the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 19


'No. We're not the rats who follow pipers,' said a voice. 'We're the rats you have to deal with.' The mayor looked down. A rat was standing by his boots, looking up at him. It appeared to be holding a sword.

'Father,' said Malicia behind him, 'it would be a good idea to listen to this rat.'

'But it's a rat!'

'He knows, Father. And he knows how to get your money back and a lot of the food and where to find some of the people who've been stealing food from us all.'

'But he's a rat!'

'Yes, Father. But if you talk to him properly, he can help us.' The mayor stared at the assembled ranks of the Clan. 'We should talk to rats?' he said. 'It would be a very good idea, Father.'

'But they're rats!' The mayor seemed to be trying to hold on to this thought as if it was a lifebelt on a stormy sea, and he'd drown if he let go of it. ''Scuse me, 'scuse me,' said a voice from beside him. He looked down at a dirty, half-scorched cat, which grinned at him. 'Did that cat just speak?' said the mayor. Maurice looked around. 'Which one?' he said. 'You! Did you just talk?'

'Would you feel better if I said no?' said Maurice. 'But cats can't talk!'

'Well, I can't promise that I could give a, you know, full-length after-dinner speech, and don't ask me to do a comic monologue,' said Maurice, 'and I can't pronounce difficult words like “marmalade” and “lumbago”. But I'm pretty happy with basic repartee and simple wholesome conversation. Speaking as a cat, I'd like to know what the rat has got to say.'

'Mr Mayor?' said Keith, strolling up and twirling the new rat pipe in his fingers. 'Don't you think it's time I sorted out your rat problem once and for all?'

'Sort it out? But-'

'All you have to do is talk to them. Get your town council together and talk to them. It's up to you, Mr Mayor. You can yell and shout and call out the dogs and people can run around and flail at the rats with brooms and, yes, they'll run away. But they won't run far. And they'll come back.' When he was standing next to the bewildered man he leaned towards him and whispered, 'And they live under your floorboards, sir. They know how to use fire. They know all about poison. Oh, yes. So… listen to this rat.'

'Is it threatening us?' said the Mayor, looking down at Darktan. 'No, Mr Mayor,' said Darktan, 'I'm offering you…' He glanced at Maurice, who nodded. '… a wonderful opportunity.'

'You really can talk? You can think?' said the mayor. Darktan looked up at him. It had been a long night. He didn't want to remember any of it. And now it was going to be a longer, harder day. He took a deep breath. 'Here's what I suggest,' he said. 'You pretend that rats can think, and I'll promise to pretend that humans can think, too.'

CHAPTER 12

“Well done, Ratty Rupert!” cried the animals of Furry Bottom. – From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure The crowd clustered into the Rathaus's council hall. Most of it had to stay outside, craning over other people's heads to see what was going on. The town council was crammed around one end of their long table. A dozen or so of the senior rats were crouched at the other end. And, in the middle, was Maurice. He was suddenly there, leaping up from the floor. Hopwick the clockmaker glared at the other members of the council. 'We're talking to rats!' he snapped, trying to make himself heard above the hubbub. 'We'll be a laughing stock if this gets out! “The Town That Talked To Its Rats”. Can't you just see it?'

'Rats aren't there to be spoken to,' said Raufman the bootmaker, prodding the mayor with a finger. 'A mayor who knew his business would send for the ratcatchers!'

'According to my daughter, they are locked in a cellar,' said the mayor. He stared at the finger. 'Locked in by your talking rats?' said Raufman. 'Locked in by my daughter,' said the mayor, calmly. 'Take your finger away, Mr Raufman. She's taken the watchmen down there. She's making very serious allegations, Mr Raufman. She says there's a lot of food stored under their shed. She says they've been stealing it and selling it to the river traders. The head rat-catcher is your brother-in-law, isn't he, Mr Raufman? I remember you were very keen to see him appointed, weren't you?' There was a commotion outside. Sergeant Doppelpunkt pushed his way through, grinning broadly, and laid a big sausage on the table. 'One sausage is hardly theft,' said Raufman. There was rather more commotion in the crowd, which parted to reveal what was, strictly speaking, a very slowly moving Corporal Knopf. This fact only became clear, though, when he'd been stripped of three bags of grain, eight strings of sausages, a barrel of pickled beetroot and fifteen cabbages. Sergeant Doppelpunkt saluted smartly, to the sound of muffled swearing and falling cabbages. 'Requesting permission to take six men to help us bring up the rest of the stuff, sir!' he said, beaming happily. 'Where are the rat-catchers?' said the mayor. 'In deep… trouble, sir,' said the sergeant. 'I asked them if they wanted to come out, but they said they'd like to stay in there a bit longer, thanks all the same, although they'd like a drink of water and some fresh trousers.'

'Was that all they said?' Sergeant Doppelpunkt pulled out his notebook. 'No, sir, they said quite a lot. They were crying, actually. They said they'd confess to everything in exchange for the fresh trousers. Also, sir, there was this.' The sergeant stepped out and came back with a heavy box, which he thumped down onto the polished table. 'Acting on information received from a rat, sir, we took a look under one of the floorboards. There must be more'n two hundred dollars in it. Ill-gotten gains, sir.'

'You got information from a rat?' The sergeant pulled Sardines out of his pocket. The rat was eating a biscuit, but he raised his hat politely. 'Isn't that a bit… unhygienic?' said the mayor. 'No, guv, he's washed his hands,' said Sardines. 'I was talking to the sergeant!'

'No, sir. Nice little chap, sir. Very clean. Reminds me of a hamster I used to have when I was a lad, sir.'

'Well, thank you, sergeant, well done, please go and-'

'His name was Horace,' added the sergeant helpfully. 'Thank you, sergeant, and now-'

'Does me good to see little cheeks bulging with grub again, sir.'

'Thank you, sergeant!' When the sergeant had left, the mayor turned and stared at Mr Raufman. The man had the grace to look embarrassed. 'I hardly know the man,' he said. 'He's just somebody my sister married, that's all! I hardly ever see him!'

'I quite understand,' said the mayor. 'And I've no intention of asking the sergeant to go and search your larder,' and he gave another little smile, and a sniff, and added, 'yet. Now, where were we?'

'I was about to tell you a story,' said Maurice. The town council stared at him.

'And your name is-?' said the mayor, who was feeling in quite a good mood now. 'Maurice,' said Maurice. 'I'm a freelance negotiator, style of thing. I can see it's difficult for you to talk to rats, but humans like talking to cats, right?'

'Like in Dick Livingstone?' said Hopwick. 'Yeah, right, him yeah, and-' Maurice began. 'And Puss in Boots?' said Corporal Knopf. 'Yeah, right, books,' said Maurice, scowling. 'Anyway… cats can talk to rats, OK? And I'm going to tell you a story. But first, I'm going to tell you that my clients, the rats, will all leave this town if you want them to, and they won't come back. Ever.' The humans stared at him. So did the rats. 'Will we?' said Darktan. 'Will they?' said the mayor. 'Yes,' said Maurice. 'And now, I'm going to tell you a story about the lucky town. I don't know its name yet. Let's suppose my clients leave here and move down river, shall we? There are lots of towns on this river, I'll be bound. And somewhere there's a town that'll say, why, we can do a deal with the rats. And that will be a very lucky town, because then there'll be rules, see?'

'Not exactly, no,' said the mayor. 'Well, in this lucky town, right, a lady making, as it might be, a tray of cakes, well, all she'll need to do is shout down the nearest rat hole and say, “Good morning, rats, there's one cake for you, I'll be much obliged if'n you didn't touch the rest of them”, and the rats will say “Right you are, missus, no problem at all”. And then-'

'Are you saying we should bribe the rats?' said the mayor. 'Cheaper than pipers. Cheaper than rat-catchers,' said Maurice. 'Anyway, it'll be wages. Wages for what, I hear you cry?'

'Did I cry that?' said the mayor. 'You were going to,' said Maurice. 'And I was going to tell you that it'd be wages for… for vermin control.'

'What? But rats are ver-'

'Don't say it!' said Darktan. 'Vermin like cockroaches,' said Maurice, smoothly. 'I can see you've got a lot of them here.'

'Can they talk?' said the mayor. Now he had the slightly hunted expression of anyone who'd been talked to by Maurice for any length of time. It said 'I'm going where I don't want to go, but I don't know how to get off.'

'No,' said Maurice. 'Nor can the mice, and nor can norma-can other rats. Well, vermin'll be a thing of the past in that lucky town, because its new rats will be like a police force. Why, the Clan'll guard your larders-sorry, I mean the larders in that town. No rat-catchers required. Think of the savings. But that'll only be the start. The will be getting richer, too, in the lucky town.'

'How?' said Hauptmann the woodcarver, sharply. 'Because rats will be working for them,' said Maurice. 'They have to gnaw all the time to wear their teeth down, so they might as well be making cuckoo clocks. And the clockmakers will be doing well, too,'

'Why?' said Hopwick the clockmaker. 'Tiny little paws, very good with little springs and things,' said Maurice. 'And then-'

'Would they just do cuckoo clocks, or could they do other stuff?' said Hauptmann. '-and then there's the whole tourism aspect,' said Maurice. 'For example, the Rat Clock. You know that clock they've got in Bonk? In the town square? Little figures come out every quarter of an hour and bang the bells? Cling bong bang, bing clong bong? Very popular, you can get postcards and everything. Big attraction. People come a long way just to stand there waiting for it. Well, the lucky town will have rats striking the bells!'

'So what you're saying,' said the clockmaker, 'is that if we that is, if the lucky town had a special big clock, and rats, people might come to see it?'

'And stand around waiting for up to a quarter of an hour,' said someone. 'A perfect time to buy hand-crafted models of the clock,' said the clockmaker. People began to think about this. 'Mugs with rats on,' said a potter. 'Hand-gnawed souvenir wooden cups and plates,' said Hauptmann. 'Cuddly toy rats!'

'Rats-on-a-stick!' Darktan took a deep breath. Maurice said, quickly, 'Good idea. Made of toffee, naturally.' He glanced towards Keith. 'And I expect the town would want to employ its very own rat piper, even. You know. For ceremonial purposes. “Have your picture drawn with the Official Rat Piper and his Rats”, sort of thing.'

'Any chance of a small theatre?' said a little voice. Darktan spun around. 'Sardines!' he said. 'Well, guv, I thought if everyone was getting in on the act-' Sardines protested. 'Maurice, we ought to talk about this,' said Dangerous Beans, tugging at the cat's leg. 'Excuse me a moment,' said Maurice, giving the mayor a quick grin, 'I need to consult with my clients. Of course,' he added, 'I'm talking about the lucky town. Which won't be this one because, of course, when my clients move out some new rats will move in. There are always more rats. And they won't talk, and they won't have rules, and they'll widdle in the cream and you'll have to find some new rat-catchers, ones you can trust, and you won't have as much money because everyone will be going to the other town. Just a thought.' He marched down the table and turned to the rats. 'I was doing so well!' he said. 'You could be on ten per cent, you know? Your faces on mugs, everything!'