In recent times the proliferation of a certain kind of lawyer has made copyright disclaimers necessary on most, if not all, fan produced material that relates to any kind of character that someone, somewhere, might possibly have thought of before. As anyone likely to ever read this story will know, almost all the main characters in this story (in particular, the cast of Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers and Basil the Great Mouse Detective) have definitely been thought of before, copyrighted, and used in various television and cinema productions that are owned by the Walt Disney Company. The author makes no claim to have any rights of any kind to these characters and is not making any money from the creation or distribution of this story, in whole or in part (I should be so lucky). Readers may copy and distribute but not make money from this story and are asked not to alter the content (like I could find you and stop you if you did). Just in case all that's not enough, I should point out that suing me would be highly unprofitable for anyone… except a certain kind of lawyer.
Haggs dragged Gadget through the devastated and darkened hallways of Shrankshaw Prison, without the slightest care whether there was anyone to see her or what she was doing to the unfortunate prisoner in her charge.
Gadget set her teeth against the pain from the arm lock. For her part, while Haggs didn't care who saw them, Gadget was dismayed how few people there were to witness the way she was being treated and how few of the people who were there paid any attention. Alarmingly, of the few looks the pair did attract on their way to solitary, some were leers.
Haggs practically flung Gadget through an iron doorway into a small white room. The floor was a single human shower tile and matched the ceiling and walls perfectly in size and decoration. The only difference between any of the surfaces was the door they had come in through, a sink in one corner, the light fixture and a terrifyingly stained and dirty drain in the centre of the floor.
Gadget's stomach became a hard, frightened knot that threatened to double her over ahead of schedule. She shivered and tried not to throw up.
Haggs was easily head and shoulders taller than Gadget. With one hand the prison officer pushed the mouse out into the centre of the room and slammed the door on them both.
Gadget wanted so badly not to embarrass herself or give way to this bullying rat who she had learned to hate so much. Hate itself was uncomfortable for her but irresistible after she had suffered so much. She was utterly helpless.
Haggs watched her victim's eyes roll for a moment or two before laughing. "There's no way out, scum. You're all mine in here."
Gadget felt her lips move but her pleas were stillborn because the fear had her chest in a vice. She was ready to get down on her knees and beg for mercy and she didn't care what anyone thought of her any more. She would have begged Haggs for mercy in front of her friends, in front of Bubbles, in front of her parents, in front of a crowd of reporters taking notes and photographs.
"Take off your shirt." Haggs said.
Gadget cringed and fumbled at her shirt. She could feel her last reserves of self-control slipping away. The buttons, so simple that most people wouldn't even consider them machines, were suddenly defeating her feeble attempts to undo them.
Haggs advanced on her pityingly. "Not so smart now, are you?"
Gadget sank to her knees and heard herself begin to mummer words even she couldn't understand.
"Take it off." Haggs ordered a second time.
Gadget balled the shirt up and held it protectively in front of her self, close to her chest.
"My, such a modest little thing now. No one would ever guess you were capable of putting up a fight like that in the laundry room."
Fight. Yes, that was it, fight. She should fight Haggs. Except that her entire body was shaking with exhaustion after her acrobatics in the laundry room and Haggs was fresh, armed and bigger than her. She wouldn't stand a chance like this and Haggs would have all the permission she needed to beat her with in an inch of her life.
Haggs reached out and took the shirt away with out any difficulty at all. "Now the rest."
Gadget shuddered and complied, leaving the last vestiges of her pride crumpled on the floor.
"Stand up properly, you snivelling little wretch." Haggs sneered.
Gadget stood to attention miserably, her arms by her side. The end of Haggs' night stick punched her sharply in the solar plexus. Gadget sank, winded.
"I said stand up properly." Haggs ordered again.
Gadget looked at her in disbelief and tried to stand. She was too slow for Haggs' liking. Haggs reached out with her free hand and slapped Gadget in the face, hard enough to make her step back. As Gadget stepped back, Haggs stepped forward and slapped her again.
"Come on. You're still not standing properly, are you?"
Gadget tried to straighten again but it just made it harder to roll with the force of the next blow.
"You've got to learn to do as your told."
Before Gadget knew what had happened she had taken one step back after the other until the cold, sterile tiled wall was against her back and she had no where to go.
The slaps were hard enough to sting but Gadget had taken harder hits, some of them from Haggs. What made these slaps hurt more than anything else she could remember was the helpless feeling of not being able to hit back.
Haggs paws were on her suddenly. The strong clawed fingers and thumb of one hand easily cupped her whole face, squeezing the cheeks together until Gadget's jaw was forced open wide enough for Haggs to look inside. Satisfied the guard relaxed her grip enough for Gadget to close her mouth.
"I tried tell you nicely when that detective tried to visit, trying to offer you an easy time in exchange for a little information. You don't get easy time in here, not if you're on my hit list."
"Tell me what?" Gadget almost sobbed.
Haggs used her grip on Gadget's face to sharply rap her head against the wall in time to her words.
"This is my prison." Crack!
"Not the Warden's." Crack!
"Not yours." Crack!
"Some people just have to learn the hard way. Still, we can't expect much in the way of brains from a blonde, can we? You're probably slow, aren't you?"
Gadget closed her eyes and tried to turn her head away.
"Tell me how slow you are. I want to hear you say it like you mean it." Haggs smirked.
"I'm not slow or stupid. I know lots of thi–" Haggs punched her in the belly and Gadget folded clutching her middle.
"Not got so much to say for yourself now, have you?" Haggs gloated savagely.
Gadget suddenly discovered a truth that had been hidden from her. This place, the room, the prison and everything that happened in it truly did belong to Haggs and she to them. This prison was Haggs territory. Gadget had territory too. She knew machines and mechanics as well as Haggs knew regulations and brutality, that was the ground she was strongest on and that was where she retreated now, just as she had in the laundry when she was threatened.
Admittedly she couldn't see what advantage an advanced understanding of mechanical engineering and applied physics would give her in this situation but she felt stronger for the insight and the knowledge it gave her.
"I know lots of things." Gadget mumbled from the floor and waited for the kick. It didn't come. Fearfully she peaked back and up at the white rat and saw to her horror that Haggs was taking off the leather belt from her uniform jacket.
"Do tell." Haggs said conversationally as she folded the belt into a vicious loop.
"The iron that fell. It was a vintage 1976 General Electric automatic steam iron, probably manufactured in their Minnesota plant. It weighs 5lbs when it's dry and 7lb when it's full of water." Gadget heard herself say it before she knew what the words meant or why she was saying them.
"What?" Haggs' eyes widened in confusion as she tried to make sense of what the crazed mousemaid was talking about.
Gadget's voice rose as she became more confident. "The lifting mechanism that raised and lowered it used two nine-inch lengths of Whipperman traditional brushing type bicycle trains from a six speed full width freewheel bicycle and they were almost certainly made in West Germany; the chain-wheels they were strung across were 3/32 inch, eighteen tooth sprockets."
Haggs looked at her in bewilderment. "So?"
"Do you think these are things that a crazy person would know?"
Haggs laughed. "I think they're things that only a crazy person would know!"
"They're things an engineer would know. I know them because I'm an engineer. I know them because I'm Gadget Hackwrench."
Haggs let the end of the vicious loop of leather she held in her paw flop down to caress Gadget's cheek. "That routine got you in here. I wouldn't count on it to get you out."
"Do you think a crazy knows enough self defence to fight off a whole mob single handed?"
"Everyone knows crazy people have the strength of any three normal people." Doubt entered Haggs eyes for the first time. Gadget persisted.
"Why do you think they wanted to tear me apart in the first place?"
"Your winning personality, no doubt." Haggs sneered but Gadget could see that she was thinking about it.
"A new inmate? A WHOLE MOB? The first time most of them had laid eyes on me?"
"They thought you had betrayed Bubbles." Haggs sounded dismissive but Gadget could see the cogs turning. The white rat was thinking about it.
"Maybe you don't believe it right now but you are about to assault a Rescue Ranger and one day you aren't going to have any choice but to believe it. It would be better for you if you faced up to it now because when the truth comes out the people who have been mixed up in this will two kinds of heads; the kind that roll and the kind that don't. Which group do you want to be a part of?" Gadget put as much force of will into the challenge as she could and still felt her voice tremble.
"I tell you what," Haggs said after a moments thought. "I'll give you a stay of execution. And in return you'll give me a way to prove to my own satisfaction that you're telling the truth. I'll take tomorrow off and spend it checking your story out."
"That's more than anyone else has done for me." Gadget gave credit where it was due.
"If I find proof you're telling the truth, I WILL get you out of here… but only in return for your silence about everything you've learned goes on in Shrankshaw Prison."
Gadget hesitated. Could she stay silent about what she knew about Shrankshaw Prison? Then again, could she ever bear to tell anyone about the horrors and humiliations that she had suffered?
"Well? Have you got anything to tell me? Or shall I now pronounce sentence?" Haggs snapped the looped belt against her paw a couple of times in a business-like manner and then let it fall against Gadget's bare back under it's own weight.
Gadget cringed and racked her brains. If only she had more time to think about how to prove her claims – Golly, she had spent time thinking about how to prove herself innocent! She'd done practically nothing else for the first two – admittedly heavily sedated – days in this place! She just had to pick one – but which one? WHICH ONE?
"Nothing more to tell me then? I didn't really think so…" Haggs raised the leather belt.
"Jennifer Talbert-Hall, lives in apartment 23b under the human building on the corner of West 34th Street and Elk Avenue, over on the west side of town by the Gold Pagoda Theatre and the bar where I was arrested."
"What about her?" Haggs frowned. "Didn't she give evidence at your trial?"
"Yes, but she was upset and tired and she wasn't wearing her glasses and I wasn't wearing…" Gadget broke off and her eyes went wide. Why hadn't she thought of that earlier?
"The little red dress. The one I was wearing when I was brought here. It was one she loaned me. My lawyer loaned me something respectable for the trail but I had to give it back when the trail ended. It should be in stores or something for when I get out."
"The clothes you were wearing when you arrived here were reeking of human sewage. They may have already been destroyed." Haggs mused.
Gadget shrank with dismay. "What about the shoes, the earrings, the necklace? They were all Jen's. Surely something that survived she would recognise?"
Haggs looked into the eyes of the terrified mouse on the floor and held her gaze for several seconds. "Kiss the end of my tail while I think about it."
Gadget's breathing stopped with horror.
"Not much ask surely, to get out of here?" Haggs pointed out, bringing the end of her long thick hairless tail round in front of her own body for Gadget's inspection. "Besides, I want to know that you're serious about wanting me to do this; otherwise how do I know that you're not just sending me on a wild gouda chase to buy yourself a little time?" Haggs wore a frightening smile.
Gadget tried to say that Haggs couldn't be serious but choked on the words.
She had no choice.
And she knew it.
Gadget knew they had been heading upwards and therefore towards the surface and the human prison above Shrankshaw, since Haggs took charge of her in the laundry.
The waters from the flood - her flood - had effected every part of the prison below the laundry. Many of the areas above the laundry were naturally dank anyway, due to Shrankshaw's proximity to a human drainage and sewer system. It seemed, perversely, that her punishment was to be locked safely away in the only warm and dry place left in the prison.
That, plus anything else Haggs did to her while she was here.
They came to the opening of a human made pipe about six inches in diameter.
"In here." Haggs briskly instructed.
The pipe branched off in several directions. Each smaller side tunnel was about two feet apart and about four inches in diameter, but had been closed off from the main pipe by a round plug of lead. In the centre of each plug was a doorway just barely tall enough for Gadget to go through without stooping. The doors themselves were heavy metal with a single square letterbox cut into them for guards to view the prisoner.
Any human that excavated this part of the prison would mistake it for part of the prison drainage system, be at most a little curious about why these pipes weren't connected to any other pipes before dismissing it as a mistake on the part of the original builders. He would never imagine that he was looking at the solitary-confinement cells for a rodent penitentiary, cells that might even still contain inmates who had been abandoned to their fate when human digging was detected.
"Say hello to your new neighbour, everyone." Haggs called out with a nasty smile. Then she murmured directly into Gadget's ear. "I'm sure they'll be glad to lay eyes on you again. Perhaps they'd like to lay a few other things on you as well, after the turn you did them this morning."
"Who is it?" One of the twins was a faint echo on the edge of Gadget's hearing, coming from the cell at the end of the corridor.
"What do you want?" The other twin's voice was barely audible, coming from the furthest cell in the other direction.
Gadget knew immediately that Haggs had remained dry because she had been the one to take the twins to solitary after what must have been a very short interview with the Warden Phelps. True to her usual form, Haggs had installed the twins at opposite ends of the corridor to ensure there was no chance of them exchanging any words of comfort during their stay, which was likely to be a long one. After the way she had repaid them for their attempt to help her this morning, Gadget had no doubt they would want to lay paws on her.
Haggs seemed disappointed.
"Please. It can't be midnight again already." Bubbles' voice was muffled and indistinct but unmistakable behind the nearest metal door.
"McGee." Haggs smiled. She reached out a long arm and snapped the inspection hatch open. "I've got a little visitor for you. She must like you, she just can't say away."
"Who is it?" Bubbles whispered. One of her eyes became visible through the block of darkness Haggs had opened in the door. When Bubbles saw who Haggs was holding the eye widened and Gadget could see that in the darkness of the cell Bubbles' pupils had grown so big enough to turn her whole eye inky black. "Red? Is that you?"
Haggs shoved Gadget towards the tiny window. "Say hello to your friend. Or goodbye. If the deal she made with me stands up then she'll be out of Shrankshaw before you're back doing laundry."
Haggs had pushed Gadget close enough to window to smell blood from inside the cell. "Bubbles! Are you alright?"
"What? What are you doing here? Leave her out of this, Haggs, she's no good to you –"
"Oh, I think she is. You were willing to take the heat for her, so I think there's plenty of good she can do me. Tomorrow I'm going to check up on a friend she says can identify her. Then, baring the minor miracle that she turns out to actually be Gadget Hackwrench, I'm going to see just how much heat you're willing to let her take before you tell me where your cut is from the palmtops in that warehouse robbery."
Bubbles' single, ink black eye turned back to Gadget. "Couldn't you keep out of trouble for five minutes without me?"
Gadget hung her head. "I'm sorry Bubbles. I guess I couldn't."
"I'm not telling you where my cut is, Haggs. Not for ANYONE." Bubbles told both of them. "That was for my kids."
"I find out your kids get any part of what you made from that robbery and I'll see them in here as accessories after the fact." Haggs vowed and she took Gadget by the arm and dragged her down the corridor to the next cell.
Haggs turned a simple knob on the door and opened the empty cell. Gadget had the briefest glance at the locking mechanism. She took in the fact that there was no knob or handle on the inside of the door and that she would not be able to reach the knob on the outside even if she could get her arm through the observation hatch. Then she saw how dark and dirty the inside of the cell was and recoiled.
Haggs fingers dug deeply into Gadget and the young mouse felt herself being lifted from the ground. Then Haggs threw her through the door and into the oblivion beyond.
"There should be a thimble bucket in there with you. It might still be full from the last tenant. Try not to knock it over or I'll stand over you while you scrub the whole cell spotless from top to bottom... on the day we let you out."
Haggs' voice was brash and bullying but now that Gadget was cloaked in the blackness of the cell the big rat was already losing interest. Out of sight, out of mind, Gadget mused to herself.
She held up a paw. She could see it by the light filtering through the inspection hatch from the corridor. She heard Haggs first few footsteps away and then the all sound of the guard was lost in the distance. A moment later the corridor light went out. Gadget couldn't see her paw any more and even though it was still right in front of her and she had been looking at it less than a second before, she found herself questioning her memory of what it looked like, wondering if the details were accurate.
Chip Maplewood, detective and leader of the small but efficient band of do-gooders known as the Rescue Rangers, pulled the brim of his hat down to cover his eyes.
He was trying to look like he was on a case and meant business, but at that moment his chief concern was avoiding eye contact with passing two orderlies, both of whom had black eyes and good cause to remember him from his last visit to the hospital. He hoped that they had forgotten exactly who was to blame for their bruises, but he suspected the capture Brandon the kidnapper would be a thing of hospital legend for years to come.
Just in case the pair still harboured hard feelings, he hid in the shadows under the brim of his fedora and made an effort to look tough until they had passed. When they did pass, it was without giving him a second glance, and he watched their retreating backs with a sigh of relief.
Leaning back against the wall, he turned his thoughts back to Gadget and to the examination that was taking place in the room behind him.
Distracting and tempting though the mental image was and should have been, the thought of Her body being gently and intimately examined just a few inches away from him wasn't enough to keep Chip's thoughts from returning to the case he had been working for the last week.
Dale's right, he thought despairingly, I'm a workaholic. The thought of Dale being right put a sour smile on his face. Just last night Dale had claimed to believe in the old superstition flies could see the dead. Chip had pointed out this was because flies needed dead things for food and sometimes that included people but Dale had not budged from his position. Chip was sure Dale was only like that to annoy him.
Something else Dale had said came back to him. "Gadget sure is different since she came back from hospital. Like she's a different person or something."
Monty had told him to hush up in case she heard and then he had muttered something about her having been through a lot. You'll understand at the right time, he had said. Understand what, Dale had wanted to know?
Chip had been too distracted by the following argument at the time to realise he couldn't have answered Dale's question if he wanted to. Now his ignorance nagged at him like an old injury in bad weather.
Just what did Monty know – or think he knew – that they didn't? Had she told him a story that made sense of it all…?
He wondered because Dale was right about one thing. Gadget sure was different since she came back from the hospital. Almost like she was a different person.
The Gadget who had come back from hospital was a grumbling recluse who seemed to have nightmares every night. Dale had moodily joked that it made her a better match for Chip than ever. Chip had asked if that meant Dale was finally admitting that he didn't stand a chance with her, but neither 'munk's heart had been in the quarrel.
They didn't fight so much since the new Gadget got back from the hospital. At first they had agreed an unspoken truce that having both almost lost her, they would share her for a while at least. But that had passed. Now they just didn't fight over her. Something had gone out of the tree house since Gadget's accident and suddenly it was as if there was nothing to fight over anymore.
This Gadget didn't go nuts trying to explain things to Dale that the simpleminded chipmunk could never understand.
This Gadget didn't rush to tell Chip about the latest advances in forensic science.
This Gadget never seemed to pick up a wrench or a screwdriver because she was too busy practising with her crutches and grumbling to herself when she was alone. Sometimes she grumbled loud enough to be heard outside a closed door and halfway down a hallway.
This Gadget didn't stay up to watch the late night movie with Dale if it was a science-fiction feature.
This Gadget didn't get up early to have a morning cup of coffee with Chip in the peace and calm before Dale got out of bed.
In fact, this Gadget didn't drink coffee at all.
Chip felt the thin wall against his back and knew that on the other side of it someone very beautiful and clever was probably taking off her clothes by now. When the thought didn't make his heart throb the way he was used to he knew something else too. Either he was no longer in love with Gadget Hackwrench, or…
The examining room door opened, startling him before the thought could complete itself.
"You've done an excellent job, Doctor Bell. From what I've seen of your records on her condition when she was brought in, and from what I've seen of her now, I can only say that it's the most remarkable recovery I've seen in years. Of course, Miss Hackwrench always has had a remarkable constitution."
"You're quiet certain…?" Doctor Bell seemed unable to be specific about what he needed Doctor Frisk to clarify.
"Oh, absolutely positive. You've done a first class job, there's no doubt about that." The greying field mouse dropped his voice before continuing but Chip was still, quiet, unnoticed and very close by. "If I sound a little uncertain it's just that, well, I'm an old mouse who should probably be considering retirement, but there was something… nothing medical but something. I can't quite put my finger on it but I would like to see those notes our people sent over. That would help clarify things a little."
"I'm afraid I sent them back the same morning I got them. They weren't any use to us here and I thought at the time that they might be needed back at your hospital. I rather regret that now." The young packrat shook his head.
"You asked me about her blood type earlier…"
"You said you couldn't recall?"
"I can't but I've a feeling it was a negative blood type. Of course, your people tested it and say different, so there you are. I'm getting on and I've just got back from holiday, so it's no wonder my memory is letting me down. "
"Yes… well, a vampire bat should know, I suppose." Doctor Bell seemed to have some doubts.
"Your people know their stuff, I've no doubt about that at all. In fact, I think perhaps it's best you continue treating her, at least, for the time being."
"I appreciate your confidence and your trust, Doctor."
"Not at all, you've earned both of them." Doctor Frisk strode away from the young pack rat.
Chip knew full well that not very long ago Gadget had been the victim of a kidnap attempt in this hospital and that to leave her unguarded while some of the kidnappers were still at large was an act of Dale-sized irresponsibility. At that moment he didn't care, however, because it was more important than anything that he spoke with Doctor Frisk.
He easily out paced the elderly field-mouse before he got half way down the corridor and caught him by the elbow to turn him.
The elderly field mouse raised his eyebrows in anger at the unexpected contact.
"Excuse me, Doctor Frisk." Chip apologized hastily. "But I absolutely had to speak to you about Gadget."
The doctor looked at him through narrowed eyes for a moment, then his expression softened. "Of course, it's Dale, isn't it?"
"Chip. Chip Maplewood of the Rescue Rangers." Chip corrected automatically.
"That's right. Chip. I'm always making that mistake." The field mouse agreed amiably. "I can understand that you're worried about Gadget, especially in her condition."
"I was hoping we could talk about that." Chip said. "Somewhere in private?"
"I hope you appreciate that I'm bound by patient confidentiality." The old mouse said. "In fact, strictly speaking I would suggest that you speak to Doctor Bell. We've agreed that it's best for the time being if he continues treating her."
"I intend to, but it was really your opinion I wanted on something…"
"Really? Ah, well… a private consultation could be a problem. You see this isn't my hospital, so I don't have the right to use any of their facilities and, strictly speaking, I'm still on holiday until after the weekend. Perhaps you could come and see me at St Francis of Assisi on Monday?"
Chip looked pained. He had to ask Doctor Frisk now or he felt like his head would explode. The trouble was that he could already see passers-by taking an interest in the very public consultation he was having in the corridor. "I was kind of hoping to get this out of the way now. I really only need to ask one question."
Doctor Frisk leaned in close and peered at Chip. The chipmunk knew that desperation was showing in his eyes. Finally the field mouse's eyes narrowed and a smile creased his elderly face.
"Ah-ha, Chip, my boy. How about you ride down in the elevator with me and we'll find a quiet bar or café somewhere to have a drink or a bite to eat in? You can ask me your question there and I'll share the benefit of my experience with you."
"That sounds good." Chip agreed.
Doctor Frisk put his hand on Chip's arm and steered him towards the elevator doors. "I remember when I was a young mouse, working as an intern at a field station for pilots out in a pine forest. There was this chipmunk office girl – they didn't let 'em work on the planes or fly them either back then – and she had a walk that could seriously embarrass a young fella for a couple of days…"
This sounded less good, Chip thought to himself. Either the good doctor had seriously misjudged the topic of conversation Chip had in mind or it seemed the price of a private consultation was to listen to a story that would make even Monty's jawbone ache.
Chip looked over his shoulder at the unguarded door to the examining room where Gadget was alone. As if on cue, Monty walked round the corner and began looking for the missing Chip.
"Monty?" Chip called, ignoring the attention it drew. The big mouse caught sight of him instantly. Mouse hearing, Chip remembered, was significantly better on account of mice having ears like satellite dishes on each side of their heads.
Monty caught up with them at the elevator doors and, when he was standing directly in front of Chip, he cast a single significant look back at the unguarded examining room door. Chip pointedly ignored the implied question.
"You and Dale will have to take Gadget back home without me. I'm about to get the benefit of Doctor Frisk's experience and from there I'm probably going straight to prison. With any luck, I'll learn something this time."
Monty considered this dire prophecy. He suspected that Chip was being unduly harsh in his assessment of the value of the good Doctor's experience but the elevator doors closed before he could comment.
Margo Haggs walked through one of the darker, deeper parts of the prison. The water had drained quickly from the places closest to the furnace-door gateway to Shrankshaw, but some rooms would probably be under water until drained by inmate bucket-chains. When she entered the storage room where inmates traded their own clothes for prison uniforms, she found the huge room in chaos.
The clothes and belongings of new inmates were sealed into small, human made plastic tubs that had probably been intended for a supermarket delicatessen counter before some enterprising member of the Corrections Department had re-routed them – an act, Haggs reflected, that would probably been seen as theft from a human point of view. A life long connoisseur of irony, the thought brought only the smallest of smiles to her mouth. Perhaps she should bring it up at the next staff meeting just to give the warden or her deputy a sleepless night… it was the sort of moral quandary they would tie themselves in knots over.
Haggs never suffered from lack of moral clarity, in fact she never suffered from morals at all. Patience on the other hand, was something she preyed for daily, if only so she could claim to be religious. She knew, for instance, that she didn't have the patience to open every single plastic tub in the storeroom looking for the one that contained Red's ruined dress, cheap shoes and assorted knickknacks.
The tub should have been shelved according to Red's date of induction and stacked in alphabetical order along with those of the inmates who had been inducted with her, each one clearly labelled and sealed to prove that nothing had been stolen. Unfortunately whoever had come up with the idea of using the plastic tubs for storage because they were waterproof hadn't considered the possibility that they might come into contact with enough water to actually FLOAT. They hadn't extended their genius to supplying a waterproof pen that could write the inmate's name on the side of the tub, either.
The mouse-made flood had reached to the height of a full-grown squirrel; it had turned the neat stacks of sealed and labelled ordinary lives into a random logjam piled up on top of one and other around the doors. Haggs took one look at the mess and knew it would take weeks to restore order. Every tub would have to be opened for the contents to be identified. If they were lucky there would some identification inside the tub when they opened it. If they were unlucky, they would have to go around the whole prison asking people "Is this your dress? Is this your handbag?"
Haggs doubted that anyone would claim Darla's genuine 1960's mini-skirt and kinky boots (The mental image of how Shrankshaw's oldest inmate would look on her release day sent a momentary chill up Haggs' spine). But they'd just have to take a lot of people's word for it when they said that the gold necklace and antique jade broach were theirs but the dress didn't fit because they'd put on weight, shocking diet they got in here, shocking…
Her deal with Red could be damned. She wasn't going to spend the next week going through this place to find a dress that might well have been thrown out after being contaminated by human sewage. If she went through these tubs at all it would be while supervising an inmate work party with two or three light-fingered types she could quietly confiscate things from later.
Haggs forced the storeroom door closed again and turned her back on any chance of Red seeing daylight before, given the warden's current feelings on the subject, she had forgotten what it looked like.
A cruel smile creased her lips. She would enjoy telling Red that she had been hoisted by her own petard, which, if you didn't know what petard meant, was pretty close to what Haggs was thinking of doing to the blonde the next time she saw her.
She was about to head off to the guard's changing room before going home when it struck her that there was one item belonging to Red which hadn't been placed in the tub ready for her to reclaim on her release, because it had been illegal.
Haggs hesitated. She remembered taking it and putting it in the contraband locker while she fumed at Marion Cedar for over-ruling her decision to make Red's induction search up close and personal. If she hadn't been so angry she might have remembered to put it to one side for later. It might be what she needed to finally open the warden's filing cabinet and get at her personnel file.
Of course, she had already decided to go home for the day. Her shift was over and if she pushed her luck by hanging around too long, someone would ask her to stay and help clear up after the flood. She'd have to get the key for the contraband box from the guardroom, where it was kept for safety, which would be a pain.
Haggs stood poised halfway between going home and going to get the key from the guardroom so she could look for the lock-pick.
The white rat sighed deeply and shook her head. She hated herself for being indecisive more than she hated that blond troublemaker for wasting her time and turning HER prison upside-down. Then she set off to the guardroom, hoping that no one would see her, especially not anyone who needed help doing anything.
The guardroom was an almost circular booth built into the top of a T-junction formed by three corridors, each one leading to a different part of the prison. The thick, curved, tinted glass that wrapped around the top half of the booth had been cut directly from a large human made glass bottle. The lower half of the booth was plaster over chicken wire. The only way in or out of the booth was the door in the wall behind the glass, which actually opened onto a corridor that accessed the parts of the prison where no inmates were allowed to go. This included the guard's locker room, the office where the spare keys for the whole prison and the guard's personnel records were kept, the visitor's lounge and the visitors half of the visiting room. The booth was deserted, which it shouldn't have been, but it saved lying about why she wanted the key.
Haggs walked back to the induction room with the key to the contraband box over one shoulder like woodsman carrying an axe. The contraband box itself was a big red metal cash box of human manufacture and stood upright at one end of the induction room like a wardrobe or a cupboard. Strictly speaking she needed the presence of two officers to open it but the regulation was widely regarded as a joke by the prison staff, who occasionally put their lunches in there for "safe keeping".
She opened the box with both hands and stood back to survey the contents. Contraband, in Shrankshaw, meant everything from cigarettes and lipstick to weapons of mass destruction. The box was almost full and it was nearly time for a clearout. For a moment Haggs couldn't see the lock-pick she had come for. Then a thin sliver of silver caught her eye and she plucked the lock pick off the shelf and held it up to the light with a rueful smirk.
What a ridiculous waste of time the whole thing had been, Haggs thought to herself! Did she really expect someone to pipe up: "Why yes, I of course I recognise that lock-pick. It's the one I got her so she could burglarise that nice shop at the end of the road."
Haggs almost laughed at her own foolishness. Red was good, very, very good in fact. It was no wonder she had managed to get across the whole country pretending to be Gadget Hackwrench. She was so convincing, with that whole spiel of techno-babble that probably didn't mean anything and that a poor, stupid prison guard certainly wouldn't remember well enough to check up on later.
Haggs turned the lock pick over.
Assuming there turned out to be a "Jennifer Talbert-Hall" who lived where Red said she did, then Jen would turn out to be some stooge who had recently moved in under the name of the witness who had helped to convict the ingenious confidence-trickster. No doubt the stooge would be primed with some elaborate tale that would have the poor stupid prison guard racing to release the entirely innocent Red with sincere apologies. It was a scam, just like it had always been with Red, and she had almost fallen for it.
Haggs shook her head and allowed her rueful smile to become cruel. She ought to go straight back to the solitary cell where she had left Red and shove this lock pick right up – Haggs' right eyeball twitched, just once.
On the underside of the slim piece of metal the letters "G. H." were engraved in tiny angular letters.
Prison Officer Margo Haggs found herself standing on a stranger's doorstep in a part of town she didn't know. She could ring the doorbell or she could go home and forget about it.
At the very least, she could go back to visit Red tomorrow and make Red tell her something that would make spending the time to go through all those tubs sound worth while. After all, the letters G. H. could stand for anything, anything at all. Admittedly she couldn't think of anything except the word Gadget and the word Hackwrench right now, but that was Red's fault for pretending she was Gadget Hackwrench again.
Haggs shook her head. If she could prove that Red was lying, she would come up with a punishment so terrible that tales of it would be told to frighten new inmates; something that, for the moment, even she could not imagine.
She was being indecisive again. What was better, to ring the bell and be taken for a sucker, or to go home in the near certain knowledge that tomorrow she would make her way back to this same spot and stand there with the same doubts in her mind?
Better to get it over with. She was still wearing her uniform; she had elected not to change because a uniform would elicit trust in a law-abiding citizen and fear in a criminal. She did not want to walk home in her own clothes two days running because it increased the risk that her neighbours might find out what she did for a living. Margo Haggs didn't have very many friends and she didn't think that advertising that she was a prison guard would help much. She reached out to knock.
The door opened.
"Oh!" exclaimed a young white mouse who was clearly about to go out for the evening.
"General Hardware." Haggs heard herself say, for no apparent reason.
The white mouse stared at her in confusion.
Haggs swallowed. "Excuse me, are you Jennifer Talbert-Hall?"
A minute or so later she was sitting in the white mouse's living room with a cup of English tea balanced on her knee. Haggs felt awkward, as she did in most informal social situations, but the mouse seemed honest and friendly enough.
"I honestly didn't think that I'd be getting any kind of follow up visits from anyone after the trial…" the young mouse was saying.
"I think there may be a mistake…" Haggs tried to judge how to play this. She was skilled in deception, but any false impression she gave might have to be justified later, depending on how the mouse answered the questions she was about to put to her.
"You're not from the court?" Jennifer seemed puzzled.
"Perhaps it would be easier if I just asked the questions and got out of your hair. I can see you were on your way out. Or I could arrange another time and come back tomorrow, perhaps?" Haggs would have been almost grateful for the excuse to leave.
"Oh, don't worry about it. I was about to start my shift as a waitress at the club round the corner." Her host replied with an airy smile.
"Your boss won't want you to be late."
"My boss isn't in this week."
"I see." Haggs felt trapped and hated it. She forced herself to be business like. "This may seem odd, but are you the same Jennifer Talbert-Hall who gave evidence at the trial of the impostor who claimed to be Gadget Hackwrench?"
"Yes, I was there. Her lawyer wanted me to testify for the defence." Jennifer looked unhappy about something.
"Is something wrong?" Haggs probed. For a moment she thought the white mouse was going to jump up and exclaim that she had made a terrible mistake and sent the real Gadget Hackwrench to jail. It was, if this was a con-job, exactly what Haggs would have expected.
"Nothing – it's just that I still don't know how they could have gotten my address. Not many people know that I know Gadget Hackwrench." Jen smiled.
"You don't boast about knowing a Rescue Ranger?" Haggs faked surprise. The claim that Jennifer – if that was her name – didn't want to capitalize on her relationship with a Rescue Ranger rang false.
"This will seem silly, but my mother was on the stage and I always expected to follow in her footsteps. Now I'm a waitress and Gadget is, well, famous." Jennifer shrugged sheepishly.
"I see. Perhaps her lawyer looked your address up somewhere." Haggs suggested.
Jennifer laughed and gestured to the mouse-sized apartment around her. "I'm hardly likely to be in the phone book. It's not like I'm human."
"Of course not." Haggs agreed, understanding completely. She didn't have a phone either, though there were public ones at her local library and, of course, the ones at the prison. "Do you know Ms Hackwrench well? Well enough to identify her?"
"We're almost sisters. In fact, we would have been if my Mum and her dad hadn't split up." Jennifer sighed, contemplating what might have been.
Haggs didn't know what to say. She forced herself to be businesslike. "You would have spotted the impostor pretty quickly then, if you had come across her yourself, I mean?"
"I think so. I saw her in the courtroom, from a distance. She was wearing a very plain, formal dress. Gadget seldom wears dresses unless she really wants to make an impression, when she really dresses up like a bombshell and she has light peach fur instead of dark tan. Not to mention her hair..."
"I thought the real Gadget Hackwrench was a blonde?" Haggs asked without thinking.
"She is, sort of."
Haggs shook her head, not understanding.
"Bottled blonde, usually," Jennifer explained, "but not by much because she's a strawberry blonde anyway. Gadget wanted to change her appearance the day she was hijacked."
"She told me it was because she wanted to make it harder for someone to impersonate her. Can't dress like her if they don't know what she's wearing, right? But I think the real reason was that one of the fraudsters victims mistook her for the impostor and they had a run in. It upset her and I think she was afraid of being recognised because of all the rumours."
"Terrible, what this fraud did to everyone." Haggs probed to see where Jen's sympathies lay.
"That reminds me! The impostor's hair was too dark to be Gadget's normal colour and too light to be the dye job I gave her. I dyed her hair auburn and the impostor's hair was red." Jennifer looked Haggs in the eye. "I think it's your turn to explain your interest. I've been more than reasonably helpful so far and you've been asking some very personal things about a friend of mine."
"Could you identify something that I think might belong to Gadget?" Haggs asked. She dug into her purse hurriedly, before Jennifer could throw her out and leave her more confused than ever. She brought out the lock-pick.
Jennifer looked at it sceptically, then at Haggs with equal scepticism.
"It's not hers?" Haggs almost pleaded.
"Well, how would I know?" Jennifer asked. "She has so many tools."
"Yes, of course she does." Haggs gave a long sigh and settled back in the chair. Perhaps she would have to go through the debris in the personal effects storeroom after all.
"It's a nice steel whatever-it-is though." Jen remarked absently. "She usually marks those with her initials."
Haggs dropped her teacup.
After Jennifer had finished mopping up the tea and Haggs had finished apologising, Jennifer looked at her up at her with a twinkle in her eye and said: "You know, I think I can identify that item for you."
"Really?" Haggs' voice had a despairing note in it. The truth seemed inevitable.
"Yes. It's a lock pick."
Haggs stared at her. It took a moment to register that Jen might genuinely have taken this long to identify the tool since because wasn't a prison guard and another moment to determine that Jen was in fact gently poking fun at her. The white rat swallowed her temper and vowed to make any stay Jen made behind bars memorable.
"Can you tell if it's hers?" Haggs enquired as sweetly as she found possible.
Jen picked up the lock pick and examined it. "Yes. There are her initials at the end: G. H."
Fingerprints were unreliable as evidence where small animals were concerned, Haggs noted regretfully. She would be unable to leave that lock-pick somewhere where a detective would take an interest and guarantee an opportunity to return Jen's hospitality at Shrankshaw. There was always the option of simply beating the white mouse to death in her own living room but she knew from the people she met on a daily basis that one rodent slaying another, particularly indoors, attracted dangerous amounts of crime fighter interest.
"You're quite sure that they couldn't stand for anything else?" Haggs asked without much hope. "Is the lettering in the same style she uses?"
"There aren't many people who have the engraving tools to etch lettering this small in steel." Jen pointed out. "Besides, I think I've seen her with this one. She used to keep it tied to her tail in case someone tried locking her up."
Haggs groaned but held on to the slim hope she could prove Jen a liar. "What reason would Gadget Hackwrench have to expect that?"
Jen looked uncomfortable. "Someone called Rat Capone captured some of the rangers and kept them as slaves, once. I understand they were only used for manual labour until they escaped but Gadget doesn't talk about it. I don't even know if she was one of the ones taken captive."
"I see." Haggs subsided, much like a volcano that had decided not to bury everyone in lava after all.
"And now I'm afraid I'll have to throw you out. I really will be late for work if I don't make a start." Jen stood from where she had been mopping up the tea. "I don't even know your name or how you got hold of my friend's lock pick. By rights, I should be very suspicious of you." Jen looked at the rat fearlessly, as though she wasn't head and shoulders shorter than the stranger who was perched on the edge of her largest armchair as though it was a three legged milking stool.
Haggs grunted and stood, but kept her head low to avoid hitting the light fixture. "I don't suppose you could explain how your friend's lock pick happened to be in the hands of a dangerous criminal?"
"They must have stolen it I suppose."
Haggs' jaw dropped.
"Are you all right?" Jen asked.
Was she all right? The lock pick was stolen, Red wasn't Gadget Hackwrench, there wasn't going to be a scandal and, most importantly of all, Margo Haggs was still going to be the top dog in Shrankshaw Prison! Haggs threw her head back to laugh and hit her head on the lampshade hard enough to knock her peaked cap off.
"Oh my! That must have hurt!" Jen fussed, offering the retrieved hat to her injured guest.
"No, not at all." Haggs laughed and oddly, she meant it. "I don't know why I didn't think of that myself. I must be having a bad day."
"First the tea and now the lampshade; I'd say not." Jen agreed.
"No, I mean… Oh, never mind. Look, here's the lock-pick. Please give it to your friend Ms Hackwrench when you next see her and ask her to keep better care of it from now on. Such things can cause a great deal of trouble if they fall into the wrong hands. We could have had a jail break, in fact."
"Jail break?" Jen looked alarmed. "What's this about?"
"It doesn't matter now." Haggs waved her paw and sounded genuinely grateful. "You've taken a great weight off my mind."
"Hmm. Glad I could help." Jen surveyed her mopping up operations critically. She looked up at the Swatch that hung from her wall and yelped. " Good Lord! Is that the time? You've kept me talking an age! I'm dreadfully sorry but I have to go now. Was there anything else you wanted to ask me?"
Haggs shook her head. "No, I don't think so. You've answered all my questions as helpfully as any good citizen could."
Jen put the tea things and the cloth she had been mopping up with to one side. She gathered up a scarf and handbag and put on a nice but inexpensive coat. Haggs got the door in a rare moment of helpfulness and they left the apartment together.
"I wish I knew what this was about." Jen said as she locked her front door. "Gadget's sure to ask and you said a dangerous criminal was involved. What dangerous criminal?"
"The one who was impersonating your friend over half the country." Haggs told her as they started down the hall to the main entrance.
"Oh, her! I think her exploits are a bit exaggerated to tell you the truth. The rangers aren't that well known out state, from what I can tell, except in the places where they've visited."
Haggs began to feel awkward. The interview was over but they were both leaving by the same corridor, walking side by side. When they got to the front door, it was possible that they would both turn in the same direction again, depending on where Jen's bar was. Silence would be embarrassing but Haggs had never been good at small talk. To escape both, she asked an idle question.
"What did you think of her, at the trial?"
"To be honest, I wasn't really thinking straight at the time." Jen recalled. "I got the news about Gadget being in hospital, on her deathbed as they thought at the time, literally two minutes before this messenger from the defence turned up asking me to identify some drunk that was picked up in a bar fight as Gadget Hackwrench."
"Shocking." Haggs said after a few paces of silence. "Does she really look that much like Ms Hackwrench? I only ask because, in most cases of identity theft, the thief is usually nothing like the original person."
"To tell you the truth, I'd been crying a lot so I wasn't wearing my glasses. I couldn't even get a good look at her."
Haggs hesitated mid-stride as something Red had said earlier pricked at her memory. Red had known Jennifer wore glasses even though she hadn't worn them in court. It meant nothing but the pristine certainty that Haggs had been enjoying so much was marked by the memory and Haggs wanted to wipe that mark away. Perhaps if she asked the right question – it shouldn't be difficult, she berated herself – then Jen would rule out the last shred of possibility that an appalling miscarriage of justice had taken place and Haggs would be freed from the dreadful seed of doubt and uncertainty that Red had planted in her mind.
"I hope you told her what you thought of her." Haggs tried to make it sound as casual as possible.
"I didn't really care to be honest. I just wanted to get out of there and visit Gadget. Of course, they wouldn't let me because I'm not family. I never regretted that Mum didn't tie the knot with Geegaw so much, I can tell you."
They came to the exit onto the shrubbery that ran along the sidewalk outside the building where Jen's apartment complex was hidden.
"I tell you what," Haggs suggested desperately, "I'll walk you to the bar. I'd love to ask a couple more questions and if you need to make excuses for being late, we can say it's because of official business."
"I'm sure it won't be necessary but if you want to." Jen consented.
Haggs muttered something about it being no trouble and allowed Jen to lead the way. "So, she doesn't look anything like Gadget then? You could put the two of them next to each other and no one would have any difficulty telling them apart?"
"Actually, I think they might be pretty close except for the fur and hair colouring. The girl at the trial was a redhead and had the dusky fur to go with it. Gadget has always had the peach fur that you can see her blush through. She was wearing a dress, which Gadget doesn't normally do, and it wasn't the little red one I loaned her. It was a rather conservative one that looked a little too big for her. I think Gadget would be taller and she has lighter fur and hair. That was about it from where I was sitting."
Haggs walked alongside the white mouse. She had gone from agonised confusion to the stone cold certainty that Gadget Hackwrench currently resided within the solitary confinement cells of Shrankshaw Prison. Jen had restored her world to rights with the reassuring knowledge that Red was a convincing confidence-artist. Now a few casual words put Haggs back where she started. The only thing Haggs knew clearly was she wasn't going to suffer this any more. Doubt was an alien thing to her; it made her feel helpless and blind and had caused her more stress in the last few hours than anything she could remember since the first day she wore a uniform.
"Have you seen Ms. Hackwrench since the accident? I mean," she went on hurriedly, "since her lock pick has turned up with the impostor and you didn't get a good look at her at the trial, you can see why I'd be asking."
Jen stopped dead and stared with a horrified expression. Then she started laughing. "I don't believe it! Even behind bars, with everyone knowing she's been convicted of impersonating Gadget Hackwrench, she's still got you thinking she's the real thing." Jen shook her head in disbelief.
Haggs hated being laughed at. She was good at masking her true feelings and intentions until she had the upper hand, though.
"Yes, quite ridiculous, I know." she joined in the laughter. "We have to be thorough, you understand. Investigate every little claim to make sure. You'd want us to do the same if you ever came to be wrongly convicted of a crime."
Jen heard an edge in the white rat's voice and her own laughter faded. "As a matter of fact, I was at her welcome home party, just a couple of weeks ago."
Haggs smile broadened. "Really? And you spoke to her? So there's really no uncertainty?"
Jen shook her head, increasingly uncomfortable. Something was very wrong somewhere, but couldn't say where. "None at all. She recognised me. Her friends had redone her hair so she was blonde again, and she wasn't herself after the accident because of the head injury but it was her."
Haggs sighed in relief. "And here's the bar."
"Come on in and have a drink." Jen invited. Someone else had already unlocked. Perhaps she would need the official looking rat to make excuses for her after all.
Haggs hesitated. She wanted to leave Jen before she turned the world upside down again with another innocent remark but she had promised and Jen had implied the drink was free so Haggs followed Jen through the door. A burly brown rat working behind the bar caught Haggs' eye as she entered. He nodded and for a moment, before she realised the rat was addressing Jen, Haggs was ready to flutter her eyelids and smile back.
"Someone was waiting for you." The rat said and tipped his nose towards a chipmunk sitting at the back of the bar, away from the few regular barflies who had already arrived for the evening.
Jen squinted into the gloom. She really did need to wear her glasses more often.
The chipmunk leaned forward into the light so she could see his face. "Hello Jennifer. Gadget says hi, by the way."
Haggs blinked. She knew she had seen this chipmunk somewhere before but for the moment couldn't place him.
"Hello Chip." Jen said. She didn't sound like she had been expecting the chipmunk. To the rat she said: "This lady came by my apartment to ask me a few questions, Ben, so I'm a little late. Did anyone miss me?"
The rat laughed. "No, no one's going to tell on you when Charlie gets back."
The barflies – some of them were really flies – laughed.
"Yeah, you guys can keep a secret." Jen dripped sarcasm. "Chip, you mind waiting on me for a minute or two? I have to do something out back. Oh – say, Charlie, give this nice lady a drink on the house. She gave me some lost property, belongs to a friend of mine."
"I –" was all Chip had time to say before Jen disappeared into the back of the bar. He sighed dug his paws deep into his pockets.
Chip Maplewood, the leader of the Rescue Rangers and the hardest detective in the city was standing right in front of her, not six inches away. He was as tough and uncompromising as she was, by all accounts, and here to talk to Jen, which would lead him to work out the reason for HER visit by a fairly short route.
Haggs gaped at him for two seconds before realising that he was looking back at her from under the shadowy brim of his hat. She quickly turned her back and stood at the bar.
Regardless of whether Gadget Hackwrench had spent the last two months recuperating from an air crash with her loved ones or being falsely imprisoned and abused in Shrankshaw Prison, Chip Maplewood was unlikely to react well to the part Margo Haggs had played in the melodrama.
"What it'll be, Ma'am?" The brown rat behind the bar asked.
The smart thing to do would be to say she wasn't thirsty and leave. Instead she asked for a beer. She didn't drink normally, she'd seen too many other people who did and been disgusted by their weakness. She only asked now because she knew that if she didn't the chipmunk would take it to mean she had something to hide and was running from him. She would have to brazen it out, explain everything he might find out from Jen about her visit, without appearing to look like she was trying to explain herself at all and in a way that implied she was just doing her job without actually making any false claims that could come back to haunt her if he checked up on them later.
Nothing to it, right?
Yeah, right, she told herself.
"I'll have a beer." She said.
The brown rat tapped a bottle of Budwiser that hung from the ceiling and plonked a glass down in front of her. It looked strangely tempting, in her current circumstances.
"I'll have the same." A voice said from beside her.
As an opening gambit, it was almost deliberately understated, Haggs thought. She looked sideways at him from under her peaked cap, knowing that the peak would shadow her eyes just as the brim of Chip's fedora concealed his. She wasn't sure but she suspected he was doing the same to her. He was shorter than her, but there was no missing that muscle tone under the chipmunk's well-groomed fur. She automatically assessed how much trouble he could give her in a fight and with some satisfaction decided that she could probably take him, one on one, if only because of the size advantage being a rat gave her.
The bar tender gave Chip his beer, then threw a bar towel over one shoulder and retreated to the far end of the bar where he began cleaning glasses industriously while carefully not looking at the two customers he had just served.
Neither of them said anything. Haggs drank some of her beer. Chip just looked at his.
The silence grew. Haggs became aware of the bar flies watching them. As she noticed them, Chip acknowledged them with a slight tilt of the head, and the drunks and soon-to-be-drunks turned their backs and began to ignore them with the same deliberate, practiced attitude that Ben, the bartender, had already demonstrated.
Haggs wondered at what point saying nothing at all would in itself be a suspicious act. She scowled. He had spoken first. If they followed the conventional pattern of conversation that would mean it was her turn to speak. What would be a good response to his opening gambit…?
"I notice you know Jen?" He interrupted her thoughts.
She looked him openly now. "Sure." She replied. "Have you known her long, yourself?" She kept her voice light and casual.
"We have a mutual acquaintance." Chip replied without answering.
The mutual acquaintance would be Gadget Hackwrench, naturally, but did Haggs want to admit knowing that? A non-committal answer seemed best. "Really?"
Nice return, Haggs thought as she stalled for time. "Have I what?"
"Known Jennifer long?"
Long enough to know that people who know her well don't call her "Jennifer" Haggs thought and mentally deducted a point or two from Chip's scorecard. "Met her for the first time today."
"Oh?" Chip smiled and tipped back his hat, making good eye contact.
Haggs used getting another mouthful of beer to look away and stall for time. This was getting tricky. She had already been forced into one more admission than she wanted to make and he was trying to keep things friendly, which meant she couldn't be unfriendly without appearing suspicious. She needed something to get him off her back fast and she wasn't afraid to fight dirty. Looking back at him she enquired casually: "Do you hit on all her friends?"
Chip choked on his beer, blowing froth across the bar.
Haggs smiled in satisfaction and rewarded herself with another sip of beer.
"I wasn't hitting on you!" Chip protested. "I was just making conversation!"
"I bet you say that to all the girls." Haggs cooed.
"Seriously, I was just – " Chip caught himself.
"Yes?" Haggs feigned innocence, or at least ignorance.
"Nothing. Look, seriously I just came to ask Jennifer some questions, that's all."
"Why? Are you investigating her?"
"What? Why would you think that?"
"You're a detective, aren't you?"
"Chip Maplewood, of the Rescue Rangers." He announced proudly. "But how did you know I was a detective?"
The question could have tripped her up if the truth hadn't provided such a convenient answer. "We've met before."
Chip seemed surprised then rolled his eyes. "Of course, your uniform. I met you last month when I visited the Gadget-impersonator in Shrankshaw."
Haggs nodded and took another sip of beer. She had almost finished the glass and would be able to leave in a minute or so, confident that she had won the exchange hands down.
"Hey, wait a minute, there's a connection there. I can't figure out what though..." Chip was holding his head on one side.
Haggs couldn't stop herself from grimacing. She finished her beer before Chip could make too much progress with his thoughts.
"You know Jennifer AND the impostor." Chip realised. He looked at her haltingly, as if suddenly unsure whether he had been outclassed or very clever.
"I have to go now." Haggs resisted the temptation to leave at a run.
"No, wait. Let me get you another beer." Chip allowed a paw to stray to her arm.
"I thought you weren't hitting on me?" Haggs let herself snarl at the touch.
"I'm not. You must realise that as a detective I get very curious when I find a link between the victim and the perpetrator of a crime. As a prison officer, I'm sure you will want to uphold the law."
"As a Rescue Ranger, I'm sure you realise that means that if I have any information relevant to a crime I SHOULD go to the Street Watch, a judge or police officer commissioned by an elected representative. Which are you?" Haggs quipped, knowing full well the rangers were a volunteer search and rescue group funded by the Rescue Aid Society, a body made up of appointed, not elected, representatives.
"We Rangers work closely with law enforcement, who appreciate that people who do not cooperate with us often chose not to do so because they have something to hide." Chip replied automatically, having heard similar but less informed versions of this speech many times before.
"Are you suggesting I have something to hide?" Haggs enquired, stone-faced. She was making him put his cards on the table and she knew it, but at least this way she knew what she was facing.
Chip looked away and tried to laugh it off. "Sorry, force of habit. You have no idea how often we've heard that speech."
Haggs turned away.
"Wait! Look, you have to admit I'd be a pretty useless detective if I didn't take an interest in you knowing one of Gadget's friends as well as the impostor."
Haggs looked at him. She could have respected his skills as a detective more if he had been interested because she was acting like she had something to hide. "I met Jen for the first time today, like I told you. I met the impostor through my job, after she was convicted. If you're suggesting I have anything to do with her crimes… well, I will point out that there's someone in this bar who knew all three people; Jen, Red the impostor AND Gadget Hackwrench."
Chip leaned close, eyes interested. "Who?"
She tapped him on the nose with a finger. "You!"
Chip rocked back on his heels and looked chagrined. "Ya got me." He admitted. "I've been acting like a perfect idiot since I came up to you and frankly, I'm not sure I could truthfully say I haven't been acting like an idiot for sometime before that." He looked up at her sheepishly. "Can I get you that beer I offered as an apology?"
Haggs licked her lips and tasted victory. "I'm not sure I'd want Jen to tell her friend, Gadget, that you've been chatting up off duty prison officers in her bar."
"My interest is strictly professional, I assure you."
Haggs was about to crush him dismissively when she remembered the girlish glee Warden Phelps and Marion Cedar had both tried to conceal at the prospect of being visited by the leader of the Rescue Rangers. Perhaps she could mention this casually over a coffee break to torment them. "I'd be delighted."
Chip ordered another couple of beers from Ben, who gave up his pretence of not eavesdropping their conversation and began to collect empties and get refills for the other customers. They sat on a couple of barstools quietly while Haggs drank her beer.
"Thank you for that." She said with unaccustomed warmth.
"You're welcome." Chip brushed it aside. "I just wish I had found something a little less distracting. Normally when you find a connection like that it'll bust a case wide open but I guess this just one of those screwy coincidences you come across."
Haggs nodded, having seen her share of them.
"I'm not making any headway with this case at all…" he murmured, almost too low for her to hear.
"I take it you're trying to round up the remaining members of the impostor's gang?"
"No, last we heard they were headed to Europe. Even if we caught up with them, we don't know they've broken any rules over there and the authorities might not be so keen to give them back."
"But you're still investigating the impostor?"
"No, others are handling that. It was felt the victims might not respond well to a second lot of strangers claiming to be Rescue Rangers turning up on their doorsteps. The Rescue Aid Society is still getting compensation claims from all over the country. Some of them are probably fraudulent. We're still going to be untangling the stray threads by the time your star inmate is released." Chip rested his elbows on the bar and propped up his chin in his cupped paws.
"Then you were paying Jen a social call?"
"Ah-ha. She's a lovely girl, but no. I came to ask her some questions."
Haggs leaned in close. "You suspect her of aiding the impostor? That's why my being a link between them interested you?"
Red had claimed that Jen would identify her as the real Gadget. Jen claimed to have known Gadget from early childhood and sounded genuine about it. That meant Jen had the kind of inside knowledge that would make a convincing imitation of Gadget possible.
It was so clear now: Jen, an old intimate of Gadget Hackwrench had renewed a long dead acquaintance in order to gain information that could be used by the now clearly lying and desperate Red – whoever she really was – to carry out a string of daring frauds. The early, trial runs would be in remote communities where there were likely to be fewer complications and would fund the last big job – whatever that was – right here in the city where the Rangers were best known, after Red had worked the bugs out of her act. The whole thing probably would have worked if Red had been less unstable.
Haggs smiled and cracked her knuckles. Perhaps she would indeed have the pleasure of the white mouse's company. Suddenly cooperating with the detective seemed like a good idea after all.
Chip seemed to be thinking along the same lines. "I grant you it's a possibility. From what I gather Jen and Gadget were really close a long time ago and Jen only came back into Gadget's life a few months ago… just around the time we now know the impostor first struck. On the other side of the country, though, now that I think of it."
Haggs sniffed. "It's not impossible. The humans manage to stay in touch over such distances, with their phones and what-do-you-call-it, inter-web?"
"Internet. World-wide-web." Chip told her. "Yeah, they can do it, we can do it, but it's a human system and you need human money to pay for it. They could steal a mobile phone maybe, but you'd need human money to pay for the calls and special microphones and speakers to hook up to them because they're designed for the human voice. Besides, from what I can tell, the information this gang had about the rangers wasn't that good or that up to date. If Jen was helping them I think they could have done a lot better."
Haggs reflected on whether it was time to tell Chip that Red actually knew Jen and had claimed Jen could identify her as the real Gadget. Soon Red and Bubbles might have an extra bunk in their pleasantly un-crowded cell and Red and Jen would be able to renew their acquaintance. Haggs smiled at the thought of reuniting them and how "happy" they would be to see each other. Perhaps she could arrange for someone to take bets for her on who would kill who. Yes, this would be the perfect time to tell him. Haggs opened her mouth to do just that, and bring Jen's life crashing down.
"Hey, I don't want you to get the wrong idea." Chip said. "I didn't come here to go investigating Jen 'cause I think she's up to no good. From what I can tell, she's a good girl even if the timing of her arrival was suspicious. As a matter of fact, and you'll think I'm crazy when I tell you this, I came here to ask questions about Gadget."
Haggs closed her mouth again. Her survival instincts were suddenly screaming at her. She composed her face into an expression of polite willingness to listen and waited for him to explain. "Yes?"
"Yes. Gadget. Ah, now does that sound crazy or what? Me! The leader of the Rescue Rangers, investigating my own… my own team members."
For a moment, Haggs had thought Chip was about to describe Gadget in a way that had nothing to do with him being Gadget's boss. Part of her wanted to steer the conversation back to Jen and the white mouse's almost certain destruction under the merciless wheels of justice, but if she did that she would lose all chance to find out what Chip had come here to investigate which she wanted to know very badly, since it could have a serious impact on her future as a free rat.
"I understand it's sometimes easier to talk to strangers. I'd be happy to give you an objective opinion." Haggs offered in her friendliest manner. It still sounded cold and formal.
"It's nice of you to offer."
"No trouble at all."
"It's just…" Chip hung his head. He was clearly wrestling with an enormous problem that he didn't know how to handle. "I just came from a meeting with Gadget's regular doctor, who treated me to long completely un-asked for discourse on inter-species relationships, based on his personal experiences from his youth. Why he should think I would find such a lecture useful, or enlightening, I can't imagine." Chip stressed the last point with added emphasis.
Haggs contemplated this without finding the slightest clue what it meant.
"Go on." She told him, sagely.
"It's just that since Gadget's accident, when I thought she was going to die or be brain damaged or something, I've been besides myself for not… including her more."
"Including her how? As a part of your team?"
"Including her… in the plans I've been making. For the future."
"I see." Haggs said significantly. She hadn't got the faintest clue what he was talking about.
"But since the accident, well, she's just not herself. I mean we all admire her spirit. The doctors weren't sure she'd be able to walk again without crutches, but she just started learning to walk with them the week she came home and it was like she was planning to get up and run a marathon or something. But she's not the Gadget we know and… care for. She doesn't touch her inventions and they were all she used to live for. She doesn't babble at high speed about technical details no one else could possibly understand or care about. She still smiles all the time but it's not the old smile, this one is forced and something hidden behind it. She doesn't even drink coffee any more. Even her voice has changed. I just don't feel the same way as I used to – about having her on the team, I mean – in fact, I feel as if I'm living with a stranger."
Margo Haggs felt her right eyeball twitch, just as it had when she had seen the initials engraved on the lock-pick.
"Are you alright?" Chip asked.
"Fine." Haggs lied. Red was Gadget Hackwrench after all. If this kept up her head would explode. "Can you think of anything to explain the change?"
"Well, an air crash can shake anyone up and head injuries can change someone's personality in unpredictable ways. Her forced manner could just be her trying to hide her pain from the rest of us. She's had a hard time of it. As for her voice, someone did try to strangle her, but that was three weeks ago." Chip finished his second beer and smacked his lips. "I'm looking for another explanation. I haven't quiet worked it out yet, but I will. It's like I can see the answer out of the corner of my eye. It's on the tip of my brain."
Haggs began massaging her temples. "Are you planning on visiting that mouse-girl in Shrankshaw again?"
"Yes, actually. Her identity has never been clear and I want to pin it down. I suspected a girl called Lawhiney, who impersonated Gadget once before, of committing the crimes but I'm still waiting for confirmation that she's missing from the last place she was being held."
"When did you send for it?"
"Two months ago, by pigeon post. Cost me my body weight in corn and I'm still waiting for a reply."
"Two months! Where was she being held?"
"Hawaii, actually. The other side of the county."
Haggs considered. "Fits in well with where the crimes started."
"I know. The reply should arrive any day now, assuming that my letter actually got there. I wanted to ask you, by the way, when I visited the prison, was the impostor gagged or drugged at all? I couldn't get a word out of her and yet she seemed desperate to tell me something."
Haggs hesitated. There was no point in lying; it would only raise his suspicions. "Yes, I gagged her before your visit. I didn't know what kind of visitor she was expecting and I was concerned."
"Some prisoners use appalling language with the intent to offend or shock, others spit or try to bite." It was perfectly true that some did and, without actually lying, she had just given the impression that Red was one of them. "Tell me, is your investigation of our prisoner linked to your – Shall we call them concerns? Yes – your concerns about Gadget Hackwrench?"
Chip hesitated. "They could be. Yes. I suppose it's always possible." He sat stiffly in silence for a moment then asked: "You said that you gagged the prisoner because of her language…"
"I said I gagged her because I was concerned. All I knew was that we had a VIP coming to look at her. I didn't know she was going to be asked questions." Haggs pointed out carefully.
"I'm thinking of seeing her again. To see if I can settle the question of her identity." Chip looked at her carefully. He was watching for a reaction, Haggs hadn't the slightest doubt.
"I'll know better next time you visit but she's in solitary right now. I'm afraid she instigated a riot this morning and caused a great deal of damage to the prison. I don't think visitors of any kind will be welcome until we've got the place straightened up and that could take a while."
"Do you think you could persuade the warden to make an exception?" Chip smiled winningly.
"If it were any prisoner other than the one that started the riot, I'm sure the warden would make an exception for you, but that one's going to be in solitary for at least a month and I don't think anything short of a full pardon from the city elders or the Congress of Mice is going to get her out any sooner."
Chip scowled and rested his chin on his paws with his elbows on the table.
Haggs eyed him warily. "Can I ask a question?"
"Sure." Chip barked in a surly voice. "What do you want to know?"
"I know it's silly, but… Is there an easy way to tell Gadget from the impostor? If, say for the sake of argument, someone who had never met either of them had to tell them apart. Any distinguishing marks, scars, tattoos even?"
"Tattoos?" Chip frowned at her as if she had grown an extra head. "If you're thinking of that stupid rumour Dale started about her having a screwdriver tattooed on her – well, never mind where – then you can just forget it!"
"Well, there's no need to take offence. I'm just doing my job. I had a tattoo myself before I removed it."
Chip blinked, perhaps for a moment picturing a screwdriver tattoo on the white rat's ample never-mind-where. Then he got it. "Oh, your ear… You had a lab tattoo. Look, I'm sorry."
"I don't need your sympathy." Haggs informed him coldly.
"No, I mean about you just doing your job. Please, wait, I'll try and think of something." Chip was placating. "If it helps Gadget has a huge scar from the crash she was in recently."
Haggs tried not to pull a face. It was a perfectly reasonable answer to the question, without doing her any good at all. She tried to sound bright about it. "Anything else?"
"I think she still has a scar on her back from a tangle with Fat Cat. No, wait. The doctor said that he couldn't see any sign of it today." Chip seemed to lose himself in thought.
Haggs didn't allow him to stay lost long. "Any questions you might ask? Something that only Gadget would know the answer to?"
"Try her dad's birthday. She really loved the old guy but she doesn't know exactly when he died 'cause he went missing on her. She takes the same day off every year, eighteenth of January, without fail. Doubt many people could look that up."
"Thank you, Mister Maplewood. That should be very helpful." Haggs rose to leave.
Chip stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Wait. What do you ask that question for? And don't tell me you're just doing your job or that it's for the prison files because I know better."
"I suppose you've found me out, Mister Maplewood." Haggs smiled charmingly. "The truth is that I'm afraid that fraud we have in Shrankshaw can be very convincing. She has one or two of the prisoners up there convinced that she's the real Gadget Hackwrench and she's been using that coupled with the promise of reward when she proves her claims to get special treatment. That's more or less how she was able to start a riot this morning. As you can imagine, we'd rather not have that happen again. Now you've given me something I can use to prove she's a cheep fraud and impostor, as the judge and jury said. You've been most helpful. I'm only sorry I couldn't be of as much help to you in your inquiry."
Chip stared at her for a second or two, then looked disappointed. "For a moment there, I had a crazy feeling, like I had been following a trail of breadcrumbs and bumped heads with someone following the same trail in the opposite direction."
Haggs roared with genuine laughter. "I'm sorry to disappoint you then. Now, I really MUST be going. It's been a long day."
"Yeah, me too, and I have a longer night ahead of me."
"You're going to carry on working on your problem? Even though you can't interview the prisoner?"
"I can interview Jen and see what the coffee in this place is like. Some problems are like that. You just have to keep at them until you make a breakthrough. Persistence pays off." Chip had brought out his notebook and was going through the pages.
"If I were you I'd take the night off." Haggs suggested mysteriously. "Sometimes all you have to do is leave a problem alone and it just goes away all by itself."
With a tip of her peaked cap Haggs left the bar, the detective and the short-sighted white mouse behind her. She made her way out into the warm night air without the slightest intention of following her own advice.