'Your legs haven't exploded,' said the kid. Maurice groaned. It was never a good idea to be rude to a smell of beer. But the rat-catchers were at the stage where, against all the odds, they thought they were funny. 'Ah, well said, young sir, but that's because lesson one at the Guild of Rat-catchers' school is not letting your legs explode,' said Rat-catcher 1. 'Which is a good thing 'cos the second lesson is upstairs,' said Rat-catcher 2. 'Oh, I am a one, aren't I, young sir?' The other rat-catcher picked up the bundle of black strings, and his smile faded as he stared at the kid. 'Ain't seen you before, kid,' he said, 'And my advice to you is, keep your nose clean and don't say nothing to nobody about anything. Not a word. Understand?' The kid opened his mouth, and then shut it hurriedly. The rat-catcher grinned his awful grin again. 'Ah. You catch on quick, young sir,' he said. 'Perhaps we'll see you around, eh?'
'I bet you'd like to be a rat-catcher when you grow up, eh, young sir,' said Rat-catcher 2, patting the kid too heavily on the back. The kid nodded. It seemed the best thing to do. Rat-catcher 1 leaned down until his red, pock-marked nose was an inch away from the kid's face. 'If you grow up, young sir,' he said. The rat-catchers walked away, dragging their dogs with them. One of the terriers kept looking back at Maurice. 'Very unusual rat-catchers they have hereabouts,' said the cat. 'I haven't seen rat-catchers like them before,' said the kid. 'They looked nasty. Like they enjoyed it.'
'I haven't seen rat-catchers who've been so busy but still have nice clean boots,' said Maurice. 'Yes, they did, didn't they…' said the kid. 'But even that's not as odd as the rats round here,' said Maurice, in the same quiet voice, as though he was adding up money. 'What's odd about the rats?' said the kid. 'Some of them have very strange tails,' said Maurice. The kid looked around the square. The queue for bread was still quite long, and it made him nervous. But so did the steam. Little bursts of it puffed up from gratings and manhole-covers all over the place, as if the whole town had been built on a kettle. Also, he had the distinct feeling that someone was watching him. 'I think we ought to find the rats and move on,' he said. 'No, this smells like a town with opportunities,' said Maurice. 'Something's going on, and when something's going on, that means someone's getting rich, and when someone's getting rich, I don't see why that shouldn't be m-us.'
'Yes, but we don't want those people killing Dangerous Beans and the rest of them!'
'They won't get caught,' said Maurice. 'Those men wouldn't win any prizes for thinking. Even Hamnpork could run rings round 'em, I'd say. And Dangerous Beans has got brains coming out of his ears.'
'I hope not!'
'Nah, nah,' said Maurice, who generally told people what they wanted to hear, 'I mean our rats can out-think most humans, OK? Remember back in Scrote when Sardines got in that kettle and blew a raspberry at the old woman when she lifted the lid? Hah, even ordinary rats can out-think humans. Humans think that just because they're bigger, they're better-Hold on, I'll shut up, someone's watching us…' A man carrying a basket had stopped on his way out of the Rathaus and was staring at Maurice with a good deal of interest. Then he looked up at the kid and said, 'Good ratter, is he? I'll bet he is, a big cat like that. Is he yours, boy?'
'Say yes,' Maurice whispered. 'Sort of, yes,' said the kid. He picked Maurice up. 'I'll give you five dollars for him,' said the man. 'Ask for ten,' Maurice hissed. 'He's not for sale,' said the kid. 'Idiot!' Maurice purred. 'Seven dollars, then,' said the man. 'Look, I'll tell you what I'll do… four whole loaves of bread, how about that?'
'That's silly. A loaf of bread shouldn't cost more'n twenty pence,' said the kid. The man gave him a strange look. 'New here, are you? Got plenty of money, have you?'
'Enough,' said the kid. 'You think so? It won't do you much good, anyway. Look, four loaves of bread and a bun, I can't say fairer than that. I can get a terrier for ten loaves and they're mad for rats… no? Well, when you're hungry you'll give it away for
half a slice of bread and scrape<>and think you've done well, believe me.' He strode off. Maurice wriggled out of the kid's arms, and landed lightly on the cobbles. 'Honestly, if only I was good at ventrilosqwism we could make a fortune,' he grumbled. 'Ventrilosqwism?' said the kid, watching the man's retreating back. 'It's where you open and shut your mouth and I do the talking,' said Maurice. 'Why didn't you sell me? I could've been back in ten minutes! I heard of a man who made a fortune selling homing pigeons, and he only had the one!'
'Don't you think there's something wrong with a town where people'd pay more than a dollar for a loaf of bread?' said the kid. 'And pay half a dollar just for a rat tail?'
'Just so long as they've got enough money left to pay the piper,' said Maurice. 'Bit of luck there already being a plague of rats here, eh? Quick, pat me on the head, there's a girl watching us.' The kid looked up. There was a girl watching them. People were passing up and down the street, and some of them walked between the kid and the girl, but she stood stock still and just stared at him. And at Maurice. She had the same nail-you-to-the-wall look that he associated with Peaches. She looked like the kind of person who asked questions. And her hair was too red and her nose was too long. And she wore a long black dress with black lace fringing. No good comes of that sort of thing. She marched across the street and confronted the kid. 'You're new, aren't you? Come here looking for work, have you? Probably sacked from your last job, I expect. Probably because you fell asleep, and things got spoiled. That was probably what it was. Or you ran away because your master beat you with a big stick, although,' she added, as another idea struck her, 'you probably deserved it because of being lazy. And then you probably stole the cat, knowing how much people would pay for a cat here. And you must have gone mad with hunger because you were talking to the cat and everyone knows that cats can't talk.'
'Can't say a single word,' said Maurice. 'And probably you're a mysterious boy who-' The girl stopped and gave Maurice a puzzled look. He arched his back and said 'prppt', which is cat language for 'biscuits!'
'Did that cat just say something?' she demanded. 'I thought that everyone knew that cats can't talk,' said the kid. 'Ah, but maybe you were apprenticed to a wizard,' said the girl. 'Yes, that sounds about right. That'll do for now. You were an apprentice to a wizard, but you fell asleep and let the cauldron of bubbling green stuff boil over and he threatened to turn you into a, a, a-'
'Gerbil,' said Maurice, helpfully. '-a gerbil, and you stole his magical cat because you hated it so much and-what's a gerbil? Did that cat just say “gerbil”?'
'Don't look at me!' said the kid. 'I'm just standing here!'
'All right, and then you brought the cat here because you know there's a terrible famine and that's why you were going to sell it and that man would have given you ten dollars, you know, if you'd held out for it.'
'Ten dollars is too much money even for a good ratter,' said the kid. 'Ratter? He wasn't interested in catching rats!' said the red-haired girl. 'Everyone's hungry here! There's at least two meals on that cat!'
'What? You eat cats here?' said Maurice, his tail fluffing like a brush. The girl leaned down to Maurice with a dreadful grin, just like the one that Peaches always wore when she'd won an argument with him, and prodded him on the nose with a finger. 'Got you!' she said. 'You fell for a very simple trick! I think you two had better come with me, don't you? Or I'll scream. And people listen to me when I'm screaming!'
“Never go into the Dark Wood, my friend,” said Ratty Rupert. “There are bad things in there” – From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure Far below Maurice's paws, the rats were creeping through the undertown of Bad Blintz. Old towns are like that. People build down as well as up. Cellars butt against other cellars, and some of the cellars get forgotten-except by creatures that want to stay out of sight. In the thick, warm, damp darkness a voice said, 'All right, who's got the matches?'
'Me, Dangerous Beans. Feedsfour.'
'Well done, young rat. And who has the candle?'
'Me, sir. I'm Bitesize.'
'Good. Put it down and Peaches will light it.' There was a lot of scuffling in the darkness. Not all the rats had got used to the idea of making fire, and some were getting out of the way. There was a scratching noise, and then the match flared. Holding the match with both front paws, Peaches lit the candle stub. The flame swelled for a moment and settled down to a steady glow. 'Can you really see it?' said Hamnpork. 'Yes, sir,' said Dangerous Beans. 'I am not completely blind. I can tell the difference between light and dark.'
'Y'know,' said Hamnpork, watching the flame suspiciously, 'I don't like it at all, even so. Darkness was good enough for our parents. It'll end in trouble. Besides, setting fire to a candle is a waste of perfectly good food.'
'We have to be able to control the fire, sir,' said Dangerous Beans calmly. 'With the flame we make a statement to the darkness. We say: we are separate. We say: we are not just rats. We say: we are The Clan.'
'Hrumph,' said Hamnpork, which was his usual response when he didn't understand what had just been said. Just lately he'd been hrumphing a lot. 'I've heard the younger rats are saying that the shadows frighten them,' said Peaches. 'Why?' said Hamnpork. 'They're not frightened of complete darkness, are they? Darkness is ratty! Being in the dark is what a rat is all about!'
'It's odd,' said Peaches, 'but we didn't know the shadows were there until we had the light.' One of the younger rats timorously raised a paw. 'Um… and even when the light has gone out, we know the shadows are still around,' it said. Dangerous Beans turned towards the young rat. 'You're-?' he said. 'Delicious,' said the younger rat. 'Well, Delicious,' said Dangerous Beans, in a kindly voice, 'being afraid of shadows is all part of us becoming more intelligent, I think. Your mind is working out that there's a you, and there's also everything outside you. So now you're not just frightened of things that you can see and hear and smell, but also of things that you can… sort of… see inside your head. Learning to face the shadows outside helps us to fight the shadows inside. And you can control all the darkness. It's a big step forward. Well done.' Delicious looked slightly proud, but mostly nervous. 'I don't see the point, myself,' said Hamnpork. 'We used to do all right on the dump. I was never scared of anything.'
'We were prey to every stray cat and hungry dog, sir,' said Dangerous Beans. 'Oh, well, if we're going to talk about cats,' growled Hamnpork. 'I think we can trust Maurice, sir,' said Dangerous Beans. 'Perhaps not when it comes to money, I admit. But he is very good at not eating people who talk, you know. He checks, every time.'
'You can trust a cat to be a cat,' said Hamnpork. 'Talking or not!'
'Yes, sir. But we are different, and so is he. I believe he is a decent cat at heart.'
'Ahem. That remains to be seen,' said Peaches. 'But now we are here, let's get organized.' Hamnpork growled. 'Who are you to say “let's get organized”?' he said sharply. 'Are you the leader, young female who refuses to rllk with me? No! I am the leader. It's my job to say “let's get organized”!'
'Yes, sir,' said Peaches, crouching low. 'How would you like us to be organized, sir?' Hamnpork stared at her. He looked at the waiting rats, with their packs and bundles, and then around at the ancient cellar, and then back to the still-crouching Peaches. 'Just… get organized,' he muttered. 'Don't bother me with details! I am the leader.' And he stalked off into the shadows. When he'd gone, Peaches and Dangerous Beans looked around the cellar, which was filled with trembling shadows created by the candlelight. A trickle of water ran down one crusted wall. Here and there stones had fallen out, leaving inviting holes. Earth covered the floor, and there were no human footprints in it.