Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Chapter Thirty: Dale the Guide
Like some fantastic mythological beast that only a human could have dreamed up, the committee had five heads, nine legs, eight arms, two wings and ten eyes. Its full title was "The Celestial Committee for Spiritual Guide Performance Review" and the part Dale and Basil were about to meet were actually just the subdivision for Guides with surnames that began with the letters "Ha" to "He".
The chair mouse was a rotund female mouse who looked to be slightly past middle age. She had white hair and white fur and two of the palest blue eyes that Dale had ever seen anywhere and sat in a slightly larger chair in the middle. It was as if she had become chairperson simply because the committee would have looked lopsided if she sat anywhere but in the centre.
The committee's wings and its only peg-leg belonged to Fidget the bat who was sitting at the end of the table with his feet, or rather foot, up on the table while he puffed on a large, sulphurous cigar.
Dale was still feeling slightly uncomfortable, despite Basil's assurances that he couldn't possibly get into trouble for this, so long as he didn't say anything. It was a rather sizable rider that Basil had added at the last moment, just as he was pushing Dale through the door, but Dale would have worried anyway. His nose was twitching. Something about the afterlife didn't smell right. It took him a moment to trace the smell to the cigar being smoked by the bat with the tattered wing.
Dale instinctively disliked the bat. There was something about him that seemed familiar. When Dale got it, he had to choke off a laugh. He was looking at the bat out of hell.
The plump mouse looked up in surprise. She peered at Basil over gold frames of her half moon spectacles and smiled. "Basil of Baker Street!"
"The very same! But I haven't lived in Baker Street for some time, I'm afraid." Basil smiled in return.
"It's a pleasure to see you again after all this time, but-" the Chair-mouse frowned at the thick sheath of papers in front of her "-I don't see your name anywhere on the paperwork for this case "
"I think you'll find me listed as a temporary supervisor to the Probationary Guide assigned to the young lady named on the cover." Basil pointed out.
The Chair-mouse began to turn pages with a puzzled frown. Other members of the board were taking an interest and showing equal confusion.
"Basil, this can't be right. I didn't know that you had even been a Guide, let alone an instructor! You have to be both before you can be a supervisor!"
"I am a Consulting Guide, Madam Chair-mouse, just as I was a Consulting Detective and if you look closely you will note that I have been an instructor at the Guide Academy for many years."
"On an ad-hoc basis, it says here."
"It adds up to far more than the necessary time, however."
"It's still very irregular."
"Quite so, but it's temporary and Mister Geegaw Hackwrench is under my supervision."
Madam Chair-mouse blinked. "Er, have you been supervising Mister Hackwrench closely?"
"As needed, Madam Chair-mouse." Basil replied dryly. "Might I ask the background of this hearing? I was only told when and where it was going to be held. At rather short notice, I might add."
"This tribunal has been called because a number of serious concerns have been raised regarding Mister Geegaw's conduct in this case."
Madam Chair-mouse had the grace to look embarrassed. "The concerns have been raised by the, um, observer from the other side."
Basil continued smiling at the Chair-mouse a moment longer then allowed his face to drift towards the bat, as though noticing him for the first time. "Ah, yes." Basil said, as though he had just smelt something nasty. "Montague Fidget. I believe I have some experience with you."
"Believe?" Fidget drew the word out in his smoker's rasp until it sounded like two words. He cackled. "You have some experience of chasing me all over London. Never caught up with me though. I led you a merry dance."
"Until your boss threw you into the river Thames from a great height, as I recall."
Fidget laughed. "He works for me now!"
Basil's eyes narrowed. "So it's true? I had heard rumours to that effect. I would have expected the rise, or should I say fall, of someone like Ratigan into the netherworld's higher ranks would be nothing short of meteoric."
"All the big noises upstairs make the same mistake. They come downstairs and you're right, their arrival is meteoric." Fidget twirled his cigar and smiled. "Then when they finally pick themselves up they think they're still a big noise. Then they find out they got to start again from scratch, only this time around everyone else knows the same tricks they do on account of how if they didn't, they probably wouldn't be allowed in downstairs. Me, I was always a-" Fidget twirled his cigar again as he searched for the right word "-follower, you might say. So I found it easier to make a new start." Fidget threw back his head and laughed. "Ratigan! He's always got to be the boss. That don't play too well downstairs."
"Yes." Basil said carefully. "I can imagine."
This time Fidget's laugh was a belly laugh. When he was done he looked directly at Basil with his beady yellow eyes. "No. You can't."
The Chair-mouse banged her water glass against the table, twice. "Gentlemen, I'm sure these-" she pronounced the next word with exaggerated care "-pleasant reminiscences and I would like to proceed."
"Forgive me, Madam Chair-mouse. I haven't seen Mister Fidget in a very long time and I have to say, I can't remember the last time my earthly adventures seemed so clear and recent in my mind. Why, it seems like only yesterday Doctor Dawson brought that poor little girl to my consulting rooms in Baker Street and asked me to assist her in finding her lost father. A father kidnapped by the very bat I see here today, in fact..."
All eyes turned questioningly to Fidget. The bat's own yellow eyes flicked towards the rest of the committee members like a snake's tongue. If he was uncomfortable, he hid it well. He took a long draw on the cigar and reclined in his chair, watching the smoke form horrid patterns in the air.
"Ah, I don't think anyone here was under the impression I was a good little boy. I don't care what you tell them, Mister Detective." He used his bad wing to sweep away the smoke and the ugly shapes it suggested.
"Why, thank you, Mister Fidget. Since you've given your permission it would be positively churlish of me not to finish the story " Basil smiled charmingly.
"But " Started the Chair-mouse.
"It was in the winter of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, well over a hundred years ago " And without waiting for any further interruption, Basil proceeded to tell the whole story of how he had met Doctor Dawson and become the most famous detective in all mousedom. He even drew up a chair to tell it and lit his pipe. No one objected, since the sliver white clouds of smoke from Basil's tobacco smelt of sandlewood and fresh rain and at once began to wage war on the sulphurous charcoal-black fumes from Fidget's cigar.
Basil was a master storyteller and Dale listened with rapt attention. His mind only wandered at the middle of the story, when he noticed the tableau forming out of silver and black smoke over the heads of the listeners. It looked like two armies, one of silver and white with wings and lances, the other of black and yellow with horns and clubs. The armies were not fighting, not yet. There was a clear open space between them but it seemed at any moment both sides would charge.
Basil's story went on but Dale couldn't take his eyes from the smoke circling the ceiling of the room. Two smaller puffs of smoke rose towards the centre of the tableau, half way between the two armies. To Dale's imaginative eye, they looked like the figures of tiny mice with long hair. The two figures seemed to battle with each other in slow motion as Basil's story unwound until finally the figure made of dark smoke fell.
Basil was telling of a mighty battle of his own, one fought at the top of Big Ben over a hundred years ago. Dale listened with half an ear; engrossed by the almost recognizable smoke-figures that were now so tangled with each other that both were a dirty grey. One of the figures, it was now nearly impossible to tell which side it had started on, seemed to finally have the upper hand and stood poised to strike.
As Big Ben chimed the end of Basil's adventure Dale watched the victorious figure, some of its former silver brilliance regained, help its fallen enemy to stand. Dale was so enraptured he almost didn't hear the end of the story, with Basil's triumphant return from the abyss and what seemed certain death.
The doors to the room burst open, cutting Basil's happily ever after adrift in mid-sentence.
"Professor Ratigan!" Basil announced the arrival of the chief villain from his story in amazement.
The professor was halfway into the room before he chose to acknowledge his old enemy.
"Basil!" he purred. "How nice to see you haven't completely deserted me. I quite thought I'd gotten rid of you for good."
"I'm here strictly by coincidence." Basil warned. "Your erstwhile assistant chose to convene a special tribunal into the doings of my protégé, a circumstance that demanded my presence."
"Where some see coincidence, others see design." Ratigan replied as though quoting, possibly from Basil himself, judging by the way the mouse-detective bristled.
"Mister Basil!" Thundered the Chair-mouse. "What is this person doing here? I take it he is the individual from your entertaining but wholly unnecessary story?"
Basil winced. "Madam Chair-mouse, I assure you that he is indeed the same individual of which I was speaking and that I had no idea that he was coming here."
"Mister Ratigan " Fidget began.
"PROFESSOR!" Roared the rat.
"MISTER RATIGAN!" Fidget yelled back in his rasping voice. The pair glared at each other. Fidget won the contest.
"Well?" Enquired the Chair-mouse into the silence that followed.
"Mister Ratigan is the Advocate assigned to the case under review." Fidget explained in a more reasonable tone.
"I see. You did have reason to suspect that Mister Ratigan would be here then, Mister Basil?"
"On the contrary, I had reason to believe he would be occupied elsewhere specifically BECAUSE Mister Fidget had called this special Tribunal." Basil defended himself.
"You weren't trying to bias the tribunal in any way?"
"Oh no, of course not. It just happened to be the first story that came to mind and, I might add, the only one Mister Fidget had given me permission to tell." Basil said, truthfully. He smiled at Fidget without much hope the bat would accept it.
Fidget, disturbingly, smiled back. "Eh-heh-heh. And just why were you so keen to tell that old story?"
Basil gave him a cold smile. "I couldn't think of a better way to kill time."
The bat chuckled again. "Kill time. Eh-heh-heh. Just why is it you would feel the need "
A small figure slipped in though the door to the infinite hallway. It tried to stay hidden behind Basil and the Professor but Fidget had made too many similar entrances and exits himself to miss it.
"Of course." Fidget growled. "Mister Basil, you haven't introduced your, ah-ha, companion."
Basil glanced worriedly at Dale. "My companion? Just whom are you referring to?"
The Chair-mouse replaced her gold half-moon spectacles to peer at Dale. "Why, it's quite obvious who the Observer from Elsewhere is referring to the person standing next to you. But I should have thought it quite obvious that this is Mister Hackwrench."
Fidget gave an ugly laugh. "Is that who it is, Mister Basil? Is that Mister Hackwrench wrapped up in all those robes?"
Dale gulped and tried to hide deeper in the monk's habit that Geegaw had given him to wear. Beside him, Basil winced.
The Chair-mouse frowned at him. "Mister Basil?"
"Ah-ha. The thing is that is to say not to put too finer point on it " Basil squirmed uncomfortably. The penalty for telling a lie, particularly in these circumstances, could be drastic.
"Mister Basil? If this is Mister Hackwrench, who is that standing behind you?" The Chair-mouse, either by accident or design, saved Basil from what might have become an embarrassing mistake.
Basil looked and found himself standing elbow to chin with Geegaw. He stared into Geegaw's face for a moment, trying to deduce the outcome of the probationary guide's mission. Then Basil turned away, giving no outward sign of relief or dismay. He placed a paw on Geegaw's shoulder and ushered him forward.
"Madam Chair-mouse, this is Geegaw Hackwrench."
The Chair-mouse stared at Basil, not at Geegaw. Her nose twitched in disapproval. "If that is Mister Hackwrench, who is that wearing Mister Hackwrench's robes?"
Dale gulped. He drew the hood of the robe back. This would be where he got into trouble.
Basil smiled his most charming smile. "Allow me to present Mister Dale Oakmont. A young fellow who can provide valuable testimony relating to the case in hand and who I was fortunate enough to find in the waiting room."
"I see. And just what is he wearing Mister Hackwrench's robes for?"
Basil smiled hopefully at Dale and silently prayed that the chipmunk hadn't forgotten the exact words he had be told to use.
Dale looked back like a first grader looking at teacher at his first school play. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "I am thinking about not going back and that means I might become a guide someday and I like playing dress-up. Mister Hackwrench was kind enough to let me try on his robes, since we are about the same size."
Dale sounded as wooden as the tree he lived in but there wasn't an untrue word in what he had said.
The Chair-mouse stared at him for a moment, as if she were waiting for lightening to strike. Quite possibly she was and even when it didn't she remained sceptical. "Really? Well, we have an Official tribunal under way here, so if you'd be so kind as to return Mister Hackwrench's Official robes - for the time being - perhaps we might finally get under way?"
Dale blushed and undressed in public. He was wearing a white version of his normal Hawaiian shirt underneath but there was still something uncomfortable about it. The robes had been a shield and a hiding place of sorts.
Geegaw took the robes and with a sigh, donned them for what was probably the last time.
"Oh, come on! You aren't going to let them pull the wool over your eyes, are you?" Fidget snarled.
The Chair-mouse arched an eyebrow at Fidget and said, with a significant look in Basil's direction: "I can assure you, Mister Fidget, NO ONE has pulled the wool over my eyes."
"Your observers would have something to say about it if we pulled something like this in one of our tribunals!"
"I have been an observer at your tribunals, which, I have to say, more closely resembled witch hunts or lynch mobs. And from what I have observed, your side can be depended on to pull something every single time. Not that it makes any difference where you come from, of course, since your side seems to be incapable of bringing in a not-guilty verdict even for their own side. Now, unless someone has any further delays for us " Madam Chair-mouse looked over her spectacles at Basil again. " we will proceed. Take your place, Mister Hackwrench."
Geegaw did so, his head hanging and shoulders bowed.
"Now, several grievous charges have been laid at your door, my young sir. They are, specifically, that you have aided and abetted your charge in her continued wrongdoing rather and that you undercut a competitor by tendering a lower offer for a service that had already been agreed in principal. In both instances you trespassed on the duties and responsibilities of the Advocate for the Opposing Side, rendering him redundant, and simultaneously breached the Guide's Service's Code of Conduct."
"The Advocate for the Opposing Side was almost entirely absent during my entire assignment. I would like to know where he was during that time!" Geegaw shot back, careful to keep his accusatory tone aimed at the rat and not the Chair-mouse.
"This is not a direct answer to the complaint that has been laid against you." Madam Chair-mouse pointed out. "If you wish to report wrong-doing by the Advocate for the Opposing Side, then you may do so after this tribunal is concluded. Until then there can be no question of making an accusation against the professor." The Chair-mouse pointed out, patiently. "No doubt his superiors will take note of his absence from his assigned duties and investigate accordingly." She shot a look at Fidget, sceptically.
Geegaw, hearing and understanding perfectly, made the accusation anyway. "I believe THAT RAT used the opportunity to walk the earth, given to him for the purpose of teaching my charge the difference between right and wrong, to drum up unsolicited trade like a door to door salesman!"
All eyes turned to Ratigan, who shrugged at them, his expression neutral.
"Mister Ratigan, is there any truth in the suggestion-" Began Madam Chair-mouse.
"HEY! That was no suggestion! That was an accusation and you just said he couldn't make one!" Fidget rose angrily. "I want it stricken from the record. I want an apology! I want-"
"-IN THE SUGGESTION Mister Hackwrench just made?" The Chair-mouse overruled his objections.
Ratigan coughed politely. "The man is distressed. Over-wrought. He's making wild accusations without a shred of knowledge or evidence to support them."
"None of which, I note is an actual denial." Madam Chair-mouse replied. "Mister Hackwrench, I have to ask you to address yourself to the accusations that have been made against YOU."
"I take it the accusation that I undercut him by offering a cheaper tender for services concerns my healing Lawhiney's leg?"
"It does. As you know, we cannot allow the battle between good and evil to be reduced to an auction for mortal souls."
"In order to offer a lower tender I would have to know exactly what price he intended to extract from Lawhiney. At the time I was under the impression Lawhiney herself didn't know what that was and I was not present when Ratigan made that approach. Moreover, I believe that the suggestion that I offered a lower tender implies that I negotiated some fee for healing her. I did not. I healed her without anything in exchange."
"But did you do it because she had agreed to trade with the Advocate?"
Geegaw licked his lips. He had to think quickly because a wrong word here wouldn't merely end his career but possibly destroy any hope for Lawhiney's future. "Lawhiney had not agreed to trade with the Advocate, she only specified that she would if her leg did not improve in the near future."
"A hair-splitter's difference." Fidget snorted.
"But it is a difference." Geegaw took what he could get.
"Indeed." Madam Chair-mouse gave the slightest nod of her head. "The loophole left by Miss Lawhiney is valid. I'd even go so far as to say it was obvious."
Fidget inhaled deeply, causing the remains of his cigar to crumble to ash.
Ratigan laughed politely. "And the little matter of him healing the young lady's leg so she could flee the consequences of her actions?"
Madam Chair-mouse looked from Ratigan to Geegaw. She cleared her throat with difficulty. "Mister Geegaw, can you truly say that you assisted your charge's recovery by, er, assisting her recovery?"
Geegaw lifted an eyebrow. "You mean did fixing her leg help get her back on the right path? It's too early to really say. It did give her a little more time to consider her course and-" Geegaw swallowed hard and made a leap of faith "-I believe in her."
Madam Chair-mouse and the other board members looked at him sceptically.
Then, very slowly, Madam Chair-mouse began to smile.
"Oh, come on!" Ratigan yelled.
"There is precedent for improving an individual's health long enough for them to effect a change in the lives. It is, in fact, the whole basis of the Guide and Advocacy programmes." The Chair-mouse pointed out.
Fidget was having none of it. "Whether he believes in her or not doesn't enter into it! He healed her leg so she could run!"
"Her leg was still in a plaster cast! She couldn't run anywhere!"
"Not then! But later, when the cast had been removed!" Ratigan growled.
"If someone hadn't healed her leg so she could run, she couldn't have run into Gadget in the forest tonight and that's exactly what you wanted all along, isn't it? The whole time you were absent from the case you were supposed to be working on you were watching my daughter, Gadget, and trying to seduce her into abandoning every good thing she believes in!"
"Is this true?" Asked the Chair-mouse wearily.
Geegaw couldn't stop himself. He was like a runaway freight train with no breaks. "And that was just the ground work! You were working your way round to steering Gadget and Lawhiney into a head on collision the whole time because you thought you could engineer Gadget into killing her sister. BAM! You would have had both of them in one night! Lawhiney for her old mistakes and Gadget for the brand new ones that you helped her to make!"
Ratigan lit a cigarette and blew a smoke ring before answering. The silence grew around him until he had to speak. "I wouldn't call the murder of her pregnant sister a mistake."
Nearly everyone's face registered shock at the elegant rat's casual words.
"Sounds pretty damning." Geegaw agreed. "But it would carry more weight if she had actually gone through with it. You brought her to the edge, close enough to look over and see how far she had to fall. She knows she's got the capacity for murder in her now, just like everyone else, but she didn't actually kill."
"Her strength failed her." Ratigan growled. "Her intent was murder."
"Enough!" Madam Chair-mouse looked outraged. "To abuse your license to walk the earth in such a way! There must be a thorough investigation and quite possibly a formal complaint!"
Fidget and Ratigan rolled their eyes. They noticeably failed to be overwhelmed.
"Until that investigation is complete, this enquiry into Mister Hackwrench's conduct in this case must be shelved."
"What's that?" Fidget started. "You can't be serious."
"I am completely serious. There can be no question of the board reaching a conclusion in this case without all the facts and, since these accusations call the very purpose of the Guidance and Advocacy Programme into grave doubt, those facts can only be investigated by a higher authority."
"But that will take "
"Quite possibly the remainder of Lawhiney and Gadget's lives, given the speed at which such authorities move, the level of cooperation between your side and ours, and the Hackwrench family trait of being drawn to dangerous situations." Madam Chair-mouse promised. "In the meantime I will be returning Mister Hackwrench to his former duties. With a strict warning to be on his best behaviour, of course."
Fidget lit another cigar and put his feet back up on the table. He was trying to pretend that he didn't care but he bit the end off the cigar with unusual vigour before he spoke. "I shall be doing the same with Mister Ratigan."
"Then we're adjourned." The Chair-mouse said.
"IS THAT IT?" Yelled Geegaw. "They tried to make my daughters KILL EACH OTHER and that's IT?"
"MISTER HACKWRENCH!" Thundered the Chair-mouse. "I would say you and the rest of your family have been extremely fortunate. I suggest you curb your temper and prepare for your return to duty."
With that, the Chair-mouse stood and collected her papers and walked out of the room with the rest of the board members trailing behind her like ducklings behind a mother duck.
Dale looked earnestly at Basil. "We can beat them up now, right?"
"Too RIGHT!" Geegaw yelled, advancing on Ratigan with a look of fury.
Basil's outstretched arm stopped him.
"What?" Geegaw demanded.
"No." Basil said firmly. "There are strict rules about that. Representatives of the powers of good and evil cannot fight each other in person. That would be a breach of the truce that allows the mortal world to exist. Only the living can fight for good or evil, because they are the only ones who are not yet committed to one side or the other."
"That darn truce." Ratigan purred. "Of course, there is also the small detail that we'd wipe the floor with you."
Basil's eyes went to the clear inch and a half difference between him and Ratigan and his lips twitched convulsively.
Fidget stood up and stretched. "Well, I'd say that it's been a pleasure seeing you again, Basil, but it's not like I'm behind on my quotas for lying."
"Fidget, no one can have enjoyed this more than I and, as always, dealing with you has been a vile, odious, disgusting experience." Basil replied in the most courteous tones possible.
"Better luck next time, old boy." Fidget laughed.
Basil looked nonplussed. "Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit."
"Oh, no sarcasm. I'm completely sincere."
"That's very sporting of you." A puzzled Basil said eventually.
"It's just I was talking to Ratigan." Fidget smirked. "Come on, Ratty! Don't dawdle."
Ratigan followed Fidget to the door, paused on the threshold, and then turned with a devastatingly sarcastic goodbye to Basil curling his lip.
No one got to hear it, because at that point Dale hit him in the face with a chair.
Sunrise over the city after the big rainstorm was beautiful. The slick, wet buildings looked shiny and new like a brand new car in a dealer's showroom, as if all prior sins had been washed clean and forgiven. A rainbow hung over city-park like a promise that the bad times would never come again. Like all promises, it lasted only as long as the rainbow.
Gadget made her way up the spiral staircase that wound around the Ranger's tree in city-park. This had been her home for six years. The mileage felt a little longer but she had left a lot of life unlived in that time. In spite of the burning she felt in every part of her body she ran up the stairs that had made her so dizzy the first time she used them.
This was her homecoming. This was her triumphant return, after all foes that stood against her had been vanquished.
When she reached the old door at the top of the staircase she ran into it like an old friend. It swung open under her weight like a dance partner and she spun into her old home like she was a child on the first day of the school holidays.
It was empty. She had imagined everyone standing there, waiting for her return, of course. That was silly and childish. They would be doing their normal morning things, making coffee and sleeping in.
Gadget danced on the spot with her hands over her mouth like a teenage girl who couldn't wait to break the news of who had invited her to the school prom. The suspense was unbearable. Who would be the first one to notice she was back, to look into her eyes and see the difference, to see the truth waiting there.
No one entered the room.
Gadget couldn't contain herself any longer.
"Hey, guys! Monty! Chip? Dale? Zipper?"
No one called back. Gadget began to frown. Of course, she thought, they must have been called out for a rescue. Or they're searching for me because Lawhiney disappeared on them last night. Well, she won't be causing them any more trouble now.
Gadget turned to close the door and it was only then she saw the sign that had been pinned halfway up.
Sweeper Investigation Unit. Crime Scene. Do Not Enter."
She took the sign from the door with shaking hands, her smile and excitement at finally coming home vanishing like the memory of a dream on waking. She kept rereading it again and again in the hope the words would mean something different.
Gadget was still staring at the piece of card, shaking her head, when the voice came from behind her.
"You know, when the sign says do not enter, we really mean it."
Gadget jumped like a startled cat. The voice was deep and warm and it's tone was more tired than angry, but Gadget was ready to run or fight like a wild animal.
Standing in the doorway behind her was a brown rat in a cheap blue jacket and shirt that had the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. After spending years around Chip, Gadget knew instinctively that he was a detective.
"Am I going to be arrested for entering my own home?" Gadget asked quickly. After everything she had been through it seemed almost natural.
"We generally allow people who live in a place back in to get their things, under supervision, of course." The rat smiled generously.
"And after that?"
The rat shook his head. He didn't seem to understand. "After that?"
"Where do they go?"
The rat shrugged. "That's up to them. You have to commit a crime before we provide accommodation."
"Oh really?" Gadget replied arching her voice to match the eyebrow she lifted. "I don't think that's true of everyone you lock away."
The rat smiled, more to himself than her. "A lot of people have trouble believing someone close to them has done wrong, maybe something terrible. I know, it takes time for them to accept the truth. Sometimes they never do. But for the most part they finally take a long hard look at reality and move on with their lives."
Gadget opened her mouth to tell him off for being patronising and then realised she didn't have the faintest clue what he was talking about. She closed her mouth and considered her options for a full second before shaping her lips around a single, simple word.
"Who?" Detective Doyle repeated, feeling a little shaken. He had been ready for a lot of different possibilities, such as finding Gadget in another trash sack, or listening to her tearful confession to the crime Chip Maplewood was sitting in a jail cell for but her stark, simple ignorance of the crime that had been committed was something he was unprepared for.
"Who? Interrogative pronoun. Originally Middle-English from the Old English word 'hwA', which was related to the Old High German 'hwer'. As in: Who the heck are you talking about? Who's done something terrible?" Gadget boiled over, her long night only technically ended by the rising sun.
"There's no reason to shout. For a moment I thought that you were asking who I am." Doyle replied gently but firmly.
"That would be a good place to start."
"I'm Detective James Doyle of Street Watch East Precinct, assigned to the Oakmont case."
"The Oakmont case? Dale has a heart of gold! I won't stand by and seen him carried off in chains for something he didn't do."
"Uh, no, ma'am. We name the cases after the victims." Doyle told her regretfully.
Gadget stood still for a moment. Doyle watched her digest the news. However good some females were at hiding their feelings, he could see this one had knocked her for a loop.
"Dale's really hurt?" She asked eventually. "Someone told me he was but I didn't believe them. Is there something that he needs? Medicine or donor blood or something?"
It hadn't occurred to her that Dale might be dead, Doyle noted. For all the detective knew, the chipmunk was dead by now. Best to play it like she had assumed correctly - stick to the facts as he knew them, state nothing in the present tense when it came to Dale's condition. "Around midnight last night a Street Watch patrol found Mister Maplewood about to tip a sack containing the unconscious body of Mister Oakmont off the edge of your porch. Mister Oakmont had sustained a severe blow to the head for which he is receiving treatment at the Small Animals of Mercy hospital. So far as I know, he hasn't regained consciousness.
"Mister Maplewood is being held back at the East Precinct on a charge of attempted murder."
Gadget stared at him for a moment and burst into tears.
Doyle flinched. Like most males, he had no idea how to deal with a girl in tears. "Ah, gee! Look Miss Hackwrench, I know it's a lot to take in all at once, but once you've had time to think about it you'll realise that it could be a lot worse, you know."
"Could it?" Gadget stared at him, horror struck.
"Yeah, sure. In fact, seeing as no one has seen you since last night, I was half expecting to find you stuffed into another trash sack." Doyle laughed uneasily.
Gadget stared at him, tears still on her cheeks. "Tell me what you think happened."
Her flat matter of fact tone, so much at odds with her appearance, took Doyle aback. He knew from experience that people who had been through a terrible ordeal sometimes spoke like this because they had no energy left to get emotion. Gadget's hands and face were clean but her fur had the fluffy, standing on end look of having been recently washed. It didn't mean anything if she had been out in the rain but the mouse before him was wearing a clean, neatly pressed jumpsuit that was as dry as a bone. Suddenly Detective Doyle very much wanted to hear her version of events first.
"Actually, I was hoping you might be able to suggest something." He scratched the back of his head as though mystified and gave her goofy smile.
Gadget met his eyes with a steady gaze. "Such as?"
Doyle winced. His imagination conjured up the memory of Chip Maplewood proudly telling him that he was a detective too. He wandered how often the girl in front of him had seen Maplewood use the same ploy to extract information on the sly. There was nothing to do now but see it through and hope for the best.
"Have you any idea why Chip might have attacked Dale?"
"There's no history of violence between them?"
"Could we talk about this in the kitchen? I'd like to sit down and I really need a cup of coffee." Gadget asked.
Doyle hesitated. He knew she was stalling and technically the kitchen as much off limits as anywhere else in the Rangers' clubhouse but at least she was agreeing to talk. Besides, she made it sound like such a reasonable request.
"Sure." He smiled.
A moment later they were sitting at the Rangers' kitchen table, waiting for the water to heat up. At close quarters Doyle noticed the heavy bags under her eyes for the first time, as though she hadn't slept for a week for the first time. Gadget stared blankly at him as he studied her face, then she seemed to remember that she was supposed to be answering a question.
"Chip and Dale fought all the time, mostly verbally, but sometimes physically. I got the impression that they had known each other forever. That they'd just been brought up that way and hadn't grown out of it. There was never any serious harm done."
"By serious, you mean "
"Nothing that an icepack wouldn't fix. No blood, no broken bones. It could be alarming if you were seeing it for the first time and it was tough on the furniture but that's about all."
"What did they fight over?"
Gadget frowned and checked the water. "Anything. Which TV show to watch, who was better at whatever silly contest they'd invented to pass the time, whose fault the latest disaster was. And me."
Gadget looked up at him again, her eyes still glistening with tears. "Who liked me the best. They thought I didn't know but they weren't very discrete about it. They wouldn't talk about it, either with me or each other but sometimes they'd scream about it in each other's faces right in front of me and then we'd go back to acting like I still hadn't noticed they were competing for me."
Doyle nodded, trying to look as though he heard this sort of thing all the time. "Right. Why do you think that was?"
Gadget closed her eyes and shook her head. Either she didn't have an answer or the answer was something she didn't want to say aloud.
"I was still in mourning for my father when I first met them. I'd been alone for a year, no family, no friends because we moved around too much when I was growing up. Our homestead was a little off the beaten track, so not many sociable visitors. Oh, I had dreamed about some handsome, dashing young mouse who would sweep me off my feet but I wasn't ready to be someone's other half yet." Gadget flushed. This was heading away from police interview and into therapist's territory.
"I meant the water is boiling." Doyle pointed behind her.
"Oh!" Gadget stood up and attended to the kettle, pouring a generous measure of coffee grounds into the coffee maker.
"You have mud behind your ears." Doyle said.
Gadget's hand stiffly went to the offending dirt.
"Thank you for telling me." She said returning to the table. "The coffee will be ready in a moment. Would you like a cup?"
"Yes, thank you. Now don't tell me, a good detective should be able to name what part of the city mud came from by its colour and texture. Give me a moment to think and I should be able to tell you where you were last night."
Gadget twitched. "I already know where I was last night. You could simply ask me."
"Indulge me, it's not often we get one of these Sherlockian moments I suppose you'd call them."
"Do you take sugar?"
"No. I'd say you were on the east side of the city, only the texture's wrong. I'll place it eventually, though."
"My dad did his best to raise me properly but I guess he must have skipped telling me to wash behind my ears. It's probably been there a while."
"I didn't dab it there before going out for a night on the town, that's for sure."
"I meant the coffee."
"Oh!" Gadget got their coffee. She raised her own cup to her lips before remembering, regretfully, that she would have to give it time to cool.
"Did you just hear something?" Doyle asked, turning his head.
Gadget slapped her cup down on the table, splashing hot coffee on Doyle's hand.
"Oh! Sorry! It was hotter than I thought."
Doyle bit back a curse and glared at her before regaining self-control.
"It's alright." He said gently. "I thought I heard the door closing. I should go and check."
"You closed the door. It was probably just the wind on one of the window shutters. You'd be surprised how windy it is, living at the top of the tree." Gadget took his scolded hand and lifted it to check for burns.
Doyle watched as if hypnotised. Her touch was gentle and electric. The pose reminded him of a knight in shining armour bowing to kiss the hand of a fine lady only with the roles reversed.
Gadget's eyes flicked from his paw to his face with a smile. "I'll have to be careful. Chip once accused me of having a thing for detectives. I wouldn't want to prove him right."
Doyle flinched at Chip's name. He withdrew his hand, his heart and face hardening. One person was in hospital and another was in jail and, whether she meant any harm or not, this pretty girl was at the bottom of it all. From what he had heard, Chip Maplewood had been a good detective, until he had fallen for a pretty skirt
No. Chip had said there was no skirt, dame or floozy involved. Gadget was just back from a night on the town and if she wasn't wearing a skirt for that she never wore them. The words dame and floozy didn't fit Gadget either. Doyle wasn't surprised that Chip had slammed the door on that branch of the interview; he probably would have, too. Doyle made a mental note that a suspect would be more open to confessing a romantic involvement that didn't reflect badly on the object of their affections.
"I heard you preferred Hawaiian shirts to gumshoes." Doyle replied. A note of jealousy in his own voice took him aback. Was he sticking up for Chip? Or just fighting the first stages of a schoolboy crush of his own?
Gadget stared at him. "There was a time when I'd have just told you that I never wear either. It would have answered your question perfectly and I never would have supposed that you were asking me whether I preferred Chip or Dale."
"I'm not asking about some non-specific time when you were an innocent little girl. I'm asking you about last night when Chip Maplewood tried to kill his best friend." Doyle glared at her.
"I wasn't here last night when that happened." Gadget shook her head as if trying to clear it. "If it happened."
"You still haven't answered the question."
"It wasn't a question. It was a statement. Wait. You said you heard that I preferred Dale to Chip? Who told you that? You said Dale hadn't woken up."
"Chip told me."
"Chip? But Oh Lord. I guess sometimes things change so much you just can't go back to the way things were, can you?"
Doyle studied her professionally. He'd floored her. Anything she said now would be the unguarded truth but if he pushed any harder she'd dissolve into tears again.
"I guess not." He said gently. "I need you to tell me what happened last night, in your own words. Chip's future depends on it."
"Not just Chip's."
Doyle nodded. "If you're concerned about whether the Rangers can carry on with you still recovering from that air crash, Chip in jail for the foreseeable future and Dale in a hospital bed, I'd have to say the answer is no. The city conclave will be deciding what groups to give its support to in the spring. That's a few months away. The way I figure it, we get the co-operation we need and get this over with quickly. I won't lie to you. Even if it's a short trial it's not going to be completely painless. There will be some press coverage and there will be gossip, especially if the motive remains unknown. Best way to deal with that is to get the truth out before the speculation really gets started. That way it becomes old news before most people have even heard of it. People have short memories and you've done a lot of things to be proud of. You'll be able to start over the sooner if this is all cleared up."
Doyle took a notebook from his suit pocket and flipped it open on the table. "Now, how about it?"
Gadget looked at him. "Detective, if I decide to tell my story, it will be under oath at Chip's trial."
Doyle shook his head. "I understand why you might feel that way. You're probably hoping it won't come to that."
"I certainly am."
"Good, good. It's important we understand each other. I've got to tell you, Chip's holding out on us and the sooner he realises that's not going to do him any good at all and starts to make a clean breast of it, the sooner we can make this go away. If I can tell him you've made a statement, I think that will do it. He will stop holding out on us and that's good for him and good for everybody."
Gadget said nothing.
"Think about it, Miss Hackwrench. Who is a long, protracted, drawn out public trial going to hurt most? Chip's going to have to sit there day after day, waiting for the inevitable, watching his reputation be destroyed brick by brick. Now, he's done a lot for this city so no one wants to see that. Let's give him a nice quick trial, over with before the speculation gets out of hand and turns this into a circus, remember?"
"Chip doesn't deserve a nice quick trial." She said.
There was no arguing with her flat tone of voice. Doyle thought it was particularly damning for Chip, given the speech he had just made.
Doyle looked down and considered his position. "I don't suppose it would do any good to warn you that withholding evidence of a crime from the proper authorities is a crime in itself."
"I don't have any evidence relevant to your enquiry, Detective."
Doyle made the mistake of smiling at her condescendingly. "Perhaps you should let me be the judge of that."
Gadget stood up and moved towards the welcome room. "Since I have mud behind my ears, I'll need to shower before I pick up those feminine things that I'll need to get by now I'm a homeless person. You know, sleeping bag, duffle-bag for all my worldly possessions."
"I'm sure you have at least one friend who will put you up. Jennifer Talbert-Hall, for instance."
Gadget's heckles rose. "Jennifer. Yes. I've been wanting to have a word with her. Putting me up for a few nights is the least she can do."
"You and Jennifer have a falling out? I was under the impression you were going to visit her last night."
"Really? Why's that?"
"Because it's what you told Monty." Detective Doyle was watching her closely.
"Is it? I don't recall."
"Well, you certainly didn't go there, because I asked. She's worried sick by the way."
"I'll put her mind at rest."
"I'll have to supervise you while you fill that duffle bag."
Gadget looked over her shoulder at him from the lobby. "Will you be supervising me while I shower too?"
Doyle looked at her sad little-girl eyes with bags under them and tried to work out whether she had any idea the effect she was having on him. He pushed his hat back on his head and tried to imagine the effect this kind of behaviour must have had on Chip and Dale, day to day. Was it deliberate? If it was and she had a choice then she was as much to blame for what happened as Chip was, in Doyle's eyes. If it wasn't deliberate then Doyle doubted she could ever know a normal life, or ever had done.
Just as he was contemplating what a wicked world it was, Doyle noticed the muddy footprints traipsed across the floor. They started by the door and started in the direction of the hallway that lead to the rest of the tree house before they petered out, roughly at the spot Gadget had been standing when Doyle first laid eyes on her.
Doyle pointed. "I don't remember seeing those before!"
Gadget stared at the footprints. "Well, they were here." She made a show of checking her own feet. "Not me. I guess one of your searchers didn't wipe their feet."
"Yeah, I guess." Doyle mused.
"So, my room is this way." Gadget said loudly, as if she thought he were a little deaf or a little stupid. Doyle didn't like to speculate which. "It's not very far but there are some stairs. I'll be as quick as possible in the shower. Then I'll change my clothes and pack my bags. Can I ask how closely you have to supervise me?"
"Are you being serious this time?"
"I'm sorry I was sarcastic earlier." Gadget said over her shoulder.
"I'll need to check the shower and whatever room it's in before you use it. Then you can use it while I wait in the hallway. After you dress, I'll need to watch you pack, I'm afraid, and make a list of whatever you take. So I'd appreciate it if you kept the items you take to a minimum, if only to save me from getting writer's cramp."
"I'll do my best."
"Do you hear water running?" Doyle said suddenly.
"It's just the overflow. All that rain last night probably overfilled our tank, especially with no one home to use any water this morning." Gadget said breezily.
Doyle frowned but said nothing. It sounded like a bathtub to him.
Gadget stopped dead in the middle of the hallway so suddenly that Doyle almost walked into her.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"There's tape across the door to my workshop. Is that where it happened?"
"Yes. It is. I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to stay out of there."
"There's a note taped to the door." Gadget read aloud: "Warning signs ain't kidding. Room full of dangerous machines. Wait for technical assistance before searching." She turned to look at Doyle questioningly.
Doyle glanced at the danger notices next to the door. "The signs are a little intimidating." He pointed out.
"They're supposed to be. I find that chipmunks are generally more curious than mice. Unless it's just a trait Chip and Dale happen to share."
"The signs seem to be particularly emphatic about Dale. Is he the more, uh, curious of the two?"
"I wouldn't say that but he lacks Chip's common sense. I didn't want him hurting himself on any of my inventions."
"You didn't invent anything that's likely to bop him on the head and pop him in a trash bag, did ya?" Doyle teased.
Gadget hesitated, as though considering a yes answer. "I'm quite capable of inventing something like that but, no, there's nothing in there that could do that. You know, I could go in and make everything in the room safe. I'd just need a little privacy."
"It's a potentially hazardous environment. It would be for your safety."
"I think we'll stick with the mechanic from Mario's Toy Store and the trap specialist they're trying to borrow from the Rescue Aid Society. For the time being." Doyle added.
"You're sure? It wouldn't take a moment."
"Quite sure." Doyle smiled firmly.
Gadget turned away slowly. Doyle suspected her of wanting to tamper with evidence and, if he was any judge, she knew it. He waited for her to ask him up front about it, instead she said: "My room is just around the corner. It's the next door along."
"I'll wait outside. Try not to take too long."
Doyle ventured into Gadget's bedroom with the uncomfortable feeling that he was entering previously unexplored territory.
The morning sunlight had caught the sun crystal hung in her window. The bed had an un-slept in look. Contrary to his expectations the closet door was open, revealing that she did indeed at least own dresses, even if she didn't wear them. There was a model space rocket on the dresser, an open textbook next to the bed, and an open chest of drawers that looked to be partly empty. If it were not for the fact that Gadget was leaning on the doorframe, waiting to come in and pack, Doyle would have said that someone had already packed for a journey and someone in a hurry, at that.
Of course, that only fitted in with what Chip had told him about last night.
"How long will you need to pack?" Doyle asked.
"I'm afraid it might be a few minutes. I always have difficulty deciding what to take and what to leave." Gadget answered from the doorway.
"I don't see a shower in here." Doyle said.
"I'm afraid we didn't have the space for en-suite bathrooms. I'll have to use the one down the hall but I'll pack first, if that's alright."
"Fine." Doyle told her. "Any time you're ready. Just remember that I need to make a list."
Gadget shrugged and entered the room. Doyle watched her closely. The first thing Gadget did was open a closet and reach into it, looking for something that turned out not to be there. Doyle could just make out a clean oblong about right for a suitcase that wasn't there. Gadget frowned and reached up onto the closet shelf instead to retrieve an old and battered suitcase with so many travel labels on it that Doyle couldn't begin to count them.
"This used to be my Dad's suitcase. Perhaps I'll do some world travelling like he use to if the Ranger's break up."
"Every cloud has its silver lining." Doyle said. "You'll stick around for the trial, right?"
Gadget laid the suitcase on the bed and opened it. "Detective, are you telling me not to leave town?" she asked playfully.
"Yes." Doyle replied evenly.
Gadget cast a worried look at him, then went to the window and took down the sun crystal. "My mother gave me this. So I could always have my very own rainbow."
Doyle took out his pad and began writing. "Item one, sun crystal and frame. Item two-" he continued as Gadget went round the room "-pen and paper. Item three, three boiler suits."
"Shouldn't that be items three, four and five?" Gadget teased.
"I'm keeping the list short." Doyle replied tersely. "Item four, three T-shirts. Item five, ahem-" Doyle turned away, blushing "-assorted, ah, undergarments."
"I'm taking my makeup kit and my mother's jewellery. Do I have to open them?"
"Yes, but only so I can see they are what you say they are."
Gadget presented him with two boxes. One a surprisingly ordinary make up box, no different from what he had seen in other women's bedrooms, the other a very old wooden box that looked to be hand made. Gadget held two hidden buttons in and opened it. Inside was a pitifully small selection of old and tarnished jewellery. Beads, crystal ear rings, a simple broach and a couple of knickknacks were the sum total of Gadget's maternal inheritance. Doyle dutifully added them to his list and asked Gadget if she was taking anything else.
"I'll need a dress for the trial, right?" Gadget glided towards the closet again.
"You realise we usually let people back into their homes once we're done searching them?" Doyle asked.
"Actually, I hadn't, but better safe than sorry. How long do you think it will be for us?"
"The guy from Mario's said he'd be happy to come over any time but the Rescue Aid Society is being cagey about where their technical specialist is and when he'll be available. End of the week, tops, barring unforeseen circumstances."
"Unforeseen circumstances " Gadget held up her thumb and forefinger with a hair's breadth between them. "Ya know, I was that close to regretting that I'd packed so much."
Doyle smiled but did not laugh. "I'm still going to need an official statement from you about last night. Something we can put in writing."
"Can I come by the station house when I know where I'm sleeping tonight?"
"Sure." Doyle nodded. She had made the request sound so reasonable he could hardly refuse.
"Time for my shower." Gadget closed the suitcase. "And then there's one last thing you can add to your list. It's up in our aircraft hanger."
Doyle's eyes widened as he rapidly upgraded the size of the Ranger's Headquarters in his thinking. "They had room for an aircraft hanger but they couldn't fit in en-suite bathrooms?"
"I know." Gadget agreed as they left her bedroom and closed the door. "And they complain about the amount of time I spend in the bathroom."
At the bathroom door Gadget turned and looked at Doyle with mock seriousness. "If you don't mind, I'm trying to get back into the habit of going to the bathroom by myself, Detective."
"I would have thought a big girl like you would have been doing that for a while now." Doyle smiled back.
"I was for a long time but I stopped for a while." Gadget rolled her eyes at him. "I'll see you in a while, Detective. Will you be standing guard outside the door or searching the place for clues?"
"Probably a little of both. Try not to be too long in there. If I go anywhere I'll be back before too long so don't feel the need to go looking for me."
Gadget smiled through the crack in the door. "I won't." Turning around, she surveyed the state of the bathroom. "Lord, what a mess!"
The bath was caked in mud and grime. There were long blonde hairs clogging the plughole and matting the bath brush. There were dirty paw prints around the bath and on the wall.
"Looks like I'm going to be cleaning up after Lawhiney in more ways than one." Gadget growled.
Doyle considered standing dutifully outside the door and pacing up and down the hallway like a sentry, then shrugged and went looking for Chip's study. According to Chip, that was the last place he had seen Gadget, shortly before she left for a night on the town. He tried three doors before he found it. One led to the unbearable mess that was Monty's sleeping quarters, the next to a cupboard full of cleaning supplies.
Chip's study was a small, neatly ordered room with a couple of bookcases, a desk and an armchair next to a lamp set up as a reading corner. Like Lawhiney before him, Doyle searched the desk drawers. He was hoping to find clues to the chipmunk's state of mind. When he came to the photograph of Tammy, he paused. It was inconsistent with the interest in Gadget that Chip had confessed to him.
Putting that to one side for a moment, Doyle continued his search. He noted the carefully maintained case files and the well-organised card index. It reminded him of his own desk, except a good deal tidier and with less unfinished paperwork to catch up on.
"Guess the Rangers aren't as busy as Chip would like to make out." Doyle muttered to himself. "I got a mountain of paperwork the Chief is on my back about "
Doyle stopped as it struck him that Chip didn't have a Chief or anybody else to get on his back about paperwork or anything else. A wave of jealousy broke over him, followed by contempt for someone who could have all this and not know how lucky they were. Doyle forced himself to swallow it and look at it analytically.
Chip's study was neat and orderly. His paperwork was tidy and complete. That spoke of someone who was much the same: neat, orderly and tidy. Someone self-disciplined, probably with regular habits and given to making plans. The books in the bookcase were mostly crime fiction, which made Doyle's lip curl in disgust. He instinctively distrusted a detective who read lurid stories that made police work sound glamorous or adventurous. At best, their choice in reading might be tainting their perceptions; at worst it marked them out as wannabes with no real business in the line of work they had chosen for themselves.
Doyle closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to fit the picture he had just built up into the jigsaw he had so far. Someone with a neat and orderly exterior might hide strong emotions under the surface. Someone with no real idea of how crimes happened might be unprepared for the consequences of a momentary loss of control and no idea how to clean up afterwards without getting caught.
Doyle shook his head. He could make it fit, just about, but he was forcing it and he knew it. That meant it was probably wrong.
The Chip Maplewood that Doyle pictured in this room was a careful, methodical person with too much self-control if anything. Even assuming the reputation Chip had as a detective was undeserved - and in spite of his feigned ignorance while interviewing Chip, Doyle had known his reputation - the Ranger still knew enough about detective work to know how not to commit a murder and dispose of a corpse. Even if he had lost his grip and tried to kill in a moment of madness, Chip Maplewood would have made his next move carefully and thoughtfully. Leaving town in the dead of night while dragging his friend's body behind him in a trash bag didn't qualify.
Scowling, Doyle began looking for a diary or journal, something that might give him a window into Chip's thinking. There was a notebook identical to the detective's own, save that when he opened it the first few pages seemed to contain rough attempts at gooey love poems. Doyle didn't need to do much deduction to work out who the subject of the poems was. With a sigh he turned back to the case files, but without much hope. Chip was unlikely to have made a note of his last case to the effect that he thought his girl was getting some on the side and that if it turned out to be his best friend, he'd whack him over the head with the nearest convenient object.
The case files were in date order. Doyle read the neatly marked case titles with mounting despair. It read like a library of cheap pulp fiction. The S. S. Drainpipe. Catteries Not Included. Seer No Evil. The last one was crudely entitled "The Counterfeit Ranger". Doyle fished it out half expecting to see a primary colour picture of a scantily dressed blond on the cover.
The file consisted of a brief, simply worded introduction from Chip stating that there had been a number of long distance enquiries and complaints regarding the Rangers from areas where they had never operated. After a lengthy correspondence, Chip had come to the conclusion that a group of confidence artists were using the Ranger's reputation to rob the unwary.
Doyle resisted the temptation to sneer. It was easy to think something was obvious once it was known as established fact and long distance communications were shaky at best when you were a small animal trying to avoid human notice. Misunderstandings happened all the time. It took ages to get confirmation of anything. Rumours were epidemic. Doyle remembered some of the ones he had heard at the Sweeper precinct about Miss Hackwrench before the impostor had been captured. That had been months ago. He flipped a few pages.
Interesting. He hadn't known that Chip had left town a few months ago. Conducting an undercover investigation? Even more interesting. Chip's findings were carefully recorded. The people he had interviewed, the evidence he had gathered.
Doyle wanted to snarl. If Chip had evidence it should have been presented at the trial. He could nail the chipmunk right there for withholding - no, wait. Chip had aborted his investigation and returned home only after he learned that Gadget had been injured. That meant he couldn't have arrived back until after the trial, because the trial was the day after the museum robbery. It would take longer than two days to reach the city from the places Chip had named.
He turned the page and found a newspaper report of the trial. This time Doyle did snarl. Someone who complained about how inaccurate newspapers were shouldn't be relying on them as evidence in an investigation.
By rights, that should have been the end of the file but Doyle turned the page and found the heading "Follow Up Investigation". He dropped the snarl and frowned deeply. The chipmunk seemed to pride himself on the quality of his record keeping. Doyle hadn't seen any spelling mistakes or corrections but here Chip had drawn two deliberate, heavy lines through the title at the head of the page.
The brown rat sat back in the too small chair and stared at nothing in particular while he considered this. Chip liked to keep his records tidy. The section heading had been written in his best boilerplate and then struck through with carefully heavy handedness of someone who had thought long and hard before deciding on a difficult course of action. Doyle's back stiffened when he worked it out. Chip had decided, quietly and without telling anyone, not the proper authorities, perhaps not even his friends, to reopen the investigation.
He let the implications of that circle in his brain for a moment before continuing.
Under the crossed out title was an account of a one-sided interview with the impostor being held in Shrankshaw, then another of the kidnap attempt at the hospital. Doyle mused on them for a few minutes, then turned another page.
It was blank.
Doyle sighed in disappointment and shut the file. Chip Maplewood had begun a puzzle but life had gotten in the way before he could finish it. The detective in Doyle wanted to know the answer, but this wasn't the puzzle that he was supposed to be working on.
He checked the digital watch on the wall. Fifteen minutes had passed. He really should go back and check on Miss Hackwrench. There was nothing else here, unless Chip had pencilled in "Kill Dale" on his day planner.
The detective's eyes went to the day planner, not even consciously, as the thought crossed his mind.
Chip had set aside two hours to write up his field notes.
Chip's notes, where were they? Doyle racked his brain trying to remember if they had been on the list of personal items confiscated by the desk sergeant. No, why would they be? Chip actually admitted he was leaving town when the patrol caught him.
Doyle checked the drawers again and found a notebook he had missed the first time. He flipped it open. Chip had interviewed two people the night before, a prison officer called Margo Haggs and Gadget's friend, Jennifer. He read the notes. They were rougher and less careful than the case file, more like Doyle's own notebook. Chip's thoughts and impressions were there along with the facts. Doyle's respect for Chip began to revive. The chipmunk had reached a stage in his investigation Doyle knew far too well. All the important pieces of the puzzle were there and he was just waiting for something to make sense of them. A last fact, a casual remark, a bolt of inspiration or just a good night's sleep, something that would show him how to put them all together.
Except there was something about Chip's investigation, the almost desperate attention to detail and obsessive gathering of information that said Chip would rather do anything than put those pieces together.
Doyle shook his head. The time was getting away from him. Gadget would be wondering where he was. He half expected to find her building those on-suite bathrooms they had joked about.
Instead she was waiting in a clean set of clothes with her bags already packed, leaning against the wall by the bathroom door.
"Hello, detective. I was wondering where you were. You said you'd be right outside the door." Gadget said.
"I'm sorry about that." Doyle said. "I had to " he trailed off, embarrassed.
"It couldn't have been a call of nature. I would have noticed." She teased with a gentle smile.
He would have died for her. Right there and then. He had let himself be distracted from his duty for no good reason, he could have checked for evidence after he had seen her out the door. She'd had him, but she let him go.
"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Doyle asked.
"Just one thing. I'm afraid there's another item that you'll have to add to your list."
"That other item, the one you wanted from the aircraft hanger? Well, I wouldn't mind see the place. Can I carry your bags for you?"
"Do you want to check the contents again?"
"That won't be necessary." Doyle said quickly. But he did test the weight of them when he picked them up. They felt about right for what he had seen her pack.
Gadget led the way to the hanger. By the time they were halfway there, Doyle was thinking of moving to some flat open place where he could live his life and never see another staircase again. The suitcases kept banging into his legs uncomfortably. By the time they reached the top of the stairs, Doyle knew he would have bruises by lunchtime.
"These things seem to be twice the weight they were when I picked them up." He complained as he put them down on the hanger deck.
"If anything, the inverse square law means they should be slightly lighter. Gravity diminishes the further away you get from the source, which in this case would be the earth, and since the top of the tree is higher than the bathroom, which is about halfway up, the force acting on them which creates the impression of weight would decrease accordingly." Gadget had a look of self-conscious concentration on her face, as if she were speaking in a second language.
Doyle blinked. It sounded like basic schoolroom physics to him. "I remember learning something like that in school. Are you quoting a textbook?"
Gadget looked slightly abashed. "Was it clear and easy to understand? I've been told I talk too fast. People can't keep up. And that I'm too technical, that I use too many big words people aren't used to hearing?"
Doyle looked at her and shook his head. "No, I heard that about you, that you talk at chipmunk speed. People put it down to you having been around Chip and Dale for so long, but I haven't heard you chatter at all today." In fact nothing she had said sounded like chatter. Every word was carefully weighed and considered before being spoken.
"Oh well, perhaps next time " she promised, as if he had missed a treat.
"Where is this item you needed?" Doyle asked, glaring at the suitcases. He'd just realised he was going to have to carry them all the way down again when she got what she wanted. Knowing his luck, it would be something heavy.
"It's, uh, over here." Gadget said.
She pulled on a rope of fishing twine that had been tied to peg in the wall. A white silk handkerchief rose up into the air, revealing the shining blue aircraft that had been sitting in the centre of the hanger. Doyle stared at the wonder, the first aircraft he had seen from this distance since he was a boy.
"I thought the Ranger-plane was destroyed." He said weakly. For a moment, some of the wild stories he had heard about her came back to him and he wondered if she had built this after her shower.
"It was. This is the Ranger-wing."
"You guys had TWO aeroplanes?" Doyle gaped at her disbelievingly. If she'd waved an application form under his nose, he would have signed there and then.
"I built the first one in a hurry. This one I had time to think about." Gadget confided. "Of course, if it's too much I'll quite understand. Though I'll need some help to carry the bags down to the bottom of the tree "
Doyle thought about the spiral staircase he had climbed to reach the front door and added it to the stairs he had just climbed.
"I don't see how I can stop you. No one's suggested that this is evidence and it belongs to the Rangers, of which you're a full member."
"A founding member." Gadget corrected. "Plus I designed and built this."
"Like I said -" Doyle returned in a thoughtful tone of voice after sizing her up "- I don't think I could stop you."
Doyle lay flat on the hanger deck as the rotor blades of the Ranger-wing blew every scrap of litter and dust around him. The blades tilted forwards and the boomerang shaped aircraft moved gracefully off the runway and into the open sky beyond. When it was gone, Doyle picked himself up and counted himself lucky he hadn't had a hat to hang onto.
"I wonder what the range is on that thing." He muttered to himself as he drew out his notebook and pencil. If Gadget landed in Mexico or some other place with no extradition, he'd look pretty silly in front of his superiors.
His paw shaking only slightly, he made an addition to his list: Item eight - One aircraft.
Lawhiney waited until she was cold enough to be sure they were airborne and clear of any witnesses before she threw off the blanket that she was wrapped in and got up off the floor in front of the back seat.
"Not bad, sister. From what little I eavesdropped, you charmed him like a pro."
"I'll try to take that as a compliment." Gadget said through gritted teeth. "You left the bathroom in quite a mess. I didn't have time to wash. I only had time to clean up after YOU."
"I didn't think keeping house would be a priority, given our current circumstances."
"It isn't. But if he'd seen evidence of more than one person in the house while he was there you didn't even wipe your feet on the mat, for crying out loud!"
"I didn't realise you were entertaining, or I would have waited outside."
"It's just lucky he didn't insist on checking my bags a second time. Your botched confessions are under my unmentionables, along with the envelope you left for Chip and the note I found face down on the floor telling him to check in the bin bag before throwing it out."
Lawhiney checked her appearance in her compact. She looked tired and careworn. "Is it too much to hope for that you brought makeup?"
"Yes. Don't open the suitcase or the wind will take the only clothes I have and my panties will wind up scattered over half the city." Just like a certain someone else's I could mention! Gadget thought but didn't say.
"Gadget, I'm proud of you!" Lawhiney cooed. "I've been with you less than a day and you've brought lipstick instead of a sprocket set."
"My sprocket set was too bulky to take without Doyle noticing and it will be waiting for me when I get back home which, believe me, I intend to be soon!"
"I expected you to bring a toolbox at least!"
"The Ranger-wing has a good toolkit in the trunk, along with a medical kit, which is what you'll need if you give me reason to forget you're my half-sister!"
"Temper, temper! What would Geegaw say?"
"He'd say keep your mind on flying the plane instead of tearing strips off each other or the next wings you fly on will be the celestial variety!" Geegaw yelled from beside her.
"GEEGAW!" Lawhiney yelped.
"Hey, careful there kiddo! You jump any higher the plane's likely to have moved on by the time you come down again!" Geegaw gave his elder daughter a rakish smile.
"Is he here?" Gadget asked, frowning uncertainly from up front.
Lawhiney cursed at both of them.
"Three months ago I wouldn't have known what most of those words meant even if I had heard them before." Gadget said thoughtfully after a moment. "But that was before I shared a cell with a career criminal. I offered to teach her some more impressive words for her vocabulary and she said she'd do the same for me."
"Yes. He's here. He says if you actually use any of the words she taught you, he'll find that hairbrush you haven't seen since you were eight!"
"Tell him he hasn't seen it either because I burned it. As for the words, we'll see what comes out the next time I hit my thumb with a hammer."
"Ask her where we're going!" Geegaw instructed Lawhiney.
Lawhiney stared at him in amazement and delight. He was wearing a leather bomber jacket and flying helmet complete with goggles and suddenly she was struck by how alive he appeared now he was in his element. "He wants to know where we're going." Lawhiney relayed, smiling.
"I'm going to put the plane down on our old launch pad. The Screaming Eagle's nest. Then we'll figure out our next move. And before I forget "
"BAD LAWHINEY FOR NOT TELLING ME ABOUT DALE!"
"I sort of told you. Well, you guessed and I just nodded " Lawhiney whimpered. "Geegaw, you'll back me up won't you?"
Geegaw shook his head. "Sorry, Law, I agree with Gadget. You've had all night since I disappeared and you should have made a full confession by now."
"Well, Gadget did most of the talking, when she wasn't busy fixing the car. Besides she's cranky. I didn't want to say the wrong thing again."
"CRANKY? I go to PRISON because you FRAMED me, BREAK OUT and get hunted like an ANIMAL and she says I'm CRANKY."
Geegaw looked at his younger daughter and nodded with his nose wrinkled. "You're right, she is cranky."
"See? Geegaw agrees with me." Lawhiney said, inadvisably.
Gadget twisted the control yoke as though she were wringing someone's neck. The Ranger-wing tilted at ninety degrees and dived like a hawk. The ground came up like big green custard pie about to hit them in the face and Lawhiney curled into a ball behind the pilot's seat.
The Ranger-wing landed safely in a grassy clearing next to a lake. Lawhiney stayed as she was until her stomach caught up with them.
"Perfect three point landing." Geegaw muttered. "Lawhiney, are you okay?"
"Fine, fine. Did you teach your daughter to fly, or does she just make it up as she goes along?"
"I didn't teach her that one, that's for sure." Geegaw replied.
"Is he really here?" demanded Gadget. "I want to know. If I think you're lying to me or trying to manipulate me in any way then I'm warning you, no-one's going to have trouble telling us apart until the swelling goes down "
"I get the message!" Lawhiney raised her hands defensively.
Gadget beat the control yoke with her fists. "Darn it, I thought he wasn't coming back. I lost him twice already. That's more than anyone should have to bear."
"Ah, Gadget." Geegaw shook his head sadly. "Tell her something for me "
"I'll tell her, but I doubt she'll understand any more than I do!" Lawhiney retorted when he was done.
"I can't handle this." Gadget shook her head and rested it on the control panel. "It would be better if they had killed me in prison. Then at least I would be able to talk to him myself."
Lawhiney cringed at the hopelessness in Gadget's voice. Swallowing hard, she plucked up the courage to intrude on her sister's misery. "He has a message for you. Those with the strength to bare more than their share are always asked to carry the heaviest loads."
Gadget snuffled as though she had been crying. "Tell me why he's still here, Lawhiney. I thought he said they wouldn't allow him to come back."
Lawhiney listened for a moment. "He says we've got Dale to thank for that. I'm not sure how though."
Gadget stiffened. "Dale? Is Dale -?"
"Still alive at the last check and, from what Geegaw's saying, he'd better stay that way for a long time, if only because the world isn't ready for Saint Dale yet."
"Saint Dale? No, don't tell me. Some things mouse-kind wasn't meant to know. On the other hand, there are things I positively have to know if I'm going to sort this mess out before we get in any deeper. Such as every last thing you said and did while you were impersonating me."
"That could take some time." Lawhiney warned.
"You're used to impersonating me. I talk fast."
Later that day a blonde mouse carrying a large toolbox paid a visit to the Small Animals of Mercy hospital and produced papers to identify herself to the ward sister who guarded the entrance to the hibernation wing.
Visitors to the hibernation wing were uncommon, not least because most of the people a hibernating person was likely to know were generally hibernating alongside them. The few regular visitors were usually relatives by marriage or on a list of approved people such as hairdressers or manicurists, however, the ward sister happily made an exception for the noted Rescue Ranger and recent celebrity Gadget Hackwrench.
"The dormouse in question is in cell 318." The ward sister told her primly.
"Cell?" Gadget queried in a troubled voice.
"Like a monk's cell, dear. A small room just big enough to lay down in."
"I see." Gadget's expression was well masked. If the irony pleased her, no other creature on the planet knew it.
"Franklin Kafka. Cell 318." The ward sister repeated.
Gadget thanked her and walked through the double doors next to her desk.
"Curious. What could she want to visit someone in hibernation for? She can't ask him questions and he certainly doesn't need rescuing." The ward sister puzzled after the doors had swung closed.
Gadget found herself in a seemingly endless corridor of numbered doors. The odd numbers were to her left and the even ones to her right. Following them until she found Franklin Kafka, dormouse and hopelessly inept defence attorney, would be simple arithmetic although, given that the numbers on either side of her started at "1" and "2", probably hard on the feet. Never mind. She had a detour to make first.
And with that consoling thought in mind, Gadget slipped silently through a door marked: "Private. Maintenance Only."
Half an hour later, Franklin Kafka was having a confusing dream. He was standing up in front of a jury making a speech about a very important point of law he had discovered concerning the eating of humble pie but halfway through it became apparent that he wasn't wearing any trousers. He tried to cover up as best he could using his brief case, his case notes, and a conveniently placed pot plant, but eventually it became impossible to carry on the charade. What made it all the worse was that he knew perfectly well that he never wore trousers, that almost no fur baring males of his acquaintance wore trousers, and that no judge or jury consisting of small animals would care.
Unfortunately, this judge and jury seemed to be entirely made up of humans.
Somewhere there had clearly been a terrible booking error.
Still, he had to make the best of it. Franklin tried to stride back to his desk with dignity, only to find that he couldn't move his feet. He struggled but they were firmly rooted to the spot, as if something heavy were on top of them.
"And further more " He padded his speech desperately. "In the 1812 decision Overture versus Cannon " The courtroom disintegrated around him. He shook himself. His fur was hot and he wasn't wearing a jacket, shirt or tie.
Franklin Kafka blinked and sat up in bed.
"Where am I?" he squeaked.
There was a beautiful blonde mouse sitting at the end of his bed, on his feet, in fact. It took him a moment to recognize her as Gadget Hackwrench.
"Franklin Kafka." She said. "It feels like it's been a lifetime, and for me it very nearly was."
"Ms Hackwrench? Or are you " He trailed off and looked around. "I went into hibernation didn't I?" He squeaked suddenly. "We lost the case!"
"We did." The blonde mouse confirmed, throwing her identity into doubt.
Franklin gulped. "Boy, is it me, or is it really hot in here?"
"I'd like to think it's you blushing, but it's probably just hot in here. I paid a visit to the thermostat in the boiler room so we could have this conversation. Although -" she added thoughtfully "- we probably could have had it anyway, if a little one-sidedly."
"Are you really ?"
"Gadget Hackwrench and your client. Yes, still your client. As a lawyer you should have heard of the Hibernation Protection Act, though it wouldn't surprise me if you hadn't." Gadget looked sternly at him, like a schoolteacher being asked to believe a pet had devoured some homework.
"I have heard of it." Franklin admitted. "But in a way it was very lucky that I passed out during the trial."
Gadget raised an eyebrow.
"I mean, we were losing and surely the judge must have ruled a mistrial?"
Gadget pursed her lips and shook her head.
"He didn't?" Franklin gasped. "But I thought, that is I remember, I mean didn't we lose the case?"
Gadget nodded slowly, narrowing her eyes.
Franklin felt wave of anxiety rise over him. "Well, at least my stand in did a better job than I did! Let's see now who did I get to stand in for me? I asked Roscoe but he turned me down. I was going to ask Benny but he wasn't back from holiday for another week uh, I did remember to get someone to act as my stand-in, didn't I?"
Gadget shook her head with careful malice.
Franklin swallowed, hard. Gadget's expression implied this was anything but a friendly call.
"Have I been in hibernation long?" Franklin enquired, wincing with every word.
"Three months." Gadget told him.
Franklin considered the implications with mounting horror until he could stand it no more and closed his eyes. "Oh boy!" he whispered. "If I were you I would certainly have something to say with me!"
"I do." Gadget told him. "You're fired."
Gadget made her way back along the corridor, ignoring the commotion of hospital staff and sleepy patients still disorientated from being unexpectedly woken from hibernation. She was back at the front desk in the hospital lobby before anyone worked out what had happened but when she got there all she could do was stand there and shake her head sadly.
"I should have known I couldn't trust that crooked little fraud." Gadget muttered to herself.
"Excuse me?" A voice said behind her.
"Oh! Miss Hackwrench, er did you decide against visiting Mister Oakmont, then?" The nurse who had challenged her was showing unmistakable signs of Lawhiney induced confusion.
"Uh, yes. Dale Oakmont. I asked if you were here to visit him and you said you were just waiting for someone but then you decided to drop in just to see how he Is something wrong?"
"I got lost. Where did you say his room was again?"
"Up the east stairs, take the corridor on the right and ask at the nurse's duty station."
"Thank you." Gadget called over her shoulder as she began to run. Lawhiney had tried to kill Dale once and now she had a chance to be alone with him. There was no telling what was in her mind.
Gadget pounded along the corridor, ignoring the staring nurse behind her.
It wasn't that Lawhiney was likely to finish the job she had started just when she was near certain she would have to face the consequences, it was more that Gadget doubted Lawhiney herself knew how she was going to react. Seeing an intensive care patient for the first time could be scary and, even though she had Geegaw with her, one peek inside that hospital room might crumble Lawhiney's resolve like a politician's promise.
When she hit the bottom of the stairs Gadget knew one thing. She couldn't take the chance on her sister disappearing out the nearest exit after one look at her latest victim.
Lawhiney was expecting to see Chip and Monty at the door to Dale's room. They weren't there. She didn't yet know about Chip being arrested. Gadget had been so busy pumping her for information that she hadn't realised that for once there was something she wasn't telling.
A nurse came out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Lawhiney kept her head down and walked straight ahead. If anyone challenged her well, she didn't know what she would do. If last night had taught her anything, it was that she could never impersonate Gadget again.
She reached the door without incident and hesitated. It wasn't like she could just sneak in but she couldn't exactly knock and wait for a "come in" either. She swallowed her doubts and reached out to the door handle. A quick twist of the wrist and step that felt long enough to take her into another world and she was past the point of no return.
Dale's hospital room was small but probably twice the size Lawhiney's jail cell would be, as her self-preservation instincts lost no time pointing out. Dale himself lay in a bed that looked like it had been made out of coat hanger wire twisted into the shape of a bedstead, white sheets tucked in neatly around his slumbering body.
"Oh Dale " whispered Lawhiney. She crept closer to the bed. "I am so sorry."
The word helped her more than it helped him. It felt so right on her lips, like a soothing balm taking the heat out of the hurt and letting the healing begin. The sleeping chipmunk was utterly helpless. Lawhiney reached out a paw to his face and brushed his hair away from his eyes.
Dale's eyes snapped open at the touch.
Lawhiney jumped backwards as though scalded. "You're awake!"
"I remember. I remember everything." Dale mumbled. "You're Lawhiney and you tried to kill me."
"I - I didn't mean to."
"That's what I always say when Chip finds out that someone's sat on his hat! It doesn't buy me any slack either!" Dale retorted. "Hey, how come they left me alone with you?"
"I snuck in. No one knows I'm here." Lawhiney admitted.
Dale gasped. "Trying to take me out before I can tell anyone, ay? Well, you ain't getting me without a fight."
Dale grabbed the closest thing he could use as a weapon. It felt reassuringly large in his paws and he threw it with all the force he could muster, striking Lawhiney full in the face.
Fortunately it was only a pillow.
"Hey!" Lawhiney's eyes were wide with alarm. She looked to the door. "Cut that out!"
"No way sister! I'm taking you down! NURSE!!!" Dale yelled.
"Dale! Stop it, you're going to get me arrested!"
"That's certainly the idea!" Dale began frantically pushing the call button next to the bed. "Nurse! Nurse!"
Lawhiney's eyes went to the pillow at her feet, a disgruntled look wrinkling her nose. She reached towards it with a deliberate slowness.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Dale yelped in a panic. "Nurse! Someone get in here!"
Lawhiney picked up the pillow and advanced on the bed with it held out in front of her, like a weapon.
Gadget was charging up the stairs three or four steps at a time. The nurse who had provided directions had not said what level Dale's room was on. Gadget supposed that she was meant to go up rather than down, though there was no real reason to choose one over the other. Similarly, she guessed that the nurse meant her to stop climbing at the first door she came to.
The door burst open as she hit it with her full body weight. By chance, no one was standing on the other side.
Gadget looked in both directions then stumbled towards the nearest nurse's station. The vole behind the counter looked startled and a little concerned.
Best not to ask after her twin sister. It would only lead to lengthy explanations, Gadget decided.
"Dale, Dale Oakmont. I need to know what room he's in and I need to know quickly."
The vole stuttered, showing all the confusion of someone suffering déjà vu. Unable to speak, she pointed to the end of the hallway and the single door at the top of a T-junction.
Gadget ran for it, knowing that behind her the nurse was scrambling for the intercom. In a minute or two at most people would come to the nurse's aid, probably several large people with an air of authority and little interest in listening to explanations.
Gadget ran faster and hit the door at speed. Life being what it was it didn't open. Gadget thought fondly of a word Bubbles had taught her. Then she opened the door the old fashioned way and almost collapsed into Dale's room, dreading what she might find.
Lawhiney was plumping up a pillow behind Dale's head. Dale was sitting up and staring at her quizzically.
"Hey, where's the fire, Gadget?"
Gadget stared at him. She felt like falling over in disbelief. She didn't know what she had expected to find but it wasn't this. Vaguely aware she was staring, Gadget closed the door and tried to gather her thoughts. "No fire, Dale. I was just afraid I was going to miss Lawhiney here."
"Hey!" Lawhiney said reproachfully. "I was just checking on Dale. Anyway, I thought you said you didn't want too many people to see us together?"
"Dale doesn't count. Is Geegaw here?"
"Geegaw?" Dale asked in surprise.
"Lawhiney claims to be able to see him."
"I can so see him!"
"You've claimed an awful lot of things, some of which got me arrested in your place." Gadget pointed out. "So you've no right to act like your feelings are hurt just because I doubt you."
"But you saw him yourself, last night!"
"The jury is still out on what I saw last night. I'd been on my feet twenty-four hours with only six hours sleep the night before, I'd run cross-country, broken out of jail, gone one on one with the biggest, meanest rat I've ever seen twice and one of the best friends I'll ever have, not to mention fighting off an angry mob single handed. But whatever I saw, I'm not seeing it now and I'm not taking your word for anything."
Dale stared at her. "Wow! I'd forgotten how fast you normally talk Gadget. I can't believe someone didn't say 'Hey, this can't be Gadget we brought back from the hospital 'cause we can understand what she's saying! It must be an impostor!' within, like, ten minutes of her coming in the door!"
Lawhiney crossed her arms and pursed her lips. If there was one thing she was fairly sure she didn't deserve to be criticised for, it was the quality of her Gadget impression.
"That's right!" Gadget agreed recklessly. Her mouth was moving at such a pace she missed Dale's point entirely. "I can't believe that the four people who know me best on the whole planet couldn't tell the difference between me and some cheep floozy who wanders in through the door without an oil stain on her jumpsuit!"
"Neither can I!" Dale agreed with equal recklessness. "Especially the way she doesn't drink coffee or spend all night in her workshop making enough noise to keep the whole park awake! Or insist on watching boring science documentaries on the TV when World Wrestling Federation is on the other channel, or spend ninety minutes exploring every single possible answer when you ask her a simple question, or cook so badly we have to sneak the food out of the house in yellow hazmat bags!"
"Exactly." Gadget agreed triumphantly before her brain reigned in her mouth and pointed out that they were in uncharted territory. Her face fell and her eyes immediately stung with tears. "You - You preferred her to me?"
Dale assumed the frozen expression common to road kill everywhere.
"Uh, what's that?" he asked feebly.
"You did, you preferred her to me "
"No, no! I was just saying how awful her impression is and how dumb we were for not seeing through it! Honest!"
"Oh come now, honey, I seem to remember you didn't have a bad thing to say about it when we were bouncing around on the back seat of the Ranger Plane " Lawhiney teased.
Gadget stared at both of them in shock and horror.
"YOU and DALE? You - you - on the back seat of MY Ranger Plane?"
"She said she wanted to test the springs " Dale said weakly.
"Oh don't get your panties in a bunch." Lawhiney said before Gadget could finish the job everyone thought Chip had started.
"Don't get my -" Gadget was nearly speechless with rage. "How many of the others did you do that with, Lawhiney? Did you test the springs with Chip, too? With MONTY?"
Gadget was on the edge of tears. Some deep instinct that had been a part of Lawhiney for as long as she could remember was spurring her on, urging her to kick Gadget over that edge so Lawhiney could watch those tears fall. Tell her the others couldn't wait! Tell her they all knew! They just pretended not to as long as you kept blowing in their ears and helping them scratch that itch that SHE wouldn't let them reach! For the first time, the instinct didn't feel natural to her. It felt like something alien, intruding into her mind like a cancer or the roots of a weed.
Where was Geegaw when she really needed him?
Lawhiney cleared her throat. "Dale and I spent a couple of minutes using the back seat as a trampoline before I stole the Ranger Plane. I had something else in mind when I suggested it but Dale here was too sweet and innocent to understand and Monty, well, he's got his charms but he'd have to lose some weight and about fifteen years first, if you get my meaning. As for Chip you can keep the commitment phobic little control freak for all I care, but if you do you're going to have to duck sooner or later, take my word for it. There's a reason why people think he's the one who put Dale in this hospital bed, you know."
They weren't exactly the soothing words Lawhiney had hoped for but at least they were true.
Gadget's face softened as the words spilled over her. She hung her head so that her hair covered her face and maybe a tear or two did fall, unseen behind that blonde curtain. She sat on the end of Dale's bed without looking up and, behind her, Lawhiney looked as if the effort of saying something that was even a little true had knocked the wind out of her.
After a while, Dale reached out and touched Gadget on the shoulder. He stretched out a fingers and parted her hair like a theatre curtain and smiled at her. "I dreamed of your father, you know. At least, I think it was a dream. I saw him with a tall detective, one like in Chip's books, and a big ugly rat who smelled of brimstone. They were angry and there was a lot of arguing, but I think everything turned out all right in the end. Especially after I hit the rat with a chair."
"You hit him with a chair?" Gadget laughed.
"They didn't know whether to fit me for a halo or a pitchfork right there and then, so I guess sending me back before I did anything else was the only option they had left."
"Oh Dale!" Gadget hugged him fiercely.
After a moment, Lawhiney coughed politely. "Uh, should I go hang out in the hallway for a while?"
Dale struggled to free himself long enough to breathe. "Yeah, Gadget. I don't think the hospital had this in mind when they put a bed in here Gadget?"
And Gadget simply said: "Zzzzz."
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