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 non-TaleSpin characters are created by me, and may not be used without permission. After struggling for months with this maddening chapter, I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to five people who helped me with the problems of continuity and keeping track of the characters’ whereabouts: Thank you to the marvelous (and patient!) Will, Starflash, Cody, Herodotus and Ted! (Rated PG for mild coarse language and occasional violence.)
A few minutes earlier
When Strummer arrived at his mother’s trailer, he was soaking wet and his thinning yellow hair was plastered to his skull like two flattened bird wings after an unfortunate vehicular encounter.
Helen took one look at him and pulled him inside. “Oh my heavens!” Scooping a dishtowel off the table, she handed it to him. “Dry yerself off, Nicky. Don’t want ye gettin’ sick. Did they find the child?”
“No, Ma,” he said wearily. “They’re still looking.”
“I thought you was helpin’ ‘em. Why’d ye come back?”
“I was, um, worried about you, Ma.” He turned his back to her and pretended to be engrossed in toweling his hair. When he was finished, it was matted and pointing in several directions like a wheat field after a bad storm.
“Ye can’t fool yer own mother, luv.”
“Nicholas?” she prodded gently.
He whirled around to face her, looking paler than usual. “I was sent back, all right? Like I was some snot-nosed little kid underfoot. Even Joanna told me to go home.”
Helen protested, “But there’s a dangerous criminal runnin’ loose. She just didn’t want ye to get hurt---!”
But he cut her off. “No, Ma. It’s all --- topsy-turvy! It’s ain’t supposed to be like this! She’s a girl. Instead of staying here with you, she’s out there… taking over and bossing everybody about!”
“That’s her way.”
“She never listens to me. It ain’t right! I should be out there…”
“Nicholas, that poor little girl’s out there and God knows where that awful man is lurkin’! This ain’t the time…”
“It’s never the time.”
“What? What do ye mean?”
“You’re so busy managin’ the fair or playing cards with Jo—your friends you never have time for me.”
“But they’re yer friends, too.”
“We don’t have any… we don’t stick around long enough.” Bitterly he added, “And they’re paid to be here. Just like her.”
Helen was surprised. “Son…”
“She ain’t your daughter, Ma!” he suddenly exploded. “Why do you keep pretending she is?”
“I don’t…!” Her mouth opened to deny it, then shut as he glared at her.
After a moment, she sheepishly admitted, “I dunno, Nicky. Maybe because she’s alone in the world, like we are. I think she needs a mother… or something. After the accident, she didn’t even remember her own real name, let alone her family… she’ll probably never see ‘em again. She needs us, son, don’t ye see that?”
“Maybe she needs you, Ma. Me, I don’t exist. I’m a bloody ghost.”
“Nicholas!” Helen was shocked.
“It’s true,” he said bleakly, staring at the floor.
“It’s not and ye know it! Besides, she’s already got a young man.”
“Who --- that fat bloke?” Strummer snorted. “He’s no prize. Talks funny too.”
“Nicholas! What a wicked thing to say!”
He flushed, but pressed on. “Remember how he didn’t bring her home until the next morning when they went out that first time? I’ve always wondered just what happened that night.”
“No? Well, he just better not have…” Not wanting to shock his mother any further, he searched for a delicate way to put it. “… taken…advantage of her.” He looked at her anxiously. “Did he… uh…”
“Of course not! Baloo is a very respectable young man. He explained everything. It was late and she’d fallen asleep in his plane. A real gent, he was. He even let her sleep in his own bed.”
“What!” Strummer’s mouth dropped open.
“Oh, stop it. He slept in a chair. They were exhausted and it was too late to walk her home. Joanna told me how he flew her to an island nightclub… how they danced all night and looked at the stars. It was ever so romantic. And when they came back, he carried her up the stairs and put her to bed and tucked her in…” Her voice trailed off as she gazed wistfully at her wedding ring. “She told me he even made her breakfast. I think he’s a keeper. She said he’s great fun.”
A vein on his forehead twitched and seemed about to pop. “Did he touch her?”
She was jolted back to the present. “Of course not! He explained everythin’.”
“And…and you believe that?”
“I believe it because I have to believe it,” Helen retorted. “She’s a woman, not a child. It ain’t none of our nevermind, anyway.”
“It is our nevermind! He don’t know nothin’ about her. Even she don’t remember her past, she always said so. Everything she knows we taught her after she woke up from that coma.”
“She knew how to play the piano. We did not teach her everything she knows, son.”
“She’s our responsibility,” he insisted. “I’m the one who woke her up from that coma!”
Helen stared at her son incredulously. “What? How? What’d ye do, kiss her like she was Sleepin’ Beauty or somethin’?”
“Oh, Nicholas… you didn’t! Whatever possessed you to do such a silly thing?”
“The doctors weren’t doing her any good. She was out of it for three months, Ma. I had to do something.”
“What? Ye think a kiss woke her up? Oh, Nicky, ye had no right.” Helen closed her eyes. “I should never have left ye alone with her. Did---did ye…do anything else?”
Now it was Strummer’s turn to be shocked. “No! Of course not! I’d never do that. When I think of that fat pilot treating her like a common…”
“He didn’t and she can take care of herself, son. Let it be.”
“It’s not fair, Ma! I saw her first!”
“Nicholas! Shame on you! I can’t believe…!” Then she sighed. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know…if only it were someone else. A nice girl with…”
“What… a sweet personality? Or maybe nice plain girl who can cook?” he asked with uncharacteristic sarcasm. “Who should I have…Pearl?”
“Nicky, please! Joanna just ain’t…” She floundered, searching for words that would not wound him. “… right for ye. She’ll never make ye happy.”
“Have you ever noticed that if anyone tries to hug her, she just stands there? Or else she pats their shoulder and pulls away? Our Joanna don’t like bein’ touched, I can tell.” She sighed. “That girl’s a cold one, sometimes.”
“She’s just shy…” He started to protest but she held up a hand, silencing him.
“She’s spendin’ more time with her young man and havin’ fun. I’m happy for her. He seems a good sort, and strong enough to take care of her. He might be just what she needs. But luv… you and her… it wouldn’t work.”
“Why not?” he demanded hotly. “I’m no pretty boy but you’re always sayin’ looks don’t matter. Me and her --- we’ve got likes in common. We’re both carnies and we both play music...”
“It ain’t enough. It just… wouldn’t work, that’s all. Ye’ll get nothin’ but heartbreak. She’ll never lo---!”
“Please, Ma!” He reached to cover his ears, but she swiftly caught and held them.
“Nicholas! She’ll never love ye… not the way ye deserve, anyhow. And it ain’t yer fault…ye just ain’t right for each other,” Helen said earnestly. “Please, son, for your own sake… leave her alone.”
“Ma… I’m almost twenty-eight now and I never even…” He bit his lip. “…k-kissed a girl. That’s just not… right.”
“It’ll happen to ye, luv. Ye just gots to be patient.”
“You don’t understand,” he whispered. “The way I look…no girl would have me.”
Helen hugged him briefly, then let go. “Nonsense. Nothin’s wrong with ye --- and looks ain’t everythin’ anyhow. The right girl will see into yer heart and won’t care about nothin’ else. Wait and see.”
“I know looks don’t matter to you, Ma. But I see the way people look at me. When I’m up there on the stage singing, I can forget… for a while. I don’t think Joanna cares about looks… I mean, if she can go for that fat bear, then there’s hope for me, right?”
The pleading look on his face for her to agree with him nearly broke her heart.
“Right?” he insisted.
Helen was silent for a moment. Then she said, “I think somethin’ bad happened to her before the accident.”
“What? Did she tell you? I thought she couldn’t remember anything.”
“No… it’s just a feelin’ I get. She ain’t like other people. She’s secretive. If she ain’t hidin’ in her trailer for hours, she’s sittin’ all by herself readin’, never lookin’ at anythin’ around her. I think us carnies were her only friends until she met that nice pilot.”
“Ever since that bloody cufflink thing she don’t talk to me much anymore,” Helen continued sadly. “I-I think we’re losin’ her.”
“The last time I stopped by the girls’ trailer, I noticed that everythin’ she owns was still packed up on her bed.”
“She never unpacks, Ma. You know that.”
“It’s different now. When she first traveled with us, every mornin’ I used to wonder if I’d find her gone. These last few days… that feelin’ came back.”
“She can’t leave. We took care of her. She owes us everything.”
“She paid me back for her hospital stay a long time ago. There’s nothin’ keepin’ her here.”
“Ye ain’t seein’ her clearly. I love her and all, but our Joanna ain’t perfect. She can be selfish. She’s a bit too fond of practical jokes and has a fresh mouth on her. Did ye know she used to cheat at cards when we first played, ‘til I called her on it and made her stop?”
“An’ she’s got a temper and don’t forgive easy, either. Remember the other day when she and Pearl was fightin’ before I broke it up? Did ye notice that when Pearl was pullin’ her hair, she didn’t fight back but held her wrists instead?”
“Joanna didn’t want to hurt her.”
“No, son. It was because she could hurt her. Badly.”
He said nothing, mouth compressed in a thin, stubborn line.
She persisted, “Her ideas of bein’ helpful are frightenin’, to say the least. What about the time that thievin’ rascal snatched me handbag and she hit him with the baseball?”
“Ma, I know he ended up the hospital but I’m sure she didn’t mean to hit him so hard. She was only trying…”
“For a handbag? It wasn’t worth it. That boy got a concussion!”
“But she did it for you, Ma.”
“Wake up!” Helen finally lost her patience, making him jump, startled. “I know she meant well, but we were very lucky that boy didn’t die. She woulda gone to prison and Lord knows what would have happened to her! We woulda lost our license, maybe even got sued. The scandal woulda followed us and we’d be done for.”
“If she’s such a troublemaker, then why do you keep her around?” He gulped. “I mean, uh…and the others---that scurvy Big Al fella --- lookin’ at Joanna like she’s the last lollypop in the candy store! And that nasty Violet… always laughin’ at me! Why don’t you sack them?”
“’Cause they do their jobs well enough and don’t have families to keep ‘em from travelin’, that’s why.” Helen’s tone became steely. “An’ I don’t think I have to answer to ye about the way I run things around here, Nicholas Haley!”
“All right, Ma.” He looked away.
Seeing that she had hurt him, she was instantly contrite. She hugged him hard, which he passively accepted but did not return. “I’m sorry, Nicky…I didn’t mean to be sharp with ye. This terrible thing with Lance or whatever his name is has got me nerves on edge.”
He shrugged. “I know.”
“Nicky, I want the girl ye marry to be nice and sensitive-like. Y’know… innocent. Joanna’s a good girl in a lotta respects but she ain’t gentle or lovin’. She needs a strong man who can take care of her and keep her outta trouble. I ain’t blind to her faults. She ain’t as… naïve as ye think.”
Before he could demand an explanation, someone pounded on the door. Helen opened it to find a very wet Bonnie standing there in a rain slicker, panting. The umbrella she held was still closed… apparently in her agitation she’d forgotten to open it.
“Bonnie, come in, for goodness sake! What are ye doing?”
“Helen, what’s going on? I was bedding down the ponies when the crowds disappeared. Where is everybody?”
After she hurriedly explained about Covington’s deception, Helen clenched her fists. “I can’t believe I trusted that man!”
“Oh, Helen,” Bonnie moaned. “This is all my fault.”
“Yer fault? Why, whatever do ye mean?”
“I should’ve told you.”
“Told me what?”
Tearfully, she confessed, "He was really mean to this poor customer and made him cry. I was going to report him, but he fed me all kinds of lies and I felt sorry for him. If I'd only reported him like I should have, you would have fired him and none of this would have hap---!"
All of a sudden, they heard a loud popping sound, making them both jump. From the barn, which was nearby, they heard the horses neighing loudly and the sharp pounding of hooves on the wooden boards, kicking the stalls.
Bonnie raced to the window. “Somebody’s shooting!”
“The detectives!” Helen exclaimed. “They must’ve caught ‘im!”
There was a gleam in Strummer’s bloodshot eyes and a determined thrust to his jaw as he crossed the room. “Stay here, ladies. I’d better check this out.”
Helen looked at him. “But, Nicholas, if they’ve caught him already, shouldn’t ye keep outta their way?”
But Strummer opened the door and ran outside, his long legs putting several yards between them. Bonnie quickly followed and Helen puffed along behind.
* * *
"Don't do this, Miss Clambake,” Thursday said to Pearl. “You're making yourself an accessory."
She turned up her nose at the detective. "I’d do anything for my sweet baboo."
"I am not your sweet baboo," Covington said through clenched teeth.
"I even came up with the needle idea to help him." She giggled, oblivious to Covington's tone. "There wasn't even morphine or nothing in it. That way I could make you stop pointing those nasty guns at him."
Unlike Pearl, Joanna knew that an empty syringe was still deadly. If injected, the compressed air would stop the victim’s heart as swiftly as poison. It had once been a useful thing to know.
Some nurse, she thought disdainfully. Probably got her license from a cereal box.
Thursday spoke to Pearl. “Don’t do this. You’re in deep enough as it is. Don’t go to jail for this guy.”
She clasped her hands together worshipfully. “I’d go to the ends of the earth for him!”
“Don’t bother with your pitiful negotiation tactics, detective,” Covington said scornfully. “As you can see, my lovely fiancée is devoted to me.”
“Even though you gave her a phony diamond ring?” Thursday shook his head sadly. “I’d say she’s pretty understanding, too.”
“It wasn’t his fault!” Pearl flared. “The man at the jeweler’s pulled a switch. He cheated him!”
“Who told you this?”
She jerked her chin defiantly, indicating Covington. “He did, Mister Smarty-Pants!”
“Gee, we had him pegged all wrong, didn’t we?” Archer said sarcastically.
Thursday ignored him. “Miss Clambake, if you continue to aid this felon…“
“Hey, don’t you go calling my honey-bunny names!”
“She’s real loyal, isn’t she… honey-bunny?” Archer sneered. “I once had a dog like that. You’re one lucky guy.”
“Covie, make him stop!” Pearl demanded, her voice seeming to scrape the inside of Covington’s head.
All this noise! Why do these things always happen to me? Covington’s head began to throb. “Will you people be still! I can’t think!”
“Lou, enough,” Thursday ordered.
Pearl wouldn’t let it go. “Covie… make him say he’s sorry.”
The surly bulldog growled, “The hell I will.”
“Apologize to the lady, officer.” Covington gritted his teeth and trained the gun on Archer. “You have no idea how desperate I am for peace and quiet.”
“Lou…” Thursday warned.
Archer glowered at Pearl. “Geez. Sorry, okay? Point that thing somewhere else. And it’s detective, not officer, damn it!”
“Best you’ll get from him,” his partner told them.
Covington tried not to roll his lone eye. “There, Pearl. Your honor is avenged.”
“This is so romantic --- just like Bunny and Clyde!” Pearl squealed and hugged him until he thought he heard his ribs creak. “Oh, thank you, Covie-wuvie! I wuv you soooo much!”
He managed to escape her embrace before Thursday or Archer could take advantage of it. “Don’t mention it…please.”
* * *
“I thought I told you guys to get out of here.” Joanna’s voice was a fierce whisper. “I can’t have you in the way.”
“In the way---! Just who do you think you are, bossing everyone around!” Rebecca whispered back. “And what would you do, anyway?” That pushy little… if there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s bossy people… Then: What did she mean, ‘I can’t have you in the way?’
“Never mind.” When contemplating mayhem, Joanna had always refused to be watched. An audience meant judgment. Think now. Remember. Look for a weakness. Pearl… maybe if I tackled her and knocked her into him… no, he might shoot the kid…
“Not on your life, Joey.” Baloo’s voice was low. “Nobody’s goin’ anywhere. We’re a team.”
“Hey, I’m no team player.” Exasperated, Joanna shook her head. “Fine. I don’t have time for this. If you’ve got an idea, then let’s have it.”
Violet murmured, “I think we should try to make our way to the trailer park and find a phone. I wouldn’t depend on Strummer.”
Handy frowned at her. “What kind of…”
“It’s true. You saw the way he wanted to play ‘hero’ and how bent out of shape he was when we shooed him away to stay with Helen. Calling the cops would ruin any chances he has to ‘save the day’. He’d probably sneak back here to…”
Rebecca hushed her. “Who cares about him? We have to save Molly!”
Baloo said nothing for a moment and stared at the ground, rubbing his jaw in concentration. Finally, he spoke. “I’ve got me an idea. Anyone got a knife or somethin’ sharp?”
“Why?” Handy asked suspiciously.
“’Cause if we slit the back of this tent, we can get inside and sneak up behind that dirty polecat through the front openin’.”
“Brilliant,” Rebecca muttered. “And then we cover his eyes and yell, ‘guess who’?”
“No, it’s a good idea,” Violet told her. “Stand back.”
She flexed her fingers. With a sudden, almost metallic shing, a jet-black set of claws shot out. Everyone stared. Violet’s claws were at least two inches long, ending in wickedly sharp points. They gleamed like long black diamonds. With one quick downward thrust, she ripped it, shredding the material. The ruined fabric fluttered in the wind.
“Just like gutting a fish,” she said with satisfaction. When she noticed their shocked expressions, she said defensively, “Well, I am a tiger.”
“Good job,” Joanna answered. Violet grinned and flicked her tail modestly.
“I’ll go first,” Baloo said. “You guys stay back in case somethin’ goes wrong. I’ll push Molly’s trolley-thingy outta the way…”
“Are you crazy?” Handy asked.
“What?” Rebecca gasped, almost forgetting to lower her voice.
“One of you guys catch it before it crashes into anythin’ and wheel her ‘round the corner real fast back here, then get her ta Helen’s place. I’ll get ‘im from behind and wrestle him ta the ground until Thursday and that other cop get the cuffs on ‘im.”
Rebecca caught his sleeve. “Baloo, he has a gun… are you sure… I mean, she’s my daughter… maybe I should…?”
“No, Becky! I ain’t lettin’ ya do it. You just stand ready ta catch her, got it?”
She nodded and let go. “Be careful, Baloo.”
“Come at him from the left,” Joanna reminded him. “He can’t see from that side.”
“Uh...” Baloo looked confused at first, then self-consciously placed his right hand over his heart, mumbling, “I pledge allegiance to the flag…”
Joanna frowned. “What are you doing?” Handy and Violet looked equally mystified.
Rebecca sighed. “It’s how he tells left from right. Right hand goes over his heart. You know?”
“Come on,” Rebecca told her, moving toward the left side of the tent. “Battle stations, everybody. Baloo knows what he’s doing.”
I hope, she prayed.
Cautiously, Baloo parted the shredded material as though they were curtains and let himself in. Stealthily he picked his way through the darkness. He stifled a curse when he clipped his elbow on the sharp edge of the medicine cabinet. Doggone it! Can’t even see my own feet… as usual. He could see a thin sliver of light ahead and a flash of Molly’s blue jumper against the white sheets hanging over the sides of the gurney.
Easy does it… only get one crack at this. His heartbeat quickened as he moved closer to the front opening. Gotta get Molly outta the line of fire. Becky’ll know what ta do…I hope.
Looking straight ahead, he took a few more steps without a hitch, arms outstretched, ready to wring Covington’s neck. Suddenly, he tripped over something in the dark, and he went sprawling, landing on top of it, making both emit a decidedly inelegant, “Oof!”
Before Baloo could get his bearings, someone weakly tried to shove him off; he heard a growly, familiar voice that sounded almost drunk. “Damn it…get off me!”
“Al?” Baloo couldn’t believe it. “Hey, buddy, what happened to ya?”
“Ugh… I’ll tell you when the world stops spinnin’… geez, will you get off!”
“Okay, okay! Just keep your voice down.” Baloo was about to scramble off the other bear’s back when someone suddenly jerked the front flap open.
“Oh!” Pearl poked her head inside, her blue eyes round and amazed. Her squeaky voice made the hackles of Baloo’s fur stand up.
Big Al rolled over onto his back, overturning Baloo to the floor to peer blearily at her through the gloom. Groaning, he tried to raise his head, but fell back.
Pearl called over her shoulder, “Lan---I mean, Covie! Look at this! ”
“Pearl, can’t you see I’m busy?” Covington snapped. He addressed the detectives. “Hands in the air, both of you.”
“But---!” For one brief moment Pearl cast him an appealing glance, but it was all the time Baloo needed. He charged and tackled her from the side, grabbing her around the knees. She went down with a squeal.
Sorry, lady, he thought, then was surprised when she suddenly let out a loud, piercing shriek directly into his left ear.
”Yeow!” Baloo’s hand involuntarily clapped over his ringing ear. Man, she’s even louder than Katie! Everyone else cringed, momentarily disoriented by the shrill sound. Panting, Pearl used the moment to push Baloo off her and clumsily scramble past Covington to the other side of the gurney. Wheezing, she lay on the ground, gasping for breath. The scream took a lot out of her.
“Pearl! Must you be so dramatic? Stop that right---!” Covington turned his head to the right and saw Baloo. “You!”
Fearing that Covington would see her if she peeked around the side of the tent, Rebecca had to listen to, rather than see, what was going on. During the confusion, she heard the scuffle and assumed the plan worked. She shrieked, “Baloo did it! Now!”
“Hey, wait…!” Joanna started to say. But she and Violet could only watch helplessly as Rebecca bolted from the side of the nurse’s tent, arms outstretched and ready to catch the expected rolling gurney with its precious bundle.
Unfortunately, there was nothing to catch. Just as Rebecca and the detectives started to dart forward, Covington planted himself in front of it and managed to kick the other Magnum and the backup gun under the gurney, making it impossible for anyone else to reach them. By this time, Baloo had gotten to his feet, but before he could act, Covington had him in his sights.
“Don’t bother. You’re too large a target to miss.”
“Not another step, all of you! Get back.”
Everyone froze in their tracks, transfixed by the gun.
“Aw, I hate this!” Archer lamented to Thursday. They obediently took several steps backward.
“Keep your eyes open and quit belly-aching,” was the unsympathetic reply.
Face-to face with a man she had not seen in over a year, Rebecca could not help staring at him in a mixture of fascination and loathing. She tried to see Molly, but he easily blocked her view.
“My, if it isn’t Baloo and the lovely Rebecca!” he said lightly. “I certainly didn’t expect to see you again.”
“Covington!” she spat. “What have you done with my daughter! Molly, baby, are you all right?”
“Did he hurt ya, Muffin?”
“Have no fear, little ‘Muffin’ is relatively unharmed. As long as you cooperate, that is. Your little brat is my ticket out of this slush pit.”
Rebecca’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of the Magnum’s muzzle, but she crossed her arms, forcing herself to continue. “You’ll never make it out of Cape Suzette.”
“Have you no faith?” he asked mockingly. “If I could tolerate living in this revolting place for a few months, surely I have a chance. And I, my dear, am a survivor!” At the word ‘survivor’, he suddenly noticed that he had stepped a wad of discarded gum. “Ugh! This is sticky!”
“Some survivor,” Baloo muttered to Rebecca. “He didn’t even say boo when them raccoon partners of his carried him off into the jungle last time.”
Covington heard him and his eyes narrowed. Baloo’s voice taunted his memory. He could see it as clearly as yesterday. Him, carried off to meet his fate, losing his toupee along the way. Baloo, picking it up and remarking, “Too bad these things don’t come with brains.”
“Ah, yes. Thank you for reminding me of that unfortunate incident. I certainly look forward to revisiting old times.”
With Covington distracted, Joanna stealthily crawled along the muddy ground behind him. She reached for the two guns under the gurney. Joanna caught Molly’s eye and started to put a finger to her lips, motioning her to be quiet, but it was unnecessary. The little girl’s eyes were huge and imploring above the gag.
Recovering from her tussle with Baloo, Pearl saw her and screamed, “Covie, look out! Behind you!”
Joanna dove back into the tent, heart pounding.
Startled by Pearl’s warning, Covington’s trigger finger jerked as he whirled toward her, firing into the ground. Knocked backwards by the recoil, he landed in a mud puddle. He yelped, seeing the hole burned an inch from his foot.
Angrily, he climbed back to his feet. “That was a warning shot!” he yelled. Then he glowered at Pearl. “Now look what you made me do!”
“Oh, honey-bunny, I’m so sorry! But---!”
“Pearl, can’t you see I’m busy threatening someone?”
“Covie, Joanna’s in the tent! She’s after the guns!”
Uh-oh, thought Joanna.
She jumped when Big Al’s voice came floating behind her; holding his head, his face was contorted with agony. “Ow! Would you guys shut up already? My head’s gonna explode!”
“You’re closer to the truth than you know,” Covington snarled, turning back toward the tent. Clumsily, he cocked the hammer and aimed at the gap between the tent flaps.
“No!” Baloo and Rebecca both shouted.
* * *
“Down!” Joanna hissed, unceremoniously shoving Big Al backwards; he fell, losing his balance. A bullet whizzed over their heads, scorching a hole through the back flap. From behind the canvas, a man cried out.
“Omigod --- Handy!” Joanna gasped.
Drawing the two ragged halves apart like curtains, Violet cautiously stuck her head inside. “He’s fine, Jo. Just missed him.”
Big Al sat up blinking. “Hey… who ya pushin’?”
“Shut up and start crawling,” Joanna told him tersely. Giving him a hard shove, she pointed to the ragged ‘entrance’ Violet had made. “Move!”
“My head’s spinnin’…”
“You heard her, you big baby. Hurry up!” Grabbing his collar, Violet yanked him halfway through, ignoring the two shirt buttons that popped off.
“Easy on the threads, sister!” he said indignantly. Then he frowned. “It’s raining…I’m staying inside…” He started to retreat backward.
Joanna pushed him again. “Get going, you big idiot! We’re sitting ducks in here!”
Covington heard their voices. Some innate sense of self-preservation told him that if he followed them into the tent, he would lose control of the situation. Maintaining his proximity near Molly and the weapons, he aimed again.
“Joanna, get outta there!” Baloo bellowed.
Thinking fast, Joanna mimicked Pearl’s abrasively squeaky
voice. “Covie! Look out!
Again startled, he turned away from the tent and fired, narrowly missing Pearl, who shrieked and threw herself to the ground.
“Covie! What are you doing?”
“Confound it! You said there’s something behind me!”
“I didn’t say anything!”
”Yes, you did!”
“I did not!”
Meanwhile, between the two of them, Joanna and Violet forced Big Al through the back flap once more. Eyes wide, Handy stood perfectly still, apparently trapped in some hellish world of his own.
“Handy, get down!” Joanna ordered. “You’ll get hit.”
Violet said, “I think he’s in shock.”
“Great. One more thing to worry about.” Joanna glanced at Big Al, who was sitting on the ground, holding his head between his hands, eyes scrunched tight with pain. “We have to split up. He can’t shoot all of us if we scatter.” She noticed a large green barrel-shaped trash bin, several feet behind them, off to the right, and then one of the game booths. "You two dash out and get behind that trash can. And try to stay behind cover.”
“A trash can?” Violet raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
“Behind… cover?” Handy asked, his brow furrowing quizzically.
Joanna heaved a great sigh. Damn, I hate working with amateurs.
She spoke slowly and distinctly, as though addressing
someone who wasn’t too bright. “Keep ducking behind stuff until you get back to
Helen. Like stealing home, see?” She
glanced at Handy, who seemed frozen. He
stood there, mouth hanging idiotically open.
She tried to pull him along behind her, but he dug in his heels
stubbornly. “Damn it, Handy, will you move?”
”C-can’t… they’ll see me.”
“Go!” Joanna gave him a shove. “Forget it, Vi. Leave them with me. Only one person could fit behind the can anyway.”
“What’ll you do?”
“I don’t know… I’m making this up as I go.”
“Great,” the tigress mumbled.
”Get going,” Joanna told her. “He’s only got one eye. If you’re lucky, he won’t even hit you.”
“Thanks a lot.” Violet positioned herself to run.
Big Al chanted, eyes screwed shut, “Ow…ow…ow…”
Dazed, Handy muttered, “Reggie, they’ve got grenades…get to the foxhole…”
Glancing at them both, Joanna thought: I hate babysitting.
“Bombs! Dozens of ‘em! Reggie, watch out!”
Joanna slapped him across the face, making his head rock back. “Snap out of it!”
Rubbing his stinging cheek, Handy stared at her in reproachful surprise. “Joanna! Wha---what was that for?”
“Pay attention,” she said brusquely. “Or I swear I’ll leave you here. I’m sure as hell not dying for you!”
“Just who do you think you---!”
Covington fired another shot, making them both jump. Violet yelped as she sprinted toward the heavy metal drum. The bullet ricocheted off the trash can, then plowed through the nurse’s tent, leaving a hole, powder burns and all. Pearl seemed paralyzed as she watched, her eyes round with morbid fascination.
Joanna gave the old beaver an impatient shove. “Shut up. I’m not telling you again. Get out of here. Go!”
Finally, he stumbled through and was running in the rain until he was swallowed by the night.
You’d think someone who’d fought in the Great War wouldn’t be so damned useless, she thought cruelly. She glanced at Big Al, who was still sitting on the wet gravel, clutching his skull.
He needs a doctor… and soon. Hope Vi made it.
After a moment, Joanna looked up and saw Violet’s long tail protruding from behind the receptacle. She sucked in her breath. Almost as if she’d heard her, Violet quickly reeled it in and Joanna breathed a sigh of relief.
She could hear the muffled voices of Covington and Pearl, further disorienting her.
Glancing first at Big Al, she thought: To hell with it. “Lie flat on your stomach,” she ordered him, kneeling down herself. She felt the cold muddy ground seep through the knees of her borrowed slacks. Ugh.
“Why?” he slurred, leering at her.
“It--it’ll make your head feel better.” Dumbly, he obeyed. Since he was so big, it didn’t do much good; he was still a target… almost like a wall. She glanced at the burn hole in the back canvas, the one that had missed Handy’s head. It was too risky to run out yet. A shot fired low could easily hit them.
Big Al complained, “Aw, you lied… my head still hurts…”
“Shut up and lie down,” she snapped. “Good boy. Stay.”
Remembering an old technique that had been ingrained in her years ago, Joanna scooped up some mud and smeared it on her face and neck.
“Camouflage,” she said shortly, by way of explanation.
Big Al stared at her in openmouthed silence as she did so. The muddy, bedraggled creature next to him grinned, her teeth gleaming a terrifying white against the grime.
An almost faded memory from what seemed a lifetime ago, sprang to his brain.
“Sharks’ teeth always grow back,” Joanna had once told him, smiling, her dark eyes cold.
Big Al said in dazed wonder, “You look like hell.”
She stopped grinning. “I am hell.”
Slowly, she ventured a peek around the right side of the tent. Baloo had planted himself protectively in front of Rebecca, as the detectives grimly stood in front of them, trying to think what to do. It gave her an idea.
Instead of risking the dash to cover, Joanna lay on her stomach, trying to ignore the cold, clammy wetness, pressing herself flat to the soggy ground, leaving a couple of inches between herself and Big Al. She had to admit that he made a fine barricade.
Well, she thought. At least that lunatic won’t hit us both.
Behind her, she heard him sigh deeply and to her horror, found herself clumsily pulled closer, until her body curved against his bulk. ”Mmm… blankie…” Big Al muttered.
“Knock it off, you big ox!” she snapped, roughly pushing him away. The ground made wet, squishing sounds as she rolled a few feet away from him.
“Ahhh…sleeeeepy…” Completely exhausted, he curled up and began to snore softly.
Fine, she thought.
"Come out of there, you nasty little witch!" Covington snarled. His wrists ached from bearing the weapon’s weight, making him even angrier.
Joanna thought, maybe I could get him to use up his ammo. Crawling further out, she taunted, "Aren’t those scrawny arms of yours getting tired holding that thing yet?”
“I daresay I’m more comfortable than you are. Which is better --- being armed or hiding in the dark like a frightened insect?” He paused. “Although you’re more like a spider.”
“Where’d you get that line… a comic book?”
Easy… pace yourself. For a moment she thought she had gone too far. Your big mouth’ll get you killed someday for sure. Whenever she was nervous, inappropriate wisecracks just spilled out before she could stop them. She often lived to regret her need to have the last word.
Covington said, “You think you’re smart, don’t you? Well, you can’t stay there forever---!”
Behind her, a commotion interrupted them. Apparently still in shock, Handy had run to the nearest shelter he could find to hide from the enemy soldiers in his mind.
“Reggie… there you are! Shove over! They’re shooting up the place!” He tried to push next to Violet as she crouched behind the trash can, making her lose her balance.
Uh-oh. Joanna groaned. That stupid old fart!
“Handy, there’s no room! Go find your own hiding place!” Violet tried to shove him away.
“Both of you, come out of there at once!” Covington waved the gun threateningly.
“No! Stay where you are!” Joanna yelled to them. “Violet, don’t do it!”
Handy snatched up a discarded, soggy paper napkin and stood up, trying to wave it. It promptly fell apart in his hand. “Wait! Don’t shoot! We surrender!”
“What do you mean, we?” Violet snapped. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Soldier, are you disobeying orders?” The old beaver glared at her.
“You’re nuts---hey!” Suddenly, Handy grabbed her hair and tugged. She fell forward from behind the trash can, landing on her knees in the mud. Frantically, she tried to crawl back but Handy had caught her arm and forced her to stand.
“Sorry, Reggie. It’s for your own good.” His eyes were wild and shining. “Raise those hands, there, soldier. We’ll surrender with dignity.”
Violet punched him hard in the arm. “You stupid bucktoothed old---!”
A bullet whizzed several feet to their right. It was a poor shot, but they got the point. With their hands over their heads, Handy and a somewhat subdued Violet obediently walked to where Covington was waiting.
Joanna’s eyes widened. Magnums had six rounds. How many shots were fired? Was it four or five? He has either one or two bullets left. If he fires them all, he’ll be unarmed and I’ll have a chance. Grab the other guns, Gellar.
With Covington’s attention diverted, she acted.
They’re behind me, somewhere on the right side. He’ll be looking that way, so I should come up behind him from the left. Crawling past the dozing Big Al without a second glance, she snaked her way around the corner of the tent, heading for the weapons under the gurney, where Molly lay, soaking wet.
Unfortunately, Archer saw her and yelled in surprise. “Holy smoke! What’s that thing?”
“Lou! Shut up!” Thursday hissed. But it was too late.
Pearl, alerted to the disruption of her honey-bunny’s plans, saw Joanna reach for the guns. Just as her hand touched the second Magnum, Pearl suddenly stepped on her fingers.
Joanna yelped in pain and tried to free herself, but Pearl pressed her considerable weight on her fingers, effectively anchoring her.
“Good work, darling!” Covington crowed. He told Pearl to take both guns from their current position and place them at his feet, within easy reach. In a moment, Handy Joanna, and Violet were forced to lie in a row on their backs, arms at their sides, under the gurney, trapped between the two sets of wheels on each side. Molly remained where she was, above them. The downpour struck their faces, forcing them to turn their heads to the side. It didn’t help much.
“This is so embarrassing,” Joanna muttered.
“Tell me about it,” Violet answered. She glared over Joanna’s head at a cringing Handy. “Next time, get captured by yourself!”
Covington was smug. “Here you all are in one place, where I can keep an eye on you.”
“Pretty funny coming from a Cyclops,“ Joanna drawled.
“Jo, for once in your life, shut up!” the tigress hissed at her. “You aren’t helping.”
“She’s right. I wouldn’t talk if I were you.” Then he got a good look at her and started to laugh. “Good grief, Joanna, what have you done to yourself? You’re a disreputable sight.”
“Oh, you mean my mud pack? It’s my nightly routine.”
“I should think your nightly routine would be to bite some poor fellow’s neck and drain him dry.”
“Good one,” she said dryly.
“Covie,” Pearl whined. “Let’s just go. My feet hurt and I want to get out of the rain.”
“Will you just---I mean, all in good time, my little mermaid. I still have unfinished business to resolve. I know---why don’t you watch them for me? That’ll be a big help.”
She brightened. “Don’t worry, Covie! They’re not going anywhere!” she said stoutly. “I’ll watch them every single second.”
And she did. In her determination to please him, Pearl was an excellent guard. There was no way, wedged between her best friend and an old coot she merely tolerated, that Joanna could make a move. With the three of them trapped between the two axles, arms at their sides, they were stuck.
With Covington distracted, Thursday realized they had a window of opportunity in which to act. It had to be now.
“All of you --- scatter!” he said in a loud whisper. “Stay behind cover and make your way out of the park if you can. Archer, try to get to the car and radio for back-up.”
Baloo and Rebecca both protested, “But Molly---!”
He cut them off. “Let us do our job. We’ll do everything possible to save her and the others, but we can’t do it effectively if we have to worry about you.”
Baloo swallowed and nodded. “Okay.”
They started to obey, but the squishy sound of their feet alerted their nemesis. Thursday and Archer managed a few steps, but stopped when Covington commanded, “Don’t move!”
But Baloo whispered, “Hurry!” to Rebecca and they ran blindly toward the ring toss game booth.
“Why, you---!” With an effort, Covington raised the large handgun with both hands and pointed it in their general direction.
How difficult could it be? he thought. Those ignorant cowboys in the movies do it all the time.
Baloo noticed that Covington was not even aiming. He was simply pointing it! He watched as the heavy barrel waved wildly. The scrawny jaguar wasn’t up to the task of holding it steady.
Gritting his teeth in anticipation of the recoil, he squeezed the trigger.
“Down!” Baloo shouted, knocking Rebecca off her feet in a flying tackle. They rolled a couple of times along the ground, softened by the downpour, coated with mud. When they finally stopped, he was almost on top of her.
She grunted and pushed him away. “Baloo, get off!”
“Gee, you’re welcome, boss lady.” Too shaken to be really offended, he obliged.
Rebecca looked up, past Baloo’s shoulder and saw a round, burning hole in one of the wooden slats of the game booth. The bullet had just missed her head. For a moment, they stared at each other until she managed to choke out, “Remind me to give you a raise.”
“Count on it.”
With a grunt, Covington squeezed the trigger again but all that came out were a series of angry, frantic clicks. His eyes widened in surprise.
“Oh no, it’s broken!”
Bullet Number Six, Joanna thought. Come on, somebody, grab those guns before he…
Thursday and Archer glanced at each other and rushed him. Covington squeaked in panic, until he remembered that the other two guns were lying at his feet, being slowly immersed in a rain puddle. Tossing the useless Magnum to the side, he quickly snatched up the other Magnum and the derringer. From the way the detectives stopped in their tracks, he knew these ones were loaded.
Six shots for the Magnum, two for the popgun, Joanna thought morosely. Eight to go. She hoped that the rain sabotaged them.
”Come on!” Still crouching, Rebecca pulled Baloo behind her; sliding in the slippery ooze, they managed to jump over the counter and duck behind the booth. Panting, they flattened themselves to the ground. Above them, several stuffed toys hung from the wire cage walls. The first prize, a large grinning pink bear, hung suspended behind them, arms outstretched for a hug.
For a moment that seemed to last forever, they waited.
Then, very cautiously, Baloo peeked over the edge. The jaguar saw movement and the top of his gray head; enraged, he pulled the trigger. Rebecca’s hand flashed out, grabbed his earlobe and yanked. With a muffled yelp of pain, he went down with her. There was another explosion, then they were showered with a confetti of cotton stuffing. Looking up, Baloo saw that the grinning pink bear was now missing a head. He shuddered, rubbing his ear.
“Thanks, Becky,” he breathed. “Ya saved my bacon.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said wryly. Distastefully, she brushed herself off, then him. “It’s a big job. I’ll have to expand the department.”
“If we ever get outta this one, Becky…”
She cut him off. “Shh…not now!”
“Come out of there!” Covington shrieked. His toupee hung crookedly over one ear in a comical fashion and he clumsily tried to straighten it with one hand. “I’m getting wet!”
There would be four bullets left, if it carried the same number of bullets as the first gun. Soon he would run out. That and the little gun, the one that had been strapped to that unpleasant detective’s ankle, were all that stood between him and prison. He doubted that they would last long at the rate he was going. I must save the bullets!
Suddenly Covington got an idea. “Fine,” he called. “Don’t come out."
“Now what’s he up to?” Baloo wondered aloud.
Turning, the jaguar strolled back to the gurney and addressed Molly. Tenderly he stroked her cheek. “What a shame that your own mother cares more about saving her own skin than protecting you."
Then, deliberately, he pressed the barrel against Molly’s temple and waited.
Baloo and Rebecca exchanged agonized glances.
“No!” Rebecca shrieked.
Defeated, they climbed back over the gallery table and slowly made their way to where he held the hostages.
At about the same time, Strummer, Bonnie and Helen neared the knot of people; by the time they realized that Covington, and not Thursday and Archer, was holding the gun, it was too late. All three froze.
Oh no, thought Covington. With wonder, he realized that he’d miraculously had everyone at his mercy. For a moment, a bizarre, almost ridiculous thought entered his mind. What shall I do? I don’t have enough bullets for everyone!
Helen gasped, “Oh dear Lord!”
Bonnie turned on Strummer. “You idiot, bringing us out here!”
“It’s not my fault! You followed me!”
“Get out of here!” Joanna shouted.
For the first time, they noticed the filthy, wild-eyed savage lying between Violet and Handy. Strummer’s mouth fell open. “Joanna? What has that monster done to you?”
Molly swallowed some rainwater and began to cough. Rebecca raised tortured eyes to Baloo and he squeezed her hand.
When she saw Molly, Helen was more outraged than frightened. “Ye—ye can’t do this!”
“I just did, you old raisin bag.”
“Oh, do stick a sock in it. It’s your own fault you’re going to suffer like the others.”
“Don’t you talk that way to her, you… you…” Strummer’s mouth opened and shut like a fish. “…you…bad man!”
“You’re as witty as you are handsome, Nicholas. Really, you do belong in a carnival… as an oddity, a freak of nature, if you will. I’m surprised your mother hasn’t thought of putting you in a cage and selling tickets.”
Strummer recoiled, trembling.
“That’s enough!” Helen shouted. “Ye rotter! Ye horrible… bugger!”
Covington winced. “There’s no need to be crude. But then you’re a common woman, Helen, very common. And so stupidly trusting. You gave shelter to a viper.”
“An’ I’m lookin’ right at ‘im!”
“Oh, you silly frumpy dumpling. I didn’t mean me.”
The jaguar cut a glance at Joanna.
Suddenly, Strummer pulled away from the group and broke into a run.
“Come back here, you coward!” Covington screamed. “I’ll shoot!”
He fired a wild shot into the darkness where the Strummer disappeared.
“No!” Helen shrieked. “Run, Nicholas, run!” She suddenly threw herself at Covington; the ferocity of the tackle nearly bowled him over, but he kept his balance. With angry disbelief, he saw that she had knocked his toupee clear off his head, where it sailed a few feet, landing in a puddle.
“Get off me!” Furious that she’d exposed his baldness, he gave her a hard push and she fell. He fought the urge to shoot again and waste more bullets. Strummer was gone. “Go on, run away, you miserable little freak!”
“You rotten creep!” Rebecca shouted. “Pushing an old woman into the mud! That’s low, even for you.”
“These are extraordinary circumstances, my dear Rebecca. I am not myself.” He cleared his throat, trying to regain his composure. “Now then… who shall I eliminate first?”
“Are you that stupid?” Rebecca snapped. Frayed nerves took over, despite her fear. “You don’t have enough bullets for everybody.”
“Becky!” Baloo hissed. “Don’t make ‘im mad!”
“I have enough… especially for you, my dear.” His expression became thoughtful as he glanced briefly above their heads. “But you’re right, of course. It would be foolish of me to waste perfectly good arsenal when there’s an even better way to dispose of you.”
End of Chapter 13