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.  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.)

 

 

Chapter 14

 


Baloo and Becky exchanged apprehensive glances.  What could Covington mean by ‘a better way of disposal’?

 

"Pay attention, you two.  I don’t want to repeat myself."  Covington gestured with the muzzle of his Magnum.  "Now… everyone get on the roller coaster.”

 

That’s his master plan? Rebecca thought.  Wildcat could come up with something scarier than that!  Although she didn’t want to give him ideas, she couldn’t help asking, “Why?”

 

He didn’t answer her.  Scowling in concentration, he mentally counted the first set of cars at ground level.  Seven. Then he added thoughtfully, “Yes…that’s how it shall be done. Leave the front and second cars empty.  Fill the other ones behind them.”

 

“The roller coaster?” Baloo shook his shaggy head rigorously, putting up his hands in a warding-off gesture.  “Nuh-huh, no way.  I ain’t getting’ on that thing again! Last time I lost my lunch.  Forget it.  No way.  Nosireebob!”

 

Rebecca, alarmed by his belligerent tone, kicked him in the shin.  “Zip it, Baloo!”

 

Covington inquired icily, “You’re not arguing with me… are you?” 

 

Baloo eyed the weapon pointed at his mid-section.  “Um…no.”

 

“Better do what he says,” Thursday said grimly. “He’s running this show.”

 

Under the gurney, between Handy and Violet, Joanna lay completely still.  In the dark of night and covered in mud from head to toe, she was barely recognizable.  Her long hair lay fanned in dirty strings on the ground; some strands trapped under those on either side of her, so that she couldn’t even lift her head.  As the rain hit her face, some of the mud washed away, leaving streaks.  From her dazed viewpoint, the metal monster loomed over them like a waiting serpent. 

 

She was dimly aware of Pearl roughly dragging the heavyset Handy out by his heels, grunting with the strain.  With him freed, she and Violet were able to sit up.  Pearl glanced nervously at Covington.  “Hurry up!  Covie wants you all to go.”

 

Wincing, she stiffly sat up, watching Handy and Violet follow the others as they stepped over the queue ropes and boarded the roller coaster.  Realizing that she was next, her stomach churned into a small, hard knot.

 

A panicked, childish voice in her mind shrieked, “Judy, get off!  It won’t hold both of us!”

 

Shortly, Thursday and Archer were sitting in the back car, stewing over the botched capture.  Bonnie and Violet were next, climbing into the car in front of them. Then came Handy, who obeyed without protest.

 

“Allow me.” Covington offered his hand to help Helen up, but she pulled away in revulsion.

 

“Beast!  Don’t ye dare touch me!”  With a grunt of effort, she managed to stand on her own.  Then, sobbing softly, Helen took a few steps.  At one point she stopped, eyes shut, and tried to breathe normally.  She shuffled further, forcing herself to go on, but stopped again.  Although she was several yards away, she took one look at the twisted rails and slowly sank to the ground, shivering with cold and fear.

 

Now what’s the problem?” Covington said impatiently.

 

“I—I’m feeling seasick,” Helen admitted.

 

“Don’t be a fool.  It’s not a boat.”

 

“Just…let me…catch my breath…”

 

“Well, hurry up.”

 

“Please… just give me a minute.”

 

“Hey, she can’t hurt you.  Leave her alone.”  Violet climbed out of her seat and made her way towards the elderly koala.  She put her hands up, warding off his objections. “Don’t shoot.  I’ll help her.”

 

“Hmmph.  Very well. You may have a moment to collect yourself.  I suggest you make use of it.”

 

“Thanks a heap.”  Violet’s sarcasm was lost on Covington, who was too distracted to care about the nuances of language.  Huddled in the mud, Helen looked very frail.

 

Violet knelt and carefully propped her up. “Here, put your head between your knees.  It’ll help.”

 

Joanna shakily followed a few feet behind, glancing behind her every now and then. Covington impatiently waved her forward. She started to comply, but suddenly sagged to her knees.  She forced herself to stand and stumbled toward the ride almost drunkenly, with the enthusiasm of one ascending a scaffold.

 

Too high!  Too high!

 

Her vision swimming, Joanna suddenly felt weak.  Her legs, suddenly numb, buckled under her and she ended up sitting down again.  Groaning, she could only hold her head in her hands and hope the world would stop spinning.

 

What’s wrong with me?  I can’t stand up! 

 

Pearl giggled.  “Oh, that’s too funny!  You have too much to drink?”

 

“I wouldn’t laugh if I were you,” Violet said.  “Once that creep’s done here, he’ll dump you quicker than sand on a grease fire.”

 

“Did you hear that, Covie!  She said---!”

 

Oh, Pearly-poo,” Covington suddenly sang.  I need you!

 

Pearl hurried back to his side.

 

“Yes?” she asked anxiously, clasping her hands and fluttering her eyelashes.

 

“Darling, roll Molly over there and unload her into the front car.”

 

“The roller coaster?” Pearl’s eyelashes stopped fluttering. “I don’t understand.”

 

“You don’t need to understand --- oh, just do what I tell you!  Molly is going for a little ride, that’s all.”

 

“But she’s not tall enough to go on it.” Pearl pointed timidly. “See the sign?  You must be this tall to ride…

 

“I know what it says, dum--er, dumpling.”

 

“Do you want me to untie her first? I don’t underst…”

 

“For heaven’s sakes, just dump her in the front car.  I realize that she doesn’t quite meet the height requirement.”  He broke into a fiendish laugh, waving at the sign. “But I’ll make an exception just this once.  Oh yes, and remove the gag.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I want to hear her scream,” he said coldly.  “I want her to be the first one to see the tracks rushing towards her before she has her little… accident.”

 

“But Covie…”

 

He gave her a hard look and she meekly fell silent, pushing the gurney to the spot he indicated.

 

With a grunt, Pearl picked up Molly and carried her to the first car of the roller coaster.  “I’m… really sorry about this,” she said sheepishly as she placed the child on the front seat.  When she was done, Molly was lying across the seat, staring up at her reproachfully.  Pearl had to look away.

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” she mumbled.

 

“I hate you!”

 

Pearl turned away from her, only to meet the wet, accusing eyes of Rebecca.  “No, don’t look at me.  Just… don’t!  We have to do this.  There’s no other way…” she whispered, almost to herself.  “I don’t have… anyone.”

 

The child’s face was reminiscent of a lemon out of season and she was having difficulty speaking. Her tongue was dry and her throat felt scraped raw.  “Mommy…” It came out in a rasp. “Mawvee…”

 

“It’s all right, baby,” Rebecca said, hoping her voice reached her.  “We’re going to get out of this.  You always wanted to ride the roller coaster, right?  It’ll be fun!” At the word ‘fun’, her voice broke.

 

"Hurry along," Covington said, his voice almost chipper.  "Climb on in, plenty of room for everyone."

 

Baloo and Rebecca backed up slowly, silently doing as they were told, stepping over the maze of ropes hung from short poles to control the line-ups to the ride.  Joanna remained sitting on the ground, staring straight ahead at nothing.


Covington was just about to order her to obey, when he glanced at Rebecca and noticed that she was defiantly starting to climb into the front car with Molly. He stopped her.

 

“No, no, you naughty girl.  You may ride the third car behind your brat.  I want you to have a perfect view of Molly’s very first solo flight into outer space!”  He laughed.

 

“I’d like ta knock him inta outer space…right inta the sun!” Baloo clenched his fists.

 

“Move along, all of you.  No, leave the safety bar where it is.  You won’t need it.”

 

“B-but…” Baloo protested.  “We’ll all fall out and break our necks!”

 

“You always were a visionary, Baloo.”

 

“Aw, have a heart!”

 

“Don’t waste your breath, Baloo. He doesn’t have one,” Rebecca said coldly. She looked at Covington with contempt.  “He never did.”

 

“It’s not that I don’t have the capacity to love, my dear,” he said mockingly. “I just didn’t love you. Didn’t it ever occur to you that you’re just not sixteen anymore?  Face it... you’re well past the expiration date. Who on earth would want a woman with a child?  You’re no Kitten Kaboodle.”

 

He watched in satisfaction as Rebecca staggered back, as though from a physical blow.  Bulls-eye, old chap.

 

Baloo glared at him. “Hey, you shut yer mouth!  Ya ain’t no prize yerself.” 

 

Thanks, Baloo,” she muttered, giving him a withering look.

 

“Aw, Becky… I didn’t mean it that way…”

 

“Oh, never mind! I don’t want to hear it.”

 

“Becky…” he said helplessly.  She turned her back on him.       

 

"If you two are done having your little lovers’ quarrel, I suggest you do as you have been instructed, and get into the bloody roller coaster!" he screamed.  "I still have a gun, and unless you want me to use it, move!"

 

Baloo and Rebecca quickly took their seats in the third car from the front.

 

“Don’t do something you’ll regret,” Thursday warned them.  If only I could get to the car radio.  Damn it, we were so close!  I can’t believe we questioned this guy and let him go just because he stunk of manure!

 

Rebecca craned her neck and took one desperate glance at her daughter but she could only see the end of one blue hair ribbon.  Molly lay with her face turned to the side in a vain effort to keep the downpour from getting into her eyes and mouth. 

 

“Oh, Baloo,” whispered Rebecca, her voice breaking.  “She’s soaking wet.  Why can’t he at least get her out of the rain?”

 

He patted her back and said only, “It ain’t over, Becky.”

 

Rebecca’s cheeks were streaked with tears.  I can’t take this!  I can’t take this!

Baloo put his arm around her heaving shoulders.

She sobbed, “Please, she’s just a little girl…”

 

“Little girl, all sugar and spice and everything nice?” he sneered. ”This would never have happened if she’d given me the doll the way she was supposed to. Terribly sorry, my dear, but that little hellion destroyed my life.  I’ve had a whole year to think about it… how I’ve dreamed of making her pay with hers.”

 

“What kinda nutty logic is that!”  Baloo exploded, temporarily forgetting his warning to Rebecca not to anger Covington.  It didn’t seem to matter anymore.

 

“It won’t take long and this way it won’t be my fault.  After all, I won’t actually push anyone off the edge.  It’ll be an accident.”

 

Covington…!” Rebecca pleaded.

 

“As for you, you’re going to watch her die, knowing you can’t do a thing about it.”

 

“You’re evil.”

 

“Evil?”  He gave a brittle, humorless laugh.  “Rebecca, you’re so easily fooled by appearances that you wouldn’t know evil if…” His eyes flickered contemptuously over Joanna.  “…it was right in front of you.”

 

“Just what’s that supposed to mean? And you can’t blame us for what happened to you!  You brought it all on yourself… and over a stupid doll.”

 

“Ah, Rebecca, I’d forgotten how charmingly naïve you are.  A widow with a child… it was probably years of loneliness for you, wasn’t it?  You craved attention and romance and I gave it to you.  I deserved to get something out of it. All I had to do was say exactly what you wanted to hear… remember?”

 

Rebecca wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “What happened to you?” she asked, hoping to stall for time.

 

He said bitterly, “My ex-partners held me prisoner and beat me savagely with anything they could get their hands on… even firewood.   Do you know how much beating a man can take without dying?  It was probably only an hour or so, but to me it was an eternity in hell.  They left me for dead, and I wasn’t far from it... they left me in the jungle to perish.  Some campers later found me and delivered me to a common bush doctor, of all people, but it was too late.  I lost my eye.”  Covington’s one good eye blazed with hatred at Molly.  “And all because of you!” he spat.

 

“But you can’t blame her for---for that!  Your partners are the ones who---!”

 

“They’re long gone and I shall never see them again, if you’ll pardon the pun.  So I’ll take what I can get.” 

 

“But--!”

 

“Oh, do stop it, Rebecca.  Do you think me so naïve that I don’t know what you’re trying to do?  The old ‘keep them talking’ routine.  I practically invented the art.”  He cleared his throat.  “Now say goodbye to your mother, Molly dear.  You’ll never see her again.”

 

* * *

“Wake up!  Time to go.” Joanna found herself rudely hoisted under the armpits and forced to stand.  Deliberately, she allowed herself to go limp --- it was an old trick to add weight, making it harder to be dragged away.

 

Dropping her, Pearl whined, “Covie, she’s too heavy...”

 

“Don’t feel bad…I wouldn’t be able to lift you either.” Joanna gave her a weak grin.  She couldn’t resist taunting her. “You’ll need a good chiropractor when your new hubby wrecks his back trying to carry your fat butt over the threshold.”

 

“Why, you…!” Pearl said a very unladylike word and kicked her hard in the back, making her gasp with pain.  Brutally, she caught Joanna long hair and jerked her to her feet.

 

Ow!

 

“Get going, you…you… tramp! You’re not gonna ruin this for me!”

 

Oh no.  With wide eyes, Joanna looked up at the menacing tracks once more, her heart pounding. Her breathing become erratic as she felt bruises already forming where the cat had kicked her.  Clamping her teeth shut, she hoped that the sour bile that already rising to her throat would stay down where it belonged.  I can’t go up there.

 

Her heart began to flutter in panic.  Suddenly, almost without thinking, she grabbed Pearl by the arm and flipped her over her shoulder.  Surprised, Pearl let go of her hair and went flying, landing on her back. 

 

Panting, ignoring Covington’s shouts, Joanna crashed to her knees behind her, jerked her up to a sitting position.   In one smooth movement, she wrapped her left arm around her neck in a chokehold.  Then, reaching with the other hand, she caught one of Pearl’s chins between her thumb and forefinger, and cruelly twisted it, making the girl squeal with pain.

 

“Now we’ll see if cats really do have nine lives,” she whispered in her ear.

 

Covie!

 

“What do you say, Covie?  You gonna toss the gun over here?”  Joanna paused.  “Or do I break Pearly-poo’s neck?”

 

“You couldn’t do it.  You don’t have the strength.” 

 

“Or the circumference, but I’ll make do.”  Grunting, she tightened her grip --- her fingertips barely even met --- and addressed her captive.  “Hey, notice how Sir Galahad here didn’t say, ‘No, please don’t hurt her’?  This could be fun.”

 

Pearl squirmed. “You’re hurting me!”

 

They’re ruining everything!  Covington was outraged.  “Don’t be a fool, Joanna! I have the gun, remember?”

 

“So you keep telling us.  Let me guess… you’d shoot but…” Keeping her grip firm, she positioned herself directly behind Pearl, using her as a shield.  “Love got in the way?”

 

“You have exactly ten seconds!”

 

“Or what --- you’ll shoot? Come on, you’re not that good.  You’ll hit Pearl.”

 

“Oh, Covie, don’t!  Pearl managed to squeak out. 

 

“Put the gun down and I’ll let her go.” Joanna was inexorable.

 

Go ahead and choke her, he was tempted to say.  Ultimately, it was a game of chicken.  Here she was, daring him. Why can’t they just do what they’re supposed to!  It’s not fair!  He raised the gun, and heard someone draw her breath sharply.  From the corner of his eye, he saw the cowering Helen, who was huddled in a ball, not seeming to care about the discomfort of the cold, pooling ground.  Absently, Violet patted her back, not taking her eyes off him. 

 

He looked away and quickly checked the roller coaster captives; his lone eye darted, doing the work of two. They were watching, but remained seated, obviously too afraid to move. Good, everyone had stayed put. If he could just get the rest onboard, he could switch it on and be on his way.

 

Joanna noticed the glance, and her heart clenched like a fist in her chest. If she could keep him distracted, she wouldn’t set one foot on that… thing.  She could never understand why people paid to get scared and nauseated on purpose.

 

If I go on it, I’ll die!

 

She tried to keep her tone light, almost mocking --- and hoped that her voice didn’t tremble.  “How many bullets do you have now, Covie?  You’ve used up so many that I’ve lost count.  Maybe you’d better open it up and check.”  

 

Do it. Please.

 

Open it? How on earth does one ‘open’ a gun? Covington’s heart skipped a beat.  Rob and Roy, his raccoon ex-partners, were ones who’d handled the nasty business of weapons before… that Molly incident.  He’d allowed them to worry about the cruder elements of crime, while he’d assumed the mantle of leadership, planning and orchestrating each ‘job’ as if each were a ballet.  He so despised confrontations.

 

Oh, why does it have to be so bloody complicated!

 

What if she was right? What if he fired and it didn’t go off?  They’d have him.  A parade of horrific images passed through his mind’s eye, mostly evoked from James Gagme movies and the more graphic tales relayed to him by his felonious partners before it all went wrong.  He remembered nights in the hideout when, bored by the monotony of laying low, and for their own sadistic amusement, the raccoon brothers used to tell him terrifying tales of inedible food, ugly convict uniforms with unflattering, horizontal stripes… gray, colorless days punctuated by beatings and heaven knew what else. If what they said was true, he’d be dead. 

 

I can’t go to prison!  I’d-I’d sooner marry Pearl!

 

“Look, why don’t you and your girlfriend just scram?” Violet said.  “No one’s dumb enough to take you on.  Just go. Get out of here.”

 

Just get out of there.  But take Pearl?  He hadn’t thought of that.  Was she still useful?

 

She had proven her loyalty and her physical strength was an unexpected bonus.  She’d attacked that Big Al, not caring that he could probably break her in two.  And she’d gotten in a couple of good blows with Joanna.  And she did it all for me.  Hmmm…perhaps I have my goon after all.  She might still have some use left. On the other hand, I can’t have a goon that insists on cuddling.  He shuddered.

 

“Covie, please!

 

“Relax, Pearl.  He’s not going to shoot.  He’s much smarter than I thought.”  Joanna said. 
 

Fighting to keep his tone steely, Covington said, “It’s a moot point, Joanna.” 

 

She hesitated, then squeezed harder, careful to apply pressure around the sides, not the throat.   She knew Pearl could breathe, but barely. “Fine.”

 

They stayed like that for several minutes, glaring at each other.

 

Meanwhile, most of the roller coaster’s occupants craned their necks, trying to see. The pattering rain made it difficult to hear the conversation, so they only caught snatches of it here and there.

 

Thursday’s jaw dropped.  “She’s got a hostage? What the hell’s that crazy dame doing?

 

Archer said darkly, “Getting herself killed… I hope.”

 

“You shut up!”  Bonnie turned her head to face him.  Her eyes blazed amber, briefly illuminating her plain features.  “I don’t want to think of any of us getting killed!”

 

“Watch your mouth, skirt.  I can have you arrested any time I want---!”

 

“For what? Telling you to shut up?”

 

Both of you shut up!” Thursday snapped.  “I don’t want to spend my last moments listening to the two of you yammer.”

 

Archer muttered something that sounded like ‘ugly witch’.  Except the word wasn’t ‘witch’.

 

Bonnie turned her back to them, muttering, “Horse’s ass.”

 

In the car in front of her, Handy had come out of his stupor and was watching Joanna and Covington argue, although he couldn’t hear a word.  “Damn that girl.  She’s gonna get Helen and Vi shot!”

 

Two seats ahead of him, neither Baloo nor Rebecca were paying attention to the commotion. They bent their heads together, whispering.

 

“Maybe we could try sneaking out the other side,” Rebecca murmured to Baloo.

 

“Naw, never work.  Too many tracks and steel in the way.  We’d get stuck.”

 

“You mean you’d get stuck.”

 

Before he could respond, one of the few sounds that ever stopped one of their arguments cold reached them from two seats ahead --- Molly sobbing.  It wasn’t particularly loud --- just a monotonous shuddering sound, occasionally broken only by a wet hiccup.

 

“Molly, it’ll be all right.  We’ll get out of this.”  Rebecca closed her eyes for a moment.  Liar.

 

“I-I’m sorry.”

 

“What for, sweetheart?” Baloo asked.

 

“If he didn’t have me, he’d w-wouldn’t have gotten everybody else.”  Then she burst into fresh tears.

 

“Hey, now, honey, this ain’t your fault,” he protested.  “It’s just bad luck, that’s all. Molly, we’re gonna get outta this, honey.  Just sit…er, lie tight.”

 

She sniffled.  “Are-are we gonna die?”

 

“No, Pumpkin,” Rebecca said with more conviction than she felt. “Don’t even think it.  Just try to stay calm.”

 

She strained to stand, but Baloo’s bulk made it a tight fit, so she gave up. “We have to get Molly out of here,” she muttered.  “We have to.”

 

 “We got one thing in our favor, Becky,” Baloo said.

 

“What?”

 

“That Covington cat don’t have all of us.”

 

“What do you mean?” Then she understood.  “Kit.”

 

Kit…where are you?  Are you safe?

 

* * *
 

Five minutes passed.  Covington and Joanna continued their silent battle of wills while Pearl’s face slowly turned red. 

 

Finally, Helen startled them by raising her head from her knees, her eyes shining with tears.  Her voice was unexpectedly sharp. “Joanna, let her go.”

 

“What?”  Joanna had been so intent on the staring contest that she’d actually forgotten about Pearl.  “You know what’ll happen if I do, Helen.”

 

“Look at her…look at you. Have you no heart, luv?”

 

“You don’t understand.” Joanna didn’t look at her, kept her focus on Covington, who listened intently. “I don’t expect you to.”

 

The koala shook her head sadly.  “No, I suppose I don’t.  I’ve tried, believe me.  I know ye’ve had a hard life, though ye won’t talk about it.   I loved ye like the daughter I never had…I thought ye’d respond to kindness and learn to love us back.  But ye haven’t changed a bit.”

 

Joanna compressed her lips stubbornly.  She wanted to yell, damn it, I’m not trying to kill her!  Just buying time.  She might pass out, that’s all. So what?  She glanced behind her and shuddered.  If I let her go, he’ll make me go on---!  Shut up, Helen --- I don’t need this.  Please.

 

Joanna, she don’t deserve this! 

 

She forced herself to smile brightly for Covington’s benefit, but avoided meeting Helen’s frightened, accusing eyes.  “Funny how she’s begging for the your sweetie’s life while you don’t say a word.  Why do you even bother to pretend you care about her?”

 

He didn’t reply, sensing that a weapon other than his precious gun was close to hand.  He just had to wait and figure out how to use it.  He noticed that Violet too was silent, and sitting perfectly still.  Probably playing possum.  Apparently she was smart enough to not call unnecessary attention to herself.

 

What a shame that your mother cares more about saving her own skin than protecting you.  Covington’s taunting words to Molly echoed in Joanna’s ears.  Then a harsh female voice she hadn’t heard since she was young, frightened and vulnerable:  Why couldn’t it have been you?

 

The elderly koala looked at her for a long moment.  “This is a terrible thing you’re doin’, Joanna.”

 

“Helen, for God’s sake, I’m working here!”  She hated the note of pleading that crept into her voice.   But even more, she wished she hadn’t said it at all.  It was an admission, if anyone cared to analyze it. 

 

Helen spoke quietly. “It’s wrong, and you know it!  If ye do this ye won’t be able to live with yerself.  Are ye gonna kill her --- just to make a point?”

 

Oh, come on, lady!  You think you’re saving me from making a big mistake?  You’re too late.  I’ve already crossed that line a long time ago. 

 

“Y-you don’t know what you’re asking.”  She began to squirm under that steady, sad gaze. Very slightly, she loosened her grip.

 

“If ye take her life, Joanna, I can’t forgive you.”

 

“Helen…” she said helplessly.  You don’t understand!  I can’t let him win.  I can’t be weak.  I can’t go on that ride.  I’m not bad.  I don’t want you to think I’m bad…dammit, don’t you dare cry, Gellar!

 

“Yes, listen to the old woman.  You lost this one, Joanna.  Just accept it.”

 

Her teeth clenched in helpless rage, Joanna released her deadly grip on Pearl.  The plump feline staggered to her feet, making a noise like broken bellows as she sucked air into her starving lungs.

 

Pearl spun around, still coughing and gasping.  She drew her hand back to slap Joanna.  But then she saw something in those dark eyes --- something cold that frightened her.

 

She dropped her hand without striking a blow.

 

“Oh, do stop fooling around and get over here... um, dearest."  Covington said.

 

Covington watched Joanna’s face, fascinated.  He thought he detected something… a weakness.  For a moment, she lost her stony expression and someone younger, more unsure, seemed to take over.  It dawned on him, for the first time in months, that without realizing it, Helen had a strange, yet powerful influence over her.  Who’d have thought that the dear old bag could do such a thing? 

 

“Time’s up, Helen dear.  Up and at ‘em, old girl.”

 

Helen moaned.  “Please…”

 

“Ya little chicken-wipe.”  Big Al’s gravelly voice was directly behind him.  “Touch one hair on her head and I’ll rip your skinny arms off.”

 

Covington turned to see the large brown bear, standing behind him, wobbling unsteadily on his feet and blinking repeatedly, as though he was having trouble focusing and staying alert. 

 

“How—how did you get here without me seeing you?” Covington demanded.  He sounded betrayed.

 

“Took the long way around the coaster…round an’ round the mulberry bush…ring around the rosy…”

 

Joanna groaned.  Why the hell did you have to announce yourself!  Why didn’t you just snap his neck and be done with it!

 

Violet stood up.  “Don’t be a dope, Al. This isn’t the time to play hero.”

 

He ignored her.  “You’re a real piece of work, Lance-or-whatever-your-name-is.” He shook his head, trying to clear it, but only succeeded in provoking the dull pounding sensation at the back of his head.  “Ow…I’m gonna rip your arms off an’ feed ‘em to ya…” His speech became slurred and he began to sway.

 

From their seats, the others watched with increasing tension. 

 

“What’s wrong with him?”  Rebecca fumed.  “Is he crazy?”

 

“He was down for the count when I fell on him,” Baloo answered.  “I musta hit him harder than I thought.”

 

Thursday whispered to Archer, “We’ve got to do something!  Now, while he’s distracted!”  He stood up carefully, keeping an eye on the scene, and quickly stepped over the door and landed in a crouch, using the car as a shield.  With a grunt of one who hated exercise, Archer followed suit.

 

As he crawled past the hostages, Thursday whispered, “Now…very slowly…do what we’re doing.  Stay behind the cars and don’t even poke your heads up, understand?  That’s an order.”

 

Archer added helpfully, “He might blow it off.”

 

“What about Molly?” Rebecca whispered.  “She can’t---!”

 

“Quiet!” Archer snapped, a little too loudly. 

 

Thursday slapped his forehead.  I gotta get me a new partner.

 

Covie’s head snapped in their direction.

 

“I say!  Get back to your seats right now!”  Grumbling, they obeyed.

 

Big Al lurched almost drunkenly toward Covington, clumsily swinging his meaty fists.   “Come on, tough guy,” he jeered. “Or can ya only push ‘round wimmen an’ li'l kids!”

 

Eyes wild, Covington shrank back and pointed the barrel at Helen. “L-lay a hand on me and I’ll—I’ll blow her brains out!”

 

Thursday and Archer exchanged glances, telegraphing the mutual thought:  Cripes ---he’s starting to panic.

 

Big Al halted, and his fists fells to his sides.

 

“You bastard!” Joanna snarled, her brain echoing with childish pleas and shrieked obscenities.

 

Nonononononono…just you try it you bastard don’t you dare touch her if you do there won’t be anything left of you to find I swear… “You hurt her and I’ll---!”

 

“You won’t do anything, miss!” Thursday said sharply.

 

“Yeah, get out of the way.” Archer added to Covington, “Or how about this, bub?  Let the old lady go and take that one instead.”

 

“Shut up, Lou.”  Thursday kept his voice calm.  “Miss, I know you don’t want anyone to get hurt.  Let us handle this…please.”

 

Something registered. “All right,” she said grudgingly.  She sat back down, not even feeling the rain anymore. 

 

Archer smirked.

 

Covington cleared his throat loudly.  “Hello?  Would you people kindly remember who’s in charge?”

 

She rounded on him, staring at him with pure hatred.  “You’re nothing.  And you don’t know me at all.”  

Big Al started to say something, then was overcome by another wave of pain.  His strength spent, he began to sag.  Violet saw it coming; but instead of catching him and allowing herself to be pulled down with him, she stepped neatly out of the way.   He groaned and lay still. His head still throbbed, but he tried to think clearly.  He kept his eyes closed, playing possum.  Something told him his life depended on it. 

 

Joanna stared at him balefully. Damn it, Alphonse, you had him!

 

“Well, that was almost heroic,” Covington said. 

 

The barker looked painfully vulnerable as he lay in the mud, the rain darkening his clothes, making them cling to his large frame.  He reminded Joanna of a hit-and-run accident victim she once knew.  A big man was no match for the bullet-like speed and deadly accuracy of a well-aimed vehicle, as she recalled.  Not exactly a fair contest, but any notion of fair play had long ago been expelled from her code of ethics.

 

“Great,” Violet looked down at him, obviously disgusted. “Now what?”

 

“Leave him,” Covington said curtly.  “Violet, it’s time.  Help her up.”

 

Helen’s tearful face was ashen. Violet helped her stand, and together they walked; again the elderly koala stopped several yards shy of the roller coaster.  She turned, addressing Covington weakly.  “I can’t,” she gasped.  “For God’s sake, don’t make me do this!

 

The misery and terror on the elderly koala’s face was more than Joanna could stand.

 

“Aren’t you listening?” Joanna shouted.  “Look at her! She can’t take it.  She barely made it on the ferry over here without throwing up.”

 

He wrinkled his nose.  “All the more reason to get her far away from me.

 

Thursday added, “Look, we know you didn’t set out to kill that Weazel character…”

 

“The hell he didn’t!” snapped Archer.

 

Thursday kicked him and continued earnestly, “Things happen, get out of control. You’re not a cold-blooded murderer.  But if this lady’s heart gives out, Covington, you will be.

 

For a moment, Covington faltered.  Then he said, “I’m sorry, detective, I truly am.  But things have gone too far.”

 

“If you give yourself up now...“

 

That’s not an option!  The jaguar cut him off. “Enough of this. Get on the ride, Joanna.”

 

“No.”  Her mind raced and tripped over a recent memory.  “Besides… don’t you want your key back? I still have it, you know.”

 

“Where?”

 

“In my trailer.  Wait here, I’ll get it…” She started to walk away, then froze when she heard the click of the hammer.

 

“Nice try, but I know your tricks by now.  Tell me where it is.   It’s of no possible use to you!”

 

“Well, sure it is,” Joanna said with a forced laugh, darting a glance at the roller coaster. “I could have it melted down and made into earrings.  Real gold, isn’t it?”

 

“It’s the Gold Key of Comixia… worth millions!  My key.  I trust it’s still in that battered blue case of yours.”

 

“Yep.”

 

“You? How’d you get it?” Thursday demanded.  “That’s a valuable museum piece!”

 

“I found it on the beach the day I came to Cape Suzette.  He lost it, I guess.”

 

“Lost it!” Covington exploded.  “You stole it!”

 

“No, you stole it.  I found it.”

 

Thursday stared at her. “And you never turned it in? Frankly, Miss Midway, I’m shocked.”

 

“Told you so,” Rebecca muttered.

 

Joanna shot her a baleful look.  “I’m not a mind reader.  How was I supposed to know where it came from?”

 

Archer broke in.  “It was in the news! Cripes, don’t you ever read the papers, lady?”

 

“I get so sick of people asking me that.  Why should I care about a stolen key?”

 

“It was stolen from the museum!

 

“So?  It’s not like I was robbed.”

 

“That’s a very selfish attitude,” Thursday told her.

 

“Get off my back.  Stealing a key is nothing compared to…” She stopped abruptly, as though she had said too much.   But before anyone could wonder, Covington interrupted.

 

“I do beg your pardon, but have you forgotten who’s in control here?  Joanna, give me the key to your trailer.  I don’t trust you to retrieve my property, so I’ll conduct a search myself.  And maybe take a few other souvenirs if they strike my fancy.”

 

Scowling, she reached into her pocket and tossed it to him.   She would have preferred to throw it hard, but the act of drawing her arm back would warn him.  It landed at his feet.  She took grim satisfaction in the fact that he had to bend to retrieve it.

 

He pocketed the trailer key, glaring at her, knowing perfectly well that she had done it on purpose. “I owe you for so much, Joanna.  Has anyone ever told you that you’re an extremely obnoxious woman?”

 

“Aw, I love you too.”

 

“I’ll be delighted to be rid of you. You were so determined that my time here would be nothing but misery.  Now you will suffer.”

 

“What makes you think I didn’t?” Joanna tried to keep her voice light and mocking, but it shook, spoiling the effect.  “I had to put up with the smell.”

 

“Get on.”

 

“But…” Joanna said desperately.  Beads of sweat dampened her hairline.  “What about those cufflinks?  Don’t you want them back?”

 

“My dear, with the key, I can buy all the cufflinks I want.”

 

“Shouldn’t I stay down to work the ride?  You’ve never operated it before,” Joanna asked. 

 

“Nice try.  It doesn’t take a genius to maneuver an on-off switch.  Get in the second car in front of the fatso and the fool.”

 

Rebecca’s eyes flashed… with tears or rage, Baloo could not tell.  Joanna’s face paled, her eyes wide as she stared at the monster of looping steel.

 

“No.”

 

No?” he asked incredulously. “You dare to say ‘no’?  You have no choice.  I’m the one with the gun.” With that, although his wrists ached, he raised it higher, “Perhaps I should make an example of you.  So the rest will understand the gravity of your situation.”  Suddenly, he laughed, a high-pitched giggle.  Gravity!  And you’re going to fall!  Oh, that’s a good one!”

 

“Wish he’d take his act on the road.  Maybe a truck’d hit him,” Baloo muttered.

 

They could hear Molly sniffling.  Rebecca said urgently,  “Baby, talk to me. Mommy’s right here.  Try to be brave, sweetheart.”

 

Silence.  She and Baloo looked at each other, hardly daring to wonder.

 

The jaguar suddenly stopped laughing and turned his attention back to Joanna.  “I insist that you get in.”

 

“I can’t…” Nervously, she licked her lips.

 

“Hurry up!” He waved the gun in her face and was chagrined to see that her attention was not on him, but beyond him, chin raised and eyes fixed above his head.

 

“What on earth is so bloody fascinating?” he snapped, barely turning his head to look, then back at her.  “Do as you’re told or I’ll…”

 

“I don’t care!  Get this over with --- shoot me!  Whether it was her transfixed expression or the raw hoarseness in her voice, no one was sure what made Covington slowly smile with dawning comprehension.

 

“I see…” he said softly.  “Afraid of heights, are we?”

 

“Go to hell!”  Joanna’s voice was shrill… the voice of a defiant, yet frightened child.

 

“No, thank you, my dear.  I’ve already been there.”  He sighed with pleasure.  “Imagine the fun you’ll have…the car rattling along the tracks, up and down…slowly rolling up each hill, teetering precariously on the edge…”

 

“Shut up.” 

 

He was pleased to note that she was already turning pale. “…round and round, upside-down…then the endless drop that sends you hurtling down until you hit the bottom, then it starts all over again… “

 

Shut up!

 

Baloo gulped.  “He’s makin’ me sick!”

 

“…then up, up, up, higher and higher… I do wonder how those fragile little cars stay on the track when they do those loops.  And how fast they must go!  Must be at least one hundred miles an hour.  Or could it be two hundred?  At that speed, you’re bound to fly off the rails…”

 

Joanna’s face was now the color of cottage cheese as she fought to banish the picture he painted from her mind. 

 

Judy!  Hang on!

 

“I’ve heard that there have been… unfortunate accidents in these things.  Wasn’t there that incident in the little town of Accidentia, Prone a few years ago?  One of the cars went flying off the tracks and the results were very sad. Those poor children.  Tragic, really.” Covington shook his head in mock sorrow, then his voice hardened.  Get in, Joanna.

 

Joanna was visibly shivering in the rain, her eyes wide with horror.

 

“No,” she croaked.  “I can’t.”

 

“Very well.” Covington thought for a moment, then called out in mock politeness, “Oh, Helen!  Come here, will you please?  I’ve decided that you don’t have to go on the ride.”

 

Hesitantly, with a mixture of relief and dread, Helen slowly obeyed.

 

“Your vertigo and fondness for the frumpy dumpling are your weaknesses, Joanna… your Achilles heels.”

 

“That anythin’ like athlete’s foot?” Baloo whispered to Rebecca.  She ignored him, craning her neck, trying to see Molly.

 

He indicated Helen, who stood between them, trembling and soaking wet.  “It took nearly all summer, my dear, but I have finally figured out how to control you.  Get on with the others.  Do it or I’ll --- what’s the phrase? --- pistol-whip dear Helen.”

 

Everyone gasped. 

 

Joanna’s voice cracked. “You wouldn’t!”

 

”Well, I wouldn’t enjoy it,” he admitted. 

 

“You’d do that?” Joanna still couldn’t seem to move, although her tone was uncertain.  “Just to get to me?”

 

With trembling hands, he raised the weapon.  Helen tried to cover her face, but he barked at her to put her hands down.  “Do you really want to find out, Joanna? Are you sure you want to take the chance?”

 

With wide eyes, Joanna looked up at the menacing tracks once more, her heart pounding. She felt her breathing become shallow.  I can’t go up there. 

 

When Helen raised her head, their eyes met.  Her tearful face was dead white.

 

If she dies, it’ll be my fault.

 

“Don’t hurt her!” she choked out.  She swallowed, tasting sour bile. “I’ll… I’ll… go.”

 

“Excellent.  Proceed.”

 

“You little bastard,” she said under her breath. Very slowly, almost stumbling, Joanna made her way to the roller coaster and clumsily climbed into the boxcar behind Molly, who lay bound across the seat.  For a moment she looked up at the seemingly endless loops of wood and steel.  She would have prayed if she had believed in God anymore.

 

 

Ferris Wheel

 

Kit heard faint snatches of their voices, though none of the conversation. He’d heard the shots and froze, forcing himself to retain his slippery grip.

 

Looping the binocular case around his neck, Kit gingerly stood up in his seat, keeping his balance.  Good thing the old man left me here.  As long as that creep’s busy with the others, I’ll have a chance.

 

This thing’s like as a skating rink!  One wrong step and…no, don’t think about it.

Just go!
   

 

Shaking his wet hair out of his eyes, Kit continued to ease out of the seat and carefully planted his foot on the rain-slicked metal beam.  Easy does it… easy… no worse than the outside of the Iron Vulture on a rainy day…

 

Just as Kit lifted his other foot from the seat’s back, it rocked, creaking noisily. The sound startled Kit and his right foot missed his foothold.  Catching his breath sharply, he steadied himself and continued his descent.  Hand over hand, holding his breath, he made his way to the center of the wheel, forcing himself to take his time.  He had to extend his arms as far as he could to reach the spokes, which were spaced far apart.  After a couple of false starts, he latched onto it and nimbly climbed down.  Finally, his feet touched a cold puddle.

 

Made it, he thought.  Exhaling, he allowed himself a moment to lean against the central supporting beam, rubbing his arms, trying to generate some circulation.  The descent made his shoulders ache from his hard work.  His sweater, sopping wet, seemed to weigh a ton.  The little pockets in the knitted material collected tiny raindrops until his sleeves and hem sagged from the weight.  He managed to wring some of the excess water out of the drenched material, but it didn’t help much.

 

Kit could see a small knot of people near the roller coaster; removing the binoculars from its case, he peered through the lenses and although he could not hear their conversation, what he saw made him clench his fists with rage.  The same creep who had made Wildcat cry held everyone at gunpoint.

Geez, even the cops can’t do anything.   Kit was willing to bet that he was probably a lousy shot, but with that many people clustered together in front of him he was almost bound to hit someone, even if it was not the person he was aiming at.          

 

Although the Ferris wheel was near the roller coaster, he was fairly sure that he could sneak over undetected.  He knew how to hide and blend into the scenery if he had to. The darkness was his friend.  But never did he allow himself to forget that Covington was armed.

 

Don’t rush.  Pick your moment, Cloudkicker.

 

He edged his way closer, keeping in the shadows, ducking behind various booths as he’d seen the others do.  Trying not to slosh in the puddles, he had to walk in slow, deliberate steps.

 

Easy does it.  If I can hear him, he can hear me.  If I only could hit him with something…

 

Almost automatically, Kit reached down and brought out his airfoil, absently tracing the boomerang shape with his fingertips.   It definitely wouldn’t sail as far as a real boomerang; he would have to get closer.

 

It could work.

 

Pushing Helen ahead of him, Covington approached the roller coaster and stopped at the ropes.  As he got closer, Kit heard Helen sobbing.

 

“Stop that infernal noise before I change my mind.”

 

Rebecca sat quietly weeping, her face buried in her hands.  Baloo stared grimly ahead, awkwardly patting her back.  Behind them, Violet and Bonnie, then Archer and Handy, then Thursday at the back, sat tensely, waiting something to happen.   In the seat in front of them, gripping the sides of the car with her eyes closed, Joanna sat poker straight, her breathing harsh and erratic.

 

Emerging from the darkness, Kit crept quietly behind Covington, keeping his head low, his steps small and measured, trying to keep from making audible splashes in the muck.  The strap of the heavy binocular case was digging into his shoulder, so he carefully set it down.

 

With Helen in tow, Covington went to the operator’s control box and reached for the lever.  Involuntarily, the unwilling passengers braced themselves for the jolt forward.   “Ah, Rebecca, it was truly a pleasure to see you again.”

 

She raised her face from her hands, her eyes red and swollen.  “It’ll be a pleasure to see you hanging from a meat hook.

 

Unable to resist getting the last word, his hand dropped.  “My, but the lady is bloodthirsty.  Keeping company with that ruffian pilot of yours has certainly coarsened you.”

 

“Maybe it has.  What’s your excuse?”

 

“You have a very sharp tongue.  No wonder no man stays with you for long.”  Covington shook his head and reached for the lever again.  “Really, Rebecca, were you always such an ill-tempered little shrew?” As he spoke, his hand, hovering over the lever, slowly fell to his side.

 

Finally, Baloo noticed.  Hey, that dirty Covington cat can’t walk and chew gum at the same time!

 

Kit accidentally kicked a discarded paper cup, startling himself.  Oops.  Covington started at the sound.

 

Baloo thought fast. “It’s true, all right,” he agreed.  “Ol’ Beckers is so ornery she makes a gorilla bird look cuddly.”

 

“Baloo! How dare you speak that way to me!”

 

“Hey, I was only speakin’ about ya, not to ya,” he protested. “’Sides, we all understand that a gal without a man is bound ta get all crabby and mean-like over time.  Don’t feel bad --- it’s only natural.  It ain’t yer fault.”

 

She punched him in the arm, making him yelp.  “And this isn’t my fault, either!” 

 

Ouch!  But even as he said it, Baloo squeezed her hand.  Rebecca realized that it was a signal for her to keep talking.  Buy the kid time was the general message.

 

“Why, you big meathead!  I wouldn’t have to ride you so hard if you’d just do what you’re told!”

 

“Oh, yeah?  Since when do I hafta follow your orders, Boss Lady?  We ain’t at Higher for Hire.  Ya got no power here.”

 

“Just wait!  As long as I’ve got the Sea Duck, you’re --- y-your services are mine, and don’t you forget it!” Rebecca growled.  She jabbed her index finger into his chest, playing the outraged woman to the hilt.

 

“Oh sure!  Blackmail… what a surprise,” he said, swatting her hand away. “Just proves my point, that’s all.”

 

“Which is?” She crossed her arms, waiting. 

 

Covington’s head swiveled back and forth as he tried to keep up with them.

 

Kit was aiming now, his arm raised to hurl the airfoil.

 

“That nobody would stick with ya ’cept by force.  Ya got the charm of a rattler when ya got yer dander up.”

 

Rebecca’s mouth fell open.  “You should talk!  What about all the customers we lose because of your bad manners?  And your sloppy grooming? And your lateness?  And that egg sandwich you forgot in the safe for two weeks?  You’re a germ-carrier with a pilot’s license.”

 

“Oh, yeah?  Well, you’re so cotton-pickin’ fussy that I wonder that ya don’t frisk me for fleas in the mornin’”

 

“I’m surprised you remember to flush,” she retorted.

 

“So ya do check… little Miss Tidy!”

 

“I do not… slob!

 

“Meddlin’, plane-stealin’ female!”

 

“Big hairy…walking carpet!” Rebecca started to stand.  “Get out of my way.”

 

Wild-eyed, they squared off against each other, panting.  For a brief moment they forgot that they were held at gunpoint.

 

Sit down!” Covington shouted.   They both looked at him.  “I never saw such a disgraceful display of such wanton hooliganism in my life!”  When they were seated, he tried to recover his composure. 

 

He switched the gun to his left hand.  With his other hand on the lever, he bowed mockingly to Rebecca.  “I bid you adieu.”

 

Just then, Kit’s airfoil shot past him, just barely missing his head by a few inches. With a loud *clang*, it ricocheted off a nearby post, then several overhanging rails, making everyone jump.  For a few seconds, their attention, including Covington’s, was commanded by the flying board, until it finally landed.

 

Yeow!  Baloo rubbed his head.

 

Just as Covington turned around, Kit tackled him, knocking the gun out of the surprised jaguar’s hand.  It went skittering a few feet, landing out of reach.

 

“No!  Get off me, you filthy urchin!”

 

The cub made a fist and punched him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him.   “And that’s for Wildcat, ya sonuva---!”

 

Who?

 

Kit growled from deep in his chest, and the rest was drowned out by Covington’s shriek of pain.          

         

“No!  Mmmph!”” Covington tried to cry out, but got a mouthful of sodden dirt instead.  Kit sat on his neck and shoved his face into the mud.  Only when he raised one arm to punch Covington’s ear was the jaguar able to raise his head, gasping for air.

 

The moment he did, Kit scooped up another handful of sludge and viciously jammed it into his mouth, nearly choking him.

 

Get him, kid!” he heard Violet shout.

 

At that, Covington’s head snapped back and he accidentally head-butted the boy.  Waves of pain emitting from his forehead, Kit blinked dizzily, seeing stars.  “Ow!”

 

Covington rubbed his own head, remembering, with a pang, that his hair was lying like a clump of pulled weeds in a puddle somewhere.  Mud was encrusted in his mouth and nostrils, he coughed and spat, trying to swipe the worst of the gunk out of them without picking his nose.  Some sand was stuck in his teeth.

 

“Lou, come on!  Let’s collar him!”  Thursday shouted. “The kid’s got him!”  The detectives started to rush forward.  The others started to climb out too, but Archer turned his head and snapped, “Stay there.  I’ll give the word when it’s safe.”

 

Joanna ignored him and climbed out anyway.  With small, unsure steps, she followed them, keeping her back to the roller coaster.

 

Clumps of grit clung to Covington eyelashes, making it difficult to see.  Raising his head like a turtle, he tried to spot his lost weapon.  Helen started to bend to retrieve it, but Pearl was too quick and suddenly scooped it up instead.

 

“No!  That’s mine---!” Covington tried to speak, but Kit shoved another handful of mud into his mouth instead. “Mmmph!”

 

Pearl picked up the gun and with shaking fingers, aimed at the boy.  “Y-you leave m-my sweet baboo alone!”

 

Thursday and Archer halted a few steps away from them and Kit froze.  “Lady, put that down,” he said, fighting to keep his voice even. “You don’t want to---!”

 

“G-get off him,” Pearl stammered. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, almost as though she might hyperventilate.  “You… bully! 

 

“Better do it, kid,” Thursday murmured.  “She’s a loose cannon.”

 

She glared at him. “Who’re you calling loose?

 

“Nobody, miss.  But please, put down the gun before you hurt someone.”

 

“Let him go,” Pearl told Kit.

 

During this exchange, Kit didn’t move.   He knew he should, but the obstinate part of him scorned the idea of surrender.  Stubbornly, he kept firm hold of the back of his prisoner’s neck, unwilling to give up his advantage. Pearl was in unfamiliar territory, obviously nervous as hell, making her arguably more dangerous with the gun than Covington.  

 

Thursday’s quiet voice belied the urgency in his tone.  “Uh, Kit…”

 

I mean it!

 

Finally, reluctantly, he complied.  “Okay, okay.  I’m doing it, see?”

 

Her eyes bright with fear and anticipation, she lowered the barrel a couple of inches, satisfied that her ‘sweet baboo’ was no longer being prosecuted.

 

Coughing, Covington managed to stand and approached Pearl.  Up close, her nostrils flared as she tried to breath through her mouth.  Then again, if he made a sudden move and she flinched…

 

“Your hands are shaking.  You’ve never fired a gun in your life, have you?”

 

“N-no…”

 

“It’s all right, sweet Pearl,” Covington said kindly.  “Just hand it over, nice and gentle…”

 

“No, don’t!” Kit blurted out, but they ignored him.

 

Pearl looked up at Covington appealingly.  “I’m… scared,” she whispered. 

 

“I know --- me too.  But you saved me, darling.  You must be so exhausted.  Now let me take care of you.”  He held out his hand until she obediently placed the weapon in his waiting palm.  “There’s a good girl.”

 

At this faint praise, even in her fear, her smile was tremulous and desperately bright.

          

“And now, my dear Pearl,” Covington said. “It’s your turn.”

 

Confused, her smile dimmed several notches. “M-my turn?”

 

Impatiently he gestured toward the roller coaster.   “Get in, Pearl.” 

 

What?  Her mouth fell open in disbelief.  “B-but I helped you!”

 

“Thank you, my darling.  There were times when you weren’t completely useless.  Now move along.”

 

Please!” Pearl sobbed. “Lance, I thought you loved me!  I thought ---!”

 

“Oh, don’t make me laugh.  You were just an easy way to get to Joanna and the key.”

 

Don’t make me laugh.  She was just an easy way to get to you and the doll. Rebecca winced.  No matter what this foolish girl had done, she could not help but feel sorry for her.

 

“But what about your promises?  What about this? You gave me your mother’s ring…” She held up her hand, exposing the ring, then, as reality hit her, let it sag.  “You lied to me?” Her tone was that of a trusting child who’d been told the truth about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, all at once.

 

“Very observant of you, if rather late.”  Almost intoxicated by sudden power, Covington felt a surge of elation.   The weight of frozen smiles and lies of the past few months was lifted and he could breathe again.  My drudgery is over!

 

His tone became ugly. “Dearest Pearl, I’d also like to take this opportunity to speak my mind.  Everyone here thinks you’re a laughingstock… a joke.”

 

W-what?

 

“Come now, you’re not deaf.  Dumb, but not deaf.”

 

“All this time…” she whispered. “You’ve been laughing at me…”

 

“Believe me, it ceased to be humorous a long time ago.  Do you have any idea how unbearably dull it was to spend time with you?”

 

She stood there, arms hanging limply at her sides, shuddering and crying silently, her cheeks stained with ruined makeup and tears.  Her nose started to run, but she didn’t reach up to wipe it, as though her strength were drained from her body.

 

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, wipe your nose!  Must you be so disgusting?”

 

For a moment, Pearl continued to stand where she was, crying so hard she was gasping for air.  Finally she turned slowly and began to trudge toward the roller coaster, where the others were watching in horrified pity. 

 

“Oh no you don’t!”  Covington shouted.  “Come back here. I’ve been waiting for this a long time, and you will not rob me of it!  He waved the gun at her.  “You’ll stay here until you’ve heard everything I’ve been wanting to tell you since the day we met.”

 

There he launched into a torrent of abuse, enumerating each flaw.  “Just look at yourself.  You’re fat.  Stupid. Cheap. Clumsy. Sloppy. Ugly. Useless.”

 

No!” sobbed Pearl.  “Please stop…” 

 

He motioned her to be silent and pretended to think.  “Let’s see… you’re a cheap slattern with no taste.  You’re a boring, whiny imbecile.  You’re fat and stupid… oh, do forgive me, I’m repeating myself…”

 

“That… monster…” Rebecca whispered.

 

Kit was no longer listening.  What can I do while he’s distracted?

 

Helen’s eyes filled with tears of betrayal and compassion.  “Pearl, don’t ye listen to that rotter!  Sticks and stones, sweetheart.  Sticks and stones…”

 

He cuffed her on the side of the head, making her cry out.  As she watched, Joanna’s eyes blazed with murderous rage, but she didn’t dare speak.

 

If for nothing else, I’ll get you for that.  

 

Then Covington continued, “Do you know why our little trysts were always late at night, far from prying eyes?  So nobody would think that I actually found a creature like you attractive.  I was that ashamed of you.”

 

Pearl’s head was bent as she tried to block out the pounding assault of his words.  Her shoulders drooped like an overly saturated plant.  She scrunched her burning eyes tight.  Covie…no…

 

Very gently, with mock tenderness, he took her chin and forced her to raise it.  “Pearl… look at me… it’s rude not to look a person in the eye.  I want to know how you feel.  Oh, dash it all, where was I? Oh, yes.  I don’t know why you bother trying.  No man in his right mind would ever want you except as a… well, I’m too much of a gentleman to say it in front of real ladies.”

 

Pearl shuddered uncontrollably and she gasped aloud, taking great gulps of air, unable to breathe evenly. 

 

“And,” he added, contemptuously of her lack of control. “I was the one who smashed your silly doll.”

 

“M-Matilda--?!  But why?

 

He laughed cruelly. “Because it was yours.”

 

With satisfaction, he watched her fall apart.  The rain plastered her curls to her cheeks and forehead, smearing her carefully made-up face, mingling with the tears until her eyes were smudged bruises of misery.

 

She shut her eyes tight, willing the world to swallow her whole.  The rain pelted her like stones hurled by angry villagers; it pasted the cheap cotton dress on her thick body.  She felt naked.  Her shock-numbed mind seemed to freeze time to just this moment, making it endless.

 

Covington said gently, “Look at me, Pearl.”

 

She obeyed, glassy-eyed, waiting for the axe to fall.

 

He finished by saying softly, “And the world would be a far more interesting place without you in it!

 

Pearl wailed.  It was the shriek of a creature caught in a trap, knowing the hunter would come soon, just before it desperately began to gnaw off its mangled foot.

 

“Oh, do stop that infernal caterwauling.  Show a little dignity, for heaven’s sake,” Covington said crossly. “Go on, now.   Get in with the others.”  Sobbing brokenly, she turned away.

 

Kit continued to edge behind the detectives, working his way closer.  With a wet, glopping sound, he scooped up a handful of mud, and drew his arm back.

 

In that split second Covington’s attention was diverted.   He glanced at Kit… his mistake.

 

With an anguished shriek, Pearl plowed into him, sending their bodies crashing to the ground.  Over and over they rolled until she pinned him down.

 

You bastard!” she screamed at him, her face twisted in a mottled mask of rage. Saliva flew from her mouth, dripping down her chin.

 

He drew back, repulsed. “Get away from me, you revolting creature!”

 

Her blue eyes seemed to blaze with an unnatural glow.  Claws extended, she raked them across his left cheek, leaving three bloody gashes. 

 

AUGH!!!!  Not the face!  Not the face!” he shrieked, shocked by the burning pain.  He touched his cheek and when he saw the blood, he flinched, forgetting that he was still holding a gun. 

 

A loud flash of lightning streaked the sky, and as though in concert, the gun went off.

 

Pearl screamed.  Clutching her stomach in agony, she collapsed to the ground.

 

 

End of Chapter 14

 

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