Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
The Hackwrench Heist
"No." Pierre told her, clopping the end of his black cane against the ground for emphasis. "That accent is all wrong. Think about how the people here speak. I know you can do it. You've already done it, accidentally sometimes. You did it last night when you asked me to pass the salt."
"Testing. Testing. My name is Gadget Hackwrench." Lawhiney repeated.
"Her voice still isn't high enough." Lorrie suggested. "Let me try my invention."
"Very well, but it must not show, like the first one you tried. We can't expect them to believe she's wearing an aqualung as a fashion accessory." Pierre stood back and tried to look as though he was supervising.
When the human who owned the garage had returned from work, Lawhiney's Raiders had found shelter in an abandoned shop not far from where they had been. The place had been closed for only a week and there were still rattraps behind the counter to warn off casual visitors from making themselves at home. Shaka Baka had to be watched carefully in such a place. Brandon was doing the watching and occasionally an audible "Bop!" followed by an "Ouch, dude!" would reveal both their location and the existence of yet another trap.
Lorrie gestured for Lawhiney to raise her hands so he could attach a tiny pack to her belt. The pack was the same colour as her jumpsuit, which was closer to deep blue than the lavender the real Gadget wore, but they were short of time and Brandon said that sales of jumpsuits exactly like Gadget's was the sort of thing that a detective like Chip Maplewood would use to track them down. The hair dye Gadget was using these days was harder to get right but then, how many guys noticed when the women they lived with changed some little detail of their appearance?
"It's ready." Lorrie told her. "I just have to thread this pipe up through the inside of your vest." He added and reached to do so. Her hand caught his just as his fingers were starting to slide under the white cotton of her T-shirt.
"Lorrie." Lawhiney purred warningly. "Have you been a good boy?"
"Oh yes, Ma'am!" Lorrie looked from his hand to her eyes and back again. "Please let me, it won't take a moment." He pleaded.
"Very well- but the hose goes over the T-shirt and under the jacket. Not against my fur." Lawhiney smiled cruelly, having caught the moment of hope and dismay that flashed across Lorrie's face.
There was a brief lull in conversation as Pierre watched the scene play out and found that he did not trust himself to speak. He had played with the hearts of many females. Two had committed suicide to prove their love for him but still there was something about watching Lawhiney at work that left him in awe. He had known from the first moment he saw her that he was watching a kindred spirit. Had he been ten years younger they would have been opposite sides of the same coin. Lawhiney's eyes met his. Her nose crinkled just barely enough to notice. And that, Pierre knew, was as far as she would go.
Since that first moment under the roulette wheel in a private (and illegal) casino, they had been "circling" one and other like martial artists. Each recognized and respected the other's skill, yet continued to search for a way past their defences.
"I'm done." Lorrie sighed, finally.
"Wait." Lawhiney told him.
The sound of the slap made Pierre wince, even though he had expected it.
"That's for THINKING about trying something." She told the mole. "Now-" her voice smoothly changed to sweetness and light "-show Lawhiney how this marvellous invention of yours works."
"Yeh, yes, Lawhiney." Lorrie stumbled. "Inside the pack on your belt is a tiny glass vial that we looted from a hospital. I have placed chemicals in the vial so that when you move the hidden lever here-" he showed her the lever "-they react with each other. A mixture of gasses is given off, but the long tube I have run from your belt up to your collar contains a filter that will only allow the helium to pass to your mouth. The reaction should continue for several minutes and the valve at the end of the tube means you can prevent too much from escaping, so you won't all end up sounding like houseflies. Eh, heh, heh, heh." Lorrie began laughing to himself at the thought.
Lawhiney looked at him disdainfully as she gave the device a test run. It felt a little like taking a hit on a cigarette, she thought as she put the end of the tube to her lips.
"Don't take to much!" Lorrie warned her.
"*### !" She replied. Her eyes went wide with shock and her hands flew to her throat.
"Mon Duex! She sounds like a bumble bee I once knew in Paris!" Pierre looked astonished.
"She has taken too much." Lorrie explained. "Close the valve and breath normally." He added to Lawhiney.
Lawhiney did so; then she tried again. "This is Gadget Hackwrench speaking to you with the sound of my own voice." She declared.
"Very good. Now, with the accent and remember your grammar this time." Pierre nodded encouragingly.
"Hello. Please allow me to introduce myself. Can you guess my name?"
Pierre held out his hands imploringly. "Tell us your name." He whispered, his fur standing on end as he watched the young temptress he admired being submerged by
"I'm Gadget Hackwrench! Hi there!" the person in front of him piped up, perkily.
Brandon swept the debris of their lunch from the large matchbox they had used as a table. As the last cup clattered to the floor, Pierre took a roll of paper from his jacket pocket and placed it on the newly cleared surface.
"Right." He began in his real voice, which was London cockney, not French. "Here's the plan."
"As you may recall, someone asked why Shaka Baka couldn't take a turn at the wheel. Shaka Baka seconded the idea and since the rest of us were asleep at the time the motion was approved. As a result, our previous aircraft strongly resembles modern art."
There was a moment of silence while everyone either glared at Shaka and Lorrie, or remembered the sight of the bleach bottle lying squashed flat in the middle of a busy road, the sliver balloons burst and tattered under the wheels of a grocery truck.
"Luckily we couldn't carry all the stuff we've swiped over the last few weeks with us, so we have enough stashed to trade for the equipment we need. And enough left over to get out of town, fast, if things go wrong." Pierre added in a much quieter voice.
"There is a stained glass window at the top of the room. It is almost never open, except on the hottest days of summer. The ceiling is a dome, with a marble surface. Suction cups will hold, other than that there isn't so much as a toehold. It's a forty-foot drop to the floor. Also marble. No chance of a soft landing. No way out past the humans and the museum mice if there were.
"Fifteen feet down the dome gives way to marble support columns and the normal walls of the museum. They are all internal walls, so no drilling through from the outside. We can tunnel in but the museum mice will have a network of their own tunnels already, so we would have to go through them if we took that route."
Pierre took that opportunity to look up and see if everyone was following him. They were. Even Shaka Baka. Maybe.
"The human entrances and exits will be swarming with humans when the museum mice are inactive. Going in then is risky. We might get as far as the pearl but we wouldnt stand a chance of stealing it. When the humans aren't using the museum their doors are sealed so tight even we can't get through them."
"As for the normal ways in and out of the museum, the resident rodents have them all alarmed, trapped, guarded and sealed when they aren't in use. When they are well, we could get in as tourists but we'd have to fight our way out."
Brandon opened his mouth.
"No, that isn't a possibility. The population of the museum must be at least three or four hundred and that's just mice. Even if only one in ten of them are able to fight, that still leaves at least thirty to deal with." The French Rat smiled at Brandon. "I can't see them forming an orderly queue, can you?"
Brandon shook his head with a smile. Pierre had once persuaded five angry mice to form a queue and fight Brandon one at a time, instead of all jumping him at once. Brandon had won the first four fights. The fifth mouse had remembered an urgent appointment elsewhere.
"To make things even more challenging, there are human security guards even when the museum is closed. They check the pearl every twenty minutes. The mice guards are always watching from various nooks and crannies, where they are armed with clubs, nets and at least one human air-pistol, cut down to act as a field cannon." Pierre gave his associates a tired smile. "The human guards are also armed, of course. Although I hardly think they'd trouble to use them just to kill the likes of us. Which isn't to say they won't kill us if we're spotted."
There was a silence. "Sounds impossible." Brandon suggested.
"And I haven't even mentioned the alarm system yet "
Pierre continued but no one was really focused on him or the plans. They were imagining the scene in the museum at night, when the human hoards had gone home to their palaces of bright lights, rich food and music. They were picturing the guards, human and rodent, the marble surfaces and that mysterious and all knowing alarm system.
"The alarm system fitted to the crown of Tin Can Island is in four layers of protection.
"First, there's the layer that protects the whole building. The roof is armed with pressure sensors and motion detectors. A human would set off both but birds can land on the museum roof without triggering them so we should be safe even with the weight of a vehicle. All of the doors, window frames and walls are wired. If any are open or broken through the alarm will be triggered instantly."
"Next comes the layer that protects the room the crown is in. That's a tough one. The base of the domed ceiling is ringed with infrared detectors. There are six of them. They can't detect rodent sized creatures on the floor otherwise they'd go off every time a tour party went through. Closer, it's another story. Walk down the ceiling with rubber suction cups on your feet and get too close to them, every alarm in the place will go off.
"This second layer of protection also includes a web of laser beams that cross the floor. The lasers form a static grid. That means they don't move, Shaka." Pierre anticipated the interruption.
"What's a laser?" Shaka asked.
"Never mind." Pierre said loudly, before Lorrie could show off his technical knowledge. "The important thing is that there are lasers crossing the floor at three feet above the ground, twelve inches above the ground, and six inches above the ground. And the museum mice themselves only found out about the lowest ones when a groundhog visitor from Texas set them off."
Pierre sighed deeply. "As Brandon said, it sounds impossible."
Lawhiney narrowed her eyes.
Pierre resumed. "The third layer of protection guards the actual case the crown and the pearl are kept in. The glass is coated with a conducting film that sets off the alarm when it's broken. The air in the case is kept at a special pressure and humidity, like all the other exhibits. Since the pressure and the humidity are monitored anyway the alarm system ties into these sensors. If the case is broken into, the humidity and the air pressure change. The alarm is activated."
Pierre placed a new piece of paper on the "table". It was a detailed drawing of the case and the crown itself.
"The fourth and last layer is wired to the actual crown. A metal detector under the crown set to go off if it stops detecting the precise alloy of gold and silver the crown is made of. Also two clasps are discretely fastened to the underside of the crown, they pass an electric current through the metal. If the current is broken, the alarm is raised."
"One last thing: The surveillance system. There are human video cameras throughout the museum. The museum mice have tapped into them to monitor the human guards, for their own safety. The mice, that is, not the guards."
"We know that they can detect us, but that the resolution isn't good enough to show anything better than a mouse shaped blur. Nonetheless, the museum mice know what a mouse shaped blur means even if the human guards do not."
Lorrie peered closely at the plans through his thick glasses. Finally he looked up. "It is impossible." He declared.
Lawhiney took a slow, deep breath.
Pierre saw that he had a brief window of opportunity to stop the tirade. "Shaka," He asked, "what do you think?"
"Hey, man. Nothing's impossible."
"Good boy." Lawhiney purred. "That's the spirit."
"Right then. With that established, and on such excellent authority, I suggest we get moving. We've all been over our jobs several times, so I know I don't have to remind oh, very well then.
"Brandon and I will locate and detain the real Gadget Hackwrench. She doesn't know us, because we've never met."
Shaka Baka put up his hand.
"What is it?" Pierre asked, against his better judgement.
"How will you recognise her?" Shaka asked.
Everyone looked. Not necessarily at Shaka, but everyone looked at someone or something. It beat thinking about the question Shaka had just asked.
"Don't worry about it. We'll manage." Pierre told him. "Shaka will assemble the equipment we need on the roof of the Seven Eleven across the street. Take the toothbrush and razorblade axe, Shaka. Don't let those Good-feather type pigeons steal any of our equipment.
"Lorrie, you stay on the radio and listen to everything we get from Lawhiney's transmitter. If she says the code phrase: "'Now, let me see'", then that means she needs you to tell her what technical jargon she should use.
"Lawhiney. You will be undertaking the most daring part of the assignment."
Lawhiney tossed her hair with feigned indifference.
"First you will enter the headquarters of the Rescue Rangers, alone, unarmed and on foot. You will convince the other Rangers that you are the real Gadget Hackwrench, gain access to the Ranger Plane and you fly it over to the roof of the Seven Eleven where we all meet up. By the time you get there, either we will have Miss Hackwrench securely out of the way or she will be running back to Ranger HQ with a belated warning. Either way, all five of us will go on to the museum.
"Lawhiney, are you sure Brandon and Lorrie have told you enough to handle the Ranger plane?"
"Yeah, sure. Flaps, rudder, undercarriage, I know the lot."
Brandon scowled. "I still think I should be the one to fly the plane. She could let me in or lower a rope from one of the windows or something."
Lawhiney glared at him until Pierre stepped in.
"We've been over that. It's too risky. Besides, Gadget Hackwrench is quite a handful by all accounts. If I can't sweep her off her feet it may be necessary to use force to get her out of the picture."
"Why, Pierre." Lawhiney cooed. "I know some females are immune to your charm but do you mean to tell me that this one is too much for you to handle in a fight as well?"
"If I were doing this for my own entertainment then I'd be happy to take on Miss Hackwrench on my own; either hand-to-hand, or hand-in-hand, but this is business and we are working to a schedule." Pierre growled. "Now, if there's nothing else? Good, then let us begin. And Shaka?"
"These plans. Burn them!"
It was late afternoon when Gadget had emerged from her room to bid Chip farewell before he left "to visit an old friend who lived out in the country". Gadget didn't challenge the fiction the boys had finally settled on, partly because she was sure Chip had the best intentions and partly because her father had spent many patient hours explaining things like tact and diplomacy to her when she was a small girl, prone to stating the absolute truth without mercy.
Gadget had reviewed her old diaries, remembering how much she had longed for any kind of contact with her father in the months after his death. There had been the experiments she had devised to reveal the faintest cold spot, the faintest stray magnetic field or the slightest unexplained draught. She had found nothing. She knew her father would not abandon her, so she reasoned the barrier between this life and the next, assuming there was such a thing, was strictly one-way.
Her fall from the ceiling and the subsequent near mishap with the climbing gear had been a coincidence, then, and if her half serious prayer to her father had reached him he was probably as shocked by the result as she had been.
Gadget wanted to put the incident out of her mind and carry on with her work but she knew the bruising would be a constant reminder, so instead she had quit for the day. Instead she diverted her attention to the problem of Chip, Monty and their secret discussion. Yes, she had been furious after the "Hawaii Affair" as she called it (to Chip's discomfort). Yes, she had shown her temper during the Koo Koo Cola case (it had been badly timed for her). Yes, she did take her reputation seriously, because her father had taught her that how other people saw her was important, especially people who were your friends and neighbours. There were good reasons for them to keep her out of a case like this and, much as it pained her to admit them, one of them was that the people they usually helped no longer trusted her the way a Rescue Ranger should be trusted.
It was a beautiful summer day, she noticed for the first time. If the weather held, she might lie down on a sun bed and catch up on her reading later. Face down, of course. But first Gadget was going to see an old friend; one who might be able to help her make life difficult for an impostor who thought she could fool the world into thinking she was Gadget Hackwrench.
Gadget winced as she eased herself in behind the steering wheel of the Ranger Skate. She wondered if anything, besides sitting on her keys, could be more uncomfortable? Keys. Where were her door keys?
Lawhiney stepped out into plain sight and paused for a moment. From four inches above the ground the park playing field seemed to stretch out to the horizon and beyond. There was a tarmac path between her and the cool, waist high grass of the field but it was tempting to stray from the cover of the bushes. She looked around.
Lawhiney put one foot on the tarmac. Hissing, she snatched it back again.
The sun had heated tarmac until it was like a griddle. Since neither Gadget nor Lawhiney wore shoes and the path was six feet wide, or in rodent terms five times the width of a family house, the playing field would have to wait for another day.
A human foot slammed down less than an arm's length from her face without warning. The rest of the human whooshed past above her and the foot retracted, sailing up into the air and carrying the human runner onto his next stride.
Lawhiney's every muscle was ridged with shock.
The danger had passed so quickly that she hadn't had time to move. She looked at the park with new eyes.
Bright, blinding sunlight. The sounds of human children at play, large, dangerous and unpredictable. Huge, wide-open spaces with precious little shelter from hawks or cats. Ravenous dogs, ready to run wild with delight at the scent of rodent terror. Just a few of the dangers the park represented to its small, furry visitors.
Scowling after the human, Lawhiney muttered a few well-chosen Hawaiian curses. She was fortunate that they already knew where the Ranger's Headquarters were. That alone was something only a very few of the Rescue Ranger's enemies had ever achieved but Lawhiney's Lawbreakers were no slouches. They all had experience of deception and none of them were known in the city; it had been a morning's work for Brandon and Lorrie to stage a scene to convinced two or three locals that Brandon was a gangster who wished to steal Lorrie's latest invention. After the scene Lorrie quickly received the sympathy of the on lookers and directions to the Rescue Ranger's Headquarters.
Lawhiney was in sight of the tree now. She found the stairs at the base of the tree as discretely as possible. Nothing would give her away faster than one of the other Rangers seeing "Gadget" having trouble finding her own front door. She stopped to adjust her hair and took a deep breath.
According to the digital watch Pierre had given her, it was three o'clock. The museum closed at six and the robbery had to begin at ten to the hour. Time to get to work.
Confidence. That was the key.
Monty stood with his arms folded, face stern, glaring down at the impostor. "Just who do you think you are?" his heavy Australian accent thundered.
Dale posed like a late night movie gumshoe and looked up at the fedora on his head. "Um, ah ?" He had to think quickly, or he was in big trouble. Actually, to be technically accurate, he was already in big trouble. "Please don't tell anyone?" He hazarded.
"You know very well Chipper left that hat in my care! Hand it over. Dale Oakwood, I'm surprised at you." Unnoticed, the front door opened. "Picking locks and snooping where you don't belong!"
Dale meekly surrendered Chip's prized Fedora, which Chip had left locked in a draw so he could travel incognito. He was just in the act of passing the hat over when the front door opened.
Gadget stood there, beautiful in the sunlight, holding a bent piece of wire in one hand. Her expression was startled and embarrassed. She looked from Dale and Monty to the piece of wire.
"I forgot my keys, that's all." She explained.
"Oh. Hi Gadget. Me and Dale was just about to have a conversation."
Dale gulped. He had hoped the conversation was over.
"I'll just go and look for them." Gadget said and hesitantly walked past them into the kitchen.
Monty glared at Dale. "We'll continue this later." He rumbled.
A moment later Dale joined Gadget in the kitchen. She was tossing her keys lightly from hand to hand. He had an unhappy, nervous look, as though he expected to be hit over the head at any moment.
"Gee, I'm sure glad you walked in like that." He said.
"Really? Perhaps you can do me a favour in return?"
"Sure. Anything but testing one of your new inventions. I have an urgent appointment somewhere else if it's testing one of your new inventions."
"I just need your advice on the Ranger plane."
"Huh!? I mean, really? My advice?" Dale goggled at her; his eyes bright and his tail waging like a propeller.
"Um, yes." Gadget confirmed, sounding a little bit weary.
"Hey, wait a minute, just stay right there. I've got to get Monty."
Gadget swallowed. "Is that really necessary?" she asked, but Dale had already run off.
When Monty was bustled into the kitchen Gadget was trying to open the window.
"Ah." She said, turning around. "I was just trying to open the window. It's such a beautiful day. I thought I'd get some air in here but window's stuck."
"Yes," Monty agreed, "it's been that way since you fixed it to open automatically whenever someone set fire to something. I could light up a kitchen towel in the sink if you really want to let some air in."
"Ah ha. Of course, how could I forget?"
"Tell him what you said, Gadget! I want him to hear!" Dale pranced from one foot to the other with excitement.
"What, what did I say?"
"About the Ranger plane!"
"Oh, that. I just asked for your advice about it."
Monty's jaw dropped.
"I mean; I'm the mechanic. I can ask anyone's advice that I want to, right?" Gadget smiled winningly.
"Uh, sure you can, Gadget, luv." Monty's hand smoothly brushed the hair out of her eyes and settled on her forehead for a moment or so. "Seems normal." He muttered.
"Good. So, as long as that's settled, I can go about my that is I can get back to work."
"Gadget, luv, I thought you were going to take the day off?" Monty whimpered.
"Well, I, uh, changed my mind. Because it's such a beautiful day and all." She turned up the smile. "I mean, who wouldn't want to be working with the sun out and the non-predatory birds singing?"
"Certainly sounds like Gadget " Monty murmured.
"Come on, Gadget! I want to start giving you advice right away!" Dale grabbed her paw and began to lead her up to the hanger.
"Heh! Well, the lad can certainly talk as fast as Gadget." Monty mused. His eyes turned heavenwards. "Gewgaw, your little girl's grown up enough to know her own mind. I just hope she is making excuses to spend time with Dale. I'd hate to fly in a something Gadget based on Dale's imagination!"
"Say Gadget, you smell different." Dale observed.
"I'm wearing perfume."
"It doesn't smell like perfume. I thought you only wore perfume and make up on special occasions."
"If I didn't test it out, I wouldn't know whether it was good enough for a special occasion." Gadget reasoned.
They had reached the door at the top of the curving staircase that lead to the hanger. Dale had led the way the whole time. Gadget hadn't objected to him holding her hand. He looked at her and smiled. Chip was always around taking up her time. Any time Dale got a moment with her, Chip told him he was in the way. He hoped he didn't say anything stupid when he started to give her advice.
"Well, here we are." He said opening the door to the ranger wing.
"Great. Thanks Dale."
"Uh, it weren't nothing." Dale replied. He didn't know what he was being thanked for but a thank-you from Gadget wasn't something to turn down. "What did you want to know?"
"Um. The back seat. How comfortable would you say it is back there?" Gadget wondered.
"What? Oh." Dale thought. "It's not as comfortable as the front seat. The one next to yours." He said slyly.
Gadget's lips twitched. She was already smiling but the twitch seemed to change it into another kind of smile. One Dale wasn't used to seeing.
"Shall we test it?" Gadget asked him.
"Sure. Uh, you haven't made any changes to it have you? You havent turned it into an ejector seat or put a trapdoor underneath?"
"Not that I recall." She answered carefully.
"Well then, I'd be happy to." With that, Dale hopped right into the rear seat of the Ranger plane. He was trying various positions when he felt the sudden presence of someone on the seat next to him. Gadget was sitting besides him, her hands folded loosely in her lap, smiling at him from the corner of her eye.
"Uh, what kind of testing did you have in mind?"
Gadget winced sharply and put her head to one side as if something had bitten her ear.
"Are you alright?"
"Uh, yeah." Gadget assured him. "I just got a pain in the neck for a second. I thought we might try bouncing up and down for a while, see how strong the springs are."
"Golly, that sounds like fun."
Gadget smiled coyly and slid the goggles off her head. She was just running her hand through her hair when the seat began to shake and squeak violently. Dale was repeatedly dropping his whole weight onto the upholstery from a half-standing position. "Dale!" She cried.
"Hey, this is fun, Gadget! What are you waiting for?"
Gadget's expression went from amazed, to blank, to disbelief in a few scant seconds. Then, with crooked smile, she began bouncing in time with Dale. The entire ranger plane shook and rattled until she thought the plane would bounce down the end of the runway and take off. She suddenly had a vision of Monterey Jack sitting downstairs on their sofa, or standing with his arms in a bowl of washing up, bewildered and embarrassed as furniture rocked and bounced in time to the deafening, rhythmic, impossible to ignore thumping coming from upstairs. It was too much for her. She began laughing. Uncontrollably.
She couldn't bounce and laugh at the same time. So she stopped. After a few breathless seconds, Dale stopped too.
"That was fun. Can we test something else now?" Dale grinned at her.
"Sure, Dale. What did you have in mind?" Gadget cocked an eyebrow at him.
"I don't know. How about the inflatable life raft? It has a little tent! I've always wanted to try it out but Chip says it would take too long to put away again and we might need it at short notice."
"Is your ear hurting you?" Dale asked, concerned.
"Uh, yes. Dale, could you be a sweetheart and get an aspirin from the medicine cabinet for me?"
"Sure!" Dale tore out of the room as if his tail were on fire.
Gadget smiled after him with a sigh. "He's clueless but he's cute." She hopped into the front seat and reached back for her goggles. Patting the control stick, she whispered: "Come on baby, let's go for a little ride."
The Popsicle stick door opened to reveal Gadget Hackwrench, standing in the broad daylight with the dizzying blur of busy human feet hurrying back and forth behind her.
"Hiya, girlfriend! Long time no see!"
The two mice embraced, laughing.
Gadget had known Jennifer Talbert-Hall since they were eight, when Gewgaw had taken her to England. Jennifer's mother, Sandra Talbert-Hall, had been like a mother to Gadget and Jennifer had been like a sister to her. That had lasted all of three months. After that, came nearly ten years of silence.
Jen had been a bratty, spoilt teenager when Gadget saw her next at age seventeen. Gewgaw had still been alive and had moved them both to Coney Island for reasons Gadget had never been able to get a satisfactory explanation for. Gadget and Jen had both been frustrated with their single parents, who were distracted enough by each other to let their respective daughters run wild for six weeks.
Then Sandra had suddenly taken Jen home to England again and almost immediately afterwards Gadget and her father had gone to California. By the time father and daughter returned to their permanent home, in the ruined aircraft at the end of the runway, Gewgaw had less than a year to live.
"How are you? And when are you going to introduce me to those boys of yours?"
"They can't both be my boys, Jen." Gadget told her bashfully.
"Oooh. Sounds like bad news for one of them!" Jen teased.
"Then you know more than I do." Gadget replied with pursed lips. Normally she especially hated this kind of teasing. She had heard it so many times when she was growing up but Jen had been there before and knew how far she could push it without crossing the line.
Jen let the subject drop.
"I had a near miss with one of my inventions this morning. So I decided to leave work for the day and, since I know that you only work in the evenings "
"Nothing serious, I hope?"
"Oh, just some bruises to my pride and my, uh-" Gadget eased herself onto the cushion she had placed on one of Jen's armchairs.
"Oh, Gadget! Your pride and your pride, by the look of it! Dare I ask what happened?" Jen laughed.
Gadget winced and began to talk. Jen listened. She was impressed by her friend's mechanical skill, which she had only learned to admire as an adult, and listened to stories about Gadget's work with fascinated incomprehension. When Gadget got to the part about listening to her friend's conversation, however, Jen had to intrude.
"Gadget, I'm so glad you told me that. I was so worried about you, with all the stories I've been hearing."
"What are they saying, Jen? Monty and Chip were too polite to say and my imagination is running crazy."
"Well, I don't like to say. You really want to know?"
Gadget nodded, earnestly.
"Well, I didn't believe a word of it and I know a lot of people who feel the same way. My boss, even, and I've never once given him credit for a decent bone in his body. Of course, some of those people are swapping the stories anyway. "'Did you hear this rubbish they're spouting about her now?'" and then they get to pass on whatever salacious lie they've heard or just made up. A lot of people hear the rumours and just don't care one way or the other."
"But the rumours, Jen. What are they? What are people saying about me?"
Jen stared at her friend for a moment. "A lot of it is just male fantasy, I'm sure. Gadget showed up in this place or that place and fell in love with a local boy, or just, you know, did it with him and disappeared. Gadget put on a strip tease in some place when the bank was robbed and the crooks got away because everyone was watching. Ridiculous. Only complete idiots would take it seriously. Mind you, complete idiots aren't as rare as you would like to think." Jen frowned. Gadget had never acknowledged the powers of stupidity and ignorance as much as she should have in Jen's opinion.
Gadget stared at her in horror. "Strip tease?"
"I've only heard that one once. The most common one at the moment seems to be that you organized a collection to benefit an orphanage somewhere up north. Only after the fundraiser you had to go back to Rescue Ranging and took the money with you. I keep hearing that one like it's not going to go away. To tell the truth, it gave me a couple of nasty moments. I can just picture you doing something noble and then getting distracted by an emergency."
"You! You mean, you, who know me? Who's been my friend for years?"
"Oh, love. Please. I wouldn't have told you if it wasn't for the fact you asked. Gadget, not all of us can be as certain of life as you are. Sometimes it's difficult to remember what your heart already knows. Please don't be cross with me for one moment of doubt."
"I'm not mad at you. I'm not mad at Chip and Monty, for keeping this a secret. I'm not mad at the people who are spreading these rumours because they don't know any better." Gadget turned back to face Jen, her eyes gleaming with cold fury. "I am mad at the person who has done this to my reputation, to my friends, to the people who have been robbed."
Jen shifted uncomfortably. "Do you want to talk about something else?"
"No. Ooooh, I'm sorry, Jen! If I could lay hands on whoever's doing this I could just well, I'd probably do something to be ashamed of."
"But nothing they don't deserve, I'm sure." Jen smiled at her.
"Jen, I need your help." Gadget said, not wanting to put it off any longer.
"Do you want me to check to see how bad your bruises are?" Jen asked, sympathetically.
"Uh, no. But that might be a good idea now you mention it. What I actually had in mind was if you could give me a makeover."
"A makeover?" Jen blinked, surprised.
"I figure that if I don't look like Gadget Hackwrench myself, the impostor won't know how to impersonate me."
Jen clapped her hands together. "Gadget, that's brilliant!"
"And once I show the boys my new look, they'll be so pleased with my solution, they won't ask any questions about me hearing their conversation!"
"This is going to be fun, Gadget. I've always wanted to give you a makeover, but you're so reluctant to encourage more admirers than you got already."
"I always hate rejecting people. Especially if they just want to you to like them back and you can't, at least, not without lying to them or hurting their feelings further down the line. But you've always said I should let you do a makeover on me, so I thought of you right away."
Jen smiled at her friend. "Oh, Gadget. How do you stay so sweet when people keep making life so difficult for you?"
"Aw, Jen. I have bad days too. You should have seen me the time that guy Bubbles got under my skin."
For a second, a mournful expression crossed Gadget's face. Jen took her by the paw. "Hey, let's go up to my room and get started." She said, kindly. "I'm just dying to see you in a couple of my mini-skirts and I have some hair dye. You'll look completely different! Why I bet I can make your hair nearly auburn!"
Together, the two disappeared up the stairs, chatting amiably.
Pierre tilted the trilby he was wearing so that it seemed to cover his eyes. Beside him, but not so close that they were obviously together, Brandon squinted into the light. Gadget Hackwrench had left the tree house at the most convenient moment they could have hoped for. Brandon had worried that she would spoil their plans by staying indoors all day, making it impossible for Lawhiney to impersonate her and increasing the risk of them being noticed by the minute.
Instead Gadget had visited someone. Not a shop or a public building but a small home amongst many small homes. Pierre hadn't been able to see who had answered the door but he found himself wanting to know who lived there and how Gadget knew that person. It wasn't simply idle curiosity, he reflected. If she were visiting a sweetheart, the tactics they had decided on to intercept her would be affected.
"I say we should just march over and kick the door down."
Pierre looked sideways at Brandon. He had not heard the biker close the gap between them and they made an unlikely pair. A tall French brown rat dressed in fine a fine silk suit and twirling a flower in his hand as though waiting for a lady who was a little late, talking to a muscular mouse in a black leather bomber jacket and boots. It was the sort of combination that people remembered, unfortunately.
"We just go in and take care of her and whoever's with her. Simple."
Pierre sighed. "Whoever's in there might be a rattlesnake or a martial arts expert for all we know. What if it's not one person? There could be three or four people. Even if they aren't fighters, it only takes one screamer to raise the alarm."
Brandon hung his head. "Yeah, I know. So we just wait?"
Pierre considered. "No. I think we can spend our time a little more profitably than that."
When Gadget left her friend's home, she was wearing in a red mini-dress with a hemline just low enough not to seriously embarrass her if she bent over to pick something up. She had already decided to leave anything she dropped right where it was, just in case. The dress matched Gadget's new hair-dye well but Jen had a smaller chest than Gadget did so the bust-line was tighter and left more on display than Gadget was comfortable with.
Gadget's hair was naturally a light, strawberry blonde colour, which Gadget disliked because, as an engineer, she preferred things to be one thing or the other and a strawberry blonde was neither a blonde, nor a redhead. Jen's hair-dye had left Gadget's hair a very deep red that she had always wanted to try but had never had the nerve to. She had used milder hair-dyes before but she usually had more important things to do than sit around with a towel on her head.
She smiled nervously as she passed the first rodent since leaving Jen's apartment, a male who glanced at her without breaking stride. If Gadget had looked over her shoulder after she passed him, she would have seen the mouse turn and watch her retreating form with a smile.
By the time Gadget reached the place where she had left the Ranger skate her confidence had grown considerably. It wasn't the first time in her life she had worn a good-looking dress in public, after all. In fact, she had worn them all the time before her father- Gadget squelched the line of thought before it could ruin the remains of her day.
She could have allowed herself the thought after all. The sight of the empty space where the Ranger skate should have been ruined it anyway.
Pierre carefully avoided looking directly at Gadget as he walked towards her. She was staring at the empty space with a dismayed expression, perhaps hoping that she taken a wrong turn or walked past it while she was lost in thought. Just as he was about to pass her, Pierre turned his head to look at her, and slowed his pace. But he didn't stop.
She ignored him.
Pierre kept walking a little way, then stopped and turned back. He heard a muffled groan. Gadget had buried her face in her hands.
"Pardon, Mademoiselle? Is everything alright?" He enquired, the picture of a concerned stranger.
"Hm? Oh! Uh, yes. Well, no, actually. But I don't need help or anything."
"If you're quiet sure?"
Gadget sighed. "I've just got to get the bus home, that's all."
"Ah, those were friends of yours and they have left without you. It is an outrage. They should be more considerate to a beautiful young lady. It isn't the same for a young male, they don't face the same problems on their own."
"Excuse me?" Gadget blinked, her mind changing gears rapidly. "Whom are you talking about?"
Pierre blinked and appeared flustered. He looked from one side to the other and, seeing no one he could appeal to for help, turned back to Gadget apologetically. "I know I am old fashioned, that the way I put things maybe clumsy, but surely it is obvious I am referring to you when I talk of a beautiful young lady."
"I meant no offence." He added quickly. "If you are one of these so unfeminine feminists I have no wish to quarrel with you."
"No, no. I meant who are these friends you were talking about?" Gadget was half convinced the Ranger skate had been stolen and half concerned that Monty and Dale had needed it for something so badly that they had come this far to find it. As she struggled with two possibilities, she let the double compliment slip past unquestioned.
"The three young mice who drove off in the vehicle that was parked here. Who else?"
"Mice? What did they look like?"
"I didn't really notice. I was looking for a café bar near here, called the Wild Palms. I have an appointment to meet with my sister there. I suppose they were your age, perhaps younger, now I think about it." He bent his legs to be closer to her level. "But surely you know what your own friends look like?"
"Those don't sound like the friends I have, at least, not the ones who would drive the Ranger skate away."
"Pardon? The what?"
"The- my vehicle. It's called the Ranger-" Gadget broke off as she realised what she would have to do. "Look, I'm sorry, Mr ?"
"Pierre. Everyone calls me Pierre."
Gadget smiled up at him. "I'm going to have to ask you to give me all the details you can remember. I'm afraid my vehicle has been stolen and it could be by some very dangerous criminals."
"Merde. You think so? But, you will forgive me, I have no wish to get mixed up in such a thing and I am supposed to meet my sister at this place I cannot find. No, no. I must bid you good day." Pierre backed away, his upturned palms of his hands towards her in a helpless gesture.
"Perhaps we could help each other, then. What café was it you were looking for again?"
"The Wild Palms."
"The Wild Palms. Yes, I think I passed that on my way. I'll take you there and ask a few questions while you wait for your sister. Hopefully, it was just cubs out for a joyride."
The Wild Palms turned out to be more bar than café. Built under a human café of the same name, it had been decorated with discarded cocktail decorations and was lit with a string of fairy lights from a Christmas tree. Gadget found them a booth while Pierre insisted on getting them three drinks, one for his sister, who had yet to appear.
"Voila!" He announced as he sat down across the table from her. "My sister says you can not get good coffee in the States. But I asked the bartender if he had any good French coffee and here we are. She misses it terribly, she will be delighted."
"I'm glad to hear it, but there was really no need to get me one as well."
"Not at all, you have had a miserable day, with your flounder being stolen."
"Flounder? Oh, no. We don't call it a skate after the fish " Gadget caught herself. "You're teasing me." She accused.
"Just trying to make you smile. I know my English is sometimes the cause for laughter. A little laughter makes our burdens easier to bear. If you really don't want your coffee I'm sure my sister will drink it for you."
Gadget smiled. It had been almost six hours since her last cup and some of the best coffee she had ever tasted had been on her trip to France. She took a mouthful of coffee and almost choked on it. Spluttering and coughing she quickly put the cup down again.
Pierre, his face puzzled and worried, put his paw on hers. "Are you unwell?"
"This is French Coffee!"
"Mai Oui! I said-"
"I mean it's got brandy in it!"
"Brandy? But I specifically told that barman " Pierre sniffed his own cup, then his sister's.
"Surely you know what French coffee is? No, wait. They wouldn't call it that in France, would they? Surely you've heard of Russian coffee, or Irish coffee?"
"Ah, of course. And I thought my sister had simply been lazy in her search for good coffee. Forgive me, Miss ?"
"Gadget. Gadget Hackwrench." She told him. "I really don't drink alcohol, ever. Except on very special occasions when I know I'm not going to need a clear head and it would be antisocial not to."
"Ah, well. I'm sorry." Pierre looked pointedly at her cup and then to the wallet that in his hand. "Do you want me to get you something else?"
"No, that's alright. I best just ask my questions and get out of your way."
"By all means."
"First of all, what is you're full name and where can I get in touch with you?"
"Pierre Michelle-Caine. I am staying at the Grand Hotel, under the big cheese plant in the lobby, but just for three days. Then I'm going back to Normandy. The hotel mice will be able to give you my forwarding address."
"You said there were three mice?"
"That I saw, yes. I'm sorry, you seem to have a bad taste in your mouth?"
"No, I'm alright."
"You're sure you don't want anything to wash it out?"
"I really couldn't."
"It's quite alright, it was my mistake. I insist. If only to give the barman a piece of my mind."
"It really wasn't his fault."
Pierre looked at her. "You mean it was my fault."
"It's quite alright, I understand. Your restraint is admirable. You're clearly having a difficult day and it was my fault. I feel very bad." He hung his head.
"Please don't." Gadget almost whined.
"Let me get you a lemonade. That is the same over here, isn't it?"
"Yes. I mean it's the same, I don't-" But Pierre was already walking back to the bar. Gadget sighed heavily. What was going on today, she wondered. Everything had been going wrong since she had overheard that dratted conversation.
Pierre returned with a tall glass in his hand. She took it gratefully and drank a long draft immediately. A slight frown crossed her face. It tasted funny. There was an aftertaste more like bitter lemon than lemonade. Must be the brandy, she thought. She couldn't say anything without making him think she was after another drink.
The effect from the mouthful of brandy coffee she had swallowed seemed to get stronger with an alarming speed. True, she wasn't used to it but, even so, Gadget was surprised one swallow of French coffee could have such an effect on her.
"Now, what were those questions?" He asked, looking deep into her eyes.
"Uh, yesh. Where was I? Oh, yeah. These mice, could you describe them for me?"
"Well, one of them had black fur with one big white patch on his face and he wore bright red shorts and braces. He seemed to be in charge. But the other two were albino mice and wore nothing at all, like they had just escaped from a lab or something. One of them was very tall and thin with a long snout and a red nose. The other was much shorter, but he had a huge head and a sour expression."
Gadget frowned. "They sound familiar."
"Aren't you going to finish your drink?"
Gadget took another sip of lemonade. The brandy had given her a very pleasant warm feeling. She found herself finishing the glass, although she hadn't meant to.
"Thank you. That was nice." She said.
"Don't you want to ask me any more questions?"
"What? Oh yes. Questions. Dear me, yes. Questions. What would Chip ask?"
"Was that the question?"
"Huh? No, of course not. Did you hear the mice who stole my skate say anything?"
"No. I was too far away. Even if I had been closer, I never eavesdrop the private conversations of other people. Respecting other people's privacy is one of the most important parts of civilized behaviour."
Gadget gulped and stared at him. Pierre hooded his eyes and pretended not to notice. He knew he had just put a foot wrong somehow but couldn't think how.
"Is something amiss?" He enquired, when Gadget didn't speak.
"No. Everything's fine."
"Your coffee is getting cold." He prompted.
Still dazed from the casual condemnation from the well-mannered stranger, Gadget took a second sip of brandy coffee before she remembered why she had abandoned it.
"Oh." She said, staring into her cup. "Well, I might as well finish it now." So she did.
While she was distracted, Pierre looked over to the bar where Brandon was waiting. They both winked.
Gadget found herself talking things through with Pierre, who turned out to be a much better listener than most of the people she knew. Even when she launched into a detailed description of how the Ranger skate worked he nodded and smiled without looking puzzled or yawning once. Part of her gradually became aware that she was, in fact, doing all the talking. Pierre didn't seem to mind.
A rugged but good-looking mouse bought another tray of drinks over. Gadget accepted one happily and by the time she finished it her fingers were tingling. Someone started playing music somewhere and Gadget stood up, delighted by the tune. She hadn't heard anything so lively in years, she thought. Why hadn't she got any music of her own to listen to back at the tree house? Dale had his heavy metal; Chip occasionally listened to classical music and opera. Even Monty had been known to play the didgeridoo on rare occasions.
Her feet were tapping in time to the music and Gadget found that she was almost dancing in her seat. The mouse who had brought over the second tray of drinks stepped up and asked her to dance with a wink and a grin. She giggled and looked at Pierre.
"I do not think the lady wishes-"
"Do you?" The mouse asked again.
"Yes." Gadget agreed, without thinking about it at all. She hadn't had this much fun in ages.
The mouse who had invited her to dance was about her age and wore a bomber jacket Chip would have envied. It was shining black leather and clearly modelled on a motorcyclist's jacket. He was well muscled, clean and pleasantly good looking even if his expression was a little surly. Gadget, who didn't normally notice such things, found she wanted to know a great deal about him.
Her grin got wider and the music got louder.
Pierre grabbed Brandon's arm and hissed into his ear: "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Relax, Pierre. Your accent's slipping. I just want to have a little fun."
"You could ruin everything. What if she collapses from the drug we slipped her in front of everyone? How would we get her out of here?"
"You're the one who came in with her, no one's going to suspect a thing."
"But they'll remember it! What happens when Chip Maplewood comes asking- Oh, Mon Deux!"
Brandon spun to follow Pierre's gaze. But it was too late. To the applause of the afternoon customers, Gadget Hackwrench had started dancing on a table.
Pierre and Brandon watched from the fringe of the crowd. "We must get her out of here." Pierre said.
Brandon didn't argue. "I could start a fight as a distraction."
"It might work. Wait, someone's trying to get her down."
"That's the bartender."
They both watched, agog, as the bartender managed to get both arms around Gadget's legs only to have her misunderstand his motives and start hammering on his head with her fists. The patrons began booing the bartender with vigour.
"This could turn ugly." Brandon said with a frown.
Across the room, the bartender lost his balance and stumbled, still holding Gadget above his shoulders. Abruptly, she toppled over, scrabbling for something to hang onto. She found herself with her arms around the neck of a customer, who hugged her back enthusiastically, her legs still captured by the bartender and her body stretched out in between. Uncomfortably stretched, as the bartender started walking towards the fire exit and the customer responded by pulling in the other direction.
Brandon sighed, picked up a barstool and waded in.
Pierre disliked violence. He always took the view that someone might get hurt and, statistically, if he were around it often enough, that someone would eventually be him. Even so, he had acquired enough experience to resist the temptation to put a hand over his eyes, as his almost perfect seduction became a minor riot. He stepped to one side as a bottle flew past. As a rat, he had the size and strength to considerable damage to almost any patron in the café but he was wearing his best suit. He discretely ducked into the booth he and Gadget had shared.
As the sounds of the fight became louder and more violent he sipped at his own, non-drugged French Coffee and wondered just what they did call it in France. He would have to go there one day. After this was over, perhaps. The bartender staggered past, Gadget riding on his shoulders and hammering at his head with one of her shoes. I deserve a holiday, Pierre thought, shaking his head. A broken bottle sailed into the edge of the booth and shattered.
"Pierre, get out here and help me!" Brandon yelled.
"Coming." Pierre called back and finished his coffee.
The problem with Brandon's enthusiasm in a fight was that people who had been fighting each other quickly formed alliances against him out of self-defence. When Pierre emerged from the booth the biker mouse was still standing, with one mouse on his back trying for a headlock, another biting his tail and a third clinging to his legs. A fourth was throwing punches at Brandon's face and chest with no effect.
Pierre swung his cane like a club and made the fourth mouse's head vibrate like a gong. Brandon threw off the mouse who had been clinging to his back while the others were goggling at the Pierre. Pierre caught him and threw him at a rat that had been stomping towards them.
Brandon was kicking the mouse who was clinging to his legs repeatedly. The one who had been biting his tail was in a headlock.
Gadget's bartender had run outside to get rid of her. Now he ran back in, Gadget still in place on his shoulders but battering on his head with the bar sign instead of her shoe.
The sounds of law and order were coming from outside. They were unmistakable. Brandon and Pierre looked at each other with unspoken agreement. Time to go.
The bartender ran under a human made handheld fan that hung from the ceiling. As the fan turned, one of the blades neatly skewered the balsawood bar sign Gadget was hitting the bartender with and yanked it out of her hands. Pierre had time to take one step towards her and then the spinning motion of the fan brought the sign round again and hit Gadget squarely on the side of the head.
Both Gadget and the bartender fell sideways, Gadget snagging the fairy lights as she went. There was an ear-splitting crash as the fairy lights pulled the mini bar that completely filled one side of the bar away from the wall until it toppled over.
Three chipmunks and a squirrel stood in the door of the bar, wearing blue grey uniforms of the neighbourhood peacekeepers.
"That's it." Brandon said, clutching Pierre's arm. Together they fled through the fire exit.
The peacekeepers remained where they were as the majority of the customers who could still walk sneaked out the back. It made their jobs easier. Eventually the squirrel stomped into the middle of the room.
"Alright, who started this?" he demanded.
Half a dozen hands pointed towards a prone figure on the floor. The squirrel looked at a sweet face surrounded by a mass of red hair and blinking multi-coloured lights.
"It's always the ones who look like butter wouldn't melt in their mouths." He shook his head.
A trembling figure wearing an apron stood up, his head a mass of lumps and bruises. His voice shaking, he faced the peacekeeper.
"I want her charged!"
The squirrel nodded patiently.
The four peacekeepers surrounded the hapless, unconscious female. One of the chipmunks nudged her bare foot with his own. The mousemaid moaned.
"Huh?" she answered.
"We have to arrest you now. Could you tell us your name?"
"Gadg'. 'adget 'ackwrench."
The squirrel drew forward, interestedly. "Really." He said smoothly. "Is that right? We've been looking for you for a while "
Lawhiney scowled. They were later than they should have been. How long did it take for someone to ask directions while someone else swung a sock full of iron filings?
Pierre showed up at a run. The way he and Brandon barred the door to the roof was not a good sign.
"Ahhhrrrgghh." Lorrie wailed. "I knew it, it's always the same. There's an angry mob with blazing matches and forks downstairs, isn't there?"
"Uh, no. We're just being careful." Brandon assured him after blinking at Pierre.
"Oh. Then forget I said anything. Heh, heh." The mole replied.
"Where is Gadget Hackwrench?" Lawhiney's mind was on the important things, as always.
"Probably in jail. Or possibly the hospital." Pierre replied.
"Ah. That's okay then." She stayed in the pilot's seat of the Ranger plane.
"Um, do you want to move over?" Brandon suggested.
"No. You seem to be forgetting- I'm the only one with flight experience in this thing." She said, smugly.
The flight to the museum was a breeze. Lawhiney's smile grew wider as they went. She couldn't believe that she had spent this long assuming that something as simple as flying a plane was beyond her. Especially when she had learned to drive a ground vehicle through the chaos that humans called city traffic. Up here, the sky was clear. The nearest thing to crash into was the ground and that was all of- oh, it had to be at least seventy feet away. And the details she could see. Being a passenger was great, but as pilot, she decided where they went. Admittedly, in this case that was a little limited, but even so, a whole new world had opened up to her.
All too soon the roof of the museum beckoned to them. The sun was sinking and they had to land before it closed. Lawhiney circled it twice, partly to enjoy herself, partly to make sure the roof was clear and that the Ranger plane was seen by anyone watching. There was an added bonus to using a vehicle belonging to people who were universally respected.
They landed smoothly at precisely ten to five. The roof alarms were active but ignored what humans would have assumed was a large seagull as it swept overhead. The lawbreakers jumped out of the plane one at a time, remembering the pressure pads underfoot. Shaka carried the glasscutter and suction cups. Pierre carried the rope, which amounted to a coil the thickness of his own body. Brandon had everything else they needed and Lawhiney stayed in the plane. For a quick getaway. If needed.
She tightened her grip on the controls.
It was all going too smoothly for her liking. There had to be catch, she thought. Apart from Gadget being arrested, which was just too good to be true. Admittedly it gave her an alibi, but it was one that would still leave her reputation in shreds.
Brandon nodded to her after the equipment was unloaded and ran for the only easy entrance to the museum. If he hurried he could be down the drainpipe and in as an early visitor in time to sneak off to a smoke detector and set off the fire alarm. The humans had to be got out of the way somehow.
Lorrie rigged up the winch system while Pierre opened the glasscutter and glued one of the suction cups onto the stained glass window. Almost ready now. He looked at the others and nodded.
Shaka Baka was the adrenalin junky. They strung him up above a fatal fall and probable life sentence. His entire body was clad in a body stocking made from a single cotton sock, which they had then dyed black for the look of the thing. Around his waist was a belt harness made from an elastic band; it looked solid but a human had still discarded it because it hadnt looked strong enough to reuse.
Well, what did humans know anyway?
Together they waited for the first sign that Brandon had been successful or had been captured. At ten to five, it came. The clatter of the fire alarm became audible even through the thick glass of the window. Pierre cut the glass, using all his strength to pull free a circle as wide as he was tall.
Shaka was already hanging in position over the hole but before he was lowered into the abyss the others joined him in looking into the room below. It was huge drop for a mouse to be faced with. Most mice would only ever dangle over such a drop if they were carried off by a hawk.
"Sweet Heavens above, although in this case not very far above, am I glad it's you going down there and not me." Pierre whispered breathlessly.
"Cowabunga" Shaka shouted as he disappeared into the museum.
It was a full second before the others realised that there was no one crewing the winch to stop Shaka plunging to his death.
Lorrie threw himself on the rapidly spinning winch handle but didn't have the weight to do anything except get thrown off again. Pierre flung his cane into the mechanism. The cogs bit down on it with an ugly grinding sound and the contraption screamed to a halt.
Below, Shaka found himself flung upwards like a bungee jumper as the elastic band around his waist stretched and contracted. He dangled, helpless in the centre of the domed roof, each infrared sensor an equal distance from him. He had to be back up through the stained glass window before they were turned on at five o'clock, otherwise he would be detected and the alarm would go off.
He checked the digital watch face strapped to his forearm. It was flashing 12:00. Shaka blinked at it. Looked like Lorrie had forgotten to set it. Still, they had dropped him through the window at ten minutes to five, right? So he had until the watch read 12:10 to do the job and get out. Shaka nodded, satisfied with his reasoning and pleased that he had been smart enough to think things through clearly.
A faint sound from above reached his ears. He shifted his balance so that he until he could look in that direction. Suddenly there came jerk on the line. Brandon would have said there was already a jerk on the line but Shaka didn't see him down here. No way. The thought made him smile. Lawhiney might flirt with other guys and maybe, sometimes, she did more than flirt but Shaka knew that he was the only one she could depend on.
Shaka began moving downwards again, more slowly than before but at a steady rate. He drew the suction arrow from the equipment pack on his back.
A human walked under him, so close that Shaka could have stepped on to the guard's hat. Shaka froze. That was the guard checking on the Tin-Can Island crown at the end of the day. He had to get out of sight before the man turned and saw a handsome, well-built mouse floating in midair. Humans didn't react well to seeing things like that. Usually the consequences were worse for the mouse than the human.
Shaka began yanking the line frantically. After what seemed an eternity someone came to peep in through the hole in the window and see what the problem was. It was Lawhiney. Shaka's frantic gestures earned him an uncomprehending stare.
Finally Shaka saluted, pointed to where the guard was out of sight and then made frantic gestures to him and the top of the dome. Lawhiney seemed to get it, at last, and a moment later Shaka was moving skyward again.
The guard passed back underneath a few seconds later, allowing Shaka to let out a breath he hadn't realised that he had been holding.
Lawhiney reappeared at the window and nodded in response to Shaka's thumbs up sign.
A minute later Shaka was aiming a suction-cup dart cannon powered by a breath freshening aerosol cylinder at a prearranged spot on the wall behind the crown. Lorrie had admitted that the crossbow in the Ranger plane was a better design than his own but this was the one Shaka had practiced with.
The pop and hiss of spearmint gas escaping was heartbreakingly loud in the now empty display room. Shaka held his breath, partly to listen for an alarm being raised and partly to avoid choking on the suffocating smell humans liked to fire directly into their mouths.
After another minute or two, the air seemed to clear. Shaka couldn't hear any activity coming from the ground but he knew there had to be some by this time. He slipped the human contact lens that Lorrie had coated with red ink over one eye like an eye patch. "Ah-ha, Jim, dude!" he chuckled to himself.
The spent breath freshener began making its way up towards the roof, by way of it's own fishing twine.
A minute later another, much larger spray can made it's way down.
Shaka turned the screw valve someone had installed and the room began to fill with a fine mist. Through his red "eye patch" he could see the lasers protecting the room had not yet been activated. He smiled and started to haul himself along the line that was attached to the dart he had fired.
Far above, unseen by Shaka or his associates, the line suspending the Hawaiian mouse above the museum floor made contact with the recently cut side of the glass mouse hole. It began to drag against the sharp edge as Shaka pulled himself closer to his objective.
Finally, he hung over the case containing the crown jewels of Tin-Can Island. This next part of the operation was the hardest. Peering closely, he could make out the analogue dial that measured temperature and pressure inside the case.
Shaka took a hand drill from the equipment bag on his back. It had a very long handle to compensate for the rodent's comparatively weak strength. Fitting a specially made bit to the drill, Shaka began to make a hole in the wood.
He was so absorbed in the job that he didn't realise that he had left the equipment bag open this time and every turn of the drill made the remaining items in his bag shift towards the opening.
When the drill bit was almost completely buried in the wood, Shaka detached the drill and reached towards the bag. The change in weight was all it took to send something long and shiny spinning towards the floor.
Shaka might have been slow in many ways, but his reflexes were the envy of smarter, better read rodents than him. His right foot flashed out, his long toes grasping for the lost tool, snaring it before it could give his position away.
He looked down and saw a tiny figure, moving carefully on the marble floor. The tool started to slip. Shaka began to pant as he closed the equipment pack with his free hand. His eyes narrowed as he tried to pick out the details of the person below.
They weren't wearing anything but the fur on their back and they walked on all fours. Not a feral mouse, Shaka was sure, especially when the figure stood on it's hind paws and put a hand to their mouth to call to someone. This was one of the museum mice checking for humans, leaving their clothes behind just in case they were seen.
Shaka tightened his grip on the tool. Dropped from this height it might kill, let alone give him away. The tool shifted in his grip. His toes were getting tired.
Was that mouse female?
Shaka squinted, trying to see. His tail snaked towards the tool. If it could just take some of the weight off his toes, he thought.
The mouse turned back towards the hole she had crept from and called for something. A jacket was thrown to her along with a wolf-whistle that Shaka could barely catch at this distance.
Shaka grinned. The mouse on the ground gave a sarcastic bow- just as the tool slipped through Shaka's toes.
His tail took the full weight of the tool, briefly.
Shaka turned a slow motion somersault in the harness he was wearing. As the tool slipped free he caught it in his free hand.
The tool was an extender for the drill. He fitted it onto the drill bit that was still sticking out of the wooden case and began drilling again. In a few moments the drill bit had broken through into the case but the extender kept the hole sealed and prevented case from losing air pressure. Shaka squinted, trying to see if he had judged it right.
Reaching behind him for another extender, Shaka kept working. It was the longest part of the job but the drill bit was finally positioned in front of the analogue dial that gave a read out of the case's air pressure. Shaka nodded and placed the drill back in the equipment bag, leaving the drill bit and the extenders in position.
Then he drew out a large mallet.
On the first blow the glass face of the dial cracked. On the second it broke. Finally it penetrated, pinning the red needle that pointed to the numbers to the face of the dial. Shaka's hardest job was done. Nodding to himself, the former beach-tail took a glasscutter from the bag
It was the work of a few moments to cut through the glass case. Finally the fun started. There were pressure pads under the crown and the jewels but Shaka had been well prepared.
The end of a long clear tube had been attached to his belt. It was filled with golden syrup. Shaka removed the stopper and waited for the syrup to flow over the pressure pads, sticking them in place. It took a lot longer than he had thought it would.
Shaka hooked up the precious jewels, including the crown, to a set of fishing lines that he had brought with him. To avoid getting them tangled with the line he was suspended by, none of the lines were attached to anything except the spool in his equipment pack. He would pay out the line as he was wound back, until on the roof they would be able to pull the loot in like a predatory human catching a trout.
The last dribble of syrup ran into the case and Shaka began to make his way back towards the stain glass window. Which was when the mallet fell out of the bag.
Shaka didn't miss it as it twirled towards the ground. The museum mouse on the ground was doing up the buttons on her jacket. She didn't see it.
Brandon had made his way back from sabotaging a smoke detector and was watching Shaka's progress from behind a broken, barnacle-encrusted vase. He saw it. He watched as the hammer spun once and started to pick up speed. His eyes skipped ahead to the place it would land. Right on the guard's head. She was looking up from her buttons and sticking her tongue out at somebody Brandon couldn't see.
The smart thing to do was stay under cover but Brandon was already moving forwards, his hand outstretched as if he could reach the hammer and pull it back.
"CAT!" He screamed.
Cat? Where had that come from? It had the desired effect, though. The guard jumped a clear inch then bolted for cover. There was an audible clang as the mallet hit the ground.
High above, Shaka stared at Brandon in shock. Brandon blinked at him, then looked towards the mallet on the ground. The female guard had just discovered that there was no cat. She was glaring at the mallet suspiciously. Any moment now she would look up. Brandon waited nervously. Instead of looking up, the guard looked in the direction the shout had come from: at Brandon.
Brandon gulped and looked at Shaka for guidance. The guard below him followed Brandon's gaze and
"ROBBERY! RAISE THE ALARM!"
Brandon clapped a hand over his eyes in exasperation and started running.
Shaka, still hanging from his fishing line, began pulling himself along frantically. He was almost under the window when toothpick spears and arrows started sailing past him.
Brandon ran along the display shelf he had been hiding on. He could hear guards shouting behind him.
Shaka's problems were compounded by the fact the alarm system was switched on now. The mist from the aerosol spray can still hung in the air and through the red lens strapped across his eye he could see blood red strings of light strung across the room. The lasers were not a problem for Shaka, himself, but it meant there was no way the treasure could be pulled up to the roof without setting off the human alarm systems.
Another toothpick spear arced over his head after narrowly missing him. Not that the human alarm system was his biggest problem at the moment.
Brandon found himself dodging behind artefacts and display cards as the guards closed in. There were three chasing him from behind and he was running out of shelf. Two more suddenly appeared in front of him and he realised that he was trapped. Cursing under his breath he ducked into the shadow of a wooden plate.
"Come on out. We see you in there."
Brandon twitched his nose. Nothing else for it. He stepped out into the light with his hands raised and his back to the edge of the plate. The guards smiled and started towards him. Which was when Brandon put his full weight against the plate and pushed with all his strength. The plate rocked ominously and the guards froze.
"Now hold on, son. Let's just talk about this " The oldest guard said.
The plate rocked free of it's holder and began rolling towards the three guards that had been chasing Brandon a moment earlier.
Brandon chased after the plate, pushing it forwards so that it rolled faster and faster. There was a crash of broken pottery as the plate hit it's closest neighbour and kept going. The guards he had aimed the plate at were running for their lives now.
Shaka pulled himself along the fishing twine desperately. He was directly under the window when he realised he could feel the line that led to the roof giving way under his weight.
"Hey, guys! My line's breaking!" He screamed. The window was empty.
Shaka looked over to Brandon. The biker mouse had jumped on top of a vase that was rolling along on its side. As Shaka watched the vase rolled off the shelf and shattered a glass cabinet. Shaka swung from one side to another trying to see if Brandon was alive or dead. The line creaked ominously.
Shaka looked up at his exit from the museum. Lawhiney and Pierre were looking down at him. "Guys!" Shaka called, his face filled with panic.
The line broke.
Brandon hauled himself clear of the wreckage in time to see his friend plummet towards the floor. The next thing he knew, he was pulling a gold chain free from the wreckage and using it to climb down from the display case he had landed in.
Shaka fell, head over heels, towards the marble floor. He realised, as it rushed up to meet him, that he was going to land face first. He knew his face wasn't his best feature but he was fond of it and put his hands out to protect it.
Something like a well-aimed foot hit him in the rump and suddenly he was jerked to a halt less than an arms length away from the floor. Nervously, Shaka looked over his shoulder and saw a plunger harpoon firmly attached to his backside, just below his tail. The plunger harpoon was on the end of a very strong fishing line and at the top of it, peering over the edge of the hole they had made, was Lawhiney.
Shake breathed a huge sigh of relief. He twisted slowly as they began pulling him up and as he did so he found himself upside down and nose to nose with an very angry female guard. He gave her a huge grin. She snarled at him. Shaka, realising another pull on line was due, grabbed her by the cheeks and gave her a big, wet kiss.
The guard broke free, glowered at him with a towering rage and pulled a huge club free from her belt. Shaka noticed that the next pull upwards was overdue. The guard pulled back the club like a baseball player hoping for a home run. Shaka started to worry about his face again.
The guard swung.
Shaka felt the bat whisper through his hair as he was belatedly pulled towards the roof. Ever quick to bounce back, he blew a raspberry at the guard who made ready to jump up to him and haul him down.
Brandon ran up behind her and knocked her down onto all fours. In one movement he jumped onto her back and leapt upwards, swinging the gold chain he had liberated from the smashed display cabinet.
The chain caught on Shaka's front tooth and held fast despite the mouse's indistinct cries of alarm.
Together, the whole assembly began to rise further and further away from the floor. Below, the museum mice shouted and ran around helplessly. They had already used their supply of spears and the human alarms were blaring loudly enough to deafen a mouse.
When Louis the guard arrived on the scene with his friends a moment later they were just in time to see the crown jewels of Tin-Can Island get yanked off their display stand on the end of a fishing line and disappear through the stained glass window. They were so busy staring after the jewels that they didn't notice the counter-weight come down and scatter a crowd of rodents that had been gathered below the window.
Lawhiney was admiring her reflection in a large silver broach. Pierre was hurriedly piling everything he could into the Ranger plane, which was beginning to bulge at the sides. Lorrie was helping a gasping Brandon up over the edge of the glass. Shaka was standing very still his eyes full of tears. Slowly, he reached up and tested his tooth, prodding it gently with one finger.
The tooth fell out.
Shaka whimpered. "'e 'oof!" He said.
Everyone ignored him.
"'e 'oof!" Shaka wailed.
"I think that's the last of it." Pierre announced.
"There's one more. We got this, as well." Brandon held up part of the gold chain. Together he and Lorrie piled it into the back seat of the Ranger plane.
"Wha' a'ou' 'e 'oof?" Shaka demanded.
"Stop acting like a baby and get in the plane, Shaka." Lawhiney told him as she finished using the priceless broach to help her touch up her lipstick.
Shaka looked at her like a struck child. Lawhiney stared back at him.
"Now. Or we'll leave you behind."
Hanging his head, Shaka did as he was told.
Lawhiney tossed the broach into Pierre's lap and climbed into the pilot's seat. They were all set to make the perfect getaway when the grill on the nearby air conditioning vent burst open and a dozen museum mice burst out. Lawhiney did a double take and started the engines with no time to waste.
Slowly and clumsily at first the Ranger plane began hopping down the roof, away from the guards.
"Come on, come on." Lawhiney growled at the controls as she twisted the throttle until she thought it would come off in her hand.
"They aren't chasing us!" Pierre exclaimed in amazement.
"They aren't? But surely they must be?" Lorrie wheezed in his worried voice.
"No, they're all clustered around something they can't get out of the vent."
"Oh hell." Brandon said. "It's that air-pistol they've turned into a field gun."
Lawhiney smiled in triumph as the plane lifted off the roof of the museum. They had just been about to run out of building when she realised they were free. Then they cleared the edge of the roof and a powerful down draft sent them diving towards the sidewalk. The air rushing past her ears seemed to wipe away all other sound. Even the wine of the Ranger plane's engine seemed to be lost. Lawhiney froze. Her hands were locked around the controls in a death grip.
For the briefest of moments Lawhiney saw her own mortality. She saw death, her death, as the world might see it. The end of a cheep fake brought about by her own greed.
Just as the cracks in the sidewalk slabs became visible the plane tilted back and they were flying level again: Straight through two lanes of rush hour traffic!
The fragile, tiny aircraft streaked past the windscreen of a removals truck, the driver's startled face a fleeting ghost behind the glass. The bonnet of a station wagon swept underneath the fuselage but the plane was gone before it could be smashed to pieces by the rest of the car.
Lawhiney felt her heart miss one beat, then two. The Ranger plane was climbing again. A building reared up in front of them. Lawhiney jerked control stick round and the building was replaced by open sky. Slowly, they were climbing again.
Assistant Tour Guide Zoë had been one of the first on the roof. Right after the Museum Security Militia and their air pistol, that is. She had just seen the tail end of an aircraft dropping out of sight as she jumped from the air vent.
"They've crashed!" she shouted when the plane didn't reappear immediately.
"No, there they are!" Another voice replied.
The aeroplane moved slowly as its engine strained under its heavy load. The robbers reached the height of the museum roof, again, and the Militia struggled to aim their air pistol at the long balloon that helped keep the plane aloft.
"Safety off!" A commanding voice boomed. "Fire at will!"
"Wait!" Zoë screamed. "That's the Ranger plane! See! It has their symbol on the side!"
Everyone on the roof stopped and looked.
"That may be the Ranger plane but those sure aren't the Rescue Rangers." A guard standing alongside Zoë commented.
"That's Gadget Hackwrench!" Someone else shouted. A trail of long blonde hair, much longer than any male mouse would allow his hair to grow, was clearly visible in the pilot's position.
"No, it can't be!"
"It is! I've seen her before! That's her!" Zoë shouted, panicked at the thought that people she knew might harm her new friend. "She must be a hostage or something!"
"She's flying the plane!" Thundered the mouse who had been giving the orders.
Pierre was perched on a gold chain. He clung to the fuselage of the Ranger plane with one hand while his other fought to clear Lawhiney's golden tresses from his face. As he brushed them away, he saw the air pistol surrounded by a crowd of blue uniformed mice.
"Incoming!" He screamed, dropping any pretence of a French accent.
Lawhiney gasped as she felt Pierre's hands grab her shoulders from behind. His hands were huge and strong, as she had noticed many times before, but this time it was because they were digging into her fur, hurting her.
Lawhiney kept only one hand on the control yoke as she tried to free herself.
Far out of earshot, Zoë pointed to the struggle. "She's fighting with them!" The young guide cheered enthusiastically.
The guards with her watched with bated breath.
In the plane, Brandon was sitting next to Lawhiney. His heart leapt when he saw Pierre distract her. As he tried to pull the rat's hands from their pilot's shoulders, Brandon saw what the rat was so excited about. Brandon moved his hands to Lawhiney's jaw, took a firm grasp and turned her face towards the gun that was aimed at them.
She took the hint. With only one hand on the controls she put the plane into a steep bank away from the museum.
The plane made disagreeable mechanical sounds as it obeyed her. Lawhiney wished she knew what those noises meant but she had never been a mechanic. She hated getting her hands dirty.
She tried an evasive manoeuvre. Instead the Ranger plane went into a tight spin towards the ground.
With every last ounce of courage and skill she possessed, Lawhiney pulled the Ranger plane out of its second heart-stopping dive.
For what seemed like an endless moment the Ranger plane hung on the breeze, flying towards the afternoon sun. Lawhiney only realised that her eyes had been closed when she opened them to witness one perfect, golden moment of beauty and freedom.
Lawhiney just had time to offer a prayer of thanks to a God she didn't believe in. Then the controls went limp in her paws and the Ranger plane, as if out of deliberate malice, turned and flew straight at a brick wall.
Lawhiney heard a voice whisper: "Please?"
It was hers. Then everything went black.
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