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Read the opening scenes of Sign of the Rat —
Hidden in dark shadows, Trouble waited, listening to traffic boom along New York City’s Seaport Street. A freight truck hit a pot hole, tires thumping, tailgate rattling. A pair of motorcyclists wove through slower autos, bike engines screaming in high revs. The car noise masked his crunching track shoes when he raced across Seaport Street, dodging taxis. A carnival of horns blared around him. A tourist bus farted diesel fumes in his face.
At the curb, he exhaled in relief, feeling safe for a moment, but it wouldn’t last. Trouble stared at a weird car. Shiny green paint coated a stretch limo version of a small van. It was certainly a bizarre shape. From the front, the auto looked like Darth Vader’s mask in Star Wars. The car had a bad feeling to it.
Then he noticed the front door of his parents’ curio shop was open. Someone used acid to dissolve the door locks, turning them into melted lumps. The old granite stoop was littered with glass bottles. Chemical formulas cluttered the labels. Vapor steamed from acid residue left in the bottles. A smell like rotten eggs clung around the doorway, indicating burglars used concentrated sulfuric acid. Clearly, this wasn’t a normal break-in.
Noises floated along the hallway and through the open door. It sounded like their shopkeeper, Bleerio, was grunting to move a heavy table. Maybe the thieves were gone and Bleerio was cleaning up the mess. Trouble decided to go inside. He walked across a squeaking plank and shed his backpack. His nose itched from musty dust coating a thousand antiques.
A crystal ball rested on the floor, blocking his path. Trouble squatted to retrieve the Gypsy crystal and replace it on a holder. He grabbed the cold sphere, heavy as a full garbage can. The curved glass showed a distorted image of the main showroom.
For a moment, Trouble thought the crystal ball had mystical powers. Staring into the globe, he could see around the corner. Then he realized the image was a reflection, giving a fisheye view of antiques and his parents’ desks. The view also included a pair of thugs, dressed as ninjas. Instead of wearing black cloth for stealth, these two were clothed in lime green, like the car parked outside the shop.
A ninja spoke. “Where is the crate?”
Startled, Trouble gave an honest answer. “I don’t know what you want. I’ve been gone for two weeks.” Jet lagged by a twenty hour flight, he was in no shape to face a crime scene. Trouble craved a hot shower, some food and a warm bed, not a home invasion.
“We want the crate. The one delivered yesterday.” The raspy voice was followed by a metallic twang. A knife blade vibrated like a guitar string when the weapon struck deep into wood. The hira-shuriken lodged only inches from Trouble’s head.
A second ninja reached under his robes and pulled out a thick club. He flicked a trigger and curved prongs shot from the club’s end. Lightning sparked between the prongs. “This,” the second ninja announced, “is a cattle prod. It’s used on livestock with tough leather hides. They feel pain and move out of the way. Imagine how it’s gonna burn your skin.”
Trouble stalled. “We’ve got crates in the basement, full of stuff. You can have all of them.”
Together they hissed, “That’s not what we want.”
“Talk,” the first ninja demanded.
“Or we’ll use this,” the second ninja leered. He waved the cattle prod like a spear and charged.
Trouble had to try something. He grabbed a sword hanging on a dusty suit of armor. The cold handle felt like a five pound ice cube in his palm. He licked anxious, dry lips and tugged. But the weapon was a showpiece with only a stub of blade. Trouble looked at the useless sword in disgust, yet he threw the blunt knife anyway. Heavy Crusader’s steel arced across the display room. The metal lump missed the ninja and collided with an antique mirror, shattering glass in a hideous crash. A thick oak frame swung off the wall and thudded on the floor.
The ninjas raced through a maze of antiques, toppling a stack of tapestry chairs and a Chinese gong. Green streaks zigzagged toward their victim.
Trouble pulled a boomerang off the wall. He savored its heavy wood, relieved to have a weapon. The vee-shaped wing was inscribed with dream symbols from Aboriginal tribal lore. His father would kill him for using this prize in a real fight. Yet Trouble had to defend himself. He whipped his arm and the Aborigine weapon twirled in a high arc, making a sharp whistling sound. With a loud thunk, the wooden vee punched a ninja, causing a yelp of pain.
The other green blur flew at Trouble. He yanked a flintlock pistol off a wall, cocked the weapon and pointed at the blur.
The ninja made a juke step like a break-dancer, vanishing behind a huge mahogany bureau. A green head popped up. Trouble jerked the trigger. Nothing happened.
The ninja stood erect and walked toward his enemy, gloating. He flashed a long knife. “I will cut you like an Eskimo carves a totem pole, boy.”
Trouble felt his palms grow cold and moist with fear. Fighting was hopeless. He had to run. Sprinting along the hall, Trouble knocked over a Chinese dragon vase and a 1920s French bistro table. He hoped obstacles would slow the ninjas chasing him.
Then a green blazer appeared in the door. Maybe it was another ninja from the car. Trouble was caught and couldn’t get away. He turned to see ninjas making their way through hallway debris. One flashed his knife and the other flaunted a wire hoop, called a garrote. Trouble knew the garrote was going to be looped over his head and pulled tight, strangling him. His heart banged like a washing machine out of balance, wobbling around Trouble’s chest.
There was still hope. He could escape through an old tunnel, leading from the shop’s hallway to a river. In the 1920s, smugglers used the passage to move illegal goods. Trouble was so frightened he couldn’t remember how to open the trap door. He tried yanking on a candleholder, hoping it was the trap door lever. The brittle metal snapped out of the wall. He threw candles and heavy brass holders at the ninjas. They laughed, not even slowing down.
The ninjas got closer. In desperation, he twisted an African voodoo mask. Tense red eyes in the ebony face stared at him, but no trap door opened. Backwards he walked, licking dry lips. The cattle prod appeared, snapping lightning off its tips. Electricity sparked again and left a burnt odor in the air.
Suddenly, Trouble remembered a suit of armor in a little alcove. He’d always been frightened by that metal man. When he was small, Trouble had nightmares about a black knight coming alive after dark. That’s because his mother once pivoted the arm on that suit of armor and the floor vanished by magic. She thought it would amuse Trouble, but it scared him instead. Now the black knight would be his salvation.
Trouble gave Bleerio a killing look, angry at getting no credit for defending the shop. Disgusted, he pushed around Flix and moved into the doorway.
Bleerio rushed to Flix. “Never mind Trouble. He’s had a long trip. I’m delighted you’re here. Come in.”
“The delivery arrived?” Flix seemed excited.
“Any minute. A note said they’d try again this morning. Sorry about missing them yesterday. I had to go out for groceries. I’ll make tea while we wait for the delivery company. Join me.”
Flix trailed Bleerio out of the showroom, fading along the hallway and into the kitchen.
Trouble stayed at the open door and stared at an empty curb outside his home. A trail of water led to the spot where an exotic green car used to be parked. It looked like soaked ninjas ran to the car after getting dumped in the East River. They made a fast exit, leaving no clues behind. Why they broke into an old curio shop puzzled Trouble. He didn’t have long to reflect on their motives. The ninja car’s spot was claimed by a delivery truck, rumbling to a halt.
A brown-clad driver jumped from the delivery van and waved at Trouble. “Got something for you. Must be important. Your box came a long way.”
“Where’d the shipment come from?” Trouble asked.
“Vietnam. Know anyone there?”
“My dad has an agent in Vietnam. We got a few collectibles from him. Haven’t heard from Dr. Cam in years, though.”
“You heard from him now.” The driver opened the truck’s cargo door and hopped inside. He grunted, shoving a wooden crate to the van’s tailgate. “Give me a hand.”
Trouble grabbed one end and they lowered the crate on a hand-truck. “Mind running the crate inside?”
“Naw. I’m ahead of schedule. Just sign here.”
Trouble grabbed a plastic stylus from the electronic tablet and scrawled his name. Then his instincts urged Trouble to yank the address label off the crate. He didn’t trust Flix. The less Flix knew, the safer Trouble felt. He folded the dirty label and put it in his pocket. Trouble went ahead and cleared a path for the hand-cart. They dropped the crate in the main showroom, near an Inquisition chair. The driver left.
Puzzled, Trouble studied the crate. It was an expensive box, with thick hardwood planks fitted together, smooth as a dining table. Metal corners reinforced the crate. A dozen screws held the top in place. Trouble assumed something important must be inside, to deserve such an expensive shipping container. He found a toolbox and pulled out a screwdriver.
A few minutes later, Trouble used a pry bar to force the lid off. Inside, wads of bubble pack cushioned a large metal box. Jungle rot blotched the olive green surface. Faded stencils on the box read “U.S. Army .50 caliber ammunition.” New labels were plastered around the ammo canister. The bright yellow stickers warned in a dozen languages that the contents were hazardous. The lid should be opened with great care.
Annoyed at receiving something dangerous, Trouble grunted the faded green box out of the crate and dropped it on a desktop. A foul odor leaked from air holes drilled in the box. Trouble bent over, placing an ear near the holes. Was something moving inside? He couldn’t tell for sure, but it sounded like a creature stirred, perhaps waking from sleep.
Bleerio wove through antiques, giddy with excitement. His Adam’s apple bobbed in eager swallows, floating like a wine cork in a river. A silly bowtie twisted at a screwy angle below his long neck. “Oh, there’s the delivery I promised Flix.” The shopkeeper examined the crate’s lid, looking disappointed. “Where’s the shipping label?”
“Fell off. Blew away,” Trouble lied.
Bleerio shrugged. “Still, this must be that shipment I mentioned, Flix. You know, the one from Vietnam.”
“You mean Colorado, don’t you?” Trouble winked at his friend, hoping the shopkeeper would understand.
“No. I mean Vietnam.” Bleerio looked grouchy. “Didn’t you see the label before it blew away?”
“Uh, not really.”
Flix gave a sarcastic laugh. He dipped his long fingers into a blazer pocket and pulled out a gold-plated pen knife. A manicured fingernail pressed against a small diamond and Trouble heard a click. An Xacto-like blade appeared. Flix used his blade to scrape the lid, peeling off a thin curl. He held the scrap to his nose and inhaled a pine-like scent. “I can tell from its odor that the planks came from an evergreen tree. So Bleerio’s right. The box was shipped from Vietnam, probably from the country’s highlands. There’s lots of cypress groves in that area. Vietnam is famous for golden cypresses. Those trees are evergreens.” Flix held the curl of wood in his open palm, offering it to Trouble.
“They teach you about Vietnamese golden cypresses at Warwick Academy, Flix?”
“Yes, and more. You ought to go back to school, Trouble. I know PS 126 won’t make you a Warwick man, but you would learn something useful.” Flix dropped the cypress scrap and toyed with latches on the ammo box.
“I learn a lot of useful things in my travels. For instance, I can read the labels on that box, in Vietnamese, French and English. They all say the same thing – watch out.”
“For what?” Flix gave Trouble a condescending stare. He released a latch holding down the lid.
Trouble warned Flix again. “That ammo canister holds something dangerous. I’d leave it alone, if I were you.”
Bleerio stepped around Flix and put his palms on the cold steel lid. Oxidized paint flaked off and fell on the desk. “Aren’t you curious? I am.”
“Curiosity killed the cat, Bleerio.” Trouble gave the shopkeeper a stern look.
“And satisfaction brought the cat back to life.” Flix talked in a smug tone. “I’m quoting Eugene O’Neill, a playwright. But you wouldn’t know about literature, Trouble.”
“I know we aren’t in a stage play. This is for real. Let’s wait, Flix. Let’s think before we open the case.”
“Wait as long as you like.” Flix turned to leave.
“No, don’t go,” Bleerio pleaded. “I’m sure there’s something valuable inside. You might want to buy it.”
Flix shrugged. “I might indeed. Tell you what. I’m in a hurry, so I’ll take this problem off your hands, sight-unseen.” He opened a tooled leather wallet and pulled out a crisp hundred dollar bill. Flix talked in rich, smooth tones. “Get some food for that empty kitchen of yours. Don’t worry about the ammo box. I’ll find a way to safely open it, after I get home.”
“Yeah, right,” Trouble snorted. “Come back tomorrow. We’ll have the box open. See how much you’re willing to pay, then.”
“All right. I’ll be generous. Two hundred.” Flix offered Bleerio a second bill carrying the image of Benjamin Franklin.
Bleerio looked starved, like he hadn’t eaten in days. He pleaded, “Trouble …”
“I’ll think about it. Come by tomorrow.” Trouble closed the open latch.
Flix hesitated, trying to look like it didn’t matter. He edged toward the hallway.
Bleerio cracked. “I can’t take this.” He lunged at the ammo box and flipped both latches. The lid sprang up.
The three of them recoiled in shock. An awful stench bubbled from the canister, stinking like an overflowing toilet. It smelled like a well-used public restroom on a hot, crowded day. Bleerio gagged. Flix pulled a silk handkerchief from his blazer pocket and covered his nose, turning away. Only Trouble looked inside the box, locking his eyes on a demented vision, an enormous sewer rat.
Only it wasn’t a normal rat. A spiky tail made the animal look part dinosaur. A T-Rex jaw held rows of teeth curved like fishhooks. Milky, psychopathic eyes sat at the end of a twitching nose. Rancid turds clogged black fur thick as a chimney sweep’s broom. Trapped inside the box, the creature was forced to sleep in its own toilet droppings. Now, the animal was determined to get free. The rat placed his front paws on the edge of the box, flashing talons sharp as a doctor’s scalpel. The creature poised itself to spring out.
Trouble jumped at the lid, slamming it down. Bleerio overcame his revulsion to help, fighting to get the ammo box shut. Even Flix joined in the battle.
Fighting back, the rat punched fists at the lid like a boxer, then slammed its spiked tail into the thick metal. Dents appeared in the lid. A last blow opened the lid enough so the rat could wedge its mouth in the gap. Terrible jaws snapped viciously. “Pepper spray,” Trouble shouted. “Bleerio, hit it with pepper spray.”
“Uh, yeah.” The shopkeeper ran to find cayenne pepper spray, the type used on muggers.
Trouble jumped atop the desk and pressed on the lid with all his weight. Flix tried to snap a latch and almost paid for it with a finger. He pulled away in time to avoid the fishhook teeth, but they ripped his shirt cuff. Amazed, Flix blurted, “How can that thing be so strong?”
Struggling with the lid, Trouble could only grunt a response. “A chimpanzee is the size of child, but eight times stronger than a grown man.”
“This rodent must be part chimp.” Flix gave the rat a look of admiration.
Bleerio flew in the room, skidding to a halt. He pointed at the rat and blasted the creature with a full dose. It must have burned like torches were shoved in the eye sockets. Yet the rat fought even harder, furious after being attacked. The shopkeeper ran out of the room again, yelling, “I know.”
“Get back here,” Trouble screamed. “We can’t hold it.”
“I’m coming. Wait a minute. I know where they dropped it.”
“Who dropped what?” Trouble demanded.
“The ninjas. Ah, got it.” Bleerio returned with the cattle prod. “This will solve the problem.” Ignorant how metal conducts electricity, Bleerio rammed the prod against the lid, pulling the trigger. Lightning jolted the rat, Trouble and Flix. Shocked, they recoiled. Bleerio slammed the lid and closed its latches.
Trouble and Flix were knocked on the floor. Dazed, they stared at Bleerio.
“Well, er. It’s a deal. Two hundred for the rat. We’ll throw in the old ammo box. Probably worth two hundred dollars itself, a genuine war relic.” Bleerio looked sheepish.
Trouble cracked a smile. It was impossible to hate Bleerio.
Flix got to his feet, brushing dirt off his khaki trousers. “You should pay me to take this horrible thing. But all right. I said I’d pay and I will. To prove I’m your friend, here’s the money.” He offered the bills to Trouble.
“Five hundred,” Trouble countered. “For the ammo box. Another thousand for the rat. That thing’s gotta be rare. At least, I hope it is. You can sell the creature to a museum.”
Flix didn’t say anything. But he didn’t leave either.
Trouble lifted the box and turned toward the hallway. “You don’t want it, so I’m throwing this thing in the river. That’s where it belongs, in my opinion.”
“OK.” Flix talked softly. “As an apology. It was mean what I said, about Warwick Academy being superior to your school. Here’s a thousand.” He shoveled bills on the desk. Bleerio snapped up the money and wrote a quick receipt. He signed and gave the chit to Flix.
Trouble felt queasy. There was something weird about this deal, but he needed money. He didn’t want to push for more and lose the sale. Trouble handed over the ammo box. “What are you going to do with the rat?”
“Find a zoo or museum that wants the creature.” Flix laughed. “Or sell it to Hollywood. This rat belongs in one of those sci-fi films I love.” Flix walked out of the room and vanished.
Trouble heard a car stop at the curb and a door slam. He sprinted to the hallway, convinced he’d see a lime-green exotic driving away, packed with smirking ninjas and Flix. But a golden Porsche Panamera pulled from the curb instead. Flix sat on the back seat, dialing his cell phone. The chauffeur must have put the ammo box in the trunk. Everything looked normal. Yet Trouble felt suspicious . . .
Gliding backwards, he sensed daylight around him. Trouble was almost in the door. He reached for the medieval knight and didn’t make it. Trouble collided with another person and twisted, fighting to grasp the suit of armor. But the person behind Trouble pulled the lever. Rusty metal creaked and a huge section of floor dropped out of sight.
The ninjas shrieked in rage, vanishing down a slope. The trap door swung closed, healing the floor. Trouble relaxed until a smarmy voice caused him to bristle. He turned around and saw his worst “frenemy,” a friend who sometimes flips sides and becomes an enemy.
“Your customers play rough.” Flix laughed. His perfect blonde hair lay sculpted to his head, a TV news anchor look. On his way home from Warwick Academy, Flix wore a green school blazer. He adjusted his gold silk tie. Flix resembled a model in a catalog ad, crisply dressed without a smudge on his light khaki trousers.
Bleerio stumbled out of a closet, where he’d been hiding. The shopkeeper squinted at bright sunlight radiating around the open door. Bleerio used a hand to shield his eyes from the glare. “Flix,” he shouted. “Thank goodness. You came just in time to save us.”
Here's what one fan had to say about the book —
I liked Sign of the Rat on many levels ...
Sign of the Rat kept me racing through to find out what happened next.
The illustrations were beautiful and definitely enhanced the reading experience.
The character development is extraordinary. The main and subcharacters seemed real and the descriptions of their feelings enhanced that effect.
This book transports the reader and provides relief from mundane day-to-day responsibilies and that alone makes Sign of the Rat wonderful ...
This book is enjoyable to people of all ages.
Sign of the Rat is the kind of book that encourages children to read. – Denise Smith
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