23

23. NittyGritty! (Part Two)

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“Here we are again,” says Sly.

“So it seems,” says Dee. “Will this be a rehash of yesterday, or do you have new insults to hurl at me?”

It’s peek of dawn. Sly has kicked at a door, yowling yoo-hooooo, until the man pulled out of bed and admitted him. Dee’s picked up where he’d left off the day before, with a glare.

Sly tries to make nice. “First and foremost, let me say . . . Sir! My thought process is often haphazard, as I’ve tried to explain to Dru, who, heaven help the child, hangs on my every word.”

“My heart be still, is this an apology?”

The cat sighs, but manages to not roll his eyes. “Yesterday I pushed Heinz as a second Kelley. That was a mistake, the best thing I can do – don’t faint on me – is to tell the truth and hope you find merit in it.”

“Let me get this straight,” growls Dee. “You don’t ask me to give Heinz a try-out after all.”

“No, I do, It’s set for this afternoon. He’ll fail to raise Uriel. Then you go to work on him.”

“Sorry, I’ll be with Grübechen.”

“My thinking had been, you off with the Freifrau, Heinz has a go at the crystal. Me hid, in a box maybe, I’d wow him with a response. Jubilation! Uriel has engaged! You’re the taller hill to climb. You’d see through it.”

“You better believe it I would.”

“You’re the tough nut to crack. My plan is a huge come-down from your get-rich-quick fantasy. Heinzie’s a pushover. Uriel has spoken. Ha-Ha’s euphoric, he’s blathering his joy. Dru – she’s on hand – she horns in, lays out our strategy – it’s as much hers as mine – and demands – Magnificence! Your verdict! Guess what? All-wise Uriel is on board with it. Heinzie gets a big thumbs-up out of the cootie.”1

“Cootie? Cootie!” Dee’s beyond a glare. He’s glowering.

“Don’t have a stroke there, J.D. I meant to say cutie! Slip of the tongue. You know I garble words. I’m a cat, it’s a wonder I talk at all. Uriel, the cutie, is all for it.”

“Scoundrel! You are enjoying this ever-diversifying disaster.”

“I am sincerely sorry for the mess I’ve made. I best had kept my yap shut back in London. But that’s neither here nor there. Listen to me, your mumbo-jumbo and Heinzie’s fairy dust prying significant groschen out of the town – they are wary, my friend – ludicrous! Neither of you is thinking straight. With him, it’s the sippy-sippy. With you, I hate to say it, a mental decline of some sort.”

“Decline? Damn your . . .” Dee’s searching for a phrase he hasn’t run into the ground.

Sly chuckles, but quietly, deep in his throat. “Ya, you’ve damned near every inch of me by now. What have you missed? My toenails, maybe. Toenails, or my nostrils.”

Dee gives another gorgeous glower. “I have a completely reasonable story. I am willing to forfeit a phenomenal opportunity to help out here. I’d received a large retainer from Count Laski. If I refuse his offer, as an honorable man, I must return it. Match it or I shall be on my way. And, I need to purchase expensive essences to be burnt, part of my process. A third up front plus expenses is my requirement. I ask it on the basis of my reputation and on a demonstration of competency – one warehouse treated for vermin.”

Sly sighs.

“Heinz has chosen,” the man explains, “a potent pharmaceutical – he’d but recently replenished his medicine chest in Leyden – as our agent of attrition. A sea of fallen, how to account for it? Poisons, within living memory, have failed to suffice. An apprehension of unhealthy tastes has been bred into the population. This taste – oh-so-sleight, according to our chemist – being unknown, will not dismay them, at first. We run two or three limited tests to be sure of a good result, and save the blow-out dose for the make-or-break event: Here they lie, excellent sirs, by the dozens. Poke them. They live, breathe, but do not move. I have downed them with a spell. The rascals suffer a trance, that will dissipate. To knock them dead, money must change hands.”

“The excellent sirs will – pardon, can’t resist – smell a rat.”

“I am universally ceded frightening powers. I have long been under severe scrutiny for it; let it, for once, work in my favor. These yokels are willing to believe, they’re wishing to believe. I’d go so far as to say they’re frantic to believe. The Freifrau will back me. The silly woman supports me without reservation. It’s quite uncanny. I do feel badly about using her but it can’t be helped. I will take my money and melt into the night in my old suit of clothes. Pursuers will be tracking a dandy fled by coach, not a threadbare, afoot.”

“How’s this for uncanny?” spits Sly. “I’m feeling uncanny clairvoyant. I strongly suspect no rats were toppled last night.2 Check with Heinz. He’ll be here at two.”

“You insist on staging this charade.”

“I do.”

“Why?”

“Sir! Up to now your mystical delusion has been without consequence for other than yourself and Eddie-boy, the high priest of your bonkers obsession. The hours spent on that Adamic language of yours, it boggles the mind.”

“You have to have your dig, don’t you?”

“I’m no yes-man, and it’s stood you in good stead plenty of times. Heed me here. The rats will prove immune to the dosing, I feel it in my bones. Don’t cry over it, you see another path, thanks to Dru. The truth is, it’s her idea. An incremental earning may, in the long run, exceed a lump sum, with this advantage – it does not depend on the town’s honorable dealing. How much is that reward anyway? If it’s been mentioned, I’ve missed it.”

“They have not named an amount other than to call it magnificent.”

“Not good. Money’s been collected, many attest to it. It sits somewhere. Is it safe, or has it been sunk into a rash venture, a ship gone down, or seized in hostile waters? Has it been embezzled within a secretive group, no one expecting it would have to be paid out? I refer you to the infamy two centuries past. A rational man would be asking these questions. Anyone who depends on an angel for advice is not a rational man. I enter into evidence: Item one, Kelley’s borrowed money from you that you’re never going to see again, but you keep shelling out. Item two, he’s part of the reason – maybe the major part – you had to leave England, yet you won’t have done with him, as any level head would do. Item three . . .”

“Oh, I only wish there were another, even lower circle of Hell created just for you, that you might forever contemplate your faults in solitary, no companionship to distract you from, by your own admission, your numerous flaws of character.”

Sly’s confided in the man, particularly in regard to his treatment of his mother. Alone with his regrets for all eternity is the worst Hell he can imagine. The cat winces but will not give his associate the satisfaction of knowing he’d stuck his dagger to maximum good.

“I forgive you for that, you are under considerable stress.”

“You are kind,” says Dee, acidly.

“I am kind, dammit. I’m thinking of your long-term welfare. Dru’s proposal, a popular entertainment founded on the town’s long-time reputation – the new addition to her menagerie is a wonder of grace and charm – I see enormous potential there, cunning creatures in hats and cummerbunds, jolly fun. Your name attached to the project will double the attention. A few days work and you may proceed to Poland, your share of the profits banked for you, to be drawn upon at will. You’ll have a stake equal to those who will spend months developing the attraction, an out-sized return for a brief commitment and for lending your renown to a philanthropic – yes, philanthropic – enterprise. Profits go to feeding the hungry, educating the impoverished gifted, and similar. If you were to think rationally about it, you would see that this is something you should be proud to be associated with.”

“You’re a scream, cat. Rats in silly hats are rational. Uriel is not. No! I do not allow my name to be slapped onto a rat show!”

“There’s good money to be made here, old man. If you want a share, convince Heinz to be our Pied Piper. It may take some jawing, he’s as jealous of his reputation as you are of yours. He still hopes to marry into a foremost family., he won’t care to headline a low street entertainment. But he is just the one to do justice to the pivotal role. The offer can’t come from me, for obvious reasons, and it can’t come from a child who, by the way, has decreed that she will be the sweet girl assistant. Assistant? She’ll be the boss-lady. She’s already sketching sets and writing scripts.”

“That won’t go. La Mama will balk. Her daughter, in a scant costume, cavorting on the town square with a fop in tights, probably with a stuffed codpiece, outrageous!”

“La Mama knows money like I know mice.3 She didn’t grow her interests by passing on golden opportunities. Thanks to you – you did a marvelous job for me there – she’s swallowed Heinz is a receptive, and he’ll be more than glad to play along, it will cement him with her solid. When Uriel insists she manage the show, she’ll agree immediately. She inherited a modest concern and built it into a power. She may be a patsy for junk mystical, but she’s got a head for business. And Dru is a strong-willed young lady, and that’s putting it kindly.”

“Junk mystical! Oh, I look forward to the day I’m rid of you.”

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Phew!

Quite a punch to the gut. They’ve had their ups and downs, as in any relationship. The cat replies politely, but firmly. Kelley sugarcoats his criticism. Sly does not.

“Give it to me straight, sir. I can’t get myself to accept that you really think you’ve got a useful plan here. You’re sharp enough to see that Heinz is rooting for you to fail. I foresee the following: His sedative had been the one useful component to your mischief. He hired on some basis, piecemeal perhaps, until the town comes around, whatever money he extracts is his alone.”

“I put no faith in Heinz,” proclaims Dee. “I put all faith in Uriel. He foretold a triumph. Far be it from me to dictate what that triumph might consist of. He lays me a path, I take it.”

“Hold it! I promised you a triumph. Me! No red-robed specter.4 A bare-naked flesh and blood cat!”

“You are unaware, an instrument.”

“I . . . I . . . what? What?

“A cat taught himself to talk? Absurd! Far more plausible that you are, uh . . . guided, not realizing it, on my behalf.”

“You are no receptive. How do you apprehend me?”

Dee has given this question a lot of consideration. “Uri has his minions, Madimi, Grah, on and on. The Queen was in dire danger. You were assigned to me, temporarily, in special circumstances.” The explanation Sly had given Dru regarding Maahes, it makes good sense to him. Well, it makes some kind of sense to him. It’s sure preferable to his alternative theory – that he’s gone insane.

Sly is a little, hell, more than a little annoyed. He’d not been taken seriously. He’s given no credit for his magnificent feat of self-education. The relationship he’s treasured is a farce. The cat is about to hit the roof. Then he thinks, hold on there, boyo. This here be one o’ them golden opportunities.

“We saved the Her Majesty,” he snaps. “and hip hurrah for that. The current mess, sorry to have to tell you, this town is going to stiff you. The silly show is your hot bet. It may pay off big. We need Ha-Ha for our Piper, no one else is remotely suitable. Via the crystal – no more face to face, the bum can’t handle it – I make the pitch. You back me up.

“Listen, I oughtn’t to tip you off but I will. Special circumstances, you’re on the money there. Sooner or later Kadaitch, his name is Kadaitch, will give up here. He and I agree, trying to assist you is a fool’s errand. He sticks with you at Uriels’s urging, but even one all-wise can make a mistake. Kaddo decamped, I’ll go mute. So let me thank you while I can for the remarkable experience of having known you. I will treasure the memory for as long as memory persists in me.”

Ha! There will be no unpleasantness over the cat refusing to relocate to Krakow. Not for a moment does Sly think the man is done with him. Best to appear to revert to something he has never been, a dumb animal. He’s curious. (So am I.) “Answer me this – if you’ve believed me a mystical, presumably funneling true wisdom your way, why have you been at me to get hold of Uriel?”

Dee snorts. “I want to hear from the top dog. The oddballs he’s unleashed on me! Uriel hasn’t lent his best and brightest, that’s for damn sure. How you snagged a delicate assignment, requiring a top talent, I’ll never figure that one out.”

“I fell into it,” mutters the cat.5

“Your expectation had to be, Dudley shut down, you’d be back in the bosom of Abraham – or wherever – showered with praise, the envy of your peers for your deft handling of a horrendous situation. Instead, you’re required to hang on here, herding rats. You’re annoyed, and you take it out on me.”

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Why have we never heard of this interlude in Hameln history? No children vanished into the side of a mountain, that must be it.6 They danced in the streets three afternoons a week, not the same drama. Also, the best laid plans, etcetera. Heinz’s addiction, will it be his, and the show’s, undoing?

We know (rather, I do, from my reading) that John Dee returned home from Eastern Europe and lived out his days in poverty. Something went awry. I’ll continue to research and include it in an augmented edition.

I ask you to take it on faith that amazing acts are trained, that Heinz looks gorgeous in his multi-colored tights, that the Rag-Tags of Rat-Town fall into line as extras, cavorting through the streets with a cavalcade of rats in hats and collars in the merriest Conga line7 that ever could be, that all Europe hears of and makes plans to attend the RatFest, that Dru’s Mama takes the financial reins and works wonders in that area, and that Heinz, prancing and mugging like Mick Jagger, is a draw in and of himself.

Ah. Forgot about poor Reisig. Reisig fills out into a handsome animal. He will pull a flower-bedecked float carrying a gorgeously gowned rat queen and her court, pre-dating the Rose Parade by four-hundred years.

Folks, I’m worn out from this elaborate adventure, I want it done and published. I may eventually circle back (I’m a big one for circling back) and fill in here and there. Look for the next offering in my series of fractured fairytales: Sly hooks up with a mentally unstable frog who believes himself to be an enchanted prince. We follow them on a search for a princess willing to kiss a royal pain-in-the-ass, as close as he comes to regality, bickering as they go.

I’ll start the next portion of the story (The Frog Who Would Be King) with Sly’s farewell RatFest performance. He’s decided it’s time to move on. Unable to talk him out of it, Dru has shaved her eyebrows. Reisig, told the reason for the hair removal, asks for strips to be shaved above his eyes, his own statement of sorrow. They are heartbroken to lose their dearest friend.

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I leave you with a mental image. I will eventually have art for this:

Will Wackeineratte Proudly Presents His Rat City Revels.

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Rambunctious Rodent Rascals.

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Acrobatic Antics. Comical Calisthenics.
A Variety of Vanities and Vignettes starring Rehabilitated Vandal Vermin.

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Frolics to charm the kiddies. Tableaux Vivants
paired with dramatic readings for a more sophisticated taste.

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Join us at Yuletide, when we will present the Nativity Story, all rats.
Our promise: It will be an experience you will never forget!

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Chapter Notes
  1. Coots—waterfowl—were perceived as teeming with parasites. Coot is a variant of Middle English cote. (I’ve been criticized for contemporary slang in my Age-of-Discovery adventure, but I’ve researched origins and I – mostly – stick to terms one of that time might have used.)
  2. Had the experiment been repeated the previous evening? Luckily, yes.
  3. In German slang, mäuse (mice) means money. Mäuse machen, to make mice, is the operative phrase.
  4. Several of the spirits Kelley conjured were dressed in red. (So he said. No one else was able to see them.)
  5. Sly had been kidnapped from a French circus, knocked cold and shoved into a sack by a bear-handler jealous of an extraordinary trained cat. Hours later, groggy, still in his wrapping, he’d hurled himself out the window of an inn, landing amidst baggage belonging to Catholic assassins bound for England.
  6. A more likely story is that the children were sold to a recruiter from the Baltic region of Eastern Europe. In her essay “Pied Piper Revisited”, Sheila Harty states that surnames from the region are similar to those from Hamelin and that selling off illegitimate children, orphans or others the town could not support was a common practice.
  7. The Conga, a dance of West Indian origin, migrated to the United States in the nineteen-thirties. Heinz-Helmut invents something similar. Rolf leads the syncopated stepping, beating on a drum dangling at his hip, and does a bang-up job at it. His special talent, we’ve found it!