Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Stormy Goodbye
Chip felt as though he had stepped through the looking glass into a nightmare world where good and bad were their opposites and nothing made sense. Worst of all was the suspicion that the world had been like this all along and he had just never seen it before. Admittedly, the humiliation of standing in handcuffs while the Streetwatch roused his friends to explain the situation - or their interpretation of it - came a close second.
He couldn't actually see the eyes and other sensory organs of his nocturnal neighbours soaking up the drama that was unfolding but he could certainly feel them on him. He hoped that Monty would get here soon and be able to sort things out. He had made a stab at explaining things to the uniformed chipmunk but the trouble was he was facing a crisis on three fronts.
The first thing he had to contend with was the false but undoubtedly sincere accusation of attempted murder from the Streetwatch patrol he had blundered into. Chip had taken a stab at trying to explain the situation but quickly found himself floundering in exactly the way he had heard a great many guilty people flounder when caught red-pawed. The fact that he really didn't have an explanation didn't help matters.
The second was his own, genuine, concern for Dale's health. Dale was the oldest friend he had and though he could not believe that Dale would not recover from this, as he had from everything else that had ever happened to him, the sight of him suffering was deeply upsetting. The Streetwatch were, perhaps understandably, refusing to let Chip anywhere near Dale, let alone check on his friend's state or administer first aid.
The third but irresistible force acting on Chip was the desire to find the solution to the mystery before him. Dale had been clunked on the head, nearly killed, and concealed in a rubbish sack in Gadget's workshop. Gadget had been the last person to see Dale, from what Monty had said when Chip met him in the hall. The front door had been ajar when he reached it, which meant there could be a stranger in the tree house. The alternative was that everyone in the headquarters that evening was a suspect. He didn't want to consider that.
He tried his luck with the young squirrel who had challenged him. "Hey, search the tree house, would you? The door was open when I got to it. There could be an intruder."
"Oh, so there's an intruder now, is there?" The squirrel replied mockingly. Her torchlight hadn't left his eyes since the chipmunk patroller had ordered him cuffed.
"Just ask your boss, would ya?"
"I heard." The chipmunk's gruff voice sounded behind him. "We've got probable cause, so we were fixing to search the place anyway, and I already knew about the door. Saw the crack of light from the ground before we came up. If there's anything or anyone where they shouldn't be, we'll find out about it and lay it all out in front of a judge bound up in pretty red tape."
"Darn, I hope I don't sound like you when I'm dealing with a suspect." Chip spoke distractedly, without thinking.
"If we don't find an intruder in there, you'll be able to ask some of your old suspects in person." The chipmunk replied before turning away to greet Monty.
Monty had come to the door dressed in a long, cheese-stained nightshirt and a nightcap. Though still huge and looming in the doorframe, the nightshirt made it plain the bodybuilder had long run to seed and Chip doubted any of the patrol was intimidated. The sight of fluffy caterpillar slippers on the Australian mouse's feet crushed his last hope that Monty could re-establish the Ranger's authority over the situation.
"Wha's 'appen'ng?" Monty asked drowsily. "Is it a rescue?"
"Kinda." The chipmunk patroller said. "You might say we just rescued somebody."
Monty's eyes went wide and his jaw slack as the torch shone down on Dale's helpless, inert body.
"Dale! My little pally! Is he gonna be alright, Watcher?"
"Winterstore. Patrol Leader Winterstore." The chipmunk identified himself.
"I'd been meaning to ask your name." Chip said from where he was being held against the bark of his own tree. "Monty, meet Patrol Leader Winterstore, Patroller Hazelleaf and Patroller Ramon. Ramon is the lizard they sent to wake you. Someone called Joey has already been sent to get reinforcements from the local Headquarters. Hopefully that will include someone with medical experience, since they won't let me do anything for Dale, and someone bright enough to know they've made a BIG mistake."
Monty scratched his head, blinking into the darkness where he could hear Chip's voice coming from. "What mistake might that be, Chipper?"
There was a short silence while everyone digested the words.
"Ah-ha." Chip tried to laugh it off as the true explanation filtered into his already shock-overloaded brain. "My friend's eyes haven't adjusted to the light yet, so apparently he can't see that you have me in CUFFS and pressed up against the side of my own home."
"Cuffs? Are you saying Chip did this?" Monty asked in a disbelieving voice.
"Ah ha, Mister Jack, is it?" Patrol Leader Winterstore scratched his head. "I'm afraid we came on Mister Maplewood - " There's still some hope of straightening this out if it's still Mister Maplewood, Chip thought desperately " - about to drop this sack containing Mister Oakmont off the edge of the balcony. He CLAIMS he had no idea how Mister Oakmont got in the sack."
Monty blinked, bewilderedly. He was crouching next to Dale, patting the chipmunk's paw in an effort to stir some signs of life. "Could it have been a practical joke?"
Winterstore looked over at the young gecko and raised an eyebrow. "A practical joke sir?"
"Dale loves playing jokes. Got a terrific sense of 'umour, the lad has. Doesn't know when to quit." Monty seemed to be preparing a eulogy.
"Mister Maplewood also seems unable to account for Mister Oakmont's head injury." Winterstore added.
"Head injury?" Monty asked in a far away voice.
"Look for yourself." Winterstore shone his torch on Dale's head, allowing Monty to examine the wound.
"Chip - !" Monty strangled what he was about to say. Instead, he asked a lesser question. "Chip, did you do this to Dale?"
Chip felt the fur on the back of his arms rise. It wasn't the sort of question a person asked unless they already believed the answer was yes and wanted to hear otherwise. If Monty believed this of him, what chance did he have of convincing anyone else?
"No! Of course not, Monty! They need to search the house. The door was open when I got to it. I thought Gadget left it open when she went to visit her friend. Someone else may be inside." Chip insisted furiously.
He could feel part of his own brain standing back and watching his performance dispassionately. He recognised it as the part himself he thought of as Sureluck Maplewood, his own internal consulting detective.
Where were you when I needed you? Chip demanded.
Tch, I don't know. Sureluck answered. The evidence is pretty steep, old boy, and you sound guilty even to your own ears. Maybe you should confess now and the boys and I will go easy on you for old times sake
Monty carried Dale to the nearest bed and the two young patrollers went off together to sweep the house for Chip's mythical intruder. It would look bad for him if they didn't find one, Chip admitted to himself, and now he had time to think about it, he doubted they would.
The whole situation was beginning to look like a skilful and deliberate frame up designed specifically to take out the Rangers. Chip considered the possibility that the Street Watch were behind the plot and didn't like how good it sounded. There were some ambitious, political types in the Street Watch, which had been competing with the Rangers in this part of the city for a couple of years. But Chip didn't see Patrol Leader Winterstore as anything other than a genuine, hard working patroller and the rookies didn't fit into the picture of a Street Watch frame up at all. Better to use experienced people who were in on it right from the start. Rookies might foul up carefully planted evidence or miss the whole set up entirely.
That left the possibility of an intruder, which wouldn't be a random sneak thief. They knew better.
Chip bounced his forehead gently against the trunk of the tree.
An intruder capable of entering the Headquarters undetected, knocking out Dale before he could raise the alarm and then concealing all evidence of their visit, including Dale's unconscious body, so well that nobody noticed a thing. That suggested a trained professional, probably hired by someone who wanted something badly, possibly Dale nearly dead and one of the other Rangers blamed for it. If that was the case the culprit would probably be out of town by sunrise and only Dale could say what he looked like.
Dale didn't look like saying anything before sunrise, if he ever spoke again.
Alternatively, someone had left the door open and an opportunist had entered the house from some unknown strong personal motive, been surprised by Dale, clunked him and hidden him in the first place they could find before fleeing the scene unnoticed through blind luck.
Gadget had been known to absentmindedly leave the front door open but never at night. Chip conceded he had been distracted this evening but Monty hadn't and he had been actively searching the tree for Dale.
Not an opportunist then.
Chip ran through a list of professional crooks capable of this kind of job. There weren't many and none he knew of in the city at present. Two were dead, Chip knew for certain. The Rangers had put another in jail and had he escaped Chip would have been told immediately. Only two others remained; one was in Europe and the other had been missing for five years, probably dead or retired. Chip considered both before reluctantly dismissing them.
Without an intruder Chip was left with the people who were in the house, including himself, and the bizarre possibility put forward by Monty: That Dale had climbed into the sack to play a joke and had received his head injury while inside it. Chip could picture it, but Monty hadn't known about the practical joke Dale had already played this evening, with a little assistance from Gadget. It had been a doozey and not even the red-nosed clown would have been foolish enough to play another prank on Chip that evening.
That left one of them, a member of their little "family".
Zipper lacked the strength to put Dale in the sack, even if he had managed to lift something heavy enough high enough to cause this kind of damage to someone a dozen times his size.
Monty had been genuinely shocked when he saw Dale on the porch. The stories that the big mouse told had more fibs than Gouda had holes. You'd think his fibs would improve with all the practice he gets, Chip thought irritably, but I can always tell and Monty wasn't faking when he saw Dale.
Chip knew he hadn't done it and that brought him to Gadget by a process of elimination. Sure, Gadget had a temper, but if Chip knew one thing it was that Gadget and Dale had been on the best of terms tonight.
Chip looked sideways at Sureluck Maplewood, who was whistling with his feet up on his imaginary office desk.
I could use some help here, Chip prodded.
Nobody here but us figments of your imagination, Sureluck responded.
If I go down, I'm taking you with me! Chip imagined himself snarling back.
Sureluck waved him off with a haughty, unconcerned air. It's not like I didn't try to warn you but you just wouldn't listen.
Warn me? Chip raged at him. When did you try to warn me? You said nothing!
I can only say what you care to imagine me saying, old boy. If I could speak up any time I pleased, you might have an insanity defence.
"I ain't crazy." Chip said sullenly.
"What's that?" Winterstore demanded with sudden interest.
Chip started. "Uh, nothing. I was just thinking aloud."
Winterstore looked at him carefully. "Right." He drawled.
Chip scowled and returned to his thoughts. He didn't notice when Winterstore scratched another note in his notebook.
Now see what you made me do! He berated Sureluck. What use are you, anyway, you and every other fictional detective? You sit there looking smug, like you've skipped to the last page and already know all the answers when really you haven't got any more of clue than me!
You just don't get it do you? Sureluck shook his head at Chip, sadly. You're right, dear boy, I only have the same clues you do. The answer's staring you in the face but you just won't let yourself see it.
See what? Chip raged.
It's like a blind spot you've made to blot out everything to do with a certain lady because there's something about her that scares the wits out of you, Sureluck explained.
Great, now I'm being psychoanalysed by a figment of my imagination, Chip sneered. Maybe I should go with that insanity defence after all.
Maybe you should. Now, if you don't mind, Doctor Blotson and I have dinner invitation.
But what about me, I mean us? Chip pleaded.
You got yourself into this. Now you'll just have to get yourself out.
Chip gave up on the imaginary conversation. The scene was based on part of a short story where Doctor Blotson had boasted that he had learned all Sureluck Jones's methods and become just as good a detective as he was. Jones had put him in his place by "arranging" for Doctor Blotson to be landed with a mystery Jones's own devising. Chip wished the mystery in front of him could be resolved so easily, but Dale's injuries were quite real.
Ramon, the lizard, returned and reported the intruder free status of Ranger Headquarters. Winterstore turned a pair of cold, hard eyes on Chip and began to ask a litany of pointless, irritating questions that Chip hated to admit that he would have asked too, had their situations been reversed.
Chip answered the questions mechanically, knowing that it would only lead inexorably to the point where Winterstore, out of questions and ideas, would say that he was sure that all this could be cleared up down at the stationhouse.
A doctor arrived for Dale and followed by two detectives who repeated Winterstore's list of questions with a few new ones of their own thrown in. Chip carefully gave the same answers, deliberately varying his choice of words so that it didn't sound like he had rehearsed his answers.
In the end the detectives closed their notebooks and went to carefully look over what they were now calling the crime scene. Chip looked at the strangers bustling through his home as though it had become a public place and wondered if it would ever feel like home again.
"Mister Maplewood?" A young voice sounded behind him.
Chip looked up into the face of Patroller Hazelleaf. She looked a little sorry for him, perhaps even disappointed. Perhaps she had looked up to him before this, even considered him a role model. Dear Lord, this was going to hurt so many people if he couldn't find the truth and expose it before too much damage was done.
"Its time for us to take you to the stationhouse." She motioned for him to stand up.
Numbly, wondering how the world could turn upside-down so quickly, Chip stood and allowed himself to be lead away, past the crowd of neighbours. As he went, it occurred to him for the first time to wonder what Gadget would think when she heard the news.
Dale found himself sitting on a bench in a waiting room. He wasn't sure how long he had been waiting but apparently it was long enough that he had forgotten what he was waiting for. He looked up from the thumbs he was twiddling and glanced around the room. There was an old chipmunk dressed in rags sitting at the far end of the bench trying to look like he wanted to be left alone. There was a young mouse in a ballerina costume practicing pirouettes, apparently unsupervised in the middle of the room. The room itself was large, well lit and airy and whoever had done the decorating had gone overboard with the colour white.
White, Dale remembered, was not strictly a colour but merely a combination of colours. Despite the fact he could never mix it with his paint set, no matter how many colours he used. Dale frowned. It wasn't the sort of thing that would have occurred to him normally. It sounded like the sort of thing Chip would say. Dale looked around for Chip.
Chip wasn't there.
In fact, no one Dale knew was present and, since none of the few people who were there seemed very interested in conversation, Dale looked for a comic book or even a magazine to read. There weren't any. Not a one.
Even the crummiest waiting rooms had a few old magazines! Dale thought to himself and turned to the old chipmunk instead.
"Uh, excuse me." Dale started.
"You aren't going to tell me your life story are you?" The old chipmunk asked suspiciously.
Dale blinked. "Why would I want to do a stupid thing like that?"
"You haven't got a box of chocolates hidden anywhere about your person, have you?" the old chipmunk raised a walking stick threateningly.
"Uh, why? Did you lose some?" Dale asked uneasily. It wouldn't be the first time chocolate went missing and everybody automatically blamed him.
"No! I didn't lose any and I don't want any. Why every darn fool thinks he's entitled to tell you his whole life story just because he's offered you a chocolate I don't know." The chipmunk seemed to have retreated into a world of his own.
"I just wanted to know where we are." Dale said quickly.
"What kind of a fool question is that? We're in the waiting room, of course! Where did you think you were? The bathroom?" The chipmunk stood up suddenly as if he had just remembered something and hobbled away on his stick.
Dale watched him go until a flicker of motion caught his eye. The little mouse girl in the tutu had come up to him and was staring at him with an expression of delighted interest. Dale flicked his eyes right and left to see if there was someone else who could help him here but next nearest person was an old shrew woman who was knitting with intense concentration in one corner of the room.
"Do you know why we're all here?" the little girl asked breathlessly.
"Uh, no. I don't." Dale answered defensively. Did she want to make something of it?
"I know why I'm here." The little girl sighed with exaggerated melodrama.
Dale tried to think of an answer the child wouldn't need to reply to but couldn't think of one immediately.
"Why is that?" He asked.
"I fell off the stage." She whispered as if telling a secret and then stood there with her hands behind her back, waiting for his reaction.
What did she expect from him? Dale's instinct was to say: "That was a pretty silly thing to do." But that might make her cry and he didn't want to do that.
"You fell off the stage?" he repeated thoughtlessly.
The little girl nodded solemnly.
"Oh." He looked sad.
"Do you know why you're here?"
Dale blinked. He realised he hadn't the faintest idea.
"No." He admitted. "Do you know why I'm here?"
"Uh-uh." The child shook her head. "Try to remember. When you remember why you're here, I bet you'll know where you are." She confided.
It sounded like a good theory to Dale. He nodded. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." The little girl pirouetted away.
Dale watched her go then frowned. What was he doing here? He couldn't remember. The little girl had been in an accident. Was this a doctor's surgery?
"Mister Oakmont? Dale Oakmont?" a clipped British accent came from beside him.
Dale looked up in surprise. He hadn't noticed anyone come in. "Uh, I'm Dale Oakmont. What can I do for you?"
A tall mouse with light tan fur, dressed like someone from one of Chip's detective stories, was standing next to him and holding a clipboard. He smiled. "Excellent attitude, but I'm actually here to help you."
Dale scratched his head, which had been bothering him lately. "Well, you've been doing a pretty poor job so far." He opined. "I can't remember where I am or why I'm here or anything and this waiting room doesn't even have any comic books."
The mouse looked affronted.
"Comic books?" he repeated, as though the phrase was from a foreign language. "Ah ha. Indeed. Well, we'll have to see what we can do about that." The mouse made tick on his clipboard as though there were a checkbox next to the words "Comic books".
"Are you a doctor?" Dale asked.
"A doctor - good heavens, no! Though I have a very good friend who was in the medial profession and I have a little talent for anatomy. I'm just here to make sure you get back to where you belong."
Dale scratched his head and scowled. It was really itching, like a scab that was ready to come off. "Where I belong? Where's that?"
"Why, back at Ranger Headquarters, with your friends, of course."
Dale scowled. "Ah, phooey. I'm not going back. They don't need me there anyway."
The mouse looked at him with alarm. "Er, well I - that is to say, I mean See here, you simply must go back! Why, we can't have you cluttering up the place forever! Um. Well, technically we can, but don't you want to go back to your, er, comic books?"
Dale thought about it and didn't find the idea as alluring as he had expected. "Ah, I've read them all fifty times already. Except the latest Kablammo Man, issue ninety-seven, I only got that last week so I've only read it a dozen times or so."
The mouse looked even more alarmed. "Mister Oakmont, have you considered what may happen if you don't go back?"
"Ah, they don't need me. I'm a goof up and a clown. All they do is get annoyed with me and shove me around." Dale folded his arms and sat back as though he considered the matter closed.
The mouse sat beside Dale and nervously glanced sideways at him from time to time. "Get annoyed with you, do they? Shove you around, ay? I can see why you'd get tired of that. Still, I dare say everyone feels like that sometimes. Just have to soldier on and that's all there is to it."
"Ah, you don't know anything about me." Dale dismissed him.
"Offhand, I know only your name which you have admitted, that you like comic books which you have told me, that you are good with children which I have seen for myself, that you exercise regularly, are left handed, have a vivid imagination and like chocolate."
Dale looked sideways at him. "You're a detective?"
"I was, in my own small way."
Dale rolled his eyes heavenwards. "Great. Another detective. What did I do to deserve this?"
"You know a detective?"
"My best friend thinks he's a detective." Dale complained.
"Thinks he is? You mean he's mistaken?"
"He thinks he's a great detective just because of some stupid hat he found. Do you think he'd consider me a great detective if I found it first?"
"A hat? A hat doesn't make a detective. Why, I had some of my greatest triumphs without a hat on my head. Of course, if a fellow has a few successes in a particular hat, he might get attached to it. Ha-ha, no harm in that. I suppose that if someone were to be very successful, and they wore a particular kind of hat a lot, people might just remember a man in a hat and his triumphs and forget the details. People are like that." The mouse sounded defensive.
Dale said nothing.
"Er, if you don't mind me asking, what kind of hat is it?"
"A FEDORA?" Thundered the mouse. "What kind of a detective wears a fedora, I ask you? Fedoras are ten a penny, no distinction at all."
Dale looked at the mouse in amazement.
The mouse saw his expression and stopped. He looked embarrassed. "Well, I suppose there have been a great number of detectives since my day."
"Who are you, anyway?" Dale demanded. "What do you want with me?"
"Forgive me, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Basil and I want to help you to get home before you forget the way."
"I already forgot the way. I can't even remember how I got here." Dale complained.
"What's the last thing you do remember?" Basil enquired with sudden interest.
"I was sitting down and watching television with Monty and we'd just seen the end of a two-part story. For some reason they weren't going to show the second part and Monty said we'd just have to make it up for ourselves."
"Television. Yes. Never seen it myself, of course." Basil said dubiously.
Dale looked astonished. He thought everyone had seen television.
"Go on, what next?" Basil asked him.
"I realised something important and stood up. I wanted to draw something. There had been a crime. A crime where two people looked the same and one of them was bad and impersonating the good one."
Basil started. "Indeed? And you discovered this crime?"
"It was in a comic book but I wanted to solve it. It had been left hanging because they stopped printing it halfway through a serial."
"A comic book? I say, I thought you'd found out about - never mind." Basil looked as if he'd just made a stupid mistake. "I hate it when they do that with a serial, don't you? I never could work out who killed Edwin Drood, I had to wait until I met the author to find out."
"I wanted to draw an ending for the story so I went to get paper." Dale was remembering now. "I knew Chip was in a bad mood because he had some case he was working on that didn't make sense to him."
"Did he tell you about it?"
"Yes, earlier. He said he knew he had all the right pieces but no matter how he tried to put them together he couldn't understand the picture they made."
"I see. Well, sometimes the eye sees but the brain gets in the way." Basil said.
"Eww. That sounds like something out of a horror movie." Dale told him.
"Horror movie? Never mind, you were telling me about what happened after you decided to draw a comic book."
"I went to get paper and I knew Chip was in a lousy temper, so I went to borrow it from Gadget instead. She was mad at me for interrupting something she was working on, not an invention like usual, but something she was writing." Dale frowned. "It's hazy but she said something that didn't sound like Gadget and I got a crazy idea "
"Go on." Basil smiled kindly.
"I got the idea that maybe it was like the case of the criminal copy where there was an impostor who kept getting mixed up with the real hero, and somehow we had gotten stuck with the wrong one. But that would mean the real Gadget was the one who got sentenced to fifteen years in jail and that doesn't make sense, because Chip told us she had been gagged when he went to see her because of the awful language she was using and that she'd started a riot, which sure doesn't sound like our Gadget to me. You'd know if you'd ever met her."
"Not in this life time, sadly." Basil smiled again.
"But then when I'd decided I must be imagining things I got some scrap paper out of the waste-bin and read some of what she'd written." Dale jumped to his feet as the memory hit home. "Oh my gosh! She really WAS Lawhiney! Do you know what that means?"
"That you have to go back to your old life so you can tell everyone?" Basil stood up as well with a hopeful expression.
"No, it means Gadget must know some words a lot stronger than 'Jeepers' and 'Golly'! I just can't imagine her saying them!" Dale stuffed his paws into his mouth to stifle the giggles. "What words to you think she knows?"
"I really couldn't imagine." Basil said dryly. "What happened after that?"
"She hit me over the head with a large lug wrench. I think it was Gadget's favourite. The one her father used."
"And now do you know where you are?"
Dale looked around him as though he had just woken up for the first time. "I'm the in-between place aren't I? The one where you wait to see if you live or die."
"That's not quite what we call it around here but that's what it's for, yes." Basil nodded and placed an arm around the chipmunk's shoulders so he could gently steer him towards the exit. Dale allowed himself to be led out of the waiting room happily.
"Is this going to be like one of those clip shows on TV where they save money by having the hero in a hospital bed and someone dressed in white shows him clips of the old episodes? Do I get to see the bit where me and Chip put on dresses and did the Fat Cat stomp? Because it was really funny to see Chip in a dress!"
Basil gaped at him. For a moment Dale thought he was going to try and hide behind his clipboard.
"Um, that wasn't quiet what I had planned." Basil said. "I was going to show you a few bits of what might happen if you don't go back. Try and convince you the world is a better place with you than without you." He explained after a moment.
Dale looked disappointed. "Oh, well I guess that's cool too. Say, if we're going to visit the future, could we swing by the lottery stand to see what next week's winning numbers are? I'd sure like to win the lottery and get a proper library for my comic books."
"We'll see." Basil said in that careful grown up way that means 'No'. "Now if you'll just follow me, young fella, I have our whole tour well planned."
"What do we get to see first?"
"I believe we'll see your friend Chip stand trail for your murder."
"That sound's plenty funny. I'm going to enjoy that. Can we fast forward through the boring legal stuff?"
"I'll try." Basil promised, wondering what fast forward meant. "Then I thought we might stop in on young Tammy and see what happens when someone of that impressionable age has their heart broken and their faith in their role-model destroyed at the same time. After that, I thought we might visit that bat whose letters you never return. It's very difficult to write a letter when you don't have any fingers, by the way."
"Ah, I always mean to write back. I just never seem to get around to it."
"Perhaps you should find the time when you go back. Oh, and for our big finale I thought we'd visit Gadget."
"Yes, see what her world will be like with Chip in jail, you dead, and everyone thinking she was the cause of their fatal argument."
"That's crazy! We fight all the time but it's not her fault. It's not like she makes us quarrel."
"But you do fight over her." Basil pointed out carefully.
"Well sure, but that's because she won't tell Chip she likes me best and Chip won't see sense and back down!"
"I see - oof!" Basil had walked into a smaller figure, a robed mouse who had been hurrying back and forth across the corridor, looking at the numbers on the infinite line of doors that stretched all the way to the vanishing point.
"Oh, excuse me. I was looking for room fourteen thousand and - You!" The robed figure exclaimed.
"YOU!" Basil was aghast. "What are you doing here? You're supposed to be watching Lawhiney!"
"Hey, don't I know you?" Dale said staring at the short mouse with the ginger moustache.
The mouse stared back at him. "Oh, drat! Did you die after all?"
Basil ignored the interruption. "Hackwrench, you're supposed to be on hand at the moment of crisis! Without you Lawhiney doesn't stand a chance!"
"GEEGAW! You're Gadget's DAD! Wowie, it sure is an honour to meet you, sir!" Dale tried to make his best impression. "Say, do you mind if I ask how do you feel about cross-species dating?"
Geegaw did a double take at Dale that would have made a silent comedian proud. "You aren't my type!" he snapped.
"NEVER MIND ALL THAT!" Basil shouted. "I'm trying to find out why you are here instead of making sure all our hard work with Lawhiney isn't wasted!"
"I've been summoned to appear before the committee." Geegaw said sourly. "From what they said last time I'm going to be permanently suspended, probably over something nasty that's bubbling." He held out a scroll of paper.
Basil read it hurriedly. "In accordance with time honoured treaty and custom, yes, yes, we know all that. We hereby do solemnly summon the trainee guide assigned to Oh, CRUD! I should have known the other side would pull a fast one."
"What? Slow down, what are you talking about?" Geegaw complained. "What fast one? I've been expecting this for weeks and come to that, what do you mean all OUR hard work on Lawhiney? Just exactly when have you done anything to help?"
Basil laughed politely. "My dear Hackwrench, in case you've forgotten, I'm the one who got you assigned to her case in the first place. And with your grades in the academy, that was no mean feat, I can assure you."
"Am I supposed to thank you for that?" Geegaw countered wryly.
"We'll see." Basil retorted.
"Hey, I want to know something!" Dale butted in.
Basil and Geegaw stared at him.
"If you must know," Geegaw began, "I can't say I've ever really had strong feelings about cross species dating. Always figured that sort of thing was down to the couple involved. I've got a feeling I'm going to have to get used to the idea though, Dale, because it seems like Chip has really set his heart on my girl."
Dale blinked at him. "Uh, I just wanted to ask who the 'other side' that Basil mentioned were."
"Is that all?" Asked Basil, flatly.
"That and what was the 'fast one' they pulled?" Dale gulped.
"The forces of good and evil are always locked in conflict but that conflict is carefully controlled to prevent it destroying the earthly world and all the mortals who dwell there, which would plunge creation back into chaos. Over time a number of tremendously complicated treaties, customs and traditions have grown up as a way of keeping this conflict at a manageable level." Basil explained.
"Geegaw is a Guide," Basil went on, "sent to assist those on earth who have lost their way until they have found their feet again, so to speak. The other side send people to do essentially the same job, though they act a little more like recruiting officers and are called Advocates. Guides and Advocates don't so much work together as against each other. They ensure the person they've been assigned to, Lawhiney in this case, understands the difference between right and wrong and also the reason why they have chosen one over the other."
Dale blinked at him. "Like those old cartoons where the little guy with a pitchfork appears over Donald's left shoulder and the little guy with a halo appears on his right and they argue about what he should do?"
"I expect so." Basil replied, wondering who Donald was. "Anyway, because agents from both sides are working in close contact with each other the whole system has to be closely watched to make sure our guides aren't handing out halos on street corners and their advocates aren't using bribery and coercion. Our side has a committee. The other side has a tribunal. Since neither side trusts the other not to turn a blind eye to their own people cheating, each side has a representative on the other side's group. Do you understand so far?"
"I got it." Geegaw nodded.
"I know YOU'VE got it! YOU studied it in training school for the first six months!" Basil roared. "I'm asking Dale if HE'S got it!"
Dale looked dazed. "Uh, it's kind of complicated and I think I've forgotten what the questions I asked was."
"The one on cross-species dating?" Geegaw asked in surprise.
"NO, OF COURSE NOT! He means the question about what kind of 'fast one' the other side has just pulled."
Geegaw thought about it for a second. "What does anything you've just explained have to do with the other side pulling a fast one?"
"Haven't you been listening? They've got an official stooge on the committee that decides whether you get to keep your job or not and that stooge has asked for an emergency meeting, which you have to be at, right at the critical moment! ARRGGGHHH! I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THEY WOULD TRY SOMETHING LIKE THIS!" Basil stamped his foot in frustration. "Their stooge - one Montague Fidget by name, with whom I have some experience - is going to make sure you're tied up in red tape right when Lawhiney needs you the most!"
Geegaw looked pale. "What are we going to do? I have to go back to Lawhiney!"
"Out of the question! You simply must go before the committee or there'll be You Know Who to pay!"
"Someone else has to go then." Geegaw decided. "I don't think I was too good at the job anyway."
"NO!" Basil almost shouted. "She doesn't even know who I am! She's got no reason to trust me, let alone listen to me, and the same goes for any other guide!"
"Well, don't look at me!" Dale retorted. "She may know me after the last three months but I sure don't know her! I thought she was Gadget the whole time. Anyhow, why should I help someone who clunked me over the head the last time I saw her?"
"Ah, you can't go. You're still breathing in and out." Geegaw told him.
"Uh, I don't suppose Geegaw has a double, like Gadget does?" Dale suggested.
Basil looked at Geegaw hopefully.
"Believe it or not," Geegaw said, "people were always mistaking Monty for me. But he can't do it unless he drops dead in the next ten minutes, which he won't. I know, because I've checked his expiry date. And place. And cause. I've been looking forward to teasing him about it for years!"
"We need a plan and we need it quickly." Basil said.
"Aw, Basil, it's hopeless. We don't stand a chance." Geegaw looked ready to give up.
"There's always a chance." Basil said stubbornly. "As long as one can think."
Warden Phelps was in her office.
Her new temporary office.
Her normal office was going to be partially underwater for at least two days, it seemed. The administration part of the prison wasn't draining and might have to be emptied by inmate bucket chains.
So here she was, she put down her pencil and looked around sadly, in what had been a janitor's closet until mid-afternoon with the card table from the guard's break room as a desk. She normally kept regular office hours. Nine to five, those were her hours, except for the rare doctor's appointment and the occasional early departure on Fridays. It was currently one in the morning.
The damage caused by the riot and the desperate need to account for every prisoner was going to be the cause of many late nights for her, Warden Phelps suspected, and not all of them would be spent doing paperwork. Some of them would be sleepless nights spent worrying about whether she was going to be able to keep her job or not.
She couldn't believe she had felt sorry for Red the first time she had seen her. Such a confused, earnest, little bundle of confusion to hold so much trouble, she thought. Fifteen years wasn't going to be nearly long enough for that one, not after this.
The only thing Phelps hadn't decided on was whether to make sure Red spent every last minute of her sentence right here in Shrankshaw, where Phelps could make sure she was properly punished, or whether to ship her to the worst medieval dungeon in the city the moment Phelps had clean dry form in her hand.
A loud, distant crash echoed along the corridors outside her closet.
"What now?" Warden Phelps wondered irritably. "Subsidence?"
The door burst open and Deputy Warden Marion Cedar ran through it, an unwise thing to do when entering a small room that offered little stopping distance. She piled into the card table, which promptly collapsed under her weight and sent the Warden's paperwork flying.
Warden Phelps looked down at her Deputy and best friend. "What, I shudder to ask, brought this on?"
"Sorry, Gertrude. I forgot how much smaller this place was than your normal office and didn't have time to slow down."
"Never mind that, what's got you into such a state?"
"It's a breakout, at least four prisoners. They were using the heavy lifting crane to get up on to the roof and set off the warning sirens. You know that dreadful noise it makes to let everyone know it isn't safe to be in the stairwell?"
"Yes, yes, of course I know it. I've always said it would bring the humans down on us one of these days." Warden Phelps narrowed her eyes as a painful thought entered her head. She spoke in a carefully controlled voice. "Is Red "
"One of the escapees, yes. It seems they may have overpowered Margo somehow."
"Overpowered Margo Haggs? But that's impossible, surely?" She made it sound as though it were against the laws of nature.
"She looked to have been partially shaved when I saw her bounding up the staircase after them. I came to get you at once!"
"You did well. Now get up, for heaven's sake. What someone will think if they come in and see us both on the floor with your head in my lap, I really don't want to find out."
The two rodents helped one another to their feet and began to hurry to the stairwell. As they went, Warden Phelps confided her worst fears to her friend.
"Marion, when you came in I was beginning to think that I might never be allowed back into this prison. What with a riot and an escape in the same day, I'm beginning to fear that it won't take much more for me to be unable to leave at all."
Marion looked at her as they ran. "You mean?"
"Yes, if the Board of Corrections really wants blood for this mess they may just find a way to check me in as permanent guest."
Marion looked at her friend in shock. Surely it couldn't be as bad as that?
"But you've broken no law!" she objected.
"That's a matter for a court to decide!" Warden Phelps reminded her. "Annoy the wrong people and you can find that there are an awful lot of laws and an awful lot of ways to interpret them. If anyone died in that flood I could find myself charged with mouse-slaughter because I'm responsible for the safety of the equipment in this place, for instance."
"But that was Red who did that!"
"But I'm responsible for making sure the equipment she wrecked isn't dangerous. If they don't have her to throw the book at, I'll be the next best person."
They arrived at the stairwell. A small group of guards stood at the foot of the staircase. Their more energetic colleagues were at the loading bay that Red, Bubbles and the other escapees had departed from.
"I thought you said they were trapped." Warden Phelps said, wearily.
"You there! Ms Crookshank, what's going on?"
The shrew saluted Deputy Warden Cedar. "Looks like they got clean away, Ma'am."
"The blazes they have!" A burly, hunched figure shoved Ms Crookshank to one side.
The Warden and her deputy stared in horror and amazement at Margo Haggs. Half Haggs's face had been shaved bare of fur and shaving foam stuck to her mouth like rabid foam. Worst of all was the expression of insane rage that warped and twisted her face.
"Margo?" Marion Cedar whispered, as though it could be anyone else.
"We can take the drywall staircase. It goes all the way to the roof. They've no way down from there except a flying leap and I've got a feeling one or two of them may just decide to take it once they realise I've caught up with them." Haggs snarled.
"You look like you should go to the medical wing." Warden Phelps said.
"Not until I've got them back where they belong!"
"Very commendable dedication, I'm sure, but I don't think you're in the right frame of mind - "
"I don't CARE what you or anyone else thinks! Either get out of my way or try to keep up!" Haggs barged past Warden Phelps.
Most of the other guards instinctively followed Haggs's natural leadership. The ones who didn't followed her anyway just to see what would happen.
Warden Phelps watched as her officers ran past her without sparing her so much as a glance or a nod. Silently she seethed at being ignored by the people she had every right to expect loyalty from. She knew what was best, not that beast Haggs! How was it that even the prisoners seemed to be more at home with Haggs's brand of brutality and bullying than the fairness and compassion she offered them?
As the last guard filed past them, Phelps found herself looking at the one person she knew she could rely on, her friend, Marion Cedar.
Marion looked at her. "Well, do we try to catch up or just go and find a bar that's still open?"
Warden Phelps sighed and shook her head. The bar sounded tempting but if she deserted her post now how could she face her superiors? "We try to catch up with them, of course, and hope we can get there in time to stop bloodshed!"
It had taken only a brief exploration of the roof to discover that there was no way down save a staircase that ran through the prison's drywall, which Bubbles swore she could hear guards climbing already. The twins were talking about slipping off somewhere to make the most of what were probably their last moments together. Sheila was sitting on the edge of the roof, looking as though she were trying to work out whether the fall would kill her.
"Where's Red?" Bubbles asked her.
"Flagpole." Sheila said despairingly.
"She's over by the flagpole."
Bubbles turned to look and saw that Red was in fact she was a quarter of the way up the flagpole.
"Red? What ya doing, Red?" She called.
Red didn't answer.
Bubbles cursed to herself for a few minutes. Freedom had felt great for the first thirty seconds or so and her friends had danced and capered on the roof and hugged each other in celebration, but it had palled surprisingly quickly when they realised that it wouldn't last. If Red wanted to spend her last moments as a free mouse climbing a flagpole, what was to stop her?
"Red, I don't think climbing any higher is going to help. There isn't anywhere to hide up there and even if there were, there's still no way to escape except back through the prison."
Red was tugging at something that had been wedged in a bracket part of the way up the pole.
"RED, CAN YOU EVEN HEAR ME?" Bubbles yelled.
A huge bat like shape dropped out of the sky. It fell on to Bubbles without warning, covering her completely. It was a flag, the American flag.
"Sorry." Red called.
By the time Bubbles had fought her way out from under the acres of heavy material, Red was standing at the base of the flagpole, looking contrite. Bubbles was on all fours, her head poking out from under the red and white stripes.
"Oooh, someday, Red "
"I know, I know, and the twins will probably buy tickets." Red nodded apologetically. "But first I need your help with this cord I got from the flagpole and then we have to get that aerial down from over there."
"What in creation are you thinking, Red?"
"I'm thinking we're going to fly out of here!"
The staircase the mice had built into the prison firewall zigzagged crazily from one wall to another. It was old and dusty and shook under the rhythm of the feet pounding up until it threatened to fall apart. Haggs lead the way at a reckless pace but even so many of the officers were getting tired and one underling at a time, Warden Phelps gained on her.
The door at the top of the stairs was better camouflaged than reinforced and it burst open so easily that Haggs barely broke stride when she reached it. Behind her the guards and Warden Phelps spilled out onto the roof without fear of being seen by man or beast.
"Where?" Snarled Haggs. Then she saw them.
A long cord had been looped round the base of the air vent. The other end of the cord stretched high into the air and darkness. At that far end flapped and billowed a kite made from the stars and stripes. Three metal struts, unmistakably an H-shaped TV aerial, held the sides of the kite rigid against the wind and the third held them a fixed distance apart.
"Impossible!" Marion Cedar gasped.
"Very fast work, certainly." The warden agreed.
Hanging from the middle strut was a loading pallet made of Popsicle sticks that the escapees had scavenged from the loading bay. The four of them were riding it like a raft in a storm tossed sea. The fifth escapee, Red, was sitting on something that hung below the raft on something that looked for all the world like a swing. Two more lines of cord hung either side of her, their ends looped to form handles. The line that tethered the kite to the roof ran directly in front of her.
Haggs began to climb the line. She swarmed up it like an old sea rat running up a mooring rope to a new berth.
"Madness. They'll all be killed." Warden Phelps breathed.
High above the roof, Gadget had been waiting for this moment. She had told the others she was waiting for the wind to change but the truth was she had been waiting for this.
"May I borrow your knife, please Bubbles?" She asked politely from her station just below the Popsicle stick raft.
Bubbles, whose eyes were tightly shut and whose mouth mumbled a ceaseless prayer for a quick and painless death, took the knife from inside her shirt and handed it over without argument.
"Thank you." Gadget said.
Haggs was just a few inches below Gadget's dangling feet when Gadget called down to her. "Oh, Ms Haggs? Remember this?"
Gadget held up the knife for all to see.
"You gave it to Bubbles and asked her to kill me!" Gadget called out hoping the wind wouldn't carry her words away. She wanted the guards below to hear her.
Haggs looked worriedly up at her. "What are you going to do?" She snarled.
"I wouldn't have it now, if it wasn't for you. I just wanted you to remember that on the way down." Gadget smiled sweetly.
Haggs silently mouthed Gadget's last words as their implications sunk in. When she was sure she had their meaning, she shook her head desperately.
Gadget reached out and delicately sawed through the cord that was the last thing keeping her in Shrankshaw. It frayed a little before it gave way and then the homemade glider lifted away from the roof, bourn by a strengthening wind.
Gadget dropped the knife and took hold of the looped cords that she had tied to either side of her seat. They were control lines leading to triangular flaps that she had cut in the flag with the same knife she had just used to cut the mooring line. She was confident she could pilot her new invention as far as she needed and perhaps a little further, since it felt so good to be in the air again.
Gadget grinned to herself with secret joy.
Haggs had howled all the way down.
Warden Phelps stood on the small wall that ran around the edge of the roof and watched as Haggs noisily plummeted.
The cord, which Haggs still clung to, fell across the wall next to the warden and snapped tight as Haggs reached its limit. What had become a long, vertical descent towards the ground became a short arc that ended in Haggs slapping face first into the brick wall of the human prison Shrankshaw was built under.
The Warden bent as far over the edge of the wall as she dared to get a better view and was surprised to see that Haggs's grip had not failed her. It was possible that Haggs had hit the wall with such force that she had simply stuck to it like Wile E. Coyote on a bad day. Perhaps she might yet fall away to leave a perfect Haggs shaped imprint in the side of the prison and a tiny, distant cloud of dust rising from the courtyard below.
Admittedly any imprint Haggs left in the wall would have to be discretely filled in under cover of darkness to avoid attracting human attention, Warden Phelps thought, but even so it would be a sight she didn't want to miss.
Haggs resolutely clung onto the line however, even when the rest of her body was so limp that she might well have been unconscious and the other guards began to reel her in as though they were landing a fish. Warden Phelps supposed that the way her luck was going, it had been just be too much to expect entertainment. Haggs would probably get a medal, if the board of corrections gave medals. If they didn't, they'd probably start after this.
With Haggs unavailable for comment, Phelps was the de facto leader again and in a moment people would expect her to say something. When she felt the presence of her deputy, Marion Cedar, beside her she knew that time had come. She narrowed her eyes and stared after the makeshift glider as it sailed away towards the trees of the nearby forest.
"Ms Cedar, send word down to the kennels. We shall need some dogs to ride. "
"Yes, Warden." Marion replied respectfully.
"And see that flag desecration is added to the list of charges when they are captured."
Chip was in a small bare interview room. A dirty, badly scratched desk was between him and a large brown rat who wore a cheap suit and shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. There was a small light above the desk and although it didn't completely drive the shadows from the corners of the room it was angled to shine directly into Chip's eyes and seemed harsh enough to him.
"So tell me about the skirt." The rat said.
"Skirt?" For a moment, Chip feared the worst. They had found Dale's "disguise box" and thought it belonged to him.
"Someone like you, model citizen, pillar of the community, got everything going for you. Then you find yourself here, on the wrong side of the desk. I've seen it before, too many times, and there's ALWAYS a girl involved." The rat jabbed a finger for emphasis.
"Oh. I get you. I know what you mean. I'm a detective too, you know. I've seen my share of leg work." Chip's mouth was running away with him.
The rat frowned. "Why are you telling me that? Are you looking for some kind of special treatment?"
"No reason, no reason." Chip insisted hastily. He knew it always rubbed his fur the wrong way when pompous blowhard tried to play for privileged treatment. "It's just more embarrassing, that's all."
"Embarrassing. That's right. But the way to make it stop being embarrassing is to get all this, the speculation, the press interest, the gossip, over with quickly and in one go. Tell me the truth. The whole thing, right here, right now. Get it all out in the open at once."
Chip looked at the detective's friendly, confidence-inspiring smile and knew it had been well rehearsed in front of a mirror. He saw the gleam of hunger behind the detective's sharp, attentive eyes and knew it was for another victory, another chance to be a champion in the cause of justice.
How often Chip's own face must have looked like that.
The rat was looking at him expectantly.
"I don't think you're going to believe the truth." Chip said feebly.
"I already told it to the officers at the tree house."
"That you didn't know your best friend was unconscious and in the rubbish sack and were going to drop it off the porch when they found you and stopped you." The rat read off his notebook. "You must have been very relieved when they did stop you, I would imagine."
"No. I was horrified."
"Well, now, that doesn't make much sense to me. Why would you be horrified at the presence of the watch before you found out your friend was in the bag if you didn't know he was there? Then again, why would you be horrified afterwards, when you found out he was, given that they had just saved you from making a terrible mistake?"
"I was horrified when I found out he was in the bag, because I realised immediately how bad it looked for me." Chip said.
"But it's not how it looks, right? There's an innocent explanation, or maybe someone's trying to frame you?" The rat's smile became sarcastic.
"Do you think someone was trying to frame me?" Chip shot back with barely a gap between questions.
"We'll ask the questions." The rat detective replied smoothly.
"Because it did occur to me, now that you mention it, only there aren't many people with the wherewithal to carry a thing like that off so efficiently. The only group I could think of that could achieve such a thing and that might have a motive, happens to be the City Street Watch." Chip looked at the detective to see how he took it, even as he himself cringed inwardly at how weak the theory sounded to his own ears now that he heard it out loud.
The rat didn't blink. His face was a studied mask of self-control. "Is that what you think this is, Mister Maplewood? A frame up?"
Chip tried to hold the rat's gaze but couldn't. "I considered it while I was waiting for your boys to show up at the tree house. It's a pretty neat and tidy idea but it doesn't stand up too well when you look at it in the daylight."
The rat blinked. "Is that so? Just what would be our motive, Mister Maplewood?"
"Your organisation competes with the Rescue Rangers for resources from the City Conclave. You compete with us for territory."
"Gangs compete for territory. The Street Watch certainly isn't a gang, Mister Maplewood and I didn't think the Rangers were either." The detective sounded angry though he was keeping it in check.
"You know as well as I do that if we both work the same neighbourhoods the City Conclave will decide one of our groups is redundant." Chip shot back.
"If you feel that way, just what was it that decided you against the idea?" For a moment, it almost sounded as if the rat was taking the idea seriously.
"Patroller Hazelleaf. Patrol Leader Winterstore. My gut instinct is that they're exactly what they seem, a green raw rookie and a veteran with too many responsibilities on his hands all ready to welcome a big case dropping in his lap. Besides, you'd still need someone who could get inside Ranger Headquarters, do their dirty work and get back out without being detected. I don't think you've got anyone who's up to the job."
"Oh, you don't, do you?"
"Are you going to tell me I'm wrong?" Chip angled.
The rat grimaced. "Maybe we do and maybe we don't, but I know what we haven't got and that's someone who can keep count of all the crooks and hot heads we get through here crying frame up because there's no other way they can explain away the evidence we found piled up around them."
Chip grimaced back. The rat was right and he knew it. He heard it himself time and again, to the point where that he was inclined to play the odds and treat someone crying "frame" as guilty until proven innocent. "Well, like I said, the idea doesn't stand up in the daylight but you can see why you got a rise out of me when you asked if I thought I was being framed."
"Yeah, sure pal. I understand. Now since we understand each other, how about you tell me about the skirt."
Chip sighed. The rat was just letting Chip know that he wouldn't let interview be sidetracked. He tried to assert himself. "There's no skirt, dame, broad or floozy mixed up in anything, is that clear?"
"No? Then tell me what did happen."
"I already told the detectives back at Headquarters."
"This is Headquarters!"
"No, OUR Headquarters."
"Oh yeah, your little clubhouse. What's the matter, Maplewood, no girls allowed in your gang? Is it boys only?"
"You know perfectly well that Gadget Hackwrench is a vital member of our team and that she happens to be of the female persuasion."
"That's right, I do know, but you're in no hurry to tell me about her, are you? You know what I think, Maplewood, I think the gossip about Miss Hackwrench and a possible Ranger romance was a little more than gossip and the romance was a little more than possible. I think you and Mister Oakmont fought over her and things went too far.
"You thought you'd killed him. Maybe you meant to and maybe you didn't, but that didn't matter because you had a reputation to protect. You were going to dispose of him in the trash and leave town for a few days, see what happened. Maybe come back and claim he went with you but took off on his own to some other place on a whim. Only you didn't count on a Sweeper Patrols turning up at the last moment to bring the whole thing crashing down around your ears."
"The only thing crashing down around anyone's ears is your career if you take that before a judge!" Chip yelled.
"The only thing keeping you out of a cell right now is that there's one thing I want to know right now. When you've told me, you can call your cronies and connections and see there's someone with the juice to get you out of this who still wants to know you."
"Well, what is it?" Chip demanded.
"Where's Gadget Hackwrench right now?" The rat yelled at him.
Chip sat there stunned. His mouth went dry. "You can't be serious."
"I'm deadly serious." The rat said quietly. "We know she's not in residence at the tree house, that she told Monterey Jack she was staying the night at a friend's place only she never showed up there. We've got people ready to search the trash bin but maybe you'd like to save us the time and tell us where to find her."
Chip stared quietly. He hadn't thought that Gadget could be in danger. Why, when his best friend had been attacked but some unknown force, had it not occurred to him that the rest of the team, especially Gadget, might be in danger? Somehow, Chip stirred himself out his state of shock. He had to phrase his next question carefully, or he'd lose this detective totally and that could be fatal for Gadget.
"Detective, I know you have a working theory that explains most if not all the evidence you have so far but I'm asking you to set that theory to one side for a moment and consider another one, however briefly. What if someone kidnapped Gadget, and Dale wasn't the target of whatever happened, but simply got in the way and had to be disposed of? Isn't it possible that the kidnappers took Gadget and left Dale concealed in the trash bag simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time? That Gadget could be out there somewhere desperately hoping for rescue?"
The rat threw a pile of notes down on the desk. "First it's an intruder who vanishes into thin air, then it's a frame up, now it's a kidnap, any story at all but the one I hear every day of the week, which is about a guy who attacked their best friend over a girl."
"Dangit! You know Gadget's been kidnapped before!"
"I know she was kidnapped twice in as many months, if you count hijacking, but the hijackers are missing presumed eaten and the kidnapper at the hospital is in our custody and swears he was working alone!"
"The hijackers weren't eaten by cats! The grey mouse who attacked Gadget at the hospital was one of them and he's lying about working alone. Monty and Dale chased two other people to a light aircraft on the roof of the building where they made their escape."
"Well, we'll just have to take Monty's word for that, seeing as Dale can't talk for himself any more, won't we?"
"Are you calling him a liar?" Chip banged his fist on the desk.
"Maybe. What makes you so sure the hospital business was linked to the hijack? Why should they come after Gadget again at the hospital?"
"Maybe because she could identify them or maybe it was revenge. It doesn't matter either way, it had to be them because there was no other motive for trying to snatch Gadget away from us just long enough to strangle her in a lift."
"Did she identify them?"
"She couldn't, the doctors say she has amnesia brought on by the stress of the crash! It wasn't made public so there's no way the hijackers could have known that!"
"And now one of the surviving two hijackers is back, kidnapping Gadget and silencing Dale? Is that what you're selling me?" The rat had his paws down on the desk and was leaning across into Chip's face. Chip could smell the detective's lunch on his breath but held his ground manfully.
"It's a theory, at least as good as the one you're trying to convict me on, and if you can't disprove it you might end up looking mighty silly in front of a judge and jury, don't you think?" Chip put it to him.
The rat sat back. "There's a flaw in your theory. If they only wanted to silence Gadget, why take her with them? Why not give her the same treatment as Dale right there and then?"
Chip blinked as he thought it over. He was used to working under pressure but this was unlike anything he had ever known before. "I guess you're right. Well, that pretty much shoots my theory down in flames. I wish I could think of a way to return the favour."
The rat laughed, hollowly. "I bet you do. Now is that it, or are you going to tell me she's been beamed up by space aliens next?"
"I'm sorry but I don't know where Gadget is if she's not at Jen's place and I didn't hurt Dale. Not this time at any rate."
"Then you admit to hurting him some other time?"
"We've been friends a long time. We've had our share of fights, verbal and otherwise." Chip replied carefully. "You'd find that out from plenty of people before long so I might as well tell you."
"What else am I going to hear?" The rat was making notes.
"That Dale and I were both sweet on Gadget and that she either wasn't interested or perhaps just couldn't make up her mind which one of us she liked best." Chip knew this was risky, that he was giving the detective bricks to build the case against him but he needed to buy some credibility and, as he had said, it was all information the detective was bound to hear sooner or later.
"Am I going to hear that you've got a temper?"
"Probably." Chip said after a hesitation.
"A violent one?"
"I work in a violent profession, Detective. We both do."
"There's a difference between controlling the violence and the violence controlling you." The rat looked at him with penetrating eyes.
"I'm not out of control. I never have been." Chip hoped no one would say any different. "Dale always gave as good as he got, as far as I'm concerned."
"What about Gadget, were you violent with her?"
The rat looked at him. "Are you sure?"
"I never harmed a hair on her head. You can ask Monty or Zipper if you don't believe me."
"For all you know, I already have." The rat reminded him. "Are you still saying you didn't put Dale in that trash bag?"
"I didn't put Dale in the trash bag." Chip duly repeated.
"Who else was in the tree this evening?"
At last, the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, Chip thought triumphantly. He's considering the other angles. "Monterey Jack, Zipper, Gadget and myself."
"None that I know of." Chip answered. "I didn't hear the doorbell or anyone knock at the door all evening."
"So, next obvious question, who was the last one to see Mister Oakmont?" The detective had closed his notebook. His expression was more open now, as though he was interviewing a witness not a suspect.
Chip swallowed and looked all round the room, anywhere but the detective's face.
Chip took a deep breath. "I was."
"Why do I get the impression that this is something you didn't mention to the detectives back at the headquarters?"
"Because I would have to be insane to mention this while under suspicion of attempting to murder Dale." Chip replied, rolling his eyes towards the ceiling.
"You know that if I think you're holding out on me, even for a moment, I'll take you before a judge with what I've got and I think I can get a conviction with it. No matter what theories you trot out for the jury." The rat warned him.
Chip felt the tears well up in his eyes again. He didn't want to lose it again. Not here, not in front of this rat who was proving himself so evenly matched with Chip. He forced himself to speak in level voice.
"I walked in on Gadget and Dale. I guess you could say that Gadget had made up her mind which one of us she liked. I was broken hearted."
"What did you do?" The detective asked gently.
"I closed the door and ran to my study. I cried." Chip couldn't look at the rat now. Admitting to this was as painful as experiencing it had been.
"You were angry. You wanted revenge."
"It might not be what you want to hear, Detective, but it's the truth. I closed the door and I shut myself away and they were both fine."
"And that's the last time you saw the both of them?"
"No. Gadget came to my study about fifteen minutes later. She was looking for something."
"Something she could use as a lens in something she was working on. She borrowed a diamond ring I had bought some months earlier. I had meant to propose to her but I couldn't get up the nerve to even ask her out."
"A diamond ring? To use as a lens?"
"If you knew Gadget, you'd understand. It was in character for her."
"Did you argue? Something she said set you off, perhaps?"
"She thought the ring was for another one of my admirers. Seemed totally oblivious to my feelings. I went numb and then she left and stayed there for a while, in the dark."
"You didn't become angry with her at any point? You've admitted having a temper, remember."
"I was still in shock. I didn't do anything. I didn't get out of my chair, even, and if you think otherwise you might want to remember that Monty saw her and spoke to her afterwards."
"This was before the conversation with Monty?" The rat was consulting his notes.
"When he was searching the tree for Dale and couldn't find him, but found Gadget instead."
"That's right. She asked him to take out the trash from her workshop. Then later, when I had decided it would be best if I left, I met Monty in the hallway and he said he was feeling tired and asked me to do it."
"Even after what you had been through that evening?"
"I didn't tell him."
"Why not? I mean he's your friend isn't he?"
"I didn't want to make a fuss about it. I didn't want anyone to see how bad I was feeling. I thought they'd think less of me. I went back to Gadget's workshop and did what Monty had asked of me. I was just trying to decide whether to drag the sack down the steps or push it off the porch when your patrol happened on me."
"Was Dale in the workshop?"
"In the sack, though I didn't know it at the time."
"Had already left."
The rat sat in silence for a minute or so before speaking again. "Do you love Gadget, Chip?"
Chip was slow to answer. "I might have, only she chose Dale. That's her choice and I have to respect that."
"Even if you don't understand it?"
Chip almost laughed and shook his head. "I certainly don't understand it but I'm not going to fight it."
"Except love isn't something you can turn on and off like a tap, it's not controlled so easily."
"That's why I was leaving when your patrol found me. I don't want to be in love with my best friend's girl."
The rat nodded understanding, his eyes wide and fascinated. "Mister Maplewood, can you think of any other explanation for what happened that we haven't already addressed here?"
"See if you can think of one I'm going out to test a theory."
The paraglider went where the wind blew it. Gadget could imagine it taking them far out across the sea to strange lands, never to be seen again. This was wonderful, like her first flight, or the first time she had built something useful that worked, or her first schoolgirl crush.
Her first taste of freedom; she would appreciate it from now on.
She thought of her father and wondered if he had felt as free as she felt now on the last flight he had made. Rain began to fall. It hid her tears.
It also began to soak the flag that served as the wing of her paraglider. Gadget knew she would have to put down before it turned into a damp rag. They were over a forest Gadget had never seen before. She hoped for a clearing but could see nothing. Behind her she was suddenly aware of the moans and cries from the passengers above her.
Just as the glider began to sag and grow clumsy when she tugged on the control lines, Gadget saw a gaping hole in the dark forest canopy where a large tree had fallen. She made for it like a battered sailor trying to reach port before the storm hit, pulling hard on one control line in a hope that a spiral would give them the lowest speed when they hit.
Twigs and branches reached up for them like fingers and arms. Gadget felt her makeshift seat threaten to give way and pulled harder on both control lines trying to break their descent. The ground came up fast and she realised at the last moment that she had built the paraglider with the passenger section right over the pilot's seat, with nothing except string between her head and passengers above her. When the glider touched down, it was almost certain the wooden pallet and the weight of four people would come down on her head.
Gadget considered jumping for safety but feared the paraglider would rise into the air again with nobody to control it. She would just have to take her chances. Her luck had been cruel to her lately, so she expected little in the way of miracles.
Just as the ground came up to crush her, the seat jerked madly and she was almost thrown from the glider. She found herself bouncing so hard that her head connected with the underside of the Popsicle stick pallet her friends were riding on and she saw stars.
The flag had snagged on a branch and was tearing even as Gadget shook her head. The other convicts were screaming.
Somewhere above, lightening flashed. The rain became a deluge.
"WE'RE GOING TO DIE! WE'RE GOING TO DIE!" Bubbles wailed.
"We're two feet off the ground! Will be quiet already?" Gadget yelled up at them.
"IT'S A MIRACLE! WE'RE NOT GOING TO DIE! WE'RE NOT GOING TO DIE!"
Gadget shook her head. "Nope, we're going straight back to Shrankshaw when every critter that lives in this forest hears the fuss you're making."
"Ah-ha. Sorry." Bubbles said.
"Oh, mother. I promise I'll be good." Sheila leaned over the side of the pallet and was noisily sick.
"Hey, cut that out!" Gadget yelled back.
"Hey, how do we get down?" The twins chorused.
"It's two feet and there's a puddle down there. You've probably jumped off higher diving boards as a kid." Gadget called up. "Or we could just climb down the cords now that we don't need them any more."
"Okay. Coming down." Bubbles called back. Before Gadget could react, Bubbles went down one of the control lines like a fireman sliding down a pole.
The was a faint splash followed by a sloshing sound as Bubbles made her way to the edge of the puddle.
"What's it like down there?" Gadget called.
"Well, even if someone did hear me, I don't think we're going to be taken back to Shrankshaw." Bubbles replied as Gadget climbed down the same way she had.
"Because we are going to be devoured by the local predators before any posse can find us." Bubbles said staring at the dark and forbidding woods that surrounded them. The rain had begun to fall in earnest now, drops of water pounding down around them like small fists.
"I can see your point." Gadget admitted, standing beside her. The forest looked like a big, dark, scary place for a few small mice to get lost in.
Behind Gadget and Bubbles the other escapees were climbing down from the wrecked paraglider. Gadget assumed her best lecture mode and tried to reassure them.
"It's not as bad as it looks. Most predators don't hunt in the rain and any local people will have warm dry burrows to keep them out of the rain and away from us. While we were in the air I was able to get the lay of the land. The prison is southeast of the forest and the city is about ten miles north." She turned and pointed in what she hoped was the right direction. "Moss always grows on the north side of trees, so we won't get lost."
"Which way to the docks, Gadget?" Bubbles asked casually.
"They're on the east side of the city, I'd say about seven miles northeast." Gadget turned back.
Everyone was looking at her with flat, neutral expressions. Once upon a time, she wouldn't have noticed a detail like that.
"What's up guys?"
"Get her." Bubbles said.
"WHOA!" Gadget turned and managed to get a couple of steps before her "friends" tackled her. She found herself face down in the mud with someone sitting on her back.
"Get her legs!" Sheila snarled.
"Got them already!" a twin yelled back.
"Aw, come on guys! I got us out of there!" Gadget wailed. "Bubbles, I'm sorry about the flag falling on you! I'LL BE GOOD!"
Bubbles stood over Gadget. She reached down and took Gadget's face in her paw with surprising gentleness. "You're worried I'm going to give the twins that show they asked for when we got them out of solitary? I might at that."
"I'll be a good mouse!" Gadget promised worriedly. "The best mouse!"
"That's the problem, Red." Bubbles said sadly. "You're already are a good mouse. The best mouse; you're Gadget Hackwrench."
Gadget's eyes went wide.
"You called me by my name." She remembered.
"And you answered." Bubbles shook her head sorrowfully.
Gadget felt the first stirrings of fear over take her alarm.
"But - but, I've been telling you for weeks who I am! It's never made any difference to you. Bubbles, you're my friend."
Bubbles looked at her. It was dark but for a moment Gadget thought she could see tears in her eyes. "No, I was Red's friend."
"Bubbles, please, I never lied to you about anything! I am who I am, whatever name you call me."
"And I can think of quiet a few " Sheila smiled as she twisted Gadget's arm.
Gadget cried out.
"Stop it, Sheila." Bubbles said quietly.
Gadget could feel an intense glare being exchanged somewhere over her head. Sheila must have looked away first because the next thing she knew her arm was free. She beat her fist in the soft, cold mud in frustration.
"Darn it, I broke the law and all of you out of prison. If I'm not one of you now I don't know what I am!"
"You're a Rescue Ranger." Bubbles reminded her quietly.
Gadget met her eyes and saw a certainty in them that she envied. "Maybe you all had your eyes shut back there but I may have dropped Haggs to her death."
"I saw." Sheila smiled. "But I'm sure the judge will let you off with a stern telling off before asking for your autograph."
"Darn it! I'm no celebrity! I just try to help people who are in trouble, that's all! If anything, the judge will say what I did is even worse because I'm supposed to be one of the good guys! I'll be disgraced and sent back to Shrankshaw and everyone will know I really am Gadget! It'll all start over for double and I JUST CAN'T FACE THAT!"
There was silence for a moment. Then Bubbles said: "Let her up."
"What?" Sheila demanded.
"Oh, thank heavens." Gadget said as the weight on her back disappeared. She struggled to her feet. "For a moment there, I really thought you were going to do something horrible - "
Bubbles threw herself at Gadget and they both went sprawling in the mud.
Gadget choked as some of the mud got in her mouth. She spat it out. Bubbles had a hold on her collar as though trying to strangle her. Instead Bubbles was shaking Gadget as though trying to beat her brains out against a rock. There was no rock, only mud, and every time Gadget's head hit there was a splashing sound.
Using one of Monty's old tricks, Gadget broke Bubbles grip and captured her wrists. She spread her legs to get as much leverage as possible and pushed until their positions were reversed.
"Ha! Rescue Rangers get self-defence training!" She crowed.
"I bet it doesn't include fighting dirty!" Bubbles growled. She pulled her legs up, planted her feet against Gadget's chest and pushed with her full strength.
Gadget flew backwards and landed in the puddle. She rose, muddy, soaked and furious. "Why are you doing this?"
"If you have to ask, you'll never understand." Bubbles told her.
Gadget fought her way out of the puddle and into the mud that surrounded it. She was up to her knees and having difficulty moving when Bubbles seemed to become impatient with waiting for her and began to wade in to meet Gadget halfway.
Gadget saw her coming and for a moment they circled each other like wrestlers, looking for an opportunity to strike.
"If you want a fight, I can give you one. You've seen what I can do!" Gadget threatened.
"Honey, that only means you've shown me your best moves. Mine are all surprises!" Bubbles scooped up a handful of mud and threw it in Gadget's face.
Gadget's hands flew to her blinded eyes trying to wipe away the mud before Bubbles could press her advantage. She was too slow. Bubbles pulled at her hair and Gadget had to fight to keep her balance. Still blind, Gadget pulled free and tried to take a step back, only to find her foot was stuck. She lost her balance and sat down awkwardly in the mud with a squeak.
Gadget's paws reached to her face and parted her wet muddy hair from her face like a pair of theatre curtains. Her cornflower blue eyes blazed like sapphires and her nose was crinkled with fury.
Bubbles struggled forward, her own feet deep in the mud. She reached out as if to help Gadget to stand but intending to grapple with her.
Gadget grabbed the offered hands and pulled as hard as she could. Bubbles suddenly found herself face down in the mud, her head somewhere between Gadget's knees. Gadget crossed her legs over Bubbles' arms and lifted Bubbles' wrists as her own legs pushed Bubbles' elbows downwards. It was a wrestling hold she had seen while watching television with Dale.
Bubbles found she was being forced to push her own face deep into the mud in an effort to lower her shoulders and take the pressure off her straining elbows. She was blind and could not breathe. If Red, or Gadget, kept her like this she might drown or suffocate. Her legs were free but if she stood the pain in her elbows would be magnified many times.
Gadget found a smile creeping onto her face. Since she had met Bubbles the tough, streetwise brunette had been in charge. Now the tables would be turned.
Bubbles became desperate to breathe. She began kicking her legs, trying to scramble forward while keeping her shoulders down. She managed to surprise Gadget and got her head and shoulders under Gadget's legs, breaking the hold.
Gadget tried to regain the hold by lying flat on her back but it was too late. Bubbles rose from the mud, her face unrecognisable. Gadget's legs were about her shoulders like a yoke. Instead of trying to shake them off, Bubbles kept lifting them until Gadget's bottom and the lower half of her back were out of the mud and her head and shoulders were lowering into the mud.
Gadget's eyes darted from one side to the other. She wondered how deep the mud was and whether her head could be totally submerged in it. If she let go of Bubbles' hands now, Bubbles would be able to grab her ankles and bend her double.
Bubbles watched with noticeable glee as the mud began to creep across Gadget's face, moving towards her wide, frightened eyes and down-turned mouth.
Then Gadget had an inspiration. She let go of Bubbles' right arm and dropped her right leg from Bubbles' shoulders. Then Gadget rolled to the right, pulling Bubbles' arms and pushing with the leg that was still on Bubbles' shoulder. The brunette mouse suddenly found herself face down in the mud again, this time with the calf of Gadget's left leg across the back of her neck. Her left arm was being pulled by one of Gadget's paws, while a forearm crossed the back of Bubbles' elbow and tried to make it bend the wrong way.
Gadget's hold was easily broken though. Bubbles shuffled the lower half of her body towards Gadget until the angle was wrong for Gadget to keep her leg on the back of Bubbles' neck.
Gadget responded by putting that leg on the back of the arm she was holding in a lock and keeping Bubbles down that way.
The lock seemed unbreakable until Bubbles' wrist, made slippery by the mud, escaped Gadget's paws and Bubbles flipped over onto her back, gasping.
Sensing that she might not be so lucky a second time, Gadget stood and struck out for firmer ground. She hadn't got very far when Bubbles sat up with squelching sound and grabbed her tail.
"EEK!" Gadget squeaked in dismay, her paws going to the base of her tail.
Bubbles stood up.
"Go Bubbles!" Yelled a twin.
"Come on Red! Show her what you're made of!" The second one cheered.
"Yeah! Don't make it too easy! We could watch this all night!" The first one agreed.
Gadget and Bubbles stared; their horrified faces a picture fit to be hung on a wall.
"Aw, don't stop now!" Sheila called out. "You were going great!"
Gadget and Bubbles looked at each other. Both felt the cold rush of sanity returning even as they felt the rising blush of mutual embarrassment. Gadget's eyes slowly went to her tail and the hand Bubbles still had clasped around it.
"Uh, Bubbles? Is this going to end up with me over your knee?" Gadget asked in a weak, embarrassed voice.
Bubbles only answer was to drop Gadget's tail as though it had suddenly turned red hot. "Ah-ha. This isn't what it looks like. We were just fighting, that's all!"
"Oh, golly yes! Just fighting." Gadget agreed.
"Mud-wrestling." Laughed Sheila. "I can't believe it. You two should see yourselves!"
The twins, a little disappointed the fight was over, began laughing too. Before long Gadget was holding her sides while Bubbles sat in the mud pointing at her and giggling.
Finally the laughter died down, though, and the small group was left in silence. Gadget's smile faded and she remembered that she had almost lost something important here. She was determined not to risk it happening again.
"Bubbles, I'm the same person I've always been. I'm still Red, it's just that I'm ALSO Gadget Hackwrench. Why does that have to make a difference?"
Bubbles shook her head sadly. "It makes a difference because you can't come with us, Red."
"What? But, darn it, I'm one of you!" Gadget was appalled. Fight or no fight their friendship, it seemed, was over.
"Of course she is!" One of the twins said.
"She fought Haggs, didn't she?" The other agreed.
"Gadget Hackwrench isn't a crook." Bubbles repeated stubbornly. "Red may have broken a few rules to get out of a jam, but so would almost anyone else. Even Gadget Hackwrench." She grinned briefly. "The catch is Gadget Hackwrench has never been in jail, at least, not as far as the law is concerned. So there's no way she could have broken out of it and she's got no reason to be running from the law."
Gadget's jaw dropped. She hadn't thought of that.
"Gadget Hackwrench has got a life right here in this city with friends and a job to do and there's no reason for her to give any of that up. For the rest of us, it's a different story. I'll probably never see my kids again, or my loot for that matter, but if we stay we might find ourselves in a hole so deep that we'll never see the sun again. We have to go. You don't. End of discussion."
Gadget looked at her feet. She could feel tears welling up. "So that's it? You know, this could be the end of a beautiful friendship."
"Ah, don't say that, Red." Bubbles said, lifting Gadget's chin off her chest. "You never know what tomorrow might bring." She paused, considering this. "Except in this case, where we can be pretty sure it will bring a heavily armed search party and tracking dogs intent on hunting down every last one of us."
Gadget blinked. "My scent. What will happen when they get my scent?"
"You should be fine if you get out of the forest before this storm blows itself out." Bubbles reassured her. "The rain should destroy any scent trails we leave. I grew up on a farm, remember, so I know about tracking dogs."
"What about you? Were will you go?" Gadget asked worriedly.
"Not saying!" Sheila declared firmly.
"She's got a point, Red." One of the twins pointed out.
"Yeah, we've got every intention of going back to our old ways as soon as we're out of here, so it's reasonable to assume you're going to do the same!" The other twin poked Gadget in her mud caked chest.
"Golly, I guess you're right." Gadget said unhappily. "So this is goodbye? I only get to see you in the crime reports?"
"Don't count on it!" Bubbles winked at her as the others began to walk away. "I don't plan on getting caught so easily next time!"
Gadget looked at her friend and saw she meant it. A horrible fear for Bubbles seized her and she threw her arms around her friend in a sudden, unexpected hug.
Bubbles hugged back, unembarrassed.
Somewhere, someone cleared a throat. By unspoken agreement the others began to make their way quietly away from the crashed paraglider and the hugging friends.
Gadget was crying when she let go of Bubbles.
"Goodbye." She whispered.
Bubbles seemed awkward and self-conscious. "Yeah, I guess. So long, Red, and tell Gadget Hackwrench hello and goodbye for me." She began to walk away, looking back at Gadget and nursing her arm a little where Gadget had strained it. Bubbles didn't properly take her eyes off Gadget until she was halfway into the darkness.
Gadget couldn't just let her go. Asides from anything else, there was still something she had to know. "Bubbles?" She called after her. "You said I wouldn't understand why you were attacking me if I had to ask. Will you at least tell me, so I can remember it and until someday when I do understand?"
Bubbles waved back at her. "I wasn't mad at you being Gadget Hackwrench. I was mad at you for making me LIKE someone like Gadget Hackwrench. You're a bad influence on me!"
Gadget, even with tears spilling down her face, laughed.
Then she lost sight of Bubbles in the darkness and the rain.
"Lord, I'm never going to see her again." Gadget said to herself as she made her way in the opposite direction. "And that's my best case scenario."
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