“There are rats in the walls,” the landlord had said. “Big ones.”
He wasn’t wrong. The buggers were big. And mean. Meaner than the ratcatcher was used to; but it mattered little when they wandered into the spring loaded traps or within range of his cudgel. The cruelty of rodents could not compare to that of Mr. Tenfinger.
Through the smoke of a damp cigar and by the light of a cracked torch, he sidled through the tight space concealed behind the stone wall, fighting through tangles of corroded wiring and piping. He was looking for nests. He had already encountered three, and seen them cleared away with maximum prejudice. These old town houses, left abandoned for decades, were the perfect breeding ground his perpetual adversaries. The rat. He bore them no ill will, but a man had to eat, and drink, and smoke.
His cigar died as he caught movement ahead. A bloated white thing with sparse hair, corded muscle and a tail that had been gnawed down to the bone. The stench of animal filth reached his nostrils, and in anticipation for what lurked in the gloom ahead he adjusted the grip on his home-made rat smasher and hoped the poison bread he had scattered days before would give a fat old man like him an advantage. It usually did, and if not, he’d yet to see a rat get through his thick leather jacket.
The darkness receded, and his footfalls crunched down on dry matter. Wire, straw, twigs and the bones of birds that had found their unlucky demise in this place. He extinguished the torch, but noticed a narrow beam of light infiltrating its way in from above. Tiny motes of ash rained downwards, reminding him of where he was, of where he desperately did not want to be. Iuda. A graveyard save for the few lunatics like this landlord and the chronic infestation of rats.
The creature must have sensed his distraction, for it chose its moment to strike. A hateful scream alerted Tenfinger to the danger, and in his shock his weapon scraped against the wall as he swung it wide. It dropped, and the rat was on him, its teeth and claws burying themselves in the thick hide protecting his left arm. He cursed loudly, and slammed his shoulder hard into the wall, hearing the clatter of ornaments falling on the other side. He slammed again and the rat detached, falling neatly to the ground and slithering through the dust.
But Tenfinger was faster. With practised aim, his boot found the creature’s neck. And without remorse or celebration, the rat was dead.
He emerged plastered in pale dust and dark blood. The room beyond was a grand affair with a high ceiling, wrought iron furnishings and tall windows that allowed in the baking heat. He brought the giant rat with him, to dispose of with the others. It was truly a monster. Fitting for a place with a reputation like Iuda. It was the size of a large cat, its skin marked with cancerous growths likely caused from the intense sunlight that beat down on the building. It’s eyes were albino red and clouded with blood, and it’s teeth, now cracked, had been sharp enough to slice through Tenfinger’s jacket and into his flabby arm.
The landlord regarded him and his prize grimly.
“Nasty fucking business,” he said.
Tenfinger spat his spent cigar onto the floor and stamped it into a black smear. He threw the rat down next to it, and fumbled for another smoke. It flared to life, and he breathed easily. “It is what it is,” he said. “Poison, traps, dogs. No nice way to do it. But out here, what can you expect?”
That earned him a suspicious look. He was an outsider here. The landlord wore a stained purple sash that could have been mistaken for a wine soaked rag. That tied him to this district, to this building. It declared him a willing renegade. It was stupid. Tenfinger was uneasy about men who wore their allegiance so openly. He hid his behind rugged leather and a sweat stained shirt.
“I got some mail,” the landlord said, furrowing his brow. “Private courier. A frightened bastard from the Capitol. He had no right to be here.” He produced a crisp, folded square of paper and squeezed it between his thumb and forefinger. “I never asked your name ratcatcher. But I assume you are a Mr. Tenfinger. I thought I made it clear how important my privacy is.”
Tenfinger shifted the cigar in his mouth. “I’m Tenfinger all right. But I told no one I was here. Having unsolicited mail is just annoying to me as it is to you. I did not know.”
“And ‘Tenfinger’? Is that some criminal alias? Who are you really?”
The ratcatcher removed his gloves. Years of rough work had left his right hand a leathery mess of six fingers. His left bore three crooked fingers and a chubby thumb. “Born with twelve, y’see. Rat took one. The other is a secret. Unfortunately, the name’s stuck.”
The landlord nodded, but did not look satisfied. He handed over the square of paper.
It was an odd thing to receive. Paper and literacy were rare commodities in the city of Ark. He unfolded it and stared for some time at its contents. A single word that had been snapped out by a typewriter. The smell of dead rats, their dung and their rotten homes had not made him nauseous, but this message did. Hurriedly, he slipped it into his jacket pocket, his fingers brushing against the heavy weight of the Gaussian pistol at his side.
“What does it mean?” asked the landlord. “Geist?”
Ash dribbled from Tenfinger’s cigar.
“You read it?”
“I certainly did. I can’t be too careful out here. You could be from the Undercity, the Watch, the Inquisition…”
Tenfinger lifted his pistol from his jacket, and with his stubby thumb, slid back the block that primed the magnetic coils. “Worse,” he said, through a puff of smoke. “There are rats in the walls. And it’s time they were flushed out.”