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 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 8


Monday, Haley’s Carnival
10:45 am

 

On Sunday night, Detectives Thursday and Archer stopped by the crew’s living quarters to pick up the employee list that Joanna had promised them.  By Monday morning, Helen had organized a schedule so that her employees could continue to work until called for questioning.  Each was interviewed in their own trailers for privacy.

 

When Big Al’s turn came, Archer remained standing while Thursday pulled up a small chair and sat, facing the big bear, who sat on his cot, eyeing them warily.

 

Thursday consulted his notes.  “On the morning of April third, you started working for Haley’s Carnival.  Can you pinpoint your whereabouts before meeting the boat that morning?”

 

“I dunno.  That was months ago.” His heavy brows drew together in concentration. “Wait a minute.  I was staying at some island inn… Louie’s something-or-other…”

 

“Louie’s Place?” Thursday asked.

 

“Yeah, that’s it.  Caught a ride the next morning to Cape Suzette with one of the pilots.  I forget his name.  Pole or something.”

 

“Do you remember anything unusual that day?  Any suspicious characters lurking around?  Someone who didn’t ‘belong’?”

 

“The only one I can think of who stuck out was Luke… he lives here too.  Dressed too fancy for the beach.  Kind of a pantywaist, but man, is he ever slick with the dames!”

 

“Ever work in a museum?” asked Archer.

 

“Huh?”

 

“Just answer the question, sir.”

 

“Uh, no, but I saw one.  We had to go on a field trip in third grade and look at paintings.  That was a real snooze.  I liked the lady statues better – now that’s art.  And the mummies.”

 

The detectives exchanged a look. Not our guy. 

 

Thursday said casually, “We’ve been checking your sheet, Mr. McGuire.  You’ve been in trouble with the law before.”

 

Big Al stiffened. “Yeah, that’s true.  Once.  So?”

 

“Twice, actually,” the detective corrected him. “Care to tell us what happened?  You kept company with a gang of young thugs and stole something. Start with the Hooper caper.”

 

Big Al sighed. “Okay, you got me.  When I was thirteen, I stole some money out of an open cash register. The shopkeeper, Mr. Hooper, chased me down and dragged me to the station while all my ‘friends’ ran away.  My old man had to take time off work at the factory to straighten things out.  Hooper dropped the charges on account of me being a kid and barred me from the store for life.  When we got home, I got a whipping.”

 

“On the road to ruin young, huh?”

 

He shrugged irritably. “It was a dare and I was stupid, okay?  Give me a break.”

 

“When you were sixteen, your father left you and your mother.  My guess is his absence was partly to blame for your troubles.  You quit school and started working as a stevedore, unloading boats?”

 

“I had to work.  Pop cleaned us out.”  His tone was bitter. “We had to move into a boarding house.  Mom couldn’t even have a garden anymore.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Yeah, me too.”

 

Thursday cleared his throat. “By the time you were eighteen, you were spending every night in Bo’s Tavern after work, playing poker and competing in drinking contests.  How’d you get in so young?”

 

“I was always big for my age.  When I was fifteen, Pop had to quit whalin’ on me and Mom.”  As he said it, Big Al’s rugged features darkened.

 

“You got into a fight over some dame,” Thursday continued.  “Says here that you broke some poor slob’s nose, then threw him through a closed window.”

 

“It was on the first floor,” Big Al protested.

 

Archer snorted. “Pretty dumb, duking it out over some barroom chippie.”

 

“Look, some jackass was botherin’ this girl, wouldn’t leave her alone.  I had to do something.”

 

“Why bother?” asked Archer derisively. “Going to a place like that, she’s pretty much asking for it.”

 

“She was crying.”  Big Al paused.  “A girl cries, you gotta do something.”

 

Finally, they let him go and Lance was summoned from the barn.  It would be stupid to run away, so he thought fast and came up with an idea.

 

Oh, I’m simply going to hate myself in the morning!  Holding his nose, Lance jumped into a pile of shoveled manure.  He rolled around in it, smearing his face and overalls.

 

There, he’d thought wryly. A perfect disguise. Joanna’s little trick might be my salvation.

 

People gave him a wide berth as he made his way through the crowd to the trailer park.  He tried to ignore the whispers of disgust as he passed.  Somewhat relieved, he entered the trailer where the detectives were waiting and closed the door.

 

“Good morning, detectives!” Lance sang.  He deliberately stood too close to them. “How may I be of service to you?”

 

Archer was the first to back away.  Phew! You’re ripe. Open a window, will ya?”

 

“Negative, detective,” Thursday admonished, although he wrinkled his nose at the smell.  “All entrances and openings must be sealed.  Can’t have civilians listening in.”

 

Lance pretended to sniff. “I do apologize, sir.  I’ve been toiling in the stables.  Sometimes I don’t feel quite, ah, fresh.”

“Let’s hurry up, then,” Thursday snapped.  He could not wait to get out of there.

 

The interview lasted two minutes. 

 

Eyes tearing, the detectives burst out of the trailer, gasping for air.  They quickly thanked an astonished Helen for her cooperation and left.

 

As they left, Lance overheard Archer saying, “I’ve smelled some bad things in my time, but that…that was…”

 

“I know.  Anyway, this Lance isn’t our man.  He doesn’t look a thing like that missing guard and he’s got extra clothes.”

 

“Shame you can’t lock a guy up for smelling that bad.”

 

“Yeah.  A darn shame.”

 

With a sigh of relief, Lance hurried to the showers.

 

* * *

Monday, Haley’s Carnival
3:15pm

Joanna waited until Lance was busy in the stables before casually sauntering back to the carnival living quarters.  She decided not to put her plan in action at night --- if caught, she would be hard-pressed to explain her presence in the men’s area.

 

Besides, Violet would be annoyed if she returned late, waking her from a sound sleep.  Sharing a trailer with her friend was considerably better than it was with Pearl, but Joanna still preferred it when she had the place to herself.  She disliked being subjected to the noises and smells of another person in such a small space.  Seeing each other everyday, even at night, had encouraged Pearl to ask questions about her eccentric habits, and now it seemed that Violet was no different.  Before, they had enjoyed a friendship rooted in a trading wisecracks and the world-weary camaraderie that came with dealing with demanding customers and sticky little kids.

 

She hated—hated being questioned about her idiosyncrasies.  It made her feel peeled to the bone.  One day Violet asked her why she kept her belongings in bags instead of using the drawers and closets. 

 

“In case there’s a fire,” Joanna answered.  It was her standard reply. Violet wouldn’t understand the real reason – nobody would.  She was too sheltered from a childhood spent on a dairy farm.  She had once been engaged to the son of a neighboring farmer, until she abruptly changed her plans.  Joanna remembered, upon getting acquainted, that they’d talked about it once.

 

“Jo, he was such a bore.  All we ever did was sit on the porch swing drinking lemonade.  He had the personality of a dead tuna and he never took me anywhere fun.”

 

“So why bother with him?”

 

“Small town.  He was just… something to do.”

 

Joanna understood. “Yeah.”

 

“I wanted to travel and see people --- I wanted a husband who would amount to something, not some stupid, smelly farmer.”

 

“Then how come you got engaged in the first place?”

 

“I was a dumb kid then.  I didn’t know anyone outside town, and I thought I didn’t have a choice.  In my hometown, there was nobody around but the locals.  Everyone married everyone else.  It’s a miracle babies weren’t born with three heads.”

 

“Now that would improve the tourist trade.”

 

“Gus wanted me to stay home and only come out in the fields to bring him his lunch pail at noon sharp. His idea of a night out was taking a nice walk.  After a couple of years of ‘nice evening walks’, I told him to get himself a dog and took the next bus out of there.”

 

“Little Violet in the Big City.”  Then she said with reluctant admiration, “Seriously, that took guts, Vi.”

 

The tigress gave an elegant shrug. “Hey, you do what you have to.  What about you?  You got a fella?”

 

“Sometimes.” Joanna shrugged.  “I like men, but I just don’t have the time for anything serious.  You have to feed and water them and make sure they get their shots.  It’s a big responsibility.”

 

Violet laughed.  “You’re such a cynic. Or is that just an act?”

 

Joanna tried to reverse the direction of the conversation.  “How come you always get dressed in the bathroom?  You made me late a couple of times already.”  Violet had a few eccentric habits of her own, one of which was her preference to change in the tiny bathroom with the door shut.

 

“I just need privacy.”  Since they were both female, Joanna thought that Violet’s maidenly modesty was silly, but after a few days of establishing a daily routine, she soon forgot about it. The important thing was that that she was finally rid of Pearl .

 

A daytime prowl was best and knowing Lance’s schedule was enough.  As an employee, she had every right to wander the grounds as she pleased on her own time.

 

Batter up, she thought.

 

With a deep breath, ponytail swinging jauntily, Joanna stepped up to the door of the trailer that Lance and Big Al shared and knocked.  If anyone was watching, she wasn’t sure how she would explain her presence.

 

She waited.  One beat.  Two.  No sound or sign of movement.  She slipped on a pair of white gloves that she sometimes wore when dressing up for special occasions.

 

Carefully, she jiggled the doorknob.  Locked. Shoot.

 

Drawing a hairpin out from her pocket, Joanna inserted it into the lock, keeping her hands steady.  She worked slowly, listening.  It wouldn’t do to rush and scratch the finish.  In two minutes, she was rewarded with a small click. 

 

Slowly she opened the door; the protesting squeal of a hinge made her wince.  A quick glance around the interior told her that she was alone.  Lance would not be back for hours.  She locked the door.

 

The place was quite messy on one side; one look at the pile of dirty laundry in the middle of the floor, mostly large shirts and pants, told her who the slob was.  Pinups of pretty young models graced the wall above Big Al’s bed, ensuring sweet dreams.

 

Passing a small night table, she caught sight of a men’s magazine lying open to the center page.   A shapely young lioness wearing an extremely brief bathing costume smiled up at her.  This reading material was no doubt Big Al’s idea of improving his mind. 

 

How original, she thought sourly.

 

The sparse side of the sleeping area belonged to Lance, that she was sure of.  On his night table were a handkerchief and a tiny pair of gold cuff links, but those did not interest her.  Quickly she examined the drawers, which was full of crisply folded shirts, trousers and underwear, all of which were fairly new.  Just to be sure, she checked the sizes marked on the shirt tags.  Medium.  Definitely not belonging to Big Al, who would probably require specially tailored clothes for large men.

 

Parachutes ‘R’ Us. 

Shoot, that sissy went shopping!  I don’t have proof anymore.  A meager wardrobe would have been suspicious, a sign of a man on the run.

 

Suddenly, a metallic rattling made her jump.  Someone’s coming!   With a desperate glance around, Joanna found salvation.  She dove and rolled under Big Al’s cot, lying on the cold, dirty floor on her stomach.  Just then, she realized that her feet were sticking out and quickly bent her knees, pulling them in --- just in time.

 

Big Al entered, whistling.

 

You idiot! she berated herself. She’d forgotten that the big lug took breaks in the afternoon! She had been so consumed with Lance’s schedule that she had forgotten to note Big Al’s habits too.

 

Joanna felt the trailer shift and sink under his heavy tread.  But the worst was yet to come.  She watched in dismay as his big feet approached the bed, and then braced herself as he sat down, then put his feet up as he reclined.  The mattress groaned under his weight until it touched her back, pressing her down.  Joanna had to turn her head to the side as she was literally pinned to the floor.  She clenched her teeth, trying not to cry out.

 

Now I know what a bug feels like when it’s being stepped on.

To her horror, she saw a small spider web in the corner, just a few inches from her face and smothered a small scream.  Joanna hated spiders. 

Oh, crud!  Where is it?  How do I get myself into these things?

 

She nearly cried when she heard him begin to snore.

 

A half-hour later, when he finally woke up and left to return to work, Joanna waited a few minutes, then stole out of the trailer.  When she stiffly entered her living quarters, Violet was sitting on her cot, filing her claws.

 

“Hi,” Violet greeted her.  “How come you’re walking funny?”

 

“Don’t ask,” Joanna groaned as she locked the door and removed her blouse, turning the sleeves inside out as she did so.  As she shook it out to fix them, a small spider fell out.

 

Joanna screamed.  She felt imaginary little spider feet running all over her body and began slapping at herself.

 

Augh!  Get it off!” 

Really, Jo,” Violet said disgustedly, “it’s just an itsy-bitsy spider. We used to get them at the farm all the time…”

 

“Who cares!  I got them on me!” Joanna was almost hyperventilating.

 

“Jeez, calm down.  Look, I’ll put it outside.” She bent and picked it up, holding it between her fingers.  Eight tiny legs wriggled madly.

 

“Kill it!  Kill it!”

 

“Fine.” She squeezed, and the spider exploded. “There.  Happy?”

 

“You couldn’t have smashed it with a shoe?”

 

“You’re so cruel.” Making a face, Violet went to the sink and pumped the handle, rinsing the goo off her hands. 

“You could at least say thank you.”

 

“Yeah.  Thanks.”  Joanna turned slowly.  “Are-are there any more on me?  Like a family?”

 

Her friend came out, drying her hands.  “No, your little passenger has been kicked off the Midway Express.” Then she stared. “Hey, what happened to you?”

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Your back. Take a look in the mirror.”

 

Spider bites!

With a small moan, Joanna turned her back to the small, full-length mirror screwed to the inside of the door, she gathered her hair in a bunch and slung it over her shoulder, out of the way.  Her breath came out with a hiss of disbelief.

 

Joanna’s back was covered with checkerboard pattern.  The wire springs of the mattress frame had left quite an impression.

 

“Good grief!” Violet exclaimed. “What happened, someone press you with a waffle iron?”

 

“Sure feels like it.”

 

“How about a rousing game of tic-tac-toe?”

 

“Shut up.”

 

“Come on, Jo.  I saw you go into Fancy-Lance’s trailer.” Violet grinned at her wickedly.  “So tell me… is that dainty act of his for real?  Or is he a Bluebeard, stashing all his wives in his closet?”

 

“It wouldn’t surprise me to find Pearl in there one of these days,” Joanna answered, digging in her duffle bag and selecting a fresh shirt.  The other she would not wear until it was scrubbed, rinsed, dried and pressed.  Only then would she be sure that nothing else was living there.  “I’m almost positive he didn’t have anything with him when he met the boat.  I checked his drawers and they’re full of clothes.”

“Huh. That is strange.”

 

“His clothes were practically brand-new.  Like he just bought them.”

 

“Did you see any receipts, shopping bags, or anything?”

 

“No. Oh, shoot, why didn’t I think of that?” Joanna moaned.

 

“Spilled milk, Jo. Guys don’t keep that stuff.”

 

“Lance might.  He’s not exactly what I’d call a ‘guy’,” Joanna snorted derisively, tossing her hair back.  “What a mama’s boy.  I’m amazed that big galoot he lives with hasn’t shoved his head into a toilet by now.”

 

Suddenly, she felt the hairs tickling the nape of her neck and froze. “Oh no.”

 

* * *

 

Later that night, Lance trudged wearily into the trailer.  He cast a disapproving glance that the pile of clothes on the floor.  Obviously tidiness wasn’t one of Big Al’s priorities. By now, he’d surmised that Big Al wasn’t about to stab him in his sleep with that dreadful hunting knife he kept hidden somewhere. Although they now co-existed in peace, he had to bite his tongue to prevent any pointed comment from passing his lips.

Big Al had already changed into his pajamas and tossed that day’s clothes in the pile.  He lay propped up by pillows, playing Solitaire.

 

He looked up from his game and said in an almost friendly manner, “You’re late again, Casanova.  The little woman naggin’ you to push up the date again?”

 

Lance sighed.  Always.”

 

“Well, hold her off as long as you can.  Once they got you in their clutches, it’s all over.”

 

“How would you know?  You’ve never been married.”

 

“I don’t have to touch a hot iron to know I wouldn’t like being burned either.”

 

“I know how to manage Pearl .”

 

Mm-hmmm,” Big Al grinned. “I bet you do.”

 

Lance shuddered at the implication. 

 

After the exhausting effort it took to flatter Pearl and constantly reassure her of his devotion, it was oddly comforting to be completely honest with someone, even if the big brute didn’t realize it.  To Big Al, it was a natural thing for a confirmed bachelor to rib the prospective groom about being fitted for a ball-and-chain.

 

Big Al yawned and stretched mightily, letting the cards slide through his fingers.  As they hit the floor, Lance’s eye was drawn to a thin black piece of cloth, caught on one of the springs beneath the bear’s mattress.

 

“I say, old man,” Lance said. “I didn’t know you wore string ties.”  He bent and unhooked the cloth.

 

Ties?  Not in this lifetime, brother.”

 

“Then…this isn’t yours?” He held it up.

 

“I don’t wear ribbons, either.”  Big Al took it.  “Where’d this thing come from?”

 

“It looks like one of Joanna’s.”

 

“I wouldn’t know.  They all look alike to me.”  It was unclear whether he meant ribbons or females.

 

“Perhaps I should give it to Helen.  She can give it back to her.”

 

“Whatever.” The big bear shrugged and sniffed it appreciatively --- it had the faint scent of oranges.  “Mmmm…” He placed it on his pillow under his cheek, inhaling contentedly until he fell asleep.

 

Barbarian, thought Lance.   Suddenly panicked, he began to check his belongings.  Nothing was missing.  What could she have been searching for?  She had what he wanted, not the other way around.

 

Lance finished preparing for bed and snapped off the light, the darkness concealing his fury.  A ribbon.  At least I never left evidence.  Amateur.

 

Or maybe not.  Somehow, she had cleverly gotten inside, although her technique needed work.  A woman of some talent, it seems.  Lance smiled grimly in the dark.  Who would have guessed that we had something in common?

* * *

Tuesday
Outside Helen’s Trailer

 

Helen held up Joanna’s ribbon, which was now straggly and wrinkled.  She said quietly, “Lance’s gold cuff links are missing.”

 

“Oh.”

 

”Joanna, would ye care to explain how this came te be in Lance’s trailer?”

 

Unlike another employee, who might have squirmed under the koala’s stern gaze, Joanna merely frowned.  “I don’t know.”

 

“I would believe ye, but yer the only one who wears one who has access to this portion of the park.”

 

“Maybe Lance had a friend over.  Pearl would love to hear about that.”

 

“Joanna!” Lance said in an injured tone. “That is most… unworthy of you.  I was merely trying to return your property.  I can hardly help where it was found.”

 

“Gee, maybe it was planted.

 

“Joanna, of all the silly notions!” scolded Helen. “Ye’ve been readin’ too many of them awful novels of yours.”

 

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you. I didn’t know he even had cuff links.  All I ever see him wear is poopy overalls.”

“Now, Joanna,” Lance coaxed.  “We’re all good friends here.”

 

She squinted at him. “Are you drunk?”

 

“You can tell the truth.  I’m sure Helen would be lenient.  Surely, she wouldn’t dismiss you.”

 

“Lance, I will deal with this,” Helen said sharply.

 

“Dear Helen!  I spoke out of turn.  Pray forgive me.” 

 

Helen ignored him. “So… what shall we do about this?”

 

“Search our trailer,” Joanna suggested. “Isn’t that what you’re working up to?”

 

The older woman’s voice became flinty.  “I was going to take yer word for it, but now I think that’s an excellent idea.”

 

Joanna’s expression remained neutral. “Lead the way.”

 

Lance smiled, knowing Helen would find them.  Early that morning, he had slipped them under the door after Joanna and Violet had left for breakfast.  He had worn them with his fine clothes the day he joined that wretched circus.  They were a graduation present from his dear mother.  He was reluctant to part with them, but it was for the greater good.  Besides, after they were found, he would most certainly get them back, thanking Helen profusely.  Perhaps he would be able to even squeeze out a sentimental tear or two.

 

When they got there, Violet was sitting on the steps, reading.

 

“Excuse us, dear,” Helen said.

 

Violet looked up. “Hi. What’s going on?”

 

“Helen and Lance think I stole his cuff links,” Joanna explained.  “They need to search the joint.”

 

“Joanna, be still.  Violet, Lance, please don’t tell anyone else.”

 

“I’ve got nothing to hide.” Joanna stepped to the door and opened it. “Excuse me, Vi.  This should only take a minute.”

 

“Joanna.  I believe I’m doin’ the searchin’, not you.”

 

Fine.”

 

Indeed, thought Lance, amused.  He could hardly wait to see her face.

 

The others waited outside as Helen went to work.  Lance and Joanna stared at each other coldly.

 

Violet glared at him.  “You’re a real louse, you know that?”

 

“I’m so sorry you feel that way.  If I could have avoided this unpleasantness, don’t you think I would have?”

 

Bonnie and Pearl joined the group, with Strummer loping clumsily far behind.   When he caught up, he was panting with exhaustion.

 

“What’s going on?” asked Bonnie.  “We thought we should hear it from the horse’s mouth.”

 

Brother, Joanna thought contemptuously.  The horse’s mouth?

 

“I heard someone got robbed?” Pearl asked eagerly.  She loved gossip.

 

“You heard wrong,” Violet said.

 

“Ladies, please, let’s not spread ugly rumors,” pleaded Lance.  “I don’t want my fiancée to get upset.”

 

“Oh, I’m not upset,” Pearl assured him. 

 

“As long as it’s not happening to you, right?” muttered Violet darkly.  Pearl scowled.

 

Big Al joined them.  “Someone got robbed again?”

 

Geez!” Joanna exploded at last.  “Could you people at least buy tickets?”

 

Big Al was confused. “Hey, don’t bust my chops, lady.  I was just asking.”

 

“Lance thinks Joanna stole his precious cuff links,” Violet told him.

 

“She probably did.” Pearl said.

 

“Want me to slug her?” Violet asked Joanna.

 

“That’s okay.  Your fist might get trapped in the folds of her stomach.”

 

“Why, you…! Pearl lunged at Joanna, who neatly sidestepped her as she landed on the ground in an ungraceful heap.

 

Joanna was offended. “Cut it out. I don’t do catfights."

 

Big Al stepped between them and said to Lance, “Larry, she’s your girl.  Keep her in line, will ya?” He turned to Joanna.  “And as for you, blondie… ” Before he could finish, Helen emerged from the trail, looking exhausted.

 

“Nothing,” she said to them.

 

What? Lance could not believe it.

 

“She could be carrying it,” Pearl suggested. “You should search her.”

 

“Shut up!” Violet told her.

 

“Shall I assume the position?” Joanna asked Helen.  “I warn you that I’m ticklish.”

 

Strummer protested, “Ma… Joanna…”

 

Helen glared at her son.  “Nicholas… all of ye… leave!  He recoiled as though she had slapped him.

 

Big Al suddenly noticed the ribbon dangling from Helen’s fingers.  “Hey, isn’t that the hair doodad we found last night?”

 

Joanna inwardly groaned. Violet gave her a sympathetic look.

 

“Yes, it is,” Helen said shortly. “What do ye know about it?”

 

“That thing?  That’s just… nothing, it’s just a scrap of cloth... ”  Big Al said casually, watching Joanna steadily.

 

 “… that I found on the ground just outside the dining tent last night.  I was gonna give back to her the next morning, which is… today.  But gee, I guess Larry here beat me to it.”

 

Joanna blinked, but managed to say, “I didn’t even know it was missing.  How can I ever thank you?”  Augh! She wanted to cut her tongue out.

 

“Forget it.”  But his tone seemed more like, Oh, I’ll think of a way.  And they both knew it. 

 

“I… um… I…” stammered Lance.  He couldn’t believe this.   

 

No!  I had her at my mercy! That big oaf is ruining everything!

 

Embarrassed, Helen handed the ribbon to Joanna.  “I’m sorry, dear.  I had to be sure.”

 

Without a word, Joanna walked past her into the trailer and banged the door shut, locking it.

 

Helen pleaded, “Joanna, please!  Don’t be that way, luv.”  Silence.  Her voice trembled. “I had to do it, don’t ye see?” 

 

“Oh dear, I feel somewhat responsible for this… misunderstanding,” Lance lamented to no one in particular.

 

“Oh, Lancie darling… it’s not your fault!” Pearl cried, hugging him until he gasped for air.

 

Helen swiped a paw across her eyes and awkwardly patted his arm.  “No, don’t blame yerself.  I know that girI.  I should’ve ‘andled it better.”

 

Bonnie murmured comfort.  Big Al and Strummer stared at the closed door.

 

“You can’t talk to her when she’s like this, Helen,” Violet said gently. “Maybe you should just leave her alone.  I’ll try to talk to her when she cools off.”

 

Finally, the crowd dispersed, with Strummer reluctantly trailing behind, glancing over his shoulder.

 

Violet tapped on the door. “Jo, it’s me.  Let me in.”

 

“Not now,” came a muffled voice. “Leave me alone.”

 

Violet retorted, “Well, go sulk somewhere else.  It’s my place too and I don’t have my key!”

 

After a moment, Joanna opened the door, scowling.  Closing it, Violet reached into her pocket and held out a closed fist.  Then she uncurled her fingers, revealing a pair of solid gold cuff links. “Look what I found under the door this morning.”

 

Joanna’s eyes widened and she turned pale. “That creep tried to set me up!”

 

“Sure looks like it,” Violet said grimly.

 

“Well, don’t just stand there in the open --- get in here!”  Quickly, she stood aside to let Violet inside, then shut the door.  “What should I do?”

 

“So tell Helen.  She’ll give him his walking papers.”

 

“No! She won’t believe us.”

 

“Sure, she will.”

 

“Vi, we just finished telling her I don’t have them.  How’s it going to look if I walk in there, saying, ‘Ooh, looky what I found – it just happened to be in our trailer after all’.”

 

“Oh,” Violet said, crestfallen. “I see what you mean.”

 

“I have an idea, though.  Lance wants everyone to think his cuff links are stolen.” Joanna scooped them out of her friend’s hand.  “So… let’s not disappoint him.”

 

What? You mean you’re stealing them anyway?”

 

“No, of course not.” Joanna pretended to be shocked. “I’m just borrowing them for a little while.  It’ll keep him in line.”

 

“Are you nuts?”

 

Joanna bit one as though it were a doubloon.  "Ow!"

Violet arched an eyebrow.  "What are you doing?"

She cautiously poked the sore tooth with her tongue, assuring herself that it was still attached. "Just seeing if it's real gold." 

"Oh, brother."

 

With a malicious smile, Joanna took out her spoon case out of its secret hiding place and put the cuff links inside, next to the key.  Amateur, she thought.

 

She sighed, seeing Violet’s frown. “Just for a month or so.  Then I’ll bury them and leave him a treasure map.  It’ll be fun.”

 

To her astonishment, the tigress took a deep breath, exhaled and looked as though she wanted to throttle her.  “You’re such a… brat, sometimes!”

 

“Hey!” Joanna looked up at her in hurt surprise. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

Violet wheeled on her, furious. “It means that you’re driving me insane, that’s what!  Helen didn’t just search your trailer, you know, she searched mine too.  Do you ever stop to think of anyone besides yourself and your stupid little intrigues? At least Bonnie didn’t pull stunts like this.”

 

Joanna’s mouth fell open, but she was too stunned to say anything more than, “But---!”

 

“I saved your skin just now and you don’t even appreciate it.  All you can do is go, ‘Oh boy, let’s have a treasure hunt!’  And then you lock yourself in here like a big baby and leave me outside until Your Highness decides that we’ve all been punished enough!” 

 

She tried to think of something scathingly clever to say, but her mind remained a blank slate, to be covered over and over again with the hurtful words brat and big baby.  All she could say was, “Vi, I didn’t mean…” 

“You didn’t mean what?  To cause my privacy to be invaded?  Or to make Helen cry?”

 

“What?” Now Joanna was genuinely distressed. “She cried?”

 

“Of course, she did! Joanna, you know you hurt Helen’s feelings.  After all she’s done for you!”

 

“Hey! I didn’t accuse her of stealing.”

 

“You were trespassing, you know.”  Silence.

 

“Jo, get it through your head.  She’s not your friend, she’s not your mommy, she’s your boss. When are you going to grow up?”

 

Angrily, Violet stormed out the door, banging it shut.

 

Joanna lay down on her cot, turned her back and stared angrily at the wall. The words would not stop echoing in her head.

 

She’s not your friend… she’s not your mommy.  She kept hearing the almost scornful tone, especially in mommy.

 

She’s your boss.  Grow up.

 

Helen.  Violet. She’d lost everyone who’d ever mattered to her.

 

She stared at the wall until her eyes watered.  Then she began to sob.


* * *

 

Several hours later, Joanna opened her eyes.  Squinting in the dark, she made out the faint numeral markings of the cheap wall clock.  Almost nine --- she’d missed dinner, but she was too miserable to be hungry. 

 

Still, she should eat something.  Maybe sneak in the dining tent and steal some leftover chicken or whatever they had tonight.  She finally left her sanctuary.  Not ready to face Helen yet, she avoided passing the woman’s office/trailer and used another route.  As she passed, a harsh whisper from her right startled her.  Big Al emerged from the dining tent, munching a hot dog.

 

Oh no, she moaned. Not him.  Anyone but him.

 

“Hey, doll… got a minute?”

 

She smelled the bacon and cheese, and her mouth watered.  Then, to her intense embarrassment, her stomach growled.

 

He grinned, enjoying her discomfort.  “Hungry?”

 

“What do you want, Alphonse?”

 

“Maybe a thank-you for saving your ponytail.”

 

“Thanks,” she snapped. “There.  Happy?”

 

He stopped grinning.  “Forget it.  Handy was right.”

 

Despite herself, she was curious.  “About what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Let me guess.  He told you about the baseball incident.”

 

"Yup.  But that's not it."

“That depends.  Did I leave my suction cups and flashlight behind too?"

 

“Cute. You’re not that good a burglar.”

 

“I didn’t steal anything. I snooped.”

 

“Sorry. My mistake.”

 

“Look, pal, just say what you mean.  I don’t have time to play games.”

 

“Just wanted to apologize for the idiot I live with.  He said he was going to give it to Helen, like the lost-and-found, you know?”

 

“It’s a stupid strip of cloth, not my favorite earrings.  He meant to get me into trouble.  It was just a question of when.”

 

“You got yourself into trouble, blondie.”

 

“Whatever,” she snapped. “I’ll come right out and say it… watch your back, Alphonse.  That creep’s a murder suspect.”

 

“If you care so much, why didn’t you warn me yesterday?

 

She shrugged.  “I was busy moving.”

 

“Hey, sweetheart, I got you out of a jam.  Don’t I get a kiss or something?”

 

“Wait here.  I’m sure I can pay someone to do it.”

 

He stepped closer to her, making her glance around nervously. “What if I were to mention to the old girl that you were in our trailer after all?”

 

“Go ahead. She’ll just ask why you lied.”

 

Before he could retort, Strummer came out of the dining tent. As if by mutual agreement, they fell silent.  He was, after all, the boss’s son.

 

“Is-is he bothering you, Joanna?” Strummer glared at Big Al, drawing himself up and puffing out his thin chest.  The big bear made a strange sound, like he was choking.

 

“No, of course not.  Nothing bothers me.”

 

Strummer tried again. “Pearl told me what happened.”

 

“I’ll bet she did.”

 

“WelI, I don’t believe any of it.” He glanced nervously at Big Al, who was trying not to grin.  Doggedly, he forged on. “I, um, I wanted you to know that.”

 

“Thanks,” she said sincerely.  “That means a lot.”

 

He fixed a wet, magnified, adoring gaze on her.  Joanna looked away, thinking: He should really buy smaller glasses.

 

“Joanna, if you ever want to talk to someone… I’m there for you… whenever…”

 

Big Al snorted; Strummer’s ears turned bright red.

 

“Uh, thanks, Nick, that’s really sweet.” Joanna said, suddenly aware that she was standing between the two men. “I’ll be stopping by Helen’s later.”

 

“Oh!  I mean… that’s good.  Great.”

 

“Hey, Strummer, get back here, boy.”  Handy’s cheerful bellow hailed them. “I could use a hand.  That broken bumper car won’t fix itself.”

 

“But Handy, we were just… “ Suddenly, Strummer’s voice suddenly deepened and took on a ‘take charge’ tone.  “Right.  Excuse me, Joanna.  We’ve got… man stuff to do.  Lots of, um, heavy lifting.”

 

“That’s nice, Nick.  See you later,” she said absently, already turning back to Big Al.  Strummer walked backwards, watching them, until Handy grabbed his collar and dragged him away.

 

The big bear shook his head. “What a sap.  I’m almost sorry for him.”

 

“What does Nick have to do with anything?”  The words were out before she could stop them.  Automatically, she had assumed whom he meant by ‘sap’, and was a little ashamed.  Strummer had been nothing but kind to her.   She remembered her long stay in the hospital, and the way he had kept vigil at her bedside, while Helen dozed in the next chair.  The nightmares, how they had tormented her. 

 

 

Heart hammering inside her chest, she jumped out of the moving truck.  The gravely road rushed up meet her and she heard the sickening crunch of bones breaking.  Her legs oddly bent under her, sending fiery pain through her system.  Eyes wide with terror, she knew the driver’s intent.  Deliberately, he slowly backed up, making room. She met his eyes and read his lips.

 

“I love you.”

 

Sobbing, she squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the tears course down her bleeding face, flowing around tiny pieces of gravel imbedded in her skin.  Such words were cheap, obscene. She never wanted to hear them again.

 

Suddenly, twin beams of light blinded her as the vehicle began to rev its engine.  She could not move or even roll out of the way.  She was a broken doll, lying on a lonely mountain road, waiting to be crushed, discarded and forgotten.

 

With a roar, the truck slammed forward; she tensed --- a wave of agony shot through her right shoulder.  She cried out, and involuntarily jerked, scraping her hand on a small, pointed rock.

 

Watching the metal monster charge towards her, her hand closed on the rock, again sending searing fire into her shoulder.  Eyes stinging, she forced herself to roll clumsily to her side, draw her arm back…

 

… and hurl that tiny, deadly missile, shattering the windshield, showering tiny shards of glass into the driver’s eyes.

 

She didn’t hear his screams of agony as he lost control of the vehicle and sailed off the cliff.  Nor did she hear the explosion of the gas tank as the truck slammed into the rocks below.

 

The broken doll closed her eyes and the white lights that had blinded her for a terrifying moment suddenly went black.

 

Two days later, the crew of Haley’s Carnival was on its way to another little town.  It was getting dark, and Handy was nervous about driving the bus on a treacherous mountain road.   He put on the brakes just in time when Helen screamed and pointed.  The headlights illuminated a bleeding, crumpled figure.  One look at the tire tracks leading off the edge into nowhere told the story. Or part of it, anyway.

 

Jumping out of the bus, Helen knelt over her, murmuring, “Poor baby, poor baby.”  Handy covered her carefully with his coat.

 

Strummer, or Nicholas, as he was known then, stood and watched them alternately bark orders to radio for help and croon comfort to her, even though she could no longer hear them… 

 

She woke up and gave a short scream.  A face, with oily, blotchy fur and protruding teeth and a huge pair of watery, pinkish eyes was almost nose-to-nose with her. When she focused, she saw that it was only a skinny, extremely homely bear.  She could not be sure, but he seemed to be pulling away from her, lips pursed in a funny way as she opened her eyes.  Like he was startled. 

 

“You’re going to be okay,” he said. “I brought you some flowers, see?” 

 

How could she not see? Her bed was surrounded by various breeds of flowers. Cheap, common posies.  Some were irregular in size and bunched together with elastic bands, then forced into small jugs of water.  As though they had quickly been picked from someone’s garden.

 

“Most of these are from the gift shop downstairs,” he explained proudly.  “It cost me five dollars and forty-three cents.”

 

“Oh,” was all she could say.

 

“There’s almost a hundred flowers in here. I counted. One for each day I visited you.”  He sighed, “I thought you’d never wake up.  Um, how do you feel?”

 

“Like I was hit by a truck,” she croaked, startled by the roughness of her own voice.  One hundred flowers?  That was over three months of lying here, being fed, washed and diapered.  She desperately hoped the last one was not true.  Her face burned with shame at the thought.

 

A woman’s voice interrupted them, cheerfully coarse, yet sweet.  “Well, now, look who’s awakin’ at last.”

 

 

To her surprise, Big Al roared with laughter. “Oh, that’s rich!  You don’t know?

 

“Know what?”

 

“Nothing,” he gasped, wiping his eyes.  “I can’t tell you.  It’s too funny.”

 

“Keep your little secret, then. I’m leaving.”

 

”You know something?  I like your hair loose.”

 

She glared at him. “So does my boyfriend, Alphonse.

 

“That fat guy I saw you with?  You could do better.”

 

“He’s ten times the man you are.”

 

“Yeah, I bet he is.”

 

“Don’t throw stones.  You could stand to shed a few pounds yourself.”

 

He sucked in his stomach indignantly. “That’s muscle, lady.”

 

“My hero.”  She clasped her hands together and batted her eyelashes.

 

“With a mouth like that, I’m surprised you’ve got any teeth left.”

 

“Sharks’ teeth always grow back,” Joanna said, smiling at him, her dark eyes cold.  Then she deliberately brushed past him, walked up to Helen’s trailer, and knocked.

 

“Helen?” she said softly, knocking again. “Can we talk?”

 

After a minute, the door opened and hesitantly, Joanna stepped inside, as though for the first time, rather than friendly habit.  The room was dim; Helen sat at her tiny table, but did not invite her to sit down, as she usually did.   Joanna’s stomach tightened.  She had faced far more frightening things than the prospect of apologizing to a rotund little woman who’d shown her more kindness than she deserved, although Helen would never know.  Helen still believed her story that the accident had wiped her memory of her past life clean.  Nick believed it, although one day, after she had awoken from the coma, he tried to help her remember.

 

“What’s your name?  Your real name? Does it start with A?  Anne?  Amelia? Annabelle?  Adelaide? Angel?  I bet your name’s Angel.  No?  Anita? Amy…? ”

 

The list seemed to stretch to infinity. He was sweet to want to help, but she just wanted to go back to sleep.  By the time he had reached the J’s, her head was pounding.  Then she remembered the nametag the night nurse had worn.

 

She pretended to flounder.  A lie had to have an element of truth in it, not be so outrageously interesting that it was unbelievable. “I… I’m J-joan…Joanna.”

 

Pleased, he left her alone until his next visit, when he tried to mine another nugget of information out of her.  By this time, Joanna answered easily to her new name and had several hours to invent a past, to make the well-intentioned young man think that he was expediting her recovery.  It seemed to make him happy, and being civil to him was a small price to pay for his kindness.   She told the truth: She was twenty-two, had a brother and sister, could play several instruments, collected spoons and liked cross-word puzzles, murder mysteries and fruit-scented perfume.  The last she rather regretted mentioning, for the next day she was presented with a huge bottle of Lana de Banana.  She hated bananas.

 

Long ago, Joanna had made the hardened choice to never again care what anyone thought of her.  She said and did whatever she liked, knowing she could enforce it if she had to.   With fierce glee, she enjoyed tweaking authority, like taunting that goon, Archer. 

 

Her life was a carefully planned, intricate tapestry of secrets and a past that would not be able to bear the harsh scrutiny of a detective like Thursday, or even Archer, simply because his hatred would guarantee his interest in her destruction.  Joanna knew the type.

 

In Thursday, she sensed a sharp, keen mind beneath the rumpled trench coat; it wouldn’t do to push him too far.  Despite herself, she was impressed; Thursday had used unorthodox methods congratulating Pearl on her impending nuptials, cleverly coaxing information about the fake diamond out of her.  He knew how to get a reaction.  He was good.  And dangerous.

 

Helen looked up at her.

 

“Yes, Joanna?” she asked tiredly.

 

“I… um…” Joanna shuffled her feet uncomfortably.  “I think… things we didn’t mean were said, and I… wish it hadn’t happened.”  It was as close to an apology as she could offer.  Who does she think she is, taking that creep’s word over mine?  A part of her could not, would not forgive.

 

In the long run, she did not care if the other carnies thought she was cold-hearted. Yet a wistful part of her wanted to be invited for a cuppa and sweet biscuits, to play Gin Rummy and hear stories of Helen’s carefree girlhood in Oztralia.  She wanted to hear about young, laughing, tomboyish Helen, who used to race her father’s horses around the ranch, play pranks on her more ladylike sisters, and attracted more than her share of male attention.  Joanna wanted Helen to smile at her, to like her again.

 

Bitterly, she remembered that her own family had not loved her.  No, she could not forgive them. 

 

“I’m…I’m sorry, too.”  Helen indicated that she should sit across the table from her. “Ye know I trust ye, Joanna --- with me life.  I shouldn’t have put ye on the spot, let alone let a crowd gather ‘round.”

 

“Forget it,” Joanna said automatically, although she could not.  Normal people said these things to smooth the way, to return life to normal.  So they could go on smiling.  She suddenly couldn’t bear Helen’s sad, gentle gaze and pretended to maintain eye contact, focusing on the koala’s wrinkled forehead instead.  They were saying the right things but something was missing.  Like a jigsaw puzzle missing a small but important piece.  The picture was almost complete, but the hole was there, glaring accusingly at her. They sensed it, even though both were too polite to say it aloud. 

 

“I was worried about ye, spendin’ the night at that pilot’s house.  He might have taken advantage of ye, if he hadn’t been a gent.”

 

If he hadn’t been a gent, he’d be walking funny.

 

“Helen, I know you mean well, but I’m a grown woman.  I know what I’m doing.”

 

“I ’ope so.”

 

“Well,” Joanna said awkwardly, rising to her feet. “So… we’re okay?” She tried to keep her voice casual, devoid of babyish pleading.  She would not beg.

 

“Of course we are, luv.  I just worry about ye…” Helen motioned for her to sit down again.  Reluctantly, she did so.

 

“Dear, despite everythin’ that’s happened, I don’t mean to pry, but…ye ain’t happy, are you?”

 

Joanna blinked, not knowing how to reply.

“Did ye ever think -- now don’t take this the wrong way, luv – that maybe ye’ve had yer fill of carny life?  Maybe yer wantin’ somethin’ more?  Like a husband? Yer own ‘ome and some little ones scamperin’ in the yard?”

 

What?” Joanna started to laugh. Then she stopped. My own home… sure, why not?  But the rest of it?  Slaving away in some guy’s kitchen, ejecting one brat after another? 

No, thank you.

 

“Surely ye’ve thought about it?”

 

“No, not really.”

 

“Well, then, what is it that would make you happy?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Maybe ye should think about it, luv,” Helen advised, “yer not gettin’ any younger.”

 

“Gee, thanks.”  Actually, she worried more about the opposite fate.  Never growing older meant one thing, and that terrified her.

 

It used to be enough to  play music, to be able to sleep without keeping one eye open.  What did she really have to be unhappy about?  She had the bare necessities: food, shelter and a safe place to hide from them.  She could not confide in anyone, not even Violet, and especially not Helen.  Although they may have wondered about the holes in the banal stories she allowed to seep out in casual conversation, they finally gave up pressing for details.  The new living arrangement was working well; Violet was also a loner and didn’t demand constant attention the way Pearl did.  Joanna sighed. 

“I know what we need,” Helen said suddenly, standing up.

“What?”

 

“Gin.”

 

“Helen, I don’t really…”

 

“Come on, luv.  Gin?”

 

Tiredly, Joanna said, “I don’t drink.”

 

“A cuppa tea then?”

 

“But it’s not four o’clock yet.”

 

Together they said, “Bugger that.”

After a few minutes of playing Gin, Helen said casually, “I forget te ask… everything else aside --- did you and Baloo have a good time last night?”

Though she tried to keep her tone casual, Joanna’s face lit up.  “It was great.  She told her about Louie’s, about the Krackatoa Specials, the pool room and the dancing.  She was careful to leave out the beach.

 

“Sounds like ye really like this bloke.”

 

“Yeah, I do.  He’s so much fun and I had a wonderful time.  It wasn’t like a date at all.”

 

“The best ones ain’t.  Me an’ my Bill knew each other since we was kids in nappies, so there weren’t anything we didn’t know.  When we was six, our mothers sent us te pick berries for pies and we ate the whole bucket.  We both got sick, so we weren’t punished.  We played hide-and-seek and tag too.  We used te chase each other ‘round the schoolhouse at recess.”

 

Joanna had heard all this before, but the old comfort of being told stories was returning.  The tension in her shoulders eased somewhat, and her smile became more natural.

 

She noticed that she had a very good hand.

 

Smugly, Joanna waved her cards "Gin!"

 

Helen glanced over.  "Oh, so it is.  You win again.  I tell ye, Joanna, ye should have more compassion on your elders."

 

Joanna grinned roguishly.  "I play for keeps."

 

Helen discreetly turned her cards over and reached for the teapot, hiding a small smile.


 End of Chapter 8
 

 

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