A FAIR TO REMEMBER
An original fanfic
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.)
Joanna wandered around the apartment, careful to avoid looking out the windows. She wondered what idiot architect had the bright idea of installing a waterfall outside. The rush of water only reminded her how high she was.
Passing a hall mirror, she tugged at her high collar in irritation. She hated the way the tight turtleneck itched and restricted her movements.
Look at you, she thought disgustedly. Your date takes off with another dame, who makes you stay to watch for her kid when she flies the coop. When this is over, she decided, me and Becky are going to have a little chat. Fleetingly, Joanna thought of her former life; the girlishly-attired stranger in the mirror was a caricature of her true self. And here she was, about to accept a ride with the enemy. Had she been more relaxed, Joanna would have smiled at the irony.
Glancing at her watch, Joanna sighed and went downstairs to meet Thursday.
* * *
“What’re you doin’ here?” The man growled, giving them each a shake.
“Let go, dammit!” Kit tried to swing at him, but having his target behind him, with no footholds, was a distinct disadvantage. But his feet were free, so he kicked backwards, striking a few well-placed blows to something soft, and was rewarded by a startled, “Oof!” He felt himself being lifted higher and held well away from contact.
“Let us go, creepface!” Molly kicked and struggled in mid-air. One of her heels jabbed the man in his mid-section and she heard him grunt with pain. His hold on the back of her collar loosened. She kicked him again and he dropped her. She scrambled to her feet and began to pull Kit’s legs. Tugged between her and their assailant, Kit felt like a piece of saltwater taffy.
“Run, Molly!” Kit shouted. “Get out of here, find somebody, quick!”
“Go!” Reluctantly, Molly obeyed.
“Fine,” his captor said softly. “I’ve got one, anyway. You and me are taking a little walk, kid.“
* * *
By the time Baloo and Rebecca reached the front gate of Haley’s Carnival, both were gasping from the exhausting ordeal of running for six blocks, dodging opposing traffic. The rain had subsided, leaving a light drizzling spray in its stead. Baloo heedlessly pounded his big feet into the puddles in his way, splashing his boss as she came up from behind. By the time he slowed down, the front of Rebecca’s clothes was soaked.
“Baloo, where are you going? Stop stepping in those puddles right now! You can’t jaywalk!” Rebecca shouted at him as he quickly glanced left and right, then dashed across the street. She let out a short scream as a car narrowly missed him, brakes screeching to a halt.
“Hey, watch where you’re goin’, fatso!” the driver yelled.
“It’s a coupla blocks till the next crosswalk,” he called over his shoulder. “We gotta make up some time! Come on, Beckers, shake a wing!”
She moaned and dashed across without incident, praying that she didn’t run into someone she knew.
Although it was nearly nine in the evening, the grounds were in half-hearted swing with a dwindling crowd inside. Rebecca asked, “What now? We’ll have to buy tickets and I don’t have my purse.”
“Don’t worry, boss lady. Got me an idea.”
“But we’ll never find them in this crowd!”
“Aw, me an’ the owner are pals. She’ll see me. Even gave me ice cream.”
“Ice cream? Oh, well, in that case…”
“Trust me, I’ll just turn on the ol’ Baloo charm and get us in. No problem.” He sucked in his breath, trying to squeeze through two line-ups to the ticket booths, his bulk jamming the narrow space between them.
“It’ll take more than the ol’ Baloo charm to get you in,” Rebecca retorted.
Grumbling, she followed, cringing as he hurried past some latecomers, ignoring the dirty looks and angry remarks as he stepped on several toes. “’Scuse me, comin’ through. Sorry, pal!” he said quickly, as he brushed against a blind old badger waiting in line. That was all it took to disrupt the man’s sense of direction and send him stumbling the other way, heading out of the park and into a busy intersection instead.
“Hey, these rides sound so realistic!” he marveled as the cars zoomed past him. He heard the slamming of brakes as they skidded to a stop around him, angrily honking their horns.
Baloo cleared his throat and approached one of the booths, where a sweet-faced lady hippo was stamping tickets and moving people through the turnstiles. Firmly nudging the next customer aside, he gave her what he thought was an engaging smile. “Hi. My, your peepers sparkle like… “
“That’s five shaboozies, mister. Ten if your girl’s coming too.”
“My girl? Aw, now, have a heart…”
“I am not his ‘girl’.” Rebecca was insulted.
“People are waiting, sir.”
“But it’s an A-number-one emergency!”
“Wait your turn, buddy!” someone snarled from behind.
“Please!” Rebecca begged the hippo. “You have to let us in. You’re all in great danger.”
“Would you two just buy a ticket or scram!”
“What danger?” a mother rabbit asked, nervously glancing at her brood of fourteen children. They were on their way out, passing the incoming customers in single file. “All of us? What do you mean?”
Baloo remembered how sick he was after eating those first hot dogs before being shanghaied onto the roller coaster that first day. His brain flooding with muddy half-thoughts, all he could think of was, “Uh… the hot dogs went bad?”
“What?” Both Rebecca and the lady hippo stared at him, baffled.
“That’s right! They were just awful! All them bacteria-critters made themselves a nice home in that mystery meat. Look at that guy!” he said loudly, pointing past the ticket booth, indicating a bench where an exhausted, bedraggled pig had fallen asleep during the previous downpour, with a half-eaten hot dog wrapped rested on his large stomach. “He’s a goner, a solid goner! Folks are droppin’ like flies.”
People stretched, trying to get a look. “He looks terrible!”
Rebecca thought fast. “Yes! Bad hot dogs! I heard that the supplier refused to recall the tainted wieners and skipped town.”
“Now wait a minute!” Indignantly, the ticket-taker put her hands on her generous hips.
“Don’t be fooled! They’re selling them to unsuspecting customers, pocketing the profits, and laughing at you!”
“Yeah, go ahead and eat them bad hot dogs!” Baloo raised his voice and pointed dramatically at the sleeping pig. “And end up like him!”
“Mama, I’m scared! I wanna go home!”
The hippo ticket seller finally found her voice. “Wait, they’re lying…”
“Lies? I’ll show you lies!” Rebecca cried. “They’re selling you lies, wrapped in greasy, disgusting napkins!”
“Maybe we should leave,” someone suggested timidly.
“Yeah, what she said!” Baloo was on a roll. ”There’s the exit! The truth is out there, folks!”
Within seconds the crowd waiting to get in hurried out, pushing each other out of the way, muttering in horror, “Bad wieners!”
“Security!” The lady hippo bellowed. “Take these two troublemakers to the manager!”
* * *
“I’ll be frank with you, Miss Midway,” Thursday told her as he drove. “We’ve already questioned this Lance character… sort of… and came up empty. If you’re wrong, this could be very embarrassing for the department.”
“Didn’t you bring backup? What if he’s armed?”
“I can’t organize my men based on a hunch.”
Archer muttered something nasty about ‘women’s intuition’. He sat silently in the passenger seat, glowering at her in the rear-view mirror. Joanna glared back, stirring uncomfortably in the back, which was used for prisoners, separated from them by wire mesh.
“If I’m right, you owe me a big fat reward,” she said sharply. “It’s ten thousand shaboozies, isn’t it?” She was irritated. Her date with Baloo, although fun, could have been more romantic, and she was stuck wearing clothes that looked ridiculous on her. She had wanted to change---very badly---but taking that awful glass elevator… she couldn’t have faced those trips down to the laundry room to retrieve her own clothes, back up to the suite to change, then back down to leave the building. She had felt queasy just thinking about it.
“Funny how you’re interested in that money all of a sudden,” Archer commented. “You wouldn’t happen to have a grudge against this Lance, would you? It would be work out really nicely if you could mess up his life and collect a reward.”
Joanna smiled crookedly. “Just be glad I’m on your side.”
* * *
“Wonderful, Baloo,” Rebecca muttered as they were marched into the trailer park by a silent buffalo with huge forearms and a scowl.
“Hey, we got in for free, didn’t we?” He couldn’t resist adding, “And you always say I don’t know nothin’ about savin’ money.”
“I stand corrected,” she said wearily.
When they reached Helen’s office, the security guard rapped briskly on the door. “Miz Haley? I got two more.”
Two more? Baloo and Rebecca looked at each other, bewildered.
“Thank’ee, Stanley,” a woman’s voice replied. “We’re comin’ out now.”
A stout lady koala emerged first, surprised that someone was holding the door for her. “Why, thank’ee, luv,” she said to an unseen person inside the office. “Yer a perlite young gent. It’s been a long time since a feller around here’s shown some real couth.”
Then they saw the ‘perlite young gent’ walk out, followed by a grim Big Al. Baloo and Rebecca cried out his name in relieved annoyance. “Kit!”
“Hi, guys,” he said sheepishly. “What’re you in for?” He brushed Big Al’s paw off his shoulder. “Do you mind? I’m not goin’ anywhere, okay?”
“You got that right, kid. After you’re booked and printed for trespassing.”
“Aw, quit teasing him, Al.” Violet followed them out of the office and closed the door after her. She regarded him with disgust. “You’re such a jerk.”
“At least I’m no snitch. I’m just weeding out trespassers and you go runnin’ to Helen like I’m Quack the Ripper.”
Aggressively, Violet stepped right up to him, making the startled bear take a step back. “Listen, buster, if I see some bully picking on a little kid, I’m gonna do something about it.”
“Hey!” Kit was insulted. “Who you callin’ ‘little kid’, lady?”
“Sorry. You know what I mean.”
Kit sighed in a when-will-they-ever-learn fashion. “Aw, forget it. Thanks for calling off your goon anyway.”
“You’re pushin’ it, kid.” Big Al scowled down at him. Unflinching, Kit returned the look.
Helen told the security guard, indicating Baloo, “Stanley, ye can go now. It’s all right, I know this one.” The silent buffalo left them.
“Where’s Joanna? I thought you two had a date tonight,” Violet asked Baloo. Then she noticed the petite, neatly coiffed female bear with him. “Who’s she?” she asked rudely.
Baloo glanced at Rebecca, who was treating the much taller tigress with the evil eye. He stammered, “Well, uh… this is my bo---uh, friend.”
“Oh, yeah?” Violet was still belligerent. “Does Joanna know about your friend? Where is she anyway?”
The big gray bear gulped. “Uh… she’s kinda, um… babysittin’?” He tugged at his collar, wishing to be anywhere but here. He said defensively, “Well, we couldn’t exactly go out and leave Becky’s kid home alone, could we?”
Violet, as well as Helen and Big Al stared at him, openmouthed.
“Never mind that. Kit, where’s Molly? Isn’t she with you?” Rebecca demanded.
“She was…” Kit glared up at Big Al. “Until this guy scared her off…”
“What?” Rebecca marched up to Big Al, and to his surprise, suddenly grabbed the lapels of his shirt and twisted the cloth so tightly that he gasped for air. “All right, mister, where is she? Talk!”
“Hey!” he choked, signaling frantically to Baloo. “Call her off!”
Violet folded her arms and grinned, obviously enjoying the show.
“Nothin’ doin’, pal,” growled Baloo, stepping up behind. “What’d ja do ta Molly?”
“Hey, she’s the one who *cough* kicked me! Wasn’t my fault she *gerk* ran off!”
Suddenly, Rebecca felt Violet’s hard fingers digging into her arms, roughly hauling her off the burly bear. “Hey!”
“Uh-uh-uh… play nice,” the tigress chided her, wagging a mocking finger. Rubbing her arms, the businesswoman moved closer to Baloo. The woman was surprisingly strong.
“Thank ye, Vi,” Helen said. To Rebecca, she said sternly, “I can always call Stanley back, missy.”
Violet smirked at Big Al. “My, you sure have a way with people. It’s a miracle you’re still alive.”
Still coughing, eyes watering, he started to reply, then clamped his mouth shut. Wheezing did not help a snappy retort.
Helen turned to Baloo. “And as for you, young man, I think you’d better explain why ye and this…person were tryin’ to crash the gate.”
Baloo removed his cap and said almost meekly, “Um…well, ya see…”
“I don’t think you’re getting any ice cream this time, Sunny Jim.” Rebecca took perverse pleasure in seeing him squirm. And she knew he did the same.
This is insane. We don’t have time for this!
“Now, someone tell me what’s going on here! Where’s my little girl? Don’t you have a lost-and-found? My daughter’s out there somewhere. She was practically trampled last time!”
“Molly’ll be okay, honey,” Baloo tried to reassure her. “She’s been in worst scrapes before an’ come out smellin’ like a rose.”
“She’s probably safe,” Kit said. “At least Lance won’t find her among all those people.” The fact that ‘all those people’ were a dwindling crowd was little comfort, and he knew it.
Suddenly, a police siren wailed behind them. Big Al turned toward the sound and groaned loudly. “What the – aw, not them again!”
Handy and Strummer joined them; Handy took the lead, lightly swinging his ever-present toolbox, while the younger man followed, covered with grease. His huge eyes showed whitely under the grime.
He looks like a Tar Baby, thought Kit.
“Ma!” he said excitedly. “Handy just showed me how to fix the motor on the Tilt-a-Whirl! And we put masking tape on the new glass door for the Tunnel of Love so the birds don’t fly into it…”
“That’s lovely, Nicky,” Helen said absently, already turning away from him. “You must tell me all about it later. And do take a shower, will ye?”
Strummer seemed to deflate. Handy patted his shoulder.
“You did real good, son,” he said. “That old motor’s purring like a kitten.”
Helen hurried to the gate where Kit and Molly had climbed and opened it, admitting Detectives Thursday and Archer. “My goodness, who called you back here?”
“I did, Helen. This is serious.” Joanna came through the gate, a few steps behind them. In her too-small clothing and damp hair hanging in strings down her back and in her eyes, she was a comical sight. Strummer brightened when he saw her.
Helen blinked. “Joanna, I think yer outgrowin’ yer togs.”
Violet took one look and started to laugh. “You have got to tell me everything.”
Big Al asked her, “How come every time I see you you’re wearing some weird get-up?”
“Hmmph!” Both Joanna and Rebecca scowled at him.
“I think she’s beautiful,” Strummer whispered.
“Joanna, I warned ye about harassin’ that poor man.” Helen said angrily, glancing at Kit. “And ye went fillin’ this child’s head with wild stories. He just told me that our Lance is a dangerous criminal!”
“It’s true!” Baloo, Kit, and Rebecca chorused.
“Helen, it’s true I hate the guy, but I wouldn’t lie about this,” Joanna said earnestly. “Come on, we’ve known each other for years. Are you going to take his word over mine… again?” The elderly koala flinched as though she had slapped her. As soon as Joanna said the words, she regretted it. “Sorry,” she muttered.
“Let’s find the mug and sort it out afterwards,” Archer snapped.
Thursday nodded and said to Helen, “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but we’ll have to ask you to close the park early. Judging from our evidence, this is a man who panics when cornered. No telling what he might do to an innocent bystander.”
“But --!” she started to argue, unwilling to believe. Then, with resignation, she agreed. “All right.”
“Why don’t ya just announce that that Molly’s missin’ on the loudspeaker? You know, like last time?” Baloo suggested.
Joanna shook her head. “No. I don’t like the idea of making that knowledge public with a killer running loose. We don’t want to give him any advantage.”
Archer said sarcastically, “You playing cop again, sugar?”
“I don’t need a badge for common sense, Officer,” she retorted, deliberately ignoring his rank. “And what’s the idea of turning on the siren on the way here? You practically warned him that you’re coming. Kind of ruins the surprise, doesn’t it?”
“Joanna!” Helen hissed.
“Well, it does,” Joanna muttered, folding her arms across her chest.
Atta girl, Kit thought with approval. Let that jerk have it!
Man, I like her spunk, Baloo thought, smiling at her fondly. Louie’s voice crept into his mind, an echo from the past. And the rest of her ain’t bad either, man. Rebecca gave him a strange look and he immediately assumed a more serious expression.
Rebecca, who routinely gritted her teeth trying to be pleasant to difficult clients, was struck dumb by her blatant disrespect for the unpleasant detective. And, secretly, reluctantly, admired her for it.
The others glanced at each other, rather taken aback at this exchange.
Helen and Handy were aghast. Big Al watched impassively with narrowed eyes. Violet’s lips twitched.
“Don’t be hard on her, Ma,” Strummer recovered from his shock, and said quietly, “She’s just being honest.” Joanna flashed him a quick smile of gratitude and his heart soared.
“Enough,” Thursday cut in. “Let’s split up and find the girl.”
Everyone left, leaving Baloo, Rebecca, Kit, Joanna, Violet and Strummer alone.
“All right,” Baloo said to Rebecca, “Me an’ Joanna’ll search this end of the park an’ you three do the other.”
Rebecca glanced doubtfully at Strummer, who looked extremely disappointed.
“I’ll, um, go on my own. We’ll, uh, cover more ground that way.” Something about the carnival owner’s son gave her the creeps. Those glasses made him look demented.
“Me too,” Kit said firmly. “No offense, but I’ll make better time without anyone slowing me down. See ya later.”
Both he and Rebecca started to leave in two separate directions.
“Wait,” Joanna said. “Don’t just fan out without thinking. I know that Lance is a loner or else he’s usually someplace with Pearl. We can work that angle.”
“Fan out? Angle? What are ya, a she-cop?” Baloo asked.
“Never mind what that idiot Archer said. I know how to find people. The trick is to get inside their head. Rebecca, when Molly is scared, is she a hider or a runner?”
“People generally react to fear in three ways,” Joanna explained. “Fighters struggle, mostly common in males or aggressive types. I doubt Molly falls into that category. Runners are likely to be weaker physically, but they can’t stand still, so they take flight.”
“Runner, I guess,” Baloo said. “She’s a little bundle of energy.”
“But she can’t run, not with that knee.” Rebecca shifted from one foot to the other, impatient to go.
Runner, Joanna thought, watching her.
“Then we’ll probably catch up with her if she’s limping.” Joanna closed her eyes briefly. She could not forget how the man they’d sent after her tried to crush her beneath the truck’s wheels as she lay helpless, twisted and dying on the mountain road. One desperate throw of the dice… or in this case, a rock had sent him screaming all the way to hell. He’d thought she was a runner too.
She didn’t regret killing him.
Joanna opened her eyes. “Hiders freeze and curl up in a little ball and hope for the best. Like little kids who play hide-and-seek and cover their eyes, thinking that way no one can see them.”
“Definitely a hider,” Kit said. “She’s always stowing away in the cargo hold or something.”
“Joanna, why don’t you girls go check on Ma?” Strummer suggested. “We men will handle it.”
“Oh, this is too much.” Violet rolled her eyes.
Rebecca growled, “She’s my daughter, buster.”
Strummer continued pompously, puffing out his thin chest. He turned to Kit. “Young man, you’ll go with them. You’re the ‘man of the house’ while we’re gone.”
Kit snorted. Pathetic. “Yeah, right. She’s your mother… you check on her!”
“That’s a good idea. Helen must be wondering where you are,” Joanna said to Strummer.
“But--!” he sputtered, amazed that his attempts to be masterful did not impress her. Then, lips pursed in impotent anger, Strummer whirled on his heel and stomped off.
Joanna paid no attention. “Now, Molly couldn’t have gone far. Kit, where were you two headed before Alphonse scared her away?”
“To see either Miz Haley or that nurse whose doll was trashed. We were going to warn them about Lance.”
It’s too late for Pearl, Joanna thought.
* * *
In the darkness of the nurse’s tent, Pearl snuggled in Lance’s lap, who sat perfectly still, passively tolerating it.
My legs… I can’t feel my legs!
“Sweetie-pie,” Pearl said timidly, her lips forming what she thought to be a coquettish little pout. “We need to talk… about us…”
He cringed at the sound of her gentle whine. Oh no, anything but that!
He stifled a yawn. “Er… you have my undivided attention, my shining bead of mountain dew.”
“When are we getting married? With everything that’s been going on, we never set a date.”
“Why… I was just waiting for you to recover from that awful experience with your doll and… everything. Are you sure you’re up to it so soon after your ordeal, my dear?”
At the mention of her doll, Pearl’s face fell. “I loved Miranda,” she said quietly. “Did I ever tell you that my granny gave her to me for my seventh birth--!”
“Yes, yes, you’ve told me,” he said impatiently. Then, in a kinder tone, he amended, “Darling, please don’t dwell on that unfortunate incident. You’ll only upset yourself. I know! Tell me again what you’re going to wear. That always cheers you up.” And I so deserve a little nap.
“Oh! Okay!” she said, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck. He held her close, his chin resting on her shoulder, mouthing her words. “I want to wear a gown with frills and tiny pearl buttons down the back and a long, lacy veil that you can lift off my face when you, uh, kiss me” She giggled and continued to prattle happily. “Oh, and the gown needs a train and …”
Lance closed his eyes, completely bored. Tuning out her nasal whine, he continued to nod at what he guessed were appropriate pauses. He tried not to struggle in her possessive embrace, careful to maintain an adoring, dreamy smile.
The organist, a female bear who bore a startling resemblance to Joanna, played the opening strains of ‘Here Comes the Bride’. Pearl, in stiff, fussy bridal attire, slowly made her way down the aisle. Strangely, there was a length of train tracks in her wake. Behind her, the shrill sound of a train whistle…
The adoring, dreamy smile on his face grew a little wider.
“Lancie, you’re so sweet,” Pearl was saying. ”You’re going to make a wonderful father.”
“Huh? You—you want ch-children?” he stammered. He was so preoccupied with his own troubles that the idea of procreation had, surprisingly, never crossed his mind.
“Of course! Maybe five or six.” She added, “I never had brothers or sisters. I want a big family.”
They’d been living in their prison cell, Pearl, now plumper and matronly, took pains to make it homey, crocheting afghans and hanging samplers on the walls: ‘The Family That Does Time Together’, ‘Stays Together and Bless Our Happy Cell’. One wall was covered with lines, tallying over one hundred. Agitated, he paced back and forth in the tiny room, careful not to step on the wailing babies who crawled around on the floor.
“Heeeeere comes the head! It’s a boy!”
“Oh, Lancie, another son…” Pearl sang from her cot. “How many is that, darling? I’ve lost track.”
With a piece of chalk, he added a line, scratching a horizontal line across four vertical ones. “One hundred and ten?!” He fainted, and his babies quickly scrambled out of the way before he landed. Then they swarmed over him, smothering his shrieks of terror.
“Lancie, are you listening to me?”
Suddenly, Big Al’s masculine, growly voice boomed over the loudspeakers. “The fair will close in ten minutes... ”
“Already?” Pearl asked, startled. “But it’s not midnight! It’s only nine-thirty---!”
“Yes,” he said, setting her aside and standing up. “I wonder what’s going on?”
He poked his head out, then ducked back in, heart pounding. Faintly at first, then they became closer – voices. Blast! The police!
“…I’m telling you, that skirt’s trouble,” Archer was saying to Thursday. “The way she mouths off to me… something’s wrong about a broad who ain’t impressed by a badge. Like she’s used to it.”
“Lay off her, Lou. Don’t look a gift tipper in the mouth.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me if she was in cahoots with this Lance character. How would she know he was the guard at the museum? Maybe things between them went sour and she’s trying to pin him for the theft and the Weazel murder.”
Something about her gave Archer the willies, not that he would ever admit it, even to his partner. He shivered a little, and it wasn’t entirely from the damp chill of the night air.
“We need to focus, Lou. One, find the kid. Two, catch this guy and prove he wasn’t packed to board that ferry, but a fugitive with only the clothing on his back. Brownie points if we find that museum trinket on him.”
“Yeah, yeah, according to some cockamamie legend.” Archer spat on the ground. “Forget the stupid key. Let’s make this collar and go home. The wife’s on my back about these late hours---!”
“Quiet! I hear something.” Thursday’s voice was hushed. “In that tent.”
“But it’s dark. Nobody’s there.”
“Cheese and crackers, Lou! Of course it’s dark. The perp’s not going to hide somewhere, then snap on a reading light.”
“You don’t have to get huffy about it.”
“Never mind. Cover me.”
Lance’s heart leaped into his throat. No!
Suddenly, he was yanked backward. “Lance! Get away from there!”
Pearl! He had forgotten about her. Whether he opened his mouth to explain or to silence her, he did not know. She clapped her hand over it.
She whispered, “You have to hide.”
As Pearl removed her hand from his mouth. Lance heard rustling, then the sharp sound of a zipper being drawn down---and it wasn’t the tent opening. “Wha—what are you doing?”
In a moment, guns drawn, Thursday and Archer positioned themselves on either side of the tent’s entrance.
“Now,” Thursday whispered. Archer yanked the tent’s flap open.
“Freeze!” Archer barked, then jumped, nearly dropping his gun. “Holy mackerel!”
Pearl shrieked, “Eek! Don’t look!”
Blinking, they saw a half-dressed female cat scramble around the room, dancing like a disjointed marionette, desperately trying to cover herself. She wore nothing but a worn, threadbare pink cotton slip that snugly encased her lumpy body. Pearl squealed, “Ooh, I’m changing! You awful peeping Toms! Get out, get out, get out!”
From under the gurney’s hanging sheet, Lance did not dare venture a peek. He huddled in a ball, his mind spinning like a radio dial, briefly stopping at a memory of being shoved here before. Joanna interrupting him for bandages as he wooed the ninny… just because the whiny little brat had taken a nasty tumble…
“Oh, gee --- I’m awfully sorry, miss!” Thursday quickly covered his eyes and ducked back out. “Lou! Retreat! Scrub this mission!”
“Retreating! Retreating!” Archer did the same, stumbling after him. “Scrubbing! Scrubbing!”
“I’m so sorry, miss!” they heard Thursday call.
“My eyes!” the other one moaned. “I think I’m blind.”
“Take it easy, partner. Your vision should return in a few minutes. Here, lean on me…”
“Well!” Insulted, Pearl stood with her hands on her hips.
Lance started to crawl out then gasped, seeing her; crablike, he quickly scuttled back under the sheet. His voice was muffled. “Er, Dewdrop… the crisis has passed, I think… you don’t want to catch cold, now… bad luck for the groom to see the bride and all that… why don’t you put something on… please?”
After putting some distance between them and the first aid station, Archer kept rubbing his eyes and blinking.
“Sam, I’ve seen some bad things in my time, but that was… that was…!”
“… scary,” Thursday finished for him, shaking his head.
* * *
After the announcement that the fair was closing, the grumbling customers trundled to the exits. From his elevated platform, Big Al peered over their heads, trying to distinguish one particular child from the others. Kids --- they all looked alike to him.
Molly looked around in confusion – again she was caught in the sea of bodies, sweeping her along toward the exit. The murmurs and occasional shouts drowned her voice in the undertow.
“Wait!” she cried desperately. “I’m lost. A mean man was chasing me and he got my fr--!”
“The park is closing, sweetheart,” A harried-looking lady pig pointed toward the podium. “Hurry… go see that man over there… he’ll help you find your mommy and daddy.”
“What man? I can’t see anything.” Molly yelped as someone stepped on her foot.
“Here, I’ll help you.” She took Molly by the hand and managed to plow a path through the departing guests, shouldering them aside.
“Excuse me, sir but this little girl’s lost…”
Big Al and Molly stared at each other. Her eyes widened.
“Hey, kid, you gotta come with me--!” he began and started to climb down from the platform, but she wrenched her hand from the startled lady pig and backed away.
“What’s the matter? This nice man’s going to help you.” The woman protested.
“He’s not nice! He took Kit!” she yelled.
“Now wait a minute…!” he said indignantly, then floundered. “Uh, Mary…Minnie… Maggie…?”
“Go away!” she shrieked, as she turned and ran back toward the midway.
“Come back here, you!” he roared. He started to give chase, but the woman stepped in his path, blocking him.
“Oh no, you don’t.”
“Lady, I don’t have time for this. Get the hell out of my way.”
She gasped. “Well, I never! You brute! You aren’t nice at all!”
He tried to go around her, but she sidestepped in front of him, shouting, “Run, child, run! Call the police!” Brandishing her umbrella as a weapon, she began to whack the large bear over the head with it. “You bully!”
“OW! OW! Hey, cut that out! Dammit!” Big Al ducked and covered his head with his arms, trying to fend off the blows.
“We’re here.” Thursday and Archer hurried over. “We heard the commotion. Where’s Lance?”
“Officer, this horrid man tried to kidnap that little girl! Arrest him!”
Before Big Al could explain, Molly was gone.
* * *
Helen had opted to stay behind in the trailer area, in case Molly returned. After over half an hour of fruitless searching, Thursday and Archer had continued on their own, leaving the others to meet by the barker’s podium.
Everyone was tired, irritable and frustrated. When he saw Rebecca, Big Al kept his distance and put a protective hand over the lapels of his shirt.
“How could you lose her?” Rebecca shouted when told what happened. “She can hardly walk, let alone run.”
“Lady, if you’d just keep an eye on your kid instead of blaming everybody else---!”
For a second, Rebecca had a stricken look and she bit her lip and turned away, her shoulders began to shake. Her eyelids began to sting. I won’t cry, even as the tears began to bead and slide down her cheeks.
Joanna wondered if she should put a comforting arm round the distraught mother. That’s what normal people did, wasn’t it? Instead, she patted her shoulder awkwardly, feeling foolish.
Baloo glanced at Rebecca as she struggled to compose herself. She seemed about to collapse. Obtuse most of the time, even insensitive, even he couldn’t help but recognize that posture. A strange wave of protectiveness rose up inside him and he bristled.
“Hey, watch it, buddy,” Baloo growled, taking a menacing step forward. “Don’t you talk that way ta her, or you’ll countin’ all yer teeth on one finger!” Sniffling, Rebecca looked up in surprise, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.
“You wanna start somethin’, pal?” Big Al asked him, stepping closer himself. The two large bears matched each other in physical strength; both were heavy, but powerfully built. “Hey, just say the word...”
“Here we go. Pretty soon they’ll be marking their territory,” Violet muttered. “Don’t you men ever worry about extinction?”
Baloo started to move forward, but hearing her, sheepishly glanced at the women, especially Joanna. “Now just a cotton-pickin’ minute…there’s ladies present. You’ll hafta start it. I ain’t takin’ the first swing.” Both rolled up their sleeves and assuming fighters’ stances. Startled, Joanna forgot about comforting Rebecca and watched them, her dark eyes gleaming with eager anticipation.
“Iron Paws,” she murmured.
Rebecca gasped. “Baloo! What are you doing?”
“Stand back, Becky! I’m gonna teach this jerk some manners!”
Kit said, “Guys, this is not helping.”
Folding her arms, without taking her eyes off them, Joanna said, “Becky, just let them get it out of their systems.”
“What? Baloo, this is stupid. Get away from him this minute!”
Reluctantly, Baloo finally lowered his fists.
“Got ya on a short leash, doesn’t she?” Big Al taunted, lowering his own.
Before anyone could stop him, Baloo punched him in the jaw. The barker found himself sitting on the wet ground, dazed. He shook his head to clear it.
Rubbing his jaw, he said through clenched teeth, “Touched a nerve, did we?”
Handy helped him to his feet and cast Baloo a warning look. “You young fellers cut it out before I knock both your fool heads together. Al, I think you owe the lady an apology.”
A moment passed. Then, scowling, he removed his cap and muttered to Rebecca, “Sorry, ma’am.”
“All right.” Rebecca nudged Baloo. “Baloo, apologize to him.”
“Now, wait a doggoned minute!” he protested. “Why should I? He didn’t even mean it!“
“I don’t care!” Her voice was ragged with exhausted anger. “Just do it so we can hurry up and look for Molly!”
Baloo was about to argue further until he saw Joanna smile at him and mouth, Iron Paws. With a martyred sigh, he said, “Sorry, buddy. I didn’t mean ta lay it on ya so hard.”
“Didn’t even feel it,” Big Al assured him, although he winced as he spoke. In a snide undertone he added, “Hope you didn’t break a nail.”
“Will you guys just knock it off!” Kit snapped. “This isn’t doing any good. Molly’s still out there.”
“Wish I had my plane,” Baloo muttered. “Then we could fly over and spot Molly from above instead of all this runnin’ around in this lousy weather.”
When I was riding the Ferris wheel, I could see everything below, whispered Kit’s voice in Rebecca’s brain. That first day, when Molly got lost, he had spotted Molly and Joanna from above.
“That’s it!” Rebecca said suddenly. “I’ve got an idea!”
“Becky, the plane’s at Higher for Hire. What’re ya getting’ at?”
“Baloo, remember when Molly was lost here before? Kit spotted her from the top of the Ferris wheel.”
“That’s right, I remember!” Kit said. “Can anyone turn it on so I can get up there again?”
“I could,” Joanna said.
“You’ve worked a ride before?” Handy asked. He sounded skeptical.
“No, but I’ve seen it done a million times.”
“I can operate it,” Strummer offered. “It’ll even light up so you can see in the dark.”
“What’s so hard about it?” Violet wanted to know. “You just throw the switch. On-and-off, on-and-off.”
“You can?” Joanna asked him. “I’ve never seen you do it.”
“There’s a lot about Strummer here that you don’t know, Joanna,” Handy said pointedly.
“Aw, that’s easy,” Baloo scoffed. “I worked the airplane ride at a fair once. Nothin’ to it.“
“Fine,” Rebecca said irritably. I have to plan… do something. I can break down later. “As long as someone does it. Oh, and what about binoculars? Does anyone around here have a pair?”
Joanna thought sourly, I’ll bet Alphonse does, but said instead, “I think there’s a couple in Lost and Found.”
The light drizzle suddenly stopped; a couple of raindrops struck the pavement, then picked up momentum. Rebecca thought about Molly, stumbling somewhere in the darkness, getting soaked to the skin. Both Baloo and Kit glanced at her, knowing what she was thinking.
“There’s another storm brewin’,” Baloo said abruptly. “We’d better hurry.”
* * *
Molly saw the nurse’s tent and ducked inside, panting. She’s here! Pearl had her back turned, shoving something under the hanging sheets of the gurney. The nurse turned her head and saw a dripping wet bear cub with her hair hanging in her eyes, blue hair ribbons sagging.
“Well, hello!” she said smiling brightly, showing too many teeth. “Did Mummy and Daddy leave you behind?” Then she frowned. “Wait, weren’t you here the other day? Don’t you know the park is clos--”
“Please!” Molly interrupted her. “Someone’s chasing me!”
Pearl poked her head out of the tent, then turned back. “I don’t see anyone. Why don’t I take you to see Auntie Helen? She’ll help you find---!”
Molly let out a frustrated sigh. “No, you don’t understand! A man grabbed Kit --- I think he’s the one they said killed a weasel…”
“What?” The nurse was completely confused. Nervously, she glanced at the gurney. “Look, sweetie, I’m, um… busy. Why don’t you go outside and play?” With another toothy smile, she put a firm hand to Molly’s back and gently started to escort her toward the tent’s opening.
“In the rain?” chided a muffled, cultured, somewhat reedy, male voice behind them. “Oh, heavens, no, we can’t have that.”
Molly froze as she watched a wraithlike jaguar emerge from under the sheets of the gurney. There was something familiar about him, something that triggered an alarm. I know him! She wanted to run back into the storm, but her feet would not move.
“Lance, what are you doing?” Pearl protested.
Lance said to Pearl, “Isn’t this that darling child you so valiantly nursed back to health when she fell down and went boom?”
“Well, yes, but you…”
“If she’s lost, don’t you think we should protect her? Maybe you should invite her to wait for her family here.”
“But those detectives might come back. And there’s people outside --- I can hear them now…oh, Lance, how are we going to get away?”
We? “My dear, don’t you know a bargaining chip when you see one?”
Molly did not understand what they were talking about. She just knew, with the unmistakable understanding of one whose instincts were unclouded by complex adult rationalization, that she was in danger. She started to edge toward the exit.
Smiling, with three strides, he swiftly blocked her escape and jerked the tent’s opening closed, like the final word.
“What, leaving without permission?” he said pleasantly. “Naughty, naughty!”
Desperately, she dove to the ground and tried to scoot between his legs, an old trick that used to work when she was smaller.
He grabbed her feet and hauled her upside-down as she struggled.
“Why, Molly,” he said in an injured tone. “Don’t you remember me?”