In the middle of the study belonging to Bilberry’s father Grimshaw was a giant globe of the world. Grimshaw used this globe to track Interpol sightings of Charcoal Lee, the last member still at large of that international rabbit crime syndicate the Brothers Lee. A devious mind and master of destruction, Charcoal had eluded capture for years. His depredations were marked on Grimshaw’s globe by black flags across three continents. There was a flag at the north pole, and another in the North Sea (on a tiny model of the oil rig Valiant, mysteriously sunk). There were flags at the sites of several recent armed train robberies. There was one at Chernobyl. And there was one in an area of Iowa whose residents had reported to the Guinness Book of World Records a late-dusk freak plague of locusts—the largest ever witnessed—across eight counties that had never seen locusts before. (No one actually saw the bugs, but everyone saw the miles upon miles of vegetable stubble, along with an inexplicable litter of toothpicks.)
This story, though, isn’t exactly about Charcoal. It’s about Bilberry—and his brother Custard Apple.
For all of his eager jet-setting, Bilberry sometimes didn’t have a clear idea of where he wanted to visit next. His bewilderment was particularly acute when he thought about his first trip, to Singapore. For Bilberry, nothing in the world could top the ginger garden there or the souvenir he’d brought back, a new brother. Bilberry’s friend the caviar sturgeon in Azerbaijan had invited him to visit in the spring, but that was many months away.
So Bilberry decided it was time to resort to The Globe. Bilberry also felt that his brother Custard Apple was finally old enough to join him on a journey. Together the two little rabbits knocked at the door of their father’s study. As it seemed that their father was away, they quietly hopped in and shut the door.
Grimshaw’s globe was so large that Bilberry could only set it in motion by kicking at it with his hind paws—somewhat like a donkey, but more friskily. Once he’d gotten it spinning, and Custard Apple had given it a nice thump for good measure (creating more noise than motion), the two brothers sat upright, eagerly watching the sphere go round, their heads flitting back and forth with each turn. Bilberry and Custard Apple clapped their paws each time a flag popped out and flew across the room. They were playing a game of travel-destination roulette, waiting to see where the globe would stop.
The globe slowed and finally settled. Near the top of the part facing the two rabbits, an island stood out prominently. Bilberry hopped up onto a chair and read, “United Kingdom.”
“I’ve never been to a kingdom,” he said, wide-eyed.
“A kingdom? I’ve always wanted to go to a kingdom—to be knighted,” said Custard Apple, who’d just learned about the procedure from a big book of fairy tales he’d devoured the previous evening. “Do you think rabbits can be knighted there? It does have ‘knighted’ in its name.”
“I don’t know, Custard Apple.” Bilberry looked more closely at the globe. “And I don’t know if it would be a good place to visit. England is part of the United Kingdom, and I think mom once told me that vegetables are badly treated there.”
“What about fruits?”
“They’re made into marmalades.”
“How horrible,” said Custard Apple. To a rabbit—particularly one from Southeast Asia—turning good fruit into a marmalade was roughly the moral equivalent to us human beings of making children into pies.
“But they have nice oat biscuits in the United Kingdom,” Bilberry continued. “The Prince bakes them. And they have a huge Ferris wheel, the biggest in the world.” Bilberry loved Ferris wheels and roller coasters. They were just like travel. A thrilling whoosh—slow or fast—and then an eye over a world you’d never seen before, and then another whoosh—and soon you ended happily where you began.
As usual, Bilberry prepared for the trip by lining a stout cardboard box with straw and filling it with his travel kit: The cushioned seats and helmets, the odor-proof container, the international return postage voucher, and so forth. Custard Apple, though, had his own particular additions:
·A piece of cheese, in case they met a friendly rodent;
·His best sweater, in case he was knighted;
·A framed photo of his new family (taken during supper at the trough, the only time Custard Apple could get them to gather and hold still for a moment, even if their faces were hidden)—with his twenty favorite siblings circled;
·A canister of lavender powder to freshen up travel-grimed rabbits, given to him by his sister Vodka—(“Not too much, Cus, or you’ll sneeze”);
·Cat treats, in case they needed to bribe a cat;
·A glass cutter, in case they ended up in a cage; and
·A red, white, and blue backpack to hold everything.
Bilberry allowed everything but the cheese. He explained to Custard Apple that after a few days in a confined space, the cheese was likely to turn a friendly rodent into an unfriendly one.
Before bringing the box to the post office, the two rabbits went to an office supply store. After the rigors of his last voyage to Paris, Bilberry decided to add to his usual “Urgent” label a few others: “Fragile,” “Do not freeze,” “Delicate instruments—don’t drop,” “Do not use blades to open,” and “Biohazard.” Custard Apple also picked out a “Made in U.S.A.” label (with a metallic flag). After a number of happy months in the States, he was becoming a little jingoistic.
They brought the box to the post office where Bilberry’s friend worked. Some dickering took place over the appropriate amount of postal insurance, as Custard Apple was very attached to his sweater and photo. Extra bubble wrap quickly cleared up the concern. Bilberry’s friend slapped on an “Overnight” label, the brothers together drew a big, eager breath, and in they went!
When Bilberry and Custard Apple arrived the next morning at the U.S. embassy in London, it seemed to them that the postal services had ignored every label except perhaps “Made in U.S.A.” The two rabbits, shaken, haggard, and feeling, as Custard Apple put it, like mangosteens in a marmalade, curled up together in the now blessedly still box and took a long nap. At dusk, they cautiously emerged from the secret flap in the box into the embassy mail room. A window opened onto a soft, breezy evening. They scrabbled up a chair, dropped from the window sill, and scampered under the embassy gate out into the kingdom!
“Mama,” asked a little boy when he saw Bilberry emerge onto the sidewalk, “is that Peter Rabbit?”
“No, dear. That’s the Fierce Bad Rabbit,” the mother replied, shepherding her son onto her opposite side.
Bilberry licked his paw and tried to smooth down the half-crescent of white fur on his forehead. It was sticking up sharply against his dark brown fur, and looking like a horn. Bilberry was constantly embarrassed by his tuft.
In the Tube, the two brothers politely occupied the same seat to leave room for other passengers. It was some time before they noticed a cat directly above them, hanging from a strap. Now when a human passenger hangs from a subway strap, he more often than not finds it convenient to touch his feet to the ground. This cat, though, had managed to insert his hind paws through the loop and was hanging head down, reading a magazine.
“Excuse me,” said Bilberry to the cat.
“I’m sorry,” said the cat. “Am I in your light?”
“No, Mr. Cat. No, I’m just wondering how you managed to get up there.”
“Ah well, thanks for asking. Couldn’t be simpler, small rabbit. First I jumped onto a seat. Then onto the roof of a pram. Then onto a rucksack nearby, then up to the pole that holds the strap… Often there’s no pram available, so I have to climb someone’s coat. During the summer, it’s a bit trickier. I’ve got to push off a shoulder quick-like and hope someone else gets the blame…”
“But why don’t you just use a seat?”
“That wouldn’t be like a cat, now, would it?”
“Would you like a cat treat?” Custard Apple interjected.
The cat squinted for a moment at the second rabbit and then the proffered morsel.
“Don’t mind if I do,” he said, jumping to the ground.
“Very fine that,” he noted as he chewed. “Thank you kindly. You’re Yanks, aren’t you?” he asked Bilberry, who, as the (slightly) larger rabbit, seemed the (slightly) more commanding. “That’s to say, I noticed your friend here has a U.S. flag stuck to his stomach. Are you tourists? What are you going to see?”
“We’re going to visit the Ferris Wheel,” Custard Apple replied.
“What, the London Eye you mean?” said the cat.
“Is that what it’s called?” asked Bilberry.
“Yes, but it’s stuck, you know.”
“Oh no,” said Bilberry.
“British engineering,” sighed the cat. “Someone’s been hanging up there for twenty-five days.”
“Oh no!” said Bilberry.
“No worries. It’s a bear. I think she just gave up and went into hibernation. But say, lads, you obviously know good food. Why don’t you come with me instead? I’m going to the big food expo.”
Bilberry’s eyes widened.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said the cat. “No worries, mate. Vegetarians are welcome too—strictly as visitors, strictly as visitors. Why, my best friend’s a water vole, you know.”
In attendance at the Excel Center All-Britain Boiled and Pickled Pet Food Exposition were many different types of animals. As their new cat friend—Toby by name—had promised, there was a strictly enforced armistice. It was curious to see hamsters and parakeets hobnobbing with cats, guinea pigs with dogs, monkeys with rabbits, and chameleons with teacup pigs, all chit-chatting about the latest product releases and speculating on prizewinners. (Still, there were a few badger bobbies about with truncheons and muzzles to be sure that peckishness didn’t get the better of manners.)
The item above all that had the chattering, squealing, chirping, bunnying, and meowing classes abuzz, however, was the Grand Float. This, the annual centerpiece of the expo, was a magnificent, fifty-foot construction created entirely of pet food and shaped like an animal. What animal changed every year, and was both a secret and a source of speculative delight to the delegates. At the end of the day, the Grand Float would be unveiled to the cacophony of the vast menagerie’s cheers. The animals would then parade around it in a closing pageant for the Expo.
“Splendid thing!” Toby remarked to the rabbits. “It’s been in the shape of common pets in my years here. The float was a dog last year and a cat two years ago. Heard a rumor that it’s going to be a ferret this year. Minority representation, you know. But let me take you ‘round to the stands.”
Custard Apple and Bilberry were, of course, not in the pet line of business. They were what you might call freelance or independent rabbits. They were unaccustomed to pet food. While they happily snapped up rabbit-food samples—in fantastic foil packages that outshone the color of any fruit imaginable, and with enticing names—Apple Jackrabbits, Froot Lops, and so forth—the two rabbits found they were invariably disappointed by the taste. Perhaps this was because they ate the foil packets along with their contents. But perhaps not.
No such disappointment affected Toby. He had generously led them around the rabbit-food stands first. Once they’d nearly finished chewing through a half-dozen treats (and packets), he led them by the paw to the cat-food section of the Expo. He seemed perfectly piqued with the samples there.
“This is the life, lads, ain’t it?” he said, scarfing down samples as fast as he could claw open the packets. “If only cats could drink beer too…”
At one of the stands, he introduced them to a friend of his, a cat of enormous girth named Mustapha.
“How do you do?” chimed the two rabbits. The massive cat said nothing. He blinked down at them indifferently. Custard Apple chose not to offer a cat treat.
“Sorry about that,” said Toby as they moved away. “He didn’t mean that as rudeness exactly. In England, you see, everything is about pedigree—class, you know. Now Musta’s great-great-great-great-great (takes the wind out of you, it does) great-great grandfather was in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. That’s why he’s a little aloof. Snobby you might say.”
“What did his very great grandfather do in Possum’s book?” asked Custard Apple.
“Lay in the middle of the road.”
“That doesn’t sound very impressive.”
“But it is. No working-class cat that one. And this is the Possum’s we’re talking about, lad. Truth be told, nearly every cat in England today’s a descendant of somebody in that book. But what goes on in the alleys of London usually stays there. This bloke Musta just happens to have inherited his grandsire’s flea collar.
Oh, I say!” Toby suddenly interjected.
A large movement of animals was now taking place in the direction of the grandstand where the float was to be unveiled. Imagine Noah’s Ark, but rather than a two-by-two procession, something more like a fortyodd-by-fortyodd. And while every species in the world was represented twice in the Ark, here there were only some thirty or so species, each represented thousands of times over. And while the animals coming out of the Ark processed in neat order to the approbation of the Lord, here the noise and chaos and scattering of pet-food samples and shoving and braying and dog and cat and rabbit and iguana and guinea pig equivalents of elbowing were simply ungodly. It was all the badger bobbies could do to prevent larger animals from eating smaller ones to advance a place or two toward the grandstand.
As this mayhem unfolded, a strange and unexpected thing happened. The sky began to darken, and a fog drifted down. Not the light mist common in the city of London today, but a thick London Fog such as the metropolis had not seen since the ash-spewing mills of the Victorian Age. It settled over the Expo grounds and blinded and hushed the animals.
“What’s happening?” asked the two rabbits.
“I don’t know,” Toby replied, unconsciously whispering. “Wasn’t part of the program last year.”
Toby and the rabbits looked around, trying fruitlessly to get their bearings. Forms floated in and out of the swirling mass of gray. Then, in the distance, a dark shape—so dark that it was as though a hole had been punched through the fog—shot by.
“Oh boy,” said Bilberry, with a mixture of fear and unaccountable delight, “That’s Charcoal.”
“What? The Rabbit Scourge?” exclaimed Toby, standing up on his hind paws.
“The one dad’s after?” asked Custard Apple.
“Yes,” said Bilberry. “I wonder what he’s doing here.”
“Impossibly voracious appetite, that bloke, right?” Toby asked.
“Very,” said Bilberry.
“Very,” said Bilberry, again with an inexplicable note of glee.
“Right,” said Toby firmly—although precisely what was right was unclear in his mind and those of his companions. “It must be…” he licked a paw and started grooming himself. “Sorry, helps me think.” He stroked his head, then worked at his ears. Then, lying on his back, he licked and ran his paw over his stomach in long strokes. He stopped abruptly. Urgently contorting himself, he flipped back over onto his feet. “The float!” he exclaimed. “Must be! That villain’s after the float!”
“What do we do?” asked Bilberry.
Again the black form shot through the fog, this time closer.
“We’ve got to stop him,” said Custard Apple. “What would Dad do?”
“Probably let him escape,” said Bilberry—strictly to himself, mind you. (He didn’t want to make his brother cynical.)
“Bobbies! Badgers!” shouted Toby. “Over here! Follow my voice! The float’s in danger.” He waved his paws. Two bobbies emerged, dazed, from the fog. Again the black form flashed by. “Over here! Over there! The Rabbit Scourge!” The bobbies hurried off, blowing their whistles.
It’s happening again, thought Charcoal. It happened every time he went out and tried to pack down a solid meal. They were chasing him. Why were people and animals always chasing him and trying to lock him up? All he wanted, after all, was a little food and a little love…
In front of Toby and the rabbits, a huge form materialized out of the fog. It was Musta.
“Musta, thank God you’re here,” said Toby. “Charcoal—the Rabbit Scourge—he’s here—after the float. I’m sure of it. We need your help.”
Musta slowly squinted.
“Musta, you’re big. Can’t you eat him or something?” Toby asked. “There, there!” He pointed. The black form flashed closer, easily outrunning a badger bobby, whose vague form wafted through the fog.
By this time, the rumor of impending attack had worked its way to most of the animals. Noise and commotion could be sensed even through the gray pall over the Expo, which was now beginning to thin as the animals bestirred themselves. A group of German shepherds formed a posse and dashed around the grounds. A family of chameleons approached the grandstand and tried to disguise themselves as barbed wire. Twenty-one pigs formed a pyramid to keep a lookout.
But the dark form again flashed into view, nearer now, darting across the road, outrunning the German shepherds. A crowd of animals gathered around Toby and the rabbits, squabbling deafeningly about what they could do to stop the menace. There was no possibility of moving the float. Only the badgers were well armed. Should they call the human police? But then how many delegates actually had valid pet licenses? A multitude of animal voices of despair pierced the air. Only minutes, seconds, remained.
Suddenly, with astonishing speed, Musta, who until now had stood immobile, lumbered through the pandemonium. He flopped his great bulk into the middle of the road. Immediately afterward, Charcoal cut through the fog, running headlong down the road, making for the grandstand. As he approached Musta, he hesitated. Which way around the fat cat? It was at this moment that Custard Apple displayed his unknown reserves of brilliance and sang froid. He whipped open his backpack, yanked out the canister of lavender powder, popped it open with the butt of his glass cutter, and flung the entire contents into the air.
Reoriented now, darting around the mass of Musta, Charcoal bolted into the cloud of powder. He stopped. He sniffed, cocked his head with intrigued pleasure, and then began to cough and sneeze—not once or twice, but uncontrollably. His immobility betrayed him. Two badgers scurried up the road and seized the hapless criminal. He gnawed through both of the muzzles they tried to apply to his snout and one truncheon, as well as their gloves, a belt, a few of their whiskers, and a patch of the asphalt on the road, but they held him fast and marched him away.
It was with the jubilation born of an eagerly anticipated festivity and relief at averted catastrophe that an hour later, the organizers of the Excel Center All-Britain Boiled and Pickled Pet Food Exposition unveiled the Grand Float, in the shape of—Custard Apple! (They’d hastily bobbed the tail of the ferret float and filled out the ears a bit.)
Custard Apple modestly declined to lead the parade, arguing that Mustapha would be the more visible leader. But he didn’t decline an invitation telegraphed to him at his suite at the Ritz the following day. The Queen herself informed him that he figured at the head of an impromptu Honour’s List. Might he possibly drop by the Palace on Tuesday? Custard Apple didn’t know whether he’d need a squire, as in the fairy tales, but Bilberry happily agreed to accompany him, just in case. And he promised to work very hard to keep his tuft in place.
At the knighting, Custard Apple wore his best sweater, so providentially packed in his backpack. He sat quite bravely, as, with unsteady hands, the Queen lay the sword as close as she could in the vicinity of each of his small shoulders while trying to avoid impaling him. At tea afterward, she took an unusual interest Sir Custard Apple’s family photo, declaring that indeed his sister Vodka had a truly beautiful coat.
“It’s too bad,” sighed Bilberry to his brothers and sisters, back at home. “I don’t think Charcoal ever really means harm. I wonder if he’ll escape from the Tower of London.”
None of them suspected that at that very moment, Grimshaw was at the globe in his study, planting a black flag on the city of Edinburgh.