Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
Chapter Eighteen: Lawhiney's Inferno
Lawhiney made her apologies as soon as she saw Monty coming in through the front door.
Im terribly tired. Its been a big day. She said to everyone who hadnt gone home yet.
Ill come by one day next week, when Mom doesnt need me, and see if theres anything you need that you dont want to trouble the boys about. Tammy smiled winningly at her and Lawhiney knew instantly she meant anything feminine rather than anything too trivial to worry an adult with.
Thats sweet of you, Tammy. Ill look forward to seeing you. And I do appreciate you sparing her for an afternoon, June. She must be such a help to you around the house.
Tammys mother nodded, smiling. She had been caught a little off guard by her daughters initiative. While June approved of her daughters role models she secretly wished her daughter would admire them from a distance; preferably a great distance. Their adventures were dangerous. Worse, there was something very adult about Tammys interest in the Rangers; not at all like a fad or phase, which was what June tried to tell her self it was. Something deep down told her that Tammy was not just growing up, but growing away. It was a mothers instinct.
Jennifer had left hours ago. She too had promised to visit again, but to call first.
Sparky had left in the late afternoon to catch a train back to Princeton. He had promised to write to her again and said that he was sorry if he had forgotten to before. Had he forgotten to write to her, by the way? Lawhiney had pretended she couldnt remember but had promised to check and to write to him, as well.
The last guests filtered out, shaking hands with Chip on the way out and waving goodbye to Gadget, whos wave back was oddly lacklustre.
Chip had tried to question her about some past adventure they had shared but she put him off by asking about his heavily bandaged head and then she had asked Monty to push her wheelchair to her bedroom her bedroom meaning Gadgets bedroom. That was about the only way she could find Gadgets bedroom. She had tried a veiled question to the Guide but his only response had been to stick his tongue out at her. He had been sulking and hadnt said a word since his big slip had given Jennifers name away.
Lawhiney found the silence easier than being in the middle of a double-sided conversation, which was where she usually found herself the Guide was with her while other people were around. The Guides eyes followed Montys retreating back. When the door closed he sighed deeply and turned back to face Lawhiney.
And just what do you think youre doing in a ladys bedroom when you know perfectly well shes about to undress? Lawhiney demanded with a raised eyebrow.
And how would you know the lady who owns this bedroom is about to undress? the Guide retorted.
Lawhiney turned up her nose and hurumphed at him. Monty had left the wheelchair close enough to the bed that she could lower the wheelchairs arm and haul herself across without much trouble. She did so, sucking air across her teeth as the leg that had suffered broken bones was forced into movement.
Lawhiney didnt like pain. She liked to think of her self as tough but she knew the Hawaiian tribe mice had not given her a name that meant the whine because they thought she was stoic. A grimace twisted her whole face into something ugly.
The Guide watched her struggle. She was a young woman who had hurt herself badly doing something she shouldnt and now she was in pain and struggling at something she should have found easy. In many ways, that description summed up Lawhineys whole life. Part of the Guide, the part that had gotten him the job, wanted to help her. He couldnt, of course. Not with climbing into bed, anyway.
The door wasnt locked, of course. She was an invalid. She might need to call for help in the night. She could do so now and ask to be helped into bed. She could play for sympathy. If Chip, or Dale, answered the call, her wicked streak might even persuade her to help them into bed.
But she didnt call for help and finally she made it.
Lawhiney lay on the bed with the leg in the plaster cast raised and the arm that had been dislocated still in a sling. She felt tired, hot, pained and miserable. She saw the Guides pitying expression and hated him. The hate made her face as ugly as the pain had a moment before.
Smile, why dont you? She snarled. Laugh at me, like you always do.
The Guide winced and looked chagrined for a moment or two. He looked towards the wheelchair, which had rolled a little way back from the bed when Lawhiney dragged herself clear. With a wry smile he sat in the wheelchair and pretended to test it for comfort.
You mean like this? he smirked at her and his moustache twitched.
Go ahead. Enjoy yourself. Lawhiney snapped and looked away, her expression bitter.
The Guide pursed his lips for a moment. Then he put his feet up on the end of the bed, tugged the hood of his robe down over his eyes and pretended to be taking a nap. Lawhiney watched him out of the corner of her eye. He wore sandals, she noted, and had surprisingly skinny legs.
Still refusing to look directly at him, she spoke. I want to get undressed so I can go to bed.
The Guide waved a hand in an airy gesture. Im not stopping you. Ill even keep my eyes shut.
How do I know I can trust you?
Fine state of affairs if you cant trust me! The Guide pointed out.
Not to peek? Youre still a man, Guardian Angel or not. Lawhiney reeked of distain for the whole male race.
Im not an angel, not even a trainee angel, let alone a full Guardian Angel. You might as well call me an Archangel! Im a Guiding Spirit thats like a caseworker. And before you suggest that Im more likely sneak a look at you in the fur because I havent earned those sort of wings, you should know better.
Yeah! Theyd never give your job to a guy normal enough to sneak a look at a pretty girl! Lawhiney was delighted to see the cheap shot strike home.
The Guide sat up in the wheelchair, his eyes flashing. Now wait a da a darn minute! I know youve had a brush with motherhood, but just because youve managed to find a glimmer of something worthwhile in that corrupt little heart of yours for the first time ever, dont go around thinking you can afford to poke fun at me whenever you like. Youre not a mother yet, you know.
You got yourself all banged up in that stupid robbery you pulled, no one else. If your arms and legs hurt, fine. Just remember whose fault it is: Yours.
Lawhiney opened her mouth to object.
The Guide cut her off with a wagging finger. Ah-ah-ah! Dont you go spinning any stories about how its someone elses doing, or I really will start laughing at you. And thats the only time I will when you try to fool yourself into thinking that youre still a blushing, virtuous innocent after all the things youve done of your own free will that make you anything but.
Satisfied that he had put Lawhiney back into her place, the Guide leaned back into the wheelchair and pulled his hood down again. A few moments went by.
Why, of all the Lawhineys jaw hung slack. Of all the I bet that if Id taken it for granted that you wouldnt peek at me and just started undressing, you would have called me a wanton temptress or something. And if it isnt just like you religious types to blame a good looking girl for them being tempted!
Tempted to count your stitches? The Guide enquired from deep under the hood. You arent going to be winning any more swimsuit competitions, not unless you enter one while you still have your winter fur. Forget it, kiddo, Ive already seen you more naked than most people ever will and Im not missing anything.
Lawhiney made a small choking noise. Her eyes cast about for something to throw and settled on a simply framed black and white photograph on Gadgets bedside table. It was the closest thing to hand and she didnt care if Gadget Hackwrenchs heart broke along with the photo.
Lawhiney snatched up the treasured memento and cocked her arm to throw it right at the Guides head or more probably right through the Guides head, given his corporeally challenged state then something she had just seen tickled the back of her brain.
Her right arm froze with the picture held high.
Her eyes went wide.
The Guide looked at her in amazement. He hadnt credited her with the ability to restrain her hair-trigger temper and he could practically see the cogs turning in her head but he couldnt imagine what had set them in motion. Part of him was relieved that Lawhiney hadnt broken something that belonged to Gadget and part of him, the part that had never got used to being spirit instead of flesh and blood, was relieved he wasnt about to have something thrown at his head.
Lawhiney blinked and whatever spell she had been under was broken. Now she cradled the photograph like it was her own treasured keepsake and gaped at it.
The Guide rose quickly and went to look at the picture from over her shoulder. It showed a very young Gadget wearing dungarees and smiling widely as she bounced on the shoulders of a grown-up. The grown-up wore a leather jacket and a silk scarf long with a rakish moustache and a familiar twinkle in his eye. The pair stood in front of an aeroplane; the name Screaming Eagle was just visible on the aircrafts nose.
Lawhiney looked up at him fearfully. The Guides eyes were misty and his expression was happy and nostalgic. Seeing his face liked that wiped away her last doubts and she put the unimaginable thought into words.
Its you! Youre Gadgets father!
Chip looked at Monty stubbornly.
Yer outta ya tiny mind, Chipper my lad! the Australian thundered as Dale looked on uncertainly.
You know I was thinking about it before I got hit on the head by that winch, so dont try that one on me. Chip said defiantly.
All that means is that it failed to knock some sense into you! Monty replied.
Aw gee, Chip, I dont get it. Ive only just gotten used to the idea of people running around pretending to be us to make money we never seem to get any!
Thats because were a volunteer group, Dale. We help people for nutin. Monty explained darkly.
And if the impostor isnt the real impostor, does that mean that shes a fake impostor? Cause if she is, doesnt that mean we have to put her straight back in prison after we help her for pretending to be the real impostor?
Chip suppressed the urge to cuff Dale for the interruption.
We aint helping anyone in prison, are we Chipper? Monty urged.
Im just saying I want to put my mind at rest. The detective tried to convince himself.
Bzzb zbzz. Zipper intoned by Montys ear.
I agree. Resting Chips mind sounds like a great idea. Monty muttered. Its late, Chipper, and its been a hard day for all of us. This will wait until morning, one way or the other. Until then I reckon the best thing we could do is all get some sleep. Id like to see the prison that could stop our Gadget from coming home if she wanted to, though. I reckon youre worried over nothing, come morning youll be laughing at yourself for telling us about this.
I hope so, Monty. But, one way or another, I have a feeling this is going to stay with me. Chip answered sullenly.
Slowly, with the uncomfortable feeling that everyone gets when they let the sun go down on an argument, Chip made his way to bed. Dale, Monty and Zipper stayed up to finish cleaning up after the party.
He might have just made a fool of himself. That crazy nightmare he had suffered after being knocked out that afternoon was colouring his logic. There was no guarantee that Gadget Hackwrench wasnt asleep in her room right at this moment, even if the inmate he had seen that morning wasnt the impostor that he had hunted across half the state.
Brandon, the grey mouse who had tried to kidnap Gadget at the hospital, had confirmed his involvement in the Museum Robbery. Gadget had been too distressed and bruised around the throat to talk at the time and had partial amnesia, which meant she probably wouldnt have been able to verify it in any case. That confirmed that the Gadget in the hospital was the one who had been in the air crash while flying the Ranger Plane And by rights, that alone should have been all the confirmation that any sane man or rodent needed to prove she was Gadget Hackwrench.
There was no solid proof that the crooks who had hi-jacked the Ranger Plane were the same crooks who had impersonated the Rangers across half the country, so there was no reason to think the girl who had impersonated Gadget would be found in their company, let alone flying the Ranger Plane. Still, there hadnt been any more frauds perpetrated since then which was suggestive.
There was something wrong though. Chip was sure of it. He racked his brain for something he could put his finger on, something clearly un-Gadget-like that the girl they had brought home from the hospital had done since he arrived back in the city. It wasnt difficult. In fact it was easy. There had been hundreds of things that just werent quite right about Gadget since the moment he walked through the hospital room door and shed hidden under the bedcovers like she expected a beating from him. The problem was that any and all of them could be put down to the fact that she was just out of hospital after a bad head injury.
Chip hesitated as he passed Gadgets door. The temptation to try the door drew him back.
It wasnt locked. She was an invalid and might need help in the night.
Behind that door Gadget might be doing something personal and behind that door the impostor who had nearly destroyed Gadgets reputation might be revealing herself as a fraud. Revealing herself? Chips conscience tugged at him. Chip ignored it. He could put his eye to the keyhole and look without revealing himself, he mused. Except to anyone who came up behind him and got the wrong idea.
Chip glanced over his shoulder to check whether he could get away with it before he even considered whether he should resist the temptation. The coast was clear. His hand edged towards the door. Indecision seized the hand and held it a fingers length away from Gadgets door handle.
He had lived under the same roof as Gadget Hackwrench for seven years, since she had joined up as a founder member of the rangers at the age of eighteen. He had loved her secretly for every second. Not once in all that time had he been tempted to violate her privacy. The thought of doing so, of anyone doing so, struck at the core of his being in some way he couldnt quite define. He had endless fantasies of being her rescuer, her champion, her knight in shining armour, but none of them featured him going through her things or peeking through keyholes at her afterwards.
But, even if she is undressing, it might not be Gadget in there! The thought came unbidden and insistent and with it came the unchallenged assumption that spying on someone who wasnt Gadget was acceptable, even if it was someone very beautiful in the act of undressing.
From down the hallway came the indistinct sounds of Dale complaining about his share of the cleaning up and the deeper rumbling of Monty making sure Dale did his share of the cleaning. They would be occupied for some time.
Chip hesitated a second longer and then, the guilty knot in his conscience somehow unravelled by the idea that if it wasnt really Gadget he wasnt really spying, he turned out the hall light and slowly opened the door by the narrowest of cracks.
Gadget was sitting up in bed, lying on top of the sheets, still fully dressed. Cradled in her lap was the photograph of her father that she kept by her bed. Chip watched breathlessly as tears rolled down her nose.
I was never good enough for you. Gadget whispered to the photograph.
Chip silently closed the door and crept away.
I was never good enough for you. Lawhiney whispered as she looked at the photograph. You arent here to help me at all. Youre here to help her by making me turn myself in. You dont care about me at all. Youre like all the others. Lawhineys face was deeply creased with bitterness. When she turned her teary eyes to stare accusingly at the Guide, he saw they were filled not with hate but envy.
The others? The Guide questioned. How many spirit guides have you had?
You know what I mean. Youre like my parents, my parole officer, the guy I left home for and all the rest. You pretend to care but really you just want me as an ornament to impress your friends, or youre just doing your job, or you want to play with me until you get bored. Lawhiney glared at him.
The Guide thought a moment. He looked at the photograph again. He wasnt allowed to lie but there were different ways of presenting the truth. As he looked to the photo and to Lawhiney and back again he knew that he owed her nothing short of the full, raw truth.
Lawhiney, he said carefully, you make it difficult to care for you. You lie. You cheat. You steal. Much of what you do is done for spite, or cruelty. Since I have been with you, you have given me cause to be indignant, angry and despairing just when I thought I would never have to feel such things again! He twitched his moustache. Slowly a grudging half smile emerged on his face. But, no matter how difficult you make it, you do have a fierce love for your child and your faults are more the kind a mischievous, selfish child might have than anything approaching true evil.
Lawhiney looked at him suspiciously. You like me? Better than Gadget?
The Guide shook his head. Of course not. Gadget is my daughter. You arent even a good person. Darn it, you arent even a nice person! And thats much easier than being a good person!
Lawhiney scowled at him. Again, she looked like she might throw the picture.
You want Monty, or Chip, to come in because they heard a crash? The Guide asked.
Lawhiney sneered as though that didnt trouble her but she did put the framed photograph back on the bedside table unharmed.
Lawhiney We were never properly introduced. My name is Geegaw Hackwrench and I want to help you. Now Im not allowed to lie to you. If I could chose to be anywhere in the world right now, I would be with my daughter Gadget. Not with you. But just like Ive shown you what will happen to your unborn child if you dont become a good person, so Ive been shown what will happen to you if I dont help you.
Lawhiney drew back. This time she did not pretend she was untroubled.
The straight fact of the matter is that you need me in your life and Gadget dont. I could go to her, but I couldnt do anything for her.
No? Lawhiney seemed puzzled, though she was probably just wondering what use Geegaw was to her if he couldnt help his own daughter.
No. By definition, if she doesnt need me then I would be unnecessary. At best, I would be a luxury. At worst, I would be a distraction, an inconvenience. A burden. What parent would want to be that to their child?
Lawhiney looked sideways at Geegaw, perhaps wondering if he was getting at something.
Geegaw continued without noticing. You, on the other hand, do need me. I know I can make a difference to your life and, because I know that, I have a responsibility. I can walk away and go where I want to or I can stay and help someone I know needs my help. If I choose to walk away I wont be responsible for what eventually happens to you, but I will be responsible for the decision not to help someone who needs helping.
Lawhineys eyes narrowed. Surely that wouldnt matter to you. Youve already been judged, so you dont have to worry.
Geegaw sighed heavily. You might not care about anything except staying in a smokeless zone but a good person would want to do right for its own sake. A good person does good deeds the way a painter might paint a picture for his own amusement.
Is that what reforming me will be? A good deed you can stick on a wall to impress your visitors, or set to one side to compare with your later masterpieces? Lawhineys eyes were teary.
They had probably been teary for some time, but Geegaw hadnt noticed until now. He instinctively wanted to comfort her, then realised that Lawhiney might well be trying to play him for sympathy. Well if it was picture of your face right now, I know which room Id hang it in! he jabbed.
Satisfied that it was genuine misery that had bubbled to the surface, Geegaw held up a paw. You remember that charity swindle you pulled? The one where people worked for two weeks to hand you money on stage that you then took with you when you rushed off to a staged rescue? The one you committed simply because you liked the idea? Its like that, Lawhiney. You think you reached the height of your skill with that you took more pleasure in the deed than in what the deed gained you. You were wicked for the sake of being wicked.
Well, if thats what its like, then what I do doesnt matter at all! Its my nature to do wrong, just like its in a cats nature to eat mice when its hungry. Lawhiney whined.
Geegaw looked at her sternly. You were born innocent, Lawhiney, neither good nor evil. You were ignorant of the difference between the two and free to choose who you were. You were guided by those around you and by your own conscience. The choices you made laid the foundations of the person you were going to become. Until eventually you became the person you were when you swindled those charity workers and robbed that museum.
I am what I am! Thats all I know how to be. Asking me to be any different is like asking me to stop existing! Ill sing off the words on the hymn sheet like everybody else if thats what it takes to stay out of the hot seat, but if I sing out of key its because I cant help it!
Its not fair to ask you to sing with someone elses voice, huh? Geegaw prodded at her.
No its Lawhiney winced and started over. I just mean, whats the good of me being good the next fifty years if at the end of it I still get sent down under with all the other sinners because Im bad inside?
She admitted shes a sinner! Geegaw noted privately.
The good deeds you do from now on will lay the foundation for you to become a different person. By which I mean a good version of yourself, not for you to start impersonating someone else! Geegaws tone softened. Look, Lawhiney, you may or may not have fifty years to become a good person in.
Lawhiney looked alarmed.
Its taken you twenty years to drift into being the bad person you are now, but if you work hard at it you could be a really decent person in just two or three years. People who change that fast tend to slip back, though, and it would be harder work than I think you want to put in. I think itll take you maybe seven years to reform properly. If you die before youre done then theyll take the progress youve made into account but youll still be sent to wherever you best fit in and, well, if its a place along with other people who do wicked things for the sake of it Geegaw sighed and shrugged helplessly.
Lawhiney looked intrigued, as thought such a place might be her idea of a good time. Where people do wicked things for the sake of it? No brimstone, or fire, or ugly giants in white coats that stick you with needles and make you run around mazes before they cut you open?
That last one is actually a distorted report of what goes on in human laboratories but I wouldnt be surprised if the opposition took that kind of talk as a suggestion. What happens to you if you get sent downstairs is actually a very personal and different thing for everyone. Geegaw explained.
But you said you had been shown what would happen to me. Did you mean my future on earth, or afterwards?
I was shown some of your future here. It wasnt pretty and you dont need to worry about it because Im here now to look after you. As for your afterlife No one can say for sure how you would be judged if you died tomorrow, let alone fifty years from now. You could look back at your life and be so sorry that they would wipe the slate clean. But I could give you a glimpse perhaps, of what might be waiting for you if you dont mend your ways. Its allowed, usually as a last resort, but if you want to know that badly Geegaw let the sentence hang, as though it meant nothing. He wasnt expecting her to take him up on it.
You say that the place for bad people is really just a place for them to do what they do up here? Lawhiney still looked intrigued.
Geegaw sighed. He hadnt expected her to be quite this unimaginative. Pretty much of course, there are some very powerful beings down there, beings that have been there a long time. They can be quite brutal towards those who are weaker than themselves.
Its a lot like that up here, in case you hadnt noticed. The trick is not to be the weaker being. Lawhiney responded. Which I wouldnt plan to be for long, at any rate.
Privately Geegaw felt some internal counter click over. He knew that by morning Lawhiney would have convinced herself of this dangerous untruth. She would go blindly into the darkness when her time came and her afterlife would be, as it was for too many people, nothing but a continuation of what had gone before. Even where what had gone before was benign, that was a circular path that achieved nothing but the endless and, eventually, solitary repetition of the same deeds until they lost all meaning.
Lawhiney, Geegaw silently vowed, would not be one of them. I can show you a little of what it would be like there, in a dream. Unless youre not up to it, of course.
Lawhiney scowled at the mist in front of her. She had done her best to reform; what did they want from her? Blood? Well, they had plenty now. And who knew that even one of Gadgets unfinished inventions could be so dangerous? Perhaps she should have taken the hint when Chip and Dale had suddenly stopped pouring honey into each of her ears and started backing out the door. Still, at least she was better prepared than last time. She knew what was coming and her near terminal gaffe with the pearl from the pearly gates would have been forgotten by now.
Lawhiney practised her contrite, repentant sinner look. She used to be rather good at it, when she was in school, but she hadnt had needed to use that particular look very much since puberty so she was a bit out of practice.
After what might have been a few minutes Lawhiney was reasonably sure she had it right although without a mirror it was impossible to be sure. Now all she had to do was to find the gates and Saint Peter and grovel until she was let in. The human had been a bit of a push over last time, now that she really thought about it, so a few false tears ought to do the trick.
The catch was finding the gates again.
The fog was thicker than before. Darker too. Before the mist had been as white as an angels wing and seemed to be lit from behind whichever way you turned. Now it was a thick, sooty grey. Lawhiney found herself wiping her face and eyes because she didnt like the feel of the fog touching her. It felt dirty and like some males that she had known it made her feel unclean where it had touched her, which was everywhere.
If I ever needed that darn Guide Lawhiney muttered, taking care to moderate her language in case someone important was listening. Hello? Anybody? I need someone to show me the way! Please?
Well, well, well. A choked, raspy voice drifted out of the darkness with an accent that reminded Lawhiney of Pierre. Pierres real accent that was, the London one, not the cartoon skunk voice he used to tickle fancies of rich widows.
It wasnt until Lawhiney peered into the gloom to find the owner of the voice that she realised how dark it had become while she had been searching for Saint Peter. It was like twilight just after sunset.
Out of the dark hobbled a bat in a cloth cap and tattered working clothes that were out of date by perhaps fifty years or more. As Lawhiney sized him up she was shocked to see that he had a peg leg. She didnt think that anyone in heaven would have a peg leg.
You must be Lawhiney. The bat said in a rasping voice. They told me you were coming. He assumed an apologetic expression and took off his hat. Im sorry no one was there to meet you. We sent a guide but he seems to have wandered off.
Wandered off was it the same Guide who was supposed to be helping me on Earth? Lawhiney wrinkled her nose.
Why, yes. The bat seemed surprised by the question.
Humph. Hes probably visiting his daughter. Lawhiney scowled resentfully.
Visiting his daughter? the bats jaw dropped.
Lawhiney smiled. Perhaps being charitable would be an easy ticket into Saint Peters good books. Hey, it doesnt matter. He works hard. Hes entitled.
Something halfway between a sneer and a smile settled on the bats mouth. Ill be sure to pass that on.
Im afraid Ive gotten a little turned around in the mist. Are we a long way from the pearly gates?
The bats jaw dropped. The pearly he keeled over in raucous laughter.
The sudden feeling that this did not bode well crept over Lawhiney. Why are you laughing at me?
Dont you worry, sweetheart, you turned yourself around just fine a long time ago, without any mist to help you. My name is Fidget. They sent me to show you around your knew home. Kinda, help you get settled in, so to speak. The bat leered at her.
Where exactly are you going to help me settle in to? Lawhiney felt the apprehension building. She remembered that she had never gotten around to explaining to the Rangers about who she really was and just how she came to be, quite innocently, impersonating Gadget. The Guide had put quite a high priority on this particular act of repentance but since the Guide had turned out to be Gadgets father, perhaps he had exaggerated.
Distopia, of course. The fifth largest city in Hell and your new home for the rest of eternity.
Fidget waved his good wing as though he was wiping condensation off a window and a small hole cleared in the mist. The hole grew larger as Lawhiney peered through, until she could see the whole of the city beneath them. It stretched away into the blood-red horizon but the buildings were so tall that Lawhiney could only see a tiny chink of the far edge of the city. Every building was a gothic spire and every spire was crusted with so much soot and grime that they looked like twisted and melted black candles. As if to complete the illusion, one of the towers was broken and the top was burning with a bright yellow flame.
Every hair on Lawhineys body, from the tip of her tail to her nose, stood on end. No. No, please. Theres been a mistake. I havent even had a trial.
Oh, theres no trial. Unless you count life... You just get judged. Fidget replied. Hey, dont you go running. You slip and fall here you can find yourself somewhere a lot worse.
Like where? Lawhiney shrieked hysterically.
Like down there. Fidget pointed to a lake of bubbling mud beneath them, which surrounded the city like a moat.
They were standing on a mountain path, Lawhiney realised without the slightest idea how she had gotten there. The path zigzagged down the side of a mountain range that also surrounded the city. Halfway down to the seething mud the path ended at a narrow footbridge that stretched all the way across the lake to the city edge. The bridge was only wide enough for people to cross in single file and a steady flow of fellow sinners was making its way across as she watched.
Doesnt anyone use the bridge to leave? she asked, helplessly.
People try all the time. See theres one now. Fidget pointed to the far end, which was almost invisible in the mud steam, the heat-haze and the smog.
Out of the murk appeared a lone, ragged figure, clutching a metal bar the length of somebodys arm. Lawhiney watched as the figure, a massive male grey rat with a crop of black hair, advanced menacingly on a sinner who was trying to cross the bridge into Distopia.
The sinner a short helpless looking mouse raised his forepaws in surrender and backed up into someone else. The mole he had backed into didnt look any happier than he was about the prospect of fighting the stranger but further retreat was barred by the new arrivals behind them.
The mouse looked over the side of the bridge at the boiling mud. It was a sheer drop with no place to stand aside and let someone else pass. The mole pushed the mouse forward roughly and the mouse fell to his knees in front of the rat. Lawhiney was too far away to hear the appeals for mercy or the rats brief grunt of refusal but she could clearly see the look of terror on the mouses face when the grey rat picked him up by the shirt and threw him at the mole.
The mole batted the mouse over the ankle high safety rail and sent him screaming into the mud where a huge bubble rose and burst just in time to swallow him whole. Lawhiney gulped and then wished she hadnt.
The mole advanced, swinging his shovel-like forepaws. The rat countered by striking him on the top of his head with the metal bar and the mole dropped to his knees. With a double-handed sweep of the bar, the rat sent the mole over the side of the bridge, after the mouse.
The sinner behind the mole was shoved forward, just as the mouse had been. Instead of surrendering the new challenger, a chipmunk, bent at the waist and ran forward with his head down, charging the rat like a bull. The chipmunks head hit the rat in the sternum and sent him stumbling backwards.
With a cry of fury the rat fell from the bridge into the same boiling mud that had claimed his two previous victims.
Ooooh. I hate to think who must have been mad at that guy for him to try crossing the bridge. Fidget shook his head mournfully.
Well, cant stand here all day sightseeing. Some cop will give us a ticket for enjoying ourselves. Fidget decided and led down the path.
Can you really get fines for enjoying yourself here? Lawhiney asked as they crossed the bridge. The idea didnt seem that strange to her, in fact, shed always thought that all laws existed for the sole purpose of stopping people from enjoying themselves. But if you could be fined for having a good time that meant it was possible
Oh yeah. And theyll do worse than fine you too, if you dont pay up quick smart. There are jails and stocks and all the torture chambers you probably heard about in church, if you ever went. To church, I mean.
The cops, are they like angels, or demons?
Fidget laughed. No, theyre cops. You might be surprised but we get our share of cops, judges and jailers down here. Personally, I think we take more than our share of lawyers. Far more. But just try getting representation when they take you to court!
Surely if there are a lot of lawyers
We get criminal lawyers but theres never enough to go around. Mostly we get contract lawyers, corporate lawyers and, worst of all, copyright lawyers. Dont go humming any show tunes down here.
This is hell, baby. But its not all bad. Well, actually it is, but its actually pretty hard to make people suffer twenty-four seven for all eternity, cause you can pretty much get used to anything after a while. Once those guys who went over the side here get used to the heat and the dark and choking muck and the stickiness, theyll be able to drag themselves out. Might take em a couple o years but theyll be back.
Lawhiney, who had assumed they had merely been boiled to death, shivered at the thought of falling from the bridge and not being able to die
Point is the management will pretty much let you get on with your business cant really call it life, not down here the way you did when you were alive. Work, eat, pay bills lots of bills. Youll have to find a place to stay. Youll get broken into a lot. Thats one of the problems down here, we get a lot of criminals
Dont the police you mentioned
No. The better a crook is, the more likely they are to come down here its the opposite with the cops. We usually only get the really bad ones. They dont catch someone unless they think theres something in it for them. Usually you have to bribe them just to save you from someone whos robbing you in front of them.
Lawhiney subsided. She didnt much like the sound of that. She was a good-looking girl and she didnt have to check her pockets to know she didnt have any money. But since all her good was in the looks department, it didnt take long for the upside to occur to her. Hey, does that mean its easy to get away with stuff down here?
Ah-ha. That would be no. See, the cops might not catch you but someone will maybe by the person youve done the stuff to, maybe by someone who owes that person a favour, or just by someone who thinks they can put the screws on you for something- Fidget gave her the once over and leered -in exchange for keeping quiet.
Lawhiney scowled at him.
Well, here we are. Fidget said a moment later when they stepped off the end of the bridge. And that big rat guy turned the toll booth over so you dont even have to pay to get in!
They make you pay to get in?
Yeah. Talk about adding insult to injury. You got any change on you?
Twice as lucky then. You dont have cash for something you have to do them some kind of favour instead
Lawhiney thought better of asking what kind of favours.
You havent got any cash for a place to stay then?
I could loan you some. At a very unreasonable rate of interest.
An unreasonable rate of interest?
Remember where we are, Blondie. I said an unreasonable rate, not an extortionate rate.
How am I supposed to pay you back? Lawhiney asked suspiciously.
Get a job. Or steal it. I dont care. Thats the thing; down here, no one really does
How much would I need? And when would I have to pay you back?
All debts must be paid by the end of the month. And how much depends on where you want to live. For what Ive got in my pocket right now, you could get a nice alfresco matchbox in a gutter somewhere.
Lawhiney frowned. And for an apartment?
Rents pretty steep here for a few thousand you could get a place but youd be paying off the loan for the first months rent for a long time and thats on top of the rent for all the other months. But youre a good looking girl Fidget snickered. Why dont you persuade someone to - ah-ha - share?
Lawhiney looked down her nose at him, then narrowed her eyes and smiled. What do mean? she asked coquettishly as she walked her fingers up Fidgets muscular chest. Someone like you?
The bat laughed nervously. Sure! I mean, why not?
Because youre an ugly, twisted, maniacal little monster with a peg-leg and crippled wing. Lawhiney said sweetly.
Well see if you feel that way when your loan is due for repayment. Fidget snarled. Now come on I got to show you all the sights and still see my regular clients.
It didnt take as long as Lawhiney had expected to find her way around. There was something vaguely familiar about Distopia that reminded her of every city she had ever been in. There was the constant sound of gunfire, sirens and screaming in the background but, because it was constant, it wasnt long before she only noticed such noises when they stopped.
Fidget, grudgingly, helped her find a one-room place high up in one of the spires she had seen from the hillside path. There was no elevator, so it took most of the morning to climb the stairs from the ground floor to her new front door and, when she opened it, the first thing she saw was the chalk outline the previous owner had left on the floor.
I thought you said you couldnt die here. She said without entering the room.
You cant. See where the outline is missing the head? This is a kidnapping. Somewhere this guys body is being kept in a box and running up a storage fee, if hes lucky. His head could be anywhere being questioned, or used as a soccer ball. Fidget shrugged.
Lawhiney looked around the room. Water was dripping through the ceiling onto the bed and every stick of furniture that hadnt been smashed to splinters had been stolen. She had grasped the mood of the city well enough to know she wasnt going to find anything better.
Ill take it. She said.
Wise choice. Fidget said. I turned down three places, each worse than the last, when I first got here.
Theres something I wanted to ask.
About your little boy? Fidget seemed to be expecting the question. Lawhineys heart leapt.
YES! How did you know?
They said youd ask. If you love him, people will use it against you, so try not to let on. The other side tell you the unborn go somewhere else, right?
Well, thats right enough, but for a price you can get him sprung from that place. Happens all the time.
Wouldnt he be better off ?
In some celestial orphanage? Hey, its up to you; if you want to let them take him away from you
NO! Lawhiney shouted. Plaster fell from the ceiling.
Itll cost you. Fidget repeated. Fifteen years at least. And thats being kind.
Fifteen years what?
Servitude. To me. Fidget smiled, revealing some of the yellowiest rotting teeth she had ever seen.
What kind of servitude? Lawhiney narrowed her eyes.
Anything I choose, sweetheart! The bat grinned.
You have to be kidding!
Thats the price. If youre not interested, find someone else and see if they say any different.
Maybe I will. I dont take the first thing offered all the time. If they say the same or worse, maybe theyll be better looking than you.
Fidget rounded on her angrily but then shrugged off the insult when he saw she was un-intimidated. Your loss, toots. I would have been willing to negotiate.
So negotiate. You bring me my son and Ill do anything you want, for fifteen years, except for one thing Lawhiney glared at Fidget.
Fidget looked puzzled. What one thing?
Lawhiney told him.
Oh that! Fidget looked downcast. Well, what else are you good for?
Lawhiney rolled her eyes in despair. Have you read my rap sheet?
Youll do anything on your rap sheet for me? For fifteen years?
So long as its not
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Except for that!
So do we have a deal?
Fidget mulled it over. Well, if I dont take it, I guess youll just go elsewhere. Okay, its a deal.
Lawhiney shook Fidgets wing on the deal and set to clearing up the apartment. Strangely, now that the worst had happened, she found herself feeling liberated. She was in hell therefore she didnt have to worry about her behaviour any more.
The thought froze her in the act of picking up a smashed chair. Like the screaming from the other apartments, she had only noticed that she worried about her behaviour in life when the worry had finally stopped. Sitting on the only dry corner of the bed, she thought about that for a long time.
Fidget brought her child to her the next morning. He almost couldnt get into Lawhineys apartment, because in the night people had started breaking down the doors to all the apartments in the hallway and doing things to the occupants of those rooms. Lawhiney didnt know what things exactly but, after the third neighbours cries had fallen silent, she had pushed and dragged the bed across the room to barricade the door. She didnt know what had happened to the intruders either. After the fifth door was down everything had suddenly gone ominously quiet and stayed that way until dawn, by which time Lawhiney had begun to wish that someone, anyone just so long as it wasnt her, would start screaming again to break the silence.
Roach was a wide-eyed, innocent looking child with sandy coloured hair and fur. Lawhiney looked at him and her heart almost broke.
He wont have to stay here forever? Lawhiney asked Fidget.
He can leave anytime. He hasnt done anything to keep him here. Want to take him to the playground?
They have playgrounds here?
Only because cities upstairs do. They have them; we have to have them. I dont recommend letting him play on anything though. Dangerous. Fidget held up his wings as if to say hed rather try swimming the mud-moat that surrounded the city.
Fidget wasnt lying either. When they got there the tiny concrete square was a jumble of rusty sharp needles, broken swings and slides. There was another chalk outline under the climbing frame, again without a head.
Uh, do you want to play on something, sweetie? Lawhiney asked. Her child shook his head and clutched at her.
Uh-oh Fidget said.
Whats the matter? Lawhiney pricked up her ears.
I didnt think theyd show up so soon
Lawhiney followed the bats nod and saw that the mouse sized climbing frame was now covered in big black flies.
Bzzz You stole my favourite bracelet and then just threw it away like a piece of cheep trash! one of the flies complained.
Wha-? What are they? Lawhiney gasped.
They represent all your victims. If you were human theyd be crows but for us they send flies I dont know what they send for flies. I always wondered.
I would have thought my victims would have shown up personally if they had a grudge. Lawhiney said nervously.
Ha! They will! If they get sent down here, that is. These things dont really care whether anyone has a grudge though. Theyre drawn by guilt. They feed on it. On you. Fidgets voice took on a deep, dramatic resonance as though he were recording a voiceover for an action movie trailer.
Lawhiney shivered. Can you do anything? I mean; youre a bat
Uh-uh, these guys taste bad. Id be sick for a week.
The flies began buzzing madly.
Lawhiney began to back away.
Bzzzt You told lies about me and now nobody likes me! wailed a fly wearing a blond wig that sounded suspiciously like Gadget Hackwrench.
As one insect, the flies rose up from the climbing frame.
Lawhiney turned and ran. The flies pursued and were quickly all around her. One settled on her head and began tugging at her eyelids, trying to pull them up over her eyebrows. She could feel a dozen of them pulling on her tail. Soon it was impossible to run and Lawhiney clutched her son close to her chest and curled her body over his to protect him. The flies beat at her back and every exposed part of her body with their tiny fists, taking turns to shout their war cries.
I gave up my job to collect for an orphanage that never existed!
You broke my heart! MY HEART, DO YOU HEAR ME?
You didnt have to treat me like dirt all the time, just because I liked you and I wasnt strong, or rich or handsome.
You took away the only thing that ever mattered to me. My husband!
Lawhiney tried not to hear them but they were good at making themselves heard. Then, when the voices had blurred into one another and Lawhiney couldnt say which of her crimes or sins the cries referred to, the flies departed.
The first thing Lawhiney did was to check her son for injuries. She opened her mouth to call him by name but suddenly realised that she hadnt named him she had only heard him called by the name Rat Capone had given him: Roach.
She couldnt call him that.
You okay? Fidget asked in the same tone of voice he might use for: I dont care.
Whats his name? Lawhiney asked.
Huh? How should I know? Hes your kid.
You must have know his name to get him out of that cosmic orphanage you talked about. Otherwise, how could you have gotten the right kid?
I knew your name. He hasnt got one until you choose one. Thats how it works. Parents name their kids.
Lawhiney brushed the childs hair out of his eyes and frowned in thought. The hair was blond. Sandy? she tried.
Sandy, are you okay?
Lawhiney frowned. Dont like Sandy, huh? Well, its not much of a name, I guess. Perhaps I should just call you Junior. Would you like to be called after your Daddy?
The child looked at her, mutely.
Lawhiney half-smiled ruefully. If I could work out what Daddy was called, we might be getting somewhere.
Behind her, Fidget chuckled. Lawhiney scowled.
The catch was that she didnt really think of him as Sandy however well it suited him. She thought of him as Roach. She looked at him guiltily. Roach?
The child blinked and seemed to come out of a trance. I wanna go home.
Hes your kid alright. Laughed Fidget.
They took him back to the one room apartment. Lawhiney had used the wet bedclothes to wipe away the chalk outline and clean the floor, but the ever-present soot and grime from their surroundings got everywhere and the floor was dirty again by the time they got back.
Lawhiney sat her boy on the dry corner of the bed, which had refused to dry over night, and checked him all over again for injuries. He didnt have any.
Those things will come back, wont they? she asked Fidget over her shoulder.
Yeah, they always come back. Best if they find you out in the open. At least you can run for a while and they dont get trapped in some tiny space with you when theyre ready to leave.
Whats this lump? Lawhiney asked in horror.
Roach had a large black lump on the side of his neck. It was half the size of one of his hands.
Roach, honey, how long have you had that? Did the flies do that to you? Lawhiney was a picture of motherly concern.
I dont know Roach was quiet and uncertain. He seemed lost.
Fidget, I hate to ask you anything else
You mean youre gonna hate paying me for anything else Fidget grumbled.
I need you to help me find a doctor.
A doctor? Pretty much everything down here heals eventually people do occasionally need stitching back together though. Cost ya.
The doctor was a mole with some ugly stitching that arched completely over the top of his domed head. The stitching didnt worry Lawhiney. The Victorian hat and cloak, coupled with the black doctors bag that seemed to be leaking blood from a hole in the corner, did worry her but there was little she could do about it.
I have seen this several times before this boy did not come to be here in the usual manner, did he? The mole doctor had a fat, well-to-do British accent that made Lawhiney think of money.
Hes mine he wasnt born the way I hoped.
He hasnt been born at all he has no navel and thats always a dead giveaway, if you will forgive the pun. The mole smiled a ghastly smile, full of broken teeth.
Please, tell me whats wrong with him
You are the boys Mother?
The lump on the boys neck is what we call blight. Youre a new arrival, I take it?
Yes. What is blight?
Here our sins can be more than just actions, or memories. In a place like this they can take on physical shapes and forms often, horrible ones. Such a thing causes the lump on the boys neck; a sin has become a disease and afflicts him.
But- but thats impossible! How could such a thing ?
My dear, please remember. This is not the physical world. The limits on what can happen here are purely imaginary, in every sense. I have seen many sins take on form since I began my practice here. Many can even become living creatures, some of which go on to have an independent existence of their very own. Almost as if they were our children, in a way.
Roach is not a sin. Hes my baby! Lawhiney pouted.
True, and a good thing. Of the sins I have seen take on an existence of their own, few have used their time well. Some have used their time to hunt down those who brought them into the world and punish them. Others have simply run wild, attacking random bystanders.
Perhaps because they find innocent bystanders hard to come by. The doctor smiled at his own wit.
I mean, why has this one become a disease? And why infect my son instead of me? It was perhaps the first trace of selflessness Lawhiney had ever displayed.
Spite, I suspect. It is rare for a sin to become a living thing though even a disease. Usually we just gain a particularly ugly statue for the city park. The doctor seemed to lose interest. Tell Fidget Ill expect my pound of flesh tomorrow.
Lawhiney snatched up her son and departed. She did not enquire whether the doctors message was merely a figure of speech or meant literally.
Outside she passed on everything the doctor had said to Fidget, along with the doctors message. The bat was sucking on the straw of a soft drink that he had bought from a fast food place across the street from the doctors surgery.
Everyone knows about the sins becoming monsters and such-like occasionally. He said. A huge one crawled out of the mud-lake a couple of years back and knocked down a couple of spires. Never heard of one becoming a disease before, though. Fidget took another slurp of the fizzing, smoking black liquid, which was starting to eat through the cup.
Lawhiney held her boy close to her, stroking his head. She was shocked to find another lump behind one of his ears like a grotesque, pulsing purple slug. This happened after the flies did one of the flies do this? Or change to become a disease when they saw me trying to protect him?
No the flies represent your victims, not your sins. That big thing that crawled out of the lake; it was one sin but there were a lot of flies chasing the guy responsible for it. Thats how the mob found him to explain how much they hate being stepped on by a sixty-foot lizard. Fidget had a dirty laugh. Some of the people in the queue for the fast food place looked up curiously. Many of them were so emaciated they could hardly stand.
How did you get to the front of the queue while I was with the doctor? Lawhiney frowned.
I didnt, I stuck the place up. Ya see, the flies are just stand-ins for your victims. The ones that cant be bothered to show up in person that is, on account of them being busy with walking around and breathing or wearing a halo and playing a harp. You just got here, so most of your victims will still be alive. Then, when they finally get around to dying, a lot of them will go to the good place and plain forget all about you just out of pure spite! Fidget scowled as though there had been one particular victim of his own that he had hoped to meet up with again on any terms. Then a thought struck him. Its a good idea to keep track of your flies as best as you can. If one of your flies stops showing up, it means that particular victim aint just dead; theyre dead and on their way down here! Most likely theyll be too busy with their own worries to look you up at first but, sooner or later, theyll take it into their head to come after you and, ah-ha, even the score.
Lawhiney opened her mouth to ask a question. She stopped when her sharp hearing detected a faint buzzing which built to an alarming drone in a heartbeat.
There they are! trilled one of the flies. Places everyone!
The army of flies quickly spread throughout the fast food queue and bustling street crowd. To Lawhineys alarm, all the flies were wearing unconvincing bandages and makeup that made them look like plague victims. One or two of them even rang small bells and called out Unclean! Unclean! as they threaded their way through the people on the street.
Tell me theyre not serious? Lawhiney asked Fidget, who eyed her and backed away rapidly. No one would believe such a ridiculous she trailed off as she remembered just how many ridiculous things she had persuaded people to believe.
Oh, the pain, the pain! faked one fly.
My poor fevered head! Who will save us from this terrible plague that has struck the city? overacted another.
So many people struck down so quickly! There are hundreds just lying helpless in the street on the west side! A third chimed in with his bell. But theyve all already been robbed by the people who were there at the time! he added hastily as a large number of sinners turned to go west.
All this sickness from one persons sin! Who could have brought such a terrible thing to our town?
There were a few murmurs from those in earshot of the flies.
THERE SHE IS!! the fly with the blonde wig pointed to Lawhiney as he hovered above heads of the crowd so everyone could see him. (It was a male fly. Lawhiney could tell by the moustache and the cigar he was smoking.)
She brought the boy to Distopia and the plague with him! Another fly yelled through a megaphone.
There was an ugly stirring along the entire length of the street as the crowd turned towards Lawhiney.
Lawhiney whimpered and looked to Fidget for help.
Well, thats about wraps up your orientation tour. He said rapidly. Good luck, cause youre on your own from here on!
But- Lawhiney whined.
The mob gathered itself like a house cat about to spring. Lawhiney snatched up her child and ran.
Get the boy! someone shouted.
Lawhiney looked over her shoulder and quailed at the ease with which the citizens of Distopia could find and make clubs and torches out of street furniture and shop fronts. When she turned her head back to concentrate on running she saw smiling flies there and realised that the same scene had been played out behind her back. The mob was all around her and there was no escape.
Quickly she found a shop doorway and crouched in it, covering Roach as best as she could. Angry voices blurred together as the first blows fell and to her great surprise she did not cry out because she was too busy protecting Roach.
Hands fell on her and began tearing at the once lavender jumpsuit she had borrowed from Gadgets wardrobe. The ever-present soot in the Distopia smog had already stained it nearly black. She felt the material start to come apart and the clawing hands began to find hair and skin.
The boy! someone behind her said. Get the boy!
NO! Lawhiney cried out. Its my sin, punish me! Leave him alone and punish ME!
Lawhiney thrashed violently in Gadgets bed, the bedclothes knotted around her.
As he watched the force of her struggles, Geegaw could hardly believe she had an arm in a sling and a broken leg, let alone the other serious injuries that had kept her in hospital for nearly three weeks. Before the Guide could do anything Lawhiney tumbled out of bed and landed with a crash that sent the wheelchair over on its side.
Gasping, she sat up. She looked at her surroundings, hardly daring to believe they were real.
Somebody moved behind her and she nearly screamed before she saw the familiar moustache and monks habit of the Guide, Gadgets father.
For the barest instant Lawhiney relaxed and then a terrible thought struck her.
Roach! She yelled.
Geegaw raised his index finger to his lips to hush her.
Hes back there with those terrible people!
No, no, no. Hes safe and right here inside this room, where he always was. You had a nightmare. Not an ordinary one by any means but it wasnt real. Not like floor youre sitting on, or the bed you just fell out of. Geegaw tried to reassure her.
Lawhiney looked at him. Just as a human might sweat with terror after waking up from a nightmare, she was panting so hard she could barely talk.
Im sorry! She told him.
What, for being upset? I knew you would be upset when you woke up. You wanted to know what it would be like if you died before you straightened yourself out, remember? Geegaw wished he could at least pat her hand to comfort her.
I mean for everything! Lawhiney hugged herself and began rocking backwards and forwards.
Geegaw straightened himself and looked at her. She meant it, he decided. You want to change?
Right now. Not tomorrow, not in an hour, this instant! she agreed.
Something like relief flowed through Geegaw. Are you sure?
Lawhiney nodded slowly, like a small child who had considered a difficult question but was certain of the answer.
As if on cue there was a gentle knocking at the door.
Gadget-luv? Are you all right? I heard a noise. It was a gentle Australian voice.
Lawhiney looked at Geegaw with agony written on her face. However much forgiveness
her sorrow might buy her with the big feller upstairs there were still earthly
consequences to her actions that had to be faced. Choking back a sob, she answered:
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