Harm and the Harmonica Man: Part Two - By Howard Schneider 

It was a typical rainy Portland spring night, cool but not cold, breezy but not windy. Harm had secured the dry recessed doorway of a Covid-closed barber shop on Sandy Boulevard for the night. He sat on a double layer of cardboard with his long legs stretched out in front of him staring out blankly at the passing traffic. He held his scruffy, worse-for-the-wear red backpack next to him, one of only two possessions he still had from his foster home days. It had been given to him by a caring social worker for his eighth-grade graduation. The other was a four-blade pocketknife he’d stolen when he was in sixth grade. He couldn’t imagine surviving without either one.  

His usual hunger had been placated by a beef burrito and a green chili enchilada he’d bought with a generous handout from the driver of a shiny black Audi who must have felt compassion when their eyes met at the traffic light at MLK and Broadway. For the first time in a long while he felt at ease—a full stomach, a dry place to sleep, a couple of bucks in his pocket. But that contentment faded as he started thinking of what the next day might bring—another struggle to survive, unable to see any way out of his dismal existence, no hope for a better life. 

Wanting to dispel those negative thoughts, he opened the backpack to retrieve the pint of whisky he kept for just such occasions. Not seeing the bottle, he grabbed the harmonica case that was near the top of the pack to move it out of the way. For no special reason he paused a moment, then unzipped it and took the first harp in the row out of its slot and looked at it  closely. A capital “A” was stamped at one end, and the name “SUZUKI” was printed on the bottom. Japanese. Must be a good one, he thought. He counted ten holes and wondered how they were organized. He held it up to his mouth and blew into the middle holes, like he'd done in the laurel hedge a few days before, and again he liked the sound. Then he blew into the left side and moved harp past his lips until he got to the other end where the pitch was higher. When he drew is breath in, the pitch was different than when blowing out. Then it dawned on him in a flash: different holes, breath in or out, different sounds, the way to make music. He quickly took out one of the other harmonicas, one  with a “C” on it and repeated what he’d done with the “A” harp. Same progression of notes, only a higher pitch. Over the following couple of hours, he tried the rest of the harps and quickly figured out the differences in sound as the letters progressed from A to G, and how in each case the holes were arranged in increasing pitch from left to right. With that realization, he was hooked, determined to learn how to play like a pro. Later in his quest to become a harp player, he'd learn the letters designated the key in which the instrument was tuned, and that the notes were always arrange as specific scales. But at that moment what was important to him was that he had discovered a possible path to a better future—to become a musician. Maybe it was naïve, but at least it provided a much-needed ray of hope. 

For the next few months Harm stayed out of trouble and worked hard to accumulate as much cash as he could, panhandling six or more hours a day, hunting for cans and bottles when not at his MLK corner, even doing a few building-site clean-up jobs he'd stumbled into. Eventually he saved enough for a of decent set clothes and almost-new shoes from a thrift shop and, for the first time in a long while, a haircut. During all this time, even as tired as he might be, he worked with the harps every night, figuring out on his own how play simple tunes, tunes that came back to him from his childhood when he’d been left alone with nothing but TV cartoons, most with music tracks teeming with unforgettable jingles and melodies. Gradually, as he became able to mimic. more of these tunes, his confidence grew. Then one night he played something that sounded different than just cartoon music. It was a little bit sad, maybe a bit mournful, but definitely something of his own. Something he felt. And with that little melody, even as amateurish as it was, he knew he was ready for the next step in his plan. 

Harm and the Harmonica Man: Part One - By Howard Schneider 

When Harmon Zorn was little the few friends he'd had called him “Harmie.” But by the time he’d made it to high school, the darkness in him had surfaced, and even fewer friends he had called him “Harm,” as if acknowledging his true character. As if they'd discovered his inner core, who he really was, burdened by deep-seated psychological trauma, increasingly manifested by angry rebellion against the harsh world into which he'd been unkindly cast and which he'd had no help navigating. By the age of seventeen he was a textbook case of resentment, hopelessness, and rejection—a lost soul with no future. 

In Harm’s case a major problem was that there'd been a complete lack of support or mental health intervention that could have prevented the destructive effects of emotional deprivation. He’d been on his own from the start, unloved and ignored—an unknown transient father, a homeless, drug-addicted teen mother who died during childbirth, and an abusive and neglectful childhood spent in a cascade of dysfunctional foster homes, an environment that could yield nothing other than a disastrous outcome. 

As social and clinical science has convincingly shown, we all are the sum of our genetic inheritance and our upbringing. For Harm, both of these factors had conspired against him. But a critical question is, how permanent is this seemingly dead-end situation at the age of seventeen? Is there a possibility of psychological salvage? Or is Harm destined for a life of dysfunction and misery, a continuation of the only thing he's known for the entirity of his short existence. And if there were to be any hope, what would it take to change his life for the good? To improve his well-being. 

*    *    * 

A decade later, shuffling along 82nd Avenue, homeless, hungry, on the lookout for a chance to score a few bucks, Harm noticed a small, black satchel on the bench at a bus stop. The apparent owner, a guy who looked to be in his fifties, kinda on the heavy side, was focused on the book he was reading and appeared not all that attentive to the bag next to him. When Harm was close enough, he grabbed the satchel and took off running, cut through the parking lot of a corner strip mall, kept going full-speed down the side street for a couple of blocks, then, when he saw that the guy was nowhere behind him, darted into a dense laurel hedge. He'd been in this spot before, had even slept there a few times. Safe from pursuit and unseen from the street, and after he caught his breath, he opened the bag to see what he'd got. 

The first thing he saw was an oblong, black fabric case, about 12 by 6 inches, 2 inches thick. It was zippered shut. He set the case aside and took out the other things—a couple of paperbacks, a map of Corvallis, a bottle of water. No wallet, no money, nothing of value. He drank the water, then unzipped the case. He was surprised to see seven harmonicas, each held in its place by an elastic band. He'd seen and heard guys playing harmonicas and knew what they sounded like. But he had no idea what they might be worth, what he could get for them from Jake, one of the pawnbrokers on 82nd who'd buy stuff without asking where it came from. Curious, he took one of them out and held it to his mouth and blew into it a couple of times. Then he moved over enough to see along the street. There was nobody in sight, so he blew a few more time, moving his mouth across all he holes. There was something about the sounds he liked. He started to play it some more, but feeling his hunger pains, abruptly put it back and zippered the case shut. He put the case and the paperbacks in his backpack, tossed the satchel and map further into the hedge, and went back to the street. 

  

Jake the pawnbroker was a scruffy old guy in need of dental work and a bath. His apparent lack of concern for personal hygiene carried over to his lack of concern about how a prospective seller came to possess the objects they offered him. All he cared about was their resale potential and the profit he could realize. He barely glanced at the case of shiny harps Harm showed him and said, "I don't buy harmonicas. People don't want to put used stuff in their mouth. And new ones are so cheap there's no reason to buy used ones. What else you got?" Disappointed but not showing it, Harm reached into his backpack and took out the two paperbacks. Without bothering to check the titles, Jake said, "A buck each." Harm gladly took the two dollars, put the harmonica case back in his backpack and left. When Harm was out the door, Jake tossed the books into a trash can and returned to his TV set.

Bigrat: Episode Six - By Howard Schneider 

The following week, Travis and Lucile received good news from one of the Multnomah County agencies that works with homeless people—they'd qualified for a two-bedroom rent-subsidized house in southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood. Jack's father had helped with the application and gave them a glowing recommendation, They could take possession the following weekend. 

Saturday morning, Jack came to the campsite up with a friend’s van to help Travis and Lucile transport their meager belongings to the house. As they drove east on Hawthorne Boulevard on their way to the rental, they stopped at an intersection for a red light. Lucile suddenly pointed at a disheveled man standing on the opposite corner. He held a cardboard sign that described his state of desperate destitution and requested a handout. 

“Ain’t that Darko over there? Sure enough looks like him." A second later, she said, "That woman across the street. Ain’t that his wife, Belinda?” There by the bus stop?" 

Jack and Travis looked where Lucile indicated and saw a heavy-set woman sitting on a milk-crate holding a tattered, barely-legible cardboard sign. A frayed straw hat shaded her puffy face. Then they shifted their gazes to the man. 

“Yeah, that's them all right,” Jack said. 

“Yeah, it is,” Travis agreed. 

The light turned green, and Jack continued on. He glanced into the rearview mirror and watched Darko and Belinda disappear in the swarm of traffic and the glare of Portland’s bright summer sunlight. 

Jack, Travis, and Lucile spent the afternoon searching thrift and consignment shops for furniture, dishes, pots and pans, and other things needed to set up housekeeping. They bought new mattresses on sale at a department store and pillows and bedding at Target. They stocked up on food, beer, and Lucile’s favorite white wine. Thrilled with this turn in their lives, they took great pleasure in their hunting expedition, and in each other’s company. Travis and Lucile were finally off the streets and would have a roof over their heads, a full pantry, and a growing bank account; Jack was happily back home and had been accepted by the college he'd applied to. All this good fortune because of a rat. Who would ever believe something this strange could actually have happened? But Travis wasn't surprised—he knew it was because his pa, in the form of a big rat, had made it happen. But he knew to keep that knowledge to himself—that the rest of 'em wouldn't believe it, even if it was as true as true can be. 

That evening they celebrated in their new home. Travis ordered pizza, Lucile made a salad, and Jack bought mocha-almond ice cream for dessert. Sadly, it would be their last night together since Jack was leaving for college the next day. They had a much-deserved celebration late into the night, recounting the good times and rejoicing in their good fortune. 

Sitting in the living room around the mid-century modern coffee table they'd purchased at Rerun that very day, Jack had just finished cutting up the second pizza when Travis suddenly jumped off the sofa. “I’ll get it,” he said. 

“Get what?” Jack asked, then took another pull on his freshly opened IPA. 

“Someone’s at the door. Didn’t you hear that holler?” Travis replied as he stepped around the table and headed towards the entryway. 

“Lucile? Did you hear anything?” Jack asked, a questioning look on his face. 

"I didn't hear nothing,” she said, watching Travis disappear into the hallway. 

When Travis opened the front door, he didn’t see anyone. Then he looked down at the porch deck. “Pa?” he gasped, staring in wonder at a large, sooty-gray-colored rat standing on its back legs with its glowing red eyes boring into his. “Is that you? What happened? You don’t look the same.” 

“You must be Travis, right?” the rat said in a gravelly voice. “Relax, boy. I ain’t your pa. But don’t worry none. He’ll be along in a while. He’s gathering up the others.” 

Before Travis could say anything, the rat dropped to all fours and dashed between Travis's legs and into the entryway, paused for a moment to look around, then darted into the living room where Lucile and Jack waited to see if someone had been at the door. 

“Oh my God!” Lucile screamed when the foul-smelling rat leapt onto the sofa and edged close to her, twisting its mouth into a shape that resembled a leering grin. 

Jack jumped up and yelled, “What the hell? Travis! Get in here! Hurry!” 

When Travis entered the room, he halted and looked closely at the rat, which by then was reaching for a slice of the pizza with its outstretched front legs, it's long, finger-like toes and sharp nails grabbing one of the pieces Jack had just cut. 

“Grandpa?” Is that you?” Travis croaked. 

“Damn right it’s me! Who’d you expect, Mickey Mouse?” The rat took a bite of the pizza slice it held in its front paws and began chewing, slowly and mechanically. Jack and Lucile watched the rat in silent horror. 

After a final swallow, the rat looked up at Travis. “You gotta nice place here, Travis. And this pizza’s damn good! But you better order some more. Your pa and the whole pack should be here any minute now. Just make sure it’s pepperoni—that's all of 'em's favorite." 

The rat flicked its long tongue at the grease congealing on its bristly lips. As it lapped up every last bit, the guttering candlelight danced across its sharp over-sized teeth, glittering like July 4th fireworks exploding in a clear summer sky.

Bigrat: Episode Five - By Howard Schneider 

We left Episode Four as Jack called his father and told him about what he and Travis were doing. Hoping his parents would appreciate what they’d accomplished, he invited them to the rat circus show. His father said they'd be there the following morning. 

The morning dawned colder than the day before and rain clouds were building over the West Hills. 

“We still gonna do this? Will people stop to watch Bigrat if it rains?” Lucile asked. She, Travis, and Jack were sitting around the fire barrel drinking coffee and toasting bread on sticks held near the flames. 

“I’ll put up a tarp. There’s one over there nobody’s using,” Jack said, then got up and headed towards a debris pile at the edge of the camp. 

Although by nine-thirty a typical Portland drizzle had set in, the performance area was perfectly dry under the big blue tarp. A crowd had already gathered in anticipation of the approaching show-time—even larger than the one at the six o’clock show the day before. News of this bizarre event must have spread, and the air buzzed with excitement. Potent Stumptown, Pete’s, and Starbucks' coffees further fueled the crowd’s heightened mood. 

Precisely at ten o'clock, Jack made his introduction, then Travis materialized with cage in hand and released Bigrat into the arena Again, the show was spectacular, and the onlookers loved it. Bigrat even bowed at the same time Travis did after the finale. 

But as Lucile was passing her bucket through the crowd, and Travis had already started back to the camp with Bigrat, a bicycle-patrol policeman strode up to Jack and positioned himself directly in front of him. After he dismounted his bike, he withdrew a citation book from one of the ample pockets in his navy blue shorts. Then, with focused deliberation, he withdrew a ballpoint from a narrow little shirt pocket designed for pens. 

The much shorter cop looked up into Jack’s face and said, “You people are breaking a lot of laws with this thing,” gesturing dismissively towards the arena with his pen. “I’m only gonna give you a warning this time, but you’re gonna have to close it down. You’re blocking a public thoroughfare and creating a nuisance. I don’t want to see you back here, either.” He opened the citation book and began flipping through it page by page, as if he wanted to make sure the people gathering around saw how many citations he'd already issued. 

“Just a moment, officer!” a pinstripe-suited, gray-haired man said as he walked up to the two of them and stood next to Jack. “I’m an attorney and represent this group. According to Portland City Code, they’re fully within their legal rights. Are you sure this is a citation you want to issue?” 

The officer took a step back, looked up at the tall, imposing man, glanced at Jack’s arena, then sputtered, “Well . . . this thing is a nuisance. Anyway, I wasn’t gonna arrest them.” He took another step back, then looked at the arena again. “I’ll see what my sergeant says. If you ask me, these street people are out of control. It doesn’t help that they have lawyers, either.” He stared at the arena for another moment, then put the citation book and pen back in their respective pockets, adjusted his utility belt in an exaggerated manner, and walked away, shaking his helmeted head as if in pronounced disgust. He remounted his bicycle and peddled off without further comment. 

“Dad! You were awesome!” Jack exclaimed. “I didn’t even know you were here. Is mom here, too?” 

“Yes, she's here,” Jack’s father said, glancing at a well-dressed woman speaking to Lucile as she placed a thick roll of bills into the bucket. “We wanted to see what you’re up to.” Jack’s father stepped over to the arena and examined it closely. “This is a work of art. I remember when you worked on scenery for your high school plays. I had no idea you were this good. Now I understand why you wanted to go to art school rather than law school. I’m sorry it took me so long to understand that—to accept it.” 

Jack was overcome with emotion and tears welled up in his eyes. He stepped closer to his father and said, “Thanks, Dad.” 

“I’m proud of you, son,” the man said, then threw his arms around the boy and pulled him close. 

“Mom!” Jack cried when his mother joined them as his father stepped aside. “Thanks for coming.” 

“I’m glad we did,” she replied. “Although I never thought my son would be hanging out with an elderly woman collecting money in a little tin bucket and fronting for a man sporting a purple cape and conducting the performance of a giant rat. But if that makes you happy, then so am I.” 

That evening, after the last show for the day and they were back at the camp, Jack told Travis and Lucile that he might be leaving for college in the fall but would stick around for the summer. “My dad said he would foot the bill for the Scenic Design Program at the California Institute of the Arts. I applied last fall but didn’t tell my parents about it then. I should find out if I'm accepted pretty soon.” 

“Jack! I can’t do this without you,” Travis blurted out. 

“Oh, come on, Travis. Sure you can. Darko could do my part.” 

“No way, Jack. You can’t leave me. We’re a team. And I’m sure not gonna bring Darko into this. I don’t trust that guy.” 

“Travis! Hush up that kinda talk. Jack helped get the circus going. He done his part. Now he’s gotta get on with his life. We’ll manage just fine. And don’t fret none about Darko. There’s plenty others could take over from Jack. Now calm down and pour me more of that wine,” Lucile said, holding out her cup. 

Life for Travis, Lucile, and Jack continued on a positive track as rainy spring days turned into warm, dry summer weeks, then months. The circus thrived without hassle from the police, crowds grew, and contributions surged. The big rat was a big hit; Bigrat and Travis were featured in a front-page story in the Oregonian and were given extensive coverage by Willamette Week. Even Jack’s acceptance by the college didn’t dim Travis’s optimism, a feeling no doubt helped by his medications being at their right levels. But then, one afternoon in August, a man approached Travis after the two o’clock show and offered to buy him a cup of coffee at a nearby shop. That’s when everything changed. 

“Who are you?” Travis asked before accepting the invitation. 

“Samuel Bern. I’m an epidemiologist. I’d like to talk to you about rats. I’ve seen your show and think you might be able to help us.” 

After numerous meetings with Bern, interviews with his colleagues, filling out forms and questionnaires, and having Jack’s father examine the offer-letter, Travis accepted Bern’s proposal of a full-time job as Special Technician for Rodent Acquisition and Management. So, with a single signature, Travis became a well-paid member of a joint Federal-State Public Health Department team studying health effects of urban rodent populations. A real job, a path forward. 

Travis’s acceptance of the position with the rodent study project meant that the Bigrat Circus would have to be disbanded before he was scheduled to take up his duties two weeks later. But with Jack leaving, and maybe more importantly, recent signs that Bigrat was becoming less enthusiastic about performing, the need to close down the circus actually wasn’t that difficult to accept After all, it had accomplished what it needed to. 

After their final performance, on the last day of August, Lucile caught up with Travis on his way back to the camp. 

“What you gonna to do with Bigrat?” she asked. 

“I been thinking about letting him go. Letting him return to being a plain old rat again, free to go wherever he wants. And do whatever he wants. After what he’s done for us, it wouldn’t be right to sell him to the rat man. I’d never do that! . . . Come on, Aunt Lucile, let’s set him free right now, before I change my mind.” 

A few minutes later they came to where Travis had caught Bigrat nearly five months earlier. When Travis opened the cage door Bigrat scuttled a few feet into the weeds, but then suddenly stopped. He turned back to Travis and stared at him for a short while, gave Lucile a lingering look, then turned away and scampered over to a jumbled pile of broken-up concrete chunks and disappeared into a narrow crevice. 

“So long, Pa. Thanks for everything,” Travis whispered under his breath, too quietly for Lucile to have heard.

Bigrat: Episode Four - By Howard Schneider 

“It was Bigrat! Didn’t you hear him?” Travis said, as he approached the box where he kept the rat. When he reached it, he looked over the edge, then gasped, a look of shock distorting his face. 

“Pa!” Travis screamed, then beckoned Jack with a yell and a frantic wave of his big hand. “Jack! You gotta see this! Get Aunt Lucile, too! Hurry!” 

Jack found Lucile, then ran to where Travis was staring at the rat, which was standing up on its hind legs in the middle of the box floor, its mouth opening and closing like it did when it wanted food. Lucile joined them and scanned the interior of the box. 

“What’s wrong?” she asked. 

“He was Pa a second ago. Now he’s a rat again,” Travis said, looking back and forth between Bigrat and Lucile. 

“What?” Jack asked, having no idea what Travis was talking about. 

“He was my pa. He called me. Didn’t you hear him?" Travis's frustration was evident in his near-panic demeanor. "But by the time you got here he'd already turned back into a rat again.” 

“Holy shit,” Jack said, then stepped away a few paces and motioned Lucile to join him. “What’s going on?” 

“It’s alright, Jack. Sometimes Travis hears and sees things the rest of us don’t. But there’s no harm in it. He just needs to get back on his medicines. We’ll see to it tomorrow.” 

Lucile turned toward Travis. “You’ll go to the clinic with me, won’t you? You’ll wanna be good in your head when get your circus going, won't you?” 

Travis ignored her question. “It was him, Aunt Lucile! I know it was. I recognized him. I saw his face. I’d know him anywhere. He’s come to help me and Jack. And you, too. You was his favorite sister, even if you did leave when you married Virgil. You know Pa never did like Virgil. Said he stole you away from us.” 

“Never mind all that. All’s I know is your Pa would want you to be as strong as you can be. Remember how he always told you to take your pills?” 

“Yeah . . . I remember. I remember he looked after me real good after Ma died.” 

Travis was quiet for a moment, then added, “That’s why he come back as Bigrat. To look after me. And you, too.” 

“Travis, honey, I ain’t gonna tell you what to think. But I do want you to come with me tomorrow to the clinic. Will you do that?” 

 “Okay. But you gotta talk to the doctor. They make me nervous. They never believe what I tell 'em, either.” 

“Don’t worry. I’ll be with you all the time, and I'll do the talking. We’ll go first thing in the morning.” 

Later, when Jack was alone with Lucile, he said, “Are you sure he’s gonna be okay? That stuff about the rat talking and looking like hie father freaked me out.” 

“He’ll be fine when he’s back on his medicine. There ain’t nothing for you to worry about. I promise.” 

“I sure as hell hope not. I got a lot riding on this rat circus. This is my chance to do something. To show my old man that I’m not a total screw-up like he thinks I am.” His eyes moistened and he looked away. 

Lucile stepped closer and placed her hand on his arm. “Jack, you ain’t a screw-up. You’re a good person, no matter what your pa says. Just do your job as good as you can, and I’ll do mine. I guarantee, everything’s gonna turn out just fine. You hear?” 

“Yes ma’am.” 

“All right then. Let’s dish up some of that stew. It's chicken—no rat meat this time, in honor of Bigrat. Smells good, don’t it?” 

By nine o’clock on a clear morning three days later, Jack had the six-foot-wide, colorfully-painted and decorated plywood performance space assembled and ready. It was eliciting curious glances from walkers, runners and riders passing by on the path, many of whom stopped for a closer look. A sign advertised the show times: 

Bigrat 

The Miraculous Acrobatic Rodent 

See it to believe it! 

Every day at 10 a.m.  2 p.m.  6 p.m. 

By a quarter-to-ten, two dozen people were gathered around the untended arena—strangers chatted amongst themselves as Portlanders are inclined to do whenever an appropriate occasion presents itself. A few black Labs, Australian Shepherds, and Blue Heelers eyed their masters, impatient to get on with their morning runs. But curiosity kept the onlookers hanging around, as if reluctant to miss out on something that might contribute to keeping Portland weird.  

At precisely ten o’clock, Travis, adorned in a purple cape fashioned from a well-worn beach towel Jack found at Goodwill, suddenly materialized from behind a nearby bush and approached the arena. A cage dangled from his left hand and he held a two-foot-long, gold-painted stick in the other. Jack followed behind him, a red rag wrapped around his head like a turban and a look of confidence on his clean-shaven, youthful face. Then came Lucile, furtively surveying the crowd, an impish smile softening her weathered face. She carried a child’s sand bucket in one hand and a fistful of printed flyers in the other. 

Jack stepped around Travis to a grassy spot in front of the crowd, which had grown to about thirty people by then. More passers-by continued to join as they came along the riverside macadam path. 

“Welcome to the first public performance by the phenomenal Bigrat,” Jack announced, “the most talented rat in the history of the universe. Master Travis, Bigrat’s owner and trainer, will direct the amazing rodent in a demonstration of remarkable athletic prowess. Miss Lucile,” Jack said before bowing towards Lucile, “in due time will circulate among you with a collection vessel into which you may deposit your expressions of appreciation. Although we willingly accept coin, the silence of folding money is far less distracting and will be looked upon with great favor.” 

Travis then stepped forward, silent, standing tall, barely acknowledging the spectators. He held Bigrat’s cage over the roofless, low-walled arena for a brief moment, just long enough for the audience to gauge the size of the giant coal-black rat. Then, with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a button and released its latched door. Bigrat paused at the opening and glanced around at the people staring at him, then without fanfare he leapt in a graceful arc into the waiting performance area. 

Gasps, tittering laughter, and cries reflecting surprise or amazement erupted spontaneously from the crowd when Bigrat made his dramatic entrance with the precision of an Olympic athlete. He landed solidly on the trampoline, bounced high into the air, executed two flawless backflips, then came down onto a croquet-size, garishly-painted wooden ball. After a fraction of a second to gain his balance and adjust his feet to maintain his position on top of it, he rolled the ball completely around the circumference of the green-felt-covered plywood floor of Jack’s magnificent arena. The crowd clapped and hooted, clearly astounded by the rat’s surprising abilities. The whistles and yells were deafening, but Travis and Bigrat ignored the wild response and carried on with the performance without missing a beat. After thirty minutes of tumbling, rolling, twirling, prancing, and flipping, the crowd’s expressions of wonder and awe were even more raucous. 

After the final stunt, Travis set the open cage on the arena floor and Bigrat entered it at once to claim the well-earned reward of Tillamook aged cheddar cheese adorning gluten-free quinoa-meal crackers. Travis took a single bow to acknowledge the prolonged applause, retrieved the cage, securely latched its door, and walked off, leaving Jack to fold up his handiwork and Lucile to circulate among the crowd and hand out the flyers advertising the “Bigrat Circus.” It wasn't long before Lucile’s bucket was nearly full. 

As Jack and Lucile were walking back to the camp, pulling the cart he had made to transport the arena, Jack asked, “Is something wrong with Travis? He’s so . . . I don’t know . . . quiet. It’s like he wasn’t that involved with the performance.” 

“He’s okay. The medicine he’s on just needs to be adjusted. It always takes a few weeks to get it right. We go back to the clinic next week for a tune-up. Don’t worry none. Everything’s gonna be okay. We've been through this before.” 

Back at the camp, after they had eaten most of the pizzas Jack bought to celebrate their big day, Lucile reported that their take from the three shows was $369. They were thrilled with their success. As the celebration continued, each of them pondered the hope that the circus really might provide a path to the better future they so desperately longed for. 

When the beer and wine were gone, and they'd all eaten their fill, Travis opened the remaining pizza box and said, “I’ll give the rest of it to Bigrat. He loves pepperoni. It always was his favorite. Ain’t that right, Aunt Lucile?” 

Lucile looked at him with alarm but said nothing. 

Later that evening, Jack called his father and told him about what he and Travis were doing. Hoping his parents would appreciate what they’d accomplished, he invited them to the show. His father said they would stop by the following morning but told Jack that he was skeptical about a “rat circus.”

Bigrat: Episode Three - By Howard Schneider 

When the big rat stopped nosing around for crumbs and rose up on his haunches, Travis said, “I heard you.” 

"I didn't say anything," Lucile said from where she sat near the burn barrel. She got up and went to where Travis stood next to the box. 

"It was Bigrat," Travis said in a  hushed voice. 

Lucile looked at the rat, then at Travis. “What are you talking about? That rat can't talk . . . are you hearing them voices again?” 

“Sometimes. But this is different. I can tell.” 

I’ve got to get this boy back on his meds, Lucile thought to herself. 

As they were talking, some of the other squatters, Darko and Belinda, Jack, and Yun Leng, came into the camp and drifted over to Travis and Lucile to see what the attraction was. Noticing the little gathering, Roberta and Tony joined them. 

“What’s going on?” Darko asked. 

 “I’ve got an acrobatic rat. Wanna see?” 

“What the hell are you talking about?” 

“I’ll show ya. Aunt Lucile, would you get me a piece of bread or something?”   

A moment later Lucille handed Travis a few stale crackers. 

“You all watch this.” Travis held out one of the crackers. “Do a flip, Bigrat.” 

Much to the amazement of the onlookers, the rat jumped straight upwards, turned head-over-tail in mid-air and landed on all four feet. Then he sat up on his haunches and opened and closed his mouth. 

“I’ll be damned,” Darko said. 

Travis dropped a cracker into the box and Bigrat devoured it immediately. 

“Now watch this,” Travis said, holding out another cracker. 

 This time the rat did somersaults across the bottom of the box, from one side to the other, then back again. The onlookers gasped  in amazement. 

After the little group settled down, Darko said, “You got yourself an unusual rat there, Travis. Whaddya' gonna do with it?” 

“I don’t rightly know. Got any ideas?”                                              

“Maybe. I’ll think about it,” Darko said, then walked over to his tent, sat down in his lawn chair and withdrew a pint bottle from his coat pocket. 

Travis and Jack remained by the fire, talking quietly late into the night. 

The next morning, Travis, Lucile, and Jack were sitting near a crackling fire when Darko joined them. 

“Hey, Darko. There’s some coffee left.” 

“Thanks.” Nodding at Travis, Darko poured what was left of the coffee into the cup Lucile gave him, then sat down next to her. 

“I got an idea about that rat,” Darko said. “Train him to do that acrobat stuff and take the act to the street. People will pay to see those tricks. I’ll manage it. We’ll split the money.” 

“I already had the same idea,” Jack said. “Me and Travis talked about it last night after you left. Got it all planned out. I’m even gonna make a performance space—like a circus ring. A place for the rat, Bigrat, to do its tricks, with props and stuff.” 

“Yeah, we already figured it out, Darko. We can handle it on our own,” Travis added. 

“Hold on, buddy. You can’t cheat me outta my idea. Nobody’s gonna steal my idea, especially a hick like you,” Darko said, rage spreading across his stubbled face. He got up and went to where Travis sat drinking his coffee. "You asked me for ideas, didn't you?" 

Travis set his cup on the ground, got to his feet, and faced Darko, his fists slowly clenching and unclenching. “We don't need your ideas, Darko. We come up with our own. And you're calling me a thief. I don't take kindly to that.” His voice had a menacing quality Darko hadn't witnessed previously. 

Before Darko could respond, Lucile jumped up from where she was sitting and quickly moved to where Travis and Darko stood facing each other. “What are you scrapping about?” She edged her small body between the two big men, forcing each one to take a step back. "What’s wrong with you two boys?” 

“I ain't gonna let Darko claim our idea for Bigrat,” Travis said. 

“It was my idea,” Darko replied, appealing to Lucile as if she were a judge, or a referee. 

Looking from one to the other, Lucile calmly said, “Well, as I see it, Travis has the say since it’s his rat. Where we come from, possession is more than half the weight in any dispute. So that’s the way it’ll have to be. Now both of you quit this hollering and get on with your own business. Arguing ain’t gonna do nobody no good.” She looked at Darko, then Travis, then returned to her spot by the fire and sat down on her double-folded piece of cardboard. She picked up her cup from where she'd set it on the cold ground and drank the last of it. 

“Come on, Jack. We got work to do,” Travis said as he walked over to the box where Bigrat slept entangled in a wad of shredded rags that passed for a nest. 

Humiliated by Lucile's firm rebuke, Darko, grumbling under his breath, went back to his tent for his cardboard sign, yelled something at Belinda, then headed up to MLK Boulevard and on to his intersection for another day of panhandling. 

As the days passed, Darko still persisted in his demand that Travis and Jack let him in on their rat circus project. But they resisted his appeals, steadfastly refusing to allow him to horn in. After a week of squabbling, sometimes coming close to violence, Darko finally gave up. Then one morning, without a word to anyone in the camp, he and Belinda took down their shelter and packed their stuff. They were gone by noon. The next morning, two women, appearing to be in their early twenties, pushing grocery carts overflowing with bulging black garbage bags and leading two scruffy dogs on rope leashes, approached Lucile for permission to set up a tent in Darko’s old spot. After they talked a while, Lucile said it would be okay. Abandoned spots for shelters didn’t remain unoccupied for long on the streets of Portland. 

Unencumbered by Darko's harassment, Travis and Jack forged ahead with the rat- circus project. Although Travis continued to trap rats to bring in needed income and for occasional contributions to Lucile's stewpot, and Jack still spent mornings busking for whatever coins were tossed his way, they spent afternoons and evenings over the following month working on a performance space and planning how to use it. Jack used his artistic skills to build and decorate a plywood enclosure that folded up for easy transport. He searched junk shops, recycling centers, and trash piles for materials to make props for Bigrat: a tower to do flips from, a ramp for tumbling, a swing, balance bars, and even a small trampoline. 

While Jack was doing his part, Travis was teaching Bigrat a trick for each prop. A food-reward training method he'd figured out worked well, and Bigrat learned fast—soon they'd developed half-a-dozen stunts. Furthermore, Travis was convinced that Bigrat enjoyed the routines, and even thought he heard Bigrat laugh sometimes when he was doing his tricks. Travis felt that a close connection had developed between the two of them, like a bond between father and son, even though the father happened to be a rat. 

At last the day arrived when Travis and Jack felt they were ready. The performance space was finished, the tricks perfected, and the weather had improved. Jack had assumed the role of manager and was doing most of the organizing; how to structure a show, where to put it on, logistics of setting it up, stuff like that. Travis was responsible for care and training of Bigrat and working out the rat’s performance routine. 

“Where should we start?” Travis asked. 

“I’ve got a spot picked out, a little north of here, on the EastBank Esplanade. There’s enough space and plenty of foot traffic. Lots of bicycle riders, as well.” 

“Sounds good. Let’s do it,” Travis said, grinning with anticipation. 

Suddenly, Travis froze. He looked at the big cardboard box in which Bigrat was supposedly sleeping, then said, “Did you hear that? Did you hear what he said?” 

“Who?” Jack asked, puzzled by Travis’ questions. 

“Bigrat! Didn’t you hear him?” Travis said, as he approached the box. When he reached it and looked over the edge, he gasped and jumped back, a look of shock distorting his face.

Bigrat: Episode Two - By Howard Schneider 

Later that evening, after the stew his Lucille had made and shared with the other homeless campers, Travis set out eleven traps. The next morning, every trap held a rat, and the rat man bought them all. With part of the money, Travis bought a roasting chicken and marked-down, bruised vegetables for Lucile's soup. Between her culinary talents, his trapping expertise, and an unlimited supply of rats, along with someone willing to buy them, Travis and Lucile felt things were heading in the right direction for the first time in years. 

The routine Travis followed most days was pretty well established. He laid out traps in late afternoon or early evening and collected the rats the following morning. Once in a while he’d give some to Lucile for a stew, but most times he’d sell them all and use the proceeds to buy bargain ingredients for her to work magic with. The rest of the day he wandered the city aimlessly or hung out at the camp under the bridge with whoever happened to be around. The squatters liked someone to always be there to prevent druggies from stealing their stuff. Travis liked talking to Darko and his girlfriend, a short woman with diabetes named Belinda, although that happened only on days when Darko and Belinda weren’t at the intersection they'd claimed, holding up their cardboard signs and hustling handouts. Or with the elderly Cambodian widower, Yun Leng, whose house had been repossessed a year earlier because of a reverse mortgage scam. Yun spent most of his time volunteering at senior centers and shelters in exchange for breakfasts and lunches. Occasionally, Travis would pass the time with a lady named Roberta, although she mostly stayed in the pallets-and-tarp shelter her husband Tony constructed. Tony said she suffered from depression and liked to be alone. Tony spent most days pushing a shopping cart, collecting enough bottles and cans to make the five dollars a day he said they needed. 

Evenings at the camp were spent sharing Lucile’s cooking and maybe a cheap bottle of wine, sometimes passing around a joint, and telling stories. Occasionally, the stories were about good times, but mostly they were about how hard it was living the way they did. Once in a while, Jack played his guitar and sang a few songs, even though he wasn’t all that good a musician. He didn’t make much performing on the sidewalks downtown, but he kept trying anyway. Jack said life on the streets, as rough as it was, was still better than living at home where his every move and thought was controlled by his hyperachieving lawyer father. It helped that he talked to his mother occasionally with the cell phone she'd given him, but he still felt homesick sometimes. 

One morning a few weeks later, when Travis was checking his catch, he could hardly believe his eyes when he retrieved the last one. It contained the largest rat he’d ever seen. Most of the brown rats (Norway rat; Rattus norvegicus) he’d come across weighed about half a pound. This one must have been at least three or four times that. He'd planned to sell everything that morning, but something about the big one made him decide to keep it. What was special besides its size was its eyes; how it stared at Travis so intently, as if the rat knew who he was. 

Back at the camp, Travis released the giant rodent into the cardboard box. “Damn. You are a big rat, ain’t you?” he said as he watched the rat explore its unfamiliar environment. Except for Roberta asleep in her shelter, Travis was alone since the other campers were out scrounging, panhandling, hanging out somewhere or doing whatever they did during the day. About an hour later, sitting near the smoldering burn-barrel, he heard his name called out. He looked around, but there was nobody in sight. After it happened again,  he realized it must have been the rat. 

Travis jumped up and rushed over to the box. The rat was running here and there, jumping up onto to the sides of its cardboard prison, although not high enough to clear its walls. When the rat saw Travis, it stopped moving, sat back on its haunches, and looked up. 

“Hey. Did you call me?” Travis asked. 

The rat didn’t respond, but it didn’t move either, or take its eyes off Travis. 

Travis was mesmerized by the rat’s penetrating stare. “I know you can talk,” he said. Then, after a moment, “What kinda rat are you, anyway? You’re different than the other ones I catch. Your color’s darker and your ears are bigger. Your face is kind of pointy . . . Wait a minute! . . . you look like . . . pa? Is that you? Come back as a rat?” 

When Travis stopped talking, but didn’t move away, the rat suddenly sprang straight up into the air, did a perfect back flip and landed squarely on its feet. It then did a series of somersaults around the periphery of the box floor. Back where it began, it sat on its haunches again and looked up at Travis. Its ruby-red eyes glowed like hot coals. 

“Good Lord in heaven! I never seen anything like that before,” Travis said. 

The rat opened and closed its mouth a few times, but otherwise remained motionless. 

“Are you trying to say something? What do you want?”  

“Food!” Travis heard loud and clear. 

Travis knew the rat must have said it, even if its mouth hadn’t moved. 

“Hold on. I’ll get something,” Travis said, glancing at the wooden box where Lucile kept her cooking supplies. “Try this,” he said, dropping a piece of apple and a crust of bread into the box. 

The rat sniffed the offerings, then began eating them. When finished, it nosed around the floor a while, then went to a corner, curled up and closed its eyes. 

Travis returned to his seat by the barrel. He soon came to believe that he actually possessed a talking rat, and that it was an acrobat as well. The longer he thought about it, the more he came to believe that the rat might be his own pa. He got up and went back to the box and the sleeping rat. 

“Pa? Have you come back from your grave to help me in my time of need? Like when I was a kid and you showed me how to get by in the woods? To shoot and trap? Live off the land? I know it’s you. Don’t worry none. I won’t let nobody hurt you. I promise.” Then he returned to his spot by to the barrel. 

 “I gotta give him a name . . . I sure can’t call him Pa. The others wouldn’t understand,” he mumbled as he sat staring into space. 

Travis was jolted out of his trance a little later when Lucile sat down next to him. 

“How ‘bout getting that fire going? It’s cold under this bridge,” she said. “I gotta get dinner started. The rest of ‘em gonna be back soon.” 

Travis got up and broke some sticks and twigs into smaller pieces and laid them on the coals, then grabbed some short 2 x 4 pieces and placed them on top. Soon a good fire was going. 

“I need to name that big rat I got in the box,” he said after he retook his place next to Lucile. 

“What in tarnation are you talking about?” Lucile asked, giving Travis a worried look. “Why on earth would you want to name a big rat?” 

“That’s it! Bigrat! . . ..  Pa would like that,” Travis said, nodding his head and smiling. 

“Your pa? What’s he got to do with anything?” 

“Never you mind,” he said before suddenly snapping his head towards the box. 

“Did you hear that?” 

Lucile glanced at the box, then at Travis. “Hear what?” 

Travis jumped up and went over to the rat. Lucile got up and followed him. 

When Travis appeared over the box rim, the rat stopped nosing around for crumbs, raised up on his haunches and returned the stare.

Bigrat: Episode One - By Howard Schneider 

“Hey! Travis! That sack looks alive. Must’ve been a good catch,” a run-away-teenager named Jack yelled when a tall, hatless man in his mid-thirties appeared in the misty morning light from around a bridge abutment. Travis had longish red hair, a scraggly red beard, and wore a dirty, over-sized mint-green ski parka. 

Jack was sitting next to a rusty, fifty-gallon metal barrel with a scrap-wood fire shooting tongues of orange flame into the cold November air. A small woman, who looked to be in her late fifties, sat next to him on a piece of dirty cardboard. She had an ancient army blanket wrapped around her. In contrast to wispy strands of lusterless, gray hair snaking to her shoulders, her blue eyes were clear and bright. She was smiling at the man walking towards her who was dragging a writhing gunny sack behind him. 

Travis acknowledged the boy with a friendly nod, then stopped in front of the woman and let go of the sack. 

“Morning, Aunt Lucile. Here’s dinner.” He then moved close to the barrel and stretched his long arms out to warm his gloveless, chapped hands. “I’ll gut 'em after I warm up.” 

Before Lucile could respond, a scruffy-looking man, known only as Darko, walked over and prodded the sack with his foot. “That ought ‘a do,” he said. 

He looked at Lucile. “You cooking tonight?” 

She looked up and nodded. 

“Here’s some half-way decent vegetables.” He set a five-gallon spackle bucket on the ground then stepped closer to the fire. 

That night, Travis Hightower slept soundly for the first time in weeks, even though the damp sidewalk next to the bridge ramp was hard and a brisk wind off the Willamette River rattled the shelter he'd jerry-rigged from odd pieces of plywood and blue tarps. His stomach was full, and he was warm under his pile of blankets. He felt safe, as well, in spite of having been off his meds for the past month and hearing the voices again. Lucile huddled next to him, snug under her own blankets. 

“You still awake?" he asked. 

“Yes. But I need to sleep now. I’m plum tuckered out.” 

“Well, I just wanna' say how good your stew was, that's all. They liked it. Maybe we should stay here a while. It ain’t a bad place.” 

“That's okay with me. They seem like nice enough people.” 

“I’ll make some new traps and catch more tomorrow night. I can sell some of em' to a guy I met by the river this morning—said he could sell everything I catch. Sells them to people from countries where they eat em. But I’ll keep enough for another stew. Gotta admit, that meat’s pretty good—tasted like gamey chicken, don't it.” 

“Yes, it does. Now hush up, honey. Go to sleep.” Lucile pulled the blankets tighter around her neck and rolled over to her other side. 

By late the next afternoon, Travis had six new traps he'd made from discarded wire-fencing and odds and ends he’d found at construction sites and in rubbish piles. He used food-scraps from trash cans outside a Burger King for bait. The idea to trap rats had come to him when he saw them scurrying around a dumpster in downtown Portland. They reminded him of when he was a kid in East Tennessee and his pa brought home forest-rats, squirrels, possums, and any other kind of four-legged critter he managed to trap. They all went into the Brunswick stew that was always simmering on his mother’s wood stove. Back then meat was meat, no matter what the source. He couldn’t think why he shouldn’t do the same his daddy had done. Especially since de was fed-up with empty sermonizing that often accompanied free meals at shelters and panhandling for spare change and digging through garbage cans for what others threw away. The constant struggle to survive as a homeless street-dweller was getting harder and harder, and he yearned for a way out—for a normal life. But how to manage that? That was the question that perplexed him. 

When Travis collected his traps the following morning, one contained two rats and the others one each. Taking stock of his catch, he couldn’t help but think about his daddy. He took comfort in talking with him. 

“It’s a good haul, ain’t it, Pa? Remember how you taught me about rats and squirrels and such? Well, that’s coming in handy now,” he said out loud as he transferred the rats to the gunny sack. 

He sold six to the rat-man for a dollar apiece and took six back to Lucile. She was standing near the barrel fire sipping the last of the coffee. 

“You gonna kill them things? And skin and gut 'em? I ain’t gonna do it,” she said when Travis started to walk away. 

“I did yesterday, didn’t I?” 

“All right then. I wanna get to a shelter for a free lunch. How do you kill em, anyway?” she asked after a brief moment. She hadn’t watched him do it the day before. 

“It’s easy. Didn’t you never see Pa do it?” 

“No, I never did. I was living with Virgil up in Blairton from when I was 17. You know that. I was glad to get away from my pa. He was a bad one. Bad as they come. Specially with us three girls. Never went back neither. Never wanted to. Well? . . . you gonna show me or not?” 

“I’ll do it now. Come over here so you can see.” 

Travis opened the sack and dumped the rats into a sturdy cardboard box. It had high sides so they couldn’t get out. After they settled down, he reached in and grabbed one. 

“See? Grab ahold of its body, real tight. Close to the neck so it can’t bite ya.” 

He placed the rat belly-down on the ground and pressed hard to prevent its front legs and head from moving. Its long, scaly tail whipped around, and its rear legs dug in the dirt. 

“Now pinch down on the back of its head with the thumb and finger of your other hand, like this,” he said, showing her. 

“Yank back on its body, like this.” He pulled hard. 

She heard the sharp snap of the rat's spinal cord separating from its skull. It died instantly and lay unmoving in Travis’s big hand. 

At the sound of the snap, Lucile had gasped and looked away. 

Noting Lucile's discomfort, Travis began laughing and waving the dead rat in the air. Then he jumped up and down and spun around in circles. 

Lucile tried to grab his arm. After several tries, she succeeded and managed to quiet him down. She laid her hand on his cheek and said, “Calm yourself, Travis. There’s no need to carry on like that. It don’t do nobody no good.” 

He stared down at the ground for a few seconds, then looked at the woman and grinned sheepishly. “I’m sorry, Aunt Lucile. I didn’t mean no harm. I guess I got too excited. Like I do sometimes. I’ll be better. I promise.” 

That night Lucile’s stew was once again praised by their fellow campers and they told her they hoped she'd make it again. She and Travis were happy that they’d been accepted and were becoming part of this little group of homeless squatters—that they were earning their keep. Something they hadn’t done in a long time. They’d been drifters living on the streets for the past six years, ever since Travis’s father died. 

Because of only sporadic attention paid to the psychiatric condition that emerged in his early twenties, eventually diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder but wasn’t treated properly, Travis was never able to hold a job. The hallucinations, the voices, the wild mood swings, they all made life near impossible for him. And there wasn’t work for Lucile in their little mountain town after the coal mine had played out. To make things even worse, she'd been a widow since her husband Virgil died of black lung. With no alternative, she'd  moved in with Travis and his father. But then Travis's pa died, and a week after his funeral the payday loan company repossessed their trailer, tossing them to the wind with no place to go. That's when Travis and Lucile set off together to find a better life for themselves, a goal so far they'd been unable to reach.

Undercover Agent: A Helping Hand Episode Twelve - By Howard Schneider 

Karla followed Madeline through the kitchen of the mass murder gang's Southeast Portland safehouse to the attached garage where Madeline had parked her car. After they got into her old Subaru, Madeline said, "Cover your eyes," and handed Karla a folded dish towel. "You can't see where we're going." 

Realizing Madeline's fragile state of mind, Karla didn't argue. She tied on the towel so her eyes were blocked. "I can't see a thing," Karla said as Madeline backed out of the garage. 

"Keep it that way." 

When Madeline got out to the street, she stopped at the curb and looked behind them: there was a van at the end of the block with ladders on the roof and two men carrying gallon cans to where other ladders leaned against the front of a house; ahead of them, a man with a leaf blower strapped to his back funneled leaves toward the street down a long driveway. Satisfied there was nothing amiss, she started the drive to her own house. 

Thirty-five minutes later, Madeline turned into the driveway of a nondescript, single-level ranch-style house on a wooded lot in rural Clackamas county. She used a remote control to open the garage door. She pulled in then re-closed the door. 

"Can I take this blindfold off?" Karla asked when Madeline switched off the ignition. 

"Yes. And come inside with me. Chester will want his dinner soon. That's when I'll introduce you. He'll be upset that I brought you here—we'll have to be careful not to get him riled up. I'll do the talking. It's important to make him understand that you have money for his project, and that you're part of the group that supports his research. That should keep him calm, at least while he eats. When he's done, you'll have to convince him you're our friend and believe in his work. That's all he cares about—not about the homeless people Pastor Slaggart and the group want to get rid of. He has no idea who they are, and doesn't care, either. He only cares about his precious frogs or toads or whatever they are. His all-important work." 

Karla ripped off the towel and followed Madeline into the house and to the kitchen. Madeline ordered her to sit in one of the four chairs at a square oak table next to a curtained window at the edge of the room. Then she went about preparing a stove-top tuna-mac casserole and putting frozen bread rolls in the oven. She didn't know when Chester would come up for dinner, but knew it better be ready when he did. She was accustomed to her role as his beck-and-call servant and had no intention of giving him reason to think otherwise. 

Karla noted the time: six-seventeen. With Madeline occupied with her cooking, she took her phone out and punched in Agent James' number. But before it connected, Madeline rushed over and ripped the phone out of Karla's hand. "What are you doing?" she screamed. 

"I was just going to cancel a business meeting scheduled for this evening. "They'll wonder where I am." 

"No calls. You won't be here that long. I'll take you where you can call for an Uber after you meet Chester. You can call your businesspeople then." 

Karla didn't want Madeline to suspect anything, so she didn't object. "I'll want that back when I leave," she said firmly when Madeline put the phone in her pocket and returned to her tuna-mac. 

An hour later, Karla and Madeline's quiet conversation was interrupted when they heard the muffled sound of a door slam shut and footfalls coming up the stairs from the basement. 

"That's him," Madeline said with trepidation. "Remember, I'll do the talking." Then she jumped up and went to stand next to her stove. 

A steel door at the other side of the kitchen opened and the creature responsible for production of one of the most lethal substances on earth stepped into the bright light of the room. He closed and locked the door, then looked around. When he noticed a person at the table he didn’t recognize, he squinted and croaked, "Who are you?" 

Karla was momentarily taken back not only by his voice, but by his appearance. The rough rasp of his voice didn't match the waxy pallor of his pock-marked skin. He was tall and thin with a hooked nose dominating a thin-lipped down-turned mouth and dramatically recessed chin that accentuated his triangle-shaped face. His scaly skull showed through sparse, stringy hair receding from a freakishly large forehead. A fetid stench of unwashed body swept toward her like a hot wind. Although his hideousness shocked her momentarily, she recovered quickly—surviving homeless on the streets from the age of fourteen had conditioned her to enough shock to last a lifetime. 

"Chester. We have a visitor—Gail Brandon. She brought money for you. She's part of the group Pastor Slaggart works for. She wanted to meet you in person and thank you for all you've done. We can trust her." 

Seeming to ignore Madeline's rushed introduction, Chester marched directly to the table and sat on down on one of the empty chairs. Ignoring Karla, he looked at Madeline and said, "Did you fix macaroni and cheese?" 

'Yes. With tuna. Do you want it now?" 

"Yes, With Coca Cola. Did you make the rolls? I like rolls with macaroni and cheese." 

"Yes, I know." Madeline rose, went to the oven, and obediently served Chester his dinner as if Karla weren't there, silently attentive to his curt commands—another serving of tuna-mac, a second Coke, more rolls, a second piece of apple pie. 

Finally, after Madeline removed Chester's empty plate, he slid his chair back and looked at the woman sitting silently across from him. "Who are you" Why are you really here?" 

"Chester! She's a friend and has money for you," Madeline said, retaking her place at the table. 

"Shut your mouth. She should have sent it by Slaggart instead of giving it to you, like every other time they sent money. Something's not right." 

"She helped distribute the gloves. There's nothing to worry about." 

Karla started to speak, but Chester slammed his fist on the table and said, "I don't trust you! I think you're here to stop me! Like others have tried before." 

"That's not true!" Karla shouted with enough anger to shock him into silence. "I hate what these dirty squatters are doing to my business interests, and I need you. From what I've heard, you're a creative genius—one of a kind—the only person alive who could do what you're doing. Here," she took the roll of bills from her purse, "take this so you can keep doing it. But I wanna' see it with my own eyes. If what I see is real, and you are making the poison stuff yourself, there'll be plenty more to keep you in business. And to protect my business." 

Chester appeared calmed by Karla's forceful response. "I don't like surprises, that's all." He glanced at Madeline, then back to Karla, then said, " She should have told me she was bringing you here." 

"Don't blame her—it was my idea. I sprung it on her when we were at the safehouse. She didn't want to, but I insisted. So why don't you give me a tour of your labs—show me what you're doing. Then I'll leave and get to the meeting I'm already late for. But I really am interested in your work. I was a premed major in college and am still drawn to science." 

Considering the roll of bills on the table, Karla's convincing defense of her sincerity, and her proclaimed interest in science, Chester reluctantly acquiesced to her request. "Okay. But you'll have to put on a biohazard suit. And I won't show you everything." 

"No problem. I just want to see enough to justify my investment." 

Chester led Karla down the stairs to the labs' anteroom and gave her a Tyvek hooded jumpsuit and a plastic, full-face, vented biohazard mask. After they were suited up, he opened a steel door and led her into brightly lit hallway. She felt a stream of warm air from ceiling vents wash over her and detected a faint musty odor she didn't recognize. 

"What do you want to see?" Chester asked, a hint of hesitancy in his muffled voice. 

Karla wasn't sure how to respond, just as she wasn't sure how she'd be able to put an end to this monster's malevolent efforts. But she knew she had to do something and asked, "How do you make the toxin?" 

Letting pride in his remarkable accomplishments get the better of him, even though against his better judgement, he consented to her request. Actually, although he didn't want to admit it to himself, he was pleased that this person, a person who proclaimed their appreciation of his scientific creativity, was giving him a chance to show off his accomplishment—something he'd rarely been able to do before. "Okay. I'll show you." 

Chester walked a short distance along the hall to a closed door which he unlocked and opened. "This is where it starts." He stepped inside—Karla followed close behind. 

Inside the room, the musty odor she'd detected in the hall was overwhelming, even with the face mask on, making her want to gag. But she didn't, calling up every bit of fortitude she could muster. The first thing she saw was a wall of racks holding dozens of what looked like fish tanks. Looking closer, she saw that they didn't contain water, but seething masses of bright-yellow amphibians: These must be the toads Madeline mentioned, she thought. 

Chester drew her close to one of the tanks. "Beautiful, aren't they," he said softly, as if they were staring in awe at a magnificent painting in the Louvre. 

She wasn't sure how to respond, how to play the role of a wealthy businesswoman determined to kill off enough homeless people to drive away the rest, a woman who professed to have been premed in college and still love science, while at the same time an undercover FBI agent determined to destroy this entire operation, the operation of a brilliant but demented madman. "What do these toads have to do with the toxin?" was all she could come up with. 

Chester was surprised by her question. He thought she would've had a better idea of what the frogs were about. In his view, any premed college student, having taken prerequisite courses in biology, chemistry, and physiology, would be aware of poison derived from secretions of poison dart frogs. Like curare from the bark of the Strychnos plant or digoxin from foxglove—it would be included in standard third-year course material, impossible to have been overlooked. Even more alarming, her calling these smooth-skined frogs toads. As far as he was concerned, anyone who'd taken even the most basic biology course would know the difference between frogs and toads—smooth skin versus bumpy. The suspicion he had at the dinner table returned, stronger this time—something about this woman isn't right. 

"They produce a form of the poison that I collect and convert to a more suitable version," he said, unwilling to divulge more information than that. 

Wanting to get out of this room with its nauseating stench, and detecting a note of suspicion in Chester's reply, she asked, "Where do you do that?" 

"I'll show you," he answered, then led her back to the hallway and relocked the door. He went to another door and unlocked it. "In here." 

When Karla entered Chester's chemistry lab, she was surprised to discover what appeared to be highly sophisticated machines and instruments, long benches with an array of glassware, bottles of liquids and powders, and open-faced, hooded clean-air cabinets along one side of the expansive room. Chester pointed at an especially complicated machine and with undisguised pride said, "That's what I use to isolate the derivative I create from the toxin the frogs make. By the way, they're frogs, not toads, something you'd know if you actually were who you say you are." Then, ignoring the accusation he'd just made, he turned back to the instrument. "It's a large-scale liquid chromatography set up. I collect enough modified toxin in one day to kill  hundreds of people." 

Barely able to comprehend what Chester was saying, but now fully aware that he knew her proclaimed identity was false, Karla's first thought was, I get outta here and let the FBI take this place down. And put this maniac where he belongs. She also acknowledged the thought that at that moment flashed through he mind—why did I stupidly pretend to know anything about science, way too easy for him to challenge. But quickly recovering her grit, she said, "Well, Chester, this impressive facility, and your obvious passion, convinces me you're the real thing. I thank you for allowing me into your laboratories. and I pledge to you that I'll continue to support what you're doing until we've accomplished our goal." Then, to reinforce her commitment of continued funding, she added, "In fact, because of your invaluable contribution, I'll continue funding it as long as you need it." Then she looked at her wristwatch and said, "I hate to leave now, but I do have to get to a business meeting I'm late for." 

When Karla started toward the door, Chester moved quickly to block her way. "I don't know who you are, lady, but you're not going anywhere." Then he yanked open a drawer in the bench he stood next to and grabbed a syringe with a hypodermic needle attached to it. He reached to a shelf behind him for a small glass vial and started to pierce the rubber cap with the needle. But before he could, Karla, who'd been desperately thinking about possible action to take, chose a combination that'd served her well during her years on the street—distraction, then escape. 

In the seconds Chester was taking to prepare the lethal injection he intended for Karla, she snatched a glass-stoppered bottle from a shelf running down the middle of the lab bench and hurled it at him. The stopper fell out when the bottle smashed into his face shield, The clear, fluid contents splashed across its surface, quickly covering the air intake vents. He screamed once, dropped the syringe and vial, then desperately tried to rip the face covering off. He began coughing, then choking violently as he inhaled potent corrosive fumes with every breath. When Karla, who was far enough away to avoid the main plume of acid vapors, glanced at the bottle where it lay on the floor, she understood what was happening—it was labeled "ACID, Concentrated HCl." 

By the time Chester got the shield off he was already close to an agonizing death and unable to prevent Karla from sprinting out the door and escape the growing mist of acrid fumes filling the room. When she got to the ante room, she discarded the protective gear and rushed upstairs, ignoring the slight discomfort in her throat and chest. Entering the kitchen, she came face to face with Madeline holding a pistol in one hand and Karla's phone in the other. "You lied to us," she screeched, waving the phone in the air, then shouted, "What did you do to Chester? I heard him scream." 

Karla Kept her eyes on the gun and calmly said, "Madeline. There's been an accident. Chester was showing me an instrument when it suddenly exploded. Shattered glass tore his suit open and he's covered in blood. Call an ambulance." 

Madeline didn't move, or respond, as if she were paralyzed trying to decide whether or not to believe Karla's words. 

"Now! Madeline. Call now or he'll die!" 

Karla's jarring command made Madeline drop the phone and pistol, then race down the stairs to where she believed Chester needed her. Karla picked up the gun and then called Agent James, although unable to tune out Madeline's rasping cough, then, a moment later, her piercing scream. 

It took three weeks of painstaking work by teams of scientists, hazardous materials experts, and criminal investigators to decontaminate and breakdown Chester's labyrinth of laboratories and animal holding facilities, then catalog and destroy his stock of lethal batrachotoxin analogs. The chemists involved were as extremely impressed with the ingenuity of his molecular manipulations as the investigators were revolted by the utter horror of what he'd done with his unparalleled gift of scientific creativity. Chester was a stark reminder of how genius can be used for good or evil, and how they can determine the fate of civil societies. 

Madeline hadn't yet recovered from the mental shock of discovering Chester dead on the floor of his chemistry lab or the severe lung damage she suffered when she tried to drag his body out of the fume-filled room. She was still in intensive care as well as under twenty-four hour guard by the FBI. As far as the other scoundrels in this horrifying death plot, diligent investigation by law authorities had quickly resulted in the arrest and indictment of Madeline's lady friends who helped distribute the toxin, of Sal Conti's two accomplices, Catherine Angelico and Henry Jimson, and Slaggart's contact person, Charles. No one doubted that the full force of the justice system would be applied in view of their heinous crimes. 

So, it should be no surprise that when Karla and her colleagues gathered in the same old conference room at the Portland FBI headquarters, she was again congratulated for a job well-done. However, after coffee and an assortment of Annie's delicious donuts, that inevitable question still hung in the air. Finally, Hannah Marx, Agent in Charge, broached the subject. "This is the fourth person you've killed, Karla. I hope this isn't becoming a habit. Befitting our tradition, it's preferable to apprehend suspects rather than kill them." 

"Are you suggesting that I should have let that madman inject me with whatever was in that little vial he was holding?" Karla replied icily. "Just so you wouldn't have to go to the trouble of justifying his death in whatever report you have to submit to someone up the chain of command?" 

"You know that's not true. But I am concerned about the reputation you're creating—more self-defense deaths in your first year than any agent in the history of the bureau. That gets people's attention." 

Karla was silent for a moment, then said, "Look, Chief, I'm not happy about killing those four men, but in each case it was either me or them. In a situation like that, I'll chose me every time. So, if you can't take the heat, you'll either have to sack me or develop thicker, fireproof skin. Because as an undercover agent, those are the kinds of situations I get into. Which, by the way, brings me to another issue—my status as temporary agent. I want that changed to full-time, permanent Special Agent. And a raise, to the same amount as any other field agent at my level, unless there's the possibility of hazard pay as well." 

Agent James and Captain Tabor remained silent, waiting for Marx to respond. Finally, Marx stood and went to the closed door. Before opening it, she looked at Karla and said, "I'll see what I can do." Then, with an undisguised expression of admiration on her face, she left, closing the door behind her.

On The Way To Brooklyn - By Howard Schneider 

It was the day before Christmas and Al Badowski and his wife Phyllis, and their two kids, thirteen-year-old Patty and her little brother Jason, were stuck in traffic on Route Nine a little south of Catskill, New York. They were headed to Al’s parents’ house in Brooklyn, intending to arrive in time for five-o’clock cocktails before their annual Christmas eve dinner. 

Crawling along at five miles an hour, Phyllis angrily switched from a book CD to an AM traffic station. She was concerned about the worsening weather. Heavy rain was already making the wipers work extra hard to maintain visibility. 

They learned that a heating-oil truck had turned over about twenty miles ahead and traffic would be blocked for the rest of the day. None of the detours listed were near where they were stuck. 

“Patty, give me your phone. My battery’s dead and I need to do a map-search,” Phyllis said over her shoulder. 

“Mom, I’m texting. Use Dad’s.” Patty snapped. 

“Your father forgot his. It’s in the pocket of his other coat. Give me yours. I gotta figure out how to get around this mess.” 

A few minutes later Phyllis said, “Take the next right—Malta Avenue. We can bypass the wreck and get back on Route Nine in about thirty miles. 

“Where does this take us,” Al asked. 

“Along the east side of a big reservoir. Just leave it to your navigator. I’ll take care of it,” Phyllis answered, trying to lift the mood a bit. 

“Mom! Jenny’s waiting.” 

“Okay, okay,” Phyllis said and passed the phone back to her daughter. 

After Al turned west onto Malta, Patty said, “Mom, what'd you do to the phone? The battery’s dead. I need the charger.” 

“It was already low. You should’ve charged it before we left home,” Phyllis said, rifling through the glove compartment. 

“What am I supposed to do now? I need to use it!” 

Paying no attention to her angry daughter, Phyllis said, “Al . . . where’s the damn charger?” 

“Uh… uh, I think it might be in the other car.” 

“How many times have I told you to buy another one of these things so this won’t keep happening?” Phyllis spat back. 

“Sorry, babe. We were so rushed getting out of the house I forgot about it. 

“Daaad. How can you be such a screw-up? Now I can’t text Jenny. She’s gonna think we had a wreck or something.” 

Al ignored his daughter and concentrated on the narrow road. The rain had turned to sleet and was making a mess on the window, and ice was beginning to build up on the road. He felt the slipperiness increase as they got closer to the big body of water, and the heavy cloud cover added darkness to the already shortened winter day. The reduced visibility made it difficult to stay in his lane. 

Finally, they got to the reservoir and turned south along the shore. Ten minutes later they reached a hilly stretch and started a slight climb. Then when they rounded a sharp curve in the twisting road they suddenly encountered blinking red lights. Al hit the brakes and came to a sliding halt next to a state trooper parked across the road. He lowered his window when the trooper approached. 

“Better slow down, sir. Ice is building up real fast. The road’s closed up ahead. A landslide blocked both lanes. You’ll have to go back the way you came.” 

“Is there any way around it? We've got to be in New York City soon. And Route Nine's closed." 

“There’s a back road over that hill,” the trooper said, pointing west. “It rejoins this road on the other side of the landslide. But there may be some snow up there. Ice, too. I wouldn’t recommend it without four-wheel drive or snow-tires. 

“This Chrysler holds the road real good. We won't have any problems. Where’s the turn-off?” 

“Back about half a mile. Just after a big red house. You gonna try it?” 

“Yeah. We’ve already lost too much time.” Al made a U-turn and headed back north, easily finding the road the officer described. It was a narrow blacktop that meandered through a dense forest and quickly increased in elevation. The snowfall became heavier as they climbed; a thick wet layer accumulated on the front window except where the wipers were just able to clear it away. 

They'd been on that road about twenty minutes when Jason, who had until then been focused on his Game Boy, said, “Mom, I gotta to go to the bathroom.” 

“You have to hold it til we get to a gas station or a McDonald’s.” 

“I can’t. I gotta go now. Can’t we stop for a minute?” 

“There’s no place to pull over,” Al said defiantly. 

Then Phyllis said, “Albert! No other cars are gonna come along here. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Stop and let him out. It'll only take a minute." 

“All right, but I don’t like it,” Al replied. "Just make it fast. We gotta get out of this mess." He took his foot off the gas and gently applied the brakes. But even as gently as he did, the big car started sliding on a patch of ice and shifted to the right because of to the road’s slope away from the center. No matter what he did, he was unable to keep the forward motion in a straight line; the momentum was too great and the road too slick. Unable to get the car back under control, it slid off the side, crashed half-way into a rocky snow-covered ditch, and came to a jarring halt. It was at a thirty-degree angle with the left-side tires suspended in mid-air spinning wildly and the underside stuck on the raised berm. 

Phyllis and Patty screamed. Al swore and pounded violently on the steering wheel. Jason burst into tears. 

“Oh, my God!” Phyllis shouted. “What are we gonna do?” 

“Are we gonna die?” Patty cried. 

“Daddy. I gotta pee!” Jason pleaded between sobs. 

“Calm down!” Al yelled. “Phyllis, shut up. Jason! Open the door and do your business. Patty, check your phone again." 

A second later she said, “It’s still dead, Dad.” 

Phyllis started to blurt out something but caught herself, her eyes boring into Al. Then, after a moment, she calmly said, “Al—we can’t sit here until the gas runs out. We'll freeze to death. Unless a car comes along soon, you’ll have to go for help." 

“Are you crazy? It’s too far. And it’s too cold.” 

“Al! You have to! You can walk back to the main road and use someone’s phone. It can’t be more than five miles or so." 

“I’m not dressed for a hike like that. I’d never make it.” 

“Get your snow boots and parka out of the trunk. We’ll be okay with the engine and heater running if you start now.” 

“Uh . . . I left the boots and parka at home. There wasn’t room after I got all the food and presents and damn luggage in.” 

“What? Well, you can’t walk five miles in a foot of snow in those stupid loafers and that thin jacket. Oh, my God. We are in trouble, aren’t we?” 

Just then Jason climbed back into the car, shivering from the cold. 

Patty sat with the phone clutched in her clinched fist whimpering. “Mom. We're gonna die, aren’t we?” 

Then, without warning, there was a soft tap on the driver-side window. 

“Thank God,” Phyllis said, looking past Al to see who it was. 

Al rubbed away the moisture to reveal a scraggly-bearded old man peering at him and lowered the window. “Hello. Are we glad to see you! We’re in a bit of trouble. Do you have a phone we can use?” 

“No. Never needed one. Looks like you're halfway into that ditch,” the old man said. “Probably hung up on the undercarriage. You need a tow.” 

“Yes, sir. We sure do. Do you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and a tow chain or strong rope?” 

No, but my friend might be able to help. He could probably pull you free." 

“Can he get here soon? Does he have a tow truck or something?” 

“He’s on a break right now, but I’ll call him anyway.” The old man stepped away from the car, looked into the woods bordering the road and whistled a single long note. 

A minute later there was the sound of something crashing through brush and low-hanging tree limbs, followed by puffs of snow powder erupting in the air. Then a huge form appeared at the edge of the dark woods, still as a statue. Its glimmering eyes were focused on the old man. 

In the darkness, Al and the others couldn’t tell what it was. Then, apparently in response to some subtle signal, it started coming closer, its identity gradually becoming apparent. It was a gigantic deer, or perhaps an elk, with a magnificent rack of antlers, a thick neck and broad chest. It seemed to radiate strength and undeniable power, and when it reached the old man it remained unmoving as if awaiting instructions. 

Leaving the animal where it stood, the old man walked up the road a way, then returned a few minutes later holding a heavy harness which he slipped onto the patiently waiting animal. He mumbled a few words that Albert couldn’t hear, then came back to the car window. “When I signal, hang on tight.” A few seconds later he waved at Al, then yelled something at animal. When the huge beast lunged forward the car sprang up with a jarring jerk and with an ear-piercing crunch landed squarely on the road, leaving a churning trail of snow, ice, and gravel swirling behind. The whole family cheered. 

Al jumped out of the car, ignored the wet cold penetrating his flimsy shoes, and ran to where the old man was undoing the harness. He held his wallet in one hand and several bills in the other. “Here, sir. I want to pay you for your trouble. You saved our lives.” 

The old man glanced at the bills and said, “Keep your money, Al. Your thanks are enough.” 

Al wondered how the old man knew his name, but instead of asking about that, said, “What kind of animal is that? It bigger than a deer, and those antlers are huge.” 

“A Siberian reindeer. Goes by the name Rudolph. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s pretty famous. Anyway, we have to be on our way. Still lots of work to do.” 

With that said, the old man turned toward the woods and whistled two loud blasts. Before Al was back in the driver’s seat and ready to drive off, eight more reindeer had emerged from the forest and made their way to the sled where they formed two columns. Soon the old man had them harnessed. Rudolph was in the lead. In no time the old man was in the sled and tearing past the car. As he sped by, he cried out, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”