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Tales from the Lonesome October: The Rat King 1

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He walked up to the microphone. Fog drifted off his dirty green coverall. He put a cigarette in his mouth and lit it with a zippo. He smiled.

"Here's my story for the night..."

My name is Kay Smith. I work for Mortimer Exterminators. The motto is ‘We Exterminate Anything.' My partner is Jim Jones.

We got a call for a rat job. An apartment building was infested according to the log sheet. We see it a lot.

One rat moves in. Then more move in. Then you have a flock of them. They chew through anything to get food. They can chew through concrete.

We loaded up Old 42 with the standard gear. Jim got the assignment sheet, a piece of paper from a memo pad, with the address on it from Ellen. She smiled as he waved goodbye.

They seemed to be trying to date. I didn't ask. What they did on their own time wasn't any of my business.

Jim drove. He likes it. I let him. Driving is just something to get me where I have to go. It's an end to itself for Jim.

He once told me he didn't get to drive that much when he was a civilian. I can believe that from riding with him.

Headquarters is a gym the boss took over and remodeled. It sits on the western edge of the city. The address for the job was the other side of the city.

Jim grinned like a little kid.

"Don't get too excited." I settled in my chair and buckled the harness. "I want to make it there in one piece."

"Don't worry about that, Smitty." Jim hit the lights on the lightbar on the top of 42. "I'll get us there."

He stomped the gas pedal. The panel truck jumped forward. The blue and red lights on the cab revolved. I settled back and closed my eyes.

I imagined the scenery going by slower than what it actually did as Jim rolled toward the nearby highway.

Honking horns heralded our arrival from the on ramp to the highway proper. I didn't open my eyes. I could hear the screeching of brakes as Old 42 barreled along.

Jim laughed as he pulled on his racing shades.

I don't know why he called them racing shades.

We pulled up in a parking space in front of the office of the apartment complex. The management had named it Seaview Place. Poetic names kill me. There was no sea in sight. They got the place right.

"How big a rat problem do you think they have?" Jim got out his side. He looked around. The shades went in his breast pocket.

I got out. I lit a cigarette. I looked at the complex. It had five buildings around the office which was a separate building. All of it was beige and dark green. I shrugged.

"Let's talk to the manager." I nodded at the office. "If it's big, we'll have to clear the people out so we can fumigate."

Sometimes we use gas in a building to drive out anything that's not supposed to be there. If we do that, we have to clear anything living out so we don't kill them by accident.

"More money for us." Jim smiled as we walked toward the office. "We could get a bonus for this job."

"Flat fee only." His face fell. I noted the no smoking sign on the wall next to the office door. I finished my cigarette before dropping the stub in the ashtray provided for that purpose.

"No bonus?" Jim shook his head. "That sucks."

"Contract." I pushed the door open and stepped inside.

The office was built in a basic octagon shape. The inner part consisted of two offices and a waiting room. Green carpet covered the floor. A chandelier hung from the ceiling with fake candles. A rack with real estate promises rested on a table next to the door.

A woman came out of the office on the left. She frowned, then smiled when she saw us.

"Exterminators?" She seemed surprised to see us.

I read the assignment page again. The contact said ‘marzi'.

"A Miss Marzi called our office." I wondered if it was prank call. We got those sometimes. "She said you had a rat problem."

"That's one of our tenants." The woman frowned. "Exterminators are supposed to go through the main office."

"We would like to look around before we go in case there is a problem." Jim smiled at her with his round face. "That way we can assure this Marzi that everything is okay."

"I guess there wouldn't be any harm in that." She smiled. "My name is April Ledbetter."

"I'm Jim Jones." He turned up the smile. "My partner is Kay Smith."

"The address is 5026." I wanted to spare myself any more flirting. "Would you like to show us which one it is?"

She looked at Jim. He shrugged.

She went to the office door and stepped out in the lot. She paused when she saw Old 42 in a slot with its lights and Mortimer Exterminators decals. She turned and walked down the sidewalk.

We followed.

Miss Ledbetter pointed at a building behind the office. The sign was green numbers on a white background. I walked over, checking for the apartment number on the contact sheet, then over the doors.

"Thank you, Miss Ledbetter." Jim gave her a warm smile and his hand to hold for a second. He followed me to the door.

I knocked on the door belonging to the address given to dispatch. I listened inside. I didn't hear movement.

Maybe she wasn't at home. Maybe the rats had eaten her before we could start trying to fix her problem.

I knocked again. She might be the sacrifice for the beginning of the end.

Footsteps walked across the hall behind the closed door.

The door cracked open. A thin face looked out. She gave me the onceover. I thought she didn't know that she called the company.

"Exterminators." I didn't have the gift of gab Jones had.

"Good. I have some big rats I need to get rid of right now." She opened the door. The dress was from the fifties, the hairdo barely there, and the rest from the stone age.

"Can you show us where you first saw these rats?" I stepped inside. Everything was neat and tidy. It looked almost like a museum. I scratched my head.

It looked like a stage, not a living space.

"This way." She led the way to a small kitchenette. She pointed to a hole in the wall. It looked like a rat hole to me.

"Big rat." Jim didn't sound happy then.

"We're going to need you to leave for a few minutes, Mrs. Marzi." I scratched my head again. I agreed with Jim. Whatever rat made that hole was a giant of the species. "If you and Miss Ledbetter could step outside, we're going to see what we can do about your problem."

"The snake?" My partner knelt by the hole. He sniffed. "Stinks."

"That was my first thought." I put an unlit cigarette in my mouth. "We run the camera down as far as it will reach and see if there is an exit hole somewhere. We plug both holes and gas him. Job's done."

"The job won't be that easy." Jim laughed and shook his head. "It never is."

"Don't ruin my hopes." I went out to the truck and pulled the camera and cable system called the snake off its holder. I toted it back into the apartment.

"Let's see what we see." Jim started setting up.

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Jim and I still use the old fashioned snake. Some crews have the high tech things with cameras in rovers you control with a remote control. Ours is a camera on a cable. You push it in a tight spot and it sends a black and white image back to the screen plugged into it.

Jim set everything up, round face intent as he concentrated. He gave the high sign he was ready. I pushed the camera into the hole.

The grainy black and white image didn't reveal enough.

"We might have to get the target gun out." Jim adjusted the contrast.

"Let's save that for the last resort." I shook my head, lipping my unlit cigarette.

The target gun weighed two hundred pounds and painted whatever you shot with radiation. I could do without giving people cancer.

Jim nodded as he worked on the screen.

He liked shooting stuff. It was in his blood. I preferred shooting when I had to, and only at the one thing that needed shooting.

"I think I see something." He sounded puzzled. "It looks like an exit hole."

"Problem?" I dropped the cable and looked over his shoulder. "It looks like another apartment."

"It sure does." Jim scratched his face. "I expected something heading outside."

"So did I." I looked around, trying to see the outline of the buildings in my mind. "We might have to check them all."

"That's bigger than our work order." Jim got to his feet. "We'll have to call the office and get someone to sign off on it."

"Call your girlfriend." I looked around the kitchen again. "Tell her to send backup. I don't like the smell of this."

"On it." Jim pulled out his company phone. "Backup for one rat?"

"If it's just one rat." I lit up my cigarette. "We have to look through the rest of the apartments. I hope the manager cares about her tenants."

"Hey, Elle." Jim put the smile in his voice. "I need a favor."

I left him to his sweet talking while going out to talk to the manager and her tenant. They gave me frowns of concern and annoyance at the same time.

"No smoking." Miss Ledbetter pointed at my cigarette.

"No caring." I took a big puff to emphasize my point. "We're going to have open every apartment in this building, maybe the others too."

"What are you talking about?" She looked at Mrs. Marzi. It was a killing look to me.

"Your rat exited in another apartment somewhere." I dropped the ash from my cigarette in the palm of my hand. "We have to find that hole."

"I can't authorize anything like that." She glared at Mrs. Marzi even more. The air was starting to catch fire.

I needed to get her back on the problem at hand. I didn't give the tenant much chance of holding on to her place after this, but that wasn't my problem.

"We'll pack up and leave." I finished the cigarette. "Someone else will have to find your rat. If anybody gets bit, I will be glad to testify for you when the owners are sued. I'll tell them you were just doing your job."

"She's not a nazi, young man." Mrs. Marzi gave me a shake of the head.

"Not my problem." I turned around to go back in the kitchen. "Call Ellen and cancel the job, Jim."

"Wait." Mrs. Ledbetter ran in front of me.

"Wait, Jim." I looked at her. She seemed indecisive. She didn't look like she was used to that.

"I'll call everyone and ask them to come out for you." She firmed up once she had made a decision. "Anyone not home, we can ask to open up when they come back."

"Go ahead." I nodded at the decision. "We'll have to get some equipment from the truck."

"I'll start calling, starting with the residents in this building first." She left the apartment.

"Do you think you can get this rat?" Mrs. Marzi followed me into the kitchen.

"If we can't, it's because it's hired the secret service." Jim had the cable from the snake almost rolled up in its reel. "Ain't a rat alive that can out run us."

"Elle sending backup?" I was more worried about if there was more than one rat. That hole was huge.

"Brown and Byrne." Jim finished packing the equipment. "What's the next move?"

"We spray." He made wrinkled face at that.

"Spray?" Mrs. Marzi stood at my elbow. "Why?"

"Everything leaves traces." I spread the ashes from my cigarette in a line on the other side of the hole. "We can spray a chemical and look for those in the apartments. It'll make finding holes easier."

"The residents won't like it." Jim picked up the snake box by the handle. "It smells when you first apply it."

"It's better than being bitten." I measured the hole in the wall with my hands. "This is a big hole for the size of animal we usually see."

"It's big for most of the dogs we see." Jim smiled at our client. "They can't get away from us either."

"I imagine." Mrs. Marzi smiled back. "Are you going to spray here first?"

"I don't see why we can't." He looked at me. I nodded.

No harm in making sure.

"You might as well watch us do it." I pulled out another cigarette. "Let's get the stuff out of the van and get started."

We walked to Old 42. I put the snake back on its rack. I pulled out two small sprayers while Jim got the light. He clicked it on to make sure the batteries were still good. I handed him his glasses and put mine on.

I lit a cigarette as I looked over the complex. We might have to mix more of the stuff to cover it all.

People were stepping out of their places. We waved at them as we went back in Mrs. Marzi's place.

I started spraying the place down as we worked our way through the rooms. We covered every inch of surface we could.

"It stinks." Mrs. Marzi wrinkled her nose at us.

"Are you ready for some magic?" Jim turned the lamp on with a grin.

"Lights." I pointed at the switches. She cut them off. "This is bad."

"What's bad?" She looked around. She couldn't see what we saw.

"Here." I gave her my glasses. The sharp intake of breath told me she knew what it meant.

"Everywhere." She handed the glasses back.

"More than one." Jim held the lantern down to the floor. "A lot more than one."

"Do you mind?" I nudged him with a boot. I put the glasses back on.

He gave us a look of puzzlement. He focused on our client. He blushed.

"Don't worry." He smiled. "It doesn't matter how many rats are running around, we'll get them all."

"Let's check the other places." I turned and headed for the door.

"What about the chemicals and smell?" Mrs. Marzi followed us to the first open door on the left.

"They fade away in an hour." Jim raised his eyeglasses to give her his full attention. "I would find a place to stay away from here until we give it the all clear."

"You don't have to tell me twice." She looked at her apartment. "I just moved in."

"When we're done, it will need some patching, but your problem will be gone." Jim lowered his glasses. "We exterminate anything."

I nodded at the next resident. We went and sprayed. The results were just as horrific. I marked a potential hole with a piece of tape. I wondered how many holes we would find.

We searched all the opened places. The residents thought we were spraying for bugs. We didn't tell them any different. Brown and Byrne showed up. I told them what we were doing and asked them to start on the next building.

They broke out their equipment and got to work.

We had to mix up another batch of the spray about halfway through the operation. The residents hated that almost as much as our prying into their homes. We took up our spraying where we left off.

The four of us met back at Old 42. Brown had parked 23 next to our van.

"This is a major problem." Brown popped some chewing gum in his mouth. Dark eyes on dark skin under dark hair made him almost a silhouette in the darkening sky. The Mortimer Exterminators patch was the only thing that showed as he moved. "They're everywhere."

"They're invisible." Byrne sipped something she called tea, but the rest of us called home made hootch. "All these traces, but not one real rat. Not likely."

Jim nodded in agreement, glasses hanging by his ears.

I agreed with them. I had been in the business too long not to know when something bad was about to happen.

"They're nesting somewhere." I threw the last smoked stub from my pack on the ground. "We're going to have to go in and find it."

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We decided to start at the original building. It stood near the center of the complex. The buildings at the edge of the lot had the least traces while that one had the most from what we had seen.

We decided to look around the basement again. We hoped to find some hidden lair of the monsters. Then we would have to clear it out.

The usual rules for lairs was block the exits, throw in the stuff, wait two hours, then inspect the damage.

The first problem we encountered was trying to find the exits to block.

The apartments had plenty of holes in the walls. We couldn't find any in the basement. Holes leading to the outside were also missing.

How did they get in and out of the building?

"We're going to have to throw smoke." I looked up at the ceiling. "That's the only way I can see to do this."

"Grenades?" Brown glanced at his partner. She shrugged. "How?"

"We throw them in the holes in the top floor." I looked around the basement. "Then we see where the smoke leaves the building."

"It'll use up all of our smokers, Kay." Jim rubbed his round chin with a pudgy hand. "We'll have to cut the air-conditioning to prevent it sucking up the smoke."

"Cut the air, Jim." I nodded to myself as a plan went through my mind. "Brown and I will throw the grenades. You two watch to see what happens."

"What happens if they stampede?" Byrne turned her sour face to look at me.

"I'll protect you, Jojo." Jim smiled. That was the last thing she wanted to hear from the expression on her face.

"Protect yourself, fat boy." She turned and headed for the door.

I lit up another cigarette as I looked the room over one more time. Byrne had said invisible rats. Don't let her be right. That would be too much for the curmudgeon to be right about something like that.

We armed ourselves with standard issue for attacking rats. I grabbed the chest of smoke grenades. I slung it over my back and headed up the stairs to the top floor. Brown was right behind me with the crate from his own truck.

"Take the north side." I headed south at the top landing.

I used my foot to nudge the door out of the way. At least we had the place to ourselves until we fixed things. I found the nearest hole, set the chest down, opened it, threw a grenade in the hole. Smoke started filling the crawlspace. I took a towel from the bathroom and jammed it in the hole to keep the smoke inside the walls.

I worked my way down that side of the building. I made sure the doors and windows were closed to keep the smoke in the apartments, and towels in the holes to keep the smoke in the walls as much as possible.

Elle was going to have a fit when she read the reports. Grenades were counted as separate expenses and not to be used except under the most dire circumstances. She would not like the fact that we just threw two cases of the things down inside a building that might need to be demolished instead of fumigated.

I would probably have to talk to the boss when it was over.

"I still have six left." Brown carried his lighter chest under his arm. "I couldn't find many holes big enough for a grenade."

"I don't see any smoke." I leaned over the rail to examine the front of the building.

"They don't have any exits?" Brown went back to the corner. He came back, shaking his head. "No smoke on the other side."

"We might have wasted those grenades." I grimaced at the chewing I was going to get. "We might have to pull out the big gun."

"Jim will like that." Brown smiled. "Where do you want to start?"

"Let's see if the others spotted anything first." I threw away my stub. "Then we get the gun and sweep from the top."

"Do you think Joan is right?" He started down the outside stairwell to put his grenade chest back in his truck.

"I hope not." I put my empty box down at the first floor landing and headed down to the basement. The air was remarkably clear.

"When are you guys going to throw the grenades?" Jim had a gas mask in one hand.

"Already did." Apparently none of the smoke had settled in the basement.

"No exit?" Byrne held her rat killer a little too tight for my comfort.

"No smoke anywhere that we can see." I sniffed the air. I couldn't smell the smoke that should be drifting into the basement area.

"How are they getting in and out then?" Jim went to the nearest grill for the vent system and sniffed. He shook his head.

"We're going to use the targeting gun and find out." He smiled at the thought of painting the building with x-rays.

"I'll get the lead vests and helmets." He hurried out of the basement.

Byrne and I followed at a slower pace.

We weren't in a hurry to give ourselves cancer because we had to beam the interior of our hunting ground until we found our culprits. She sipped at a silver flask once before we finished walking upstairs.

Jim and Brown were already setting out equipment cases for the mobile x-ray machine. I let them do the heavy lifting.

Jim laughed. Giving some rat cancer was his afternoon at the football game.

The next thing you knew he would be singing some Disney song.

Hopefully it wouldn't be ‘Whistle While You Work'.

They plugged in the car batteries in the backpack for the gun. Jim flipped the arming switch. The machine hummed to life.

"We're ready to make things glow in the dark." Jim started to strap the thing on.

"Give." I pulled on a lead vest. "I need you to be ready in case we turn something up."

"You take the fun out of this job." He handed me the backpack with a pout.

"That's my job." I strapped the backpack on over the lead vest. I pulled on the targeting eyepiece and plugged into the port for it. I pulled down the cannon and test fired it. The front of the apartment appeared in segmented lines in the eyepiece.

I didn't see any rats.

"Let's get this thing on the road." I started for the basement again. "We have to justify the bill we're going to file."

They fell in behind me. The company already had pictures of their skeletons from past jobs. They didn't need any more.

I hoped we found the nest. The rats had turned out to be a lot stranger than I liked. I didn't want to give them time to mount an offense and try to kill us.

They might succeed if they did.

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After a brief conversation, we agreed that the rats had fled the top floors of the apartment building. We decided to start on the ground floor of the original call. If they had unknown exits from the place, we would have to find and plug them.

I led the search with the targeting gun. The others stayed behind me a few feet to minimize any spillage.

A radioactive beam was not to be trifled with in my opinion.

Our progress was slow, but I found what looked like a clear route for the rodents. I used that to keep my search on target. About twenty minutes in, I found the door in the wall. I paused to think of our next move.

No one had mentioned a secret door. I used the target gun on either side of the door. Some kind of hall was behind the walls.

We needed to open it up and see what bearing it had on our infestation.

"We have a door that's been papered over." I pointed to the closed portal. "We need to open it up."

"No problem, Kay." Jim pointed his rat killer at the designated spot and pushed the button.

A whip of flame set the wall on fire. The fire alarm went off. The wallpaper peeled away from the door. It burned, but not as fast as we wanted.

"Good one." Byrne reached into her toolbelt. She brought out a slim blade as she went to the exposed doorknob and the lock mechanism underneath.

"Oops." Jim moved out of her way.

Byrne gave him a look before jamming the blade into the lock. She wiggled it a few times. The door opened with a squeak of long unused hinges.

"I'll go first." I pointed the targeting gun into the darkness. "Form up to give me some cover in case things go bad."

They formed a triangle behind and to my sides. Two of the burners could be swept through the same space with little effort.

I took pictures to show us our way. The lines weren't a big help, but they didn't give me visions of vermin skeletons. Brown turned on a light and hung it from his vest to help us out.

"Tracks." Jim's whisper cut the musty air. "They seem to be following the corridor down."

I nodded in agreement. I pointed the targeting gun down and at an angle. The resulting picture showed a spiral staircase heading beneath the apartment complex.

"Nothing yet." I started for the staircase. "There's a set of stairs heading down."

"Where did the secret passages come from?" Jim followed on my left. Dust exploded with his heavy steps at the edge of the trail.

"What's down at the bottom worries me a whole lot more than the architecture." Byrne took a hit from her flask.

"The rats must be at the bottom." Brown echoed my thoughts. We hadn't seen any so far. Where else could they be?

I didn't want to face them down there either. Too many things could go wrong in the dark.

"We got company." Jim's burner whined as he pointed it at the appearing reflections in the light.

"That's a lot of rats." Brown sounded nervous which made me nervous.

He was standing behind me. I didn't want him pressing the button and catching me in the blast. I stepped a couple steps to the left just in case.

"We have extranormal behavior here." Byrne's wrinkled face grew a few more lines as she looked at the rats. "The last thing they should be doing is looking at us."

"Keep walking." I hooked the targeting gun onto a carrying hook. I had a feeling I didn't need it anymore. "Let's see what's at the bottom of the stairs."

The others grouped around me. It would have been stupid to attack, or run, at that point. We couldn't run fast enough to get away from the horde. We couldn't burn them all fast enough before they overran us.

And we needed to know the cause of their strange behavior before we tried to deal with teeth that could chew through concrete.

We couldn't expect to live long if they decided to take us on.

"There's the staircase." Jim let his voice rise above a whisper. "How do you want to play this?"

"We go have a look at whatever the secret is, then we decide how we can get out of here without getting killed." I grabbed the rail on the staircase and felt my way along.

We clumped down the stairs with the ringing of shaky metal following us to the bottom. I doubted the thing would stand up to the four of us running upstairs at full speed if that had to happen.

A light glowed when we reached the bottom of the steps. It came from a small lamp powered by batteries. The rats congregated just outside its gentle glow. I wondered if the light hurt their eyes since they apparently lived mostly in the dark.

What would happen if we threw a ton of light on the subject?

That might be enough to get us clear if we had a big enough distraction.

I decided not to mention my idea. There was no telling how smart the little monsters were. If they were smart enough to understand me, it made them smart enough to counter my action if I told them.

"It looks I have visitors." A reedy voice drifted out of the dark. "It has been a while since I had someone to talk to besides my followers."

"How's it going?" I lit a cigarette while I thought. How could I tell this guy his followers were creating a mess upstairs and had to go? "We're here about the rats."

I doubted things would remain pleasant once negotiations started.

"My followers?" The voice remained in the dark. I thought the owner was close to the floor from the sound of it. "I don't understand."

"They have been raiding your neighbors upstairs." The others bunched around me at the reflections from the rat eyes. "We have been asked to stop it."

"My followers need to eat." The voice had changed position. "What would you have me do?"

"Raid places other than my client's." More of the rats appeared at the edge of Brown's flashlight. This was looking bad. "It prevents guys like me from coming down here, and it keeps a lid on things."

"That's a wise proposal. Let me consult with my advisors."

A chittering commenced. Apparently the rats were talking about the proposal. I wonder which way they would go.

They seemed to be getting excited. I hoped it wasn't at the idea of a free meal.

"I have consulted with my followers." The voice sounded happy and sad at the same time. That couldn't be good. "They wish to dine."

I flicked the lit cigarette into the horde. No use having it when I could use it for a distraction.

"Light them up."

Three beams of light cut loose around me. I ignored the smell as I pulled one of the flash grenades from my vest. We needed something to give us the advantage.

I pulled the pin on the grenade and dropped it in the mass trying to overrun us. I heard something squeak so maybe I hit one of the things.

"Fire in the hole." I closed my eyes against the explosion, and covered my ears. Hopefully, the others were doing the same.

The grenade went off. Light played across my eyelids. Sound deafened me through my hands. I wondered how the rats took it.

I gave Jim a push on the shoulder to get him going. He started spraying the floor with the burner. That cleared a path for us in a hurry.

Brown and Byrne sprayed out on the sides to keep them from charging while they recovered from the blast. I followed as fast I could with the targeting gun beating me to death.

I would have dropped it, but the company would have taken it out of my pay.

I would be paying for it forever. Those things were as expensive as a Hollywood mansion.

Jim swept the stairs with his burner to clear them off. The metal glowed a bright cherry red for a moment before it started cooling down.

The beams were giving us light to see by thanks to the funeral pyres we were lighting. The view didn't cheer me up.

We ran.


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