12. A Ratville Ramble.
“It’s rough down here,” warns Reisig, as if the cat would have no clue if he weren’t tipped off. “Dog-eat-dog, to coin a phrase. But I put on my fuck-you face, everybody steers clear.”
He’s showing off, thinks Sly. Whatever he comes out with, act like you had no idea, thank him profusely for the insight. It’s a big boost to his self esteem.
“I have a rep, see. I’m a crazy one. Lean, mean, off his bean, that’s me. I glower. I snarl. I’m huge, that helps. But I’m a phony. When creeps come at me, I lower my head, and tense my jaw, to keep from trembling.1 It’s an act, see. All I know is, it seems to work.”
“Give me a taste, eh?”
The dog dips his snout and beetles his brow and glares at Sly for all he’s worth.
“Magnificent! The black coat, your pointy ears could be horns – comical, those tiny ears on that huge skull – wonderful flashing eyes, last but not least – the skeletal corpus, you’re next to a wraith. Looks like you just broke out of the boneyard. A nicely macabre appearance.”
Sly meant this as a praise, but Reisig doesn’t take it that way. He clams up, he’s stung.
The cat and dog are in the lead, Drusilla tagging behind. She tugs on Sly’s tail, to get his attention. “My mistress summons me,” he tells the canine, pretending not to notice the awkward pause in the conversation.
He falls back beside her. “You two seem to be talking,” she whispers.
“As a matter of fact, we are talking.”
“I mean really talking.”2
“We have been discussing his appearance. Don’t say a word on it. It seems to be a sore spot with him.”
“First a cat talks. Now, a dog. Is the world going crazy, or am I?”
“He doesn’t exactly talk, I mean in words and sentences. He more conveys meaning, that I, a fellow four-footed, have a feel for.”
As we know, it’s much more than that, but the cat doesn’t want to admit it.
A yakking cat is enough for the child to handle for the time being. The dog talking a dog dialect, that the cat understands – not perfectly, but well enough – is too much to spring on her just now.
Discretion being the better part of valor, the trio lies low as gangs of rowdies scurry by, hooting their glee over a hefty kill, or cursing each other out over a bungled foray.
Our three are sailing along. They’re into the industrial district on the river edge. “That’s it ahead,” says Reisig. “One storehouse out of the many spits out half-dead rats, that can barely move. I don’t tell no one about it. It’s my secret.”
Sly looks to Drusilla for a confirmation of his supposition. “Dru, sweetie. Is that your Ma’s place?”
“Beats me,” she says. “I’ve never been down here. Look for a name. There would be a name somewhere.”
“Here we go. I see something, writ big, way up.” Sly backs off, studies information years old, paint half peeled off. “Well, that theory’s shot to hell. Mueller and Company, dealers in grain since fourteen-fifty-eight.”
“That’s us,” says Dru.
“Mueller? You sure about that?”
“The family name, my mother’s side. You don’t think the Drost-Deckenbrocks are tradesmen, do you? Those slobs live in snooty poverty, up toward ________. The most work they ever do is to write us begging for a handout. Papa had them on an allowance. Mama’s put her foot down about that.”
Sly turns to Reisig. “This is the joint? You’re positive?”
Reisig gives him a sour look. Give me some credit for on-the-ball, hey? is plain on his face.
They march single file, dog in the lead, cat bringing up the rear. Halfway down the long side of the building they discover the first rat stone-still in tall grass. They pass another one. And, another.
“What did I tell you?” sings Reisig. “Easy pickings!” He kicks at one of the inert forms. It convulses, but is unable to pick up and run for dear life. “This is nothing. Noth-thinngg.” He growls merrily, “Just wait! Just you wait!”
A series of steps brings them to the water’s edge. A cobbled expanse, sprouting weeds in abundance, abuts huge double doors through which product is loaded onto barges for the journey to market.
“Behold the miracle of miracles.”
Sly beholds. He sees a cobbled courtyard. Big deal.
“Look closer,” advises the dog, grinning his head off.
Sly has accomplished a lot in his life.
He’d taught himself to understand human speech, and to mimic it more or less clearly, depending on his need to be understood. He’d learned to read, to write, and more, way more, way beyond what the local academy offered, namely, university-level mathematics3 and philosophy.
What he’d never mastered was to whistle like his schoolboy pals. To give a meaningful whistle, you need lips. Cats have no lips. If ever a situation called for a long, low whistle of shocked awe, it is the one he finds himself in at this moment.
The cobbled yard is not entirely cobbles. Many of the cobble-sized shapes are the comatose bodies of similarly gray, similarly plump rats.
“Incredible!” he yowls – and why shouldn’t he yowl? His raised voice is not going to spur out-of-it critters to a panicked exodus. “Absolutely incredible! Here we have, ladies and gentlemen,” he announces, “Herr Wakenroder’s screwball idea in action.
“John Dee demanded his crystal-visions crony, one Uriel, come up with a solution to this problem. Uriel – me, by the way, since Kelley took off – advised that Heinzie’s idea be given a test. His plan is a nonsense, of course, but Dee’s is the bigger mischief. His thinking-cap is not on too securely these days.
“This is a try-out, to see how it goes, before Dee releases funds for an all-out effort. That won’t happen until Doctor Dee is welcomed into the city with all pomp, lauded a savior the town can believe in, and set loose to ply his trade.”
“What trade would that be?” asks Reiger.
“He sells dreams, that comes closest to it. What are you in the market for? At present he’s peddling a rat fix. Heinz has his own agenda, that may or may not mesh with Dee’s.
“Heinz knows this town. Does he suspect the burghers will weasel out of the deal, as they did once before? His goal has to be to fool the town fathers into releasing a large prepayment. Dee must cook up a story, a difficult spell requires the burning of rare, costly essences, etc. They present the Freifrau’s rat-free facility as a small-scale show of competence.
“The town will install inspectors in the building to certify it cleansed. Say Dee gets his hands on substantial moola.4 He’ll hand it off to Heinz – after all, all-knowing-Uriel has given him a character.5 Heinz will head out to procure drug sufficient for a whole-town eradication. It must be done first-hand, from a far source, no middlemen witnesses to the transaction. I predict we’ll never see his ass again.
“Those two will shortly be by to evaluate tonight’s trial run. We’ll camp by the city gate. They’ve bribed their way in and out. As they exit, Reisig and I will thread through on their coattails. Dru, you’ll sneak by also. A dirty-face slips past, so what? The guard won’t care, all he wants is to crawl back into bed.
“Before we withdraw, we load a few rats into our pillowcase. I want to study them. Dru, get on it, please.”
“You want me to pick up rats? You seriously want me to pick up rats?”
“Christ Almighty! They’re harmless, sound asleep.”
“What if the jiggle wakes them?”
“Plant your behind on that bench over there. We’re going to strip those extra stockings off your pins. Double them up, slip your paws into them, and go to it. Don’t give me grief, please. You have the easy task. I’m going to make a stab at busting into the warehouse, see what’s the story in there.”
Dru, a very cross face on her, seats herself on the bench set hard against the side of the building. She’s rolling down her stockings. Sly’s at her feet, to help. They both hear it – cries, and whispers from beneath.
“Mama! Wake up Mama! Mama! Wake up!”
“Shhh, you fool,” says a lower-pitch of chirp. “Don’t give us away. We’re beset, child, by filthy murderers.” Someone starts blubbering, but is quickly shushed.
“Rats below,” whispers Sly. “A group. Young’uns too. Reisig! Get over here and block their escape. Lay down, stretch out, you’re our barricade. Dru! Pull your hand-mitts on, reach under, they’re in the back corner. Feel around, grab anything that moves. I’ll hold the bag open. We set? We all of us clear on our responsibility?”
The rats maneuver back and forth. They’re nipping at Reisig’s side, he’s howling his distress. Dru, terrified, seizes one rascal after another. “Why can’t we make do with what’s in the courtyard?” she complains.
“We take from there also. But I want these babies especially. Why are there no youngsters out there? I have a suspicion. I don’t like to say it.”
“I think this is all of them.” Drusilla extracts a slumbering female and the child clinging to her, eyes wide with dread.
“Hey, cutie,” croons the cat.6 “Now, now, I mean you only good. No harm will come to you.”
Drusilla is cupping the youngster in her palm. She’s stroking it.
Reisig sits up. His big black head overhangs that of Dru’s tiny prisoner, that she’s already in love with. She’s already named it Rosetta, on account of its pale pink nose and ears.
Rosetta is horrified to see a big, square, black head hovering above her. She knows that head. She shrinks down into Drusilla’s protective clasp and bawls, “Oh-no, oh-no, oh-no-no-no-no-no! It’s the fiend that ate Uncle Oskar!” Dru, apprehending a little heart thumping wildly, thinking human contact is the source of the anxiety, inserts the mite into a pocket on her blouse, a pocket with a button, she won’t be able to escape.
Sly sighs. “Sad. But she’ll get past it,” he insists. “Tender loving care can heal the worst trauma. Reisig, boy, no one blames you. You had to eat. You mustn’t feel bad. Every one of these rats is someone’s Uncle Oskar or Aunt Hortense, it can’t be helped.
“Gather us a dozen of the sleeping beauties yonder. I want to sit here and comfort the wee lassie. Dru, when our good boy, a fine fellow in all respects, when he fetches us a critter, open the bag just enough to drop it in. Reis, hear me and hear me good. Take the things into your mouth with all solicitude. Leave no mark upon them. If I spot any damage when I unpack them, I will be very unhappy, got me?”
Reisig nods sheepishly. He feels awful about Uncle Oskar. Will the rat-child ever forgive him? How can he make it up to her?
- This is what Lauren Bacall did in her first role. Nerves were the impetus for her signature come-hither look.
- Dogs understand and respond to simple phrases, but they cannot be said to converse.
- At that time university-level math consisted of multiplication and division.
- Used in the late eighteenth century, therefore, very likely earlier. Suggested origins, none of which are accepted by mainstream lexicographers:
- from Romani mol (“have value, be worth”)
- from Irish moll óir (“heap of gold”)
- from Sanskrit मूल (mūla, “capital, principal”)
- Last but not least, from Spanish mula. In Spanish-speaking countries the mule was, and still is, as good as cash. In Venezuela, “Bajate de la mula” (Get off your mule) means “Pay up!”
- A ‘character’ is the truncated term for a character reference.
- He speaks rat, are you surprised?