It's Not a Dream, Detective
By Indy and Chris Silva


This sixth part of the Untold Ranger Tales takes a brief detour from the primary plotline, but is still in keeping with what's happened before.


       The huge estate of Mr. Josiah Pinkney was a marvel to anyone who passed by. Pinkney was fine with that, as long as they didnít try to climb his ten-foot-high iron fence and come in to say hello. Someone had done just that, though, making off with several rare antiques from the rich manís mansion. The police were baffled as usual, and Pinkney was not a man to be kept waiting. He hired his own help, and he hired the best.
       Detective Donald Drake had retired from police work with a modest pension and the desire to spend the rest of his life in the Florida Keys deep-sea fishing. Six months later, heíd realized that his work was his life, so he decided to go back to New York and start his own detective agency. It wasnít easy at first. Heíd had the respect of the entire department, particularly for his role in helping to nab the infamous Aldrin Klordane. In the so-called real world, it took good old elbow grease and legwork to gain the word of mouth needed to succeed. Drake was persistent though, and quickly earned a reputation all his own. Now he was a private investigator that catered to the rich, and Pinkney was typical.
       When heíd interviewed his client, the description of several paintings floating out the window on their own gave him a good idea of who was behind it. Drake had kept up with police cases and remembered a similar caper using flying carpets. He had little doubt that the nefarious thief was none other than Professor Nimnul. The gloating note left behind that said, "Iíll be back for more!" was also typical of the crackpot scientist. Drake folded the note and put it in his pocket, straightening his fedora. His sideburns were graying a little, but he still had as much hair as heíd had the day he retired. He still dressed the same too, though he was wearing a dark trenchcoat at the moment to avoid being seen. Drake crouched down in the shadows, knowing that Nimnul would try again. He scratched the ears of his faithful old dog, Plato, still his partner.
       "I just hope that loony comes again soon, not that Pinkney canít cover the price. Iím just ready for some action. What do you think, Plato? Still able to put the Ďcrime biteí on a wacko like Nimnul?"
       The eager expression and encouraging bark from Plato assured him that the crime bite was ready for action. Drake patted Platoís head. "Good boy, but quiet now. Thought I heard something." Man and dog watched intently, but there was nothing but a couple of mice and chipmunks running across the lawn.

       Drake leaned back against the tree trunk he was using for a makeshift chair back. "Whew, guess Iím getting edgy. Canít let a bunch of animals shake us up. Wait, there he is!" Drake pointed, while holding on to Platoís collar, in case the dog tried to charge. Nimnul crept through the bushes, and emerged just enough to see if there were any impediments. Finding none, he crept across the yard to a large window.
       Nimnul cackled with fiendish glee. "Hoohoo! Those dumb cops didnít even leave anyone to keep guard and they only used a six-digit passcode on the security system! That was easy enough to break. As long as those disgusting rodents and that icky fly donít show up and mess up my plans again, it should be an Ďartí-eriffic night!"
       Drake and Plato looked at each other from the shadows. "Sounds like heís as crazy as ever. All right, we wait until he opens the window and then we nab him..." The two of them waited, and Drake noticed that Plato seemed restless, like he was looking for something. Drake calmed him, and watched as Nimnul used a device to deactivate the mansionís internal security system. He laughed confidently, opening the window and stepping inóand the alarm promptly went off.
       "Whatís going on?!" Nimnul shouted. "My Deactivatorizer Mark II shouldíve worked!" Drake rushed to the window and was astonished to see Nimnul jumping around and flailing his arms. "Yaaah! Get off me, get away from me!"

       Drake thought the crazed professor was hallucinating, but then he noticed that there were some little animals in the room running around. He had to admit, he took a little perverse delight in seeing Nimnul losing his mind. His private entertainment was disrupted when Nimnul began charging toward the open window where he stood. He just barely managed to avoid butting heads when the panicking professor leapt outside.
       "Freeze, turkey! Youíre busted!" Drake said, pointing his gun at Nimnul. The frazzled scientist was so startled he fell down and landed at Drakeís feet, staring up at the gun pointed at him. "Detective Drake?! Whatíre you doing here? I give up already, just keep those rodents and that nasty bug away from me!"
       In his mind, Drake tsked and slapped the handcuffs on Nimnul. "Still seeing things, eh Nimnul? Well, donít you worry. Iím sure the nice judgeíll find a comfy and quiet padded room for you were the nasty rodents and the icky fly wonít ever get you again." Nimnul looked about nervously. "Theyíre always after me. They follow me everywhere I go and always thwart me! They never stop! Yes, send me to jailóat least Iíll be safe from them!!!"
        Drake sat Nimnul down on the lawn. "You donít know how many times Iíve imagined this moment Nimnul, I just wish your pal Klordane was here too. Why didnít you ever try to go straight? All that stuff you invented for Klordane wouldíve brought you a fortune in the real world."
       Nimnul laughed and smirked at the idea. "Iím a mad scientist. Iíve had more court ordered psychiatric evaluations than youíve had hot meals, Drake. They wouldnít pay me peanuts." Nimnul gave a lengthy description of his latest mental health diagnosis in psychiatrist-ese. "I love doing what Iím doing, except for being constantly thwarted by those stupid rodents! I even tried using rodents in one of my plots and even they turned against me!"
       Drake smirked and mumbled "wouldnít surprise me" under his breath. "Even you shouldíve learned that crime doesnít pay. Look at Klordaneóthe greatest criminal mind of our time. Even he couldnít stand up to the police force of New York!" Nimnul leaped to his feet in indignation. "Klordane could crush the police like he was stomping on ants with clown shoes! Your buddies on the force were ready to gleefully send you up the river for crimes you didnít commit and they wouldíve done it too, bub. With Klordaneís plans and my brains, we were running rings around you cops! The only thing we didnít plan on was...them."
       Drake put his hands on his hips. "Them? Them who?"
       Nimnul looked at him like Drake was the nutcase. "Who do you think just thwarted me now, you fool?! Them!!! Didnít you see those mice and chipmunks running around? How could you possibly miss them? They talk and wear clothing! Theyíre a little hard to miss!"
       Drake looked over at Mr. Pinkney, who had come out at the commotion and just shook his head at the sad figure in front of them. Drake decided to try reason. "Look Nimnul, itís one thing to blame your mistakes on little forest animals once, like you did with Klordane that time you lost his ruby. But itís just plain wimping out to go around blaming mice and chipmunks for every time you blow it. Be a man, and admit you got licked!"
       Nimnulís face was red with rage. "Maybe Iím so mad because I know whatís really going on! Maybe youíre all the fools living in your own little world, not knowing thereís a whole other world all around you that you canít see!"
       The police sirens sounded in the distance, coming nearer. "Tell your story to the cops," Drake said. "Iím sure theyíll love it. Maybe you could tell them how you got attacked by the Easter Bunny too!" Drake started to laugh, and it only made Nimnul more determined. "Just you wait. Iíll get them, and then Iíll get you too, Drake! No one thwarts Nimnul more than fifty or sixty times and gets away with it! Look, there!" Nimnul shouted and pointed toward the trees illuminated by the spotlights around the house. Drake turned and saw a flash of white and orange briefly among the trees.
       "Itís just a bird, Nimnul. You really are a loony."
       "I am not a loony! Itís their plane, a bleach bottle held up by a balloon!"
       Kirby had stepped out and watched this last part of the performance. "Would you guys get that crackpot in the car already?" Some officers managed to get Nimnul in a patrol car. Their departure was delayed somewhat by Drake shooting the breeze with old friends on the force and the request that he come to HQ to fill out a statement.

Catching Up On Old Times

       Drake was only too glad to go, and he and Plato followed the police car, with Plato hanging his head out the window and giving his famous "siren howl". After another hour of hand-shaking and filling out forms, Drake went to see his old office. It was all different of course, but he could remember going in there after a big case and just putting his feet up. Spinelli come over, and put his hand on Drakeís shoulder.
       "We sure missed you when you decided to retire, Don. No one could match your style...or the number of pizzas you billed to the department!"
       Drake laughed good-naturedly. "Those were the good old days, but I sure donít miss the daily grind. I love being a private eye. I can pick and choose my cases and Iím my own boss. But now the pizza money comes out of my own pocket. It was a blast getting to bust Nimnul, though. Now he can join Klordane up at Rikerís."

       Drake grinned in triumph, then after a few more congratulations he got in his car with Plato and headed homeóan apartment on the East Side that allowed dogs. It wasnít the Waldorf by any means, but respectable. Drake was a man who liked things in their place after a long day, and he found his TV remote right where he left it. The old pro whirled his fedora through the air and rang the hat stand, then settled down into his la-z-guy and Plato settled down by his feet while they watched the fights.
       "You know, Plato, it feels good to be a free man. Nimnulís in lockup and Klordaneís doing life without parole. Life is good, but this business with Nimnul tonight spooked me, pal. Back then, it was almost me doing the hard time. I came so close, my guardian angel mustíve been looking out for me that day. I still donít understand how their plan fell apart."
       Drake stood up, his thoughts now absorbed with the old case. "It was insane, but it almost worked. Iíve read the reports, the interrogations and I was at the trials, but what really went wrong? Klordane didnít take the stand and Nimnul just ranted about rodents messing up his plans."
       Walking to his desk, Drake took out a scrapbook and began leafing through it. It was his entire life in summationóa collection of newspaper clippings and photos collected from a long career in law enforcement. He read the clips that detailed his false arrest, continuing all the way through his vindication and the convictions of Klordane and Nimnul.
       "I guess itís always been a nagging question, but what went wrong? I hate unanswered questions. And the fact that those guys wonít talk only makes me want to know all the more. What do you think, Plato? Feel up to re-opening the last case of our police career?"
       Plato sat up and looked at his master in only the way a dog whoís known someone for a long time can. He snorted and shook his head. Drake was surprised for a moment, because it appeared that Plato clearly indicated a negative answer. "Uh...well, I guess Iím more tired than I thought. Tomorrow weíll try looking into it."

       "That Klordane case seems like just yesterday," Spinelli said, starting in on a hoagie. Heíd been glad to see Drake return this morning, because crime had been slow for quite some time. "I can remember him coming in, flying through the window and holding up the ruby for the chief to grab and all. And there was Plato, putting the Ďcrime biteí on him! Yeah, his plans sure fizzled on him. I can still remember him babbling on about chipmunks and mice and all. I think it drove the poor guy mad for a while that his plans just fell through."
       Drake nodded. "I remember Klordane ranting about the rodents. Nimnul was yammering on about them, too. Heís a few tacos short of a combination platter if you ask me."
       "Yeah, dose crooks sure do say the craziest things. Well, good to see you again, Don. Say, you gonna settle down and get a wife sometime?"
       Drake gave his old friend a sly grin. "Not until the sultry blonde in the tight red dress and danger in her eyes walks seductively into my office asking me to solve a crime for her. And right now, Nimnulís more on my mind." Spinelli laughed. "You always did love them old detective novels, Don. Yeah, Nimnulís a crazy one, all right. The rodent excuseówe must get it every month or so. I figure either itís mass hysteria or theyíre all reading from the same Ďten lamest excuses for crooks bookí. But why so interested in Nimnul now, huh?"
       "Well, the Klutchcoin ruby case has always had some loose ends that bothered me and Iím taking some time to see if I can tie them up. Too many things in this case seem to point to dumb luck and chance, but Klordane was too methodical to have been that careless. Something unexpected disrupted his plans and no oneís ever been able to satisfy me on what that was."
       Spinelli turned to go, laughing more. "According to Nimnul, the rodents were out to get him. Hey, Kirby! Whatís Nimnulís menagerie up to now?" Kirby tipped up his police cap and grinned back. "Three mice, two chipmunks, a bat and a fly."
       "Wow, the animal kingdom must be recruiting," Spinelli said. "Itís funny, but since the Klutchcoin ruby case, a large number of criminals talk about being caught by a bunch of rodentsóRatso Ratskiwatski, Nimnul, that foreign spy they held over before sending back to Russiaólots more. All of Ďem claimed at first their plans were messed up by rodents. I think Nimnul was bitten by a lab rat or something, thatís why he so afraid of animals."
       Drake shook his head. "Well, criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot. Maybe theyíve picked up on his paranoia that what theyíre doing is wrong and even nature itself knows it." Spinelli shrugged. "Weíve got our own rodent problem right here, as it is. Theyíre so bold theyíll come up on the desk and steal the food right off my plate. I think New York has such a vermin problem that the crooks just see them everywhere." Spinelli paused then continued, "Drake...you know weíre all sorry for busting you in that case. No hard feelinís or nothing, right?"
       "Right. I wouldíve busted you under the same circumstances.
       Spinelli nodded, relieved. "Good, that makes me feel better. Now get out of here before I run you in for loitering."

       After a run by the local newsstand, they returned home. A quick check of the sports section, then Drake caught an episode of ĎJAGí and then the news before turning off the tube and heading for bed. Plato got up when his master did, and slowly followed him into the room they shared. The faithful dog turned around a few times and settled on the plush rug next to Drakeís bed, and the old detective turned out the light. When dawn shone through the windows, Plato hesitated but knew his duty and licked his masterís hand to wake him up. After the usual morning preparations, they headed for the park.
       Drake enjoyed his walksóthey were a way to forget the current problems and let the unconscious mind work for him. "Okay, after a brisk walk around the park we drop in again on the boys in blue. I want to know a little more about Nimnul and what heís been up to, and why it is heís never come after me for revenge. He fits the profile, after all. Then we can pay a clandestine visit to his place."
       Drake was thinking all of this over, allowing Plato to choose his own path. The dog headed for the largest oak tree in the park and began barking. Drake was mostly annoyed, and looked up to see what Plato was barking at. "Stop tormenting the park animals, Plato!" For an instant, Drake saw a mouse in the tree. That struck him as odd, but he figured that Plato had scared it up there. "Save the crime bite for the bad guys. Weíve got work to do."

        Plato struggled against the leash, yipping and barking at the mouse. Suddenly it vanished, and then Drake pulled Plato along. Once they left the park, they followed the sidewalk until they reached police headquarters. The on-duty officers were mainly rookies whoíd only heard of Drake, but never met him. That left him free to explore for the most part.
       Drake found Spinelli eating, as was his custom. Spinelli grabbed a napkin, and motioned Drake over. "Don, what are you back for? Getting homesick for the station?"
       "Yeah, a little," Drake said, noncommittally. "Say, could I ask a really big favor?"
       "Well, that depends on what you want."
       "Iíd like to see the file on Norton Nimnul."
       Spinelli put down his slice of pizza. "Why? Heís nuts and heís behind bars." Drake thought fast. "Iím...doing some research on him." Spinelli lowered his voice. "You know itís against the rules to give out that kind of information without the proper forms, Drake. Lemme see what I can do."
       Spinelli walked out of the room for a little while and Drake sat and soaked in the noise and the action of the station. He looked down at Plato, who was sitting at his feet. Periodically, the dog would look up at the ceiling fan and would make grumbling noises at it. Drake glanced up quickly and could have sworn he saw something move, but Spinelliís return broke his chain of thought.
       "Here it is, but like I said, I canít give it to you without the proper forms," Spinelli said, dropping it on the desk and turning his back to Drake. "Oh dear, I seem to have misplaced that file on Norton Nimnul! I wonder where ever could it have gone?"
       Drake picked up the file and put it in his coat. "Youíre a pal, Spinelli."
       "Youíre not thanking me, because I didnít give you nuthiní, right?"
       "Right."

A Strange Visit

       Drake headed back to the park and Plato pulled them back to the same tree he had been at earlier and started barking again. Drake ignored him this time, taking out the computer printout that Spinelli had given him. It was Nimnulís criminal historyóneedless to say it was a long one, listing Nimnulís run-ins with the law. Many times it mentioned the dome where he lived and worked. Drake noted the address.
       "Plato! Here, boy! Weíve got more work to do!"
       To Drakeís surprise, Plato followed him right away. They rode by taxi to the former residence of Norton Nimnulóthe huge geodesic dome was impressive, and its one and only entrance was locked. Drake looked around to see if anyone was watching, then took out his lock picks, quickly opened the door and crept inside.

       The place was a mess, and to Drakeís further surprise showed signs of recent habitation. He slipped the thong off his gun, and shifted it in the holster in case he needed it quickly. Drake reached a door that led into the domeís center, where he could hear music and various other noises echoing from within. It opened automatically as he approached, and surprised the person inside.
       It was a young, red-haired, acne-faced and bespectacled boy of fourteen. He had his feet up on a control panel, snacking, when the door whooshed open. He fell to the floor, not seeing who it was at first.
       "I was only kidding, unc!" the boy said, cowering. "Iíll have the place cleaned up in...hey, youíre not my Uncle Norton! Howíd you get in here?" Drake could figure that the boy didnít exactly belong here. "I could ask you the same question kid. Who are you and how did you get in?"
       Jumping to his feet, the youngster sensed the threat of punishment was no longer present. "Hey, if anyone belongs here itís me! Iím Normie...uh, Norman Nimnul, Nortonís nephew. I sort of look after the place anyway, so when Uncle Norton was jailed I decided to move in. Say, havenít I seen your picture somewhere before?"
       Drake imagined Norton having his picture on a dartboard, throwing at it. "Yeah, Iím a private detective, Donald Drake. Your uncle helped Aldrin Klordane frame me." Normie..uh Norman spit out the pizza heíd been munching on, quickly finding the floor again. "I didnít do nothing, I swear! I wasnít even here then! All I ever did was cheat a little on a science projectówell, if you donít count what I did on the Jersey freeway, or that time I tried to use a radio tower as a lightning rod..."
       "Relax, kid. I ainít here to arrest you. I was just planning on snooping around, and I didnít realize that anyone was still here."
       Normie breathed easier and reclaimed the chair and the box of pizza. "Go ahead, see if I care! Most of my uncleís stuff doesnít work right anyway." Normie went to the near wall and took a framed newspaper clipping from it, laughing wildly at the sight of it. "I love this one! This is where my uncle tried to use his metamorphicizer to change bodies with a wolf. Worked at first, then the other bracelet got lost in the zoo and he ended up looking like a freak show!"
       Normie laughed harder, showing the picture to Drake. The detective had to admit, it was worth framing. "Yeah, he sure is a nutty guy. Iím surprised he hasnít blown himself up by now. Thatís some dangerous technology heís got going for him. Wasnít he afraid heíd mix with something and end up like that guy in ĎThe Flyí?"
       "He never thinks ahead, just about the dough he can steal. I can hear him now..." Normie cleared his throat, trying to sound like his uncle. "Iíd be a millionaire a hundred times over if not for those foul, stinking rodents! They ruin my brilliant plans every time!"
       Drake smiled a bit at the obvious derision the boy had for his uncle. "Well, he is a bit wacko, so I guess seeing hallucinations of animals attacking him shouldnít be too unusual. Iíve seen drug addicts and drunks imagining that they were being attacked by animals."
       Normie looked at him curiously. "You mean youíve never seen them? They kept me from winning the science project I riggedÖuh, I mean was cheated out of! Theyíre mean, despicable little monsters and I still owe them for letting Marvin win the blue ribbon!"
       Drakeís brows lowered. "Seen who? What monsters?"
       Normieís face drew up into a scowl. "The ones Uncle Norton calls Ďthe verminí! I thought they were some kidís pets at first, because they wore clothes. I also thought they were little defenseless creatures at the time, but they were mean! They kept me from winning my prize, and then they stopped unc from trashing the city. There were two mice, two chipmunks and a fly. If I ever get my hands on them...!"
       Drake couldnít believe this. "Is your whole family nuts, kid? Even youíve seen them. Youíve been watching too many cartoons kid." Normie stuck his tongue out at him. "Have not! Come on, Iíll prove it to you!"
       Normie took Drake to an adjoining room, where he picked up a miniature makeshift harpoon gun, and a motorized skateboard. "Uncle found these after that clod Klordane pushed him from the train and he made a break for it out of the subway. The mouse made them!"
       Drake looked them over. "Is that that same mouse from that Disney cartoon, the one with Ben Franklin? Look kid, youíre starting to scare me." Drake began backing out of the room. "Well, itís been fun, but I gotta be going. Plato, weíre leaving...right now." Drake turned and saw that Plato was off in a corner, leaning down, looking at something.
       Normie followed Drakeís eyes, and when he saw the spot where he was looking, he literally screamed. "AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!! Itís them! Get them away from me!" Normie began running around in a blind panic. Plato quickly broke off and Drake saw the movement of some small animal where Plato had just been.
       Drake wanted out of there, bad. "Plato weíre leaving, now!" Normie ran for his uncleís weather machine, or more properly for the lightning ray on top of it. When Drake and Plato got outside, they both stood there and watched Normie turn the geodesic dome into an abstract artistís rendition of Swiss cheese.
       "Plato, there is definitely some serious mental illness in that family," Drake said, shaking his head. Then he realized he was still holding the items that Normie had handed to him. "Well, Iím not about to go in there and give them back. Come on, boy, letís go home. Enough dealing with Nimnuls for one day."
       Drake started for the taxi, when his cell phone rang. "Drake Detective Agency, Drake speaking." It was Spinelli. "Hey, Don. I forgot to give you something when you were here. If you want it, we have pictures of Nimnulís rodents." Drake blinked. "What? You mention they really exist?"
       Spinelli paused for a minute. "Well, sort of. During a bank job Nimnul pulled, a security camera caught some pics of some rodents in the bank too. Look like regular animals to everyone else, but when Nimnul saw the picture he went nuts."
       "Sounds like the ones. All right, Iíll come take a look. Sure thereís nothing special-lookiní about Ďem, like maybe blowtorches tied to their backs or something?"
       "Nope, but how two chipmunks got into that bank along with a rat, I have no idea."

       Drake and Plato got in the taxi, and when he reached the station, he tied Plato up securely in case he had any thoughts of visiting that oak tree in the park. He found Spinelli practicing his favorite habit with a hoagie, a manila folder on his desk. "Itís all yours, Don. Itís a dead case file, so donít worry about getting it back. Whenever youíre around."
       After hesitating slightly, Drake took the file and opened it. "Thanks, Spin..." Drake glanced at the picture, and froze. It was a series of black and white stills from a security camera. From the magnified images that were made, it appeared to be two chipmunks and a rat on top of a filing cabinet. And for a moment, he could swear they...
       Drake looked back at the picture againóno, just regular animals. He put the folder under his arm and shook Spinelliís hand. "Thanks for the pictures, Art."
       "Youíre welcome, Don. Like I said, Nimnul had a fit when we showed him those pictures. He actually said the animals were wearing clothes!"
       Drake studied Spinelliís face for a long moment, making him feel uncomfortable. "Anything wrong, Drake?" Drake covered up immediately. "No. No itís just something I had on my mind. See you later." Drake left, not quite sure what to think. He tried to convince himself he hadnít seen anything, but in that glance...he looked back again. No, just animals. "I mustíve put too much sugar in the java this morning." Drake picked up Plato and they started walking. Drake stopped a few blocks away. "Come on, Plato, letís go to the park. I need to think again."

       Donald Drake was a logical manóa man who dealt in reason and deduction. He turned the issue of the picture and what heíd been told over and over in his mind. He decided to table the issue and his thoughts returned to Nimnul and thus to Klordane.
       "Klordane and Nimnul are the only two who know what happened on that train. Well, Plato was there too, but that doesnít help me any. Wait, Nimnul wasnít even on that train at the end! It was just Klordane. Heís the only one who really knows."
       Plato pushed his masterís hand to get him to scratch his ears. Drake responded in kind, then as he looked at Platoís collar he remembered something else. "Someone cut your chain with a blowtorch when you were chained to that railroad car. But it was only you and Klordane on that train, Plato. He sure wouldnít have done it. I need to know who that third person was. Maybe we can get Klordane to solve this mystery!"
       The faithful dog looked up at Drake with a worried look and whined some. Drake scratched behind his ear. "I guess even dogs can have traumatic experiences. Well, donít worry, Plato. Iíll put this mystery to rest." Drake looked at his watchóthey still had enough time to make it to Rikerís Island prison for visiting hours.
       "Weíre going to pay a visit to an old friend, but I better make it worth his while."

A Stranger Visit

       Drake made a stop to purchase an item, dropped Plato off at his office, then headed to Rikerís Island. After some paperwork, he was admitted to a room with a wide table in the center. He sat down and a short time later two guards led in Aldrin Klordane. He was shackled on the wrists and ankles, and shuffled into the room with guards on each side. They led him to the seat on the opposite side of the table, watching his every move.
       The detective spoke first. "Iím surprised you were willing to see me, Klordane." The criminal genius said nothing at first, studying his old adversary. Then his face shifted to a genial look. "Well, Drake, seeing as how youíre the first person whoís visited me in all the years Iíve been in here, it was the least I could do. So much for friends and family. So, have you come to gloat over your victory?"
       "No, Iím satisfied that justice was served. The reason Iím here is to answer a nagging question. Who disrupted your plans when you were on the train with the gold? It was you, Plato and someone else. Whoís the mystery person?" Klordane appeared reluctant to speak, and was about to rise and call the guards when Drake caught his attention. "I can make it worth your while." Klordane lowered his voice to match Drakeís whisper. "Oh really, and why is that?"
       Drake produced a small jar. Klordane gasped. "Imported Russian caviar! Drake, Iím impressed. I didnít think you were that clever. Very well, I will answer your question." Klordane leaned in close, almost breathing in Drakeís ear. "You see, I had rivals who were attempting the same feat I was. I beat them to the punch and the gold, but they learned of my plot and sabotaged my train! The third man was one of them. If I ever get out of here, they will pay for their interference."
       The gritty detective wasnít buying it just yet. "Who are they?" Klordane grinned devilishly. "Iím not at liberty to say. Even here, they could learn if I committed shall we say an indiscretion. Suffice it to say, they have a wide reach." Drake pressed him. "Why did you blame little rodents for your defeat at first, rather than rival criminals?"
       Klordaneís smile was positively wicked now. "Now Drake, you know how the pressures of life can get to a person! After all, but for that one mishap with the train, youíd still be rotting behind bars and Iíd be the owner of my own island in paradise!" On a whim, Drake produced one of the bank pictures that Spinelli had given him and handed it to Klordane.
       "Are you sure it wasnít them?"
       Drake could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand on end as he saw the momentary look of horror and rage on Klordaneís normally haughty features. Klordaneís hand was shaking as he handed the picture back to Drake. The criminal quickly regained control and his normal face reappeared.
       "Drake, as much as I wish to see you destroyed, I will step outside of our dispute and give you some advice. You are dangerously close to answers you donít want to know about. I suggest you dispose of this picture and any like it. End your current line of inquiry and go back to gumshoeing or whatever it is you do these days."
       "Why? Are these little animals the vast criminal empire youíre talking about? Come on Klordane, spill it!"
       Klordane glanced at the security officers. "If you want the truth, perhaps you should talk to a certain madman we both know. Guards!" The guards escorted Klordane back, and Drake asked to see Professor Nimnul. After more paperwork, the cagey professor was brought out in a straightjacket, guards on each side.

       Nimnul was in a bad mood as usual. "Oh, itís not bad enough that you interrupt my three-dimensional chess game, but did you also have to be a cop? Why canít someone come who recognizes the genius of Norton Nimnul?!"
       "Nimnul, this is visiting hours and they didnít force you to come here. I need to talk to you. I just played 20 Questions with your old buddy, Klordane and he said I should talk to you."
       "That ingrate!" Nimnul shouted, wishing his hands were free. "He used my superior intelligence, and then he wouldnít even let me start my own fruitquake! That balding buffoon got what he deserved!"
       Drake decided to go for the jugular. "Nimnul, it all comes down to this." Drake showed him the picture, and Nimnul instantly went ballistic. "THE VERMIN! They ruined everything! They always ruin everything! That nasty girl mouse and her inventions, the big slobbering one, the despicable fly, the dopey chipmunk and not leaving out that self-righteous leader of theirs. The fly first, but Iíd love to get my hands on you, Chip!"
       Nimnul glared at the picture, and Drake could see him concentrating on one of the animals furiously. "What do you see in this picture?" Nimnul suddenly realized that Drake was after him for something. He saw the look of nervousness in Drakeís eyes, and it hit him. "You saw it, didnít you? Hahaha! Thatís why youíre here, isnít it, Drake? You want someone to say itís a joke. But you saw the hat, the tacky Hawaiian shirt, and you saw that turncoat Sparky! I taught him everything he knows and he joined them against me!"
       Drake started to sweat. "I donít see anything in those pictures!"
       Nimnul grinned even more wickedly than Klordane had. "Oh, you saw them all right. Theyíll take you and put you in a one-size-fits-none straightjacket, and stick you so far away that no oneíll find you! Theyíll give you dollies to play with and make you recite the Periodic Table, from the noble gases backwards! And if somehow you manage to squeak out of here, thereís the vermin. Theyíre waiting for you, Drake. Theyíre waiting for you! Hahahahahahahha!"
       Drake threw down the picture, but he was still sweating. "Youíre a nutcase, Nimnul! Thereís nothing there but normal little animals. Nothing!" Nimnul was beginning to enjoy thisóa chance to torment one of his tormentors. "Rationalizing now, are we? Well, Iíve been to their home. Yes, their home! Itís where no one would look, a big oak tree right in the middle of Central Park!
       "I switched bodies with that irrepressible fly, and not only could I see them but I could talk with them! Theyíre a bunch of meddlers and busybodies. That Gadget mouse thinks sheís so superior, just because she figured out how to fix the problem with the modemizerís molecular regurgitater before I did! Well, Iíll show her yet!" Drakeís look changed at the mention of the tree, and Nimnul picked up on it. "Youíve been there, havenít you? Youíve been in the park and seen something!"
       "No! That is, I was walking Plato and he barked at the base of an oak tree. I saw a mouse on a branch, but..."
       "It was her, you idiot! Your dog was probably squealing on you! They saved him, and heís grateful to the vermin! Donít let him out of your sight, detective, or youíll not live to regret it. Theyíll come for you in the night, and when they do maybe youíll end up like I did, with your head stuck on that flyís body!"
       This was getting too weird for Drake. "Thatís enough, Nimnul! I...I see it was a waste of my time talking to you. I better leave." Drake quickly made his way out of the visiting room. Nimnul shouted at him as the guards led him away. "You canít hide! Theyíll find you and by the time you know it, itíll be too late! Too late!"

       The guards had to physically restrain Nimnul to keep him from pulling away and following the shaken detective. Drake suddenly realized he was breathing heavily and his heart was pounding. He exited through the various security checkpoints, showing the picture to people along the way and asking what they sawótwo chipmunks and a rat, that was all.
       Drake fumbled with his keys, getting into his car. He chanced to look down at the picture, and for a split second it happened again. This time the image was sharper, and he winced at the throbbing pain in his head. He was in a daze as he drove back to his apartment. Plato greeted him when he came in, but Drake pushed him away. "Come on, Plato, weíre going back to the park."
       Plato didnít want to go at first, but Drake was in no mood for fussing now. He got to the park and practically had to force Plato out of the car, securely attaching his leash. "Okay, Plato, show me that tree you like so much, the one that had the mouse in its branches." Plato set his feet and locked his legs in place.
       Drake pulled on the leash. "Come on! You always go rushing for that tree when we come here. Whatís wrong with ya?" Drake looked into the dogís eyes, then stopped pulling and sat down on the grass in front of Plato. What Nimnul said about Plato, could it be true? "Whatís going on, Plato? Youíre not going to show me, are you..."
       The dogís eyes searched his masterís face, then Plato looked back at the car and back to him. Drake was too numb to be shocked anymore. He undid the leash and headed back to the car. He didnít say a single word on the trip home, or at any time the rest of the evening. At bedtime, Drake locked Plato out of the bedroom. He stayed dressed and took out his gun, making sure the windows were securely shut, sitting with his back against the door and eventually fell into a troubled sleep.

Strangers Visit

       It was about three in the morning when Drake awoke with a start. Heíd tried not to sleep, but his resolve had waned and now he sat on the floor, listening. There was nothing at the moment, so he closed his eyes to concentrate and made soft noises like he was asleep. In a few moments, the sounds he thought heíd heard resumed. They were high-pitched, but definitely someone was speaking in the next room. Then a much deeper and gruff voice replied and Drake put his ear to the door.
       "Iím sorry this happened, lads, but there was nothing I could do. He is a detective, after all."
       "Golly, itís not your fault. But the question is, what do we do about it?"
       "Zowie, maybe heíll try to trap us and sell us to a circus or something!"
       "Donít be ridiculous! He canít chance coming around us. Look what they did to Nimnul and the others who spoke up!"
       "Donít be so sure, loverboy. Humans are definitely not to be trusted."
       "Iím sure this will all work itself out soon enough, Rangers. Now, youíd best be off in case he wakes up."
       Was Nimnul right again? Had they come for him? Gun up, Drake leaped to his feet and threw open the door. The room was very dark, the only illumination being the moonlight coming through the window. "Okay, whoís in here! Plato, where are you?"
       When the door opened, he heard what sounded like a collective gasp and scurrying feet. Plato was now at the window, and when Drake went over to it, it occurred to him to look out. In his peripheral vision, he saw something flying off toward his right. He craned his head to see, but whatever it was had rounded the building. Drake put his gun away. "Mother of mercy, I think Iíve been at this too long. I hear voices, and all I find is you. Still, someone was in here."
       Holding that thought, Drake turned on the light. He checked the door carefullyóno sign of forced entry. He began a deliberate search of the room, even to the point of moving furniture to see if any sign was left. When he returned to the window, he checked the sill and found a peculiar object. It appeared to be a tiny sandwich, smaller than a cracker, with a bite taken out of it. Curiosity overcame him and he sniffed it.
       "PBJ! But who would make a sandwich so..."
       Something else caught his eyeóa slip of white paper a little longer and thinner than the sandwich. Drake put the rest of the miniature meal aside and, taking some tweezers, he grabbed the paper and studied it closely. Drake had to force Plato out of the room and closed the door behind him to keep him out of the way. He found a magnifying glass and with patience, dexterity and the pair of tweezers Drake opened the envelope and removed the letter inside. He turned it over to find it was addressed and with some effort he was able to focus in on both the envelope and its contents.



       c/o Eva Erskine
       Rescue Rangers
       Central Park
       Tree 10032

       Darling sister Eva,

       Things have been so busy with you and your friends that it has been difficult to call you. Bernard and I are in Florida right now. It has been a long time since our last vacation, and I had forgotten what it feels like to get away from work. Leading the Rescue Aid Society is demanding work and we found we needed some time away.
       Edward came to visit us while we are down here, he is such a darling. We revisited the site where we first met and stopped that terrible woman Madame Medusa and rescued that dear, sweet Penny. There isnít much left of the riverboat now, but we found our swamp friends and spent a few days with them.
       We will be visiting Mexico City, Rome, Hong Kong, Paris, Duluth and then back to home. I have been thinking much of all of you. It is wonderful having such a big family. I miss you all, and give everyone my love.

        Bianca



       Drakeís hands were shaking as he put down the letter and his head was throbbing worse than ever. This was too much to believe, too much to accept. He put both items in evidence bags and grabbed his coat off the hat rack, desperate to get some fresh air.
       "This is like the Twilight Zone, or worse, the X-Files," Drake muttered, heading out. "Like somethingís going on just beyond my grasp and Iím probably not going to like it when I learn the answer."

       As he walked, Drake heard that strange sound he had heard when he looked out the window of his apartment. Growing nervous, he sped up his pace. He came upon an all-night diner and ducked inside, sitting quickly in an isolated booth at the back. After ordering some coffee, he went over the papers and pictures again.
       "Somethingís screwy here," Drake thought out loud. "It canít be. It just canít be!"
       "Canít be what?"
       Drake looked up to find a big trucker type staring down at him. "Whatís yer problem, man? Youíre drowning out the fight with yer yammering, and I never miss Stone Cold Steve Austin!" Drake held up the picture. "Let me ask you a question. What do you see in this picture?" The truckerís eyes narrowed. "Little chipmunks and a rat. What are you, some kind of nutcase?" The trucker grabbed the picture and walked back to the counter, waving it around. "Hey guys! Looky what bigmouth back thereís yelling over. Ainít they cute!"
       The detective followed, but was curious to see what theyíd say. The rough-looking crowd began looking over the picture and making snide comments until a hard-nosed waitress took the picture away and looked it at as she handed it back to Drake. "Cute lookiní animals there. You a nature photographer or something?"
       "That was taken by a security camera during a bank robbery. None of you see anything unusual at all about the two chipmunks and rat?"
       "Canít say as I do," the waitress said, looking again. "Was they trained or something, like by spies?" At the mention of the "s" word, the big-muscled trucker stood up. "Waitaminit! You a spy, man? We donít like spies around here. You come to spy on us?"
       Drake found it odd that the people were reacting with such hostility, even for New Yorkers. "Relax, people! Iím a private investigator working on a case. Yes, these animals were trained to aid in the bank robbery. The case is closed, but Iím doing some follow-up work on it." The trucker wasnít amused. "Oh, a private eye! Well Columbo, we didnít rob no bank and since there ainít no animal trainers in here, why donít you point your nose outside and follow it?"
       Drake put down a couple bucks at his table and walked out without another word. **Were they so hostile because I was trying to make them see something their minds wouldnít accept? Maybe I ainít crazy.** He looked back at the picture again, and this time the image was so intense that he screamed from the pain. Onlookers gasped as they saw him collapse, and soon an ambulance was on the scene.

       Several hours later, Drake woke up in the hospital. A doctor was speaking to the nurse who was checking his vital signs, then approached his bedside. "Ah, youíre awake. Youíve had a tough night, Mr. Drake." Drake looked up wearily. "Wha...what happened?" The doctor thanked the nurse as she left and then returned his attention to Drake. "Nothing serious, just hypotension. The emergency team reported that you showed evidence of being under stress that led to low blood pressure. Your body simply shut down in self-preservation."
       "Thanks for looking after me, doc," Drake said. "Am I clear to go?" The doctor checked his chart. "Weíve given you some Vitamin E and C intravenously. Iíd recommend you supplement that with a multivitamin and some rest." Drake got up, and the nurse brought him his clothes. "Thanks again, but Iím a detective with a case that wonít wait. Iíll do my best to make sure I donít end up back here, though."
       "Iíd appreciate that, Mr. Drake," the doctor said, as he and the nurse left to give him privacy.

Strangeness Revisited

       Returning to his apartment, Drake found the hospital stay had revitalized him some. He once again pulled out the miniature letter that this Eva person had written and re-read it. Heíd heard of Madame Medusa from the police records at the time. He was a rookie then, but heíd been there when the Devilís Eye was turned over and now that he thought on it he did remember the girl named Penny, too. It stuck in his memory because she mentionedóhe grabbed the letter and read it again.
       "Rescue Aid Society? Thatís what the kid said! I knew it sounded strange at the time, but I figured she was just making up a story. Iíd better see if sheís in town tomorrow." Then he looked at the picture again, resting on his desk. The image was there, but stable this timeóa chipmunk in a fedora next to a chipmunk in a Hawaiian shirt and a rat in a lab coat. He looked away, and then back. Still there. He repeated the exercise several times, but always with the same results. There was no headache this time, so he grabbed his hat and coat, heading outside to think again.
       Drake spent the rest of that day wandering the streets of New York. When it reached the next morning, he got in his car, returning to Rikerís Island for another meeting with Nimnul and hoping for a few more answers before he let go of reality as he knew it. Drakeís unshaven, unkempt look garnered a few stares from the people working at the prison, but they kept their comments to themselves as he was shown to the visiting room. The detective sat down and waited for Nimnul.
       The plucky professor was in just as peachy as mood as last time. "Now what?" Nimnul asked, as the guards sat him down. "Couldnít find your car keys and thought you left them in my straitjacket?" Drake asked to be left alone with Nimnul, and once the guards let the nutty professor know theyíd be right outside, the detective and the bound-up baddie went one-on-one.
       Drake locked eyes with Nimnul, his eyes baggy. "You know what? Iíve barely slept the last two days because Iím coming to the conclusion that youíre not the nutcase everyone thinks you are. Thereís evidence that these vermin of yours exist, and I want you to tell me more about them. Why are we the only ones who can see them? Why canít everyone see what is right before their eyes?"
       Nimnul smiled, his voice patronizing. "Redundancy."
       "Redundancy?" Drake said, confused.
       "What is this, an echo chamber? Yeah, redundancy! You used "why" twice in a row to begin your sentences. I try to make it a practice never to begin two consecutive sentences with the same word. Itís not a universal requirement, but it does make for better grammar, Drake."
       Drake slammed his fist on the table. "Answer me!"
       "Why should I care if no one else can see them? I already told you! The vernicious vermin stopped me at every turn! They wasted my weather machine, mashed my modemizer, stymied my static electricity generator, and wouldnít give me a momentís peace! Theyíre determined to keep me from taking my rightful place as supreme ruler of the world!"
       Nimnul sat there and stared at him for a few minutes. When Drake didnít budge, he grimaced and spoke again. "All right. Iíve developed a theory, but itís unproven. It has to do with social framing and education." Whatever Drake had expected to hear, that wasnít it. "Okay, you have my attention." Nimnul leaned forward. "Iíll try to use little words so I wonít lose you. You know how when youíre a kid you believe in all sorts of things? Monsters, fairies, a benevolent government and the like? Some of thatís imaginary, but my theory is that thereís more to what we call Ďchildlike innocenceí than we realize."
       "But Iím not a kid," Drake protested.
       "Iím not finished yet! Once weíre indoctrinated into society, weíre taught that the monsters and fairies arenít real. As for the government, thatís a whole other story. Weíre also taught things like animals are unintelligent creatures that thrive on instinct and have no ability to communicate with us. Itís been that way since the dawn of time, and while I canít prove it I think thereís some kind of ulterior purpose behind it. Suffice it to say, man wasnít supposed to find out what we know."
       Drake went over all that in his mind for a few moments, then he began to laugh. Nimnulís eyes narrowed. "Whatís so funny?" Drake smirked. "I just thought of a song from ĎBedknobs and Broomsticksí."
       "Age of Not Believing?"
       Drake stopped laughing. "Yeah, exactly. So, if weíre not supposed to know, why havenít they killed us both by now?" Nimnul leaned back. "From the time I was switched with that insidious insectís body, I learned that theyíre pretty secretive. They donít want to be found out, and for the most part they keep to themselves. The vermin and a few others are the exceptions."
       "What are they like?" Drake asked, showing Nimnul the tiny letter he had found.
       "Theyíre meddling do-gooders, thatís what they are! Like I told you, they try to stop me at every turn, and I wouldnít be surprised if they stuck their little rodent noses into a lot of other peopleís business! Give me a magnifying glass...yeah, thatís them! Rescue Rangers is what that Chip called them. I donít know about any Rescue Aid Society, but if theyíre like the vermin they probably cause honest criminals like me to lose sleep!"
       Drake was feeling better now, slightly. He began thinking out loud. "Itís like folklore and fairy talesóoften talking animals would help hapless humans in distress. They say every legend has some basis in fact, but this...this is too much to believe."
       "Then donít believe it," Nimnul said, soberly. "Let the idea go, and forget about them! Youíll be much better off."
       "But I canít!" Drake said, running his fingers through his hair. "Iím past the point of willful ignorance. I canít go back, Nimnul, itís too late. I can hear them now, as well as see them."
       Nimnul blinked in surprise. "Hear them? You can tell what theyíre saying? But I could only do that when I was modemized! Youíve just proven my theoryórats, itíll be years before they let me out of here and I can publish my findings in an academic journal!"

       Drake sat back in his chair, hanging his head. He had some of the answers and he didnít like them at all. His whole universe had just been turned upside-down and he was still concerned if all of this wasnít some sort of hysteria and that he himself was slowly going insane.
       "Nimnul, how can we truly know weíre seeing what weíre seeing? What if weíre both just seeing things? How can we be sure?"
       Nimnul raised an eyebrow, Spock-like. "Hereís one way. When you first showed me that picture, I told you what they were wearing. You didnít describe anything about them. What would be the odds of us both imagining the same thing?"
       "Yeah, thatís so. I saw the exact same clothes you did. Since youíve helped out, Iíll make a deal with you. If I find these Rangers and theyíre what you say they are, Iíll do what I can do get you out of the loony bin and into a regular cell. I know itís not much to offer, but Iíll try anyway."
       Nimnul looked at Drake, the madness that usually was there seemed to fade briefly. "You know, Iím just glad that someone has finally proven to me that Iím not totally insane. Well, itís almost time for Judge Judy, canít miss that! I donít know what else to tell you, Drake. Watch your back and I hope you donít end up hereóbefore I can get my revenge."
       "Thanks, Nimnul."

Now, It Really Gets Strange

       Drake retrieved the tiny letter and the picture, and left the prison. He found the effort heíd needed to speak to Nimnul had drained him, so he decided to go home before doing anything else. When he opened the door, all he wanted to do was crash in his recliner and say hello to Plato. There was only one little problem with that planóPlato was nowhere to be seen.
       "Plato? Where are you? We need to talk!"
       The detective looked around and found a window to the fire escape open. From the claw marks on the frame it appeared that Plato had opened the window and gone down the ladder. It didnít take much imagination to guess where the dog had gone, but Drake didnít like to think about it. When he reached Central Park, he stopped at the periphery. Should he go in? If the animals knew he was coming, would they try to stop him? Drake hoped that daylight would dissuade them from doing anything serious and he proceeded into the park.
       He had never really paid attention to the location of that particular tree that Plato was so fond of, so he had to search. He wandered around and periodically asked people if they had seen his dog. A few had seen a stray dog fitting Platoís description, but not recently. Drake always kept a wary eye on the birds and woodland animals, and would from time to time catch snatches of strange conversations where no humans were aroundóand it even appeared that some of them were wearing clothes as well. He found the tree where Plato had stopped before, and at his feet was a pigeon.
       "I donít suppose youíve seen Plato?" Drake asked.
       "I havenít seen your dog, man," the pigeon replied.
       Drake cried out in alarmóas did the pigeonóand the detective leaped over the back of a bench and began running. He stopped near the park fountain, catching his breath, when he noticed a squirrel with red hair who was wearing a one-piece black bathing suit jump into the fountain and start doing the backstroke. She looked over at Drake and smiled, waving. Drake blinked at the sight, and fearfully he began backing up. He jumped when he felt a tug on his pants leg.
       "Whatcha doing?"
       Drake looked down to see he wasnít alone. A girl about five years old stood there, along with three other kids, all looking at him curiously. Drake looked at the lady with the kids and then back at the girl. "Say, do you see that squirrel swimming in the fountain?"
       "Sure!" the girl said. "Sheís smiling and waving. And she has on a pretty black swimsuit!" The lady, who was the girlís mother, scolded her. "Now Melanie, Iíve told you about telling lies. Tell the nice man the truth, dear."
       "But I was! Wasnít I, gang?"
       The kids all agreed, but the mother knew they were lying to back up her daughter and tugged Melanie away. Drake looked back at the squirrel and this time he found himself waving back. That seemed to disturb the swimmer, and she quickly got out of the water and ran offóon two feet.

       Drake stood at the fountain for several minutes, lost in his thoughts. He began to realize that there was no animal life anywhere near himóno birds or squirrels, not even insects. It was as if the whole park had suddenly gone silent. He felt like he was in the center of the Roman Coliseum.
       "I guess word gets around."
       Drake quickly and nervously returned to his car, keeping an eye out in case the animals tried to ambush him. He needed to find out about the Rescue Rangers and the Rescue Aid Society, and the only human resources he knew that might be of any help were at the New York Public Library.
       Drake had done his share of legwork here before, but mainly in the card catalogs. Computers were still a new world for him, so he sought out a librarian. He found just what he was looking for at the reference deskóa young fellow around 30 who was totally engrossed with his computer terminal. When Drakeís shadow alerted the librarian to his presence, the bespectacled man looked up.
       "Hello there. Do you need any assistance?"
       Drake hesitated, thinking about how to phrase what he was after without raising too much suspicion. "I need to look something up on the...internet."
       The librarian adjusted his spectacles. "Oh, okay. Are you interested in doing a multi search-engine lookup or perhaps finding information from a government website? Iíd be glad to guide you through it."
       "I just want to look something up," Drake said, feeling like a fish out of water. "Youíre talking Greek to me. Youíll have to show me how to do everything here." The librarian looked at Drake curiously, then motioned him around. "I tell you what, Iíll get the search engine up and then you can use my terminal. Do you want to search for information on a global scale, or just here in the States?"
       "Global, and what Iím looking for first is Rescue Rangers. Iíll watch you so I can see how itís done. I plan on being here a while and I donít want to waste too much of your time. Say, is there a way to print out stuff that I need?"
       "Uh, sure," the librarian said, studying him. "Whatís Rescue Rangers? Some sort of forest fire rescue squad?"
       "I havenít a clue as to what they are. Iím a private investigator on a case and thatís all I have to go on right now. Actually, the name ĎChipí came up in regard to them. Try that too."
       The librarian brought up the search engine and began entering the keywords. "All right, Iíll try those terms in both Godado and the Alltheweb engine. Thereís bound to be a lot of ancillary matching terms so Iím going to surround the term "Rescue Rangers" with quotes to avoid that problem. Letís try just doing that first before adding Chip to it."

       He did so, and both sites brought up less then ten pages. "Hmm...mostly references to Power Rangers. Looks like a couple of these are pages put up by animal lovers." Drake saw the descriptions and it gave him some hope. "Well, it may be related to animal care and rescue, like an animal rights group."
       "All right, letís have a look-see at one of them."
       Clicking on the link brought them to a website designed by a high school student. It had lots of the typical teenage interests represented, but it also had a link to "my encounter with the Rescue Rangers". Drake was immediately intrigued and the librarian brought up the next screen. It described an encounter with intelligent talking mice and chipmunks that happened about four years ago.
       "Sounds like someoneís idea of online fan fiction," the librarian said. "Pretty creative, though."
       Drake did his best not to reveal his excitement. "Okay, I need a copy of that. Whose site is this? Is there a name?"
       "Yes, the name is Cynthia Hale. Wait, this is a defunct site. It says here sheís moved to Australia, where sheís staying in the outback with her parents. Apparently doing research on the aborigines. Thatís a bother. Do you want a copy of the story, and do you want to keep looking?"
       "Make a copy for me, please. Anything else?"
       The librarian returned to the hit list. "Well, there was one other site. Let me see...oh yes. This one appears to be a conspiracy site of some sort. The fellow says animals are preparing to take over the planet. Yeah, right. Letís see who this crackpot is...Norman Nimnul."
       "Normie!" Drake muttered, under his breath. "I just talked to that kid the other day. Heís a nutcase all right. Anything else?"
       "Those look to be the only two from that engine. Letís look at the Godado results...hmm...not Rescue Rangers, but there is an entry here about something called the Rescue Aid Society. Interesting, itís an Australian site. Might be that Cynthia again who wrote the cute little story."
       Drake was eager to get some privacy. "Okay, I think Iíve got the hang of this now. If you hear sobbing and threats to the computer, then youíll know I need more help." The librarian chuckled. "Okay, itís all yours." Drake accessed the link for the site. Like the last two, this was a personal web page. The creator was a freshman undergraduate at Trinity College in Victoria, near Sydney. His name was Cody Newcastle, and his story was even more interesting than Cynthiaís. Apparently, some intelligent mice who helped him to save a rare giant golden eagle from a poacher named Percival MacLeash had rescued him. Drakeís eyes froze on the last sentence. "And if it hadnít been for Bernard and Bianca, I wouldnít be here today.
       Instantly, Drake felt gratified. "Now where have I heard those names before?" Drake entered the two names along with "Rescue Aid Society" into the search engine. He found Codyís site again, plus an online version of the story where that girl Penny had been rescued. It was the large front-page article from the New York Times that dealt with Pennyís kidnapping, all the way to her donating the Devilís Eye to the Smithsonian.
       He was now able to confirm what he thought heíd remembered, as he saw from the print copy that sheíd "mysteriously said hello to two people named Bernard and Bianca while on camera, and referred to an unknown organization called the Rescue Aid Society. Penny now has the last name Little, as the New York couple had heard of Pennyís plight on the news and wanted to provide her a good home."
       Drake remembered the kidnapping in question like it was yesterday. He returned to the article, reading about Madame Medusa and her compatriot, Edward "Snoops" Nim...
       "Small world..."

Strange Doesnít Quite Get It

       Drakeís train of thought was derailed when he noticed a small animal scurry across the top of one of the rows of books nearby, reminding him that he wasnít alone here. He got up to see where it was headed, but it was already gone. Returning to the computer, Drake flagged down the librarian again and had him print out the info heíd found, plus the librarian found a home address for Penny Little. Drake thanked the fellow for his help, and headed out.
       When he got outside, he stopped. What now? Plato was gone, and likely wouldnít be back until this mess was cleared up. The address heíd found wasnít all that far, so Drake decided to have a go at it. Pennyís house was in the middle-class district, near the zoo. Drake felt foolish walking up the walkway. Would she even remember the mice, or admit to it? What if she thought he was a fruitcake and called the police? Drake gritted his teeth, finished the walk up to her door and knocked.
       After what seemed a short eternity, Drake heard a bolt sliding back and the door opened. A woman about 30 years old stood there, her honey blonde hair draped about her shoulders. Her eyes were dark and curious, and she seemed as tense as Drake was. Finally, she spoke.
       "Iím Penny Little. Wonít you come inside, Detective Drake?" she said, making a sweeping motion with her arm. Drake didnít like the idea of being expected, but he couldnít see anyone in the house besides her. He followed, and Penny led him into a simply-decorated yet tasteful living room. She sat down on a cushy armchair, and a cat immediately came and jumped in her lap. Drake noticed the cat was wearing a red muffler, and thought it odd since it wasnít winter. Penny sat there silently, looking at him, and it made Drake uncomfortable.
       He began studying the surroundings a little more closely. On the mantle, he noticed an old teddy bear had been carefully preserved under a custom-made glass covering. Photos of Penny and her parents were on the wall, as well as a childís drawings of two miceótwo mice wearing clothes and standing on their hind legs, to be precise. Drake then returned his attention to Penny. She was charming in appearance, her white dress covered with pink roses and green petals making a nice complement to her complexion. It was also evident she was trying to decide about him, which made him all the more curious.
       Drake at last spoke up. "I take it you know why Iím here."
       "Yes, I was contacted as soon as you left the library," Penny said, drawing her legs up under her. "Drake, I had hoped it wouldnít come to this, but youíve come farther than you should. What will it take to convince you not to go any further?"
       She unfolded her legs and rose at this, the nervous tension inside telling on her. She seemed to be studying the mantle for a moment, then she turned and stared at him. "Return to your life, Drake. If you like, I could give you the names of some people who can hypnotize you and make you forget what youíve learned. Thereís still a little time left before itís too late."
       Drake started, not expecting a threat. Still, sheíd delivered it calmly and even with a hint of concern for him. "Thanks, but this old copís used to looking out for himself. Canít say I expected danger from a person like you."
       Penny sat down again, taking on the attitude of a well-meaning friend. "The dangerís not from me, let me assure you, or from those whom I represent. Itís for your own well-being. Not every human who knows what you know can deal with it. We prefer to have as few people in our circle as possible. Plus, there are other groups out there that arenít as understanding. Youróyouíll pardon me for thisóyour clumsy investigation has drawn a great deal of attention to you, Drake. A timeís coming where you might have to make some tough choices."
       "Believe me, sister, Iíve already had to make some. If what youíre sayingís true, thatís your affair. I canít forget what Iíve learned, and I wonít forget it. That drawing on the wall over there. Is that Bernard and Bianca?"
       Penny looked over at the picture, and she formed a fond smile. "Yes, my two dearest friends in the entire world. My lifeless body wouldíve ended up that the bottom of Devilís Bayou, unknown and unmourned for all eternity if not for them. Drake, what is it youíre after? What do you plan to do with what you know now?"
       Drake studied her more, not certain if he should answer. Then an idea occurred to him. "Hey cat, is she trustworthy?" The cat appeared startled that Drake had addressed him, but once heíd looked at Penny he turned to the questioner. "The nameís Rufus, human. Rufus the Fourth, to be precise. Pennyís been trustworthy since my great-grandfather Rufus the First knew her. He was the first one to speak to her, and when she believed, it told him enough."
       When the cat actually answered, Drake twitched. At least it confirmed what heíd heard and seen in the park. "All right, Penny, letís say I trust you for the moment. I know that animals have been helping me, and if theyíre on the side of law and order, thatís jake with me. If youíre asking if I can keep a secret, thatís my business. I donít plan to go blabbing this around and end up in the nut bin with Nimnul."
       "The problem tends to take care of itself. Those that canít keep a secret usually are scorned into silence and those that know better keep it to themselves. Very well, Drake, you have confirmation as to your fears and suspicions. What more do you want? We try very hard to maintain the status quo on this issue."

       Drake felt that he was being interviewed, and maybe he was. He crossed his legs, trying to feel more at ease with all this. "I want to know who helped me defeat Klordane, and Iíd like to talk with them and know why they helped. Iíd also like to find Plato and ask him why he was so evasiveówow, to think my old partner could talk all this time! I bet thereís a lot heíd have told me if he thought he could, like how much Iíve put him through. Other than that, I dunno. Iím a detective, not an animal trainer."
       Penny raised a warning finger. "Drake, youíre going to have to make changes in your lifestyle. Youíve got to remember that youíll see strange and bizarre things that those around you canít see, and you must learn not to react to them or people will think youíre crazy".
       She stroked Rufusí fur, then continued. "Always remember that around humans, most animals will not speak. So donít try starting a conversation with one like you did with that pigeon again if you know whatís good for you. There are many little things youíll have to figure out on your own. Perhaps one day I should write an instruction book."
       Before Drake could reply, Penny got up again and went to the kitchen. She returned with some tea and cookies, and Drake could see that she was more relaxed now, as if sheíd made up her mind about him. Penny reclaimed her chair, sipping the tea. "The group that aided you is called the Rescue Rangers, and like the Rescue Aid Society they help anyone in need, human or otherwise. Iíve never met them in person, but Bianca is very close to them and has told me much about them. Iíll pass along your request for a face-to-face meeting with them if you wish."
       "Iíd appreciate that. You know, Iím not exactly Adolph Hitler or Alexander the Great. I ainít planning on rallying the animal forces of the planet or anything. Itís kind of neat to be able to know that they can talk and understand what weíre saying. I might ask one every now again if heís seen a suspect Iím tailing or something like that, but aside from that Iíve got my own life. Platoís the only one Iíd really spend any time gabbing with."
       Penny took another sip of tea. "Thatís a good way to view this issue. Just keep out of their affairs and theyíll keep out of yours. I would suggest that you keep a low profile for a while until things settle down."
       Drake crossed his arms. "Huh, the way you talk youíd think I was a fugitive from justice." Penny nodded. "Youíve stumbled upon a secret world that goes to great lengths to protect itself. Think of this time as your evaluation period. From what Iíve heard, you spooked most of Central Park this morning. Theyíll need time to get used to you as you need time to get used to them."
       "For being such a secret world, the word gets around pretty quick. Iíll lay low for now, on one condition. I need to know Platoís okay. Is he with the Rescue Rangers or your friends?"
       "I believe heís staying near Central Park in a hidden location for the time being. Iíll get in contact with you when I find out more. Youíll have to excuse me, Detective Drake, but the children will be coming home from school soon, so I need to get dinner on." Drake stood up. "Sure thing. Itís been educational. Good meeting you too, Rufus."
       "Likewise."

Alienus Ab Lingua Mortuus

       Drake needed time to think. When he left Pennyís, he decided to go to his favorite thinking place, which had always been the docks. There was an old beat-up wharf that extended well out into the water, mainly used by fishermen, but even they didnít frequent it much. Drake loved the solitude and found it again now as he sat at the end of the pier and listened to the water surging past the wharfís supports.
       Taking off his fedora, he held it in his hands and let his eyes defocus as he watched the sunset. "Dad, you always said I had an eye for trouble. Wish you were here now, old man. I sure could use your advice on this one."
       Drake looked out at the sailboats passing by, and slowly his mind cleared. He had discovered a secret known to few, and highly protected by those who did. Penny was apparently resolved to act normally, and really that was all he wanted. He hoped she could put him in touch with those Rangers, because he had a feeling he owed them. Drake put his fedora back in place and stood up.
       "First, Iíve gotta grab a bite to eat. The next moveís gonna be theirs anyway, from the way Penny put it."
       Drake returned to his car and headed for Altoniís, his favorite Italian hangout. He figured he might as well get a good meal before whatever it was happened. When he returned to his apartment, he found a note on the door with a single word written on it ó periculum.
       "I donít know what that means, but it canít be good."

       Drake took the note inside, and pulled out his dictionary. It turned out that periculum was the Latin word for danger or risk. The message was clear enough. Drake checked his gun and ammunition, making sure no one was hiding in either room. He took a seat and waited for the person or animal he knew would surely come.
       "Come on, mysterious, secret people. I donít have all day."
       As the wait dragged on, Drake began pacing the room, thinking back to what had started all this. Arresting the former mayorís deadbeat brother for embezzlement of city funds and getting "promoted" to a K-9 unit, he was teamed with a fearless bulldog named Plato. He missed his friend and hoped he was okay, and now found that he was worried that this would somehow end their friendship.
       There was a knock at the door.
       Drake got up and drew his gun. It might not do him any good, but it made him feel safer. When he cracked the door, he saw nothing. He opened the door fully, and still nothing was there. Was it his imagination?
       "Good evening, detective."
       Drake swung around to find a personóat least he assumed it was a personówearing a large brown hooded vestment similar to what monks wore. The hood kept Drake from seeing any facial features, but on closer inspection the hands extending from the robeís folds told him this was a human.
       Drake raised the gun and held it point-blank at the personís head. "All right, who are you and why are you here?" The voice that replied was calm and carried some authority. "You know why I am here. Who I am is not pertinent at the moment. Your weapon will do you no good. If I perish, it will be in serving the ordinatio elementum, as those like me have sworn to protect the delicate balance between man and creature."
       At this, Drake took a few steps back and lowered his gun, but didnít holster it. "This is the 21st century, Quasimodo. Whatís with the Latin?"

       Removing his hood, the man appeared to be like anyone Drake would meet on the street. "It is a reminder of those who came before us. Qui quisnam alieno pridem fatalis repeto. Loosely translated, Ďthose who forget history are doomed to repeat ití. You are not the first to haplessly intrude upon the Great Secret, nor will you be the last. It is our duty to see that it is respected, and that balance is maintained."
       "Iíve already talked to someone about that. Are you with the Rescue Aid Society or something? I already know that I have to keep this a secret."
       The figure stayed still. "No, I am not with them. They are permissive of human-animal relations, a danger that we constantly guard against. It is not enough for you tell us that you will keep the Great Secret. We must weigh your heart and know that you will never use it for your own gain, no matter what the temptation."
       From behind, something jumped on Drakeís back. It startled him, and before he could recover, the hooded stranger had covered the distance between them and took the gun. The distraction turned out to be a spider monkey. "Nester is an excellent diversion, would you not agree? He was the one knocking at the door earlier."
       "They wonít like this, Quartus," the monkey said. "You contacted him without permission."
       "Never mind, Nester. It is permitted when the intruder is deemed dangerous. Codex three, subsection 13."
       "I disagree, and will speak against this action to the Council."
       Quartus nodded. "That is your right. Now detective, you will be under our observation for a time. Any animal you see may be an informant, so take no idea that you can elude us."
       Drake felt like he was the star of a Twilight Zone episode. "Excuse me, youíre the intruder whoís deemed, by me, to be dangerous. So if I catch either of you here again, youíre leaving in body bags!"
       Quartus didnít respond to the threat. "Our deaths are not important. Many have died over the millennia to protect the ordinatio elementum. Understand, detective, we are not merely some local order that you can ignore. Augustus Caesar tried to ignore us, and his empire paid the price. Be sure you do not make the same error."
       "Iíve had worse threats and Iím still laughing. Like I already told you, I plan on keeping the secret, so why donít you two just scurry along? I have to find my dog."
       "Yes, your dog. Plato must also be judged for his worthiness. Like the ancient philosopher he is named after, he must show his thoughts worthy of our little republic. We have summoned him already."
       Drake didnít like the intimation of that. "Donít even think of threatening Plato! Iíve had just about enough of your scary monk schtick. And I want my dog back!"

       Quartus glanced away from Drake for a moment and thatís when Drake struck. He sucker-punched Quartus, grabbed the barrel of the gun and twisted it in Quartusí hand till the pain made him release it. All of this happened in a matter of seconds. "You should know better than to ever point a gun a cop, active duty or retired. Just be glad Plato isnít here or youíd know first hand what the Ďcrime biteí feels like. Now, youíre going to take me to him."
       "That...will be nothing compared to the Councilís wrath...if you cross us. And I refuse to divulge the Councilís secrets. You are free to shoot if you wish." Quartus said. Drake pushed Quartus away. "You sound like a bad B-movie ó ĎStrange in a Dead Languageí. Youíve got five seconds to decide if youíre walking down the stairs or be thrown down them."
       Quartus stood his ground, and when the time was up, Drake knew his bluff had been called. "All right, get out of here. But if you and your council hurt PlatoÖ" The robed human raised his right hand in a gesture of an oath. "He will come to no harm. The Society and the ordinatio elementum forbid it." Quartus whistled, and Nester jumped to his arm. "Until we are satisfied, you will know the Society is watching you." Quartus left by the door this time, and Drake watched him go down the hall and enter the elevator.

       Drake hustled to the window and quickly climbed down the fire escape. He knew from experience exactly how long the elevator took, and he knew that looking the way he did and carrying a monkey on his arm, Quartus probably wouldnít leave by the front door. Drake took up a hiding spot to observe the back door of the apartment building.
       The wily detective was right. Quartus emerged from the back, and took a minute to carefully see if he was followed. Drakeís experience paid off, for heíd chosen a hiding place deep in the shadows and he knew that movement was the important factor to being seen. He kept still as a statue, and Quartus moved on.
       Drake put his years of expertise in tailing suspects to good use as he played a cat and mouse game with Nester and his monkey boy, Quartus. Soon after he left, Quartus ditched the robe and the monkey, trying to blend in. He was slippery, but not slippery enough. Drake watched as he entered what looked to be an old warehouse near the docks. Once he was inside, Drake entered the building adjoining it and climbed up to the roof.
       He found what he was looking foróa roof access to the other building. The catwalk was narrow, but Drake had walked narrower. He nimbly tiptoed across and crept up to a skylight. Looking down, he saw a robed figure in a large spotlight, speaking to other robed figures sitting at a large semicircular table. The detective was about to see if there was any way to hear the conversation when he heard a slight noise.
       Drake looked up to find three robed figures carrying staffs emerging onto the opposite side of the roof. Drake was only mildly concerned. His gun had seventeen little friends who could help him out of a jam. "Are you the guys who did that awful ĎChantí CD a few years back?"

       The figures said nothing, and neither did they quicken their pace. They simply kept coming. Drake fired a warning shot that passed over the robed figure in front. The figures stopped, but didnít run. They stood there, seeming to be waiting for something. It came when Drake heard flapping noises behind him and turned to see birds flying at himódozens of birds. They darted at him and around him, like a swarm of locusts.
       "Call off your birds or people are going to start dying, buster!" Drake shouted.
       The figures never moved, but the birds responded by pecking at him. Drake was forced to retreat, and the figures followed. He retreated across the catwalk, but before he reached the other side he found other robed figures waiting for him. He looked back and the birds and robed humans were still there. Drake was trapped.
       With no other way to go, Drake looked down. Two stories below, a garbage truck was parked beneath him, filled with its wares. He looked back at his assailants and then back to the truck. Drake lowered his gun. "Iím crazy, but not that crazy. Okay, I give up."

       Drake expected them to come and get him, but instead it was the birds. They laid into him, pecking and clawing at his face and body. He lost his gun in the panic as he futilely tried to fight them off. They forced him off the catwalk, and with a scream Drake jumped, hoping his aim was good. He landed in the middle of the garbage truckís refuse, and for once was grateful for such a foul stench. Drake climbed out, and ran for it.
       Once the panic was over, he caught his breath a few blocks later. Heíd been stupid, going into a situation without casing it enough. Now he had a better idea of who he was up against. He also knew heíd just upped the stakes, because he knew their hiding place. Drake checked his gun and ammunitionóstill good. He had to go back. There was no real choice now, and he had to assume Plato was there by now. They would hunt him down to keep their secret safe, and all his instincts told him it was better to hunt than to be hunted. Drake hoped the various odors heíd picked up wouldnít give him away, and slowly he headed back.
       It was nearing midnight, and Drake hugged the darkness like an old friend. Soon the building was in sight. He knew it would be tough to go in unobserved, but maybe he could get lucky. His opportunity came when he neared the side entrance to the warehouse. Two of the robed men had been sent outside to keep watch, then one of them returned inside. Drake timed his walk up and down the sidewalk and it was an easy matter to cross the street and get behind him in the shadows.

Strangers, Meet the Rangers

       Drake decided to do something that heíd only seen in the moviesóhe sneaked up behind the guard and cold-cocked him with the butt of his gun. Drake quickly put on the guardís robe, not knowing how much time he had. When he met up with some others inside, he returned their silent greeting and calmly walked into the interior of the place. The detective smiled underneath his hood, satisfied with the idea that he just might find Plato and get out without being noticed.
       He entered a larger room, and found it was the one heíd seen from above. The semicircular table was empty now, but there was someone there. It was Plato, chained and muzzled. Drake ran to his old friend and removed his hood. Plato was overjoyed, but alarmed. The dog mumbled something, but it didnít occur to Drake that he was trying to warn him until he loosened the muzzle some.
       "Behind you, Drake!"
       Drake turnedójust in time to get a staff to the head. When he came to, his hands were bound and two of the robed guards held him between them. Behind the table, five robed figures sat. A spotlight appeared above them, highlighting the words chiseled into the marble facade óSodalitas Nam Bestia Tutamen et Fidelitas. The figure in the center stood and spoke.
       "Let this council come to order. Donald Drake, you have come here of your own volition. Do you submit yourself for trial?"
       Drake wondered if these guys were all frustrated Spanish Inquisition wannabes. "Well, since you have me as a prisoner, Iím hardly in a position to refuse."
       "We will take that as consent. The time for concealment is past."
       The council members and the guards removed their hoods. Most of them were humans, but two of the council members were animalsóa bear and a squirrel that had been standing on a stage. Drake studied the human faces, but none of them seemed familiar. A human who seemed to be in charge stepped forward.
       "You may refer to me as Primo," the human said. "We know of your visits to Norton Nimnul and Aldrin Klordane, as well as Penny Little. You have made no move that was unobserved. I do apologize for Quartusí excess zeal. He was inexperienced, and has been reprimanded."
       Drake scowled at Primo. "Heís just lucky I didnít send him to the morgue. Why are you bothering me like this and whatís it gonna take to get out of here?" Primo came and stood over Drake, his air of authority prevalent. "Donald Drake, you must understand that you have information that you were not supposed to have. The purpose of this society, the Secret Society For Animal Protection and Fidelity, is to protect humans and animals from those who would use that knowledge improperly. Again, I apologize for our avian sentinels chasing you from the roof, but our Codex requires that anyone who tries to infiltrate the secret headquarters must be repelled and tried. We did not expect you back so soon, though we knew you would return for your companion."
       "You dirtbags are holding my buddy hostage! I had to do it. As I told your monkey and the monkey boy, Iím going to keep it a secret. Itís not like anyone would believe me if I told anyone."
       Primoís eyes narrowed. "Others have promised, but didnít keep their word. They were tempted by the information, the potential power. Some of them were writers. I am sure you know Aesopís Fables, the Tales of Mother Goose, The Canterbury Tales, The Tales of Uncle Remus, Wind in the Willows, Dr. Doolittle, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Watership Down, and the like. Each of these writers had the same knowledge you did, and couldnít resist the temptation to use it."
       Drake was totally lost now. "Look, I donít know what you guys are looking for! I told you what Iím gonna do. What more do you want?"
       "Very simple. We want proof that you will do as you say. When we..."
       At that moment, the lights went out.
       Drake grinned in the darkness. "Iíd say that this was too well-timed to be an accident. You guys are in trouble." Within seconds, Drake could feel his bonds loosening, and another voice came from the dark.
       "Jeepers, that was only a double clove hitch! Not exactly a tough knot."

       Confusion reigned supreme, and in the blackness Drake shook off his captors. He didnít get far, though, because someone found the main switch and threw it again. When they did, the assembly found theyíd been joined by a new group of animals. Drake noticed them, but his first attention went to Plato, who was now free.
       "Plato, letís git while the gettingís good!"
       Drake fought his way past the guards and Plato bit anyone that came near him as they pushed toward the door. Only after Drake and Plato had made it out of the building and had run several blocks without stopping did they finally cease running. They ducked into a dark alley and both sat on the ground, panting from the exertion.
       Plato looked up at Drake. "Itís good to see you again, old friend, and to finally talk with you. How do you feel about it all?" Drake recognized the voice as the one heíd heard when he listened in on the conversation back at his apartment. "Plato, itís the weirdest thing to ever happen to me! I canít believe you can talk. Why didnít you ever talk to me? You knew you could trust me."
       Plato appeared apologetic. "Itís not that, Drake. Itís simply the way weíve been trained since as long as any of us can remember. Animals are not to speak to humansóitís as basic a rule to us as the law against murder is to you. Itís engrained, but there are a few humans who find out on their own, and for those few we can make an exception." Drake was beginning to think nothing was impossible. "So, how gooney are these people? Are they gonna kill us in our sleep or something? We need to deal with Ďem!"
       "Easier said than done. Every animalís heard of the Society. Theyíre usually never seen, and rarely heard from. Theyíre known for their cunning and patience. They will wait for a better time, and then we may have to go through all this again. They donít kill, though. Thatís against their Codex. They told me what happened to you on the roof, and they regretted the incident. The Societyís not a group you deal with, however. You simply learn to stay out of their way, and most of us do that quite well."
       Drake dusted himself off. "Sounds like the Mafia."
       "In a way, but the Society at least says itís above the moral limitations of normal society. They believe theyíve all been chosen to maintain the balance established between humans and animals, and will do almost anything to defend it. Theyíre an ancient order, as ancient as recorded knowledge. But enough of them for the moment. Are you okay?"
       The battered human leaned against the wall of the alley. "I havenít slept, shaved or eaten in two days, plus I got to live out the whole Hitchcock experience from The Birds and I fell in a garbage truck. Oh, and I got the living heck scared out of me not to mention half of my retirement years. Other than that Iím fine."
       Drake calmed down some after venting, and realized he hadnít seen Plato for most of that time. "Hey, enough about me, chum. How are you? Youíve really had me worried! Why did you run off the other night?" Plato laughed, and after a few moments Drake found himself laughing with him. "You always had a way of throwing yourself into a case, Drake. Iím all right. I may not be the young pup I used to be, but I can still get around."
       Plato came closer. "I ran because, despite the training Iíd received from my parents, I was on the verge of telling you everything. I knew what you were about to get yourself into, and wanted in the worst way to warn you. The Rangers convinced me I should come with them. Now, I think I should have followed my own instincts."
       "How did these guys get you?"
       Plato growled as he spoke. "Ah, that was my own stupid fault! Chip and the others were keeping an eye on you, but I decided to slip away and see how you were for myself. They got me while I was going up the stairs, and the next thing I knew I was in that warehouse. The Rangers were right on that count. Still, I shouldíve been smart enough to evade them."
       "Well, we all slip up some time," Drake said. "And so help me, when those guys slip up next, Iím taking Ďem all down. No oneís above the law!" Plato laughed some more, familiar as he was with Drakeís moods. "Now I know where my own spunk comes from. Drake, once this is all cleared up, what do we do then? Do we go back to detective work?"
       Drake didnít believe by any means this was near to being over, but the question intrigued him. "Sure, we can even expand out work to help animals and humans. We can even add a little door for the little people that need our help. Itís a whole new world of detective work."
       "Drake, Iíd advise against that. Besides, best handle the present problem first," Plato said, then took his first good look at his human companion. "Dash it all, Drake, youíre a total mess! When was the last time you slept or had a decent meal?"
       "Itís been a couple of days at least. I donít remember. Iíve been a bit out of sorts lately."
       Plato started out of the alley. "I bet you have. Come on, letís get back to the apartment and you can clean up. Then you can order us a pizza and weíll plan our next move." Drake was amused at how easily Plato had taken up the idea of them being a teamóbut then, they always had been. "Sounds good, but what about those goons? They know where we live. Theyíll be all over us, wonít they?"
       "I rather think they wouldnít try again so soon, plus you now have the Rangers backing you up. Iím sure theyíll be following and watching our backs. Theyíre small, but they know how to fight crime."
       Drake stood, making himself as presentable as possible, and looked down at Plato. "Okay, if a guy canít take his dog at his word, then who can he trust? Weíll head back. Iím too worn out to fight any longer anyway. When we get back to our place I want you to tell me all about the Rescue Rangers."

Now, It Actually Seems Natural

       The duo headed for home, but not before Drake recovered his gun from where it had fallen in the alley. Now he pulled it out and swept his rooms. Everything appeared normal, and frankly he was too tired to care if it wasnít. Plato told him heíd stand guard, so Drake went to take a shower. When heíd put on a new set of clothes and rested for a couple of hours, he felt like a new man. Plato came in the bedroom, finding Drake awake with his hands behind his head, thinking.
       "No sign of anyone so far," Plato said. "I spotted the lads in their RangerPlane a while back. Theyíre patrolling the area just to be sure."
       "Okay, thatís good. So when do I get to meet them? What are they like? From what Klordane and Nimnul told me, I owe them my skin."
       Plato could understand his eagerness. "Iíd best leave most of the personal descriptions to them, as Iím sure they can do a better job of that. But I can tell you that Chip and his friend Dale were pupils of mine of a sort. Oh, they were a harum-scarum duo early on, but they were eager, just like the rookies youíve had to train. Chipís one of the best animal detectives Iíve run across. Heís quick-minded, alert, a natural leader. Dale is creative and spontaneous, and sometimes it gets him into trouble. But heís as loyal asówell, as a dog to his human."
       Drake chuckled at the irony of the analogy. "Iím surprised they help humans, seeing as how most humans think so little of animals."
       "Well now, they know like I do that there are good and bad humans, just as there are good and bad animals. In fact, there are organized criminal elements in the animal world as well. Iím sure before your time is over youíll become quite familiar with them."
       Drake sat up. "I never wouldíve thought of that. Like a little Al Capone running around, stealing cheese and stuff? I wonder how much crime in the city is crossover crime. That would clear up a lot of unsolved cases if the force knew what I know now."
       "Thereís been some, but youíll have to be discreet handling it. They mustnít know the source of your Ďinsideí information, but of course you know that by now. As for meeting the Rangers, Iím sure theyíll contact us when theyíre ready to do that. Now, I bet youíve starved. I wouldnít mind sharing a little pizza for that matter." Drake headed for the phone. "Okay, pizza hound. Yeah, besides, theyíd never believe me if I told them. I guess I could just tell them a little bird told me. Wouldnít be far from the truth, either."

       After the pizza came and they each had their fill, Drake caught Platoís attention. "I guess weíre really partners now in the detective business, not just gumshoe and his loyal dog. I...we should change the name of our business." Plato thought about that. "Hmm, how about Drake and McGruff? We take a bite out of crime!" Plato snapped his mouth shut to emphasize his idea. Drake laughed. "Crimebite, Inc. We could even get one of those webpage thingies."
       "Sounds like a winner, partner."
       Plato and Drake shook hands, and there was a knock at the door. Drake immediately pulled his gun and motioned Plato out of the line of fire. When he cracked the door, he found a note taped to it and quickly brought it inside. Drake opened the envelope, and man and dog both read the contents.



       Detective,

       Without your knowledge or his, we installed a listening device on your companion. The Council listened to your conversation in the alley and your rooms and deemed it authentic. We have ruled in your favor. Guard your secret well, detective, and we hope the final resolution to this time of trial is to your liking.

       Quartus



       Drake took off Platoís collar and examined it, finding the device. He dropped it to the floor and crushed it under his heel, "Plato, I think the time for a collar is over. Youíre not a pet anymore, youíre a partner." Plato shook his head. "Youíre forgetting the leash and tag laws, Drake. I may be your partner, but in public Iíll have to appear to be your pet. Donít worry, itís a role Iím used to playing."
       "Okay, as long as you know itís nothing personal. So...what do we do now? The worldís totally different than it was at the start of this week. Thereís different crime to fight, different people to know, and a whole new way of thinking that has to be done. Youíll have to show me around your world, so I know the doís and doníts."
       "Itís not as hard as youíd think," Plato reassured him. "Youíve seen it for years, but didnít know what you were looking at." The phone rang, and Drake answered it. He came back over with a grin on his face. "That was Penny Little. She congratulated us on passing our test and invited us over for dinner tomorrow. She also said any and all questions will be answered there, and that the Rescue Rangers will be there, along with Bianca and Bernard. Nice to know someoneís looking out for us."
       Drake settled into his favorite chair. "Finally Iíll have my answers. But still, the thought gives me the willies. I mean, Iíve talked to you for years, so itís not such a strange thing for me to do that. But thereís this whole talking-animal thing here now. Itís like diving into the water headfirst and then learning to swim. Iíve got a lot to learn. For instance, what are Bianca and Bernard like? Are they big shots? How are they going to expect to be treated? Are they royalty or something?"
       Plato chuckled. "Theyíre agents, working to benefit others, just like you. The RAS is a worldwide organization, like the CIA or FBI but it doesnít have the national boundaries to be concerned with. Bianca and Bernard are both veteran members, and very nice people...er, mice. In fact, I think youíll find theyíre all quite nice."
       "Okay, I just have to remember that. Itís gonna take me a while to adjust my way of thinking about you people. Just let me know if Iím saying or doing something wrong, okay? I want to make a good first impression. Should I bring something?"
       Plato thought, then smiled. "Well, I donít know about the others, but if you brought some cheese along Iím sure youíd win over Monterey Jack. Heís another member of the Rangers, an Australian mouse with a bent on any kind of cheese. Drake, theyíll be just as nervous as you are. We animals almost never talk to humans, and then itís usually only young children. For some reason or other, theyíre the only ones who normally believe they can speak to us. Adults who do are very rare indeed."
       Plato yawned and stretched. "Iím sure theyíll take it in stride, Drake. Now, weíd better get some rest. I donít know about you, but this old pooch could use some extra shuteye." Drake was all for that. Heíd been just barely awake through Platoís answer. "Yeah, good idea. Two days without sleep can have a bad impact on a guy. The worldís gonna be a whole lot different now. You know, I could start calling myself ĎDetective Doolittleí."

Well, Maybe Not That Natural

       Plato smiled then yawned again, heading for his rug. Drake followed and soon they were both asleep. The next day found them outside Pennyís house. Drake tilted his fedora up, scratching his head and wondering if he was going to wake up from all this and find it was just his imagination. Were there really talking rodents inside? Plato looked up at him and could see the hesitation.
       "Go on. You need the closure as much as anyone."
       "Yeah, I guess youíre right, partner. It canít get any more weird than itís already been."
       Drake and Plato walked up to the door and Drake knocked. There was a delay before Drake heard someone coming, enough time for him to get nervous. Penny opened the door, and Drake took off his fedora. "Well, Iím here. Did they come?"
       "Theyíll be here shortly," Penny said, her voice warm and welcoming. "Thank you both for coming. Welcome to a different world, Detective Drake." She motioned them inside, and as they entered they saw that there were other guests, human and otherwise. First she gestured toward some humans.
       "Detective Drake, Iíd like you to meet my familyómy mother and father John and Elizabeth Little, my brother George." Then she gestured toward a small group of mice. "And this is my brother Stuart, his wife Emily and their children Florence and David." She turned to two human children and a pair of small animals. "These are my children. The female squirrel is my daughter, Jennifer. The human boyís my son, Kevin. The female chipmunkís my second daughter, Amanda." Lastly, she picked up a young human girl. "And this is my youngest daughter, Bianca."
       After the introductions, the other guests greeted Drake and Plato the same. Drake stood there, trying to soak it all in. "This is sure weird. You mean you consider the squirrel and chipmunk, er Jennifer and Amanda, the same as you do Kevin and Bianca there?"
       "Of course," Penny said. "I love all my children. It was at Morningside Orphanage that I learned that animals were more than they appeared to be, and when Bianca and Bernard saved my life, how could I possibly think them as mere animals? They were people to me now and when I was old enough, I adopted childrenóhuman and non-human, just like my mother and father did with Stuart there. Bianca and Bernard are the godparents to my own Bianca. Theyíre like family to me and have stayed close all these years."
       Drake felt uncomfortable. Something about it just didnít feel normal. "I didnít mean any offense there or nothing. Itís just that Iíve always been taught that humans were superior to animals and all." Plato tapped his leg, catching his attention. "Well Drake, Iíd say that humans are. We know the ancient history as well, and weíve always seen mankind as the caretakers of this world. Of course, animals and humans havenít always gotten along, but weíve tried to maintain a balance and respect manís rights to dominion."
       Drake was amazed. "Sweet mercy, if everyone knew about this theyíd never hurt another animal for sure!" Plato shook his head. "Actually, they still would. After all, humans kill other humans."
       "Yeah, youíre right there. Human nature canít be changed even by something as big as this. I guess thatís why you keep all this a secret then, right Penny?"
       "Thatís true, Detective Drake," Penny said. "Believe me, it wasnít easy for my parents to get permission to officially adopt my brother Stuart, and Bianca and Bernard had to pull some strings to allow me adopt Amanda and Jennifer. Itís a line many donít want to cross, but I wanted to show that the differences didnít matter to me. I love all my children equally."
       Stuart smiled and spoke up. "And Iíve never once felt that I was loved any less than my human siblings." Florence nodded in agreement. "Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle George and Aunt Penny are always happy to see us. They donít think of us as just icky mice." Drake guided himself down and took a seat. This was heavy stuff, and would take him time to get used to.
       "And animals have been able to talk to humans all along?" Drake asked, wondering. "Our history seems to indicate that," Stuart replied. "Itís a holdover from times long past. As we have very little written history, itís fallen to oral history to give us our answers."
       "Guess it would explain a lot of things, like why Egyptians worshipped cats. Someone like me mustíve believed enough to hear one of those furry felines talk and they thought it was a god or something. So when do I get to meet Bernard, Bianca and the others?"
       "Theyíll be here soon," Penny replied. "I wanted to give you a little time with my family to adjust to the mixed company to put you at ease before the others arrived."

       Drake had to admit, it was different. The mice, squirrel and chipmunk were all wearing nice clothes and seemed perfectly comfortable in them. Slowly, he started to get used to the idea and questioned them on several topics. They were eager to answer his questions and Drake was further put at ease by their friendliness, particularly after his recent run-ins.
       "So let me see if Iíve got this straight. Some animals live pretty much like humans, while others donít, but they all can talk. Some trust us and some donítócanít blame the ones that donít, really. What do animals think of humans who are hunters and the like? They canít like that."
       Plato cleared his throat. "Thatís probably something we shouldnít breach, Drake. Itís a touchy subject, and itís better left for another time." Drake could see their uncomfortable looks and nodded. "Okay, sure. Pardon, folks. It was just curiosity." A light knocking at the door broke the uneasiness.

       Drake looked to the front door, but saw Penny walk over to a small stand by the wall and move it aside. Behind the stand was a tiny door, which she opened. In walked a male and female mouse.
       "Penny, dahling! It is so good to see you again!" Bianca said. Bernard removed his cap. "Uh, yes...th...thank you for inviting us to dinner." Penny took Bernardís hat and Biancaís wrap. "Iím glad you both were willing to come here to the meeting. Iíd like to introduce you both to Detective Donald Drake."
       Penny gently picked them up and held them in her hands, walking over to Drake. She held the couple at eye level to him. "Detective Drake, meet Bianca and Bernard, the mice to whom I owe my life." Drake tipped his fedora, not knowing just what to do. "Oh uh, hello there. Iím still trying to convince myself Iím not in an episode of the Twilight Zone or anything." Drake was beginning to figure out that all male and female animals spoke and dressed like human ones, making it easy to figure out which one was Bianca. He addressed himself to her first.
       "Youíre the one who wrote that note to Eva. I seriously thought I was losing it when I read that, and found your names linked with Penny here and that boy and girl in Australia. You guys sure do get around."
       Bianca used her natural charm to help break the ice. "Hello, Donald dahling. It is a pleasure to at last meet you face to face. Your investigations were beginning to concern us, you know. I am so glad that the transition was a pleasant one. Perhaps it was thanks to having such a dedicated friend as Platoóhe was not just a pet to you, but your friend as well. That perhaps made the final step easier than it might have been otherwise."
       "It...itís nice to meet you, Mr. Drake," Bernard said shakily, as nervous as the human. "Welcome to, uh...to the real animal kingdom." Bernardís nervousness helped Drakeís own. "Thanks, Bernard. Iím just glad Iím not Jim Fowler and having to go out and wrestle an anaconda or something."
       "Ah, James is an acquaintance of ours," Bianca said. "He is an ever-so-nice human, and helps educate the humans about the animal world. Now that you are a part of our world, do you find it strange speaking to Plato now? It must be strange to know that now he can answer you back."
       Drake looked down at his grinning partner. "In a way, I guess. We humans tend to talk to our dogs like they could answer anyway. Maybe on some level, we all have the knowledge that they should be able to. Well, now that Iíve passed your little test, whatís next? You gonna fit me up in a tuxedo and make me the next Dirk Suave?"
       Penny put Bernard and Bianca on the coffee table and Drake took a seat in front of them. "Well, that depends on you, Donald," Bianca said. "Now that you know the truth, what do you plan on doing with that knowledge?" Drake breathed out. "Try to forget it for the most part. This ainít a can of worms, itís a whole barrel full! Of course, I always did wonder what Iíd look like in a penguin suit. Iím a law and order man, and if it means working with you guys, thatís jake with me."
       "I am glad to hear you say that. The Rescue Aid Society can always use an extra paw, or hand. Penny has been a dear over the years and works with us full time, mostly in an administrative capacity."
       "But having human help makes things a little easier for us," Bernard added.
       "Yeah, I expect so," Drake said. "Weíve got a lot more access and wouldnít draw near the attention you would. These Rescue Rangers, they an offshoot of your outfit or something?"
       Bianca fielded that one. "Not directly. They formed of their own accord. Iíll leave those particular details for them to explain when they arrive. It may sound bad, but I guess you could call them vigilantes. The animal world does not have much in the way of organized law enforcement. So, individuals at times feel the need to deal with lawlessness. The Rescue Rangers are one such group."
       Drakeís eyes narrowed. "And you allow that?"
       "Itís not quite the way it sounds, Drake," Plato said, interrupting. "After all, I trained Chip and Dale. They and their team are dedicated to stopping crime on any level. They try to keep within the bounds of the law, and most times they succeed. When they donít, itís usually because of the criminal they were fighting."
       "Well, like Bianca here says I can ask Ďem when they come. So what would I be doing at this Rescue Aid Society if I joined up?"
       Bianca looked at the others meaningfully. "This may seem a little silly, but it will give you an idea of what the RAS stands for. Bianca gestured for everyone to stand. "Everyone, hands over hearts." To Drakeís surprise all those assembled began singing.
       "R...E...S...C...U...E, Rescue Aid Society..."
       The song sounded a little silly and humorous, but he could tell they meant it, so he said nothing and listened through it all. When they finished, Drake clapped politely. "Not bad, not bad. I never knew mice could sing that good."
       "Thank you, Donald," Bianca said. "That song means to us what your National Anthem means to you. The RAS is a species-blind organization that helps anyone in need, regardless of race, creed, color or nationality."
       "Pretty nice idea."

Drake Meets the Rangers

       Drake looked around the living room, thinking over what they said, then he remembered that Bianca has said Penny worked full time for the RAS. "Penny, how can you afford to live here if you work for the RAS? Do they pay you well?"
       "They donít pay me at all. The Little family is independently wealthy, thanks to Madame Medusa, that is."
       "How so?"
       Penny walked over to the glassed-in teddy bear, mentally going back in time. "Madame Medusa was obsessed with finding the Devilís eye. Nothing else mattered to her, not even the small mountain of pirate treasure that was in the cave along with it. Well, letís just say that my summer vacation between second and third grade was not the usual one a kid that age would have. That summer included a trip to the Florida swamps, then to Switzerland to set up a bank account, and finally to Antwerp to liquidate the stones. The gold and silver were left here in the states because theyíre harder to get rid of. Now part of that money goes to the RAS to fund their work."
       Pennyís story was interrupted by another knock on the little door. Jennifer hopped off the couch and opened it. Shortly, in walked the chipmunks that Drake had seen in the bank photos, along with several other small animalsófour mice, a young chipmunk and even a bee and a fly.
       "Jumping Jupiter!" Drake shouted. "Even with all this...I didnít really know if you guys were really real until now."
       "Zowie!" Dale said. "Look Chip, itís really Detective Drake!"
       Theo hid behind his dad. "Uh, I hope youíre sure heís going to be our friend, dad." Chip stepped out of the way. "Well, of course he is! And Dale, stop kidding around. You know this is serious. Sorry Detective, Dale gets over-emotional at times like this." The Rangers climbed or landed on the coffee table in front of Drake.
       "Thatís okay," Drake said. "Iím pretty emotional at this point myself. How about we start with introductions? Seems like you all know me, and I now know whoís Chip and whoís Dale."
       Dale took the nervous Gadget by the hand and led her forward. "Mr. Drake, sir, this is my wife, Gadget." Gadget managed a smile. "Golly, itís a pleasure to finally get to meet you in person, Detective Drake. Iím sorry we werenít introduced when we first met." Drake was surprised to find that a mouse could be beautiful, even to a human. "Nice to meet ya. You remind me of...actually, thereís no one offhand I can think of that looks quite that cute. Except maybe the one standing over there by Chip. She your sister or something?"
       Lahwhinie walked right up the tableís edge, determined to show no fear. "Yeah, weíre identical twins...in appearance at least. Iím Lahwhinie. Nice to meet you, Drake."
       "Likewise."

       Drake turned his attention to the larger mouse with the flight cap and oilskin. "Now you look almost exactly like this guy we had on the force when I was a rookie. One of the best undercover boys we had, but couldnít leave jelly doughnuts alone. Whatís your name, pal?"
       "Monterey Jack Colby Erskineís the name, and adventureís my game!" Monty said. "Itís a pleasure ta meet ya, Drake! We had quite a bonzer adventure stoppiní that Klordane fella and Nimnul and Fat Cat in order ta rescue you aní Plato. It was the best thing to happen to this old mouse."
       Drake couldnít believe his ears. "You...you really sound like youíre from Australia! With Bianca here, I thought it might be just her way of talking, but you mean you animals all have the same dialects and all we do?"
       "Yes, dahling," Bianca said. "We all speak the native language of the countries we are from. It is hard to explain, but we also can all speak to one another regardless of nationality. Still, we retain the accents of our native languages."
       Drake returned his attention to Monty. "So you guys did help me out in the Global Gold Reserve caper." Monty got a little haughty at this. "Help out? Why, we foiled the whole thing while you and the lot oí your humans stood around helpless! One oí me finest hours, mate!" Drake straightened his tie. "Yeah, I remember how Klordane pulled the wool over our eyes. Iím glad you Rangers are on our side. So how often do you help out the cops? Did you ever throw in on any of my other cases?"
       "Mainly we watched before that one, detective. Dale and I were just learning," Chip said. Dale pointed at Drake. "And there was no one better to learn from than you and Plato!"
       Drake smiled some, hearing the hero-worship in Daleís voice. "Thanks, Dale. Good to know at least some of our citizens stand behind New Yorkís finest, even if theyíre animals. No offense there."

       Drake then shifted his attention to the smallest members of the team. "And you must be that fly Nimnul was complaining about. Sounds like youíve given him a pain in the patootie a time or two." Zipper flew up to Drakeís eye level. "Nimnul cowers in fear of my very presence. Iím Zipper. Nice to meet you, Detective Drake."
       "Say, you sound sorta familiar," Drake said. "Are you a Happy Days fan or something?" Zipper rolled his eyes. "Not really. I just happen to sound like Ron Howard. Drake, Iíd like you to meet my friend, Honey Regina, our newest Rescue Ranger."
       Zipper flew down, then had to tug Honey by the hand to get her to approach Drake. Her normal bee instincts told her to regard all humans as enemies, along with her own personal experience. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Detective Drake."
       Drake sensed her fear, and tried to put her at ease. "Eh, donít worry about me any. Iím a pretty laissez faire kind of fella. Nice rig youíre wearing there. You and your fly friend got a social after this meeting?" Honey was not accustomed to being treated so commonly, but held her tongue. "I am of royal lineage, sir. I may look regal now, but for me this is uncommonly casual."
       Drakeís eyebrows raised. "You mean youíre a queen...bee? I thought that was just a name we humans made up. You mean there really are queens and kings and such among bees?"
       "Why of course there are!" Honey said. "It would be uncivilized for it to be any other way." Dale butted in. "Before you ask, there isnít any king for the animal kingdom."
       "I wasnít going to," Drake said, "but I was wondering about another thing. Dale, you said Gadget thereís your wife so I guess you folks get married like us too. But sheís a mouse. I thought you animals stuck to your own kind."
       Dale looked over at Gadget. "Well most of the time we do, but sometimes you find a soulmate whoís a little different. Zipper and Honey are in love and Chip and...well, itís uncommon, but not unheard of. I think with us, itís because weíre a team and work together so much."

       Drake noticed someone deliberately hiding. "And whoís that hiding behind you, Chip?" Theo peeked out again. "M..me, sir." Up until now, Drake had figured all animals were putting on an act that they were scared of humans. With this little fellow, he decided maybe it wasnít the case. "Hey now, weíre gonna be pals, arenít we? After all, Plato and I are gonna need all the help we can get to solve crimes in this here city. Whatís your name?"
       "Itís Theo, sir. Theo Maplewood. Chipís my dad."
       Drake smiled back at him. "Yeah, I can see the family resemblance. So, whatcha hiding behind him for? Afraid of humans?"
       "Yes, sir," Theo said. "Iíve had some...problems with them in the past that I donít want to talk about. But dad says youíre a good guy and thatís good enough for me. Itís just going to take me a while to feel that way."
       Drake liked the little chipmunk, and realized that it mustíve taken a lot of spunk for him to come along. The veteran detective leaned back a little, trying to appear less threatening. "Youíre a brave little trooper, Theo, and Iím sure you do your dad proud. I guess talking to someone as big as meís no piece of cake for any of you. As far as Iím concerned, you can count me in on whatever youíre doing. Iíd like to throw in, and help out."
       Theo found himself a little less afraid. "Well thanks, detective. Iím new to the detective business, so Iíll need all the help and advice I can get. I guess youíre not so bad, for a human." Drake leaned his head back and laughed. It was the first time heíd really felt like laughing since this whole thing got started, and it felt good. When he returned his gaze to the Rangers, he could see that they were more at ease.
       "Look, I know this is gonna take a lot of getting used to. Heaven only knows, I expect to wake up tomorrow morning and find this was all some sort of crazy dream. Penny, how long did it take you to get used to animals talking to you?"
       "It was as natural as could be, for me. It only seemed odd when others told me animals couldnít talk. I always could do it," Penny said. Drake wondered just how many others there were like Penny. "Well Rangers, I guess we oughtta work out a system for contacting each other. Maybe your fly friend here and his lady, the queen. They wouldnít likely get noticed by anyone else, and they could come and check with me to see if anythingís up or tell me if you needed an extra pair of eyes in Plato and me."
       "Neato!" Dale shouted. "We can fight crime with Detective Drake and Plato now! Weíll be even more unstoppable than we were before!"

       "Not so fast there, Dale," Plato warned. "We must be careful not to allow the secret to be revealed. I think in most cases we would be safe, but we must think this through. The RAS always carries out its operations close to the vest, am I not right, miss Bianca?"
       Bianca nodded. "As often as possible, but at times we act so overtly we can only count on the human inability to perceive our actions to hide our efforts. But we would certainly enjoy the affiliation of Detective Drake, and his efforts would not go unreciprocated. We would see to it that our resources would be available for his needs." Bernard stood by Bianca in agreement. "Sh...sure. Any..anything we can provide."
       "Sounds like Iím about to get the white tux after all," Drake said. "Okay then, count me in. Iíll keep working at my regular private detective cases, but when you need me just send for me. Now what about if I need you guys? Should I come to the oak tree in the park and try not to look suspicious?"
       Chip realized just how little Drake knew about them. "That would work, but it would be easier if we just gave you our phone number." Drakeís mouth dropped. "Phone number! You mean you little guys have a phone in that tree?" Gadget stepped forward proudly. "Golly, Iíve made sure the tree has everything! We have hot and cold running water, electric lights, phone and cable televisionówell, only the basic program package on that."
       "Yeah! Who could live without Zobo the Clown, Johnny Bravo and the Late, Late, Late, Late Show?" Dale said. Drake really hadnít expected any of this. "Jumping Jupiter! You mean you guys live like us humans? I thought you just lived in holes in the ground or in little burrows in trees or something."
       Dale giggled. "Well, only if those holes and burrows have television and stuff! Most of our people live simple, but some of us live on the cutting edge of technology." Drake again was amazed. "I guess that makes sense. Too bad Iím human-sized. Sounds like your pad would make an interesting visit."
       That set Gadget to thinking. "Well, Nimnul did invent the Gigantico gun, which can alter peopleís size. Maybe I could build one of those and make you small enough to visit." That thought made Drake nervous, so he decided not to follow it up. "I think with all thatís happened, the first visit I want to make is to home. Itís been a long week, and this New Yorkerís ready to take it easy. Anything else that needs saying, Penny?"
       "One thing I vill add," Bianca said, interrupting. "That group you encountered is not merely a bunch of people who wear robes and quote Latin. In their own way, they fight for justice. You should not attempt to contact those humans or animals, detective, nor should they try to contact you. Let us know if they do, and we vill try to intervene for you from here on. I think with us and the Rangers, you will be safe."
       Drake wondered what else this Society had its hand in. "Well, I guess you people have to be very careful before trusting anyone. Man, itís good I didnít shoot anyone."
       "We had to be sure you were what you appeared to be, and so did they," Bianca said. "Even though the Rangers have known of you for some time, it was still possible you could have been a plant for one of our enemies. The Society is not the only group that is distrustful."

       Drake blinked and nodded, then realized there was one more question to be answered and addressed it to Chip. "Hey Chip, I was in the park the other day and noticed a red-haired squirrel swimming in the park fountain in a black swimsuit. She a friend of yours?" Chip looked at his fellow Rangers, then back to Drake. "Well, we donít know too many of our neighbors, but it might have been our friend, Tammy."
       "Well, if it was, let her know I didnít mean to scare her by waving back when she did. Of course, it sort of scared me at the time too."
       Drake took a moment to really look at the animals in front of him, trying to resolve all this in his head. "So, are you Rangers okay with the idea of working with an old gumshoe like me?" Chip didnít have to wait for permission on that one. "Are you cuh-razy! Weíd love to work with you and Plato. The two of you were our inspiration for becoming detectives!"
       "Yeah!" Monty said. "If it werenít for you blokes, we Rangers wouldíve never been Rangers!"
       "And I wouldnít have had my dad around!" Gadget said, hugging Monty.
       "Me neither, for that matter," Lahwhinie added, copying her sister.
       Drake found himself liking the idea of working with the Rangers. "I guess weíve all been working the same end of the street all this time, and just werenít able to work it together." Drake offered his index finger, and Chip shook it. "Thereís something I got to know. Just what the heck happened during that whole Klutchcoin ruby case?"
       Chip motioned for everyone to take seats, as it was going to be a long story. "Well, it all began when Dale and I were flying a paper airplane..."

Epilogue

       One week later, Donald Drake sat in his office. Heíd heard from the Rangers a couple of times, but mainly just to see if he was adjusting okay. He was, and at the moment he was finishing up work on a rodent-sized door for his "smaller" cases. The door was fitted into the lower corner of his own door next to the hinges. He was kneeling down, fitting a makeshift knob to it, when the rest of the door suddenly opened, bumping his head. It hurt like sixty, but Drake shook it off.
       "Now I wonder who..."
       In walked a stunningly beautiful blond woman, wearing a tight red dress and beside her walked a French poodle. "Detective Drake, I have a case that only a man of your Ďspecialí talents can help me with." Drake stood up, blinked, and blinked again. He was utterly speechless, as was Plato when he saw the poodleówhich for his part was a good thing.
       "Well uh, er, uh, ha..have a seat there and uh, weíll pretty...weíll pretty well try to get down to business!" The lady ignored his clumsiness, probably because she was so used to it from everyone else. "Someoneís been kidnapping the prize dogs for next monthís Westminster Dog Show and I fear for Fifiís safety. Iíve received a threat against her, and I need you to stop them."
       Drake looked down and he could see Plato was just as dedicated to this particular mission as he was. Drake went to his hat rack, grabbed his fedora and put it on. "All right, miss, Iím on the case."
       "I feel safer already," Fifi said, in a French accent. "You came highly recommended."
       "Thatís goo..." Drake suddenly realized heíd responded to the ladyís dog. "Thatís good that you came to me so quickly, miss. Often, owners wait until their pets are stolen. Iíll do everything I can to see that neither you or your Fifi are bothered. Come on, Plato, weíve got a crime to solve!"
       Drake offered his arm to the young lady, and she took it gladly. Plato was right beside Fifi, and together they headed out. Drake stole a glance down at Plato and winked, who winked back. It was just the beginning for them, and if today was typical it would be a rosy road ahead.


Theo Maplewood, Eva Erskine, Primo, Jennifer Little, John Little, Elizabeth Little, Jennifer Little, Amanda Little and Quartus are original creations of Indy and Chris Silva. George Little and Stuart Little are copyright Harper Books and Columbia Pictures. Detective Donald Drake, Plato, Norton Nimnul, Normie Nimnul, Adrin Klordane, Lahwhinie, Spinelli, Kirby, Muldoon, Bianca, Bernard, Penny, and the Rescue Rangers are copyright Disney and used without permission, but with the utmost respect.

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