Flo and Andy were a Trade Rat couple who lived at the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico. Flo had dug their den (aka “midden”) on an abandoned ranch, close to an old well that had dried up ages ago. Although they weren’t exactly in the desert, the land was thick with mesquite, chaparral, agave cactus and peyote.
Little did the couple know that the ranch had been a hideout for famous bandits and desperados in the nineteenth century. Or so the new owner, who’d recently moved in, claimed. And if Flo and Andy had been cynical Trade Rats attuned to human affairs then they might have made the connection between the advent of the new highway that passed less than a mile from the ranch and its heretofore unknown history as an outlaw hideout. And if Flo and Andy knew how to read read, they would have understood the sign that the new owner had erected at the ranch’s entrance:
Renfield’s Wild West Ranch
The James Gang, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa,
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid All Ate Peyote and Drank Tequila Here
Guided Tours: Three Dollars for Adults, Five for Each Child
Also, a Real Live Wishing Well (Reasonably Priced Wish Menu)
According to her mother, Flo hadn’t married well. Andy was a lazy Rat who spent nearly all his time loaded on peyote and fermented agave, and tom-ratting about with his like-minded, worthless friends. While he was passed out in the midden one day, Flo had watched the smiling young woman who now owned the spread attach another sign, this one to the dilapidated well near their midden. Although it has been established that Trade Rats are illiterate, we aren’t. The sign on the well said this:
Luck: Fifty Cents
True Love: Ten Cents
Termination of True Love: Seventy-five Cents
Contextual World Peace: Fifty Cents
Wisdom: A Quarter
Lesson Learned: A Quarter
Happiness: Function Currently Out of Order
Then, incredibly, after hanging the sign, the smiling young woman looked directly where Flo was hiding. She took three steps in that direction, stopped, held up a disco ball keychain, which glinted gloriously in the ceaseless sunshine, then tossed it in the well; still smiling, she walked away.
Trade Rats (aka “Pack” Rats) are the famous characters of Ratdom known for their adoration of shiny objects–Glitters, that they immediately procure with haste. Trades are also known for “paying” for Glitters by replacing them with other objects. This leads to things like the mysterious transformation of a carelessly stored heirloom pocket watch into a pine cone.
After the woman had gone, Flo wasted no time climbing down the old bucket rope that led to the bottom of the dry well, which was no more than ten feet deep, and likely never a source of water. She located the keychain, danced about, and swapped it with one of the dozens of pebbles lying on the well’s floor.
And just as Flo was about to climb the rope back up with her prize, a Wishingwellwraith Spirit suddenly spoke to her. His name was Smythe.
“He wants us to do what, pet?” Andy asked that night over his supper of peyote and fermented agave cactus. Even though Flo had already explained the deal to him twice, Andy was fixated on the keychain she’d brought home, besides, he wasn’t much of a listener to begin with.
“‘Us?’” Flo said with a contemptuous little snort. “As in we, as in you and me? As in a joint effort called ‘work?’”
“No need to bring your mother into your voice, love.”
Whilst Andy was eating, Flo had already begun work on the short tunnel that would connect the midden to the bottom of the well. As was so often the case in their marriage, their conversations involved him sitting there consuming, paying little heed to her words, whilst she labored back and forth. This would go on until he’d say something ugly about Mom, which would cause her to hurl a stone at him. Flo had a pretty good arm for a Trade Rat, and Andy excelled at ducking hurled objects. Therein lay their compatibility.
But this time she did her very best to explain the situation to him, if only to gain a better grasp on it for herself.
“It’s like this,” she said, “the ghostie–remember me telling you about him, by the name of Smythe?”
“But of course, pet,” Andy lied.
“He told me that the human that’s come round wants us as business partners. Says that there’s going to be lots of other humans coming round to the well fairly soon. Furthermore, the ghostie is of the wishing well persuasion, which means–”
“I know what that means,” Andy said. “He’s the middleman.”
And for once Andy had caught the gist. All animals, no matter how “low,” can communicate with human Spirits (who, by the way, resent being called a “ghostie”), but, for maybe a thousand reasons, animals cannot talk to living persons. Andy’s constant intake of peyote gave him an especially keen knowledge of ghosties. For instance, without being told, Andy knew that Wishingwellwraiths were personages of low character; grifters who enjoyed the hunt far more than the spoils. ‘Wraiths had a knack of parting fools and their belongings even though the ‘Wraith, being dead, had no use for material goods.
The peyote, more than Flo, made the situation clear in Andy’s mind. “So, the human wants us to fetch the money from the well and bring it to her in exchange for Glitters.”
“Precisely,” Flo said. “That’s why I’m digging this tunnel.”
“Don’t let me keep you from it, pet.”
The smiling woman’s name was Renfield. She no more cared about the history of the Wild West than she did for Smurf genealogy. But as a professional Supernaturalist, Renfiled had coaxed a large cash grant out of congress for the study of the interactions between Wishingwellwraiths and Trade Rats. The ranch Renfield had bought from the government for a bid (the only bid) of twenty dollars was the blind from which she’d observed the doings in the well on multiple spy cams she had arranged down there on the sly. A tiny portion of the grant was spent at various New Mexican Dollar Stores; anything small and shiny was cleared off the shelves. Anyone wanting to purchase a keychain or a compact mirror at a southern New Mexican Dollar Store during that time had to drive to either Arizona, Texas or Tijuana.
The ranch and the new highway opened the same day. Smythe, the Wishingwellwraith Renfield had engaged for the study, worked his silent magic on people from his place at the bottom of the well. The “Grande ” Opening grossed nineteen dollars, thirty-seven cents, four pesos, two bus tokens and a washer.
Three-thirty-seven (along with the pesos, tokens and the washer) of the take was spent on wishes. As planned, Renfield had dropped an empty felt marble’s sack that had a drawstring into the well, the night before. She then told the ‘Wraith to have Andy (who actually came along, but did none of the work) and Flo fill the sack with the coins and leave it on the back step of the house. In keeping with the Trade Rat business model, Renfield had left two small mirrors, a tin charm bracelet, a packet of ball bearings and a Yosemite Sam keychain on the back porch. The Rats emptied the sack on the step and filled the bag with their pay and scurried off to the midden.
This process repeated itself for a week until (as Renfiled had predicted) the ‘Wraith got bored and decided to cause strife. She smiled as she watched the following unfold in her laptop, which communicated with the spy cams in the well.
Flo was busily collecting another couple of dollars in coins when Smythe began talking to Andy, who was just sitting there, dazed on peyote.
“You’re being played for a sucker, friend,” said Smythe.
“These bits you exchange for cheap Glitters are worth ten times what you are paid. She puts all the money in a little wood box and does nothing with it.”
Those two little words stunned the ‘Wraith. “‘We know?’”
“It’s like this, friend,” Andy said, “you offer services you cannot possibly provide for money you cannot possibly spend because you are an…what’s that people word pet?”
“Asshole, dear,” Flo said, as she dutifully arranged a pile of pebbles and cactus seeds as payment for the loot.
“Yeah,” Andy continued, “an asshole. You get a kick out of conning, and when that bores you, you look to cause trouble.”
“You seem to know a lot about Spirits, for a Rat,” Smythe said.
“More than you know about Rats, friend,” Andy said with a wink.
After Flo and Andy left, The ‘Wraith, who knew about the cameras and microphones, translated for Renfield what the Rats had said to him.
The next phase of the study involved the duplicity of Rats. Despite their attitudes, Renfield knew that what the ‘Wraith had said to the couple wasn’t forgotten. So, she decided to pay a little less for the coins and told the ‘Wraith to explain the concept of taxation to the couple.
It didn’t go over well.
“I won’t work unless we are paid in full,” Andy said.
“As far as you go, there’s no difference,” laughed Smythe.
Flo didn’t say a word. Renfield observed the female Rat; she looked thoughtful, twitching her whiskers, as though she had a big idea.
After filling the sack with that day’s take, Flo conked Andy on the back of the head with it.
“Why’d you do that for, pet?”
“Never you mind,” she said. “Just follow me.”
The Rats disappeared into the tunnel, beyond the reach of the camera, microphones and the nosy Wishingwellwraith.
Renfield wondered what kind of rebellion that Flo, who was obviously the brains of the outfit, had planned. If it was interesting, it might pry more money out of congress for future Supernatural studies.
She switched to the back step camera. Under normal circumstances the Trades would be out there in a couple of minutes.
Renfield began to record her voice on her phone:
“Oh, here comes Flo, now,” she said. “But no Andy–shit, hold up, that is Andy, but not Flo. Where in hell’s name is she? Oh my God, Andy is actually doing work! He looks chagrined. Maybe rats can’t count, but they must know what fewer looks like…Paid them with a pair of fingernail clippers, the bus tokens and the washer they brought me a while back…”
Andy took an awful long time going about his tasks. Between each movement, he’d take a rest and gnaw on a wad peyote he had in his cheek. Even with fewer items to load, he took ten times longer than Flo to put them in the sack. Then Renfield heard two sharp whistles from somewhere out behind the house. Andy had heard them too, and he scurried off with the sack in the direction the sound had come.
Something’s up, but what? Renfield thought as she collected that day’s wishing well take. The mystery was solved the instant Renfield discovered that the wood box she kept the change in was open, the twenty dollars or so in coins were gone and that one of those weird bulb-like blooms of peyote had been left as payment.
Fortunately the entire house was on one camera or another. And that evening, Renfiled laughed and laughed over her Cutty Sark and ginger ale, watching over and again, Flo fill a Dollar Store shopping bag with the loot and drag it swiftly out the open window.
The Amoral: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Rat