Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Chapter Twenty-Five: The Gadget Hackwrench Situation
Haggs stopped outside the boiler-door entrance to Shrankshaw and stood in the shadows for a minute of silent thought. She pretended to herself that she was deciding what she should do about what she was now calling "the Gadget Hackwrench situation" instead of "the Jane Doe situation".
The truth was that Margo Haggs had known what she was going to do in an instant, while she was still in the bar with Chip Maplewood. She would not have wished him goodnight with the cryptic advice that "some problems go away all by themselves" if she had not know, in her heart, what she was going to do about her problem.
The problem, as Haggs saw it, was this: Prisoner 24601; Doe, Jane (aka Red), as she was on the records, was actually Gadget Hackwrench, Rescue Ranger. Unfortunately whatever outstanding qualities made her a pillar of the community and a model of virtue and goodness to be celebrated across the whole city had not been presented as evidence of her identity at her trial, nor, in Haggs' opinion, had they been in evidence since. She had whined from the moment she arrived at the prison gate, smuggled contraband, been insolent to the officers who were there to guide her, asked for special treatment, gotten into fights with other inmates, started a riot, possibly killed a fellow inmate in the riot and flooded the entire prison. It had clearly been the job of Margo Haggs, throughout, to provide a firm hand and plenty of discipline.
Sadly, Miss Hackwrench was unlikely to see it that way. Margo's spies and her own keen eavesdropping had already made it clear that Miss Hackwrench had suspicions of who was behind the electroshock treatment she had almost received, not to mention the number of times Margo Haggs had been obliged, strictly in the performance of her duties, to use force on Miss Hackwrench herself. If that wasn't enough, Miss Hackwrench undoubtedly had a soft liberal heart and had spent every spare moment of the last two months in Shrankshaw listening to sob stories from every inmate looking for a willing ear to listen to them. Then there was the matter of that unfortunate interview in the search room, when Margo Haggs had thought she was giving a piece of her mind to an inmate who badly needed correction, rather than a well respected and politically connected celebrity who could be relied on to repeat every word to the first newspaper reporter she came across.
Margo Haggs had known what she was going to do the moment she realised what it meant for her career if Red turned out to be Gadget Hackwrench. She was just pretending not to so that she could enjoy her perfectly clear conscience a little longer, before she became a murderer.
Shrankshaw Prison ran on three eight-hour shifts. The night shift ran from ten pm to six am, the morning from six am to two pm and the afternoon shift from two pm to ten pm. She had been on the morning shift when Miss Hackwrench had tried to flush the entire prison population down the sewer, something that Haggs had to admit sounded pretty reasonable. She had then finished her eight-hour shift followed by three hours unpaid overtime trying to get the cleanup crews organized, after which she had found that dratted lock-pick and the whole world had come undone.
Haggs had never made it home.
By the time Haggs had gone half way across town to visit Jen and learn the truth and then come back it was gone seven in the evening. It wasn't usual for guards to enter the prison by the boiler-door entrance at this time of night but Haggs knew the guard, who would be going off shift at ten, a couple of hours before Haggs herself planned to do anything.
Once she was inside, Haggs made herself busy with the efforts to clean up the prison. The flood had picked up every speck of dirt and, instead of washing it away, re-deposited it in new and interesting places that were often also hard to reach and clean. They would be cleaning for a long time, Haggs reflected, which might well be for the good, since the laundry was out of action and it would keep the prisoners busy.
At nine-thirty Margo Haggs found the nightshift guard who was due to take over the duty watch on the boiler-door gate. She called in a favour, explaining that she was working unusually late and wanted an easy task, and arranged to take over the shift on the boiler-door gate from the guard who had let her in. At ten she relieved the duty guard, explaining in vague terms that didn't exactly lie but did give the impression that the usual nightshift guard would be along in a little while and that she, Haggs, would cover until then so that the evening shift guard could leave on time.
Alone in the guard station Officer Haggs allowed herself two hours of blissful relaxation. Counting her original eight-hour shift, she had been on her feet for a total of sixteen hours. By contrast, she reflected, Miss Hackwrench had been delivered to the prison laundry at ten-fifteen, having needed a replacement uniform for some reason. By ten thirty-five the prison had been in chaos. Haggs had slammed the door of her solitary confinement cell sometime around eleven and by this time she had been alone in the dark for twelve hours.
Part of the reason for Haggs' unusual ire was that no matter what she did after executing her plan (and Gadget) Haggs herself definitely had to report for duty tomorrow morning at six o'clock as if nothing had happened. By that time, Haggs would have been on her feet for a minimum of twenty-four hours and would have another eight hours in front of her before she could go home.
Prison Officer Margo Haggs was more than ready to kill Gadget Hackwrench.
Midnight would be Gadget Hackwrench's thirteenth hour in solitary.
Haggs intended to make it an especially unlucky.
Gadget had been alone in the dark for sometime now. She could hear the other inmates in solitary calling out but not clearly enough to make out words. After a little while her imagination began to play tricks on her and, finally, she realised that any meaning she read into the sounds she was hearing was no more real than a face seen in clouds.
Though mice require very little light to see by, compared with humans, Gadget had none at all. She could not see her paws in front of her face. It was easy to get turned around in the dark and forget where the walls were if she didn't keep in contact with them. That was easy because the cell was cramped. She could lie down in it if she wanted too but the floor was sticky and she didn't like to think why. At the far end of the cell was a shelf built into the wall. She had found it by accident and had a bruise on her knee to prove it. She could sit on the shelf and curl up on her side on it, but it was hard and too short to actually lie down on.
She lost track of time and had started counting seconds but that only meant that she knew how long she had been without a sense of time. She had only noticed after she started to feel hungry. She wondered if anyone would bring her food. She didn't realise that the kitchens were out of service and unlikely to be running again until tomorrow.
She resisted using the thimble-bucket as long as possible.
No one came to bring her food. After Gadget's stomach started rumbling someone down the corridor started yelling complaints, presumably because they hadn't been fed either. Gadget thought it was Bubbles, who didn't yet know about the flood.
Gadget began to wonder if she had gone mad and been kept here for days instead of hours. She pushed the idea away but it came back to her with a horror story told to her by Darla one meal time. A story of an inmate who had died in one of these cells and whose ghost still waited for release, wondering why she had been forgotten. Gadget wondered if such a thing were possible and whether it could happen to her.
When the first tear spilled down her cheek she became angry with herself. She knew better than this. She had survived the special wing and she would survive this. If I'm going to be stuck with my own company the least I could do is imagine something nice like the boys coming to take me home, instead of torturing myself by picturing ghosts, she told herself.
Instantly a very clear mental image came to her of the door to her confinement cell opening and Chip, Dale and Monty standing there, their mouths agape. Gadget blushed. Perhaps she could imagine some clothes too, while she was at it.
The hours wore on. She fell asleep and when she had no way of telling whether she had closed her eyes for a second or for a day. She felt cold and alone.
Then, even more frighteningly, the sensation grew upon her that she was not alone. That there was someone else, someone unseen, close at hand and that they did not belong there. If there had been a little light, would she have been able to see her breath as steam? There was a chill in her cell and it wasn't just the air.
A need to see again began to burrow into Gadget's brain until she moved carefully to the door, one hand held out in front of her to stop her banging her nose, and began to tamper with the guard's peephole.
The peephole was a horizontal slit about a hand-span across that a guard could lift when they wanted to check on an inmate. After one attempt to lift it from the inside, it was equally clear that there was a catch on the outside intended to stop her opening it from the inside. A simple device, Gadget thought, it shouldn't provide much of a challenge.
Although simple, it kept her busy and she began to hum as she worked. Using deductive reasoning that could have taught Chip a thing or two, Gadget worked out that the flap covering the peephole was on a hinge and that there was a twist catch mounted on the bottom edge that prevented it from being lifted. A pin went through the centre of the catch, fixing it to the metal flap.
Gadget considered her options.
The pin was the weak point. It was held in place with a washer and a piece of metal someone had probably bent with a pair of pliers. Gadget sucked air through her teeth. Two seconds with a hammer and a screwdriver, or five with a pair of pliers, and she could open it. Now, if only she actually had a hammer and screwdriver, or a pair of pliers
She spent a moment wishing for her favourite tools. She could actually see where she had left a hammer laying on a workbench before she left her workshop for the last time. The memory almost moved her to tears. She had become careless with her tools, undervaluing them and what they could do.
There was more than one way to solve a problem. There was the slightest of gaps under the flap, not even wide enough to see though properly but she could sniff fresh air through it. If she could just get something through the crack, she might be able to move the catch.
"I ought to grow my nails." Gadget said out loud. She refused to acknowledge the thought that in here, she eventually would.
She pushed at the flap. It didn't give.
Inspiration struck. She couldn't get a claw under the flap to push the catch out of the way and she couldn't knock the pin out or unbend it to make the catch fall off entirely, but she could turn the pin itself. Friction would eventually drag the catch round so she could open the hatch.
Gadget grinned. She liked problem solving.
She took hold of the pin between two fingers and tried to twist it. It was stubborn and refused to turn. She applied more force and the sharp edges of the metal dug into her skin, painfully.
Gadget winced and refused to lose an argument with a bit of metal. She tried to force it and drew breath sharply as the metal drew blood.
Okay, you could win arguments with finesse, too.
She pulled a hair from her head, then another and another until she had enough to make a thread. She wrapped the thread around the pin and then she pulled the thread as gently and firmly as possible.
From the other side of the hatch came the faintest of clicks.
Grinning, Gadget pressed her face up against the hatch to see out. She lifted the flap with her fingers.
A glaring pair of bloodshot eyes blazed at her through the flap, less than a finger's width from her own.
The edge of the sleeping shelf hit her in the back of the knee and she went down hard. She sucked air through her teeth.
Had that been Haggs she had seen out there?
"Uh, hello?" she tried.
Nothing. The corridor outside was deeply shadowed. The corridor lights themselves were out. Light came from a single fairy light at the end of the corridor where the main hallway lights had been left on.
Gadget put her face up against the door again. She looked to the left and the right but saw nothing.
Had she imagined it? The glimpse had been so brief, so startling. Could it be the darkness had let her imagination overpower her senses?
She stepped back from the door and tried to force herself to get a grip.
She couldn't be seeing things. She wasn't crazy. She'd only been here a few hours.
A large, hunched figure hurried across the doorway and disappeared.
"Hello? Who's there?" Gadget called out.
She could feel the fur on her back rising.
It was unbearable. Gadget didn't know whether someone was playing games with her, or she was seeing things, or both.
Gadget's eyes narrowed. The answer was obvious.
"Ratigan." She growled.
"Ah-hahahahaha! 'tis I!" Ratigan stepped deliberately in front of the peephole and capered for Gadget's benefit.
"It had to be you." Gadget growled. "I suppose you're going to deny our last meeting took place? Just like you denied the one before that, when I saw you outside my cell, right before Officer Haggs turned up?"
"I deny nothing. Except possibly that I look anything like the Phantom of the Opera, as you put it." Ratigan pretended to examine the diamond on the end of his cane and hummed gently. "The good officer didn't take it at all well when she thought you were describing her, did she?"
"You were no where to be seen. If you heard that, you were close enough to explain to her."
"Officer Haggs may well be close to me in some ways, but not in others. I certainly wouldn't attempt to explain anything to her."
"So your vanishing was nothing to do with the fact that you aren't real then?"
"Not real? My dear Miss Hackwrench - "
"Gadget. Not Miss. Ever."
"I do believe you still think I am a hallucination."
"That would be the obvious, logical answer. I've been under immense pressure. And the food isn't what I'm used to, either."
"I'm not sure I find the suggestion that I'm some kind of monster from your id flattering." Ratigan allowed himself a nasty chuckle. "To be frank, the suggestion that I'm a case of indigestion is even less so.
"I assure you, I like the idea of you coming from my imagination even less than you do."
"I'm sure. But if you're going to go around supposing that people are figments of your imagination, why stop at one? Why not ten or twenty? Why not everyone, including yourself?"
"Who would be doing the imagining?" Gadget enquired, her voice betraying some interest in the idea.
Ratigan twirled his cane in irritation. "Who cares? We'd all be as real as each other. One dream is as real as the next."
"Don't you mean nightmare?" Gadget frowned. "It was ages ago but I remember it vividly. We fought and I won. I haven't dreamed of you since. In fact, I think I could make you stop visiting at all, if I wanted."
Ratigan looked into Gadget's eyes and his nose wrinkled slightly in contempt. "And if you don't, then you want me to stay with you, by implication."
Gadget hesitated then nodded reluctantly, acknowledging Ratigan's logic.
Ratigan studied the diamond on the end of his cane again then sighed. "Of course, if you allow me to keep visiting and I am just a figment of your imagination, you are embracing madness."
Gadget opened her mouth and for a moment, couldn't bring herself to speak. "I know."
Ratigan looked up from the diamond and allowed his lips to flash a lightning quick smile to the shadows around him. "Are you really ready to let go of your sanity? To surrender reason?"
Gadget blinked coolly at him. "I no longer trust the obvious and logical solution to every problem, Professor Ratigan. The jury thought it was obvious that I was an impostor. The inmates thought it was logical that I was here to spy on them. I think you are more than a hallucination."
"I think someone sent you here to drive me mad."
Ratigan laughed. "Wrong! You don't need any help from me on that score!"
Ratigan assumed his most benign expression. "Why, my dear Miss Hackwrench, I am here to argue a case. To Advocate a course of action."
Ratigan looked her directly in the eye. "I put the case that Gadget Hackwrench is a fool."
Gadget opened her mouth to say something unladylike. She swallowed her words instead.
"Not so much because her nature requires her to be a fool, like that poor Dale Oakmont, but because her heart has blinded her to the harsh nature of reality."
"If you've merely come here to insult me -"
"No insult intended, for who in life does not occasionally allow their emotions to get in the way of their better judgement? The jury certainly did. Twelve creatures of normally sound character and good sense, unable to tell the real thing from a cheap copy." Ratigan's tone would have been well suited to addressing a courtroom. For a moment, Gadget found herself wishing he had represented her instead of the nice but awful Mister Kafka.
"No, Gadget Hackwrench is a victim of vile circumstance." Ratigan continued in a vain that Gadget certainly agreed with. "Not merely in the cruel injustice that has befallen her after her years of selfless service to the community, but in her upbringing."
Gadget's eyes went wide. The faintest suggestion of criticism against her father was enough to literally make her heckles rise, though since she was a mouse it wasn't immediately obvious.
"Consider Gadget Hackwrench, deprived of her mother as a small child, with only her normally absent father to care for her. In their grief, they have only each other to cling on to, the child a comfort to the newly widowed husband, the father a comfort to the motherless child. Naturally the already close bond between them is strengthened."
Gadget could not argue with Ratigan so far, though his words were painful to her because of the memories they inspired. No doubt a jury would have been moved to tears, had there been one.
"And naturally, the father wants to be the best father he can."
"He was. He was." Gadget shivered. What she was hearing had a chilling ring of truth to it. She suspected that she was about to hear a truth she did not want to hear.
"But the more he acted the perfect father, the less he acted like himself."
Gadget blinked. "He didn't have to. He was the perfect father without having to be anything but himself."
"How sad. We'll never know if that's true now. The chance to know for sure has passed. He gave her the very best moral standards he could. All loving parents want their children to have the best. It never occurred to him that if she took the very best ethics completely to heart, she would be at the mercy of a wicked world."
Gadget frowned. The world wasn't that bad, surely? Not that she could see any evidence to the contrary from her solitary confinement cell.
"Blind to the bad in others because she had been taught to believe in the good in everyone. Helpless because her ethics forbid her from using the tactics others would use to protect themselves. Innocent... " Ratigan turned sorrowful eyes on her " yet caged and imprisoned, perhaps for the best years of her life."
Gadget swallowed. Geegaw had also taught her not to indulge in self-pity but still her eyes were brimming now. There was something about hearing Ratigan describing her situation in the third person that seemed to give her permission to feel sorry for herself.
"I ask you now, isn't she entitled to take action? To rise up and address the wrongs done against her? To make Her Own Justice, when all other justice has been denied her? In short, must not we allow HER to rescue HERSELF when she has been abandoned by all others?" Ratigan's eyes were shining when he finished.
Gadget had unmistakeably been won over. She rocked back and forward holding her lower lip.
"Let's put an end to this." Ratigan purred. "Make your plans. Escape this place. Your promise to uphold the law has served its purpose but set it aside now. If it's necessary to make some small sacrifices of integrity, in order to guarantee your liberty in the longer term, so be it. Free your mind and your body at the same time. After all, aren't freedom and justice higher priorities?"
Gadget was shaking. "I already have. I made a deal with Haggs."
Ratigan blinked. "What's that?" he growled.
"She's speaking to Jen tonight and when she's done she'll come back here and release me. But I have to keep silent about everything that's happened in here."
"An excellent choice. No one could condemn you for putting yourself first." Ratigan soothed.
"I've changed my mind. I was weak when I made that promise and since I'm breaking vows and promises anyway, I might as well break this one. There's no way that I could keep quiet about what I've seen in here. I couldn't leave Haggs with the run of this place while Bubbles was in here. As soon as I'm out, I'm going to tell everything to anyone who will listen. Including about you."
Ratigan took a deep breath to begin yelling at her then held it as he slowly turned pink. "Why of all the stubborn " he restrained himself again. "Ah-ha My dear, do you really think that wise? You know all too well what would be in store for you if I were to tell the redoubtable Ms Haggs about your intended double-cross."
"Oh, scary! Well, there's nothing you can do about it, Professor Ratigan or whoever you are. You can't show yourself to anyone out there because you'll get arrested and you can't get to me to do anything yourself because you're out there and I'm in here."
"Is that so, Miss Hackwrench?" Ratigan smiled. He stepped off to one side so that Gadget could no longer see him through the peephole. She craned her neck and changed position trying to see around the corner.
"Is that so?" Ratigan whispered from just behind her ear.
Gadget whirled in the dark. She was alone.
"It's a trick!" She shouted at the air. "You're throwing your voice somehow!"
"Red? Is that you?" The voice was faint and echoing. It came from down the hall.
"You figured out how to open the peephole, all by yourself?"
"Yes. Bubbles, do you see or hear anyone out in the corridor? I could swear there was someone just outside my door."
"Isn't that what you asked me right before Haggs tossed our cell?" Bubbles enquired bitterly.
"I'm sorry. Bubbles I'm so sorry."
"Bubbles, if I could do anything to make it up to you, I would. I'm getting out of here soon. I know I am." Gadget felt tears start to spill down her cheeks.
"Shut up, Red." Bubbles began coughing. "Have you any idea what I let myself be put through to keep your tail out of this hole? Do you know how long I'm going to be in here because of you? I swear, if I could get to you, I'd do more than tug on your tail or box your ears; I'd turn you over my knee. Can't you stay out of trouble for five minutes? Even with Molly and the twins watching out for you?"
Gadget pulled a face. She was going to have to explain about knocking Molly off the top of the steam iron half way through the riot she had started. "Haggs told everyone that you went to solitary because I informed on you." She started.
There was a pause.
"Hey, Char? Is that true?" Bubbles called down the corridor.
Char's reply was inaudible but Gadget assumed it would be a confirmation. Instead, she heard an irritated Bubbles repeat what Gadget had told her. The twins, she remembered, had been separated as much as possible and therefore at least one twin was too far away to hear what Gadget had to say.
Something was said that Gadget couldn't make out and then Bubbles spoke again. "Standing up like that was stupid, Red, and telling a guard that you were pushed into that laundry basket was more so. You should know by now that you have to settle your own scores in here without running to the guards or you look weak, which makes you a target. Still, without knowing who had grabbed you I guess you couldn't just go along with them."
Gadget hung her head. After what Bubbles had done, her approval meant a lot to Gadget.
"What happened after the twins got taken away?" Bubbles sounded worried.
"Surely you heard about it?"
"No. I was in solitary and the twins don't know what happened after they were taken away because, get this, someone had taken them away. Now tell me what happened."
Bubbles sounded firm, yet caring. Like a mother, Gadget thought. Remembering that Bubbles was indeed a mother, one who would not be seeing her children for a very long time, made Gadget intensely uncomfortable. She took a deep breath and prepared to unleash a torrent of words on the unsuspecting world.
And then she paused.
Bubbles would do her best to understand the stream of consciousness that passed for an account of the riot, flood and near murder of Gadget Hackwrench, naturally, but Bubbles had been through a lot, so why make things hard for her? Surely she, Gadget, had a responsibility to a friend to explain things as simply and briefly as possible?
A persistent and annoying part of her brain pointed out that this had been true every time Gadget had opened her mouth since she learned to talk, yet she had never taken the trouble to make her-self easily understood before.
"Well?" Bubbles prompted.
Gadget tried to lay it out in her head before she spoke, as if the explanation was a simple schematic or diagram. "Roxie had gone to someone called Sheila to get revenge for us beating her in the fight."
There was a sharp intake of breath from Bubbles.
"Sheila tested me and decided she didn't like the look of me. First she thought I might be a spy and then she thought I was competition. She stirred up a mob and they dunked me in the laundry vats. Molly tried to put a stop of it but that made things worse. They were going to steam iron me."
"They were going to WHAT?! Are you hurt?"
Gadget winced. In fact, she hurt in many places. Her scalded ear burned, the scratches from the inmates' claws stung and the bruises from the beating ached but there was nothing broken or still leaking fresh blood.
"I'm fine." She told Bubbles.
"Tell me where you're hurt." Bubbles ordered.
Gadget smiled ruefully. Just like a mother. "I have a few cuts and bruises and a burned ear. Plus I feel like I ran a marathon. But that's all."
"You got off easy then." Bubbles sounded doubtful. "Tell me the rest."
"They put me under the iron but I was still soapy from the laundry vats and I managed to give them the slip. I climbed up onto the iron to stay out of their reach." Gadget hesitated. She hadn't really had time to settle down and analyse what had happened in the laundry in her own mind. Now, talking about it was forcing her to confront some unpleasant facts. "I hurt some people, Bubbles. Hurt them bad. I think I put some people in hospital, maimed them for life even. I didn't mean to."
There was a silence.
"I don't think the judge will look too kindly on 'I didn't mean to' as a defence, Red. Who did you hurt?"
"I don't know, even. Just some people who were part of the crowd, they were trying to tear me to pieces and I was trying to get away. I didn't see their faces even. I used the steam from the steam iron to drive them back, and I think it fell on some of them." Gadget replayed it in her head. She was becoming increasingly unhappy with what she had done.
"How bad did you hurt them?"
"Bad enough for hospital, certainly."
"Bubbles, there's more. Did the twins tell you Molly thought I had betrayed you to Haggs?"
"You can leave Molly to me. Once she knows Haggs played her for a fool she won't have a problem with it, hopefully."
"After Sheila stirred up the mob, Molly said the only thing for her to do was break my neck, before anyone else could do anything worse to me."
Bubbles swore again.
"She might have had a point, Red, but don't worry. Most likely they'll transfer you when they're ready to let you out of here. Then you only have to worry about bumping into someone from here who gets transferred after you do, by which time you should have made some friends to protect you."
"What if they don't transfer me?"
"I'll get out of solitary before you will and then I'll talk to Molly and straighten everything out with her. She was probably just worried that the mob would get you, she won't stay mad."
"Um, Molly climbed up onto the iron and I had to beat her off with a spoon, I think."
"You think? You aren't sure?"
"It could have been a Popsicle stick or something else, but I think it was a spoon."
There was a slight pause.
"Okay, what happened after that?"
"I think Roxie might be dead but it wasn't my fault. She touched a live wire when she was climbing up the steam iron to get me."
"Do the guards know that?"
"No, and the prisoners think I murdered her."
"Did you do anything else I should know about?"
"I broke the thing that lifts the iron and it ripped open that big plastic bottle of water they use for the steam and flooded most of the prison."
"Red! You've been kidding me this whole time! What are you really in here for?"
"It's true, Bubbles!" Gadget's own voice reminded her of an honest child, disgruntled at being called a liar for telling a tall tale that was actually true. "I think the flood took out the kitchens."
"You're the reason I didn't get any dinner?" Bubbles sounded as if she was re-evaluating their entire friendship based on that one point alone. "It was cauliflower cheese tonight. My favourite."
"I am truly sorry, Bubbles." Gadget hung her head. "I'm sure it'll be fixed for dinner tomorrow."
"Haggs is supposed to be off shift tonight. She'll be back on shift tomorrow. Tonight I was going to get food that Haggs hadn't added anything to. I haven't eaten anything since she started work this morning and I won't be able to eat anything until she leaves work tomorrow evening. That's thirty six hours, Red."
"She's been tampering with your food?"
"Yes. After what you've been telling me you may have to get used to the idea of losing some weight, too. Not that you weren't thin enough when you came in here. There are going to be a lot of people who want to get at you and who can't while you're in here."
Gadget's nose wrinkled. "I understand."
"I'll try and get something to you every so often, when I get out."
"I'll try and return the favour." Gadget replied. "My letter should reach home in a couple of days and then I'll be out of here. You'll see."
"Oh, Red!" Bubbles' voice was despairing.
Haggs made her way quietly to the solitary cells. She had brought several things with her in case they were necessary, hidden in a bag. She had a set of wrist and ankle restraints that prevented anyone moving their hands away from their waist or taking the smallest of steps, which was used when taking violent prisoners outside the prison. She had a set of sedatives from the special wing. She had the knife she had originally confiscated from Bubbles, which she had shown to the governor and been told to dispose of but had instead put in her staff locker until she could think of a better use for it.
Haggs smiled. She had wanted to bring other things as well. She had wanted to bring a camera; perhaps to photograph Ms Hackwrench doing something compromising and humiliating that would make blackmail possible, or at least furnish Margo Haggs with an enjoyable souvenir. She had considered bringing some highly illegal consumables from the contraband locker that would leave Ms Hackwrench a hopeless addict, easily controllable and entirely useless for the purposes of giving evidence. But photographs could also be used as evidence against a blackmailer and it took time for addiction to really bite. Margo Haggs doubted she had more than a single night to deal with this.
She took out her personal, secret copy of the skeleton key for the solitary confinement cells and opened the door to the corridor. She had stolen her way through the prison up to this point, because she didn't want anyone remembering that they saw Margo Haggs heading up to this part of the prison hours after she was supposed to have gone home, once her work had been discovered. But from this point on, Margo Haggs would stride as though she owned the whole world, people and human beings included.
She turned the lights on with a snap and made her way to the cell she wanted.
When she stood at the door, she took the knife from her bag. The knife's edge was sharp and glinted even in the half-light. It was the same knife she had given to Roxie, that Roxie had threatened Gadget with, that Gadget had taken from Roxie and hidden in her cell and that Haggs herself had found there after a brief search and used as an excuse to remove Bubbles from the cell so she could break the thief in private and find out where her swag was hidden.
Carefully, she put the key in the cell door and unlocked it. She knew a prisoner could kick a door open suddenly and catch a careless guard by surprise, so she unlocked it at arms length and was careful to step back.
"I've got a treat lined up for you." Haggs said. "Come on, let's be having you."
"Oh dear god, not again." A shaking voice said from inside the cell.
Haggs laughed and did not try to disguise the cruelty in the sound as she usually did. She reached out a long arm and, careful to stand where the door could not hit her if the prisoner threw her weight into it, opened the door.
The prisoner shrunk back as far as she could go, trying to postpone the awful moment when Haggs would claim her. All that Haggs could see of the helpless creature was the light glinting in her wide frightened eyes.
"I'll be angry if you keep me waiting." Haggs said. "Kitchens were closed tonight. Perhaps I can give you something to eat in exchange for coming quickly."
A faint sound of disgust came from inside the cell. "What is this? I know you were busy this morning, but you aren't supposed to come on duty again for another six hours at least. You shouldn't even be here."
Haggs snarled. "I've told you before. This is my prison. I come and go as I like, I do what I like and scum like you do whatever I say."
The inmate cowered.
Very slowly Haggs took off her belt. Her every gesture dripped menace. "Come here. You know how."
Shivering, Haggs' victim lowered herself onto the floor and advanced on all fours. Haggs raised the belt as if to strike. The prisoner cringed and Haggs smiled. She looped her belt so that it made an imitation leash and slipped over her victim's head, knowing that she expected nothing more than the same abuse she had already been subjected to.
Haggs jerked the makeshift leash tight. Her "pet" squeaked.
"Follow me, McGee."
From her worm's eye view, Bubbles McGee looked up miserably at her tormenter and hoped that she had the strength for what was coming.
Haggs had chained Bubbles' hands to the badly stained drainage grate in the floor. Haggs found it a good position to negotiate from.
"I've got a great deal for you." Haggs opened negotiations.
"Yeah, right." Bubbles had been in this situation before. She knew better.
"You can get out of here before anyone else in the prison. You can just walk right out."
Bubbles squinted at Haggs' shadow on the opposite wall. Was Haggs wearing a top hat? "You'll excuse my disbelief."
"After our last little interview, I never imagined that I would have to make a deal like this with someone in your-" Haggs made a point of circling Bubbles as if admiring the view "-position." She sighed. "Still, the world presents us with opportunities, doors that open, and with problems, doors that close in our faces."
Bubbles set her teeth. If it came to it, she would do her best to be a closed door to Officer Haggs.
"Of course, you have been presented with a unique opportunity." Haggs concluded her opening offer.
Bubbles waited for the first touch or blow. When it didn't come, she turned her head and tried to look at Haggs again. Oddly, although Haggs had moved and was standing in the wrong place to cast a shadow on the tiled wall beside her, Bubbles could still see the shadow of a rat wearing a top hat on the wall.
"You could be out of here before anyone; the short timers, your friend Red, even me. Wouldn't that be something? Red waving goodbye to you as you walked out the door to freedom?" Haggs embroidered her original offer.
Bubbles tried to squint backward at Haggs. She wished that shadow wouldn't keep moving when she was sure Haggs was standing still and wished it wouldn't keep still when she was sure Haggs was on the move.
Haggs' feet appeared less than an inch from Bubbles' nose. Bubbles squinted at the shadow in confusion. The shadow still seemed to be looking at her from behind, with interest even. Bubbles tucked her tail between her legs, nervously. She was fairly sure there was no one else in the room with her and Haggs.
"I said, wouldn't that be something?" Haggs insisted. She hated being ignored.
"Yes." Bubbles agreed. It was a no-brainer. She would love to walk out of here. To be completely honest with herself, waving goodbye to Red at the prison gate while pointing out she wasn't the only one with a quick way out of Shrankshaw was a deeply tempting fantasy.
"Yes, I knew it would. Of course, the catch is, she wouldn't be in a condition to enable you to actually bid goodbye to her. You see, this offer is only available if you kill her "
Bubbles twitched. KILL RED?? Her mind reeled. WHY? What would be the point? Haggs couldn't even claim the booty Red was supposed to have acquired while impersonating Gadget Hackwrench.
"Red has become a problem." Haggs elaborated. "I can no longer operate in a prison where she is working."
"Working? Working how? Is she doing too much laundry?!" Bubbles had heard exactly how Red had taken out the laundry but every moment Haggs spent retelling the story was a moment Bubbles could think.
"I'm sure someone as smart as her has worked out how to open the guard's peephole and told you all about that by now. After all, it only takes you regular prisoners two or three visits to solitary to manage it and she IS Gadget Hackwrench." Haggs whispered the last into Bubbles ear as though it were an intimacy.
Bubbles assumed Haggs was mocking her, or Red, or both. She looked away from the ear Haggs was whispering into and saw two distinct shadows. One was clearly Haggs, bowed over Bubbles as though they were joined at the hips. The other wore a top hat and was seemed to be a male, standing far enough back to enjoy the show.
Bubbles shivered. This was not right. In fact, it was un-right in a way that deeply disturbed her. "I don't get it. Why would you want Red dead? All me killing her gives you is the chance to hold a murder rap over me. I know Red caused problems today. She didn't know when to accept a low place in the pecking order when she thought she could do better."
"Red's trouble for me. One way or another, she's a bad memory."
"I'm a thief, not a murderer."
"Oh? Well, I suppose I could always find someone who wants to get out of here more than you, if that's going to be a problem for you. Shouldn't be any trouble after today, in fact."
"Then why come to me?" Bubbles challenged.
"Are you trying to talk me out of it?" Haggs snapped back. "If you must know, you have an established motive and you're in the right place at the right time."
"How does my committing a crime for which I am such an obvious suspect translate into me walking out of here a free mouse?" Bubbles demanded.
"It would be more like getting sneaked out of here by me and then spending the rest of your life looking over your shoulder than walking out as a free mouse but you'd have your cut of your last job to help you on your way and you'd be free of me."
"What do you get out of it?"
Haggs laughed. "I get rid of her, McGee, and I get rid of you. Right now, that's all I want."
"I need to think about it."
"Here, let me help you think." Haggs snarled. She took hold of Bubbles' tail and lifted her entire body off the ground.
"Is all that blood rushing to your head helping you to think?" Haggs dropped Bubbles on her head then lifted her up a second time. "Now, what's your answer?"
"Not until I know why." Bubbles resisted bravely.
Haggs hesitated. "Ah, well here it is: Red's favourite little delusion, that she's Gadget Hackwrench? Well, here's the thing. I've done some digging and it turns out she's actually the real thing. Gadget Hackwrench." Haggs looked at Bubbles, watched as the pupils of Bubbles' eyes turned from wide frightened eight balls into to black tiny pin points. Haggs smiled. "Now, wouldn't you like to kill Gadget Hackwrench?"
Gadget had been too far away to hear Haggs' footsteps. From her point of view the lights in the corridor had come on and the guard's peephole had become a bright, punishing shaft of light that threatened to put out her eyes. She realised that her pupils must have grown in the dark until they were like black marbles set in their sockets, just as Bubbles' eyes had been when Haggs brought her in a few hours earlier.
Hearing Haggs' voice sent a shock through Gadget. Their conversation was muted and Gadget couldn't make out the words but the tone troubled her. Shouldn't Haggs be out looking for Jen? Or was it too late at night for that? Had Haggs even been out of the prison since they struck their deal?
Gadget pulled herself up the peephole with her eyes narrowed to slits against the glare and took a deep breath to call out.
Then common sense got the better of her.
Haggs, even at her most benign, would not respond well to an inmate shouting for her attention and if Gadget spoke to her then it would mean pretending that she still intended to live up to the deal she and Haggs had struck. Besides which, Gadget thought, she wasn't supposed to have the viewing hatch open on her cell door.
The door to Bubbles' cell door closed and Gadget heard one pair of footsteps recede, accompanied by an odd shuffling sound. The fact that she couldn't make out what the sound was, or what was happening, bothered her as much as anything else she could put a name to.
Her eyes were just beginning to adjust to the light when Haggs slammed the door at the end of the corridor and Gadget was plunged into darkness again.
"Like falling into a vat of ink." Gadget growled softly to herself. Her eyes would have to begin adjusting all over again. "Where could Haggs be taking her?"
Without Bubbles, Gadget felt lost and alone. She was pretty sure that both of the twins were too far away for her to carry on a conversation with and doubtful about whether they would want to hear from her anyway. That left her standing there, alone in the dark, with nothing much to do but sit back down again or start talking to herself. It would have been funny, she reflected, if it wasn't for the fact that she might be in here for a lot -
Something brushed past her ear!
Gadget spun. Her elbow cracked against a wall. She could see nothing.
There should be nothing there for her to see, the reasonable part of her mind insisted, but since the real reason she could see nothing was that there was no light to see by, could she be sure that she was in the cell alone?
Slowly, almost one by one, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
She edged forward.
"Ratigan, are you in here? Because if so, you can't be!"
Breathing. She could hear breathing. There was another person in the cell with her. She could smell cigar smoke tainted with the tang of something else. Sulphur. Gadget tried to imagine a rational explanation and failed. In fact, her interest in rational explanations was rapidly declining.
There was a sharp crack as the metal flap Gadget had forced open fell closed behind her. Although the sound was not loud, it was sudden and unexpected and Gadget jumped as though someone had fired a gun.
She didn't feel safe turning her back on the empty cell to lift the metal cover again but Gadget forced herself. This time she was unsurprised to find Ratigan leaning against the cell doorframe and pretending to examine the gemstone on the end of his cane. He looked nonchalant, as though nothing had interrupted their conversation at all and they had been chatting amiably the whole time, and he was humming a repetitive little tune that Gadget tentatively identified as "I know something you don't know."
"You were in the cell with me." Gadget accused.
"Was I?" Ratigan asked in tones of wonder and amazement.
"I felt you move past my ear just a moment ago!"
"Are you sure that was me?" Ratigan smiled darkly.
"Who else could it have been?"
Ratigan lit a match for his cigar. The flame lit his face from below with a ghastly, sulphurous glow.
"I hear they tell a tale of an inmate who was murdered in one of these cells. She made one enemy too many and they came for her in the dead of night while she was locked away, perhaps in this very cell."
Gadget opened her mouth to say she had heard this story when Ratigan supplied fresh details she had not heard before.
"They say it was a guard that carried out the grisly deed. The prisoner had struck a deal with her but was planning a double-cross and the guard got wind of it somehow. She got a knife she had confiscated from the very prisoner she was to kill and slit her pretty throat from ear to ear." Ratigan demonstrated on his own throat with a gesture, his grin itself mimicking the wound. "With her own knife."
"Now the girl's unquiet spirit waits for release, not even knowing whether she's dead or alive. She spends eternity telling her self that freedom is sure to come with morning but each night she hears the ghostly footsteps of the guard coming to slit her throat again, and for her, morning never comes."
Gadget's hair was nearly standing on end. An irrational, emotional part of her mind was insisting that a ghost had just told her a ghost story. The stronger, rational part of her mind struggled with it intensely, barely maintaining control. Gadget reminded her self that she had been on edge for days. She was close to falling apart entirely. Even Dale could tell ghost stories, she reminded herself.
"Its not true." She insisted. "It's just a story."
"Look behind you." Ratigan blew out the match and disappeared.
Gadget heard the words and knew.
Something was behind her.
Her breath turned to cold steam as though her heart had literally become a block of ice. She had to turn around and look. There was no other thought, no other ambition in her heart or mind beyond seeing what was there.
Her muscles were rigid, inflexible as wood. Frozen, she knew seeing would bring her no release and yet with every moment she did not the dreadful need to see grew within her, until not knowing was worse than anything that could be behind her.
Gadget turned slowly, trying to delay the moment the last merciful shred of ignorance was ripped away from her mind.
A hunched figure, little more than a bundle of clothes, rested on the sleeping ledge. A dirty, unruly mop of long matted hair hung across the face of the lolling head, masking Gadget's unnatural companion.
Gadget drew a shuddering, terrified breath and wondered how she could have missed the smell. The scent of rotting blood and stale death hung in the air. It invaded her mouth and nose. It made every part of her unclean.
Almost operating with a free will of its own, her hand stretched out to touch the corpse. Gadget knew in her bones there was no hope it would prove to be an illusion but she HAD TO SEE THE FACE.
The corpse twitched.
Gadget became aware her mouth was murmuring the word please over and over again without any prompting or consent from her. Her hand continued to move towards the now reanimated corpse, seemingly of its own accord.
Gadget Hackwrench was no longer in charge of her own body.
The dead thing SAW her.
Gadget heard herself moan.
It stepped forward.
Its lolling head lifted and the gore soaked curtain of hair that had concealed the face and throat parted to reveal a single ink black eye.
Its dripping hand rose to pull back the hair to reveal the lifeless face of the long dead, murder prisoner.
Gadget recognised it and the horror that had taken hold of her swelled and tore its way out of her body as a bloodcurdling scream.
She was face to face with her own corpse.
"Did you hear a scream?" Haggs asked, distracted and, for once, unnerved.
"No, I didn't hear a scream." Bubbles was feeling more confident now that Haggs had released her paws and given her the knife to toy with. "But then you tend to tune that kind of background noise out when you have to sleep here every night instead of behind a desk during the day."
Haggs rounded on her. "I don't recall giving you permission to insult me, McGee."
"Relax, Haggs. We're partners, right?" Bubbles gave her a cheesy grin and flipped the knife end over end with one paw.
"Just remember, I'm still in charge." Haggs growled.
"Sure, anything you say " Bubbles agreed breezily " Margo."
Haggs had turned away and started through the door. She just barely caught Bubbles adding her first name in a sotto voice and felt a hot flash of rage at the implication that Bubbles and herself were now somehow equals. She wanted to stamp on the idea - and on Bubbles - with all the force she had.
Instead she pretended not to hear and carried on. Payback would come when Hackwrench was dead and Bubbles was out of Shrankshaw. Preferably when she was conveniently standing somewhere that her body could be safely disposed of without any difficulty. Next to a ditch, for instance, or on the edge of one of the deeper, faster running sewer-lines.
Margo Haggs had no intention of risking future exposure or blackmail at the hands of someone like Bubbles McGee.
"Are you coming, or not?" The white rat called over her shoulder.
Whistling, Bubbles followed along as if she didn't have a care in the world.
Haggs made her way back to solitary with long, quick strides, forgetting that Bubbles' shorter legs would find the pace difficult. She was used to walking the corridors of Shrankshaw alone, just as she was alone everywhere else.
When Haggs snapped on the light switch at the doorway to solitary and looked around for Bubbles, the little mouse was so far back that Haggs nearly panicked. For a moment Haggs thought the sneak thief had double-crossed her and escaped on her own, ahead of schedule.
"What about the twins?" Bubbles asked when she arrived.
"What about them?" Haggs snapped.
Bubbles shrugged. "Won't they be witnesses?"
"They should be asleep." Haggs snarled. "Even if they're not, what does it matter? The idea is that you do this and everyone knows it was you, only it doesn't matter because you are nowhere to be found. If you do get caught and you end up back here then I'll look after you, we wait awhile and then you make another miraculous escape. It's like I'm your get out of jail free card."
"What if you're seen?" Bubbles asked.
"The viewing hatches on their doors are closed. If they manage to open them they won't see anything unless I walk right past the door. If the noise wakes the up, they'll only see you on the way out because I know how to duck. Just don't you say anything to them to give the game away, or you'll have to do a repeat performance, a what-do-you-call-it? An encore."
Bubbles blinked at Haggs as though she were a small child, unsure of whether an adult was teasing her or not. Haggs could practically see the cogs turning.
"You better not be thinking of double crossing me." Haggs snarled in a low voice.
"Who me?" Bubbles protested. "I wouldn't dare."
"You better not." Haggs poked her in the chest with each word. "You cross me, I'll tear you in two, McGee."
"Whatever you say, Haggs." Bubbles cringed.
At least it wasn't Margo anymore, Haggs noted with satisfaction. "Don't think I won't check to see if she's dead, either. I'm going to be standing right behind you watching everything. After you've done it, you're going to shut yourself back in your cell and wait for me to come get you."
Bubbles' jaw dropped in amazement. "No way!"
"Don't be stupid McGee. It's not as you can lock the door from the inside." Haggs growled. A hallway was a lousy place for this kind of argument. She was painfully aware the cell of the nearer twin wasn't that far away, albeit on the other side of two closed doors.
"All you have to do is turn a key while I'm in there, though!"
"Idiot! How would anyone believe you murdered her without help, if they found you locked in your cell the next morning? This has got to look genuine!" Because, Haggs added in the privacy of her own mind, at least one detective is going to be looking into this very closely. In fact, Haggs suspected that Chip Maplewood would be putting everything else in his life on hold and giving this particular case his full attention for the foreseeable future...
Bubbles looked suspicious. "I don't trust you."
"You can't back out now. You took the knife!"
"Take it back. You want her dead, she's just down the corridor, why not do it yourself?" Bubbles held the knife out with an open paw.
Haggs looked at her carefully. She needed to play this just right. If Bubbles didn't buy it and stopped co-operating then Haggs would be in deeper than ever.
"I don't want to get blood on my uniform." She said carefully.
Let Bubbles think it was cowardice if she wanted to. She'd find out different when her turn came. The truth was Haggs was reasonably sure the only way she was going to avoid being connected to the murder of Gadget Hackwrench was to make sure someone else committed it; someone who could tell no tales and wouldn't be missed.
Bubbles made a noise that could have been laughter or a snort of contempt. Either way she seemed to accept it. "Fine, whatever. Let's get it over with."
Haggs watched Bubbles McGee walk down the corridor towards Miss Hackwrench's cell. The little fool really had no idea what was in store for her, she reflected.
Haggs had planned McGee's disposal in advance. One of the things she was carrying with her was a rolled up sack just big enough to take McGee's body. A guard escorting a prisoner through the prison itself would not attract attention but Haggs wasn't so sure she would be able to walk out the gate arm in arm with an inmate. She would find a quiet spot and tell Bubbles to get into the sack so that she could be carried out of the prison. Bubbles would be heavy but Haggs was sure she could manage the mouse's weight and still be able to carry the ballast she that would make sure sack and occupant sank without trace when dropped into one of the murkier parts of the human sewer system.
Haggs derived particular pleasure from the thought of Bubbles obligingly climbing into the sack of her own free will, not realising that the bag's inside would be the last thing she ever saw.
When Haggs caught up with her, Bubbles had another question.
"I still don't get how people are supposed to think that I unlocked two cell doors, one of them from the inside."
Haggs handed over a key. "Here. This skeleton key will open every door in the prison. I took it from the warden's office when I was helping the clean up operations. I'm going to leave it in the last door we unlock before we leave and make it look like someone swiped it and snuck it up to you in the confusion after the riot and flood."
Haggs shrugged. "What's it to you? You'll be gone. If they make a big thing out of knowing which particular scumbag helped you, I'll bully someone into confessing."
"So how come this mythical accomplice didn't escape with me?"
"Will you stop stalling? I want this over with quickly."
"Okay." Bubbles turned away.
"And make sure you leave something so they know it was you."
"Are you serious? Like what?"
"A bloody paw print on the wall, some of your hair under her nails, that ought to do it." Haggs rubbed her eyes.
The key trembled in Bubbles' hand. Truth be told, she was scared to hell. She reached out and unlocked the cell door. She opened the door a crack and peered through. Red was silent. Was she sleeping? Bubbles peered into the dingy cell and tried to make out the form within.
Something was wrong in there.
Bubbles slid through the half open door like a cat slipping into a shadow.
Haggs watched her go and shivered. She wasn't a murder, Haggs told herself, and she wouldn't be one even when Bubbles returned, job done. Bubbles would be the murderer and when Haggs gave her the end she so richly deserved, it would be nothing more than an execution, albeit an unofficial one. The thought of herself as an executioner rather than a criminal was reassuring one and eased her mind considerably. There was, Haggs reflected, such a thing as natural justice.
Bubbles emerged from the cell. She looked Haggs straight in the eye with a resigned and cynical air.
"Is it over?" Haggs demanded. "I didn't hear anything."
"Yeah, I did my part." Bubbles said. "But someone else let us down."
"What are you talking about?" Haggs snarled.
"Red stood us up. She's not in there."
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