Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Chapter Sixteen: Guests, Visitors and Visitations
Chip scowled as the Ranger Wing caught a thermal and soared like an eagle. The added height meant they could take a more direct route and would be less visible from the ground, but he didn't like it that they were using the Ranger Wing at all. It didn't have the lifting gear that the Ranger plane did and it couldn't carry as many people as the Ranger Plane had been able to.
Dale was in the back seat, checking the ropes, cutting gear and first-aid equipment. Next to him the young, brown furred weasel sat with his eyes tight shut. The youth had probably never flown before; few thinking animals had and few wanted to. Flight might be exciting and daring to the bright young things who wrote in their diaries with secret glee on days when they spotted an aeroplane so small that they knew it must surely have been built without the aid of human hands, but those whose work forced them into the air knew it was a cold, dangerous and unreliable way to travel.
Monty touched the controls lightly, sending the Ranger Wing into a spiral towards the College Stadium where the water tower had collapsed. He had enjoyed the occasional weekend of downtime there with the others; together they watched the college's human baseball team go through their paces in the season and visited the thriving animal market under the bleachers. The whole place was ancient and had been unpainted and barely maintained by the humans who were supposed to care for it for decades the perfect place for animal culture to thrive for a brief time before the giants that owned the world remembered this particular corner of it.
Beside Monty, Chip spoke up.
"Monty, I'm worried." Chip's voice was low and neutral. He was trying to avoid being overheard by the weasel in the backseat, and perhaps by Dale and Zipper as well.
Monty spared Chip a glance before turning back to the controls. "I sort of noticed that, pally. Something happen up at the prison?"
"You might say that something that should have happened, didn't." Chip replied.
Monty nodded. He accepted the subtle difference between the two and did not accuse the detective of splitting hairs. Instead the big mouse asked, pointedly: "Was it something that justifies being late for Gadget's welcome home party?"
"Oh! Gee, was I missed?" Chip at least had the decency to look embarrassed. "I did my best to get back in time, it's was just that there was more involved in getting in to see her than I thought."
"Her?" Monty arched an eyebrow.
Until now the rangers had always referred to Gadget's facsimile as "The Impostor", or "The Fake Gadget" or other, less polite things when they could be sure they would not be overheard. This was the first time that Monty could recall someone referring to the girl in Shrankshaw prison in the same tones they might use to talk about somebody they had met on the street.
"Huh? Oh, I see." Chip understood and borrowed a leaf from Dale's book. He resorted to humour. "Well, if you had any doubts, you'll be relieved to hear the person who duped most of the state into thinking she was Gadget Hackwrench wasn't a female impersonator." Chip played with his hat for a moment, watching the burly Australian out of the corner of his eye.
"I think I can see the water tower from here. Or what's left of it." Monty signalled his loss of interest in Chip's problems.
"I think there might be something wrong out at Shrankshaw prison, Monty. If I'm right, our most recent headache might not be the only person affected by it."
Monty tilted his head to indicate that he was still listening.
"They've got over a thousand inmates up at that prison; a few of them are only there for defaulting on court fines. Didn't you get a couple of fines last spring for taking more than your own body weight in cheese from that Dutch freighter? And what else was it? Having a couple of lead weights under your coat?"
"Yeah, but the limits were set low for that freighter, normally it's one and half times your own body weight." Monty grumbled. The incident had been embarrassing and he had tried to put it behind him.
"Did you finish paying those fines yet?" Chip was enjoying making Monty feel uncomfortable.
"Anyone can make a mistake, be a little forgetful when life gets busy." Monty said as he made a mental note to make sure he covered the last instalment when they got home.
"By that logic, anyone could find themselves in Shrankshaw, then. Oh, anyone female, I mean." Chip waved a paw to brush aside Monty's imminent objection.
"Yeah, I suppose. Almost anyone." Monty allowed.
Chip lapsed into silence for a moment. If Monty had pressed him, even Chip wouldn't have been able to put his thoughts into words.
They were about to come in for a landing and Monty didn't want to leave a topic like this hanging in midair, as it were. "What sort of problem do you think they have?"
"The prisoner I went to see was wrapped up tighter than a human on a cold day. They had her strapped to a gurney and straitjacketed. They even had a hockey mask on her to stop her biting." Chip broached the source of his worries head on, now that the flight was almost over and he was running out of time. "I tried every legitimate trick in the book to get that girl to open up to me but I couldn't get a peep out of her. For a while I thought it was just dumb insolence, then I figured that they had her juiced up."
"And is there any reason to think otherwise?" Monty rumbled.
"She seemed to understand what I was saying. Answered yes and no. Tried sign language with her tail."
"She was gagged?" Monty's interest was piqued, but not for long. "Guards ran out of patience with her potty mouth, I dare say. I heard that when she was pretending to be our Gadget, she hit her thumb with a hammer and used language that would make a sailor blush in front of children too!"
"Made it hard to interview her."
"Shoulda asked 'em to un-gag her then."
"I didn't realise she was gagged until I was on my way out. I wanted to make it back in time to welcome Gadget home. Guess I was slacking off, Monty. I should know better."
Monty spared Chip a questioning glance. "You're too hard on yourself. You could use a little slack. And you know what else?"
"No, Monty. What else?"
"You could use a little more slack on top of the first lot. Maybe then you'd have some for the rest of us when we needed it." Monty ribbed him gently. Before the chipmunk could respond, the Australian was bringing the Ranger Wing in for a careful landing.
Chip pushed his fedora down until it was tight around his head with a rueful grin. He hoped Gadget was enjoying her party.
Lawhiney smiled as she opened another present and made grateful noises. She had quickly realised the correct Gadget-like response was to be happy and grateful for anything she was given, even if it was something weird like a gearbox from a model helicopter or a sprocket set. After that, playing Gadget's friends for suckers was as easy as conning the small-town simpletons she had been gulling for pocket money before she met Pierre and Brandon. Everyone had come here to see Gadget. They had seen the Rangers call her Gadget. They just accepted it without thinking.
The only hard part was keeping the permanent grin on her face.
Pretending to be Gadget would be a lot easier if I'd stolen some happy pills from the hospital, Lawhiney thought. Of course, I could scowl and cuss out every one of them and they'd just put it down to the bang on the head I took. Dang, I'm good. Everyone is just so convinced that I'm Gadget Hackwrench
She found herself nose to nose with her guide. The deeply etched scowl on his face suggested that he either possessed previously un-displayed mind reading powers or that his mortal life had been a good deal less pleasant than Lawhiney would have expected the life of an agent of the powers of light to be.
"Does this look like mending your ways?" the Guide asked coldly. "Because it doesn't to me. It looks like taking advantage of some good people who have been worried for someone they care about. You've been given some time to get yourself together and do the right thing. Which is to confess. Not pile up the goodies."
"And another thing I don't think is right is the way all the papers said they didn't believe the rumours early on and then repeated the rumours word for word. And this cartoon they printed. It's terrible." Mrs Booby said.
Lawhiney looked up into a large editorial cartoon that showed her, or rather Gadget, playing with a huge chemistry set and reading from a large copy of "Doctor Jeckell and Mister Hyde". The caption read: "Rumours, about me? What rumours?"
Lawhiney smiled faintly. "I suppose I should take greater notice of what people are saying about me. Of course, no one wants to say something nasty about me to my face."
"Oh, I don't know. I can think of a few things." The Guide was competing for her attention.
"You bury yourself all day in the workshop and only come out when someone needs rescuing." Tammy said. "If you live that way for long enough, it's only a matter of time before you need rescuing yourself. You need something else in your life." A devious light came into the young squirrel's eyes noticed only by Lawhiney, a seasoned con artist herself. "I hear a certain lab rat is still available."
"Huh? Oh! I say, isn't it disgraceful, this headline is even worse than the rest." A thin blond rat in a lab coat, who was about a head taller than Lawhiney struggled to change the subject. He held up a paper that declared in bold typeface: "ORPHANAGE SWINDLED!"
Lawhiney didn't need to see the story somewhere in the wreckage of her outlaws' original aircraft was a scrapbook with every news story ever printed about their crimes pasted into it. Gadget didn't care about publicity but Lawhiney did. This issue of the "City Crier" would bleat about how someone claiming to be Gadget Hackwrench had spoken to a dozen wealthy charity workers with a view to arranging a benefit for a local orphanage. Then on the night, she had accepted every penny they had raised on behalf of the orphanage only to be called away on an urgent rescue halfway through her speech. She had taken the money with her and never been seen since. One of her triumphs, she could not resist the temptation to smile at the memory.
The Guide glowered. "That's right; one of your greatest moments. Fifty people worked round the clock for two weeks to help the orphaned children of their neighbourhood and then just handed it all to you, on stage, in front of everyone! All you had to do was take it, say a few polite words, disappear on cue and leave Gadget to take the blame. It was the perfect crime."
Lawhiney had the grace to blush but not for the right reasons. She felt no shame for cheating the orphanage; she took pride in proving herself smarter than the authorities and the stiffs who worked for a living. The Guide's praise for her criminal genius was simply a little rich after having gone without for so long.
"Yes, feel ashamed, Lawhiney! You haven't just robbed people of their material things, which can be replaced, you've robbed the world of the good they were doing!" The Guide, ever optimistic, misunderstood.
"Are you alright? You're looking a little flushed, my dear." Tammy's mother was worried. She could not see the Guide, any more than anyone else in the room could, except for Lawhiney. "You must tell us if you're not feeling up to this."
"That's alright." Lawhiney said quickly. "I'm quite looking forward to that make-over Tammy promised me. Did you bring any hair-dye?" Lawhiney was conscious that her bottled blond look was starting to show.
Tammy blinked. "Of course! Hey, come with us! By the time the others come back, even Chipper won't recognize you!"
"Oh, you don't have to go that far!" Lawhiney exclaimed in alarm. She needed to look as much like Gadget as possible to keep getting away with this, after all.
"It's no trouble at all, and we can gossip while we work. Come on, girls. This is going to be so much fun " Tammy started to wheel Gadget's chair out of the living room.
"Oh, sure! You girls can talk about old times while you're at it! Oh, no, that's right. You can't talk about old times Lawhiney, because you weren't there for them!" The Guide shouted after the departing girls but in deference to ancient male customs he did not follow them.
"Hey, that's not a bad idea." Lawhiney's voice floated through the still open doorway. "Girls, I had a real bad concussion in the crash and the doctors say I should spend as much time as possible checking to see if I've got any gaps in my memories. Because of possible brain damage, you know?"
Chip jumped out of the landed Ranger Wing. Strictly speaking it didn't matter who got out of the Ranger Wing first, but someone had to be first and when there were other people already at the site he liked it to be him so that he could make a good first impression. Not that there was anything wrong with the others, it was just that, well, they didn't have his diplomatic skills.
The grass had been cut short at the end of the summer season but hadn't been touched since and was shoulder high on Chip. For a moment he wished he had a machete so he could cut a path, but of course no sane small animal, sentient or otherwise, would deliberately leave a trail so obvious to the eyes of a predator.
"Looks like ground keeper 'as been slacking off." Monty looked down at Chip and smiled warmly. The grass was only chest high on him.
Good cover the grass might be, Chip reflected, but it got in the way and made him look short. Not that he was he was normal for a chipmunk.
The foreman of the construction site seemed to be managing the rescue operations, if only because he was the only one left standing with any authority who knew his way around a building site. About a dozen construction workers jumped from one task to another as he barked orders at them. Chip stood back for five seconds and took stock. He especially took notice when someone ran over from the crowd of bystanders under the bleachers and put their hand on the foreman's shoulder. The muscular brown rat in the hard hat pretended to ignore the smaller, skinnier rat the first time, but quietly sized up the new arrival out of the corner of his eye.
Careful, Chip noted. He liked that.
The skinny rat got impatient and put his hand on the foreman's shoulder a second time. He quickly found himself lying on his back as stars danced in his eyes. The foreman hadn't used his full strength, Chip noted, that would have knocked teeth out. Reasonable force, Chip mused.
"Want me to go over and try talking to him in his own language, Chipper?" Monty offered, watching the goings on with a critical eye.
"No thank you, Monty. I think I can handle it."
"You sure about that? He's a big fella." Monty looked dubiously at the shorter chipmunk.
Chip closed in on the foreman without replying. He approached the same way as the skinny rat had done, from the side at walking speed. The skinny rat was just struggling to his feet and slinking the other way.
"I wouldn't bother, if I were you." The rat warned Chip while nursing a bruised eye.
Chip waved him away without a glance then placed his own hand on the foreman's shoulder. This time the foreman's swing was less restrained. Chip was ready for it. He caught the arm close to the wrist and elbow and dropped low. The foreman's fist passed over Chip's head and kept going. Chip encouraged it on its way, making sure the rat's whole body followed it in short order.
The brown rat looked up in surprise.
"Oh, sorry about that." Chip lied. "Reflex action, couldn't stop myself. I'm Chip Maplewood, I work with a group called the Rescue Rangers. We heard you could use some help." He gave the information a couple of seconds to filter through the foreman's brain.
"Hey, boss? You need some help over there?" one of the workers called from where the surviving builders were trying to clear wreckage.
"Let me give you a hand up." Since Chip hadn't let go of the rat's wrist in the first place, it was hard for the rat to refuse. Chip pulled him on to his feet.
"Say, who did ya say ya were?" The rat snarled.
"Chip Maplewood. We're the Rescue Rangers. You sent the young weasel over there to get help?" Chip suddenly found himself worried that this might be the only rodent in the city who hadn't heard of them.
"I sent him to get the Street Watch from the dumpster over by the hospital. If you guys are the Rescue Rangers, there's just one thing I wanna know "
"What?" Chip braced himself, ready for trouble.
"How's Gadget doing? Is she going to be okay?"
It was over an hour before the Rangers got proper lifting gear in place to move the wreckage. Dale had almost instantly formed a friendship with the skinny rat the foreman had punched. It had been fortunate, since he had approached the foreman with the names of twenty volunteers from the small animal market under the bleachers. Chip had immediately placed eight of them as lookouts to warn of approaching humans or predators. The rest he had set to work concealing evidence of animal civilization, an important but often forgotten task in the heat of the moment.
Normally Gadget would have supervised the task of rigging up makeshift block and tackle rope systems to lift the heavier parts of the debris. She wasn't there. Fortunately they had a dozen willing workers who knew their way around a building site. It wasn't that she wasn't needed, Chip thought, it was there were others who could cover for her absence instead of just lifting heavy objects.
Zipper barrel-rolled out through a passageway no wider than Chip's head. "BZZtt! Buuzzt. Bzzbzz bzz." He reported.
Chip nodded thankfully to the fly. They were lucky. Five live but injured people trapped in the wreckage. One conscious and more or less unscathed in spite of dropping sixty feet surrounded by pieces of timber big enough to crush him into jelly. One severely injured and probably dying. The rest in varying states in between but two thankfully close enough together to be pulled out at the same time.
"We need this plank of wood shored up."
"Get this skateboard closer to the site. We can't be carrying stuff back and forward."
"See if you can find any more rope. Most of what we had is under that lot."
It was the usual mix of banter, catcalls, weeping and orders that you hear in any disaster area when people haven't given up hope yet. He and Zipper were the only ones who knew the actual numbers that were left alive in there. How many workers did they think were in the place when it collapsed? A dozen, the young weasel had said. That meant seven dead in there, probably in pieces given the weight of the wood timbers that had come down around them.
For a moment, Chip was grateful Gadget wasn't there. In a moment he would have to make a decision about which survivor to go after first. His logic said the two who were close together. They gave the best value in terms of saved lives for a given amount of time and effort. If Gadget had been here she would have told him the dying person's only hope was if they went after him first. And maybe he would have overruled her.
Dale would go for whoever was closest without hesitating. So would Monty.
Zipper had just spent ten minutes flying and crawling around under a jumbled pile of wood as high as a human. The dead weren't as horrifying to carrion eaters as they were to herbivores but even so it wasn't fair to ask or speculate what Zipper wanted to do right now.
"We go for the two who are close together." Chip decided.
"If we move the wrong timber, the whole thing will collapse." The foreman warned.
"Zipper's about to go back in to mark a trail to each casualty with silk thread. I'll go in with him and check each timber myself. I can tap on them with a hammer if you can find me one and you can identify which timber I'm working on from the sound." Chip began tying a string around his waist. "Number them. I'll take notes of which timber is holding others up."
"You're sure about this? One slip and "
"I'm sure. Dale's too clumsy and Monty's too well, he just couldn't fit between the timbers. Zipper can't get a line to the casualties and do this at the same time. Besides, I doubt he could hit a timber hard enough for you to hear it up here. You'll have to lay your ear against the wood as it is." Chip set his jaw and disappeared through the best available hole.
Inside was a maze of shadows, sloping wood, nails and blood.
Chip slid smoothly down a steeply angled plank of wood. He rolled off the side when he saw the twisted, rusty point of a six-inch nail coming towards him.
He was in freefall for about two feet before he kicked out at a vertical beam to push him self towards a likely looking handhold, another nail that jutted from the side of a tilted timber shaft. This nail was shiny and new. It held his weight easily enough but was angled downwards and slippery with what Chip hoped was water.
Reluctant to climb up onto a beam that might be soaked in blood, Chip began swinging his legs until he had built up enough momentum to jump on a horizontal plank of wood that was running from left to right in front of him.
Good start, he thought. He held his hands in a shear column of sunlight that had penetrated the woodpile like a spear and checked them for blood. They were liberally coated in mushroom soup. Chip could not suppress a giggle. One of the workers must have brought some in for lunch. He took a cloth from his jacket pocket and wiped off his hands, then decided that this timber was as good as any to start with.
Chip took out a piece of chalk and marked the timber with the number 1. Then he began hammering against the wood as hard as he could.
Forty-five minutes later, Chip Maplewood hauled himself out from under the wreckage of the building site. He lay on his back in the grass, looking up at the clear blue sky, and he thought of Gadget.
Out here in the light there could be such beauty, he puzzled. Yet at the same time the world could be so harsh. He thought of the workers in their water tower and wondered about the people who were at home, sweeping the floor or perhaps preparing dinner for a husband or a father that was never going to return. He thought of Gadget alone in her father's derelict aeroplane for a lonely year of mourning.
Still, the sky was beautiful. Something dark and misshapen obscured it.
"Hey-ya, Chip. We thought you were chipmunk pate for sure back then when one of the support struts shifted out of whack. Say, you were down there for a long time. In fact, you were down there so long, I think you've started to sprout mushrooms. You sure do smell of them."
Chip sat up and bonked Dale on the head.
"Hey!" Dale objected. For a moment he looked like he wanted to return the favour.
Chip was glad when his friend had the sense to turn away. He was the leader and he was in no mood to be trifled with.
"We did what you asked and numbered each piece of lumber when you knocked on it. How many did you check?"
"Fifty-nine. I only did the major ones that seemed to be taking most of the load, or the really dangerous looking ones that looked like they wouldn't take much to fall. I was scared to knock on some of them in case that was all it took."
"We only got 28 beams." The foreman said. "We might have missed a couple but I'm pretty sure you were beating on different sections of the same pieces of wood several times in a row. I've got a list of the sections that we definitely heard knocking on more than once."
"We'll have to go over it pretty carefully." Chip agreed.
"Hey! Look out!" screamed somebody out of sight.
Chip spun in the direction of the yell and for one brief instant he could see a wooden "A" frame with a block and tackle rig falling towards him. The foreman was jumping like a jackrabbit and Dale was rolling for cover in the opposite direction. Chip was standing in the middle but it was too late for him to do anything but cover his head before he was crushed.
Chip closed his eyes.
The "A" frame fell towards him and his entire body passed through the gap between the top of the A and the strut that held the two legs of the frame apart, like Buster Keeton passing through the window of a falling house-front in a silent comedy.
Chip opened one eye in amazement. He was still standing, and unharmed! He looked heavenwards with a grateful word on his lips.
The pulley on the end of the block and tackle's rope promptly hit him right between the eyes.
Chip jumped and shoulder rolled to avoid the steam iron that someone had suspended above the doorway. He just barely had time to reach back and snatch up his fedora before the iron slapped into the hard concrete surface and steam blasted him in the face. He stumbled backwards and fell onto his tail.
"Chipper! Look out, pally!" Monty's voice boomed from behind him.
Chip looked over his shoulder in time to see the circular blade from a bacon slicer machine coming at him horizontally at just the right height to take his head off. In front of Chip, the steam iron was pumping out so much steam that it had begun bouncing around on the floor and looked like it was about to blast off.
Chip did the only thing he could and lay flat on his back. The circular blade passed in front of his face less than an arm's length away, the tiny serrated teeth on its edge making the air hiss as it went by.
Realising the blade would inevitably meet the steam iron, which already whistled like a kettle and looked fit to burst at any second, Chip sausage rolled onto his front and began commando crawling towards his friend.
"Hurry!" Dale urged him as Monty beckoned him on.
Slowly, a heavy metal door began to lower itself between Chip and his friends, no doubt controlled by the same mechanism that drove the bacon slicer. Chip tried to crawl faster but it seemed impossible. There was a three-foot long stretch corridor between him and the rapidly closing doorway.
Monty put his shoulder under the iron door and tried to halt it's downward progress, but it was clear that the most he could do would be to buy Chip a few extra seconds.
Chip redoubled his efforts. "I can just make it!" he thought. He stretched a hand out to pull himself clear of the blade and saw the ruby red light of a laser beam light up his hand.
Jets of flame instantly shot down into the corridor from a dozen Zippo cigarette lighters that were fixed to the ceiling.
Chip snatched his arm back and saw to his horror that the fur on the back of his hand and wrist was alight. Making "Woo-woo" noises he puffed out his cheeks and blew on the flames while using his other hand to beat them out with his fedora.
The floor he was laying on clearly wasn't covered by the laser sensors, but by the time the saw blade was clear and he could stand up Monty would be on his knees and reaching the door before the iron exploded would be impossible.
Chip's eyes met Dale's and a moment of silent communication passed between them. Dale stepped forward, to help his friend, but Chip held up a paw to stop him. "It's all right." He called. "I'll be fine. I know just how I'm going to get out of this."
For his own benefit, Chip added more quietly: "I'm not going to be all right. I have no idea how I'm going to get out of this."
"Run for it, mate! I can't hold this door much longer." Monty shouted.
Chip winced and hoped that his friends could put the flames out quickly when he reached them. There had been a delay of just under a second between the laser touching his hand and the homemade flamethrower trying to flash fry him. Hopefully he could out run the worst of it.
The bacon slicer blade passed him by.
Chip jumped up and ran for it.
The first flamethrower was slow and missed him but as it fired so did the one at the end of the corridor, directly in front of the door. Chip hadn't seen it do that the first time the trap had fired!
As the second flamethrower fired behind him, singing his fur, another, closer, flamethrower ignited at the end of the corridor. The sequence they were firing in meant that when Chip reached the halfway point there would be no way to avoid being incinerated.
Chip yelped, spun on his heel and ran back towards the circular saw, unable to see it for the curtain of fire between him and it. Only the turned up collar of his leather jacket and the fedora pulled tightly down on his head protected him from a grilling.
He emerged from the flames to find himself less than a body length from the waist-high saw blade and hurtling towards it too fast to stop. Desperately he jumped into the air and came down running on the left hand side of the blade.
The room span too quickly for the eye to follow and Chip found himself flying through the air, blasts of flame blossoming around him as he soared past the flamethrowers close enough to touch them. He arced back towards the ground, barely having enough time to curl into a ball and start rolling to break his fall.
Pain shot through his shoulder as he landed, bounced and cannoned through the knee-high gap at the bottom of the iron door. He knocked Monty's legs out from under the big mouse as he did so and all three of the rangers ended up in a tangled heap of arms, legs and smouldering fur and clothes as the door clanged shut.
On the other side of the door, the saw blade bit into the side of the steam iron. High-pressure steam screamed as it escaped, then the iron exploded, shattering the steel blade. Deadly shrapnel tore the room apart, ripping open some of the flamethrowers. Their fuel spilled out, igniting as it hit the flamethrowers pilot lights and becoming a shower of fire.
The heat was too much and fixings that held another of the converted lighters to the ceiling melted. The lighter dropped, exploding when it hit the concrete floor.
On the ceiling the last of the flamethrowers began to cook off, exploding one by one as the flames from below reached them.
The explosions rattled the heavy iron door that the rangers had barely made it through alive.
Chip lay still until he got his breath back. Then, without bothering to pull himself out from under the pile of his friends he spoke. "Monty, is it just me, or did that last trap bear a striking resemblance to a Gadget Hackwrench patent-pending Salesman Stopper Trap number four?"
"Aye, lad. That it did." Monty rumbled. "And the one we limbo danced under before that, wasn't it a Door-to-Door Destroyer number three?"
"It certainly looked like it, Monty. I'm beginning to suspect that something terrible has gone wrong in our justice system."
With the unmistakable crack and buzz of a heavy-duty transformer springing into action, Chip, Dale, Monty and Zipper were fixed in the glare of a spotlight. Hastily, all four heroes scrambled to their feet.
Dale gulped loudly as the lights came up to reveal that they were trapped in a large chamber surrounded by a huge crowd of angry, armed, female convicts. "What sort of something did you have in mind, Chip?" he asked nervously.
The mob began to part to let their leader through.
"Something like that, Dale." Chip replied, pointing to where a familiar figure was emerging.
She was slightly taller than either Chip or Dale and walked with a natural grace that she probably didn't know she had. She wore her hair long enough to reach her tail and it was closer to being red than blond; it bounced with every step she took towards them and she didn't stop until she was close enough for them to see the anger that was flashing in her clear blue eyes.
With one voice the convicts began to chant "Red! Red! Red! Red! Red! Red!"
"All this was over interior décor?" Dale marvelled. "Well, I guess I wouldn't want to be surrounded by grey twenty-four hours a day, either."
"I think Red is what they call their leader, Dale." Chip said darkly.
"But you have another name for me, don't you Chip?" The young mouse woman said.
"Lawhiney?" Chip held out to the last, hoping his worst fears were unjustified.
"Guess again! Only one person knows how to build those traps you just fought your way past, just as I knew that only you and not the prison authorities could successfully defeat my creations, just as you did once before when we first met! " The words came quick and fast in a way that made her identity undeniable.
"Gadget?!" all the Rangers chorused.
"Yes! Gadget Hackwrench! But no longer a Rescue Ranger! I was abandoned by the system and so I have abandoned it! The Law and Order that should have protected me tried to destroy me, so now I will try to destroy them! At least, until the Warden gives into our demands for a beauty parlour, a workshop and a television in the recreation room, anyhow "
The machine gun speed the words came out was proof enough for Chip. He buried his face in his hands to hide the tears of sorrow that welled up in his eyes. "Gadget," he choked, "I'm sorry! I can't imagine what you must have suffered. Please, don't turn away from us to embrace the forces of darkness!"
"Actually, they're not that dark anymore. I built a 2000-watt arc lamp. But why should I want to come back to you when my place has been stolen by another?"
"Gadget, no one could take your place, love!" Monty tried to reason with her.
Gadget was unmoved. She held up a newspaper that bore the headline: "RESCUE RANGER ROMANCE! Chip Maplewood and Gadget Hackwrench to Marry!" A half page picture showed Chip and someone who looked like Gadget kissing for the cameras.
"You can't tell the difference between me and some bimbo who doesn't know one end of a hammer from the other, just because she has great big blue eyes! And you expect me to forgive you just like that?" Gadget fumed.
"It's okay." Chip whispered to his friends. "I'll handle this."
Very slowly, Chip Maplewood, leader of the Rescue Rangers, walked forward from the rest of the group. Then he dropped to his knees. "Oh please forgive us!" he begged. "I can explain everything! It wasn't my fault. It was a mistake! It was a miscalculation! It was an anomaly!"
He fell silent looking up at her with big, pleading brown eyes.
"Aw, Chip." Gadget said smiling kindly at him. "Not good enough. Grab 'em, girls. And remember, I get first dibs on the Chipmunk with the Hawaiian shirt - I've had my eye on him for years! "
The prisoners closed in.
"Gadget, luv! Give a fella an even break! Don't we even deserve one last chance? To escape with our skins intact, at least?"
The prisoners looked towards Gadget.
Gadget considered the appeal. "Very well I shall leave the decision to my right hand mouse." She decided. "Do what you think is best." She told a buxom brunette mouse next to her. "I shall be in my room."
After Gadget left the brunette stepped forward and told them how it was. "Right boys, here's the deal. You each do an impression of a human being and if we all laugh, you can go."
"Fair enough!" Dale declared and snagged Chip's hat right off his head. He placed the hat on his own head and with a couple of nervous gestures began to imitate Humphrey Bogart. "My name is Spade, Sam Spade. I'm here to tell you all about a case I just finished... it's a case of scotch. Not good scotch, the cheap stuff that bleaches your teeth when you drink it so that you save on toothpaste and brushes. In fact, what you save on toothpaste in one month alone would probably pay for another case of scotch, but then I always say it's worth paying a little extra for the good stuff... but if scotch doesn't interest you I could always tell you about this detective work I just did for a lady who just walked into my office and asked me to solve a crime for her. I was surprised. I'm an orthodontist."
The prisoners were falling around in laughter. Gadget's right hand mouse could barely keep the tears from her eyes. "Ouch, my sides!" She exclaimed. "It is to laugh!" Shaking her head the brunette waved Dale away from the other Rangers. "Okay, you can go. Show him our leader's private quarters, Doreen."
Both Dale and the huge grey rat called Doreen looked at the brunette in shock.
"Her quarters. The nice double cell she has all to herself. Where she sleeps. What did you think I meant?" The brunette looked at them indignantly.
"Um, nothing." The grey rat said. Fixing Dale with a stern look, Doreen crooked her finger. Her meaning was clear Come Here.
Dale gulped loudly and, with a last look at the others, followed Doreen to places unknown.
"Your turn, tubby!" The brunette snarled and jabbed a bony finger at Monty.
Monty frowned for a moment and then dug around in his pockets in the hope of finding inspiration. He came up with a pair of reading glasses that he didn't like to admit needing and a false beard that he had used to disguise himself several cases ago. Monty put on both and began singing in rough, Australian voice.
"Sun-er-rise! Early In The Morning! Sun-er-rise! Early In The Morning! Sun-er-rise, be blooming strange at any other time of day! Tie me Kangeroo Down Sport, Tie Me Kangeroo Down, cause otherwise it keeps running away... I think it's scared of my beard... or maybe I'm just not the right species for it. Can you tell who I am yet?"
The crowd of prisoners, perhaps primed by Dale's performance, responded warmly.
"It's Rolf Harris!" Monty told them. "I know he's not been seen much recently. I think he's hiding. With an act like this one, I don't blame him. What do you think?"
"I think you can go. Next!" the brunette announced.
Monty made his way after Dale and Chip found himself being stared at by everyone who was left in the room, which meant the rioting inmates and Zipper.
"Uh I haven't thought of anything yet. Can Zipper go first?" Chip asked.
"Who?" The brunette seemed puzzled.
"Zipper, the housefly hero? Surely Gadget mentioned him. He's right here." Chip gestured to where Zipper was crawling up a wall.
The brunette looked at him as though he was mad. "That's just an ordinary fly."
"No, he's one of us, honest. Zipper, tell them who you are."
Zipper stopped crawling up the wall and stood up straight, though in this case that meant his body was horizontal. Placing one hand behind his back and one hand delicately to his chest, he held his head high and spoke more clearly than Chip had ever heard him speak before.
"Ah, buzz. Ah say, buzz."
It was an almost perfect imitation of Tex Avery's Foghorn Leghorn voice.
All the prisoners looked at Chip.
"Sounds like a normal fly to me." The brunette said.
Chip's jaw hung open as he lamely pointed to the fly. Hadn't they heard? But they were remorseless and Chip could sense something inevitable about the course of events.
"You're stalling!" The brunette scowled. "That means you haven't got an impression! Get him girls!"
"CHARGE!" The prisoners roared as they ran towards Chip with razors and shaving brushes brandished in their hands.
Chip squeaked in alarm.
"Chip, ol' buddy? You awake now?" Dale's familiar face was hanging over him.
Chip swallowed and noticed an unfamiliar chocolaty taste in his mouth. He was just smacking his lips and wondering where it had come from when he noticed the sun was lower than it had been a moment ago. After a puzzled moment, he remembered the "A" frame falling towards him. He made a quick inventory of all his body parts and was relieved to find them all accounted for, except for the appendix, which he had been relieved of some years before.
"What happened?" he asked. Ordinarily, he would consider the question redundant and just let whoever had woken him fill him in on the details in their own time, but Dale needed things spelling out.
"You got hit on the head. It knocked you out." Dale explained.
Chip considered this answer. Patiently, he tried again. "No, after that."
"Oh, it's alright. The foreman turned out to have a pretty good idea of how to get things done, once we found your notebook with which timber was on which. We got all the victims out alive, when we handed them over to the medical people, at least. Not all of them were in one piece, but they were alive "
"Is he still around? The foreman, I mean."
"No, he went to hospital with one of the victims. His brother, I think."
"We ought to see about giving a statement to the press." Chip said, trying to go down the list of things he would normally be looking after.
"Oh, don't worry about them. They were here earlier. Even took photos."
Chip's eyes widened in alarm. "You kept them away from the victims, didnt you? The relatives won't want to see-"
"It's okay, Chip. After they took a shot of me giving you mouth to mouth resuscitation they said they didn't need any other photos." Dale tried to reassure him.
Chip nearly had a heart attack.
Lawhiney let Tammy wring out her hair and then shook it. The smell of hair dye and wet mouse would have been noticeable even to someone with a human sense of smell and it filled the Ranger's bathroom. They could have opened the window for fresh air but when you have to worry about gigantic wild animals hunting by scent and finding out where you live, you just learn not to take chances like that.
"Of course, I never believed a word of it." Tammy said. "All the kids at high school were swapping the rumours and asking me what I thought but I told them, Chip is a great detective. There's no way anyone could get away with anything around him."
Lawhiney cocked an eyebrow in Tammy's direction but since the teenager was standing behind her right shoulder it was unlikely Tammy saw it. Lawhiney had guessed fairly quickly that the redheaded youngster had a teenage crush on Chip. She was less certain how that left things between Tammy and the real Gadget. It mattered, because here she was pretending to be friends with everyone in the room and for all she knew the real Gadget hated these people, pretended to like them in public and only barely tolerated them in private.
Friends, she had belatedly realised, would be easy to fool, compared to Gadget's enemies.
"Changing the subject to something other than Chip, yet again," Tammy's mother said pointedly, "do you remember the time that mad scientist you keep running into tried to build a machine that could throw lightening by stroking cats?"
"Um Sort of." Lawhiney fudged. It sounded vaguely possible, based on what she had heard and read about the rangers' cases when Pierre was coaching for her role as Gadget.
"You must remember dear, it was the first time you all got in the newspapers. Because you insisted on helping the cats and everyone said it was wrong for a mouse to help a cat." Mrs Squirrel couldn't help but sound a little worried that Gadget could forget something so important.
"I remember that." Lawhiney rushed to reassure her. She did, in a way. Pierre had raided a reference library for old Ranger newspaper clippings so that she could study her role as Gadget Hackwrench. The controversy had raged for weeks until the Council of Cats came forward and added their weight to an agreement that let volunteer crisis groups help anyone in danger, under any circumstances. "I just don't remember which time it was, we run into mad scientists so often."
There was a knock at the door.
"Who is it?"
Sparky opened the bathroom door and put his head round. "We were hoping you would know!" he said in a totally bewildered tone.
Lawhiney hadn't made up her mind about Sparky yet. She had a feeling that Sparky would behave as though he was mostly clueless until suddenly, for want of a more interesting intellectual challenge, he'd actually think about something she'd said and blow her out of the water. She preferred them big and muscular and best of all completely clueless. The smart ones, for some reason, usually weren't bright enough to look after themselves and tended to get all over emotional when they finally realised you were just playing with their heads. Hearts, she meant hearts. She hated it when she got those two mixed up.
"Sparky, I didn't say come in." Lawhiney said pointedly.
"You didn't?" Sparky blinked and his eyes glazed as he tried to replay the last five seconds in his head, unsuccessfully.
"Sparky, do you even remember why you were knocking on the door?" Tammy sighed in exasperation.
"Do I ? Oh, of course. There's a mouse here we don't know. She says that she's an old friend of yours."
"Party crasher, huh?" Lawhiney sighed. Party crasher at best, genuine old friend at worst, and everyone would expect her to identify the unexpected guest as one way or the other. "Lord, help me."
The Guide was instantly by her side.
"He has, repeatedly, and you still have to pay your tab." He hissed into her ear.
"Ahh!" Lawhiney started, to the alarm of the others in the room.
"My dear!" Mrs Squirrel said. "Are you quite all right? You look as if you had seen a ghost."
"Fine." Lawhiney croaked. The last thing I need is for them to think I'm seeing things she thought if they think I'm loopy they'll never take their eyes off me! "Lead me to this gatecrasher. If she's not who she claims to be, I'll soon make her regret it!"
"This I'm looking forward to! The great phoney herself is going to give a lecture on the morality of misrepresentation." The Guide cocked an eyebrow and smiled wryly at her. "Just remember be careful about saying what you think frauds and impostors deserve while you're out there. The Powers That Be may just be in the mood to take suggestions!"
"Thanks." Lawhiney told him under the guise of thanking Tammy for pushing her wheel chair. "I sure hope that my busted up memory runs to remembering whoever is out there. I wouldn't want to ruin a friendship because of a little forgetfulness."
They pushed Lawhiney's chair into the living room.
"You're not blackmailing me into helping you get away with fraud." The Guide retorted. "You can bluff it out with whoever's in the front room on your own, by playing twenty questions until you guess whether they're a fake or a friend. And you'd just better hope the twelve or thirteen people in the front room don't catch on to what you're doing, or you'll be the one getting the morality lecture!"
Standing half way to the still open front door was a beautiful young mouse-lady with fine white fur and striking blue eyes. She was about the same age as Gadget, Lawhiney noted, and she wore her collar length hair with a crisp perm. Her light yellow dress was inexpensive but pretty and complemented the small gold locket she wore around her neck. Her pair of white pumps looked as though they could go with anything and had done they weren't just worn on her feet, they were well worn.
"Jennifer!" The Guide gasped.
Lawhiney smiled while carefully not looking in his direction. The Lord, or rather his hired hand, was helping her after all, whether he was meant to or not. "Jennifer? The sun is in my eyes, is that you?"
"Of course it's me!" Jennifer Talbert-Hall replied; her embarrassment mixed with relief. "Gadget, they didn't tell my you were in a wheelchair. Are you going to be all right?"
Lawhiney resisted the temptation to belt the stranger in the mouth for even raising the possibility that she might not be. She was about to affirm that she was when it struck her that she didn't know. In the visions the Guide had shown her, Lawhiney had only seen herself lying in bed. Surely the Guide would have said if she wasn't going to walk again? But no, he wanted her to confess because she thought it was the right thing to do, not because he had told her that there was definitely, absolutely, no chance at all of her getting out from under this.
It was possible that she might never walk again and the full horrible possibility of a lifetime as an invalid and in prison hit her abruptly.
Seeing "Gadget" suddenly look horror struck and slump everyone started towards Lawhiney. Apart from Tammy who was directly behind her, Jen was the closest. She ran to Lawhiney and knelt beside her, then rested one hand on her knee. Lawhiney gawked at it.
"There now, look what I've gone and done. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."
Lawhiney looked up, numbly, and was shocked to see tears in the clear blue eyes of this total stranger. "It's all right." She whispered and reached out on a childish impulse to brush one of the tears away. "I'll be fine." Then she blinked and suddenly came back to her senses. "Uh, my memory is a little hazy what with all the painkillers and the head injury. When was the last time I saw you?"
"Well, the day of the crash, of course! You mean you don't remember?" Jen looked at "Gadget" in dismay.
"Uh no. That whole day is a little foggy for me."
"That's sort of why I came " Jen admitted. "I brought back some of your stuff."
Stuff? She brought stuff too? No, wait, she didn't know this was a party she couldn't have or she'd wouldn't be wearing old shoes and a second best dress. And she said it's already mine, she's bringing it back Oh Sweet *@#^!!! How close is she to the real Gadget? If it's that close is it supposed to be a secret?
"Thank you." Lawhiney squeaked.
Jen smiled at her and put her holdall on the floor in front of Lawhiney. It was unbuttoned at one end zips are too big and chunky for mice to use as though she had half undone it to show the guests that she did indeed possess Gadget related articles to return.
Lawhiney could see the sleeve of an overall poking out at her like a tongue. Beneath that, she could just make out something made of white cotton, underwear perhaps, peeping at her from inside the bag.
The implications circled in Lawhiney's head like farm implements spinning in a tornado.
"Sorry, I'm terribly absent minded at the moment. Everyone, this is Jennifer." Lawhiney waved an arm at the guests like a drowning swimmer. In desperation she snuck a look at the Guide.
The Guide looked sideways at her through twinkling blue eyes. He was crouched over with one hand on his own knee, beside himself with suppressed laughter.
"Jen's just about the oldest friend I've got, everybody." She said, rolling her eyes.
"Unless you stayed in contact with someone from kindergarten." Jen smiled. "Known each other, must be twenty years, on and off. Of course, it's probably just a couple of years if you total up all the time we've actually spent together. Or all the time we've spent on the same continent, even. Are you sure you're all right, Gadget? You don't look right. You have bags under your eyes and your ears are different."
Lawhiney had been so relieved that she had guessed Jen's relationship to Gadget correctly that she had forgotten this might be the one person on earth outside immediate family who could actually spot her as a fraud.
"Tammy was just giving me a make over." Lawhiney said and suddenly worried that her impersonation of Gadget's voice was slipping. With any luck this walking nightmare in a cheap dress wouldn't notice Jen's accent was something euro-trashy, anyway. English perhaps, Lawhiney thought, but not like Pierre's.
"What's up with your voice? They didn't try and strangle you into the bargain, did they?" Jen's voice was filled with genuine concern.
"As part of the robbery, or as part of the make over? I've had a cold and the painkillers are lowering it a bit, I think. How are you, Jen? You look a bit haggard yourself." Lawhiney did her best to hold the claws in. Think Gadget! She berated herself.
Jen looked surprised. "You don't normally notice how I look!"
That's right. Gadget was absentminded on an Olympic scale and almost never showed an interest in anything but machines. Lawhiney was suddenly amazed there had been any old friends to show up. "Sorry. Look, I'm half way through a makeover after being released from hospital today. Would you like to help out?"
"Another one? I guess the one I gave you didn't stand up to being hijacked too well, huh?" Jen smiled.
Lawhiney gulped. "You gave me a makeover that day?" She asked before she could stop herself. She was closer to being discovered than she had been since the Museum Robbery.
"Yes! You don't remember anything from that day?"
"Oohh! Gadget, you had a makeover the day of the crash. That explains why you came over all funny just after Sparky came to tell you Jen was here. You had a flashback, didn't you?" Tammy squealed.
"Um, well, possibly." Lawhiney couldn't decide whether she wanted everyone's sympathy, or everyone to not watch her like a hawk so they could be the first to spot her next flashback.
"I certainly never meant to make you feel worse by coming here!" Jen stood, as if she was considering leaving.
Lawhiney leaned over and patted her hand. "Don't worry, Jen. We're practically sisters!" she smiled, not realising how close she had come to hitting the nail on the head.
"Oh brother!" The Guide slapped his forehead. "How lucky can you get?"
"Why don't you come and help with this makeover? We can talk about old times." Lawhiney offered. Well you can, anyway, Lawhiney added mentally. I'll just stay quiet and gather some more ammunition in case someone asks me to prove I'm Gadget Hackwrench.
"Sure. Actually, I came over because of your visit that day." Jen smiled. "You left the Ranger Skate parked in a loading bay under the grocery store half a block away from my flat. The owner turned a blind eye at first, because of all the trouble in the papers, but they had to move it eventually because it was in the way. The next thing is, they realise a couple of weeks have gone by and no one has claimed it. They didn't want to call the Street Watch because they'd already moved it without permission and it looks official with your logos up on the side of it. They tried calling here, but your homemade answer-phone is out again."
Lawhiney didn't want Jen talking about little details like where Gadget had left the Ranger Skate. The conversation could easily turn a corner and leave Lawhiney trapped in a blind alley.
"I'll try and find time to fix it." She promised. "And I'll send someone to pick the skate up."
"Oh, um. No need." Jen gulped guiltily. "I hope I'm not going to be in any trouble but, uh, I drove the skate here to save time." She looked nervously at Gadget as if slightly awed by her own daring.
Lawhiney realised she was being asked for approval and liked it. She was deciding whether she had more to gain by granting or withholding it, when Jen rushed on.
"I had to come here to drop off your things anyway and I've been desperate for news since the papers stopped talking about you. No one's willing to repeat anything they hear about you since you foiled the museum robbery, in case they're accused of spreading untruthful rumours." Jen smiled at what she thought was her best friend. "Oh, Gadget. It's so good to see you."
Placing an arm about Jen's shoulders in a one armed hug, Lawhiney smiled at the Guide. "Good to see you, too, my oldest, dearest friend."
Chip scowled the whole way back to Ranger Headquarters. One of the enthusiastic but inexperienced first aid volunteers, who had been given minor injuries to tend in order to keep them out of the way, had bandaged his head.
Now his hat didn't fit.
He was holding the beloved fedora in his hand. It looked battered. So did he. He had endured a rough couple of weeks, he reflected.
In the space of fourteen days he had been all over the state by every kind of transport known to thinking non-human mammal, nearly run over by a train, flown through a thunderstorm on the back of a crow, caught a head cold, broken his nose chasing a kidnapper, had the kiss of life from a frog, jumped through the roof of an elevator car, fought a dangerous criminal, been nearly brained in the middle of a rescue operation and had his best friend give him the kiss of life in front of the "gentlemen" of the press. It was about time that he took a long break.
They'd told him to see a qualified doctor as soon as possible. He'd see the Rangers usual doctor tomorrow and tell the others that he was taking a week off as soon as he got back, unless the doctor advised more. It would give him the time to spend with Gadget?
His nightmare came back at him in a rush.
Gadget the victim of an insane injustice, a prisoner in the worst dungeon the law could provide; degraded and abused, abandoned by those who loved who cared about her until she could stand it no longer and turned her back on her past.
Chip shivered with horror at the thought. Surely there could be nothing worse?
The memory of Gadget's voice in his dream came back to him: "Remember, I get first dibs on the Chipmunk with the Hawaiian shirt - I've had my eye on him for years!"
The detective let out a low moan. Of course there could. There was always something worse. And if it wasn't the thought of Gadget secretly harbouring a crush on Dale for years then it was the thought of Chip Maplewood, Detective, blindly nursing an impostor back to health while Gadget was locked away in a hard and darkened place where only the corrupt, the jaded, the guilty and the despised belonged.
"Chip? You okay?" Dale asked, looking over at him with concern.
"Fine." Chip replied automatically. At that moment he was far from
fine. He knew only two things for fact; he would not be taking any time off
in the next week, no matter what he told the other rangers, and that he would
have to know the true name of the girl in Shrankshaw Prison before he could
sleep well again.
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