Disclaimer: I do not own Chip N Dale’s Rescue Rangers; they are used here must humbly and without permission.  Also, I do not own Godzilla, TV Guide, James Bond, The Sound of Music, the SciFi Channel, or any other persons, shows, or objects contained herein that I cannot currently remember. For another list of things I do not own, please see the credits.  Sophia Marskov and Jules Crissen are my own creations; please ask if for some reason you want to use them, though I’m not sure why you would.  This story is purely the work of my imagination; any resemblance to other fanfics is completely coincidental.  Enjoy! 

“A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.”
-Proverbs 18:24 (King James Version)

BOC42 proudly presents her first full-length Rescue Ranger fanfic:

 

CLOSER THAN A BROTHER”

Chapter 1
Godzilla vs.  The Rescue Rangers

            “Everybody ready?” called Dale jubilantly from the television set. 

            To my left, Chip rolled his eyes.  “Ready as we’ll ever be,” he droned loudly and sat down slowly on the couch next to me. 

            Thanks to Dale, we were doomed to spend the entire night watching old Godzilla movies on the SciFi station.  

            “Dale, pally, do you really think we havta watch all five movies?” asked Monterey Jack from the other side of the couch.  “I mean, if yeh’ve seen one munster movie, yeh’ve seen ‘em all, right?”  He stretched out and Zipper settled on his shoulder. 

            Dale seized the remote from the table and cranked up the volume as Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ credits rolled.  “Are you ca-razy?! These are some of the best movies ever made!”  And with that as the explanation for our suffering, he plopped down on a cushion and began shoveling popcorn into his mouth.  I raised an eyebrow and looked up at the screen. 

            The first movie was okay.  At least Raymond Burr spoke English, which was more than I could say for most of the actors.   In my opinion, Godzilla himself seemed more articulate than most of them.  “I didn’t know the movies were dubbed,” I murmured to Chip, who was sitting next to me. 

            “I didn’t know these movies were legal,” he moaned.  He had his arms crossed across his chest and was glaring at the screen as if it had done him a personal wrong.  

            And hour and forty minutes lather there was a brief respite during which Dale ran to the kitchen to get ice cream.   Monterey cracked his neck.  “Not too bad, ‘eh?” he asked.

            “Terrible,” complained Chip.  “I don’t see why we should have to watch these dumb movies with Dale.”

            “Well, we said we would,” I injected, trying to calm Chip down.  He looked awfully annoyed.  “And after all, you made the rule that we’d support each other.”

            Chip looked at me.  “And Dale turned that into meaning we’d watch scifi movies with him.”       I just smiled.  “You don’t like them either, Gadget,” he argued.

            I shook my head, but kept my smile firmly in place.  Chip kept eye contact with me for a few more seconds before breaking down.  “I know, I know,” he heaved, sagging back into the couch. 

            “You know it means a lot to him, Chip,” I said, and scooted closer to him.  As I knew he would, Chip perked up a bit.

            Dale came zooming back into the room.“Did I miss anything?” he asked, worried. 

            “Not a thing, Dale,” Chip said civilly.  I patted his shoulder quickly, then pretended to be engrossed by the credits to Son of Godzilla.

            The second movie was terrible, just as Chip predicted.  We struggled through it, all of us in a semi-circle behind Dale, hardly looking at the screen.  For a few minutes I thought Godzilla’s son was cute, but the dubbing rapidly became unbearable, and I stopped making an effort to follow the storyline.  Come to think of it, I stopped making an effort to stay awake... 

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            Someone was snoring.  Comfortable and drowsy, I opened my eyes.  It was Dale.  He was out cold on his stomach on the floor, drooling into his cushion.  Beside him was the remote, with Zipper fast asleep on top of it.   After hours of the television being on, and falling asleep to its noise, the silence  was cloying. 

            “Ah now, tha’s the ticket.  Jes’ give the Brie ‘ere....” Monterey Jack muttered, and I heard him stretch, just out of my peripheral vision.  I smiled, snuggling into my blanket and burrowing deep into the pillow....leather. Why can I smell leather? I wondered idly, and turned.  Opening my eyes, I came to the sudden realization that it wasn’t a pillow I was sleeping on.  It was Chip.  

            I pulled away and looked at his calm, relaxed face. He was leaned up against the arm of the couch, the tiniest of smiles on his face.  On cue, my cheeks became hotter than spinning drill bit...I’d fallen asleep on his shoulder.  Of all the cliche things that could happen during a movie. 

             Half-asleep still, my exhaustion gradually served to put out some of my embarrassment, and I relaxed into his shoulder, mind wandering back my dream.  As I washed away on the tides of sleep, I felt  his hand come up around my shoulder, and smiled.  

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             “Hey!”

             Dale’s hollering woke me up so fast that I literally jumped off the couch with my eyes still closed. 

             “What?  What?”  I panted, feeling the world spin. 

             Dale was staring at me like I was a traitor.  In seconds, his eyes turned to Chip, who was still groggy.  He prepared himself to jump. 

             “No, Dale!” I said, getting in front of him. 

             “What?  Huh?”  Chip mumbled looked blearily up at Dale, whom I was holding back with both arms.

             Dale glowered at him.  “You little...”  His frustration built up to a dull roar, and he yanked himself away from me and launched himself into Chip.  Chip was still half-asleep and unprepared for a fight. 

             “Hey!  Hey!” I shouted, trying to muscle my way in between them.  It was no use.  Chip had come to his senses enough to see that Dale wanted to fight, and neither of them ever gave up an opportunity to wrestle each other.  Even if I was quite literally in the middle of them.

             “‘Ey now, that’s enough!” came Monterey’s commanding roar.  He bustled in from the kitchen, reached over the couch, and picked the two squabbling chipmunks up by the scruff of their necks’.  “Start the mornin’ out fightin’; that’s whatcha get fer stayin’ up all night!” he shouted, and set them down quite stiffly on opposite sides of me.

             “It’s not my fault!” wailed Dale, pointing at Chip.  “It was him!”

             “Me!?” Chip shot back, his fists barred, “You’re the one who jumped me like a maniac!  I wasn’t doing anything!”

             “Yes you were!  You were-”

            The boys prepared to spring again.  “Boys!” I shouted, putting a paw on each of their chests.  I couldn’t take it any more.  I doubted Chip had any idea what he was being accused off, but he was ready to fight anyway.  That was one of his habits I couldn’t stand.  He could be so mature and sensible sometimes, but one word from Dale and he started acting like a child.   He was going to have to kick that habit.

             I grabbed Dale’s shoulders and steered him away.  “Don’t!  I hate it when you two fight, and you do it over the dumbest things!”

             “But...but...” blubbered Dale, still trying to get at Chip.

             “No ‘buts!’  You two need to grow up!”  I shot a glare in Chip’s direction as I said it.  I wasn’t angry at him, but I had been dying to tell him to grow up every time he and Dale started fighting for years now.  It just happened to come out then.  At a very bad time.

             Chip’s face fell.  Confusion clouded his demeanor, but he took a deep breath and came over to Dale, extending a paw.  “Sorry, Dale,” he said.

             I watched them carefully.  For once, Chip’s apology seemed heartfelt and sincere, not just an attempt to goad Dale any more.  

             Dale seemed quite taken aback at the proffered truce, but shook on it anyway.  “Betcha don’t even know what you did,” he grumbled as Chip left the room for the kitchen.

             “All the more reason for you to not get mad at him for it,” I snipped, striding past him and into the kitchen.

             Chip was waiting just inside the door.  “Why is Dale mad at me?  What did I do, Gadget?”

             I considered telling him I had no clue, but then decided against it.  “I fell asleep on your shoulder,” I said as I walked past him to peruse the contents of the fridge.  I had to keep my frustration with the boys at the fore to keep my voice steady as I was starting to feel very giddy and lightheaded over it.  “Apparently he wasn’t very happy about it,” I added. 

             “You...you...oh,” he finished weakly.  “That would explain it.”  I heard him swallow.  “Sorry.”

             The chill from the fridge was cooling my cheeks.  “For what?” I asked, rummaging blindly through Monty’s assortment of cheeses.

             “For fighting. We do it too much, I guess.”

             I glanced up to find him hovering over the fridge door, looking as nervous as I felt.  “Yes, you do,” I said.   Chip backed away as I closed the door.  I mastered myself and smiled at him.  “But you’re sorry, so you’ll stop,” I said simply and left the room, feeling deliciously agitated and giddy.

 

Chapter 2
From Russia
With Love

            It was an odd sort of morning.  Thanks to the movie marathon, none of us were feeling quite up to par.  Around 8:30, Dale was discovered sleeping in Chip’s bunk, having been unable to make it up to his own.  Zipper took a cue from Dale and bailed on us for his room, too.  Monty drifted off to the kitchen and was soon banging away, causing varied fragrances of cheese to drift through headquarters.  Chip read a Sureluck Jones novel for about an hour, and I caught him alternately staring at the couch and snatching glances at me as I wandered aimlessly.  In the end, he too fell asleep, leaving me completely to my own devices.

            I wandered quietly from one end of the tree to the other, stopping off in my workshop just long enough to disassemble the Wing’s GPS system.  It only took three and a half minutes to do, but I knew it would take at least two hours of hard work to fix it, if I had all the correct parts. The bottom of a plastic cup had gotten jammed into one of the sensors, and the best I could figure was that it had been sucked in through the back of the plane, though heaven knows how that could have happened.  I had the back sealed to prevent this sort of thing. 

            Looking closer, I also discovered a loose gear in the back of the propeller control box.  Feeling frustrated and stale, I tossed a wrench across the landing pad and went back inside.  I didn’t feel like fixing it just then; something must have been wrong with me.

            Several hours passed like that before we all rallied and woke up.  Well, sort of woke up.  We were all sitting together on the couch with the news on, staring blankly at each other.  Monty’s cheese scones sat on the table, untouched and steaming. 

            Agitated, I squirmed in my seat.  Finally, in a desperate attempt to liven things up, I said suddenly, “I found part of a plastic cup in the Ranger Wing this morning.”

            Monty jumped in his chair.  “Say what now, luv?” he asked, looking rather bewildered.

            Dale nodded lethargically, yawning.  “I wonder how it got there?”

            Chip rolled his eyes.  “Knowing you, I’d say you were probably drinking chocolate milk in the Wing again.”

            Dale frowned.  “I don’t drink it out of cups, I drink it out of the carton.”

            I laughed.  “It’s all right, Dale.  I got it out.”

            “See, Chip?  Gadget says it’s okay,” Dale bated.

            Chip looked like he was about to strike onto the warpath when we were rescued by the doorbell.  Seeking refuge from our insanity, Chip jumped up to answer it, casting angry glares over his shoulder at us. He opened the door and a  haggard-looking, but immaculately dressed mouse gentleman stepped in.

            “This is the establishment of the Rescue Rangers, is it not?” I heard him ask in a clipped and hurried British accent.

            “That’s us,” answered Chip, all business.  “How can we help you?”

            The mouse took a deep breath and looked quickly around the room, pulling absently on a white handkerchief.

            “Why don’t you come in and sit down?” I asked, getting up to receive him.

            “Oh, yes, thank you,” he replied fervently and collapsed on the couch where I had been. 

            Monterey observed him shrewdly for a second.  “Tu-ra-loo!  You look like yeh’ve gone ‘round the world in eighty days.  Why doncha fetch ‘im some water, Dale, pally?”  Dale saluted and zoomed out to the kitchen, returning moments later with a glass of water for the gentleman.

            He accepted it graciously and sipped it perhaps a bit too hastily for someone as formal as himself.  We all looked at him curiously.

            He finished the water and sighed deeply.  “Thank you very much,” he began, setting the glass on the table.  “I hardly know where to begin, but what I have to say must be taken seriously, and acted upon with rapidity and alacrity.”  His words rippled along like wine, despite the gravity of them.  “I am Mr. Jules Crissen, personal butler to Miss Sophia Marskov, a Russian actress.  Miss Marskov is in a great deal of danger, my friends.”

            “What kind of danger?” asked Chip.

            “Ah, danger of the most foul sort, young master,” Jules continued.  He sounded almost like Vincent Price announcing the Mystery episode for the evening.  “You see, several weeks ago, Miss Marskov began receiving hate mail.  You must understand, any performer is entitled to his or her share of ridicule and rejection, but this was not ordinary hate mail.  It came again and again, every day, worse and worse.  And two days ago, a single letter arrived.”

            We were all leaning towards him, eyes huge and breath drawn.  “What did it say?” I choked, mesmerized by his voice.

            “I have it here,” he answered, producing a wrinkled note from his breast pocket.  Chip took it and unfolded it.  I leaned over his shoulder to see it better as he read the untidily scrawl aloud: ‘I have sent my assassin.  Run.’” Chip swallowed hard.

            “Blimey!” cried Monterey, “That bloke’s serious!”

            “What did Miss Marskork ever do to him?” asked Dale, turning his head sideways to get a better view of the note. 

            Marskov,” reiterated Jules.  “Miss Marskov has given no man reason to hate her so.  We do presume that it is a man, from the handwriting,” he said, gesturing at the letter Chip was holding like a bomb.  “But of course we could no longer judge these as idle threats.”

            “Too right!” ejaculated Monty.

            “All right.  Where’s Miss Marskov now?” asked Chip, returning the letter.

            Jules stood up.  “We have sent her away in disguise.  She still fears, as do I , so I volunteered to come and enlist your aid whilst she hid.  We are hoping you find her before the assassin does.”

            “But where is she?” asked Chip again, pushing his hat back.

            “In Vladivostok, until 2:00 p.m. your time.  She will sail on the Anastasia for Japan, where she has friends.”

            Chip yanked on the front of his coat, puffing out his chest.  “Gadget, is the Ranger Wing ready?”

            Oops... “Give me three minutes and I can make it ready.  With the time change, we should be able to catch Miss Marskov in time.”  I turned and ran for the door, hoping that we could find a plane headed for Vladivostok.

            I clambered into the Ranger Wing and began stuffing the guts of the GPS system back in, minus the cup bottom, and screwed the console and body panels back into place.   Just as I finished the last panel, the rest of the Rangers and Jules came running out of headquarters and towards the plane.

            “Is she gonna make it?” asked Monterey as he hopped in the front seat.

            “It should work, as long as-”

             Chip cut me off.  “You said ‘should,’ Gadget.  Are we gonna get there or not?”

             “Well, if anybody’s got a zip tie, the propeller-”

             “Gadget!”        

             I thought you had complete confidence in my abilities, Chip.  “No problems, chief!” I declared, crossing my fingers behind my back and hoping I wasn’t lying.

             “All right then,” shouted Chip, joining Dale and Jules in the back seat.  I revved the engine.  “Rescue Rangers AWAY!”

 

Chapter 3
Watermarks and Fancy Flying

             As it turned out, there had been no need to cross my fingers about it.  We found a plane (albeit a personal plane) headed for Russia with literally no problems, and were soon landed in its cargo bay beside the landing gear.  Chip decided to take the opportunity to press our new acquaintance for more clues.

             “Tell us more about Miss Marskov, Jules.  Anything that could help us find her assassin,” said Chip, turning to regard the mouse he was sitting next to.  They were sort of cramped in the back seat.

             Jules extracted his white handkerchief again and mopped at his brow, then fished in his pocket and brought out a leather wallet.  He handed it to Monterey.  “In there you will find several pictures of Miss Marskov.  She is, as I have said, a Russian actress.  She is very famous and extremely wealthy. And while she does exhibit some of the, erm, characteristics of one in her position,” he laughed nervously, “you know, spending money extravagantly and so forth, she is a very sweet woman, and has never tried to offend anyone.  We are therefore at a loss to her enemy’s motive.”

             Monterey examined the pictures and let out a slow whistle.  “Tu-ra-loo!  Miss Universe better watch her back.”

             Jules smiled smugly as the pictures were passed to an excited Chip and Dale.  “Yes, it’s true.”

             Chip and Dale’s eyes grew round as silver dollars at the sight of the actress.  “Wowee!” exclaimed Dale.   Chip turned red.

             “Let me see,” I said, holding my hand out expectantly.  After a few seconds, the boys grudgingly relinquished their hold on the wallet, but not before Dale collapsed over backwards mumbling incoherently. 

             Sophia Marskov was indeed gorgeous, and looked like a queen.  A young queen.  The mouse didn’t look like she was too much older than me, but all the same had a look of condescension and wealth about her.  I flipped the pictures slowly, watching her outfit and hair style change.  All the photographs appeared to be professional portraits of her, but the last photo was the one I was most interested in.  Sophia was standing next to a large fountain in a garden, wearing black slacks and a short sleeved blouse.  She was grinning widely at the camera, eyes twinkling like jade.  She seemed real in that photo. 

            Jules saw me looking.  “I took that picture of her a few months ago on her birthday.  That fountain is in her garden right below her window.  Lovely, isn’t she?”

             I nodded.  “I like her,” I decided, smiling as I watched Sohpia’s ebony hair bounce over her shoulders, framing the delicately pale, pointed face.  I looked up at Jules.  “I like her a lot.”

             Jules nodded and reclaimed his wallet.  “Yes.  She’s probably not too much older than you, Miss Gadget.  Only twenty-six.”

             There was silence for a moment before Chip renewed his detective act.  “No clues whatsoever about the assassin?”

             “No.  We do believe that the assassin is a hired hit-man, according to the last letter, but other than that....”  He frowned for a moment.  “Ah!  And there is one other thing.”  He took out the dreadful letter again, unfurling it.  “All of the notes were written on the same paper.”

             “So?” asked Dale, looking disappointed. 

             “Nothing else?  No signature or anything?”  Chip asked, even though he already knew there was no signature.

             “No.  The only similarity is the paper on which they are written.”

             Chip took the paper and frowned at it.  “It looks like ordinary paper to me,” he said at last, looking up at me hopefully.

             Honestly, people could be so clueless sometimes.  I could already see it.  “Well, it is ordinary paper, Chip,” I said, taking it from him and holding it up.  “But it does have a watermark.”

             “Blimey.  That’s first-rate thinkin’ there, Gadget-luv,” whispered Monty as he cocked his head to see better. 

             “Not really,” I said absent-mindedly.  I held the paper closer.  “This watermark is the only thing the letters have in common, you said.  But I can’t tell what the watermark is.”  I stared at the imperfect circles gracing the middle of the paper. “They look like..”

             “Bubbles!” shouted Dale, leaping forward.

             We all stopped and stared.  “Don’t be stupid, stupid,” Chip retorted, bapping Dale on the head.  “Who would stick bubbles on a paper?”

             “Maybe the Kookoo Kola Cult,” joked Monterey, taking the paper.

             “Not likely, though,” I said, trying to ease Chip’s retort.

             “I think they book like bubbles,” Dale mumbled, rubbing his head.

             “By Jove, though, they do!” exclaimed Jules.

             “Oh, come on!” said Chip, exasperated.  “Who would stick bubbles on a paper as a watermark?”

             “The point is that they did, Chip,” I said logically.

             “No, no, wait.  If it’s the only thing that the papers have in common, we must accept it as a clue.  ‘A clue is a clue, no matter how ridiculous.’” soothed Jules calmly.

             “That’s Sureluck Jones!” exclaimed Chip.

             “Yes!  Do you read it?” asked Jules happily.   Chip nodded in excitement.  “I’m so glad to find a kindred spirit in you, Mr. Chip...”

             Chip and Jules began chattering away.  Once Sureluck Jones was the topic of conversation, nothing could get Chip’s attention back until he was done. And so, I detached myself from the conversation and turned back to the console in front of me.  I rummaged under the seat, found my screwdriver, and started unscrewing panels.  We had five hours until we reached Vladivostok, and I wanted the GPS at least jury-rigged by then.

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             Five hours later, we were all aroused from our stupor by a female Russian voice cutting through the cargo bay, requesting permission to land.  The rest of the Rangers blinked themselves out of their stupor slowly, but I was already awake and grinning.  I had been anticipating my opportunity to test out my new booster rockets.  And besides, barrel rolling was always fun.

             Chip seemed to sense my excitement, because he leaned up between the seats and looked at me.  “Gadget, you didn’t make any modifications to the Ranger Wing, did you?”

             I grinned at him wickedly, and he shrank back in fear.  “All right everyone, hold on to your goggles!” I exclaimed and pulled mine down.  The bottom of the cargo bay slid open and a gust of icy wind rushed up through the plane, whipping my hair back. 

             “Here we go!” shouted Chip to the others by way of warning, and I heard seatbelts buckling furiously.

             I gunned the engine and we pulled away from the floor, hovering above the door, waiting for the landing gear to extend.  Then, without warning the others, I turned the nose of the plane, and we whipped downwards.  In my humble opinion, the funnest part of flying is dropping out of moving airplanes.

             “Good heavens!  Do you always travel like this?!” I heard Jules shout.

             “Too right!  Better do as she says an’ ‘old on to yer goggles, mate!” cried Monterey.  I was glad he appreciated my flying.  I wonder if he and my dad used to pull any fast and fancy flying in their days. 

             I grinned into the wind as dived down, our small craft barely keeping out of reach of the bigger plane, which was now bearing down on top of us.  I eased her nose down even more and revved her engines.  We put on a spurt of speed that propelled us several feet below the oncoming craft.  It was now or never. 

             I took a deep breath and barrel rolled downwards. The world swirled, a kaleidoscope of blues and grays.  I rolled again.  As we reached the apex of our second roll, everyone around me clinging to each other and the plane for dear life, I flipped us into a 360', causing enormous tension on the wings, and almost unbearable pressure on the body of the plane, but I knew what she could take.  And she’d have to take one last thing, as we came up level, nearly stalling, and suspended. The airplane’s engines let off steam, engulfing us.  The Rangers screamed.

             “Gadget!” Chip leaned forward as much as his seat belt would allow and grabbed at my shoulder. 

             “Hang on, guys!” I shouted.

             Behind the steering wheel is a red button.  And as even Dale knows, red buttons should not be pushed except by a person who knows precisely what will happen and is willing to take the consequences.  Enter myself.

             I fingered it, and with a jolt, a small booster rocket was released from the bottom of the Ranger Wing.  Not strictly necessary, but lots of fun. The rocket exploded, throwing bits of shrapnel everywhere and  hurling us forward and away from the landing plane, out into free airspace.  Thirty seconds later the rocket died and dropped off.  Gradually, we slowed to a calmer pace.  The Rangers didn’t look happy.

             “Gadget,” sighed Chip, removing his seatbelt and bending over me, “next time you do that, warn us, will you?”

             “Yeah, I feel like I’m gonna be sick,” moaned Dale, who was now leaning over the side of the plane. 

             “Too right,” gulped Monty, who was squeezing Zipper like a stress ball until the little bug’s eyes bulged. 

            “You all right, Mr. Crissen?” I asked, looking back.

            The man looked shaken.  “Well...I can’t say I’ve ever, in all my years, seen anything quite like that.  And mind you, I see all of Miss Marskov’s movies.  Never before has a plane stunt....”  Words failed him and he slumped back in his seat, pale.

            “You stick with the Rescue Rangers too long and you’ll almost get used to it,” Chip joked, still leaning on my seat.

            “All right,” I said, coming to business, as the rest of them didn’t seem quite up to it, “Where is Miss Marskov supposed to be?”

            “Uhm...try the docks in Golden Horn Bay.  I believe the Anastasia should still be there at this point.  If we’re fast enough, we can bring her back to the airport and go straightaway to France.”

            “The Golden Horn Bay is quite a ways off, Mr. Crissen,” I objected. “ I doubt we’ll get there in time.  Unless...”

            Chip turned on me.  So did Monty.  “Gadg, you ‘aven’t got unuther rocket in ‘ere, do ya?”

            “Um, well, yes....but if you don’t want me to use it...”

            Chip heaved a sigh.  “We’ve got a ship to catch.  Break out the rocket, Gadget.”

            “Golly, this will be fun!” I exclaimed and fingered a switch while everyone buckled in again.  The rocket rumbled for a moment before exploding. 

            The last thing I heard before reality was all sharp wind and grey landscape was Dale’s moan, “I still haven’t gotten over the last one...”

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            We reached Golden Horn Bay docks about twenty minutes and three rockets later in the middle of a freezing downpour.  The Anastasia was nowhere in sight.  I locked the plane into hover mode and we hung just over the pier, giving Chip time to scout the horizon with his binoculars. 

            The sea was grey and heaving, sloshing water up over the pier in cymbal crashes.  I squinted hard, but I could see no sign of a ship.  The upset water and distraught sky were both the same color, going through the same waving convolutions. 

             “Do you see her?” asked Jules frantically.

             Chip was practically falling out of the plane in order to see.  “No!”

            “Then again, we can’t see anythin’ in this ‘ere stew,” added Monterey, pulling the collar of his coat up.  Zipper huddled in his pocket.  “I’ve seen clam chowder thinner than this mess.”

             “I don’t know what has happened,” exclaimed Jules.  “Perhaps they saw the storm coming and dispatched the ship early to avoid it?”

             “Do they do that?” asked Dale, huddled in the middle of the back seat, shaking.

             “If I was a ship in this brew, I’d rather be docked than not,” mumbled Monterey.

             “There’s nothing else for it.  If she’s not here, then she’s out there somewhere,” said Jules, gesturing helplessly at the heaving water.  “We’ll have to go out after her.”

             I listened to the conversation with growing dread.  Reckless as I sometimes am, I didn’t like the idea of flying the Ranger Wing over freezing waters in a terrible storm.  That was one advantage the Ranger Plane had over the Wing.  It could float.

             “Come on, Gadget, better find her before this storm gets any worse,” said Chip, slipping on the side of the plane as he climbed back in.  He pulled his hat down over his eyes.

             “Don’t think there’s any danger a that,” said Monty flippantly.

             “One sea rescue mission coming right up,” I joked, pulling the lever and releasing the hover lock.  We dropped a few inches, then the engine chugged loudly and we started off.  “I hope the Anastasia isn’t too far out,” I called, “the engine doesn’t like getting wet.”

             “Now you tell me,” moaned Chip.

 

Chapter 4
The Unsinkable Sophia Marskov

             Our engine chugged along, more and more sluggishly, for about half an hour before we saw anything.  The storm was getting steadily worse, wind knocking us around erratically,  and waves high enough to reach the plane.

             “Gadget, can we fly any higher?” asked Chip as another wave of frozen spray washed up over the top of the plane.

             I shook my sopping hair out of my eyes and dragged a hand absently across my fogging goggles.  “You know I can’t, Chip,” I pointed at one of the gauges.  “The water in the engine is weighing us down.”

             “I could always toss Dale overboard!” he shouted through the wind.

            “Hey!” exclaimed Dale.  I heard someone in the back get socked.

             “Technically, I don’t think that would help, at least not for very long.  When we get to the Anastasia, we’re going to have to find some other way of rescuing Miss Marskov.”

             “I’d be likin’ to go nowhere once we reach the Anastasia,” Monty huffed.

             “On the contrary, I think we will be in quite the hurry to leave after all,” replied Jules tersely, pointing over the console and to port.

             As we flew on, smoke, heavy and dark, climbed into the plane.  Coughing, gagging on the denseness of it, I turned the Wing down, hoping to find and evade the source.  Our engine didn’t like smoke, either.

             “Golly!”  It came out so automatically, yet hardly covered the severity of what we were seeing.  Black plumes erupted into the air around us, and I darted around them, treating us to a horrific view of the Anastasia, which was on fire.  And sinking like a rock.

             “Crikey!” exclaimed Monterey.

             “Chip, what’re we gonna do?” I shouted.  “The Ranger Wing isn’t going to make it back, and even if it was, we couldn’t take all the mice on board with us.”

             “We’ll have to ditch the Ranger Wing and make a raft,” proclaimed Chip, standing up to scout out the ship better.  I rejoiced that he was around; he never seemed to lose his head in a crisis.  “Jules, where will Miss Marskov and the other mice on board be?”

             “Undoubtably they will be-”

             But Dale cut him short.  “On the side that’s not underwater!”

             Dale was right.  The entire bow of the ship was nearly under, it’s dying lights flickering eerily under the ocean waves.  “All right then, we go to the stern,” I said, and took the Ranger Wing down, the smoke around us a death omen.

            As soon as we landed, skidding a bit on the slippery, sooty deck, Chip started shouting out orders.  “Jules, take Gadget and go find Miss Marskov.  Dale, you help everyone get over to this side of the deck.  Monty, Zipper?  We’ll start a raft.”

             We all nodded and scattered.  Jules grabbed me by the elbow and started running towards the door leading inside the ship, yawning before us like a gateway to perdition.  I did not want to go down there. 

             “I didn’t want to mention it on the plane, but I’m afraid all the quarters are in the front of the ship.  Miss Marskov is very frightened of fire.  She probably panicked and refused to leave her cabin.”

             I nodded, gasping for air as we went through the doorframe.  It was dark, almost black inside, the only light coming from the Christmaslight bulbs wired horizontally on each side of the floor.  Water crept up around our ankles as we wound our way through the claustrophobic maze, and the lights cast green and yellow reflections up onto Jule’s face.  Everything down there looked the same, twisted and trapped. 

             My breath caught in my chest, and I whimpered quietly.  Jules looked back at me, apprehension on his face.  “We’re almost there, Miss,” he whispered, and took my elbow again, leading me. 

             There was no one down there in that pit of inky oblivion.  The only sound came from the enormous pressure the ocean was exerting on the hull of the ship.  It groaned and clanked, threatening any moment to buckle and send ice and water into the hallway.  I knew I’d freeze in under three minutes if I got wet and stayed that way.  The water was 45' Fahrenheit at best.  It would be like the Titanic all over again, except with mice.

             Jules turned a corner I could have sworn we’d taken before, and stopped sharply.  The bottom fourth of it underwater, Jules reached out and pushed cabin 54-B’s door open.  A new sound met my ears: hysterical crying.  And it wasn’t me.

             Sophia was huddled in the corner of the room, wet and crying.  The instant she saw Jules, she was on her feet and in his arms.  “Oh!  Jules!  You have come!”  She pulled back, absolutely in pieces.  “He is here, Jules!”

             “The assassin?”

             “Yes!  He is here!  He started the fire...oh, Jules!”

             Sophia’s ebony curls swirled around her as Jules wrapped a firm arm around her shoulders.  “Miss Marskov, we must flee at once.  I have brought the Rescue Rangers with me.  They are here now, building a raft for us to escape on.”

             Sophia looked up for an instant, something like hope in her green, tear-dewed eyes.  I was certainly glad she felt that the situation looking up.  For my part, I felt like collapsing into my own little ball of hysterics and waiting for the Rangers to find me.

             “Yes, yes, we must go at once,” she said, and started towards the door.

             The problem was, there was already someone in the doorway.  Sophia screamed.  So did I.

             “You’re going nowhere,” breathed a deep, guttural voice.  I stepped backwards, splashing in the rising water.

            “No!” Sophia whimpered, fainting on the spot.

             “Miss-”

             But Jules got no further.  The assassin lunged and grabbed him, and in two seconds had him out the door and into the dark hallway.  I heard Jules cry out and something smashed and spluttered up the corridor, away from us.  I prayed he would get out top.

             “Run, coward!” The assassin reappeared in the doorway, big and looming, rough like a brick and heavy like a boulder.  He was grey, and the flashing, dimming lights from the hallway were casting his face into unearthly contortions.

             My chest ached to breathe freely again, and yet a detached part of my mind somehow started working on an escape plan.  The assassin had passed Sophia’s prone form up and was heading for me, grinning maniacally.  If I could get past him, I could probably pull her out of the room and shut and lock the door on him.  That is, if the water didn’t slow me up too much.  In anticipation of my plan, I took one more small step backwards.  I couldn’t move too far, or he’d catch me before I could get Sophia out.

             He was right in front of me.  Just the sight of him and I felt small and helpless.  He reached inside his black jacked and pulled out a knife.  He held it poised, letting the meager light play with it.  I felt nauseous, and I closed my eyes for a brief second.  This was really getting out of hand.  What was I doing on a sinking ship trapped in a room with an assassin? 

             He lunged for me, knife coming right at my heart.  My mind went blank, empty and white, and I ran.  No conscious thought on my part, only instinct and fear.  I ducked under his arm and unceremoniously grabbed the unconscious actress and pulled as hard as I could, as fast as I could, but I didn’t seem to be able to move properly.  A nightmare of being chased, and yet not being able to move.  Flying, then falling.  Trying to speak, but no sound.  I was knee-deep in icy water, brain and lungs addled by smoke, heart thundering furiously with fear, stomach roiling with nausea.  I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t see, and yet I ran.  I was out of the room.  I had slammed the door, thrown the key card.

              I dragged Sophia up the river from Hade’s lair.

 

Chapter 5
Sink or Swim

            Up, up through the labyrinth, half sunken underworld.  Water up to my waist, smoke from there to the ceiling, thick and drugging.  Adrenalin, sharp and hot, pulsed through my head, making me move though exhaustion and smoke told me to stop. 

            Sophia was getting heavier and heavier, the longer I slogged through the corridors, half-conscious.  I gasped and choked, stumbling now and again as my feet snagged on free-floating wires.  The lights had gone completely out, and panic was suffocating me. 

            Which way had Jules and I come?  The smoke was almost tangible.  I knew that sooner or later, it would kill me if I didn’t get out of here.  I stopped, trying desperately to think logically.  I dropped Sophia for a moment and unrolled my sleeves.  Weakly, I ripped them in half up to the elbow on each arm, then used the ripped fabric to tie around my mouth and nose; a sort of makeshift smoke shield.  I wrapped one around Sophia, too.  I wasn’t sure how long they’d help, or if they would at all, but at least I was doing something.

            Somewhere behind and below me in the ship, something crashed and I heard water sucking around.  Pulling Sophia with one arm draped around my shoulders, I stumbled along in the water for a few more seconds before I heard something that nearly made my heart stop.

            “GADGET!”

            It was Chip’s voice, somewhere a ways above me.  I ripped the cloth off my face.  “Chip!”  It wasn’t half as loud as I wanted it to be, but it got a response, and two seconds later a beam of light cut through the dark smoke.  I slogged towards it.

            Chip was at my side in a matter of seconds, soot-stained and sweaty.  Without a word, he stooped over and picked up Sophia like a baby.  She wasn’t very heavy, probably didn’t weigh much more than I did, but as Chip staggered along beside me, I could tell something was wrong.  He shouldn’t be having that much trouble with her.

            I could smell fresh air, mixed in with the scent of burning steel and smoke.  I tried to take a deep breath, but only coughed instead.  Chip glanced at me concernedly.  I cleared my throat and looked ahead.  We came out of the dark and into the dim night air.  The storm was over, and the storm clouds had dissipated somewhat, but the sky was still swarmed in smoke. 

            The deck floor was hot to the touch.  The water had kept the inside of the ship cool, but the deck was burning up.  I squinted through the thin smoke vapors and saw a makeshift raft full of shivering, howling mice, all frightened nigh unto death.  Monterey was lying beside the raft, barely moving.

            Monterey!” I cried, and started to run towards him.  I fell down next to him and put my ear to his chest.  Still breathing.  

            Chip stumbled past me and laid Sophia on the raft.  Several mice pulled her closer to the middle.  I couldn’t see Dale or Jules anywhere. 

            “Gadget, you have to help me get Monty on board....Dale can’t do anything,” Chip rasped.

            “What happened to Dale?” I asked, alarmed. 

            Chip coughed violently and started pulling at Monterey’s arm.  I followed suit, grabbing the other one and heaving.  The smoke made it slow work.  Chip’s face was pale, and his breathing rapid and shallow.  We succeeded in getting Monty onto the raft where the huddled mice were crying and fretting.

            “We’re leaving,” Chip promised them.  “Gadget, help me with this.”

            Again, I blindly obeyed him, following him to the side of the raft.  He had constructed a crude pulley system to get the raft out into the ocean.  We both grabbed the rope and pulled hard.  I let my weight yank the rope down.  My mind was clearing fast.  “Where’s Dale?” I persisted.

            Chip took a shallow breath and dragged the rope down.  He wasn’t going to make it much longer before he collapsed like Monty.  “Broke...his arm.”  The rope began to give way and I felt the raft begin to swing in free air.  “He’s in the middle of the raft...with Jules and the kids.”

            A few more seconds of pulling hard, eyes streaming from smoke, and we were safely off the boat and into the freezing ocean.  Chip sank to his knees for a few scant moments before pushing himself back up.  He was hyperventilating.  “All right, people.  Grab the oars and row, or we’ll get pulled under too!”

            The mice began to scramble frantically for the nearest oar and plunge them vigorously into the sea.

            “Is -cough- is Miss...Soph....she all right?”

            I put my arm around him.  “She’ll be fine.  Chip, you should really sit down before you pass out.”

            “No...I’ll be fine, Gadget,” he gasped.

            I confronted him sternly.  “Chip, you just single-handedly saved an entire ship of mice from drowning.  You’re having trouble breathing, I can tell.  Sit down.

            He looked at me, eyes red from smoke.  He sat down. 

            I sat beside him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and holding him close against the cold.  Unbidden, he began talking, his voice slow and strained.

            “Monterey and Dale and I were making the raft.  We heard someone above us scream.  There was...some mouse kid trapped on top of the smokestack.  You know -cough- the ones bent on top?”

            I nodded.  Chip coughed violently for a moment.

            “Monty and I climbed up to get him, but the ship started shaking.  Monty lost his grip -cough, cough, cough, gag- and fell.  On...on top of Dale.  Knocked him right out, broke Dale’s arm.  I got the kid to climb down a rope, but he grabbed my foot...I fell into the smokestack...”

             Chip stopped abruptly and doubled over, clutching at his sides, squirming.  “Oh, Chip...you were in the smokestack.  Everybody here is going to be sick from the smoke, but under normal conditions, I’d really like to get you to a doctor.” 

             He managed a small smile.  “Under normal conditions, Gadg, I wouldn’t be feeling this crummy.”

             He shook a bit, trying to refrain from coughing.  But the more he tried to suppress it, the more it built.  Finally he doubled over, gagged, and started hacking fit to die.  Nausea rolled through my stomach again as I watched him.  I was surprised he wasn’t coughing up blood.  The coughing kept up and up until he was heaving and gagging.  He held his breath, trying to stop it.  His eyes were clenched shut.

             “Chip!”  I was no doctor, I couldn’t help him.  “Just...just try to relax.”  I felt useless as Chip shivered in my arms.

             At last he stopped and looked up at me, watery-eyed.  He forced himself breath slowly and deeply.   “Gadg...”he couldn’t finish.  His voice was almost completely gone.  I gasped and felt a couple of tears burn my cheeks.

             “Chip, don’t talk.  Just lie still.  I’ll take care of everything.”  I tried to sound reassuring, but knew I was failing miserably. 

             Chip just smiled up at me in a hollow sort of way.  “I know,” he said, without using any voice.  The words were just air passing his mouth.

              A loud shriek from the middle of the raft grabbed our attention.  Chip braced himself on my shoulder and heaved himself up.  I pried myself loose from his grasp and stood up to see better.  “What’s going on?” 

            There was no need for an explanation.  Sophia was cowering in Jule’s arms, a large and nasty grey mouse towering over her.  “Where is she?” the assassin shouted.

             “Impossible!”

             “The assassin!” gasped Chip in his half-voice.  Before I could do anything, Chip had vanished from my side.

            “Chip!”  I tried to catch up with him, but seconds before I was anywhere near, Chip had launched himself into the larger mouse, knocking him over.

             They rolled sideways on the deck. People were screaming, stumbling away.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dale with one arm around a small child.    Everyone had backed away from Chip and the mouse.  I looked at them, spellbound for several crucial moments.  Chip was on top of the assassin, but just barely.  He was also in no condition to fight.  And in his weakened state, he was probably only going to end up dead.

             “Get off, slime,” the mouse spat, uncoiling and sending Chip flying almost to the edge of the raft.

             “Chip!”  The scream tore itself involuntarily from my throat.  The assassin turned on me, and a sudden change, for the worse, if possible, came over him.  He roared and charged.  As he came flying at me, I ducked, causing him to tumble over me, knocking me over with him.  We rolled sideways together.  I came to a halt only when I smacked into him.

             “You little monster!” he shouted, picking me up by my arm.  “My brother was right about you.  It’ll be good to bring these back and show him I’ve killed you.”  He put his knife between his teeth and yanked my goggles off my head.  He laughed, pleased with himself, and grabbed his knife.

             I twisted wildly, clawing at his arm.  He shook, trying to throw me off-balance, but I clung on desperately, and finally got what I wanted: his arm bent, and I lunged forward and sank my teeth into him.  He screamed in pain and raised the knife.

             Just as he was about to stab at me, Chip flew headlong out of nowhere, straight into the mouse’s stomach.  The assassin dropped me and went flying, his weight the only thing keeping him from going right overboard. 

             Chip scrambled away from the mouse, coming to my side.  The assassin raised the dagger, readying himself to throw it.  I started to grab at Chip, intending to pull him away from the mouse’s aim, but Chip was faster.  In a nanosecond, he had once again disappeared from my side and hurled himself at the kneeling assassin.  This time though, the mouse’s position worked to Chip’s advantage.  And disadvantage.  I watched in horror as Chip bowled into the mouse, sending them both overboard into the freezing water. 

             “Chip!”  The shriek came from behind me, and I knew Dale was on his feet, ready to dive in head-first.

             “No, Dale!” I commanded, and ran forward.  I grabbed the nearest abandoned oar and knelt at the edge of the raft where they had gone over.  I waited on tenterhooks for Chip to surface.  After what seemed like minutes, but I knew wasn’t, Chip surged upwards, the mouse right behind him, both gasping for air.  Only Chip didn’t seem to be able to breathe.  Water on top of all that smoke...I rejoiced that he wasn’t dead.

             “Chip!  Chip, over here!”

            He turned his head weakly, still flailing, and began slowly, agonizingly, to swim towards the raft.  Crying, I laid down on my stomach and extended the oar towards him.  The instant I felt his weight on it, I pulled hard, taking him out of the mouse’s reach, who was still fighting desperately to attack him.

             No sooner had I pulled Chip to the edge of the raft and worked both paws under his arms than the mouse made it to us, knife still barred.  I then did the most difficult thing I’ve ever done: I let go of Chip, and he immediately slipped beneath the waves. 

             “Monster!  My brother and I will see you dead yet!” the assassin shouted.

             I snatched up the oar and looked at the floundering mouse.  There was no fear on his face, just hatred.  We made eye contact, and I swung the oar, feeling immense satisfaction and relief as it collided with the mouse’s skull.  There was a resounding thunk, and the mouse went limp and sank, knife in one hand, my goggles clenched in the other.

             Chip had been under too long.  Taking a deep breath, I hurled the oar aside and jumped into the icy water after him.  I heard Dale shout my name, but I didn’t care.  I was running off adrenalin and instinct.  There was no logic left in my brain at that moment.  I had to get Chip out of there.  If he was going to die, it was going to be on that raft, with Dale and me right next to him.

             The water’s temperature shocked me, even though I knew how cold it was.  As soon as I was under, my body went rigid and refused to work properly.  It was just too cold.  I probably would have stopped then and there if my blood wasn’t boiling with injustice and anxiety.  I thrashed for a split second, then mastered myself and swam downwards. 

             There was a murky object, moving slightly in the ebb and flow of the current, some two feet below me.  Thankfully, I had found Chip on my first try.  Still miraculously conscious.

             His eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to register anything as I wrapped my arms around his chest and started kicking upwards.  It felt like he weighed ten pounds as I struggled to drag him up.  Even as I kicked valiantly, the cold water was closing in on me, seizing my muscles up.  Just as my legs gave out, my head broke the surface and air flooded into my lungs.  The raft was right there, and a frightened-looking mouse reached out a hand to help Chip and I up.

             We slammed onto the deck together, my wet hair all over the place.  Dale was standing near, holding his injured arm to his chest and dancing uncertainly.  I flipped my hair out of the way and rolled Chip onto his back, checking for a pulse.  The smallest, weakest of heartbeats was still toiling on.  “Hang on, Chip,” I muttered, pulling him up into a sitting position.  I hit his back gently, coaxing him to cough up the salty water he had swallowed.  I knew it would hurt him, might even kill him, but better to die...well, I don’t know how I’d prefer to die, I just know I’d want my friends to be doing everything they could.

             He started coughing, lightly at first, then he gurgled, and without warning, retched out of my arms and forward, spitting up blood and water together.  He coughed and coughed until all the water was up, then he shook violently and collapsed, his body rolling slightly over to meet my knees.

             There was a crowd of mice around us now.  “We have to get him dry, try to get him warm,” I started, but then my tongue stopped working.  I was surprised.  I tried again, but my head was getting heavy.  I tried to move, but my body no longer worked.  My vision blurred, and I blinked uncertainly.  Two Chips....how did that happen?  I was fairly certain he didn’t have a twin...Four of him...eight, dozens....blackness.

 

Chapter 6
He’s a Rescue Ranger”

             I woke up slowly, with my eyes shut.  The only sounds I could hear someone’s labored breathing somewhere on my left, and quiet whispering somewhere in front of me.  For a moment I thought I was back in Ranger headquarters, and we’d just finished our movie marathon.  I continued to breath as deeply as I would have had I been asleep.  Where had I been last?

             “I’m glad to ‘ear Dale’s doin’ fine, but how about me other pallys?”  It was Monterey.  What had happened to Dale?

             “Yes, about them.  The young lady should be just fine with a few days of rest and good food.  She’ll need to not over-exert herself, and she’ll probably have a cough.  As for, ah, the other young man, he will recover.

             “He’ll be fine?”

             “Well, there may be a few minor complications, but he will be able to function.”

            What was wrong with Chip and me?  Tears of confusion burned under my closed eyes, forcing me to open them.  Through my blurred vision, I could see Monterey and a very short, thin mouse standing several inches away. 

             “Yes, complications,” the doctor continued.  He voice was whiny and abnoxious.  “Perhaps.  He may loose his voice, probably will, but if he can be persuaded to keep quiet, he might be able to keep it.  He will also be somewhat weaker now.  Again, if he keeps quiet and allows himself to rest for quite some time, not excite himself...”

             It was then that I remembered.  I sat up, whirling my head around to find Chip.  And it nearly exploded.  “Aah!” 

             “Gadget-luv, don’ do that!”  Monterey rushed to my side, easing me back down.  The doctor appeared on the other side of my bed.

             “You shouldn’t be trying to sit up, little missy.  Surprised you lived.  Don’t move any more, okay?  I’ll go and tell the nurse you’re up...”  And he left.

             Gingerly readjusting myself to my bed, I stared after him and frowned.  “He’s kind of annoying, isn’t he?”

             Monty chuckled.  “Too right.  Doub’ ‘e knows ‘alf uv what ‘e’s sayin’.  The nurse is all righ’, though.  How’re ya feelin’?”

             I took a deep breath.  “Better.  How’s everyone else?”

             “Oiy, now there’s a question.”

             “I would say so,” said someone from the door.  Monty turned around.

             A trim, neat-looking Japanese nurse was standing in the doorframe.  “May I come in, Miss?” she queried.

             “Yes,” I said, and watched her trot briskly in.

             She quickly and efficiently took my pulse, peeked down my throat and in my ears, and took my temperature.

             “Yes, you’ll be just fine,” she announced, standing back and looking at me happily.

             “But the doctor said-”

             She waved her hand.  “Ah, do not mind what Dr. Collins says, yes?  He is a little silly.  You will be just fine.”

             “What about everyone else?  What about Chip?”

             She smiled and nodded over to my left.  I turned a bit, looking over and finding the source of the heavy breathing.  Chip was lying under a thick white blanket looking more or less simply tired, except for the breathing mask and oxygen attached to him.

             “Don’t worry about the mask, dear.”

             “But he was coughing...”

             “I know.  His throat is very sore from the smoke and blood.  We had to pump a little water out of his lungs.”  She twisted her hand in the pocket of her smock.  “Dr. Collins was right about one thing, though.  We were both very surprised that he lived through the ordeal.   Mr. Dale told us that before you passed out you told the mice on the raft to get him dry and keep him warm.  It was probably the best thing you could have said.”

             I frowned at her.  Wasn’t that just common sense?

             “You see, the mice were all in shock.  Not all of them are as seasoned as you in the art of survival.  And when people are in shock, they don’t think properly.  You reminded them to.”

             Monterey nodded and took my hand.  “Dale got ‘em all worked out fine.  Chip would’ve been proud.  ‘E ‘ad all the gals take you to one side of the raft, all the guys and Chipper on ‘t other, and ‘ad ‘em warm yeh up an’ get yeh dry.  Two mice to an oar, change every ten minutes.”

             I blinked.  “That’s not like Dale.”

             “I think seein’ his bes’ mate in trouble brought out the leader in ‘im.  He got me woke up before the pain in ‘is arm got too bad ‘an ‘e passed out.”

             “But he’s all right now?”

             “Yes.  And Chip will be too.  Just keep him quiet, like the doctor said.  I won’t say he’ll be running off to rescue anybody from assassins anytime soon,” she grinned and winked at me, “but I do think that within’ two weeks he’ll have a healthy appetite and you’ll have to tie him to his bed.”

             I smiled back.  “He’s a Rescue Ranger.”

             She nodded.  “Yes.  You must know how much that means to everyone, Gadget,” she addressed me by name.  “You are trusted and respected very highly.  And now, I will leave you to rest.  Can I get you anything?”

             “No thanks.”

             She nodded, bowed slightly from the waist, and left the room.

             Monterey reached up and removed his hat, running his fingers distractedly through his hair.  “It was a righ’ bad night, weren’t it?”

             I nodded.   “What happened after Dale passed out?  Where are we?”

             “We got picked up by the Portland abou’ an hour later.  Tha’s where we are now.  Dale ‘an Marskov ‘an Jules ‘an ever-one else is all bunkin’ with the Portland’s passengers.”

            “Where are we going?”

             “Back tuh Vladivostok.  We’re gonna dock in ‘round an hour.”

             “We weren’t that far out, Monty.”

             “No, luv, but the Portland circled for survivors three times afore we got underway.  Makin’ sure she got ‘em all, yuh know?”

             “What are we going to do with Chip when we land?”

             “We’re gonna wait in the local ‘ospital fer a couple days afore we all fly back home together.  Give Chipper a chance to rest up.”  He looked furtively at the sleeping chipmunk under the oxygen mask.  He seemed to want to say something, but couldn’t find the words.

             I knew how he felt.  There was something inside my chest squirming around anxiously, making all of my innards contract and twist.  Despite my not-so-great track record,  I knew I wanted to talk to someone about what had happened. Not just anyone; someone who had watched it happen.  Had it happen to them, too.

              It was unusual for me, but this time, I could feel the hot acid build-up of toxic, corroding emotions already beginning.  I knew if I didn’t get this off my chest, I wouldn’t be able to function normally again.  And I didn’t want to be alone again.  I didn’t want to become a recluse.  I didn’t want to become depressed. I didn’t want to become...the way I was... after dad died.

             Monterey didn’t know about the assassin yet, and I felt it would be cruel to tell him.  The assassin wasn’t after Sophia.  She was the decoy.   I was the target.  It was one of those blinding revelations that hits after the fact.  When the assassin had said he was going to kill me, take my goggles back to his brother as proof, I had moved past the horror and straight to action.  But now I was scared, even though the assassin was dead.  I had killed him.  I had killed him, I had killed...

            I gagged.  If I had eaten anything more recently than 30 hours ago, I would have thrown up.  Lucky for me, I hadn’t.  Monterey swooped down on me, wrapping me in his enormous arms and holding me tightly. 

             “It’s all right, luv.  It was a terrible nigh’, but it’s over now.  It’s over.”

 Cdcdcdcdcdcdcdcddcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdc

             Monterey left fifteen minutes later, after I had convinced him that I wasn’t going to die in his absence.  I hoped.  It felt like I might.

             With Monty gone, I realized that I could hear more than Chip’s wheezing breath.  There was a heart monitor hooked up to him, beeping ominously.  I hate heart monitors.  They beep slowly, consistently, but at any moment they could buzz flat, and you know it’s over.  It’s not a nice thing, being in a room listening to a heart monitor tick away at your friend’s life. 

             I pulled the blanket around me got off the bed carefully.  I remembered the pain that had kicked me in the back when I had sat up, so I moved slowly and deliberately, reining in the pain that was still drifting inside of me, oblivious to the anesthetics.

             “Chip?” I whispered.  I stood over his bed, looking at him.  I didn’t really want to look at him, lying there with a mask and bunch of monitors and wires attached to him, but I did it anyway.  Because he was the only one.  The only one who had been in the water, been hurt by the assassin, been alone during our rescue, been in the sinking part of the ship.  He was the only one.  And I wanted to talk to him. 

             “Chip, I know you can’t hear me...  I’m scared.”  I needed someone to talk to, and I needed them now, or I’d lose the nerve to do it at all.  One more bruise, one more scar, one more tear...did it really matter?  He couldn’t talk now.  He wouldn’t talk for weeks.  He couldn’t hear me now.  He wouldn’t hear for hours, days, who could tell?  The point was he was my lifeline, and he had sunk.           

 

Chapter 7
Heart Monitor

             We moved down the hospital corridor in a pack.  Hospital corridors are always better negotiated this way.  They don’t seem as cold, your feet don’t echo so loudly, and so forth.  And it was nice to hear that everyone was chatting away naturally.  Dale was insisting to Jules (much to his horror) that Kablamo Man comics were ten times better than any Sureluck Jones novel.  Monterey was rambling on about ‘the good old days in Australia’ to Sophia, and Zipper was pulling loop-de-loops in the air around Dale’s ear, saying he was crazy. 

             I alone didn’t feel like joining in.  I felt separated from the Rangers, somehow.  They didn’t feel complete; something was missing from the warm, welcoming, understanding, and accepting atmosphere that was usually around them.  They had been nothing but kind and considerate to me since I had been released from Doctor Collin’s ward on the ship. But something, no, someone was missing.  

             Chip was doing much better.  The heart monitor was gone, much to my relief, and his oxygen mask had been removed earlier that day.  That was why everyone was so happy.  Chip would be released within three days, the doctors were all saying on the phone.  I was just as happy as the rest of them, but I still dreaded his release because I knew he wouldn’t be allowed to speak.

             “You’re here!” cheered an young female orderly in Russian.  Sophia translated for us.  “He is breathing well, and I’m sure he’ll wake up soon!”

             Everyone else went wild, but I just smiled to myself.  Jules looked at me and frowned.  I forced the grin a little wider.  “Are you all right, my dear?” He whispered to me, drawing me to the side.

             “Yes, I think so,” I answered faintly. 

             “It was terrible, what you went through.  I’m sorry I didn’t come back for you, but he...”  Jules seemed puzzled as to what to say.

             “It’s all right.  The assassin scared everyone.  I’m just glad it’s over,” I breathed, rubbing at my chilled arms.

             “Yes.  Over, dear.  And you never have to go through it again.” He patted my back and left me for the group again.

             “You can come in and see him now, if you like,” grinned the orderly.

             “Yes!”  Dale jumped up and down, bracing his broken arm with his good one, grinning like a maniac.  I couldn’t help laughing a bit at him.  Just as long as he contained himself this time.  The last time Chip had a near-to-death experience, Dale had bowled him over in ecstasy.  I didn’t think Chip would appreciate that today quite as much as he had then.

             Chip’s room was full of natural light, filtered only by the sheers on the window.  Chip was a little ball of brown fur snuggled up under the blankets. He looked pretty cute and innocent, lying there. Despite my mood,  I indulged in one of those smiles that humans do whenever they see him and Dale in the park.

             “Can we wake him up, can we, can we?” begged Dale of the doctor who had appeared seemingly out of thin air.

             He doctor chuckled and spoke through a rich accent, “Speak all you like, friend.  I am sure he will hear you.”

            “Chipper!” Dale shouted and launched himself towards the bed.  Monterey caught him in mid-flight.

             “‘E didn’t say you could wake ‘im up, pally.  He just said you could talk.   Not shou’.”

             Beside me, Sophia chuckled quietly.  “They are very good friends, are they not, Gadget?”

             “Golly, Chip and Dale are best friends.”

             “Chip and Dale.  Chip and Dale.  It sounds...catchy, right?”

             I looked over at her and grinned.  I liked Sophia a lot.  “It is, isn’t it?”

             “Chip and Dale and the Rescue Rangers...yes, it’s very catchy!”  Sophia smiled broadly at me. 

             I nodded.  “Very.  Dale, you’d better be quiet,” I warned.  Dale was swinging on Monty’s arm, trying to get to Chip.

             The doctor laughed loudly.  “I doubt you could awaken him.  He has not woken yet.  Although...he does try to talk, sometimes.”

             “Really?” I asked.  “What does he say?”  So Chip talked in his sleep, huh? 

             Before the doctor could answer, Dale piped in.  “He always talks in his sleep, but don’t try to tell him that!”

             We all looked at Dale, unprofessionally curious.  Monty set Dale down and he continued.  “He talks about Fat Cat and Nimnul and stuff all the time!  And sometimes,” he laughed, “he yells at me!”

             We all laughed, even Sophia and Jules.  The doctor nodded good-naturedly.  “I have not heard him speak of ‘Fat Cat’, he has tried to say all your names.”

             Dale’s eyes got watery, and I was sure he would burst out crying any second.

             “And it was strange he should say...is one of you called?...how did he say it... ‘Gadget?’”

             I didn’t say anything.  I guess I blushed though, because Sophia turned her green cat-eyes on me.  Monterey saved me from responding.  “I kin imagine ‘e said that a time ‘er two.”

             The doctor chuckled and turned to leave.  “Oh, if you can awaken him, it would not be a bad idea.”  And then he was gone.

             Dale turned and bolted for Chip’s bed again.  “Chipper!  Chip, wake up!”  Before Monty or I could do anything, Dale was shaking Chip’s shoulders.

             “Wait a minute, ‘old up there!” And Monterey scooped him out of the way again.  I moved over to the bed to see if there was any noticeable damage.  Chip didn’t seem to have been overly disturbed, so I swung around and looked up at Dale. 

             “You know, you have to be careful, Dale.  Chip will wake up when it’s time for him to.”

             “But he’s been asleep for days,” he moaned, looking sadly at Chip.  “I want him to wake up.” Monterey planted him on the floor again.

             “So do we all, Dale,” said Monterey, looking down at Chip.

             I continued to stand with my back to Chip, talking to Dale and Monterey.  “You know, speaking from a strictly psychiatric point of view, when someone has amnesia or has been in a coma for a long time, sometimes little details can bring them out.  You know, things that the victim noticed right before their accident.  Anything could do it.  A familiar voice, a taste, a scent-”

             “Gadget?”

             Monterey made a sort of gagging noise.  Dale sniffed and leaned around me.  “Chip....”

             I spun back around.  Chip was awake, staring fixedly at me, reaching for my paw.  “Gadg...”

             I nearly screamed I was so happy.  Before I could do anything, Dale had moved me out of the way and gently sat Chip up and was hugging him. “Chipper, Chipper, oh, ChipChipChipChip!”

             Monterey cleared his throat.  “One side, everyone.  ‘Ol Monterey Jack is comin’ through!”  And he sidestepped me and joined Dale in hugging our friend.

             Through all the sobbing and hysterical laughing, I could hear Chip’s muffled, rasping voice trying to talk to them. 

             I was teary-eyed with happiness, but I couldn’t move to join them.  Dale, Monty, and Zipper, who had been hugging Chip’s ears, finally let go of him and looked at me expectantly.  I didn’t think I could move.

             “Well, are you gonna hug me or not?” rasped Chip. 

             That did it.  I burst into tears and threw myself at the poor guy.  It was worth the wait to feel his arms around my back, hugging me as tightly as he could.

 

Chapter 8
Girl Talk

            Right on schedule three days later, we were boarding a plane to take us home.  Ten minutes after Chip had woken up, the commotion had drawn the doctor and several nurses back into the room, where they had congratulated him on his recovery and chastised us for making him talk. 

            “Chip, you must not talk.  You understand this?  You will lose your voice forever if you speak.  Please, do not make him talk!”

            Dale had been adamant about a set date when Chip could start talking again.  The doctor had put his foot down.  “Not for at least three weeks.  Not a word!”  He had then given us complicated directions concerning what Chip was supposed to eat and drink for what seemed like the rest of the year, and which doctors back home he should visit, and how much exercise and excitement he should have and so on and so forth until I noticed Chip’s head had lolled down on my shoulder. 

            I had been sitting on the bed next to him, letting the mere fact of him soothe my nerves, when he had fallen asleep again.  I smiled at the recollection. 

            “Please fasten your safety belts,” came a pleasant, clipped female voice over the intercom. 

            I wasn’t sure how I felt about the plane ride home.  I was still feeling very distant from everything and everybody except Chip, and all I could do was look at him after a while.  It was almost rude to talk to a person who couldn’t talk back, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. 

            What I wanted most was to go tinker mindlessly in my workshop for several hours.  Entirely absorb myself in the one constant in my life: my inventions.  I knew after five days of being silent and moody I should be ready to talk to anyone about that night, and start letting go of the feelings.  And yet, I found it easier to do what I had always done: bottle them up inside, bury them so deeply that I eventually almost forgot. 

            I settled down in a chair on the aisle of the small mouse-sized deck of the plane and waited for the voice to tell us we were underway.  Half of me wanted to sneak up to the bridge and watch the pilot and captain work.  The other half of me wanted to close my eyes and think about the parts I’d need for a new Ranger Wing.

            “Miss Gadget, is this seat taken, please?”

            Startled, I looked up and saw Sophia and Jules standing over me, Sophia glittering in a black dress suit.  “Um, no.  Why are you coming with us, Sophia?”  I had assumed she and Jules would be remaining in Vladivostok now that she was safe.  Well, she had never really been in danger.  She knew that now.

            Sophia worked her way around my legs and settled herself in the chair next to me.  Jules excused himself and went to the opposite side of the aisle.  

            “I wish to send some time with you Rescue Rangers and get to know you.  You saved my life, and the lives of everyone else on that ship.  I wish to find a way to thank you.”

            I marveled at her Russian accent.  It was so dainty, so refined.  “Golly, Sophia, that’s awfully nice of you.  But we don’t need anything from you; we like to help people.”

            Sophia knitted her be-jeweled fingers together.  “Yes, well, more people should be like you.”  She lowered her voice to a whisper and looked across the aisle where Chip, Dale, Monterey Jack, and Zipper were all dozing.  “You are very brave people.  I have made many movies, and seen many brave people do stunts.  But you, you do this because of your good hearts.   You many have forgotten, but I saw how brave you all are, what a team you are.”  Sophia looked around the plane uncertainly, and then continued.  I listened whole-heartedly.  After all, the praise did feel good.

            “I feel almost ashamed when I think of the danger I put you in, Gadget.”

            “Well, he was after me, not you,” I answered, trying to make small of the fact.  Sophia and I had enlightened the other Rangers during one of Chip’s waking spells in the hospital.  But I had yet to tell them that the assassin was a hired hit-man, with a brother still out to get me.

            Sophia would have none of it.  “No.  Something is wrong.  Of all the people the assassin could have been sent after as a diversion, I should not have been it.  Something is out of place.  I do not like it, Gadget.”

            She was right, now that I thought about it.  If someone, I still couldn’t imagine who, wanted me dead, why on earth go after an actress in Russia whom I’d never heard of?  It worked, obviously.  “Whoever it was knew the Rangers would help out no matter who it was.  But picking you...that is suspicious.”

            Across the aisle, Jules snored loudly, announcing the fact that he had fallen asleep.  It knocked Sophia off of her “why me” train, and back onto her previous one.  She leaned towards me again, confidentially.  “I watched as Chip and Monterey Jack climbed the smokestack and rescued that little boy.  I saw Monterey Jack fall and break Dale’s arm, and I saw Chip fall into the smokestack.  And then, he gathered the people onto the raft all by himself!  And I saw how he risked his life for you to save you from the assassin.”  She swallowed, looking at me in awe.  “You dived into the water after him!”  Her eyes were wider than pennies.  “And the assassin!  You disposed of him!”

            Her words brought the night alive for me all over again, despite my attempts to forget it.  I shivered at the thought of the icy water, even though the plane was wonderfully warm.  The fear I had felt as Chip and I had battled the assassin rose again in my throat, hot and nasty.  Chills raced down my arms. 

            “I’m..I’m a Rescue Ranger.  We all are,” I said lamely.  I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say, but I wanted the topic over.  “And Chip is my friend...of course I’d help him.”

            “Of course you are a Rescue Ranger, and of course Chip is your friend.” She twisted my answer.  “But...you were so worried about him.  And he about you! When he woke up, I had to wonder, perhaps...?”  She didn’t finish her sentence.  She didn’t need to; the look in her eyes did it for her.  I’d seen the question before, unasked, in so many people’s eyes.  Monterey’s, Tammi’s, Chip’s.  Sometimes even my own.

            “Chip is my friend.”

            And yet the worry must have been plain on my voice, because Sophia saw right through it to the unspoken, wavering interest below it.  I didn’t exactly love Chip, but I certainly cared a lot about him, and enjoyed every minute of the attention he gave me.  That is, when I’m paying attention.  I’ll admit, I don’t think I catch half of what he says sometimes because I’m busy tinkering with some machine or another.

            Sophia smiled knowingly.  “Ah, do not worry.  You are beautiful young girl, and he is a very handsome young man.”  She cocked her head.  “It would make me very happy indeed to see the two of you enjoying yourselves sometime.  Perhaps I could arrange it?”

            I felt very much wrong-footed.  No one had ever tried to set me up before.  “Gee, that’s nice of you, Sophia, but it seems like whenever the Rescue Rangers try and relax, something always comes up.”  I smiled to myself.  “We seem to attract trouble.”

            “Trouble finds you?”  She giggled happily.  “Then we must find a place where trouble never comes.  I have a vacation home in southern France, not too far from the water.  Perhaps a small party there, when you are all well?  I have been meaning to have one for some time now.  My friends there grow weary of my absence, and it would be the perfect place to relax after all this.”

            I nodded mutely.  Parties were the last thing on my mind now.  And yet, talking to Sophia seemed to be easing the knot my stomach had wound itself into.

            Sophia seemed to realize how therapeutic she was being, because she continued talking.  “Gadget, your name is so unique.  Tell me about it.  And tell me why I heard Dale speaking of planes and other machines you made.  Tell me.”  She spoke enthusiastically, and rested her head on her paw attentively.  Despite my inclination to see her overture for mere sympathy, I opened up and started talking.

            “My dad, his name was Geegaw Hackwrench, was a pilot, and he taught me to build things.  I’m an inventor.”

            “So it was you who made this ‘Ranger Wing’ that I heard about?”

            “Yes.  I made it out of spare parts I found in the dumpster back home.  It’s really a nice plane, a step up from the Ranger Plane at least.  Except when it rains.   When it’s raining I’m not sure which one I wish we had!   You see, the Wing handles better, but the engine takes on water, whereas the Plane doesn’t.  The Plane will float even if you crash it in water, but the Wing will sink like a rock.  Of course, my absolute favorite has to be the Gyrotank!  I made the Gyromobile when we were working on a case a while ago.  Bubbles, the bad guy, sabotaged it-” Jules snored loudly again, “-and so I thought it didn’t work, you know?  But then I found out he had sabotaged it and that it really did work, and...”

            I must have carried on about all the different ‘Ranger’ things I had built for at least half an hour.  By that time, we were well underway, and I had warmed up considerably to Sophia.  The fact that she didn’t interrupt my ranting, coupled with the fact that we had just undergone a terrible ordeal together, I started thinking of her as something like a sister.  We became good friends on the way home, and she promised again and again to have a party for us, just as soon as Chip was feeling up to it.

            Mentioning Chip again was probably all in the plan, because as soon as she had said this, I was in another corner, trying to fight my way out of saying I liked him.  Sophia seemed obsessed with the idea of us making a cute couple. 

            But after being around only boys for so long, never having another girl to turn to, I found myself opening up more and more.  After a few minutes of whispering about not liking Chip, I found it easier, after making quite certain he was still out cold, to start telling her things. 

            “I don’t know for sure if he likes me, Sophia.  Or if I like him.”

            “Tell me, how does he act around you?”

             I already had this figured out for the most part.  I was convinced Chip liked me, but I was shy about it.  I mean, why would someone like me?  I wasn’t sure how much I liked him, though.  So just for giggles, I told Sophia about the way Chip would look at me, how he would fight with Dale over who got to do things with me, and about the morning five days ago when I had woken up to find myself asleep on his shoulder.

            “You did!  How wonderful!  Does he know?”

             I swallowed, knowing my face was bright pink.  “Yes.”

            Sophia smiled and giggled, muffling the sound with her paw.  “And what did he say, dear?”

            “Not much, really.  He seemed really surprised and stared at me.  But...”  I told her how he had been smiling when I woke up.

            “NO!”  Sophia was in raptures for the rest of the flight.  I barely registered half of what she said, but I was keenly aware of a change taking place inside of me.  Sophia was definitely warping my judgement concerning Chip, but she was certainly making him a lot more fun to talk about.  I felt different, the longer we whispered together.  I felt needed...and as though I had finally found and unlocked the feminine part of me I didn’t know I had.  It was amazing.

            And so was Sophia.  It occurred to me, at some point in our conversation, that I should be the one comforting her.  After all, she was the one who’s perfect life had been shattered by this false assassination.  Not the other way around.  It had been terrible, and the feelings of horror were real, but I was street-wise, wasn’t I?  I’d been around the block, and had plenty of experience in fights and loss and desperate situations, and yet, I was the one who needed counseling.  Odd, the way things work.

           

Chapter 9
Valley of Decision

            “There ya are, laddie,” proclaimed Monterey, depositing Chip softly on the couch.  “Ya can stay there an’ entertain yerself an’ not jus’ lie aroun’ in bed, right?”

            Chip nodded and sighed, arranging himself comfortably.  We all stared at him as if there was nothing better to do.  Chip looked up at us and frowned.  It was incredibly irritating to all of us that he couldn’t talk.

            “Should we...leave, Chipper?” ventured Dale. 

            Chip shook his head.

            “Do you wanna watch T.V.?” Dale asked.

            Again, Chip shook his head.

            “Do you wanna read my comic books?”

            No.

            “Are yeh hungry?”  Monty asked.  “Oh tha’s right...yeh can’ eat yet...”

            Chip rolled his eyes at us, looking annoyed.  I laughed.

            “What?” asked Dale.

            I giggled and shook my head.

            “Have you both taken a vow of silence, then?” demanded Monterey.

            I opened my mouth to protest, but then decided it would be funnier if I didn’t say anything.  I hopped on the couch next to Chip and looked up at Dale and Monty expectantly.   They stared at me for a moment, then walked out of the room huffily. 

            “What’s gotten into them?” I asked rhetorically, craning my neck to watch them leave.  Beside me, Chip shrugged and smiled. 

            “Are you all right?” I asked, starting to feel as awkward as the others had. 

            Chip nodded to me and looked around, as if to make sure the others were out of earshot.  Then he leaned forward and whispered, “Will you get me my notepad?”

            I smiled at the sound of his voice.  “Sure, Chip.”  I left him and went fishing in his and Dales’ bedroom for his notepad.  When I returned, Dale was sitting on the opposite end of the couch, arms crossed, glaring at Chip.

            “Fighting already?” I asked, stopping behind Chip and looking over at Dale.

            “We can’t fight.  He can’t talk.”  Dale stuck his tongue out. 

            I handed Chip the notepad, which he flipped open, pulled a pencil out of the depths of his Mary Poppins coat, and started scribbling.

            DALE, WHERE’S YOUR CAST?  I THOUGHT YOU BROKE YOUR ARM.

            He flashed the notepad at Dale, grinning mercilessly. 

            Dale laughed.  “Hey, that’s pretty good, Chip!  I got my cast off the last day you were in the hospital.  Didn’t you notice?”

            Chip shook his head and started writing again. 

            WHY ARE YOU IN A BAD MOOD?

            “Cuz you can’t talk. But now you can...except it’s really slow, Chipper.”

            YEAH.  WE WON’T BE ABLE TO ARGUE, HUH?

            “Right.  Or play jokes on each other, or-”

            While Dale spoke, Chip wrote furiously, still grinning mischievously.

            LETS PLAY A GAME, DALE.

            Dale broke off.  “Sure, Chip, if you think you can.”

            LETS PLAY SIMON SAYS.

            “Okay...”

            GADGET, YOU BE SIMON.

            “All right, Chip.  What should I make you guys do?”  I leaned on the back of the couch and looked at them.  Chip held the notepad up so only I could see it.

            HAVE SIMON TELL HIM NOT TO TALK.

            “That’s not fair, Chip, now you know what we have to do,” protested Dale.

            “That’s okay, Dale,” I said.  “Chip doesn’t know everything I’m going to do.”

            “Okay...”

            “All right.  Simon says touch your nose.”

            Both of them did.

            “Simon says clap your paws.”  I waited while they did it.  “Simon says...oh, shoot, what should I do?”

            “Make us dance around in circles, Gadget!” begged Dale.

            “No, Chip can’t do that...”

            DON’T LET ME STOP YOU, DALE.

            I laughed.  “No...Simon says stick you tongue out.  Okay...um, close your eyes.”  I watched, but neither of them did.  “Good.  Okay now...Simon says....don’t talk until dinner time.”

            “No problemo, Gadget....HEY!”  Dale jumped off the couch and pointed at Chip.  “You told her to do that, didn’t you?!”

            Chip curled into a ball, laughing silently.  When he had recovered, he retrieved his notepad from the back of the couch.  Dale was still glaring at him.

            GOTCHA LAST!

            “Ooh!  You...”  And Dale leaned over and hugged him fiercely, then ran out of the room.

             “Nice to see you can still fight even if you can’t talk, Chip.”

             I THOUGHT YOU DIDN’T WANT US TO FIGHT.  I THOUGHT YOU WANTED US TO GROW UP.

             “Oh, Chip...I don’t like it when you fight, usually.  But, but it’s part of what makes you Chip and Dale.  If you stopped fighting, I’d....”

            YOU’VE GONE SOFT.

             “Wasn’t I already?”

             YES.

 Cdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdc

             A week passed like that, Chip writing us silly notes, making us laugh.  By the third day, Monterey and Zipper had found it necessary to go get Chip several more notebooks; he’d gone through three, and all the spare paper we could find.

             Dale had taken to sitting with Chip on the couch most of the day, swapping notes with him.  I cleaned the pile of paper up every night and flew it to the recycling bin in the Ranger Plane.  Sometimes I’d read the notes.

            CHIP, YOU WANT TO WATCH THE RED BADGER OF COURAGE WITH ME?

             NO.  WE’VE WATCHED IT ALL MORNING.

            WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?

            NOTHING.  THINK.

            WHY?

            I’M WORRIED, DALE.  I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT OUR LAST CASE.

            Yes, I thought to myself after reading that note, I’m with you on that one.  I can’t stop thinking about it either. 

            Sophia had brought up an interesting point (one of many) on the plane ride home.  She shouldn’t have been the one the hit-man had gone after.  I didn’t even know her.  The assassin had mention a brother he was working for, but that was all.  Who wanted me dead?

            That was the sane part of my mind talking.  The not-so-sane part was fast unwinding itself into shreds.  Shreds that were blowing away on the winds of fate.  I had to tell Chip my suspicions about the assassin; that his brother would try again.  And I had to tell him about how scared I was.  No, that sounded pathetic. 

            That was the conclusion I had come to.  The opportunity to talk was gone.  Gone with Chip’s voice.  I could only tell him about the assassin.  So a week and a half after we had come home, I left Chip a letter under his pillow.

            Chip,
Sophia and I were talking on the way home, and she brought up an interesting point.  I already told you that the assassin was after me, not Sophia, and that he was a hired hit-man.  Because he drowned, you’re probably all thinking that’s the end of it.  What Sophia and I know is that the hit-man was working for his brother.  He’s going to get suspicious when his brother doesn’t come back, and all the newspapers are having a hey-day saying Sophia is fine.  He’s not done, Chip.  If he wanted me, then he knows where we are.  We need to find out who the brother is, because I don’t think he’s done with me.
            Gadget.

            I was terrified, and writing the letter threatened to break me down.   I tried not to sound too worried, just that we needed to tie up a loose end when he was up to it.  I didn’t tell him how the assassin had tried to kill me in the ship with Sophia, and that I had managed to elude him.  I didn’t say anything about how every time I heard a noise at night now I went stiff as a board.  How I couldn’t walk down to the hardware store or fly to the recycling bins without feeling afraid.  How I didn’t like being alone out in my workshop anymore.  How I didn’t feel safe.  But Chip must have sensed all of this, because the next morning was a crucible.

            “Why didn’ you bloody tell us!?” roared Monterey as soon as I stepped into the kitchen.  He left his pot of water boiling and came around to scoop me into a hug.  I was still half-asleep and not entirely sure why he was acting so strangely.

            “Golly, Monty, tell you what?”

            “That he’s coming after you!” shouted Dale.

            I broke away from Monterey and stared at everyone.  They looked back, eyes wide, faces pale and concerned.  I focused on Chip.  I hadn’t counted on him ratting me out.

            “You told them.  Why did you tell them?!”  I shouted.  Why was I shouting?

            He moved forward, reaching for me, his mouth open with un-uttered concerns, but I was having none of it.  He shouldn’t have gone and told everyone.  I was fine, I was safe, wasn’t I?  I didn’t feel that way, but when do we ever feel the way we should? 

            “Don’t shout at Chip, Gadget.”  It was Monterey’s voice, dropping out of the sky like an anvil.  I turned on him.  He ignored me and kept talking.  “What was he supposed to do?  Yeh’ve been skulkin’ aroun’ here all worried.  We all thought you was just worried ‘bout Chip.  And then ya leave him a letter sayin’ tha’ the assassin’s brother is coming after you?  Of course he was gonna tell us!”

            “No.  You don’t understand.  He’s not coming for me.  He’ll just be...wondering.  Come on guys, he could still think I’m dead.  There wasn’t an informant there working with the hit-man...”  Why had Chip told everyone?  He’d betrayed me!  The one person I thought I could trust...that I wanted to trust.

            “You’re back-peddlin’.  E’ll be lookin’ for yeh.”

            Chip stepped up, grabbing my shoulder.  Before any of us could stop him, he rasped out a sentence that slammed me into a brick wall.      “What if there is an informant?”

            Dale’s eyes were huge.  Zipper nearly fell out of mid-air and onto Dale’s head.  Monterey made a gurgling noise. 

            “But...who on earth knew about it except...”  I couldn’t say it.

            “Sophia.”  Chip finished my sentence for me.

            “No, Chip, no.”  I shook my head firmly.  “Sophia wouldn’t do something like that; she’s too nice.”  Was Chip an idiot or something?

            “Gadget, Chipper’s got a poin’ there.  It would be the perfect set-up,” breathed Monty.  I could tell none of them wanted to believe it.

            “No.  Sophia wouldn’t.”  Yet on a level it made sense.  She would be unsuspected.  When she didn’t die, all she had to do was say ‘thank you, Rescue Rangers’ to a newspaper or tabloid, and the person who wanted me dead would know I was still alive.  That he had failed.  And Sophia got off scotch-free.  I refused to believe it.

            “Then why would she tell me about it being odd she was the decoy?  Guys, I spent nearly four hours talking to her.  I’m convinced she’s not an informant.  She’s my friend.”

            The others were uncomfortable, I could tell.  I had kept an enormous secret from them, one that concerned not only my welfare, but that of all the Rangers.   If someone came after me, chances were the others would get hurt too.  Again. 

            Finally, Chip made the call.  “All right.  We take Sophia off the suspect list.  But only because you asked us to, Gadget.”  Why was he talking?  Shouldn’t someone shut him up?  “And we’re getting you out of here.”

            I snapped.  The recluse and introvert still lurking inside of me flared up and aimed itself at Chip, the very person I most wanted to talk to.  “Thanks, Mr. Detective.  You shouldn’t even be talking, anyway.  You want to loose your voice?  Fine.  Just keep blabbing on about things you don’t know anything about.” 

            Chip looked like I had struck him. I was in denial and I knew it; I was in danger.  But I was angry.  He had betrayed my trust.  I turned on my heel and stormed out of the kitchen for my workshop.  When I reached it I slammed the door shut and locked myself in.  I could stay in there for 48 hours with my emergency food supply kit, and I’d stay in there that long if that was what it took for them to see that I wasn’t in danger.

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            I was going crazy slowly.  For hours, in a heated, mis-directed rage, I pulled my inventions apart, sometimes throwing their parts across my workshop at my dart board, sometimes melting them with my welding gun.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  I started taking bits and pieces from machines and assembling them together.  It was a long time before I understood what I was making.

            Salesmen Traps.

            They were Salesmen Traps.  Traps to keep out the world, fate, and friends.  Trapping myself in my own net, like a spider in a web.  That’s what Salesmen Traps were in reality.  They were physical evidence of my desperation, my loneliness, my depression, my, my...destructive thoughts. 

            Not the destructiveness this time.  Maybe not even the last time, after Dad was gone.  I didn’t want to kill myself over his death, it was just that I had gone crazy.  It’s hard to lose someone.  Even harder when he’s the only person, the only family, the only friend you ever had.  And he leaves you, a turbulent young adult, all alone in a decrepit airplane in a deserted airfield.  The weeks go by, the months, and pretty soon you can’t think properly anymore.  You build up the illusion that you like being alone; you don’t want to go outside.  Then you start thinking the world could come in.  You don’t want the world to come in, so you make traps.  I was good at making death-traps, and I knew it.  Sledge hammers, axes, overloaded springs, anvils, yes, I could use them to effectively lock myself into a corner.  A corner where I was safe, and I was alone.

            But that corner is dark.  And part of you never likes it, but the bit of you that does like it has taken over.  You’re in there and you can’t get out by yourself.  Someone has to survive your traps and drag you out, kicking and screaming. 

            I was doing it to myself again, this time in a more mental than physical sense.  I could feel the walls in my mind building up.  Panel attaching to panel, screwing themselves together, made of thick, solid metal.  One panel for each thought, each subject, each person in your life who had disappointed me.  I could see the walls going up around me.  Staring down at me from them were broken inventions, my Dad, the year of being alone, and now, the last panel was going up.  It wasn’t bolted in place yet; it could still be broken down and I could escape, but I couldn’t do it.  The walls, like my inventions, were to me living, breathing, thinking, real objects.  I couldn’t hurt them. 

            As I screwed more bolts into place on a second trap, I could see the last wall in my mind.  It was Chip’s wall.  I was putting it up.  I wanted to have Chip be part of my life, but now, finally getting around to putting him there, I found myself on the wrong side of the wall.  And I couldn’t take it down....

            “Gadget!  Gadget, talk to me.”

            I blinked blankly, still staring at the assemblage of metal under my paws.  The voice was somewhere distant; I couldn’t place it.  Sweat beaded the back of my neck, cloying.  I tightened another bolt.  The first screw went into the wall as I heard the voice come again.

            “Gadget, let me help you.”

             I stood up, grabbed a hammer off my table, and crouched down again to my trap.  Another bolt in the wall.... 

             “Gadget!”  The voice was insistent but I still couldn’t really hear it properly.  It sounded like Chip, but that would make sense.  He was the one the evil, perverse part of my brain wanted to shut out.

             Another one...

             I turned the clunky trap over, inserting some springs....

             Daylight was going in my mind.  The walls were tall, cold, defiant.  My poisonous web needed only a few more bolts and I’d be a goner... I kept pulling at the springs.

             “STOP!”  And two paws jerked me up, away from the trap.  Something from the outside thrust a heavy dent into the wall of my cell...

             I twisted around, ready to claw out the eyes of whoever it was that managed to get into my workshop.    I didn’t see anyone, just a shadow.  Had I forgotten to turn on the lights?  Was I here in the dark?  The paws were firm and unyielding to my tugs and pulls. 

             Another mighty thrust, and a hole appeared in the wall.  I backed away, falling to the ground...

             I stopped moving, staring into the darkness.  Quiet, insistent, yet patient, the voice spoke again.  “I don’t know where you are, but come out of there, Gadget.  We need you.”

             Come out?  Need...me?

             “Why are you building traps again, Gadget?  The last time you did this was after your dad died...”

             The trodden, bleeding girl inside of me lifted her face off the floor and watched as the wall fell down.  There was someone there.  “Chip?”

             His paws guided me over to a wall and leaned me against it.  “Why are you building traps again?”  He was silent, looking at me hard.  I looked back, the weariness in my eyes glittering with tears. 

             He ran into my cell and picked me up off the floor, cradled me in his arms, took me towards the Outside....

             “Gadget...the traps...oh, Gadget, no...”  He sounded sick.

             Tears of relief crept quietly out of my eyes.  He understood.  He knew what the traps were.  He understood.... For the first time in weeks, I had peace of mind.  And with the blinding sun of Life suddenly all over me, the perverse part of my mind went black and I fainted into his arms.

 

Chapter 10
A Chip On My Shoulder

            “Monterey, did you ever know what those Salesmen Traps really were?” Chip’s voice scratched through the surface of my unconsciousness. 

            “No, pally.  I thought they were jes’ a joke, ya know?  Like I always said, ‘er elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top.”

            “Monty...she built them to keep everyone out.  Do you remember when she told us she was severely depressed?”

            “Yeah, bu’ I figgered she would be.  She’d jes lost ‘er father...”

            “Monterey, she was more than ‘severely depressed.’”

            “Wha’s worse than ‘severely depressed?’”

            There was silence between them for several moments, Chip letting the realization come to Monterey on his own terms.  Finally, I heard him gasp.

            “NO! Not, not Gadget-

            “Gadget.”

            I opened my eyes and saw the ceiling of the conference room looking down at me, just as concerned as the voices inside it were.  Hollow and drained, I stared back at it. 

            “Gadget?  How are you feeling?” 

            I turned my head slightly, only to find myself looking into Chip’s bomber jacket.  I frowned and pulled myself up.  Sophia would be so happy...that was the second time I’d woken up like this.  Only this time it was after fainting in his arms.  Golly, but she’d probably think that was romantic or something.  Certainly didn’t feel romantic. More like traumatic.

            “Gadget-luv?”

            “Hi, Monty.”  My voice sounded almost as bad as Chip’s. 

            “Yeh’ve been out for hours; we was startin’ to get really worried.”

            “Hours?”  I looked around the room, dizzy.  Chip slipped his arm around my back to steady me.  “Where’s Dale?”

            “Gettin’ the doctor, luv.  We wasn’t sure what ta do.”

            I swallowed, getting my bearings, trying to remember everything.  “So...so you both know then?  About...about...”

            “Yes,” Monty cut in.  I was grateful; I didn’t want to say it out loud.  “Are yeh gonna be all right now, luv?  We need ta know.” 

            I took a deep breath and thought.  They knew.  I knew.  “Yes.  I know what it is.  You know what it is.  If I need help, I’ll tell you,” I promised.

            Monterey looked at me paternally for a few moments before nodding and smiling.  “Tha’s my girl.  Now I bet you’re hungry, so I’ll jes go find somthin’ fer ya to eat.”  He rose and left the room, still smiling.

            I felt a bit uncomfortable practically sitting in Chip’s lap, so I got up and walked around the sofa a few times.  He watched me uneasily.  I needed to say something to break the tension, to assure him I was all right.

            “I’m all right now, Chip.”  Even though it was ninety percent true, it still sounded dumb.

            “Are you sure?  I mean, I didn’t realize how badly-”

            “I hurt?  Yes, something like that.  It’s all right though.  You know why I was building traps...”

            “To get rid of everything, right?”

            “Yes,” I whispered.

            “It doesn’t work that way, Gadget.”

            “I know.  But...but when you’re scared and depressed, you can’t think for yourself anymore.  It’s like...” I struggled to find an appropriate image.  “It’s like those devils and angels on your shoulders.  The devil gets you, and even though the angel is still there, it can’t do anything for you.  Someone else has to.”

            “Someone else?”

            I scuffed my feet across the rug.  “Yeah.  You and Dale and Monty coming to find my dad...fixed me...the first time.  And today-” I looked at him meaningfully.

            Chip blushed.  “I do my best.”

            “I’m glad you did.”  I paced around a bit more.  “How did you get into my workshop, Chip?  I locked the door.”

            “The window.  We heard you throwing things and got worried.  When we found out the door was locked, we nearly panicked, but then Dale remembered we could still get in through the window.  You were in there in the dark, Gadget.”

            “I didn’t realize I was until you came in.  I thought I’d turned them on.”

            “That must have been some panic attack.”

            I nodded, and stopped pacing.  A few seconds passed before I could get the next words out.  Keep talking, keep talking to him.  It was helping; I could feel myself finish healing as I drove the conversation forward.  “I’m sorry I yelled at you.  I shouldn’t have - you were just trying to help.”

             “It’s all right. You’d have to do a lot more than shout at me to get me to go away.”

            “I know.  Not everyone would jump in front of a knife for someone like you did.”  I watched him closely.

            “We’re a team.  And we’re friends, Gadget.”

            “Still, Chip.  You were practically dying, but you still risked your life for me. That’s another thing.  I’m sorry I let go of you.”

            “What?  Oh, in the water.”  He looked at the floor for a moment, then looked up at me, grinning slyly.  “Well, you couldn’t very well have gotten rid of the assassin without getting rid of me first, could you?”  He became more serious.  “And I believe you about Sophia, too.  She telephoned not too long after you fainted; she wanted to check up on you.  She cried when I told her you had fainted.”

              “She cried?  Golly...”  I guess I would if I were in her position, but still...

            “You’ve got a good friend in Sophia.  But Gadget...she laughed when she was crying.”

            “Huh?”  I tipped my head, realized my goggles were gone.

            “She asked me -hem, cough- how you were.  I said you had just fainted in my arms, and she gasped, then started crying, and almost laughed.”  He paused. “Is that a girl thing, Gadget?”

            I burst out laughing and grinned broadly.  “Yes, Chip, that is definitely a girl thing.”

            “Care to enlighten me?”  He leaned forward, grinning devilishly.

            I leaned forward too.  “See, Sophia heard you say that I had just fainted in your arms, and drew conclusions.”  The panic and anger of that morning was gone, and I took immense pleasure in teasing him.

            “Ah.  So I should have said ‘Gadget swooned and fainted, and I heroically caught her in my arms?’”

            “Something like that, Casanova,” I teased, and poked his shoulder. I decided to keep on teasing him; it was fun.  “So where’d you put my goggles, Mister?”

            “Huh?”

            “Where are my goggles?

            “Like I’ll tell you!”  He caught on fast.

            “You’d better!”

            “Just try and find them, Gadget.” 

            “Oh!  So you wanna do it the hard way, huh?  I bet you’ve got them behind your back-” and I jumped forward and hugged him, knocking him flat into the cushions.

            “Gadget, they’re not there...”

            “So where are-”

            “Hello...”  A voice behind us chuckled uncertainly.  I bolted upright, looking towards the doorway.  Dale and the doctor were standing there, both looking very bemused.

            Chip sat up and smiled and the doctor, trying to look innocent. 

            “He wasn’t talking,” I said.  “He just decided it would be funny to hide my goggles.”  I shot Chip a playful glare.  He smiled angelically and looked at the ceiling.

            “Of course he wasn’t talking.  You were just having a one-sided argument with him, weren’t you?” asked the doctor, swinging his black bag and coming around the couch.  He winked at me knowingly.   “And though I have to say I am delighted to see two of my most critical patients feeling so well, it’s not exactly the best thing you could have been doing.”

            I bowed my head obediently, fighting the blush in my cheeks.  It didn’t help that Dale was tittering away behind me, and Chip was still grinning from ear to ear.  The doctor examined Chip, listened to his lungs and heart, and gave him official permission to begin whispering whenever he felt like it. 

            “I think you’ve been giving your friends the silent treatment long enough, young man.  Feel free to resume your regular activities, just so long as it doesn’t involve swimming the English Channel, all right?”

            “Thanks, doc,” Chip whispered. 

            The doctor turned to me.  “What’s this I hear about a panic attack and you fainting?”

            “Oh, well...it was just a panic attack.  I’m all right now.  I don’t think it’ll happen again.”

            He looked at me closely.  “Hmm.  Yes, well, I suppose I can understand, what with a crazed assassin after you.  But you haven’t exactly sought out a counselor, have you, Gadget?”  He leaned forward and said the last part very quietly.  I doubted even Chip heard.

            “Not at first I didn’t.  But...the Rangers are doing a pretty good job of it.  Now that they know, I mean.”  Chip wasn’t exactly a registered therapist, but talking to him, teasing him, had lifted a huge weight off my chest.

            He nodded several times.  “All right.  But just the same, I want you to take some Chamomile every night, all right?  Just to keep the nerves in check.”  He turned to Chip.  “And Chip, you may want to think about getting a guard dog for headquarters.  This is one lovely lady I’d hate to loose.”  He winked and stood up.  “Tootles, everyone, I’m off!”

            As soon as the door was shut behind him, Monty hurried in from the kitchen.  “Heard every word of it, laddies.  ‘Ere’s some soup for yeh, Gadget-luv.”  I was handed a bowl of something hot and cheesy, and I poked at it carefully with my spoon for a moment. 

            “So everyone knows, then?  About my assassin?”  I asked casually.  The boys didn’t answer.  “It’s probably better that way,” I said, smiling.  “No one would dare make a move with everyone in town watching, right?”

            “Right!  We’ll keep you safe, Gadget!”  Dale leapt up and assumed a heroic stance.  “Just let ‘em try to get past me!  Why, Double O Dale will smash ‘em flat!   Splat!  Zowie!  Kabang!”  He jumped up and down, pretending to flatten bad guys right and left.

            “Too right, Dale!  No worries ‘ere, Gadget.  You’ll be right as rain with us on the lookout.”

             “Thanks guys,” I said sincerely.  It was good to know I had four tough boys looking out for me.  And I was relieved that they didn’t still feel I needed to be removed from the city immediately.  “What do you say we go do something, in honor of Chip being able to whisper now?”

             “Yeah!” agreed Dale, ceasing his villain-smashing antics.  “Where should we go?”

             “Somewhere appropriate to the occasion,” I joked.  “Like the library.”

            Chip smacked me with the nearest pillow.

              “I’m joking, I’m joking!  We can do whatever you want to,” I shouted, warding off the barrage with my arms.

             “Lets go see a movie!” suggested Dale.  “That new show Sailors of the South Seas looks great!  Sword fightin’ and cannons, and pirates...”

             “Lets go, then,” said Chip, retrieving his hat from the table.  “Rescue Rangers AWAY! -cough, cough-”

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             The movie was really good, according to our action-adventure movie standards.  There was all the right sword fighting and sea battles, mixed with just the right amount of dishy pirate, damsel in distress romance. 

             Midway through the movie, just as the pirates had captured the leading lady, Chip leaned over and whispered in my ear.  “How come the pirates all have to be so handsome?”

             I moved over and answered.  “It’s Johnny Deep.  He’s going to be handsome no matter what, Chip.”

             “Kind of like Kelsey Knights, huh?  Cute no matter how wind-blown her hair is?”

             I giggled quietly.  “Glad to know you like the rough and tumble look, Chip.”

            “Good to know you like the scruffy, rough look, Gadget.”

             Two minutes later, we were holding paws.

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             Three days after going to see the movie, I received a letter from Sophia. 

             Gadget,
            I hope you’re all right after your fainting spell.  But after all, how terrible could it be, fainting into Chip’s arms?  I’m afraid Chip heard me laughing through my tears.  I was terribly sorry to hear you weren’t well, but it was funny, dear. 

            As I talked to Chip, I assume that he’ll be feeling quite up to par within two weeks.  In anticipation of this event, I’ve planned a little party for then.  It will be held in my vacation house in Southern France; enclosed please find a card with the address.  I hope you and the rest of your darling Rangers will come up for the occasion, because you will be my guests of honor.

            I’ll look forward to talking to you again; I’ve missed your company.  It does get lonely around here in Russia.  Jules is a cheerful companion as always, but has not seemed to recover from our ordeal as well as I have.  Consequently, I feel more lonesome now than ever.   I hope you’ll find time to stay after the party and keep me company for a few days, but I know how zealous your Chip can be about finding new cases, so I won’t press you.

            Until then Gadget,
            Much Love, Sophia Marskov.

            The young woman’s name was signed the way she would sign a photograph of herself for a fan: swirling and large.  Dale begged me to let him read it (the lavender scented envelope had drawn him momentarily away from the television), but I said it was rather personal for the most part.  There wasn’t really anything personal about it, just the side-comments concerning his best friend.  I didn’t want Sophia’s ideas about Chip and me spread all over HQ like confetti.

            “She just says she’s going to have a party in a couple of weeks in France and wants us to come.  She says we’re the guests of honor.”

            “Yippee!” shouted Dale, and he started jumping around the conference room until he bounced within hitting distance of Chip, when he stopped, looking warily at his friend.  Chip contained himself and only rolled his eyes. 

            “Sounds like a bonzer bash,” declared Monty.  “We’ll have to whip out the best dress, fellas.  Miss Marskov is high class.”  Monty nodded mightily and departed for the kitchen.  Dale turned back to his cartoons and cereal.

            “It’ll be nice to see her house,” Chip commented, looking over the stamps on the envelope.  “This is a pretty expensive envelope compared to the paper, Gadget.”

            I looked over at him, surprised.  He was the last person I wanted reading my letter.  But he did have a point. 

            “The envelope is thick parchment.  The paper looks thin,” he glanced sideways at the folded paper in my paw.  “And it has...”

            “What?”  I turned to him.  He was staring hard at the letter. 

            “I’m not trying to read it, Gadget, it’s just...it has a watermark.”

            I dropped the letter like it was poison.  It fluttered to the floor slowly, maliciously almost, and lay darkly reposed there, daring me to pick it up and examine the watermark for myself. 

            “Are you sure, Chip?” I whispered hoarsely. 

            He nodded glumly and looked down on the paper.  “Do you want me to look at it?”

            I took a deep breath and shook my head.  I bent down and picked up the paper carefully.  Slowly, the writing on the far side, I unfolded it and held it up.  Bubbles.  There were bubbles on the paper.

            “No, Chip.  Not again.”

            “Is it Sophia’s writing, or someone else’s?”

            “I don’t know, Chip.  I’ve never seen any of her handwriting except her autograph, and that was only on the internet at the library.  It sounds like Sophia, but I don’t know...”

            “Do you still trust her, Gadget?” he asked, putting his hand on my arm.

            “Yes.  I want to.  She was so nice to me.  She didn’t seem like a stuck-up actress at all.  And she was so friendly to Dale; she listened to all his stories, no matter how hyper he was.  I can’t believe she would want to hurt anyone.”

            “No, she doesn’t look like the type, does she?  I liked her too.”  He paused for a moment, handing the envelope to me.  “How about we still go to the party, but I tell the others about the watermark, and we make sure to keep an eye on you.  I don’t want to seem like we don’t like her, but Sophia is still logically a suspect.”

            “Just as long as you keep an eye on me, Chip.”

            “I won’t take my eyes off you.”

 

Chapter 11
Girls in White Dresses

            Sweet, fragrant summer air accompanied us into Sophia Marskov’s French chateau.  I stared in awe up at the high ceiling, gilded in gold and embossed by deep, voluptuous crown moldings.  Fountains all along the front lawn, and I could hear several in the back garden.  Chandeliers dripping in crystals glided across the air above us like ballerinas, dancing in time to the soft music of an orchestra hidden somewhere in the ballroom.

            “Tu-ra-loo!” Monty exclaimed.  “This joint is prettier than a cheese ship!”  He bent over to examine a Japanese vase overflowing with white day lilies.

             “Wowie zowie!  Bet she’s got a pool and tennis court too!”  Dale shouted, looking around eagerly, his tail wagging like a dog’s.

             Chip alone seemed to take it all in stride.  “Even if she does, Dale, I don’t think you’re going to get to try it out tonight.”  His voice was completely back now, and even though the doctor had warned him not to talk too much, he was blissfully ignoring that advice.  He looked around the room carefully; true to his word, he’d been one step behind me since we left the Ranger Wing on the landing strip on the roof.  I still couldn’t believe Sophia had her own personal landing strip.  I was incredibly jealous.

            “Still, Chip, it’s pretty amazing,” I said, running a paw distractedly through my hair.  I’d stuffed my goggles in my pocket and opted for a flower instead.  I hadn’t worn a dress, seeing as the only one I owned was that little red thing I wore when we were weaseling around Rat Capone.  Dresses like that were for spies and Lawhinie, not me. 

            The boys, however, were dressed to the nines.  Granted, Dale’s tuxedo was actually his spy costume, but it got the job done all right.  Monterey had on  his silk top hat and tuxedo, and Zipper had a bow-tie to match.   Chip was looking quite dashing in his tuxedo, with Baby’s Breath in his lapel. 

            “There you are!”

            I turned around, only to have Sophia wrap me up in a sisterly hug.  “How are you, Gadget?”

            “Fine, thanks,” I answered, hugging her back.  “You didn’t tell me you had a landing strip on your roof!”

            She let go of me and grinned.  “Yes, I thought you might enjoy that.”  She pulled me a distance away from the others.  “Gadget, I was wondering if I could see you personally before the party begins?”

            Involuntarily, I flinched, remembering the letter from her.  “Sophia, um...”

            Chip heard her, and was at my side in an instant.  Sophia looked at the two of us.  “What is it?  Is something wrong?”

            From inside one of my pockets, I extracted her letter and unfolded it, letting the light around us betray the watermark.  To my relief, Sophia let loose a genuine gasp of horror and recoiled from the letter.

            “No!  That can’t be...it was just a spare bit of paper I found lying on the writing desk.  I didn’t even look at it!”

            “It’s okay, Sophia.  I didn’t think it was you, but we are suspicious of someone.”

            “We’re just not sure who,” Chip finished. 

            “And you came anyway!  Oh, you should have just told me, Gadget.  Now I’m afraid...the brother must have been in my house and left the paper here.  Or he still is here!  What am I going to do?!”

            Sophia looked about to panic, when Chip intervened.  “Sophia, this could be a good opportunity to draw the villain out.”

            “With me as bait?” I snipped.

            He looked at me shrewdly, then back at Sophia.  “You’re a famous actress, you’ve got security guards, right?”

            “Yes,” she answered slowly.

            “Well, tell them to be on the lookout.  We go ahead and have the party, and when the bad guys shows himself, we’ll grab him.  I’ll keep an eye on you, Gadget, and he won’t hurt you.”

            “Golly, that’s sweet Chip, but you’ve already had a run-in with the assassin.  His brother’s got to be just as big as him, doesn’t he?”

            “Maybe that’s why he sent his brother out.  He’s not big enough to do the job.”

            I thought Chip was being a little too optimistic, but I kept quiet.  His plans usually work out just fine, and when they don’t, he’s quick to improvise.

            Sophia seemed wary, though.  “Chip, it has only been a month since the incident.  Are you sure you’re able to fight with someone else?”

            Chip stood up tall.  “Of course.  And with Monty and Dale, what could go wrong?”

            “You’re gambling her safety, Chip,” she reminded.

            “We’re already gambling on it just by being here.  And if we don’t get rid of the villain soon, chances are you’ll become a target again.  Go talk to your security guards, and we’ll finish this case off, all right?”

            Sophia considered for a moment, then smiled.  “All right, Chip, but there is one condition I must insist upon.”

            “What’s that?”

            She grinned at me.  “I need to see Gadget alone before the party begins.  Zipper can come with and guard the door if you want,” she added smoothly, working her charm.

            He swallowed a bit hard.  “Gadget, are you sure?”

            “Sure I’m sure, Chip.  Zipper will take care of me.”  I waved for Zipper to join us.  He flew over, saluting me.    “See?  I’m safe, Chip.”

            “Well, all right, but don’t be gone too long.”

            “Now who’s worried?” teased Sophia, as she led me away.

            We went up the enormous staircase on the side of the room and down a hallway adorned in magnificent landscapes and enormous portraits.  “In here, Gadget,” she said, and opened a pair of double doors on our right.

            “This is my room,” she said, pulling me in.  Sophia’s room was even more extravagant than the rest of her house.  There was a huge canopied bed, an enormous fireplace, lavender scented candles burning, floor to ceiling windows bedecked in silk, and a heavy door leading to what promised to be an equally sumptuous bathroom.

            “It’s beautiful, Sophia!” I said, looking around.

            Sophia rang a bell on a little mahogany table, and two women and a gentleman mouse entered.  Sophia went to the man and spoke to him.  “Go and tell security to be on alert.  It appears the assassin,” she cringed, “is back for more.” 

            The mouse’s eyes went wide, and he quickly bowed himself from the room.  The remaining maids looked frightened.  Sophia smiled widely at them.  “Don’t worry.  The Rescue Rangers are here to take care of him.  And this,” she stepped over to me, “is Gadget.”

            The two mice smiled and curtsied. 

            “All right, Gadget.  There is one more thing I have to ask of you,” said Sophia uncomfortably. 

            “What’s that?”

            She blushed shyly.  “You will remember, Gadget, what I said to you on the plane?”

            “Which part?” I felt my cheeks go slightly red. 

            “When I said that I should very much like to see you and Chip enjoying yourselves?”

            “Oh.”  My cheeks went redder.  I might be clueless about my appearance most of the time, but I’ve always been able to tell when I’m blushing.

            “Gadget, I would be much obliged if you would allow me to...dress you up.”

            I knew she didn’t mean any offense concerning what I was wearing; she knew that was how I was, but I still felt embarrassed.  And despite myself, intrigued.   “What do you mean?”

            “I have a charming little dress, nothing too extreme, but you would look absolutely gorgeous in it. Please allow me have some fun, dear?”

            I couldn’t help it.  “What kind of dress?”

            Sophia’s smile broadened, and she took my paw and led me over to the wardrobe.  She opened the door, revealing a breath-taking white gown.  I might have absolutely no fashion sense when it comes to everyday things, but I do know a gorgeous dress when I see one.  I am a girl, after all. The frosty-white gown was endowed with a graceful V-neck, sleeves straight from Belle’s ballgown in Beauty and the Beast, and a midnight blue sash hugging the middle of the dress.  My eyes went wide in wonder. “It’s gorgeous, Sophia!”

            “It’s from Dior in Paris.  All satin.  Do you like it, Gadget?”

             “I love it!”

             She smiled, satisfied.  “Then Chip will too.  Will you wear it?”

             My admiration of the dress was cut short by this comment.  Carefully, I looked at her, the dress, and thought.   I have to admit, I did like the idea.  I took a deep breath and made my decision.  “Okay.”

             She practically jumped for joy.  “Good!  Very good!  Sonya, Anya, come here!”  The two maids grinned and rushed forward, giggling.  Sophia gently pushed one of them towards me.  “Here Anya.  Take care you make her a princess.”

             “Yes, yes!” cheered the maid in broken English, and taking the dress from Sophia, she led me into the bathroom.

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             Thirty minutes, some perfume, mascara, curling iron, and one special order Dior dress later, I didn’t look remotely like Gadget Hackwrench.  Anya led me back into Sophia’s room, where the actress was busy putting on some diamond earrings.  She was wearing a deep blue glittering gown and looked very grown up and high-class. 

             “Oh, Gadget, you look amazing!” She patted her hair in the mirror and murmured, “And no need to worry about anything.  I’ve got two dozen mice on the roof and all over the house, keeping an eye out.  And Zipper is still on guard.”  She arose from her dressing table and took my paw.  “Come, you have to look in the mirror!”  She covered my eyes and placed me in front of her full-length mirror.  “Are you ready?”

             “Yes,” I replied, my voice higher than usual.

             She dropped her paws from my eyes, and my breath caught in my throat.  I was amazed beyond words; the girl looking back at me looked like Cinderella.  Gone was the tom-boy who had walked into the room a half hour ago.

             “Go-lly...

             Sophia smiled knowingly, her green eyes sparkling in the reflection from the chandelier.  “Look at yourself for a few minutes, dear, before we go down.  You need to remember what you look like.”  She walked away.  “And you look like an angel.”

             I didn’t really hear Sophia as she floated away to put the finishing touches on her makeup.  I turned this way and that, trying to accustom myself to the new me.  Anya had left my hair down, but curled the ends, making it wave gently.  I was wearing only a hint of makeup and mascara, but that was all I needed, according to her.  “You have big, pretty eyes.  We will not need much makeup there.” 

             I swear the Dior must have been made exactly for me, because I was smaller than Sophia, and it fit me perfectly, hugging in all the right places before swirling out below the sash.

             I turned back to Sophia.  “I don’t look a thing like me.  But I like it, I think.”

             “Good, because it’s time to go down now.  Are you ready?”  She winked and opened the door.  I stole one last glance at myself and nodded. 

             Sophia took my arm and guided me to the top of the stairs and we paused a moment, taking in the room full of glamorous guests below us. 

             Jules appeared from a side hall. “Are you ready?”  He smiled warmly at me.

             “Yes, thank you, Jules,” replied Sophia.

             Jules strode down a few steps and clapped his paws smartly.  The music stopped.  Sophia stepped down beside Jules and smiled radiantly at her friends below.

             “Hello, everyone!”  The ballroom’s occupants turned expectantly towards the voice. A general murmur of expectation and excitement swept up the stairs to reach us.

             Sophia glided down a step more.  “Welcome, my friends!  I’m so glad you could all come.  I’ve been away for a long time, and it’s good to be back.”  She paused while the crowd politely applauded her.  “And now, dear friends, I have something to tell you, and some new friends to introduce to you.  I would likely not be here this evening if not for some wonderful people whom I wish to thank: the Rescue Rangers!”  She gestured to the bottom of the stairs, where I saw the Rangers had appeared, probably in expectation of seeing me.  The crowd applauded again, harder this time.  “They are all very brave, wonderful people.  Please, get to know them.  Rangers, you are my guests of honor.  Make yourselves feel at home here!”  She smiled brightly as the small band of Rangers at the foot of the stairs.  “Thank you, thank you, everyone!  And now, please, enjoy yourselves!”

             The crowd clapped and resumed it’s chatter.  The orchestra struck up a lively tune, and Sophia turned to me.  “Come out of the shadows now and let them see you.”

             I took a step forward, then stopped, seeing the Rangers craning their necks up to see Sophia.  “Sophia...”

             “Come on, Gadget.  You are beautiful, remember.  And I want to see the expression on Chip’s face when he sees you.”  She smiled mischievously and reached back for me, adjusting the Baby’s Breath in my hair.

             My stomach flopped, and I grinned. The curiosity and excitement was killing me.  What would Chip think?  “Lets go.”

             Sophia took my arm and we descended the staircase together, watching the other Rangers.  She was right; it was worth all the trauma of our latest case just to see their reaction to me.  My grin widened as I watched them.

             Monterey mouthed something, and Zipper, who had rejoined the others when we had left the room, whistled loudly.  Chip and Dales’ jaws had just about hit the floor, and their eyes were bulging.  I stifled a giggle.

             “Do they do that often?” whispered Sophia, nodding to Chip and Dale.

             “Only on the rare occasion they see me in a dress.”

             We reached the bottom, and Sophia, all business and charm, stepped forward, extending her paw.  Monterey recovered first and elegantly swept off his hat and bowed, taking her paw and kissing it.  “You look right lovely, Miss Sophia,” he said.  He turned to me and kissed my paw too.  “And you look like a bonzer princess, Gadget-luv” he said, winking.

             I swallowed, my face plastered into a ludicrous smile.  I watched Chip and Dale both kiss Sophia’s paw, and then turn to me, both looking like it was too good to be true.  Dale nearly tripped as he kissed my paw, and Chip looked like he was going to burst from shock as he took my paw.  It tingled pleasantly as he released it.

             “Well, gentlemen,” began Sophia.  Chip and Dale tore their eyes off me to look at her rather blankly.  “It appears that you two young men are without companions.  Dale,” she fixed him with a pointed and alluring gaze, “would you care to be my escort this evening?”

             Dale did a double take, then bowed to Sophia.  “Sure thing!” he answered, and extended his arm to her.  Sophia nodded deeply to all of us, then allowed Dale to lead her away into the crowd.  I watched them go, then turned back to Chip and Monty.

             “Well blokes, I can hear some cheese calling me name, so if you’ll just excuse us, Zipper and me will be off.  Oh, an’ Gadget-luv, make sure to save me a dance.”  And with that, he disappeared in the direction of the banquet table.  Chip looked slightly abashed at his good fortune.

             “Are you all right, Chip?” I asked.  He started and stared up at me.  A few seconds passed, and he recovered completely. 

             “Gadget, would you care to dance?”

 

Chapter 12
Trouble Usually Finds Us”

            Sophia Marskov was a master planner.  She had managed to do two impossible things, and she’d done them simultaneously.  First, she had managed to keep me safe from an elusive assassin, and second, she had managed to keep Dale away from Chip and me.  It had to be something of a record.

            When I had told Sophia that trouble usually found us, I had honestly expected something catastrophic to happen in the course of the evening.  But now, it was nearly midnight, the party was in full swing, and not a sign of an assassin anywhere. 

            Sophia had utterly captivated Dale the entire evening, introducing him to all of her famous friends, the musicians, the chefs, the servants, and anyone else who entered the room.  Dale was grinning ridiculously, Sophia’s arm in his, chauffeuring her to and fro.

            “Dale looks like he’s enjoying himself,” Chip said briskly.  We were standing together beside a balcony overlooking the back garden.

            “That’s for sure.  I haven’t seen him this entertained in ages.”  I paused to watch Dale tell a joke to a passing server.  “She’s really got him wrapped around her finger.”

            Chip nodded and looked at me.  He seemed more serious just now, and a bit nervous.

            “I’m starting to think the assassin won’t show up, Chip,” I reassured, figuring he was worried the assassin hadn’t kept his appointment.  “You know, it’s kind of funny that we keep calling him ‘the assassin.’  Only important people have assassins.”

            He shook his head.  “No, it’s not that.  It’s just, you know...it was really nice of Sophia to do this.”  Did he mean specifically him and I, or just for the Rangers in general?  “For us, I mean.  You and me.  I’ve really enjoyed, well, having you to myself this evening.”  He was going bright red. 

            I swallowed carefully, looking down at the glistening floor.  “You know, I’ve enjoyed it too.”  That was about the best I could do with my blood pumping in my ears that loudly.   I knew Sophia had been brainwashing me ever since we met, and I also knew that it was certainly working.  The seed had already been sown, who knows how long ago, and all it needed was a little TLC.  Heaven knows Sophia was doing all she possibly could for the cause.  And I had to say, I was starting to agree with her

            “Gadget, have you seen the garden yet?”

            Chip was talking.  I blinked myself out of my befuddled state.  “Sorry, what did you say?”

            He held his paw out to me.  “I asked if you’d seen the garden yet.”

            Was it just as coincidence that the orchestra was playing “Moonlight Becomes You” and the moon was a huge tonight?  “No, I haven’t.”

            He grinned, still looking a bit nervous.  “Well, shall we go take a look at it?”

            I accepted the proffered paw in my own and he led me out onto the balcony.  My heart was thudding harder than it had that night on the Anastasia.  Even with the smooth, cool air around me, I felt hot and flustered.  I’d seen enough movies to know what was coming next. 

            He certainly took his time about doing it though, because we just stood there together,  taking in the picturesque gardens and the drifting moon.  It was really pretty, but the longer we stood there, the more nervous, or maybe excited, I got. I fished around for something to say.  “It’s a waxing gibbous.”

            “Huh?”

            I pointed.  “The moon.  It’s a waxing gibbous.  Two more days and we’ll have a full moon.”

            “Oh!”  He slipped an arm around my waist.  “You always take things so literally, Gadget.”

            I looked over at him matter-of-factly.  “All I said was that the moon is a waxing gibbous.  It’s true.”

            He laughed.  “You’re hopeless.  Hopeless.”

            “What do you mean, Chip?  I mean, golly, I know I state the obvious a lot, but no one else ever seems to, and someone’s got to do it.”  Chip was rolling his eyes, smiling. 

            Didn’t I have a point?  What was it called, ‘naming the elephant?’  Telling the group what was painfully obvious?  No one ever seemed to realize what was right under their noses, and I always do, so why not just tell everyone else what’s coming and... What the heck?

            With a smile that had melted more than one teenager girl’s heart, Chip leaned over and kissed me softly.  I couldn’t have been more shocked if Dale had started doing differential calculus on the Saturday funnies. 

            He waited for a moment.  When I didn’t answer, he backed away.  “Uh, Gadget?”

            “It’s...it’s all right, Chip.”

            “All right?”

            “Um, yes.  I mean....”  What did I mean?  It took a minute, but the shock wore off and I realized what had happened.  And I laughed.  Chip seemed to take this as utter rejection, and his arm dropped from my waist.  He stepped away.

            “Oh, no, Chip, I don’t mean it like that,” I laughed, catching his arm and looking at him sincerely.  “You just...caught me off guard, that’s all.”

            He frowned.  “I’d hardly call all this set up ‘catching you off guard.’” 

            “Oh, golly, you know I think at warp speed.  My mind was gone, that’s all.”  He didn’t seem convinced.  We froze there, suspended.  Jeepers, couldn’t he realize that he had just shocked me, and yes, despite the moon, the music, the dance, I hadn’t been fully there?   I had to make him understand...

            Another few seconds, hanging in time between the gaiety of the party and the solitude of the garden, and I nervously leaned over and kissed him lingeringly on the cheek.  “Understand?” I asked softly.

            He swallowed hard and took my paw again, smiling. My stomach swooped, and he pulled me closer, both of us ready now for the real, precious thing, when a high, piercing shriek from inside the ballroom stopped us cold.

            “CHIP!”

            The chemistry evaporated. We spun on the spot as Dale’s voice ricocheted across the balcony and into our ears.  “What the?” Chip exclaimed and we rushed for the doorway.

            The ballroom was in pandemonium.  It was just like one of those old Western movie bar-fights.  Dozens of ninja mice were appearing seemingly out of thin air; tables were overturning, china was breaking, champagne was spilling, and all the guests were shrieking and running for cover. 

            “Apparently the assassin came after all,” I whispered, hanging on Chip’s arm.

            “Where is she?!” The deep, guttural voice boomed from near the staircase.

            “Who is it?” I asked, trying to move forward.  Chip held me back.

            “You’re not going in there, Gadget.  It’s you he wants.”

            “But who is-”  Towering in the hall adjacent to the staircase was a mouse I thought long gone and taken care of: Bubbles.  He had Sophia by the arm, holding her up and demanding she tell him where I was.

            Sophia was being shaken like a rag doll.  “We have to help her!”  I said, again twisting away.

            “No!”  Chip dragged me back out onto the balcony and pinned me against the wall.  “You’re not going out there!”

            “That pest!”  Bubbles’s voice tumbled out of the hall to meet us.  “She got the better of me once, and now she’s killed my brother!  She’s gonna pay!”

            “Chip, we’ve got to help her!”

            “Don’t worry, we will, but we’re going to hide you first.”  He reached into his jacket and pulled out a rope.  Only Chip would be carrying a rope in his tuxedo pocket.

            “What are you going to do?” I asked.  Chip stepped back and swung the rope above his head a few times before lassoing the windowsill above us. 

            “You’re going up there and staying there,” he declared, tugging at the rope to make sure it was fast. 

            “But Sophia-”

            “Gadget, just trust me on this one, okay?  Come on!”  Chip grabbed my wrist and pulled me over to the rope.  “You’re going!”

            Slightly put-off, I climbed up as best as I could in my dress, my thoughts whisking around in tempest.

            So Bubbles was the one behind all this.  That would make the watermarks painfully obvious.  Hadn’t Dale even said the Cola Cult would put bubbles on a paper?  Why did I have to think his idea was pointless?  And I thought I could see the obvious.  Apparently not.

            I climbed through the window and tore into the bathroom, flipping on the light and riffling frantically through a pile of towels before seeing my coveralls hanging on the back of the door.  I shrugged the Dior off as quickly as I could without ripping it, then pulled my coveralls on, shoving my goggles back into place.  I wasn’t going to sit here and let my friends deal with my assassin.  I was going to help. 

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            Chaos reigned in the ballroom as I halted at the top of the stairs for the second time that evening.  I watched mice rolling around in a frenzy.  Ninjas were taking people out left and right.  Shouting and shattering noises met my ears. 

            Through the panic I picked out Bubbles.  He had abandoned poor Sophia, and was now scrambling around the floor after Chip.  A few seconds of squabbling, and Bubbles caught him and hoisted him in the air by his neck.  Chip hung on for dear life, kicking.

            “I’m going to break your puny skull on the wall if you don’t tell me where you hid that monster, chipmunk!”

            “Not on my watch!” Monterey came whizzing out from behind a table, his fists doubled.  “You’re not gonna try that if ol’ Monterey ‘as something to say about it!”  Monterey crashed into Bubbles, only to bounce off and land flat on his back.

            “Hehe.  Think you can knock me over, cheese breath?  Try again!”  He turned back to Chip.  “Now where is that twisted inventor friend of yours?” he demanded, squeezing tight.  My stomach clenched in sympathy.

            “Don’t call her that, you creep!” snarled Chip, still kicking.

            That was it.

            “Bubbles!”  The room went silent, a blanket muffling a fire.  Bubbles looked up and saw me.  With a thud, he dropped Chip to the ground and snarled, starting towards me. 

            “There you are, you little-”

            I wasn’t going to put up with him bad-mouthing me.  “Shut up, coward!”

            “Well, well, you’ve developed quite a tempter since we last met.  Not that you weren’t always a sack of sappy girl hormones.”  He started up the stairs.   “Only you could be so easily manipulated by simple sabotage.  Little wimp.”   He stopped just below me.  The air was thick between us.  “I’m surprised you managed to kill my brother, even if it was to save your friends.”

            “You want me, Bubbles?  We take this outside.”

            “All right,” he agreed silkily, reaching up and taking my arm.  He began pulling me slowly down the stairs, his touch so sickeningly gentle that it burned.

            The Rangers and Sophia, all slightly worse for wear, were waiting at the bottom of the steps.  “Let ‘er go, mate,” growled Monterey, eyes blazing.

            “Yeah!” chimed Chip and Dale in unison, stepping forward.

            “Get out of my way,” said Bubbles quietly, sweeping them over with a wave of his arm.  “This is between Gadget and I.”

            We started down the hall towards the door.  No one talked, hardly anyone moved.  Everyone was watching us, waiting for the Rangers or me to do something.  But there was no plan, I just wanted Bubbles away from my friends, even more than I wanted him away from me.

           

Chapter 13
Blowing Bubbles

            The night was different in front of the chateau than it had been on the balcony with Chip.  The wind didn’t seem gentle, it was insistent and oddly foreboding and fitting.   The scene was straight out of a B movie.  The dark, the girl, the villain.  I had to wonder if real life would play out in my favor.

            Our shadows stretched out in front of us, long and lanky, in the light from the hallway doors.  I could hear the rest of the guests scurrying to the doors to watch whatever was going to happen.  I chanced a glance backwards.  Indeed, everyone was congregated in the doorway, nothing but black silhouettes in my sight, except for the Rangers and Sophia.  They were inching along behind us, Chip in the lead, all of them waiting on tenterhooks for a new development.  Bubbles was huge, bigger than his brother, and all of us knew we couldn’t take him out.  Where was the Golden Horn Bay when you needed it?

            We stopped abruptly, and Bubbles swung me around to face him.  “You know what you did to me?” He snarled, leaning down into my face.  He reminded me of nothing so much as a big, mean, playground bully.

            “Yes,” I shot right back.  “Do you realize what you’ve done to me, my life?  And what about what you’ve done to yourself?”

            He glared, leaning in. “I’m going to give you nothing but what you deserve, you little brat!”  He pushed hard, and I fell back, colliding hard with the ground.  I heard murmurs from the house.  “And as for what I’ve done to myself, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

            “No, you don’t know.  You’d still have your brother if not for your decision to send him instead of coming to find me yourself!”  I took a breath, hardly believing the words coming from me.  “You knew if he got caught he’d be in big trouble.  You’re a coward for not coming for me in the first place.  You shouldn’t go beating around other people to get to me!”

            Bubbles growled in rage, shaking.  He lumbered over me, his shadow falling beside me like his twin.  “You’ve ruined my life, Mousie.  I was gonna get rich off the Cola Cult, but you had to come in and ruin that.  I was gonna be set!  On easy street! But no.  You: goody-two-shoes you had to come along with your stupid inventions and bust me!  Ooh!  When I think about it!  The humiliation, the embarrassment!”

            “So the lack of swimming lessons is a family trait, then?”  It was Monterey.  I was surprised.  Even to a hardened criminal, I wouldn’t have expected that of him.

            Bubbles eyes were about to bulge out, he was so mad.  He whirled around in the dark, searching for Monterey.  He was standing a few feet away with the Rangers, Sophia, and Jules, who had joined them.  Jules looked composedly at the pair of us. 

            “You know, Bubbles, the young lady is entirely right, as usual.  Your brother would not have been there if not for you,” he said softly.  And then he turned and looked me in the eye.  “And you, my dear, would not have been there if you and your overly-anxious friends hadn’t actually believed me.” 

            “What?!”

            “Jules!”  Sophia’s face was ashen with horror.

             Jules turned on her.  “I’m so sorry, my dear.  But I must admit, I share Bubbles’s view of women.”  He squared his shoulders.  “You are nothing anymore but a lot of interfering fools.  To think,” he looked over at me, “that the likes of you should get the better of Bubbles?   It was high time you were taught a lesson, Gadget.  Women should not be inventing things, they should be doing something useful, like making films.”  He gave Sophia an oily smile.

            I was at a loss.  Jules had been Bubbles’s informant?  “I don’t understand,” I said, my detective’s mind trying to wrap everything together.

            “You’d better be quiet, Jules.  You know the only thing you and I agree on is Gadget.  I don’t care about her,” grumbled Bubbles, waving a had at Sophia.  “There’s not time for chit-chat. We should be leaving.”

            “Now, now, we agreed to put our differences aside, and I shall,” placated Jules, smiling.  “We are in complete control, are we not?  I think the ladies should be able to hear exactly what happened, don’t you?”  He bowed condescendingly to me, then turned to face the Rangers and Sophia.  “You see, I met Bubbles nearly a year ago, right after his first run-in with Gadget.  Quite naturally, he wanted revenge.  And so together, we devised a plan to lure Gadget out into the open where he could dispose of her.  I had just been, hem, released from my former position as butler elsewhere.  I knew that Miss Marskov, whom I had just been contracted to, would be an excellent choice for the job.  You see dear,” he bowed humbly to his mistress, “I rather adore you, so I thought you would be a mutually beneficial choice.”

            “Mutually beneficial!!”  Sophia screamed, lunging forward.  Dale restrained her.

            Jules sighed sadly.  “I’m sorry you feel that way, Sophia.”  He shrugged and continued his narrative.  It was quite simple from that point: Bubbles began sending the hate mail, Sophia got scared, I, the loyal butler sent her off on a ship to be protected, and Bubbles’s brother moved in to do the actual dirty work.”

             “But why not just come for me yourself?”  I heard myself ask. 

             “Why on earth would I want to come near you?” Bubbles answered.  “I’m only here now because I have to be.  Come on, we’re going.”  And he grabbed my left arm and picked me up.

             Jules laughed lightly.  “All right, but I believe it’s time we took care of her friends over here. Gently,” he finished, gazing pointedly at Sophia.

             Several of the ninjas went for the Rangers and Sophia, and they were all tied, gagged, and down on the ground in less than thirty seconds. I gulped.  I was defenseless.  No inventions or buckets of soda to save me this time.  I didn’t even have a wrench in my pocket.  Some inventor I am, devoid of tools when I need them most.

             Bubbles grinned maniacally and grabbed me like a marionette.  Just like his brother in his handling of me.  I tried desperately to swing around and bite his arm, too, but he was too quick for me.  “No, no, Gadget,” he reprimanded.  “You’re coming with me.  Lets see how you like being thrown into the ocean and getting whacked on the head, huh?”

            He strode off with me, encircled by his cola ninjas.  Jules followed close behind us. 

             “You like Sureluck Jones!” I heard Chip shout.  He had chewed through his gag.

             Jules laughed behind me.  “Sorry about that, old chap, but you know, the funny thing about Sureluck is that even his adversaries admire him!”

             Chip was shouting his disapproval and rage.  “Poetic justice, Bubbles?” I asked, squirming.

             “You could say that.  Here.”  We reached the gates of the chateau.  There was a human deliver van idling nearby.  He picked up a bag that was lying in the dirt and shoved me into it.  “Say goodbye, Mousie.  It’s the last you’ll ever see of your friends.”  He laughed as he pushed my head down into the sack and picked me up.

             My masochistic plan seemed to be working well for everyone else, but things didn’t look so great for me.

 

Chapter 14
Stacking my Chips

             The inside of a sack isn’t the most comfortable place in the world, and certainly not the place I’d pick for thinking about things.  Unfortunately, that was where I was, and I was there for a long time.  I could judge the time by the amount of light that penetrated the sack.  When Bubbles had thrown me in, it had been pitch-black, but now it had grown uncomfortably bright; the same kind of annoying brightness that you experience in a tent in the earliest hours of morning. 

             “Why?” I had asked myself all night.  Why on earth would Bubbles go to such lengths to get rid of me; to the point of a grandiose scheme which put his own brother in mortal peril, and such extraneous persons as Jules and Sophia were dragged into it?  Certainly, he had been spitting in rage when he was carted away from the Cola Cult, yelling at me, cursing me, but I hadn’t really paid attention.  Perhaps I should have.

             Bad guys always tend to be put-off when we shut them down, but Bubbles was far too angry.   Vengeful.  Maybe it was because he was a big, brainless oaf who was used to getting his way and manipulating everyone.  And me, of all people, a tiny little mouse girl, had managed to get the better of him.  Maybe I could understand, after all.  Being the boss, only to be bested by a goody-two-shoes girl.

             I had to grin to myself at the thought.  He had ticked me off royally, ruining my inventions and driving me away from the Rangers, my family.  All the torment he had caused me the night I had decided to leave them.  I had thought I was a good-for-nothing, a disappointment, a failure, a let-down, and was positive my dad would have been ashamed of me.  That night had been the worst of my life.  Rescuing my friends the next afternoon had been entirely rewarding.

            But even taking that line of reasoning, there was more to Bubbles’s thirst for revenge.  I had killed his brother, albeit to save my friends and Sophia.  And Jules.  The irony of that one still stung bitterly.  The Rangers and I had utterly taken Jules into our confidence, believing everything he told us, and befriending him.  Chip and he had discussed Sureluck Jones for what, over an hour?  And what’s more, he had managed to implicate Sophia in his place!  My mind throbbed hard, but I still failed to wrap my IQ around the fact that Bubbles wanted revenge for himself, not for his brother’s sacrifice.

             There were so many emotional variables to this case.  Betrayal by one friend, gaining a new friend, cementing of current friendships, the return and revenge of an old enemy.  And throughout all of it, teasing the idea of liking Chip.  I wasn’t sure how to feel.  Seven hours ago, apprehension about the letter.  Four hours ago, having a wonderful time at the party.  How was I supposed to feel now?  Betrayed?  Frightened?  Doomed?  I should have knocked on wood when I told Sophia that trouble usually finds us, I mused wryly.  Then again, there wasn’t any wood in the plane.

             I didn’t really feel anything yet.  I was still too overwhelmed and confused to feel.  But I could think.  With a clarity and steady flow that rarely graced my mind, I knew that the Rangers would be untied by the party guests and follow me in the Ranger Wing.  And, in the event that Bubbles had sabotaged it, they could easily jury-rig it.  I’d taught them all enough about the Wing to feel confident that any of them (with the possible exception of Zipper, who was too small) could do minor repairs on it.   No, Bubbles couldn’t stop the Rangers from getting to me.  That was one good thing about them, they were dependable.  Stubborn, even.  Hadn’t Chip once thrown us all in the way of a log mill saw to shake Monterey out of his depression?  I had nothing to worry about concerning them.  I just had to last until they got here.

             The van we had been trundling along in thudded to a stop. I couldn’t even begin to fathom how they had managed to get a human delivery van to, well...deliver exactly where they wanted.  Doors slamming.  “You awake in there Mousie?” Bubbles called, and he grabbed my sack and roughly hauled me up.  I didn’t answer him.

             Bubbles threw me to the ground, and I felt the earth shift under my weight.  Sand.  He began undoing the knot he had tied in the sack, catching some of my hair in it.  I held my breath, mentally steeling myself for whatever torture he had in mind.  Don’t give up on the Rangers.   A large, grey paw fished inside the bag and found my arm.  I let out the breath I had been holding.  Don’t give up on Chip. He loves me, he won’t let Bubbles hurt me.  I was yanked up into the harsh morning light, reflecting off the Atlantic Ocean and the white sand, and I closed my eyes against it.  The back of my eyelids turned red and orange.  I tried to open them and caught a brief glimpse of Bubbles, Jules and half a dozen other mice, all black in the bright light.  I groaned and shut my eyes again.

             “What did you call it, Mousie? ‘Poetic justice?’  Is that what it means to treat others as they treat you?”

             “No,” I snapped.  “You’re wrong.”  I opened my eyes a bit, squinting against all the terrible whiteness.

            “That’s a problem, honey.  You seem to think everything I do is bad.  That hurts.  I’m not all bad, you know.”  He glared down on me.  “All I wanted was to have it easy.  You know, dough, money, lots of it.  I would have gotten it if not for you.”

             “I find it interesting that you don’t seem to care about your brother in all this.  Just you.”

             He roared maliciously and straightened up.  “I’m going to get rid of you.  Understand?  Right here, and right now.  It’s over.”

             “I’d like to see you try it,” I laughed.  Why was I laughing?  I just couldn’t digest all this....  “The Rangers will-”

             “The Rangers!”  Jules cut in.  “I shouldn’t worry about them, dear.  Bubbles learned his lesson the first time.   After a few modifications,” he laughed, “they shall be lucky indeed if your pathetic excuse for a plane falls off the roof, let alone flies.  You women should not be trying to think so hard all the time. At least Sophia knows her boundaries.”

             I glared at him.  Why on earth did a creep like him have to fall for Sophia?  “You underestimate the Rangers.  And women.  Bubbles lost his brother because of that mistake.”

             “Yeah?” asked Bubbles, kicking at the sand.  “Do you realize we’re over sixty miles away from Sophia’s house?  They couldn’t get here in time even if your silly little plane was working.  It doesn’t fly that fast.”  He stooped over and looked right into my eyes, his smile sickening.  “I checked.  In fact,” he began circling me, “I’m amazed you even made it to the Anastasia.”

             “We probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been sinking.  You can thank yourself for that,” I murmured, bowing my head against the sun.

             Bubbles stopped abruptly and grabbed my chin, forcing my eyes to meet his.  “My brother was dedicated to his job.  He set the ship on fire to make sure you’d catch it.”

             “So you do care about him,” I whispered.

             He screamed shoved me back into the sand.  “We do it now!  I’m sick of this little monster, Jules!”  He spun on Jules, as if daring him to challenge his timing. 

             Jules merely nodded.  “I quite agree.”  He smiled enchantingly at me.  “Let the game begin.”

             “Just do whatever it is you’re going to do,” I muttered angrily.  The sun was bothering me, and my head was starting to split.  “I doubt any existentialist rodent-haters with pistols are going to be dropping by.  I think I’m the only one the sun is getting to.”

             “Whatever.  Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you have to suffer before it’s all over.”  He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me towards the ocean where two of his ninjas were waiting beside a toy boat.  “Coming?”  He turned to ask Jules.

             Jules looked at me primly.  “I think not.  I’m afraid I don’t much care for small ocean craft. We’ll be waiting for you on the ship, Bubbles.”  He smiled sweetly again.  “Goodbye, Gadget.  I’m very glad to have met you.”  And he turned and started back up the shoreline.

             “Like heck you are!” I spat, twisting in Bubbles’s grasp.  “Why do they follow you around?” I asked him, looking at the ninjas.  It seemed like a stupid thing to do, sticking with a guy who had already landed you in jail once.

             “They’re loyal, see?  And these two didn’t take so nicely to being belittled by your ridiculous crossbow,” he growled.

             The ninjas glared at me as I was pushed on board.  Did all men carry grudges, or just the lot I seemed to be running into lately?

             We pushed off from shore, the ninjas rowing with wooden paddles, and me still being held up by Bubbles.  After about ten minutes, we stopped.  To humans, it wouldn’t have been very far out, but to a mouse, it was impossible distance.  Bubbles lifted me up and out over the water.  My arm was sore where he and his brother had bother had held me.  If I made it through this, I’d have bruises there for weeks.  I looked out towards the shore, hoping to see some sign of Chip and the Rangers.  Nothing.

            Bubbles swung me over the waves.  I couldn’t resist.  “Is this your favorite tactic?  Dangling helpless people over water?”

             “This and worse, Mousie,” he spat, and threw me.

             I knew the water would be warm, considering our longitudinal location on the globe and the time of year, but I still expected it to be cold as I hit it.  I bobbed back up, floundering a bit because of my sore arm, now instinctively wary of the blow I knew was coming.  I had socked the brother with an oar, and I knew Bubbles was planning to do the same. 

            Sure enough, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something coming at me, and I ducked back down.  I watched from under the waves as a long heavy oar sliced through the water above me.  I stayed under, swimming away from the reach of the oar before coming up for air.

            “You won’t get away so easily!” he shouted, thrusting his oar into the water, propelling the boat towards me.  I couldn’t out-swim it, and it would be pointless to try yet.  I had to save my strength.  When he saw that I had stopped swimming, he laughed triumphantly.  “Giving up so soon?  I thought you had more spunk than that!”

            I laughed out loud at him.  “I’ve got plenty of spunk, Bubbles!  You won’t get me so easily!”  And I plunged under, diving deep enough that I hoped he wouldn’t be able to see me, and made for the boat.

            It was just as I had hoped.  The toy boat had a small indentation in the bottom of it, and it was full of air.  I swam up under it, bracing myself against either side of the opening and getting my breath back.  I couldn’t stay under too long, or Bubbles would get suspicious.  I could use this opening to breathe when he finally thought he had drowned me.  Risky business, I knew, but it was my only choice.  I was gambling on the Rangers to find me before I drowned.

            I took another gulp of air and left the safety of the boat for the open water, bobbing up on the opposite side I had disappeared from.  Let him think I was a slow swimmer.

            “There you are!” he snarled, swinging the oar high over his head.  “Lets get her, boys!”

            All three of them, wielding heavy oars, began swinging at me viciously, yelling encouragement to each other.  I was rather bewildered at his tactics, and utterly safe if he kept using them.  This was almost going to be too easy.   I swam carefully, pretending to look flustered and frightened.  I gave myself a few narrow misses on purpose, a few not.  Finally, Bubble’s oar hit my sore left arm, causing me to cry out in pain and sink under.

            He had hit the same arm he had been swinging me by all morning, and I felt it throb.  I had been in the water for at least three minutes, and treading wasn’t easy business unless you’re used to it, and I wasn’t.  I needed to finish off my act soon, or I wouldn’t have the strength to hold myself in the indentation under the boat. 

            I rose again, this time swimming in among the oars.  I heard one of the ninjas yell that I was crazy.  Bubbles shouted that I just wanted it over with.  Glad that he had broken my spirit, he called his lackies off.

            “You ready to be done yet?” he roared.

            I was exhausted, I didn’t have to pretend.  “Yes,” I quavered, foundering in the water. 

            Bubbles raised his oar again, and I realized my mistake.  He alone was going to kill me, not his ninjas.  Him.  They were just helping him wear me out.  With all three paddles going, I could have easily pretended to sink and drown, but Bubbles would know now if he didn’t hit me.  And then, he did.

            Luckily for me, it was a bad aim.  The oar only caught the side of my head, scratching down my cheek and hitting my aching arm.  It was enough, and without acting, I sunk under the water, my face screaming in agony.  I tried to get a hold on myself, but the hit had made me woozy, and the exhaustion was there in full force.   I mastered myself somewhat and swam for the underside of the boat slowly, trying to look like I was drifting downward.  I couldn’t think well enough to judge their depth perception.

            I found the indentation and worked my way into it painfully; the boat was already moving steadily towards the shore.  I realized, as I took deep breaths of the thick, humid air, that I wouldn’t make it to the shore, even here.  My arm was weak, and refusing to work.  There was nothing to hold onto; the only way to stay put was to brace yourself with both arms.

            In desperation I tried to brace myself using my back and feet, but that didn’t last more than thirty agonizing, tiring seconds.  I realized I was done for.  My gamble was up; the Rangers weren’t coming. Chip wasn’t coming.  Bubbles had killed me after all, despite all my planning and acting.

            My wet paws slipped every second lower and lower, until I found myself completely submerged again in the salty water.  I spluttered and tried to swim away from the boat.  I came up quietly, trying not to draw attention to the fact that I wasn’t dead yet, but it was difficult.  The air was wonderful, but my legs and tail were fast going out on me.  My left arm, covered in bruises, floated uselessly at my side.

            I looked around me, realizing I hadn’t even made it halfway to the shore.  Behind me was a black rock jutting out of the water, and beyond it were more of the same, signifying the rocky part of the coastline.  Frothy water spit and  washed over my head as I bobbed closer and closer to the rocks. 

            I made a desperate effort to reach for the rock, but every wave pushed me up in the air and carried me away again.  Choppy water shot around me, getting in my mouth, my ears, and into my lungs.  I held the black rock in my vision, a ballast, but soon I couldn’t see it anymore.  I couldn’t tread any longer.  I held my breath and rolled onto my back, but the sun was there again, beating its warm, seductive rays into my battered body.

            The sun was so warm....so was the water.  Without conscious thought, I started breathing again, slowly, deeply, the way one does right before falling asleep in a deliciously warm and voluptuous bed.   I began to sink into the inviting heated depths of the water; a blue blanket wrapping itself around me.  Don’t worry, Gadget.  Just sleep, relax.  Gadget!  You’ll feel better soon, just rest now...  The world was going black....water washed over my head and I automatically kicked up for a second, long enough for one last breath before I turned over and slid under again.  Two hands pulled at my shoulders, tucking me in.  I smiled and gave myself over.

 

Chapter 15
Closer Than a Brother

             Soft warmth cradling me.  Bright sunshine somewhere above me, but no longer annoying.  Salty sweat, old leather, and traces of gasoline drifted to my nose.  “Dad...”

             “What?”

             The voice was distant and still a bit muffled.  “You came to get me...” 

             Laughter.  Another voice, somewhere closer, “Of course we came to get you.”  The laughter stilled uncomfortably.  “I don’t think that’s what she meant,” said yet another voice.  “We have to wake her up!”  Another voice. 

             “Dad...”  Something drifted over the light pouring onto me, making everything black.  I stretched comfortably and leaned into my dad’s leather bomber.  “I knew you’d be the one to get me, only I’ll miss everyone so much...”

             The first voice, slightly clearer, deep and smooth came.  “Jes’ sleep, Gadget.  Wake up when yeh’re ready.”

            “‘Kay...” I replied and smiled.  My dad was here.  Everything was fine.

Cdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcd

            A soft, cool paw was tracing a path around my hair.  “Oh, dear,” a woman said softly.  “She’ll have that scar for months.  If we’d only known...”

            “We did know.  And I let him take her,” said a bitter, high-pitched, tight voice from a ways off.  “I shouldn’t have ever even-”

            “Chip!  It is my fault as much as anyone’s.  I should have sent you home promptly.”

            “Ah, mates, don’t bicker over it.  She’ll be all righ’.  She’s a fighter, that one.”

            “Yeah.  She’ll be -gulp- fine.”

            “Buzz-buzz.”

             Buzzing?  I opened my eyes, only to see Sophia leaning over me, pale and still wearing her ball gown, now more than slightly worse for wear.

            “What happened?” I rasped, tasting salt on my lips.

            There was a general roar of excitement, as the Rangers all rushed over to the couch I was lying on, eager to see me.  I found myself sitting up, my paws crushed in Monterey’s, being pushed into the couch by a triple hug from Chip, Dale, and Sophia, and Zipper nestled into my bangs, buzzing happily.  I didn’t mind, until in their exuberance, someone jarred my sore arm. 

            “Aah!” I cried out without meaning to.  Simultaneously, everyone let go of me, flinging themselves back so fast that Dale fell over on his back.

            “Oh, your arm!” exclaimed Sophia.  She reached over and gingerly touched my left arm; it was bandaged heavily.  “We noticed when Chip pulled you out of the water that it was beaten.”

            I looked up at Chip in surprise.  “You pulled me out of the water?  But...but I don’t remember.  I had passed out.”

            “By the time we got to you, yes.” Chip’s voice shook uncertainly. “We were on a raft hiding in the rocks.  The waves were so bad that we couldn’t get to you fast enough.  You had just gone under the last time when I grabbed you.”  His dark eyes were huge, and the fur just under them was matted and streaked.  He’d been crying.

            “Oh, Chip, thank you.  Thank you,” I whispered reverently, and I got off the couch and threw my good arm around him, hugging him the best I could.  The roles were reversed, and Chip knew now how I had felt that afternoon in the Russian hospital when he had finally woken up, hoarse and battered.  He sobbed into my shoulder, not bother to hide his tears from the others.

            “Gadget-luv, we thought we ‘ad lost yeh,” choked Monterey, coming to stand beside us.  Dale moved in too, his own eyes reddened with tears. 

            “You nearly did...I was drowning.”  Chip squeezed me tightly.  “But you saved me.  How did you follow me?  Jules,” we all cringed at the name, “said he had sabotaged the Ranger Wing.”

            “Yes,” said Sophia bitterly, standing up.  Chip let go of me and I face them all.  “He has ruined your plane.  None of them could fix it.  But I am not completely stupid, my dear.”  Her eyes snapped with fire.  “I can pull strings.  As an actress, I often have need of a quick lift somewhere.  I have a walkie-talkie connected to the local human police.   We simply radioed them and reported a bad brush fire.  When they arrived, we got on the car.  There was, of course, no fire.  Then my assistants radioed again, saying there was a car chase on the road near the beach.  They took us right to you.  We watched you arrive, and built a raft to wait on.”

            “You genius!” I exclaimed, genuinely surprised and grateful, and gave her a one-armed hug.  “We couldn’t have done that.”

            “Oh, thank you,” she said bashfully, blushing.  “But you are the genius.  The genius we almost lost.  For a moment, we were very afraid.  You thought you had died.”

            “I did?  I don’t remember that.”

            “Yeah!” Dale bubbled, jumping up and down once, “You thought Chip was your dad!”

            “I what?”

            “We couldn’t figger out why, Gadget-luv, but when yeh came ‘round fer a few minutes on the raft, yeh ‘ad yer eyes shut an’ thought Geegaw was ‘oldin you.  It was jus’ Chipper.”

            I looked at Chip, still standing close to me.  I couldn’t make heads or tails of that one.  And then I smelled the gasoline from the police car (smelled like my dad’s plane gasoline), salty sweat from the heat (it was hot in my dad’s cockpit), and the old leather of Chip’s bomber jacket... like my dad’s.  Just like my dad’s.  That realization was somehow the last piece of the puzzle that had been hiding inside of me.  Almost a reassurance that my dad approved. 

            A smile spread across my face.  “I think I can,” I said.  I hugged Chip again with no embarrassment and turned my head to whisper in his ear.  “You smell like my dad did when he would come back from a long flight.”  His cheeks twinged red as I pulled away.   “And what about Bubbles?  And Jules?”

            Dale sniggered.  “Bubbles isn’t the only one good at ruining things!” he said proudly.  “Monty and I took care of them.  They were on a ship in the harbor, and Monty and I pushed an open safe down on top of them.  They’re stuck!”

            “‘An heaved ‘em into the fishin’ boat’s belly!” finished Monterey.  “We won’t be hearin’ from them anytime soon, luv.”

            “And I have notified, through my acquaintances, some fishermice near England.  They’re a rough bunch; they’ll take care of them when they get there,” added Sophia.  “We’re safe.”

            I nodded.  Somehow, I didn’t feel traumatized.  “I feel safe.  I’ll always be safe as long as you’re around to protect me.  You’re my friends, my family, my everything.”  I turned back to Chip, who was smiling, relieved.  Sophia watched us closely, hope dawning in her eyes.

            Eager to show Chip how much I appreciated him, and that I was still more than willing to pick up where we had left off the evening before, I wrapped both of my arms around his neck tightly, ignoring the discomfort in my left arm.  “And you,” I whispered, my voice tight with emotion, “have become...so close to me. Closer than a brother. You’ve stuck with me, been patient and understanding and selfless...you’ve grown up.”  He gulped and returned my embrace.  I heard Sophia usher everyone away.

            “I love you, Gadget,” he said quietly, drawing away far enough for me to see his dark eyes.  And then, with silent, unassuming and unrehearsed motion, we each reached for the other. 

            One innocent, loving kiss was all it took for me to know that life was standing in front of me, offering me a clear shot at the stars.  Chip drew away, smiling at me contentedly.  “I love you, Chip,” I whispered.

            Chip offered no comment, but brushed his paw through my hair slowly, seeming almost hypnotized. I felt a blush rise on my cheeks as I looked down at the lock of hair in his paw.  We stood together, strands of energy and light seeming to connect us, and I was aware of nothing else until Sophia giggled out in the hallway. Serenely happy, I called out to her, not moving. “Sophia, come back in here.” She deserved to see this, right? 

            She appeared slowly, blushing hotly but beaming.  Chip tore his eyes from me to regard the actress standing next to us.  “Sophia, that dress you found,” he looked at me meaningfully, “looked incredible on her.  Do you still have it?”

            “Uhm...”

            “It’s in your bathroom, Sophia.  Don’t worry, I didn’t tear it when I took it off.”

            “Good,” said Chip.  “Because I’d really like to see you in it again someday, okay?  And I think,” he fished in the pocket of his bomber and extracted a small, black box, “that this would go very well with it.”  He flipped the top of the box off with a flourish.

            Sophia gasped, and some sort of high-pitched something escaped me.  Chip watched me closely, as if judging my reaction to the tiny diamond ring resting in the box.  I stared at it wondrously.  So much of me wanted it; but a tiny voice reminded me not to rush into anything.

            “When you’re ready,” Chip said.  “When you want.”

            I struggled to say something pertinent, but all that came out was, “You had it in your pocket all this time?”

            “What don’t I have in this coat?” he asked sarcastically.

            “True,” I agreed.

            “Yes, I’ve had it for a while now.  Ever since we got the invitation to come here.  I didn’t know if it was time yet, but a formal dance in the southern France, you know...”

            “Was that what you were going for in the garden?” I asked him.

            “Maybe.  I had the idea, but I was just waiting to hear you say-”

            “‘I love you?’”

            He grinned.  “Yes.”

            “I love you,” I affirmed, smiling at him.

            “Does that mean you’re ready?”

            Sophia was clenching her teeth together to keep from a girlish scream, and was bobbing up and down on her feet.  I threw a grin in her direction before taking a deep breath and looking back at Chip.  “Chip, I love you, and I do want to marry you, but I’m not ready yet.”  I paused a moment.  “I know you’ve grown up, but I’m not sure I’ve grown enough yet.”

            To my immense relief, Chip smiled.  “All right.  Besides, that gives me more time to perfect my proposal.”

            I laughed.  “Perfect it?  What do you have so far?”

            He grinned mischievously.  “Well, it would start out with: ‘Gadget Hackwrench, you are the most incredibly intelligent, gorgeous, absent-minded-’” I laughed at him, he grinned and continued, “‘compassionate, unique, and wonderful girl I know.’”

            “Golly, that’s a lot of adjectives,” I giggled, blushing deeper than ever.

            He laughed too.  “And the world didn’t know the meaning of them until you came along.”

            “Oh, that’s sweet-” Sophia whispered.  I’d forgotten she was there.

            Chip spared her a glance before finishing.  “And then of course I’d get down on one knee, tell you how much I love you, ask you, and...well, hopefully you’ll say yes.”

            I stifled the joyous laughter bubbling inside of me and answered.  “Of course I’ll say yes.  When it’s the right time.”  I looked him in the eye.  “And the ring is beautiful, by the way.”

            “I hoped you’d like it.  I thought about maybe getting a suspension setting so you could take the diamond out and use it to focus lasers, but-”

            “Chip!  Do you really think I’d do that to my engagement ring?”

            He offered no response but grinned slyly.

            “Okay, okay, enough of that, Mr. Bond.  I promise not to use my diamond to focus lasers.  I’ll even write it into my wedding vows: ‘I vow to never use my wedding ring, engagement ring, or any other jewelry for diabolic purposes...’”

            A snort of laughter from the hallway burst my bubble, and Chip and I turned to find the rest of the Rangers standing in the doorway.  Dale had his eyes squeezed shut and was silently pounding the doorframe, Zipper was on his back on the floor, arms clenching his stomach, and Monty was laughing through tears.

            “Hey!  Can’t a guy get any privacy around here?!” exclaimed Chip merrily.

            “Don’ mind us, mate!  We’re just the local paparazzi!” shouted Monty.

            “That’s right!” rejoined Sophia.  “I can see the headlines now: Leader of the Rescue Rangers proposes to Beautiful Inventor.”

            “If you’re the paparazzi,” I asked, “where’s your cameras?”

            “Yeah, a picture’s worth a thousand words!” added Chip.

            “Then smile, guys!” exclaimed Dale, and pulled his bow-tie camera from the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt.

            Before I could say anything, Chip had dipped my back in his arms, and a camera flashed explosively from the vicinity of the doorway.  Sophia laughed, high and clear, like churchbells on a wedding day.  At least, that’s what it sounded like to me.

End

 

 

 

(And...roll credits to “Fix You” by Coldplay)
CREDITS

 Cast

Gadget Hackwrench................................................................................................Tress MacNeille

Chip.........................................................................................................................Tress MacNeille

Dale..............................................................................................................................Corey Burton

Monterey Jack...........................................................................................................Jim Cummings

Zipper...........................................................................................................................Corey Burton

Sophia Marskov.......................................................................................................Natalie Portman

Jules Crissen............................................................................................................. John Hillerman

Bubbles..................................................................................................................Jim Cummings(?)

Bubbles’s Brother.................................................................................................Patrick Warburton

Cola Cult Ninjas.............................................................................................................Themselves

Johnny Deep.................................................................................................................Johnny Depp

Kelsey Knights.........................................................................................................Keira Knightley

 

Written and Directed by BOC42

Original Script by BOC42
Edited by the wonderful Pop Rocks Princess and Silver Shadow

 

*****

Miss Hackwrench’s wardrobe by Dickies

Miss Marskov’s wardrobe by Dior, Vogue, and Nordstrom

Chip’s bomber jacket by All Purpose Bomber Jackets, USA

Miss Hackwrench and Miss Marskovs’ party dresses by Dior

Chip, Dale, Monterey Jack, Zipper, and Jules Crissens’ formalwear by Sarno and Sons Tuxedo

Miss Hackwrench’s tools furnished by Black Rhino, Dewalt, and Magnalite.  Zipties furnished by Ace Hardware.  Plastic cup bottom furnished by Dixie.

Rockets for the Ranger Wing were provided by:
Phantom Fireworks

Diamond Ring by Generations 1912

Cheese provided by Gossner’s Cheese, Cache Valley UT

 

Rescue Rangers Theme Song by Mark Mueller
Music for the party provided by the Davis Youth Symphony
“Moonlight Becomes You” Music by Jimmy Van Heusen.  Lyrics by Johnny Burke.

 

Special Thanks To:

Sophia Marskov for allowing us the use of her home.
Everyone at the Acorn Café
The Rescue Rangers
Silver Shadow
Pop Rocks Princess
my stress ball


Filmed on Location In:

Central Park, New York, USA
Golden Horn Bay, Russia
Vladivostok, Russia
Bordeaux, France
Bay of Biscay

 
NO CHIPMUNKS, MICE, OR OTHER ANIMALS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS FANFIC

I do not own any of the companies, products, or other referred to in these credits.  Everything here is used without permission.