The Wandering Feather
Written by: Kevin (KS) Sharbaugh

Chapter Nine

When dinner was well and truly done, Mr Tanner settled up the bill and proceeded to part company with the Rangers and his other guests. While farewells were being exchanged, the sound of a struggling car engine brought Doohickey and Gadget's attention to the side of the roof overlooking a section of the parking lot. Once they had spotted the vehicle, the two mechanically inclined ladies began discussing between themselves the likely cause of the engine's distress. Chip meandered over to them just as the driver managed to get his vehicle to function (more or less).

"I was wondering where you two had gotten to," the chipmunk addressed the mice.

"Just diagnosing engine problems for fun," Dee explained lightly.

As Chip and her sister talked, Gadget spotted something shiny in an empty parking space. "I wonder if that fell off a car?" she asked herself aloud. "There's something I want to check out," Gadget stated to anyone listening, "I'll be right back."

After seeing his future sister-in-law depart, Chip returned his attention to his wife-to-be. He detailed the malevolent crowd that had rallied around the apparent assumption that he had something to do with that day's unusual occurrence, including the fact that her aunt seemed to be responsible for goading them on.

"Wouldn't put it past her," Dee commented, "It isn't the first time she's tried to instigate a brawl. At least this time it didn't work."

"I think your showing up was the reason one didn't materialize," Chip pointed out, "They probably didn't want trouble with a Clan Mother."

"I really have to talk to June about that," Dee followed, "I have no intention of staying a Clan Mother."

After a moment, Chip replied, "I thought you meant you were going to talk to her about your Aunt Carol trying to cause trouble."

"No, she knows about what Carol's been up to," Dee explained, "Might even know a few things the rest of us don't... But unless someone can tie Aunt Carol to any kind of wrongdoing there's not much we can do but put up with her crap."

"Everybody knew Al Capone was behind all those murders but couldn't find the evidence," Chip correlated. "Your Aunt Carol and her goons might be the reason you were chosen to be a Clan Mother. Who in their right mind would harass someone in your Clan knowing you're in good with a pack of wolves?" he inquired rhetorically.

"That's one of the reasons I don't like this!" Dee stated in obvious irritation, "Ever since it became public knowledge that I live with wolves it's been as if people are afraid to get on my bad side because they're afraid I'll send the wolves after them." There was a slight pause before she continued, "I mean, it's not so much that they're afraid I'll do something unpleasant to them as it's they're afraid I'll send some thugs to do my bidding. I want people to fear me for me, not for who I hang around with."

Chip couldn't help but laugh. Then, realizing his fiancé was staring at him in an exceedingly unpleasant manner, he explained himself. "No, I wasn't laughing at you!" he quickly stated, "It's just that, all the times I fantasized or postulated about the girl I'd marry, I never in my wildest dreams imagined she'd honestly proclaim: I want people to fear me for me."

Dee then realized how disturbingly ludicrous it was. "It's like the moral of an after school special for Klingons!" she laughed as Chip joined in. As their laughter subsided they noticed Gadget walking over to them lugging a cellular phone.

"Let me guess," Chip started, "It followed you home and you want to keep it."

"Well it can't exactly follow me and we're not exactly home and keeping it wasn't originally what I had in mind," Gadget proceeded to respond, "When I first realized it was a cell phone I thought we could try to return it to it's owner, but I discovered it didn't work... I think it got run over in the parking lot... so even if we did return it to it's owner it'd probably just get thrown out anyway."

"So you do want to keep it," Dee postulated.

"Assuming I can find out what's wrong," Gadget answered, "It could be put to all kinds of uses, and even if I can't get it working again it's components could be useful in other inventions... maybe even scavenging some of the circuits for your spectrometer."

"Well, it'd be cruel not to give it a good home," Dee joked, "We've got room in the planes to bring it back and I can set aside room in the mill for you to play with it."

After Gadget had stowed her prize, everyone was more or less ready to return to the mill for the night. However, before anyone could begin boarding, the party was spotted by two winged mammals out on their early evening breakfast flight. Swooping in, Bert and Bernie came to a landing near the group.

"Hey, Foxglove!" Bert called out, "Funny meeting you here. Me and Bernie were just finishing up an early meal and were going to head over to the mill to look for you."

"What's up?" Foxglove inquired.

"Felanna, the best singer in our colony, is going to be giving a performance at Sweet Water Spring," Bernie explained, "We were wondering if you'd like to join me- I mean us."

Foxglove considered turning down the offer, not having had much of a chance to spend time with Dale after nightfall. However, the way he kept casually sending her off without so much as a hint of jealousy or concern about not spending time with her bothered her. Foxglove decided to put Dale to a bit of a test. "Sure," she replied to the two other bats, then turning to her favorite chipmunk, "Dale, I'm gonna go with Bert and Bernie to hear a performance by someone from their colony, I'll meet up with you back at the mill later. Bye!" It actually hurt a little to so abruptly leave Dale behind, but she hoped it would pay off later.

"Uh, sure, ok," Dale responded as Foxglove flew off with her two escorts. Something about how quickly she left bothered him, but he had trouble placing it.

On the flight back to the mill, Chip brought up something that had entered his mind after talking to his fiancé about her aunt's propensity to instigate trouble. "I was thinking," he began to Dee, "Even though we don't yet know what it is that caused the belching at the Powwow, it's a pretty safe bet it isn't something that's supposed to be in there... or something that would naturally fall into the mix."

"Someone spiked the soup?" Dee presumed.

"Yeah, and I was thinking about who the most likely suspects might be," Chip continued, "Given the circumstances, your Aunt Carol is right near the top of a really short list."

Dee actually laughed at the assumption. "I think that's a little beyond her means," she countered, "Unless ‘belching mix' is something you can pick up at a store, I seriously doubt she has the smarts to create it on her own."

"That's assuming belching was the intended outcome," Chip pointed out, "Maybe she created a ‘belching mix' thinking it would have a different effect."

"I still think it's unlikely," Dee responded, "You've seen what she's like, she's a little too ‘direct' in her behavior to do something sneaky like lacing the soup with something... That frog on the other hand, I can see him doing something like that."

"Which one?" Chip asked, "There were quite a few there."

"I mean Philippe," Dee clarified, "The rat-frog." Chip rolled his eyes. "The way he just oozed insincerity, just rubs me the wrong way... And the thought of him actually rubbing me just turns my stomach."

"No one I spoke to saw him anywhere near the soup, though," Chip pointed out.

"Coulda' got someone to do it for him," Dee posited.

"That's reaching," Chip countered. Then something occurred to him. "Unless his insincere flattery turned the head of a young local lady that no one would give a second thought to."

"We get to interrogate him then?" Dee asked, almost gleefully.

"I'll talk to him," Chip clarified, "You're taking that sample to Mr Beetle... Since we don't know how long it'll take to find that rat I want to make sure someone's getting that done." After a short pause, he explained, "Besides, I'm not sure I want to find out how you'd interrogate him."

No sooner had the aircraft landed in the mill's hanger than Monterey hopped out. "I'll be down in the wolves' den, filling them in on the activities tonight," he stated, "I think they'll get a kick out of how Gadget won that game of pool!" Not being one to turn down one of Monty's stories, even if he had just experienced the real thing, Dale followed along as did Zipper. They were followed in turn by Drywall, still periodically sticking his head into his ‘Bag-O-Mystery'. Raven and Fangs soon departed for the observation deck to be alone. Once Dee had helped Gadget set aside room to tinker with her cell phone, she joined Chip on the couch.

"If I'm going to be speaking to this Philippe character, it'd help if I knew where to find him," Chip opened, then, turning to his love, "Any ideas where an out-of-towner, possibly low on funds, would stay around here?"

Dee thought for a moment. "Several places," she answered, "There's a rodent section to most of the rest spots in town, several small bed-and-breakfasts, the Dudley Motor Lodge downtown, the new Holiday Inn in the west end, a dinky little place near the Nation Museum..."

"Gonna hafta narrow this down then," Chip interrupted, "Which are the cheapest of those places?"

"The bed-and-breakfasts scattered through town and that spot near the museum," Dee responded.

"Wait!" Chip spouted, "He said he's an artist..."

"I think it comes with the accent," Dee laughed.

Chip continued, oblivious to his fiancé's joke, "That means he might need supplies..."

"Like wine, snails, cheese and a white flag," Dee lightly pointed out.

"Could you lay off the French bashing for awhile," Chip gently chastised his sweetheart. However, the idea that popped into his head reeked of the same ethnic stereotyping he had just ridiculed... and he certainly didn't want to have to admit he was seriously considering it. But with nothing else to talk about, an awkward silence soon prevailed between the chipmunk and mouse.

"You're going to check with Rick Tanner about anyone local who might've started buying lots of wine, aren't you," Dee stated calmly.

"Yes," Chip sighed, then quickly added to justify his decision, "But only because someone like Philippe would probably make his own art supplies."

Before Chip could continue to explain why his decision was based more on reason than ethnic stereotyping, a low yet plaintive whining arose from the wolves' den, "Dee, your creepy weasel is staring at me again!"

As Dee hung her head, Chip remarked, "Maybe if you told Romulus to stop being so interesting?"

Dee and Chip eventually wandered into the den where Monterey, Zipper and Dale were enjoying the spectacle of a wolf being intimidated by a lowly weasel. "Stop that you strange creepy thing, you!" Romulus moaned at Drywall.

"He's probably only staring at you because he's never seen a real wolf before," Dee tried to reassure her predatory pal.

"But he's already seen me!" Romulus protested, "Why does he have to keep it up?"

"I just noticed something," Chip remarked, after having watched the wolf's movements, "Even when Dee was talking to you, you kept shifting your eyes back and forth between her and Drywall," then, motioning with his paws to illustrate the second point, "and each time your eyebrows shifted position... the right was up, then the left, then back."

"I have eyebrows?" the wolf asked as he tried to see them himself.

"Chip's right," Dee added, "You have a very expressive face, and the more agitated you got the more fascinating the show must have become!"

"Besides," Monty joined in, "he's not looking at you now."

Romulus looked back at the weasel and realized he was staring at the Australian. "Well, I guess you're- AHH!" No sooner had he started speaking than Drywall returned his unsettling gaze to the leader of the pack.

"Will you knock it off," Dee pleaded, "What threat could a weasel possibly be to a hundred-thirty pound wolf when he's surrounded by the rest of his pack?"

Starting to feel a little foolish, Romulus lowered his ears a little and looked back towards Drywall. Then Drywall, still staring intently at the wolf, quickly licked his lips. "He's planning to eat me!" Romulus screamed in terror.

"What's wrong with you?!" Dee hollered, "He should be afraid of you eating him! Heck, we should all be afraid of you eating us!"

"Then why was he licking his lips?" Romulus queried.

Dee looked to Drywall. "I remembered I had a bit of peanut butter stuck to my whiskers from dinner," he explained.

"There, see?" Doohickey pointed out to the wolf, "He's not planning to eat you."

"Well ok," Romulus grumbled, "But I still think he's up to something."

"I guess this is what I get for surrounding myself with carnivorous animals," Dee sighed, "I'm depressed, I need a cookie."

As Doohickey departed the den, the other rodents and Zipper proceeded to leave as well. "C'mon lad," Monty drawled as he patted Drywall on the shoulder, "Let's see if we can find you an interesting sitcom on tv."

"Good luck," Chip called back with a laugh, "I don't think they make those anymore."

Once upstairs, Dee went to retrieve a snack from her pantry as Chip and the other males set themselves down before the tv. With his fiancé's return, Chip suggested they take their discussion of the case somewhere quieter while Monty and Dale kept Drywall entertained with prime-time programming. As the remaining males scanned the channels for anything of interest, it occurred to Dale to ask Foxglove if they could try to find something to her liking (which he assumed would most likely would have been something romantic). He turned to ask her, only to be reminded by her absence that she had left earlier with her two chiropteran contacts.

At first, Dale felt a little slighted that Foxglove hadn't stayed glued to his side, but he eventually felt somewhat foolish about that. After all, they weren't ‘officially' dating or anything. Still, it felt like something was missing and he couldn't quite place it. The thought of asking Chip to come watch tv crossed his mind, but he was busy with Dee. What about Gadget? Dale thought, What's she doing? However, hanging around with Gadget just didn't seem to have the appeal it always used to. Foxy's always up to doing things with me, he concluded... only to realize he had just thought himself around in a circle.

"What's the matter, lad?" Monty asked, "I thought you liked watching people you don't know pretend to be rodeo clowns for fifty thousands smackers each... after all, it's ‘reality tv'."

"It's not that, I don't think," Dale responded. Eventually, he was able to articulate his dilemma, "How could Foxy just up and leave with Bert and Ernie like that?"

"Bernie," Monterey corrected.

"Yeah, right," Dale acknowledged, "She didn't even ask if it was alright with me... I thought I was the only guy for her, at least that's how she always made it seem."

"Well, maybe the lass is starting to get the feeling you don't appreciate her," Monty offered, "Those two local bats, on the other hand, have been paying all kinds of attention to her since they met... even went out of their way to invite her out."

"You don't think she's falling for one of them, do ya?" Dale asked, a hint of desperation in his voice.

"I wouldn't go and presume to know what's in her head, or heart for that matter. But I have noticed something about relationships in my time," Monty responded sagely, "You know how you and Chip always doted on our little Gadget? Suppose she actually enjoyed all that attention and got to thinking that she'd always have it, so she just went about her business as usual, inventin' and all, as if your giving her flowers was as commonplace as the sun rising. But you both wanted more of a reaction from her, maybe getting something like that back once in a while." Dale listened intently, knowing that it certainly seemed that way. "Then along comes a young lady who shows an interest in Chip," Monty continued, his point highlighted by a burst of giggles from Chip and Dee off in the hanger, "Now she starts showing him all that attention he had been hoping to get from Gadget. Next thing you know, he's not giving flowers to Gadget anymore, he's giving them to his new lady friend, and she responds with the occasional kiss or cuddle." Deciding to wrap things up as clearly as possible, he added, "It's like an exercise, lad, you get out of it what you put into it."

Dale digested the information. He originally considered Foxglove's advances somewhat embarrassing, especially since he considered himself ‘Gadget's munk'. But did Gadget even want him, at least, in that way? If she had a preference, wouldn't she have made it known after Chip became involved with Dee? Her behavior towards him didn't change at all after Chip was ‘out of the way'. But Foxy was always right there waiting for him. ‘Was' being the operative word... Now that he was actually thinking about taking things further with her, she was out with some other guy, two other guys in fact. Dale wanted her back... if he could get her back, if he hadn't missed his chance. "You're right, Monty," he stated, "I'm gonna go think of things I could do with Foxy when she gets back!"

Monterey sat back in his seat, pleased that he could help nudge things along between Dale and Foxglove. As he tried to return his attention to the television he noticed Drywall staring at him... just staring. He couldn't help but agree with Romulus, it was a little creepy. "Anything I could help you with?" Monty offered, "While I'm in the business of offering advice, that is."

Drywall actually blinked. "Yeah, actually, yes," the weasel replied, "Do you have any ideas how I could get that wolf to like me?"

"You mean Romulus?" Monterey asked rhetorically, "You could start by letting him know that you like him, or at the very least that you don't mean him any harm. You could get to know him, maybe compliment him... y'know, butter him up!" Drywall quickly shifted his gaze to the kitchen and departed. Monty soon found something interesting on the National Geographic Channel. "Those look like the jungles o' New Guinea," he remarked to Zipper, "And if I'm not mistaken, that's near where I came upon a koala... of course, koala's aren't native to New Guinea, it happens this lad got himself sucked up in a typhoon and needed a little help gettin' home..."

Down in the wolves' den, Romulus was watching television... specifically, a program where humans freely sacrificed their dignity for just a hint of money. While his attention remained on the flickering box before him, he felt something on his tail. Thinking it was likely a pup trying to get him to play, he waved it about a little, never prying his eyes from the screen. Romulus then felt something grab his tail and hold it still, this was soon followed by a stroking sensation... it almost felt like one of the pups was licking it. That's odd, he thought, I've never had a pup lick my tail before. As a commercial came on, he looked back towards his tail. No pup. Just a weasel standing next to a plate slathering butter on his tail with a knife.

The wolf's terrified scream caused everyone to jump, but before anyone could ask the inevitable, their attention was grabbed by a different screaming. Not as loud, but longer, it got closer as it rose up from the wolves' den. Everyone's attention was drawn to the stairs that led the way down. Drywall came flying through the opening at top speed. Racing around in a tight circle, still screaming, he soon shot off and disappeared into the Banshee's air intake, where the screaming subsequently ended.

"Dee!," Romulus called up from the den, "You said the creepy weasel wasn't planning to eat me... But I just caught him spreading butter on my tail!"

"I see more cookies in my future," Dee muttered as she departed for the wolves' den.

Chip looked towards the living room. Striding in authoritatively, he glared at both Monterey and Dale. "All right, which one of you put Drywall up to this?" he demanded.

"Chip, I'm offended!" Dale intoned, filled with indignation, "I've been sitting here, peacefully, trying to compose love poetry for Foxy." He held up a sheet covered with his distinctive chicken scratch.

When Chip shifted his gaze to Monty, the big mouse seemed to shrink a little bit. "I guess I'm the guilty party," he confessed sheepishly, "I told Drywall that he could get Romulus to like him more if he would... butter him up." Quickly, he added, "Now if I'd known the lad would take that literally..."

Before Monty could finish his sentence, Dee entered the room looking as belligerent as a storm cloud. In one paw she held a plate on which was a remnant of butter, in the other she brandished a butter knife bristling with wolf hair. "A beating will commence in ten seconds!" she declared, looking back and forth between Dale and Monty as she spoke, having made the same conclusion as Chip, "Now who's the lucky recipient?"

"It was a misunderstanding," Chip stated quickly, taking the knife and plate from his sweetheart. Holding the plate and knife in one paw, he led Dee into the kitchen with the other as he explained why nobody needed to be beaten.

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