Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
The Thief, The Guide and Saint Peter
Saint Peter's hand rested flat on one page of the book. Lawhiney rested on his hand. They had finished reading some time ago but Saint Peter seemed to be in no hurry and no one else had come by to object to, or interrupt, their conversation.
"Thank you for not just-" Lawhiney hesitated, unable to find the right words "-packing me off to-" here she knew the words. She just could not bring herself to say them "-wherever it is I go."
"That's quite alright, Lawhiney." The gentle human voice rolled over her again.
"I think I needed some time to adjust."
"Most people do."
"It's odd looking back on things. I liked the part where I stole that make up to give my mother a present, but the part where I rescued that tribe-mouse's little girl from drowning was just annoying. I don't even know why I did that. There were two or three tribe mouse around, they could have rescued her just as easily and I wouldn't have ruined my only dress and had to wear a grass skirt from then on."
"They didn't rescue her because they knew how dangerous it was, Lawhiney. You didn't know because it was your first day on the island and you didn't stop to think when you saw the wave coming but, if you hadn't been so quick on your feet, you and that little girl would both have been swept out to sea." Saint Peter told her.
Lawhiney frowned, replaying the memory in her mind. Eventually she shrugged. "I guess. But I didn't know. If I had-"
"Don't dwell on that." Saint Peter cut her off. "You did a good thing and it's a point in your favour. There are enough bad things that you would have done if you had the opportunity, without worrying about the good things you wouldn't have done if you had a second to think about it."
"Do those bad things count against me as well?"
"No, of course not, Lawhiney."
"Running away from home seemed so brave and exciting. Did that count for me or against me?"
"Against. You knew your parents loved you and you weren't in any danger at home. Your mother's rules and punishments were meant to protect you, all too often from yourself. You put yourself in danger and you never once considered the worry your mother would feel for you."
Lawhiney was quiet for a moment and then said: "It's more bad than good, right?"
"That's what I thought." And she was quiet again. Eventually she asked: "What happens to me now?"
"Why do you ask, when you think you already know the answer?"
"I go to the place for bad people." Her voice was resigned.
Saint Peter shushed her. "Don't be so melodramatic. Do you imagine your sins are so terrible you can't make up for them?"
"Even though I'm dead?"
"You aren't dead yet, Lawhiney."
"WHAT!?" Lawhiney jumped bolt upright.
"You are very close though. Close enough that you can make a choice."
Lawhiney stared at him, her eyes popping. "You mean I don't have to go to hell?"
"Nobody goes to hell unless they chose a path that takes them there, Lawhiney. You have chosen a path that takes you awfully close, but it's not too late to change direction."
"Oh, please, please, tell me more?"
"It's very simple, Lawhiney. Because you're still alive your paperwork hasn't been processed, so to speak. You can still make things worse by sinning, like you did when you stole the pearl from the gates I'm supposed to be guarding."
Lawhiney shuddered at the memory.
"But that also means you still have time to be sorry for your sins." Saint Peter continued. "If you are truly sorry, and you do have to be truly sorry for absolutely everything you've done wrong, then you can enter heaven right now. You're earthly body will die, but you will be forgiven all your past misdeeds."
"I'm sorry! I am so fricken' sorry it is unbelievable! I repent everything."
Saint Peter looked at her sadly. "I said sorry. Not scared and desperate."
"I am sorry! How can I not be sorry? I'm on the verge of going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks for all eternity."
"It's one thing to be sorry that you're going to be punished, it's another to be sorry you did something wrong because you did something wrong."
"I am sorry! For a lot of it " Lawhiney trailed off, her eyes glazing as she looked inside herself. "I'm not though, am I? I did all these things and I'm going to go to hell for them, but I can't be sorry for all of them. Why is that?"
"Sometimes a person's sins are so much a part of who they are, that to be sorry for them is to be sorry they lived. Life is a precious gift, Lawhiney. It's hard for anyone to be sorry they received it.
"I said you had a choice, Lawhiney. You can return to life. Simply wake up. I can't show you what that would mean for certain because so much depends on your own decisions and my job is to deal in things that have happened, not things that might happen. But I could ask a guide to show you."
"I'd like that." Lawhiney said and she marvelled at the honest gratitude in her own voice. "Thank you." She said. "Thank you very much."
"You're welcome, Lawhiney. Follow your guide and he will show you what you need to see." Suddenly, Saint Peter seemed either a lot taller or a lot further away than he had before.
Lawhiney felt her insides tighten with fear and wondered how that was possible when her real body was so far away. "Saint Peter? Can you hear me?"
"Follow your guide " came a distant rumble.
Lawhiney looked around, suddenly apprehensive. Standing a little more than an arm's reach behind her was a figure dressed in a hooded grey robe. The figure's face was shadowed and unrecognisable; it's hands hidden in the sleeves of its costume.
"Are you my guide?" she asked.
The figure's hood flopped forward once and then lifted slowly. It could have been a nod.
"So, where do we go from here?" Lawhiney asked.
The figure pointed over her shoulder. Lawhiney turned. She was in a prison.
"Uh, you know this is a prison, right?" Lawhiney asked. The figure led her forward, through an exercise yard. Doors that should have stayed locked opened in front of them and there were no exclamations of surprise, or rushing guards, or escaping prisoners.
The guide led her to the hospital wing, where cries of pain were coming from the bed in an institutional-green walled room. Lawhiney flinched at the deep, raw, wails. The figure beside her was pointing to the bed, clearly pressing her to go closer and look beyond the screens that provided the scant amount of privacy the patient, or victim, was allowed.
The longer Lawhiney stalled and hung back, the louder and longer the cries seemed to go on. Her hands were shaking when she pulled back the curtain and stepped through- to come face to face with her self!
The Lawhiney in the bed was wearing a prison uniform and she was heavily pregnant- although that was about to change. Labour was clearly almost over.
"Uh, hello?" Lawhiney said. She looked at her guide. "Why is she alone like this? There should be someone helping her!"
Before the guide could answer a desperate shout came from the bed. "Hey! Someone help me! My baby! Where is everybody?"
Footsteps were heard outside the curtains. A hand pulled them rudely apart, leaving the new mother exposed to the room.
"Are you done yet?" a cold voice in a uniform said.
"My baby, I dont think it's breathing."
"Perhaps that would be for the best. At least he, I think it's a he, would never know who his mother is. Or should I say what his mother is?"
Lawhiney struggled to retrieve her baby from the foot of the bed. She dragged the tiny, wet, limp body up to her chest and pressed her mouth to its sticky nose. There was a choking sound, followed by a splutter. Then a baby's cries filled the room.
The real Lawhiney, or at least the Lawhiney who was standing next to the guide she had come in with and who hoped she was the real Lawhiney, breathed a sigh of relief. Her hands were shaking and her eyes were wide. She was going to be a mother. And a prisoner.
Well, it was better than hellfire.
"What shall I call you?" The new mother asked her baby.
"Call him? You won't call him at all. You don't think they would allow someone like you to keep a baby, do you? In a place like this? No, the orphanage will name him."
"Orphanage? You can't. He hasn't even opened his eyes yet. If you take him away now he'll never see me!"
"You know more than half of the kids that come out of those places end up as the scum we lock up in here."
"Please, let me spend a little time with him." Lawhiney begged as the baby was prised out of her arms. She could have held on tighter, but like any mother she preferred to let her child go rather than see it harmed be holding on too tight.
"Why should I?" The cold voiced guard asked.
"Because, because "
"Too late." The guard replied.
"Baby!" Lawhiney yelled from her bed as the guard carried the child away.
The Lawhiney watching from the corner of the room was shaking. This was her future, for crying out loud! She didn't want to live through this! She had never thought of herself as anybody's mother, but someone had just taken something that was HERS away from her and she understood all about that. She ran forward. The guard couldn't see her; it would be an easy fight to win, so long as she could find a way to make sure the child didn't get hurt.
Before she caught up with the cold voiced guard, she vanished through the doors. Lawhiney followed without a thought and found herself
in the Rescue Ranger's living room.
Lawhiney looked around. No guard or squalling baby to be seen anywhere. In fact, she was alone. There was a polite tap at the front door. Lawhiney stared at it in confusion. What was she supposed to do? Open it? What would she say to whoever was there? "I'm not actually Gadget Hackwrench, I'm just on a tour of the future because I almost died and went to hell for impersonating her. Have you seen my guide anywhere, by the way?"
Before Lawhiney could decide what to do the door opened. The cloaked figure of her guide stood there.
"Uh, I decided to go on ahead." Lawhiney said.
The guide revealed one surprisingly normal-looking hand and wagged a finger at her.
"I shouldn't do that, uh?" Lawhiney guessed. The hood twisted as though the figure inside was shaking his head. "Sorry." Lawhiney offered.
The guide entered and led Lawhiney to the mantle piece over the fire. On it stood an all too familiar photo. Gadget Hackwrench. For some reason she wasn't wearing her familiar overalls; she was wearing a graduation outfit, black robes and a flat square hat with a tassel on it. Next to the photo, someone had pinned up a newspaper article with a picture of Gadget accepting a medal from some VIPs.
"Doesn't look like she's done too badly. What's the big deal about showing me this?"
The guide pointed at the newspaper article and for the first time spoke, in a hoarse, angry voice. "Read."
The newspaper article read: -
"Gadget Hackwrench, 24, of the Rescue Ranger organization, received an award from city officials today in recognition of her good service and the many acts of bravery she has performed for the people of the city. Ms Hackwrench achieved notoriety several years ago during the reign of terror Rat Capone held over the city and was one of the many brave people who brought that reign to an end. Her celebrity status brought her trouble, however, when a long-lost relative impersonated her and caused her to be wrongly convicted on several counts of fraud and deception-"
"So that's what happened to her!" Lawhiney said, and burst out laughing! She couldn't help herself. She had hated Gadget for so long.
Every time someone had looked at Lawhiney as if they were better than her, Lawhiney had thought: I bet they wouldn't look at Gadget Hackwrench like that! And whenever Lawhiney had been done something that made her feel cheep or tacky, the memory of Gadget Hackwrench confronting her in Hawaii had risen like Lawhiney's long lost conscience.
The figure of the guide was standing very close to Lawhiney now, but she had not noticed. As she laughed, the time came when she had to take a breath. She did, raising her head at the same time and looking directly into the shadows of the hood. Her own nose was less that a finger's width from the nose of her guide, yet the only part of the being's face she could see were his eyes.
And what eyes.
They seemed to be shine with a light that burned from deep inside but which left the pupils as flat, black holes that could have been painted on for all the warmth they showed.
Lawhiney choked. This time she couldn't even manage an apology. This was her soul at stake, she remembered. Terror gripped her. From the depths of the guide's cowl came a single word. "Read."
Lawhiney riveted her eyes to the newspaper clipping, hoping she hadn't blown her chances for good.
"-in the fall of last year. In a series of scandalous bungles that resulted in the resignations of nearly a dozen officials in law enforcement, justice, correctional and public defender's departments she remained in prison over the winter, finally suffering serious injuries in the Shrankshaw Prison riot in January. It was shortly after this that the circumstances relating to her imprisonment were fully investigated and she was released into the care of the Rescue Rangers, pending a retrial. It initially seemed that despite the case of mistaken identity prosecutors and prison officials were reluctant to let her go, due to charges relating to her time in prison and her initial arrest. Her cause quickly became celebrated across the city and those charges were subsequently dropped in March.
"Since then, Ms Hackrench has been on a leave of absence from the Rescue Rangers. The decision to make today's award was made after she announced her decision to make this absence permanent. "'I've been through a lot of good times and bat times with the Rangers." Ms Hackrench explains, "'but my injuries from the prison riot haven't healed as well as we all hoped and my confidence isn't what it was.'" Asked what she intended to do with her free time from now on, Ms Hackrench replied that she intended to go to Europe to watch a friend perform on the stage and possibly to study at one of England's famed universities.
"Chip Maplewood said: "'Anyone who's seen us together, I mean the Rangers together, will know how much she will be missed.'" Asked if her absence would pose problems for the Rangers as a team, he replied: "'We continued to work through out last winter, which is our busiest season, despite not having her with us at the time. We relied on volunteers and probationary rangers to fill the void she left. Non-rangers provided technical assistance to keep our equipment running.'"
Lawhiney made a "hmmm" noise as she read the article through a second time. "Hey, they say I'm a long lost relative! Is that true?" She looked to her guide, who turned away, his head bowed. "Mind you," Lawhiney mused, "they also misspelled her name through the whole article."
Lawhiney was surprised to feel her guide's hand on her shoulder. For a moment she tensed up, fearing some kind of supernatural retribution for her unrepentant nature. Instead she found the caped figure reading over her shoulder.
A sudden thought struck her was this happening before, after, or at the same time as the visit to the hospital? If this was further into the future, then that might have been Gadget she had seen giving birth. It made sense; after all, Lawhiney wasn't pregnant, as far she knew, and going by the newspaper article she wasn't going to have much time to get in the family way between getting over her injuries and going to prison.
Lawhiney thought that on some level this was meant to be make her feel repentant and change her into a better person unless Saint Peter had been speaking the literal truth when he said this was what might happen if she returned to earth. If he truly had meant that, then what happened after she woke up didn't necessarily have to be interesting, or relevant
Lawhiney's nose wrinkled. What did any of this have to do with her?
Her guide seemed to have forgotten her. The reassuringly normal hand had been outstretched towards the photo of Gadget Hackwrench, as if her guide wanted to pick it up, but wasn't allowed to.
"Huh. What's she got that I haven't? If you want to play, I'm right here, buster."
Lawhiney hadn't meant the words to be heard but the guide spun to face her, his hand raised to strike her. His eyes blazed bright enough to put any escaped lab rat to shame.
Lawhiney shrank back in terror. Before the blow could land, a crash deafened both of them.
Frozen, Lawhiney and her guide watched as Monty stamped across the room. He was soaking wet and his head was bandaged. He walked straight to the kitchen and came out chomping on a piece of cheddar the size of his own head.
Two female squirrels and a bat entered after him, nervously, and stood looking anywhere but at Monty's face. A moment later Zipper and a mouse in a battered trench coat and a hat decorated with hanging corks followed them.
"Hitting the cheese a little early in the day, aren't we, son?" The mouse asked in a heavy Australian accent.
"Not after what I've just bloody seen!" Monty answered.
"Now you watch your language in front of the ladies! Your mum would wallop you a good one if she heard you, and then she'd ask where you leaned that language and wallop me!"
"Oh, pipe down, Dad!" Monty returned to his cheese. "I've seen some messed up rescues in my time, but Who's idea was it to surprise the bad guys by coming in through the sky light?"
The younger of the two squirrels, a redhead who looked a little young for ranger work, nervously put up a hand. "Um, I read some of Chip's notes between cases. He said that the element of surprise "
"Did he say anything about not using a rubber band instead of a rope?"
"And do you know why, Tammy?"
"No." Tammy said in a tiny voice.
"Because Chip isn't stupid enough to bungee jump into a room full of alley cats! That's why! And what did you learn while you were bouncing up and down on the end of that rope?"
"That next time I should think things through more carefully first?"
"There isn't going to be a next time! I'm formally disbanding the Rescue Rangers!"
"You can't do that! Coming back to work is the only thing that Chip lives for! You know what it's like where he is!" The young squirrel was distraught.
"Yeah, I know, Tammy." Monty growled. "Maybe it's not fair, offering him false hope, like we have been. When did someone last come in here with an honest to goodness rescue for us? Take this last job- a panicked mother comes in with a ransom note and we take the case. It turns out that the note was part of a game the cub was playing with his friends and by the time we find out we've kicked down the door on a cult of vegetarian cats who, by the time we've spoiled their weekly sacrifice of a carefully sculpted carrot-and-radish mouse are now about as vegetarian as Hannibal Lector.
"In the course of this heroic adventure, three of us get captured by the now no longer vegetarian cats, who have gone from singing "'All Creatures Great and Small'" to dancing round us as we turn on a spit over a two bar electric fire. The fourth elected to turn herself into a new kind of cat toy by jumping through the skylight on an elastic band and wound up being catapulted- emphasis on the CAT, there- back through the skylight and half-way across the neighbourhood." Monty finished his cheese, but didn't seem to take any pleasure in it.
"To crown it all, we got rescued by that new team that opened across town, who have that monkey guy who can fly by using his tail as a rotor-blade."
The other people in the room watched him eat. It wasn't a pretty sight.
"Where is Chip?" asked Lawhiney. She whispered, though she strongly suspected it was unnecessary.
The guide pointed back to the mantelpiece. Lawhiney looked carefully and found a newspaper cutting tucked behind the framed article on Gadget's award ceremony. She glanced over her shoulder to see if anyone would notice her reading it, then chided herself for being foolish. Old habits died hard.
This article was much smaller than the one on Gadget, which had a photo of her wearing a medal and a fixed smile for the camera. There were no pictures at all in this one and it barely ran to fifty words, as though it had been tucked away in the back of the paper as an afterthought, or a space-filler.
"'Rescue Ranger committed.'" Lawhiney read out-loud. "Chip Maplewood, once a noted detective, was admitted to the Fairwinds Hospital for Emotionally Troubled Rodents today, reputedly suffering from depression. Friends cite chronic over work, stress and the decline in the Rescue Ranger's standing amongst crisis volunteer groups as the causes for his condition."
Lawhiney tucked the newspaper cutting back into its hiding place. "Couldn't happen to a nicer guy." She said. "Say, what was the deal with that baby we saw?"
The guide was right next to her. She turned. His face was an outline, a shadow on perfect darkness. She stared into it, trying to make out some detail. When she found she couldn't, she stepped back.
There was nothing there for her to see. The discovery struck her as profound and sad in way she didn't understand. As she wondered why she made another discovery. While she had been staring at him, there had been another change of location without her noticing.
They were standing in a chapel of remembrance. There were many such places. Small animals only rarely buried their dead. Having a body to burry was rare enough that burial had never become a mainstream tradition. Lawhiney's guide looked right at home here. He walked past several of the older plaques that were mounted on the side of the room and stopped by one of the first recent ones he came to.
He pointed to a plaque.
"It died?" Lawhiney asked, her voice shrunken. She peered through the gloom, trying to read the words.
The plaque read: "In loving memory of Jimmy Redfurn, squirrel, age 10, taken from us by a flood."
"Huh? Who's he? Do I know him?"
The guide stepped forward and pointed to another plaque.
"Isaac Burntpaw, loving husband. Died in a forest fire with Donnie and Melissa, his two beautiful children."
"I don't know any of these people." Lawhiney said.
"They will live, if you do not." The voice was sombre. It stopped Lawhiney like a slap in the face.
"What? What are you trying to tell me here? The plaques tell you how these people died. Floods and fires. I didn't kill them."
"If you live, they will not."
"What? I could start a forest fire, maybe, but a flood? What to I look like, some kind of cartoon super-villain? Heck, I'd save them if I could." But her face fell on the last word as understanding dawned. "Wait, wait a second. I get it. You're saying that the Rangers would have saved, I mean, will save these people if I choose to die instead of go back to living, right?"
The guide nodded.
"Because Gadget won't quit?"
The guide hesitated, seeming to consider his answer before he nodded.
"That's her decision, not mine! I can't be blamed for that! No one here died because of me!"
The guide pointed to a third plaque. It read: "In remembrance of Dale Oakmont. Rescue Ranger and truest friend anyone could have. Murdered by a cheep fraud and impostor."
Lawhiney stared at it. She frowned. She set her jaw. She stuck out her lower lip. And then she looked her guide straight in the hood and snapped her fingers at him.
"Ha!" She said. "Do you think I'm impressed by that? You forget; I'm going to be a reformed character when I go back! Do you think I want to have another scare like this? When I get back to my real body, I'm sticking to the straight and narrow. I'll just disappear into the sunset and take things slow from then on. No more crime, a steady job. Maybe find myself some hunk with a steady job of his own to shack up with; maybe even marry him and become an honest woman."
Lawhiney nodded to herself. It sounded convincing to her ears. "Saint Peter himself said this was only a guess at what would happen if I go back to life. Besides, the plaque doesn't name me. It just says "'a cheap fraud and impostor.'" That could be anyone. Heck, I like Dale. He's the last Ranger I'd kill. He's kinda sweet in a clueless way."
The guide turned and walked away.
"Uh-uh. Not this time, buster. If you want me to follow you're going to have to answer some questions."
The guide looked back at her from a small doorway. It shouldn't be possible for a hood to frown, but the hood on the guide's costume did.
"Who was that in the hospital bed? Me, or Gadget?" Lawhiney asked.
The guide pointed to Lawhiney.
A single nod.
"So, they're going to lock me up and take away my baby?"
Another nod. Lawhiney lips grew thin and her eyes hardened.
"What happened to the baby?"
The guide turned and pointed out the door. Lawhiney followed him, sullenly. "This had better not be a trick."
They were standing in a darkened boiler room. Under the boiler, five hoods were playing cards. Lawhiney recognized none of them.
"Hey, Capone, is it your turn to deal next?" A squirrel with black trench coat and his moll, a strangely familiar redheaded squirrel, were on one side of the table.
Capone, a rat who dressed and talked like he was auditioning for a forties gangster movie, sat opposite. "Yeah, that's the ticket."
"Then I'd be obliged if you took your cigarette case off the table first. Some card sharks use them as mirrors to see what cards they deal."
"Hey, what are you'se suggesting?"
"That you take the flask off the table if you don't want me to sit the next hand out!"
Capone shrugged. "If it bothers you. It's empty anyway." Over his shoulder he yelled: "Hey, cockroach, bring in that champagne I told you to put on ice. I want to celebrate my big win."
A moment later a small mouse boy, no more than an inch and half high, pushed in a bottle cap packed with ice that was almost as big as he was. An uncut mane of blonde hair spilled down his back. He was wearing shorts made out of a brown paper, like humans used for wrapping parcels, and nothing else. They rustled audibly over the scraping of the wide, ice packed bottle top as it scraped against the floor.
Lawhiney moved to where she could look into the boy's eyes. They were clear and blue. His face reminded her of someone. Who? Shaka? Brandon? That mouse in the last small town they had fleeced? There were half a dozen possibilities but, whoever the father was, the boy got his colouring from her; that was for sure.
His back was straining with the effort of moving his burden. Despite the effort, the child smiled with a guileless desire to please. Lawhiney looked into his eyes and for the first time in her life, she fell in love. It was a mother's love.
"That your boy, Capone?" The squirrel asked.
"Yeah, all bought and paid for. Legal too!"
"Slavery's legal now?" asked the lizard, who was sitting closest to Lawhiney.
"Nah, but adoption is. You'd be amazed who they let adopt these days." Capone laughed. "Hey, cockroach, ashtray's full. Bring us a new one."
BONK! Capone's fist resounded against the boy's skull. The gangster hadn't held back his strength either.
"I told you never to call me that, damn you! I'm not your Pa! No one knows who your Pa is, most likely not even your Ma, wherever she is."
The boy had taken the blow without complaint. He found a new ashtray and brushed out the residue with his shorts.
"THAT BASTARD! He doesn't know what a gem he's got there! Why, look at how hard that boy's working!" Lawhiney looked pleadingly at her guide. "Tell me he doesn't stay here long! He can't stay here, he's better than this."
Before the guide could answer, the squirrel's voice rose high across the table.
"Hey, Capone, I hear you made a big score! We going to be seeing any of that on the table tonight?"
"Hell no, that stuff is too rich for you guys!" Capone answered.
"That right? Perhaps you'd care to bet some of it against this?" The squirrel put a large, strikingly familiar pearl on the table. It was the size of a rodent's head.
Capone's eyes grew large. "I thought the Danger Rangers got that!"
"Heck no, it rolled down a sewer drain and I traded a comic book to Sewer Al for it."
"A comic book?"
"A rare one."
"I heard he was blind now."
"He's got someone to read for him. Adopted, like you."
"Ya don't say? Okay, I'll bite. Are the rest of you in or out?"
"Too rich for me."
"Go get something sparkly from the hidey hole." Capone snarled at the boy.
The boy scurried away and came back with a diamond broach that he had to carry in both arms. Capone snatched it from him and placed it where everyone could see it. "Deal, Sugar-Ray."
The cards were issued to the players.
"Say, I haven't seen you in this neck of the woods before. Where did you say your turf was?" Capone pried.
"Upper east side. I'm head of a new outfit, see?"
"I haven't heard of you before."
"Oh yeah? Well, you're going to. Say, did you steal that diamond yourself, or did you have help?"
"Ha! Naw, it was just me, and a couple of goons and the kid there! He was a real help, crawled in through a hole no one else could have got through."
The game continued. Lawhiney looked at the boy carefully, but the boy was oblivious to her and only had eyes for the game. Before long it was time for everyone to lay their cards on the table.
"I got three aces, see?" Capone smirked.
"I got an ace, a three, a seven, a jack, a king and this!" The squirrel laid down a gold badge with the letters "D" and "R" emblazoned across it, separated by a lightning bolt.
"What's that? It's too late to up the ante!"
"He ain't raising the stakes in the game, you moron! He's one of the Danger Rangers!" yelled one of the mobsters who had watched the hand.
"Run for it!" yelled another.
There was a clatter of chairs and feet followed by shouts from all around. "Everyone stay where you are and put up your hands!" Yelled an unmistakable cop voice.
"Top of the world, Ma!" Yelled Capone as he pulled a mouse sized gun from his jacket and kicked the table over. The pearl went flying.
"Run for it, son!" Lawhiney shrieked.
But the staring boy was knocked flying by the pearl. He rolled over it and it rolled over him, again and again, until he hit a wall. The boy sat there with the pearl in his lap for a moment.
In the centre of the room, Rat Capone was holding the redheaded squirrel hostage while her boy friend spouted clichés. "You'll never get away with this, Capone!"
"Sure I will, just watch me!"
Lawhiney spared the situation a glance and realised she recognized the hostage from her earlier visit to the Rescue Ranger Headquarters. It was Tammy. She was more grown up now, but the hair and eyes were unmistakeable. Lawhiney found herself looking for the other Rangers, hoping she would find a familiar face she could trust with the safety of her son. She was disappointed.
There was no sign of Monty, Zipper, Gadget or Chip. Instead a rat with glowing eyes and a hooded raincoat stepped out of the shadows with a bolt raised as a club. Capone twisted his hostage round to act as a shield. A mole and a huge tarantula spider advanced on Capone as a team; close behind them a female bat shouted advice.
The boy watched, fascinated, as the Danger Rangers encircled his master. Slowly a sly look crept over the boy's face and his eyes fastened on the pearl in his lap. Suddenly, he was up and running with the pearl in his arms, his tiny eyes fixed on the treasure like it was the only beautiful thing in the whole world.
"Atta boy!" cheered Lawhiney. Beside her, the guide buried his head in his hands.
Capone squawked as the redheaded squirrel girl threw him over her shoulder and dropped him head first onto the card table, which shattered under the blow. The male squirrel who had played the part of the new gangster in town jumped on top of the crook and began wrestling with him.
"Hey, the kid's making a break for it with the pearl!" a delicate feminine voice warned from above.
"Aw, go put on some clothes, ya snitch!" Lawhiney yelled at bat that had been circling the boiler.
"Go get 'im, Foxy!" called the rat.
"No!" Lawhiney began running after her son, hoping he would escape on his own, knowing there was nothing she could do to help if he did not.
The boy was fast on his feet but he was young and inexperienced. Instead of staying close to the base of the walls, where cover was plentiful, he took a short cut across the centre of the boiler room. Foxy swept down and snatched him up with practiced ease.
Lawhiney yelped as she saw the boy leave the ground. Before she could even stop running, the boy's still peddling feet passed over her head as the bat carried the runaway back.
Lawhiney skidded to a halt like a baseball player sliding into home. By the time she had hotfooted it back to the small group of volunteer crime-busters, Tammy was holding the pearl and squirrel had the boy tucked under one arm.
"The museum mice will be pleased!" Tammy said.
"And we could use some good press after Capone put one over on us at the museum. Did you get whole thing on tape, Foxglove?"
"I think so, I'll go check." The bat flew off.
"What'll we do with this little one?" The spider asked, scratching his head with one of his many feet.
"Well, ordinarily I'd say send him back to the orphanage and wish him better luck next time, but you heard what Capone said. He was in on the robbery and he made a break for it with the pearl when we showed up. I guess we'll have to hand him over to courts, same as the rest of this low-life, and hope they manage to work things out for him."
"He's so young." Tammy said sadly.
"I know, but better to catch them young than wait until they're to big enough to hurt someone, sweetheart. They're experts, they'll know what to do for him."
The guide caught Lawhiney by her arm. She ignored him. "He didn't mean it! Can't you see that? He's just a boy, for pity's sake!"
She tried to follow the group but found herself unable to pull away from the cloaked figure that had brought her here. As the group moved out of sight she rounded on him, her eyes bright with anger and tears.
"Damn it! I'm not even here! What can I do about this? You were in the hospital! You saw that I didn't want to give him up! Why are you showing me this?" The guide remained silent. He began leading her into the shadows in the corner of the room. "I think you're just trying to hurt me, that's all. Get me all upset so I'm confused when it's time to make that decision Peter said I could make."
The guide raised one finger to his mouth. It was the first time Lawhiney had seen his whole face. Like the hand, it was almost disconcertingly normal. "Shhh." He said.
They were standing in an alleyway, sheltered from the eyes of drunks and cats by a dumpster. A tall, handsome adult mouse with blond hair was playing dice with a rat, a little distance away.
Lawhiney stared at the pair for a moment. The mouse was wearing a black, knee-length leather coat, dark trousers and a pair of wrap around sunglasses that hid eyes as blue as Lawhiney's own. He rolled the dice with a laugh and a grin.
"That's him, isn't it?" asked Lawhiney. "All grown up. How long has it been?"
"Ten years." The guide replied.
"Snake eyes again!" Lawhiney's son cursed his luck with language that a mother shouldn't hear her son use. Lawhiney didn't notice.
"Ten years." She whispered. "Just like that he's a grown up."
"Hey, that's fifty g's you owe me. And I'll take it in Stilton. No mouldy cheddar, like last time."
"Sure, Joe. No problem. Say, would take five now and let me pay the rest off after payday?"
"You don't got a job, Roach."
"Roach!?" Lawhiney yelped. "People are still calling him that?"
"I've got something lined up. It's easy pickings." Roach told his friend.
"No deal. I know plenty o' guys who lined up easy pickings- only they're the ones who got picked up! You pay me now, or I got to tie a knot in your tail and ask you again next week."
"Okay, Joe. No getting around you, is there? Come with me, I got your cheese stashed in my pad."
The two moved off. Their unseen companions followed. A few minutes later they walked through a broken ventilation grill set at the base of a wall. They were making their way up a staircase made out of discarded Pentium processors when Roach reached into his pocket for the key to his door and pulled out a weapon instead.
Joe's eyes went wide as he looked first at the squat, black, flashlight-like object and then at Roach's face. Joe opened his mouth to say something but a silver line like a radio antenna snapped out from the end of the weapon and wrapped itself around his head like a tentacle.
There was an electrical buzzing and Joe went limp. His helpless body crashed down the stairs, passing through the invisible forms of Lawhiney and her Guide as easily as it passed through shadows.
Lawhiney looked down at it. Slowly, as the shock wore off, she found herself rationalizing what had just happened. "Hey, the guy threatened to tie his tail in a knot. It was self-defence. Haven't you ever heard of a pre-emptive strike?"
Her guide folded his arms and glared at her from under his hood. In a puff of smoke they were relocated to the bottom of the stairs.
Roach stood over the body of his "friend". "Aw, man. I'm sorry. Couldn't you have just waited a lousy week? Five grams of Stilton is all I have." Roach turned his attention to the weapon that was lying beside Joe. "I hope this thing isn't busted. I need it for the job tomorrow."
A door at the foot of the stairwell opened and a tough looking lizard stepped out.
"Hey, what's all the commotion? Oh, hi Roach. Who's this guy?"
"Ah, he's just some bum who tried to get the drop on me. There's two g's of Stilton in it for you if you help me mail him to another city."
"You know I don't eat cheese."
"You can trade it."
"Oh. Okay then, I guess."
The two began shifting the rat's heavy frame towards the door.
"Stop looking at me like that!" Lawhiney told her guide. "Okay, so my boy plays a little rough. It's not like he's a murderer or anything."
From the alley way came a scream from the lizard. "CAT!"
Lawhiney was out the door and into the alleyway before her guide had time to blink.
Roach and the lizard were running for their lives. The cat was a huge brute, who took up every ounce of space between the dumpster and the wall. Roach and his friend dived into an old soup can that was lying on it's side, then peeped out to watch as the cat turned the limp form they had abandoned over with a paw.
The face of Roach's gambling partner twitched in terror, but his limbs remained limp.
"Oh, good." Whispered the cat. "I do detest eating things that are already dead."
With those chilling words, the cat picked up the helpless body in its mouth and walked away.
The lizard removed his hat in respect for the not-quite-yet departed. When the cat was out of sight, he replaced it. "Well, I guess that saves you the postage. I'll wait for my Stilton back inside."
Roach was left alone, staring at the ground where he had left a friend to die. "Next week, you bum. All you had to do was wait one lousy week. I don't know if I'm a coward or a murderer. But there's one thing I do know. This time next week I'm not going to be living like this. I'm going to be rich. And then I'll start a business, see. Find a nice mouse girl, start living the good life."
Lawhiney swallowed hard. Her eyes were misted with tears for some reason.
"I don't care what you say. He's not a murderer. He didn't mean it and he's sorry, just like me, you hear? He says he's going to settle down and live right just as soon as he's able to."
The sky grew dark and the ground under her feet changed. It was nighttime and they were standing on the roof of a human building. An air conditioning vent stood less than a metre away from them and as they watched the grate opened.
Roach dropped a line from the vent and slid down it with practiced ease. Three more rodents, a squirrel and two rats, joined him. All were wearing backpacks.
"That was easy." Laughed one.
"Yeah, except for that extra alarm system. I thought every alarm in the place would start ringing."
"It didn't look like it had been put in by a human, that was for sure."
"It wasn't, you crooks!" Yelled a voice from the edge of the roof.
Blazing lights illuminated the robbers, casting long, stark shadows. Lawhiney had time to realise that neither her guide nor herself had shadows before the robbers started running.
"Say the word boss!" said a familiar bat that was carrying a portable halogen spotlight. It was Foxy; the first time Lawhiney had seen her, the bat had been carrying off her son. Now she hated the bat with a renewed passion.
"The word!" shouted a voice Lawhiney recognized all too well. It was Gadget Hackwrench. Her hair was greying and her figure had sagged, but she had aged gracefully.
A dozen uniformed rodents poured over the roof. Working in threes they brought down Roach's three companions easily.
Roach ran; dodging left and right around two mice that thought they could football tackle him.
The Rangers, whatever they were now calling themselves, had stationed themselves against the edge of the roof where the robbers had secured their line to the ground. He ran in that direction anyway, knowing there was no other way down from the roof.
A huge rat blocked Roach's way but he snapped out the weapon he had used on Joe and suddenly the ranger was curled up into a ball of pain. Roach used the fallen figure as a springboard to leap up to the wall that ran around the roof.
"Stop!" Gadget yelled.
Roach grabbed the line and began to slide down it, only to find his feet gripping air after a few inches. Sickeningly, he felt his grip begin to fail.
"We cut your line! There's no way down!" Gadget told him, unnecessarily. Looking over her shoulder, straight through the horrified Lawhiney and her impassive guide, Gadget saw that she was the only unoccupied Ranger on the roof. Even Foxglove was helping subdue the robber-squirrel.
"Give me your hand." She told Roach.
Roach looked up at her in disbelief. "I can't reach." He said.
"Yes you can! Try using your feet on the wall."
Roach managed to lift himself a little way. When he was sure, he reached out a hand and grasped Gadget's. At the very moment she tightened her grip, his hold on the line that had been cut failed.
Gadget screamed. Her body was flattened against the brickwork of the roof's wall. She tried to improve her grip with her other hand, but it was gloved and wouldn't close properly. Roach's free hand clawed at her sleeve, trying to hang on, but the days of Gadget wearing overalls were a distant memory. The blue uniform shirt she was wearing tore, revealing an arm that was laced with scars.
Roach stared at the scars in surprise and puzzlement. He looked questioningly at her, then her grip on his hand weakened and he disappeared into the darkness below.
"I'm sorry." Sobbed Gadget. She turned over and lay on her back, the sounds of law and order all around her, knowing that there was no way anyone could have survived a fall like that.
Lawhiney stared. Very slowly, her hand went to her own cheek, which was dry. She looked at her tearless fingers and then to Gadget.
"I'm sorry. I tried." Gadget said again. "If only they hadn't hurt me so bad in prison."
"I can't cry." Lawhiney said. She was standing somewhere new, courtesy of her guide once again. The body of her son was lying on concrete, a pool of blood spread wide around it. "Is that something you've done to me?"
"No. That is something you have done to yourself."
"Can it be undone?"
"Only by you and with time."
Lawhiney found herself standing on mist. The air was filled with light. Her guide stood beside her. Standing over them was Saint Peter.
"Hello again, Lawhiney. I see you've had a hard journey."
"Yes sir." Admitted a humbler and more respectful Lawhiney. "Am I to make that choice now?"
"You know what will happen if you chose to stay on this side?"
"I'd go to hell."
"You would face judgment. Even I cannot tell you the outcome."
Lawhiney looked at him.
"I'm required to say that." Saint Peter explained. "Admittedly in your case it doesn't look good, but you've made a lot of progress since you got here."
"If I die, will I still get to meet my son?"
"Not unless he's already been born, no. People who never existed go somewhere else- Oh, nowhere unpleasant!" He reassured her. "But even if you were allowed in here after judgement, you still wouldn't be in the same place as him after you were judged."
Lawhiney looked deep into her heart. With a terribly serious look on her face she asked: "If I chose to die now, is the place my son will go to better than the one he would go to if he were judged as a grown up?"
"No one can tell you that, Lawhiney. I would say a lot depends on what kind of mother you are to him."
Lawhiney thought very carefully before she spoke again. She knew what she wanted to do, but the memory of everything she had seen was very fresh with her now. Would her good intentions fade with the memory?
"How much of this will I remember, when I wake up?" She asked suddenly.
"Not all. Less as time goes by."
"What do I do if I go back and I forget what I've seen? How will I stay good if I don't know why I'm doing it?"
"Your guide could go with you, if you like. He could counsel you when you lose your way."
"He doesn't say much."
"Really? Someone told me he was quite talkative." Saint Peter looked at the guide, curiously. The guide responded by acting like a small boy with an attack of shyness. "Oh, well." Saint Peter said. "Perhaps the robes make him feel self-conscious. It's the first time he's worn them you know."
"Really? That is, I've made my decision, sir." Lawhiney said. "I'd like to thank you for being so kind to me, especially when you knew everything about me and didn't have to be nice at all. Thank you."
"You're very welcome, Lawhiney. I hope things work out for you."
"I'd like to go back now."
"I hope it will be a long time before I see you again, Lawhiney."
Saint Peter's voice faded to a whisper.
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