Gadget in Chains

Written by: Loneheart

Chapter Fifteen: Home, home on the Range…


"Basil?" The Guide asked.

“Yes, that’s my name… Basil of Baker Street.” The reply came in an English accent with a light, friendly tone. The speaker was a slender mouse with mid-brown fur, dressed in an elegant, if somewhat old fashioned, formal suit. Even caught in the motion of bending to take a book from one of the lower shelves, he was taller than Lawhiney’s Guide.

“I was told to seek you out and ask your advice.” The Guide explained himself, after sizing Basil up.

Basil looked back at the strange figure in front of him. He could not see the Guide’s face, which was shadowed by the hood of the robes, with the exception of the tip of the Guide’s nose, which was a healthy pink. In contrast to Basil, the short, stocky “body” of Lawhiney’s Guide seemed even shorter than it really was, simply by standing near the tall mouse. It didn’t help, of course, that the Guide was wearing a hooded robe several sizes too large which made him look a little like a school-boy on the first day of school, whose mother swore he would grow into the new uniform. The robes were new, which meant there was little that could be deduced from them except that, judging by the poor fit, they had been issued in a great hurry.

“How's our newest probationary guide doing?" Basil smiled.

"He's your newest probationary ex-guide." Lawhiney's Guide answered sullenly. The hood jerked back, then tilted slightly to one side. “How did you know I was a probationer? Let alone a new one?”

“I often act as a consultant for those Guides whose wards have found themselves close to the wrong side of the law. I have some experience in that area.”

“The area on the wrong side of the law?”

“The area of being a consultant, my dear fellow.” Basil retorted, dryly. The mystery Guide’s accent was American – New York, if Basil was any judge of accents, which he was. “Now, what’s the situation? I can’t advise you strongly enough not to hold anything back. If you do, there’s nothing of any worth I can tell you.”

The Guide hesitated and then plunged into the story: “I have to say – I probably wasn’t ready for this, they pulled me out of training, in fact, because it was an emergency.”

“An emergency, you say?”

“Yes, the job came through at very short notice.” The Guide said evenly. There was a slight pause in the conversation.

“Are you expecting me to make a joke about your height?” Basil enquired, politely.

“No, just to laugh.”

“At which point, you would…?”

“Bop you on the nose, quite possibly.”

“They frown on that sort of thing up here, you know.”

“Yes, but I don’t care. Let them find someone else for this if they want to. It would probably be for the best if she had someone more experienced anyway. Besides… it’s–” the Guide took a deep, shaky breath “–too painful to watch.”

Basil put the book down and hurried to fetch his guest a chair.

A moment later the Guide was sitting, his shoulder’s bowed as he spoke. “It’s heartbreaking, it really is. I’ve seen her make such incredible strides. She’s learned to care about someone other than herself. She feels love for the first time. Somebody sacrificed himself for her and she’s actually grateful, for pity’s sake. She’s this close to being really truly sorry for everything she’s done… But she’s not going to make it.”

“Bare up. We all have moments of doubt and hopelessness, old man. We just have to get through them as best we can, but there’s always something better on the other side. That we can be sure of.”

“Can we be sure of it, Basil?”

“Better than misery and despair? I think so. Now, why do you say that she’s not going to make it?”

“Because of this.” The Guide passed a roll of paper with ornate writing to Basil.

Basil took the opportunity to study the hand that passed him the paper as well as the paper itself. The hand was male, though he had already deduced that much from the voice. The claws had been trimmed short and several of the knuckles were flattened, which indicated some experience of “bopping” others on the nose, and it was attached to a sturdy wrist.

Hmm. Interesting. Basil thought.

“Horoscope, ay? From Celestial Forecasting I see. Well, at least they generally do a better job than those clowns on the material plane. Let’s see…” Basil read it at a glance, his frown fading to be replaced with a dismayed look. "A 20% chance of repentance should give way to strong temptation by the middle of next week. The outlook for the rest of that week is overcast by foreboding and mortal peril, accompanied by a violent and stormy encounter. " Basil stared at the paper for another moment, then shook his head and glared at it. "Yes, well, I quite see your point, old chap.”

“It’s not the horoscope, so much. It doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know really. I only asked for it so that I knew how much time I had to work with.”

“Not much, by the look of it.”

“She won’t turn herself around in that time. Not in two weeks.”

“You said she was close to repenting?”

“But not to changing her ways. She’ll repent, she’ll be sorry, and yet she’ll carry right on doing all the things she’s done before.”

“Bad habits are hard to break, but with persistence…”

“It’s not habit, it’s because I showed her a vision of a child as yet unborn…”

           There was a choking sound, followed by a splutter. Then a baby's cries filled the room.

           The real Lawhiney, or at least the Lawhiney who was standing next to the Guide she had come in with and who hoped she was the real Lawhiney, breathed a sigh of relief. Her hands were shaking and her eyes were wide. She was going to be a mother. And a prisoner.

           Well, it was better than hellfire.

           "What shall I call you?" The new mother asked her baby.

           "Call him? You won't call him at all. You don't think they would allow someone like you to keep a baby, do you? In a place like this? No, the orphanage will name him."

           "Orphanage? You can't. He hasn't even opened his eyes yet. If you take him away now he'll never see me!"

           "You know more than half of the kids that come out of those places end up as the scum we lock up in here."

           "Please, let me spend a little time with him." Lawhiney begged as the baby was prised out of her arms. She could have held on tighter, but like any mother she preferred to let her child go rather than see it harmed be holding on too tight.

           "Why should I?" The cold voiced guard asked.

           "Because, because…"

           "Too late." The guard replied.

           "Baby!" Lawhiney yelled from her bed as the guard carried the child away.

Basil sighed as the vision faded. “Heartbreaking, of course, but sometimes that’s the sort of thing it takes to change a person’s heart.”

“I knew the idea of motherhood would change the way she looked at the world. It taught her to care for someone beside herself. I thought that was a good thing at the time.” The Guide sighed heavily. “But however she’s going to feel when the vision comes to fulfilment and it’s her turn to lay in that bed, right now she thinks of that baby as nothing more than a thing that she wants which someone else is trying to take from her. Take it from me, there’s a big difference between that and being a parent!”

“Hmm.” Basil looked sideways at the Guide. “What else did you show her?”

The Guide bowed his head, solemnly…

           The Guide stepped forward and pointed to another plaque.

           "Isaac Burntpaw, loving husband. Died in a forest fire with Donnie and Melissa, his two beautiful children."

           "I don't know any of these people." Lawhiney said.

           "They will live, if you do not." The voice was sombre. It stopped Lawhiney like a slap in the face.

           "What? What are you trying to tell me here? The plaques tell you how these people died. Floods and fires. I didn't kill them."

           "If you live, they will not."

           "What? I could start a forest fire, maybe, but a flood? What to I look like, some kind of cartoon super-villain? Heck, I'd save them if I could." But her face fell on the last word as understanding dawned. "Wait, wait a second. I get it. You're saying that the Rangers would have saved, I mean, will save these people if I choose to die instead of go back to living, right?"

           The Guide nodded.

           "Because Gadget won't quit?"

           The Guide hesitated, seeming to consider his answer before he nodded.

           "That's her decision, not mine! I can't be blamed for that! No one here died because of me!"

           The Guide pointed to a third plaque. It read: "In remembrance of Dale Oakmont. Rescue Ranger and truest friend anyone could have. Murdered by a cheap fraud and impostor."

“Dale Oakmont… Why do I know that name?” Basil frowned. “It rings a bell. Oh wait, I think I’ve come across him before. Rescue Rangers, yes? Confused little chap. Well, with any luck, he’ll be able to figure things out without our help.”

“If Lawhiney gives him a chance.” The Guide said bitterly.

“Oh, wait. I might have him confused with his friend, Chip Maplewood. Wants to be a detective, I hear. I used to be a detective myself, you know.” Basil gave The Guide a smile of cheerful reminiscence.

“I hear you used to be a Guide, as well. You might consider going back to it so that you can get down there and give him a few pointers.” The Guide suggested.

“Not allowed, unfortunately. Not unless he has a real need to see me because his soul is in danger. Someone suggested that I put in for muse status and try my hand at inspiring him, but then I’d have to give up-” Basil gestured expansively at his cluttered office “-all this.”

The Guide’s hood tilted to one side and Basil had the feeling that someone doubted his sincerity. “What else was in the vision of the future you showed her?”

With a shrug, the Guide showed him.

           Capone shrugged. Over his shoulder he yelled: "Hey, cockroach, bring in that champagne I told you to put on ice. I want to celebrate my big win."

           A moment later a small mouse boy, no more than an inch and half high, pushed in a bottle cap packed with ice that was almost as big as he was. An uncut mane of blonde hair spilled down his back. He was wearing shorts made out of a brown paper, like humans used for wrapping parcels, and nothing else. They rustled audibly over the scraping of the wide, ice packed bottle top as it scraped against the floor.

           Lawhiney moved to where she could look into the boy's eyes. They were clear and blue. His face reminded her of someone. Who? Shaka? Brandon? That mouse in the last small town they had fleeced? There were half a dozen possibilities but, whoever the father was, the boy got his colouring from her; that was for sure.

           His back was straining with the effort of moving his burden. Despite the effort, the child smiled with a guileless desire to please. Lawhiney looked into his eyes and for the first time in her life, she fell in love. It was a mother's love.

           "That your boy, Capone?" The squirrel asked.

           "Yeah, all bought and paid for. Legal too!"

           "Slavery's legal now?" asked the lizard, who was sitting closest to Lawhiney.

           "Nah, but adoption is. You'd be amazed who they let adopt these days." Capone laughed. "Hey, cockroach, ashtray's full. Bring us a new one."

           "Yes, Pa."

           BONK! Capone's fist resounded against the boy's skull. The gangster hadn't held back his strength either.

           "I told you never to call me that, damn you! I'm not your Pa! No one knows who your Pa is, most likely not even your Ma, wherever she is."

“Oh dear. No matter how much time goes by, the nature of those who abuse others never changes.” Basil sighed. “How did your ward take it?”

“Badly, or well, depending on what you mean. She was angry. Protective, as a mother should be. That’s good isn’t it?”

Basil cocked an eyebrow at the Guide. “Go on, you didn’t stop there, did you?”

The Guide scuffed his feet. “Well, no. I didn’t. I thought it was working, so I just carried on…”

Basil sighed. “You know, when you paint someone a picture and you notice that a little more red seems to improve it, you don’t throw the entire tin of paint at the canvass. Go on, show me the worst.”

Dejectedly, the Guide waved his hand and the vision appeared…

           It was nighttime and they were standing on the roof of a human building. An air conditioning vent stood less than a metre away from them and as they watched the grate opened.

           Roach dropped a line from the vent and slid down it with practiced ease. Three more rodents, a squirrel and two rats, joined him. All were wearing backpacks.

           "That was easy." Laughed one.

           "Yeah, except for that extra alarm system. I thought every alarm in the place would start ringing."

           "It didn't look like it had been put in by a human, that was for sure."

           "It wasn't, you crooks!" Yelled a voice from the edge of the roof.

           Blazing lights illuminated the robbers, casting long, stark shadows. Lawhiney had time to realise that neither her guide nor herself had shadows before the robbers started running.

           "Say the word boss!" said a familiar bat that was carrying a portable halogen spotlight. It was Foxy; the first time Lawhiney had seen her, the bat had been carrying off her son. Now she hated the bat with a renewed passion.

           "The word!" shouted a voice Lawhiney recognized all too well. It was Gadget Hackwrench. Her hair was greying and her figure had sagged, but she had aged gracefully.

           A dozen uniformed rodents poured over the roof. Working in threes they brought down Roach's three companions easily.

           Roach ran; dodging left and right around two mice that thought they could football tackle him.

           The Rangers, whatever they were now calling themselves, had stationed themselves against the edge of the roof where the robbers had secured their line to the ground. He ran in that direction anyway, knowing there was no other way down from the roof.

           A huge rat blocked Roach's way but he snapped out the weapon he had used on Joe and suddenly the ranger was curled up into a ball of pain. Roach used the fallen figure as a springboard to leap up to the wall that ran around the roof.

           "Stop!" Gadget yelled.

           Roach grabbed the line and began to slide down it, only to find his feet gripping air after a few inches. Sickeningly, he felt his grip begin to fail.

           "We cut your line! There's no way down!" Gadget told him, unnecessarily. Looking over her shoulder, straight through the horrified Lawhiney and her impassive guide, Gadget saw that she was the only unoccupied Ranger on the roof. Even Foxglove was helping subdue the robber-squirrel.

           "Give me your hand." She told Roach.

           Roach looked up at her in disbelief. "I can't reach." He said.

           "Yes you can! Try using your feet on the wall."

           Roach managed to lift himself a little way. When he was sure, he reached out a hand and grasped Gadget's. At the very moment she tightened her grip, his hold on the line that had been cut failed.

           Roach gasped.

           Gadget screamed. Her body was flattened against the brickwork of the roof's wall. She tried to improve her grip with her other hand, but it was gloved and wouldn't close properly. Roach's free hand clawed at her sleeve, trying to hang on, but the days of Gadget wearing overalls were a distant memory. The blue uniform shirt she was wearing tore, revealing an arm that was laced with scars.

           Roach stared at the scars in surprise and puzzlement. He looked questioningly at her, then her grip on his hand weakened and he disappeared into the darkness below.

           "I'm sorry." Sobbed Gadget. She turned over and lay on her back, the sounds of law and order all around her, knowing that there was no way anyone could have survived a fall like that.

Basil pursed his lips and looked at the Guide disapprovingly. “Is that it?” he enquired.


“Right, having seen that, let me tell you what kind of problem you’re having with her. She’s using all her old tricks and methods to try and safeguard the future of her unborn child, even though she knows every step is carrying her further into darkness. She cares nothing for the danger she places her soul in, because she believes she acts for the benefit of her son.” Basil pulled out a pipe and began filling it with tobacco.

The Guide stared at him. “That’s incredible.”

“That I was able to deduce your problem from what you’ve shown me? ‘Tosh, any experienced Guide would have told you to stop with the vision of her child being taken away. You never should have given into her demand to see what became of the baby.”

“No, I mean the pipe. I thought they frowned on that sort of thing as well, up here. I mean, is it allowed?”

“Practically everything is allowed up here… although, of course, this isn’t harmful, like the stuff I used to smoke.” Basil replied. “Doctor Dawson was always complaining about my tobacco habit. I managed to give up several times, with his help, but I always gave into the craving in the end, usually when I was bored or had some problem that required me to think carefully for a long time. I’m afraid what you’ve brought me is quite a three pipe problem.”

“You don’t say?”

The Guide leaned forward in fascination. As he did so, Basil quickly brought the flame up to the Guide’s face, throwing light the Guide’s shadowed face. The Guide quickly pulled away and hid his face in the folds of his hood, but it had been enough for the keen-eyed Basil to see what he needed.

“Oh, excuse me.” Basil said as he lit the pipe.

The Guide sat in sullen silence as the ex-detective puffed away.

“I like to know just who and what I’m dealing with.” The tall mouse tried to explain himself. “And despite my explicit instructions to leave nothing out, you omitted the one single fact of greatest importance. I really can’t imagine why I don’t throw you out on your ear for playing games with me.”

If it was meant to cow the Guide into submission then Basil’s tone was a little too defensive. The Guide rocked back on his heels, twitching under his robes.

“How about I throw you out on your ear for playing games?” The Guide demanded. “Did you think I didn’t ask around before I came here? You think I didn’t find out just who had me pulled out of training six months early to work this case? It was your letter of recommendation that persuaded the Academy Director to release me for active duty.”

Basil very slowly reclined in his armchair and turned a languid pair of eyes on the Guide. “Asked around?” He gave a short laugh. “Letter of recommendation?” he laughed again. “Don’t let the door slam on your tail on the way out.”

“The Oversight Committee said you’d want to hear about the guy the other side sent up to be my opposing counsel but, since you’re not interested, I’ll just go.”

“What about your opposing counsel?”

“They said he was a friend of yours. Goes by the name of… Ratigan.”

“Ratigan. I wish I could say I had never heard of him.” Basil said with a ghost of a smile. “No. Not a friend. Someone I have fought so long that he has come to know me better than I would like... and I him. Can you call such a person a friend?” Basil’s eyes were hooded, his face haunted.

“Then perhaps this is good news. He hasn’t shown up.” The Guide said brightly. “By rights, he should have been there from the moment Lawhiney’s eyes opened.”

“What? Good news! The most insidious fiend ever to plague all mouse-kind has a license to walk the earth and we don’t know where he is? Is that what you call good news?” Basil stood up in a bitter temper and began to pace around the room. “You might not call it that if you knew what business he is about, while you do his job for him and provide Miss Lawhiney with more motive than she needs for mayhem, malice and murder!”

“They warned me you could be like this when you got excited.” The Guide said darkly.

“Would that I had someone to warn me about you!” Basil retorted insultingly.

“Okay, you’ve made your point. I’ll ask them to query the Other Side about where their man, Ratigan, has gotten. I sure wouldn’t want to be in his shoes, if he’s playing hooky.”

“Tell the Other Side? What on Earth for? You’ve already said that you’re having a hard enough time reforming Miss Lawhiney as it is. I know Ratigan, you wouldn’t stand a chance against him.” Basil tapped out the pipe as though it had left a bitter taste in his mouth. He left the pipe in the ashtray and climbed a small set of library steps next to a bookcase filled with record books.

“Don’t we have to give the Other Side equal time?” The Guide asked.

“Of course we do!" Basil said, tucking a book under his arm. "That's in the treaty, but there’s nothing that says we have to tell them when their people are slacking. They certainly don’t tell us." He added a second book to the first. "As to the other matter… You’ve been frustrated by her determination to put her old talents to ‘good’ use by protecting her child.”

“To put it mildly.”

“Not unsurprisingly. When the only tool you have is a hammer, you’re going to treat every problem you run across like a nail." Basil observed. By now he had a small stack of books under his arm. "But she is in an excellent position to see some other tools demonstrated. Friendship. Loyalty. Generosity. Kindness. Courage – she’s already familiar with daring which is nearly the same thing, so that one should come easily to her. Love… she might have toyed with other people affections but has she ever really had a good close look at what it can be?”

“I doubt it.” The Guide said sadly.

“It might also help if you put that vision in context for her. Those things aren’t carved in stone, you know."

"I already told her that."

"Those visions only show what would happen if the client woke up with no knowledge of the future at all. Once they've seen the future and start basing their decisions on their new knowledge, everything changes… the further into the future the event was, the bigger difference she’s made.” Basil descended the steps carefully.

“The thing is, she’s making the same choices all over again. Only before she made them to save her own skin, now she’s making them to protect her child. That’s what makes it so darn painful to watch.”

"Hmm. Well, that is a problem." He placed the books on the floor. "Step up. I think I have a couple of safety pins around here somewhere. With any luck I should be able to turn up the hem of that robe for you."

"Don't bother!" The Guide shook his head and waved his arms despairingly. "I'm just going to withdraw from the whole thing and let someone who knows what their doing take over!” Before Basil could stop him, the Guide had snatched up a telephone from a marble desk where Basil had been working earlier and begun dialling.

“Quit? You can't do that! You're her Guardian Angel! Her Caseworker! Her Guide! Not to mention her-“

“I know what I am." The Guide said, cutting Basil off with a decisive gesture. "I'm a failure. I can't help her, I can't change her and I just can't stand around and watch what's going to happen to her. The only thing I can do is leave, so that's what I'm going to do – Again!"

Basil listened to the rant with his hands on his hips, silent and unimpressed. "See here, old boy, you've been assigned to her until she's strong enough to resist temptation on her own, or until the day she dies and you can't just turn up on the doorstep bleating excuses before one of those two things happen."

"I'm not so sure. Maybe the next guy will have more luck with her."

"If you put in to be replaced, the Other Side will have to replace their man too. It's in the rules – Unfair advantage to whoever has greater experience with the client otherwise. Even with bad luck, you can hardly do worse than someone who hasn't shown up."

The Guide stopped. He had spent so much time considering his own failings as a Guide he hadn't considered the Other Side of the equation. "Say, there maybe something in that… Do you really think that's the way to play it?"

"What have you got to lose?" Basil smiled.

"Lawhiney's soul."


“So, let me get this straight: Chip is visiting the prisoner who was convicted of impersonating me?” Lawhiney's Gadget impression could be heard faintly on the other side of the door.

“That’s right, Gadget-luv.” The big mouse’s voice sounded winded, as though he had just run a marathon. “I expect he’s turning the thumbscrews right now. Metaphorically speaking, of course.” Monty’s mouth picked out the shape of the unfamiliar word carefully.

There was a pause in the conversation. Then Dale piped up: “Uh, Monty… Meta-for-rack-lay means that Chip wouldn’t really use thumbscrews, right?”

“Course it does, Dale.”

“Oh. Only I was going to say that I don’t think his Mom ever gave them back after that time when we were eight…”

“Hey mate, I thought I was supposed to be the one with all the stories no-one wanted to hear?” Monty put in hastily.

“Monty, after four weeks in hospital I would love to hear every last story you can remember.” Somebody who sounded like a cheerful Gadget Hackwrench was now right outside the Ranger’s front door.

“Too-Rah! Come to think of it, that might be just what you need to get back your memory, Gadget-luv!”

“Yeah, and maybe you won’t need those sleeping pills the Doc gave you either!” Dale suggested as he opened the door.

Monty carried Lawhiney’s wheelchair in at waist-height, just as he had carried it up the stairs that ran up the outside of the tree – with Lawhiney still in the chair!

She looked around as Monty gently put her down. The last time she had been in this room she had been there to steal the Ranger Plane for the ill-fated robbery on the museum. The wheelchair was on loan from the hospital and wasn’t the powered kind. With one arm still lightly bandaged and strapped across her chest, Lawhiney was more or less unable to move under her own power.


It was enough to nearly give her a heart attack. Lawhiney shrank back from the hoard of strangers that rose up before her with shining teeth. Her eyes darted madly with fear as she tried to find a way out.

Where were Monty and Dale? Why weren't they defending her? They still thought she was the real Gadget, didn't they? Or was this some elaborate revenge they had prepared for her?

Party streamers brushed her face like spider's webs. From somewhere a camera flashed and spots of light danced in her eyes. The loud pop could have come from anywhere and was probably a bottle of champagne being opened, but Lawhiney jumped as though she had been shot.

"Better take a couple of deep breaths, kiddo. Saint Peter ain't expecting to see you again quite this soon." The Guide smiled rakishly at her from beside a bowl of pink dip. Although Lawhiney suspected that it was impossible for him to touch anything, he was twirling a mouth-sized toothpick with a piece of cheese on it. It looked just like the ones on the food table next to him.

"When Dale told us you were coming home today we couldn't resist throwing you a party!" A teenage voice squealed.

"Tammy! How nice to see you again!" she smiled and reached out her good arm for a hug, or half a hug at any rate. She remembered the redheaded squirrel youngster from the visions of the future the Guide had shown her. Looks like Heaven was actually helping for change, instead of just looking over her shoulder and criticizing.

"Even though strictly speaking, you've never met her before." The Guide whispered from over her shoulder.

Lawhiney looked back at him automatically but managed to restrain herself before she answered him.

"You know, this is supposed to be Gadget's welcome home party. If you tell them the truth now, it still could be. Gadget's friends are good people and with number of good people here you can be sure that some of them will be sympathetic." The Guide's expression was both kind and sad. It stirred something buried deep at the back of Lawhiney's mind… unfortunately it wasn't her conscience.

"Why Tammy, I can't even remember the last time I saw you. Have you grown? You seem shorter – I mean taller." Lawhiney gushed as she hugged.

"Uh, well I haven't seen you for a couple of months, I guess. I mean I used to be over every chance I got but what with school and us living way over on the edge of Chinatown, and all." Tammy basked in the warmth of appreciation.

"She's seems to get a little taller every day, to my eyes." A matronly squirrel said a little sadly.

"Is that your mother hiding at the back of the room?" Lawhiney asked. She pretended to squint.

"Mom's always complaining that I'm growing up too fast." Tammy laughed.

"Mine was the same." Lawhiney slipped.

"Oops!" The Guide couldn't help wincing at the mistake.

Lawhiney caught on fast. She was already working on an explanation as Tammy pulled away with a puzzled expression, had one ready before Monty had even said: "Ay? What's that Gadget-luv?"

"I mean my father used to say the exact same thing to me. My mother died when I was very young. But that meant he had to be both mother and father to me, so it comes to much the same thing, don't you think?" You didn't pretend to be someone you weren't for months without learning to think fast on your feet.

Everyone laughed. This was the babbling Gadget Hackwrench that they all knew and loved. She had been through a terrifying adventure and it had taken its toll on her, but now she was home. It was time for her to shrug her shoulders at the bad things and smile at the good, to learn what she could from all that had happened and wrap it up with a neat little joke. Only one thing was missing.

The door burst open.

"Is she here?" Chip asked. "Is she back yet?" Then, looking around at the laughing partygoers and realising that he was definitely too late, Chip tried to make a joke of it. "Is Gadget Hackwrench in the house? I have an appliance here that's just not working. It was sold to me by a door-to-door salesman."

The guests laughed warmly at Chip's antics.

The note of genuine uncertainty in his voice when he asked if Gadget Hackwrench was in the house disturbed him. She was sitting in plain sight, right in the middle of the room.

"Chip!" Gadget grinned at him. It was an odd kind of grin for Gadget, almost smug. Chip only barely had time to register it before she blinked and he was staring into an innocent, force-four Gadget beaming smile.

"Hi ya, Gadget. How's my favourite genius doing?"

"Fine, thanks Chip. How's my favourite detective?"

Detective. Detective. She definitely hadn't called him defective; that was just his imagination. Chip's eyes flickered from one guest to another to check for a bat he could confirm this with later. Foxglove wasn’t there. Neither was anyone else he could depend on. The mice all had better ears than him, but not in the league of the Bats and the other Night-kin.

Whatever anyone said about being better integrated than human society ever dreamed of being, there was a difference between getting evidence from a bat and from a mouse. A bat's word on what they had heard would be taken in a court of law. Their word on what they had seen would be questioned even when their night vision was better than most mammals, but no one doubted a bat had heard correctly.

Dale smiled broadly and presented "Gadget" with something flat that was wrapped in gaudy paper.

"Presents? I get presents? I mean… Golly, you shouldn't have gone to the trouble, folks. I'm not worth it." Lawhiney reached for gift like an eager child.

Monty's moustache twitched as he remembered Gadget as a small girl. He watched fondly as she tore open the wrapping paper. All children went through a phase where they frustrated their parents by playing with the wrapping paper rather than the toy inside it. Gadget had made paper aeroplanes out of hers; paper aeroplanes that had stayed up in the air for a very long time.

"L plates? You got me Learner driver plates?" Gadget looked at Dale with rather more ire than was normal for her. "You think that's funny?"

"They're for your wheelchair." Dale explained, giggling.

"Gadget" opened her mouth. She clearly intended to tear strips of Dale for playing a prank on her but before the angry words crossed her lips she looked sideways at the guests and changed her mind. "For the wheelchair?" she asked. "Well, in that case, I guess it's funny. For a moment there I was angry because I thought you meant I should put it on the Ranger Plane because I crashed."

"Aw shucks, everyone knows you're the best animal pilot in the city." Dale said in an off hand way.

"State." Chip automatically corrected.

"Country." Dale upped the ante.

"Hemisphere." Chip showed off his vocabulary.

"World." Dale frowned. "That's bigger than a Hemisphere, right Monty?"

"Universe." Chip nailed it.

"Darn right I am!" Gadget accepted the praise unflinchingly. "Just got the Ranger Plane over-loaded, that’s all. I tried to tell the crooks but they were just too greedy. Where's my next present?"

"I thought you crashed the Ranger Plane to stop them getting away with the jewels?" Tammy's mother asked.

Lawhiney froze in the act of unwrapping a box. "Did I say that? Did I say that? I don't remember telling anyone that." She was staring into space, asking thin air.

"I think the newspapers made that up." Chip helped her.

"Really?" Lawhiney brightened. "Hey, I wouldn't mind seeing some of them. Should fill up a lot of space in the scrapbook, huh?"

"Trust me, you don't want to see what they had to say about you." Chip said sadly.

"Blooming outrage if you ask me." Monty grumbled.

"Oh, it's shocking." Tammy's mother agreed.

"Not one of them has apologized." He put in.

"It's a real scandal." Tammy's mother agreed.

There was a slight pause as the big mouse and the squirrel looked at each other speculatively.

"How is Mister Hazelwood?" Monty asked in a carefully neutral tone.

"Oh, still missing presumed dead." Tammy's mother replied, her voice surprisingly cheerful. "It's been five years now but you know how it is. The kids keep you too busy to notice the time go by. Have you any?"

"Children? Well, I've come close a couple of times but… well, when you spend most of your life travelling the world and getting into scrapes every five minutes you never really get the chance to form those kind of ties. My Mum and Dad managed it but they only get together once in a blue moon. They do most of their romancing by letter!"

Mrs Hazelwood and Monty shared a chuckle together and the matronly squirrel offered Monty a piece of acorn on a stick.

Lawhiney blinked rapidly. Was it her imagination, or was romance blossoming? She shook her head in disbelief. "Uh, I think I really would like to see what the papers printed while I was in hospital… if only to catch up on what's been happening while I was out of it." She frowned.

The gift box she had just opened contained a shiny brass oilcan. Lawhiney wondered whether all the gifts were going to be related to Gadget's work.

"It's WD-40. Your favourite." A tall blond mouse with tan fur and a lab coat reassured her.

"Dale, have you been telling people that Gadget drinks oil again?" Chip asked coldly.

"No! Well, maybe…" Dale looked shifty and edged out of bopping range.

Lawhiney stared at them in disbelief. Suddenly she was aware of everyone looking at her, as if they were expecting her to test the oil and announce its vintage. Surely the real Gadget didn't actually drink oil! She couldn't possibly!

But they were all staring at her and she had to do something…

Depressing the oilcan's plunger, she squeezed a drop of lubricant onto her finger. Awkwardly she raised the finger to her face and sniffed. "Good year." She smiled nervously.

Everyone laughed.

The door burst open for a second time.

A young brown furred weasel staggered into the room. His arm was in a badly tied sling that was stained with blood.

"It just collapsed." He gasped. "We were converting an old water tower into living space out on the college sports field. It must have had damp rot or something and the extra weight from all the stuff we moved in was too much for it. The workers – trapped!"

The rangers looked at each other.

"We know where you mean." Chip said. "We go there to watch baseball occasionally. Have you any idea how many are trapped?"

"At least a dozen. It happened during lunch or it would have been more." The weasel sank down into a chair provided by a thoughtful party guest.

"If we ever needed the Ranger Plane!" Chip scowled.

"We can take the Ranger Wing." Dale suggested.

"It can't carry as many people. It'll have to do, seeing as the Skate's been missing for two weeks. Go get the lifting gear ready. Okay, everybody, try not to tire Gadget out too much while we're gone." Chip waved as he followed Dale out of the room.

"Don't worry, Chip! We're going to give Gadget a make-over!"

Monty shook his head. "Now Tammy love, Gadget might not want a make-over…"

"Are you kidding?" Lawhiney interrupted. "I'd love one!"

Monty did a double take. "Uh, right you are luv. Here lad." He said and gave the weasel an arm to lean on. "Let me help you up to the Ranger wing… You can show us the way."

Everyone watched the Ranger's leave the party with the stricken weasel. The party atmosphere had been wounded but wasn't quite dead yet. Tammy and her mother twittered around several bags of make up and hair products.

The Guide looked at her sternly. "Not funny, Lawhiney. You might have wriggled out of that one but there are a hundred details about Gadget's life that you don't know. You can fool strangers and you can fool friends for five minutes at a time, so long as you've got Doctors and Nurses to keep them at arms length, but there's no way you can keep this up. Confessing to your sins and asking for forgiveness is one thing – getting caught red handed and expecting an easy ride is another."

Lawhiney stared at the Guide with her ears down.

A consoling hand pressed against her shoulder. "I'm sure they'll be back safe and sound." The tall blond mouse in the lab coat told her.

"Thank you." Lawhiney whispered, unable to explain that she was afraid because she knew the Guide was right. Time was running out.


Bubbles and Gadget left the warden's office feeling relieved and embarrassed. For her part, Bubbles felt like a naughty school pupil who had been called to the School Principal's office for a warning and was lucky to escape with only her ears burning. Gadget was nursing a wounded ego. She was a Rescue Ranger and she had travelled around the world twice, once with her father and once with the Rangers. She had seen things most people were lucky enough to avoid seeing in their whole lives, no matter how fast her father, or Monty, put their hands over her eyes.

A prison guard, a hedgehog with a Scottish accent, was escorting them to the laundry, where Bubbles worked. As the guard stopped to unlock a barred door that had been made from the door of a human-made animal cage, Bubbles spoke out of the side of her mouth. "Well, that was… unexpected. Who would'a thought it? The Warden acts like her nose is buried in paperwork the whole time and then it turns out she knows every little thing that goes on in here. And she practically ordered me to teach you all my bad habits."

"I've no intention of learning bad habits. The warden doesn't know as much as she thinks she does, or she'd let me out of here right now." Gadget replied a little sulkily, making no attempt to avoid being overheard.

"Be quiet there! I don't recall giving either of you permission to speak and I certainly don't want to hear any of your nonsense young lady." The guard told Gadget sternly.

Gadget hung her head in embarrassment. She felt like she was back in school.

"Uh, excuse me, Officer Hodges?" Bubbles tried to sound like a good little girl. "Red hasn't been assigned a work detail yet."

"What? But that means I'll have to take her back to her cell after I've seen you to the laundry. Oh, and I was supposed to be off shift five minutes ago! This really is too much. We need more staff to run this place properly."

"If it's okay with you, I could take her to the cell and then find my own way to the laundry. Mrs. Trapper is on duty by the door to the laundry and she could let me in." Bubbles suggested helpfully.

"What about the doors to the cell block? I can't very well give you the keys, my girl."

"I thought they only locked them at night."

"That's very true, these days. By rights those doors ought to be locked at all times." The hedgehog complained. "Very well then, but don't go wondering off. I'm holding you on your honour not to get me into trouble."

"Thank you, Officer Hodges." Bubbles smiled gratefully as the guard let them through and locked the door behind them.

Gadget, still smarting from the embarrassment of being told off, stuck her tongue out at the spiny mass of the hedgehog's retreating back. If she was going to be treated like a naughty schoolgirl then she was darn well going to act like one!

The guard didn't notice and turned the corner of the hallway, clearly glad to be on the way home. Gadget smiled, glad to think that for once she had gotten away with something in this awful place – until a sudden, painful tug on her tail made her squeak out loud!

"What's the big idea?" Demanded Bubbles, the obedient and helpful child act long gone. "You didn't have to go and take a stupid risk like that. What if someone else had seen you? Or what if I'd decided to try and get on that guard's good side by turning you in? Don't you ever think?"

Gadget stared at Bubbles with wide eyes. "I just didn't like being told off like that." She said as she nursed her tail.

"Well, you may not like it but you have to put up with it. I suppose you think all the other things they do to us around here are a wonderful delight, don’t you?"

"No, of course not. Bubbles, why did you pull on my tail like that? Not even most children get treated like that these days!"

"I don't know about most children but my parents were traditionalists and a good tug on the tail set me straight many a time when I was growing up. Never did me any harm. Without a firm hand, who knows how I would have turned out?"

Gadget did a quick double take, but didn't point out that her friend was serving a fifteen-year sentence for warehouse robbery. "Are you going to do that every time I do something you don't like?" she asked instead.

Bubbles looked her up and down thoughtfully. "Maybe." The more experienced mouse threatened. "I might even turn you over my knee if I get really annoyed, trying to keep you out of trouble."

Bubbles left Gadget with that troubling thought as she led the way down the corridor.

"Where are we going?" Gadget asked after a few minutes of worried silence. "This isn't the way to the cells."

"I'm not taking you to the cells. The girls and I have decided to throw you a little coming out party. Coming out of the booby-hatch, that is." Bubbles told her.

"A party? But the guard didn't know…"

"The guards aren't supposed to know. They wouldn't allow it if they did know. They wouldn't be doing their jobs if they just let us have a good time in here."

Gadget laughed. "I thought you were supposed to be keeping me OUT of trouble!"

"Red, you're going to have to learn that there's trouble and then there's Trouble. If we get caught slacking off work with a little hooch and a few friends then we're in the first kind of trouble and we take a couple of days solitary and a few weeks’ loss of privileges and it's no big deal. Some of the guards will even see the funny side and no one will be that bothered because it's the kind of trouble they can all understand. But if you go on calling yourself Gadget you're going to find yourself in the second kind of trouble, Red, and that's the kind of trouble where no one understands you, no one wants to know you and there ain't no way they're gonna forgive you.

"Besides, you're going to need a few friends if you're going to survive in this place – there's safety in numbers and even if you keep a low profile there's going to be a few people who will think you're an easy target if you're on your own. And they'll hurt you, Red, because you're different, because you're pretty, because you're an easy target, because they think it's fun or just because they CAN." Bubble looked closely at her ward to see if her point had hit home. It had.

Gadget looked back at Bubbles, worriedly. She quite liked the dark haired mouse and it bothered her that one day Bubbles would find out the truth and perhaps hate her for being Gadget Hackwrench. For the moment, however, they were friends and Gadget was grateful to have Bubbles on her side.

Bubbles led Gadget to a door marked "Room 101 – Keep Out" at the end of a corridor that looked unused, where the rhythmic thump of human machinery was audible from somewhere above. Gadget reasoned the sound would annoy most people and make this part of the prison underused, though she herself found the sound reassuring and almost homey. The room on the other side of the door was little more that a concrete box, most of which was hidden from sight by a row of freestanding shelves that had been stacked with soap flakes, conditioner and detergents. The room seemed silent and unoccupied, until Gadget's sharp eyes spied a large brown blinking eye staring at her from between two bottles of fabric softener.

"Here she is! Our guest of honour." A dry, elderly voice cackled warmly.

Gadget quickly found herself sitting on an upturned bucket with a circle of curious faces turned towards her.

Seven guests had been invited to the party, counting Bubbles. The old voice apparently belonged to the owner of the brown eye – a very elderly mouse with tattered ears and moth-eaten fur. Sitting on Gadget's right, the old hag smiled toothlessly and welcomed Gadget, warmly, in a way that reminded her of Monty.

"How are you, love? They not treating you too harshly, are they? Never mind if they are, we'll see you right, won't we girls?"

Next to the old hag, a fat brown mole folded her arms and looked at Gadget with disapproval. The mole was clearly determined to remain silent and unimpressed but the two thin blond-haired mice beside her murmured their support. Gadget noticed that they were sitting so close to each other that they were practically touching and that they looked similar enough to be sisters. The sixth guest at the party was a terrapin with an inscrutable expression who, nonetheless, responded to Gadget's smile and wave by drawing an arm entirely into her or, just conceivably, his shell and bringing out a selection of party hats.

"My name's Darla, honey. That's not Darla Honey, just Darla." The old hag said and then gestured to the mole beside her. "This is Molly Velvet. Don't mind her ferocious expression – the Rescue Rangers are always harassing her nephew just because he works at a casino that's owned by a cat they don't like. She'll warm up to you as soon as she's sure you're one of us."

"Pleased to meet you, Molly. That cat wouldn't be Fat Cat, the crime boss, would it?"

"It would." Molly looked down her nose at Gadget. "And how would you know?"

"Everyone knows Fat Cat's." Gadget responded automatically.

"And everybody calls these two the twins 'cause they might as well be joined at the hip. You never see one without the other." Darla nodded to the two young mice who looked so similar to each other.

"Are you actually related?" Gadget enquired politely.

"Not by blood, no." the one on the right replied. With that, she held up her hand so Gadget could see her holding her friend's hand. Both mice smiled.

Gadget blinked. While she was not the sheltered flower that many males supposed and had seen a great number of things in her time as a Rescue Ranger, she was suddenly prepared to admit that there were certain areas where her experience was quite lacking. She was hoping to keep it that way.

"The old reptile over there's been called Shelly as long as anyone can remember." Darla continued the introductions. "Doesn't say much but you'd be amazed what ol' Shelly can tuck away in that shell."

Shelly, Gadget mused, was a name that could be used by either gender. She briefly wondered if anyone had ever checked or even asked whether the turtle was in the right prison. It didn't seem polite to ask, however, and Gadget satisfied herself with smiling and nodding. This led to a brief silence until Gadget realised she was expected to speak.

"Uh, thanks for doing this for me, all of you. As you probably know I've been pretty much cut off from everybody for the last two weeks and it means a lot to me to see that there are people who are willing to show a friendly face and do something nice like this for me." Gadget was suddenly aware of tears welling up in her eyes. "I'm sorry, I was just trying to think of something nice to say but now that I think about it, I realise how much that's true. You're the first people I've met in the better part of a month who haven't treated me like scum. Everyone's hated me because of what they think I've done and I never had to deal with being hated before. If anything I've wished that people would like me less because all the attention I get bothers me sometimes."

Shelly pulled an arm into her shell and after what seemed to be a good deal of rummaging, brought out a handkerchief, which she offered to Gadget. Gadget accepted the scrunched up ball of cloth and blew her nose, noisily.

"Aw, honey, you want to be careful what you wish for." Darla told her gently. "By the time most girls get out of here they're desperate for that kind of attention." Darla's grin was less reassuring than she intended.

"Uh, if you don't mind me asking, how long have you…?"

"Been inside? Twenty years. Luv. They ain't never going to let me out of here."

"That's because you mooned the parole board, Darla." Molly Velvet reminded her.

"Buncha stiffs. Let's get this party hopping. Shelly and me have had something brewing for a while. Swiped us some apple juice from the kitchen and mixed it up with sugar and Bob's your uncle. Home made cider!"

Gadget blinked. She didn't usually drink and the last time she had somebody had stolen her life while she was sleeping it off. "Um, I've recently quit…"

"Oh, come on luv. You don't think that we're trying to poison you, do ya?"

Darla proffered a mug of something that was fizzing quietly. Gadget couldn't tell whether it was fizzing because it was bubbly or because it was dissolving whatever the cup was made out of. Gadget's eyes flickered towards Bubbles in the hope of rescue but there was none to be found.

"Uh, well. If you insist…"

"'Course I do, luv. You're the guest of honour so you've got to try it first."

Gadget braced herself and raised the mug to her lips. The smell alone was enough to make her eyes water. As she poured the liquid into her mouth Gadget knew that the only thing that would allow her to swallow the home-brew was the knowledge that keeping the liquid in her mouth would be worse and spitting it out might result in being force fed the rest of the batch.

The hooch hit her stomach like napalm. The prisoners watched as a curious transformation overcame their new recruit – Gadget had swallowed with her eyes tight shut but her eyeballs bulged behind the eyelids until the right one forced its way out from under the lid to stare at them, bloodshot and dilated.

Gadget slowly lowered the mug, wondering what had happened to the room. It seemed larger, warmer and friendlier than before. The tip of her tongue flicked out to check for blisters on her lips and encountered her front teeth. She marvelled at how rough, pitted and furry they now were.

She smacked her lips together to take away the stinging and peered at the others in the room blearily. "That'll put hairs on your tongue." She said.

"You see!" Darla grinned toothlessly. "She didn't even fall over! That proves it; this batch IS drinkable. Come on Shelly, dish it out."

Within moments the prisoners were babbling happily, sharing out their illegal booze and grinning at one another. Shelly produced a tiny crystal radio set with a speaker made to fit in a human's ear. It was still loud enough to be heard by everyone.

Gadget found herself bobbing her head in time to the music and marvelled at how easy it was to have a good time. In fact she found herself laughing.

"Red, are you okay? Darla's homebrew can have some funny effects on people. Well, funny for the people watching at any rate." Bubbles peered at Gadget with a worried frown.

"Golly, I was just thinking how I must be a lot tougher than I ever thought I was."

"You aren't going to challenge anyone to a fight are you?"

"What? Jeepers, no. Why would I do that? No, I was just thinking how amazing it was that I could be sitting here, locked up in prison for something I'm completely innocent of, while all the while the one who did this to me is out there walking around as free as a bird, and yet all it takes is a few friendly faces and a little drinkie and I can still enjoy a good laugh. I mean, since all this started I've been chained, gagged, publicly humiliated, drenched, stripped, psychoanalysed, punched in the face twice and electrocuted but I can still relax and enjoy a good laugh any time I want. A laugh must be an incredibly resilient thing."

"What were you laughing at?"

Gadget frowned. "I can't remember." She looked around for someone to ask and realised the room was rather fuller than it had been before. She was seeing double. The twins had started dancing together and suddenly the room was wall to wall with twirling mice. Gadget started to ask Shelly if the terrapin could see the same as her, only to realise that while she could see only one Shelly to ask it was a Shelly with far more arms and faces than one terrapin ought to have.

As Gadget gaped and pondered whether one of the reptile's two faces would speak only truth and the other only lies, the terrapin clicked, waggled and waved her fingers in the manner of a dancing Indian goddess.

When Darla's face reared up before her, Gadget nearly fell on her tail.

"Enjoying yourself, dearie? Like the music? Want to tell us a bit about yourself now you're more relaxed?"

Gadget opened her mouth to answer and hesitated. She vaguely recalled being told several times that there was something about herself that she had to stop telling people. That it was very important. She just couldn't recall all the details. She wondered if this was what Dale felt like all the time.

"Well, I… uh… could I have some more homebrew?" Gadget stalled.

"Uh-uh, Red. When you want to drink more of Darla's homebrew, that means you've had too much already." Bubbles came to her rescue. "Why don't you keep your mouth busy with some talking – you can't be a wallflower at your own party, you know."

Gadget nodded before the dreadful implications set in. "Uh, do you mean I'm going to have to dance with someone?"

"What's the matter, sweetheart?" One of the twins asked.

"You got weak ankles or something?" The other teased.

Bubbles smiled wickedly. "You don't have to dance – or do anything else you don't want to – with anyone here. But it ain't the way with everyone, so you stick close to one of us, or both of the twins, until you know your way around in here."

"You can trust the twins." Molly Velvet put in when Gadget cast a sceptical look towards the two mice waltzing mice. "They're two of the most trustworthy people in here, in fact."

The twins looked over and smiled at the compliment.

"Oh, yes. You can trust us." One said.

"We'll be happy to look after you." The other agreed.

Gadget raised an eyebrow at Molly Velvet but the mole's only response was a long, steady stare.

"Red? You okay?" Bubbles asked after a moment.

"Um, I'm not sure I really understand what you're trying to tell me… but I would like to know one thing. Bubbles, why are you helping me?" Gadget looked at her new friend with a tinge of worry.

"Because… I don't know. You took an interest in me on the barge when I was down and you weren't doing it to get anything out of me. You're willing to believe what people tell you, even when they've made it clear that they don't believe a word you have to say." Bubbles put her hand on Gadget's shoulder and leaned closer. "I think maybe you're a nice person, Red. Maybe even a good person." She said gently. "Just a little mixed up in the head, that's all.

"I can't see any kind of real bad in you; I can't even see much in the way of hate, or selfishness. I can't believe that you could be this way and not have someone out there to worry about you. There must be someone who's trying to find you. Someone who loves you and who's missing you."

"Yeah, that's right. You listen to the girl." Molly admonished Gadget. "You think about that person, not knowing whether you've been eaten by a cat or squished by a human automobile. You think about their suffering."

Darla leaned close enough for the smell of homebrew to crinkle Gadget's nose. "How about it, honey? If you tell us who they are, maybe we could find them. They might be able to help you with an appeal or pay for a good lawyer. They could tell the judge about that you had a previous good character. Even if they were just someone to send you the occasional letter, you'd be amazed what a good letter counts for when you think the world outside has forgotten you."

Gadget looked at them all carefully. She licked her lips and had one last try at staying honest. "Just supposing…" She slurred and tried again. "Just suppose that I was really Gadget Hackwrench? What would you do then?"

Bubbles sighed VERY heavily.

Molly Velvet folded her arms at took a deep breath. "WELL! Since you asked, Missy, I've been wanting to have a talk with that particular young lady – preferably while she's hanging from the ceiling by a knot in her tail!"

"Heh, heh. That would be a good start." Darla agreed. "I know one or two who wouldn't mind steam-ironing that tail afterwards."

"What about you girls?" Molly asked the twins.

The twins stared Gadget with deadpan expressions. "We're not into violence." One said.

"Make love, not war." The other agreed.

There was a brief silence as Gadget tried to decide how to interpret that remark.

"Not that we'd get the chance, of course." Molly went on. "Not with all the pussy cats in this place – softies like us would never get a look in."

Bubbles looked sideways at Gadget and caught her eye. "What do you think they'd do to her, Molly?"

"Heck, I don't know. It wouldn't be pretty, that's for sure. Steam-ironing her tail might be about right. Depend on the circumstances. If they had the run of the place they might put her into that old microwave in the kitchen; it's big enough to just walk into. I heard a girl got shut in with the entire prison's Sunday lunch one time. It was an accident, not deliberate or anything. She just went in there to get something while the guards back was turned and the next thing she knew she was cooking along with the carrots and beans."

"Nah," Darla disagreed. "I reckon they'd put her through the meat grinder."

"What's the meat grinder?" Gadget asked, assuming it was prison slang for something horrible.

"Why, bless you lass, it's what they use to turn the steak they swipe from the human kitchen up top into minced beef for those of us who eat meat. Hind feet first, they'd feed her into it, I bet you anything – "

"Well as long as they didn't make her do human impressions." One of the twins said. The other twin squealed with mock shock and horror.

"Human impressions?" Gadget asked the question against her better judgement but a morbid fascination drew it out of her.

The inmates stopped talking. The radio was the only sound in the room, its tinny dance number changing to a mournful song by a human female vocalist whose man had done her wrong.

"You aren't talking about pretending to be a particular human to make people laugh, or about just walking around in a bad pair of Bermuda shorts, burping and scratching, while comparing some other human to a perfectly respectable kind of animal the rest of us would be quite happy to have as a neighbour, as though there was something terrible about that particular species, are you?" Gadget said wearily.

"She's got a right to know. I heard one or two of the others talking about it like they were thinking of doing it." Molly said after exchanging a silent stare with Bubbles.

"Talk, that's all it was, Molly." Bubbles replied.

"For the moment. She's got to know, Bubbles. Either she hears it from her friends or she'll hear it from someone else when her back's up against a wall."

Bubbles hesitated. "I heard stories my first time in prison, but I've always thought they were just stories meant to frighten new inmates – you know, like ghost stories being told to first time campers when you're a kid? Darla, you've been inside longer than just about anyone, anyone who isn't senile, anyway. Have you seen someone get turned human, or known someone who was?"

Darla grew quiet and her eyes misted with age, or perhaps memory, or perhaps sadness. "Once dear, a very long time ago. I used to be an orderly in the hospital wing when I'd only been here a couple of years. There was nothing wrong with her but they let her stay there the whole time. I asked around and I was told that she had betrayed an escape attempt because she thought that it would help her get remission. When she didn't get it and there was a riot the following year, a group of the inmates she betrayed got her cornered and turned her human."

"Yeah, but what do they do when they do that?" Bubbles pressed.

"Well, first they take your clothes away from you and if you're lucky they shave you from your nose to the tip of your tail. That's so you're bald all over, like a human, see?"

"Um, what happens if you're unlucky?"

"They set fire to your clothes and use the flames…"

"Right, right." Gadget said. "So that's why they call it turning you human. Because you're bald all over like a human."

"Yeah, usually that's as far as they go. By that time the person's all begging and people start to feel sorry for them."

Gadget blinked slowly. "Usually?"

"If that's not enough, then they make the person they're turning human hide their tail."

"Hide… how? By wrapping it around their waist or something?"

"No… you know what I mean. Tell her Bubbles." The old mouse was blushing.

"I've heard… well, dang it, use your imagination, Red!" Bubbles flushed.

Gadget did. After half a minute, she looked at Bubbles with an innocent expression and shrugged in bewilderment.

Bubbles blinked. Then she told Gadget where they hid the tail.

There was a long silence.

"Uh, they really do that?" Gadget asked finally, keeping her eyes fixed on the ceiling.

"Yeah. See, the prisoners threaten to cut it off if otherwise, so the person's got no choice."

There was another long silence.

"There's more isn't there?" Gadget sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose.

"Yes. If they still aren't happy they take something sharp and trim the victim's ears to look like a human's." Darla confirmed.

"And that's it?"

"Sometimes they make them do humorous impressions of well-known humans between each stage. If the would-be-human can make the angry mob laugh then they get to walk away…"

Gadget sat very still and considered her options, silently figuring this latest information into all her moral equations and contemplating her future. "You said there had been talk…"

"Now don't get panicky, Red." Bubbles jumped in before Gadget could run screaming at the walls. "We're here to look after you and most of the cons don't care one way or the other about some goody-two-shoes little celebrity who thinks she's smarter than everyone else on the planet. Its just talk, that's all.”

"I bet that Roxie started it." Molly Velvet broke her long silence with tones that rang with disapproval.

"You remember Roxie?" Bubbles asked. "White mouse? The cops knocked on her door and she got seven years 'cause her boyfriend gave her bag of stolen goods to look after while he climbed out a back window? The one who ended up soaked in sewer water and with a bruised tail because you didn't know when to keep your mouth shut on the way here? She's still mad at you, well, actually she's mad at her boyfriend but she wants to do someone some damage and it looks like she's settled on you."

Darla leaned close enough to Gadget to kiss her. The old con peered searchingly into the young inmate's eyes. "You don't have to put up with the likes of Roxie, lass. Tell us who you really are. Give us your name so we can tell your folks where to find you. They can bring a doctor or a lawyer for you."

Gadget blinked. "I guess my name is Red. And for now, you guys are the closest thing to family I've got. Want to drink a toast with me?"

Gadget raised her homebrew high.

"To family."

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