The Secret of Cecil Burns
Volume III: The Secret of Cecil Burns
Cecil fiddled with a teacup as Doctor Jones poured some cream. The doctor gave him a reassuring look, and settled comfortably back in his chair, motioning for Cecil to continue.
The white mouse swallowed nervously, and began to speak. “I suppose I don't know quite know how to begin. But one thing's for sure, doctor, and it is this – I'm not quite who I've said I am.”
Ratigan was now very glad that he had decided to have the doctor's quarters moved next to his office – sitting in a chair by the wall, with a glass to his ear, he didn't even have to strain to hear what was being said.
Not quite what he'd said he was, eh? This mouse would soon find that nothing, absolutely nothing was hidden from Ratigan by his own men. The king of crime nearly bristled at the very thought. This upstart would be made an example of, he would see to it! Already, Ratigan was thinking of tortures and hideous, lethal punishments that could be inflicted on Cecil Burns.
“That's not to say that everything I've said has been a lie – almost everything I've said has been the truth, save a few details.” Cecil fidgeted. “I just – I'd like to be sure you won't tell anyone. And I mean anyone. I'd also like to be sure that you won't judge me for this.”
“My boy, surely you know you can trust me -”
Somewhat surprised, Doctor Jones nodded slowly and said, “I swear on my life that I won't reveal your secret. Or judge you for it,” he added.
Cecil relaxed slightly, and gulped. “The thing is, doctor – my name isn't actually Cecil.”
On the other side of the wall, Ratigan waited, with a grin on his face so hideous and terrible that it would terrify any mouse who had the misfortune to walk in. He had him now! What was his real name? Did he plan to betray him? He would slaughter him for this deception! He would draw and quarter him – carve out his entrails for all of London to see! The Lord of Mousedom's Underworld was practically tingling with anticipation. No one ever betrayed Ratigan and got away with it!
“It's Katherine. Katherine Burns.”
It took him a moment to realize what he'd just heard. In that moment, you could've heard a pin drop in his office, he was so still.
When the realization hit, Ratigan was stunned at first, and then furious that he hadn't seen it before. It was all so obvious now!
He – she, he corrected himself – began speaking again, and Ratigan leaned back in to listen.
“My family has always been involved in crime, for many generations now. Our lives practically revolved around it – you won't hear the name Burns spoken of in any British underground circles, but we used to go by a lot of different names – Burnett, Bourbon, and Bentham being just a few. But when Mousetoria became Queen, things became much more difficult for us. London soon got its own police force, complete with detectives, and it became harder to keep up a life of crime in secret. Many of my aunts and uncles fled to Europe, spreading the family business there. My father stayed in England, and chose to live on the straight and narrow, so that he could act as my family's last contact in Britain.
“My brother Balthazar and I grew up respectably, in a house in Kensington. Balthazar had a fencing teacher, and when we were young, he secretly taught me how to use a sword. But things eventually went wrong – our father died when I was ten, and his assets were seized once he was found guilty of various crimes in his past. My mother, my brother and I were all disgraced and bankrupt. Balthazar sailed to Greece, to join our relatives there and send us money. My mother and I were left to fend for ourselves, and when I was twelve, she simply went missing. There was no trace of where she could have gone – no passports, no witnesses, no records of a woman by her description were anywhere to be found. She had simply vanished into thin air, and never came back.” She sighed and rubbed her forehead.
“I was left on my own, with nothing to my name. I tried sending letters to my family in Europe at first, but I had no money for tickets on a ship, not even enough for a fee to cross the Channel. God's teeth, I didn't even have enough money to eat. And so I came up with a plan.
“I was lost, on the streets, and girl, no less, which made it all the more dangerous. I had to change who I was in order to stay safe. So I found myself some old boy's clothes, and I became Cecil.
“My pride wouldn't let me stoop to begging or the poorhouse, so I turned to my family's age-old tradition – crime. I tried starting out as a pickpocket, but I didn't have much talent for it at the start, and got caught far too often for my liking. At the time, I wasn't big enough to fight back, so I got very good at escaping.
“Then one day, I was stealing food from a human house, and then I saw this,” she tapped the handle of her sword fondly, “sticking out of a large embroidery box. And seeing it changed my life forever. I was just playing with it at first, nostalgia bringing back memories of sparring with Balthazar. Then I brought it back home with me. And then I found myself sharpening it on a piece of steel, and before I knew it, I was carrying it around with me as a sword. I made the sheath and my belt out of a piece of lost leather from a tanner's place, and started hiring myself out as a mercenary mouse. I was surprised at how good I was – Balthazar had never called me skilled. But I pressed on, and in a few years, I was making quite a pretty penny.” Katherine smiled wryly. “It's been quite the life. I'm nineteen now, and you're the first mouse I've ever told.”
Doctor Jones took a long, deep breath. His eyes were wide. “That's....quite a story. I'm astonished you have made it this long without anyone finding out.”
“A few did – by accident, not by themselves, and they're dead now. I killed them.” Katherine's eyes were hard and cold. “Two people can keep a secret very easily. Even better if one of them is dead. You would do well to remember that, Doctor. I like you a great deal, and hold you in high regard, even consider you a friend, but I am not a gentle person, nor do I easily forgive.” The white mouse leaned forward to put down her cup of tea. “My telling you this secret means that I trust you. Very much. I am also trusting that you won't betray my trust. Tell me, Doctor, am I right to place my trust in you?” Katherine tilted her head, indicating that she wanted an answer.
Hastily, Doctor Jones nodded, his over-large ears shaking in fear. Katherine nodded in acceptance; she sat back and sighed. “I'm sorry for frightening you, Doctor Jones. I don't want things to be bad between us. I've been Cecil for so long, my identity as a henchmouse has become like armor. I hardly know anymore where the act ends and I begin. I feel like a crab who's just poked a hole in his shell, leaving my vulnerability exposed, and I'm dead terrified that it's going to bite me in the back. And yet, after all this time, I'm still relieved – I've been desperate for someone else to know for far too long.”
The medical mouse gulped and nodded, slowly regaining his composure. “And, er, what should I call you?”
“Cecil, or Mister Burns, in front of others. In private, you can call me Katherine. When I'm sure we're alone, I'll nod my head twice. If I think someone's listening, I'll shake it three times. Understand?”
Jones nodded. He had an excellent memory, even when he was being scared witless.
“Good.” Katherine stood up, as if to leave. “And Doctor Jones?”
He swallowed, wondering what else she was going to threaten him with. “Er, yes?”
“Thank you, for being an honest and trustworthy mouse. You don't meet many of those in my line of work.” Katherine smiled bitterly, and turned away, closing the door behind her.
David Solomon Jones breathed a heavy sigh as she left. Katherine Burns was a terrifying woman, to be sure. Then again, Ratigan was quite a powerful and frightening individual himself. The question was, did he fear Katherine enough to be willing to keep a secret from Ratigan? Or was he more afraid of his current captor? The big-eared mouse weighed his options. On one hand, he was totally in Ratigan's power, and it would be beyond difficult to keep a secret from the genius. And on the other hand, Katherine was the only one he had encountered since being first imprisoned here who had been kind to him at all, and she had even protected him from the others. Before he knew that she wasn't Cecil, he had hoped that the white mouse might help him escape – but now he knew the truth, and knew that she was in no position to help him. She was already in a precarious situation as it was, having a secret identity and all.
And so Doctor Jones found himself facing a dilemma. He could either betray his new, strong friend, thereby gaining a dangerous enemy, or risk being thrown into the jaws of a cat for keeping a secret from Ratigan. A difficult choice, to be sure.
As Ratigan removed his ear from the glass, he couldn't help but ponder the many answers to the question that was Cecil Burns.
He had heard of the Burns family before, but by the name of Belfast – indeed, they had been very prominent in criminal circles before Mousetoria had inherited the throne. The power gap they had left behind, among many other things, had contributed greatly to Ratigan's own rise to power. And now the very last member of the family left in England was working for him, as little more than a common thug.
Ratigan snorted in disbelief. It was truly a farce – a situation worthy of a Shakespearean comedy. A woman, dressing as a man, and living a thrilling life of crime! It was almost ludicrous.
Inwardly he berated himself, as he began to realize that the evidence had always been there, and he simply hadn't seen it. The sophisticated vocabulary, the high-pitched voice, her short stature and preference for privacy: everything had pointed to her secret from the beginning.
The professor found that he had to admire Katherine's ruthlessness – the eloquent phrasing of her threat had surprised him, and Ratigan found that he could easily imagine her being in a powerful position if her family had decided to stay in England. An elegant Duchess in the court of London's underworld, orchestrating crimes with the same cool ease as when embroidering an altarcloth.
It came as a surprise to Ratigan that he could so easily imagine her having long hair, wearing a dress and acting feminine. She would have been beautiful. Judging from what he'd seen of her hair from under the cap she wore, it matched the color of her fur, and was naturally curly – he could visualize it falling in ringlets to frame her face, perhaps pinned back in a swirling French braid. And she might wear a pale green ball gown that would bring out her eyes, made of silk and its neckline cut low to just slightly accentuate her figure -
Ratigan stopped himself before he could think any further, startled at his own thoughts. Watch yourself, Padraic – you only just found out that she is a woman! What makes you so eager? And besides, now that that little mystery is solved, one can expect that she's much more boring to you now. She's a simple henchmouse – a walking weapon! You have absolutely no reason to have an interest in her!
He decided that he would not expose Cecil's little secret. She had no desire to conspire against him, that he knew of, and as she was the only member of her family on this side of the English Channel, she probably didn't pose a threat. Ratigan's eyes narrowed as he thought of Doctor Jones. Him, however, he might have some words for.
Katherine Burns. Quietly, he whispered the name – it rolled off his tongue like he had been waiting to say it his whole life. The name Cecil didn't suit her anyway; it was quick and smooth, like the strokes of a sharp pencil – a pickpocket's name. Katherine was strong, fierce and fiery. And yet – Ratigan could see her in his mind's eye, standing at some high-society luncheon, acting shy and demure. He had noticed her kindness to the surgeon; there was a softer side of her, too, he was quite sure. Katherine would be too harsh a name for a friend to use with her, for her family to use with her – when she turned her kind eyes to them, calling her Katherine would be too formal. Ratigan mulled over this thought, and at last settled on a name. Kate, perhaps, might be suitable for an admirer to call her.
He had to, albeit grudgingly, admit that he admired her. In the last few days alone, she had proven herself to be of excellent wit and capability. But Ratigan would not let her inspire any sort of lustful or amorous desires in him – he was the Master Criminal, he could not afford to become distracted!
He stood up and dusted himself off. He needed to have a conversation with Jones – the heat in the room was getting stifling.
The door slammed open, startling the poor surgeon and sending him cowering under the chair. A large hand seized him roughly by the nape of the neck. “Did you really think you could keep a secret from me?” a voice hissed, and Jones found himself face-to-face with Ratigan.
“I – I, ah,” Jones stammered.
“You will answer me when I speak to you!”
“I – I'm sorry, sir! I – I didn't mean to -”
Ratigan threw him to the ground in disgust; Doctor Jones whimpered with pain as his ribcage connected with the edge of the table. “You are lucky that this is of little consequence to me. If this were something important, I would have you skinned from head to toe, roasted on a spit, and fed to Felicia. Count yourself fortunate that I have found out now, rather than later, when it might have affected me badly.” Ratigan seized him by the lapels of his coat and held him up against the wall, feet dangling from the air. His lips were curled into a terrifying snarl. “Next time, you will tell me. You will not keep the secret for longer than a second before coming to inform me, and heaven help you if you tell anyone else before myself. Understand?”
Jones hastily nodded, and Ratigan released him, carelessly dropping him into the seat of his armchair. “You are not to tell Miss Burns of my knowledge of this,” he ordered. “Act as though you have told no one. And if you let her know,” Professor Ratigan's lips curled into a terrible smile: “on your own head be it.”
And then he left, closing the door behind him as if nothing had happened. Only the Doctor's heavy breathing, the pain in his shoulders and ribs, and a few broken teacups were left of his outburst. But Ratigan had succeeded in making his point. Jones quivered and curled into a ball. What would become of him now?
Next Up! - Volume IV: Cecil The Opium Dealer!