The Whole Damsel Thing

Part 4 of 10  


Frowning, Cody watched as the noxious lion dragged the bimbo towards the door. The lion was walking awfully straight for a drunk and he was heading towards the alley behind the bar.  The woman was yelling something, but Cody couldn’t hear over the din. A minor brawl had just broken out between a hard-eyed gun moll and her escort for the evening. 

This can’t be good. The vixen spun on her heel and signaled the bartender.  

“Jons!” she snapped.  “Trouble out back. Bring your gun.”
 

* * *


“Hey!” Joanna protested, dragging her feet, raising dust.  

Where’s a gun when I need one?  

She pretended to trip, landing on her knees.  Scooping up a handful of dirt, she flung it hard into his face.  With a bellow, he let go of her and swiped at his eyes.  

She started to get up, intending to run back into the bar when he suddenly kicked her in the side, knocking the wind out of her.  She screamed and fell back with a sob. A wave of pain pulsated there; she feared that something was broken.  

Doesn’t matter!  Run!  

“Let’s mambo.” Hooking a finger at the top button of her blouse, Eddie jerked it, running it all the way down; buttons popped and scattered everywhere.  In shocked stupor, Joanna felt the night air against her midriff, and realized that the two halves of her blouse were fluttering in the wind.  Rage surged through her, followed by adrenalin.  

Bastard!” she spat.  She drew back her arm and stiffened it until it was as rigid as a board.  Then she brought it up fast, with the intent of shattering his nose.  But she misjudged his height and ended up slamming the solid heel of her hand into his jaw instead, snapping his teeth together.   

Unfortunately, this delay gave her attacker just enough time to wipe his eyes and grab her by her long hair.  Jerking her to her feet, he wrenched her neck back so hard that she accidentally bit her tongue.  Still holding her neck so that she was forced to stare helplessly up at his brutish features, he pushed her face directly into his ripe armpit.  His rank sweat made her choke, and she tried to turn her head, but it his grip was like a vise.  Joanna began to feel woozy.  

Somehow she managed to croak, “Don’t.”  

Then she heard the crunch of gravel and knew that her pursuers from the alley had found her at last.  Death had always a risk in her former line of work, but she was terrified of pain.  Joanna closed her eyes.  

Please make it quick!  

She opened them again when she heard the bartender’s drawl.  Jons aimed his rifle at Eddie.  “Step away from the lady, pal.  Then make ready to run.”  

Sweating profusely, Eddie sneered, “You ain’t gonna shoot me, little man.  You don’t got the guts.”  

Cody smiled.  

Calmly, Jons cocked his rifle, aimed carefully and fired.  Joanna shrieked and tried to wriggle out from under his arm. --- not that it would have done any good if the ferret had been a poor shot.  

The bullet only grazed the lion’s shoulder, but he clutched it as though it were a mortal wound.  He immediately dropped Joanna, who landed on the ground with a thud. Writhing, he screamed and cursed, profanities punctuated with a spray of spittle.  

“You lousy son of a bitch!”  

Both Cody and Jons watched him coldly.  Joanna lay there weakly, gasping for oxygen.  Greedily, she sucked in the cool night air, desperate to make the sickening stench dissipate.  

Turning away, Eddie glowered, favoring his wound and panting. “I’ll be back.  Next time---!”  

Jons said mildly, “Next time it’ll be your head.”  

Eddie paused as he thought it over.  

“Get out of here,” the bartender told him. “And don’t even think of showing your ugly mug around here again.  I’ve got friends who’ll tear your liver out.”  

Cody smirked.  He meant her, of course, but Eddie didn’t have to know that.  

The ferret raised the gun again. “What are you waiting for?”  

“I’m goin’,” Before he left, Eddie gave a Joanna a long, evil look and licked his lips.  “You owe me a dance, baby.” 

She was trembling too much to reply.  

Jons turned to Joanna, who had managed to stand shakily and was now brushing herself off.  “Are you all right?”  

Suddenly she realized that her blouse was hanging open, exposing her brassiere. Deeply embarrassed, she jerked it closed.  

“Fine,” she snapped. “Leave me the hell alone.”  

“Jeez, no need to thank me.”  

To his surprise, Joanna drew her arm back and slapped him so hard that his face was knocked sideways.  

Cody stepped forward, balling her fists.  Nobody, especially some idiotic bimbo, laid a hand on her friend… ever.  To her surprise and annoyance, this idiotic bimbo didn’t back off.  Then she took a step back.  This one looked like a hair-puller — and she liked her hair where it was, thank you very much.  

Joanna’s eyes glowed like dark fiery coals, shining with tears of rage.   

“Thank you?  Thank you?” she spat.  “For what, nearly getting me killed?  For siccing that walking wall of stench on me, just because I took your chair?  For a stupid rule?”  

Jons began, “Look, I’m sorry---!”  

Sorry!  

“He said he was sorry. In case you ain’t noticed, you’re fine. Or did that escape your empty little head?”

Joanna turned on her furiously.  “Hey, I’ll show you empty-headed!  Just give me a carving knife and an ice cream scoop!”  

“Excuse me while I cower in fear,” Cody told her.  “And by the way, that phony Southern accent of yours stinks.”  

“So does yours, runt.”  

“At least mine’s real, sugah.” She purred, laying on her Southern twang extra thick. 

“Hey!” Jons shouldered his gun. “Look. I really am sorry, miss. Let me assure you that usually doesn’t happen in my bar. Come inside, let me fix you a drink, you can calm down… I won’t even make you dance.” 

She stared at him for a long moment, thinking.  

“Well, okay.” Joanna took a deep breath.  “I’d like to get cleaned up too.”  

“Sure.”  

Glancing down at her torn blouse, she grimaced. “Got a needle and thread?”  

“How about some duct tape?” Cody suggested.  

“Whatever you need.” Jons said to Joanna, giving the vixen a withering look.  

“Thanks.  You can help me hunt for buttons. I need at least four.”  

Without putting down his rifle, Jons looked the alley over carefully for buttons. After he glared at her, Cody sighed and helped with the hunt. 

 

* * *

 

A few minutes later, Rogers, Smitty and Buck were nearly run over by a mangy, smelly lion who was trying to adjust a makeshift bandage that kept coming loose from his shoulder.  In the darkness, the three gangsters couldn’t see how bad the wound was—but nearly gagged from the most offensive stench any of them had ever smelled.   

“Hey, what’s the big idea?”  

“You know who we are?”  Smitty took a step forward, then two steps back.  The smell was too much for him.  

“Yeah. The three stooges.”

“I think it would be in your best interest to show us a little… respect,” Rogers said, wrinkling his nose at Eddie’s rank odor.   

The big lion growled, “That bartender in there’ll show you respect.” He brushed past both Rogers and Smitty and continued on his way, favoring his shoulder.  “Outta my way.  I gotta find a drug store.”  

“At this time of night?” Buck called after him. “But it might not be open.”  

Eddie turned his head to give him a withering look, baring his fangs.  The pharmacy’s business hours would obviously not be a problem.  

“Hey you! Get back here!” Smitty started to follow him. “Who’s that guy think he is?” Let’s get him.”  

Rogers grabbed his sleeve and jerked him back.  “Forget him.  If we don’t find that woman, Hardin’s going to have us fitted for cement overcoats.”

Buck stared after the receding figure, the light of recognition dawning in his vacant eyes. 

“Guys, don’t you know who that was?  That’s Eggsucker!”  

“Who?”  

“I saw his wanted poster a few weeks ago.  I had to buy some stamps so I could write to my grandma in Hodgepodge City--!”

“Buck, just keep out of this---!”  Then Rogers squinted.  “Wait. I think he’s right, for once.  It is him.”  

“Will one of you jerks just tell me who Eggsucker is?”  

Surprised, Buck said, “Don’t you know?  He’s only the most successful freelancing muscle in these parts.  He’s the Big Cheese --- Limburger --- the Big Kahuna of Goons!  One hundred percent success rate, or your money back. He’s even more famous than Babyface Half-Nelson!”  

“He cracks safes with his head?  Big deal.  You can do that.”  

“No --- even better! He works people over without a single weapon.”  

Smitty said sullenly, “With what, his stink or his personality?”  

“His armpit,” the chunky bear said eagerly, “I heard he---!”    

“Wait, he mentioned a bartender,” Rogers said thoughtfully.  “So there must be a bar close by.  Let’s find out what else he knows before we do anything else.  The boss doesn’t like unnecessary violence.”  

* * *

Jons looked up as two bears and a Doberman entered the bar. It was almost closing time, and he hoped that they didn’t plan on staying for very long.  Bailing out the object of Cody’s joke-gone-bad had tired him out. At thirty-five, he felt he was getting too old for that kind of thing. The trio sidled up to the counter.  

“What can I get you?” Jons asked.  

“Do you own this place?” Rogers asked.  

Warily, the bartender nodded.  

“We’re lookin’ for information,” Smitty said.  

“Yeah!” Buck chimed in.  “Information.”  

The bartender waited. When it became apparent he wasn’t going to ask what they were looking for, the Doberman, who had been spoiling for a fight, reached across the bar, and grabbed the ferret’s collar.  

“There was a woman in here earlier. We want to know where she is.”  

As his employees and a few patrons ran out the door, Jons struggled to disentangle himself from the dog’s vise-like grip. “Hey --- there were a lot of women in here earlier. I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific.”  

“Oh, a smart guy.” Smitty jerked his entire body across the counter and slammed him against the corner so hard that pain rippled through his shoulder blades.

That’ll leave a nasty bruise in the morning… if I live long enough to see it, he thought.  

“Maybe if you’d describe her, he’d remember,” Rogers suggested helpfully.  

“A bear, I think.  Slutty-looking blonde with legs ‘til Tuesday.” Smitty gave him a nasty grin, showing shark-like canines. “Boy, that one could run.”  

“Yeah,” Buck agreed, “she could run real good.”  

Despite the fact that the corner of the bar felt like a knife pressing into his back, Jons couldn’t resist. “Seen lots of blondies in here. That’s a very popular hair color now. Which one in particular are you looking for?” 

“Aw, he don’t know nothin’,” Buck said.  

Rogers smiled at Jons. “Oh, I think he just needs a little… persuasion.”  

Oh, crap, Jons thought as the dog spun him around and twisted his arm behind his back. He struggled to break free, but Smitty’s grip was like iron.  

“Now.  A blonde bear comes in here, scared and probably looking for a place to hide ‘til the heat dies down.”  His eyes were like a shark’s. “So --- where is she?  

“Don’t…know…” Jons gasped.  

The dog wrenched his arm further up his back, and he couldn’t bite back a cry of pain.  

“Remember now?” Smitty asked calmly.  

“Don’t… know,” the bartender repeated through gritted teeth.  

“Gee, I guess we’ll have to refresh your memory.  Rogers… get my knife, will ya?  It’s in my back pocket.”  Smiling, the handsome bear obliged.  “Buck, pass the salt.”  

Buck eagerly scooped up a saltshaker from a nearby table and handed it to the dog.  

Smitty shoved the bartender at Buck and Rogers, who grabbed and held him. With a wicked grin, the canine slashed a shallow cut along his neck and rubbed the salt in it.  Jons screamed.  

* * *

“Damn!” Joanna jabbed her finger as she tried to thread the needle. The ‘thread’ that Jons had found for her was fishing twine --- clear, colorless and practically invisible.  The fact that her hands still trembled from shock didn’t help.  Not only that, but three buttons were still missing.  

Taking inventory of her injuries, she found bruises where he had gripped her arm when he dragged her out of the bar, as well as others already forming on her ribs where he’d kicked her.  It felt as if she'd pulled a muscle in her arm. The back of her head was tender where she’d landed on it when he’d dropped her.  And of course, she could never get dressed without seeing the jagged, M-shaped scar high on her right hip --- a grim reminder of who she had been.   

Branded, she thought bitterly.  Branded like a damned cow.  

Cody waited impatiently while Joanna repaired her blouse. It was getting close to closing time, and she had better things to do than guard washroom doors. Besides, if she stayed the bartender was likely to recruit her to help with the cleanup. There were very few patrons in the bar, anyway, but Jons had told her he wasn’t taking any chances with somebody bothering Joanna again.  

Bad for business, he says. Yawning, she leaned against the wall and scuffed the heel of one well-worn boot against the floor.  

He’s punishing me. That’s what he’s doing.  

“Hey, princess, you about done yet?  I’d like to go to bed before dawn.”  

“Look, shorty, don’t think you have to babysit me.  As soon as I’m done I’m blowing this popsicle stand.  At least my hotel is safe.”  

“Then hurry it up! You think I want to babysit some floozy who can’t take care of herself?”  

“I can take care of myself just fine, thanks,” Joanna said tartly.  You’d be surprised how often this kind of thing happens to me.”  

“Why would that surprise me?”  

“Oh, aren’t we tough? I’d like to see how long you’d have lasted against that creep.”  

Cody heard a scream from the bar followed by a coarse shout. Glancing at the door to the washroom, she debated about whether to go investigate.  

Probably just another brawl.  Seems to be a lot of those tonight.  

Then, she heard a cry of pain that made her forget about guarding Joanna.  

Jons!  

Without another thought, she raced into the barroom. Two bears had Jons by the arms while a mean-looking Doberman cut him. She stood, watching in horror for a moment, as the dog rubbed salt in the wound.  Jons’s cry broke her paralysis and she snatched her knife from its customary place in her left boot. Grasping the blade between her thumb and forefinger, she took careful aim. Her arm snapped back and she threw the knife as hard as she could. It whistled through the air and imbedded itself in the dog’s neck. He went down with a gurgle and lay twitching for a moment before he finally became still. The bears shouted with surprise and released Jons, who sagged to the floor with a groan.  

The stocky bear stared at Cody. “Jeez --- y-you killed Smitty!”  

“Was that his name?” the vixen asked.  “I thought it was something else.  It rhymed, though.”  

Buck thought about that for a moment, until Rogers kicked him.    

“I don’t know who ya’ll are, but that ain’t polite,” Cody said. “Keep on, and I might have to put a knife through your necks, too.”

“What are you doing?  Get out of here!” Jons croaked, trying to get to his feet.  

Rogers doubled up his fists and slammed them into Jons’s stomach—hard.  The wind rushed out of the bartender’s lungs and he went down, gasping for breath.  Then the bear advanced on Cody, Buck two steps behind.  

There was a thin, menacing smile beneath Rogers's ridiculously etched mustache.  Cody could just imagine him twirling it. “You have just made a serious mistake.”  

“Yeah!” Buck echoed.  

Cody saw Rogers bring his revolver up and dove for cover as a shot sent splinters of wood flying on the floor where she’d been a scant second before.  

Crap.  Nice going.  Next time, make sure they ain’t got guns before you get rid of your only weapon.  

Another bullet tore through one of the table legs of her hiding place and she hastily scrambled out of the way. 

If there is a next time.  

Quickly, she tipped the table over to give herself a little more of a shield and reached for a chair.  When there was a pause in the firing, she poked her head up enough to see that the two bears were advancing.  The stocky one had a gun leveled on her head.  In one swift movement, she flung the chair at them.  The well-dressed one flung himself to one side, but his partner wasn’t so agile.  The chair caught Buck squarely in the forehead.  His gun went flying and skittered out the open front door.  The bear just sat there, dazed. The chair hadn’t hit him hard enough to draw blood, but he was going to get a nasty bruise.  

Great.  One down, one to go.  Man, I wish I had my knife!  

Rogers recovered from his surprise and grimly advanced on the vixen.  Smiling a little, the bear leveled the gun on her, pulled back the hammer, and, to prolong the suspense, slowly inched the trigger back.   

“Say hello to Smitty for me, won’t you?”  

Cody lunged and tackled him around the waist as the gun went off.  He gave a surprised yell and slammed the butt of the revolver into her back.  With a cry of pain, she released him and groped blindly for something --- anything --- to use as a weapon as he again aimed the gun.  Her hand came in contact with something movable and she flung it without looking at it.  The forgotten beer mug struck Rogers on the knee, distracting him so that the bullet glanced off the floor to Cody’s right.  

Cursing, he took aim again, and she steeled herself.  

This is it.  

She closed her eyes and held her breath.  There was a hollow click and she opened one eye.  Rogers stood there, looking at the gun in bewilderment.  She expelled a sigh of relief and hoped that he didn’t have any more bullets.  Not that she intended to give him the opportunity to reload.  While he still stared at the revolver, she grabbed a bowl of peanuts and threw it at him.  

Rogers ducked just in time. The bowl of peanuts crashed onto the floor beside Smitty, spilling half the contents on his back.  Grimly, he stuck his gun in his shoulder holster and started for the vixen.  She backpedaled furiously and scrambled to her feet.  

“Why don’t ya’ll just get out of here?  He ain’t got any money.”  

“My dear,” Rogers hissed, “it’s not money we’re after.”  

Cody was confused.  Not after money?  Then…  

She suddenly remembered Joanna and the way that her eyes had darted around the bar nervously, as if she were expecting to be attacked any minute.  

Her!  They’re after her!  

Buck had regained his senses and was advancing on the vixen, too.  She felt a small stab of fear, but quickly suppressed it.  It was obvious that the stocky one was an idiot.  She could easily outsmart him.  The taller, well-dressed one was the one she’d have to worry about.  He wasn’t muscular, but there was a cunning glint in his eyes that warned her.  

The two hoods tucked their now-empty guns into shoulder holsters beneath their jackets, intent on having a little fun with the vixen.   

Cody saw movement out of the corner of her eye and groaned.  

Great. Just what I need. The bimbo couldn’t have stayed put, could she?  

To her surprise, Joanna kept to the shadows along the wall and stealthily made her way to the ferret. Neither Buck nor Rogers noticed her, and that was just fine with Cody.  The last thing she needed was that bimbo getting in the way.  

“Well, darn!” She snapped her fingers. “Here I am, fresh out of weapons. Guess ya’ll got me.”  

“Yeah, we’ll get you, all right!” Buck lunged for her, and she neatly sidestepped him, sending him sprawling; unfortunately, it put her right in Rogers’s path. The taller bear grabbed her arm, and she slammed her fist into his eye.  

Owww!   

Buck cracked his knuckles.  “Don’t worry --- I'll take care of her.”  

The vixen grinned and beckoned to him, almost as if she were asking him to dance.  

Joanna thought, for a runt, she sure is feisty.  

As Cody grappled with the goons, Joanna made her way to Jons. Snatching a dishtowel from the counter, she pressed it to his neck and helped him stand up.  

“You okay?” she asked.  

He grimaced. “I’ll live.”

“Got to get out of here,” she said tersely. “Come on.”  

His eyes were fixed on the vixen.  “No, I can’t…they’ll kill her.”

Joanna resisted the urge to slap him again. She thought about just leaving him and making a run for it. That little runt was doing a good job keeping the goons busy, though Joanna didn’t think much of her style.  

Amateur, she thought disdainfully. No subtlety.   

Then, she remembered that the bartender had saved her life earlier, and her lips tightened. She tugged on his sleeve until he followed her to the back. “Stop bleeding on the floor and come on!”  

Hearts beating wildly, they listened to the sounds of chairs splintering apart, bottles and glasses breaking and the occasional fist striking flesh.  

Jons cringed, but tried hide his fear. “Damn.  Why did I have to bring out the good wine?”  

“You have insurance, don’t you?”  

“Yeah.”  He did—but not on Cody.

Maybe I should take out a policy on her.    

As they huddled together in the living room, Joanna noticed that there were several guns hanging on hooks on the walls and decided that it would be a good idea to extend the olive branch.  

She added, almost as an afterthought, “Sorry about the slap.”  

He waved away her apology. “Forget it. Now’s not the time.” Then: “I’m sorry too.” 

She eyed him narrowly. “If you really want to make it up to me, how about getting me a gun?”

“Sorry, no can do. If you had an accident I’d never forgive myself.”  

“Come on!  It’s open season on helpless females out there.  I need protection.”  

“Well… maybe we can find you something...” Jons looked at her strangely.  “You know them?”  

She hesitated. “Just met them tonight, same as you.”  

His eyes hardened, and she tensed. “I’ll tell you something, if she gets killed in there…”  

“She won’t --- not if we’re smart.  And that means staying out of harm’s way, not jumping in there without a weapon.” She pointed at the gun rack. “Speaking of which, what about those?”  

“They ain’t loaded and the ammo is behind the bar.”  

“Terrific.”  

They heard a feminine cry of pain from the barroom, and Jons automatically started to go back, but Joanna stopped him.  

“Stay here,” she ordered crisply.  

He opened his mouth to protest, but the hard look in her eyes silenced him.

Slowly opening the door, she peeked around to see Rogers looking at the ceiling cupping a hand over one eye while Buck grabbed the vixen’s fluffy tail as she tried to whirl around him. Cody lashed out viciously with one foot, intent on kicking him in the stomach, but he caught her foot and gave it a little twist.

Desperately, Joanna looked around for a weapon and settled for grabbing the nearest bottle. Drawing her arm back, she hurled it at Buck. It struck him on the side of the head and he released Cody, who executed a neat uppercut to his chin. The hood staggered backwards, and the vixen took that opportunity to make a run for it. 

She blinked in surprise at Joanna, but didn’t say anything as they barreled through the door, the goons hot on their trail.

Jons was relieved when he saw them.  

“C’mon!” He led them through his kitchen, out the backdoor, and down the street.

They hadn’t gone far when they heard a door slam open.   

“Hey!” Buck crowed. “Look what I got!” 

Cody looked over her shoulder to see Buck brandishing a knife in their direction. Her knife! She growled and started to go forward to snatch it back, but Jons grabbed her.  

"Let go! He's got my knife!"  

"Are you crazy? Do you want to get killed?" Joanna snapped.  

“I can take ‘em!”  

Forget it! Jons’s voice was like a whiplash and he gripped her shoulders so hard that she was certain he was going to leave bruises.    

Cody looked at him in surprise.  He used that tone with belligerent drunks, but never with her.  

The vixen jerked away and glared at Buck, but followed Jons and Joanna as they sprinted down the deserted street. They came to an intersection and paused for a moment, panting.

A glance behind told them that their pursuers were closing the distance quickly, and they raced on. A bullet ricocheted off the brick wall to their left, and all three gave startled yells and increased their pace. Luckily, the darkness provided cover and made it difficult for Buck and Rogers to take good aim. They ran down side streets in hopes of losing the thugs, but every time they stopped to catch their breath, they heard footsteps pounding after them.  

Jons tripped over an uneven break in the sidewalk and sprawled gracelessly on the pavement.  The women raced on, unaware.  He’d fallen a little behind them—there was a stitch in his side, his back was killing him, and he knew that he couldn’t go on for much longer.  By the time he picked himself up off the ground, they were out of sight.  He glanced over his shoulder and saw their pursuers closing the distance.  Without hesitation, he turned and darted down a dark side street, half-hoping that Buck and Rogers would follow him and give Cody and Joanna a chance to get away.  He headed straight to the police station—not that he intended to get the cops involved, but it should be enough to discourage their pursuers if he just went up to the door.  

* * *
 

“Hurry up!”  Rogers raced after the women.  As a rule, he hated running.   Sweat repelled him.  

Buck, who was slightly overweight and not much of a runner himself, was wheezing and his steps were slowing down.  Finally, he stopped running altogether.  

“I can’t breathe!”  

Rogers scowled. “You’re really not going to be able to breathe if we don’t find those girls and bring them back to Hardin.”  

Grudgingly, Buck broke into a trot.  They rounded the corner and ran smack into a powerfully built, filthy lion --- Eddie. The stench nearly knocked them over.  

He growled, “Hey, watch where you’re going!”  

You’d better watch where you’re going!” Rogers countered.  

“Yeah!” Buck chimed in. “What he said!”

There were a few moments of confusion in which everyone tried to disentangle themselves and get to their feet.  Then, the three stood there, glaring at each other.  

Fixing his none-too-clean makeshift bandage on his injured shoulder, the big lion groaned when he realized who he’d bumped into.  “Aw, not you again!”   

Buck said suddenly, “Hey, do you know who you are?  You’re Eggsucker!”  

The lion looked wary. “Who wants to know?”

Buck’s eyes again glazed with hero-worship.  “Gee, Mister Eggsucker, sir, this is a real honor.  Can I have your auto---ow!”  

Rogers kicked him.   

“Know somethin’? I’m starting to like you,” Eggsucker said to Rogers.  He peered over the stocky bear’s head, realizing that one of their group was missing.  He said to Rogers, “Say, Slick --- where’s your Doberman pal?  He run home to Mama?”  

“Oh, he’s dead.  Killed by some dame,” Buck replied.  He pouted.  “I never liked him anyway.  He was mean.”

Eggsucker gave the taller bear a disbelieving look.  “This dope for real?”  

Rogers sighed. “Unfortunately.”  

The lion laughed.  “You boys are too much.  No wonder a dame killed your friend.  I’m surprised she didn’t finish you two off while she was at it.”  

Rogers was miffed. “I can handle a mere… female.”  

“Actually, there were two of them,” Buck piped up.  “But they both got away.”  

Eggsucker guffawed. “Really?  And, uh, what did these females look like?”  

Rogers scowled, resenting the lion’s patronizing tone.  

Buck, however, was oblivious to the condescension.  In fact, he was used to it.  “See, it started off with this dame, right?  We were supposed to be meeting this guy, but it turned out he was dead and she was there.  We wanted to talk to her, but she didn’t want to talk to us so she started running.  It was hard keeping up with her.  We could only see her ‘cause she had this really long blonde hair.  No, it was sorta reddish, but not red.  No, no, that’s not right.”  He turned to Rogers. “What color comes between blon---!”  

The lion’s good-natured superiority vanished and he frowned.  “Bear?”  

“No, she was wearing clothes.”  

“You moron!  The dame!  Was she a bear?  Tall?  Ponytail?”  

Buck regarded him with awe.  “Wow… that’s right! You must be one of them—what do you call ‘em’s?  Oh, yeah, sidekicks!”

“That’s psychics,” Rogers hissed, resisting the urge to belt the dim-witted bear.  He glanced at the lion, whose tawny eyes had narrowed to slits.  

“Hmm… looks like we’ve got something in common, after all.” Eggsucker gestured to his shoulder.  “That bitch’s why I got shot.  I’d like to settle the score.”  

“Well…” Rogers considered. “We do need someone intimidating.”  

If your appearance doesn’t do it, your odor certainly will.  

Eggsucker’s smile wasn’t particularly pleasant.  “You want intimidating?  I’m your man.”  

Rogers hesitated a moment.  Then, with a look of distaste, he held out his hand.  Eggsucker looked at it for a moment as if unsure what he was supposed to do.  Finally, he grudgingly shook hands with the immaculately dressed bear.  Both of them let go after the briefest of contacts.  Discreetly, Rogers took out a white linen handkerchief and wiped his hand.

Buck, who had been watching like a spectator at a tennis match, clapped his hands.  “Oh, boy!  Now can I have your autograph?”  

Rogers smacked him on the back of the head.
  

* * *


“Wait!” Cody realized that something was not right.  She could no longer hear her friend’s labored breathing behind her. “Where’s Jons?  

“Aw, no!”  

They crouched behind a parked car to consider their next move. It was foolish to keep on running aimlessly, and when they looked back, they didn't see their pursuers.  

“I think… we lost 'em,” Joanna’s breathing was ragged and her ribs hurt every time she inhaled.  

The vixen bit her lip and scanned the street. “What now? Do we go back and find him?”  

“No," Joanna said quickly. When Cody frowned, she added, “We don't know where those creeps are.”  

On wobbly legs, she stood up carefully and tried to take in their surroundings.  The area looked to be deserted, and she couldn't see anything unusual, but she wasn't about to let down her guard.  

“I'm going back to my hotel. Get my stuff and get out of here.” She started to walk off, realized she didn't know the way back, and stopped. “Umm... could you tell me how to get to Stepford Manor?”  

“Stepford Manor? Ain't that the hotel with some smarmy old witch running it?  I hear she grows herbs and makes weird potions.”  

Joanna gave a surprised laugh, then winced in pain. “That’s the one. So, do you know how to get there from here?” 

The vixen shook her head. “I try to stay away from that part of town. Gives me the willies. But we can ask somebody. There are a few places open now.”  

She led Joanna to an all-night diner where a bored-looking brown bear was playing a half-hearted game of Solitaire on an empty counter. He looked to be in his middle to late fifties, with a potbelly from too many bottles of beer and servings of the diner’s fried food. Though stained, his white shirt was neatly tucked in and his white hat was perched at a rakish angle.  

He brightened when he saw them. “Hi, ladies. Welcome to Mel’s Diner. I’m Mel. What can I get you?”  

“I’m…I mean we’re looking for Stepford Manor. Can you tell us how to get there?” Joanna gave him an ingratiating and completely insincere smile.   

Seeming a little disappointed that all they wanted were directions, the man straightened the salt and pepper shakers before replying. “It’s about six blocks from here. You go until you get to the intersection of Elm and Pine—you know where that is?”  

Cody nodded.  

“Take a right onto Elm—be careful, it can be a nightmare this time of night what with all the stray cats — and go for a couple of more blocks.  Then, you take a left onto Murray and keep on going. You should see the hotel after a block or two.  Nice place like that’s hard to miss in that neighborhood.”  

They thanked him and turned to go.  

“Are you sure that’s all?” he asked. “Can I get you a cup of coffee? Piece of pie? Would you like me to call you a cab? That’s an awful long walk.”  

Both women were a little taken aback by his friendly chatter.   

“Ummm…no,” Joanna said. “We’ve really got to go.”  

“Ah, well.” Mel sighed. “Good luck then.  Be careful out there.”  

“We will.”  She nodded at the vixen.  “Come on.”  

They left.  

For the next half-hour, he played a few more hands of Solitaire, lost them all, then finally gave up.  Still no customers.  

That’s it, he thought. I’m changing closing time to nine tomorrow.  This ‘Open 24 Hours a Day’ is for the birds.  I’m not making any more money this way.  

He was about to gather up the cards and put them away when the little bell tinkled as the door opened.  Three men entered.  

Well, that’s more like it!  A lion approached and sat on one of the stools and yawned without covering his mouth; the smell of strong limburger hit Mel full in the face and he tried not to gag.  

“Hi, fellas,” he said, grabbing a pad and pencil. “Don’t mind the cards.  A man needs to pass the time during the night shift.  What can I get you?”  

 

* * *  

Half an hour later, Rogers stepped over the counterman’s body and reached for the phone to call Hardin and break the news about Smitty.

“You didn’t have to kill him, you know.” He gave Eggsucker a disgusted look.  “He was ready to talk.  If you’d have just let me question him…”  

“Kinda late to think of that now.”  Eggsucker tossed back a cup of black coffee while Rogers dialed a number.  “Besides, he said they were going to Stepford Manor.  What else did we need to know?  Hey, this coffee’s not bad.”  

When Hardin came on the line, he got right to the point, “It’s me.  Smitty’s dead.”  

Hardin didn’t take it well. “What do you mean --- Smitty’s dead?  Another one?”  

“Yes.” He glanced down at Mel’s poor, beaten body.  “It’s… sort of a mess around here.”

“Damn! You know how expensive it is to replace you guys?  Who did it?”  

“Some vixen at Jons’s bar killed him.”  

The line went silent for a moment.  At first he feared that they’d been cut off.  He ventured, “Sir?”  

“Quiet.  I’m thinking.”  Another moment passed, then Hardin said slowly, “This girl cost me one of my best men.  I want you to ice her.”  

Rogers kept his tone businesslike. “Yes, sir.”  

“Do it quickly and keep it quiet.  I don’t want it getting around that Smitty got snuffed just because some tomato got lucky.”  

“It wasn’t luck,” Rogers murmured without thinking.  

“What?”  

“She didn’t just ‘get lucky’, sir.  She knows how to fight. --- she gave me a black eye and just about brained Buck with a chair.”  

“Really.  How strange to hear ‘Buck’ and ‘brained’ uttered in the same sentence.”  

“Yeah --- she sure did, boss!” Buck interrupted, leaning into the phone and pointing at the purplish bruise on his forehead.  “See?”  

Rogers suppressed the urge to strangle him.  “He.  Can’t.  See.  You.”  

“Now, now, it’s all right,” he heard Hardin say on the other end.  “Put Buck on.”  

He thrust the receiver into his partner’s hand and leaned in close to listen.  “Boss wants to talk to you.”  

The pudgy hood swallowed and spoke. “Hi, boss… how are you?”  

“I’ve been better, but never mind.  So… she killed Smitty.”  

“Yeah!  And she hit me.  It still hurts, too.”  

“That’s too bad.  She gave you two quite a thrashing, didn’t she?”  His tone was casual.  Shall I send someone to clean up… your mess?”  

Hearing the last part, Rogers grabbed the receiver again. “What?… oh, no! No!  We can handle it… we have an idea where they went…”  

Really?  Hardin’s tone was dangerously silky.

Rogers felt the phone, slippery with sweat, start to fall from his hand.  Unexpectedly, Buck came to his rescue.  

“Yeah!” Buck caught it. “Eggsucker’s here --- remember him?  He’s here --- in the flesh!  Wanna say hi?”  

Eggsucker, huh?  Well, that’s changes everything.”  

“Yes!”  Thinking fast, Rogers snatched it back and stammered, “Eggsu---er, Eddie Schwartz is here … so you don’t have to send anyone.”  

“No, I trust you.  Frankly, I’m so prostrate with grief that I need a little comfort… just a minute.”  The mobster paused and they heard him say, “Send her up here… I don’t care what time it is, wake her up!”  

“Um… gee, that’s rough.  Maybe you should see a doctor.”  

“I beg your pardon?”  

“Your prostrate.  I mean if it bothers you so much…”  

Rogers wanted to stitch his partner’s mouth shut, but they were saved when they heard Hardin say irritably, “Well, where is she?  No, she wouldn’t be shopping at this time of night!  The stores are closed, you fool!”  

“Buck? Rogers? Are you both listening?”  

They assured him that they were.  

“Good.  Peters, since you can’t seem to keep an eye on Miss Babette, your services are no longer required.” 

The two men stared at each other, wide-eyed. They knew what was coming. Nobody was ever fired from Hardin Enterprises.  

They heard the man start to stammer and beg.  There was a shot, then a heavy thud.   

“Not only do I have to replace Smitty, but I'll have to hire a new person for the night shift who will be more vigilant in his duties.  Are you still listening, gentlemen?”  

“Yes, sir,” Rogers said quietly. He glanced at Buck, who looked as though he was about to pass a kidney. “We’re still here.”  

“All else aside, is there anything else I should know?”  

“You now have two girls to find, Babette and that murdering little… you know what to do.  Do it.”  

"Of course!  Leave it to---!”  

They all heard a loud click.  Pale and shaken, Rogers hung up.  Cold, clammy sweat trickled down his neck.  

“Well?” Eggsucker asked impatiently.  

“He’s… not happy.”  

The lion laughed again --- it was a weird, keening sound, like that of a hyena. The other two gave him strange looks and then slowly, carefully, edged away from him.

 

* * *  
 

It took them several minutes of hard walking, but Joanna finally saw the familiar turrets of Stepford Manor.  

Almost over. I’ll just grab my stuff and take the next bus out of here.  

The lights were off as they trudged up the walk. Cody slouched against the porch railing as Joanna tried the door.  

“Locked,” she muttered. “Just like the old girl’s chastity belt.”  

“So? Let’s break in,” said Cody impatiently.  

“We could, but we shouldn’t have to sneak around like we’re sixteen.  Why didn’t she give me a key?”  

Cody glanced at her.  Joanna’s hair had come out of its ribbon long ago, and several errant strands hung in her eyes; she stuck out her lower lip and blew, but it didn’t help much. She was dirty and her clumsily repaired blouse was crookedly buttoned.  I wouldn’t.  You look like you fell off a truck.”  

Joanna knocked. After a few minutes, the hall light came on and a disgruntled Miss Martha answered the door.  Joanna guessed correctly that they had dragged her out of bed.  She looked imperiously Victorian in a silk emerald green wrapper over a prim, high collared white nightgown, the lace just brushing her chin. The wrapper trailed the ground so that no unseemly glimpse of her ankles could be seen and the lace on the cuffs of the nightgown fell gracefully over her wrists. Her beautiful white hair was neatly pinned under a quaint white nightcap edged with lace to match.  

“What is it?” she asked, her refined voice dripping icicles. Then she saw Joanna.  

“You…what are you doing out here? Do you have any idea what time it is?”  

She gave her a weak smile. “I just went for a walk to get some fresh air. It is a lovely night, isn’t it?”  

“It is nearly four o’clock in the morning!” The elderly lioness drew herself up tall, her very being radiating disapproval as she took in Joanna’s disheveled appearance. “I thought I made it very clear that curfew is at nine sharp.” Her gaze swept past Joanna and her frown deepened. “And who is this?  

The vixen scowled, not liking the woman’s tone.  Just who does that old bat think she is, anyway!   

Joanna glanced at the vixen. “This is, uh, Bernice. She was showing me around.”  

Cody wrinkled her nose. Bernice?  

Again, Miss Martha gave her a disgusted look. “I have always prided myself on running a genteel establishment. Yet, you dare to risk my reputation and the good name of Stepford!  Do you know what the neighbors would think if they knew that one of my young ladies was running around after midnight? What would your mother say?”  

Joanna was momentarily confused until she remembered what Miss Martha had said when she’d first arrived at Stepford Manor.  

You must be our new arrival.  Joanna Haley, you are not?   

Helen?  You call your mother by her Christian name?  

She thought about what Helen would say, then pushed the thought aside.  Sorry, Mom. 

She was getting more than a little annoyed with Miss Martha for making such a big deal out of it.  

This old crow belongs in a museum with the rest of the mummies!    

“I’m sorry, okay?” Joanna said impatiently. “It won’t happen again.”  

She made as if to move past the woman, but Miss Martha stood firm.  

“No, it will not happen again.” Her gaze flicked over to the bedraggled vixen. “Since you seem to enjoy the company of… undesirables, you may stay out here with them.”  

Joanna’s jaw dropped. “You can’t do that.”  

“My dear, this is my hotel. I shall do as I see fit.”  

“But… my stuff…”  

“Will be in your room. I will not have you disrupting the other girls, coming in at this unholy hour. They shall be returned to you in the morning… on the doorstep.” With that, Miss Martha firmly shut the door in their faces, leaving them standing on the porch.   

For a moment, Joanna was too stunned to speak.  Then, childishly, she kicked the door.  “Damn!”  

Now what?”  

“We break in.” 

The vixen grinned and motioned for Joanna to lead the way. She went around the side of the house to the gardens.  

My room should be the third window from the left. Hmmm…  

As they stood, hidden in the shadows of a maple tree, she considered the problem of getting to the second story. There were no trees near the windows, and she wasn’t so keen on climbing, anyway. Not since…well, she didn’t want to think about that now.  

“Which one’s yours?” Cody asked.  

Joanna pointed. “Third from the left, I think.”  

“How are you going to get up there?” The vixen seemed to be enjoying the situation, which irritated Joanna.  

Lips thinned in concentration, she ignored the question and looked around the garden for a ladder or something she could use as one. Finally, she decided on a wrought iron table and chairs. She would be able to reach the window easily enough, but she wasn’t so sure about Cody.  

The shrimp can just stay down here. I need a lookout.  

Having decided on a plan, Joanna dragged the table across the yard, taking fierce pleasure in the deep grooves the table left in Miss Martha’s immaculately trimmed lawn.  With a little trepidation, she hauled a chair over and hoisted it onto the table. Shaking it once to satisfy herself that it was sturdy, she hesitated a second before taking a deep breath and hauling herself onto the table.  

“You stay down here,” she ordered. “Yell if there’s any trouble.”  

“If there’s trouble, I won’t be here.”  

Joanna was on the chair, poised to break the window when she heard someone knock on the front door.  She froze and cast a questioning glance down at the vixen, who shrugged and cautiously peered around the corner of the house.  

Cody gasped and motioned frantically for Joanna to get down.  “It’s them!”  

“Oh no!” Quickly, she stepped off the chair and almost tipped the table over as she did so.  “Where do we go?”  

“There’s some oleander bushes in the garden --- I smell ‘em.  If we keep in the shadows, we might buy some time.” 

“Wait!”  Joanna pointed at the upper windows.  “What about the rest of them?”  

“Leave ‘em!”  

“But we can’t do that!  They’ll be killed!”  

“Better them than us.”  

“Still…” Joanna spied a stone and picked it up.  As she aimed, the vixen caught her arm.  

“What the hell are you doing!”  

“Warning them, damn it!  Now let go!”  She wrenched away and threw the rock, striking the wooden window frame with a dull thud.  Nothing.   

“Come on!”  

“I’m coming!”  She scooped another rock and threw it.  This time it hit the windowpane with a light tinkle of glass.  

A rabbit’s silhouette appeared behind the organdy curtains.  Chastity poked her head out, sleepily squinting into the gloom.  “Who’s there?”  

“Me!” Joanna hissed, as loudly as she dared. “Get out of the house!  And don’t go downstairs or near the front!”  

“What’s going on?” Another girl, Rachel appeared.  She noticed the cracked glass.  “You broke our window.  Miss Martha isn’t going to like---!”  

“Shut up and listen to me! Lock your door!”

“Huh?” Brain fogged by sleep, Chastity looked around blearily. “Why?”  

“I-I heard something fall!” Rachel’s voice quavered. “S-someone’s downstairs!”

“I don’t like this,” Chastity whispered. Transfixed, they stared at the door. 

They heard a woman shriek.

Chastity gasped.  “Miss Martha!”  

Even being further away from the house, Cody and Joanna could hear the sharp scream.  Joanna started to go back, but the vixen stopped her.

“Come on!” Cody grabbed her and physically dragged her into the bushes.  Reluctantly, Joanna let her.  

Sorry, Miss Martha.  

Meanwhile, around front, the hotel’s proprietor was dealing with some unwelcome visitors.  Already disgruntled by Joanna’s appearance, she was in no mood to deal with anyone else at that hour of the morning, as her impatient expression made very plain.   

“Good morning, madam,” Rogers said smoothly, “Are you the lady of this fine establishment?”  

“Yes, I am,” she said testily, “what do you… gentlemen… want? We are not open at this hour.”  

Rogers jabbed Eggsucker in the ribs.  The mangy lion reluctantly took his finger out of his nostril, examined it and wiped it on the seat of his pants.  

“Just a little information,” Rogers addressed Miss Martha. “We are looking for two, uh, young ladies who may be staying with you.”  

Buck piped up, “One of them forgot her purse at the bar---!”  This time Rogers jabbed him in the midsection. “Ow! I mean the restaurant!”  

“And you came all the way across town to return it,” she said dryly. “How gallant.”  

“Well, we just hated to think of the young lady going without her purse,” Rogers said smoothly.   

“Really? And where is this purse?”  

Buck said helpfully, “The Lobster Hut.”  

She said icily, “You are mistaken, sir.  None of my young ladies would be seen in one of those… establishments.  I suggest you go on your way and let decent people get some sleep!”   

She was about to shut the door in their faces, but Rogers placed his knee in the doorway, blocking it.   

“We really do need to speak with the young lady,” he said.  “She’s got to come down to the restaurant to fill out some forms and claim the purse.”  

She tried to keep her voice from quavering, without success. “D-do you know what time it is?”  

Rogers smiled coldly.  “Yes, ma’am.  Your time.”  

Eggsucker kicked the door open, knocking her backward.  As she fell, her nightcap fell off, and a thick white braid flopped out.

She stared up at them, now realizing that she was trapped.  Suddenly, she turned her head and screamed as loud as she could, “Girls! Wake up! Lock your doors!  Call the police! Quickly!”  

“Hey, stop that!  Shh!” Buck panicked. “Hey! Somebody shut her up!”  

Lock your doors!  Hur--!  

The lion grinned.  A short strand of white hair was lodged in his teeth.  “Nice try, Grandma,” He bent and swung his fist into her jaw, stunning her into silence.  

Her amber eyes, so fiercely self-righteous a moment ago, were now dazed and terrified.  

As the men advanced, their shadows grew until they blurred together across her face.  

 

End of Part 4

 

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