The Whole Damsel Thing

Part 6 of 10
 

As the scraping noise continued, they looked at each other, each wondering --- and holding her breath.  

Instinctively, Cody reached for her knife, but grabbed at an empty sheath instead.  Remembering that Buck had it, she almost cursed out loud.  She glanced at the other woman, who stood perfectly still, listening.   

Joanna took a deep breath and blew it out again. Turning slowly, trying to home in on the source of the sound, she stopped.  Tilting her head slightly toward the crate on their right, she muttered tersely, “Get behind me so you don’t get hit.”

Giving her an exasperated look, Cody considered arguing, but decided she’d rather use Joanna as a shield.  

Joanna said loudly, “This place is making me jumpy, I guess.  What time is it?  I’d like to grab some breakfast.”  

Cody played along.  “It’s after six and how are you going to pay for breakfast?  We ain’t got no cash.”  

“But I’m just starving.”  Joanna edged closer to the crate, placed both hands on the side of it and shoved it hard, crushing someone between it and the wall.  There was a muffled yelp of pain.  

“Wow, you were right,” Cody said.  

“Let’s see what’s behind door number three.” Joanna shoved the crate against the wall again, harder this time. 

Ow!  

The voice was a little too shrill to be one of their pursuers. The two women looked at each other.  A woman?  

“Come out of there,” Joanna ordered. “Keep your hands where we can see ‘em. We’re armed.”  

Glumly, Cody wished it were true.  

I miss my knife.  

Silence.  Finally, a brown female bear who looked to be in her late twenties slowly emerged from inside the crate, rubbing her head. The cause of her wheezing was obvious --- in order to display her ample charms, her blouse was much too tight.  Her clothes were of good quality, but were rumpled as though she’d slept in them.   Her stockings had runs from her knees down, and the heel of one shoe was missing.  A flaming red, shoulder-length wig, obviously knocked askew, hung comically over one eye.  Her platinum hair had started to come out of its careful rolls and curls, revealing dark brown roots where the brightly hennaed strands had been combed over them.  Clumsily, she tried to tuck her hair back under the wig but it was futile without a mirror; so she gave up, nervously twisting the cap of hair in her beautifully manicured hands.  

“Who are you?” Joanna asked abruptly.  

“Babette.” She swallowed. “Babette La Putain.  It’s French, y’know.” Despite her statement, it was obvious that she came from a decidedly less genteel background.  Her nasal twang betrayed her New Yuck roots. “I just needed a place to hide. D-don’t hurt me, okay?”  

“How did you get in here?” Cody demanded.  

“Same way you did.  I’ve been looking for a place to stay for the night and followed you in.  My man’s after me.”  

“Why?”  

“Yeah, what’d you do, burn dinner?”  Joanna said impatiently.  She was in no mood for stories.  “And stop fidgeting with that stupid wig.  I think that poor hamster’s suffered enough.”  

“It’s not a hamster!” Babette snapped, though she obeyed.  “I’m running, same as you.  I have to get away, I just have to!”  

“Who are you running from?” Cody asked.  

“James Hardin.”  

Cody suddenly became quiet, but Joanna looked blank. “Who’s that?”  

Babette looked at her as if she was an idiot. “Don’t you know?  He owns this town.”  

“How am I supposed to know?  I don’t live here.” She squinted at her in the morning gloom. “And what do you mean, ‘owns’?”  

Owns.  The mayor, the cops, everybody with something to lose.  Some of them have families, you know,” she explained. “James likes it that way.”  

The other two exchanged a glance, thinking the same thing:  Mob.  

“Great.”  Joanna moaned, sinking to the floor and burying her face in her hands.  “Perfect.  Don’t tell me.  You took him to the cleaners, right?”  

“Oh, I earned every penny, believe me,” Babette said bitterly. “I just saved up the money he gave me for shopping so I could run away. He used to smack me around too, so that’s why I’m leaving.  I saw the writing on the wall.”  

But could you read it?  Joanna thought snidely.

“Gee, that’s rough,” said Cody. “You the wife?”  

“I was his… girl.  But I met someone else… and we’re in love.  That’s why I’m in trouble. Nobody dumps James Hardin.  He once told me that I could go to hell when he got good and tired of me, and not before then.”  

Joanna muttered, “Charming.  Too bad he’s taken.”  

Babette went on, ignoring her, “He’d never let me go.  If he knew I was seeing someone else, he’d kill us both!”  

“We won’t tell anyone you were here,” Cody promised.  “And you never saw us, right?”  

“Right!  Anything you say.”  

Joanna said to Cody, “We’d better move along.  If she found us, the others won’t be far behind.”  

“You’re not going to leave me here, are you?” There was an edge of panic in the newcomer’s voice.  

“Yup,” Cody said, wishing that whiny bimbos came with an off-switch.  

“Please take me with you!  I won’t be any bother, I promise.”  

“Forget it,” Joanna said emphatically. “They’re after you too.  You’ll just lead them to us.”  

“All the more reason we should stick together!  Come on, I’ll be quiet.  I-I’ll help out!”  

Regarding her tight skirt and high-heeled shoes, Cody sneered, “How? You can’t even help yourself.”  

“I’ve got money.  Lots of it.  I’ll pay our way!”  

Joanna frowned.  “I don’t know…”  

“How much?” Cody said abruptly.  

“A thousand dollars… and twenty-three cents.”

“Sold.”  

What!” Joanna protested.  “Shrimp, that’s nuts.  We’d make better time on our own.”  

Cody, the unapologetic skinflint, replied, “Well, we need money.  Can’t coast on our good looks forever.”  

Very reluctantly, Joanna agreed to let Babette accompany them.  She pointed at the other’s feet, wobbling precariously on high heels.  “Okay, but on one condition.  Get rid of the heels.  They’ll only slow us down.”  

“These are Laurie Bearcall originals, I’ll have you know!  James gave ---!”  

“I don’t care whose they are.  Lose ‘em.”  After a moment, Babette sullenly complied, removing the shoes.           

“Good.”  Then Joanna noticed that without the five-inch heels, the difference in Babette’s height was startling, to say the least --- subtracting several inches from what looked like five-three.

Wow, she’s almost as short as Shrimp!  At five-six, she towered over both of them.  She suddenly felt like an Amazon – and just about as dainty.  

“By the way, let’s see the money,” Cody said.  “Not that we don’t trust you, Babette…”  

“We don’t,” Joanna interrupted.  

The vixen frowned at her and continued, “…but we want proof that you’re on the level.  I hate to admit it, but Dizzy here has a point.  No way are you going to slow us down and get us killed if you don’t have the moolah.  So let’s see it.”  

“Okay.”  Reluctantly, Babette reached into the neckline of her bodice to pull out a thick wad of bills --- all hundreds.  

Cody’s eyes went round.  Whoa! 

“Some bank. That’s the first place they’d look,” Joanna complained. “And how are you going to buy a cup of coffee with a hundred dollar bill?  If you make small purchases with large amounts, people remember it. They don’t always have change, either.”  

“Don’t worry. I have small stuff too, see?”  The moll reached into her purse and showed them smaller denominations, including coinage.  Then, nervously: “Uh… you’re not going to rob me, are you?”  

Joanna jerked a thumb at Cody.  She might.  But I’ll kill you if you’re lying,” she said, half meaning it. “We can’t afford any screw-ups.”  

She gave them a look of wounded dignity.  “Screw-ups. That’s a laugh. You think I’d have lasted this long with that creep and his boys if I didn’t know how to---!”  

“Okay, okay,” Cody said impatiently.  “Spare us the sob story.  There’s no time.”  She addressed Joanna.  “She’s got money and that’s what we need.”  

“I don’t know.” Joanna wasn’t convinced.  “She heard us talking.  Why should we trust her?”  

“Hey!” Babette was insulted.  “I’m right here, y’know!”  

Her eyes flicked briefly to Cody then returned to Joanna. “Look,” she said reasonably, “You’re right to be careful --- you don’t know me from Eve.  But what about me?  Why should I trust you either?  You scared me to death back there. There’s two of you and only one of me.  Sure, you could kill me and take my money.  I can’t stop you.  Why not?  I live with that kinda pressure every day.  Do you know what it’s like to---!”  

“Fine!” Joanna rubbed her temples.  “I give up. You can come!  Just please stop talking.”

“Come on, you two,” Cody said, exasperated.  “Let’s get some breakfast.  I’m starving.”  

“Me too,” Babette piped up.  “I haven’t eaten since dessert.”  

You poor thing, Joanna thought sarcastically, turning to address Cody. “Where should we go --- Mel’s Diner?  You know, that place we stopped at before?”  

“No.” Cody shook her head. “We better lie low so we won’t be recognized.  We don’t want that guy to remember us from last night.  He might tell somebody we were there.”  

“Yeah, you’re right.” Joanna sighed.  “He was kind of chatty.  So where do we go?”  

“How about Chez Pierre?  They have the best spinach omelets with these cute little sprigs of parley on top…” Babette suggested. “James used to have them cater breakfast to us in bed.  One of the delivery boys looked at me and James got so jealous that he threw him out the hotel window.”  She sounded almost pleased, almost as if she expected them to congratulate her.  When neither reacted, her face fell.  

Joanna spoke as though to a child.  “What part of ‘lie low’ don’t you understand?”  

“It was just a suggestion!  And since I’m paying the shot, you’d better be nice to me!”  

“Hey, you wanted to come with us.  We don’t need you---!”   

“Come on,” Cody interrupted, “I know a place.”

 

* * *  

Phillie’s  
6:30 am
 

Washing up in the ladies’s room at Phillie’s could only be described as splashing their faces with soap and water and finger combing their hair, since Babette refused to share her comb.  As for brushing their teeth, improvisation was in order.  

Joanna wet her dry lips. “Ugh.  Wish I didn’t have to taste the inside of my own mouth.”  

“Me too,” Cody agreed, “I feel like I just licked the bottom of a cotton gin.”  

Babette fished inside her pocketbook. “Who wants gum?”  

Cody promptly stuck out her hand.  “Me.”  

“Okay.”  Joanna followed suit. “Thanks.”  

Babette smiled sweetly. “You’re welcome.”  

They were led to a table near the window.  Much to her chagrin, Cody discovered that the seats were so low that she could barely see over the edge.  

“Damn it,” she muttered.  “I’ll be right back.”  

The other two watched as she quickly got up and headed for the phone booth.  She returned with a fat telephone book under her arm.  “Move,” she said brusquely to Joanna.  “I want to sit on the inside.”  

“How come?” Joanna asked, trying not to smile.  

“If anyone comes in shootin’, I’ll need you as a shield.”  

“Very funny,” the bear grumbled, but she got up and let the vixen slide in and hop aboard the huge tome.  

Their waitress, a skinny, middle-aged doe with a bad permanent wave and a nametag that said ‘Flo’ came to take their order, which consisted of coffee, bacon, eggs and toast for Cody and Joanna.  Normally, Joanna would have made a crack about coffee stunting the petite vixen’s growth, but resentment toward Babette’s unwelcome presence soured her mood, especially when the former moll sniffed disdainfully when the other two ordered larger breakfasts than the coffee and small side plate of grapefruit that Babette asked for.

The eggs were runny, so Joanna sent hers back.  The substitutes, two sunny side-up fried yolks weren’t much better. Joanna grimaced as she poked at her meal with her fork.  “Ick. These ones are staring at me.”

Cody, who had just eaten her bacon and toast, leaned over and poked the eggs with her fork.  “I think they’re trying to communicate.”

“Yuck.” Disgusted, Joanna pushed the plate away.  “That’s it.  I definitely can’t eat these now.”

She signaled the waitress, who came over to their table.  “Excuse me, do you have cereal?  Something like corn flakes?”  

“This ain’t the Ritz, honey.  We got oatmeal, that’s it.”  

Joanna didn’t trust cooked cereal, and if it was made by the same person who fried the inedible eggs, she’d rather starve. “Well,” she said, hiding her disappointment with poor grace, “Could I see a menu?”  

The waitress handed it to her. “Here.  Knock yourself out.”  

“Thanks.”

“I don’t see why we couldn’t go somewhere nice,” Babette complained, not troubling to lower her voice.
 

“We need to save the money, not blow it on fancy meals,” Cody told her, wriggling uncomfortably on the phone book.  Cody hated the way her feet dangled.   She gave Babette an exasperated look. Though she was almost as petite, the former moll had a long waist, and therefore did not have the same problem.  

Babette had put her wig back on, and was self-consciously tucking imaginary stray red hairs under the lip of the hairpiece, attracting more attention than Cody’s undignified perch.  

“We have to lie low, remember?” Cody reminded her when she saw Babette pouting.  

“You’re telling me,” Joanna muttered, casting a sly glance at the phone book.  Cody kicked her.  “Ow!”  

“Well, James used to take me…”  

Across from her, Joanna stifled a scream and Cody gritted her teeth, savagely crunching her toast.  Remember, she’s got the loot.  She’s got the loot…  

Joanna kicked her lightly under the table and, raising her menu so that Babette could not see her face, mouthed, I told you so.

Cody raised hers as well.  Shut up, Dizzy, she mouthed back.

They stuck their tongues out at each other.
 

“Excuse me.” Cody rose from her seat, inelegantly wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and giving a loud belch.  

Everyone in the restaurant looked at her in disgust.   

“Did you have to do that?” Babette wrinkled her nose.

"Lie low, remember?" Joanna murmured, though she was smiling a little.  

Cody shrugged unapologetically.  “Sorry.” 

“Where are you going?”  

“I’ll be right back.”  

Joanna’s expression was inscrutable as she stood up to allow the vixen to slide out of the booth.  “Want me to order something for when you get back?”  

“No, that’s okay.”  

“All right.”   

“So,” Babette said brightly, “what’s the plan?”  

Plan?” Joanna rolled her eyes. “We stay out of sight, out of reach.”

Babette looked disappointed. ”That’s it?”  

“Yup.”  

“Not much of a plan,” Babette observed.  

“Yeah, well…” Joanna was annoyed because the bimbo was right.  Because she couldn’t think of a clever retort, she said spitefully, “Your wig is crooked.”  

Babette sighed, adjusting it.  “Come on, let’s not do this again.  I got off on the wrong foot with you earlier, okay? I admit it.  I don’t mean to be a pain. We’re hungry and tired and in a jam.  We should be working together, not at each other’s throats.”  

Joanna fell silent for a moment.  “Yeah, you’re right.  Being chased by murderous thugs makes me cranky, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.  Sorry.”  

“Me too.”  

For a few moments, neither spoke.  Joanna stirred more milk into her drink and watched the creamy circles blend and swirl. When the silence became unbearable, she asked, “So… how did you end up in the warehouse?”  

Babette took a sip of coffee before she answered.  “I was supposed to meet my boyfriend, but the creep stood me up.  I needed a place to stay and I saw you two go in there.”  

“Stood you up, huh?  That’s too bad,” Joanna said, not caring. “Where were you planning to go?”  

“Oh, I don’t know.  Someplace exciting, like the Big Apple… or even Starrywood.  With my face and figure, I coulda been a model… or an actress.  Everybody said so.”  

Joanna was amused, despite her bad mood. “Yeah? Who’s ‘everybody’?”  

“Well… mostly the fellas I used to date back home, but they didn’t count.”  

“Of course not.”  

“I had the looks, but not the connections.  I was in the chorus for a few months --- they put me at the end, if you can believe it!  I needed to meet a guy who could do me some good.  When I wasn’t dancing, I was slinging hash at this classy restaurant and Vic --- that was my boss --- told me James Hardin was eating there that night.  He knew I was on my way to bigger things, so he was always trying to help me.”  

“Help you?”  

“Yeah.  Well, that’s what I thought he was doing, anyway.  Ol’ Vic had busy hands, but other than that, he was an okay guy.” Babette shrugged.  “He told me James hated to eat alone, see?  So he wanted a girl to keep him company.  He said if James liked me and if I didn’t talk too much then he could introduce me to the right people.  Get me set up.  So I thought, what the heck?”  

“Sounds like ol’ Vic had another business besides the restaurant to run.”  

“No!  James took care of me.  He brought me here.  I had pretty clothes and jewelry, my own penthouse apartment above his offices.  All I had to do was be available at his beck and call.  It was a sweet deal until I found out how jealous he could be.  And I didn’t even get to go to Starrywood!  ‘Forget it,’ he said.  He called showbiz crap and made me stop. What a joke,” she said bitterly.  

Joanna was mildly surprised that Babette understood the barb well enough to be offended, and reminded herself to play nice with Miss Moneybags.  She prompted, “So, James was jealous, huh?”  

Babette preened. “You better believe it --- not that I can really blame him though.  His men were afraid of him, so I never had to worry about them getting fresh with me. But I couldn’t go anywhere alone --- not even shopping unless one of his men was with me.  It was awful, being followed around.  Then it was Frank’s turn. He was a sweet guy… for a hood.”  

“Sweet,” Joanna repeated.  

“Yeah.  He always got teased about ‘babysitting’, but he didn’t care --- we had fun.  We fell in love.  They never took him seriously, so we were able to sneak around, but we still had to be careful.  Looking the way I do is a big responsibility, y’know.”  

“I can imagine.”  Joanna said dryly.  She signaled their waitress again and asked for the bill.  

“Sure thing, hon.”  

Babette rattled on, “I didn’t like being cooped up, but being with James was exciting, y’know?  But sometimes a girl’s just got to think about the future.  I didn’t want to be with him anymore, and I didn’t want to start all over again.  So me and Frank came up with a plan.  

‘James always gave me a generous allowance, so instead of spending it all, I saved a little nest egg.  I did have to buy a few things I didn’t want, so he wouldn’t get suspicious, but I always made sure there was plenty left over.  It took several weeks, but finally we had enough to escape.”  

Despite herself, Joanna was impressed. “Smart.”

Babette looked surprised, but pleased at the compliment.  Then, her expression darkened.  “Yeah.  We were supposed to meet yesterday and take a cruise ship out of town.  I waited and waited for him, but…”  

“He didn’t show.”  

The other woman shook her head.  “And I can’t go back.  James’d send me home in an ice-cube tray.”  She lowered her gaze, and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper.  “I’m supposed to be at his beck and call… y’know?”  

“Hmm…” Joanna glanced around impatiently.  What’s taking her so long?   

Cody was feverishly dialing digit after digit.  Her tense, worried expression told Joanna that she wasn’t having much luck.

Finally, it appeared that she’d hit pay dirt.  Her expression changed from anxious to relief and she turned to face the wall.  

“He’s there?” she asked.  “He’s okay?”  

“He’s fine, swe—uh, Cody,” Tony assured her, his voice crackling through the bad connection.  “He’s sleeping right now, though.  Do you want me to wake him up?”  

She chuckled a little.  “I don’t think you could.  A whole herd of elephants couldn’t wake him up.  Just… just tell him I called.”  

“Will do.  Are you okay?”  

“Don’t worry about me.  I can take care of myself.”  

Joanna came up behind her, with Babette trailing after her like an obedient puppy, much to her annoyance.  She imagined throwing a stick into traffic and calling out, “Fetch!”  

“I think we need to get out of here,” Joanna said softly.  “We don't know where those creeps are, and we need to move.  

Cody stared at her for a moment. Then, she nodded grimly and hung up the phone.  

“Who were you trying to call?” Babette asked without interest, taking out a compact and examining her face for imaginary flaws. “Your boyfriend?”  

The vixen hesitated, not wanting to discuss Jons with Babette present.  She gave Joanna the barest of nods.  “Just letting the boss know that I won’t be coming in to work today.  He’ll be dancing with joy.”  

I never had to work.  James gave me an allowance.”  

Joanna gave her a thin smile, but kept her mouth shut.  More often than not it got her into hot water, but she couldn’t help thinking, I’m sure you earned it.  

As though she read her mind, Babette added bitterly, “Believe me, I earned it.”  

Before either of them could reply, two pelicans --- both of them policemen, came in.  

Flo greeted them cheerfully. “Hi, fellas. Y’all want the usual?”  

“You know it, Flo,” the older, chunkier one said, plopping down on one of the counter stools.  “Half a dozen donuts to go with the works.”  

“And what about you, Henry?” she asked his partner.   

He was noticeably pale. “Just a glass of water, if you don’t mind.”  

“That’s all?”  

“Sorry, I-I’m not hungry right now.”  

“What’s the matter, hon?  You look awful, if you don’t mind me sayin’ so.” 

“Let’s get out of here,” Joanna hissed. “Cops and I do not get along.”  

“…grisly.  Poor Mel.  And in his own diner, too.”  

Joanna and Cody’s heads snapped up at the mention of the name ‘Mel’ and Joanna momentarily forgot about her aversion to the police as they listened intently.  

Flo was aghast.  “Oh, no!  I can’t believe it!  I knew Mel.  Used to work for him.  He was all right…sorta rough around the edges, but he’d do anything for you.  He loved that diner.”  She turned away for a moment, head lowered as she placed the doughnuts into a foldable box.  Numbly, she handed it to the older cop and gave the younger one a sympathetic look. “This your first...?”  

The pelican shook his head.  “But I’ve never seen so much…there was so much…” He shuddered.  

They were silent for a moment and Joanna nudged Cody, giving her a questioning look.  The vixen shrugged uncomfortably.  “Maybe it’s a different one,” she suggested.  

“When did it happen?” the waitress asked quietly.  

“Early this morning.”  

Our fault.  If only we hadn’t gone there.  Joanna shook her head and signaled to the other two.  “Let’s go.”

As Babette paid the bill, the other two stepped out of the diner, ducking round the corner to talk privately.

“So…where do we go now?” Cody asked.

“I’m just a tourist --- it’s your town.  Where should we go?”

Babette’s voice piped behind them, making both jump.  “There you are! Why couldn’t you wait where I could see you?”

Joanna groaned, “Would you please not do that?  Wear a bell or something.”

“Never mind that.  We need a plan.”

They all thought for a moment.

Finally, Babette ventured, “I say we go to the nearest department store.”

Shopping?  You want to go shopping at a time like this?”  Cody was incredulous.  

You might be used to living like pigs, but I’m not.  I want to clean up a little. Look at us --- we stand out like bums at a country club.”

Joanna considered.  Then, she became aware of how grungy she felt.  She hated being dirty. A bath was out of the question, but a change of clothes would go a long way to helping her feel better.   “You know something, Shrimp?  She’s absolutely right.”

“What?”

“I know just the place,” Babette volunteered eagerly. “W.H. Macy’s.”

“Good.  You take the lead.”  

Cody whined, “But I don’t wanna go shopping --- I hate shopping.”  

“Well, I hate crowds,” Joanna snapped, “so let’s get it over with.” 

With Cody sullenly trailing along behind them, Babette led Joanna to a huge department store in the center of town.  

At least we won’t be noticed, Joanna thought as she stepped through the revolving door and stood for a moment to get her bearings.  She sometimes got lost in these places.  

Despite the early hour, the store was crowded with mothers dragging squalling children up and down the aisles, men being fitted for suits, and assorted other people on various errands.  

Babette made a beeline for the perfume counter where she sniffed disdainfully at the cheaper perfumes before moving to the more exclusive section.  After a moment, she picked up a ruby red bottle.   

“Oblivion.  She spritzed herself liberally, making the other two gag.  “James used to buy this for me all the time.”  

Wheezing, Joanna moved away from the counter, searching for the women’s clothing section.  “I just want to find some clothes and get out of here.”  

Babette sighed.  “You’re no fun.”  

“Can you hurry up?  This place gives me the willies.”  Cody looked around as if she expected to be attacked at any minute.  

“Look!  Isn’t this darling?”  Babette modeled a tiny fawn-colored hat adorned with huge bows and peacock feathers. 

“That’ll never stay on your head,” Cody commented.  

“Silly.  That’s what a hat pin’s for.”  

“What’s a hat pin?”  

Babette looked at her as if she’d grown an extra head.  “Are you sure you’re a girl?”  

Cody’s eyes narrowed dangerously, but lit with interest as Babette carefully threaded a long pin through the hat.  

“Whoa.  That’s a hat pin?”  

“Yeah.”  

“Nice.” Cody’s eyes gleamed almost as brightly as the silvery point.  

“Thanks.  See, it really does tie the outfit together,” Babette replied, meaning the hat.  

From the look on her face Cody was ready to jack her against the wall and cut a second smile under her chin.  Joanna barely managed to step in front of the vixen and restrain her from attacking the oblivious gun moll.  

“Not here,” she said in a low voice.  

Frustrated, Cody moved away from them as Babette pawed through the rather large selection of hats.  

She was headed towards the exit when she became aware of a presence behind her, and before she could whirl around, a cheery voice said, “Welcome to W.H. Macy’s.   Would you care to sample our newest fragrance?”  

Cody barely glanced at the bottle, which contained a gold liquid. “Looks like a sample, alright.” she said rudely and started to walk away.  

“Oh, this isn’t a sample --- it’s a whole bottle.  One whiff of this and you’ll drive men wild.  Here, try some!”  

Before Cody could protest, she found herself liberally spritzed with some cloying, sickly-sweet perfume.  

“Hey!”  

Infinity can be purchased at our perfume counter, sixty dollars for five ounces.”  

“Lady, I wouldn’t give it two cents!”  Coughing, the vixen tried to fan away some of the odor.  She was about to say more when a familiar voice interrupted them.  

“Ya’ll will just have to forgive my sistah.”  Joanna grabbed Cody’s sleeve and tugged her away.  “Bless her li’l heart, she’s jest not used to big ol’ stores like this!”  

Cody whispered to Joanna, “Bless her li’l heart?    

“At least I can stop talking like a hick if I want to. What’s your excuse?” 

“Your accent still stinks.”  

“So do you.  But I have to admit, it’s an improvement.”  

Babette led them to the women’s clothing department and immediately began pawing through the racks.  Joanna would have preferred a pair of slacks to run in, but seeing none, grabbed a few blouses and skirts, while Cody just stood there, bored.  

Joanna glanced at the vixen.  “You’re not getting anything?  Ol’ Babs here’s footing the bill.”  

Cody scowled.  “Just hurry up, okay?”  

“Come to think of it, you might want to try the kiddie section.”  

Before Cody could retort, a strident voice rose.  

“What’s so funny?  I need a formal gown for Pwincess Gwace’s birthday party.  Do you sell ‘em or not?”  

They looked up to see a rough-looking female hippo facing down a glamorous, very haughty-looking saleswoman.  Characteristic to her species, she was extremely overweight, her heft packed snugly in pants and a grimy pilot jacket.  Curly blonde hair stuck out in small bunches from her cap-and-goggles.  Coarse black hairs sprouted from above her upper lip in a sparse mustache, completing the unappetizing picture.  Her one redeeming feature --- heavily lashed pale blue eyes --- snapped fire as her anger grew.  

“I am sorry, miss, but we just don’t have anything in your… size.” She let the word ‘size’ drip like cyanide from an eyedropper.  Two other saleswomen tittered.  

“Oh, I get it. You’ve got a thing or two to learn about how to treat customers!”  

The first saleswoman gave her a superior smile.  “We know how to treat customers who can afford the best.  I suggest you try Barney’s Bargains on the other side of town.  Or Camping Supplies --- I’m sure there are plenty of tents that’ll fit you just fine.”  She looked at her friends, and they all giggled again.  The hippo stood perfectly still, waiting for the laughter to subside.  

“May I say something?” the hippo asked politely.  

“Why not?  Just don’t talk with your mouth full.”  Gales of laughter again.  

“I wasn’t going to say anything, but all this time you were makin’ cracks, I noticed that you’ve got a big green booger in your nose.  Did you know it swings back and forth when you laugh?”  

The ringleader stopped laughing. “You’re lying.”  

“I never lie.”  The lady hippo pretended to think for a moment. “You know, I think I’ll get my gown custom-made.  It’ll cost a pretty penny, but hey, I can afford it.”  Digging into her pocket, she dug out a wad of hundreds, and made a show of tapping them into a neat little stack before putting them away again. “Then I’ll go home and write a nice, long letter to your boss about how helpful you all were. So long, ladies.”  

They winced and glanced over their shoulders at their manager’s office.  

When they left W.H. Macy’s, all three were outfitted in their new clothes.  Joanna wore a white cotton blouse and a plain dark blue skirt, while Babette wore a crisply elegant sky blue silk dress suit, as well as carrying two bags of other purchases, plus the clothes she had been wearing when they met.  The other two complained that it would slow her down, but she insisted.

When she'd come out of the dressing room in the suit, which was two sizes too small, Cody had looked at her in shock.  Babette had mistaken her expression for admiration and preened. 

“Looks good, huh?” 

“Don't you ever get tired of being cinched up like that?” Cody had asked. "And what about if we have to run?” 

“Can't a girl look good and still be able to run?” 

The vixen had given up. Here was Babette, looking like an expensively dressed pack mule, wheezing along beside Joanna.

Cody, herself, had reluctantly chosen a pair of khaki pants and dark green blouse, and she deliberately walked a few feet ahead, scouting the streets for trouble.  At least, that was her excuse.  Actually, she wanted to get away from Babette’s, well, babbling.   

Cody felt something sharp poking in the back of her neck.  For a moment, she froze.  They got us!  

Joanna’s voice floated from behind her. “Hey, Shrimp, hold up there.”  

“What?”  

“Hold still for a second.  Babs, got something to cut with in that purse of yours?  Like a file?” Babette handed her a tiny pair of manicure scissors.  “Thanks.”  

Cody heard a snip and pulled away, startled.  “What are you doing?”  

“Price tag,” Joanna explained, holding it up and glancing at it.  Something about the tag caught her attention.  “What’s this?  Boys’?  You really did have to go to the kiddie section?”   

Cheeks burning, Cody snatched it back.  “Yeah, so?  I was gonna take that back!”  

Babette asked, somewhat acidly, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t pay for it?”  

“Oh… yeah, thanks.” Cody felt a swelling of resentment.  “I’ll pay you back sometime.”  

“Yeah,” Joanna said gloomily.  If we live.”  

They spent the rest of the day staying out of sight.  Much to Cody’s dismay, this involved a lot more shopping, though she didn’t mind the bookstore they took refuge in for a few hours after lunch.  Babette did, though.  

“It’s just a bunch of stupid books,” she whined.  “What am I supposed to do?”  

The other two just ignored her.  Finally, the disgruntled bear picked up a fashion magazine and sat in a dark corner, sulking.  

Afterwards, Cody, tired of being cooped up inside on a beautiful day, persuaded them to go to the park for a little while.  If nothing else, she hoped to air out her fur --- the smell of that hideous perfume lingered, and was beginning to give her a headache.  

It was a mistake.  

* * *


“When I get my hands on that dame, I’m really gonna get her,” Eggsucker said.  

Rogers sighed wearily.  This only the hundredth time their new associate had made that threat.  He was beginning to think that, in spite of his reputation, the lion really didn’t have much going on upstairs.  But he was an improvement over Buck, who grated on Rogers’s nerves with his mindless babble and general stupidity.   

They’d been tracking the women all night.  The old hag at Stepford Manor had been no help and there had been no clues in the hotel, itself.  ‘Borrowing’ some homemade candles from the crafts room, they’d searched the garden, and had found tracks leading back towards town.  Following them had been difficult.  By midmorning, however, they had a direction.  Buck had innocently suggested checking Babette’s favorite department store, W.H. Macy’s.  

“Why, yes, Mister Buck,” a saleswoman who had always waited on Babette said.  “She was in here earlier with two other ladies.  She didn’t buy as much as usual, which I thought odd.”  She shrugged, obviously miffed at missing out on Babette’s usually generous commission.  With another sniff, she added, “She did buy a lovely hat, though --- it looked absolutely darling with that new hairdo.  Although just between you and me, I’m almost positive it was a wig.”  

“What wig?” Buck asked anxiously. “What’s she done to her hair?  Is she bald?”  

Eggsucker swatted the back of his head, the motion sending a sour whiff of sweat in the clerk’s direction. “Who cares?  What about the other two girls?”  

The young saleswoman recoiled slightly and took a step back. “Well, if that’s all…”  

Sensing that a wall was about to be erected, Rogers motioned the other two to silence. “Miss, please pay no attention to my… colleagues.” he said smoothly.  “You know who we are. It’s all very simple. Mister Hardin is taking Miss Babette to the theater tonight, and sent us downtown to select just the right diamond necklace to complement her gown.  You would be doing him a great service if you describe her new hairdo… and the hat too, of course.”  

At the mention of Hardin’s name, her attitude quickly changed. “Y-yes, of course. Is this new necklace a surprise?”  

“That’s right,” Rogers said with cheerful malice.  “It’s a surprise.”  

Dutifully, she described the hat and wig.  

Impatiently, Eggsucker repeated, “What about the other two?”  

“Yes… the other two… ladies—what did they look like?” Rogers looked at her intently and she shuffled her feet, completely cowed.  He no longer felt the need to continue the lie.   

“I don’t know. One was a bear, tall, nice figure, long reddish blonde hair, I think. In a ponytail. The other was a little vixen.” The saleswoman sniffed.  “The little one didn’t have any fashion sense at all—definitely not the kind of company Miss Babette usually keeps.”  

“Where did they go?” Eggsucker asked abruptly.  

“I didn’t wait on them.  Now, if you’ll excuse me…” Her eyes darted as she spotted another customer; she turned and smiled toothily at a well-to-do tigress who was browsing through the designer section.  

Absently reflecting that she looked like a shark going in for the kill, Rogers turned to the other two.  “They can’t have gone far.  We’ll check all the stores in the area.”  

“What if they skipped town?” Buck asked as they hurried out of the store.  

The taller bear rolled his eyes.  “The bus station doesn’t open until noon.  They wouldn’t go there and sit around for us to catch them.  They’re hiding somewhere.  We just have to find them.”

They checked every store in the area, but the clerks, after disgusted looks at Eggsucker, could provide no information.  They retraced their steps several times, but had no luck.  It was as if the women had vanished.  By late afternoon, Rogers, at least, was beginning to sweat as he imagined the horrible things Hardin would no doubt do to him if he returned without Babette or the murderous vixen.  Hardin was particularly fond of pinking shears. Rogers shuddered.  

Taking out a linen handkerchief, he dabbed his forehead and tried sound crisply efficient. “We’ll check the other side of town.”  

“Go through the park,” Eggsucker snapped.  

“Oh, good idea!  We can feed the fish!” Buck clapped his hands together.  “Eh, Eggy, ol’ buddy?”  

With a scowl, the lion stepped towards him, fists balled.  “I’ll feed the fish, all right.”  

Rogers stepped between them.  His patience was gone and he feared for his safety if he came back to Hardin empty-handed.  Having his cohorts at each other’s throats wasn’t helping any.  “Stop it.  We’ll go through the park, but only because it’s the shortest way to the other side of town.”  Turning to Buck, he added, “And no feeding anything.”  

The dim-witted bear looked disappointed, but the other two didn’t pay him any attention.  They crossed the street and stepped into the park.  Because it was a warm, sunny day, it was pretty crowded with people strolling down the well-beaten paths, children running around the playground, and couples picnicking.  They had just passed the duck pond when Eggsucker stopped dead in his tracks.   

He sniffed the air.  “You guys smell something?”  

“Like cheese and old sweat?” Buck asked.  

Rogers didn’t dare glance at Eggsucker.  No, Buck.”  

“No, something really bad, like cheap perfume.”  

The other two actually went a few more steps before they noticed that the lion’s perpetual stench had dissipated.  Turning, they saw that he was staring intently at something across the pond, his face twisted in angry disbelief.  

“Tell me I’m seeing things.”  

The bears glanced in the direction he was staring and froze.  Seated on a bench and half-hidden by swaying branches of a leafy maple were three females.  One of them wore a tiny fawn-colored hat adorned with huge bows and peacock feathers.   

“I don’t believe it,” Rogers said.  He began to chuckle softly.  “Trust Babette.”  

“Don’t hurt her,” Buck said, his voice suddenly hard.  “If you do…”  

Rogers looked at him suspiciously, but only said, “Don’t worry.  Hardin just wants to talk to her, ask her why she left without a word.”  

“Oh.  Okay, then.”  

“The tall one’s mine,” Eggsucker insisted, “I got dibs on her.”   

“Hardin’ll probably let you have her after he’s finished, ah, questioning her.”  

“Can you take off that hat now?” they heard Joanna ask.  “I don’t want to be stared at, even if you do.”  

“Oh, don’t worry.  The park’s practically deserted.  Besides, I’ve got enough bags to carry.  I don’t want to carry it.”    

“Boys, I think our luck’s changing.”  Eggsucker stealthily began to creep up on their quarry.  

“Right behind you, pal,” Buck whispered.  “Maybe you can give us a few pointers, huh?”

“Shut up.  You want them to hear us?”  

Buck pouted. “You guys never let me do anything!”  

Eggsucker was only a few feet behind them when Cody’s nose twitched, then wrinkled.  “What’s that smell?”  

“I don’t know.”  Joanna sniffed the air. “Ew. That perfume you got sprayed with isn’t going bad, is it?”  

“It’s horrible.”  

“Disgusting.”  

“What is that?  It smells like…”  

“Me.” Eggsucker said, and reached for Joanna.  She shrieked and tried to jerk out of the way, but she wasn’t quick enough.  He grabbed her ponytail and yanked her backwards, tilting her head so far back that she could see all three hoods upside-down.   He licked a finger and drew it menacingly across her throat.

End of Part 6

 

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