One day, when he was naughty, Mr Bunnsy looked over the hedge into Farmer Fred's field and it was full of green lettuces. Mr Bunnsy, however, was not full of lettuces. This did not seem fair. – From Mr Bunnsy Has an Adventure Rats! They chased the dogs and bit the cats, they- But there was more to it than that. As the amazing Maurice said, it was just a story about people and rats. And the difficult part of it was deciding who the people were, and who were the rats. But Malicia Grim said it was a story about stories. It began-part of it began-on the mail coach that came over the mountains from the distant cities of the plain. This was the part of the journey that the driver didn't like. The way wound through forests and around mountains on crumbling roads. There were deep shadows between the trees. Sometimes he thought things were following the coach, keeping just out of sight. It gave him the willies. And on this journey, the really big willie was that he could hear voices. He was sure of it. They were coming from behind him, from the top of the coach, and there was nothing there but the big oilcloth mail-sacks and the young man's luggage. There was certainly nothing big enough for a person to hide inside. But occasionally he was sure he heard squeaky voices, whispering. There was only one passenger at this point. He was a fair-haired young man, sitting all by himself inside the rocking coach, reading a book. He was reading slowly, and aloud, moving his finger over the words. 'Ubberwald,' he read out. 'That's “Uberwald”,' said a small, squeaky but very clear voice. 'The dots make it a sort of long “ooo” sound. But you're doing well.'
'There's such a thing as too much pronunciation, kid,' said another voice, which sounded half asleep. 'But you know the best thing about Uberwald? It's a long, long way from Sto Lat. It's a long way from Pseudopolis. It's a long way from anywhere where the Commander of the Watch says he'll have us boiled alive if he ever sees us again. And it's not very modern. Bad roads. Lots of mountains in the way. People don't move about much up here. So news doesn't travel very fast, see? And they don't have policemen. Kid, we can make a fortune here!'
'Maurice?' said the boy, carefully. 'Yes, kid?'
'You don't think what we're doing is, you know… dishonest, do you?' There was a pause before the voice said, 'How do you mean, dishonest?'
'Well… we take their money, Maurice.' The coach rocked and bounced over a pot-hole. 'All right,' said the unseen Maurice, 'but what you've got to ask yourself is: who do we take the money from, actually?'
'Well… it's generally the mayor or the city council or someone like that.'
'Right. And that means it's… what? I've told you this bit before.'
'It is gov-ern-ment money, kid,' said Maurice patiently. 'Say it? Gov-ern-ment money.'
'Gov-ern-ment money,' said the boy obediently. 'Right! And what do governments do with money?'
'They pay soldiers,' said Maurice. 'They have wars. In fact, we've prob'ly stopped a lot of wars by taking the money and putting it where it can't do any harm. They'd put up stachoos to us, if they thought about it.'
'Some of those towns looked pretty poor, Maurice,' said the kid doubtfully.
'Hey, just the kind of places that don't need wars, then.'
'Dangerous Beans says it's…' The boy concentrated, and his lips moved before he said the word, as if he was trying out the pronunciation to himself, '… It's un-eth-ickle.'
'That's right, Maurice,' said the squeaky voice. 'Dangerous Beans says we shouldn't live by trickery.'
'Listen, Peaches, trickery is what humans are all about,' said the voice of Maurice. 'They're so keen on tricking one another all the time that they elect governments to do it for them. We give them value for money. They get a horrible plague of rats, they pay a rat piper, the rats all follow the kid out of town, hoppity-skip, end of plague, everyone's happy that no-one's widdling in the flour any more, the government gets re-elected by a grateful population, general celebration all round. Money well spent, in my opinion.'
'But there's only a plague because we make them think there is,' said the voice of Peaches. 'Well, my dear, another thing all those little governments spend their money on is rat-catchers, see? I don't know why I bother with the lot of you, I really don't.'
'Yes, but we-' They realized that the coach had stopped. Outside, in the rain, there was the jingle of harness. Then the coach rocked a little, and there was the sound of running feet. A voice from out of the darkness said, 'Are there any wizards in there?' The occupants looked at one another in puzzlement. 'No?' said the kid, the kind of 'no' that means 'why are you asking?'
'How about any witches?' said the voice. 'No, no witches,' said the kid. 'Right. Are there any heavily-armed trolls employed by the mail-coach company in there?'
'I doubt it,' said Maurice. There was a moment's pause, filled with the sound of the rain. 'OK, how about werewolves?' said the voice eventually. 'What do they look like?' asked the kid. 'Ah, well, they look perfectly normal right up to the point where they grow all, like, hair and teeth and giant paws and leap through the window at you,' said the voice. The speaker sounded as though he was working through a list. 'We've all got hair and teeth,' said the kid. 'So you are werewolves, then?'
'Fine, fine.' There was another pause filled with rain. 'OK, vampires,' said the voice. 'It's a wet night, you wouldn't want to be flying in weather like this. Any vampires in there?'
'No!' said the kid. 'We're all perfectly harmless!'
'Oh boy,' muttered Maurice, and crawled under the seat. 'That's a relief,' said the voice. 'You can't be too careful these days. There's a lot of funny people about.' A crossbow was pushed through the window, and the voice said, 'Your money and your life. It's a two-for-one deal, see?'
'The money's in the case on the roof,' said Maurice's voice, from floor level. The highwayman looked around the dark interior of the coach. 'Who said that?' he asked. 'Er, me,' said the boy. 'I didn't see your lips move, kid!'
'The money is on the roof. In the case. But if I was you I wouldn't-'
'Hah, I just 'spect you wouldn't,' said the highwayman. His masked face disappeared from the window. The boy picked up the pipe that was lying on the seat beside him. It was the type still known as a penny whistle, although no-one could remember when they'd ever cost only a penny. 'Play “Robbery with Violence”, kid,' said Maurice, quietly. 'Couldn't we just give him money?' said the voice of Peaches. It was a little voice. 'Money is for people to give us,' said Maurice, sternly. Above them, they heard the scrape of the case on the roof of the coach as the highwayman dragged it down. The boy obediently picked up the flute and played a few notes. Now there were a number of sounds. There was a creak, a thud, a sort of scuffling noise and then a very short scream. When there was silence, Maurice climbed back onto the seat and poked his head out of the coach, into the dark and rainy night. 'Good man,' he said. 'Sensible. The more you struggle, the harder they bite. Prob'ly not broken skin yet? Good. Come forward a bit so I can see you. But carefully, eh? We don't want anyone to panic, do we?' The highwayman reappeared in the light of the coach lamps. He was walking very slowly and carefully, his legs spread wide apart. And he was quietly whimpering. 'Ah, there you are,' said Maurice, cheerfully. 'Went straight up your trouser legs, did they? Typical rat trick. Just
nod, 'cos we don't want to set 'em off. No tellin' where it might end.' The highwayman nodded very slowly. Then his eyes narrowed. 'You're a cat?' he mumbled. Then his eyes crossed and he gasped. 'Did I say talk?' said Maurice. 'I don't think I said talk, did I? Did the coachman run away or did you kill him?' The man's face went blank. 'Ah, quick learner, I like that in a highwayman,' said Maurice. 'You can answer that question.'
'Ran away,' said the highwayman hoarsely. Maurice stuck his head back inside the coach. 'Whadja think?' he said. 'Coach, four horses, probably some valuables in the mail-bags… could be, oh, a thousand dollars or more. The kid could drive it. Worth a try?'
'That's stealing, Maurice,' said Peaches. She was sitting on the seat beside the kid. She was a rat. 'Not stealing as such,' said Maurice. 'More… findin'. The driver's run away, so it's like… salvage. Hey, that's right, we could turn it in for the reward. That's much better. Legal, too. Shall we?'
'People would ask too many questions,' said Peaches. 'If we just leave it, someone yawlp will steal it,' wailed Maurice. 'Some thief will take it away! Much better if we take it, eh? We're not thieves.'
'We will leave it, Maurice,' said Peaches. 'In that case, let's steal the highwayman's horse,' said Maurice, as if the night wouldn't be properly finished unless they stole something. 'Stealing from a thief isn't stealing, 'cos it cancels out.'
'We can't stay here all night,' said the kid to Peaches. 'He's got a point.'
'That's right!' said the highwayman urgently. 'You can't stay here all night!'
'That's right,' said a chorus of voices from his trousers, 'we can't stay here all night!' Maurice sighed, and stuck his head out of the window again. 'O-K,' he said. 'This is what we're going to do. You're going to stand very still looking straight in front of you, and you won't try any tricks because if you do I've only got to say the word-'
'Don't say the word!' said the highwayman even more urgently. 'Right,' said Maurice, 'and we'll take your horse as a punishment and you can have the coach because that'd be stealing and only thieves are allowed to steal. Fair enough?'
'Anything you say!' said the highwayman, then he thought about this and added hurriedly, 'But please don't say anything!' He kept staring straight ahead. He saw the boy and the cat get out of the coach. He heard various sounds behind him as they took his horse. And he thought about his sword. All right, he was going to get a whole mail coach out of this deal, but there was such a thing as professional pride. 'All right,' said the voice of the cat after a while. 'We're all going to leave now, and you've got to promise not to move until we're gone. Promise?'
'You have my word as a thief,' said the highwayman, slowly lowering a hand to his sword. 'Right. We certainly trust you,' said the voice of the cat. The man felt his trousers lighten as the rats poured out and scampered away, and he heard the jingle of harness. He waited a moment, then spun around, drew his sword and ran forward. Slightly forward, in any case. He wouldn't have hit the ground so hard if someone hadn't tied his bootlaces together. They said he was amazing. The Amazing Maurice, they said. He'd never meant to be amazing. It had just happened. He'd realized something was odd that day, just after lunch, when he'd looked into a reflection in a puddle and thought that's me. He'd never been aware of himself before. Of course, it was hard to remember how he'd thought before he became amazing. It seemed to him that his mind had been just a kind of soup. And then there had been the rats, who lived under the rubbish heap in one corner of his territory. He'd realized there was something educated about the rats when he jumped on one and it'd said, 'Can we talk about this?', and part of his amazing new brain had told him you couldn't eat someone who could talk. At least, not until you'd heard what they'd got to say. The rat had been Peaches. She wasn't like other rats. Nor were Dangerous Beans, Donut Enter, Darktan, Hamnpork, Big Savings, Toxie and all the rest of them. But, then, Maurice wasn't like other cats any more. Other cats were, suddenly, stupid. Maurice started to hang around with the rats, instead. They were someone to talk to. He got on fine so long as he remembered not to eat anyone they knew. The rats spent a lot of time worrying about why they were suddenly so clever. Maurice considered that this was a waste of time. Stuff happened. But the rats went on and on about whether it was something on the rubbish heap that they'd eaten, and even Maurice could see that wouldn't explain how he'd got changed, because he'd never eaten rubbish. And he certainly wouldn't eat any rubbish off that heap, seeing as where it came from… He considered that the rats were, quite frankly, dumb. Clever, OK, but dumb. Maurice had lived on the streets for