Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Chapter Twenty-Two: Lawhiney Beats the Devil
Gadget had done her best to straighten up the cell and smarten her appearance but, without a mirror or water to work with, she knew it would be obvious she had been crying after a fight. Her torn T-shirt was still knotted below her breastbone and she wasn't sure how she was supposed to get another one. She would ask one of the guards after her shower.
Other inmates were looking sideways at her as they passed by the cell but Gadget was unaware of their looks and whispers. Her thoughts were entirely with Bubbles. Slowly and mechanically she rose from her bunk and made her way to the shower block. She still hadn't learned the importance of keeping her guard up at all times.
As she entered the shower changing room a large paw clamped down on her shoulder and swept her off her feet. A wall was the only thing that stopped her falling.
Gadget found herself pressed into a corner of the changing room with Molly's face pressed up against hers. The twins flanked Molly, cutting off any chance of escape and hiding Gadget from the rest of the room. The expressions of all three were unfriendly and Gadget instinctively knew that no one else was about to get involved in whatever was about to happen.
Molly's big hand was still wrapped entirely around Gadget's shoulder. When Molly squeezed, Gadget felt bones grind together and gasped. She knew that moles could dig through hard, compacted soil with their bare hands and for the first time it occurred to her to wonder just how strong they really were.
"Molly, you're hurting me." Gadget said with little hope that it would make any difference.
Molly's grasp didn't become any tighter but Gadget had the dreadful suspicion that it could, if Molly wanted it to. It didn't become any lighter either. Instead of relaxing her grip now that she had Gadget's attention Molly held her grip rock steady, not moving or shifting her muscles at all, proving that she had not only strength but stamina as well. Gadget contemplated the uses Molly might put such strength and stamina to. Molly gave her plenty of time to think about it.
"We heard about Bubbles getting dragged off by Haggs. Word from some of your neighbours is that you turned Bubbles in to save yourself a beating."
Gadget's jaw dropped. No wonder they were mad at her.
"Who? Who said that?" She demanded.
Molly glanced at the right hand twin, who stepped to one side and allowed Gadget to see a familiar group of mice who were changing slowly to catch as much of the show as possible.
"Them?" Gadget nearly shrieked. "They're the ones who tied my hair to the top of the cell door on my first night in this place! They hate Gadget Hackwrench so much they'd buy ringside tickets to watch you beat up a Barbie doll if you glued Mickey ears and a tail on it!"
"That description covers a lot of people in here, Red, but Darla's not one of them and she overheard Haggs telling one of the other guards about the look on Bubbles' face when you turned on her to avoid a beating." Molly smiled grimly.
Jeepers, it's a wonder I'm still standing! Gadget thought. "It isn't so, Molly!"
"So tell me how it was." Molly perfectly mimicked the tone of the last detective she had seen before her trial date was set.
"I - " Gadget made the near fatal mistake of hesitating to consider whether to mention Ratigan.
"You wouldn't be considering telling me lies now, would you, Red? That wouldn't be wise at all. Because if you lie to me it could be that when me and the twins here walk into the flea-dip with you, we wouldn't be inclined to help you up if should you fall down in there like the first time you went through the dip. That stuff they use burns something fierce if gets in the eyes, don't it? I suspect too much of it could blind a person. In fact, sometimes a person can get stepped on when they fall down in there. Walked over like a doormat. Might drown, even. "
"I swear, no lies, Molly." Gadget had seen the boys lean on informers occasionally. She intervened when she thought it was necessary but always suspected that they went further when she wasn't around. Now she knew what it felt like, could she watch them do that again? Or listen to Chip brag about a case she knew he had solved by terrifying someone like this?
"Start talking then."
"I think I was hallucinating and I asked Bubbles to check if what I was seeing was real, only what I was actually seeing turned out to be Officer Haggs who thought I was insulting her."
"Hallucinating?" Molly crooked an eyebrow. "Red, that doesn't tell me how Bubbles came to be hurting in solitary and don't you doubt she is hurting because the box is a place Haggs only ever puts someone to hide their bruises."
"Haggs had a key. I think that means she was going to get into the cell with us anyway, don't you?" Gadget went on.
"Haggs had her own key to your cell?"
"Yes. It wasn't on a ring or anything."
"Haggs took a chance going in a cell with two prisoners, one with a knife, without another officer present to back her up. Maybe that stunt with Roxie was meant to see how tough you and Bubbles were in a fight before she tried anything." Molly mused. "She was giving Bubbles a hard time before the warden moved you in to the same cell. Did she ask Bubbles about where her cut from the warehouse robbery was?"
"No. She got spiteful because of what I said when I thought she was a hallucination."
"What did you say?" The left hand twin wondered with a horrible curiosity.
"I might have mistaken her for the phantom of the opera."
That brought a wry chuckle from the twins.
"She put us up against the wall and - " Gadget hesitated " - she frisked us. Afterwards I had to knot my T-shirt to keep myself covered."
The twins looked sympathetic. Molly was unmoved.
"Then Haggs found the knife. She was going to haul me off instead of Bubbles but Bubbles covered for me and said it was her knife. Seriously. I didn't ask her to or anything. I didn't even think of blaming Bubbles for it, I swear!"
Molly looked at Gadget steadily. Then, after a long pause, she removed her hand from Gadget's shoulder. "I won't say I believe you but that T-shirt is a mess. You could have done it yourself, I suppose."
"I didn't! Look how far apart the claw marks are!"
"Ah, I don't know. What do you say girls?" Molly glanced at the twins.
The twins looked at each other then seemed to reach an unspoken agreement. "I say we wait until Bubbles gets out and says what really happened." One of them said.
"Yeah, okay. Sounds fair enough to me." Molly agreed with them. "Okay, Red. You get to take a shower without having to hold your breath for today, at least. But from now on we'll be watching you instead of watching out for you."
With that warning, Molly and the twins walked away. Gadget let out a long breath she hadn't known she was holding. "Not good." She whispered to herself.
Gadget held on to the safety rail all the way through the flea-dip and went through the shower at brisk walk, just slow enough to be sure she wouldn't slip and fall. Her eyesight was fine and Bubbles' disappearance had been a signal for business as usual as far as the other prisoners were concerned. She looked straight ahead and thought busily about how she would rebuild the Rangerwing.
By the time she got back to the changing room, someone had stolen her clothes.
At first she assumed that they had fallen off the bench where she had left them folded. Not so. Then she looked around for someone the same size as her who might have mistaken them for theirs, until she remembered the shredded T-shirt. This was a prank. She remembered them from the very brief time she had spent in high school. Mercifully, it hadn't taken her the whole year to graduate. She looked for her towel so she could dry herself, cover up and go to ask for new clothes.
Her towel was gone too.
"Has anyone seen my clothes?" she raised her voice.
Nobody even acknowledged the question. There wasn't silence either. Everyone just went right on doing what they had been doing.
Gadget bit back her unhappiness and tried again. "I said: Has anyone seen my clothes?"
"Not unless they're the kind only people as smart as Gadget Hackwrench can see!" called out a comedian from the back of the changing room.
Not many people laughed. Perhaps they hadn't been read many Hans Christian Anderson stories when they were young, or perhaps they just weren't interested. Perhaps she had just misplaced her clothes in another vintage moment of Gadget Hackwrench absentmindedness after having the wits scared out of her by Molly and the Twins.
"Uh, can I borrow a towel from somebody?"
"Ask Bubbles, I'm sure she'll lend you hers, right girls?"
"Yeah, that's right!"
Murmurs of agreement came from around the room and along with the odd laugh and barbed whistle.
Three minutes later Deputy Warden Marion Cedar turned a corner to find herself confronted by a wet, naked, shivering inmate, who was clutching a strategically placed fire extinguisher.
"What on earth? Explain yourself this instant!"
Gadget hesitated. She wasn't stupid by any means; it was just that she wasn't used to applying her able mind to social situations. She had a feeling that if she complained about her clothes being stolen to a guard, even one as understanding as the Deputy Warden, the guard would investigate and tell someone off for stealing. Gadget had a sneaking suspicion that the other inmates would take that as the only confirmation they needed that she had turned in Bubbles and was just waiting for the chance to do the same to rest of them. They'd tear her to pieces, or worse. The same part of Gadget's mind that had handed her answers to every maths problem Gadget had ever come across started to list famous humans she might be able to do impressions of.
"I said explain yourself!" the Deputy Warden repeated.
"I seem to have misplaced my clothes." Gadget said. "And my towel. No one wanted to lend me theirs." She added.
The Deputy Warden looked her in the eye for a moment or two. "Right. I see." She said eventually.
"Can I have some new clothes?" Gadget asked mournfully. She was fighting hard to keep the whine out of her voice.
"That fire extinguisher is only for emergencies. There's a heavy penalty for taking it off the wall, otherwise. Are you sure there isn't something else you want to tell me?"
Gadget sniffed. This wasn't fair at all. Life shouldn't be treating her like this. "Positive." She said aloud.
"Very well, then." The chipmunk lady looked at her sternly but without real anger. "Put it back on the wall before anyone notices and we won't say any more about it. Then I'll escort you back to your cell. I'll bring you some clothes when I have time."
Ms Cedar allowed herself a brief, kindly smile in the direction of the shivering, younger mouse. Gadget accepted it gratefully. Strictly speaking Ms Cedar was bending, perhaps even breaking, the rules by not punishing her. The thought followed automatically that it wasn't just the opportunity to make her life a little more miserable that Ms Cedar had passed by. Gadget had given her a motive by giving her a crooked explanation for her troubles.
Gadget's heart soared. This small piece of kindness was a glimmer of the world Gadget had known before this place. It was like glimpsing something magical through the cracks in a wooden fence as a child while a parent pulled her along at a brisk walk.
"Thank you, Ma'am." Gadget said sincerely.
"Yes, well. Get on with it." Ms Cedar seemed awkward about accepting gratitude from her.
Gadget hung the fire extinguisher back on the wall and rushed to get back to her cell before the corridors while the corridors were still deserted. It was strange enough to be walking down a corridor without any clothes while someone fully dressed walked alongside her without finding herself surrounded by jeering inmates as well.
Moments later Gadget was hiding under the blankets of her bunk, hoping that Ms Cedar wouldn't be too long in getting her some new clothes from the prison stores. Officer Haggs would have made her walk to the stores as she was, Gadget was sure. It had been a upsetting night with little sleep, followed by an disturbing morning. If she had known what was to follow, she might have pulled the blankets over her head and called it a day there and then.
"Come on, out of bed. The rest of us can't sleep all day, so there's no reason you should." The shrewish voice belonged to, well, a shrew actually. "The Deputy Warden sent me to give you these clothes and escort you to the laundry so you can start work. Though why she couldn't send you to get them yourself, I don't know."
Gadget started to explain the trick that had been played on her but the guard, one she hadn't seen before, held up a paw to silence her.
"Oh, I know about your clothes being stolen. As far as I'm concerned, you walked to the stores in the fur to get your uniform the first time and there's no reason you shouldn't do it again. Anyway, everyone knows they caught up with you after you fell off a barroom table in the middle of a striptease so you can hardly claim modesty now."
Gadget flushed unhappily. The memory of her arrest was more or less a complete blank. She didn't believe she'd done a striptease but, well, there was that recurring dream of hers, the one where she stood up on a stage and couldn't remember what she was supposed to do next. Not knowing was the worst thing.
Somewhat reluctantly Gadget dressed with her back to the guard. Again she faced the depressing fact that the prison uniform was so similar to the clothes she wore in normal life, a grey blue jumpsuit with a white T-shirt and underwear. She found herself longing to put on her little red dress again, if only so she could look at herself in a mirror as she sometimes did and reassure herself that, yup, she was still a girl. Lord, imagine not being able to ever try on a different outfit, even just to see if it was still the right size, for years or even decades at a time.
Not long after Gadget found herself trailing in the shrew guard's wake. She was being taken to work, apparently. She had no idea what kind of work, or where. "You'll see when you get there." The shrew sniffed when she asked.
Gadget made a careful note of the corridors they took and the turns they made on their way through the prison. Not that she was planning to escape, of course. She was just paying attention, as Bubbles had told her to. As they travelled, she hoped her work would be something mechanical. Even if it was only machine operating, she found the presence of machines reassuring and she was sure she could make some improvements to the machine in question.
"Frankly, it'll do you good. Learning what an honest day's work is for an honest day's pay." The shrew said.
"How much do we get paid?" Gadget asked out of curiosity.
"More than you deserve! You save it for when you get out of here and you should have enough to survive on until you find a job on the outside. Or enjoy yourself in some bar for the two minutes it'll take you to plan your next job."
"I was sentenced to fifteen years!" Gadget objected. "Surely it'll be more than that!"
"Alright then, ten minutes in some bar." The shrew shrugged.
They turned a corner.
Gadget found herself at the entrance to a large laundry. There was a pair of metal gates but all the metal bars in the world could not have prevented the smell of detergent escaping. Gadget could see into a large steamy room perhaps four feet square that had perhaps once been part of a human airing cupboard.
There were six laundry tubs made out of army surplus drinking cups that were rectangular and aluminium. They were arranged in two rows of three with a wide path between them. Each tub had a well-muscled prisoner stationed at one end to stir the steaming water with a human teaspoon. Gadget was not surprised to see that Molly was one of them. It suddenly occurred to her that she had been fortunate in her life's work. She had been an aircraft mechanic, an inventor and a Rescue Ranger. They were all jobs she had chosen to do of her own free will because she believed they were interesting, important and necessary. What took place in the laundry before her was simple, mindless drudgery. Gadget set her jaw. She could handle that. She knew plenty of people who worked for a living. She wasn't going to act like she was afraid to get her hands dirty.
At the far end of the room was a makeshift steam-press, the first interesting piece of engineering Gadget had seen since she passed Shrankshaw Prison's boiler-door front gate. Gadget smiled as though she had met an old friend and drank in the sight of the ancient steam iron dangling above a house-brick that had been wrapped in material cut from a fire blanket. Two rust stained bicycle chains had been wired to the front and back of the steam iron. Together, directly above the iron, they fed through a pair of gears that shared the same axle. The axle was mounted in something that Gadget guessed had started life as a toilet roll holder before it had been bolted to the laundry ceiling. A pair of lead pipes at the other end of the chains acted as a counter weight roughly equal to that of the iron, and made it possible for one or two small rodents acting together to raise and lower the business end of their steam press. A simple lever and pivot worked the steam button and a rubber hose fed the water from a bottle of mineral water that hung upside down from the roof next to the steam press. The air carried the familiar taint of electricity, which reminded Gadget of her workshop. She soon traced the scent to the frayed electrical flex that spiralled upwards to a plug that screwed into a human-scale light-bulb holder in the ceiling.
Now, had Bubbles been there, Gadget would have argued that she was paying attention, that she was paying attention to the steam press and that she could have improved it in a great many ways. It was just that while her attention was on the steam-press, it wasn't on anything else. That was how she failed to notice the guard who had escorted her there leave with a contemptuous sniff of her long shrew nose. It was also why she was so surprised when the hard edge of a laundry trolley hit her at waist level and somebody holding a big bundle of sheets pushed her into it from behind.
Gadget barely had time to squeal and then a load of freshly washed sheets dropped on top of her, muffling her complaints. She struggled to turn over and face her tormentor when she felt the cart start to move and she realised that she was being kidnapped. Who by and what for she could only begin to imagine.
As her imagination began to suggest awful possibilities about what was in store for her, Gadget began to fight the sheets and blankets that were tangled around her. She realised that she had lost track of which way was up and panicked.
The laundry trolley came to an abrupt stop.
"Just what do you two think you are doing?" A grim, familiar voice demanded.
It was a guard's voice. There was no mistaking the tone. Rich with authority and certain of it it's own power.
Gadget breathed a huge sigh of relief.
"Look at the state of those sheets. They're supposed to be freshly ironed and now they're all crumpled. In fact, I'd say they need washing again."
Using the voice as a guide, Gadget regained her sense of up and down and struggled into a sitting position. Even that didn't bring the relief she expected since she had a bedsheet over her head.
"Good heavens! It's alive!" The guard exclaimed.
A chorus of surprisingly girlish screams came from the watching inmates as a ghost-like form rose up out of the laundry basket. Gadget turned her head left and right to track the sound but was unable to see the cause.
A hand took hold of the sheet by a corner and tugged it away to reveal a blushing, flustered young mouse girl who was suddenly the centre of attention.
"What's this? A stowaway?" the guard said with a wry smile. "I think you'd better explain yourself, young lady."
"Somebody pushed me!" Gadget exclaimed.
"What, into this laundry trolley?" The guard's eyes suddenly narrowed as she looked over Gadget's shoulder at someone behind her.
Gadget turned, already wincing before she knew what she was going to see. The twins stood side by side, their paws resting on the laundry trolley's handle. Gadget was torn between embarrassment and dismay.
"Right! I see." The guard glared at them and began tapping her night-stick against her palm. "Something you two want to be telling me?"
"We didn't know she was in there!" Protested the twin on the right.
"She must have been having a little joke. Hiding in there so she could pop out and pretend to be a ghost. Give us all a little scare. You saw her yourself, Officer Sternham!" The left twin said.
"Yeah, that's right. Tell her, Red. Tell her you were just having a little joke."
Gadget opened her mouth. She was suddenly aware of a great number of eyes being focused on her. On the one hand she could only think of one reason for the twins to abduct her and dreaded giving them a second opportunity; on the other she had no wish to confirm everyone's suspicions that she was a sneak and an informant. Of course, if she admitted to playing a practical joke on everyone, punishment from the guard would be certain. After everything that had been done to her so far, the thought of some added refinement of cruelty being heaped onto her was too much to bare.
"Well, what about it?" The guard demanded impatiently. "Did you get into that trolley yourself or did someone force you in?"
"I think perhaps that someone knocked me in by accident?" Gadget experimented by way of a compromise.
"You said someone pushed you." The guard said.
"I didn't say it was deliberate!" Gadget was defensive.
"No, you didn't. Did you see the person who did it?"
"No. They knocked me in while I was looking at the steam press and dumped a load of laundry on my back before I could complain." Gadget was relieved she couldn't say anything that would incriminate someone on that score. No danger of her informing on anyone there.
"Then you can't say that they did it by accident." The guard nodded, as though her suspicions were confirmed.
Gadget's jaw dropped. She hadn't thought of that. Did failing to provide someone with an alibi count as informing? Probably, given her luck so far.
"I sure nobody meant any harm." She said weakly.
"I think you're being very naïve." The guard told her. "Have either of you two got anything to say?" she addressed the twins.
"We didn't mean any harm, Ms Sternham!" the left twin protested.
"We were just trying to do a good turn, that's all!" the right twin added.
"I'd wouldn't say there was much good in the kind of turn I think you two had in mind!" Ms Sternham replied coldly.
The twins looked like a pair of schoolgirls who had been caught smoking and now faced a trip to the principal's office.
"Both of you, quick march. I'm taking you to the governor's office. She won't be likely to see the funny side of this either."
Gadget struggled out of the laundry trolley in their wake, still trying to think of a way to defuse the situation. By the time she had regained her feet it was too late. She was standing alone in a room full of hostile, silent faces, watching the twins being firmly led out the door.
Gadget stood in the centre of the laundry and felt like Wile E. Coyote awaiting the arrival of an especially large boulder. This wasn't good, she knew that, the thing was she didn't have enough experience to judge just how bad the damage was.
A quick glance around to get the lay of the room confirmed Gadget's fears that Ms. Sternham had taken a second guard with her to escort the twins. That second guard had left an empty stool next to the main gate, which she had locked behind her. Gadget instinctively checked for alternative exits. There were three. One was a door marked "Stores" which looked likely to be locked and was on the wrong side of, perhaps, two dozen convicts. The second exit was one she had noticed as she came in. A hole had been cut in the ceiling so the steam press's electric cable could be fed into the room. Time or incompetence had enlarged the whole to the point where she could perhaps squeeze through, with difficulty and if she could somehow get the electrical wire out of the way.
Gadget nearly missed the last exit. She only saw it when she looked down from the hole above the steam press. There was a second gate on the far side of the laundry room behind the steam press, unlocked but guarded by an elderly male squirrel. She had known there were male guards in the prison but this was the first one she had seen. The sight of a male in a uniform made Gadget relax instinctively, even if the male in question was pushing the wrong side of sixty and his nose was buried deep in a copy of the racing form. No one would try anything with a guard in the room.
Molly glared at Gadget, then shook her head and looked away as though washing her hands of the whole business. Gadget's relief started to wane.
"So you're the celebrity look-alike we've all heard so much about." A grey mouse with long black hair stepped forward from one of the tubs. "Everyone's been dying to get a look at you. Not that we haven't seen just about everything in the showers and the hallways."
"Are you the one who stole my clothes?" Gadget asked.
The grey mouse smirked and looked anywhere she could, so long as it wasn't into Gadget's eyes. "Clothes? No, I don't know anything about that."
"It wasn't funny." Gadget said.
"What's the matter, Red? Someone steal your sense of humour along with your clothes?" The voice was familiar.
Gadget whirled. Before she could pinpoint the speaker, the grey mouse chimed in again. "Ah, no matter. If you didn't like that joke, we have plenty of others that we'll be happy to share with you."
Gadget's eyes narrowed. "Is that a threat?"
The grey mouse's smirk widened to show her teeth, which had been sharpened, and raised an eyebrow to a fat brown rat that stood nearby with a teaspoon over her shoulder. The rat nodded and took a few steps back so she look directly at the old guard by the far door.
"Hey, Ivan! Ain't it usually about now that you take your morning potty break?" the rat called out.
Gadget's jaw dropped in shock. She hadn't even imagined speaking to a guard like that.
"I'll go when I'm good and ready." the elderly squirrel wheezed.
"What's the matter, old timer? Prunes not working this morning?" the rat returned.
The whole room heaved with laughter and the squirrel sank behind his racing form as though hiding. The laughter continued far longer than seemed reasonable until, finally, the guard could stand it no longer. He got up from stool and retreated through the far gate, folding his paper as he went.
Gadget watched him go with mounting alarm. She felt as though a pit had opened up beneath her. The feeling reminded her of a time, not long after she moved into the tree house that became Ranger Headquarters, when she had walked along a branch and taken a wrong turn. By the time she had stopped daydreaming and realised where she was, she was precariously balanced a long way out on a dead twig, high above the ground. She flinched at the sound of the gate being slammed shut behind the guard.
"See? It's a regular laugh a minute when you're one of the girls." The grey mouse chuckled again. "You want to be one of the girls, don't cha?"
"I guess." Gadget said doubtfully.
"Good. That's good, 'cause this place can be lonely if you don't have a few friends to have a laugh with. Why, some of us just spend the whole day thinking up jokes. We can be a regular riot when we want to be, can't we girls?"
Gadget waited for the murmurs of agreement to die down before asking: "Jokes like the one the twins just played on me?"
The grey mouse scowled. "Nah, we didn't put them up to that. Molly, you know what got into them?"
Molly looked up sullenly. "You're kidding right? They were just fooling around."
"I thought they only did that with each other?" the grey mouse insinuated.
Molly flushed beneath her fur. "I wouldn't know anything about that, Sheila."
"Glad to hear it." Sheila said.
"Sheila? That's your name?" Gadget asked.
"Yeah, that's my name. I'd introduce you around but I'm a little unclear on your name myself. Now, Bubbles said everyone was to call you Red but you're down as Jane Doe on the prison records and on the outside you prefer to be called Gadget Hackwrench. Is that right?"
Gadget opened her mouth to explain the whole story, then closed it again.
"What's the matter, honey? Cat got your tongue?" Talk of cats and body parts between mice can be taken for aggression but Sheila's tone was saccharine.
"Uh, no. It's just that you're the first person to get that right since I got arrested." Gadget pretended not to notice the veiled threat.
"Some of the girls are running a little book on what your real name might be. Sooner or later you'll have to tell us what it is or we'll never know who to give all the money to."
"What are the odds on my real name being Gadget Hackwrench?" Gadget couldn't resist asking out of curiosity, even though she never gambled.
"Seven to one."
"Seven to one?" Gadget was amazed. "Why so low?"
"Hmm, well, some of us have got a little theory and it goes like this. See we reckon all that stuff about the real Gadget Hackwrench being in hospital is just a smokescreen, see? A story the Rangers gave to the press, to explain where the real Gadget was when, really, they'd sent her in here to spy on us."
Gadget stared at Sheila, acutely aware of the many pairs of eyes that were watching her. "Are you crazy? Do you really think I'd come into a place like this if I had the choice?"
Sheila grinned. "Not if you really knew what it was like beforehand but I don't think someone like Gadget Hackwrench would. Reckon this experience would be a real eye-opener for her, what do you say girls?"
"You bet!" the same familiar voice as before came from behind Gadget. This time Gadget had no trouble spotting Roxie in the crowd. The white mouse looked her straight back in the eye and said: "I think we could come up with something that would be a bigger eye-opener, though."
"Roxie." Gadget was new to thinking the worst of people but she had always been a fast learner. "You're behind this! Are you still mad at me for winning that fight? I let you go afterwards, didn't I? Or did Haggs force you to set this up too?"
Roxie's only answer was a snarl.
"Roxie doesn't run things around here. We do and if you want to finish the day outside of the infirmary you talk to me, not her. " Sheila said, flashing her sharpened teeth. The grey mouse threw a single glance at Roxie and clicked her fingers. Roxie hesitated for a heartbeat or two, then walked round to stand by Sheila's side.
"If I'm here to spy on you the way you say I am, how come that old guard left so easily? For that matter, how come Haggs has been making my life hell since I got here?"
"Maybe they didn't tell the guards." Sheila speculated. "Heck, half of them can't keep a secret anyway. Haggs definitely doesn't think you're the real deal but that doesn't prove a thing because the Warden and the Deputy Warden have both wanted Haggs out of here since day one. Funny thing how every time your right up against it, it's either the Warden or Ms Cedar who come to your rescue. She arranged for a guard to bring a fresh uniform straight to your cell even, isn't that so?"
"Yes, she did." Gadget admitted. "But what about that time I spent in the Special Wing. The warden sent me there and I can't spy on much in a rubber room now, can I?"
"Yeah, that's what I thought at first, but you could have been anywhere when you were supposed to be in the Special Wing. I mean, the orderlies and the shrinks would have been the only ones to see you while you were there and, since we aren't that tight with them, we've really only got your word for it."
"I was almost electrocuted."
"Haggs's doing, by your own account. The Warden rescued you. And the whole prison knows that Chip Maplewood visited and spoke to the Warden right before you were released from the Special Wing."
Gadget stared at Sheila and Roxie. Gadget hated to admit it, even to herself, but as theories went theirs wasn't bad. It explained the observable evidence. Occam's razor would have preferred it to the truth.
"I didn't come here to spy on you." She declared. "And if I could walk up to the nearest guard and say "'I'm Gadget Hackwrench, let me out of here'", then I'd have done it by now."
It was the only truthful denial she could give them. By now, Gadget knew that they would either accept it and her, or not.
Sheila looked Gadget in the eye for a heartbeat or two, then shrugged as she conceded the point. "Maybe."
Beside her Roxie was dismayed but Sheila silenced her with a scowl. Sheila turned her face back to Gadget "Either way, I've seen some amazing liars in my time and let me tell you, you must be about the best of them. Considering what you're supposed to be in here for, I guess that holds true whoever you are."
Gadget considered this as long as she dared. "Thank you." She accepted the compliment at face value.
"I have to admit I'm a little disappointed though. You just cost me a week's pay." Sheila took a step towards Gadget. "I really hate to lose. Especially when I don't happen to have the money on me."
Gadget felt herself briefly teeter on the brink of a decision that she didn't want to make, then took the plunge. "Take it up with Roxie. She did put the idea in your head, didn't she?"
Sheila stopped dead and stared into the cool blue eyes of the mouse in front of her. Slowly, she found herself compelled to look back at the now shivering Roxie and smile.
"I'll do that." Sheila vowed. "We already know from Roxie that you can handle yourself but I've got to hand it to you: You've got nerve. You must be pretty tough down where it counts because, if I was in your fur, I don't know that I'd be able to come in here all on my own with no one looking out for me, no guards watching and stick to my guns the way you have."
Gadget sighed heavily. She relaxed.
"Especially not with everyone knowing I'd handed someone who took me under her wing over to Haggs the night before."
"Don't even try to deny it. Not two minutes after you handed the twins over to a guard, right in front of everyone, just for trying to get you out of here."
Sheila didn't give Gadget a chance to speak and she spoke loud enough to cover anything anyone else said. Until now Sheila had been talking to Gadget and the other people in room had been Sheila's props, her scenery to impress and intimidate her victim. Now they were her audience and her followers.
"I don't understand." Gadget meant it. They had been accepting her. She had given them the right answers. Sheila had even accepted that she was telling the truth. This made no sense. WHERE HAD SHE GONE WRONG?
"I can't believe those two idiots! Trying to sneak you out before anything could bad happen to you. Did you really not figure out what they were doing, or did you just turn them in by reflex, without even thinking about it?"
Every story Gadget had heard about what could happen in places like Shrankshaw went through her head in a heartbeat. "I didn't know there was a guard there when I stood up!" she protested.
"You didn't know there was a guard standing in front of you when you said someone pushed you in?" Roxie taunted.
Gadget looked for Molly in desperation. She was out of her depth. She felt like she was on trial again and this time she had the sinking feeling she was guilty.
A small group of inmates, no more than a quarter of the laundry workers at most, had shied away from the mob that was closing in around Gadget. They stood in small groups of threes and fours around the edges of the room. Molly was part of a group of four in the near corner, her back turned uncomfortably on the proceedings. Near her, facing Gadget, was Darla.
Gadget looked Darla right in the eyes just before the mob closed in and someone grabbed her hair from behind. The terrible look of knowledge and grief in the old mouse's eyes chilled Gadget to the bone. Then the mob was all around her and it was like being in the mouth of a wild beast.
Gadget plunged into the almost scalding water headfirst. The water was cloudy with caustic soap and dirty with the grime of that morning's dirty linen. A dozen paws seemed to be at her back, holding her face down in the washtub. Her hide was already scratched and torn in a dozen places by the claws of the inmates behind her and every wound flashed red with pain where the water touched.
The hands dragged her back to the surface. Gadget had gasped and choked a lung-full of air before she realised she was no longer underwater. Her fur was soaked with steaming water that held the heat against her skin. She opened her eyes to look for a way out but the soap stung them so badly she may as well have been blind. As the mob shook her, the water cleared from her ears and she could hear the angry, spiteful voices of the inmates around her.
"Dirty snitch! Clean her up! Clean her up! Dirty Snitch! Clean her up! Clean her up!"
Just as her eyes began to clear someone started to throw soap powder over her and she was blinded again. For good measure, they shoved handfuls of the soap powder down the back of her shirt collar and the front of her pants. Gadget writhed trying to escape but was rushed forward towards the washtub again.
"Help me!" Gadget called out. She jammed a foot against the edge of the tub and tried to hold herself back but the weight of numbers was against her. "Golly, won't somebody help me?"
She was able to snatch one last breath and hold it before she hit the water. This time a bed sheet enveloped her like a shroud as she sank. As she turned, the sheet twisted around her, wrapping her like an Egyptian mummy. It held her legs tight together and bound her arms to her chest as though she was trying to box her way out of it. The sheet covered her face and trapped a bubble of air around her face as her lungs lost their grip on what might be her last breath.
I'm going to die like this, Gadget realised, and perhaps no one will ever realise it's me.
The certainty that she was going to die stole over Gadget and, as it did, it replaced the fear that she might die with a cold and rational calm. She stopped thinking in words. Words were things you used to communicate with other people. There was no need for that any more.
At the tip of her mind was image of a grave with a blank headstone - blank because no one knew what to put on it. It was her grave, marked only so the gravedigger would not waste time trying to bury someone else where she lay.
Gadget twisted in the cotton binding that had become her death shroud. Water was flooding her lungs just as adrenaline had flooded her muscles and panic had flooded her mind.
She remembered that someone's life was supposed to pass their eyes before they died and she was disappointed to find that only snapshots of key moments in her life blossomed in her mind's eye. Being a Rescue Ranger was a dangerous job and she had been near death many times but had never accepted her own as completely as she did now. Perhaps, she thought, it was like someone in a burning building snatching up the family pictures that were closest to hand before escaping. Perhaps the other times she had faced death and come away alive were just rehearsals to help her choose the right picture moments.
Her mother left the house on an errand. Gadget regretted that her last words to her mother were: "See you in a minute, mommy."
A boy mouse had punched her when she was eight. She regretted not punching him back.
She was accused of cheating on a test when she was nine. She had claimed it was a fluke and deliberately flunked the retake. She regretted not proving how smart she was.
Her father waved to her as he left their house that final time, saying that he would be back in a few days. Gadget had been holding a spanner in one hand and a bolt in the other. She regretted not putting them down to wave back.
Chip and Dale tore their friendship apart over her as she watched. Gadget regretted that she had never told them how she really felt.
She clung to those last few memories as though they would keep her afloat in the silent black ocean she was drowning in, but her regrets were too strong. They weakened her grasp on each memory until it came as relief to her when the last image in her mind's eye dissolved into empty darkness and random flashes of light.
In the middle of a night that went on forever, a burning light came into being. The light was red and it was painful to look at, but the only important thing about the light was that it wasn't the darkness. The very fact that there could be something other than darkness made hanging on to the red important, even if it felt ragged and raw.
Something along way away was making a terrible, rasping, bubbling sound. Sympathy for the suffering animal that was making the noise flickered but there would be some way to go before the feeling could be put into words.
A deep sob welled up from somewhere.
Something terrible had happened.
Yes, that's right, something terrible. Now what was it? The thoughts came in words now. Progress.
She couldn't remember what had happened but she knew that she had to do everything she could help whoever was making those awful sounds. That was what you did when something bad happened. Everything you could.
That was why she had become a Rescue Ranger.
Gadget Hackwrench took a long dragging breath. The air felt like a knife cutting her chest open. In fact, the pain was so intense that now she knew where she was, she couldn't rule out the possibility that there really was a knife buried in her chest.
She blinked and tried to focus on the feet surrounding her.
"You near killed her! I say she's had enough!" Molly's voice. Her feet, too.
"What's the matter, Molly? Are you Bubbles' friend or the snitch's?"
"I say Bubbles says what we do with her."
"Sure, why not - let's ask her! I'm sure this little blabbermouth won't go running to the guards asking for protection in the meantime. She can be relied on to keep her mouth shut while we decide what to do with her, can't she girls?"
Molly's reply was drowned out by hoots of derision from the crowd.
"Looks like the girls don't agree with you, Molly." Sheila smiled. "What say you step aside and let us finish this?"
Molly seemed to be giving ground. Her feet took a half step or so back and her voice lost its demanding edge. "Look girls, some of you aren't meant to be here much longer. You want to rough her up; well, fine - she's roughed up! You got what you wanted. Don't put her back into that tub - because if you do, you'll kill her and that'll be murder. That's right: murder, not justice. Maybe not even revenge, cause it was Bubbles she wronged and not any of you, and murder is what they'll call it, too, and murder will keep you here a long time."
Gadget winced at the silence and cringed in anticipation of the mob's reaching paws. Sheila though, had other plans.
"Okay, Molly. If you don't want her back in the tub - we won't put her back in the tub. In fact, we'll even dry her out for you! Pick her up girls!"
Now the anticipated paws did reach for Gadget. They took her by her arms and hair and lifted her up into a mockery of a standing position. Gadget fought to catch her breath. Her strength was returning, but she stayed limp to give her muscles every second possible to recover before trying anything.
Sheila put her paws on Gadget's face and forced her eyes open. "Enjoy your bath, sweetie?"
"You don't care about Bubbles or the twins. Why are you really doing this?" Gadget rasped.
Sheila smiled and leaned in close to murmur in Gadget's ear. "Well, you look great and like I told you: You've got nerve and you're a terrific liar. Add in the fact that you can take Roxie and a couple of rats in a fight and you add up to the kind of competition I can live without."
Gadget tensed and glared. She wasn't being beaten for flunking a test; she was being beaten for passing one.
Sheila continued talking in a voice the crowd could hear. "I saw you admiring our steam press when you came in. Quite a machine, isn't it? Come on girls, let's give her a better look at it - up close and personal!"
Suddenly Gadget was being dragged towards the steam iron that she had indeed been admiring before. After her dunking in the tub there was no doubt in her mind that they were serious. Her heart felt as if it had been cut in two by shear, numbing terror. She started to struggle.
As she reached the steam press she was surprised to find her self nose to nose with Roxie. "Stop it, Sheila!" Roxie pleaded. "This has gone too far. I don't want anyone killed!"
"No one asked you what you wanted and no one's going to ask you. Get out of the way Roxie, or you can start paying off what you owe me right here in front of everyone."
"Please ?" Roxie whimpered.
Gadget caught a glimpse of Sheila striking Roxie with the back of her paw but had more pressing worries of her own. The steam iron was raised ominously and Gadget found herself looking up at it with a feeling of deep betrayal. It was like having a friend turn on her.
Two rodents took Gadget's feet and despite her best kicks they and the two mice holding her arms pulled her body taut between them. Working together the four inmates lifted her up off the dirty floor and positioned her face up on the bench of the steam press.
"Hold her, drat you." Someone said.
"I'm trying. It ain't easy, she's covered in soap."
Gadget was now looking straight up into the underside of the steam iron as it hissed and dripped scolding water. A drop landed on her ear and she yelped. The laundry tub had been filled with hot water but that single drop, no bigger than one of her tears, had been enough to blister and burn her.
The knowledge that she could be hurt and injured, maimed and killed, had always been with her; it was part of her life just as it was a part of every other life. Like most she had hidden the idea of her mortality away in the dark corners of her rational mind, in the hope that she wouldn't trip over it too often. Now she had found that knowledge again and, because it was her heart that had found it rather than her mind, it was a million times more real to her than it had ever been before.
Suddenly Roxie's face was thrust into hers. Gadget could see Sheila holding Roxie there by the scruff of her neck. From somewhere out of sight Sheila's voice came loud and shrill with a scalpel's edge of madness in it.
"Your choice, Roxie! Should we fry her sunny-side-up or over-easy? I'll let you decide."
"I'm sorry!" Roxie's tears fell freely into Gadget's face. Gadget could taste the salt in them. She let the flavour consume her tongue for a heartbeat or two, as though she could taste the apology itself and weigh the feeling behind it.
"Over easy." Gadget whispered a second time.
"Come on, Roxie. I know you're squeamish but you're one of us now. Or would you prefer to be in there with her?"
"Over easy." Roxie said clearly.
"Turn her over, girls." Sheila ordered.
Gadget felt someone change their grip on her arm as they tried to turn her over. It was just what she had hoped for. She thrashed and hauled with all the strength she had left.
Her right arm came free.
The convict that had been holding on to Gadget's right arm fell backwards.
Two more stepped up to take the fallen convict's place but Gadget was already moving.
Gadget used her free right hand to attack the paws of the fat mouse who still held her left arm. The mouse, whose otherwise pretty face was marred by a vicious scowl, had fingers that were too strong for Gadget to dislodge.
The two new convicts reached for her free arm to pin it down again.
Gadget gave up on pealing the iron fingers off her own wrist and snatched desperately at the big mouse's face and hair. Her claws caught the long tangles of the inmate's hair, which Gadget used to drag her close in.
The big mouse took up most of the space and made it difficult for the two other inmates to get at Gadget. They tried reaching further under the iron to get her but with everyone jostling them from behind, most of their effort was spent on not being pushed up against the hot metal themselves.
Gadget pulled the fat mouse as close as possible, until their noses were almost touching, then released her suddenly. The mouse brought her head up sharply and it struck the hot underside of the steam iron with a crack.
Other angry paws grabbed for Gadget but missed. With no one holding on to her arms, the rats holding her feet were pulling her all the way through the steam press and out the other side, whether they meant to or not.
Hungry arms reached under the steam iron after her but it was too late. The rats behind her fell backwards and landed in a tangled heap with Gadget on top.
One of the rats grappled with Gadget. The other rolled clear but knocked down a third rat who had been working the counterweight that balanced the steam iron.
The counterweight made a swift journey towards the ceiling and the steam iron came down on the arms of the convicts who had reached under the steam press trying to catch Gadget.
Gadget wasted no time in biting the one remaining paw that still grasped her. She tasted blood and it brought her a savage satisfaction. She used the moment of freedom to make a desperate jump onto the side of the steam iron. She scrabbled for claw holds as she made her way to the top of the press.
Below her the angry rats had untangled themselves and one was already on her tail, pulling her back. Gadget found the only firm paw-hold she could, the lever that worked the steam button, and held onto it for dear life.
The iron hissed like a snake and belched clouds of steam below her. Screams rose to the ceiling of the room and seemed to circle there.
Gadget felt the rat let go of her tail. She was just throwing her leg over the iron's handle so she could straddle the steam press and plan her next move when suddenly the iron rose up under her without warning.
Both of the rats that had been holding Gadget under the iron, along with the rat that had been working the counterweight and half a dozen other inmates, were all pulling down on the counterweight together. The iron soared and Gadget had to bow forwards and hug the handle of the steam iron to avoid her head banging against the ceiling.
She looked down the side of the iron at the three inmates on the ground and the cluster of inmates surrounding them.
Gadget realised for the first time what had happened below her. The horror mixed with the terror she already felt and spiralled upwards into to some new emotion she had no name for. Dimly she became aware that whatever the mob had planned for her before paled in comparison to what they would do now.
Sheila's voice rose high above the sound of the crowd. "Where is she? FIND HER! Don't let her get away with doing this to ME!"
Sheila's voice cut through Gadget's emotions like a knife. She noted coolly that Sheila was standing at the back of the crowd without a mark on her. Everything she had done was a simple act of self-preservation, yet Sheila saw it as an act of defiance and took it as a personal insult - even as people she probably called friends writhed on the ground in front of her!
Gadget watched for a moment from her high, exposed, hiding place, where all anyone had to do to find her was look up or stand back from the mob. Then she turned her face towards the hole in the ceiling, the only way out of the room that wasn't locked.
The mob was too busy with the injured mice to worry about Gadget for a moment. She used the time to crawl along the steam iron's handle to the hole in the ceiling.
The bicycle cog that held up the back end of the iron blocked her way. There was no way to climb past it without gripping the chain or the cog itself and either was a good way to lose a paw.
To add to her troubles, while the convicts on the right hand side of the iron had no idea where Gadget was and probably didn't care too much at the moment, the group on the left hand side who were working the counterweight knew exactly where she was.
Inspiration struck her and she reached for the point where the power cable fed into the back of the steam iron. The electrical flex hung loose. It had been made with enough slack for the iron to be raised and lowered without the cable being drawn taut at any point. Gadget grabbed the wire now and pulled up armful after armful of slack electrical cable. It was heavy going but she had a plan now and if it worked she might yet get out of this alive.
The iron was being lowered now and Gadget could see people waiting for her with laundry stirrers to be used as clubs. Without hesitation she fed the cable into gap between cog and chain and held it there until it caught and was dragged in.
Gadget was used to that. She let the sprocket teeth hold the cable where it was and began to back along the handle to the front of the iron.
A thrown teaspoon tumbled past her. The mob wasn't ready to give up yet.
The inmates working the counterweight tried to lower the iron but the cable jammed the rear cog effectively. The front of the iron dipped alarmingly but only by an inch.
Gadget felt her self slide backwards. Below her was a dial with the words "Min" and "Max" moulded into the plastic. Next to them someone had badly written in whiteout fluid "Please use a step ladder to adjust the heat setting." She kicked the dial repeatedly until it pointed to maximum.
At the far end of the iron, the electrical cable twitched, then jerked as someone tried to pull it clear of the cog.
Gadget couldn't see who was trying but smiled grimly at their efforts. "No chance." She whispered. She could see where the copper wire had melted itself to the sprocket.
The cable became taut and started swaying. Someone had begun to climb up to the iron. Gadget hadn't anticipated that. She wondered if somewhere a fuse had blown, or whether the power was still running.
Unable to effect the outcome either way, she backed further along the iron's handle until she reached the steam button. Another thrown missile whizzed past her head and she decided her life expectancy would be improved significantly by a smoke screen.
Billows of steam rose around her as she worked the steam button. There were no new screams but an angry face rose over the back end of the iron to challenge her.
"You little idiot!" Molly yelled. "I'm gonna snap your neck!"
Gadget clamped down on the steam button again. The iron was too high to hurt anyone below, she thought, but hopefully it would prevent anyone climbing up the electrical cable after Molly.
"You think I should have just let them to that to me?" Gadget yelled at the mole.
"Do you have any idea what you did down there?" Molly demanded, then swore. "A trip to the hospital, that's all it would have been. Maybe a few scars that would keep you out of a bikini -like they let you out of this place to go to the beach. Now, I have to kill you."
Molly struggled onto the back of the iron and clung to the handle, facing Gadget. She was too far away for Gadget to attempt to knock her off and in any case, doing something violent to one of Bubbles' friends would have been crossing a line.
"You don't have to do anything, Molly." Gadget answered. "Not for Sheila. You should be the one in charge here, not her. You're better than she is."
"Like you think you're better than Bubbles? Nah, I'm not better than Sheila, not when it comes down to making a crowd of people do what I want, and that's what it takes to run this place. I could take Sheila, sure, but not when she's got twenty brainwashed zombies standing in front of her ready to tear me apart." Molly started to crawl towards her.
"That doesn't mean you have to act like a brainwashed zombie yourself."
"You think I climbed up here because she told me to? You're even more ignorant than I thought. I'll kill you with my bare hands but I'll make it quick and painless. If you're half as smart as Sheila and Bubbles think you are, then you'll crawl over here and make it easy for me, because quick and painless is as good as you're going to get from here out."
"You really mean it!" Gadget realised.
Molly made a sound half way between a grunt and laugh. "And Bubbles will understand too, when she gets out of solitary. Probably even thank me for making sure you didn't suffer."
Gadget gave the only answer she could: "I won't let you kill me!"
"We'll see." Molly replied. The mole began crawling towards her.
Gadget was in a bad way and she didn't need anyone to tell her. She was down to the last of her strength now and the exit that she had planned to take, through the hole in the ceiling the electrical cable came though, was now blocked by both Molly and one of the bicycle cogs that lifted the iron. She should have climbed the electrical cable instead of the steam iron to reach it, Gadget berated herself, cursing herself for the one chance of freedom and safety that it now seemed she had botched. Even now she could see the cable swaying rhythmically as someone else climbed it to join Molly in time for the execution.
Molly was almost in arm's reach now and as Gadget cast around for a way to escape she could see only four things in easy reach. There was the steam button, the water hose that fed water into the iron's reservoir, the cog and bicycle chain mechanism that lifted the iron, and lever that worked the steam button.
Gadget worked the steam button one last time. The scolding white clouds hid her from anyone trying to throw things at her at least. As she held the button down with she examined the lever with her hands and watched Molly with both eyes.
The lever wasn't much, she discovered. Someone had simply taken a long thin bolt and screwed it into something that would act as a hinge. She didn't need to think about what she was doing to unscrew it and work the steam button at the same time.
Molly's paws were suddenly around her throat. They were the shovel-like digging paws of a hard-working mole and the strength in them was awesome. It would have been enough to take Gadget's breath away even if the thumbs on those paws weren't crushing her windpipe.
Gadget pulled the bolt free and slid the shaft between Molly's wrists in one smooth movement. She used both hands to turn the shaft until Molly's grip on her throat was broken and Molly was forced to cross her wrists.
The mole pulled back with a snarl but the slope the iron was hanging at was working against her. As Molly pulled away, Gadget lent forward to keep up the pressure.
Molly's arms parted to escape the hold. In that moment, Gadget swung upwards with the bolt, striking Molly under the jaw.
With a look of comical surprise Molly tumbled from the back of the iron into the crowd below.
There was a bellow of anger from the mob and more things were thrown. Gadget hugged the handle of the steam iron, pinned down by the barrage. When she dared to lift her head she saw Sheila grinning at her from the far end of the iron, dangling from the electrical cable.
Gadget brandished the bolt she had hit Molly with, as a warning.
Sheila kept grinning. She took one hand from the cable and reached to her back pocket, from which she took a home made knife the length of her paw. She brought the knife up to her mouth and gripped it between her teeth like a pirate. She never broke eye contact with Gadget, not even when she started climbing the cable again, paw over paw, which is why Gadget was looking her straight in the eye when she put her hand on a piece of bare copper wire.
The chain that raised and lowered the iron must have rubbed through the insulation, Gadget thought later. Whoever made the iron hadn't thought about how the various parts of their invention would fail, only about how they would work. At some unspoken level Gadget resolved to learn the lesson from the mistake of that unknown engineer. She did not know whether she could live with herself if she had to learn it from one of her own mistakes; that would be a savage education. But these were thoughts for a later time; a time when the afterglow of the bright blue spark jumping from Sheila's knifepoint had faded from Gadget's retina if not her memory and the smell of burning fur no longer curled in her nose whenever she heard something electrical buzz.
At that moment, it was all Gadget could do to watch, paralysed and fascinated.
The light in Sheila's eyes, which had been living hate, was replaced by the reflected glow of electricity. Sheila's fur stood on end, followed by her hair. If she cried out the sound did not make it past the knife she still held in her mouth, it's point close enough to the bicycle chain for an arc of electricity to arch between them and throw grotesque shadows of Sheila's rigid body on the clouds of steam.
Gadget, to her credit, shook off her shock, struggled to her feet and ran along the wet and slippery back of the iron to help. The lights dimmed and flickered as she went, making the short journey even more dangerous.
The inmates in the mob below had seen Sheila ascend the cable and disappear in the clouds of steam like someone performing the Indian rope trick. Now they saw those clouds light up like a thunderstorm with Sheila's gigantic shadow jumping and dancing above them all. They watched as Gadget's shadow rose up out of nowhere and seemed to fight with Sheila's.
There was an awed silence. It was as though two gods from ancient myth had suddenly come to life and set to battle on the backs of storm clouds.
Sheila's shadow dropped away as though fatally wounded. Her body fell through the layers of steam and struck the hard concrete of the laundry floor with a splat.
A high shriek from one of Sheila's followers cut through the awed silence like a razor. "MURDERER! SHE'S KILLED SHEILA!"
Gadget heard the yell and gaped at the cloudbank that seemed to have issued it.
It was insane. It was ludicrous. It was unfair!
She was being accused of something she hadn't done, again!
But even then she was quick to realise what had happened. The protective smokescreen she had engineered had turned against her and prevented anyone from witnessing her efforts to save Sheila from certain death. And what wasted efforts they apparently were, without someone on the ground to provide medical attention for the electrocuted mouse and get her heart started again quickly.
Gadget peered down through the mist and quickly estimated her chances of being allowed to perform CPR on Sheila by the angry crowd below. They were poor, she concluded. All that would happen if she went down was that she would be torn to pieces and the people doing the tearing would trample the dying Sheila.
To Gadget's amazement the electrical cable went taut again as several heavy
bodies began climbing it once more. Surely after what had happened to Sheila
no one else - but that was the problem, she realised. No one had seen exactly
what had happened to Sheila - although the flashes of blue light should have
been a clue Gadget thought in irritation.
The cable was soaked with condensation. It was unlikely that someone else would reach the top without getting shocked. Gadget wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
The steam iron began to shake and buck under her. She realised that the people on the counterweight were trying to free the lifting mechanism again. The length of slack cable that she had jammed the cog and chain with was still in place, had in fact melted in places where the sprocket's teeth had cut through the insulation. She was amazed that anyone could touch the counterweight without getting shocked.
Then she heard a voice below shout out: "Heave-Ho!"
They weren't trying to climb the cable, they were trying to pull it loose from the lifting mechanism so they could reach her more easily, perhaps shake her off entirely. As the steam began to thin, she could make out a knot of bodies clustered around the base of the wire. Gadget had been sure that the electrical cable was jammed into the cog too tightly for anyone to release it without the right equipment but surely nothing could resist the mob below now they were concentrated on a single task.
The iron bucked under her like an angry beast and Gadget clung to the steam iron's handle, bracing her self for the inevitable.
The cable gave way with the sound of tired metal giving way to fatigue. Gadget felt the iron jump, buck and swing under her. The back end of the iron dropped four inches and stopped with a jerk.
The mob had succeeded in freeing the rear end of the iron but in the process they had torn the cable loose and now the exposed end of the live wire was somewhere on the wet and crowded floor below.
Gadget gritted her teeth and tried to think of a way out of this that didn't involve getting killed. A stream of dust fell past her face from the ceiling above her. Squinting upwards she saw cracks in the ceiling appearing around the fixtures that held the lifting mechanism to the ceiling. The steam iron swung like a pendulum and with every swing the bracket that held the cog at the rear of the iron came further out.
Gadget held her breath. She didn't want to think about what would happen to the people below if the iron fell without warning.
Steadily, the swings became less wild and it seemed the danger had passed. Then, just as Gadget let out her breath, the ceiling gave way with a roar of tortured plaster and wood.
The iron dropped like a hammer, striking the lower half of the press with a crash like a thunderclap.
Gadget closed her eyes and preyed for the end to come quickly. By doing so she missed seeing the lead counterweight become large, heavy projectile as the breaking lifting mechanism and falling iron catapulted it across the room.
The lead pipes that had balanced the heavy steam iron for so many years slammed end first into the square four-litre mineral water bottle that acted as a reservoir for the laundry's water supply.
The water bottle exploded, its side torn open, and the laundry room was flooded to the height of a rat's shoulders.
The deluge hit the exposed end of the live wire that had been lying forgotten on the laundry floor. The lights of Shrankshaw Prison failed, plunging the inmates and guards alike into darkness.
Ivan the red squirrel had been a prison guard for so long that most people he worked with assumed that he was a grey squirrel. He had been blessed with a long life but had achieved little during his time. He was a creature of habit and had remained a prison guard because he liked following a regular routine. He had ended up at Shrankshaw after he became too long in the tooth to keep up with the young hoodlums they were sending to the male prison these days, which was where he had worked before.
If only someone had warned him that the female of the species is always more deadly than the male. He would have taken early retirement as his old boss had suggested.
As he sat behind his racing form and waited for the prunes to do their work, he hoped that the laundry would be running smoothly when he returned and that there would be no visible evidence of whatever trouble the inmates had needed to work out amongst themselves. It was important, he reflected, to let a natural pecking order develop amongst the population and then make use of it. His first warden had told him that as they watched the closing stages of a vicious, tooth and claw brawl in the exercise yard. Some of the guards had even bet on the outcome, though in those distant days Ivan him self had not begun to gamble.
He remembered the distracted innocence of the new blonde mouse-girl and hoped it would not be a case for the infirmary. Still, it could not be helped, he told himself and at least this way he could get back before they had time to do too much harm to each other and make sure the girl received medical treatment if she needed it. Better that than allow the inmates to find a moment - as they would sooner or later no matter how closely watched - when they could do whatever they wanted and leave the girl to perhaps die of her injuries.
Yes, he reflected. He had done the right thing. Practically done the girl a favour; given her a chance to find out where she fitted into the system. He rustled his paper.
The sound of rushing water filled his ears. Ivan frowned. Surely that couldn't be coming from outside the bathroom?
That was all the warning he had before the tidal wave rose around him. It lifted him from his porcelain throne and carried him away, out of the bathroom and down the hall. It finally deposited him at the warden's feet with the uniform pants he wore to conceal his bald spot still around his ankles.
Ivan looked up at his water-damaged superior and declared without a second thought: "You can take the pension and sit on it! I QUIT!"
Five minutes later Gadget was picking her way through the groaning bodies of her fallen enemies when she looked up and found herself looking Warden Phelps in the eye.
Warden Phelps was as mad as the proverbial wet hen and had entered the laundry room flanked by her deputy, Marion Cedar, on one side and Officer Haggs on the other. Marion looked damp and miserable and had lost her favourite clipboard and pencil. Officer Haggs, true to type as always, had come through the whole thing without even getting her feet wet and was grinning from ear to ear, her eyes glowing with delight.
Gadget looked around her with her hand over her mouth, as though she had said a very rude word in public much louder than she intended. Whether she was looking for a witness to back up her side of events, or just trying to work out how much trouble she was in by the amount of damage done, was impossible to say.
"My office, all of you who can still walk, immediately!" Warden Phelps squeaked.
Looking very much like she would rather be doing anything else in the world, Marion leaned forward and whispered something in Warden Phelps' ear.
The warden blinked. "It appears my office is two levels below the laundry and will probably be partly underwater until tomorrow afternoon." She said. "Right, fine. We'll do this here and now. Who is ultimately responsible for all this?"
Again, looking like she would rather do anything else in the world, Marion leaned forward and whispered something in the Warden's ear.
The warden's face set like stone. "Right, of course. It appears that I am ultimately responsibility for everything that happens within the prison. I'll re-phrase the question. Who actually DID this?"
Gadget finished looking at the damage, swallowed hard and immediately decided that she wasn't going to put her hand up and say: "Please Miss, it was me. I didn't mean to."
Gadget wasn't proud of herself for making that decision but she had enough problems without asking for more trouble. On the upside, at least she could be reasonably sure that she was safe from the other inmates informing on her. If they were willing to do this to a new inmate who simply didn't know the rules and had only crossed the line by accident anyway, surely no one would dare point the finger at her under these circumstances.
Gadget turned to see if anyone else wanted to try explaining the disaster away as a simple accident, or perhaps a figment of the Warden's imagination. Nearly every prisoner in the room, including some who were still face down in puddles and that she had feared were dead, had raised an arm to point directly at her.
"I might have known." Warden Phelps admitted grudgingly. "Well, 24601, you've brought new meaning to the phrase 'seeing Red'. I could ask you how or why you did this, but in view of the fact that you're serving fifteen years for fraud and deception, amongst a great many other things, let's face it: What's the point?"
"Uh, to see if you believe me?"
"No. I know I'm not going to believe you. I'm seeing it right now with my own eyes and I still don't believe it." Warden Phelps took a deep breath and carefully considered the problem of the blonde troublemaker in front of her.
The way Red stood with her head hanging so that her hair - which had surely been auburn before - hid her eyes. The way she looked at her feet with her hands clasped behind her back. The way she rocked backward and forth just a little. It all made her look more like a formally well-behaved schoolgirl who had gone spectacularly off the rails and now feared the dreadful consequences that awaited her.
Was this the evil mastermind that had defrauded so many people across the country in so many daring ways by pretending to be Gadget Hackwrench? It was hard to imagine.
Any moment now, Warden Phelps realised, I'm going to start to feel sorry for her. So will at least some of the other people watching. Well, Marion will. And I'll have to punish the girl anyway and then everyone will hate me for it. In return, I get to spend the next three weeks doing nothing but paperwork in a damp office that smells like wet dog. I get to go before the board of governors and explain that we need all the ironing boards in the laundry replaced because we almost had the world's first surfing jailbreak. And then, most likely, I get to get fired.
Meanwhile, Red would be in solitary - probably the one safe, quiet, dry place left in the whole prison after this fiasco.
For a moment the Warden regretted that she couldn't leave Red with orders to mop up the entire prison single-handed and spend the next four weeks in solitary herself, until it had all blown over.
Hadn't she been a redhead before? That was why they called her Red, surely - or had there been another reason that the authorities weren't privy to? But now the girl's hair was much lighter, and so was her fur. Presumably Red's red had come out of a bottle and had now been washed away along with most of the office furniture.
The thought of the lost office furniture, which would cost a fortune to replace, was a fresh spur for Warden Phelps's temper. But even as she pictured her own high-backed office chair floating down the sewers, she kept in mind that it would be unprofessional for her to lose her self control with a prisoner, especially with her senior staff and half the prison inmates watching. Instead, she dredged her memory and imagination to find the worst punishment she was allowed to administer.
"Officer Haggs. Since this inmate clearly requires special care, you will now take charge of her. I'm making her your personal responsibility. Take her to solitary. I will consider how long she should spend there and inform her of my decision when she is released. If you have any suggestions on how she should be disciplined for this offence I will be happy to consider them. If you have any advice on how she is to be treated in the future, I will be happy to take them under advisement."
Red looked up with eyes the size of marbles.
"BUT - but you CAN'T!" she squeaked.
"I can. I have. Marion, with me." With that Warden Phelps turned on her heel and marched briskly away.
Officer Haggs' eyes shone as brightly as a cat's. She walked slowly, circling Gadget, with a broad satisfied smile on her lips.
Gadget found herself trembling. She had to bite her tongue to prevent herself from babbling anything that would make things worse.
Haggs came to a stop just behind Gadget's left shoulder and put her mouth close to Gadget's ear. "Put your faith in the Lord," she whispered almost lovingly, "because from now on this - " she tugged hard on Gadget's tail " - belongs to me."
"You realise you just gave Haggs cart-blanc in there?" Marion whispered when they were a safe distance down the hall. (A safe distance being quite a long way when someone with ears the same size as their face might be eavesdropping.) "You might as well have declared open season on Red."
"Yes, of course I realise that!" The Warden snapped back at her friend.
"Phyllis, you're being a little harsh. The girl might have been defending herself."
"Harsh be damned." The Warden whispered back. "We've probably going to have to re-fit the whole place."
"You've been saying for years that's overdue."
"Marion, there's going to be an inquiry about this and afterwards I'm probably going to have to go before a tribunal. If I want to keep my job, I'm going to need Margo Haggs on my side. She's got connections and while it's too much to expect her support, she could absolutely bury me if she took the stand and put her own spin on this mess. Until this is all sorted out, I'm afraid that Margo is going to have to be kept happy and distracted. We're going to have to humour her and if that means giving her one particularly troublesome inmate as a whipping boy, then so be it."
"But - I mean, can you imagine what she's going to do to the poor girl?"
"That poor girl has probably hospitalised fifty people. She deserves everything Haggs does to her."
But without wanting to, Warden Phelps did find herself imagining what Haggs would do to the girl and, as her conscience began to bother her, her brisk pace slowed.
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