The Whole Damsel Thing

Part 2 of 10  

 

Land’s End
8:30 pm

It was quiet downtown, with few sounds except for the occasional passing car and the awkward, halting footfalls of a tall canine businessman who limped as he made his way across the silent streets.  He passed a slender, well-endowed bear who was trying to flag down the cars with a half-smoked cigarette.  Her bottle blonde hair was inexpertly styled, as if she’d had to fix it without the aid of a mirror, and her white dress was tight and low-cut, giving her a kind of false innocence that she obviously thought was appealing.  She brightened as she spied the businessman and hurried after him and caught his sleeve.

“Hey, sweetie --- want some company?” she slurred, breathing stale alcoholic fumes into his face.

He firmly disengaged his sleeve. “No, thanks.  I’m in a hurry.”

“Aw, it can wait.  Let’s have a session. Gimme five minutes.”

“I said forget it.”

“Please, mister,” she whined, “I the need money.  My kid’s sick and---!”

Disgusted, he gave her a push, nearly knocking her over. “Get away from me!”

“Oh yeah?”  She tried to spit at him, but the gob of saliva only crawled down her chin.  Angrily, she wiped it.  “So who needs ya?” 

He reached into his pocket, found a quarter, and flipped it at her.  It landed at her feet. “Here.  Go buy some buttons before you catch cold. ”

“Go to hell, you bastard!” she shouted at his back.  “Think I’m cheap, do ya? I ain’t pickin’ it up.  Ya hear me?  I got my pride.”

“Jus’ wait --- you’ll be wishin’ you’d stopped.”  She waited until he was out of sight, then scooped up the quarter, swearing.

What he could not have known was that she was right.

To the casual observer, Tom Galloway was just an ordinary guy, not a gangster.  He ran errands for his boss, usually collecting payments on loans or protection money, which sometimes got a little… messy. His clothes were constantly in need of repair.  In fact, with his shabby appearance, he looked more like a bum than one of Hardin’s men. 

Tonight, Galloway was in a bad mood.  He had just picked up his shoes from the shoemaker the other day only to find the idiot had screwed up the heels.  There was a dull burning sensation as the shoe’s edge rubbed up and down against his heels, scraping them raw until they formed blisters like pus-filled ice caps.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, he made a mental list of things to do the next day. 

Buy milk, pick up boss’s laundry, kill shoemaker…  

Galloway kept one hand on the revolver in his coat pocket as he went down the trash-lined alley. He wasn’t particularly afraid of this part of town, but it didn’t hurt to be prepared.  Limping like Tiny Tim, he didn’t want to look like an easy mark.  In this business, vulnerability got you killed.  He rested his hand against the butt of his revolver, ready to react to the slightest movement.  He was carrying valuable information, and he knew that Laramie, the company from which he’d stolen the blueprints of a top-secret invention --- an oven designed to cook a meal in a fraction of the time of conventional ovens --- had put a price on his head. Ten thousand shaboozies, to be exact.  Hell, if he wasn’t the pigeon, he’d probably be tempted to go after the prize himself.  He was not going to be taken unawares.

What a pipe dream. Whoever heard of cooking dinner in two minutes?

He patted the envelope concealed in his inside pocket and smiled grimly. Hardin’s gonna to be happy to see you.

Emerging from the darkness, the mugger came out of nowhere.  Suddenly, a low voice from behind him interrupted his thoughts.

"Hand it over.”

Heart pounding, Galloway whirled on the intruder, had his gun out, cocked and ready.

“I don’t think so. Out of the way.”

With a sardonic smile, the mugger stepped back, hands held out defensively.

Just a two-bit crook. Still, no point in taking chances, Galloway kept the revolver aimed at the voice as he edged past.

His first sign that this was no ordinary thief was when he was almost parallel to his would-be robber.

“You have it, don’t you? My employers want it back, so hand it over and you’ll get outta this alive—maybe.”

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he barely made out the shape of the speaker.  His first thought was that the boy needed a haircut --- it was already brushing his shoulders and looked blood red in the dim light from the streetlamp.  Just some street punk. Was it a boy?   Something about his voice… low, Southern accent, but just not deep enough to register as a man’s timbre.  He squinted.

Petite, not even five feet tall with slim hips and non-existent chest, the mugger was hardly intimidating.    No, definitely a woman --- he realized, starting to relax. He easily towered over her, but then, he was well over six feet, taller than most men --- which didn’t hurt in this business.

He stopped dead in his tracks and gaped at his assailant in disbelief. “You? They sent you?”

The tense knots in his gut loosened and he began to laugh. The stranger took advantage of his distraction to suddenly kick the gun out of his hand, sending it skittering down the alley.  Cursing, Galloway dove after it, and she tackled him. The bear lashed out with his foot and caught the assailant in the chest. With a grunt of pain she fell, and Galloway gained precious ground towards the gun. She lunged for him again. This time, when he turned, he found himself impaled upon six inches of steel. As he staggered a couple of steps back, she gave the knife a twist and wrenched it from his stomach.  

With a strangled gurgle, Galloway collapsed and stared at her in shock. He clutched the wound, his eyes never leaving hers.  For a moment, she watched him impassively. Wordlessly, she kicked the gun out of reach and raised the knife. With the will and adrenalin of one who knows he has only seconds to save himself, Galloway rolled into her legs, knocking her off-balance. She landed beside him, tucked, and rolled so that she came up on the balls of her feet. The bear staggered upright, then to his feet, his hand pressed tightly to the wound.

“You’re not gettin’ them!” he rasped. The rush of his lifeblood roared in his ears, nearly deafening him.

She tsked.  “Didn’t your mama ever tell you not to take things that don’t belong to you? Now be a good boy and give ‘em here.”

He spat at her; she shook her head and sighed. Warily, he again backed towards the gun, sidling toward it with the grotesque weaving movements of a crab. For some bizarre reason she waited, letting him get close to it. As he awkwardly bent down and turned his head to grab it, she lunged at him with astonishing speed.  With a jab and twist, she imbedded her knife in his heart. Blood spurted everywhere, splattering on both of them. His eyes widened with surprise and began to glaze over.

For an electrifying moment, they held that position before he gave a final gasp and collapsed. She calmly pulled the knife from his chest, cleaned it on his shirt, and sheathed it. Then, the assassin rifled through his pockets until she found his wallet and the blueprints. With a grimace of distaste at the small amount, she pocketed the money and tucked the package containing the blueprints into her pants pocket. Then, after making sure it looked like a mugging gone wrong, she sauntered out of the alley without a backward glance.

 

* * *

 

Land’s End
5:30 pm

“Thanks,” Joanna said gratefully to the bulldog bus driver as he helped her step off the ramp.  She was the last passenger on his route. “It was awfully nice of you to go out of your way to drop me off in front of my hotel.”

“Well, your stop ain’t in the safest part of town, lass,” the driver replied.  She guessed him to be somewhere in his fifties and he had a soft brogue that she found rather charming. “I’d rather drive a few extree miles and make sure yer safe at Miz Martha’s.  I do this for all of her young ladies --- bring ‘em to the door. I’ve got granddaughters, meself, you know.”

She nodded politely, vaguely remembering a few pictures of three homely little girls --- all triplets and the spitting image of their doting grandpa.

Joanna was confused.  “Wait, I’m supposed to be at Stepford Manor.”  She reached into her skirt pocket and dug out a wrinkled piece of paper.  “This is the address, see?  Not Miss Martha’s.” 

“Miss Martha owns the place.”

“This is a hotel, right?”

The driver smiled. “Don’t worry yer pretty head about it, it’s very respectable.  Go on in and she’ll fix ye right up.”

“Okay.”

“Here, let me get yer things.”  He opened a small baggage compartment in the side of the bus and fished out her duffle bag. “I’m Ralph Norton, by the way.”

She smiled politely, but did not offer her name in return.  “Thanks, Mister Norton.” She tried to take it from him, but he waved her away.

“Oh no.  Miss Martha’d never forgive me if I let one of her young ladies carry her own bags. He eyed her small duffle bag doubtfully.  “Is this all ye have?”

Feeling like someone’s poor relation, she felt her cheeks grow hot with embarrassment. “Uh-huh.  It’s only for a week.”

He smiled again, and she realized that he wasn’t judging her. “Let’s get ye settled in, then.”  He extended a calloused paw, indicating that she was to go first.  Unused to such gentlemanly treatment, she hesitated but went ahead of him. 

Painted in small, cursive lettering were the words:

Stepford Manor --- Hotel for Genteel Young Ladies, est. 1874  

Is this Helen’s idea of a joke?

When she turned to ask Ralph what kind of place this was, he’d set her bag down in order to smooth his heavy mustache and carefully adjust his hat.  He caught her watching and he quickly picked up the bag, clearing his throat.  Puzzled but not terribly curious, Joanna turned and opened the door, causing a tiny tinkling of bells to ring overhead.

A snowy-haired, elegantly attired lioness in her early sixties sat at the desk, writing in a large reservation book with a quill pen.  Joanna, who had the odd but useful ability to read upside-down, recognized the writing as the same that graced the quaint little sign hanging outside.

The elderly lady looked up, raising a gilt-edged pair of glasses from a chain around her neck and set them on the bridge of her aristocratic nose.  Her eyes were dark amber, almost fierce in their intensity.  She stood up and glided around the desk, her smile faint, yet professional. Unconsciously, Joanna felt herself stand a little straighter.

The woman was tall, and smartly dressed in a crisp white shirtwaist and long, dark green skirt.  Her blouse was primly buttoned to her throat and punctuated with a small ivory cameo brooch.  Her gleaming white hair was swept up and impeccably coiffed, decorated with a rhinestone comb. 

Joanna thought of Helen, who was short, rotund and eternally garbed in housedresses. 

I guess around here old age is no excuse to let yourself go.

Ralph came in, carrying Joanna’s bag.  The lioness quickly removed her glasses and placed them in her skirt pocket.  Unconsciously she fingered the sparkling rhinestone comb.

I see, thought Joanna, hiding her amusement

The driver tipped his hat briefly. “Evenin’, ma’am.  Got another one for ye.”

The lioness nodded, but barely acknowledged Joanna. 

He reached into his coat pocket and presented a small, flat box. “I made a stop in Brussels … got those chocolate creams ye like.”

To Joanna’s annoyance, they both seemed to forget her presence.

“Why, Ralph, how kind of you!” the woman was saying. “Do stay for a moment.  Tell me… how is little Peggy’s cold?”

“She’s on the mend, thanks.  I tell ye, you oughta bottle up that potion and sell it.  Ye’d make a bundle.” 

“Oh dear, it is just a family remedy,” she said modestly, “It is not as though I have discovered a cure for the common cold.  Why, it is merely a mixture of lemon juice, honey, ginger…”

For a couple of minutes, they lapsed into some inane chitchat.  Bored, Joanna stopped listening and glanced around the foyer, feeling as if she had stepped back in time about thirty or forty years to the Victorian era.  Elegant, hand-carved chairs flanked a matching mahogany table with a marble top.  A golden-edged mirror hung over the table and reflected a brocade sofa on the opposite wall.  The polished hardwood floor was covered by an expensive Oriental rug in muted shades of mauve and blue.

Finally, they said their goodbyes.  The woman handed Ralph an elegantly wrapped package, saying, “…oh, here are some cookies for your grandchildren.”

“Chocolate chip?” he said hopefully. 

“But of course.  I know how partial you --- I mean --- they are to chocolate chip.”

“Thanks again.”  Suddenly, Ralph remembered Joanna.  “Well, good luck to ye, then.   Evenin’, ladies.”  He took his leave.  In the window, Joanna could see him hurry back to the bus, already opening the box; she grinned.  She figured that the front of his jacket would be covered in crumbs before he got home.

The lioness sighed, “Such a nice man, going all the way to Brussles for me! What a shame he’s a widower.”

“A shame,” Joanna agreed, trying not to laugh.

Now that they were alone, the woman was all business. “You must be our new arrival.  Joanna Haley, you are not?”

Joanna smiled.  So that’s why Helen didn’t allow her to read the letter.  “Yes, that’s me.  Are you Elle Stepford?” 

“No, she was my grandmother, rest her soul.  My name is Miss Martha Etta Kate Stepford. You may address me as Miss Martha.”

“Nice to meet you… Miss Martha.” 

Miss Martha! Miss Martha! Ah don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies!

“Welcome, my dear.  Please sign the register and I will show you to your room.”

“Thank you.”

Miss Martha said, “You will see a list of rules posted near the door. There are only a few, but I do insist that they be observed.  Curfew at nine…”

Curfew? I’m twenty-five, Miss, um, Martha.”

“No exceptions. I retire early, and do not wish to stay up waiting for you girls to come in order to lock the doors.”

"Oh.  I guess that makes sense."

Joanna was tempted to bolt, but she knew she would stay.  All four hotels in town were booked solid.  And Helen had gone to a lot of trouble to find a place that she considered safe.

Only for you, Helen. 

“…dinner is at six sharp.  Most of all, absolutely no men are permitted on the second floor.  Gentlemen callers are to wait in the foyer.  And they must be introduced to me properly.”

Joanna resisted the impulse to snap her heels together and salute. 

“It says here that you are a quiet sort and keep to yourself?”

“I guess so.”

“I am glad to hear it, but I do hope you will come downstairs and meet my young ladies.  We have a sewing bee at two if you care to join us.”

“Thanks, but I’m not much of a sewer.”

Seamstress, dear.”

“Seamstress. Helen’s been teaching me to sew buttons.  And I can hem… sort of.”

“Helen?” Miss Martha’s elegant brow creased.  “You call your mother by her Christian name?”

“My moth--?” Joanna blinked.  “Um, no. Sorry, I’m just tired from that long bus ride.”

A surprisingly warm smile transformed the woman’s severe features, lifting several years from her face. Judging from the high cheekbones and fine bone structure, Joanna suddenly realized that she must have been a beauty in her youth.  No wonder Ralph was smitten. 

“Good. I do hope you will be comfortable here, Joanna. And we dress for meals here. Your attire is very nice, but you might like to freshen up a bit.”  

Joanna wondered what this woman would think if she knew that she only had three changes of clothing in her bag. “Thank you,” she said again.

Why doesn’t she just go away?

The older woman looked askance at the small bag. “I suppose your trunks are outside?  Shall I ask someone to help you with them?”

“No, this is everything.  I travel light.”

“I see.  Very well, then… follow me, if you please.”

As she followed Miss Martha upstairs, a glance at the grandfather clock against the opposite wall told her that she would have just enough time to go put her belongings in her room before she would be expected in the dining room. She wondered what the other ‘young ladies’ were like.

With my luck, they’ll have wind-up keys in their backs. If they’re anything like this old bat, I’ll hide in the attic and haunt the place.  This is just another reform school with lace doilies.

They silently passed through the corridor and turned a corner before the lioness stopped, withdrew a tarnished silver skeleton key from her apron pocket and opened one of the doors that lined the hall.  She peered in, then, apparently satisfied that it was made up, beckoned Joanna to follow her inside.

It was really a charming, quaint little room --- dainty and feminine --- perfect for a gently reared young girl. The wallpaper was white with blue flowers that matched the pale blue of the fluffy eiderdown quilt --- exactly. Airy white organdy curtains hung from the two windows that looked out over a garden in the back of the hotel. A carefully polished dressing table with an oval mirror stood slightly to the left of one of the windows. Joanna moved to lay her bag on the bed, then, glancing at Miss Martha, changed her mind and guiltily set it on the floor instead. 

“Dinner is in five minutes, dear,” Miss Martha reminded her as she closed the door. Joanna half-expected to hear the metal sound of a lock being bolted.

She rolled her eyes, sighed, and sat on the stool in front of the dressing table. Quickly, she took off her hat and untied her hair from its ponytail. Without really looking at her reflection, she hastily ran a brush through her hair, retied the ribbon around her ponytail, and made her way back downstairs.

Pausing on the landing, Joanna heard quiet talking and clinking dishes coming from a room to the left of the stairs, and she followed the sounds until she came to the dining room.

Twelve pairs of eyes turned towards her and conversation faltered.

“Ladies, please welcome our newest girl.  This is Miss Joanna Haley.  Joanna, please do be seated.” Miss Martha gestured towards an empty seat between a dark-haired rabbit in a black dress that looked like a nun’s habit and a bespectacled squirrel with limp red hair whose expensively tailored navy suit was an obvious ploy to draw attention away from her plain features.

Joanna smiled a little, and took her seat. Quickly, Miss Martha introduced the other girls.  Most of them were from out of town, temporarily boarding at the hotel while working as typists, teachers, and waitresses in Land’s End.  Then, after saying grace, they busied themselves with passing dishes and filling their plates. 

“So, Chas…Chastity,” Joanna turned to the rabbit on her right, thinking:  She really does look like a nun.  Rabbit in a habit. “So… what does a girl do for fun around here?”

“Oh, well, tonight we’re making paper flowers.  We just finished dying the paper last night.  Last week we made bathmats woven from hair caught in the bathtub drain.  And tomorrow we make hats out of macaroni and paste, and the next day we make centerpieces out of real fruits and vegetables!  Miss Martha’s been…”

“Chastity, dear! You are forgetting yourself.  We do not use contractions here.”

“Oh!  Sorry.” The rabbit looked dismayed. “I mean, Miss Martha has been growing some alfalfa sprouts in her garden for over a year now, and we’ll have to dry them out, and---!”

“Why not just buy some instead?”

Everyone in earshot gasped at this heresy.

“Oh, but it must be homemade!”

“From scratch!”

“Everybody knows that!”

“How can you hope to catch a husband if you don’t know how to make your own centerpieces with your own two hands?”

“Girls!” Miss Martha waved them all to silence with a graceful gloved hand. “Remember what I said about raising our voices?”

All twelve except Joanna intoned piously:

“A lady never pouts.

A lady never whines

She smiles and makes the best of things.

Because a frowny-face makes lines.”

All at once, the scent of flowers and too many perfumes seemed to fog her vision.  Joanna stood up and indicated a window.  “Mind if I open this?”

“Of course not, dear.  The latch is rather stiff, though. Rachel, please go help her.”

With a grunt, Joanna managed to push it open. “That’s okay, I’ve got it.”

Miss Martha gave her a reproving look. 

Oops.  I used contractions, Miss Martha.  Please shoot me!

“My, but you’re strong.”  Rachel, the plain little squirrel, was impressed. “It takes two of us to open that sticky ol’ window.”

“I can open jars too.”

“But you can’t do that!” Chastity objected. “That’s what a man is for.”

Joanna chuckled.  “That too?”  

Nobody got it.  Sheepishly, she sat down and began to eat.

“You are supposed to take small bites,” Elizabeth , a pretty young ferret, told her.  “And you are using the wrong fork.”

“Girls, do be gracious,” scolded their hostess. “We must show Joanna leniency --- it is her first night, after all.”

The girl blushed. “Yes, ma’am.”

Joanna thought, Good grief, I’m trapped in a bad Dickens novel! 

Even the food vaguely resembled something David Silverfield would have happily eaten—plum pudding, roast duck, stewed potatoes, and biscuits, and some rice pudding.

“I should remind you that we rise at five-thirty sharp.” 

Joanna couldn’t believe her ears. “Five-thirty?  As in morning?”

Is she out of her mind? I’m supposed to be on vacation!

“Oh yes,” the woman said, cheerfully unaware of her guest’s drop-jawed horror. “We have no lay-abeds at Stepford Manor.  We must rise early to collect the necessary morning dew for our watercolor paints.  I am a firm believer in the natural approach in art.”

Morning dew?

“… please do remember that we come to table fully dressed for meals.  Your morning attire should be appropriate and modest.” Joanna wondered what Miss Martha would say about sleeping in the nude.

She said carefully, “Well, I like to go out sometimes.  Are there any fun places around here?”

Her dinner companions brightened. Rachel giggled.  “Well… sometimes, if we finish our baking on time…”

“…we get to bring a picnic lunch to the church social.  The young men bid on the picnic baskets, and the highest bidder wins the lunch --- and shares it with the girl who made it.” Chastity finished.

“What if you can’t cook?” she asked, hoping for a loophole.

“Oh, that’s all right.  By the time he buys the basket, it’s too late,” Chastity replied.

“Gee, that’s a load off my mind.”

“Ladies. Contractions,” Miss Martha reminded them. “And Joanna, surely you are being modest.  I am sure you are a wonderful cook.”

“No, I’m --- I am not.”

“Do not worry.  We shall teach you.”

“Let me get this straight.  You have to make lunch and then be auctioned off?”

Miss Martha said gently, “I understand your concern, my dear, but it is very proper.  The event is strictly chaperoned and no one is allowed to wander off alone with the young man in question.”

With a straight face, Joanna said, “Heaven forbid!”

Helen, you owe me big.

The sarcasm was wasted on her hostess, who continued blithely, “At first, I did not approve of the unorthodox nature of it, but I have been convinced that it is for a good cause.  The proceeds go towards building a new church.  Just what this den of iniquity needs.”

“Is there anything else you do for fun?”

Please?

“Oh, my land, yes!  I do believe there is a poetry recital at the old schoolhouse tonight!  To be sure, it is a valiant attempt to bring a little culture to this town.  Unfortunately, we do have a few bad apples and it would be wise if you did not venture out-of-doors without an escort.  There are some establishments that I frankly wish would be demolished. They attract the undesirables in numbers.”

“How come you live here then?” Joanna asked curiously.

“Why, I grew up here, child.”  Miss Martha looked surprised.  “This hotel is my heart.”

“I see,” she lied.  She couldn’t imagine growing attached to a mere building, having spent most of her life in constant motion for one reason or another.  She spent the first twelve years of her life in a cold, unloving home ruled by mother who resented her presence and barely spoke to her --- but said volumes with a look.  A tragic accident sent her packing to the reformatory school, then the place where her real education began.  

“Where do you live?” Elizabeth asked.

Joanna blinked, startled back into the world of the present. “I don’t ‘live’ anywhere.  I’m with a traveling carnival,” she said shortly.

“Oh!  Like a circus?  With clowns and trapeze artists?”

“Not exactly.” She didn’t feel like explaining the difference between a circus and a carnival, so she changed the subject.

“So… what sort of places do you consider to be out of bounds?” she asked Miss Martha.

“Well, there are a few pool halls in town.  And a speakeasy, but that was closed down ten years ago.  Good riddance, I say!”

“What about Jons’s Dancehall?” Chastity reminded her. “It’s, er, it is, always hopping!” 

Hopping?” Miss Martha wrinkled her nose.  “It is a bustling establishment, true, but not at all suitable for genteel young ladies.  I have heard rumors that they serve liquor on the premises and dance like wild cannibals!  It is really quite shocking.”

“Really?” Joanna asked before she could stop herself.  “Where is this dancehall… um, so I can avoid it?”

“It’s on the other side of town,” Chastity answered promptly. “Down near the docks. It’s a big gray building.”

Under Miss Martha’s disapproving frown, the rabbit fell silent.

After supper, Miss Martha tapped her glass with her desert spoon. “Ladies, remember to memorize your poetry for recital tomorrow.” 

Joanna kept her expression nonchalant.

Maybe this won’t be so bad, after all.  

 

* * *

 

Time
7:00 pm

Following supper, she grudgingly allowed Miss Martha to corral her into the crafts circle in the parlor, planning to sneak out later. After a frustrating half-hour, however, Joanna was ready call it quits.  She had always hated crafts, and was never good at anything she considered to be a waste of her time.  It seemed silly to make anything if it could be bought instead.  She could play the piano very well --- thanks to her father --- but for some reason her usually nimble fingers became clumsy whenever they came in contact with anything involving scissors and paste.

“All respectable young ladies should learn to make paper flowers,” Miss Martha declared as she passed out colored paper, pipe cleaners, scissors, and glue.

Not wanting to make a fuss, Joanna sighed and gathered her share of the art supplies.   

In the end, the results were predictable. Instead of carefully folding the corners of the paper to form petals of a rose, Joanna had impatiently wadded it up and jammed it through the top of the green pipe cleaner ‘stem’.  Her hands were covered in dye from crushing the paper, which made her look as if she suffered from some kind of odd tropical disease.  

“What is that?” Elizabeth asked, lowering her voice so their hostess would not hear.  She was obviously less than impressed.

Joanna shrugged. “Art.”

“Gee, you’re really bad at this, aren’t you?”

“What can I say? It’s a curse.”  She stood up, brushed herself off and made a big show of yawning.  “Good night, everybody.”

“But it is only seven-thirty,” Miss Martha protested.

“That late? I should go to bed, then.  I am not used to getting up at the crack of dawn.”

She took a quick bath, taking extra time to vigorously scrub the dye from her hands; just as she stepped onto the bathmat to towel herself off, she remembered what Chastity had said.

Last week we made bathmats woven from hair caught in the bathtub drain.

She stared at the long, scraggly hairs caught between her toes.  She checked the bottoms of her feet --- and wished she hadn’t.   “Oh, yuck! 

An eon seemed to pass as she disgustedly picked off every filthy strand, then washed her feet again, taking care to step on the towel this time.  Finally, she changed into black pants and a long-sleeved blouse.  After applying fresh makeup and tying her hair back, she quickly checked her reflection in the full-length rotating oval mirror.  In a few minutes, she was ready.

Now for some real fun.  

* * *


Two men stood in the alley, waiting.  Several cigarette butts littered the ground.
 

Rogers, a fastidiously dressed brown bear with a ridiculous pencil-thin mustache, was the tallest of the three --- as well as the best looking.  Soft-spoken and polite to the point of unctuousness, it was easy to mistake him for a maitre’d --- and a bad mistake to mention it, as one former colleague once did.  He was sorry afterward, though, and sent the dead man’s widow a cheese basket every Christmas.  It was only right, after all. 

The second man, Smitty, a Doberman with lean, chiseled features in a suit so crisply ironed that the creases seemed sharp enough to cut with, began tapping his foot impatiently.  He hated meetings.  He was a man of action, damn it. 

And he was out of cigarettes.

He checked his watch and scowled.  Galloway’s late.”

“Maybe he got caught in traffic.”

“How? These streets are practically deserted.”

“He’ll be here.  Give him a few minutes.”

A few feet away, around the corner was a third man, Buck, furrowed his brow in concentration.  She had told him where to meet her.  He checked the slip of paper --- this was the place.  The bear shivered and drew the lapels of his Harmony suit jacket closer for warmth. 

Before he could duck out of sight, the other men looked up and saw him.  He froze.

“Hey, fellas,” Buck said grinning nervously.

Both Rogers and Smitty groaned.  Not exactly the brains of the outfit, stocky, auburn Buck might have been handsome if his chin didn’t recede into his neck and if his eyes had a glimmer of intelligence.  He disliked killing anyone; confrontations were not his favorite thing.  He also had a tendency to say whatever came into his head, which was why they’d left him out of the Galloway deal.  It was only a matter of time before Hardin would have him whacked and they didn’t want to be anywhere near him when it happened.  Except maybe Smitty, who would have volunteered for the job.

“Aw, no,” Smitty said.

“What are you doing here?” Rogers demanded.

“What am I doing here?” Buck’s eyes darted nervously around the street.  “Umm…the boss sent me.  What are you doing here?”

“Hardin sent you?” The Doberman stepped forward.  “Is that so?”

Buck hesitated before he nodded.  The other two eyed him dubiously.

“Sure,” he said.  “Hardin said you, uh, might need some help.”

Smitty advanced on him.  The Doberman was a good three inches taller than Buck, but he was much slimmer.  Still, he intimidated the bear enough so that he began to back away.

“You know what’s going to happen if the boss didn’t send you, don’t you?” Smitty’s eyes gleamed and he was obviously hoping to be the one to mete out punishment, especially if Hardin let him decide how to get rid of the henchman.  Maybe he’d start with drilling holes in his kneecaps…  

* * *

Joanna had called a taxi and instructed the driver to park at a small garishly pink house a few doors down so it wouldn’t attract attention.  Then she’d snuck out of Stepford Manor, hurried to meet the cab and got in the backseat.

She turned and peeked out the back window, watching Stepford Manor become smaller and smaller until it disappeared.  Several minutes passed, and Miss Martha’s quaint neighborhood gave way to a world that Joanna understood better.  Or so she thought.  

Now she was in the dock district of Land’s End.  From what she could see of the buildings in the dim light, they were in poor shape.  She noticed a few broken windows in some of the more rundown buildings and streetlights were few and far between. 

“Dis is a rough part of town, you know,” the cabbie told her.  “Howz ‘bout I drive you back?”

From his bored tone, Joanna wondered if he was more interested in running the meter for a round trip than her safety.

“I can take care of myself, pal,” she said shortly.  Glancing at the meter, she quickly let herself out. “I was told that Jons’s Dancehall was down near the docks.  A big gray building?”

“Oh, it’s around here somewhere. That’ll be ten shaboozies, lady.” He sounded sullen that she wasn’t going to pay to be driven back to the hotel.

Joanna paid him and he sped off in a cloud of dust. Down near the docks, Chastity had said. A big gray building.

She scanned the area, peering through the dimness.  Buildings clustered along the darkened streets for a couple of blocks before they gave way to a small beach. 

She wrinkled her nose at the smell of fish and brine. Well, I’m near the docks, that’s for sure.    

At night, all the buildings were bathed in shadow, absorbing all light and color.  Everything was awash in varying shades of gray, rendering her virtually colorblind. 

“Shoot!” Joanna muttered. “Which is it?”

Then she heard a couple of male voices coming toward her.  Glancing around, she ducked into an alley, nearly colliding into a tipped garbage can.  Better to be safe than sorry. A couple of sailors strolled by, drinking and laughing boisterously, weaving and bumping into each other as they went.  Instinctively, she debated whether it would be a good idea to ask for directions, she heard snatches of their conversation.

“---so she tries to slip me a mickey and grab the money off the dresser.  Boy, was she sore afterward.”

“Doncha mean ‘sorry’?”

“Nope.  I mean sore.”  They shared a dark chuckle. 

She shuddered and took a step back as their voices grew louder. 

Idiot --- how do you get yourself in these scrapes? You could be all warm and cozy in your room, picking hair out of your toes.

She took another step back --- and tripped backward on something soft, knocking one of the trash cans over with a loud clang!

The first thing she saw a dark stain on the pale jacket.  Her gaze unavoidably went to the man’s face; transfixed, she took in the ashen features, open mouth and sightless eyes.  Apparently this guy didn’t go easy into the night, but she was too revolted to feel pity.

Slowly getting over her initial shock, Joanna hastily crawled off the body and waited until she could trust herself to stand without collapsing before doing so.

He wasn’t well dressed, which was why she noticed his heavy Oxfords.  The expensive shoes were battered, but what drew her dazed attention were the soles, slightly rounded at the heels, but with a glossy finish.  The heels were badly out of proportion to the rest of the shoe.  It was as if some drunken shoemaker had mistakenly nailed the heels of a child’s shoe to an adult’s. 

The sound of men’s voices came closer, and she gasped and scrambled away from the dead man.  The last thing she wanted was to be seen gaping at a dead man.  She hid in the shadows as three men turned the corner. 

If only she had noticed the dead man’s revolver, hidden in the dark a few feet behind her. 

“If that’s so, then who are we here to see?” Rogers demanded, smoothing his mustache. 

He and Smitty herded the sweating, nervously retreating Buck into the alley, until his heels struck something, tripping him.  He recovered quickly, intending to continue backing away when he looked down and realized what it was.

“Holy cow!” Buck yelped, scrambling off the body in revulsion.  “Yuck! He’s dead!”

Impatiently pushing him out of the way, Smitty hunkered down to get a better look.  “It’s Galloway.”

“That explains why he didn’t show up,” Rogers said dryly. “The boss isn’t going to like this.”

“That’s why you’re going to tell him.”  The Doberman pushed Galloway’s jacket aside.  “He was stabbed.  Could have been a mugger.  This town’s Crime Central.”

“Nobody’s safe nowadays,” Buck agreed.  Just then, he caught a flash of red-gold as a woman was hurrying down the alley, trying not to trip in the dark.  “Why don’t you ask her what happened?”

The other two looked at him blankly, then glanced around.  Joanna froze and found herself pinned by three pairs of accusing eyes.  She backed away, very slowly.  Equally slowly, they advanced on her.

“Please, miss,” Rogers said gently, “come back.  We just want to talk to you.”

She said nothing, every nerve ending bristling with terror.

“Yeah, we won’t hurt you,” Smitty said sweetly, pitching his voice in a horrible parody of a mother calling her child in from the cold.

Joanna broke into a run.

“Hey, what’s she running from?” Buck cried.

Finally some action.  Smitty grinned maliciously.  Us.

The Doberman sprang after her. Rogers followed, with their still-bewildered companion at his heels and Buck loped behind them, bringing up the rear.  

Joanna was out of shape and couldn’t run as fast or as far as she did ten years ago.  Carnival living had softened her muscles, but she never dreamed that her life would depend on skills she’d left behind years ago.  In the days of the Foundation, rigorous exercise at four in the morning was mandatory.  When she’d finally escaped, she vowed never to do another push-up as long as she lived.  She was rather vain about her figure, and had long ago lost her taste for sweets anyway, desserts notwithstanding.  Although still slim, her body was no longer that of an athletic young woman.  Her breasts bounced a little, a chilling reminder of what probably lay in store for her if caught.

They didn’t do this the last time I had to run!

She didn’t dare look back, knowing that it would slow her down.  Instead, she listened, trying to judge their proximity by the volume of their voices and footsteps. 

They were loud and clear.

“Don’t lose her…  If you get close enough… grab her hair and yank,” she heard Rogers advise the other two.  She quickly caught her ponytail and shoved it hastily down the back of her collar.

They were close.

They ran for about a block.  She heard one of them, probably the Doberman taunt, “Hey, chickie, getting tired yet?”

That was an understatement.  Her calves and thighs burned from the unaccustomed exercise and her lungs felt as if they were on fire.  Sweat trickled down her forehead and her blouse, so crisply fresh before her unfortunate encounter, clung damply to her.

Got to hide.  Quick.  Can’t go on much longer. 

Panting, Joanna took a quick glance behind her.  They were still coming!

Find a crowd --- fast!  If they catch me alone I’m dead.

Ahead, she caught sight of the two misogynistic sailors she’d avoided earlier. They were leaning against a building, casually smoking. Joanna thought about ducking down the nearest alley before they caught sight of her, but discarded the idea almost immediately. She would not trap herself in a dead end. 

Oh great, she groaned inwardly.  Of all the streets I had to pick…

“We’ve got her now!” Rogers exalted.  “She’s slowing down!”

“Thank goodness!” Buck was panting.  “About… time… … my stomach hurts…”

“Tough!” the Doberman snarled.  “Get her, or Hardin’ll have us skinned alive.”

Joanna stopped for a few seconds, wheezing and out of breath.  There was a sharp stitch in her side and she couldn’t run anymore. 

That’s it, she thought.  They’re behind me and in front of me!  I’m dead.

Then, she thought about what they would likely do if they caught her, and her resolve strengthened.

When in doubt… improvise.

With a lump in her throat, Joanna put on a small burst of speed, heading right for the unsuspecting sailors.  They heard the commotion and were watching in astonishment, too surprised to react.  Then they huddled together, blocking her way.

“Out of my way!”

“Hey, baby, you need rescuing?” one of them taunted.  “There a reward?”

Only the eternal kind, if she had her way. 

Joanna did not even slow down; she just kept going. They continued to stand in her path, now grinning uncertainly. 

“How come she isn’t stopping?” Buck asked no one in particular.

The sailors yelled, “Hey, lady, stop!

She didn’t bother to reply; lowering her head, she raised her arms out in front of her, with hands balled into hard fists, Joanna plowed into them with the velocity of a guided missile.  Both went down like bowling pins. Ignoring their curses, she stumbled over their bodies, but quickly regained her footing when she heard her pursuers’ footfalls getting louder.

She was gratified to hear additional swearing as Buck, Rogers and Smitty all tripped over the sailors and went sprawling onto the concrete.

“Get out of the way, you morons!  Move it!”

“Aw, the hell with it!” Smitty brought out his revolver and fired two shots, neatly drilling each sailor’s forehead.

At the sound of the bullets, Joanna panicked.  She heard music…where was it coming from?  She looked around wildly until she saw a large one-story building. Light cast long yellow strips on the pavement and she could see people silhouetted against the windows. With a feeling of relief, she hurried towards the welcome sight and sounds of other people… and safety. 
 

* * *

Land’s End
Hardin’s Office
 

A weasel known only as Peters waited outside his boss’s office, guarding the door.  No one would be permitted either in or out.  Inside, James Hardin was busy taking turns puffing his cigar, tapping the ashes into an ashtray and kissing his mistress Babette when the telephone rang.

“Damn,” he grumbled, disentangling himself.  “I hate these calls.”

“James, leave it,” she purred, playing with his tie.  “If it’s important, they’ll call back.”

Unceremoniously, he dropped her on the sofa, then scooped up the ashtray, taking his cigar with him.  “Take a load off, Baby-doll. I gotta take this.”

Angrily, she sat up and began straightening her clothing and smoothing her hair, which was carefully coiffed in platinum waves --- although the effect somewhat marred by a few dark roots.  From long years of experience, Babette knew this call would take a while.  She didn’t see the point of staying rumpled for the duration of what would be a long, tedious conversation.  Despite his previous comment, Hardin enjoyed controlling his little empire over the telephone, as opposed to attending dull meetings and otherwise getting his hands dirty.  That was what hired muscle was for.  

She wasn’t allowed to leave the room without permission, either.  Hardin liked her to be available within easy reach.  She glanced at her watch --- a present from him --- gold, encrusted with tiny twinkling diamonds, and as heavy as a manacle.  It was almost time; she had to leave soon. 

He scanned the trio of telephones lines up neatly on the desk, found the vibrating one and picked up the receiver.  “Hardin.  Heimlich, buddy, how’s the coal-mining business treating you?  Yeah, diamonds are a real tough racket, all right.  Takes a rich man to buy ‘em, and there aren’t many of them around. What can I do for you?  Well, I don’t know if I want to invest this year…. yeah, but I took a big hit last summer when that idiot goon of mine went to the races instead… you remember Buffalo Bill, don’t you?  Good with a potato peeler but he had a gambling problem.  And a family man, too… it’s a real shame.  Now’s he’s in the cement business, ha-ha...  I hated to let him go but I hadda set an example.” His eyes narrowed.  Nobody steals from James Hardin.”

At this, she nearly stopped breathing.  To calm her nerves, she withdrew an emery board from her cleavage and began to file her nails.

The second phone rang.  “Hang on, Heimlich.  I gotta take this.”  Setting down the receiver of the first phone, he picked up the second receiver.  “Hardin. Ruth, I told you not to bother me at the office… no, don’t put her on!… oh, hi, sweetheart…Daddy’s busy right now… you learned a new song at school?  Well, that’s really something…no, that’s all right, you don’t have to sing…”

Despite the ridiculous picture of this criminal kingpin lapsing into baby talk and gritting his teeth at the tinny sound of a childish voice singing “99 Bottles of Milk on the Wall” on the other end, Babette didn’t dare even smile.

After a couple of verses, Hardin carefully set the receiver down and returned to his first conversation.  “Sorry, Heimlich, pal.  Dropped the phone.  So how’s that new guy working out?  What’s his name again?  Weasel something-or-other?”   Then the third phone rang. He was starting to look a bit harried. “Just a second, I gotta take this one.”

Babette glanced at her watch again, careful not to be obvious about it.  He’d have shown up at the rendezvous point some time ago, waiting.  And here she was, stuck here waiting for Hardin to hang up and resume his attentions.  It wasn’t fair.  

Rogers… Smitty’s with you?  Good, good.  So, how’d it go with Galloway ?… what?

Scowling, she watched his expression change from mild annoyance to downright fury as he listened.

“What do you mean, he didn’t show up at the meeting place?”  There was a pause.  “He’s dead?” The jaguar stubbed out his now-dead cigar and paid attention.  “You’re sure?”

Babette stood up, leaned across the desk and handed the jaguar another cigar. Then, she went back to filing her nails with every appearance of disinterest in the conversation. 

"Buck?  Buck?  What's that bonehead doing there? Oh, well, never mind.  What about Galloway? Tell me everything."  Then he remembered that the two other phones were still off their hooks.  “Hold it, I gotta do something here.”  He picked up the first phone. “Sweetheart, Daddy has to work now.  You can sing the rest to me when I get home.”  Then the second phone:  “Heimlich, I gotta go.  Galloway’s dead --- the boys messed up.”

Somewhere in Dune Hills, a wealthy district near Land’s End, a little girl asked her mother, “Mommy, who’s Galloway?  Daddy says the boys made a mess.”

In Cape Suzette, Heimlich Menudo stared at the dead receiver. Sweetheart?

In Land’s End, his attention now focused on one phone, Hardin’s growing anger was honing to a fine, dangerous point.  Deliberately, he lit the cigar and took a few draws.  A halo of smoke wafted above his head. 

“Assassinated? What do you mean, you ‘think so’?” he mimicked. Galloway was my best infiltrator. He was close to getting the blueprints to Laramie’s ultra secret fast-cooking oven. Do you have any idea how much those are worth?  No, you idiot.  That was a rhetorical question!”

Hardin paused. "Do you know who did it?”  He listened, puffing away distractedly.  “You have an idea, huh?”

Babette slinked back to the sofa, her high heels leaving small indentations in the luxurious carpet.  She sank in the cushions, looking for all the world like a petulant teenager.

The jaguar’s face remained impassive. “Find him.”  Then, sharply: “What was that? What do you mean, she?

Babette looked up, her mouth dry.  She began to file her nails again, sanding the bright red points to short nubs.

Hardin’s mouth was half-open in disbelief. “A skirt? You think a lousy dame killed my best spy?  Great.  She saw you and took off? And she still got away?”  There was a dangerous silence, punctuated by his rapid puffs on the cigar.

The scrape-scrape sound of the emery board set Hardin’s teeth on edge, as she knew it would.

“Hold on, Rogers.”  He put the phone down and glared at Babette.  She looked back at him guilelessly, still filing her nails.

A muscle in Hardin’s cheek twitched and he reached into a desk drawer. Flourishing a thick wad of cash at the woman, he beckoned for her to come closer.  Obediently, she came forward and stood next to him.

Patting her rump, he said indulgently, “Baby-doll, why don’t you go buy a pretty new outfit while I talk business with the boys?  Take Frankie --- no, he’s not here --- take Peters with you.”

Her lower lip thrust forward in a carefully practiced pout, but she slowly took the money and took her time putting it down the front of her low-cut dress. Then, she slid off the desk and sauntered out of his office, hips swinging.  She left the door slightly open.

Peters frowned, but Hardin gave him a hard nod, letting him know that it was all right to let her pass.

Forgetting about his mistress as soon as she was out of sight, Hardin turned back to the phone. “And you think she killed him?  Did you actually see her do it?  Maybe she’s just stumbled onto the body, ever think of that?  Forget it, it doesn’t matter.  She was there --- that’s all I care about.”  He listened, his face turning a very unbecoming shade of red.

Hearing his raised voice, Babette peeked in, heart pounding.  

Hardin slammed his fist on the desk. "Find her! Bring her to me!"

Babette knew without hearing it that Rogers on the other end was eagerly promising favorable results, probably echoed by his associates, Smitty and now Buck, probably wondering how to extricate himself from their company without arousing suspicion.

Hardin finally calmed down and crushed his cigar stub.  Rogers… give the boys a message.”

At his next words, she involuntarily shivered.

"Be… persuasive."
 

End of Part 2

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