The Whole Damsel Thing

Part 8 of 10

 

The nightclub lit up the sky for several blocks.  People crowded on the sidewalk across the street from it, watching with morbid fascination, much to the irritation of the police and firemen. 

“Is anyone still in there in there?” one lady yelled. Nobody answered.

One driver in particular was ready to explode.  He coughed and noisily blew his nose on a ragged, dirty handkerchief.  Traffic had slowed to a crawl, thanks to some fire somewhere down the block.  It had nothing to do with him, yet he was the one being inconvenienced.  The air was filled with smoke and an ominous orange glow flickered over the tops of the buildings.  Several people had abandoned their vehicles altogether and were crowding the sidewalks. 

Honking the horn, he leaned out the window.  

“Move it!  I’m in a hurry!”  

“Can it, buddy!” somebody yelled back.  

Grumbling, he sneezed and rolled up the window as a fire engine careened by, red lights flashing and siren blaring.  

“Stupid fire engines!” He sneezed again.  “Get out of my way!  I’m sick, you know!”  

Then, he blinked.  He’d seen a flash of something pink poised on the ledge of a burning nightclub a couple of blocks away.  

“Great,” he muttered.  “Now I’m hallucinating.”  

Wiping his nose on his sleeve, he leaned on the horn again.  It didn’t have the desired effect and he had to content himself with muttering darkly under his breath.  After a moment, he backed up the car, slamming into the truck behind him, and turned around.  He wasn’t going to sit there like the rest of the rubes.  He had places to go and cops to avoid.  

* * *

As sirens screamed in the distance, they hauled themselves onto the ledge and stood there, trembling. Cody blew on her still-smoking tail.   

“On…on the count of…three,” she said reluctantly, looking down at the dumpster that Kitten had long since vacated. It seemed like such a small target, so far away. She barely restrained a whimper, ashamed of her fear.  

“One…” Joanna’s voice shook, which was small comfort to her companion. “T-two…” She paused for so long that Cody didn’t think she was going to continue. “T-t-three!”  

Focusing only on survival, they jumped. Joanna shrieked but Cody couldn’t even manage that. They landed in the dumpster, scattering a small swarm of flies and just missing some beer bottles when they hit.  Only the garbage bags, full of greasy wrappers, old pizza boxes, rotting food, and heaven knew what else saved them from broken bones.  White maggots crawled sleepily along a fish head.  

“We—we made it!” Cody said in amazement after a moment.  

Joanna was trembling too hard to reply.  

They stayed in the dumpster for a moment, trying to breathe normally again and to stop shaking.  The bags they had landed on had burst open, releasing noxious fumes of pulp and decay.  An angry buzzing sound startled them.  

The flies were back.  

Cody frantically batted them away from her face. “Shoo!”  

They climbed out, coughing as they stood in the alley.  

Suddenly Joanna felt a weird tickling sensation; she looked down to find a large, hungry-looking rat sniffing at her foot.  With startled yelp, she gave it a vicious kick, sending it screeching into the darkness. "Get out of here!"  

Cody jumped and watched as the rat flew through the air and disappeared.  “Wish we coulda done that with Babette.”    

Joanna slapped her forehead.  “Oh no! We forgot all about her!”  

Cody looked up at the thick black smoke pouring out of windows and the hellish orange flames that reached towards the sky. “I… I guess she’s still up there.”  

Joanna said morosely, "She shouldn't have been there."  

"What an idiot."  

“Moron." Then the angry light died from her eyes.  “We should've ditched her sooner.  At least she'd be alive.”  

“Yeah.”  

Joanna was furious. “First Miss Martha, then that poor guy at the diner. Why even bother hiding?  They’re going to find us. All they have to do is follow the trail of bodies.”  

“Shut up,” Cody said roughly.  “Stop thinking that way.  It’s not our fault. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time, end of story.”  

Her companion fell silent for a moment.  Then she mumbled, “You’re right… I guess.”  

“Look,” Cody said wearily.  “I feel bad, too, but sometimes you gotta look out for yourself.”  Her voice took on a brisk, more no-nonsense quality.  “It happened and we can’t change it.  No need to feel guilty about it.” 

“Let’s just drop it.”  

“That’s the trouble with some folks,” Cody went on, “they always need to know why bad stuff happens and then they want a scapegoat.  Why torture yourself?  What good does it do?”  

“None,” Joanna snapped.  “It never did any good.  But sometimes I think about things, you know?  I can’t help it.”  

“No, you’re self-pitying.  That’ll get you killed out here.  If you can’t pull yourself together, I’ll just go on my own.”  

“I told you, I’m fine!  Lay off!”  

“You’d better be, ‘cause if you’re not…” She noticed that Joanna was no longer paying attention. The same rat she had kicked earlier emerged from hiding; there was a lump on the side of its head.  Its soulless eyes glowed red and it bared its teeth in a snarl.   

Joanna shrieked and jumped on top of an unwieldy trashcan that was leaning against the alley wall.  It teetered and she fell off.  “Oh no!  It’s got a grudge!  Kill it!”  

Cody recoiled. “I ain’t touchin’ that filthy thing.  You’re the one who pissed it off.”

“Come on, Shrimp!  I-I fixed your hair!”  

“Nearly pulled it out by the roots, you mean,” Cody retorted. “Y'know, big filthy rats like that one started the bubonic plague in Yerope.”  

The rat advanced on Joanna, hissing.

"Ooooh!"  Squealing, she scrambled onto another trashcan. “Go on, shoo!”

Cody smirked, though she backed away as well.

"Do something!" Joanna begged.

"Nuh-uh!  This is between you and the vermin!"  She didn't add that she didn't want the rat after her too.

“Please!”

The vixen looked around, found a rock and threw; it landed on the rat’s long, stringy tail.  It turned and hissed at her.

“Oh great!  It hates me now!”  She saw a small pile of old moldy cardboard boxes and quickly shimmied up to the top one.  Unfortunately, the soggy boxes collapsed under her weight and she fell off.   She sprang back to her feet and tried to run toward the mouth of the alley.  It leapt at her, landing where she was a few seconds before.  “Hey, leave me alone!  She’s the one who kicked ya, not me!”

They dodged and weaved around the boxes; whenever she moved, it moved.  Then it jumped on a crushed box and leapt at her face.  Cody yelped and dodged out of the way, and it smacked against the wall.  Shaking its head to clear it, the angry rodent spotted her again and charged.

“Do something, Diz!  Throw a rock!  Anything!”
 

Joanna, in the meantime, hopped off her perch, tipping the trashcan over with a clamor.  She heard the sound of ripe, rotting garbage spilling out of its container with a wet schmuck.  There was the buzz of excited flies as they dove onto this unexpected gift from heaven. She looked around, trying to ignore the commotion around her.  It was too dark to see well, and there were no more rocks.  Then her eyes fell back on the mess behind her.

With a quickly babbled prayer, she cringed and batted the flies away and quickly went to work, letting out little squeaks of disgust as she dug through rotten food, half-eaten fish and something she couldn’t for the life of her identify, even if it were light.  She finally selected what she hoped was a piece of grapefruit and threw it hard.
  Too sodden to go more than a couple of feet, it landed on the ground with a plop.  

Distracted, the rat turned and stalked towards Joanna, its tail lashing like a rattler.  Cody backpedaled quickly, nearly tripping over a bottle.  Yelping, she windmilled her arms frantically to keep her balance.  The rat returned his attention to her.  

“Run for it, Shrimp!” Joanna yelled as the rat crouched, preparing to pounce.  

It jumped, landing on the end of a board.  Cody looked at the rat’s perch and, to Joanna’s surprise, ran towards it.  In the instant before the vixen jumped, her companion noticed that the rat was on a crude sort of seesaw—a bottle was under the middle of the board.  Cody crashed onto the opposite end of the board at the instant the rat sprang for her.  Its own momentum was added to the board as it catapulted over the vixen’s head and out into the street and was gone. 

Joanna’s eyes went round as she watched, momentarily impressed in spite of herself.  “Wow.  That was neat.”  Then, hurrying to the mouth of the alley, she darted nervous glances around the street. “Where'd it go?”  

“I dunno.”  Cody shuddered.  “Wow, you're a magnet for this kind of thing, Diz.”  

“Shut up and help me look.” She spoke in hushed tones, as though they were in a haunted house.  “It's still out there.”  

It's a rat, not Black the Ripper!”  

“Ugh.  Let's get out of here.  See any cars?”  

“Yeah.  Hey!”  Cody waved at one, but it zipped past them without slowing down.  “Nuts.  Oh! There's another one!  Hey, you! Here it comes...” It whizzed by. “Dang.”  

Joanna poked her head out cautiously. “Let me try.”  

“What are you gonna do, use two thumbs?”

“Watch and learn.”

Stepping out of hiding, she made sure that a generous expanse of one leg was showing as a car sped towards them.  It was past them before the driver suddenly slammed on brakes. With another smug look at Cody, Joanna sashayed to the car, hips swinging so that the imitation silk material of the dress swished invitingly.  

At that moment, a huge thing bolted out of the shadows from across the street, claws splayed madly on the rough pavement, glittering red eyes fixed greedily on her bared leg.  It grinned obscenely at them, twitching its tail like a dirty string, teeth exposed in long, sharp points.  

Joanna screamed, “It’s the furball from hell!  It wants me! Do something!  

Apparently, the driver saw it too before bringing the car to a screeching halt.  Its right front wheel caught the rat head-on, knocking it rolling several feet.  Finally, it let out a hideous screech and lay still.  

He poked his head out the window, peering out in the gloom. “That was ugliest dog I’ve ever seen. Did I hit it?”  

Cody glanced at where the rat still lay, unmoving.  “Yep.  You hit it.”

Still shaking, Joanna forced herself to smile and approach him.  She just wanted to get out of there. “My hero! You saved us!  How can we ever repay you?”  

He drew back, nostrils flaring, then wrinkling in disgust.  “Forget it! What’d ya roll around in?  Get away from my car.”

She noticed that that he had to strain to see over the dashboard. “Well… you’re short!”  

“Never mind. How about some directions?” The driver sneezed. “This place is a damned maze.” 

Something about his voice sounded familiar, but she was too insulted to think about it right then.  Cody tapped her warningly on the shoulder, and she got back into character.  A ride was a ride.  

“Well, sure. We can take you anywhere you want to go.” Joanna cooed.  “How about a lift, handsome?”  She leaned against the door and smiled until she saw who it was.  She froze. “You! 

Freddy Koogar’s eyes widened in recognition.  You!  He reached, intending to drag her all the way through the window.  Joanna simply drew her arm back and with brutal, blinding speed, smashed the heel of her hand into the bridge of his nose, stunning him.  Bones snapped apart and blood splattered everywhere.  Cody caught his hair and slammed his face down hard.  He slumped over the steering wheel.  

Joanna wiped her hand on the unconscious man’s pants and examined it. “Yuck.  I hate wet work.”  

Cody gave her a strange look. “You two know each other?”  

“I locked him in a safe once and he just won’t let it go. Petty, isn’t he?”  

“Forget it.” The vixen opened the door and dragged the unconscious goon out onto the sidewalk, then stepped over him; but before she could get in, Joanna pushed her aside and took the wheel. “I’ll drive.”  

Cody was annoyed. “How come?”  

“I don’t think your little feet will reach the pedals.”  

“Oh, shut up.”  But she went around to the passenger’s side and sat, scowling.  

Joanna started the car. “You know your way around here better than me. Which way do we go?”  

“Why don’t you just let me drive?”  

“Come on, Shrimp. Directions. We’re wasting time.”  

“Just get started driving.  I’ll tell you where to turn.”  

Joanna roughly put the car in gear, let off on the clutch, and stomped the gas at the same time.  The car jerked forward, then stopped.  Cody slammed into the dash and looked at her reproachfully.  

“You sure you know how to drive this thing?”  

Joanna was glad it was dark so the vixen couldn’t see her blush.  She hadn’t driven in a long time.  Wordlessly, she started the car and tried again.  This time when they jerked forward, they kept going.  

They heard a small squeal, and found themselves bouncing over a small bump, making Joanna hit her head on the ceiling.  She hit the brake. “Ow!  What was that?”  

Cody swallowed. “I think we forgot about the rat.”

”Where’d it go?”

They heard an angry, rasping squeak under the car.  They looked at each other.  

“Forget it,” Cody urged.  “Let’s just go.”

“No.” Joanna’s eyes narrowed. Stomping hard on the gas pedal, she threw the car into reverse.  There was the unmistakable crunch of tiny bones, followed by a most un-ratlike scream.   

“Hey! What are you doing?”  

“Just making sure.”  Eyes now shining with murderous glee, she rocked the wheels over it several times until the hump was flat.   

Cody turned around in her seat to look out the back window.  “Ugh. That’s one flat rat.”  

Did I get it?  Is it even twitching?

“Several times. It’s dead, okay?  Let’s go.”  

Joanna smiled, satisfied. “Okay.  I’m done.”  

“You’re more than done.  You’re ripe.”  Cody rolled down the passenger window the rest of the way.  “Roll yours down too, Dizzy.”  

“Hmmph.” But she finally noticed her own smell and complied.  

Grumbling under her breath, the vixen directed her to the red-light district across town from nightclub.

As Joanna eased the car down the semi-crowded street, she noted the scantily clad women leaning in what they apparently thought were provocative postures against lampposts and walls. She gave the vixen an exasperated glare.  

“Did we have to come here?”  

Before Cody could retort, the car made a loud grinding noise and shuddered to a stop.  They looked at each other.  

“What’s the matter?  Did you forget to accelerate the accelerator again?”  

Joanna jiggled the keys and tried to start it again.  “I don’t know!  I--!”  The gas gauge caught her eye.  “Empty.”  She groaned.  “Great.”  

“Guess we’re stuck here now.”  Cody slid out of the car.  

Joanna got out and kicked the front tire.  

Stupid car.  Stupid Freddy.  The least he could have done was fill the tank.  

“Well, they’d be least likely to look for us here.”  

Joanna considered. “Okay,” she said finally. “No choice, I guess.  Let’s try to find somewhere to spend the night. Preferably somewhere with water so we can clean up.”  

They made their way to the main street, where they tried to blend into the crowd.  It didn’t work. Not only did their gaudy pink outfits set them apart, but the image was further ruined by their soot-stained faces and the smell of smoke and garbage that lingered around them.  People wrinkled their noses and gave them a wide berth.  

They paused on a corner to get their bearings. A couple of felines wearing heavy makeup and cheap, brightly colored clothing coolly assessed them and sauntered over.  

“Whatcha doin’ here?” the dark gray cat asked belligerently. She flipped her carefully curled black hair over her shoulder and fixed them with an intense green glare.   

“Yeah! Maybe nobody’s told you yet, but this is our corner,” her friend added.  She was a light brown calico who might have been pretty if not for her scowl.  “Hit the bricks.”  

“Sorry.” Cody rolled her eyes and motioned for Joanna to follow her.  

As they hurried down the street, a horn honked and a car pulled alongside them. Both backed away as the window slowly lowered.  

“Hey, baby. What’s your price?” A young rabbit who looked to be barely in his twenties leered at Joanna.  

Cody scowled. “Keep driving, junior.”  

The rabbit raised his middle finger and drove away with a squeal of tires. The vixen turned to Joanna. “Okay, we have got to ditch these rags.”  

“I know,” Joanna said. Though the dresses allowed them to blend in with the crowd here, they might not get so lucky with the next man who pulled over looking for a good time. They might cause more of a scene than they wanted.  

Unsurprisingly, it was a seedy part of town; everywhere they looked were rundown brick apartment buildings with rusty fire escapes missing a few steps, cracked sidewalks, papers, rusted bed frames, bicycles, and other trash in the alleys, clothes lines stretching between the buildings holding a few worn items of clothing.  

Trying to sound casual, Joanna said, “If a person were to scream for help, I don’t suppose the residents would come running, would they?”  

“Nope.  Just your average mind-your-own-business sort of folks.”  

“Ah.  That’s what I thought.” For once, she wasn’t sure if this guaranteed anonymity was a good thing. 

They hurried along the sidewalk, keeping a lookout for both some clothes to steal and their pursuers. Down a trash-lined alley, Joanna spotted some clothes on a line strung from between the apartment buildings. She nudged Cody and pointed them out. Wordlessly, they moved down the alley. To Joanna’s dismay, at least, the clothes were large and masculine. Cody didn’t care. She grabbed the first shirt and pants she could reach and made her way to the darker part of the alley. Before Joanna had selected a change of clothes, the vixen emerged and buried the pink dress, fishnet hose, and high-heeled boots in the nearest trashcan.

Joanna couldn’t help snickering when Cody came closer. The vixen was dressed in a long ratty purple sweater that came past her knees and the yellow pants completely hid her feet.  More than ever, she looked like a little kid playing dress-up.  Frowning, she kept one hand on waist of the pants as she scanned the line. Finally, she selected a garish blue and purple tie that she promptly belted around her waist.  

“You should roll up your pants.” Joanna advised. “I don’t think you’ve grown into those yet.”  

“Hurry up.” The vixen quickly rolled up the sleeves of the sweater and pants legs.

Rolling her eyes, Joanna grabbed a dark green button-down shirt and a pair of dark blue pants. She changed quickly and trashed her own can-can costume. The length of her pants was okay, but she had to use a tan and green tie as a belt. Her shirt hung nearly to her knees, and the sleeves covered her hands.  She made a face.  

Not exactly my taste, but it’ll have to do.

* * *  

“I’ll never get the smoke out of my clothes,” Eggsucker complained.  

It was an improvement, but Rogers gave Buck a warning glance, silently commanding him not to comment.  Luckily, the chunky bear was too busy favoring his left foot to notice.  

“People are so rude when fleeing a burning building,” he said.  “One of them stepped on my foot!”  

Rogers sniffed his own clothes, and wrinkled his nose in distaste. “We’re lucky we got out at all.  In any case, let’s get back to the business at hand.”  

Careful questioning led them to the red-light district, where they stood on the corner, looking around as if they expected to see Joanna and Cody leaning up against a streetlight, waiting for them.  

“What now?”  Eggsucker asked.  

“They look nice. Let’s ask them,” Buck suggested timidly, pointing at the same two streetwalkers that Cody and Joanna had encountered earlier.  

Eggsucker brightened when he saw them.  “And if they don’t know nothing, who cares?”  

“We don’t have time for anything but getting information,” Rogers warned him.  “And for heaven’s sake, don’t cause another scene.  We’re lucky the police aren’t following us.”  

Eggsucker started forward, but again, Rogers stopped him.  I’ll do the talking.  Both of you stay back.  I can’t have you scaring them off.”  

The lion gave him a mocking salute.  “Yes, sir!”  

As Rogers approached the cats, Eggsucker leaned towards Buck and muttered, “Ten bucks says he doesn’t even try to cop a feel.”  

Buck looked confused.  “Why would he do that?”  

“Forget it.”  Disgusted, the lion stalked towards Rogers.  

The two felines watched the tall bear’s approach with interest, coolly assessing his potential as a customer.  

“You stink.” She regarded Rogers’s attire with distaste.  “What’d you do, start a fire?”  

“Good evening, ladies,” he said pleasantly.  “May I have a moment of your time?”  

“If that’s the best you can do, daddy,” the brunette cooed, regarding him frankly.  Her friend the calico giggled. “but it’ll still cost you five bucks a pop, same as anyone else.  I got a kid to feed.”  

Rogers cleared his throat.  “Ah, no… that’s not what I meant.  I merely wish to ask a few questions as to the whereabouts of two young women who might have passed by here…”

“Oh, yeah!” the calico interrupted.  “They tried to take our corner!”  

The dark-gray cat turned on her. “Shut up, Goldie!  No dirt until he pays up front!”  

“Hey, don’t bust my chops, Sadie!  I forgot, okay?”  She then addressed Rogers in a tougher voice. “So, you got the lettuce or not?”  

He reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a ruined leather billfold.  He pulled two fifties and gave one of them to Goldie, the calico.  

Sadie reached for the other bill, but he held it out of reach. “Hey, what about mine?”  

“Don’t be greedy.  You’ll get it when you tell me what I want to know.”  

“Fine.  Just gimme the money first.”  

He considered a less civilized line of questioning, but restrained himself.  “I don’t have time to argue.”  

Something cast a shadow over their faces, and they both took a step back, their eyes round with fear.  They were looking at something behind him.  

“Hi, girls,” Eggsucker said with cheerful menace.  “How’s tricks?” He pretended to rifle in his pocket.  “I know I had a penny somewhere…”  

Sadie’s eyes flashed in anger, but she knew his kind.  Taking a careful step back, she said warily, “Look, we don’t want trouble, okay?”

Rogers added, “And there will be none if you'd answer one simple question.”  

Goldie was much less composed than her colleague. “Just ask the stupid question, already!” she whined. “When are ya gonna leave us alone?”     

“When you tell me… everything,” he said smoothly. “What they looked like, what the car looked like, where they were headed… everything.”  

“We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no car.  Honest.  But they were wearing fluffy pink dresses.  Looked filthy.  They tried to take our corner.”  

“Which way did they go?” Rogers examined the bill in his hand with feigned interest.  

Simultaneously, Sadie and Goldie both pointed. “That way.”  

Crumpling the money, Rogers tossed it into the street.  “Thank you, ladies.  You have been most helpful.”  

Sadie barely managed to grab Goldie and keep her from running into the path of an oncoming truck.  The driver blared his horn and both felines jumped back onto the sidewalk, cursing.  Then, with a cautious glance up and down the street, Sadie dashed onto the street and snatched up the crumpled, filthy bill.   

Stuffing it into her brassiere, she muttered, "Creeps."  

Luckily for them, the men didn't hear. Gesturing to Buck and Eggsucker, Rogers led the way down the street, much to the felines’ relief.  

They poked around every alley down the street with painstaking care.  In an alley halfway down the street, Buck spotted something pink protruding from under the trash lid. He lifted it and began pawing through the contents. “Hey…what’s this?”   

Us, if we don’t deliver,” Rogers snapped. “For heaven’s sake, Buck, get out of the garbage. You don’t know where it’s been.”

“Sure I do.”  Buck pulled out Cody’s soiled dancer’s costume. “They were here."  

Eggsucker snatched it from him and inhaled deeply.  “Mmm… foxy.”  

“Good eye, Buck. You’re finally earning your keep.” Roger stopped and stared. “What in the world is that?” 

As they stepped off the sidewalk in front of the alley, they saw a big lump with flies buzzing around it.  

Buck squinted into the darkness and approached the mangled corpse and poked it cautiously with his toe. “I think it’s dead.”   

"Ugh! Of course it’s dead!” Rogers admonished him. “Don't touch it, you dimwit!  It’s full of germs.”  

“Poor doggie,” Buck cooed.  “You never had a chance, did you?”  He frowned.  “Um, I think you were a dog…?”  

“Buck, stop playing with that thing this instant!  We have to find those girls or Hardin’ll have our heads!”  

“Maybe they didn’t get out of that fire,” Eggsucker said reasonably.  “Did you ever think of that?”

Rogers snorted. “Oh, they got out, all right.  They’ve got more lives than the proverbial cat.  Either they’re smart --- or very lucky.”  

“Well, smart only takes you so far,” Eggsucker replied.  He kicked a can.  “And luck always runs out.”  

They were a startling sight, this group.  There was tall, elegantly slender Rogers, whose left eye was swollen shut as if he’d gotten in a barroom brawl and who kept trying to brush the dirt off his well-tailored, yet rumpled suit.  Buck was just as rumpled, but didn’t notice.  His sole concern was focused on his foot that had been stomped in the stampede to get out of the nightclub.  Filthiest—and smelliest—of all was Eggsucker, who towered over both Buck and Rogers.  His ill-fitting shirt was even more stained than when he had danced with Joanna at Jons’s place and several scratches on his face attested to the fact that at least one of his victims hadn’t gone quietly into that good night.  He still favored his wounded arm slightly, but the bandage had long since fallen off and he hadn’t bothered to replace it.  

The lion saw the stirring Freddy, who was muttering something about women and trouble. “Heh.  I bet he knows.”   

He bent and hauled the semi-conscious cougar in the air, causing his feet to dangle high off the ground.  “Rise and shine, Shorty.”

Despite having a broken nose, the lion’s fetid breath reached Freddy’s nostrils, nearly making him pass out.  “Wha--?”  

“The girls! Where’d they go?  Talk.”  

“My head’s ringing.  I can’t think with you breathing on me!”  He pronounced it ‘breeding’.  

The giant smiled nastily, displaying his ugly yellow teeth. “You don’t have to ‘breed’ at all, little man.”  

Rogers held up a hand, stopping him. “Were they dressed like dancing girls?  Two lady bears and a vixen?”  

“Lady bears!  Just one… and that was no lady and neither was that vixen! They beat me up and took my stolen car!  I was looking for a filling station and---!”  

“So what way did they go?” Rogers said impatiently.  “They couldn’t have gotten far. This town isn’t big enough to hide in.”  

“Wait,” Buck said timidly, “what if we go to the filling station and wait for them?”  

“We need a car, stupid!”  

Freddy swallowed hard and thought fast.  Showing weakness would be an invitation for something worse. “Look, I ain’t no squealer.  I-I’m on the lam myself!” 

“Well, I’ve never seen you before.” Rogers gave a delicate snort.  “If you don’t mind my saying so, if you were a criminal of distinction, surely you would have made a name for yourself by now.” 

“Hey, I steal!  I’m a master of disguise!  I bamboozle sweet little old ladies out of their life’s savings!  I’m bad to the bone!  Please, ya gotta believe me!  I’m on the level!” He managed to turn his head from Eggsucker’s breath to look at the other two pleadingly.  

“We don’t care,” Rogers snapped.  His left eye throbbed painfully, irritating him even more.  “We’re not interested in some two-bit con artist!  If you have information, I’d suggest you give it to us or your last moments will be most… unpleasant.”

Buck squinted at the trembling cougar, then brightened.  “Wow.  I know you!  I saw your wanted poster at the post office.  “I had to buy some stamps so I could write to my grandma in Hodgepodge City---!”  

“Yes!” Freddy cried, for once grateful that someone recognized him.  “I’m the Man With No Name, aka Freddy Fingers, aka Freddy Koogar, aka Frederick---!”  

“Shut up!” Eggsucker barked.

“I know that little tramp… she’s tricky --- and about the nastiest piece of work I ever met.   If she’s the one you’re after, I’ll tell you everything I know!”  He nasally jabbered on, terrified and yet excited that he would get that bitch at last.  

“So,” Rogers said afterward, stroking his chin thoughtfully.  “She lives on the carnival grounds outside Land’s End?  What was the old lady’s name again?”  

“Helen.  Helen Haley.”  Suddenly, Freddy stopped talking, slowly realizing the events he was setting in motion, yet unable to stop it.  He gulped.  “Look, you’re not going to hurt her, are you?  She’s just a harmless old bat.  It’s Joanna you want.”  

“Who the hell’s Joanna?”  

“The girl I told you about.  The one you’re looking for.”  

“Can you beat that?  She told me her name was Lydia. What a liar.” Eggsucker scowled as he tried to think. “Hmmm… hey, fellas… if we don’t catch them, we can always go to the fairground and pay this Helen dame a little visit.  Y’know… leave Joanna and her little friend something to remember us by.”  

“Well, let’s call it Plan B and save it as a last resort,” Rogers reluctantly agreed.  “I don’t like carnivals.  It’s always full of screaming kids.”  

“But I like carnivals,” Buck protested.  

“Yes, Buck.  I know.”

“If you're lyin',” Eggsucker told Freddy, “I'll be back to peel ya like a grape.”  

“I’m not lyin’! I swear!”  

“Good boy.  Okay, we’re done.”  Satisfied, the lion caught his face and jammed it deeply into his right armpit, held him there for a few seconds, then felt him go limp.  He tossed him aside, and the unconscious cougar dropped to the ground like a rag doll.  

Rogers glanced around.  So far everyone was distracted with the rooftop fire—no one had noticed their little interrogation.  But the firemen were getting the blaze under control and people were shifting their attention elsewhere, looking for some other catastrophe.  

“Let’s get out of here.”  The tall bear turned on his heel, head down as he walked quickly, but casually away from the scene.  

Buck paused. “You hear something?”  

“No.  Like what?”  

“I dunno.  Sounded like heavy breathing or something.”  

“No, that’s Hardin breathing down our necks,” Rogers said sourly, nervously looking around, as if he believed it.  “Come on.  Let’s see if we can pick up their trail.”  

After they’d gone --- nearly an hour later --- two beat cops discovered the unconscious Freddy and picked him up as a drunk.  When they got him to the station, on of the officers at the front desk recognized him from all his wanted posters.   

“Well, if it isn’t the slippery con man Freddy ‘Fingers’ Koogar!”  

Freddy’s eyelids flickered, then he squinted against the lights.  “Huh?"

* * *    

Joanna and Cody had encountered no other problems in the red-light district.  There was, however, a problem with the night’s lodging.  Though it wasn’t too late, both were exhausted and in need of a good night’s sleep.

 

“We can go to the docks,” Cody suggested.  “There are a few fish canneries that--!”  

No,” Joanna interrupted.  “I don’t want to spend another night in some abandoned building.  I want a bed!”

“But if we go to a hotel, they’ll find us.  There aren’t that many hotels around here,” Cody said.

“Well, I’m not staying in another abandoned building,” Joanna said stubbornly.  “My back’s killing me from lying on that hard floor.  And on top of that, I had to do splits!”

Cody rolled her eyes and muttered, “Poor baby.” 

What?” Joanna asked sharply. 

“I said 'poor baby.'  You only did one split and you didn't even do it that well.”  

“Whatever.” Too tired to think of a clever retort, Joanna waved her away impatiently. “I’m sick of living like this.”

“Then what do you want to do?”
 

“Don’t you have any friends who’ll hide us?”  

“None I’d trust.”  

“Great.” Then Joanna’s eyes lit up.  “Wait a minute, this is stupid.  Why are we running?  Let’s just bump them off!” She slammed her fist into the palm of her hand.  

Cody looked at her oddly. “You don't do that anymore, remember?  What about being dead before you’re thirty?”  

“Looks like it's turning out that way anyhow.  I'm sick of being chased.  I say we end this thing right now.”

“How?”

“Let me think.”

“I don’t believe this.  After lecturing me about leaving ‘the life’, you’re suggesting that we set up a hit?”  

“No.  An ambush.”

Cody looked at her in disbelief.  “An ambush?  What are we, hunting now?”  

“Yep.”  Joanna studied the trash that lined the alley through narrowed eyes.  “And there should be something in here we could use.  Let’s see….”  

With the vixen watching in disbelief, Joanna piled glass shards in a dented metal bucket with a broken handle. 

“When they come by, I’ll throw this to distract them,” she explained.  “Then, we’ll strike.”  

“Uh-huh.”  Cody folded her arms across her chest.  “And how are you going to get them here again?”  

“Bait, what else?”  Joanna straightened suddenly and smiled at her in a way that Cody didn’t like in the least.  

Bait?” repeated the vixen.  “I thought we were hunting, not fishing.”  

“They can’t be that far behind us.  All we need is somebody who looks like an easy victim...!”  

Cody snorted, interrupting her.  “Yeah, too bad ol’ Babs ain’t here.”  

“Oh, I wasn’t thinking of her.”  

“Then… no.  Oh, no!”  

“C’mon!  All you have to do is find them and get them to follow you.  Just pretend that you’re lost or terrified or something.” Joanna patted her head.  Cody jerked away and glared at her.  

“No!  This is a stupid idea!”  

“You got something better?”  

“Look, Diz, I’m all for getting rid of these morons, but why can’t we just get ‘em when they’re coming around a corner or something?”  

“You want to wait around for them all night?”  

Scowling, Cody dropped her gaze and muttered something Joanna couldn’t understand.

“What was that?” Joanna asked.  

“Nothing.”  Cody looked up at her, eyes narrowed.  “It’s still a stupid idea.”  

The other woman made a grand gesture.  “Anytime you think of something better, I’m all ears.  Now get going so I can set something up here.  There’s lots of junk we could use.”  

“If I had my knife--!”  

“Well, you don’t, so quit griping and get going.”  

Still grumbling under her breath, Cody turned on her heel and stalked away, more to get away from Joanna than anything else.  A flash of something half-hidden in the shadows caught her eye and she stopped for long enough to see what it was.  Who knew when you might find a quarter?  To her delight, she found something better than a quarter—it was a jagged piece of a broken mirror.  With a furtive glance at Joanna, who was busy muttering to herself and scanning the alley, she snatched it up and slid it up her sleeve.  

Now, what am I supposed to do?  Just wander around ‘til I bump into ‘em?  

Still, common sense told her to backtrack to the main street of the red-light district.  That’s where they’d been and if their pursuers were any kind of trackers, that’s where they’d have followed them.  She strolled down the street almost casually, keeping a sharp eye out for trouble.  A few people that she passed gave her curious stares, which she returned with a cold stare of her own.  

“There she is!”  

At the excited cry, Cody’s head snapped up and she looked around wildly, expecting to be attacked.  A dark shape shoved past her and she let out an involuntary yell and reached for the mirror shard.  Then, her attention came to rest on a burly group of sailors who was congregating around a gaudily dressed, well-endowed vixen.  She threw herself into the arms of one of the sailors, laughing as he lifted her and spun her around.  

Cody breathed a sigh of relief and kept walking.  

She was beginning to think that they really had given their pursuers the slip.  

Which means Diz’s wasting her time setting a trap.  We should be puttin’ more distance between them and us.  

Just as she resolved to go back and tell Joanna that, she caught sight of their pursuers.  They were walking purposefully down the street towards her, grimly ignoring the prostitutes who got in their way.  She froze, heart beginning to hammer.  Then, she forced herself to move towards them.  

“Hey!  Isn’t that one of them, Rogers?” the stocky one asked.  

The tall one squinted in Cody’s direction.  “Why, yes, Buck,” he said as one would to a very slow-witted child.  The vixen half-expected him to pat the bear on the head and give him a treat.  

“Get ‘er,” the lion growled.  

The three men began to shove their way through the crowded streets while Cody watched their approach.  

I’m gonna kill Dizzy.  

With a fear that was only marginally feigned, she pretended to be rooted to the spot in sheer terror.  Her fingers itched to use the mirror shard, but she didn’t think that was the behavior of a helpless victim.  When they were almost close enough to grab her, she whirled and pelted back towards Joanna’s chosen ambush site.  

I hope she’s ready!  

As she ran, she turned and glanced over her shoulder occasionally and gave unconvincing little shrieks, like she’d seen a lot of female patrons at the bar do when they had fights with their men.  

This is sooo humiliating.  I’m gonna hate myself in the morning.  

She turned a corner and realized that she’d cornered herself.  The wall at the end was too high for her to climb, the trashcans weren’t against it, and she had no time to drag one over to use as a ladder.  Thinking quickly, she hunkered behind a discarded mattress as her pursuers stormed into the alley.  

The stocky auburn bear’s petulant voice rose. “Where’d she go?”  

“Now, Buck, she can’t have gotten over that wall unless she’s got wings we don’t know about.  She’s here.  Just… hiding.”  Rogers’s eyes narrowed and he surveyed the alley.  

Eggsucker began carelessly tossing aside broken bicycles and other trash.  While he was still at the far end of the alley, Cody sprang from her hiding place and raced down the alley.  

“There she is!” she heard Buck cry delightedly, as if they were playing a game of hide-and-seek.  

She didn’t want to think about the consequences of being caught in this game, however.  Instead, she focused her sole attention on running.  She was in fairly good shape, but wasn’t sure how much longer she could go on.  

Oh, Dizzy, please be ready, she thought again as she turned into the alley where she’d left Joanna.  

There was no sign of her, but Cody didn’t think anything of it.  She just assumed the other woman was hiding, ready to spring whatever trap she had in mind.  

As her three pursuers loomed in the entrance and nothing untoward happened, however, she began to get suspicious.  

Come on, Dizzy!  

“It’s… over..”  Rogers panted as he stalked towards her.  

Quelling her panic, Cody backed away slowly, hand going to the mirror shard concealed in her sleeve as she did some rapid calculations.  She’d have to use the makeshift knife on Eggsucker—he was obviously the most dangerous.  Buck was stupid, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t hurt her.  As for Rogers, she’d have to take him out pretty quickly.  The venom in his tone and hatred in his eyes scared her and she didn’t want to give him a chance.

C’mon… a little closer…  

She drew back her arm and prepared to throw the weapon.  

Before she could, however, two things happened.  Rogers shouted a warning to the lion, who had been steadily advancing on Cody, and out of nowhere, a bucket filled with broken glass crashed to the ground just to her left.  Startled, she flung the mirror shard, which shattered against the wall.  She glanced up to see Joanna, hidden in the shadows of the fire escape above them.  

“Nice going, Shrimp!” she yelled, scurrying down the ladder.  “You screwed it up.  Now run!  

Picking their way with hasty care over the broken glass, they hurried down the alley while their pursuers were distracted with brushing glass from their clothes. They followed the two women out of the red-light district, across several streets of businesses, and into a more residential section, where Cody and Joanna hid in the gardens to rest.  

The women ducked behind a hedge and stared at each other with unconcealed hostility. Two days on the run with very little sleep and constant worry finally took its toll.  Both were ready to snap.

“What happened? Why didn’t you get out of the way?”  Joanna demanded.  “I didn’t even get a decent shot at them.”  

“Tell them that,” Cody retorted.  She was so tired. “How was I supposed to know what you were planning?  You didn’t tell me anything!”  

“Some bait.  You were supposed to look helpless.  Now they’re on to us!”  

“Y’know, I could have kept going. You’re lucky I came back at all.”  

Lucky?  You led them to me!”

“This is all your fault!” Cody yelled at her. “It was your bright idea that got ‘em on our tails.”

“What do you mean, my fault?” Joanna yelled back.  

“You’re the one who led those guys to Jons’s in the first place.  We wouldn’t in this mess if you’d have just---just---!”  

“Just what?”  Joanna glared at her fiercely.  “Exactly what should I have done?  I ducked into that crowded bar to save my neck.”  

“Jons was almost killed because of you!”  

“Wrong.  Bars don’t exactly attract the tea-and-crumpet set.  It was bound to happen someday.   What was I supposed to do, stay in that alley and sacrifice myself so you and your precious Jons wouldn’t get hurt?”  

“You don’t think of anyone but yourself.”  

“Don’t lecture me, kid.  You’d have done the same thing.”  

“That’s it!”  Cody snapped, standing up.  “You’re nothing but trouble.  Bad for my health.  A jinx.  I’m outta here.  You wanna get yourself killed, you do it on your own.”  

“Fine!  Who needs you? You were slowing me down, anyway.”  Joanna turned her back.  “I’m hopping on the first bus out of this hell hole.  You’re on your own, Shrimp!”

”Fine!”  Cody started to walk away.  

Joanna was determined to have the last word.  Fine!  

The vixen turned her head to fire back, “Fine!  

“Fine --- infinity!”  

“Fine --- double infinity!” Cody said, not to be outdone, and kept going, increasing the distance between them.  

Triple infinity!  Infinity times a billion squared!”  Joanna’s voice grew fainter.  

Cody tried to top that one, but finally snorted and gave up.  Instead, she raised her third finger in a rude salute and angrily kept walking.  

Real mature, Shrimp!” Joanna put her hands on her hips, adding snidely, “And I win!”

Cody stormed down the street, too angry to watch where she was going.  She slammed into people, who cursed at her, but she ignored that, too.  

Bimbo.  Brainless.  That’s what you all do, ain’t it?  Leave when it gets tough.

She tried to appease her anger by calling Joanna every mean name in the book, but it didn’t really help.  She was alone now—truly alone. That lousy tramp was probably boarding a bus now, headed for wherever it was she was from.  

But do you blame her? a tiny voice asked. Cody’s shoulders sagged.  Then, she squared them stubbornly.  Yes.  She got me into this mess and didn’t even stay around to help me get out of it.  

Common sense told her they both could very well have left town.  She could have laid low for a while, then come back when the whole mess blew over.  But there was Jons.  She owed the bartender, as a friend, to help keep his own neck safe.  She wouldn’t have felt right just to leave without a word to him and show up several months—or even years later.  

“Hey, little girl.  Where you off to in such a hurry?”  

Strong arms clamped around her shoulders and she snapped out of her reverie to find herself facing their pursuers.  She kicked the smelly lion in the shins.  He grunted, but didn’t let go and she began to struggle, which only made him grip her more tightly.  

“I wouldn’t if I were you, miss,” Rogers said calmly, flashing his gun at her.  “I would hate to use this in such an exposed place, but if you leave me no choice…”  

He didn’t have to finish the threat—and something in his eyes told her he wouldn’t hesitate, either.  One of his eyes was blackened and swollen, but the other glowed with unmistakable hatred.  Looking at his expression, something in her changed.  She lost the will to fight and slumped in Eggsucker’s arms, her head bowed.  

“Smart girl,” Rogers said.  He leaned closer and whispered viciously, “And I’m going to make sure Hardin gives you to me.”  

She shuddered, but offered no protest as the three formed an escort around her, Eggsucker’s hand like steel on her arm.
 

End of Part 8

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