The Whole Damsel Thing

Part 5 of 10

 

“Wait!  Don’t go!” Rachel shouted after the two disappearing figures.  “Come back!”  

“Rachel!  Shut up!”  Chastity clamped a hand over her friend’s mouth.  “They’ll come up here!”    

“What do we do?  What do we do?” Rachel wrung her hands.  

They heard something heavy crash to the floor --- the popping of coiled springs and a strange, “Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!  Cuckoooooo…” before someone angrily stamped on the bird until it was silent.  

“The clock!  They must be in the foyer!”  

The two girls cowered under the bed next to the chamber pot.  It smelled, but they were too frightened to care.  There was too much screaming—a terrible keening sound of one being tortured.  

Miss Martha!” they both whispered in horror.  

Chastity thought fast. “The trellis --- we must climb out the window before they come upstairs!”

“We have to help her!”  

“No!  They’ll kill us!”  

Rachel began to cry. “We can’t just-just leave her!”  

“We have to,” Chastity said brokenly.  "We have to."  

Even covering their ears was futile --- they could still hear Miss Martha screaming --- then it was brutally cut short with a sickening crunch, then a thud.  Heavy footfalls grew louder and louder as one or two --- or was it three? --- pounded up the stairs.  

Someone jiggled the doorknob.  

“Break it down, Buck!  I saw them go in there.”  

They heard the unmistakable sound of someone throwing their weight against the door and Rachel began to hyperventilate.  

“Come on!”  Chastity said urgently. “Out the window!”  

“But---!”

The door burst open.  

“Hey guys, look what I found in the old lady’s pocket --- a key!”  

A slightly nasal, but cultured voice replied, “As usual, your timing is impeccable, Buck.”

Chastity clapped a hand over her friend’s mouth and bit her own lip until it bled.  Peering through the sheer white ruffle, they saw three pairs of feet suddenly appear in front of them.  One pair of dirty yellow feet emitted an incredibly foul odor, and they had to cover their noses too.  

“Now where oh where can they be?” the big one wondered out loud. “Could they be… here?” He yanked out several underwear drawers and dumped the contents.  Picking up a lacy slip, he ripped it in two, then let it float like a wounded butterfly to the carpet.  

Rogers snapped, “Schwartz, stop fooling around.  And lose the toothpick.”  

“Okay, okay. Just trying to make it interesting.  Blech.  I hate mutton. I think that old crow was going bad.”  

“Don’t tell us about it.  It’s bad enough we had to watch.”

A chewed up sliver of wood fell soundlessly to the floor.  “Buck, help me lift this thing!”  

The whole bed was lifted and the sky seemed to open, then darken over their heads as the silhouettes of the three men drew close together.  Both girls screamed.  

“Under the bed,” Rogers said wearily. “How original.”  

Panic-stricken Rachel screamed again.  Without thinking, Chastity snatched up the chamber pot and hurled its contents at the intruders.  They yelled in disgust --- cold urine and clumps of day-old feces splattered on all of them, with Rogers getting the brunt of it.  

Without hesitation, Chastity grabbed Rachel’s arm and dragged her to the window.  The men were too preoccupied with trying to clean themselves up to notice.   

“Hurry!” Chastity yanked the window open and leaned out.  Beside the window was a trellis.  The rabbit had heard that some of Miss Martha’s previous guests had used it to get out after hours, and she was thankful for it.  

Shoving Rachel onto the windowsill, she ordered her to climb down.  Numbly, her friend obeyed.  Chastity quickly followed.  She was only a few feet above the ground when Eggsucker thrust his head out the window, his ugly face dripping.  Catching the top of the trellis, he brutally ripped it from the wall!  Grunting with the effort, he started to raise it, bringing her closer. He reached for her, almost touching her hair.  

Chastity!” Rachel screamed.   

Chastity took one look at Eggsucker, gulped and made her choice.  She let go, and landed in the soft soil below, instantly smashing Miss Martha’s tulips.

They heard the screams echoing from the house.

“I can’t stand this!” Joanna started to head back, but Cody stopped her. 

“Don't be stupid!  They’re dead.  We can't help her them now.”   

For a moment, Joanna looked as though she would knock her down.  Then, grimly, she nodded.   

“We’ve got to get going.”  Cody resolutely took the lead, ignoring the racket behind them.  Those girls were screaming fit to rouse the dead, so it was entirely possible that one of the neighbors had called the police.  She wasn’t going to worry about it—not if it meant risking her life to go back and save some people she’d never met.    

* * *

Ralph the bus driver had just finished his last route and was driving home.  He liked to drive past Miss Martha’s place, just to make sure everything was okay at Stepford Manor. He was just about a quarter mile from the hotel when an apparition in white dashed in front him, making him yell in alarm.  He slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt, just missing a wild-eyed Chastity.  The rough road, with its sharp stones, was harsh on bus tires, let alone flesh. Her feet were torn and bleeding.  

“Good grief, are ye daft?  What’d ye mean running out like that?  I almost hit you!”  He peered out at her and saw her face.  “What happened, child?  What are ye doing out here?”  

He saw Rachel crouched in the bushes, chanting in a singsong voice:  “A lady never pouts… a lady never whines…she smiles and makes the best of things…because a frowny-face makes lines…a lady never pouts…a lady never whines…she smiles and makes the best of things…because a frowny-face makes lines…”  

Chastity said, without expression, “She’s been doing that for hours.”  

“Are you all right?”  

“Yes!  Never mind that. M-miss Martha… Elizabeth, Betty… everyone…” she gasped.  “I’m afraid to go back, but I think something awful’s happened to them.”  

When she told him what had happened, Ralph’s expression turned grim.  

“Are those men still in the house?”  

“I-I don’t think so.  I don’t know.”   

He fetched a tire iron from underneath the driver’s seat.  “Wait here.”  

Very cautiously, he eased the front door open and peeked inside the main foyer.  Some irrational part of his mind half-expected to find her sitting at the desk, impeccably groomed and calmly writing in her guest book or knitting a sweater for one of the girls.    But it was almost pitch black --- when he stepped inside, the brittle pieces of glass crunched under his feet like icy snow.  When his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could only see a few feet in front of him, identifying his rocky path as he went. All the lights and figurines had been smashed.  The grandfather clock lay on its back, the glass over its face broken and the hands twisted so it would never tell the time again.  The long door that encased the chimes was torn off its hinges, and the chimes themselves strewn nearby.   The woman was nowhere to be seen.  

“Miss Martha?” he called softly.  “Are you hiding? It’s all right, it’s just me --- Ralph.”  

No answer.  Just the scraping, gravelly sound as he picked his way around the shards of glass.  He couldn’t see ahead of him at all, so he concentrated on watching his own feet.  When he got closer, he noticed that in midst of the chaos, the desk was still upright.  Then he saw her. He tripped over the upturned clock, caught himself by grabbing the edge of the desk.  

“Are you hurt?”  He saw her slumped on the desk, her face turned away from the door as if she'd fallen asleep writing in her ledger.  His heart sank. “Miss Martha?  

Gently, and with dread, he lifted her and turned her over.  “Oh, Lord!”  

For several moments he could only stare in horror at what remained of Miss Martha's face.  With an anguished cry, he fell to his knees and sobbed.  

* * *

Jons stumbled as he went up the walk to Tony’s house. It was late, and he knew the bulldog would be upset, but he had nowhere else to go. He sure wasn't going back to his club yet. He stood on the porch for a moment, looking around furtively. He didn't see anything out of the ordinary, so he hesitantly knocked on the door.  No response.  He knocked louder. This time, he heard some shuffling and presently, the front door swung open and he found himself facing his friend, who had a sheet wrapped around his stout midsection.  

"What? I’m kinda busy right now." Tony was decidedly disgruntled, and he glared at Jons. "Well? You’d better not be drunk again."  

"Sorry. I didn't have anywhere else to go. Somebody trashed the bar and I don't think it's safe to go back yet."  

"Trashed the bar?" Tony repeated. "Was anyone hurt?"  

Jons grimaced. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, his back and neck were starting to throb. "Yeah. Me." 

“Tony? Who is it?” a throaty feminine voice called.  

“Just Jons, baby! You stay where you are!”  

Contrary to the bulldog’s orders, a white feline with tousled blonde hair poked her head around the door.  One bare shoulder was visible.

Oh boy.  Looks like I interrupted something.  

“Hi, Trixie,” Jons said, trying not to stare.  

“Hey, Jons.”  Trixie looked at the bulldog reproachfully.  “Well?  Aren’t you going to let him in?”  

Grumbling a little, Tony moved aside and let his friend into the house. When the ferret limped into the light, they both gaped at him. Jons's white shirt was dirty, torn, and spotted with blood. Above the collar, blood from a couple of cuts had begun to crust over.  

"Who did this?" Tony asked quietly as Trixie went to find bandages and a washcloth. And a robe.

Jons opened his mouth to answer, but Trixie's return interrupted him.

“Okay.  Have a seat.  We’ll have you fixed up in no time.”  She glanced at Tony.  “For goodness’ sake, go put some clothes on.”  

Tony grumbled, but disappeared into the bedroom for a moment.  When he came back out, he had on a pair of boxers.  The bartender winced as he took a seat on the bench in the entryway.  

“So what happened?” the woman asked as she examined the cuts and carefully wiped away the blood.   

Jons shrugged. "These three thugs come in about closing time asking about a woman. When I didn't tell them what they wanted to know, they got a little rough. Cody took one of them out with that knife Sam gave her. Then, the three of us ran for it. We got separated. I came here, and I don't know where Cody and that other girl went to."  

"Other girl?"  

"Yeah. I think she's the one those goons were after."  He paused. "I sure hope they're okay."  

* * *  

At first, they ran without any real destination.

Not bad for a midget, Joanna thought as she kept pace with the vixen.  Cody may have been a head shorter, but she was energetic and in much better shape, Joanna gave her that; she had no trouble keeping up with the taller woman’s longer strides.   

“We’ve…got…to…hide,” Cody puffed.  

Maybe not so energetic.  

“Where?”  Joanna asked.  

Wordlessly, Cody put on an additional burst of speed that made Joanna groan—she’d exerted herself enough for one night—and led the way down a twisting series of side alleys.  They emerged on a quiet, broad street lined with businesses.  After a furtive glance around, the vixen went to a building whose windows had been boarded up.  A few strong tugs dislodged a couple of boards and allowed them entry into a dusty office building with nothing but cardboard boxes and a few filing cabinets.   

“They’ll never think to look for us in here,” Cody said.

“Maybe you’d fit in those things, but I wouldn’t.”

Joanna sagged against the wall.  First that long bus ride into Land’s End, then an evening with the queen of domesticity, and everything else that had happened was beginning to take its toll.  

That, and my ribs hurt like hell.   

“I hope there’s running water,” Cody continued, heading towards a little room at the back that proved to be a bathroom.  “I’m about to die of thirst.”  

There was a slight squeak as she turned the faucets.  “No such luck.  Guess we’re roughin’ it.  I need water.”

Joanna entered the bathroom, about to quip, “I don’t think it’ll make you grow any taller,” but thought better of it.  This wasn’t the time for wisecracks.  Instead, she silently pointed to the toilet.  

Cody was revolted. “Nuh-uh!  No way!”   

Joanna peered into the bowl.  “It’s dry as a bone, anyway.  Sorry.”  

The vixen made a face. “Ugh.  Don’t tell me you were serious.”  

They left the bathroom and stood in the small room.  

“We’re not exactly in a position to be choosy,” the bear retorted.  “Look around and use what’s available.  Be creative.”  

“Drinking from the toilet is not creative.”  

“You mean if you were out in the middle of the Gobbling Desert and the only water for hundreds of miles happened to be in a toilet, you wouldn’t drink it?”  

“This ain’t exactly the Gobbling Desert.” Cody stretched and winced.  “Ow.”  

“What’s the matter? Growing pains?” Joanna slumped to the floor, grateful to be able to rest for a while.  

The petite vixen gingerly touched her back.  “One of those goons hit me with a gun.  I think it left a bruise.”  

Joanna ran her hands through her ponytail, trying to comb out the tangles.  Her scalp itched as the sweat dried and her hair felt as if she’d been in a vacuum cleaner going over a sandbox.  

She opened her eyes to find Cody punching the air viciously.  

What are you doing?”  

The vixen took a couple more swings before bending over to touch her toes.  “Nothin’.”  

“How many of those piña coladas did you have?”  

“Not enough.”  Cody winced again.  “I’m gonna be sore in the morning.”  

Joanna thought about Miss Martha and her lips tightened.  “At least you’re going to be alive to see it.  They were sitting ducks back there.”  

“Face it, there was nothing we could do,” Cody pointed out.  We were outnumbered, outgunned, out everything.  We’d be dead too.”  

Joanna clenched her fists, unable to speak for a moment.  Then she muttered, “Yeah, I know.”  

She looked around the room for something to sleep on.  The floor was cement, and she certainly wasn’t going to try to sleep on that.  

Cody watched her for a moment.  “So what’d you do?”  

The other woman was confused.  “Huh?”  

“Level with me.  You were awfully jumpy when you came into the bar and people don’t put on a fake accent if there’s nobody there to laugh at it --- unless they have something to hide.”  

Joanna shrugged.  “Nothing, really.  I just stumbled across this body and those three mental cases started chasing me.”  

There was a glint of interest in the vixen’s turquoise eyes.  “Dead?”  

“As the proverbial doornail.”  

“A mugger probably got a hold of him.  There’s a real problem with that around town.  Where’d you find him?”  

“I don’t know.  In some alley near the docks.  I was hiding from some sailors and I just kinda…tripped over him.  Maybe he was mugged, but that doesn’t explain why those three goons chased me or why they came to that bar looking for me.”  

The vixen shrugged carelessly and disassembled a couple of cardboard boxes to make herself a bed.  “Maybe he was a smuggler.  People who hang out in alleys are up to no good anyway.  Maybe he missed his drop.”  

Joanna’s eyes narrowed as she remembered the incident.  “Could be.  That would fit, I guess.  Those three didn’t exactly seem like good upstanding citizens.”

“And good upstanding citizens wouldn’t have come into a bar looking for you.  They would’ve turned you in to the cops.”  

“Right.”  The bear started to say something else, then stiffened.  “Did you hear something?”  

“What?” Cody glanced around, automatically reaching for her absent knife.  “Damn.  What do you hear?”  

“I don’t know.  Shut up and listen.”  

They fell to their knees and crawled behind the cardboard boxes, hearts pounding.  

“Should we look around?” Joanna whispered.  

“No,” Cody whispered back. “We can't see.  Our best bet is to make sure they don't find us and hope they don't have flashlights.”  

They waited in the dark. Finally, after nearly thirty agonizing minutes, the vixen cautiously poked her head out.  “I think we’re scaring ourselves.  Old buildings echo.”  

“Wait,” Joanna begged. “If we drop our guard and something really is out there…”  

“Fine.  Ten minutes, tops.  My cramps have cramps.”  

Again, they waited.  

“Okay, I’m tired of this,” Cody said, standing up.  “Besides, I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around.”  

“Ow, ow, ow!”  Joanna stood up stiffly, rubbing her knees.  “I hurt so much I almost want to be shot.”  

“Quit complaining.  Next time you ‘hear’ something, keep it to yourself.  My back and knees will thank you.”

“Well, pardon me!  It could have been someone out there, waiting for us to fall asleep and---!”  

“Shut up.  Just shut up.”  

Cody finished assembling her cardboard ‘bed’ while the other sulked.  

Finally, Joanna made one too --- or tried.  “Insert Tab A into Slot B… fold Flap C into … wait, that’s not right… stupid box!”  Swearing under her breath, she gave up and simply put a bunch of partly assembled cardboard boxes on top of each other and sat down, the boxes buckling under her. 

She flopped down, panting. “I hate camping.”  

Cody rolled her eyes, but wisely kept her mouth shut. 

After a few minutes, Joanna said casually, “By the way, that was a neat trick you did back there with that knife.”  

“Thanks.” Cody looked at her suspiciously.  “Had to practice for years before my aim was any good. An assassin taught me.”  

Joanna thought about it, then asked carefully, “So… you’re an assassin?”  

“Merc.” The vixen paused. “I mean mercenary.” As she thought about her lost knife, she slammed her fist angrily into her hand. “I should have gone back for it.”  

“Huh?”  

My knife. I should have gone back and got it.  I could have taken that idiot.”  

Joanna bit her lip to keep from laughing. “What was so special about that thing, anyway?”  

“The man who taught me knife throwing gave that to me after our last lesson. Sort of a 'welcome to the club' present." She sighed, her eyes focusing on some distant memory.  Then, she turned to Joanna. "But I don't figure you'd understand.”  

“Don't be so sure.”  

“Aw, come on." Cody scoffed. “Since when do they teach knife-throwing in charm school?”  

“That run-in at your friend’s bar --- who do you think threw that bottle?” Joanna looked at her contemptuously.  

Cody started to scowl, then she broke off, remembering that while she was busy trying to stay in one piece, a bottle had come windmilling from the back room, hitting the stocky goon on the head. “Oh.”  

“Riiiiiight.”  She drew out the word like a long drag from a cigarette.  

Cody frowned. “You're not on a job now, are you?”  

“Nope, I’m retired.” Shaking her head, Joanna forced a laugh. “Got out of that racket a while ago. How long have you been a mercenary?”  

“A couple of years.” Cody pulled off her boots and sprawled on her makeshift bed.  

“You should quit.”  

“What for?  The money’s good.”  

“I wouldn’t know.  I never got to keep any of it.”  

Never got to keep any of it?" The petite vixen was appalled.  "Then why in the world did you do it?”  

“Because I had no choice!” she spat. “They’d have me killed if I didn’t do exactly as I was told.”  

“Who?”  

“Them! The damned Foundation, that’s who!”  

“Never heard of it.  Was it some training school for assassins?”  

The vixen’s matter-of-fact tone was like throwing cold water in her face.  Joanna, realizing that she sounded hysterical, stopped and thought, what am I doing? Of course, this little runt was in no position to judge her, and it was somehow refreshing to talk about it after all these years, like it could be discussed as if it didn’t matter anymore.  

“It was ‘training’ all right.”  Disgruntled, Joanna crossed her arms over her chest and glared at a chipped floor tile in front of her.  “A regular obedience school.”  

“Huh.”  

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  

Cody gave her a lopsided smile.  “You musta failed at the obedience thing big time.”  

Joanna scowled and turned red.  The truth was, she had been obedient for many years—a puppet—and it was something that deeply embarrassed her.    

“At least I didn’t have a choice about killing.  What’s your excuse?”  

“Spare me the lecture.  I don’t care if you’re not doing it anymore.  You’re still no better than me.  Nobody changes overnight.”  

“I---!”  Joanna’s mouth fell open in outrage.  

“Let me tell you something.  You ain’t nothin’ but a hypocrite. You had a taste, and I bet you liked it.  One push and you’d do it again.”  

“How would you know? You hardly know me.”  

I know myself, that’s why.  

Aloud she said, “Well, you didn’t exactly deny it, did you?”  

Joanna looked away.    

“So… why’d you do it in the first place?”  Cody finally asked, more to fill the uncomfortable silence than anything else.  

Joanna looked up, her eyes glittering.  She thought of the churchgoing grocer, who regularly beat his wife and kids and hounded them across the country until Wifey finally sold her wedding ring and offered to pay Joanna for her services.  One well-placed sniper bullet solved the poor woman’s problem.   

She had done that one for free.  

She said coldly, “Some people deserve to die.”  

“Can’t argue with you there.”  

Joanna thought about Miss Martha and the rest of them.  

And some people don’t.  

Joanna closed her eyes, and rubbed her temples, feeling a headache coming on. My fault. Chastity, Rach-- all dead because of me.  Then:  She’s right, you know.  Better them than us.  She sighed, feeling as if an enormous weight were placed on her chest.  Her clothes felt heavy and constricting.  More than anything, she just wanted to soak in a hot tub, crawl into bed and hibernate for a few weeks.  

“Well, I’m going to wash up and hit the hay. Got a mirror?”  

Cody looked at her like she was crazy.  

Joanna raised an eyebrow at the decidedly unkempt vixen and slapped her forehead. “Right.  Silly me.”  

“Hey, there’s something shiny,” Cody pointed excitedly at the side of a filing cabinet. “Go!  Run into the light!”  

“Very funny.” Joanna began to scrub off her makeup with a wadded handkerchief she found in her back pocket.   

Cody laughed at her. “Tell me you didn’t pay for that war paint!”  

“Maybe you should try it,” Joanna said sweetly. “Then they might let you into the ladies’ room.”  

“At least they won't mistake me for a tramp.”  

“Not unless they’ve got a taste for scrawny little boys.”  

The vixen's temper flared and she turned away until she could get it under control. Then, she said, "You don't know the first thing about me, Smarty. Believe me, my targets aren't in a state to comment by the time I'm finished with them and all my clients care about is that I get the job done."  

“Good grief, don’t you have any pride?  Just because you kill people for a living is no excuse to go around looking like a ragamuffin. Take gangsters, for instance.”  

The vixen raised an eyebrow. “Gangsters?  

“Gangsters. Most of ‘em wear sharp suits for the simple reason that it commands respect and intimidates the other guy --- especially if he’s a just some bum with a gambling debt and no scratch.  Or say you were a shoplifter.  The way you look now, you’d probably be picked up in a minute.  Dress with some style and act like you’re from the right side of the tracks and you’re more likely to come away from a jewelry store with some nice parting gifts, with some stupid store detective holding the door for you.”  

Looking dubious, she crossed her arms over her chest. “Uh-huh.”  

“Listen, if you dazzle ‘em with a little glamour, they won’t see the knife coming.  Most men I know are idiots. They assume, like you did, that I’m just some dizzy blonde—!”  

Cody snorted. “Dizzy blonde? Yeah, that’s you, all right.”  

Joanna continued, “--with more curves than brains. I just use what I got to get around some idiot and it doesn’t even occur to him that if I wanted to, I could snap his neck like a dry twig.” She daintily wiped off her lipstick with a tissue.  

“All that simpering and acting girly gives me the willies. I’ve worked real hard to get people to take me seriously. Usually, they take one look at my size and laugh.” She smiled with grim humor. “'Course, they die laughing.”  

“You mean they underestimate you.”   

For a moment, Cody wondered if that was another ‘short’ joke. “Yes.”  

“I can respect that.  Sometimes being underestimated is all a girl’s got.” Impatiently, Joanna blew a stray hair out of her face.  “Anyway, I still think long-distance killing is better.  Who needs a front row seat for that?”  

Cody shrugged. “Why not just slit their throat and be done with it?”  

“I hate wet work.” Joanna wrinkled her nose. “Too messy.  Last time I did it, the guy bled all over my favorite sweater.  Never got the stains out. I couldn’t even take it in to be dry-cleaned.”  

Cody rolled her eyes. “Poor baby.”  

Joanna sighed, but decided not to waste her breath arguing further.   

She cleared her throat. “Let me tell you about a theory of mine.”  

“Oh, goody --- a bedtime story!”  

Joanna ignored her sarcasm.  “Take spiders, for instance.”  

“Spiders?”  

“Yeah, spiders.  They’re ugly, hairy, creepy and disgusting.  If I see one in the room, it has a date with my shoe. But as long as they stay outside, they’re okay. They get rid of other pests, like flies and all that.  I don’t have to do a thing.”  

“What’s your point?” Cody asked impatiently.  

“Let the bad guys rub each other out. Let ‘em do what comes naturally.  And don’t kill a spider unless it crawls on you.”  

The vixen's smile was a trifle bloodthirsty and not quite sane. "But when you give 'em the up close and personal, at least you're sure they're dead."  

“But why get your hands dirty?  Let ‘em kill each other off.  It’s bound to happen anyway.”

“If they do that, I won’t get paid.”  

“I like money as much as anyone, but it won’t do you much good if you’re not around to spend it.”  Joanna was exasperated. “Listen, no matter how good you are now, there will always be someone younger and faster than you later on.  Very few people in this business live to a ripe old age.”  

“Don’t you think I know that?” she snapped, annoyed at being lectured by a woman who’d done the same thing, even if it was involuntary.  “And at least it’s my choice.”  

Joanna’s lips tightened in annoyance.  “You should consider another line of work, you know.”  

“Why?”  

“Well, what if you’re maimed on a job instead of killed?  What would you do then?”  

Cody grinned impudently. “Beg on street corners?”  

“All I’m saying is, it’s good to have a backup.  I was good.  Maybe not the best, but good enough.”    

“Uh-huh.” The other girl wasn’t impressed.  “So what was your backup?”  

Joanna tried to think.  Then, in a small voice, she said, “Well… I can play the piano.”   

“Oh yeah, lots of money to be made there.   How’d you get into the business, anyway, if you’re so dead set against it?” 

“Never mind,” Joanna growled, “and for your information, I’m not ‘dead set against it.’  To be honest, some of what I learned comes in handy. But I’m in no hurry to die sooner than I have to.”  

The vixen muttered something that sounded like, “And that’s a bad thing?”  

Psychopath, Joanna decided. I’m stuck here with a psychopath.  

One of her biggest faults was in underestimating the enemy, though she was loath to admit it.  Still, her eyes darted nervously around the room, marking escape paths just in case.  

“Seriously, nobody, at least no sane person, would go up to some joint like that and say, ‘Hey, I heard you’re looking for recruits to kill people and I just love the idea that I’m not gonna get any money out of it.  Where do I sign up?’”  Cody looked up at her curiously.  “So I’m guessing somebody sold you up the river or kidnapped you or something.”  

“Or something.”  

“Come on.  We’re stuck here and I don’t know about you, but I’m too keyed up to sleep.  Might as well talk about something to pass the time.”  She wrinkled her nose and gave Joanna another of those dubious once-overs.  “Something interesting that doesn’t have to do with clothes or makeup or hair.”  

Joanna gave a short, surprised laugh.  She could tell the little runt something, she supposed.  Besides, she had a point.  Sitting here, listening to the other breathe would make for a long night.  “Long story.  The short version is I got in trouble when I was twelve.”  She fell silent.  

“Trouble…?”  

“Yeah.”  Joanna hesitated.   

“What did you do, steal candy or something?”   

“Worse.  I sort of…”  

“Come on, spit it out.”  

Joanna whispered, “I sort of… accidentally… killed my sister.”  

Sort of?  

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Joanna snapped. “I was sneaking out of our bedroom window to meet my friend and had to climb down a tree to reach the ground.  Being the pesky little brat she was, Judy insisted on coming along or else she’d tell Mother.  The branch broke --- s-she slipped and s-started to fall --- then she grabbed me…” Her voice cracked with emotion.  “I had to… fight her… make her let go…and she-she just hit the pavement.”  

Cody stared at her.  “You mean…”  

Joanna met her gaze coolly.  “That’s right.  I had to push her off me or be killed myself.”  

“Wow. But…it wasn’t your fault. Anyone would have done the same thing.”  

“Her head just split open.”  Joanna’s voice had the quality of barely controlled hysteria.  “That sound --- I’ll never forget it.”  

The vixen winced. “So… you… this… this… Foundation was your punishment?”  

“Something like that.  After Judy died, my mother couldn’t stand to look at me, and made my father give me away to the orphanage.”  

For the first time, the vixen looked sympathetic.  “Were things… better at the orphanage?”  

“I thought so... at first.  They were really good to me until a few months after my thirteenth birthday.  Then I found out that it wasn’t an orphanage at all. Instead of arranging adoptions, they kept the kids.”

Cody, who wasn’t in the least bit fond of children, asked, “Why would they keep them?”  

“The ‘orphanage’ turned out to be a front for a murder-for-hire operation… the Foundation.  It raised the children to become assassins.  The younger, the better, because they were easier to control.  It was perfect.” she said bitterly.  “After about five years there, I became an assassin when I was seventeen.”   

Easier to control…” Cody repeated Joanna’s words musingly.  “Was it like… brainwashing? A cult?”  

“No… not exactly.”  Actually, Cody was right, but Joanna didn’t want to admit it.  A girl had her pride.

“Weren’t you kind of old by then?  For them, I mean?”  

“There were some older kids too.  The guy who ran the place generally took in orphans and runaways --- kids who couldn’t go home. Anyway, I was a good candidate because they thought I was ruthless.  I’d killed my own sister to save myself.  And I was alone in the world.  Three very good reasons why they thought I’d be a good hitwoman.”  

“This guy couldn’t know what you were doing all the time!  Couldn’t you get out of there somehow?”  

“No.  He had spies everywhere, and set us against each other. We were never allowed to be alone --- always had to be in pairs or groups, whether showering or sleeping.  We were constantly watched.  He knew what…” Here Joanna corrected herself --- old habits died hard.  “He made us believe that he knew what we were thinking, what we were going to do before we did.  You didn’t dare step out of line.   You just… didn’t.”  

“So what would happen if you refused to be a hitwoman?”  

“Simple. We carried out an assignment…” She paused.  “Or else we became the assignment.”  

“I get the picture.”  Cody shuddered.  “At least I’m my own boss.  So you weren’t exactly a mercenary, were you?”  

“No, it was a slave operation, pure and simple.  The Leader --- er, Gordon --- kept us helpless and dependent on him.  He told us what to wear, how to think… everything.  Then he… named us.”  

“What did he call you?”

Lila.  

“I don’t remember,” Joanna lied. “It was so long ago, and I’ve lost track of all the aliases I’ve ever had.”  

Nora.  Mrs. Charles Powell.  

“Must have been hard to keep up with all those names,” Cody observed.                                                

Joanna shrugged.  “That was the easy part.  I remember being terrified, but excited too.    I was so cocky and full of myself then.”  

“Can’t imagine that.”  

First hit at seventeen.  It was hot outside, and boiling on the rooftop they were standing on.  Some senator re-running for office, riding on of those ugly floats seen in parades.  It was a giant bug or something.  He and his wife were standing on it, smiling and waving to all the people. What’s the fuss about a parade?  Who wants to stand on the curb all day waiting for some bozo to pass you? They sent Libby, one of the older girls to go with her and make sure she did it.   

Joanna continued, “I was well-trained in hand-to-hand combat and was pretty good with a sniper rifle.  Not great, but I’d rather shoot a target than stab them.  Too messy, you know?”

“A little bleach gets the blood stains right out.  Or else you just burn the clothes.”

“Yeah, well, I hate doing laundry.  Anyway, I could handle a gun all right.”  

But this wasn’t just some paper target.  This was the real thing.  Then she froze.  

Libby held a pistol to her head, saying, ‘Pull the trigger, you dumb bitch! Do it or I’ll blow your brains all over the street!”  

But she still hesitated.  The float was passing and it would be too late.   

She sobbed, ‘I can’t.  I can’t.’  

A crafty look came into Libby’s eyes.  Neither of us can go home until it’s done.  You know what will happen. You've seen it. Do it, or so help me, I’ll kill us both.”  

The punishment for letting a target go free was getting flayed alive.  

So she fired.  She missed, catching the wife in mid-wave.  She fell off the float onto the street.  It was boiling, people were screaming, Libby was yelling in her ear --- She was so unnerved that she accidentally pulled the trigger again.  This time she got him.  

Cody said something.  Joanna gave a start.  “What?”  

“I said, what made you decide to leave?”  

Charlie.  

“Charles Powell the Third.”  

“Huh?”

Joanna shifted around, trying to get more comfortable. “Some rich creep wanted a monopoly on the steel industry, and paid Gordon to send out one of us to take out the competition.   I had two months to do it. I’d been an assassin for a few years and I was pretty good, so he sent me.  Anyway, I was told to whack Powell.  He was rich --- and a bachelor --- so women were constantly throwing themselves at him.  He would have been suspicious if I’d tried to flirt with him, so Gordon pulled some strings, and I posed as a maid in this hotel he was staying at during a business trip.  I was still kind of squeamish about the whole killing thing, so I stalled by keeping an eye on him --- sneaking into his room to clean --- observing his habits, that sort of thing --- anything to delay what I had to do.”

“But that just makes it worse.  And increases your chances of getting caught.”

“I know, I know.  I screwed up.  Then I made the mistake of barging into his suite when he was in the tub.”

Cody laughed.

“He yelled at me to get the hell out of his room.   I was just a scared kid, so I ran out of there.  I was so embarrassed.  I got called to the manager’s office.  I was so sure I'd be fired and then punished at the Foundation for screwing up.   But instead of the manager, Powell was sitting at the desk.  I was shaking in my shoes, especially when he told me to close the door and sit down.  That’s never a good sign.”  Joanna’s voice softened.  “But then he surprised me by apologizing, since he forgot to put out the ‘do not disturb’ sign.  It was his fault and he wanted to make it up to me.  He insisted on taking me out to dinner.  I knew it was a bad idea, but I couldn’t get out of it without insulting him, so I went.  I didn’t have anything nice enough to wear to a fancy restaurant --- just a plain skirt and blouse.  I didn’t plan on seeing him after that one time, but…” 

“He was so handsome you couldn’t resist, right?”

Her sarcasm was lost on Joanna. “Oh no, he was pretty average looking.”

Cody rolled her eyes.  Somebody thinks she's Little Miss Thang!

“He was kinda on the chubby side, but he was a sweet guy. Lots of fun, especially in the sack. What can I say? I like ‘em big and stupid.  And gone by the time I wake up.”  

Cody raised an eyebrow.  So, Little Miss Thang gets around…  

Joanna caught it. “I’m not easy.  I made him wait two months.”  

“Oh, what restraint.”  

Anyway, we got to know each other.  And the more I knew him, the harder it got.  He was a nice guy and treated me like a queen.  But Gordon kept calling me every couple of days, demanded a progress report.  I told him me and Charlie were getting along great and that it was all going according to plan.  But he was getting impatient, and even threatened to send someone over to ‘help’ me if I didn’t whack Charlie soon.”  

“By ‘help’ you mean…”  

“Yes,” Joanna said shortly.  “So I got desperate.  I told Gordon if he gave me more time, that I could bring in even more money if I was Charlie’s widow.   That way I could inherit everything and give it to the Foundation, rather than just bumping off some client’s competitor.  He gave me six months to make Charlie propose.” She paused.  “Having a deadline kind of ruined the romance, but I did keep him alive longer than he was supposed to be.”  

“Nice of you.”  

“It wasn’t like that.  I made him happy.”  

It wasn’t like that.  He made me happy.  

Cody’s voice cut in cruelly. “So happy it killed him, right?” 

Joanna flushed.  "What would you know about it, anyway?" 

Shrugging carelessly, the vixen said, "End result was the same wasn't it?  Whether it was a month or a year, you still killed him." 

“I had to!” Joanna shouted. 

“Don't get your panties in a twist, Dizzy.  Just an observation.”  She hesitated, then said softly, “I probably would have done the same thing.”  

Joanna paused, remembering the look of betrayal in Charlie’s eyes before they glazed over.  She swallowed hard and swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. Cody pretended not to notice.   

They fell silent, as Joanna fought to control herself.  

Instead of making fun of her, Cody smiled wanly, her mind on other things. She wasn’t about to admit any qualms she had about killing. On the other hand, she hated being judged and preached at, especially by a woman who had been a killer herself.  

After a long moment, Cody said, more to break the silence than anything else, said simply, “I like my work.”  The kidnapping, anyway.  And the money.  

“You can’t sleep with one eye open forever.”  

“I don’t know.”  

“Just think about it.  Otherwise you’ll be dead before you’re thirty.”  

Cody’s eyes flashed fire. “What makes you think I care?”  

Joanna was surprised. “Don’t you?”  

Cody heaved a sigh.  “Look, Dizzy.  If I die, I die. I knew the risks when I got into this business.  I try real hard to keep myself in one piece, but I expect I’ll get taken out one day.” She paused.  “I just hope I’m not… tortured… first.”  

She reached up to brush a lock of scraggly hair from her eyes, and Joanna noticed a thin scar that nearly encircled her wrist.  

“What happened there?” she asked.  

The vixen looked at her blankly. “Huh?”  

Joanna nodded towards her wrist. “That scar. You tried to kill yourself, didn’t you?”     

“No.  And believe me, if I did, this wouldn’t be the way to do it.” She sighed. “About three years ago, I tried to save this snot-nosed brat from some thugs. He got away, but they gave me this lovely souvenir to remember them by.” She caressed the ugly scar around her right wrist absently.  “The hand goes numb on me sometimes.”  

Joanna hesitated a moment. Then, she hooked a finger in the waistband of her pants and showed the vixen her own scar—a jagged ‘M’ forever branded on her right hip. Cody’s eyes widened and she inhaled sharply. 

“Holy smokes! Who did that? Looks like somebody took a branding iron to you!”  

Joanna grimaced.  “Bingo.”  

“Who did that?  Why?”  

“A little initiation ritual where I come from.  I turned fifteen, that’s all.”  

“Whoa.  Nice initiation.”  

She was glad it was dark so the other girl couldn’t see her blink back tears.  Absently, she traced the hated scar before she let the waistband snap back into place.   

“I haven’t seen my father since I was twelve.  Someday I’ll find him and let him know I’m okay now --- I mean, if I get out of this mess.  He must be crazed with worry, wondering where I am.”  

“Are you sure he’s still looking for you?”  

Joanna spun around, furious.  “Of course he is!  He put me that orphanage to protect me from my mother.  He just had to wait for the right time to get me back.”  

“When?  You’re not twelve anymore.  He probably wouldn’t even recognize you, anyway.”  

“I know!”  Joanna snapped. “Don’t you think I’ve thought of that?  He can’t find me.  He would have gone to the end of the earth to find me if he could!” Her voice cracked with emotion. “Maybe he can’t.  Maybe he’s even… dead.”   

Cody shook her head, but said no more about the subject.  Some people had to learn the hard way.  

Joanna lay back against her makeshift pallet of cardboard boxes and closed her eyes.  She was getting sleepy, but was somewhat reluctant to let this moment end.  Helen was okay, but there were some things a person could not tell her boss, even if she was also a friend.  She hated to admit it, but she wanted the old lady to think well of her, even if she didn’t exactly deserve it.  Sensing that Helen would never understand, she never told her or anyone about her past.   

Here in the dark, with nothing but the hushed sound of their voices, it was like a confessional, yet strangely comforting to finally be able to say what lay heavily on her mind --- and, although she vehemently denied it --- her conscience.  She realized that she’d been spilling some of her most carefully guarded secrets to a woman that she didn’t even know and who wasn’t volunteering any information about herself.  

She yawned and decided to turn the conversation to something less… emotional. “So, you ever had a boyfriend?”   

“Ugh. What do I want one of those for? All they do is maul you and expect you to serve ‘em beer.”  

“Only the idiots.  Some guys are less idiotic than others, though. You’re still young --- don’t throw in the towel quite yet.”  She grinned roguishly in the dark.  “It can be fun ---as long as they don’t get all sloppy and misty-eyed when the sun comes up.”  

Cody swallowed. “You mean…”  

“Mm-hmmm…”  

“So you’re not, I mean, doesn’t…” Cody’s voice trailed off.

Joanna regarded her curiously. Something in the vixen’s tone suggested that there was more to her flippant ‘all they do is maul you and expect you to bring ‘em beer’ answer than met the eye. An idea hit her, and she couldn’t suppress a grin.  

Let’s see what happens when I shake the tree.  

“You’re afraid of them, aren’t you?” she asked suddenly.  

“What? No!” Cody snapped. “What gave you a stupid idea like that?”

Joanna snickered, glad that the tables were turned and that she wasn’t the one on the defensive anymore. “You are.”  

“Not.”  

“Are too. Have you ever even kissed a man?”  

“Shut up and mind your own business!”  

“Still a virgin. Got it.”  

She’d hit a nerve. The vixen was silent for a moment. Then, she took a deep breath. "When I was nine, this rich guy named Toby Fletcher adopted me. He lived in a mansion outside of town --- I thought I was lucky. Then, that first night, he sent his servants away on errands and... and… he... he...” Her voice cracked slightly, and she drew her knees up to her chin, arms wrapped tightly around them as if she were protecting herself. “…raped me.”  

“Nine… jeez.” Joanna closed her eyes.  “What happened?”  

“It got to be a nightly ritual --- he always called me ‘sweetheart’ before… to this day, I can’t stand being called that --- and I couldn't run away. He kept pretty good tabs on me.”  

“How long were you…?”  

“About two years.” Her reply was barely audible and Joanna had to lean forward to hear her.  

“So… what did you do?”  

“One night he cornered me in the library. We fought and I pushed him into some shelves. Whole pile of books knocked him out, so I scrammed. I was so scared that I didn't even think to grab money. I just ran.  I stayed around the docks for a while. It was winter, though, and I got sick. I was trying to get warm one night and Jons found me.  I was… kinda… out of my mind for a while, but he took me in, gave me a job waiting tables.”  

“He sounds like a good guy.  Not many of them out there.”   

“He is.  ‘Course he was just starting out so he needed cheap labor.”  She paused. Then, she spoke with a kind of quiet satisfaction. “He doesn't know this, but I got Toby Fletcher back. About a year ago, word got around that he was doing even worse things to girls than he did to me. So I went to his house one night --- he'd killed his newest ‘acquisition’. So I tied him up and killed him. Slowly. You'd be surprised at how shrill a man sounds when you castrate him. And how long they can survive without fingers and toes. Before I gutted him, I cut off his stump of a tail and his ears." 

Despite herself, Joanna was impressed. You had to give a girl credit for taking care of herself.  But all she said was, “Too bad.”

Cody glared. “What do you mean by that?”
 

She gave her a cold smile. “I was about to ask you where he lives.”  

“Oh.”  The vixen blinked in surprise.  Hesitantly, she said, “Thanks.”

There was an awkward silence. Then, Cody said suddenly, “Hey, you know what?  Here we are, together all this time and we don’t even know each other’s name.” 

“No names.  If one of us gets caught and tortured…” Joanna did not finish.  She didn’t have to.  

Cody shuddered. “Yeah, it’s probably better that way.  They get you, you’d probably sing like a canary.”  

“Would not.”  

“Would too.”  

“Would not.”  

“Too.”  

“Not.”  

“Too.”  

Joanna yawned.  “Not.”  

So did Cody.  “Too…”  

“Mmm…not…”  

This went on until they both fell asleep.  

 

* * *

   

That night, Joanna dreamed she was wandering in a greenhouse…

Gordon loved gardening --- the only manual labor he respected.  Armed with a watering can and a pair of pruning shears, he drifted from plant to plant, giving each a drink and snapping off old, brittle leaves.     

“Happy birthday.” Gordon’s voice, smooth, so smooth… “Lila.”  

“My name’s Marie!” she’d insisted.  

“No, Lila. Not anymore.”  

“I want my daddy!”  

“Your family thinks that you are dead.  You’re just another headstone in Elysian Fields Cemetery.” He’d removed a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “See?  Plot 28, Row 12.”   

She’d stared in horror at the photograph of the headstone, neglected and overgrown with weeds:  Marie Annabel Gellar, born 1910, died 1922.  

She burst into tears.  He’d taken her in his arms and stroked her hair.  She pulled away but he held her fast, crooning in that maddeningly deep, soothing voice.  

“It’s all right, Lila. We love you.  We’re your family now.”  

To this day, she couldn’t stand the suffocating, cloying smells of a flower shop or even a greenhouse for long. 

Murmuring pierced through Cody’s restless sleep.  

She bolted awake.  “Wake up! They’re here!”  

Her gaze fell on Joanna and her lips tightened. If there was one thing she couldn’t stand, it was someone who talked in her sleep.  

Then she realized the murmuring was coming from Joanna.  

She prodded her hard.  “Hey.  Shut up.”  

“What!” Joanna’s eyes flew open and she sat up, heart racing.  

Cody poked her again. “Hey, stifle it, Dizzy!”  

“Huh? What’d you mean, ‘stifle it’?” Joanna was confused. “You’re the one who’s talking.”  

“You talk in your sleep.”  

“I do not.”  

“Do too.”  

“Do not!”  

“Do t---! Never mind.  Just shut up and go to sleep.”  

“Hmmph.”  Exhausted, Joanna settled back again, trying to get comfortable.  She fell asleep mumbling, “Wish… I had… a pillow...”   

“So do I,” Cody muttered darkly.  

 

* * *

Joanna lay still for a moment, confused. Then, memories of the previous night’s misadventures came back to her and she groaned. The softest thing they’d found to make beds out of in the office building in which they’d taken refuge had been cardboard boxes. Needless to say, pillows had been scarce as well, and Joanna’s shoulders and neck were stiff from sleeping in a cramped position.  

At least it’s not freezing.  

She sat up and stretched, rolling her neck to relieve tight muscles. Looking over at Cody, she saw that the vixen was awake and staring at the ceiling.  

“Not the best night’s sleep, was it?” Joanna asked ruefully.  

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure you’ve slept in worse,” Cody replied.  

“Yeah, come to think of it, you were probably right at home, weren’t you?”  

The vixen sat up, stretched, and looked at Joanna. “You look terrible.”  

“So do you. Like something the cat coughed up.”   

“Hey, if you didn’t talk in your sleep---!”  

“I do not talk in my sleep!”  

“Oh, no? Then someone who sounds an awful lot like you was in here with us last night.”  

“I think you hear voices in your head,” Joanna retorted. “Actually, that wouldn’t surprise me.” 

Suddenly, she heard a strange hissing sound --- like a sharp intake of breath.  

Joanna held up one hand, silencing her. “Shh. What’s that?”  

“What’s what?”  

“I heard something.”   

Cody looked around. “Well, this place does echo.”  

Joanna put a finger to her lips and closed her eyes, trying to block out all distractions.  All the old instincts came flooding back. She tried to home in on every unnatural sound in a warehouse.  There it was again --- a ragged sound, but there was no longer any doubt in her mind what it was.   

Someone was in the room with them, desperately trying not to breathe.  

 

End of Part 5

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