the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 11


CHAPTER 9

Farmer Fred opened his door and saw all the animals of Furry Bottom waiting for him. “We can't find Mr Bunnsy or Ratty Rupert!” they cried. – From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure 'At last!' said Malicia, shaking the ropes off. 'Somehow I thought rats would gnaw quicker.'

'They used a knife,' said Keith. 'And you could say thank you, couldn't you?'

'Yes, yes, tell them I'm very grateful,' said Malicia, pushing herself upright. 'Tell them yourself!'

'I'm sorry, I find it so embarrassing to… talk to rats.'

'I suppose that's understandable,' said Keith. 'If you've been brought up to hate them because they-'

'Oh, it's not that,' said Malicia, walking over to the door and looking at the keyhole. 'It's just that it's so… childish. So… tinkly-winkly. So… Mr Bunnsy.'

'Mr Bunnsy?' squeaked Peaches, and it really was a squeak, a word that came out as a sort of little shriek. 'What about Mr Bunnsy?' said Keith. Malicia reached into her pocket and pulled out her packet of bent hair pins. 'Oh, some books some silly woman wrote,' she said, poking at the lock. 'Stupid stuff for ickle kids. There's a rat and a rabbit and a snake and a hen and an owl and they all go around wearing clothes and talking to humans and everyone's so nice and cosy it makes you absolutely sick. D'you know my father kept them all from when he was a kid? Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure, Mr Bunnsy's Busy Day, Ratty Rupert Sees It Through… he read them all to me when I was small and there's not an interesting murder in any of them.'

'I think you'd better stop,' said Keith. He didn't dare look down at the rats. 'There's no sub-texts, no social commentary…' Malicia went on, still fiddling. 'The most interesting thing that happens at all is when Doris the Duck loses a shoe – a duck losing a shoe, right? – and it turns up under the bed after they've spent the entire story looking for it. Do you call that narrative tension? Because I don't. If people are going to make up stupid stories about animals pretending to be human, at least there could be a bit of interesting violence…'

'Oh, boy,' said Maurice, from behind the grating. This time Keith did look down. Peaches and Dangerous Beans had gone. 'You know, I never had the heart to tell them,' he said, not to anyone in particular. 'They thought it was all true.'

'In the land of Furry Bottom, possibly,' said Malicia, and stood up as the lock gave a final click. 'But not here. Can you imagine someone actually invented that name and didn't laugh? Let's go.'

'You upset them,' said Keith. 'Look, shall we get out of here before the rat-catchers come back?' said Malicia. The thing about this girl, Maurice thought, was that she was no good at all at listening to the way people spoke. She wasn't much good at listening, if it came to that. 'No,' said Keith. 'No what?'

'No, I'm not coming with you,' said Keith. 'There's something bad going on here, much worse than stupid men stealing food.' Maurice watched them argue again. Humans, eh? Think they're lords of creation. Not like us cats. We know we are. Ever see a cat feed a human? Case proven. How the humans shout, hissed a tiny voice in his head. Is that my conscience? Maurice thought. His own thoughts said: what, me? No. But I feel a lot better now you told them about Additives. He shifted uneasily from paw to paw. 'Well then,' he whispered, looking at his stomach, 'is that you, Additives?' He'd been worried about that ever since he'd realized he'd eaten a Changeling. They had voices, right? Supposing you ate one? Suppose their voice stayed inside you? Suppose the… the dream of Additives around inside him? That sort of thing could seriously interfere with a cat's napping time, it really could. No, said the voice, like the sound of wind in distant trees, it is I. I am… SPIDER. 'Oh, you're a spider?' whispered thought-Maurice. 'I could take on a spider with three paws tied behind my back.' Not a spider. SPIDER. The word actually hurt. It hadn't before. Now I'm in your HEAD, cat. Cats, cats, bad as dogs, worse than rats. I'm in your HEAD, and I will never go AWAY. Maurice's paw jerked.

I'll be in your DREAMS. 'Look, I'm just passing through,' Maurice whispered desperately. 'I'm not looking for trouble. I'm unreliable! I'm a cat! I wouldn't trust me, and I am me! Just let me get into the nice fresh air and I'll be right out of your… hair or legs or furry bits or whatever!' You don't want to run AWAY. That's right, thought Maurice, I don't want to run-Hold on, I do want to run away! 'I'm a cat!' he muttered. 'No rat is going to control me. You've tried!' Yes, came the voice of Spider, but then you were STRONG. Now your little mind runs in circles and wants someone else to do the thinking for it. I can think for you. I can think for EVERYONE. I will always be with you. The voice faded away. Right, thought Maurice. Time to say farewell, then, Bad Blintz. The party is over. The rats have got lots of other rats and even these two humans have got one another, but I've just got me and I'd like to get me somewhere where strange voices don't talk to me. ''scuse me,' he said, raising his voice. 'Are we going or what?' The two humans turned to look at the grating. 'What?' said Keith. 'I'd prefer going,' said Maurice. 'Pull this grating out, will you? It's rusted right through, it shouldn't be a problem. Good lad. And then we can make a run for it-'

'They've called in a rat piper, Maurice,' said Keith. 'And the Clan is all over the place. He'll be here in the morning. A real rat piper, Maurice. Not a fake one like me. They have magical pipes, you know. Do you want to see that happen to our rats?' His new conscience gave Maurice a good kicking. 'Well, not exactly see,' he said reluctantly. 'Not as such, no.'

'Right. So we're not going to run away,' said Keith. 'Oh? And what are we going to do, then?' said Malicia. 'We're going to talk to the rat-catchers when they come back,' said Keith. He had a thoughtful look. 'And what makes you think they'll want to talk to us?'

'Because if they don't talk to us,' said Keith,'they're going to die.' It was twenty minutes later that the rat-catchers arrived. The door of their hut was unlocked, thrown back, then slammed shut. Rat-catcher 2 bolted it, as well. 'You know where you said it was going to be such a good evening?' he said, leaning against it and panting. 'Tell me about it again, 'cos I think I missed that part.'

'Shut up,' said Rat-catcher 1. 'Someone punched me in the eye.'

'Shut up.'

'And I think I lost my wallet. That's twenty dollars I won't see again in a hurry.'

'Shut up.'

'And I wasn't able to pick up any of the surviving rats from the last fight!'

'Shut up.'

'And we left the dogs behind, too! We could've stopped to untie 'em! Someone'll pinch 'em.'

'Shut up.'

'Do rats often whizz through the air like that? Or is that the kind of thing you only get to hear about when you are a hexperienced rat-catcher?'

'Did I say shut up?'

'Yes.'

'Shut up. All right, we'll leave right now. We'll take the money and nick a boat down at the jetty, OK? We'll leave the stuff we haven't sold and just go.'

'Just like that? Johnny No Hands and his lads are coming upriver tomorrow night to pick up the next load and-'

'We'll go, Bill. I can smell things going bad.'

'Just like that? He owes us two hundred doll-'

'Yes! Just like that! Time to move on! The jig is up, the bird has flown, and the cat is out of the bag! The-Did you say that?'

'Say what?'

'Did you just say “I wish I was”?'

'Me? No.' The rat-catcher looked around the shed. There was no-one else there. 'All right, then,' he said. 'It's been a long

night. Look, when things start to go bad, then it's time to go away. Nothing fancy. We just go, right? I don't want to be here when people come looking for us. And I don't want to meet any of them rat pipers. They are sharp men. They pry around. And they cost a lot of money. People are going to ask questions, and the only question I want them to ask is “Where did the rat-catchers go?” Understand? It's a good man who knows when to quit. What's in the kitty-? What did you say?'

'What, me? Nothing. Cup of tea? You always feel better after a cup of tea.'

'Didn't you say “kitty yourself”?' Rat-catcher 1 demanded. 'I just asked if you wanted a cup of tea! Honest! Are you all right?' Rat-catcher 1 stared at his friend, as if trying to see a lie in his face. Then he said, 'Yeah, yeah. I'm fine. Three sugars, then.'

'That's right,' said Rat-catcher 2, spooning it in. 'Keep up the blood sugar. You have to look after yourself.' Rat-catcher 1 took the mug, sipped the tea, and stared at the swirling surface. 'How did we get into this?' he said. 'I mean, all this! Y'know? Sometimes I wake up in the night and think, it's stupid, this, and then I come to work and it all seems, well, sensible. I mean, stealin' stuff and blaming it on the rats, yes, and breeding big tough rats for the rat pits and bringing back the ones that survive so we can breed even bigger rats, yes, but… I dunno… I didn't used to be the kind of bloke that ties up kids…'

'We've made a big wad of cash, though.'

'Yeah.' Rat-catcher 1 swirled the tea in his mug and took another drink. 'There's that, I suppose. Is this a new tea?'

'No, it's just Lord Green, like normal.'

'Tastes a bit different.' Rat-catcher 1 drained the mug and put it on the bench. 'OK, let's get the-'

'That's about enough,' said a voice overhead. 'Now, stand still and listen to me. If you run away, you'll die. If you talk too much, you'll die. If you wait too long, you'll die. If you think you're smart, you'll die. Any questions?' A few wisps of dust drifted down from the rafters. The rat-catchers looked up, and saw a cat face peering down. 'It's that kid's damn mog!' said Rat-catcher 1. 'I told you it was looking at me in a funny way!'

'If I was you, I wouldn't look at me,' said Maurice, conversationally. 'I'd look at the rat poison.' Rat-catcher 2 turned to look at the table. 'Here, who stole some of the poison?' he said. 'Oh,' said Rat-catcher 1, who was a much faster thinker. 'Steal it?' said the cat on high. 'We don't steal. That's thieving. We just put it somewhere else.'

'Oh,' said Rat-catcher 1, sitting down suddenly. 'That's dangerous stuff!' said Rat-catcher 2, looking for something to throw. 'You had no business touching it! You tell me where it is right now!' There was a thump as the trapdoor in the floor slammed back. Keith stuck his head up, and then came up the ladder while the rat-catchers watched in amazement. He was holding a crumpled paper bag. 'Oh dear,' said Rat-catcher 1. 'What have you done with the poison?' Rat-catcher 2 demanded. 'Well,' said Keith, 'now that you mention it, I think I put most of it in the sugar…' Darktan woke up. His back was on fire and he couldn't breathe. He could feel the weight of the trap's jaw pressing down on him, and the dreadful bite of the steel teeth on his belly. I shouldn't be alive, he thought. I wish I wasn't… He tried to push himself upwards, which made it worse. The pain came back a little stronger as he sagged down again. Caught like a rat in a trap, he thought. I wonder what type it is? 'Darktan?' The voice was a little way off. Darktan tried to speak, but every tiny movement pushed him further into the teeth below him. 'Darktan?' Darktan managed a faint squeak. Words hurt too much. Feet scrabbled forward in the dry darkness. 'Darktan!' It smelled like Nourishing. 'Gnh,' Darktan managed, trying to turn his head. 'You're caught in a trap!' That was too much for Darktan, even if every word was agony. 'Oh… really?' he said. 'I'll go and fetch S-sardines, shall I?' stammered Nourishing.

Darktan could smell the rat's panic begin. And there wasn't time for panic. 'No! Tell… me…' he panted, '… what… kind… of… trap?'