no less – the last thing she would do was drop Dale in it with anyone.

As anticipated, the traffic jam died out as it neared 10 o'clock, the time this thing was scheduled to start. 9:55; they were free to go. Dale walked over to her from his station on one of the other three corners. "We got a couple of hours," he said. "Me and Rog are gonna grab a sandwich. Wanna come?"

"Uh . . . ." Jo glanced toward the church. "I don't know . . . I'm thinking maybe I'll go in there."

He followed her gaze. "In there? You could, I guess; they always let cops in. But–"

"Yeah, I think I will."

He thought it over for a moment, then shrugged. "What the hell. It's air conditioned."

Surprised, Jo said, "You don't have to go."

"Eh, might be interesting to see how the other half dies."

As they slipped into the back row, Jo removed her hat and nudged Dale, who took his off, too. Together, they watched a few speeches, listened to a song, and then finally watched a beautiful blonde approach the podium. Jo studied the woman she hadn't seen in more than two years, since the day she graduated from the police academy. Her dresser was still adorned with a framed picture of Blair and her from that day, arms around each other's waists. It was the first thing Jo planned to pack when she finally got up the nerve to call it quits.

It wasn't her favorite photo from that day. There were a dozen different ones in her album, most featuring Natalie or Tootie or Beverly Ann or some of her Academy buddies, all having a good time. The one she really liked, though, the one that made Jo smile every time, was the picture of Blair and her, taken by Tootie before they were ready, Blair's fingers reaching out to straighten Jo's collar as they grinned at each other. Jo had been truly happy that day, in spite of Blair's pithy reservations about her ill-advised career choice, and her own reservations about other choices she had made in her life.

Today, her friend looked beautiful but, in spite of her attempts to hide it, a little lost. There was none of that Blair Warner arrogance today.

A brief but warm tribute followed about the life and accomplishments of David Warner. Blair's smile was tired. Jo hadn't seen her like this before, but nothing this traumatic had happened during their time together.

When the organ fired up, the two officers rose and headed outside to resume their off-duty assignments. But Blair's blank expression stayed in Jo's head. Natalie and Tootie – Dorothy – and Beverly had been inside with her; Jo had seen them about half way up the other aisle. That would help. Too bad Mrs. G was still in Africa, turning what was originally supposed to be a two-year Peace Corps stint into a long-term charitable project now staffed by a dozen volunteers. Blair needed a shoulder to cry on, maybe, and no one's shoulder had absorbed more tears than their former mentor.

The procedure was a little different for leaving than for arriving. Roger had the easy duty, loitering down by the limos and professional drivers for Jo to let him know when chauffeured mourners emerged from the church. This was much more orderly, thanks to the natural interludes as people went through the respects line. A coiffed head or stuffed shirt popped out about every 20 seconds, just about right.

Was Blair having to smile and make nice for all these people? Granted, no one was better at bullshitting than her former roommate, but still, it had to be tiring. Ten years of images flooded Jo's brain, every cutting remark, every time Blair stomped off in a huff. Through it all, though, she had always been–

A tap on the shoulder from her partner brought Jo back to the present. "Contract says we're done," he said. "Let's grab a burger. I'm starved."

Dale was her ride home. Jo really hated to do this to him. "I need to go inside for a minute," she said.

"In there?"

She should just tell him that she knew David Warner's daughter, but for all Jo knew, Blair might be embarrassed to have a uniformed police officer showing up at this otherwise classy event. Just as Blair had "forgotten" to invite Jo to her coming out ball when they were 16, she might not want her at this most formal of events, either. But Jo couldn't just leave. Not when Blair was on the other side of the door.

"I'll get a cab," Jo suggested.

"Why are you going back in?"

"I'm just . . . it'll just be a minute," she said.

It was the wrong thing to say. If it was just going to be a minute, he didn't mind waiting for Jo to do whatever chick thing she was on about, he decided.

For the second time that day, Jo removed her stiff blue police cap as she entered a building. This time, she hesitated. The line was relatively sparse now. She smiled to see Tootie reaching out to Blair for a hug. The other girls stayed in touch with each other more often than Jo did, she knew, mostly from Natalie's letters.

She hadn't seen Blair in so long. She should have called, she knew, after reading about the accident on the construction site of a new textile mill that David Warner was on hand to open. But the paper had said that his daughter, operator of the Eastland Academy (no longer just For Girls) was out of the country at the time. And after that, well, she went by Blair's place once, but the place had been swarming; it wasn't like Blair would have time for her.

As Dale waited inside the doorway, Jo walked toward the front of the church. Natalie was the first to spot her, smiling delightedly at her. Tootie was less subtle, raising her hand to wave until Natalie grabbed it to retain some sense of decorum.

"Thank you for coming," Blair said to one well wisher after another, usually followed by some platitude intended to make the living feel better about someone else's death. "Give my best to Jan," "The flowers were lovely," "I know he'll miss those racquetball games."

When the man in front of Jo patted Blair's hand and walked away, Jo stepped forward.

Blair seemed shocked to see her. "Jo . . . ?" she said.

"I'm sorry, Blair," Jo said. About a lot of things.

There wasn't much to say, but there never was in a situation like this.

"Your dad loved you."

Blair stepped forward and threw her arms around her former roommate's neck. "Jo . . . ," she said, "what am I going to do?"

Jo stroked her hair. "It'll be okay," she murmured. "It's okay, baby."

It was hours later, as she helped Blair clear dishes and yank cards from flowers and make it through the day, that Jo remembered her partner. She would call him later tonight and explain her relationship with Blair. Or tomorrow. Maybe by then she would know what to say.

The End

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