Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Chapter Three-Two: Vengeance for Margo Haggs
Margo Haggs lay in a hospital bed, grateful for the painkillers the doctor's had given her. She was, according to the doctors, in remarkably good condition considering she had been slammed face first into a wall. Her nose was broken. She had cried in private when she found out. Her skull was intact but the doctors insisted in keeping her in for twenty-four hours in case her concussion presented complications.
The doctor's insistence had one curious complication of its own. She had been admitted at approximately two in the morning. It meant that if their prescription were followed to the letter she would be released at two a.m. the following night. For convenience, she was being kept in until morning when the storm drains had cleared from the storm and she could catch a ride back to her own part of town.
Although she enjoyed the attention and admiration due to a wounded hero who had been injured attempting to foil the escape of dangerous people, Haggs hated the medical prodding and probing of the Doctors and the helpless feeling of being in someone else's power. It reminded her too strongly of the laboratory where she had been born and raised, and she couldn't wait to be free again.
At a little past eleven in the morning a nurse came with a wheelchair.
"What's this?" Haggs demanded irritably.
"I'm taking you to see a specialist so your head can be examined." The young gerbil said carelessly.
"I beg your pardon?" Haggs was un-amused.
"Oh, your head injury, I mean!" The gerbil blushed under her pretty tan fur. "A few questions to see if you've suffered any memory loss and since your twenty-four hours' observation is up you can go home straight away." The nurse told her.
"More tests." Haggs growled bitterly.
The nurse took her to a waiting room and left her next to a young chipmunk with a bandaged head. Haggs sat sullenly, feeling stupid and exposed in the backless hospital gown.
"They sure like to keep people waiting, don't they?" The chipmunk said unexpectedly after several minutes of silence.
"They certainly do." Haggs agreed with feeling.
"I've seen enough of these places recently to last me a life-time!" The chipmunk returned with equal feeling.
Haggs had no interest in hearing the details. She pretended not to hear.
"Do you know which of us is next?" The chipmunk asked after another half minute of silence.
"I'm afraid I don't, but you were here first so it seems obvious that they'll call you before me." Haggs replied.
"I don't think it works like that. They bring you up whenever someone is available to take you here and then they see you in whatever order they've already worked out." The chipmunk said. "Oh, sometimes it's alphabetic order, though. What's your name?"
"Haggs." Margo Haggs replied.
"Mine's Oakmont. Dale Oakmont. So if they're doing it that way they'll take you first." The chipmunk seemed pleased with himself for working out that he might have to wait longer than seemed reasonable to be poked and prodded.
"Hmm." Haggs agreed disinterestedly.
After another half minute of silence Haggs grew impatient. "I don't really see why all this is necessary. I'm only bruised, apart from my nose. I was supposed to go home after breakfast this morning, only I never got any."
"Really?" Dale seemed interested. "I had oatmeal with walnut shavings.
"Still, better safe than sorry. Head injuries can be funny things. Take it from me, I've had some beauties in my time."
Haggs glanced across at him in surprise. "You get head injuries often?"
"Oh yes, it goes with the lifestyle, I guess." Dale told her.
"Lifestyle?" She was about to ask whether Dale was a circus performer or some kind of daredevil when she realised whom she was talking to. "OH!
"You're that Dale Oakmont? The Rescue Ranger?"
Dale smiled at her guilelessly. "Sure! Why, is there another Dale Oakmont anywhere about?" He looked around as if expecting to see a carbon copy of himself propping up a wall somewhere.
"It's not important!" Haggs said hastily. She had more of the company of Rescue Rangers than she could stand for the time being and struggled to stand. "I think I'll just get a drink of water."
"You know your hospital gown doesn't do up at the back, right?" Dale grinned at her with a devilish gleam in his eye.
Haggs sat carefully back down again.
"Ah, it's kind of silly to worry about it, when you consider we're both covered by fur and all. Heck, out in the boondocks people run around wearing nothing else!" Dale laughed.
Haggs forced a brief, awkward smile. "All the same, I think I'll wait to get that water."
Dale shrugged it off. "If it bothers you, I'll get that drink for you."
The chipmunk batted his eyelashes at her. "No peeking now!" he said with mock coyness.
"I certainly wouldn't - !" Haggs spluttered.
But Dale was already up and halfway across the room to the water fountain. Haggs lifted an eyebrow cynically but didn't look away.
"Oh, hey! You peeked!" he said with false dismay when he turned back with the water.
"I - you - Hrumph!" Haggs took the water and drank it in one gulp. "Do all the Rangers treat life like one big joke?"
"Nope! I'm the only one!" Dale said proudly. It was impossible to tell if he was kidding or not.
"Well, it's been a pleasure meeting you, but I think I'll come back some other time. This doctor has clearly forgotten all about us "
"Oh, I wouldn't do that." Dale sat next to her. "They won't let you out if this exam isn't completed."
Haggs cursed. "Lot of nonsense. I'm perfectly fine."
"Keen to get back to work?" Dale asked.
"Actually, I've been given a week off." Haggs admitted. "And I certainly need the rest."
"Well, you don't want to spend it all in this place, do you?"
"No." Haggs agreed and reluctantly stayed put.
"What do you do, anyway?" Dale asked idly.
"Prison guard." Haggs said shortly.
Haggs lifted an eyebrow at Dale. Perhaps he was being polite but something about the chipmunk's tone struck her as false.
"Is that how you got hurt?" Dale asked.
"Yes." Haggs replied thoughtfully. "I was trying to stop the escape of five dangerous criminals. One of them cut a line I was climbing and I fell."
"That was pretty brave of you." Dale offered. It sounded sincere.
"Thank you." Haggs smiled in a self satisfied way.
"I'm here because I got clonked on the head by a team-mate." Dale shook his head. "At least, I think it was a team-mate. It's kind of mixed up in my head."
Haggs was surprised. She'd been in hospital when the scandal broke, so she knew nothing of Chip's incarceration. "Who?"
"Oh, it's kind of confused."
"Well, I've heard that can happen with head injuries." Haggs said, giving up.
"Perhaps if I could tell someone though, I'd be able to make sense of it." Dale said almost to himself. "Say, would you mind if I told you?"
"Certainly." Haggs consented. "Anything to help pass the time."
"I went to borrow something from Gadget, our pilot, and she hit me over the head with something."
Haggs considered this.
"That actually sounds pretty straightforward." She suggested.
Dale looked sideways at her. "I guess I can be pretty annoying sometimes."
"Perhaps." Haggs allowed. "It's no excuse for putting you in hospital, though." She added severely.
"They found Chip dragging my body out of the house in a garbage sack and everyone thought I was dead, so now my best friend is in jail for being an accessory to attempted murder. I always thought an accessory was something a girl bought because it went with her dress. You know, like a handbag or something."
Haggs nodded carefully. Clearly she was in the presence of an idiot. "I think it has another meaning, in legal terms."
"I guess." Dale snuffled. "I can really see Chip as a handbag though. A really ugly one."
"That's the spirit." Haggs smiled at the thought. Chip was still a potential threat to her. If he knew what had happened to Gadget the truth behind Haggs' meeting with him would be only a step away. Yes, she thought the chipmunk would make a fine handbag.
"So today, Gadget walked into a Sweeper precinct and said it couldn't have been her because we got her mixed up with the impostor who was running around a few months ago and locked her up instead. So it must have been the impostor who hit me over the head." Dale shook his head in puzzlement.
"You're kidding." Haggs said in a feeble voice.
"No, really it's true. At least, she really walked into the precinct and said that." Dale looked baffled.
Haggs wondered if she should run for the door.
"Now no one knows what to do with her. They can't find the impostor, either one who broke out of prison or one who clonked me over the head, so they have to take her word for it."
"Surely they aren't going to just take her word for EVERYTHING?" Haggs pleaded weakly.
"The thing is no one believes her. I don't care if it's true or not, I just want things to go back to the way they were. Only now they say she has to go back to prison to serve the sentence the impostor got."
"What? They sent her BACK?" Haggs stood without care or thought about her backless hospital gown.
"Yeah. The Sweepers who came to visit me said that Gadget told them she'd sure have something to say to those prison inspectors who are going to inspect the place, and I don't blame her! But the Sweepers say she's got to stay there until they can prove she's lying and charge her with hurting me, or until there can be another trial to find she's not an impostor, in which case they're going to put her on trail for breaking out of prison!" Dale glared at Haggs indignantly. "It ain't right, I tell you!"
"No." Haggs agreed absently. But where Dale saw a great and terrible injustice, she only saw a great and wonderful opportunity.
"I guess they don't want to admit they messed up and, if they have to, they want it to be someone else's fault. Her fault." Dale snuffled.
"If she'll say she made it all up so she didn't have to admit to hurting you," Haggs said reassuringly, "then all you have to do is tell the Sweepers it was an ordinary assault and that you don't want to press charges."
"You think so?" Dale asked hopefully.
"Certainly." Haggs sounded a little worried. She was afraid it might actually happen. "By a stroke of good fortune, I think I happen to work in the very prison where your friend is being kept. Since it doesn't serve anyone's interest to keep her there longer than necessary, I'll take her a message from you, so that she knows that you bear her no hard feelings."
"You think you could persuade her to change her mind about all this?"
Dale grinned eagerly, his chipmunk tail whirring in happiness.
"I'm sure I can prevail upon her." Haggs said. The words should have been reassuring, but there was steel in her tone that sent a chill up the chipmunk's spine.
"Gee." Dale swallowed hard. "That would be swell."
"Haggs? Margo Haggs?" A brown rat in a white coat called through a door.
"See, told ya! Alphabetical." Dale grinned as the doctor wheeled Margo Haggs away.
Gadget had a lot to think about. The good news was she had plenty of time to do it in. Bubbles' old solitary cell had her name and a date scratched on the wall. Gadget brushed her paw across the scratches and smiled fondly.
Four dangerous criminals were still at large. She wondered where they were. If Gadget knew Bubbles, her first thought would be of her children, now and always. Of course, Bubbles had made it perfectly clear that she had no intention of going back to the one place the police would be sure to look first. Gadget's thoughts turned to what might have happened had she stayed with the others.
She wouldn't be in a cell now; that was for sure.
She thought about Chip. Chip Maplewood, three and seven twelfths of an inch tall, nut-brown fur and deep, dark serious eyes, who prided himself on his skills as a leader and a detective. Again the old anger welled up. How dare he not know the difference between her and some other blonde who batted her eye in his general direction?
Not that she batted her eyes in Chip's direction, Gadget thought. Did she?
Perhaps she did.
Certain moments came back to her as she considered. Gadget and Chip sharing coffee before anyone else was awake, along with smiles, looks, moments of semi-accidental contact that caused one or the other to blush, along with accounts of their less embarrassing dreams. In a word, flirting.
Flirting on a regular basis, even.
Flirting every morning for years on end, in fact.
Gadget was still smothering her laughter at the thought of Gadget-The-Flirt when she was confronted by the even more unlikely image of Gadget-The-Tease.
In spite of all their pleasant mornings together, they had never openly acknowledged that they were flirting, let alone taken things to the next level.
Gadget thought back and more un-regarded moments rose up in her mind's eye like accusing spectres.
Chip at her workshop door trying to strike up conversation for no reason. She was busy, anything but grateful for the distraction. Chip asking her if she'd like to have dinner sometime and Gadget absentmindedly pointing out that they ate dinner together every night. While also reminding him it was his turn to cook.
In spite of all these careless rebuffs, Gadget had never once stopped flirting with Chip over the breakfast table. Or even noticed she was doing it.
Gadget shuddered. She had been cruel - and not just to Chip. She'd enjoyed plenty of late night movies with Dale. Not all of them at home, some at the cinema. Sometimes Chip and the others tagged along (often at the last minute) and sometimes they didn't.
A girl and a boy going to the cinema alone together constituted a date. Even Gadget knew that.
She had, quite inadvertently, been cruel to both of them.
It was no excuse that she hadn't realised she was being cruel to them, that was just another way of saying she had been too wrapped up in herself to care.
Sighing deeply, Gadget reflected that if she were to get out of her current predicament she would have to make amends to both of them. There hadn't been many times in her life when felt the need for feminine advice. Now it bothered her that the person best qualified to give her that advice was Lawhiney.
Gadget imagined the sort of advice Lawhiney would most likely offer and blushed. She would have preferred to ask Bubbles but, unless the warden frogmarched her into the next cell, it seemed unlikely she would get the chance.
Slowly, after the hectic rush of hours over the last twenty-four hours, time crawled by.
Someone timidly cleared their throat.
Warden Phelps didn't notice at first. Then they did it again. She looked up.
Margo Haggs was leaning over the warden's temporary desk. Her face was barely a hand span away.
"Good God!" Phelps understandably started backwards.
"Excuse me, Warden." Haggs said politely. "I didn't mean to startle you. I was just looking for my time card."
"I didn't expect to see you so - " The warden broke off with a look of horror.
"So soon? Well, I realise you gave me the week off, but I know how short handed the prison is at the moment and the doctors have released me." Haggs gushed.
"Of course! Well, if you're fit, then as you say we're very short handed." Gertrude Phelps tried to collect herself.
"My time card? Have you seen it anywhere?"
Warden Phelps shook her head, more to clear it than to answer the question. "You were injured. The timekeeper probably put it in the leave folder."
She fished around in a desk draw until she found the folder, then removed Margo Haggs' card.
"Thank you." Haggs said as she clocked in. "And an hour early for the evening shift."
"You're certain you want to be here?" Phelps asked again, frowning at Haggs.
Haggs turned and smiled with frightening honesty. "I can't think of anywhere else in the world that I would want to be."
Phelps smiled and nodded, as one does in answer to the slightly mad.
In spite of everything that had happened, Shrankshaw Prison still ran in three eight hour shifts just as it always had. Haggs had arrived an hour early for the two to ten shift and was careful not to let anyone see how tired she was or how much her bruises hurt. Her rooftop encounter with Gadget had left her smarting in more ways than one. She bit back complaints and concentrated on her work until she could steal a moment to work on her plans.
Her last attempt to kill Gadget Hackwrench in the solitary cells had floundered on a single but obvious weakness. She had relied on Bubbles McGee to actually do the deed. Regardless of the fact that Gadget had escaped her cell before Haggs and McGee arrived on the scene, McGee had never had the slightest intention of killing her cellmate. She would have turned the knife on Haggs the moment "Red" was free to help and might possibly, Haggs conceded, have overpowered her even if she hadn't turned her back to examine the empty cell.
Looking back, Haggs sneered at her own foolish weakness. To rely on others in something so important -- and simply because she didn't want to get her hands dirty! Why, the complications involved in getting McGee out of the prison afterwards alone were enough to make her head spin. Or perhaps the painkillers the doctors had given her were doing that.
McGee was history now. If not dead and eaten in the forest then on her way to a new life - of crime, no doubt - far, far away where she wouldn't bother Haggs with any inconvenient testimony or finger pointing, and likewise those annoying twins.
Good riddance to the lot of them.
Haggs worked hard. Not long after lunch the inspectors from the Correctional Department arrived at the front gate of the prison. Haggs was just wishing that "cracking the whip" could be more than a metaphor when Warden Phelps showed the four members of the inspection party through the door.
"Ms. Haggs." Phelps called to her. "Come here and be introduced to the prison inspectors."
Haggs signalled the inmates to lower the heavy piece of wood they were lifting.
"Always a pleasure to meet people from the department." She said, once she had made her way over to the little group of public servants.
The apparent leader, a vole with thick heavy glasses and a white beard and moustache, peered at her and shook her paw. "You must be Margo Haggs. I recognise you from the tribunal you gave evidence at. Ms. Phelps' predecessor, wasn't it?"
Haggs blushed. "That was some time ago. A most unfortunate business but I think you may be remembering the business with that young guard who was caught bringing contraband into the prison. That was more recent."
The old vole nodded. "Ah yes, I remember. You were a character witness. You spoke well of her to start off with but things fell apart rather badly under cross-examination. The prosecutor asked a couple of surprisingly well-informed questions. Put you in the awkward position of having to make things worse for the girl."
"If you don't mind, I'd rather not relive unhappy memories." Haggs said turning her face away. Five years, that was how long the girl had gotten after Haggs' "help".
A fat mouse lady pushed her way forward. She was dressed as though she had expected to go to a garden party. "I understand you've been very heroic?"
Haggs froze for an instant then rose to the occasion with a self-effacing chuckle. "Heroic isn't a word I like to use. I was merely doing what any dedicated officer would do in such circumstances."
"I understand you single-handedly almost prevented the escape." The mouse lady protested.
"Almost being the operative word, I'm afraid." Warden Phelps put in.
"I'm afraid that's true. All I got for my pains was a day in the hospital and some nasty bumps and bruises." Haggs played the modest, wounded hero for all she was worth, while at the same time seeming loyal to her superior. "Warden Phelps offered me a week's leave, but we're so short handed now it just wasn't possible."
"Yes " Phelps said carefully, shooting Haggs a warning glance. "We're extremely short handed and have lost five guards in the last day alone. I'm certain that others are only holding on until the situation is stable before handing in their notice."
"How many guards do you normally have?" A white mouse with round glasses and a brown moustache asked. He looked like an accountant.
"Thirty-six. Some of you may recall I've wanted to increase that number to forty-two for some time now." Phelps instructed them. "That would have given us more slack to deal with a thing like this. As it is, I don't see how we're going to continue without more help."
"The only sane thing to do if things go on like this or, heaven forefend, get worse, is to keep the prisoners in their cells full time." Haggs suggested.
"Would that work?" Asked the accountant.
"No!" Phelps explained.
"It might." Haggs contradicted her.
Phelps glared at her.
"For a short time, I mean." Haggs nodded to the Warden by way of an apology. "We'd have to have professionals come in and do the repair work instead of using inmates, of course, but from a security point of view it would work very well. We'd only need a few guards to supervise some trustees as they brought food to the inmates in their cells."
"It certainly sounds feasible." The mouse lady's voice rose at the end of the sentence, as though she were asking a question.
"Conditions in many of the cells are very poor. To keep people cooped up that way twenty-four hours a day would be positively human!" Phelps warned them. "And without inmate work parties to repair the damage we'd be spending a fortune on getting contractors in to repair the damage. It's much cheaper to get replacement guards."
"We'll consider all our options." The accountant assured her.
"I'm sure you will." Phelps replied, sounding deeply worried and frustrated. "I believe you came here to interview a random inmate?"
"Yes. One from every section of the prison." The old vole replied.
"Excellent. Ms. Haggs, if you could pick someone from the work party." Phelps turned back to the inspectors and began to try to mitigate the damage Haggs had just caused.
Haggs strode quickly away rather than endure the humiliation of having to listen to her ideas being ridiculed. She noted that one of the inmates, Roxie, was following a handful of inmates being escorted away. Haggs followed her like a predator, timing her interception to take place just after they were out of sight of the inspectors and the warden.
As soon as they turned the corner Haggs snatched Roxie from the end of the line and slammed her up against the wall, pressing her forearm across Roxie's throat.
"How's the ear, Roxie?" Haggs whispered.
Roxie's eyes went longingly to the fast retreating back of the next inmate.
The guard leading the inmates away on their bathroom break looked back and raised her eyebrows. Then she turned away, opened the barred door with her key and left with the other inmates, locking the door behind her.
"Is it healing okay?" Haggs pressed Roxie.
Roxie's eyes went to her right ear with its missing semi-circle of skin. It marked her as being under Haggs' protection from the other inmates, but also as someone who allowed Haggs to rule her every waking moment.
"I remember how much you hated getting it done, but that little nick is going to look like a hickey compared to what I'll do if you don't make me proud of you." Haggs breathed into her maimed ear.
"Please?" Roxie fought off tears. "Just tell me what you want."
"Those prison inspectors want to talk to an inmate. They want to hear all the right things before they crawl back into their holes with their consciences clear. You're going to make it easy for them to do that. You are guilty, repentant, sorrowful, but well treated and well fed. Understood?"
"Do I have to be guilty? You know I didn't -"
Haggs cut her off by increasing the pressure her forearm was exerting on Roxie's throat. "I don't care for your delusions of innocence. Every prisoner in here is innocent. You know that. But they don't want to hear that."
Haggs lifted with her legs, pushing up against Roxie's head with her arm.
"Now go do what your told." Haggs dropped her.
Roxie fell to her knees and coughed until her throat was clear. She glared, but Haggs was behind her and she did it by staring at the floor when she was certain Haggs couldn't see her. She hated and wished she were free.
"Oh, one last thing." Haggs added. "It turns out Red is really Gadget Hackwrench. She had everything on the outside and she threw it all away. She's back in our solitary cells for breaking out right now. So feel free to trash talk her the way you did to the inmates all you want."
Roxie's face became a picture of betrayal and surprise.
"Red? Gadget Hackwrench?" she rasped. "I was on the same prison barge as her. I stood behind her. I was innocent!"
"Yeah, but Bubbles was in front of her and she's the one Gadget took with her when she busted out." Haggs drove the spike of indignation home.
"I was innocent. She would have understood." Roxie cursed.
"So what?" Haggs hissed.
"I could have gone with her." Roxie thumped the concrete with a fist.
"She's back in here and I'm still top of the food chain. Remember that." Haggs warned her.
"Yeah. I'll remember." Roxie muttered and pulled herself to her feet.
Haggs led her back to the prison inspectors with a smile that could pass for friendly or sinister depending on who was looking.
Gadget had been in her cell for what felt like most of the day. The lights outside had been left on, perhaps to make another escape attempt easier to detect. The simple addition of a chair under the door handle had made one far harder to achieve, however.
It was more or less impossible to judge accurately how much time had passed since Warden Phelps and Ms. Cedar had put her in here. She knew from past experience that thinking too much about that would lead to her trying to guess, then second guess, then doubt herself and perhaps eventually lose all confidence in herself. She concentrated on thinking about what she would do when she was released.
Jennifer. Her oldest friend had sent her to jail. Part of Gadget wanted to greet her dear old friend with a well-aimed kick in the rear when she saw her again. Then it came to Gadget that Jen was almost certainly going to find out about this through the newspapers before she could be told any other way.
Perhaps Jen would run away out of shame and Gadget would never see her again. Even if she didn't, a thing like this could wreck a friendship forever. Loss welled up in Gadget's heart until the only way to make room for it was to make space by shedding tears.
All tears feel like they will keep falling forever. They pass.
Eventually Gadget was left fiddling with the end of her tail with an unaccustomed stillness where her thoughts would normally be.
Into this stillness there came a question. What will Chip do when he realises he failed me?
Gadget gave this long and careful thought. If Chip was tough on the other members of the team, which he was, he was almost certainly tougher on himself. He wasn't likely to forgive himself for making a blunder of such epic proportions.
She had already lost one friend, Bubbles, in the course of this disaster. She had just finished weeping at the realisation that she might never salvage her friendship with Jen. Was she going to lose Chip too? She thought of their morning coffee sessions and realised she would miss them sharply.
Who else was she going to lose? Monty would never forgive himself. Dale - well, Dale was Dale and thought the whole thing was a tremendous joke. She could rely on the team clown to be the same as ever. But
If Chip left the Rangers, Dale would go with him. There was no doubt of that.
Monty, for all his love, had itchy feet and an adventurous heart. Without the Rangers to keep him in the city how long would it be before he went on some globe trotting adventure, taking Zipper with him?
Gadget thought of the old plane where the Rangers had found her and wondered if she would return there; alone, with nothing but her memories and not all of them pleasant, to keep her company.
It seemed that catching up with Lawhiney and proving her innocence was only half the battle. She had a long way to go before could truly say she had taken back the life that had been stolen from her and she did want that life back, complete with its warring chipmunks, flirting over morning coffee and late night creature features.
Gadget sighed. She knew that sooner or later she would have to make a choice between the last two, Godzilla or freshly roasted morning coffee with a dash of maple syrup. Godzilla or maple syrup
Gadget thought about maple syrup and found she was blushing. Chip's last name was Maplewood. She'd never considered the implications before.
"Oh, I'm just going to have to find a way out of all this." She murmured softly to herself with a secret smile.
Margo Haggs had made a point of taking time out from her duties to see the prison inspectors out of the prison. She waved fondly to the last of the busybodies and when she turned away she turned the same gesture into dusting off the palms of her hands.
So far as she could tell, none of the VIPs had gotten anywhere near hearing anything Gadget Hackwrench had to say. She'd asked after their progress through the prison at strategic intervals and no one had thought it strange, not when so many guards were worrying about the future of their jobs. The four strangers had never gone anywhere near the undamaged upper levels. It seemed they were solely concerned with damage caused by the Hackwrench flood.
Haggs smiled. If they knew, they would send her a thank you note.
At ten p.m. Haggs clocked out on the excuse that she had already put in an hour's overtime at the start of her shift. Marion Cedar wanted her to stay until eleven but Haggs got out of it on the grounds it was her first day back.
After she clocked out, Haggs headed back into the prison, telling the other officers who were coming off shift that she had forgotten something and that she would be out in ten minutes. No one felt like waiting for her.
Instead of following them out as she said she would, Haggs found a quiet part of the prison and sat down to rest. The working parties were done. All the prisoners were locked down. The only guards were the ones patrolling the corridors and keeping watch at the checkpoints. Being underground, Shrankshaw had no guard towers.
She waited an hour. She was a careful person and a clever one, or so she liked to think, so she spent the time thinking over her plans.
It seemed reasonable to suppose that Hackwrench's naivety was an act. Perhaps she had even been testing Haggs when she opened her mouth at the prison gates and Haggs slapped her down. She had proven adept at hand-to-hand combat and had been able to nearly destroy the prison given the slightest access to the most mundane machinery. She had been able to get out of a locked solitary cell and break out of a facility that had never been escaped from before.
Haggs couldn't yet say that she had survived Gadget Hackwrench, not even with Gadget unexpectedly betrayed by the system she upheld and back in a maximum-security cell. It was a betrayal that didn't surprise Haggs in the slightest, given the damage she had done to the prison.
Haggs ground her teeth together and suppressed a growl. Her prison.
She didn't care that both the Warden and the Deputy outranked her. Haggs ran this place. Not them. They had no idea. No idea how dangerous the people in Shrankshaw were and no idea how they needed to be treated.
And when it came to dangerous people, Haggs reflected, Hackwrench had to be the worst. If the other Rangers were anywhere near as dangerous as Gadget, she needed this to come off without a hitch.
Taking Hackwrench by surprise and fighting her in the cell, where she had no room to move and Haggs could use all her size and strength against her, seemed the best strategy, but signs of a struggle might give the whole thing away and land Hags herself in a cell. True, Gadget had been in several fights over the past few days. There would be dozens of marks on her body and it would be easy to miss a few more, especially under her fur. Even so, it all came down to how easy Gadget was to subdue and Haggs was betting she would fight like an alley cat.
The white rat rubbed her bristly chin and considered slipping into the special wing to break open one of the medicine cabinets. She could steal a little bottle of pills that really meant it when it warned: Do Not Exceed Stated Dose, or a bottle of ether that could be poured through the cell door until Gadget passed out, or even one of those harmless looking vials of clear liquid that were nothing less than bottled death in the wrong hands.
Then a great smile split Haggs face wide open. She had it. All her previous misfortunes could be turned to her advantage. She basked in the warm glow of a truly brilliant idea.
Emboldened, Haggs left her hiding place and moved silently through the prison. She stopped to retrieve two of the large, strong refuse sacks the convict working parties were using to clear away the debris from the flood, then continued on her way to solitary confinement cells.
No one laid eyes on her. She knew the guard patrols like the back of her hand and Shrankshaw had no security cameras to spy on her.
Haggs arrived at the door of steel bars that led to the solitary wing and stopped dead. The lights were on. She could see plainly all the way to the chair that had been wedged under the handle of Hackwrench's cell door and on to the end of the corridor.
The lights were always off here, save when a guard needed them to see. The darkness was part of the punishment. The unexpected detail sent a shiver of paranoia through Officer Haggs' brain. She listened carefully. Nothing. She stepped into the shadows and waited. Minutes passed. Still nothing.
Finally, she relaxed. It was a security measure, nothing more. Someone had decided to keep the light on so that a guard could look in from the hallway and see that the chair was still in place at any time.
She reached out a paw for the door. Unconsciously, Haggs' paw was already patting the watch pocket of her uniform jacket, where she had kept the little silver key that could open any door in the prison.
Haggs ground her teeth together. Bubbles McGee had stolen it.
No matter. She had come prepared. She had carefully switched the bunch of keys for the area she was supposed to be working in for the keys to this part of the prison when she started her shift. It was the major reason she had come in early.
Haggs unlocked the door and ventured into the corridor beyond. Earlier in the day she had made a point of checking and other cells were empty. Locked, as the rulebook said they had to be, but silent and empty.
She smiled for a moment at the unassailable simplicity of the chair jammed under the door handle then quietly removed it.
The key made the quietest of clinks when she slipped it into the lock and then, because she knew the door would make the same amount of noise no matter how carefully she turned the key, she snapped the lock open and threw open the door.
Gadget exploded from the cell on all fours in a blur of motion, her claws scrabbling against the smooth hard floor.
Part of Haggs had been prepared for the discovery that the cell was again empty; its resident decamped and already out of the prison, as impossible to cage as an evaporating puddle. Gadget gained a full second of surprise. A second would get her out of Haggs' reach. It was all she needed.
Then she ran into the chair.
Dazzled by the bright light in the corridor, she hit it headfirst, got tangled up in the legs and fell over with a clatter.
Gadget had seen the chair against the far wall when they put her in the cell and assumed it meant there would be a guard stationed in the corridor, until she heard them drag it under her cell door's handle after the door had closed. She had forgotten it existed when she heard the door being opened and known, with a chill, that only one person would be opening the door at this time of night.
Haggs turned, looked at Gadget, and calmly put her foot down on her tail.
Gadget felt the weight on her tail and rolled over onto her back to defend herself instead of trying to run.
Haggs pulled out the steel bolt she used as a nightstick and swung it with terrible force.
Gadget held up her hands, desperately trying to cover her face from the first of many crushing blows.
The nightstick connected with its target and swept the chair away with terrible force. The chair crashed down the corridor and came to a rest well beyond Gadget's reach.
Gadget had time to glance at it in confusion then Haggs' free hand grabbed at her prison jumpsuit and hauled her off the ground.
Somewhere between the ground and being slammed into the metal door of the cell, Gadget worked out that Haggs had hit the chair because it was the only weapon of opportunity Gadget could reach.
Haggs put the nightstick across Gadget's throat and lifted until Gadget's feet were clear of the floor.
"HURRAK!" Gadget choked and tried to get her hands onto the nightstick to push it away. Haggs was stronger and she was using her weight too. Gadget didn't need to do the math to know she wasn't going to win that way. She did it anyway, while she thinking about where she should kick Haggs.
Haggs was standing too close to kick with any power and the white rat was too solidly built for Gadget do much damage that way in any case, so Gadget sacrificed the kick in favour of bringing up her knee into Haggs' jaw.
Haggs grunted and stepped back, dropping Gadget.
Gadget curled up to protect her vital organs and forced herself to breathe. She needed to stall Haggs and she only had a second or two while Haggs took aim.
"Why?" She forced herself to rasp. "You know who I am now!"
Haggs found herself compelled to step back to get a good swing with the nightstick. "You know too much!"
Gadget gestured to her cell. "No one cared!"
Haggs threw back her head and gave a single, short bark of laughter. "After the damage you've done to my prison, did you think they would? They'd promote me if they only knew!"
Gadget coughed and tried to get up. Haggs grabbed her hair.
"They're probably all hoping someone will quietly kill you with a homemade knife." Haggs went on as she swung Gadget into the wall. "So they can bury their mistakes with you!"
Gadget yelped as her head hit the wall.
Haggs pulled back with the nightstick. Keeping a grip on Gadget and putting the nightstick to good use at the same time was proving difficult.
"Why risk the trouble?" Gadget gasped. "You don't need to get your hands dirty."
Haggs hit her in the back of the legs with nightstick.
Gadget yowled, certain her leg was broken, and dropped to the floor.
"They're dirty already from handling the scum that come through this place." As if to prove her point, Haggs spat on each paw in turn.
Gadget tried to crawl away.
Haggs put her foot down on Gadget's tail again. "Besides, I can't wait. As soon as you get in front of a judge it will be all about how I put Roxie up to trying to knife you and how I was beating your friend to get to her loot."
Haggs raised the nightstick to crush Gadget's skull.
"You'll never get away with it!" Gadget cried. "Bubbles isn't here to take the rap for you this time!"
"That worthless little hairball. I don't know why I bothered with her the first time! But you see -" Haggs leered " - that's the beauty of it. You've escaped from Shrankshaw once before and now you'll do it again. Only this time they'll never find you because they'll be looking for a live fugitive instead of dragging the sewers!"
The noise of metal crashing like thunder made both Haggs and Gadget scream.
"THAT WILL BE QUITE ENOUGH!"
Warden Phelps was standing, impossibly, an arms length away behind Haggs. She had slammed the open cell door to get their attention. Haggs stared at her for a moment, wondering how Phelps had snuck up on her when the door to the solitary wing was in the other direction. Then she saw the other figures standing a little behind Haggs, someone official-looking wearing a suit and an old mole who looked like a police detective.
It was a trap.
They'd been waiting in the other cells, the ones further down the corridor. Even if she had checked the cells a second time on her way in, she would have stopped when she reached the one she wanted.
Haggs wanted to roar and lay into them with her nightstick. She had the size to make a go of it too, she was larger than any of them, but Phelps was glaring at her with such an air of outraged authority that Haggs' nerve broke.
She turned and ran towards the exit.
"STOP!" Phelps shouted.
Haggs ran faster. She was almost at the end of the corridor when Marion Cedar stepped into the doorway from outside blocking the way.
Even then Haggs didn't stop. It looked like she was going to charge into the deputy warden like an American football player making a tackle.
Ms. Cedar simply closed the door and turned the key.
Only then was Haggs forced to halt, finally realising that she had been stopped in her tracks for good.
Far behind her, Gadget was still lying on the cold concrete floor, sobbing quietly and holding her injured leg.
"Are you alright?" Phelps asked, kneeling beside her.
"I think she's broken my leg." Gadget said through the tears.
"Oh dear. There, there." The warden patted her ineffectually.
Lieutenant Talpidae knelt and gently but firmly removed Gadget's paws from the injured leg so he could examine it.
"Doesn't look too bad." He reported. "We'll have to get a doctor to take a look at it, though. I'm sorry we couldn't come out and stop her sooner, but we needed evidence that you broke out to save your life, not that she was beating prisoners."
"I know that." Gadget hissed through clenched teeth. "It was my idea, remember?"
Talpidae and Phelps exchanged rueful glances.
"Is there anything we can do?" Phelps asked.
"You can tell me it's all over." Gadget replied.
"It is." The warden promised her. "It's all over, Gadget."
"Yeah," Talpidae agreed sourly, "it's all over, all right. All over but the shouting."
Gadget was dressed in one of her own jumpsuits again, lavender blue instead of institutional grey. It was clean, comfortable and familiar but Gadget found herself thinking fondly of a white summer dress with a blue flower pattern at the back of her closet. She had bought it two summers ago and never gotten around to wearing it. She predicted that would change. There were fewer bright summer days spent locked away in a darkened workshop in her future, and rather more spent enjoying herself in the light.
At this precise moment, however, she was sitting in the chair in front of Lieutenant Talpidae's desk with a walking stick across her lap. She had made the walking stick herself by bending the point of a steel nail over into a crook-shape and, although it had been a very simple thing to do, she was quite pleased by the result.
Her doctor, good old reliable Doctor Fisk, not Lawhiney's Doctor Bell, had assured her that her leg was not broken. The injury was merely to the muscle and ligament where Haggs' blow had struck and, if she kept her weight off it for a couple of weeks, the leg should heal with no problems. Gadget had been struck by the curious turn of phrase, so similar to her own.
She was alone in the office, waiting for the mole to finish with his superiors and let her finally know, once and for all, where she stood with the law - wanted criminal or respected pillar of the community.
Talpidae entered, closed the door and pulled down the blind behind him. He took the file he was carrying over to his desk and opened it before sitting down. For a moment he seemed so preoccupied with the paperwork he might not have been aware Gadget was sitting in front of him.
"I don't want to intrude, but you're not going to keep me in suspense for long, I hope?" Gadget said through a strained smile.
Talpidae started. "Oh, excuse me! No, I'm not going to keep you in suspense - we're not going to keep you at all, in fact. You're free to go. Right now, if you want to. Our search team is done with the tree house so you can go home any time you like."
"Wow, just like that? It doesn't seem real!"
Gadget grinned from ear to ear and Talpidae allowed himself a smile, too.
"I suppose you want to know how everything worked out?" he said.
"OF COURSE! I mean, I'm sorry, but you're not going to make me ask, are you?"
Talpidae's smile gave way to a full-blown smirk. "I doubt I could sit on it any longer, anyway. Well, it all went down like this: When you walked in and made your statement, I called my captain, who called the chief, who called the Commissionaire.
"Now nobody is admitting it but, between the three of them, they decided that attack was the best form of defence. They cooked up a scheme to make the whole scandal bigger instead of smaller and keep it centred on you guys instead of on the show trial you got. All that blew up in their faces, so now they're back-peddling like crazy and hoping their charter won't get revoked by the city council."
"How come their plans blew up on them?" Gadget wondered with a slight frown. She knew what it felt like to have an idea blow up your face, literally in her case.
The mole leaned forward, resting his chin on his long, powerful fingers, which he pressed together like a church roof.
"I think you might already know." he said. "Seems a friend of yours hopped on a train to the next city where she walked into a newspaper office and spilled the whole story."
Gadget put a dainty finger to her lower lip as she thought the news over. "I really can't think who that might be. My first guess would Jennifer, but I didn't tell her about this. I spent a lot of yesterday locked in that cell kicking myself for that, because it's probably going to wreck our friendship what with her testifying at my trial and all."
Talpidae raised his eyebrows. "You want to press charges against her for perjury? Because the city prosecutor just might."
Gadget's face fell. "That's the last thing I want. She wasn't lying, just mistaken!" Gadget leaned forward in the chair and looked pleadingly at the old mole. "Lieutenant, she's the oldest friend I have and I don't want to lose her."
Talpidae looked sharply away. "It's your call, I guess, since you were the wounded party. Are you really telling me you can't guess who decided to give your side of the story to those newspaper boys?"
"No idea!" Gadget shrugged.
Talpidae pulled a report out from his folder of papers and looked it over. "She gave the name Irma Freemouse, but that's a fairly obvious alias. She was about your height and weight, brunet hair and light brown fur. Ring any bells?"
Gadget's eyes widened. "Bubbles!"
Talpidae nodded. "We think so. She claimed to be an insider who worked in Shrankshaw but forgot to mention it was as an inmate in the prison laundry. She took off after spilling the beans at three or four newspaper offices before anyone in authority made the connection between her and the wanted notice we posted on the escapees."
"She's still at large then?" Gadget asked hopefully.
Talpidae nodded and watched Gadget's obvious relief with some amusement, if also mild disapproval, before he went on to explain further. "The boys upstairs could call in a bunch of favours with the local newspaper boys, but they don't carry as much weight out of the city. Once those big, out of town newspapers had the story they gave it to their regional offices here. Some of them ran it and, well, some didn't, but it only took one for the story to reach the City Council."
Talpidae drew a lollypop from his desk draw and unwrapped it. "Getting onto the City Council is no small trick. Most of the people on it are pretty sharp. Seeing the story in print told them a lot, but not as much as seeing that it wasn't in the local rags. They've got friends of their own in the newspaper business, so it wasn't long before they found out who was keeping the story from them."
Gadget looked slightly worried. "Are your bosses in a lot of trouble?"
"Commissionaire Talloweye is claiming ignorance of the whole mess but Chief Gainsborough isn't backing him up. I think when this is all over Captain Sherwood might be the only one out of the three of them with a job, but a job doing what I wouldn't like to say."
Gadget shook her head. "I hate to think of good people losing their jobs over me."
"Take it from me, you aren't." Talpidae reassured her. "Getting to be Commissionaire or Chief in the Street Watch is no small trick either."
Gadget thought about that and decided to let it go. Like many things in her new life, it was more complicated than what she was used to. Instead, she asked: "Will you need me to give evidence against Officer Haggs?"
Talpidae shook his head. "Nah, we've struck it lucky there. People have been coming out of the woodwork to testify against her. Haggs mentioned someone called Roxie in her confession, you remember?"
"Roxie came forward the moment she heard Haggs couldn't hurt her anymore. Couldn't wait to talk. From what she's been saying I'd say you've been luckier than you know, Ms. Hackwrench. Assuming you told us everything about what happened to you in Shrankshaw, that is." Talpidae looked at her carefully, weighing her reaction as only a policeman can.
Gadget returned the look with a steady gaze of her own. "Luckier than I know, perhaps, but not luckier than I can imagine. I've told you everything I can."
Talpidae looked away. "Roxie's offence wasn't so serious. She got left holding a bag for a guy she should have known was no good. She was guilty in law, but I'm not sure she deserves her punishment, even without Haggs. She'll have grounds for appeal if we ever find her guy and I don't think she'll object to testifying against him, either." Talpidae looked back at her with a twinkle. "Know any good detectives who could find the type of lowlife who would leave his girlfriend high and dry like that?"
Gadget allowed him a smile, but it was a troubled one. "I might know a detective who owes me a favour. Whether he'll be available is something I don't know yet."
Talpidae raised an eyebrow, but didn't answer directly. "Roxie isn't the only one who might get a second shot at things. We've reopened the cases of a few other people Haggs crossed paths with, including a prison guard who got five years for smuggling contraband. It's early days yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if the welcome home banner industry did well out of this."
"I wouldn't be surprised at all." Gadget agreed grimly. "How long ago was the guard convicted?"
"Four years." Talpidae said unhappily.
"That could have been me." Gadget reflected.
"It could." Agreed Talpidae. It no longer seemed unbelievable to either of them.
"Is there going to be any other fallout from all of this?" Gadget asked after a moment of silent reflection.
Talpidae flipped through his folder as if checking. "A certain judge is taking early retirement in order to spend more time with his golf clubs. There's some shifting around going on behind the scenes in the offices of the prosecutors and defenders. New broom type of thinking."
Talpidae crunched what was left of his lollypop. "Warden Phelps tells me that Shrankshaw is being shut down permanently. She's not downhearted about it. Apparently the whole place had been on the verge of falling to bits for years, but the Corrections Department wouldn't modernise or replace a whole facility while it was still boarder-line. They're going to have to find room for a lot of convicts and, since they can't raise the budget for another Shrankshaw at short notice, they're going to have to go with the honours system. A lot of old timers and short timers will probably get early parole or even release."
Talpidae looked sideways at her as he put the lollypop stick in the wastepaper bin. "That's the major stuff anyway. Did I miss anything?"
Gadget took a deep breath and broached a painful subject. "The people who escaped with me. What's going to happen to them?"
Talpidae nodded. He'd expected this. "Well, since we've got good evidence that Haggs would have killed you if you hadn't broken out, you have no case to answer relating to the escape itself. That's why we went through that business of sending you back to Shrankshaw. Haggs wouldn't have been any gentler with the witnesses, so it would be tough for a prosecutor to make a charge stick against the others. That means they won't see any extra time for breaking out.
"Of course, they're still wanted fugitives but what with pretty much anyone in responsible for your stay in Shrankshaw trying to sweep the whole business and anything connected with it under the rug, no one is really looking for them. The original sentences still stand, though."
There was silence as Gadget digested this. "You said all the original sentences still stand. Does that include my sentence?"
"Oh no!" Talpidae held up his hands as though Gadget were about to flee from the office. "Your lawyer has been busy. He was in front of a judge yesterday morning before the newspaper story had made much impact. The judge granted the appeal and then, when the story blew up and the City Council started jumping all over people, they held an emergency session that evening. The prosecutor said they weren't contesting the case. Technically, you were free to go four hours before Haggs came to your cell.
"Of course -" Talpidae looked at her steadily "-with your friends it's a different story."
Gadget listened attentively.
"Now, as I said, no one is really looking that hard for them but if they should come to light, it's back to the slammer they go. Along with anyone found aiding or harbouring them."
Talpidae gave her a single long hard look. "I trust we understand each other Ms. Hackwrench?"
"Perfectly." A poker-faced Gadget answered.
Talpidae looked away. "Good. I'd hate for Doyle to have to arrest you twice."
Gadget coughed and looked a little embarrassed. "Speaking of Doyle, my half-sister is coming in later today to confess to all the crimes she committed while she was impersonating me. I saw Doyle earlier and asked him to handle it because I know he does things by the book. That way I won't have to worry about her being treated the way I was. I hope that's okay with you?"
Moles are said to be blind but Gadget knew better and gave him the big blue eyes anyway.
The old mole grunted. "You may not have done her any favours. Doyle can be pretty tough when he wants to be. He got that confession out of Chip, remember?"
Gadget grimaced. "Golly, you know what? I had forgotten! Where is Chip?"
"Still down in the cells!" Talpidae told her.
"Oh je - I mean, jeepers!" Gadget used her walking stick to help her stand. "I'm going to have to do something about that!"
"Settle down." Talpidae gestured for her to sit. "Dale gave us a full statement exonerating him, all we've got on Chip is making a false confession. He should have been released yesterday, except Sherwood ordered me hold Chip for trail and now he's too busy to take my calls and say different." He took a piece of paper from the file in front of him and pushed it across the desk to her.
"I'd like for you to look this over." he said. "It's the statement Chip made."
Gadget blushed as she read the paper. By the time she put it down, she was nearly crimson under her fur. "I don't know what you must think of me."
"You?" Talpidae laughed. "That confession's false. Remember? It could be there isn't a single true word in it but some parts are pretty convincing. Like the part about how both Chip and his best friend are crazy about you and he just can't find a way to tell you how he feels."
Gadget smiled through her teeth. "He made a pretty good job of it here."
Talpidae chuckled benignly. "Since it's no longer evidence in any investigation, no one is going to care if it gets shredded, which is what I intend to do with it. I think you should know that he only gave us this because Doyle told him that there was no proof he had ever loved you and that we were down to two suspects in this case -- you and him - so I'd say that if this piece of paper is proof of anything, it's proof he loves you."
"After that, I almost hate to give it back so you can shred it." Gadget said a little sadly.
"You want to hang on to it?"
"No." Gadget said returning the confession. "I appreciate the fatherly tone, Lieutenant, but I'm not comfortable talking about this, if you don't mind."
Talpidae looked at her understandingly and shrugged. "Do you mind if I ask what you're going to do now all this is over?"
"The Rescue Rangers can get along without me for a while - and that goes for Chip, too, once someone figures out a way to explain all this to him!" Gadget spread her arms wide. "I just got my freedom back!"
Talpidae blinked at her in surprise.
"When you lose something you've taken for granted," Gadget explained, "you suddenly realise how much it's worth. If you get it back, you don't treat it the same way. I lost my freedom, so now I'm going to take a holiday and walk in the long grass while the days are still warm. I'm going to gossip with friends I haven't seen in a long time, drink coco with marshmallows and visit museums and generally enjoy myself."
"You've certainly earned a vacation." The mole conceded. "Before you go, there's just one thing I don't understand."
"Oh? What's that, Lieutenant?"
"How is it Chip never realised it was your sister impersonating you all this time?"
Gadget looked away uncomfortably. "Nobody else saw through her either."
"Chip's a detective. It was no one else's job."
Gadget threw up her hands in frustration. "Chip's a good detective when he's working on a case but he can't be a detective twenty-four hours a day. He doesn't look for crimes to solve when he's around the house! If he did, he would be unbearable to live with!"
Talpidae looked sideways at her and took a chance he knew he probably wasn't entitled to take. "I guess he's a lucky guy. I imagine if you really were in love with him, the way he hoped, you'd have a hard time forgiving him for mixing you up with some other blonde."
Gadget glared at him.
Talpidae pretended not to notice. Instead he occupied himself with one of the forms on his desk.
Finally, Gadget groaned and buried her face in her hands.
"Lieutenant," She said finally, trusting her weight to the walking stick again, "do you suppose it would break any rules if I visited one of the prisoners you have down in the cells?"
Chip Maplewood was sitting on the uncomfortably thin mattress of his prison issue cot. Somewhere he could hear water dripping, but the light was too dingy to see very far beyond his own cell. The Sweepers had been short of cells and they couldn't put him in with other prisoners for fear something might happen to their prize catch, so he had found himself in a small re-purposed hamster cage for the past couple of days.
It had gradually sunk in that he hadn't fallen asleep reading one of his crime novels and found himself trapped in some unlikely nightmare, that this was for real and his life as he knew it had vanished forever. He thought of the detective who interviewed him and wondered how he would have handled things in his place. Privately, Chip doubted he could have gotten such quick results himself. It was small comfort that they were the wrong results.
By rights, solving the case should have been his only thought. He'd had nothing to do in this cell but think for hours on end and yet the only thing he could think about was how his life seemed to have suddenly, inexplicably fallen apart.
No one would talk to him.
The disgust and hostility the guards had barely tried to conceal during the first few hours had faded and, by the evening of his first full day in captivity, it had been completely replaced by wary curiosity. Chip couldn't know that this coincided with Gadget's first visit to the Sweeper precinct. He was at a loss as to why everyone was now even more anxious to avoid talking to him.
"It's almost as if they've found a stack of bodies piled up in my basement." He grumbled quietly when he was certain no one could hear him.
The sound of a heavy metal door opening brought him to his feet.
Gadget entered, leaning heavily on a walking stick. When Chip saw her, his heart felt heavier than any cell door. His mouth opened and closed wordlessly.
Gadget looked back at the custody officer who stood silhouetted in the doorway.
"Thank you." She said. "Could we have some privacy?"
"Sure yer can!" The sergeant returned jovially. "Just you be sure to give us a call if this dangerous character gives you any trouble!"
Chip did a double take at the sergeant's retreating back. It had almost sounded like he was joking. For a split second he contemplated the possibility that this was Dale's most elaborate practical joke ever, then the false hope fizzled.
Gadget walked over to the front of Chip's cage and looked at him. Her expression was much like that of a small child visiting a zoo and seeing some creature that she had been told existed, but hadn't believed in.
Chip couldn't stop himself. He ran over to the bars and grasped them tightly, as though they were the only things holding him up.
"Gadget!" Chip choked. "You shouldn't have come."
Gadget looked at him sadly. "Oh, Chip!" She sighed sadly. "Why did you do it?"
"Not you too!" Chip yelped. "Gadget, you can't believe that I did this to Dale!"
Gadget looked chagrined. "I meant confess!"
"Confess?" Chip felt like laughing wildly. "I already confessed. I - Gadget, I had to! They caught me hauling the rubbish sack out of your workshop like Monty asked me. Dale was inside it; they had me red-handed! They kept on at me all night and day; trying to get me say I did it. Finally they told me that if I wouldn't confess, they'd pin the whole thing on you because it happened in your workshop!"
Gadget looked at him steadily and sadly. "And that's why you told them you did it?"
"I had to! Gadget, you don't know what it's like in here! It's terrible! Treated like an animal and nothing to do all day but think about everything you've lost! I couldn't let that happen to you, Gadget. Not to you." Chip shook his head. The chipmunk was beside himself, fighting to control his tears.
"Oh, Chip." Gadget repeated.
Chip sank on to the edge of his cot, exhausted by his outburst. "You should go Gadget. There's nothing you can do for me."
Gadget reached out silently and put her hand through the bars in the hope that he would take it. "Chip, you like to think you're a good detective, right?"
"I'm a great detective." Chip answered sullenly without looking up.
Gadget resisted the urge to kick something, preferably chipmunk. "Who do you think actually knocked out Dale and hid him in that trash sack?"
Chip sighed heavily. "I've tried to work it out. I've had nothing to do but think in here, but I can't concentrate. All I can think of is what's coming, the trial, the disgrace and then - years of torment."
"You poor thing." Gadget felt her anger evaporate. "I know how you feel."
Chip almost laughed. Instead he chose to sigh deeply again and shake his head. "No, Gadget. I don't think you do and I don't think you can. You're too innocent to imagine how this feels."
Gadget began tapping her foot impatiently. If Chip didn't stop feeling sorry for himself soon, she would have to go to plan B. Plan B involved springing the lock on the door and entering the cell to beat the chipmunk soundly about the head with her walking stick.
"Chip, I'm not as innocent as you seem to think. I'm an adult and a Rescue Ranger, the same as you are." She told him sternly.
It was a haunted Chip who looked up at her.
I do believe he thinks I'm about to confess to attempting to kill Dale, Gadget thought. She replayed the conversation so far in her head and suddenly realised that, from his point of view, it wasn't so far fetched. She knelt down by the bars so she could be on the same level as him.
"Chip," she asked, "as a friend, not a detective, what do you think happened in that tree-house the night before last?"
Chip blinked. It had never occurred to him to think this through as an individual instead of as a professional.
"I know someone hit Dale like they were trying to really hurt him, not just a little, but really hurt him. I know it wasn't me and I don't believe it was Monty because I spoke to him. It couldn't have been Zipper and that leaves you." He sniffed like a small boy who had finished crying. "But you don't have it in you to really hurt someone, Gadget. You're too gentle and you love everyone, I guess."
Gadget smiled and nodded. "Go on, Chip."
Chip shook his head. "Dale wouldn't just let a stranger hurt him like that. He's not that stupid and he's certainly no coward. It was someone who looked like they belonged in the house."
"Who, Chip? Who looks like they belong in our house, but doesn't?"
The answer was obvious. Chip sat up. One by one the pieces flew into place for him and the picture they formed made his fur stood on end like there was an electric charge building up. His eyes focused at a point far off in space and saw something only he could see.
"No." he said.
Gadget smiled softly.
Chip's eyes darted towards her.
The air grew thick with silence.
Gadget nodded ever so slightly.
Chip stood, looking at her as though he did not trust his eyes.
Gadget used her walking stick to stand and reached through the bars a second time. Surely this time he would take her hand?
Chip took an unsteady step towards her, followed by another and another, until he almost fell against the bars. Gadget couldn't know it, but to him the whole world seemed to be tilted at an unlikely angle.
Their noses were almost touching through the bars when Chip's paw closed about Gadget's arm, his grip firm enough to make her drop the walking stick.
Gadget blinked in confusion. Chip's eyes were like glass. She was staring into them, trying to find her friend in there, but he wasn't home. Then she felt Chip's other paw at her neck - not at her throat but close. The grip did not hurt, but it was too heavy to remove.
A strange, surreal terror overcame her.
Chip thought she was Lawhiney.
Chip stared into the eyes of the girl in front of him. They were blue and bright but there was a razor's edge of hurt in them that he had never seen before.
His inner detective screamed and railed at him like a wild beast suddenly caged. Chip consigned the cage to the darkest recesses of his heart and looked again.
Her breath was on his face. He was suddenly aware that his own breath was deep and rasping and out of control.
He had loved Gadget Hackwrench for years, even if he had taken every pain to avoid even whispering the word. Now he might be looking her right in the eyes, but he didn't recognise her.
Deeper in her eyes, he saw his own reflection. He didn't recognise himself, either.
He didn't know who he was any more. How could he be expected to know who anyone else was?
"Chip?" she whispered again.
Suddenly numb, Chip let his paws go slack.
"Chip, for a moment there, I thought you were going to strangle me."
With a haunted expression, Chip looked back at the stranger in front of him. In her face he saw nothing but concern and generosity of spirit.
Suddenly Gadget was standing in front of him.
The thought of what he had almost done sent a shudder up his spine.
Chip sank to his knees like a medieval knight before a queen. He knew nothing now, save that Gadget could never look at him again. Then he felt her paw gently stroking the fur on his cheek, looked up into her eyes and realised that he knew nothing at all.
"It's okay, Chip." She told him gently. "We can go home now."
"Dale?" Chip choked.
"Dale's fine, Chip!" Gadget beamed. "He woke up and explained everything to the Sweepers, well, maybe not everything, because let's face it, Dale's hardly qualified to explain everything, but he explained what happened to him and that's the important thing in this instance, wouldn't you agree? That didn't sound like I was suggesting I'm qualified to explain everything, did it? Because I'm certainly not qualified to explain everything, though I'm probably better qualified than Dale and at the speed I talk it certainly wouldn't take as long, would it?"
"Dale's fine." Chip repeated. That and the fact that Gadget was talking like her old self were about the only things he'd extracted from the torrent of Gadget babble.
"Dale's fine and I'm fine and Monty's fine and Zipper's fine and, assuming Lawhiney hasn't tried Monty's patience to its breaking point which is quite likely given that she almost drove me to murder, even the she's fine, although she's probably not looking forward to the next fifteen years or so and frankly, I don't blame her." Gadget agreed amiably.
Chip nodded, massaging his temples. Somewhere in the distant future he would probably be fine too.
"Your leg?" He asked.
"Oh, Chip, how sweet of you to ask. I'll be fine. I was trapping a crook last night, one who made sorting all this out a lot harder than it had to be, though she's certainly going to pay for it now. She got a couple of good shots in before we managed to bring her in."
Chip nodded and struggled to catch his breath. The cell was beginning to feel safe and comforting. He wondered if they would let him stay there for a while.
"Are you okay, Chip?" Gadget looked at him expectantly. "Because Monty and Zipper are going to give me a ride over to visit Dale in a few moments and it only makes sense for you to come along with us since he's been missing you."
"Yes. I'm fine." But he wasn't and he wouldn't be until he knew one final thing for certain. He looked up at her. "Gadget?"
"Where were you?"
Gadget looked at him, then stretched out a paw and stroked his face gently.
"Away, Chip. When the rest of the boys are together, we'll sit down together and I'll tell you about it." Or as much of it as I think a bunch of boys should hear about the inside of a female prison, Gadget added in the privacy of her own head.
She turned away to get the custody sergeant to open the cell.
"Gadget?" Chip sounded plaintively behind her.
She turned back. "Yes, Chip?"
"You won't go away again, will you?" He sounded like a small boy.
She blinked at him, feeling the weight of being responsible for someone else's heart for the first time.
"Not if I can help it." She said, after a pause, and left the room.
Since Chip had been in the act of leaving town when he had been arrested, reclaiming his property took some time. The custody sergeant dutifully counted off every little thing from Chip's pockets and suitcase. When the sergeant reached the more personal items, Chip suggested that Gadget wait for him in the lobby and, rather than take the opportunity to suggest improvements to Chip's cold weather combinations, Gadget agreed.
The sweeper lobby was a well-lit airy room with a dozen exits and entrances but only one set of doors interested Gadget. The wide double doors below an elegant window, which to ill-informed human eyes looked like a ventilation grill; doors that led to freedom.
It almost seemed too good to be true. For a moment she felt giddy and wanted to dance for glee. She settled for taking a moment to enjoy the sight of the pair of doors that led to freedom and the rest of her life.
Before she could move, a familiar voice boomed through the doors.
"I swear, if you weren't in the family way, my girl, I'd reform you in nothing flat! The old fashioned way!"
"Oh yeah? Well - It's lucky I am, then!" An irate, unladylike voice responded.
Gadget sighed. It had been too good to last.
Lawhiney entered first, more eagerly than Gadget would have expected, even if it were as someone running away from an argument rather than someone come to turn themselves in. Monty followed, his moustache bristling, shaking a finger at Lawhiney's retreating back. Neither of them paid the slightest notice to Zipper, or thanked him for holding the door open.
"Now just you listen to me, you young she-devil!"
Lawhiney, satisfied that the presence of witnesses would forestall any violence, kept her back to Monty and took the opportunity to adjust her hair and check her makeup in a compact mirror.
"I've had it up to here with your tall tales and wild stories!" Monty yelled at her.
Lawhiney gawked over her shoulder at him in disbelief.
Monty crossed his arms and scowled at her furiously. "Have you got something to say, young lady?"
Lawhiney closed the compact with a click as ominous as any gun being cocked. "Well " she began, "Now that you mention it, I suppose I really should apologize "
Monty tweaked the end of his moustache between forefinger and thumb.
"Now that's more like it!" he said with a self-satisfied smile.
"I'm sorry for muscling in on your act! I should have known the Rangers only had room for one lying blowhard!" Lawhiney yelled in his face.
Monty's face fell into a sour, I-should-have-known-it, expression that could have given a lemon a run for its money.
"She's got a point, Monty." Gadget said from directly behind Lawhiney's right ear.
Lawhiney flinched at the sound of her sister's voice. She was painfully aware that she hadn't been behaving herself recently.
Monty's jaw dropped. "Gadget! Say you don't mean it, luv!"
Gadget dropped an eyelid in a low conspiratorial wink to Monty. "I'd say it," she replied, "but that would sour the memory of hearing my sister admit she's a lying blowhard!"
"Well, I was here first!" Monty said decisively. "The position is taken!"
Lawhiney pursed her lips and wrinkled her nose prettily at Gadget.
"Ooh, just you wait until - well, until I get out of prison, I guess." She sighed heavily. "I guess little Roche will be a teenager by then."
"Humph." Monty looked a little ashamed.
Lawhiney took out a hanky in preparation for the tears she was about to shed, hopefully on cue, and turned to Gadget. "Oh sister, isn't there another way? A way that would let me share my child's life?"
Gadget looked her right in the eye. "Was that Jen's compact mirror I saw you using just now?"
Lawhiney looked thoroughly derailed. "Uh, she gave it to me. So I could look good for the trial."
And then a curious thing happened.
For a moment Lawhiney looked as though someone had put a live flea in her ear. She winced and tried to clear it with a pinkie.
"Uh, you'd be surprised the effect a little lipstick and No. 5 blush will have on the right jury members " she said as if in passing commentary on the state of the justice system.
Then she squeaked.
If Gadget hadn't known better, she would have been prepared to swear someone had pulled on Lawhiney's tail.
Sheepishly, with one paw massaging the base of her tail, Lawhiney surrendered the compact to Gadget. "On second thoughts, would you mind returning this to Jen, with my thanks? It's just I've decided to go with the plain and natural look, instead."
Gadget accepted the compact.
"Very plain, if the stress of prison does to me what it's done for you." Lawhiney muttered in a voice she was fairly sure Monty couldn't hear. He just might make good on his threat to turn her over his knee, witnesses or not, if she went too far.
"What was that?" Mount Monterey threatened to erupt.
"Oh, I was just saying how I need another way to get the jury's sympathies; just my luck that I'm finally recovered. Although I could have a relapse did you bring this for little old me?"
And with that Lawhiney snatched Gadget's steel walking stick away from her and began to practice hobbling in small circles.
Gadget winced. She could stand without the stick for a little while, but preferred not to.
Monty caught sight of Gadget's expression and rumbled again. "Lawhiney, it ain't nice to take other people's things if they ain't offered."
Lawhiney looked back at him with big eyes. "Aw, c'mon Monty. I only just had a cast taken off my leg."
"The doc said you're all better now and goldbricking ain't going to help you get out of this mess of trouble you've cooked up for yourself." Monty's tough exterior was cracking.
"I'm going to be an old lady when they let me out." Lawhiney grumbled and hung her head. "I liked it better when you thought I was Gadget. You were the one I would have told, if it hadn't been for little Roche. I almost did you know. "
Monty twitched his moustache and shifted his weight uncomfortably. "Now, don't be making your little one into an excuse. He didn't have a say in your decisions, so it's wrong to ask him to carry the weight of them. You owe him that."
Lawhiney looked up with tears in her eyes. "I - I know, Monty. I'll try and be good. For Roche."
Monty coughed to cover his expression. "This better not be another of your tricks."
"It isn't." she promised.
"I'm glad." Gadget said. "Would you give me a hug, Lawhiney? I could use one right now."
"You mean I look like I could use one, you incorrigible do-gooder, you." Lawhiney smiled, blinked away her tears, and hugged her sister like it was the only hug in the world.
For them, it might be. Lawhiney would be a long time paying her debts and Gadget worked in a dangerous profession.
When they were done, Lawhiney began wiping her tears away with the hanky.
"When I took this out, I only expected it to wipe away fake tears." She sniffed. "What about you, Monty? Can I get a hug from you too?"
Monty looked away uncomfortably. "Well, I suppose. Seeing as it might be a long time before I can hug you as an honest citizen, I figure it won't hurt to give you one on credit, so to speak."
With that, Monty reached down, picked up Lawhiney and gave her one of his gentlest bear hugs.
Lawhiney hugged him back fiercely. "Is that the best you can do, you big teddy bear?"
"You might not break, but the little fella you're carrying might be a tad more fragile." Monty rumbled in a deep, gentle voice.
Gadget watched them and smiled. Lawhiney, to her mind, could have used more innocent hugs in her life. She had been looking forward to a hug from Monty herself, but she didn't mind her sister getting hers in first.
A prickle between her shoulder blades told her they were being watched. She carefully composed her expression and turned, expecting to see a detective ready to take Lawhiney into custody. Wrong detective.
Chip was standing in the doorway from the cells, his eyes staring but his expression blank. Monty saw him too and gently put Lawhiney down.
Lawhiney patted down her hair, turned and locked eyes with Chip.
Chip broke the eye contact first. He put his head down and began to stride towards the happy little group. When he reached them, he stopped exactly halfway between Lawhiney and Gadget. He looked at neither of them.
Gadget and her sister exchanged glances. Silently, a mutual agreement was struck.
"Golly, Chip, you certainly took your time! I was just explaining to Monty how good it was to see him and how I was looking forward to giving all three of you a big hug when we get home. I've missed you all so much!" The blonde mouse blinked happily at Chip, then seemed distracted by another thought. "I sure hope all my tools are where I left them. My paws are itching to get busy!" She frowned suddenly as another thought struck her. "Or maybe I'm just allergic to the base metal in my walking stick!"
"Well, I guess I should have known I could fool everyone but her." The mirror image standing next to her said. "Still, you have to admit I pulled the wool over your eyes, Mister Detective."
"Is that so?" Chip said in tight whisper.
She took a tantalising step towards him with a wicked smile, batting her eyelids seductively. "How about I give you a kiss to remember what might have been, if no one had gotten wise?"
Chip looked at her, his expression too deep to read. He took a step towards her, so that they were close enough to feel each other's breath. His eyes went to the innocent looking sister next to her as though asking for permission and saw a look of shock cross her innocent expression.
"Chip?" she said in a hurt tone. "You wouldn't? Not in front of -"
"Nice try." Chip said. "Lawhiney."
And before anyone could tell him whether he was right or wrong, or his nerve could fail, Chip locked lips with the blonde mouse in front of him. He took her up on everything she had offered and only let put her down after that first deep kiss because there were strangers watching.
"Jeepers!" the mouse in his arms said breathily. She was blushing like a bride on her wedding morning.
Chip grinned savagely. "Now that's Gadget."
Monty folded his arms and suppressed a smile. "After all this trouble, I'd have thought you two would have had enough of being mistaken for one and other, without playing pranks on Chip."
"Ah, it's okay, Monty. Gadget was just... testing." He smiled sheepishly.
Lawhiney twirled Gadget's steel walking stick and shrugged. "Can't think why he didn't try that method of telling us apart months ago."
"I would have, only I thought you'd already been put safely out of the way." Chip growled at her.
Gently but firmly, Gadget took his face in her hand and turned it back towards her. "Hey, that's my sister you're talking to."
"Sister?" Chip looked from Gadget to Lawhiney and back again.
"You have a lot of catching up to do, mister." Gadget told him firmly. "But it can wait until everyone's together again, that way I only have to explain it once."
Monty coughed politely behind her. "I think somebody's waiting on us, Gadget, luv."
Gadget followed his eyes over to where Doyle was standing with a hangdog look on his face. The detective held up a paw and beckoned with a finger, like a schoolteacher to a naughty child.
"Well, I guess that's my cue." Lawhiney said nervously. "Is my lawyer here?" She asked, passing the walking stick back to Gadget.
"I, uh, arrived with him. He's been waiting in the interview room for you." Gadget shyly admitted as she accepted the stick.
"No wonder Doyle has that expression." Chip sympathised.
"Well, don't wait up." Lawhiney said and began to tip toe her way towards Doyle in a babyish walk, her hands clasped behind her back.
"There goes one Sheila who can look after herself." Monty said.
"You said it." Chip agreed.
"Strike a light, Gadget! I almost forgot." Monty exclaimed. "Jen decided to come with us and the poor girl's sitting out there all alone in the Ranger-skate. She's feeling real rotten about herself for letting you down, Gadget."
Gadget finally let go of Chip. "I'll go have a word with her." She promised.
"We'll give you a minute or two and follow you out." Monty nodded.
Gadget made a start, got halfway to the door and then looked back at Chip with a puzzled expression. "Hey, Chip you did know it was me offering to kiss you, right? You wouldn't have really kissed Lawhiney?"
Chip smiled at her. "I knew, Gadget. I looked into your eyes and I just knew."
Gadget suppressed a smile and left. There would be a later for that chipmunk.
"It's a good thing they forgot you were standing behind them. Thanks for pointing the real Gadget out, Monty." Chip said when he was sure she was out of earshot.
"Figured you were in deep enough in trouble as it was, Chipper." Monty said dourly. "You're just going to have to learn to tell them apart, my lad."
"You mean there's a way to do that?" Chip asked as they began to amble towards the exit.
"Chip lad, you're supposed to be a detective, it should be obvious! Lawhiney limps with her left leg. Gadget limps with her right." Monty chided him. "Until they get better, any rate."
"What do I do then?" Chip asked as they reached the door.
"Then you're on your own."
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