by Matt Plotecher
"I reach to the sky
And call out your name
And if I could trade
And it feels
And it feels like
Heaven's so far away
And it stings
Yeah it stings now
The world is so cold
Now that you've gone away"
--"Gone Away", The Offspring
The steady candlelight in the church cast long shadows across the floor, stretching them out over the cool tiles like an interrogator stretches a victim over the rack. Normally, the electrical chandeliers from the ceiling were used, providing more than enough light for the humans to see by. But the humans had all gone home, and most were more than likely asleep at this late hour. The sole occupant of the church preferred the moody atmosphere the candles provided.
Four hands worked meticulously over the small coffin, providing the finishing touches. It appeared normal enough, though somewhat large by animal standards. Still, the open lid revealed that there was enough room for one particular chipmunk to fit within. The mechanical devices built inside, tucked away behind the mahogany sides and lid, would ensure that he was "captured" adequately for future use.
The name plate on the side was polished and smoothed, and then the four hands set about inscribing the name of the future resident.
A small, folded up piece of paper landed lightly in front of Chip, settling down on his desk with a flutter. He blinked in surprise at it, then quickly stole a glance up at the teacher at the front of the classroom. Her back was turned, writing on the small piece of slate that served as a chalkboard. He looked over his shoulder to Skip, who had thrown the note over Chip's back. But his best friend just shrugged; he had no idea who it was from either. The other chipmunk had merely passed it along per the rules for note-passing, which were followed, at least sub-consciously, by all elementary school students.
Chip looked back to the note. His name was written on the front of it, in a surprisingly elegant style for a fifth grader.
Who would be writing me a note? he wondered as he picked it up, careful to keep it out of sight of the teacher. He wasn't used to notes. Normally his friends would just lean over and talk to him when they could, or wait until between classes. Note passing only occurred during correspondence involving the utmost secrecy and privacy. Maybe the guys are playing football after school, he thought as he opened up the note.
That theory was quickly dashed as he read the three simple words inscribed within: "I love you."
Chip's eyes widened, and he quickly tucked the note away, before Skip could read it over his shoulder. He felt a wave a terror as the thought of one of the girls in the class giving him this. He quickly glanced around to see if he could spot any suspects, but everyone was watching the teacher and writing down notes. Nobody even so much as glanced at him.
"Great," Chip mumbled to himself. "Just what I need. A girlfriend." He scrunched his face up in disgust. He sure hoped that none of the guys found out about this, as the teasing would be more than he could stand. He remembered all the jokes and comments he and the others had made to Skip when Catherine said she "sorta" liked him. It continued until Catherine started talking with Timmy, so the guys let up on Skip, who was very grateful.
Still, whoever his secret admirer was, at least she had been nice enough to keep this private. Maybe she didn't want her friends to find out either, although that made no sense to Chip. The girls of the school always talked to each other about everything. Still, nothing the girls did made sense to Chip. They were, after all, girls. Who knows how those minds work? They'd rather play with dolls than kick a football around, always wanted to play "house", and thought that holding hands and kissing were actually neat.
Chip felt his stomach turn as he thought of a girl doing either of those things to him. Looking at the note again, he was half-tempted to ask Skip for a cootie shot, just to be safe. But he decided against it, mainly because then Skip would ask why Chip suddenly needed a cootie shot. No, he was better off taking his chances for right now.
The teacher turned back to address the class, so Chip moved his thoughts away from the note and back to the lesson.
Three desks back and two desks over, a pair of soft grey eyes lingered on Chip's reaction. The mouth below them grew a smile, which was quickly hidden behind a textbook, lest the wandering eyes of friends should see.
* * *
Letting her eyes wander down the empty hallways, Gadget tried to clamp down on the slight turmoil in her stomach as she approached Chip and Dale's room. Neither were home, of course. Monterey Jack and Zipper were also absent, all four of them gone off with Foxglove to investigate something the bat had spotted last night, over in a far off section of town. Gadget had declined to go, explaining that she wanted to get some things done at the Headquarters while she had the chance. This was true, but not in the vein that the other Rangers believed.
Carefully, the female inventor mouse crept silently up to the door, in the manner of stillness that only a mouse can achieve. She had no clue as to way she was trying to be so stealthy. The others left over five minutes ago. Nobody else was around. Nobody would ever know.
Except me, her thoughts guiltily bubbled, and that's enough to make me nervous.
Sighing, she lightly placed a soft hand on the doorknob to the chipmunk's room and swung it open easily. It was unlocked, naturally. Chip and Dale had nothing to hide from their comrades. Well, Gadget worriedly thought, I hope that's true, anyway.
She stepped fully into the room, peering around at the simple set-up. She had been in here several times before, and nothing had changed since her last visit. Nothing, that is, except for her purpose in being here.
"It's for a good reason," she rationalized aloud. "If Chip's in some sort of trouble, than as a teammate and friend, I have to help him. Whether he wants it or not. He is the leader, after all, and if he wobbles because of some personal issue, than the rest of us could be in big trouble as well." Her back straightened as she started to believe it. "So I shouldn't be feeling any shame or guilt for--" her voice broke as her shoulders slumped under the heavy weight of reality, "--for going through his personal belongings without his knowledge."
She really hated this, but she was even more worried about Chip as of late. Something had happened to him recently, something that, in her heart, she knew was slowly tearing him apart from the inside. He was as stoic as ever on the surface, though, and never breathed a word of it to anyone, not even her. That's what was scaring Gadget more than anything.
Ever since their first (and to date, only) kiss several months back, neither Gadget nor Chip was really sure how to act around each other. In lieu of experience and ideas, they continued, by default, as teammates and friends, even though they were both aware that their relationship had progressed past that point. Occasionally, fate would permit a sliver of what it was that brought them together for that kiss, but it was always brief and unexpected. The two of them standing close during a stakeout. A quick glimpse to the other over the dinner table. An accidental brushing up against the other as they climbed into the Ranger Plane. Gadget could count the number of times on both hands.
And yet, she felt something lingering around them, just waiting out of reach. Maybe it was waiting for him to realize it, maybe for her, maybe for both. Whatever the case, it was there. And through it, some sort of connection was forged between them, however fresh and fragile it may be. She could tell that Chip was hiding something. Something that was hurting him--no-- something that was slowly *killing* him. It was this awareness that had driven Gadget to go to these lengths. She still felt like "the floor of a taxi cab", as one of her favorite movie characters put it, but she knew wholeheartedly that if she didn't do something, and Chip wasted away before her eyes, she'd feel like the sludge on the street *beneath* the taxi.
"Might as well get this over with," she mumbled, and opened the first drawer of the chipmunk's dresser.
The sole reason she was able to go through with this in the first place was her knowledge of what she was looking for: a single, solitary note. She had caught him once, staring at it with eyes overflowing with regret. He had been sitting at the top of the tree at night, just looking the piece of paper over like it was a tombstone. Hearing her approach, he had quickly stuffed it away, but not before she spotted it. She had asked what he was doing, to which he lied, "Nothing."
A small chat with Dale later confirmed that Chip had recently received a note, from when the two of them had been transported to the celestial bureaucracy and back. Dale himself hadn't seen the note, and the mouse that gave it to Chip didn't give any indication as to its contents, at least not that Dale could remember.
None of the drawers revealed anything promising. With a frown, Gadget looked around for the next place. Her eyes couldn't help but be drawn to the bottom bunk, where Chip slept. Despite her present mood, a smile delicately grew on her features, her eyes shining as she remembered sitting there next to Chip those few months ago, and the incredible kiss they had shared.
"Breathless," she mouthed aloud absent-mindedly, remembering her state afterwards. Breathless. It was the only way she could describe it.
Speechless. That too. Light-headed. Giddy. On airs. Cloud-walking. Transcendental. All of the above.
Okay, so she could think of a *lot* of ways to put it, but only because no single word could describe what she was feeling at that time. Well, maybe one word, but she wasn't ready to think about that just yet....
Her mind drifted slightly back to what had brought on the kiss. He had collapsed, and she had helped him back up to the bunk. He had been trembling, shaky, and stammering. In short, shattered. He hadn't spoke of it since, and Gadget didn't feel right about asking. She had never seen him that badly shaken, not even when he was faced with death numerous times. It didn't take a 500-horsepower brain to connect that incident with his present state of denial.
This circled back to her reason being here, and her smile faded, the light in her eyes dimming out. She moved over to the bunk mechanically, trying not to feel any emotions that might return her mind to that kiss. This was hard enough as it is. Quickly but thoroughly, she searched under the mattress, sheets, and pillows, even checking around Dale's mattress.
Next came the closet, which was a little more tricky. She had to navigate around Dale's various clutter, all the while trying not to disturb anything. Chip may not be aware of her invasion of his belongings (and hopefully never would be), but he was a detective for a reason. It didn't take much for him to put one and one together to get both two and eleven. She had to make sure that little to no evidence was left that she had ever been in here.
Dale's belongings were set aside as she pulled out a stack of notebooks that Chip used to jot down personal observations, record clues, and draft out the final report that he would later enter into their casebook. A slight thought to read through them in hopes of finding some clue flitted by, but she let it go. She doubted that he would have written anything about it, and certainly not left it were it could be easily found. She held each notebook up and flipped through it, trying to see how many notes fell out.
"Should have figured," she sighed as she stacked the note books back inside the closet and rearranged everything to its original position. Closing the closet door, she moved over to the coat rack, going through the pockets of his jackets. Each one was empty. Out of places to search, she sat down on the bottom bunk and set her head in her hands.
"Where else could he have put it?" She wondered if he was carrying it on his person now. That was possible. He might have not wanted to risk anyone finding it here. But, if he was that protective of it, would he really want to expose it to the dangers he went through? There were so many chances that it would be lost, destroyed, or otherwise marred. She decided to continue her search here, but when he returned, she'd see if she could check his coat pockets when he wasn't looking.
She inhaled deeply, no longer feeling any guilt for her actions, merely depression that she had failed in them, and a growing worry for her long-standing teammate.
Why won't he let me help? she wondered bitterly. He always closes himself off to us like this. How can he and I...how can the team function if he continues to do this?
Her sad eyes settled on the top of the dresser, to where the Rangers official casebook lay. She figured Chip was reading it, since Dale rarely cared to study their past cases that much. But then again, Dale rarely studied their present cases, so it wasn't much of a surprise.
Having nothing better to do, she rose and walked over to it, checking to see which case Chip had been reading. It was the case of Rama-lama-ding-dong, which Dale had called "One-Upsman-Chip". She smiled at that. Chip always gave their cases descriptive and factual names for the most part, but everyone else would give the cases nicknames that tended to stick. They were mainly puns off of movie names, but soon any pun would work, as in this case.
Running a finger down the page, she read the section before her, about when Chip realized his joke had led to Dale being captured by Fat Cat's thugs. Chip had written it, as he did all the casework, but it was almost always in a detached viewpoint.
"The rest of us were powerless to do anything as we listened to Dale's surprised yells of astonishment and fright," the passage read. "The transmission was still partially garbled, so it was difficult to tell what exactly had happened. Dale later explained that what we heard was pretty much the actual events. He himself wasn't quite aware of what was going on at first. He was just standing still, trying to hear Rama-lama', when he was jumped by Mole, Wart, Snout, and Mepps. They quickly secured him, and headed back off to Fat Cat's Casino.
"Monterey Jack, Gadget, Zipper, and I all felt our stomachs collectively drop as the transmission cleared up just long enough for us to recognize Mole's voice expressing how happy Fat Cat would be to get Dale. We tried to contact Dale, but the transmission broke up again. I reacted badly to this, even taking it out a little on Gadget. I think that hurt her, but she understood what I was going through. I don't give her enough credit."
Gadget felt a warm rush to her cheeks as she smiled at that.
"The best we could do," the passage went on, "was to pack up the Ranger Wing again and head over to Fat Cat's. All the time, though, I couldn't help but berate myself for letting this happen again."
"Again?" Gadget wondered out loud. This was new.
She continued to read, but it went back into his detached viewpoint, with nothing more to hint at what he meant by "again". She wondered if he might be referring to another case, but couldn't think of anything that matched up. She flipped through the writing a bit more, trying to remember more from that case. Why would Chip be studying this one?
She looked up into the mirror before her, seeing her face in a mixed expression of worry, anger, and determination.
"Why this case, Chip?" she asked her reflection. "Why now?"
This case...now... Gadget's mind took one from first, and one from the second, and tried to put them together to make eleven.
* * *
"So who was the note from?"
Chip turned and glared at Skip, but it was too late. The rest of the guys at the lunch table all turned to Chip with a look of interest.
"Chip got a note?" Timmy asked, a hint of anticipation in his voice. Ever since he had admitted he and Catherine "liked" each other, the young squirrel had been dying to get back at his friends for their endless taunts.
"Yeah," Chip nodded, trying to appear nonplussed. "It was just a question about the lesson from...uh...Carrie." He was about to say one of the guys, but realized at the last second that since they were all sitting around him, there wasn't anyone he could use without getting caught.
"Carrie?" Skip thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Yeah, I guess it would be like her to do that. She passes notes all the time, even just to ask what page we're on."
Chip let out an inward sigh of relief. His bluff had worked.
"Hey guys," Jethro leaned forward, the small muskrat's face breaking into a grin. "Are we still gonna do somethin' at Marie's party?"
"Oh yeah, I forgot about that," Skip grinned. "She's invited the whole class, right?"
"Yeah, even the teacher," Chip quickly added, glad to be changing subjects.
"Come on, guys, relax." Timmy took a bite from his sandwich. "It's still two weeks away. We've got plenty of time to plan something out."
"Hey, you can never plan too early," Chip smiled. "Remember how long it took us to pull off the `Rutabaga Incident'?" His friends grinned and nodded, giving him a look of admiration. Chip grinned back as he took another bite from his apple.
He was very proud of the fact that they always came to him for help planning out some gag or practical joke. Over their time together, the entire group realized that Chip just had a knack for pulling off the best practical jokes. Even the teachers of the school agreed, having sent him to the principal's office in response to them numerous times. Chip's parents were worried about this, but didn't push it too much. After all, Chip was still an honor student, and as long as he kept his grades up, nobody on the almighty P.T.A. really felt that he needed to be curbed.
"So what are you thinkin' of, Chip?" Jethro leaned in further, the moustache from his milk portraying him as some cartoonish villain.
"Oh...nothing, really." Chip tried to appear that he never had given the upcoming party much thought. In truth, he already had a basic plan laid out in his head.
The others grinned. Chip only said "Nothing, really." when he had something truly devilish in mind.
That was great news for them. All of them, Chip included, wanted this to be the best prank of the year, possibly the decade. The most interesting thing about this particular prank, though, was that instead of ruining Marie's birthday party, they wanted to make it even better.
Now, for the most part, the gags they pulled were not funny to the victims, but this time had to be different. Partly, because they knew they all would get into a truckload of trouble from their parents if they did something nasty. But the real reason was because they all actually..."liked" Marie.
Sure, she was a girl, but still, she was one of the few that the guys actually thought was cool as one. She was one of the prettiest chipmunks in the school, one of the smartest, and one of the nicest. All four of them, with the possible exception of Timmy, had developed a slight crush on her, though none would ever fess up to it.
So when Chip, the official king of the class clowns, stated that he had a doosey of an idea brewing, the others couldn't help but grin.
* * *
"Quit grinning, Dale!" Chip fumed as he tried to wipe the airplane grease from his hat as they walked in through the front door.
"Sorry Chipper," Dale fought back another laugh. "You just look silly."
Chip grumbled, but was too worried about getting the grease out before it set to smack Dale. "Well guys?" Foxglove asked, her feathery voice looking for confirmation. "What do you think?"
"I think you're right, Foxglove," Monterey nodded to the bat as they entire group entered and moved down to the living room. "Somethin' is up over there. Oh, hi Gadget-luv. Get your chores done?"
Looking up from the couch were she was sitting, working on a small watch, Gadget gave a half-hearted smile. "Sort of," She answered honestly.
Chip continued to grumble over his hat, moving off into the kitchen to try a more thorough clean-up operation. Dale grinned after his best friend, then turned to Foxglove.
"Well," he said, "it was sorta funny that the Ranger Wing spurted that grease just as Chip was climbing out."
"To us, maybe," Foxglove smiled. "But I doubt he would agree, cutie."
"So what did I miss?" Gadget asked, setting the watch aside.
Well, Zipper's shrug conveyed, that all depends. We pretty much did some scouting around the area, but couldn't find anything definite.
"Area?" Gadget asked. "I wasn't there when Foxglove explained all this, remember Zipper?"
Oh yeah, the housefly's sheepish grin said, sorry.
"I was flying over the far eastern edge of the city," Foxglove explained, walking over to the conversation pit. "It was late last night. I was just enjoying the evening, and I hadn't been out over that part of town in a long time, really. Anyway, I was flying over the run-down section of the East side, you know, around the area where Freddy made her hideout."
"The old Laundromat?" Gadget inquired.
Foxglove nodded. "It's been empty ever since Freddy was hauled off. That's why I was kinda surprised by the light I saw from within."
"Light? Like flashlights?"
"No, it was candlelight. I flew down to check it out, and there were candles everywhere! I didn't see anyone inside, but I really didn't want to check it out farther on my own..in case, you know...they were in there."
Foxglove's face twisted downward into a merging of fright and worry.
"Oh..." Gadget felt her friend's uneasiness quite clearly. Foxglove had been one of Freddy's familiars, along with Bud the boa constrictor and Lou the tarantula, but had defected to save Dale and the rest of the Rescue Rangers. Freddy, or Winnifred, as she demanded to be called, had been training to be a full witch. She had already learned a few small tricks, like throwing off small bolts of energy, communication with animals, and various other minor magical abilities. Her plan to become a real witch was cut short, thanks to Dale tossing a monkey wrench into the works (a screw, to be precise, into the brew), spoiling the spell and cutting off her magical powers.
Last they heard, Freddy was still in jail, serving out her sentence for theft of the moon rock and the Chief of Police's toupee. They Rangers found it interesting that she was given five years for the toupee alone, but as long as it kept her away from the public, they weren't complaining.
If she was out and regaining her magical powers, though, which Foxglove's sighting seemed to indicate, it was more than likely she would seek revenge against the Rangers, or at least Foxglove for betraying her.
But Freddy never used anything of traditional witch trappings for her magic, sticking to various cleaning supplies instead. She planned to switch over once she was a fully-establish witch, but until that time, she'd stick with her cleaning paraphernalia.
But the presence of candles in Freddy's old haunt would have to be one incredible coincidence.
"So," Monterey said, hopping down onto the couch. "We all shipped over there to see what there was to be seen. Sure nough, candles were all over the bloomin' place."
"No sign of anyone, though," Dale added, sitting next to Monterey. "Just all of these candles and candleholders. They were still burning too, so we went ahead and put them out. You know, Only you can prevent Laundromat fires' and the like."
Foxglove deftly leapt over to land next to Dale, leaning up close to him. Her wings were clasped in front of her in a state of mild worry, still uncomfortable of the possibility of something from her past returning. Letting out a somewhat tense sigh, she leaned fully into Dale, unconsciously snuggling up against his shoulder.
Dale tried to appear causal about this, but his eyes gave him away. He nervously drummed his fingers together at Foxglove's close presence, but made no move to separate her or move away from the bat's form. Gadget did well to hide her amused smile.
Anyway, Zipper's shrug said, we then followed Chip's suggestion and headed over to the prison where Freddy was being held. She's still there, and in her usual bad mood, so it wasn't her.
"What about Bud and Lou?" Gadget asked.
Monterey sighed. "Who knows, luv? We haven't seen those two since that case. I was hopin' that they just moved on with the lives. Preferably somewhere out of this country."
"Bud and Lou were never really the type to go in for revenge," Foxglove offered. "Not that I ever noticed, anyway. They were more concerned with just doing what Freddy said."
"You don't think they might want to even the score for tossing their `boss' into jail?" Gadget sounded a tad skeptical.
But Foxglove shook her head. "Not really. Freddy was more or less a provider for them, giving them easy access to food and the like. They were hoping for some small powers of their own, but that's all. They'd rather do something else than work to get Freddy out of jail."
"Besides," Monterey chimed in, "you think they would have figured out a way to bust Freddy out by now."
"So," Gadget sat back, crossing her legs and arms, thinking things through. "Where does that leave us?"
The group shrugged.
"Maybe it was just some kids having a serenade or something," Dale said, scratching his head.
"I think you mean, seance', Dale," Gadget offered.
Maybe Dale, Zipper gestured, but I sort of doubt it. Why leave the candleholders there? There was at least a dozen that looked like they cost some money.
"They could be coming back," Foxglove said.
"Well, we can do that tonight, then," Gadget said as she stood up from the couch. "We'll just fly back over there and check it out. Couldn't hurt, and maybe it'll turn out to be something really simple after all."
"Good idea, Gadget-luv," Monterey nodded, then headed off to the kitchen. "I'm gonna whip up some culinary surprises. Can't have a stakeout on an empty stomach, now, can we?"
Right with you Monty, Zipper buzzed as he flew along behind.
"If you guys don't mind," Foxglove yawned as she rose to her feet, "I'm going home to catch a quick nap. I didn't get much sleep last night. What with all the time spent checking out the area," she hastily added, but the lines of worry under her eyes gave her away.
Gadget and Dale, however, let it pass. Bringing it up wouldn't help at all, and probably just make matters worse for the female bat.
"Okay, Foxglove," Gadget smiled. "Stop back about an hour before sunset. That should give us enough time to get over there, find a good hiding spot, and settle in before nightfall."
"Come on, Foxy," Dale grabbed his friend's arm and lead her outside. "I'll walk you to the end of the limb."
Foxglove smiled, a bit surprised by the offer, but she was more than delighted to allow him to escort her outside. Dale noticed (with a slight trace of pride) that the lines under her eyes even seemed to lighten a bit.
"Thanks Dale," Foxglove said as they stepped outside into the bright sunlight. She squinted a bit, knowing she'd never fully get used to it without a momentarily adjustment. She waited a minute for her eyes to adjust, then stepped over to take off, but Dale laid a steady hand on her shoulder.
"Are sure you're going to be okay, Foxy?" His voice had honest concern, which Foxglove had noticed a great deal more often. Could it be that he might...? No. She quickly dismissed the thought before in firmly entrenched itself in the canals of her psyche. She wasn't about to risk flying too close to the sun; if she failed, the fall would kill her.
But, nevertheless, a light blush blossomed in her cheeks as she smiled at Dale and shook her head. "Thanks, cute stuff, but I'll be fine. Really. I mean, yeah, I am a little worried about Freddy, or Bud and Lou coming back," her smile faded, and she sighed, "but it'll pass. I just have to let it run its course first. I honestly don't think it's them, anyway. Just that the chances are pretty wild, that's all."
Dale nodded, his tuft of hair shifting ruggedly in the breeze. Foxglove liked that...
"Well, okay. Just try and get some sleep, kay? We'll all need to be on our toes if ol' frightful Freddy flies forth." He grinned and playfully nudged her in the shoulder.
A feathery laugh escaped Foxglove, as it did whenever he touched her on his own initiative. She grinned back at him and traced an "X" across her chest. "Cross my heart."
With a quick flutter of her wings, she lifted off from the tree branch and out into the open sky, a content smile sitting on her lips. Dale watched her go, leaning against another branch, until she disappeared from view.
"I'll tell you this much Foxy," he said to her after-image, "things sure have been more fun for me since you've been around." He sighed and leaned back, not noticing the bemused smile he wore as his mind drifted.
It was true, that life had been more fun for him. Foxglove was always ready to take in a horror movie, or watch the latest spy-thriller on television, or join him in a midnight romp through the park's jungle gym sets. What made it so much fun was that he got the distinct impression that she wasn't doing it just to be around him (although that was a large part of it), but more so because she really *did* enjoy that kind of stuff. It was such a refreshing change from having to plead one of the other Rangers to join him in these escapades.
Zipper would sometimes, but lately the housefly had been tagging along with Chip, seriously pursuing the idea of becoming another detective. Monterey enjoyed the occasionally romp, but it was difficult to tell when. Sometimes he'd been raring to go, while others he'd rather cook or just relax around the house. Chip really didn't go in for that stuff, but he never has, not as long as Dale knew him. Sure, Chip might cut loose once in a while, but he was always more interested with the mind games of crime solving than just goofing around. The same was mostly true for Gadget, although it wasn't crime solving but inventing that kept her away for the most part.
Gadget. Dale sighed again, his expression shifting over to one of mild confusion, the type that someone has when they're in the "now what?" stage of a decision. He had recently come to the conclusion that Kan was right. Kan, an attractive oriental mouse that had helped them while they were in Japan, had gotten on very well with Dale, engaging in some harmless flirting, just to see him blush. But she also showed a compassion for Dale, like that of a younger brother. She was worried about the situation that she saw with him, Gadget, and Chip. Mainly, because she doubted Dale's actual devotion to Gadget.
Naturally, Dale wasn't about to believe that, but Kan very gently pointed out that sometimes people fall in love with the chase of an object, not the object itself. While she had been very careful not to name anyone, it was painfully obvious as to who she was referring to.
Yet, Dale was somewhat dumbfounded by the idea. After all, Gadget was the cause of all the worst fights and arguments between him and his best friend, and that was a feat in and of itself. The thought that he actually enjoyed it was beyond belief. As he thought about it, though, he saw that it wasn't that part of the "chase" that he liked. He liked doing the little things for Gadget, especially whenever she laughed at one of his jokes. That was the part he loved.
Sadly, it was also the part that was the least frequent. The first obstacle was getting Gadget's attention. Then holding it long enough to tell the joke. Unless it dealt with inventions, her attention span was like hummingbird on amphetamines, shooting from one thing to the next. It was an uphill struggle, but each time he managed to win, it solidified his belief.
Then Kan had to go and throw a new light on the whole deal. One of the things that she illuminated was the neglected, now that Dale was able to see it, Foxglove. He really had been using her as just a safety net. If Gadget couldn't go to the movies, he'd ask Foxglove. The bat was always second choice. Once he realized this, he didn't like it one bit.
Foxglove deserved better than that. Better than the way that Dale had been treating her. The fact that she never once complained only made him feel worse. How would he feel if Gadget only asked him out if Chip couldn't make it? So he started to alternate between asking Gadget and Foxglove first. If Foxglove said no, than he'd ask Gadget. Not that it ever happened, though. Foxglove always had time for it, by contrast to Gadget's uninterestedness in those types of movies. It wasn't long before Dale just starting asking Foxglove. Which, to be honest, actually made him feel good. Not only was Foxglove eager to go, but Dale never felt like he needed to impress her. She was his close friend, nothing more, so it was even more fun to completely let himself go at the movie. He doubted Gadget would be appreciative of some of his habits, such as giving away the plot and constantly making comments about the whole thing.
These outings, among their many other ones, began to shift Dale's view of Foxglove in a different direction. He had, of course, thought about this back after talking with Kan, but now that he was actually here with Foxglove, it seemed much more different. Much more important. He had noticed himself growing concerned with Foxglove today, and could even feel the worry in her, bordering on fear. He knew that he could take a chance, and that it probably wouldn't be that difficult...
But he had no clue as to how. With Gadget, her naivety was sort of nice, because he could count on it. He was free to try just about anything he wanted, because he knew she'd probably miss it to begin with. But Foxglove wouldn't. He could just be thinking about ice cream and she would ask, "Rocky Road or Fudge Ripple?" No, with Foxglove it was the exact opposite. No matter what he did, she would notice it. That meant instant success, so to speak, but then what? He didn't have the slightest clue. Would they just continue on as they had, or should they start acting differently now?
With a heave of his shoulders, Dale rose and headed back to the living room, shaking his head.
"Why couldn't they have made a book out of this?" he wondered. "They could have called it, `Everything you've always wanted to know about dating bats but were afraid to ask' or something."
* * *
The large oak was the third tree back from Marie's house, so the small band of grade schoolers carefully made their way around Marie's home, so as not to be spotted. It wouldn't be much of a surprise if she saw them passing by her house, loaded down with various tools (pillaged from Timmy's father's toolbox). Once they had successfully circumvented Marie's tree without being noticed, they breathed a sigh of relief and headed towards the selected oak with a glint in their eyes.
"You think we'll be able to get this done today?" Skip looked up at the early afternoon Saturday sun.
"We'd better," Timmy grumbled. "If my Dad finds out I took his tools, he'll skin me alive!"
"Relax, Timmy," Chip patted the nervous squirrel on the back. "It'll take a bit of work, but we'll get it done."
"I don't know, Chip," Jethro looked around at their supplies. "I mean, a tree fort takes a while to build. Me and my brother built one last summer, and it took us a couple of weeks."
"Yeah, but how long did you actually work on it, instead of getting bored with it after a few minutes?" Chip prodded.
"Oh...uh..." the small muskrat scratched his head. "I dunno, I guess."
"Well, we have to get this done today, guys," Timmy announced as he started to climb the tree. "My dad is gonna kill me if we don't get these tools back before he knows they're gone."
"Let's go, then," Chip started up after Timmy, Jethro and Skip right behind him. They carefully made their way up, every ounce of their tree-climbing expertise taxed as they hauled their equipment up with them.
"It'll be easier on the way down," Skip noted with a grunt, helping Jethro up to the next branch. "We won't have half the junk to carry, you know?"
"Be even quicker if we just dropped the tools, too," Jethro mumbled quietly, but not quiet enough.
"No way, Jethro!" Timmy whirled around with a scowl. "You do, and I'll tell your mom about you breaking that window back in June!"
"Hey, I wasn't going to do it!" Jethro cringed back.
"Easy, Timmy," Chip put a reassuring hand on the tense squirrel's shoulder. "No need to make the Mom threat, right Jethro?"
"Yeah, Timmy," Jethro quickly nodded. "We're buddies, right?"
"Yeah...sorry." Timmy sighed. "I'm just really scared about my dad is all, you know?"
"Yeah, which is why we need to get moving, guys," Chip called over his shoulder, continuing his ascent. Finally, he led the group over to the side of the tree with the sunshine falling on it. It was actually level, to a point, as it had four massive limbs growing alongside each other, all perpendicular to the trunk. A few smaller branches sprouted out here and there, just right for setting up walls and the like. A leafy bough directly a few feet overhead gave it a nice canopy, looking out over the forest.
"Wow..." Skip said in awe. "Cool view."
"Yeah, I found it when I was up here a while ago," Chip smiled. "One of my favorite hiding places for a while."
"Really?" Skip looked at his best friend carefully. "What were you doing over here to find out about it?"
Chip carefully laughed, knowing full well what Skip was implying -- that he had been hanging around the area in hopes of seeing Marie. It was true, Chip knew, but he couldn't admit it. An unspoken agreement had been formed by the schoolboys that if Marie said she liked a certain boy, it was okay for that boy to like Marie back. But you couldn't say you liked her first. That just wasn't cool.
"I'm always running around the forest after school," Chip answered. "You know that. If you didn't have band practice all the time, you could join me in it, Skip."
Skip frowned. "Yeah, maybe." Skip's first love was his trumpet, though, and everyone knew it. "Maybe next time."
"Sorry guys, but can we get moving?" Timmy urged, fearing that even now his father was discovering the missing implements of construction.
"Yeah," Chip nodded, glad for the chance of topic. He quickly moved over to the center of the future tree fort, and motioned his friends around him. "Okay," he explained, unrolling a piece of paper with some crude drawings on it, "this is what the place is gonna look like, okay? We need to put up the railings over there, and those planks over there..."
Chip outlined his plan, his friends nodding in agreement. It would be a great tree fort. True, built in one day, it wouldn't be much, but when one is only 11 years old and under the effects of a grade school crush, it takes on much more significance.
* * *
High above the Rangers position, the full moon shone brightly, bathing them in its soothing moonbeams. Gadget, sitting with the others in the Ranger Wing, looked up at it with a smile.
"Golly, it sure is a beautiful night for a stakeout," she remarked to the others.
"Yeah," Foxglove agreed, snuggling up closer to Dale in the back seat. "Romantic, even. Wouldn't you say so, Dale?"
"I--uh--I'd say...maybe those are the people who lit the candles," he leaned forward and pointed to a small cluster of shadowy objects near the abandoned Laundromat.
"Dale," Chip gave his friend a sly grin, "those are just some empty metal barrels. The same ones you keep pointing to every five minutes." The same five minutes whenever Foxglove snuggles up closer to you, he thought with a chuckle.
"Too right, Chipper," Monterey nodded, leaning up against the Ranger Wing. He and Zipper had hopped out upon landing, taking a look around their immediate vicinity. Afterwards, they just decided to wait there, in case they wanted to check something out. And to gave Dale and Foxglove the seat to themselves. Even though they never said anything, both Monterey and Zipper had decided to give the two every opportunity to "get a little closer". Maybe something would come out of it, but whatever the case, it was fun to watch Dale squirm.
Chip settled back in the front seat next to Gadget. For one of the few times, though, he wasn't thinking about how close she was. Instead, his mind was still wandering down old corridors, opened to him again from that note, and further restructured from their present surroundings.
When the Rangers had first tracked Freddy to these place, Chip couldn't help but think it looked familiar for some reason. Alas, a life-and-death battle in a flying bagpipe against a cleaning woman who threw magic bolts and used vacuum cleaners kept him from placing it. Now that he had the few hours since they arrived here to just sit and watch the surrounding area, he remembered why it was so familiar.
He had grown up here.
Well, not here exactly, but he knew he could track his way back into the surrounding woods, to the small community of woodland animals where he had been born and raised for the first twelve years of his life. He even remembered this Laundromat, although it had actually been open when he last saw it. He remembered playing in the woods not too far from here, and occasionally looking down on the white building, gleaming in the sunshine. It was full of bustle and activity, cleaning mothers, running kids, and just the very essence of energy on those Sunday afternoons.
A sigh escaped him as he looked at it now. A mere husk of its former self. Empty, hollow, run-down, and decrepit in the revealing moonlight. It seemed like it was dead, but that would have meant that it was at least at peace with itself. No, it was alive, barely. Just enough to feel its pain, and to know that release was always in sight but out of reach--
"Hmm? What?" Chip blinked and looked around, to see Gadget looking at him. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that last part."
She looked at him for a moment, a flicker of something in her eyes, something hinting that she had a suspicion as to why, but then it withdrew from sight.
"I said that if nobody shows up in another hour, it wouldn't be such a bad idea to go in and take a more thorough look around."
Chip pondered this for a moment. "Foxglove, when exactly did you spot the candles?"
"Around four in the morning, Chip." She leaned forward for a better view of the warehouse. "I can't be exactly sure, but it wasn't far from dawn."
"In that case we'd better wait a little longer." Checking the watch on the dashboard (and making sure it was an actual watch), he noted the time as 11:52 P.M. "Whoever was in there might not have come in until two or three. The candles were still burning when we arrived later that day, and most of those candles were designed to last about a day or so. We can afford to wait."
"Good," Monterey mentioned, stretching out. "Maybe we can catch a little shuteye, then."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that, Monty," Dale commented with a smile. "Things were all quiet in Emperor Dim Sun's room as well...until..." he dropped his voice into a mock-ominous tone. "The witching hour!"
Foxglove actually laughed, and even the others had to smirk at Dale's pun.
Appropriate choice of words, Dale, Zipper's shaking head indicated.
"Thanks, Zip," Dale bowed as best he could while sitting down. "Just a little ol' country chipmunk doin' his job."
"Well, if we're gonna be up for a bit still," Monterey said nonchalantly as he climbed up on one of the wings, "might as well boost the energy levels a bit." He dug around in the back seat a little, pulling out the picnic basket he had stashed there earlier.
He pulled out one of his cheese sandwiches, offering the basket to the rest of the group. They politely declined, none of them really in the mood for cheese and bread. Fortunately, Zipper had foreseen this, and slipped a variety of other food in there as well.
The housefly dug his hands into the basket, pulling out some sliced fruit, nuts, and various junk food. They others quickly asked that it be passed about, eagerly digging into the non-cheese nourishment. Monterey wasn't upset at this in the least.
All the more cheese for me, he thought happily.
They continued to munch contently for several minutes, some occasional small talk between mouthfuls, until Zipper buzzed and pointed towards the Laundromat. Turning, the Rangers saw that the interior was aglow with the soft light of candles. Stealing a glance at the watch, Chip noted the time as midnight.
"Good call, Dale," he remarked with a dry laugh, although it was a bit forced. Everyone shared in the slight trepidation he felt. If they were lucky, it would just be some kids out, having a group meditation, or something equally harmless. But Gadget's view on luck, and the nonexistence thereof, popped into everyone's minds.
"Well, let's get moving," Gadget reached over to start the Ranger Wing up, but was stopped by Chip's hand.
"Hold on, Gadget," he said softly, still watching the Laundromat. "Call me paranoid, but I'd rather not take the chances of anyone hearing us. The Ranger Wing's engines are fairly loud to begin with, and the night always seems to magnify sounds, if you know what I mean."
"Oh, it does, Chip," Foxglove agreed with a small smile. "Trust me, I know."
"So," Chip continued in a low voice, even though they were a good distance away from the area in question. "Let's not take any more chances than need be. Zipper, you and Foxglove can head over there now, but stay out of sight. The rest of us will join you once we cross the parking lot."
With a quick salute, Zipper took to the air and floated over towards the Laundromat, Foxglove gliding along behind him silently.
"Come on, guys," Chip said as he deftly slipped over the edge of the Ranger Wing. "I don't want them to be there by themselves any longer than necessary."
"Too right, Chipper," Monterey nodded, sprinting off down the pile of concrete they had landed on. Dale hopped off after the rugged Aussie, nimbly leaping over debris and cracks. Chip was right behind him, but paused for a moment, turning back to the Ranger Wing.
He didn't want to risk the noise it made, but at the same time, it was a long jog back here should they need to escape quickly. He highly doubted that would be necessary, but it never hurt to consider every option. As he pondered this dilemma, however, Gadget had unfastened her safety belt, retrieved a few supplies from the cockpit, and was climbing out to catch up with the others.
All thoughts of plans and possibilities evaporated in a puff of smoke, created by the heat rising in his heart as the moonlight gracefully outlined Gadget's slender form. Her elegance was crystal clear in the soft, bluish light, as she smoothly lighted upon the wing, then gently slid down to the ground next to the Wing. Her hair flowed out behind her, momentarily freed from the effects of gravity that bound him to this world. He felt as if this wasn't real, but some sort of blessed dream, where no dangers were present, no monsters lurking in the shadows, no horrors simmering in his own subconscious. Gadget's pristine figure wiped his mind clean from the somber thoughts that had crowded in recently, revealing something underneath he hadn't seen in years...
But then she was moving away from the Wing, out of the moonlight, and into the obscurity of the shadows. His mind began to cloud out again with thoughts of the present case and past events, blocking out whatever it was he had glimpsed before he could recognize it. He smacked his face lightly, breaking free from the trance.
"The Ranger Wing will be fine there," he stated clearly, reminding himself of the reason why he had looked that way to begin with. "We'll be fine."
Monterey was the first to catch up with Zipper and Foxglove. The two flyers had perched themselves just below the ledge of one of the windows, and were just peeking over the edge. He hopped up next to them, grabbing a hold of the ledge and hoisting himself up enough to see. The interior was filled with candlesticks, each one holding a candle. Monterey squinted against the candlelight for a moment, just long enough to get a good look at the candles.
"Same ones," he said quietly. Zipper and Foxglove both nodded silently.
"We shoulda tossed them out," Dale grumbled, joining them. "Instead of just leaving them."
"Easy, mate," Monterey said quietly. "We still don't know that this is a bad thing. It could be rehearsal for a play or somethin', for all we know."
"Could be," Foxglove's tone indicated she wasn't about to believe in that. Her mouth was going dry, but she refused to let actual fear take hold. The presence of the Rangers, especially Dale, did wonders to reinforce her walls of defense, and she continued to try and tune her sharp hearing in on the activity inside.
"Well?" Chip asked in hushed tone. "Anything yet?"
The others shook their heads.
"Well, someone has to be here," Gadget remarked. "Those candles didn't light themselves."
We hope, Zipper's grimace read.
"I don't hear anything from inside," Foxglove informed them.
"Do you suppose they're gone?" Dale glanced about, trying to see if anything was waiting in the shadows.
"Maybe, mate," Monterey also scanned the interior.
But why, Zipper's twisted frown inquired, would they light all these candles and then leave?
"Well Zipper," Gadget said bravely, deftly hopping over the window ledge. "There's one way to find out." She dropped down out of sight to the floor, the others close behind her. Zipper and Foxglove took to the air again, moving up to inspect the rafters and ceiling cracks for any signs of habitation. The rest of the earth-bound Rangers moved together along the edges of the Laundromat, everyone watching each other's backs.
Despite their best efforts, however, they all knew that they could search until their hearts content and not find anything. Too many nooks and crannies were available. The shadows caused from the candles grew and shrank with each flicker, presenting themselves as some sort of mockery of life. The outside air was still, the only noise the soft burning of the wicks and the steady beating of their hearts.
Foxglove gracefully glided down to them with Zipper, shaking their heads. No signs of anyone present. Foxglove cast a gaze about again, but this time with a bit of sadness. This had been the only place she could come to for friendship, or at least companionship, for a long time. Or course, now she had the Rangers, who were infinitely nicer (and in Dale's case, much more handsome), but she still felt the chilled touch of the past, when she had no qualms about theft and deceit. Whatever pleased Freddy.
Noticing her unease, Dale found himself stepping next to her, placing his hand on her shoulder and offering a comforting smile. She relaxed visibly, and smiled her thanks.
"Well," Chip said a bit nervously, wanting some sound to break the encasing silence, "let's take a look about for clues. Maybe they left some this time."
The rest nodded, and started a search pattern. Zipper flew out towards the center of the room, keeping low to the ground. "Avoiding radar" is how Foxglove had called it before, and Zipper grinned at the appropriateness of a bat calling it that. It was a joke, naturally, as Zipper found it easier to spot clues when only a few inches from the ground. Clues like footprints, scraps of paper, and fingerprints. Sometimes even neatly folded notes lying upon a piece of cloth set apart from everything else in the area.
Much like the note in the center of this room, surrounding by a row of candlesticks.
Blinking in surprise at this, Zipper glanced about again for any signs of movement. This hadn't been here last night, so whoever lit the candles had also probably left this note, and possibly may be still nearby. Everything was still. Keeping his eyes peeled, he called the others over to his position.
They quickly joined him, coming in from all around.
"Zipper, what...oh." Chip stopped his question short as he saw the note. The paper appeared to be of high quality, slightly yellowed, and with just the hint of a textured surface. It was rodent-sized, indicating that the candle-lighter was also diminutive. Across the featureless front of it was a single name, penned in a flowing script:
"Who's Miss Coven?" Gadget wondered aloud.
"Um...me." Foxglove looked distinctly ill. "It's my last name."
"Oh..." Dale glanced from the note to Foxglove. She had never mentioned her last name to the Rangers. "Uh...any idea who it might be, Foxy?"
"Well..." Foxglove swallowed. "The only people I told were Freddy, Bud, and Lou."
Everyone sighed. That's what they were afraid of. But before they became too worried, Zipper flew in front of them.
Hang on people, his thoughtful pose suggested, Foxglove only told those three, but who knows how many people they told? It might be from someone in need of help, and heard about Foxglove through them.
The others weren't entirely put at ease, but Zipper did have a point.
"Might as well find out, I guess," Foxglove defiantly walked to the small note, picked it up, and began to read aloud what was written within:
Miss Foxglove Coven,
Hello, my dear bat. I was wondering how long it would be before you finally passed by this old place. I was beginning to become impatient, as it's quite a pain to light these candles quickly. Fortunately, I have my ways of speeding up the process, but still, repeating the process for over two weeks can become monotonous. I was starting to think I would have to take more... direct...measures to gather your attention. But you have found my presence here, so I am delighted to say that the plan proceeds as scheduled.
You, my dear Foxglove, are invited to three wakes. Each wake is for a person you helped kill, one way or another. After all, if you are responsible for their death, you should at least pay your respects. You are already in the first one. Thus the presence of the candles. The second with take place shortly, once everything is in order. I will meet you at that one, to explain who this wake was for, as well as the other two. The wake is to be held at the Holy Trinity church located on E. Main and Washington. Please attend it at your earliest convenience.
I look forward to seeing you again, Foxglove.
No signature was given.
Foxglove lowered it slowly, an unsure expression on her face. "I...don't think it's from Freddy, or Bud or Lou either."
"Why not?" Chip asked.
"Too..." Foxglove thought for a moment. "Too neat, if you know what I mean. Freddy always was harsh and direct with her words. And Bud and Lou never used words like monotonous'. This is a bit more high-brow than what they would write."
Nodding, Chip examined the note again. "Three wakes...do you suppose the writer is referring to those three, then?"
"But Freddy's alive, Chipper," Monterey pointed out. "We just saw her yesterday."
"Personally," Gadget moved her eyes to the candles again, "I'm worried as to how whoever it was lit all of these candles so quickly. Especially if she wasn't a human."
I might be able to do it, Zipper offered. Anyone who could fly might be able to light them all in time. It'd be tricky, but feasible.
Chip read over the note again and shook his head. "I don't know, gang. Giving the location of this church is a pretty blatant attempt at luring Foxglove into a trap."
"But maybe that's the point, Chip," Gadget commented. "Because it's so blatant, it might not be a trap."
"I'm not willing to take that chance," Foxglove mumbled, eyes downcast. Gadget immediately flushed with embarrassment. "I'm sorry, Foxglove, I didn't mean that you should actually go."
But Foxglove shook her head. "Thanks, Gadget, but I'll have to go eventually. Whoever this is, they've been waiting for me passively. If they try to come after me aggressively..." Her voice trailed off again, letting the others make the connection.
Once again, Dale patted her on the shoulder, letting her know she wasn't alone. Foxglove, not really paying much attention, followed her instincts and stepped closer to Dale, hugging him tightly.
Dale's eyes widened in surprise as Foxglove held him close, her head tucked up on his shoulder. Dale hesitated for a moment, not really sure what do to, but the others quickly make motions for him to hold her. None of them were acting as if this was something to be taken lightly. Foxglove, however steady she appeared on the outside, was terrified. Dale gently returned the hug, patting her on the back for comfort.
"Well, we're not gonna just let you waltz into this thing blindly," Monterey stated with assurance.
Yeah, Zipper nodded, we can at least gather up some info on the church from the surrounding area.
"Good idea, Zipper." Gadget scratched her head. "I'm not sure how safe it would be to actually try to check out the church itself. Whoever's planned this might take our investigation badly. Any direct interference with Foxglove might make things worse. We can probably case the area, but let's wait until Foxglove actually goes before we enter the place."
They continued to discuss various plans and tactics, even Foxglove offering some ideas. The knowledge that she wasn't alone in this helped her immensely. Of course, she was still being held by Dale, so that helped lift her spirits as well.
In their continued planning session, none of them seemed to notice that Chip, their most prolific planner, was strangely silent. His mind was dwelling on the church. Or more appropriately, the location thereof. It was on the other side of the woods, in the very neighborhood he had grow up in. He could lead them straight to the church, as he still remembered the layout of the surrounding area, despite his absence from it for over ten years. He had hoped never to return, for fear of the memories it might trudge up. But wherever a case would lead, he would follow.
Shaking his head, he focused on that fact. He had a few connections in the area, having kept track of some old school friends. They could probably provide the most accurate information. The problem was getting there alone.
He watched as the others continued to brainstorm, still unaware of his preoccupation. He guessed they could accompany him, but the chances of them finding out about Marie were too great. No, best if they remain ignorant of his past. If they found out...well, they probably wouldn't hold it against him, they were too good of friends for that. But he wasn't sure if he could stand to be around them, knowing that every time they would look at him, they'd think about his shame. It was hard enough to live with before his family moved, and that was just from school friends. To know it was coming from his teammates, especially Gadget, would be too much.
"Chip?" Dale finally asked. "What do you think?"
Chip stroked his chin. "I think you guys are doing pretty good so far. We take a look around the surrounding area and see what information we can find about the church." He paused as the others looked at him. They were waiting for something further, he knew. He always had a method of laying out a plan, and for him to just nod and go along with what anyone suggested would be uncharacteristic of him. "Let's get moving on this tonight. No telling what else this person who set this up is planning, and if we delay for too long, it could bring trouble."
The others nodded, seeming content with Chip's decision. He hid a sigh as they turned and headed back out towards the Ranger Wing. He never really stopped and considered how much they trusted him with deciding their actions. Even Monterey, for that matter. Chip grimaced at the thought of this case going on any longer than necessary, as it was beginning to hurt holding in so much from them.
"Oh yeah," he silently mouthed to himself, "if this goes on too long, trouble is bound to happen."
* * *
"Is everything all set?" Jethro asked at the cafeteria table.
Chip nodded, and Skip grinned.
"Chip got the net in place last night," Timmy informed Jethro with a smile, "so we don't have to worry about sneaking away from the party."
"And the trap door is ready to go, too," Chip added. "Me and Skip tested it this morning before school."
"Cool, guys!" Jethro giggled. "All systems go and the like."
Today was the day. Marie would be having her birthday party later in the evening, and everyone was looking forward to it. The boys had already gotten Marie her presents, not counting the "surprise" they were planning.
"One thing, though, guys," Chip mentioned.
"Huh?" They asked.
"How are we going to get Marie away from the party in the first place?"
The others blinked. They never thought of that.
"Oh yeah," Skip mumbled, frowning. "Since it's her party, everyone is gonna be expecting her to be around all the time."
"Maybe if we ask her," Timmy suggested.
"Ask her what?" Chip asked. "Something like, Hey Marie, can you step away from your own birthday party without telling anyone'?"
"Oh yeah," Timmy sighed. "That wouldn't be very sneaky, I guess."
The sat in thoughtful silence, trying to figure out a way to complete their plan. Chip sighed and dug into his schoolbag to pull out the rest of his lunch, and blinked in surprise...and dismay.
"Oh, I gotta go, guys," Chip said quickly, hoisting up his bag while standing up. "I gotta see Ms. Brunner about our English assignment."
"You?" Skip asked. "I thought you liked that Maltspear guy."
"It's Shakespear', Skip, and I do, I just gotta see her about the subject of our next paper."
"Bleah," Jethro stuck his tongue out at the mention of the playwright. "They talk so funny, though. They never say anything like, you know', I mean', and like'."
Chip waved and quickly darted out of the cafeteria, finding an empty classroom to hide in. Once he was sure the coast was clear, he dug into his bag and pulled out what had caused his sudden exit.
"Another one." Chip held the note out in front of him like a bag of stale walnuts. His name was written across it in the same elegant handwriting, just like all the rest. Ever since the first one appeared two weeks ago, they had started practically haunting him wherever he went. This latest one brought the total up to seven notes, and as he opened it, he saw it had the same three little words in it:
"I love you."
"Oh man...." Chip grimaced. This was just becoming too much. The thought of a girl, any girl, liking him was enough to make his fresh crawl. Well, not entirely. Marie would be okay. In fact, that fleeting hope had occurred to him not so long ago, but in all the classes he had with Marie, she never so much as showed any more interest to Chip than before. They weren't friends, exactly, but knew each other well enough. Being the best students in the classes, they had talked about various assignments in the past two weeks, and she never treated him any different than before.
With a quick glance around again, he stuffed the note back in his bag, and slipped out of the room. With any luck, after today, Marie would say that maybe she liked him, and then this secret admirer would see that Chip was already interested in someone else.
After tonight, Chip thought with a smile, his spirits returning, everything'll change.
* * *
The entire neighborhood was somewhat bleak, with just some sparse bits of colored neon lights poking through the neutral surroundings. The night sky above was cloudy as well, preventing the starlight from getting through. The place really hadn't changed much from how Chip remembered it, though. His parents always told him to stay away, and he did, for the most part. Once or twice his friends would dare themselves to venture into it, even if it was only a little ways. So, he had been expecting the somewhat foreboding feeling from the alleyways and gutters of the desolate streets. The other Rangers, however, weren't so lucky.
"This place gives me the creeps," Gadget commented, her eyes constantly checking the overhead telephone lines and rooftops, as if expecting an aerial attack.
"Too right, luv," Monterey nodded as he strode alongside her. "Ain't exactly a Holiday Inn, but considerin' why we're here in the first place, it's not all that surprisin'."
Foxglove involuntarily shuddered, still uncomfortable with the whole turn of events. "The note said to stop by at my earliest convenience. Do you suppose it meant tonight?"
Zipper shrugged. Could be, he motioned, but there's no way to know for sure.
"And it's not like we can really ask for clarification," Chip frowned. "I'm starting to like this less the more I think about it. Foxglove can't just walk in there without knowing what she's walking into, but I don't think it'll be wise if she doesn't stop by sometime tonight."
"Really?" Foxglove wasn't appreciative of either choice.
"Someone's been waiting for you to come around the area again, Foxglove," Chip stated with a touch of glumness. "For quite a while. Right now, it's best for us to assume the worst."
They passed through the streets at a cautious pace, finally cresting the top of a hill, which looked down onto the church in question. It was a modest size, sitting placidly in the middle of the block, its tall spires reaching towards the heavens. The dark stained glass windows obscured anything which might be inside, and no sounds were heard. Naturally, this was to be expected, seeing as how it was so late, but it still didn't seem to reassure the Rangers.
"So now what?" Dale asked.
"Hmmm..." Gadget pondered their possibilities. "It's getting late to begin with, and we have a lot of area to cover. Logic would say to split into groups, but I don't know how safe that would be."
"Yeah, luv," Monterey nodded. "This isn't the best place to be wanderin' about solo."
"What about breaking into groups of two?" Foxglove offered. She then blushed lightly, stealing a glance at Dale. "I can go with you, if you don't mind."
To his surprised, a slight reddish tint rose unabated in Dale's own cheeks as he accepted her offer with a sheepish grin.
Okay then, Zipper pointed out, I'll stick with Monterey again.
Chip nodded. "Right. Let's spilt up according to areas around the church. Gadget and I will take the area to the east..." he trailed off, an old memory flashing in his mind, and shedding light on a possibility. "On second thought, we'll take the southern area behind the church. Zipper and Monterey would be better suited for the east area -- a lot of obstacles are there that won't be hard for Monterey to move or Zipper to just flit over," he quickly added, sensing the group's curiosity as to the change of plans.
Merely looking at him questioningly, Gadget finally shrugged. "Okay." Still, she thought she saw something...but it would have to wait.
"What about the northern part?" Dale asked.
"It's the side facing the street, so there's not much there to look through," Chip answered. "If we can't find anything out in the other areas, we can look then. We'll meet in front of the church in an hour. Sound good?"
Everyone agreed and started off, not quite sure what they were looking for or where to start. Except for Chip, who was merely faced with the problem of getting there alone. As much as he wanted to have Gadget's reassuring presence, he wasn't ready for her to learn more than was needed.
"All my life I'll be haunted by
All my life just one moment in time
All my life until the day I die
And it will live inside of me
I will never be free all my life
Trapped in her memory all my life"
--"Dreaming while you sleep", Genesis
Gadget stole a glance at Chip from the corner of her eye. He seemed to be acting better, but she still wasn't convinced. She was half-tempted to put him in her workshop's vise and force it out of him, but knew that it would have to wait until after this case. Right now, Foxglove was in much more immediate danger than Chip. And quite possibly more deadly.
"What do you think, Chip?" she asked as they snooped around the alleyway, looking for clues, or someone who might know something.
"Hard to tell, Gadget," Chip shrugged. "Maybe it is Bud or Lou, but I doubt it. And Foxglove has already told us that those were the only people she ever hung out with, so to speak." Gadget smiled slightly at that.
Chip also looked about, but he was searching for an excuse to go to a place he knew would have information, but wanted to get there without showing how he knew of it. After his parents moved from their home, Chip had still managed to keep in touch with his old group of friends, though it was limited to once a few years, if at that. Still, assuming Skip was still working in that underground dance club, he would probably be the best source of information in these parts.
He had already come to the conclusion that separating from Gadget beforehand was not going to work. First off, there was no possible way to do it without suspicion. Splitting off again didn't make any sense, and Gadget was sure to question him about it, or even follow him. More importantly, he didn't want to leave Gadget alone out here. They were already at a certain degree of risk, and with her not knowing the area as well as he did, he would worry incessantly about her on her own.
Instead, he would have to slip away once inside the club, which wouldn't be difficult at all. And definitely safer. Glancing back at Gadget, and her lithe form as she carefully poked around the alley, he knew that predators would still be present in the club, just different kinds.
Chip had been carefully leading them closer and closer to the location of the club, and just hoped that something would come up soon to give them cause to actually go inside once they "found" it.
A quiet bit of conversation picked Chip's ears up, and he glanced down the alleyway to see a couple of frogs hopping across. With a grin, Chip doubted they were just wandering the city, but were instead looking to go to just the place he was hoping for. At least, their rather "hip" sense of black and dour attire hinted at it.
"Gadget," he quickly motioned to her. "Look, down there." He pointed to the frogs, now moving further down the alley, away from them.
At the sight of a prospective lead, Gadget smiled. "Golly, they might know something. Let's catch up to them!" Quickly, she began to jog after the retreating forms of the amphibians.
Chip grinned equally and raced behind her. God, I love how this woman thinks!
"See anything, Foxy?" Dale asked as Foxglove landed next to him. She had flown a quick recon to get a better look at the church.
Nodding, Foxglove swallowed hard. "I...I noticed that there was a small crack in one of the windows, so I flew over for a better look...and I saw candles on the inside."
Dale also found his voice constricting. Well, there was no doubt that whoever left that note was expecting Foxglove to show up tonight. The person was already awaiting Foxglove's arrival.
Foxglove shivered, but managed to control it. "I think we found out what we were looking for. Shouldn't we go now?" A slight touch of urgency was in her voice.
"Yeah..well, I dunno," Dale answered scratching his head. "I mean, yeah, we know that the note-writer is inside, but Chipper is probably hoping that we have more to go on."
Dale thought for a minute, not used to being the person who answered the questions. "Uh, like...um...motors."
"Motors?" Despite her trepidation, Foxglove found herself smiling. Dale had a habit of making her forget her fear through his comments.
"Yeah, well, I know that's not the right word for it, though. It's what makes someone do something. Uh, motions! No, wait...motive! Yeah, that's it!" He grinned at his mental prowess. "Chipper will be looking to find out the motive."
Foxglove frowned as she thought. Dale's stumble around criminal terminology had wiped away her outright fear. She still felt nervous, but was able to think clearly now. "So what do you think, Dale?" She reached forward and put the edge of her wing on his shoulder. "What should we do?" Her gaze conveyed complete trust in him.
"Hmmm...." Dale racked his brain for the right answer. Normally, he really didn't care too much for planning things out and being careful. But Foxglove was putting her faith in him, and he felt responsible for her. If something happened to her because of him...well, he was determined not to let that happen.
"Okay," he finally said. "Here's what I think we should do. Since I think we should know more, let me take a look at the inside through that crack you found."
"Gee, Dale," Foxglove's grip on his shoulder tightened. "What if we're spotted? Isn't it dangerous?"
"Yeah, it's dangerous, but we'll do okay. You just watch." He patted her wing reassuringly. True, he knew it wouldn't be a bad idea to wait for the others, but that wouldn't be for another forty-five minutes. Might as well snoop around a bit more, see if they can dig up some really important stuff. Hey, he reasoned, it always works in the movies.
Foxglove led him over to the area where the window was, and he carefully climbed up the side of the church, meeting her on the ledge. Sure enough, a small crack allowed them to see inside. At first, Dale wasn't sure that their suspect was inside, as the only candles he saw which were lit were the ones in the candleholders along the walls. Considering this was a church, it wasn't all that surprising.
Then Foxglove silently tapped him on the shoulder, and pointing up to the dais the alter was on. A series of small candles had been set up, all lit and in an arrangement that didn't suggest any type of religion that the church followed.
Dale nodded glumly and then peered into the shadows cast by the candles. He wasn't sure, but it looked like a couple of small boxes were set in front of the steps leading up the dais. Frowning, he tried to shift over to get a better look, but his current vantage point prevented any details from being shown.
"Foxy," he whispered, "can you tell what those things are by the steps?"
Foxglove looked over, then shook her head. "Sorry, cutie, but it's too dark for me to see." She debated something in her head, then carefully stuck her head through the crack.
Dale was about to yelp at her for going inside, but remembered at the last moment that if someone was inside, his yell would certainly give them away. Much to his relief, the lady bat did not actually enter the church, but instead merely keep her head in for a few moments, then popped it back out.
"I don't anything, either." She still spoke in a hushed whisper. "Do you think maybe it's empty for now? Maybe the person or whatever isn't here anymore."
Dale went into deep thought, smacking the side of his head with his hand in an attempt to kick in more thinking cells, which were currently on coffee break. No luck. He tried to concentrate on the facts before him and not how surprisingly stimulating he found Foxglove's feathery whisper.
In the end, though, he eventually admitted that he really had no clue where to go from here. He could see the facts, but putting them together to try and figure out what was going on was...well, he felt like trying to piece together the plot of a Dr. Whom episode based solely on the special effects (such as they were): it was difficult to tell if there even was a plot of some kind.
Fortunately, as he looked back through the crack, peering at the candles and those unidentifiable objects in the shadows, he followed what his gut instinct told him. Namely, to stay away. If for no other reason than those...things, whatever they were, still unnerved him for some reason. It might be childish, but Dale wasn't about to take any chances. Not with Foxglove, anyway.
"Better safe than splattered," he mumbled to himself.
"Oh, um, nothing. Just thinking that we'll be better off finding the others before doing anything. Just cause we don't see anything doesn't mean there's nothing there." He moved back to the ledge and started on his way down. "No sense risking you--er, us by rushing in."
Foxglove felt her nerves ebb to they're lowest state for the entire night. "Th-thank you, Dale."
"Hey," Dale chuckled, "it's all a matter of properties."
"Um...you mean priorities?"
Dale paused. "Huh? Oh, yeah. I knew that."
Foxglove continued her grin as she lazily glided down after Dale, never picking up on the light sounds above; several footsteps coming out onto the ledge, stealthily following after the pair.
Or at least, that's what Chip assumed Gadget had said. It was difficult to tell, as the throbbing bass from the overhead speakers drowned out anything quieter than a freight train.
Having just walked through the small door, they had come out on a small landing to a staircase, leading a good three feet down in a switchback fashion. It was firmly attached to the wall of cinder blocks behind them, and the other side was open to the large dance area of the club. From their vantage point, it was easy to see why "The Rat's Den" was such a popular haunt.
The ceiling was, in fact, a pair of stereo speakers facing the floor, constantly raining rhythms or hammering beats into the dancers below. A long bar was off against the back wall, which was the stereo itself. The graphic equalizer was level with the bar, showing the levels of tremble and bass in a constant state of flux. The dance floor was in the center, packed full of animals from almost every rung of the zoological ladder. The area around the dance floor was full of various tables and booths, most of which were occupied by a number of patrons. A small platform was above the bar, where the DJ could easily access the tape and CD decks.
"We should we start?!" Gadget yelled over the din.
"Let's try the bartender!" Chip responded. "It'll be quieter over there, too!"
"I said--oh, never mind!" Chip waved for Gadget to follow him down. He was right about the noise level; the landing they had come in on was just below the speakers. While it wasn't too much better over by the bar, it was at least possible to communicate without shouting.
The two Rangers quickly descended from the staircase, and began crossing the crowded dance floor. Although he would need to sneak away from Gadget eventually, this was most definitely not the place to get separated. Gadget, and Chip for that matter, was in foreign territory, sadly ignorant to most of the accepted rituals and customs. Getting lost on the huge dance floor, without knowing the protocol for traversing it, meant they might be separated for hours.
Gripping her hand tightly, Chip determinedly navigated his way into the throng of dancers. The lighting, typical of dance clubs, was a mixture of deep colored spotlights and flicking strobes. Guessing from the erratic pattern, Chip wondered if they were merely controlled by someone standing by the light switch, flicking it on and off at whim. Regardless, he was able to keep track of their position in the soup of activity.
Gadget couldn't help but stare about in wonder. This place was just...unreal. On one hand, the decibel level was hurting her ears (she couldn't believe she left her earplugs in the Wing), the light combination was threatening her with a headache, and the bizarre odor was so thick it was tangible. But still, her mind filed most of that away as the atmospheric conditions of this locale, and her interest was more focused on the habitants around her. She could recognize some species, some she couldn't, and some she felt safer just not knowing. She clung to Chip's hand like a life preserver in this sea of utter chaos.
And yet, she could sense something under all of the strange and weird; past the boundaries of her normal experiences. A vibrancy. An energy, humming with life, and co-existing among all of the denizens here, regardless of their species, age, or beliefs. Their mindset anchored them in here, and she had to admit, even she felt the surge of anthropological excitement at discovering a new culture: namely, Nightlife.
Someone, or something, tugged at Gadget's other hand, causing a temporary halt in her momentum. Noticing this, Chip stepped back, placing his free hand on her waist and pulled her free from the grasp of whoever or whatever had tried to latch on. The force of the pull had them stumbling a few feet, only to bounce back off of some energetic dancers ahead of them, eventually gaining their balance by gripping each other tightly.
Chip felt himself swallow as he found himself pressed closely against Gadget, staring her directly in the eyes. His steely resolve wavered in her deep blue eyes, if just for a second. That was more than enough time for Gadget, however, to clearly see some horrid pain raging within her partner. It was gone as quickly as it appeared, but she had clearly seen it. By impulse, her hand gently ran down his cheek, lightly stroking his fur. Despite the incredible noise swarming about them, he heard her whisper crystal clear, "I'm here for you, Chip..."
A soft smile grew involuntarily on his face as he placed his hand over hers, sandwiching her warm touch further against his fur.
A sudden jostle from a pair of dancers, who seemed to be doing a hybrid of a waltz, the hustle, and a Wildebeest mating ritual, reminded him where they were. Wordlessly nodding his thanks, he kept her close as they worked their way through the turmoil.
* * *
Chip turned around just in time to catch one of the water balloons square in the face. He stumbled back into Skip, his partner, who laughed.
"Way to block it with your face, Chip!" his best friend chided, only to suffer a similar fate seconds later.
"Yeah! Nice shot, Timmy!" Jethro grinned to his partner for the water balloon wars, and the squirrel nodded in satisfaction.
"Oh boys..." a sweet, feminine voice called out.
Jethro and Timmy turned just in time to be bombarded by a number of the girls at the party.
"Hey!" Jethro called out between hits. "You're not supposed to team up on us!"
"It's my party," Marie giggled back, lobbing another shot at them. "And I'll stay dry if I want to."
The boys "ack"-ed under the onslaught of water balloons, finally admitting surrender to the girls, who cheered and congratulated each other.
"Down right dirty trick," Jethro mumbled as Timmy, Skip and Chip helped him back to his feet. "Teaming up against us to make sure they stayed dry."
"Yeah," Timmy agreed, wiping the water from his tail. "I wish we thought of it first."
"Speaking of thinking," Chip checked over his shoulder to make sure they were out of earshot of the other kids at the party. "What are we going to do about Marie's surprise? We don't have much time left."
The others nodded glumly. It had been a great birthday party, but there hadn't been any opportunities to see if they could get Marie away from the rest of the crowd. When they had first arrived, Marie was, of course, the center of attention. All of the children, parents, and teachers in attendance wishing her a happy birthday and many more, congratulating her on progress in school, and so forth. Then came the presents, which she opened with zeal. Chip noted with a glint of hope that she really liked his gift: a model ship in a bottle set. She liked puzzles and mental challenges, so was glad to have it.
But still, no chances to get her to the tree. After the presents had come the water balloon wars, and now that it was over, they knew there might be one or two more games, but that would be it. Then everyone would be going home, including their parents. Which meant, of course, they would have to go as well. Something had to be done, and soon.
Their gloom was broken as they were called over to the rest of the children, gathering around Marie's mother.
"Okay kids," she said, passing out lists. "Now we're going to play a scavenger hunt, okay? The object is to collect as many of the items on the list as you can within the next half-hour, okay?"
"Okay!" was the choral reply. In particular, the four boys who finally saw their chance, practically handled to them on a paper birthday plate.
"Guys, listen," Chip quickly whispered as the children started to disperse. "Circle around and meet at the base of the tree, okay?"
"What about Marie?" Skip asked. "How do we get her there?"
Thinking for a moment, Chip replied, "I'll lead here there. I'll tell her that some of the items can all be found there, okay?"
"I dunno, Chip," Timmy said, rubbing his head. "I mean, she might get angry if she loses the game because of us."
"But think of how much she'll like the surprise!" Chip replied. "She won't care after that, I bet."
Jethro nodded. "Sounds good to me. Timmy?"
The squirrel smiled and nodded.
"Okay, it'll take me a bit to get her over there," Chip said as they stepped out towards the forest. "Meet me at the base in about fifteen minutes."
The others nodded and headed out. Chip glanced around until he spotted Marie moving off to his left. Alone, no less. Grinning, Chip started out after her.
* * *
"Any sign of them, cutie?"
Dale flicked his eyes up at Foxglove, perched on the trash can above him. "Nah, not yet anyway." They were slowly working their way through the eastern section, hoping to spot Monterey or Zipper. They already has swept through the southern section, but didn't see Gadget or Chip around, so had continued on in hopes of finding the others. "I hope we find them soon."
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about it, Dale." Foxglove lighted on the ground next to him, her previous apprehension seemingly non-existent. "By the time we finish here, it'll be time to meet in front of the church. This alley isn't that far away, really."
"Yeah, good point." But he still sighed. Something was troubling him, and he didn't know what. That same uneasy feeling he had back at he church was gurgling at him. He was so engrossed in trying to figure it out that he paid no mind as Foxglove hugged him from behind. In fact, not realizing what he was doing, he wrapped his arms over her wings, tightening the embrace.
Foxglove, on the other hand, was *very* aware of it.
"Dale?" Her voice was a mixture of anxiety, trepidation, and hopeful excitement.
"Yeah?" Dale, oblivious to even where he was walking, answered in a half-listening voice. What was it that was causing his gut to churn? This time, he wasn't even consciously aware of Foxglove's affections, eliminating that possibility.
"Do you..." she gulped and tried to phrase it in a way that wouldn't seem too blatant. "Do you ever...get lonely?"
"Well...yeah, sometimes." He looked around the alley. Was someone following them?
"Well, like when I'm watching those late night movies by myself, I guess."
"But I'm there, sometimes."
"Yeah, I mean the times you're not there."
Pause. "Any other times?"
"Um..." he actually thought. If Foxglove was attempting to hint at something, Dale was too wrapped up in his instinct to notice. "Yeah, like the times when I'm out gathering nuts, and I see a playground. But nobody's there to join me, you know?"
"I'm there at times, aren't I?"
"Well, sure. I meant the times you're not, though."
The love-struck female bat swallowed all of her fears, and forced out the final question. "So...so you...*miss* me...when I'm not there?"
His reply was cut off as a loud clatter echoed next to them. They both jumped back, Dale positioning himself in between Foxglove and the source of the noise.
"What was that?" Foxglove's throat, pinched with fright, squeaked out.
"My gut reaction," Dale answered subconsciously. The long shadows along the side of the building still obscured whatever made the disturbance, but they didn't have to wait long to see the cause.
A small set of wooden splinters awkwardly stumbled forward, in the shape of a humanoid of some type, the same height as Dale and Foxglove. It "looked" at them momentarily, moving its "head" forward a bit. Dale was about to say something, when it moved its right arm slightly, and a large chunk of brick flew out of the shadows, arcing towards them.
Dale tackled Foxglove to the side as the brick smacked alongside of them. "What is that thing?" he asked as they scrambled to their feet.
"I don't know," Foxglove replied in astonishment. "It looks like some sort of a magical--"
She was interrupted as the stickman raised its arms again, this time bringing forth a glass bottle from the shadows. Dale pushed Foxglove to one side, rolling to the other himself. The bottle shattered on the cement between them, the shards half covering both of them.
"Foxy!" Dale called out. "Go! Get outta here!"
Another motion by the stickman and a sizable rock sprang from the darkness behind it, sailing silently towards Dale's turned head. He spotted it out of the corner of his eye and ducked at the last moment.
"That's it!" He scampered on all fours in a wide arc towards the stickman, hoping to divert its attention from Foxglove. It was apparently working, for each motion of the arms sent the onrushing debris in solely Dale's direction. Dale, always the last Ranger to be hit in a snowball fight, nimbly darted aside each attack.
He was about to try a sudden rush at it, when it suddenly burst apart, collapsing on the ground. He blinked, coming to a stop, then looked over to Foxglove. She smiled warmly, tossing another small rock in her hand.
"Good thing I didn't miss the first time."
"Yeah..." Dale chuckled, then looked back at the small pile of wood. "Seems like it was pretty easy, though."
"What do you mean, cute stuff?"
"Well...I guess I expected something held together by magic to be stronger. Tougher to break."
Foxglove hmmed and nodded, starting towards it herself.
Too interested in the splinter pile, neither noticed the whistling of the lead pellet as it cut from the shadows behind the destroyed stickman, ricocheting off of Dale's head squarely. Knocked from his feet, he was unconscious from the hit before he hit the ground.
"Dale!" Foxglove's immediate concern was for his now supine and motionless form. Hence, she never saw the second lead pellet make an arced path for her own head.
With both Foxglove and Dale out cold, there was no-one to watch as a single figure noiselessly descended to the ground, coldly looming over their fallen forms.
Groaning, Foxglove slowly pushed herself up from the dirty floor of the alley. She winced as she rubbed her head, painfully aware of the welt caused by that lead pellet. Glancing around, her heart dropped as she saw that Dale was missing. She staggered up, swooning as her vision blurred from the sudden motion. If she was going to avoid passing out, she'd have to move slowly. That's when she spotted it.
A single note laid peacefully on the ground, with her name in that same elegant script on front. She closed her eyes and listened, but heard nothing that might indicate someone watching her. Opening her eyes slowly, she reached out a trembling wing to the simple, folded piece of paper. One would have thought that she was handling a live hand grenade from her expression. And, as she read it, it would have been very close to the truth.
"This is not what I need," she half-sobbed, letting the note slip from her hand. Everything had been going so well, if even for that brief period in time. Dale had soothed her fear, and was even on the verge of stating that he really did miss her when she wasn't around. Then that stickman came out....
She choked back another sob, and sank to her knees. A few tears were already starting to form at the thoughts of Dale, either dead or about to be so. And all because of her! It wasn't fair! Who was this person, that wanted to...to... Slowly, her shoulders settled from their shaking as her crying subsided, drying out in the warming rays of hope. Sniffling, she slowly rose to her feet, and walked over inspect the remains of the stickman. Something about the way it moved...the fact that everything came from behind it...that everything sailed in an arc of some sort...
Picking up one of the wooden pieces, she turned it over carefully, searching for--
A grin broke out over her face as she gently held up a very slim, yet incredibly strong, strand of silk attached to stick. A quick inspection of the others all revealed the same. She skittered over to the various items that were "thrown" at them, confirming each had one as well.
"So..." she quickly turned this recent discovery over in her mind. Glancing up at the wall above the site of the "thrown" debris, she thought aloud, "She must have been up there, then, yanking on the strings to manipulate the stickman like a puppet, and also to "throw" those objects..."
She lightly ran her wingtips over the welt on her head, reminding her that it was still a very effective ploy. But no matter. Foxglove took a deep breath to try and clear her mind of its wooziness. It'd be difficult to fly this disoriented, but she had to get to Dale. His captor would undoubtably attempt a few attempts at sating her thirst for control, and that would take time.
Hopefully enough time...Foxglove thought with a dash of determination. She took to the sky, unaware of anything but her will to save Dale.
To save her love.
"Um...golly, I don't know..." Gadget tried to appear nonplussed by the rat. He was friendly enough, and not rude or imposing, but all of those safety pins in his ears was just too strange. "I guess it's because I go to a lot of trouble to prevent anything metal from piercing my flesh to begin with."
"Wow..." the rat seemed floored by this. "Not even earrings?"
"Um..." Another glance at his ears (that is, what she could see of them through all the metal). "No."
Chip was next to her, but talking to the bartender. With Gadget currently distracted from him, he was quick with his questions.
"Skip still works here? Great! Is he up there now?" He pointed to the DJ booth.
"Nah. He works on--"
"Is he still here?"
"Eh? Yeh, I guess so--"
"Where? Do you know?"
"Check the booth over in the corner. He likes--"
"Great! Thanks a lot!"
The bartender merely grunted and moved on down to serve some another customers. Ones who actually enjoyed a bit of chit-chat.
"Gadget," Chip lightly tapped her on the shoulder. "I need to check something out."
"Can I come?" Her eyes pleaded, shifting a gaze back at the friendly-yet-odd rat waiting to ask her more questions. "So far he's asked me why I haven't had anything pierced, tattooed, or branded. I'm starting to worry what else he'll recommend."
Chip smiled and the rat, and gave Gadget a sudden, strong hug. She blinked in surprised, then returned it, a slight rush coming to her cheeks. As much as Gadget enjoyed it, however, she realized the reason for it as Chip whispered in her ear.
"Actually, stick by the bar here. See if anyone mentions anything about a lot of candles, or weird stuff recently in the neighborhood. Anything that might be a clue to a return of Freddy."
"But what if this rat starts getting too personal?" she whispered back to him.
"This should keep his comments polite," Chip whispered, then disengaged to hug, much to his own chagrin, and said normally, "Okay, I'll be back in a minute. Try not to get upset if someone spills their drink on you, all right? Osiris is still eating through a straw, you know."
Gadget suddenly blushed at the reference, while the rat merely carefully said, "Eating through a straw?"
"I...um..." Gadget said through her grin, "...sorta knocked his teeth out."
"Broke his jaw," Chip winked. "We still have that necklace at home of his teeth."
"Chip!" Gadget grinned. "You said that'd be *our* secret!"
The rat merely stepped back with wondering eyes cast on Gadget.
With a broad smile, Chip bowed to her and headed off to the booth.
Hopefully Gadget might actually hear something, Chip thought. If not, well, if anyone knows anything about it, it'll be Skip. You don't get to be the most respected DJ in this neighborhood without knowing the local rumors...
He easily made his way off into the corner booths, tucked away from the speaker ceiling. The lighting was lower back here, and Chip felt slightly out of place in his well-kept, albeit worn, fighter pilot jacket and fedora. Fortunately, nobody paid him a second glance, more interested in their own conversations. Scanning the area, he finally spotted a lone chipmunk sitting off to the side, reading a small paper.
Chip allowed himself a small feeling of nostalgia. While he had kept in touch with Skip, he hadn't actually seen his old friend for years. Too many things kept him away; work with the Rangers, and too many painful memories that were attached to his past. Still, it was good to see his friend from the early years of his life, before the Rangers, before Dale, and before Marie.
Sighing heavily, he walked up to the booth and lightly rapped on the table, in a short series of knocks.
Skip blinked, and turned from his paper. The chipmunk really didn't look that much different grown, merely taller. He seemed to be looking at Chip with a mixture of surprise and curiosity. He reached out and rapped out another series, different from Chip's.
"For all the walnuts in the world..." Chip started, unable to stop his grin.
"The Tree Pirates do not except girls!" Skip laughed, jumping up and hugging his old friend. "Chip! I thought it was you!"
"Who else would know the secret code of the Tree Pirates?" Chip chided, returning the hug.
"Well, Timmy and Jethro, but they're not chipmunks." Skip motioned for Chip to have a seat as he sat down himself. "It's been ages, Chip? What have you been up to?"
"This and that, Skip," Chip replied, then stopped smiling. "I hate to say this, Skip, but this isn't a personal call. I need to ask you about any recent happenings around here."
Skip shrugged and nodded. "Yeah, I know. The time of responsibility-free days are gone. I'm just here on break. I start work again in an hour." He leaned across the table. "So what can I tell you?"
"Any word about weird happenings? Supposed magic use? That kind of thing?"
Skip thought for a moment. "No, not that I've heard anyway. Not recently."
"Well, a while back there was some hoopla over at that abandoned Laundromat."
Chip's ears perked up. "Really?"
"Yeah, but it was a while ago. Word was that some human was practicing some magic back there. Had a snake and spider. A bat too, I think. But they were busted up by some group. Don't know the name."
Chip smiled and waved it aside, deciding not to waste the time to explain that he knew the story already. "Thanks anyway, Skip. I was checking for recent happenings."
Skip shook his head. "Not that I heard, sorry."
"Hey, no problem. Look, I got to run. But I'll stop by again sometime." Chip slipped out of his seat, standing up.
Skip also stood, shaking Chip's hand strongly. "Please do, Chip. There's so much that I want to tell you about things that have happened since you moved."
Chip paused, then dug in his pockets, producing a small notepad. "Here." He quickly wrote out some directions, then tore them off and handed them to Skip. "In case you need to get in touch with me before I see you next."
Skip nodded his thanks, and as Chip started off, placed his hand on his friend's shoulder. Chip looked back with a questioning expression, seeing the sorrow on Skip's face.
"Chip..." he said softly, still managing to be heard. "You know that nobody blames you. Or ever did."
Chip's throat went dry, but he managed to sullenly nod. "I know." He turned away and headed off back towards Gadget. Now if I can only stop blaming myself...
* * *
The young chipmunk turned to see who called, and gave a soft smile as she watched Chip scamper through the forest foliage to her.
"Hi Chip," she said in her normal friendly tone.
"Hey, uh...how are you?" Chip said as he caught up to her. He almost forget what he was doing here, but then remembered. "Oh!" He looked at the scavenger list. "Um...I wanted to tell you that there's a lot of stuff on this list over in that tree." He pointed off to the large oak in the distance.
Marie looked at it, then back to him. She was quiet for a moment, looking at him in the manner that only a straight "A" student can. Fortunately, since Chip was one as well, it didn't unnerve him. Much.
"Why would you want to help me win?" she asked, and Chip thought he caught just the hint of a teasing quality in her soft voice.
"Uh..." Caught flat-footed, Chip looked down and scratched his head. "Um... cause it's your birthday?" he finally managed.
Marie grinned at him, her grey eyes twinkling in the sunshine. "You figured it out, didn't you?"
"Don't play games with me, silly!" she laughed, reaching out and hitting him playfully in the shoulder. Even though it was only a tap, Chip thought he'd pass out from the contact. She touched me... he thought dreamily, barely aware that she was still talking.
"I knew you'd figure it out!" she beamed at him. "I had purposely left those notes in different places each time, so you wouldn't think it was me, but I knew you were too smart to be fooled long." She grinned proudly at him, holding her hands in front of her in a pose of admiration.
She touched me...Chip's thoughts were still in the skipping record phase, until the weight of realization broke through.
"You..." he stammered, then stopped. "I..uh...well, yeah, I mean, I just wanted to -- to, ah, wait until I could talk to you about it. Alone. Talk to you, alone, I mean. I mean, not alone, cause then it'd only be one of us, and that makes it hard to talk to someone when they're not there..." The sudden rush of emotions proved too much for even Chip's normally agile brain. It was hit broadside by a sensation like none he ever felt before, and was still recovering from the impact.
So, even though it was meant with affection, when Marie threw her arms around Chip in a laughing hug, he promptly blacked out, the chirping of birds the only sound in his mind.
* * *
"How much time we got, Zip?" Monterey called out to the housefly buzzing above him.
About ten minutes, Zipper signaled. Right on schedule.
"Good." They were slowly working their way down the last alley, but still had found nothing of interest. Not that they were really expecting to, but still they kept their senses tuned for anything out of the ordinary.
Much like the small note lying in the alley directly in front of them.
" Ere now, what's this?" Monterey reached down and picked it up, seeing the name "Miss Coven" written upon it. "I thought we left this back in the Wing," he scratched his head as Zipper landed on his shoulder.
We did, Zipper nodded, but this isn't the same one. See how it's been folded over? The last one was folded into fourths.
"Crikey, Zipper, don't go all deductive on me now."
Zipper merely grinned in response.
"Let's have a look-see then, mate." Monterey unfolded the note for them to read.
I regret to inform you that, because of your actions, Dale will no longer be a member of living society. You are welcome to view his remains at your earliest convenience.
Again, no signature was given.
"Blimey..." Monterey mumbled, looking around. After reading the note, the smashed bottle, chunks of brick and concrete, and pile of wooden splinters didn't seem so inconsequential anymore. "Quick, Zip, see if you can spot em around here anywhere."
Zipper darted off to investigate the nearby shadowed crevices, while Monterey concentrated on checking under the scattered debris in the nearby area.
After a few minutes, however, they realized that neither Foxglove nor Dale were around. "No blood, either," Monterey remarked. "Not a guarantee that either of em is alive, but it at least it's a start."
We got to find them, Zipper's worried expression read.
"Too right mate, but where? I don't see any type of tracks around, do you?"
No, Zipper shook his head, I don't.
They were both quiet for a moment, trying to figure out their options in their mind. Is if by guidance, they both realized at the same time the only possible place that Dale and Foxglove could be. It was, after all, the only reason they came here to begin with.
Zipper nodded and took off, motioning that he'd try to do what he could until Monterey arrived.
"Go for it, mate!" Monterey called out, racing along the alley floor. "I'll be there in two shakes of a dingo's tail!"
Ohh...I think...I'm really hurting right now....
Dale slowly opened his eyes, having reawakened from his forced slumber. The scene before him wavered and shifted as his eyes attempted to focus in unison. He was suspended in the air, about a foot off the ground, with his arms bound to his sides. Something was below him that he couldn't quite recognize. After his sight was once again stable, he could make out the vaulted ceiling above him, the pews in front of him, and the raised dias with the altar behind.
"Great..." he moaned. "I'm in the church already."
His feet were also bound by the same material, something Dale thought he recognized, but couldn't quite place. Whatever it was, it held him fast. He grunted as he twisted about, trying to reach his pocket. He had some objects in there that might help him out of these bonds--
A light, subtle laugh echoed from above him.
"Who?" Dale asked suddenly, shifting about to try and spot the laugher. His movements caused him to dangle in the air a bit. He still had no clue what was holding him up.
"Oh Dale..." a light, smooth female voice answered. "I was wondering how long you would be out. Foxglove will be here momentarily, and it wouldn't do for you to be still unconscious at that point. And please, don't bother to search for your various items, as I've taken the liberty of removing them for you."
"Huh?" Shifting a bit, Dale could tell that his pockets were indeed empty. He struggled against the bonds again. They felt very familiar, but what were they? Not rope or thread or anything like that. They felt more like silk...
Stopping dead in his tracks, Dale remembered where he had felt these type of bonds before.
"Lou?" he nervously called out. "Your voice is higher than I remember..."
"No, my poor chipmunk, not Lou." The voice seemed sad, now. Dale heard a depressed sigh, but then the voice continued. "Please, try to relax. You are lined up perfectly to fall in the coffin at the moment."
"Coffin?" Dale looked below him again, and finally recognized the two objects that he had spotted from the window, one of which he was now directly over.
The twin tiny coffins, built for his size, reflected the light of the candles gloomily off of their polished surfaces. The lids were both open as if awaiting prey. Despite the throbbing in his head from where the lead pellet had struck, he spotted a brass inscription on the one he hung over: Dale.
"Hey!" He jerked about in midair, not caring if he suddenly dropped. "What's the big idea?!"
"Dale...you must learn patience," the voice replied calmly, echoing from above. "You'll learn soon enough."
"That's what I'm afraid of." He struggled again.
"Dale...please stop that, you're not about to break those restraints. More so, I shall cut you free of them soon enough."
Dale merely grunted in response. He remained suspended a foot above his open coffin, its lid hinged back like the maw of some ghoulish creature.
"If it pleases you, it will be quick and painless at first."
"At first?" Dale tried to sound defiant. "You can only kill me once!"
"No, my friend. When you fall into the coffin, the mahogany lid will shut, triggering the release of the carbon dioxide lining the sides. You should pass out within moments."
"What? What kind of *stupid* death trap is that?" He really didn't think it was think stupid, but as long as it kept her talking, it kept her from dropping him into the coffin. He figured he could swing to the side, but the minute she noticed, she'd probably cut the strand that was holding him up. He wouldn't be able to get enough momentum to clear the casket if she did.
"It is merely the trap part, Dale. The death comes later, after you awaken again. By that time, I shall have already buried you, allowing your last hours to be wasted in the wretched agony of knowing that there is nothing you can do...but die."
Silence for a moment. "Was it something I said?" Dale finally said, trying to keep from believing this female's voice.
"No, nothing you did. It's what your love did." The voice was bitter now.
"Love?" Dale asked honestly. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh come now, Dale!" the voice snapped. "It is so unbecoming to lie, especially now."
"This from someone who hides in shadows?" Dale mocked. He really didn't like taunting the person who basically held his lifeline, but he didn't see much choice at the moment.
A soft, twirling type noise could be heard above, and Dale looked up into the recesses of the ceiling. Something was descending swiftly, until the owner of the voice was face to face with her captive.
"Is this more relaxing for you, Dale?" she asked in a oddly polite tone. Dale gulped at nodded, trying to look into the eyes of the black widow before him. Her sharply-chiseled features, slender nose, and slanted eyes granted her a decisive beauty, and even the small fangs that glistened when she smiled were more mysterious inviting than threatening. The red hourglass on body, though, was all Dale was actually aware of.
"Who are you?" he finally asked.
"My name is Victoria, Dale." Two of her hands came up to gently stroke his cheeks. "And I must say, your boyish charms are intriguing. I can see how Foxglove could have fallen for someone like you."
Dale blinked. Was she trying to hit on him? "Uh...thanks."
A third hand reached up and lightly touched the large bruise on his head. "I do apologize for that, Dale," she sighed. "But we do what we must to avenge our loved ones."
Dale tried to think of something equally poetic and flowery, then abandoned it and stuck with what he knew. "What? What *are* you talking about?"
"Lou, Dale." Victoria frowned. "My love was Lou. Yes, he was a bit of a clumsy moron at times. But it all was with a certain boyish quality. He was rather endearing in his thickheadedness. Very much like you, Dale."
To his credit, Dale bit back a retort.
"But he was mine," Victoria continued, her words beginning to taste of venom. "And he was taken from me by Foxglove. She killed him, Dale. Cut him down with her treachery."
"Foxglove wouldn't hurt a fly!" Dale snapped. "Zipper can tell you that!"
"Lie!" she seethed, and the hands at his cheeks roughly grabbed his fur. "She betrayed him when she betrayed Winnifred! And after she called in you and your friends!"
"No!" Dale knew he wasn't helping matters any, but he wasn't about to let Foxglove be demeaned like this. "Winnifred used all of them! Not Foxglove! Bud and Lou were under Winnifred's command, they couldn't leave even if they wanted to!"
"Poor Dale..." The hands loosened his fur, and she swung in close to him. "You don't understand, do you? Winnifred was not coercing Lou. I would *not* have allowed it."
Something was wrong here. "Allowed it?"
"As I said, Lou was mine, Dale. I believed that working under Winnifred might have helped Lou better develop his sense of responsibilities."
"Working for a crooked witch?"
"Working for a powerful woman," Victoria corrected, completely calm and honey-toned again. Dale didn't like these sudden mood shifts. "She could have easily taught him how to properly respect his superiors. He always had trouble with that. It was tiresome for me to instruct him alone." She shook her head sadly.
Hardly able to believe his ears, Dale choose his next words carefully. "So...you *lent* him to Winnifred to be trained to obey?" He was now more interested in this than actively trying to stall her.
"For the most part," Victoria answered honestly, not catching the shock in Dale's reaction. "He was always ready to please me, but he still stubbornly refused to learn his proper place. Bud did a little to keep him in line, but still, Bud was male, thus inheritably flawed to begin with. Winnifred, however, would have been a huge help..." her features sharpened without warning. "If it hadn't been for Foxglove! Running out on them, bringing you people into it! Killing my Lou in the end battle!!"
"But Lou wasn't killed!" Dale protested.
"He never returned to me! After that fight, I never saw him again! He is as dead to me as if he was crushed beneath the foot of man!"
"Never returned?" Dale asked in wonder. "You mean, he left you?" It was out of his mouth before he realized it.
"Impossible! He belonged to me!" Dale felt his head jerked back violently by one of Victoria's hands, exposing his neck to her fangs. The rage in her eyes burned with such intensity, Dale feared she was about to poison him right then, and forget the intricate plan she had laid out. Indeed, he felt he hot, angry breath on his throat--
--only to be yanked away suddenly. Victoria let out a screech as she was jerked backwards, loosing her grip on Dale.
"Dale!" A wonderfully familiar voice called out.
"Foxy!" Dale grinned as he brought his head back up again. She was hovering beside him, tugging at the spider-woven strands that held his arms. "Where did you come from?"
"I had gotten here a few minutes ago, but she had woven webs over all of the cracks around the windows. I couldn't break through them without getting tangled up, so I finally found a free crack up in the roof and got--"
"Behind you!" Dale warned.
Foxglove turned just in time for Victoria to plow into her, carrying her away from Dale. Her many limbs attempted to pin Foxglove's wings, but the bat pushed off of Victoria's chest and out of the spider's grasp.
"Welcome, Foxglove," Victoria was calm again, watching Foxglove glide out. "I was hoping you'd arrive soon."
"It's been a while, Vicky." Foxglove's voice showed no joy at the reunion.
"*Please* do not call me that," Victoria frowned, clambering back up her strand towards the ceiling. "I take it your keen hearing allowed you to hear the fate the will befall your beloved?"
Dale, working against the loosened strands, looked up at Victoria and gulped. The arc of her swing was bringing her back over to the strand holding him up. No time to swing out past the coffin, he had to try to break free--
The hope was cut off simultaneously as Victoria reached out and deftly bit through the strand holding Dale, sending him plummeting to the waiting coffin.
"*Dale!*" Foxglove screamed, swinging back over towards him.
As he fell, the rush of panic granted him the extra strength needed to break his arms free, just as he landed heavily on his chest in the coffin. He breath was knocked out from him, but he still had enough presence of mind to sense that the lid was closing even now...
In a desperation move, he thrust his free hand out, and yelled in pain as the lid slammed down on it. His wrist was undoubtably sprained, but at least it had worked; the lid did not close, preventing the carbon dioxide from flooding the interior of the coffin. It was a small victory, however, as he had no strength do to anything more than catch his breath at the moment.
With a snarl of malevolence, Victoria quickly lowered herself down a strand to remedy the problem, only to be side-swiped by the bullet form of Foxglove. Both ladies lost control and landed heavily on the nearby altar.
Victoria recovered first, and seeing Dale currently helpless, concentrated her attention on Foxglove. "Come my dear," she laughed, "surely you can do better than that to save your own love." The black widow skittered over the edge, and to the nearest wall, climbing back up. "I believe I shall leave now, and merely return to kill Dale another day."
Foxglove, still woozy from the earlier head injury, didn't take to the air right away. She was torn between going to help Dale, and stopping Victoria from getting away. But she knew that going to help Dale would leave her open to attack from Victoria like the last time. Her adversaries next comment also made up her mind.
"Perhaps I shall leave Dale's blood-drained husk for you as a present," Victoria called out with a inhumane giggle.
Foxglove quickly took to the air, trying to ignore the throbbing in her head and concentrate on remaining airborne.
"Or better yet, mayhaps it would be more fitting for me to merely paralyze your love, and leave the blood-draining to some of your relatives."
"Stop it, Victoria!" Foxglove wasn't about to let it happen, but still didn't want to hear about it. She swooped up towards the black widow as the nefarious spider ducked into the small rafters on the church ceiling. "You know that I only wanted to get free of Freddy! I didn't want to harm Bud or Lou!"
"What you wanted is of little import to me," Victoria's cold tone rang about Foxglove. "But don't worry about your precious Dale, Foxglove. You'll be joining him soon after his demise. For goodness sakes, my dear, why do you think I have built *two* coffins?"
Foxglove banked about the top of the church, watching for Victoria either slipping out through a church in the ceiling, or descending upon Dale below. She had to keep the spider talking. Had to keep her here. "But you said *three* wakes, Victoria, not two!"
"I did. The first at the Laundromat was for Lou, his death caused by your treachery. The second is here, for Dale, his death caused by you, as well."
"How?" Foxglove demanded. She heard a sudden rush of air above and to her right, and dived low as Victoria swooped by on another strand, barely missing the bat.
"You killed my love, Foxglove," Victoria continued, landing lightly on another rafter. She seemed rather nonchalant about the whole ordeal at the moment. Foxglove swerved in midair and brought herself up, keeping an eye on Victoria.
"I did no--"
"Silence!" Victoria commanded, suddenly disappearing from sight behind the rafter. Foxglove swooped under it, looking out for any sudden attacks, but Victoria had vanished into the woodwork again. "Your love must die as compensation for killing my love. At least have the decency to owe up to the truth."
"The truth?" Foxglove echoed with disbelief. "Then look in the mirror, Victoria! Lou could have come back to you if he had wanted! If anyone killed' him it was *you*!"
No reply. This worried Foxglove, still unable to find the elusive black widow. Had she just escaped onto the roof? They'd never find her if that was the case. But that wasn't Victoria. She was a control freak, and Foxglove's last taunt demanded a response of denial. Still, silence reigned.
Gasping against the pain in his head, chest, and wrist, Dale realized things weren't going get any better with him just lying there. Lying prone, with his hand wedged firmly, and painfully, in between the lid and the lip of the coffin, he was in a very awkward position. He tried lifting the lid up with his free hand, but it was too heavy. Especially will no leverage and no strength behind it. Even if that wasn't the case, though, it still would have been too heavy to push open in a hurry. No, he would have to find another way out.
His ankles were still bound, and the landing had badly injured his right side, making it too difficult to try and shift closer to his caught hand, on onto his back. That landing was what really had him at the bottom of his game. It knocked the wind out of him, battered his right side, and generally had messed up his best shots of getting free.
A few blinks, though, and he finally saw that the landing had also taken its toll on the coffin. Victoria was no coffin maker, apparently, as Dale saw a thin line of light from a recently formed crack between the head and left side of the coffin. It must have been knocked loose by his impact, and if that was so, he might get out of this yet...
Above him, Foxglove continued her careful flight, weaving in and out of the nooks and crannies of the Gothic cathedral. She heard a slight movement to her right, and glided over to the sound, wary of any surprises.
As she passed under one rafter, another minuscule noise alerted her to something above. She immediately rolled down to her right, glancing back up to spot a spider web that had just missed her. Victoria watched her from the rafter, apparently not concerned with being seen.
"You should not say such things," she merely warned, in response to Foxglove's last comment. She fluidly took hold of one of the many strands hanging from the ceiling and swung herself over to another rafter, closing in over Dale's coffin. "But do not worry yourself, Foxglove. Yours is the third wake, but only after Dale is dead. Only after you have felt the pain that you caused me that I shall allow you to die."
"That's very generous of you," Foxglove responded, gliding out between Victoria and Dale, "but it won't solve anything, and you know it. It won't bring Lou back to you."
"It will balance the scales," Victoria countered, swinging out even closer. She was very close to Foxglove now. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a funeral to attend to." She stepped from the rafter, quickly lowering down towards the coffin. Foxglove took advantage of the clear shot to tackle Victoria, but the black widow suddenly pulled herself back up, clearing the onrushing Foxglove, who rushed directly into the waiting web hidden behind Victoria.
Victoria's strands were stronger than Foxglove suspected, and instead of breaking through it, she only became more entangled. Victoria smiled sweetly, hauling her catch back up to the rafter, where she proceeded to attach the net firmly in place.
A low thumping from below caused them both to glance down, witnessing Dale's coffin shift a little.
"Excuse me," Victoria said, quickly lowering herself down, "but Dale is in need of assistance." Struggling vainly against her restraints, Foxglove could only watch in horror as Victoria became level with the coffin, smoothly pushing Dale's hand back inside. The lid slammed shut, and the ominous hissing of the carbon dioxide flooding the coffin could be heard throughout the church.
"Well," Victoria smiled as she raised herself back up to Foxglove. "Now we can move on to more important matters, such as *your* funeral arrangements."
"You're never going to win, Vicky," Foxglove said through her fear of Dale never waking up again. "Dale's other friends aren't going to let you get away with murdering him!"
"My quarrel not with the others, Foxglove," Victoria frowned at the bat's use of her shortened name. "Just you. After I have buried Dale and you, I shall leave in search of--"
Below, the hissing coffin cracked loudly as the head of the body snapped off and tumbled to the floor. A very bruised, exhausted, and near-unconscious Dale tumbled out the next second.
"Manohmanohmanohman...I'm never riding by the tailpipe of cars ever again!" Dale was also, however, very much alive.
He had been pounding against the headboard, realizing that the coffin was not one unified piece, but instead fastened together by an adhesive. When his hand had been shoved through, it actually helped; he was able to shift up to the headboard and strain against it with all his weight, and thanks to the weakened grip of the adhesive, he finally managed to pop through.
Victoria's outrage matched Foxglove's euphoria at seeing Dale escape. The black widow immediately descended upon the recovering chipmunk, not about to let her plans go to waste. Foxglove fought against the strands, her strength renewed by the sight of Dale.
Dale slowly rose to his feet, nursing his wrist, only to be sprawled back on the floor, face-first, as Victoria landed on him.
"That was not very considerate, Dale," she growled. Two of her limbs flipped Dale over while another pair held his face close to hers. "I went to a lot of effort in this endeavor and I don't like people being uncooperative."
"Sorry, but I like my life," Dale managed between gasps.
For her reply, Victoria merely began quickly cocooning Dale up in her strands, wrapping his legss and arms tightly to his body. She worked skillfully and quickly, having completely immobilizing him within minutes.
"Perhaps I should have done this to begin with," she mused, "but that wouldn't have been much sport."
"Mmhhprf," Dale replied through the strands over his mouth.
"Although it was not my original intention, I suspect that the traditional poisoning of you will have to suffice." Victoria leaned over, plunging her fangs into the neck of the hapless Dale, infusing her venom into his bloodstream.
A loud metal clank reverberated through the church, as one of the nearby candlesticks toppled over onto Victoria, pinning her flat under its weight.
"What--?!" she grunted, twisting her head around to clearly see the instigator of the attack. "A fly?!" she screamed incredulously.
Zipper ignored her and settled next to Dale, grimacing at the fresh wounds in his neck, and the venom stains in his fur. The candlestick he pushed over had prevented Victoria from injecting a full dose into his fellow Ranger, but there was no way to tell if the amount that had seeped in was enough to be lethal.
Frantically working under the weight of the candlestick, Victoria pulled herself free, and leapt over it towards Zipper. The small housefly, knowing he couldn't leave Dale, charged headfirst into Victoria, ramming into her abdomen and halting her momentum. They hit the ground a small distance from Dale still, but Zipper doubted he could keep Victoria away from him for long.
As it turned out, that was the least of his worries as the black widow easily gained the upper hand in the close confines, securely holding Zipper down with four of her limbs.
"You must be one of Dale's friends," she snarled. "Another person Foxglove turned to when she betrayed Lou. In any other circumstances, I would probably have you as a midnight snack, but tonight I have bigger fish to fry." She deftly fastened Zipper to the floor with her webs, then turned her attention back to Dale.
"And now, the last kiss goodbye, Dale..." She leaned over him to finish her work.
"NO!" the scream came seconds too late for Victoria to react. The black widow felt her body snatched away from Dale, hoisted up into the air by Foxglove, who had dove down from the ceiling like an avenging angel.
The sudden extra weight of Victoria and difficult aerial maneuver to snatch her up took its toll on Foxglove's head injury, causing the world to spin before her. Rather than risk dropping Victoria near Dale, Foxglove tried a desperate maneuver: she snapped up into a tight loop, using the momentum to throw Victoria over her and away from Dale.
Even though she wasn't trying, her aim couldn't have been better, as Victoria landed heavily in the coffin meant for Foxglove. The lid slammed down, and Victoria's scream of anguish was lost in the hissing of the carbon dioxide.
Landing awkwardly next to Zipper, Foxglove swooned, but managed to remain upright. She lifted her head and waved a thanks to Monterey in the rafters, who had broken her out of Victoria's webbing.
Foxy, Zipper quickly buzzed, you have to help Dale -- he's still got some poison in his system.
Not too much, but I wouldn't want to risk it.
Foxglove nodded her understanding and immediately was at Dale's side. Having talked with Lou (and, ironically enough, Victoria) about how they poison, Foxglove was well aware of how to get it out of his system.
Placing her mouth over the puncture wounds, she sucked out the poison, spitting off to the side. She repeated the process diligently, unaware of anything else. Thus, she jumped a bit when she felt Monterey's tap on her shoulder. He had eased his way down the back wall, and had already freed Zipper as well.
"I think you've done the job, Foxy," he grinned. She looked at him strangely, the noticed for the first time that Dale was struggling a bit. Embarrassed that she had missed that, she blushed as she and Monterey tore the webs free from Dale. "It's about time!" He was weary, but the poison that Foxglove hadn't sucked out was too minuscule an amount to do anything worse. "Those things smell! Whew!"
Zipper handed Foxglove a small piece of cloth he had ripped from one of the pews.
"Thawnks Zwipper," she said as she wiped the residue poison out of her mouth.
"Blimey, Dale, what happened?" Monterey hoisted his friend up and dusted the webs off. "You look like somethin' the cat refused to drag in. Which is good, in a way."
Dale nodded to the closed coffin. "That's what happened, Monty. But I'll explain later. First..." he stumbled over to Foxglove, giving her a large hug. "Thanks, Foxy."
Foxglove hugged him back, a single tear running down her cheek. "Your welcome, cutie."
"I guess we can't be too hard on Victoria," Dale sighed, still hugging Foxglove, partly for support. "I guess she never realized that she loved Lou until he left her."
But Foxglove shook her head. "No, Dale. I saw how Vicky treated Lou, and that wasn't love. If anything, she loved the feeling of control she had over him. Lou was the only one would let her treat him that way."
"You don't use people you love," Dale whispered, more to himself than Foxglove.
"No..." Foxglove tenderly agreed. "Just like you don't let love use you."
Monterey and Zipper respected their privacy, and the four friends were all quiet in the aftermath. The only noise was from the wicks of the candles, lightly burning in the once-more peaceful house of worship.
* * *
Chip slowly opened his eyes, making contact with the tender greyness of Marie's. She smiled broadly at his awakening, and helped him to his feet. All the while, Chip felt the spots on his arms tingle from where her hands had helped him up.
"You just collapsed a minute ago. You feel better?" She asked in concern.
"Yeah...I just took that water balloon a little harder than I thought, I guess." His mind was still swooning from this entire situation. Marie liked him. She really liked him! He was glad he still had all those notes -- written proof that dreams can come true. "Uhm...thanks Marie." He steadied himself, smiling at her.
Her hands had slid down his arms now, coming to rest peacefully in his own hands. The feeling of her warmth against his palms was slightly dizzying, but also granted him a certain strength that allowed him to stand upright and say to her, "Marie, I...I really like you too."
Marie's smile broke into a dazzling grin. "I know." She giggled again. "Silly."
They stood together in the forest, merely enjoying the silence of the moment. Then Chip remembered through the fog of romance what had brought him to her in the first place. "Oh!" he turned and tugged her along as he made his way to the large oak tree. "Come on! I got something to show you!" Actually, he and the other guys did, but she didn't need to know that now.
"What is it?" Marie asked, hopping alongside of him as they moved across the forest floor with ease, hands never parting.
"A surprise," Chip grinned at her. "Something I've been planning for a while, actually."
"You goon," she teased. "You knew from the first note, didn't you?"
"Um...I had my hunches."
She laughed, a wonderfully rich sound to his ears.
When they reached the base of the tree, he saw his friends there, but also a number of other kids as well. Frowning, he saw that Catherine was there, and chuckled as he figured out what probably happened. The guys were waiting when Catherine and her friends were passing by, and stopped to talk with Timmy. The small group, like all small groups of children, somehow seemed to draw in the stragglers in the area, so what used to be three boys was now a typical playground population.
Okay, Chip thought with a smile, that just means I'll have to show Marie the fort myself. He didn't add that this would mean Marie would think he did it all himself, as an added bonus.
Marie was crouched next to him behind some leaves. She wanted to go and join the group, but Chip shushed her and led her around to the back of the tree, and then started to climb.
"Come on," he told her with a smile. "It's up here."
With a questioning look of anticipation, Marie smiled as she followed Chip up into the large, leafy boughs of the tree, the voices of their friends drifting up from below...
"Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posy, a tisket, a tasket, we all fall down!"
* * *
"Too bad you mates missed out on the punch-up," Monterey snickered to Chip and Gadget. "Foxglove here was somethin' of a whirlin' dervish, swoopin' and glidin' all over Vicky."
"Well...only a little," Foxglove shyly said, leaning up next to Dale. The Rangers were gathered in the local infirmary. Dale had been checked over, primarily to make sure that Foxglove had indeed withdrawn the majority of the venom. Dale remarked that this sort of made Chip and him "poisoned brothers". Chip had merely smirked his agreement. Now they were just awaiting the confirmation of Dale's injuries, along with the doctor's advice on how to treat it at home. They were hoping to go soon, as the sky showed signs of a thunderstorm, and even now they could hear the distant sounds of thunder.
"You think Vicky will be put away for a while?" Gadget asked, still a little concerned over the amount of vengeance the black widow had shown.
"I hope so," Dale groaned.
"She should be," Chip nodded. "But to be honest, I think that she needs more mental help than anything."
"I could argue with that," Foxglove grumbled, adjusting the bandage over Dale's head with care. "She caused an awful lot of pain, even if she did lose a loved one." She sighed and grasped Dale's hand tightly, and was somewhat surprised to feel him squeeze back.
"The saddest part," she continued, "is that she never accepted the fact that she was at fault for Lou's supposed death. Her denial isn't going to bring him back, regardless of the reasons he left." The others nodded in silence.
That's when Zipper noticed that Chip was strangely absent. Blinking, the housefly flitted over to the spot where Chip was, then through the nearest opening into the hall. He looked down both ways, just in time to catch the glimpse of a brown fedora ducking around the corner at the far end.
Zipper quickly took off after it, ignoring the questions asked back in the room. He sailed down the hallway, turning the corner and following after the disappearing leader. Chip left the small infirmary into the falling rain, ducked into the nearest alley, and finally settled himself down by a trash can, sheltered from the downpour. He toyed with his hat absent-mindedly, staring down and the barren, wet cement.
Lightly, Zipper landed directly in front of the defeated chipmunk.
You want to tell me what this is all about? Zipper's expression wasn't scolding, merely questioning.
Chip stole a glance at Zipper, the one teammate that he really felt a connection with. The small housefly had been as eager to share in the passion of solving crimes and catching crooks as anyone he ever met. He was starting to suspect that maybe that mouse he had met in the celestial bureaucracy had something to do with this. First he gets the note. Then this case takes him back to his old neighborhood. Then Foxglove mentions that bit about being responsible. He had done such a splendid job of keeping it all buried for a decade, and these past few months had unearthed it all at once.
Nodding, Chip decided that the sooner he got it over with, the better. "Yeah, I guess I might as well. You've tracked me this far, anyway, Zip." He gave a bittersweet smile as he stood up, replacing his fedora and started back out of the alley. "Come on, follow me."
Where are we going? Zipper asked with a look as he flew alongside Chip, trying to hold steady in the rain.
"To visit an old friend."
They moved across the street, not noticing that behind them at the infirmary doorway, Gadget watched them with a worried expression.
"Here we are."
Chip sighed and stood in front of a modest tombstone. The rain ran lightly over the smooth marble surface. Zipper glanced about the small graveyard, surrounded by the treeline, but open to the sky. On a clear day, it might be very beautiful, but today, all it did was allowing the downpour to hit them unabated. A flash of lightning lit up the area, casting harsh shadows against them. The thunderclap overhead was enough to make Zipper jump, but not Chip.
Chip probably wouldn't have noticed if it was raining baseball-sized hailstones. His attention was reserved for the sole grave he stood before.
"Zipper," he said in a tired and trembling voice, "I'd like for you to met Marie."
Zipper managed a short flight in the rain to perch on top of the wet tombstone, then looked down at the inscription.
Another flash of lightning, another roar of thunder.
"She was the best, Zip." Chip said, his voice breaking. "Friendly, fun, sweet, smart, just the perfect girl you had the pleasure to know. I was over at her birthday party, with some friends, and we were going to pull a great joke. Really be the best of the year..."
"Wow!" Marie blinked in amazement at the scene before her. The small area of the tree had been transformed into a small fort area. Railings ran along the edges of the limbs, planks connected each of the four main limbs to another, and various partitions and benches had been set up all around. Various decorations had been hastily set up, and obviously by boys: pictures of sports figures, superheros, and models of cars, boats, and trains.
Nevertheless, it had that charm that all grade schoolers in love seem to find, as Marie attested.
"It's beautiful, Chip." Her voice was in awe as she looked around. "And it's for me?"
"Yeah, I thought you'd like it," Chip said smugly. "Right in your backyard and stuff."
"...We had a trapdoor rigged up in the new treehouse, with a net underneath. It was supposed to be a big scare, then we'd laugh over it..."
"I love it!" Marie replied, turning in circles to see everything at once. She paused, catching sight of the view out over the forest that originally caught Chip's attention. "Wow..." she said breathlessly.
"Yeah, neat, isn't it?" Chip smiled and walked over a plank to the side, casually stepping around the center of it.
Down below, their friends continued to play, singing, "Ring around the rosy..."
"...We tested it earlier to make sure it worked, but only the actual trapdoor, not the net underneath. And why should we have? I was the one who tied all the knots..."
Chip turned back to Marie, and held out his hand to her, a secret smile forming as the actual gag was about to be unveiled. She would be so impressed...
"Pocket full of posy..."
Marie smiled and started towards him, her own hand outstretched to his... "A tisket..."
"...The knots held..."
She gave a surprised yelp as the trapdoor gave way underneath, dropping her into the net below. Chip grinned and started over...
"...but not the leaves they were tied to."
The yelp turned to a scream as the leaves gave way, dropping her to the forest floor, far, far below.
"We all fall down!"
His throat swelled up too much for him to speak, Chip sank to his knees in front of the grave, digging his fingers into the wet soil. He felt the fresh mud under the grass slowly ooze between his fingers, the wind against his back, and the rain slip under his fedora's brim to mix with the tears that streaked down his face. A decade's worth of repressed emotions broke free with a vengeance, bowing his head to the ground and tightening his grip on the sod. The sobs racked his body with utter angst while the stormclouds above let another thunderclap loose. Zipper watched in a mix of sorrow and shock at Chip, the steadfast leader of the Rescue Rangers, broken into the sobbing chipmunk hunched over the grave.
But he didn't say anything. Chip wouldn't have heard him if he had anyway. Instead, he looked up the treeline behind him, and softly nodded.
He might have been crying for a minute or an hour, he didn't know. But eventually, the raw emotion was purged from his system. Thoughts floated back into his conscious, about what had happened, the aftermath, the dichotomy of Marie's parents -- he was the cause of their loss, yet no-one showed him more understanding than they. Everything after that seemed a muddle of memories. He vaguely recalled finishing grade school, and his parents deciding to move, hoping Chip's recovery would be hastened if he wasn't faced with daily reminders. He learned to numb the pain, ignore it, deny it, but never learned how to heal it. And now?...he wasn't sure of anything anymore.
Something lightly settled on his shoulder. Through the rain, he could hear footsteps around him. He didn't need to open his eyes to know the others stood protectively, and supportively, around him. Someone's hands -- Gadget's -- gently lifted his head from the muddy earth, carefully pulling his drenched hat off. She gently hugged him to her chest, resting her chin on the top of his damp brow while her hands stroked the back of his head.
He felt like he should have been embarrassed at his condition. Ashamed at his behavior over this last case, letting his personal side get the better of him. More importantly, he felt like he should feel guilty from never coming clean with his friends, about the whole ordeal. He felt he should be feeling these things, but he wasn't. Perhaps it was because he was too emotionally drained to care at the moment.
But more likely, it was probably because they understood his need for silence, and were more concerned with helping him heal these old wounds than pointing out his flaws. He allowed himself, then, to take comfort in his friend's silent support, Gadget's caring embrace, and most importantly, his final admittance of his past.
A shaking hand dug into his pocket, and produced the note that Gadget had sought after for so long. He pressed it against her arm, the paper still warm from his jacket. She understood; taking the note, she opened it up, and read the three little words inside from Marie:
"I forgive you."
"But how can I accept hers," he half-choked, half-whispered against Gadget's chest, "when I can't even forgive myself?"
Gadget's non-verbal response was to press him even closer.
It wasn't real.
Chip knew it from the very minute he looked around. Maybe he was dreaming, maybe he was still in Gadget's arms, delirious. But that wasn't important. What he did know, however, was why he was here.
He made his way through the old forest, smiling at the various places that elicited a memory; playing hide-and-seek, gathering samples of plants for the science classes, or just his favorite places to waste a summer vacation away. He missed this place, now. Now that he wasn't dreading the memories of what had happened here.
He sighed and headed for the large oak tree, where it had all happened. He wondered, as he walked slowly through the foliage, what Timmy, Jethro, and Skip had done after he left. They were his closest friends, after all, but in order to try and escape the disaster, he cut ties with them as well. In fact, he cut ties with a great deal of his former habits. No more practical jokes. No more wild gags. The only things he continued were his study habits, and his dedication to his friends.
Well, friend, really. He didn't have any close friends after that, until he met Dale. It was funny, now that he thought about it, that he and Dale had hit it off so well. They were such opposites in personalities, it was easier to understand why they fought, rather than why they were best friends. Chip hoped he lent some sense of direction and purpose to Dale's otherwise free spirit existence, but maybe it was something else.
It was plain to him, at least, that he considered Dale his best friend because, at heart, Dale reminded him of his younger self. Who knows? If Marie had lived, Chip might have been an exact replica of Dale. He chuckled as he was reminded of when there were two Dales for a short time, and everyone's relief at getting the "old" Dale back.
"The old Dale..." Chip laughed. Dale would never grow up, let alone get old. At least, Chip thought, I hope he never does. His antics and misadventures keep me from getting too serious, or losing my sense of humor altogether. I really don't give that guy enough--
A small, timid noise drifted over to him in the wind. He sighed, realizing he had reached the base of the tree. Not wanting to put this off any longer, he walked around the base, coming to the source of the noise.
There he was. The Chip from grade school, still crying. Sighing, Chip removed his hat, and walked over to sit by the young chipmunk. The other looked up at him, eyes forever moist. Chip smiled warmly, and finally hugged the young chipmunk close, soothing the crying, and forgiving himself at last.
He didn't bother to say it was all right, or that everything would be okay. They both knew that would be a lie. They both had a long trip before they would be free of this.
But that hug was the first mile on the path out.
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