'An island with no humans or krllrrt cats would be a good place,' said Hamnpork. Maurice didn't let his smile fade, even though he knew what krllrrt meant. 'And we wouldn't want to keep Maurice from his wonderful new job with the conjurer,' said Peaches. Maurice's eyes narrowed. For a moment he came close to breaking his iron rule of not eating anyone that could talk. 'What about you, kid?' he said, looking up at the stupid-looking kid. 'I don't mind,' said the kid. 'Don't mind what?' said Maurice. 'Don't mind anything, really,' said the kid. 'Just so long as no-one stops me playing.'
'But you've got to think of the future!' said Maurice. 'I am,' said the kid. 'I want to go on playing my music in the future. It doesn't cost anything to play. But maybe the rats are right. We've had a couple of narrow squeaks, Maurice.' Maurice gave the kid a sharp look to see if he was making a joke, but the kid had never done that kind of thing before. He gave up. Well, not exactly gave up. Maurice hadn't got where he was by giving up on problems. He just put them to one side. After all, something always turned up. 'OK, fine,' he said. 'We'll do it one more time and split the money three ways. Fine. Not a problem. But if this is going to be the last time, let's make it one to remember, eh?' He grinned. The rats, being rats, were not keen on seeing a grinning cat, but they understood that a difficult decision had been made. They breathed tiny sighs of relief. 'Are you happy with that, kid?' said Maurice. 'I can go on playing my flute afterwards?' said the kid. 'Absolutely.'
'OK,' said the kid. The money, shiny like the sun and shiny like the moon, was solemnly put back in its bag. The rats dragged the bag under the bushes and buried it. No-one could bury money like rats, and it didn't pay to take too much into towns. Then there was the horse. It was a valuable horse, and Maurice was very, very sorry to turn it loose. But, as Peaches pointed out, it was a highwayman's horse, with a very ornate saddle and bridle. Trying to sell it here could be dangerous. People would talk. It might attract the attention of the government. This was no time to have the Watch on their tails. Maurice walked to the edge of the rock and looked down at the town, which was waking up under the sunrise. 'Let's make this the big one, then, eh?' he said, as rats came back. 'I want to see maximum squeaking and making faces at people and widdling on stuff, OK?'
'We think that widdling on stuff is not really-' Dangerous Beans began, but 'Ahem,' said Peaches, and so Dangerous Beans went on: 'Oh, I suppose, if it's the last time…'
'I've widdled on everything since I was out of the nest,' said Hamnpork. 'Now they tell me it's not right. If that's what thinking means, I'm glad I don't do any.'
'Let's leave 'em amazed,' said Maurice. 'Rats? They think they've seen rats in that town? After they've seen us, they'll be making up storiesl'
Mr Bunnsy had a lot of friends in Furry Bottom. But what Mr Bunnsy was friendly with more than anything else was food. - From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure This was the plan. And it was a good plan. Even the rats, even Peaches, had to admit that it had worked. Everyone knew about plagues of rats. There were famous stories about the rat pipers, who made their living going from town to town getting rid of plagues of rats. Of course there weren't just rat plagues-sometimes there were plagues of accordion-players, bricks tied up with string, or fish-but it was the rats everyone knew about. And that, really, was it. You didn't need many rats for a plague, not if they knew their business. One rat, popping up here and there, squeaking loudly, taking a bath in the fresh cream and widdling in the flour, could be a plague all by himself. After a few days of this, it was amazing how glad people were to see the stupid-looking kid with his magical rat pipe. And they were amazed when rats poured out of every hole to follow him out of the town. They were so amazed that they didn't bother much about the fact that there were only a few hundred rats. They'd have been really amazed if they'd ever found out that the rats and the piper met up with a cat somewhere in the bushes out of town, and solemnly counted out the money. Bad Blintz was waking up when Maurice entered with the kid. No-one bothered them, although Maurice got a lot of interest. This did not worry him. He knew he was interesting. Cats walked as if they owned the place anyway, and the world was full of stupid-looking kids and people weren't rushing to see another one. It looked as though today was a market day, but there weren't many stalls and they were mostly selling, well, junk. Old pans, pots, used shoes… the kind of things people have to sell when they're short of money. Maurice had seen plenty of markets, on their journeys through other towns, and he knew how they should go. 'There should be fat women selling chickens,' he said. 'And people selling sweets for the kids, and ribbons. Tumblers and clowns. Even weasel jugglers, if you're lucky.'
'There's nothing like that. There's hardly anything to buy, by the look of it,' said the kid. 'I thought you said this was a rich town, Maurice.'
'Well, it looked rich,' said Maurice. 'All those big fields in the valley, all those boats on the river… you'd think the streets'd be paved with gold!' The kid looked up. 'Funny thing,' he said. 'What?'
'The people look poor,' he said. 'It's the buildings that look rich.' And they did. Maurice wasn't an expert on architecture but the wooden buildings had been carefully carved and painted. He noticed something else, too. There was nothing careful about the sign that had been nailed up on the nearest wall. It said: RATS WANTED DEAD! 50 PENCE PER TAIL! APPLY TO: THE RAT-CATCHERS C/O THE RATHAUS The kid was staring at it. 'They must really want to get rid of their rats here,' said Maurice, cheerfully. 'No-one has ever offered a reward of half a dollar a tail!' said the kid. 'I told you this would be the big one,' said Maurice. 'We'll be sitting on a pile of gold before the week's out!'
'What's a rat house?' said the kid, doubtfully. 'It can't be a house for rats, can it? And why is everyone staring at you?'
'I'm a handsome-looking cat,' said Maurice. Even so, it was a little surprising. People were nudging one another and pointing at him. 'You'd think they'd never seen a cat before,' he muttered, staring at the big building across the street. It was a big, square building, surrounded by people, and the sign said: RATHAUS. 'Rathouse's just the local word for… like the council house, the town hall,' he said. 'It's nothing to do with rats, amusing though it may be.'
'You really know a lot of words, Maurice,' said the kid, admiringly. 'I amaze myself, sometimes,' said Maurice. A queue of people were standing in front of one huge open door. Other people, who had presumably done whatever it was the queue was queuing to do, were emerging from another doorway in ones and twos. They were all carrying
loaves of bread. 'Shall we queue up too?' said the kid. 'I shouldn't think so,' said Maurice, carefully. 'Why not?'
'See those men on the door? They look like watchmen. They've got big truncheons. And everyone's showing them a bit of paper as they go past. I don't like the look of that,' said Maurice. 'That looks like government to me.'
'We haven't done anything wrong,' said the kid. 'Not here, anyway.'
'You never know, with governments. Just sit still here, kid. I'll take a look.' People did look at Maurice when he stalked into the building, but it seemed that in a town beset by rats a cat was quite popular. A man did try to pick him up, but lost interest when Maurice turned and clawed the back of his hand. The queue wound into a big hall and passed in front of a long trestle table. There, each person showed their piece of paper to two women in front of a big tray of bread, and were given some bread. Then they moved on to a man with a vat of sausages, and got considerably less sausage. Watching over all this, and occasionally saying something to the food servers, was the mayor. Maurice recognized him instantly because he had a gold chain around his neck. He had run across a lot of mayors since working with the rats. This one was different from the rest. He was smaller, far more worried, and had a bald spot that he'd tried to cover with three strands of hair. He was a lot thinner than other mayors Maurice had seen, too. He didn't look as if he'd been bought by the ton. So… food is scarce, Maurice thought. They're having to ration it out. Looks like they'll be, needing a piper any day now. Lucky for us we arrived just in time… He walked out again, but this time a bit faster, because he realized that someone was playing a pipe. It was, as he feared, the kid. He'd put his cap on the ground in front of him, and had even accumulated a few coins. The queue had bent round so that people could hear him, and one or two small children were actually dancing. Maurice was only an expert on cat singing, which of standing two inches in front of other cats and screaming at them until they give in. Human music always sounded thin and watery to him. But people tapped their feet when they heard the kid play. They smiled for a while. Maurice waited until the kid had finished the tune. While the queue was clapping, he sidled up behind the kid, brushed up against him and hissed, 'Well done, fish-for-brains! We're supposed to be inconspicuousl Come on, let's go. Oh, grab the money, too.' He led the way across the square until he stopped so suddenly that the kid almost trod on him. 'Whoops, here comes some more government,' he said. 'And we know what these are, don't we… ?' The kid did. They were rat-catchers, two of them. Even here, they wore the long dusty coats and battered black top hats of their profession. They each carried a pole over one shoulder, from which dangled a variety of traps. From the other shoulder hung a big bag, the kind you really wouldn't want to look inside. And each man had a terrier on a string. They were skinny, argumentative dogs, and growled at Maurice when they were dragged past. The queue cheered as the men approached, and clapped when they both reached into their bags and held up a couple of handfuls of what looked, to Maurice, like black string. 'Two hundred today!' shouted one of the rat-catchers. One of the terriers lunged at Maurice, tugging frantically on its string. The cat didn't move. Probably only the stupid-looking kid heard him say, in a low voice, 'Heel, fleabag! Bad dog!' The terrier's face screwed up in the horribly worried expression of a dog trying to have two thoughts at the same time. It knew cats shouldn't talk, and this cat had just talked. It was a terrible problem. It sat down awkwardly and whined. Maurice washed himself. It was a deadly insult. The rat-catcher, annoyed at such a cowardly performance from his dog, jerked it away. And dropped a few of the black strings. 'Rat tails!' said the kid. 'They really must have a problem here!'
'A bigger one than you think,' said Maurice, staring at the bunch of tails. 'Just pick those up when no-one's looking, will you?' The kid waited until people weren't looking towards them, and reached down. Just as his fingers touched the tangle of tails a large, shiny black boot trod heavily on it. 'Now, you don't want to go touching them, young sir,' said a voice above him. 'You can get plague, you know, from rats. It makes your legs explode.' It was one of the rat-catchers. He gave the kid a big grin, but it was not a humorous one. It smelled of beer. 'That's right, young sir, and then your brains come down your nose,' said the other rat-catcher, coming up behind the kid. 'You wouldn't dare use your hanky, young sir, if you got the plague.'
'My associate has as usual put his finger right on it, young sir,' said the first rat-catcher, breathing more beer into the kid's face. 'Which is more than you'd be able to do, young sir,' said Rat-catcher 2, 'because when you get the plague, your fingers go all-'