Swarm (2000 words)

Mice aren’t clever. Despite what men in white coats eagerly scribbling on clipboards think, mice live simple, uncomplicated lives. They don’t worry about sin. They’ve never coveted their neighbour’s Cheddar. Mice aren’t good at passing on warnings down each generation. Young mice aren’t taken to famous trap sites and solemnly told, ‘Here’s where your Uncle Ernie passed away, thanks to some three-month-old Gouda and a Pratt ‘N’ Sons Big Cruncher Number 2.’ All they know is, what the hell, here’s something tasty to eat on a wooden board with wire around it. And before long it’s sniff-sniff, scurry, nibble SNAP dead.

Besides, any rodent who’d survived a clawing hissing ginger-furred monster and thought “Y’know what’ll fix this problem? A little tinkly bell” was clearly a few sandwiches, three folding chairs, a tablecloth and a whole winding trail of ants short of a picnic.

Rats, though . . .

Rats are smart.

The magical waste had helped. The dump they called ‘home’ and also ‘lunch’ was behind the University, and the big bearded men in pointy hats were always tossing stuff over the wall after they’d finished with it. All the battered spell-books and the stubs of dribbly candles and the grease scrapings from cauldrons ended up on the rubbish dump, along with the rusty tin cans and kitchen scraps. Oh, the wizards had put up warning signs saying DANGEROUS and TOXIC, but the rats hadn’t been able to read in those days, and anyway they liked dribbly candle wax . . .

If asked to describe what they did most days, the rats in Cheez Bitz’s gang would have given each other knowing grins of ‘This ‘n’ that’ or ‘Whatever we fancy’, although Chunky would’ve probably settled on ‘Hurrgghh?’ They were, in the eyes of an uncaring society, vermin, although they wouldn’t have thought of themselves as such and couldn’t even spell words like ‘disgusting’, ‘ravenous’ or ‘pox-ridden’. What they generally did was move things around. And yes, sometimes the things were on the wrong side of a locked granary door, say, or in the wrong larder up on a very high shelf. But if you didn’t have a celebratory widdle in the cream after a theft well done and leave a smelly calling card on the flour sacks, well . . . what kind of rat were you?

*

Cheez Bitz squeaked the signal to halt. The stick wobbled under his weight.

‘I’m right over the cheese,’ he said. ‘Smells like – yep, Dorset Blue, Extra Mature. Pretty mouldy, too. Move me in about two paws.’

The stick bounced up and down as he was pushed forward, hanging like a seesaw above the trap’s steel jaws.

‘Steady now,’ he muttered. Both counterweight rats and Chunky – the enormously fat rat acting as pivot – gave him pleading looks. Cheez Bitz ignored them. Dumb muscle was good for some things. Intelligent debate on workers’ rights wasn’t one of them.

‘Careful, sir,’ called one of the younger rats crowding the tunnel behind Trap Disposal Squad Three.

Cheez Bitz grunted, peering down at the monstrous teeth an inch below his nose. He pulled a sliver of wood from his belt, a tiny shard of mirror glued onto one end.

‘Bestbefore, Inbrine, move the candle left a bit,’ he commanded. ‘Your other left . . . That’s it. Let’s see, now . . .’ He pushed the mirror through the steel teeth and turned it gently. ‘Ah, thought so . . . it’s a Smyth and Jenkins Little Snapper, sure enough. One o’ the old Mk. Twos, but with the extra safety-catch. New-fangled stuff. Okay. We know all about these, don’t we? Cheese for tea, lads!’

Nervous titters from the watchers, then someone snickered, ‘Oh, they’re easy—’

‘Who said that?’ growled Cheez Bitz.

Silence. Cheez Bitz glared behind him. The young rats had shuffled aside, leaving one looking very, very alone. And very, very embarrassed.

‘Ah, Nutritious,’ Cheez Bitz nodded, turning back to the trap’s trigger spring. ‘Easy, is it? Glad to hear that. Easier than being back in Light Widdlers Platoon Four, hm? Good to know. You can show us how it’s fixed, then.’

‘Er, when I said easy . . .’ Nutritious began, glancing frantically around for assistance. None came. ‘I mean, Useby showed me on the practice trap and he said—’

‘No need to be modest, Nutritious,’ grinned Cheez Bitz, eyes gleaming. ‘It’s all ready.’ He winked at her. ‘I’ll just watch, shall I? You can get into this harness and do it all yourself, right?’

‘—but, but, but, I couldn’t see too well when he showed us, now I remember, and — and — and—’

‘And Light Widdlers Platoon Four thought you’d be good at trap disposal, did they?’

Nutritious blushed. ‘Er . . . not really, sir. Said I couldn’t be any worse than I was at widdling, sir.’

Sniggers from the ranks. Cheez Bitz frowned. ‘How can a rat not be good at that?’

Nutritious buried her face in her paws. ‘It’s just so . . . so embarrassing, sir.’

‘Right, right. Tell y’what,’ Cheez Bitz smiled. ‘I’ll work on the trap, shall I?’

Nutritious sighed with relief. ‘Yes, boss.’

‘And you can tell me exactly what to do,’ Cheez Bitz finished.

‘Er . . .’ Nutritious hesitated. Now she looked like a rat prepared to rejoin the Widdlers very shortly.

‘Jolly good,’ nodded Cheez Bitz. He carefully put his mirror away and pulled a thin length of wire out of his harness. He prodded the trap carefully; Nutritious shuddered as metal screeched. ‘Now where was I . . . oh yes, there’s a bar here, a little spring and a tripcatch. What do I do now, Miss Nutritious?’

Nutritious gulped. ‘Er, er, er—’

‘Things are creaking here, Miss Nutritious,’ Cheez Bitz’s voice echoed from the depths of the trap.

‘Er, er, you wedge the thingy . . .’

‘Now which one is the thingy, Miss Nutritious?’ Cheez Bitz sing-songed. ‘Take your time – whoops, this bit of metal’s wobbling but don’t let me hurry you along in any way . . .’

‘You wedge the, er, the thingy, er, the thingy . . . er, er . . .’ Nutritious’s eyes rolled wildly. Rabbits in headlights would have looked down on her with withering scorn.

‘Or maybe it’s this big—’ SNAP ‘–aaarrrrgh . . .’

Nutritious fainted.

Cheez Bitz slipped out of the harness and dropped onto the trap. ‘All fixed,’ he grunted. ‘I’ve clipped it firm, it won’t go off now. You boys can drag it out the way.’ There was a smattering of polite applause. He walked back to the squad and dropped a lump of mouldy cheese onto Nutritious’s quivering stomach. ‘It’s very important in the trap business to be certain, y’see. You’re certain or you’re dead. Don’t be like the first rat. Now let’s — yes, mister . . . ?’

A weedy little rat had raised a paw. ‘Halfprice, sir. Just transferred from Number Two Heavy Widdlers, sir.’

Cheez Bitz nodded. ‘New meat, eh?’

‘Yessir. Erm . . . why not be like the first rat, sir?’

Cheez Bitz drew himself up to his full height – all five inches of it – and stared down at the young rat. He felt a grudging respect that Halfprice stared back, instead of cringing away. ‘Squad! You know the drill. We don’t wanna be like the first rat, do we?’

‘No, Cheez Bitz!’ they chorused obediently.

‘We don’t wanna rush in like a skrllk idiot, do we? Not like Pinto, eh?’

A collective shudder; several rats cast mournful glances back toward the tunnel bend, where the late Pinto was mouldering in a snapper trap. He’d been a good rat, if a bit smelly. Loyal. Plucky. Upbeat can-do attitude.

Hadn’t saved him. And the stink was only getting worse.

‘No, Cheez Bitz!’

‘Why’s that, mates? Because the first rat who rushes in gets . . . ?’

‘The Trap!’

‘And the second rat gets . . . ?’

‘The cheese!’ they roared; dust showered down from the ceiling.

Cheez Bitz smiled proudly around at them. They were a good crew, all of them – scarred, bitten, ragged and greasy-furred – some with stubs for tails, others missing half an ear or a few claws. You had to be a special kind of rat to last a long time in the Clan. You had to be slow, patient, wary, and thorough. You had to have an excellent memory. Tread carefully. Check everything twice. Never rush in blindly and miss a trigger. And be extra, extra cautious.

Of course, you could join Trap Disposal Squad Three if you were fast and hasty and slapdash and overconfident. You could. You just didn’t live very long. Ten minutes, usually. An hour, tops. A rat who isn’t cunning and shifty and suspicious doesn’t become an old rat. These scabby veterans always trusted their noses. And you didn’t need to tell them where to widdle.

‘And don’t you forget it, mates.’ He patted Halfprice’s back. ‘Squad motto, Halfprice: “The second rat gets the cheese”. It’s your friend down here, pal!’ He turned as two more rats came squelching up the slimy tunnel. ‘Ah, Pilchard! That poison two bends back. Did your lot handle it?’

‘Buried and widdled on, Chief,’ Pilchard saluted. ‘The grey No. 3 type. Nasty stuff. Thought we was runnin’ low on ammo before Peaches found that nice trickle in the wall. All loaded up ’n’ ready for more, Chief!’

‘Good work. Marinade, how’s your warehouse squad doing?’

‘Six grain sacks gnawed through ’n’ marked safe, guv – just two more left!’

‘Well done.’ Cheez Bitz turned to the assembled rats and raised his voice. ‘Everybeast! In front of me, in your platoons, now!’

Quickly the rats shuffled into three large huddles. They’d had plenty of practice.

‘All right, gang, I want to see lots of cheeky stuff. Stealing the grub out of cats’ bowls, pies from under cooks’ noses—’

‘—false teeth outta old ladies’ mouths—’ smirked a small grey rat.

Cheez Bitz rolled his eyes. ‘That was a fluke, Gherkin, I betcha can’t do it again. And don’t keep on telling the kids how you went for a nice paddle in someone’s bathtub. Yeah, we all know you did, but I don’t wanna be losin’ anyone who can’t scramble out of a slippery tub. Anyways . . . if I don’t hear ladies screaming and running out their kitchens within ten minutes I’ll know you ain’t the rats I hoped you are. Now get to it. Cranberry? You lead ’em out.’

Amid muffled giggling, a big scowling rat sergeant stomped forward. ‘Nah then, yew ’orrible scruffy layabouts. You all know the drill; First Platoon, you’re on widdling duty. Go have a good long drink. Nothin’ puts humans off more than seein’ we’ve been around already. Second Platoon, you’re the Squeakers today.’ There was a hearty cheer – Sergeant Cranberry grinned. ‘Yeah, yeah. Settle down, lads. Run around under the floorboards and behind those wainscots makin’ all kinds o’ noise! That’ll drive ’em nuts! Third Platoon? It’s yer lucky day, buckoes – you’re Sneakers! Remember this ’ere’s a new neighbourhood, so we dunno what we’re gunna find. They might be using traps ’n’ poisons we ain’t never seen before, but we learn fast, don’t we? Go slow, go careful. You see any suspicious trays, anything with wires or springs, mark it ’n’ send a runner to me. Understood?’

‘Yessir!’ They roared. Cranberry saluted to Cheez Bitz. ‘All present ’n’ correct, Chief. Squads, on the double – waaait fooor it – by the left, for’ard . . . MARCH! Hup two, hup two . . .’

The three squads trotted away, Cheez Bitz proudly watching them leave.

‘Oh, and . . . Gherkin?’

‘Yeah, boss?’

‘Easy on the swimmin’, all right?’

‘I’m like a duck to water, boss!’

Cheez Bitz shook his head, grinning. ‘And no dancin’ on ahead of the trap squad!’

Gherkin pouted. ‘Aw, boss, can’t I have any fun?’ He waddled off into the hole.

Halfprice tugged on Cheez Bitz’s paw. ‘Shouldn’t we wake up Nutritious now, sir? Only it’s just . . . well, she’s . . . eww.’

Cheez Bitz sniffed the air, wrinkled his nose and frowned down at Nutritious. And what was slowly spreading around her. ‘Ugh. No wonder the Light Widdlers kicked her out. Well, if any humans come by, they’ll sure know there’s rats around now. Off we go then – Chunky, don’t lick that . . .’

© 2020 | Tom Burton

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