On the Saturday Tepic was working in the factory, carefully packing the full tins of polish into their wooden crates under the watchful gaze of Mr Popplefot. Other workers came and left as their shifts changed, with Fly Copperfield working opposite the young fox-boy, though the diligence each was showing to the task differed markedly.
Their friend Stormy pushed open the heavy door and sauntered in, smoking a pipe in defiance of the clear signs against embers and naked flames in the fume laden factory. He waved to his friends and looked around, seemingly unimpressed by the state of the place. Tepic looked up and stopped packing, realising Stormy was not one of the regular workers on the factory floor. Wiping his hands on his apron, he approached the lad and in a rather stilted voice asked “Hello Stormy, are you a worker for Mr Popplefot yet?”.
The newcomer looked at him in astonishment and exclaimed “Worker? PIFFF… no, why would I wanna do that?”
“To get money?” Fly commented, to which Stormy shrugged as if to show he had no need.
“Mr Popplefot treats his workers well,” Tepic said, “and if you work hard you too could get promoted and have a successful working life…”
There was a snicker from Fly at this, but almost as if unaware the boy continued “Look at me, I have worked hard and earn lots of money to pay for my friend’s doctors and I have been promoted to Head Boy.”
Each word was enunciated as if being carefully read off a paper, with no inflection, and without the normal contractions urchins used in their everyday speech. The other boys glanced at each other and a slight frown came to Fly’s forehead.
Mr Popplefot came down from his high seat to speak to Stormy, encouraging him to join the workforce. Quickly Fly got back to packing, though it was obvious his attention was wandering. Shortly after, the man announced he had to go and arrange some business and that Tepic, as Head Boy, was in charge. He left as Tepic was showing Stormy the correct way of packing the blacking tins and Jimmy and Myrtil arrived for the start of their shifts.
Jimmy slipped a small bundle of money to Tepic, along with a note from Mr. Dark stating it was honestly come by. This piqued Fly’s interest, and the two new arrivals explained how Tepic was working to pay for Miss Beatrixe’s hospital treatment and that they were helping out. The lad felt a bit bad about his earlier teasing of Tepic and bravely offered an apology. It was clear to them all that their fox-tailed friend was not entirely compos mentis, his replies to their enquiries remaining stilted and flat. Jimmy gave him a sweet roll to eat, but he looked at it blankly for a short while then placed it neatly in a packing crate with the tins before putting the lid on.
The others fell silent as Tepic worked, filling each crate with precision until all the tins on his bench were packed. It was then he placed another crate in place and proceeded to fill it with non-existent tins. Fly was the first to pipe up.
“Yes, Fly?” came the reply, as from a distance.
Jimmy chipped in with “Tepic? Wot are ya doin’?”
“Think you’re packing thin air.” Fly commented, and Jimmy continued the theme with more worry, “But yer just movin’. Ya ain’t packin’ nuffin!”
At that moment the clock struck, and Tepic stood back from the bench, hands falling to his sides.
“The hour has turned, the shift is over, packing is stopped.”
His friends looked at each other and had a whispered discussion as to the state of his mind, with the hope that all he needed was a good night’s sleep, but when they suggested this to him he just told them he had to do his rounds. He staggered a little as he left the factory, leaving his companions to wonder what to do next.
Deep beneath the streets of the City a light bobbed along the sewer tunnel, a pool of illumination in the darkness. Occasionally it would vanish, as the person carrying it stepped up side tunnels or alcoves, returning to the main shaft several minutes later. As it drew nearer it was clear the light bearer was Tepic, doing the rounds of his vole traps. It had obviously been a good night, as could be seen by the string of limp bodies hanging from his belt, and here, by the ladder leading up to the street, was the final trap, with half a dozen of the small creatures scrabbling around inside.
The boy held the lamp over the cage and stared down at the squirming bodies, desperately looking for a way to escape the unfamiliar light. He stood there motionless, almost as glassy eyes as the dead voles on his belt, then after several minutes, he fell to his knees, gazing at the trapped creatures. Carefully he placed the lamp beside the trap, then released the pin holding the door closed. Instead of reaching in and catching the first victim he let it fall open, and in moments the tiny blobs of fur had scurried into the darkness. He remained where he was for some time, then, with a sigh, reset the trap, and started to climb the ladder back to the surface. Sometimes the hunter knows what it is like to be trapped.