The Return of the Stone
Part 5

Feeling a light tap against his foot, Baloo looked down. It was one of Buzz's latest inventions - a robotic floor sweeper/polisher. The round, beetle-like machine, which gurgled like a coffee machine, glided on a rotating polishing pad. It had two vacuum hoses that stuck out its sides like two arms. It repeatedly, relentlessly bumped against Baloo's foot.

Shooting a sly grin at Trader Moe, Baloo dropped the stone. It was sucked up by one of the vacuum hoses, crunched up into a million fragments like ice in an ice-crusher, then 'swallowed' with a loud 'slurp'. Without knowing that it had done anything wrong, the robot continued on its merry, mechanical way around the corner of the corridor.

Everyone's jaws dropped in amazement.

"Da stone!" cried Trader Moe. Distracted by the appalling turn of events, he lowered his handgun. Molly bit her captor's hand and kicked him in the shins hard, prompting a loud, "OW! Stupid kid!" from the alligator. The little girl ran like crazy into her mother's outstretched arms.

"My career - crushed to dust!" shouted Leo Stedman. In a flash, he took off after the robot.

"Baloo," Rebecca gasped, hugging Molly tightly; "I can't believe you did that. All that money..."

"Aw, it was nuthin', honey," he said with an enigmatical twinkle in his eyes. The big bear slung an arm around Kit's shoulder and grinned down at the boy.

But their smiles quickly faded.

Glaring at the four bears, Trader Moe said menacingly, "Youse just cost me a load of cash."

"A load of cash," echoed Rhino Goon, frowning.

"No money," added Ape Goon.

"Now yer gonna pay for it," Trader Moe growled.

As he and his goons slowly closed in on the four bears, guns at the ready, Baloo pushed Rebecca and the cubs behind him.

"Freeze!" shouted a panther security guard.

As if on cue, one hundred security officers - all look-alike grey panthers - poured out of the elevators, the stairways, and the hallways from all directions.

"He told us to freeze," said Ape Goon. "I'm not cold."

"Me, neither," agreed Rhino Goon, shrugging his broad shoulders. "But dere's some ice in da food place. Dat would make us cold."

The head security officer ordered, "Put up your hands and put down your weapons."

"What do we do first?" Ape Goon asked Rhino Goon.

"Uh...put up da hands, I think," answered Rhino Goon, more confused than usual by all of the firearms pointed at himself. He wasn't used to being on that end of the gun.

Trader Moe slid his gun towards the security guards and raised his hands. However, the stupid goons raised their hands, still holding their firearms.

"Put down the guns!" yelled one security guard.

"But put up your hands!" shouted a second security guard.

"But put the guns down!" said the first security guard.

The goons raised and lowered their hands until they didn't know which way was up or down. "Whatta we do, boss?" they finally murmured.

"AGH!" Trader Moe snatched the guns from the goons, roughly backhanded them across the snouts, and screamed, "Put yer hands up now, ya ding-dongs!"

Rhino Goon and Ape Goon grinned at each other. "Oh, we gets it!"

While the threesome were handcuffed and being led away by the security officers, Trader Moe pleaded, "Incarcerate me fer life. Put in me in solitary confinement. Just don't make me spend the next ten ta twenty with dose dumb goons!"

After the crowd of officers had dispersed, Baloo, Rebecca, Kit, and Molly trooped into the elevator.

"Thank goodness that's over," Kit mumbled, wearily leaning against the elevator wall.

"Did you see Trader Moe jump around when I kicked him?" Molly giggled. "That was funny."

Rebecca caught the little girl's hand in hers. "Your being held at gunpoint wasn't funny, Pumpkin."

"Goin' up!" Baloo sang, pushing the button for the topmost floor.

"Why?" Rebecca and Kit cried.

Grinning, Baloo pulled the sub-electron amplifier from his pocket and kissed it. "I told ya it was nuthin', Becky."

"But...but...how?" She shared a quizzical look with Kit.

"That other sparkler was a fake I got at Louie's Treasure Island blowout. This here's the real deal. The ol' switcheroo. Richville, here we come!"

"Woo-hoo!" the cubs cried.

Shere Khan's Office

When the elevator doors opened on the far end of his opulent office, Shere Khan swivelled in his chair, saying laconically, "You're fifty-four minutes late, Stedman." He snapped his pocket watch shut. His eyes narrowed when he saw the four bears. "What are you doing here?"

"Uh, I think we got somethin' you wanna see, Khanny," Baloo said, holding out the stone.

Khan's steady gaze passed from bear to bear to bear to bear. His right eyebrow lifted questioningly, but all he said was, "I see."

Ten minutes later, Rebecca sat in the low-seated armchair in front of the desk with Molly on her lap. Lightly leaning against Rebecca's shoulder was Kit. He, perched on the arm of the chair, watched as Baloo paced back and forth, wringing his cap in his hands. They waited quietly, yet impatiently, while the stone's inventor, Dr. Debolt, a small apricot-colored rabbit with a shock of grey hair wearing a white lab coat, scrutinized the stone under a magnifying glass.

"Well, Dr. Debolt? Is it authentic?" Khan drawled, peering over his large desk at the scientist.

The rabbit's small head was comically large as he looked through the magnifying glass at his boss. "It seems to be, Mr. Khan, but this method of testing is inconclusive. To be absolutely, one hundred percent sure, I'll need to do further testing on it."

"And what, pray tell, would that be?"

Dr. Debolt pushed his round spectacles up on his nose and counted on his fingers. "X-rays and fluoroscopes and microscopes and electroscopes and stethoscopes and..."

Khan interrupted with, "Mmm-yes. And how long will this testing take?"

"Three," Dr. Debolt smeared some floor wax around on the stone, perplexed; "maybe four weeks."

"Four weeks?" Baloo exclaimed, slumping over the back of the chair, dangling his cap right in front of Rebecca's face. Peeved, she snatched the cap out of his hands and shoved it on his head.

"Oh, yes. It's a very involved, delicate process." Dr. Debolt examined the stone for a few minutes more under the magnifying glass before saying, "Or I could just do this." The scientist tossed the stone into a nearby metal trash can where it sent up sparks. "It's authentic," he declared.

"Very good, Dr. Debolt."

"Mr. Khan, about the bomb-in-a-bubble machine - I think we'll be able to salvage..."

Shere Khan picked up the scientist by his long ears and shoved a wad of paper in his mouth. Patiently, yet pointedly, he reiterated, "Thank you, Dr. Debolt. You may leave now. We'll discuss that invention later." As the small rabbit scurried from the room, the businessman turned to the four bears with a rare, almost friendly, smile on his face. "I suppose the reward of one hundred thousand dollars that I offered previously is still acceptable?"

"It's more than acceptable, Khanny," said Baloo, grinning from ear to ear.

Khan pulled a gold key from his vest pocket. He unlocked the bottom desk drawer and drew out a small, metal box. He twirled the combination lock on the box and pulled out a second, smaller metal box. That box contained a small whistle. Putting the whistle to his lips, he played a fast, high-pitched tune.

To the four bears' astonishment, a safe sprang up from the jungle on the left side of the room. Khan went to the safe and unlocked three combination locks, being careful to avoid the snapping Venus flytraps. He opened the safe door just wide enough to grab a handful of cash.

Shere Khan counted and recounted out 100,000 in one hundred dollar bills, which he handed to Rebecca. He closed the safe door with a reverberating 'clang', causing it to sink slowly back into the jungle. He once again sat at his desk, locked both boxes, placed them back in the drawer, and placed the key in his vest pocket. "Thank you for your services," Khan said simply, swiveling around in his chair to face the window. That was their cue to leave.

"No, thank you, Mr. Khan," Rebecca said, repressing her glee.

After they stepped into the elevator, Khan pressed the intercom button. "Mrs. Snarly, the treasure hunters are leaving." He fished the stone from the trash can and leaned back in his chair to study the sub-electron amplifier, sparkling in the sunshine, with satisfaction.

In the elevator, Rebecca fanned herself with the money. She giggled giddily. "What are we going to do with all of this?"

Baloo took the money from her and hugged it. "The question is what ain't we gonna do, Becky."

One floor down, the elevator doors opened. Mrs. Snarly, an elderly, but spry, shrew wearing a lavender dress with her grey hair in a neat pompadour stood there. She held a piece of paper that trailed to the floor. In a no-nonsense manner, she said briskly, "Before you leave, there are a few expenditures we need to go over. One burnt carpet, one can of floor wax, damage to Mr. Khan's top-secret projects, cleanup in the cafeteria, one apple pie, repairs for the laboratory wall, wear and tear on the elevators..." As she read the list of damages, she ruthlessly plucked money from Baloo's hands.

Their mouths agape, the four bears watched as their pile of money dwindled.

When Mrs. Snarly finally said, "Thank you," and walked away with most of their money, they all looked at the four 100 bills in Baloo's hands.

"Well, at least she left us something," Kit murmured under his breath.

Mrs. Snarly spun around. "Oh, I forgot to take into account emotional trauma on our employees." She yanked two more bills from Baloo.

Muttering, "She's not getting any more of our money!" Rebecca grabbed the remaining 200 from Baloo and shoved it in her pants pocket. She repeatedly pushed the 'close door' button.

All four bears blinked when they stepped out of Khan Towers into the bright afternoon sunshine. Kit glanced at his watch. They had only been in that building for an hour and a half, but it seemed as if they had spent days on that wild goose chase. He couldn't believe that just that morning he and Baloo had been to Port Allegro delivering peanut butter and jelly.

Sliding behind the wheel of the grey Chevrolette, Baloo said, "Man, it feels good ta get off my dogs. They're sure barkin' somethin' fierce."

In the backseat, Molly yawned. She looked like she was ready for a nap, which was unusual for the energetic little girl. "That was a lot of running."

"I'm definitely ready for track practice," Kit added, stretching out his sore legs. "I could run the mile no problem."

"All that exercise for only a measly two hundred smackers," Baloo mumbled angrily, starting the car.

"It's better than coming out with nothing," Kit reminded him. "Been there, done that."

Baloo grinned at the boy in the rearview mirror. "Done that several times too many, kid. Well, Beckers, it looks like you got your dress."

Rebecca, who had been happily gazing at the money that she clutched in her hands, shot a surprised glance over at her fiancé. "Are you sure that's what you want to spend it on, Baloo?"

"After a chase that crazy, that two hundred dollars deserves ta be spent on somethin' just as crazy."

Rebecca threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. "You won't think I'm crazy after you see me in that dress, darling."

Returning her affectionate smile and hug, Baloo murmured, "Yeah, then I'll be crazy 'bout you."

She regained her seat on the passenger side of the car and grinned joyfully down at the money. "I guess that stone brought us a little luck after all."

"Lucky for us, we got outta that jam alive." Easing the car into traffic, Baloo asked, "Who's up for some grub? I'm starvin'!"

Back to Shere Khan's Office

A contrite, bedraggled Leo Stedman tiptoed across the office to where the stern-looking tiger businessman was seated behind his desk. Cupped in the agent's hands was a mound of red glass shards. He poured the shards onto the desk. "Mr. Khan, I've got the stone - er, what's left of it."

Khan looked with amused derision down at the pitiful pile of glass. "Do you? That's most interesting."

"Yes, sir." The agent failed to see what was so interesting about glass.

"Then what is this?" Khan waved the sub-electron amplifier under Stedman's nose.

Bewildered, Stedman's eyes flitted from the stone to the red fragments that he had a terrible time extracting from the robot as the rips in his suit attested to. At that moment, his extra-large ego deflated. He stuttered, "I...I...I don't know, sir. H...how did you get that?"

"Someone was kind enough to deliver it to me," Khan added coldly, "unlike the paperclip man."

"How did you know about that?" Stedman squeaked, sinking into the low chair.

Complacently, Khan studied the stone in his hand. "I am aware of everything that goes on in my building, Mr. Stedman. So...you were seen after I specifically told you not to be seen?"

"Yes, Mr. Khan, but...but only by a little girl and..."

"It has been my experience that little girls are quite capable of telling the police what - and who - they saw."

"But..."

"Mr. Stedman, you have disappointed me severely." Khan flicked out his claws on his left paw. "And I have ways of dealing with," raking his claws across the desktop, he shot a pointed glance at the agent; "disappointments."

"You're not going to fire me?" Leo Stedman murmured, cringing.

"No." Khan smiled a secret smile at the stone. Ambiguously, he said, "I have another mission for you."

Two Weeks Later

Dog Rather announced over the radio, "Monday, billionaire and CEO of Khan Industries, Shere Khan, will be present at the opening of his new power plant located in the Sierra Padre mountains. According to Mr. Khan, this revolutionary process can produce ten times the energy more efficiently and a thousand times cheaper than conventional methods. It is reported to be able to provide enough electricity to power all businesses associated with Khan Industries. In other news..."

Leo Stedman irately flipped off the tiny pocket radio and drop-kicked it across the room. It was no mystery as to why he was angry.

The once dashingly dressed lion was now wearing plain brown overalls with burn marks on the sleeves. Instead of being in Rio de Jalepeño, he was in an enormous warehouse-sized building filled with large batteries - each as big as a Thembrian panzer. Every one of those batteries was wired to a single diamond-shaped metal cage that was suspended five feet off the floor in the middle of the room. Inside the metal cage was the sub-electron amplifier. It sent a continuous stream of electricity through the cage, through the wires, to all of the batteries. In turn, the batteries were connected to wires leading to Cape Suzette.

With a scorch-pocked white cloth and a pair of rubber gloves in his hand, Stedman listlessly leaned against one of the batteries. Frowning, he watched the scientists as they performed their last minute tests in preparation for the grand opening.

Dr. Debolt said, "The electrical output isn't at maximum potential. The sub-electron amplifier needs to be polished again." He gestured to Leo Stedman, whose title was now 'Official Stone Polisher'.

Donning the hated rubber gloves that made his hands sweat, Stedman tentatively put his arm between the bars of the wire cage and half-heartedly rubbed the stone's crackling surface. Leaning in to reach the other side of the stone, his tawny hair accidentally touched the stone, causing it to be singed. He sprang back and pinched the smoldering lock of hair. A chunk of blackened hair fell like ashes to the floor. It wasn't the first time that that had happened. "Stupid stone!" he grumbled, near tears over the horrible fate of his once perfect, cherished hair.

The End