When the scratching started, Howard Mitla was sitting alone in the Queens apartment where he lived with his wife. Howard was one of New York’s lesser-known certified public accountants.
Violet Mitla, one of New York’s lesser-known dental assistants, had waited until the news was over before going down to the store on the corner to get a pint of ice cream. Jeopardy was on after the news, and she didn’t care for that show. She said it was because Alex Trebek looked like a crooked evangelist, but Howard knew the truth: Jeopardy made her feel dumb.
The scratching sound was coming from the bathroom just off the short squib of hall that led to the bedroom. Howard tightened up as soon as he heard it. It wasn’t a junkie or a burglar in there, not with the heavy-gauge mesh he had put over all the windows two years ago at his own expense. It sounded more like a mouse in the basin or the tub. Maybe even a rat.
He waited through the first few questions, hoping the scratching sound would go away on its own, but it didn’t. When the commercial came on, he got reluctantly up from his chair and walked to the bathroom door. It was standing ajar, allowing him to hear the scratching sound even better.
Almost certainly a mouse or a rat. Little paws clicking against the porcelain.
“Damn,” Howard said, and went into the kitchen.
Standing in the little space between the gas stove and the refrigerator were a few cleaning implements – a mop, a bucket filled with old rags, a broom with a dustpan snugged down over the handle. Howard took the broom in one hand, holding it well down toward the bristles, and the dustpan in the other. Thus armed, he walked reluctantly back through the small living room to the bathroom door. He cocked his head forward. Listened.
Scratch, scratch, scritchy-scratch.
A very small sound. Probably not a rat. Yet that was what his mind insisted on conjuring up.
a rat but a New York rat, an ugly, bushy thing with tiny black eyes and long whiskers like wire and snaggle teeth protruding from below its V-shaped upper lip. A rat with attitude.
The sound was tiny, almost delicate, but nevertheless –
Behind him, Alex Trebek said, “This Russian madman was shot, stabbed, and strangled. . . all in the same night.”
“Who was Lenin?'” one of the contestants responded.
“Who was Rasputin, peabrain,” Howard Mitla murmured. He transferred the dustpan to the hand holding the broom, then snaked his free hand into the bathroom and turned on the light. He stepped in and moved quickly to the tub crammed into the corner below the dirty, mesh-covered window. He hated rats and mice, hated all little furry things that squeaked and scuttered (and sometimes bit), but he had discovered as a boy growing up in Hell’s Kitchen that if you had to dispatch one of them, it was best to do it quickly. It would do him no good to sit in his chair and ignore the sound; Vi had helped herself to a couple of beers during the news, and the bathroom would be her first stop when she returned from the market. If there was a mouse in the tub, she would raise the roof. . . and demand he do his manly duty and dispatch it anyway. Posthaste. The tub was empty save for the hand-held shower attachment. Its hose lay on the enamel like a dead snake.
The scratching had stopped either when Howard turned on the light or when he entered the room, but now it started again. Behind him. He turned and took three steps toward the bathroom basin, raising the broomhandle as he moved.