A FAIR TO REMEMBER

An original fanfic
by Gidget

TaleSpin and its characters are the property of Buena Vista Television/Walt Disney Co.  The rest of the non-TaleSpin characters are created by me, and may not be used without permission.  As usual, my deepest gratitude to Ted for his fabulous AND honest feedback and support.  A big thank you to Cody for reading the drafts I was unsure of. (Rated PG for mild coarse language and occasional violence.)


Chapter 2


Lance hated the carnival.  He hated the smells, the vulgar shouting of his fellow ‘carnies’-- he so hated that term -- and that Joanna witch most of all.  She seemed to take special pleasure in tormenting him, smiling that nasty, knowing little smile.

She knows, he thought. She knows it’s mine.  The notion made him grind his teeth until they hurt.

Suddenly, he spied Pearl standing in front of her trailer, hand planted on one ample hip, smiling every time one of the men passed.  He noticed, with distaste, that her yellow flowered dress was extremely snug, almost too tight to contain her plump, voluptuous body.  Her lips and nails were painted a bright red and she wore too much rouge.  Her short, flaxen curls were rolled tightly around her babyishly round face.  She was almost cute in her obvious attempts to make herself more attractive.  But to Lance, she resembled a cheap Poopie doll.  No self-respecting man would ever be seen with such a vulgar creature.

Hmmm… I shall have to be very discreet. 

Taking a deep breath, he slicked back his hair and approached her.

“Hallo!” he called. “Miss Clambake, isn’t it?  Please say you remember me?”

Genuinely surprised, her face lit up as she recognized him; there was a childlike sweetness to her, a sincere, grateful delight for the attention.

Exactly what he wanted.

“Of course, I do!  Call me Pearl.”

“And you must call me… Lance.  How about that little tour you promised me?  Or are you busy enchanting some other poor swain?”

At first she looked confused, probably at the word ‘swain’. Giggling nervously, as she swatted him on the arm, making him wince in pain. “Come on… I’ll show you around.”

He looked wistfully at the trailer that she and the Joanna woman shared, but wisely decided to be patient.  Time to outwit the nitwit. 

Nothing would please me more!” he declared, offering his arm.

She took it, giggling anew at this unexpected chivalry.  Obviously, she wasn’t used to being treated like a lady. 

He added, “I do hope we’ll become very good friends.”

* * *

Joanna had taken the key out of her pocket and stuffed it into her purse during the unloading of baggage from the ferry.  When she was alone in the tiny trailer that she and Pearl shared, she withdrew it from the bag and greedily admired the craftsmanship of the engraving.  It was useless to her, but beautiful in the manner of a finely polished antique, which this seemed to be.  She felt a tingle in her fingers… like the kind of mild electric shock you got touching metal after walking on a carpet.  She nearly dropped it.

That creep was awfully chummy this morning, she thought.  Wonder if he was looking for this?  Then she shrugged. Tough beans. Finders keepers.  Opening her blue leather case, Joanna slipped it inside with her spoon collection.  Instead of forfeiting it to the baggage people on the Peppermint Ferry, she had kept it with her at all times. Over years of traveling, she had amassed quite a fine collection of spoons from around the world, fifty-three to be exact.  Mostly silver-plated, brass and pewter, each represented a fond memory of her brief stay in a foreign town.  Her favorite was a small gold spoon with a tiny opal map of Oztralia on the top, a present from Helen. Some were piled on top of others, for she was running out of room.  The key, however, fit along the side.  With a grunt, she snapped it shut. 

Her clothing and books remained packed in two bags, each opened for airing.  She considered the act of unpacking time-consuming and setting up a homelike atmosphere every few months stupid.  This way, possessions were never carelessly left behind, especially in the ever-present possibility that she might have to get out of there fast.

She noticed, with some alarm, that her hand was entirely numb.  She shook it, trying force feeling back into her fingers.  After a moment, the tingling sensation subsided.

What was that? she wondered.  I feel awful.  Tensely, she waited.  Her legs felt boneless and limp and she felt herself beginning to droop.  Woozily, she managed to crawl to her cot, pull herself up and lay there miserably.  Closing her eyes and moaning, Joanna finally submitted to sleep.

A couple of hours later, she woke, feeling somewhat better.  She sat up gingerly and glanced at the alarm clock, then out the window.  She supposed that she’d missed lunch call, but couldn’t face the thought of food.

Well, that was scary...

* * *


Later that evening, in the trailer that Lance shared with Big Al, they had the only conversation they would ever have for weeks.  He looked around the trailer he shared with Big Al with apprehension and distaste. Everything he owned was either in storage or at the bottom of the bay.  He would have to convince Helen to advance his pay for new clothes, a simple enough task.  Widows were especially vulnerable and very responsive to male attention in his experience. 

That frumpy dumpling must be very lonely.  Oh well, one must make sacrifices, I suppose.

 

Big Al unpacked, throwing his belongings carelessly on his cot.  Scattered on the bed were playing cards, French postcards, girly magazines, a couple of pairs of striped tent-sized boxer shorts, and an old framed photo of a sweet-looking lady bear in old-fashioned garb. There was a resemblance between her and Big Al. 

And tucked away in an old brown leather sheath, was a long hunting knife.

He swallowed, heart thumping hard against his ribs.

Big Al glanced at him but said nothing.

Realizing that his survival depended on being in the big bear’s good graces, Lance tried to strike up a friendly conversation.  “Well!  Looks like we’re going to be…” How do I put it in terms he’ll understand?  “… er, roomies!”

Big Al grunted in reply.  “So?”

Lance spotted the photograph. “I say!  Is this lovely lady your mother?”

It was the wrong thing to say.

The bear’s expression darkened and something in his eyes was almost murderous.  Hastily, he wrapped the framed photo in a Hawaiian shirt and put it back in his bag. “None of your business.”

“My apologies!  I was just trying---!”

“You tried to steal a job from me.”

“I was just---!”

Uninterested in the reply, Big Al continued bluntly, “Forget it. I got your number, buddy.”

“I-I have no notion of what you could mean.”  Then, hopefully, “Buddy?”

“After what you tried to pull, you’re on my dirt list, pal.  Stay out of my way and we’ll get along fine.”

Without thinking, Lance muttered snidely, “How could anyone stay out of your way?”

“You tryin’ to be funny?”  Al stared at him. “I don’t like comedians.  Especially skinny little pantywaists that think I’m just some big, dumb galoot.”

“No…no…not at all…” Lance stammered, stumbling back a half-step, and bumped into the wall. “I meant, ahem, uh, that this charming little abode is terribly small for two people… don’t you think… er, buddy?”

“Tell you what,” Big Al said with quiet menace. “Cause anymore trouble for me, and you’ll be eating that nice Harmani suit.  Get it?”

Lance gulped. “G-got it!”

“Good.  And knock off the ‘buddy’ crap.” He stomped out of the trailer, banging the door closed.  Lance pulled out his silk handkerchief and delicately dabbed his forehead.

Once I get my hands on that key, I’m leaving! I must get out of this terrible place!


* * *

Scowling, Big Al wandered aimlessly, tired from hard work and still angry.  Someone hailed him.  He glanced up.  It was Handy Dexter, sitting on the steps of his trailer.

“Hey, Big Al… get your carcass over here!” the grizzled old beaver called out jovially.  “Have a drink with me.” 

He looked askance at the bottle of soda offered. “Got anything stronger?”

“Sorry.  Against the rules.  Helen don’t approve of drinking.” 

Great, he thought. “Where does a guy get a real drink around here?”

“You just got here, son.” Handy gave him the bottle.  “Try it… it’s fizzy.”

In less than a minute, Big Al gulped it down and accepted a second one, which he drank more slowly.

“Thanks,” he grunted, taking another deep, refreshing swig.  He shivered a little as the cold liquid made a bracing path down his throat.  He belched and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  “I needed that.”

“You look sore about something.”

He shook his head.  “Nah. Just needed a drink.”

“Being the new guy ain’t no picnic.”

“I don't wanna talk about it.”

“Right, right.  Helen's all the time telling me I'm too pushy for my own good.” Handy sighed.  “I thought you might have some questions.”

“Yeah. When do I get my own room?” he asked, half-joking.

“When you’ve put in ten years, like I have.  Anything else?”

“You like working for a skirt?”

“Don’t call Helen that around me.”

“Sorry.  You like working for a da-er, woman?”

“Not at first.  Used to have a carpentry business. That fell through, thanks to the Depression and all.  Helen’s not bad, as far as bosses go.  She tends to fuss over us like we was her kids.”

“Just what I need.”

“You’ll treat her with respect, understand?  She’s a good woman.” Handy’s tone was stern. “Or else you’ll answer to me.”  Big Al smirked.  The old beaver barely reached his chest, for crying out loud.

“Right.”

Handy looked at him shrewdly. “Anything else we should get straight?”

“No…” Suddenly, Big Al brightened, as he spotted the female bear he’d watched help a seasick Helen off the ferry that morning.  She was busy helping dark-haired tigress set up a ring toss game nearby. “Yeah.  Who’s the tomato?”

“What tomato?” 

Her.  The one in the blue dress.”

Handy glanced at her, then wrinkled his nose disdainfully. “Oh... Joanna.  She’s been with us for a few years.”

 

“Anyone got dibs on her?”  This place might not be so bad after all

 

“Well, she ain’t married, if that's what you mean by ‘dibs’.  Neither is Violet.” He indicated the dark-haired tigress.  “None of us are, really.  Too much travelling to have families.”  He leaned forward, like a granny eager to gossip.  “They say that Bonnie was, but left her husband because he was allergic to horses.”

 

“Who’s Bonnie?”

 

Handy nodded toward a lioness who was leading a dappled pony around the grounds by the reins. “Over there --- the tall, skinny gal in the cowboy duds.  She’s in charge of the stables.  And the painted blonde cat is Pearl.  She’s our nurse.  She’s not a real nurse, mind you.  Helen just taught her some first aid, and lets her wear the uniform.”

 

Unconsciously, Big Al patted his well-padded stomach. “Not bad. Could lose a few pounds, though.”

 

At first, Handy looked puzzled.  Then he understood.  “Stay away from that one.  She’s a man-crazy flibbety-gibbet.  I’m the only feller she doesn’t chase, and that’s just because I’m too old.”

 

Al snorted derisively and rolled his eyes.  “So... nobody's related in this circus?  I thought it was a family business.”

 

“The only ‘family’ here is Helen and her son.  Why, speak of the devil…” Handy waved to someone behind the big bear.  “Strummer, my boy… come meet the new feller.”

“Al, this is Helen’s boy, Strummer. He’s our bandleader.”     A tall, bony-thin bear in his mid-twenties approached them, large guitar case in hand.   Daddy must’ve been one of them albinos, Big Al thought.  Strummer had the misfortune of never quite outgrowing the awkwardness of his adolescence.  His long limbs and gangly frame seemed so disjointed that he resembled a scarecrow.  He had a weak chin, which he tried to conceal with a pathetic goatee.  The lenses of his thick, round, black-rimmed spectacles magnified slightly bulging pinkish eyes, giving him a vacant, fishlike expression.  Big Al regarded him with disbelief. 

Well, well, what do you know -- this carnival’s got its very own freak. 

“Strummer, this is Big Al, the new barker.  He’s been asking about our Joanna.“ The older man grinned at them, enjoying himself.  The two appraised each other and reluctantly shook hands.  Strummer withdrew his cramped fingers, wincing from Big Al’s deliberate, powerful squeeze.

Trying to keep a straight face, Big Al asked him, “So what’s the story, friend?  She your girl?“

“She’s…” The gawky young man bit his lower lip, apparently agitated.  “…um, we’re… friends.”

“Well, that’s just great,” Big Al said, raising his drink in a mock toast. 

Handy said, “Best forget it, Al.  She won’t go out with any of the fellers that work here.  Believe me, most of ‘em tried.  She won’t give any of ‘em a tumble.”

“Ice queen, huh?”

“Yep, that’s puttin’ politely.  I wouldn’t cross her, no sir.  Best stay away from that one.  She’s trouble.”

Big Al gave him a man-of-the-world wink.  All dames are trouble, old man.”

“I could tell you stories,” Handy said shortly. “I could tell you stories that would curl your hair.”

Suddenly, Strummer spoke, his voice cracking and Adam’s apple bobbing in agitation. “Don’t talk about her that way. You don’t know her like I do.  Joanna’s just shy.  She’s not used to people.”  He scowled at the beaver defiantly.  “And I was there for her when she needed me.”

“So you keep telling everybody,” Handy sighed. “That was years ago, son. No matter how many times you visited her in the hospital with candy and flowers.  She’ll never---!” 

“It has to count for something!”  Near tears, he hoisted the guitar case with a grunt and hurried away. 

“Aw, son…” Helplessly, Handy watched him go. “That boy’s too sensitive.”

Frankly, the bear was relieved.  Seeing those huge pink eyes well up wasn’t a pretty sight. 

“Wish he’d forget about her,” Handy muttered.  “She’s no darn good, and that’s the truth!”

Big Al said, deadpan, “Gee, you don’t like her much, do you?”

“Just saying he deserves better, that’s all. They’ve known each other for years and she doesn’t even look at him. How long is he gonna torture himself, I’d like to know!”

The bear shrugged.  Jenny, Joan, or whatever her name was sounded like a first-class snob, but with a mess like that guy chasing her, it was hard to blame her.

Handy seemed to read his mind. “Son, Strummer ain’t much to look at, and he might be a bit awkward, but he has a big heart.  She doesn’t have one at all.  And to think we were all sorry for her!”

“What for?”

“She had a heckuva time before we found her.”

“You found her?” Big Al repeated.

“About five years ago, we were touring the northern parts of Usland.  It was dark and it was my turn to drive the bus.  I had to go slowly, because of the winding roads going higher and higher.  One wrong turn could have sent us sailing off the gorge.”  Handy shuddered, remembering. “Luckily my lights were on.  I almost ran over this poor girl lying nearly half-dead on the road.”

“Don’t tell me.  Jenny, right?”

Joanna.”

“Whatever.”  Big Al shrugged. To him, they were all the same in the dark.

“Hmmph.  Anyways, she tells us she jumped out of a truck before it rolled down an embankment and crashed.  Some poor sap was burned alive down below.”

“Geez.  What was she doing out there?”

“No one knows.  Not even her.  That knock on the head caused her to black out.  All she says she remembers is falling from a big truck and breaking both legs.  Most of what she knew was lost that day, even her own name.”

“Whaddya mean?  She’s got a name.” He paused.  "Um… Janet?"

Joanna.  That’s just what she calls herself.  She had no purse, no identity name.  After we took her to the hospital in the nearest town, Helen paid for her care and started visiting her.  Didn’t want her to wake up frightened in a strange room.  One look at that girl and Strummer started going too, visiting her nearly every day, even when she was too delirious to know what was going on around her.”

“What a prince.”

“He’s a grown man, and smitten.  You know… twitterpated.  It’s only natural.  I just wish he wouldn’t reach for the moon.”

“How’s that?”

“A nice, plain girl wouldn’t be nearly so picky.”

He shrugged again.  This old guy was beginning to amuse him. “I guess.”

“Son, that boy’s got no kin except Helen.  Ever since her man died, she’s got her hands full running this place and not much time for much else, not even her own kid.  Strummer’s been dragged all over the country and no chance to put down roots and meet friends his own age. I try to be there for him, help him out, but I’m an old cuss and won’t be around forever.  He needs a wife, someone to take care of him when Helen’s gone.  I keep telling him not to set his sights too high, that a nice, plain girl with a sweet personality would suit him better, but his heart’s set on Joanna.”

Just buy him a parakeet, Big Al thought. Aloud, he said, “So... all else aside, how’s his campaign going?”

Handy looked embarrassed. “Well, at least she doesn’t laugh at him.”

Maybe she doesn’t get the joke. Big Al took a swig of his drink, watching her as Joanna began to line up the prizes --- Poopie dolls --- at the back of the booth.  She dropped something; bending over, some reddish-gold hair came loose, falling across her face.  Impatiently, she spat them out of her mouth in an unladylike fashion.  She was now standing behind the counter, which disappointed him.  He would have liked to get another look at those shapely legs, although the rest of her wasn’t bad either.  Not bad at all.

"I’d like to see that boy settled before I pass on.  I know Helen wants grandchildren.”

Big Al tried not to imagine the results of that pairing. 

“But the hospital and the rest of it… why go to all that trouble for someone you don’t even know?”

Handy looked surprised at the question. “Why, it was the only decent thing to do, young man.”

“Not me.  I don’t stick my neck out for nobody.”

The beaver cleared his throat. “Well… Helen and Strummer are just like that, y’know… always helpin’ a stranger in need.  Without ‘em, I doubt that she would’ve made it.  Months later, Joanna could gimp around with a cane.  She insisted on paying Helen back somehow, so she came to work for her. She always pays her debts, I’ll give her that.”  He sighed, as though even that small concession was painful to him.  “And she’s been with us ever since.”

“So… she’s still up for grabs, huh?”

“Don’t waste your time, son.  She’ll shoot you down.”  Handy finished his soda. “Besides, on a bad day, that girl’s got the devil in her.  I could tell you stories…"

“Yeah, she sounds like a terror.”

“Take my advice.  Find a bar and go chase some barroom chippie instead.  Feller’s gotta cut loose and raise a little heck sometimes.  I remember… ”

“Not a bad idea,” Big Al said thoughtfully. “A guy can go crazy around here.  I don’t know how you stand living in each other’s pockets.”

“Oh, you get used to it.”  Handy gave a rueful shrug. “I’ll get a list of the local pubs.  Get it outta your system.”

“Thanks.  I owe you one.”

“Me and the boys are getting a poker game together tonight in my trailer.  Interested?”

“Sure.”

Handy winked.  “Don’t tell Helen.  She might want to join us.”

Big Al snorted and drained his drink, then set the bottle on the steps.  “See ya tonight.”


* * *

In a few weeks, the midway was set up with concession stands, game stalls and several rides and attractions.  The roller coaster took the longest to build; a local work crew was commissioned to help assemble it.  Lance found himself working harder than he ever had in his life.  Thank heavens Mother isn’t here to see this. She would die of shame.  Manual labor, rather than creating a bond with the other men, alienated them.  They resented him for his clumsiness with tools and ridiculed him for his fastidious mannerisms and reluctance to get his hands dirty.  By the time he flopped wearily into bed at the end of a hard day, each finger and thumb was wrapped in bandages. Some people just aren’t meant for common labor.  Why me?

At the end of Lance’s first week, a small jar of screws fell off one of the beams during the construction of the Whip, clipping him on the head and disheveling his hair.  It didn’t hurt much, but it gave him an excuse to lie down, much to the derision of the other men.  Helen, who was supervising the assembly, hurried forward and helped the dazed Lance to his feet.

“Here, let’s get that looked at, shall we? Ye poor thing… it must hurt somethin’ awful,” Helen fretted.  It was an affectionate joke among the carnies that they never really left home---they still had Good Old Mom.  It was true.  Helen liked to fuss over people, even though she had a grown son. 

Lance found himself led briskly away by a stout little woman who barely reached his shoulder and had to quicken his pace to match her energetic steps.

Anxiously, she looked up at him. “Are ye awlright?”  

“Quite frankly, I don’t know…”

“Awwww…po’ Lancie…didja break a nail?”  A buck-toothed young carpenter shouted after him.

“Naw, but he messed up his pretty hairdo!” another shouted back.  Both laughed hoarsely.

“Hush up and get to work, ye lay-abouts!” Helen snapped. “We ‘ave te get these rides up by next week.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they answered, but another rumble of raucous male laughter trailed them all the way to an open tent which served as a first-aid station, and was run by Pearl, the staff nurse.

“Just ignore those old meanies, Lance,” Pearl advised. “I know how you feel. They’re just jealous.”  Helen and Pearl both clucked over his boo-boos.  Joanna, who was passing by, stopped and watched the spectacle with barely concealed amusement.

“Awww, your poor head,” Joanna cooed. “Looks like amputation is in order.”

“No, dear, it’s just a scratch,” Helen told her.  “Now, no worries, Lance.  Ye’ll be feelin’ right as rain in a jiffy.”  She paused, considering.  “Or maybe two jiffies.  All right, luv.  I’ll leave ye to it,” Helen said, getting to her feet.  “I got me some inventory to do.”

Joanna said, “Want some help?  I’ve got nothing to do.”

“That’s all right, I can manage. Why don’t ye ‘elp Pearl?”

“Okay,” she said unenthusiastically.

“There’s a good girl.”  When she was gone, Joanna reluctantly turned to the feline with an ungracious, “Well?”

“You can hand me the iodine and cotton balls,” Pearl said.  “They’re over there in the corner.”

Iodine?” Lance didn’t like the sound of that.

“Okay,” Joanna said more cheerfully.  “Here.”  Pearl took them and while twisting the bottle top open, she accidentally jostled his arm.

“Ouch!  That stings!” he yelped.

“I haven’t done anything yet.”  She dabbed gently.  “There.  See?  It doesn’t hurt.”

Lance’s shrieks echoed throughout the park, until Joanna finally left with a throbbing headache of her own.

“Why don’t you lie down for a while?” suggested Pearl.  “You don’t want to climb on those beams and get dizzy.”

“If you insist, my sweet angel of mercy,” he sighed, reclining on the narrow little cot in the corner and closing his eyes.  He rolled over and faced the canvas wall so she couldn’t see him smile.

The next day, Lance helped her unpack a cardboard carton of cotton balls.  While her back was turned, he made his move. Closing his eyes, he ran his index finger along the serrated edge of one of the flaps.

“Ouch!”

His yelp brought her running to his side.  “Oh, you poor baby,” she crooned, stroking his arm lightly. “Let Mommy see the widdle boo-boo.”

Mommy, he thought.

She used a lot of gauze, winding it round and round his hand until it was almost the size of a baseball mitt. He didn’t mind, for it prevented him from having to hand over nails to the more dexterous carpenters.  He just wished that he didn’t have to share quarters with that ruffian, Big Al.  His large size and crude mannerisms reminded him of another loud bear he had met last year during another caper that had gone horribly wrong.  His face darkened in a scowl.

As he headed toward the trailer he and Big Al shared, he passed a hot dog stand where Joanna and an attractive dark-haired tigress named Violet were busy cleaning the grills.  They looked up and saw his heavily bandaged hand.

Lance groaned inwardly. He disliked Violet --- she was as fond of teasing him as Joanna.

“Gee,” Violet said. “What happened to you?”

“Don’t tell me,” Joanna said. “Let me guess.  Paper cut?”

“Occupational injury,” he said stiffly as he passed. 

“You’re no fun at all!” she called after him.

“Ugh,” Violet said, “Why did Helen hire that jerk?  He’s always screwing up and whining for the nurse.  He’s useless.”

“I know.  I hate the way he sweet-talked Helen into letting him stay.” Vigorously, Joanna began scrubbing again. “You weren’t there when he tried to steal the big guy’s job right from under his nose.  I mean, really, that’s just mean.“  She examined her hands and wrinkled her nose in disgust.  “Ugh, this stuff’s caked on.  I’ll never get it off.”

You should talk. What about the time you put a melted chocolate bar down some poor guy’s pants before he sat down to eat lunch with his family?”

“He deserved it.  The bum got fresh with me when his wife’s back was turned.”

“Or when you grabbed that baseball from that customer trying to win a Poopie Doll for his girlfriend?  And then threw it so hard that it knocked that kid into next week?”

“That kid was eighteen.  And he snatched Helen’s purse.”

Violet grunted.  “You can be a little mean sometimes.”

“That’s different.  When I do it, it’s cute.”

Exasperated, the tigress sighed.  “Well, I’d watch it, if I were you.  Someday you’ll tick off the wrong person.  Then you’ll be in real trouble.”

“I suppose,” Joanna admitted. “I do get carried away sometimes.”

Violet changed the subject. “Wonder what Pearl sees in that guy?”

“Who?”

“The new guy --- Lance!  Don’t you pay attention?”

“Not if I don’t care.”

“Did you ever notice that that eye of his, the left one?  It keeps staring straight ahead.  Gives me the willies.”

Joanna gave her a funny look.  “Never occurred to me to check.”

“What about the big guy, Al?  He’s not bad-looking, if you like big lugs. But he should smile, for Pete’s sake.  And lose some pounds.”

“Huh. He reminds me of a thug.  Did you notice the size of his hands?  I bet he could break Fancy Pants Lance in two with those meat hooks of his.”  She grinned at the thought.

 

Violet snickered. “Bet those 'meat hooks' are good for something else, too.”

 

The grin vanished. “Ew! Violet!”

 

“I’m serious.  There’s some potential there.  Anyway, I don’t think he spends much time there, except to sleep.”

Joanna laughed. “How do you know about his sleeping habits?”

“Get your mind out of the gutter.  My stand is Grand Central Station --- I see people go back and forth --- what time they take a break, when they head back to the trailer area, that sort of thing.  The fact that Lance is still alive means they couldn’t be spending much time together in that tin can of theirs.  I’m surprised Al hasn’t strangled him by now.”

“Give him time. Or maybe Pearl will smother the poor sap with bandages.”

Handy, toolbox in hand, who was passing by, stopped short.  He looked concerned.  “Who’s getting smothered?”

“Oh, nobody,” Violet said.

“Just girl-talk.  You wouldn’t be interested.” Joanna added. They both giggled.

Handy continued to walk, shaking his head in bewilderment.

* * *

“Our Lance, I’m afraid,” Helen announced to Joanna, “ain’t no carpenter.”

They were drinking tea in Helen’s trailer, which was next to the pony stalls.  The lady koala used to live on a farm in Oztralia and rode horses most of her life.  The occasional faint whinnying from next door soothed her and reminded her of home.  Helen loved afternoon tea and took great pride in the antique silver tea set she took everywhere the carnival went. 

She told stories of her childhood in Oztralia, of helping her “Da’” on the horse ranch, rather than staying inside learning to sew samplers like her sisters. A coffee-drinker, Joanna soon learned to like tea as well.  Sometimes with Violet, Bonnie, or Strummer --- but mostly alone --- she often accepted Helen’s invitations to have ‘a cuppa’ with her --- their code word for strong, sweet tea and a rousing game of gin rummy.

They had a ritual where Helen would let her in and greet her with, “Gin?”

Joanna would say, “I don’t drink.”

“A cuppa tea then?”

She’d pretend to be shocked. “But it’s not four o’clock yet.”

Then Helen would snort, “Bugger that.”

Then they would sit at Helen’s small kitchen table and deal. 

 

Unlike Handy and his cronies, they never played for money.  Joanna had long ago repaid her debt to Helen, and did not wish to knock the scales back off-balance.

“No gambling,” she’d told Helen once.  “Or you might end up working for me.”

Luckily, Helen had thought she was joking.  “Oh, ye devil!”

As a fair and kind-hearted boss, Helen was well liked, but not quite accepted as a friend among her employees.  No one wanted to cross the invisible line.  Joanna simply couldn’t bear the idea of spending her free evenings listening to Pearl gush about how cute so-and-so was and whatever else rattled inside her childish brain.  Small talk bored and irritated her.  She barely bothered to hide it, and was generally left alone.  Other than Helen and Violet, she didn’t have very many friends.

Helen sometimes chided her, “Luv, a pretty little thing like you oughter be socializin’ with some nice young people, not listenin’ to the stories of an old lady.” 

Joanna would shrug and say, “I like your stories.” 

“Mmmm,” Joanna answered, her mouth full of cookie.  She washed it down with a slug of tea and said, “He’s pretty klutzy, isn’t he?”

“Well, maybe he’s a wee bit accident-prone.  I’m thinking of movin’ him to another part of the midway where he won’t get so…”

“…damaged?” suggested Joanna. 

“Dear, why don’t ye like him?” Helen asked, surprised. “He’s very charming, and such a handsome feller too.” She grinned roguishly. “Guess me Nicky’s got competition.”

Joanna shrugged.  That was a mother’s love, she supposed.  Not that she would know about such things. 

“I don’t trust people who try to make you like them right away.” She added, “He tries too hard.”

“Yes, he does try hard, doesn’t he?” Helen sighed. “I have to think of something for him to do.”  Again, they heard one of the ponies nickering, and the faint pawing of a hoof on the sodden earth.

Joanna said slowly, “I think I have an idea.”
 

* * *

Helen introduced Lance to Bonnie Scott, the lioness handler he’d seen leading the ponies off the ferry. “Ye’ll be workin’ with Bonnie here.  She’s just wonderful with the ‘orses.”

Bonnie was a no-nonsense type; her dark brown hair was cut straight, and hung just a few inches above her shoulders.  Her riding clothes were brown as well, except for a creamy yellow shirt and a bright red bandanna she wore tied around her skinny neck.  Unkindly, he wondered if she might be concealing an Adam’s apple.  Unlike Joanna and Pearl, she wore no make-up --- not that it would have helped much.  Her face was long and narrow, almost flat, as typical of her species.  Everything about her was plain, almost severe.  She smelled of a combination of horses, sweat and peppermint.

Her voice was like a foghorn, startling him. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Enchanted…” he started to say.  She grabbed his hand and pumped it vigorously, nearly crushing it with her enthusiasm. Years of handling livestock had apparently strengthened her hands, as well as roughened them. “Ow.”

“Oh, sorry… I keep forgetting.”  She reached into her vest pocket and slipped a pair of sweat-stained riding gloves over her callused paws. “Gosh, but your hands are soft. You should wear gloves, too.  My hands used to be like yours, but this job takes its toll.” She glanced at Helen. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”

Helen just smiled.

Lance regarded his own manicured paws with horror.  No!  Not my hands! 

The lioness eyed him critically.  “Hmmm… you might want to get rid of those fancy duds and change into something more comfortable.”

“These are the only clothes I own.”

Egad! Must I dress like a plebian as well?

“Really?  Times are rough, aren’t they?”

“Never mind.  You can borrow some of my Nicky’s old togs.  They’ll be long on ye, but I can always take ‘em up.” The koala turned to go. “Well, I’ll leave the two of you te get ‘quainted.  Lance, Bonnie’ll show ye around the stables while I get ye somethin’ te wear.”

“Don’t worry,” Bonnie said cheerfully, “I’m sure he’ll get the knack in no time.” 

She gave him a friendly punch in the shoulder, nearly knocking him over.  “So… you ever muck a stall before?”

Later that morning, Lance miserably watched her lead the last two ponies into the stable after their morning run around a small field.  Common carpentry, with its attendant misery of being in the company of those crude ruffians, had been bad enough, but this was downright insulting.  Not only did he have to wear a attire of that freak, but the faded blue work shirt was one hundred percent cotton.  Cotton!  His denim trousers itched and rubbed like sandpaper.  And, worst of all, he was sweating.  No!  No stupid gold key was worth this… this… abomination. In a sudden fit of temper, he threw down the shovel and stamped his foot into something moist.

Then he remembered.  Looking down at his foot embedded in the warm, steaming mess, he moaned, “No more… please… no more…” 

“How ye doing, luv?”  Helen asked him that evening.  She had just finished saying goodnight to her favorite pony, Blossom, feeding her a carrot and accepting a grateful nuzzle in return.  Closing the stable door for the night, she watched Lance clumsily scrape the last of the horse dung from the sodden earth and lean the shovel against a wall.

“Oh, splendidly, Mrs. Haley. These beas—er—noble creatures have become very dear to me.  And your trainer is very… uh, strong.”

“Please, just Helen.  We’re a pretty casual lot, we are.”  She grinned broadly, her face crinkling in an engaging way, suddenly removing several years from her face. For a moment, she was again the freckled, disheveled tomboy, a child of the Outback who terrorized the locals when she dug her heels into her horse’s flanks, sending it galloping on the town sidewalks. “I’m glad to hear it. I used to love a good romp in the fields every mornin’, giving the horses at the ranch their exercise.  Didn’t seem like a chore t’all.”

“How… ah, rustically charming.”

“It was all good fun,” Helen agreed, oblivious to the irony in his tone. “Ye looked like ye needed a change of scenery, so we thought this would be just the ticket.”

Suddenly he looked at her sharply.  We?”

“It was our Joanna’s idea.  She reminded me that last year our license were nearly revoked for not cleanin’ the grounds often enough.  You’d be keepin’ the bylaw inspector off our backs.”

“I see.” 

“These ponies are darlings, but they do leave a few presents here and there…”

“So I’ve noticed,” he said, smiling until his cheeks felt like cracking.  “Joanna, eh?  I
really must thank her someday…”


* * *

Saturday, June 20
Cape Suzette – Rebecca’s apartment

“Molly, stop fidgeting,” Rebecca scolded.  Again Molly’s blue hair ribbon slipped from her fingers and floated to the carpet.  She picked it up and tied it around one of Molly’s fuzzy ears in a neat bow.  “There.  Third time’s a charm.”

“Cannibal, cannibal, wanna see the cannibal!” her seven-year-old daughter chanted, jumping and clapping her hands.  Rebecca couldn’t help but smile at Molly’s enthusiasm.

“That’s ‘carnival’, sweetie,” she said. “Now brush your teeth and go play until Baloo and Kit get here, okay?”

“Carnival, gonna see the cannibal at the carnival,” Molly sang, skipping to her bedroom.  Rebecca watched her go, shaking her head in amused exasperation.  Sighing, she picked up her hairbrush from the vanity table and began smoothing her own hair with brisk, even strokes.  Baloo and Kit had told her about seeing that no-nonsense Detective Thursday and the suitcase.  Naturally, she scolded Kit for diving for it, concealing her admiration for his daring.  That fine young man was going to be somebody, that was for sure. 

A reward was offered for information leading to the arrest of the killer. Over the last two months, news covering the museum robbery and hit-and-run murder of some vagrant slipped from front-page importance to mere footnote obscurity.  The trail was too cold.  Other than the victim finally being identified as one “Willy Weazel” --- pronounced ‘Wee-zell’ he was noted for repeatedly insisting --- dead at age thirty-five, there were no further leads.  It was revealed that Weazel, one of Cape Suzette’s biggest gangsters, had been arrested with his boss, Heimleche Menudo, for terrorism the year before.  He had recently been released from prison on probation for good behavior.  Unfortunately for the unemployable ex-con who had sought frequent comfort from a bottle of rum, his eighth day of freedom had ended in a grisly death.  There was no wife, no next of kin to come forward to claim the body.  He was buried, unmourned, on the outskirts of town.  His final resting place was marked by a crudely misspelled tombstone:  Willy Weesle.

Rebecca could not help but wonder why Baloo was this anxious to go to the new carnival.  He’d been awfully cheerful during these last two months, with the happy anxiety that is associated with counting down the days until Christmas.  Every day he had checked the newspaper for news of its opening day.  When it was finally advertised as open for business, he was ecstatic.

“Come on, Beckers,” he had begged. “The kids’ll love it!  It can be a ‘company outin’’, or whatever ya call ’em.”  When making a request, he’d discovered that uttering the magic words, ‘company’, ‘profit’ and ‘free publicity’ usually resulted in Higher for Hire footing the bill.  He wanted to save his money to treat a certain pretty lady right.

“Fine, Baloo.  Higher for Hire will cover it.”  Rebecca had given him a shrewd look.  “As long as you and Kit help me watch over Molly while we’re there.”

“Sure, Beckers. Whatever ya say.”  Then he lumbered upstairs to his and Kit’s room, whistling.

Just as Rebecca finished brushing her hair and began applying her make-up, the doorbell rang and she got up to answer it.

“Baloo, Kit, you’re early,” she said in surprise.  “I wasn’t expecting you for at least a half-hour.”

“Come on, Becky,” Baloo urged.  “Sheesh, ain’t you gals ready yet?”

Baloo was early?  Now she really wondered.

* * *

The fairground was teeming with activity.  People filed into the huge flapped opening of a sprawling purple-and-white striped awning dividing the midway fairgrounds and the entrance; its mouth-like opening gave the unsettling illusion of swallowing the hordes of ticket-buyers.  Judging from the way they pushed and shoved, they were all too willing to be consumed.

Just outside the entrance, Big Al emerged, garishly dressed in a short scarlet jacket and yellow polka dot tie stood on makeshift platform at a scuffed podium.  He looked ill at ease and more than a little embarrassed at his attire.

“All I need is an organ-grinder,” he muttered.

Adjusting the black bowler hat at a more rakish angle, he cupped a megaphone over his mouth but his loud, voice needed no such amplification.  With forced cheer, he shouted, “Step right, ladies, gents and kids!  Welcome to Haley’s Carnival, newly arrived to Cape Suzette!”  He swept a dramatic hand, indicating the midway. He paused to catch his breath, and then continued to rattle off his spiel. “We got rides --- a Ferris wheel for you timid types, and that old favorite, the Carousel.  Ride the largest roller coaster in thirty counties—that’s it, count ’em, thirty!”

“Hot dogs!  Get your hot dogs, right here!”  The vendor, Violet, saw Baloo’s stomach, made a lucky guess about his appetite and raised her voice even louder.  “Right off the grill, mister!  Red hot!”

“Don’t mind if I do. ‘Scuse me, Kit.”  Baloo paid the vendor for three plump hot dogs, covered with catsup and mustard.  In a minute, there was half of one left.  He stopped chewing, swallowed and looked at Kit guiltily.  “Er, want some?”

“Thanks, Papa Bear, but I’ll get one after we go on the rides.”

“Rides?”  Suddenly Baloo wasn’t hungry anymore.  He tossed the rest of his lunch into a nearby garbage can.  “Uh, Kit…”

Kit sniffed the air; he couldn’t help it. A witch’s brew of sickly-sweet cotton candy, the smoky aroma of hot dogs grilling on spits, and crowd sweat permeated the air.  Eagerly, he scanned the fairgrounds and saw brightly painted murals on the walls of the Tunnel of Love, depicting several roughly drawn couples of various species, snuggling under a starry sky.  He’d skip that ride, thank you.  The Whip looked like a good time, the way the little cars wove back and forth on metal spokes, like a gangly spider.  The Ferris wheel was a classic --- had to try that.  And the Spinning Top of Fear, where passengers were strapped standing up again a circular wall and spun so fast… wow, this was going to be a great day!

“Oh, wow, look at the size of it!” Kit Cloudkicker’s eyes eagerly took in the iron curves, sloping loops and almost vertical hills of the roller coaster, off to the left.  “We gotta try that one, Baloo!” 

“I’m coming too!” Molly chimed in. “I wanna ride in the front!”

“Not today, young lady.  See the sign?” Her mother indicated a wooden cut-out of a clown holding a yardstick with the height requirement clearly marked as a guide. “See? ‘You must be this tall to ride’.  You’re too little. How about the carousel? Would you like to ride the ponies?” Rebecca said, eyeing the metal monster with misgiving.

Molly pouted.  “Aww… I never get to do anything fun.  Baloo, please let me go?”

“Now, cupcake…” Baloo gave her a helpless look.

“None of that divide-and-conquer routine, Molly,” said her mother firmly. “Baloo isn’t your mother, I am.  That thing looks too dangerous.”

“You’d let Kit ride it!”

“He’s thirteen and he’s tall enough to ride.  Baloo, why don’t you two go ahead while I take Molly on the little rides.”

“Moooommmmm…” Molly was suddenly shushed with her mother’s look.

All right!  Come on, Papa Bear.”  Kit ran to the ticket booth.  Baloo swallowed.

“What about ‘that thing looks too dangerous’?”

“Oh, Baloo!  I meant for Molly. You can go.  You aren’t scared, are you?  It’ll be just like doing a Baloo Backwards Barrel Roll.”

“But Becky, this is the rolly-coaster, not the Duck.  I won’t be controllin’ anything.  I’ll just be…a passenger.”  Baloo shuddered.  He’d be one of ‘them’.

“Oh, run along, silly.  Go on --- Kit’s waiting for you.”  Rebecca caught her daughter’s hand and starting walking away.  “Come on, Molly, I see a Frosty Pep stand straight ahead.”

“Oh, boy!”

“Hey, Baloo, hurry up.  I got us the front car --- we’ll be the first ones at the top!”

Baloo sighed. “Aw, great,” and lumbered toward Kit and the roller coaster with the doomed air of a prisoner being marched to the scaffold.  They boarded, the attendant snapped the safety bars in place and the car began to creep forward with a loud tickticktick noise.  The nose of their car pointed upward and began the slow, maddening crawl up the metal tracks.  Up, up, up…oh, man, it’s a huge drop! 

“WAHOO!” Kit crowed, eyes widened in eager anticipation, clenching the safety bar until his knuckles turned white.  “Here it comes, Baloo!”  They were on top of the world for two seconds, then slammed down the track, looping three times, miraculously held in their seats.  Baloo gritted his teeth, the gravity compressing his face almost flat.

He fervently hoped that this morning’s bacon and eggs would stay put… not to mention those hot dogs he had wolfed down ten minutes ago…

They didn’t. When their car finally came to a stop, Baloo wasted no time. “Gotta get to the little pilot’s room, Li’l Britches!”   He just managed to tear the protective steel bar from across him and Kit’s laps, and practically tackled everyone in his way. “S’cuse me, comin’in through…Whoops!  Sorry about them crutches, kid… I’ll give ya a free plane ride someday… MEDIC!” before slamming the stall door shut.  In a few minutes, he felt somewhat better. Baloo was just wiping his mouth with his handkerchief, when someone knocked.

“Doggone it!  Can’t a guy have some priv---?” he grumbled.  This was becoming a bad day.  Had to come out smiling and ready to show the kids a good time.  And never let Becky know he couldn’t take it…

“Hey, fuzzy!  That you?”  A familiar voice hailed him from the next stall.  “You feeling okay?”

“Huh?”  Baloo came out at the same time as the other guy.  Suddenly cheered up, he forgot his nausea.  “Louie!  What are ya doin’ here?  You hardly ever leave your island.”

“My staff can handle it.  This is a special occasion, cuz!  The carnival’s in town,” The short ape handed him a small paper cup of water. Baloo accepted the little paper cup gratefully, cautiously sipping the cool liquid.  His face slowly returned to its natural color.  Using his long arms like crutches, Louie hopped rapidly out of the men’s room; Baloo followed, moving more slowly until his stomach settled.  “That means someone else can make the deboppinlious sundaes.  And I can check out the new talent,” Louie’s sharp eyes scanned the midway, tracking every female who came in range. “Not too many pretty faces at ol’ Louie’s.  Just the same old hungry pilots.  Maybe I should hire some cute waitresses to brighten up the place.”

“Baloo!  Are you okay?” Kit came running, finally making his way through the throng of bodies in his path. 

“Jes’ fine, Li’l Britches,” Baloo said.  “I think I’ll stay grounded from now on, though.  Louie can do the rides with ya, eh, Louie?”

“Sorry, little buddy.  No can do, ol’ Louie’s staying on the ground too.”

“So what are you gonna do for fun?”

Baloo and Louie shrugged.

Baloo spied a bench, lay down and closed his eyes, taking up most of the bench.  Louie followed suit, except he had room to sit, and that was all.   Many females of different species passed, on their way to different destinations.

A goofy smile spread on Louie’s simian features as his eyes followed their retreating hips. “You go on, little buddy.  Me and fuzzy’ll sit and take in the sights for awhile.”

“Aw, geez,” Kit muttered, walking away.  “Old people are no fun.”  He saw the Whip and brightened.  Who needed them anyhow?  He could have fun by himself; he didn’t need to be entertained like a baby.

“How’d you get here, Louie?  If ya’d told me, I’d have flown ya over.”

“Wiley Pole did.  He’ll fly me back later, since he’s going there anyhow.”

“As long as ya got a ride.”

“Man,” Louie said under his breath as a pretty young lioness passed them. “If she’s got the curves, I got the angles.”

“No ‘angles’ on you, pal.” Baloo glanced at his friend’s round belly.

“Look who’s talking, fuzzy, “ Louie retorted, then, changing the subject, asked, ”Where’s Wildcat? Isn’t he coming too?”

“Yeah, he said he’d meet us later this afternoon.  He’s havin’ brunch with this gal we met at one of Khanny’s mines. She’s on vacation and stayin’ in one of the Khan hotels.  I think Wildcat said somethin’ about her wanting ta re-locate.”  Baloo added approvingly. “Real nice stand-up gal, too.  He’s a lucky guy.”

Baloo then told Louie about the mysterious girl he met at the beach… sort of.  “You might say she kinda fell for me,” he finished smugly.

“No jive, Clyde?  Ha!” Louie snorted derisively. “You lie like a bearskin rug, cuz.”

“Fine.  Don’t believe me.”  Baloo closed his eyes again. “Wake me up before Becky sees me, okay?”

Soon he was softly snoring.  Louie continued to sit, simply enjoying being a customer for once.  He noted various passing females with admiration.  They ignored him, aware of the ungentlemanly scrutiny.

Suddenly, one of them stopped in front of him, causing him to blink, startled. Before him, hand on hip, stood an aggressively alluring female bear.  She was dressed in a bright red flapper costume, the kind they used to wear nearly ten years ago.  Her dress hung straight to mid-calf, and was trimmed with beaded fringe.  A long string of plastic black beads, looped twice around her slender neck, swung lightly as she moved.  Her hair was mostly hidden by a black, bell-shaped hat --- once known as a cloche --- except for some reddish-gold strands that poked out the front.  Her dark eyes were heavily made up with kohl and her lips were painted a bright scarlet.  Several people stared at her, some with disapproval.

“Hmmph.  Painted women,” someone muttered. Then she heard someone else utter a deep, appreciative whistle.

Here we go, she thought.

“Well, hellooooo, dolly!” Louie said, after a quick recovery of his wits.  “What can old Louie do for you?” He gave her what he thought was his most charming smile, showing nearly lots of teeth. To be honest, it made him look deranged. She didn’t smile back.

She prodded Baloo’s reclining bulk with her toe. “Friend of yours?”

“Huh?  Oh sure, sweet stuff.  That’s just my pal, Baloo.  Now, about---!”

Now the woman was smiling.  “They’re so cute when they’re sleeping,” she remarked, regarding Baloo with amusement.  “Say, do me a favor… Louie?”

He was confused. “Um, sure, sugar, what’d ya got?”

She reached into a tiny black-fringed purse and drew out a pad of paper and a stubby pencil.  She quickly scribbled a note, folded it and placed it inside Baloo’s shirt pocket.  “See that he reads this, will you?  Thanks.”  The crowd swallowed her before a goggle-eyed Louie could respond.

He shook Baloo awake. “Hey, cuz, wake up.”

“Wha--?” Baloo blinked sleepily.

“A girl, fuzzy! Check your pocket---she left you a love note.”

“Yer pullin’ my propeller.” Still lying down, Baloo plucked the folded paper from his pocket, opened it and read aloud from the large, childish, looping script:

A couple of months ago, I tripped over you when you slept.  You helped me pick up toys at the beach.  If you don’t have plans, come to the Haley Band 4:00 show (near the Tunnel of Love).  I’ll see you afterward. 

Me

“Told ya she fell for me,” Baloo said, grinning broadly.  “It’s her.”  His heart did a funny little flutter and, lips moving, he silently read the note again.

“Uh-oh,” Louie said, looking past him. “There’s Rebecca, coming this way.  She looks hot under the collar about something.”

“So what else is new?” Baloo muttered. 

Rebecca saw them and hurried over. “Sit up, Baloo. You look like a bum.”

“Unwind yourself, gorgeous,” Louie greeted her.  “Why don’t you let old Louie turn that frown upside-down?”

“Maybe I’ll hang you upside-down,” she retorted.  “Baloo, you have to help me.  Have you seen Molly?”

“Ya lost Molly?” Baloo stood up, forgetting the mystery woman for a moment. “How’d ya do that?” 

“I don’t know!  We were watching a band play --- near the Tunnel of Love --- it was this awful loud music --- you’d love it, Baloo --- I looked beside me and she was gone!”  Her brown eyes sparkled with unshed tears.  “Where could she be? Even when the show ended I couldn’t find her.”

“Louie, you stay here and wait for Kit --- tell him we’ll be back as soon as we find Molly,” Baloo said.  He slipped an arm over her shoulders. “Come on, Beckers.  We’ll find her.”

* * *

After riding the carousel, which even Rebecca had to admit was tame, mother and daughter strolled past the Tunnel of Love, licking their Frosty Pep ice cream cones --- then a crowd leaving the Ferris wheel suddenly plowed through, separating them.  Molly was so preoccupied with her treat that she failed to notice that her mother was no longer walking beside her.

Someone accidentally jostled Molly, making her trip, dropping her cone.  “Mommy!” she wailed, straining to see past the army of hurrying grown-up legs, dragging little ones along, eager to get to the next attraction.  Standing up, she felt a stinging sensation in her right knee. “Ow!”  Looking down, she saw that she had deeply skinned it.  A dark trickle of blood slowly dripped down her leg. She blinked, but refused to cry.  She had to find Mommy.  Then she could cry.

Finally, the crowd cleared until she found herself surrounded by several empty folding chairs.  The only people left were members of the band.  One of them, a pasty, lumpy-featured bear, wore a red-and-white striped jacket, black bow tie and a dapper Panama hat, very similar to those worn by the old barbershop quartets.  The gawky-looking bear sat on a wooden stool, pretending to tune his guitar, but was apparently interested in something else altogether.  A pretty lady bear in a bright red dress sat on the edge of the stage, ankles daintily crossed, sipping a soda as she read a book.

A shadow fell upon the page.  She looked up, annoyed.

“Nick, you’re in my light.”

“Oh… sorry, Joanna.”  He quickly moved away.

“Thanks.”

Mommy was nowhere to be found.  Molly’s throat closed up and she began to sob brokenly, allowing the tears to escape at last.

At first the woman tried to ignore her; after a moment, she gave up.  With a loud, martyred sigh, she marked her place and strolled over to Molly. “Are you lost?”

Molly sniffled and wiped her nose on the back of her hand, trying not to think about how her mother would scold her for doing it. “Mommy told me not to talk to strangers.”  She’d been told to seek police officers in uniforms if lost.  In a department store, safe grown-ups wore a nametag or a badge.  Did a funny Halloween costume count?

“Whatever.” The lady shrugged.  “Well, in case you do get lost around here, just see that big obnoxious guy, the barker near the tent?  He’ll let your mother know where you are.”

“Thank you,” Molly said politely.

The lady was about to go back to her book when she glanced down at the red specks spattering onto the ground with each step that Molly took.

Her sharp dark eyes flicked over the bloody knee and she wrinkled her nose.  “Ew,” she said.  “You’re getting blood all over my nice, clean fairgrounds.”

Molly guiltily looked down.  “I’m sorry!  I didn’t mean…!”

“Forget it, I’m kidding. Take care of that knee, it looks icky.  There’s the nurse’s station over there.”  She pointed to Pearl’s small tent.

“Okay,” Molly answered, wiping her eyes.  “I will.  Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.  Well, see you in the funny papers.”  The woman turned and started to leave. She waited until the child slowly limped away, hobbling toward Pearl’s tent. Then a strange, nagging feeling pricked her, getting stronger and more insistent until after a minute, she muttered, “Oh, crumb,” and stomped after her, ignoring the stares at her bizarre attire.  “Hey, wait up,” she called.  “I’m going that way anyway.  Why don’t you keep me company?”

“O-okay, Miss…?”

“Call me Joanna.  I work here.” The woman added, “You don’t have to tell me your name. Just so you’re not walking with a stranger.”

When they reached the nurse’s tent, Joanna halted before the closed flaps. A closed tent meant that Pearl was tending a patient.  They heard a cultured male voice murmur something about “…would love to see your abode, Pearl.”  A sudden girlish giggle emitted from inside, making both woman and child glance at each other in puzzlement.

Joanna cleared her throat and poked her head into the opening.  “Hey, Pearl, I got someone here to see---!” she started to say.  Then she froze.  Pearl was sitting in Lance’s lap, giggling until they noticed her.

“Joanna!” gasped Pearl.  Lance stood up so fast that he tumbled Pearl unceremoniously from his lap, knocking the chair over with a clatter.

Pearl stood up, panic-stricken. “Don’t tell Helen!  We were just talking…”

“This isn’t what it seems…” Lance started to say.

“Save it.  I really don’t care.  I’ve got a real patient here.  Lance, am-scray.”  Joanna snapped.  “I don’t want her to see this.  Beat it.”

“Quick, Lance!  Hide in here.”  Pearl lifted an overhanging sheet draped over a gurney in the corner.  “Get underneath.”

“In there?  But, Dewdrop…” But that was as far as he got.  Pearl didn’t wait for him to finish; she simply shoved him roughly under the gurney and let the long sheet drop, hiding him completely.

Joanna regarded Pearl with barely concealed disgust. “Shouldn’t you be mopping up blood or something?”

“Aw, don’t be mean, Jo,” the blonde cat whined. “I’m so bored.  People haven’t been getting hurt for days.  What am I supposed to do in the meantime?”

“Just point me to the bandages already,” Joanna sighed. “I’ll take them outside.”

Pearl straightened her skirt and nurse cap.  “I’ll do your laundry, clean the trailer, whatever you want---I’ll be your slave, Jo!  Don’t say anything to Helen, please!” she begged.

“I said I don’t care what you do.”

Suddenly, Molly stuck her head in too. “Joanna, my knee is all yucky.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot.” Joanna opened the flap opening and admitted the child.

“Why, hel-lo!” Pearl said brightly.  “Did you hurt yourself, little girl?” Molly rolled her eyes at the stupid question.

“I fell, “ she said flatly. “I have to find my mom too.”

Under the protective darkness, Lance’s ears pricked up and his mouth fell open. That voice --- that annoying, high-pitched voice.  Where have I heard it before?

“Here, sit down, sweetie-pie,” Pearl was saying, lifting her onto the gurney.  “Let Nursie see that nasty boo-boo.”

Joanna started to leave. “When you’re done, go see the barker about finding your mom, okay?”

Molly’s voice stopped her.  “I don’t remember where he is.”

Lance’s eyes widened.  No.  It’s couldn’t be.

He curled up tighter, listening, trying to keep his feet from poking out into view.  Then he saw something on the ground, a few inches away.  One of Pearl’s many hairpins had fallen out. Quickly, he snatched it up and slipped it into his pocket. 

“He’s just outside… oh, all right,” Joanna sighed again.  She had little patience in repeating directions.  “Look, I’ll wait outside and take you to him when you’re done.”

“Okay --- ouch!” Molly cried out, wincing as Pearl dabbed her knee with a clean cloth.  “That hurts!”

When the wound was snugly bandaged, Molly jumped down from the gurney and limped outside.  Pearl had wrapped it so tight that she couldn’t bend her knee at all, so she sort of dragged her leg behind her.  “Thank you,” she said, “I hardly feel it.”  That much was true, because the bandage had cut off most of her circulation.

“That’s fine, sweetie-pie,” the nurse said distractedly.  She poked her head through the flap. “Joanna, where are you?  I have to talk to you before--- oh, there you are.”

She was sitting near the tent opening, once again reading.  Before Pearl could continue, Molly caught a surprised Joanna’s hand and tugged her to her feet, almost making her drop her book. “Let’s go.”

Pearl called after them, “You won’t say anything, right?”

“Can’t talk now,” Joanna called back.

While Pearl was occupied, Lance crawled out and clumsily got to his feet.  He tried to squeeze past the feline, but the doorway was too narrow.  She felt him brush past her.

“Lance, where are you going?”

“Duty calls, my dear.”

“Oh, but Lancie-Wancie,” she pouted, lapsing into the baby talk he was learning to despise. “can’t you stay a widdle bit wonger?”

“No, I’m afwaid-er, afraid I cannot.  Those ponies need me.”

“But you haven’t finished telling me how my eyes shine like stars over a moonlit lake.”

“I have to get back to work!  So do you!”

She caught his arm in a vise, whining.  “Did I do something wrong?  Are you mad at me?”

Panicking, he managed to disentangle himself from her clutches.  “Excuse me!”

“But---!”

“Is that Helen’s voice I hear?”  He cocked his head to the side, pretending to listen. 

“What?  I don’t hear any---!”

She’s coming!  Hurry, get back in there, look busy!”  Roughly, he pushed her back into the tent, making her squeal in surprise.

“Okay, okay, I’ll stay inside!  But when will you---?”

“I have to go!  I-I-I’ll see you later!”

With that, he left, limping in case anyone saw him leaving the nurse’s tent.  Then he glanced around, thankful that Joanna was wearing that gaudy red get-up.  Surely no one could miss her… but no, they had disappeared into the crowd.  Suddenly he remembered Joanna telling the child something about seeing the barker about finding her mother.  He headed toward the barker’s platform.  Finally, he saw them again and quickened his steps, taking care to keep several feet behind them.

From the corner of her eye, Joanna spotted him.  Without turning her head, she muttered to Molly, “Watch this.”  Speaking out of the corner of her mouth to direct the sound, in an excellent imitation of Helen’s Oztralian accent, she suddenly barked at Lance:

“Hey, ye scurvy lay-about!  Get to work!  Them ‘orses ain’t going to clean up their own muck!”

He jumped, startled.  Glancing around in confusion, heart pounding, he thought wildly, Drat! The old bag’s watching!  “I was just…uh…starting…” he finished lamely.

Showing off, Joanna growled in Helen’s voice, “Move it or I’ll take away yer shovel!”

Molly giggled, delighted.  That man was funny, hopping around like that!  And his hair slid forward, covering his face.  Instead of pushing it back in place, he kept holding it over his eyes.  Almost as if he didn’t want anyone to see his face.  He hurried away, but managed to hide behind a hot dog vending cart.   Peeking around, he saw that Joanna was grinning at him.  Impudently, she stuck her tongue out at him.

When he looked up, Violet was looking down at him and giggling as she squirted ketchup on a hot dog and handed it to a little boy rabbit, who gulped it down greedily.

Icily, he said, “And what, pray, is so amusing?”

Violet’s pale green eyes crinkled with merriment.  You, dope.  Falling for one of Joanna’s little parlor tricks.  She likes to do it to new people, pulling their chains.  It's just one of her games, you know?  No big deal.”

“Well…I shall inform Helen that she’s mocking her!”

Violet shrugged, no longer interested. “Go ahead… Helen gets a kick out of it.  Keeps the greenhorns on their toes.”

“Wha--! It doesn’t bother her?”

“Of course not.  They’re great pals.  Almost like mother and daughter, y’know? Joanna would do anything for her.”  She shooed him away. “Now be a good boy and scoot.  I’ve got wienies to fry.”

“To be sure,” he answered. “I also have things to attend to.”   He decided to circle back and continue to spy on Joanna and the brat.  Interesting.  Her affection for Helen may be useful to me someday…

 

End of Chapter 2

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