Southern Comfort

Part 5

 

Two weeks later…

 

            Cody paled and her eyes widened as she scanned the front page of the morning paper.  Toby Fletcher had been released from the hospital?  She thought that Jons had just had a talk with him, though she hadn’t known why her former guardian would give her up that easily.  Quickly, she skimmed the story.  About two weeks before, the article claimed he’d been found in his mansion, badly beaten and near death.  The butler who had found him claimed that it had been burglars because of a broken window, vandalized rooms, and missing money.

            If she were so inclined, Cody could have told the police and reporters that he’d trashed his own house while she was fighting to get away from him.  And that she’d been confined to bed for the better part of those two weeks, so exhausted from nights rendered sleepless by nightmares of the good doctor that she could barely think, and so stiff from being beaten that it seemed even her hair hurt. 

            Not that it’d matter if I did say something.  Why would they believe some no-name orphan over someone who keeps the cops in his back pocket?

But Jons couldn’t have… he wouldn’t have… done to Toby Fletcher what the paper said was done to him.  The attack had been… bestial—everything that Jons wasn’t. 

Or so she’d thought. 

Was he capable of that kind of violence?  Would he do something like that to her if she made him angry?  Somehow, that image didn’t seem quite right.  But Toby Fletcher had taught her not to go by appearances.  Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember that night; the details were still unclear to her.

“Morning.”

At Jons’s voice, she jumped and whirled around, knocking over a glass of milk.  The bartender hurriedly got a dishtowel and sopped up the mess before it could spill onto the floor.

“Sorry,” he said.  “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Y-you didn’t,” she lied, sliding off the chair and helping him clean up the mess.  “Sorry about the milk.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah.  Why wouldn’t it be?”

She finished mopping up the spilled drink, tossed her dishtowel in the sink, and hurried out of the room.

Brow furrowed, Jons watched her go.  “What’s her problem?”

He dampened a dishcloth and wiped down the table.  The paper that Cody had been reading when he came in was drenched.  He started to crumple it when the headline caught his eye.

So this is what she was so upset about.  But… she ought to know he’s not going to bother her.  From this report, Hank worked him over pretty good.

He tried to read the smeared print as best he could, anxious to see if there had been any witnesses to his and Hank’s rescue mission.  From what he could make out, it was being blamed on burglars, and Fletcher really couldn’t admit that the girl had been taken from him without being exposed.  If the servants didn’t tell, Cody certainly would.

Suddenly, breakfast didn’t sound as good as it had when he’d come into the kitchen.  He dumped the soggy paper in the trash and went to his office.  He was at the door, wondering why it was closed, when he remembered.  That was Cody’s room now.  He’d moved his office to the living room a couple of weeks ago when he’d decided to let her stay with him.  The desk and filing cabinet made the space a bit cramped, but the girl had needed a bedroom more than he’d needed an office.  Whirling, he backtracked.  Going to his file cabinet, he pulled out a file from the back that contained the adoption papers of all the girls that Fletcher had taken in.  He flipped through them until he came to Cody’s stack.

            Slouching into his chair, he skimmed through the clauses and fine print until he came to the personal information.  He frowned and sat up.  According to this, Cody’s birthday was on March 12.  He glanced at his desk calendar.  That was about two weeks away and she hadn’t made any mention of it.  Weren’t kids supposed to be excited about their birthdays?  Or maybe that was little kids, not big kids who were almost twelve.

            But he remembered that he’d always looked forward to his birthday.  His mother had always cooked whatever he’d wanted for dinner and he’d usually been allowed to have a friend over to spend the night.

            Well, I ought to at least get her something.  But what in the world do you give a little girl?

            Usually, he gave his employees a bottle of wine for their birthdays, but that wasn’t really appropriate for Cody.  He thought about getting her a dress or a sweater, but she wouldn’t wear a dress and he had no idea what size she wore.  The labels on the clothes that Buckteeth had brought her were faded so that was no help.  He could get her a book, but he didn’t know what she liked to read aside from comic books and she was picky about those.

            I’ve got two weeks to think about it.  Something’s got to come to me between now and then.

It was the girl who gave him the idea.  He’d been trying, unsuccessfully, for the better part of a week to think of something she might like.  At dinner one night about a week before her birthday, he’d asked her about her parents, more out of desire for conversation than anything else.

“Mama was a housewife,” she told him.  “She kept tryin’ to turn me into a little lady, but…”

“What about your dad?”

“Oh, we lived on a ranch.  Daddy bought and sold horses.  Trained ‘em, too.”  Her voice became wistful.  “He was teaching me to train my own pony before… before the accident.”

Looking at her longing expression, he suddenly knew what to do for her.  While she washed dishes, he sat at his desk, thumbing through the phonebook.  After a couple of phone calls, he smiled with satisfaction, certain he’d found the perfect gift.

Lately, she’d spent as much time as she could avoiding him, which was extremely odd given how she’d seemed to latch onto him the past two weeks.  A part of him was relieved.  It had been very disconcerting for him to have her practically clinging to him all the time.  At the same time, he didn’t like the fearful looks she gave him when he spoke to her or the way she involuntarily shied away if she thought he was going to touch her.  It made him feel as if he were a monster. 

Out of the corner of his eye, he often caught her looking at him with horror, as if expecting him to pounce on her if she so much as opened her mouth.  Finally, he decided to ignore her.  Constantly reassuring her was exhausting.

            He was reclining on the couch one afternoon, eyes closed, listening to one of his favorite records when he heard her come out of her bedroom.  Too relaxed to move, he didn’t even open his eyes.  When he heard water running in the bathroom, however, his brow furrowed.  When it didn’t stop after a few seconds, he went to investigate.  He found Cody rummaging through the linen closet across the hall from the bathroom.

            “You’re not taking another bath are you?”

            She jumped and turned to face him, towel clutched to her chest.

            “Y-yeah.”

            Jons scratched his head.  “Didn’t you already bathe today?”

            She flushed.  “What’s it to you?”

            He bit his lip, considering what to say to her.  “Don’t you think one a day’s enough?”

            “No,” she said.

            “Well, I do.  You don’t need--!”

            She took a step forward.  “Yes, I do!  Look at me!  I’m filthy!”

            Jons looked and raised his eyebrows.  He saw fur and hair that was coarse and dry from too much washing and skin that was flaking.  It made him itch just looking at her.

            “No, you’re not,” he said gently.  “And I think--!”

            Once again, she interrupted him.  “Yes, I am.  You don’t know what it’s like to be filthy, do you?  To never be clean?  Well, I do!  I could bathe from now till I died and never feel clean!”  Blinking away tears, she stumbled into the bathroom, muttering, “You don’t understand.  Gotta get clean.”

            “When you come out of there, we’re going to talk!” he yelled.

            “I don’t have anything to say to you!” she snapped, though her voice quavered.

            “Too bad!  We’re talking anyway!”

            The door flew open.  She appeared to have recovered her composure and she stood there in the doorway, arms folded over her chest, her expression cross.

            “Look, what’s it to you what I do?”

            “Oh, that’s right, Cody.  I just went after you because that’s how I get my kicks on a Friday night.  I just offered you a place to stay because I didn’t have anything better to do that night.”

            “You didn’t want me.”  She advanced on him now, her fear of him apparently forgotten as suppressed feelings that had simmered just below the surface for weeks boiled over.  Jons actually backed up a step at the look in the girl’s eyes, oblivious to the incongruity that he, a twenty-five-year-old man, was retreating from an eleven-year-old girl.  But her hurt and rage were completely unchildlike.

            “Cody, I--!”

            “Don’t you dare lie to me, either.  I know you didn’t.  You tried to pawn me off on just about everybody in town!  You were probably glad to see Fletcher haul me away!  What gets me is why you came after me in the first place.  It ain’t like having me around’s made your life any easier.”

            That did it.  His jaw squared and he glared down at her, the adult in the conversation once again.

            “No, it hasn’t.  Listen, I want to help you, Cody, but you’re not exactly the easiest person to help. Half the time, you go around here looking like a lost little girl, the other half you look like you’ve got this big chip on your shoulder.  Nobody can get close to you.  You act like you want a friend, but if I try to do anything for you, you look at me like I’m going to kill you!”

            She opened her mouth, then closed it.

            He continued, “You don’t want me to lie?  Fine.  I’ll admit I didn’t want you.  I wished you’d gone somewhere—anywhere else.  But you’re not what I expected.  You’ve had it rough and that’s made you grow up a little faster than most.  I’m sorry all that stuff happened to you, but it did and now you’ve got to deal with it.  You can’t just hide from it and ignore it.  Like this whole bath thing.  You can’t spend your whole day in a tub, you know.  I’m sure you noticed that your skin’s flaking.  It’s probably itchy, too, isn’t it?  You ever wonder why?”

            Resisting the urge to scratch, she sniffed disdainfully.  “I’m allergic to you?”

            He took a deep breath, expelled it slowly.  “All right.  You’re going to be stubborn.  Fine.  Do what you want.  I don’t care.”  He looked at his watch.  “Your shift starts in ten minutes.  If you’re not out there, I’ll take that to mean you quit.”

            Turning on his heel, the bartender stalked away, leaving her staring after him.  She entertained the notion of showing up a couple of minutes late, just to tick him off some more.  But as mad as he was now, he’d probably tell her to hit the streets.  From her three-week stint of living hand-to-mouth, she knew she vastly preferred having a steady job, however menial, and a roof over her head.  Even if it was with someone who didn’t want her there.  And who was likely to beat her or worse if he got mad.  Unbidden, the phrases of the news article she’d read a couple of weeks ago popped into her head:

            Bestial attack… missing fingers… slashed face… tail cut off…

            Shivering, she jumped into the now-cold water and hurriedly scrubbed herself off.  After he’d rescued her, she’d honestly thought he wasn’t like that—that he would never do something like that to her.  But who else had done it if he hadn’t?  She didn’t remember much about that night—he very well could have murdered Fletcher right in front of her and she wouldn’t have known about it.     

            Then she remembered how solicitous he’d been while she’d been recovering from her injuries.  He certainly hadn’t acted as if he wanted to tear her apart then. 

 

***

Fletcher’s mansion

 

            Bradley Crabtree, freelance assassin, buzzed the intercom at the gate and waited impatiently.  He was a tall, well-built tan bear dressed impeccably in a navy suit and black overcoat.  A fedora pulled low over one eye gave him a rakish look that might have been an affectation on any other man.  On Crabtree, it simply looked to be a part of who he was: dangerous.

            Presently, a tinny voice asked, “May I help you?”

            “Here to see Mr. Fletcher.”

            “The doctor isn’t seeing patients at the moment.”

            “I’m not a patient.  He sent for me.  Name’s Crabtree.”

            “Oh.  Just a moment, sir.”

            The assassin watched as the gate buzzed and slowly swung open.  Then, he climbed back into his car and drove onto the estate grounds.  He parked at the front entrance and strode up the front steps.  He was trained to take in his surroundings and he did so now automatically.  The opulence of the place didn’t impress him.  He was simply looking for trouble.  Assassins who didn’t keep a lookout usually found themselves shot, stabbed, or otherwise murdered.

            There was no trouble to be found here, however, but he didn’t relax his guard as he moved through the front door, which swung open at his approach.  Despite himself, he was impressed---until he saw the butler on the other side.

            “May I take your coat, sir?” The butler held out an arm and Crabtree dropped his overcoat carelessly across it.

            Crabtree was from out of town.  He wasn’t intimately entwined with the Land’s End criminal element, but he had to admit to a certain amount of curiosity about Toby Fletcher.  As soon as he had been contacted, he’d agreed to the meeting only after gathering information on Fletcher to make sure he wasn’t an undercover cop, so he knew the doctor had been attacked and that it had been especially brutal.  He’d also found out that it hadn’t been burglars who had attacked the doctor.  He knew a bartender had had something to do with it, but stories conflicted on exactly who and how many attackers there were just as stories conflicted on why it had been done.  One story said something about a little girl, but Crabtree didn’t believe that.  Who would risk enraging such a wealthy, powerful member of the community over a kid?

            Still, this promised to be interesting. 

            As soon as the butler hung the overcoat in a closet, he turned to Crabtree and said, “Please follow me, sir.”

            He led Crabtree up the sweeping staircase.  On the way, he said quietly, “The master was badly injured recently.  Please don’t look shocked when you see him.”

            This piqued the assassin’s curiosity even more.  He kept an eye out as he was led down a hallway that looked as if it were part of an art gallery.  Finally, the butler stopped at a set of double doors.  He gave Crabtree a warning look as he knocked, then entered without waiting for a reply.

            “Mr. Crabtree, sir,” the butler said, standing aside to allow Crabtree into the room.

            Having seen his fair share of dead bodies, the assassin didn’t react when he caught sight of the doctor, but he did cringe inwardly.  The fox was propped up on pillows, legs in casts.  Half of one ear was missing and his face was grotesquely swollen.  As Crabtree came closer, he saw that half of the doctor’s tail was missing along with a couple of toes.  Fletcher moved one hand to hold up a writing tablet, revealing that he was missing two fingers.

            Somebody worked him over good.  Somebody who knew what he was doing.

            “You called for me, sir?” Crabtree asked.

            The fox held out the writing tablet insistently.  Curious, Crabtree took it and glanced at it quickly: I have a job for you.

            “Yeah, I had a feeling you didn’t ask me here for tea.”

            Snatching back the tablet, Fletcher wrote furiously for a moment.  Then, he handed the tablet back to the assassin.

            “Kidnapping…? Not so much.  But if you need somebody dead, I’m your man.”

            Fletcher nodded and reached for the tablet.  After a moment, he handed it back to Crabtree.  On it, he had written: One, possibly two murders, one kidnapping.

            “That might be doable,” the assassin said cautiously.  “Depends on who you want me to snatch.  And how much you’re willing to pay.”

            Again, the room was silent except for the scratch of the pen.  When he held out the tablet again, Crabtree caught sight of a five digit number and smiled grimly.

            “I think you have yourself a deal, M---uh, Dr. Fletcher.  Now, let’s discuss details…”

 

***

Ferret’s Folly…          

 

Jons watched as Tony put his arms around the vixen and they began to dance.  He didn’t really think anything of it.  She and Tony had danced before, after all.  Besides, he was still mad at her for their earlier argument.  He wasn’t about to interfere.

Was it his imagination or did she look more tense than usual?  Frowning, he looked at the dancing pair closely.  No, it wasn’t his imagination.  She shook as he pulled her close, then spun her out.  As he twirled her back in, Tony’s hand accidentally brushed against her chest and Jons noticed that she shrank away from his touch.  Tony, of course, didn’t think anything of it.  To him, dancing was just a prelude to lovemaking.  The bulldog wouldn’t dream of doing that to Cody, of course, but he seemed quite unconscious of his wandering hands.

Jons took a few steps towards them as the vixen paled.  Her expression stirred pity and concern in him.  He was still angry with her for pushing him away, but he couldn’t stand seeing her like that.

Tony dipped her, his hand automatically going to her thigh.  At her small whimper, Jons knew he had to interfere.

“Tony, stop it.”

Tony either didn’t hear him or didn’t understand what he was saying.  He pulled the girl up and resumed the mambo.  Cody stumbled and nearly fell, her legs were shaking so badly, and he noticed with alarm that she wasn’t focusing on anything.

“Let go of her,” Jons said a little more loudly.

Still, they danced.  The bartender quickened his pace and grabbed the bulldog’s shoulder.

“If you value your job, you’ll let go of her right now,” he said.

Tony looked at his boss in surprise.  Then, he noticed Cody’s distress. Instantly, he released her and she slumped to the floor with a choked sob.  With the waiter watching in honest bewilderment, Jons knelt beside her and glared up at the bulldog.

“What were you thinking?  You can’t dance with her like that!”

“Hey, you know me!  I’d never…” he broke off, looking at the quivering vixen and his voice dropped to a horrified whisper.  “She’s just a kid!”

“Yes, she is.”  Jons’s expression was grim.  “Remember that.”

Then he turned his attention to Cody and put a gentle hand on her shoulder, pity overriding anger.  She flinched. 

“It’s okay, Cody,” he said soothingly.

“Leave me alone!”

He looked up and noticed that most of the attention in the bar was on them.  “C’mon. Let’s get you somewhere so you can calm down.”

He was afraid to touch her, but he didn’t think she’d be able to walk on her own.  He offered her a hand up, and though her own hand trembled, she took it.  Carefully, he put an arm around her and half-carried, half-guided her to the living room where she collapsed onto the couch.

“Okay.” He sat beside her. “Calm down.  You’re okay.”

            She put her head in her hands and for a horrible moment, he thought she was going to cry.  But she didn’t.  Instead, she began to hyperventilate.

            “Calm down,” the bartender said firmly.  “Take deep breaths and calm down.”

            She tried her best to obey.

            “I’m okay,” she whispered.  “I’m okay.”

            Jons shook his head. “Listen, Cody.  If Tony makes you that nervous, don’t dance with him.”

            Her head snapped up and she turned to him.  “Nervous? I ain’t nervous!”

            “No, you’re downright terrified,” he said quietly.  “And if he makes you feel that way, I’m telling you, don’t dance with him.”

            Her panic was subsiding and being replaced by what he was coming to recognize as her trademark stubbornness.

            “But he’s the only one who’s teaching me to dance.”

            The bartender sighed.  He’d never forget the look on the vixen’s face when Tony had gotten a little too friendly with her.  He’d offer to talk to the bulldog, but Jons knew it would do no good.  Tony honestly could not stop his wandering hands.  He equated dancing with foreplay, mainly because his dance teachers had all been of the romantic variety.  Jons knew the bulldog would never dream of doing anything like that to Cody, but he also didn’t really think about where he put his hands when he danced.

            “Do you want to learn that bad?”

            She nodded.

            “Do you trust me?”  He held his breath, waiting. 

            The question had obviously caught her off-guard.  She blinked in surprise and hesitated a moment, studying him critically.  Then, she shrugged wearily.  “I don’t know.”

            He was disappointed, but said, “Well, I’ll teach you, if you want.  I definitely don’t want a repeat of what just happened out there.  It’s bad for business.” He paused.  “Besides, Tony’s been teaching you all wrong.”

            Someone cleared his throat and they looked up to see the bulldog poised awkwardly on the threshold.

            “You okay?” he asked Cody.

            “Yeah,” she said.  “Fine.”

            Tony shifted uneasily.  “Could I talk to you for a minute?”

            She tensed.  “Alone?”

            Tony shook his head.  “No, no.  Jons can stay if you want.  I just wanted to apologize.  I’m sorry if I made you… uncomfortable.  Really.  I didn’t mean anything and I’d never, ever do anything… I mean…”

            “Okay,” she whispered.  Then, she looked at Jons.  “I… I’d like to take a bath and go to bed.  I know I was supposed to work tonight, but…”

            Jons started to object to the bath, but something in her expression made him say, “It’s okay.  Go ahead.  It’s not busy.”

            The girl slunk out of the room and the two men looked at each other.

            “I really am sorry, Boss Man.

            “I know.  But I don’t want you teaching her to dance anymore.”

            “Look, I’ll do better.  I won’t--!”

            His boss silenced him with a look.  “Yes, you will and we both know it.  I think you should stick to dancing with grown women and leave the teaching to me.”

            “You?”

            “Yeah, that’s right.  You’re teaching her wrong, anyway.  It’s about time somebody made sure she actually knows how to dance since she’s so keen on learning.”

            “I wasn’t teaching her wrong!”

            “Yes, you were.”

            Tony opened his mouth to protest again when he remembered Cody’s face as he’d danced with her.  She’d been… terrified.

            He and Jons returned to the bar where they distractedly waited tables.  Jons could tell his employee was thinking about what he’d said.

            Good. Maybe he won’t do it again.  If he does, friend or not, I might have to fire him.

            He turned his attention to his customers, trying to project a congeniality he didn’t feel.  Suddenly, he was tired.  He wanted to be alone.  Everything had changed so much, so fast and he hadn’t had time to absorb it.  More than anything, he wanted to go to bed, pull the covers over his head, and stay there for at least a week.

            The first scream made his patrons stop dead.  Everyone looked around curiously, but when nothing else happened, they returned to their dancing, drinking, and talking.  As business resumed, Tony made his way over to Jons.

            “That sounded like Cody.”

            “Yeah.” Jons hurriedly untied his apron and tossed it under the counter as a second, choked scream disrupted business yet again.  The bartender ignored the questioning stares as he raced to the back.

            He slammed into her door at a full run, bounced off of it, and stared at it in surprise.  When had she started locking her door?

            “Cody?” he called.  “You okay?”

            He heard choked sobs in reply.  Afraid that someone had slipped into his apartment and gotten her, he jiggled the doorknob.

            “Unlock the door!”

            More sobbing.

            Wordlessly, he whirled and hurried into the living room where he kept the spare keys to the bar.  Fumbling with the ring, he ran back to Cody’s room.  It took him two tries to get the key in the lock.  Finally, he burst into the room.

            The lights were off, but he turned them on.  Cody lay in bed, the covers twisted around her as she thrashed from side to side.

            “Don’t!” she whimpered.  Don’t!”

            “Cody?”  He hastened to her.  “Cody, wake up!  You’re safe now.  Wake up!”

            He hesitated for a moment before trying to shake her.  The last time he’d done that, she’d belted him.  But calling to her wasn’t working, so he reached down and grabbed her shoulders, shaking her gently.

            “Cody!  Snap out of it!  It’s just a dream!”

            Let go!” she shrieked, her eyes snapping open.  She flung herself away from him, lost her balance, and fell off the bed.

            She didn’t say anything; just lay sprawled on the floor, breathing heavily as her eyes darted wildly around the room.  Then, she focused on him as he stood there, stunned.

            “Wh-what are you doing in here?”

            “I heard you scream.  I thought… Are you okay?”

            “How did you get in?”

            He gestured towards the keys still hanging in the door.  “I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”

            Her lips thinned in annoyance at being intruded upon, even though she’d been screaming her head off.  It was very unsettling that she really had nowhere to hide.

Realizing she was still sprawled on the floor, she sat up, scowling.  “Go away.”

            Jons noticed that her hands trembled as she grasped the edge of the mattress and pulled herself back into bed.

            “Relax, okay?  Everything’s fine now,” he said.

            “No, it ain’t!” she snapped.  “If it was, I’d be back home!  My parents would still be alive and that man wouldn’t have ever…!”  She glared up at him fiercely.  “And how much longer till you do something to me?”

            He stared at her, speechless with shock.  Then: “Whoa!  Why would I do anything to you?”

            She shook her head helplessly.  “I don’t know, I don’t know.  Everybody’s leaving me or doesn’t want me or… my own family didn’t want me.”

            Oh, boy.  This girl’s got problems.  I am in way too deep.  But… she needs somebody.  Poor thing’s got nowhere else to go, nobody who cares.

            Taking a deep breath, he sat at the end of her bed and looked at her seriously.  “About what I said earlier about not caring… I didn’t mean it.  You should know that by now.  I came after you that night because I was concerned about you.  I heard about Fletcher’s reputation and I didn’t like it.  At all.”

            Startled, she glanced up at him, then back down at the quilt.

            “Look,” he said quietly.  “You’ve had a rough couple of years.  There’s no doubt about that.  But things will get better for you.”

            “Or they can get worse,” she muttered darkly.

            Then, he said something she didn’t expect.  “Yes, they could.”

            She glanced up sharply, eyes intently searching his face as her stomach clenched with fear.

            “Right now,” he said, “you’ve got a roof over your head and as much food as you can eat for as long as you want it.  No one’s going to hurt you if I have anything to say about it.  You’re safe.  Please believe that.”

            Her stomach relaxed.  “I want to,” she whispered.  “But…”

            “Let me put it to you another way, then.  Have I ever made you think I’d hurt you?  Have I ever made you think that I’d let anyone else hurt you?  Have I ever made you think I’d throw you out on the streets?”

            Slowly, almost reluctantly, she nodded.  “You said if I wasn’t out there in ten minutes, you’d take it to mean I quit.”

            “I didn’t mean that,” he said.

            “How was I supposed to know?”

Jons ran a hand through his hair and looked at the ceiling in a silent plea for patience.  Exasperation was beginning to replace compassion.  She might be more than I can handle.  How do you convince somebody who won’t be convinced--who thinks that just because you’re helping her out, that means you must want to do something horrible to her?

            “Okay, give me one example,” he said finally, “of something that’s made you feel unsafe.”

            She nodded towards the keys in the door.  “You can come in here any time you want.”

            “You were screaming!  I thought somebody was killing you!”  One look at her expression and he stalked to the door, jerked the keys out of the hole, and worked the key to her room off the ring.  “Here.”  He handed her the key and sat back down.  “Now I can’t get in unless you want me to.  What else?”

            Defiantly, she lifted her chin.  “I know what you did to Toby Fletcher.”

            Perplexed, he waited.

            “Saw it in the paper.  You almost killed him.  He was in the hospital for two weeks after your little talk.”

            So that’s why she’s been edgy.  She probably thought I’d do the same thing to her if I got mad enough.  He sighed.  “That wasn’t me.”

            She started to protest, but something made her stop.  There had been someone else with Jons.  She didn’t remember the details and probably never would, but she did remember somebody else in the room with them.

            “I got a… friend to go with me.  He’s the one who worked Fletcher over.  And I’ll tell you something, Cody, if I’d known just how badly he treated you, I’d have gotten him to kill that bastard.”  His jaw clenched and eyes flashed as he remembered the emptiness in Cody’s eyes that night, the fear as she’d broken down and wept against his shoulder.

            She shrank away from him when she saw his expression.

            Wait.  He’s not mad at me.  He’s… he’s mad at… Fletcher.

            The girl was astonished.  “You… you really would have, wouldn’t you?”

            Arching an eyebrow, he nodded.  “So you believe me now?”

            “Yeah,” she said in a small voice.

            He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “’Bout time.”

            She frowned.  Then, hesitating a moment, she handed him the key.  Wordlessly, he took it and put it back on the ring.

 

***

            Crabtree strolled into Ferret’s Folly just as a feminine scream split the air.  He froze, as did everyone else in the bar.  After a moment, however, the other patrons went back to their business.  Crabtree decided to do the same.  Though there looked to be some patrons who could put up a pretty raucous fight, he wasn’t here to cause trouble.  He made his way to a table in the shadowy corner farthest from the dance floor and sat with his back to the wall, observing as a second scream punctuated the air.  This time, a short, skinny ferret seriously in need of a haircut made a mad dash for a door leading to the back of the building.

            Must be them.  So he keeps the kid in the back.  Must have an apartment or something back there.

            A distracted-looking waiter came over to take his order.  Crabtree asked for a martini, but didn’t really think he’d be getting it any time soon.  The place was busy and the waiter was so old that Crabtree doubted he’d even remember he had a new customer.

            Okay, so this LeRoux guy hires from the geriatric set.  And he swoops in to take little girls from their guardians.  Sounds like a world class pansy.  Should be pretty easy to take him out and make it look like an accident.  The kid’ll probably be harder to grab.  Too bad he doesn’t want me to just snuff her, too.  Bringing her in alive’ll be more trouble than it’s worth.

            He glanced up in surprise as the waiter slid a martini in front of him, then hurried off to take care of other patrons.

            Huh.  So grandpa can do something right, after all.

            Thoughtfully, he sipped his martini and began to take notes on the bar layout, the patrons, the waiters… anything that could affect his job.

            Finish this up in a few weeks and take a nice trip to Kavana.

 

***

Ferret’s Folly

March 12, 1927

           

When Cody’s birthday rolled around, she still said nothing, which puzzled Jons enough that he considered forgetting the whole thing.  But something told him she needed an afternoon of fun and he was determined to give it to her.

“Hey, Cody!”

            The vixen popped her head around the corner.  “Yeah?”

            “I need to run and get some stuff—we’re almost out of napkins and those dozen mugs that group broke last night need to be replaced.  And the supplier called and said the regular driver has the week off, so I need to go pick up a shipment, too.  Could you ride with me and give me a hand?”

            She considered for a moment.  She was in the middle of a new comic book and she didn’t really want to go anywhere—especially not alone with him.  But Jons looked so hopeful and she did owe him.

            And he’s your boss now.

            “Sure,” she said reluctantly.

            They were silent as they piled into the truck and Jons drove out of town.

“Where are we going?”  Cody looked out the truck windows as the familiar buildings of Land’s End gave way to woods and rolling pastures.

            “Somewhere,” the bartender said mysteriously.

            Her eyes darted to him nervously.  “I—I think I left something at the bar.”

            “What?”

            “Something.  Just… just go back.  Please?”

            He looked at her wide, pleading eyes, at how she sat as far away from him as she could, and he had a sudden, repulsive realization as to what she was thinking.

            “It’s okay, Cody,” he said softly. “Really.  I’m not going to hurt you.  I’d never hurt you.”

            She inhaled sharply and squeezed her eyes shut as Fletcher’s deep voice rang through her mind: This won’t hurt, sweetheart.

            Notagainnotagainnotagainnotagain.

            Jons eyed her with concern, but kept on driving.  They were almost there, and he wasn’t going back unless she absolutely insisted.

            At the horse’s whinny, her eyes snapped open and she looked around in confusion as Jons turned down a dirt lane between two vast pastures.

            “Where are we?”

            “The Lazy I ranch.”

            She arched an eyebrow at him before some galloping horses caught her attention.

            “This don’t look like a place to pick up bar supplies,” she observed.

            “Doesn’t,” he corrected absently.  “And it’s not.” He parked in front of a large barn and turned to her.  “Word has it that it’s somebody’s birthday.”

            Her mouth opened and shut a few times before she managed to ask, “How did you know?”

            The bartender grinned at her and tousled her hair.  “I have my ways.  And the owners here rent horses.  I thought you might like a horseback ride better than a present.”

            He didn’t add that he hadn’t known what to get her, but the look of gratitude she gave him assured him that he’d done the right thing.

            They got out of the truck and made their way to the barn, where a brown bear dressed in a dirty flannel shirt and denim pants looked them over.

            “Help you?”

            “We’d like to take a couple of horses out.”

            “Rate’s five dollars per person for an hour’s ride.”  He cast a dubious glance at them.  “Y’all ever ridden before?”

            “Not in years.”  Jons gestured to Cody.  “She has, though.”

            The stablehand sized them up.  “I’ll get a couple of nags for you.”

            “Wait.”  Cody, who had been looking longingly around the barn, stopped him.  “Could I saddle my own?  Please?”

            He looked as if he were about to protest, but nodded, almost grudgingly.

            As soon as they were out of Jons’s earshot, he said, “So tell me the truth, little lady.  Have you really ridden before?”

            She nodded.  “Grew up on a ranch.”

            “Grew up?  Honey, you’ve still got a lot of growin’ to do.”  He handed her a saddle and bridle and watched approvingly as she looped the headstall and reins of the bridle over one shoulder and gathered the girth and stirrups across the seat of the saddle.  “What’s your name?”

            “Cody.”

            “I’m Max.”  The bear led her to a stall and pushed open the door.  “And this is Daisy.”

            Eagerly, the girl stepped into the stall and looked at the horse—or rather pony.  Daisy turned out to be a Welsh pony with a shaggy gray coat and black mane and tail.  She chewed her hay and regarded the vixen meditatively.  Max stood back and watched for a moment as Cody approached the mare, speaking softly to her.  Carefully, the girl draped a blanket over the pony’s back and stroked her neck, all the while talking to her.  Then, she hoisted the saddle into place and reached beneath the mare to grab the dangling girth.

            Satisfied that she really did know what she was doing, Max stepped to the stall across the hall and quickly saddled a placid palomino mare named Goldie for the man.  After checking the girth, he took the reins and led the mare from the stall just in time to see the vixen swing herself up into the saddle—without using the stirrups.  He blinked in surprise as she settled her feet in the stirrups and straightened the reins.  Then, he cleared his throat.

            “Let me check that girth, honey.”  Looping Goldie’s reins around his wrist, he swiftly tugged on Daisy’s girth.  Good and snug.  Nodding at her, he signaled for her to precede him and watched her critically as she nudged Daisy.  The old pony sighed, but shuffled obediently down the walkway.  Jons smiled at her as she approached and looked a little apprehensively at the mare Max led.

            “Don’t worry.  Goldie here won’t throw you,” the stablehand said.  “And that’ll be ten dollars.”

            Jons handed over the money and signed the notebook where Max indicated.

            “These old gals pretty much know the trail.  Just follow the one right through there.”  The bear pointed out a wide trail to their left, leading off into the trees.  “That’s the hour trail.  Don’t go off it, okay?”

            With a nod, the ferret approached Goldie and clumsily hauled himself into the saddle.  Cody stifled a giggle at Jons’s riding posture.  He leaned so far forward that the saddlehorn touched his stomach and he held the reins in tightly clenched fists.

            Max gave a short bark of laughter.  “Relax, buddy.  She ain’t going anywhere.”

            The bartender grimaced and forced himself to lean back and loosen his death grip on the reins.  Shoulders shaking with silent laughter, Cody nudged Daisy and took the lead.  Almost without prompting from Jons, Goldie followed the fat pony.

            The air was crisp as they made their way down the well-kept bridle trail, and Jons noticed that some of the trees had buds on them.  Good.  He’d had enough of the cold weather.  As they entered the woods, he urged Goldie forward so that he and Cody rode side by side.  He couldn’t help but feel uneasy on the mare, even if she was walking at a snail’s pace, but the look of complete joy on the girl’s face more than made up for any discomfort he was feeling.  He noticed that she moved easily with the pony’s shambling walk and that she held the reins firmly, but not tight.  In fact, she seemed a lot more at ease here, on the back of a horse, than she ever did at the bar and he made a mental note to bring her out here again.

            “You really miss riding, huh?” he asked.

            She nodded, looking down at the reins.  “That ranch was going to be mine someday.  But my Uncle Billy bought it.”

            “You’ve got relatives?” He couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice.  He’d always thought that children from orphanages didn’t have any family.

            Again, she nodded.  Before he could say anymore, she pointed to something to their left and said, “Look!  Ain’t that neat?”

            Jons obediently looked. Between the trees, he caught a glimpse of an old dilapidated barn sitting in the middle of a field.  “Yeah.  Looks like it’s been there for a while.”

            They rode on in silence for a while.  Cody stared at the reins for a moment.  Then, she took a deep breath and looked around her, posture relaxed and eyes bright and eagerly taking in the forest.

            Jons watched her, smiling.  She seemed less like a cynical, world-weary woman trapped in a child’s body and more as if she were… her age.

            She caught him looking and the reserve returned.  “What?”

            Shaking his head, he said softly, “Nothing.”  Clearing his throat, he changed the subject.  When he found out that she’d lived within a few hundred miles of his own hometown, he told her about his family.  Unexpectedly, she showed a lively interest in them and his stories of the old family plantation.

            The ride was over too soon, though Jons couldn’t wait to get off his horse.  Cody dismounted with reluctance and handed over Daisy’s reins, watching wistfully as Max led the two horses away.

            “Let me know when you want to come out here again,” Jons said.

            She blinked and looked at him curiously.  Then, she smiled.

            He grinned back, then cleared his throat and started for his truck.  “C’mon.”

            “Where are we going?” She trotted after him without, he noticed, the reluctance she’d shown earlier.

            “Birthdays need ice cream.”

            “What?”

            He held her door for her and she climbed in.

            “Ice cream,” he repeated, slamming the door.

            They went to a soda counter, where Cody, uncomfortable with having him pay for her treat as well as the horseback ride, got a single scoop of peppermint ice cream.  Jons shook his head at that, but didn’t insist she order anything else.  To compensate, he ordered the largest ice cream sundae on the menu, asking them to top it with extra whipped cream.

            She can help me eat it.

            “Tell me more about White Hall,” she begged as they waited for their order.

            “Oh, you must be tired of hearing about that by now.”

            She shook her head.  “I ain’t never known anybody who actually lived in one of those old houses.”

            Resisting the urge to correct her grammar, he capitulated.  “When Alexander and I were little, we were convinced that there was a ghost haunting the cellar.”

            She chuckled, which made him warm to the subject and after the waitress delivered their ice cream, they dug in as he regaled her with tales of his and his brother’s antics, from playing pranks on their sisters to ruining their mother’s prized flower beds and scaring their parents one night while the boys had searched for a hidden passageway they were certain was located in their parents’ closet. 

            Cody scraped the last bit of melted peppermint ice cream from the bowl and looked at Jons, who had taken a break from storytelling and was intent upon his gooey concoction of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, and cherries.

            “Thank you.”

            He glanced up from his sundae, and the girl giggled.  Jons looked like a little boy with the hot fudge ringing his lips.

            “Any excuse for a sundae.  And what’s so funny?”

She grinned and gestured to his face.  “You really get into sundaes, don’t you?”

He returned her grin, then got a napkin from the dispenser and self-consciously wiped his mouth.  “Can’t do this with the guys, you know.  I’d never hear the end of it.”

“Don’t worry—I won’t tell,” Cody said, eyes twinkling with amusement.

            “Thanks.”  He signaled to the waitress, who brought the check.  Glancing at it, he pulled out his wallet, counted off a few bills, and tossed them on the table.

            “Ready?”

            She slid out of the booth and followed him outside.

“Happy birthday,” he said as she fell in step beside him.  “Hope it was a good one.”

She glanced away.  “Best day I’ve had in a real long time.  Thanks… for everything.”

 

End Part Five


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