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Authors: Kate Thompson

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A mother rat had claimed the kitchen for her large, adolescent family and, for as long as they were in residence, it was a no-go area for other rats. Tess realised her mistake when the youngsters looked up from foraging around the bottom of the table legs and she found herself observed by nine practically identical faces. She turned to leave, but it was already too late.

There is nothing on earth more savage than a mother rat protecting her young. If they are threatened she will attack anything: a dog, a human, even a tractor. If she cannot stop the enemy, she will die in the attempt. In the scale of things, Tess was a pretty minor threat.

The mother rat hit her from above, leaping down from the sink where she had been keeping a careful look-out. Her weight, greatly supplemented by gravity, knocked the wind out of Tess and she was flattened for a minute, scrabbling uselessly at the slick lino floor with her claws. Above her, the mother rat crouched with bared teeth.

‘Nanananana!' Tess sent rat images as clearly as her shaken mind could manage. She had a Rat name, that had been given to her a long time ago beneath the Dublin city streets, but now her mind hit upon a more appropriate nickname.

‘Town Rat not hurting young rats,' she said. ‘Town Rat not taking their food. Town Rat stupid; very stupid.'

She had managed to regain her feet by now, but kept her head on the floor and her throat bared in a gesture of absolute submission. Rats, Tess knew, obeyed nature's rules, one of which is that, among members of the same species, submission ends aggression. The only creatures that Tess had ever known to break that rule were human beings, but for a moment or two she wasn't sure that it would work. The mother rat took a menacing step forward and loomed over Tess. She must have been eating soap up there on the draining board; she stank of it.

‘Nananana,' Tess pleaded. ‘Town Rat going. Going very fast. Not looking back!'

The mother rat sent no images in return but continued to stare hard at Tess. Then, with no warning at all, she turned and walked away. Tess stayed where she was until the young rats converged on their mother in a clamour of admiration and anxious hunger. Then, with no pretence at dignity, she fled.

In the hall-way, at a safe distance, Tess stopped and groomed. With her teeth she chewed and combed her sleek, chestnut coat back into order. Then, after listening carefully for a while, she washed her face with the back of her paws. Finally, her self-respect intact again, she set off to have a look outside.

At the edge of the yard she searched long and hard with her eyes and ears, but there was no sign of the white cat. The last of the clouds had drifted away, and the sky was clearer than any she had ever seen. Despite the strength of the moon she could see stars; some close, some infinitely distant, like bright dust scattered across the night. Nearer, the mountains stood silvery and silent. They seemed to glow as though the eerie light originated with them and not with the moon. As she looked on, Tess was surprised to find that her rat mind was as capable of wonder as her human one. Where they differed was in their response to it. The human part of her was filled with impatient curiosity; a desire to explore and to understand. Her rat nature, by contrast, was content to experience the wonder, absorb it, and return to the important things in life.

Which, to a rat, usually meant food.

Tess's nose and ears soon told her where it was to be found. From the feed-shed at the end of the milking parlour she could hear delightful sounds: hasty activity, gnawing and crunching and chewing, rodent jubilation. Hunger roared in her belly. To make herself look bigger and fiercer, she puffed up her coat, prepared to fight her corner if she had to. Then, twitching and bristling, she went to join the party.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 1998 by Kate Thompson

Cover design by Michel Vrana

978-1-4804-2421-0

This edition published in 2013 by Open Road Integrated Media

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New York, NY 10014

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BOOK: Midnight's Choice
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