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The Rat Catcherís King
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-281-X
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Suspense/Thriller/Supernatural/Horror
eBook Length: 348 Pages
Published: August 2005
OUT OF PRINT

From inside the flap

The Rat-Catchers? King is a twisted retelling of the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, in a modern setting. A new housing development under construction in a low-income area promises a renaissance for the city, but thereís just one problem.

Rats.

Increasingly concerned over the publicity the rats might bring, the mayor orders the search for an exterminator to solve the problem. The search brings a new kind of exterminator to the area?a being with more than 600 years of experience in culling a communityís unwanteds.

At first, all appears well. The rats disappear.

Then the pigeons?then the cityís homeless.

Then the children? .

Only two men notice the children are gone?or remember anything at all about them.

And these two men must confront the rat catcherís king?a battle that pitches everything they hold dear against an ancient and intractable foe.



The Rat Catcherís King (Excerpt)


~ One ~

Ben Bradley woke to a dawn-darkened room, dusty grey light spilling through the dirty mini-blinds. For several moments, he tried to remember where he was, why he lay alone in his bed in this spare, empty room.

Where was his wife? His kids? Where were the pounding of feet, the babble of early morning news programs, the sound of the shower, the smell of coffee?

Then, he knew, and it fell onto his brain with the full weight of reality.

He was alone here in this dingy, spartan apartment. His wife and kids were at their home--his home once--in another part of town, probably going through the morning routine he had expected upon waking here.

Three months, he sighed, wiping sleep from his eyes and sweeping the sheets off his body. Three months and I?m still not used to being alone.

Shuffling into the bathroom, he chuckled sarcastically at how easy he thought this would be; ditch the wife, ditch the kids and ditch all the problems.

Sure.

He voided the eveningís liquid into the stained toilet bowl in his cramped, messy bathroom, stepped out of his underwear and kicked them back into the bedroom. They fell into a heap of dirty clothes piled at the foot of the rumpled bed.

Snapping the shower curtain back, Ben slumped against the cool, clammy tile as the needle spray jabbed at his tired flesh.

Within a few minutes, he?d finished and proceeded on to the other morning rituals of shaving and teeth brushing and dressing. As he knotted his tie before the full-length mirror hung slightly askew on the back of his bedroom door, the phone jangled on the floor near his bed.

Maggie.

He knew it was her even as he stood staring at the phone. A complex mixture of emotions welled up at the prospect of speaking with her: jittery fear, anger, a longing, lingering sadness, a righteous--if callow--pride at her being the one calling him and not vice-versa, and finally not a little nervous love.

It was the kind of electric love he had felt when he had first seen her; the kind of love that careened through his stomach when he had first held her hand; first kissed her, first seen her naked.

At the beginning of their separation, Ben felt that each of these phone calls, each contact with Maggie was an opportunity to work things out, to get off the path that would lead, eventually, to their divorce. A chance to regain what was slipping away.

But it never worked out that way. Their conversations always seemed to be weighed down with kids and money and bills and possessions. As they clutched at all of these things, their marriage drifted away from them, and Ben had begun to feel that nothing could be done to stop it. It was as inexorable as the tides.

Now, he accepted her phone calls with a weary resignation that she would always be in his life, always just tantalizingly out of reach.

"Hello," he finally said after he?d picked up the phone and sat down on the bed. He heard a TV in the background, the sound of flatware clanking on plates, distant voices. For a moment, he smelled coffee, and his heart contracted in his chest.

"Oh! Ben?" came a small, distracted voice, as if her mouth were pulling away from the receiver. "I was just about to hang up."

"I was getting dressed," he said flatly. "Whatís up?"

"Todayís the day that Matt needs to get down to take his SAT, remember? Look, I know that I said I?d take him, but I?ve got a meeting clear on the other side of town this morning. You?ll have to take him."

Against his wishes, Ben found himself bristling at her tone, her assumption that he?d just do it, regardless of his own schedule. He?d chosen this apartment only minutes from his office downtown--and more than 20 minutes from his old home--to avoid these kinds of intrusions on his time. It was already 8 a.m., which meant that he?d be late if he had to pick up Matt.

"Maggie, I?ve... ."

"Don?t worry. Heís already got a ride home," she said over his attempted argument.

"Alright," he grudgingly agreed. "I?ll be there in half an hour. Tell him to be ready."

Then, there was a silence, which each of them waited for the other to fill.

"Well, I have to go or I?ll be late," she finally said.

"Yeah. I have to go, too, or now I?ll be even later," he said, hearing the implied bitterness in the words and wincing at them himself.

"Goodbye," she answered, then hung up the phone without waiting for his reply.

"Bye," Ben groaned. Cradling the phone against his shoulder, he reached down and punched in his office number. "Hi, Trudy. Itís Ben. I?ll be a little late this morning. They did? Yeah, yeah, I?m sure he is. Just tell him to keep his shorts on."

The phone dropped limply back into its cradle, and Ben stood, stretched. He already felt his jaw clenching, his head throbbing.

Christ! Matt. I really do need a cup of coffee.

Matt ambled down the long driveway, his head and shoulders bowed like a cartoon vultureís. Ben, who had been ready to blow the car horn yet again, glared at his sonís unhurried, rhythmic pace, each move like a stylized, slow-motion dance step.

He wore, for this supposedly auspicious occasion, his usual grunge uniform. A pair of jeans two or three sizes too big, with holes in the knees and butt, were covered with at least three shirts, all topped with a long-sleeved, unbuttoned, black-and-white flannel shirt.

Just recently turned seventeen, Matt was a big, lanky kid, at least six-four and weighing only about 160 pounds. He was good-looking, Ben supposed, in that sort of raw, unfinished, still-under-construction way that some teens have right before they blossom in their twenties.

Still, his long, dark hair hung lank, greasy and uncombed across his face. Even though Ben knew that his sonís unwashed-looking hair was the result of liberal applications of some sort of gel or mousse--and not really from a lack of shampoo--it rankled him nonetheless.

"Hey," Matt muttered neutrally as he folded himself into the passenger seat.

"Morning," Ben answered back. "What took you so long? Didn?t your mother tell you I?d be here in half an hour?"

Turning slowly, Matt narrowed his eyes at his father. "I was gettin? dressed. Sorry." He screwed himself down into the seat, pivoted away to look aimlessly out the window.

"Well, now I?m going to be late," Ben growled, unsatisfied with his sonís answer and seeming unappreciation for the assistance he was getting. He put the car into gear, pulled away from the house.

Mattís hand reached for the car door, opened it. "Hey, if this is gonna be a hassle, I?ll get a ride from someone else."

"Get in the damn car, Matthew!" Ben snapped in surprise, taking one hand from the wheel and grasping the loose shoulder of Mattís flannel shirt.

Matt shrugged his touch away. Through the veil of his hair, he shot his father another hard, measuring glance, pulled the door shut forcefully.

After a minute of silence, Ben thought he should say something.

"Look, itís not a hassle. If your mom told you that I thought it was... ."

"Mom didn?t tell me anything," he sneered.

"I just wish you?d show some appreciation for the help, thatís all."

Without turning from the window, Matt muttered something that Ben didn?t hear clearly. Sensing that he wasn?t meant to, he let the matter drop, and the two rode on in silence.

About a mile later, Ben thought he knew what his son had whispered beneath his breath.

"Yeah, some help you?ve been."

Ben pulled in behind a long line of other cars that were idling in front of the community center where the SATs were being administered. He watched other parents? kids clambering out of these cars, most dressed more neatly than his, most looking eager and a little nervous.

Matt just seemed eager to get out of the car.

As soon as Ben rolled the car to a stop in front of the entrance, Matt had the door open and one foot on the curb.

"Hey, Matt," his father said. "Come on. I?m sorry." He looked at Matt, who carried nothing with him. Reaching into the back seat, he fumbled with the locks on his briefcase.

"Do you at least have pencils?"

Matt took in a deeply annoyed breath, reached into the layers of his shirts and pulled out four No. 2 lead pencils. Brandishing these like accusations, he slammed the car door, spun away into the crowd of other teens.

Ben felt like he?d just been flipped off by his son.

"Jeez, Matt. I was going to say good luck."

He watched his sonís head bob away above the other kids? until it vanished.

"What a shitty morning."

The parking garage under Benís office building was as still and hushed as a tomb. Late as he was, he had to circle down to the lowest level to get a space. Even then, he was forced into the row farthest from the elevators.

Inside the dirty, creaking elevator, Ben straightened his tie, ran a hand through his hair, looked at his watch: 9:15. He was only 45 minutes late.

When the doors jerked open on the 16th floor, Ben stepped out directly into the lobby of Rand & Friedman Public Relations, Inc. Trudy, the receptionist, looked up from her desk, gave him a sly, bemused look.

"Heís looking for you," she crooned. "And heís not happy."

Ben smiled sourly at her, grabbed the wad of pink message slips she thrust out at him, and edged around the desk. He walked quickly down the long hallway of doors, head down pretending to flip through his phone calls. Turning a corner, he found his office, threw his briefcase onto a chair and took off his jacket.

When he pulled his desk chair out, though, a slip of white paper fluttered to the ground. Cursing silently, he bent to pick it up.

Across the top was printed, "From the Desk of Arthur Rand, President & CEO, R&F PR." Beneath this, scrawled in a loopy, angry hand, was "See me immediately!"

Ben crumpled the note into a tight ball, threw it away, rubbed the bridge of his nose. Collecting himself, he strode into the hallway and down to the corner office.

At least 10 paces away, he heard a voice booming from his destination. "No, no. Not at all. I?m sorry to say that heís not available just now. But you can rest assured that I?ll have him call you back the moment he is. Yes. Yes. Of course. I look forward to that."

Ben paused in the doorway, waited for Arthur Rand to see him over the top of his reading glasses, perched low on his nose. When he did, the old manís tanned, weathered face compressed itself into a mass of thin, angry wrinkles. Rand chopped through the air with his hand, mouthed the words, "Get in here!"

"OK. Yes, Ma?am. OK, goodbye."

Rand replaced the phone with exaggerated gentleness, and when he was sure it was down and the connection was severed, he cursed loudly.

"Damn it!" he roared, then turned his attention to Ben. "Where the hell have you been? Itís been a carnival here this morning. You know thatís the third time that harridan from the Mayorís Office called looking for you?"

"Sorry, Art. I called in and left a message," said Ben evenly.

"I don?t give a good god damn about your message. I got the message. Where were you? You know how crazy they get when you?re not in. They wet their drawers when they call and you?ve gone to the bathroom."

"I had to drive my son in to take his SATs this morning."

"And will you have to pick him up, too?" Rand asked, leaning back in his chair steepling his fingers under his nose.

"No, Art," Ben answered in rising frustration.

"Good. I thought that when you separated, you?d be spending more time at the office, concentrating on your job, not less," Rand said, his tone quickly assuming that of a patient, gentle mentor rather than that of an angry boss.

But this question penetrated into Ben like an arrow, finding something soft and twitchy deep inside him and piercing it. He took a deep breath, felt color rise to his cheeks.

"Art, you know, that was really tactless. It sounded suspiciously like you?re glad that I?m getting a divorce. Like my family and life were just distractions to all this important stuff here."

Rand rose from his seat as soon as Ben finished, walked around his desk to stand near him. "Oh, Christ, Ben. Calm down. Thatís not what I meant at all."

But Benís anger didn?t fade.

Thatís exactly what you meant, you old bastard. Why don?t you have the balls to come out and say it?

"Itís spending all the time here that probably led to our split anyway."

Probably? Definitely.

"Calm down. Calm down. I was just upset at taking heat meant for you first thing I walked in this morning. Sorry for coming down on you so hard," he said, patting the air between them with his old hands. "I just thought... ."

Ben shook his head, cutting him off. "Look, itís OK. I?ve just had a rough morning with my son and all... ."

"Fine. Itís over now. I know it won?t happen again," said Rand clapping him on the back. "Letís just get down to work, shall we?"

Somehow, these words failed to improve Benís worsening mood. Ben knew that, despite what he said, the old man would not forget this. It would be added to the negative column in his personal system of nebulous, arbitrary and mostly penny antetics that he used to measure an employeeís loyalty to the firm and to his job.

Ben suddenly realized that he hadn?t yet had that cup of coffee he?d been wanting all morning.

"Sure, Art. Just let me grab a cup of coffee first," Ben agreed.

Rand opened his mouth to protest, looking momentarily annoyed, but instead gave his head one quick, sharp nod of assent. "In my office."

"Sure, Art."

Vice president, Ben snorted to himself, musing on his recent promotion. Helluva difference itís made so far... .