A Collaborative Effort: Part 6
"Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
Iiwi sat in the center of a cramped storage room, gazing up at countless reams of stacked paper. This had seemed like such a good idea, she sighed. But, then, shed forgotten how anal-retentive the Oswalds were when it came to record-keeping. One would have thought they were a family of accountants, not arms dealers.
Shed been paging through the seas of files for hours, grateful Ozzies filing system was as ridiculously meticulous if infuriatingly coded as it was. The code, though rather intuitively based now that she understood it, had taken her some time to crack. The rows of filing cabinets lining the room like a twisted version of Arlington cemetery were numbered by year not by calendar year, which would have been simple, but by the elapsed years of each Oswalds reign. The first row of cabinets held the files kept by the Oswald family founder, the second held his sons, and so on, until the rows ceased.
Ozzies row was sixth and final in line, and contained only three cabinets. The files within these cabinets, however, were organized not by alphabetical, chronological, or topical order, but rather by a serial number denoting difficulty, legitimacy, and profit. It was a task so daunting Iiwi would have gladly beaten Ozzie soundly for troubling her so, had the osprey not already been dead.
Moreover, after three hours spent pouring over the contents of Ozzies first two cabinets, it occurred to her that he had been an undergrad at the time he served as a lab assistant on Pufferfish and, thus, had been operating under his fathers orders. The elder Oswald had twenty-six cabinets, and Iiwi had no idea where in his reign Pufferfish had fallen. It took her the better part of the night to weed her way through the files, finally finding that what she was looking for in the cabinet fifth from the end. Once she found it, however, she understood why the Oswalds had been interested enough in the project to send their own heir in as a mole.
Ozzies job as lab assistant, it seemed, consisted of not only setting up experiments and trial runs, but of taking notes and recopying the scientists own lab notebooks for legibility (and salvaging them after the errant acid spill, which seemed to happen with alarming frequency). And Ozzie, in turn, had unfailingly photocopied each and every painstakingly documented page, diagram, and schematic. The entire project was laid out before her: every thought, process, and failure mapped out from its inception to its abandonment.
Was this why Ozzie had contacted Periwinkle years ago, after amassing enough money through his factories to restart the research aboveboard? What drove him to reveal his private wealth and homestead to the madman that had taken said wealth and launched an all-out military assault on the ruined compound she now stood in? This?!?
She felt a sudden pang of sympathy for the man shed pledged to destroy so long ago. Poor Oz, you really were trying to go legit, werent you? The uses for the compound documented before her were endless to say nothing of the possibilities that might avail themselves to the militaries of the world. Or, rather, they would be, once one final glitch was worked out.
Suddenly, she knew why Newt and his cousin had been taken. Two of the projects original scientists, there from beginning to end, the most skilled by far when it came to blowing things up or running down tough fixes, taken by someone whod come in late enough in the game to be missing crucial pieces. Periwinkle hadnt been there for the very end, either; hadnt known the project ended in failure, and not amidst financial crisis. Hadnt, for all his hounding of the projects scientists and the razing of Ozzies island stronghold, managed to locate records as complete as the ones before her now.
The others had to know. Because even without the final work-around, Newt could still produce the powder. And in the hands of someone known for seeding clouds with acid or Nair crystals, a reagent as volatile as Pufferfishs mid-phase compound could be very, very dangerous.
Ferdia sighed, peering up at the half-desiccated shrike dangling from a set of rusty manacles looped over a board overhead. Not another one.
Scientist or lab newt, do you figure? Squeaks inquired, taking a moment to radio dispatch of their newest find.
My moneys on scientist. Looks like Periwinkle wanted something from him, too. His toes are all broken, and half his beaks burned off. She grimaced. Poor guy. I dont see any mortal wounds; Id hate to think he was left to starve
Squeaks stepped gingerly around the suspended corpse. It was hardly more than a dried out shell of tattered clothes and dusty feathers a product of the desert heat so common in these bluffs, too far from shore for sea breezes, too near the wrong side of the Rockies for mountain showers. At least, the mouse thought, its not another swamp or redwood forest. Theyd been touring the Californian countryside since noon yesterday, searching the lost and forgotten corners off the beaten path that Periwinkle seemed to like so much. The shrike was the third victim theyd found so far, and hands down the easiest to deal with. Victim one had been an errant camper left buried in a fire ant nest; victim two, a skeleton clad in a torn lab coat, found at the bottom of a tank of dead crocodiles. Periwinkle had a thing about leaving neither witnesses nor coworkers.
Yo, Squeaks, his partners voice summoned him from his morbid reverie, I said, how long you think hes been out here?
Couple weeks, Id say. Its too dry up here for flies, but from the looks of things, the desert carrion beetles have been and gone. He fished out his nightstick, brushing the corpses lab coat aside to reveal sunken holes just visible between patches of feathers. A few beetle husks tumbled to the ground for further emphasis.
Ech, Ferdia shuddered, taking a step back, Hate those things. Always reminded me of roaches.
Still, it makes this the most recent lab weve found. If Lockes scientist truly disappeared a week ago, this could quite possibly be Periwinkles last lab before moving to his current location.
Or there could be five more half-started little ones he considered before settling wherever.
Squeaks shook his head. Its not like him to go anywhere without setting up a lab.
Its not like him to leave behind anything that might indicate where he went, either, Ferdia sighed. For all we know, he might not stake out new locations at all, just cruise around until he finds a place that suits his purposes.
Still, Squeaks shrugged, venturing past the shrike into the dusty portions of the cave strewn with abandoned lab equipment, Hes left a lot more behind here than he usually does. He may have been in a hurry, maybe overlooked something important.
Ferdia shrugged, strolling past her partner to sift through a toppled stack of moldy notebooks. Mad scribbles and calculations adorned every available bit of white space in the books, confessions of a sick mind. Across from her, Squeaks poked around toppled beakers and flasks of foul liquid no doubt the remnants of some formula or other, most of which had eaten through their containers or turned a fuzzy shade of black.
She paused in her search, turning back a page to a block of text that caught her eye. The print was larger than most, more legible and the scribblings crowding the other entries gave this one a comfortable berth. She waved her partner over, pointing to the text.
What do you make of this?
N65431E? The mouse frowned. Looks like a serial number of some sort. Lab equipment, maybe?
Ferdia nodded. Maybe, or
hmm. Maybe the tail number off an aircraft? She glanced about the caves interior, taking in the bits of torn paper and dustings of sand strewn about the far ends of the sandstone cavern. The rock formations at the entrance - and the caves winding, vaulted ceilings buffered the makeshift laboratory from errant gusts of wind, so why did it look as if a whirling dervish had whipped through the area? Yes
thats it! Id wondered about the scatter pattern of the debris in here, why everything looks windblown - prop wash from helicopter blades!
So, someone paid our mad scientist a visit or two and he in turn was nice enough to leave us their calling card. Squeaks grinned. Think its traceable?
Ferdia grinned in return, reaching for her radio. Lets find out.
They were several hours away from sunrise when the plane touched down on the private airstrip. Most of the agents had opted for a few hours of sleep during the flight, but William, more of a night person than the others, was wide awake and going over the rest of the data Dios had uncovered on the Pufferfish project. Something was nagging him about the whole set-up; some latent gut instinct that told him there was more to this than met the eye. The partnership between Lords and Periwinkle just made things worse. A member of one of the most successful international crime families does not do business with a mad scientist unless there is some serious profit involved.
Still, without more proof, Calvin Puff looked like their best lead. But an ex-terrorist now managing shifts at a pickle factory hardly seemed like potential a kidnapper, especially since Puff apparently hadnt missed a day of work since starting the job a year ago. However, the possibility of accomplices could not be ruled out - especially if you considered his extensive list of old contacts from his revolutionary days.
Either way, well wait until morning to question him, he muttered to himself, opening the next document on his laptop. Weve got the locals keeping an eye on him, so no sense going in now and missing out on much-needed sleep.
A few hours later, just as false dawn was brightening the dark sky, Xiao accepted a report from the uniformed Grackle and scanned it while the others unloaded the rest of the equipment from the plane. The results of the locals surveillance, he said to William as the white mouse joined him. Target apparently has a wife and stepchildren both under the age of ten. Could cause problems if we try to take him.
Still reading the preliminary details, he nodded then pointed to a line on the page. Says here both attend elementary school with the now Mrs. Puff, who works as a guidance counselor. Im betting morning routine has them leaving early for school. Puff himself doesnt report until the afternoon shift at his job. We wait until the target is alone in the house, then move in - but just us. We dont want to scare him off.
With Thera and Leah along? Cant imagine how *that* could possibly happen, Xiao innocently replied.
I heard that you furball! Leah shouted from the cargo hold as she handed a metal trunk down to several uniformed agents, who staggered under the weight.
Anyway, Xiao continued, how do we make sure he remains stationary?
Actually, I have an idea about that
Barbara Reynolds-Puff, a three time divorcé and mother of two spoiled, hyperactive muskrats, stormed into her bedroom, jerked open the shades to let the newly risen sunlight pour in, and kicked her husband out of bed. Calvin landed on the pristine hardwood floors with a distinct thud and groaned in agony as his still sore body bruised even further.
Yes, dear, he whimpered subserviently.
The hot water heater has sprung a leak, which means you need to get your lazy butt out of bed and bail out the basement while I call a plumber. This will probably cost a fortune to fix, and who knows when the bum will show up, so you dont go anywhere until he gets here and fixes the problem, understand me? And try not to let the guy walk all over you. I just want it fixed. We dont need a new system no matter how old that one is, got it?
Useless lazy dolt, she ranted as she stalked downstairs to make the call.
And while Mrs. Puff was happily harassing the local office of a chain of discount plumbers, a pair of identical kiwis were making a most unusual discovery.
I cannot believe that you, the master of all things explosive, cannot get the compound to ignite, Joseph snapped.
Newt leveled a glare at him. My apologies, but the substance is still too wet to produce a viable spark. Even my talent only extends so far, you know.
Ewwww, Joseph replied in disgust. Spare me the details, please.
A scientist should be above such petty triflings, Newt intoned.
Right. Besides, thats just an excuse and you know it.
Hardly. Mark my words, if I had the right equipment, I could blow a sizable hole in that door. Too bad my lab assistant isnt here; hes always so helpful.
*You* have a lab assistant? I thought youd given them up when the insurance premiums got so high.
Yes well, this one is rather
unusual. He works for bananas.
I do believe you mean peanuts, Newt.
Nope. Bananas. Dont ask me what he does with them, but I buy them by the caseload for him. Still, hes very useful to have around, especially when I need a handy fire or sudden explosion. If I had Beak with me, this place would be rubble.
You know, Im not even going to ask.
Already crouched on the floor of their filthy cell, Newt leaned over even further, nearly unbalancing himself. Whoooaaa
phew. All right, I think I have it this time. However, I need you to get down here and blow on the compound.
Do you want to be stuck here forever?
Whatever Josephs reply might have been was lost in the sudden clang as their cell door was flung open and several heavily armed guards stormed in.
Because its what mad scientists are expected to do, Dr. Periwinkle was pacing the length of his command chamber and muttering angrily to himself. Instead of getting to interrogate the prisoners like he wanted to, one of those dozen little administrative tasks had come up, sufficiently distracting him from his more enjoyable duties. Now that the dust had settled and the bodies disposed of (courtesy of Honey, who was turning out to be slightly more useful then hed first thought), it was time to get his hands dirty.
Where are they, he snarled. I sent the guards down there more than half an hour ago. I want to torture things.
Most of the minions scurried behind a solid object of some sort - except for Honey, who just yawned and continued filing her nails. Actually, its only been fifteen minutes, she lazily pointed out, and youre the one who insisted on putting them in the dungeon on the *bottom* level. Takes forever to get down there, remember.
y-you, Periwinkle sputtered for a moment in inarticulate rage before turning around and shooting a passing lab rat. There, I feel better now. Bring on the next victim.
Have you ever considered anger management therapy, Honey dryly inquired, motioning for someone to remove the body.
Periwinkle twitched for a moment and reached for a weapon just as someone banged on the huge metal doors. Grinning in delight, he swept dramatically to the main console and firmly pressed the button to allow entry. This was followed by a sudden clanging of alarms and shaking of the floor as it split down the center and slowly started to slide apart. Terrified shrieks (and the subsequent thuds as panicked minions crashed into each other) filled the air while Honey groaned, stood, and wandered over to shut off the security system.
Once the noise died out and order was restored, a more tentative knock could be heard. Before Periwinkle could touch anything else, the golden rabbit reached over and hit the correct switch.
Really, those should be labeled, the irate peacock felt compelled to point out. Honey rolled her eyes in response as armed guards marched a pair of identical but dirty kiwis in.
Ah, welcome, honored guests, Periwinkle called out, strolling over to meet them. So glad you could join us.
Like we had a choice, one of the kiwis retorted snidely, while the other glared at him in a superior manner.
Abruptly Periwinkles congenial mood vanished and he glared back. Fine, enough with these ridiculous pleasantries. I want to know that formula or I feed your cousin to the alligators.
Honey coughed. Ahem, Doc.
Closing his eyes a moment at the complete lack of respect, Periwinkle sighed and turned to look at her. Yes, Honey?
Sorry, but we couldnt get your alligators.
Seems theyre on the endangered species list now. I guess one to many mad scientists - excuse me, insane geniuses - wanted them for pets. Costs a bloody fortune just to get a pair of them, and thats without the difficulties of dealing with the paperwork trail.
Those underlings whod been in the peacocks employ for at least six months (the average was eight and a half) had the good sense (i.e. survival instinct) to duck for cover.
I see, Periwinkle finally replied, trying somewhat successfully to tamp down his growing rage. So, tell me, what did you get me?
Crocodiles? I ask for alligators and you bring me crocodiles?!? What kind of two-bit operation are we running here? Periwinkle shrieked. Of all the bloody
who gives a person crocodiles when they *specifically* ask for alligators? How incompetent can you be? If I asked for sharks would you bring me sea bass?
Quelling the urge to hurl a few freshly sharpened knives at the new bane of her existence, Honey felt compelled to point out, Doc, youve got company.
Periwinkle turned back to his captives, both desperately trying not to laugh at him and not really succeeding. Very well. Tell me the formula or Ill feed your cousin to the crocodiles. You know, it really doesnt have the same ring to it, he groused.
Um, excuse me, the less dirty of the two kiwis spoke up. What formula are you referring to?
Thirty years ago, you, Newt, developed a freezing process while working on an alternative fuel project. The process turned the compound highly explosive, and I want to know how you did it. And, if you choose not to tell me, Ill feed your cousin Joseph to something vicious and rabid.
May I ask a second question, Periwinkle? the same kiwi inquired. Which of us is Newt?
Do not think your pathetic attempts to fool me will work. Obviously youre Newt, otherwise how would you know my name?
Perhaps because youre constantly in the paper, thanks to your repeated attempts to blackmail San Viano, the other kiwi responded.
Honey snickered. Id say theyve got you there Doc. Pity youre so famous.
Watching a mad scientist snap can be fun, but hazardous to your health, she decided, as Periwinkle went on a brief but bloody killing spree. Eventually, once the screaming had died down, she ventured out from behind her protective covering and perched delicately on a nearby and relatively clean workstation before ringing for the clean up crew. Feeling better now? she inquired.
Periwinkle paused for a moment and nodded. Actually, I do. Anyway, where were we?
Calvin Puff, cowering in terror on the sofa of his living room, watched as uniformed officers searched every inch of his house. An hour ago, without warning, theyd just burst into his home. So far, aside from the one whod set him on the couch and was now standing over him, no one had acknowledged him.
As if the fates were listening, a white mouse materialized and sat down across in a chair across from him.
So, Mr. Puff, how are you today? the mouse inquired as he removed his spectacles and began polishing the lens.
The hamster gaped at him for a moment before swallowing and managing to reply. Um
who are you people? You cant come in here and do this, not without a warrant. This is my home.
To his amazement, the mouse slid the spectacles back on and merely smiled at him. Legalities, Mr. Puff? If you need them, I can produce such a document, which would stand up in any court. However, I dont think you want me to do that. I think youd prefer to cooperate.
Cooperate with what, Calvin demanded. What are you doing here?
Tell me about your recent activities, Mr. Puff.
Your colleagues, Mr. Puff. In the seventies, you had many of them throughout the world. Quite an active group, I must say. How many do you keep in touch with?
Understanding dawned in his mind and he stared at the mouse in horror. Pl-please, I dont know anything. I dont have anything to do with those guys anymore. I-Ive gone straight, legit. I have a second chance now - a home, a family. Please, I havent done anything.
As Calvin broke down sobbing, he spotted a skunk walk over and whisper with the mouse.
Nothing, Thera quietly reported in disgust. The rodent doesnt even have a lab in the house. Dios has been through all the financial records, as well as his online correspondence, and theres nothing. Leahs going through the phone records now, but so far most of the calls are to his shrink. That seems to be the only place he goes aside from work, where hes a model employee.
Have they reached his psychologist?
A team is with him now, but we dont know anything yet. Wait, Leahs reporting shes found something. One of the calls has been traced to an unlisted number in San Viano.
Suddenly Calvin raised his head and whimpered. Please, my basement is flooding. I need to do something, something to stop it. I cant help you, I dont know anything, I swear.
The basement situation is under control, William calmly replied. Why dont you tell me about a call you recently placed. To San Viano, California.
T-to California? That would have been to Newt Kiwi. Hes a-a scientist, I think. Freelance work, but completely legitimate. We went to college together. I hadnt spoken to him in years, I swear.
Yes, but mail bombs can be considered a form of communication, you know, William gently pointed out, then waited patiently while the hamster broke down crying again.
While William subtly interrogated the suspect, Rami drifted over to a window, trying to relieve her boredom. It was starting to be painfully obvious how pointless this trip was. Shed stake her reputation on Puff being a false lead, and she had a feeling the others would too. One phone call was not enough to convict someone. Why bother to call your intended kidnapping victim from your own home days before the crime? Most criminals that stupid couldnt pull off a scheme this size.
Abruptly, the strangest sight interrupted her musings.
Uh, does anyone have a clue what that thing out there is?
The cross-country trip had not been kind to the Cadillac. Between more road miles than it had been made to drive in years, detours through deserts, ditches, and the occasional swimming pool (dont ask), the once-pristine pink classic car was now a dusty, dented wreck. It puttered down the quiet suburban street with a great deal of whining (from tiny holes in the engines rubber tubing), squealing (busted fan belt, jerry-rigged with duct tape), scraping (the suspension never was meant for off-roading
), and clattering (said off-roading had left the muffler holding on by a thread), backfiring loudly every few feet as its occupants shame-facedly avoided the curious gazes of the neighborhoods morning joggers.
The hulking monstrosity lurched drunkenly across the road, rolling right past Puffs driveway at first before its pale driver slammed on the brakes (which shrieked horridly), wrenched the stick into Reverse, and followed his passengers gesticulated directions back to the cheerily-painted Puff mailbox. The kiwi cut the wheel sharply in an attempt to back into the driveway, stepping on the gas when the battered car balked at the slight slope. With a great bang! (and a rather unhealthy-sounding grinding rattle from the engine compartment), the car pivoted, lumbering right across the driveway and slamming backwards into the splendid old oak tree growing in the center of the Puffs front lawn, sending a rain of acorns hailing down onto the cars occupants.
As the cars passengers stepped shakily out to inspect the damage, the yellow kiwi at the wheel methodically slid the caddy into neutral, yanking up the parking brake and cutting the engine before disengaging his seatbelt and turning to face the gathering crowd of locals.
Citizens! he bellowed, gesturing drunkenly, I need coffee!!
Theres a street vendor two blocks over, next to the gas station, one of the joggers suggested.
Excellent! High ho, coffee, away!!! the bird yelled, bolting in the general direction the jogger had indicated.
Ferdie and Beak wore matching long-suffering expressions, shrugging helplessly to the onlookers as Bob approached Mach One. Theres nothing to see here, Beak informed the gathering crowd, shooing them away, Just go back to your morning routines and pay no attention to us.
With a look of one determined not to let a little thing like complete and utter humiliation deter him from the task at hand, Ferdie squared his shoulders and turned to the Puff house, intending to march straight to the door and demand some answers from the so-called ex-mad scientist hopefully inside (right after apologizing for the damages to the lawn, of course
). He hadnt gone more than two steps before the welcoming committee arrived.
Both of Beak and the bluebird staggered back a bit helplessly as a sea of blue uniforms surrounded them, none of them looking particularly friendly. Ferdie, the more rested and conscious of the two, began to look uneasy - but Beak just peered blearily around him as the adrenaline wore off and exhaustion kicked in. Then, in the midst of crowd appeared a somewhat familiar face.
Friend Ferdie, is that
is that Miss Iiwi? Beak inquired, pointing somewhat shakily at the approaching scarlet feathered figure.
Ferdie, whod gotten a much better looked, gulped and shook his head. Uh, no, Beak, that definitely *isnt* Iiwi.
Oh. So sorry then, Beak replied before passing out on the lawn.
Well, crap, the poor bluebird muttered before glancing nervously about him. Right now would probably be a good time to call for COFFEE!!!
The sudden shout caused the red bird approaching them with a rather menacing expression on her face to halt, and in the sudden silence a distant rhythmic pounding could be heard. A yellow blur appeared on the horizon, streaking towards them at near supersonic speeds before screeching to a halt, clutching the last vestiges a fifth double mocha grandé as dust and superheated asphalt settled behind him.
More? Bob inquired, cradling his precious liquid close to his body.
No, Bob. Police. Ferdie indicated the few officers that had been trampled under the assault and were just now picking themselves back up off the ground.
Bob shook his head. Ferdie, how many times have I explained this to you? Just because there are cops around does not mean they have coffee - or even doughnuts, for that matter.
Heaving a deep sigh, the poor bluebird turned to the nearest officer and said, You can arrest me, its okay. Just get me away from him, please!
However Bob, having finally caught on to the situation, bravely strode forward and (after tripping over the prone Beak) introduced himself. Bob Kiwi, Private Eye, at your service.
Granted, Ferdie wasnt too sure of what to expect after Bobs wonderfully heroic introduction, but the red birds reaction still surprised him. After gaping at the small yellow kiwi for a minute, she blinked repeatedly before recovering.
Wait - *youre* Double-Oh-Zero? the tanager finally asked.
Absolutely, Bob nodded, grinning.
Bob! Ferdie hissed.
Hm? Bob asked, taking another sip of life-giving coffee as the bluebird made a series of short, jerky, what-are-you-doing movements. Oh, right. *ahem*, he cleared his throat, turning back to the tanager in the eerily federal-looking suit before him. Depends, really, on who wants to know. And if youve got coffee. Ill be whoever you want me to be for coffee. Five cups is not nearly enough to start the day.
Ferdie smacked his forehead, groaning. Bob blinked at him, then finally noticed the unconscious kiwi on the ground.
You wouldnt happen to have any bananas, would you? he asked the tanager, Ferdie here operates well enough on fear, but were gonna need something banana-related to bring Beak back around.
I think I spotted some banana-flavored SPAM in a cabinet, the tanager found herself replying without really thinking. A strangled angry squawk floated up from the ground.
That worked, Bob announced. So. How about that coffee?
Well, if you gentlemen would care to come inside
This was said in one of those offers-you-couldnt-refuse tones.
As the three were led (or in Beaks case, carried) into the house, Ferdie leaned down to whisper to Bob. What are you doing?!? You cant just tell her youre-
I didnt tell her anything, Bob shrugged, downing another swig of coffee, She asked me. And she wouldnt have done that if she wasnt in a position to know. Before the bluebird could argue the point further, he leaned over and poked a still-groggy Beak in the ribs. Hey, Beak, wake up and smell the delicious banana-flavored SPA-
Heathens! Beak yelled, bolting wide awake as the vile creation in question was handed to him by a passing officer as the crew filtered into the breezeway, Is nothing sacred?!? Must you so defile the name of the Great BaNAna by blaspheming it with synthetic breakfast meats?!?
Dont mind him, Ferdie waved at a group of officers that had paused to watch the brown kiwis outburst, smiling nervously, We havent slept in a day and a half, and havent eaten in more than that. Hes just delirious.
A second welcoming committee met them in the living room, with two familiar faces among them.
Ah, good morning, Agent Kiwi, William called out. Did you have a pleasant trip?
Sure, Ferdie replied. Canada is just lovely this time of year. Mexico, too. Ohio was a bit much, though.
Bob calmly slammed a heel down on the bluebirds foot before taking charge of the situation by announcing that Beak was never, under any circumstances, to be allowed near a map again. Then he calmly enquired about the status of the coffee hed been promised.
Here. Leah handed him a mug, one hand still holding the titanium reinforced steel travel thermos. Brought it with me from the agency.
Xiao choked. Leah, I dont think it would be a good idea to kill our
His voice trailed off as the yellow kiwi promptly chugged it and asked for more.
Suddenly the danger part makes sense, Thera muttered.
Before anyone could ask to check Bobs vital signs, a somewhat confused-looking officer hurried over to their group.
We have a situation in the kitchen, sir, the platypus reported. We were having trouble waking the brown kiwi, so someone offered to make him a banana protein shake. Now hes clutching all the bananas and brandishing a spatula at us while shouting back, back you fiends. Should we stun him?
No, Ferdie sighed. Ill go kill him, you get back to your interview.
Ill be sure to tell your sister you died valiantly, Bob called after him. Stupidly, but valiantly.
Pardon me for interrupting, Xiao said suddenly, but are you feeling okay, Mr. Kiwi? No sudden burning sensations in your stomach as the lining dissolves away?
The coffee is not that bad, Leah hissed.
Im inclined to agree with the young lady, Bob calmly responded. Actually, it reminds me of the 42nd Precincts coffee, only without that unique metallic flavor from the dissolved spoon.
In the corner Rami muttered something about being amazed that anyone could make coffee as bad as Leahs and ducked the carving knife suddenly flung at her.
Anyway, Thera snapped, what are the three of you doing in Rolling Hills?
Rescuing my missing scientist, Bob heroically declared. So, where is the fiend that left that message on Newts answering machine?
Bob, we told you that was a wrong number, Ferdie shouted from the kitchen. Beak, put the turkey baster down!
I meant the one from Puff, he shouted back. So, where is he?
That would be the hamster on that couch that just wet himself, Leah informed him as sounds of breaking china filtered in from the kitchen and Calvin Puff began to wail.
My wife is going to kill me, he sobbed.
I apologize for my associates behavior, Bob stated. Im afraid hes rather protective of bananas. Religious thing. He waved it away. Im sure hell reimburse you for damages.
Beak! Ferdies voice echoed down the hall as the sounds of an electric mixer met their ears, Youve made your point already! Get down from the counter, turn that thing off, and go out there and at least pretend to be civilized or so help me, Ill sic the Java empire on you myself!
Friend Ferdie! Beak sounded hurt. You wouldnt!
You think so? I happen to know theres a Starducks down the block thats probably dying to get their hands on a certain kiwi I could mention
Granted, that kiwi would be the coffee-starved Bob that had ransacked it minutes earlier, but Beak was gullible enough to fall for the ruse. The pair filtered into the living room, Beak clutching his rescued baNAnas protectively and casting suspicious glances at the rooms occupants.
Not to interrupt, Thera glared at the detectives as Bob smacked Beak once for good measure, but we were in the middle of an interview here.
Oh, Bob blinked, helping himself to another mug of the tanagers coffee, Sorry. By all means, continue. Whatve you found so far? Surely the fiends left a huge trail of incriminating evidence; he hardly looks bright enough to cover his tracks.
Off in the background, Rami choked with laughter.
Actually Agent Kiwi, theres very little evidence here to link Puff with either missing scientist. Despite his unsavory past association, he now appears to lead a clean, law-abiding life. And honestly, does that look like a desperate, hardened criminal to you? William pointed to the pathetic figure now huddled under the duvet and clutching a lacy doily for a tissue. Im afraid we both made the trip for nothing.
Bob began to develop an eye twitch. Nothing? Nonsense, he obviously received advanced warning and destroyed all the evidence. I say we take him and grill him until he talks.
Ill get the lighter fluid, Beak yelled before dashing back down the hallway to the kitchen.
Wrong grill, you twit, Ferdie muttered before taking off after him.
I dont think so, Thera interjected. Partly because I refuse to pay the repair bill for the furniture if he has another accident. More importantly
The rest of her sentence was cut off as a loud commotion could suddenly be heard from the front lawn. Then the front door was flung open and an angry female muskrat stormed in. What is that
that thing on my lawn, who are you people, and what have you done to my house?! she screamed.
Please, someone shoot me, Calvin whined from the sofa.
Beak wandered back in with the lighter fluid and an impressive display of kindling (which turned out to be the late dining room table) just as the phone rang.
Squeaks frowned at the search results displayed on his communicators small screen. Scree had been able to track down the registered owner of the helicopter whose tail number theyd found in Periwinkles abandoned cave base, but the information she was able to offer on the individual offered little in the way of assistance.
This guys résumé reads like Ivans, Ferdia remarked, reading the output over her partners shoulder, Rap sheet a mile long, but nothing that sticks. And nothing here ties him to Periwinkle.
If hes smart, hes buried the funding, Squeaks shrugged, And Id asked Scree to limit her search to legal means.
Meaning someone like Iiwi could dig up more?
If we had a way of getting in touch with her now, yes. But we dont know where she is. However, there is someone else that could probably fill us in, the mouse pointed to a row of entries grouped together on the screen, For one reason or other, the Hawthorne agencys name keeps coming up.
And you want to call and ask em why, Ferdia grinned. Too bad we dont have their number. Or even a phone, for that matter. She gestured around at the bare stone walls of Periwinkles dusty desert cave.
Squeaks frowned, thinking. We might not need either. The communicator gives me a direct connection to Scree, and one of the systems she controls is my phone line, which our federal friends took the liberty of bugging. The bug transmits its data to an encrypted line, and its my guess that if its not communicating directly with the Hawthorne office, then its routed there. If we can hack the line, we should be able to get into their system.
And get a hold of Locke and Strands contact numbers from there, Ferdia nodded. Okay, I follow you that far. But that still leaves us without a phone.
Squeaks shook his head, grinning. Screes connected to the phone line. She can make the call to their cell phone, then transmit the conversation between it and our communicator in real time.
You scare me sometimes, Ferdia grinned archly. Do you think shell really be able to break into the Hawthorne system, though? Iiwi said their stuff was pretty advanced.
Screes old, but shes still decades beyond current computing power. Breaking their encryption shouldnt take her too long. Explaining it later if she gets caught might, but she ought to be able to get in.
All right, then. Lets get down to some high-tech breaking and entering.
The argument currently raging in the midst of the Puff household came to a dead stop as nearly every last participant fumbled for their cell phone. The ringing continued as one by one everyone turned to their neighbors with shrugs of its not mine, until their collective gaze fell on the mouse at the far end of the room.
William flipped open the tiny device with a look of annoyance, barely glancing at the number, Not now, Drew, he snapped.
Locke, a voice that most decidedly did not belong to his boss greeted him. Does the name Adrian Lords mean anything to you?
Pausing for a moment to let the voice register, William finally replied. Arcadia? Id ask how you got this number, but I think Im actually afraid to know the answer. Instead I think Ill ask why youre inquiring about one of the younger members of an international crime family.
The tail number for a helicopter registered in his name turned up in the recently-vacated lab of a certain mad scientist, and your agencys name kept popping up in his background check.
And because that address looks familiar, another voice chirped in the background. Seattle, Seattle
.what was in Seattle
That would be because our agency likes to keep track of what every member of that family is doing at all times, he explained. If the address is in Seattle, then its probably the corporate headquarters for that region, which Adrian runs. Hes also in a part of the R&D section of their crime syndicate. He finds promising new ventures and funds them if they look profitable. Recently weve suspected that hes Periwinkles newest financial backer. However, we have no leads on what project a demented mind like Periwinkles could be working on. Actually, Im surprised Lords didnt use an alias; he has several.
Who are you talking to, Thera demanded in the background.
The helicopter is registered to the corporate headquarters itself, Squeaks clarified, But its earmarked for his use.
The Space Needles in Seattle, Ferdia muttered in the background, pacing back and forth, and sos that sports team
Maybe its something you saw in the news, Squeaks ventured.
No, no, I havent had time to read the news in weeks, she replied. But I know it was in print, I saw it in print
At any rate, Squeaks addressed William, Its listed as used in their inventory, but its records of prior ownership arent on file.
Wait a minute, his partner paused in her pacing, Records! The sound of paper being hastily unfolded filtered in over the phone connection, There! Thats where I know the address from! Its the last known address for one of the Pufferfish scientists surviving kin! Here we go - Roger Irons, second cousin to the wife of Maxwell Small, the project leader for that little fiasco. The chopper probably got hidden in the estate in a tax dodge. But howd Lords get it?
Meeting Xiaos eyes across the room, William groaned. I can explain how. Roger Irons is one of the aliases for Adrian Lords. *Thats* the connection we were missing. I think, detective, it would be a good idea if we met. Several of your companions are already with us now, depleting the areas supply of coffee and bananas.
You poor, poor souls, Ferdia chuckled. Where are you, anyway?
Oklahoma, chasing a false lead. Although, I think your friends visited at least two other countries on the way.
Im amazed they made it across state lines, Squeaks muttered.
Hey, Ferdia protested, if nothing else, my brother knows how to read a map. Might not have the sense to use it, but he can read it.
Off to the side, Ferdie raised his hand. Um, could someone give us a ride? I dont trust that caddie to make the trip back, even if we do manage to get it started. Actually, I dont really trust the driver - or the navigator either, for that matter.
Who had the map? William inquired.
Beak did, up until we hit Ohio. Then I decided to intervene in the interest of preventing a homicide.
That will probably prove to be an exercise in futility when the cars owner gets a look at its current state, Leah remarked, idly watching as a sizeable branch broke free of the tree and smashed into the pink cars windshield and hood. Providing we can remove the tree limb before its towed.
And another one of Bobettas rides bites the dust, Ferdia commented at the muffled sound of breaking glass. Listen, you guys fly them back to this side of the fault line, you can name your time and place for that meeting.
William looked over at Thera, who by now had figured out what was happening. Probably easiest to bring them back to headquarters, right?
Thera grumbled something before replying. Yeah, I guess. Drews not going to like it, though.
Then its settled. How quickly can you two get there?
Two hours, Squeaks responded. The mountains will slow us down a bit.
Good. Well pack up here and be back as quickly as possible. Do you need directions?
No, we know where it is.
As various members of the team scrambled to get their gear and move out, Beak took Calvin and Barbara Puff aside and patiently explained the extent of the damages their house and yard had sustained when an underground water main burst. Glossing over the details of what had been done to rectify this problem, he reminded the couple how fortunate they were to have survived this freak occurrence. Satisfied that, among other things, several million dollars in psychotherapy and legal fees had been avoided, he rejoined the rest of the group.
But not before destroying every last can of banana-flavored SPAM on the premises.
As the plane banked to the left and began its descent to the landing strip, William went over a few ground rules with their guests. Technically, none of you have clearance to enter the building, so well need to keep this low profile.
I can wait in the parking lot, Ferdie volunteered. Set up a video conference. It wont be any trouble.
No, Bob snapped.
Which means no wandering off, William continued, patience finally starting to wear thin. No touching any of the equipment you see and, no matter what, there is to be no saving of bananas or attacking any heathens attempting to defile them. Understood?
But- Beak began, earning a smack upside the head from Bob, I mean, okay.
Fine, but my laptop never leaves my sight, Ferdie said, clutching the computer protectively. Im expecting a message from someone regarding the case. Weve almost got Joes code cracked.
No problem. Should you need a jack or a docking port, talk to Dios. Thera pointed at the squirrel near the front of the jet whose ears perked up at the sound of his name. I swear, he could find them blindfolded.
Dios bounced over and settled next to the bluebird. So, what kind of processor do you have on that thing?
Overclocked Athalon, on a custom board, Ferdie grinned. Fastern anything on the market, including the stuff the shops sell in Singapore. Nuclear battery, too, so dont worry about ports and cables. As long as theres a wireless network to tap into, Ill be fine.
Oh, look, Bob muttered. The techno-geeks are bonding.
Careful, Bob, or Ill take my time next time you forget the password to your protected files, the bluebird warned.
William tuned them out as he walked back to join the others in their conference. So what do we have?
A giant headache, Leah snarled, rubbing her temples. Im out of coffee.
Probably a good thing, Thera muttered. Maybe youll live longer.
Children, Rami said mildly. Enough, Xiao.
It was an obvious link and we missed it, Xiao retorted in disgust. Why didnt we pick up on the family connection?
Thera shook her head. Hey, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Yes, but it should have been obvious. Funding Periwinkle is hardly Lords style. But it all makes sense if *he* was the one to approach Periwinkle about the Pufferfish project and the latters involvement in it.
Let it go, William finally announced, growing tired of the whole discussion. We have other things to worry about now.
Like how were going to convince Drew to let this bunch loose in the Agency, Thera responded dryly.
Who says theyll be unsupervised, was the haughty reply.
As useful as Dios is as a babysitter, we are going to need him for other things, Rami pointed out. Look, well be landing soon. For now, lets just put them in a conference room and have a couple of agents stand guard. Even if the bluebird does find an open port, our security is good enough to keep him from discovering our secrets. As for Drew, Thera can keep him busy until our new partners arrive.
Gee, thanks, Thera muttered sarcastically.
Your level of incompetence is truly staggering, the image of Adrian practically screamed in rage. How can you not know which is the correct scientist?
Gently rubbing his temples, Dr. Periwinkle resisted the urge to drop something in boiling acid. Gee, I thought wed been over this before. They. Are. Identical! Tell me how you tell them apart if they look exactly alike! Go on, tell me! Oh, and death threats dont work, I already tried that.
Boy, did he ever, Honey muttered in the background.
You be quiet.
Periwinkle, Adrian growled. I am beginning to regret out partnership. Trust me, you dont want me to change my mind about this project. Im going to give you one day, and if you have not made any progress, I will scrap this whole thing. Am I clear?
The link went dead then, and Periwinkle just stood there for a moment contemplating how nice it would be to go blow something up. That rabbit is starting to seriously annoy me, he growled.
Just ignore him, Honey advised form her perch. Thats what I do when he pisses me off. Adrian truly hates being ignored.
Periwinkle stared at her for a moment. And why would you help me?
She shrugged. I have my reasons. You do have some potential, Doc, but youre too soft. Youre letting that pair of demented kiwis play you for a sap. You need to take control of the situation.
And I suppose you have a suggestion for dealing with the situation.
Actually, I do, Honey replied with an evil smile.
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