'Not for ages,' said a rat. 'Remember that one in Scrote? With the sparkly blue bits? It burned if you got it on your feet? People ran into it before they knew?'
'They've got that here?'
'You'd better come and see.' In one of the tunnels a rat was lying on its side. Its feet were curled up tight, like fists. It was whimpering. Darktan took one look and knew that, for this rat, it was all over. It was only a matter of time. For the rats back in Scrote, it had been a matter of horrible time. 'I could bite her in the back of the neck,' a rat volunteered. 'It'd be all over quickly.'
'It's a kind thought, but that stuff gets into the blood,' said Darktan. 'Find a snapper trap that hasn't been made safe. Do it carefully.'
'Put a rat in a trap, sir?' said Nourishing. 'Yes! Better die fast than slow!'
'Even so, it's-' the rat who had volunteered to do the biting started to protest. The hairs around Darktan's face stood out. He reared up and showed his teeth. 'Do what you're told or I'll bite you!' he roared. The other rat crouched back. 'All right, Darktan, all right…'
'And warn all the other squads!' Darktan bellowed. 'This isn't rat-catching, this is war! Everyone's to pull back smartly! No-one touch nothing! We're going to-Yes? What is it this time?' A small rat had crept up to Darktan. As the trap-hunter spun around, the rat crouched hurriedly, almost rolling on its back to show how small and harmless it was. 'Please, sir…' it mumbled. 'Yes?'
'This time we've found a live one…'
There were big adventures and small adventures, Mr Bunnsy knew. You didn't get told what size they were going to be before you started. Sometimes you could have a big adventure even when you were standing still. - From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure 'Hello? Hello, it's me. And I'm going to give the secret knock now! There were three knocks on the stable door, and then Malicia's voice rose again with 'Hello, did you hear the secret knock?'
'Perhaps she'll go away if we keep quiet,' said Keith, in the straw. 'I shouldn't think so,' said Maurice. He raised his voice and called out, 'We're up here!'
'You've still got to give the secret knock,' shouted Malicia. 'Oh, prbllttrrrp,' said Maurice under his breath, and fortunately no human knows how bad a swearword that is in cat language. 'Look, this is me, OK? A cat? Which talks? How will you recognize me? Shall I wear a red carnation?'
'I don't think you're a proper talking cat, anyway,' said Malicia, climbing the ladder. She was still wearing black, and had bundled up her hair under a black scarf. She also had a big bag slung from her shoulder. 'Gosh, you've got that right,' said Maurice. 'I mean, you don't wear boots and a sword and have a big hat with a feather in it,' said the girl, pulling herself into the loft. Maurice gave her a long stare. 'Boots?' he said at last. 'On these paws?'
'Oh, it was in a picture in a book I read,' said Malicia, calmly. 'A silly one for children. Full of animals that dressed up as humans.' It crossed Maurice's cat mind, and not for the first time, that if he moved fast he could be out of the city in five minutes and on to a barge or something. Once, when he was no more than a kitten, he'd been taken home by a small girl who'd dressed him up in doll's clothes and sat him at a small table with a couple of dolls and three-quarters of a teddy bear. He'd managed to escape through an open window, but it had taken him all day to get out of the dress. That girl could have been Malicia. She thought animals were just people who hadn't been paying enough attention. 'I don't do clothes,' he said. It wasn't much of a line, but it was probably better than saying 'I think you are a loony'. 'Could be an improvement,' said Malicia. 'It's nearly dark. Let's go! We shall move like cats!'
'Oh, right,' said Maurice. 'I expect I can do that.' Although, he thought a few minutes later, no cats ever moved like Malicia. She obviously thought that it was no good looking inconspicuous unless people could see that you were being inconspicuous. People in the street actually stopped to watch her as she sidled along walls and scuttled from one doorway to another. Maurice and Keith strolled along after her. No-one paid them any attention. Eventually, in a narrow street, she stopped at a black building with a big wooden sign hanging over the door. The sign showed a lot of rats, a sort of star made of rats, with all their tails tied together in a big knot. 'Sign of the ancient Guild of Rat-catchers,' whispered Malicia, swinging her bag off her shoulder. 'I know,' said Keith. 'It looks horrible.'
'Makes an interesting design, though,' said Malicia. One of the most significant things about the door below the sign was the big padlock holding it shut. Odd, Maurice thought. If rats make your legs explode, why do rat-catchers have to have a big lock on their shed? 'Luckily, I'm prepared for every eventuality,' said Malicia, and reached into her bag. There was a sound as of lumps of metal and bottles being moved around. 'What have you got in there?' asked Maurice. 'Everything?'
'The grapnel and rope ladder take up a lot of the room,' said Malicia, still feeling around. 'And then there's the big medicine kit, and the small medicine kit, and the knife, and the other knife, and the sewing kit, and the mirror for sending signals and… these…' She pulled out a small bundle of black cloth. When she unrolled it, Maurice saw the gleam of metal. 'Ah,' he said. 'Lock picks, right? I've seen burglars at work-'
'Hair pins,' said Malicia, selecting one. 'Hair pins always work in the books I've read. You just push it into the keyhole and twiddle. I have a selection of pre-bent ones.' Once again, Maurice felt a little chill at the back of his head. They work in stories, he thought. Oh dear me. 'And how come you know so much about picking locks?' he said. 'I told you, they lock me out of my room to punish me,' said Malicia, twiddling. Maurice had seen thieves at work. Men breaking into buildings at night hated to see dogs, but they didn't mind cats. Cats never attempted to tear their throats out. And what thieves tended to have, he knew, were complicated little tools
which were used with great care and precision. They didn't use stupi- Click! 'Good,' said Malicia, in a satisfied voice. 'That was just luck,' said Maurice, as the padlock swung free. He looked up at Keith. 'You think it's just luck too, eh, kid?'
'How would I know?' said Keith. 'I've never seen it done before.'
'I knew it would work,' said Malicia. 'It worked in the fairy-story The Seventh Wife of Greenbeard, where she broke out of his Room of Terror and stabbed him in the eye with a frozen herring.'
'That was a,'airy-story?' said Keith. 'Yes,' said Malicia, proudly. 'Right out of Grim Fairy-Tales.'
'You've got some bad fairies in these parts,' said Maurice, shaking his head. Malicia pushed the door open. 'Oh, no,' she moaned. 'I didn't expect this…' Somewhere below Maurice's paws, and about a street away, the one local rat that the Changelings had found alive was crouched in front of Dangerous Beans. The squads had been called back. This was not turning out to be a good day. Traps that didn't kill, Darktan thought. You found them sometimes. Sometimes humans wanted to catch rats alive. Darktan didn't trust humans who wanted to catch rats alive. Honest traps that killed outright… well, they were bad, but you could usually avoid them and at least there was something clean about them. Live traps were like poison. They cheated. Dangerous Beans was watching the newcomer. It was strange, but the rat who could think the most un-rat-like thoughts was also the best at talking to keekees, except that talking wasn't the right word. No-one, not even Hamnpork, had a sense of smell like Dangerous Beans. The new rat certainly wasn't giving any trouble. For one thing, it was surrounded by rats who were big and well-fed and tough, so its body was respectfully saying sir as hard as it could. The Changelings had also given it some food, which it was engulfing rather than eating. 'She was in a box,' said Darktan, who was drawing on the floor with a stick. 'There's a lot of them here.'
'I got caught in one once,' said Hamnpork. 'Then a female human came along and tipped me out over the garden wall. Couldn't see the point of it.'
'I believe some humans do it to be kind,' said Peaches. 'They get the rat out of the house without killing them.'
'Didn't do her any good, anyway,' said Hamnpork, with satisfaction. 'I went back next night and widdled on the cheese.'
'I don't think anyone is trying to be kind here,' said Darktan. 'There was another rat in there with her. At least,' he added,'there was part of a rat in there with her. I think she'd been eating it to stay alive.'
'Very sensible,' nodded Hamnpork. 'We found something else,' Darktan said, still drawing furrows in the dirt. 'Can you see these, sir?' He'd drawn lines and squiggles on the floor. 'Hrumph. I can see them, but I don't have to know what they are,' said Hamnpork. He rubbed his nose. 'I've never needed any more than this.' Darktan gave a patient sigh. 'Then smell, sir, that this is a… a picture of all the tunnels we've explored today. It's… the shape I have in my head. We've explored a lot of the town. There's a lot of the…' he glanced at Peaches, 'a lot of the kind traps, mostly empty. There's poison all over the place. It's mostly quite old. Lots of empty live traps. Lots of killer traps, still set. And no live rats. None at all, except for our… new friend. We know there's something very odd. I sniffed around a bit near where I found her, and I smelled rats. Lots of rats. I mean lots.'
'Alive?' said Dangerous Beans. 'Yes.'
'All in one place?'
'It smells that way,' said Darktan. 'I think a squad should go and look.' Dangerous Beans got closer to the rat and sniffed at her again. The rat sniffed at him. They touched paws. The watching Changelings were astonished. Dangerous Beans was treating the keekee as an equal. 'Lots of things, lots of things,' he murmured. 'Many rats… humans… fear… lots of fear… lots of rats, crowded… food… rat… you said she's been eating rat?'
'It's a rat-eat-rat world,' said Hamnpork. 'Always has been, always will be.' Dangerous Beans wrinkled his nose. 'There's something else. Something… odd. Strange… she's really scared.'
'She has been in a trap,' said Peaches. 'And then she met us.'
'Much…worse than that,' said Dangerous Beans. 'She's… she's frightened of us because we're strange rats but she smells relieved that we're not… what she's used to…'
'Humans!' Darktan spat. 'I… don't… think… so…'
'Yes… no… I… don't… it's hard to tell…'
'No.' Dangerous Beans stepped back. 'Something new.'
'What shall we do with her?' said Peaches. 'Let her go, I suppose.'
'We can't do that!' said Darktan. 'We've triggered all the traps we've found but there are still poisons all over the place. I wouldn't send a mouse out into that lot. She hasn't tried to attack us, after all.'
'So?' said Hamnpork. 'What's another dead keekee?'
'I know what Darktan means,' said Peaches. 'We can't just send her out to die.' Big Savings stepped forward and put a paw around the young female, cuddling her protectively. She glared at Hamnpork. Although she might nip him sometimes if she was annoyed, she wouldn't argue with him. She was too old to do that. But her look said: all males are stupid, you stupid old rat. He looked lost. 'We've killed keekees, haven't we?' he said sadly. 'Why do we want this one hanging around?'
'We can't send her out to die,' said Peaches again, looking at Dangerous Beans' expression. He had that faraway look in his pink eyes. 'You want it trailing around eating our food and messing things up?' said Hamnpork. 'It can't talk, it can't think…'