Gadget in Chains
Written by: Loneheart
The Last One To Know
Gadget Hackwrench, mouse, inventor of things that fell apart, rescue ranger for the sake of her looks and an old friendship, an orphan alone against the world, looked awful. She had made the mistake of rubbing her eyes after her all night inventing session and, when she glanced at her reflection in the chrome of the human sized tools on her way into the rodent tool store, she realised that machine oil had marked her eyes like eye shadow.
She was tired and frustrated and hadnt had a decent meal since yesterday lunch time, but she felt good natured from the caffeine buzz and at home in the dark shadows under the shelving of the human hardware store. She had run out of parts at three in the morning and grabbed four hours sleep in her coveralls before the smell of coffee on the breakfast table had awoken her. After draining enough cups to be sure she was safe to drive, she had set out to her favourite tool store to restock for another all night session in her workshop.
Charlie, the owner of the place, was showing something to a tired looking mouse that was propped up against one end of the matchbox counter. Charlie was old for a mouse, with the best part of his natural life behind him. He had spent the last twenty years of it in the states but his English accent had not faded a single days worth. He was also short and broad, with a smile or a frown to fit every occasion.
"Hiya, Charlie." Gadget called to the grey whiskered mouse behind the counter. "Hows tricks?"
"They keep finding new ones to play on me every day, lass."
Gadget smiled back at her friend. He had been a shop technician when her father flew in air races. He had known her before she was born. He had recognized her before she was a ranger, when she had visited this place to buy parts for the traps she built for salesmen. She had felt guilty at the time about telling him she was "just working on a few ideas". Today he looked at her twice, one eyebrow rose the second time. He had obviously noticed the oil marks.
"Whacha come in for this time?" He asked with a slight frown.
"Parts for a new gear box. Metal, this time. The plastic cogs keep stripping."
"Thats what you get for stamping on the accelerator, ain't it? Hey, ho. Ill see what I can find for you."
Charlie turned and walked into the long dark space under the floorboards of the human tool shop that the mice used as a warehouse for their "liberated" hardware parts. As Gadget followed him with her eyes, her gaze met the stony face of the mouse that had been leaning against the matchbox counter. He was as old as Monty and about the same height; in fact, his clothes would have fitted Monty. They might even have fitted the mouse that was wearing them a few months ago, assuming there had been a crash diet during that time.
All the time that Gadget was looking at him, the mouse stared back at her with hard blue eyes. Something sparked in them. Gadget expected recognition. She got it all the time from rescue ranger wanabes and social climbers. She blinked. But there was something unfamiliar this time. The strangers expression was as cold a fierce as Fat Cat's and Gadget was suddenly convinced that she and the rangers must have ruined some evil scheme of this character in the recent past.
Before she could speak the big mouse straightened and his expression changed from stony to furious. He took a slow, mechanical step towards her. His voice was a low hiss.
Gadget wanted to take a step back but had learned to stand her ground too early in life to encourage someone like this to take another step forward.
"I never thought Id catch up with you." The strange mouse growled. "You cost me everything."
Gadget blinked. Her normally swift mind was racing now. What the stranger had said did not make sense. The Rangers had not taken an out-of-state case since the middle of spring. The mouse looked like he had travelled a fair distance. His accent was not foreign but it was not local either. The mouses condition pointed to a sudden loss of status in the last few months, as did the hatred in his face and voice. But she couldnt remember ever seeing him before. Could her memory be at fault? No.
The mouses grudge was obviously too personal for her to have played a minor roll in whatever disaster he blamed her for. He must have been close enough to get a good look at her, so she should have gotten a good look at him, too. Uh-oh. He was getting closer. Time to stop thinking and start acting.
"I was someone special, someone important until you came along..."
Planting her feet firmly, she held out one hand as a stop sign. "Hey, I dont know what your problem is but Im certain I dont know you, Mister."
"I wish I could say the same! A whole town left hungry by you, the trust of thousands betrayed!"
"Huh?" Gadget blinked.
This was making less sense by the second. She glanced at the other people in the room. There were three, no, four. That noise behind the counter was Charlie rushing back to see what the shouting was. There were three customers. She knew two of them by sight, had made small talk with one of them on her last visit. They were all watching; bemused, embarrassed and alarmed.
"Here, whats occurring?"
The bemused customer shrugged at Charlie by way an answer. Angry and puzzled, the shopkeeper looked at Gadget, who tried to come up with an explanation she didnt have. As she opened her mouth to speak, the angry mouse took two swift steps forward and tried to grab her. Panicked, she dodged backwards.
"Dont try to resist!" the deranged mouse bellowed. "Ill drag you to jail by the hair if I have to!"
"Here, now!" Charlie called out from behind the counter. "Dont just stand there, give the girl some help!"
The alarmed customer darted forward until he was standing nose to shoulder with the enraged mouse and then froze there, looking from Gadget to Charlie for some clue to what he should do next. The big mouse ignored him and carried on shouting.
"Ill see you get whats coming to you! Ill put you where you belong, you harlot!"
Something flared in Gadget. She had already backed up against a display rack and there was now where else to go. Planting her heel against something solid the way Monty had taught her to, Gadget shoved the stranger away with all her strength. The big mouse was surprised and easier to move than she expected- the stranger took one surprised step back, and then came forward with his hand raised.
"Hes going to slap me!" Gadget thought, feeling a little queasy.
Before the blow could fall, the customer who had been standing next to the maniac grabbed the mouses arm and held him back. By this time Charlie was out from behind the counter and stomping towards the scene. "Alright, alright. We dont want any trouble here, thank you very much."
The big mouses ears were red with fury. In a sudden movement he spun round and the customer holding him was thrown off. A powerful backhanded blow connected with Charlies cheek, sending Gadgets friend to the floor.
Gadget could stand no more. Grabbing a human screwdriver the length of her arm from the stand behind her, she swung it like a baseball bat as he turned towards her.
The makeshift club caught the big mouse on the side of the head with a loud crack and his heavy frame dropped to floor, where he gave a single loud gasp and lay still.
Everyone, even Charlie, looked at Gadget in shock.
"Well, what happened next?"
"For a moment, I was so scared. Everyone really thought Id killed him! Even me! Of course, its always possible that he did stop breathing for a second or two and then snapped out of it before we had a chance to see how he really was, so technically we might have been right at the time. But anyway, as soon as the big mouse comes round the vole who had been standing in the corner looking embarrassed the whole time, it turned out he knew the big mouse, so he comes over all angry-"
"What, angry with you?" Chip put in.
Beside him, Monterey Jack slapped a fist into the palm of his other hand. Chip spared Australian mouse a glance to make sure he wasnt about to rush out the door to cause some damage.
"No, angry with the mouse who had tried to slap me. He said the guys life had fallen apart after he was conned by a blonde mouse two months ago. A case of mistaken identity, I guess. Charlie threw them both out and the vole was telling the big mouse that hed better start looking for another job when they left."
"Did you get their names?"
"No, but I think Charlie knew the vole. He was pretty angry about the whole thing."
"But not with you?"
"No, not with me. I think he was shocked that Id hit someone over the head like that though."
"Well, you had plenty of cause. Im sure hell get over it." Chip mused.
"I sure hope so. He kept glancing at me after it was all over. Like he didnt trust me with the stock or something."
"Do you want us to go on over and make sure everythings okay with him?" Chip asked.
"Golly, Chip. I dont think thats such a great idea. If you and Monty show up all angry just after a thing like that people might think were looking for revenge and, after all, it was just an honest misunderstanding."
"Honest misunderstanding." Growled Monty. "In a frogs eye! Anyone raises a hand to you like that needs straightening out, Gadget, luv."
"Well, Im sure he wont do it again, Monty. Not unless I hit him so hard that he forgets it happened the first time."
"Im sure youre right, Gadget." Chip agreed. "Why dont you get some more coffee? Youre looking tired."
"I feel tired. Its only eleven and already its been a busy day." Gadget cast a look over her shoulder from the doorway. "Do you want some?"
"Coffee, Chip." Gadget turned and stared at him with questioning eyes. Chip blinked at her and seemed to pull himself out of a trance. "Hes been doing that more often lately!" Gadget mused silently to herself.
"No. Thank you, Gadget." A wry smile played on the chipmunks lips.
What was going on in that chipmunks mind? Gadget wondered. For the millionth time she wished that people were as easy to understand as complex machinery. Then she turned and disappeared into the kitchen.
As soon as Gadget had left the room, Chip and Monty put their heads together and began an urgent conversation in low voices.
"Chip, what are we going to do?" Monterey asked. "Itll break Gadgets heart if she hears what people are saying about her."
"Not just her, Monty. Us too. All the Rescue Rangers have been implicated in these crimes."
"I know what you mean, Chipper. Its getting hard to find a place that will let me buy cheese on credit. Everyone thinks I might be an impostor."
Chip wondered whether it was also because Montys appetite was bigger than his purse. "Hmmm. The pattern of fake ranger incidents seems to be working their way towards us. I wonder if thats intentional."
"Theyre out to ruin us!" Monty growled. "Thats what it is!"
"I dont think so. Some of the people that have been conned didnt even know it until word started to get around and they checked with us. If you ask me, theyre just out for booty."
"You think theyre using our reputations to get that, too?"
"I mean treasure. Swag. You know, Monty. Stuff." Mind you, Chip thought to himself, they could be. And if an angry father turns up on the doorstep in a few months time were going to have a hard time convincing anyone its nothing to do with us.
"I dont like keeping the others in the dark about this, Chip. Couldnt we tell them something?"
"Zipper already knows. He came to me the other day when he heard some bees talking on those creepers outside the bar and grill."
"You mean he heard it on the grapevine? He didnt say anything to me."
"He knows how to keep a secret." Chip smiled. "Unlike Dale."
"Gadget can keep a secret." Monty objected.
"Its her I want to keep in the dark about this. Like you said, it would break her heart if she heard what people are saying about her and its not just that. Do you remember how she was after the Lawhiney case?"
"Too right! I hate seeing her that way. Moping around all the time, wishing she had a sister or a brother to talk to. Wondering what happened to her mother and if shes really alone in the world. Gewgaw promised to tell her everything when she was old enough, but-" Monty sighed. "-Fate got in the way."
"Its a shame Gewgaw never confided in you, Monty."
"It sure is, mate. I tried to get him to open up, but he just looked awful sad and made me promise never to bring the subject up again." Monty took a deep breath and then let it out again, as though the memory weighed heavily on him.
"What do you think Gadget will say if it turns out that Lawhiney is behind all this?"
"Shell be angry at first. Like she was in Hawaii. Then shell brood forever, like she did on the flight home."
"Crikey, I dont think I could take those questions again. Are you sure she couldnt have been my sister, Monty? Did you and Dad ever visit Hawaii? Did Mom have any relatives there? And all the time, those big blue eyes staring at me." Monty looked at Chip mournfully. "The poor girl wants a family so much that shell believe anything."
Chip nodded sympathetically. "And if it had turned out to be true, she would have wanted to reform Lawhiney."
"Crikey, Chip. Whats wrong with that?"
"Nothing. But I doubt its possible. Once someone turns bad theres no way back."
"You cant say that, Chipper. You havent seen the things I have. Theres no such thing as someone being bad beyond redemption."
"I believe in miracles, Monty, I really do. Its just that I happen to think it would take one to reform a creature like Lawhiney. Or Nimnul, or Fat Cat, come to that."
"You really think shes the one impersonating Gadget?"
"Its possible. Shes got prior. But Chief Hubba Bubba said she wouldnt be able to get off the island without help and the tribe mice werent even supposed to meet her gaze. Until someone whos actually met Gadget gets fooled, we cant be sure were dealing with anything other than a beautiful girl mouse whos got a blonde wig."
Chip moved over to his desk in the corner of the living room and began to pull out his investigation tools. "Ive sent a letter to the island tribe. You know how long we could wait for a reply."
Monty nodded. "Quickest way to send a letter is to get a paint roller and enough paper redecorate your whole house and pretend whoever youre writing to is human. And then youve got to hope they go through the trash of the place you send it to so they can read it."
"I sent it the other way." Chip replied.
"You gave it to a friendly stranger heading in the right general direction?"
Chip looked up from his razor-blade penknife, contact-lens magnifier and quarter inch piece of pencil lead wrapped in sellotape. "No. I mean the other, other way. The pigeon post. Cost me my own body weight in corn."
"Thats a fortune! Where did you get that kind of birdseed to throw away?"
"I traded what Id been saving for Dales birthday for most of it, the rest I owe them. Im helping to sort mail the next three Saturdays." Chip stood up, satisfied that he had everything he wanted. "Ive got to go out and find that mouse. If hes a good witness and he still cant tell the difference between Gadget and the mouse that tricked him then well know what were facing. Plus, the last report we had was from the airfield they stole some aircraft parts from."
Chip paused to unlock the bottom draw and remove his trademark fedora hat. As part of his new stress reduction program he had been trying to break the habit of wearing it when he was not on a case but so far he had caught Dale wearing it and imitating him twice, which meant removing the hat now had the opposite effect to the one intended. Brushing a speck of draw dust from the brim, he continued.
"That was on the western border of the state, five weeks ago. I thought they were getting out while they could. If this mouse ran into them since then at a place between here and there, then that means these impostors are getting closer."
"And that means theyre out to get us, just like I said. Right, Chipper?"
"Instead of just being out for the loot. In which case its probably because they want revenge."
"Crikey! That would mean we musta crossed paths with them before."
"And since only Lawhiney could imitate Gadget out of all the criminals weve caught before, her involvement would become a certainty." Chip had reached the front door.
"Wait up, pally." Monty told him. "Im coming with you. Gadget said this fella were looking for is a big un"
They left together, both reflecting on the chaos counterfeit rangers could cause.
"Its getting harder to fool people." Brandon said. "I was about talk a shop owner into subscribing for special protection from the rescue rangers when he starts talking to the lady in front of me about how he met Chip Maplewood one time when he was giving a talk at their community centre."
"Eh, its because were getting closer to where the rangers live." Lorrie replied in his wheezy, nervous voice, which made the "I" in "live" sound like a stretched and tortured "e".
"Is that all you bums can think about?" Lawhiney whined. "Think about the danger Im in. Any of you can take off the hats, coats and shirts and disappear again."
"Thanks for the tip." Muttered Brandon.
"All the rangers have to do to find me is go around saying: Have you seen anyone who looks like our friend over there?" Lawhiney tossed her hair, petulantly. "People remember seeing a beauty like me."
Shaka Baka shook his head wearily. Lawhiney had not stopped complaining since they had finished counting their loot from the last town they had fleeced. That had been two days ago. Something had to give. Either Lawhiney would be distracted by something or the others would get up and leave. Shaka Baka wasnt the sharpest knife in the draw but seeing the same story repeated half a dozen times in a row made an impression on even him. He turned away and wondered through the six-inch crack at the bottom of the door.
They had chosen the garage of a suburban human for their latest hideout, at least, until the human came home again. They had gained access by jamming a six-inch long house brick between the base of the up and over remote controlled door and the ground as the humans car had pulled away from the drive. There were no prior residents in the garage, though the scent of a house cat was detectable under the internal door.
If he closed his eyes, he could imagine that he could hear the ocean.
Shaka missed the ocean. It reminded him of Lawhiney and Lawhiney reminded him of the ocean. They were both deep (Shaka thought), beautiful, relentless and capable of sucking you under and destroying you utterly. With a sigh, Shaka walked back into the garage only to be hopelessly netted in a newspaper page that dropped neatly onto his content challenged head.
He didnt have to yell for too long before the others came and got him.
"You dumb *%@~!" Brandon cursed. "You wouldnt know a mouse-trap from a moussaka!"
"Hey, I didnt get far enough to drop out of college." Shaka complained.
Shaka Baka had never demanded anything difficult from his accomplices, like respect, but using words he understood was on his badly written list of two items and since the first item ("There must be lots of really big waves wherever we go.") was generally met by everyone waving their hands at him before their aircraft took off, he insisted the second one was a must at all times. People had been neglecting him of late, treating him like he was trash just because he was dumb. It was time to make a stand.
Scowling, he demanded: "Whats mussaka?"
"Oh brother, you are some piece of work." Brandon sighed.
Shaka was reasonably certain that Brandon wasnt a relative. He scowled some more. "Whats mussaka?" He repeated.
There was about to be a fight, an ugly one probably involving broken teeth and stamped on tails and cries of "He started it!", but a soft voice grabbed them both by their hormones and stopped them in their tracks.
"Oh boys, I think Ive found our next job."
Lawhiney was at her most beautiful. She stood along side their aeroplane with a tattered piece of newspaper in her hands. It was triangular but big enough to show a colour picture of a pearl with a rainbow-sheen set in a circle of silver big enough to sit on a human head.
"Aw no." Brandon said. "Not human stuff."
"The Oowow of Chief Bigawan Tan Yu!" Shaka stared. "The only treasure Humans ever stole." The Hawaiian mouse sighed in wonder.
"Humans dont steal anything, except from each other!" Lorrie exclaimed.
"Humans stole this treasure, because it was the only one that anyone who wasnt human ever fought to keep." Lawhiney smiled.
"Ha! Asides from their own hide you mean!"
"Twenty warriors with spears and clamshell shields dont turn out for anyones hide." Lawhiney told him. "This pearl is the great treasure of my tribe. Before the human with the hat and the leather jacket and the snake of cow skin that lived by his hand came and stole it from us our tribe had only good fortune. And whoever returns it can do no wrong in the eyes of the tribe." Her gaze turned, significantly, to Shaka Baka.
"It is the height of a full grown warrior." Shaka announced. The photograph actually showed the pearl smaller than its actual size. The type beneath it gave the name of the museum displaying it and dates that it would be on show.
Lorrie peered at the fine print. "Part of the great treasure hoard of Pirate Captain McNamara, this tiara will be on display that the City Museum of Culture and Antiquity for three weeks as part of their theme on pirates. The tiara and other items on display are valued at over $1,800,000."
"Hmm." Brandon mused. "I wonder what the biggest haul ever taken by rodent thieves is..."
"And whoever returns it can do no wrong in the eyes of the tribe..." Lawhiney repeated.
They came to the museum where the pearl was on display in the early hours of the evening. Mice, like most small rodents, were most active in the night. Though they could visit the museum in the day hardly any chose to do so. Too many visitors might spot them scurrying in the un-swept corners and bring the wrath of humanity down on their heads. After closing time it was another story.
Museums are not completely empty after visiting hours. There are exhibits to be dusted by cleaners, floors to be mopped, displays to be set up or taken down and all by human beings. It wasnt until eleven oclock at night that the museum mice encouraged visitors. By that time only the security guards were a danger and they kept to predictable paths through the museum that they walked at exactly the same times.
Lawhiney was back in her "Gadget" disguise. With luck a museum mouse guide would be taken in and agree to tell her more about the security arrangements than a normal visitor should be told. Of course, it was a risk.
This museum was right in the heart of the Rescue Rangers territory. Having fooled Gadgets closest friends at point blank range once before Lawhiney was not worried about meeting someone who had seen the real Gadget. But this close to the Rangers back yard there was the chance that word of her visit would get back to the Rangers before they could pull off the job, or that someone who knew Gadget would show up and put her intimate knowledge of the Rangers to the test. There was even the chance that she might find herself standing alongside the real thing.
On the other hand, that would also make this job so much more satisfying. Lawhiney had a score to settle. And if a certain mechanically minded chatterbox found herself explaining things to the authorities or with a near terminal dent in her reputation when the dust settled, then that would just be the icing on the cake.
Louis liked being a museum guard. He liked the quiet and the time to himself. As he walked through the quiet hallways and display rooms he was careful to shine his torch in all the right places, check that all the doors that were supposed to be locked were locked and call in to the control room on his radio every fifteen minutes. The one thing that got on his nerves was the regular sound of his own footsteps. They always seemed to fill the whole room as though he weighed a three hundred pounds or something.
He caught sight of his reflection in a glass display cabinet. Okay, so he was a little past the point where he could "pinch an inch". He was cutting down on what he ate. He straightened his uniform and pulled back his shoulders. There, that was better. Not that he was going to meet many women tonight. Not ones who had drawn a breath in the last thousand years, anyway.
Louis continued his rounds, followed by his echoing footfalls.
Lawhiney watched the water in her paper cup carefully. Each footstep sounded like a Jurassic Park sound effect to her sensitive ears but the surface of her water was still and smooth, unlike the cup of water in the movie. Had they made that up for the film? Why was that, she mused? Her double would know, she was sure. What would she say if someone asked her? Best be brutal, fix whoever it was with a stern look and say she hadnt got time for stupid questions.
The foot falls faded into echoes along the marble hallways and the mice came out from hiding. An older mouse wearing a blue museum guide uniform stepped up on a matchbox and began speaking through his thick grey moustache in a measured monotone from which all trace of emotion had been worn away by repetition.
"Your attention everyone can I have your attention, please. Yes, everyone, even you at the back. My name is Samuel and the young lady to my right and your left is Zoë. I am the senior guide for your tour of the museum. Zoë will be assisting me. Those of you not following the prescribed tour feel free to wonder taking care to remain within scurrying distance of the shelters under each exhibit. If you have trouble running or if you are unable to see the entrance to one of these shelters, please ask Zoë or myself for assistance. The warning signal in the event of an unexpected human presence in this wing of the museum is three shrill blasts from a dog whistle. This is quite obvious to us but inaudible to humans. If you are hearing impaired please stay with a hearing friend or a guide."
Like anyone hearing impaired could hear that, Lawhiney sneered to herself. Careful to keep her face neutral, she watched Zoë carefully. The young mouse was tall and slender. She had good looks, but acted like she wasnt aware of them. Probably spent most of her life in the museum, Lawhiney thought, dreaming of the big world outside while her parents and teachers worked hard to keep her in sensible clothes when she was busy with the dull, sensible job they had picked for her. A few big lies about dangerous rescues from dashing villains will have her eating out of my hand, Lawhiney smiled.
The main tour party moved off and Lawhiney went with them. She wanted to follow them as far as the pearl before she tried to get any information on the alarm system. It wouldnt hurt to see what else was around for the taking and maybe warm up the conversation with Zoë before she worked it around to where she wanted to go. She just hoped that Gadget wasnt a regular at this place. Zoë had a wholesome quality to her and Lawhiney could imagine her getting on with the real Gadget like a house on fire.
The first exhibit was a golden urn that looked like a spittoon to Lawhiney. From the floor of the museum there wasnt much to see. The edge of the case eclipsed the lower half of the urn and what was visible looked like the end of a trumpet pointed at heaven. Lawhiney looked once at it and then watched the visitors while listening to the guides talk with half an ear in case he mentioned dollar value.
There was an old couple to her left with a contact lens camera hanging around the mans neck. Retirement or second honeymoon, Lawhiney wondered? They were safe either way. Fat vole directly in front, trying to mask her scent with a sweet perfume that Lawhiney wrinkled her nose at. Ugly mouse to her right, eating un-popped popcorn out of a paper cone; uh-oh, he was glancing over. Dont make eye contact. Darn. He had seen her look away. Now he would think she had been checking him out. Oh well, it was time she started to work her way towards Zoë anyway. And if he followed, Lawhiney could use it as an excuse to pal up with the young guide. Zoë would understand, any female would; it was a sister thing. She couldnt have been that sheltered.
Moving through the crowd, Lawhiney fixed her best winning smile on her face.
"And finally the pearl was left to the Smithsonian Institute as part of a bequest in 1991, by alleged mobster Pinkie Brice, following his untimely demise in a cement pouring accident. Since they already have several pearls, including the largest one in the world, they decided allow the crown of Tin-Can Island to tour the country so everyone could enjoy it."
Samuel had saved the big pearl and silver headband for close to the end of their tour. There were only a couple of items more impressive, one of which was a 1:4 scale pirate ship that was just big enough for mice to wonder around inside with enough room left over for their own gift shop. The model had been built especially for the exhibit and was generally passed over by human visitors. For the mice it was the main attraction and best of all it wasnt wired up to the alarm system.
Lawhiney smiled again at her new friend. Just as she had expected, all she had needed to do was smile ask a couple of dumb questions and look impressed when Zoë knew the answers. Zoë had responded well to a couple of complements, forgetting the very professionalism that Lawhiney had just praised her for. Within minutes they were talking like new friends and after a hint that the popcorn kernel-crunching mouse was an unwanted admirer they were talking like sisters. By the time Samuel had reached the end of Pearls history Zoë and Lawhiney had fallen far enough behind the tour party that they could talk like without being overheard.
"So my sister says shes going to be translator for the RAS but thats because someone told her she would get to go to Paris that way if my parents knew the real reason they would be way less keen to pay her tuition fees. Besides Im sure she has a crush on the instructor and thats where it all started. Say, whats your name, by the way?"
Lawhiney savoured the moment. Slightly amused smile, cool eye contact and a long slow blink to give Zoë think about it. The little airhead was still giving her a blank look. Oh well. "My friends call me Gadget." She said kindly.
"Oh really? I know another Gadget."
Lawhiney swallowed hard and worked to keep the smile on her face, if not in her eyes. "Oh? Do tell."
"My friends little sister. Theyre calling her after the Rescue Ranger. Or at least, they might be. It depends whether that story in the newspaper yesterday was true or not."
"The one about the money for an orphanage up north disappearing. I dont see how it could be, I mean, look at all the good work shes done."
"Oh that." Lawhiney snickered to herself, nastily.
"Nothing. Im sure theyll never bring charges. But we can always hope." Lawhiney grimaced at Zoë's blank expression and quickly added: "That whoevers really behind it will come to light and be punished, I mean."
Several expressions flickered across Zoë's face like sunshine through tree branches. Lawhiney watched; waiting to see which expression would be at the top of the deck when the shuffle ended.
"Say," Zoë began as her face settled on a mix of surprise and interest, "are you the Gadget Hackwrench?"
Lawhiney leaned closer to her with a guilty glance over each shoulder. "Dont tell anyone. Im not supposed to be here."
"Oh! This is terrific! And I was going on about some silly newspaper report that couldnt possibly be right."
"Now promise me that youll keep quiet. I can hardly go anywhere without people making a fuss and thats so embarrassing if you dont like attention."
"Of course, of course."
"What I was really interested in was the Crown of Tin Can Island. Well, not so much the crown as the alarm system. Im expected to design one you see, so Im checking out a few good ones to see how its done."
"Oh? Well, were really not supposed to "
"Dont worry about that, dear. Ive already seen the plans for it, so you dont have to say a word. I just wondered what it looked like in real life."
Of course that did it. The moment that Lawhiney implied that Zoë didnt know anything worth hearing, Zoë was bursting to tell everything she knew, just to prove she did.
Lawhiney smiled and nodded as the young guard prattled on about lasers, infrared detectors and metal detectors. She didnt understand one word in ten, but there was a microphone taped to the inside of her jumpsuit (the rest of the team had fought for the privilege of putting it there) and Lorrie was outside with a tape recorder and his own microphone in case he had to feed her any technical mumbo-jumbo.
" but the really interesting stuff is the things weve putting without the humans knowing. After all, there are rodent thieves too."
"Oh, tell me about that."
"I cant. Its top secret and I dont know most of it. I could introduce you to the chief of the watch, though. Nothing gets past him."
"Maybe later. I havent the time now." Ask again after hell freezes over, Lawhiney thought. "You seem like such a bright girl." She pretended. "Dont they tell you anything?"
Zoë let out a short laugh. "All I need to know is that when the museum is closed to visiting rodents, we have every mouse-hole crack and vent in the place shut tighter than a rat trap. Either theyre guarded, or closed off, or wired up with our own alarms."
The young guard suddenly seemed saddened. "Makes sneaking out for some fun impossible. Its like living in the smallest colony in the world, only you see people come through all the time."
"Its like that in a lot of places." Lawhiney told her, dispassionately.
"I wouldnt know. Ive never really been outside on my own."
"You were telling me about your own security." Lawhiney prompted, trying to make it sound like she was uncomfortable with the subject.
"Id finished, actually. About the only way in is the way the bats use when they feel like annoying us." Zoë jerked her head upwards and Lawhineys eyes followed the motion to a large stained glass window in top of the domed ceiling. The centre pane of the window was open and the night sky was visible outside.
"I see. Thank you youve been very helpful."
"Travelling light, I see."
Monty looked over the things Chip had methodically laid out on the living room floor. He had come in looking for Zipper, only to be told the fly was keeping watch on the door to Gadgets workshop in case she came out unexpectedly. If she did come out for a snack, which would be a first, it would be a fun job to hide all the equipment Chip had on the floor before she came in. Half of it would fit under the settee, Monty reckoned, but the rest
"Ive put together the essential things, but I dont see how I can carry it all. Maybe I should take Dale after all."
"The lad has his uses." Monty considered. "Still, hes no pack horse, thats for sure. And youd have to take equipment for him, as well."
"Approached logically, packing for a short journey like this shouldnt be any problem. But I just cant decide what to take and leave. Youve travelled, Monty. What do you think?"
"Unless youre planning to sleep rough, leave the bed roll. Thats a good three grams right there and its bulky as well. I dont think youll need the rope either. If youre some place where people need rope, theres generally some around. Unless youre out in the wilds." He went over the items Chip had planned on taking until he was left with a small bag that could be carried in one hand.
"Youve left me with my tooth brush, my lunch box and my investigators kit."
"Well, thats all you know youre going to need."
"Well, Id better put the rest of this stuff away then. Hey, Monty, could you close the door?"
"Have you thought about what Zipper and me are supposed to tell Gadget and Dale?"
"Well, you can tell Dale that Ive been abducted by aliens. But Im going to tell Gadget that Ive gone to a detective convention in the next city."
Monty scratched his head. "You sure you want to tell them two different stories like that, mate?"
Chip chuckled. "No, you tell them what ever you want. Well tell them the truth as soon as I get back from checking out those rumours about Gadget Did you hear something?"
"Yes, Chip. That I did." Monty opened the front door and Chip checked the kitchen and the hallway. "Nobody out there now." Monty shrugged.
Chip looked around one last time, wearing his "Im stubborn" expression. "Well, anyway," he continued, "we cant have people thinking that one of us is a con artist and a thief."
"What is that noise?" Monty mused. "It seems to be coming from upstairs."
"Dale is probably acting out one of his comic books again. So long as he doesnt forget he cant fly and jump out a window again."
Montys jaw dropped. "You mean to tell me he actually did that once?"
"Sure. Well, not exactly, I mean, it was before you knew him."
"Chipper, me lad, are you telling me stories?"
"He was eight. We both were. I dont want to talk about it. Its an unhappy memory. Anyway, Im going to a town called Redreach. I hear they were collecting for an orphanage and the trustee was calling herself Gadget Hackwrench. Theyre mad as bees after a bears raided the honey, by all accounts."
"You dont think theyll come here after her, for revenge, do you?"
"By the sounds of that fight Gadget got into at the hardware store, Id say it was only a matter of time."
"Then weve got to get this cleared up as fast as possible."
Chip nodded seriously. "Ill say. Did you see me trying to hide the newspaper this morning? The Park Life had an editorial on the so-called scurrilous rumours featured by a rival newspaper across town. Fortunately the Life has been singing our praises too loudly not to take our side, for now, but it cant be long before every rodent news service in the city is shouting about it."
"Its a sad commentary on our times. Theres nothing people like to read about more than a good reputation dragged through the mud."
"Most people never really earn a good or a bad reputation. Someone with a good reputation makes them feel guilty for not living better and someone with a bad reputation makes them feel like they arent doing so badly."
"I hope Gadget never hears of this. It would break her little heart. To know that people thought she was a liar and thief. Chip, weve got to stop this and make sure she never finds out."
"Shell have to be told sooner or later, but Id rather it was after whoevers behind this is safely under lock and key. And I mean their safety, too. Remember the Koo Koo Cola case? I hate to think what Gadget would do to someone who was making her out to be well, I some of the rumours Im hearing arent just calling her a liar and a thief."
There was an awkward silence between the two males. "The things some people wont say out of spite." Monty replied awkwardly.
"Im not sure it is just out of spite, Monty. Ive already overheard someone saying: "That sort of things only to be expected from a girl who lives with three unattached males" Ive even heard people sticking up for her. Saying that anyone whos going to complain about the way she lives her life ought to go out and a rescue a few people themselves first."
"I still dont think it would hurt to let her know about the situation. Better she hears it from us than some stranger."
"Darn it, Monty! Ive made my decision. Do you want to protect Gewgaw's little girl from all this, or not?"
"Well, if you put it like that Chipper "
"Good. Then its settled. Ill work the crime scene; as soon as I have a good idea where we can catch them Ill come and get you and the others."
"Maybe. Id rather present her with the whole thing wrapped up and done with."
Monty stroked his moustache thoughtfully. "That would impress her, right enough."
Chip froze guiltily and then gave Monty a sheepish grin. "Oh, do you think so, Monty?"
Monty towered over the young chipmunk. "Now see here, Chipper, if youve got me keeping secrets from Gadget just so you can impress her "
"No! That's not the only reason- I mean, you know how badly it got to her the last time someone impersonated her and we didn't realise. This will make up for it."
"I know how badly it got to you, you mean."
Chip wrestled the flat bedroll back into a roll, which he fastened with a pipe cleaner. "Well, it affected all of us to be made fools of like that."
"Some of us were bigger fools than others, as I recall "
Monty's voice trailed off as he followed Chip into the hall, leaving the living room almost empty. There was a pause, then a sigh of relief from the direction of the ceiling.
Gadget was suspended by her latest invention; a set of lever and spring actuated climbing grips. Being upside down is uncomfortable for a mouse at the best of times and Gadget was loosing the feeling in her fingers. Perhaps she should call Chip and Monty back to help her. The safety straps binding the grippers to her arms and legs were tight for safety, but they had cut off her circulation. If she lost her grip on the lever that kept the grippers closed she would fall.
She looked up. Or rather, down.
The drop wasn't far, but it would hurt if she landed badly.
Mice do not climb as well as chipmunks or squirrels and sometimes living in a tree house was more of a curse than a blessing to her and Monty, who had to climb the stairs instead of scampering up the bark anyway they wanted. She could think of several occasions on rescues where being able to follow Chip or Dale somewhere mice couldn't climb would have been an advantage. So she had devised her "climb-anywhere-hand-and-foot-grips (mark 2)" to rectify the problem. She had achieved the test run's goal of going from the top of the oak tree to the bottom and then back up again when she realised that she would need help to take the grippers off, as they were fastened to her arms and legs with pipe cleaners.
Monty had been sitting just outside the front door enjoying the view, but had turned around and gone inside again just as Gadget got within speaking distance. She had followed with an impish smile but once in she had found herself in a quandary.
It was wrong to eavesdrop, particularly on your friends and especially (for some reason Gadget had never quite understood) when you were the topic of conversation. She had also quickly realised that her two friends were talking about something they had kept from her (something friends weren't supposed to do) and that making her presence known would embarrass them and make it look as if she had been spying on them. She also knew that Chip and Monty were both moral people and couldn't possibly want to keep secrets from her, which meant that if she heard their conversation they would not be.
Gadget had applied a complex kind of moral algebra she kept for just such occasions to the problem but the equation turned out to be surprisingly difficult, especially the part that dealt with two wrongs not making a right, when everyone knew that in algebra two negatives did equal positive. Meanwhile, down below, Chip and Monty had finished their conversation and left the room.
Gadget shelved the unfinished equation for later, in case she got bored or found herself in the same situation again. There's always Dale, she thought. I could ask him to help get these things off.
There was a faint ping from the direction of her right ankle.
Gadget had confidence in her ability as an engineer. She was also willing to accept that quite often the things she built didn't work, occasionally in spectacular ways. This sort of thing was part of developing any new device, she told herself, and in no way a reflection on her ability as an inventor or a mechanic.
The ping was followed by a drawn out metallic creak from the device strapped to her left arm, which promptly fell apart.
Gadget opened her mouth to scream for help. If they ran, Monty, or preferably Chip, might make it in time to catch her. Then the spring on the device strapped to her right leg broke and the device on her left leg lost its grip on the ceiling. Gadget's scream became a gulp of apprehension as she swung by one hand. Briefly.
Gadget grimaced and sucked air through her teeth, because when you're a mouse it's not a good idea to bite your lip. Thankfully, she had lifted her tail before she landed, or she would have landed squarely on it. Instead she had landed on the best padded, but sadly most sensitive part of her lower anatomy. She took a moment to wait for the pain to start before moving, hoping that it would be bruise pain and not broken bone pain when it arrived.
"Ow, ow, ow, ow. Oh, thank heaven." She said, when she was fairly sure nothing was broken. "Ouch. Dad, if that was you reminding me not to listen in on other people's conversations, the point is taken."
The spring loaded climbing grip had been fixed to her right arm and had remained imbedded in the ceiling when she fell. For some reason, it had chosen that moment to come loose and fall. She had used hypodermic needles for the gripper's fingers, which made the finished article look like something from "Nightmare on Elm Street". It really was very lucky, Gadget reflected, that she hadn't landed with her legs together or it would have just stapled her to the floor.
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