The Whole Damsel Thing

Part 7 of 10  

Rogers grabbed Cody by the collar.  Growling, she kicked him hard in the shins and jerked away.  As he hopped up and down in pain, she contemplated hiding in the bushes.  They were fairly thick and she would be able to hide in them easily, and the three men wouldn’t be able to follow her.  

She hoped.

Screaming for help didn’t occur to her.  In her line of work, she didn’t want the police to take any notice of her, even if she was the victim.

Babette shrieked and swung a shopping bag at him.  “Go away, you swine!” She swung again, connecting this time, hitting him in the side of the head.  

“Ow! You little tramp!” Rogers snarled.  

Buck stepped from behind him and Babette froze, eyes wide.  He stretched out a hand, as if to reach for her, but Joanna took advantage of Eggsucker’s distraction to jerk away from him and run.  Cody followed her and Babette, after another startled look at Buck, took off after them.  

Joanna and Cody were a little ahead and, as if by unspoken agreement, both immediately headed towards the business districts, hoping to lose their pursuers in a crowd.  Babette puffed along behind them.  

Being out of shape, both Joanna and Babette were out of breath. “Let’s stop for a minute,” Joanna gasped.  “I think we lost them.”  

Babette looked smug. “Ahem.  I think a thank-you is in order.”

“For what?” Cody asked irritably.  It annoyed her to have to slow down for those two.

If I was alone, I’d be blocks away by now!

“See, if we hadn't gone shopping, I wouldn't have been able to hit him with my bag!”

Cody snapped, “If we hadn't gone shoppin’, we wouldn't have been caught in the first place!”

“Forget it!” Joanna broke in.  Gingerly, she touched her ponytail, amazed that it was still attached.  “I owe you one, Babs.  I thought he was going to scalp me.”

“He would have.  That Eggsucker’s one nasty customer. Believe me, you don’t want to get on his bad side.” Babette shuddered.

Joanna said ruefully. “Too late.”

Then she and vixen looked at each other and said in unison, “Eggsucker?”

“What kind of stupid name is that?” Joanna asked.

“His real name is Eddie Schwartz.  He’s freelance muscle --- he smells disgusting but Hardin keeps him around to keep the guys in line.  Word on the street has it that they call him Eggsucker because he…” Here Babette lowered her voice, “pins his victims down and sucks their eyeballs out of their sockets.”

Ew! Both looked ill, but Joanna actually turned a sickly shade of green as she remembered the attack behind the bar.

Wide-eyed, Babette nodded, obviously pleased at their reaction.

“Wait a minute,” Cody said abruptly, “I heard you call one of them Rogers . You know them.  Who are they?”

“Yeah, what are we dealing with?” Joanna asked. “They’ve been chasing us all night.  Give us something we can use.”

Those are the men who were after you? They work for James.”  She swallowed hard, no longer cocky. “Um, what do we do?”    

“What we’ve been doing. We hide,” Joanna snapped.

“And fast.”  Cody scanned the street, sizing up the possibilities.  A ritzy clothes store, a diner, an elegant restaurant.  The choices were hardly promising.

“Come on,” Babette said.  “I know a place.”

“I’ve heard that before,” said Joanna.

They glanced at each other, shrugged, and reluctantly followed Babette into a seedy-looking hotel down the street.  Rather than hide in one of the rooms, as they’d assumed, however, she led them up three flights of stairs to a nightclub on the roof.  There was a yellow neon sign flashing ‘The Sky High Club’.  All the vowels were shorted out.

“We can hide out in here.  Maybe slip out the back,” Babette said.

They stood for a moment, just inside the doorway.  The room was dimly lit except for a spotlight on a stage against the far wall. Cigarette and cigar smoke gave the room a hazy, almost surreal quality as men and a few women sat at small tables, speaking in low voices --- surprising for a bar.  Smartly dressed waiters and waitresses made their way from table to table, delivering orders and collecting money with swift efficiency.

Soon they became aware that most of the attention was focused on a handsome wolf in a leather bomber jacket who sat at the bar, surrounded by women who looked at him adoringly and men who looked at him with grudging admiration. Curious, they made their way closer and listened in disbelief as the wolf recounted a recent adventure.

“…and so, when I ran out of gas, I remembered the case of orange sodas in the hold and gave my plane a drink.  Yes, sir --- I got that serum through and saved the whole village.  The chief was so grateful that he wanted to make me king of the island.  I said, “Chief, old buddy… as good a king as I’d be, Usland needs me.  I tell you, the whole village had tears in their eyes as I took off.  They even named a holiday after me.”

“Golly, Ace!” a girlish voice gushed from the crowd, “Really?”

“You can bet your life on it, doll.  Or my name isn’t…” He snapped his fingers like a cue.  His listeners stood at attention.

“Ace London!” they chorused.

He nodded obviously pleased with himself. “Ya got that right!”

Cody snorted.  “What a bag of wind.”

“More like gas.”  Joanna turned to Babette.  “You know your way around?”

“Sure.  James used to take me here all the time.  Sometimes the boys came along for drinks… and protection, of course.”

Cody couldn’t believe how stupid she was. “If they know that, they won’t be far behind.  We should have gone somewhere you wouldn’t go.”

Babette was miffed.  “You think we’d blend in at those other places?  At least this has a crowd.”

“Relax.” Joanna tried to placate them. “It’s perfect.”

The vixen scowled. “How’s that?”

“Maybe they think the way you do --- that people will only hide somewhere that’s familiar to them.  By now, they know we’re not easy targets. They wouldn’t expect us to be dumb enough to go to their favorite watering hole.”

Cody peered around the doorway. “Or maybe they would.”

The other two followed the vixen’s gaze and saw their pursuers spreading out to search the room.

“Follow me!  Quick!”  Babette skirted around the perimeter of the room until she came to the curtained door that allowed access to backstage. A burly simian stood beside the door, with his arms crossed, glowering at the room in general.  Babette spoke to him quietly for a moment, fluttering her eyelashes and gazing at him with mock adoration.  His expression didn’t change, but after a moment, he pulled the curtain aside and curtly motioned her through.  She beckoned for her companions to follow; since they didn’t have a better idea, they slunk in after her.

“One good thing about this,” Joanna muttered just loud enough for the vixen to hear, “there’s got to be a way out back.”

They found the moll staring at a rack of costumes, all in varying shades of pink.

“Okay, so where’s the back door?” Cody asked, glancing around.

“Back door?” Babette repeated blankly.

“Yes,” Joanna said. “You know, an escape route?  Please tell me you didn’t trap us back here.”

“Umm…” The former gangster’s mistress didn’t quite meet their eyes.

“Perfect.” Cody groaned.  “Just great.  So what were you planning to do when they come backstage, flash ‘em?”

“Men aren’t allowed backstage,” Babette said confidently.  “Bruno keeps them out.”

“Somehow, that’s not very reassuring.”  Joanna surveyed the backstage area, looking for something, anything to use to help them escape.  Her gaze fell on the rack of can-can costumes. “Well, when in Rome…”

Cody followed her gaze and groaned.  Something told her that before the night was over, she’d be gussied up like a rodeo clown.

“There’s no way any of those will fit me.  In case you haven’t noticed, genius, I don’t have…” Cody looked down at her flat chest. “… much.”

“So improvise.  Just shove some powder puffs down your front and let’s go.” 

“But I don't wear...” 

Impatiently, Joanna grabbed two frothy pink costumes, held them against herself, chose one and quickly changed as the other dancers came into the room, grumbling.

“…don’t know who she thinks she is!”

“If I didn’t need the money, I’d quit right now!”

They stopped short at the sight of the newcomers.

A lithe, attractive cat spoke up. “We haven’t seen you at rehearsal.”

“We’re, uh, new.  I’m… Jane and this is, uh, Mildred,” Cody said. She pointed to Babette.  “This is Helga.  Say hi, Helga.”

“Hi,” Babette said in a small voice.

Mildred?  Joanna’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, that’s what they call me, all right.  Mildred.”

The cat smiled at them. “I’m Carmel…” She indicated, in succession, a golden brown Pekinese, “and this is Taffy,” a dark brown bear, “Coco,” and a miserable-looking white rabbit with badly dyed black hair. “…and over there by the shoes is Lolly.”

It was obvious from the rabbit’s hairline that she was a blonde --- it turned a weird shade of sickly green and gradually darkened to dull black.  Even Cody could see that it was a disaster.

“I can’t go out like this,” Lolly wailed, her pink eyes damp with tears. “I’m ruined!

Coco, the bear, snorted. “Yeah! Who does that witch think she is, Miss Starrywood?”

“It’s not so bad,” Cody didn’t see the problem. “Why don’t you just hack it off?”

The rabbit stopped crying long enough to gape at her.

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Taffy chimed in enthusiastically. “It would look like a cute little cap!”  At this, Lolly wailed even louder.

Joanna looked daggers at Cody, who spread her hands in bewilderment. “What?”

“Never mind.”

“Our ‘star’s got Mickey by the shorthairs, so to speak,” Carmel explained to the newcomers.  “Kiki doesn’t want any other blondes on the stage but her.”

Joanna snorted.  “Well, isn’t that just precious.”

“You’ll have to do something about your hair, too.”

“Really,” Cody drawled.

Then the cat said, “You girls had better get into makeup.  It’s almost show time.”

“Where’s the makeup table?” Joanna asked.

Wordlessly, Carmel pointed to a table with a tiny mirror.  Powder puffs, lipstick, and pots of rouge and eyeshadow covered the table’s surface.  They made their way to it, Cody looking as if she were being led to the gallows.  

Joanna had noticed that most of the other chorus girls had rouged their cheeks in small, pink, clownish circles, generously coated their lips with scarlet lipstick, and lined their eyes with violet eyeshadow.  She shook her head.  With quick strokes, Joanna put on her makeup with a heavier hand than usual.  She disliked the weight of the greasepaint and powder --- necessary to be seen from the back row --- but she grimly applied it.   She hated wearing cosmetics worn by others.

Hope I don’t catch anything, she thought darkly.

“Well, I’m done,” Joanna announced, after about five minutes, fastening the last hairpin and turning away from the dressing table.  “Ta-da!”

She looked like an exhausted prostitute.

Cody snorted. “Remember, the money goes on the dresser.”

“At least I’d get money.  You’d probably get a piece of lint.”

Babette watched as the dancers stood in the wings of the stage, watching the patrons and making last minute adjustments to their hair and dresses.  “You’d better hurry up,” she said to Cody, who hadn’t even changed yet.

Cody stared at the rack of costumes.  “Pink.  Why’d it have to be pink?”

“What's wrong with pink?” Babette examined herself in the full-length mirror and made minor adjustments to the outfit.

Cody rolled her eyes. Then, she reluctantly sorted through the clothes until she found a skirt and bodice that fit and changed, handling the costume as if it were a poisonous snake.

"Whoa!" Cody exclaimed and Joanna turned to find the vixen looking down, frowning at her chest, which had a surprisingly generous amount of cleavage. "Where'd these come from?"

"Believe me, I’m as shocked as you are.  I didn’t think you had that much.”  Actually, she didn’t. Jo noticed a piece of little green paper sticking out between her breasts before Cody absently shoved it underneath the lace.     

"Whoever made these getups should be eaten alive by a pack of wild dogs.”

“Hurry up. It looks like those bimbos are getting ready to go on."

Grumbling, the vixen wedged her feet into a pair of high-heeled French boots.  Joanna snickered as she watched her get to her feet, wobbling a little.  Then she frowned as she noticed a small horseshoe-shaped bruise on the vixen’s chest that was just visible over the low-cut bodice. “I think you might want to pull that up a little.”

Cody looked down and adjusted the neckline to conceal the bruise. “It’s dark out there. I still don’t see why we can’t just sneak out without publicly humiliating ourselves.”

“Men see better than they think.” Joanna eyed her critically. “Okay, your turn.  We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The vixen regarded her with horror. “Oh, no!  You’re not coming near me with that stuff.”

“Look,” Joanna said patiently.  “We’re stuck here.  We’ll have to sneak out right under their noses.  They’ll be guarding the doors, but the room will be crowded with drooling idiots between us and them.  We have to look as tarty as the rest of the dancers.”

“I don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to like it.  Just do it.”

Reluctantly, Cody sat at one of the dressing tables and allowed Joanna to put the finishing touches on the costume.

“Now your hair.”  She gathered a tight handful of the vixen’s strawberry blonde hair, glanced at the flyer photo of the dancing girls, and tried to copy their hairstyle.

"Ow!" the vixen protested as her hair was twisted into a bun. "Are you trying to snatch me baldheaded?”

“Don't flatter yourself. I don't do catfights. Now hold still.”

Cody said through gritted teeth, “These pins hurt.

“So do bullets.”

“I’ll take the bullets.”

When Cody’s hair was more or less pinned up, Joanna selected a pot of pink rouge, a tube of bright red lipstick and attacked.

“Hey!  Not so much!  You’re smotherin’ me with that junk!”

“Don't tempt me.” The bear handed her a tissue. “Blot.”

“Huh?”

Joanna jerked it out of her fingers and shoved it in Cody’s mouth.  “Like this.” 

“Mmmph!” Cody spat it out.

“You know, you’ve got nice eyes,” Joanna remarked. “All you have to do is darken the lashes and eyebrows a bit to show ‘em off.”

Cody tried not to watch as the mascara wand came at her like a guided missile.  “Um, you know that crack I made about your hair?  Is it too late to say I’m really sorry?”

“Quit squirming.  You want to lose an eye?”

Cody moaned.

Finally, Joanna stood back and looked at the vixen critically.

“You’ll do,” she said crisply.

Cody looked at her reflection in the mirror and made a horrible face. Bright pink circles on her cheeks and smudged purple eyeshadow made her look as if she were suffering from some horrible disease, which was only enhanced by the bright red lipstick smeared across her lips.  Her hair was only shoulder-length and had been more difficult to pin up than Joanna’s.  Strawberry blonde wisps sprang out of the bun and waved around her forehead and neck. “Ugh.”

On her other side, Babette had completely plucked both eyebrows and redrawn them in artfully arched lines, so high that it gave her a perpetually surprised look.  She dusted a heavy dose of talcum powder across her nose, making both of her companions sneeze.  She said seriously, “You really shouldn’t do that.  It makes wrinkles.”

Cody gave her one of her best hard stares. “Hey, I can make dents.

Joanna glanced at the vixen’s chest.  Barely.

Cody tried one more time. “I still say we forget this and try to sneak out of here.”

“Now where’s the fun in that?”  Joanna fiddled with her hair.  With deft fingers, she quickly twisted her hair into a French knot; tiny tendrils of errant strands sprang out on either side. “Seriously, I don’t think we’d make it.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. We all stand out somehow. One, Babs here couldn’t get lost in a crowd if she tried. Two, you’re short, and third, I’m, well… me.”

“Modest, aren’t we?” the vixen muttered, but realized that Joanna was right.

“This is the stage… we have to blend in with the other dancers.  The less we look like ourselves, the better.”

Actually, they looked like caricatured versions of themselves and only Babette looked passably comfortable.  Cody fiddled with the wide maroon ruffle and fake pink rose around the hem of her dress and watched the dancers closely.  Almost all of them were stretching, readying themselves for an energetic performance.

Suddenly, a thought came to her and she straightened and looked at the other two. “You know how to do the can-can, right?”

Joanna met her eyes in the mirror and shook her head. “You?”

The vixen nodded. “It's really not that hard to learn…everyone does the same thing, so you can just follow what I do. I hope you can do high kicks and splits.”

“I can do the kicking part, I guess.  But splits?” She shook her head.  “I can play a mean piano and sing a little, but I’m too nervous to do either right now.  Babs here could probably fake it.  Didn’t you used to be in the chorus?”

“I’ll try.  It’s been a while.  I’ve always wanted to be in show business but James would never let me.  He says it’s cheap and vulgar.” 

“He should know,” Cody and Joanna both muttered under their breath. They looked at each other in surprise.

“What was that?” Babette said sharply.

“Nothing.” Again, they spoke in unison.

“No, you said something…”

“Never mind.” The vixen changed the subject.  “We’ve only got a few minutes, so pay attention.”

Joanna said, “Shoot.”

“Okay,” Cody said. “It goes something like this.”

She began to kick her legs high and swirl her skirt. Then, she gave a little jump and, to Joanna’s mild surprise, landed in a split.

“See? Easy.” Cody grinned and stood. “You try.”

Grumbling, Joanna tried to imitate the vixen.  After Cody had made her stretch for a moment, she more or less managed to do passable footwork.

“Not bad,” Cody said. “Now try to do a split.”

Joanna complied and yelped in pain.  Yeow!  Why don’t you just get two people to grab my feet and make a wish!”

“Two of 'em wouldn't mind.  You want me to get them?”

Babette did a perfect split and said proudly, “I can do it.  See?”

“I’m not surprised,” Joanna mumbled, struggling painfully to stand up.

Cody hauled her to her feet.  “Here.”

“Ow!” Joanna grimaced.  “I think I’ll skip that part.”

There was a knock at the door.  Both Cody and Joanna froze. “Curtain in fifteen, girls,” a cheerful, strangely falsetto male voice called.

Both of them said, “Oh boy.”

They heard a purring feminine voice outside. “Mickey, darling… I simply must have my own dressing room.  What if there’s a talent agent in the audience and he wants to meet me after the show?  I simply can’t have those other dancers underfoot.”

“Kiki…”

“Please?” There was whispering and the sound of rustling clothing.

“Well…” They heard him giggle nervously.  “Come on, Kiki, not here…”

Her voice was suddenly cold and businesslike. “Miguel, do I get my own dressing room or not?”

“S-sure!  Anything you say!”

“Good boy.” 

The door opened, and a beautiful female cat wearing a snow-white satin robe swept into the room, and everyone, except the newcomers, guiltily averted their eyes.  Tall, blonde, and shapely, her presence had the power to light up --- or cast a pall over the room. Unfortunately, it was the latter.  She stood, hand on her hip, coolly assessing the clumsy dancing lesson.  Embarrassed, both Cody and Joanna stopped. 

“Who are you?” the blonde feline said rudely.  “What are you doing here?  Miguel…!”

“We’re… um, practicing?”  Joanna tried to sound innocent.

The blonde feline arched an elegant eyebrow, regarding them with regal scorn.  “You don’t look like dancers.”

“Well, we are,” Cody said defiantly.  She hated Miss-Tall-Blonde-and-Stacked on sight.

“Let me save you the trouble.”  She looked down at Cody. “You’re too short,” and glared at Joanna, “and you’re too… blonde.  Didn’t Mickey tell you?  No blondes but me!”

Joanna patted her own hair --- too dark to be exactly blonde, but whatever.  She couldn’t help but be distracted by the dark mole on the left side of the hussy’s chin --- it moved rapidly up and down as she spoke. 

Darling, you’re awfully short,” Kitten was saying to a rapidly reddening Cody. “Have you ever been mistaken for a fire hydrant?”

“Hey, I’m not the one playing footsies with the boss.  But then after a few times around the casting couch he’s bound to catch you, right?”

“Down, girl,” Joanna said amiably enough, though her eyes were a cold warning. “It’s not bimbo season yet.”

“Look who’s talking!” Kitten’s eyes flashed.  “And you’re not getting on that stage if I have anything to say about it.”

Joanna pretended to yawn.  “My, my, you’re just a little ol’ ray of sunshine, aren’t you?”

“Just-just… stay out of my way!” Kitten shoved her way past them, hip-bumping Cody into a pile of empty shoeboxes. Then they heard her slam the bathroom door. 

They started to help Cody stand, but the vixen shook them off.

“That phony little tramp!  I’ll rip her a new…”

“No, you won’t,” Joanna said sternly, wagging her finger at her, “you have to keep your head. This is what we’ll do…”

Soon they heard something glass thrown against the bathroom wall.  Kitten stormed out of the dressing room, snarling at Lolly, “Clean that up!  And stop that sniveling!”

“I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!” The rabbit hurried to obey, but Joanna stopped her.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Um… cleaning it up?”

Wrong.”

“B-but when she comes back and sees this…?”

“Let’s hit her where it hurts.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, stand back because your life is about to change.”

Joanna found a bright yellow scarf with exotic tiger stripes and wrapped it around Lolly’s head, tucking the ruined hair under the edges. 

“There.”

Lolly nervously patted her turban. “How-how does it look?  I mean…”

“No one will even know,” the bear assured her. “Just sing and have a good time out there.” 

“Thank you!” Lolly suddenly hugged her; Joanna was too startled to pull away in time.  “You’re just the nicest person in the world!”

Cody rolled her eyes.  She knew Joanna wasn’t doing this out of altruism --- she merely wanted to destroy Kitten’s career.

“Get out there!” Joanna urged Lolly.  “This is your big night!”

The rabbit threw her a grateful smile and hurried away.

“… you know what to do?” Joanna asked Cody.

Before she could answer, they heard two voices outside.

Kitten’s voice was cold, imperious. “Where do you think you’re going?  I told you to clean up that mess.”

“I-I’m just getting a broom.”

“Why are you wearing that turban?”

They heard Lolly squeak, “So… my hair won’t get in my way when I’m sweeping?”

“It suits you so well, darling.  Maybe you should consider a career change.”  She laughed cruelly.  Then she saw them.  “Get me into costume!  My public is waiting!”

“Public execution, you mean,” Cody muttered.  But Joanna smiled at her, dark eyes sparkling with mischief.  

“Okee-dokey.”  Obediently, she went behind Kitten as if to fasten the buttons in the back. “Raise your arms.  Me and Jane will slip the gown over your head.”

“Jane?  What a perfectly provincial name.  And so right for you, darling.”

Cody was just itching to tie her hair to the rear bumper of a moving car. “Really. How so?”

“Well, just look at you.  Little Plain Jane.”  Kitten yawned, covering her dainty pink mouth before raising her arms.  Surely other people have noticed.  Or on second thought, they probably don’t.”

Joanna slipped the gown over Kitten’s head and started to button it. Then she gave Cody a meaningful look.

“Here, let me help you, Mildred,” Cody said.

Quickly, they grabbed the hem of her skirt and pulled it over her head.

“Hey! What are you doing?” Kitten tried to back away from them, but Joanna deftly tied the ends to the skirt into a neat knot.  “You can’t do this to me!  I’m a staaaar!”

Ignoring the feline’s muffled shouts of outrage, they shoved her into a closet and barricaded the door with a rack of costumes. 

“All trussed up and no place to go,” Cody said with satisfaction.  “Nice job.”

“Old trick,” Joanna said by way of explanation.  What were bratty little sisters for?

They heard a rap on the door and Mickey’s falsetto:  “Kiki!  Girls!  You’re on!”

Cody looked around. “Babette --- hey, where’d she go?”

Joanna grunted.  “Good riddance.  She was dead weight anyway.”

“But dead weight with money.”

They ventured out to the wings.

“And now, the star of the show…” Mickey glanced stage right, peering into the wings.  He squinted at the cue card that Coco held up for him. “--- Kiki, er --- Miss Lolly Popp!”

“Well, that’s my good deed for the day,” Joanna remarked to Cody. “I think I just made her a star.”

“Quit patting yourself on the back and remember what I showed you.”

“When she makes it big, I want thirty percent.  Or how about sixty-forty?  I think that’s fair, don’t you?”

As Lolly began to sing, everyone winced.  Her voice was high and squeaky—more irritating than seductive and she sang horribly off-key. 

“Great job, Dizzy,” Cody observed.  “We could probably sneak out of here real easy now.”

Joanna’s smug expression evaporated.  “Hey! She… she stinks!

“So what?  What are you waiting for?  Let’s just go.”

“Who does she think she is, trying to get into show business?” The bear was genuinely appalled.

From out in the audience, cries of, “Get off the stage!”  “I’ll pay you to stop!” began.  Lolly, dazzled by the spotlights and deafened by the background music, thought they were cheering her on and continued to warble.

Looking harried, Mickey rushed over.  “All right, girls!  We’re going to do things a little different tonight.  Dancers go on…now!

They hurried to the end of the chorus line.

Joanna glanced around again. “You see Babette yet?”

Cody shrugged.  Babette was nowhere to be seen and the vixen definitely wasn’t sorry to see her go.  The money, on the other hand…

“Too bad,” she said.  “Guess she’s not getting into showbiz after all.  Here we go!”

Pasting wide grins on their faces, they danced out with the rest of the girls, behind Lolly, wincing as they came into the bright spotlight. 

Enthusiastic applause and vulgar whistles greeted them, especially by the male patrons.  Cody only prayed that her bodice stayed up.

“Yeah, baby!”

“Over here!”

“Look what I got for ya!”

Lolly, momentarily dazzled by the attention, thought this was all for her.  She shimmied and sang even louder.

They were doing reasonably well until Joanna miscalculated a step and stumbled, throwing off their timing.

“Terrific!” Cody said.  “I told you it was left-right-left, not right-left-right!”

“I’m a beginner, okay?” Joanna said through her teeth.  “Cut me some slack.”

“I will, but they won't!”  Cody jerked her head towards Rogers, who was looking towards the stage, frowning.

“Oh, no!”  Joanna groaned. 

Smile,” Cody hissed as they made their way to the exit, and with a swish of her fluffy tail, sashayed past the patrons.

The bear followed suit, feeling as though her face would crack.

The spotlight blazed up, momentarily blinding them.  Everyone gasped, and the three hoods found themselves pushed away from the front door, swept out of the way by the crowd.

“Spread out!” Rogers ordered. “I’ll go check the bar and the stage.  Buck, you go to the front door, make sure they don’t leave.  Schwartz, you can---!”

Eggsucker interrupted him. “Hey, who died and made you boss?  And since when did I become one of the ‘gang’?”

“Schwartz, why don’t you go backstage and check the dressing room?”

“Like I said, you’re the boss.”

Shaking his head, Rogers made his way to the bar as Buck took up guard at the front and Schwartz eagerly set out for the dressing room.

From their vantage point at the steps of the stage, Joanna and Cody watched worriedly.

“Problem,” Cody muttered out of the corner of her mouth.

“One’s better than three,” Joanna retorted.  “Let’s go.”

Buck stood up, blocking their way.  He pointed. “Hey! You ain’t no dancing girls!”

“Oh, pooh!  You caught us.” Joanna flashed him a dazzling smile. “You must be the brains of the outfit.”

He blinked, obviously confused.

She fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Would you excuse me, sweetie?  I need to go powder my nose.  Be right back.”

“Uh, sure… okay.”  He moved aside.

After she passed, Joanna muttered to herself, “Time to split.”

A gravelly voice cut in. “How about splittin’ for me, bitch?”

Joanna gulped. Uh-oh.

Eggsucker lunged for Joanna, but instead of recoiling, as he expected, she rushed him, knocking him into one of the two burly gorilla bouncers, who scowled at him and menacingly cracked his knuckles.

“What’s going on here? You bothering the lady, Chief?”

“We’re just talkin’,” Eggsucker stared at her. “Aren’t we, Lydia?”

“Call the police!” She ducked behind the bouncer and peeked around his massive forearm. “Do something --- break his arms!”

He ignored her, regarding who he thought was just an unruly drunk.

“Don’t touch the dancers, buddy, if you know what’s good for you.” Then he wrinkled his nose. “And for Pete’s sake, take a bath!  You want the health department to shut us down?”

“Yes, sir,” the lion said through his teeth, not wanting to get kicked out of the club.

Then the bouncer saw something and was distracted. “Hey, you two!  Break it up or get a room!”

When he moved aside, Joanna was no longer behind him.

Eggsucker swore.  He spotted Rogers scanning the room from the bar and went over to him.

“They’re here,” he said tersely.

“Where?” Rogers stood on tiptoes to peer over people’s heads.

In this bar,” Eggsucker snapped impatiently.  “I almost had ‘em, but one of those stupid bouncers interrupted.”

“Well, where did they go?”

The lion scowled.  “They sprouted wings and flew away. Oh, yeah.  And they’re dressed like the rest of those dames on stage.” 

Rogers favored him with an exasperated look.  “Let’s see if you retain your sense of humor when Hardin finds out you let them slip right through your fingers.”

“Oh, I’m quakin’ in my boots.”

“You should be.  Hardin’ll bury you in them… headfirst.”

“If he does, I’m takin’ you with me.   I don’t work for the Big Man.  You and the idiot do.  I’m helping you, remember?  I didn’t have to join this little bitchhunt.  All I want is a piece of the blonde.”

There was a pause as they stared each other down. Then Rogers said coldly, “We’re wasting time.”

“So make like a tree and get outta here.  I’m busy.”

Rogers turned abruptly and said, “It’s 'make like a tree and leave', you imbecile.  And you’d better find those girls—unless you want Hardin to use your skin for wallpaper.”

Eggsucker waited until he was out of sight, then began to search more urgently.  He was moving towards the dark corners in the back when he saw her.  Sneering, he quickened his pace, reached out, and grabbed the long reddish gold ponytail.

“Hey!” The woman he’d grabbed turned around and he found that not only had he grabbed the wrong girl, she was the wrong species as well—a tall squirrel.  He’d been so focused on her hair that he hadn’t even noticed her fluffy gray tail.  Belatedly, he remembered that Joanna had put her hair up and he scowled even more.

The lion saw the bouncer glare at him and he released the indignant squirrel and moved away.  As he was making his way towards the exit, he bumped into Rogers.

“Where in the hell are they?” the tall bear hissed, his composure now gone.

Then, he saw the little one fighting her way through the crowd and his eyes narrowed.  As she shoved past a couple of quarrelling beavers, Rogers made a grab for the vixen, but she shoved him into Ace London, who had been taking a swig of his drink. Bear, wolf, and drink crashed to the floor, both protesting indignantly.

“Hey! That was my best jacket!”

A few feet away, Joanna bent, attempting to dislodge a piece of gum from her shoe.  Then she felt someone grab her arm, making her shriek.

“Never mind that and let’s go!”

Rogers untangled himself from Ace and started toward them.

Cody yelled, “Hurry up or I’ll leave you here!

“Okay, Okay!” Joanna quickly removed both shoes and hurled them, hitting him in the head.

Clunk! Clunk!

“Ow! Ow!”

“I can’t run in these stupid things!” Cody removed her own shoes and threw them at Rogers. One connected, but the second one missed.  Joanna caught her arm and pulled her along. 

“Go! Go! Let’s go!” she screamed.

Woozily, Rogers looked around.  He felt as though he’d been on the receiving end of a batting cage.  

They were right there a minute ago!  

Eggsucker’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “We have to get them out in the open.”

“How?” Rogers wanted to know, rubbing his head.

“Easy.” Eggsucker gave him a roguish grin and signaled one of the cigarette girls.  She reluctantly came over, carefully balancing a box of tobacco products that was strung by a thick ribbon around her graceful neck.  Eggsucker leered at her; she hugged the box close to her chest and glanced around, obviously trying to catch the bouncer’s eye.

“Cigarettes?  Cigars?  Pipes?”

“How about some matches, sweetheart?”

“Here! Enjoy!”  She practically flung a small box of matches at him.

“No, that’s not my brand.  I want…” He took his time, enjoying making her squirm, his hand hovering lecherously over her wares. “…those ones.”

She hurried away, forgetting that he hadn’t paid.  Not that he intended to.

The bouncer loomed menacingly over them. “You bothering the lady, Chief?”

“Just buying some smokes.”

“You’d better be.”

Eggsucker scowled as the bouncer turned.  "I'd like to make sure he gets a real good look at the show."

"He does," Buck said. 

The other two looked at him blankly. 

“See, he stands right there and gets a real good look at everything.” 

Rogers smacked him on the back of the head as Eggsucker snorted in disgust and opened the matchbook.  

“Wait!” the foppish bear objected as he started to strike one. “This place is crowded.  Let’s get close to the entrance so we don’t get trapped inside.”  

“Yeah,” Buck agreed.  “That could be really dangerous.”

“Never mind.  Just be ready.”

Eggsucker went to the bar and ordered two whiskeys.  He casually ambled past a few tables until he was close to the stage.  The bouncer was too busy to notice.   Pretending to stumble, he spilled one of the drinks on the curtain. As he bent over to ‘wipe’ it, he set the other drink on the floor and struck the first match, holding it to the edge until the material began to smolder.

Then he got up with his other whiskey and headed toward the front door where the other two were waiting.  He approached the table where a young beaver was proposing to his girlfriend and doused the tabletop, and spilling their drinks as well.  The romantic moment spoiled, they opened their mouths to yell, he knocked the candle over, setting the table ablaze.

“You’ll thank me for this someday!” he called gleefully to the male beaver over his shoulder.

Hurrying now, he pushed through the crowd until he was behind the bouncer, then stopped in a crouch.  He set the glass down and struck the rest of the matches.

“Waste of good liquor,” he muttered, as he splashed the pant leg of the bouncer’s trousers.

“Hey!  What the hell are you doing!”

“Just lightening things up… ‘Chief’.” Grinning, Eggsucker looked up at him and lit his pants on fire.

Somebody grabbed their brandy glass and doused his legs. The bouncer screamed and went up like a torch.

Fire raced up the sandbag ropes toward the overhead spotlights and flashed through the faulty wiring. A spotlight creaked overhead.  Several people saw it and pointed, yelling a warning.  Confused, Lolly thought her turban was coming off and quickly tried to tuck in the ends.  Then she smelled something awful --- the combination of smoke, peroxide and burning cloth. 

Her head was on fire.  She screamed, “Ohhh! I’m on fire, I’m on fire!”

Just as the spotlight fell, one of the dancers, Carmel, barreled into her, and they went rolling in a blur of spinning pink tulle. Coco helped her subdue the hysterical rabbit so that Coco could tear off the turban and hurl it aside.  Unfortunately, it had melted to her head and nearly half of Lolly’s scalp was torn off.  She howled with pain, then passed out. While the dancers were busy putting her out, they failed to notice that the burning turban had landed near the footlights. One after another, they all exploded, setting the stage ablaze.

Ever-practical Carmel shouted to her friends, “We've got to get out of here!  Hurry, before it gets any higher!”

“What about Lolly?” Coco screeched, tears running down her face and smearing her makeup.  She looked like a melted oil painting.

Coughing, Carmel ripped a piece of burning tulle from her skirt.  “Marco!  Marco, help!”

The gorilla fought his way over to the dancers and snapped, “What are you, nuts?  Get outta here!  This whole place is a torch!”

“It’s Lolly!” She pointed.

“Out of the way --- I’ve got her!”  Marco bent and scooped up the now unconscious rabbit.  Then, he and the dancers joined the surge towards the door.

“Help!  Help us!”

“Fire!” 

They heard the guy called Ace London scream, “Out of the way, lady! Me first!”

The tidal wave of people suddenly swept Cody and Joanna aside in a rush to escape from the flames.  They were shoved against the wall where they stood for a moment, trying to figure out a way to get out without getting crushed by the panicked crowd.

Then at the back of the club behind the bar, Cody spotted a door.  She nudged her companion and pointed.  "How come nobody's using that one?"

Joanna squinted.  "I don't know.  But can we even get over there?" 

"Fire's not spreading fast..." 

They hurried around the perimeter of the room, keeping an eye out for their pursuers and for the spread of the fire.  

“Our clothes!”  Joanna said suddenly.

The vixen gave her a strange look.  “Huh?”

Our clothes!”  she repeated urgently.  “C’mon.  If we don’t go get them, we’ll be stuck in these costumes.  With our luck, they’ll probably glow in the dark!” 

Cody agreed wholeheartedly. “Not exactly the best things to wear on the run.”

The two raced back to the dressing room.

“Where did we put them?” Cody demanded.

“Over there!”

Before they could take two steps, a loud banging and muffled cursing startled them.

Then Joanna remembered that Kitten was still trussed up and locked in a closet. “We forgot about her!”

“Oops.”  But Cody followed her anyway.

They skidded to a halt in front of the closet, where they'd left Kitten. 

Cody looked at the taller woman dubiously.  “Do we have to?”

Joanna grimaced.  “We should at least give her a fighting chance, I guess.”

She hastily opened the door and dragged the still-trussed Kitten out into the dressing room where she untied the sleeves and rolled the dress back over her head.  The muffled cursing became the screeches of a spoiled brat.

“This is all your fault!” she raged at them.  “You made me miss my cue!  You ruined my show!”

"Ruined?"  Cody couldn't believe her ears.  "Listen, you little snot, we're saving your life here!  This joint's on fire!"

Kitten pointed at them melodramatically. “It was you!  You set the fire!”

Joanna roughly grabbed the pointing arm. “Yeah, yeah, whatever.  Right now, we've got to get out of here!”

As if she hadn't heard her, Kitten sobbed, “You're just jealous of me.  Everyone is out to destroy me…”

“How do we get out?” Cody shouted at her.  “Where’s the fire escape?”

Fire escape?”  The feline tried to pull away from Joanna.  “I don’t know anything about a fire escape.  And let go of me, you… you… you peasant!”

“Jeez, you’re even more useless than I thought!” Joanna tightened her grip until Kitten’s arm turned white.  “You’d better keep up, because I’m sure as hell not going to have your whining be the last thing I hear before I die!” Then she addressed the vixen. “We’re on our own.”

With a disgusted look at Kitten, Cody rushed to the door behind the bar, in the opposite direction of the crowd.  Joanna followed, dragging the now subdued showgirl.  The rising smoke was thick and all three were choking by the time they made it to the door.

“Oh, I simply can’t go on!” the feline said dramatically.  Her eyes rolled back into her head and she sagged to the floor.

The other two looked at each other, wild-eyed as the smoke billowed around them.

“I say we leave her!” Cody shouted.

“Okay!” Joanna shouted back.

Hey!” Kitten screamed hysterically, miraculously regaining consciousness. “Wait!  Wait for me!  Don’t leave me here!”

“Then quit fooling around and hurry up!”

Cody yanked open the door while Joanna got a firm grip on Kitten’s wrists.

“Wh-what are you doing?” Kitten screamed hysterically. “Take your hands off me or I’ll sue!”

“Saving your life, you idiot!” Joanna snapped.  “Now shut up and get saved!”

“You’ll never work in this town again!” Kitten was ranting as she struggled to her feet. “Just wait ‘til I’m a star!  Just wait ‘til I hit it big---!”

Ignoring her, Joanna grabbed her arms and yanked her out the door behind Cody.  There was perhaps a six-foot wide walkway between the nightclub and the edge of the hotel.  With the still-resisting feline in tow, they crept to the edge and peered over.  Cody swayed as a wave of dizziness assaulted her and she closed her eyes and clung to the ledge.

“I think I see an old mattress down there,” Joanna said without expression.  “Some old clothes, too.”

She and Cody looked at each other. 

“One…” Joanna took firmer hold of Kitten’s arm.

“What are you doing?”

“Two…” The vixen grabbed the other arm.

“Are you two insane!  Let me go!”

Together they sent the squawking woman over the edge.  Three!

They crept to the edge of the roof and looked down. A disgruntled, but unharmed Kitten shrieked a stream of curses at them from the dumpster below.  She was completely covered in rotten banana peels, fish heads, and some slimy substance that defied description.

“She’s okay,” Joanna said. “Wow, she really did hit it big.”

Cody rolled her eyes. 

“I’ll get you for this!”  Kitten screeched.  She seemed tiny and far away, far enough to remind them that it was a long way down.

Both women shuddered and backed away a few steps.

Cody began to hyperventilate and she squeezed her eyes tightly shut.  “Oh, no.  Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no.”

With a small whimper, she curled up on the roof and began muttering.  Joanna just stood dead-still, frozen in panic.

After a minute, Joanna opened her eyes and said, “You know, we’re acting like a couple of damsels in distress.”

“I know.” Cody was glad that Jons couldn’t see her now. “Disgusting, isn’t it?”

Simultaneously, they took deep breaths, but neither of them looked over the edge of the roof. Joanna kept her eyes trained on the floor, trying not to think about being three stories above the ground with no way of escape and a fire raging in the nightclub behind them. Cody, obviously trying not to think of the same thing, slowly got to her feet.

“This,” said Joanna, trying not to hyperventilate herself, “is not good.”

“You think?” Cody groaned. “Damn it, Diz, you didn’t tell me you were scared of heights too!  Now what?”

“We’ll have to work together to get out of this.”

“All right, we do this together.  But then it’s every woman for herself, got it?”

“Right.” Then Joanna warned, “And if I fall, I’m taking you with me... so don’t make me fall.”

Cody avoided looking down again. “So what’s the plan?”

“I don’t know.  I’m making this up as I go.”

“Great.  We might as well douse ourselves in barbeque sauce.”

Joanna cast a glance along the roof. She could feel a blast of heat on her back.

Haven’t these morons ever heard of a fire escape?

As she was still debating, Cody yelped and leaped towards the edge, clutching her fluffy tail, which had been singed by a few errant flames.  Joanna was suddenly glad that she didn’t have a tail.

“Well…” Joanna glanced back at the flaming nightclub. “I hate to say it…”

“Then don’t,” Cody said sharply.

“There’s no other way down.”

The vixen moaned.

“We have to…” Joanna swallowed hard. “We have to… jump.”

 

End of Part 7

 

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