* 10 *
Ladbrokes St. Leger festival starting on Wednesday was an important but by far not the only item of the schedule of the ten-day St. Leger Festival Week. On Monday and Tuesday Rescue Rangers were too busy to feel the holiday atmosphere, but on Wednesday they really plunged into it right in the morning. The sport event was scheduled to start at half past eleven AM, and the hotel's restaurant opened at nine, offering everyone to drink a glass of champagne and have a full English breakfast. Bollinger was among the first to accept the offer, and the Rangers had to follow suit.
"Maybe we're overlooking something?" Gadget asked when Alfred asked for a bill having called or blinked to no one. "Maybe he communicates with his accomplices in some different way? Through, like, Facebook?"
Chip shrugged. "Maybe. But most probably it falls upon Lindstrom, and they exchange information when they meet in person. Less risk that way. Also don't forget that this operation was being prepared for a long time, maybe even a whole year, so they don't need to guide their minions by their hands."
"That's bad," Dale commented. "It means their heads are screwed in the right way."
"Yeah, no Mepps or Mole for us this time," Chip nodded. As time went by, he wondered more and more how Fat Cat could stay afloat having such accomplices. One needed to be a real genius for it, no less. Or maybe he was still on top because he eliminated everybody capable to challenge him intellectually from his inner circle? After all, Rescue Rangers have never seen many of those who sang 'The Fat Cat Stomp' after that fateful night…
"Well, that blackbird isn't too bright either, and I don't mean his color," Gadget observed. "So…"
"He's an underling," Chip shook his head. "A chore bird, a local gangster. There are much more serious people out there."
"And if there aren't?" Dale asked. "Fear sees danger everywhere, you know…"
Chip pursed his lips. "I have no fear," he interrupted his friend. "I have apprehension. It's different."
Dale nodded in agreement. "I know. I'm no coward, too. But it still scares me a bit. I mean Meteor's fate if we fail. Maybe if we dealt with Shiner…"
Chip rolled his eyes tiredly. "No."
"Then maybe we should-"
"And what if-"
"Not worth it."
"Of course, not."
"But if we just-"
Chip brightened suddenly. "Sure! Let's try it!" He jumped up and ran out of the restaurant.
"What?- Wait!" Gadget and Dale shouted running after him.
"What the…!" Alfred Roughton Bollinger exclaimed when he came up to his car and saw both left wheels deflated. He looked around in suspicion, but when he saw that one car behind Cobra and two cars in front of it had their wheels deflated, too, he calmed down a bit. "Some youngster ruffians probably," he thought and took a pedal tire pump out of his car's trunk. He pumped hard for some time, then estimated his progress finicky, then looked at his watch and finally took out his phone.
"Huh! I knew it!" Chip exclaimed looking at Dale victoriously.
"Big deal," Dale leant on a tire of the car next to Cobra under which they were hiding. "Read my thoughts and now pretend it was your idea!"
"Idea was yours, but the planning was mine! You didn't think of deflating tires of adjacent cars so that Bollinger wouldn't suspect foul play."
"I'll tell what I thought of! I-"
"Hush! He's talking!" Chip cut his friend short and became all ears. He couldn't hear voice from the phone from this distance, and Bollinger as always was very laconic.
"It's me. I have problems, two flat tires, so I'll be late. No, I'll handle it. Wait there. Bye."
"I hope Gadget was luckier," Chip said, and the two chipmunks returned to the hotel's corner under cover of the cars. Gadget flew up to them a minute later, but could say nothing specific. Well, almost.
"He's got Dicota Secret protective film on his phone screen. It consists of thin fins with special microholes, and makes the screen image visible in only a very limited sector, no more than thirty degrees in all directions off the normal."
"So you didn't see the number," Chip deciphered.
"The angle was more than thirty degrees."
"Good! Or we'd have to fly to that Leeds again!" Dale joked.
Chip disagreed. "I don't think so. First, I bet he's meeting with Lindstrom since he wouldn't dare to use harsh voice and chopped phrases while speaking with someone more important, and he wouldn't call to warn someone less important. Second, I doubt he encrypted his phone book contact info." Chip thought for a moment. "Though who knows…"
"Yeah," Dale nodded. "If I were him, I'd encrypt everything. To keep it secret from Shiner, for instance. Just in case."
"True," Gadget acknowledged. "Who said they are friends? Maybe their union is a burden to them, and they wish to get rid of one another but can't allow themselves to do so?"
"That's probable, too." Chip agreed thoughtfully. "And it would explain many things. It would explain why Shiner didn't told Bollinger about us. He doesn't want to show his 'owner' other ways into the animal world but himself, at the same time not giving Bollinger any reasons to doubt his ability to keep situation under control. We can use it… Has he finished pumping?"
"One wheel's done," Dale reported.
"His pumping is good for an aristocrat."
"Or he bought a very powerful pump," Gadget offered an alternative explanation immediately. In any case, Bollinger dealt with the second tire even faster than with the first, and drove to the racecourse along the route the Rangers were already familiar with. Traffic was more intensive than yesterday, and the air as a whole was more like holiday, filled with hopes for the bright future, especially in the queues to the betting counters.
Bollinger and Lindstrom met in 'Reference Point' bar located in Leger stand, smaller but more prestigious than the main one. As compared to other racecourse parlors 'Reference Point' was a real Victorian club with its unwritten but strict code and yearly membership cards. Bollinger and Lindstrom had those, but police officers didn't. At least, the conspirators thought so while choosing the rendezvous point. Still, even in such an arduous place they avoided using complete personal sentences.
"So what?" impatient Bollinger went straight down to business.
"Bargained as if on the deathbed."
"And lose everything?"
"If they are real sports…"
"They aren't. Lord B. is."
"Don't worry about him."
"Right. I doubt his will mentions me."
"Not my style."
Bollinger abruptly changed the subject. "Who'll win the first race, what do you think?"
"You tell me."
"Don't overestimate me."
"As you wish."
Aside from that, nothing important was said, even covertly, but Rescue Rangers stalwartly waited for conversation to end, and only then allowed themselves to visit the kitchen in search of something edible. The day promised to be long and eventful. Seven races were scheduled to take place from 2 to 6 PM, and Hyperion who deserved close attention participated in the fourth of them. After that the racecourse belonged to participants of the future races and their coaches. Chip calculated it was the best time to make the first strike against criminals' plans.
The races' results were no sensation. Acknowledged favorites including Hyperion came first and won those who believed in them small but sweet money prizes paid by those who either didn't know horse racing very well or decided to take a risk. Warm-up and training runs of Ivory and her St. Leger Stakes competitors weren't very impressive either, although no one really expected the participants of Saturday's race to split their sides on Wednesday. That's why it wouldn't be exaggeration to call what happened next on the trailer parking lot the most shocking event of the day.
"Doctor! Doctor!" Mike the stableman, pale as paper, wailed. "The leg! The leg! She can't step on it!"
"Don't panic, just don't panic," the veterinarian kept saying trying to becalm himself mostly. It wasn't working. It's hard to gain a positive mood when your solid-hoofed ward suddenly loses ability to use one of her priceless limbs just three days before the race of her life. "What did you do with her?"
"Nothing special," the jokey standing nearby said nervously. "Two miles jogtrot, one gallop. Everything was normal!"
"Then I don't understand a thing," the doctor carefully palpated left forward leg which Ivory was diligently pressing to her chest, her face showing great pain and suffering. "No fractures, no dislocations… Gosh, if it's ligaments…"
"Mommy! Mum!" Meteor neighed from behind the barrier. "He's talking about you?! Are you alright?!"
"Don't worry, dear! I'm alright!" Ivory answered tenderly, but doctor Martin interpreted her neighing as a pain reaction.
"Can it be that bad?" he muttered to himself. "I'll be right back," he told the stableman and the jockey aloud, and exited the horsebox where he ran into Lord Baskerville and Edwin.
"How is she?" Rodger inquired demandingly.
"I don't know yet, sir. We need X-ray. I'm going there now."
"Just tell me what you need. I'll get everything."
"I know, sir," Martin nodded. He decided against speculating that there are things no money can buy without formal diagnosis at hand. Rodger knew that, too, so he dismissed Martin and entered the horsebox to personally assess the damage and prospects. Ivory felt bad about lying to her aristocratic patron, but McDuff had been eloquent and judgmental: she had to simulate trauma through whole evening or evening or even through the night if need be. As long as it would take the fish to swallow bait.
'The fish' swallowed bait much faster, though.
As soon as Jerry who was attending Meteor saw everyone was looking at Ivory's leg, he slipped out of the van and quickly got lost amidst tightly parked horseboxes. Through narrow passages which resembled Manhattan's road network from above he reached the opposite corner of the parking lot where he thought no one would interfere, took out his phone, changed the SIM, sent his text message…
"WUF!" McDuff barked loudly having sneaked up from behind a corner. He actually said 'Hands up!' but Jerry didn't speak Animal so he just dropped his phone which the dog caught with his teeth and ran under the nearest horsebox.
"Darned stupid bag of fleas!" the stableman swore traditionally. He picked up a board put under one of the horsebox's wheels, lay prone and looked under the car expecting to find and grab the phone the playful dog spat out. But then it turned out that McDuff didn't dropped the phone, and was taking it towards Baskerville Stables horsebox instead.
"Drop it! Drop it, you beast!" Jerry screamed and threw the board flat along the ground. It hit McDuff's rear leg making him whine a little, but he didn't drop the phone and went on in the same direction even faster.
"Stop you fleas ridden monster!" Jerry shouted jumping up. He ran around the van, picked up the board but didn't throw it right away, saving it instead to throw at the dog in the next passage with better aim and damage. But his first victim was a basically innocent red-haired stableman from another stable. Jerry ran into him from around the corner with the board over his head, making him drop his water bucket and press himself into the wall of the van to the right of him. Jerry was taken aback by this collision, too, and he missed his opportunity to throw his weapon at the dog which crossed the passage and disappeared under another horsebox.
"I'll kill you bastard!" Jerry promised aloud and ran to the next passage. The red-haired stableman crossed himself and slowly sat down into a puddle of water from his bucket.
But it was only a beginning of the chase. The next several minutes McDuff and Jerry spent running in circles through the parking lot, with the former trying to reach its lower right corner and the latter trying hard to keep him from doing so with the help of planar geometry he had always thought he'd never need in his entire life. Twice Jerry was close to catching the dog while crossing the passage, but the first time the board hit a wing of some horsebox, and the second time it scratched McDuff's tail tip making him run even faster. The dog even changed his tactics and started to move underneath the horseboxes along them hiding from his opponent behind wheels and crossing passages after he ran by and was looking in other direction.
Jerry quickly learned the lesson, though, and began to meticulously search the space under the horseboxes as far as his board reached, explaining accidental witnesses he was playing hide-and-seek with his dog. Some deceivable do-gooders even showed him where McDuff was, and the old dog had to run faster and hide better. Fortunately for him, the parking lot was spacious, but not endless, and finally he reached the finish line leading directly to the Baskerville horsebox. Jerry saw this and pushed the envelope to the limits. In next to last passage he threw the board at the dog smashing some headlight, and in the last he performed a desperate stage dive resulting in a hard landing on dusty asphalt. He followed the dog running towards Roger standing at the horsebox doors, sighed heavily, stood up, dusted down and ran out from behind his cover with a broad smile on his face.
"Oh, here you are! I found you at last!" he shouted joyfully running up to Baskerville who was curiously examining McDuff's trophy. "What a playful dog you've got there, sir! I just dropped my phone, and he picked it up and brought it to you! How you trained him? You must show him in circus!"
"You mean it's your phone?" Roger asked.
"Well, yes, sir! It is! If there's a scratch along the side, than it's mine!"
"There is," Baskerville acknowledged after careful examination. "Well, here it is, then, and…"
"Don't give it to him! Don't!" McDuff shouted. "He changed the card! Can't you see it?!"
Obviously, Roger didn't understand him, but his friend's furious barking made him suspicious. After all, he owed everything he had to the old McDuff. He examined the phone again. First the body, checking the scratch, then the screen…
"Wait a minute, Jerry. Why do you have O2? We all have Vodafone's corporate package. Right, Edwin?" he asked the horse trainer who just exited the horsebox.
"Right, sir," Edwin confirmed. He looked at the pale stableman questioningly. "Jerry, where the heck have you been? Meteor has neither water nor bedding prepared. What's going on?"
"I was…" Jerry waved his hand. "I was meeting someone, well, about food, horseshoes…"
"Who exactly?" Roger inquired. "Does he have a name? Though you probably called him anyway…"
"Wait, sir," Jerry protested, but Baskerville had opened contact list already.
"It's empty," he commented. "Keeping secrets? Good, good. Let's read messages then…"
"Sir, it's personal…" the stableman babbled.
"Personal, you say? 'Ivory has a leg trauma. Don't know what exactly. All details later'" Roger read aloud off the screen. "Sent to AB. Who's AB, Jerry?"
"He's… it is… believe me, sir, it has nothing to do with-"
"Let's check it," Roger stated unemotionally, and anyone who dared to question his aristocratic background and rights for the title would be put to shame with his voice's noble steel and his actions' determination. "Mike! Come here. You and Edwin will be attesting witnesses. I saw a signpost to the police station somewhere here, they'll quickly find out whose number this is. Don't stand still, Jerry, let's go."
Jerry felt himself covered with a cold sweat. "No, sir, no! Please! No police! I'll tell everything! Everything! Just don't go to the police!"
"Speak then," Baskerville ordered. "Who is AB?"
"Alfred Bollinger, sir."
"Bollinger? That haggler? What is your business with him?"
"Well, he asked me to inform him about Ivory's condition. He said he worked for Darley Racing and wanted to buy Ivory for them. So I kept him in touch about Ivory's health and results… But I did nothing wrong, I swear!"
"You mean aside from leaking sensitive information on the side?" Roger asked. "I'm glad to hear that. And how long did it go on?"
"Since like July."
"Since Derby, then. How much he paid you?"
"Thousand a month. And my mom is sick, and my brother's cripple, and-"
"And you can't go to jail," Roger said so unemotionally Jerry's heart sank. "Edwin!"
The trainer drew himself together. "Yes, sir?"
"Pay him all dues for two quarters and also all travelling expenses to anywhere he says. And give him his phone back," Roger handed Edwin Jerry's cell phone. "And see about him leaving. That's all."
Jerry was so glad he almost went crazy.
"Sir… Lord Roger, sir… You… I… Thank you, sir! Thank you!"
"Oh, and take back our corporate SIM from him," Roger issued Edwin additional instructions and asked Mike about tomorrow's weather, ritualistically ignoring Jerry. The stableman understood everything, but couldn't stop talking.
"Thank you, sir! Thank you, milord! You are a big man! A great man! The Man! In all caps! I'm sorry about everything, I'm very sorry, believe me! I'll never do it again! Never! I will never forget it!"
"Go on," Edwin cut him short. He grabbed Jerry by his shoulders and forcefully turned him around towards the lot gates. If it were up to him, Jerry would crawl away with no dismissal wage except broken legs, but Edwin couldn't oppose Lord Baskerville's will.
When they went away Roger told Mike to return to Ivory, then sat down in front of McDuff proudly wagging his tail and stroked his head.
"Nice work, old chap! I wish I could smell light fingers like you do!"
"It's a pleasure!" the dog barked.
"Good boy, good boy," Roger tousled McDuff's head, but then grew sad. "But if Ivory's injury is serious, it was of no use…"
"Don't worry, she is alright!"
"You think everything will be alright?" Roger asked as if understanding the dog's words. "I hope so, too…"
His hopes fulfilled. Almost immediately after Jerry's exposure Ivory stood on her 'injured' leg and effortlessly went to the veterinary facility. X-ray showed nothing. Doctor Martin, completely bewildered, said he understood nothing but suggested it was something psychological, probably linked to acclimatization, and if didn't repeat itself, then everything was alright and there were no reasons to withdraw from the race. When Roger Baskerville heard it he was over the moon, but Ivory was even more relieved to hear that all these pranks wouldn't keep her from running for the Triple Crown.
Aside from that, the first day of Ladbrokes St. Leger Festival was uneventful and ended peacefully.
* 11 *
"What a moron!" Alfred Roughton Bollinger swore, putting his phone down on the bedside table with a loud thump. "Failed completely, got himself caught, told Baskerville everything, ran to his Crapstone, spent the night somewhere getting drunk, and now he calls me and swears it was not his fault and he had nothing to do with it! Darned working class!"
"And I warned you," Shiner said in Human, his voice viperously coarse. "Trust humans, and you'll have problems. Trust me, and you'll have none."
"If you were the only one, I'd agree," the man hemmed. "But I'm not sure about your rats…"
"If you don't like rats, don't curse stablemen."
"It's so simple for you, isn't it?" Bollinger mocked the parrot's manner. "According to you, you are almighty. Why haven't you conquered us yet, huh?"
Shiner bit his beak jestfully. "Are you sure about that? Look at the cats and dogs, or even at me. Then think it over and tell me who's serving whom?"
"Ask cows at the slaughterhouses," Bollinger countered.
The parrot wasn't moved. "Once in Texas I heard a nice phrase: sheriff doesn't care about Indians' problems. And both are Humans, mind you. And I'm a parrot, I don't care about neither cows nor, I don't know, fish or whatever."
"You've been to Texas?" Bollinger asked in surprise. "How long ago?"
"I don't remember exactly," Shiner evaded the question.
"Want to know why I'm asking?" Bollinger slowly approached the cage and leant forward so that their eyes were leveled. "Some five years ago in Austin, Texas, there was a man who tried to rob JP-Morgan-Chase bank. He got into the vault, broke into the richest deposit boxes. But he wasn't able to leave. He was crushed by a downed grate. They found him in the morning. There were nobody else's tracks. It looked like he was working alone. That is, there were no other Humans with him. But some precious things were lost and never found. So I'm thinking, maybe it was you who bit the grate-controlling wire?"
"It wasn't me," the bird said casually. "It was my cover. He decided to kill me and leave there in one of the boxes. You won't repeat his mistake, will you?"
"You wish I would?"
"No. You show great promise, Alfred, and I'm tired of switching owners. I want peace and quiet at long last…"
"If the operation fails, I'll ensure you'll have eternal peace," Bollinger promised darkly.
Shiner pointed at the cell phone with his claw. "Until now we had problems only on your side."
"Probably," Bollinger acknowledged. "But you know what, I thought some and found one interesting thing. Jerry said he was caught by the dog of Baskerville's. It stole his phone, brought it to its master, showed him where to look, something like that. At first I thought those were just drunken ravings, but now I doubt it. If I have you, why can't Bollinger have a sage dog?"
"Dogs don't speak Human language, and Baskerville doesn't know Bird," the parrot objected in classist fashion. "But this dog, McDuff if I remember correctly, is very smart and experienced, so I'm not surprised he caught that stableman of yours."
"Don't be haughty, birdie," Bollinger wagged his finger at Shiner. "You can be a phenomenal conbird, but you'll catch nothing here without me or my men. So don't be too arrogant, you haven't earned to be yet."
Shiner narrowed his eyes evilly. "And if I remove McDuff, will I earn it?"
"You can try," his owner smiled. "But no victims. I don't need extra bodies, even those of dogs."
And thus the discussion was over. Bollinger went to take shower. Shiner, angry at the reproach of being bloodthirsty which he considered completely undeserved, cleaned his feathers furiously. Zipper sitting on a wheel-shaped five lamp ceiling chandelier finally allowed himself to move his numb limbs. It was both the most emotional and the most informative conversation between Bollinger and Shiner during the whole surveillance period, and Zipper had to retell it his friends as fast as possible. He usually waited for Bollinger to open the window, but this time he considered the option to squeeze under the suite door to make it faster. But then he looked at room watch and thought that his friends most probably weren't there yet, and it was better to wait here in case something else important happened.
In less than a minute ordinary room noises were joined by a low hum resembling that of a large beetle playing ratchet. None could be seen, and Zipper surmised the noise was produced by a cell phone in silent mode. Shiner thought the same and quickly opened a hatch in his cage's floor, not the one to the coins compartment, thought, but another one covering his own cell phone.
"I'm here," he shouted upon accepting the call.
"Hello, Shiny!" Zipper heard. Shiner found it uncomfortable to press his head to the phone, so the speaker was on, allowing Rescue Ranger to hear both sides. "Why aren't you asleep? Scavenger said you're in England. Fooling everyone like always, huh?"
"It's morning here, Diver," Shiner answered moodily. "When Scavenger told me he would employ the best, I couldn't even think he meant you. He's in such a bad shape?"
"Better than many." Diver wasn't offended, at least judging by his voice. "You think I can nothing but tear boxes and packages out of bystanders' hands? You're out of the loop, terricole!"
"Prove me wrong, one-eyed. But make it quick, the battery is almost out."
"Don't wriggle, you'll have it all. Your sardine-owner is a dead end!"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean there is one fitting giant squid but he's a little nuts, he won't talk."
"You call me to tell you've got nothing to tell?"
"Don't be hasty, Shiny-One-Kenobi. I have nothing to say 'bout the squid. But I know a little about those rodents visiting you on Monday."
Zipper grew wary. This Diver was surely talking about Chip, Dale and Gadget. The Rescue Ranger moved to the very edge of the chandelier's rung directly above the cage so as not to lose a single sound.
"I'm listening," Shiner rushed Diver on.
"I'm a migrating bird, you know. The fish looks where deep is, and pelicans look where fish is, he-he. Before nesting in San-Angeles I lived in another city not too far away. Lived there for a long time, by the way. And the longer I lived there, the more I heard about the team of Rescue Rangers. Two munks, two mice and two- no, wait, one, one green fly. Local Robin Hoods. Help the low, disturb the savvy. Fat Cat… you know Fat Cat? Sure you know Fat Cat. They terrorize him so much he's afraid to cross the street on red light. Cool, huh?"
"Not bad if it's true," Shiner acknowledged. "You mean they are here? In England?"
"So what if in England? They've been everywhere on the globe. People say they've been even to space, though it's doubtful, but people don't make up things like that about anybody. Nobody makes it up about you, for instances. And that's a sign, as old sailing masters put it."
"Alright, alright, don't scare me any further. You say there are five of them? So if it was them, I haven't seen one of two mice and a fly…"
The final word still in his beak, Shiner suddenly looked straight up at the chandelier and Zipper leaning over its edge. That is, he would have looked at Zipper were it not for lightning-fast reaction of the Ranger which allowed him to hide behind the rung. Still the parrot either saw or intuitively felt the movement that shouldn't have been there.
"Bye, Divey, I'll call you back," Shiner quickly bid farewell and flew out of the cage without hanging up. He took the shirt hanging on a back of a chair, used it to seal the gap under the front door, and only then turned to the chandelier.
"Twinkle-twinkle, little fly…" he sang off-pitch landing on one of the rungs and looking first under a lampshade holder, then into the lampshade itself. Zipper was glad he rejected the idea to hide in one of these half-transparent cupolas which had only one exit. For only constant changing of hiding places could save him now.
He wasn't afraid of the macaw as such. He had dealt with even larger and more dangerous birds before, and there were plenty of narrow gaps and expedient means to win the chase. The problem was, he couldn't allow the parrot to see him at all, even at a glimpse. As long as Shiner saw only two chipmunks and one mouse he had reasons to doubt he was dealing with the Rescue Rangers, and when Monterey and Zipper appeared on stage, there was a chance they would ruin all the evil schemes. But if Shiner knew exactly he was opposed not by the three but by the five, he would take that into consideration, take precautions, call on reinforcements; in other words, he would do everything to multiply the enemy's reserves by zero. Zipper couldn't allow that to happen; and now the overall success of the whole team depended on his ability to stay undetected…
"Got you!" the parrot exclaimed triumphantly quickly grabbing a small protrusion on the frame with his beak. It was metal, so he quickly spat it out. "Pouff! So much dust! And they claim to have four stars…"
Zipper took an opportunity to move to the inner side of central pentagon from which the rungs with lampshades protruded in all directions and hid in the least illuminated corner. When Shiner twisted awkwardly to put his head into the next lampshade clockwise, the fly dropped from the chandelier, spent some time free falling and used his wings just inches off the floor very neatly covered with motley flooring which Zipper blended in and flew under the bed unnoticed. He could hid under the armchair which stood closer to the front door, but he could use it to leave the suite only after Bollinger would come out of the bathroom and look for his shirt, and it's always better to hide and wait on larger area, not to mention Shiner would have trouble searching it because of low height of the bed's legs.
Apparently, the macaw thought the same, for after finishing the chandelier he turned his attention to the bed. Crouching so low that his stomach almost touched the floor, he started to search the bottom of the bed like harvester sweeping a wheat field. Zipper had to work miracles of reaction and agility moving from one lengthwise framework plank to another. It would be an impossible task if Shiner had a simple headlight helmet, but the parrot was like fifty years behind the Rangers in terms of equipment, and his weak scent couldn't compensate for lack of light.
"Where are you? Where are you?" Shiner nervously mumbled, turning his head from side to side. "Show yourself. I know you are here, I know it, I know everything- Ouch!" he blinked and shook his head to get rid of some dust in his eye, allowing Zipper to climb from under the bed and crawl under the bedspread. He wanted to crawl under it to the opposite side of the bed, closer to the door, but not all creases ran end-to-end, and he didn't want to make his own way so as not to be seen from the air. That's why the first bomb strike hit caught Zipper halfway to his goal.
"You won't fool me!" Shiner shouted, grabbing a fine shoe by its lace and lifting it up from the bed. "Went in hiding? You won't hide from me under the blanket! The bed is large, but the boot is XL!"
Rising up to the ceiling, he swirled the shoe like a throwing hammer and hurled it where he thought an enemy agent was hiding. "Squint-eyed, but got intuition," Zipper thought, thrown up by a springing mattress. To tell the truth, it was his fault he was now playing the role of a Battleship patrol boat. He chose the best, and thus the most predictable hiding places. Had he flown on top of the wardrobe, he would be watching Shiner throwing the shoe and shouting "Hit? Drowned?" from safety instead of crawling feverishly from one crease closed after hit into another opened nearby. The 'shell' was coming closer each time, and sooner or later the parrot would hit his target were he not distracted from his engulfing occupation by Bollinger coming out of the bathroom.
"Gone completely mad lately?" he asked threateningly weighing the shoe he picked up from the bed on his arm.
"Prophylactic safety measures," the parrot answered landing on his cage. "I was looking for bugs."
"With my boots?" Bollinger asked with sarcasm and went to put the shoe back where it was. He returned almost running, puffing with anger and waving his crumples shirt like a flag.
"What's it?! How is this?! How will I wear it now?!"
"Take another one," the parrot answered phlegmatically, watching the battered blanket. "I had an important conversation and didn't want to be overheard."
"Oh, I see," the man looked calmed down. He went to the wardrobe to get a spare shirt, but as he was passing the cage, he turned around suddenly and grabbed the parrot caught by surprise by his neck.
"Ah… Let go… You'll strangle me…" the macaw rattled trying to break free from the tightening fist.
"And not just that," Bollinger promised menacingly, bringing the bird closer to his noble face disfigured with fury. "Fooling me, aren't we? You think I'm imbecile? What's it all about? Answer me!"
"Do you see… the fly?" Shiner asked, incapable of looking around.
Despite his fury, Bollinger was intrigued. He glanced around. "No."
"But it's… there…"
"And what makes you think that?"
"I… saw it…"
Zipper grew cold. "Was all of it useless? I was so careful!" he thought, desperately analyzing the chase trying to determine where he made a mistake. But then he thought the parrot could be lying in order not to explain all the details to his owner. Chip was probably right: these two were the team de jure, but not de facto…
"And why do you think it's dangerous to us?" Bollinger went on asking.
"Witnesses… are never… needed… Can't breathe…"
The man gave heed to the warning and put the parrot down on the cage. Shiner coughed, catching air greedily.
"Where was it, you say? Here?" Bollinger came up to the bed and ripped both the bedspread and the blanket off it. "So, where is it?"
"Flew away while you were distracting me," Shiner sullenly explained the obvious.
"Sure, it was my fault, who else's!" Bollinger agreed sarcastically. He made the bed back, hanged the shirt on hanger and brought it out into the corridor along with the shoes for the hotel personnel to lick them into shape.
"STOP! THE SHOE! THE SHOE! OPEN THE DOOR!" was the first thing he heard when he stepped back into the suite.
"Are you totally crazy?" Bollinger asked. But he opened the door, and Shiner dived into the left shoe so deep only his tail remained outside.
"And?" Bollinger inquired meaningfully when the bird got back out.
"Fool's end," Shiner snarled back and examined the other shoe. The result was the same. "It's empty, too."
"There are other empty things here," the man leant forward and knocked his finger against Shiner's head. "Alright, enough of this wildness. I've got business to attend to."
Shiner, downcast as if under detain escort, walked back into the suite, got into his cage, closed the phone compartment, climbed up on his perch, and started to ignore his owner looking for a shirt to match his suit.
"SHIRT!" the parrot screamed and flew out of the cage almost tearing the door of its hinges. "OPEN! OPEN NOW!"
"Open yourself!" Bollinger shouted back from the bedroom. Shiner, to his credit, managed to do it, but neither shirt nor shoes were there in the corridor. Four-star hotel's disciplined stuff worked swiftly and silently.
"To heck, all of you!" the parrot swore while closing the door. "How do I know if it's those Rangers or someone else now?"
Watching him from around the distant corner Zipper wiped his forehead in relief. It looked like he got away with it this time, but he clearly couldn't watch Shiner anymore. The parrot would become ten times more suspicious now, and next time there may be no shirt in right place…
* 12 *
"You think so?" McDuff asked doubtfully, assessing the full plate of tasty smelling food Mike had brought him. "But you said they needed no corpses…"
"Doesn't matter!" Chip rejected his objections flatly. "No matter who said what. Shiner is not only really canny, he's also angered now and can cause trouble just for the matter of contradiction. So if your life is dear for you, don't eat food you have doubts about."
"I don't think I have about this food…"
"Me too," Gadget said, coming up to them. In her hand she was shaking a conic flask filled with transparent liquid with small pieces of dog food floating in it. "No cyanides, no arsenic, no cumarin. Can't say about anything else. Don't worry, when we finish the multifunctional analyzer-"
"But while we don't have it, eat nothing," Chip ordered McDuff sternly. "Go to some restaurant's back door, I don't know, maybe you can find something."
"I'd rather die than eat from garbage!" the dog said proudly.
The chipmunk shrugged. "Then bear it. After all, it's not for the life, just till Saturday."
"We can bring you the food," Zipper suggested. "I know where there's a pile of it!"
McDuff looked at the fly askew. "I'm afraid to imagine what you are talking about."
"In Bollinger's suite there was an advertisement booklet of a greyhound racing venue with a map. It's not too far from here, ten miles or so."
"Great idea!" Chip rejoiced.
"Yeah!" Dale joined in. "Hey, do you know if there's some chipmunk racing venue around?"
Zipper smiled guiltily. "Sorry, didn't see one."
"Pity… And what about a chocolate factory?"
"Dale, we're at work!" Chip pointed out angrily.
"That's for the future!" Dale objected. "We'll have to celebrate Ivory's victory with something tasty, right?"
"Let her win first," Gadget said. Even the Boeing case didn't make her as superstitious as Monty, but she considered it inappropriate to celebrate beforehand, too.
"Well, the greyhound food is better than nothing," McDuff agreed. "Maybe I'll outrace Hyperion some day, that would be fun…"
Rescue Rangers laughed at the joke and flew to Stainforth where the stadium Zipper mentioned was located. No races were held there on Thursdays, so there were not many people there, but the preparations to Friday's and Saturday's events was well underway, and the canine food storage-shops worked in full blast. Rescue Rangers gathered two liters of the most attenuated mix which should be enough for McDuff for at least a day, and returned to Doncaster where they witnessed a highly sententious scene.
"It's no place for dogs!" a long-nosed jockey shouted, red like his silks of Darley Racing colors, whose horse vividly demonstrated shock and terror caused by presence of McDuff sitting at Roger Baskerville's feet.
"Have a heart!" the young noble objected. "McDuff has never hurt any horse! He lives at our stables, and there were never any incidents!"
"There will be!" jockey predicted confidently. "Dogs are like that. Peace and quiet, and then — rabies! Don't be afraid, kid, don't be afraid," he caressed his horse's forehead and turned his anger back at Baskerville. "Are you sure it's not rabid? Satin smells rabid ones immediately!"
"I wonder where he learned that," Roger countered, making some bystanders laugh.
The jockey grew even redder and addressed a racecourse employee who came running to the site of conflict. "Get this dog away from here, or my boss will speak to your boss! You want international scandal? You want it?!"
"We don't," the employee shook his head and turned to Roger. "Lord Baskerville, sir, I'm terribly sorry, but your dog will have to stay off the racecourse."
"It's some kind of phantasmagoria!" Baskerville said. "McDuff isn't rabid, he's healthy, and he will stay here!"
"With all due respect, sir, it's impossible. If you plan to enjoy the services of our facilities, that is."
If Howie Baskerville heard it, he would have a feat of animal rage, but Roger knew where pride ended and stubbornness began.
"It's not the end," he promised the competitor jockey majestically, then turned to the racecourse employee. "Could you please suggest a suitable dog boarding house nearby?"
The employee felt there would be no scandal and felt a great relief. "Certainly, milord! There's one not too far away. If you bother to wait a little, I'll find out exact address for you."
"I'll bother to wait," Baskerville accepted his offer. Then he sat down and embraced McDuff face with his palms. "I'm sorry, chap, I did everything I could. Don't worry, we'll answer these Darley snobs on the racetrack!"
"Sure!" the dog barked his agreement.
'The Elms' boarding kennels was indeed both not very far away and suitable. In any case, McDuff found local food better than the sport mix the Rangers brought. And if compared with the racecourse parking lot, a facility consisting of three one-storied buildings with red tiled roofs separated from highway by a high hedge seemed the quietest and serenest place on Earth. Also, as Chip acutely pointed out, here McDuff didn't need to worry about food poisoning and any attempts on his life and health at all. Shiner proved he could make do without 'extra corpses'. If Bollinger instructed him to. But Bollinger knew nothing about Rangers, and couldn't instruct Shiner about them…
"Maybe we shouldn't go to him?" Dale proposed. "If we skip one day it won't matter. There could be lots of reasons…"
"No, we must go," Chip insisted. "If we don't, he'll know Zipper overheard him and we are indeed those Rescue Rangers. We must give him reasons for doubts. And the only way to do so is to behave ourselves as though nothing happened. After all, we need to hold only until Friday."
"Saturday," McDuff corrected.
"Saturday? Why… Oh, sure, Saturday! You think we won't hold until Saturday? We were fooling Capone and Fat Cat much longer!"
"For half an hour in total," Zipper estimated.
"Not too long," Gadget confirmed.
Chip wasn't discouraged. "It's a net time. We haven't spoken with Shiner for half an hour yet, so we have some safety margin. Let's go. But I want you to stay here, Zipper. You know why."
"I know," the fly nodded. "But maybe I'll watch from a distance?"
"No, it's too risky. Wait for us here. If we don't come back in an hour and a half, get Monty. You know where Shiner is."
Zipper nodded solemnly. Dale hiccupped. "Maybe we shouldn't, huh?"
"We should, Dale, we should. Don't whine."
"I can't," Dale confessed helplessly. "That is, I can, but then I will talk to imaginary superheroes. Make a choice: whining or superheroes?"
"Hospital treatment," Chip said through his teeth.
"Oh, please, stop it!" Dale objected passionately. "Doctor Freudenstein from SCH examined me and said I'm fully normal!"
"And how did you do it? Divided your age by two?"
"Not by two- I mean, not at all!"
"You fly or not?" Gadget asked from the Wing.
"Sure we do," Dale responded with a grim determination. "Say, Chip, as the death wish, may I sit in front this time?- Ouch! Joking, just joking! No need to bonk me every time!"
McDuff sympathized Chip and Gadget silently. He was sure their eccentric friend would get them into trouble during the meeting in addition to stringing their nerves on the way there. But he didn't know Dale very well. True, he was unbearable sometimes, but as the time went by, he was becoming more aware of where the division between harmless clownery and unforgivable foolishness lied. His cowardice was feigned for the most part, and served to demonstrate he was deliberately and openly yielding the role of fearless leader to Chip. If Chip weren't around, like in Druella O'Midas' dungeon, he would naturally assume the leadership and responsibility. But otherwise he didn't saw the reason to bother.
Shiner looked like nothing, even the visit of 'the sardine-owner's agents', could bother him, too.
"Good day!" he welcomed the rodents dearly as he opened the window. "You're early today. Something happened?"
"You can say so," Chip nodded. "Someone, apparently your owner, told one of Darley Racing's horses to pretend he was horrified by McDuff, Roger Baskerville's dog, so Baskerville had to put his pet into a boarding kennel. It's a huge blow against Ivory's and Meteor's security. Looks like your owner plans something very nasty. Do you happen to know what exactly?"
"I have no idea. But I don't like it, too. Maybe we should get some help while we still have time? Call on Rescue Rangers, for instance?"
Chip gave him a crooked smile. "I'm afraid that's not possible. We have some psychological incompatibilities with Rescue Rangers to say the least."
"Really?" the parrot showed great surprise. "How ironic. But why? They are chipmunks and mice like you. You should get along pretty well."
"Probably," Chip didn't object. "Unfortunately, the team we ran into consisted of two rats, a turtle, and a rhino beetle. There was one mouse, too, but she was even more aggressive than others, so the encounter wasn't peaceful at all. Well, it happens. But now we have the real plane!" Chip pointed at eh Wing over his shoulder.
Shiner felt himself a true master of the situation, but this remark made his face fall.
"You mean this is Rescue Rangers' plane?"
"Yeah. See emblems on the wings?"
"I do," the macaw acknowledged unwillingly. He was about to ask about those emblems himself. He asked Diver how they looked like, and planned to ran his guests into a corner with his question, but they evaded the trap nimbly. Even too nimbly if you think of it… "But why you didn't remove them?"
"They can be useful," the chipmunk eagerly explained. "Rescue Rangers are very famous, and under their guise you can gain people's trust much easier and achieve much better results than by using a name of the largest kingpin like our boss. Depending on whom you are dealing with, of course."
"And why didn't you introduce yourself as Rescue Rangers to me?" Shiner asked. "You think I'm a felon?"
"No, mister Shiner, of course not! We didn't want to lie to you, that's all."
"That's very noble of you. But you see, there's a problem. Either you lie to me by saying Rescue Rangers team consists of two rats, a turtle, a mouse and a beetle, or my old friend lies who says the Rescue Rangers are two chipmunks, two mice and a fly. And I don't have reasons to doubt my friend's words. You know what I mean?"
"I do, mister Shiner. But that's that rare occasion when both sides telling different stories can tell truth at the same time."
"Explain, please," the macaw showed sincere interest.
"With pleasure. Rescue Rangers aren't just one small group. It's a large movement with active followers on all continents, or even in all countries, and in the USA — in each of the states. So your friend… by the way, where's he from?"
"San-Angeles," Shiner automatically told the truth, immediately scolding himself for not giving less precise answer, but it was too late. "But the Rangers he mentioned lived in another city nearby."
"And when did he see them last time?"
"I don't know, I didn't ask. But he has lived in San-Angeles for quite some time now…"
"Oh, I see!" Chip rejoiced. "That explains everything. Sure, one of Rescue Rangers teams could consist of two chipmunks, two mice and a fly, for there are plenty of those in America. But I don't thinks they are still alive. The staff turnover is crazy there."
Chip was lying so inspiredly and smoothly that Shiner grew agitated. Maybe his shoe bombing of the bed and all his fears were uncalled for? It would be nice…
He promised his guests to find out as many details of Bollinger's plans as possible, and they bid farewell. Shiner returned to his cage, woke up Diver with his call and double checked he told everything he knew. Shiner ordered the pelican to find someone who knows more, hang up and pondered a lot.
The chipmunk's explanations were logical and plausible, but the macaw couldn't get rid of the feeling he was being skillfully given the go-around. What was it: paranoia caused by proximity of the most responsible part of the operation, or his sixth sense which saved him on lots of occasions? To answer this question Shiner decomposed the latest conversation almost word by word and determined what chipmunk's words alerted him most of all. The most suspicious was the remark that there were Rescue Rangers teams in each state of the USA right before the discussion of Diver's whereabouts. But Shiner didn't mention his friend lived in the USA. So the chipmunk knew it from another source, most probably the fly overhearing his morning call to San-Angeles…
Or maybe not? After all, these rodents came from the US, it's natural for them to mention their country…
But are they really Americans? Or are they really those who they pretend to be, for that matter?
Assume they are really some kind of private eyes working for a squid sardine-owner using the aircraft they captured from one of the Rescue Rangers teams just for camouflage to make ordinary animals more eager to assist them. Question: why didn't they introduced as the Rescue Rangers to him? Didn't want to lie to him? What makes him so different from other laymals? The fact he works for Bollinger? But they say they don't consider him guilty in his owner's crimes…
Or maybe they do? Or worse, they know he is the 'brain' of the whole operation?
If so, everything falls into place. They said they were the agents of the sardine-owner to make him hesitate about killing them in fear of retaliation. They know Bollinger isn't Speaker, and that the animal part of the project is run by his parrot. All their stories and explanations are lies to lull his vigil and give them time to ruin his plans. Not theirs, though. That chipmunk's in the hat. The other two said nothing during their meetings. Another proof that it's a lie, otherwise the 'Hatter' wouldn't be afraid that his friends said something contradicting their 'legend'. Why? Just plays it safe? Doesn't trust his buddies? Doubts their intelligence?
If Shiner had time to know them closer, he would probably find a way to make leverage out of it. Now he needed to quickly find a way to neutralize them. A distraction he prepared for Humans wouldn't probably work for them, and if he tried to fool them and make them leave the town as he planned before they would pretend to believe him, but instead make an ambush and ruin everything. He needs to call in the guys from the facility to form the secure perimeter, and hire DeThrush's gang to provide aerial cover. Calls, bargaining, fuss. It's horrible. But it's totally worth it.
* 13 *
Friday was sunny, warm and nervous. The closeness of the main race was felt almost physically. Average price of cars on the racecourse parking lot and betting sums were rising steadily not without help of Bollinger and his cartel members who started to bet decent sums on horses with low victory chances in advance to make their huge win in the Crown race less suspicious.
"So much waste," Dale commented another report by Zipper who was assigned to watch Bollinger instead of Shiner. "They could have bought so many candies and comic books for orphans with it!"
Gadget grew angry. "Dale, stop it! You mention comics and candies for the fifth time in half an hour. You are quite inventive in finding different contexts for it each time which is good for you, but it's no good! I mean not the good of inventiveness in finding different contexts; I mean you should stop it. Though I seem to have said it already…"
"I'd love to, Gadget, but it's so cold and hungry here I can't think of anything else!"
"Force yourself," Chip advised. He was tired and hungry, too, but stoically pushed traitorous thoughts about temptations aside and kept observing the racecourse grounds. When they took their favorite position on the roof of the main stand's stairway block, he habitually divided the space in sectors and studied each of them as a whole, then did it again, this time paying attention to smaller details. He kept doing it, and after tenth pass he had a highly detailed image of the racecourse imprinted in his brain. Now even a casual glance was enough to spot a discrepancy like arriving cars, quickly forming groups of humans or birds — in short, anything worth pointing his binoculars at. Still, he was constantly keeping a Baskerville Stables horsebox, Ivory practicing at the far end of the racetrack, and adjacent street, Ledger-Way, in focus of his attention.
And he was right about it.
"Nice running!" Gadget commented on another pair practice run of Darley Racing horses.
"Driving's even nicer," Chip added referencing a convoy of three police cars and two ambulances appearing at the end of the street a second before their sirens' sound reached the rodents' ears. Rescue Rangers ran to the roof edge overlooking the street and found another, even larger convoy coming from the opposite direction. It was obvious their destination was the racecourse.
Dale whistled. "Wow! All the Queen's men are here! I bet my tooth they busted Bollinger's gang and are going to arrest them!"
"Dave your teeth," Chip said. "They are already few and far between. I don't think they are after Bollinger. Ambulances, bomb squad, firemen, dogs… Smells like a bomb threat to me!"
His guess was quickly proved true first by Zipper's emergency report and then by the racecourse announcer.
"Ladies and gentlemen, attention, please. We are about to completely evacuate Urban-i stand and Lazarus Exhibition and Betting Hall. Please stay calm and closely follow the instructions of police and rescue officers. I repeat, we are about to completely evacuate Urban-i stand and Lazarus…"
"And what will we do now?" Gadget asked.
"As usual, everything we can," Chip announced pompously adjusting brim of his hat with both hands. "Zipper, clutch to Bollinger and don't let him go even for a second! Dale, Gadget, follow me! We'll help to look for the bomb!"
His friends froze with their jaws dropped.
"The bomb?" Dale asked carefully choosing his words. "But Meteor? But Ivory? But our mission?"
"He's right, Chip," Gadget supported him. "I'm sure the police will do it. Most likely it's some phone prankster overcelebrated and found some extreme entertainment!"
Chip frowned and looked into her eyes. "You can bet our lives at this version?"
"N-nope," the mouse stepped back involuntarily. She heard something like that two months ago in Canada near the stream when they waited for her direction-finder calibrated to locate the poachers' radar to activate. But if then his voice sounded downcast if not doomed, now you could feel damask in it.
"That's what I'm talking about. Our mission stays the same. We just got another one, more important and urgent. Yes, it could be just another phone prank. But what if it's serious? Real? We're in England. There is IRA, INLA and others, not to mention Al-Qaeda. What if we fly away just to hear the explosion and screams of dying? Will we be able to forgive ourselves for that? Forget it? Never! That's why our place is here! We know better than anyone else there are plenty of creepholes and dark corners in all buildings no bomb-sweeper will ever look into. So we must look there. Questions, objections?"
"But Meteor…" Zipper said.
"He won't go anywhere. The parking lot is guarded, there are security cameras everywhere, even the horsebox has a couple, plus there are plenty of policemen around… Why are you still here? Look for Bollinger, quick! We must know how he'll use this situation!"
The fly, persuaded and inspired, saluted in military way and dashed away. Dale barely subdued his urge to bolt upright. Gadget had no objections, too, although Chip's speech made her feel some not too pleasant emotions. He said something like that in almost the same voice on each of Saturdays, the thirteenths, except the first and the last. Which meant, if you looked deeper into it, that he had never said it. Until today.
Gadget noticed many times that her friends used phrases they uttered on those never happened Saturdays, although on different occasions and in other contexts, and asked herself how this could be explained. Just a coincidence? Her friends' personality traits which made them react at certain situation with exactly the same words? Or maybe it was a manifestation of something more important, fundamental, like quantum interference of parallel words in Everett-Deutsch multiverse? Quite a food for thought, you know…
"Gadget! Gadget! Are you coming?"
"Huh? What? Oh, sure! Sure I am!" the mouse shook her stupor off and ran after the chipmunks towards the roof hatch leading to the upper maintenance floor of the stairway block. Rangers waited for the crowd of people coming down from the upper tiers to pass, then picked the lock of maintenance door and started a thorough search of utility rooms paying close attention to those places which were hard for Humans and their dogs to reach. And in one of those Chip found… No, not the bomb at all. Monterey Jack.
"What are you doing here?!" they asked one another simultaneously calling Gadget and Dale in the process who came running almost simultaneously and asked the same question in chorus.
"I'm looking for bomb!" The Aussie answered all of them at once. "And what you forgot here? Why don't you watch Meteor?"
"Meteor won't go anywhere, the parking lot is guarded, there are cameras everywhere, even the horsebox has a couple, plus there are plenty of policemen around," Chip sputtered out everything he had previously told Zipper. "Found anything?"
"A couple of torn boots and a live World War shell," Monterey joked. "No, nothing yet."
"And what's there in your pockets then?" Dale asked pointing at treacherous protrusions on the strongmouse's sides.
"Why do you ask? Che-e-e-ese, obviously!"
"You decided to save all valuables from catering facilities?" Gadget joked.
"Not at all!" Monterey sounded insulted. "I did the pools and won honestly! You can choose the payment there, and I chose che-e-e-ese!"
"Must've been huge win," Chip observed. "How much did you eat if you stopped having cheese attacks?"
"Well, I ate much," the Aussie acknowledged. "I can't say exactly, but it was a huge pile, yes. But I bet much, too, no scanting. From heart and for heart, as they say!"
"And where did you get the cheese to bet? In catering facilities?" Gadget kept asking.
Monterey Jack pursed his lips in confusion. "My friend, Bengali tiger-millionaire, told me once: 'I can give all the details about how I got my second million, but never ask me how I got the first.' It's same here." He said in mentor tone. "By the way, why are we standing here and chatter idly? We've got a bomb ticking around if I understand it right!"
"True," Chip agreed. "Remember where you have been already? It's no use to look into same places twice."
"Sure I do! I started from this floor and moved towards you. So we can go down already."
"Great! We'll move to meet the bomb squad!" Chip declared, and the friends ran to the next floor down. It was larger than the previous one, but its layout was less entangled, and Rescue Rangers searched it through before the first Humans reached it. Then the rodents double-checked the floors already swept by Humans looking into every hole they could reach.
It took them slightly longer than three hours to reach the Exhibition and Betting Hall, and Monterey Jack, whose pockets had run almost dry by this time, offered to look for a bomb in the kitchen of a nearby snack bar. His friends thought a little and agreed that policemen had probably not very close attention to refrigerators and their contents, and their mistake must have been redeemed. Having rescued some food from outlasting its 'best before' date, the team returned to the staircase block's roof and observed the police removing their barriers. When all fire, police and ambulance cars left, and the racecourse gradually returned to normal life, Chip, Dale and Gadget said goodbye to Monterey who went back under his deep cover, and continued watching the Baskerville's team who were already going back to their horsebox which they found unlocked with Meteor gone.
* 14 *
"And that's all you can tell me?" Roger Baskerville was literally boiling. "Calm down and let the grass grow? You give this advice to all crime victims or only a selected few?"
"Lord Baskerville," the tired policemen repeated as calmly as he could. "I know how you feel. But the facts are self-explanatory," he motioned at the screen with a frozen recording from the horsebox's CCTV-camera. "The colt left the van by himself and on his own. It doesn't look like kidnapping."
"And what does it look like?"
"Like an escape in search of adventures. Pets do that sometimes. Or maybe he wanted to see his mom."
"His mom was here, on the racetrack!"
"But the colt didn't know it. He missed her, went looking for her…"
"Do you really believe what you are saying?" Roger asked sarcastically.
The policemen shrugged. "I use facts. Of course, I'll send all the materials to the Central, they'll order county police to be all eyes and we, as usually, will do everything we can. But I think he'll return on his own. Either here or to your estate."
"You are joking? It's two hundred miles away from here! How can it be?"
"Cats and dogs happen to travel even longer distance. And this colt here was smart enough to open the door and evade the security cameras on the parking lot. He'll go far!"
"Not funny," Baskerville said coldly.
"As you wish, milord," the policeman didn't argue, demonstrating he was fed up with this noble victim. "When we have some news, I'll inform you."
"Now you are talking," Roger complimented him condescendingly and imperiously strolled out of the room and went back to his horsebox.
"Is he back?" he asked Edwin first.
The horse trainer shook his head sadly. "No."
"What about Mike?"
"Then we still have hope, " Roger checked his phone just in case, but the stableman sent to ask his colleagues about Meteor hasn't called yet.
Baskerville looked into the van. "How is she, doc?"
"Seems calm," Martin answered, tapping on Ivory's dismally lowered neck. "But who knows what's inside."
"How is her leg?"
"Seems fine. What did the police say?"
"He ran away and will come back."
"They'll go to all length in order not to work," Martin sighed heavily.
"Exactly," Roger said. He came up to Ivory and touched her broad nose bridge with his fingers. "Don't worry, girl, everything will be alright. We'll find Meteor, I promise you. I know you have greater things to worry about now, but I must ask you: please, brace yourself and win the tomorrow's race. We've come a long way to this moment. Don't allow troubles to break you. Alright?"
The filly croaked harshly.
"Alright, alright, don't be angry, I'm leaving," Roger said soothingly and left. Soon the veterinary left, too, but Ivory wasn't alone for too long.
"Lady Ivory?" a voice came from the window opened to let fresh air in. "It's me, Chip the Rescue Ranger."
"Oh, here you are," the horse uttered darkly without turning her head. "What have you come for? Meteor isn't here."
"I know, Lady Ivory."
"He knows, come o think of it. So what? You promised it won't happen, you said Meteor will be alright! And what's the result?! Where is he?! Where is he, I ask you?!" she shouted the final phrase turning towards the window with all her body, and Rescue Ranger was almost blown out.
"We'll find him," he said. "We know who did it. Tomorrow he'll be here. That's why I want to ask you: don't cede the race."
"Are you mad?! They'll kill him! They will send not recorders but his pieces!"
"Another message from them?" the chipmunk guessed.
"Of course, what else?!"
"Of course, what else?!"
"I see," Chip found it unnecessary to remind the horse of her promise not to play the voice recordings in their absence. First, the circumstances weren't suitable, second, he was experienced enough to closely reproduce the cassette's contents. Sure it would be nice to know exactly it was indeed Shiner's voice there, but there was no serious need for it, too. "Lady Ivory, I swear we'll bring Meteor back. Safe and sound. Here, take this."
"What's that?" Ivory came closer and narrowed her eyes to examine a strange thing Chip took out of his jacket.
"It's radiomicrophone," Chip explained. "It's inserted in an ear. When we free Meteor, we'll communicate with you by radio and you'll hear his voice. We will be too far away, so the communication will be one-sided, and for you to be sure it's not some prank ask me a question now which only Meteor can answer, and he'll answer it on the radio."
"I don't like it," Ivory said, alarmed.
"I understand, but there's no other way for us to 'show' Meteor to you without the criminals knowing it. This way you'll know he's safe and you are free to win the race and the Crown. Or maybe you have a better idea?"
Ivory had to admit she wasn't able to come up with anything better.
"Ask him what bedtime fairy tales I told him."
"Bedtime… fairy… tales," Chip repeated writing the question down in his notepad. "Got it. Now if you allow me…"
Ivory allowed, and Chip climbed on her head and fastened the mike to her ear.
"Trust us, everything will be alright," he promised again and jumped down from the window to the ground where Gadget and Dale were waiting.
"OK?" Gadget asked. "She neighed so loud it scared me!"
"What?" Chip asked taking his earplugs out.
"I asked if it's OK."
"OK," the chipmunk nodded. "Thanks for the plugs, they were really useful. You did what I asked?"
"Yup, here it is," Dale handed his friend a piece of squared paper with a scheme of parking lot surveillance cameras and horseboxes placement. "Now what?"
"We'll follow the blind zone searching garbage cans along the way."
The friends went around the horsebox and followed the rout Meteor had to follow to stay away from surveillance cameras, looking into all garbage cans they encountered. The walk was long and at times even circular, but finally they reached the lane next to the Darley Racing horseboxes and found a large pile of various pieces of a white self-stick film in the garbage can there.
"That's it!" Chip announced after examining the film. "Just like I thought. Now we can visit Hyperion."
Gadget sighed heavily. "So he was a part of it? And I hoped so…"
"Unpleasant, I agree," Chip shrugged. "But it's clear someone lured Meteor out, someone he trusted. All Baskerville's team members have alibi, not to mention that the Human would have opened the door himself. Only animals remain, and Hyperion is the prime suspect."
"Call of the Ancestors is a powerful ability in all games," Dale stated weightily.
"Call of the Plane is more useful in real life," Chip said and winked at Gadget. She smiled and fetched a Ranger Wing remote control from her pocket. It worked in a similar way to Gyrotank remote control. Gadget installed RC-block on the Wing a month ago following Monterey Jack's repetitive inquiries. The Aussie grew tired of working as a full-load test dummy, and the RC proved its usefulness several times. Twice it allowed the Rangers to escape death traps and once saved them from injuries during test of new vertical flight stabilization system. Gadget explained the crash with her voluntarily sending the plane into beyond-the-critical maneuver she would never did if she and her friends were on board, but her friends still felt a bad aftertaste.
Gadget landed the Wing near them, and the three Rangers flew onto the Hyperion's horsebox roof, and climbed down to the window using their ropes. The air conditioner was working inside, and the window was shut tight, but Rangers were familiar with this lock system, and it didn't stop them.
"Sir Hyperion?" Chip called politely. The famous horse was kept separately from other horses, in his own luxury box in the rear of the van with exit through a wide ramp. Chipmunk's voice caught him by surprise.
"Huh? Who's there?!" he turned around almost in midair and looked at the rodents with widened eyes. "What are you doing here? You know how to knock? Who are you to begin with?"
"We are the brave Rescue Rangers!" Chip introduced them, lifting his hat slightly.
"It's about Meteor, your son," Gadget continued, "He was kidnapped today…"
"Kidnapped?" the horse sounded surprised. "I heard he ran away on his own, something like that…"
"Please, sir Hyperion," Chip waved his hand. "We both know he didn't run away on his own. If we were Humans, I'd go straight to the police, but we have none, so I came to you to ask a single question: why?"
"Why what?" Hyperion pretended to not understand.
"Why you helped to kidnap Meteor, that's what!" Dale said.
The horse snorted haughtily. "You're out of your mind! Go back to where you came from! The conversation's over!"
He turned his tail to the Rangers, but they didn't move.
"You won't change anything by sending us away," Chip went on casually. "The fact is, you lured Meteor out by promising him to show your horsebox. You led him here in such a way that you weren't caught on cameras, and handed him over to the criminals. They loaded him into an ambulance they drove here beforehand, camouflaged with self-stick film. There were plenty of ambulances here today, and nobody paid attention to the extra one. So we know how you did it. But was to why… So, sir Hyperion, why? I hope it's not because of some petty envy? I'm sure you are too noble for that. Sure, Ivory can win the Triple Crown you failed to win in your time, but that's no reason to-"
"FAILED?!" the horse shouted turning back to Rangers, his face distorted with epicene fury, his nostrils wide and eyes bloodshot. "Failed?! No way! I'd have never failed! I couldn't have failed! I had to become the first Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky! And they… They didn't enrolled me for St. Leger Stakes! I will become cheaper if I win the race where stamina is more important than speed, they say… Is it normal? It's idiocy! The winner spent two seconds more than I spent practicing without effort! I'd have finished five length ahead of him! Or even more than that! Now you understand me?! Understand what it means to live with it?!"
"But it's not Ivory's fault," Gadget pointed out rationally.
"Ivory is an opulent goose! She runs like a cow on skates, but has an arrogance of Human Queen of England! She doesn't deserve to win, and only the worthy should win in sport. So you can say I'm simply restoring justice."
"Yeah," Dale nodded. "And I'm the Pope!"
"And what about Meteor?" Chip got back to topic. "You're restoring justice for him, too?"
"I saved him!" Hyperion stated lordly. "They wanted to shoot him with a narcosis dart, but I explained it's too dangerous to use that on young colts, the doze is too large, so I fed him some food mixed with soporific. Right there, by the ambulance."
"And Humans didn't notice you?" Chip asked. Theoretically, the animals could drive, the rats, for instance, but Bollinger's words to Lindstrom suggested there were at least several Humans involved, and also it was much easier for Humans to load Meteor into the ambulance and leave the racecourse premises, for the ambulance without a driver could attract some unneeded attention.
"They were inside, waiting for my signal. When Meteor went asleep, I knocked at the rear door and walked behind the corner. They loaded Meteor and left. That's it."
"That's it?!" Gadget shouted shaking her fists. "Your son is taken by the criminals who are about to kill him! Do you understand it?!"
Hyperion was amused by her rage. "Don't be hysteric, damsel. Nobody will kill him. What for? He won't tell Humans anything, and he can tell animals whatever he likes, that won't change anything. That's why soon after the race they'll take him close to the Baskerville estate and let him go. He'll find the way from there."
"And if Ivory wins?" Dale asked. "Then what? Will they let him go? I don't think so!"
"You see, my dear lad," Hyperion explained condescendingly, "I've been in racing business for a very long time, and I know for sure that it's much harder to win the race than lose it, and it's absolutely impossible to win if you don't want to. So if Ivory wins, it will mean she knowingly chose the Crown over her son. In that case, how can you blame me?"
Gadget's heart wept at such a cynicism. "You're a monster! Beast! Vader! No! Worse than that! You're egotistic heartless narcissus! Even your son doesn't mean anything to you! I can't believe someone like you even exists!"
"Don't be hysteric," Hyperion repeated, though it was clear her words hurt him. "You're nobody without a name. And I'm Hyperion! The greatest racing horse of the decade! The sire of champions! I have like twenty children, by the way! I've no time to love them all, and you can't have enough love for them all! I haven't seen most of them at all! The sire did his duty and is let go. Any other question? Even if you have any, still go away, I have to prepare for another breeding session."
The horse went away to the left wall, sipped aroma water from an automated drinker and began to wash his moth loudly and intensively. The horsebox really lacked a make-up mirror with lamps along the edges and piles of cosmetics like those in Canina La Fur's wagon.
"Good breeding," Chip wished him, and the Rangers left, slamming the window behind them.
"Whalebone snob!" Gadget's rage was kindling all the way back to the roof. "Broom with ears! I thought he was forced to, blackmailed into! And he… He's a skunky scoundrel! His place is not on pedestal but on the dump site! Waste dump site! Meat factory waste dump site!"
"I don't know about meat factory dump site," Chip said, "but we'll try to deal with pedestal." He shook his hat and a radiomicrophone fell on his paw, the same as the one he gave Ivory. He put him back into the Wing's cargo hold and pressed the 'playback' button on the control panel.
'Sir Hyperion?' 'Huh? Who's there?! What are you doing here? You know how to knock? Who are you to begin with?...'
"Great," Chip commented when the recording ended. Until now they had used this system to record and store police communications only, but the first 'spy' fry wasn't a flop at all. "We just have to put it on air, and Hyperion is busted!" he threateningly shook the microSD he took out of the recorder.
"Right!" Dale was so exuberated he started dancing. "We'll circulate it on all the TV channels! And on the radio! And send it to the press!"
"Great idea!" Gadget agreed. "To 'Horse and Hound' magazine! Very suitable!"
"But very unlikely," Chip put his friends back on the ground. "I think we have to look for a less far-reaching but more reliable option. Let's go, we've plenty of things to do!"
The friends got into the Wing and flew away, but less than an hour later Hyperion heard their voices again. And his own, too.
'Sir Hyperion?' 'Huh? Who's there?! What are you doing here? You know how to knock? Who are you to begin with?...'
"Am I hearing things?" the horse thought. He came up to the window and put his front legs on the wall to look outside. It took him quite some time to find the source of the sound, but finally he noticed a loudspeaker on a nearby lamp post used to announce the race starts and their outcomes. Now this and more than hundred other loudspeakers spread across the racecourse grounds were reproducing Hyperion's conversation with the Rescue Rangers word by word. Of course not everyone got it. The Humans thought all this neighing and squeaking to be some kind of a bumper or technical issue.
But as they say, those who should have understood it did it. Ivory concluded that all stallions were boors, and Candy Girl, the Red Star of Texas, decided she want nothing from this reprobate including children. She told Hyperion everything with Southern severity, candidness and extreme humility of Hyperion's male pride and self-esteem. The mating was ruined, which cost Hyperion's owners great financial and reputation losses, and horses brought to Doncaster from all around the world spread the news of Hyperion's crime with cruel rapture with the downfall of their envy object. So the former idol instantly turned into a persecuted and scorned pariah destined to live the joyless rest of his life on a stud farm's backyard and be euthanized as a result of the infirmities of old age.
But that would be later. Right now the voice recording was being wafted over the racecourse, while Rescue Rangers were flying to 'The Elms' boarding kennels to consult McDuff.
"Wait a minute!" Dale exclaimed suddenly. Still under the impression of the 'bug' trick, he replayed the conversation again and again in his mind and noticed something important. "So the crooks arrived at the racecourse beforehand on the camouflaged ambulance? But then they must have known there would be plenty of ambulances there, which means… Bollinger called the police about the bomb!"
"Basically, yes," Chip confirmed.
"And we bought it!" Dale slapped his palm against his forehead. "Shoot! I knew it was some foul play, I knew it!"
Chip shrugged. "I felt many things, too. Too bad the feelings aren't enough."
"Strange," Gadget said, surprised. "You usually act as your intuition suggests you, and this time-"
"Okay, okay, I messed up!" Chip acknowledged with a strain in his voice. "But I know exactly where Meteor is held!"
"Seriously?" Dale cheered up. "And where is it?"
"At an abandoned horse farm Lindstrom bought from Howie."
"Now slower and step by step, please," Gadget demanded. Usually it was Chip who had to interrupt her and ask for explanation, and he liked this change of roles very much.
"With pleasure," he said, proudly thrusting out his chest. "Lord Howard Baskerville was into horseracing. He left a full complex of horseracing real estate. Roger gave Howie a part of it. Howie abandoned it. So, the horse farm is abandoned and is a perfect place to hide a stolen colt."
"You're reading pudding grounds," Dale waved his hand. "We need not abstract things but exact address."
"Address isn't a problem. We'll ask McDuff what facilities Howie took and choose the one best suitable for slipping Meteor to the Baskerville estate. I presume it will be a stable near Epsom, where Derby is held. First, it's right along the way from Doncaster to Croughborough. Second, Derby is a very prestigious race, and if Bollinger plans to turn horse blackmailing into an industry he desperately needs to have some safe private property nearby. Third, it's very ironic to use former Baskervilles' property against Roger Baskerville, and Shiner used the word 'ironic' several times during our meetings. Considering all this, I think I have the right to say I know where Meteor is held."
"It's only your guesses," Gadget objected.
Chip rolled his eyes. "You have just told me to listen to my intuition. That's exactly what I'm doing." He felt his explanations weren't enough for his friends, but he didn't like to be on defense, so he decided to seize the initiative and asked a question which had bothered him for some time. "By the way, Gadget, who's Vader?"
Gadget shook with her entire body. "Uhm… Why do you ask?"
"You called Hyperion 'Vader'."
"Did I? Oh, maybe I did… Well, it's… it's from my prophetic dream! Don't pay attention!"
"No, quite the opposite… Well, not quite… Just some not very pleasant person. Very unpleasant even, I'd rather say."
"But not as unpleasant as Hyperion?"
The inventor shook her head. "No. I guess not. But they are hard to compare. They are too different. But Hyperion is still worse."
"He's a real monster!" Dale chorused. "I bet he's a relative of Lector, the vampire horse of Hannibal! Looks like the Fookman's new chronometrics has some sense after all…"
Chip rolled his eyes. "Dale, I'm tired of repeating: it was the April Fool's Day episode of 'The History of Mankind'!"
"So what? It doesn't make Hyperion any better!" Dale countered, and Chip didn't know what to say. Not to mention they reached their destination.
McDuff wasn't glad to hear the news of Meteor abduction to say the least. But the story of Hyperion exposure sweetened the pill, and when Chip heard that Howie got a horse farm in Albury, near Epsom, he stated that Meteor is held there, causing the old dog to cheer up dramatically.
"You've got everything under control, I see! That's just great!" he expressed his astonishment. "It's strange those crooks did grab the kid with you around."
"It happens," Chip commented briefly, and the Rangers bid McDuff farewell and flew to 'Earl of Doncaster' to meet Shiner and play their roles of 'sardine-owner's agents' for the last time. At least Chip hoped there would be no need to use this legend anymore.
Apparently, Shiner was also tired of these games. His irritation, though, could be explained with Chip not gently knocking but hitting the window hard with both his fists and feet.
"Are you crazy?!" the macaw snarled instead of greeting. "What if Alfred was here?! How would I explain you to him?!"
"Sorry, nerves," Chip apologized without regret. "Meteor is kidnapped! Right from the racecourse! In broad daylight!"
"I know, I've been informed," Shiner said, unnaturally calm. If Chip really considered him a friend, it would be a great reason to doubt it, but Chip didn't and pretended everything was alright and he was interested in an entirely different matter.
"Who informed you? That blackbird? Did he see anything else? The process of kidnapping, for instance?"
"No, sorry," Shiner made a helpless gesture with his wings. "But he heard you interview with Hyperion. That is, some Brave Rescue Rangers' interview with Hyperion, but the voices were yours for some reason. How can you explain it?"
"What's there to explain? The more famous Rescue Rangers are, the more effective our cover is! A smart bird like you should guess such things yourself! And what's the difference? Are you with us or no, after all?"
"With you, of course, we have a deal…"
"Exactly! We're in the same boat! If Ivory loses tomorrow, our boss will take this boat and — crack! — reduce it to splinters! So we must find Meteor, quickly! You know where Bollinger keeps him? Can you find out?"
"Well…" Shiner needed some time to recover from such an aggressive charge. "To tell the truth, it's difficult-"
"But he trusts you!"
"Mister Shiner, what 'buts'?! What 'buts'?! There can be no 'buts' at all!"
"But I can't just ask him-"
"Then ask him not just! Cover your interest! Ask him in a roundabout way! Or just make a scandal! 'We are partners! Don't you trust me? How dare you!' It works!"
"When Bollinger goes to sleep?"
"Is he asleep by eleven?"
"Then we'll meet at eleven PM! How many times have you been here?"
"Then you choose a remote and deserted meeting place!"
"Well, we can meet here, on the roof-"
"No way! It's too open! If you have blackbird agents, you think Bollinger doesn't have some? No, we need something different. Some cabin in a wood, in thicket, so you could come and leave unnoticed. Do you know something like that?"
Shiner thought a little. "You know, I do. Have you been to local golf-club?"
"The one amidst the racecourse? Yes."
"Near the second hole there is a small equipment shed behind the trees. At least it was there last year. I think it's a good-"
"Agreed!" Chip interrupted him impatiently. "Great! Then tonight at 11 PM in the shed near the second hole! Don't fail us, you're our only hope! And be careful! Good luck! See you later!"
Rescue Rangers quickly got into the Wing and flew away towards the racecourse. Shiner massaged his ears, still ringing from chipmunk's speech, piercing and rapid like a machine-gun fire, then leant over the inner window sill and asked: "Got everything?"
"Yes, sir!" the largest and darkest of the two rats sitting on a windowside table answered. "At eleven in the shed near the second hole. What should we do with them?"
"Something that leaves no identifiable bodies."
"Explosion? Fire? Acid?" the second gnawthroat asked in a business-like manner.
"Fire," Shiner made his choice. Explosion would be more effective, but there was no need to increase the degree of terrorist activity any further, or, God forbid, the race would be cancelled.
Shiner let the rats out, closed the window, returned to his cage and read the latest Diver's message once again. It contained excerpts from his interview with already mentioned criminal boss Fat Cat. When pelican asked the cat about Rescue Rangers he heard many new and interesting words, of which he chose not the most picturesque but the most informative for his message.
As the result, the team leader, chipmunk named Chip, was described as 'nasty squeaking lucky snoop in the hat', his congener Dale — as 'nasty tasteless half-wit with nose and brains frozen off', and mouse named Gadget — as 'nasty beyond edibility silly clumsy goose with a broom on her empty head'. The descriptions were too incomplete and emotional, but the rodents he met basically suited them.
But aside from them, if Fat Cat didn't lie, there were two additional members of the team: 'nasty fat dumb cheese-addicted gluttonous moustache-wearer' and 'nasty filthy smelly dungy fly colored like a rotten mould'. Shiner hasn't met those yet, aside from that fly hunt he might have or have not seen. Why only three of Rescue Rangers came to him? Tried to hide their true numbers from him? Or those two have their own assignment on the other end of the globe? Or they are dead, for there was reason why that Chip mentioned the crazy staff turnover, plus the flies don't live for too long normally. Will they attend this meeting, or will they come after him later when they find their friends dead?
"I shouldn't have sent everybody back to Albury. I should have told at least five of them to stay here…" Shiner thought, suddenly cold with fear. But he immediately scolded himself for this weakness, unsuitable for the bird of his caliber. That's what those rodents expect of him: to wind himself up and panic. They are smart, no matter how hard Fat Cat tried to humiliate them. The cat was envious and angry. But that fur piece couldn't understand that by humiliating his opponents who had defeated him so many times he humiliated himself much further. Still, what one could demand from non-flyer? Truly large-scale thinking demands wings.
"Everything's under control," the macaw said to himself. Hennessy and Burn are experienced fighters, 'graduates' of Ulster school, beaten several times by Shiner himself. It would be nice to arrange for doubles for them, but DeThrush was covering the ambulance, and Shiner considered the rest of his gang even less competent. In any case, he warned the rats that there could be five Rescue Rangers, so even if that fat mouse and fly show up, they will be dealt with. And if they come here, he will find a way to outsmart them. If worse comes to worst, he'll wake up Alf and let the visitors deal with him. Oh, that would be quite a show!
Encouraged by these thoughts, Shiner set the cell phone's alarm clock for 11 PM and hid his head under the wing. The vibrosignal wouldn't wake Alfred up, but would signal him to fly to the roof and watch a distant but heartwarming fire of a funeral pyre for, as Fat Cat would put it, 'nasty Refuse Rangers'. He failed to lure him into the suite and into rats' claws, but it turned out even better. Cleaning up a mass murder scene is such a dirty work…
* 15 *
The crescent moon was almost fully covered with low clouds, but it was still easy for Rescue Rangers to find the batten shed. Used by golf-club personnel to store field-attendance equipment, this accurate cube stood out of the surrounding forest like some alien life form. It was locked and smelled with gas. Using a human-made key-ring flashlight, Chip, Dale and Gadget found a crack in the door large enough for them to squeeze through, entered the shed, looked around…
And almost immediately the crack behind them became sealed with a big rock propped with a stick to be sure.
"Burn, fire!" the trapped rodents heard. Now it was clear that there was a reason for the shed to smell with gas. Someone poured it on the walls generously, and one spark was enough to turn the wooden structure into a blazing torch. There was nowhere to run. The friends could only hope for a sudden and blistering rain capable of soaking the wood in a blink of an eye, or for something bad to happen to Burn responsible for lighting the fuse.
"Burn?" the commanding voice asked angrily. "Burn, are you sleeping there? Burn! Hey, what's that? What's this cone doing here?.. Darn! You scumbag! Come here, I'll make you- Ouch! Argh! All right, you're dead now.. Oh!.. Come here, you piece of- Ah! What's you're up to- Oh! Here, have it- Argh! Oh! A-a-argh! Ugh! My teesh… Mommy…"
The first shouts and screams were accompanied by dull hits, but the last word was followed by a loud crack and dingling of shovels and rakes, shaking after something heavy hit the wall of the shed. Everything went silent for a few seconds, then the stone covering the exit rolled away, and Monterey Jack's head appeared in the crack.
"Long time no see, guys?"
"You bet!" Dale answered happily.
"You dealt with all of them, or only two?" Chip asked.
"But there were only two of them!" the Aussie reported. "I've been cuckooing here for an hour and a half, and there was no one else around. But these guys are worth of many. Not the best I met, but clearly in the top ten. Worked fast, coordinated. We'd have trouble with them if that Burn didn't entrench under the tree I was sitting on. So I just fell on him, he didn't even squeak. The night vision device is broken, I'm afraid, that guy got really hard head. You should make him more hit-proof next time, luv."
"Actually, it was hit-proof," Gadget observed. "I didn't predict you'd be hitting someone with it, though."
"But you should have," Monterey Jack said instructively, taking a step back and letting his friends out.
"Nice job!" Dale praised as he saw the rat lying nearby, unconscious and teethless.
"Is he alive?" Chip asked, troubled by a deep breach in the shed's wall marking the point of impact.
"Sure he is! His head is even harder than that of his partner. Took my punches like a pro, and fought back like a whole pack! Look!" Monterey pointed at several deformed plates of his suit which turned him into a pine cone. Not the best variant for this golf field which had no pines at all, but it provided nice surprise effect which was all they needed.
"Where's the second one?" Dale asked, looking around.
"Under the tree, Zipper guards him," Monterey pointed at the ashtree to the left of the shed door. Chip directed his flashlight there and saw Zipper sitting on the deformed night vision scope and Burn whom Monterey carefully propped against the tree trunk. A match with its head stuck into the ground was also there.
"Great job, Monty!" Chip said. "Take another one to the tree, too. Gadget, bring some ammonia from the Wing. Dale, your si- your rich fantasy is needed. We need to arm ourselves with something impressive. We've got some serious talking to do…"
…As soon as the rats were awakened by ammonia, they tried to start a fight, but were stopped by a flashlight beam directed right into their eyes. When their eyes adjusted to a blinding light, they saw a chipmunk wearing a hat holding flashlight, a large mouse with a fly sitting on his shoulder holding a small replica of whaling harpoon, a smaller mouse with a futuristic bazooka ready, and another chipmunk leisurely swinging slungshot with a deadly sparkling metallic weight on his finger. The 'bazooka' was in fact the night vision scope, and the 'slingshot' — a foiled yo-yo, but the rats didn't know it, thought the worst and raised their paws up.
"Name?" Chip asked the rat who was at the door.
"Henneshy", the teethless bandit lisped.
"Hennessy and Burn, is it? Are you Irish? Shiner's pocket terrorists?"
"Irish, terrorists," Burn acknowledged. He crossed his hands on his breast. "So what?"
"It depends on you," Chip said. "Basically, the laws of the forest allow us to do to you what you wanted to do with us — lock you in this shed and burn it down. But we are Rescue Rangers, not Exterminators, so we offer you a deal. You tell Shiner you dealt with us, and we let you go."
Hennessy and Burn exchanged glances and smiled skeptically. "And you want us to believe you?"
"I know, it's hard for you to, but we're sincere. Here," Chip showed two blue rectangular pieces of paper Rescue Rangers brought from the nearest international airport. "Tickets for the morning flight Manchester — Havana. Train to Manchester departs in forty minutes, and the next flight to Havana will be in a week. So you should act quickly."
"Why Cuba?" Hennessy frowned. "They don't like our kind too much…"
"That's why nobody will look for us there," Chip said. ""You'll have an opportunity to start new life from scratch. By the way, do you really care? It's still better than a burning shed.
"True," Burn agreed. "What exactly do we have to do?'
"Write Shiner a note that you killed all five of us. We'll stick it under his door."
"And what about us?"
"And you'll go to Manchester by train."
"And how can you be sure that we won't phone Shiner before our flight and tell him the truth?" Burn asked.
"Nice question!" Dale said. "Let's burn them! It will be safer!"
The rats desperately flattened themselves against the wall.
"Safer, yes," Chip agreed. "But not our style. Additionally," he continued, this addressing the captives, "I don't think you have a burning wish to tell Shiner about your failure. He wasn't the best boss you can imagine, am I right?" Chipmunk pointed at Hennessy's cheek, disfigured with a winding scar perfectly visible in flashlight beam. "Bird claw. He did it?"
Hennessy sighed. "Yes."
"For Ivory's voice recorder?"
"No, before that."
"And you still want to deceive us and tell him the truth?"
Burn hemmed. "Well, you hit us harder than he did."
"And we'll hit you again if need be," Monterey Jack threatened.
"We have long hands and good connections," Gadget added.
"If you deceive us, you'll live in fear for the rest of your life," Dale concluded.
"Same if we deceive Shiner," Hennessy objected.
"Trust me, he'll forget about you after what happens to him tomorrow," Chip said. "So, do we have a deal? Don't hesitate; the train won't wait for you."
The rats exchanged glances once again, shrugged and nodded.
"Good," Chip took a step back allowing them to get up. "In that case, please, block the hole with a stone and start the fire, and we'll fetch a pen and a paper for you…"
With the shed put on fire and the message to Shiner written at Chip's dictation, the rats took the tickets and ran to the railway station. Rescue Rangers boarded the Wing and flew to 'Earl of Doncaster' in a roundabout way. There Zipper performed a solo of ventilation shafts and stuck the note under Bollinger's suite door, and the team with everything set and fake death smokescreen created flew south-east to Albury. When they left Doncaster's premises, there were slightly less than sixteen hours remaining until the Crown race. When they arrived to their destination, there were less than fourteen.
The Albury Studs horse farm looked like a smaller copy of Baskerville-Hall stables without the estate and race track. The latter had been here, too, but during years of idleness it overgrew and couldn't be distinguished from surrounding meadows. But fresh tire tracks on a dirt road, mushy after recent rain, indicated the farm wasn't as abandoned as it seemed.
"All buildings empty except the main one," Zipper reported the results of his reconnaissance flight. "The ambulance with Meteor inside is in the main building, with seventeen rats guarding it. Additional eleven rats occupy the service room."
"No Humans?" Chip asked just in case.
"Not a single one."
"Just like I thought. This stage of operation is entirely Shiner's. I think the Humans who took him from the racecourse didn't drive him here, but abandoned the car in a predetermined place where the rats picked it up."
"It's good we know that," Monterey Jack said dryly, "but there are twenty eight of them. And I don't think we'll be able to deal with them in the same way as with those two ruffians."
"Well, we can always try!" Dale suggested. "Arm ourselves with something big and yahoo!"
"With heavy artillery, you mean?"
"Or armor," Gadget joined the conversation. "Too bad we left the Gyrotank at HQ… How much time do we have?"
"Thirteen hours and a half," Chip informed. "The trip back will take around three. We have to free Meteor in ten."
"Well, you can build many things in ten hours with right materials at hand…"
"London's not far away from here," Monterey said. "And you can find everything you want there."
"Right!" Dale confirmed. "There's Hamleys, the largest toy store on the planet! Hamleys — the world is yours!"
"Rescue Rangers, to Hamleys!" Chip proclaimed. "Zipper, stay here, watch the grounds. If the bandits decide to move ambulance somewhere for some reason, follow them. Dale, please, keep your head cool! We won't have time to look for you through the store! We must bring all materials here before dawn, so we won't have to worry that some rat will spot the Wing! Let's get to work!"
* 16 *
Shiner woke up first, but it was Bollinger who found a note at the front door.
"What's this?" he asked slamming the unfolded paper to the cage with his palm.
"'Burned all five. Like taking candy from a mouseling. H. and B.'" Shiner read aloud. The news excited him even more then the night watching of a distant fire, but the need to explain it to his owner pulled his face. It's time for the animals to invent their own alphabet, it's high time… "It's from my associates. They report that the group of accidental unwanted witnesses is dealt with. Now there's nothing to worry about."
"And why I know nothing about this group?"
"It was a problem on my side."
"It's a wrong way to do business, Shiny."
"I do my business the way I like to."
"It's not just your business!" Bollinger reminded angrily.
"You offer to take our relationship to the next level?" the parrot inquired oily. "Then tell me the accounts password!"
"Only when everything works out all right!"
"Then we'll talk about it then," Shiner cut off. "By the way, how are your goons? I hope they weren't too curious?"
"Are you sure?"
"If they had seen that the ambulance was driven away by rats, I would have known it."
"Probably," Shiner agreed.
"By the way, have you told your pets you wouldn't be here today?"
"What do you mean?"
"You wanted to go to the racecourse with me, or have you forgot?"
"No, no, I remember everything," the parrot said. In fact it was Bollinger's idea to take Shiner along so that his neck would be at hand if anything went wrong. But Shiner wasn't going to sit in the suite in the moment of his triumph. Especially now, when everybody at least remotely dangerous was killed. "Looking forward to it!"
"Good bird," Bollinger complimented him and went to the bathroom. Shiner left his cage, flew out the window and up to the roof. DeThrush was waiting for him there as planned.
"So?" Shiner asked.
"Nothing. Humans left, rats came. Nobody saw anything."
"Good. Your gang is free?"
"The one who pays orders the music."
"As you wish," Shiner flew away to bring back two silver coins. "This one is for the night, and this one for today. Gather everyone, be on the roof of the Leger Stand. In the evening, if nothing happens, you'll get a golden one."
"And if happens?" the blackbird asked ravenously.
"We'll see. Dismissed."
With DeThrush sent away, Shiner returned to the suite to groom himself before being introduced into the high society.
"Take my phone," he told Bollinger as the man was dressing up. "It will be funny if it rings in the cage."
"Sure. We'll leave the cage here."
"Really?" Shiner was surprised to hear that.
"Yes, they don't allow cages there. They don't allow pets there at all, but I arrange and they'll make an exception for you."
"You flatter me."
"I'm more important than it seems," Bollinger winked at Shiner. "I'll go and have breakfast, behave yourself."
As soon as the front door closed Shiner called Albury.
"It's me. How is it?"
"Peace and quiet," Packrat, the head of the rat watch reported.
"Good. If anything happens, call me. I'll call you back in an hour, keep phone close."
"Sure, where can I go?"
"Cross your fingers," Shiner advised and hung up.
The first race of the day was scheduled to start at 1:50 PM, but Bollinger wanted to come to the racecourse by noon. At a few minutes past eleven, right before leaving the hotel, Shiner called Albury again, checked that everything was quiet, and, relieved, took his seat on Bollinger's shoulder. In the past years he appeared in public only in cage, and today their joint appearance caused a furor everywhere they went: in hotel lobby, on the street, on the racecourse parking lot and finally in the VIP lounge on the top tier of the Leger Stand rented by Bollinger's golf match opponent, the Crown Prince of Dubai Emirate and CEO of Darley Racing. After all, you can rarely see a handsome gentleman driving vintage cabriolet with a talking macaw on his shoulder.
But at almost the same time there was another, much more powerful outburst of emotions one hundred and sixty miles away from Doncaster, at the Albury Studs horse farm. The rats had already started to pine with idleness when they heard some strange noise. At first they thought the car was driving their way, but there were no vehicles on the only road leading to the complex. The noise was becoming louder and louder, then metallic clanking became gradually heard, and suddenly, out of the tall grass which spread almost to the very gates of the main stable, there appeared a…
"TANK!" the rats gathered at the gates screamed ear-shatteringly.
"Packrat, tanks!" one of the ambulance guards repeated for Packrat sitting in the service room.
"Close the gates!" the kingpin ordered.
"Close the gates!" the ambulance guard repeated.
"Let's close it, guys!" the rats at the gates shouted at one another. There were eight of them, and they could do it, for there were strong and long ropes attached to the gates for this very reason.
But then the tank fired.
Sure, there was no deafening bang. It would be unwise to expect it from though highly detailed but still only a model of IS-2 heavy tank. It's 1:6 scale turned its almighty 122 mm main gun into a formidable for rodents, but still mainly a decorative tube two centimeters in diameter and ninety six long. The gun itself had to be built from scratch. There were kits in the store which could make the tank able to shoot realistic ammunition, but there was no need for mile-long shots, and excessive firepower was dangerous during hostage rescue operations. That's why Gadget used a spring-piston air gun mechanism. The rats at the gates heard a loud click instead of bang, whing of shattering glass instead of explosion, and were covered not with fire and smoke but with a white weft of highly-dispersed suspension, which instilled them with a burning wish to run, and then with an intolerable desire to sleep.
"Great shot, Chip!" Gadget shouted from her driver-mechanic's seat in the control compartment.
"Minus eight!" Chip announced with self-satisfaction. He took the role of both tank commander and gun pointer. "Dale, sleep!"
"Arming sleep!" Dale-charger answered and took another 'shell' from the rack. The gun shoot painkiller ampoules Rescue Rangers found in a storage area of another large shop, Harrods, filled with finely grinded sleeping draught and sealed with a clay balls. Dale inserted the ampoule in the gun bottom first, spat at his palms and, with an effort, cocked an action spring. It was a task rather for Monterey Jack than him, but the Aussie wouldn't fit into IS-2. He needed something like Tiger II, and there was a kit for it on the same shelf, but Rescue Rangers preferred Soviet tank whose gun could shoot 20-mm ampoules. Besides, they considered using Nazi vehicle bad manners. That's why Monterey Jack had to play a role of an assault team and enter the stable from the opposite side, directly attacking the rat command post.
"Bdee Willy!" he shouted the first phrase coming to his mind as he leapt into the space between leaves of half-opened gates and throwing 5-mm ampoules turned into sleeping gas grenades at the nearest rats' feet.
"Get him!" Packrat yelled jumping out of the damage area. Now Monty knew who must have been caught no matter what.
"Sdob bighd dere, you bat!" he ordered the kingpin who gave himself away.
"Stop yourself!" Packrat answered. The four rats guarding him were asleep, but the other six jumped at the enemy with clear intention to tear him into pieces and swallow without chewing. It was worth noting that Monterey froze as if obeying Packrat's command, and became buried underneath gray mass. The Aussie had an ace up his sleeve, though, or rather, under his sweater, and after the very first bites it exploded emitting cloud of soporific gas.
"Sbeed dbeamz," Monterey wished as he shook unconscious rats off him. He was unaffected by the gas owing to nose plugs which made him snuffle funny. Packrat wasn't laughing though.
"To ambulance! To ambulance, everybody!" he yelled dashing towards the car in the middle of the stable.
His plan was simple, clear and correct: barricade themselves in the ambulance with Meteor and force the uninvited guests to lay down their arms by threatening to kill the colt, for ten remaining rats could easily gnaw his throat. But then the fly dived through a hole in the roof carrying another ampoule, and two rats guarding the ambulance's back doors became sleep sick, too. Five rats who were between the main gates and the ambulance ran towards the van, but IS drove through the gates and brought them down with a single shell. Another two Packrat's goons got bogged down into hopeless fight with elusive Zipper, which gave Dale time to load the gun with cannon net, and Chip — to aim carefully and shoot accurately. Packrat suddenly found himself the last rat standing and tried to escape, but Monterey's throwing bola bounded his legs tight. It took Rescue Rangers less than a minute in total to neutralize all enemies.
"VICTORY!" Monterey Jack announced, lifting his hands up with nose plugs in his tightly clenched fists, putting his leg on one of the sleeping rats for better impression.
"Yes, friends, great job!" Chip agreed. He climbed out of the tank and helped Dale to do the same. "Gather all sleeping rats and bind them tightly. I'll check on Meteor."
Dale, Monterey and Zipper began to help Gadget to bank sleeping rats with a bulldozer blade attached to the tank, while Chip climbed on the ambulance's roof, stuck his head under the lifted hatch and called Meteor by name. The effect of soporifics ended long ago, and the colt had already screamed himself hoarse calling his mom. Stripes on windows didn't allow him to see what was going on outside, and he could only guess how the battle progressed, so Chip's voice from above made him shiver and cower into a corner.
"Who's there? Where am I? Where's mommy?"
"They didn't even talk to him," Chip thought to himself. "Poor kid. It's hard to imagine everything he went through during all these hours…"
"It's me!" Chip shouted aloud. He attached his grappling hook to the edge of the hatch and climbed down the rope, stopping on Meteor's eye level.
"Squirrel-in-the-Hat?" Meteor asked happily. "You really exist! You weren't just a dream!"
"I wasn't," Chip confirmed. Ivory strictly prohibited the Rangers to catch her son's eye, but Chip foresaw the need to free Meteor from captivity and showed up to him when Ivory was practicing. It was in the morning, when Meteor was still dozing; and when he asked sleepily "Who are you?" Chip answered "Squirrel in the Hat. I'm your dream. Sleep on." He called himself a squirrel for a reason, to be sure that, if Meteor decided to tell his mother about his dream, Ivory wouldn't know he was talking about one of the Rescue Rangers. Now it was time to clear things up. "Actually, I'm a chipmunk named Chip. I work for your mom along with my friends."
"Really. We'll take you to her now. But first tell me-"
"But where's she? Where?" Meteor interrupted. "And where's my dad, Hyperion? They were kidnapped, too?"
"They are both in Doncaster, at the racecourse, they are all right," Chip decided to allow Ivory to tell her son the truth about Hyperion and quickly changed the topic. "Say, do you remember those bedtime fairy tales mom told you?"
"Of course I do! It was about the Little Humpbacked Horse! And about multicolored friendly ponies!"
"Great! Wait a little, we'll go soon!" the chipmunk promised. He climbed back on the roof and joined his friends who had almost finished sorting the prisoners out. The sleeping rats were piled together and bound with a rope wholesale, while Packrat and those two rats caught in the net were bound separately and sat in a row along the wall of one of the horseboxes.
"Name?" Chip asked the leader after tearing away a corner of a plaster patch covering the rat's mouth to stop it from emitting endless flow of profanities.
"Go to heck!" the rat said adding spit to the insult.
"How do you communicate with Shiner?" Chip asked the next question, casually clearing his collar.
"Go to heck!"
"I've got no other questions. Monty, your turn," Chip stepped aside allowing Monterey Jack to threateningly tower above the kingpin.
"I don't care about your name," the Aussie said. "So I'll repeat the second question: how do you communicate with Shiner?"
"Go to heck!" Packrat repeated for the third time.
"Well, your stand is clear. In that case, we'll play a game, me and you," Monterey fetched two pellets from his pockets, a red one and a blue one. "Here's two pellets. One harmless, the other poisonous. Choose one."
Packrat thought for a moment, but opted to stick to his repertoire. "Go to heck!"
"I must have spelled it not clearly enough," Monterey apologized. "If you choose a harmless pellet, you'll prove that the fate is with you, and we'll let you go. If you don't make the choice, I'll feed you the poisonous pellet, and you won't be around to see what happens next. It's up to you."
Packrat looked at Monterey with a doubt.
"Let me go?"
"You have my gentleman's word."
"Well-well… Let it be the blue one."
"Wrong answer!" Monterey shouted and forced the red pellet into the rat's mouth, then quickly pressed the plaster back and turned to the other two rats. "You want the same to happen with you?! I have lots of those pellets, don't worry! Answer, quickly! How do you communicate with Shiner?!"
"B-by phone… Cell phone…" one of Packrat's minions said, his eyes wide with terror as he watched his boss shaking convulsively and mooing, with bloody red foam oozing from under the plaster over his mouth. "It's in the room… in the desk drawer…"
"Dale, come!" Chip called, and both chipmunks ran into a service room. They came back soon carrying the cell phone. "Got it!"
"Good. For you," Monterey Jack commented regarding the informed with a burying gaze. "That's it? Anything else?"
"No-no. nothing! I swear, nothing! It's true! Don't kill me! Don't kill me, please!"
"What would you say, Zipper?" Monterey asked for confirmation.
"I saw nothing else," the fly squeaked.
"Then here's your blue one! You deserved it!" the Aussie threw the pellet on the rat's knees. The informer shook as though it was a drop of molten metal.
"You sure it's harmless?" the second rat asked, looking askew at the temptingly appetizing ball.
"But of course," Monterey reassured him. "In fact, they are both harmless. See?" he tore the plaster off Packrat's face allowing the bandit to spit out red ooze filling his mouth and tell his long-tongued minion everything he thought of him and all his relatives in one hundred and thirty four generations.
"As you can see," Monterey stated putting the plaster back, "your boss is safe and sound. What's his name, by the way?"
"Somehow I thought exactly so. Well, thanks for your assistance, now don't move please…" Monterey covered both captives' mouths with pieces of plaster Gadget handed him and slapped their shoulders in a chummy manner. "Behave yourselves, be dears and never stand in the way of the Rescue Rangers, or both pellets can be poisonous next time, mind you. Best wishes staying!"
"Great trick, Monty!" Dale said, elated. "You came up with it yourself? Or learned somewhere? In Suaviana, maybe?"
"Suaviana? Ha!" Monterey waved his hand haughtily. "I learned it from life itself! I had a dear friend, Mathias Shelm, a secret lemming. We've been through so much with him… But I'll tell about him some other time, it's for trustworthy ears only. Actually, Mathias always said: 'Who knows my name, already knows too much!'" Monterey glanced at the rats so significantly that even arrogant Packrat cowered in fear.
The ambulance's tanks were full. Bollinger's men must have been instructed to visit a gas station before abandoning the car. Rescue Rangers loaded unused ampoules from the tank, took the rats' cell phone and left to Doncaster accompanied with sirens' wailing and lights flashing. They made a short stop at the edge of the farm for Gadget to land the Wing on the roof. The Crown race start was four hours away. Unfortunately, the rats chewed through the plaster and each other's ropes much faster.
"All right, you blockhead, you have any ideas how will we call Shiner now?" Packrat jestingly asked his fainthearted minion. "If you don't, I'll quickly make a few additional holes in your skull for better brain ventilation!"
"Well," the hero of the day said vapidly, "I saw a phone cable somewhere around here…"
"Are you idiot? Remember what Shiner said? The farm is abandoned, everything is cut off for non-payment."
"Well, then I…"
"There's some snack bar on highway not far away from here," the third active rat said. "We drove past it on the way here. A pay phone must be there."
"Then we need some money," Packrat said. "And assistance. Woke the rest up, I'll scrape the corners, try to find something…"
Eventually something was found, and approximately at ten to one PM Shiner's phone rang in Alfred Roughton Bollinger's pocket. Since it was in silent mode most of the time, Bollinger didn't recognized the ringtone at first, but Shiner's reaction was a much more clear signal, and Alfred, delicately apologizing to another two guests charmed by his pet went away into a corner and brought the phone to his ear so that Shiner could talk and hear everything.
"Yes?" the parrot said.
"Shiner? Packrat here."
"Why from a different number?"
"Because- Just a second… DON'T MOVE, STAND STILL!" Packrat shouted at the living pedestal formed by his still sleepy minions holding him on the pay phone's receiver level. When it became more or less steadier, Packrat continued. "Sorry. Got problems. The kid is gone."
Shiner almost fell to the floor. "HOW?!" he shouted forcing Bollinger to lean his head away.
"Some Rescue Rangers took him…"
"It can't be… Describe them!"
"Two chipmunks, one wearing hat, another red-nosed, two mice, one fat and mustached-"
"Oh, shoot!" Shiner was so furious he put his leg into his beak and bit his claw. "But there are five of them! Five! And thirty of you! How did it happen?!"
"Twenty eight of us. And they came with a tank. A real one. With a gun and on tracks. We fought long and hard but-"
"How long ago was it?"
"An hour and a half, something like that. They took our phone so I couldn't call before…"
"Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot! How did they leave?"
"They took the ambulance."
"Sir, if we can be of any help…"
"Drink some poison and smash your heads against the wall," Shiner advised and hung up.
"I'm listening," Bollinger ordered in a low but commanding voice.
"It's solvable," Shiner said. "But I need to go to the roof."
"They won't allow even me there."
"I'll fly out through the window."
"Running away, brute?" Bollinger's voice turned into a snake-like hissing.
"Well, I can surely instruct my associates here," the parrot waved his wing about the VIP lounge filled with sharp dressed public impatiently waiting for the races to start. "But I don't think it's a good option."
"If you aren't back in five minutes, I'll call Bronnie," Bollinger promised.
Bronnie, a young athletic black wearing black cowboy outfit consisting of a wide-brimmed hat, neck handkerchief tied into a large knot, a shirt, fringy breeches and boots with incurved noses, was sitting in a car on the general parking lot waiting for a call from Bollinger to activate 'the psycho'. 'Psycho's' name was Giles Longson, he was 36 years old and he was an officially diagnosed schizophrenic. He was down there, in the crowd by the edge of the racetrack, waiting for a black guy wearing cowboy's outfit to stand by him. If it happened, he would run out on the racecourse during a post parade and hit 'a pale horse', the Apocalypse messenger, in its thigh with a sewing awl. The horse to hit would be pictured on the cover of a magazine the black cowboy would hold in his hands. Of course, it would be Ivory.
Longson had nothing to fear. Any given court would recognize him as 'non compos mentis'. But Ivory would be recalled from the race and spend a long time healing. The race wouldn't be cancelled, for there were precedents before, but betting coefficients would change, so there would be some financial losses. But Bollinger was wise enough and knew it would be much better to lose several dozens of thousands than suffer a complete defeat, though he knew the other cartel members wouldn't like such a foul play very much. They had already asked him several times if he was the one responsible for Meteor gone missing, and believed his indignant objections only because Roger Baskerville himself, while being interviewed for 'Horse and Hound' magazine, said, although indirectly, that Meteor most probably had run away on his own. It would be much harder, almost impossible to deny he was behind the psycho attack, but money and code of silence would keep everybody, including meticulous and cowardly Lindstrom, from talking, and nobody could trace Bollinger through Longson. Only if some 'X-Files' fan believed that the talking parrot who told Longson what horse to hit really existed, but the police administration would surely send such a lunatic for psychiatric evaluation.
"I'll be back," Shiner promised in return. Bollinger came up to one of the huge panoramic windows overlooking the whole racecourse, and the parrot flew out through a leaf opened because of the really hot day. For a brief moment Shiner thought of telling Bollinger everything, so he would order his associates to call the police and tell about the ambulance theft, or maybe make a road ambush themselves. But he quickly dismissed the idea. He didn't want to acknowledge that his ingenious plan was threatened by four rodents and some fly. Also if police stopped the ambulance, they would find Meteor, and if Bollinger men stopped it, they would let Rescue Rangers escape alive. And Shiner, unlike Bollinger, wanted extra bodies, and the more of them — the better…
"Oh, gosh! You friend abandoned you!" the lady standing not far away exclaimed.
"He didn't. He always comes back," Bollinger explained with a sunny smile. He squeezed the phone in his pocket involuntarily, though. But there was no reason to worry, for Shiner talked really fast.
"Remember the ambulance you followed?" he asked DeThrush and went on without waiting for the answer. "It's driving this way! You must stop it!"
"How?" the blackbird asked.
"Anyway you like! But it mustn't come here! That it, the colt it carries mustn't come here, and I don't care if he dies in the car crash or you peck him to death outside!"
Sparks of insanity appeared in Aves' eyes. "You mean ultra-violence? It would cost you."
"If the colt doesn't appear until St. Leger Stakes is over, each of you," Shiner glanced at the flock of blackbirds sitting in half-circle on ventilation ducts, "will get two golden sovereigns. And you," he looked at DeThrush, "another five in addition!"
"Seven golds?!" DeThrush's eyes seemed to take shape of pound sterling symbols. "I'll eat them along with their gizzards! I'll grind them into dust! Turn them to ashes! Make them…"
"GO!" the impatient macaw yelled, and the flock flew up with covetous squawking.
"Where're we going, DeThrush?" one of the winged bandits asked, when all of them took positions in a slightly chaotic but still hierarchical order.
"To A1-M18 intersection!" their leader responded. "Ambulance drove through it on the way there. So it will come back the same way. It's the shortest route. Faster, birdies! We'll be rich! Faster! Hail to the…"
"ULTRA-VIOLENCE!" the other blackbirds shouted in unison, and the flock turned south-west, to the circular junction where M18 motorway connecting Sheffield with Goole crossed A1 route from London to Edinburgh.
It was indeed the shortest route from Albury to Doncaster.
Of course, it was the one Rescue Rangers used.
* 17 *
"I think it's time to call," Monterey said, glancing at the car radio microphone.
"Too early," Chip objected, watching the road. "We're still too far away, many things can happen, and I don't want to cheer up Ivory for nothing. I also doubt that our 'bug' will receive the signal from this distance. Dale, bypass him by outer lane… wrong direction!"
"It's them who are driving in the wrong direction!" Dale answered. He was running on the lower half of the steering wheel. Despite his reaction, he quickly ran in the opposite direction, and the ambulance, wagging a little, bypassed another car that braked down and moved to the left upon hearing the emergency sirens. All in all, the trip was smooth and steady. GPS-navigator showed the route, other cars behaved extremely politely, Meteor asked when they would arrive and what that thing they were driving by was and whether everything he was told by 'uncle Monty', who finally got himself a young and faithful listener, was true. Almost idyllic.
"So? Are we calling?" Monterey repeated.
"As soon as we reach the city limits," Chip promised watching intersection of A1 and M18 slowly crawling down the navigator's screen. The suggested route included changing lanes, entering circular overpass and making a 270 degrees turn to access M18. "Monty, brake down a bit! Dale, left!"
Monterey weakened a pressure of adjustable clamp on the accelerator, while Dale took four sidesteps to the left and then four to the right. At that moment Zipper sitting on the lowered shade pointed forward and squeaked loudly: "BLACKBIRDS!"
"Indeed," Chip confirmed looking at the approaching dots through his binoculars, "blackbirds. So, it's DeThrush. All right, then. 'Angry Birds' directive is in effect!"
In case of Albury rats raising the alarm, Rescue Rangers considered several possible scenarios for every opponent possible. They worked out directives 'Mad Max', 'Graveyard Shift' and 'Angry Birds' which described the process and tactics to withstand attack by Humans, rats and blackbirds respectively, and made some needed preparations when they were far enough from Albury. Dale proposed additional directives 'War of the Worlds', 'The Day After Tomorrow' and 'Day-Z', but after long debate they were put to 'reserved' category, and making of foil caps postponed until their necessity becomes absolutely clear.
"'Birds' is good!" Monterey commented aggressively. He increased clamp pressure back, then climbed on the driver's seat and pulled a seat belt running under the door handle, which opened the door wide enough to squeeze out a hose. Originally it was a part of an oxygen tank, but Rescue Rangers attached it to a fire extinguisher and bent it so that it went under the car all by itself.
"Bottom chemical protection ready!" the Aussie reported. It wasn't all he had to do according to the directive, but at that moment the blackbirds proved they prepared for the encounter, too.
The group of birds spotted by Zipper which was flying right into the ambulance as though trying to scare Rescue Rangers off the road or ram into them, flew upwards just a second before collision and dropped stones they were holding in their claws. They weren't too heavy, but the ambulance was moving at great speed, and the blows were hard enough to leave a dent in its bonnet and cover its windscreen with a dense mosaic of cracks.
"Zipper, guide Dale!" Chip commanded. He needed to attend some urgent matters, and in any case only fly could see what's going on in front of them now. Chipmunk jumped on the seat's back, put on the gas mask hanging from his neck, and climbed towards the roof hatch via the rope, with Gadget armed with a crossbow loaded with a stun ampoule covering him from the stretcher below. Chip carefully looked over the roof, saw nothing dangerous and waved to the mouse who immediately put her weapon on her back, jumped on the seat and climbed after him. When Gadget reached the hatch, she put on the gas mask, unsealed the ampoule, crawled under the hatch lid and shot it along the arc over the Wing, creating a sophomoric cover around the plane.
"U-hu!" Chip gave her a thumb up and ran to the Wing, his legs comically astride so as not to fly off from the steeply turning ambulance. He cut a scotch tape holding the plane in place, climbed into the pilot's seat, looked around, screamed and quickly switched the engines on. The propellers started turning, and two blackbirds who were about to attack him had to changed their directions rapidly to avoid turning into a pasty. Additionally the breeze from propellers dispersed the cloud of powder, allowing Chip to take the gasmask off and fully concentrate on aerial dog fighting. His target was DeThrush, for Chip presumed his elimination would turn an organized blackbird gang into a bunch of demoralized nestlings. But first the Rescue Rangers had to withstand a massive attack of enemy's main force previously hidden in the leaves of roadside trees, which started as soon as it was clear that windscreen damage wasn't enough to stop the ambulance or even make it any less controllable.
"I'm taking off!" Chip said into the radiomicrophone used to expose Hyperion. The ambulance radio was set to its working frequency in advance. "Enemy at the portside, get ready."
"How many are there?" Dale shouted from the wheel.
"There's something like ten of them. I don't know how many I'll distract, but doubt it well be more than two at a time."
"Be careful out there! Keep us in touch!"
"Okay, I'm airborne. I'll try to keep you in touch. Make it hot for them!"
"Sure! You too!"
"Dale, if you're talking to Chip, he can't hear you, because our radio is set to receive, not to transmit," Gadget informed.
"So what?" Dale shrugged. "We understood each other, that's what counts."
"Yeah, mutual understanding is the key," Monterey Jack agreed. "One time I was… Hey, where're you going?!" he asked a disheveled blackbird who saw the driver's door was slightly opened and stuck his bold beak inside. "It's occupied!"
"You're all dead!" the blackbird promised with a sickening pathos.
"I said it's occupied!" Monterey repeated climbing on the seat and grabbing the seat belt. Now the blackbird saw what was coming, but it was too late. Rescue Ranger jerked the belt, and the blackbird, hit hard by the door, disappeared from the radar screens.
"Minus one," the Aussie announced.
"Ha! It's just the first!" Dale promised aggressively. And almost immediately the ambulance passengers heard a clatter of numerous legs against the roof and the sides of the car.
"Mommy, there's so many of them…" Meteor whispered, nervously looking around, his eyes oval with fear.
"Meteor, look at the floor and don't breeze!" Gadget shouted at him, aiming reloaded crossbow at the roof hatch. The colt, whose role included blind obedience to the elders' orders, did what he was told. And right on time, for three bird heads appeared under the hatch lid, and Gadget shot, and a cloud of sleeping powder formed under the roof, and there was a short glass rain inside, and if it weren't for protective goggles Gadget would lose her left eye.
"Cool down!" she shouted addressing the ceiling.
"Great shot!" Chip's voice came from the radio. "Two are lying down, the third even fell off! But two smart birds have something nasty about the back door in mind! Watch it!"
"Thanks!" Gadget was so agitated she forgot what she had told Dale about the radio. She took another ampoule from the box lying on the stretcher. But before she could load her crossbow the 'smart birds' proved they are quite inventive, too, and they know a thing or two about breaking and entering. They tied a pair of ropes with stones on the opposite ends to a rear roof flashlight frame, and threw the stones hard, making them fly along wide semi-circle and hit the rear doors glass. Then the birds rode down the ropes, enlarged the cracks with their beaks and crowbars, and tried to get inside. They almost succeeded, but Meteor standing with his tail facing them moved his weight onto his front legs, and hit the uninvited guests with rear doublet, making them fly away wearing chippie glass rings around their waists like ballet tutus.
"Great job, lad!" Monterey Jack praised. "Nice blow!"
"That was powerful!" Chip commented. "But stay sharp! There's three more cliffhangers along the left side!"
"I see them!" Gadget shouted noticing black silhouettes behind the side windows. Meteor couldn't kick them, so Gadget climbed on his back to shoot for sure and almost point black, but the blackbirds didn't try to break the glass and continued descending, disappearing beneath the window edge.
"The wheel!" Gadget understood. "They're climbing towards the wheel!"
Chip understood that, too. "They're climbing towards the rear wheel! I'll get them! Keep moving straight, don't turn anywhere!"
"Easier said than done!" Dale answered the radio. It wasn't hard to follow Chip's instructions. Though, for the ambulance had already passed the ring and drove onto a long low-sloped ramp gradually flowing into M18 motorway. So there was no need to maneuver violently, and Chip, making the Wing bank almost at right angle, flew close to the ambulance and cut the blackbirds' ropes with left propeller. Two birds, already about to stick sharp nails into the rear wheel, fell down on the road along with pieces of ropes, but the third one grabbed some hull ledge and crawled under the ambulance with a clear intent of causing some more serious diversion than just a pierced wheel.
"Monty! One's under the bottom! Under the bottom!" Chip yelled into his microphone.
"Got it!" Monterey acknowledged and opened the fire extinguisher valve. The space beneath the ambulance quickly became filled with carbon dioxide. Approach flow greatly helped its spreading, and just in a few seconds the winged saboteur, coughing violently and frozen almost to death, rolled from under the rear bumper and lay prone on the road, unable to crawl away and having no wish at all to keep up fighting.
"He's out," Chip informed. He made another circle around the ambulance and took the mike again. "Looks like victory to me. I don't see DeThrush, though, which is strange- Oh, wait! There he is! To the right!"
Indeed, three birds who had thrown the stones at the windscreen were flying diagonally to intercept the ambulance, with Aves DeThrush in person and wearing his usual hat flying slightly higher and behind them. Efficient and at the same time impressive resistance by Rescue Rangers griped and infuriated the bandits, forcing them to take the most desperate and dangerous steps they could come up with.
"Break! Crush! Ultra-violence!" DeThrush shouted, and his team made a sharp left turn followed by although not suicidal but clearly injury-causing landing on the ambulance's bonnet.
"You villains!" Chip shouted when the blackbirds spread along the bonnet and started lifting it with their crowbars, clearly intending to make something nasty to the engine. For the very first time chipmunk regretted he wasn't driving the tank. Unfortunately, IS was too heavy to drive it to the car's roof. Of course Gadget promised to install a similar gun on the Gyrotank as soon as they finish the multifunctional analyzer, but Chip needed it right now…
"Don't turn and don't speed up!" he warned his friends via radio. He made a wide circle around the ambulance, waited for the blackbirds to lift the bonnet and set the prop, then flew towards it at maximum speed. There was no error margin. Too far to one side — and he'd miss, and by the time he turned around blackbirds would damage the engine, and that would be the end. Too far to the opposite side — and he'd crush into the van…
He didn't hear the collision of the plane's wing with the prop, but rather felt it. But it was impossible not to hear a bang of the fallen bonnet and screams of birds pinned down by it.
"Ha-ha! Eat this!" Chip couldn't help his malevolence when he turned around and saw three pairs of bird legs sticking out from under the bonnet. "Engine is safe, guys!"
"Hooray! Great job! Geronimo! You showed them!" the friends congratulated him in unison.
"Oh you bug!" DeThrush said through clenched beak. Being the boss, he didn't participate in engine attack too actively and wasn't hit by the bonnet. He heard Chip's voice from inside the car, saw microphone in his hand, and added two and two. "No more radio for you!" he shouted, flying up to the antenna over the upper left corner of the windscreen, tore it out and threw away.
"Oh, no!" Dale grew terrified. "He broke the radio!"
"Fortunately, not the radio but just the antenna," Gadget corrected. "But from the functional standpoint there's no big difference, so, basically, you could say that…"
From Chip's standpoint there was no big difference, too. Without knowing it, DeThrush spoiled Rescue Rangers' plans, making it impossible for them to set up communication between Ivory and Meteor. Chip was a master of coming up with backup plans, but it was clear none of them could involve Aves DeThrush being active and conscious. He must have been neutralized as soon as possible. If Chip could speak to his friends, he would ask them to brake abruptly, making the blackbird continue moving by inertia and either hit his head hard against the road or at least rise in the air and become an easy target for the Wing. DeThrush recognized his vulnerability, too, ignored the screams of his minions from under the bonnet whom he couldn't help in any case, and flew to the roof.
"Hatch! Watch the hatch!" Chip shouted flying close to the driver's door.
"Alright, Chippah, we will!" Monterey answered, but chipmunk was already out of the hearing range. He decreased his speed, letting the ambulance pass, then rose above the roof level and accelerated in such a way that allowed him to slowly catch up with the ambulance, locked the control wheel with a clamper and went to the tail harpoon.
"Do you feel lucky, punk?" he said with a corner of his mouth, aiming his weapon at DeThrush sitting on the rear roof flashlight frame. There was a large net attached to the plunger arrow, so the direct hit wasn't needed and Chip should have aimed a bit above the target for a maximum effectiveness. But Chip's extreme sense of justice wanted not to just catch DeThrush, but to make him feel with all his feathers that it's wrong and painful to break the law. That's why he was aiming at the bird's head, and when DeThrush flew up he rose his weapon after him, and didn't notice that DeThrush was holding a piece of rope with a stone which bandits kicked by Meteor had used. He saw it only when DeThrush swirled it around and threw it at the incoming plane.
"Oh, gosh!" Chip exclaimed. He shot, too, but stone had already connected, hitting the right engine and blowing it out of one of its holders. The Wing started vibrating and banked, the harpoon along with the net missed greatly, and chipmunk, clinging to the weapon and seats, returned to the pilot's seat and tried to do his best to correct the situation. Unfortunately, too high speed, too short distance and too serious damage didn't allow him to succeed and land safely. The Wing barely missed the rear flashlight frame, screeched along the roof and hit the risen hatch lid. Chip didn't had time to fasten his seat belt, so he flew out like a stone from a sling and hit the edge of the lid with his right side, then roof with his left side, and finally the forward flashlight frame with his head.
"Oh, boy, what was that?!" Dale yelled in panic, looking up. "Airborne Heffalumps' assault?!"
"No, it's the Wing," Gadget said. She survived so many crash landings she knew the sound of one with her eyes closed. "Though I don't know what could tear from it and roll so far away, aside from the harpoon maybe… GOLLY! CHIP! He's hurt! He needs help!"
And this was quite an understatement. DeThrush wasn't satisfied with the air crash, he wanted to do some ultra-violence with the rodent who cropped his feathers in front of Shiner. Besides, the rodent in question was stunned by his fall and looked like an easy target. The blackbird got his claws into Chip's belly and pecked him in the eye, but Chip jerked with pain and DeThrush hit his forehead, additionally helping Chip to regain his senses. Chip blocked the second peck with his hand, the third with his cupped paws, and countered the fourth by attacking Aves' face and scratching his eyelids. The bandit, infuriated with pain and victim's fighting back, became ten times more aggressive and would surely pecked both Chip's eyes and his brains out if it weren't for a shout coming from behind: "LET HIM GO, TURD! WINGS UP!"
"No way!" DeThrush put his leg on Chip's throat and turned around to face Gadget aiming her crossbow at him. "You put your hands up! Or I'll take your lover's breath away!"
Gadget involuntarily grew red, but she wasn't going to discuss relationship issue with DeThrush. She also wasn't going to obey him. "If you do it, you'll be dead yourself! Slowly and painfully! With caustics and high voltage! So wings up and beak into the floor! Now!"
DeThrush didn't expect anyone to react at his command with anything but blind obedience, so he grew nervous, but hesitated to put his threats into effect. 'Who knows what's that crossbow is loaded with. Maybe it's some anti-bird poison…' Gadget didn't want to shoot, too, not wanting to put both to sleep, and if she tried to tell Chip to hold his breath DeThrush would cut his neck artery. Classic deadlock.
"What's up?" Monterey whispered carefully looking out of the hatch and making sure Gadget's legs hid him from DeThrush. "Any ideas?"
"Not yet," Gadget showed with her tail.
"And what's Dale doing then?"
"And what's he doing?!" Gadget was about to ask, but then she saw Dale's head appearing above the roof over the front passenger door. When Dale saw DeThrush wasn't looking at him, he climbed up and waved to someone hidden under the roof. It was Zipper who handed him an empty ampoule, and they both started sneaking up to DeThrush from behind using the flashlight frame as their cover.
"Not bad," Monterey said. Gadget thought it should work, too, and did everything she could to keep the blackbird from looking around.
"So?" she asked threateningly. "Have you made your mind?"
"Yeah! Order your friends to stop the car!" DeThrush demanded.
"Suppose I ordered. Suppose they stopped. Then what? You'll let him go?"
"Don't do a snow-job on me! Order them!"
"Light out!" Dale shouted, having quietly climbed on the flashlight behind the blackbird. Zipper darted forward and knocked the hat from DeThrush with his fists, and Dale smashed the ampoule against the bird's head. DeThrush slowly turned to him, touched his forehead with his wing in a futile attempt to wipe blood pouring down over his eyes, reeled and fell down, his extremities spread unnaturally.
"Chip, are you alright? Are you alive?" Dale asked, jumping down and helping his friend up.
"Wait! Wait! Be careful!" Gadget shouted running up to them and probing Chip's neck. "Did he hurt you? Injured? Wait a second!" she carefully removed two tiny glass splinters from his eyebrow. "Here, looks like no more glass. Broke anything when you fell? Any maims? Any sprains?"
"No, Gadget, I'm alright, honestly," Chip smiled to show he was feeling perfectly. "You were great! Handled him superbly!"
"Oh, please! It would've been nothing if Dale hadn't been there!"
"Yeah, Dale hit him hard!" Monterey confirmed coming up to them and kicking DeThrush's unconscious body. "It was a bonzer idea to arm yourself with an ampoule!"
"There was nothing else," Dale shrugged. "What else could I come up with?"
"With pouring the sleep powder out," Zipper prompted.
"Oh, yeah, he-he… Thanks for advice! And for helping with his hat!"
"You are welcome!" Zipper thanked him, satisfied.
"You are all great!" Chip concluded, looking at his friends. Then he thought for a moment, looked at them again, counted something in his mind, and then asked: "Who's driving?"
"Meteor," Dale answered.
"Meteor?" Chip asked again.
"Yes, Meteor. I told him to hold the wheel with his teeth, showed how to turn it, and how to look at the GPS. Nothing hard, he'll make it."
"That's true, of course," Chip agreed. "But I read that GPS has a margin of error between three and thirty feet…"
Dale stopped smiling, gulped nervously and ran back to the cab with Zipper. Monterey was about to follow, but remembered the pedals were on the opposite side, and it's much easier to get back through the half-opened door then through a lowered glass. Fortunately, traffic wasn't dense, and the motorway bended smoothly, so only grass and divider were hurt. It would be natural to make a stop, take all the blackbirds from under the bonnet and lock them in a medicine locker along with DeThrush and two other birds sleeping on the roof, but Chip was afraid that an unmoving battered ambulance with broken windscreen would attract attention of compassionate drivers who'd stop to check if everything was alright. So it was important to solve all the problems on the move.
"Can you fix the antenna on the move?" Chip asked Gadget when they finished tying three unconscious bandits up.
"Well, it's not that difficult. But I can't guarantee it will work on the needed frequency, plus there can be problems with signal strength and receiving quality on long distances…"
"I see. And the Wing?"
"I can make it capable to take off and fly for like hundred feet…"
"Well, that's good enough to hide it from the human eyes," Chip muttered, his lips pursed. He couldn't help thinking he outsmarted himself. He didn't want to call Ivory until the attack would be repelled, considering it dishonest. In an unlikely case of the radio being damaged he planned to record Meteor's answer to the control question to the SD-card, fly to the racecourse and play it during the race, for yesterday's trick with Hyperion's self-exposing speech proved it to be possible. But Aves DeThrush without any effort damaged both the radio and the Wing, ruining both main and backup plans…
"Don't worry, Chip," Gadget emotionally touched his shoulder. "The most difficult part is behind us. We'll make it."
"Of course," Chipmunk covered her paw with his own. "We're the heroes. There's no other option."
"There's glass on your cheek. Don't move," Gadget stepped up close to him and carefully, using two of her fingers, tried to take out a tiny splinter from his fur. It turned out harder than she thought, but the mouse didn't give up, and became so preoccupied she even bit her tongue. The image was complete: brilliant mind, assertiveness and a tiny bit of madness, without which there can be no genius. Chip felt he simply must embrace and kiss her, for they were so close, and there was nobody who could intervene-
"Dale asks if the route changed, and whether he should turn on the next intersection," Zipper asked from the hatch in an apologizing tone.
"Tell him to… to make a turn," Chip answered angrily. It was clearly some kind of doom. "And tell Monty to speed up! We're running close. If anything happens, it will be rough…"
* 18 *
A usual procedure. Checking of the identification tattoo on the lower lip with the official record. Warm-up. Weighing. Saddling. Everything seemed to happen with someone else.
"I'm sorry," a chestnut colt named Legionnaire said, letting Ivory to exit the paddock first. "I'd never think Hyperion could do something like that."
"Thanks," Ivory said with irritation, deliberately not looking at the colt. He participated in St. Leger Stakes, too, so he couldn't be sincere by definition. Ceremonial politeness is worse than open mockery — the latter doesn't pretend to be nice, at least. And doesn't promise things it has no intention to keep.
"Darned Rangers, why do you keep mum?!" she thought furiously to herself. During morning practice, being filled with hope, she demonstrated a phenomenal result, which instantly impacted betting coefficients. Now your chances were estimated as 1:10, which meant that those who bet 10 pounds at her victory would get their bet back plus one pound if she won. The underdog's, Pharfignewton's, coefficient simultaneously increased to fantastic 150:1. It was one of the reasons why Bollinger didn't signal Bronnie, and why Giles Longson remained standing by the barrier picking at the awl in his pocket and waiting for the sign from above.
"Cheer up, girl! We'll show them!" Toni tried to raise her morale. Ivory didn't even move her ears. They tried to cheer her the whole morning: her owner, trainer, veterinary, owner again… Face and voices changing as though on a roundabout. But the mike in her ear was silent. Nothing else made any sense. Ivory knew what she'd lose if she failed to win the race. But she didn't even consider risking her son's life. She's not Hyperion. She's the mother, she couldn't do otherwise.
"I'm sorry," the colt named Victor said. He occupied the third starting box, the one next to hers. Despite a pompous name, clearly chosen according to the principle 'the horse will run the way you call it', his victory chances were estimated as 30:1. Only Pharfignewton's were lower.
"I'm sorry," Autumn Marathon said. He occupied the box number 1.
"Thanks," Ivory uttered gloomily. The lock snapped behind her. It was impossible to turn around in the box. She could only wait for all the race participants to take their positions and the starter to press the button opening the way to glory one mile six furlongs and one hundred thirty two yards long.
"Darn you, Rescue Rangers!" Ivory wished silently. And then the false-start preventing gates opened synchronously, and the 235th St. Leger Stakes race was underway.
At first it seemed there would be no intrigue at all. The ten horses reached the first turn as a tight cluster, but Ivory's speed combined with her starting close to the fence allowed her to run a full body ahead of Autumn Marathon who was second. Pharfignewton, as expected, was the last, and everything suggested he would stay there, although commentators mentioned that the outer radius was fully his, and if other racers overlooked it, he could be in a very nice spot for the final dash after the last turn. But it was universally considered improbable.
On the second stretch it became clear that nothing was clear. Four furlongs were behind, but Ivory still didn't reach her usual cruise speed. Her opponents didn't show great results, too, but nobody expected them too, although the thick fight between four colts with winning coefficients 10:1 on places from second to fifth looked somewhat too forced. But Pharfignewton and his jockey seemed to become insulted by being openly neglected by everybody, and decided to bite more than they could chew, spending only two furlongs to draw up with the peloton leading pair, Legionnaire and Traffic. And just a furlong later Pharfignewton was only a half-body behind Ivory.
"Come on, girl, come on!" Tony kept urging Ivory. He even leant close to her neck to increase the make the air shape better, though this way to get some additional speed resources could lead to him falling down, and jockeys usually didn't do it until the finish run. "You can run faster! You can run much faster! Come on, just five miles per hour more! You can easily do it!"
"If you knew how easily I can do it…" Ivory thought. She could make even fifteen miles per hour more, but she couldn't allow herself to. And she also couldn't just stop there, although some betraying voices in her head already began tempting her to surrender without unneeded efforts. But then another voice, very similar to Meteor's told her there was still hope, and that she shouldn't just give up, for the finish line was a whole mile away…
"What's wrong with you?! What?! Go! Go!" Tony grew infuriated, hitting his stick harder against Ivory's side. Roger, Edwin, Martin, Mike and everyone who betted on her victory were even more furious, but Ivory couldn't hear them. Which was probably for the better. Especially when Pharfignewton took the lead with just seven furlongs left…
"And you wanted to cancel everything," Shiner caustically whispered into his owner's ear. "In five minutes we'll be millionaires and miracle workers!"
"In five minutes, exactly! Let's wait until the finish to celebrate!" Bollinger whispered back. He was so nervous he could start running along the walls and ceiling. But he answered telltale and excited glances of other conspirators with a shy smile as if saying: don't worry, your expenses will be covered several times, everything's under control…
"You think they're running already?" Dale asked nervously.
"They are, they are," Chip answered. He was nervous, too. "According to schedule they should be, at least. Monty, brake. Dale, turn right. Sharp right."
"Sharp aye-aye," Dale took eight sidesteps, and the ambulance turned into a narrow gate in delineator between the opposite lanes, which allowed cars coming from the south to drive into the racecourse parking lot without making a long detour. The parking lot's metallic gates were closed, though, but they didn't stop the ambulance. The only disadvantage was the need to act really quickly after such a loud introduction.
"Left! Stop! Backwards! Stop! Around!" Chip commanded rapidly, turning his head in search of a dent in the line of parked autos, but there was none. There was a long one-storey service building separating the parking lot from the racecourse territory. Chip calculated that Meteor could easily jump on it from the ambulance roof, but first it had to be driven close to the wall, and to it they had to find a way to get rid of one, or better two of the parked cars…
"Eureka!" Chip shouted. "Slowly backwards to the right! Now sharp to the left! Now hold on!"
The hit shook the ambulance, and Dale almost fell from the steering wheel.
"What's that?!" Meteor neighed.
"Stay calm!" Chip said. "Everything's under control! Monty, press on! Press on!"
"I'm pressing!" the Aussie said, turning the clamp to the limit and helping it with his hands. The ambulance was moving backwards, shaking and roaring with its strained engine, overcoming the opposition of something consisting of breaking glass and rasping metal.
"Stop! Enough!" Chip ordered. He controlled the situation looking into a rear view mirror. "Gadget, get to the roof and start the Wing. Dale, Monty and Zipper, help me with the side door."
Rescue Rangers opened the sliding door to let Meteor out, then climbed out on the roof. The numerous bystanders attracted by the noise almost unanimously decided they were witnessing a filming of the next Dirk Suave movie, in which the brave superagent would fight the international evil with the help of small unmanned planes like the one that flew over the service building. But when the colt whose photo was shown in all news bulletins of the last two days emerged from the ambulance, it became clear that something really extraordinary was going on.
"Meteor? Meteor! Could it be Meteor? No way! No, it's Meteor!" the crowd exchanged opinions. The colt didn't pay attention to it and climbed on the ambulance roof using dents in the bonnet and windscreen as steps, jumped over to the service building and disappeared.
"Run, Meteor, run!" Rescue Rangers urged him. Only Gadget was silent. She came back to the edge of the roof and looked down, touching her lips with her folded paws.
"What's up?" Dale asked as he ran up to her. "What's wrong? What happened?"
"'Cobra'… A pity…" the mouse answered.
"Oh," Dale looked down at the red AC Cobra and silver Jaguar XKR, pressed into a narrow corridor between the building and the parking places by the ambulance so that they formed something like a flattened Y. "Yeah, not very good…"
"Why?" Chip objected. "Very good! Two balls into one hole! We blocked the way out for those villains!"
"I hope we didn't scare them beforehand," Zipper observed thoughtfully. Indeed, in addition to anti-theft sirens both cars were protected by the system which sent security status messages to their owners' cell phones. But both Bollinger and Lindstrom who joined him after a long and productive conversation with Darley Racing lawyers were too busy watching the race to pay attention to text messages.
"Come on, Pharf, faster! Faster, darn you!" they yelled completely unembarrassed. There was no reason for embarrassment, since everyone around them was yelling the same except maybe for the name of the horse. Tony the jockey wasn't restraining himself either. The finish was only three and a quarter furlongs away, and Pharfignewton was a whole half a body ahead, and only some sudden miracle could have saved the race it seemed…
And the miracle happened. Or rather, it came.
"Edwin, look! It's Meteor, isn't it?" Roger Baskerville asked to make sure he wasn't seeing things.
"If you see him, too, then it's him," Edwin answered.
"Thank goodness! And I thought I've gone mad," Martin sighed in relief.
"Meteor?" Ivory thought. She couldn't believe her eyes. "No, it can't be him. It's hallucination, self-deceit…"
"Is it Meteor there?" Tony mumbled. "Good gracious, it's him! It's-"
"METEOR!" the loud echo resonated across the racecourse.
Yes, it was Meteor. He jumped off the service building and ran as fast as he could, and even faster, urged by Hyperion's words repeating in his head about him running a mile in three minutes in Meteor's age. Meteor didn't have to run a mile, but he had to maneuver excessively evading large and small groups of people on the lawn in front of the stands. The closer he was getting to the racetrack, the denser the human mass was becoming. But the wave of recognition was spreading even faster, and the spectators were turning around letting him pass. Some of them remembered about a reward for returning the colt and tried to catch him, blinded with greed, but Meteor cut like IS through the grass, and finally the crowd formed a straight corridor Meteor used to reach the fence. He jumped over it without stopping and ran to the finish line from the opposite side from the incoming race participants.
"How?! Can?! It?! Be?!" Bollinger roared in Shiner's face, his eyes bulging.
"I don't know," the parrot said honestly. "But… it's even better this way! Fewer problems for us! And his coming won't change anything!"
At first it seemed he was right, and Ivory had no time left to save the race. But as soon as she saw her son running towards her, she seemed to grow wings and throw heavy shackles off her legs. She dashed forward and caught up with Pharfignewton in less than half a furlong. The underdog's jockey, already seeing himself winning the race, start hitting his stick against his horse's side loudly and furiously. But Pharfignewton was already running at his limit, and when he saw Ivory was catching up without effort, he was demoralized, lost his step and breathing rhythm, and a moment later there was a new race leader.
"DARN YOU! DARN YOU!" Alfred Roughton Bollinger yelled, shaking his fists. But he was helpless. His last joker, Giles Longson, could do nothing now, and his plan didn't involve snipers on the roofs. But even if they were there, they would need a bazooka to stop Ivory now…
"METEOR, GO AWAY!" Ivory neighed as loud as she could. Meteor, swirling and rearing happily, realized all of a sudden that he was right in front of her, and a braking distance of a racehorse at full speed was really long. The colt ran about in panic, but then it occurred to him to jump over the inner fence, and Ivory crossed the finish line a whole body and a half ahead of Legionnaire who came second having overtaken completely demoralized Pharfignewton.
"Victory! Ohmigosh! Victory!" Roger Baskerville shouted, having kissed top of Edwin's head in the fullness of his heart. "The Crown is ours! Meteor is back! Oh, it's so good!"
"We did it! We did it despite everything!" the trainer nodded, red with emotions. "It's a blessing, no less!"
"We should give Tony some spanking," Mike joked. "He made us having some really hard time!"
"True," Doctor Martin agreed. "I thought I wouldn't live long enough to see the finish!"
Obviously, the veterinary was exaggerating. But Shiner felt he was endangered specimen for real and in a moment before Ivory crossed the finish line he took off from Bollinger's shoulder and flew out of the window. Alfred was distracted and reacted too late, and his only trophy was the macaw's long red tail feather.
"Bastard! Moron! It's all because of him!" Bollinger shouted waving the feather in front of Lindstrom.
"We'd better follow his example," the lawyer said in low voice, taking his business partner by the elbow and turning him around to the door.
But before they made a couple of steps they heard a commanding voice. "Alfred, Daniel! Leaving already? How about some explanations?"
The men turned their heads and saw their co-conspirators, previously blending with the crow and now standing in semi-circle around them. They were lead by the Crown Prince of the Dubai Emirate whose face was cruel as simoom.
Bollinger smiled sweetly. "Sure, sure! My lawyer will be happy to answer all your questions!" With these words he rudely grabbed Lindstrom by his shoulders and pushed him at the Arab, and then, demonstrating agility even he himself didn't expect, dashed towards the stairs. Of course, when you suddenly find yourself indebted millions to the whole bunch of very angry men, it's only natural to run faster than ever before.
"I have to get to the car!" he kept telling himself while jumping across two-three steps at a time. "I have all the papers with me, there's no need to stop at the hotel. I'll drive straight to daddy. Let him finally do something good to me after all these years. He has connections, he'll hide me well. I'll go wherever he says. Australia, South Africa — I don't care. Anywhere far enough from this Arab will do…"
He didn't like the crowd at the edge of the parking lot at first sight. Of course it could first provide a cover from the pursuers, and then become an obstacle for them. But at the same time Bollinger didn't need so many witnesses of him driving away. His car will surely be remembered by many, and they will show the Prince and his men the direction of his escape. But Bollinger had no choice, and he plunged into the crowd of onlookers, and when he emerged from the other side he deeply regretted he hadn't stayed in it forever. His Cobra was flattened in half, and the ambulance stood on her place. The same ambulance he rented through some straw men. And there were also police officers circling around it in bewilderment.
"It's him!" a voice came from somewhere. "In a purple overcoat! It's his Cobra! He drove it here, I saw it myself!"
The policemen livened up noticeably and waved Bollinger to come up. Alfred fought the urge to run away, knowing he couldn't hide too long from both the police and his former associates, and that the police were a lesser evil.
"Good day, sir," one of the constables greeted him. "Is this car yours?"
"Yes, it is. And how did it, erm, you know…"
"We're investigating it, sir. Could you please answer a few…"
"HEY! CAREFUL! ARE YOU BLIND OR WHAT?!" came angry shouts from the crowd. A group of short-haired guys fought their way through without minding protests and tramped feet. They wore tuxedoes with not seen but felt gun holsters under them. The Crown Prince of Dubai was leading them, and he raised his fist making his men to freeze in almost those very poses they saw his command. The second policeman took a step towards them, but Bollinger stopped him with commanding gesture.
"Constables," he addressed both patrol officers at once. "My name is Alfred Roughton Bollinger, and I want to make a statement. It was me who called yesterday about the bomb planted here. It was a way to distract everyone's attention and kidnap the colt Meteor. I planned to demand a huge ransom for his release, but my conscience turned out stronger than my greed, so I let him go and now surrender myself to you."
When constables found a bolt of blackbirds in the ambulance locker and a bunch of the same birds under the bonnet, they thought nothing could surprise them ever. But Bollinger's speech proved otherwise. Everything looked like a hidden camera prank, but official instructions didn't allow policemen to just ignore what they heard. It concerned kidnapping for ransom, after all, and there had been indeed the phone call about the bomb.
"In that case, sir, you are under arrest," the first constable announced. "John call for backup. Sir, your hands, please."
"Sure, constable," Bollinger put his hands forward, and steel bracelets snapped on his wrists.
"By the way, do you know those people?" the policeman asked in half-whisper, pointing with his eyes at the Prince and his men, whose strange behavior was hard not to notice. Bollinger knew whom he was talking about, abut to cover it up he turned around and looked at his pursuers closely. He felt an urge to say they were his accomplices in stealing Meteor, but such impudence would only harm him in the long run.
"No, constable. I've never seen them before."
"In that case, come here," the policeman escorted Bollinger to the ambulance and made him sit down on the steps of the side door and wait there for the police transport. Bollinger was on his own for a short time, and he estimated his chances and thought they were 'difficult, but doable'. Yes, Scotland-Yard would run him over and through, but a cell at Wormwood Scrubs was better than a makeshift interrogation in Darley Racing basement. And when his real father, Lord Stapleton, Eighteenth Earl of Derby, becomes involved secretly, everything will run smoothly. The only real pity for the criminal was that he let Shiner escape, for only Shiner could explain what had happened here, and also… Alfred imagined himself popping the darned lying bird's eyes out with his hands and smiled sadly. Dreams, sweet dreams…
But Shiner was much closer than he could imagine.
"Very well," Chip summed it up, stepping away from the roof edge and clapping his paws in satisfaction. "Your accomplice is arrested; Lindstrom wouldn't escape too far, too. It remains to deal with you only."
"I'm telling you! I'm innocent!" Shiner yelled hysterically, shaking the net around him with his wings and legs. It was one of those occurrences when bright tropic colors play cruel joke with their owner. Rescue Rangers spotted the macaw from far almost immediately after him flying out of the VIP lounge window, and quickly took off to intercept. Of course the Wing flew worse than usual, but it was capable of approaching to the parrot close enough for the harpoon shot, and it was more than enough. "It's Bollinger He's behind it all! You asked me to find out where's Meteor! And he uncovered me! He strangled me, hit my head against the table, then called his rats and told them to gnaw off my leg! I… I couldn't! I was holding as long as I could, but it was just too much for me-"
"Indeed!" Dale cut him short. "It's too much! Too much a lie! Bollinger isn't a Speaker! We asked a dog to bark 'Durandal is the Champion!' when he was near, and he didn't react at all!"
"This means nothing!" the macaw kept on. "Alfred is a great actor! He used his gift openly only with me and his most trusted minions like Hennessy and Burn!"
"Lie! Those rats worked for you!"
"They told you that? They lied! They framed me!"
"No darned way!" Gadget grew indignant. "There were scars on their faces made by your claws!"
"Coincidence!" Shiner insisted. "Those were not my claws! They were DeThrush's! He worked for Alfred, too! He turned us in to Bollinger! He, and nobody else!"
If Rescue Rangers had even the tiniest doubts about Shiner's involvement, he would have had real chances of persuading them. But their version was based not only on suppositions and musings, but also on the statement of the trustworthy witness.
"I heard you talking to Bollinger in Human," Zipper said. "I also heard your conversation with Diver from San-Angeles. You are behind all this!"
Shiner looked at the green fly hanging over him with one eye.
"So you were there then… Where? On the lamp? Under the bed? Under the blanket?"
"On the lamp and under the bed and under the blanket," Zipper acknowledged.
"How did you leave the suite? In the shoe?"
"Yes. Then I hid under the shirt's collar. You were close."
"I knew it," the macaw sighed and grew dim, as if a shadow fell upon him. "Too bad I didn't smash you then, you filthy American bug…"
"Verdict: guilty!" Monterey's announcement sounded as if a judge's gavel falling, and his well-calculated punch under the beak knocked the parrot out. "Phew, shut up at last. Dunno about you guys, but his Oxford accent was driving me crazy! How can you talk like that? Half of the words are lost! Alright, any ideas what to do with him? If not, lemme suggest something…"
…The end of the race didn't mean the passions calming down. On the contrary, it was only the beginning. The racecourse lab assistants were analyzing the dope probes taken from the first four horses, the journalists were typing transcripts of the hotfoot interviews with Roger Baskerville and his team members, and Ivory tried to digest Meteor's story.
"So the Rescue Rangers saved you?" she asked again. "Chipmunk in the hat, chipmunk in Hawaii shirt, mouse wearing jumpsuit-"
"Yes, yes, them!" the colt interrupted. "I told you already! You sent them! Chip the chipmunk asked me about bedside stories! And where's daddy? Will he come?"
"No, dear, he… he left already," Ivory decided her son was too young to know the truth. "So the Rescue Rangers stayed at the ambulance?"
"Yes! They shouted: 'Run, run!' So I ran. I ran fast! Like a wind! And will the Rescue Rangers come for award ceremony? Mommy, please, can they come?"
"Of course they can! I want them to come, too," the filly said., though it wasn't sincere. Most of all she hated two things: to admit her mistakes and to apologize, and her meeting with Rescue Rangers would definitely include both. So Ivory hoped the Rescue Rangers had some urgent case to attend, that someone somewhere was in trouble and needed their help badly…
Indeed, Rescue Rangers were busy with some very important mission — restoring justice. It took them about half an hour, but they would have done it much faster if the alarm system of the varnish-and-paint and fuel storage located in the far end of the service building had been at least a bit simpler. It took them quite some time to turn off, but the result was worth it. The result being the macaw running akimbo and with a loud wailing out of the storage doors. Except for his head and neck where some short feathers still remained, his whole body was covered with a black oily substance dripping from his legs and spread wings and forming a sticky black trail which even a blind deaf mute could follow. At least the Rescue Rangers could locate him easily, but to macaw's great 'relief' they had no business with him anymore. Not for the time being, at least.
"So, just like I said!" Monterey took off his dirty protective suit made of an expendable glove, crumpled it thoroughly and threw away. "Tar and no feathers! Classic folk method for too clever birdies! Too bad we didn't do it to DeThrush, would have suited him rather well!"
"Oh, please!" Dale snorted, scratching his nose turned black from his efforts. "We're already head-deep in this darned thing, and we were going to attend the Coronation…"
"Yeah, Coronation is great thing! Last time I was at the coronation… when was it… oh, yeah! When it was held for the last time! Me and Mathias were providing security for it, mind you! But it's a long story, I'll tell it some other time…"
"Yes-yes! Some other time!" Gadget agreed, her eyes sparkling with bright expectations. She was operating the painting brush while others were holding the unfeathered macaw, so she was relatively clean not counting some minor splashes. "Let's go! Or, God forbid, we'll get late!"
"Sure, we'll go," Chip nodded and coughed. "But first I'd like to attract your attention for a minute."
Everybody looked at him curiously. Chip licked his suddenly dry lips, sighed deeply and said: "I've been fooling you the entire time."
"What?" Dale frowned. "DTZ, is it you?! Tell us where you hid Chip, quickly!"
Chip said nothing, instead hitting Dale straight in the forehead. Dale ouched and sat down.
"No," Dale said, "it's real Chip. Go on, we're all ears."
"Alright, so. Remember we were looking for the bomb? I even said it was more important than guarding Meteor. I was fooling you. I knew from the very beginning that it was a distraction, a cover-up for kidnapping of Meteor. And I told you to look for the bomb in order to prevent you from impeding the villains' plans. I was afraid that if the kidnapping failed, Shiner and Bollinger would take more drastic measures so as not to allow Ivory to race. But if kidnapping was successful, then they would calm down and allow us to save Meteor and get him back to Ivory so that she would win. I didn't want to tell you all the details, for you'd never agreed to it, but I knew it was the best for everyone. Sure, there was some risk, and we just barely escaped failure, but we won, and victors aren't judged, that's why I'm explaining everything now since I respect you too much to keep such secrets from you for a long time. Forgive me. That's all."
Everyone was silent for some time. Chip looked in his friends' faces waiting for their response and feeling goose-pimples crawling over him.
He got the answer.
He was prepared for many things.
But not for this.
"That's really all?" Dale asked.
"Well, yes, I told I-"
"Phew, gosh," Gadget exhaled. "And I thought you were going to tell us something really important, something we didn't expect…"
"And- and you expected this?"
"We've known it for quite some time now!" Zipper squeaked.
"How… But…" For a moment Chip lost his ability to talk coherently, his thoughts became entangled, his tongue refused to cooperate. "But… How…"
"Me personally got it on the golf field," Dale explained. "You proved everything so logically, explained why we shouldn't be going after Shiner. So I thought if you were talking about any countermeasures on our part at all. And then it occurred to me that if we're going to crush the plans of So-So… I mean, Shiner and Bollinger, with minimal losses, we should make them think everything went as planned till the very end. And when we started looking for the bomb, it became completely clear."
"True," Monterey nodded. "When you said Meteor was under no threat at all, I knew you wanted him to be kidnapped. Otherwise your carelessness could be explained only by you getting hit hard in the head, forgive me my lack of subtlety. Usually you aren't that stupid."
"Glad to hear that…" Chip mumbled. "But… But why you said nothing before?"
"And why you said nothing before?" Zipper inquired caustically.
"Because I thought you'd start arguing, declare my plan a bad thing, that we'd drown in discussion like those owls, or even worse, we'd have a quarrel and-"
"Chip, Chip, Chip," Gadget tutted her tongue with reprobation. "Why so nonsensical? Forgot whom you are dealing with?"
"Yeah!" Dale agreed. "We aren't some Blotsons! We get it all!"
"Well, not always," Chip observed.
"Well, so what?" Monterey asked. "We never argue just to argue. We argue for the case's sake! Many useful things are born of arguments! Other opinions, other ways…"
"Other viewpoints," Gadget continued, "other evaluations, other optimum criteria…"
"Alright, alright, I agree," Chip said hastily. "So, you don't hold grudge at me?"
"No," Zipper shook his head. "We understand you. And do you understand us?"
"Me? You? What do you mean?"
"I mean you should discuss every little bit with your friends. This time we guessed your intentions and your plan correctly. But what if we didn't? There could be trouble!"
"Listen to the kid, Chip, he's speaking sense," Monterey Jack said.
"Brevity is the sister of size!" Dale said with a smile. "Sorry, Zipper, couldn't help it."
"I'm fine," Zipper smiled and waved apology away. "You should ask not me but Monty for forgiveness!"
Everybody laughed, and Chip felt finally relieved. "Oh, guys, you're so great! I'm nothing without you!"
"But together we're the force!" his friends said in chorus. Then Rescue Rangers joined hands and rushed to take part in the celebration of sport and life, which, if it hadn't been for them, would have never happened.