Authors: Kate Thompson
âIt'll be your loss if it's gone by then,' said the voice.
âIt'll be my loss if I don't get a bit of sleep tonight, too. Goodnight, and thank you for your information.'
As he put down the receiver, Jeff heard the dog shuffling into the corner, well out of range.
The best way for Tess to get out of the empty house was to become a rat again. She made her way out by using a series of passages and air vents, then checked carefully up and down before leaving cover.
The street meant nothing to her. It was like dozens of others in the area, made up of two-storey brick-built houses dating from the fifties and early sixties. For some reason, she had thought that she would recognise the house where the Switcher was living as soon as she saw it, but now that she was out in the open, one house looked pretty much like the next.
A car came slowly down the street and Tess instinctively slipped into the damp and oily gutter, sheltering behind the wheel of a parked van until the coast was clear. When she came out from behind the wheel, it was in the shape of a small mongrel dog. She had often used this form when a certain type of investigation was needed.
It was no use, though. She patrolled the length of the street in both directions, catching every available scent from the sleeping households, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. She had hoped for some lingering residue of the Switcher's ability, a variety of animal smells coming from one of the houses perhaps, or one of an unusual nature. But apart from the still pervasive smell of rats, there was nothing out of the ordinary at all. The dog's nose couldn't help.
She craned her neck to look at the upstairs windows. Presumably, whoever had called the rats was still awake, which probably meant a light on somewhere. But the only lighted windows were in a house at the end of the street, and the voices which could be heard coming from it were of people much older than Switchers could be.
Tess considered changing into something smaller and taking a look around the inside of a few of the houses, but her instinct told her it was beginning to get late. She remembered the phoenix with longing, and became aware of the time she was wasting by trotting up and down the empty street. There would be other nights for investigating; all she needed to do was to find out where she was and she could come back any time. So she trotted along until she found the sign on the wall which told her the name of the street. To her dog mind it meant nothing, just a white square with bits of black stuck on it, like the bits of cars which were at her eye level and which had to be avoided if they were moving.
Tess looked along the street. There was no sign of anyone around but she still felt too exposed to Switch. The nearby houses had tiny front gardens with low walls; no cover at all. The best place she could find was the pavement between a transit van and the windowless corner wall of the end house. She slipped in there and sat down close to the kerb. Then, with a last glance around her, she Switched. She waited for a minute or two, then got up and strolled back to look at the street-name. There was still no sign of anyone awake. She had been lucky.
Back in bed once again, Jeff Maloney found that he couldn't sleep. He lay on his back first, then each side in turn, and finally on his stomach, but he just couldn't get comfortable. He thought about his last girlfriend and about his next one, whom he hadn't yet met but who would be perfect in every way when he did. He thought about what he would do on his day off, and what he would do in his summer holidays, but nothing worked. Every time he got comfortably absorbed in his thoughts, the slightly slurred voice returned to his mind: âIt'll be your loss if it's gone by then.'
Eventually, with a sigh of exasperation, he threw back the covers and sat up on the edge of the bed. âI should have been an accountant,' he said to himself.
It was as well that Tess, in the shape of a pigeon, was able to cross the city faster than Jeff Maloney could cross the park. At the time he was visiting the barracks and getting the exact location of the alleged sighting, Tess was joining the three-toed phoenix on the branch of the tree outside her window. But the distant glimpse that the zoo-keeper got of two flecks of gold rising into the night sky was enough to rouse his curiosity.
HE FOLLOWING MORNING, WHEN
Tess's father went into her room to wake her, he found her bed empty. As he looked round, his heart filled with anxiety, he noticed that Algernon's cage was empty too.
âTess?' he called, checking the bathroom and going on down the stairs. âTess, where are you?'
âWhat's wrong?' called her mother from the bedroom.
âCan't find Tess. Don't worry, she can't be far away.'
She wasn't. He saw her as soon as he drew the curtains in the kitchen, out in the back garden on her hands and knees.
He opened the window. âWhat on earth are you doing out there, Tess? You gave me the fright of my life.'
Tess looked up, revealing a nasty-looking graze on her cheek and another above her nose. âI was looking for Algernon,' she said. âI brought him out for some exercise this morning and he's disappeared.'
It was the only excuse she could think of. She had arrived back from the second spell of being a phoenix just a few minutes ago, and realised that she had no way of getting into the house. Her window was closed, and it would take too long to find her way into the right system of underground passages if she tried to get in as a rat. There hadn't been much time to think.
âBut it's hardly even light yet,' said her father. âWhy on earth did you get up so early? And what's happened to your face?'
Tess's mother, always put on edge by the slightest sign of strange behaviour, joined her husband at the window.
âWhat have you done to yourself?'
For a moment Tess had no idea what they were talking about. She couldn't recall having done anything to her face. Just in time she remembered the bites and scratches she had received from the other rats when she was following Algernon a few hours ago. There were probably a lot more scrapes and bruises hidden by her uniform. She thought quickly.
âI was feeling around in the bushes there,' she said, pointing to a shady corner where several well-established shrubs were growing. âHave I cut myself?'
âYou certainly have,' said her mother. âCome in, now, and let me have a look.'
âBut what about Algernon?'
âYou'll have to worry about him later. He can't be far away.'
Tess felt in her pocket. âYou'll have to let me in,' she said. âI left my key in my coat.'
As her mother fussed over her face, Tess slipped back into the warm, euphoric memory of the phoenix nature that she had abandoned just a few minutes before. She scarcely felt the antiseptic on the wounds, barely heard her mother saying, âThey're not as bad as they look. Just scratches.' She was floating again, high above it all, filled with brightness and peace.
Her father put a plate of scrambled eggs on toast in front of her on the table. Tess's stomach rose in protest, and she wondered why it was that the nightly sessions as a phoenix made her lose her appetite. She played with the scrambled egg but ate no more than a couple of mouthfuls.
âAre you worried about something?' her mother asked.
âJust Algernon. I think I'll have another look around outside.'
âNo. You get yourself ready for school. I'll have a good look for him after you've gone. He can't be far away'
That day was even worse than the one before. Tess had not slept at all during the night, and although the phoenix mood was invigorating and relaxing, she could only sustain its memory for short periods of time. When it was gone she was exhausted and depressed, and felt weak from lack of food. She was worried about what was happening with the rats as well, and between her various preoccupations found no energy or attention for her school work. On two occasions she narrowly avoided detention, and she promised herself that she would take a nap when she got home before she made any decisions about what she was going to do next.
But as the bus passed through Phibsboro that evening, she suddenly recognised the area of streets where she and the other rats had ended up the previous night. Before she had time to think, she had made her way to the front of the bus, and at the next stop she got off.
It would make her late home. Were other girls of her age never late home? Did they never make independent decisions to call on some friend or go into town for a coffee? Would her mother believe her if she used an excuse like that? âI went to listen to Catriona's new R.E.M. tape, Mum.' Or, âI felt like walking a bit of the way home.' Why shouldn't she? She was fourteen, after all.
As she was mulling these things over in her head she reached the corner where she had hidden in order to Switch the night before. The big blue van was still there, and she considered using another animal form for her first investigation but, looking around, decided against it. She had nothing to hide after all. She was just a schoolgirl walking along the street. Who would be likely to question her?
Without changing pace she swung round the corner into the street where, she was sure, the Switcher lived. She was slightly disappointed to find that it was completely empty, although if she had been asked what she was expecting to find she wouldn't have been able to say. She strolled slowly along, and was opposite the empty house, just stopping briefly to shift her schoolbag from one shoulder to the other, when a woman came out of her front door and turned into the street towards her. The house she had left was one of the three or four that Tess had targeted as being the most likely. As surreptitiously as she could, she watched the woman approach.
She was about the age of Tess's own mother, but shorter and much, much thinner. She walked with her face turned down towards the pavement, so it wasn't until she was almost level with her that Tess became aware of the most striking thing about the woman. She was deathly pale, paler than anyone Tess had ever seen before. She was so pale that her cheeks were like translucent paper, and Tess had to look closely to be sure that she wasn't wearing some strange kind of make-up or theatrical paint.
Careful as Tess was, the woman became aware of being examined, and looked up quizzically as she passed by. It was clear that she had been crying; her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, and Tess looked away in embarrassment. She was so disturbed by the strange, pale woman that she almost missed seeing the red-haired boy who stood at the open door, watching after her. As he caught Tess's eye, he gave her the most charming of smiles, so delightful that she smiled back automatically, without thinking. She walked on a few paces before she was struck with an uncanny certainty that it was him. He was the Switcher. He was the right age and lived in one of the likely houses, but it was more than that. It was a feeling of affinity, of some shared experience even though they had never met. Tess stopped and turned round. She didn't know how, but she would find some way to introduce herself.
But when she got back to the door, it was closed. Tess stood there, stunned. The strength of her feeling made no sense to her. She and the boy had never met, so why should he expect her to turn round and come back? Why should the closed door feel so much like a rejection?
And yet it did, and the feeling of disappointment didn't lessen with time. When she got back home, she was in a foul temper.
âBut why?' she said to her mother. âWhy should I always tell you exactly where I'm going to be at any given moment of the day?'
âBecause I worry.'
âWhy do you worry? You don't trust me, do you?'
âIt's not that, Tess. It's ...'
They both fell silent, each remembering their own, very different sides of Tess's Arctic adventure. As far as Tess had been concerned, it had been imperative for her to go. She realised, however, that for her mother the time she had been away meant no more than a completely unexplained disappearance.
âIt upset us, Tess. We were worried.'
âI know you were. But I came back, didn't I? I do my homework every night, I help with the washing-up. It's not as if I'm off carousing every night, is it? You should see some of the other girls in my school, what they get up to!'
Her mother sighed. Tess sighed back, in an exaggerated way, and went upstairs to change. When her father got home, she came down to dinner, ate the biggest meal she had eaten in months and went back upstairs again.
Long before the small hours of the morning, when the phoenix comes into its own, she was fast asleep.
HE FOLLOWING MORNING, ON
her way to school in the bus, Tess tried to gather her thoughts. There had been such a whirl of activity in the last two days and nights that she had no idea what was happening and what she should do next. She hated herself for the way she had spoken to her mother, and felt guilty about wanting to leave her parents to be with Kevin and become a phoenix for good. But before she could work out what to do about that, she had to sort out this business about the new Switcher. She had a duty to tell him that his powers would go when he reached his fifteenth birthday, and perhaps to encourage him in some way to learn, as she and Kevin had done, the full extent of his abilities before it was too late.
She wondered how old he was. From the brief glimpse she had got of him, smiling in the doorway, it was hard for her to tell. Younger than she was or older? Not much in it, either way. And how much did he already know? The business with the rats disturbed her. His relationship with them was very different from hers or Kevin's. When they had been among the rats it had been as equals; they learnt from them, and were guided by them on more than one occasion. But this boy, the boy with the strange, mixed-up Rat name, seemed to have a power over them.