Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Chapter Twenty-One: Lawhiney Beats the Devil
Monterey Jack Colby
C/O Post Master 13371
City Park Post Office
I hope that when you get this you can read it somewhere private without mentioning it to anyone, including - well, me, I guess, and that you sit down and think about it before doing anything that would be a perfectly normal and reasonable action under the circumstances, such as tearing this letter up and cursing uncontrollably about being sent a letter full of twaddle, or losing your temper and ripping a certain someone's head off.
First off, although it's very strange introducing myself to someone who changed my diapers for a time when I was a baby and, I might add, who has certainly never let me forget it, I suppose I should tell you straight out who I am in case you don't recognise my handwriting or narrative style, come to that which Chip once told me was unique for its approach to paragraphs and punctuation, though I'm sure I don't know what he meant since everybody uses punctuation in the same way even if some people do use a lot more of it than others.
Monty, this may come as a shock to you and I know you might not believe me without proof but I'm Gadget Hackwrench and the person that survived the attempted robbery on the museum, who you have staying with you right now, isn't. I'm in prison, Monty. Please come get me .
Red's letter was written on the regulation prison issue notepaper, which was about the thickness of tissue paper and came complete with Shrankshaw Prison crest at the top. Her handwriting was a neat, regular script with generous loops in the long letters and a friendly, optimistic slant to the right of the page.
"Well? What do you think?" Red was nearly hopping from one foot to the other.
Bubbles smiled forlornly at the letter. "You can't send this."
"What? But I stuck to the rules!"
Bubbles sighed heavily. "I know, Red, but I guess I forgot one. You can't use a letter for any kind of criminal activity."
Red gaped at her. "Huh?"
"Actually I guess you can, but you'd have to be a moron to try it because you'd get busted so fast your head would spin."
"But I didn't-"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. But Red, right here you claim to be Gadget Hackwrench, which is something you've just been sentenced to fifteen years for."
Red blushed and hung her ears. "But Bubbles "
"In a letter to a Rescue Ranger, no less. I mean seriously, the first thing he's going to do is show the letter to the warden."
"Well, that's sort of the idea."
Bubbles chuckled and rolled her eyes. "Of course it is. You know, if you got caught robbing someone's home because you walked out the front door into a crowded street with a load of their stuff in your arms, they don't take time off your sentence for being stupid."
Red looked hurt. "I'm not stupid. Even if you do think I'm crazy, that's not the same thing as stupid."
"I know, Red." Bubbles folded the letter and handed it back to her. "I'm not trying to hurt your feelings, it's just that, well, I don't think you've really thought this out properly. Not from the point of view of those of us who -"
"Who think I'm crazy?"
"Who are just trying to help you." Bubbles looked at her sternly. "I don't think you've thought about it but the first thing that would happen if a guard saw this is they'd haul you in front of the warden, who would make some speech about how disappointed she was in you and maybe the special wing is the right place for you after all, even if Haggs is working there. Then maybe you'd find yourself relying on Haggs' nice manners for every little thing you can't do for yourself when you're in a straitjacket. Think about that some."
Red winced. "I already had a sample of that. When Chip came to visit me, Haggs gagged me and made me wear a hockey mask and a straitjacket. I sneezed and she wouldn't give me a tissue."
"Gah, Red! I'm not talking about that kind of stuff. That's the kinda' thing a kid brother might do. If you complained about that, people would actually laugh at you. They'd think it was funny. I'm talking about the stuff that's really basic to your dignity as a person. Don't think she wouldn't make you beg for every little thing she could think of, Red." Bubbles fixed her with a warning stare. "She'd do more than make you beg."
Red hung her head. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, be careful next time. Do you have any more paper?"
"They gave me three sheets. I only used one, just in case I had to do it over."
"Well, that's something. Do you want to have another go by yourself, or would you like me to sit next to you and help you plan out what you're going to say?"
"I'll have another go myself."
"You'd better destroy this one." Bubbles handed the letter back. "They might call it evidence of something."
"A month ago I never would have believed a judge or jury would take a letter like this seriously."
"Ha! You won't see a jury for anything you do in here, short of murder. For anything less serious than that there's a visiting magistrate who comes in once a month, has tea and biscuits in the warden's office and then asks you if you have anything to say before telling you how long he decided to add to your sentence while chatting to the guards."
"Do you get a lawyer?"
"Are you kidding me? No, you don't get a lawyer. You're in prison; you're already guilty."
Red looked slightly shocked. "That's not right. A crime is as much a crime if it happens in a prison as anywhere else. It should be treated the same way."
"Well, it doesn't make much difference. If they tack six months on to your sentence it just means you have to wait longer to be turned down by the parole board."
Red sat on her bunk and looked at her letter. "Suppose I just cut the part with my name?"
"Are you sure there's no one else you could write to?"
"I'm sure." Red said quietly.
Monterey Jack Colby
C/O Post Master 13371
City Park Post Office
Please don't lose your temper while you're reading this, either with me for writing it or with anyone around you when you realise I'm writing nothing but the truth. If you haven't already recognised my handwriting then I have to ask you to bear with me because I can't write my real name here - my cellmate says the guards wouldn't let me send the letter if I did because they don't believe me when I say who I am. Lots of people won't believe me. I've even had moments of doubt myself.
Monty, I don't know if you remember my tenth birthday party. It was the one Geegaw managed to throw in the Apollo 11 capsule by walking in like a normal visitor and then handing out party hats and streamers to a passing school party when the museum guides weren't looking. I always suspected that you had something to do with keeping them busy while I blew out the pretend paper candles on my birthday cake. I don't think that party is a well-known story about my life, though I never really thought about any part of my life as being well known or public until I found myself surrounded by an angry mob who thought I was an impostor.
Monty, it's me - Geegaw's daughter. That little mouseling you bounced on your knee and promised to make cheese ice cream for when dad got himself locked up in Tangiers over that misunderstanding with the emerald scarab from the tomb of Pharaoh Cheaphatandsuit. That's probably something not many people know about either unless you've forgotten which stories are the ones you're supposed not to tell again
Monty, please, whether you believe me or not, just come and see me at the prison. I'm the one everyone says ISN'T Gadget Hackwrench. They call me Red here. Make sure they let you TALK with me. Chip came and they had me gagged, masked, straitjacketed and doped to the eyeballs so I couldn't make him understand. Please come, Monty, even if it's only so you can tell me off in person for eavesdropping that conversation you had with Chip the morning he left to find out who was impersonating us. Speaking of which, how come you didn't tell me that a certain Hawaiian hoaxer was running all over the country dragging my name in the mud behind her?
Bubbles finished reading the letter. She folded it respectfully before handing it back to Red.
Privately, Bubbles found herself warming to the image of Red's father as someone who would whisk his daughter away from the jaws of an orphanage to eat delicacies on the Hollywood sign and arrange a surprise birthday party that was more of a surprise to the people hosting the party than to the person receiving it. In fact she was slightly envious of the dashing and roguish father figure in Red's letter. He sounded almost too good to be true.
Of course, that was the problem.
Bubbles found it far easier to picture the infant Red being whisked away from a father still grieving from the loss of his wife; to imagine a lost and frightened child spending night after miserable night spinning stories to herself about being rescued from whatever cold and lonely place she had found herself in. Eventually any child would come to believe such stories.
"So what do you think, Bubbles?
Bubbles stared at the graffiti over her bunk and thought for a moment. "Well, I think your Dad's really cool."
"Aw, come on, you know what I mean. Will this letter do?"
"Yeah, well, I can't see that the guards would really know what you're talking about, so I don't think they'd censor it, but I still think this Monty guy is going to come over here and ask the warden to have you thrown into solitary."
"Thank you Bubbles, I'll take that chance."
"Your loss." Bubbles went back to staring at the ceiling.
After a moment or two she became aware that she was sharing the cell with an intent, curious silence. She continued to look at the picture above her bunk but her mind was on the Red-shaped chunk of quiet interest hovering near her elbow. Her eyes wanted to look at the patch of silence to confirm what Bubbles suspected, but Bubbles wouldn't allow it. She didn't have to look; she knew Red was there and she knew what Red was doing.
Red would be gazing in wrapped fascination, her eyes following Bubbles' own to the graffiti on the ceiling. She could even picture Red's expression: Big blue eyes getting even bigger, mouth open so wide her jaw threatened to fall off altogether. Bubbles tried to ignore the silence but it seemed to grow until it filled the entire cell and threatened to smother them both.
Finally, Bubbles could stand it no more. "What?!" She screamed. "What is it? Haven't you ever seen a picture like this before? Did your father keep you blindfolded until you were of age??!!"
In the darkest early hours of the morning Lawhiney lay awake and tussled with the idea of making a run (or perhaps a hobble) for freedom.
Eventually she went to the front door on her crutches and looked down at the narrow steps that wound around the trunk of the tree to the ground. She had only made it up those steps in the first place by keeping her hands over her eyes while Monty carried her. Ranger HQ was definitely no place for an invalid with vertigo, let alone a wheelchair.
So instead of fleeing, Lawhiney spent the morning watching the sunrise from the Ranger's front door. She viewed it with the intense interest of a condemned prisoner seeing one for the last time. She tried to imagine what a sunrise might look like from behind bars but could not, perhaps because part of her did not want to.
"I'm sorry, Lawhiney." Her Guide said. "But you really are leaving it to the last minute to make good, you know."
"I want to go to the hospital first. Get at least one of these splints off. Do I have time for that?" She asked him.
"Yes. I think so." He sounded unsure.
"You think so?"
Geegaw smiled at her and winked. "Difficult to see. Always in motion, the future is." He croaked.
Lawhiney snorted and tossed her hair at him.
Three hours later Lawhiney was back in a wheelchair; a hospital one this time, not the one that had been loaned to her. An orderly, who was being closely watched by Monty and Dale for any sign of suspicious behaviour, was pushing her along a corridor towards a consulting room where Doctor Bell was waiting.
The orderly left her in the middle of the consulting room without a word. Doctor Bell looked tired and busy. He didn't speak either.
"Hello doctor." Lawhiney said in her best perky Gadget voice.
Doctor Bell twitched as if poked unexpectedly.
"Hello." He agreed after a moment.
"Is something wrong?"
"No. Nothing you need concern yourself with." The doctor crossed the room to view a picture of Lawhiney's skeleton on the light box. When he moved, Lawhiney found herself looking Geegaw straight in the eye. Her guide had once again appeared without letting her see how he did it; this time he had installed himself in a shaded corner between a screen and an examination table.
"He's lying." Geegaw said matter-of-factly. "But only because he wants to do well by you as a Doctor."
Lawhiney nodded, understanding completely. So that was precisely where she kicked the good doctor to make him tell everything.
"As your patient, I would be truly alarmed if I thought there was something that affected my health that you weren't explaining to me."
"What? There's no need to be!"
"I'm not even sure an ethical doctor could place himself in the position of keeping something back from a patient."
Doctor Bell looked stricken. He winced. "I'm sorry you feel that way, but your well being is my number one priority."
"That's very comforting, except that I can see from your expression that something about your number one priority is clearly troubling you."
The young pack rat hung his head. His white coat looked too big for him, like something he would have to grow into. "Your regular hospital finally managed to dig out your records and send them on to us. Frankly, the delay was unforgivable in my view but it seems that they had trouble locating your file because your doctor was on holiday. The problem is there's a lot of stuff in your file that doesn't match up with, well, bluntly with your actual body."
Lawhiney swallowed hard. "What exactly do you mean?"
"I don't see any sign of you having had your tonsils removed, or of the three cat-claw scars across your back. Your blood type is compatible with the one in the file, but not identical. You seem to be missing all sorts of cuts and scrapes that you've had from your work as a ranger and there are ultrasound pictures of your bones that don't match up with the ones we've made here."
"Now would be a good time to 'fess up, Law." Geegaw hinted.
"Uh, how is that possible?" Lawhiney ignored her guide.
"It isn't." Doctor Bell said.
"What are you saying?"
"I don't know, but one thing's for sure. I can't treat you using the records they sent me."
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know." He sat on the examination table. "To tell you the truth, I don't know what to make of it. It's almost as if these notes were describing someone else."
"Really?" Lawhiney tried to keep her eyes innocent and pleasant but her smile was becoming forced and she could feel it.
"I'm no detective but I've been trying to explain it and I've been coming up with some pretty wild theories, I don't mind telling you."
"Ah heck, I'm embarrassed. I'd come across someone who's watched too many medical whodunits on TV. I guess the simplest answer is that your old hospital really doesn't know how to look after its patient's notes properly; that they took four weeks to find your records and then they've sent the wrong ones on to us." He shrugged as though discarding the topic and went back to the light box on the wall.
Lawhiney watched him carefully and when he looked at her sideways and spoke casually, she was ready for it.
"You have to admit," he said, "knowing that someone's been running around impersonating Gadget Hackwrench, doing all kinds of things in her name, it would be only natural for someone to jump to some long conclusions when a thing like this crops up."
"Completely." She agreed without hesitation.
"Still, we can't have the paper work messed up like this. Mistake like this could kill someone down the line. Could cause a drug allergy or a pre-existing medical condition to be overlooked. That's why I've asked your regular doctor to come in today and take a look at your records. He can see how you're doing while he's here."
"Doctor Frisk." Lawhiney had forced herself to remember the name the first time she had heard it, almost two weeks ago now. "How is he? I remember thinking that he needed to take a break the last time I saw him."
"Well refreshed. A little annoyed that one of his favourite patients seems to have been stolen away by a certain young upstart." Doctor Bell kidded her.
"Oh? Perhaps I should go back to him."
"I hope you shall, in the long run. Now, if you don't mind putting your arms around me, I intend to lift you on to the examination table."
"Why Doctor, you could almost be asking me for a hug."
Doctor Bell's smile became forced and rigid. "I can call the orderly back if you prefer."
Lawhiney held her arms up in a parody of a ballet dancer posing on one toe. Doctor Bell took it as assent and bent at the knees to duck his head under her hands. For a few seconds they danced the careful, intimate dance of a carer and a helpless invalid trying not to get each other hurt, before the doctor managed to get Lawhiney to sit the edge of the examination table.
The young doctor sighed heavily. "Gadget, if I can call you that, treating you has been one of the most amazing experiences of my career. You may or may not be-" he paused briefly "-the only famous person I ever get to treat but you are certainly one of the most remarkable, medically. You've survived a thirty mile an hour air crash, a fall from the top of a five story building and an attempted kidnapping that ended with someone trying to strangle you, all in the space of about a month. Added to which you're pregnant - starting to show, by the way - and now here you are, getting around on crutches like you can't wait to run a marathon."
Lawhiney stared at him for a moment. She had the distinct impression that Doctor Bell was paying her a compliment right now because he knew a short time from now someone might tell him something that precluded ever saying anything nice about her again.
"That's very kind of you. Speaking of running marathons, have you any idea how long it will be before you can take this cast off my leg?"
"We'll see how the ultrasounds come out and see what Doctor Frisk has to say and, if its all good, we can maybe take the cast off."
"Really? Wow!" Lawhiney squealed with glee. "That would be great doctor!" Lawhiney's eyes shone. For a few moments she didn't have to fake Gadget's normal perkiness.
"Now, bear in mind that you've only been wearing that cast for about four weeks now. Normally we'd recommend six weeks for a break this bad but you seem to be a fast healer."
"Oh, thank you Doctor. Thank you."
"I have to go and see about arranging your ultrasound screening. While we're at it, we're going to have a look at little, uh, little " He trailed off, his memory failing him.
"Roche, Doctor. But, if you tell me your first name, I may just change my mind."
"From what I remember of my playground days, I don't think he'd be any better off being called Romeo."
"Mum was a Shakespeare fan and thought I was going to be a girl, so when I turned up and she couldn't call me Juliet " He shrugged as though tired of explaining it and made his way out the door.
Lawhiney watched him go with a smile. "Romeo Bell, huh? I wonder why she didn't call him Julius if she had her heart set on Juliet for a girl."
Geegaw was right beside her. "You're forgetting Shakespeare also wrote a play called Julius Cesar. She probably didn't want to name her son after someone who was hacked to death by half a dozen people."
"As opposed to someone who drank poison and caused his lover to stab herself?"
"Good point. Here's another one. You know you can't run with that cast on your leg."
"And Doctor Bell just told you he's not removing it before you see Doctor Frisk."
"So you won't be able to run until after he's identified you as a fraud."
Lawhiney tensed. "One more person to fool; that's all." She said.
"No." Geegaw told her. "This is it."
Lawhiney stared at him and shook her head. "I'm so close. Too close, I can't give up now. I won't give up now."
"Lawhiney. Listen to reason. You won't fool Doctor Frisk. He knows Gadget's body by sight better than I do. He'll look at the notes that were sent to Doctor Bell and he will see they are in his handwriting and he will remember giving Gadget the treatments described in them and he knows where nearly every little scar is and he'll certainly know that person can't change their blood group overnight. There's nothing more you can do now. In a few moments Doctor Bell will walk back through that door and the only sensible thing you can do now is to confess everything to him. It's hardly even an act of contrition any more, it's practically saving face and bowing out with as much dignity as you have left." Geegaw looked at her sadly.
"I'm not just sitting here waiting to be caught out." Lawhiney whispered tearfully.
"I know it's painful but it's time to make good, Lawhiney. Think about it. You don't have very long."
Geegaw, Lawhiney's spirit guide, drew back into the shadows in the corner of the room. The shadows seemed to get deeper and darker. Then Geegaw was gone and it seemed that some of the light had gone out of the room with him.
Lawhiney lay on the examining table, waiting for the dreaded Doctor Frisk to appear and expose her as a cheap fraud and impostor. She had been on the edge of freedom but she had wrongly judged which edge. The discovery that this edge marked the end of her borrowed time and not the start of some grand new liberty cut her deeply. Until now the only chains she had ever worn, in her whole life, had been golden. Very soon she would wear very different chains. The thought made her heart shrivel like a raisin in her chest.
Lawhiney was so deep in her despair that she didn't notice that she was no longer alone in the examination room. She certainly hadn't heard the door open, assuming that it did.
"Oh my, you poor unfortunate soul." A deep smooth voice that so reminded Lawhiney of her old friend Pierre washed over her.
Hastily, Lawhiney blinked away her tears. "Hello Doctor Frisk. I'm afraid I'm feeling a little emotional right now "
The large grey rat that had joined her in the examination room doubled over and began to laugh. "Oh, I love it. You think I am Doctor Frisk. That is rich."
"You're not?" Was this some trap intended to trip her up, Lawhiney wondered? If so, how could she get out of it now she had fallen in?
"No." The rat looked down his nose at her. He was very well dressed and Lawhiney immediately decided he was a snob. "For your information Doctor Frisk is a grey mouse with a drooping right ear and a white moustache. He hasn't seen the real Gadget Hackwrench since May, when Fat Cat put a claw mark across her back. He had hopes the mark would disappear entirely, so he'll just congratulate himself when he can't find it on you, but he does have an axe to grind about Gadget only turning up for emergency treatment and never keeping her regular appointments."
Lawhiney blinked. It didn't sound like the rat was gloating at her for being able to catch her out. It sounded more like he was helping her.
"Laurel, Laurel. You really don't remember me, do you?" The rat's voice took on a gentle, sorrowful tone. He pouted.
Lawhiney had blamed the rat's similarity to Pierre for the ghostly sense of recognition sending a chill up her back, but there was something unsettlingly familiar about him. Suspicion creased her face.
"You're no doctor." She said in a low voice.
"No doctor? My dear, I'm better than any mere doctor! I'm a full Professor! Why, in my glory days I had a whole faculty of doctors and undergraduates hopping at my every word, so you hardly have to worry about your modesty on my account."
"Hospitals don't have faculties. What were you a professor of?"
"Oh, mathematics, but that hardly matters now!"
Lawhiney didn't bat an eye. She'd already guessed it wasn't medicine. The use of her real name was a bigger concern.
"Why do you call me Laurel?" she demanded.
"Because I speak French and hate hearing the language butchered for the sake of bad joke. Oh, and I know your real name because we've met many times since your little, ah-ha, accident." Lawhiney opened her mouth. The rat silenced her by holding up a paw and continued, anticipating her question. "You don't remember because I didn't think it was safe for you to remember our little tête-à-têtes. You might have mentioned them to that annoying Guide fellow."
Lawhiney opened her mouth to say something then closed it again. The fur on her arms was standing on end and she had a terrible sense of foreboding. She wanted to ask how this strange professor could know about Geegaw but she dreaded the answer. Logically, there was only one way the rat could know and that was if he came from the same place.
The thing was, when she looked at her visitor closely, Lawhiney knew just where her visitor came from and it was a place nothing like the one Geegaw called home.
"Who are you?" she whispered, her voice unsteady.
"Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm Professor Ratigan. I'm here to represent the opposing point of view." He smiled at her. "Make sure that other fellow plays fair and everything like that."
"But you haven't been here at all, until now."
Ratigan became defensive. "I'm afraid your guide wouldn't much care for me and I'm not the type to stand around all day letting him insult me. Besides which people don't like to have some gruesome spectre stand over them all the time, arguing over every little choice they make. Our management prefers a less intrusive approach."
"I see. What do you want?"
Ratigan seemed caught off guard. Then he smiled broadly. "Why, my dear! To help you, obviously."
Lawhiney didn't believe him for an instant. "In exchange for what?"
"Call it a loan. In exchange for certain favours from you to be named at a future point in time, I will arrange for your leg to be completely or, ha-ha, nearly completely healed. Certainly well enough for you to walk out of here without crutches."
"Naturally, or should I say unnaturally, the procedure would be undertaken entirely at your own risk and I'll have to ask for something in the way of collateral." He added the last detail as though it was inconsequential, with a distracted, off-hand tone of voice that Lawhiney didn't trust for an instant.
"Oh, nothing of much value, in the opinion of our assessors. Certainly nothing you've had much use for or spent any time worrying about over the last few years." With feigned interest, Ratigan studied his black walking stick's handle, which to Lawhiney's educated eye looked like a single pear-shaped gemstone.
"Nothing I've had much use for?" She questioned.
"And I can chose which particular thing it is that I haven't been using lately?"
"No. Our choice, obviously."
"Something of value to you then?"
Ratigan looked Lawhiney up and down. "Not really, to be perfectly honest with you, but with any luck it should be enough to cover this small service." He said with irony in his voice.
Lawhiney considered this. She didn't trust him but she wasn't about to turn down a chance of real freedom, so she said the only thing she could think of to buy time. "If you want me to make a deal with you, then you have to get me to trust you. Before I do that you're going to have to tell me something."
Ratigan frowned. "Very well."
"You claimed that we'd met before. I want to know where and when. I want to know why I don't remember and how you stopped me from remembering if that's really why I can't remember.
"Look before you leap, very wise. Very wise." Ratigan lit a cigar in sharp contravention of the hospital's no smoking policy. He put it in his mouth and puffed while looking down at Lawhiney in every sense. "Your so-called guide, that annoying fellow that the holier-than-thou crowd have sent to tell you what to do, sent you a bad dream, correct?"
Lawhiney shivered. She was already remembering her brief vision of the place where bad girls were sent. Fidget the bat, had smelt of brimstone. Ratigan stank of it. His cigar filled the whole room with it until it threatened to choke her.
"Yes." She whispered.
"I can visit your dreams too, Laurel, and I have done many times."
"You enter my dreams?" Lawhiney could think of few things more odious.
She felt violated. "And then you fix it afterwards so I can't remember what happened?"
"Yes. Often at your request as a matter of fact."
Lawhiney shuddered at the possibilities. "But never without my permission?"
"Oh yes, everything was consensual." Ratigan purred.
Lawhiney glared at him with sullen eyes. Was he enjoying a joke at her expense or just playing on her insecurities?
"Why show up like this now, if you prefer meeting me in my dreams?"
"You're hardly likely to spend your last moments of freedom taking a nap. What do you say, Laurel? Do we have a deal, or did I waste my time coming here?" Ratigan held out a hand large enough to comfortably encircle Lawhiney's entire neck if he so wished.
"Not so fast. You said you would fix my leg for certain favours."
"I can't say what they would be at this point in time, I regret to say. Circumstances would dictate what form they took."
"How many favours?"
"I didn't come here to haggle."
"I don't know what the favours are yet. You might want me to do something unspeakable."
"Why you-" Ratigan clenched his fists and ground his teeth. Finally he forced himself to chuckle and smile winningly at her. "You drive a hard bargain, Miss Ha- I mean Laurel."
Lawhiney batted her eyelashes at him sweetly. "I need two minutes in private to think about it, though, or it's no deal."
"Two minutes?" Ratigan said dubiously, massaging his temples. "What possible difference could two minutes make?"
"To you? Not a bit, unless you're really, really desperate to strike a deal. In which case maybe I'm not done haggling yet."
"Very well, Laurel. You may have your two minutes." Ratigan said smoothly. "But when I return I want it firmly understood that our terms are binding."
"Sure, we'll have a deal as soon as you get back. Unless my leg gets better in the meantime."
"I'll hold you to that!" Ratigan promised.
The lights flickered as though the hospital power supply was failing. Between one flicker and the next, Ratigan was gone.
Lawhiney blinked at the space where Ratigan had stood. It seemed that no matter what trick a spirit used to disappear, all of them were coy about letting her pinpoint that one instant when they went from being in the room with her to not being in the room with her.
With a shake of her head, Lawhiney forced herself to concentrate on what was important. "Nothing of value, my hairy hindquarters!" she muttered fiercely. "I'm not stupid!"
Ratigan had lowered the number of favours he was asking too easily. Lawhiney's bet was that, when the time came for her to pay up, Ratigan was planning to ask for something he knew she either couldn't or wouldn't deliver in the hope that she would default. He had avoided saying just what he wanted as collateral and she hadn't pressed him but it had been easy to guess that he had been talking about her soul when he mentioned using something that she hadn't been paying much attention to lately.
At first she had been surprised when Ratigan had turned out to be an easy to mark. She had thought that the people "downstairs" were slipping if this was the normal standard for their chosen representatives on earth. Then he'd made that oh-so-telling slip by nearly calling her Miss Hackwrench. That was something Lawhiney couldn't have missed in a million years and, after masquerading as Gadget for so long, she recognized the symptoms of someone who expected her to ACT like Gadget Hackwrench just because she LOOKED like Gadget Hackwrench.
The conclusion was obvious. Ratigan had been around Gadget Hackwrench and he had been around her recently, at that.
Lawhiney couldn't picture Gadget Hackwrench, Rescue Ranger and all around good girl, summoning up unclean spirits to do her bidding from her prison cell. She couldn't picture Gadget being sent downstairs when she crossed over, either. That left one possibility.
Ratigan had sought out Gadget.
Lawhiney shelved the implications of that to think about later.
Ratigan claimed he had chosen to stay hidden from Geegaw until now. He had even taken the drastic step of blanking her memory of him visiting her in her dreams, if he was to be believed. Lawhiney considered this possible after what Geegaw himself had done to her dreams. She had been having nightmares since the crash, natural ones, or so she had thought. Natural or not, Lawhiney didn't expect too many restful nights if she ever recovered those memories.
If the "less intrusive" approach Ratigan's management preferred was invading her dreams, Lawhiney hated to think what they would consider as the hard sell. Perhaps she would find out later, after Ratigan saw the trick she was about to play on him.
The rat would be furious because if it came right down to it, Lawhiney planned to turn down his deal. She had planned to turn it down all along; however badly she'd treated her soul in the last few years, it was worth more that patch up job on her leg that didn't even come with a guarantee. She had strung Ratigan along by pretending to deal with him, stalling for time in the hope she could come up with a way to use him that would get her out of the trap she had built for herself.
Maybe she had. In any case, she had gotten everything she wanted from Ratigan, because all she had really wanted was for him to make her an offer, plus the next two minutes.
Lawhiney put her hands together and, carefully choosing only words that she knew to be true, prayed for guidance.
It was time for one last roll of the dice.
"Law? What is it, Law? Have you decided it's time?"
Lawhiney opened her eyes to see Geegaw's face a hand's span from her own. His normally twinkling blue eyes showed only sympathy for her and Lawhiney had to struggle to suppress her glee.
"Thank heaven you're here." she said sincerely. "I didn't know what to do. Another guide came and I thought I wasn't going to see you again!"
"Another guide? Was he a tall, tan-furred mouse with a British accent?"
"No, a huge rat, smelling of brimstone!" Lawhiney let her eyes grow large with horror.
"What! That's no guide, that's a -" Geegaw caught himself before he used bad language. "I mean you're talking about somebody from the other side. Did he frighten you? Or force you to agree to anything? Hey, he didn't talk you into a deal of some kind did he?"
Geegaw's alarm was only matched by his genuine concern for her. For a moment, Lawhiney's heart gave a twinge at the thought of what she was about to do.
"Oh, no, of course not!"
"Well, thank goodness for -"
"At least, not yet!"
"But Geegaw, who is he? Why did he just show up all of a sudden?" Lawhiney asked. She was over doing the wide-eyed innocent routine now but he was too distracted to notice.
"Lawhiney, you're supposed to have two advisors with you while you're finding your new path in life. One advisor is a Guide like me, who tries to show you what's right. The other, well, he's an Advocate. That's what they call themselves, I think. I never met one, myself. They used to call themselves guides too, but there was trouble over people not being sure which guide represented which side and now they call themselves Advocates."
"Sounds respectable, don't it? It's a sort of joke, actually. You see, they're Devil's Advocates."
Under better circumstances, Lawhiney thought, it still wouldn't have been funny.
"Anyway, his job is to point out alternatives to whatever course of action I suggest. Not to make you do evil - you, ah, don't need much encouragement in that regard - but to give you a clearly defined choice between right and wrong. You resolve the conflict between good and evil for yourself, in lots of little ways, day by day. When you're, um, done making choices, you know exactly why you're on one side or the other and that you've arrived there by your own choice. At least, that's the theory."
"Really?" Lawhiney said dryly.
"Of course, in practice I think they get a bounty or something for every soul they recruit."
"Ah." That made sense. "Is it the same bounty on every soul?"
"I wouldn't know for sure but there are some people the other side must be pretty keen to get their hands on and others they probably take for granted." There was no denying that Geegaw's eyes looked pointedly to Lawhiney when he mentioned the second group.
"Yes, I can imagine." Lawhiney remembered her ideas about where Ratigan had been while he was supposed to be turning her to the dark side. Her heart gave another twinge of remorse, a stronger one this time. Gadget might be in far deeper danger than even Geegaw believed. She pushed the thought away.
"Geegaw," Lawhiney said, "he was saying all sorts of horrible things about what it's like in prison but he says I don't have to go."
Geegaw looked at her in dismay. "He does? Ah, well, I wouldn't take everything he says too seriously. It's not as if he's qualified to tell the gospel truth, you know."
Lawhiney put on her best innocent, Gadget-like expression. "He's gone to get something for me to sign and then he'll be straight back to fix my leg so I can run away."
"Oh really?" Geegaw's voice arched like an alley cat's back.
"He's not even asking for anything important in return. All he asked was that I do him a couple of favours or that I let him take some little keepsake of mine if I'm not up to doing them." Lawhiney kept her voice at her most trusting.
"Did he mention what little keepsake he had in mind exactly?"
"No, but he did say that he would make sure it was something I'd never thought much about."
"I bet he did!" Geegaw growled.
"I told him it was a deal, unless my leg was better by the time he got back!"
For the first time since the day he died, Geegaw swore.
Geegaw ground his teeth.
Lawhiney had really done it this time. He blamed himself. He should have stayed and continued to work on her but he had not wanted to risk making her hysterical. Instead he had left her to stew and now he wasn't sure he could see a way out for either of them.
Advocates were notorious for sticking to the very letter of their agreements. The "devil" was in the detail of how they phrased them. If it came right down to it, Geegaw knew he would offer to go in Lawhiney's place. It wasn't allowed normally but perhaps he could swing it since he wasn't officially a full guide yet. He'd give it his best shot, anyway.
Lawhiney clearly had no idea what she had signed up to. She was looking up at him with big eyes like a little girl who was convinced she had been especially clever and that the mess she had made didn't matter because here was a grown up to clear it up. He sighed deeply and broke the news to her.
"You really got yourself into it this time, Kiddo. Law, no matter how nicely or discretely they word it, an Advocate only strikes a deal in exchange for one thing: You."
Lawhiney's mouth became a perfect "O" of horror.
Geegaw ran the situation through his head one more time. He couldn't think of anything. "How long have we got before he shows up to finalise the deal?"
"He said he'd just be a couple of minutes. That was a minute ago."
Geegaw glanced at the clock on the wall. Right. Assuming they had a full sixty seconds and counting that left him not many options at all, in fact. He couldn't even get the people in the scheduling department to drop something heavy on Lawhiney's head and close her account before this doom-to-doom salesman turned up. If he did that Lawhiney be going downstairs anyway.
Lawhiney was no help. She was just sitting there, worriedly looking up at him when she wasn't glancing at her injured leg as though it were suddenly itching or something.
Wait. There was something. "Law, what exactly was it you told him? That it was a deal? That it was a done deal the moment your leg was better? Try to remember. It's important."
"I said that we'd have a deal as soon as he got back. Unless my leg got better in the meantime."
"Ah-ha!" Geegaw was triumphant. All he had to do was heal Lawhiney's leg before Ratigan got back and there would be no deal. Lawhiney would be safe and free.
Free to run straight out the door and into the wide blue yonder, never to be seen again as far as Gadget and the Rescue Rangers were concerned.
Geegaw looked straight into Lawhiney's eyes and for one terrible moment glimpsed something looking back at him that was every bit as hard and cunning as Gadget was gentle and brilliant. Then it was gone and she was blinking at him with a bewildered look on her face. Geegaw stared at her, frozen with indecision.
Yes, Lawhiney was a smart, hardened sinner. The question was: How sharp was she? Would she truly dare to try and play one side off against the other? If she was, could there be any hope for her, no matter what he did?
It was ridiculous. She was barely into her twenties. She couldn't have the nerve to do such a thing. Even if she did she wouldn't use him like this. But that, he realised, was precisely what everyone she used told themselves.
"Is there any hope, Geegaw, or am I really done for this time?"
"Just about well-done for, I'd say." He quipped in a weak voice. The sudden fear he saw in her eyes was genuine, he was sure of it.
Yes, Lawhiney was sharp, he thought, and hard and she probably was playing him to get on to his good side. That was what he had glimpsed in her eyes. She was bad. He had already known that. It didn't mean she had planned this to force him into curing her leg. Walking away now would be no better than walking away from her in the first place would have been.
She was bad and it was his job to fix that but he wouldn't get the chance if he didn't act quickly. He glanced at the clock. Twenty seconds remaining.
Geegaw took what, to an observer, passed for a deep breath. "Okay, kid. I don't know what was in your mind when you pulled this stunt but I'm going to try and pull your, uh, fat out of the fire."
"Thank you, Geegaw." Lawhiney whispered.
"Thank me later. By confessing." Geegaw growled.
Fifteen seconds on the clock.
Geegaw buried each hand in the opposing sleeve of his robe. Then he bowed his head deeply until every trace of his face was lost in the darkness and folds of the robe's hood. The shadows around him seemed to grow and the colours seemed to darken. It was as though Geegaw was standing in another room entirely and the lights in that room were on a dimmer switch that someone was turning down.
Lawhiney began breathing quickly as though she would have to run for her life
at any moment. There was something terrible about what she was watching. It
was as if Geegaw was having all the light sucked out of him.
With a serpentine movement Geegaw unfolded his arms and left his paws reaching straight up and his sleeves hanging around his elbows. With one hand, he opened his robes from his neck to his waist then plunged first one paw, then the other, into the darkness inside.
Lawhiney took one look into the yawning chasm where his chest should have been and felt a sickening lurch of vertigo. A terrible sound pounded in her ears like a gale tearing across a mountaintop. She began to shake with terror and covered her eyes with her paws. If these were the powers of good, how awful were the powers that opposed them?
Unseen by Lawhiney, Geegaw withdrew his paws, a writhing ball of yellow light barely caged by his now skeletal fingers. His robes were soot black tatters now. Of his body, only his hands could be seen and they were nothing but bone lit by the angry dancing flame threatening to escape his grasp. He pressed his palms together with his full strength, forcing them into a prayer position just below the point where his breastbone should have been and the light melted into his paws until they glowed like glass filled with summer sunlight.
With five seconds remaining on the clock, Geegaw reached out and placed his paws on Lawhiney's injured leg. At first his paws rested on the outside of the cast, then they sank into it like slipping into warm water. Geegaw touched Lawhiney for the first and only time, his fingers lightly but firmly pressing into her flesh.
Lawhiney felt the touch immediately. She had felt nothing but plaster touching that part of her body for weeks and now, impossibly, someone was massaging her leg on the inside of the cast. Shocked she snatched her paws away from her eyes and stared at what he was doing. His hands were buried up to their wrists in her leg.
Warmth began to flow into her body from where Geegaw was touching her. Then she was suddenly aware of his fingers moving inside her flesh, manipulating the bone without causing her the slightest pain. She felt the bone vibrate as it became whole again. She gasped and it was over.
Abruptly Geegaw's hands were back in his sleeves. The little light that was left in them seemed to flow back into the rest of his body. His robes returned to their old colour and where there had been deep shadows Lawhiney could see right through him to the wall behind him. He lifted his head and she could just make out his face but so faintly that it alarmed her.
Geegaw was fading away.
"I'm tired, kiddo." He said weakly. "I want to stay and help you kick that snake-oil salesman's tail straight back to where he came from but I don't think I'm going to be able to. Can I count on you not turn round and cut another deal with him for something else? Even if it's something tempting?"
"Sure, Geegaw." Lawhiney said automatically.
"You swear it, now, on little Roche. I know that's an oath you'll keep."
Lawhiney blinked and placed on paw on her belly. "I swear. I won't make a deal with anyone from the other side while you're gone."
"I was hoping for something that would hold a little longer than that. Perhaps it would be better if I never came back." Geegaw rasped.
"Don't say that." Lawhiney whined in a genuine pout. "I - " she winced " - guess I need you."
Geegaw smiled, or Lawhiney thought he did. He was nothing more than a wisp now, like a reflection in a pane of glass when the light is poor. Lawhiney smiled back to please him and realised she was seeing the moment that she had wanted to see since the first time Geegaw had disappeared on her. The moment a spirit faded into nothing.
Her smile collapsed.
It was horrible. There was one brief, wrenching moment when her eyes stopped
looking at his face and locked onto the wall behind him because there wasn't
enough left Geegaw left for them to focus on. It was a little like watching
someone die. One moment they were there and the next they weren't.
Seeing it for the first time, Lawhiney suddenly wondered how much of Geegaw she had ever seen with her eyes and how much of him she had seen with her mind. The image of his smile had faded from her mind's eye only after her real eyes had overruled it two to one. She was suddenly aware that she had been alone in a strange hospital room talking to people who, perhaps, were never there. Even as she tried to shake the thought off her eyes took in the detail of the wall she was staring at, including the wall clock that had been behind Geegaw. Ratigan was twenty seconds late.
Doubt struck deep into her heart.
For a moment she was nothing but a skeleton wrapped in warm meat, walking around until the clockwork of her DNA ran down and let her return to dust like every other thing that crept or crawled across the Earth. There was no God to judge her and no Hell awaiting her, just hoards of squeaking, squawking, randomly twitching things that pretended such things existed for fear of the darkness that waited for them when their time was done.
All in all, it was a relief when Ratigan stepped out of the shadows and blew into her ear.
Lawhiney cursed magnificently.
"I do love to hear a woman with an educated tongue talk freely on a subject close to her heart." Ratigan said and cocked an ear as though he was listening to a fine piece of music.
Lawhiney glared at him and looked fit to explode but she closed her mouth with an audible snap. Reigning in her temper, she soon found reason to shrug off her scare with a nasty little chuckle at Ratigan's expense.
"Guess what?" She smirked at him.
"I have no time for guessing games. Later perhaps, after we conclude our business dealings."
"You remember what I said when you left?"
"That we'd have a deal as soon as I got back. And I said I'd hold you to it, so no trying to wriggle out of it Miss - I mean, Laurel."
"I said," Lawhiney teased in a singsong voice, "that we'd have a deal as soon as you got back, unless my leg got better in the meantime." She chuckled darkly.
Ratigan lifted his right eyebrow.
Still smiling, Lawhiney swung her legs off the examination table and stood up without the aid of crutches. "Thank you for coming," she said sweetly, "but your services are no longer required."
Ratigan's face smile became a frozen grimace. His pupils shrank to pin points.
"What's this?" he growled in a voice as rough as gravel.
"I should think it's fairly obvious. My leg is better. Therefore we don't have a deal."
"You dare do this to ME?" his voice rose to a roar.
"Hey, it's not my fault you allowed the competition to undercut you. I bet that's the sort of thing that could do real damage to your reputation if it got about. Perhaps it would be best if - "
"SILENCE!" Ratigan screamed at her. "You think you can do something like this and then turn around and use it to blackmail ME?"
Lawhiney watched with rapt fascination. Ratigan's every word and gesture reminded her of herself.
"Rest assured, Laurel, there will be a reckoning for this!" Ratigan smacked the end of his walking stick against the floor as hard as he could, making a sharp crack. The sound blended with the noise of the overhead light bulb breaking, plunging the room into darkness.
Lawhiney was never sure how she knew for certain but she didn't have the slightest doubt that, for better or for worse, Ratigan had left her alone in the dark.
"Probably hoping that I'll fall over and break my leg again, stumbling around in the dark." She grumbled.
Warily she began picking her way through the darkness to the door.
She hadn't got very far when she fell over her now unneeded and forgotten wheelchair. With her leg still in the ridged cast, Lawhiney couldn't balance properly and she found herself pitched onto the back of the wheelchair, it's wheels moving with her as she tried to save herself by putting more of her weight on to it. In a heartbeat her feet were kicking in the air and her face was pressed into the wheelchair's seat as Lawhiney and the chair spun across the room. With a crash she ran into the door and collapsed in a heap.
The chair rolled back and Lawhiney slid off the chair and onto the floor as it did so. Not a great start to a graceful disappearing act.
Lying on the floor, Lawhiney reached up and tweaked the door open a crack to check for friends (Gadget's) and other enemies. She wanted nothing more than to be out of the hospital and as far away from Doctor Frisk and the Rescue Rangers as she possibly could be.
There was just one problem with that.
Okay, actually there were hundreds of problems but the first one was that her leg was still trapped in a cast, a cast that prevented her from walking more than about five paces before falling over, and the only other way out of the room was to use the wheelchair. She couldn't think of a way to remove the cast without hitting it with something heavy which could well break her leg all over again. The only ready way out was to wait for Doctor Bell to return with the dreadful Doctor Frisk in tow and get him to cut the cast off.
Ratigan had foreseen this, she realised. He had planned to heal her leg and wait for her at the prison, secure in the knowledge that if she had made one bargain with him she would be ready to make another. And if that hadn't worked he would have still had the option of trying to think up three things that were beneath even her to ask as favours.
The only real alternative was to try and bluff it out with Gadget's regular doctor, to hope he was too blind or too senile to beat her by playing spot the difference using her body and a map of Gadget's old scars. Lawhiney knew she was good but this was coming at a time when both Chip and Doctor Bell were already suspicious. It wasn't as though she could pray for divine intervention to get her through. She could imagine what the response coming from Geegaw's lips would sound like, all too clearly.
This would be a challenge.
Gadget lay on her bunk.
Her own mattress was less parasite infested than Bubbles's simply because no one had been sleeping in that bunk for nearly three weeks now. It was just as hard, though.
She was looking up at the underside of Bubbles's mattress through the crisscross of rubber bands that acted as springs when she heard the polite, gentlemanly cough from the other side of the bars. Somehow she knew who it was without looking. The way she hadn't heard anyone approach and he was just suddenly there, unannounced, gave it away.
"Ratigan." Gadget said in a low voice. It wasn't an inquiry. She was simply informing the person who had coughed of her conclusions about their identity.
"I was beginning to fear you might have forgotten me. I haven't seen you for, oh, it must be five or six days at least." Ratigan's elegant voice soothed at her from outside the cell.
Gadget refused to look at him. She didn't believe he was real. "In the electroshock therapy room. That was the last time I saw you."
"I'm sorry? What were you doing in the electroshock room? Surely they didn't ?" He let the sentence hang unfinished until she had to look at him, if only to make sure he was still there. "They did?" he breathed in a horrified whisper. "No! Surely it can't be? Although, they do use electroshock therapy to cure depression and you do seem much happier then when we last spoke "
"You know perfectly well what happened and why. I saw you in the electroshock room, gloating, and standing behind Doctor Schadenfreude when he asked me about our conversations."
"That's ridiculous, I was at a conference Wait a moment. Do you mean Doctor Schadenfreude knows about our conversations? That you broke your promise and told him?" Ratigan glared accusingly at her. His voice had risen to a throaty growl.
Surely Bubbles and the other inmates could hear him now? Assuming he was real, not a hallucination, of course. If he were a figment of her imagination then surely banishing him would only take an act of will. Gadget tried to make him disappear or at least become less solid looking by squinting at him in a variety of different ways but no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't see through him in any sense.
"I didn't tell him." Gadget said eventually. She wanted to wake Bubbles
up and get independent conformation of the seven-inch tall grey rat wearing
a tuxedo just outside their cell but from past experience taking her eyes off
Ratigan for even an instant would be all he needed to disappear again.
"If I had, I doubt I would have ended up in the electroshock room."
"Did they really shock you? That charlatan, I heard they've suspended him. My poor, poor Gadget! I hope they throw the book at him."
Ratigan was like an old human lady cooing over some treasured lapdog and the hot flash of wounded pride Gadget suddenly felt explained why every lapdog she had ever known had been a nasty, vindictive creature filled with hate and loathing for all living things.
"I only caught a tiny shock compared to what might have happened if the warden hadn't intervened. I saw you in the electroshock room."
"Really? Well, with all that electricity going through you I'm surprised you didn't see the Easter Bunny and all his little helpers."
"It was before they gave me the shock."
"Were you drugged?" the question was polite, almost incidental. It shook Gadget to her core.
"Yes. Heavily." She admitted.
"There you are then, that explains it." Ratigan tried to dismiss the issue.
"Really? But I saw you clear as anything, standing behind Doctor Schadenfreude the day before he increased my medication "
"I haven't been in the prison for ages. My business hasn't allowed it. You know how it is when you're working on a big project, so many little details to take care of. I've been running around all over the place trying to get everything in position for my grand design." he chuckled until a sudden thought struck him. "My dear Gadget, do you think I'm some sort of hallucination?"
"I could easily wake up Bubbles and check." Gadget's eyes strayed briefly to Bubbles's tail, which hung from the top bunk and twitched like a snake.
"I don't think she'd thank you. Besides, how would you phrase the question? 'Bubbles, can you see the handsome rat who's come to visit me in the night or am I seeing things that aren't there again?' You're going to have a hard enough time convincing her that you aren't crazy as it is." Ratigan advised her.
"Perhaps I should just wake her up and introduce you."
"Be a bit embarrassing if you really are imagining me. 'Bubbles, allow me to introduce Professor Ratigan. Professor - what's that Bubbles? There's no one there?' From what I gather, she already thinks you're half insane."
"I'll have to introduce you sooner or later. After all, you can hardly expect to go on visiting me in secret now that I'm here. There's no privacy, not even for the smallest things." Gadget's eyes strayed from Ratigan a second time, this time to the toilet.
"Must be embarrassing when someone walks past the cell." Ratigan agreed. "But I'll pick my moments carefully. With luck, I should be able to carry on visiting you the whole time you're here. Have you made any progress on reducing the amount of that time, by the way? I'm willing to visit you for the foreseeable future but fifteen years is stretching it."
Gadget nearly sat bolt upright. "I sent a letter this morning. I'd almost forgotten. It'll take a couple of days to get there but there's no reason that I shouldn't be free by Friday."
"You can have the weekend at home." Ratigan pointed out. "That'll be nice."
"Yes." Gadget agreed absentmindedly.
"I heard an interesting rumour on my way up here I was just eavesdropping on a conversation and someone who was on their way down happened to say something about you and a certain Roxie having an argument. Something about you not wanting your ears pierced?"
"Roxie's a white mouse. She's here because her boyfriend left her with a bag and she didn't know what was in it. Probably shouldn't have been convicted any more than I should."
"So the two of you are friends?" Ratigan nodded as though filling in the blank space with the obvious answer.
"No. She tried to slice off half my ear because Haggs told her to and I almost cut her throat with her own knife in return." Gadget felt oddly safe telling Ratigan this because she still strongly suspected that he was a hallucination and that meant that telling him was like whispering it to herself.
Ratigan gaped at her and then smothered something that Gadget strongly suspected was a laugh. "Oh, I'm sorry." Ratigan said when he saw her glare. "It's just that is so priceless. The only other innocent person in Shrankshaw prison and you two end up nearly killing each other. That is just so what is the word I'm looking for?"
"Ironic." Gadget supplied.
"Yes, yes, that's it. Ironic. I always thought that irony was nature's way of letting you know that justice had caught up with you without the aid of a policeman. Of course, in your case, I suppose that would be injustice, don't you think?"
"Justice." For the first time, Gadget spoke the word aloud and there was bitterness in her voice. "Bubbles told me a little story about what justice feels like when it happens to you and I'll tell you a funny thing. It feels exactly like injustice; I know, because she told me how her first time in prison felt and that's just how all this feels for me."
"Justice and injustice feel the same?" Ratigan seemed intrigued.
"I'm starting to believe that no one can do justice in this world. No detective, no judge and no Rescue Ranger. Perhaps justice is something only God can deliver and the rest of us just go about hurting each other for different reasons and sometimes those reasons are that we don't like it when people don't play by the rules we made up even when we never asked them if they liked those rules or were willing to keep them."
"Why Gadget, I do believe you're beginning to get the glory." Ratigan's voice dripped disapproval.
"Get the glory?"
"It's what convicts call it when someone turns to religion to get themselves through the hard times. Sad really, some poor devil finds themselves in a dark place for the best years of their life so they turn to superstition for the only source of comfort and sympathy they have left - the world's favourite imaginary friend. Of course, it erodes the logical faculty terribly. All those contradictions in the good book you have to turn a blind eye to if you're going to be accepted into the harp and halo club. All those things that fly in the face of hard scientific fact that you have to believe if you want to stay out of Aitch-E-double-hockey-sticks."
"I only meant that justice might be something that people cannot create for themselves. Perhaps all our attempts to make justice amount to nothing more than playing God and we can't tilt the scales of justice one way or the other, let alone balance them, because we're all being weighed on the scales together. It could be that justice has to come from above or it could be that the universe is an inherently just place and we don't realise it simply because we can't see how it all works out in the end."
"A difficult theory to test, unless you happen to be God. Let me suggest a simpler one: Perhaps, if justice and injustice feel the same, they are one and the same thing." Ratigan suggested gently.
There was a silence.
"I don't believe that." Gadget said.
"Perhaps justice is like the Tooth Fairy or the Monster Who Lives Under the Bed Something we believe in when we're small but learn is just in the imagination when we grow older."
"Then I've wasted a great deal of my life. I suppose it would also mean that a lot of the things I've done that I thought would make my father proud weren't much more than bullying people, albeit with good intentions."
Ratigan allowed himself a rueful chuckle. "You know, the road that's paved with good intentions doesn't lead to Singapore or Zanzibar. It leads to some whole other place entirely."
"You're saying I'm no different from anyone else in here. I've been hearing that a lot lately."
"You're all prison inmates. Most of you believe you don't deserve to be in here. You have those two things in common with almost everyone else in here. Perhaps you do have other things in common as well."
"I'm willing to accept that now."
"Good girl. One day, you'll see that as a vital step on the path to personal growth."
"I already do."
"So then, no justice, just us. Prisoners, guards and Rescue Rangers, all the same under the fur, all of us shuffling our way along the mortal coil until we reach the end and, if there is no justice, what other unwanted baggage are we carrying that might be weighing us down when we need our wings most?"
Ratigan had thought long on that metaphor. While the hard work showed, he was proud of it because he knew Gadget the pilot would respond to the image of flight.
"If there's no justice, most of our ideas about good and evil are wrong. Much of what we do to be good is done because we fear to be evil. Much of what we say is evil is behaviour we either associate with punishment because we have been punished for similar behaviour in our lives, or is behaviour that we ourselves wish to engage in but fear to for various reasons and therefore wish to punish others for indulging in."
"And why would we wish to punish people for doing something we've never done, or never been punished for?" Ratigan was discretely checking a gold pocket watch. Gadget could hear it ticking. A clockwork pocket watch small enough to be worn by a rat was a rarity. As a mechanical conundrum it immediately caught Gadget's interest.
"Because of the feelings such behaviour arouse in us. That would be why the crimes considered most serious are the ones attached to the deepest, most primal emotions."
Gadget refused to answer the question because she didn't like where it would lead her. Instead she threw out something that she had thought but not spoken aloud, as a distraction, in the hope that Ratigan wouldn't press the question and make her say something she wasn't ready to say yet. "I suppose it might also be because someone likes the idea of being the person who inflicts the punishment, as opposed to the one receiving the punishment."
"Interesting concept." Ratigan accepted the compromise as if it had passed over his head entirely. "What punishments did you receive as a small girl?"
Gadget's ears lowered and her cheeks blushed prettily. "None of your business."
"Perhaps a more interesting question would be: What did you receive them for?" Ratigan tried to force Gadget into another concession. He was unsuccessful.
"All the usual things I guess. Skipping the chores I didn't like. Using stuff around the house for my inventions without asking first. Launching homemade rockets that crash-landed on our neighbour's home was a big one."
Gadget seemed be as casual about launching an unprovoked missile strike on people who lived next door as she was about skipping the washing up occasionally. Ratigan remembered what she had done to him when he invaded her dreams reminded himself just how dangerous the pretty little package in front of him could be.
"Were you ever punished for something you didn't do?"
"I don't remember. If I was, it was never in a way that Dad couldn't make up to me, I guess. He was wonderful. I miss him. I wish I could see him." Gadget turned her eyes to the face of the large grey rat in the evening suit who stood on just the other side of the bars.
Ratigan met her gaze and mentally filled in the blank she had left him: I wish I could see my dad instead of you. The ruthless urge to retaliate took hold of him. "Why did you think you were better than Bubbles, by the way? Oh, I heard about your little moment of doubt and pain."
Gadget winced. She didn't reply until it became clear that Ratigan was not going to speak again until she did. "I was brought up to think that law abiding people are better than criminals. I'm honest. Bubbles is a criminal. Even if she is trying to help me."
"So even though you're grateful to someone for doing something nice for you, you're still better than her?" Ratigan's voice was smooth.
"I hadn't thought it through clearly. I've already told Bubbles that I'm not better than her."
"You've told her that, but do you believe it? That Gadget Hackwrench, Geegaw Hackwrench's daughter, is no better than a common criminal who lies, cheats and steals."
Gadget hesitated. "That's what I said, isn't it?"
The half-second pause said far more than the answer itself.
"Well, a common criminal who lies, at any rate." Ratigan smiled.
A flash of anger ran through Gadget. For a fleeting moment she didn't care if Ratigan disappeared and didn't come back, even if it meant that no one ever called her by her own name again. Without thinking she snatched the peacefully twitching end of Bubbles's tail and pulled hard.
"Bubbles?" Gadget demanded in a loud voice. "Do you see a great big male sewer rat, a little like the phantom of the opera without a mask, standing just out side our cell?"
A brief silence from the top bunk was followed by a carefully worded reply, delivered in a deliberately balanced tone. "Uh, Red? That would be Officer Haggs."
Gadget squeaked with dismay.
She turned over to look into the corridor properly but knew from Bubbles' tone that her cellmate wasn't joking. Sure enough, Officer Haggs stood in just the place where Professor Ratigan had knelt to whisper into Gadget's ear as she lay in her bunk. For a brief instant Gadget was gripped by the idea that Ratigan and Haggs were the same person but she knew it wasn't so when she looked Haggs in the eye.
Ratigan's malice - and it was malice, Gadget was now certain - was driven by a smooth and subtle intelligence that took every pain to conceal its intentions until they could be as devastating as possible. Officer Haggs was a bash, blustering bully who wanted the world to see her hurt and degrade her victims; who hated to hide anything and only did so to protect her own tail from her superiors.
Haggs squared her shoulders and glowered at the occupants of the cell. Her right paw held a nightstick that was nothing more than a bolt painted black.
Slowly, with menace, Haggs raised the weapon as if to strike Gadget through the bars. Gadget shrank back and Haggs smiled and began to tap the nightstick against the palm of her hand.
It was dark now. Lights out had been a couple of hours before; it had come while Gadget and Bubbles were stripping down to their T-shirts and panties, ready to sleep.
Gadget was lying face down on her cot, the weight of her upper body supported by her elbows. Her face turned to track the movements of the large rat.
First Haggs reached into a pocket and brought out a shiny key that wasn't on a large steel ring like most of the prison keys Gadget had seen during her stay. Haggs opened the cell door and the mechanical side of Gadget, which was never very far away, wondered if the key was a master key that could open any door in the prison or if it worked for their cell door alone. If Haggs had come equipped with a key especially for their cell then perhaps she had intended to come in all along. If so, Gadget could not be solely blamed for whatever happened next, only for making it worse.
Officer Haggs entered the cell without a word. Her head nearly scraped the ceiling.
Haggs was as large as either of the rats Gadget had dealt with when Roxie had attacked her but Haggs carried less fat and more muscle and, from experience, Gadget knew that Haggs was stronger and quicker. When Gadget had tried to escape from being electro-shocked she hadn't even seen the blow Haggs had used to stop her. Somewhere under Gadget's fur, that old bruise still ached.
"I have reason to believe one or both of you are concealing contraband." Haggs' voice wasn't far from a snarl but, then again, it never was.
Gadget noted that the officer hadn't fetched a second guard as back up in case they turned violent. It struck her at once as being encouraging and frightening. They had Haggs outnumbered, but a second guard would also be a witness to whatever Haggs was planning
"Oh, +#~*&!" Bubbles mumbled.
"Come here." Haggs ordered.
Bubbles climbed down from the top bunk first. Gadget watched as her friend took one step forward, which was all it took to obey Haggs' instruction because the cell was so small.
"You know the drill." Haggs said sternly. "Up against the wall, hands and feet spread wide." She glared at Gadget. "You too, wiseacre."
Gadget slowly climbed out of bed. Like Bubbles, she had stripped down to her prison issue T-shirt and panties shortly after lights out and although Haggs had already seen her naked, Gadget felt oddly exposed and vulnerable.
"You aren't supposed to be here." Bubbles said. "I thought you got transferred or something."
"The Warden moved me to the special wing; thinks I need to broaden experience. If she ever comes through these doors as a prisoner I'll give her a broad experience all right. But poor Officer Simmons has a sick child and out of the charity of my heart I've agreed to do her shift for her, so you have the pleasure of my company all night." Haggs chuckled to herself.
"Pleasure?" Bubbles exclaimed.
"Oh yes, I was forgetting. The pleasure will be all mine " With that, Haggs gripped Bubbles firmly by the ear and pushed her face into the cell wall.
Haggs faced Gadget. "You insulted me to my face. It's been quite a while since anyone did that. Especially a prisoner."
"I - I'm sorry." She almost whispered.
Haggs smiled at the sign of weakness. "Sorry isn't even half what you'll be when I'm finished with you. Up against the wall. I'll start with you."
Gadget shivered at the white rat's tone. She was certain the fur on her arms and legs was standing on end as she moved to obey. She put first one paw then the other against the cell wall, which felt rough and dirty under her palms. Uncertain what would happen next, she waited there. Haggs stood directly behind Gadget, saying nothing for the moment, though Gadget could hear her breathing. The moment stretched out, taut and long, and Gadget felt a curious prickling sensation crawling up her back like a spider. She expected Haggs to hit her without warning at any moment.
"Spread your arms and legs wider. Feet further away from the wall." Haggs ordered in a restrained tone.
Gadget looked over at Bubbles and confirmed that their poses were identical, hands and feet spread equally. Her eyes met Bubbles's and saw the silent message buried in them: Don't provoke Haggs any further.
Without complaint she widened the distance between hands, feet and wall.
"WIDER!" Haggs lashed out to kick Gadget's feet further apart, so that her face fell against the wall. The old bruise flared with pain.
"Wider!" Haggs growled a second time.
Gadget, her face still pressed against the dirty wall and feeling helplessly off balance, struggled to comply.
Then she felt Haggs' hands on her.
Firmly the hands patted and stroked in the standard, predictable pattern of a normal frisk. Gadget had seen people receive this treatment many times; she had become so used to it that she didn't notice it sometimes and had often considered reluctance to allow such a search to be a sign of guilt. Now she was seeing it in a different light.
The hands finished the normal search pattern and, to Gadget's alarm, continued. They were rougher and straying into territory Gadget was uncomfortable with. She opened her mouth to ask Haggs to stop but was silenced by another, unexpected, contact. Bubbles had snuck her paw over to Gadget's paw and gently taken hold to comfort her. Looking to her cellmate's face, Gadget saw nothing but sympathy and understanding and, again, the plea for restraint.
Gadget squeezed her eyes shut, tried to keep the tears away as the search went on. Haggs had abandoned all pretence of this being a normal search and was doing everything she could to make her victim squirm with humiliation. Gadget concentrated on the sensation of her friend's hand touching hers and tried to shut out all feelings.
"No lock-pick this time. Never mind. I still owe you a medical search, from that." Haggs tone was filled with triumphant malice.
"You can't do that to her!" Bubbles gasped.
"Medical search?" Gadget was suddenly terrified. Things too personal to speak of passed through her mind.
"I can do what I want." Sneered Haggs.
"You know that kind of search has to be recorded and witnessed by another officer. Everyone knows you've got it in for Red and you'll never be able to justify it. Remember, the Warden's got her eye on you!"
Gadget swallowed her fear and offered up a silent prayer of thanks for whatever providence had sent her Bubbles.
Haggs glared at Bubbles silently, beside herself with anger, knowing that the convict was right. Then she made an abrupt decision. "Then we'll just have to find something to justify it, won't we? I know you convicts; you've always got something to hide."
With that, Haggs began to tear the cell apart. She pulled the pillows apart and threw the blankets to the ground. Failing to find anything, she overturned Bubbles' mattress and lashed at it with her claws. It opened four narrow slits in the tatty, bug infested bedding and Haggs plunged her hand into holes, her arm disappearing up to the shoulder. She tore out cotton padding as she searched for contraband. She found none, but when she pulled out her arm there was a large, ugly tick clinging to her arm.
"Gah!" Haggs exclaimed in disgust as she crushed it instinctively.
Bubbles gave a short laugh, which she cut off abruptly. Gadget winced at the death of an unpleasant but blameless insect.
Haggs slowly raised her face from the blood on her arm and turned it to Bubbles with a dreadful fury. Gadget felt Bubbles' hand go tight about her own.
Haggs crossed the tiny room in one stride and struck Bubbles repeatedly on the back of the legs with her nightstick. Bubbles cried out and fell to her knees.
"Stop it!" cried Gadget.
Haggs grabbed Gadget by the back of her prison issue T-shirt. She twisted the fabric around her fist until the material drew tight around Gadget's throat. "I haven't forgotten you, honey. You'll get your turn."
Gadget struggled briefly but Haggs responded by pulling the T-shirt about until, with repeated ripping sounds, the fabric gave way. Letting the ruined shirt drop around Gadget's waist, Haggs left her exposed and vulnerable and returned to searching the cell.
Gadget remained against the wall. She was paralysed with shock and shame. Worst of all, she felt helpless. Haggs was a guard and represented law and order, much as Gadget had once done. Still, as Gadget looked down at her tattered clothing she wished Roxie's knife was back in her hand - and that thought froze her heart.
Gadget had been afraid to trust anyone else with the blade and had hidden it between the bed frame and the wall at the foot of her bunk, with a little cotton wool padding from her pillow to hold it in place.
Dear Lord. If Haggs found that knife with a little of Roxie's dried blood still on the blade, there would be no stopping her and no escape from all she had threatened, either.
Every fibre of Gadget's body tensed.
Could she take Haggs in the tiny confines of the cell, even if Bubbles helped? Gadget didn't know. There was no element of surprise. Haggs had a club and, if it became necessary to fight her, she would probably be holding the knife as well. Gadget doubted Haggs would hesitate to use it. Even if they won, what good would it do them? Haggs had the key to the cell door and presumably keys to other doors but there was little chance of escape. It was unlikely the main gate was unguarded, or that Haggs would have a key for it, or even that they could reach it before another guard or a fellow prisoner raised the alarm.
With every heartbeat Gadget's nerves were stretched more finely from waiting for Haggs to make the inevitable discovery. Gadget had seen that Haggs was an effective officer for all her faults, who let nobody get away with anything and could be depended on to find something hidden by a drunken, rookie inmate.
Her imagination conjured images of the probable consequences of Haggs finding the knife. Gadget tried to push the images to one side. She squeezed her eyes tight shut to block out the first pricking of tears forming in her eyes and began to move her lips in silent prayer, just as she would when she was up in the Ranger Plane and bad weather closed in. She was unaware of Bubbles watching her from the floor, perhaps busily working out the cause for her distress and perhaps transported back in time by memory to another prison, years before.
Haggs found the knife.
The sudden silence announced it to the two prisoners. Bubbles looked over to see Haggs holding the knife almost as if it were a bunch of flowers someone had unexpectedly given her.
"What have we here?" the white rat cooed. "What have we here?" She looked at Gadget who was peering fearfully over her shoulder. "Ho-ho, you're in trouble now, my girl. What's that on the blade? Is that blood on the blade? It is, isn't it? And just who were you thinking of using this thing against next? One of us, a guard?"
Gadget turned her face back to the wall. She rested her forehead on the cool, grimy surface and bowed her shoulders. A single tear spilled down the peach-fuzz fur on her cheek. She had lost the battle not to give Haggs the satisfaction.
Haggs laughed cruelly and pulled Gadget's T-shirt away from her back, slicing slowly into the material and turning it into shredded strips. "When I'm done with you, you'll know just how that T-shirt feels."
The officer reached out again, this time for Gadget's shoulder.
Gadget flinched at the touch.
Fury crossed Haggs' face like a thundercloud. She raised the nightstick.
Bubbles spoke quietly. "Leave her alone. It's mine."
"It must have slipped from where I hid it."
Haggs reply was unrepeatable. She compared Bubbles admission to a substance not uncommonly used as fertilizer in rural districts.
"Bubbles?" Gadget's voice was weak and shaky.
"Quiet. Look, Haggs, who would you really rather have to yourself? Her or me?" Bubbles managed to sound braver than she felt.
Officer Haggs chuckled breathlessly. "Oh, McGee. You're so right. Yes, I'm sure the knife is yours. Now, let's be having you. I think I'll use the cuffs to make sure we don't have any trouble."
"Bubbles?" Gadget asked again. She was sounded panicky.
"Quiet you, or I'll make this a doubleheader."
"Don't do this." Gadget said, her face a picture of horror.
"I said quiet!" Haggs marched Bubbles out of the cell.
Gadget was left behind in the ruined cell. She tried to cover herself with the ruined T-shirt but her best efforts left her back bare and her midriff completely exposed. She had knotted the tattered material of the back of the shirt at her waist, then turned the shirt the correct way around so the knot was in the small of her back before pulling the T-shirt up cover her chest. It wasn't an ideal solution because, like any rodent, Gadget's anatomy was different from that of a primate. She was showing some intimate details that no human woman could boast but her more obvious attributes, at least, were under wraps.
She was alone in the ruined cell.
Moving slowly, she picked up the tattered mattresses and put them back on the
bed frames and then she tried to make good where she could. When the cell's
floor was clear enough to walk on, if still filthy and scattered with lint and
cotton wool from the mattresses, Gadget sat down on her own bed and finally
burst into tears
Back to the stories