Dreams of the Fathers
Chapter 1 – Business as Unusual and a Disappearing Act
If there was one person in Ranger Headquarters who was truly content this morning, it would have to be Chip Maplewood. The daring detective had been through a lot in the past year, but when the morning sun awakened, his first sight was that of his beautiful wife resting next to him. He smiled warmly, just looking at that angelic face and wondering how he had been so fortunate. With an inborn sense of stealth, he silently slipped out of bed and dressed, knowing that Lahwhinie liked to sleep later than he did.
Chip came into the main room and opened the front door, breathing the fresh morning air. It was the start of a good day. After a few moments, he closed the door and sat in front of the sofa, checking the latest news reports. Stan Blather was on, and Chip noted that this human never looked like a morning person. As the anchor started reading the news, some footage of a city meeting ran.
“...and this morning, the mayor was pleased to announce that the past six months have seen the lowest crime rates in the past five years. And now for the world roundup...”
“No wonder, with Fat Cat out of the picture,” Chip said. The rest of the news was the same—ordinary business that didn’t hint of crime. Chip hoped that the police station would be more fruitful, and had just decided to see if Lahwhinie was up yet when Dale came bounding down from the lair. “Hiya, Chip-a-rooney! How’s everything this morning?” Chip gestured to the clear sky visible through the window. “It’s a sparkling day, Dale. How are you and Gadget? Oh, and your children-to-be?”
Dale plopped down on the sofa, seemingly carefree. “Everything’s great so far. Gadget’s sleeping a lot longer in the mornings now that she doesn’t get that morning sickness anymore. I’m glad Monty had a talk with her and kept her from getting up early to try to invent things. Gotta admit though, that power chair she built for getting downstairs from the lair’s really neat. Wish she’d have told me it had a high gear on it before I used it. Sorry about that hole in the sofa, but it least it did stop my head!”
The leader of the Rangers shook his head in good humor. “Your folks must be really excited. What are you and Gadget going to do now that you’ll have kids? Are you going to go part-time with the Rangers? I wonder what Noel and Foxy are going to do when their child comes.”
“We talked about it some. Gadget still wants to invent of course, so we’ll probably hire us a babysitter when she’s got to have some private time. I can’t wait to see the kids, and as for me…well, I dunno yet. I love what we do and all, but if the kids need me more, I guess I’ll haveta make time for ‘em.”
Chip patted his old friend on the back. “You’re starting to talk like a dad, even. I’m lucky with Theo. He’s almost at the age where he’ll want as much freedom as possible. I guess all I’ll have to worry that is that he won’t need me.”
“Aw, you don’t have to worry! Theo worships you! He’s gonna be Chip Maplewood the second, practically!” Dale said. Chip raised his brows in an “I hope so” look. “I love being his dad. It’s been a life-altering situation.”
“Kids these days,” Dale chuckled. “Remember how it used to be, Chip? All we worried about was getting the next month’s comic books and making sure our bubble gum supply was good.” Chip remembered all right. “Well, we’ll have to make sure to keep our kids on the straight and narrow. Just imagine what it’ll be like when our kids are telling their kids, ‘the kids these days’.”
Dale’s eyes grew wide with the thought. “You mean when we’re as old as Grandpa Sean? That’s a scary thought.”
“Come an’ get it, lads! Early bird gets the cheese!”
With that, the boys retired to the kitchen, where Monty and Eva had prepared breakfast. Eva had asked Monty to teach her a few culinary tricks, and despite her being Gadget’s mother she’d learned how to cook a few things without messing them up. Chip and Dale both complimented her when they learned she’d made the biscuits. “Vell, it was either that or learn to cook grits, but there are no grits trees that grow this far north, you know,” Eva said.
Monty winked. “Lucky fer us there’s plenty o’ pasta trees.” Dale got up from his seat. “I’m gonna look in on Gadget.” Chip watched his friend go, still finding it hard to believe that Dale had finally grown up. “I guess time has a way of sorting things out.”
“You won’t hear an argument here, dear.” Lahwhinie had just come in, wearing her nightgown, and hugged Chip from behind. “Aloha, and how’s the coffee?” Chip set the coffee pot in front of her. “Monty’s java’s always a great way to start the day. Sleep well?”
“Like a bump on a log,” Lahwhinie said, stretching. “A few more weeks of this, and I might get used to the simple average life. It is sort of nice not having to wake up and try to figure out what con I’d use to get through the day. Who knew that being honest was such a good life?” Chip smiled in the special way he did when engaging in a tête-à-tête with his wife. “I’m glad you see it that way. So where’s Theo? He needs to be up for school soon.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll turn up in a minute or so. Anything brewing this morning besides the percolator?”
“I hope not. For once I feel like relaxing for a day,” Chip said.
Everyone immediately sat up.
“What!” Lahwhinie exclaimed.
Monty nearly dropped the plate of cheese sausages he’d cooked. “Chip lad, you feeling all right? Did me cheese stroganoff last night set you off wrong?” Eva checked his pulse and forehead. “He seems okay. Chip, vhy this sudden change?” Chip smiled, knowing that it had to be a shock to the routine. “Okay, okay—enough Chip jokes. I have a family now and need to make more time for them, just like Dale’s doing for his. I have altered priorities.”
“Oh boy!” Theo said, bounding in. “Does that mean we get to do something this weekend?”
“Sure,” Chip replied, “Did you have anything in mind?” Theo was never short on ideas when it came to fun. “How about Carnival Land? It’s the coolest theme park around, with all the latest stuff. They even have a virtual reality game from ‘Henry Harrison and the Shrine of Peril’!”
“That sounds good. Maybe we should wait till you get home from school, then we’ll see about going.” Theo nodded and started devouring his breakfast. “I knew Henry Harrison would get you interested.”
Dale rejoined them soon, and after breakfast Chip decided that the police station could wait. That shocked Dale, because Chip hadn’t missed his scheduled day at the police station in quite some time. Chip was firm, though, and the Rangers started the day just talking about their lives and how they’d changed. Dale had just finished explaining how he would put his kids through college when there was a knock at the door.
In a brown furry blur, Dale got up and answered the door. “Rescue Rangers! No case too big or small!” It was a cardinal, and one that none of them had met before. The red bird wearing a black vest seemed a little self-conscious. “Um, I have a message for Chip Maplewood or Dale Oakmont. Would you happen to be one of those?”
“I’m Dale Oakmont. Would you like to come in? You look nervous. What’s the problem?”
The bird looked about once more. “Yeah, I think I will come in. My name’s Larry.” Larry came in and sat down on the sofa. “A human asked me to come here. At first, I thought he was just playing like most humans, but this one knew what I was saying! It so freaked me out. Do you know a guy named Donald Drake?”
At the mention of that name Dale’s interest went through the roof. “Oh, let me get Chip! This is probably important.” Dale rushed to the kitchen to get Chip and they returned shortly. “Hello, Larry. How can we help you?”
“I am so weirded out!” Larry said. “This human comes up to me and tells me to go to Ranger Headquarters in Central Park. I’m to say, ‘I couldn’t chance a phone call. Meet me at the fountain at the usual time’. That make any sense to you?” Chip wondered what all the secrecy was about. “We get what he’s getting at. Thanks, Larry. We’ll take it from here. If you’re hungry, there’s breakfast in the kitchen. We need to get ready to meet Drake.”
Larry held his wings up in a “no thanks” position. “After that, I don’t think I can hold down anything. They’ll never believe this back at the nest...” Larry headed out, shaking his head, and Dale turned his mind to the matter at hand. “Uh, Chip? Maybe if whatever Drake’s got to say is bad, you should stay here and let us handle it. Not that it will be bad or anything, but then again it couldn’t be too good if he’s after us at this time of day.” Dale stopped himself. “Whoa, I just babbled! Guess I’ve been around you too much, Gadget.”
Gadget—who had come down from the lair in the interim—gave him a look, but it wasn’t too unfriendly. She was bulging to be sure, and she had been forced to substitute maternity clothes for her coveralls. Donna had pitched in with her sewing talents, and this morning Gadget was wearing a purple top with matching slacks. “Just remember, you promised to keep my workshop clean until I can get back in there.” Dale saluted. “Sure thing! I really didn’t mean to leave that acid on the floor last time, you know.” Gadget sighed, reconciling herself to it. “Well, it does make a good place to keep all my spare parts in.” Chip signaled for a break in the action. “Let’s get going, everyone. I’m sure Detective Drake’s waiting for us. See you soon, Gadget.”
The Rangers save for Gadget and Eva went outside and chose a secluded path through the park. Near the fountain, they found a man and his dog. They were apparently enjoying a picnic lunch outside, but when Chip spoke to them, they both turned and faced him. Drake’s back was to the open area of the park now, so no one could notice that he was seemingly talking to the bushes. “Well, it’s about time! Me and Plato are already through all the sandwiches. Care for some egg salad?”
Dale was more than happy to oblige. One thing he liked about humans, big portions. Before he could jump in, Chip thwarted him. After all, Gadget had asked him to make sure Dale didn’t snack on missions. “Thanks, Drake, but we just ate,” Chip said, absorbing Dale’s glare. “What’s the news?”
“It’s just a friendly warning at the moment, but I thought you should know I stopped by the police station and they mentioned that a criminal busted out of Riker’s. It was Nimnul.” Dale looked up from his egg salad—he’d managed to sneak a bite—in surprise. “Nimnul! Aw man, I hope he’s not going to mess around. Gadget’s gonna have the twins any time now!”
“Well, like I say, it’s just a friendly warning. I wanted to let you guys know this way, because Nimnul might tap your line to find out what we’re up to. He hasn’t turned up yet and may have fled the country for all I know. I’m going to keep my peepers peeled for him, though.” Drake turned his attention to Dale. “You say Gadget’s about to deliver? And you’re sure you’re the father—no, never mind. I don’t wanna hear all that explanation again. Besides, there’s something else. Plato here’s about to have his twelfth birthday at the end of the month and you’re all invited.”
“Including Miss Gadget, if she can make it,” Plato added.
Chip was glad to hear some good news with the bad, but the bad held his first attention. “Do they know how he escaped? Alone, or did he have inside or outside help?” Plato grimaced, his eyes uncertain. “There’s not much to go on at the moment, Chip. The report simply recorded the breakout. If you want the full story, you can come with us when we visit Riker’s once this meeting’s adjourned.”
“Okay, we’re ready whenever you are,” Chip said. Monty pumped his fists in a boxing fashion. “Yeah, let’s get that loony locked up again as soon as possible!” Drake was glad to have them along. “All right, but keep under cover. I know most folks can’t see you guys like you really are, but I’d have a hard time explaining you if you’re spotted in the prison.”
After some quick preparation, the ensemble left for Riker’s Island prison. With the possibility of humans noticing them increased, they decided that Chip and Dale would go with Drake and the others would wait for them at the docks. The munks followed the ferry to Riker’s Island in the RangerPlane and they landed out of sight away from the main gate.
Drake waited for them while he asked to see the warden. They were old friends, so it was no problem getting in. Chip and Dale were ignored but kept to the shadows as Drake and Plato entered through the multiple gates that led to the warden’s office. They took up residence within easy earshot as the warden rose from his chair to shake Drake’s hand.
“Well, if it ain’t old Forty-Five Drake!” the warden said, getting out of his chair. “Still carrying that old piece around, and did I hear right that you’re a gumshoe now?”
“Yeah, Vince, I couldn’t stand retirement. That’s for old folks. I got a lotta good years of detective work to go yet. So, I hear Nimnul’s been trouble.”
Vince showed Drake to a beat-up but comfortable leather chair. “Trouble? A pain in the patootie’s more like it! Here we had him in isolation locked down—or so we thought. This morning, Kyle…you remember Kyle, don’tcha? He’s the one that plays the harmonica and spits uncontrollably sometimes. Well, Kyle was doing the morning cell check when he comes to Nimnul’s room and the guy doesn’t get up! Kyle yells at his bed, but nothing. He figured maybe Nimnul was faking being sick. Remember the time Nervous Haskins tried the sick routine and ended up halfway to Chicago? Well, Kyle remembered it too so he gets some muscle and they open the cell. They check the bed. Nothin’!”
Vince shook his head in disbelief. “I tell ya, Drake, I’ve seen it all now. This guy gets out of a straightjacket—we know because he left it behind—out of his cell, through six checkpoints and over the wall and no one sees or hears nothin’! Now how do you explain that one?”
“Haven’t a clue,” Drake said, pushing his fedora back on his head. “I’ve tangled with that nut Nimnul and I know how slippery he can be. Since your boys have already gone over the room for evidence, would you mind if I had a look?” Vince stood up. “Help yourself. If you find anything, let me know because I’ve already had one major chewing-out from the mayor and the governor. It ain’t helping my good conduct record to have an escape like this on my watch. If you could sniff him out, it might just save my butt and my pension.”
“We’ll find him, don’t worry about that. He may be a genius, but he always makes a mistake.”
“Yeah, and in this case the mistake was getting the best nose for crime in the business on his six. Thanks Drake. This’ll make us even for that slug in my leg I took for you back in ‘83. Whatever happened to that Fingers guy, anyway? He couldn’t have gone back into the diamond-cutting business after that, what with his hands all busted up when that safe door smashed them.”
Drake grinned, thinking back on the case. “Well, ‘Lefty’ Fingers is a consultant to a big insurance firm; he goes in and evaluates security systems, makes about a hundred grand a year.” Vince threw back his head, laughing. “Ha, figures! Great seeing you again, Drake. Just tap Bob outside and he’ll show you Nimnul’s old cell.”
Drake followed Vince’s instructions and the guard led him to Nimnul’s cell. When he was alone, he looked around for his friends, whispering. “Chip, Dale? You guys still with me?”
“We’re under the bunk, looking for clues,” Chip whispered back. “Go ahead and check out the rest of the cell.” Man and animals searched the room thoroughly, but all they found was Nimnul’s empty straitjacket, a food tray with the food half-eaten, and a stack of old newspapers.
Drake sat down on the bunk and helped Chip and Dale up, where they joined him in thinking. “There’s nothing in here that he could’ve used to escape with,” Chip said. “How could he have gotten out of the straitjacket, Detective Drake? He’s no escape artist.”
“Well, he might’ve had some kind of outside contingency plan to help him escape. But he’d have to be pretty slippery to break out of here with no witnesses.”
Dale covered himself with a part of the bed sheet. “Maybe he turned invisible or something!” Drake half-smiled, appreciating Dale’s antics. “Well, however he did it, I’m guessing it wasn’t an ordinary escape.” Chip didn’t like it at all. “Who knows what devices he’s come up with since the last time we’ve tangled with him.”
“He’s been in jail though, ever since the giant spider,” Dale reminded him. “He couldn’t have invented anything new, so it’d have to be something he already had around, I guess. Maybe someone smuggled in the Gigantico gun—nah, that would’ve shrunk the straitjacket, too. Gotta be something else.”
Chip had a sudden thought. “Drake, did they check the security tape? Maybe it would have something.” Drake looked down at his rodent counterpart. “They said there was nothing on the tape, but let’s see if we can see anything.”
Drake and the munks headed for Vince’s office, and it was no problem getting the tapes in question. Left alone in a room adjacent to the main security room, he and the boys were able to watch the tape without interruption. The video showed the main hallway, outside of Nimnul’s cell. Dale pointed at the screen. “Hey, this reminds me of this neato sci-fi movie, ‘Attack of the Mutant Blood-Sucking Leeches’! They invaded this prison and waited until lights-out and then began entering cells and...”
“What’s that?” Chip interrupted, pointing to the screen. Drake paused the tape. “Did you see something?” Chip had Drake run the tape back, and Chip leaned close to the screen. “It looks like two rats in hats and dark suits, carrying a metal danish.”
“Whoa, let me see!” Dale said, barging right in front of Chip. “On DarkWing Duck one time, they had these hats that weren’t hats but were aliens and they took over bodies just by jumping on their heads! Then the animals and people they took over would eat metal. Run it back again! Was that rat wearing a fedora? Check it for eyes!”
Chip crossed his arms. “Dale, focus, focus! This is Nimnul we’re dealing with. You’ve seen those devices before, remember?” Dale calmed down, then looked at the image and rubbed his chin. “Sorry, Chip. Okay, let’s see. It looks like, uh...” Dale could hear the Jeopardy music playing in his head. “Like...the metamorphicizer!”
Drake sighed, sinking into his chair. “Oh yeah, I remember Nimnul’s ditzy nephew showing me about that thing. Great, the one thing that could make that guy more annoying—a shape changer!” Drake returned to the tape and they watched again. The detective realized exactly why the humans hadn’t seen the escape, since their thinking would’ve filtered out the animals. Nothing more happened on the tape until later when Nimnul’s cell door was opened again. Then they saw three small rodents leaving, the strange device wrapped around the midsection of one of them.
“And there Nimnul goes, right under the noses of the guards,” Drake groaned. “Hiding in plain sight. But wait, I thought Nimnul hated animals with a passion. Why would he get help from them to escape?”
“Yeah, Chip. He calls us ‘vermin’ and all sorts of names,” Dale said. Chip sat and watched while Drake re-ran the video. “It doesn’t add up. Nimnul wouldn’t go to animals for help. But maybe animals would come to him for help, if they needed him.”
Drake frowned. “Isn’t that a big no-no in the animal world? I mean, we went through all that rigmarole with that human-animal Council. Even for evil animals that seems like a dangerous risk.”
“It’s risky, all right,” Chip said, turning it over in his mind. “Okay, let’s assume for the moment that it is animals. We can scratch Fat Cat off that list, because he hasn’t been seen in months. Rat Capone wouldn’t have the resources to do it. There are a few more possibilities, but it’ll take time to check them out.”
Detective Drake glanced down at his faithful dog. “Plato, do you think their trail’s still fresh enough to find where they went?” Plato nibbled on his lower lip, then answered. “Maybe. It’s been nearly two days, so the trail will have deteriorated. I’ll give it my best.”
“Okay, pal, do your thing.”
The group returned to Nimnul’s cell, where Plato sniffed the area just outside of it. Meanwhile, Chip and Dale scoured the cell one more time. Chip had just finished going over a wall with his magnifying glass when he looked up to find Dale going through the newspapers, giggling. Chip marched over. “Dale, what do you think you’re doing?”
“Catchin’ up on my intellectual side! You never know when Beetle Bailey or Zits might gave us a critical clue!” Dale remarked. For the first time in a couple of years, Chip felt like bonking him. However, his attention wandered to the page opposite the comics. “Hey, what’s this?”
Chip found that a very thin circle had been drawn around a particular picture and story:
New York – Dr. Lyle Weynard, head of the Smithsonian Institute’s Linguistics Division, reported a find of historical import today.
In cooperation with New York’s Museum of Natural History, Dr. Weynard put on display a small sandstone tablet, which he estimated to be some 3,500 years old.
“This tablet adds to our understanding of a scribe in antiquity known to us only as Abari,” Dr. Weynard said. “This comes from Egypt’s Second Intermediate period, and once translated will enlighten us further as to that time.”
Dr. Weynard added that the author known as Abari wrote in the ancient language of Cuneiform. He estimated that an accurate translation could be a matter of several months.
“Chip, Dale, c’mon,” Drake said from outside the cell. “Plato’s got something.”
Chip carefully creased the paper and tore it, then folded and stuffed the clipping into his jacket pocket. The munks followed Drake and Plato through several twists and turns, the scent trail finally going up the wall and heading for an airshaft that led to the outside. They reconvened outside and after checking a few of the ventilation ports they found that one near the corner of the outer wall sported the rodents’ scent. The trail led to the beach, where they found a group of mice and clams that had made a home for themselves there.
When they saw Drake, the mice and clams were petrified with fear. Chip looked up at Drake. “Let us take the lead with this. We might get more out of them.” Drake did so, walking off a short distance and pretending not to notice the animals. He stayed within earshot and began picking up shells like a collector.
Once the animals saw the human wasn’t attacking and didn’t seem to see them they relaxed. A seedy-looking old sea mouse sidled up by Chip. “Soo, ye’re out fer a little ex-cur-sion, are ye? Barnacle Bill and his mates don’t take to being dis-turbed.”
“Forgive us, sir, “Chip started, “We’re not here to disrupt your work. We would just like to ask you a few questions.” Barnacle Bill eyed them suspiciously. “If ye must then. But pay heed t’be quick about it!”
“We’d like to know if you recall seeing several suspicious rats entering or leaving the island two days ago.”
Barnacle Bill chewed on a piece of cooked squid. “Sus-pic-ious? Look around, lubber. Everyone here’s sus-pi-cious.” One of the crowd, a young crab, came forward. “Sir, if I might...”
“No talking out o’ turn, Ernie!” Barnacle Bill growled.
“But sir, we did see...”
Barnacle Bill turned back to Chip, eyeing him watchfully. “Aye, Ern here did see something, but why for should he tell you?” Chip thought fast. “Can we come to some kind of arrangement?” Barnacle’s eyelids narrowed. “What ar-range-ment did ye have in mind, laddy buck?”
“How about you tell us what we want to know, and I won’t get mad?” Barnacle and the others turned around and came face-to-shoe with Drake. He’d chosen his moment then closed the distance on them so quickly they’d been caught off-guard. “The ruddy human understood me!” Barnacle exclaimed. Drake crouched down, pointing an angry finger at the sea mouse. “That’s right. So tell us, Billy Boy, who’s been lurking around?”
Barnacle shook in his boots. “Uh, there be three of ‘em, shore-rats by the look. They come through, pushed off on a skiff and left quick. One of them sounded like he’d been through one too many squalls. Kept yellin’ about vermin and such.” Chip felt instantly gratified. “Was anyone here out on the water that night? Did anyone see what happened on the other shore, after they landed?”
“I went over a few minutes after,” Ernie said, not taking his eyes off of Drake. “They got off at the main docks, and looked to be heading into the city. The one Barnacle talked about was dragging his feet half the time. I think he didn’t know where he was going.”
“Did anything else happen? Did they meet anyone?”
“I didn’t stick around. I had my own business to see to. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful. Uh, if you want I guess I could show you where I saw them get off.”
“That would be great!” Chip said. “Take us there please.”
Ernie led them to a small boat he owned, and once the munks arranged to meet later with Drake, they set sail. Even in a rodent-sized boat, the trip didn’t take too long. Soon they arrived at the docks, and Ernie pulled up to an old barnacle-encrusted pier. “Here’s where they left. Maybe someone else on this side saw something.”
“Thanks, Ernie. We owe you,” Chip said, shaking the crab’s claw.
Chip and Dale met up with the other Rangers, informing them of what they’d learned, then searched the area for likely suspects. Suddenly a pleasant-sounding female voice caught Chip’s ear. “Chip? Chip, is that you?” Chip turned around to find a professionally-dressed chipmunk, holding a pad and pencil. She sported a finely-coiffed blonde hairdo, and was quite the looker. “It’s me, Valerie Valardi! You know, the one that all the boys back in school called ‘stringbean’?”
Chip was trying to place her, but mainly he was caught off-guard by such a pretty chipmunk being someplace like this. Thankfully he remembered his wife was with him—the low growl right behind him did the trick. “Sorry, I only vaguely remember you. How are you doing? And more to the point, what are you doing here?” Valerie walked right over, eagerly shaking Chip’s hand. “If you’ll look behind you, you’ll see the reason.” Chip did so, and noticed a rodent-sized cruise ship coming into harbor.
“That’s the Atlantic Queen,” Valerie explained, “the newest addition to the Festiva Cruise Lines. I’m the ship’s cruise director, and I’ve been down here making arrangements for her to dock in port. I do look sort of out of place, don’t I?” Chip gestured at the area around them. “But this is the seedy harbor area. How are you going to handle that?”
“Festiva’s trying to buy the harbor and revitalize it. That’s why I’ve been down here the last few days. The locals are really suspicious of outsiders, and my boss was hoping that my appearance might get me in the door. So far it’s worked, but we do have a lot of work ahead of us because everyone and anyone seems to use these docks. Some of the wharf rats were telling me there was even a group of rats a few nights back that made a real disturbance.”
**Thank goodness for chance meetings** “It just so happens we’re looking for someone who might know of that disturbance. Perhaps you could introduce us?”
Valerie was confused but nodded slowly. “Well sure, I guess. Why would you want to know about that?” Chip pointed to his companions, noting that Lahwhinie’s eyelids had narrowed considerably. “We’re working on a case.”
“You are?” Valerie said, totally surprised. “I didn’t know you were a detective! The last I heard, you were thinking about becoming a lawyer. That was quite a while ago, though. Say, who’re your friends?” Chip motioned the others forward. “This is Dale, Monterey Jack, Honey, Zipper, and my wife Lahwhinie. We’re all Rescue Rangers.” Valerie’s attention went up a good deal at the mention of the name. “Rescue Rangers? Why, I’ve heard a good deal about that group! Seems like they’re always doing something good and...”
Valerie turned back to Chip. “You mean you’re the Chip who’s the Chip that leads the Rescue Rangers?” Chip pulled on his jacket lapels. “Yep, the one and only. I haven’t done too bad for myself over the years.”
“I should say so! Oh, this is perfect! I can just see it—‘spend a weekend celebrity cruise with the Rescue Rangers’. It’d be a big draw! C’mon, I’ll take you down to the wharf and we can discuss it further. Here’s my card.” Chip took it hesitantly, not wanting to provoke Lahwhinie. However, she snatched the card from his hand, her demeanor seemingly changed entirely. “Thank you, honey! We were just thinking about going on a vacation.”
Chip leaned over to her, whispering, as they followed Valerie. “We weren’t planning on any vacation.”
“Ix-nay, Chip, ix-nay!” Lahwhinie said. “I smell a deal here. We could get to take all of our vacations for free if we play our cards right.”
Chip didn’t like the idea, but there were more important things to consider at the moment. When they reached the wharf, Valerie introduced them to Largo, a large rat who seemed to take in everything around him. “So, you want to know about the disturbance.” Chip was glad Valerie, Honey and Lahwhinie were there, because this rat seemed like the type who only behaved when ladies were present. “Yes, we were told that some rats went between the island and this dock. We’d like to hear more about them.”
“Not much to tell, really,” Largo said, using the cut-off end of a toothpick on his teeth. “They disembarked, tied up the boat and walked right for us. Didn’t like the look of them, so I decided to spotlight the lot. I turned on my flashlight, and one of them says, ‘turn off that annoying light, you filthy disgusting vermin!’. We don’t need much more reason than that to create a...disturbance.”
Chip smiled inwardly, imagining what had to follow. “Do you know what happened to them after they saw you?” Largo threw the toothpick away. “We trashed ‘em, and threw ‘em into the garbage. After a while, they left and headed into town I think.” Largo pulled out a matchbook to light his pipe with. “Oh, and one of them dropped this.” Largo handed the matchbook to Chip, who found the cover had the letters “RC” printed on it in a fancy red neon bulb pattern over a black background.
“Thanks,” Chip said, pocketing the matchbook. “Is there anything else you can tell us? Anything at all?”
Largo thought for a minute. “Heard ‘em talking before I spotlighted ‘em. Said something about a date with twin somethings. I didn’t catch it all. That’s about it.”
“Thanks, Largo. You’ve been a big help. Nice to see you again, Valerie, but duty calls.”
Valerie wasn’t going to let a possible gravy train get away that easy. “Oh, wait! Can I call you about this cruise deal later? We’re always looking for celebrity sponsors. It’d be a free cruise...”
“Free? Ya mean with shuffleboard and everything?” Dale asked.
Valerie sensed progress. “Sure! Think about it, Chip, and let me know!”
Lahwhinie’s smile reached from ear to ear. “Don’t you worry, honey, we’ll be certain to get back in touch.” Chip caught hold of his wife’s arm. “We’ll take a rain check on the cruise. There’s too much going on at the moment.” Lahwhinie caught the look in Chip’s eyes, and then remembered they did have bigger responsibilities. “Oh yeah, the mission and all. Sorry, maybe next time.”
Valerie looked disappointed, but she was not the kind to let it beat her. “Tell you what—I’ll check back with you when things are less hectic. I’ve got to do lunch with the dock master. Bye!” Dale waved goodbye to her. “Wow, she sure is friendly. Why don’t you remember her, Chip?”
“I don’t know,” Chip said, musing. “I didn’t really like any of our classmates, so there’s no real reason to have remembered them. Don’t you remember her?”
“I was too scared of girls to remember!” Dale said. “I was the munk who ate in the bathroom to avoid ‘em, remember?” Chip had to chuckle a little at that. “Well, we’ve both grown a bit since then, I guess. Oh well, come on Dale, the game’s afoot!”
“This ain’t Baskerville Hall, Chip—no foot games here. And shouldn’t we tell Detective Drake about what we found first?”
Chip let it go. “Good point. We need to track down this matchbook clue.”
Chapter 2 – Double Trouble and the Wonders of a Good Foot Massage
The Rangers traveled with Ernie back to Riker’s Island. They agreed to meet up again at Drake’s office to talk in private, and Chip piloted the RangerPlane there. Drake studied the rodent-sized matchbook with his magnifying glass. “RC. Doesn’t mean anything to me but the soft drink. You guys know anything that fits the bill?”
Dale thought hard. “Hey, maybe Fat Cat changed his name to “Rotund Cat” and he’s starting up a new casino or something!” Chip didn’t even turn around. “Well, it could be the Ritz-Carlton, but I’ve never seen a matchbook from their animal annex. Wait, of course!”
“Of course!” Dale echoed! “Uh, of course what?”
“RC! Whose initials do we know that start with RC?”
Dale thought again. “Raymond Chandler?”
“Dale…” Chip pointed to a picture of a gangster on Drake’s wall. Dale lit up immediately. “Pretty Boy Floyd!” Chip threw his fedora down. “I give up! Does the name Rat Capone mean anything to you?” Dale paused, then nodded. “Yeah, it means trouble with a capital ‘T’. Oh, and Chip?”
Chip couldn’t believe it, and Drake just laughed at Dale’s antics. “You really had ‘im going, Dale! So Chip, who’s this Rat Capone fella?” Chip reclaimed his fedora. “Dale’s right, he’s trouble. He’s a gangster rat who robs for a living and tends to make life miserable for anyone around him.” Chip pocketed the matchbook again. “If these are his initials, then we need to see what he’s up to.”
Dale didn’t know if he liked that idea. “Do you think it’s a good idea just rushing into this? I mean, we shouldn’t be taking any risks we don’t need to take.” Chip looked at his old friend, puzzled. “What’s gotten into you, Dale? You’re always up for the adventure of a case. What are you worried about?”
“He’s worried that Gadget’s going to be a widow and his kids won’t know what their father looked like,” Lahwhinie said. Chip looked over at Dale and the red-nosed munk nodded. Even though Chip knew that Dale had become more responsible, this surprised him. “Dale, I didn’t realize you felt that way. Do you want to stay with Gadget while the others and I work on this one?” Dale put his hands on either side of his head, trying to force a decision out of it. “Yes... no...I don’t know! I don’t want to leave you guys short-handed.”
“Well, with Drake and Plato here helping us we’ve got a lot more muscle than usual,” Chip said. “I think we can spare you.” Dale’s loyalty rose up inside. “No, I can’t leave you guys; responsibility means putting others first. I can’t let you guys down!” Monty put a meaty hand on the munk’s shoulder. “Dale, your first responsibility is to your wife and kids. We all knew going in that starting a family would mean extra responsibility. If you’re out here and your heart’s back with Gadget, your attention’s going to be split! You know that’s dangerous. Follow your heart, lad. Get my daughter through this.”
“You’re right, Monty,” Dale said, then turned to his leader. “I’m sorry I let you down, Chip.”
Chip put a hand on Dale’s shoulder. “You didn’t let me down! How could you think that, when you’re living up to your responsibilities? Our job’s to help people, and right now the people you need to help are back at Headquarters.” It was times like this when Dale was truly grateful to have Chip Maplewood for a friend. “Thanks, Chip. Maybe I can find some way to help you at HQ, or maybe Gadget can tell me how to build stuff you need.”
“You just concentrate on being a husband and father for right now. Gadget needs you. Hopefully, this case won’t take too long and we’ll all be free for when the kids come.”
“I’ll be with you in spirit, Chip.”
Possibly the oldest joke in the world is calling someone and pretending to be held prisoner in a Chinese laundry. Strangely enough, for a certain mad scientist that really disliked the Rescue Rangers, he was in that predicament for real. Norton Nimnul had been a guest of dishonor at Riker’s Island in their funny farm section for the past year, but no longer. He’d gone to sleep in his 8-by-10 cell, complete with padding and straitjacket, and he’d awakened to find himself between two large rats, clad in suits. To his utter shock, he soon discovered he was a rat as well, and they escorted him from the prison to the Chinese laundry where they reversed the process.
Now he was dressed in an Oriental outfit and standing in what appeared to be an audience room. Two identical-looking Siamese cats, also dressed in Oriental clothing, sat on red velvet cushions and stared at him speculatively. The samurai cats that surrounded Nimnul bowed to them, which Nimnul found strange. He noticed other cats attending the Twins, coming in and out of the room. Despite his protests—which didn’t amount to much since his mouth was taped over—the cats waited until they were ready to address him. At a signal from one of them, the samurai on Nimnul’s left ripped the masking tape from his face, taking a few moustache hairs with it
“Yeeouch!!! Watch the mustache, you fiend!” Then Nimnul suddenly remembered the Siamese cats. “Augh, evil kitties!! What do you want? Why am I here? I hate cats! I hate animals! ”
“Silence!” the cats said, simultaneously.
Nimnul blinked, realizing he’d understood them. “Evil talking kitties, double aughhh!!!”
One of the feline samurai bonked Nimnul on the head, and that did manage to calm him some, not to mention make him see a few stars that weren’t on any of the charts. The cats narrowed their eyes, talking at the same time. “Allow us to introduce to introduce ourselves. We are Ting and Tang Sukahara.”
Tang continued before Nimnul could reply. “We knew you would be able to understand us, purrfessor. We have kept up with your...encounters with the Rescue Rangers, and despite what the humans believe you are quite sane, if eccentric. There are very few people in the world who keep their belief in being able to speak to animals intact when they reach adulthood. Obviously you have, and that is one of the reasons we have recruited you.”
“Why can I understand animals now?” Nimnul asked. “I didn’t before I was in jail, except for that time I was a human fly! Unless...my talks with Detective Drake forced me to remove my own self-imposed mental blocks against my innate ability to communicate with your kind...”
“Ah, that is most likely,” Ting said. “Still, we know from your so-called ravings that you could already see animals as they were, so you did not have far to go. Genji, release him.”
The samurai on Nimnul’s right unsheathed his katana, and in one lightning stroke the bonds holding his hands together fell off the gaping professor. “As my sister was saying, we recruited you as an ally,” Tang said. “We need your unique talents to ensure our rise to power. We can offer you several advantages for your cooperation.”
That wasn’t exactly top priority on Nimnul’s list. “Work for icky, stinky animals! Never! I’m top of the food chain here, ladies. You should be working for me!”
“We are the power the power here, purrfessor! Or do you need a demonstration a demonstration of that?” the Twins said. Two samurai began to unsheathe their swords, the look in their eyes not pleasant. Nimnul had a sudden change of heart. “Well, uh, I suppose as a gesture of interspecies good will I could put aside my deep and abiding hatred of animals for the time being. What do you want me to do for you?”
Tang smiled, and on a cat that’s never pretty. “Ah, arigato, Nimnul-san. We knew you would be cooperative eventually.” Nimnul’s brow furled in confusion. “Wait, you’re Siamese cats, but you’re speaking Japanese?” Ting grinned in reply. “We were born in Burma, but raised in Japan. Enough questions—we are interested in antiquities, purrfessor. We have acquired information on a certain tablet now residing in our fair city’s natural history museum.” Nimnul raised an eyebrow. “And what do I look like? A pickpocket?” The cats both grinned now. “We did not request your presence to steal the tablet steal the tablet, Nimnul-san. We have someone else in mind for that.”
The cats snapped their fingers, and an Australian jumping mouse dressed in a black safari outfit appeared, his features sharp and speaking of the disciplined mind contained within. “This is Donovan, the boss of the rats who escorted you from your cell.” Tang explained. “You might say his particular talents are for hire. He will bring us the tablet, but then you will have a job to do.”
“And just what is that, as if I cared,” Nimnul said.
“The tablet is written in Cuneiform, a hard language to decipher. That is not the primary problem, however. The tablet contains spatial coordinates that will pinpoint a certain location on the planet’s surface. We want you to determine what that location is,” Tang said.
Nimnul snorted. “So all I have to do is determine the modern equivalent of an ancient coordinate system, ascertain the time the tablet was written, and match the position of the relevant stellar bodies in relation to a certain spot on Earth? And here I thought you wanted something difficult.”
“How perceptive perceptive!” the Twins replied. “Let us say, we require the need of your special talents, for which you will be well compensated.” Nimnul sensed the chance for gain. “How?”
The Twins made a gesture to one of the samurai, who left then returned with two cats who carried a box filled with gold coin. Nimnul wasn’t impressed. “Money? Is that all?”
“Perhaps you need a greater incentive?” Tang asked. “We could aid you in rebuilding your laboratory, and then there the Rescue Rangers of course.”
“The vermin!” Nimnul shouted, clenching his fists. Tang’s eyes gleamed with triumph. “So, you wish revenge on these rodents?”
“Of course, you stupid feline...uh, ma’am.”
Tang brought out one set of her long, sharp claws but did nothing yet. “We could arrange for you to see to their final demise, at the proper time. At the moment, you must consider our need as the top priority. If you succeed, you will be rewarded. If you fail, it would be...disappointing. We have a lab prepared for you that no one will locate, stocked with all the equipment you will need. You have one week to complete your task, once Donovan delivers the tablet.”
“One week!” Nimnul protested, then thought better of it. “Uh well, I uh, better get started then. I’m really gonna get to see the vermin die?”
“If that is your wish,” Ting said. “They are a minor inconvenience to us, and we intend for them to remain so. Sayonara for now, Nimnul-san. If you succeed, the demise of the Rangers will be only the first of many triumphs for you.” Nimnul thought about that new lab and the Rangers and rubbed his hands with glee. “Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! Or in this case, if you can’t beat ‘em, you’ll have to work for them or they’ll kill you.”
The Twins laughed heartily. “You catch on quickly quickly, Nimnul-san. Follow the guards, and they will escort you escort you to your new secret laboratory. All your needs will be provided for. Just remember remember that we do not take treachery lightly.”
“Well, if you give me what I want I’ll give you what you want,” Nimnul said jovially. “I can even make you some tinfoil hats that will inhibit that creepy connection you two have so you won’t repeat each other’s sentences!”
Dale shook Chip’s hand, spoke a few words of encouragement to the others, and left the docks for home. It wasn’t easy for the munk to retire from the field before a mission was over, and Chip knew that. Gadget knew it as well, which is why she’d never have asked him to do that—even though she hoped he would. When Dale came upstairs to the lair, the look on his face told her everything.
Gadget motioned him over. “Dale, I know you probably didn’t think about this consequence when you agreed to marry me. Still, if you don’t mind my saying so, I’m grateful that I married a munk who I knew would look after me in the tough times as well as the good. Thank you.”
Dale sat on the edge of the bed and hugged her. “Thanks, Gadget. I know I made the right choice, but part of me feels like pond scum.” Gadget gently cupped his face in her hands. “I know. You feel guilty leaving the others to take up the slack. But Dale, any of them can do the job of being a Rescue Ranger. Only Dale Oakmont can do the job of being my husband and the father of my children! We’ve got a lot to do yet before the kids get here. We still need to make this place infant-safe, for one.”
“Yeah,” Dale said, switching into father mode. “Even with Colby around, there’s still a lot of potential danger lurking around HQ. We should ask Donna to give the place another ‘mom approved’ inspection.” Gadget walked over to the table in the middle of the room and sat down, where she had a notepad handy. “Okay, I’ll make sure to call her. Dale, should we make the nursery in here or in the gym? I know how you love fencing, but I was thinking that the gym might would be a little more convenient for us.”
“Yeah, that’d be a good idea. It’s quiet and snug in there, and I don’t have to hide anymore so I can just use the gym downstairs for fencing. But for the first few months we’ll probably need to have the kids in the room with us.”
“I agree,” Gadget said. “The bedroom’s small, but we can manage it. I’ve already built the baby monitors, so they’ll wake us up if either one has a problem. They have a built-in life monitor, so anything out of the ordinary will register. I don’t intend to take any chances.”
Dale decided to bring up another subject. “Gadget, my folks and I have been talking lately about the kids. Well, they said they’re considering getting a tree very close to Ranger HQ and my mom said she’s probably going to retire early so that she can help us look after the kids so we can do Ranger work without having to hunt for a babysitter.” Gadget blinked in surprise. “Really, Dale? Gosh, that’s very nice of them! But that’s a lot to ask. I won’t want to leave the kids with anyone for a few months or so at least. I want to make sure everything goes just right for them, and that they don’t end up like...well...”
“Like what?” Dale asked.
Gadget looked away. “I don’t want this to sound wrong, but like Lahwhinie. I mean, I don’t want either of them to not be raised right or fall into the wrong hands. Not that they would, but when I saw how different Lahwhinie turned out from me, I learned that a lot of it was due to how she was raised. I realized then just how big a responsibility you and I have to these kids. Don’t tell mom or Lahwhinie about what I said, though!”
“I won’t tell a soul,” Dale promised. “Don’t worry Gadget. If, God forbid, anything ever happened to us, there’s an army of family that would raise them right. That’s one thing we don’t have to worry about.”
“Well, you’re right there. I know that Chip and Lahwhinie would see to them, and likely mom and dad would raise them as their own. I guess I’m just a little scared of it all.”
Dale took her hand. “Me too. I’m so scared I’m practically numb.”
“You are? It doesn’t show.”
“I’ve had lots of practice keeping my real feelings hidden,” Dale said, smiling sullenly. Gadget covered his other hand with hers. “And men don’t like to show fear. We’ll both have to be brave for the next month or so. I hope they come soon. I’m starting to feel like an over-ripened watermelon!” Dale raised her hand, kissing it. “You’re the most lovely over-ripened watermelon to ever grace the face of the earth.”
Gadget blushed and grinned. “Oh Dale, I bet you say that to all the over-ripened watermelons. But thank you. Thanks for everything.” Gadget maneuvered and managed to kiss him, then Dale looked at the large crib they had set up in the bedroom. Neutral colors until they were certain about the gender of the children. “I never thought I’d be at this threshold of life—a role model, a mentor, a dad, just like my dad. Soon the curse will be upon us...”
“Curse? What do you mean?” Gadget asked, concerned.
“The curse that all parents put on their children. You know, ‘when you have kids I hope they act just like you did’.”
Gadget was suddenly relieved. “Oh, whew! I thought you were going to say you had some kind of weird family curse that crops up every few generations or something. Well, my understanding is that with two children, one emulates the father and one the mother.” Dale smiled. “Boy, are we in for some trouble.”
Gadget grinned back. “Why? Don’t think you could handle a son or daughter who’s an obsessive inventor and has a mind-bashingly high I.Q.?”
“That I could probably handle. It’s the one that takes after me that would be the problem! Or what if they have mixed abilities; imagine the carnage a practical joker with a mind-bashingly high I.Q. could do! The world trembles at the very thought!”
Gadget chuckled at her husband’s all-too-vivid imagination. “Hmm...I suppose that’s possible. I guess we’ll have to keep a close eye on the both of them. Were you a lot of trouble for your folks, growing up?” Dale shrugged. “Not at home, but at school and around anyone else I usually cut loose with the wacky stuff.” Gadget patted Dale on the shoulder. “If they’re like you, you’ll know what to look for anyway. Hopefully, we can point their talents in good directions. Well, I think I’d better take a load off and rest this afternoon. If you want, you could go with Eva. She’s going to look for some supplies for the kids. I figure we’d better have everything in place before they get here.”
“I’d rather stay here with you and the kids. Otherwise I’ll feel bad about leaving the case and leaving you too.”
“Okay,” Gadget said, then she took on an apologetic look. “Um, would you mind doing something for me, then?” Dale leaped to his feet and saluted. “Of course, Gadget!” Gadget pointed downward. “My feet are swelling again. Would you mind rubbing them for me?” Dale smiled and sat next to Gadget, putting her feet on his lap and began rubbing them. “Anything for you.”
Gadget sighed in relief. “Don’t stop…ever.”
Chapter 3 – A New Friend, an Old Enemy
Not too far away, a small secluded clubhouse echoed from inside with the laughter of children. The clubhouse was Theo’s technically, but he shared it equally with Bink and with a friend he’d made at school. This friend, a boy rat who went by the name Rhett, had been a typical loner until Theo had come to his school. They’d both found common interests, and when Rhett had learned that Theo was the adopted son of Chip Maplewood, his interest had skyrocketed.
Today they were enjoying the simple fun of each other’s company. The two boys were playing at spies, with Theo taking on the role of Jake Stone while the brown-haired and stocky rat was his trusty sidekick Vince Virtuous. At the moment, they were facing down the notorious Professor Vile and his evil minion Walrus Man. Theo aimed his trusty plunger pistol at a crude mockup of the dastardly professor, while Rhett covered Walrus Man.
“Surrender, Vile!” Theo said, in the role of Jake. “No one defeats the team of Stone and Virtuous!” Rhett never took his eyes off the larger mockup. “You can say that again, Stone! And don’t think the Walrus is going to scare us!”
“Hey, what’s up!”
Bink had come in behind them and startled them both. They let their plungers fly, but they missed their respective targets—bull’s-eyes on the mockups. “Aw, now they got away!” Theo said, retrieving the plungers. “Well, evil will just have wait for another day to be defeated.”
Bink ignored their antics and addressed herself to Rhett. “Hey Rhett! I see Theo’s finally dragged you to the clubhouse. What do you think of it?” Rhett put his plunger pistol down on a nearby table. Even for a rat, he had a pleasant face, and the playacting had him in a good mood. “I think it’s pretty neat! Thanks for letting me see it. It’s always nice having a place to go to get away from things.”
“Yeah, and it’s cool having someone new to share it with and play games and all,” Theo said. “Think you can come tomorrow, too?” Rhett nodded. “I can always make the time. My life’s my own.” Bink was amazed at that concept. “Wow, wish I had that kind of free time! My mom makes me stay in for a half-hour when I get home from school and clean up the mess I left from the day previous. Sometimes I wish I just had my own place without any rules or anything.”
“Well, don’t be in a hurry to be on your own. Enjoy your family while you have it,” Rhett said.
Both Theo and Bink found that comment strange. “Guess it’s sort of tough for you at home, isn’t it,” Theo said. “Your dad doesn’t treat you rough, does he?” Rhett took a seat in a beat-up wooden chair. “Dad doesn’t treat me like anything. I’m in limbo—he knows I don’t want to follow in his footsteps, but he wants me to anyway.”
“You’d think he’d be glad if you tried something on your own,” Bink said. “What would you be if you could be anything you wanted?” Rhett merely shrugged. “I have no idea. All my effort is put into not being like him.” Rhett sighed, and his discontent spread to his friends. They understood like good friends do. Suddenly the sound of a voice echoing outside caught their attention.
“Aw, there’s dad,” Theo said. “I’ve got to get going.”
“Me too,” Bink added. “Mom’s taking me shopping. Good seeing you, Rhett. You gonna stick around?”
“I’ll hang around for a while, if you don’t mind,” Rhett said. Theo gave him a high-five. “Sure, no problem. You know where to leave the key. Hey, tomorrow maybe we can all play a round of Monopoly or something like that. Well, see you!”
Rhett watched them go, then settled down on the secondhand mattress in the clubhouse. The small room wasn’t much, but for a boy of twelve who had no other place to dream it was wonderful. Posters lined the walls, and various games and makeshift mechanisms, bits of junk and other such treasures lined its shelves. Rhett grabbed a book from the bookshelf and laid back, more than content to spend the afternoon in peace.
A sewer isn’t exactly the place where you’d expect anyone to be happy. Yet at least one denizen of the smelly surroundings was very pleased indeed. Rat Capone knew that he was by all accounts a small-time crook. Yes, he’d had his moments at times, but in the grand scheme he wasn’t quite in the league of a Fat Cat. And truth be told, he had accepted that idea. He made out well enough, and life was comfortable. However, that idea had now changed.
The rumors were flying since Fat Cat had vanished. His goon squad had essentially disbanded without its leader, and no one had stepped forward to take the conniving cat’s place. Now, the underworld animal element of the city was in disarray, and a strong presence would likely be accepted gladly. At least, that was what Rat had heard. He’d sent his own goons out to get more word, and now they were returning. The gangster was all ears.
“Hiya, boss!” Arnold Mouseneggar said, skipping into Rat’s headquarters like a little kid. “Wow, you shoulda been there! I was walkin’ cross the Brooklyn Bridge, when dese kids yells out like they’s falling? An’ the cops, they come runnin’ and the kids laugh and the cops chase ‘em! It was so funny!” Rat really wished he had another strong-mouse to do his work, but Arnold was the best he could buy for the moment. “I don’t care what no stinkin’ humans is doin’, you moron! What did you hear from the other gangs? What about Nimnul?”
“Uh, I checked all around. Dere ain’t nobody makin’ any moves, not even the Siamese Twins. I asked the Brooklyn gangs about it, and dey say that everybody’s kind of holding back, waitin’ to see what everyone else does. Da Nimnul guy up and disappeared like, after he got out.”
“That’s what I hear from Queens, too,” Sugar Ray said, entering. “Everyone’s laying low. There’s word of something in the works by somebody, but no solid news. Looks like the city’s ripe for a takeover, boss.” Rat sat down at a table with his weekly take on it and started counting. It was his way of allowing himself to think. “I woulda thought the Twins was goin’ to take over when fatso left the picture.”
“Me too, boss, but they don’t seem...you know, interested. I guess maybe they’s happy with what they got.”
Rat kept counting, not liking the situation. Someone had managed to bust Nimnul out, but so far the wacky scientist hadn’t re-emerged on the scene. It was unsettling, particularly considering Rat’s plans. “If no one’s gonna make a move, then it’s gonna be me! Since tubby’s no longer around, there’ll be no competition for my new casino—the Rat Castle.”
“Oh, goody!” Arnold said, clapping. “We gonna move on up, to the east side?”
Rat gave his goons their share of the loot. “Yeah, that’s just what we’re gonna do! Come on, we got a lot to do over at the warehouse.” Sugar Ray wasn’t so sure. “But Boss, that’s a mighty big pie you’re tryin’ to take a slice of. How’re we gonna do it?” Rat got in the lizard’s face. “Youse mugs don’t have half a brain between the lot of youse! We round up all the outta work muscle and no one will dare say nothin’!”
“Dere’s plenty of that around!” Arnold said. “Good thinkin’, boss. But uh, what about those Rescue guys? Dey beat Fat Cat, y’know.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I hear they’re tougher these days. What’ll we do about them?” Sugar Ray asked. Rat had thought about them, especially the one who’d carted him off to jail. “Let’s worry about one thing at a time. We’ll stake our claim, then worry about the law and the claim jumpers.”
“Stake a claim to what, dad?” A young rat appeared from a nearly room, coming out when he heard the conversation going on outside. The boy had some of Rat’s features, but he was decidedly more pleasant-looking, both in appearance and demeanor. Rat’s attitude changed entirely when he saw him, becoming almost jovial. “Son, we’re about to move outta this gutter and head to the top!” The youngster’s face showed how many times he’d heard that before. “Dad, what’s wrong with staying here? It’s not that bad, and the law doesn’t bother us. Why risk it for something that may get us all popped off?”
“It’s the big brass ring, son! Think of it, my own casino. The rubes are all up there for the taking, for anyone with the guts and nerve to do it. Besides, I already ordered the matchbooks,” Rat said, pulling one from his jacket to admire it.
“But dad, doesn’t that tell you something? It’s got to be dangerous.”
“Anything worth havin’ is dangerous, boy—food, dames, gold, power.”
The boy knew this side of his father, and knew what it usually led to. “You’re going do it no matter what I say, but just leave me out of it. When the other bosses hear that you’ve started a casino, they’ll probably raid the place in one big power play or something. I’d just as soon stay here with Vera.”
“Good thinkin’, son,” Rat said, not catching his meaning. “It’s too early ta get that involved in the family business.”
“No, I mean leave me out of it, period!” the boy said. “You’re going to wind up dead someday over it, and I want to make something of my life. If you want to go chase the brass ring, fine. Go ahead.” Rat was totally startled. “How can youse say that? That casino would put us on easy street. That’s the big time money! I could build an empire like you wouldn’t believe with the dough that place is gonna bring in.”
“You can have it. That kind of money’ll have you being the target of every big and small-time outfit in town. You’ll have to have bodyguards 24-7, and I’m not going to live that kind of life. It ain’t worth it!”
Rat stared the boy down, the first touch of true anger entering his voice. “You don’t have much choice, son. You’re Rat Capone Junior, and that’ll make you a target if you wander away from me! So face it, you need me.” The young rat pointed his index finger at his father as he spoke. “Don’t ever call me that! I’m not Rat Junior. I’m Rhett, and I’ll never walk in your dirty footsteps, not if I become a...well, not if they know I’m honest, anyway. Good night, pops.”
Rhett headed off, not wanting to give his dad any chance for a rebuttal. Rat just shook his head and sighed. “The kids these days. You give them everything they could want and they’re still not happy!” A female voice broke up his lament. “What’s that, Ratsie? Rhett on the warpath again?” Vera was Rat’s moll, a young and pretty mouse with short red hair, but actually more like a governess than a moll. She held a special place in Rat’s heart, and because of that he allowed her a lot of leeway, even letting her tend to her own brood of brothers and sisters when she was needed. “Don’t worry, he’s just growing up is all.”
“This ain’t yer business, dollface. This is family stuff. Rat Junior’s gotta learn his place in the world,” Rat said. Vera rubbed the outside edge of his ears in a playful way. “Oh, that’s what you always say. Want me to talk with him again?” Rat calmed down. “Might as well, Vera. See if you can talk some sense into his hard little noggin.”
Vera knocked and opened Rhett’s door. He hid something immediately, then was relieved to see it wasn’t his father at the door. “Oh, it’s you. Come on in, Vera. I’m just, uh, catching up on homework.” Vera smiled knowingly, and sauntered in. “You know you don’t have to hide anything from me. Save the secrets for your dad.” As soon as Vera shut the door, Rhett returned to what he’d hidden. It was a picture he’d found a frame for, taken of himself with Theo Maplewood and Bink Chesnutt. “If dad ever found out about how much I like Theo and Bink, he’d skin me alive. I almost freaked out there, Vera! I nearly told him that I wanted to become a Rescue Ranger. I think he’d have keeled over and died on the spot, just from the shock.”
“That’s one dream you better keep under your hat, Rhett,” Vera said. “He’s having enough trouble just coping with the idea that you don’t want to be the next crime boss of New York.” Rhett put the picture away and plopped down on the beat-up leather sofa next to Vera. “I know, and I’m scared that sooner or later I will slip up and he’ll find out. I’m thinking about leaving, Vera. I just can’t take being torn between dad and the Rangers like this much longer. I’m ashamed of my own name, and it’s not fair!”
“Life isn’t fair, Rhett—not to you, to me, or even your dad. We just stumble through the best we can. Where would you go, anyway? Your dad would find you, you know. You’re all he has; you’re his future. You mean the world to him.” Rhett crossed his arms. “Then why does he make me live like this? He knows I hate it! I’m not a crook, and I’m never going to be one! Couldn’t you help me, Vera? I bet you know someone who’d help me find a place until I can start earning some honest money.”
Vera patted him on the head. “Rhett, honey, you’re only twelve! You’d end up on the street in two shakes. I’ve been there, and it’s not something I’d wish on my worst enemy. You’ve got to stay here and try to make the best of it.”
“Best, right. At best, I’ll reach thirteen before my dad’s in the gutter and I’m there with him or he’s dead from someone taking from him what he’s about to take, if he can take it at all. I can see the handwriting on the wall as well as anyone. He’s been lucky so far, but sooner or later he’s gonna buy it and I’ll be alone anyway.”
Vera put a reassuring arm around Rhett’s shoulder. “You won’t be alone, Rhett. I’ll see too that.” Rhett leaned against Vera. He never allowed himself to cry, but he would lean on her to let her know how much he appreciated her. She was like the mother he’d never known. “Thanks, Vera. I guess you can tell dad I’m calmed down again for the moment.”
“Thanks, Rhett. I’ll do my best to keep the peace between you two. Keep your chin up. There’s bound to be a way out, for all of us.”
“That would take a miracle.” Rhett watched her leave. He’d stopped believing in miracles a long time ago. The environment he was in had a large role in that, and his father made up the rest. Rhett put his picture away, and with it his one dream in life. It probably wouldn’t happen, but at least it left him something to think about besides the life around him. The son of the most wanted gangster rat in town turned off his light and went to sleep.
Chapter 4 – Kiddie Talk, The Big Time, and One-Month Jitters
At Ranger Headquarters, the mood was mixed. The matchbook had led the Rangers nowhere so far, and Dale was doing his best not to make Gadget nervous while counting down the days until delivery. Theo Maplewood wasn’t thinking of either of those things at the moment, as he was in the middle of his algebra homework. He had a test coming up in a few days, and despite his loathing for the subject he knew he needed to do well or he’d never qualify for the junior varsity football team. “Why do math teachers always explain the simple problems in class and then give you the hard ones to do at home?”
Realizing that no one would be able to answer his rhetorical question, though millions of children had asked it previously, he decided to find someone to help him. He could think of no better person for that than Gadget, though he hoped it wouldn’t go the same way the last time she helped him. He’d asked for her help on his science project involving making a chemical battery, and he’d had to spend a week cleaning her workshop when he’d misunderstood her instructions and put the wrong acid in the mix.
He found his Aunt Gadget in the living room, reading a technical journal. Theo felt a little uncomfortable approaching her because of her pregnancy, but he knew he wasn’t going to solve this quadratic equation alone.
“Um, Aunt Gadget? Do you have a minute or two to spare?” Theo asked. Gadget was more than glad, because this was the first time anyone had asked her for her help all day. “Golly, I’ll always have time for you, Theo. What can I do?”
“I hope you can help with this problem. It’s algebra.”
Theo came closer and sat next to Gadget, showing her his math book. “See, it’s this one. 4xy + 3y = 44 and I have to figure out what x and y are. Why do math teachers torture us with this stuff?” Gadget grinned, putting an arm around him—mainly so she could keep herself stable and work the problem too. “Oh now, it’s not that bad. It’s simply a formula. In this case, y equals 4 and x equals two.”
Gadget spent a little time with Theo explaining the principle behind the formula and how she’d figured it out. “Okay, now let’s do a few together until you have the hang of it.” They started working problems, then Theo’s curiosity got the better of him. “Aunt Gadget, do you think about whether your kids will be smart like you?” Gadget paused a moment. “I don’t know, Theo. I hope they’re smart. I’d like to pass on my skills to someone whose eyes won’t glaze over when I’m talking to them about machines.”
Theo paused a moment himself, then spoke again. “I thought about you and Uncle Dale and I realized that I might have kids someday. For a kid that’s having trouble with sixth-grade math, that’s kind of scary.” Gadget chuckled. “Well, people don’t learn these things overnight, Theo. Learning math takes time and patience, just like parenting. You’ll do fine.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Aunt Gadget, can I ask you something else?”
“Sure, is something on your mind?”
Theo didn’t know if it was right to ask or not, but he’d been concerned about it ever since Gadget had become pregnant. “Aunt Gadget, are you scared about having kids? I mean when you have to—you know, deliver them and all?” Gadget could see the real concern in Theo’s eyes and realized all this must be a real mystery for a young boy. “I don’t think it will be a problem. It’s a little scary and it’s going to hurt quite a bit but I’m not worried that it can’t be done.”
The young Maplewood stole a glance at her. “Um, is it okay if I’m scared for you, then?” Gadget laughed, pulling him close. “Of course, Theo. But don’t be too scared or it’ll take away from the wonder of what will happen.” Theo breathed a little easier. “Well, all right. Is it okay for me to hug you? I won’t hurt them, will I?”
“Not at all, Theo. Hug away!”
Theo smiled and hugged Gadget. It felt good to have some reassurance. “Thanks. I’ve been worried about you for weeks now, but I felt too uncomfortable to say anything. I didn’t want to cause any trouble.”
“It’s never trouble to tell someone that you care about them.”
“Well, nothing’s ever simple when you’re a kid,” Theo said. “I think I’ve got this figured out now. Thanks again, Aunt Gadget.”
“No problem, Theo. Glad I could help,” Gadget said, smiling as she watched him go.
After dinner came and went, Dale was fussing over Gadget as usual. Despite her slight impatience at this, Gadget knew he was just looking out for her. She let him lead her to the couch. “Okay, I agreed to wait until after supper to hear your evening patrol report, Chip, so let’s hear it. Is it about Nimnul?”
Chip sat down, the frustration evident. “That’s just it, Gadget. There’s been nothing from the usual sources since his breakout from Riker’s Island three days ago. He’s just not streetwise enough to fully disappear like this. We’ve tried all the usual contacts and searched his old haunts, but it’s like he invented an invisibility ray and just vanished! I don’t like it, particularly considering all the knowledge in that twisted brain of his.”
“We’ll, lucky for us he’s not the type who stays hidden in the background,” Dale said. “He’ll show himself soon enough.”
“Then we’ll nab him and send him back to jail!” Theo added. Gadget of course had other things on her mind. “I wish I could help out. I’ve got so many ideas from sitting around that I want to do, I’ve nearly filled a whole notebook with them! Oh...” Dale saw Gadget’s expression change and she looked down. Dale took her hand in his. “What’s wrong, Gadget? Is it time? Is it?”
Gadget smiled at him. “One of the babies kicked! Here, put your hand right there...” Gadget guided Dale’s hand, and in a minute the kicking resumed. “Wow, looks like sibling rivalry already! It feels like ninja babies in there.” This generated instant curiosity among the others, and soon several of them had also felt the kicking. Lahwhinie approached also. She’d kept a little distance from Gadget lately, but this novelty had her curious too. “Um, could I try?”
“Sure! Don’t be afraid,” Gadget said.
Lahwhinie slowly brought her hand to the spot and blinked in surprise when she felt a kick. “They’re really in there. I guess it was easier to think that you’d swallowed a golf ball or something.” This generated a laugh from the room, and slowly things settled down again. When it was time for bed, Chip caught Lahwhinie looking up toward Gadget’s room. “You doing okay, Peaches? You’re aren’t concerned about Gadget, are you?”
“Of course I’m worried about her, she’s my sister. It’s just weird though, knowing that there are two people inside of her.”
“That’s the miracle of life,” Chip said. “I’m still amazed that they’re going to be parents, but Gadget and Dale will be the best parents around. Everything will turn out okay.”
Lahwhinie took on a frown. “Uh, yeah...better them than us...right?”
Chip was surprised at the question, or at least the way she asked it. “Are you saying you aren’t sure about not having kids anymore?” Lahwhinie was hesitant, to say the least. “Well, you never know. Maybe...we’ll see how hers turn out before we say anything more about this.” Chip took her hand. “Okay. I just didn’t realize you were reconsidering. Whatever decision we make, we’ll do it together. But I love you, no matter what.”
“Thanks Chip. I appreciate you being so patient about this. Maybe, Chip. Maybe.”
Chip kissed her. “Don’t worry, you’ve already made me more happy than I ever thought I’d be. Come on, let’s tuck Theo in and get some rest.”
The next morning, the Rangers were up early on schedule. Eva was now in charge of all things mechanical, and she’d switched back to her dark blue coveralls that she’d worn when she’d first arrived at Ranger Headquarters. She came into breakfast from outside with a few new grease splotches on her. “You vill be happy to know that the RangerVing and RangerPlane are in top-class condition. We are ready for morning patrol!”
“Good work, Eva,” Chip said. “With Gadget sleeping late in the mornings and being forced to rest so often now, it’s a good thing for us that we have you to fill in as a backup. Finish up, everyone. There’s a crazed professor out there, and the sooner we find him the easier the city will sleep tonight!”
In the warehouse district, a new resident was making himself at home. For weeks, the only sound had been the repetitive noises of the machinery doing its job. Now, the solitude was broken by a group of rodents led by Rat Capone. He’d expected resistance from the local muscle, but to his surprise there was no welcoming committee. He went inside and flicked on the light switch.
The outside of the building was the leftovers of an old human lumber warehouse. Inside was another story. With his ill-gotten gains, Rat had furnished and carpeted the building’s office shack with the best stuff stolen money could buy. A group of well-dressed employees came up and greeted him, then went back to preparing for what was about to be opening night.
“Boss, it sure is a classy joint!” Sugar Ray said.
Rat’s eyes gleamed with avarice. “Those other crooks out there were too afraid to try to take over the gambling circuit, so now it’s ours. Okay, youse guys go over the place, top to bottom! I don’t want no surprises. I wanna make sure this joint is really empty before we set up shop!”
The brute squad, led by Sugar Ray, headed off to do Capone’s bidding. Arnold remained with him for protection as they headed into an elevator that led to a private, secure office. “Ooh, cushy!” Arnold exclaimed. “I like a cushy office. Can I play trampoline on the chairs, boss?” Rat bopped him. “No, you can’t jump on the furniture! Fat Cat never had it so good. Everything in here’s imported, so don’t touch nothin’!”
“Not even the safe?” Arnold asked.
“Especially not the safe!” Rat said, then sweet avarice took over again. “Oh, how I’ve worked and slaved for this day. No craftsman ever worked harder on any achievement than I have on this. I can move the family in here and we’ll be livin’ the life of Riley.”
“Uh, Riley? I thought your name was Rat…”
Rat clouted him. “ Shaddap, Arnold! We’re gonna be busy here the next couple of weeks, makin’ sure our control is strong. Once the money starts rolling in, other crooks are gonna come swimmin’ around like sharks.”
“We gonna put in a pool too, boss? We could put it up on the roof an’ have neat pool parties and I could get me some inflatable toys and...”
“Why do I even bother with the brilliant metaphors with mugs like you…” Rat sighed. “If we start making lots of cash, other crooks are gonna want some of it! We need to be able to protect our investment.” Arnold nodded, his mouth open. “Oh, okay. But you already got some muscle hired, boss. Just make sure you got enough to handle whoever comes along.”
“That’s what I’ve just been explaining to you, you moron!”
“Oh, okay, boss. Watcha gonna do once the place is secure and all?”
The rodent rubbed his paws. “Make lots and lots of cash. We’re gonna be rich! No more living in sewers for Rat Capone. With the money and power we get from running this place, we’re gonna take over the whole criminal empire of New York!”
“Yeah but, uh, what about them Ranger people? Dey gonna know you’re here and all, boss.”
“We won’t have to worry about them till this place starts makin’ money. Besides, they gotta find it first. From the outside, this place is just a broken-down old lumber warehouse. If they do show, then we’ll take care of ‘em however it needs ta be done.”
Arnold appeared nervous. “Ain’t you scared dey might do to you whatever it is dey did to Fat Cat? I mean, word is dey made ‘im just disappear! Pffft!” Rat laughed off the notion. “Ha! They wouldn’t hurt a fly. I’ll bet Fats got hisself killed messin’ with that stuff he stole from the coppers.”
Arnold ducked his head. “I don’t wanna disappear, boss. I like appearing.” Rat took a seat behind his custom-made Louis Quinze desk. “Don’t worry, when this place takes us to the big time, everybody will know who we are. People will even treat you with respect.” When his cohorts returned, the news was good—no surprises and everything seemed to be in working order. Rat rubbed his hands gleefully. “Finally, I’m gonna get what’s mine!”
“Dale, could you help me with this?”
Like a crimson blur, Dale came rushing in from his workout room to the main room of the lair. Gadget was holding a large framed painting of her family that Dale had done, and she was trying to decide where to put it. Gadget’s imminent delivery date worried Dale no end, and he’d become increasingly protective of her, trying to make sure she didn’t overexert herself. Of course, that meant that Dale overreacted, as he was now. “Omigosh, you shouldn’t be doing that!”
Dale snatched the painting out of Gadget’s hands and put it down as he saw Gadget walking over to get her hammer and a nail to hang the picture with. Dale ran over to her. “Here, let me do it!”
“But I can...” Gadget started.
Dale went into chipmunk overdrive, quickly banging the nail in place on the wall (and whacking his thumb), then hung the picture up. “There ya go, Gadget! Looks good there. Now why don’t you sit down and I’ll run downstairs and bring up some breakfast? You’re eating for three now, y’know!”
Gadget set herself and stood squarely in his way, hands on her hips. “Dale, hold it!”
Dale stopped in his tracks, a ball of nerves. “Yes, is there anything else you need—brunch, dinner, midnight snack? Thirsty?” Gadget crossed her arms. “Yes, and it’s called a break!”
Gadget took a moment and calmed herself. “Dale, I’m not an invalid! I’m simply going to have children, and putting up a painting’s not going to cause me to keel over! I still need to feel useful, okay?”
Dale had meant well, but now he could see that he’d crossed the line. “Uh, okay Gadget. I’m sorry. I just worry about you and the kids. You three are the most important people in the world to me!” Gadget’s smile returned. “I know, Dale. It’s just that you get so tense and nervous, that it makes me that way too! You know what Dr. Batorious said about keeping me away from stressful situations. I promised I’d stop inventing, but even he said it was good for me to do what I could for myself. You know how I am—if I’m not doing something useful I build up too much nervous energy. Besides, we’re under a month away now, and that’s got me nervous as it is.”
“Okay, Gadget. What would you like to do today? I won’t make a fuss this time.”
Gadget headed for her mechanical lift chair. “Well, actually I’d just like to get out and breathe some fresh air. Why don’t we spend the day in the park?”
“That sounds like a great idea, as long as you don’t get too much sun or strain yourself in any way...uh, sorry.”
Gadget didn’t give him a shot to reconsider. “Come on, let’s get downstairs.”
A while back, Gadget had (with Eva’s help) built her chair assistant to get her up and down from the lair’s stairs. It was a human coffee cup with a cutout in front and a plush seat in the middle. A lever allowed her to maneuver the chair up or down along a built-in track. It made life much easier, at least when Dale wasn’t cavorting in it like the latest amusement park ride. Dale helped her in, and she rode down the spiral staircase where Monty and Eva were just about to call them to breakfast. “Ah, there you are! Gadget, you look so radiant this morning, dahling,” Eva said.
“Let me help you up, luv,” Monty offered.
Monty did so, and despite Gadget’s prickled feelings, she eagerly accepted his help. Eva eyed the still-nervous chipmunk. “So, did you and Dale have that little talk you mentioned last night?” Gadget grinned and nodded. “Yeah, we settled things. Thanks for lending me an ear, mom. You too, dad.”
“No problem, lass,” Monty said, then turned to Dale. “Don’t take it hard, Dale me lad. Yer wife’s got the one-month jitters is all. Me dad said it happened just that way with ma. Ya gotta treat her extra nice, ‘cause she’s getting close to the time.” Dale started to relax, but just a little. “She’s ready to kill me for killing her with kindness.”
Eva brought him some fresh biscuits with jam. “Vhat Monty means is you must give her the space she needs, Dale. It is not an easy thing, the pregnancy, and each expectant mother handles it differently. But we have this in common—we all get more sensitive to how others treat us. I have no doubt you are being kind, but she vill not break if she does a few things for herself.”
“Thanks mom, but we’ve got it covered,” Gadget said.
Eva and Monty let it go when they heard the terseness in Gadget’s voice. Most of the time, she was her sweet self, and even moreso when she was doing well. She would hum and sing songs to her children and even read to them out of her favorite technical manuals. Now was one of those “off” times, and Eva knew, like Dale, it was time to let her be. “Come and have a bite of something, dahling. I imagine Chip vill be gathering everyone for the morning patrol any minute.”
Chapter 5 – A Sleepover, Arguing and Making Up, and Moving In
When Theo Maplewood woke up, he was a bolt of excitement. It took him three times longer to dress than normal, and he couldn’t seem to get the door to his room open quick enough. The young chipmunk escaped though, and zipped into the kitchen. His expectant face drooped some when the object of his hurrying wasn’t there. Monty brought the young munk’s breakfast as well as his lunch for school. Theo sat down and began eating.
“Top o’ the morning to ya, lad!” Monty said, altogether too cheerful for that time of the morning. “Say, you look loike you’ve got a burr under your saddle. Reminds me of the time I was qualifying for the regional wallaby-riding championships. Ah, those were the days...”
Theo had learned to tune his uncle out at such times, particularly when he was in a hurry. “Uncle Monty, have you seen mom and dad?” Monty halted his reverie. “Not yet, pally. They’ve been sleeping in a mite later these days. Still recovering from all that traveling they did, I reckon. You got a problem, lad? Your Uncle Monty’s here ta help!”
“Well, since the weekend’s coming up I want to ask a big favor of everyone…” Theo began, stealing a glimpse around the table.
“What kind of favor, Theo?” Gadget asked. Dale cast a concerned look Theo’s way. “You don’t want to try to fly the RangerWing again yet, do you?” Theo took on a sly demeanor. “Of course I do, but that’s not the favor I want to ask.”
Honey and Zipper were right behind and caught the tail end of Theo’s talk. “Well, I am certain whatever it is, we’ll be able to handle it,” Honey said. “Sure!” Zipper added. “After all, we’re the Rescue Rangers! There’s nothing we can’t handle.” Theo cleared his throat and stood up as if he were going to address a session of Congress. “I’d like to have some friends sleep over this weekend. Just a few of my closest friends.”
You could’ve heard a pin drop.
This time, Gadget was out of her league. “Er uh, well...”
“That’s um....” Zipper stammered.
“Kids? Here? Crikey!” Monty said.
Dale alone was smiling. “A sleepover? Neato! I get to be on the food committee!” Theo wasn’t sure what to make of the response, but he tried to look as hopeful as possible. “Well? Is it okay?”
Gadget looked at the others and shrugged. “Well, it’s not that we’re saying yes or no, it’s just that we’ve never had this come up before. Golly, this will take a little thought. Kids in Ranger Headquarters?” Chip came in, having caught the last of Gadget’s words. “Who said anything about kids coming to Ranger Headquarters?”
Chip and Lahwhinie were both at the kitchen door now, wondering what was going on. Theo had the floor. “Dad, can I have some friends sleep over this weekend?” Chip appeared noncommittal, pushing up his fedora on his head. “Friends? Sleep over? Theo, that’s asking a lot. We’d have to host them, and find places for them to sleep and coordinate with their parents and all.”
“Dad, it’s not like it’s the invasion of Normandy!” Theo protested. “We just call and ask permission and then we sleep in sleeping bags in the living room. Just snacks and stuff, y’know. We’ll watch movies and sleep.” Chip may not have been a father for that long, but he remembered being a kid well enough. “Uh huh. And who cleans up afterward? And who handles the problems that come up? And—”
“Chip...” Lahwhinie grabbed Chip’s arm and they went into the main room together for a private conference. “Chip, Ranger Headquarters isn’t R.A.S. central. It’s Theo’s home, and he wants to invite his friends over to his home. What’s wrong with that?”
“They’ll just be in the way,” Chip countered. “Suppose an emergency happens. Suppose Gadget goes into labor early or one of our enemies attacks and the kids are here? We’d be responsible! No, it’s too big a risk.” Lahwhinie stood her ground. “Chip, you’re such a worry-wart! Do you remember that we promised to give Theo a normal home environment? Well, having friends over is part of that! Gadget’s still a month off, and as for sneak attacks all’s been quiet on the western front for weeks. Give the kid a break, okay?”
Chip was about to say more when Lahwhinie kissed him. “Okay,” Chip relented, “but we’ll have to have clear rules of behavior of what they can and can’t do.” Lahwhinie shook her head, smiling. “Don’t worry, they’re just a bunch of twelve-year-olds. Besides, they’ll get a kick out of seeing you and headquarters and all. They probably want to see this cool place that Theo’s been talking about.”
Chip looked around and Lahwhinie’s smile spread to him. “Yeah, I guess I’d be pretty curious if I was twelve and could come to a place like this. All right, let’s go talk to him.”
Chip and Lahwhinie went back in, where everyone was waiting. “You can have a sleepover, provided we’re clear on who’s coming, what you’ll do and the rules everyone will follow,” Chip said. “And we can work out the logistics.”
Theo wanted to say “hurray” right then, but he knew it wasn’t just their decision. “Okay everyone, mom and dad are okay with it. How about the rest of you?”
“I’m all for a party!” Dale shouted.
Eva hadn’t spoken before, but now seemed the proper time. “Vell, we must consider what has to be done. How do you have a sleepover, Theo? Vhat will you and your friends expect it to be like?” Theo was beginning to understand this concept called the generation gap. “We’d watch movies, talk, eat food and stuff. The usual sleepover stuff.”
“What kind of movies?” Gadget asked. “Classics, westerns, science fiction?”
Dale began counting off. “Vampire slugs from space, werewolves, Scooby Doo marathons...”
“Crocodile Dundee marathons,” Monty added.
“Citizen Kane, Casablanca, How Green Was My Valley,” Chip said.
Theo interrupted their top ten lists. “Horror, the scarier the better! Blood, guts, gore, entrails flying out the windows, stuff like that! Haven’t any of you ever been to a sleepover before?” The Rangers looked at each other then back at Theo and shook their heads.
“Uh, not really,” Dale said. “Chip and me went to each other’s houses, but our parents wouldn’t let us stay up late and watch TV alone.”
“Weren’t no TV’s in the outback, lad,” Monty said.
“Flies don’t have time for television,” Zipper said.
“Or queens,” Honey added.
“I spent most of my childhood under an engine,” Gadget said.
Eva frowned a little. “I didn’t have friends to sleep over with.”
Chip crossed his arms, grinning. “I think you’re working with amateurs here, Theo, but in any case horror movies are out.” Dale immediately came to Theo’s defense. “Hey, what’s wrong with horror movies? I watched ‘em all the time on the late, late, late show and it never did anything to me!”
“Oh yeah?” Chip said. “I remember all the times you chained the door shut and took a baseball bat to bed and yelled because you were dreaming about those silly monsters and things! Sorry Theo, but we’ll have to negotiate on the movies.” Theo sighed, but didn’t lose his composure. “Okay, I anticipated this. We want Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hellraiser, Evil Dead 1 and 2 and Nightmare on Elm Street. What are your suggestions? Oh, and Exorcist of course.”
“Oh, that’s a rough one,” Dale said of Theo’s last choice. “Chip, remember when we watched that as kids and you slept for a month with the lights on? I never could eat pea soup again after watching that.”
“Yeah, I do remember. I think Grandpa Sean’s too young to see that movie. How about something that doesn’t involve grisly gore in every single scene? Say like um, well, the Rocketeer or the Star Wars Trilogy or...”
“How about Indiana Jones, fedora brain?” Lahwhinie said. “There’s gore enough there in places, but at least it’s part of the plot.” Now Theo had to up his tactics. “But daaaad, scary movies are part of the whole thing!”
“What do you want to be scared for?” Chip asked. “Rescue Rangers shouldn’t be scared of anything.” Theo couldn’t believe that his dad could be so square. “Didn’t you and Uncle Dale like to get scared just for the sake of being scared silly? Scary movies, ghost stories and all kinds of stuff like that?”
“I did!” Dale said. “I loved scaring myself. Of course, the time I got up in the middle of the night and thought dad’s training dummy was Dracula pushed my allowance back for a year...” Chip wasn’t budging. “To me, it’s just setting yourself up to be scared of everything. I’ll go so far as to let you see all of Temple of Doom this time, but no gore-fest, okay?”
“Dad, Temple of Doom I’ve seen at least a dozen times and it’s the worst of the series. Okay, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now we still need another movie or two.” Monty pitched in. “How about a war movie? They’re educational.”
“Yeah, on the hundred best ways to kill a person,” Lahwhinie quipped.
“How about ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’? It’s a movie about war and has violence, but shows the true futility of war,” Chip said. Theo was really trying to be patient. He really was. “Uh, I think you’re missing the point, dad.”
“Well, what is the point?” Chip asked. “You sound like you want to be scared enough that you won’t even be able to go to sleep.” Theo felt he was making some progress. “How about crime movies? Goodfellas, Usual Suspects, Scarface.” Chip lost himself in a memory for a moment. “Scarface, that’s a true classic. Paul Muni was fantastic in that.”
“Not that Scarface, dad! I’m talking about the Al Pacino version. You know, ‘say hello to my leetle friend’?” Theo asked. “Sleeping isn’t high on the priority of any sleepover, anyway. It’s just a chance for friends to hang out and do fun stuff. Sorry, I didn’t realize this would require the third degree.”
Chip knew that he was cramping Theo’s style, but Chip also knew that was inevitable when you were a parent. “I know you didn’t, but we have to look out for you. Some things you just shouldn’t be exposed to, and even if your friends watch those shows all the time that’s no excuse. They’re welcome to come, but they should know that when they do they’ll be expected to watch the kind of things we approve for you to watch. I know that’s not as fun-sounding, but that’s the way it has to be.” Theo sighed again, knowing this was the price for having a family. Besides, he knew his birth parents would probably be having this same conversation with him now.
“Okay, dad. Star Wars and Raiders,” Theo relented.
Lahwhinie patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, sport. You’ll all have a good time, no matter what you’re watching. Any other suggestions? It’s going to be crowded in here with all of us around. Don’t you figure you’ll want some privacy?”
“She’s right,” Dale said. “Theo’s gonna want as few grownups around as possible. I think maybe we should have our own sleepover up in the lair so the guys can have some privacy.” Monty had a better idea. “Me and Eva can go off fer the weekend with little Colby. Sean said we were welcome anytime, so maybe we’ll go pay the lad a visit.”
“Perhaps Zipper and I could go for an extended visit to my hive,” Honey offered. Gadget turned to Dale. “Maybe you and I should go up to Sean’s, too, and leave Chip and Lahwhinie in charge. Or we could go stay with your parents.”
“But Gadget, what if the babies come and we’re up at Sean’s? We’d never get to a doctor in time!” Dale protested. Gadget couldn’t have Dale fidgeting. “All right, your parents it is.” Dale started to protest that, but Gadget held firm. “Dale, I’d really enjoy getting out of the house for a day or two. We haven’t been anywhere in ages, and they have a nice guest room. Okay?” Dale couldn’t resist her pleading eyes. “Aw, okay. Guess you’ll have to do without the party-meister, Theo.”
Lahwhinie returned the conversation to the subject at hand. “Well, it sounds like we’re settled, then. Now, who will you be inviting, son? Should I make poi, or will they bring their own stuff to eat?” Theo had to think, as he’d had to expend so much energy just on getting the party approved. “There’d be Zooger, Billy Hangwalter and Rrr..Ray Kaypon.” Dale looked at Theo, confused. “You have a friend named Zooger? What’s his last name?”
“Zanderval Oswald Gundersen’s his full name. That’s why everyone just calls him Zooger, even the teachers,” Theo said. Chip looked over at the wall calendar. “Well, I guess it would be good to meet your friends. We haven’t been doing much socially, so now we can entertain at least. All right, tell them they can come. When do you want to do this?”
“Friday night. Everyone sure about this?” Theo asked. The adults did a quick show of hands, Gadget raising Dale’s hand for him to emphasize she wasn’t taking no for an answer. Chip nodded. “Looks like we’re all in favor. All right, I’ll get in contact with their parents.”
“Whose parents?” Bink had opened the outer door and was looking in. “What’s up? I thought you were walking with me to school this morning, Theo.” Theo appeared apologetic. “Sorry Bink, we got a bit sidetracked by a family discussion. I just got approval for a sleepover for some school pals.”
Bink’s face brightened. “Oh, that sounds neat! A sleepover in Ranger Headquarters! Um, it is just going to be a boys’ sleepover? Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t butt in.” That was Theo’s thought precisely. “Of course it is…uh, nothing personal, though. You’re my best friend in the world, but you’re a girl and all.” Lahwhinie saw the disappointment on Bink’s face. “Theo, that’s not very nice! Bink’s like a part of the extended family. Tell you what—you can bring three of your girl friends over and you can camp out in my room with me.”
“But...” Chip started to protest.
“Chip, it’s only fair,” Lahwhinie said. “And after all, girls aren’t second-class citizens.” Theo didn’t like it one bit, but tried not to let it show. “Well, if you guys don’t mind, I guess it won’t be so bad having Bink and her friends here.”
“But...” Chip said again.
“Now I know what you’re going to say,” Lahwhinie said. “I’ll make sure the guys and gals stay separate.”
“Well...” Chip said.
“Puh-leeze?” Bink begged.
“Oh, all right.”
Bink jumped for joy. “Yay!” Theo on the other hand felt like calling the whole thing off, but after all the trouble he went to, it might mean no more friends over at all. “We’re going to watch Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark...is...there anything you’d like to watch?”
Bink now caught some of her friend’s uneasiness. “Well, Gadget told me a while back that she liked that old Robin Hood movie. I’ve never seen that.” Despite his misgivings, Theo brightened up with her not mentioning a romance movie. “That would be great! I like the classics. Errol Flynn at his best!” Bink nodded, then a smirk formed on her face. “Sounds great. So do we get to watch the movies too, or would us smelly old girls ruin your fun?”
“Well, as long as it’s a movie we can all agree on, it’s fine with me. I was just worried you’d want a romance movie. But what about your friends? What will they want to watch?”
“Oh, they won’t care. We’ll probably go off and talk once it starts, whatever it is. You don’t have to worry about accommodating us.”
So far, so good. “Okay. What about food? Who were you planning on inviting?” Bink shrugged. “Oh, no one in particular. Denise, Debbie, maybe Rhonda.” Eva interrupted their tête-à-tête. “And who are these girls, Bink? I trust they vould behave themselves.”
“Oh sure. Denise Denkins is one of the smartest girls in school. Debbie Pakanowski’s the head cheerleader in junior high and she’s sort of bubbly but she’s real nice once you get to know her. Rhonda Highwater’s the rich mouse’s daughter and she’d insist on coming along anyway so I figured I might as well invite her too.” Theo traded looks with his father and knew it was no use. “Well, okay. That shouldn’t be a problem. I just hope the guys don’t mind.” Chip pointed to the clock. “You two’d better get going. School starts in fifteen minutes!”
Monty got Theo’s lunch to him, and Eva brought his backpack. Quickly, he and Bink left the treehouse and were off through the park. Theo’d been waiting to get her alone, and now he spoke his mind. “Bink, I thought you were my friend! How could you do this to me? This was the first time I’ve wanted to do something like this and you had to go and invite your friends over too!”
Bink stopped in her tracks, totally taken off-guard. “Uh! Well, excuse me for living then! You’re the one who lives with the greatest family in the world, and I thought that since I was your friend and wanted to spend some time with you that you wouldn’t mind. I take it back, then. Have your stupid little sleepover then, mister Maplewood!”
Bink quick-marched, doing her best to leave him behind. Theo stayed close, still out of sorts. “I wouldn’t be so upset if you had asked me before you did that! I don’t like that you put me on the spot in front of my folks that way.” Bink looked back over her shoulder, still going. “I didn’t think I was! I just came in and found out about it. It wasn’t like I planned it or anything, you know. Look, when your mom made the offer I thought it was okay. If you don’t want me there, just say so!” A thought passed through Bink’s mind then, and she slowed to a stop and turned around. “I guess...you weren’t going to invite me, were you?”
“Bink, you’re a girl!” Theo said. “I wouldn’t have even thought to ask—I mean, you don’t invite a girl to a sleepover. But since you’re my best friend, I don’t mind. I’m sorry, but putting this together has been much more difficult than I would’ve imagined.”
Bink crossed her arms, trying not to cry. “It’s not fair! I mean, we have so much fun together. You don’t mind me being a girl when we’re playing spy and everything. But you do something fun like this and you were gonna totally cut me out? If you’d told me before I walked in and made a fool of myself without knowing it, I wouldn’t have minded. We...I’d better go.” She started off again, her emotions getting the better of her. Theo ran up to her. “Stop crying. Bink…Becky, I’m sorry. You’re my best friend, and you’re right. I should’ve invited you or least told you in advance. I just…well I thought they’d say no if I tried to invite you. You know.”
Bink hid her face from him. She wanted to be tough, but the tears came anyway. “I know. Don’t worry about it, Jake. I’ll get over it. You go ahead and tell them I changed my mind. You’re right, I’d just cramp your style with the guys.” Theo looked around to make sure no one was looking. When he was sure, he hugged her. “Bink, I want you to be there. How can I have all my friends over if my best friend isn’t there?”
As much as Bink was caught off-guard by Theo’s first remark, she was caught flat-footed now. She dried her eyes, and smiled some. “Thanks. Is it okay if I invite the other girls? I’ll let them know to give you and the guys room. Besides, they’ll want to meet Lahwhinie. I’ve told them about her, and she’s almost like a legend with the group now.”
“And I’ll make sure the guys don’t hassle you girls. And my dad will make doubly sure that there’s no funny business between anyone.”
“Yeah, he’s so cool,” Bink said. “The girls will want to see him too. I’ll make sure they don’t hassle him too much for autographs or anything.” Theo could imagine how his dad would react to that. “Good. Friends again?” Bink didn’t check first. She just hugged him. “Friends!”
“Ain’t it the greatest?” Rat stood there at the doorway to the casino, holding onto his lapels proudly. The look of utter satisfaction on his face was contrasted by the look of awe on Vera’s face and Rhett’s reluctance. The casino had an elegant feel to it, with plush red carpeting contrasting the green of the gambling tables. Overhead, chandeliers hung from the high ceiling and sparkled in the light. Rat strutted into the place, spinning one of the roulette wheels as he passed it by. Vera didn’t know where to look first. “Ratsie, this is our new home?”
Rhett wasn’t impressed at all. “We’re going to be living in a casino? Do we sleep on the blackjack tables at night or something?” Rat pointed up. “Don’t be ridiculous, son! We’ve got our own private digs! I’ve got the plushiest office upstairs, with private sleepin’ quarters. There’s more than enough room for us all, and you’ve got a big room of your own! From now on, we get nothing but the best!”
Rhett felt like he wanted to throw up. “Yeah, we’re finally getting our piece of the pie and all that. Okay, let’s get our junk moved in. Do you even know how to run a casino?” Rat barked out a laugh. “What’s to know? You let the slobs in, hire a few mugs that know how to run the tables, and run the slobs out when you’re ahead. Besides, everyone knows even the honest games are in the house’s favor. And when anyone protests, I’ll let Arnold and the boys calm them down.”
“You’ll be the classiest cheap hood in town,” Rhett quipped.
Rat eyed his son for a moment, but quickly let it slide as he was in the heights of greed-powered ecstasy. “And the richest, don’t fergit! When the time comes, you’ll take your place as king of the underworld! No one will talk down to you, because no one messes with the guy who has the lettuce. You’ll have the pick of every dame in town, and you won’t have to wear a suit twice if you don’t wanna. Now tell me, what could be better than dat, boy?”
Rhett looked his father in the eye. “To have the genuine love and respect of a single person in the entire world.” Rat didn’t like that reply at all. “Whattaya mean? You got me an’ Vera, here! I’d rob Rockafeather himself if it meant gettin’ you the things you deserve. Don’t that show ya?” Rhett sighed. It was no use talking to a brick wall. “Yes, dad, you give me all the stuff I’ve ever wanted.”
“Darn tootin’ I do! I won’t have any of those high-falutin’ snobs you goes to school with saying you don’t have it as good as they do. Vera, I think it’s time we upped your wardrobe. How’s about a new mink stoal—eh, why not the full-length model? You been mighty good to us, baby. You deserve to get in on the gravy, too.”
She kissed Rat at the thought of it. “Ohhh, thanks Ratty! I’d love that! You’re so good to us.” Rat puffed up at Vera’s reaction. “You’re worth it, dollface. See, boy? It’s a lot more fun havin’ the bucks than scraping for ‘em, ain’t it?” Rhett started trudging upstairs, like a prisoner on his way to the gallows. “Yes, dad.” The boy sighed and picked up his suitcase, whispering a line out of a book his father had never touched. “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewithin.”
A couple of hours later, the moving was done for the most part. Rat left a lot of his old things behind, saying they “weren’t good enough” for him now. Rhett brought the contents of his room, and found he had a private room with his name carved on the door. Vera found the same, and they both began laying out their belongings while Rat lounged in the adjoining office, smoking a big imported cigar. “Now, ain’t this the life? Ratsie boy, you finally made it.”
“Zaslav, you promised me you’d never smoke again!”
Rat rolled his eyes. “Aw Tiff, it’s only to celebrate my...”
Rat stopped and sat up. No one had called him by that name in years—not that anyone outside his immediate circle would know it. He looked all around, and then he saw her plain as day. Tiffany, his wife, was standing there in her old worn-out dress and tapping her foot impatiently. He fell from the arm of the chair he was sitting on and hit the floor with a thud. Slowly, he crawled around the oaken table and looked. Nothing.
“Tiff? Tiffany? But it couldn’t have been—yer dead…”
Vera and Rhett came in to check on him. “You okay, Ratsie?” Vera asked. “You look shook up.” Rat quickly covered. “Uh yeah, nothing’s wrong. Nothing at all.” Even Rhett was concerned this time. “You sure you’re okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Rat stood up suddenly, his temper flaring. “I said it was nothing! Now go on back to...whatever. I need ta think.”
**Well, I guess there’s a first time for anything** “Okay, dad. If you need us, just let out a yell or something.” Vera took a step closer. “You sure you don’t want me to stay, Ratsie?”
“Nah, go with the kid. I wanna be alone for a while,” Rat mumbled, returning to his desk.
Rhett returned to his room, and Vera followed. She knew he needed to talk, and maybe it would help her sort out her own feelings as well. “Don’t take it personal, Rhett. It’s just something he’s going through at the moment.” Rhett plopped down on the canopy bed, his name carved in fancy lettering on the headboard. “Yeah, he’s always a few cards short of a full deck. Don’t worry, Vera. I’m fine.”
Vera took a seat on the plush carpeting. “So what do you think, huh? Better than the sewer, anyway. He’s right about one thing—it’s a lot more fun when you’re not having to struggle to survive. I’ve been there, what with my family and all. Don’t tell Ratsie, but if he gives me that fur I’ll probably sell it. With that much money, I could keep my brothers and sisters clothed and fed for a year at least.”
“Well, maybe not the first one. He might notice it. But I’m sure we’ll find a way to look after your people. Maybe dad can hire some of them to work here in the casino.”
“I don’t know, Rhett. I’d feel guilty having something that nice when Elsie, Teresa and the others are barely getting along. Teresa’s wearing my hand-me-downs now, as it is.”
Rhett dug around in his stuff and pulled out a large wad of cash, handing it to her. “Here, this should take care of them for a while.” Vera just stared. “Rhett! Where’d you get all of that?” Rhett looked down, grimacing. “Let’s say that some of what dad’s been trying to teach me has stuck. That’s my nest egg, accumulated from all the allowance he gives me, but I’d rather you have it. Now that we’ve got the casino, I’ll make that look like chump change in a couple of months.”
Vera took his hand and put the money back. “Rhett, I can’t take this! It’s yours. Besides, we don’t really know that this casino’s going to turn one dime’s worth of profit. We may be run out of here tomorrow, for all we know. No, you hang on to this and keep it in case you need it.” Rhett divided the money in half. “Will you take this much, then? That way we both have something.”
She hesitated, but she could see he wanted to give it to her. She couldn’t hold back the tears when she hugged him. “Thank you, dear. This means more to me than a hundred mink coats. They won’t starve any this month. That takes such a load off my mind, knowing that.”
“At least someone we know will be happy,” Rhett mused. Vera had a sudden idea. “Would you like to spend some time with us? The old home’s not much, but you’d be welcome.”
“I’d love that! Anywhere is better than at a casino.” Rhett paused, then slipped off the bed. “Vera, can you keep a really important secret?”
“Sure, Rhett. What is it?”
Rhett pulled out his hidden picture. “Vera, Theo invited me to go spend the night with him at Ranger Headquarters on Friday. It’s a sleepover and I’m going.” Vera looked like she was about to faint. “Rhett! If your father finds out…”
“Please help me to prevent that!” Rhett pleaded. “I’ve got to go! I’m so alone, Vera. If it weren’t for you, I...well.” Vera held her arms out to him, and despite his desire to be a man he needed a shoulder to lean on. “Thanks, Vera. I haven’t had anything to look forward to like this since I could remember—just to be someplace and be a kid and not have to worry about anything. You understand, don’t you?”
“Sure I do. But you make sure to be careful. I’ll cover for you here, but if the Rangers find out who you are there’s no telling what would happen. Theo never did tell them, did he?”
“No, he’s a real pal. I made him promise when I told him who I was. He turned white as a polar bear, but once he was over it I think it pulled us closer. Theo and Bink know and some of my other friends, and they’d never say anything. I’m really looking forward to it!”
Vera patted him on the shoulder. “All right, but make sure you have a good excuse.” Rhett smiled. “He’ll never notice. Besides, I could just tell dad the truth. He’d never believe it, anyhow.”
Chapter 6 – Here We Go, a Lonestar is Born, and a Shady Deal
It was nighttime in the lair, and all was dark and peaceful. Dale Oakmont had been asleep for several hours, but now he felt something. He was a deep sleeper, so it took a moment for him to realize Gadget was trying to get his attention. Dale managed to open one eye. “What is it, Gadget?”
“I think it’s time.”
Dale closed his eye. “That’s nice dear.”
Dale dozed off for a moment, then sat bolt upright. “It’s time! Boil the towels, get some hot water!!!” Dale began running around frantically. “Call Dr. Livingston! Dr. Who! Dr. Demento!!” Gadget watched as Dale ran around the lair like a chicken with its head cut off. She calmly worked her way out of bed and started dressing. “Dale, remember to get my suitcase over by the door, okay?”
Gadget’s calm comments drew Dale out of his panic. “Right! Yeah, get your stuff. I’ll take the RangerWing downstairs and get the suitcase warmed up!” Dale ran downstairs, then ran back up because he’d forgotten the bag. By now, the commotion had awakened the others, and when Monty saw Gadget coming down in her porta-chair, he knew something was up. “Crikey, we gotta get ya to Doctor Mavel!”
Chip emerged from the hall, slipping his jacket on, Lahwhinie and Theo right behind. “Don’t worry, I’ll call the hospital and let them know you’re coming. Say, where’s Dale?” Gadget groaned with the pain. “He’s coming. There is a STRONG POSS..ibility that it’s time for the twins to appear!”
Dale ran back in, not quite sure what to do first. He thought about picking Gadget up, but realized that wouldn’t work. He led her along outside, where he and the other guys helped her into the Wing. Dale sat down to fly, but his hands were shaking too badly. **Dale, come on! Get a grip, be a man about this!**
“Okay, don’t worry, Gadget,” Dale said. “I’ll get us there in four pieces. Gadget, Dale and family, away!”
Gadget had to remind him which direction the hospital was, but after that it was pretty smooth sailing. Once Chip had contacted the hospital and Eva had gotten Tammy to come over and watch Colby, he and the others piled into the Plane and followed them. They got there about ten minutes after the expectant couple, and immediately went to the nurse’s station in the gynecology section to see what could be learned.
“Excuse me, we’re friends of Dale and Gadget Oakmont,” Chip said. “They just checked in.”
The nurse checked her records. “Ah, yes. I remember seeing all of you from when the Erskines were here. The doctor is checking Mrs. Oakmont now. I’ll take a look back and see how they’re doing.” The Rangers headed for the waiting area, and took seats. “I hope Dale’s doing okay,” Chip said, wringing his hands. “I know Gadget’s strong, but Dale’s so high-strung. Maybe we should’ve told them to have a tranquilizer gun ready for him.”
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely if you think about it, another Ranger expectant father was in just the same predicament. Noel had brought Foxy to the hospital in Austin when her labor pains began, thanks to the kind help of Mr. Steadman. She was a trooper, and so far so good. Noel was of course worried, but the doctor had reassured him throughout the proceedings. Now, the moment was upon them.
The chipmunk-turned-bat winced at his wife’s screams of pain as a small form emerged and the doctor and nurses got busy. It cried, and so did Noel and Foxy, now for joy. After the child was cleaned up, they brought the newborn back out wrapped in a warm blanket and Foxy took the infant in her wings. Noel was amazed at what he’d seen, and knelt down next to the bed where he could get a good look at his new child.
Foxy handed the baby to him and he took his child gently in his wings. Noel was scared, because the child was so tiny. “It’s normal for them to be this small, right?” The doctor nodded, smiling. “He’s doing just fine, Mr. Maplewood, as is your wife.”
“Thank God. He? It’s a boy?” Noel gently touched Foxglove’s face, then kissed her. “I love you, Foxglove. Thanks to you we now have a beautiful baby boy of our very own!” Foxy was tired, but okay. “And I love you, darling, and our boy. What will we call him?”
“This sounds strange, but what do you think of the name Lonestar, since it’s Texas that brought us together and made all this possible?”
Foxy looked down at the baby’s little face. “Lonestar Maplewood. I like it! Oh Noel, could we make his middle name a knight’s name to keep the tradition going? I know he’s not a Fairmont, but I think it’d be nice anyway.” Noel was amenable to that. “Is there any knight in particular you’d like to name him?”
“Well, I was sort of thinking of my uncle’s name...”
“Lonestar Bedivere Maplewood. Sounds good to me!”
Foxy took Lonestar back, hugging her child gently. “He’s sure to be every bit as great as his father. Ooh, he’s so darling!”
Foxy and Noel looked on adoringly as the newest Maplewood began to sleep. It would be several more days before his eyes opened, but for now that didn’t matter. Noel left mother and son to rest, and once he’d told the Fairmonts and Steadmans—who’d come along—he decided to call Ranger Headquarters. They weren’t there, so Noel returned to talk with his other family.
Back in New York, Dale came out and the Rangers stood up at attention. Chip was somewhat alarmed at his friend’s look, as it wasn’t a positive one.
“Dale, what is it?” Chip asked. “Is anything wrong?”
“Me little girl’s okay, ain’t she?” Monty added.
Dale signaled for calm. “It’s okay, everyone. It’s a false alarm. She’s not having the babies today.” There was an audible collective sigh of relief. “I am most glad that there was no greater problem than that,” Eva said. Dale headed for the waiting area sofa and collapsed. “Yeah, but the doc said because this was an ‘unusual birth’ there could be a lot more of these false alarms. I ain’t looking forward to getting all keyed-up every time. I wish it was over!”
Chip patted Dale’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Dale. We’re all here for you and Gadget.”
“Chip’s right,” Zipper said. “You don’t have to deal with this alone.”
Dale hugged his old friend. “Thanks, Chip. I can really use some encouragement now.”
Gadget came out a few minutes later, and unlike Dale she was in a rosy mood. “Hi, everyone! Doctor Mavel said that the kids are just fine and that everything’s on schedule. Golly, we’d better get home. I’ve still got to finish designing their interactive playpens!” Dale managed to get to his feet and trudged to the door, now that his adrenaline surge had passed. “Yes, Gadget. Let’s get home and get some sleep.”
“Sleep? Oh, I couldn’t possibly sleep now!” Gadget said. “Jeepers, it’s like it’s really real now in a way. Well, not that it really wasn’t before. I mean, it was, because I surely couldn’t ignore this big bulge and all, but...” It was Lahwhinie who came up to her and spared Dale. They walked a little behind the others, to allow for a private talk. “Sis, I know you’re revved up, but Dale’s just been through round one of the Survivor series.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” Gadget asked.
“I mean the cute little furball’s as nervous as a chipmunk next to a snake’s hole and he’s going to be until all this is over. I know you need his support, but he needs yours too.”
Gadget hadn’t really considered that until this point, because the children had taken so much of her concentration. “Golly, you’re right, sis. What can I do to let him know?” Lahwhinie found it ironic that she was the one giving out advice now. “Just tell him you appreciate what he’s doing. The poor little guy’s so wound up his spring’s about to bust.”
When Gadget made it to the Wing, Dale was there waiting for her. She hugged him warmly. “Thanks, Dale. You were a great help. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Dale smiled weakly. “Thanks Gadget. I know I’m not handling this as well as I should. I wouldn’t be able to handle this at all without your help.”
“Now don’t you worry. We’ll get through it together, like we do with everything else. Soon it’ll all be over, and you’ll have two new kids to play with.”
“And you’ll have two eager pupils to help unlock the secrets of the universe with.”
Gadget grinned. “When they’re not watching the late, late, late show.”
Rat Capone hadn’t told anyone, but he had already started another plan to advance his climb to the top. For weeks there had been rumors of something big about to happen, and Rat had fortunately paid off the right informants. One such fellow, a seedy-looking mouse wearing a seaman’s uniform and walking with a pronounced limp from his left leg came straggling into Rat’s office.
“So, is it set?” Rat asked. The mouse tipped his weathered sailor’s cap up, answering with a gravelly voice. “Aye. They’ll be hitting the museum a week from next Saturday.” Rat pushed a small bag of gold coin in the mouse’s direction. “Farragut, you’re worth your pay. If you hear anything more, let me know.”
The mouse known as Farragut tipped his cap and coughed heavily, then straggled out again. Rhett had walked in on the end of this unusual exchange. “Who was that, dad?” Rat’s eyes gleamed with a thought. “The next step up for us, son. The next step up.”
Rat wouldn’t talk about what he meant by that, but chuckled as he went off to stow the day’s earnings in his safe. Rhett shrugged and returned to his homework, while outside a limp-legged mouse stopped in a nearby alley. The tattered uniform disappeared along with the limp, and he put on a black safari hat and shirt in its place.
“Nothing like burning the candle at both ends,” the mouse said, now with a noted Australian accent. He brought out a shiny cigarette case and rummaged around in his pockets for a matchbook he thought was there, but came up empty. “Guess Les must’ve pilfered it.” With that, the mouse hopped down the alley and disappeared into the shadows.
Chapter 7 – Glad Tidings and One Loooong Night
The guys helped Gadget into the Wing again and they all returned home. Tammy was relieved that everything was okay and turned Colby back over to his mother. “Oh, he was fine, Mrs. Erskine,” Tammy said when Eva inquired. “He slept the whole time. You were lucky to catch me, though. I just got back from visiting the campus at NYU. Rob’s already got him an apartment on-campus and he’s helping me to find one too.”
“Soon you’ll have forgotten all about us and be making your way in the corporate world,” Chip said. “I bet you’ll end up being the CEO of some big corporation.” Tammy grinned and shook her head. “Naw, I just want to get out and see what life’s like for a little while. I do intend to check out the R.A.S.C.A.L.S. program, though. You can even work for them part-time and claim full benefits.”
“You vould made a fine addition there,” Eva said. “Whatever you do, you will be the big success.” Tammy pulled a piece of paper out of her pants pocket. “Oh, Noel called while you were away. I missed him the first time because I was giving Colby his bath and couldn’t get to the phone in time. He said for you to call him here.” Chip took the paper and dialed the number. He heard the hospital’s switchboard operator pick up, then was momentarily surprised after a quick transfer when the voice on the other end was none other than his own. He’d never gotten used to that voice. **I really hope that’s not what I actually sound like** “Hey, Noel! Good news, I hope?”
“The best! Foxy and I are the parents of a baby boy weighing in at seven and a half tenths of an ounce! His name’s Lonestar Bedivere Maplewood, and everyone’s doing just fine! Oh, how’s Gadget? Tammy said you guys were going to the hospital too.”
“It was a false alarm, Noel. We all just got back home. Mom and dad are going to be thrilled about Lonestar, though! They’ll probably hop the first flight to Texas. We’ll try to get down there soon as possible.”
“Don’t bother, Chip. As soon as Foxy’s rested up, we’re going to head up there on Mr. Steadman’s plane and come home in a week or two. The ranch is great, but headquarters is where we feel we belong. Besides, we want to be there for Gadget, too. Wow, it’d have been neat if all the kids had been born on the same day. Send Gadget and the others our best, brother.”
Chip could hear the same tiredness that was in his own voice. “Do you want to talk to any of the others?”
“To be honest, I’m about to pass out. It’s been a very long night, so I’ll talk to them when I’ve got a little more wind in my sails.”
“No problem, Noel. Give Foxy and Lonestar our love.”
“Will do, Chip. Good night.”
Chip turned around to find everyone gathered around. “Is it what it sounds like, Chip? Is it?” Dale asked. Chip smiled. “Noel and Foxglove are the pound parents of a baby boy! Lonestar Bedivere Maplewood. Mother and son are doing good.”
“That is vunderful news!” Eva said. “To think, Foxglove and our daughter nearly became mothers on the same night.” Monty liked the thought too. “Can’t wait ta see the little nipper. He’ll have to join the Rescue Rangers, of course. Looks loike we’re getting a whole new generation of crime fighters ready ta take over when our day’s done.”
“Well, I won’t demand that our children be Rescue Rangers,” Gadget said. “Still, it’d be fine if they wanted to be.” Theo chuckled. “Growing up in this tree? They won’t be anything but, mark my words! Someday, Lonestar will likely take over from me as leader, or maybe one of your kids will, Aunt Gadget. As long as evil rears its ugly head, there’ll be Rescue Rangers to bonk it into submission. Right, dad?”
“Exactly,” Chip said. “But don’t expect to take over too soon. I’m not at retirement age just yet.”
Theo looked a little uncomfortable. “Well yeah, but there’ll be times when you and mom will want time off. I’m only a few years away from graduating high school, after all. Bink’s already said she’s interested in joining up, so we could hold down the fort when you two are ready for a world cruise or something.” Chip patted his son’s head. “I know you’ll do a great job, son. Now get to bed. It’s way past your bedtime.”
“Way past all of ours, really,” Gadget said. Her adrenaline had left her on the way back, fortunately for Dale. “Good night, guys.” Tammy headed for home and everyone else headed for bed. Dale helped Gadget in, then kissed her cheek. He turned on the night-light and clicked the main lights off.
A minute later, Gadget spoke up again. “Dale?”
“Yes?” Dale mumbled
“I’ll try to encourage the kids to come in the daytime, if possible. I guess they have your love for staying up late.”
Dale chuckled. “Did you wire yourself for cable? Maybe they’re watching the late, late, late show.”
“Golly, I hope not. They’re too young for it yet. Do you think that Theo was right? Will our kids want to take over when our Rangering days are done and we retire?”
Dale rolled over and faced her. “Maybe. That would be nice if they kept up the family tradition, but whatever they do I’m sure they’ll do it well.” Gadget yawned. “I hope so. Good night, Dale.”
“Good night, Gadget. Good night, kids. See you soon.”
Friday came quickly, and when it did Theo was all excited. It was all Chip and Lahwhinie could do to keep him from knocking the treehouse over. At last, a knock came at the door and Theo speedily answered it.
It was Zooger. The mouse boy was dressed in jeans and a polo, and his sandy blond hair was mostly organized. He was the extrovert of the class, and always seemed comfortable, no matter what the situation was. “Heeey! Quite a mondo pad, I must say!” Following him came Rhett and Billy. They were dressed similarly to Zooger, and in fact to Theo. It was obvious they were a group, and enjoyed each other’s company.
The three newcomers just stood there at first, seeing the fabled Ranger Headquarters and two of its more famous inhabitants inside. Theo soaked in their amazement and waved them forward. “Welcome to my home, everybody!” Rhett was totally blown away. “Wow, I’ve heard so much about this place and you guys! It’s neat to finally see it.” Chip came up, Lahwhinie on his arm. “Boys, come on in. I’m Chip Maplewood and this is Lahwhinie...er, Mrs. Maplewood.”
Lahwhinie scrutinized the trio. “So, what do you think of this place?” Zooger was a bold rascal, and he actually came up and kissed Lahwhinie’s hand. “May I say that we are bodaciously honored to be here and in your presence, Mrs. Maplewood.”
Billy Hangwalter’s eyes had never left Chip. He was a chipmunk, and hoped that he’d be able to follow in Chip’s athletic steps. “I’m trying out for quarterback on the junior varsity football team next year. Did you really throw four touchdowns against Meadowview?” Chip grinned at the hero-worship. “Yes, but that was a long time ago, Billy. Football’s a good way to learn teamwork. Just remember to warm up before you play.”
“Yes, sir!” Billy said. “Did you know Coach Lewis is retiring this year? He says you’d be the bestest football coach around.” Chip rubbed the back of his neck. “Yes, I’ve been made aware of that and his offer. I’m too busy with work and family to coach the football team, though I am very flattered to be considered a worthy replacement.”
Lahwhinie looked at Zooger, sizing him up. “You remind me of a guy I used to know in Hawaii. Okay guys, I’m expecting all of you to be on your best behavior when the girls get here. No funny business. We’re responsible for all of you while you’re here, so don’t get out of line or we’ll have to put the smackdown on you.”
Zooger looked at her with awe. “Is it true you know how to kill with your bare hands?” Lahwhinie leaned over and gave him a menacing grin. “Would you like a firsthand demonstration?” Zooger took a step back, gulping. “We’ll be sure to be on our best behavior, Mrs. Maplewood, ma’am.”
“Me too!” Billy said.
“Same here!” Rhett added.
Lahwhinie let not a bit of her dominance go. “Swell. We’re all going to get along fine. The rest of the gang were kind enough to volunteer to be away tonight, so Chip and I will be the only grownups cramping your style tonight. But before you think you can get away with anything, just remember that you have the world’s greatest detective and his enforcer keeping an eye on things. We have eyes in the back of our heads.”
Chip knew he should work on his wife’s social demeanor sometime. “Lahwhinie, this isn’t Riker’s Island. Have fun, guys, but remember to behave. We’ll try to stay out of your way for the most part.”
At that moment a knock came at the door again, and Chip and Lahwhinie started heading for it. Zooger sighed, watching Lahwhinie as she walked away, and whispered to the others, “Man, she is so fabulous. She is, like, so hot!” Theo punched Zooger on the arm. “Hey man, that’s my mom you’re talking about!”
“Oh yeah. Sorry, dude.”
Lahwhinie opened the door, and Bink and her friends stood there. “Hi! We aren’t too early, are we?” Bink asked. Lahwhinie leered back at the boys for a moment, then addressed the newcomers with a pleasant voice. “Not at all. Greetings, ladies! I’ve just been reading the guys the riot act, so they’ll be gentlemen tonight. Everyone here that’s going to be here?”
Lahwhinie asked that question because there were only two girls with Bink and not three. Bink pushed them forward, as they were already gawking at Lahwhinie and Chip. “Yeah, Rhonda couldn’t make it. Something about going to her dad’s country club. This is Debbie and Denise.”
Debbie, a brunette mouse, looked at Lahwhinie admiringly. “Oh, you’re just the way Bink described you! Oh please, tell me I can have a complexion like that!” Lahwhinie took on a professional air. “Well, my looks require a great deal of maintenance, plus good genes help.”
Denise, like Billy, had noticed Chip. Denise was a blonde-haired squirrel like Bink, and, because of that, Chip wasn’t overly surprised at her reaction. “It’s really him!” Denise walked in quickly, and just stood in front of Chip, hero-worship mode quite evident. “Oh wow.”
Chip bowed. “Hello, young lady. We’re glad you could visit us.” Denise gasped, and ran back to Bink and Debbie. “He spoke to me! He spoke to me!” Bink was so embarrassed, and mumbled through her teeth, “Denise, get a grip!” Bink led Denise back up to Chip. “Sorry about that. She sort of has a crush on you, and wanted me to ask if you wouldn’t mind signing her autograph book.”
“I’d be flattered. This brings back memories of your sister Tammy,” Chip said, holding his hand out for the book. Denise shakily handed it to him, and Chip signed it. She took it back, her eyes all dreamy. “Oh, thank you!” She ran back to Debbie and showed her the autograph book and they both giggled. Bink knew that Theo wanted to get his part of the sleepover going, so she went up to Lahwhinie. “If you wouldn’t mind, we’d sort of like to hang out a while in your room and talk. Will you come with us? We’d love to let you join in.”
Lahwhinie eyed the boys again. “Right. After all, the guys want as little exposure to girl cooties as possible.” The Hawaiian put her arms around the girls’ shoulders. “Debbie, I’ll show you how I maintain this devastatingly beautiful appearance.”
The guys laughed a little at Lahwhinie’s comment about cooties, then watched them go. Chip and the boys were now alone. “Okay guys, it’s all yours. I’ll be nearby if you need anything, and yes I’ll be checking every now and again. You all look responsible enough, so I don’t expect any problems. Theo, you need anything else?”
“Nope,” Theo said. “We’ll get the food ready and stuff like that. Uncle Monty made enough to feed an army. Give us a little time to settle in and then we’ll be ready for the movies and stuff.”
“All right, then. Have a good time.”
Arnold and Sugar Ray were both worried when they saw Rat that night, in the strange loyal way gangsters are with their bosses. Rat went back to his private quarters to check in on his son. Vera came out of the door to Rhett’s room, holding up a finger in front of her lips until she shut the door. “He’s asleep, Ratsie. I think he really likes his new room. Now, why don’t we go down and see how the casino’s doing?”
Rat lost his former train of thought at that. “Sure, dollface. After all, we should be seen out and about.” He was sorry he’d yelled at Rhett, but to tell his son that would betray weakness. And weakness was something Rat Capone dared not show.
But now, he had an entirely new problem to think about. He’d come into money and power, which he liked. However, there was the constant threat of it being taken from him, which he didn’t like. Scowling at the very idea, he walked along with Vera. She was the second thing that could placate Rat—money being the first. Vera helped not necessarily with her feminine ways, but with the way she talked and the sense of calm she had. She was that way now, talking to him in low tones.
“You’ve had a hard day, Ratsie. Want a neck massage?”
“That ain’t gonna help this time,” Rat said, opening his office door to leave. “I got something on my mind, dollface. If anything ever happened to me, you’d look after Rat Junior, right?” Vera was surprised he’d asked. “Sure thing, Ratsie. He’s a good kid an’ all. What’s the beef with you?”
“Like I said, I got some stuff on my mind and I gotta think about it. I’m gonna get out for a while. I’m think I’m gonna go for a walk.”
“You sure, poopsie?” Vera asked, concerned. “You look all tuckered out to me. Maybe you oughta rest now, and worry about it later.”
“No. I gotta worry about it now. Stay here, I’ll be back.”
Vera watched him go, knowing wherever his destination was it wasn’t good. She hadn’t liked lying to him, but she’d promised to cover for Rhett and she always believed in keeping a promise. **I hope it’s all worth it, Rhett** Vera shook her head and headed for the casino floor to watch the action.
As for Rat, the image of Tiffany was still in his mind and he couldn’t shake it. Rat toured the bar circuit for a few hours, dousing his broken dreams and new fears with slow poison and quick tempers. It didn’t help of course, and when he started heading back, all he had for his efforts was an inebriated stupor to go along with everything else. On a whim, he decided to head for the park.
He’d come here often as a boy, as it was the best open space in the area for playing. It had been years since he’d been here for any purpose like that, though, and now he found himself wondering if maybe he’d missed something. He shook the idea off, attributing it to drink. As he neared a certain oak tree, he could hear laughter and the sounds of happiness up above. “At least someone’s carefree tonight.”
Rat continued on his way, doing his best to put those sounds out of his mind. They made him uncomfortable, and besides he’d come here to think. Ultimately, he’d have to defend his turf. He knew what that could mean. One bad decision, and he’d be in the clink post haste. Rat left for the warehouse, but he didn’t get there. He’d been in too many bars, and that plus the stress combined to rob him of consciousness. He fainted dead away, falling into the middle of a thick shrub wall near the park’s periphery.
Chip headed to what was now Theo’s room to read Sureluck Jones, and kept the door cracked where he could hear if anything untoward happened. The guys all raced and found places on the big sofa. Zooger gave Theo a friendly punch on the shoulder. “Like, you are so lucky, dude! Living in the coolest place on earth, with a boss dad and a majorly boss mom.”
“You said it, Zoog!” Billy said. “Your mom’s better than Xena!”
“Yeah, she’s cool,” Rhett said. “You didn’t tell her or Mr. Maplewood about me, did you T-Man? I wouldn’t want them to find out or anything.” Theo couldn’t believe he’d even think that of him. After all, what were friendships good for if not keeping secrets? “My dad would blow a gasket if he found out! Don’t worry, man, I’m not saying a word about it. I even called you Ray so they wouldn’t suspect.”
Rhett let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks, man. My dad would blow several gaskets if he knew I was here.” Theo patted his friend on the shoulder. “We’re here to have fun, so forget about everything that exists outside this tree. We’re here to watch movies, eat, and not sleep.”
In the nearby room, the girls were already into their fun. They were laughing and giggling and talking, as girls will. Denise was enjoying it in particular. “You’re so lucky, Mrs. Maplewood! Chipper...um, Mr. Maplewood’s the cutest. I was so scared I was going to faint when he signed my book! What’s he really like?”
Lahwhinie smiled. “He’s a great guy—warm, loving, giving, but at times intense, selfish and obsessive.” Debbie’s eyes grew large. “Ooh. And what do you do when he’s intense, selfish and obsessive?”
“I wrap my arms around him and kiss him passionately until he’s not intense, selfish and obsessive. My way of dealing with it may in some way encourage that behavior at times.”
The girls all laughed and giggled at that, then Denise noticed a wooden box on her dresser. “What’s in there?” Lahwhinie brought the box over and opened it dramatically. “This is a precious Râboga family heirloom given to Gadget on her wedding day by our maternal grandmother Ilsa, and given to me on my wedding day by my sister.”
They just gasped at the sight of the diamonds and scribed metal that made up the necklace. Debbie talked low, feeling she was in the presence of something important. “Oh, it’s heavenly! It looks like something a princess would have.” Denise was speechless for a minute, then worked up her courage. “Could I…could I hold it?”
“Something like this isn’t made to be held,” Lahwhinie said, going behind Denise and putting it on her. “Take a gander at that!” Lahwhinie led Denise over to the mirror where she just stared at the gorgeous necklace and the presentation it made. “It’s so pretty....”
“May I try it on too?” Debbie asked.
Lahwhinie obliged Debbie as well, then began to show her some beauty tips. During all this, Bink had said little. She’d expected to be the center of attention as usual, but this was more than she could compete with. She was glad her friends were having a good time, but now she just hung back and watched. **I wonder what Theo’s doing?**
Back in the main room, the guys were watching Raiders. Indy had just escaped the cave and was running from the Hovitos warriors. “Go, fedora man!” Zooger shouted. “Majorly cool, as always. Wish we had caves like that around here.”
“The sewers are like that,” Rhett said. “My dad and his guys are always running around down there.” Billy stopped munching just long enough to comment. “Oh yeah, that’s like the third movie. Ever find any treasure or old skeletons down there like that?”
“A mob informant or two, and yeah, we’ve found some goodies down there from time to time,” Rhett said. “Those humans lose so much good stuff it’s amazing.” Rhett was about to say more, but felt he should guard his words. “But it’s also really dangerous down there too. That’s one of the many reasons I spend as little time there as possible.”
“Yeah, sounds majorly bogus, dude,” Zooger said. “Say The-o, think your dad could handle those warriors?” Billy stood up. “Hey, ‘course he could! He’s tough. I heard he took on an alligator and saved Dale from drowning once!”
“That don’t prove nothing!” Zooger countered. “What you think, T-Man?” Theo was of course the authority on the Rangers, and liked it that way. “Well, it didn’t quite happen that way...” Theo told them the story of what really happened, all the guys just spellbound at the adventure they wish they could’ve shared in. “Man, I bet you wish you’d been there,” Zooger said. “When do you think you’ll get to go on a real mission?”
“And do they take volunteers?” Billy followed up quickly.
“Yeah, that’s something I’d sign up for in a heartbeat,” Rhett said.
For Theo, it was still a forlorn hope, but his friends were always curious about it. “It’s going to be a long time yet—late teens at least before I’m an official Ranger. I have a feeling that Dad’s going to put off that moment as long as possible.”
“Bummer,” Zooger noted.
Back in the other room, Debbie was now looking like a prom queen. Lahwhinie had a way with makeup, hair styling and posture, and she was fielding questions mile-a-minute from Debbie and Denise. Bink suddenly cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Aunt Lahwhinie, but Debbie’s not really going to look right without some new polish on her fingernails.”
Lahwhinie took a look at Debbie’s hand compared to the rest of her work. “Hmm, you’re right. Gadget borrowed my fingernail polish remover to clean some doohickey in her workshop. I’ll be right back.” Lahwhinie left, and the other girls gathered around Bink.
“Wow Becky, you are so lucky to get to come here whenever you want!” Denise said. “And you get to talk to Chip!”
“That’s got to be simply the coolest!” Debbie said. “And seeing Theo’s got to be good, too. He’s one of the most popular guys in school, and he sure thinks of lot of you, from what I heard about you and him coming to class the other day…”
Bink was totally rocked. “What?! What have you heard about us?”
Denise was incredulous. “Oh come on, Becky! We heard from Cathy who heard from Susie who heard from Chantal who heard from Lisa, who saw you and Theo hugging in the park! That’s so wild!”
“Denise, it’s not like that!” Bink protested. “We were hugging like friends. There wasn’t anything more to it.”
“Becky, Theo’s a twelve on the cute scale!” Debbie said. “Of course there’s more to it than that. So, have you kissed yet?” Bink was on the defensive now, and wished she hadn’t gotten Lahwhinie to leave. “No! He’s not my boyfriend...he’s my friend that’s a boy. We’re just friends, really!”
Denise looked surprised. “Really? Are you saying you’re not serious about him, then? Becky, I wouldn’t let that get around. Debbie and I sort of spread the word, you know, because some of the others were interested. If you don’t want to date him, there’s going to be a long line of girls that will.”
“Date him? Who, the girls in our class?” Bink asked. This was something Bink hadn’t really considered. Still, what they said made sense in a way. “They won’t be allowed to go on dates for years! And Theo’s my friend, so they better keep their paws off him.”
Debbie took on an advisory tone. “Well, I don’t want to say too much, but there’s been older girls asking too. I mean, you’ve got to realize that we’re talking the son of a Rescue Ranger here! Around here at least, that’s like being Prince William or something! I kinda hoped you two were dating or at least were serious, because I like Theo and I don’t want to see him get hurt by some girl that’s just trying to use him.”
Bink panicked. What if someone did try to come between her and Theo or use him? “Okay, he’s my boyfriend.” Denise and Debbie giggled, and hugged her. “I knew it!” Debbie said. “Why were you giving us the cold shoulder? So you really have kissed him, haven’t you?” Bink had been taught not to lie, but she felt trapped. “Uh yes—uh, I have. So tell those other girls to leave him alone.”
Bink didn’t understand why she had just lied to her friends about her best friend. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of losing Theo’s friendship, she guessed. Debbie held Bink’s hands. “Oh, you’re so lucky! Don’t worry, we’ll make sure the word’s out. He is so cute!”
“Yeah, he is cute,” Bink said, trying to rationalize what she’d done. “Don’t any of you make eyes at him either.” The girls giggled again, and Bink wondered what on earth she was going to tell Theo.
In the other room, the guys were also talking. “You have like got it so made here, T-Man. And hey, you’ve got your girlfriend over here all the time too. The Binkster’s quite a looker,” Zooger said. Theo threw a pillow at Zooger. “She’s not my girlfriend! She’s...my friend that’s a girl. We’re not in love or anything like that. We’re just good friends, best buds and stuff like that.”
“Hey man, don’t hold back on us!” Rhett insisted. “You’ve got so much clout going for you, you could be dating seniors.”
“Yeah, I heard that like every cheerleader in school was after you for a date, dude,” Billy said. “The only girl you do anything with is Bink. Plus uh, we heard about your little intimate moment before school.” Zooger grinned mischievously. “The T-Man, putting the major smooch on his lady!”
Theo nearly fell off the sofa. “Kissing?! I was hugging her, not kissing her, for crying out loud!” Rhett shushed him, afraid they’d draw Chip’s attention. “Hey, what’s the difference? After all, you probably kiss her all the time, don’t you?”
“No way, man! We’re nothing like that. She’s my pal, that’s all.”
“Aw, c’mon dude!” Billy said. “Don’t keep us out of it. We’re your pals, too. Come on, fess up. You have kissed her, haven’t you? I mean, she’s pretty hot stuff. I’ve heard the talk, and there’s at least three other guys near your status that are, you know, interested. They hang off from her because the word’s around she’s your girl, but um, if you’re not, well, interested...”
All the guys were looking at him, expectantly. Theo started to sweat. He didn’t know what to do, and ended up blurting out a response. “Uh, yeah, of course I have.” Zooger punched him on the shoulder again. “Way to go, The-o!”
“You da man!” Rhett said.
“Don’t worry dude. I’ll make sure they all know she’s yours,” Billy said.
Now it was Theo’s turn to wonder what he’d say to Bink. He didn’t have half the time to think about it that she did, because just then Lahwhinie and the girls emerged from the room to come join them for the movie. “Well, you haven’t trashed the place so far,” Lahwhinie said. “That’s better than I thought. I’ll be in the back with Chip if you need anything. Oh, and I suggest you guys don’t try any moves. Bink’s defense training is first-rate. She could take all of you by herself. Now, is there anything else you kids need?”
“We’re okay, mom,” Theo said. “We’ve got snacks and movies.” **And I’m in a mountain of trouble when Bink finds out that I told everyone that she’s my girlfriend** Lahwhinie couldn’t read his thoughts, of course, but at that moment it probably wouldn’t have made a difference. “Okay, but I’ll peek in from time to time, so behave yourselves.”
They all gave Lahwhinie the standard, “yes, Mrs. Maplewood,” then settled in as Indy entered the Well of Souls. The entertainment was hardly limited to the show, though, as eyes were already starting to wander and small whispers were spreading from ear to ear. Mostly, they were concentrated on Theo and Bink, and both of them knew it. Bink tried once to look at Theo, but she couldn’t seem to meet his eyes. He turned away too, feeling ashamed of what he’d done.
The kids naturally misinterpreted this, and the whispering and now occasional giggling continued. Then Rhett made a mistake and upped the stakes. “If you don’t mind, I think I’m going to sit on the floor. Bink, would you like to take my place?”
“Uh, no Rhett,” Bink said quickly. “The floor’s okay with me.” Rhett took a quick look back toward Chip and Lahwhinie’s room. “Don’t worry, we won’t say anything. After all, you should get to sit next to your boyfriend.”
That was all it took. Bink shifted immediately into a state of angered embarrassment. “Boyfriend?! Who said Theo was my boyfriend? Theo, did you tell them that!” Fortunately for Theo, he didn’t have to explain just yet. Unfortunately for him, the reason was that Chip had been halfway down the hall to come check on them and make sure everything was okay. When he heard Rhett’s comment and Bink’s reaction, he knew something was up.
The kids all turned when Chip came in the room. “Theo, upstairs. I think we’d better have a talk.” Lahwhinie had followed when she heard Bink shout, and Chip whispered in her ear. She looked over at an upset Bink. “Bink, how about a rap session in my room? The rest of you watch the movie—and nothing else.”
The kids all nodded, knowing from her tone that now was no time for monkey business. Theo followed Chip upstairs to the lair, where they could have some privacy. Theo felt like he was being led to the hangman, and almost wished he were being given that privilege instead of having to face Chip and tell him. But the only thing in front of him when the door shut was Chip’s angry visage.
“All right, Theo, I’m waiting. Let’s hear it,” Chip said.
Theo sighed and lowered his head. “The guys kept ragging me, asking if I had ever kissed Bink and if she was my girlfriend. I got nervous when they said other guys were starting to like her, so I…I panicked and lied and told them that she was my girlfriend.”
Chip told himself to keep control. “Theo, you had no right to do that! No wonder she’s so upset. I thought you knew better than this!” Theo let some of his panic come out. “I thought so, too! I really made a mess of things. What do I do now, dad?” Chip could see that Theo was just as upset, so he sat down at the small table and invited Theo to do the same. “First, you need to talk to Bink and apologize. You may not get to do that tonight if she’s too upset. I’ll talk to your mother once we’re through here. Son, why on earth would you let anyone push you into lying?”
“I panicked!” Theo said. “Look, Bink’s my best friend in the whole world and I’d hate to not have her as my friend anymore. I know it’s wrong to lie and I spoke without thinking…”
“That much is obvious. Theo, even if your intentions are good, lying just creates a lot of trouble. Now, did you tell them anything else besides that she was your girlfriend?”
“No, that’s all we talked about.”
In Lahwhinie’s room, the conversation had been much the same. After Lahwhinie had helped Bink calm down, she’d told her about how the other girls had pressured her as well. Soon, a knock came at the door to the lair, and Bink and Lahwhinie walked in
“Bink, I think you have something you’d like to tell Theo,” Lahwhinie said.
Bink couldn’t meet his gaze. “Theo, I lied and told the other girls that you were my boyfriend. I’m sorry I got upset at you.” Theo didn’t want to even stand up, but Chip made him go over to her. “I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean to let on that there was anything like that between us. I understand if you’re mad.” Neither of them looked at each other, but Bink extended her hand to Theo and he shook it.
“Friends?” Bink asked.
Lahwhinie knelt down by them, looking up into their faces. “Now, there’s something else you two have to do, and it’s not going to be easy for either of you.” Chip finished the thought. “You’ve got to go out there and tell them. If you don’t, they’ll spread it all over your school by Monday, or likely sooner. You’ve got to go down right now and set the record straight.”
“But dad, those are our friends!” Theo said. “We’ll look stupid!”
“Do we have to, Mr. Maplewood?” Bink asked.
Chip nodded sternly. “Yes, you will look stupid. But you’ll both look even more stupid if you’re forced into doing things you don’t want to do. Bink, we’re also going to have to contact your parents about this. We’re responsible for what happens here, so we’ll take our share of the blame for allowing it to happen. Now, we’d all better get down there. I’m sure those kids are waiting for us.”
Chip and Lahwhinie guided the kids down, and sure enough all the other kids had been waiting with bated breath to see what was going to happen. The parents took a seat to one side, and allowed Theo and Bink to stand together and address the others.
“Uh, there’s been a big misunderstanding,” Bink said, leading off.
“Well uh, yeah. Bink’s not really my girlfriend,” Theo said.
“And Theo’s not my boyfriend,” Bink added. “We kinda...well, we lied. We’ve never kissed or anything like that.”
You could’ve heard a feather drop this time.
The kids just stared in wonderment. “Then why’d you say all those things?” Rhett asked.
“Yeah, why would you say that?” Denise asked.
“I don’t know,” Theo said. “Why did you guys have to keep asking about how I felt about Becky?”
“Yeah, I feel the same way,” Bink said, looking at her friends. “Our friendship’s our business.” The kids as one looked amazed. As with most people, they really hadn’t realized what they’d been doing. “We didn’t mean to pressure you, man,” Zooger said. “We just figured you were holding back or something.”
“Yeah, that’s what we thought too, Becky,” Debbie said. “I’m sorry.”
“What she said,” Billy said. “We just figured that since you were the kid of such a big shot, you had to be doing more.” Chip suddenly realized he’d been given an opportunity, and stood up with Bink and his son. “Being a big shot doesn’t mean going around to prove how many girls you can date, or who you’re going around with. I realize a lot of this is my fault, because I let Theo go into this alone not knowing how popular he would be because of me.”
Chip had their full attention now. “I want you all to know that I think honesty’s a lot more important than who can tell the best story. I’d never let Bink come over here if she wasn’t a good and honest person who treated Theo nice. I also wouldn’t let Theo spend time with her unless he was straightforward about it. Do you understand?”
The kids nodded, somewhat awed by Chip’s presence. “All right, then,” Chip continued, forcing a smile on his face. “You’re all still welcome here and welcome in the future. This won’t change our policy, but I just want each of you to know that we Rescue Rangers are more than just people who fight crime and go on missions. We’re a family that cares about each other, and honesty’s a part of that. Now, you’re free to go back to your movie or do what you’d like.”
Zooger stood up. “Well, if it’s all the same, I’d like to say I’m sorry, Theo. Guess we just figured you were something we all thought you were.” Rhett held out a hand. “Yeah, no biggie. Of course your little deception allows us razzing rights for a while.”
“Fair enough,” Theo said. “That way, I’ll make sure not to make an idiot of myself again.” Rhett grinned, feeling things were settling down. “Oh, and I’m sorry too. I guess I pushed you and Bink into something without thinking. Still pals, Theo?”
“Sure thing, Rhett, just like always.”
Lahwhinie had been talking with a couple of the girls, but she noticed Theo’s reply. “I thought you said his name was Ray.”
“Uh, it is!” Rhett interjected. “Uh, well, that’s a nickname...”
“Which one, Ray or Rhett?” Chip asked.
Rhett felt the pressure of Chip’s gaze. “Well, my name is actually Rat, but I go by Rhett. I think it’s a dumb name. That would be like you being named ‘Chipmunk’.” Chip was suspicious now, but maybe it was just his imagination. “Well, I’ve got to admit it’s not the most flattering name. The only other person I know with that name’s...”
Chip stopped in his tracks. “Wait, you’re not...” Theo just threw his hands up in the air in frustration. “Here we go!” Rhett cringed and nodded. “Yes sir. I’m Rat Capone Junior.” Lahwhinie felt a headache coming on. “Oh, this is going to be one looooong night.”
Theo tried to smooth the waters. “Now dad, don’t have a fit. Rhett’s a great guy.” Chip looked at Rat and then Theo. “Both of you, kitchen, now!” Chip and Lahwhinie stood there in the kitchen in front of Theo, with poor Rhett sitting in a chair, shaking. “Theo, I just got through with dealing about one lie you made, and now I find you’ve been covering up another? Your credibility’s starting to run thin, mister!” Chip said.
“I didn’t lie about him!” Theo said. “I invited my friends over for the night. I didn’t say anything because I knew this is what would happen if you knew! You’d put him on the spot.” Lahwhinie locked eyes with him. “Son, you kept the truth from us, and that’s the same thing. You didn’t give us a chance, and you ended up putting your friend on the spot anyway.”
Chip breathed out heavily, and switched his attention to Rhett. The poor boy was so scared, he didn’t dare to move. “Rhett, we’re not going to hurt you. I just want to hear your side of this.” Rhett hung his head. “I made Theo promise not to tell you because you’re my dad’s arch-enemy. Imagine how tough it is making friends when your dad’s a crime boss! I don’t want to cause any trouble. I can get my stuff together and go if you want.”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” Lahwhinie said. “You knew the risks in coming here, and yet you came. That shows some guts, and I can at least sympathize with the problems of a bad reputation. How’d your dad manage to get you enrolled without the school knowing?”
“Oh, they know. How could they refuse to let me go to school just because of my dad? I just try to keep as low a profile as possible. Most kids just ignore me and I just call myself Rhett or Ray rather than Rat Junior. It wasn’t easy telling Theo who I really was.”
Bink knew what the topic of conversation was, and she crept in. “I’d like to say something on Rhett’s part, too. He’s nothing like his dad. He’s always willing to help out on projects and he works hard in school. Some of the kids pick on him, but none of them too much because they’re afraid of what his dad might do. I’ve kept it from you too, so you’ll have to blame me along with Theo. Rhett deserves a chance.”
Theo was grateful for Bink’s backing him up, but he knew they were walking on eggshells. “Well, now what, dad?” Chip looked over at Lahwhinie, and she looked first at Rhett and then back over at him. “Rhett, does your father know you’re here?” Chip asked.
“Are you kidding?” Rhett said. “He’d give me the beating of a lifetime if he knew I was here!” Lahwhinie found herself sympathizing with the boy more. “And you’re willing to risk that beating just to come here?” Rhett nodded. “This is the first sleepover I’ve ever been invited too. Of course I’d risk it.” Lahwhinie was amazed at this. “Even though we put your dad in jail and I...well, punched him in the eye?”
“Dad’s already been busted out of jail. They never hold him very long. What my dad does is his business and what I do is my business. It’s as simple as that.”
Chip looked down at the boy’s face. It would be so easy to kick him out, but if they did, how would he ever learn to be anything but what his father was? He seemed willing to be different, but for Chip this wasn’t easy. He’d held a long grudge against Rat Capone for that slap he’d given Gadget. “All right, you can stay. But no more lies from anyone. Theo, this had better be the last surprise of the night like this.”
“It is, I swear!” Theo said, raising a hand in pledge. “Just movies, food and sleep.” Lahwhinie looked over at Chip. “No one told me being a parent was going to be this tough. I don’t know about you, but I’ve earned overtime pay tonight.”
“Tell me about it,” Rhett said. “I thought for sure one or the both of you was going to kill me. Of course, that would’ve gotten me out of my math test on Monday, so it wouldn’t have been a total loss.”
Lahwhinie couldn’t help it, and started to laugh. Soon, the others joined in, plus the kids who’d all been listening at the door of the kitchen. They all came out, and as a group watched the rest of Raiders and then Star Wars as well, parents and all. Things were okay now, and when the kids separated to their sleeping areas in the gym and the lair respectively they all thanked Chip and Lahwhinie for a most unique night. Theo and Bink stayed with them as they cleaned up the main room.
Bink looked over at Theo and they silently traded looks that expressed the need to come clean a little further. It was Bink who approached them first. “Um, Uncle Chip, Aunt Lahwhinie? There’s one other little thing we need to tell you.”
Chip had felt it coming. “Uh oh. What is it now?” Bink ducked her head a little, and took a deep breath. When she spoke, it was mile-a-minute. “Well, you see, when I walked in the other day and found out about Theo’s sleepover I was just hit with it. I didn’t realize he just wanted Zooger, Billy and Rhett there, and when I realized I really wasn’t invited and I’d sort of invited myself and my friends I got upset and then when I really realized that I wasn’t invited I felt left out and cried some and Theo felt sorry for me and he apologized and well—hugged me. Please, don’t get mad at him! He was just being nice, but some of the other kids saw us and they thought we were kissing or something and were boyfriend and girlfriend and all and that’s how this whole mess became such a mess in the first place.”
Once Chip got over being amazed at how long Bink could talk at a turn, he actually felt some relief. “Well, a friendly hug isn’t a bad thing, but it has its time and place and that sounds like it was the right thing, but at the wrong time. You know, I wasn’t really thinking that I’d have to deal with things like this for a couple more years yet.”
“You weren’t the only one,” Lahwhinie said. “Theo, you need to do some talking here, too. We expect you and Bink to be up-front with us. If you’re doing anything you shouldn’t, now’s the time to tell us.” Theo’s face showed alarm at what Lahwhinie had just implied. “How could you even think that, Mom! I like Becky too much to do anything like that. We just hugged, that’s all. I wish I’d never even thought up this stupid sleepover!”
Lahwhinie smiled some, now that she was sure. “I’m sorry I had to ask that, honey, but neither of us is used to you lying to us. We had to be sure you were being honest, for your sake and for Bink’s.” Chip rubbed his son’s head. “I know you’d rather things had gone better, but I think now they will. All the things you kept from us are out in the open, and your friends are still welcome to come. Don’t you feel better, having that weight off your shoulders?”
“Considering this sleepover has nearly cost me every friendship I have, I guess so,” Theo said, sullen. Chip shook his head. “Theo, your friends haven’t abandoned you. They’re pretty decent kids from what I can tell, and now that you’re being honest with them, they’ll be even closer to you if you’ll let them. It’s like I say, everyone needs a good example to follow. I didn’t realize that we Rangers were going to be such role models, but now that we are it’s important to do the right thing because others will follow our lead. You owe it to your friends as much as yourself to stick up for what’s right.”
Lahwhinie put an arm around Theo and Bink. “You two are very special to us, that’s why we’re so up in arms over this. We love you both and want to look out for you, but you two have to realize that you’re also both representatives of the Rescue Rangers and the things you do reflect on all of us. You have to be more careful. I’m sorry for what I was implying before.”
Bink had been a little angry, but it had passed. “That’s okay, Aunt Lahwhinie. I guess that really does include me, too. I come over all the time, so the kids sort of lump me in. Um, could I ask you two something?”
“Uh...sure, Bink, what’s on your mind?” Chip asked.
“Ask away,” Lahwhinie said.
Bink mustered up her courage. “Well, if it’s okay, I’d still like to see that Robin Hood movie. Could Theo and I stay up and watch it? I’d like the evening to end on a fun note.” Chip and Lahwhinie looked at each other and smiled. “Sure, you two deserve a break after all this. But right to bed when it’s over,” Chip said.
Lahwhinie eyed them both. “And no monkey business or it’s ninja mom time.” Theo came to attention. “Don’t worry. We’ve been in enough hot water to last us the rest of the year!” Lahwhinie smirked at her husband. “He’s right. Just wait till the trouble they’ll get in when they hit their teen years.”
Chip grinned at them. “Ugh, don’t remind me. I feel like I’ve already gotten gray fur over this.” Chip hugged his son and then Bink, Lahwhinie following suit. “Remember, right to bed after the movie,” she said, taking Chip’s arm as they headed toward the television. “You know, I think you’d look very handsome with gray fur.”
Chip and Lahwhinie stayed with them while the movie started, then to show their trust they decided to leave them alone. Once the early action at Nottingham Castle was over, Theo decided it was time to talk. Bink naturally beat him to it. “Well, I’ll say one thing. It’s a sleepover none of us’ll forget.”
Theo sank down. “This is a disaster that will haunt my dreams for years to come. If I ever suggest another sleepover, please slap some sense into me.” Bink made like she was going to slap him, and Theo actually flinched. She smiled and put her hand down. “Oh, I dunno, maybe it was for the best. After all, you can invite Rhett over now, and you know they won’t tie him up to a stake and roast him or anything. I thought they were going to boil us in oil, but they were pretty cool about it. Your dad’s one good talker. He even had Denise speechless, and believe me that’s not easy.”
“Well, don’t forget, tomorrow they’re going to tell your folks about what happened. All this trouble over nothing.”
Bink shrugged, but she wasn’t looking forward to that. “We dug our own holes, I guess. Mom’ll take it out on me in chores, and I’m sure dad will give me a talking to.”
They sat in silence for a while, watching the movie unfold. When Maid Marian spoke with Robin Hood at his camp, Bink spoke up again. “For an old movie, this is pretty cool. I can see why you like it. Robin’s a lot like you—adventurous and daring and wanting to do something about the bad stuff in the world. Though I admit it’d be hard to picture you wearing that green outfit.”
Theo smiled a little at the image of him in tights. “Well, I guess they were the in-thing back then. I’ll take a leather jacket and fedora like dad has.” Bink was glad for something else to talk about. “Do you really think you’ll take over from Chip some day and be the leader of the Rangers?”
“Yeah, without a doubt. I really feel it’s my destiny.”
“So do I. Everyone looks up to you at school. It seems pretty natural.”
Bink hesitated a moment, but then asked what she’d truly had in mind. “Theo, when you lied and said I was your girlfriend, did you do that because of what the others said or because you felt scared we might lose what we have?”
Theo found it hard to look at her, but did anyway. “Well, maybe it was both. I wanted to fit in and didn’t want to look bad in front of them and you’re my best friend in the world and I didn’t want to lose you...uh, what we have. It’s strange having a girl for a best friend and the guys assume that it’s more.”
Bink brought her legs up under her, feeling more comfortable now that she knew. “Same here, Theo. All my friends were talking about is how many girls were interested in you, and suddenly I broke out in a cold sweat. I guess you noticed how upset I was, but part of it was because I realized we could lose our friendship if we started seeing other people. I hope that doesn’t happen.”
“Well, we don’t have to worry about falling in love or anything like that for a while.” **I hope** “Can a guy and girl just be friends or does it always grow into something more? Will people always whisper and giggle if we’re always friends?”
Bink wished she knew. “I don’t think it has to grow into more, but even if it does that doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends too. I mean, look at your mom and dad. They’re married now, and they’re still treating each other like friends. Right now though, I don’t care what anyone else thinks. If they want to run the rumor mill, it won’t change that I’m your friend and always will be.”
“Thanks, I feel the same way. I just hope the rumor mill stops though. I’m worried that when we’re older things will change somehow. Men and women seem to act crazy when they’re around each other.”
“Change happens, but that doesn’t mean it has to be bad. If you didn’t grow up, you’d never get to fly the RangerPlane like I have.” Bink grinned widely at him, knowing it still stuck in his craw that she’d flown the Plane, even though it was without the Rangers’ permission.
Theo took it in stride. “We’ll see how it goes. Maybe we can go to the prom together. I’m sure by that time we’ll be so popular we’ll win king and queen.” Now Bink’s voice changed to one of coy challenge. “Oh? And what makes you think I’ll be going to the prom with you? After all, just because you’re one of the most popular boys in school and cute besides doesn’t guarantee you anything, you know.” Bink smiled and winked at the end of her little exchange.
Theo decided now was the time to be serious. “I can’t imagine that there’d ever be any other girl I’d want to be there with. You’re smart, cute, adventurous to the point of foolhardiness and brave besides.” Bink smiled again, and then Theo blushed at his boldness and they both turned back to the movie.
As it happened, Robin had just risked his life to climb up to Maid Marian’s room in the castle. She confessed her love to him, and they embraced. As the scene continued to unfold, Theo and Bink’s hands touched each other. When each realized it, they were both too nervous to move them. Then, when Robin left his maiden fair and kissed her goodbye, Theo decided to chance a look back at Bink. She was already looking at him, and their hands were still touching.
They both looked down instinctively, and then back up into each other’s eyes. Slowly they came closer, and suddenly the world around them was shut out. They met in a kiss, the first for each of them. It was one of those moments that a person never forgets, and when they separated they both looked at each other in a sense of wonder
“Wow, so that’s what it’s like,” Bink said, half-whispering. “Kinda weird, but in a good way.” Theo hadn’t known what to expect, but now that it had happened he was glad it had. “Now I see why there’s so much smooching going on here at Headquarters. Uh, does this mean we’re in love or are we still friends?”
Bink smirked and gave out a laugh. “I think it means we’re friends who like each other very much. I don’t know if either of us really knows what being in love is. I do know that if you’d like to go out with me and call it a date, it’d be okay. We don’t have to do anything different than what we have been, but maybe it’d make it easier when there’s dances or parties or whatever if everyone knew that we’re going together.”
Theo let his thoughts leak out. “It’s strange. I always figured this moment would come and now that it’s here it’s not so bad. Do we tell my mom and dad that I kissed you? It would be fun to see mom and dad’s eyes bulge right before they killed me.” Bink giggled at the idea. “Well, maybe we should wait at least until tomorrow. I think they’ve had enough scares for one night. Besides, it’s not like we’re getting married or anything. Oh cool, a swordfight!”
Bink and Theo’s attention was drawn back to the movie, as Robin and his men along with King Richard and his knights fought against Prince John and the Normans. They both smiled when Robin defeated Sir Guy of Gisbourne, freed Maid Marian and she came running into his arms. Then they watched the climactic ending, with Robin and Marian heading out to be married and everyone hailing them both. As the credits rolled, Theo stopped the tape and turned off the set.
“Thanks for staying up and watching it with me,” Bink said. “It was neat...all of it.” Theo blushed a little. “You’re welcome. Thanks for being my friend, especially during this nightmarish sleepover. Is love really like it was in that movie or is that just sugarcoated? Would it really be like that for us if we fell in love?”
“Well, mom says love’s different for everybody so I guess it’d be different for us too. Good night, Theo.” Bink held up her hand, fingers outstretched. Theo grabbed her hand and they did a tough-guy handshake. “Good night, Becky. Tomorrow should be a very interesting day.”
“Yeah. I’m sure mom won’t let me out of the house again until it’s been polished three times over. Still, it was worth it, and I know a friend who’ll be waiting when I get out.”
They went their separate ways, and then a form emerged from the hall. Lahwhinie had watched their drama unfold. She’d deliberated on stopping them, but in the end she was glad she hadn’t. They were still just friends, who had felt like kissing. Lahwhinie found that she liked Bink, and if she was the one Theo chose it would be one she’d approve of. Lahwhinie went back to Chip, and quietly shut the door.
“Everything okay?” Chip mumbled, already in bed. Lahwhinie sat down by him. “I thought you were asleep.”
“Almost. I just wanted to hear your report. Did they get off to bed okay?”
Lahwhinie snuggled up to her husband. “I think Theo’s in love, Chip.” Chip settled down. “That’s nice, dear.” He was almost asleep when he realized what she’d said. “Did you say he’s in love?”
Lahwhinie nodded, a little gleeful at her husband’s reaction. “Theo and Bink shared their first kiss while watching Robin Hood. I guess all this talk of love and relationships made them think about how they felt about each other. It’s sweet, but now we really have to keep an eye on them. They’re both mature for their age, and I trust them both, but still, I don’t trust them.”
Chip was suddenly wide awake, and sat up. “They kissed, and you didn’t stop them or anything? Why?” Lahwhinie raised an eyebrow. “Would you have stopped them? It wasn’t a wild passionate kiss, it was a...first kiss.” Chip thought it over. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s just that they’re still children, and I wasn’t expecting Theo’s first kiss until he was like sixteen or something. I guess we can’t keep them from growing up, but like you say we’ll have to keep a sharp eye out. I think I’ll go over with Bink in the morning and see Donna and Oscar.”
“I hope Donna doesn’t get mad at the kids. You do realize that soon you’ll have to give Theo ‘the talk’.”
Chip blinked at that idea. “That’s a milestone for sure. I remember the day my dad sat me down. I felt like I was being read my rights before they were going to throw me in the state pen. Still, if it has to come, I think Bink’s a nice girl. What do you think?”
“She’s a dahling,” Lahwhinie said, imitating Eva. “I hope she’s the one. I’d give anything for Theo to escape the horror of the cycle of dating, breaking up, meeting other girls, breaking up again. I’m hoping she’s miss perfect and that one day she’ll be our daughter-in-law.”
Chip took on a note of warning. “Well, just don’t pressure them or anything. If it’s meant to be, they’ll find out in good time. I do admit it’d be nice if he could at least stay with her through the tough years. I remember how bad it was. I just hope whoever he finds is at least half as wonderful as you.”
Lahwhinie chuckled a bit at Chip’s flattery. “He should be so lucky.”
Chip kissed his wife good night, and for a time his thoughts were on Theo and Bink. He knew he trusted his son for the most part, but that trust had been shaken a little by the night’s proceedings. Still, it was tough to overcome peer pressure, particularly when it was about you and your best friend. From the sound of things, they’d made up and for that Chip was glad. It would’ve been a shame for them to lose what they had over a misunderstanding. **We’ll just take it a day at a time, and be patient. Hopefully they will be too** Chip let the issue rest in his mind and soon he was asleep.
Chapter 8 – Another Shady Deal, Hiding Out, a Suspicious Conversation, and an Unexpected Visitor
“Thank you thank you, Donovan,” the Twins said, handing over some money to the mouse. “That information is most useful.” The mouse tipped his black hat. “A pleasure doing business with you, ladies. I’m sure that mister Capone won’t think so, but then a dingo don’t always see the dust devil coming, right?” The Twins looked at each other, confused. “Right right. And now, forgive us, but we must be checking upon the good purrfessor.”
Donovan left, and the Twins headed down a dark hall to Nimnul’s secret lab. They had provided the posturing professor with parts of tablets similar to the one they were after, and books on the subject of Cuneiform and spatial coordinates. When they entered, Nimnul had his nose buried in Ancient Coordinate Systems of the Toltecs.
“Yes, yes, just leave the food and get out!” Nimnul said, not looking up. The Twins came over and took seats on either side of him. “I think you would find us not so delectable not so delectable, Nimnul-san.” Nimnul dropped the book. “Oh, it’s you! Well, as you can see I’m in the middle of some very heavy research.”
The Twins weren’t impressed at his posturing. “And what results so far?”
“As far as I can tell, the early cultures all used a similar system to determine longitude and latitude,” Nimnul said. “Of course, there are slight differences. The Mayan and Druid systems seem to be based on the sun, while the Egyptian one looks to be based on relevant star positions. The Nazcas on the other hand used a linear system that was based on relevant sources of water.”
“Never mind the history lesson,” Ting said. “Can you determine the coordinates once you have the tablet?” Nimnul smiled smugly. “Can a ion disruptor disintegrate polycarbon steel?” The cats eyes’ narrowed. “See to it that you succeed that you succeed, Nimnul-san. We have too much invested in this project to see it fail.”
Nimnul watched them go, then stuck his tongue out. “ ‘We have too much invested in this project to see it fail’,” he said mockingly. “This had better be worth my while. Now, where’s that book on plotting interstellar drift…”
Rhett didn’t like to admit it, even to himself, but he was ashamed—ashamed of his father, ashamed that everything in his life was bought from the hard-earned profit of others. He needed a break from it, so when he had come to the sleepover he’d brought extra supplies. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this, and he knew it likely wouldn’t be the last. Rhett waited until he was reasonably sure that the coast was clear, then he crept out of the gym. He didn’t want to be there when Chip and Lahwhinie got up, anyway. He’d made enough trouble for Theo, and it was best that he make himself scarce.
Taking a circuitous path through the park, Rhett emerged into the cool of the night. A year ago, he wouldn’t have had a place to go and he would probably have chosen a friendly cardboard box in an alleyway for the night’s shelter. Now he had a place, because he had a friend. Actually two friends, for Theo Maplewood and Bink Chesnutt both had shown him their secret clubhouse in the park. It was well-hidden, nestled in the underbrush. They both told him that he could hide out there from his dad if he wanted, so Rhett was cashing that chip in.
The wooden door creaked as he entered. Rhett lit a small candle, which gave just enough illumination to show the room’s details and particularly the bookcase, which he headed for. Rhett chose an old copy of “A Tale of Two Cities”. It was a book he’d rescued from the sewers a couple of years back, but never really got into. Now, he decided to give it a try.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...guess the guy had a tough home life, too...”
When the candle gave out, Rhett put the book down and let sleep claim him. When he opened his eyes again, it was light outside but still early. He didn’t know just why he’d awakened until he realized that he’d caught the sound of someone right outside the clubhouse. Instantly, he was up and on his feet, ready for trouble. Then a knock came, or rather a knock in a particular sequence. He relaxed.
“Come on in. It’s me,” Rhett said.
It was Bink who knocked, and she opened the door and walked in. The knock was part of the fun of their group, and a part for which Rhett at least was thankful. Bink could see that Rhett had slept here, and he was a little worse for wear. “Thought you might be here. You want some breakfast? I’m sure I can snag something for you.”
Rhett nodded eagerly. “That would be great, Becky. I’m starving.”
“Okay, then. Say, want me to get Theo? He’ll probably want to know you’re here and all.”
“Just make sure none of the Rangers know. Heck, Theo’s probably steamed at me right now too.”
Bink tried to put him at ease. “Aw, don’t worry about him. Theo knows you didn’t mean anything by it. After all, I’m his best friend and you don’t see me bashing your head.” Rhett gulped, thinking about what might happen if the Rangers knew he was still around. “I just hope you’re right. I’ll wait here. Thanks, Becky, you’re a real friend.”
“No problem, Rhett-Man. Hang on, I shall return!”
Bink hustled off, her youthful energy giving her seemingly limitless speed. She stopped short of Headquarters in time to see Chip and Lahwhinie waving goodbye to the other kids as they left. She put on a nonchalant face, sauntered up and knocked. Dale answered, as he and the Rangers had just returned. “Hiya, Bink! Back for breakfast and judo?”
“Actually, I’m in kind of a hurry. Could you get Theo for me? There’s something I need to talk with him about.”
Dale wondered what was up. “Uh, sure. I’ll go get him.” Theo came out a minute later, and when he saw Bink’s look he knew something was wrong. Bink made sure they were alone first. “Theo, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“What is it, Becky?”
“No, we can’t talk here. We need to be alone.”
Theo and Bink came outside and Theo closed the door, walking out on the veranda. “Okay, what’s this about?”
“Major problem at the clubhouse,” Bink said. “But we can’t leave too soon or they’ll get suspicious.” Theo looked around, immediately understanding. “All right, but I’ll need a few minutes.”
“As soon as you can, okay? I really need you,” Bink said.
Chip came outside at that moment, having noticed the kids’ absence. “Hello, Bink. How are you this morning?” Bink played it cool. “Oh hi, Mr. Maplewood! Everything okay with Gadget today?”
“She’s fine, thanks for asking. So what are you two...doing out here? Anything I could help...supervise?”
Theo gave his dad an uncomfortable look. “Dad...”
Chip was about ready to leave at Theo’s warning, but the look in Bink’s eyes held him there. Something wasn’t right. “Bink, what’s wrong? Are you upset about what happened last night? You can tell me.” Bink tried to think of a reasonable excuse, but Chip’s peering eyes seemed to knock any sense of creative explanations out of her mind.
“All right,” Bink sighed. “I wasn’t going to tell you, but Rhett’s holed up over at the clubhouse.” Theo and Chip both were surprised at this one. “I thought he went home last night,” Theo said. “Why’s he still around?”
“Guess,” Bink said.
“His dad,” Chip concluded. “I guess even a clubhouse is better than a gangster’s hideout. What were you in such a hurry about, Bink?” Bink pointed to interior of the treehouse. “I was going to snag him some breakfast, then grab Theo and the three of us were going to have a quick pow-wow.” Then she realized how this might look to Rhett. “Oh, please don’t go over there, Mr. Maplewood! He’ll think I betrayed him!”
“Don’t worry about that, Bink,” Chip said. “I’ll explain it to him. Besides, you’ve got your own problems to face this morning.”
A few minutes later, Rhett heard someone coming and walked to the door to open it for Bink. He stopped short when a fedora-clad chipmunk opened it instead. “Mister Maplewood!” Rhett stammered. “Wh..what are you doing here?”
“I think the question is, what are you doing here?” Chip asked, coming in. “You could’ve stayed at headquarters, you know. No one blamed you for what happened.” Rhett stepped back. “I just needed to get away. Dad’s obsessed with this casino of his, because it’s all he talks about. Anyway, I just got a bellyful of it and had to get away for a while. I hope I don’t get Theo or Bink in too much trouble.”
**So it was Rat’s casino** “No, they’re not in any more trouble than they were. You don’t need to hide out here, Rhett. You could come to headquarters.” Rhett’s eyes grew wide with fear. “Thanks, Mr. Maplewood, but I’d like to keep my hide where it is today.”
“You can’t hide out forever, Rhett. You shouldn’t be ashamed because you don’t want to be like your father.”
Rhett shook his head. “That’s not it, sir. I’m ashamed because he’s my father! Still, he’s all I got besides Vera and he does try to treat me good. I just wish he’d give up being a bad guy and get a normal life.”
Chip put a friendly arm around the boy. “Come on, let’s go.” Rhett was grateful, but felt like an intruder and said as much. When they got to Headquarters, the others were understanding if somewhat taken aback, and Rhett was shocked when Monty spoke to him like a friend. **If only dad understood**
Theo and Bink were glad to see their friend again, but nervous about it was well. The Rangers set Rhett up out on the veranda to let him eat breakfast, then Chip motioned to the young duo to join them. “Theo, Bink, I’m disappointed that you didn’t come to us first with this, but under the circumstances I can understand why. Rhett, you can stay at Headquarters for now if you want. If things get worse with your dad, let us know and maybe we can make some arrangements for you.”
Rhett sighed, but obeyed. “Yes, Mr. Maplewood. Thanks anyway, pals.” Bink was still uneasy about all this. “Mr. Maplewood, I think you ought to sneak him back to the clubhouse, or let him go home.”
Chip looked over at Rhett’s pleading face, and knew it was a quandary. “One thing first—Rhett, do you want to stay here? If your dad’s abusing you, we’ll be glad to provide you sanctuary no matter what he does.” Rhett looked first to Theo, then back to Chip. “I have to go back, Mr. Maplewood. It’s not perfect, but it could be worse. It’s my family, whatever it’s like. I just needed some time to cool off.”
“I think he’s right, dear,” Lahwhinie said, coming up behind them. “If he wants to go back, then we don’t really have a right to keep him here. But Rhett, if you do want to come back, it’s okay. And if your dad ever gets in trouble or anything, come to us.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Maplewood. After that beating you put on dad, he’ll think twice about showing his face here. Vera treats me good, though. She looks after me when dad’s...vacationing at the expense of the taxpayer, before he gets busted out.” Lahwhinie felt a little better about him knowing that, and considered Rhett a kindred spirit of sorts. “All right, we’ll get you back to the clubhouse. Your dad probably doesn’t even know you were gone.”
Rat Capone opened his eyes, and then wished he hadn’t. The drink was gone from his system, but the hangover was there in full effect. He squinted against the morning sun, and steadied himself on a tree while he regained his senses. The rat started heading for home, but in his condition he ended up going the wrong way and headed back into the park. He chanced to look up, and though it was hazy he saw movement. It was from the place where he’d heard the laughter the night before, and now he took a step or two forward out of curiosity.
It was then that Chip and Lahwhinie came into view, escorting Theo, Bink and Rhett. Rat rubbed his eyes, and looked again. Rhett was still there, talking to Chip. The haze began to melt away in a boiling fury—the Rangers had his son and they were going to pay. They were occupied with Theo and Rhett and didn’t notice Rat’s approach until he appeared on the veranda. Needless to say he wasn’t in the most jovial of moods.
“Gimme my boy!” Rat thundered. “You ain’t got no right to take him!”
When Rhett saw him, it was pure horror. “Dad?! How did you find me?”
“Take it easy, Capone,” Chip said. “We’re not taking him. We’ve just offered him shelter after he ran away.” Lahwhinie wasn’t in such a charitable mood. “This isn’t the time or place, Rat, but if you’re looking for trouble, beware.” Rat sneered at them. “Run away? Youze is lying! You went and took him, so’s me and the boys wouldn’t mess with you anymore! But you ain’t gonna have him for long. I’ll get Arnold and Sugar Ray, and we’ll...”
Rat took a step forward, but in his condition he lost his balance and fell. He hit hard and then started to roll over, heading dangerously close to the railing. Rhett went over and pulled him to safety. “Great, you’re drunk again, dad. Come on home. Vera’s probably worried sick about the both of us.”
The boy helped his father up and started heading off with him. Lahwhinie wheeled to glare at Chip. “Are we just going to let Rat Capone waltz off?” Chip held firm. “Now’s not the time for it. He came looking for his son, and we have to respect that.”
“I don’t see why!”
Chip watched as Rhett steadied his father and they headed for home. “I guess it’s because I just had a lesson in father-son relationships. The boy needs his father, even if he is a crook. And despite what we might think of him, Rat apparently does have some fatherly instincts for the boy. I just hope Rhett will be okay once they get back.”
“If he does anything to him, I’ll make him wish he hadn’t,” Lahwhinie promised.
Chapter 9 – A Family Tradition and a Sobering Journey
With the Rangers involved in New York, Chip and the others couldn’t get away to see his brother’s new family addition. So instead Chip’s parents went down to Hondo, along with Sean. Orville Junior was only too glad to fly them, and his crash record was steadily improving.
“Yep, only fifty percent now. I expect to get off probation any day!” Orville said.
“Now he tells us...” Roger mumbled.
The albatross glided down gracefully toward the now-familiar Double-D ranch, and made a safe if somewhat bumpy landing. Orville dusted himself off, none the worse for wear. “Well, whattaya know? You got one of the good ones!” No sooner had Orville picked up their bags than a certain Texas prairie bat spotted them. “YEE-HAW! We got Maplewoods ‘round heah!”
Bedivere flew right over, and shook Roger’s hand. “Good to see y’all again! Glad ya could come down. Heah, let me take those saddlebags, an’ follow me! Mah niece and nephew are around somewheres. FOX-GLOVE!” Roger walked next to Bedivere as they headed for the ranch house. “We’re sorry that Chip and the others couldn’t make it, but they said they’re looking forward to Foxy and Noel’s arrival in New York.”
Bedivere shrugged as they headed for the bunkhouse. “Aw, now don’t worry your head none about that. It’s only been a week or so, y’know, and Foxy’s still pretty much limited to the ranch yard. Thought I saw that girl not ten minutes ago. YOO, NOEL!”
“Howdy, ya’ll!” Noel said, rounding the ranch house’s corner. “Ma...mom, dad, Sean!” Noel flew up to his family and hugged them. “Thanks for coming down to see us and your new grandson and great grandson.” Sean shook the boy’s wing. “We’re always glad to come, when there’s a Maplewood at the end of the trip. Now, just where is the latest addition to the family? I have something for him, and also something to do.”
“Right this way to see the newest member of the Maplewood clan!”
Noel was still getting used to being a bat. Even now, there were times he’d wake up and look in the mirror and flinch. Still, it was the life he wanted and he was happy. His wife and child were content as well, and it showed when the Maplewoods came in with Noel into their house. Noel and Bedivere, with the help of all the neighbors—for this was Texas after all—had built a separate ranch house. Now they had their own space, and they found Foxy in the nursery, singing to her son while she rocked him in his upside-down position on a small post.
“Oh, you’re here!” Foxy said, maneuvering into a standing position. “I’m so glad to see you! I was just trying to get Lonestar to go to sleep, but he’s such an active little boy. He never seems to want to sleep—at least not when we want to.” Sean stepped forward. “Then fortune’s on your side, because part of what I’ve come for is to perform another Maplewood tradition.”
“The first song, Sean?” Jennifer asked.
“Just so. Oh, I’ve left my fiddle with the bags. Would you go get it, son?”
“Sure dad,” Roger said, walking out. Noel looked at him curiously. “What’s this about a first song?”
Sean took a seat. “Well, it started long ago with William Maplewood, the first of our family to be musically inclined. He lived during the time of the greats like Strauss, and loved the music of Vienna. He spent some time there, and married a rich widowed mouse. She was a merry soul, and they enjoyed many happy years. When they adopted, William played “The Merry Widow” waltz for his son each night on the piano, and lulled him to sleep. From then on, it’s been a Maplewood tradition. Ah, here’s Roger again.”
Sean unpacked his fiddle and tested the bow. Soon, he was playing the lovely rhythm of the waltz. Sure enough, Lonestar was asleep in no time. “Never fails with a Maplewood. Works every time. I also have a gift to bestow. Here, Foxglove.” Foxy opened the package and found she was holding a rodent-sized copy of “Riders of the Purple Sage”.
“That’s a first edition—very rare and quite valuable. I’m sure with a name like Lonestar he’ll love western lore,” Sean said. Foxy thanked him heartily. “It’ll be hard for him to avoid it! We live, eat and breathe Texas here at the ranch. It’s hard to believe we have a child now. We’re parents!” Foxy hugged Noel. “I just wish the Rangers could be here and see the baby. Then we’d have the whole family here.”
“I don’t think Dale’s going to let Gadget go anywhere, now that’s she’s had that false alarm,” Jennifer said. “The poor boy—I feel for him. He’s so kind, but he gets so wound up!”
“That’s for sure,” Roger said. “We went over there to visit just before coming down, and he was so nervous it was like waiting for a spring to go off. Of course, I was never that way.” Jennifer eyed him. “No, you were worse. I remember how you tried to bribe the doctor into sleeping in the guest bedroom so you wouldn’t have to worry about any more false alarms.”
“It almost worked, too! Foxy, let us congratulate you and Noel on this wonderful occasion. We also have some things for you, and Mrs. Chesnutt made some baby clothes for Lonestar that we brought along as well. And of course the gifts from the other Rangers. I’m not quite sure what Gadget’s gift does, but she assures me it’s safe.”
“Uh, we might wait a while before opening Gadget’s gift,” Noel suggested. Foxy gently detached Lonestar from his perch and handed him to Jennifer. “May I present your grandson.” Jennifer cooed in excitement as he took the baby. “Oh, he’s so darling! And look, he has your fur color, Foxglove!”
“That’s not all he has. Look at his back.”
They looked, and found that even with the light scattering of fur that had grown in, it was plain to see that Lonestar had a chipmunk stripe down his back. “Well now, you don’t see that every day!” Roger said. “Looks like there’s definitely some chipmunk in him, son.”
“Not to mention his good looks,” Jennifer added. “I’m sure he’ll grow up to be a handsome young man.” Sean leaned over to get a better look “Can’t help but be. After all, he’s a Maplewood. Runs in the family, don’t you know.” The rest of the day was spent on talking about old times. That evening, the Steadmans invited them over for dinner, and Sweet Melissa doted on Lonestar while Roger and Jennifer caught their hosts up on everyone.
“I shorely do wish Chip had taken that vice-president’s job with the company,” Pete Steadman said. “How about you, Noel? You’ve got a wife and boy to support now. Maybe you’ll take me up on mah offer.”
“I’m still flattered by your offer, Mr. Steadman, but I could never work an office job. I need the freedom to follow the wind wherever it takes me, especially now that I’m a bat. The law will always be my first love...in a manner of speaking, of course,” Noel said.
“You’re Chip’s brother, all right. Well, can’t say I didn’t try. Now what about Miss Foxglove down theah? Are you plannin’ on another road tour once you’re back, or have you hung up your microphone once and for all?” Noel answered that one. “We’ve hung it up for the time being, but just until Lonestar’s a little older. Then we’ll see what the future holds for the new Maplewood clan.”
“Oh, yes!” Sweet Melissa exclaimed. “Perhaps the three of you could form a singing group once Lonestar’s old enough! That’s quite a name for a singer too—Lonestar. It certainly would look good up in lights.” Noel had to admit, it would look good at that. “Texas is what brought Foxy and I together at heart. Knowing the void within her had finally been filled by the family she’d lost, Theo’s hiding in the RangerWing, and now to have started a family here, it seemed like the only appropriate name.”
Pete returned the talk to business. “I’d love to have you for a PR man, but whatever you do I’m shore it will go well. Tell the others howdy for us when all y’all go up theah, and let them know the road goes both ways, ya heah?” When the visitors left the Steadman mansion, the feelings were of having renewed an old friendship. Foxy bundled Lonestar up against the cool Texas night and they headed back for the ranch and another day in the easy pace of rural America.
When Rat and Rhett got back to the casino, Rat Capone paced back and forth in front of his son. “I’m tired of your holier than thou attitude, Rat Junior! Come with me, I’m gonna take you for a ride.” Rhett didn’t know what his father meant exactly, as his words had many possible and frightening outcomes. He followed his dad as they left the warehouse and he led him down into the sewers to where a fancy boat was tied up at a dock.
“Uh, where are we going, dad?” Rhett asked.
“I’m gonna take you on a trip down memory lane.”
Nothing more was said as they traveled, and eventually they got to an area where there was a lot of debris in the sewer and Rat Capone had to tie the boat up. He rummaged around in the pile of refuse and brought back some rags.
“Here, put these on,” Rat ordered
Rhett wondered if his dad had lost it. “But dad, these are dirty and they stink!”
“Exactly,” Rat said as he put on some of them himself, covering his clothes. Rhett reluctantly put on the filthy rags and followed his father back up to the surface. When they exited the sewers Rhett realized that it actually smelled worse above ground. The area was a slum, garbage and refuse all over the place.
“Dad, why on earth are we here?” Rhett asked, barely able to stand the stench. Rat’s voice took on a softer but melancholy tone. “This is home, son.”
“Follow me,” Rat said as he began making his way through the garbage. Rhett stayed close to his father as they passed sickly, destitute rats. A crack in the nearly wall of a brick building led into a secluded hollow and here Rat stopped. “Does this bring back any memories, son?”
Rhett shook his head, not understanding. “Of course not. Why on earth would it?” Rat looked him square in the face. “You were born here, Rat Junior.”
Rat sat down on the unclean floor. “Yeah, you lived here for the first year or so of your life.” Rhett couldn’t believe it. “But, this place is a...rathole.” Rat nodded. “Exactly. I was born and grew up in this neighborhood.” Rhett looked around the tiny cramped room, with nothing in it except some old bedding and nothing of comfort to speak of. Rat put his hand on his son’s shoulder and led him back outside. Eventually they came to an open area where a group of children Rhett’s age were playing “kick the can”.
“You always complain about the crimes I commit and the bad things I do,” Rat began. “If it wasn’t for the money I stole you’d be one of those kids over there. Not one of them’s ever going to see the inside of a classroom or eat anything that someone else didn’t throw away. They’re never gonna own anything that’s brand new. Heck, most of those kids won’t even live to reach adulthood. Thank your lucky stars that you have a nice home, good food, go to a good school, and wear nice things.”
Rat’s face took on a darker shade as the memories returned. “These kids have nothing and are nothing, just like their folks. My money bought our way out of this hellhole. If you were here you’d end up nothing, just like they will—they’re born, they suffer and they die. There’s no future for any of them, but you have one. Don’t throw it away. I want you to be someone that people look up to, fear and respect! If we still lived here, there’d be nothing for you, nowhere to go. Yeah, it’s blood money, but it bought you a better life than I ever got!”
Rhett was speechless at first. His dad had never mentioned his past to him, and had never spoken to him quite this way. “Uh, what happened to your mom and dad? Are they still here?”
“Nope, ma and pa are long gone. I was alone by the time I was your age.”
“Yeah, ma and I were foraging for food one day when the cat the neighborhood called Razor Tooth decided he was hungry,” Rat said, the anger associated with the memory putting a snarl on his face. “Well, he got the drop on ma and he toyed with her a little while and then…it’s a sight that still makes me wake in a cold sweat. When it’s time for this rat to go, it ain’t gonna be down a cat’s gullet. A couple years later dad and I were foraging in an old warehouse when he stepped on a rat trap.”
Rat’s anger subsided some and he continued. “Well, I just wandered around after that, living off the land. I somehow managed to survive to adulthood and then while foraging I met yer ma. Man, she had the greenest green eyes I ever saw. To make a long story short, we fell in love, got hitched, had you and for a little while my little corner of hell didn’t seem so bad.”
Rhett was shocked by all this. He knew that his father must’ve had a tough life growing up, but he’d never suspected it was anywhere near this bad. They walked out of the alley, shedding their rags, and it was a minute or two before Rat spoke again. “One thing I learned about life, no matter how little joy or happiness you have, even that can be taken away. Yer ma started getting sick. We had nothing and there weren’t no doctors around. All I could do was try to find enough food to keep us alive. To add insult to injury, winter that year was real bad.”
Rat looked down at his son, the fire in his eyes showing the depth of the emotions. “I’ve got to feed the three of us, and yer ma was fading each day it seemed. Food was scarce. I find this snooty restaurant and around back I find the animal entrance. Now it was Christmas Eve and there’s a bunch of hoidy-toidy mice in there having a party. I go in and I begged, begged for some food to feed my starving family. One of them threw me a bone—literally threw me a bone; no meat on it, just a bone. They all got a good laugh out of that. Then they told me that they didn’t want any beggars around. Then one of them spit on me.”
The boy backed up at the sheer hatred and anguish on his father’s face. Rat was looking away, clearly back at the time he was speaking of. “Well, at that moment Zaslav Z. Zettlemoyer died and Rat Capone was born. I tell ya, I taught them stinkin’, uppity mice a lesson in manners that they’ll never forget! Needless to say, for the first time ever that night my family ate like kings. Over the next week I stole enough money from the local high-class mice to get yer ma to a real doctor. They did some tests and said it was cancer and she was too far-gone to save. All I could do was make her last days as comfortable as possible. Yer ma passed away in a real bed, in a real hospital.”
Rat paused again, as the emotions were becoming hard for him to handle. “Me and you was with her when she left this stickin’, rotten, dirty world to go to a better place. All I had left was you and I swore on yer ma’s grave that you’d never go to sleep hungry ever again—neither of us would. I’d no longer let people push me around and step on me!”
The angry rat clenched his fists. “I made ‘em all regret the day they messed with me. I took the best of everything the whole mouse world has—their money, their freedom and best of all, their hottest dames. And once I had my gang, I decided that there was an older score to settle. Me and the boys hunted down old Razor Tooth and paid him back for eatin’ ma—the hard way.”
Rhett was too overwhelmed by everything he had seen and heard. He was horrified by the life his father had lived and the things he had done to escape this world. Rhett was silent as they returned to the warehouse. When they got back to their private quarters, Rat sat him down again. “Son, now do you understand why I do the things I do? I want you to follow in my footsteps so that people do what you say, and not have to be someone else’s whipping boy. Only shomes work regular jobs! They have their uses but you’re always waitin’ on someone else hand and foot.”
“Dad, I don’t want to be like this,” Rhett pleaded. “I don’t want to be a criminal, it’s wrong!” Rat wasn’t hearing that. “Is living like an animal right? We’d probably all be dead if I hadn’t become a crook! Would you rather be back there? I want you to live up to your potential, like I did!”
Rhett drew in a long breath. “No, I wouldn’t want to be there, but you can’t make me feel good about how we got where we are! Maybe I’ll live up to the potential of what you could’ve been.” Rat was about to say more, but his son’s words hit something within him. He turned back to his desk and was silent. What could he have been had life been different? “Go and visit with Vera, okay? I’ve got some thinking to do.” Rhett obeyed, more out of a sense of relief than anything else. He had a lot to think over as well.
Chapter 10 – Hot Water, Reconciliation, and the Hot Water Strikes Back
When Theo came home from school on Fridays, it usually meant a weekend full of fun and games. This Friday, a week after the fiasco with Bink, the young chipmunk looked like every weekend for the rest of his life had been cancelled. He came in quietly and began looking for his mother.
Lahwhinie had been in Gadget’s workshop, bantering away with Eva. When she came out, she saw Theo’s mopey face and could guess the reason. “It’s been hard on you, hasn’t it? We didn’t like grounding you, any more than Bink’s parents enjoyed grounding her. They really had it tough I bet, because Bink’s a live wire when she’s cooped up. Still, I hope you know that we didn’t do it just to punish you, but to be sure you understood how serious all this was.”
Lahwhinie kissed his forehead. “You’re officially free now, sport.”
Theo perked up a bit, but not much. “Thanks, mom. I’m heading out to see what’s going on out in the park. I wonder how Bink’s doing now that she’s free too.” Lahwhinie didn’t have to wonder about that. “She’s probably wondering how you’re doing. Go on over and see her, but remember the agreement. You have to ask her folks’ permission first before going off and doing anything. If they’re not there, don’t go in. Just wait until they come back or find something else to do. You’ve got to use your noodle for a while until things settle down.”
Theo was frustrated by this sudden avalanche of rules. “It’s just Bink, mom! I’ve been over there a couple of hundred times before, so why all these new rules?”
Lahwhinie guided him over to the sofa. “Honey, you’ve got to realize that this wasn’t just a wakeup call for us, it was also one for Bink’s parents. Just like us with you, they’d been thinking of her as a little child, but now like you she’s starting to have grown-up feelings. You both are good kids, but it’s also obvious that there’s a lot of peer pressure and other things out there that can lead you to make mistakes. We’re all just making sure that you and Bink are okay, and you can both feel assured when people pressure you to do things you’re not ready for.”
“Mom, she’s not my girlfriend—at least not yet anyway.”
“That’s not the point, Theo. The point is, neither of you are kids anymore. You’re growing up, and that means added responsibility. It’s not all fun and games, you know. Whether you like it or not, you’re now responsible when Bink’s with you. I wish it hadn’t had to come this soon, but it’s a different world now.”
Theo crossed his arms, in a perfectly ugly mood. “So we can’t just have fun and play anymore without someone thinking we’re making out somewhere?” Lahwhinie sighed. “I saw you and Bink kissing the other night. And before you ask, no we didn’t tell her parents. I know it was innocent, and if I thought otherwise I wouldn’t suggest you go see her. You can still play and have fun, but you’ll just have to give them some assurances, at least for the time being. Once they see that everything’s okay, they’ll probably slack off some.”
Theo’s eyes were full of hurt. “You were spying on us! First dad, now this. You didn’t trust me, did you?”
“Of course I spied on you,” Lahwhinie said. “It’s in my blood. And I did trust you. It was Bink I was concerned about. I didn’t know what her attitude was toward you or all of this, and I had to be sure she wasn’t going to try to push you into something. I didn’t like doing it, but I know now she’s a good girl. I trust her, and I trust you with her.”
Theo hung his head, feeling like Fat Cat had jumped on his shoulders, holding an anvil. “Well, I guess that makes sense, mom. Growing up really bites.” Lahwhinie pulled him to her. “I know it does, honey, but it’ll get better. There’s good parts to it, too, and I’m sure you’ll both have your share of good times. You’re a young man now, son.” Theo looked up at her. “I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about girl problems until I was flying the RangerWing. Twelve, and I’m labeled a Casanova!”
Lahwhinie looked down at him, smiling. “It could’ve been worse. I’m glad your first experience with love was with a good friend. Now, why don’t you go over and pay her a visit? I’m sure she’s looking for you.” Theo snared a cookie off a plate on the kitchen counter. “Now I have to run the gamut with her folks. This is so annoying. Every time we’re together all the grownups will think it’s like a date or something.”
Lahwhinie hugged him again, giving him a look of encouragement, and sent him on his way. Theo had been looking forward to seeing Bink again all week, and the night before he’d hardly slept for thinking about the fun they’d have. Now, he found himself wondering if it was worth all the trouble. He didn’t relish the idea of facing the Chesnutts, but he had to if he wanted to see Bink again. When he came in sight of the Chesnutt tree, he stopped and started several times. Grimacing, he gritted his teeth and ran up.
The door was in front of him, and his vast imagination tortured him with thoughts of all the horrible things that could be waiting for him behind it. He gulped and knocked. It was Donna who came to the door. She’d half-expected him to come, but she had her own mixed feelings about it. When she peeked out from the curtain to check and saw the boy’s sorrowful look, her heart went out to him some. She steeled her resolve, then went to the door and opened it. When Theo saw her, he immediately took off his baseball cap.
“Hello, Mrs. Chesnutt,” Theo said, half-scared out of his wits. “You probably want to talk to me.”
“Come on in, Theo,” Donna said calmly, leading him in, and sure enough Oscar was waiting for him as well. Theo was plenty nervous, but he was relieved at least that they weren’t holding any deadly weapons. Donna sat by her husband, and he spoke first. “Well Theo, I’m sure your parents have spoken to you about this. Bink’s been very upset because she hasn’t been able to see you outside of class, and it was hard on us to deny her wishes. We’ve never had reason to question either of you until now, but before we go any further we want you to know that we’re not angry with you. This is as much our fault as anyone’s, because we weren’t paying attention to how quickly Bink’s maturing.”
Donna folded her hands in front of her. “What we’re saying is, we want you to know that we know you’re a nice boy and that you’re welcome to come. We just have some catching up to do with Bink and the changes in her life. It’s going to affect you too, so we felt it was fair to talk things over with you first. We don’t want you to feel overpressured by this, and we want to be sure you know what we expect when you and Bink are out together.”
Theo was a little more at ease now. They were treating him like an adult, and he respected that. “Okay, I understand. What are the ground rules?”
“First, make sure to ask us before you go off with Bink,” Oscar began, “We’ve told her from now on not to go off with anyone—so you understand, this isn’t just about you—without getting our permission. Afternoons won’t be much of a problem, as long as she’s back for supper. When your plans take you outside of the park, be sure to tell us so we’ll know where she’ll be. And if you’re going to your home, we’ve asked your parents to be sure that someone’s there so you’re not alone. If you have something like a dance or other special event you’d like to take her to, then she needs to be back home by ten-thirty.”
Deep down Theo felt an intense sense of betrayal about all this, but he kept his peace. “Yes, sir. Are there any other rules or are we free to go?” Donna stood. “Theo, I know you’re frustrated. It’s not giving us any pleasure to enforce these rules on Bink, believe us. I hope that soon we’ll be able to forget the rules, but for now they’re necessary until we’re sure that she understands that she has to be responsible for herself. This isn’t a judgment on you. There is one last thing. We want you to feel you can come to us if Bink’s not obeying the rules.”
Oscar followed her up. “We’re not asking you to inform on her, but if she does or says anything that you feel you need to tell us about, then please do. She’s going through a growing stage right now, and we want to be sure she’s making good choices. I’m sure as her friend you want that too. We’ll trust your discretion on that, Theo. We’re giving you part of the responsibility of looking after our daughter, because we know you’re her friend and we feel we can trust you.”
Theo didn’t like it one bit. “I don’t know. In the last week I’ve felt judged by everyone, accused without having done anything and suddenly I feel that no one trusts me or Bink, even though a week ago we could do all the things that people said we couldn’t do now and no one was worried then. You’ve just asked me to betray her trust. How am I supposed to feel about all this? What happened last week that changed everything in the entire world?”
“It didn’t happen just last week, Theo. If it had, it would be much easier to deal with,” Oscar said, then looked back toward Bink’s room. “We had several long talks with Bink, and she’s felt pressured by her fellow girls several times in the past to do things that weren’t right. We had that sort of thing too growing up, but the openness of today’s society is a lot different from when we grew up. Kids today are exposed to things at your age that were reserved for kids in high school or beyond when we were your age.”
“You have a lot more thrown at you a lot sooner, and there’s a lot more pressure,” Donna added. “She told us some things that frankly surprised us. We didn’t realize how it all had affected her until last week, and we’re sorry that we weren’t paying attention like we should have. We know this has embarrassed you, and it should never have happened. Now we have to do damage control, which is why we’re asking for your help. We want to be sure we’re doing everything we can to help Bink. We aren’t asking you to betray her trust, unless it’s for her own good to keep her out of something that she’d regret. Okay?”
Theo sighed. “Okay.”
Donna came over and touched his arm. “I hope you never have occasion to keep that promise, Theo. We respect how uncomfortable it’s made you, and we hope you’ll always be Bink’s friend, no matter who she chooses to spend her time with. All right, Theo, I’ll go get her. I take it you’ll be in the park?” Theo’s mind filled with sarcastic replies, but he bit his tongue. “Yes, ma’am.”
Donna nodded, and a minute or so later she came back with Bink. The young squirrel’s face showed how she’d suffered the past week, but Theo could see the welcome in her eyes. Oscar called her over. “Now, remember what we talked about.”
“Yeah, dad,” Bink said. “No trouble-making or changing plans without prior warning. I’ll be home for supper.”
The two of them went outside, and the Chesnutts watched them go from the window. It hurt them to see Bink so downhearted as she’d been, and now that they’d come to an understanding with both children they hoped the wounds could start to heal. Meanwhile, Theo started on the park’s perimeter path with his hands in his jacket pockets, his head down in frustration and kicking a small pinecone. Bink walked alongside, not in a much better mood.
“Hey, I’m sorry about all this,” Bink said, watching the pinecone. Theo kept his head down. “No, it’s my fault for even suggesting that stupid sleepover.”
Bink looked over at him. “You didn’t know what was going to happen. But...well...I’m sort of glad it happened anyway. At least the last part of it.” Theo met her gaze. “Why? Oh yeah, that. But was it really worth it? Now they’ll always be spying on us. I feel like no one trusts me anymore.”
“I trust you, Jake, and it was worth it to me,” Bink said, managing a smile. “Once they know we’re not Romeo and Juliet, they’ll back off. You’ll see.” Theo gulped, knowing he had to tell her. “Becky, mom admitted to me that she saw us kiss.” Bink gasped. “But...but if she did why didn’t she tell mom and dad?”
“She wanted that to be kept between us, and only told dad. They felt your parents didn’t need to know that.”
Bink breathed easier. “Oh Theo, if they’d found that out last week along with everything else there’s no telling what kind of fit they’d have pitched! It was all mom could do to get dad to let me out of the house today! I think they’re scared that I’ll run off with some rock star or something the first chance I get. If they only knew how tough it was for me not to tell them about that kiss. I knew they wouldn’t understand, though.”
Theo understood completely. “They’re probably afraid that you’ll be like Tammy was when she was younger. From what I heard she had a real crush on dad.” Bink gave a laugh. “Yeah, I remember that. Tammy would tell me all about how great and wonderful and cute and handsome Chipper was every day. It took her a while, but she finally got over it. Of course, there’s Denise who’s just like she was. I don’t get carried away, though, or at least I haven’t yet. I still like the things I always liked. I just like you too.”
“I guess childhood doesn’t last forever. I don’t like what I’ve seen of adulthood this week, though,” Theo said. Bink stuffed her hands in her pockets, mirroring Theo. “Well, no one said change was easy. You’re not mad at me, are you?” Theo leaned his back against a tree, facing her. “No, ‘course not. You’re still my best friend in the whole world. I’m mad at the grownups for nearly wrecking that friendship.”
Bink looked down, gathering her thoughts, then looked back up at him. “Theo, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it, and I think really I’m relieved this happened. I guess mom might’ve told you about some of what the girls were pushing me to do. I hated myself for what I said about you last week, but I felt if I didn’t I’d be all alone. Now I know I’ve got mom and dad in my corner, and I can feel okay saying the truth. And I just want you to know that I don’t hold what you said about me against you.”
Theo had taken his hands out of his pockets, and at the end of her reverie Bink took hold of his left hand. Theo felt alarmed at first, but soon it actually felt nice. “And I don’t hold anything against you either. But what about us now? Are we just friends or is this the start of something more? Last week neither of us would’ve been willing to hold hands in public.” Bink looked away from him. “I’ve enjoyed all the fun we’ve had, and that you didn’t treat me like just a girl. It’s been great training with you and going on secret missions and capturing the flag and all. You’re the best friend I could ever ask for, and...”
Then she hesitated. “Well, I’ve sort of had...well, a crush on you ever since I met you.” Bink drew her hand away, using it and her other hand to cover her embarrassed face. “I can’t believe I just told you that! ” Theo was all-attention now. He never realized. “Really? I’ve never really had anyone to teach me about relationships, so I haven’t been sure about how I feel. But I really like you too, Becky.”
Bink took her hands down and returned her gaze to him. “So can we still do all the fun things we’ve been doing, and maybe like…go out some too?”
Theo tilted his head in a “maybe” gesture. “I guess, if our parents don’t pull their fur out worrying about what we’re doing when we’re not in sight.” Bink laughed a little at the thought. “Or you could always just cut through the red tape and go ask mom and dad for my hand in marriage right now. Once they got out of the hospital, maybe they’d consider it.”
“Becky Maplewood. If I ever did propose, would you accept?”
Bink smiled at him. “I guess that answer’ll have to wait until you do.”
“Good answer. So, what do you want to do today, Brain?”
“The same thing we do every day, Pinky! Try to take over the world!” Bink said, glad they were still able to have some fun. “Er, but I’ll have to do it from the park today. Now, I have a plan. We will use my new mind-age ray and turn all parents into nervous adolescents. With their lives in utter chaos, we will assume control!” Theo laughed heartily. “All we have to do is keep holding hands and that will take care of the nervous part.”
Bink and Theo laughed, then Bink got serious again, looking at him apologetically. “I know this isn’t the best timing, but the school barn dance is in two weeks. I really want to go, and I was sort of hoping you’d ask me to go. Ofcourseifyoudon’twanttodon’tletme pressureyou! Um, I know it’s not gonna be fun running the gauntlet with mom and dad.”
**Here we go again** Theo thought, but he could see it meant a lot to her. “I didn’t know you liked to do things like that. Sure, I’d love to go with you. I guess the rumors about us are true; we are boyfriend and girlfriend.” Bink nodded, then continued. “Well, there is one little tiny problem. I haven’t learned to dance all that well yet. When we were in Hawaii, I just sort of winged it. I was afraid if I asked to learn that mom would start making me wear dresses all the time! She loves to make clothes, and she’s always talking about how pretty I look in dresses and all. I’ll wear a dress to the dance, but understand that it’s only because it’s expected. I still like dressing the way I want to, and I like who I am. But I think it’d be fun.”
“I’m not all that great at dancing either, come to think of it. And I’d have to wear a suit. That’s no thrill, but it does sound like fun I guess. People are gonna talk when they see us, you know. What do we tell them?”
Bink grinned. “Eat your hearts out.” Her imagination took over. “We can pretend like we’re on a case and going undercover. You’ll be the millionaire jet-setter and I’ll be the internationally-famous model.”
“I’m being serious, Becky,” Theo said.
Bink threw up her hands. “Who cares what they think? I don’t! Do you?”
“I want to know what you think.”
“About us,” Theo said. “Things are different than they were last week. I just want to know how different.” Bink walked away, frustration starting to set in. Then she walked back. “Look, what do you want me to tell you? We’re still friends. I have feelings for you, but I’m still just eleven! I’m not going to ask you to run off with me to Bermuda. I have a life I want right here, and a lot of it involves you. When the time comes, I want to be a Rescue Ranger.”
Theo took her hand. “Thank you, that’s the answer I wanted. I just wanted to know where we stand. We’ll just make our folks sweat a few more years before we officially start dating.” Bink looked from their interlocked hands to him. “And how do you feel about me?”
“I feel like we’ve taken the first step on a long journey together,” Theo said, then winced. “Ugh! Now I’m starting to sound like dad.” Bink shrugged. “Nothing wrong with that. Your dad’s done all right by himself. If we’ve got a journey to make, we’d better get started. When will you ask mom and dad about the dance, and do you think Aunt Eva or one of the others would teach me to dance formal-like?”
“I’ll ask them tonight and then see if we can find someone to teach you to dance,” Theo said. “And me, for that matter.”
Chapter 11 – Big Plans, Yanking the Chain, and A Desperate Meeting
Rhett decided to check on his dad. They hadn’t talked much over the past week, but he did know something was up—something big. Rat looked up from his desk as the boy came in. “Better make it quick, boy. I’m in the middle of plans right now.”
“Dad, what’s this all about?” Rhett asked. “You’ve been holding back the past few days like you’ve got some huge secret or something. Don’t I get to know what you’re doing?” Rat brightened at his son’s interest, thinking that perhaps this meant a change of heart. “Sure you do, son. All ya had to do was ask.”
Rat went over to a map of the city. “See the museum there, son? Well, I’ve got it on very good word that the Siamese Twins are gonna make off with a rare artifact from there tomorrow night. But when they get there, they’re gonna find that little tablet they’re after up and left without ‘em!”
Rhett was speechless with shock for a moment. “The Twins? Dad, you’re not going to cross the Twins, are you? You know how many rats and mice they’ve taken out over the years!” Rat patted his son’s head. “Now, don’t you worry. Those guys were all rubes, not masterminds like me. I know what they want, and they want it bad—bad enough that when I send them a note telling them who has it, I’ll extort them for enough money ta build ten new casinos!”
“But dad, they’ve got enough henchmen to off us all without giving it a second thought!” Rhett protested. “What’ll you do when they send the samurai or some of those other cat henchmen after you?”
“Why do you think I’ve been hiring extra muscle?” Rat countered. “Those dames ain’t gonna rain on my parade!” Rhett shook his head. “But maybe they’ll dig your grave.” Rat laughed at the notion. “Son, you got a lot to learn yet. Now youse better get back to doing whatever it was you were doing. I’ve got big plans.”
Rhett left, heading for his room, but only stayed there as long as he had to in order to keep up appearances. As soon as he could, the boy left and headed for the park. “You’re not the only one who has planning to do, dad.”
Theo and Bink walked back to the Chesnutt house, hand in hand. Donna and Oscar watched as they returned, grateful that they were still friends. They asked Theo to stay for supper, and once he’d called home to see if it was okay he did so. He helped clean up, then settled down with them in the living room. The Chesnutts could see that Theo had something to say, and Donna gave him the floor. “Theo, you look like you have a question on your mind.”
“There’s a school dance coming up soon. I would like to escort Becky to it,” Theo said. Oscar nodded, and eyed his daughter. “Sounds like a nice thing. As long as you have her back by ten-thirty, there’s no problems. How soon will this dance be?”
“In two weeks. Ten thirty’s no problem. I’ll talk to my folks later and see what they say. Thank you.”
Donna was instantly set in motion. “Two weeks? Oh, that gives me just enough time to make a party dress!” Bink looked over at Theo and rolled her eyes. “See, I told you.” Donna’s eyelids narrowed. “Bink, you know you enjoy dressing up when you do it.”
“Yeah, I guess so. It’s just hard to get any respect in chiffon and flats.”
“I wouldn’t worry on that part, princess,” Oscar said. “You’ll have a whole other kind of respect.”
After a few more minutes, Theo said goodnight. He went home feeling a lot better than he had, now that he knew Bink’s thoughts on things. He’d still have to run the dance by his parents, but now he was sure Bink’s parents would vouch for him. The group turned to look as he came in the door.
Dale addressed him first. “Hiya, Theo! Everything go okay?”
“Hi, Uncle Dale. Things are going...interesting. This week has been one of the most unpleasant in my life, but other than that things are good.”
“Sounds like my adolescence in a nutshell,” Dale quipped.
Gadget poked him. “Oh Dale, I’m sure it wasn’t all bad.” Dale gave a half-smile. “Well, no. Readin’ Kablammo Man and Sponge Boy and the Laser Patrol was cool! That and Saturday-morning cartoons and snacking till I was sick and learning to fence and all.”
Eva returned the conversation to the matter at hand. “Did you get everything settled with the Chesnutts, Theo? Will Bink be coming over for morning defense training as usual?” Theo snapped his fingers. “I completely forgot to ask about that! I’ll have to call them. Otherwise, things are patched up as well as could be I suppose. I even got her parents’ permission to take her to the school dance.”
“A dance?” Chip said. “I didn’t think Bink liked dances.”
“Neither did I. But the only downside is that neither of us can dance the right way to save our lives,” Theo said. “The upside being that no one else at the dance will be able to either, so I guess we won’t be out of place.” Eva to the rescue. “Vell, I think we can rectify that. We can turn our morning sessions into dance sessions. I have experience in that area as well.”
“I’ll say she does,” Monty said. “She can cut a rug like a hot knife through butter. Why, I remember back in Kenya at our wedding we really brought the house down! ‘Course it took me and Gabarah a couple of days to nail things back up. We oughtta go out dancing more, luv. We’d show ‘em how it’s done!” Dale loved a spectacle. “Gadget and I can help too! I taught her to dance before our school dance.”
“Well, thanks everyone,” Theo said. “That’ll make the dance a little less stressful. However, I think I better run the dance by mom and dad first.” The group turned to Chip and Lahwhinie, who’d sat back and absorbed all this. “Just remember, you’ll be on your own and your best behavior,” Lahwhinie said. “Have you thought about what your friends will say when they see you two together like that? It’ll be a big change for the both of you.”
Theo nodded. “We talked about it before we asked her folks about the dance. We’re just friends, for the time being.” Chip felt a measure of relief that he and Bink hadn’t split up over this. “I’m glad you talked it over with her. I bet mom still has one of my old suits from when I was your age. I seemed to grow out of them every year. Are you sure you want to do this, Theo? It’s going to mean even more responsibility on your part, you know.”
“I know, dad. From the way everyone’s talking and treating Bink and me, it seems that everyone feels that childhood is over for us so I guess it’s time to move on with growing up.”
“We didn’t say that, Theo,” Lahwhinie said. “It’s just that now you’re starting to become aware of what it is to be an adult, and yes you’re moving in that direction. We won’t push you, but we want to be sure whatever steps you take are safe ones. I sure wish I’d had anyone who cared what I did when I was your age...um, I mean someone physically there, mom.”
Eva came over and hugged her girl. “I know, dahling, and I think you are doing a vunderful thing for Theo now.”
“Thanks,” Lahwhinie said, returned her attention to her son. “You’ve still got lots of fun ahead, sport. But like it or not, you’ve got a posse of people that care about you and are going to do all they can to make sure you don’t mess up.” Theo came and crashed on the sofa. “It just feels like I’m being robbed of my childhood a second time.”
“Give it a little time, son,” Chip said. “Everyone has to abide by rules, and you really already were but they were unspoken ones. Things will settle down again, and you and Bink will be having fun like you were before. Plus, you’ll have a date when you need one.” Dale gave Theo a friendly elbow in the ribs. “Zowie, that’s something most guys sweat over at your age! Or just about any age!”
Monty pulled on his jacket lapels. “Me pally Theo’s ahead of his time, no doubt of that. You’re mighty lucky to have a good friend like Bink around, lad.” Theo started to realize that it wasn’t just the Chesnutts treating him like a man. “Yeah, I’m glad she’s here. She was the friend my age that I really needed.”
“It’s great you’ve got a friend like her,” Gadget said. “They’re all too hard to find these days. I’m sure glad I found the one I did.” Gadget hugged Dale, and he kissed her back. “Me too!” Dale said. “Theo, you can wear my polka-dot tie if you want. Then you’ll really stand out!” Theo smirked. “I think the spinning bow tie that squirts disappearing ink would impress her more.”
Now it was Theo’s turn for questions. “So what happens at a dance? There’s got to be more than just dancing?” Zipper held up his hands. “Don’t ask me! I’ve only been to one.” Monty started playing with his moustache. “Well, there’s food and punch and food...”
“There will be time for talking with the other people there as well,” Eva said. Chip sat on the other side of him from Dale. “Most often, the girls and guys split up for a while and talk about whatever comes to mind.” Dale tapped him on the shoulder. “Yeah, mostly about how uncomfortable they are and how they wish they could strangle the guys who invented polyester and ties!”
“You vill likely get your picture taken, so remember to not spill anything on her or yourself,” Eva added.
“And they’ll usually have prizes for various couples, too,” Chip said. “Best dressed, most likable, best couple, and so on.” Theo thought it wouldn’t be so bad. “I hope we win most exciting or most adventurous. Well, it sounds tedious, like all school functions.”
“Oh, it has its moments,” Chip said. “When you see Bink all dressed up, you’ll find you’re having a good time.” Lahwhinie shook a motherly finger in his direction. “Just don’t let her feminine wiles make you get carried away, and be sure to leave in time to get her back home when they say.” Dale had an idea. “We could pick you up and drop you off in the RangerWing! That’d certainly make a big impression on your friends.”
“Yeah, that would,” Theo said. “Good idea, Uncle Dale. Okay, don’t take advantage of any ladies, don’t get drunk, take drugs. Anything else?” Chip thought about it, then spoke again. “You should probably get Bink a little something when you go to pick her up—a corsage, or something like that. It’ll let her know you were thinking about her. Also remember to thank her parents when you pick her up and bring her back.”
Dale leaned over like he was trading a secret. “And if you decide to smooch, don’t do it in front of their door where they can open it and faint when they see you!”
“Dale!” Chip said.
“Hey, it’s good advice!” Dale said, turning to Gadget. “Remember what happened to my mom when she opened the door and found you and me kissing, Gadget?” Theo decided to save Gadget the trouble of replying. “Okay, I think I have the technical stuff down. Now for the action stuff, dancing. Uh, mom, dad, are you sure you trust us for this?”
“Kiddo, dancing’s one of those things where it’s okay to be close,” Lahwhinie said. Chip agreed. “Just make sure to keep it respectable. I’m sure Eva will show you two the proper way to dance together. I know it can feel embarrassing at first, but rest assured it will for everyone else too. You’ll get past it once you start, and then you can enjoy yourselves.”
Theo wasn’t altogether sure of that. He could still remember dancing with Bink in Hawaii and how nervous he’d felt. “Well I hope so. I don’t want to make a bad impression on the future Mrs. Theo Maplewood.” That brought the show to a halt. “What!” the Rangers said.
Theo smiled. “I just threw that in for shock value. Well, she’s a prime candidate anyway.” Lahwhinie breathed a long sigh of relief. “Theo, we don’t need to age overnight! Thank goodness you came along when you were twelve and not eighteen. At least we’ll have some time to settle in before you really do pop the question.”
“Okay, sorry. I shouldn’t yank your chain like that. This last week has been very aggravating and I’m still a little sore over it.”
Chip patted him on the shoulder. “That’s okay. Well, maybe what you need is a good reminder of the fun part of things. We could all go to Carnival Land this weekend, and you could invite Bink to come along with you.” Theo disagreed. “No, that’s what started this whole mess in the first place.” Gadget took on a worried look. “Gosh Theo, you shouldn’t let what happened before keep you from having fun! I’m sure it won’t be like it was the last time. Well, I’m not absolutely sure, but reasonably anyway.”
“I don’t suppose you could build a time machine so I could go back to the week before last and stop myself from suggesting that sleepover?” Theo asked, his voice turning sad. “I want my childhood back.” Lahwhinie came over and hugged him. “Oh honey, that wouldn’t help. This might have moved things along a bit more quickly, but you were already close. It was inevitable, but I wish it hadn’t been so hard on you. It’ll get better from now on, trust me.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it will be, mom,” Theo said, sounding not at all convinced of that. “I’m gonna be in my room if anyone needs me.”
Theo went in, determined to brood for the remainder of the evening. After a few minutes, a light tapping noise at the room’s small window caught his attention. Theo poked his head out. “Rhett! What’re you doing here? What’s up?”
“We’ve got a big problem!” Rhett said, trying not to talk any louder than possible. “Can you meet me at the clubhouse in the morning?”
“Why don’t you just tell me the problem now?” Theo asked.
“We might be overheard. I’ll see you then, okay?”
“All right.” Theo closed the window and watched Rhett retreat into the night. Come morning, Theo woofed down his breakfast and headed for the clubhouse. Rhett was there, waiting. “Thanks for coming,” Rhett said. “It’s about my dad.”
“What now?” Theo asked. “Is he going to rob Fort Knox?”
Rhett grimaced. “Nothing as sensible as that. He’s going to try to beat the Siamese Twins to some kind of stone tablet they want to steal tonight. Dad thinks he can get a bunch of money out of them if he gets it first.”
“The Twins? Man, that’s like trying to slip out of Miss Spelling’s class without a hall pass,” Theo said. “Doesn’t he know it’s dangerous?”
“Sure he knows,” Rhett said. “But he doesn’t care. Look, I want to follow him and make sure he’s okay. Would you come along with me? I’ve always wanted to be on a real case.”
“Sounds like fun!” Bink stood at the door. “Mind if I come along?”
Theo winced, thinking of the collective trouble this could bring. “Becky, maybe we ought to let dad and the others handle this one. We’re already in a lot of hot water.” Rhett shook his head violently. “No, please! I couldn’t stand the thought of your folks and my dad hurting each other. All we have to do is make sure he doesn’t get caught. If he does, then we can call in the Rangers. Look, I know he’s not worth it, but would you guys come along, for me?”
Theo and Bink glanced at each other, then Theo turned back to Rhett. “I think you just hired the A-Team,” he quipped. Bink gave a laugh. “We could use B.A. on this one—the Twins are tough cookies. So when do we meet you?”
“Dad’s going to leave around nine. Can you guys meet me behind his casino?” Rhett asked. Theo knew it was risky, but that was the name of the game after all. “Okay, I’ll be there.”
“Me too!” Bink said. “But shouldn’t we leave a note or something for the Rangers in case it gets dangerous?” Rhett frowned. “Promise me neither of you will tell, okay? If you get in trouble, I’ll take the full blame.” They promised, and Rhett felt a lot more comfortable, and explained how to get to the warehouse. “Don’t worry, we’ll just tail him and make sure he comes home okay. If you want to tell Chip and the others about the tablet after that, it’s okay by me.”
That satisfied Theo, and they shook on it. “Our first case as a team. Guess we should come up with a snappy title for ourselves.” Bink grinned. “How about ‘Becky’s Teen Rangers’? Has a nice sound to it.” Theo laughed. “I think Teen Rangers sounds pretty cool. Okay, we meet up tonight and get the job done.” The three agreed and put their right hands together to form a group. As one they said, “Teen Rangers, away!”
Chapter 12 – Three Dreams in the Fountain
The past week had been a troubled one for Rat Capone. He’d never shared his inner fears and struggles with anyone, but the boy had pushed him too far with associating with those Rangers. Rhett hadn’t explained, but Rat guessed the truth easily enough. That was another reason for him to fear, because of all things he feared most that his boy would leave him.
About the time Rhett had gained Theo’s attention with the pebbles on the window the night previous, Rat had been at his desk. The gangster rat was tired in more ways than one. The casino had been doing overflow business and he’d already had to hire a second accountant to keep up with the profits. He was comparing the figures and his eyes were getting increasingly heavy. In a moment, the only noise coming from his office was loud snoring.
Rat was barely aware of his surroundings at first. He thought he heard something behind him, and turned to find a figure in the shadows that appeared familiar. The rat was somewhat hesitant to approach, but a long finger beckoned him forward. As he did, the figure stepped into the light to reveal the same face he’d seen momentarily before.
“Tiffany...then I wasn’t just dreaming before. But you’re dead! I saw you bein’ buried an’ all...”
Tiffany stood there, her emerald eyes taking him in, still wearing the simple clothes he’d seen her in before. “That was my body, not my soul, Zaslav.” In an instant, Rat’s features changed to those of a happy man, and he charged forward—only to find he passed right through the specter. “You...you’re a ghost!”
Rat’s face suddenly tightened in suspicion. “Nah, I don’t believe in dat mumbo-jumbo! This is some kind o’ trick! When I find out who’s doing this, I’ll...”
“Aren’t you happy to see me again, Zas?” Tiffany interrupted. “I’ve come a long way to see you again...and to see my baby.” That voice, it was unmistakable. For the first time since before he could remember, Rat began to tremble. “Tiff, if it is you, what were the last words you said to me before you died?”
“Forgive me for leaving you both.”
Now Rat was afraid. He’d been alone with her when she’d whispered those words in his ear. “Tiff...why...why are you here?” Tiffany’s features softened. “I’ve come to help you, Zas. I’ve been given a chance to help you.” Rat felt some relief at these words. “Aw Tiff, you were always good ta me! But I ain’t exactly hurtin’ right now. You saw the casino where I’m at and all. I’m about to live the high life now, Tiff, just like we always dreamed we would!”
Tiffany crossed her arms. “All that exists in the world for you now is money. You’re making our son suffer and you make that poor girl Vera suffer too! What does it profit a man to have the whole world but lose his soul?”
Rat’s face fell into a sneer. “Don’t be getting goody-goody on me! I don’t care if you were my wife, I ain’t answerin’ to nobody for my choices. You know how bad we had it, and don’t pretend you don’t! You above anyone knows I’ve got a little payback from life coming, what with losing you and all those rotten years in the poorhouse. I deserve what I’m gettin’ now, and I’m gonna enjoy it!”
“If you must run your life into the ground, I beg you, spare our son,” Tiffany said, her hands clasped in front of her. “Let him go, Zaslav! Let him have a life away from you, or what little you have in life will be taken away.” Rat’s personal volcano was close to eruption. “Whattaya mean, Tiff? I’m doing all this fer him! I ain’t gonna have him end up in some alley selling pencils or something. He’s gonna make something of himself, and when he’s ready he’ll take over the syndicate I’m building. He’s gonna be a big shot!”
She walked up to him and put ghostly hands near his shoulders. “It’s not too late, Zas. He will never follow the path you’ve taken, and forcing him to chose will only leave you alone in your fate.”
“What fate? What’re you talkin’ about?” Rat asked, not sure if he wanted to know. Tiffany’s eyelids lowered halfway and the ambient light in the room seemed to fade some with it. “Rat, you’re at the brink of a dark and terrible path, one that will cost you everything, even your soul. You have to decide what’s really important to you, my love.”
Whatever Rat was expecting from her, it wasn’t this. “So I’ve made a few mistakes, who hasn’t? Whattaya want me to do, treat the boy better?”
“Leave this life you have now. Find something better. Just walk away! Treat everyone better—you, Rhett and Vera.”
Rat became defensive. “What’s wrong with the way I treat ‘em? I’m giving Vera a new fur, ain’t I? Rhett’s gettin’ a good schooling, and he’ll be lots better off than those uppercrusts who’ll only learn how to pick daisies and kiss hands. He ain’t never gonna starve, and he’ll know that as long as he has control, he’s gonna be all right.”
Tiffany shook her head. “You’ve provided for them on the outside, but not for their hearts. Our son often finds himself yearning for the happiness he sees in others. Why can’t you let him follow his own path?”
“Because the boy don’t know what it’s like! I tried showin’ him, but he’s like all the rest. He thinks he knows it all, and don’t realize what it’s like growing up dirt poor and always struggling for a crust of bread. If I didn’t look after him, he’d blow it and end up right where you and I were. And I don’t want him to go through that.”
“Do you really want him to become like you—greedy, hateful, selfish?” Tiffany asked. “You weren’t always like this. Yes, we were poor, but were we unhappy? Didn’t you have love?” Tiffany cried, and for a spirit that was a truly wondrous thing indeed. “I saw tears of joy in your eyes the first time you held our son. You were happy beyond words. Have you ever been that happy since?”
Rat turned away. He didn’t want to think about these things. “You’re just trying to confuse me. If I’m so bad off, why am I at the top of the world right now? Why, in five years I bet I’ll be king of New York! You just wait an’ see.”
“I see you totally alone, surrounded by people you don’t trust, a prisoner in a prison of your own making.”
“Oh yeah? If youze is a ghost, then show me what it’s like.”
Tiffany gestured, and a lighted portal opened on a side wall. “If a Christmas Carol will help, so be it.” She beckoned him toward the portal and as they went through the room seemed to swirl and he found himself—back in his office. He could see himself, old before his time, sitting nervously at his desk, Arnold and Sugar Ray sitting nearby.
“Any word from the guards?” Rat asked.
“No, boss. The casino’s fine, just the regular crowds. Nothing suspicious,” Arnold replied.
“Good,” Rat said, cutting him off. “Just think, it’s been nearly five years since I erased the Rescue Rangers, the city at my feet. I got the world right where I want it!” Arnold and the rest were richly dressed, as Rat was. “Yeah, but it’s a shame about what happened to Rat Junior,” Arnold said. The Rat they both were watching shrugged his shoulders. “Well, he was weak. He didn’t deserve ta be my son.”
Rat stood there, flat-footed. “I wouldn’t say that...would I?”
“That is you, Rat,” Tiffany said. “This is what you will be in five years.”
He looked to Tiffany with some trepidation. “What happened to Rat Junior?” Tiffany continued to watch the proceedings. “He committed suicide after you had a battle with the Rangers and they ended up dead. His life became more than he could bear.”
Sugar Ray shed a tear. “Well, I miss him. He was a nice kid.”
“Yeah, it’s really a shame he had to die,” Arnold said.
“Shaddap, you mugs!” Rat shouted. “Don’t talk about him no more.”
The lights flickered for a moment. “What was that?” Rat asked. Arnold pointed at the ceiling. “It’s just the lights going ‘flicker-flicker’.” Rat checked the security monitors on his desk, showing the busy casino floor. He relaxed for a moment, checking all his security devices—the doors, the elevators, the lights—everything was working perfectly. Nothing could get in or out without him noticing.
The phone rang and Rat jumped. He picked up the receiver. “Whaddaya want? I’m busy!” There was no response on the other side. Rat hung up and a moment later the phone rang again. Rat’s words again evoked no response, and he slammed the receiver down. “Okay, put everyone on full alert! I got a bad feeling about this.”
“It’s just a problem with the phone probably,” Sugar Ray suggested.
“I want every one of those greedy money-grubbing losers out of the casino!” Rat ordered. “Get them all out! There’s trouble, I can feel it!” Arnold and Sugar Ray followed instructions and headed down the elevator to help get the patrons out of the casino. Once the place was cleared, Rat activated a complete security lockdown so no one could get in. He looked at the bank of security cameras that covered the casino. In one he saw a momentary flash of a shadowy figure. What chilled his blood was that it appeared the figure wore a too-familiar fedora.
Rat got on the PA system. “He’s already inside the casino!!!” Moments later the phone rang again. Rat picked it up with a trembling hand. “Uh, yeah?”
“What comes around goes around, Rat. Time to reap the blood you’ve sown.” The voice hung up and Rat got back on the PA system. “A million bucks to the person who kills the guy in the casino!”
The lights went out in the casino for a few moments, and when they came back on a chipmunk wearing a trench coat and fedora stood in the center of the room. He looked at the assembled goons and drew a katana. “Blood for blood!” The chipmunk rushed forward and began cutting a brutal swath through the goons.
Rat watched in horror as his men were being disarmed and cut down. He quickly got up from his desk and scurried to the escape door he’d installed, finding to his horror that it wouldn’t open. Rat tried the elevator door and it wouldn’t open. He checked his security system and found that it had been overridden and he was now completely trapped within his own casino, with no escape.
Rat flipped his desk over, piling moneybags on top of it, and loading a gun. The door opened, and he could see the figure come inside. “I don’t suppose we could make a deal?” Rat asked. The chipmunk’s response was to hit Rat in the right arm with a throwing star, forcing him to drop the gun. Rat fell the ground, clutching his arm. “AAARRRHHH!!! Who are you? What do you want?”
“I’m death, Rat Capone. I’m here to avenge the Rescue Rangers! You killed all of them and now I’ve come to kill you.”
Rat struggled to his feet. “What were they to you?”
The chipmunk used a leg sweep to knock Rat off his legs. The gangster just sat there, trembling, as the chipmunk drew his katana and placed the razor-sharp blade against his neck. “You may have heard of my last name—Maplewood.” The chipmunk crouched down and drew the katana back over his head. “When you get to hell, tell them Theo sent you!”
Rat Capone was forced to look at the image of his own terrified face, frozen in the moment that he knew he would die. He wanted to look away, to deny it was himself, but he knew better. From deep within, a scream started and it hit full bore when Rat awakened at his desk. He looked all around, scared out of half his life. There was no one, and slowly his heartbeat returned to a semblance of normalcy. He felt exhausted and vulnerable, and tentatively opened the door to see if a crazed chipmunk wearing a fedora was there.
That same night, Vera had been cleaning up around the casino. Rat’s cohorts were insufferably sloppy, and it was all she could do to keep the place tidy. Inside, she knew that Rat’s grandiose dreams probably wouldn’t work. He meant well, but to control such a place took more ability to plan and plot than he had. She tired from the work, and when she settled down in her own room, she dozed right off.
“You’ve taken quite a burden on yourself, Vera.”
Vera jerked up, surprised by the voice. She found she was no longer in the plush bedroom, but strangely back in the sewer. “How...what....what’s happening? Did you bring me here?”
“You were taking a nap. I’m sorry to disturb you, Vera. I wanted to say thank you.”
Vera was wondering if this was dream or possibly a nightmare. “Thank you? But what for? Who are you?” A blonde female rat with green eyes smiled at her. “Don’t be afraid, Vera, but I’m the late Mrs. Capone.” Vera’s eyes widened. “The...the late? But, that would mean you’re—okay, this is getting scary.” Vera pinched herself. “It hurt, but I’m still here! This has to be a dream or something. What do you want?”
Tiffany came closer, trying to appear nonthreatening. “As I said, I’ve been given the chance to help my loved ones, and since you care for them, I wanted to speak with you as well. Thank you, Vera, for looking after Rat and my baby. You mean a great deal to both of them.”
Vera started looking for a convenient exit, but found none. “If you say so. I mean, I don’t have any illusions about who I am and what people think of me. But Rat’s treated me better than any guy I ever met. As long as he’s away from the ‘business’ he’s a surprisingly nice guy, but when it’s dealing with work, he’s dark and cold. I just wish he could see what’s it all doing to his son, poor kid.”
“I know, dear,” Tiffany said. “I’m working on that. I only have this one night to do this because—well, never mind why. It’s not important. The main thing is, you’re the best thing that either of them has. And I just want you to know, well, if you ever want to be the next Mrs. Capone that I think it’s okay.”
“He’ll never do that. I’m not the first moll and I probably won’t be the last. Just get Rhett outta this life before it kills him.”
Tiffany shook her head. “I can’t do that. All I can do is try to give my darling a wakeup call. He wasn’t always a criminal, you know. He was a good husband and father, even if we did live in squalor. He was ashamed to come home and see our hungry faces. He felt he was failing us, even when I told him I understood. But that wasn’t good enough for Zaslav. He had to feel he was a good provider in the face of the community.”
If Tiffany could have shed tears, she would have, but she’d used up her supply with her husband. “It started innocently enough. He simply wanted enough food for us so we wouldn’t starve. He got it, but then that wasn’t good enough and he began to steal other things. Vera, I had to watch while my beloved changed from an honest man who wouldn’t hurt a fly to a criminal who wouldn’t let even my pleas stand in his way. He was obsessed with us having the best of everything, and when I died that obsession moved to himself and Rhett.”
“I think Rhett would rather die than be like his father,” Vera said. “But what can I do? I can be replaced in an instant. Rhett would miss me, but not Rat.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. I’ve kept tabs, and you’ve been his moll longer than any other. I think he depends on you a lot more than you realize, and you’re Rhett’s friend. Keep on being his friend, because he doesn’t have many. As for Zaslav, try to remind him of what he was and what he’s given up to become the man he is. He can still turn around, but only if someone he trusts like you helps him.”
Vera felt for some strange reason an inkling of hope. “Then this isn’t all just wishful thinking? We could actually all escape this with our lives?” Tiffany looked up suddenly. “I can’t say much more, my time here’s limited. But there is a chance. You may find your best ally where you would never dream of it.”
“Thank you, Tiffany, and thank whoever sent you.”
Back in the present, Rhett had already said goodbye to Theo and Bink that morning as they both had activities to do. He got a book from the shelf and a candy bar in his mouth before he really felt like thinking. It was enough for him to be away from his father; not that he hated Rat—no, that would be too harsh. It was more like he and his dad were trains running on different tracks. He couldn’t understand his dad’s position, and vice-versa. So here he was, content to be alone with his thoughts.
Rhett pulled out the picture of his friends and spent a long time looking at it. The feelings of camaraderie and family it brought to the surface were strange, but he liked them. He wished he had one of his...but he knew that would never be. Rhett tried to push the thought away, but it was no use. He missed his mother, and while Vera was a good friend he wished he at least had a picture of her to go along with his other one. He was thinking about that when he dozed off.
Rhett’s dream was filled with adventures of him in the future as a Rescue Ranger, with Theo leading and with Bink along with them. Theo patted him on the back. “We make an awesome team, don’t we Rhett?”
“Yeah, we’re the clan with a plan! Fat Cat won’t bother us again.”
Theo and the others had just finished up a big case, and were returning to Headquarters in the RangerWing. A signaler on the Wing’s control panel buzzed, and Theo pushed a button to receive the call. “Yeah mom, what’s up?” Lahwhinie’s voice came over the radio. “There’s a surprise for someone when you guys get home. You’ll never guess.”
The three of them wondered what that was all about, but Lahwhinie wouldn’t say more. Theo landed the Wing, and Lahwhinie met them outside. She was older now, but still beautiful. “Rhett, the surprise is for you. Stay out here on the veranda, and close your eyes.” The others went inside, and Rhett did as he was told. He had no idea of what to expect, since he knew it wasn’t his birthday or anything. Then a voice that had long faded, even in his dreams, spoke to him once again.
“Miracles still do happen, honey.”
Rhett opened his eyes, and beheld a blonde female rat. She was beautiful, and the first impression he had was that she reminded him somewhat of Gadget when she was younger. “Uh, hi! You’re pretty—oh, hope you don’t mind me saying that. Hope my wife doesn’t mind, either.”
Tiffany smiled at her son. “Married are you? All grown up... at least in your dreams. What is your dream girl like, Rhett?” Rhett blinked, distracted. “Well, she’s...uh, if you don’t mind my asking, who are you?”
“Rhett, honey, I’m your mother.”
Rhett stood silently, staring.
“I know, you have no memory of me,” Tiffany said. “I’ve wanted to visit you for so long, to see you face-to-face for just a few moments and now I’m here. You had asked for a miracle and it’s happened.”
“M...m...mom?” Rhett said with a shaking voice
“Yes I’m here, if for a only a little while.”
Rhett approached her cautiously and put out a hand—a hand that passed right through her. Tiffany saw the sadness in his eyes. “I’d give anything to hold you in my arms again, my baby, but I’m eternally grateful for just this one chance to be with you.” Tears began running down Rhett’s cheeks. “I’ve always wondered what you were like, mom.”
“I’m sorry I had to leave you and your father, Rhett.”
“It’s okay mom. Dad told me what happened. I know you didn’t want to leave.”
Tiffany smiled encouragingly. “But I’m here for a short time to try to help all of you—Zaslav, you and Vera. It’s not too late for the three of you.” Rhett was startled. “Are you saying that dad can still change?” Tiffany’s look didn’t reveal anything. “As long as there’s life, there’s hope. He’s your father, have some faith in him. He’s going to have to make some tough choices and you’re going to have to show him which are the right ones.”
Rhett looked down, suddenly feeling guilty. “Mom, about Vera...”
“It’s okay, sweetheart. I know how you feel about her. I’m glad she’s there to look after you in my place.”
Rhett had wanted this moment all his life. Finally, he knew what his mother looked like and she was everything he’d ever imagined, and more. “Mom...I don’t want to wake up, because then you’ll be gone!” Tiffany came closer. “I’m never far away, Rhett. You’re always in my heart.”
“And you’ll always be in mine, mom.”
To Rhett’s surprise, she began glowing brightly and she appeared as surprised as he was. Tiffany looked up and whispered, “Thank you”. Quickly, she rushed up to her son and hugged him. Rhett was surprised at first, but soon hugged her tightly, hoping the moment would never end. Slowly she faded from view. Rhett woke up and looked around, realizing where he was. He sat on the side of the bed, put his head in his hands, and wept.
Chapter 13 – Twinkletoes Time and a Museum Meeting
Later that morning, Eva called down to Theo from the veranda. “Come, dahling! We have a full morning on the dance floor ahead of us.” Theo and Bink had been walking in the park, but they both knew they had to face the music. The Rangers had decided to have Dale teach Bink to dance up in the lair rather than Eva teach both, so she led Theo into the gym where they went through their normal warm-ups. A little adrenalin got Theo in a slightly better mood, but only slightly.
Eva took on the air of teacher. “Now Theo, the goal of dancing is to move as one with your partner. Are you ready?” Theo knew it would do no good to say no. “Just promise not to laugh when I’m tripping all over myself.” Eva grinned at him. “Now, now, you won’t trip at all if you do vhat I tell you. First, face me and stand close, your shoulders parallel to mine.”
Theo was embarrassed just being here, but did his best to hide it and hesitantly did as he was told. Eva calmly talked him through it. “Now, look down and move a little to your left so your right foot is centered between my feet. Good, now hold out your left hand,” Eva said. Theo did so, and Eva placed her hand in his, resting it on his palm. “Very good, Theo. Now keep your right fingers together and slightly cup that hand. Here, I vill show you where to place that hand.” Eva took his other hand and placed it just below the level of her shoulder blade, then put her other hand on his upper arm. “There we are! Now, you see? It is not so bad, is it?”
**Should I faint, run or just beg for mercy…** “Uh, are Becky and I going to dance like this?” Theo asked.
She saw his blushing, and understood it. “Yes, dahling. I know it can be embarrassing at first, but I promise it’s okay. Becky von’t mind you touching her back. You have to place your hand there to lead your partner, to tell her vhere to step so she won’t make a mistake and end up under your toes.”
“Okay, I just didn’t realize it would be this up-close and personal. This school dance is going to be mostly modern music, so I don’t know if there will be much slow dancing.”
“That is all right,” Eva said. “You vill have the option to vary the speed and style of the dance once you know how to lead. Keep your arms, elbows and wrists firm, because your partner needs to be able to feel where you’re leading. You lead by applying pressure with the right hand to indicate vhen to turn, and vhen you want to go forward you lean forward and let your partner know to go straight backward. Now, ve will start easy with the box step. Always start with the left foot. Lean forward slightly and take a step toward me.”
Eva began talking him through the box step, showing him how to lead properly. They did it several times, Eva patiently correcting his mistakes. Mostly he’d forget to stay left of Eva and they’d end up doing the toe-smashing tango. Eva didn’t complain, and she’s wisely worn some tough shoes for this tour of duty. Soon, Theo was catching on to the rhythm of the moves. “Good!” Eva said. “Now ve try it with music. It is always easier to learn if you do it slowly first.”
Eva put on a slow waltz, and they began dancing again. Eva explained to him how to use the fingers and palm of his right hand to indicate direction to her, and after a few tries Theo was able to start leading Eva in any direction on his own. They moved all around the gym, the dancing getting smoother until Eva signaled to stop. “Very good! You are a fast learner. Now, we vill learn the basic dance steps. First the Waltz, then Fox Trot and Schwing. Most likely you vill be dancing schwing style. It is very popular now.”
The morning went by in a flurry of dance steps, Theo learning how to stay upright while guiding his partner through the patterns and then beginning to invent variations of his own. The lessons did serve one purpose—they entirely distracted him from any thoughts of the previous day’s experience, as it took all his concentration to be able to keep everything going in rhythm.
At last, Eva signaled for them to stop. “I have not danced that much in quite some time. You have the basics down, Theo. Now, it is simply a matter of practicing until it becomes second nature. I imagine Bink is doing quite well with Dale. After a few more lessons, you vill be able to start practicing together for the dance.”
Theo was nervous just thinking about it. “I think this is all happening too fast for me. I don’t know if I’m ready for slow dancing with Becky.”
“Do not vorry, dahling. No one will push you, and I am sure Becky will take time to feel ready as well. Fortunately, we have more than enough time to spare. Ah, here they come now.”
Dale and Bink came downstairs from the lair, Gadget following in her porta-chair. Theo could see she looked just as uncomfortable as he did. Bink called out to him, “How’d you do? Pretty weird, huh?”
“Only half as weird as it’s going to feel at the dance,” Theo said. “I did okay. Aunt Eva won’t be limping too long.” Bink sat down and held her left foot. “I wish I’d thought to wear shoes like hers. I got under Dale’s feet at least five times.”
“You did fine, Bink!” Gadget said. “After all, it’s not easy to learn to move backwards in response to someone else, reflecting their every move. Plus it takes a while to get over the closeness, but once you do it’s fun.” Bink rubbed her other foot. “I’ll take your word for it.”
The five of them went to lunch, where they reported to Chip and Lahwhinie. After that, Bink had to leave to go shopping with her mom for her dress material. Theo saw her out. “Thank Uncle Dale again for me,” Bink said. “He was real nice and patient. I sort of lost mine a couple of times. I think that’s why he had Gadget there, to encourage me to stick with it. Don’t you wonder how people ever got started dancing, with how close you gotta be?”
“I guess that’s what people did in the dark ages before there was television to watch,” Theo said.
“Must be. Thanks for doing this for me. I know you don’t like it much, but maybe later on it’ll be better. I hope it will, anyway, because Dale’s feet sure are heavy.”
She started to go, but saw something in Theo’s eyes that made her hesitate. “Theo, what’s wrong?” Theo waived off her question. “Nothing really. I’m still just upset over the whole turn of events of the last two weeks. I am looking forward to the dance, Becky. It’s not like I’m being forced to go. I’m sorry I’m not making a better show of it, but I’ll be in a better mood by that time.”
Bink gave him a hug. “Thanks, Jake. You’re a great friend and great super spy. See you tonight.”
“Right. And you’re the greatest femme fatale that a super spy could ever have around.”
That evening, Rhett’s stomach was turning somersaults every time he thought about what his father was about to try. Vera didn’t look any happier, but Rat wouldn’t listen to either of them. It didn’t keep them from trying, however. “Rat, honey, maybe you oughta wait until they get this tablet you’re talking about,” Vera suggested. “ They’d be off their guard then, and wouldn’t be expecting you.”
“Yeah dad, listen to her!” Rhett said. “Why don’t you wait?”
Rat had already gathered his tools for the job, and at the moment was checking them over at his desk. He answered his son while testing the blade of his glasscutter on a glass watch cover. “Because if I get the tablet first, then they’ll really know that I’m better! If I steal that tablet from the Twins, well, I’d just be a common thief. It’ll burn their tails knowing that a rodent beat them at their own game.”
Rhett caught his dad’s jacket sleeve. “You don’t have to prove anything anymore, dad! You’ve already got the casino and you’re a big player. Why risk your life for something like this?”
“You gotta live big or you’re nothing in this life. People remember Al Capone, Bugsy Seagel, John Dillinger. But who’ll remember Zaslav Z. Zettlemoyer? Besides, it’s time cats learned their place!”
Vera could see this was getting nowhere fast, and she knew Rat’s mind was made. “Just promise me you’ll be careful, okay? You’re walking a fine line here, but if you don’t come back I’ll make sure Rhett has a good home.” Rat flashed her a fake smile and put his tools into a small haversack. “Aw, don’t worry, dollface. When I get back, everything will be different. Then we’ll really be big time, top dog, the big cheese! This city will be at our feet. And then, my boy, maybe you’ll understand why it’s best to be at the top rather than the bottom.”
Vera took a look into Rhett’s desperate eyes. “Yeah, the top.”
Rat, Arnold and Sugar Ray headed out, Rat not trusting anyone else to carry out this caper. Two minutes after they left, the rear door of the casino opened and Vera and Rhett started out in the same direction, being careful not to be noticed. Once he’d looked around, Rhett gave a low whistle and Theo and Bink emerged from their hiding places.
“You knew I’d want to follow him?” Vera asked.
“Of course. And it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of friends along,” Rhett said, waving them over. Theo for one wasn’t thrilled with the situation. “Rhett, I know you made us promise not to ask for help, but shouldn’t I get my dad and the other Rangers to help us anyway? We’re taking a really big risk here.”
“I can...” Bink started to offer, but Vera interrupted her. “Wait, I’ll go. You three keep on Rat’s tail and make sure he comes home okay. Rhett, don’t do anything foolish. You know what the Twins are like.” Theo liked that idea. They could hang back and get an idea of what they were up against before the Rangers got there. “Good, get on the phone and we’ll tail them.”
Rhett gave Vera a warning look. “Don’t follow us, Vera. It could get really dangerous. You know where I keep the nest egg, so if anything happens take it and get outta town.” Vera nodded, hugging him, and returned quickly to the casino. The youngsters would need all their speed and agility before this night was done. They came together as a team, laying their right hands on top of each other in solemn determination.
Theo took the lead as always. “All right, team, until the Rangers get here, we’re going to get the job done.”
“I heard that,” Bink agreed.
“Thanks guys,” Rhett said. “Now let’s go make sure my dad doesn’t get himself a quick ticket to purgatory! Teen Rangers, away!”
A block away, a pair of eyes under a black safari hat watched with cold curiosity as three rodents passed by. He had seen them coming, and now Donovan spoke into a rodent-sized cell phone as he slowly followed the trio while they made for the museum. Rat and his cronies were oblivious to their pursuer, although Rat was constantly on watch. Donovan wasn’t the kind to be seen, though, unless he wanted to be seen. And then, it was usually too late.
At Ranger Headquarters, the Rangers were getting ready for bed. They’d been watching Clear and Present Danger, which Chip enjoyed for all its twists and turns. He stretched and looked over at Lahwhinie. “Nice to have a quiet night, isn’t it?”
“Sure beats a lot of them I’ve had,” Lahwhinie said. “Say, why don’t we go in and tell Theo good night? He’s been in his room all evening.” Just then, the phone rang. Chip got up to answer it, and as he listened his features twisted into sudden panic. He threw the phone down, rushing to Theo’s room. Lahwhinie stood up, as did the others, sensing something was wrong.
“Honey, what is it?” Lahwhinie asked. Chip returned in a few seconds, loaded for bear. “I just went to check on Theo. His room’s empty and the window’s open. Your son at this moment is trailing Rat Capone into what could likely be the most dangerous situation he’ll ever face!” Lahwhinie gasped, as did the others, then recovered herself. Now was no time for panic. “I knew he’d try to play hero sooner or later. That kid’s a chip off the old Chip. Better call Donna and find out if Bink is missing too.”
“I’ll do that, Chip,” Gadget said. “Though I suspect she’s right where he is. You guys get going after Theo—uh, once you tell them where Theo is.”
Chip quickly explained what Vera had told him over the phone while everyone prepared. It didn’t take long, considering the possibilities. Chip gave Gadget a few more quick instructions and soon the RangerPlane and Wing were up, and slowly the threads of destiny began pulling together. Rat and his goons were at the museum, and Rat was pleased to find that he’d lost none of his skill at bypassing security alarms. They’d entered through a seldom-used storage room and then traveled through the air ducts. From there, it was an easy matter to reach the display room.
Rat had Arnold and Sugar Ray set up a system of twin mirrors to fool the laser beams surrounding the display. Once he had confirmed that the beams were the only defense, he used his glasscutter to cut out a portion of the case the size of the tablet. Arnold went in and got it, then gently lowered it to Rat and Sugar Ray.
Rat looked at the stone tablet with strange writing, smiling wickedly. It was sandwich-sized and covered with ancient lettering that covered every millimeter of the front and back. The writing was very small, and Rat noted they’d built a magnifier into the case to make it easier for humans to read. The gangster was no intellectual, though, and soon lost his curiosity in thoughts of the tablet’s value.
“Piece of cake,” Rat said, admiring his work.
Arnold scratched his head. “Dyuh, I thought it was made of rock...”
“It is, you imbecile!” Rat hissed, half-considering breaking the stone tablet over the guy’s head. “Now help me to get it over to the rope and we’ll pull it right up into the air duct.” Arnold agreed, happy as ever. “Oh, okay. Can we have cake when we get back?”
Rat ignored him, and they brought the sandwich-sized tablet over and tied the rope to it. It was slow going back through the air duct, but Rat’s confidence was bubbling over. He’d beaten the Twins to the punch, and was making off with the goods. Soon, he’d not only recoup his investment in the casino, but he’d be able to buy enough muscle to make a go at taking over some of the more choice territory in the city.
Rat was thinking about which crime boss’ place to take over first when he and the goons got outside. Sugar Ray tapped him on the shoulder, speechless. “Well, what is it?” Rat asked testily, setting down the tablet as Arnold lowered it. “I ain’t got time fer charades right now, Sugar Ray.”
The warning had come out as almost a squeak, but it was sufficient to get both Rat and Arnold’s attention. They looked, and standing there were Donovan, five samurai cats, and two pairs of foreclaws belonging to the Siamese Twins. The Twins bowed in ceremonial fashion. “Ah, arigato, Capone-san. We are most grateful most grateful for your saving us the trouble of acquiring the tablet. In return, we wish to invite you to our humble home humble home where we can thank you properly.”
Rat pulled a knife. “You stinkin’ cats better back off! You’re not gettin’ yer dirty claws on my goods!” The Twins snapped their fingers simultaneously, and the samurai surrounded them. Rat could see he was surrounded, but he saw more than that. “Hey, I know that face!” he said, pointing at the jumping mouse. “Youse is the guy that told me the Twins was going after the tablet in the first place! I shoulda known better than ta believe that sea-mouse disguise.” Donovan smiled and winked at the rodent gangster derisively. “You made a good effort, boyos, but you’ve lost. You can die now, or come with us. Your choice.”
Arnold and Sugar Ray looked to their boss with more than a little trepidation. Rat nodded and they all put down their weapons. “Okay, we play along with youse for now, but you kitties are gonna pay for messin’ with Rat Capone.” The Twins’ feline eyes flashed in a horrible stare. “We are sure, Capone-san. We are sure.”
From an alley across the way, three onlookers watched as Rat and his goons surrendered the tablet and were escorted by the samurai. Rhett jumped up and tried to run for his father, but Theo anticipated that and held him back. “We can’t take on that bunch alone, man! We’ve got to wait for the others.”
Bink was the voice of reason. “Maybe we should’ve talked to Theo’s dad before we did this. We’re not real Rangers yet, after all. I guess we should follow them, though.” Rhett pulled loose from Theo’s grip. “We’ve gotta follow them! We can’t let them kill him!”
Theo did his best to calm his friend. “Easy, Rhett! If they were going to kill him, they’d likely have done it already. We’ll go and see what they do.” Rhett fought hard to control the nervous panic inside him. “Oh man, I always wanted to be on a mission with you guys, but not like this!”
Keeping to the shadows, Theo and his team followed as the Twins and their cohorts led Capone into the Chinese laundry. Theo led his team around back, but they pulled up quickly when they saw a tough-looking cat guarding the back door. Theo began looking for an alternative when Bink tapped him on the shoulder and pointed up. A telescoping ladder was just a little ways above them.
Theo gave Bink a boost and she brought the ladder down as silently as she could. The three amateur adventurers scurried up the ladder to the roof, then found a perfect vantage point in a broken skylight. Careful not to allow themselves to be seen, they gathered and listened as the group entered the large room below, which was the Twins’ reception room. At the Twins’ summons, Nimnul appeared.
“Back already?” Nimnul said, surprised. “Well, I see you’ve got the tablet! I suppose you’re not quite as incompetent as I thought.” Ting and Tang each gave him a nasty look. “Do not mock us, Nimnul. Your life would end with just a word from us.” Nimnul immediately started kowtowing. “Oh, don’t mind me! You know how it is—you spend a few months locked up in a place wearing a straitjacket, it gets on your nerves! Now, let me have the tablet and I’ll get started on the—”
The Twins signaled for silence. “In a moment, purrfessor. But first, we wish you to witness as we inform our most honored guests about our plans.” Nimnul sneered down at Rat and the others. “Ooh, I do so enjoy humiliation! Especially when it’s someone else getting humiliated!”
The cats addressed themselves to Rat. “Capone-san, you sought the tablet for simple material gain simple material gain and power from us, but your simple mind could not grasp that it holds the promise of so much more. Now, our honorable human ally will translate the writing contained on the tablet, and it will lead us to wealth and power wealth and power that you can only dream of!”
“Telling the doomed prisoner your plans?” Rat chided. “I thought youse was smarter than that. I’m smarter, ‘cause I know my limitations better than you know yours. And why’re you workin’ with a stupid human? You’re gonna get us all in trouble! You shoulda just stuck with normal crime. When the Rescue Rangers put an end to yer little plan, then I’m just gonna sit back and laugh!”
The Twins didn’t appear concerned at all. “I would not count would not count on rescue, Capone-san. You have transgressed into our affairs, and as you know, that is not acceptable. At the moment at the moment we are rather preoccupied, but rest assured the time of your end will come soon enough. As for telling you about our plans about our plans, that was for the simple satisfaction of letting you know that you will never have what we will have.”
Rat smirked. “Hair balls?”
The Twins unsheathed their claws, each placing the point of one claw under Rat’s chin. “Do not tempt fate, Capone-san. You time will come soon enough. Take them away.”
Chapter 14 – Unlikely Heroes, Battle Royale, The Better Part of Valor, and Return of the Hot Water
The samurai took Rat and his goons out of the room, and on the roof the kids crept to another skylight in the direction they’d left. Within a minute, Rat, Arnold and Sugar Ray were led to a small room where they were bound and gagged then tied to sturdy chairs. When the samurai closed and locked the door, Theo motioned for Bink and Rhett to come away from the skylight.
“All right, now’s our chance,” Theo whispered. “If we can get down there and free them, we might just be able to sneak them out without anyone noticing.” Bink didn’t like the looks of it. “But how could they be so careless as to leave this way open? I hope it’s just a case of them being too overconfident.” She looked at Theo, questioning, but she could tell that he was determined to try. “Okay, we need some rope or something to get down there.”
Theo agreed, but first he turned his attention to his other friend. “Rhett, are you gonna be able to keep your head while we’re doing this? I need to know if I can count on you.” Rhett nodded, but the look on his face wasn’t assuring. “I’ll do my best, Theo. Where are we gonna get the rope from?”
An inspection of the large roof presented nothing immediately. It was a flat roof with a smooth concrete base, two-foot brick safety walls all around, and a ten-foot brick centerpiece with a door on the far side that led into the building. As the wily chipmunk walked around the periphery, he came upon a long-abandoned hothouse apparently used for growing herbs at one time.
Checking inside the hothouse proved fruitless, but behind it he found just what he wanted—a discarded garden hose. With the three of them pulling, they managed to drag the hose over to the skylight above the captives’ room. Fortunately, this skylight was also broken, which allowed them access. Once they tied one end of the hose off on a protruding metal rod, Theo tested its holding power. Satisfied, they took the other end and lowered it slowly down into the room.
Rat caught the metal end of the hose on his noggin, but once he saw who was above him he was in no mood to complain. Quickly, the kids climbed down and while Rhett untied Rat from the chair, Theo and Bink freed his hands and gag. “Don’t worry, dad, we’ll get you out of here,” Rhett whispered, tugging the gag free. Rat leered at him. “What kinda trick do ya dumb kitties think you’re tryin’ ta pull? My son would never be dumb enough to have followed me here and come inside!”
Rhett plunked his hand over Rat’s mouth, hissing his reply, as Theo and Bink moved on to freeing Arnold and Sugar Ray. “Now listen, we’re here to rescue you, so don’t louse it up! If anything happens to Theo or Bink because of this, I’ll never speak to you again. Understand?” Rat removed the boy’s hand. “You come to spring me or help me finish off the cats?”
“On their own turf? Get serious, dad! Now come on, let’s get to the roof and get out while we have time!”
All three captives were free, and they and the youngsters climbed the hose to the safety of the roof. Rat shook his head. “Saved by kids, and Ranger kids at that. I gotta be losing it...”
“You are indeed about to lose something, Capone-san...”
From behind the brick centerpiece, the Twins, samurai, and Donovan appeared. “Fortunately, our alarm systems are superior to those of the museum. We congratulate the young heroes young heroes on their most entertaining display. We enjoyed it thoroughly. Unfortunately, none of you will be able to become old heroes now.”
Theo didn’t like the odds, but in an instant his whole outlook changed. “Oh yeah? Then look behind you.” The bad guys snickered at the very idea. Donovan popped a billy club in his hand. “Give it up, boy. Got any last words?”
“Yes,” Theo said. “Dad, I can explain.”
“And I’ve got a few words: Rescue Rangers, away!”
The Twins swung around, and at that moment Eva and Chip fired both ends of a plunger net at them. The feline felons were soon tangled up together, but the Rangers knew that wouldn’t last long. Monty jumped out, grabbing a handy mouse-sized plank. “All roight! Who wants me to take a whack at ‘em?” One of the samurai pulled out his sword and sliced the plank in two.
Monty tallied the odds quick. “Guess that answers that...” The Aussie high-tailed it, several of the sword-bearing mice after him. Eva pressed a button on the RangerPlane, and a large electromagnet came out. She, like Gadget, loved modifying things, and this time it paid off. The cats quickly found themselves without their swords, and Monty rolled up his sleeves. “Now let’s see who’s ready for a walloping!”
At that moment, the Twins clawed their way out of the net. “You will all pay for your interrrference!”
“Here’s your payment with interest!”
The Twins swung around to find that Theo and his team had been busy. They’d untied the hose and found a spigot on the brick centerpiece. Arnold had connected it, and now he turned on the water full-blast. With everyone save Chip, Monty and Eva holding the hose, they pointed it right at the Twins as a powerful stream hit the cats full-force.
“Yowlllll!” the Twins cried, drenched and helpless. Rat loved every moment of it. “Take that, youse weird-talkin’ cats!” The stream knocked Ting and Tang off their feet, sending them rolling over and over until they whammed against the far protective wall that ran around the roof. They sank to the concrete, unconscious. When the samurai and Donovan saw their leaders go down, they ran for the ladder on the side of the building and escaped. Theo signaled Arnold, and he turned off the water.
“Now we can get some cake, right boss?” Arnold asked. Rat glared in Arnold’s direction, but forgot about it when Rhett rushed up and hugged him. “Dad, I was so worried about you!” Rhett said. Rat looked at his boy, amazed. “I can’t believe you followed and rescued me! I hate to admit it, but I thought you was yellow, that you didn’t have the guts to do something like that. I’m…proud of you, son.”
Rhett couldn’t have been more shocked. All his life, his father had never said anything close to that to him. The boy smiled up at him. “Thanks, dad. Now let’s go home before those cats wake up.” Chip gave Theo a “later for you” look, then thumbed at the Twins. “I agree, but we’re going to need to do something about them. We’ll have to alert the animal authorities.”
At that moment, a very dissatisfied yelling came from inside the building and Nimnul appeared through the door cut into the roof’s centerpiece. “This stupid tablet doesn’t work! I tried using the information on it and it just led me into outer space! Of all the stupid, boneheaded, lousy...” Then Nimnul looked around and saw who was surrounding him all sides.
“THE VERMIN!” Nimnul ran back downstairs in a blind panic, heading for the exit. “He’s getting away!” Theo said, pointing. Chip grinned. “I don’t think so, son. You see, Gadget made a call for some backup.”
Nimnul ran downstairs, ducking in case the vermin or that scary bat tried to get him. Backing toward the door, he opened it from behind and slipped out—or rather he tried to but something was in his way. Before he knew it, a pair of handcuffs adorned his wrists.
“I know someone who’s going to be very happy to see your mug,” Drake said, pulling him along. “Vince, I think we can officially call it even.”
Everyone watched the scene unfold from above as Drake and Plato escorted Nimnul to a waiting police car down the street. Rat shook his head yet again and laughed at the irony of it all. “All dat scheming and plottin’ they did, for nothing. Well, guess we’d better go.” Chip stopped him. “Now hold on! Vera told us what led up to this. You put everyone here in jeopardy, including my son!” Lahwhinie was beside him in an instant. “And I’ve got more than a few more punches left for you, buster.”
Rhett came up, pleading. “I’m sorry all this had to happen, but he did help us out and he didn’t get away with anything anyway. Please, just let him go this time, okay?” Chip and Lahwhinie exchanged glances, then Chip looked into Rat’s eyes. “I came here to retrieve my son and Bink, and we’ve accomplished our mission, so I guess we’ll be on our way.”
Rat couldn’t believe it. “You mean, youse is really gonna let us go?” Chip gave the gangster a chilly glare. “The next time you break the law, we’ll be there to stomp you, but that’s for another time.” Rat watched open-mouthed as the Rangers turned around and walked off, Chip with his arm around Theo. Rhett’s voice was full of satisfaction. “See dad? I told you they were worth hanging around.”
For once, Rat didn’t have a witty retort. He just watched as the Rangers securely bound the still-unconscious Twins and headed for the Wing and Plane. “Now we can go home,” Rat said, shaking his head yet again, this time out of sheer incredulity. He couldn’t believe that Chip Maplewood, leader of the Rangers, had simply let him go. It was the first time anyone had cut him slack like that, and it preoccupied the criminal’s mind for several hours after.
When everyone else had left the laundry, a pair of fur-covered hands picked up the stone tablet discarded by Nimnul at the bottom of the stairs. It was an effort for one mouse, but Donovan wasn’t just your average mouse. He was a mouse for hire who had developed his skills over years of study and effort. Now, for whatever reason, he decided that taking the tablet was worth his while. A minute later and he had vanished into the shadows he preferred to walk in, and all was silence at the Chinese laundry.
All the way home, Theo and Chip dominated the conversation in the RangerWing. It was still in full bloom when they set down on the veranda and Chip faced Theo, his tone serious and half-exasperated. “Son, that was one of the most bone-headed things you’ve ever done, and you’re never to take on a case alone like that ever again!”
“Yes, dad,” was all Theo could say, ducking his head.
Chip took a moment to let the emotions ebb, letting his tone go softer. “But I want you to know that you did a fine job leading your team and helping to defeat the Twins. You’ve got the makings of a fine Ranger, if you remember to work with us all.”
“Me too, Mr. Maplewood?” Bink asked.
“From what Theo tells me, you did fine,” Chip said. “Of course, you’ve got a tougher mission to handle now.”
Chip and the others went in, where the Chesnutts were waiting. They’d come over as soon as Gadget called, anxious for news of their daughter. When she walked in unharmed, Donna ran to her and hugged her tightly. “Oh, Bink! I was so frightened!” Donna said.
Bink cried a little with her. “I’m sorry mom! I didn’t mean to worry you and dad. It just all happened so quickly, and I wanted to help and all.” Donna and Bink walked back over to the sofa, where Oscar was standing, and he hugged her as well. Then it was time to face the music. Theo and Bink took turns explaining what had happened and why they hadn’t told anyone. Oscar was first to respond.
“I must admit to being disappointed in both of you,” Oscar said, weighing his words. “Bink, I thought you knew better than to get involved in a dangerous situation like this, and I thought Theo would’ve been more responsible.” Bink immediately went on the defensive, more out of loyalty to Theo than for herself. “It’s not something we went looking for, dad! It just sort of happened and we had to act right then or Rhett’s dad would’ve died.”
“I understand the situation, but Theo deliberately didn’t go to his parents for help. Even though the reasons were good, it still put you in jeopardy, and that’s not something your mother and I can easily overlook.”
Bink nodded soberly. “I know, and I’ll accept the consequences.”
“You certainly will, young lady!” Donna said. “You’re grounded for the next two weeks, and you’re to talk over any further plans of being a Ranger with us first.” Lahwhinie followed suit with Theo. “That goes for you too, young man, on both counts. Plus you’ll be in charge of cleaning Headquarters for that time as well, and I’m sure everything will be spotless by the time you’re done.”
Theo hung his head. Why did helping someone have to be so tough? “Yes, mom. I understand.” Chip knelt down by his boy. “Son, you’ve got to understand that when you take the leadership role, you’re responsible for all the actions on your team. That includes Bink and Rhett in this case, and the danger they were in.”
Bink interrupted, looking over at her mother. “I suppose this isn’t the best time to ask, but does this mean no dance?” Oscar and Donna huddled for a few moments. “We’re not out to separate you two, just to be sure that you realize you’re growing up,” Donna said. Oscar nodded. “Like Chip said, you both have new responsibilities, and you have to live up to them to keep them. If Chip and Lahwhinie agree, then as long as they and we are satisfied, you can go.”
Oscar looked over at Chip, and he nodded. “I don’t see why not, as long as Theo’s lived up to his obligations.” Lahwhinie gave her son a meaningful look. “We’ll see that he does.” Donna noticed the look Lahwhinie gave him. “I’m sure you will. And Theo, ten-thirty, no later.” Theo nodded, and a measure of peace returned to the room. That is, until Bink spoke up again. “Mom, is it okay of I become a Rescue Ranger when I’m grown up?”
Donna had to take a few moments to recover, then think of the most reasonable reply. “Let’s wait a few years and then ask us again.”
“And when the time comes, if you’re ready, we’ll discuss it with you too,” Chip added.
Donna and Oscar thanked the Rangers for saving their daughter and wished Gadget well on her approaching delivery. The house quieted down again, and Theo returned inside. He’d thought it would’ve gone a lot worse for him and Bink both, and he asked his dad pointedly about it. “Well, you’re becoming a man now so you’re going to be treated like one,” Chip said. “That means we expect you not to make the same mistake once you’ve realized you messed up. I trust that our trust isn’t misplaced.”
Theo breathed a healthy sigh of relief. “You’re safe there, but I’ve got to say it’s nice to be given a little more leeway.” Chip pointed at him. “Just don’t abuse that leeway, and you’ll earn more respect as time goes by.”
The Rangers headed for the sofa, the adrenalin fading, and everyone just wanted to crash for the rest of the evening. A whole ten minutes went by when the front door suddenly burst open and two bats, one holding an infant, stood there.
“Hello, everyone!” Foxy said. “We’re home! So, what’s been happening? Business as usual, huh?” The Rangers turned their tired eyes toward ever other and smirked. “You could say that,” Chip said, standing up. “Welcome home, you three! Let’s get a look at my nephew there.”
Back at the rooftop, the Twins’ pale blue eyes slowly opened in unison. “What happened what happened?” they asked, finding themselves tied up and unable to move. “We will have our revenge our revenge on Capone, the Rangers, and especially the young heroes!”
“I would not count on that,” a voice said, as a form emerged from behind the roof’s centerpiece. A human dressed in a dark brown robe with a monkey on his shoulder walked over to where the Twins were bound.
“The Rangers the Rangers sent you to finish us?” Ting and Tang asked.
“No,” the hooded human said. “Those they sent will not arrive for several minutes more. And when they do, they will not find you. We have disbanded your samurai. You must come and face a higher Council than the common animal justice system. We know what you were trying to locate, and the ordinatio elementum must be preserved at all costs.”
The Twins’ eyes bulged in fear. “You are…”
“He is,” the monkey said. “And so am I. Hurry, Quartus. We mustn’t be seen this night.” Quartus picked up the bound cats and headed for the centerpiece of the roof. “The tablet is no longer here. We must secure it, Nester. If its possessor learns its secret, we will have to act without delay. Pridem quae remaneo pridem, et olim quae remaneo olim.”
Chapter 15 – Here We Go Again!
For the next couple of hours, the Rangers caught Foxy and Noel up on things, and vice-versa. The ladies doted on Lonestar, and the guys congratulated both parents. When midnight came, everyone went to their respective rooms for the night, the events of the evening having proved exhausting. Dale Oakmont was out solid, snoring away, when Gadget awoke. It was around four in the morning.
“Dale, are you awake?” Gadget asked, uncertainty in her voice.
“I am now,” Dale mumbled. “What’s up? Need a foot rub or something to eat?”
Gadget had been forced awake by something. She wasn’t sure just what it was at the moment it happened, but now she did. A pain unlike any she’d ever imagined coursed through her and despite her efforts to keep from screaming, she belted out her answer. “I NEED TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL!!! ”
Her scream knocked Dale out of bed, and when he got up he was fully awake and alert. “We’re going, we’re going! We’re going right this second!” Dale grabbed the overnight bag they had ready for this moment and he helped her out of bed. “Don’t worry, Gadget, we’re gonna get you there safe and sound!”
Gadget was prepared as well, and once she’d dressed, she and Dale headed for the chair lift. The Rangers were waiting at the bottom of the stairs, dressed and ready. Gadget blushed a little. “Oh, you heard that.” Monty gave her a smug grin. “Lass, the swallows in Capistrano heard that! Looks like it ain’t no false alarm this time!” Another overwhelming pain shot through Gadget, and she moaned pitifully. “I’LL SAY...it isn’t. Okay, did you call the doctor?”
“Done,” Chip said. “He’s on his way and he’ll be waiting for you. Tammy’s back at school, but Donna’s on her way over to watch Colby and Lonestar for us.” Foxy was shaking with excitement. “Oh, I’m so glad we decided to come back when we did!”
Gadget turned to her husband. “Dale, have you got everything?”
“Yes, we had everything ready beforehand, remember? Just help me get her to the Wing, guys, and we’ll be all set!” Dale said. Eva held her husband’s hand, anticipating the arrival of the great moment. “Oh dahling, it is just like I vhas watching myself at her age. This is so exciting!”
“I’ll just be glad when it’s over, luv,” Monty said.
Eva chuckled, “Oh, you men always say that.”
“That’s from experience, ya know.”
Dale, Monty, Noel and Chip managed to get Gadget to the Wing, the expectant mother moaning all the way. Foxy and Noel waited for Donna, then flew to the hospital under their own power. Chip piloted the plane, because he knew Dale was going to be too nervous and attentive to his wife. Dale was that in spades, asking “how much longer” at least 20 times and trying to console Gadget to the point that her adrenaline-pumped impatience couldn’t take it.
“Dale, do me a favor and just sit back and be quiet until we get there!” Gadget shouted. Dale pulled back, but Eva answered his confusion. “Do not take it personally, dahling. She is under a lot of stress.”
“You can say that again,” Gadget said. “Sorry, Dale. OH!” That scream made Dale slip back into attentive mode again. Then he noticed something. “Hey, it’s wet back here? Did the RangerWing spring a leak?”
“I think that was me, actually,” Gadget said. “My water broke.”
Now Chip was getting nervous and did he ever feel grateful when he saw the lights of New York Presbyterian Hospital coming up fast. “Hang on, Gadget! They’ve got a team waiting on the roof!” Chip set the Wing down, and the well-trained attendants got Gadget onto a gurney with wonderful efficiency. Dale was right at her side, running and holding her hand.
“Don’t worry, Gadget, we got the best of the best here for you!” Dale reassured her. “Everything’s gonna be fine. Soon as they get the painkillers going, it’ll be better.” Lahwhinie joined Chip as they both ran along behind the gurney. “Are they gonna be in time, Chip?”
Chip couldn’t hide his concern. “I think so, but she’s gone into labor pretty fast.” They had to wait with the other Rangers and Theo when they got to the elevator, as it could only handle the attendants and Dale plus the gurney. “We’ll be rooting for you, Gadget!” Chip said. “You too, Dale!”
“Thanks guys, we’ll be okay!” Dale said. “Chip, call Pastor Beefy and get him praying! We’ll get back to you as soon as we can!”
The doors closed, and Dale held on fast to Gadget’s hand. She was breathing rhythmically now, as Eva had instructed her, and trying to resist the all-encompassing urge to push until they got to the doctor. As the doors opened, Gadget let out a scream that would chill even a soldier’s blood, and people instinctively cleared the halls as the attendants pushed the gurney down the hall at warp speed.
Dale had to stop momentarily at the doors to get into his surgical gown and mask. Normally he would’ve fumbled and stumbled, but he knew Gadget needed him in the most desperate way so his concentration was at its highest and he was in the delivery room within thirty seconds. Dr. Mavel was there, and the nurses were prepping Gadget and giving her an epidural for the pain.
“Everything looks to be on schedule so far, Mr. Oakmont,” the doctor said, his professional voice giving husband and wife some comfort. “Now, I need you to help her concentrate and push with every contraction.” Dale got next to his wife, the nurses wiping her heavily perspiring brow, as Dr. Mavel got into position on the far side of the table. Gadget gripped Dale’s hand so hard, he could feel the bones rubbing together.
“Dale...help me...” she said, trying to concentrate on the matter at hand. Dale put his other hand over hers, trying to give her some of his strength. “I’m here for you, Gadget! I’m doing everything I can. If I could I’d be on that table in your place.”
“I know, Da-AAAAALLLEE!”
Dr. Mavel took over again. “Push, Gadget! Push hard!” Gadget gave him a monstrous look. “What do you think I’m doing, smashing atoms!” Dale wiped her brow, held her hand and kept speaking words of encouragement. **Nuts, I forgot to tell Chip to call my folks**. Dale let the thought go; that wasn’t important at the moment. “You’re almost there, Gadget!” Dale said. “Keep pushing, and soon two new lives will enter the world!”
Gadget glared at him. “They’d better get here fast!”
Dr. Mavel’s tone was calm and encouraging. “It’s crowning! I can see the head now. Come on, you can do it!”
Another contraction, and another came. It was torture on Dale, seeing Gadget in this kind of excruciating pain because of him. He couldn’t let it get to him though, and kept encouraging her. Another contraction, and Gadget fell back on the gurney, wonderfully relieved. Dr. Mavel cut the umbilical cord and gently slapped the child on its back to induce breathing. In moments, Gadget’s crying for joy mixed with an infant’s crying to announce its arrival.
“It’s a boy; a boy mouse I should say!” Dr. Mavel said. “That means you’ve got a younger sister to come, young fellow.” The doctor held the crying child up for their parents to see. Dale didn’t realize how small he would be, then a sudden thought came to him. “Now they’re going to be fighting because he was born several minutes before she was. You’re halfway there, Gadget! Keep pushing and then you’re home free!”
Gadget had felt such relief at getting the first one out that she’d forgot about the second—well, until the contractions started up again a minute later. Then she had her hands full. “Dale, I’m tired, so tired…” Dale took her hands again. “I know you are, but you have to keep going! Our little girl’s waiting to enter our world.”
“I’m trying, I’m...ARRGH!”
Dr. Mavel was in position again. “This one should be easier, Gadget. Don’t strain, now. Relax, and work with the contractions...yes, here she comes. She’s crowning fine.”
Dale was so happy, he just had to run around and see. As another set of contractions fired through Gadget, Dale watched as a tiny chipmunk emerged and fell into the doctor’s hands. In a few moments, the newborn girl was crying as loudly as her brother had, and Gadget rested peacefully on the gurney. Dr. Mavel held her up for Dale to see. “Mr. Oakmont, I must compliment your fortitude. Many fathers faint at that sight, but you...Mr. Oakmont?”
Dale was just standing there, his eyes looking straight ahead. The nurse snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Oh my, he’s fainted standing up!”
“Now I’ve seen it all,” Dr. Mavel quipped, while the nurse and an attendant helped the shocked father to a nearby chair. The doctor brought the two newest Oakmonts over to show Gadget. Her eyes were long since filled with tears of happiness, and the ordeal had her whispering as she’d made her throat raw with screaming. “Geegaw, Althea. You made it...we made it.”
Gadget was so tired, she fell asleep right then and the nurses took charge of taking the newborns, cleaning them up and ensuring their health and safety. Dale awoke after a couple more minutes and Dr. Mavel was there, smiling down at him. “Your wife’s resting now, Mr. Oakmont. She came through it fine. I think there’s some people outside who’d like to hear the news you have to tell.”
Dale got to his feet and walked a shaky path to the waiting room. As one, they got up, eagerness written all over them. “Gang, we’re parents of a mouse boy and a chipmunk girl,” Dale managed. “Babies and mom are doing fine. Omigosh, I’m a dad!” A general hurrah went through the waiting room, and Chip rushed up and grabbed his old friend in a bear hug. “Congratulations, Dale! You did great!”
“I’ll say he did,” Duncan said. Chip had called the Oakmonts after all, and they ran up and hugged their boy. Anne kissed him on the cheek. “Oh dumpling, it’s so wonderful! When can we see them?” Dale collected himself. “Give them a little while and then we can go in. I did it, dad. I stayed with her the whole time, and I didn’t fail her.”
“We knew you’d bring her through, son,” Duncan said, patting him on the back. “She’s strong, and stronger with you at her side. I can’t wait to see my grandchildren. How big are they, anyway?”
“I can answer that,” Dr. Mavel said, coming out and removing his mask. “They’re both good size for fraternal twins. I’d say around six to seven tenths of an ounce apiece, but we’ll have the official measures soon. We’ve got Gadget in a private room now, and as soon as the nurses finish attending to her and the children, you’ll all get to visit.”
“Thank you so much, doctor,” Eva said, as she and Monty came up and hugged Dale next. Monty punched him kindly on the shoulder. “Seems like we got some grandkids, too, mate!”
“Yes, and I am sure they vill be every bit as wonderful as their parents,” Eva said. “Tell me, Dale, how do you feel?” Dale hadn’t really had time to think on that, but now he did. “Like I’m unbelievably happy and so nervous I want to throw up, all at the same time!”
The gang laughed at the response, then they all came forward to congratulate the new father. In a minute, a nurse came out to inform Dale that Gadget was awake and asking for him. He thanked everyone for coming, then walked back with the nurse to a pleasant little room where Gadget was now sitting up in a hospital bed. Her eyes shone when Dale came in. “Oh Dale, I couldn’t have made it without you.”
Dale rushed to her side, full of empathy. “I can’t believe what you had to put up with because of me! I’m sorry I put you through that.” Gadget hugged him lovingly. “No, don’t feel guilty. It was like nothing I’d ever imagined, but when it was over and I saw Althea and Geegaw there, I knew they were mine and it was all worth it. Dale, I’m a mother. I hope I’m ready for it.”
“I hope we’re ready for it. We won’t have another good night’s sleep for the next twenty years,” Dale said, then a kind old nurse brought in two bundles of joy, placing them in Gadget’s arms. She looked first to one, then the other. “Hi, guys. I’m Gadget. What’s your names? Oh, we know that already, what comes next...”
Gadget winked to Dale, and she offered Althea to him. Dale cradled his daughter in his arms, strangely not afraid of doing so, and held her close to his face. “Hello Althea. I’m your dad.” She reached up and honked his nose. Althea made a happy squeal and Gadget chuckled. “Maybe the kids won’t be getting much rest either.”
Now that they were cleaned up, Dale could see that the unique genetic compatibilities between him and Gadget had produced a singular pair. Their daughter Althea was a chipmunk but had Gadget’s hair, fur and teeth, and a smaller version of Dale’s red nose. The boy mouse named Geegaw had Dale’s fur color, hair and teeth, but Gadget’s nose. Dale looked at them for a long minute and decided they were two of the most beautiful children he’d ever seen. “How am I going to explain to people that my son is a mouse who has chipmunk coloring and my daughter’s a chipmunk who has her mom’s mouse coloring?”
“Just tell them, I guess,” Gadget said. “Folks might not believe it at first, but when they see them they’ll have to. We Rescue Rangers never do things the easy way, do we?” Dale shook his head and grinned. “Never in a million years.” Dale exchanged babies with Gadget and picked up his son. “Hey there, little guy. Wow, are you gonna be an adventurer or an inventor or both? How about a CPA?”
Gadget watched Dale with the kids admiringly. “I knew you’d be a natural, Dale. Now, Althea, what say we invite the others in, huh?” Gadget pretended to listen to her reply. “Yes? You think so? Okay Dale, give me Geegaw and let the cooing party begin.”
Dale gave his son to her and went out to fetch the others. The ladies made over every lovely attribute of Gadget, the kids, even Dale. Chip thought in ironic humor that they’d have found the doctor was radiant and beautiful if he’d been there. Still, even he joined in the admiration society as Geegaw and Althea were passed around.
Eva kissed her grandchildren, then hugged Gadget. “Gadget, I am so proud of you and Dale! You vill be the best parents, and your father and I will enjoy being the spoil-sporting grandparents.” Gadget had enjoyed every moment of the visit. “I know, mom. I can hardly wait until I can get in my workshop and start making things for them! Mom, thanks for everything. You too, dad.”
“Aw, twern’t nothin’, Gadget-luv,” Monty said. “After all, you’re an Erskine and those little wonders right there will have the same spirit we all do.” Duncan slapped Monty on the back. “And the Oakmont spirit as well. Can’t think of a better combination.”
While the others were hovering over mother and children, Eva took Theo aside, whispering. “Theo, dahling, I wouldn’t be here right now if it weren’t for you. I’ll see vhat I can do about getting your sentence commuted.” Theo wasn’t totally comfortable about that. “Do you really think you can, Aunt Eva? I mean, it was my fault and all. I don’t want you to get in trouble, too.”
“Don’t vorry, dahling,” she reassured him. “I can be very persuasive when I need to be. You are a great hero. You just have to vait until your body catches up with your heart.” Theo hugged her out of gratitude. “Even if you can’t persuade them, thanks for trying. I know Bink will appreciate it too. I’d look pretty bad going to the dance with dishpan hands.”
Of all the people there, it was Foxy who made the biggest scene. Perhaps it was because she was a recent mother herself, but the sight of the two newest Oakmonts had her face bathed in tears. “They’re so darling, I wish they were ours along with Lonestar!” Gadget chuckled, “Well, in a way they are. We’re all one family at Headquarters, so we’ll all be responsible for raising the kids. Of course, Dale and I will be a little more responsible for these two.”
Noel came over and kissed her cheek. “Congratulations, Gadget. I’m glad Foxy and I were here to see this, and that you pulled through okay. I’ll admit that I was worried about you, especially after helping Foxy through her delivery. I still remember what it was like when I was Chip alone, and I’ll always treasure our friendship.” Gadget hugged his neck. “I know, and so will I. Foxy, you’ve got a wonderful father for Lonestar.” Foxy smiled and hugged Gadget in return. “Thank you, I know.”
Gadget turned her eyes toward Chip. “You must have been worried too, then.” Chip reluctantly came forward. “More than you’ll know. If anything had happened to you…well…” Gadget smiled and nodded. “Come here, you.” Chip hugged her, and she patted his back. “If anything had happened, I know you and sis would’ve looked after the kids and Dale. That would’ve meant a lot to me.”
The mouse, mother, and inventor took in the room and saw the thought in everyone’s eyes. “Okay, hugs for everyone!” The somber feeling of a moment ago lifted as Gadget shared her special brand of happiness with everyone, and once again the collective group that was the Rangers was reminded of how special that unknown quality called life was. It was evident on their faces, and what was even more evident was that this beginning they’d shared in had brought them all even closer.
After a few more minutes, the nurse shooed them out and it was just Gadget, Dale and the kids for a time. They set up a cot for Dale in an empty room adjoining and he kept watch over his new family. After two days, mother and kids were cleared to come home, and what a homecoming it was! Presents from friends, admirers, well-wishers and family had piled up by the score and it was all they could do to clear the main room of them to get order restored.
It did take some explaining when the local media came to Headquarters to take pictures, but Gadget and Dale didn’t back down. They explained the events as they’d happened, and even the reporters had to admit the evidence was right there before them. There was quite a sensation at first, but it soon died down as all sensations do. As for the two parents, all that mattered was that their children were alive, well, and safe in their crib in the lair.
Gadget and Dale looked down at the two sweet faces, now asleep, and both felt contentment. “It’s great to be back, Dale, and even better to see them here. They’re our greatest invention.” Dale held his wife close. “Yeah, and for once I helped you make something without messing up!” Dale felt more than ever that they were each a part of the other. Gadget set the sensors up on the crib, and with a last look back they headed for bed. Whatever dreams they had, they couldn’t compare to the pleasant reality they’d inherited.
Chapter 16 – The Big (it’s not a) Date
When the day of the dance arrived, life was much calmer at Ranger Headquarters. Jennifer had altered one of Chip’s suits for Theo, and the young chipmunk was trying it on. He looked into the mirror, and found he almost didn’t recognize himself with the fancy duds on. Chip came in to check on him. “That suit does a lot more for you than it ever did for me. Bink’s sure to like it. So, your first real date. How are you feeling?”
Theo winced at his father’s use of the word date. “Dad, it’s not a date. I’m taking a friend to a school dance.” Chip smiled, remembering how he’d been the same way at Theo’s age. “All right, it’s not a date. Bink’s corsage is in the kitchen, so don’t forget it. Do you have everything you need?”
“Only a swift kick in the backside for ever agreeing to go to this dance,” Theo mumbled, following Chip out, and then it was the group’s turn to fuss over him. Gadget saw him first. “Wow, who’s that handsome chipmunk?”
“He must be a movie star or some rich celebrity,” Foxy cooed.
“Certainly a fit escort for royalty,” Honey added.
Lahwhinie straightened his tie. “Every girl in town’s going to be fawning over him, that’s for sure.” Dale nudged him playfully. “You got that right. A-roo!” Zipper gave him five. “Looking good, my man.” Monty followed suit. “Takes after his Uncle Monty, he does!” Noel patted him on the back. “You’ll wow her, Theo.”
“We’re all proud of you, son,” Lahwhinie said. “You’re growing up fast, and now with mom’s help you’re dancing fast too. Maybe you and Bink’ll become a professional dance team before it’s over.” Theo still wasn’t in as good a mood as he had hoped, but put on a good show for the others. “Thanks, everyone. I’m sure this is going to be fun as soon as the nervousness is over. Any last minute advice?”
“You vill do fine, Theo,” Eva said. “Go have fun.”
Theo went and got the corsage, and Chip went with him to the RangerPlane. A short flight later, and they were at the Chesnutt house. Chip urged him onward. “Go on, son. Never keep a girl waiting.” He nodded and went on up the tree. He was a totally different brand of nervous now. What would Bink look like? Would he be able to go through with it and dance with her? Would he look like a fool if he did? Theo knocked on the door, and Donna answered.
“Come right in, Theo. Don’t you look nice! Bink’s almost ready. Would you like me to take that lovely corsage to her?” Donna asked. Theo hesitated. “Uh, I think it’s traditional that the guy gives it to her. Thanks anyway. Do I look okay?” Oscar gave him the okay sign. “Theo, you look like a real gentleman. Bink, he’s here!”
Bink had of course been told to wait or she’d have been at the door. She came out, her blonde hair done up nicely, and in a shimmering royal blue party dress that matched her eyes. Bink stopped and allowed the effect to sink in. “Hi, Theo. So, what do you think?” Theo couldn’t believe it. Was that Bink? “Golly! Uh...wow!” She enjoyed the effect. “You look really handsome. And you got me a corsage! That was very thoughtful.”
Theo hesitantly approached her and even more hesitantly pinned the corsage on her. “Are you ready, Becky? Our limo is parked and waiting outside.” Bink put her arm out, like she’d seen Lahwhinie do. “You may escort me, young man.”
“Oh, wait!” Donna said. “One thing first.” Donna ran into another room, and came out with a camera. “You two look so nice, we’ve got to preserve the moment. Smile!” Theo did his best, and Bink played to the camera as usual. Oscar opened the door for them. “Have fun, you two. Bink, remember to thank the Maplewoods for taking you.”
“I will dad. Now sir, you may escort me to our limo,” Bink said, putting on airs.
“Very well, your highness,” Theo replied, playing right along.
Theo led her out to the RangerWing where Chip was waiting, also in formalwear. The Wing had been cleaned and polished so that it looked better than ever, “Looking good, Bink!” Chip said. You two are gonna knock ‘em dead at the dance!” Bink allowed Theo to help her into the Wing. “Thanks, Mr. Maplewood. Dale got me through the tough part. Now we just have to see if it’s all stayed with me.”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be there,” Chip said. “You sure look pretty in that dress, Bink. Don’t you think so, Theo?”
“Yes, very beautiful,” Theo said, half-mesmerized. Bink blushed and her appreciation showed clearly. “Thanks, Theo.”
The RangerWing alone would’ve drawn attention, but Theo and Bink getting out together drew even more. Several of the girls came up and complimented Bink on her dress and the guys whooped a little at Theo. Both of them took it in stride, and they went on inside. The dance was in the gymnasium, all decorated in a harvest time theme. The kids gathered inside, all dressed up and no way out. The band was local, but versatile.
To Theo’s relief, they didn’t have to dance right away. Bink asked to talk some with her friends, and Theo gladly agreed. He went off to find Zooger, and ended up with his usual group. “Hey, hey!” Zooger said, seeing him coming. “The T-Man, looking sharp in those threads! Looks like you and the Binkster are an item, after all.” Theo felt like giving his friend a smack to the head. “Yeah, we are now. Things have changed in the last two weeks.”
“Bink sure looks awesome,” Billy said. “You are one lucky dude, Theo.”
“Yeah, that’s for sure,” Rhett added. “Denise dragged me to this thing, and I don’t even know how to dance. Guess I’ll just try to look good.” Theo grinned. “Oh, how are things with you and your dad now?”
“Better,” Rhett said. “The other day I mentioned that I might want to go to college. He looked at me kind of weird, but said something like if I worked my way through he’d let me. Maybe I’ll study criminology and do a case study on my dad. Right now, I’m just nervous about having to dance.” Zooger was always ready with advice. “Don’t worry, man. Just move your feet and keep the talk good and you’ll get by. Uh oh, looks like the ladies are breaking up and heading for the attack! Man battle stations!”
The band signaled it was time for the dancing to start, and Bink came over to Theo. “Well Jake, it’s time to see if all that training paid off. Don’t worry, I don’t bite unless I’m provoked.” Theo took her hand. “Okay, let’s get this show on the road. Shall we dance?”
For the modern stuff, they could just wing it. Theo found he liked that, but as with all things one likes it didn’t last. The slow music came, as he knew it would. Bink put her right hand in his, and timidly Theo put his right hand on her back. For a few moments they just stared at each other, getting used to being so near. Then their dance training took over, and Theo started guiding Bink across the floor.
Bink settled into a role. “You must be Jake Stone, the international spy. Do you think you will win me over with your dancing prowess and your cultured ways?” Theo was too nervous to play along this time. “With my dancing skills, the best I can hope for is to win some sympathy votes.” Bink wouldn’t let him withdraw that easy. “Then I think you’ll win the election by a landslide. Theo, we’re really dancing!”
Theo took a moment to soak in the scene. Here he was, dancing with a girl that any boy his age would envy him for. He wasn’t messing up, and despite the closeness he was still able to keep control. As Theo danced and looked into Bink’s eyes, some part of him had already made a decision that wouldn’t come to pass for many years. “I can’t wait for our senior prom, Becky.”
Bink was starting to lose herself in his eyes. “Me neither, Jake. I’m sure it’ll be something we’ll never forget.”
Just then, their mutual concentration was broken by the sound of clapping coming from around them. They stopped and found that they’d been dancing alone, the others stopping to watch. Miss Spelling came over. “Theophane, Bink, you have been selected as the best couple at this year’s dance. And might I add that your dancing skills are exceptionally…adequate. You managed to surprise me, Theophane, and as anyone here knows that is not an easy task to accomplish.”
Miss Spelling gave them a nice little trophy and a ribbon. Theo turned them both over to Bink. “What did I tell you, Becky? King and queen of the prom.” Theo gave his attention to their benefactor. “Thank you, Miss Spelling. We’re honored by your praise.”
“Yes, I would think so,” Miss Spelling said.
“Yes, thank you!” Bink said, hugging her.
Miss Spelling took it in kind. “You’re quite welcome, Bink. Now if you two will follow me, we’ll take a picture of you two for the school glomerata.” They went along with it, and this time Theo did manage to give a real smile. Soon, they were back to dancing while the others also lined up for photos. Now it was becoming second nature for them both, and they found themselves forgetting about much anything other than each other. The trance ended when Theo noticed Chip at the gymnasium door, waving to him.
“It can’t be time to go already, can it?” Theo wondered rhetorically.
They walked over and found that, sure enough, it was. Each one said quick goodbyes to their friends and headed out with Chip. They held hands all the way back, and when they got to the Chesnutts’, neither of them wanted to part. Still, Theo was glad he’d been able to show he was trustworthy, and he had the satisfaction of hearing Bink tell them how wonderful it had all been. Donna was lavish with her praise. “You did very well, Theo, and we’re glad our daughter has you for a friend.”
“Sorry we ended up putting you through the wringer, young man,” Oscar said. “You’ve more than proven yourself in our eyes.” Theo nodded his thanks. “Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Chesnutt. Becky’s been a help and inspiration to me. I’m honored to call her my best friend.” Bink was overcome by the moment, and rushed forward and kissed him on the cheek.
“Bink!” her parents cried.
“Oh...” Bink said, ducking her head and smiling. “Oops?”
Bink had such a look of helpless embarrassment that her parents couldn’t help laugh some at it. “Remember your manners, dear. He’s a good boy, though. I think he earned that one.” Donna nodded. “Theo, next time you can have her back by eleven.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Theo said, giving Bink a hug. “Thanks, Becky. It was a great night. I had a wonderful time, and thanks for suggesting going to the dance.”
“It was wonderful for me, too. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Theo said good night to them all, and headed for the Wing. Chip was waiting for him. “Looks like you had a good time from that expression on your face.” Theo waited until Chip started up the Wing. “Dad, can I be really honest with you?”
“Dad, I think she’s the one.”
Chip blinked in surprise. “Theo, you’re only twelve! You’re going to meet a lot of girls, you know.” Theo wasn’t fazed. “That may be so, but it can’t change the facts. I’m almost certain of it. It’s all part of my destiny.” Chip glanced over at him. “Have you mentioned anything about this to her?”
“I dropped a hint or two.”
“Make sure you don’t influence her too much. If what you’re saying is true, then both of you will have to decide on that when the time comes. Be gentle, and don’t push her into anything she’s not ready for—and especially anything you’re not ready for.”
“I know,” Theo said. “Don’t worry, we won’t run off to Vegas to get married…at least until we hit our teen years.” Chip glanced over at him again, and Theo grinned at the reaction. “Lighten up, dad! You wanted me to become more mature and responsible, and I have.”
Chip returned his attention to his flying. “I recognize you have, son, and you’ve done well for yourself. You’re on your way to taking your place in the Rangers, and in life. Just remember to enjoy the ride, and pay attention to more than where you’re going. You’re a very fortunate person, and this time’s only going to come once…and if you’re right and it is Bink, I think she’d make a fine Maplewood.”
“Yeah, but then I’d be in the same boat you and mom are in about kids. But we could both use that shape change thingy and you could be a mouse for mom and I could become a squirrel for Becky.”
“Or you could do what I did and adopt a kid who needs a home. Whatever the case, I’m sure it’ll work out when the time comes.”
Chip put his arm around his son’s shoulder, and the Wing headed for home. Theo Maplewood was beginning to emerge from his father’s shadow, and Chip couldn’t have been more pleased. The young munk’s life was just beginning, and there was plenty of excitement and adventure to come.
“Happy Birthday to Youuuuuuuu, Happy Birthday to Youuuuuuu,” Dale sang, off-key, leading the others. Plato’s birthday had come, and the Rangers were there in party hats, including Gadget and Foxy with the new additions. Dale finished his over-the-top version of the song, and Drake wheeled out the cake with a numeral 12 candle on the top.
“Oh now, you shouldn’t have made such a fuss over an old pooch,” Plato said.
“Hey, you’re our mentor!” Chip said. Noel nodded. “Yeah, how could we miss this?”
Dale eyed the cake. “C’mon, Plato! Blow out the candle and make a wish!” Plato closed his eyes and blew out the candle, after which everyone clapped. “Thank you. I already have my wish, though, and they’re all gathered around me. Who could ask for anything more than good friends?”
“How about a slice of cake?” Dale asked, holding out his plate.
“Daaaale,” Gadget chided. “Remember what Dr. Batorious said. Moderation.”
Dale’s shoulders slumped. “Aw, what does he know anyway? Cake never hurt anybody.” Gadget handed over Althea to her father. “Well, I remember the last time a certain chipmunk went on a sugar binge and couldn’t sleep for more than four hours a night. One piece for him, Detective Drake, but no more.”
Dale frowned a little, but in a moment the movement of his daughter in his arms caught his attention. “Guess I’d better set you a good example, huh? Either that or we can keep each other company on the binge circuit!”
Monty came over and took a turn with Althea. “You can have the cake, mate. If it ain’t cheesecake, it ain’t to Monterey Jack’s taste. Now come on, lass, and ol’ Monty’ll tell ya the story about the first cheesecake I made. Of course, if I’d known there was a rogue kangaroo outside with a taste fer cheese, I’d have waited till he left.”
Noel brought a plate for Foxy, but she still had Lonestar in her wings. She looked about and spotted a friendly face. “Chip, could you take him for a minute? I may not be Dale, but I have quite a sweet tooth!” Chip was only too glad to volunteer. “Sure Foxy.” Chip took the small bat in his arms and the little fellow looked up at him with a smile.
“Hello, Lonestar. I'm your Uncle Chip. My, you're a handsome fellow! I guess I'd know, as your father and I are the same person...” He looked again at the baby and could see some of himself in the child, as well as some of Foxglove. “It's strange. I'm your father, but not your father. You're the baby I might’ve had if I hadn't become two. What it must be like to hold your own newborn for the first time.”
Chip found himself slipping into a small depression, thinking about lost love. He looked up from Lonestar and saw Lahwhinie, and when she made eye contact she gave him a seductive smile and arched an eyebrow. Then he saw Theo, and he was reminded that he knew what it was like to be loved and to have a family. Theo might not be his flesh and blood son, but in spirit he was truly his own.
Chip looked back down at the small bat's happy face. “Welcome to the family, Lonestar.”
Plato began opening his presents, and Drake sat down for a talk with Chip. “I think we’ve got Nimnul under control this time. Of course, I couldn’t tell them how he escaped, but they’ve put him in a totally enclosed cell this time—no bars.”
“That’s a relief,” Chip said. “It’s nice to know that at least one problem’s solved, right dear?” Lahwhinie nodded, eating a piece of birthday cake. “Now all we have to do is figure out how to keep our son from getting into trouble less than once a week.”
“Aw, mom!” Theo said, already on his second piece. “We’ve got it worked out now. I promise, from now on it’ll be smooth sailing.” Chip and Lahwhinie stole a look at each other and simultaneously gave him a sarcastic, “Uh, huh.” Chip went back to his own cake. “Well, at least things are quiet in town now. With the Twins and Nimnul locked up, I think we can rest pretty easy.”
In a nondescript part of town, money exchanged hands. Nothing was so unusual about that, except considering how the transaction transpired. Donovan stood outside an abandoned apartment house and took the money that came through the front door’s mail slot. The Australian jumping mouse counted the tender, then hefted the tablet and slipped it through the slot in exchange. “There you go, bub. Say, what’s all the secrecy about? After all, it ain’t like I can’t keep a secret.”
“I’m sure you can. But let’s just say that I have my reasons and leave it at that.”
Donovan shrugged. He was a mouse for hire, and was used to eccentrics. “All right. Let me know if I can do anything more for you.”
“I’ll call on you again in time.”
Donovan left, and from somewhere came very unsettling laughter. “In time. Yes, it will be in time. And when I get there, the Rescue Rangers will have seen their time run out!”
Larry, Ernie, Largo, Zanderval Oswald…er Zooger, Billy Hangwalter, Denise Denkins, Debbie Pakanowski, Rhonda Highwater, Rhett Capone, Vera, Tiffany Capone, Bedivere Fairmont, Pete Steadman, Sweet Melissa Steadman, Sean Maplewood, Roger Maplewood, Jennifer Maplewood, Noel Maplewood, Lonestar Maplewood, Theo Maplewood, Miss Spelling, Eva Erskine, Oscar Chesnutt, Quartus, Nester, Dr. Mavel, Dr. Batorious, Donovan and Valerie Valardi are copyright Indy and Chris Silva. Barnacle Bill is an homage to the lyric poem, “Barnacle Bill the Sailor”. The Siamese Twins, Professor Nimnul, Rat Capone, Arnold Mouseneggar, Sugar Ray, Detective Drake, Plato, Donna Chesnutt, Tammy, Bink, Honey, Foxglove, Lahwhinie, and the Rescue Rangers are copyright Disney and used without permission, but with the utmost respect.