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November 22, 1999

Close Encounters of the Soft Grey Kind

A few weeks ago I was bragging to a friend about expanding my resume. I was acting really cocky about how the number of lines on my business card was constantly expanding. 'Freelance writer'. 'Broadcaster'. 'Handyman'. I thought that having several different irons in the fire was pretty cool. But the 'Jack of all Trades' thing has taken an ugly turn of late. For better or worse, I can now add 'Mercenary' to that last line on the meishi. Because for the last few weeks, I've been working as a hired killer.

It started simple enough. A phone call from a friend in distress. She had been cleaning out a basement cupboard looking for some long-lost artifact from her youth when she came upon something that sends chills through the souls of even the most hearty homeowners. Something so foul.... so hideous that she left the relic quest mid-stream and ran upstairs, barricading the door to the basement and stuffing the crack beneath it with dish towels. She hadn't actually seen anything ALIVE. Nothing snarled or growled or went for her throat. But she'd seen the signs. Rae had mouse shit.

From the message on my answering machine, you'd have sworn that they were filming the much awaited final installment of the Willard/ Ben trilogy in her laundry room. I rushed over to her place and found her babbling incoherently in the kitchen. Her house had been invaded. It was unclean. She felt angry and violated. It would have to be fumigated. Exterminated. Maybe even razed...get a whole fresh start... fire purifies, you know. Maybe she should just list the place quickly and hope prospective buyers didn't want to see the basement. The movers would get the stuff in the rec room wouldn't they? I grabbed her by the shoulder and slapped her. She was hysterical, I had no other choice. It always worked for Marlowe. Of course, the dames Marlowe slapped never reacted with a knee to the groin. But then, Rae's like that...

When she was feeling more in control of herself and I regained my faculty of speech, I assured her that this wasn't a major problem. Most people get mice in their house at some point. Hell, in rural areas it's pretty much a given. Late fall is always the killing season. Mice are everywhere. No one is safe. I wasn't sure that any of this was true, but I poured Rae a stiff belt of single malt resolve and went downstairs to assess the situation.

The basement had that life-interruptus crime-scene look to it - cupboard open, several boxes piled neatly to one side, one box on its side in front of the cupboard, two of its top flaps sprung open with papers spilling out onto the floor. All that was missing was the chalk outline of a body. I checked out the cupboard and confirmed the recon reports. There was mouse shit all along the back wall of the cupboard and the box that she'd moved showed signs of forced entry - the rear corner had been chewed off and shredded paper-fluff had been tracked around. Houston... we have a rodent problem.

The cupboard I was inspecting was actually more like a crawl-space than anything else. It was under the basement stairs and the walls of it were unfinished 2X4s that lead up into the walls of the house. So the mice weren't actually loose in her house. They were more the behind-the-scenes, off-camera kind of mice. They'd probably gotten into her attic and had worked their way down to the basement. If everything worked out smoothly, I'd be able to get rid of them before Rae actually saw one. But I was going to need supplies.

I never realized what an anti-mouse culture we lived in until I hit the 'Seasonal' aisle at the local Pro Hardware. There are dozens of products on the market to kill mice. Even if you narrow the discussion to just traps, there are spring traps, clip traps, kill-it-in-a-box-where-your-wife-can't-see-it traps and a very 90's, life-affirming, capture-it-alive trap. While this may sound like the humane way of dealing with your rodent situation, the box reveals otherwise. The directions give you the option of releasing the mouse outside OR just throwing the occupied trap into the garbage. Now if that isn't a capsule comment on the 90's, what is? People are too squeamish to set a trap that will kill a mouse instantly, yet they think nothing of capturing it alive and letting it die a horrible starvation death in a gray plastic tomb in the garbage. As long as you don't have to see it, it's not really happening, right?

Screw that. I hate to sound too bloodthirsty but with all due respect to Corrections Canada, I think capturing these mice and rehabilitating them is out. I figure I'm dealing with hardened, career wall-invaders. Call me traditional, but the Marquis of Queensbury rules for ridding your house of mice clearly stipulates the use of your basic Victor spring trap. It's simple. It's a clean kill. It has a failure rate that would give your mice a half decent chance to learn from its malfunctioning if they weren't so brutally stupid. And it avoids the modern, chemical nastiness that just doesn't seem kosher to old-school warriors such as myself. The folks at Victor readily admit that their traps haven't changed in 80 years. They don't wear out, they don't break, and mice don't get any smarter. But market research has shown that most people only use the trap once. Apparently removing the mouse (deceased) and resetting the trap is a bit too much for most consumers to stomach so they just toss mouse, trap and all into the garbage and start anew. The Victor people suggested that I buy several dozen. Of course, those consumers don't hail from Scotland like I do. I bought six.

Forget all that Tom & Jerry shit about mice and cheese, when it comes to baiting mouse traps, there's only one substance that they find irresistible - peanut butter. I don't know why it works so well. It's not like they eat it on the outside. But kid-tested, mom-approved Skippy will bring mice in like junkies for a fix. I set everything up in Rae's cupboard and returned the next morning like a suburban coureur de bois to check my trap-lines.

I got three mice that first night and four more the next. Every morning, my lines would yield more of the small gray intruders - either I'd hit the number one mouse hangout of the household or Rae had a lot more mice than we thought. Either way, I couldn't help but notice that you can tell a lot about a mouse's personality as you empty it from a trap. There are no-holds barred, carpe diem mice that are chomping down on that peanut butter-encrusted lever like someone was trying to take it away from them; there are timid ones that barely touched the bait but obviously touched it enough to die for their trouble; there are really fast ones that almost got away but in doing so probably died a lot more painfully than those that got a clean back-of-the-neck hit; and there are the super-fast ones that aren't there at all - the trap is sprung and the trigger is licked clean. You have to admire a mouse that fast - I'd gladly pay a dollop of peanut butter to see him pull it off. And there are a fair number of traps that are licked clean but not sprung. Victors are like that. But the strangest tableau noir by far had to be my double-shot. Two mice with one trap, each coming in diagonally from one of the lower corners. They looked so much like those two incredibly polite mice from the old Warner Bros. cartoon that I could almost hear their conversation: "Oh well, look what we have here! Roger... after you..." "No no no... I insist, Theodore... you first!" "Shall we dine together?" "Brilliant idea, Theodore, brilliant...you ARE a gentleman!" <<<WHACK>>>

Sorry guys.... c'est la guerre...

In our next installment - border skirmishes in the kitchen; the mice rise up against an over-confident oppressor; things get ugly... READ ON (Part 2)

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