Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Final Equation
Gadget scrambled through the darkness and wet of the forest night, hoping she could strike one of the clear, straight yet carefully unmade roads that animal communities used in places like this. Overhead, thunder rolled. Gadget hadn't seen the lightening. The cloud cover and forest canopy made what light there was murky and untrustworthy to see by. Huge shadows leered and reached for her before dissolving into twisted branches and crooked trees.
The rain began to beat down but did nothing to wash the thick clinging mud off Gadget's clothes or out of her hair and seemed to just make it stickier. She began to notice the cold and to shiver uncontrollably. It seemed she had been walking for hours when she heard the unmistakable distant baying of a dog.
It seemed unlikely a normal dog would be hunting in this weather. A creature needed a brain, Gadget reflected, to do something as stupid as coming out in a storm like this. A brain and a good reason, she chided herself. It would have been rational of her to hope the dog would go after the others but Gadget couldn't bring herself to wish for that.
Her legs began to tire. It suddenly occurred to her that she had already had a busy night and that finding her way out of the forest could be an adventure in itself. The forest was large by human standards and unimaginably vast by those of mice. Should she become lost in it, Gadget knew she might well never see civilization again.
There were tales - not just tales but proven cases - of whole tribes and cultures of sapient animals that arose, dwelled and then fell into ruin and decay, all without ever laying eyes on a human being, sheltered in un-travelled and overgrown places that were surprisingly close to civilization. It had happened just last year, Gadget remembered. An abandoned trio of Aztec style pyramids had been found on an island in a lake just outside the state capital. The structures bore markings and writings that were unmistakably made by small thinking animals, probably geckos, and seemed to suggest that the inhabitants of the pyramids had lived there since the American civil war, happily under the impression they were the lords of creation.
The dog bayed again. It was closer this time. Gadget knew that the first barking she had heard must have been when the dog discovered the crash site. That the second was closer to her when she knew the others had set off in the other direction meant that it was following her scent trail and not the others.
She could have cried. Her luck was holding bad after all.
Gadget knew the sound of a dog barking could carry about ten miles in the clear on a quiet night and about three in a quiet built up area. She estimated she had travelled about two miles as the crow flies since leaving the crash site perhaps a couple of hours earlier.
The rain was relentless. The only parts of her that wasn't chilled to the bone were her legs, which felt like they were on fire.
Gadget had a pretty good idea of what her body could do. Since the previous morning she had spent half a night in tears, fought off a mob of inmates, seen one if not two ghosts, escaped from a solitary confinement cell, broken out of jail, fought Margo Haggs twice, built and crashed a new kind of aircraft and mud-wrestled her best friend. Her life as a Rescue Ranger meant she was no stranger to strenuous physical activity but by any reckoning she was already close to a complete collapse.
Shake off the dog first and rest later, Gadget told herself.
She came to a narrow stream that was beginning to swell with the rain. Though a human could have crossed it in one stride, it posed a serious challenge to a mouse.
Gadget ran along the bank until she came to a thorn bush. She ducked the knife-like thorns and squeezed under the bush in the hope it would give any dog following her difficulty. Rather than come out the other side, Gadget found a long thorny vine that bridged the stream. Too narrow to walk across and far too painful to climb across, Gadget reached up and put her paws between the thorns in the hope it would be her safety line to the other side of the stream.
The water was icy and fast flowing. She shivered as it crept further up her body with every step she took. At least it will wash the mud off, she told herself. The cold was painfully sharp and she had trouble keeping her footing against the smooth stones on the streambed.
Paw over paw, step by step, Gadget crossed the stream without slipping. The water had reached her middle and she came out clean from the waist down. The bank on the other side of the stream turned out to be muddy and by the time she had struggled up it her legs were covered in what felt like clay. It made her legs seem heavy but the eternal optimist in Gadget thought that not even a commando could have created better camouflage. She was now covered from head to foot in two different colours of mud, with crumbled leaves, pine needles and dirt stuck to her in patches.
She struggled on for what seemed another hour, the rain getting heavier with every minute. The dogs no longer barked or howled behind her. Perhaps the rain was so bad that the search had been called off. Cause for hope? But hope for what?
Bubbles and the others would get away, Gadget was sure of that. She wasn't trying to get away however, she was planning to head directly into the city where the Street Watch would be watching every corner and a thousand curious eyes to notice and report her everywhere she went.
Could she reach Ranger Headquarters without being seen? She knew it was impossible. Could she reach home without being re-captured? She could only hope.
Gadget stumbled up a steep slope to the edge of a small clearing and surveyed her surroundings.
This wasn't right. There was moss on all sides of the trees. The same stream she had crossed earlier, even more swollen now and threatening to break its banks, lay a few feet away. The trees were so dense that all sides of their trunks were sheltered, allowing moss to grow thickly on all sides. Gadget had doubled back on herself and gotten lost.
Gadget felt like a favourite invention had fallen apart on its first test run. She said the word she usually said when such a thing happened and there was no one around to hear her. She beat a fist against the moss of the nearest tree. It was soft and relatively dry, which gave Gadget an idea.
She dug her claws into the moss and tore at it until it came away in a great sheet as long as her own body and wide enough to pull around her like a cloak. She shivered under it for a minute as she considered her next move.
Gadget was achingly tired and would only get more tired if she ran around willy-nilly without knowing where she was going. If, on the other hand, she stayed where she was then she would be caught by the search party and very likely hauled back to Shrankshaw for the worst they could throw at her.
She took an autumn leaf that had not yet fallen from a low hanging branch and made a small hole just below the tip. She pulled the leaf about her head like a hood and poked the stalk of the leaf through the hole to keep it in place.
Staying was out of the question. Leaving could well kill her with exhaustion, given how hard she had worked her body in the last twenty-four hours.
"I need help." She said quietly. "I need someone to show me a way out of the darkness."
The forest was full of noises in the night and the storm. Gadget felt as though the trees had eyes and were watching her, waiting for her next move. She needed help but calling the names of Monty, Chip, Dale, or even Zipper into the darkness would not make them magically appear. But there was someone, she suspected, who might.
"Professor? Professor Ratigan? Are you there?"
"Professor Ratigan! I want to speak to you. I need your help!" Gadget shouted it to the treetops, taking the chance that the search party or forest animals might hear her.
For a moment there was nothing. Then -
"Ah-HA!" Ratigan shouted his glee, throwing a billowing cloak lined with red silk about him as though he were pretending to be Dracula. "My very, very dear Ms. Hackwrench. I had feared we might never talk again."
"You wanted me to escape from prison all along, didn't you?" Gadget accused.
Ratigan waved a hand airily as if this were nothing. "Naturally. Who could stand to see such a beautiful and talented mousemaid wasting away in some medieval dungeon over some SILLY notion of justice that plainly isn't justice."
"I've broken my oath to uphold the law." Gadget said as if noticing for the first time.
"Think no more on that childish promise, young lady. Ask yourself: Had your oath not served its purpose? Is it not more important to uphold true justice than an unjust law?"
"Yes." Gadget answered quietly.
She hoped that Chip would agree. He could be so stern and rigid sometimes. Gadget's old nightmare rose up in her mind's eye like a spectre from a violated tomb. She saw herself opening the tree-house door and being greeted by her joyful friends, telling them her story to their horror and pity and Chip then, woefully because it was the last thing he wanted to do, bringing out his handcuffs and leading to back to the nearest Street Watch headquarters because it was the lawful, right thing to do with an escaped fugitive.
Gadget wanted someone to reassure her that it wouldn't end like that. She sensed that Ratigan was, in every sense, the wrong person to voice her fears to but there was no one else.
"Something on your mind?" Ratigan smiled his sweetest smile, which succeeded in making him look like a used car salesman.
"If I go back home as an escaped convict, then the others may have no choice but to hand me back to the courts for due process." Gadget said hesitantly. She was certain she was doing the wrong thing but so long as only she could see could see Ratigan he could tell no one, so what harm could it do.
"A terrible dilemma for them and you both." Ratigan sympathised.
"Since I cannot even find my way out of this forest, it seems unlikely to arise, but it has troubled me since the possibility of escape first occurred to me. Shortly before your first visit, in fact."
Ratigan looked surprised. "So all your noble talk of the law and oaths was merely an attempt to salvage a little pride." He chuckled a little. "Confess, my dear. You had already ruled out the only alternatives to staying in prison. You were merely putting the best possible spin on it."
Gadget tuned narrowed eyes on him. She wondered if he could see her face under the shadows of the leaf bonnet she had made for herself. "I didn't think of it like that."
"I'm sure you didn't. Few of us do subject our moral choices to such a clear eye, except perhaps when we look back on them from a great distance." For a moment, Ratigan's eyes looked haunted, as though his mouth had taken him to a place he didn't wish to go.
Gadget stared at him. Of course, she was not alone in making moral choices. She had forgotten that everyone who had ever lived faced the same choice between right and wrong, their own moments of pain and doubt. Chip, Monty, her father, even the odious Ratigan before her must once had been an innocent trying to decide between two paths, and perhaps she alone had been uniquely blessed in that life had waited so long to pose the challenge. She was, after all, well prepared for it.
"Professor, I have to know. Given your no doubt extensive experience in the field of, uh, ethics I suppose you would call it, how would you assess my choices so far?"
Ratigan looked at her as though suspecting mockery. "I'm flattered that you ask."
Ratigan seemed to shrug to himself. "Since you insist, I found most of your decisions foolish, childish and naïve.
"By your own admission you were the victim of extraordinary circumstances and injustice, yet you refused to take extraordinary measures to extricate yourself, insisting on hanging on to a view of the world that didn't fit the very changed world you found yourself in. That was foolish.
"You set an unrealistically high moral expectation of the world, those around you, and yourself and refused to adjust it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Rather, you committed yourself to it even further, investing more of your mind, body and heart in it than you could afford to lose. That was childish.
"Finally, when you were forced to compromise your ethics, you assumed those around you had never faced their own moments of pain and doubt and therefore would be unable to forgive or understand you, even when many of them care deeply about you, have their fates bound to yours to one extent or another, and have much to lose by condemning you. That was naïve." Ratigan finished counting off the points on his fingers.
Gadget was rocked back. She didn't know why but she had assumed a creature like Ratigan would, either with venom or flattery, give her more credit. What she had heard sounded painfully like a true and accurate assessment of the work of a novice, given by an expert.
After a pause, she said: "I see."
"Well, you did ask." Ratigan reminded her, cagily.
"I did." Gadget allowed. "What do you think I should do next?"
"Go back to the Rangers. Tell them or don't tell them. If you do tell them, they have too much to lose by making anything public, so they'll keep it secret, but whatever you do, don't try to get the matter straightened out in court. The courts and the people who pay for them have too much to lose by dragging this into the light of day. They'd destroy you and the Rangers rather than have this opened to the public."
"Surely once it was in the papers -"
"Newspaper owners and editors have friends too. Business friends who need their support and who give support in return. Besides, newspapers print what reporters hear and the people who your misfortunes will reflect badly on can arrange for them to hear a great deal about you and the rangers, some of it true and some of it not. Oh, the mud that DREADFUL impostor threw at you hasn't completely washed off yet. I'm afraid it will all be raked over again." Ratigan looked at her sorrowfully.
Gadget looked at him. His view of the world seemed bleak and cold and terribly, terribly right. She looked away again but the world seemed no better for it.
"I should have stayed with Bubbles and the others." She said.
"Hmm, interesting idea, you and four villains at large in the world, performing great acts of daring wherever you see fit. Seems strangely familiar. Oh wait, I know why. You and four heroes, the Rangers, at large in the world, doing acts of daring wherever you see fit."
"You see me turning to crime?"
"You suggested it, not me."
"Perhaps I could reform them." Gadget said hesitantly. It sounded unconvincing even to her. She didn't dare look at Ratigan's expression. "Perhaps not."
"Perhaps not." Agreed Ratigan. "If I might suggest, Gadget Hackwrench IS still outwardly respectable, so far as the public are concerned. She is a pillar of the community and such a position is useful. It offers security, protection and opportunity."
"I'm not out for myself." Gadget reminded him.
"You might use it to bend the rules for others though. Deserving cases, poor unfortunate souls, I'd be happy to point them out."
Gadget raised an eyebrow as much as the thickly caked mud on her face would allow. "Professor, you sound suspiciously close to urging me to do a good deed."
The Professor examined the gemstone top of his walking stick. "Hmm, do you know of any reason why I shouldn't want you to do a good deed? I've always said that I'm here to HELP you, after all."
Gadget looked at him. Was he serious? He had caused her a great deal of trouble but everything he had done had been intended to make her break out of jail, perhaps because he genuinely didn't agree with her decision to let the law take its course.
"You're serious?" she asked, warily.
"Then, I'd be happy to accept your assistance."
"I'm delighted to hear it, my dear. You do, ah-ha, accept that it would be an act of good to bend the rules for those who have shown some glimmer of promise by their past actions. That charming Bubbles girl, for instance."
"Of course!" Gadget was delighted by the thought of being able to help Bubbles.
"In fact, you've already put it into practice. You helped her get, ah, early remission, so to speak."
Gadget pulled a face.
"Naturally, it follows that the reverse is true. Where someone has done great wrong and gone unpunished for it, you would be doing equal good to see to it they got their just desserts. You would be the very hand of justice." Ratigan said gently in her ear. "After all, that is the other half of the equation."
Ratigan watched as Gadget did the math. He had learned a little of how she thought and now he could practically see the numbers dancing behind her eyes. He had taken pains with this. Chosen the words carefully. Chalk and blackboards had been involved. He was a professor of mathematics, after all.
"Yes. Of course it would be." Gadget said thoughtfully, studying something only she could see.
"You have been the victim of a great injustice. Could you trust the same courts that sent you to Shrankshaw to deal with the person responsible? And how many others, like Fat Cat, or Capone, slither their way out of trouble time and again to hurt other innocents who never needed to hear their names?"
"Too many." Gadget conceded, looking troubled.
"If you let such a thing happen, doesn't that make you responsible, in some small way?"
"Perhaps." Gadget allowed. She hadn't considered that before.
"I can see I've given you a great deal to consider. I'll be on my way." Ratigan almost bowed.
"Thank you, Professor. I've learned a great deal."
"You're very welcome. Any time I can be of assistance "
"But I almost forgot! I need to find my way out of this forest! If I stay here until dawn there is a high probability that their efforts to recapture me will be successful. Assuming that they are using a simple spiral search pattern starting with my last known location, their chances of intersecting with trail exponentially improve with each sweep they make."
"Spoken like the old Gadget Hackwrench." Ratigan said, massaging his temples.
"Can you show me the true path?" Gadget pleaded, her blue eyes especially large.
Ratigan looked at her in surprise. It was not the question but the phrasing that threw him. He looked into her tired eyes and still saw a great deal of innocence in them. He found himself thinking that if it hadn't been for the dirt and mud and the moss cloak and leaf bonnet and the poor light, even his resolve might have crumbled under the full effect of that beautiful, charming gaze.
"I'd be delighted." He said carefully. "There are two paths before you, my dear Gadget. You will find one of them directly behind you. It is short and swift and leads to a road that runs through the forest between the seaport and the warehouse district of the city. The other is long and difficult and takes you deeper into the forest, but on the far side of it there will be a bright dawn and an open road that will take you to wherever you want to go. That road lies in front of you."
Gadget smiled at him. "Thank you, Professor. That was what I wanted to know. You can go now."
Ratigan didn't move. Then he nodded very slightly. "You have no interest in my views on ethics or what course you should take in life. The correct course out of this forest is the only thing you care about."
"Forgive me. Whatever your motives are, you have done nothing but cause trouble for me since I first laid eyes on you."
"So you decided to trick me, rather than offering any kind of bargain or ask outright for help." Ratigan rolled his eyes skyward.
"Again, forgive me, but I'm rather afraid I'd have to reject any bargain you offered me. I can't be sure why but I suspect it would come at altogether too higher price. And if I had asked for help outright, I think you would have forced me to bargain."
"You know, you're very much like another young lady who's recently made my acquaintance." Ratigan growled.
"If she got the better of you, thank you for the compliment." Gadget grinned. "Goodbye, Professor. I hope we don't meet again."
"You don't understand! There are plans, so many plans, I've spent years scheming and it all depends on you! Come back here! You must take the long path! You can't go back now! Not after everything you've experienced!"
Gadget could almost believe it was a confession, that the professor had been the author of her every misfortune. Suddenly she relished disappointing him. "I'm sorry, Professor, but I'm going back the Rangers. To my friends and Monty's cooking and Chip's nervous compliments and Dale's late night movie marathons and Zipper's Zen chanting. I'm going back to helping people and saving lives and catching crooks, even if I do feel sorry for some of them, and most of all to my OWN BED!"
Gadget stood on the first path the Professor had pointed out to her. The one that went back the way she had come from. Of all the things she missed, she had never thought that her own bed would be the most important, yet now she almost wept at the thought of it.
"My plans! My beautiful plans! Ruined, ruined!" Ratigan seemed to collapse against a tree trunk and his shoulders shook as though he were in tears.
Gadget looked back at him and shivered in disgust. Fat Cat and Nimnul had their plans derailed by the Rangers on a routine basis but never made such a fuss about it. Shaking her head, she reproached him. "To think YOU had the nerve to call ME childish."
Ratigan stayed hunched against the tree, shaking. Gadget left him there without another backward glance.
"Oh, my beautiful plans, what have you done?" Ratigan's head lifted from the trunk. His face was split by a wide, gleeful smile and his shoulders continued to shake with laughter. "Oh, my dear Gadget, what HAVE you done? What HAVE you done?"
Gadget ran through the forest. She had no sooner left Ratigan than the sound of a dog baying echoed through the night air, as though the professor had summoned up the pursuit in vengeance. She wouldn't put it past him. Her blood boiled at the thought.
Normally sweet-tempered, Gadget felt like she had been through everything short of hell itself and could feel exhaustion creeping up on her as she staggered along the path. Just as the professor had promised, she soon found a dirt road just barely wide enough for a human to walk down. She paused a moment before stepping onto the road; some instinctive part of her didn't want to leave the cover offered by the bushes that overhung the footpath.
Gadget forced herself to take deep, slow breaths. This was the exhaustion, she knew, stripping away her rational mind until only her raw animal instincts were left to take charge. She couldn't let that happen. Being hunted made her feel like a wild animal but she wasn't one and if she acted like one she would be caught.
She dragged her feet out into the middle of the dirt road and looked both ways.
The storm was dying a lingering death. Its last few intermittent raindrops were indistinguishable from the dripping of wet forest greenery. Standing in the middle of the road, Gadget could see the full moon through a gap in the trees. If Ratigan had been telling the truth and not engaging in another elaborate mind-game with her, the city lay at one end of the road and the docks were at the other.
As a pilot, Gadget's life depended on her navigation skills. They never left her, in the air or on the ground, and they were with her now. Turning, she began to walk towards the city.
She kept walking for over an hour. As she went, she thought of what she would say when she got back home. Both her confidence and her anger seemed to grow with every step.
Chip deserved the biggest piece of her mind, she thought. After all, he had taken the trouble to visit the prison and STILL hadn't seen the obvious when it was right in front of his face. But it was Monty's betrayal, albeit innocent, that hurt her the most.
Monty had been with her when she was a child. He had bought her birthday and Christmas presents, sometimes when even her father couldn't manage it. He had bounced her on his knee and given her pet nicknames and told her bedtime stories and now he apparently couldn't tell the difference between her and the sort of cheap impersonator who would get booed off the stage at a nightclub. But it was Chip who was going to get that silly fedora squashed flat against his head when she caught up with him.
Ooh, she'd make his head vibrate like a gong, partly because he deserved it but mostly because Monty was too tall to receive that kind of treatment unless she got a stepladder!
There was a stepladder in the hall closet, now that she thought about it.
Just let them try and put the cuffs on her and cart her back to prison! She'd show them a thing or two!
Her foot kicked something that had been lying in the road. Gadget glanced at it and stopped dead in mid-stride, knowing instantly what it was. She had just kicked a two centimetre by one centimetre metal mirror that had been super-glued into a handmade plastic casing, including an arm with a metal bracket. The mirror had probably come loose because the metal bracket needed two bolts to attach it to the body of a heavily adapted remote control car. During the last maintenance session however, the bolts had been misplaced and the person responsible for the upkeep of the vehicle had been too tired to look for them, preferring to reattach the mirror with duct tape as a temporary measure.
Gadget cradled the broken mirror in her hands as a kindly human might hold an injured bird. Her mechanical skills and knowledge could have allowed her to deduce all this but in this case she already knew it all because the person responsible for the upkeep of the vehicle was Gadget Hackwrench.
With a feeling of dread that far excelled anything she had known in Shrankshaw, Gadget turned and saw the wreckage of the Ranger-mobile.
Lawhiney kicked at a stone. It had all been going so well, dang it! She was free of the Rangers, free of the plaster cast and out of the city. Even that annoying nag, Geegaw, had evaporated like a summer mist.
And then Ratigan had spoiled it all.
She hadn't the faintest doubt he had done it deliberately and that she had genuinely seen the rat standing in the middle of the road. Whatever you said about subconscious impulses, repression and post-traumatic stress Lawhiney was certain that no part of her, however small or repressed, wanted to die a slow painful death in the wreckage of a pointless road accident miles from anywhere.
It had been payback for embarrassing him at the hospital when she used him to emotionally blackmail Geegaw into healing her leg. The rat had left in a storm of fury, vowing vengeance on his return and Lawhiney didn't doubt that this was just the first the first trick he would play on her, the dirty, rotten snake-oil salesman.
After the accident she had spent twenty or minutes or so, curled into a ball of pain, silently praying she wasn't about to go into labour. Mercifully, she hadn't. Then she had sat on a tree route until she stopped shaking. It had taken half an hour or so and she had spent most of the time wishing she had brought a flask of something warming with her. She wasn't thinking of tomato soup.
Finally Lawhiney got to her feet and surveyed the damage, staggering around the wreckage until it was obvious that there was no way she could get the car righted and running again by herself.
The Ranger-mobile had come to rest on its left side with its nose crushed against a rock larger than the vehicle itself. Most of the plastic attachments to the bodywork, such as the bull bars, lights and mirrors, were all either broken or had been scraped away. Thankfully the roll bars had been some of Gadget's additions, made of real metal. They had protected Lawhiney from the worst of the crash.
At the back of the car a battery had broken free of its compartment and was hanging by a single wire. A single brake light glowed dimly, casting a sinister ruby glow across Lawhiney's pained and worried face.
The underside of the Ranger-mobile was a patchwork of mechanics so complicated that Lawhiney couldn't even take a guess at which parts were damaged and which parts not. Lawhiney stared at it and groaned.
All she could be sure of was that a wheel had escaped during the accident, bouncing free to who-knew-where, and a steel shaft the length of her own body had broken loose and was hanging out of the undercarriage. Since she didn't know where the wheel had gone and had no idea what the shaft was supposed to do, Lawhiney was forced to write the Ranger-Mobile off as a complete wreck.
Lawhiney turned asides from the ruin, lifted her eyes and found herself nose to nose with a strange and ghostly figure.
"AGH!" She recoiled.
The figure didn't flinch but stared at Lawhiney, unmoving.
Lawhiney relaxed but only slightly. The stranger in front of her was dirty, dishevelled and covered in wet mud. It - she, Lawhiney guessed though wasn't ready to commit herself - was wearing a head wrap made from a single leaf that left her eyes and face in darkness and a cloak of moss that hid her shape and clothes. The strange figure looked much like some poor backwoods creature who had never seen a human or, horror of horrors, a clothes shop. Lawhiney shivered at the thought.
"Ah-ha! Excuse me." Lawhiney said. "I'm still shaken up from crashing the car. Something ran across the road. Oh! I didn't hit it so there's no need to be concerned, for anyone other than me, I mean, but I could really use some help from someone local. You know, to get through the forest, and you clearly are very local."
Lawhiney badly needed this person's help but she couldn't make eye contact, which was important when trying to gain someone's confidence. The stranger's eyes were shadowed by her leaf headscarf and there was a single straw stuck in the mud that caked the stranger's chest that was drawing Lawhiney's eyes instead.
There was so much wrong with the figure's appearance that it was hard to say why a single straw bothered Lawhiney so. Perhaps it was the way the stranger seemed unaware of its very presence. Perhaps it was the way the straw seemed to point directly at Lawhiney like an accusing finger. Perhaps it was simply the last straw.
Lawhiney plucked it free.
The stranger seemed to look at the straw for a moment, then glower at her.
"Excuse me." She said, awkwardly. She had just touched a total stranger without the slightest indication it would be welcome.
The stranger continued to glower.
Lawhiney's sense of discomfort increased with the length of the silence.
"I'm trying to get to the seaport, before dawn. It's, uh, very important." She tried. She was going to need a story. Should she be the desperate young mother-to-be rushing to meet the father of her child, or should she be Gadget Hackwrench one last time? "Could you help me?"
The stranger's jaw dropped.
"Why should I help you?" The stranger's voice was hoarse and hostile.
Lawhiney considered quickly. If Ratigan was real, so was Geegaw and running the Gadget Hackwrench routine again was definitely a no-no if she wanted to dodge the grim future Geegaw had dangled in front of her. Then again, the mother-to-be story was somewhat hampered by little Roche's apparent reluctance to ruin his mother's girlish figure and the fact that the car she had just crashed was all too clearly marked with the Rescue Ranger's insignia.
Lawhiney coughed politely and made her decision. "We haven't been properly introduced. My name's Gadget Hackwrench."
At the sound of her own name from Lawhiney's lips, Gadget felt a firecracker of rage explode behind her eyes. She gasped and the sound was like the hiss of a predator even to her own ears.
From the moment Lawhiney had set eyes on Gadget and failed to turn tail and run for her life, it had been obvious that Lawhiney did not recognize her. Perhaps it was the mud and the dark but after everything she had suffered, Gadget found it easy to believe she had changed beyond all recognition and that no one, not even her friends, would call her by her own name again.
Lawhiney had taken everything from her.
Gadget took a step forward in anger, uncertain what she was about to do. Monty, Chip, Dale, Zipper had none of them known her well enough to see through this charade? She stopped. She owed it to them to find out before she finished this.
She leaned in close to whisper her one and only warning. "This had better be good."
Lawhiney shrank back from Gadget, her eyes reappraising the spectre in front of her. "Uh, what better be good?"
Gadget couldn't reply without causing Lawhiney to bolt but in the privacy of her own head she practically shouted. What better be good? Why, your routine of course, your oh-so-convincing impersonation of me that everyone, including my nearest and dearest friends, seems to prefer to the real thing. I've been through a lot. I deserve to be impressed now and you better impress me. Your routine better be simply amazing, in fact. Because otherwise I'm going to stomp you flat.
Out loud, all she said was: "Let's see it. Don't keep me waiting."
Lawhiney blinked and stammered. "You - You mean my credentials? Rescue Rangers aren't police or sheriffs. We don't carry badges or anything. But you can see the Ranger-mobile right next to us. It has the Ranger logo on the side and front. We could see them clearly from the other side of the car if you really need to look but seriously, who else could I be? Monterey Jack?"
Gadget almost laughed but not at the thought of someone confusing Monty and her. Was it that simple? Show people a vehicle with the right logo on the side and they believed anything you said? Gadget's eyes wandered sadly to the car and back to Lawhiney. Yes, perhaps that, a lavender jumpsuit and blond hair were all you needed if you were dealing with someone who hadn't met Gadget Hackwrench before.
"I see you crashed the car." Gadget's tone was poised and even. It promised mayhem in ways only a perfectly calm feminine voice could.
"I - what? Yes. I crashed. I swerved to avoid someone in the road." Lawhiney seemed thrown by the change of subject. Gadget wondered if people seemed this stupid to Chip when he interrogated them.
"Some body?" Was there someone else out here, hiding in the dark? Someone who might bring the search parties?
"I thought there was somebody. I was mistaken. I didn't hit anything so you don't need to be concerned about anyone except me."
Gadget's lips drew back in something that might be called a smile. "Don't worry. I won't be concerned."
Lawhiney blinked. "Uh good."
"I always thought Gadget Hackwrench was an excellent driver."
"Why, thank you!" Lawhiney pretended to be flattered. "But actually Chip does most of the driving. The boys aren't keen on letting a blonde behind the wheel."
Gadget blinked. None of the boys had ever expressed such reservations to her. If they had done so, she would have given them an answer they would have remembered.
"But it always gives me a nice safe feeling, knowing there's a big strong male at the wheel." Lawhiney purred. "Know what I mean?"
If there had been any males listening, the rough silk tone of Lawhiney's voice would have turned their knees to jelly. No doubt it would have had a similar effect on their brains, a detail that would have passed the pre-Shrankshaw Gadget by. Gadget immediately wondered how many of Lawhiney's victims were male. An overwhelming majority, Gadget was sure. Was that the other half of Lawhiney's success?
Gadget discarded any thought of Lawhiney's other victims. Any male stupid enough to be taken in by a pair of pretty eyes and a voice that stroked their ego the right way deserved what they got; perhaps it would teach them to look at the person underneath the make-up next time.
Lawhiney's smile was becoming strained waiting for an answer. Gadget found one that would make her even more uncomfortable.
"Isn't Chip smaller than you?"
Lawhiney gulped. "You know Chip?"
"Not really, now you come to mention it, no." Misleading or not, in Gadget's own opinion, her answer was nothing less than the truth and more honesty than she owed Lawhiney.
"He's a great guy. A great detective." Lawhiney enthused. "You can't pull the wool over his eyes."
"Have you ever tried?"
"What? I - of course not! Why? Why would you ask that?"
"What about Monty? Is Monterey Jack the way everyone says he is? Big and brave and generous hearted?"
Lawhiney hesitated. "He is. A giant amongst mice with a heart of gold and a story for every occasion."
Gadget stared. She could have sworn Lawhiney was sincere, until she remembered that was what made a successful confidence trick. "And Dale?"
Suddenly Lawhiney looked as though she had just been given bad news. Her eyes sparked with tears and her face crumpled. For a heartbeat Gadget felt genuine fear for the boisterous chipmunk who had made her laugh so often. Then she remembered herself, or more accurately, remembered Lawhiney.
Ah, Gadget thought, here it comes. The ever-so-convincing reason why I should do whatever it is she wants me to.
"Dale is Dale had an accident." Lawhiney choked on the words. Every word and gesture, every strangled little sound and brimming tear seemed to tell the truth.
Gadget waited but Lawhiney seemed unable to add another word. Clearly she was waiting for Gadget to ask if Dale were dead, at which point Lawhiney would launch into some prepared story that would no doubt end with an appeal for help that only a stonehearted monster could refuse.
Out of pure stubbornness, Gadget said nothing. She glared at Lawhiney, silently daring her to tell another lie.
Lawhiney simply stood there like a good little girl, with her hands behind her back and her innocent blue eyes staring back at Gadget until Gadget gave up in disgust and finished the pitch for her.
"I suppose Dale is on his deathbed and that you were on some kind of desperate, last minute mercy dash."
The effect her words had on Lawhiney was striking. Lawhiney's eyes went wide in amazement. Her jaw dropped in shock. For a split second the confidence trickster's expression was blank, as though she were struggling to resolve some internal conflict, and then she began to nod so rapidly that Gadget fancied she could hear a hollow rattle.
"You desperately need my help, a vehicle, or something else I wouldn't normally part with but which no reasonable creature could refuse you under these exceptional circumstances."
Lawhiney smiled and kept nodding, albeit less quickly.
"And even if I had doubts that you were telling the truth, I'd probably set them aside rather than risk someone dying just because I had a nasty, suspicious nature."
Lawhiney stopped nodding and her smile faded.
"So that's how it's done. Thank you." Gadget said quietly, tugging at the stalk of her leaf bonnet. The bonnet came away, slick and wet, and let Gadget's tangled, mud-soaked hair fall free.
Lawhiney stared. It was Gadget's eyes that caught her attention, not that Lawhiney recognised them. Perhaps Gadget really had changed enough to prevent that happening, for the moment. It was the expression in them. No anger. No fury. Just calm. But it was that terrible calm you find at the heart of a hurricane.
"Who are you?" Asked Lawhiney, trying to back away until her back was pressed against the rock the Ranger car had crashed into. She edged along it until she could start to circle round the stranger, but that put the crazy mouse between her and the Ranger-mobile.
"Who do you think I am?" Gadget turned to follow Lawhiney.
"Nobody! Just someone who lives in the forest. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Perhaps you just don't like humans or the noise of the city. You're a good citizen I'm sure." Lawhiney stumbled on a root and landed on her shapely behind.
Gadget towered over her. "And a good citizen would help you, wouldn't they?"
"Yes! I don't want much! I'll walk to the docks if I have to, but I've got to be there by dawn."
"Why? Are you running away?" Gadget demanded.
"Running - I don't know why you should think such a thing! Any good citizen would help me, just as you said!"
"What if I'm not a good citizen? What if I'm just a crook, a convict, escaped this very night, with a nasty grudge?"
Lawhiney stared at her with wide, frightened eyes. Her mouth was a terrified "O".
"What about it, Miss Hackwrench? What would a dangerous fugitive from justice be happy to do for, or should I say to, a lone stranded Rescue Ranger found all alone in the woods on a dark and stormy night? Would a wanted criminal help you get your car back on the road? You think?"
Lawhiney drew a deep, trembling breath. She had dropped the torch halfway between herself and the other mouse. It was rolling around on its side, lighting the stranger's face and body from below as thought she were a Halloween prankster. Maybe that was it? Could she dare hope this was a deranged prank by the local nutcase?
"If you were a fugitive you'd have to be crazy to tell me. Even crazier to mess with me! You'd have Monterey Jack and Chip Maplewood and every other detective within a hundred miles hunting you down." This was good. Excellent. It could serve as a warning if this lunatic really was a fugitive and left her a little wriggle room to pretend she hadn't believed any admissions of guilt and therefore wouldn't act on them.
"I've been called crazy."
Lawhiney had to admit that the stranger's eyes did shine with a wild, disturbing light. She tried another tack. "I need to get to the docks. I don't care who you are. If you'll help me get to the docks, I'll forget I ever saw you."
"Surely the great Gadget Hackwrench can get her car back on the road without any help from me!" The stranger taunted her.
"My reputation is a little exaggerated. They call me their engineer because I can do an oil change without any help but I have to rely on the guys for this complicated stuff!" Diplomacy, Lawhiney reminded herself, is the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock. She felt desperately around for a rock, a twig, something that had been thrown clear from the Ranger-mobile, anything she could use as a weapon.
"A sprung rear axel, a wheel change, a few electrical shorts and some cracked body work? Are you telling me Gadget Hackwrench needs help with that?"
Lawhiney's hand found something. It turned out to be the broken wing mirror from the Ranger-mobile. Gadget had dropped it on her way over but all Lawhiney knew was that it felt hard and metallic in her hand. Slightly braver because of it, she raised her voice. "Just between us girls, the boys really just keep me around to brighten the place up! Seriously, I can't tell the difference between one end of a spanner and the other but you know what men are like, sister. You have to make nice and play along with them if you want to get them to do anything. Now come on, how about lending a hand?"
"Alright! If I have to, I'll walk on out of here my own. Without you."
Gadget's voice was growl. "Without me? I don't think so. I think you'll take me everywhere you go, keep me closer to you than the shirt on your back. You'll only discard me when you've soiled my name so much you can't wear it anymore." Acting out her very words, Gadget pulled the moss cloak from her back, tore it in half and cast its separate pieces to the ground.
Lawhiney froze. Hunched over, with her face caked in mud and twisted by rage, the stranger in the moss cloak wasn't immediately recognizable as Gadget Hackwrench. Still, once given a hint, a clue as to just who to look for under all that dirt, Lawhiney couldn't help but see a familiar shape and form; her own form. Not Gadget Hackwrench.
Lawhiney gaped for a moment before her brain restarted and reminded her that there only two people who looked like Gadget Hackwrench. She was still fairly sure which one she was, which left only one person the wild haired, ragged, filthy vagrant in front of her could be.
"Gadget? That's you under all that crud? PHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" Lawhiney curled up into a ball, slapping the ground beside her with hysterical laughter. "Oh Lord! I thought I was in real trouble for a moment there!"
Gadget looked dumbfounded. "Trouble? You know who I am and you don't think you're in trouble?"
"Ah, I give up! I won't try to run. You caught me. Ah-ha-heh. I guess it was always going to be you, destiny or something, but-" Lawhiney raised a finger dramatically "-I'm going to be put away in a nice warm prison cell, not a shallow grave!"
"You really had me going for a moment there. What with us being way out here in the woods, no witnesses, and you acting crazy and everything. Wow, I thought this was it, girl! My time was up!"
Lawhiney mimed terror and then fell back on the ground as though dead. Since she was still in a sitting position, it was easy enough to do. She wasn't done talking though. Lawhiney, the girl with a secret for so long, had finally found someone she could talk to.
"Oh, I gotta tell you though, you're going to have a real job convincing the first cop we meet that you're you. I've been playing you for weeks and you know what? It wasn't that people didn't suspect. I think they all did at one time or another. It's just that none of them were sure enough to say it out loud. I don't even think they were afraid of looking silly by saying it. They just didn't want to see the hurt look in your eyes if they were wrong."
"Everything I've been through has been because my friends saw something was wrong and didn't want to take a chance on hurting my feelings?" Gadget worked her mouth mechanically.
"I guess so, 'cause good as my little act is there's no way it should have lasted this long. Not living in the same house as them. Not even with Ge - " Lawhiney put her hand over her mouth as though she had burped. "Excuse me. I meant, especially not with Chip being a great detective and all. Speaking of which, you are just going to have to have a word with that chipmunk. Because ya know, interspecies dating can be a lot of fun, believe me. I know, I've been there, but you've had that guy dangling on the end of a line for how long?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, sure you do! He's just been waiting for the right moment to propose to you for how long now?"
"Marriage, of course! Don't tell me you didn't know. He's got a ring and everything - uh, well, I guess he HAD a ring."
Gadget's head was spinning. "Chip had a ring?"
"Want to see it?"
"Chip proposed to you?"
"Ah, don't get your panties in a bunch, I stole it "
"You stole ?" Gadget shook her head to clear it. "HOW CAN YOU HAVE THE NERVE TO SIT THERE AND TELL ME THIS? HOW? HOW CAN YOU DARE SAY THIS TO MY FACE?"
Lawhiney flinched back from her anger but Gadget didn't see fear in her enemy's face. She saw surprise and even a little hurt.
"Well, uh, you'll understand. You know how it is. Some people are just good and some people are just bad. It's not necessarily anyone's fault, it's just how folks are made. People just do what's in their nature to do and you're one of the lucky ones, right? 'Cause it's in your nature to be good, so you're good and I'm bad. That's how I know you're going to be good about this. I mean, you may not like me very much and you gave me a good scare - ah-ha - you really got me good earlier, but you aren't going to hurt me and you'll probably even be polite."
Gadget stared at her, aghast.
The worst thing was it sounded exactly right. It sounded exactly like what Gadget Hackwrench would have done. Two months ago. So when she spoke it was Red's voice that was weak and trembling. "Why? Why is it in my nature?"
Lawhiney's eyes held nothing but empty puzzlement. She truly hadn't got a clue. "I don't know. It just is. Because you're Gadget Hackwrench."
Something went click inside Gadget's brain.
It was as though some hidden counter she was previously unaware of had finally reached a predetermined number and released whatever safety-catch or trigger it was attached to. Lawhiney's tone had done it, thought some detached and still rational part of Gadget's brain as she strode towards the wrecked Ranger-mobile. Specifically it was the way Lawhiney made what Gadget had been trying to tell everyone for months without success sound so simple, so obvious.
She, Red, was Gadget Hackwrench, the good girl who always did what a good girl was supposed to and a little bit more for good measure. "Gadget Hackwrench: Good Girl" - It might as well have been a neon-sign glued to her forehead. Gadget pushed the blueprints for such a sign and wearable power source out of her mind's eye as quickly as her inventive instincts conjured them.
With a few swift and horribly economical movements, Gadget used those same instincts when she reached into the wreckage of the toy car, grasped a shaft of metal and wrenched it free. It was a steel bar the thickness of Gadget's thumb, roughly the length of her body, with a cog at the end. The other end had been sheared off during the accident, leaving only a bent and jagged point that might make a blunt, makeshift spear.
"Uh, doesn't the Ranger-mobile need that if it's going to get back on the road?" Lawhiney wondered uneasily.
Gadget advanced on the prone liar, cheat and thief with a single-mindedness she had seldom known.
Lawhiney looked back at Gadget in puzzlement. She didn't see the murderous rage behind her eyes until Gadget was almost close enough to touch her with the end of the metal bar she was carrying.
"YIPE!" Lawhiney flipped onto all fours and tried to bolt only to be brought up short by the firm grip Gadget had a on her tail. "SQUEEK!"
Lawhiney looked over her shoulder with the huge eyes of a frightened child cornered by an angry parent. It felt as though her tail was about to be torn out by the root but she knew from childhood experience that reaching back to grab the base of her tail would only put more stress on the bones between her hands and Gadget. Instead she let the root of her tail take the full load as she used the traction of all four paws to get away from Gadget.
One handed, Gadget wrapped the end of Lawhiney's tail around her fist and planted her feet securely to resist Lawhiney's escape attempt. She had to take a couple of steps after the little cheat to stop the tail from slipping through her fingers but the metal bar proved a fine staff and kept Gadget's balance.
Lawhiney pulled until her eyes looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets. She was sure her tail was about to snap. She looked back at Gadget. Gadget's face was implacable, cold, every muscle tense to the point of being mask-like. Her eyes held all the warmth and compassion of a machine. Lawhiney's line of sight made it seem like the one working break-light on the Ranger-mobile was a neon-red devil riding on Gadget's shoulder.
Gadget fell to her knees in a deliberate, calculated way. It allowed her to hold Lawhiney's tail closer to the ground.
Lawhiney dug her fingers and toes into the loose forest soil, trying to pull away, but all she was doing was dragging Gadget behind her in the hardest way possible.
Gadget was having no more of it. She lifted one knee and put it down on top of Lawhiney's tail. That, along with the grip maintained, was enough to hold the struggling girl in place.
Lawhiney's struggles slackened. Her tail, only truly healed two weeks earlier, could stand no more. There were tears in her eyes when she looked back at the remorseless Gadget.
Gadget lifted one leg and planted a heel on Lawhiney's tail, as though she were working her way up to the part of Lawhiney she could kick. Carefully, Gadget stood. She put her full weight on the foot with Lawhiney's tail under it and released her grip.
Lawhiney flipped over onto her back so she could use her arms and legs to defend herself. She looked up at Gadget in terror.
"You're a blood-sucking parasite!" Gadget told her. "A vampire! And I'm going to drive a stake right through your heart!"
Gadget raised her makeshift spear to impale Lawhiney. The spear glinted red in the glare of the dying break light. Lawhiney trembled at the sight.
Gadget froze, her face shocked and her eyes locked on someone behind Lawhiney. Lawhiney risked tilting her head right back and saw someone neither of them had expected to see again.
Geegaw stood at the edge of the road and looked down at both of them. He wasn't wearing his robes, instead his old flight jacket and silk scarf made him look exactly the way he had the morning of his final flight. The sight was enough to nearly break two hearts. Gadget's heart because seeing him again brought back all the pain of losing him and Lawhiney's because she saw he wasn't wearing his robes. She knew that meant Geegaw wasn't her guide any more. He had come here to save Gadget's precious soul and maybe Lawhiney's own worthless neck as a side effect.
"Daddy?" Gadget breathed, her expression still slack with disbelief. She lowered her weapon, not even aware it still existed.
"Gadget, please, look at what you're doing! I didn't raise you to be a murderer! Your mother - she's such a gentle soul. I wish you could see her again but if you do this " Geegaw trailed off shaking his head in horror. In truth, every part of Geegaw's body was shaking. He had come prepared for something but not for this.
Basil hadn't told him. Perhaps the detective hadn't known or perhaps he hadn't been able to find the right words. Perhaps Basil had known that whatever words were used, Geegaw could never have believed this.
"Mother?" Gadget's eyes seemed to soften with hope. Then a glint of something hard and despairing seemed to snuff out the light in them. "No. You're both dead and I'm all alone in the world. I'm hallucinating."
Lawhiney babbled desperately. "No. I see him too. Wearing a bomber jacket, not robes and definitely no scythe! He's GEEGAW HACKWRENCH, your FATHER and he's standing RIGHT THERE!"
Gadget's eyes filled with confusion, then she realised that Lawhiney had heard her say the word 'Daddy' when the hallucination had appeared. Lawhiney was simply taking advantage of someone's intimate moment of pain and doubt in order to make good her escape. It was, Gadget decided, despicable.
She curled her lip at Lawhiney. "LIAR! You'll say ANYTHING to save your own worthless hide!"
For a second time she raised her weapon to strike.
Geegaw dropped to his knees as if in prayer and begged. "Gadget, please! Don't do this to my wonderful daughter! Don't do this to my little girl!"
And with that, Geegaw began to sob.
Lawhiney stared at the weeping Geegaw. He had just begged Gadget not to hurt his little girl, his wonderful daughter, and so far as Lawhiney could see she was the only one about to be hurt.
Was it possible?
Gadget's father was, unsurprisingly enough, about the right age to also be Lawhiney's own father. He had even hinted at having some knowledge or experience of Lawhiney's mother when he had seen her name mentioned in Lawhiney's confession.
In Gadget's photo-album there were dozens pictures of him striking a rakish pose in front of this dramatic backdrop or that new aircraft so it didn't stretch Lawhiney's imagination far to suppose Gadget's dear old dad had misbehaved like any other roguish globetrotting pilot, at least, until he was left holding the baby. After all, his claim that he could act as a guide because he knew all the temptations and excuses for giving into them was as much as an admission that he had been as crooked as she was. It even explained the apparent cruelty of Geegaw's bosses upstairs when they put him to work reforming someone who not only looked exactly like his beloved daughter but who's misbehaviour had put said daughter in grave danger. It was almost like saying: "This is your mess. Now clean it up."
Lawhiney turned back to Gadget with a considering eye.
She had called Gadget 'sister' when they first met but had never dreamed it could be more than a word that would help her get what she wanted. The physical resemblance between them had almost entirely vanished thanks to Gadget's forest makeover. Even so Lawhiney couldn't help remembering that she had seen, for one disorientating moment, herself in Gadget's posture, voice and actions. The similarity between them was more than skin deep. It ran all the way to the bone. Gadget had just needed a little prison time to bring it to the surface.
That made Lawhiney realise how wrong she had been a few seconds ago. It wasn't solely in Gadget's nature to be 'good about things'. Gadget was capable of everything she was and in this situation Lawhiney hadn't the slightest doubt that meant murder.
Gadget stared at her weeping father. For the first time she realised that she had never seen him cry, not even after her mother had disappeared. She knew he must have done so, she could remember the smell of saltwater on his face when he hugged her and tucked her in bed that first night, but he had never done so in front of her.
She had made her father cry.
Except Geegaw never cried in front of her and he had been dead for at least seven years. Given a choice between knowing she had caused him this much pain and knowing she was insane, she found the padded cell preferable.
She looked down at Lawhiney in anger and contempt.
"You haven't even left me my SANITY!" Gadget put the point of the metal shaft to Lawhiney's throat as though it were a spear and leaned in close to hiss: "I haven't slept for so long I want to weep at the thought of my own bed! I've been electrocuted - twice! I've been drowned and nearly steam-ironed and drugged and beaten and frightened half to death and now I'm seeing things that aren't there! And you know what?" Gadget's voice dropped to a low growl. "That means this isn't even murder!"
Gadget seemed to delight at the sound. A cruel and happy light danced in her eyes as she whispered, almost lovingly, into Lawhiney's ear. "No one will hold me responsible for anything I do now, not even myself!"
Geegaw was already on his knees. He reached out to his daughter. "Gadget, please! If you want to believe I'm hallucination then do but all that means is that there's a part of you that knew me well enough to know how I'd feel about what you're about to do!"
Gadget hesitated. This was bad. Part of her was agitating that Lawhiney would get the drop on her if she didn't act quickly, another that it would mean Lawhiney had made a fool of her if she did anything but drive the stake through her lying heart. She was exhausted, close to collapse, battered and bruised from the last six weeks in Shrankshaw prison. Every injury she had sustained in the prison riot of the previous morning felt like a mortal wound. When the authorities arrived there was every chance she would be taken back, no matter who they decided she might be or what her mental state was.
The smart thing to do was to finish it and quickly. Strike the blow. Simplify the equation. Then she'd only have the authorities to deal with and, whatever they did to her, she'd always have the satisfaction of knowing she had avenged herself. She would have clawed back some pride from this hopeless, awful mess that there seemed to be no way out of.
Lawhiney was lying on her side and trying to either crawl away or see the hallucination Gadget was having for herself. Gadget put the pointy end of her steel bar to Lawhiney's shoulder and pushed hard enough to give Lawhiney a choice between blood loss and laying prone on her back to await Gadget's pleasure.
When both her shoulders and her back were pressed firmly against the ground, Lawhiney looked up at Gadget with the blank empty expression of someone who knew they were about to die. Gadget thought the look conveyed nothing if not disappointment, presumably at the discovery that this was all life had left to offer her.
So it was something of a surprise when Lawhiney spoke to her.
"Geegaw Hackwrench, your father, just said you know how he would feel about what you are about to do, regardless of whether you're imagining him or not. And before that he asked you not to hurt his little girl, his wonderful daughter."
Gadget froze. She was at the end of her tether and it took a little while for Lawhiney's words to filter through her brain. Gadget was as still as a statue while she tried to understand what her senses were telling her.
When she was ready, Gadget tried to force her vocal cords to work. It took several attempts before she could make a sound. "Yuh - You see him too? You heard him?"
"Yes, yes, I see him, I hear him! I can't touch him because he's dead but I know he's there as well as you do!" Lawhiney hissed at her with malice. "He's your beloved father and you'd cheerfully murder me in front of him."
Gadget had never felt less cheerful in her life. She looked like a lost child. "Dad?"
Geegaw nodded, his face etched with sadness and relief.
Lawhiney didn't know when to shut up. "I've been seeing him and hearing him for weeks now! Every move I make, every vow I break, every smile I fake, he's been watching me! "
Gadget's face, still far from radiating happiness, clouded further. "Weeks? He's been with you for weeks?"
Behind Lawhiney, Geegaw was shaking his head desperately.
"Well, I've got news for you, Gadget! In case you missed it he begged you not to hurt his little girl! His wonderful daughter! And just who were you standing over with a deadly weapon poised to strike when he said that? ME!"
Geegaw slapped his paw over his eyes in despair. He truly believed this couldn't get any worse. Then he took his paw away from his face and saw that it had.
Lawhiney was sitting very still. Her eyes wide open like a little child's and her index finger still pointed to her own chest, directly at, as it happened, her own heart. She was completely silent. Her eyes were fixed on what looked to be a shadow coalescing at Gadget's shoulder, a shadow that was taking on the silhouetted shape of a rat in evening dress even as Lawhiney watched.
"Oh no." Geegaw breathed.
Lawhiney risked a glance at Geegaw and saw his expression, frozen in horror. Then she looked back at Ratigan.
As Ratigan bowed forward to put his mouth next to Gadget's ear, his eyes locked with Lawhiney's and he smiled a cold, deliberate smile that chilled her blood. Just loud enough for Lawhiney to hear, Ratigan poured four little words of pure poison into Gadget's ear.
"She stole your Daddy."
Ratigan's words slid into Gadget's heart like a knife. If she could have died right then, her soul would have fled her body that instant.
There was a terrible silence, not merely the absence of sound but the absence of thought. Gadget's wonderful brain, that so often outraced her lively mouth, had been stilled. The world seemed to hold its breath, waiting for Gadget to use the power of life and death that had been placed in her hands.
The spear rose in her hand. Then fell.
From nerveless fingers.
Gadget dropped to the ground like a broken puppet and began to sob uncontrollably.
"STIKE!" Screamed Ratigan. "Why didn't you strike?"
And then Lawhiney began to point and laugh. It would have been nice to relate that she banished Ratigan with a gypsy curse and put her arms around Gadget to console her, the way Gadget's mother would have, but Lawhiney had made only a little progress and she still had a long way to go. So instead she laughed.
Gadget continued sob like a baby without caring. It was Lawhiney who answered Ratigan.
"She CAN'T do it! THAT'S why she didn't do it! She's GADGET HACKWRENCH and she can't DO IT because she was born a GOOD PERSON! You can't change what you are." Lawhiney seemed to flinch at her own words as if they had turned and bitten her. "You can't change what you are." She repeated weakly. "I never had a choice, I was always like this, I'm always going to be this way."
Her face crumpled with pity that was mostly for herself, Lawhiney began to silently weep as she stared at Gadget.
Geegaw watched the girls cry with an expression of mounting rage. He advanced on Ratigan, shaking with anger. "Why, you, rotten, stinking, lousy I'll break you in two!"
"Settle down, half-pint!" Ratigan told him derisively. "You know it's a treaty violation if you lay a finger on me, so just you keep your paws to yourself. Who are you to threaten me anyway? A runt, a nobody, I'd wipe the floor with you."
"Is that so?" Geegaw's voice was strangled with fury.
"You can depend on it, shorty! Why, you can't have been dead ten years! Do you know how long I've been doing this? If I'd known it was going to be you, I wouldn't even have bothered to show up. You were supposed to be Basil!"
"Basil." Geegaw repeated slowly. A look of understanding crossed the mouse's face as though the final piece of a jigsaw had just settled into place. "You must be Ratigan! Basil gave me a message in case you turned up. He says he doesn't need to be the one who stops you any more, so long as someone does and he knows now there always will be. He's not playing cops and robbers with you any more and he's not coming back. He's moved on and says: 'Isn't it time you did the same?'"
Ratigan's jaw went slack and his face paled. For a moment Geegaw thought he was about to start crying.
"Basil? No ?" His face darkened. "NO! How DARE he? How dare HE desert ME?"
"And that's not all! In case you missed it, I've got something to tell you: Gadget didn't murder anyone and you've no better chance of recruiting her now than you did yesterday, last week or last year and since Lawhiney isn't dead you don't get her, either! Not tonight, not ever if I have my way! You might as well pack up and go home, because it's over! You've failed!"
Geegaw took one step after another towards Ratigan as he spoke. The rat backed away, speechless and helpless before Geegaw's anger.
"And I'll tell you another thing!" Geegaw yelled, not caring if his voice carried all the way to heaven. "You're going to get your tail out of here and you're never coming back to bother either of these girls, or I'm going to start asking questions about how it is Gadget can see you and hear you and where you were all this time that you were supposed to be working on Lawhiney and I'm not going to stop asking until I get answers! There are pretty heavy penalties for going door to door in our trade, you know!"
Ratigan struggled to recover some of his lost pride. He drew himself up to his full height and fixed a withering stare on anything he could see that wasn't Geegaw, actually. "Don't worry yourself about little matters like that, your daughter and I are old friends. She summoned me to aid her this very night, in fact, so you might be a little rash in making any predictions, let alone threats. As for Lawhiney, I won't trouble to spend any more time on her. SHE doesn't need any help to find her true path, I just hope she can manage without yours, too."
"Mine? What are you talking about?"
"That little matter of a tribunal you had to attend? The one ending your, ah-ha, promising career as a Spirit Guide? Oh, but I see you're here instead unless you've already been, in which case you're a fine one to talk about going door to door. Either way, I don't think Lawhiney will be seeing you again." Ratigan's lips twitched in a nervous smile. "Goodnight, Hackwrench. I'll look forward to seeing your charming daughter in due time well, one of them, at any rate."
After Ratigan had vanished in a puff of sulphur that was perfectly timed to leave Geegaw swearing at thin air. After he got a grip on himself, Geegaw took what passed for a deep breath and listened to the uncomfortable sounds of female tears behind him. He delayed turning around as long as possible because somehow his extensive training as a Guide hadn't included a course on how to deal with weeping women.
Finally, when it would have bordered on cowardice to ignore them any longer, Geegaw turned and opened his mouth, certain that somewhere in his long travels he had picked up the perfect light-hearted quip to make them laugh.
The moment he saw them, his heart sank. Ratigan had done his work too well. He doubted either of the girls would ever be the same again.
It was Lawhiney who broke the silence. "I told you so. It's no good trying to save me."
Geegaw sighed. "Yes. You did."
"I can't change. No one can. And I'm going to Hell."
Geegaw shook his head. "Now hold on! Do you really want to bet the rest of your existence on his judgement? I mean think about it: What does he know about redemption, except that he didn't get any?"
"I can't change." Lawhiney repeated stubbornly.
"Change is the one certainty in life, and then some." Geegaw replied. "You have changed, you are changing and you will change. The hard thing is to take hold of that change and bend it in a direction it wouldn't normally go."
"If people can change then why didn't she skewer me?"
Geegaw almost laughed. "Are you complaining because she didn't?"
"Ratigan had as long with her as you had with me and she was in prison!"
"You think I've changed you into a GOOD person?"
"That just proves my point!"
"It proves there hasn't been enough time, that's all. Not enough time to get you to face all of what you've done, just to look at it differently and certainly not enough time for that door to door salesman to turn Gadget into a murderer."
"Don't count on it." Gadget's voice rose from the ground, in a bitter growl.
Geegaw and Lawhiney exchanged nervous looks.
"Gadget, honey?" Geegaw said in the voice he reserved for when he was knocking on her bedroom door after she had fled there in floods of tears.
Gadget lifted her face from the mud, her normally beautiful face lined by hate and streaked with tears. She glared at Lawhiney. "You stole my daddy." She accused.
"Nononono-" Lawhiney was waving her hands desperately.
"Gadgie, no one could ever take me away from you." Geegaw promised desperately.
"DON'T SAY THAT!" Gadget sat in the mud and hollered like a toddler. "When someone already DID!"
Geegaw's face darkened with sorrow. "Gadget, listen to me. No creature in creation can refuse death when his or her time has come. You can't blame me, or Lawhiney, or anyone else for my being taken. It was just time for you to go it alone. That's all."
"I'm not talking about death, I'm talking about HER!" Gadget pointed her finger accusingly at Lawhiney.
Geegaw blinked rapidly. He had opened his mouth to tell Gadget she was crazy before he realised the effect that would have on Lawhiney.
"I waited a whole year! I was alone! You never came back. Not even to tell me you were dead." Gadget's voice was shaking. She dissolved into tears again. "Not even when I was locked up in that terrible place and I thought I was going to die or go crazy there. You didn't come. No one did. But you showed up for HER! The entire time! I wouldn't have cared where I was if I could just have had that! That was MY time!"
Geegaw looked awful. He wanted to tell Gadget that he was just doing his job but he couldn't. Even if Lawhiney hadn't been listening, he couldn't lie to Gadget. Shamefaced and ashen he looked away, shaking his head.
"HEY!" Lawhiney bawled. "You had what, eighteen years with him? I had just as much right to him and I only met him for the first time when he was already dead!"
"YOU HAD NO RIGHT TO HIM! He is MY father! NOT YOURS!"
"You don't know that! You heard what he said! Geegaw, are you? Are you really?" Lawhiney looked at him with huge, pleading eyes.
Geegaw looked at Lawhiney and saw a terrible longing that bordered on love. He knew he was going to break hearts tonight and that his own might be amongst them. Wincing, he searched for the right thing to say.
"Ah, well now you see, it's - uh - like this. The world's a very complicated place, you know, when you've travelled it as much as I have you'll see that " Geegaw blinked. Gadget and Lawhiney were both staring at him. The disturbing thing was that they both had the same expression and Geegaw recognised it. It was the same expression Gadget's mother had worn just before she threw something at him for giving her nearly the exact same speech.
He shrugged and faced up to it.
"I guess if it was anyone else asking I'd tell them it was none of their business but I can't now. Where a person comes from is too important. Even so, I'm not going to tell the whole story either because well, dang it! They aren't the kind of details I can talk about in front of you two!" Geegaw flushed.
The girls looked at him. Geegaw knew instantly that he'd better get to the point, whether they could lay hands on him or not.
"It's like this. Your mothers were sisters. I met them both at the same time when my airplane crashed near their farm. I broke my leg and after the farm mice were done salvaging the mailbags I was carrying and hiding my plane, they carried me to your grandparent's home to recuperate. They set my leg on the dining room table and, just as I passed out, the door opened. There were two of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen.
"Lawhiney, your mother was the older sister. She was a great beauty. Bold, confident and experienced, she was exactly the type of girl I was used to.
"Gadget, your mother was the younger sister. She was something of a tomboy and already a dab hand at repairing farm machinery. It took me a little while to figure her out. " Geegaw smiled fondly. "They both wanted to romance me but for rather different reasons. Lawhiney, your mother saw me as another feather in her cap. Their little community didn't get many visitors, so I was quite the celebrity at the time. But Gadget, your mother genuinely wanted to be with me."
"What happened?" Lawhiney demanded.
Geegaw sighed and hung his head. "I didn't know there was a competition between the sisters then. I only found out later. Gadget's mother did most of the work to look after me until my leg healed, while her sister took most of the credit. When my leg was healed, big sister didn't waste any time making it plain how she felt about me and, well, I wasn't complaining.
"I guess you could say you take after your mother Gadget. She had trouble letting people know how she felt for fear of hurting their feelings. It didn't help that someone had given her the idea that men didn't like smart women "
Gadget glared at Lawhiney who, this time at least, managed to refrain from saying anything that might get her killed.
"When someone doesn't know how to tell a person how they feel, they sometimes find it easier to show them. I think that was why your mother rebuilt my plane Gadget, but her sister was furious. She was certain that her little sister had done it so that I would leave before she could win their competition."
"Wait, before you and she ?" Lawhiney looked as though the script she had prepared in her mind had suddenly been derailed.
"Before she could say I had chosen her over Gadget's mother." Geegaw said firmly. "I still had the mail to deliver, so I left. I never expected to see either of them again but three years later I landed at a small airfield and there she was, bent over an aeroplane engine."
"You fell in love?" Gadget asked.
"Looking back, I think I already was. I think I had been since she fixed my plane. Her sister wanted to keep me on the ground but your mother loved me enough to let me go. But you don't get much time for a relationship when your job is nothing but travelling from one place to another. We snatched a meal here, a cup of coffee there, but for a long time it seemed that we would never be anything more than just good friends. You know how that feels, don't you, Gadget?"
Gadget blinked. It took her a moment, but she knew exactly what Geegaw was talking about. "Yes. I do."
"Just as it looked like our romance was finally going somewhere Lawhiney's mother blew into town like a hurricane. She was looking for trouble and she had a score to settle. And the first I knew of it was when I knocked on your mother's door and the wrong sister opened it. I'd been out of the country for two months and it nearly knocked me flat, I can tell you."
"What happened?" Lawhiney asked plaintively.
"She was as sweet as honey and she pretended the past was buried and forgotten but she was working to split me and Gadget's mother up from the moment she arrived. All I knew was that the girl I loved suddenly didn't trust me any more. I began to think that her work was more important to her than I was. I even started to believe that a relationship with me would be a terrible mistake for her, that I would be holding her back if I didn't give her the same kind of freedom she had given me."
"From where I'm sitting, it looks like mom was dead right not to trust you!" Gadget yelled at him.
"Ah, honey, it wasn't like that. I took a job; a dangerous job that meant I had to go far away. I nearly died. Before I went I told your mother that I loved her very much but that I thought we were better off without each other. I told her that when it was over, I'd come back and perhaps our lives would be different enough that it would make sense for us to get back together, if we wanted to." Geegaw shook his head sadly at the girls. "Never fool yourself into thinking you can be rational about love."
There was a brief pause as the girls digested the information. Finally, Lawhiney arched an eyebrow at him. "You said you weren't going to tell us the whole story. I can't imagine what you're leaving out!"
Geegaw glared at her. "After the last three months, I know you're PERFECTLY capable of imagining what I'm leaving out!"
"You're in no position to criticise her Daddy." Gadget pointed out. Her voice was tired, drawn and reproachful.
Geegaw blinked at her in surprise. What surprised him most was that his heart lifted at her words. Gadget was accepting his story and, with it, Lawhiney.
"What happened next?" Lawhiney asked.
"I couldn't stop thinking about Gadget's mother on the journey out. It was driving me crazy. Finally we arrived and almost immediately the mission went to pieces on us. What we were supposed to be doing doesn't much matter, I guess, because we never made a start on it. We were cut off from the outside world for months until finally, I alone was rescued. While I was in hospital, the Doctors surprised me with the news that I had been declared dead while I was missing. It took weeks for me to recover but when I did the first thing I did was visit the girl I loved."
Lawhiney's ears were hanging low enough to touch her shoulders. "You don't mean my mother, do you?"
Geegaw sighed. "No, but that was who I met instead. She invited me into the home they had shared and showed me a letter from Gadget's mother. It was very sweet and very loving. And it said goodbye. After reading it, I had no hope it was anything but final."
"I'm sorry." Gadget said, as if consoling a stranger.
"Lawhiney's mother was very comforting. I had to stay in hotel after I was released from hospital. She helped me look and find somewhere and helped me to settle in. She was very beautiful and very charming when she wanted to be. I found an easy job to pay the bills until I was fully recovered and before very long Lawhiney's mother and I became an item, yes."
The pause that followed could only be described as pregnant.
"A summer went by before I felt my old self again, cheerful and healthy. Then one day quite suddenly, I was on my way to meet her for lunch and Gadget's mother saw me from a distance. She followed me and stopped me just outside the restaurant where we were going to have lunch. I wasn't pleased to see her but she was AMAZED to see me. You see, she still thought I was dead."
"What? But surely her sister ?" Gadget trailed off as she remembered whose mother they were talking about.
"I was still pretty sore at her. The thought of getting back together with her was all that had kept me going through the bad time and the hospital, so that letter of hers broke my heart a little. I told her I was going to meet her sister for lunch and she asked if she could come along. I was a little reluctant but she insisted. It turned out she had a hidden motive. You see, even though her big sister knew how she felt and saw her regularly, Lawhiney's mother hadn't told her I was alive."
"As you can imagine, your mother was furious, Gadget. But your mother, Lawhiney, well SHE knew when the game was up." There was no doubt from his tone that Geegaw was implying someone else did not. "She simply stood up, shrugged her shoulders and said: You can have him. I've already got what I wanted from him."
"I'm amazed Gadget was ever born." Lawhiney said dryly.
Geegaw didn't answer. He wasn't sure whether she was commenting on the length of his account or the damage her own mother had inflicted.
"Why did my mother give up so easily? I mean if Gadget's mom, I guess I should start calling her Aunt Hackwrench or something, wrote that letter so it's not like mom was claim-jumping or anything."
Geegaw appealed to the sky above. "Claim-jumping, she calls it! Like I wasn't even an animate object, just a badge or a trophy or something!" He shook his finger in Lawhiney's face. "I tell you, it wasn't until I met your mother that I understood why some women hate the way men compete for them! As if they don't have a say in the matter. With your experience, you ought to understand how that feels, Lawhiney."
"I know how it feels." Gadget said quietly.
Lawhiney looked sideways at her and for the first time a look of sympathy crossed her face for someone other than herself.
"For your information, Law, Gadget's mother wrote that letter when she thought I was dead. There wasn't even a memorial service because I didn't have any next of kin and, obviously, there was no body so there couldn't be a grave for her to mourn at." Geegaw's face became pained. "It can be very difficult when someone is in that situation. It's like someone just walked out a door and never came back. They just left all the threads of their lives hanging, waiting so they can come back and pick them up again. Only they never will.
"I was in that situation after Gadget's mother died. Even though I know she's waiting for me, it's still painful. She didn't have a way to grieve properly for me then, so she wrote me a letter to say goodbye. The letter sounded final because, well, she thought it was. Her big sister encouraged her to write it and then, when I showed up unexpectedly, saw an opportunity."
Geegaw's eyes locked with Lawhiney's for a moment. He was bristling with anger at the memory. She looked back at him steadily. After a while she said in a steady voice, "Well, I suppose it's no worse than anything I've done."
"She had her reasons." Geegaw sighed, eventually.
"DAD! How can you say that?" Gadget was appalled.
"It was a long time before I found out, Gadget, but what Lawhiney's mother really wanted out of me was Lawhiney. I didn't know it at the time, but she was already married when she arrived in our city. She had made a good match to the fella who ran the local bank and, so far as I know, they're still married. There was only one thing Lawhiney's mother didn't have that she thought she needed to make her life complete."
"Me." Lawhiney guessed.
"You." Geegaw confirmed. "And that was the one thing her husband couldn't give her." Geegaw knelt besides Lawhiney and smiled sadly at her. "You see, even if I'd tried to do the honourable thing by her, she wouldn't have wanted me."
"She just wanted an accessory. Something to show off to her friends, so she could compete." Lawhiney grumbled.
"Dad, I don't understand. How did you and mother get back together after all the damage Lawhiney's mom did?"
Geegaw laughed. "When she saw the trick that had been played, your mother wasn't inclined to let her sister walk away as easy as that! She threw a raspberry Pavlova the size of your head at her and they ended up fighting in the wreckage of the desert trolley. I think they roughhoused a lot when they were growing up on the farm together but of course, this time they weren't on the farm. Your mother and I patched up a lot of our differences when I bailed her out of jail."
"MOMMY went to JAIL?!" Gadget's eyes nearly popped out of her head.
"Yes, but not to prison, like you. That's actually a first for our family." Geegaw told her, hoping that both he and Gadget's mother could maintain some kind of moral high ground with this distinction.
"Yeah, stop letting the family down, Gadget!" Lawhiney snickered evilly.
Gadget looked put upon and furious at the same time. "I went to PRISON because of all the things YOU DID!"
"Yeah, but I never got caught!" Lawhiney returned with a breezy smile.
Before they could come to blows again, Geegaw interrupted. "I hate to mention it girls but, speaking of prison "
The girls looked at him, sorrowfully.
"If we do this by the book, we're both going to get locked up." Gadget said. "I've broken at least four known criminals out of lawful custody, five counting myself, assaulted a guard - assuming they don't try to make attempted murder out of it - and I dare say there'll be other charges, like conspiracy and destruction of prison property and Lord-knows-what-else. Ratigan tried to convince me it was all okay but it's not, is it?"
Geegaw rolled his eyes skyward and sucked air through his teeth. "All good people have a duty to fight injustice when they see it, even if they are the ones the injustice is happening to. But they also have a duty to the truth which, when you get right down to it, is just recognising reality for what it is. You don't lie for the same reason you don't try to cross a bridge that isn't there. You wouldn't do it and you don't ask someone else to do it either."
Sighing deeply, Geegaw sat on a clump of moss in front of his two daughters. "I don't know the four people you broke out of prison with tonight but I think they have their own journey in front of them. You two have a journey of your own. At some point, you're both going to have to stand up and tell what happened to you. Some of it you can be discreet about. Like the parts with me and Ratigan, for instance but the rest, like how your trial was a complete sham, Gadget, or how you hit Dale over the head with that wrench, Lawhiney, well if you don't tell those truths other people will suffer for it and that will be your fault."
Geegaw let them digest this perhaps unwelcome thought before he gave them something else to think about. "Of course, all of this is in the long term. You have to get through the night, first."
Gadget looked at him. She looked haunted and Geegaw had to admit, he himself was haunting her.
"Tell me more about mother, dad?" Gadget begged him.
"I can't." Geegaw replied sadly and got to his feet. "I have to go back now."
Gadget jumped up. "You can't stay a little while longer?"
"Only long enough to say I love you. Both of you. There's somewhere I should have been a long time ago, sweetheart, and I can't stay any longer or I might not be able to get back to your mother at all. I'm afraid the two of you are going to be on your own for a while and, I dare say they won't let you see me if I get to come back, Gadget." Geegaw had begun to fade.
Gadget looked as if she would start crying again, if she could only find the energy. "So this is goodbye, then?"
Geegaw's answer floated on the breeze. "For now, Gadget, only for now."
Lawhiney and Gadget both stared forlornly at the empty space where their father had been.
It was Lawhiney who asked the question.
"What do we do now?"
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