By Staci Faulkenberry
night was clear and cold with the promise of a hard frost by morning—unusual
for the tiny south Pacific town. Jons
LeRoux shivered beneath his red flannel jacket as he hurried to the back door of
his apartment behind Ferret’s Folly, the bar and dancehall he owned, key in
hand. Having no extra fat on his
small frame, he felt the cold keenly and was eager to get into his apartment,
turn on the radiator, and huddle under a mountain of blankets.
he was fumbling with the lock, he heard a sneeze from his left and slight
rustlings from behind the trashcans.
way is someone going to get the jump on me.
out where I can see you!" he called, taking care to conceal the key in his
hand and grip the handle of his suitcase more tightly.
If the prowler hadn't seen it, he could use the key to his advantage.
The suitcase wasn’t exactly easy to hide, but he could still use it as
a weapon if he had to.
whoever it was did not respond, Jons hastily unlocked the door and hurried
inside. Slamming and locking it
behind him, he flicked on the lights and took quick stock of the kitchen.
It wasn’t cold, as he’d expected it to be.
Apparently, one of his employees had come over and turned on the radiator
when he’d called and told them that he was coming back.
Everything else seemed to be in place. He dropped
the suitcase and raced through the room
and into the bar where he kept his rifle. The
big room was dark, but the ferret had long since memorized his way around, and
everything was just as he'd left it when he'd locked up and gone to his father's
funeral three weeks ago. He made a
beeline for the bar where his rifle hung on pegs beneath the counter.
Good. If whoever that is
wants trouble, I'll give it to 'em.
compressed, he went to confront the intruder.
Light from the open door flooded the street as he aimed at the
interloper’s hiding place.
armed. Come out where I can see you."
the prowler sniffled and coughed. Two
furry ears peeked over the edge of the can.
Then, matted hair of an indeterminate color emerged followed by two
was a young vixen. Jons wasn't good at guessing children's ages, but he didn’t
think she was in her teens yet.
lowered his weapon. Just an
you doing here?" he asked
to get warm." Her voice was
raspy with congestion and she had a heavy Southern accent that made him feel as
if he were back home.
voice was gentler as he said, "I don't think you're going to get warm back
there, darlin'. Don't you have anywhere to go?"
started to reply, but was overcome by a spate of coughing.
Jons eyed her with concern. The
girl could hardly take a breath, but managed to shake her head.
can't leave her out here on a night like tonight. She'll be dead by morning!
the rifle, he beckoned to the girl, who came forward reluctantly.
Her clothes, a ruffled blouse that may have once been white and pleated
pink skirt, looked as if they had been high-quality stuff, but were now
threadbare and sported more than a few stains and tears.
Her nose was crusty with dried mucus and she wiped it on the ragged end
of one sleeve. Jons hesitated a
moment before he put an arm around her shoulders and tried to lead her inside.
The instant he touched her, she stiffened and jerked away.
ain't goin' back.” She glared at
you stay out here much longer and that's not going to be a problem.
C'mon. I'm not going to turn you in.
Don’t you have any parents?"
hesitated and shook her head. As she
took a step, she stumbled and fell heavily against him.
He steadied her, taking note of the fact that he could feel every rib and
that her elbows were as sharp as knives.
she hasn't eaten in days.
He sniffed. Or bathed,
the bartender led her inside. As he
leaned his rifle against the kitchen counter, she stood with her back against
the closed door, looking at him fearfully. Ignoring
the look, he bustled around the warm kitchen, heating up soup and getting a bowl
and glass from the cabinet. Jons
wasn't sure quite what to say to the child.
He was much more accustomed to dealing with cutthroats and drunks.
Jons. What's your name?" he asked finally.
didn’t answer, and he turned to find himself staring at the business end of
his own gun. His heart began to
there, darlin’,” he said quietly. “Just
take it easy.”
little girl’s watery red-rimmed eyes were wary and her hands trembled as she
held the gun. His eyes, however,
were glued to her finger, which shook a little too much too close to the trigger
for his liking. If she shivered too
hard, she could accidentally...
do you want?” she asked.
looked at her, bewildered. “To
me?” she echoed with bitter cynicism that belied her youth.
kid, I haven’t had the best day, okay? I
just drove for twelve hours straight. All
I want is to go to bed. But you’re
sick and I wouldn’t feel right leaving you out there on a night like
tonight.” He kept his gravelly voice reassuring.
“I’m not forcing you to stay. If
you want to take your chances behind the trashcans, you’re more than welcome
was obviously exhausted as well as malnourished, judging from the way she swayed
and blinked owlishly at him. The gun
slowly lowered as if her arms didn’t have the strength to hold it up any
it. Put the gun down.
Nobody’s gonna hurt you here.”
she sneezed. The gun fired and Jons
hit the deck as glass shattered and wood splinters rained down on him.
was a long, tense moment of silence. Then,
Jons raised his head and saw the girl slumped against the counter, gun beside
her. Quickly, he got to his feet and
went to her.
didn’t stir. Worriedly, he checked
her pulse and sighed with relief. Whether
it was the kick from his gun or whether she’d passed out from her illness, he
wasn’t sure. But an unconscious
angry girl was easier to deal with than a conscious one.
He snatched up his gun and quickly returned it to its place beneath the
he came back into the kitchen, the girl was still passed out, her hoarse, raspy
breathing audible even across the room. He
hesitated in the doorway, staring at her as he tried to decide what to do with
her. After being held at gunpoint,
he wasn’t nearly so enthusiastic about letting her spend the night.
she was just a little girl and she hadn’t seemed malicious, exactly.
She had been more frightened and wary, as if she were expecting him to do
her harm instead of the other way around.
kill me if I tossed her out.
that thought, he moved towards her and knelt to feel her forehead.
burning up! Without
hesitation, he picked her up and his heart went out to her completely.
She was like bones desiccated by the desert sun, hollow and forsaken.
didn’t awaken until he’d gently laid her on the couch, which was made of
some itchy dark purple upholstery. It
made for uncomfortable sleeping, but he really didn’t want her messing up his
bed. If she ruined the couch, it was
no big deal. He’d been meaning to
get a new one for a while, anyway.
girl’s eyes fluttered open and she shook so hard her teeth rattled.
“D-d-don’t h-hurt me. Please.”
looked down at her in surprise. “No
one’s going to hurt you, darlin’. It’s okay.”
went down the hall to his linen closet and pulled out a few warm woolen
blankets, which he piled on the girl. After
a moment, she stopped shivering and began to snore.
regarded her, questions racing through his mind. How long has she been on the
streets? Had to have been a while. She’s
a mess. Why didn’t she just go back to wherever she came from?
That has to be better than slowly dying on the streets.
a sigh, he turned out the lights and retired to his bedroom at the end of the
hall. It had been a long bus ride
from his hometown of Baton Noir, and he was exhausted.
All he wanted right now was his own bed.
was late the next morning when he woke up. He
lay there for a moment, enjoying the warmth and the quiet, before he reluctantly
rolled out of bed and went to check on the vixen.
sleeping and that fever’s worse. Why
did she have to come here? Why not
Bob's or Big Lola's? What on earth
am I supposed to do with her?
he showered and dressed, he looked in on her again.
She was still sleeping, and when she didn’t awaken when he called to
her, he became worried. He
considered the problem as he cleaned up the glass and wood from the kitchen
floor, spackled the bullet hole, and painted over it.
As he ate a light breakfast, he thought about going for a doctor.
Her fever seemed high to him, but was what was high for an adult
high for a kid? He didn’t know,
and he didn’t want to look like an idiot if he called the doctor and it turned
out to be nothing.
the bartender was debating, he heard a door slam.
Are you back yet? There's a
schmuck here with that shipment of tequila and rum!"
It was Tony, one of his waiters.
here!" he called.
the way, how was the funeral?" Tony's
voice drew closer and presently, the bulldog's face popped around the corner.
His jaw dropped when he saw the vixen.
"Holy crow! What's that?"
"It was a funeral. How
do you think it was?” Jons said tartly. “And
it’s a girl, you idiot. I’d
think you, of all people, would recognize one when you saw her."
looked at the girl. Only her face
was visible above the covers, but he could tell she wasn’t more than thirteen.
"Robbing the cradle, aren't you?"
rolled his eyes. Tony rarely ever
had his mind out of the gutter. "I
found her hiding out in the trash last night.
She was sick and I couldn't very well leave her, could I?
Listen, you or one of the others go and find a doctor."
are you sure she’s alive?” Tony
cast another dubious glance at the girl.
who had had quite enough of death lately, rounded on him.
“Of course she’s alive!” he snapped. “And she’s going to stay
that way, too.”
Okay. Take it easy,
he back?” Jim asked.
bulldog nodded and absently signed for the shipment of liquor.
After helping the deliveryman unload the crates, the three waiters began
to stock the shelves.
Buckteeth, a gangly brown rabbit who sported a few patches of white fur,
pried off the top of one crate and quickly counted the bottles.
brow furrowed and he frowned. “He’s
got a girl back there.”
snickered. “Then he’s doing much
better than we thought.”
Tony said slowly. “It’s a little girl.
I swear she’s half-dead. He
wants one of us to go get a doctor.”
did he get a little girl?” Buckteeth asked incredulously.
bulldog shrugged. “Found her last
night, he said.” He looked
longingly at a bottle of tequila before putting it on the shelf.
“I think he ought to just turn her over to the orphanage.
Let them deal with her.”
Looking thoughtful, Buckteeth stood up. “I’ll
go get a doctor. I know a good one.”
just left when Jons emerged from his apartment.
The bartender stood for a moment, watching as they stocked the counter.
went to get a doctor,” Tony said.
an orphanage now, Boss Man?" Jim, a young tan bear, asked.
on, what is this? How many times do
I have to tell you clowns to turn the labels forward?" Agitated, he
turned the bottles so that his patrons would be able to see the gold-foiled
labels. "And no.
You know I don't like kids. As
soon as she's well, she'll be on her way."
looked around the room to make sure everything was in place and ordered Jim to
sweep the dance floor. Then, he got
a rag from behind the bar and began polishing the smooth wooden surface as Tony
set the chairs around the tables.
moments, Buckteeth entered with a short, officious-looking hippo who carried a
black doctor’s bag.
Doctor Brown. I hear you've got a sick child here," the hippo said.
in the back." Jons tossed his cloth under the bar and gestured for the
doctor to follow him.
hippo took one look at the girl and shooed Jons out.
The bartender started to protest, but changed his mind and returned to
the barroom where he was confronted not only by his three waiters, but by his
five-member band as well.
gives? Tony here says you're opening an orphanage," David, the trumpet
player, said indignantly.
are we out of a job, Jons?" Kevin, the drummer, asked.
waved them to silence and glared at Tony. "I
think you've been hitting the sauce a little too hard, pal.
I found a little girl behind the bar last night.
I guess she ran away from the orphanage. She’s sick and I couldn't
leave her out there when it was freezing. Doctor
Brown’s looking at her now, and she's staying here until I figure out what do
with her. You are to keep customers away from my apartment."
He looked hard at the bulldog. "Got
grinned. "No problem,
this girl have a name?" Buckteeth asked.
shrugged. “I’m sure she does,
but when you’re being held at gunpoint, you really don’t worry about that
and Tony exchanged startled glances.
Tony was incredulous.
found her behind the trashcans and brought her into the kitchen.
I put the rifle against the counter and she got a hold of it.”
thought about it for a moment, then guffawed.
“Little spitfire, huh?”
the band tried to suppress snickers.
Their boss glowered.
little thing snoring on your couch,” Tony chortled, “held you up.
With your own gun!”
Buckteeth had to smile at that. Jons
flushed and wondered briefly if they’d still think it was so funny if he held them
you get it away from her?” The rabbit struggled to keep his expression one of
was putting it down. Then she
looked at him blankly and he exhaled noisily, rolling his eyes.
“That’s a twelve-gauge shotgun. It’s
got a kick. Even if she’d been
meaning to fire it, she couldn’t have handled it.
I don’t know whether it was the gun that did it or if she passed out
from something else, but when the dust cleared, she wasn’t awake anymore.”
out?” Buckteeth frowned.
“She must be pretty sick.”
ferret nodded. “I think she’s
been out on the streets for a while. Probably
hasn’t eaten a decent meal or gotten a good night’s sleep in I don’t know
how long. And who knows what she
must have seen, to act the way she did.”
men were silent for a moment. Then,
Jons ordered everybody to get to work. "We open in an hour and y’all
haven't warmed up and the floors aren't swept."
employees returned to their tasks. As
the band played a few scales, Tony sidled up to his employer, who was cleaning
an already spotless counter.
what are you going to do with her?"
shrugged. "After she gets well?
I’m not sure.”
could keep her, you know.”
her? A bar isn’t exactly the best
place for a kid."
else is she supposed to do? Where do
you think she's going to go? If she
did run away from that orphanage, like you said, if you send her back she'll
probably just run again. Next time
she gets sick, she might not be so lucky."
Jons threw down his rag. "Shut
door opened and Doctor Brown gestured to Jons.
The bartender followed him back to the living room where he glanced at
the vixen, who was still asleep, but was muttering something.
doctor crossed his stubby arms over his chest and asked dubiously, "Is she
Jons was startled. He'd never
thought of himself as the fatherly type—and he certainly didn’t think
he was old enough to have fathered a girl almost in her teens.
What kind of answer was the doctor looking for?
man, either she is or she isn't."
yes, yes, she's mine."
hippo glared at him. "I should
call social services. That girl has
been shamefully neglected. On top of pneumonia, she's seriously undernourished
and I haven't seen a child that filthy in a long time."
bartender thought quickly. "Well,
she’s actually, uh, my niece. You
may have noticed my bar's been closed for a few weeks?
Her, uh, mother was having problems and I had to go get the girl."
doctor was silent for a moment. Then,
he patted Jons on the shoulder. "Well,
if you ever need any advice, don't hesitate to call me.
As for her current condition, she’s half-starved and won’t be able to
handle any real food for a while so if she wakes up, give her liquids.
Lots of liquids." The
hippo turned to go. He was at the
door when he added, "I'll be back tomorrow to check on her."
soon as Doctor Brown left, Jons pulled a chair close to the couch and put his
hand to her forehead. She was still
burning up, so he filled a compress with ice and carefully placed it on her
head. She often awakened, delusional
and raving as she looked at Jons with fever-bright eyes.
He calmed her best as he could, though he didn’t understand half of
what she said. Though he tried to
wait tables, he was so preoccupied that after he botched a few orders, Buckteeth
kicked him out and took over.
ferret spent the night in a chair beside the couch, soothing her when she became
too agitated. Unknown to him, Buckteeth, who had spent countless nights tending
to his own children when they’d been ill, checked on him frequently to see if
he needed help. When Jons fell
asleep in the chair, shivering with his chin on his chest, Buckteeth carefully
propped his feet on an ottoman and covered him with a thick blanket.
girl was about the same the next day. Doctor
Brown came late in the afternoon with medicine, and he managed to wake her up
long enough to pour it down her throat, but she fell back to sleep as soon as
she swallowed it.
she’s worse tomorrow, I’m admitting her to the hospital,” he said tersely.
was taken aback. “She’s that
Doctor Brown nodded grimly.
“Quite frankly, she should be there now, but I don’t want to risk
moving her in this cold. Pneumonia’s
nothing to fool around with.”
The bartender looked at the girl with concern.
“But she will get better, right?”
think so. If you keep her
warm and in bed. I don’t think the
last will be much of a concern. She’s
going to be a very sick girl for a while and it will take her some time to get
her energy back once she’s on the mend.”
He bathed the vixen’s forehead with a cold washcloth.
“And we need to get this fever down, too.
It’s high enough to cause delirium, which is the last thing she
Jons refrained from telling him that he’d spent most of the
previous afternoon and night soothing her ravings.
Instead, he thanked the doctor, piled another couple of blankets on the
girl, and again kept a cold compress on her forehead.
got no worse, for which Jons was thankful. The
next day, he was folding a load of laundry and wishing that he’d never taken
her in when she coughed and he heard the springs on the couch creak.
Glancing up, he saw that she was awake—truly awake.
Her gaze wasn’t focused on him, however.
Instead, she was staring with fascination at the gun rack on the wall,
which held not only his back-up rifle, but a double barrel shotgun and two
revolvers as well.
ain’t loaded,” he told her.
With a start, she turned her attention to him.
Her eyes were sunken, haunted, and more than a little fearful, which made
her look more like a wild thing than a little girl—an image enhanced by her
dirt-streaked face and badly tangled hair. As
he folded the last shirt, he shivered.
long… out?” Her voice was barely
above a whisper and she sounded like an old woman.
It seemed to hurt her to talk and she didn’t use any more words than
am I? I’m Jons.
You have a name?”
The girl tilted her head to one side and looked him over from
head to toe.
Because he was short and slim, he had learned to use other
methods of intimidation over his many years spent working in bars.
When he chose to, his dark eyes could be hard and forbidding and with his
tousled dark hair overdue for a trim, some would have considered him downright
dangerous-looking under the right circumstances.
But he was hoping these weren’t the right circumstances.
He was only twenty-five, after all, and diminutive.
And the little girl wasn’t a large, drunken man he needed to bully out
of his bar for disrupting business.
He had no cause to worry.
With his rumpled white shirt, dark gray pants and bloodshot eyes, he
looked more like a man badly in need of a good night’s sleep than one who
wanted to do harm. She stared at him
for a long time, and he kept his expression pleasant, as though he were dealing
with an irate customer.
she seemed to decide that he wasn’t a threat.
better?" he asked.
groaned and shook her head, which dispelled the feral illusion slightly.
Jons went to the kitchen and made some hot tea.
After spooning in a generous dollop of honey, he took it to the girl.
Her thin hands shook so badly that she nearly dropped the heavy mug.
Hesitating for a moment, he sat beside her and lifted the mug to her
finished the tea and looked at him curiously as he set it down on an end table.
were here?” Her voice was getting
steadier, more youthful.
I here the whole time?” he asked, and she nodded. “Yeah.
Slept in that chair over there.”
just looked at him suspiciously.
he cleared his throat and jammed his hands in his pockets. “Do you need
anything else? Are you hungry?”
shook her head.
you need to eat something, anyway.” Without
another word, he went into the kitchen and returned in a moment with a tray.
She looked askance at the sandwich, but he pushed a bowl of soup towards
what you can.” He took the
sandwich for himself and wolfed it down, watching her out of the corner of his
eye and hoping he wouldn’t have to feed her.
He didn’t like nursing in general and tending to a strange girl made
was asleep before he finished eating, but her fever had broken and it wasn’t
the delirious, fitful sleep in which she’d been for the past few days.
He removed the tray, noting that she
hadn’t managed more than a few spoonfuls. Doctor Brown came when he was
cleaning up the kitchen.
fever’s broken,” Jons said.
Brown nodded and awakened the vixen, who started when she saw him.
bartender hastily stepped into the room. “Cody,
this is Dr. Brown.”
there, little lady. You gave us quite a
scare.” The hippo pulled a thermometer out of his bag.
“I’m just going to take your temperature.”
rolled her eyes, but allowed him to put the thermometer in her mouth.
When he pulled out the stethoscope and tried to unbutton her shirt, she
spit out the thermometer and scrambled away from him with surprising agility.
Jons just barely kept her from falling off the end of the couch, and she
jerked away as if he’d touched her with a branding iron, her body trembling.
‘way,” she croaked.
this is called a stethoscope. It
won’t hurt. It just lets me listen
to your heart and lungs.”
call me sweetheart.” She glared at him. “And I know what a
barely contained a smirk as Dr. Brown looked at him.
The hippo’s gaze was accusing, as if asking why Jons could not keep the
girl in line. It was clear that if
he didn’t want the scene to get any uglier, he would have to calm her down.
Brown’s been checking on you for the past few days, honey.
I promise he won’t hurt you.” He leaned close to the girl and
whispered, “If he does, I’ll shoot him.”
muttered something under her breath, but allowed the hippo to continue his
examination. Jons noted that she
flinched when Dr. Brown pressed the stethoscope against her chest, but decided
it was probably because the thing was cold.
He didn’t blame her. He wouldn’t want the doctor coming near him
with a cold stethoscope.
still got a lot of congestion in her chest," the hippo observed.
He checked her throat, gave her a smile, and turned to Jons. “She’s
going to be okay. I want you to keep
her quiet for a while.” He handed
Jons a bottle of medicine. “Give
her this every four hours for the next week.
It should help clear up her congestion.
She needs to stay in bed and…” He glanced at the girl, then leaned
close to Jons. “She needs a
bartender nodded and pulled out his wallet. “How
Brown considered for a moment. “Fifty
should do it.”
the doctor left, the ferret turned to the vixen, who was listlessly staring at
sweetheart, I think you need to get cleaned up.”
eyes blazed as she rasped, "Don't call me sweetheart."
bartender was a little taken aback. She
seemed a bit young to be that sassy. "How
old are you?"
old are you?" she countered.
smiled slightly. "Come on.
While you bathe, I'll see what I can find for you to wear."
I'm washing those blankets, too.
looked at him for a moment. Then,
she slowly got up as if it hurt her to do so and clung, trembling to the arm of
the couch, sweat beading her forehead.
eyed her worriedly. “You okay?”
look she gave him was contemptuous, though he noted fear in her eyes as he
stepped towards her.
you think you can bathe by yourself?”
met his eyes, but didn’t say anything. She
didn’t have to. He could see the
answer plainly enough.
stay right there. You’ll have to
get cleaned up… later.”
she dragged herself back onto the couch. He
was at a loss—again. He knew
she’d feel better if she were clean, but she was so weak that she couldn’t
even manage to get to the bathroom. Biting
his lip, he considered his options. Cody
sighed heavily and tucked her legs up under her, her head sinking wearily into
one arm propped on the armrest. Within
moments, her eyes drooped closed.
Jons jumped and whirled around, his elbow catching Tony’s jaw.
Tony! Give me a heart attack, why
think you broke my jaw!” The bulldog wiped his lower lip with the back of his
hand and looked at it to see if it was covered with blood.
Cody’s trying to sleep.”
Please tell me you didn’t name her.”
punched him. “Of course not,
idiot. She woke up today.”
smirked. “She hold you up
looked down at her. “So what are you gonna do with her?”
bartender waved his arms in agitation. “How
should I know? Do I look like a
nurse? I don’t--!”
voice interrupted them. “Anybody
here!” Tony called.
wha--?” Cody jerked awake. When
she caught sight of the three men, her eyes widened.
Coughing violently, she huddled against the back of the couch, clutching
the blankets to her chest.
looked at her in surprise.
hastened to reassure her. “Cody,
these are my employees. This is
Tony…” The bulldog gave her a weak wave.
“And this is Buckteeth.”
didn’t say anything, but her expression was one verging on panic.
are you feeling, honey?” Buckteeth asked kindly.
Tony coughed, mumbled something under his breath, and hurried away.
moved over to Cody and knelt so they were nearly at eye level.
“It’s good to see you awake. Is
there anything I can do for you?”
gaze flicked to Jons briefly, then she leveled her gaze on Buckteeth.
“No,” she whispered. “Thank
Jons’s face lit up. “Teeth,
what’s Pat doing today?”
the usual. Cooking.
Cleaning. Fighting the
masses.” He rolled his eyes
heavenward. “Lord help her.”
boss motioned for him to go into the kitchen.
Curiously, Buckteeth got to his feet and followed the bartender.
up?” the rabbit asked.
was just wondering… that is, if it’s not too much trouble…” Jons bit his
lip. “Cody really needs, that is,
she’d feel so much better if she were, ah, clean.”
got a bathtub, Jons. She won’t
drown in it.”
younger man glared at him. “I
know that, idiot. But she’s
so… she can’t walk very far. She’s
just so sick. Now, I obviously
can’t help her bathe, but I thought that maybe if…”
on.” Buckteeth disappeared.
went back into the living room and perched uncomfortably in the chair across
from Cody. They were silent until
Buckteeth returned a few moments later.
on her way.”
Teeth. I owe you.”
Relieved, Jons turned to the vixen. “A
lady’s on her way to help you. She’ll
get you cleaned up and feeling better in no time.”
thanks.” The girl looked both surprised and grateful.
minutes later, a matronly-looking rabbit hurried into Jons’s apartment.
Cody saw her and relaxed completely, obviously deciding she was no threat
at all. One look at Pat and nobody
would think she was a threat. Petite
and pleasantly plump, the brown-furred rabbit wore a plain, faded blue dress and
a darker blue sweater. Her graying
blonde hair was still done up in curlers and her expression was one of benign
Jons, dear. How are you?”
She peered at him closely and tsked.
“You haven’t been eating or sleeping like you should, have you?
And how is your family holding up?”
as well as can be expected. Thanks
for asking.” The bartender gestured to Cody.
“Pat, I’d like you to meet Cody Hawkins.”
dear.” Pat reached down to smooth
back dirty tangles of hair from the girl’s face, her dark gray eyes
sympathetic. “Don’t you worry
about a thing. We’re going to get
you feeling better in no time.” She
looked up at Jons. “Teeth
told me to bring some of the kids’ old clothes, but he sounded kind of
urgent on the phone, so I didn’t bother to root them out.”
okay. I’ll find something for her.
I sure do appreciate your coming.”
the rabbit stood up. “I’ll go
get the tub ready for you, Cody.”
I’ll go find something for you to wear.”
Eager to get away from the girl, Jons followed Pat down the hall.
Something about the child’s feral stare was downright unnerving.
While the rabbit ran water in the tub, Jons rooted through his closet
till he found a soft blue flannel shirt. It
would be huge on her, but at least it would be warm.
He handed it to Pat, then went to get the girl.
was still sitting there on the couch, her expression thoughtful.
When he reached for her, however, she tensed and gave a strangled cry.
Are you hurt?”
ferret blinked. “I was just going
to get you to the bathroom so you can take a bath.”
he crossed his arms over his chest and watched as she slowly got to her feet
again. She managed to take a half a
dozen steps before she faltered. He
caught her as she swayed, ignoring her weak attempts to push him away as, with a
barely contained grimace, he lifted her and carried her to the bathroom where
Pat was running hot water in the tub.
hate this. I really, really hate
this. Good grief.
Why is she so stiff? And
when was the last time she bathed?
was so wrapped up in trying not to breathe and his own self-pity that he
didn’t really pay much attention to the girl until they were almost to the
bathroom. Her rigid muscles had
relaxed slightly, but she kept her scrawny arms braced against his chest, as if
pushing him away and she refused to look at him.
he became aware of her annoyingly loud breathing and he couldn’t help but feel
sorry for her. Every breath seemed
to be an effort and it made his chest hurt to hear her rasping.
Feeling slightly ashamed of himself for his less than charitable
thoughts, he handed her off to Pat’s capable hands, much to her obvious
worry, Jons,” the rabbit said softly. “I’ll take good care of her.
Poor little thing.”
coughed up some phlegm and Pat hastily dragged her over to the sink so that she
could spit. Jons left them alone and
went to strip the blankets off the couch and remake it with fresh sheets and
better, warmer blankets. He thought
for a moment about letting her have his bed, since it was closer to the
bathroom—not to mention much more comfortable than the couch.
if she needs something, I won’t be able to hear her.
His bedroom, which shared a wall with the bar, was well
insulated and he could hear only the loudest sounds.
He’d had that done the previous year after he’d had a bad bout of the
flu and had been kept awake by every little noise in the bar.
he realized that didn’t matter. He
would be checking on her constantly anyway, just to make sure she was still
breathing. The doctor’s assertion
that she should be in the hospital had worried him more than he wanted to admit.
least I can do is make her comfortable till she’s well.
letting her have his bed meant that she would have a shorter distance to the
bathroom, which had two entrances: one to the hallway and one to his bedroom.
Maybe he wouldn’t have to carry her as often.
made that decision, he went into his bedroom, piled a couple more blankets on
his bed, and carefully turned down the covers.
Then, he stood back and surveyed his room, wondering what she’d think
of it. She seemed so skittish and he
didn’t want her jumping out the window, so he turned in a slow circle, taking
in his spartan room. A white iron
double bed with covers in nondescript shades of gray and brown sat under a
window hung with a thick blanket to block out the brightest light.
Two nightstands stood to either side of the bed.
A stack of books was piled on one, a lamp on the other.
On the wall opposite the door stood a battered bureau with a single
framed picture of his family on it and butted against the dresser was a battered
brown leather chair that had once belonged to his father.
To him, it was hardly an intimidating room.
He just hoped the girl would see it the same way.
Jons prepared his room, Pat helped Cody to bathe.
The girl insisted on undressing herself and while Pat’s back was
turned, she wrapped a towel around herself and slowly stepped into the tub.
Pat’s gasp, she looked up to find the rabbit staring at her exposed thigh,
which was liberally striped with white scars.
Guiltily, Cody yanked the towel over it, stepped the rest of the way into
the tub, turned her back to the woman, and removed the towel.
hesitated, obviously torn between satisfying her curiosity and keeping her mouth
shut. She busied herself with
rummaging in Jons’s medicine cabinet until she found a comb.
try to untangle your hair while you wash.”
She handed Cody a washcloth and lifted dripping strands of snarled hair
from the water. “Let me know if I
pull too hard.”
were silent for a moment as Cody began to bathe and Pat concentrated on combing
her hair without ripping half of it out. The
rabbit wondered briefly how long it had been since she’d been cared for before
her attention returned to the scars on her thighs.
Though Cody tried to hide them, Pat caught glimpses of both thighs and
saw that they were marred by at least a dozen scars each.
happened to her? Who would have done
this to a little girl?
tell anyone,” Cody spoke up quietly. “Please.”
girl just shook her head. She drew
her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, shivering, as she
waited for Pat to finish untangling and washing her hair.
have such pretty hair,” Pat said. She
grunted a little as she encountered a particularly stubborn knot.
“And so much of it.”
shrugged, wishing the rabbit would hurry up.
The water was quickly becoming tepid and her body felt chilled from more
than just cooling water.
took a long time and two refills of hot water before Cody was clean.
The girl nodded off a couple of times as Pat washed her hair, but she
woke up when she heard gurgling and felt water drain.
Pat helped her out of the tub, dried her off, and slipped Jons’s shirt
over her head. Cody sighed with
come to a good place, y’know.” The rabbit gave Cody a hug, which she
stoically accepted, but didn’t return. “Jons
is a good boy.”
vixen made a face.
is,” Pat said firmly. “He gave
my husband a job when most people wouldn’t have.”
Her legs felt rubbery and her head was beginning to hurt, but she had to
admit that the bath had made her feel a lot better.
We’re finished!” Pat
looked up at her with sudden intensity. “You
won’t tell, will you?” She
crossed her arms over her chest. “You
won’t tell about… about…?” She indicated her thighs.
smiled sadly. “Not if you don’t
want me to, honey.”
door leading to Jons’s bedroom flew open and both Pat and Cody looked at him
in surprise. They’d been waiting
for him at the other door, obviously expecting that he would carry the girl back
to the couch.
nearly laughed when he saw her. His
shirt was like a dress on her—it hung nearly to her ankles and he was hardly a
large man. But she was clean and her
aqua eyes, though fatigued, were a little brighter. Her
fur was a vibrant red-orange and white and her hair hung in damp, heavy
strawberry blonde waves nearly to her backside.
She gave him a small, shy smile, which he tentatively returned.
she said softly.
must have told her I’m not some kind of kid-eating monster.
time, she didn’t balk when he bent to pick her up, but he figured it was
probably due more to exhaustion than anything else.
I want you to get some rest, Cody,” Pat said sternly, hands on her hips.
“And if this lazy lout gives you any trouble, you just give me a call
and I’ll handle him.”
girl actually chuckled. “Thanks.”
Jons, if you need anything, you be sure to call me.
I’m gonna make sure Miss Cody here’s tucked in good, then I’ve got
to run home. I left a couple of
loaves of bread rising and they’re probably ready by now.”
Pat. You’re a lifesaver.”
He turned and deposited Cody in his bed.
She looked at him with surprise.
sleeping here for the time being. It’s
a lot more comfortable than the couch.”
of being grateful, Cody became agitated and tried to get out of bed.
okay. I don’t mind,” he assured
her as Pat gently eased her back onto the bed.
She struggled in the rabbit’s grasp while Jons stared at her.
“No, I don’t want to sleep with him.
No, let me go. Let me go!
I don’t want to!”
was practically in tears. Pat held
her firmly, finally pulling her onto her lap.
“Shhh… it’s okay, it’s okay.
He’s not going to be in here. You’ll
have the bed to yourself.”
a moment, she settled down, though she still trembled.
Furtively, she glanced at Jons and was reassured by his stunned,
kid, I’m letting you have my bed, not share it” he snapped.
“I’ll be sleeping on the couch.”
Pat said sharply.
was absolutely uncalled for.”
you could be nicer about it,” she retorted.
Then, she hugged Cody and helped her to get beneath the covers.
girl looked at Jons, terrified. Then,
she gulped and whispered, “Sorry.”
wondered again what she’d seen on the streets to make her so afraid of him.
Then, he said wearily, “Me, too. I
didn’t mean to snap at you.”
nodded approvingly and busily arranged the covers, tucking Cody in with the
deftness of a woman accustomed to dealing with children.
go to sleep now. Be sure you get
plenty of rest.” Pat smoothed the
covers and stood for a moment, looking down at the vixen.
Then, she whirled to face Jons. “And
if your customers get so loud they keep her up, you’d better get rid of
sure.” Jons, who had no intention
of doing so, hid a smirk.
left and Cody fell asleep soon after, so Jons went out to the barroom.
Buckteeth and Tony were busy setting
chairs on the floor on the far side of the room, so Jons picked up a broom and
began to sweep behind the bar. As
the broom bristles swished across the floor, his employees looked up, then
Tony was unable to hide his surprise at seeing Jons working.
arched an eyebrow and leaned against the broom.
“What’s the matter? You’ve
never seen a man sweep a floor before?”
the girl?” Buckteeth asked.
shrugged. "Compared to what?
But she’s clean. I really
owe Pat one for that. Doc said to
keep her quiet."
looked the younger man over critically. Jons
had always been slim, but he looked as though he’d lost weight—a little too
much in the rabbit’s opinion, and his face had a careworn expression that
hadn’t been there a month ago. Now
that she was on the mend, maybe this girl would give him something to think
about besides his father’s death. "So,
you keeping her?"
bartender blew out impatiently. "Look,
Teeth, you know I don't get along with kids."
been around them, you mean."
point is, I run a bar. That's no
place for a little girl!" Under his breath, he muttered, “Especially that
worked in bars for years and my kids turned out fine."
you don't live in the bar," Jons said.
"I don't know why everyone's so keen on me keeping the brat!"
gave a short bark of laughter. “I
guess you want to make sure she’s housebroken before you decide to keep her,
huh? Maybe you ought to call the
boss looked hopeful. “You think
they’d come pick her up?”
LeRoux!” Buckteeth said severely,
sounding more like a father berating a son than an employee speaking to his
boss. “She’s a little girl in dire
need of help and you’re telling me that you’d get rid of her just like
me?” Jons whined. “I don’t
even like kids.”
rabbit sighed heavily. “Look, Jons.
I’d take her myself, but Pat threatened to leave me if we had any more.
For Pete’s sake, we’re too old!”
what do I do with her?”
get her well and worry about the rest later.”
I’m no good with kids! I don’t
even know how old she is! What do I
look on Buckteeth’s face made him swallow the rest of his protests.
the rabbit said, “are a real piece of work.
That little girl needs you and you’re being an ass.”
didn’t ask for this.”
set, Buckteeth advanced on him. “So
what? We didn’t ask for half our
kids, but we sucked it up and raised ‘em anyway.
And you know what? We don’t
regret it at all. You’ve got it
easy. She’s not an infant.
You don’t have to change any diapers or get up for midnight feedings.
All she needs is a friend, and, like it or not, pal—you’re it!”
can’t! What part of that
don’t you understand?”
saw you in there with her and the doctor.”
Buckteeth towered over his boss by several inches, and he made the most
of his height now, glaring down at the younger man.
“And I kept checking on you that first night, too, just in case you
needed help so don’t give me any of that crap about not knowing what to do or
that you can’t. You can.
You are. You’re doing just
fine, so I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
scowled. “You’re fired.”
and Jim took one look at their boss’s face and busied themselves with tasks on
the other side of the room, leaving the two men glaring at each other.
Something in Jons’s implacable expression warned Buckteeth that he’d
pushed the bartender a little too far.
eye contact, he sighed heavily and massaged the back of his neck.
“Look, Jons. I’m sorry,
okay? You’ve just been going
through hell lately and--!”
far as I’m concerned…” He cast a pointed look towards his apartment.
“I still am and it’s not going away.”
rabbit said quietly, “I was just thinking that this little girl might give you
something to think about besides… besides…”
Jons interrupted him. “Besides
losing my father. You don’t need
to worry about me. I’m fine.
Or will be once I get rid of that kid.”
was silent for a moment. Then, he
looked Jons squarely in the eye and said, “If you don’t want to take her in,
that’s your business, but do me a favor. Don’t
kick her out until she’s better, okay?”
bartender heaved an exasperated sigh. “Well,
I’m not about to leave her on the streets, all right?
Just… just leave me alone about it.”
I still fired?”
smiled grimly. It was good to be the
decided that his staff could handle the rest of the cleaning and went to check
on the vixen. She could not stay, of
course. He ran a bar patronized by
all types of unsavory characters, none of which would be good influences for a
what Tony had said the other day made sense.
If she had run once, she must have had a good reason, and she wasn't
likely to go back willingly. No
doubt she'd slip away again and she might be in an even worse fix than she was
now. But what else could he do with
can't keep her. I don't know
anything about kids! She needs a woman
to look after her, for goodness'
sake! If Andrea was still around,
I’d think about it, but she’s probably facedown in some gutter by now.
Or married to some rich sap who doesn’t care how much she drinks.
high school, he’d fallen in love with Andrea Larson.
He had attended the college in her hometown and they’d met when she’d
taken dance lessons from him. They’d
gotten married and lived in an apartment a block from the campus.
The marriage had lasted all of three years, until she came to care more
for booze than him. It had been
partially his own fault. Before
they’d gotten married, she’d never had so much as a sip of alcohol.
He, having been raised in a bar, hadn’t seen anything wrong with the
occasional drink. Andrea, however,
had taken it to the extreme. She had
come from a rich family, and didn’t take kindly to having to perform such
menial tasks as cooking and cleaning. So
she’d resorted to alcohol as an escape.
night, after he’d found her in bed with his then-best friend and she’d
chased him with a butcher knife because he’d tried to kill her lover and
poured her liquor down the drain, he’d left.
He’d kept on going until he came to the tiny Pacific town of
had been three years ago.
was something scandalous, whispered about at parties and Jons cared just enough
about what people thought of him to want to keep it a secret.
His employees just thought he was a loner who cared more for his business
than anything else, and he saw no reason to enlighten them, though he hated
Tony’s unsubtle attempts to push women on him so he could ‘lose his
shook away the unpleasant memories and poked his head around the door.
The vixen was sitting up on the bed, leafing
through one of the books from his nightstand.
She looked incredibly waif-like and lost amid the blankets and the
sleeves of his shirt completely hid her hands.
He felt a wave of compassion, which he quickly stifled.
You let yourself pity her and you'll end up like Elise.
younger sister had recently gotten married and had a baby.
He’d thought at one time that he wanted kids.
Now, for more reasons than one, he was just as glad he and Andrea
hadn’t had any. The three weeks
that he’d spent on the old family plantation had been sleepless and miserable
not only because of his father’s death, but also from his niece crying all
night. The last thing he wanted was
a kid around to disrupt business and cause more sleepless nights.
Guiltily, she put the book back.
“You can read that if you want,” he said.
“Or would you like something else?”
stared at him.
cleared his throat. "You hungry?"
reheated the soup, placed that and a glass of tea on a tray, and carried it back
to his bedroom where he found the girl slowly making her way around the bed.
are you doing?”
jumped and clung to the white iron rail.
I didn’t mean to scare you,” he apologized. “But you should be in
bed. That doctor would skin me if he
knew you were up and about."
made a face. “Aww, I’m all
right. I already feel better.”
refrained from telling her that she’d looked to be at death’s door, and that
just about anything was an improvement over that.
Instead, he waited till she’d settled back in the bed before he set the
tray on her lap and watched as she slowly sipped the broth.
"Listen," he said carefully. "It's going to get a
little… rowdy tonight. You are to
stay in bed no matter what you hear."
expectin' a fight?" she asked with more interest than she’d shown in
anything else. "This's a bar,
bar and dancehall. And no,
I'm not expecting a fight. Anyone
starts trouble, they get shot."
peeked at him to see if he was joking and looked a little surprised at his
serious expression. "You… you really would've shot me?"
if you hadn't come out when you did, you’d be in the clouds plucking a
she took a few more sips of the soup before she pushed the bowl away.
"You can't eat
shook her head.
you're nothing but skin and bones!" Jons protested.
He studied the girl's pale, pinched face. There were dark smudges under
her bloodshot eyes and she blinked at him sleepily.
"Well, we'll worry about putting some meat on you later.”
looked at him curiously for a moment. "Thank
nodded and she gave him a wan smile as he took the tray out of the room.
After cleaning up the kitchen, he returned to the main room just as
Buckteeth unlocked the door. The
band was playing a soft, slow number—nothing like the raucous music they'd be
playing later in the night. He just
hoped the vixen was a heavy sleeper.
the next hour or so, he needlessly polished the counter to avoid his employees'
questioning looks. Then, patrons
poured in and all of them were busy until the end of the night.
Jons had to bring out the rifle once when a pair of inebriated
mercenaries tried to do each other in over an argument about the best way to
kill a banker, but the rest of the night was uneventful, if loud.
before dawn, he and his waiters shooed out the few who remained while the band
packed up their instruments.
worry about the mess," Jons said wearily.
"We'll clean it up before we open."
men exchanged glances. Jons was
never one to put off cleaning the bar, no matter how tired everyone was.
Jim asked. "You okay?"
you've always made us clean up before."
mess isn't going anywhere. But I'm
going to bed. Tony, you lock up.
Good night, boys." The
ferret pushed through them and went to his apartment.
His employees watched as he shut and locked the door.
man needs a good lay," Tony said crudely.
up, Tony,” Buckteeth snapped.
they turned the lights off and prepared to leave, he asked, "You guys don't
think he's, uh…"
made a lewd gesture and Jim cuffed him sharply.
"Shut your mouth, you pervert. Even if you would, Jons isn't
would not!" the bulldog protested indignantly.
"I like 'em young, but not that young!"
the next few weeks, Cody began to recover. Her
appetite gradually returned and she began to put on weight, which improved her
appearance dramatically. She didn't
talk much or demand attention, for which Jons was profoundly grateful.
He was busy trying to get things straightened out after his hiatus.
did, however, get the basics on her: she was eleven and her parents had been
killed in a plane crash off the
other employees introduced themselves to the girl when they had time, and she
was shyly polite to them. Buckteeth
had brought the girl some clothes that his kids had outgrown.
She’d quickly tossed aside the skirts despite the fact that she’d
been wearing one the night Jons had found her.
The pants were more graciously accepted.
Some of them were a little short and tight, some of them were long and
had to be belted to keep them up, and she had quickly discarded snug shirts in
favor of the looser ones, but they were better than having her run around the
place in Jons’s old shirts or the rags she’d been wearing the night they’d
met. Those she’d thrown away
her strength returned, Jons found himself having to chase her out of the bar
late at night. The dancers
fascinated her, and Tony wasn't helping matters.
Jons had caught the bulldog giving the girl dance lessons in the early
evening before business picked up. The
girl was a fairly apt pupil. Then again, he’d found that most kids caught onto
dances more quickly than adults. He
had to grin when he saw them dancing. They
made a peculiar couple. Tony was
short and middle-aged with a serious beer belly and Cody was still more whipcord
over bone than anything else. She’d
also hacked her long hair off to chin-length, which made her look rather boyish.
night, he saw the dog teaching her to mambo.
But Tony was teaching her the wrong steps.
not how you do it,” Jons called from his customary post behind the counter.
and vixen had looked at him in surprise.
it is,” Tony said. “This’s how
that cute secretary taught me to do it.”
telling you, that’s not the way the dance goes.
She does that on the floor and they’ll chase her off like they do
Tony stepped back, arms crossed over his chest.
sorry he’d gotten involved, Jons industriously straightened bottles.
“Can’t. I’m working.”
not busy. Come over here for a
minute. Heaven forbid I teach the
kid the wrong dance steps.”
shook his head.
Jons,” Cody said. “You can
dance, can’t you?”
bartender turned and saw that her eyes were twinkling mischievously. “All
right.” He tossed aside his apron
and stepped over to the girl and waiter, who exchanged grins.
a dirty look at Tony, he said, “First of all, you do not leech onto
your partner so you need a crowbar to separate you.
You need to have a little room to move.”
the bulldog protested, but Cody looked relieved.
Jons showed her the correct steps. Then,
he slowed down so that she could mimic him. Pretty soon, she was performing the
basic mambo at full speed and with considerable enthusiasm.
to see I haven’t lost my touch.” Jons
released Cody and returned to the counter. She
and Tony followed.
you learn to dance?” Tony asked. “I
never saw you do so much as a waltz.”
was a dance teacher. And I taught
dancing to pay for college,” Jons said.
smirked. “For an old man, you’re not bad.”
it, kid,” he growled.
he smiled and tousled her hair. He
was beginning to like the smart-mouthed little vixen, and he often had to
sternly tell himself not to become attached to her.
She’d soon be on her way to… wherever.
then on, he kept his mouth shut about the dance lessons and refused to let
himself be talked into participating again.
night, he saw Tony offer her a shot glass of some of the most rotgut liquor he
stocked. Before he could stop her,
she tossed it back just as she'd seen the bulldog do.
Eyes watering, she coughed and spluttered while Tony laughed.
worry, kid. You'll get used to it."
Jons hastily filled a glass with water and stormed over.
"What did you think you were doing?"
managed a weak grin. "Yeah.
handed her the water and turned to scowl at the suddenly worried bulldog.
"She's just a kid, Tony! You
don't give hard liquor to kids! Bad
enough you're teaching her to dance!"
if she's staying, she's got to learn, doesn't she?
And I don’t think I was the only one teaching her."
not staying, Tony! You know
so you're just going to turn her out in the street?
Nice, Jons, real nice."
hiccupped and the men looked at her in surprise.
I didn’t mean for you to find out like this.”
Jons shifted uncomfortably. “But…
I figured you knew you weren’t staying.
I mean… this isn’t… you can’t… this is a bar, for
worry about me," she said roughly. She
slid off the barstool and stumbled towards the back.
"Don't know where y’all got the idea that I was planning on
staying. All I’m worried
about is payin' you back."
was confused. "Pay me back for
looked at him as if he were an idiot. "Taking
care of me. Daddy always told me
to not to get into debt, and I don't mean to."
sweetheart, you don't owe me a thing."
call me sweetheart," she snarled.
on her heel, she stalked away. Jons
gave Tony a disgusted look and followed her.
go out that door! It's pouring and you're still sick!" he yelled.
found her curled up on the couch.
gave him a withering look. "I
ain't stupid. I know it's
raining, but it's late and I'm tired. Now
go away and leave me alone."
paused awkwardly in the doorway and stared at the small girl—or more precisely
at the back of her head, since she’d resolutely turned away from him.
Then, at a complete loss, he turned and went back to the bar.
was at his side in a flash. “What
brows drew together and he frowned. “Nothing.”
He shrugged. “She found out
she’s not staying.”
that what you and Tony were fighting about?”
is she okay?”
shrugged again and said carelessly, “I don’t know.
She told me to leave her alone.”
rabbit shook his head. “And you listened?
Did you at least try to explain things?”
off, Teeth. It’s between me and
I told you that if you want to let her stay, that’s your business.
Fine. But just… just
don’t get her hopes up, okay?”
bartender looked at him curiously. “What
do you mean? I’ve never given her
the idea that she could stay.”
not. But…” Buckteeth paused,
choosing his words carefully. “There’s
something strange about that girl, Jons.”
rabbit shrugged. “Well, she’s a
little, um… jumpy when you get too close to her.
Have you seen her when Tony’s teaching her to dance?
Poor kid looks like she’s about to jump out of her skin.”
arched an eyebrow. “If you had
Tony teaching you to dance, wouldn’t you be a little jumpy?”
a chuckle, Buckteeth placed his tray on the bar.
“I guess so. But…”
Again, he hesitated, unsure of how to say what he wanted to say.
“Jons, I’m going to be blunt and you can take this for what it’s
worth. I think Cody was
planning on staying.”
that’s her problem, isn’t it? And
I thought you were through trying to persuade me to keep her.”
listen. I’m not trying to get you
to keep her.”
I’m not. I’m just saying that I
think she’s been through something terrible and, well, she’s gotten attached
to you… trusts you. When you do
find someone willing to take her in, just… make sure they’re all right.”
a snort, Jons rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, I’ll ask for resumes and do
full background checks.”
sighed and dropped the subject. “You
mind if I go look in on her? Just to
make sure she’s okay?”
my opinion suddenly matters?”
rabbit shook his head and made his way to Jons’s living room.
The girl was huddled on top of the blankets, shivering.
didn’t answer, so he tiptoed over and peered at her.
Her eyes were closed, but he could see telltale trails
of moisture on her cheeks. Carefully,
he eased the top blanket out from under her and tucked it around her firmly.
Then, he brushed her unruly hair from her face and gently touched her
cheek. She shivered in her sleep and
shied away from his touch.
of Part 1
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