the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 7


'Get out of here right now,' he said, as he ran past Darktan. 'Don't get human about it, just run!' And that was quite enough heroism, he decided. It didn't pay to let other people actually slow you down. There was a rusty old drain set in the wall. He skidded on the slimy floor as he changed direction, and there, yes, was a Maurice-sized hole where a bar had rusted clean away. Paws scrabbling for speed, he darted through the hole just as the rat-catchers entered the room of cages. Then, safe in the darkness, he turned around and peered out. Time to check. Was Maurice safe? All legs present? Tail? Yes. Good. He could see Darktan tugging at Hamnpork, who seemed to have frozen on the spot, the others scuttling towards another drain in the opposite wall. They moved unsteadily. That's what happens when you let yourself go, Maurice thought. They thought they'd got educated, but in a tight corner a rat is just a rat. Now me, I'm different. Brain functioning perfectly at all times. Always on the lookout. On the case and sniffing bottom. The caged rats were making a din. Keith and the story-telling girl were watching the rat-catchers in amazement. The rat-catchers weren't unamazed, either. On the floor, Darktan gave up trying to get Hamnpork to move. He drew his sword, looked up at the humans,

hesitated, and then ran for the drain. Yes, let them sort it out. They're all human, Maurice thought. They've got big brains, they can talk, it should be no problem at all. Hah! Tell them a story, story-telling girl! Rat-catcher 1 stared at Malicia and Keith. 'What're you doing here, miss?' he said, his voice creaking with suspicion. 'Playing Mummies and Daddies?' said Rat-catcher 2 cheerfully. 'You broke into our shed,' said Rat-catcher 1. 'That's called “breaking in”, that is!'

'You've been stealing, yes, stealing food and blaming it on rats!' snapped Malicia. 'And why have you got all these rats caged up in here? And what about the aglets, eh? Surprised, eh? Didn't think anyone would notice them, eh?'

'Aglets?' said Rat-catcher 1, his brow wrinkling. 'The little bits on the end of bootlaces,' mumbled Keith. Rat-catcher 1 spun around. 'You bloody idiot, Bill! I said we had enough real ones! I told you someone would notice! Didn't I tell you someone would notice? Someone has noticed!'

'Yes, don't think you've got away with anything!' said Malicia. Her eyes were gleaming. 'I know you're only the humorous thugs. One big fat one, one thin one – it's obvious! So who's the big boss?' Rat-catcher 1's eyes glazed slightly, as they often did when Malicia talked at people. He waved a fat finger at her. 'You know what your father's been and gone and done just now?' he said. 'Hah! Humorous thug talk!' said Malicia triumphantly. 'Do go on!'

'He's been and gone and sent off for the Rat Piper!' said Rat-catcher 2. 'He costs a fortune! Three hundred dollars a town and if you don't pay up he gets really mean!' Oh dear, thought Maurice. Someone's been and gone and sent for the real one… three hundred dollars. Three hundred dollars? Three hundred dollars? And we only charged thirty! 'It's you, isn't it,' said Rat-catcher 1, waving his finger at Keith. 'The stupid-looking kid! You turn up, and suddenly there's all these new rats around! There's something I don't like about you! You and your funny-looking cat! If I see that funny-looking cat again it's going to have mittens!' In the darkness of the drain, Maurice shrank back. 'Hur, hur, hur,' said Rat-catcher 2. He'd probably studied to get a thug laugh like that, Maurice thought. 'And we don't have a boss,' said Rat-catcher 1. 'Yeah, we're our own bosses,' said Rat-catcher 2. And then the story went wrong. 'And you, miss,' said Rat-catcher 1, turning to Malicia, 'are too lippy by half.' He swung his fist, lifting her off her feet and slamming her against the rat cages. The rats went mad and the cages boiled with frantic activity as she slumped to the ground. The rat-catcher turned to Keith. 'You going to try anything, kid?' he said. 'You going to try anything? She was a girl so I was nice and kind but you I'll put in one of the cages-'

'Yeah, and they ain't been fed today!' said a delighted Rat-catcher 2. Go on, kid! Maurice thought. Do something! But Keith just stood there, staring at the man. Rat-catcher 1 looked him up and down, scornfully. 'What's that you've got there, boy? A pipe? Give it here!' The pipe was grabbed from Keith's belt and he was pushed onto the floor. 'A penny whistle? Think you're the rat piper, do you?' Rat-catcher 1 snapped the pipe in two and tossed the bits inside the cages. 'Y'know, they say that over in Porkscratchenz the Rat Piper led all the kids out of the town. Now there was a man with the right idea!' Keith looked up. His eyes narrowed. He got to his feet. Here it comes, thought Maurice. He's going to leap forward with superhuman strength because he's so angry and they're going to wish he'd never been born… Keith leapt forward with ordinary human strength, landed one punch on Rat-catcher 1 and was smacked to the floor again by a big, brutal, sledgehammer blow. All right, all right, he got knocked down, thought Maurice as Keith struggled for breath, but he's going to get up again. There was a shrill scream, and Maurice thought: aha! But the scream hadn't come from the wheezing Keith. A grey figure had launched itself from the top of the rat cages right at the rat-catcher's face. It landed teeth first, and blood spurted on the rat-catcher's nose. Aha! thought Maurice again, it's Hamnpork to the rescue! What? Mrillp! I'm thinking like the girl! I keep thinking it's a story! The rat-catcher grabbed at the rat and held him out at arm's length by his tail. Hamnpork twisted and turned, squealing with rage. His captor dabbed at his nose with his spare hand, and stared at Hamnpork as he struggled.

'He's a bit of a fighter,' said Rat-catcher 2. 'How'd he get out?'

'Not one of ours,' said Rat-catcher 1. 'He's a red.'

'Red? What's red about him?'

'A red rat's a kind of grey rat, as you would very well know if you'd were an hexperienced Guild member like me,' said the rat-catcher. 'They ain't local. You get 'em down on the plains. Funny to find one up here. Very funny. Greasy old devil, too. But game as anything.'

'Your nose is all runny.'

'Yeah. I know. I've had more rat bites than you've had hot dinners. Don't feel 'em any more,' said Rat-catcher 1, in a voice that suggested that the spinning, screeching Hamnpork was a lot more interesting than his colleague. 'I only have cold sausage for dinner.'

'There you are then. What a little fighter you are, to be sure. Real little devil, aren't you. Plucky as anything.'

'Kind of you to say so.'

'I was talking to the rat, mister.' He prodded Keith with his boot. 'Go and tie up these two somewhere, OK? We'll put them in one of the other cellars for now. One with a proper door. And a proper lock. And no handy little trapdoors. And you give me the key.'

'She's the mayor's daughter,' said Rat-catcher 2. 'Mayors can get really upset about daughters.'

'Then he'll do what he's told, right?'

'You gonna give that rat a good squeezing?'

'What, a fighter like this one? Are you joking? It's thinking like that that'll keep you a rat-catcher's assistant your whole life. I've got a much better idea. How many's in the special cage?' Maurice watched Rat-catcher 2 go and examine one of the other cages on the far wall. 'Only two rats left. They've eaten the other four,' he reported. 'Just skin left. Very neat.'

'Ah, so they'll be full o' vim and vinegar. Well, we'll see what they do to him, shall we?' Maurice heard a little wire door open and shut. Hamnpork was seeing red. It filled his vision. He'd been angry for months, down inside, angry at humans, angry at the poisons and the traps, angry at the way younger rats weren't showing respect, angry that the world was changing so fast, angry that he was growing old… And now the smells of terror and hunger and violence met the anger coming the other way and they mingled and flowed through Hamnpork in a great red river of rage. He was a cornered rat. But he was a cornered rat who could think. He'd always been a vicious fighter, long before there was all this thinking, and he was still very strong. A couple of dumb, swanking young keekees with no tactics and no experience of down-and-dirty cellar fighting and no fancy footwork and no thoughts were simply not a contest. A tumble, a twist and two bites were all it took… The caged rats across the room leapt back from the netting. Even they could feel the fury. 'Now there's a clever boy,' said Rat-catcher 1 admiringly, when it was all over. 'I've got a use for you, my lad.'

'Not the pit?' said Rat-catcher 2. 'Yes, the pit.'

'Tonight?'

'Yeah, 'cos Fancy Arthur is putting in his Jacko on a bet to kill a hundred rats in less than a quarter of an hour.'

'I bet he can, too. Jacko's a good terrier. He did ninety a few months ago and Fancy Arthur been training him up. Should be a good show.'

'You'd bet on Jacko doing it, would you?' said Ratcatcher 1. 'Sure. Everyone will be.'

'Even with our little friend here among the rats?' said Rat-catcher 1. 'Full of lovely spite and bite and boilin' bile?'

'Well, er…'

'Yeah, right.' Rat-catcher 1 grinned. 'I don't like leaving those kids here, though.'

'It's “them kids”, not “those kids”. Get it right. How many times have I told you? Rule 27 of the Guild: sound stupid. People get suspicious of rat-catchers that talk too good.'

'Sorry.'

'Talk thick, be clever. That's the way to do it,' said Ratcatcher 1. 'Sorry, I forgot.'

'You tend to do it the other way around.'

'Sorry. Them kids. It's cruel, tying people up. And they're only kids, after all.'

'So?'

'So it'd be a lot easier to take 'em down the tunnel to the river and hit 'em on the head and throw 'em in. They'll be miles down river before anyone fishes 'em out, and they prob'ly won't even be recognizable by the time the fish have

finished with 'em.' Maurice heard a pause in the conversation. Then Ratcatcher 1 said, 'I didn't know that you were such a kind-hearted soul, Bill.'

'Right, and, sorry, an' I've got an idea about gettin' rid of this piper, too-' The next voice came from everywhere. It sounded like a rushing wind and, in the heart of the wind, the groan of something in agony. It filled the air. NO! We can use the piper! 'No, we can use the piper,' said Rat-catcher 1. 'That's right,' said Rat-catcher 2. 'I was just thinking the same thing. Er… how can we use the piper?' Once again, Maurice heard a sound in his head like wind blowing through a cave. Isn't it OBVIOUS? Isn't it obvious?' said Rat-catcher 1. 'Yeah, obvious,' muttered Rat-catcher 2. 'Obviously it's obvious. Er…' Maurice watched the rat-catchers open several of the cages, grab rats and drop them into a sack. He saw Hamnpork tipped into one, too. And then the ratcatchers had gone, dragging the other humans with them, and Maurice wondered: where, in this maze of cellars, is a Maurice-sized hole? Cats can't see in the dark. What they can do is see by very little light. A tiny scrap of moonlight was filtering into the space behind him. It was coming through a tiny hole in the ceiling, barely big enough for a mouse and certainly not big enough for a Maurice even if he could reach it. It illuminated another cellar. By the looks of it, the ratcatchers used this one too; there were a few barrels stacked in one corner, and piles of broken rat cages. Maurice prowled around it, looking for another way out. There were doors, but they had handles, and even his mighty brain couldn't figure out the mystery of doorknobs. There was another drain grating in a wall, though. He squeezed through it. Another cellar. And more boxes and sacks. At least it was dry, though. A voice behind him said, What kind of thing are you? He spun around. All he could make out were boxes sacks. The air still stank of rats, and there was a continuous rustling, and the occasional faint squeak, but the place was a little piece of heaven compared to the hell of the cage room. The voice had come from behind him, hadn't it? He must have heard it, mustn't he? Because it seemed to him that he just had something like the memory of hearing a voice, something that had arrived in his head without bothering to go through his ragged ears. It had been the same with the rat-catchers. They'd talked as if they'd heard a voice and thought it was their own thoughts. The voice hadn't really been there, had it? I can't see you, said the memory, I don't know what you are. It was not a good voice for a memory to have. It was all hisses, and it slid into the mind like a knife. Come closer. Maurice's paws twitched. The muscles in his legs started to push him forward. He extended his claws, and got control of himself. Someone was hiding amongst the boxes, he thought. And it would probably not be a good idea to say anything. People could get funny about talking cats. You couldn't rely on everyone being as mad as the story-telling girl. Come CLOSER. The voice seemed to pull at him. He'd have to say something. 'I'm happy where I am, thank you,' said Maurice. Then will you share our PAIN? The last word hurt. But it did not, and this was surprising, hurt a lot. The voice had sounded sharp and and dramatic, as if the owner was keen to see Maurice rolling in agony. Instead, it gave him a very brief headache. When the voice arrived again, it sounded very suspicious. What kind of creature are you? Your mind is WRONG. 'I prefer amazing,' said Maurice. 'Anyway, who are you, asking me questions in the dark?' All he could smell was rat. He heard a faint sound off to his left, and just made out the shape of a very large rat, creeping towards him. Another sound made him turn. Another rat was coming from the other direction. He could only just make it out in the gloom. A rustle ahead of him suggested that there was a rat right in front, slipping quietly through the dark. Here come my eyes… WHAT? CAT! CAT! KILL!