Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Three Dreams and a Nightmare
There was a knock at the door.
When you're on call twenty-four hours a day you get a lot of unexpected callers. A stranger in a uniform at the door doesn't sound the alarm bells the way it does for most people. Monty opened the door. He was wearing his turtleneck sweater with the sleeves rolled up and his arms soaked in soapsuds.
"Why, 'ello there! I don't know you, do I?" He smiled, his blue eyes completely clear of any misgiving or worry. "If it's Chip Maplewood you've come to see then I'm afraid he's away at the moment. Come on in, though. Our friends in uniform are always welcome. Which group are you with, by the way?"
The young vole entered the Rescue Ranger's living room. She was young and her uniform, the first she had ever worn, was still new. A little way behind her a mouse the same age as Monty lingered in the doorway.
"Um, we're with the Street Watch East Precinct, Sir." The vole told him, standing awkwardly.
"The Sweepers, ay? You do good work from what I hear. Concentrate on honest old fashioned helping people, rather than running around after mad scientists and would-be hoodlums."
"Thank you, yes. We do our best. I don't know about the hoodlums though. We see off the odd crook, now and then."
"So sit down, tell us what can we do for you?"
Reluctantly the vole sat. The mouse remained standing but placed one paw on her shoulder as if in support. "Well, sir, it's like this. There was a robbery at the City Museum of Culture and Antiquity today-"
"And you want the best detective in the city to help your investigators? I know. You aren't the first to come here looking for him but as I said, Chipper's away at the moment-"
"No, sir." The vole cut Monty off just a shade more abruptly than was polite. "Would it be possible for you contact Mister Maplewood?"
"It might be, in an emergency, say. I, er, probably shouldn't let on, but the fact is he's on a case, see?"
The two visitors exchanged looks.
"Sir, the fact is, we've come to give you some bad news."
Half an hour later Monty, Zipper and Dale were sitting in a small room with cardboard walls. Someone had made an effort to paint the walls a cheerful colour but they had used a marker pen and it showed in the unevenness of the work. A postcard showing a beach with palm trees was hanging on one wall and there was matchbox table in the centre of the room with mouse-sized magazines but none of them felt like reading.
The room was between the basement and the ground floor of the Cosgrove Hotel, where the Small Animals of Mercy Hospital had set up operations many busy years ago. It had been set asides by the hospital staff when they realised that the need to stop worried friends and relations from getting underfoot was more pressing than the need for storage space. Monty sat quietly in one of the uncomfortable chairs. Dale fidgeted uncontrollably. Zipper paced up and down on the ceiling, his head bowed in thought.
Animal medicine was a mixed blessing at best. Basic medical training was something that any rodent could get by sitting in on lectures at any of the older human teaching hospitals (Provided they didn't offend the rodents who claimed the territory as home and get run off of the campus) but much of what could gained was for humans and proved dangerous when applied to other species. Doctors were not in short supply, though most tended to specialize in just one or two species that they felt confident with. Drugs and equipment, on the other hand, were almost non-existent.
"I should have known something was up when she sent me for aspirin and I got back to find she had taken the Ranger plane up." Dale lamented.
"It's not like Gadget to fly when she's not feeling alright. She knows better." Monty rumbled. Dale looked at Monty with a worried frown. The big mouse had been subdued since they heard the news together. Dale patted his friend on the arm.
"Hey, she's Gadget. She'll be okay."
"Thanks for the sympathy, pally, but let's wait and hear what the Doctors have got to say."
It seemed like an eternity before the red furred packrat in the white coat came in. He opened the door quietly and closed it behind him before speaking. Monty, staring into space, did not hear the packrat enter. It was only when the Doctor spoke that the big mouse started and fixed him with a glassy stare.
"Uh, I'm looking for a Zipper, a Dale Oakmont and a Monterey Jack. Are you three ?"
"I'm Dale, he's Zipper and that's Monty." Dale was so agitated that he pointed to Monty when he said Zipper and nodded towards the ceiling when he reached Monty's name.
The Doctor glanced in the direction Dale had gestured, but saw only an empty room. He raised an eyebrow. "I, uh, understand you weren't in the accident yourselves?"
"What, no! Why do ask?"
"So you haven't had a head injury recently?"
Dale frowned. "No, not since Chip left to visit a friend in the countryside. Hey, why are you worried about my head?"
The Doctor cast an uneasy glance to the empty side of the room. "Oh, no reason." He said. "About Miss Hackwrench "
"Tell us everything, Doc. Don't pull any punches." Monty spoke for the first time.
"Of course, Mr Zipper."
"Zipper? No, I'm Monty, that's Zipper." The mouse pointed a fat finger towards the empty side of the room.
The packrat blinked in increasing puzzlement and turned to find a housefly hanging in front of his nose. "Oh! Oh, I see. So you're Zipper."
"Bzztzeeewezz" the fly replied, sticking out an arm.
"Pleased to meet you, I'm sure."
"Doc, I don't want to seem pushy but what have you got to tell us about Gadget?" Monty pressed.
"Well, I don't know how much you already know, but "
"All the Street Watch could tell us was she got caught up in a robbery and crashed the Ranger plane."
"There seems to be some confusion about that. From what I've heard robbers kidnapped her and were forcing her to fly them and the loot away when a fight broke out in midair. The Ranger plane flew straight into the side of a wall about five stories above the ground."
Monty turned pale and sat down heavily. Dale gulped.
"Fortunately they weren't going that fast and Miss Hackwrench had a relatively soft landing. They found her in a trash can, lying on a pizza box."
"Five stories. That's about fifty feet."
"Closer to sixty, I think. She was admitted to the infirmary at the museum, the doctors there arranged for her to be transferred to us as soon as they had done the emergency work and stabilized her. She had internal bleeding, a fractured fibula, a broken tailbone about six vertebra from her- um, the base of her tail, that is." The Doctor gave a nervous chuckle. "Oh, and three broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. But it's the head injury that's got us worried." The Doctor took on a serious tone. "We can't do a brain scan or anything fancy like humans would and our X-Ray machine is down again, but it's a definite skull fracture and concussion. There may be brain damage."
Monty choked. "No!" Slowly, the big mouse got up. "There's no helping those gangsters when I get my hands on them. They'll have more than brain damage to worry about! Just let me at them!"
Dale's hands disappeared into the folds of Monty's stomach as the chipmunk tried to stop the mouse from leaving. "Monty! Gadget needs us here!"
"She's in good hands with the Doctor there, son. You can see he knows his stuff." The mouse kept walking and Dale's feet started to slide
"But Monty, what if she wakes up and you and Chip aren't here?"
"She'll understand. She'll have you and Zipper!" Monty kept walking but he wasn't moving forward. Dale's feet had slipped backwards until they were jammed against the door.
"What if she can't understand? What if she's hurt so bad she can't understand when we tell her, Monty?" Dale shouted.
"She's a bright girl, she'll know what you mean."
"What if she's as dumb as I am when she wakes up?" Dale screamed. "Brain damage can do that to a person. It doesn't matter how smart they were before."
Monty stopped dead in his tracks.
There was a long silence. The Doctor wanted to leave, but the two rodents were blocking the doorway. The fly hovered, wanting to lend help or comfort but unable to risk getting between two titans who could crush him without really wanting to.
"Uh, well, anyway." The Doctor said. "She's got a good constitution. She could make a full recovery, given time. As for the head injury, we won't really know one way or the other until she wakes up." The Doctor found himself face to face with Monty. "I appreciate what you said about her being in good hands, sir. I assure you we'll do our best. In the meantime, you may like to know that the robbers you mentioned probably have bigger problems of their own to worry about.
"You see, the museum mice say that they couldn't find any trace of the robbers but there was only one trashcan to provide a soft landing and all their loot was lying scattered until the human guards found it. The whole district has a cat problem, apparently, so there's no way to tell whether they somehow survived the fall and crawled away without their loot, or if someone else just ate the bodies. Personally, without medical treatment, I don't see how they could be alive even if they did survive the fall."
Gadget Hackwrench was having a wonderful dream. She wasn't quite sure what it was about but it had definitely started with her waking in her own bed at Rescue Ranger HQ to find the sun streaming in through the window and had featured a human size chocolate chip muffin, which she had offered to share with everybody but only Chip was hungry.
"Oh Chip." She smiled turning over. She tried to wrap the blankets tighter around her, but couldn't find any.
"Yeah, girl. That's what I said when I found myself here, too."
Gadget's eyes opened. She was looking at a very old shrew wearing clothes so old that Gadget couldn't tell where the repairs ended and the shoddy dressmaking started. There were bars and lots of grey everywhere else.
The Rescue Ranger tried to stand up but found she wanted to throw up instead. Her stomach was complaining of being empty, though, and she remembered Jen's rejected offer of lunch with a pang of regret.
A cell. She was in a cell. Obviously she had been kidnapped for use of some villain's evil scheme. He would probably be showing up the moment he realised she was awake, making boasts and idle threats. She hoped he wasn't one of the ones with a really loud laugh. Her head hurt for some reason. Golly, did it ever hurt. She felt like Monty after a night on the town.
That did it. The memory flooded back to her. She could remember leaving Jen's, the missing Ranger Skate, the trip to the bar What had been that rat's name? He was well spoken but he had put something in her drink. There was no way one sip of Brandy Coffee should have had her dancing on tables. (Or had she finished the cup? She couldn't remember.)
Gadget felt herself shudder. One hand went to fastener on her overalls but it wasn't there. Dear God, she knew there was a reason she avoided dressing this way. Forcing herself out of bed she scurried into the corner of the cell and, as discretely as possible, checked herself all over to see if she had been molested.
She was still checking when a voice said behind her: "And you looked so innocent while you were asleep."
Spinning, Gadget saw a guard standing outside the cell. The guard was a female chipmunk, wearing a Street Patrol West Precinct uniform that Gadget recognized immediately.
"Oh thank God- I'm in jail!" she squeaked. "I thought I'd been kidnapped!"
"Oh, really? Well, you haven't. You're in jail until your arraignment. These are the overnight cells. The judge will see you first thing in the morning and he'll want to know what to call you, so introduce yourself."
"Now don't say anything hasty, girl." The other inmate warned her.
"You keep out of this, Sheila."
"Uh, my name's Gadget." Gadget said.
Gadget blinked. It had been a while since anyone had asked her that. Of course, it was for official purposes, so she understood. "Hackwrench." And she spelt it just to be sure there was no mistake.
"Ah." The warder smiled. "We were hoping you would say that. Tell me, what other names do you go by?"
"Uh, sometimes I'm called Gadgetluv, or Gadg'."
"Hmmm. Is that so? Any relation?"
"Relation to who?" Gadget blinked in genuine puzzlement.
"Gadget Hackwrench the Rescue Ranger."
"Uh, this is a little embarrassing. You see, I am, Gadget Hackwrench the Rescue Ranger."
"That is embarrassing."
"Being in jail would be embarrassing for anyone, I should think, but having a good reputation does make it more awkward."
"You think a good reputation is important, then?"
"It certainly isn't the most important thing, but my father always said that your reputation is how people get to know you before they get to know you." Gadget smiled, tidying her hair and clothes. Her hair, in particular, seemed to be a mess.
"You certainly wouldn't like the girl they brought three hours ago. She's been running around all over the state using someone else's reputation to get herself anything she wants and them into trouble."
"Well, I'd certainly like to have a strong word with her!"
"Go ahead." The lady guard said coldly. "The real Gadget Hackwrench has been in hospital since six o'clock. She tried to stop a robbery and they hurt her so bad she may die."
Gadget's eyes grew as round as pennies and her mouth opened so wide that Zipper could have sat inside with his head bowed. She still wasn't feeling clear headed, so perhaps it was understandable that it took her three seconds to take in the news. For one, brief, heart-stopping moment she wondered if she was an impostor. Then the memories of her childhood, her father, her grief, her joy, her inventions and her time with the Rangers brought her back to reality.
"If you still want to have that word with her there's a mirror over the wash basin."
"What? No. That's impossible. That's a mistake. I'm Gadget Hackwrench. Ask the Rangers they'll tell you!"
"Well, if that's the way you want to play it, go ahead. But I'm not putting Gadget Hackwrench on the charge sheet. I've too much respect for the original. You were booked as Jane Doe when you came in and that's how you can say." With that, the lady guard left.
"Silly slip of girl." Gadget's cellmate said. "I told you not to answer too fast. If you had made something up you might have got away with a night in the cells for being drunk."
Gadget opened her mouth to say something about forensic evidence but closed it again with out speaking. Chip was always complaining about how hard it was to keep track of known criminals. There were a huge number of rodents to consider and the population in any given area always had a rapid turn over, partly due to normal migrations and partly because of the danger of predators. The fact that human transport provided a free, unchecked means of travelling long distances made it easy to lose track of people and even if you did come across the same crook twice, proving he or she was the same person you convicted last time was difficult if they claimed to be someone else. Fingerprints were unique to primates and a winter coat of fur could make mug shots worthless.
The biggest problem was the fact that communication between different law enforcement agencies was so shaky. The same place could be policed by up to five different law enforcement groups, mostly volunteer forces, without any one of them being aware of the others. In some cases, one group of crook chasers would go after another without realising, which had even lead to turf wars between opposing groups of "good guys". It would have been entirely possible for Gadget to say her name was something like "Haley Brightooth" and walk out a free mouse after grovelling to a judge, even if someone called "Haley Brightooth" had committed armed robbery and left a signed confession at the scene two blocks away from the court, provided that the group investigating the robbery wasn't the one that had dragged her into court for being drunk and disorderly.
"Well?" Her cellmate demanded. "Are you just going to stare at me?"
Gadget blinked. "Do you normally help total strangers who might be criminals avoid the consequences of their actions?"
"Hey, I was just trying to be sociable. Seeing as youre my cellmate and all. Give you the benefit of my years of experience."
Gadget looked at the shrew. "I'm not going to be here long enough to need your advice. This is a mistake."
"That's what I said. Twenty years ago."
"You've been here twenty years?!"
"No, just since five o'clock. Twenty years ago I had a good reputation and a nice figure. One day I walked out of a hat shop while I was thinking about my boyfriend. Next thing I know, my parents say I'm embarrassment, my boyfriend won't see me, my friends are strangers and I'm serving a three year jail sentence."
"Over a hat you forgot to pay for?"
"No, over the rich lady's purse I picked up while I was browsing. I told everyone that I just forgot that I hadn't brought mine with me, but the truth was I thought another customer had forgotten it and it was just a nicer handbag than the one I had at home."
"You were stealing then."
"Yeah, but sometimes I think that if I'd admitted that they would have just let me off with a warning, you know?"
"Just because you don't know who you were robbing or why you have the chance to that doesn't mean you deserve to get away with it."
"I didn't say it did. I just didn't deserve what happened, that's all."
"Was it your first offence?"
"Yes, but it wasn't the first bag snatch there and the rich lady kept a necklace in the bag. I didn't know that, I was just after the bag."
"Three years for a bag is a little harsh."
"It's not the three years, it's the seventeen since then. When you've done something wrong and you haven't put it right, it's like you're still doing wrong. It keeps coming up again and again. It's part of who you are. If it's not dealt with fairly, then that makes it worse. Even if it's dealt with too harshly instead of too lightly." The old shrew looked at Gadget carefully. "I don't know what you've done, kiddo, but the only way you'll have a shot at any kind of life after tonight is to face up to it and stare it down. Tell them the truth, help them to just be fair with you."
Gadget looked at the shrew a long time. The shrew looked back. Eventually she said: "Thank you for trying to help me. My name is Gadget Hackwrench."
Dale found himself in a cage. He was covered with straw but, apart from that, he was wearing only his own fur. His mouth had a funny taste in it and his first instinct was to go to the water bottle hanging on the side of the cage. When he stood up he was unsteady, so he put out a hand to steady himself. What he touched moved under his weight and he dropped onto all fours. He glanced at it in surprise.
It was an exercise wheel.
He was in a pet cage.
Dale shivered. This could be bad. Depending on the circumstances he could just walk out and go home or he would be here for the rest of his life. He looked around. It was a space about the size of the living room back at Rescue Ranger Headquarters.
Outside the cage was a small room crowded with silent animals, also in cages, and a counter with a bell on it. Behind the counter Dale could just make out the back of a human who was bending down to do something out of sight.
The pet shop door opened to the sound of a bell.
Dale was surprised and pleased to see that it was Chip. Admittedly a human sized version of Chip but this didn't seem odd for some reason. He must be undercover, Dale rationalized. Of course he would have to blend in with the people who ran the pet store.
"Excuse me, Miss?" Chip directed to the figure behind the counter.
The "human" shopkeeper stood up to reveal the face of Monterey Jack. There was a Dale-sized mousetrap caught in his moustache. He faced Chip with a frown. "Miss?" He rumbled.
"Oh, I'm sorry; I have a cold." Chip blinked and stared at the mousetrap.
There was a slight pause as Monty considered this with a puzzled frown. Abandoning the mystifying apology, he warned: "We're closing for lunch."
"But I wish to make a complaint!" Chip objected.
Monty shook his head, causing the mousetrap to swing wildly. "This isn't the complaint department."
"Never mind that." Chip brushed aside the objection and placed a cage that Dale hadn't noticed him carrying before onto the counter. "I want to complain about this 'ere love interest I purchased from this very boutique not half an hour ago."
"Oh yes, the Hackwrench Blonde. What's, um, what's wrong with 'er?" Monty enquired nervously.
Chip quivered. "I'll tell you what's wrong with her! She's dead, that's what's wrong with her."
Monty peered into the cage. "Uh, no. No. She's just resting, that's all."
"Look, pal, I know a live love interest from a dead love interest and I'm looking at a dead love interest right now."
"No, no." Monty insisted. "She's resting. Remarkable creature, the Hackwrench Blonde, isn't she? Beautiful figure!"
"The figure don't enter into it! She's stone dead!"
"No. No, no, no, no, no, no. She's resting."
"Alright then!" Chip shouted. "If she's resting I'll wake her up." Chip put his mouth right up against the cage. "Hello, Miss Hackwrench? Who's a pretty girl then?" He shouted. "Wakey, wakey. I've got a lovely new sprocket set for you if you wake up and show us your-"
Chip broke off abruptly as Monty brought his fist down on the far end of the counter, causing everything on it to jump, including the cage.
"There you are! She moved." Monty said.
"She never! That was you hitting the counter!"
"I never did anything to make her move!"
Chip put his head back down to cage level and started shouting. "Hello Gadget! This is your nine o'clock alarm call! Time to rise and shine!"
Gadget gave no sign of life. Chip opened the cage and took her out, holding her by her tail. Realising that her entire body, including her tail, was absolutely stiff, Chip turned her upside down so that her entire body was held above his hand by her rigid tail. Chip and Monty stared at each other for a moment. Then Chip changed his grip so he could use Gadget as a hammer and he began to bang the counter bell with her head.
"Now that's what I call a dead love interest." Chip said after a minute of this treatment.
"No, she's just stunned."
"You stunned her just as she was waking up! They stun easily, the Hackwrench Blondes."
Chip staggered with disbelief. "Um...now look...now look, buddy, I've definitely 'ad enough of this. That love interest is definitely deceased, and when I purchased her not 'alf an hour ago, you assured me that her total lack of movement was due to bein' tired and shagged out following a prolonged bout of inventing things that don't work!"
"She's probably just pining for Gewgaw!"
"Pining for Gewgaw? What kind of an excuse is that? Why did she fall flat on her back the moment I got her home, then?"
"The Hackwrench Blonde prefers kipping on her back. Remarkable creature, remarkable. Lovely figure."
"I took the liberty of examining that love interest when I got it home and I discovered that the only reason that it had been standing up in the first place was that someone had nailed her to the floor of the cage in an upright position!"
"Well of course she was nailed to the floor of the cage!" Monty huffed. "If I hadn't done that, it would have been lift latch to open cage and the next thing you know she would have been out the window in a bleach bottle aeroplane, voom!"
"Voom? This love interest wouldn't voom if you stuck a million volts through her! She's dang-well deceased."
"No, she's pining."
"She's not pining, she's passed on! This love interest is no more. She is extinct! Departed! She has ceased to be! She has gone to meet her maker! She's a stiff! Bereft of life, she rests in peace! If you hadnt nailed her to the floor she'd be pushing up the daisies! She's history! She's dropped off her perch! She's kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, left this veil of tears and entered the great beyond! She has joined the choir invisible! This is an ex-mouse!"
There was a pause as Chip got his breath back after all the shouting. Monty looked ashamed. Dale brushed away a tear for Gadget.
"Righty-ho, then! I suppose if it's like that, I'd better find you a replacement." Monty said sullenly.
"Only the thing is we're right out of brilliant girl inventors. I've got a goofy comic relief type, though."
"Does she have a good figure?" Chip asked.
Monty hesitated. There was no denying that his eyes travelled, momentarily, in Dale's direction.
"He's alright, I suppose."
"You said he?"
"Did I? I meant she. She's alright, I suppose."
Chip looked suspicious and resentful. "Look. I'll ask you just once and, if I have to come back here again, there's going to be trouble. This goofy comic relief love interest: Is it Dale?"
Monty looked embarrassed. "Sort of, yes."
"Then that's hardly finding me a replacement love interest, is it?!" Chip shouted.
"He looks quite good in a dress." Monty put in, nodding in Dale's direction. "You can take him with you right now, if you like."
Chip turned and looked straight at Dale for a moment. Then he said: "Yeah, alright then. You've talked me into it."
Dale squeaked with alarm.
Dale woke with a start. He looked around rapidly. He was sitting in a private hospital room next to Monty. In front of him was the bed where Gadget Hackwrench was fighting her personal battle with mortality. The sounds of hospital life were quite audible from the corridor outside and reminded Dale of the human hospital dramas he had seen but the private room seemed desperately short of equipment.
Dale had no idea what all the beeping grey boxes with flashing lights were that surrounded human patients, but he would have been awfully reassured if Gadget had been attached to some now. He looked across at Monty, who was reassuringly mouse-sized.
Monty looked back at him with a raised eyebrow. After a heartbeat or two, he looked down to his lap. Dale followed the glance and realised that he was gripping Monty's leg, tightly. With a gulp, Dale withdrew the stray paw and hoped Monty hadn't taken it the wrong way.
"Where's Chip?" Dale asked.
"He's out of town, investigating. Remember, lad?"
"I thought he was back."
"You've only been asleep twenty minutes." Monty told him.
"It seemed longer."
"Aye, lad." Monty looked back at the still figure in the bed. "That it did."
"Are you okay, Monty?" Dale asked. He hadn't often seen the big mouse like this. And when he had, it was always because something had happened that would make Dale want to cry.
"It's Gadget you should worry about."
"I know she's not alright. Are you?"
"I was just thinking about milestones. How many we have to pass before we can rest." Monty seemed lost in his memories. "There's the first time you fall in love. The first time you break a bone. The first time you stay away from the home you were raised in for so long that it doesn't feel like home when you come back. The first time someone you know dies. The first time a friend dies." The weather beaten adventurer bowed his head and shoulders. "I don't want to live to see Gadget die. It's not a milestone I want to pass."
Dale hadn't been so still since Fat Cat had put him on a clay pigeon and told him it was a pressure sensitive landmine. He had always assumed that whereas Chip was the smarter, more knowledgeable chipmunk, he, Dale, was better at dealing with emotions. Faced with the crisis in the bed and the crisis sitting next to him, Dale found that cherished illusion evaporating like dew under the summer sun. In the silence, Dale wracked his brains for something that might help. All that came back to him was the dream from his brief nap.
He had dreamed the dead parrot sketch from Monty Python, with Gadget instead of the parrot.
Suddenly Dale hated himself and wanted to tell Monty so that Monty would be angry and hit him.
Two things stopped him. First, fact that Monty was a lot bigger than Chip and might actually put him in a coma as well, and second, the fact that if they were caught fighting in a hospital neither of them would be allowed to stay with Gadget.
Slowly he leaned in close to Monty. "Would it make you feel better if you could hit somebody?" he asked.
"What?" Monty glared at him with a puzzled frown.
"We could go outside and I could tell you something that would make you angry."
"Dale?" Monty shook his head. "Why should we do a thing like that?"
"So that you would be angry instead of I don't know. Whatever they call it when people feel the way you are now."
"You'd rather I was angry with you?"
Dale was quiet for a moment. "I guess I'm more used to dealing with that."
Monty looked at the Chipmunk blankly. Then he seemed to come back from whatever dark place his heart had gone to.
"Dale, mate, I can't imagine a worse feeling than the one I've got right now but I know if Gadget dies I'll find one. I'd rather feel anything instead of what I'm feeling right now, but getting angry with you isn't going to make things better." The Australian put a big paw on the Chipmunk's shoulder. "Dale, lad; don't ever make me an offer like that again. You've got a big heart and you deserve better than to be the fall guy every time things go wrong."
"So, Mister Investigator, who are you investigating for?" The Mayor asked.
"Myself, at the moment."
"Just getting everyone's hurt feelings stirred up for your own personal curiosity, huh?"
"Well, Mister Mayor, that depends on what I find. If it's useful, it could bring the person who did this to justice. Then I'd be investigating for everyone who had been a victim."
The Mayor thought about it for a moment. "It hasn't been easy, you know. I wasn't mayor when this happened. I came here from Redreach, the town they stopped at before this one. My predecessor lost everything because he jumped the wrong way, if you know what I mean."
"He got eaten?"
"No, I don't mean literally. He heard my warning and HER reply and he backed the wrong person. When people realised theyve been made fools of, the first thing they want is someone to blame besides themselves." The Mayor looked the chipmunk in the eye. "I don't want the same thing to happen to me. But if I'd been in his shoes - well, it could just as easily have been me running for cover as people pelted me with leftover food."
"You're worried that you might find yourself in the same situation that your predecessor did." the chipmunk nodded understandingly.
"Are you going to present me with that situation?"
"No. I haven't claimed to be Chip Maplewood and I don't plan on doing so while I'm in your town."
"So; you're just an ordinary chipmunk who's investigating the fraud on his own initiative? And that's what you want everyone to be told?"
"Something like that."
"Why should people co-operate with an ordinary chipmunk who's just sticking his nose into something that embarrasses them?"
"For one thing, for the sake of Gadget Hackwrench's reputation."
"That won't get you very far. Gadget and Hackwrench happen to be a couple of dirty words around here."
"That's precisely why you should help me! I know you don't have another name for the person who cheated you but there is a real Gadget Hackwrench and she's a good person! If you don't help stop this, then one day she'll wake up and no one will let her help them and she wants to help people, Mister Mayor! She lives to help people and people live because she's helped them! But if this goes on she may not even be able to show her face anymore!"
"It certainly would help if we had another name for HER." The mayor mused.
"I might be able to give you one."
"If you already know who did this, then why do you need our help?"
"I suspect. I can't prove. And I need to find her."
"I felt that way, not so long ago." The Mayor sighed.
The chipmunk looked puzzled. "About who?"
"About the one who called herself Gadget. I had a good job in Redreach. I was in charge of the town's winter food store. She said there had been a series of raids on grain silos and that she wanted to add some traps to ours in case it was the next target. Afterwards she convinced me to show her everything about the storage facility. Locks, doors, guards, alarms. Then she said that the other rangers had tricked raiders into robbing an empty building on the far side of town. We staked the place out all night and in the morning the grain from the real silo was gone. The traps she had put in place had all been bypassed by someone who knew exactly how they worked and she was gone." The mayor bowed his head for a moment. "I was disgraced. I suspected she had betrayed us, but I had to know for sure."
"You thought there might be another explanation?"
"No. I just couldn't believe it because I really thought-" The Mayor broke off suddenly and glanced at the chipmunk to check his expression. "It doesn't matter what I thought. I just had to warn our neighbours."
"What were you going to say?" The chipmunk probed.
"I said it doesn't matter!" The Mayor snapped.
The chipmunk looked at him steadily. "She broke your heart, didn't she?"
The Mayor looked away.
"Yes." He whispered. "She told me that she loved me and I believed her. I thought that was true, even if she had lied about everything else. But when I saw her here and she saw me-" the Mayor sighed deeply "-there wasn't a shred of love in her eyes, she looked at me like she didn't even remember me and I don't think it was all acting. I think it really did take her a second to figure out who I was."
"I'm very sorry." The chipmunk said mostly to fill up the gap in the conversation.
"Very sorry I let a cheap fraud take me for everything I had, including my dignity and my self respect, or very sorry that you feel awkward hearing about it?"
"Both, actually. Though you seem to have done well for yourself, considering." The chipmunk gestured to the small, but grandly furnished office.
"Isn't life absurd? Just when you know you've lost everything, including your self-respect and the will to live, it hands you a whole town just like that." The Mayor held out an upturned hand.
"I appreciate the irony, but you have to admit you can wallow in self-pity amongst lovely surroundings." The chipmunk said.
The Mayor glared at him. "Do you have any idea what it is to love someone? To love someone so much that you would walk away from everything and everyone you've ever known, probably forever, just on the off-chance that you might get to be with them? And yet when you look into their eyes you know that they haven't the faintest idea of what it feels like to have an emotion like that?"
The chipmunk looked back at the mayor for a long time. Then he said: "Yes."
It had been past ten when Gadget Hackwrench called for the guard and asked for her one phone call. Her cellmate had told her to call a lawyer, or family. She had neither. Instead she chose to call the Ranger HQ, positive that someone would be there.
The phone lines the mice used were spliced into the human network using a careful lash up of technology that meant that the phone company would dismiss all rodent calls as random noise on the line. Because rodents had such acute hearing, the phone Gadget was allowed to use was in a box room so that the call could be private. The phone itself consisted of the earpiece from a human hearing aid and a microphone that had originally been intended to clip on to a human tie.
The lady chipmunk who guarded the overnight cells had handed her over to a much larger squirrel, who glared at Gadget and caressed a nail that had been padded in band-aids to act as a nightstick. The squirrel guard watched Gadget's every move.
"They aren't answering." Gadget said, nervously.
"It's half past ten." The squirrel replied. "I'm due to go off shift about now."
"You could just leave me here until they pick up. I promise to go back to my cell when I finish my call."
"What do I look like? Stupid?" Yelled the guard. "Hang up that phone and come on!"
"Please, just a few more rings. I know there's an answer phone." Gadget face was growing more worried by the second. If what the chipmunk had told her were true, then her friends would be beside themselves. She began to twist the makeshift phone cord around her fingers with anxiety.
What if they were out looking for her? Or trying to find out who the person in hospital really was?
It didn't occur to Gadget that a fraud could remain undetected in a hospital, where Doctors would check her medical records and find the patient didn't match them.
After a dozen rings to weed out casual callers and telesales people, the answer phone she had built picked up. Chip's polite voice spoke slowly (for a chipmunk). "Thank you for calling the Rescue Rangers to deal with your crisis. Unfortunately we're busy dealing with another case right now, or we're taking a well-earned break. I would point out that our headquarters is equipped with the best in security alarms and booby traps, so if you're a burglar checking to see if we're at home, forget it. We want to help as many people as possible, so if you can afford to wait a while, leave your name and a way to contact you after the beep. If your problem requires immediate attention I suggest you contact one of the other volunteer crisis groups that operate in the city." There was a sharp beep.
"Hello, Chip, this is-" Gadget began. There was a sharp squeal on the other end of the line. "Hello, anyone?" Gadget winced as the message began playing backwards at a much higher speed. "I'm in jail! It's Gadget! Chip, if you get this I think I forgot to set a switch to cut out the pick-up message when the caller stays on the line to leave a message. If you get any of this I'm at-"
There was a very loud squawk from the phone that made Gadget and her guard flinch. Suddenly the line went dead. "Hello?" Gadget inquired, forlornly. The only sound was the guard tapping her foot behind her. Gadget looked over her shoulder and was skewered by a particularly nasty look from the guard. Gadget's eyes went to the phone cord that she had been twisting around her fingers. It was hanging loose.
"I must have pulled it free when it made that loud noise. I guess the answer phone I built needs some work, huh? Say, I can fix this with a little screwdriver or some solder and a soldering iron. You would like it fixed, wouldn't you? I mean it would be an awful nuisance to call a repair mouse in just for a loose wire, wouldn't it?"
"That's enough." The guard said, coldly taking a handful of Gadget's hair. "On your feet. You're going back to the cells and I'm adding wilful damaging of public property to the charges, even if you are going away for so long it doesn't make any difference."
"Hey, you don't have to-" But the guard was twisting Gadget's arm into a wrestling hold and she realised fighting back would make things even worse. Bad enough that she was going to have to spend a night in cells and explain herself to a judge in the morning, without having to plead guilty to assaulting a guard!
Lawhiney was sleeping. From a long way off, voices came to waken her.
"Law? Law, where are you?"
Lawhiney was touched by the genuine concern in the voice's tone.
"She's dead. Let's get out of here."
Who was dead? I have to find out before all the good stuff is claimed by the relatives, Lawhiney thought and stirred in her sleep. She found herself looking down from a great height at a crumpled form on a pile of trash. The body was familiar, somehow, and Lawhiney tried to force her memory to identify it. She really hadn't woken up yet. She ought to have some coffee before deciding what to do next. She was just about to wonder away to get a cup when she realised that the body below her looked just like Gadget Hackwrench.
Lawhiney smiled gleefully. Oh, good. Little Miss Goody-Two-Shoes had finally got what was coming to her.
With that thought, Lawhiney drifted away to find her friends. It was hard to see them, or anything once she had gone a little distance. The near sleepwalker hadn't realised as she left the scene of the accident behind her but it was a very foggy day. Looking down, the blonde mouse girl found she couldn't even see her own feet. She sighed. She hated days like this. It meant she couldn't use her looks to make a good first impression. She had never known a misty day as bright as this one though. The sun was a searing silver light shining down at her with an intensity that should have evaporated the mist in just minutes. In spite of that, the further she went the heavier the mist seemed to become.
From somewhere very far behind her, she caught a snippet of conversation. Just a single phrase carried on the breeze: "Very low blood pressure. I think there's internal bleeding."
Lawhiney almost looked back to see where the voice had come from but the mist parted in front of her revealing the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. It was like looking at a stained-glass window, but not one made of the dark blues and reds that most church windows used. There was sunshine gold at the top of the pointed archway and rose pink at the wide base with every colour of the rainbow in between.
"Ohhh." Lawhiney breathed the single syllable in awe. She stayed absolutely still, as though hypnotised by the vision of beauty.
What she had first taken to be a single window was actually a pair of gates, she realised, and the colours were not silver light being filtered through glass. They were more like the colours of a rainbow, only they were moving. Lawhiney didn't know how long she had been staring at the gate when her eyes were drawn to the pearl. It was set at the very base of the pillar that supported the left hand gate and it was the same pearl she had stolen from the museum just- had it been moments ago, or the previous day? Since she had just woken up, Lawhiney decided it must have been the previous day.
How had it gotten here? Lawhiney was vibrating with anger and greed. It wasn't fair. Someone had stolen it back from her while she was asleep. She set her jaw. Well, she would just see about that. Admittedly, it looked as if it belonged right where it was, but that wasn't her problem.
Lawhiney ran up to the pearl, which was the size of her head and even more beautiful than it had looked in the museum, rolled up her sleeves and began pull with all her strength. It seemed impossible that she could move the pearl at first. It was set directly into the marble of the gatepost so solidly it was as if it had been there for all eternity.
"I'm going to need a crowbar." Lawhiney snarled through clenched teeth.
"What's this?" A gentle voice boomed from high above the would-be pearl thief.
Lawhiney gave one last, big heave. The pearl came free, at last, and sent her head over heals backwards. She ended up sitting down with the pearl in her lap and her hair all mussed. She blinked, looked at the pearl and grinned wickedly.
"Here, now! That's not yours!" The voice rolled over her again.
Lawhiney picked up the pearl and started to run as fast as she could. She knew that she had been spotted but not who by. She couldn't see her feet past the pearl but the mist meant she couldn't see more than an arms length in any direction anyway.
The voice had sounded like it was coming from the sky. How tall was the person who had spoken to her? Had it been another mouse? A cat?
Lawhiney ran faster but suddenly there was a great weight pressing gently but firmly down on her tail. Her feet moved faster but she wasn't going anywhere. It was like running on an exercise wheel.
"Come here, little thief." The voice said again.
Terrified, Lawhiney looked behind her. Just in time to see a human hand reach down to pluck her up by the scruff of her neck!
Whimpering softly, she hung in front of a huge tanned face with deep wrinkles and a grey beard. The pearl was still clutched between her paws. Shaking she forced a big smile, like she meant it, and held the pearl out in front of her. Though it was ridiculous, she could have sworn the human was waiting for an answer.
The human raised a huge, furry eyebrow and took the pearl from her. "Well? I'm waiting for an answer, Laurel."
Lawhiney gasped. She was so shocked that her mouth opened and closed several times as incoherent sounds came out.
"Are you going to be sensible and give me an answer, or not? And yes, I know you can talk and I can hear you perfectly, before you ask."
"Who are you?" Lawhiney trembled.
"Why, my name is Peter. You really weren't expecting to see me, were you, Laurel?"
"My name isn't "Laurel"." Lawhiney squeaked again.
"Isn't it?" Peter seemed puzzled. Still holding Lawhiney by the scruff of her neck, he carried her over to a great big book that lay open on a lectern, where he set her down.
Lawhiney was so shaken by being caught that her legs buckled under her. She sat with her tail wrapped around her, clutching the part that was still numb from the weight of Peter's sandal. She almost ran when Peter's huge finger thumped the page beside her, but it was a shear drop to the ground.
"Ah, here we are. Laurel calls herself Lawhiney, which is the name given to her by the Hawaiian tribe she joined after saving a child from drowning."
"Who are you? How come you know all about me?"
"Don't you know where you are, Lawhiney?" Peter's face looked at her sadly. "This is the gateway to heaven. Well, not the only gateway. This is just the one that humans use. There's another one for your people. In fact, there are as many ways to get into Heaven as there are to get into the other place."
Lawhiney stared at him in shock. Her mind went back to the museum, to the robbery, to the getaway. She remembered having trouble with the controls, the golden sunshine that was so different from the silver light around her now, the wall of the museum looking amazingly huge, solid and hard as it came closer and closer.
Suddenly Lawhiney knew this was for real.
She was dead.
She was a dead thief, who had just tried to steal part of the Pearly Gates. There was only one thing to do. She burst into tears. Loud tears; not the pretty, subtle kind that she used to get her own way on occasion but the uncontrolled bawls of a hurt child.
Peter, Saint Peter, buried a hand in one of his robe's copious sleeves and pulled out a handkerchief. "There, there. Tears help you feel better but they don't solve the problem."
The handkerchief collapsed over Lawhiney like a tent. She felt like staying there forever but her nose was running and she couldn't hide under a snotty handkerchief. Tearfully she pulled herself out.
"What's going to happen to me?" Lawhiney asked.
Saint Peter retrieved his handkerchief and picked Lawhiney up gently. He placed her on his shoulder. "Why don't we have a look?" He said kindly. "This is your entry in the great book. Everyone in creation has a place in this book."
Lawhiney looked and saw, to her amazement, that there was a picture of her face at the top of the left hand page. Under it was her real name, written in flowing handwriting, followed by the sentence he had already read to her. Below that, written in the same handwriting, which looked unnervingly like her own, were the words: She was born
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