Southern Comfort
By Staci Faulkenberry


Part 2

 

            Jim cast a furtive glance over his shoulder.  He’d had enough of that child slinking around the bar.  This was a business, for Pete’s sake!  He would have called from the rundown apartment he shared with four other guys, but they had no phone.

            He just hoped no one would come close enough to overhear him.  He knew this had to be done; the girl had to go.  But he also knew how Jons felt about the authorities.  His boss ran as clean a business as was possible in their line of work, but they had some regular customers with questionable reputations and Jons took care to stay unnoticed.  Even when they had brawls, they never got the cops involved.

            Without pausing for second thoughts, he dialed a number.

            The phone rang several times before a harassed sounding female voice said, “Hello?”

            He hesitated.  “Is this the orphanage?”

            “Yes.  How can I help you?”

            “I’d like to report a runaway.”

            “Did you catch one or are you looking for one?”

            “Caught one.  Name’s Cody Hawkins.”

            In the silence, he could hear papers rustling.

            “Yes, we had a Cody Hawkins here a couple of years ago.”

            “She run from you?”

            “No, no.  Not from us.  She was adopted.  I’ve got her file right here with her guardian’s information.  Could you please tell me where the girl is now?”

            “Ferret’s Folly Bar and Dancehall.”

            “Could you give me the address please?”

            Jim reeled off the information, still casting glances over his shoulder. “Do you want me to call this guy myself?”

            “No, sir.  We’ll take care of it.  Thank you for letting us know.”

            “Any time.”

            So the brat ran away from someone.  Probably someone who wouldn’t let her shave the cat or something. It’ll be better for Jons when she’s gone.

            “Who was on the phone?” Tony asked.

            “Huh?” Jim blinked and guiltily snatched up a tray of drinks he’d been on his way to deliver.  “Oh, wrong number.”

            “Oh.  I was hoping it was that cute little secretary who was in here last night.”

            “You didn’t give her your home number?”

            The bulldog snorted.  “What, and tell her where she can find me?”

            Jim forced a laugh and scurried off with his tray of drinks.

            The rest of the night was relatively quiet, but busy.  There were no fights, but a steady flow of customers kept them all running until closing time.

After Jons locked the door behind his employees, he turned and stared at the empty room.  He’d only been in business for a few years, and he loved every minute of it.  He enjoyed the characters who sauntered into his bar, the befuddlement on their faces when he forced them to dance, and he even liked shooting the occasional troublemaker.  Bartending was a legacy his father had left him, and he wouldn't--couldn't give that up.

His thoughts turned to Cody.  She was young and impressionable.  Though she'd never said as much, he suspected that she'd seen some bad stuff on the streets, most of which probably involved men from the tense, uncomfortable look she got every time Tony pulled her a little too close when they danced, and she needed to be somewhere stable.  She did not, he told himself, need to be around a bunch of drunks who stayed up dancing till dawn.

Sighing, he went to the bar and pulled out a half-full bottle of tequila.  He needed to forget about the kid for a while.

 

***

 

Jons awoke with a splitting headache, the empty bottle still in his hand.  He groaned and shielded his eyes from the glare of the florescent lights and the sunlight that poured through the windows.  He wasn’t usually much of a drinker and now it looked as if he were going to pay the price.  His head pounded, his mouth was extremely dry, and he felt as if he were about to vomit.

"Do this a lot?"

The bartender turned his head slightly and tried to get his eyes to focus.  The girl stood in the doorway, hands on her hips.

"G'way," he mumbled.  "An' stop shoutin'."

With a tsk of disgust, the vixen grabbed the empty bottle and tossed it into the trash.  Then, she faced Jons like a drill sergeant.

"Well? Come on," she said impatiently.  "Let's get you to bed so you can sleep it off."

Jons allowed her to help him into a sitting position.  Cody wrinkled her nose at the heavy stench of alcohol, but said nothing.  Somehow, she got him to his feet and they stumbled towards his apartment, Jons leaning so heavily on the girl that she had a hard time keeping herself upright. She was just glad he wasn’t fat.  If he had been, she’d have left him where he’d fallen.

"I'll never understand why y’all get drunk," she muttered, kicking the door open.

I ought to just leave.  Grab some cash and go.  By the time he comes around, I could be long gone.

She considered it for a moment longer.  Then, she discarded the idea.  Unfortunately, she was in his debt.  He hadn’t been under any obligation to take care of her, and she felt that she should stay until she could at least repay him. 

Besides, she didn’t know the combination to the safe.

Jons had to make a detour to the bathroom to empty the contents of his stomach before he settled into bed.  Cody tugged off his shoes and carefully draped the blankets over him as he began to snore.

He'll never be able to work tonight.  Was that bottle full?  What was in it, anyway?

When Tony and the boys arrived and she told them what happened, they looked concerned.

"Y’all never seen him drunk?" she asked.

Buckteeth glanced at the other two before replying.  "No, actually.  Jons… he’s not really…"

"We haven’t ever seen him falling down drunk."  Tony snorted.  "And he yells when I do it."

The rabbit gave Tony a look and put a fatherly arm around the girl's shoulders.  She managed not to flinch.  "Jons has had a lot on his mind lately.  I don't know if he told you this or not, but... his father passed away recently.  They were pretty close.  Remember that night he found you?  He was just coming back from the funeral."

She looked stricken.  “He didn’t tell me.  What… I mean, was his father…?”

Buckteeth patted her shoulder.  “Barroom brawl.  It was a… terrible shock.  To tell you the truth, we’ve all been worried about him lately.”

“Enough gabbing.  We’ve got work to do,” Jim said, giving Cody a cool glance. The bear didn’t care for her, and he didn’t bother to hide it.  She stuck out her tongue at him and absently got out a rag to wipe down the counter as she’d seen Jons do numerous times.

Despite what she’d said the night before, she had been hoping to stay at the bar and had been working up the nerve to ask Jons for a job as a dishwasher.  It would have been the easiest way to reimburse him for what it had cost to take care of her for the past three weeks, and besides, she liked the bartender.  Something about him put her at ease. Her mama would have called him a gentleman. Though brusque, he was also considerate and left her strictly alone.  When he had taught her to mambo, he had been briskly professional and she hadn’t been left to question his motives, unlike Tony, who tended to have wandering hands. 

The girl thought back to that night that Jons had found her and taken her in.  She had been worried at first, but had really been too sick to care what he did to her.  He hadn’t called the cops or the orphanage---she was grateful for that.  She’d meant it when she’d told him she wasn’t going back. 

In all her life, she had never been as sick as she’d been when Jons had found her, but he had taken care of her when he could have just left her to die.  Orphans like her died all the time—usually from illness or neglect.  The vixen remembered a soothing, gravelly baritone that she knew now was Jons murmuring soft reassurances to her during the worst of her nightmares—something else he hadn’t had to do, and that meant a lot to her.  She’d also seen him watching her worriedly when he thought she wasn’t looking and he did his level best to get her to eat.  Not that she needed much urging.  Jons was a good cook and now that she was feeling better, she was hungry all the time.  When he had found her, it had been a month since she’d had a decent meal and at least two days since she’d eaten anything at all.  For one thing, she’d been so sick that she hadn’t been hungry and she definitely hadn’t felt like panhandling or stealing.

She smiled, remembering the first real meal she’d been able to eat in a while.

“Don’t tell anybody.” He’d looked around to make sure they were alone as he placed bowls in front of her.

Mouth watering, she’d looked greedily at the pot roast surrounded by celery, carrots, and potatoes.  “Don’t tell anybody what?”

“That I can cook.” He gave a theatrical shudder as he carved a thick slice of the tender roast and put it onto her plate.  “A man who can cook?  It’s unheard of.  The guys think I live off sandwiches and diner food and I’d like to keep it that way.  But I’ll cook for you if you’ll promise to stuff yourself silly—and not tell anybody.”

With a rare giggle, she’d promised—a promise she’d kept so far.  Though her ribs were far less visible than they had been a few weeks ago, Pat obviously thought he wasn’t much of a cook because she’d sent meals several times.

Someone pounded on the door, making her jump.  Tony went to see who it was.  He looked through the window and turned with a shrug.

“Customer,” he said.  Then, he yelled, “We’re closed, buddy!  Come back at four!”

Whoever it was would not be put off.  “Are you Mr. Jonathan LeRoux?”

Tony shook his head.  “Nope.  He’s in the back.”

“I hear he’s taken in a girl by the name of Cody Hawkins.”

“What of it?”  Tony glanced at the girl uneasily, realizing how little she had told them about herself.  He sincerely hoped that she hadn’t gotten his boss into any trouble.

“She’s mine.  I adopted her two years ago and I’ve come to take her back!”

The waiters fell silent, and Cody, who had frozen as soon as she’d heard the voice, whimpered.

The man called again, sounding pleasant, but a little impatient.  “May I please come in?  I’m not accustomed to doing business through closed doors!”

“Why don’t you let him in, Tony?” Jim asked.  His eyes flicked towards Cody.  “I reported her to the orphanage and they tracked down her guardian.”

“No,” Cody whispered, but the men paid no attention. 

Tony quickly unlocked the door and a well-dressed fox stepped into the room.  He was tall with a carefully cultivated air of the wealthy about him and looked to be in his early to middle forties.  His dark gaze flicked around the bar.  When he saw the vixen standing behind the counter, rag clutched in her hand and eyes wide, he smiled.

“Cody!  I’ve been so worried about you.  Where have you been?”  His voice was rich, deep, and smooth.

“She’s been here for about three weeks now, sir,” Jim volunteered.

“Come here, sweetheart.”

She remained where she was.  He frowned a little and went over to envelop her in a hug.  She stiffened the instant he touched her and tried to pull away, but he held her firmly. Neither Tony nor Buckteeth seemed to notice her distress, and she had to stifle the urge to scream.

Calmly, the fox pried Cody’s fingers from the rag and tossed it onto the counter.  When he caught sight of her short hair, his lips tightened in disapproval.  With one arm around her shoulders, he guided her towards the door.  “But where is Mr. LeRoux?  I’d like to thank him for taking care of my girl.”

“He’s, uh, under the weather,” Tony said.

“No, I’m not.”  Everyone turned to see the bartender lounging in the doorway to his apartment, frowning.  “And who are you, sir?”

Smiling, the fox went forward, hand extended.  The smile dimmed and nose wrinkled in distaste when he got close enough to smell the alcohol on Jons’s breath.  “Toby Fletcher.  I was just telling these… gentlemen that I adopted this little lady a couple of years ago, but for some reason she suddenly ran away.  I’ve come to take her home where she belongs.  Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”

As he reluctantly shook the man’s hand, Jons noticed that the vixen didn’t snap at him not to call her sweetheart.  In fact, she seemed downright terrified.  He also noticed that the fox’s hand clenched her shoulder a little too tightly.

“I thought she ran away from the orphanage.”

Fletcher laughed.  “She’s such a pistol.  She’ll lie to you in a heartbeat.”

Tony, who had finally realized that Cody wasn’t too happy about her guardian’s appearance, came to stand beside Jons.  “Then why did you adopt her?”

“I felt sorry for her, to tell you the truth.  Everybody wants babies, not older kids, but I’ve always had a soft spot for, shall we say… tough cases.”

Buckteeth, who had been glaring at Jim, suddenly asked.  “You got any proof of this, Mr. Fletcher?”

The fox’s brilliant smile dimmed a little more and he released Cody to reach into the inside pocket of his immaculately tailored maroon jacket and pull out an official-looking document.  The vixen involuntarily took a couple of steps towards Jons, but stopped when the fox gave her a look.  The bartender took the paper and scrutinized it.  Then, he handed it back to Fletcher.

“Looks in order.”  He gave the visitor a once-over.  “You seem to be pretty prosperous.”

“Oh, I do all right.  It’s hard to prosper in these difficult times.  I’m sure you understand.”  The fox looked disdainfully around the empty barroom.

Hard times.  The economy’s booming and he’s going on about hard times, Jons thought.

“Of course,” the bartender replied evenly, trying to ignore the desperation in the girl’s eyes. “If you don’t mind my asking, why did she run away?”

Was it his imagination or did the fox’s laugh sound forced?  “Can’t imagine.”

There was an awkward silence. Then, Fletcher hugged Cody to him and turned to go.

“I will, of course, pay you for taking care of her.  One of my servants will be over with the money tomorrow.”

They left.  Cody tried to drag her feet, but Fletcher would have none of that.  He bent and whispered something in her ear that made her quicken her pace.  Tony started to call after them, but stopped when he saw the look on Jons’s face.  The bartender took a few steps forward, but didn’t stop them.

As soon as the door closed, Buckteeth turned to Jim.  “How could you?”

“How could I what?  She’s his.  He adopted her,” the bear said.

“Didn’t you see how terrified she was?” Tony asked.

“Listen, you lush!  Jons doesn’t need a kid around!  He was too polite to turn her out, so I did it for him.  It’s about time somebody did something.”

Jons looked at the bear in disbelief.  You?  You called the law?”

“Well, yeah.  I thought… what with your father passing away and everything… you didn’t need… I mean...” Jim faltered.

“She didn’t run away without a reason,” Jons said quietly.

“Come on,” Jim snorted.  “Worst he probably does is hit her.  I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but he can take better care of her than you.  He’s loaded.  That’s got to be worth a few bruises every now and then.  And I didn’t see you stopping them just now.”

Without a word, the ferret turned on his heel.  The waiters jumped when the door slammed with unusually vehement force.

His employees gaped after him for a moment.  Then, they looked at each other, shrugged, and finished cleaning, though Buckteeth and Tony refused to speak to Jim.

A couple of hours later, when the band arrived and found out what had happened, they were more philosophical.

“You did the right thing, Jim.  She’ll be better off with old man Fletcher than here,” Kevin said. “Jons’ll get over it soon.”

Jim gloated and the other two waiters scowled.

“Wait a minute.”  David looked concerned.  “Did you say Fletcher?  As in Toby Fletcher, the rich surgeon?”

“Yeah,” Tony said.  “Why?  Do you know him?”

The trumpet player nodded grimly.  “Let’s just say I’ve heard of him.  One of his servants plays poker with me.  When he’s had a few beers, he talks.  Fletcher’s a good doctor, all right, but according to his servant, he’s got a nasty little vice.”

“What, he rolls around butt-naked in his money?” Tony snickered.

Looking disgusted, David shook his head. “Little girls, dummy.”

Tony’s jaw dropped and Jim shifted uncomfortably.  Buckteeth was horrified.  Jons’s employees looked at each other.

“Who’s going to tell him?” Tony asked.

Everyone looked at Buckteeth.

“Me?” the rabbit squeaked.

“You’re old. He won’t kill you,” Kevin said.

“Oh, thanks.”  The rabbit glared at them.  Then, he glanced at the door to Jons’s apartment apprehensively.  The bartender was usually very good-natured, but he did have a temper that was all the worse because he rarely showed it, and Buckteeth knew that this information would make his temper flare.  Still, someone had to tell him now.  Buckteeth briefly imagined his own three daughters when they were Cody’s age, imagined how he would feel if they’d been… He wasn’t even related to Cody, for that matter, but the thought of her—or any girl—being treated that way made him physically ill.  He nodded, took a deep breath, and made his way to the back.

He found the younger man pacing the kitchen.

“Jons?” he ventured.

“Go away,” snapped his boss.

Buckteeth paused in the doorway.  “The band’s here.”

Jons gave him a strange look.  “So?”

“Well, David told us something… disturbing.”

“Did he forget to clean his trumpet again?  That’s not disturbing, Teeth.  Go away.”

“Not… not that.  It’s about Toby Fletcher.”

            That got the ferret’s attention.  His head snapped up and he looked at the rabbit with such dark intensity that Buckteeth backed up a few steps.

“What about him?” His voice was a dangerous growl.

“He’s… he’s… it’s not good, Jons.” Buckteeth swallowed, unsure of how to say it.  “He… he uses little girls.”

The younger man collapsed onto the nearest chair and stared at Buckteeth in shock.  “You sure?”

“Come on, Jons.  You saw how she acted when she saw him!”

Jons closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  He was silent for so long that Buckteeth began to fidget.  When he finally opened his eyes, there was a certain life in them that hadn’t been there in a while—and a smoldering anger.  Jumping to his feet, he grabbed the phone off the cradle and got the operator to connect him to Toby Fletcher’s. 

“I’d like to speak to Mr. Fletcher,” he said when someone---a maid, he guessed---answered.

“I’m sorry, sir.  He isn’t available.  May I take a message?”

His lips thinned, but he reined in his anger. “This is important.”

“I’m sorry.  He’s unavailable.” Her reply was firm.  She’d obviously been well-trained.

I never should have let him take her.

Remembering the look of fearful pleading in the girl’s eyes as Fletcher had led her away, he felt a wave of guilt that only strengthened his resolve. 

“Please, ma’am.” His voice was calm and pleasant, completely at odds with his inner turmoil.  “This will only take a minute and it is important.  I know he’ll want to speak with me.”

“Are you a patient?”

“Huh?”

“A patient, sir.  Do you need to speak with Dr. Fletcher about a health problem?”

It took him a moment to realize that Fletcher wasn’t just a rich man---he was a rich doctor and for some reason, that made what he was all the worse in the bartender’s eyes.

“Yes.” The lie came easily.  “It’s a matter of life and death.  I really need to talk to him now.”

There was a hesitation before the maid said uncertainly, “This isn’t really a good time, sir.  If you could just give me your name and number, I’ll have him call you as soon as possible.”

Jons’s temper snapped.  “Look, I said it’s a matter of life and death!  Let me talk to him now!”

Regretfully, she repeated, “I’m sorry, sir.  Just give me your name and number and he’ll call you back as soon as possible.”

Beyond furious, he slammed the receiver down, snatched up a loaded revolver and his jacket, and pushed past the anxious Buckteeth without a word.  He had no clear plan as to what he was going to do—but he did know that he wasn’t going to let Cody stay with Fletcher.

Hope Hank’s at home tonight.

 

***

 

To Cody’s surprise, Fletcher didn’t do anything to her immediately.  As soon as they returned to the mansion and he handed off his coat to the ever-attendant butler, he turned to face her, cold eyes focused on her hair, which hung in fluffy waves around her face.

“What happened?” he asked quietly.

She just stared at him, heart in her throat.

“You know little girls shouldn’t have short hair.  You will grow it out again.” His lip curled in distaste as he reached out to finger a short lock of her hair.  She tensed and closed her eyes.

“Go upstairs,” he ordered.  “You will change out of that… attire… and put on something little girls should wear.  Elsie will select an appropriate outfit for you and help you dress for dinner.”

He released her hair and she couldn’t restrain a whimper.

“And please stop making those absurd noises.  You’re back where you belong.  Speaking of which, we’ll discuss your little adventure after dinner.”

He grabbed her arm and dragged her upstairs to her room, releasing her to a stout badger.  Without another word, he turned and strode away as if she weren’t worth any more of his time.

If only.

As stiffly as if she were a store mannequin, she allowed Elsie to dress her in an expensive, neatly tailored black skirt and a ruffled pale pink blouse.  As soon as Cody’s hair was brushed, Elsie had bustled out, taking care to lock the door behind her.  The girl stared at the door in dismay.  It locked from the outside and her bedroom had no windows.  She dreaded the promised after-dinner ‘discussion’, and wildly tried to think of a way to escape.

By the time Elsie came to get her for dinner, no idea had presented itself to her.  The maid escorted her to the dining room where she took her seat across from Fletcher.

The servants shot her sympathetic glances.  Unfortunately, the girl knew that none of them would interfere; Fletcher paid them too well and he always made sure his employees cared more about money than their conscience.  While Cody picked at the steak on her plate, she watched her guardian warily.  He, in turn, watched her.  She recognized that petulant, hungry look and her stomach twisted into knots. 

It’s going to be bad. Really bad.

After dinner, he dismissed the servants and dragged her into his study.

Releasing her, he pointed imperiously towards a chair.  “Sit.”

She knew she was pushing it, but she simply crossed her arms over her chest and stared at him, eyes wide.

With a shrug, he deliberately sat behind the desk and looked at her disapprovingly, as if he were a principal and she an errant schoolgirl.  Knowing that it would do no good to run, she nevertheless couldn’t resist the urge to edge towards the door.

“It’s time you told me why you ran away,” he said quietly.

She couldn’t believe that he could just sit there so calmly. But she knew from experience that the calmness was deceptive. “You know why.”

“I’m sure I don’t, my dear.” He opened a drawer and took his time selecting a cigar.  “If you had only told me you were unhappy, I would have done anything to correct the situation.”

“The only thing that would ‘correct the situation’ is if you’d let me go!”

“Oh, really?” He lit the cigar and took a few careless puffs.  “You know I can’t do that.  I adopted you.  You really should be more grateful, sweetheart.  After all, if not for me, you’d still be pining away in that hovel of an orphanage.”

Something inside of her snapped.  “I’d rather be there than here with you!”

It wasn’t exactly scathing and Fletcher barely registered it as an insult.

“You are certainly a rustic little thing,” he said mildly.  “But we haven’t discussed the matter at hand.  Tell me why you ran away so we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

 “You know damn well why,” she snapped. 

“Language, sweetheart.  I see that detestable bartender has had an adverse effect on you.”

“I’d rather be with him than you!  So you can take your mansion and your fancy food and clothes and… and…!” At a loss, she just stared at him, fuming.

He laughed.  “Maybe I should thank this bartender.  You seem to be the little spitfire you were when I first took you in.  I think that’s just delightful.  You did seem to be… languishing the last few months before your unfortunate departure.”  He stood up.  “And now, sweetheart, I think it’s time for your punishment.”

She would not let him use her like that again.  “You’ll have to kill me first.”

She turned to bolt, but he came around the desk, grabbed her skinny wrists with one hand, and slapped her hard with the other.  She cried out and struggled to get away, but he laughed, obviously taking some delight in her resistance.

Though she was still weak from her illness, adrenaline gave her the strength to fight as pure terror lanced through her, sharp and metallic, robbing her of all logic and reason.  When she kicked him in the shins, he stopped laughing and gaped at her.  She took advantage of his surprise to snatch away from him and rake her fingernails across his face.

That got his attention. 

Roaring with rage, he instinctively brought his hands to his face and came away with blood.  She took advantage of the distraction to make a run for it.  Heart hammering, she choked back a sob and sprinted down the hall as he slammed out of the study after her, bellowing.

But she knew he wasn’t really angry.  She knew that the more she struggled, the more he enjoyed hurting her.  The thought of what he’d do if he caught her this time made her ignore the ache in her legs and the shortness of breath.  She tripped and almost fell down the stairs, but she regained her footing and jumped down the last four steps, scrabbling to regain her footing on the slick marble floor.  Breathing hard, she flung herself through the nearest door, blind and deaf to everything but the man chasing her.

She’d gone into a small office just beneath the stairs.  Fletcher used that on the very rare occasions when his patients came to see him at home. 

Mainly, he used it to patch up his girls when he was finished with them. 

Cody had been in there more times than she cared to remember.  Resolutely turning a blind eye to the panic and pain the room evoked, she turned her attention to finding a hiding place.  Gorge rose in her throat when she realized she’d trapped herself. 

There was no way out.

 

End of Part 2

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