the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 17


'… ain't no trap can stop the rats!'

'Got no plague and got no fleas…'

'… we drink poison, we steal cheese!'

'Mess with us and you will see…'

'… we'll put poison in your tea!'

'Here we fight and here we'll stay…'

'… WE WILL NEVER GO AWAY!' The sound faded. Sergeant Doppelpunkt blinked, and looked at the bottle of beer he'd drunk last night. It got lonely, on night watch. And it wasn't as if anyone invaded Bad Blintz, after all. They didn't have anything to steal. But it'd probably be a good idea not to mention this to anyone. It probably hadn't happened. It was probably just a bad bottle of beer… The guardhouse door opened and Corporal Knopf stepped in. 'Morning, sergeant,' he began. 'It's that… what's up with you?'

'Nothing, corporal!' said Doppelpunkt quickly, wiping his face. 'I certainly haven't seen anything strange at all! Why're you standing around? Time to get those gates open, corporal!' The watchmen stepped out and swung open the city gates and the sunlight streamed through. It brought with it a long, long shadow. Oh dear, thought Sergeant Doppelpunkt. This really is not going to be a nice day… The man on horseback rode past them without a glance, and on into the town square. The guards hurried after him. People aren't supposed to ignore people with weapons. 'Halt, what is your business here?' demanded Corporal Knopf, but he had to run crabwise to keep up with the horse. The rider was dressed in white and black, like a magpie. He didn't answer, but just smiled faintly to himself. 'All right, maybe you haven't any actual business, but it won't cost you anything just to say who you are, will it?' said Corporal Knopf, who was not interested in any trouble. The rider looked down at him, and then stared ahead again. Sergeant Doppelpunkt spotted a small covered wagon coming through the gates, drawn by a donkey which was accompanied by an old man. He was a sergeant, he told himself, which meant that he was paid more than the corporal, which meant that he thought more expensive thoughts. And this one was: they didn't have to check everyone that came through the gate, did they? Especially if they were busy. They had to pick people at random. And if you were going to pick people at random, it was a good idea to randomly pick a little old man who looked small enough and old enough to be frightened of a rather grubby uniform with rusty chainmail. 'Halt!'

'Heh, heh! Not gonna,' said the old man. 'Mind the donkey, he can give you a nasty bite when he's roused. Not that I care.'

'Are you trying to show contempt of the Law?' demanded Sergeant Doppelpunkt. 'Well, I'm not trying to conceal it, mister. You want to make something of it, you talk to my boss. That's him on the horse. The big horse.' The black-and-white stranger had dismounted by the fountain in the centre of the square, and was opening his saddle-bags. 'I'll just go and talk to him, shall I?' said the sergeant. By the time he'd reached the stranger, walking as slowly as he dared, the man had propped a small mirror against the fountain and was having a shave. Corporal Knopf was watching him. He'd been given the horse to hold. 'Why haven't you arrested him?' the sergeant whispered to the corporal. 'What, for illegal shaving? Tell you what, sarge, you do it.' Sergeant Doppelpunkt cleared his throat. A few early risers among the population were already watching him. 'Er… now, listen, friend, I'm sure you didn't mean-' he began. The man straightened up, and gave the guards a look which made both men take a step backwards. He reached out and undid the thong holding a thick roll of leather behind the saddle. It unrolled. Corporal Knopf whistled. All down the length of leather, held in place by straps, were dozens of pipes. They glistened in the rising sun. 'Oh, you're the pipe-' the sergeant began, but the other man turned back to the mirror and said, as if talking to his reflection, 'Where can a man get a breakfast around here?'

'Oh, if it's breakfast you want then Mrs Shover at the Blue Cabbage will-'

'Sausages,' said the piper, still shaving. 'Burned on one side. Three. Here. Ten minutes. Where is the mayor?'

'If you go down that street and take the first left'

'Fetch him.'

'Here, you can't-' the sergeant began, but Corporal Knopf grabbed his arm and pulled him away. 'He's the piper!' he hissed. 'You don't mess with the piper! Don't you know about him? If he blows the right note on his pipes, your legs will fall off!'

'What, like the plague?'

'They say that in Porkscratchenz the council didn't pay him and he played his special pipe and led all the kids up into the mountains and they were never seen again!'

'Good, do you think he'll do that here? The place'd be a lot quieter.'

'Hah! Did you ever hear about that place in Klatch? They hired him to get rid of a plague of mime artists, and when they didn't pay up he made all the town's watchmen dance into the river and drown!'

'No! Did he? The devil!' said Sergeant Doppelpunkt. 'Three hundred dollars he charges, did you know that?'

'Three hundred dollars!'

'That's why people hate paying,' said Corporal Knopf. 'Hang on, hang on… how can you have a plague of mime artists?'

'Oh, it was terrible, so I heard. People didn't dare go out onto the streets at all.'

'You mean, all those white faces, all that creeping around…'

'Exactly. Terrible. Still, when I woke up there was a rat dancing on my dressing-table. Tapitty, tapitty, tap.'

'That's odd,' said Sergeant Doppelpunkt, giving his corporal a strange look. 'And it was humming There's no Business like Show Business. I call that more than just “odd”!'

'No, I meant it's odd you've got a dressing-table. I mean, you're not even married.'

'Stop messing about, sarge.'

'Has it got a mirror?'

'Come on, sarge. You get the sausages, sarge, I'll get the mayor.'

'No, Knopf. You get the sausages and I'll get the mayor, 'cos the mayor's free and Mrs Shover will want paying.' The mayor was already up when the sergeant arrived, and wandering around the house with a worried expression. He looked more worried when the sergeant arrived. 'What's she done this time?' he said. 'Sir?' said the watchman. 'Sir' said like that meant 'what are you talking about?'

'Malicia hasn't been home all night,' said the mayor. 'You think something might have happened to her, sir?'

'No, I think she might have happened to someone, man! Remember last month? When she tracked down the Mysterious Headless Horseman?'

'Well, you must admit he was a horseman, sir.'

'That is true. But he was also a short man with a very high collar. And he was the chief tax-gatherer from Mintz. I'm still getting official letters about it! Tax-gatherers do not as a rule like young ladies dropping on them out of trees! And then in September there was that business about the, the-'

'The Mystery of Smuggler's Windmill, sir,' said the sergeant, rolling his eyes. 'Which turned out to be Mr Vogel the town clerk and Mrs Schuman the shoemaker's wife, who happened to be there merely because of their shared interest in studying the habits of barn owls…'

'… and Mr Vogel had his trousers off because he'd torn them on a nail…' said the sergeant, not looking at the mayor. '… which Mrs Schuman was very kindly repairing for him,' said the mayor. 'By moonlight,' said the sergeant. 'She happens to have very good eyesight!' snapped the mayor. 'And she didn't deserve to be bound and gagged along with Mr Vogel, who caught quite a chill as a result! I had complaints from him and from her, and from Mrs Vogel and from Mr Schuman and from Mr Vogel after Mr Schuman went around to his house and hit him with a last and from Mrs Schuman after Mrs Vogel called her a-'

'A last what, sir?'

'What?'

'Hit him with a last what?'

'A last, man! It's a kind of wooden foot shoemakers use when they're making shoes! Heaven knows what Malicia's doing this time!'

'I expect you'll find out when we hear the bang, sir.'

'And what was it you wanted me for, sergeant?'

'The rat piper's here, sir.' The mayor went pale. 'Already?' he said. 'Yessir. He's having a shave in the fountain.'

'Where's my official chain? My official robe? My official hat? Quick, man, help me!'

'He looks like quite a slow shaver, sir,' said the sergeant, following the mayor out of the room at a run. 'Over in Klotz the mayor kept the piper waiting too long and he played his pipe and turned him into a badger!' said the mayor, flinging open a cupboard. 'Ah, here they are… help me on with them, will you?'

When they arrived in the town square, out of breath, the piper was sitting on a bench, surrounded at a safe distance by a very large crowd. He was examining half a sausage on the end of a fork. Corporal Knopf was standing next to him like a schoolboy who has just turned in a nasty piece of work and is waiting to be told exactly how bad it is. 'And this is called a-?' the piper was saying. 'A sausage, sir,' Corporal Knopf muttered. 'This is what you think is a sausage here, is it?' There was a gasp from the crowd. Bad Blintz was very proud of its traditional vole-and-pork sausages. 'Yessir,' said Corporal Knopf. 'Amazing,' said the piper. He looked up at the mayor. 'And you are-?'

'I am the mayor of this town, and-' The piper held up a hand, and then nodded towards the old man who was sitting on his cart, grinning broadly. 'My agent will deal with you,' he said. He threw away the sausage, put his feet up on the other end of the bench, pulled his hat down over his eyes and lay back. The mayor went red in the face. Sergeant Doppelpunkt leaned towards him. 'Remember the badger, sir!' he whispered. 'Ah… yes…' The mayor, with what little dignity he had left, walked over to the cart. 'I believe the fee for ridding the town of rats will be three hundred dollars?' he said. 'Then I expect you'll believe anything,' said the old man. He glanced at a notebook on his knee. 'Let's see… call-out fee… plus special charge because it's St Prodnitz's Day… plus pipe tax… looks like a medium-sized town, so that's extra… wear and tear on cart… travelling costs at a dollar a mile… miscellaneous expenses, taxes, charges…' He looked up. 'Tell you what, let's say one thousand dollars, OK?'

'One thousand dollars! We haven't got one thousand dollars! That's outrag-'

'Badger, sir!' hissed Sergeant Doppelpunkt. 'You can't pay?' said the old man. 'We don't have that kind of money! We've had to spend a lot of money bringing in food!'

'You don't have any money?' said the old man. 'Nothing like that amount, no!' The old man scratched his chin. 'Hmm,' he said, 'I can see where that's going to be a bit difficult, because… let's see…' He scribbled in his notebook for a moment and then looked up. 'You already owe us four hundred and sixty-seven dollars and nineteen pence for call-out, travel and miscellaneous sundries.'

'What? He hasn't blown a note!'

'Ah, but he's ready to,' said the old man. 'We've come all this way. You can't pay? Bit of what they call a imp arse, then. He's got to lead something out of the town, you see. Otherwise the news'll get around and no-one'll show him any respect, and if you haven't got respect, what have you got? If a piper doesn't have respect, he's-'

'-rubbish,' said a voice. 'I think he's rubbish.' The piper raised the brim of his hat. The crowd in front of Keith parted in a hurry. 'Yeah?' said the piper. 'I don't think he can pipe up even one rat,' said Keith. 'He's just a fraud and a bully. Huh, I bet I can pipe up more rats than him.' Some of the people in the crowd began to creep away. No-one wanted to be around when the rat piper lost his temper. The piper swung his boots down onto the ground and pushed his hat back on his head. 'You a rat piper, kid?' he said softly. Keith stuck out his chin defiantly. 'Yes. And don't call me kid… old man.' The piper grinned. 'Ah,' he said. 'I knew I was going to like this place. And you can make a rat dance, can you, kid?'