A collection of short stories and journalistic commentaries depicting my simple life
and how I fit in with the modern day universe of our times

RAT PACK



Jason George’s voice had an edge of panic to it that I had never heard before.

            “Geoff Smith? Geoff, we’ve got trouble,” he gulped, “the rats are out. Some lunatic’s released them!”

            Rubbing my eyes, I pulled the phone a bit closer. Jason, my deputy wasn’t the kind of man to get rattled. It must be serious for him to wake me at three in the morning.

            “Say again,” I instructed, switching on the small table lamp beside my bed.

            “The rats. They’ve been released. Gone. They’re running loose somewhere...”

            I shuddered. I’d dreamt about getting a call like this one day. It was my most recurring nightmare.

            “Have you got a location fix on them?” I asked, fighting to stay calm. “Are the homing devices working?”

            “Negative, Geoff. Whoever let them out removed the homing devices. The rats are off the base and we haven’t got a clue which direction they’ve taken. The security fence has been breached in three places and the control panel’s flashing like a Christmas tree. It’s a bloody shambles!”

            Groaning, I told Jason to order a full alert – troops, police, the works. “Send the chopper for me; we can’t afford to waste a second. If the rats reach a populated area before we can catch them it’s going to be like a Hammer House of Horrors movie.”

            I dressed in a daze, a hundred images flashing across my mind – images of laboratory rats injected with God knows what, scampering across the darkened countryside. I prayed that they’d been infected with something relatively straightforward like Black Death or Rabies. If the rodents had been injected with anything new – anything experimental – we’d be talking soldiers in silver sci-fi suits quarantining half the country.

            For about the two-hundredth time, I began to regret accepting the security chief’s job at the institute. It had seemed like a cushy number at first: a doddle for someone like me who was cruising towards retirement. But that was before the rash of break-ins, before the animal rights nuts got their claws into us.

            Someone had told them about our experiments on rats, monkeys and beagles. Before long we had little commando parties of pissed up students in camouflage jackets and balaclavas trying to cut through the fences. They’d set off the alarms and we’d call the local plod to come and arrest them.

            I’d always thought of the protestors as a joke, but not now. Lives were in danger and, even if we could get the animals back, I knew my job would be on the line.
           
            The dull thwacking noise of the helicopter’s rotor blades snapped me out of my thoughts, and I rushed outside. The swirling down-rush from the blades whipped me, making it difficult to breathe. I cursed as I saw the damage the mechanical hurricane was doing to my garden.

            We rose swiftly over the slumbering street, heading towards the distant lights of the facility. From the air, I could see the buildings stretching out across the compound. By day it looked like a medium-sized industrial estate, a mish mash of grey, concrete buildings and roads. Tonight, with the criss-cross of security lights twinkling, it looked more like a town.

            The chopper banked. Below, in an arc of sticky sodium light, I could see three figures. One was Jason, the middle figure was Dr Bailey, one of the institute’s top scientists, but I didn’t recognize the third person.

            Jason came running as I touched down, head bowed beneath the spinning blades.

            “God I’m glad to see you, Geoff” he yelled above the racket. “Unless we can get a lid on this, we’re all going to be in the shit!”

            I nodded silently. Jason always was one for understating the obvious. He dragged me by the arm to meet the others.

            Dr Dawn Bailey grunted a greeting. She looked shell shocked, her wiry blonde hair dishevelled; eyes red and unfocused. I reckoned, like me, she’d been snatched out of bed. I flashed her a sympathetic look.

            Jason nodded towards the dark haired stranger. “This is Chief Inspector Jaycock, local CID. The Chief inspector will be liaising with us on behalf of the local authorities.”

            I shook the Chief inspector’s hand. The grip was firm, firmer than I expected.         
            “The name is Caroline,” she told me, making eye contact, “I’m the force’s designated disaster management officer. I have a direct line to the Chief Constable, anything you need, just ask.”

            I introduced myself, and tested the walkie-talkie that Jason thrust into my hand. “I’m in charge of this mess,” I informed the woman. “That means it’s my head on the chopping block.”

            She sniffed. “I’m rather more interested in recapturing these animals, than worrying about whose career is going up in smoke. Mr George tells me you’ve called in the army. On whose authority?”

            I decided immediately that I didn’t like Caroline Jaycock . “It’s standard operating procedure,” I explained brusquely. “The MOD provides a major slice of the institute’s funding. Technically this is a military base.”

            I gave her a sour look. “But I’m more interested in recapturing these animals than worrying whose jurisdiction is being trampled on.”

            She blinked, startled, and I smiled to myself.

            “Okay Doc,” I said to Bailey, “let’s have a look at the labs. Every moment we stand around here gabbing, these rats are getting further away.”

            The rats had been housed in an annexe to the main laboratory block. The pre-fab, built by PadPimpers had only been on site a few weeks now and as we ventured inside we were hit by the smell of new paint. There was another smell too – the sour, acid stink of animal house.

            Jason and I screwed up our noses. Doctor Bailey didn’t seem to notice the strong gamey aroma, which I guessed wasn’t surprising as she worked in it all day. Caroline Jaycock wasn’t bothered either – at least, if she was, she hid it well.

            We hurried down the corridor, passing caged hamsters, gerbils and kittens; all squeaking agitatedly. Speaking loudly, Doctor Bailey explained what animals were housed there, and what research they were used in. It was all fairly standard stuff – testing new drugs, cosmetics and foods.

            “The more sensitive testing is carried out on the rats – in the secure section,” she said, face clouding. “That’s where we do the more hazardous … biological tests.”

            I snorted at the mention of the secure section. What a joke. It hadn’t been secure tonight.
           
            Turning the corner, we reached the high security rooms. To gain access you had to slide a plastic ID card through a sensor. I examined the lock, expecting to find it forced.

            “That’s odd,” I exclaimed, “this hasn’t been tampered with. Look, it’s still working.”

            Jason gazed too. “But that’s impossible. It must have been forced! There’s no other way.”

            I swore as the full implication sank in. Unfortunately, Chief Inspector Jaycock beat me to it.

            “They had a card,” she ventured helpfully, “and were able to just walk in. Your security was breached. It was an inside job. Someone at the institute helped the raiders.”

            There was no other answer. I began to feel very concerned. An infiltrator was all we needed.

            The door hissed open and we hurried through. Doc Bailey switched on the light and we stood, blinking, as the neon tubes flickered reluctantly into action.

            “My God,” she cried, pointing over to the cages. “Look!”

            Our eyes followed her finger towards movement at the back of the banks of cages. Small dark, beady eyes glared up at us. Whiskers twitched and a long tail swished across the sawdust.


            “There are still some rats here,” the doctor yelled.

            “How many?” I demanded. “Quickly doc, I need to know.” She counted excitedly. “Ten - no – twelve. Nearly half are still here.”

            “Well at least that’s something,” Caroline Jaycock muttered.

            Jason ushered the doctor over to the animals. “can you tell which animals are missing? We need to know what they might be carrying.”

            Doc Bailey unlocked the filing cabinets and quickly pulled out folders, scanning them furiously. I watched, my nerves twisting. I was aware that fifteen minutes had passed since we entered the labs – we were taking too long.

            I motioned for the Chief Inspector to join me and started to examine the cages. We checked each empty wire enclosure in turn. They were all the same – the same identical damage.

            “This sounds crazy, but I don’t think these rats were released,” Caroline Jaycock said, puzzled. “Look at the way the wires have been severed.”

            I looked, she was right again. The wire hadn’t been cut – it had been bitten: gnawed right through.

            “They escaped,” I agreed, mouth falling open. “They bit their way out of the cages and high tailed it out of the complex.”

            I got onto the guards at the perimeter fence, but I knew what they’d find. The wire hadn’t been cut – it had been bitten clean, right through.

            It was difficult to make ourselves heard inside the helicopter’s noisy interior so we all had to shout. Bailey had finally located all the info we needed and had presented us with a classic good news/bad news scenario.


            “The good news is that none of the escaped rats was injected with any diseases or bacteria. All the rats used for medical research are back in the institute, tucked up in their cages,” she said. “The bad news is that the escaped animals are a part of Project Alpha.”

            Project Alpha, she explained, was a MOD funded experiment to artificially boost the intelligence of animals by the use of genetic engineering techniques. The idea was that they could be used in battlefield conditions where it was too dangerous for humans.

            “The missing rodents were all Alpha test subjects. Apparently the experiment has worked much better than we expected,” she observed. “They somehow managed to open the security doors from inside and evade the monitor cameras until they reached the fence. It shows amazing problem-solving capabilities.”

            That, I told myself, explained the mystery of the removed homing devices.

            Caroline Jaycock eyed the doctor disapprovingly. “So you’re telling us that we’re chasing a load of super rats that are quite capable of out-thinking us and evading capture.” She didn’t try to hide her annoyance. “That’s great, just great.”

            I was going to add my penny’s worth, but the co-pilot’s voice came over the intercom to tell us the rats had been spotted at a shopping centre five miles away.

            “What are they doing?” I asked, “Getting the week’s groceries?”

            Below, the flashing blue lights of the police cars gave the scene an unreal fairyland, bedecked with fairy gold and diamond castle like appearance.
            We hovered over the block of shops, watching as police and troops surrounded the area, then we landed at nearby playing fields.

            Caroline Jaycock talked steadily into her walkie-talkie, issuing orders to the assembled forces.

            “The rats have broken into a pharmacy,” she informed us. “My men have cornered them.”

            “Good,” I answered. “The area’s sealed tight. We can round them up without any of the public being involved. The institute’s sending men with tranquilisers.”

            I felt relieved; maybe I might just hang onto my job after all. At a signal from Jaycock, our party set off into the shopping mall.

            It wasn’t immediately apparent how the rats had forced their way into the chemists. The shutters on the windows were still intact. It was only when the waiting sergeant showed us the claw marks on the roof, and the missing slates, that it clicked.

            “We found the rats in the store room at the back,” he told us, “they’d been going through the boxes. If I didn’t know better I’d have said they were looking for something.”

            None of us said anything. I gave Doc Bailey a warning look. I didn’t want her to say anything indiscreet.

            The storeroom was a mess. The rats had done a thorough job. Boxes lay ripped open, contents scattered crazily across the floor. I’d seen tidier burglaries done by vandals on acid.

            “That’s the box they were attacking when we found them,” the sergeant continued, “they scurried off when they heard us. We chased them into a cupboard. They’re safely locked up, all except this one. We kept this one separate for you to examine. He seems to be the ringleader.”

            The policeman held up a plastic mesh carrying case. Inside I could see the black shape of a rat, sitting motionless, whiskers slowly twitching, and eyes – deeply aware eyes – watching us; staring. The animal could have gnawed through the box in seconds, but he was choosing not to. He knew the game was up.

            Tearing her eyes away, Jaycock examined the damaged carton. I knelt beside her. I frowned, puzzled, as she pointed to the label on the carton and it all suddenly made sense to me.

            “Doc,” I waved Bailey over to us, “are these rats engaged in any projects other than Alpha?”

            Baffled Bailey nodded. “Yes, some of them, but I can’t see the relevance.”

            “Anything to do with cancer?” asked Jaycock, “cigarettes?”

            The amused look on Bailey’s face showed that she had finally cottoned on. “Yes, but of course. We’ve been exposing them to the equivalent of nearly sixty a day.”

            Jason still hadn’t fully tuned in to what was going on. “I’m completely lost? What’s all this got to do with the break-out?”

            I couldn’t help smiling as I explained it. “It’s all quite simple, Jason. The rats escaped for a reason. To get these.” I motioned to the Nicorette patches strewn across the floor.

            “Project Alpha was a success, all right. It’s bred animals that are smarter than humans. They actually want to give up smoking!”




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