the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 3


'You were right, miss,' said Keith, wearily. 'We go from town to town with a bunch of rats and fool people into giving us money to leave. That's what we do. I'm sorry we've been doing it. This was going to be the last time. I'm very sorry. You shared your food with us and you haven't got much, either. We ought to be ashamed.' It seemed to Maurice, while he was watching Malicia make up her mind, that her mind worked in a different way to other people's minds. She understood all the hard things without even thinking. Magical rats? Yeah, yeah. Talking cats? Been there, done that, bought the singlet. It was the simple things that were hard. Her lips were moving. She was, Maurice realized, making up a story out of it. 'So…' she said, 'you come along with your trained rats-'

'We prefer “educated rodents”, guv,' said Sardines. '-all right, your educated rodents, and you move into a city, and… what happens to the rats that are there already?' Sardines looked helplessly at Maurice. Maurice nodded at him to keep on. They were all going to be in big trouble if Malicia didn't make up a story she liked. 'They keep out of our way, boss, I mean guv,' said Sardines. 'Can they talk too?'

'No, guv.'

'I think the Clan think of them as a bit like monkeys,' said Keith. 'I was talking to Sardines,' said Malicia. 'Sorry,' said Keith. 'And there're no other rats here at all?' Malicia went on. 'No, guv. A few old skeletons and some piles of poisons and lots of traps, boss. But no rats, boss.'

'But the rat-catchers nail up a load of rat tails every day!'

'I speak as I find, boss. Guv. No rats, boss. Guv. No other rats anywhere we've been, boss guv.'

'Have you ever looked at the rat tails, miss?' said Maurice. 'What do you mean?' said Malicia. 'They're fake,' said Maurice. 'Some of them, anyway. They're just old leather bootlaces. I saw some in the street.'

'They weren't real tails?' said Keith. 'I'm a cat. You think I don't know what rats' tails look like?'

'Surely people would notice!' said Malicia. 'Yeah?' said Maurice. 'Do you know what an aglet is?'

'Aglet? Aglet? What's an aglet got to do with anything?' snapped Malicia. 'It's those little metal bits on the end of shoelaces,' said Maurice. 'How come a cat knows a word like that?' said the girl. 'Everyone's got to know something,' said Maurice. 'Have you ever looked closely at the rat tails?'

'Of course not. You can get the plague from rats!' said Malicia. 'That's right, your legs explode,' said Maurice, grinning. 'That's why you didn't see the aglets. Your leg exploded lately, Sardines?'

'Not today, boss,' said Sardines. 'Mind you, it's not even lunchtime yet.' Malicia looked pleased. 'Ah-ha,' she said, and it seemed to Maurice that the 'ha' had a very nasty edge to it. 'So… you're not going to tell the Watch about us?' he ventured, hopefully. 'What, that I've been talking to a rat and a cat?' said Malicia. 'Of course not. They'll tell my father I've been telling stories and I'll get locked out of my room again.'

'You get locked out of your room as a punishment?' said Maurice. 'Yes. It means I can't get at my books. I'm rather a special person, as you may have guessed,' said Malicia, proudly. 'Haven't you heard of the Sisters Grim? Agoniza and Eviscera Grim? They were my grandmother and my great-aunt. They wrote… fairy-tales.' Ah, so we're temporarily out of trouble here, thought Maurice. Best to keep her talking. 'I'm not a big reader, as cats go,' he said. 'So what were these, then? Stories about little people with wings going tinkle-tinkle?'

'No,' said Malicia. 'They were not big on tinkling little people. They wrote… real fairy-tales. Ones with lots of blood and bones and bats and rats in. I've inherited the story-telling talent,' she added. 'I kind of thought you had,' said Maurice. 'And if there's no rats under the town but the ratcatchers are nailing up bootlaces, I smell a rat,' said Malicia. 'Sorry,' said Sardines, 'I think that was me. I'm a bit nervous-' There were sounds from upstairs. 'Quick, go out across the back yard!' Malicia commanded. 'Get up into the hayloft over the stables! I'll bring you some food! I know exactly how this sort of thing goes!'

CHAPTER 5

Ratty Rupert was the bravest rat that ever was. Everyone in Furry Bottom said so. – From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure Darktan was in a tunnel several streets away, hanging from four bits of string attached to his harness. They were tied onto a stick which had been balanced like a seesaw on the back of a very fat rat; two other rats were sitting on the other end, and several other rats were steering it. Darktan was hanging just above the teeth of the big steel trap that completely filled the tunnel. He squeaked the signal to stop. The stick vibrated a little under his weight. 'I'm right over the cheese,' he said. 'Smells like Lancre Blue Vein, Extra Tasty. Not touched. Pretty old, too. Move me in about two paws.'[3]<>The stick bounced up and down as he was pushed forward. 'Careful, sir,' said one of the younger rats who crowded the tunnel behind the Trap Disposal Squad. Darktan grunted, and looked down at the teeth, an inch away from his nose. He pulled a short piece of wood out of one of his belts; a tiny sliver of mirror had been glued to one end of it. 'You lot move the candle this way a bit,' he commanded. 'That's right. That's right. Let's see, now…' He pushed the mirror past the teeth and turned it gently. 'Ah, just as I thought… it's a Prattle and Johnson Little Snapper, sure enough. One of the old Mk. Threes, but with the extra safety-catch. That's come a long way. OK. We know about these, don't we? Cheese for tea, lads!' There was nervous laughter from the watchers, but a voice said, 'Oh, they're easy…'

'Who said that?' said Darktan sharply. There was silence. Darktan craned his head back. The young rats had carefully moved aside, leaving one looking very, very alone. 'Ah, Nourishing,' said Darktan, turning back to the trap's trigger mechanism. 'Easy, is it? Glad to hear it. You can show us how it's done, then.'

'Er, when I said easy…' Nourishing began. 'I mean, Inbrine showed me on the practice trap and he said-'

'No need to be modest,' said Darktan, a gleam in his eye. 'It's all ready. I'll just watch, shall I? You can get into the harness and do it, can you?'

'-but, but, but, I couldn't see too well when he showed us, now I come to think about it, and, and, and-'

'I'll tell you what,' said Darktan, 'I'll work on the trap, shall I?' Nourishing looked very relieved. 'And you can tell me exactly what to do,' Darktan added. 'Er…' Nourishing began. Now she looked like a rat prepared to rejoin the widdling squad really quickly. 'Jolly good,' said Darktan. He carefully put his mirror away and pulled a length of metal out of his harness. He prodded the trap carefully. Nourishing shuddered at the sound of metal on metal. 'Now, where was I… oh, yes, here's a bar and a little spring and a catch. What shall I do now, Miss Nourishing?'

'Er, er, er,' Nourishing stuttered. 'Things are creaking here, Miss Nourishing,' said Darktan, from the depths of the trap. 'Er, er, you wedge the thingy…'

'Which one is the thingy, Miss Nourishing? Take your time, whoops, this bit of metal is wobbling but don't let me hurry you in any way…'

'You wedge the, er, the thingy, er, the thingy… er…' Nourishing's eyes rolled wildly. 'Maybe it's this big SNAP argh argh argh…' Nourishing fainted. Darktan slipped out of the harness and dropped onto the trap. 'All fixed,' he said. 'I've clipped it firm, it won't off now. You boys can drag it out of the way.' He walked back to the squad and dropped a lump of hairy cheese onto Nourishing's quivering stomach. 'It's very important in the trap business to be definite, you see. You're definite or you're dead. The second mouse gets the cheese.' Darktan sniffed. 'Well, no human coming here would have any difficulty thinking there's rats around now…' The other trainees laughed in the nervous, tittering way of people who've seen someone else attract the teacher's attention and are glad it isn't them. Darktan unrolled a scrap of paper. He was a rat of action, and the idea that the world could be pinned down in little signs worried him a bit. But he could see how useful it was. When he drew pictures of a tunnel layout the paper remembered. It didn't get confused by new smells. Other rats, if they knew how to read, could see in their heads what the writer had seen. He'd invented maps. It was a drawing of the world.

'Amazing stuff, this new technology,' he said. 'So… there's poison marked here, two tunnels back. Did you see to it, Inbrine?'

'Buried and widdled on,' said Inbrine, his deputy. 'It was the grey No. 2 poison, too.'

'Good rat,' said Darktan. 'That's nasty eating.'

'There were dead keekees all round it.'

'I'll bet there were. No antidote for that stuff.'

'We found trays of No. 1 and No. 3 too,' said Inbrine. 'Lots of them.'

'You can survive No. 1 poison if you're sensible,' said Darktan. 'Remember that, all of you. And if you ever eat No. 3 poison, we've got some stuff that'll sort you out. I mean, you'll live in the end, but there'll be a day or two when you'd wish you were dead '

'There's lots of poison, Darktan,' said Inbrine, nervously. 'More than I've ever seen before. Rat bones all over the place.'

'Important safety tip there, then,' said Darktan, setting off along a new tunnel. 'Don't eat a dead rat unless you know what they died of. Otherwise you'll die of it, too.'

'Dangerous Beans says he thinks we shouldn't eat rats at all,' said Inbrine. 'Yeah, well, maybe,' said Darktan, 'but out in the tunnels you have to be practical. Never let good food go to waste. And someone wake up Nourishing!'

'A lot of poison,' said Inbrine, as the squad moved on. 'They must really hate rats here.' Darktan didn't answer. He could see the rats were already getting nervous. There was a smell of fear in the rat runs. They'd never come across so much poison before. Darktan didn't usually worry about anything, and hated to feel the worry starting, deep in his bones A small rat, out of breath, scurried up the tunnel and crouched in front of him. 'Kidney, sir, No. 3 Heavy Widdlers,' it burst out. 'We've found a trap, sir! Not like the usual sort! Fresh walked right into it! Please come!' There was a lot of straw in the loft over the stables, and the heat of the horses coming up from below made it quite snug. Keith was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling and to himself. Maurice was watching his lunch, which was twitching its nose. Right up until the time he pounced, Maurice looked like a sleek killing machine. It all went wrong just before he jumped. His rear rose, it waggled faster and faster from side to side, his tail slashed at the air like a snake, and then he dived forward, claws out- 'Squeak!'

'OK, here's the deal,' said Maurice to the shivering ball in his claws. 'You just have to say something. Anything. “Let me go”, maybe, or even “Help!” Squeak does not cut the mustard. It's just a noise. Just ask, and I'll let you go. No-one can say I'm not highly moral in that respect.'

'Squeak!' screamed the mouse. 'Fair enough,' said Maurice, and killed it instantly. He carried it back to the corner, where Keith was now sitting in the straw and finishing a pickled beef sandwich. 'It couldn't talk,' said Maurice, hurriedly. 'I didn't ask you,' said Keith. 'I mean, I gave it a chance,' said Maurice. 'You heard me, right? It only had to say it didn't want to be eaten.'

'Good.'

'It's all right for you, I mean, it's not as though you have to speak to sandwiches,' said Maurice, as if he was still bothered about something. 'I wouldn't know what to say to them,' said Keith. 'And I'd like to point out that I didn't play with it, either,' said Maurice. 'One swipe with the ol' paw and it was “goodbye, that's all she wrote” except that obviously the mouse didn't write anything, not being intelligent in any way.'