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 5

 

 

Cape Suzette Fairgrounds

12:45am

 

The park was closed and the carnival workers were snug in bed.  Lance waited until he heard Big Al’s loud snores before he quietly slipped outside and headed toward Joanna and Pearl’s trailer.

Of all nights, this is probably the best time. That infernal Joanna’s out gallivanting with that stupid slob of a bear and the birdbrain’s waiting for me.

 

He had exactly fifteen minutes to do it. 

 

Expertly, Lance manipulated Pearl’s hairpin to pick the lock.  It clicked and yielded, allowing him to enter.  He lit one of the candles he always brought when meeting Pearl in the Tunnel of Love.  Holding it up, his eyes slowly adjusted to the light as he scanned the tiny room.  It was easy to guess that the chaotic side, with carelessly tossed clothes and especially the ridiculously ornate bride doll, belonged to Pearl.  When he spied the two neatly packed bags on the other cot, Lance’s heart leapt in panic.  Was she leaving, perhaps for good?  He had to find it now.

 

After several frantic moments of searching, he couldn’t.  It was nearly one o’clock in the morning and either one of them could return at any moment.  He had to buy more time before Joanna disappeared with the Key of Comixia and possibly sold it.  I can only hope she hasn’t already!  Drat!  I’ve got to keep her here!

 

Then he had an idea.   Something to keep her occupied, to force her to stay put until the key was in his deserving hands.

 

When he was done, he locked the door and hurried to meet Pearl.

 

* * *

 

When he arrived at the Tunnel of Love, he found Pearl waiting for him, sitting at the ticket turnstile.  He noticed that one of the glass doors had been removed and set aside to lean against the outside wall.  It was broken, with an off-centered jagged hole at eye-level.

 

“Heavens… whatever happened here?”

 

Pearl glanced at the gaping hole in the doorway. “That? Oh, Handy’s real sore,” she said.  “He said one of the game booth customers threw a ball so hard that it bounced off the back wall and hit the door.  The ride’s closed until he can replace the glass.”

 

“Well… we’ll have to be careful going in, then.”

 

Finding their way through the darkness, they entered the swinging doors of the Tunnel of Love.   Lance helped Pearl climb into one of the little pink cars parked on the dead tracks; she stepped over the side door, making sure that she would sit on his right—which was a mutual, silent agreement between them.   His left eye, with its steady, unwavering gaze, would definitely put a damper on the romantic mood; he did not want to frighten her.

 

Surrounding them, hanging by hooks on the mirrored walls, were grinning cupids, their arrows primed and aimed at anyone who passed.  During the open hours, the interior was bright pink, with plastic roses and hearts affixed to the ceiling.  Now though, the sweet-faced cherubs’ smiles looked a little fierce.  For several nights they met here; it was the perfect place for privacy, if not comfort. Huddling on the seat and shivering a little, they talked quietly. The night air still smelled of popcorn, cotton candy and old vomit.  Lance grimaced and resisted holding his handkerchief over his nose.  Instead, he reluctantly put his arm around Pearl’s chubby shoulders. 

 

Pearl shivered a little as Lance lit a candle and blew out the match.  During the day, the Tunnel of Love was her favorite ride.  Tonight, though, it looked a little spooky.  You’d think I’d be used to this place by now, she thought ruefully, recalling past fumblings in the dark with men who declared their love, then mysteriously vanished soon afterward.  After all she did for them, she could never understand why she never saw them again. 

 

“So, my darling,” he said softly, “Soon we shall be free of this… charming place.”

 

“What do you mean, Lancie?”

 

He cringed at the hated nickname but bravely forged ahead.  “I mean, if you’ll set me free with one little word… yes.”  From his shirt pocket, he presented a small square box and opened it.  Nestled in its bed of shiny satin was a large diamond ring.

 

“Oooh, Lancie,” squealed Pearl, her eyes widening.  “Is it… could it be… you mean…”

 

“Yes, my peerless Pearl.  This is my mother’s engagement ring.  She gave it to me before she… before she passed on… for my future bride.   I give you this ring, darling.  Will you, oh, will you give me your heart?”

 

Pearl snatched it from him greedily and tried to examine it. Although it was difficult to see, she held it up against the flickering flame, nearly salivating.  Then she frowned.

 

“Hey… this looks like one of the prizes at the ring toss booth.”  Her brows knitted in hurt bewilderment.  “This isn’t your mother’s ring, is it?”

 

Drat!  Why, that greedy little guttersnipe…

 

“You’re mistaken, dearest.  I…I had it altered… yes!  Altered to duplicate those adorable little prize rings to commemorate the very place we met and fell madly in love!”

 

Oh.  I’m sorry I doubted you, Lancie!  Please forgive me.”

 

“Of course,” he assured her.  “I would do anything for you, even desecrate a family heirloom.  I would lie down on broken glass so you would not cut your dainty little feet!”

 

Really?” she breathed.

 

“If I were to tell you that my father threatened to disinherit me unless I married and produced an heir, would you… still marry me?”

 

“Of course, I would!” she squealed, nearly dropping the candle, causing him to draw back in alarm. “I wuv my Wancie, oh yesh, I do!  How much would you get?”

 

“A considerable fortune.  You see, it was my father’s wish that I marry well and sire heirs.  I was engaged, much against my will, mind you, to this hideously ugly debutante named… um… Brunhilda.  Then I thought about it and decided to seek my own fortune.   I left a large estate, a swimming pool and a mansion full of servants to find myself a bride… a bride who loved me for myself and not for my billions of dollars.  And trips to Purree, fur coats, dripping jewels…” He trailed off, schooling his features to appear wistful and dreamy-eyed.  Pearl was enthralled.

 

“Oooh… it’s just like a fairy tale.”

 

It is one, you little fool.

 

“I disguised myself as one of those raggedy vagabond people and joined the carnival, hoping to find the perfect girl of my dreams.  And I found her… if you’ll have me, my precious Pearl.”

 

“Oh, yes!  Yes, yes, yes!”  She covered his face with kisses.

 

When he came up for air, Lance managed to ask, “Would you do something for me?  If you really love me, that is…?”

 

When he told her, Pearl was surprisingly cooperative. “I guess I could look for it.  You think that’s why she never unpacks?  She’s a jewel thief? Gosh, that explains why she’s so secretive!  I’ll bet she stashes all kinds of stolen jewels somewhere.  How awful that she picked up your key off the beach and refused to return it.  How… mean!  That’s so like her!”

 

“It was my mother’s,” he said sadly.  “It was the key to her jewelry box.  Now all her beautiful diamonds will be trapped in there forever!”

 

“No!” she gasped. “Not forever! I’ll find that key and then we can announce our engagement.  They--they’ll have to give us a party then.  Oooh, the girls will be so jealous when I show them my ring!”

 

No!” he cried, startling her.  In a calmer tone, he added, “W-we have to wait.” 

 

“But why? What do you mean?  Why can’t I tell anyone?”

 

“Because I want to keep you all to myself a while longer.”

 

“Oh.  Okay…” She was torn between ecstasy and disappointment.

 

Lance turned his head and gazed tenderly into her eyes.  She ducked her head shyly but he took her face in his hands, drew her close.  Pearl closed her eyes and lost herself in the kiss. 

 

“Oh, Lance,” she whispered.  “You… you make me feel… like a princess.”

 

Her lipstick smelled stale. It took every ounce of willpower for him not to wipe his mouth.  Ugh, the woman even tastes cheap.  

 

“Until our great escape, my darling!” he murmured.  “Hurry home safely, my dear!”

 

When he returned to his trailer, Big Al was sitting up in his cot, reading a magazine.  Lance caught a glimpse of a bathing beauty on the cover.

 

Big Al looked up.  “And where have you been, young man?” he asked in a mock-fatherly tone.  Lance supposed it was the brute’s way of being friendly.  Perhaps he had forgiven him.

 

“I… took a constitutional.” He was too afraid of the big bear to tell him to mind his own business.

 

“A what?”

 

“A walk.”

 

“With who?”

 

“No one!  I--I was alone.”

 

“Liar.  You’ve got lipstick on you.”  Big Al grinned wolfishly and set his magazine aside. “You dog!  Who is she?”

 

“A gentleman never tells.”

 

She will.  Those women tell their girlfriends everything.” He yawned loudly and lay back, carelessly letting the magazine slide to the floor.  “It’ll be all over the midway by tomorrow night.”

 

Lance fought the laugh that threatened to bubble up inside him.  I’m afraid not, old chap.  The stupid ninny will be occupied with other things… and sweet Joanna will have to stay a while longer…

 

Later, Pearl dreamily entered the trailer, still tasting Lance’s kiss on her lips.  As she stepped over the sill, something hard crunched under her shoe.  Clumsily, she switched the light on.

 

For a moment she froze, not quite believing her eyes; then, with an anguished shriek, sagged against the doorframe, sobbing.

 

* * *

 

The flight home was quiet. At first, Joanna was visibly nervous about boarding the plane, but dutifully strapped herself into the navigator seat, gripped the armrests and waited.   With extreme care, Baloo started the engines and kept the Sea Duck as level as possible.  In a few minutes, Joanna seemed to relax a bit and slowly released her white-knuckled grip. Baloo stole a glance at her and smiled.  Her eyes were again closed, but in exhaustion, not terror. The steady purr of the engines had apparently lulled her to sleep.  Baloo landed the plane at Higher for Hire dock and cut the engines.

 

Very gently, he shook her shoulder. “Hey, sweetheart.  We’re here.”

 

“Hmmm?” Her eyelids fluttered open and she gazed at him sleepily.

 

“Joanna, we’re home.”

 

“Don’t have a home,” she mumbled. “They sent me away…” Her eyes closed again and she drifted back to sleep.

 

Baloo shook her again.  “Hey, wake up.  We gotta walk a bit, then you’ll be safe and sound in your own bed.”

 

“Not safe.  Never be safe…”

 

“Joanna, come on.  It’s late.  They’ll wonder where ya are.”

 

“Don’t care... let ‘em wonder…they’ll never leave me alone...”

 

A worried frown crossed Baloo’s rugged features.  “Who, honey?”

 

“Everybody…” she muttered, as her head drooped. “…so tired…just want it to end…”

 

He gave up.  No way would she be able to stagger home.  Baloo sighed, resigned.  It was probably improper, but it was the only solution.  He unbuckled her seatbelt, lifted her and carried her out of the plane.  The black ribbon in her hair came loose, and landed on the ground near the front door.  He didn’t bother to pick it up. Her hair tumbled down like a silk curtain, tickling his arms.

 

Silently, Baloo carried her into Higher for Hire, up the stairs into the bedroom that he and Kit shared.  Kit was fast asleep.  Very carefully, Baloo set her down on his own bed, and tucked the blankets around her shoulders. 

 

He scribbled a quick note and left it next to the Hula dancer lamp on the night table.  There, he thought. That oughtta do it.

 

Baloo bent over the sleeping woman and kissed her tenderly on the forehead.  Then, reluctantly, he left the room and shut the door behind him.  Lumbering downstairs, Baloo sank into his battered green armchair and closed his eyes before exhausted, blissful oblivion enveloped him.

 

The next morning, Kit was woken by the sound of a hammer on metal.  Wildcat, he inwardly groaned, not on Sunday morning, for Pete’s sake.  Annoyed, he kicked off the covers and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.  One glance at the alarm clock made him grit his teeth.

 

It’s only a few minutes after eight! Does he have to do that now?

 

Now standing, Kit took a couple of steps toward the window, threw open the sash, about to call out for mercy when he noticed something strange about the room.  Kit shook his head, trying to free himself from sleep-induced stupor.  For one thing, there were no snores emitting from the other bed, only gentle, even breathing.  Baloo’s familiar large bulk was missing, replaced by a much smaller bundle.

 

Kit smacked himself in the face, trying to wake up. Did Baloo lose weight overnight? he wondered.  Then it hit him.

 

Someone was curled up, head buried under the covers… and it wasn’t Baloo.

 

Fully wake now, heart pounding, Kit very quietly tiptoed to the other side of the room.  With agonizing slowness, he carefully lifted the blanket and bit his lip to keep from crying out in surprise.

 

Rolling onto her back, Joanna mumbled something about “shut the damn door, Pearl… it’s cold in here…” and clumsily tried to pull the blankets back over herself.  In doing so, she grabbed Kit’s hand as well, making him jump.  Her eyes flew open in panic.  She saw Kit standing over her and bolted up in bed.

 

Where am I?” she demanded hoarsely, not letting go of Kit’s hand.

 

As his pounding heart slowed to its normal rate, he detached himself and tried to calm her, knowing that waking up in a strange place would be frightening.  “It’s…okay…Joanna.  You’re safe.  This is my room, uh, mine and Baloo’s, that is.”

 

What?  I spent the night here?”  A horrified look crossed her face and she snatched up the covers, pulling them up to her chin.  Then, very slowly, she looked down at herself, fingered her collar buttons and breathed a sigh of obvious relief.  “Uh, could you turn on the light?”

 

“Sure.”  Kit reached over and clicked on the Hula girl lamp; as he did so, he saw the note.  He read aloud:

 

Kit --

I’ll x-plane layter.

Pleez let Jo Anna sleap.

Wake me up two.

Baloo

 

“I suppose I fell asleep and he put me in your room,” Joanna said ruefully.  “Sorry.  I must’ve given you a fright.”

 

“Naw, not really.” 

 

She stood up and stretched, yawning.   Her coppery hair tumbled untidily down her back.  “Go back to bed, kid.  I’ll see myself out.”  With a casual wave, she went downstairs to the office.  Kit followed her.

 

When she saw Baloo snoring in his armchair, Joanna glanced at the boy.  “Maybe I should leave him a note and get out of here…”

 

Kit ignored her and prodded the big gray bear awake.  “Hey, Papa Bear, wake up.”

 

“Mmph?  Whazzat?”  Baloo found himself looking up at him in confusion.  “Did I miss breakfast?”  Kit stepped aside to reveal Joanna.  Baloo blinked blearily at her, then remembered.  He leapt to his feet, stammering, “Uh, mornin’, Joanna… did ya sleep good?”

 

“I must have.  Thanks.  Sorry you were parked in that chair all night.”

 

“Don’t worry about ol’ Baloo.  I was comfy enough.”

 

“Baloo can sleep anywhere,” Kit said, smirking.

 

“I know. This is the third time I’ve caught you asleep in a strange place, mister.   The beach, a park bench and now this.” Joanna shook her head.  “I just wanted to say goodbye and… thanks for a swell time.  I’d better get back.”

 

“Wait…would ya… uh… like some breakfast, first?”

 

Joanna protested, “Look, I’ve kind of kicked you out of your bed.  You don’t have to go to any troub—“

 

“Aw, it ain’t no trouble.  Let’s go see what ol’ Baloo can rustle up.”

 

Kit shrugged and grinned, beckoning her to follow them to the kitchen.  After a moment’s hesitation, she did.

 

Meanwhile, Rebecca was on her way to Higher for Hire in a taxi.  Next to her in the backseat, Molly stirred sleepily, holding her favorite doll, Lucy in her lap.  Her knee now neatly wrapped in fresh, clean bandages, thanks to her mother.  Rebecca was surprised that a nurse could do such a careless job.

 

“Mom, why do we hafta go to work?” 

 

“Because I need to pick up some paperwork,” Rebecca answered.  And get a few details while I’m at it.  “It won’t be long, sweetie.  Here we are.  Come on, out of the car.”  She paid the cabbie and followed her daughter to the front door.  Molly spied a black satin ribbon and picked it up.

 

“Look what I found!”

 

“Molly, what did I say about picking things up from the ground?  You don’t know where it’s been.  Here, give that to me.”

 

As they entered, they heard a woman laugh.  It was not a girlish titter, but a deep and lusty sound, genuinely amused. Rebecca looked down at the ribbon in her hand.  No.  It couldn’t be.  He wouldn’t!

 

“Molly,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm. “Why don’t you and Lucy go upstairs and play?  I’ll call you when it’s time to go.”

 

“But I wanna see Baloo and Kit.” 

 

“Later,” her mother said sharply. “Now scoot.”

 

Scowling, the little girl obeyed.  Everybody’s having fun and she never lets me do anything.  It’s not fair!  When she reached the top of the stairs, she quietly crept back down to eavesdrop.

 

Rebecca took a deep breath, and entered the kitchen.  Baloo was standing next to the stove, wearing a chef’s hat and expertly tossing pancakes in the air with his trusty spatula.

 

“Ya see, there’s an art ta flippin’ perfect flapjacks,” he was saying to Joanna as Kit listened, trying not to snicker at the big bear’s attempts to impress her.  “It’s all in the wrist… ” As he spoke, one lone pancake was tossed too close to the ceiling and stuck there.

 

“Oops.  Guess I dunno my own strength,” he said sheepishly.  Then, as though on cue, the lightly browned circle of batter unpeeled itself, and landed *splat* square on Baloo’s head.  Again, both Kit and Joanna burst into peals of laughter.

 

“Well!” Rebecca finally spoke. “What do we have here?”

 

Oh boy, Kit thought. The beast is loose.

 

“Hiya, Beckers,” Baloo greeted her.  He removed the pancake from his head and offered it to her. “We’re makin’ hotcakes.  Want some?”

 

She recoiled in disgust.  “Ugh! No, thank you.” She could not take her eyes off Joanna, seated at the table, long hair disheveled, as though she had… just gotten out of bed.  Joanna gave her a lazy, insolent smile.  Rebecca’s eyes narrowed.

 

“Ya dunno what yer missin’.”  Shrugging, Baloo popped it into his mouth and swallowed.  “Mmm… not bad.  Could use a little syrup, though.”

 

Spying her ribbon in Rebecca’s hand, Joanna stood up and said brightly, “Hey, I was wondering where that thing was.” Before the startled businesswoman could utter a sound, Joanna took it and quickly tied her hair back.  “Thanks, Becky.  Baloo’s told me so much about you.”

 

“I can imagine,” Rebecca said coldly.  “And it’s Rebecca, not ‘Becky’.”

 

“Oops.  Sorry.” Joanna seemed oblivious to her surliness. She sat down again and took a sip of coffee.  “I thought that was your name.”

 

Rebecca ignored her.  “Baloo, could we talk?” she asked pointedly.  Now?

 

“Well, I’m kinda busy… YOW!”  He yelped as she took firm hold of his ear.  “Easy on the lobe, lady!”

 

“Excuse us,” she said to Joanna and Kit as she dragged Baloo out of the kitchen.  Molly, who was still listening at the door, dashed under her mother’s desk just in time.

 

“What’s the deal with the ear-grabbing?” Joanna wanted to know. “Who is she, his mother?”  She added more cream to her coffee.

 

Kit gave a weary sigh. “It’s just what they do.  Baloo’s in deep manure.”

 

Releasing his ear, Rebecca placed her hands on her hips. “Just what do you think you’re doing, letting this… person stay here overnight?” she hissed.

 

“Whoa, hold on there, Becky.  Nothin’ hap--!”

 

“And what about Kit?  What if he heard you?”  Rebecca continued her tirade.  “Don’t you ever think?”

 

“But he didn’t hear us,” Baloo protested. “I left her sleepin’ and ---!”

 

“Stop!” She covered her ears.  “I don’t want to hear the sordid details.  You probably scarred him for life!”

 

“Kit?” Baloo was outraged. “I never lay a hand on him!”

 

“I mean emotionally, you idiot!”

 

“What are ya talkin’ about?  Kit was asleep the whole time.”

 

Pretending to sleep, you mean!  This may be where you hang up your hat, buster, but it’s also a respectable place of business.  What if there was gossip?  If our clients heard about your… shenanigans, do you realize all the accounts we could lose?  I don’t care what you do after office hours, but you are not to have… people here overnight.  Do you hear me?”

 

“Perfectly,” a low-pitched female voice said from behind her.  Joanna was standing there, her arms crossed over her chest.

 

“Oh!  I…” stammered Rebecca, feeling heat creep up her cheeks.

 

Baloo groaned inwardly. Aw no.

 

With a tight smile, Joanna turned to him and asked, “Baloo, would you give us girls a few minutes alone?  Rebecca and I should to get acquainted.”

 

“Now, ladies…” Baloo began helplessly.

 

“It’ll be fine.  Now scoot.”  Joanna shooed him into the kitchen.  When the door closed behind him, he immediately put his good ear to the door and tried to listen.

 

“Baloo, what are you doing?”  Kit asked, annoyed.  He was starving.  Baloo would take the spatula with him when Rebecca dragged him out.  “Here, gimme that thing…”

 

“Shh!”  Baloo whispered.  “Ya know how often two gals fight over ol’ Papa Bear?  I don’t wanna miss this!”

 

“Oh, brother.”  But after a few seconds, Kit joined him.

 

They heard Joanna say, “I think we should get some things straight.  Normally, I wouldn’t care what you thought, but I do like Baloo and don’t want you reaming him out for something that’s not even his fault.”  

 

At that, Baloo perked up.

 

“Ya hear that, kiddo?  She likes me!”

 

“Shh,” Kit answered, pressing closer to the door himself.

 

“Fine.”  Rebecca crossed her arms and looked her straight in the eye.  “I’m listening.”

 

“What a refreshing change. You wouldn’t even let him explain.”

 

“Explain what, exactly?”  Rebecca frowned as Joanna turned and walked toward her desk and knelt next to the chair.  “Uh… what are you doing?

 

Joanna tilted her head slightly to the desk, raising her eyebrows.  Then she put a finger to her lips, silencing her.

 

In the next room, Baloo and Kit exchanged puzzled glances.

 

“What’s goin’ on?” the big bear whispered. “I don’t hear anything.”

 

Kit frowned. “That can’t be good.”

 

Joanna knocked on the side of the desk.  “Knock, knock.  Anybody home?”

 

Molly curled up in a ball and shut her eyes, hoping they wouldn’t see her.

 

“Come on out of there, Molly,” Joanna said, making Molly jump. “The jig’s up.”  Very reluctantly, the little girl crawled out, dragging Lucy with her.

 

“Molly!” Rebecca scolded. “Young lady, I told you to go upstairs.  You know better than to eavesdrop.”  Molly turned red and studied her toes.

 

“Just when it was getting good, huh?” Joanna asked the child, smiling. “Not that I blame you.  I did that stuff all the time at your age.  I could tell you some great hiding places, better than under the desk.  That’s the second place they look.”

 

“What’s the first?” Molly asked, interested in spite of herself.

 

“The closet.”

 

“Excuse me, Joanna, but we were talking?” Rebecca said icily.

 

“You’re right.  Say, Molly…maybe you’d like Baloo to make you some pancakes?  I hear they’re to die for.”

 

Molly gave her suspicious look.  “You’re just trying to get me out of the room.”

 

“Bingo,” Joanna answered.  “Could you give us a few minutes please?”

 

“Oh, all right.”

 

“Thanks.  We’ll let you know when we’re done here.”

 

Molly marched to the door; quick-eared Kit heard her coming and backed away.  Baloo wasn’t as quick-witted… the little girl gave the door a hard shove, hitting Baloo on the head, making his head ring.  Yeow!

 

“Sorry, Baloo!” she cried, dismayed. “Are you hurt?”

 

He rubbed the side of his head, suppressing a moan.  “Uh… it’s okay, muffin.  I know ya didn’t mean it.”  Cautiously he returned to his post at the door.  “Don’t know what the big deal is…” he muttered.

 

Molly sighed with all the worldly weariness of a seven-year-old. “Oh, Baloo,“ she said reproachfully. “You sure don’t understand women, do you?”

 

“Uh, Baloo… you were going make us pancakes?”

 

“In a minute, Kit.  Here, why don’t you get ‘em started?” Baloo thrust the spatula into Kit’s hand, then looked down and noticed that Molly had her ear pressed to the door too. “Uh, honey, I don’t think ya should be hearin’ this…”

 

“You either,” she said, not moving.  “Mom’s not gonna to yell at Joanna, is she?  I like her.”

 

“No, of course not,” Kit answered, setting the spatula down on the counter near the stove.  Baloo wasn’t passing the buck that easily.  “They’re just going to talk.”

 

“Pipe down, you guys,” Baloo whispered.  Kit sighed and joined him, with little Molly following suit.

 

“…did absolutely nothing wrong.  I fell asleep on the way home and he gave me his bed, that’s all,” Joanna was saying.  “You expect the poor guy to carry me all the way back to the fair?”

 

“But it doesn’t look right,” Rebecca insisted.  “I… I know you and Baloo are uh… friends, but I could lose a lot of important clients if they saw him carry you in here.”

 

“Nobody works on Sunday!  This place is deserted.  Relax.”  Joanna threw up her hands in exasperation. “You’re busting the poor guy’s chops over nothing.”

 

In the other room, Baloo murmured dreamily, “Ya hear that? She called me ‘poor guy’!”

 

Kit snorted. “Great.  Maybe she’ll adopt you.”

 

Molly shushed them.

 

“You’re lucky it’s not a business day,” Rebecca said through gritted teeth.

 

“No,” Joanna corrected. “You’re lucky. I’m just passing through.”

 

“Good.” The businesswoman no longer bothered to conceal her dislike for this arrogant… showgirl.

 

“You’re not a morning person, are you?”

 

“What?”

 

“Just wondering why you’re so grouchy,” Joanna said sweetly.

 

“I am not grouchy!”

 

“Oh, yes, you are.  A big-time grouch.”  She smiled at Rebecca in a friendly manner. “Know what?  I think you need pancakes too.”

 

“I’m not hungry.  And don’t patronize me!”

 

“Look, It’s a beautiful Sunday morning.  No one saw anything.  No one did anything.  Baloo was a perfect gentleman. The end.” Joanna turned on her heel and headed for the kitchen.  “Let’s eat.”

 

Stunned, Rebecca followed.  “I won’t eat anything,” she muttered.  “Not one bite.”

 

“Oh, come on.  Think of all those poor starving children in Afreaka.”  Joanna paused before the door and rapped on the wood lightly.  “You might want to step away from the door now.  We’re done.”

 

They heard Baloo loudly whisper, “Battle stations!” as well as scuffing sounds and chairs scraping on the floor.  Smiling, Joanna opened the door, with Rebecca bringing up the rear.  “Any questions?” she asked them.

 

“Uh, no…” Baloo muttered.  He was standing next to the stove, fidgeting with the spatula and turning bright red.  “We were just, uh…”

 

“Want me to make your pancakes, Mom?” Molly asked.  “Baloo’s gonna show me how to flip them.” She paused, looking up at him. “Right, Baloo?”

 

“Oh yeah, right!”  Baloo agreed, nodding.  “See, Molly, there’s an art ta flippin’ perfect flapjacks… it’s all in the wrist…”

 

“No,” Rebecca interrupted. “I don’t want you near a hot stove.  Go sit down, sweetie.  I’ll make you breakfast.  Move over, Baloo.  You shouldn’t be near a hot stove either.  Or a refrigerator.”

 

“Fine.”  Baloo walked to the table and pulled out a chair for Joanna.  “Your chair, m’lady.”

 

“Thanks.”  She indicated that he should sit next to her.  “Keep me company, will you?”

 

“My pleasure.”

 

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed, remembering...

 

Baloo pulled out her chair at the dining table on the Spruce Moose:  “Your chair, m’lady?”

 

At the von Bruinwald estate:  “Would m’lady care for some fish eggs and franks in the southwest drawing room?”

 

“Ah’d love to!” Rebecca affected a girlish Southern accent.  Later, they ended up at her apartment, sharing a simple meal and burgers and fries.

 

Then:  Waitresslike, she presented Baloo with a juicy hamburger patty on two fluffy buns. “Your cheeseburger, sir?”

 

“A French fry for m’lady?”

 

“Becky, yer cookin’ beats that rich folks’ food any day!”

 

“Thanks.” Rebecca took a bite of her French fry. “But I’ve got this nagging feeling we forgot something…”

 

At the exact same moment, they realized what it was.  It took hours to find Wildcat in that castle with its twisted labyrinths and darkened hallways…

 

Kit shrugged and poured himself a cup of coffee. Inwardly he was thinking:  Here we go again…

 

Rebecca made hot, fluffy pancakes for Kit and Molly, pointedly ignoring the other two.  Then she handed the spatula back to Baloo.

 

“Here,” she said.  “Your turn.  I’ve got work to do.”  Then she left the room.

 

On the weekend? Joanna thought. No wonder she’s such a crank.

 

Kit read her expression.  “She’s not so always like this.  Just…”

 

“Aw, she’s okay.  Just don’t know when ta relax,” Baloo finished for him.

 

“I’m gonna see what Wildcat’s building,” Kit said, standing up and pushing in his chair. “See you later.”

 

“Later, Kit. Tell Wildcat about the party, will ya?” Baloo stood up and yawned.  “Sooo… what do ya wanna do today?”

 

“I’m going home to shower and change,” she said.  “I don’t want to get you into any more hot water.”

 

“You’re the one who’ll be in ‘hot water’,” Baloo joked.  “Get it?  Shower?  Hot water?”

 

Both Joanna and Molly rolled their eyes. “Yup, I get it,” Joanna said.  “Come on, Baloo.  Walk with me.”

 

“Can I come?” Molly asked.  “All I got is Mommy and she won’t play with me.”

 

“Uh…” Baloo rubbed the back of his neck, trying to think of an excuse.

 

“Fine by me,” Joanna said.

 

Baloo sighed, resigned.  He really wanted to talk to her alone.

 

Please?” the child begged him, her eyes large and pleading.

 

Joanna caught his eye and smiled.  “Ask your mother.”

 

“Aw, she won’t let me go.”

 

To their surprise, Rebecca looked up from her ledger and said, “Fine. Just keep an eye on her, Baloo.  And don’t stuff her full of hot dogs and cotton candy, you hear me?”

 

“Why not?  Then we’d have our very own piñata,” Joanna joked.

 

“Huh?” Molly asked.  Then she thought about it and giggled. “Hey… that’s not fair!”

 

Baloo said, “We’re closed anyway.  But maybe we could find a diner somewhere…”

 

“Better leave Lucy here,” Rebecca advised Molly.  “I’ll watch her.”

 

Rebecca watched them leave.  Baloo’s shoulders were decidedly slumped.   Have fun babysitting, you two, she thought, smiling to herself.  An exhausting day with Molly would drive that obnoxious woman away. Thanks, Molly, she thought. I owe you one.

 

Then she heard Joanna say, “Come on, Iron Paws, don’t mope.  Neither of us has to work today.”

 

Iron Paws? 

 

She pushed down any guilt over ruining Baloo’s prospects with yet another bombshell with great legs. The man was a drooling idiot when it came to flashy women.  That nasty Kitten Kaboodle witch had used him as a patsy, and nearly got him killed in the process.  Blinded by all that long blonde hair and a body that could stop a moose at fifty paces, the big galoot didn’t stand a chance.

 

As far as Rebecca was concerned, this Joanna person was cut from the same cloth --- arrogant, sure of her seductive beauty, wrapping gullible men around her finger.  Oh no, she wasn’t fooled.  Joanna’s deceptively mild, folksy manner was a mask, concealing a heartless… well, she was too much of a lady to use that word.  Baloo was hardly the type to attract a gold digger.

 

In a calmer moment, she might have admitted the real reason for her churlishness.  In her mind, Joanna, somehow, had goaded her into making a complete fool out of herself.  In front of her employees and her daughter.

 

Then again:  What did she mean, ‘Iron Paws’?  Some idiotic pet name?

 

Scowling, Rebecca jabbed the ledger with her pencil, breaking the lead with a snap.

 

* * *

 

Kit found Wildcat sitting at the edge of the dock, near the seaplane.  He was hunched forward, his chin resting in his hands.

 

“Hey, Wildcat,” he said softly, so as not to startle him. “Want some company?”

 

“Oh. Hi, Kit.” The lion’s voice was dull, lifeless.

 

“Baloo made his world-famous pancakes.”

 

“Thanks, but I’m not really hungry.”

 

Kit spoke carefully. “Are you… okay? About what happened and all?”

 

“Do you mean yesterday or the day before today?”  Wildcat frowned.  “I always get my dates mixed up.”

 

“You know. That creep.”

 

“Oh, no, Kit.  He was mean and all, but he was just telling the truth.  I am an idiot.  And not very smart, either.”  He sighed.  “I just wish he hadn’t said it in front of Clemmie.”

 

“You’re not an idiot!  Don’t worry about her.  She was as mad about it as I was.”

 

“Yeah, well, it was a real bummer, man.”

 

“Wildcat, you know she’s crazy about you.”  Kit tried to cheer him up. “Look at all this.”  He gestured around them, indicating the projects-in-progress sitting on the dock. The creative clutter, with all the half-finished gadgets and tools set out for each job, reminded him of Baloo’s inventor friend, Buzz. 

 

“Remember when Miz Cunningham first came here?  And Baloo busted the phone so you could prove what a great mechanic you are?”

 

Wildcat frowned.  “Yeah.  Baloo should have been more careful.”

 

“Yeah, but my point is… you got it fixed and working in just a few seconds!”  Kit put a hand on the mechanic’s shoulder.  “Baloo told me you once built an airplane out of ice, even one with half the parts missing, and the…”

 

“Aw…anyone could do that with the right materials.  All you need is ice and half the parts.”

 

And,” Kit saved this one for last. “When you first met Clementine, she thought you were Shere Khan, right?”

 

“Yeah.  And I was stuck in a mine with these guys who wanted to beat me up for starvin’ them or something.  It wasn’t my fault, man… I only had one piece of bubble gum left.  Like, how could we all chew it at the same time?”

 

Kit said patiently, “When we finally told her the truth, and on our way to save you, you know what she said?”

 

Wildcat tried to think.  “Um… that she wanted some gum, too?”

 

“No. She said,” Kit then did a passable imitation of Clementine’s strong Southern accent. “‘If any of those cretins hurt him, I’ll chase ‘em so far down that mine that they’ll be smellin’ brimstone and shakin’ hands with the devil himself!’”

 

“Wow,” Wildcat breathed, enthralled. “Clemmie’s, like, the nicest lady in the whole wide world!”

 

The boy smiled at him.  “And what did she say to you when she knew who you were?”

 

A beatific smile lit up the lion’s face, for this memory was a jewel giving forth light, outshining the confused, brilliant chaos of his brain.  He said softly, “She said…’now that I’ve met the real Shere Khan… I like you even better.’”

They fell silent for a moment, until Wildcat finally said, “Uh, Kit… thanks.”

 

“No problem.  Every word I said was true.”  Kit tried to sound casual, concealing the relief he felt when the words finally sank in.  “Say, Baloo says there’s a party at Louie’s in a couple of weeks.  Why don’t you take her dancing?  We’re all going.”

 

“You mean Baloo and Miz Cunningham and you and me and Clem and Homer and Maxine and…”

 

“Who’s Homer and Maxine?”  Kit interrupted.  “Never mind, I don’t want to know.  Just ask her to come.  She’ll love it.”

 

“Okay!  Say, want to help me get Gladys ready for the trip?”

 

“Gladys?” Kit was almost afraid to ask.

 

“Our new engine.  The old one died.  Poor Wilma…she was so young…” Wildcat reached into his pocket, pulled out a wrinkled handkerchief and blew his nose.  “Want to come to the funeral?  We’re having sandwiches afterward.”

 

“Uh… sure.  Sounds like fun.”

 

* * *

 

Molly limped ahead of the adults, blissfully unaware that her presence was an intrusion.  Joanna broke the silence, speaking softly so the child would not overhear their conversation.

 

“You’re awfully quiet.  Something on your mind?”

 

Baloo shrugged.  “Naw, just hopin’ she wasn’t too rough on ya back there.”

 

To his surprise, she laughed.  “Oh, fiddlesticks!  I’m a big girl.  And she was right to worry about her business, even if she did jump to conclusions.”

 

“What conclusions?” Baloo was honestly bewildered.  “What is it we’re supposed to have done?”

 

Good grief. She gave him a meaningful look, but his face remained blank.  She spoke slowly. “You know.  Last night.”

 

“I just put you ta bed. I dunno what her problem is.  Said somethin’ about me scarrin’ Kit for life with my shenanigans, whatever that means.”

 

“That’s a colorful way to put it.”  Joanna kicked a pebble in her path. “Baloo, she thinks I’m a danger to Higher for Hire’s reputation because I spent the night.   And maybe she’s right.  I really didn’t mean for you to get in trouble.”

 

“Forget it.  I’m always in trouble with her,” he assured her.  “The only thing that changes is the time.”

 

“Very philosophical of you,” she said.  “But I’d better not come around too often.  We can go to Louie’s or something.”

 

“Ya liked Louie’s, huh?”

 

“I had a wonderful time.”

 

They stopped briefly for coffee at a local malt shop, one of the few establishments that were open on Sunday.  Sitting around a small round table, they didn’t say much.  Nobody except Baloo was terribly hungry; it was more of an excuse to rest than anything else. Baloo ordered two hamburgers and Joanna had tea.  It wasn’t as good as the kind that Helen brewed, but she was heartily tired of coffee. Molly happily slurped a chocolate shake.

 

As Baloo was about to take a bite out of his burger, Joanna slowly reached under the table and slipped her hand into Baloo’s large paw and squeezed.  He was so surprised that when he brought the burger to his lips --- and forgot to open his mouth.

 

Molly giggled, not realizing what was going on under the table. “You’ve got a mustard mustache, Baloo!”

 

“Here, Molly,” Joanna said, with a mischievous grin.  “Let me use one of those things.”

 

With her other hand, Joanna took a napkin and gently dabbed at his lips like he was a cub.  It felt odd, almost like a kiss. “There,” she said.  “Much better.” There was something exciting, almost forbidden about the way she did it, with no one in the café the wiser.

 

“Uh-huh,” was all he could say.  His hand practically hummed at the contact.

 

“Well,” Joanna said, as though nothing unusual had happened.  “You’d better eat that burger before it gets cold.”

 

Soon after they left the diner, Molly complained that her feet hurt, so Baloo carried her the rest of the way, perched on his shoulders.  When they finally reached the fairgrounds, Baloo crouched so that she could disembark.

 

“Off ya go, cupcake.“

 

It was just after ten in the morning when the three entered the park, which seemed oddly silent after being so noisy the day before.

 

“It’s so quiet,” Molly commented.

 

“I like it,” Joanna said.  “I can hear myself think.”

 

Molly cocked her head and listened, then scowled in disappointment.  “I don’t hear anything.  How can you hear thoughts?”

 

She looked startled, then smiled at Baloo, as though they shared a secret.  “Just the ones worth hearing, kid.”  He felt warm all over. 

 

Just then, Strummer came running from the trailer park.  “Joanna, there you are!” he said panting; his fishlike eyes seemed to protrude even more than they usually did. “Where were you all night?  I’ve…er…everyone’s been wondering where you’ve been.”  He regarded Baloo with barely concealed hostility.  Friend of yours?”  He paid no attention to Molly.

 

Wow, he’s funny-looking! she thought with disbelief. 

 

“As a matter of fact, he is.  Baloo, Molly, this is Nick ‘Strummer’ Haley, our bandleader and my boss’s son.  Nick:  Baloo and Molly. Now we’re introduced.”  Her tone became brisk. “What’s the problem?“

 

“Someone’s broken into your trailer.”

 

What?!

 

 

End of Chapter Five

 

 

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