The Rat Czar

He stopped in front of the door, took out his handkerchief and wiped an imaginary smudge off the polished brass nameplate. The embossed black letters read: Frank Pico, Commissioner for Rodent Control. Originally he had had some misgivings about the title and the acronym CRC, but his apprehension evaporated when the press began referring to him as the Rat Czar. Today was his first day on the job.

Work was about to begin on the new subway extensions and the experts had almost derailed the project by apocalyptic prophecies of hordes of rats about to be released from their cozy underground burrows to run wild in the city. The mayor had become alarmed by the steadily escalating size of the demonstrations by citizens organizations such as “Mothers against Rats.” Even the leaders of the depressed communities which would benefit the most from the subway extensions capitulated under pressure from their local chapters of “Mothers.” Intensive negotiations had led to an agreement under which the mayor would appoint a commissioner who would be given plenipotentiary power and adequate resources to wage a war on the rats. In his hour of need, Mayor Anderson had turned to Frank Pico.

Not that Pico was his first choice. But Anderson’s cronies were comfortably ensconced in their positions and refused to take the job. To be CRC was distasteful to say the least, and since there was no guarantee of success, even the rank of commissioner proved to be an insufficient inducement. But Frank Pico jumped at the opportunity. He had been Assistant Director of Sanitation, Assistant Director of Housing Inspection, and Assistant Director of almost every branch of the municipal government. He had a burning ambition to be Director of Something, but had always been stymied by the distribution of directorships among the patrician politicians in city hall.

Of course, Pico was too astute to be seen lusting after the position. He had had his name dropped by the right people, had played hard to get and finally, after a long bargaining session with Mayor Anderson, came away with the two things dearest to the heart of an official: absolute authority to distribute patronage and every perk that had ever been invented by the fertile imaginations of municipal politicians.

Frank Pico glanced at his watch which showed 09:25. While he always insisted that his staff be punctual, he had learned that a boss’s prestige is enhanced by moderate tardiness. He opened the door and stepped into the outer office. Maureen rose to greet him. Even if he had been a mere director and not a commissioner, he would have been allowed to choose his own secretary. But a commissioner’s secretary earned thousands more than a director’s so there were dozens of applications, each accompanied by a large photograph and each duly supported by some important community leader. Pico had them all checked out and finally offered the job to Maureen.

Maureen’s office was well-furnished with the best equipment. His glance noted a glossy new laptop, the most prestigious smartphone, and a multiline telephone, in addition to something that he thought was a “tablet.” The potted plants were real, not artificial. On the left, a leather padded door led to his office. Pico returned Maureen’s greeting with a smile and entered the inner sanctum.

The deep pile of the beige carpet absorbed the impact of Pico’s steps as he strode to his desk. He sat in the black leather executive chair and surveyed the room, noting the warmth that emanated from the teak-panelled walls and ceiling. From his days as a housing inspector he could appreciate the difference between real teak and teak-stained pine. His desk was large and uncluttered. There was a futuristically styled multi-line telephone and another direct line to the mayor’s office. A fountain pen for signing documents and gold-framed pictures of his wife and children were the only other objects visible. A conference table abutted the desk. Across the room, a plush sofa, armchairs and a coffee table. A well-stocked bar was nearby, though Pico had long ago learned not to drink on the job.

Two large windows displayed a panorama of the city’s skyscrapers as far as the harbor. Above his head hung a portrait of Mayor Anderson flanked by portraits of the President and the Governor. Frank Pico opened the buttons of the jacket of his new pin-striped suit, leaned back and carefully rested the heels of his wing-tipped shoes on the desk. Not bad for a high-school dropout.

His reverie was interrupt by a gentle buzz from the telephone followed by Maureen’s voice, “Mr. Pico, the staff is here for the opening meeting.”

“Thank you, Maureen. In five minutes you can send them in.”

“Yes, Mr. Pico.”

Pico straightened himself up and took a few deep breaths. The Rat Czar was ready to begin work.

* * * * *

The staff filed in and took their places around the conference table. Prof. Peter Walsh from the Zoology department of the University was the scientific advisor. Though Walsh felt more at home in a custom-tailored suit, to improve his credibility he cultivated the appearance of an absent-minded professor with a pipe and a tweed jacket.

Across from Green sat Richard Trent. Pico had chosen him to be in charge of recruiting the exterminating crews because rumor had it that he was well-versed on the hiring of illegal immigrants.

Unlike Walsh and Trent, the financial officer Adrian Davenport was impeccably dressed. Polishing his Harvard MBA in a penthouse overlooking the park, Davenport could barely discern the inner city neighborhood where he had grown up.

Maureen sat at the far end of the conference table and prepared to take notes. Pico pressed his finger tips together, dipped his head as if in thought, then raised his eyes to look directly at the assembled staff and began the opening oration that he had practiced during the preceding week.

“Gentlemen, I would like to welcome you to the Commission on Rodent Control. You have each been hand-picked to rescue our great municipality from a terrible fate. The subway extensions are necessary if we are to solve the transportation problems that threaten to drive away existing business as well as new investment. And yet, we cannot let the rats flood our streets, sweep through our homes and bite our babies.”

Pico paused for a few moments. Trent would have liked to remind him that there were no voters present to be impressed, but he let it pass. After all, how long could the speech last? Pico continued.

“Mayor Anderson has chosen me to fulfil the awesome task of exterminating the rats as they poke their heads above ground.”

“As if the mayor had a choice,” thought Walsh.

“We will attack these disgusting creatures and not let up until not a single rat remains within the city limits.”

“We could give them subsidized mortgages to move to the suburbs,” Davenport groaned to himself.

“Before we get down to work I have asked Prof. Walsh to describe the enemy to us.”

Walsh stood up and took a flash drive from his briefcase. Maureen pressed a button, a screen descended from the ceiling and the room darkened. Walsh shuffled his notes, cleared his throat and began his lecture.

“Gentlemen and my lady,” he began, “today, we are going to talk about animals from the genus Rattus of the family Muridae of the order Rodentia, or in layman’s language: rats. Our first slide shows an individual of the species Rattus rattus also known as the black rat. The black rat is a voracious consumer of grain, responsible for near famine conditions in some areas of the world. It bore the bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the fourteenth century.”

Prof. Walsh paused. “But the black rat is nothing compared with Rattus Norvegicus, the Norwegian or brown rat, which is bigger and more ferocious. They live in underground burrows and sewers, and can grow as large as cats. When hungry they will eat anything. Please close your eyes, Maureen; the next slide is not for the squeamish.”

Walsh continued his lecture, oblivious to the fact that all those present counted themselves among the squeamish.

“Here we see the face of a baby who was severely bitten by a rat. Luckily, his parents chased the rat away almost immediately, as they have been known to kill children. In the next slide I have a chart detailing the computed density of the rat population in various areas of the city. I say the computed density, because I haven’t done a burrow to burrow census, ha, ha. Even so, you can appreciate that in the area of the subway construction, there are over a million rats. Now, you might ask, why we don’t see these teeming millions among us every day?”

Pico was getting fed up with the lecture and wished that Walsh would get to the point. An imperial glare directed at the professor had no effect and the lecture continued.

“The reason is that rats are nocturnal creatures. They live underground and only emerge at night to feed. Our heaps of garbage, our sewers and occasional cats supply sufficient nutrition. In times of distress, rats even resort to cannibalism.”

Walsh’s voice rose as he reached the climax of his lecture.

“When we dig, gouge and tunnel into their habitats, these rats will flee seeking refuge in all directions, by day as well as by night. Woe betide those who cross their path.”

“Jeez, Walsh, whose side are you on anyway?” Pico interrupted him. “I mean we’ve just got to kill the little bastards.”

Prof. Walsh was stunned. He gathered up his notes and sat down. When the lights came on, Pico addressed the staff.

“By our next meeting, I want a report from you, Walsh, giving a list of recommended poisons for killing the rats. From you, Davenport, I want a budget estimate and from you, Green, I want a plan for recruiting and managing the extermination crews. That’s all for now.”

The three men marched out, leaving Maureen standing by the desk. “Is there anything I can do, Mr. Pico? “

“I don’t think so, Maureen. Why don’t you just call my chauffeur and take the rest of the day off? “

“Thank you very much, sir.”

* * * * *

The next few months whirled by in an intoxicating rush. Prof. Walsh booked himself on innumerable junkets, travelling all over the country and even to Europe and the Far East inspecting chemical factories, and directing research grants that sought newer and more efficient substances. Davenport managed a media campaign to pressure the city council into approving his bloated budget. He was temporarily demoralized when his budget sailed unanimously through the city council with only a few token cuts. Then, in a flash of brilliance, he convinced Pico that the commission needed a computerized command and control center for the operation. Since then, he had been busily perfecting formulas for computing the ratio of rats killed to dollars spent. In the depressed inner city, Trent had no trouble recruiting workers, especially when word got around that the week-long training course was to be held in a plush resort in the mountains outside the city.

Happiest of all was Frank Pico. Press conference followed press conference. Even the New York Times deigned to send a reporter to interview him. He liked to sit in his office and read the papers: “Never in history, since the Pied Piper of Hamlin, has anyone done so much for mankind.” The sweet touch of flattery caressed him.

The idyll couldn’t continue forever, of course. One day, the graphs on Davenport’s computer began to show a downturn in the ratio of rats killed to new rats sighted. Walsh admitted that some rats were resistant to existing poisons, and that his laboratories had not been able to develop new variants sufficiently rapidly. Trent owned up that labor relations were not what they used to be. After the warm glow of the training camp had worn off, the men became disgusted with the nauseating work of disposing of the dead rats. Talk in neighborhood bars discouraged new recruits. He dared not tell Pico that his ostentatious style was depressing morale even further.

Pico looked frantically from one to another, seeking to pass the buck. He empathized with Trent and his crews. Washington’s computers were harmless in themselves. Anyway the press was not likely to blame the computer for the rat problem.

“OK, Professor Walsh. You have one week to find out why your pesticides don’t work or I’ll expect your resignation on my desk. Meeting dismissed.”

During the week, things got worse as word of the situation leaked out. Mayor Anderson called Pico daily for progress reports and Pico had to resort to the childish maneuver of threatening to resign. With the subway work in full swing, the mayor backed down.

Tension mounted in anticipation of the next staff meeting, especially when it was learned that Prof. Walsh had been spending a lot of time in one lab in California. Just before the meeting he was seen wheeling several large boxes into Pico’s office. Pico called the meeting to order and glowered at Walsh who could not repress an imbecilic smile.

“I take it, Walsh, that you’ve got something to show us besides your letter of resignation.”

“Yes, Mr. Pico. Gentlemen and Maureen, in this box I have a some rats, one male and ten females.” Immediately all eyes were riveted on the rat cage which Walsh withdrew from the box with a flourish. “As you can see, the male is copulating with a female. Now, let’s watch them for a while. The act of copulation itself is over very quickly, but a male rat is capable of copulating dozens of times without rest.”

Without a word, Prof. Walsh opened the second box and extracted a piece of electronic equipment. He plugged it into the wall and slowly turned a large dial, looking at what seemed to be a large speaker on the front panel, though no sound was emitted. Suddenly, a big smile appeared on his face and he pointed to the rat cage. The rats had ceased their vigorous sexual activity.

“We have discovered that rats cannot copulate in the presence of a tone at exactly 23,350 hertz. This is above the range of the human ear, so we can’t hear the sound from this signal generator, but the rats sure can. We’ll flood their burrows with the tone and in a few months, there won’t be any more rats.”

“I suppose that you want to run electricity into their burrows so they can plug their stereos in,” said Davenport.

“No problem,” continued Green. “We have developed a miniaturized version that runs on batteries. It only costs $200 and I think that 10,000 will be enough.”

“My brother-in-law owns an electronics assembly shop,” said Trent as he did the mental arithmetic.

The staff watched as Walsh turned the equipment on and off. With each flick of the switch, the male rat’s equipment responded as if it were wired to the signal generator. Pico became very impatient.

“You people know what to do. Adrian, prepare a supplemental budget and call the comptroller. Trent, get the manufacturing plans for the device drawn up.”

The following months were almost a repetition of the first few months. Trent’s brother-in-law had no trouble getting a large, low-interest business loan to finance a new factory for building “Celib-Rats.” In addition to purchases by the city, ordinary citizens purchased the gadget after a high-powered advertising campaign. Davenport’s graphs clearly showed an increase in the ratio of rats killed to new rats sighted. Since no new methods had been developed to kill rats, the obvious conclusion was that fewer rats were being born.

Only Pico was depressed. Despite the new round of publicity, he felt jaded by the adulation. One day he sat brooding in his chair when the direct line from the mayor rang.

“Hi, Frank. How’s the rat business? ” Pico roused himself and prepared for the usual chit-chat with the mayor.

“Fine, thank you, your Honor. As you can see from the graphs, we are killing more rats every day.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You know, Frank, your boys are doing such a great job that I wanted to ask you when you think the job will be finished.”

“Finished? “

“Yes, Frank. I’m preparing next year’s budget and I was wondering if the CRC can be terminated before then or if you think you’ll need an extra month or two in the next fiscal year.”

Pico was speechless. It had never occurred to him that the commission might ever be closed down. After all, rats had lived with humans since the beginning of history and would live with them forever, or at least until his own retirement. He stammered out a noncommittal answer:

“We’ll discuss it at our next staff meeting, sir, and I’ll pass our forecast on to you by the end of the week.”

“Great, Frank. Keep up the good work. Goodbye.”

Pico groped towards the telephone and barely managed to replace the handset. He sank back in his chair and surveyed his office, remembering when he had first sat upon this throne. Everything was still so new. How could he go back to Housing Inspection? He called Maureen into the office. “Please call a staff meeting for tomorrow, Maureen.”

Maureen’s face softened as she noted the deadened tone of his voice and sad expression in his eyes.

“What happened, Frank? “

When he told her what the mayor had said, she came around the desk and put her arms around his head. Pico buried his face in her blouse and could no longer choke back his sobs.

Trent, Walsh and Davenport breezed into the meeting, not knowing what awaited them. A funereal atmosphere descended as Pico explained the situation.

“So that’s it, gentlemen. Peter, I wish to express the gratitude of the city for saving it from the rats. I’m afraid that there is nothing more for you to do. Adrian, you can stay on until the budget is finalized. My appointment will probably not be extended beyond the end of the year. Rick, I’m sure that you can stay on with a token force until the last rats are gone. I have truly enjoyed working with you and I wish you the best of luck.”

One by one they shook hands and filed out. Walsh lingered behind until he was left alone with Pico. He pointed to a box he had left by the table.

“Before I go, Frank, I’ve got to tell you something. That box contains a mutant strain of rats that we discovered in one of our laboratories. They cease to copulate when subjected to a frequency of 23,450 hertz and not 23,350 hertz. Please see that they are destroyed before they can escape.”

Green took his leave and was gone. Pico took the box and trudged towards the elevator. On his way to the exterminator’s station in the cellar he passed his old office in the Housing Inspection department. The paint was peeling, the plaster was crumbling and the linoleum floor was grungy.

Pico walked quickly to the parking lot entrance, pulled the cage from the box, opened the door and watched hopefully as a dozen rats scampered off and disappeared in the nearest sewer.

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