Deception, Mutilation and the Inevitable Ex
by Rosey Collins
"Chip, please stop looking at him like he just crawled out of your breakfast," Gadget said. They were sitting together in a pub, and were now eyeing up a young bat a few feet away (though for different reasons, as you can well imagine).
"He looks like a dufuss to me," Chip muttered sulkily.
"How can you say that? He's gorgeous!"
"Well, I wouldn't know." Still, even Chip had to admit to himself that this young man was a fine specimen.
"Ok, well, you'd better leave," Gadget went on.
"Because if he sees us together he'll think we're an item. What happened to Dale?" and Gadget looked around for this excuse for Chip to leave.
"He went home ages ago. He's probably sucking face with Foxglove by now."
"It's nice that they finally got together," Gadget murmured absently, and then her attention turned back to the young bat, who was now returning her glances. "You should probably go home too. Maybe your bedroom is still free."
It was impossible for Chip to argue with this. Since Foxglove had been brought into the equation he and Dale had been using that room on a first come first served basis, and for two consecutive nights now Chip had slept on the couch. Gadget shot flashed him a grateful smile as he tactfully declined, leaving her to make puppy-eyes with her bat.
"Uh... hi." His voice was low and gentle. He was a slow speaker (as much as could be established with such a short phrase), indicating that he was from somewhere in the south. The manner in which he spoke reassured Gadget - at least he was as nervous as she was.
"Um... can I buy you a drink?"
Gadget wondered if he was going to start every sentence with "um" or "er" or other such curious noises. Naturally she accepted his offer, and waited patiently for him to resume conversation.
As the stranger started to talk again, he was able to grab Gadget's attention again. She wondered why she was comparing to Foxglove like this; every time she saw a chipmunk she did not compare it to Chip or Dale, but then bats were something she had not much experience of.
"So, what's your name?" he asked in that soft, southern drool.
"Um... Gadget. Gadget Hackwrench." She had to think about that one.
"Well, ain't that... nice." He did not feel inclined to call the name pretty. "I'm Benjamin Porch. You can call me Ben... if you want to."
"All right, I will."
"Great," just to fill an awkward silence.
They struggled like this some minutes more, but as they got talking they began to feel more relaxed in each other's company. Gadget found Ben to be wonderfully charming, although he had a kind of I-don't-know-what-I'm-doing air about him. It was difficult to make him laugh, but she managed it once or twice - sort of. Still, Gadget was not really after a sense of humour, and it was unthinkable to give up on someone this good looking.
It was about eleven thirty when Chip arrived home. Foxglove and Dale were still up, watching a horror movie marathon. Chip could have kicked himself for not remembering - he should have stayed at the pub to keep an eye on Gadget and her new beau.
"Hi, Chip," Foxglove said politely as he entered the room. Dale was far too engrossed in the television to make any such acknowledgement of Chip's arrival.
"Hi, Foxglove," Chip returned gloomily. He lingered for a moment, wondering what he should do next. It would have been nice to have had a chat with Dale about the whole Gadget thing, as he had felt he could now that Dale was with Foxglove, but quite clearly that was out of the question.
Foxglove could sense his uncertainty and wondered if she could help. Grateful for an excuse to divert her attention from Twins of Evil, which was becoming rather tedious, she rose to her knees turned and smiled warmly at Chip, her chin resting on her folded wings on the back of the couch.
"You look a little down," she said. "Is something the matter?"
"Nothing you can do anything about," Chip assured her. He was about to leave but she stopped him.
"Please let me help," she begged. "This horror movie thing is going to go on all night - I need a break!"
"Ok." Chip certainly felt like talking to someone, and Foxglove was nothing if not a good listener. He sat on the arm of the couch, and lost his nerve all of a sudden. Desperately he sought for a delaying tactic, and he found it on the television screen.
"What are you watching?" he asked, tilting his head at the image of a young girl lost in smoke and screaming - somewhat unconvincingly.
"It's called Twins of Evil," Foxglove replied disdainfully. "It's a little bit dull at the moment. All that's happened is this guy keeps burning young girls."
"It does get more interesting," Dale assured her, without taking his eyes from the screen. "Some guy's going to get an axe in his head and bleed a lot of really fake blood, and one of the twinnies is going to take all of her clothes off."
Foxglove suddenly turned all of her attention to Dale. "So?"
"Well, she's pretty cute," Dale replied, sounding surprised that Foxglove had even had to ask.
"It's not even like she's unique," Foxglove argued, indicating the twin on the right of the screen. "They probably look just as identical without clothes on as with. I mean, what do they have that I don't have?"
"Well..." Dale began, but the poisonous look he got from Foxglove warned him to quit while he was ahead - "...nothing."
Satisfied, Foxglove swivelled round to the right to look at Chip.
"So," she went on, "what's eaten you?"
"Gadget hooked up with someone."
"What?" Chip cried defensively. "It isn't my fault!"
"Of course it is! I keep telling you to do something about her, and you keep putting it off. This was bound to happen eventually. Gadget's a good looking lady."
"She is," Dale agreed, various impulses warning him to keep talking before Foxglove could challenge this last statement, "but she might blow this guy off. You never know."
"If she does, let that be a lesson to you," Foxglove went on, reminding Chip of his mother. "If you don't stop wasting time she'll either find somebody else or one of you will die of old age - or cancer," she added, thoughtfully. "If she comes home all by herself tonight I'm going to make you ask her out."
For the first time that evening Chip hoped that Gadget would not come home all by herself; he knew that Foxglove was absolutely right, and if Gadget did get somewhere with this guy it would be another excuse for him to put it off. He realised that he would have to decide sooner or later which he wanted more, Gadget or his pride.
"I don't think that's very likely," Chip said miserably. "They'll at least make out on the doorstep. That guy was pretty good looking."
"Then he's probably a big fat liar," Foxglove said. "The good looking ones always are." She glanced at Dale, wondering if this inadvertently tactless comment had had any effect on him, but he was too interested in the film to have noticed. "Do you want to watch some of this movie marathon with us?"
"Yes," so Dale and Foxglove shuffled up one seat to the left and Chip slid from the arm on to the vacant seat by Foxglove, saying as he did so, "I want to see if Gadget brings her boyfriend home."
Gadget did not bring her boyfriend home; instead Ben brought his girlfriend home. He was living alone in disused restaurant, and this sounded very attractive to Gadget once under the influence of white wine and a dark handsome stranger. The building still had some of the classy decor, but other than that it was a bit cold and damp and it smelled much like a fishing boat.
"Did they serve a lot of fish here?" was Gadget's first comment, upon entry.
"I believe so," Ben replied, smiling slightly. He had taken a liking to Gadget immediately.
"So, have you been staying here long?"
"No. Only a couple of weeks. I stayed with my parents until I was eighteen, and then I did the adventurous youth bit and went to a few foreign countries. Do you travel much?"
"Not really." Short answer, Ben reflected.
"You should. The world is a really beautiful place, Gadget. I slept a lot in European cathedrals; they're really beautiful buildings, you know. About a year ago I came back to America. I've been looking for somewhere to stay."
"Do you like New York?"
"I do. This restaurant sure ain't pretty, but I reckon I'll stay here as long as I'm in the Big Apple. It's nice and quiet; folks tend to leave me alone."
"You like to be left alone?" This sounded familiar.
"Sometimes. I ain't had much luck with people. Still, it's nice to socialise occasionally - you never know what pretty girls you might meet," and he flashed Gadget a smile. She seemed not to notice the compliment.
"I lived all by myself for a bit," she said, half to herself.
"Were you happy all on your own?"
"Yes, but I wouldn't go back to it now."
"How come? Who are you living with?"
"Four friends. Well," she added, "almost five."
"Almost five?" Puzzling.
"One of them's got a girlfriend who comes over all the time. She practically lives with us now."
"Are these friends all male?"
"Well, I'm surprised one of them hasn't snatched you up by now."
Gadget pouted. Obviously she would have to say something, but what?
"Well, one of them is a fly, so he isn't really my type, and like I said, one of them is taken. And obviously Monty and I could never get together."
"Oh? Why not?"
"Because he's a grown up."
"A grown up?"
"Well, a friend of my father's. It'd be weird."
"And the other one?"
"The other one." Gadget considered. She and Chip were not an item, and it had never occurred to her to look for a reason. "I guess we're just happiest being friends."
"Well, I find that hard to believe." Gadget blushed, at last responding to Ben's smooth-talk. "I shouldn't knock it, though. Most of the girls I meet are either taken or there's something wrong with them."
There seemed nothing more to say. Ben glanced up at the rafter on the ceiling where he usually slept, and then looked again at Gadget. He would never be able to get her up there. He then glanced at the sky and was able to make an accurate estimate of the time. It was getting very late indeed.
"You should probably be going home," he said. "Your friends will be getting worried. Where do you live?"
"Believe it or not, Gadget, I ain't been there yet. Let me walk you home."
For the better part of the journey Ben had to concentrate on walking, as this was something he never did when travelling a distance more than a few feet. However, as they approached the park, he was able to let his mind concentrate on something else - namely Gadget.
He had hoped to gain something from taking her home with him, but he was more noble than to take advantage of her. This girl, he reflected, was something very special. Watching her stumbling drunkenly in the moonlight, a sudden urge to kiss her came over him. Never one to ignore an urge, he did. Gadget was surprised, but by no means reluctant.
"Um... this is where I live," she said, when Ben withdrew, "so... goodnight."
"G'night, Gadget." He kissed her again, this time on the cheek, and took to the sky. Gadget watched until his minuscule shape disappeared into the night.
"What is that supposed to be?" Chip said scornfully. He was furring to the orange liquid intended to portray blood on the movie.
"Well, I did warn you it was fake," Dale reminded him.
"You can say that again, it's not even red."
As Chip finished his sentence Gadget walked in. Instinctively the former spun round in his seat, and was relieved to see that the latter was alone.
"Hi, Gadget," he said. "You're a bit late, aren't you?"
"Am I?" Gadget looked at the clock and had to admit that she was. "Ben took me back to his place."
"Is that his name?" Chip returned, a hint of scorn in his voice.
"Yes... if that's all right."
"So, what did you do at - er - Ben's place?"
"Yes, that's it. He didn't kiss me until we got back here."
This was exactly what Chip had been hoping not to hear - or one of the things, at any rate. He resumed his original position on the couch and pouted at the television, as if the fact that Ben had got a kiss from Gadget and not him was its fault. Foxglove did not look at him, but he could hear exactly what she was thinking: You've only yourself to blame.
Just for a change Dale decided that he was more interested in this young admirer of Gadget's than in what was happening on the television. He turned the volume down and invited her to squeeze next to him on the couch.
"So, you think you'll see him again?" Dale asked.
"Um... I don't know. He kind of disappeared. I hope so." She paused. "I need some coffee."
"Already?" murmured Chip, as she disappeared into the kitchen.
"Will you stop pouting?" Foxglove hissed, once Gadget was out of earshot. "Like I said, this was bound to happen eventually."
"All right, quit rubbing it in," Chip returned. "I just can't help feeling bitter that some bat she doesn't even know got there first."
Foxglove was about to overlook some scorn for Chip and offer him some sympathy, but as these last words sunk in she froze. "Ben's a bat?"
"Aha. Is that all right?"
"Yes, of course." Possibly. Foxglove tried to convince herself that the chances were extremely remote and she was silly to worry, but she had to set it straight in her mind. She stood and followed Gadget into the kitchen.
"Hi, Foxglove. Do you know where the kettle is?" Gadget was drunk, smitten and fumbling around in the dark. Foxglove smiled in spite of her concern and switched on the kitchen light.
"Let me get that for you." She wandered over to the kettle, checked that it was full and flicked the switch on the handle.
Ok, time to cut to the chase. "It seems you had a lot of fun with this Ben character."
"Oh, yeah. He's fantastic, you'd love him."
"I bet I would." She laughed nervously, as if trying to explain a late arrival home on Friday night to her parents. "Nice looking, is he?"
"Is he?" Foxglove felt quite overwhelmed by the enthusiasm issued with this reply. "He's absolutely gorgeous!"
Not good, Foxglove told herself, but she must not panic yet. "So... what else do you know about him?"
"Um... he said he travels a lot. He's only been in New York a few weeks."
"Where did he come from originally?"
Foxglove had to clutch the kitchen surface for support. Not Texas! "Dallas?"
"He didn't say. You're from Dallas, aren't you?"
"Yes..." She sounded somehow distant, but Gadget in her present state was oblivious to Foxglove's otherwise obvious discomfort. She just wanted to talk as much as possible about Ben.
"He has this really soft, sweet voice," her tone distant and dreamy. "He seems kind of childish and... I don't know - nervous, I guess."
As the kettle came to the boil Foxglove started to distribute coffee beans between two mugs. She was going to need some caffeine in her herself, she reflected. There was no point in denying any longer. Sighing deeply, she decided that she just had to make absolutely sure before panicking. She took the kettle and started to pour out the boiling water. An idea came to her and so she tried it out.
"He sounds too good to be true," she said, her voice wavering. "Isn't there anything wrong with him?"
"Well, there is one thing..." Gadget absently accepted the mug of coffee Foxglove held out to her and started to sip.
"Yes?" She knew exactly what was coming, but for some reason she just had to hear it from Gadget.
"He has this really gigantic scar all down his right flank." There it was. "Still, I wouldn't exactly call that a flaw. In fact, now that I think about it, it's kind of sexy."
Foxglove nodded slowly. "Sexy," she repeated. "Well, Gadget, I'm glad you found yourself such a wonderful guy. Let's just hope he doesn't turn out to be exactly the same as all the others."
Ben, meanwhile, had not gone straight home but flown to some rendezvous on the peer of the nearby beach. He now sat sipping herbal tea, and listening to the words of a hunched, elderly rat dressed in golden robes.
"We discussed this when you joined the circle, Benjamin," he was saying. "It is not safe." His voice was as cracked as is almost bald face, and he assumed a smile as crooked as his back.
"Yes, but it's not illegal either," Ben persisted.
"Then perhaps it should be. Ben, if you continue to see this young lady..."
"I'm aware of the dangers." He spoke with the utmost patience. "But she's beautiful, master. If you could just see her I know you would understand."
"She would not be so beautiful without her skin."
"No." There was no denying this. "Of course I'd be careful."
"Well, Benjamin, it has to be your decision." This character seemed to know what Ben's decision would be, and the regret was prominent in his tone. "You know my advice, and I beg of you to take it, but the final decision must be yours."
Ben did not have to think long about what to do about Gadget. Yes, it was risky, but Gadget was worth risking. The following night he went to the pub where they had met, hoping to see her there again. He did, and later that night they went together to Rescue Rangers Headquarters.
Foxglove stayed the night as well, and got up early to go for a fitness flight with her friend Liddy who, despite being able to show her doctor much of her skeleton without the need of an x-ray, had got it into her head that she ought to lose weight.
"What are you trying to do to me?" she gasped, once the two bats were back indoors.
"Will you stop complaining? It was only a mile," Foxglove replied, only slightly out of breath.
"Yes, in three minutes." She followed Foxglove into the kitchen and gratefully accepted a glass of water from her.
"Three minutes in the air is nothing. Tomorrow I'm going to make you run it."
"Because that you you're exercising more muscles, and you're going entirely on your own energy and not air pressure. You'll burn more calories, so I might let you put something on your waffle." Liddy was not amused, but Foxglove hardly expected her to be. "Anyway, I don't know why you're bothering. You're definitely not fat."
"Not yet, but I might be if I don't keep in shape."
"You look fine," Foxglove insisted.
"I don't want to look fine, I want to look good."
"I don't subscribe to the view that you have to look like a stick insect to look good."
"Well, I'd rather look like a stick insect than the back of a bus."
Just as Liddy was preparing a clever answer to this comment, Chip and Dale appeared. The room smelt very much of sweat, but both were too polite to say anything.
"Am I going to have to show you that episode of Sesame Street where they tell you that it's what's on the inside that counts?" Dale said as he wandered over to Foxglove and embraced her.
Liddy looked at him sceptically and said, "Are you saying that you wouldn't mind if Foxglove suddenly became bloated?"
"Or bony?" Foxglove added.
"Well, of course not."
Foxglove was touched, but Liddy seemed unruffled. Still, she mumbled, "I wish I could find a guy like that."
"Liddy." A thought occurred to Foxglove, and she found it to be a pleasing one. "Are you doing this to please a guy?"
Liddy hesitated and looked at the floor. "No."
"You are!" Foxglove fairly hooted, delighted at the opportunity to give Liddy a taste of her own medicine. "You're just a big fat hypocrite, aren't you."
"Less of the fat, please." There seemed little point in arguing.
"Anyone I know?"
"Well, that makes a change."
"Oh, we are on form today." Liddy was a lot better at dishing it out than she was taking it.
Silence erupted as Ben entered the room. Oblivious of the venomous look he was getting from Chip and the expert eye of Liddy looking him up and down, his glance fell straight on Foxglove. He was about to say something, but the look she gave him warned him not to. She forced herself from Dale's grasp, walked up to Liddy and viciously snatched the empty water glass from her hand. These two exchanged questioning glances, but neither could begin to guess what was the matter.
The situation was salvaged by Gadget, who walked cheerily into the room, followed by Monty and Zipper, and smiled affectionately at her lover.
"I see you've all met Ben," she said, then, "Hi, Liddy."
"Hi." Liddy was still eyeing the poor nervous Ben. Gadget was aware of this, but it did not worry her; Liddy was like this with all of the men she met.
Needless to say, introductions followed. Awkwardness oozed from Ben and Foxglove when they were required to shake wings. Funnily enough only Zipper noticed this, but the moment was brief and he did not linger on this observation.
Gadget, Dale, Monty and Liddy were most insistent that Ben stayed for breakfast, Gadget and Liddy managed to coax him into watching a tennis match on television with them and Gadget persuaded him to stay for lunch. All this time his gaze kept falling on Foxglove. No one but he could account for her strange behaviour, and everybody else kept quiet for his sake - starting a drama in the presence of a guest is something it is best to avoid.
After lunch Foxglove volunteered to wash up. The others left her to it. Liddy somehow managed to steal Gadget so that she could question her about this gorgeous new boyfriend. She would have liked Foxglove to have joined them, but she had spoken to her once since Ben emerged from Gadget's bedroom only to get her head bitten off.
Everyone seemed to have something to do, so Ben took advantage of the situation and offered to help Foxglove. There followed the customary "Oh, you don't have to do that" and other such objections before he was allowed to help. Foxglove threw him a dirty look and a dishcloth, and started to clear the crockery.
Most of what went on next was heard by Chip. He happened to be walking past the now closed kitchen door for whatever reason, and he heard Foxglove say, "Friends? After everything that's happened between us you want me to be your friend?"
Not surprisingly, Chip had not been expecting to hear this. He retraced his steps to the kitchen door and put his right ear to the wood.
"I think we should try to make the effort," Ben replied. "Come on, Foxglove, it's been years, and we were just kids."
"This sounds familiar."
"We're obviously going to be seeing a lot of each other. Can't we just put the past behind us?"
Foxglove turned and examined his pleading countenance. Ben seemed genuine enough, but so he had last time. She almost relented, but it was just too difficult for her to trust him.
"I don't know if I trust you with Gadget," she said, turning her attention back to the dishes in the sink.
"Well, if you'll cast your mind back..."
"Come on, Foxglove," Ben said again. "I was just a kid. Besides, what would I be using Gadget for?"
"I'm sure you could find something."
"I don't believe you."
"I have." He sounded so desperate that Foxglove found herself wanting to believe him. "I really like Gadget, and I want this to work." He paused. "Foxglove..."
"I did... care about you, you know."
Foxglove sighed. "I never doubted it, but unfortunately you cared just that little bit more about yourself."
"Look, I know I was selfish, but:;-"
"But what, you're not any more?"
"Ok, so maybe you have changed, but you seem to forget just how much you hurt me. I mean, you ruined my life twice."
"I know, and I'm sorry."
"You tried that one last time."
"Oh, Ben, why are we even having this conversation? If Gadget wants to date you there's nothing I can do about it."
"There isn't," Foxglove insisted. "Gadget's not unreasonable, she'd see it your way."
"What about Dale?"
"What about him?" She passed him a wet plate, but still she did not take her eyes from the sink.
"He seems like a nice guy."
"I'm sure he'd never lie to you."
"Of course he wouldn't." Where was this leading?
"Too bad you can't return the favour." Ah, so that was where.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You ain't gonna tell 'em about me, are you."
"Not just now, no."
Again she spun round and looked into those doleful grey eyes. "What's the point? If I tell them about you, someone will get hurt."
"Yes, me. It's a sure fire way of getting rid of me."
For a moment Foxglove was lost for words, then, "Why are you trying to persuade me to rat you out?"
"I'm not tryin' to persuade you, I'm askin' you why you haven't."
"It's not worth it. Dale would be on my side, Gadget would take yours..."
"Does this mean you're givin' me another chance?"
She turned back to the sink. "Whyever not? I know you'll blow it."
"Then maybe some day I'll find it in my heart to forgive you."
Ben could tell that Foxglove's good nature was slowly getting the better of her. There was long a silence, then he spoke again.
"Dale really is a great guy. I'm glad you found him."
"So am I."
"And he's sure lucky to have you."
On the opposite side of the door, Chip found himself backing away in alarm as a very large crashing noise came from within the confines of the kitchen. Foxglove had, whilst in the middle of wiping down a baking tray, suddenly lost all control of her body and found herself reeling round at an incredible speed to face her companion, a poisonous look in her eyes.
"Don't!" she snapped.
"What's the problem?"
"You're hitting on me again."
"No I'm not." This remark had struck a nerve with Ben, yet still he maintained his cool, conversational tone.
"You are! Any more remarks like that and I will rat you out!"
"Learn to take a compliment, Foxglove. Dale is lucky - you're a lovely girl."
"Ben, please, never call me lovely again." She seemed to have composed herself now.
"Why not? You know how I feel about you."
"I still find you attractive, but you really don't have anything to worry about. Gadget's... great."
"She certainly seems to like you."
"Foxglove, when... oh, hey, come on, leave that alone and look at me." Foxglove had been about to resume washing dishes, but Ben's gentle pleading voice somehow dissuaded her. "When I was making moves on you..."
"What about it?"
"You didn't like it, did you."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"It's a simple enough question. Why didn't you say something?"
The desire to scrub tomato sauce from Dale's plate was becoming unbearable. "Just passive, I guess."
"If you'd have said something, I'd gladly have stopped." He received no reply. "Really, Foxglove, I'm not all that bad."
Foxglove knew from experience that Ben was a wonderful liar. She looked him straight in the eye and could not tell just how genuine he was. She did not doubt that he had feelings for Gadget, nor did she doubt that he would hurt her if he felt he had to. She broke eye contact and turned again to the washing up. For some reason she smiled to herself. It did not seem to have got very much smaller. As for Ben, she was just going to have to wait and see.
"How have you been?" Ben asked, five dishes and a soup spoon later.
"Well, I was ecstatically happy for two years working on my uncle's ranch, but then I got pregnant and came to New York because I couldn't face my ex-boyfriend. A witch aborted my baby in return for my services. I stayed with her until I met Dale, and now I'm ecstatically happy again. You?"
"Not bad," came the reply. "When I was eighteen I left home and travelled around a bit. For the four years before that I just stayed on with Mom and Dad."
"Your parents." Foxglove stopped animating the scrubbing brush for a brief moment as an image of Bob and Evelyn Porch came into her mind. "How are they?"
"Oh, good, really good." He paused. "I know they'd love to hear from you."
"I was kind o' hoping I'd forget about you if I boycotted all contact with Dallas."
"Really? I didn't stop thinking about you for a second."
"Don't start that again."
"Well, it's true. I just spent the whole time wondering whether you'd found your uncle, and whether you were all right, and whether you were happy... I felt just terrible about not telling you where the ranch was sooner. I came to see you, you know."
"Yes. It was three years ago now. I went to the ranch, and had a scout around for you. I didn't really fancy talkin' to anyone, and I spent an awful lot o' time avoiding your uncle." He looked down at the scar on his side and winced at the recollection of acquiring it. "He's kind o' protective towards you."
"Well, that's the last one," Foxglove said, handing Ben another soup spoon. "Thanks for your help."
She shook most of the water from her wings as she headed for the door. Chip thought about making himself scarce, but on reflection he knew that he was going to challenge Foxglove about what he had just heard. He took a few steps back, and caught the bat's eye as she opened the door. She sighed deeply at the sight of him, brushed past him and made her way outside.
Sitting on a limb of the tree, Foxglove waited for Chip to join her. There was no point in putting this off. As he kicked the front door shut and took a seat beside her she deliberately avoided his gaze. There seemed little point in waiting for him to ask vague questions, so she drew in breath and began to speak.
"Ben and I were born into the same colony," she began, looking all the time at her feet. "His parents adopted me, but Ben used to bully me until eventually I left at the age of six. We met up again eight years later. He pretended that he didn't know where my uncle's ranch was so that he could use me to make up with his parents who had disowned him." There was more to it than that, of course, but this was all Chip needed to know.
"Why didn't you say something sooner?"
"You heard what I told Ben."
"Look, Foxglove, Dale's my best friend and I don't want to see him being lied to - or Gadget, for that matter."
"Chip, promise me you won't say anything." She looked up and gazed pleadingly into his eyes.
"I just... I need some time to decide what to do."
"Why do you even have to think about it?" He was beginning to sound very passionate now. "If you don't think Ben can be trusted:-"
"I just don't know. Maybe he can."
"So talk to Gadget about him and let her make up her own mind. There's no point in keeping all of this a secret."
"There's no point in telling anybody either." She knew this was not true, and looked again at her feet. Chip began to wonder if Foxglove's feet had written on them the answers to all of her problems.
He could understand how the poor lass was feeling - more or less - but he felt that there was no doubt as to what was to be done. He edged closer to Foxglove and placed a supportive hand on her shoulder.
"Foxglove, I've never lied to Dale before."
"You're giving me an ultimatum, then. If I don't tell him, you will." Her voice was low and somehow dark.
"I have to."
Foxglove looked up, and Chip could see tears in her eyes. He also saw in them frustration and anger that he had not believed she was capable of.
"Is this about Dale or Gadget?" she asked.
"Are you worried that this is going to upset Dale, or do you just want Ben out of the picture so Gadget will be free for you to screw up with again?"
"That's not fair!"
Weeping with frustration now, Foxglove got to her feet. Chip felt quite intimidated as she stood glaringly over him, blood vessels pounding visibly in her neck and her temples.
"I'm not doing you any favours," she said, sounding more miserable than angry and sending a surge of guilt running through the chipmunk at her feet. "You've had plenty of chances with Gadget, and you'll have plenty more which, if I know you, you won't take." Chip dodged a tear, and as Foxglove continued to speak her voice faltered. "You're just being selfish. Tell Gadget yourself, if you think it'll do any good, but don't use Dale as an excuse. That's not fair."
She sniffed and wiped away a tear. She regarded the stunned Chip a few moments longer, and then dropped from the branch and began to fly in whichever direction came naturally. Once over the initial shock, Chip leapt to his feet and found himself wishing that he could follow her.
"Hey, Foxglove!" he called, but by that time she was long out of earshot. Feeling as low as an earthworm, he spun on his heels and made his way back inside.
"What have you done with Foxglove?" Dale asked, as Chip skulked through the front door.
"I haven't done anything with her," Chip replied defensively.
"So where is she?"
"Why not? It's a free country." He was still talking defensively, and Dale wondered why on earth this was.
"Are you ok?" he asked.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
Dale thought it would probably be best to stop talking, though he did wonder why Foxglove had taken off without so much as a farewell.
Chip disregarded Dale and peered through the kitchen door at Liddy, who was now stretching her calf muscles by resting her heel on the kitchen table and double up over her leg. Under normal circumstances Chip would have worried about hygiene, but these were hardly normal circumstances. A thought occurred to him, and he wondered just how advisable it would be to follow it up. Liddy, he reflected, may be a seemingly brainless bimbo, but she was a good friend to Foxglove when she had to be. He made up his mind and wandered into the kitchen.
"Hey." She acknowledged his presence with a smile and then withdrew her right foot from the surface of the table, placed her left wing on her hip and tilted the upper half of her body to the right, bending her elbow and grasping her ankle with her right wing.
"Uh... Liddy, could you do something for me?"
"I guess." She stood upright and then did the same stretch on the other side, then added, "Well, within reason."
"The thing is, I kind of upset Foxglove."
"Really? What did you do?" So far she still seemed disinterested, but Chip knew that this would not last, once Liddy knew the severity of the situation.
"I'm not going to tell you, but Foxglove will if she wants you to know."
Liddy straightened up and folded her wings across her chest, at last ready to listen.
"She just left," Chip continued.
"Did you make her cry?"
"Um... yes." What did that matter?
"Honestly, Chip, I can't believe how insensitive you are sometimes. I suppose you want me to go after her."
She exited the kitchen and made her way to the front door, nodding absently at Dale when he said goodbye to her. Once Liddy got outside, Foxglove was nowhere to be seen, but it did not take long to track her down with echolocation. She found the miserable creature sitting on a tree branch, gazing dolefully into space.
"Hey," Liddy said brightly, in an attempt to cheer Foxglove up. "What's eaten ya?"
"Hi, Liddy." Foxglove did not look up.
This looked pretty serious. Concerned now, Liddy lowered her behind on to the branch and let her legs dangle. She put a reassuring wing around her friend's shoulder.
"What's the matter?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Come on, Foxglove, I want to help."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"At least give me a clue."
"I don't want to talk about it."
It would seem that Foxglove's vocabulary had been limited to seven words. Liddy was not entirely stupid, and decided to try a different approach, quite sure that this one would work.
"Dale's worried about you, you know," she said. "He's kind of upset that you left without a word."
"He'll get over it."
"Has he done something to upset you?"
Well, at least that narrows it down, Liddy reflected, but clearly she was not going to get a straight answer from Foxglove.
She was about to try again when something beneath the tree caught her eye. She withdrew her wing and used it to push herself forward, leaning over to take a closer look at the ground. What she was seeing was not at all clear, but that problem was easy enough to solve. She opened her mouth and emitted a high pitched shriek. Foxglove looked up when she heard it, wondering what on earth Liddy was looking for now. Some of the vibrations came to her, but they were unclear and she decided to judge for herself. She let out her own shriek, and as it bounced back to her ears she froze. Glancing at Liddy, she could see that she too had gone rigid at what she had heard.
"My God!" Foxglove said, and she dropped from the tree's limb, glided downwards through the air and landed by the object on the ground. She glanced up at Liddy, but knew full well that she would not be coming down. A sense of dread overwhelmed her, but without thinking Foxglove embedded her right foot into the dry soil and began to pull away the earth surrounding Liddy's extraordinary find.
Chip, meanwhile, was watching the news with Ben and the Rangers, and had for some time been shooting sideways glances first at Ben, and then at Dale. Both had been returning them, Dale's looks curious and puzzled and Ben's brimming with malice. He knew very well that Foxglove had told Chip more or less everything, and he could not stand not knowing what would happen next.
The tension was broken when Foxglove returned home, but it soon returned when she accidentally caught Chip's eye. She stared dolefully at him for a moment, but then rebuked herself for forgetting why she had come and broke her gaze. Every eye was on her, and eventually she found her voice.
"Uh... look, you guys, Liddy and I just found something that I... I think you really should know about."
"What?" Gadget got there first.
"Corpses?" everyone echoed, with the exception of Ben, who was still as cool as a cucumber.
"Yes, you know - dead people."
"How many?" Chip asked, at once forgetting their quarrel of minutes ago.
Upon hearing this, Ben turned his back to the group and silently mouthed this last word to himself, his heart pounding. It was now that he was noticed again, not surprisingly by Gadget.
"Um... Ben, you might want to go home."
He turned around to face her. "Can't I help?"
"You want to help?" There was a very distinct tone of disbelief in Foxglove's voice.
"Yes... if I can."
"I don't think you can," Gadget said, "but you're welcome to stay if you think you can stomach it. I think the best thing to do now would be for Foxglove to take me to the bodies in the Ranger Wing, and we can bring them back here and I'll do a post mortem."
"It's as well to check," Foxglove agreed, "but I think I might know what happened to them."
"You do?" Ben could not help himself from sounding agitated.
"Yes." Foxglove spoke to all of her companions, and so there was no hostility in her tone this time. "See, there was something rather... unusual about them."
"What was that?" Chip asked.
"They didn't have any skin."
As Foxglove was following Gadget, ready for departure, she felt a hand on her shoulder. Turning round, she found herself looking at Dale.
"Why did you take off like that?" he asked.
"Oh... sorry, cutie," Foxglove replied, taking him by the waist and hugging him gently. "I... er..." I what? I had just had a blazing row with your best friend over whether or not I should continue lying to you? "I was feeling a little woozy. I guess I just needed some air."
"I hope you're not coming down with something," Dale said, and he lifted his right arm and pressed the back of his hand to her forehead.
"I'm fine," she assured him, releasing her grip and backing towards the door. "I'd better go."
"What did you do with Liddy?" Chip asked, just before Foxglove could make her escape.
"She went home. It was a little bit too much for her."
As Foxglove exited the building, she prayed that Chip would not confront Dale about Ben.
"That was quick," Monty observed, as Foxglove emerged from her workshop (the room best suited to a post mortem) about two hours after she went in. Ben and Foxglove were still present, along with the other Rescue Rangers.
"It was quick," Gadget agreed, "but I only did a really thorough check on one of them. The other four were certainly killed in the same way - I didn't really need to any more to those bodies than scan them."
"So, how did they die?" Chip asked.
"Well, they were deprived of their skin when they were still alive," Gadget informed her audience.
"Still alive?" Dale winced as he thought of how much pain those poor souls must have suffered.
"I'm afraid so. Then they froze to death - somehow. It didn't take them long, so they must have been in very extreme temperatures."
"That's what I thought," Foxglove muttered, half to herself, and then hastened to explain when she saw that all eyes were on her. "It sounds like a sacrificial ceremony. It's not common, but very occasionally you get these special cults. They're very secretive, so I don't know very much about them, but one of the things they do is... that," and she nodded towards the door of Gadget's workshop.
"Ok, so we've even got a motive - of sorts," Chip said, "but how to stop them?"
"Well, it's a little bit difficult to do anything about a bunch of people who'd just as soon skin you alive as look at you," Dale said, "especially when we don't have any idea who they are."
"We have to do something," Gadget returned. "If this is some kind of cult ritual like Foxglove says, it's happened before and will most probably happen again."
"You're right," Foxglove replied, "but Dale's right too. I'm not suggesting we do nothing, of course, but this is going to take some thinking about."
"What about curses?" Ben spoke for the first time since Gadget had emerged.
There was a silence, broken by Dale with, "Huh?"
"Curses," Ben repeated. "You know - binding spells, that kind of thing."
"Those never work," Foxglove said scornfully. It had not yet occurred to her to wonder how Ben knew anything about this.
"Not really, no," Ben concurred, "but there's the psychological advantage, ain't there. They believe they work, so if they think the next time they kill somebody their eyes'll pop out, maybe they won't do it."
"I guess it's worth a try," Gadget said, "but how the hell are we supposed to find them?"
"They're awful good at concealing themselves," Ben said, but a suspicious look from Foxglove warned him not to say any more.
"Look, perhaps we should turn in," volunteered the ever reasonable Monty. "It's getting pretty late, and we'll to have a long day tomorrow if we're going to be looking for Devil worshippers."
Chip made a beeline for the bathroom, and Monty, Zipper and Dale all headed for their respective bedrooms. Foxglove lingered in the front hall and watched from the corner of one eye as Gadget approached Ben and slid her dainty, effeminate arms around his masculine waist.
"I'm sorry," she said, sounding suddenly tired.
"Whatever for? It's your job, ain't it?"
"Yeah, but I'll bet it put a dampener on your day."
Ben smiled. "A little variety never hurt anyone."
"Except them." Gadget leaned back and looked over her shoulder at the door which concealed the five mutilated bodies. "People are sick. Why would they do that, Ben, why?"
"Well, people may be sick, but they're also crazy. Some of them believe in the weirdest things. They probably thought they were doing the world a favour."
"That doesn't make it right." Gadget burrowed her head into the grey fur of Ben's chest, and smiled when she felt his chin on her scalp. "Will you stay the night?"
They kissed and then Gadget, upon hearing the bathroom door click open, went to attend to her toilette, leaving Ben alone with Foxglove.
"So," began the latter, "what on earth could any of this have to do with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on, Ben, it's pretty obvious. You seem to know more about this cult thing that I do."
"I'm well read."
"I know you're lying."
"Look, Foxglove, this is nothing to do with me. Ok, so I've picked up a bit of info about these things - big deal." He paused, and Foxglove said nothing by way of a reply. "What can I do to make you trust me?"
"For a start you can leave this whole thing alone."
"Exactly - why. Why are you so keen to help? You never wanted to help anybody before except yourself, so why should now be any different?"
"Oh, not this again. You've changed, you're sorry, you care about Gadget, you're for real this time... When am I going to see some proof?"
"People are dying. I want to help."
"You can't do anything."
Ben had nothing more to add. The two bats regarded one another for a moment, Foxglove looking for some signs of honesty and Ben trying to show them to her, and then Foxglove turned and made her way to Chip and Dale's room. She found Chip standing menacingly in the doorway.
"You can come in here if you promise me you'll tell Dale the truth," he said.
"You're bribing me for your bedroom?"
"It's there if you want it."
"Nice try, but I'm here to tell Dale I'm not staying."
"Really? Why not?"
"Because I'm upset, and I just want to curl up somewhere and hibernate until everything works out."
"You know what helps?"
"I'm not going to tell Dale anything tonight," Foxglove persisted.
"Look, Foxglove." He lowered his voice to so soft a whisper that only ears as sensitive as Foxglove's could possibly hear it. "I can't just stand by and watch Dale being lied to. He trusts you - this isn't fair."
"Listen, I don't want to ruin anything for Ben before I'm absolutely sure he's still a jerk." Judging from the look on Chip's face, Foxglove reflected that it might have been wiser to mention Gadget's name.
"You don't have feelings for him, do you?"
"Of course not!"
Just as she finished speaking, Foxglove heard Dale's approach and she spun round. He was surprised at the tension in her features, but he said nothing. Chip turned in the doorway and headed towards his bunk. He shut the door behind him, and Foxglove could feel the caution in her expression as she looked at the bemused Dale, though she seemed powerless to change it.
Dale walked over to her, lovingly caressed her left cheek and kissed her tenderly on the lips. Feeling his touch again for the first time since that afternoon, Foxglove considered staying with Dale that night, but Ben crept his way into her thoughts once again. Dale felt her tense and tactfully withdrew, peering into her eyes with a puzzled expression.
"Are you ok?" he asked, his right hand sliding from her cheek to her shoulder. "You've been acting weird all day."
"I've been feeling weird all day," Foxglove replied. "Dale, would you mind if I just go home tonight?"
"So what if I do mind? If you wanna go home, go home."
"Thank you." She felt tears welling up in her eyes, and one rolled down her cheek as she gave Dale a bear hug.
"Any particular reason why you don't want to stay?"
"I'm just really tired."
Dale pushed her gently away from him, took hold of her chin and peered fixedly into her eyes.
"What are you doing?"
"You must be sick. Are you going to be able to get home all right?"
Dale leaned in to kiss her again, but she turned away and made for the front door with a simple, "Bye, Dale". His recent performance convinced Foxglove that this was the most wonderful man she could ever hope to meet, and she could not stand lying to him... so why was she?
On her way out she passed Gadget and Ben, kissing passionately on the threshold of Gadget's bedroom. They did not notice her arrival, and so she stopped briefly to watch them. Foxglove pictured herself in Gadget's place and at once shrank away, remembering how she had felt when Ben had kissed her like that all those years ago. To the recipient the nature of the kiss was quite different, but Foxglove wondered as she left them to themselves whether it was any different for Ben. Did he really care about Gadget, or was that kiss just a way of making her trust him, as it had been before?
As Foxglove flew into the night, she heard Ben's voice inside her head: "I did... care about you, you know." "I never doubted it," she told a passing fire-fly, and she sighed deeply. Was she falling for Ben's lies a second time? Was his childlike innocence blinding her to his true nature, or had he really changed? Glancing back towards the Rangers' home, she realised that she would have to be very careful this time; more people besides herself stood to get hurt.
"So why aren't you sucking face with Foxglove?" Having said this Chip wondered if he should have phrased his question differently, but there was nothing to be done about it now.
"She said she was tired."
"She didn't tell you she had a headache?"
"Something must be wrong."
Dale emitted a heartfelt sigh and rolled over on to his stomach.
"I'm worried about her, Chip," he said. "She's just not been the same since this morning."
"Well, you remember what happened this morning."
"What do you mean?"
"She's not been the same since this morning, or in other words, she's not been the same since Ben arrived."
This had not occurred to Dale. Worried, he raised himself on to his knees and turned over into a sitting position.
"What are you suggesting?"
"Just that Ben might have something to do with her behaviour." He probably should not have said that, he reflected. "Look, just don't worry about it."
"I will worry about it!" Dale rose to his knees in a gesture of anger. "What are you saying?"
"Well, there's obviously something going on there," Chip went on, sitting up himself. "I mean:-"
"I know exactly what you mean!" Dale sounded frantic, and Chip could feel his glare penetrating the body of the top bunk. "I can't believe you're accusing her of something like this!"
"Whyever not? It's hardly unusual - Ben's a good looking guy." This was not what Chip had meant to imply, but for some reason he found himself playing along with Dale's assumption.
"Stop talking like that before I do something to you."
"Oh, come on, Dale, stop fooling yourself," and Chip found himself dismounting the bunk so that he could look up at Dale. "I know how you feel about Foxglove, but there just might be more to her than meets the eye."
Dale's breathing was forced and heavy, his eyes burning. He jumped dangerously from his bunk and glared menacingly at Chip.
"I'm not gonna let you talk about her like that!"
"Well, she lied once before, didn't she? Whyever wouldn't she do it again?"
Dale seemed about to explode, but he suddenly managed to calm his nerves and he looked Chip straight in the eye, his expression full of disdain.
"This isn't about me at all, is it. It's about Gadget."
"What?" This sounded familiar.
"You just want Ben out of the picture."
"That's not true. I just don't want to see you get hurt."
"Oh, for crying out loud! Look, I know you're bitter because you didn't do anything about your feelings for Gadget, but you're too late, ok? You're too... late." He pronounced these last words very slowly and deliberately. "I did have some sympathy for you, but using Foxglove as an excuse to try and get rid of him... that's the pits!"
"Dale, I wouldn't do that! How can you even think it?"
"Because it's true." Almost in tears now, Dale turned on his heel and made for the door.
"Hey, where are you going?"
"I never expected this from you," Dale said in a choked voice, unable to bring himself to look at Chip. "I guess I didn't know just how low you're prepared to stoop to get what you want."
"Dale!" His voice was drowned by the slamming of the door.
Things were more tranquil in Gadget's room. She lay propped up on her left elbow, looking down into Ben's face as he lay beside her on his back, and she was tenderly fingering the scar on his side.
"That thing gets a lot of funny looks, but no one ever looked at it like you do," Ben murmured sleepily.
"I'll bet no one ever touched it like this either."
He smiled. "You got that right."
"Ben, can I ask you something?"
"You wanna know how it happened?"
"Yes. It looks like the work of a bare hand to me."
"Close. It was a foot." He took a deep breath before continuing. "When I was a kid I kind o' used to give this girl a hard time. Her uncle got a little bit upset."
"He did this?"
"How old were you?"
"God! He must have really cared about his niece."
"I guess so. Gadget..."
"Yes?" She slid her hand across his belly and settled down beside him, nuzzling his chest again.
"I just... Well, be careful with this new case, ok? I wouldn't wanna lose you; you're really special to me. Heh - I guess that's what I was tryin' to say the whole time."
Receiving no answer, Ben looked down at Gadget and saw that she had drifted into a light sleep. He looked tenderly upon her countenance for a few seconds, kissed her gently on the forehead and began to descend into slumber himself.
Ben was the first to wake up the following morning. He found Dale on the couch, clearly having just woken up. He was sitting up and burrowing the heel of his hand into his right eye in an attempt to orientate himself after his uncomfortable sleep, as the events of the previous night came back to him.
"What are you doin' out here?" Ben asked.
"I had a little argument with Chip last night."
"Just a little one, huh?" Ben walked towards Dale and rested his elbows on the back of the couch. "Anythin' I can do?"
"Don't worry your pretty little head about it," Dale replied, rising to his feet. "Ok, what am I supposed to wear?"
It was then that Chip emerged from their room. He glanced at Dale, but the look was not returned, so his gaze wandered to Ben. The bat looked blankly back at him until Dale left the room, at which time he decided to speak.
"Why are you lookin' at me like that?"
"You're responsible for this, you know."
"For that!" Chip replied, pointing with his whole arm at his bedroom door. "Dale's miserable, and Foxglove and I both feel like dirt, and it's all your fault!"
"I'm not gonna take any blame for what happened between you and Dale last night."
Chip opened his mouth to reply, but he was silenced by the front door opening and Foxglove walked in. She looked from Chip to Ben, and then at the ground, wings folded across her chest in a hostile manner. It was then that Dale emerged. Not one of the company could think of anything to say, so they stood in a neat square, avoiding all eye contact.
Minutes passed, but at last they were joined by Monty. Upon his arrival all four of them spun on their heels and went a different way; Chip went back to his room, Dale went to the living room, Ben went back to Gadget in her room and Foxglove went into the kitchen, feeling that it was a slightly better place to go than the bathroom. Monty was puzzled. He wondered whom he should confront about what he had just seen, and ended up following Foxglove. She, after all, had been displaying the most unusual behaviour lately.
"What was that all about?" Monty asked, once in the kitchen.
"What all about?"
"That. All of that standing around, refusing to look at each other... There was enough tension in that room to fill the Grand Canyon! Look, luv," and he took on a more kindly tone, "I don't know what's going on here, but I do know that Chip and Dale had a pretty spectacular shouting match last night and you went home with the hump about something, and I also think that whatever's going on has got something to do with Ben." He walked up to Foxglove, lifted her chin and looked into her damp eyes. "Am I right?"
She nodded, turned away from him and wiped away a tear.
"You wouldn't happen to have a bit of a liking for him, would you?" Monty suggested.
"Oh, no!" Foxglove put in hastily. "No! No, no! No! Um... no - no, that's not it at all. The thing is I... well, I hate him."
"You hate him? How can you hate him? He's really nice."
"Yes, I know, that's the problem." She wandered over to the door and watched Dale jabbing miserably at the remote control. "See, the thing is, I used to know Ben."
"Well, more than that, actually. Me and Ben, we... we kind of have a history."
"What sort o' history?"
"Oh, a long one. He just used to pick on me when we were kids, and then when we were fourteen..." She tailed off, and tried again. "He's done this before."
"Done what before?"
"Convinced me he's changed when he hasn't. I look at him and Gadget, and I just see myself there. What if he's telling her the same lies?"
Monty was not at all clear about what Foxglove was talking about, but this talk of lying to Gadget concerned him. "Well, you should probably warn her."
"But that's the thing, he just might have changed this time. I mean, we were only fourteen. He seems genuine enough, but..."
"He seemed genuine enough last time."
Monty came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. As he did so Ben and Gadget entered the living room together, Gadget with her arms around his waist, hands struggling to meet, and Ben with his wing around her shoulders.
"Just look at how happy he makes her," Foxglove went on, "and he seems really happy as well. What if he is genuine? I don't want to spoil anything for them."
"I still don't see what this has got to do with Chip and Dale."
"Now he's got this I-hate-seeing-Dale-being-lied-to thing going on, and we kind o' had a blazing row about it, and I don't what they were fighting about last night, but it was bound to be something to do with Ben." She sighed and turned to face Monty. "I don't know what to do."
"I don't know why you didn't just tell us you already knew Ben."
"I guess if I thought I told you that I'd have to tell you everything, and that would have caused no end of problems. I just... I can't stand to be in the same room as him. Monty, I've been thinking. Perhaps it would be easier if I just..."
"If you just what?"
"Don't you dare! There's gotta be a way to make this work."
"I can't put up with Ben." Chip reappeared and Dale shot him a venomous glance. "Look what I've already caused."
"They'll work it out, they always do. Now, look," and he spun her round and looked at her sternly. "I don't want to hear any more talk about leaving. What are your other options?"
"I don't have any."
"How about telling Dale the truth?"
"Well, I've deliberately avoided that."
"Well, not the whole truth. Just tell him you and Ben had a feud goin' on as kids, and maybe you'll feel better about it. Besides, the longer you keep it a secret, the harder it's going to get."
Foxglove moved away from the door. "There is one other thing that worries me."
"What is it, love?"
"How come Ben knew so much about that cult ritual?"
"The dead guys? You don't think he's involved, do you?"
"Well, I wouldn't have thought so but... I don't really know him all that well. We only ever really spent any real time together for the first six years of our lives. Whenever I saw him after that he was just... there. I don't know what he's capable of."
Monty was still monitoring Ben from the doorway. "We'd probably better just keep a close eye on him."
"Monty, you won't say anything, will you?"
"Well, I won't have to, will I. You'll be doing that."
"Do I have to?"
"No, but I think it's the best thing to do."
Foxglove's reply was somewhat unexpected. "I'm going shopping."
Liddy was the best shopping companion a girl could hope to have, and she was a wonderful listener as well, but Foxglove often wondered if what she said was quite what Liddy heard.
"All men are prepared to lie 'til they're blue in the face to get what they want," she reasoned, as the duo were scanning a rack of shoes. "Gadget seeing Ben is no more dangerous than you seeing Dale or me seeing the Pope. I keep telling you, honey, men are all the same."
"He might have changed."
"Men never change."
"People do change, Liddy. I mean look at me, I'm the perfect example."
"Men aren't people."
"You're not helping!"
"Ok, look," Liddy went on, turning to face her companion, "if Ben is lying to Gadget, you'll all get to know about it sooner or later. If he isn't, that's good."
"I guess so, but... you don't understand," Foxglove persisted. "I hate him! I look at him and I just want to do something to him!"
"Sweetheart, we all feel like that about our exes."
"I don't classify Ben as an ex. I mean, if I hadn't known him when he was a kid, I'd think he was lovely, but that guy ruined my life... twice!" she added.
Liddy turned back to the shoes and said, "Foxglove... I have a problem with my boyfriend."
"Oh?" This was all wrong. Usually when Liddy had a problem with her boyfriend she consulted a self-help book. "What?"
"Well, I found out yesterday that he's involved with some kind of... thing."
"You're going to have to be more specific."
Liddy sighed impatiently. "A cult, ok? It's a cult."
"Oh." Foxglove thought she knew where this was going.
"See, he keeps taking off and he never tells me where it is he's going, so yesterday I..." She stopped.
"Yes, all right, I followed him. He went to the beach, and he joined this group of people on the peer."
"Well, that's kind of dangerous. What do they do if a human comes along?"
"Who cares? So anyway, I listened to what they were doing, and it seemed harmless enough. They sang quite a lot, and then 'shared experiences' with each other, and then they started with all of the lighting candles and giving thanks."
"Thanks for what?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"Just tell me."
"Well, ok. Thanks for life, and basically, although they mentioned stuff like inner calm and that kind of thing, and 'the power to love ourselves'."
"Oh, hey, you don't want to worry about that," Foxglove replied, laughing away Liddy's concern. "I've heard about those groups and they're harmless. They're just people who are depressed in some way getting together to try and convince themselves that things aren't that bad."
"Then... it's nothing to do with those dead guys we found?"
"No. No, no... no. Absolutely nothing to do with them... at all... maybe. Unless..."
"Well, they're very much into sanctity of life and that kind of thing. They aren't sacrificing anybody, but if they know about people who are, they won't like it, and they may have convinced themselves that they can put a stop to it with... I don't know, power of the mind or something."
"Um... should I be worried?"
"Absolutely not!" I couldn't say. "Liddy, look, I... there's something I kind o' have to take care of."
"Well, this group your boyfriend belongs to may be very important to this case."
"Hey, wait a minute, you mean they've made a case out of it?"
"We're talking about murder, Liddy, of course they've 'made a case out of it'. Do you want to come with me? You can tell them what you saw yourself."
Liddy was not at all prepared for the tension in the atmosphere at the Rangers' headquarters. While she was speaking she got the impression that only Zipper and Gadget were listening to her, for even Monty had grown absent with concern.
"So, anyway... Foxglove thinks that might be useful," Liddy concluded.
"She's probably right," Gadget said. "Good one. So, when do you guys all want to check this thing out?"
"Um..." Ben did not know what to say - he just thought that he had to speak before someone else did. "Are you sure checkin' this thing out is such a wonderful idea."
"Why, Ben, does that produce a problem for you?" Foxglove asked suspiciously.
"No, of course not. It's just that... we should probably think carefully before we do anything. I mean, you say this group is harmless, but you could be wrong. It could be you're goin' to check 'em out and the next thing you know they're peeling your skin off."
"He's right, you know," Monty said, and he found himself looking apologetically at Chip. "We can't rush into anything."
"Exactly," Ben put in, somewhat over-eagerly. "Maybe we should sleep on it, and decide what to do tomorrow."
"Maybe we should decide what to do now and do it tomorrow," Dale suggested, all the time monitoring the communication between Ben and Foxglove. He could not put his finger on it, but something was definitely not right.
"Ok, that could work," Ben said, and he glanced up at the clock. "Lordy, is that the time? I'm supposed to be somewhere."
"Where?" Gadget asked.
"It's just a thing my parents are machine' me go to." He wrapped his wings around her and kissed her on the cheek. "I'll try and sneak off early and get back this evening."
"I have to go too," Foxglove said as Gadget escorted Ben to the front door.
"Oh, where are you going?" Chip demanded, and was immediately kicked viciously in the shin by Dale.
"All right, I'll see you out," the latter said to Foxglove whilst the former was recovering, and he took her wing just above the elbow and led her to the front door.
"Are you coming back?" Dale asked.
"You mean ever? Yes, I am."
"I don't know."
"Ok, so where are you going?"
"For crying out loud, Dale, what's with the interrogation?"
Dale had been caressing her wing, but the ferocity in this last ejaculation from Foxglove made him draw back in alarm. The bat felt terrible, and emitted another of her sighs.
"I'm sorry," she said, and she touched his left arm with a wing. "I'll try and get back before tonight."
"Well, don't think you have to." Dale sounded hurt.
"I want to, Dale."
She let him kiss her, though he could sense her hurry to leave, and leave she did. Dale was still standing dejected by the door minutes later, where Monty soon found him.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
"What the hell is wrong with Foxglove?"
"She hasn't told you?"
Dale spun round. "No. Why? Do you know?"
"How on earth would I know?" Now I'm doing it, Monty thought to himself. "I just thought she could tell you anything."
"So did I," Dale sighed. "Monty, do you suppose... Chip's right?"
"Right about what, mate?"
"Last night he said that... that he thought there was something going on between her and Ben."
"What sort o' something?"
"The usual sort. He's right, Monty, she was never like this until he arrived. It must be something to do with him, whether or not they..." He could not bring himself to finish.
"Oh, come on, Dale, she wouldn't do that to you."
"No? Then what's going on? I really wish she'd talk to me."
"Perhaps she's afraid of hurting you."
"Then that means she's doing something hurtful."
"Not necessarily. Dale, Foxglove is the most paranoid person I know. If she was planning your surprise birthday party she'd worry about upsetting you. I mean, come on, you know what she's like."
"Oh, do I?"
Monty's optimism was too much, and Dale turned back to the door. Seconds later he felt two strong hands on his shoulders. Moral support always broke him, and he felt a tear roll down his cheek.
"I just... I'm terrified of losing her," he said.
"Oh, I don't think you'll do that."
"Well, it's starting to look like it." He sniffed, and wiped away a second tear with the back of his hand. "I love her."
"Does she know that?"
"Then you should probably tell her."
"How? She's hardly been talking to me these past two days."
Turning round again, Dale saw Chip standing a few yards in front of him. All day Chip had been building up a substantial supply of guilt, and seeing Dale like this, it doubled.
"I'm sorry," Chip said, and he hurried over to his friend and embraced him warmly. "I'm so sorry."
"What for?" Dale sobbed.
"For putting these stupid ideas into your head." Chip withdrew his body and wiped a tear from Dale's left cheek with the thumb of his right hand. "Foxglove would never do that to you, and you know it."
"Ok, so what the hell is wrong with her?"
"Try asking her. I'll bet she'd tell you everything that's worrying her if you just give her a little push."
"You mustn't give up on her."
Chip put one arm around Dale and ushered him back into the living room.
Ben had a good head start, but Foxglove was able to catch up with him and make herself heard. Reluctantly Ben came to rest on the limb of a nearby tree, and he waited for Foxglove to join him.
"Going all the way to Dallas, are you?"
"I lied," Ben admitted.
"Yes, I know. Why?"
"Because I didn't want them to know where I'm goin'."
"I knew you couldn't change."
"I have changed. Everybody has secrets, Foxglove - even you."
"I know, and it sucks." She paused. "You didn't want them to know where you're going, huh? You're obviously ok about me knowing or you would have been more careful about your excuse."
"What's the point? You know anyway."
"No I don't."
"Yes you do. At least, you suspect the truth."
"You're part of this cult, then."
"What do you have to do with these sacrifices?"
"We... er... we know about it. We pray for the people's souls, and we have this spell goin' on whereby every time somebody is sacrificed, somebody somewhere's life is saved. I know it don't work quite like that, but I guess it's better than nothin'."
"Then you know the people who are doing this?"
"I know of them."
"Then Goddam it, Ben, why didn't you say something?"
"It's a lot safer if I keep quiet. I don't really want them pokin' their noses in; it could be dangerous."
"Well, these people that we're trying to oppose..."
"What about them?"
"They... they kind o' sacrifice people who they believe to be a threat with them. Technically I shouldn't really be seeing anyone, as it puts them in danger as well. There, you were right, I haven't changed."
"Why the sudden flow of honesty?"
"Because I want your help."
"You want my what?"
"I know I have no right to ask, but I... I really care about Gadget, and I want it to work out for us."
"What do you expect me to do?"
"Help me decide what to do. I mustn't keep seeing Gadget and the group, but I don't want to let her go."
"Then let the group go."
"I can't do that either. I... I need them, they've been fantastic."
"They've been fantastic? Ben, why did you join?"
"Because after you left Dallas for the second time I just felt awful. That time Mom and Dad didn't send me to no stupid school, and after four years of feelin' like dirt I just couldn't put up with it any more. I took off to see the world, and it was real nice and everything, but I just couldn't enjoy it. I wanted so much to change, but nothing could change me. I'll always be selfish."
"Everyone's a little bit selfish."
"Yes I am."
"Balthazar - my master - he's been fantastic. I went to all of the meetings and I felt so much better about myself, but I'm still selfish. See, with them, the emphasis is more on loving yourself than on loving others."
"Then it probably wasn't the best solution."
"I know, but they can just make me feel so good about myself. They just... they tell me exactly what I want to hear, and I believe them. But hey, you know what the worst part is?"
"I knew that joining the circle had done me more harm than good, but I kept going because it made me feel the way I did. I convinced myself that it was ok, because I was never going to meet anybody, but then..."
"You met Gadget."
"You really do care about her, don't you."
"Of course I do."
"Then leave the group. It was all very well when you were by yourself, but Gadget's just as good as any 'circle'."
"It would mean that you'd see more of me."
"I think I can handle that." The light was not great for Foxglove's eyes, but she could feel Ben smile. "So, you're going to this thing now?"
"And you're going to leave it?"
"I'm gonna try."
"You're going to succeed, I hope. Ben, look, you leave the - uh - the 'circle', and then I'll trust you."
Ben flew to the peer, and Foxglove started for home. However, before she could get there Liddy caught up with her and persuaded her to continue with the shopping expedition, her argument being, "Come on, we were in there less than two hours". Foxglove found that she could not refuse Liddy's pleading face.
Before they hit the shops, the two bats went for lunch in Liddy's favourite cafe - as always. As Foxglove tucked in to a noticeably large bowl of chocolate ice-cream whilst her calorie-starved companion picked half-heartedly at a Caesar salad.
"Maybe I should leave him," she said.
"Or refuse to diet."
"Oh no, that's not it, I like dieting."
"Well, no, but it's not a bad thing. I feel really good about myself."
"But Liddy, you don't look any different."
"It doesn't matter how I look, the point is that I feel good," Liddy replied with some scorn. "Anyway, I'm thinking of dumping James."
A name at last, Foxglove thought. "Why?"
"Because he's so wrapped up in this cult thing. I mean, I'm his girlfriend, for crying out loud!"
"Well... Liddy, you have to let him be interested in other things."
Anything Ben may have said before about the cult was immediately forgotten. Though having been told on countless occasions that she was "supposed to be a feminist", Foxglove could not help feeling sorry for some of Liddy's boyfriends, and often found herself defending them when Liddy was trying to complain about them.
"Yes, I know that, but I worked it all out. I drew a pie chart and everything."
"You worked what all out?"
"Exactly how much time he spends each day doing what." Liddy could no longer surprise Foxglove. "He spends fifty per cent of his day with his cult friends and twenty eight of it with me."
"What about the other twenty two?"
"That's not important. The point is, this cult is almost twice as important to him as I am, and I am not putting up with that. I am a woman, created with a need for male companionship. All of my self-help books say that I should be my boyfriend's number one priority, and am I? I don't think so."
"Fifty per cent of the day," Foxglove murmured. "That's quite a lot, but I don't think it's worth dumping him over. Maybe you can persuade him to spend less time there."
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
"He doesn't know I know about it."
"Ben didn't tell Gadget either," Foxglove said to herself, but of course Liddy heard.
"Never mind. Surely that means he thinks he's leaving you all by yourself for seventy two per cent of the day, and for fifty per cent of it you don't know where he is."
"Yes, that's exactly what he thinks."
"So ask him where he's going, and whatever he tells you, you can start pulling the self-help crap on him then. Maybe if you just confront him about him, he'll take some notice and start spending more time with you."
"Maybe." She sounded unenthusiastic. "The thing is, I don't really think I like him all that much."
"What? He's completely dull. I'm getting sick of him."
"And you're the one who whines when your boyfriends have problems with commitment." Foxglove looked up at the wall clock. "Ok, we can shop for another hour and a half, and then I have to be some place."
"I'm going to join James's cult."
"Well, I'm pretty sure if they know about this skinning thing, they're trying to oppose it. If I do a kind of under cover thing, maybe they'll be able to lead me to whoever's responsible. I mean Ben isn't..." - she checked herself - "...anything at all to do with this."
"So why bring him up?"
"Why not?" She got hastily to her feet and pulled Liddy up by the elbow. "Come on, what are we waiting for?"
That night Foxglove met Ben going back to the Rescue Rangers' home. She had two words to say to him:
They entered the building together. Ben went straight away to Gadget, who was immensely pleased to see him, and Foxglove drank coffee with Dale - in silence. Neither noticed the other one's absence, as they were too busy concentrating on their own.
"So... you're investigating this cult tomorrow?" Foxglove said at last.
"Um... yes. Yes we are. Do you... want to come with us?"
"Maybe, but Liddy said she might rope me into another shopping trip."
"Uh... did you have fun shopping today?"
"Dale, I always have fun shopping."
Again they sat in silence. Foxglove finished her coffee, declined Dale's offer of another one and then... silence - again. A few minutes into this fourth silence, Foxglove suddenly felt the impact of her trying day. Feeling a stiffness in her neck, she raised her right wing and kneaded vainly at her collar bone.
"Here, let me."
Dale was always good at this kind of thing. He took her by the shoulders and turned her gently around, and as he harshly traced small circles into the back of her neck with both thumbs, Foxglove at last felt herself relax.
"How's that?" Dale asked, his hands slipping from her neck to her shoulder blades.
"Fantastic," Foxglove murmured, and she felt her eyes close and her muscles loosen.
Foxglove seemed at last to be her old self again, and Dale was grateful to feel her relax under his influence. The massage lasted a few minutes, during which time Foxglove emitted several moans of pleasure, but she became tense again as Dale ran the fingers of his right hand down her spine and planted concise, amorous kisses on the back of her neck. She did not want to disappoint him by saying anything, but of course he could sense her sudden change of mood and sulkily he withdrew.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "I thought you were enjoying it."
"I was, but... it's been a long day."
"These past few days have been pretty long for you, haven't they. Any particular reason?"
"What do you mean by that?"
"I don't mean anything. I want you to tell me what's bothering you."
"There's nothing bothering me."
"Of course there is." He took a deep breath and collected his nerves. "Is it something to do with Ben?"
"Ben?" Foxglove immediately wished that she had let Dale follow his first impulse. "Why would it have anything to do with Ben?"
"I don't know, but the last time you were acting anything like normal was just before he came into the kitchen yesterday morning."
Foxglove spun around to face him, and inadvertently she pushed herself back, further away from Dale and then asked, "What exactly are you accusing me of?"
"I'm not accusing you of anything. What exactly have you done?"
"You're getting awful upset over 'nothing'."
"I'm not upset! Honestly, Dale, I thought you were more sensitive than that."
"More sensitive than what?"
"I don't particularly feel like flaunting myself for a couple of nights and all of a sudden there's something wrong with me. Can't you just accept that I'm... busy?"
"Busy? Doing what?"
"Um... Liddy's having trouble with her boyfriend."
"Well, that's nothing new. Why all the fuss all of a sudden?"
"Liddy's a friend. You'd do the same for Chip."
Dale was not convinced, but he could think of nothing more to say. "I love you" hardly seemed appropriate, after all. Foxglove was also speechless, so she saw herself out.
Ben left early the following morning, leaving only the five Rescue Rangers at their headquarters. Chip was grateful for Ben and Foxglove's absence, but he noticed a changed in Dale. He was able to get him alone just before they set off for the peer.
"Are you ok?" he asked.
"What's the matter? Did something happen last night?"
"No, that's the problem. She came over, I asked her what was the matter, she didn't tell me, she went home. We didn't even really have a proper argument. I think we're still on speaking terms, anyway."
Chip did not know what to tell Dale, but fortunately Gadget turned up and started ushering them to the Ranger Wing. The journey to the coast was made pretty much in silence. Once there, they found that the tide was already out and it was safe to land their craft underneath the pier.
"So... what do we do now, knock on their door and pretend we're selling double glazing?" Dale quipped.
"What door? I didn't see anything on the pier," Monty said.
Chip, Dale and Gadget all confirmed that the peer had seemed devoid of anything unbecoming of its kind, but Zipper volunteered to fly up and take a closer look. He flew skyward, but re-emerged seconds later wearing an unreadable expression. He signalled to the others to listen, so they obediently cocked their heads towards the wooden planks above them. Two figures not much larger than themselves were advancing along the pier.
"We are always grateful for new recruits," came the hoarse voice of an old man. "Will you be able to attend a welcoming ceremony tonight?"
"I daresay," came Foxglove's voice, and the Rescue Rangers found themselves staring open-mouthed at one another, with the exception of Dale who was seemingly in some kind of trance. "A welcoming ceremony, huh? Well, I feel special."
"You are special, my dear, and we are here to make you realise this."
"What exactly does this welcoming ceremony involve?"
"Oh, nothing too difficult. You will simply be standing up before us and telling you why you wish to join the circle, and then we will welcome you individually by each one of us feeding you a drop of fluid from the fruits of the earth."
"Oh." What am I supposed to say now? Foxglove thought. That sounds nice?
"My dear, there is one question I must ask. Do you have a relationship with a member of the opposite sex?"
"No, not right now." Dale suddenly had to sit down in the sand. "I just recently got out of one, and I'm actually feeling pretty low at the moment. That's partly why I'm here."
"Of course it is," the old man sympathised. "Don't worry, Foxglove. Soon you will have remembered the truly wonderful individual you are. If you don't mind my asking, has this young man made you feel inadequate?"
"I'll say he has."
Dale's fingernails were excavating deeper and deeper into the palms of his hands.
"You mustn't feel that way about yourself. Would you like to do some healing exercises with me now."
"No thanks, I'm sure I'll be all right for the moment. Hey, can I ask you something?"
"I want you to ask questions, Foxglove."
"Ok, good." She was perhaps a bit out of her depths with this character. "Why are you interested in my love life."
"Well, my dear," her companion began, "it is only fair to warn you that there have been:-"
"Foxglove!" Ben's voice came wafting at several decibels from above the Rangers' heads. "What... what..."
"What am I doing here?"
"You two know each other?" the third party interrupted.
"Oh yes," Foxglove said. Her listeners could hear her fake smile obstructing the words. "Ben is my brother."
He is? the Rangers all thought.
"Well, yes, in a way. I guess you could just say I borrowed his parents for a while. Anyway, Balthazar, are we not all siblings in matters of the soul?"
"Yes, indeed. Did you hear of us through Ben?"
"No, no. James. He's a friend of a friend."
"Ah, yes, James, the young shrew."
"He's a shrew?" Foxglove could not help exclaiming. Liddy had always been rather scornful of shrews.
"Well, of course. Foxglove, your dear brother is one of the most enlightened people who has ever come to me. No one can love himself quite like he."
"Oh, Balthazar, you don't have to tell me that." The false smile was back with interest.
"Of course he has a lot to learn about loving himself in moderation, but he has improved marvellously. If you will excuse me," Balthazar went on, "I must prepare for your welcoming feast."
Seconds elapsed as Balthazar made his departure. Chip and Monty exchanged woeful glances, Zipper was trying to convince himself of what he had just heard and Gadget and Dale were trying to convince themselves that they had somehow misunderstood. This was quite possible of course, as what had just been said made little or no sense.
The Rescue Rangers were pulled abruptly from their individual trances when they heard a sound reminiscent of a slap, followed by "Ow!" and then Foxglove's angry tones came wafting from above them.
"Why am I surprised? I should have known you would never put yourself out! You are just so... so..."
"Yes, that's exactly what you are. I mean, dam it, Ben, why the hell are you still here? You told me last night you'd left the stupid circle!"
"I couldn't. I love it too much."
"More than you love Gadget?"
"Hey, come on." Still he did not raise his voice. "You're in the same boat now. I bet Dale doesn't know you joined, does he."
"No... no, he doesn't, but that's different."
"How the hell is it different? Ok, maybe you're here for different reasons, but you're doin' to Dale exactly what I'm doin' to Gadget."
"I can make sure no one knows about Dale."
"They'll find out."
"They have spies everywhere."
"Well, that's new. Tell me something else, Ben. Is it just Dale and Gadget we're putting in danger, or the other three as well?"
"I don't know."
"Well, I guess we'll find out when we see their skins hanging from this peer."
"How do you know that?"
Foxglove was about to reply when a thought occurred to her, and not a pleasant one. She let out an obscenity most unbecoming to her nature, and one I would rather not repeat.
"What is it?" Ben asked.
"Liddy? What the hell does she have to do with anything?"
"She's dating one of these weirdoes, you idiot! I can't believe I've been so stupid! After all that talk about putting people in danger you'd think I'd have done something sooner."
She took off, and Ben followed. The Rescue Rangers waited for the sound of their wings to disperse, and then Gadget looked enquiringly at Dale, for some reason expecting him to offer an explanation. He did not even attempt one.
"I don't know," he said sulkily, arms folded, pouting at the sand beneath his feet.
Liddy was not at home. This was not unusual, but when Liddy was out she was usually with Foxglove or her boyfriend. Well, she was not with Foxglove, so...
"Ben, this James person might be out with Liddy about now, mightn't he?"
"I guess it's possible, although..."
"Well, James is the most miserable person there. He's usually with Balthazar first thing in the morning."
"But he wasn't a moment ago because we were just with Balthazar."
"And he had to rush off."
"Are you saying Liddy isn't with James at the moment?"
"Not at all, I'm just saying' it's very likely that she isn't."
Panic seized Foxglove. First she took Ben to look for Liddy at all the places she was likely to be, but they gave up before moving on to the places she was not likely to be.
"This is a total waste of time," Foxglove said, outside Bloomindales. "Ben, if Liddy had been found by this cult, where would they take her?"
"I don't know."
"Why don't you know?"
"Because we haven't found them yet. We've been threatenin' them for weeks now, but we still ain't found their headquarters."
"Well... you must have some idea."
"Yes, but just a vague one. All of the clues point to somewhere in Central Park."
Foxglove rolled her eyes. "Can't you be a little be more specific?"
"No, I can't. I did tell you it was vague."
"Well, it's a start, I guess. Come on, let's go," and she prepared herself for flight.
"Hold on," Ben said. "It ain't safe for anyone to go it alone, least of all us. Shouldn't we find the Rescue Rangers?"
"I think we've wasted enough time already, don't you?"
"We don't even know if they've got her."
"Look, the sooner we find them the sooner we can start getting rid of them, and now that the Rangers have started larking about trying to find them, they're in danger as well."
She took off before Ben had time to present an argument, and he really had no choice but to follow her. The first place she took him to was the burial site of the bodies she and Liddy had found, and explained to Ben its significance.
"I don't think they'd be stupid enough to bury corpses too near where they are," Ben reasoned.
"All right, let's start at the furthermost point from here, just as long as we can start somewhere," Foxglove said impatiently, and then, "What are you hanging around for, anyway?"
"I can't let you do this all by yourself."
"Whyever not?" She was sounding very irritable now.
"I'm learning to love myself in moderation," Ben replied, a smile flickering on his lips. "I can't possibly let you continue with something this dangerous."
"Meaning you're going to try and talk me out of it?"
"I certainly am. At least let the Rescue Rangers help you; they've done this kind of thing before."
Foxglove turned her back on Ben and started walking in that direction. He followed her, so she continued to talk without looking at him.
"So have I," she said. "I believe I told you I used to work for a witch.. She used to send me into peril all the time. Only difference was it was slightly safer because I had a snake with me then."
"Very much so."
"Too bad he isn't here right now he'd come in handy."
"I once read about... I don't know, some group of savages or something who used to dip their claws in venom before facing their enemies."
"Well, we don't have any venom."
"I don't think our claws are quite suitable either," and she extended those on her right foot to make a better analysis. "These were lizards, so their claws were pretty big, but I don't think we could immerse our claws in venom without absorbing some of it into our skin. It was really nasty stuff as well. It ate you from the inside."
Ben put a wing on her shoulder and spun her around to face him. He withdrew before Foxglove could protest, and the look he gave her made her feel compelled to listen to him.
"So there's no venom in our teeth or in our claws. How exactly do we expect to oppose this presumably large group of maniacs?"
Foxglove had no answer, but even if she did have she would not have had the chance to give it. She saw Ben's eyes lift from her face and a look of alarm spread over his features, and then blackness.
"Foxglove!" She felt herself being shaken. "For God's sake, wake up!"
Slowly Foxglove regained consciousness. She attempted to sit up without opening her eyes, and she felt a strong pair of wings supporting her. She felt terrible nausea, but once she was in a sitting position this subsided. Her head ached terribly, and she could feel a sharp pain in both wings. Ben's own wings remained clasping her shoulders, and opening her eyes she found herself looking at Ben's face. She was about enquire what had happened, but the pain in her wings suddenly increased dramatically and she winced.
"What the hell is that?" she murmured, bending her elbow and finding the pain to be a lot worse.
"They slashed our wings or something," Ben replied. "Are you ok?"
"Who did?" Foxglove seemed not to hear Ben's last enquiry. "Where the hell are we, anyway?"
Her eyes had not yet adjusted to the dim light, and when she tried to look around to see where she was the nausea would return to her. She forced Ben's wings from her shoulders and pushed herself back on her behind, but she found that she was soon obstructed by a cold, dank wall.
It hurt her to look at anything, so Foxglove let out a high pitched shriek. The echoes came back to alarmingly quickly from all directions, and were most non-descript. She realised at once that she was in some kind of enclosure. This alarmed her a great deal, and she automatically shrank down as far as she could go and hugged her knees. Her heart rate and respiration increased and she found the claws of her feet digging into the sodden stone ground. Ben was at her side in an instant.
"It's all right," he said, wondering whether touching her would reassure her, add to her claustrophobia or make her forget it totally for anger. "Just... take some deep breaths or something."
Contrary to Ben's instruction, Foxglove's rate of breathing increased still further. She edged closer to the nearest corner of her prison and looked around her, wide-eyed.
"I hate this," she whimpered.
"Yes, I know you do, but just think of it like a bat box."
"I've never been in a bat box."
She shook her head, and then brought her knees closer to her chest.
"Well, they're actually a little bit smaller than this."
"They also have a way out."
"Well, so does this place. I very much doubt they'll keep us here forever."
"We'll run out of oxygen long before then."
Ben could see that he was getting nowhere, but he knew that he had to calm his companion somehow. He crawled over to the corner where she was hunched and sat next to her, legs stretched out in front of him.
"Please take some deep breaths," he begged.
"Shouldn't we save the oxygen supply?"
"There's plenty. Ah, look!" He pointed upwards to a small speck of light yards overhead. "Grate in the roof. We're getting tons of oxygen. Now, come on. Breathe in." She did. "Breathe out." She did. "Ok, now don't sit all hunched up like that. Spread your legs out like I have." She did. "Ok?"
"Please try to relax, Foxglove."
She shook her head, and started to hunch herself back into her original position. Ben placed a restraining wing on her left shin. She was too agitated to object to him touching her, and to try and over power him. She spread her legs out again, and slowly he withdrew.
"So how long have you been seeing Dale?" Ben asked casually, knowing only that he had to keep her calm.
"About two months now."
"I really am glad you found someone."
No reply. Now what?
"The Rescue Rangers all seem like really nice people."
"Oh... good. Um... tell me about this witch you worked for."
"She wasn't fantastic."
"Was she just a wannabe, or could she really perform magic?"
"Oh, she could perform magic all right. Recently after I met Dale, she turned him into a frog."
"She used a moon rock. I got that for her, you know."
"Oh. Good for you."
"No it wasn't. I stole it from Dale."
"No, not really. He gave it to me, but I did rather... prostitute myself for it. And there's all of the moral issues, of course. Winifred was one of those witches who uses her powers for evil rather than good, so whenever I ran an errand for her I put someone or something in jeopardy. I never should have worked for her."
Good, she was becoming distracted. "Then why did you?"
"Companionship. Besides, she aborted my baby, so I had to do something in return."
"How old were you?"
"Why didn't you go to my parents?"
"Because I knew you'd be there."
Ben smiled. "Fair enough. Really, though, they would love to see you again."
"Well, let's wait and see if we ever see daylight again before we start planning a family reunion."
Distract her, distract her, Ben kept telling himself. "So, is this learning to love myself in moderation or what? I know you'd approve of what that cult has done for me."
"Why exactly did you join?"
"Just because I was miserable, really, and I felt really guilty about all of the lies I'd been tellin'. You were very bear the top o' my list, Foxglove, but you weren't the only one."
"They've stopped you feeling guilty?"
"They wouldn't do that. 'Guilt is a virtue', but they've made me feel a whole lot better about myself."
"What exactly is it that you believe in?"
"Well, they're very much into perfection. They want to perfect the world, and all of the people in it."
"What do you mean 'they'? You don't agree with them?"
"Believe me, Foxglove, I'd love to live in a perfect world, but they're talkin' about harmony of all livin' things here. You and I both know that ain't never gonna happen."
"I guess not."
"There are no perfect people either."
"Do you know why nobody's perfect?"
Ben smiled. "Tell me."
"Because there is no definition of the perfect being. What qualities does one need to be perfect? What some see as a virtue, others may see as a fault."
"Well, ok, I think Dale's perfect, but Chip is constantly rebuking him for things I think are cute. And there's you, of course."
"Aha. Your parents wouldn't hear a word against you, but I knew you were a jerk. I bet you think Gadget's perfect, don't you."
"No. I think she works too hard."
"Ok, but Chip definitely thinks she's perfect."
"I see. How can there be a perfect being when we can't make up our minds what perfect is?"
"Babies are the perfect beings."
"No they're not. They're noisy and smelly and they keep you up all night."
"Yes, but they don't know they're doing anything wrong. Babies are completely innocent. They could never do anything wrong because they don't know how. It's the experiences that take us through life that shape our characters, and therefore what make us imperfect."
"Ok, so why are you such a big fat liar?"
"I think my mother was too soft on me when I was a baby, and that's what made me jealous. I started picking on you because I was jealous of the attention she and Dad gave you, and I lied to them about it because I wanted to please them. And I think we all know where your lack of self esteem and confidence comes from."
"Are you saying it's your fault I'm not perfect?"
"Well, not entirely. Ok, but look, if Balthazar wants a perfect world, he has to decide what would be the perfect person, and then persuade everybody to mould their babies like it."
"That wouldn't be much good, everyone would be the same," Foxglove protested.
"Yes, perfect, and that's what these people want."
Dale sighed deeply and said, "Ok, so we've tried Liddy's place, home, Bloomindales, all the restaurants and such like we know, Ben's place and the cheap laundromat Liddy goes to." He counted all of theses places off on his fingers as he spoke. "Where the hell can they be?"
"There are still plenty of places they could be," Chip said, rather unhelpfully.
"Well, um..." His eyes circled the surrounding parkland in search of inspiration. "There's always..."
"There's nowhere," Dale insisted.
" 'She dating one of these weirdoes, you idiot'," Gadget murmured under her breath, recalling what Foxglove had said to Ben on the peer over an hour ago. "I don't understand."
"Liddy just got a new boyfriend," Dale volunteered. "He wants her to lose weight."
"Ok, but what does that have to do with this cult?"
"I'd say this new fellow of Liddy's is a member," Monty deducted.
"So what?" pursued Gadget. "You don't think..."
"That by dating him Liddy's putting herself in danger?" Chip voiced what everyone was thinking.
"That certainly seems the most likely explanation. Hey, that means that by dating Ben I'm in danger!" Her colour rose visibly. "I'm gonna kill him when I see him again!"
"If you see him again," Chip put in. "If they were trying to rescue Liddy from some kind of danger, they were probably putting themselves in danger. They could be:-"
"Ssh!" Monty suddenly froze. "Can you hear that?"
The remaining four Rescue Rangers froze also and listened. Chip rolled his eyes at the irony of the situation. Sensitive ears would have come in very handy about now, and here they were trying to locate the three most sensitive pairs of ears they knew. Soon enough, however, he caught the sound as well and stopped thinking in order to listen harder.
"It sounds like... screaming," Gadget said at last, hardly daring to raise her voice for fear of losing the sound.
"Pretty agonised screaming as well," Chip murmured.
They listened a few moments longer and then Dale, for once caught up in the gravity of the situation, sank to his knees and put his right ear to the ground.
"This is gonna sound crazy," he said, "but it sounds like it's coming from directly underneath us."
"Not so crazy," Gadget reasoned, joining him on the moist grass. "Lots of creatures live underground."
"And where exactly would they get in around here?" Dale raised the upper half of his body and glanced around for some hole in the ground or other. "And it sounds an awful long way down - I couldn't say exactly how far. That must be a pretty big complex they've got under there."
"Are you sure it's even coming from down there?" Chip asked doubtfully.
Monty had already joined Dale and Gadget on the ground, and Chip followed suit. Dale listened but the muffled screams had subsided. He sat up on his haunches and shook his head gravely.
"It sounded awful like it to me. Foxglove would be able to tell us for sure."
"Foxglove isn't here," Gadget reminded him. She had begun chewing on her lower lip.
Dale was about to speak again, but whatever he had been going to say was instantly forgotten as a disturbing thought entered all of their heads at once. Again, Chip was the first to voice it.
"You don't suppose..." He got no further.
"Don't say it," Dale interposed, before Chip found the words to continue.
"Hey, come on, what are the chances?" Monty said encouragingly.
"Monty's right, we mustn't start worrying yet," Gadget put in, and then it occurred to her how ridiculous they must all look squatting on the ground and she got to her feet. "I suggest we try and find some way down there and... see how it goes from there, I guess."
Her companions nodded their consent and rose to their feet.
"Every Saturday afternoon the local nuns would come and visit us." Ben had now moved on to the strict disciplinary boarding school he had once attended. "They used to line us up in the assembly hall and the Mother Superior would show up with about three other nuns, and then they'd ask us these questions with set answers that we had to know. I could never remember any of them."
"How did you cope with that?" Foxglove asked.
"I didn't. I remember my first week there I was first in line. This huge nun came and stood glaringly over me and started really yelling at me, 'Who made you? Come on, Benjamin, who made you?'. Of course, now I know the answer."
"Do you believe in God?"
Ben shook his head. "You?"
"I don't know."
It was then that they caught the agonised screams several feet away, which the Rescue Rangers were listening to a few hundred yards above them.
"So when do you suppose it's our turn?" Foxglove wondered.
"Well, they'll wanna show us the demise of our loved ones first."
"They'll wanna what?"
"Well, we can't know for sure about this, but I have it on good authority that they show us the demise of a loved one, and then threaten to do it to us if we don't pledge allegiance to them."
"So what you're saying is we have to sit here until they get hold of Dale or Gadget, and then we have to watch them die."
"Yes... and possibly Chip and Monty as well. I can't be sure about Zipper. How would you skin a fly?"
"Shut up," and again she hugged her knees as claustrophobia once again overcame her.
Any more attempts made by Ben to converse with his companion were rudely hindered by grunts or warning glances, so the two captives sat in complete silence, save Foxglove's heavy breathing and Ben's sighs of frustration.
Minutes passed - even hours. Foxglove remained hunched in the corner whilst Ben monitored the gradual change in light. He estimated that it was mid-afternoon when Foxglove suddenly rose to her feet and flittered restlessly about the room.
"What are you doing?" Ben murmured, almost beyond caring by this point.
"Well, we can't just sit and do nothing," Foxglove pointed out. "Where the hell is the door to this place?"
"It's in the floor."
"In the floor?"
"Yes, by your left foot."
Foxglove looked down and, sure enough, a stone trap door lay closed by her left foot. She stood on it, kicked it a couple of times to test its strength, and then began clawing at it with her toes. One or two loose pieces of grit gave way, but Foxglove knew very well it was useless.
"You're wasting your time," Ben confirmed. "That's why they make 'em stone. Is it was wood you might be on to somethin', but as it ain't..."
"Will you shut up?" Foxglove snapped irritably, and she wandered over to the closest wall. The muscles in her legs were stiff so she stopped, induced some of the stretches she and Liddy had been doing and continued towards the wall.
"What are you doing now?" Ben asked, puzzled. She seemed to be trying to claw her way through the wall. "You'd have more luck trying to get through the trap door."
"Don't be an imbecile," Foxglove muttered, trying to get a grip on the vertical slope with her right foot. "This stone has got several kinks - it might be possible to climb up there."
This idea certainly was not beyond the realms of possibility. Realising this, Ben got to his feet and tried the wall behind him. Like Foxglove, he was able to grip well enough a jut in the slab on the wall, but when both attempted to the same with the other foot, they found it sliding hopelessly back down to the ground.
"These stupid walls are covered in rain and mould and... and God knows what else," Ben said through clenched teeth. "Even if we can get a grip on the stone, we'll never get all the way to the top."
"Never say never," Foxglove replied. "We're just going to have to try harder."
She diverted her attention from the wall momentarily and ran the claws of her eight foot over the stone floor, thinking that sharp claws would be a valuable facet. Despite the sickening grating sound that echoed in his highly sensitive ears, Ben also began to sharpen his claws on the rough surface beneath his feet.
They continued like this a few moments, and then resumed their attempts to find a suitable foothold on the grimy wall. Soon enough Foxglove believed she had found one, and was about to say so, when she heard a familiar voice wafting into the cell from some distance above her. She glanced at Ben. Frozen, one foot poised against the wall, he had clearly heard it too.
"Why don't we dig?" It was Monty.
"It's too far down." Chip.
"But we've looked all over and there's no way in."
"There must be," came the desperate tones of Dale, and Foxglove's heart flooded at hearing them. "These people have got to get down there somewhere."
"We don't even know there's anything down there." Chip again. "If we don't find something in the next five minutes we're going to have to admit we've been wasting our time and try something else."
" 'Something else'," Dale repeated scornfully. "Such as?"
Foxglove could contain herself no longer. She tried out the wall above the foothold she had discovered. She found she was able to climb a good distance, and stopped once she had advanced about three feet.
"Dale!" she called, with considerable volume.
She waited. Silence. She tried again, louder still.
Upon hearing her voice, Dale spun around in a spontaneous attempt to find its owner. He heard her shouting again, though what she said was indistinct. He followed the direction of the sound and found himself standing by a tree. He called her name again, though there was obvious doubt in his voice. After all, where the hell could she be?
Below him, Foxglove advanced a little further up the wall. It was a long shot, but she attempted to find out whether Dale really was directly above her with echolocation. It was somewhat unclear, but one or two familiar shapes which she recognised as Dale came to her ears.
"Yes! You've found me!" she called.
By now the other four Rescue Rangers assembled around the tree. It was Zipper who spotted the fraction of the grate which was visible, as the rest was obstructed by a few of the leaves which had prepared for autumn early. It was a strain for the little fellow not to get too excited, but as calmly as he could he pointed the grate out to Monty, who happened to be closest.
In response to Zipper, Monty began to dig away at the leaves at his feet. Chip, Dale and Gadget soon joined in, and Foxglove felt herself smiling as more light began to slither into the cell.
Zipper found that he could fit quite comfortably through the holes in the grate, and so he darted through one of them with ease and flew down to Foxglove. She was extremely pleased to see him.
"Hi, Zipper," she smiled.
"Hi," the fly returned, flashing her an encouraging smile.
There were some very interesting sounds coming from above their heads as the rest of the Rangers struggled with the grate. It was made of iron, and so was quite obviously caked in rust, but Monty and the narrow end of Gadget's hammer proved to be a good combination. Once the phenomenally strong mouse had prised a particularly weak area from the dry earth, the rest pealed quite easily away from its stony case.
The Rangers patiently awaited Foxglove's arrival, but of course progress was slow.
"Uh... Foxglove, can you come up here, please?" Chip called down eventually.
"Give me a chance," Foxglove returned, as her foot closed around another overhang in the wall. "This isn't easy, you know."
"What are you talking about? Why can't you fly up?"
"You'll see why... I hope."
"Foxglove, have you got Ben down there with you?" Gadget asked.
"Yes." Looking down, Foxglove could see Ben following her closely.
"What about Liddy?" enquired Monty.
"Oh my God, Liddy!" and Foxglove almost lost her footing, but she was able compose herself again. "I completely forgot about her!"
"Well... do you know what's happened to her?" Gadget asked, and she sounded comfortingly close now.
"You know, that might have been her they were skinning earlier," came Ben's voice from beneath them all. Foxglove pursed her lips. Ben had said what everyone was thinking.
It had taken long enough, but Foxglove at last began to feel what fresh air there was. Looking up, she saw Dale's face eagerly awaiting her arrival. As she approached he held out a hand to her. She took it with her injured wing and hoisted herself onto the stone ceiling. Above this was a deep layer of earth which Foxglove would somehow have to elevate herself through before she could reach the surface. She managed to manoeuvre the upper half of her body into the small hole, and then with Dale tugging painfully at her wing she was able to grip the soft soil with one foot and hoist herself out into the open.
"Thank God!" was the first thing she said.
Oblivious of Dale's possessive grip on her shoulders, Foxglove crawled on all fours away from the hole until there was no part of the tree suspended above her; even that was too much for her at the moment. Still on her hands and knees, she gratefully inhaled the plentiful air.
Moments later Dale followed her. He squatted down beside her but she seemed not to notice him.
"Uh... are you ok?" he asked.
"I think so."
Foxglove took a few deep breaths, and then sat cross-legged on the ground. Once she had fully recovered she looked at Dale, whose attention had now fallen upon her wings.
"What the hell...?" he said at the large gashes visible in both.
"That was so we couldn't escape," Foxglove informed him, and now that she was reminded of her ailment it occurred to her that it no longer caused her very much pain. "Didn't work very well, did it."
Overcome with love, sympathy and relief, Dale wrapped his arms around her neck and drew her to him. She returned his embrace, wings enveloping his waste and head under his chin. Grateful to have the old Foxglove back again, Dale closed his eyes and inhaled deeply her unique scent.
By now Ben was also at large, and he looked upon this touching scene. His gaze then fell upon Gadget, who was eyeing him uncertainly.
"What's the matter?" he asked her.
"We'll talk about it later," Gadget returned dryly. "First, though, we're going to find Liddy, and then we're going to try and put a stop to this whole sacrificing people thing."
Chip nodded his agreement and strolled to where Dale and Foxglove were sitting a few feet away. He watched them for a moment, as if compelled to wake a sleeping child, and then he pulled Dale to his feet by the arm. Foxglove soon followed.
"Ok, come on," he said, "we're going to try and find Liddy. Do we have any idea at all where she might be?"
"Buried somewhere in the park with her skin hanging from the peer." All eyes turned to Ben, the speaker. "Well, maybe. I think it's worth checking out."
The Ranger Wing was parked some half a mile away. Zipper, who had long since emerged from the stone cell, flew eagerly behind the six mammals as they moved wearily in its direction, all utterly drained from the physically and mentally strenuous activities that had taken place that day.
It was a tight squeeze, but with Chip in the back rather than Monty, and him and Foxglove spilling on to Dale's lap, it was just about possible to squeeze four of the seven passengers on to the back seat. Soon enough they were flying over the peer, and the tide was now coming in. They looked with disgust upon the five unoccupied rodent skins hanging helplessly over the shore. Foxglove felt guilty at the relief that came to her when she saw that Liddy's own skin was not among them; these had, after all, belonged to people just as valuable as Liddy, whether they had been known to her or not.
Neither Foxglove nor any of the Rescue Rangers felt any recognition upon viewing the empty skins, beyond a possible resemblance of people they had seen in Central Park at one time or another, but Ben recognised three of the bushy hides as friends or relatives of people he knew from his own cult. He turned his head in the opposite direction and remained silent.
Nobody knew what to say. All just stared blankly at the skins. Seconds later Balthazar appeared on the peer. He seemed to have been expecting the skins, although still he shook his head forlornly before taking them up from where they were pinned.
"Hey, Ben," Chip said, and he found himself under the gaze of the bat's big, doleful grey eyes. "Balthazar will help us to do something about these weirdoes, won't he?"
"So let's go ask for his help. Now that we know where HQ is..."
"We still can't get in," Ben pointed out.
"What are you talking about? You were just in there," Dale reminded him.
"You wouldn't do much good to go down there," Foxglove said, fixedly watching Balthazar fussing over the empty skins. "That grate is the only way in or out, apart from the locked door. But look," she added, "that doesn't matter now. The point is we know where they are, and that's a big improvement on this morning."
Gadget nodded, still planning the confrontation she would have with Ben once this was all over, took the Ranger Wing to the pier and landed by Balthazar. He looked up inquisitively, and Ben and Foxglove both disembarked and strolled over to him.
"Again," Balthazar croaked despairingly. "These people are tyrants. If only we could put a stop to this madness."
"Maybe we can," Ben began.
"But we can't, Benjamin, we can't. We have done everything we can without knowing where they are."
"But we do know where they are," Foxglove told him. "We just escaped from their dungeon," and she held up a mutilated wing by way of demonstration.
"Good lord! You found their domain?"
"Yes," Ben confirmed. "We can't get into it yet, but:-"
"That matters not."
"Ok, so what are we going to do now?" Foxglove.
"We are going to assemble all of our group members and battle it out with them."
"Hey, wait a minute," Chip said, leaping suddenly from the Ranger Wing. "Do you mean like fist fights and knives and flaming torches and killing each other?"
"Certainly not," Balthazar returned.
"Ok, so what do you mean?" Dale enquired from inside the vehicle. "Fireball fight?"
"Dale, please," Ben said calmly, twisting his waste to so as to face the small group behind him. "Balthazar won't appreciate you mocking his spiritual status."
"Hey, shut up, Casanova!" Dale returned angrily, in order to remind Ben of his currently unpopular status.
"Peace," Balthazar put in. "Listen to me. I shall rally my troops. You go and find some way to impregnate their fortress."
"I still want to know exactly what you're going to do," Chip insisted.
"Fear not, tenacious one, there will be no violence." He turned to Ben. "Benjamin, would you be so good as to lend me your assistance?"
"Certainly." At least four of these people hated him, after all, and he was grateful for an excuse to get away from them.
"Tenacious one?" Chip murmured, as he and Foxglove boarded the Ranger Wing. "I am so not tenacious." He was not even absolutely sure what it meant.
Minutes later Foxglove and the Rescue Rangers were assembled around the small hole in the ground which had once sported the iron grate.
"Somebody must go in or out some time," Monty reasoned.
"Well, I expect so," Foxglove replied.
"Then why don't we just sit in there like lemons until somebody comes, and then... I don't know, tie them up in something?"
"Sounds awful risky," Foxglove murmured, although her tone of voice indicated that she was thinking about it. "What if we... wait a minute!"
She got to her knees and squinted down into the stone room below. It was difficult to be sure exactly what was the situation down there, but once again echolocation saved the day.
"The door's open!" she exclaimed, rising to her haunches. "Ben and I have been missed, and whoever came for us didn't shut the door again."
"Well, he probably didn't think there was much point," Dale said in defence of the prison guard."
"Well, there wasn't," Foxglove agreed. "They must have worked out that we got out via the ceiling, so they'll be looking at us above ground - if at all. If we went down there..."
"Now, wait a minute," Chip said hurriedly. "In theory that's a wonderful idea, but if we go down there, there's no guarantee we'd ever get out again."
"It is the only way we can get down there," Monty pointed out, warming already to the plan.
"We could always wait for Ben and co.," Dale put in, but Foxglove shook her head.
"They could shut that door at any time," she said. "We're going to have to go down there, you know."
"You're right," Gadget said, deciding it was time that she contributed to this discussion, "but how? I very much doubt that we'll be able to climb down that."
"We'll absail," Monty replied simply. "What kind o' crime fighters would we be if we didn't always carry a length of rope?"
Chip nodded slowly. The rope in the back of the Ranger Wing; it was that obvious.
Clearly somebody would have to stay and direct Balthazar and his group to the open door, but there was some debate as to who should have this honour. Foxglove was most insistent upon joining them, but Chip pointed out that she was a) not a fully qualified Rescue Ranger and b) the one in the most danger from these people. There was no arguing with this, and of course she knew herself to be claustrophobic, so Foxglove agreed to remain behind. Monty told her it would be a good idea to scout around for some other entrance in case the prison door was closed, so whilst the Rescue Rangers were descending the stone wall, Foxglove climbed (with great difficulty) to a high branch of a tree and began an echolocation scan of the entire area.
Once through the stone trapdoor, the Rescue Rangers found themselves to be in a narrow stone passageway.
"These people are big on stone," Gadget murmured. "How the heck did they manage to mould it like this?"
"I'm no expert, but it looks to be a couple of centuries old," replied Monty, squinting at the stone surface as his eyes adjusted to the light. "People back then were a lot smarter than we give them credit for."
"Come on," Chip hissed, signalling to the others to follow him.
They continued cautiously down the thoroughfare, and found it to be something of a complex of similar, or indeed identical stone passageways. More than once they came to a fork, but splitting up was out of the question - they simply moved in whichever direction came naturally to Chip.
They had been making little or no progress for some time when they began to notice a vast increase in the height of the ceiling, then suddenly, "Dale?" There was no mistaking this voice.
"Liddy!" Dale ejaculated, very much startled to hear his name, although less startled to hear Liddy's voice; she always turned up in the strangest places. He looked in the direction from which the sound had come, and then he moved towards it."
"For crying out loud, Dale!" Liddy went on. Her voice seemed to be coming from some where above him. "What on earth do you think you're doing wandering around this place in bright colours? I'm all for making a fashion statement, but you stick out like a sore thumb! Here, take this," and she threw down a jet black cashmere sweater which she had tied around her waste.
"Absolutely not," Dale protested, although the vertical drop of the sweater had at least told him more or less where Liddy was. He raised his head and could just about see the outline of metal bars in the section of wall above him, and behind them he could smell several other species of small mammal. He handed back the sweater. "Is this all of you?"
"Um... as far as I know," Liddy replied.
Dale turned back to his own party. "Ok, so how do we get them out?"
"Pick the lock," Chip replied.
"There's a lock?"
"There must be."
Dale ran his hands along the wall. The barred hole served only as a window, but very soon he located the door which was indeed padlocked.
"Ok, got it," he said. "Is it really possible to pick a lock with a mouse's tail like I saw on that cartoon show last week?"
"No," Gadget replied.
"Dang! Too bad we didn't bring any wire coathangers."
"Don't panic," Monty said. "I've got a penknife with me."
"Excellent," Chip whispered, terrified of discovery. "At least one of us though to bring something useful. Give it to Dale. He can get these poor souls out of here and we'll carry on... doing whatever it is we were doing."
"How come I'm doing this?" Dale protested.
"Because Liddy's right, you do stick out like a sore thumb."
Monty handed Dale his penknife and then followed Chip, Gadget, and Zipper along the blank corridor. Trying his best not to slice through his hand with some no doubt highly useful yet awkward blade on the knife, Dale set to work on the lock.
Though she searched high and low, Foxglove could find no other entrance to the underground establishment. Periodically she checked on the open door, and to her surprise she eventually found herself staring at Liddy, who was struggling against the Rangers' rope.
"I wish you'd take your shoes off," came Dale's voice, from somewhere in the darkness below.
"How else would you suggest I get them back up here?" Liddy called back down to him.
"For crying out loud, Liddy, just leave them here!"
"Absolutely not! These are!"
"I don't care who designed them or how expensive they were. Aren't they worth your freedom?"
"Oh, for pity's sake!"
Foxglove could not see what was going on, but what had happened was fairly self-evident when Liddy emerged from the hole bare-footed, followed by Dale with two black strap-on shoes clasped between his teeth.
"There!" he said angrily, thrusting the shoes into Liddy's gashed wings, then he turned to Foxglove. "Have they shown up yet?"
"Crimety, how long are they planning on taking?" He turned back to the opening in the ground and squatted by it. "Can you give me a hand with these guys?"
Foxglove obediently knelt by the hole and helped Dale to pull out vole after mouse after rat after shrew. In all there were ten, not including Liddy.
"Is that all of them?" Foxglove asked.
"As far as Liddy knows," Dale replied.
Needless to say Dale was smothered with praise. This lasted only a few minutes before the ex-captives remembered they had homes to go to, and just as most were making their departure a small crowd appeared on the horizon.
"Excellent! Balthazar's showed up!" Foxglove said.
"Ooh, is James there?" Liddy wanted to know, and she peered impatiently into the oncoming throng.
Soon enough Balthazar approached Foxglove, and his assembly patiently awaited orders behind him. Whilst Dale and Foxglove were explaining matters to Balthazar, Liddy pulled a small, dark shrew from the flock and gave him her favourite I'm-going-to-break-up-with-you look.
"Marvellous, marvellous," Balthazar was saying. "The prisoners were my chief concern."
"Let's just hope we got 'em all," Dale said.
Balthazar caught Liddy's sharp tones and turned his attention towards her. "What's happening there?"
"She's just dumping her boyfriend," Foxglove explained.
"Oh dear, dear. That will do nothing for the poor fellow's confidence," Balthazar said sadly. "He has hardly any, you know."
"Then it would have been sensible of him not to date Liddy," Dale murmured as he listened momentarily to the light-headed girl quoting from a self-help book.
"So," Ben broke in, approaching Balthazar from behind, "are we goin' down?"
"We certainly are," Balthazar replied. "Come along, James. Now then, do we have all of the herbs and candles?"
"Oh, tell me they're not going to do some kind of ritual," Foxglove groaned, as Balthazar's cult flooded past her and into the deep vent.
"You're goin' to have to trust Balthazar on this one," Ben told her, pausing by the hole. "Like I said, there is the psychological advantage, which just might be enough to stop these people. I really think this could work."
"And another thing," came Liddy's furious voice from a few feet away. "I gave up dieting yesterday!"
Foxglove excused herself from descending into the stone complex once Dale had described in detail the narrow stone passageways, and she started off home with Liddy.
"Did you really come off your diet yesterday?" she asked.
"I sure did. I never should have started in the first place."
"I though you said it made you feel better about yourself."
"I was just kidding myself. Dieting sucks! Never do it... unless you start to develop cellulite on your butt," she added thoughtfully. "Or your thighs, come to think of it. Thighs are a nightmare..."
Whilst Foxglove and Liddy were discussing the trials of being a bimbo, Dale was leading Balthazar, Ben and fifteen other group members through the stone complex.
"Um... Balthazar, didn't you bring rather a lot of people?" Dale said at last. "I was thinking more like six or seven."
"We need as many as we can get," Balthazar informed him. "This ritual requires a great many. I am only sorry that Foxglove could not be persuaded to join us."
"So... tell me again exactly what you're going to do."
Balthazar would gladly have obliged, but at that moment Dale let out an exclamation as he walked into somebody coming in the other direction. He stepped back and positioned himself defensively, but then he recognised Gadget's scent.
"Dale!" Gadget hissed excitedly. "You've got them! Fantastic! Listen, weíve found an antechamber."
"Yes, an antechamber. It's got people in it!"
"What kind of people?"
"Insects! Every last one of them! Isn't that fascinating?"
"Is it? Why?"
"Insects, Dale! All of this havoc and confusion, and... and..."
"Pain and death," Dale put in.
"Yes, that. It was all teeny tiny insects!"
"Are you sure they're teeny tiny?"
"Well, there is one pretty huge one. He's a scorpion."
"I hate scorpions."
"Everyone hates scorpions," Gadget reasoned. "Come on, let's go."
She scampered excitedly down the stone passageway, followed by Dale, Ben, Balthazar and the crocodile of rodents. Soon they had joined Chip, Monty and Zipper at a large wooden door, on the right of which was a small window - evidently the means with which Gadget had been able to view the interior.
"They're in there?" Balthazar whispered.
"Yes," Chip replied.
Balthazar nodded, and then signalled to his followers. In response they all produced candles or pouches of something or other, and Dale noticed that one of the six mice was wearing onions around his neck. Balthazar produced a match and struck it against the rough stone of the wall, and once every candle had been lit, Balthazar suddenly struck his sandalled foot against the large oak door. Surprisingly enough, it gave way.
"Holy cow," Chip murmured under his breath. "What the heck are they going to do now?"
His question was very soon answered. The five Rescue Rangers pinned themselves to the wall as sixteen rodents and one bat went charging past them and through the now open doorway. The response from inside the room was surprisingly calm.
"Balthazar," came a high-pitched voice. "You have found us, I see."
The Rescue Rangers peered into the room. Over the seventeen heads assembled in the room they could see a huge black scorpion leering nastily in Balthazar's direction. His gaze fell upon the mouse wearing the onions, and then upon the lighted candles. He seemed perturbed, but managed to remain calm.
"We have warned you many times what would happen to you if you entered our domain," he went on. "Why do you not heed our warning?"
"You have not warned us, insect, you have shown us, and we are here to put an end to your callous ways."
"Oh, Balthazar, do you not see?" the scorpion screeched. "What we are doing is right. "The people we kill, we kill because we have to. These are the people who destroy the world."
"My sister did no such thing!" came from among the crowd. "Why did you kill her?"
"You didn't have to kill my cousin," came another angry voice.
"You didn't have to kill anyone!" This was Ben.
A great number of angry cries erupted from the rabble until eventually Balthazar held up an eroded paw.
"ENOUGH!" he shouted. "You have had your chance. Now we must induce the only option we have left."
Balthazar made another obscure hand signal, and the group began to form a circle around the room. The scorpion emitted several screeches of protest. Several other insects now came in view of the Rescue Rangers, and all seemed to have something to say about what they knew would shortly happen.
"What the heck is going on?" Gadget asked Dale from the side of her mouth.
"Search me," Dale replied. "Ben seems to think it'll work."
The various parts of the perfect circle were now chanting something in some ancient tongue, and distributing herbs of all descriptions on the floor.
"This isn't going to work," Chip almost sang, scorn overpowering concern and fear.
"Psychological advantage," Dale whispered back. "Just look at the scorpion."
In the centre of the circle, the large insect was cowering on the floor, shaking uncontrollably and covering his head with his pincers. Whatever the hell this was, it seemed to be having some effect. The Rangers watched until the chant ended and the candles were blown out.
"Nooooooooooo!" the scorpion screeched.
"I really don't get this," Chip muttered, watching the scorpion reduced to a quivering wreck.
"You... you..." the scorpion stammered.
"We have cursed you," Balthazar said.
"You know the drill," Ben piped up. "You can carry on doing whatever you were doing, but if you hurt another living soul..."
The scorpion nodded. "I am fully aware of what you have done."
"Good boy," Ben said, very patronisingly, and then he looked to a woodlouse at his feet. "Hey, kid, show us how to get out o' here, can you?"
"Would you believe it?" Chip muttered, as he scrambled out from a breach underneath the tree directly opposite the Rangers' headquarters. "These things are always right underneath your nose."
"Actually, that's happened like twice ever," Dale pointed out, joining his friend above ground.
"So... what exactly was that?" Monty asked Ben, once they were above ground and the remaining eighteen individuals flooded out from below the tree.
"It was a binding spell," Ben replied. "It's supposed to stop the High Priest - um... the scorpion - from sacrificing anybody else."
"Oh... will it work?"
"Well, in practice, no, but it will work as a deterrent. The High Priest genuinely believes that if he kills deliberately again, he'll burst into flames. But listen, you guys should probably keep an eye out for if it happens again. It's possible that they'll appoint a new High Priest."
"Are you... going to stick around?" Monty asked him.
"No... no, I'm not," and Ben nodded to Balthazar. "I'd better go tell him I'm leaving the... uh... the circle."
Ben realised that any attempt at a reconciliation with Gadget was out of the question, so he made his apologies to her before leaving.
"I'll stay if you want me to," he said, "but I'm guessin' you don't want me to."
"I don't want you to," Gadget confirmed. They were in the kitchen, which was becoming a popular place for such conversations.
"Ok. But look, I really did have a good time seein' you. I'm just sorry I didn't leave the cult."
"In fairness," Gadget said, "if you had, we never would have put a stop to... that." She was unsure of how to describe it. "I just... I don't really think it was very good of you to put my life in danger, you know?"
"Yes, I know."
"And why did you lie about Foxglove?"
"She did ask me not to say anything."
"I don't know why, she's just weird like that."
"You know, if you're really all that bad, I think she should have warned me about you."
"Don't take it out on Foxglove."
"Oh, I won't," Gadget sighed. "I'm sure she had her reasons. If she had said something, I'd still have given you a chance."
"Yes. I believe it's possible for people to change."
"I will change some day," Ben assured her. "Foxglove said a moment ago I'm gettin' a little better every time she sees me." There was an awkward pause. "Well, I'd better... leave."
"Ok." Ben made for the kitchen door. "Ben..."
"When you do change... give me a call, ok?"
Ben smiled. "I might just do that."
Dale and Foxglove were mending bridges in the living room. Foxglove insisted that she was largely to blame for everything that had happened. Dale conceded that she was, but refused to condemn her for anything on the grounds that it was all unintentional.
"Besides," he added, "all you really did was lie 'til you were blue in the face about Ben, and even if you hadn't done that things would have turned out pretty much the same anyway."
"You're right," Foxglove agreed.
They kissed briefly, but then Ben emerged dejected from the kitchen and Foxglove very much wanted to talk to him before he left, though she had nothing specific to say.
"What are you going to do now?" she asked him over the back of the couch.
"Go home, I guess, although I'll have to get these wings fixed first."
"Well... good luck."
"Ditto." He spread his right wing and looked at the gash. "That ain't gonna be easy. So, Foxglove, when are you goin' to pay us a visit?"
"We'll see," Foxglove replied, "but in the meantime... say hi to Bob and Evelyn for me, will you?"
"You got it."
"No problem. I'll... see you."
Ben made his departure, and Foxglove turned back to Dale who immediately said, "I didn't know you were claustrophobic."
"Well, I guess there's a lot you don't know about me."
"I guess there is." He paused. "Are you going to tell me any of it?"
"Later," and she stood up. "First I'm going to clear things up with Gadget."
She made for the kitchen, but just before she could get there Chip, Monty, Zipper and Liddy all emerged from Monty's bedroom where they had tactfully retired.
"Ah, Chip, I've been meaning to talk to you," Foxglove said.
"I think you know what about."
"I think so too," Chip replied. "Look, I'll... I'll do it tomorrow, ok?"
"Tomorrow?" Liddy ejaculated. "You can't do it tomorrow, Chip. Gadget won't get over Ben for at least a week. For crying out loud, you've had all this time to ask her out and you decide to do it just after she breaks up with somebody else!"
Foxglove did not particularly want to listen to Liddy's ramblings, so she went into the kitchen where she found Gadget picking a hole in a tea towel.
"Um... I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Ben," she said straight away.
"No it isn't, I really should have done. I mean, he's a complete jerk but... I honestly thought he'd changed."
"From what I gather you honestly thought he'd changed last time."
"Well, he is improving," Foxglove said. A pause, and then, "He is cute, isn't he."
At this moment of reconciliation Liddy walked in. Oddly enough her lecture had been a short one.
"Are we all friends again?" she asked. Tact was not her strong point.
"Yes," Gadget replied.
"Ok, good," and she walked up to Gadget and threw both wings around her neck. "I know it seems hard now, but you will get over him. Just remember that he doesn't deserve you, and it's better that you found out now what a jerk he is."
Liddy broke the tight embrace and held Gadget by the shoulders. "Would you like to borrow one of my self-help books?"
"Uh... no thanks."
Eager to change the subject, Gadget gently took hold of Liddy's right wing and examined the gash in the centre.
"These aren't going to heal on their own, you know," she said. "What are we going to do with them?"
"Don't worry about that," Foxglove replied. "If we stitch them up they'll seal over. I don't know how long it'll be before we can fly again, though."
"It's going to be a nightmare," Liddy concluded. "That High Priest guy was a real jerk."
"He was really nutty, wasn't he?" Foxglove added.
"I'm really not sure about that binding spell of Balthazar's," Gadget said, chewing absently on her hair. "It can't work."
"It won't work," Foxglove said, "but he isn't brave enough to try it."
They all stood in silence for a while. Liddy glanced out of the window. It was almost morning, and Bloomindales would be opening very shortly.
"You wanna go shopping?" she asked Foxglove.
Liddy of course had to touch up on her make-up before she could be seen in public, so she left Gadget and Foxglove alone in the kitchen. The latter smiled pleasantly at the former.
"Do you want to come with us?"
Gadget looked up. "Me?"
"Come on, Foxglove, you don't want me dragging along. Three's a crowd."
"We're going shopping, Gadget, not for a meal in a romantic restaurant. Liddy says that shopping is almost as good as chocolate if you've just broken up with someone, and besides, I really want you to come."
"I do. Come on, Gadget, I'm not taking no for an answer."
This, Gadget realised, was a gesture indicating that Foxglove intended to expand their friendship. On reflection, she thought it was about time that she and Foxglove were on shopping terms, although she was not sure how chummy she could become with Liddy.
"All right," she yielded. "Just don't expect me to be in Liddy's league."
The smile on Foxglove's face showed just how much she had wanted to hear this. She took Gadget by the arm and ushered her out of the kitchen, for the mall awaited them.
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