the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 5

'Nor could we, not long ago!' snapped Peaches. 'We were all like her!'

'We can think now, young female!' said Hamnpork, his hair rising. 'Yes,' said Dangerous Beans quietly. 'We can think. We can think about what we do. We can pity the innocent one who means us no harm. And that's why she can stay.' Hamnpork's head turned sharply. Dangerous Beans was still facing the newcomer. Hamnpork reared up instinctively, a rat ready to fight. But Dangerous Beans couldn't see him. Peaches watched the old rat with concern. He'd been challenged, by a weedy little rat who would not last a second in a fight. And Dangerous Beans hadn't even realized he'd made the challenge. He doesn't think like that, Peaches told herself. The other rats were watching Hamnpork. They still thought like that, and were waiting to see what he would do. But it was dawning even on Hamnpork that pouncing on the white rat would be unthinkable. It would be like cutting off his own tail. He very carefully let himself relax. 'It's just a rat,' he muttered. 'But you, dear Hamnpork, are not,' said Dangerous Beans. 'Will you go with Darktan's crew to find out where she came from? It could be dangerous.' This made Hamnpork's hair rise again. 'I'm not afraid of danger!' he roared. 'Of course not. That is why you should go. She was terrified,' said Dangerous Beans. 'I've never been scared of anything!' shouted Hamnpork. Now Dangerous Beans turned to face him. In the candlelight there was a glow in the pink eyes. Hamnpork was not a rat who spent a lot of time thinking about things he couldn't see or smell or bite, but… He looked up. The candlelight made big rat shadows dance on the wall. Hamnpork had heard the young rats talking about shadows and dreams and what happened to your shadow after you died. He didn't worry about that stuff. Shadows couldn't bite you. There was nothing to be frightened of in shadows. But now his own voice in his head told him I'm frightened of what those eyes can see. He glared at Darktan, who was scratching something in the mud with one of his sticks. 'I'll go, but I will lead the expedition,' he said. 'I'm senior rat here!'

'That doesn't worry me,' said Darktan. 'Mr Clicky is going to be going in front in any case.'

'I thought he got smashed last week?' said Peaches. 'We've got two left,' said Darktan. 'Then we'll have to raid another pet shop.'

'I'm the leader,' said Hamnpork. 'I'll say what we do, Darktan.'

'Fine, sir. Fine,' said Darktan, still drawing in the mud. 'And you know how to make all the traps safe, do you?'

'No, but I can tell you to!'

'Good. Good,' said Darktan, making more marks with his stick and not looking at the leader. 'And you'll tell me which levers to leave alone and which bits to wedge open, will you?'

'I don't have to understand about traps,' said Hamnpork. 'But I do, sir,' said Darktan, speaking in the same calm voice. 'And I'm telling you that there's a couple of things about some of these new traps I don't understand, and until I understand them I'd very respectfully suggest you leave it all to me,'

'That is not the way to talk to a superior rat!' Darktan gave him a look, and Peaches held her breath. This is the showdown, she thought. This is where we find out who is the leader. Then Darktan said, 'I am sorry. Impertinence was not intended.' Peaches picked up the astonishment amongst the older males who were watching. Darktan. He'd backed down! He hadn't leapt! But he hadn't cowered back, either. Hamnpork's fur settled. The old rat was at a loss to know how to deal with this. All the signals were mixed up. 'Well, er…'

'Obviously, as the leader you must give the orders,' said Darktan. 'Yes, er…'

'But my advice, sir, is that we investigate this. Unknown things are dangerous.'

'Yes. Certainly,' said Hamnpork. 'Yes, indeed. We will investigate. Of course. See to it. I am the leader, and that is what I am saying.' Maurice looked around at the inside of the rat-catchers' shed. 'It looks like a rat-catchers' shed,' he said. 'Benches, chairs, stove, lots of rat skins hanging up, piles of old traps, a couple of dog muzzles, rolls of wire netting, considerable evidence of a lack of any dusting ever being done. It's what I'd have expected a rat-catchers' hut to look like inside.'

'I was expecting something… horrible yet interesting,' said Malicia. 'Some ghastly clue.'

'Does there have to be a clue?' said Keith. 'Of course!' said Malicia, looking under a chair. 'Look, cat, there's two types of people in the world. There are those who have got the plot, and those who haven't.'

'The world hasn't got a plot,' said Maurice. 'Things just… happen, one after another.'

'Only if you think of it like that,' said Malicia, far too smugly in Maurice's opinion. 'There's always a plot. You just have to know where to look.' She paused for a moment and then said, 'Look! That's the word! There'll be a secret passage, of course! Everyone look for the entrance to the secret passage!'

'Er… how will we know it's the entrance to a secret passage?' said Keith, looking even more bewildered than norrmal. 'What does a secret passage look like?'

'It won't look like one, of course!'

'Oh, well, in that case I can see dozens of secret passages,' said Maurice. 'Doors, windows, that calendar from the Acme Poison Company, that cupboard over there, that rathole, that desk, that-'

'You're just being sarcastic,' said Malicia, lifting up the calendar and sternly inspecting the wall behind it. 'Actually, I was just being flippant,' said Maurice, 'but I can do sarcastic if you like.' Keith stared at the long bench which was in front of a winckow frosted with ancient cobwebs. Traps were piled up on it. All kinds of traps. And beside them were row uporm row of battered old tins and jars with labels like 'Danger: Hydrogen Dioxide!' and 'RatBane' and 'FireGut' and Polyputaketlon: Extreme Caution' and 'RatAway!!!' and 'Killerat!' and 'Essence of Barbed Wire: Danger!!!' and-he leaned closer to look at this one-'Sugar'. There were a couple of mugs, too, and a teapot. White and green and grey powder was scattered on the bench. Some of it had even fallen on the floor. 'You might try to be some help,' said Malicia, tapping the walls. 'I don't know how to look for something that doesn't look like the thing I'm looking for,' said Keith. 'And they keep the poison right next to the sugar! And so many poisons…' Malicia stood back and brushed her hair out of her eyes. 'This isn't working,' she said. 'I suppose there might not be a secret passage?' said Maurice. 'I know it's a rather daring idea, but perhaps this is just an ordinary shed?' Even Maurice leaned back a little from the force of Malicia's stare. 'There has to be a secret passage,' she said. 'Otherwise there's no point.' She snapped her fingers. 'Of course! We're doing it wrong! Everyone knows you never find the secret passage by looking for it! It's when you give up and lean against the wall that you inadvertently operate the secret switch!' Maurice looked at Keith for help. He was a human, after all. He should know how to deal with something like Malicia. But Keith was just wandering around the shed, staring at things. Malicia leaned against the wall with incredible nonchalance. There was not a click. A panel in the floor not slide back. 'Probably the wrong place,' she said. 'I'll just rest my arm innocently on this coat hook,' A sudden door in the wall completely failed to happen. 'Of course, it'd help if there was an ornate candlestick,' said Malicia. 'They're always a sure-fire secret passage lever. Every adventurer knows that.'

'There isn't a candlestick,' said Maurice. 'I know. Some people totally fail to have any idea of how to design a proper secret passage,' said Malicia. She

leaned against another piece of wall, which had no effect whatsoever. 'I don't think you'll find it that way,' said Keith, who was carefully examining a trap. 'Oh? Won't I?' said Malicia. 'Well, at least I'm being constructive about things! Where would you look, if you're such an expert?'

'Why is there a rat hole in a rat-catchers' shed?' said Keith. 'It smells of dead rats and wet dogs and poison. I wouldn't come near this place if I was a rat.' Malicia glared at him. Then her face wrapped itself in an expression of acute concentration, as if she was trying out several ideas in her head. 'Ye-es,' she said. 'That usually works, in stories. It's often the stupid person who comes up with the good idea by accident,' She crouched down and peered into the hole. 'There's a sort of little lever,' she said. 'I'll just give it a little push…' There was a clonk under the floor, part of it swung back, and Keith dropped out of sight. 'Oh, yes,' said Malicia. 'I thought something like that would probably happen…' Mr Clicky bumped along the tunnel, making a whirring noise. Young rats had chewed his ears, and his string tail had been chopped off by a trap, and other traps had dented his body, but he had this advantage: surprise traps couldn't kill Mr Clicky because he wasn't alive, and he wasn't alive because he was powered by clockwork. His key whirred around. A stub of candle burned on his back. The rest of the No. 1 trap squad watched. 'Any minute now…' said Darktan. There was a snap, and a sound best described as gloink! The light went out. Then a gear wheel rolled slowly back down the tunnel and fell over in front of Hamnpork. 'I thought the soil looked a bit disturbed there,' said Darktan in a satisfied voice. He turned around. 'OK, lads! Break out the other Mr Clicky, and I want half a dozen of you with a rope to dig out that trap and drag it out of the way!'

'All this testing the ground is slowing us down, Darktan,' said Hamnpork. 'Fine, sir,' said Darktan, as the squad hurried past them. 'You go on ahead. That'd be a good idea, because we've only got one Mr Clicky left. I hope this town's got a pet shop.'[4]<>'I just think we should move faster,' said Hamnpork. 'OK, off you go then, sir. Try to shout out where the next trap is before it gets you,'

'I am the leader, Darktan.'

'Yes, sir, I'm sorry. We're all getting a bit tired.'

'This is not a good place, Darktan,' said Hamnpork wearily. 'I've been in some bad rprptlt holes, and this is worse than any of them.'

'That's true, sir. This place is dead.'

'What's that word Dangerous Beans invented?'

'Evil,' said Darktan, watching the squad drag the trap out of the walls of the tunnel. He could see mangled springs and wheels in the jaws. He added, 'I couldn't quite understand what he was going on about, at the time. But now I think I can see what he meant.' He looked back along the tunnel to where a candle flame burned, and grabbed a passing rat. 'Peaches and Dangerous Beans are to stay right back, understand?' he said. 'They're not to come any further.'

'Right, sir!' said the rat, and hurried away. The expedition moved forward, cautiously, as the runnel opened up into a large, old drain. It had a trickle of water in the bottom. There were ancient pipes in the roof of it. Here and there steam hissed from them. Weak green light came from a street grating, further down the drain. The place smelled of rats. It smelled freshly of rats. In fact there was a rat in there, nibbling at a tray of food that had been set on a crumbling brick. It glanced at the Changelings and fled. 'Get after it!' Hamnpork yelled. 'No!' shouted Darktan. A couple of rats, who'd begun to chase the keekee hesitated. 'That was an order I gave!' roared Hamnpork, turning on Darktan. The trap expert made a very brief crouch and said, 'Of course. But I think the view of Hamnpork in possession of all the facts will be a little different than the view of Hamnpork who just shouted because he saw a rat run away, hmm? Sniff the air!' Hamnpork's nose wrinkled. 'Poison?' Darktan nodded. 'Grey No. 2,' he said. 'Foul stuff. It's best to keep well away.' Hamnpork looked both ways along the pipe. It went on for a long way, and was just about high enough for a human to crawl along it. Lots of smaller pipes hung near the ceiling. 'It's warm here,' he said. 'Yes, sir. Peaches has been reading the guide-book. Hot springs of water come up out of the ground here and they pump it around to some of the houses.'