The Exterminator

by Sue K

 

 


Patterson sat in the mess, drinking a cup of fresh coffee when he heard Cookie give a strangled yell and come tearing through the room, a broom in his hand. At first Pat couldn’t figure what the problem was until a small brown creature flashed across his foot and disappeared out the doorway. Cookie screeched to a halt and shook his fist at the tiny creature. He took a deep breath and then turned back to his galley. “I keep a clean establishment,” he muttered.

Pat shrugged. “I haven’t heard of a ship afloat that doesn’t have a few mice.”

“Not Seaview!” Cookie retorted. “Or at least it shouldn’t.”

Pat wasn’t sure he had ever seen the cook so agitated. Of course, he had nothing against any creature . . . well, except snakes, he thought with a shudder. But there was a part of him that agreed with Cookie. The Seaview was really a clean ship. And how in the world could mice get into something like a submarine? Must have come in with some supplies. “Think there’s more?”

Cookie snorted. “They’re like cockroaches. For every one that you see, there has to be at least a dozen more you don’t,” he said sourly. “I got one in a trap yesterday.”

That little conversation came back to him a week later. Cookie had continued to rail about vermin, despite putting out more traps. It had finally been determined that the boat would be totally cleaned and ‘debugged’ as the rates were beginning to call the plans. That was weeks in the future, though, as Seaview was in the middle of a deep-sea exploratory mission. The only respite was today, while they took on supplies in Wellington, New Zealand. He walked around the city near the harbor, fascinated. It wasn’t often that they stopped long enough to allow sightseeing, but Patterson took every opportunity he could and he preferred to do it on foot.

An open-air market caught his attention and he walked through it, checking out the Maori made tourist items and fruits and vegetables. “Mister! Mister!” a small voice beckoned him even while a tug at his pants leg further caught his attention. He turned and saw a small dark boy, Maori, Pat guessed, looking up at him. One hand was still on the trousers of his jumpsuit, while the other one clutched a wicker basket that was almost as big as he was.

“What?” Pat asked kindly, guessing that the boy was trying to beg for money or sell him something.

“You look like a kind person,” the boy said, his eyes large and pleading.

Pat dug into his pocket, pulling out several dollar bills. “Are you hungry? I can give you this little bit. It’s U.S. money, but I’ll give it to you if you promise that you’ll use it to buy food,” he admonished with a smile.

He refused the money Pat was offering him. “No, no, I wouldn’t be able to use your money, but you look kind. I want a kind person to take my friend,” the boy said, flashing a big smile and handing him the basket. “I can’t feed her anymore. She’ll catch many rats on an American ship. Thanks!” Even as he was talking he was turning and running back into the crowd that was bustling in the market.

“Great,” Pat muttered. “Knowing my luck, it’s probably a snake.” He looked at his watch and realized that he had to get back to the boat quickly or he’d be on report. He paused just long enough to undo the top of the basket and peek inside. He was shocked to see a very large and furry dark gray cat. She had to be a good mouser, he thought, her rotund sides seemed to indicate it. It was then he remembered Cookie’s vile epitaphs toward all members of the rodent society. This cat could be just the ticket and then when they were back at the Institute, he would take her home to the family. With a smile, Pat set off at a fast walk back to the port. He approached the gangplank and saluted Lt. O’Brien.

“What do you have there, Patterson?” O’Brien asked suspiciously.

“A souvenir, sir,” Pat answered truthfully. “It’s a gift for Cookie, but it’s not any kind of local produce,” he added, knowing the regs about bringing plants or produce onboard.

O’Brien just nodded and Patterson walked past him. He went into the wardroom and found no one there. Cookie and the galley mates were still supervising the loading of supplies. He carefully opened the top of the basket and talked softly to the cat. She looked up at him and purred, her golden eyes half closed. He carefully reached in and stroked her head. She purred louder. He opened the basket lid all the way and she stood up and stretched.

“How about I call you . . . um, Amber?” Pat said, ending it like he was asking the cat her approval. She sneezed and shook her head. Hmm, he thought, maybe that was her way of saying that she didn’t like the name. She delicately stepped out of the basket and rubbed against his outstretched hand. He had grown up in a house with lots of pets, cats included and he had never seen one quite so affectionate. She obviously had Persian in her and she was almost as wide as she was long. Her tail twitched and then lashed and she suddenly had eyes only for the galley. With almost no noise, the cat jumped from the table and stalked into the other room. Her passage was silent. No purring now. She was all business. Pat hoped that what he was witnessing was an expert exterminator in action.

He was. The tail disappeared and then there was a slight scuffle. A few minutes later, the cat came out, a struggling mouse dangling out of her mouth. “Wow!” Pat breathed, impressed. Then he thought of a name. “Gray Mouser,” he said, triumphantly as the cat growled and began to finish off the doomed rodent. While the name was for a fictional sword and sorcery character of the male persuasion, Pat couldn’t help but believe that it was a perfect fit for this dark feline exterminator. He grinned broadly, then jumped at the voice behind him.

“What the heck is that doing in here?” Chief Sharkey demanded. With only the mouse’s tail still hanging out of her mouth, Gray Mouser bolted into the safety of the galley. Pat turned and faced the COB.

“Uh, sir, it was kind of shoved in my arms and . . . well, I just thought, until we get back to the Institute, that we just go ahead and use her to get rid of some of the mice. I mean, they do seem to be getting out of hand and I . . . I mean….”

“Never mind,” the chief said, not unkindly. “There’s no time to get rid of her and she does seem proficient. Just try to keep her out of the XO’s and the skipper’s way.” He smiled quizzically. “Don’t think the admiral would appreciate the addition of a pest control officer, either. What’d you name her?”

“Gray Mouser,” Pat answered, relief flooding him. The cat peered cautiously around the corner of the stove at the two men. “Uh, that’s the name of one half of a pair of sword and sorcery characters in a fantasy book.”

Sharkey nodded. “Hope she lives up to her name,” he quipped. “Carry on, Seaman Gray Mouser,” he added, saluting the feline who blinked at him and began washing her nether regions with great care.

By the time the Seaview was a day out to sea, almost all of the rates had met the phenomenal new recruit and Cookie couldn’t say enough good about her. She had killed at least three mice that he knew about, having laid them at his feet before carrying them to a private corner to dispatch them. By the second day, the khakis suspected, but so far, except for Chief Sharkey, none of the other officers had met her.

Then it happened. After a particularly long watch the third day at sea, the executive officer had come down to the wardroom for a fresh cup of coffee before heading to his cabin. It was 0400 by the ship’s clocks and Morton was beat. He was sitting with his mug in both hands, while Sullivan, one of the galley mates refilled it. Then he almost dropped it when he felt something rubbing his leg and he looked down to see a smoky gray Persian cat dropping a small dead mouse at his feet. “What the hell?” he gasped. The cat purred loudly and then hopped up on the table, gazing at him with her amber eyes. “So this is what all of you have been taking great pains to hide.” He felt a small bit of irritation flare and then just as quickly go out. She was a very personable little creature and did seem to be making herself useful.

“Uh, yes, sir, Mr. Morton.”

Chip smiled. He had grown up with a variety of cats in his house. With a sure touch, he rubbed her under the chin and down her chest. She was a plump one, obviously very successful at providing for herself. With deftness, he stroked and then felt her stomach. Growling softly, she backed up and glared at him reproachfully.

“She’s been doing a great job catching the mice,” Sullivan said. “But I should have warned you, sir, she doesn’t like her stomach rubbed.”

“No wonder, Sulli, she’s pregnant. Probably have her litter soon.”

“What? Are you sure, Mr. Morton?”

“Of course. My mother adored cats. We had them around all the time. Most were fixed, but some came to us already pregnant. Who brought her on board?”

“Uh, not sure, but Chief Sharkey knows about her, sir,” Sullivan replied evasively.

“Don’t worry. While the regulations forbid pets, I don’t think we can place her in that category. But I wouldn’t tell the skipper. He told me once that he didn’t like cats.” Chip began to rub behind her ears with one hand and she quickly forgave him, butting the palm of his hand when he slowed down. He laughed and continued rubbing even as he finished his coffee. “I would suggest fixing her a box in back of the galley, though. She’s going to want a safe, warm and dark place to have her litter. Probably in only a couple of days.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” the galley mate replied in obvious relief.

Chip got up to leave. “By the way, good work, Seaman Mouser.” The cat simply gave a demure meow in reply.

The XO’s prediction was extremely accurate. Exactly two days later, Gray Mouser had a healthy litter of kittens. While she was friendly to the men when away from her litter, she was very protective of the kittens and they alternately turned up in various parts of the sub near the galley. She was so protective of them that no one was absolutely sure how many there really were. Cookie finally declared the litter off limits to everyone and that seemed to mollify Gray Mouser, although she still kept them hidden.

“Don’t worry about it,” Morton told the worried cook two weeks later. “I always thought it was the mother’s way of cleaning house. Freshen up the flock, get someone to clean the kids’ quarters for her and then she brings them back for a while.” He smiled his reassurance to the distraught cook. It was at that moment the sub shuddered, rocked violently and then righted slowly. Chip was on his feet in an instant, dashing for the mike. Gray Mouser disappeared out the doorway. “Control room, report,” he barked.

“Unidentified projectile, Mr. Morton,” Lt. O’Brien answered. “We’re sending a damage control crew to the area in question.”

Without a reply, Morton headed to the control room at a run. “Found out what happened yet?” he asked when he got there.

“An attack sub on maneuvers obviously got a little trigger happy during a war game exercise. Instead of a mock firing, some airhead sent out a real torpedo. Thank heavens the warhead wasn’t loaded. We have a breach in compartment 43, but damage control thinks they can contain it to that one room,” reported O’Brien.

“Good.” He reached for the mike.

“Captain’s down there already.”

Morton nodded and spoke into the intercom. “Skipper?”

“Skipper’s kind of busy right now, Mr. Morton,” came a muffled reply.

Chip turned to the lieutenant. “I’m going down there to see if I can help. You still have the conn, Mr. O’Brien. And bring her to the surface.” Without waiting for a reply, he dashed out of the room. He met the admiral on the way and gave him a brief rundown.

With a nod, Nelson continued toward the control room and Morton soon reached the damaged area. Water slicked the corridor, but already the men were covering the breached hull with a containment plate, wedging it in to reduce the influx of the sea.

“Out!” Crane ordered the men. “This may not hold until we surface. He grabbed something from on top of a crate and shoved it in Chip’s hands. It was a soggy two-week-old kitten.

“What?” he spluttered. Lee handed him another one.

“Gray Mouser has already been rescued, along with two of her kittens. Take these out while I find the other one.”

“Other one?” Chip asked. “How do you know how many there are?”

“I counted them, Chip. Now get out of here. I’ll grab the other one and follow you!” As Chip turned he heard a plaintive howling from the corridor. Then as he made it out the door, the hull groaned and the pressure of seawater on the makeshift plate forced the wedge away. The plate blew out to the opposite wall and water began to gush in. Lee had been thrown to the floor, but struggled to his feet and pushed the watertight door shut even as the water was beginning to spill over the sill of the compartment.

Outside, Morton looked on in horror as the door shut and locked in his face. “Lee!” he cried out, trying to turn the wheel at the same time. He reached for the mike. “Control room. How long before we reach the surface?”

“Ten minutes, sir,” came the reply.

Could Lee last that long, he wondered? There were ventilation shafts to the cargo rooms, but they usually closed automatically in an emergency like this. “Well, make it five. Do an emergency surface. The captain’s locked in there.” There was a choked response on the other end, but no other reply.

In two minutes, Admiral Nelson was beside him. “Did I hear you right?” Gray Mouser meowed plaintively. Harriman glared at her and then motioned for Patterson to gather her and the four kittens and get them away from the area.

Pat did so, thinking all the time how something that had seemed like such a good idea at the time had turned so sour on him in the end. That the captain would be drowned because of him….

Morton nodded to the admiral. They both waited, looking at their watches, clenching and unclenching their fists. The time seemed to go by inexorably slow, and both the admiral and executive officer had to exert tremendous control to keep from pacing. The faces of the other men waiting outside the door showed the same kind of anxiety. Finally the intercom blared. “Emergency blow!” Everyone grabbed onto something.

As soon as the sub was level, the admiral barked out, “Back away.” It had been at least six minutes. Even though the captain was experienced in emergency operations and could hold his breath for long periods of time, the pressure of the water had to have been tremendous. Finally, the wheel turned and the door blew open from the force of the water inside. Several men were knocked off their feet, including the exec and the admiral, but others pushed against the frigid waters and made their way inside. They found the captain clinging to the top of a crate, drenched. Sharkey dragged him down and into the corridor, only far enough to keep the water from washing into his face as it slowly dissipated. He wasn’t breathing. A seaman got on the intercom and called for the CMO. Sharkey turned the skipper over on his side and slapped him a couple of times on the back. There was no response at first. Frantically, the chief prepared to begin artificial respirations. At that moment Crane began coughing weakly and then with more force, expelling water from his lungs. Gasping, he opened his eyes and gazed blearily at the men gathered around him. Doc shoved his way past the knot of men, a canister of oxygen in his hand. With help, Lee sat up and rubbed his eyes with one hand.

“Are you hurt, Skipper?” Doc asked. Crane shook his head. “You’re holding your arm strangely.” And indeed he was, as though he had broken ribs.

Lee reached into his shirt and pulled out a very bedraggled black kitten. “Give it oxygen,” he gasped, coughing some more.

“What?” Doc asked incredulous, but did as requested, the mask enveloping the little creature. After a minute, the kitten began to struggle, coughing and mewing.

“I can’t believe you stayed back to rescue a kitten,” Nelson said, relieved and exasperated at the same time. Lee just smiled sheepishly.

“How did you know there were five?” Chip asked. “No one’s been able to get near them.” Indeed, he wondered how Lee even knew about them. He hadn’t told him and Lee hadn’t inquired, which in itself was a bit strange.

“Like I said, I just counted them. I visited them every day after my watch was done.”

Morton shook his head in disbelief. “I thought you told me you hated cats.”

“Well, I guess I didn’t hate them as much as I thought I did,” came the quiet answer. The kitten was butting under his chin. He handed him to Chip. “I need to change.” He got to his feet with the admiral’s help. “Take SNAFU to his mother.” As an afterthought, he added, “I think I named him well.” Then as the men stood watching, mouths hanging open in amazement, the skipper calmly walked down the corridor to his quarters.




 

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