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Lionboy 02: The Chaseby Zizou Corder
It is a curious thing for a boy to be stuck on a train in an Alpine snowstorm, in a bathroom with six homesick lions and a huge unidentified saber–toothed creature. More curious still to know that bustling around next door in his purple silk dressing gown is a friendly Bulgarian king called Boris, and his security chief, name of Edward, who makes a point of knowing everything there is to know, and perhaps a little more.
If you were a boy whose parents—clever scientists—had been stolen by a villainous lad from your neighborhood in London, on behalf of you’re not sure whom, but almost certainly because they have invented a cure for asthma, you might be happy to think that these lions and this king were on your side. If you and the lions had run away from a floating circus and a nasty, mysterious lion trainer, you might take the chance to relax for a moment, knowing that neither he, nor the villainous lad—who has anyway been savaged by one of the lions— could make it through the snow to get you.
If the oldest lion said to you: “We are warm and dry, and we have eaten, and we are together. Someone else is going to mend the train that will roar us through this mysterious dangerous weather to the place where your parents are, closer to our home. But now—now we are safe.” If he said that , you might feel warm and cheered up and happy.
This is exactly how Charlie Ashanti felt. Charlie felt as close to safe as he had felt in weeks. The beautiful lions were lying in a pile around him: the three lionesses resting after their chase; the oldest lion calmly triumphant at their escape, Elsina the young girl lion still weak from their adventures on the train’s roof but so excited to be out in the real world; and the young lion, Charlie’s friend, fast asleep with his head in Charlie’s lap. Next door was King Boris in his glamorous carriage, promising help when they reached Venice. Rafi Sadler and Maccomo the lion trainer were safely stuck in Paris, and the snow was covering the train like a huge snuggly quilt.
Now, Charlie said to himself, is the time to sleep and eat and relax, so we will be fit and strong for the troubles ahead. Because without a doubt, there were going to be troubles ahead.
Charlie’s parents, Dr. Aneba Ashanti and Professor Magdalen Start, were in big trouble already. You wouldn’t necessarily think it, to see them sitting at opposite ends of the social club in the Corporacy Gated Village Community. The Club Room was long and low and comfortable, with a glass wall looking out over a beautiful subtropical garden, full of palm trees and huge rounded rocks with a stream trickling over them. At least—Magdalen had thought it was beautiful, until she noticed that every rock was the same shape exactly, and made of some kind of plastic. She peered carefully at the trees. Were they fake too?
She was sitting with a group of women, all talking about how fat they were. They had dishes of chips and glasses of wine in front of them. “Oh no, I shouldn’t,” they cried, as they stuffed their faces with food that was bad for them. A lot of them were smoking too. “You’ll get wrinkles from smoking,” said one.
“Clare’s got fabulous skin,” said another. “Don’t you hate her?”
Magdalen wondered why you should hate somebody just because she has pretty skin. She wondered why these women were worried about getting wrinkles from smoking but not about cancer. She wondered why they could only talk about how fat they were, when they weren’t particularly fat anyway, and if they were really worried about it, why didn’t they stop drinking and eating the chips? And if they wanted to eat chips and drink wine, why did they keep telling themselves off for doing so? Why not just enjoy it?
She felt very tired. She couldn’t quite remember how they got here, to tell the truth—Rafi Sadler tricking her and Aneba had faded from her mind somehow, and so had the long journey to this place by submarine and boat and truck. She didn’t think they’d been here very long. She knew she didn’t like it. She wanted to be left alone, to not listen to this rubbish. She wanted to see her son and be with her husband and get some work done. Her brain was turning to mushy gunk here. She knew she was meant to be somewhere else, leading a different life. She felt very tired. I just thought that, she thought. What’s wrong with me?
Looking up, she caught a glimpse of Aneba across the room. He didn’t look very well. His skin, normally gleaming black, had an ashy tinge to it. The whites of his eyes were a little yellow. His big muscular shoulders, normally so broad and straight, seemed to have sagged.
“You’ve put on a bit of weight yourself, haven’t you?” said one of the women to Magdalen.
At the other end of the room, Aneba was watching soccer on television with a group of men. Aneba liked soccer, but this was the fourth match in a row. The men were complaining about how bad the players were, and the managers, and the referee, and the linesmen. They were drinking beer and eating peanuts and saying they could do much better themselves. Under the smell of cigarette smoke there was another flavor in the air. He half recognized it. Didn’t like it.
After one of the matches, the news had come on. The Empire soldiers had had to shoot up a city in the Poor World, and lots of civilians had been shot and there were no medicines available. There were pictures of children with dirty bandages on, looking terrified and hungry. The men looked up briefly, and said: “That’s terrible,” then went back to complaining. “Nothing you can do, though, is there?” said one. Aneba could see that the man felt bad, and liked him for it.
“Never mind, mate,” said a second man. “Have another beer.” Aneba knew there was something else he ought to be doing, but he couldn’t really remember what.
Looking up, he saw Magdalen on the other side of the room. She didn’t look very well. Her red hair wasn’t curly and chaotic as usual. It had gone flat.
Soon they’d be due back at the Wellness Unit for their Motivational Management Therapy.
“Cheer up, mate,” said one of the men. “Have a drink.”
Aneba tried hard to remember what he was normally like.
If Charlie had seen his energetic, intelligent parents like this, he would have revised his opinion that they were not in any immediate danger. He would have been shocked.
Trouble had already announced itself at Thibaudet’s Royal Floating Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy (also known as Tib’s Gallimaufry or the Show). Major Maurice Thibaudet (pronounced Tib–oh–day), the Boss, Ringmaster and Maestro of the Circus, had been lounging in his cabin on board the giant circus–ship Circe, wearing a pale green robe that matched the carved paneling, and drinking a glass of brandy and soda. The Show’s opening night in Paris had been fabulous, and everybody had said so. Major Tib and most of the circusguys had stayed up late afterward, drinking and congratulating themselves. The others were all still in bed with hangovers (except for Pirouette the Flying Trapeze Artiste, and the Lucidi family of acrobats, who always got up early to practice, no matter what). Major Tib himself was too tough for hangovers, but even so, he didn’t really expect to be entertaining visitors at such a moment. His visitor, a gentlemen from the French Railway, was a little embarrassed.
Major Tib smiled a pale, elegant smile and took a sip of his brandy.
“The lions!” he drawled in his lazy southern Empire voice. “What do you mean? Ain’t no problem with our lions. Mighty early in the morning to come round complainin’ about something that ain’t a problem, don’t ya think?”
“Monsieur,” said the visitor delicately. “Last night a very peculiar tale emerged. There was an English boy trying to stop the Orient Express from leaving the station. He was very wet and crazy and saying there were lions in the train, stolen runaway lions and a young thief who has stolen them. He said that one of the lions has attacked him, and that the lions are from your circus, and somebody throw him in the Canal St. Martin down by Bastille....Obviously this is nonsense and he is very crazy, so we send him to the secure hospital. But in the dawn the hospital calls me and says this boy has serious hurts on his arm and shoulder like some big thing is bitten him. Big thing. No mosquito, you know. The boy is bloody and angry and wet and crazy, but yes, he has this big bite on him, and the hospital says well it could be lion bite, most likely dog or something and maybe he get rabies and that’s why he so crazy, but you know... the boy said the lions are from here, belonging to your famous trainer Monsieur Maccomo. So I have to check. I am sorry. You understand.”
“You’re saying I’ve let crazy lions with rabies escape from my circus and bite people?” said Major Tib. “That what you’re sayin’? You better be sure, Monsieur, because that’s pretty serious.”
“I say let’s go to check the lions.”
“Sure,” said Major Tib. He leaped to his feet, his robe flashing out behind him. He was very tall and thin, and crossed the cabin in a second to fling open the door. “Come on!” he said, with a grin.
Major Tib strode across the deck, the Railway gentleman scurrying along behind him. “Morning, Sigi!” he cried to the father of the Lucidis, upside down in the rigging between the Big Top and the smokestacks. “Seen Maccomo this morning?”
“No, Major Tib,” Sigi called back. “Not last night neither.”
The lioncabin was on the same deck as Major Tib’s, the other side of the Circe’s on–board Big Top. It took them only a moment to get there. And only a moment to fling open the door, and less than a moment to see that all the lioncages were empty. Where six lions should have been dozing or gazing, there was nothing. Where Maccomo should have been sleeping, rolled in his beautiful cloth, there was nothing.
Major Tib sucked in a breath, and frowned for a split second.
Then: “Probably in the Ring, exercising,” he declared with a flash of reassuring smile. He knew they weren’t. They never exercised till midmorning, when they’d had a chance to warm up. Pirouette would be in the Ring at this time, and the ringboys clearing up after last night. “Why don’t you go wait in my cabin while I locate Monsieur Maccomo?” he suggested. “I’ll send you over a coffee.” He was still smiling.
“I go with you. Thanks,”said the Railway gentleman.
Major Tib’s smile wore a little thin.
“As you wish,” he said, and burst out of the lioncabin to the ropelocker just next door, where the boys slept.
“Charlie!” he roared as he flung the door open.
Julius, the clown’s son, and Hans, the boy who trained the Learned Pig, leaped up in fright, and each bumped his head on the shelf above and cried out.
Charlie, of course, was not there.
“Where is he!” roared Major Tib. “Where is Maccomo! Where are my damn lions!!!” Julius and Hans stared. “Haven’t seen them,” quavered Hans.
“Julius?” said Major Tib.
“Maccomo went out last night,” said Julius. “He went for dinner with Mabel Stark. The tiger trainer.”
Major Tib yanked his cell phone out of his robe pocket and punched in a number.
A moment later he spoke.
“Mabel, my dear,” he said suavely. “I’m so sorry to call you so early on this beautiful mornin’, and I do hope you don’t find my inquiry indiscreet, but do you happen by the slightest chance to have the slightest idea where Maccomo might possibly be?”
There was a murmur on the other end.
“Well no, of course not, ma’am, and I’m sorry to...Mabel, honey, he ain’t here, and his boy ain’t here, and I’m just a little perturbed....”
The voice at the end perked up no end.
“Okay, honey,” he said. “You call me. Okay?” He clicked the phone and turned to the Railway gentleman.
“Says they had dinner last night and she ain’t seen him since....There been any other reports of lions being seen?” he asked suddenly.
“No,” said the Railway gentleman. “Of course I consulted the police.”
“Get up, boys, and search the ship,” cried Major Tib. “Find Charlie. Find Maccomo. Find the lions, or any sign of where they’ve been. Get the ringboys out to help. Any sign.”
All this had taken place while Charlie had been meeting and making friends with King Boris, during which time the snow had begun to fall and the poor lions, riding (for purposes of discretion and not being spotted) on the roof of the train, had been caught in the snowstorm. They had nearly caught their deaths of cold before Charlie went up on the roof in the dreadful gale and brought them down. At just about lunchtime—the time when Charlie slammed the trapdoor shut on the eddying, whooshing, icy snowstorm outside, and started to warm up the poor frozen creatures with hot water and his mother’s Improve Everything Lotion—Maccomo walked up the Circe’s gangplank.
He looked very different from the calm, enigmatic man whom Charlie had first met weeks ago, the man whose calmness spread over everybody in his vicinity like a numbing sludge. Now his white African pajamas were scuffed and disheveled after his night out, his unshaven chin showed nubs of white stubble against his dry, gray–looking dark skin, and his hands were shaking. Nevertheless, anyone could see that he was still a man of character, with his barrel–like chest and the curious flash in the depths of his eyes.
He went straight to Major Tib’s cabin.
“Major Tib,” he said.
The Ringmaster knew how to shout—of course he did. So he shouted, for about ten minutes.
At the end Maccomo said simply, “I resign.”
“You’re creakin’ sacked, Maccomo—you’re sacked! And you won’t be working again in circus, don’t imagine you will. And don’t think you’ll be paid—you’ve lost me a valuable asset here—”
“The lions are mine, sir,” said Maccomo with the flash in his eyes more like his old self.
Major Tib laughed. “Then you’ll be facing the police charges about letting them run off? And you’ll be paying the fine? And what will you be doing about my reputation, Maccomo? How you going to make it up to me for making my circus look so bad? You gonna go round tellin’ everybody it was your fault and your mistake? You gonna tell the police that?”
The Railway gentleman sat quietly. “The police are on their way,” he said mildly.
“You gonna take responsibility for Charlie then? He’s disappeared too. And what about that English boy they savaged?”
Maccomo sat up. “What English boy?” he asked.
“Rafi Sadler,” said the Railway gentleman.
“I must go and look at the cabin,” he said. “See how they got out.”
The Railway gentleman went with Maccomo to the lioncabin. Calmly Maccomo looked around. He gathered together some things in a bag. “The police will want to take me, I suppose,” he said. The Railway gentleman didn’t really know what to say.
“Excuse me,” said Maccomo, gesturing to a small door at the back of the cages. “I should look....” He pulled a lever, the door opened, and he peered through. The Railway gentleman smiled politely.
Maccomo was down the lions’ special secure tunnel to the Ring before the Railway gentleman even realized the door led anywhere, and he was off the Circe and heading for the station by the time the Railway gentleman got back to Major Tib’s cabin, where he told the police and Major Tib what had happened. By the time they had put out the message to apprehend him, Maccomo, like Charlie, was hiding out in a train bathroom, where he shaved, changed into a suit, and put on a hat and glasses. He looked a different man.
“Charlie Ashanti,” he murmured. “Rafi Sadler.” He didn’t know which of these two English boys had stolen his lions. He had been about to sell Charlie to Rafi! So had Rafi stolen the boy and the lions? But Rafi had been savaged, and the lions certainly weren’t with him now.... He wished he had had more time to find out what had happened.
He could understand Rafi wanting to steal the boy and the lions. That was Rafi’s line of business—stealing people and selling them. But what if Charlie had stolen them? Sentimental Charlie would be trying to help them. Charlie the Catspeaker. Maccomo’s mouth tightened.
He pushed his dirty pajamas into his bag. As he did so, he felt the big bottle of lionmedicine that he had grabbed as he left. For a long time he had used this medicine to keep the lions docile in the act. He had brought it with him when he fled because it was illegal, and he didn’t want the police finding it.
What he didn’t know was that for weeks now Charlie had been feeding this medicine to him, instead of to the lions. While the lions’ heads had been clearing, preparing for escape, Maccomo’s had been growing more dim and confused, weakened.
He opened the bottle and sniffed it. His body had grown used to the medicine, and liked the smell of it. He shivered, and poured a glass of water from the little basin and scattered two or three drops of the medicine in to it.
Part of him knew that he shouldn’t take it—knew it would do him harm in the long run. But his body wanted it, and his mind was already too weak to resist.
“It’s only a bit,” he told himself.
He drank it.
He seemed to feel better.
He sat back and closed his eyes, while the train rattled him south toward Spain.
Where were they all now, he wondered, those foolish creatures who thought they could get the better of Maccomo?
Rafi Sadler was lying on a narrow hard bed in a cold tiled room in the secure hospital. The ceiling was too high and the walls were pale green. A tough nurse had washed him and taken away his clothes, including his leather coat, which, although it was damp and scummy with green slime from the canal, was still his leather coat, and he criking well hoped he was going to get it back. An uninterested doctor had put on a pair of rubber gloves before coming over to treat him. She had taken one look at the circle of deep cuts around his shoulder, red against the yellow and gray bruising on his skin, and stepped back again.
“Qu’est–ce que—!” she had said.
“Says he’s been bit by a lion at the Gare d’Austerlitz,” said the nurse, who was keen to end her shift and go home to bed.
“Ugh,” said the doctor, and poured some more antiseptic over the wounds. She lifted Rafi’s arm gently.
“L’epaule s’est cass. Shoulder’s broken,” she said. “You can set it, nurse, drain the wound and give him a rabies shot, HIV shot, smallpox and feline encephalitis, arnica, antibiotics....”
“Can’t you talk English?” said Rafi. “I need someone to talk English.” His face was grayish white and he was still cold, though they told him he had a fever. It’s true he was sweating. He looked hardly any better than when he had been yelling at Charlie through the carriage window as the train drew out.
The doctor stared at him. Still these English people couldn’t be bothered to learn any language other than their own. Pathetic.
“And painkillers,” he said. “I’m in a lot of pain here. It hurts. IT HURTS, okay? Hurts. PAIN KILLERS. Quelque chose pour le PAIN.” He made a face of pain and tried to put on a French accent. Unfortunately for Rafi, pain in French means bread.
The nurse, who, like the doctor, spoke perfect English, rolled her eyes.
“And some mandrax,” said the doctor.
“Have they found the lions yet? Did they stop the train?” he said.
The nurse was preparing the medicines.
The doctor hummed a little tune.
“That sniking graspole!” Rafi shouted. “That....”
“Be quiet,” said the doctor. “Tais–toi. You’re making a disturbance.” She’d been working all night too.
Rafi lay back. His head was swimming and his whole torso throbbed. The nurse sat him up again and starting feeding him pills. Then she turned him over and gave him his injections. Rafi lay with his head on the thin pillow, muttering filthy threats against Charlie. After a while he fell asleep, a tossing, restless, sweaty sleep in which he dreamed that he was very small and everybody was laughing at him.
Outside the hospital, Rafi’s horrible big dog, Troy, lay thin and miserable on the dusty earth beneath a municipal shrub. Though Rafi was a mean owner, Troy was a loyal hound, and it didn’t occur to him to do anything but wait.
Not far from the hospital where Rafi lay, a mangy black and white cat with a bald bottom was having a dreadful fight with a bunch of bigger cats who had called him names. He had been lurking by his new den in the bins behind a restaurant, quietly enjoying the remains of a thrown–out lobster, when they had come up behind him, circling him, and making comments about how of course a scrawny bald–bottom like him would have to eat out of the trash because no decent humans would keep such a horrible specimen....
The mangy cat stared at the luscious morsel of lobster for a moment. He was a peaceable cat as a rule—mouthy, given to insulting people and not known for saying nothing, but he was not violent. He detested violence.
So he turned around and let rip. I’m afraid I can’t tell you what he said because it was mostly swearing, but included a lot about their cathood, their lovability (or lack of it), their ignorance, and how they were a bunch of festering bliddy sniked–up graspoles whose own mothers would pay to have their whiskers minced. And worse. Luckily, because this was a north of England cat with a deep Northern English accent, these Parisian cats didn’t understand everything he said. But they got the gist of it. And they all jumped on him.
Now, the cat—his name was Sergei—may have detested violence, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t any good at it. He was, it has to be said, very good at it. He fought them off by all the dirtiest means—biting, scratching, leaping, coming up and under with his fangs agape. And he made the most appalling noise—caterwauling, shrieking, wailing like a banshee. Although there were four of them and they were bigger than he was, the Parisian cats really didn’t like the way he fought back, particularly when the chef, Anatole, stuck his head out of the kitchen door and joined in the shrieking. The Parisian cats ran off.
As they ran, one turned back and shouted out something that was not a simple insult. He yelled: “Yeah, you think you’re so clever, but at least we know where your precious scientists really are, which is more than you do, nyaaah....”
That stopped Sergei in his tracks.
What exactly did he mean by that? The scientists were in Venice somewhere. That’s what he’d been told. Admittedly he’d gotten the information off a cat who hadn’t really wanted to talk to him (snobby twagglers, these Paris cats). He didn’t like the sound of “where they really are.”
It didn’t take him long to catch up with the cats. They’d stopped to do some scavenging themselves—the hypocrites!—beside a restaurant in the next street. Sergei waited, and after a while the group broke up, and the cat who had yelled moseyed back up the street.
It was the work of a moment to jump out, land on his back, and pinion him to the ground, hissing in his ear: “Okay then, where are they?”
The cat who had yelled, yelled again. Sergei showed his claws, and described what exactly he would do with them if the cat yelled any more. The cat shut up.
“Okay then,” said Sergei again. “If they’re not in Venice, where are they?”
The cat hiccupped. “Vence,” he squeaked.
“Vence?” Vence! Sounds like Venice—had he just misheard? “Where the snike’s Vence?”
“In France. South,” said the cat. “Down—south.”
Sergei was pretty sure he hadn’t misheard.
“Why was I told Venice then?”
The cat was so scared that he blurted out his answer: “Proper cats don’t like Allergenies,” he said.
“Proper cats,” said Sergei dangerously, “aren’t prejudiced bigots. Now—are you lying to me?” With this he tweaked the cat’s ear.
“No!” squeaked the cat.
“Because if you are,” said Sergei, “I’ll get a gang of Allergenies to come and show you exactly how proper they are—you don’t mind fighting four to one, do you? No, I didn’t think so. Or do yer mind when it’s them that’s the four, and you are the one? It’s different then, int’it?”
The cat agreed that it was, but by then Sergei was just fed up and rather sickened by the whole thing, and he let him go. The cat ran off with his tail down, looking back every now and then to see if Sergei was following him.
He wasn’t. He headed back to his den outside Anatole’s, and just sat there, still shivering a little from the exertion and feeling sick and cross with himself for having a fight, and cross with the cat for being so stupid and small–minded, and above all sick at heart that he might have sent Charlie to the wrong place.
His piece of lobster was still lying there, greasy and pink in the gutter. He sniffed it, and ate it, but he didn’t enjoy it much.
Ever since the Catspeaking boy had tucked that note into his collar, he had felt changed. It had taken a little time to find out where the humans were, but he had found them, and had delivered the letter to them. That had felt good. If only those big lugs hadn’t been there, carting the humans off, he could have hung around and gotten a reply off them to take to Charlie.
He wouldn’t be feeling sick and cross if he’d managed to do that.
Through the kitchen door, open and emitting delicious fish smells from the wood grills, he could see Anatole in his white apron and checkered trousers, working hard.
Sergei remembered how carefully Charlie had written his letter, almost in code, so no one but his parents would understand. He thought Charlie was very brave and tough. He thought his parents very clever. Their cure for asthma would help all cats, and above all it would help the Allergenies. And now he, Sergei, had loused things up for them.
At that moment Anatole shouted something, and seconds later a bucketful of water came shooting out of the kitchen door into the street, right on top of Sergei, along with some concise French insults, along the lines of “Get out of here, you mangy useless cat,” only a lot ruder.
Sergei spluttered, his whiskers frisking. He had had enough of being a mangy useless cat. In the time it took for that bucket of water to soak him, he made up his mind. He was no longer going to be the kind of cat people throw water over.
“All right,” he said. “I get the message.”
He couldn’t just go to Venice and tell Charlie—he might be sending him on a wild–goose chase. He would go to Vence, and find out for himself.
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