The Whole Damsel Thing

Part 9 of 10

 

Joanna stalked blindly down the nearly deserted streets, too angry to really pay much attention to where she was going.  

Idiot.  What did she expect me to do?  And why did she have to go and ruin my plan?  It would have been perfect if she’d just gotten out of the way.  

And there was a small part of her that was angry with herself for actually starting to like the impulsive vixen.  

Well, it’s not my problem anymore.  I don’t even know how I got mixed up in it in the first place.  As soon as I find that bus station, I’m outta here.  

It was then that she realized that she had no idea where she was, let alone where to find the bus station; it was far too late for any place where she could safely ask for directions to be open.  Staying in Land’s End till morning wasn’t an option. 

As she was debating about what to do, a disheveled, sobbing creature grabbed her arm.  Repulsed, Joanna started to jerk away, but paused when the thing spoke.

“You left me!”  

She squinted.  Babette?  

Wiping soot from her face, the petite bear looked up at her reproachfully.  “Nice of you to notice!”  

“Where have you been?”  

“Like you care.”  Babette tried in vain to clean her face with the equally filthy hem of her dress.  Her red wig was sideways on her head, and platinum curls crept out from beneath it.  She studied Joanna through reddened eyes.  “And what are you wearing?”  

Self-consciously, Joanna rolled up the sleeves and tried not to think of the huge sweat stains on the back and underarms of the shirt.  “Clothes.” 

Before Babette could retort, a familiar, rough voice that made them creep a little closer to the shadows of a nearby shop awning.  

“Shut up,” Eggsucker snarled.  

“But Mister Hardin will be so glad we got one of them, maybe he won’t care about Babette,” Buck said brightly.  

Joanna peeked around the corner to see Buck, Rogers, and Eggsucker turn down a side street and she gasped.

“What?  What is it?” Babette poked her head around the corner and her voice dropped to a frightened whisper. “Look!  They’ve got your friend!”  

Joanna swore softly.  “Damn!”  

“My leg is cramping up.  I have to move.”  

“No, don’t! They’ll hear you!" Urgently, she waved the other to silence. “Of all the hiding places we could have picked, we had to pick this one.”  

“Th-they’ll kill her!”  

“Shut up! I have to think.”  

Babette began to whine.  “Oh, it’s useless!  They’ll find us and tear us apart and James will send me home in pieces!”  

Shut up!” Joanna hissed.  “You were his girlfriend… or whatever.  Now think.  Where would they be taking her?”  

Babette looked at her wide-eyed.  “You… you can’t mean we’re going after her, do you?  That’s suicide!”  

Biting her lip, Joanna thought hard about rescuing the captured vixen.  True, presenting Cody to their boss might make the goons forget about her.  While they were doing whatever it was they were going to do with Cody, Joanna could hop the next bus out of town and put the whole mess behind her.  She could even knock Babette over the head, swipe the cash, and have even more to add to the nest egg she’d begun to save.  

Why should I go back for her?  What do I owe her, anyway?  

Then she sighed. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”  

With a few threats, Joanna pried the information she needed out of the reluctant gun moll.  As they made their way to the factory that Hardin used as a cover for a hideout, Babette alternated between muttering darkly and whining.  Joanna seriously thought about killing her, but decided against it.  

Who knows?  I might need her for something.  

It was early morning and the edges of the sky were just beginning to be tinged with pink and orange as the two made their way across an empty yard.  A wire fence surrounded the factory, but the gate was open.  Joanna slipped inside without a word and stood, staring at the massive brick building.  

“They’re here,” Babette quavered.  “Let’s get out of here, huh?  I mean, it’s dangerous.  They’ll kill us!”  

It was likely, but Joanna didn’t want to think of that now.  She needed a plan.  

“How do we get in?” she asked abruptly.  

Babette just stared at her, wide-eyed, so Joanna did the only thing she could think of.  She grabbed the smaller woman and shook her.  Hard.  

The door—where is it?  

Babette jerked away as her wig fell to the ground.  “Hey! You don’t have to be so rough.  The main entrance is around the corner.”  

“Is there another way in?”  

“Do we have to do this?”  

Joanna heaved an exasperated sigh.  “Look, why don’t you just get out of here?  I can do this better on my own.”  

“Fine.” Babette sniffed and scooped up her wig.  “Where do you want your remains sent?”  

She backed away, her eyes fearfully darting from side to side as if she expected an ambush at any moment.  Joanna watched as she turned and hurried away.  

Well, that was easy.  

With a sigh, she thought longingly of her trailer back at the carnival.  Even if it did reek of horses, at least she could get some sleep there.  Then, she gave herself a mental shake. 

Get it together.  Concentrate. 

Deciding that she’d wasted enough time, she crept up to the building, alert for any sign of an ambush.  She saw nothing except for a couple of rats, which nearly made her scream and give herself away.  Resolutely clamping her mouth shut, she quickly scouted around the building.  The main entrance was, as Babette told her, around the corner, but Joanna ignored that.  Instead, she searched for another way in.  Around the back of building, she found it.  A row of windows lined the wall and when she cautiously peeked into one, she saw that barrels and wooden crates were piled high in front of them. 

Perfect. 

It took a little work to get the rusty hinges to give and they made too much noise for Joanna’s liking, but she finally eased open one window enough for her to slide through.  Landing in a crouch, she ducked behind a barrel and peeked out. 

Her nose immediately started to tingle in a way that told her she was about to sneeze.  Frantically, she swiped at her nose with her sleeve and pressed her arm hard against her mouth until the tingle had stopped.  Then, she peered over the barrels. 

She was in a large room with concrete floors and walls and metal rafters looped with chains on the ceiling.  A metal catwalk skirted the perimeter of the room and three huge vats sat just under the catwalk.  

She saw them across the room.  Rogers and Buck were arguing about who would call Hardin while Eggsucker carried Cody over his shoulder.  He abruptly tossed her to the floor where she landed with a grunt and hastily scrambled to her feet.  

“He has to be called, Buck,” Rogers pointed out.  

“Yeah, but last time he yelled!” Buck shuddered at the memory.  

“But this time, he’ll be… happy to hear from you.”  

“Then why don’t you call him?”  

Eggsucker, who had been watching them argue, growled.  “One of you dips call him so I can have some fun.”  He leered at Cody.  

The vixen glared at him.  

“Well, I--!”  Rogers broke off, frowning.  “Do you hear that?”  

“What?”  Buck looked around as if he expected the sound to materialize above their heads.  

“I thought---there it is again!”  Rogers pulled out his revolver, glad that they’d taken the time to stop and get more bullets, and moved silently into the shadows beneath the stairwell.  

Joanna breathed a sigh of relief as he went in the opposite direction of her hiding place.  Then, she experienced a wave of shock as she heard a familiar voice squawk, “Take your damned mitts off me, you bum!  Let me go!”  

Joanna groaned inwardly.  You idiot!  

“What are you doing here?  I thought ---!”  Then Buck quickly changed it to, “Babsie, what happened to your hair?  It’s crooked.”  

The former moll saw Buck and pleaded, “Frank!  Make him let me go!”  

“You promised,” Buck reminded Rogers.  

“Why not?  She’s not going anywhere.” The elegant gangster released Babette, who shot him a dirty look. “What are you doing here?  And where’s the other one?”  

Although her hands trembled as she adjusted her wig, she managed to say snottily, “Go to hell, you pantywaist!”  

For a fleeting moment, Joanna admired her.  Wow, you’ve got more brass than I gave you credit for.  

“You first, my dear strumpet,” Rogers answered.  And, seeing Eggsucker’s eyes brighten, warned, “Don’t even think about it, Schwartz.  Babette is Hardin’s girl.  She’s off-limits.”  

The lion looked disappointed, then shrugged.  “Fine.  I don’t like redheads anyway.”  

He noticed Cody trying to creep away.  Grabbing her fluffy tail, he jerked her back to him hard.  

“Hardin will deal with her.” The handsome bear added maliciously, “He’ll probably kill you for running out on him.”  

“I didn’t run out on him!”  She stamped her foot.  “I was shopping!”  

Rogers said scornfully, “Oh, come now.  You're not that good a liar.  Look how fast Hardin found out you were gone.”

Her face turned tomato-red with rage. “Okay, okay!  I overheard James talking on the phone and I thought you guys would louse it up, so I tried to find them myself.  Nobody thinks I can do anything, but those days are over.  I’m just as good as anybody else, and I want some respect!”  

For a moment the room was struck dumb.  Then both Rogers and Eggsucker burst out laughing.  Buck watched sadly, but for once, said nothing.  

“Now, really,” Rogers said, as he removed a white linen handkerchief from his breast pocket to wipe his eyes.  “Why don’t you just admit that you were eavesdropping as usual and got caught?”  

“I wasn’t caught!  I mean --- the other one’ll be here any minute.  I just stopped by to watch the fun.”  

“What do you mean?”  

“You dummy!  I mean, she’s right here in this room.”  

Frantically, Joanna looked around for an escape route.  

“Uh-huh.” Eggsucker peered at her.  “And where is she?”  

“Hiding!  What else would she be doing?”  Babette scowled.  

Rogers eyed Cody.  “Somebody needs to watch this one while the rest of us go look for the other one.”  He paused, remembering Smitty.  “Maybe two of us need to watch her.”

“Lot of trouble for one pint-sized bitch,” Eggsucker said.  

Babette grinned at Cody.  “Oh, this one won’t be any trouble.  There’s one way to keep her in line.”  

Rogers glared at her darkly.  “And how is that, pray tell?”  

The moll sauntered over and whispered something in his ear.  His face took on a look of refined disgust and he conveyed her message to Buck and Eggsucker.  The former looked as disgusted as Rogers, but the latter leered at the vixen.  

“’Sat so?” He stepped towards her deliberately.  

Cody tried to look disinterested, but her hands trembled as he caressed her shoulders and pushed aside the wide neck of the stolen sweater to run a finger along the delicate line of her collarbone.  She lashed out with her bound wrists, but he caught them in one hand and laughed at her.  

Eggsucker ran a finger between the vixen’s breasts and down her torso.  Her reserve broke and she gave an involuntary whimper as she began to shake.  Satisfied with her reaction, he stopped.  

“This is going to be fun,” he said.  

From the shadows, Joanna watched as Eggsucker intimidated Cody.  Even if the vixen had been an idiot to let them catch her, Joanna felt rage course through her when she saw the Cody's agonized expression and heard her whimper.  She had a feeling she knew what Babette had told the men, and just why the lion was taking his time.  

In a sickening moment of clarity, it suddenly occurred to her that while she and Cody were confiding in each other in the warehouse that the third woman had been listening to them.  Babette knew about their criminal pasts, and most frightening of all -- their weaknesses.

To Joanna’s surprise, there was a crash of boxes at the other end of the warehouse.  Babette shrieked.  

Rogers looked up, startled. “What in the world was that?”  

“I think your friend will be joining us, little lady,” she heard Eggsucker say to Cody.  He drew his gun.  “I think we’d better give her a warm welcome.”  

“Right!” Buck followed suit.  “Lead the way, Eggy!”  

“Quit calling me that, you dung beetle!”  

“Okay, Eggy.”  

Rogers just barely managed to keep Eggsucker from pounding Buck into the ground.  

“Stay here,” Rogers commanded Babette.  

While Babette and the goons were distracted by the commotion, Joanna watched as they left and started to go help Cody, but stopped when she heard the clamor of bullets striking wood, and saw pieces of it fly in all directions. 

In a moment, she heard their voices again.  

“She’s not there.”  

“Maybe it was just a kitty knocking over the boxes.”  Buck stroked his chin, trying to look grimly contemplative.  “A really big kitty.”  

Then, Joanna had a flash of inspiration. She looked around until she found something to throw.  Her eyes lit on a container full of nuts, bolts, and assorted other hardware.  Scooping up a handful, she hurled them to the far side of the warehouse where they landed on the gangway above the three huge vats of chemicals in the center of the room with a resounding crash.  A few of the nuts bounced down the metal stairs, making it sound like footsteps.  

The men and Babette paused.  

“I don’t think we’re alone.” Rogers’s eyes scanned the room and he pulled his gun from his jacket.  “Schwartz, take care of her, then come help us take a look around.”  

Eggsucker leered at Cody.  “Gladly.”  

Rogers caught his arm and gave him a warning glare.  “Just… hang her over the acid for now.  Don’t hurt her.  I want that pleasure for myself.”  

Grumbling, the lion did as he was told, mainly because it wasn’t the vixen he was after.  If it had been Joanna, he would have done with her as he wanted and told Rogers exactly what he could do with himself if he didn’t like it.  Grabbing Cody by the ankles, he jerked her off her feet, tied them together, and carried her up the stairs to the nearest chemical vat, which had TOXICO emblazoned on the side.  

Cody suddenly felt nauseous.  She wasn’t sure which would be worse, an agonizing death by acid or an agonizing death by whatever torture Rogers had in mind.  As Eggsucker hung her on a hook over the acid, she fought back, trying to punch and kick him, so he slapped her hard enough to leave her dazed.

“I can still smell that perfume.  You really need a bath.” Eggsucker whispered, then suddenly licked her cheek.  She tried to bite him, but he dodged, laughing at her.

Rogers smiled without humor. “Don’t worry, she’ll get one.”  

Joanna noticed that the vixen’s eyes were closed, but couldn’t tell if it was from unconsciousness or fear.  She heard their captors crashing around somewhere in the back  

Doesn’t matter.  Now for Step 2.  

Suddenly, Cody’s own voice came out of the darkness. “Well, darn! Which way is the exit?”  

Cody was momentarily taken aback.  That-that’s me!  

She heard her captor’s footsteps pause.  Then Eggsucker cursed.  

“How’d she get loose?” Babette asked.  

“We’d better find her or Hardin’ll have us boiled in acid,” Rogers said.  

From her hiding place behind some wooden crates, Joanna stifled a feral grin.  Then, for good measure, she spoke in a loud stage whisper, making it sound as if Cody were on the far side of the warehouse.  “Crap!”  

For good measure, she scanned the dirty floor and found an empty canister.  She picked it up, took a deep breath, and threw it as hard as she could.  The canister sailed over their heads, but not low enough for them to see it.  She cringed as it clipped one of the rafters before it bounced against one of the smaller vats and skittered across the floor until it disappeared under the gangway.  

“Oh boy! She’s this way!  Come on!” Buck cried.  He leaped forward, as excited as a hound on a foxhunt --- which, of course, he was.  

As Babette and the goons’s footsteps became fainter, she cautiously came out of hiding and hurried up the gangway to Cody.

The vixen stared with fascination at the green liquid swirling in the vat below her, until the fumes made her eyes water, and she had to shut them tight. Would it be quick? she wondered.  In a sudden flash of overactive imagination, she pictured the acid burning through her flesh, her bones. Her stomach churned unpleasantly and she sternly told herself not to throw up. She didn’t want to give these thugs the satisfaction.  

This is it. Oh, why didn’t I listen to Jons when he told me to give up this killing business?  

A familiar voice interrupted her thoughts.  “Hi.  Need some help?”

She turned her head slightly and saw Joanna leaning over the catwalk, smirking.  

“Shut up and get me down!”  

“Okay, okay. Keep your shirt on.”  

“The shirt ain’t what I’m worried about.”  

Joanna reached over, careful not to look down.  It took two tries to snag the end of the vixen’s sweater, which was practically smothering her.  Carefully, she pulled Cody towards her. “This would be so much easier if you could grab my hands,” she complained.  

“Well, I can’t.”  

Every muscle tense, ears straining to hear their captors return, Joanna finally managed to get Cody over the catwalk.  She unhooked the ropes and winced as Cody crashed onto the metal platform.

“Ow!”  

“Sorry.”  Quickly, she untied the vixen, who got shakily to her feet and leaned against the wall, eyes closed.  

“Th-thanks,” she stammered after a moment.  “You know, your southern accent is much better now.”  

“Come on,” Joanna said urgently.  

Without waiting for a reply, she turned and ran down the gangway, intent only on getting out of there and heading for the bus station.  Cody staggered after her, head pounding from inhaling the chemicals.  

Joanna stopped and tried to pull her along.  Hurry, damn it!”  

She fought a wave of dizziness. “Can’t… head hurts…”  

“You gotta do this.  Come on, one foot in front of the other --- let’s go!  

“Look out!”  Cody screamed.  Because Joanna was distracted in pulling her along, they slammed into a solid wall of a bear --- Hardin.  He caught each by the collar and jerked them both off their feet.  

Aw, no! Cody thought.  

Babette froze.  

“Boss!  Wh-what’re you doing here?” Buck’s voice quavered.  He recovered.  “I mean --- wow, great, you got ‘em!”  

“Shut up.” Hardin glared at his henchmen. “You nearly shot me, you idiots!”  

Eggsucker blinked. “Oops.”  

“One more ‘oops’ and you’ll be missing more than just your brain.” Then he turned to glower at his henchmen.  “And you morons!  Do you realize you messed up my new jacket?  What were you thinking?  What were you shooting at, anyway?”  

“Don’t blame him, boss,” Buck said earnestly, “It was just an honest mistake.  We thought you were a kitty.” 

Hardin’s fists clenched hard around Joanna and Cody’s collars, causing them to choke.  “A kitty?  You wasted all your bullets over what you thought was a damned cat?  And for this, I pay you big bucks!”  

He flung his captives to the ground.  They immediately scrambled to their feet, but took one look at Hardin’s gang, which surrounded them, and made no move to run.  

The mob boss wasn’t finished ranting.  Crossing his arms over his chest, he pinned each of them with a raptor-like stare.  “And guess what I just found out?  The Laramie Company paid ten G’s to snuff Galloway before he could get back to me with their plans.  Ten G’s!  So I had to put a bounty on the killer’s head, just to let people know I mean business.”  He sighed heavily and Joanna felt Cody stiffen beside her.  When she looked, the vixen had paled slightly. “It hasn’t been a good morning, boys, and I come here at an urgent phone call to tell me you’ve caught something interesting and then I get shot at?  If I didn’t know better, I’d say I had a problem in the ranks.”  

The three men looked confused.  Rogers was the first to voice what they were all thinking. “Phone call?  But… sir, we only just got here ourselves.  We didn’t call you.”  

A quaking but defiant voice piped up. “I did.”  

For the first time, Hardin noticed Babette and did a double take. “Baby doll, where in Sam Hill have you been all this time?  I send you on a spree and you don’t come back.  That makes me worry, and I don’t like it when people make me worry.”  

Babette began, “Puddin’, I---!”  

Joanna thought:  Oh puddin’, I’m so sorry.  I got lost in the lingerie department again.  

Then Hardin remembered that others were listening and toughened his tone.  “What the hell are you doing here, Babette?”

"How'd you get in here, anyway?" Joanna asked, curious in spite of herself.  Somehow she couldn't see Babette crawling through windows or air ducts. 

“The front door, how else?”  Babette said contemptuously. “I knew you were around somewhere, so I had to come in and tell the boys.”

You bitch!

“You’re the ones who ditched me and left me in that burning building to die! You didn’t even go back to see if I was alive.”  

“We thought you were dead. Why would we go back?” 

“Oh, right, I should’ve known,” Babette said sarcastically.  “You left that old lady and the rest of them to die at that hotel, too.”  

“How’d you…” Then Joanna mentally slapped herself.  Of course Babette had overheard that part too.  

The former moll turned to go. “Well, I’ll let myself out now.”  Winking, she patted her bodice, and Joanna heard the crinkly sound of money.  “I just wanted to make sure you were delivered to James before I left.  Ta-ta!”  

“Wait.  Where’d you go, anyway?”  

“Oh, now you’re interested!  What, can’t a girl use the washroom without being left to burn alive?” Enjoying the other’s stunned expression, she added, “I saw you two fighting on the street before I came here.  Kind of took the edge off your street smarts, didn’t it?”  

“Enough yakking, you hens.” Hardin nodded to his men.  

Buck advanced on Joanna with a length of rope, and she started to turn around and run, but stopped when Eggsucker wagged his finger at her and said, “Uh-uh-uh --- wouldn’t do that if I were you.”  

She glanced over her shoulder to see that he had one arm wrapped around Cody’s neck.  

“Why should that stop me?” she asked coldly. “You’re going to kill us anyway.”  

The lion tightened his grip, his free hand slowly sliding down the vixen’s side to caress her hip.  Cody looked as though she might faint and her knees buckled. “There are a lot of ways to die, you know.”  He paused, letting his words sink in. “Slow ways.”  

Then he seemed to remember something, and his expression darkened.  “Isn’t that right… Joanna?  

“What?” She caught her breath.  “Who told you?”  

“Your friend Freddy.  Skinny loser says he knew you at some… carnival, wasn’t it?”  

Joanna said nothing.  

“Your name’s not Lydia.  You lied to me, Joanna.”  He suddenly swung his fist and punched her in the stomach, and she went down, retching.  It was as like being hit by a sledgehammer. Cody gave a strangled yelp as his massive arm tightened briefly around her neck as if he’d forgotten he was holding her and she strained to see if Joanna was all right.  

“Oh yeah?”  Unwilling to cave in completely, she tried to sound defiant, but to her distress, her voice come out as a squeak.  “Well, my name’s not Joanna, either, chump!”   

He was enjoying himself immensely. “Freddy said some nice old bat named Helen Haley is waiting for you to come home.”  

She felt the sledgehammer again. “No,” she croaked, “He’s lying.  I don’t know anyone by that name.”  

“You lying to me again, baby?” He watched her face blanch. “What you think, Joanna?  Should I send her your ears, nose, a few fingers and toes, one at a time?  Or maybe I should just go see her personally.” 

Her face went dead white.  

As Hardin surveyed their two captives, one white with fear, the other green with nausea, the mob boss permitted himself a small sneer.  

“Good work, boys,” he said.  “Now, ladies, we’re going to play a little game.”  

He gestured towards the three chemical vats.  “Have you ever had an acid bath?  They’re very beneficial.  Really cleans out your whole system." He gave an unpleasant laugh. "Right down to the bone."  

“I thought you said we were playing a game, boss,” Buck said.  

Hardin favored him with a sour look. “The game part is coming, Buck.  Have a little patience.”  

“Sorry.”  

Turning back to Joanna and Cody, he continued, “Now what we’re going to do is put hooks through your palms and hang you from the ceiling. The one who holds on longest gets a quick death by shooting before we throw you into the pot—the loser just gets an acid bath as a consolation prize.”  

Rogers pulled a couple of fish hooks out of his pocket and flourished them.  With an anticipatory grin, Eggsucker tightened his hold on Cody, who began to struggle.  But when he tightened his grip, threatening to cut off her air supply, she stopped.  

The cold look in the mobster’s eyes made Joanna involuntarily gulp.  It would take some creative thinking to get out of this one.  No --- a miracle.  Cody was looking a little green, though whether from Eggsucker’s offensive smell or because of the stranglehold he had on her neck, Joanna couldn’t be sure.  

Probably both.  

“Do it, Puddin’!” Babette cried, her heavily made-up eyes two vicious slits.  “Kill ’em both!”  

He scowled at her. “Shut up, skirt. Don’t tell me what to do.”  

“Right, right!  I’m sorry!” She retreated.  

Joanna ground her teeth, trying to concentrate. Come on, think!  

Something Babette had said at the diner came back to her.

I was supposed to get the money and meet my boyfriend here, but he never showed up.  

Somehow this was important.  But why?  

She had the money.  She had the money.  

“Excuse me…” Joanna’s mind was racing fast.  “Not that I want to cause trouble or anything…”  

Inwardly, Cody groaned.  

“… but do you really think that Babs here was lost in the department store all this time?  I mean, come on!  Your boys have been chasing us for two days.”  

“Shut up!” Babette snarled, nervously glancing at Hardin.  

Thank you, Cody thought sourly.  

“No, I want to hear this,” Hardin addressed the reddening Babette.   “Where were you?”  

“P-puddin’, I…I…was just…”  

“Babette mentioned making plans to meet a boyfriend with the money they stole from you.  She said he stood her up.”  Joanna shook her head.  “That didn’t make sense… I was too distracted by everything else to think about it much then, but now I know.  Babette had the money --- all she had to do was run like hell. Why would he stand her up if she had the money?”  

Eyes narrowed, Joanna studied the mob boss’s henchmen.  To her satisfaction, the stocky one they called Buck began to sweat.  We have a winner.  “In fact,” she continued.  “I think your little baby doll has been playing Hide the Salami with one of your men.”  

“You telling me that she’d prefer one of these dolts over me?”  

Joanna shrugged and glanced meaningfully at Buck.  “Ask him.  

“You.”  His tone was disturbingly calm. “You’re the one.”  

A dark stain appeared and grew rapidly across the front of the terrified henchman’s trousers.  Eggsucker nudged Rogers and snickered, but was shushed.  

Buck’s mouth opened and closed like a fish as he tried to work it to form words that would save his life. He gulped and tried again. “W-w-well… it was this way, y’see... it’s a really funny story… ha-ha!… this one’ll kill ya…heh…”  

“Well, he’s half right,” Rogers muttered, discreetly stepping behind Eggsucker.  His suit had just come from the dry cleaners, after all.  

“Well, see… it all started in the little town of Dungheap, Papoopskie…”  

“Shut your pie hole," Hardin growled. Whirling, he grabbed Babette’s arm as she edged towards the door and yanked her back to him.  "You've got some explaining to do, doll.  You steppin’ out on me with the babbling idiot here?” 

“No!”  Her voice cracked.  “I just went shopping like you told me to…with the money you gave me, remember?  I just got lost in the department store, that’s all---!”  

“---with the money you stole,” Joanna put in helpfully.  

“Don’t listen to her! That’s not true!” She ignored him, too flustered by his unforgiving stare to give much thought to the foolish henchman.  

“Did you steal my money, Babette?” Hardin asked with quiet menace. “To run off with this loser?”  

No!  I didn’t steal it!”  

Joanna asked, “Then how did you afford those nice clothes you bought us?”  

“Shut up!  I didn’t buy them anything, Puddin’, I swear!”  

Cody croaked, “I bet he hasn’t seen that new hat before.”  

“What? This old thing?  It’s just something I found in --- in the back of my closet!”  

“I liked the perfume you picked out.  Didn’t you say Oblivion was your favorite?  And that Puddin’ here bought it for you all the time?”  

“Then how’d she know that?  Answer me.” He gave Joanna a warning glance.  “And don’t call me Puddin’.” 

She lowered her eyes demurely. “Okay.”  

“Oh, cut the act!” Babette yelled. “Can’t you see what she’s doing?  She’s making a fool out of you!”  

Who’s the fool?” he asked softly.  “Tell me, baby.  Who’s the fool?”  

Instantly cowed, she quavered, “I-I am?”  

He nodded approvingly. “That’s right.  And why is that?”  

“Because… nobody makes a fool out of James ---!”  

Suddenly he slapped her, knocking her to the floor.  A tiny rivet of blood dripped from her left nostril.  A brief, angry flicker of light came into Buck’s eyes, and he started forward, but Rogers reached, caught his collar and hauled him back.  

“Don’t be stupid,” he hissed at him.  

Hardin stood over her, studying her thoughtfully while his men looked on. “That’s right, bitch.  Now you better give me answers.  And I better like ‘em, because I could so easily take this cigar and use that pretty face for an ashtray.”  

Eggsucker grinned. “Maybe you shoulda asked her for the receipts.”  

“Shut up, Eggsucker or whatever your name is,” he said, not taking his eyes off Babette. “Well?  How’d she know about Oblivion?”  

She gave a squeak of terror as he advanced on her.  “I-I told her.  You know how we girls are always talking about clothes and makeup --- it was just girl talk!”  

“You rotten, dirty, double-crossin’…” Hardin’s eyes glowed like live coals as he glared at the guilty couple. “Nobody double-crosses James Bartholomew Hardin!  Nobody!

Cody closed her eyes.  Great.  

“But boss…” Buck began.  

“Shut up, you stupid punk!” Moving with surprising speed for a man who spent most of his waking hours sitting at a desk, the mob boss lifted him by the lapels and threw him against the chemical drum, making a gonggggg sound. “I’ll deal with you later.  Right now I gotta take out the trash.”  

“James…”  

He slapped Babette across the face, making her cry out in pain.  He did it again, knocking her to the floor; her hat hung almost comically on one ear, tangled in pins.  “You were nothin’ when you met me!  Nothin!” he snarled at his ex-moll, who stared up at him with a mixture of terror and loathing.  “I took you in, put clothes on your back and you double-crossed me, you little tramp!  I shoulda left you on the curb where I found you.”  

“She’s lying, James! Can’t you see what she’s doing?  The old divide-and-conquer routine!”  

“I don’t know,” Joanna said sweetly.  “She’s being awfully defensive.  I think she’s got something to hide.”  

Hardin looked at Babette menacingly.  “Oh yeah?  Well, she’d better start defending herself real soon or she can kiss that pretty face of hers bye-bye.”  

She threw herself against him, startling him. “Oh, Puddin’… he made me help him.  He said he’d kill me if I didn’t. It was terrible!”  

Cody listened to the exchange in disgust.  So’s your acting.  

Hardin snorted.  Buck? Don’t make me laugh.  A dead trout has more smarts than he does.”  

Groggily, Buck started to protest, but remembered just in time that he did not want to draw his boss’s attention.  

“Oh, Puddin’…” she whispered, raising her eyes to meet his, hers welling up with tears.  “With everything we have, all you have given me, why would I leave you?”  

A less conceited man would have seen through her act, and he wasn’t stupid, but there was a grain of truth in her words.  He chuckled derisively. “You wouldn’t. Where would you go --- back to the street where you came from? You even thought you had a shot at Starrywood, remember that?”  

She flinched, but accepted the ridicule, as always. “I gave up auditioning because you wanted me to.  I never called you at home.  You spent Christmas and holidays with your family and I never made trouble, did I?  I’ve always been good to you, haven’t I? You were my life!    She buried her face into his coat, sobbing.  

Hardin started to push her away, but her sobs gave way to a triumphant cry and she shoved away from him, the revolver he kept in his inside coat pocket in her hands.  

The mobster’s jaw clenched.  “Baby doll… that’s not a toy.  Why don’t we sit down and talk this over before somebody gets hu--!”  

Eyes glittering, Babette cocked the gun and aimed it at him.  “I wouldn’t.”  

Hardin laughed, although it sounded forced, like the polite reaction to an unfunny joke at a cocktail party.   “You mean you wouldn’t.  You don’t know the first thing about guns, Babette, so why don’t you give it here and we can… talk.  

The gun didn’t waver, and when Hardin looked at her --- for the first time --- he saw pure hatred.  

The other men watched, engrossed in the standoff.  Cody, who thought she was going to pass out from the stench of Eggsucker, was able to slip out of his grasp with no struggle.  She moved to stand beside Joanna.  

“So you’ve been robbin’ me for months, huh?” He took a step towards Babette, but stopped when her finger closed around the trigger.  At this close range, even a poor shot wouldn’t miss.  “That takes guts.  Real guts.”

Babette tossed her head. “I'm surprised you didn't figure it out sooner, James.  You were so busy that you never noticed that I've been doing my own manicures and that…” She briefly gestured towards her mussed hair and gave a bitter laugh. “… I wasn't keeping up my dye job and that I hadn't bought a new outfit for months?”  

Eggsucker and Joanna both muttered, “Should’ve got a receipt.”  Cody elbowed her in the ribs.  Joanna swallowed a curse and elbowed her back. Her ribs were still sore from her earlier confrontation in the alley with Eggsucker.

Hardin was turning purple. “Let me get this straight... you never spent anything?”

Babette said contemptuously, “Sure I did.  I spent the last three years of my life as your dirty little secret --- I didn’t exist.”  

“I gave you everything, you ungrateful little slut!  Jewels!  Furs!  A penthouse on LaCoeur Avenue!  And a pedigreed puppy ---!”  

“You bastard!  You threw poor Lulu off the balcony!  

“I was allergic to that yappin’ furball.  Do you realize how hard it would have been to explain to the wife why I was sneezin’ all of a sudden?”  

Ooh! Do you really think your lousy presents make up for having to be invisible?  You blew smelly cigar fumes in my face, even during ---!” She stopped for a moment, then added venomously, “And I had to smile and take it!  I had to pretend you didn’t make my flesh crawl!”  

Before she could react, he slapped the gun out of her hand, sending it spinning across the room.  Unfortunately, it went into the opposite direction from where Cody and Joanna were standing.

They looked at each other, thinking:  Damn!

Raising a heavily ringed hand, Hardin backhanded his ex-mistress across the face, and suddenly had her pinned underneath him.  Her eyes darted wildly around, but her teary vision was filled with overhead pipes and his rancid cigar breath.  Her hat was still barely attached to her tangled hair, lying near her head.
 

“You had a good thing, Babette,” he whispered, his rage making him oblivious to everything else.  “And you had to screw it up.”  

“I’d do it again,” she whispered.  With that, she whipped out her hat pin and plunged it into his ear.  His eyes bulged in shock. “And again.  And again!”  

Again.  Again.  Again.  

“Babette!” Buck cried, jerking away from Rogers.  “Don’t! He’ll get mad!”  

Rogers turned away, lips twitching.  As always, Buck had a fantastic gift of understatement.  

Eggsucker rubbed his paws together.  “Hoo, baby, this is better than prizefightin’!”  

Cody grabbed Joanna’s sleeve and nodded meaningfully towards the exit.  It seemed impossible that they could just walk out of there, but no one was paying attention to them.  Joanna’s diversionary tactic had worked, but the vixen wasn’t about to congratulate her at the moment.  Together, they inched towards the door.  Cody glanced over her shoulder to see if their escape was being noticed.  She didn’t even see the empty bucket that Joanna tiptoed around.  The vixen tripped over it and went sprawling.  Still, it was a plastic bucket and Hardin and Babette were making so much noise that they almost covered up her slipup.  Almost.  

Rogers noticed first.  “Hey!”  

With a growl, Eggsucker went after Joanna, ignoring Cody completely.  The bear darted towards the shadows of the warehouse, looking around wildly for a weapon.  She was no fool—she knew Eggsucker would knock her out with his offensive body odor if she let him get too close.  She hoped it would kill her before he began.  

Rogers made a grab for the vixen, but Cody whirled out of his grasp, wishing more than anything that she had her knife. She came up behind him and slammed both her fists into his kidneys. He grunted and swung his elbow back to connect solidly with her chin, making her bite her tongue. While she was preoccupied with making sure her tongue was still intact, he got to his feet and punched her solidly in the eye, sending a sharp wave of pain through her skull.  Eyes tearing, she immediately dropped to one knee and, bracing herself with both arms, used the other leg to sweep him off his feet. He crashed to the ground, and she didn’t give him a chance to get up. Grabbing his muzzle and the back of his head firmly, she gave a sharp jerk, breaking his neck.  

Babette shrieked.  

Buck shook his head as he stiffly got to his feet.  He saw that Hardin and Rogers were dead, but he didn’t waste time going after Joanna or Cody.  He made straight for Babette and tried to put his arms around her.  

“You all right, honey?”  

She shoved him away impatiently.  “Get away from me!”  

He looked at her, shocked.  “Baby, what…?”  

“Don’t touch me, Frank!”  

Cody, who had been watching the little scenario, smirked.  “Your baby don’t like you anymore, huh?  Too bad.”  

Buck growled and reached into his jacket pocket.  To Cody’s surprise, he didn’t pull out a gun.  Instead, he waved a knife at her.  Her knife!  Anger overrode common sense and she rushed him.  He wasn’t expecting it, though Babette was.  She stepped out of the way, eyes flashing with malicious amusement.  It would be entertaining to see what the midget could do.  

As the vixen lunged at him, Buck slashed wildly with the knife.  It was obviously not his best weapon, Cody noted disdainfully.  He wielded it like a meat cleaver.  She danced just out of reach of the slashing blade, feinted a kick with her left leg, which he fell for.  While he focused on her left leg, she kicked him in the shins—hard—with her right.  Cursing, he dropped the knife and rubbed his shin.  

The vixen dove for her favored weapon, smiling a little as her hand closed around the worn hilt.  Buck tripped and landed on her ankle, twisting it slightly.  With a little cry of pain, she jerked away from him.  He scrambled to his feet and started towards her, his expression menacing.  

Cody drew her arm back and flung the knife, aiming for Buck’s heart.  Without thinking, he grabbed Babette and held her in front of him, using her as a shield.  The rapidly spinning blade caught her in the throat.  She gave a surprised gurgle, then died.  

The vixen looked for Joanna and saw that Eggsucker had cornered her on the catwalk above an acid vat.  Lips compressed, she started to go help her when she was tackled from behind.  Her head slammed against the concrete floor and she lay there on her side, dazed as Buck began pummeling her stomach and already bruised back.  

“Why?” he sobbed.  “She loved me!  I know she did!  You told her I didn’t love her, didn’t you?”  

Coming to her senses, she flipped over and brought her knee up swiftly to his crotch.  He turned green, clutched himself and fell over.  

“Idiot,” she snarled with as much contempt as she could muster as she gasped for breath.  

His eyes darkened and he dove for her.  Rather than stepping out of the way, she crouched and used his own momentum to slam him hard against the vat.  He sat there, legs straight out in front of him, looking up at her reproachfully.  

“I wish Rogers had killed you.”  

She bashed him on the back of the head with the hilt of her knife until he was unconscious.  Then, she slumped to the ground, shaking.  

Joanna’s voice invaded her thoughts.  

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

“Baby, you still owe me that dance.” Eggsucker glanced at the drum.  “Hope you like being dipped.”  

Joanna swallowed, tasting sour bile.  

“This is gonna be sweet.  You gave us a good chase, doll,” he said conversationally, slowly advancing on her.  “Oh, yeah.  You knew what you were doing not like that dame at your hotel.  But the old bat didn’t go easy --- I hadda bash her skull in.  I like ‘em awake.”  

Joanna’s stomach dropped.  

“It’s an art, y’know…sucking out people’s eyeballs.  Takes some practice.  ‘Course, it’s hard to do when they’re thrashing around under ya.  I always wonder what they’re thinking.”  Eggsucker leered.  “I wonder what you’ll be thinking.”  

She backed away, forcing herself to smile maniacally at him, even though she was terrified.  No way would she beg for her life.  

I won’t beg.  Then:  Please don’t let me beg.  

She dodged around him as he made a grab for her.  Her heart pounded wildly as his hand closed around her arm.  Almost without thinking, she drove her thumb into the corner of one of his eyes.  He yelled and she jerked away from him, saw that he was standing a little too close to the edge of the gangway, and grinned.  While he was still rubbing his eye, she slammed into him.  He teetered for a moment, arms wind milling.  Then, he lost his balance and fell over the edge.  At the last second, he managed to reach up and grab the ledge.  

“Well, well.”  Joanna leaned over.  “Isn’t this interesting?”  

She forced his thumb off the edge. “This little piggy went to market.”  

“You rotten bit---!"  

She flicked off his index finger next. “Say please. This little piggy stayed home.”  

“Please!”  

“Say pretty please. This little piggy had roast beef.”  

“Pretty please!  Stop!  

“With a cherry on top. This little piggy had none.”  

With a cherry!  With a cherry!  

Snapping the bone of his remaining little finger, she finished cheerfully, “And this little piggy went to hell.”  

He didn’t yell as he plunged towards the vat.  As soon as the acid touched him, however, the lion let loose an unearthly scream that made both Joanna and Cody cringe and clap their hands over their ears.  It didn’t matter --- they could still hear the sickening sounds of his flesh as it blistered and popped.  Their eyes tearing from the rising vapors, they watched in horrified fascination.

His eyes were the first to go --- he shrieked in agony as they melted on his cheeks.  His ears and nose were next --- they fell off and sank in the hellish elixir. By now, his innards had become soupy and his arms, legs and torso fell off and sank, piece by piece, and he came apart like a doll.   Last to go was the head, its mouth momentarily stretched in a hideous mask --- for a moment it floated, pieces of flesh coming off it like algae, until all that was left was a gleaming white skull, boiled clean.  Soon the cauldron was bubbling red, and the monster that was Eggsucker was dead.  

As the rest of him hissed and dissolved, Joanna fanned the smell away with her hand and found herself saying, "That would've hurt."

Cody looked at her, stunned. “Why didn't you do that before?”  

Joanna didn’t answer.  Her heart hammered her chest and she kept staring at the place when their nemesis had been.  

As though by silent agreement, the women began emptying the gangsters’ pockets.  Both being of a practical nature, each disapproved of money going to waste.  

Yoink.”  Joanna whipped out two wallets from Hardin and Rogers’s pockets. “They won’t be needing these anymore.”  

“Nope,” Cody agreed.  “I think there’s free admission where they’re going.  Nice and warm, too.”  

The other woman gave a low chuckle. “You’re something, you know that?”  

Neither, however, was eager to plunge a hand into the dead Babette’s cleavage to retrieve the wad of bills.

Joanna wrinkled her nose. “Ugh. You do it.”  

“No, you do it.” Cody folded her arms stubbornly.  “I ain’t touching those.”  

“No, you.”  

You.”  

Exasperated, Joanna suggested, “Well, what if we got a pair of tongs or something?”  

After a quick search of the warehouse, Cody found a hook and length of chain.  They made an impromptu fishing pole and after a few tries, managed to drag the money from Babette’s cleavage.  

“So what do we do with ‘em?” Cody surveyed the dead gangsters dubiously.

Joanna shrugged.  “We can’t just leave them, that’s for sure. This place is too far from the bay, anyway.  They’d probably float to the surface after a few days and then we’d have a problem.”  

They looked at the chemical vats, then at each other.  

Joanna smiled grimly. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”  

Cody smiled back.

 

End of Chapter 9

 

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