You rub your hand along the top of the smooth wood mantel above the fireplace as you ponder life and death. Such a serious thing. Every living thing must die; but it is the manner in which things die that has you troubled. If everything could go in their sleep, just drift from this life into the next to the tune of a lullaby, how syrupy sweet post-mortem would be. But that's not the way things die. Often, they die violently, with horror in their eyes. And it's messy and bloody—like the way flies die with a good, hard slap of a swatter. Or like the way your parents died.
You put paint-splattered fingers to your mouth to retrieve a Camel that has been planted there for some time. You flick an ash.
"It takes a certain kind of person to kill," you say with sophisticated ease. "I'm not that kind.... That's why I called you."
"You did the right thing. Killing is my job."
The slightly overweight man steps away from the window and brushes a little lint from his uniform. His hair is greasy and lengthy, slicked back behind ears that are small and without lobes; he’s about two days unshaven—the thick bristles begin at the top of his cheek bones and end somewhere at the base of his throat where the chest hairs begin; his jaw juts out further than normal, so his bottom teeth overbite his top. And he is lopsided: one shoulder slouches more than the other. He is not quite, but nearly Quasimodo. As he fondles his own cigarette, you notice that his fingernails have dark gunk underneath them—just like yours do because of that disgusting oil-based paint. You wonder what kind of gunk he has under his.
The man walks over to the fireplace picking at something between his two front teeth, and then bends over to look up the chimney. The back of his khaki uniform reads Kill 'em All Pest Control. Flick is his name, killing is his game.
"And I don't mind saying," Flick says, "I enjoy killing. ... I'll find this hairy little rodent of yours and send him straight to Rat Heaven."
Even though Flick is standing not more than two feet away, speaking and looking in your general direction, you cannot tell if he is looking directly at you or not. He has one lazy eye that always seems interested in anything other than you. It’s very distracting—as is his smell, which is now drifting your way. It’s a subtle but putrid smell. The kind a person acquires after snaking a toilet or two. Not because the person actually got sewage on themselves, but because they’ve been around it too long. It doesn’t matter if the person wore rubber gloves, rubber boots, and a rubber jumpsuit—they’re still going to smell like shit.
But you can live with the smell. You have been living in your dead parents' home for a month now, and that rat has been tormenting you since the first day. Flick will put an end to that.
"A man ought to be able to take care of himself under these circumstances. It's just that I'm so squeamish when it comes to this sort of, you know, endeavor."
"You mean killing things?"
"Yes. Killing things."
"Like you said, it takes a certain kind," Flick says, who is definitely the kind.
"Anarchy is the answer," you say.
Flick quickly creates a stupid look on his face. "Huh?"
"Not only do we all need to be self-sufficient, but self-governing as well. I fully believe that a person cannot progress in this life while under the constraints of someone else's idea of law. What's good for one may not be good for another. It should be left up to the individual to decide, not the State and not religion. Only the individual is capable of knowing exactly what he or she needs."
Flick still has no idea what you are talking about. It doesn't matter. You like to talk just to talk. It's always a good diversion from the responsibilities of life and whatever else daunts your unruffled lifestyle.
You are an artist.
You dropped out of college after only one semester. How could an artist progress while bridled by ridiculous rules in such a repressed atmosphere? The excuse didn't work with your parents, since Dad was a Harvard man and Mom was a Harvard man's wife. They were rich. Filthy rich, and they didn't take kindly to unorthodox routes through life. So they cut you off. You didn't much like it, but at least you had become a real artist: the starving kind. Mom and Dad wouldn't dish over any money unless you embraced a more suitable, practical and capitalistic profession. You refused. So you were poor. Until your parents died in a car accident. You got the house and the cars and the cash and all the other little knick-knacks that went along with them. Including the tenant in the cellar.
"Rats are despicable," Flick says, getting back to the subject at hand. He scratches his backside. "They get into your shit, shred things, eat things, leave their shitballs all over your house, and hell—they're despicable. That's why I like killing them." Flick makes a deep, scratchy noise that is apparently his laugh.
"The very thought of that thing in my house distracts me. As long as the rat exists, I won't be able to concentrate on my work. I can't achieve."
"A few old fashioned, rickety old rat traps strategically placed around the house with a dash of peanut butter for bait—and your troubles are over. Don't you worry. ... Now, where'd you say that thing lives?"
You show Flick the cellar door, the place you were forbidden to explore as a child. Flick goes down into the darkness without hesitation, but you linger for a moment at the top of the stairs as if the old rule still applies.
At the bottom Flick finds a dangling string and yanks. A dim light brightens the immediate area, but still leaves half the large cellar in darkness. There are only two small windows, both on the same wall, and both covered by thick black cloth, allowing little or no light in from the outside world. The place is cluttered with crates and cardboard boxes, old and soggy. There are several shelves lining the far wall which keep a variety of dust-covered aerosol cans, half upright, half on their sides. On the highest shelf there are a couple of plastic jugs of something poisonous, weed killer or snail toxin. The place is musty and rank, an unappealing place—sublime housing for a rat. And in one corner of the room, where there are only jagged shards of light, an eerie, disassembled swing set sits in a heap. It is the swing set your father deemed obsolete after your tenth birthday. Although by then the swing set had become feeble and more dangerous than entertaining, your father did not take time to explain his reason for dismantling it. Your fun little diversion was simply there one day and then gone the next. At that age, you could not bring yourself to ask him why, because you feared it was punishment for something you had done wrong. There was always that fear.
Flick lights up another.
Sucking nicotine, the smelly pest controller walks around the room glaring into shadows with wariness as if expecting the rat in question to suddenly emerge to do battle. The floor is made of cobblestone, moist and slippery, so he strides with caution. He peers down another set of stairs that lead to a suspiciously dark and sinister room.
"What's that?" he asks.
You are still standing at the top of the stairs. However, it is now time to descend into the pit. As you go down, you grip the splintering wooden railing for a little balance since the tops of the steps are in shadows and you fear stumbling. The steps are also wooden and splintering, and creaky—just like they would be in a horror flick. And as often happens with splintering wood, right near the bottom of the stairs, you snag a sliver in your index finger.
"Shit!" you blurt out.
"What?" Flick says, wheeling around quickly as if the enemy were attacking.
"Nothing. A sliver."
"Oh." Flick turns back to the stairs that lead down to blackness. "So what the hell is this?"
You ignore him; you are busy examining your finger, trying—with what little light the single bulb produces—to locate the piece of wood that has slid under your skin. This is a job for tweezers.
"What'd you say?"
"Where does this go?"
You look up, irritated. "What? ... Oh. That's a wine cellar. Nothing in there now; just what my mother called hurricane supplies."
The two of you venture down into the blackness where Flick finds another string hanging. He yanks again. The room is indeed empty, except for a jug of water kept neatly in a corner along with several jars of pickles.
"Pickles?" Flick says with that same dumb expression.
"My mother made a batch once. They didn't go over so well, and since she didn't believe in letting food go to waste, she stuck them down here, supposing they would come in handy if there were ever an emergency."
Flick goes over to the corner where the "supplies" are stacked and picks up one of the jars. He unscrews the top and takes a whiff. He winces.
"It'd have to be a pretty damn desperate situation to resort to this shit. No offense to your mother."
You smile. None taken.
Flick replaces the jar and takes one last look around the room. A windowless, murky little chamber that not even a rat would have much use for. Back in the old days, while still a child, this is the one place in the house you never entered. Though you were told never to come down into the cellar, being the anti-establishment kind of youth that you were, you occasionally got overly curious and overly defiant and snuck down anyway, while both parents were occupied. But you would never venture down the last set of stairs into the blackness they used to call the Wineless Cellar. Because it was not only dark, but pitch dark. And you feared that if you went into the room, you wouldn't be able to find the light—and then before you could get back outside, someone would slam the door shut and lock it from the outside. Just the thought of being locked in that room without a single photon of light gave you the piss-in-the-pants willies.
Flick flicks the light off again.
On the way up the rickety, splintering wooden stairs, you are careful not to touch the railing this time. Each step provides a real horror flick creak, the kind you love to watch at the movies, but hate to hear in your own home. At the top of the stairs, the two of you pause to look back down into the darkness.
"What do you think?" you ask.
Flick flicks an ash. "Piece of cake."
"You think so?"
"A trap here and there—and we bag him before tonight." He looks you in the eye. "And it's Rat Heaven for the little beggar."