A Collaborative Effort: Part 5
"It's not what you've got, it's what you use that makes a difference."
Course I know my phones bugged, Ferdia laughed, as the pair made their way down the sidewalk to the precinct. It was another fine sunny day in San Viano, and city traffic was, in true California fashion, snarled beyond belief. But the cops hardly minded the walk it was, after all, only a few dozen blocks or so, and it gave them the opportunity to discuss Newts disappearance far from any potential prying ears.
My neighbor caught me on my way back in last night, told me maintenanced been by, the bluebird explained, Said the guy looked out of place well-groomed, clean uniform, a toolbox that didnt look like itd lost the Battle of Normandy
She shrugged. Ron used to make a living as a cat burglar, so I suppose hed reliable enough when it comes to picking up on stuff like that. He didnt want the cop next door thinking he was up to his old tricks again him being out on parole an all so he poked around
took down the guys information
broke into my apartment to see if anything was missing
Squeaks rolled his eyes at this, shaking his head.
she grinned sheepishly, rubbing the back of her neck absently. At least his hearts in the right place. Although, she added, hes been giving me pitying looks ever since. Even volunteered to try an get me a job with the janitorial service he works at. Something about never realizing cops salaries were so pathetic
Theyd be higher if we didnt keep getting docked for damages, the mouse chuckled. Only reason we still get paid leave is the city lasts longer in our absence.
Bah, Ferdia snorted, waving dismissively, Coincidence, thats all. Anyways, she continued, snot like the wiretaps matter much. Iiwi wouldntve called us at home, and she never comes near the precinct house. I expect shell either catch us on the street, or have Ferdie call us to their building.
If shes back yet.
Shell be back, Ferdia said resolutely, even if she had to fly all night. She wasnt all that keen to following a pair of dodgy agents said that sort of thing was hazardous to ones health.
She might not be all that far off, if our reception was any indication, Squeaks pointed out. Still, itd beat pouring over whatever scientists life stories have arrived from the hall of records since sunup.
I doubt anythings come in yet. Public Records drags its feet on everything. I mean, the dead guys stuff mightve arrived, but well be lucky to get any of the rest of the stuff by tomor-
She stopped mid-sentence as they rounded the corner a block from the precinct house. A tan rabbit in a black tank top, beaten khakis, and worn army boots leaned nonchalantly against the handrail winding up the buildings front steps, earning the occasional suspicious glance from cops and passersby.
Hey, detectives, the teen called as she caught sight of them, giving them a friendly wave.
Shouldnt you be in school? Squeaks replied.
The teen shook her head, waving his comment aside, Nah, were on lunch break. Besides, she shrugged, Boss buzzes me, I cut out. Used t bug the teachers, but after the boss explained things to Principal Wibbins, people stopped givin me grief about it. She grinned for a moment, then shifted her weight, pouting. Still dont see why I have t go at all, though, she grumbled.
Ferdia rolled her eyes. The way I hear it, you burned through tutors so fast they started blacklisting you. This argument was nothing new; Lita had been grumbling about it for nearly a month now. But your home-school gang followed you into mainstream, so whatre you complaining about? Now the lot of you can drive your peers and teachers crazy during school hours as well as after them.
Youve got a point, I suppose, the rabbit conceded, taking a moment to mull over the newfound possibilities for mayhem before shrugging the topic off. Eh, whatever. Back to business. Got a message for ya, Arcadia, she stated, producing a folded slip of paper from one of the many pockets lining her khakis. Iiwidve delivered it herself, Im sure, but she had to run. Or fly, rather. Something about checking out an island?
Figures, Ferdia smirked. She wouldve recognized Ozzie from the photo, and taken it upon herself to ransack his place under a pretense of gathering evidence. She shrugged. Saves us the trouble, I suppose. I wasnt looking forward to going back there, anyway; the place is still quarantined, seeing as how most of its weapons systems are still active.
Whatever, Lita shrugged.
Still, Ferdia continued, as Squeaks opened the note, Whyd she have you deliver it? She couldve just left it with Ferdie or our desk sergeant.
The teen cocked her head to the side, looking altogether unconcerned. Said she wanted to use the translators. You know, so no one could read it without the key.
Ferdia looked perplexed. So we have the key?
In a manner of speaking, Squeaks replied, looking equally surprised as he held the paper out for her to see, Its in Arellian script.
Yep, Lita beamed, as Ferdia puzzled over the alien glyphs flowing across the page, She figured thatd keep prying eyes at bay. I can see why, too. Its a fascinating read.
Squeaks paused in his reading to regard the rabbit with raised eyebrows. You read it?
Sure thing, she beamed. I served on an Arellian freighter before falling in with
well, you know, she waved vaguely. Anyways, most of the controls and things were in script, so we all kinda picked up on it.
Ferdia frowned. Iiwi was supposed to keep this information secret. If Id known she was going to tell-
Oh, no, she didnt tell anyone, Lita assured them, Or at least she didnt mean to. She didnt know I could read the script. Besides, its not like Im gonna tell the boss
If? Squeaks prompted, looking nonplussed.
If you let me in on the investigation, she grinned. The teen had a penchant for weapons a testament to a life lived in dangerous and often criminal enterprises and the thought of getting involved with an investigation of federal agents, missing scientists, and dead arms dealers had her all but quivering with joy.
Squeaks fixed her with a long-suffering look. Pass.
Fine, she pouted, angrily placing her hands on her hips, Then Ill just go tell the B-
You do, the mouse interjected, and Ill inform your mother of your whereabouts.
Her jaw dropped. You wouldnt! she gasped. You couldnt! Even if you wanted to, theres no way youd reach Mum from all the way out-
Try me, he stated, folding his arms as Ferdia grinned like a fiend beside him.
Oooh, you- Lita fumed, stomping her foot. Fine, then, be that way! she yelled, storming off into the crowd as the cops watched her bemusedly.
Ten minutes later found the two of them in their office, coffee newly recaptured and reports retrieved. Ferdia had been wrong about the Hall of Records several of the remaining scientists forensic biographies had already arrived though the packet of info Locke had promised them had not. As Ferdia made a show of not fuming at this news, the sole surviving phone the one the technician had not repossessed following Theras outburst - rang.
Arcadia, Squeaks stated, halfway through his first report and already sounding bored.
Now that youve had some time to think things over-
Go back to class, Farlane, he sighed.
How bout I transfer up there, pose as a new student-
How about you go to your own school, and pose as an actual student?
But its so *bo-ring*!!! Lita protested. Honestly, like I really care what happens in Modern World Histo-
Squeaks placed the phone back in its cradle with an audible click.
Outside the station, Lita gawked at her cell phone in disbelief. Rude, she huffed, punching redial with her thumb.
Squeaks picked up the receiver again, not bothering to identify himself as he could already hear Lita rambling away, picking up where shed left off.
I mean, I could understand if it was, say, modern Vycerian history stuffs fascinating but the thought of having to memorize all the mundane happenings of this w-
You speak Arellian? he interrupted her, anxious to get her off the line before she said something compromising, but trying to do so without making it painfully obvious to those listening in that they knew about the bug.
Huh? she stopped mid-rant. Well, yeah. Gotta speak it to read it, the capn always sa-
Good, Squeaks said, trying to keep the relief out of his voice. De Mende.
There was a pause on the other line as the rabbit slowly turned the words over in her head. Apparently, her translation of Iiwis message had not been a quick one.
Mende, she muttered quietly, Mende, mende, men- oh.
The silence stretched several seconds more as the teen contemplated the meaning behind the translated message.
Seriously? she asked, hesitantly.
Seriously, Squeaks confirmed, nodding solemnly despite himself.
shi- she hung up hurriedly.
Ferdia watched her partner hang up in turn. De Mende? she asked, eyes full of interest.
Loosely translated? They are listening.
Ahh, she nodded.
What do you mean, the office was broken into?!? Bob fumed, pacing angrily back and forth across Newts lab, snarling into his cell phone as Beak came running up after him. Ferdie, for his part, remained where he was, watching the scene unfold before him.
Bob, please, Beak pleaded, attempting to steer the yellow kiwi off to the side of the lab, youre muddling the biokinetic signatures!
Shut up, Bananabrain! Bob snapped, ignoring the roar of Thou shalt not blaspheme the Great BaNAna! in favor of getting back to yelling into the phone. I thought you said it was impregnable!
Impenetrable, Bob, and I said nearly, Iiwis voice filtered in over the cell phone, Relax, all right? They didnt get anything important. Just looked through our files and tossed your office.
Dont worry, Ive already taken steps toward rectifying the problem. Ill set em up when I get back.
Get back?!? Bob fumed, Get back from where, Iiwi?!? he demanded. Her implied remark that nothing in his office counted as important had not escaped his notice. You just got back!
And Im already working another assignment, she replied. Honestly, you guysd be hard-pressed to break even without me
Ill have you know were on a very important case, and have been counting on your assistance!
Iiwis laughing reply sounded though the phones tiny speakers.
THIS IS SERIOUS!!! Bob bellowed.
Across the lab, Beak paused in his search to glance reproachfully at the yellow kiwi, turning to Ferdie for support. Ferdie, however, had learned the best way to deal with this sort of behavior long ago. Perched cross-legged atop a desk, he tapped lazily away on his laptop computer, the pair of professional-strength noise-blocking headphones over his ears rendering him oblivious to the kiwi raging before him.
I dont care what sort of legwork youre doing! Bob yelled, Or who youre doing it for!
He paused, presumably listening to a still-chuckling Iiwis explanation (but more likely simply to draw another breath). Dont get cryptic with me! I know darn well youre up to no goo- a loud burst of static sounded over the phone, briefly interrupting his rant. Dont give me that! Youre on a satellite connection, you cant go out of ra- he broke off, staring incredulously at the phone before closing it with a snap and growlingly stomping around in a dance of frustration.
Just who does she think she is, he fumed, brushing me off like that?
Iiwi knows better to talk on an unsecured line, Bob, Ferdie pointed out, one hand cautiously lifting an earphone now that the screaming match seemed to have ended. That call was just her way of letting us know shes in town again and knows about Newt. Shes probably out running down a lead right now, but didnt want to risk other people finding out about it.
Bob continued to fume silently, making a show of not believing the bluebird, but was gradually regaining his yellow color as the blood retreated from the angry vein throbbing at his forehead.
Think, Bob, Ferdie sighed. Someone broke into your office. What with all Iiwis locks and systems in that place, that takes a great amount of skill or brute force, he corrected himself, -but either way, it means weve gotten mixed up in something serious. My guess is, shes busy tracking down the culprits now.
She did say she something about taking steps towards rectifying the problem, Beak added.
Fine, fine, Bob waved dismissively, slowly calming down. Perhaps Iiwi really had been calling to warn them. He still thought she couldve found a less cryptic or at least more respectful way of doing it, though. Fliers, he huffed.
So, Beak, he said, changing the subject, how goes the search?
Terrible, the Magi admitted. So many people have been here already, tainting the scene.
Hang on, Ferdie interrupted, Sis specifically told me shed had the area cordoned off as quickly as possible! I mean, she couldnt stop the CSI crew fingerprinters, photographers, trace evidence gatherers, etc. but other than that, no ones been here but us!
Well, okay, he amended, And that mouse and skunk that came by to talk to Newt. But no one else!
Beak shook his head. Im afraid quite a bit more people have been here than that. They dont feel like kidnappers, though.
He paused. Perhaps, friend Ferdie, if you would turn off your computer
The wireless internet signal is adding to my confusion by further interfering with the residual imprints, the brown kiwi explained.
Ferdie dutifully shut down the laptop, albeit with a great deal of grumbling. Beak spent another fifteen minutes poking around the lab before the Magi decided things were hopelessly muddled.
Theres just too much background biodata contaminating the scene, he explained. Im sorry.
In that case, Im afraid theres only one recourse left, Bob sighed.
And what would that be? Beak asked.
Good, old-fashioned detective work, the kiwi beamed.
Ferdie resumed his post atop the desk, flipping the laptop open and booting it back up. I vote Beak does it, he stated, reaching for his earphones.
Beak looked thoroughly confused as an evil grin spread across Bobs face. Does what?
Three hours later, as Beak continued sorting through the seemingly endless piles of mail, research, and laboratory notes heaped haphazardly about Newts office, telling himself that he really was the best person for this job, because he could glean a summary of a documents general content without actually having to read it at all, he stumbled across the missing scientists office phone. He paused in his searching, perplexed. He had not known Newt even had a phone hed never seen one in the office, and the scientist was constantly calling him from a payphone across the street. Perhaps, Beak mused, the occasional soft keening noise hed heard coming from Newts office had been the muffled rings of this small, dusty phone. Knowing Newt as he did, it wouldnt have surprised him one bit to learn the scientist had simply forgotten he had a phone of his own.
What made this discovery of particular interest to Beak was the fact that the device was a combination phone and answering machine, and that a blinking red light was somewhat insistently proclaiming there were several unheard messages on the machine.
Figuring that, as long as he was reading the scientists mail, and Ferdie his email, no one would object to playing the voice mail messages, Beak reached over and pressed Play.
Congratulations! chirped a jubilant female voice, Youve just won an all-expense paid vacation! To receive your confirmation number, call us at 1-900-555-7226, confirm your identity with your credit card number, and-
Beak hit Erase. He might not be the brightest BaNAna in the bunch, but he knew a scam pitch when he heard one. The machine obligingly removed the message, proceeding along to the next one.
Yo, dude! an adolescent drawled with a stereotypically distinct surfer-dude inflection, Josh, where are you, man? Were out here at the beach, an the waves are totally kickin, but oh, wait, is this 555-4667? the caller paused, Sorry, dude. Totally wrong number.
Beak breathed a sigh of relief as he deleted that message; the thought of Newt on a surf board was a frightening one and not simply because the scientist would doubtless feel compelled to attach some sort of experimental engine to the board in an effort to boost its speed and stability
Calvin Puff here, the next message began its speaker possessing a hesitant voice with a slight Midwestern twang. You may not remember me, Newt Kiwi, but Im the one whos been sending you and your cousin mail bombs all these years. I hated the two of ever since you ruined my life in college, but after years of intensive psychotherapy, Ive come to terms with the past and learned to let go. Anyway, part of the healing process involves my making amends for past mistakes, so I wanted to call and apologize to you and Joseph for all the murder attempts, acts of arson, and various dead animals wrapped in newspaper I sent you over the years. If you get this message, please give me a call at 616-649-4626 so we can establish an open dialogue. Also, if you have your cousins contact information, I would really appreciate it. Ive been having trouble getting a hold of him. Either way, sorry about trying to kill you and ruin your life and all. Call me. Please. <click>
Beak actually had to play this message back a second time before he believed it hadnt just been a figment of his weary mind. Once he realized it wasnt a hallucination, however, he immediately took to his feet, running to fetch Bob and Ferdie from the adjoining lab rooms.
Bob! he called, skidding out into the laboratory proper and casting about for the small yellow bird, I think I found something! He paused; Bob was nowhere in sight. Ferdie, on the other hand, was still tapping away on the laptop, oblivious to the world in his sound-proofed headphones. Beak walked over to the bluebird, rapping on the tabletop to get his friends attention.
Ferdie jumped with surprise at well, not the knock, but the vibrations it caused in the tabletop blinking at Beak in confusion. Beak? Whats up? Find anything?
I think so, nodded the Magi, but I want to know what you and Bob think it is.
Ferdie frowned. Bob gave up on reading an hour ago, declaring he had a stress headache and needed coffee. Theres a shop not far from here, I think, but I cant guarantee he didnt just go bar-hopping for coffees. The bluebird pulled out a small cell phone, keying up Bobs number. Here, Ill just call him, let him know he needs to get back here.
As they waited for Bob to pick up his phone, a small beeping noise sounded from the area where Ferdie had left the laptop case. Upon investigation, the noisy device turned out to be none other than Bobs cell phone.
How are we supposed to get a hold of him now? Beak frowned.
Easy. We either begin scouring local coffeehouses in search of a small yellow kiwi with a sizable temper and a penchant for ranting, or we keep going without him, on the grounds that well have more done to show him when he gets back, Ferdie shrugged.
As neither were too keen on actively seeking out and removing a stressed Bob from a coffeehouse, Beak went back to Newts study with Ferdie in tow, and played the third voice mail message for him. Ferdie gawked at the contents of the message, but still managed to dutifully take down the callers information the second time around.
Wow, he managed, staring at his scribbled notes, This is serious. I never knew Newt had someone trying to kill him.
Is it a clue?
Well, look at the time-date stamp on the message, Ferdie said, keying up the data from the machine, Its only a day or so before Newt and his cousin disappeared. Thats a pretty big coincidence, if you ask me. It wouldnt surprise me if Newt bought into the whole thing and called this Puff guy and even gave him his cousins number! I swear, hes just so naïve sometimes
Beak followed Ferdie as the bluebird stalked back out into the main lab area. So, does this mean I can stop looking through Newts stuff?
Huh? Ferdie looked up from his computer, where he was merrily forcing his way into the United States Phone Directory to run down the address attached to the number Puff had left on Newts machine. Oh, no. I mean, this could be the clue weve been looking for, but then it looks like Newt never actually listened to that message, so it might not be. Thats not saying Puff didnt call him at home, or show up in person. Open a dialogue, my tail! He wanted something from them, and probably got fed up with waiting and decided to just grab them. A couple months of therapys not going to suddenly make a person stop trying to kill people hes been after for over a decade!
Maybe he had a really good therapist, Beak suggested. When Ferdie turned around to glare at him, he added, On second thought
I think Ill just get back to looking through the piles of mail now
Of course it hurts, Zeke snapped, fighting back waves of pain as he growled at the nurse prodding his knee. I skied into a tree and broke it! That generally involves pain.
Theres no need to be nasty, Mr. Morse, the nurse icily replied. Im only following the doctors orders. Now turn onto your side a bit, its time for your next injection.
That last part was said with far too much personal satisfaction, and Drew paused in the hallway waiting for the yelp of pain. It came after a count of three and was followed by a grumbling about nurses who took pleasure in maiming their patients, especially in naturally sensitive areas.
Wisely, the chipmunk waited until the white uniform had swept majestically by him before assuming a suitably sympathetic face and strolling in to visit his injured friend. How are you feeling today, he asked kindly.
I was fine before Nurse Hatchet came after me with that *spear*!
Drew tried desperately to fight back the laughter. Im sure the needle wasnt that big.
Zeke fell back against the pillows in a huff. You didnt see it. Nor did you see the way she sadistically rammed that thing into me.
Thought he put up a valiant fight, the poor chipmunk finally lost and pitched sideways laughing hysterically. Fortunately for them both, Thera managed to duck the poorly-aimed bedpan that came rocketing at her as she stepped through the hospital doorway.
Well, that was a nice greeting, she snarled, giving them both the evil eye.
Flushing, Zeke smiled. Sorry Thera, love; blame Drew, he was being mean to me again.
So Im made to suffer for the chipmunks transgressions. Does that seem fair to you?
No, Thera, they shamelessly chorused, causing her to roll her eyes.
Wheres William, Zeke asked once she was settled in the chair by the bed. I thought hed be right behind you.
Thera shrugged but looked away. He said he had to check in with Dios about a possible lead. Sorry.
Man, you guys get to work with Leahs team and I cant even get out of this stupid bed to help you. This sucks.
Has he come to visit you at all? Drew asked suddenly.
Zeke nodded. Sure. In fact he was here just last night. Said he wanted to check in on me before running an errand. Even filled me in on what you guys have been up to and the new friends you made in San Viano. He snickered at the look on Theras face.
Dont you dare start too, she said hotly. You know how much respect I have for police officers. But these guys are in way over their heads and just dont know it.
Funny, William said they definitely seemed like they could handle themselves. Plus hes really intrigued with that flier you guys met at the detective agency.
What flier? Drew demanded, looking back and forth between them. Why didnt either of you mention this individual?
Thera suddenly looked uncomfortable. William said to leave her out of the report. That she wasnt important.
Not important, huh? Sure. Amazing the number of things he declares are not important and therefore neglects to mention to me.
An awkward silence ensued, only to be shattered by someone bursting excitedly through the doorway.
Hey, Zeke, William called out, latching onto Thera. Gotta run. We got a lead on case. The jets already fueled up and waiting for us.
Drew bounded to his feet after them. Wait, where are you going? he yelled after them.
The reply floated back from down the corridor. Oklahoma.
Ferdie gazed morosely after the yellow cab as it sped away, suddenly wishing hed found some excuse to bow out of this particular part of the investigation.
He had, after several false starts and one particularly close call with a state security bot, managed to match Calvin Puffs phone number with a home address. The problem was, that address was in Oklahoma. And as no one in the Bob Kiwi Detective Agency owned a vehicle, that made paying the ex-mad-doctor a visit somewhat of a challenge. Specifically, it meant bumming a ride or at least a vehicle off of those within their circle of friends that did own a car.
Currently, the only person that fit that criteria was Bobs fiancée, Bobetta Kingston. Bobetta was a one of San Vianos wealthiest socialites, and as devoted to Bob as any love-struck puffball could be. Ferdie was convinced shed gladly loan them a car after all, she had a garage full of them however, he had a creeping suspicion that, as with most things Bobetta owned, the car would be a hideously squishy shade of pink.
An hour later, as the three detectives pulled out of Bobettas estate in a carnation pink Cadillac convertible, Bob struggling to look dignified behind the wheel while Beak, having been designated navigator for some reason, puzzled over a book of maps in the passenger seat, it was all Ferdie could do to slump down out of sight in the back seat, fighting back tears of humiliation amongst the crushed red velvet interior.
You know, Ferdia said, placing the phone back in its cradle and pausing to stretch as Squeaks dialed the next number, I never really thought about it before this, but the people that put together those Biography documentaries have the most boring jobs in the world. I swear, all this research is driving me crazy. None of those scientists has said anything even remotely worth while.
Not necessarily, Squeaks commented, For starters, none of them have ever heard of Periwinkle, but most of them do remember a young college intern joining the project towards the end.
Squeaks sighed. So, most of the individuals weve talked to were either heavily involved at the start and peripherally as time went on, or they came in midway and worked hard enough to save the project that its failure made them bitter.
You picked up on that too, eh?
Research scientists dont tend to refer to something as a complete, utter, dismal failure unless they feel theyve wasted their time and grant money, the mouse shrugged. Usually, theyll at least claim to have made some valid contributions to their field, even if the end results werent what they were hoping for.
Ferdia nodded. Yeah. And if Newts any example, not only will they do that, but theyll keep in touch with their group, in case anyone comes up with any breakthroughs and wants to try again.
And most of these scientists left California and never looked back. That and the fact that theyve never heard from Periwinkle at all makes me wonder if maybe weve been going about this the wrong way.
Squeaks, its the only decent lead weve got, Ferdia sighed, No fingerprints or trace evidence at the scene, no unusual individuals or vehicles seen near the lab or his home over the past few weeks, no indication that anyone was even remotely threatening or even harassing him at all.
.I mean, just who are we supposed to look at here? Locke and Strand are suspicious, yes, but we know they work for some permutation of the federal government, and I cant see them showing up and making a scene about Newts cousin just to kiwinap Newt. I mean, if theyd wanted him, it wouldve made more sense just to grab him then wedve really had no idea what was going on.
I think its safe to say that, whatever else those two are, they are not behind Newts disappearance, Squeaks stated, giving up on reaching the scientist hed dialed and returning the phone to its cradle. And I agree that, as that note from their missing scientist is the source of our only lead, questioning its source is a valid point but, he continued, ignoring her triumphant nodding, The code in that message meant something to Newt. And seeing as how Bob cant remember what it decodes to, we dont stand to lose anything by running this lead through to its conclusion even if that conclusion is that weve wasted our time.
All Im saying, he calmed her, is that maybe trying to link the scientists to Periwinkle isnt the tack we should be taking on this. Weve already got local police keeping an eye on them, Casey pouring over the bulk of their files, and Iiwi sifting through OsCorps records. That and an afternoon of being told sorry, thats classified is enough to make me wonder if our time wouldnt be better spent trying to track down the one project member we havent been able to locate.
Ferdia, who had been nodding in frustrated agreement as her partner detailed their fruitless attempts at discovering the secrets of Project Pufferfish, paused, a slow, shark-like grin spreading across her face. Periwinkle.
Squeaks returned her grin with one of his own, nodding.
But, Ferdia frowned, Where would we even start there? Its been a solid six months since he last pelted the city with paintballs or threatened to seed the clouds with Nair. We know for a fact hes not still in his old lab, and he never uses the same lair twice. Hes been quiet, too no calls or notes we could try to track him down with. I have no idea where to start looking for him-
Sure we do, the mouse grinned. We know he tends to take up residence in certain types of places abandoned buildings, condemned lots, forgotten forest shelters isolated areas far from the surrounding cities, where its unlikely anyone will stumble onto him unintentionally. It follows that if we look at locations with structures that fit that criteria, we stand a reasonable chance of finding his current hideout.
Eventually, you mean, Ferdia grinned, teasing now. You realize how many run-down factories, empty farmhouses, rotting squatters huts, and decommissioned Cold-War bomb shelters there are running up and down this side of the San Andreas fault alone? Even if hes still in California, were talking about potentially thousands of sites!
Would you rather keep calling Pufferfishs scientists and waiting to see if Locke keeps his promise about sending us the information theyve gotten together? he asked. Ferdia made a face. Well, then we might as well make a list and start looking. Periwinkles always operated within a hundred miles of San Viano, right? Well start within that radius, and see what happens.
She shrugged. Works for me. Well need to get in touch with the State Department of Health, as well as Housing
and maybe Parks and the Public Land office as well. That should give us an idea of where the bigger sites are, at least. But were using Caseys phone for that.
I doubt hell object to moving his researching into our office, Squeaks mused. Itll give him a chance to sift through our files without needing to worry what well think if we catch him at it. He laughed. In fact, that might just get Trevor in on the act as well.
Please, no. One bug in that office is quite enough, and at least theres the possibility that the fedsll deactivate it when this case is over. Trev wont let us off that easily. Besides, hes been trying to spike your coffee all day-
-Id wondered why it spat at him every time he walked by, the mouse chuckled, Doubtless its because of something Locke told them.
-Exactly. And thats just why we cant involve him on this. We need to discourage that sort of behavior, and refusing to let him in on a case weve already roped Casey into ought to do the trick.
Or drive him underground.
Quiet, you. Weve got enough work on our hands trying to locate Periwinkle in the wilds of California. I dont need to add keeping an eye out for Trevor the Spy to my list of things to do
I think were lost.
Dont be silly. Were not lost.
I think we are.
I never get lost.
Bob, we just crossed the Canadian border. Trust me, were lost.
Beak, tell me Ferdies just hallucinating. Were not lost, right?
I dont think we are
not to criticize, but do you realize youre holding the map upside down?!?
Personally, Id be more concerned about the fact that hes flipped to the map of Vermont.
I need more coffee
actually, you need more fuel
*sputter* *cough* *stall*
For future reference, the correct time to inform me that were running out of gas is before we actually do.
Ill, uh, keep that in mind
It all began with a phone call. One innocent videoconference call from his latest financial backer to confirm the success of their latest scheme. The first step, anyway. Thats when everything went so hideously wrong. Thats when hed discovered he had the *wrong* scientist. Dr. Periwinkle had been understandably upset when he discovered this.
Adrian Lords had been incredibly pissed.
How could you kidnap the wrong scientist?! the golden furred rabbit had screamed into the phone, all traces of his legendary composure completely gone.
Have you ever looked at them? Periwinkle had hotly defended himself. They look alike, dress alike, talk alike, and probably even think alike! Theyre freakin identical cousins! And if thats not enough, they also have this annoying habit of switching names!! You try telling them apart!
Periwinkle, Lords had hissed in that subtly evil way, This is not some sort of bad seventies sit-com. If it were, it would be quickly cancelled due to lack of funding. Do you understand my meaning?
Of course hed understood. He was a mad *scientist* after all. You didnt become one of those by being an incredible idiot. So things had seemed pretty bad, but that was easily fixed. Hed just kill the kiwi he had, then snatch the right one. That way there would be no mistakes. Simple enough, right?
Then that stupid rabbit had discovered just exactly who the kiwi he already held was - and, more importantly, where he worked. Things had gotten ugly then. Lords had insisted he keep the useless one alive and unharmed. Just snatch them both and teach them the spirit of cooperation, the rabbit had said.
Then he hadnt even trusted Periwinkle to kiwinap the right scientist! Like there was a third double just floating around out there, waiting to screw him up again! If you had one locked up, then the right one was obviously the one still running around loose. Any idiot could figure that out - but no, instead of letting him be a proper mad scientist and do things *his* way, the dumb bunny had sent a babysitter for him. His snot-nosed brat of a little sister, no less. It was humiliating! Hed planned to get rid of her at the first opportunity. Lab accidents were easy to arrange, after all.
That was before hed discovered she was a trained assassin.
It just wasnt fair! Things like that always threw a crimp in his perfectly well-thought-out plans.
And of course the little brat didnt understand that mad scientists were supposed to be feared in respected.
No sense of tradition in todays youth, Periwinkle muttered to himself as he stormed down the main corridor of his latest complex holding his rubber ducky. Blasted brat even has the nerve to page me while Im taking a bath! You never interrupt an insane genius when they are covered in bubbles!
You also dont stare at them when theyre ranting to themselves. Thus the reason why every lackey had the good sense to either look away or fade into the woodwork when Periwinkle stormed into the communications room wet, angry, and muttering incoherently.
Phone call for you, doctor, Honey Lords announced with the type of pleasant smile aimed at people who are about to have parts of them shot off.
Periwinkle just aimed his most malevolent glare at her, unaware the effect was spoiled by the towel turban that kept slipping down one side of his head. He stormed up to the console and hit what he *thought* was the correct button.
All the lights went out.
Try two over to the left, Honey sang out tone smugly bored.
Clinging tightly to the threadlike fibers of his patience, he got the lights back on and found the switch she meant. The face of the stupid rabbit appeared, looking less then pleased.
Periwinkle, you halfwit, what have you done *now*, he demanded.
Thats it, Periwinkle thought to himself, Im just going to have to shoot someone after this. Its the only thing that will make me feel better.
Youre the one who called me, he felt compelled to point out.
Because I have government agents monitoring my every move right now. Theyve got the Seattle headquarters staked out on EVERY FLOOR. I cant even sneeze without hearing at least three bless yous.
Of in the corner, calmly filing her nails, Honey could be heard to mutter, Geez, you think youd be used to that by now.
I havent done anything but kidnap the *correct* scientist, he smugly replied.
You imbecile, Lords shouted. You were supposed to wait until the other one was taken care of. Now that *&%%$# agency knows theyre both missing. No wonder I have agents breathing down my neck. How did you manage to do the *one thing* that was going to make this situation ten times worse? Secrecy, you idiot, that was the watchword.
I thought it was peanut butter and pickles, Periwinkle replied, puzzled.
Adrian actually growled. Thats the password! This whole operation was supposed to be done quietly. Draw no attention. Who knows how many agents are looking for you even now.
Periwinkle snorted. Theyll never find me here. And if by some miracle they do, then theyll be eliminated. I can handle that.
I wish I could trust you on that, but the idea seems almost laughable now. Yet somehow Im NOT laughing. So Im sending *Honey* some extra firepower. I trust her to take care of our investment. You just get the secret to the formula out of him, understood?
The screen went blank as he hung up and Periwinkle just stood there debating who was going to die first. And how. The how was very important. The rubber ducky gave a slight squeal as it was slowly squeezed. I think Ill go interrogate the prisoners now.
Iiwi landed with a huff and a shuddering of tired wings, the reds and oranges of sunset tingeing her wings with a fiery hue. Shed spent the better part of the day on the wing, flying from ship to ship and gliding amongst air currents that slowly ferried her to that string of tiny islands scattered halfway across the Pacific. Hawaii was quite a distance away from the Californian coast, and the trans-oceanic trek wasnt the sort of thing Iiwi enjoyed iiwis were, after all, traditionally non-migratory tropical songbirds. Still, it was the fastest way to get to Ozzies island without cramming herself into a pressurized metal tube, and it had the side benefit of not being something people could track easily.
Besides, what she had here was a perfect opportunity to posthumously screw that bastard osprey, and she wasnt about to miss out on a chance like that. Oz owed her. And the thought of being all but asked to go to his island abandoned after Periwinkles fatal attack years ago by the police, of all people (here she reminded herself that, while Ferdia and Squeaks had not technically asked her to come here, they most certainly would have, once theyd read the files on Pufferfish and discovered Ozs involvement) well, it was just too good to pass up. Oh, sure, shed comb the place for info on the Pufferfish project she was certain that itd be lying around in a vault somewhere; Ozzie, the professional businessman incarnate, would never have disposed of information so hard to come by it required dispatching ones own flesh and blood to gather it but once shed found all the useful data there was to be found, shed have free range of the rest of the bungalows contents.
In all truth, she wasnt all that keen on the weapons and ammunition she knew shed find. They were valuable, yes, and shed probably see if she could locate a buyer for them (besides Lita, she added silently) but she was really more interested in the jewels and priceless antiquities littering the dusty interior of the bungalow. Oz hadnt collected only weapons, after all.
Still, business before pleasure.
She hopped down the dusty corridors, grimacing at the dampness and weather damage that radiated out a good ten feet from each outside door, window, or collapsed wall that left the interior exposed to the elements. The place had changed a good deal since shed last been here back when Periwinkled gone after Ozzie. Nature was slowly reclaiming the house, creeping in with vines and ivy and nests of local critters birds, rodents, even wasps. She hardly recognized the Great Hall when first she wandered into it the marble floor was completely overgrown with ivy and wildflowers, much of the missile-damaged roof had caved in, and most importantly the bodies of Oz and his entourage of bodyguards were nowhere to be found. She thought nothing of this after all, between police crime scene investigators and grieving families, she hadnt expected to see bones simply lying about. Had the walls and floors not been so overgrown with greenery, however, she might have noticed something a bit more unusual: the blood splatters and splotches were nowhere to be seen. But, then, it had been a number of years, and the area had been open to every last drop of rain with its caved-in roof
The study was a bit harder to find; the hallways had become so ridiculously overgrown with greenery that it had taken quite a bit of clawing, climbing, and squeezing through interwoven vines and winding roots to navigate to that section of the bungalow at all. Once inside, however, she was treated to a welcome sight: despite all odds, the study had somehow withstood the ravages of time, sitting pristine amidst the slowly-rotting bungalow around her. Allowing herself a squawk of joy, she set to work rooting through the late arms dealers files. The sooner she got the detectives what they wanted, the sooner she could crack open that safe and get what she wanted
Are we there yet?
Are we there yet?
You wanna ride in the trunk, Birdie?
Aw, come on, Bob! Im bored! Weve been driving for hours now! I mean, sure, sunset through the Grand Canyon was great an all, but now that its dark, its boring. We havent passed any signs of civilization let alone a car since ten oclock!
Oh yeah? Ha! Shows what you know! Theres a sign, right up there!
Care to explain why that sign says Welcome to MEXICO?!?
Oklahomans have a wacky sense of humor?
.Ill give you a *whack!*-ing sense of humor!
Bob! Keep your hands on the wheel!
And keep your feet on the pedals!
Shut up, grab a flashlight out of the glove box, and find us the right way to Oklahoma!
Okay, okay! Just
Well, youre going to be running out of gas soon
five, six miles or so.
And you tell me this in the middle of a freakin *desert*?!? Why didnt you say something an hour ago, when we past that last gas for 100 miles sign!!
Sorry?!? Is that all you can say?!?
What else should I say?
Ill go get gas, thats what! Because thats what youll be doing!
I swear, next time, Im just taking the train
If youre not careful, Ferdie, next time youll be in the trunk!!!
Youve run out of coffee again, havent you, Bob?
YES! FIVE HOURS AGO!!
Beak? When we stall out and you go for gas, fill up a second ten-gallon container. With coffee.
The moment the fasten seatbelts sign went off, Dios leapt to his feet and went diving for his laptop. Rami, spotting this sideways leap, casually nudged it out of his reach. Just because hed modified the thing didnt mean the rest of them felt safe with it on during their flight. Thwarted, the squirrel slunk back to his seat and reached for his cell phone, figuring he could at least check his email. Her glare had him putting it away again, albeit reluctantly. Still, there was always his PDA, and the beeper hed modified last week for emergencies.
Meanwhile, Xiao was watching William gaze out the window at the night sky as they soared through the sky on one of the agencys private jets. They were all tired, it was close to midnight, and the cat figured they all least deserved to know why they were suddenly heading for Oklahoma without any warning.
Very well, William, he spoke, catching the mouses attention. Were all here now, so tell us why.
William grinned. Ah, the eternal question. Does any of us really know the answer, or are we just blindly stumbling about?
Leah rolled her eyes. Can it, Locke, or well see how philosophical you can be while freefalling at thirty thousand feet.
Done it before, he replied sedately. Its actually quite refreshing.
Without a parachute, she growled. The look in her eyes said shed do it in a heartbeat if he didnt explain.
The mouse shook his head. One day, Leah, youre going to have to learn patience.
Tried it once, but I got bored. Now quit stalling.
Fine. The reason were suddenly on our way to the Midwest is to find a hamster named Calvin Puff.
Whats so important about him? asked a confused Thera.
Calvin attended the same college as our missing scientists, William replied. In fact, he was a graduate student at the time. The type who likes to give long-winded lectures anytime the professor gives them the chance. Because of that, Calvin earned himself the nickname Pufferfish. All of a sudden they were sitting up and listening attentively as he continued. He never finished his degree because he was expelled. Universities generally dont like when their TAs get arrested, and Calvin earned himself an impressive rap sheet when he broke into one of the school buildings after hours and destroyed a sizable amount of government property.
It was a project on fossil fuel alternatives that had won some sort of award, as well as a prize earmarked as a funding grant. Calvin had also been up for the award - in fact, he was expected to win, but a pair of child prodigies who were still in their first year there beat him out. The young scientific geniuses were also identical cousins.
Joe and his cousin Newt, Thera exclaimed. Incredible. So he tried to destroy their experiment because he lost.
William nodded. Except he got caught, the amateur, and arrested. The university threw him out, and apparently he went a bit insane after that. Blamed the kiwis for ruining his life. After that he joined a radical anti-government group in the seventies and tried to kill them on numerous occasions. Also sent death threats, letter bombs, burned down labs, and generally wreaked havoc.
Amazing, Rami muttered. I had no idea someone was trying to kill Joseph.
In the back, Dios could be heard rustling about in search of food. Actually, Puffs been quiet for the past dozen or so years. Just the occasional angry letter. The authorities caught up with him in the late eighties and locked him away.
Why do I have the feeling it wasnt for life, Thera grumbled.
Oh, no. Thirty years, I think, but he was out in eight. Released early on good behavior. Prison shrinks declared him cured. Said theyd turned him into a model citizen eager to make amends for his past transgressions.
Thera muttered a very unladylike word at that particular statement.
Zeke kept desperately pressing the button, but there was no response. No matter how often he called, the nurse refused to come and save him from Drew. It was personal, too. He knew because he would see her stroll by occasionally with an extra blanket for a patient, or maybe a pillow. One time it was even a tray of juice. Still, youd think theyd have more than one nurse on duty; yet no one came. This was obviously some sort of conspiracy.
All the while, Drew rambled on.
Probably another thief, he snarled, pacing across the room again. That whole brotherhood, or sisterhood, as it were, of thievery. Ive told him a thousand times that hes an agent now. One of the *good* guys. They do not go around helping lawbreakers escape just because they feel some fleeting kinship. But does he listen?
Of course not, Zeke mouthed.
Of course not, Drew continued. No, instead he mumbles something about him being an agent *now*, but what about tomorrow? Like hes just going to wake up one day and quit! And then he drags Thera in on his little schemes.
Zeke sighed and collapsed back against his pillows, knowing pretty much nothing was going to save him now. Drews biggest problem was he tended to see things as strictly black and white. Good guys were good guys and bad guys were bad guys and, maybe occasionally, the bad guys helped out the good guys - but that was only because they were good at heart or wanted to reform. But the good guys *never* helped out the bad guys. That would make them bad guys too. No good guy who was ever truly good went bad.
As for William, his entire world was done in shades of gray. You did what you needed to get along in the world, and that was it. Maybe you stuck out your neck for others, but there were good solid reasons behind it, not because you were basically a good person. William didnt really believe in inherently good people. You are who you are, he would say, and you go about in the world how you plan to go along in it. A confusing philosophy, but there was a sort of truth to it if you thought about it the right way.
Zeke tuned into to hear Drews latest tangent topic and almost groaned out loud.
And then there was the whole incident with Cassandra, the chipmunk practically spat out, and he was off and running again.
Absolutely not, Joseph practically shouted. The whole idea is scientifically unsound.
Oh, you always say that, Newt snapped. Its always the physics behind that are to radical for it to work or the compound is too unstable to survive the process or if you blow up the lab one more time were going to lose our funding. Just once, I wish youd actually consider my ideas instead of just labeling them as too revolutionary to be possible.
The first time you conduct an experiment and *not* blow something up in the process, Ill consider it.
AHA! Then you admit its possible.
Fine. Its possible to use rat poison as an explosive, at least if YOU are the one trying to gain combustion.
Why dont I feel vindicated?
Show me / the way / to the next / coffee bar- Bob sang.
Oh, dont ask why, Ferdie and Beak chorused, Oh, dont ask why-
Show me / the way / to the next / coffee bar, Bob repeated, keeping in tune with the radio, which was finally picking up stations again.
Oh, dont ask why. / Oh, dont ask why-
For / if / we dont reach / the next coffee bar, Bob continued, I tell you we must die, he chorused with Ferdie and Beak, I tell you we must die-
I must admit, Beak stated, breaking ranks as Bob continued singing, Id never have thought Billy Joel would have written something quite like this song.
Yeah, well, Ferdie shrugged, It makes more sense when you take into consideration that the songs actually about whiskey, not coffee, and that it was probably written at three in the morning.
Anyways, he continued, changing the subject, Howre we doing on gas?
Just fine, thank you, bristled Beak, who had been stung by two scorpions and set upon by a coyote on his last sojourn for fuel, and was making it a point to keep an eye on the fuel gauge at all times now.
Ive been wondering given the fact that Bobs buried the needle on the speedometer, how come we havent been pulled over yet? I know weve passed some speed traps
Oh, Ive managed to convince the officers that this is a matter of the utmost urgency, Beak nodded, Or, more often than not, that they simply misread their radar guns by a hundred miles per hour or so.
Well, that makes up for the side trips to Mexico and Canada, I suppose-
Beak, Bob interrupted, Sense any coffee shops nearby?
Not yet, Bob. But I am looking
Itll be easier in an hour, when the suns up, Ferdie yawned. He was quite thankful to be riding in the back seat at this point; for much of the night, hed simply stretched across the plush seats and gone to sleep. It was amazing how the red velvet became a wonderful, comfortable thing when it was too dark to see its color and how it clashed with the pink of the car.
Yes, well, Beak began, then stopped. In the weak, slate-gray light of pre-dawn, Ferdie couldve sworn he saw the brown kiwi pale a shade or two.
What is it? he asked. But Beak could only gulp, and point off at a sign flying towards them as they streaked down the highway.
Ohio welcomes you, Ferdie read, with a growing sense of doom.
Bobs eye twitched alarmingly as the sign drew close enough for the exhausted kiwi to decipher its letters and meaning. Ferdie tried, with his best be strong bravado, to convince Beak not to worry. When that failed, he simply promised the Magi a beautiful eulogy.
Bob, however, did not begin screaming, as they had expected. Instead, he simply cut the wheel sharply, sending the car into a spin that left them facing perpendicular across their eastbound lane, staring up at the sign.
Im sorry, Beak cringed, gingerly holding out the map to their muttering leader. I didnt even realize
.I was on the wrong page
.it was just so dark, and I saw the O, and thought, hey, this must be the right page
Why did I even let you be the navigator?!? Bob raged, pounding his head with fists.
Im really sorry, Beak mumbled, I seem to lose my sense of direction in automobiles
Ferdie sighed, wearily reaching for the map. Give me that, already. Ill figure out the best way back to Oklahoma from here. Sensing that Beak was about to get throttled, he added, Bob, keep going down this road for now; theres a rest area a mile further down, with bathrooms, gasoline, and he paused dramatically, coffee!
It was at precisely that moment that Bobettas dusty pink Cadillac became the first American-made stock car to break the sound barrier. The locals talked about it for years, mainly due to the fact that - according to legend - when a ground vehicle reaches Mach 1, instead of the ear-splitting, thundering roar associated with supersonic aircraft, it makes a sound like this:
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