by Will Raven
In the spirit of the Halloween season, here’s a bloodcurdling tale about clever and terrifying rats that take over New York City and perhaps the world.
Dr. Julio Cortez turned on the ten o’clock news during his break at the Mercer Research Laboratory in Manhattan. He worked the night shift alone twice a week. He thought it was the only time he could get research done.
Cortez immediately became amused and a bit alarmed by a comical, yet repulsive story about a rat carrying a slice of pizza down a flight of stairs at a city subway station. The clip pointed out that the Big Apple was home to more than 2 million brown rats—about 25 percent of the city’s human population. Cortez thought climate change was behind an increasing rat population worldwide, making it easier for rodents to feed and breed.
Earlier in the day, Cortez and the Mercer marketing team pitched the company’s new ultrasound Rat Killer to investors as a secret weapon in the “War on Rats.” The company needed another $5 million to complete Phase II development. In just 10 years, using advanced technologies like ultrasound, Mercer had quickly become a U.S. leader in pest control.
The Rat Killer was designed as a citywide electronic system that could explode rats in targeted areas through high-intensity sound waves—similar to how ultrasound kills cancer cells in humans, but amplified a million times. Cortez had likened it to heating a rat in microwave until it popped.
Cortez, a dark-haired, tall, thin, and bookish man in his early fifties, was Mercer’s Director of Research and Development. As a rodentologist, he had studied rats for decades. He both loved and hated Rattus norvegicus. He kept an albino lab rat as a pet. Roos had white fur and red eyes.
“Hey Roos, one of your cousins made the news tonight,” Cortez said, putting fresh water in his cage. The normally docile rat nipped at Cortez’s hand. Surprised, he quickly yanked it away.
“What’s bugging you, little buddy,” he said, giving Roos an evil eye. Cortez sat back down on the sofa and switched to the Yankees-Red Sox game when everything went black.
“Not now, damn it,” he said, annoyed that the power gave out before he could get a score.
He glanced at the moonlight that shone through the terrace. A few seconds later a set of small interior lights powered by an emergency generator kicked on, casting slivers of light.
Cortez slowly made his way to the supply room to fetch a flashlight and some candles. He lit them, placing them in safe spots around the lab.
“Bet the darkness doesn’t bother you much, Roos,” Cortez said, flopping back down on the couch. The rat just paced back and forth in his cage.
“Who knows how long this will last,” he said, watching Roos sharpening his teeth on a wooden chew toy. Cortez remembered the city’s last black out in July 1977 during a sweltering heat wave. He recalled the widespread looting and the subway system shutdown that left him stranded at Grand Central Terminal. Most of all, he remembered that the serial killer known as Son of Sam was still terrorizing city residents.
Cortez stepped out on the terrace that wrapped around the modern panoramic building. Mercer Lab occupied the 10th floor. On days he worked at the lab, the scientist admired the glorious view of Central Park. From the terrace, he loved gazing at the green grass and mature trees, particularly in the fall when the leaves changed colors.
On this August night, the temperature hovered near 100 degrees. The air was sticky, thick, and solemn. Cortez peered at a city that had turned mostly black, except for scattered lights and pockets of fires that had already ignited in some neighborhoods. Soon the crime and vandalism will begin, he thought. He heard nearby sirens wailing.
Below, at least for now, the streets seemed relatively normal. Most of the stores had already closed up for the night and the dinner crowds had thinned out long ago. Others had been hanging out at the bars. Some frightened stiffs were just trying to get home safely, while others just couldn’t stand being alone in the dark.
Looking farther down the street, Cortez spotted tiny shadows moving along in a wave. He went back inside and grabbed his binoculars that he kept handy for Yankees and Knicks games he often attended after work.
He quickly went back outside and found his target again. What he saw disturbed him. A large colony of rats poured out of an open manhole cover. One after another, they scampered down the gutters, breaking in different directions. Up allies and into side streets the pests crawled.
A few minutes later the frantic flow of rats slowed. Cortez didn’t quite know what to make of it. Perhaps an underground tremor or explosion stirred the nest, he thought.
With chaos about to breakout citywide, Cortez had no intention of going home that night. He lived in Brooklyn and usually rode the subway. He had slept on the couch before when working deep into the night.
He headed for the linen closet to get an extra pillow and along the way made sure the glass entrance doors were locked. He also stopped by the research lab down the hall to check on the rats, about two dozen of them kept in separate cages. Mercer did research on the rodents, testing their behavior and eating habits to learn better ways to trap and kill them.
Cortez pointed his flashlight at the cages lined up against the wall. Tonight, like Roos, the rats just paced back and forth, as though they were anxious about something. Off a metal desk, Cortez took a battery operated fan that was cooling the rats. He also grabbed a king size pillow from the linen closet and headed back to the sofa, where he plopped down for the night. He placed the fan on the table and aimed it for his face.
“Roos, it’s been a long day, and I’m exhausted,” Cortez said, turning sideways on the sofa for a better sleep position.
He tossed and turned for about 30 minutes and finally nodded off. The fan blew just enough cool air to make it bearable in the rising heat. The air conditioning system was out, too, and didn’t operate on the backup generator.
At four o’clock in the morning, Roos' constant squeaking awoke Cortez. He rubbed his face and sat upright.
“What the hell’s going on,” Cortez groaned, giving Roos an angry stare.
The noise suddenly stopped. An orange glow flickering from the terrace caught Cortez’s attention. He stood up, picked up the binoculars, and walked into the light.
Cortez inched toward the railing and stared with fright at a city now overrun by millions of rats as far as the eye could see. The pests crammed the streets and sidewalks, mimicking pedestrians during a frantic New York city rush hour. Some climbed over each other in a race toward their next feast.
Raging fires enflamed the city, sending tremendous clouds of smoke into the indigo sky. From a burning apartment building, a desperate young couple jumped to their death. Sirens screamed in the distance, playing like a sound track to a horror scene. The air smelled of blood.
Cortez raised his binoculars to get a sharper view. Below, loiters who had stolen television sets and other appliances from Finley’s department store lie dead in the streets amid debris and shattered glass. Ravenous rats with razor sharp teeth feasted on their flesh and blood like it was cherry pie. A cat that had proudly strutted down an alley with a rat in its jaw was cornered by a mob of rats out for blood and retaliation.
Cortez’s mouth dropped. Where did all the rats come from?” he wondered. Down the block, he watched a man with a baseball bat trying desperately to fend off a dozen or so rats who attacked him from atop the roof of a nearby apartment building.
Surveying to the east, Cortez spotted rats mauling a women trapped inside her car. Everywhere he looked, the rodents had wreaked hell—as though they enjoyed a personal revenge against their natural enemy, humans.
The scientist couldn’t fathom the rodents’ astonishing behavior or their sudden population explosion. He lowered his binoculars and slipped back inside. He couldn’t stand to watch anymore.
Roos sat motionless in his cage, with a vindictive look in his beady little eyes. Cortez returned a dirty stare when he heard a high-pitched noise come from the front door. He turned the corner toward the shrieks, then froze in his tracks. His jaw dropped in disbelief. Rats, some two feet long, clustered in the hallway. They peered into the laboratory, waiting for an opportunity to dash in.
Cortez inched closer. He had seen rats act aggressively before, but never had the furry creatures displayed such taste for human blood. And never had they traveled so far from their colonies.
The rodents guarded the corridor, eager to pounce on their next victim. Cortez stepped backed as a grotesque rat with one eye smashed its head repeatedly against the glass, trying feebly to break it. Suddenly, the door to the stairwell opened.
Someone wearing a black motorcycle helmet staggered in. Cortez could tell from the tan pants with a single black stripe down the leg that it was Jill Davenport, the night security guard.
“Help me!” she pleaded, putting her bloody hands on the glass. Two rats clung to her shoulder, biting at her neck.
“Hang on, I will be right back,” Cortez said. He ran down the hall and seized a large container of ammonia from the lab. He knew rats hated the chemical’s rancid smell.
When Cortez returned, Davenport had collapsed at the door, and the rats were gnawing at her jacket. He pushed the door open and splashed the ammonia over her body.
The rodents shrieked and retreated a few feet away from the pungent odor, giving Cortez time to jar open the door and drag Davenport inside. He locked the entrance behind them, as the pests just stared angrily. Some rats raised on their hind legs like squirrels, wiping their whiskers with their tiny hands.
Cortez pulled the helmet off Davenport’s head. Her eyes opened, and she began lashing out, swinging her arms as though the vermin were still attacking. Her hands bled, pitted from multiple bites.
“Jill, Jill. . . wake up,” Cortez said, avoiding her shaky blows. Recognizing the doctor’s face, she started to calm down. Her breathing eased.
“You’ve been through a terrible shock,” Cortez said. “But you’re safe now.”
“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I was trapped in the building with no escape.”
Cortez helped Jill sit upright against the wall.
“Let me get some medical supplies, so we can clean you up,” he said.
“Thanks for saving me,” she said, smiling.
The doctor walked to the kitchen for the first-aid kit. He came back and rubbed antiseptic lotion over Jill’s hand cuts.
“You’re lucky they didn’t chew through your pants or jacket,” Cortez said, rolling a layer of gauze bandages over Jill’s wounds. He worried that she may break into a fever from an infection.
‘Glad I’m alive, yeah, but it’s bad out there, really bad,” she said.
“I saw some of it from the terrace,” Cortez said.
“The freaking rats are coming out of the sewers. Millions of them,” she said gloomily.
“It’s like they were waiting patiently for the right moment to attack us.”
“And the blackout is that moment,” she said.
“Nocturnal creatures they are,” Cortez said, grimacing.
“Who knows what the rats from hell are eating down there?” she asked.
Cortez had a theory, but he didn’t share it. The rats had built up resistance to the poisons fed to them over the years. And the toxins in turn may have spiked their explosive fertility rate.
“We’ve got to get out of the building and city,” Cortez said, picking up his flashlight.
“Even the 911 system is down,” Jill said.
“I’ve got a plan. Come with me,” he said, helping her up. They headed to the research lab where the rats were studied. There was an open supply closet to the right.
Cortez pointed his flashlight inside. From a shelf, he removed a flamethrower, much like the one he imagined in his sci-fi favorite, Fahrenheit 451. The weapon had a black shoulder strap and long barrel. He had used it once to flush out a rat colony that was hiding in a partially demolished building in Queens.
“Getting ready for war are we,” Jill quipped.
Cortez grinned and pointed to a blue spray gun on a lower shelf.
“That’s peppermint oil and the rats can’t stand it.”
He slid the container off the shelf and handed it to Jill. The pair headed back toward the front office when they heard loud squealing noises emanating from the lab.
They moved closer, afraid what may be brewing behind the door. Then utter silence.
“Jill, get the peppermint oil spray ready just in case,” Cortez whispered, paranoid the rats might hear them. With his right hand, he flung the flamethrower over his shoulder. He pulled the door open with his other hand and flashed the light inside. From inside their cages, the rats started a raucous again.
“This gives me the creeps. Let’s get out of here,” Jill said, still horrified from the last attack.
“Not yet, there’s something strange going on here,” the doctor said. Waving the flashlight from left to right, he walked cautiously toward the back of the lab.
Cortez stopped at the bathroom, took a deep breath, and cracked the door open, planting his foot behind it for protection. Jill put her left hand on his shoulder, and her right hand on the spray trigger.
Cortez beamed his light inside. In the shadows, he saw a hundred red blazing eyes blinking in the darkness like fireflies. Beyond the menacing stares, rats were crawling out of the toilet onto the floor.
Some dried on the sink like cars completing a wash. Cortez couldn’t bear the ghastly site anymore and slammed the door shut.
“What is it?” Jill asked.
“The rats are building numbers for an attack,” Cortez said.
“Let’s go now,” she urged.
“The sun will rise soon and the rats will be less active during the day.”
“You mean like vampires,” Jill said hellishly.
Cortez and Davenport walked back onto the terrace. Together, they gazed at the black and orange skyline. The sun had begun to rise, slicing through the skyscrapers and competing with great billows of dark smoke that poured out of the burning buildings.
Cortez went back inside to fetch the binoculars. He returned and zoomed in on the streets below. The army of rodents it appeared had stuffed themselves in an all-night smorgasbord. For now, they seemed content like a python that had swallowed a pig for dinner.
“We should get ready for our escape,” Cortez said.
“Escape to where?” she asked.
“Do you have a car?”
“I took the subway.”
“We’ll need a vehicle, then we can try to drive out of the city.”
“I can hotwire one,” Jill said, sounding like an experienced pro at such things.
Cortez nodded. “Who knows how many roads may still be open, but we have to try.”
He picked up a small tan backpack and began stuffing the first-aid kit, binoculars, and an extra set of clothing inside.
“It beats staying here,” she said. Tiny beads of sweat multiplied on her forehead.
“I’ll take the flamethrower and you carry the peppermint oil,” Cortez said, handing Jill a surgical face mask he had taken from a box.
“Why the mask?” she asked.
“It may help protect us against airborne disease.”
Jill didn’t see the point much with all the death and destruction everywhere, but she put the mask on anyway.
“Okay, Doc,” she said.
Together, they marched to the front door like soldiers preparing for battle. The rats in the corridor had already regrouped and they looked pissed off.
“Jill, when I open the door, you hit the rats with the peppermint oil,” Cortez instructed.
“Don’t worry I’ll back you up with the flamethrower.”
Cortez took a deep breath and unlocked the door. He shoved it open, plowing over a batch of rats in the way. Another hungry crew crawled forward.
Jill immediately sprayed the peppermint oil full throttle at the next line of attackers. The pungent aroma quickly tormented the pests. Some older, more battle-tested rats, leaped forward, attaching to Jill’s pant legs.
Cortez knocked the vermin off her, using the barrel of his weapon. The pair then dashed for the stairwell and shut the door behind them. Jill sprayed three rats that clung to Cortez’s lab coat. They dropped off and scampered away.
More rats, too many to count, waited on the steps between floors partially lit by the emergency generator. The doctor, with Jill right behind him, scorched rodents who dared to attack.
The furry creatures swiftly caught fire, squealing in pain. They twisted and turned, smoldering in their tracks. Those that escaped the combustion scurried down the stairwell away from the flames.
Cortez and Davenport quickly made their way down 10 flights of stairs, frying rats in their path. At the bottom of the stairwell, Jill opened the lobby door. It was normally an ornate space with marble floors and cherry panel walls. But now, it was a horror chamber, with hundreds of rats crawling everywhere, squealing in a high-pitched tone.
In the center was a security desk with multiple phones and monitors. Jill glanced disgustingly at her workspace overrun with vermin. The site numbed her.
In the revolving door, three rats dined on a young woman who had apparently become trapped. Her face was no longer identifiable and little remained of her arms and legs. Cortez grimaced.
“Jill, as we move toward the exit doors, the rats may circle behind us. Keep spraying the mint.”
“Will do, Captain,” she said.
Exhausted, Cortez and Davenport made their way to the exit doors. Outside the night shadows began dying and the bright morning rays came alive. The rats, perhaps sensing the new day coming, appeared listless.
Still puzzled by the rodent’s odd behavior, Cortez never let up. He cleared a path to the glass entrance doors. As Cortez and Davenport left the building, the rats just watched—silently blinking.
The outside air smelled smoky and oppressive. The sweltering heat had not yet started to bake the sidewalks. The building entrance was stained with the blood of helpless victims attacked or killed by the vengeful rats. Trash and debris was sprawled everywhere.
Looking down the street, Jill spotted a white Chevy van that had run onto the sidewalk and crashed into a lamp post. The headlights still beamed, although the front grill was mangled.
“Let’s check it out,” Jill said, hoping the vehicle was still drivable. As they marched toward the van, the rats surprisingly remained eerily calm. Thousands of them just stared, bitter and aloof. Cortez felt like they were in the eye of a storm and mayhem was about to break out at any moment.
Jill reached the van first. She grinned when she heard the engine still idling, although roughly. She carefully checked the front and rear. The vehicle was empty. No rats. No dead bodies.
She peaked at the gas gauge, which showed about a half a tank left. The temperature level tilted heavily on the hot side, but not yet boiling.
“Looks like we got ourselves a ride,” Jill said.
“I’d rather have an armored car, but we’ve got wheels,” Cortez quipped.
“Hop in the other side,” she said, climbing into the driver’s seat. Cortez quickly got in, put the flamethrower and backpack on the center console, and locked the door behind him.
“So where do we go from her?” Jill asked, cracking the window.
“Of course, it depends on what roads are open,” Cortez said. “Eventually our goal should be to hit I-95 out of the city.”
“The Brooklyn Bridge is 10 minutes away,” Jill said. “It might be better than trying to get across town to I-95?”
“It’s worth a try,” he said. “It might get us to I-295.”
“We can take FDR Drive and loop around to the bridge,” she said, pulling the van away from the lamp post, then slowly driving off. Davenport and Cortez removed their masks.
As they drove forward, the dense carpet of rats in the streets thinned. The pests moved aside at the sound of the approaching van.