In its first draft form, my book had a prologue about the origins of the Norwegian Death. Although it set the scene and provided some backstory, I eventually removed it because it wasn’t really connected with the rest of the story and delayed the introduction of the main characters.
I’ve cleaned it up around the edges a bit and you can find it below as a deleted scene extra. Enjoy!
Norway, July 2020
Bjart Lorentzen was used to the less pleasant side of civilisation, in fact for the last thirty years he’d revelled in it. For every house, however much the owners cleaned the front door, painted the rooms or filled the interiors with immaculate furnishings hid a layer of dirt, decay and disease. And in this layer lived the rats, mice, insects and other unwanted guests they would rather not think about.
Usually these two populations lived happily unaware of each other; the rodents taking advantage of the warmth and free food, and the humans pretending that infestation was only a problem that other houses suffered from. Then one day the two would meet, either directly due to a moved bag of rubbish or a switch of a light, or indirectly with the discovery of droppings in a cupboard or a strange scurrying noise in the attic.
So the nauseous owners would then call Lorentzen and Son, who would dutifully arrive with bait, poison and a sack to remove the corpses a few days later. The company name was a misnomer, of course, a victim of time and circumstances; Bjart was the ‘son’ referred to but had no children of his own nor even a wife, and his father had retired several years ago. The demographics of Hamar had changed over the last forty or so years and the occupation of pest control no longer seemed to be quite the pull it was when his father was in his prime. It didn’t really bother Bjart that much, although he secretly longed for the day a grateful lady would ask him out to dinner as a thank-you for all of his hard-won efforts.
He’d been helping his father with the business since he was fourteen and remembered how the customers used to call him ‘The Piper’ due his almost unnatural talent at tracking down infestations, almost being able to smell trails like a bloodhound tracking its quarry. They’d even made the local paper once with their heroics at cleaning out a hotel the day before a VIP arrived, but that was many years ago and these days the customers barely looked him, apart when handing over the cash and checking their change. He was a necessary evil, a provider of a service the clients would rather not think about needing to start with and who were glad when he and his sack of corpses were gone. As time went by he found himself empathising more and more with the animals he was sent to destroy, and chuckled to himself after an encounter with a particularly obnoxious customer that perhaps he should just do away with the home owners instead and leave the rats to get on with it. It was pure fantasy of course; pest control didn’t make one a serial killer any more than being a hunter or playing computer games did. He was there to provide a service and get paid for doing it in a professional, courteous and, where possible, discrete manor. Gratitude and recognition came second, or at least that’s what he told himself as he drove the van away and off to the incinerator plant.
Another thing that had changed recently was the amount of business he was getting from the surrounding villages. The wealthier residents of Hamar and the surrounding area as far up as Lillehammer were wanting more of a quiet life outside of the towns and cities, causing somewhat of an exodus and dragging the middle classes (and house prices he noted) along with them. The endogenous population were used to wildlife and sharing their habitat with them up to certain limits but the new residents were not. They were the invaders here and the rats and bears stood their ground, prompting panicked phone calls and more business with a nice big extra call-out charge. Bjart couldn’t do much about the bears, but he could deal with the rats and so on a damp July morning he drove his rusting old van up to an expensive-looking and newly-converted barn house, adjusted his dusty baseball cap over his balding head and rang the bell.
The door was opened by a very attractive woman who was desperately trying to hide it, wearing a suit that was failing to un-flatter her figure and shiny blonde hair up in a tight bun. He presumed she was a business woman wanting to be taken seriously by her male peers, but unfortunately to him it just made her look like a secretary the boss took away to hotel conferences with.
Bjart tried to shake the image and train of thought from his head, smiled and introduced himself, hand outstretched. She shook his hand as lightly and quickly as she could, confirmed her name as Ellida and that she was the home owner before taking a phone out of her handbag and fiddling with it.
“Will this take long? I need to leave soon for a meeting,” Ellida asked briskly, seemingly more interested in her phone screen than the answer.
“No,” Bjart replied, “I just need to locate the source of the infestation and put some poison traps down. I’ll return in a couple of days to empty the traps and clear away any dead rats.”
Ellida waved a dismissive hand at him. “Oh that won’t be necessary, they’re already dead. I noticed the smell by the rubbish bins yesterday and found them in a pile. I just need you to get rid of them.”
“Ah okay, that’s fine did you put poison down yourself? Just beware that the poisons are deadly to humans and pets too, so it might be better in future to get a professional out first.” Bjart gave that speech to all clients who decided they were expert enough to do things themselves. It wasn’t a direct lie, of course, but sowed just enough doubt to get them second-guessing themselves, although by the look Ellida gave him it definitely hadn’t worked this time.
“I didn’t put anything down,” she retorted sharply. “As I just said I noticed a bad smell and found a load of them dead by the bins.”
That was very odd. Rats died of course just like any other creature but it was very unusual for several to die at once, and modern poisons were usually so fast acting they were unlikely to have been dosed somewhere else.
Ellida declined to let him into the house and instead led Bjart, now carrying his long clasping pole, around the side to a small concrete area which contained a large head-height storage locker with a wooden roller door. The door was broken at the bottom which presumably how the rats had got in, tempted by the bags of rubbish and promise of an easy meal. The smell of death and pile of bloating rats was obvious, but something was off with the smell which Bjart couldn’t quite figure out. He poked at the pile with his stick, separating the bodies and disturbing a small horde of ants, which was when he realised what was wrong. Instead of the usual brown colour, one of the rats was black.
Ellida saw the puzzled look on his face and asked what was wrong. Bjart pointed at the brown rats. “Rattus norvegicus, named after our beloved country and found pretty much everywhere we are. That,” he said as he pointed at the black rat, “is the black rat Rattus rattus. It shouldn’t be here.”
Ellida didn’t seem to comprehend the discovery and was playing with her phone again. “Well I shouldn’t be here either, I’ll be running late for my meeting soon,” she said, clearly bored and beginning to get agitated at her phone. “Look, can I just leave this with you to clean up?” Bjart nodded and told her the disposal and travel fees. She didn’t bother negotiating but instead just took out her purse and pulled out a handful of Euro notes, quickly sifting through for the correct amount before hurriedly handing the screwed up bunch to him.
She turned and walked off as fast as her high heels would allow leaving Bjart alone with his mystery, too pre-occupied in his thoughts to notice her absence. The black rat had to have come from nearby but he couldn’t imagine where from. Perhaps the local authorities might offer a clue and since he would have to report this anyway as a potentially invasive species he could ask them at the time. He put on some thick rubber gloves and picked up the dead rats using his pole and grabber, dropping the bodies in a yellow waste bag before throwing them into his van and heading off to the next job.
The woman on the other end of the phone at the health department was very helpful. As soon as Bjart had mentioned the location of the black rat she knew where it had probably originated and sounded very animated and annoyed about it. Apparently there was a farm not far from Ellida’s house and the owner was breeding various species rats for school classes, college dissections and reptile food. They’d sent some health inspectors a few months previously and had not been impressed by the conditions, but had given the owner a second chance with an improvement notice and a promise from him to do better. She also remarked that a proper import licence for the black rats hadn’t been produced at the time either so God knew where they had come from, but again he’d been given more time having sworn he’d ‘lost’ the paperwork. It had never been followed up.
Bjart explained his concerns about the dead rats and suggested he could pop over to the farm as a subcontractor under their authority, for a small fee of course. To his surprise the woman agreed as they were short-staffed; she’d fax over the paperwork that afternoon and he would leave the next morning to check the premises.
His concern about the rats was really only of secondary importance though, as his thoughts returned to Ellida, who appeared more beautiful in his mind’s eye each time he imagined seeing her again. If he could solve her mystery, then perhaps she would notice him? He looked across at his old dirty overalls hanging up in the corner of his equally shabby workshop, and down at his growing pot belly. Of course she wouldn’t notice him, or if she did she’d probably be repulsed and not want to again. He needed a change of image; get some new clothes, work out at the gym perhaps, and clean up around the place a bit. But most of all he needed some stories to tell which didn’t involve poisoning rats or trapping squirrels, and hopefully those new tales would begin building in just two weeks’ time. His tickets had arrived a few days earlier and he’d been reading his Japanese phrasebook intently for over a month already, pouring over every detail and inflection and practicing in the mirror each evening. Flights and hotels had been booked, currency collected, cases half-packed and all that remained was crossing off the days on the calendar each morning. That night he dreamed it was him on the podium; everyone was shouting his name, everyone knew who he was, and Ellida was standing at the front cheering and clapping loudly in appreciation.
The early morning mist clung to the trees and road, obscuring his vision and making Bjart nearly miss the gateway to the farm. The rough, hardcore track up to the buildings was full of neglect, patched up here and there half-heartedly with gravel making the van slip and claw for traction. The small stone house itself was in similar condition, with large sections of guttering missing and broken roof tiles buried under clumps of moss and lichen. Bjart knocked at the door and waited, then knocked again and waited some more. Either the farmer was out or just refusing to answer, but the result was the same nonetheless. Still, he had his warrant from the health inspectors and was officially free to wonder the grounds, so he headed for the most likely outbuilding to be housing the rats; an old wooden and steel barn on the outskirts of the property. The July sun had baked the mud into ruts where a tractor had been up and down in wetter months, making walking as difficult as the drive up the track had been. Bjart really didn’t want to trip and turn an ankle especially as he didn’t know how the farmer would react when he saw him snooping around so took it steady, his kit bag bumping painfully against his hip. He was fifty metres away when he knew he had the right place; the smell was unmistakable and almost painfully pungent. There were rats there, and a lot of them.
The door to the barn was rusted on its hinges and needed a strong push to open, nearly taking Bjart along with it into the darkness. The smell had been joined now by the sound of flies, a repugnant orchestra of humming and buzzing which made him want to retch. He located the light switch but it was either broken or the power had been cut, the only source of illumination now being from the sun slowly burning through the mist to the doorway and the gaps in the wooden slats in the walls of the barn. He took the torch out of his kitbag and switched it on, arcing a beam of light into the distance and exciting the dust into swirls. The floor was a sea of rats, moving in scurrying waves away from his torchlight into the safety of the deeper darkness of the barn. They meant him no harm of course, but that many rats were unnerving even to a seasoned professional and it was only increased curiosity and an odd sense of duty that sent Bjart deeper into the building.
He angled the torch and scanned the walls, illuminating row upon row of small filthy cages placed on wooden racks and shelves. All of the rats within them were dead and had been for a while it seemed, the food blocks and water bottles long since consumed, along with parts of the cage mates who had perished first. The rats on the floor seemed to have escaped from their cages having chewed through the bars or plastic and were now living here, presumably for shelter during the day and then out foraging at night through one of the many holes in the barn walls. He looked more closely at a few of the cages and was rewarded with the sight of black rats; thirty or so cages appeared to be in a block housed right next to the grey rat enclosures, and with what looked like some white laboratory or domestic rats scattered around as well. How the health inspectors had not shut this place down instantly was a mystery, for although Bjart’s job was killing and disposing of rats he also knew how they should be kept, and overcrowding like this with no proper lighting or ventilation was definitely not it. Shining his light and peering closer into a few cages he realised that he’d been mistaken on how the rats had died; they were far too fat to have died of starvation and looked to have succumbed to a disease judging by the strange lumps on their skin. They were also crawling with fleas it seemed, which when presented with a new food source in the form of a pest control officer quickly jumped at the chance. The fleas had a hungry and painful bite, causing him to scratch intently at his neck and wrists making the skin red and angry. It certainly wasn’t the first time he’d been bitten in his job and wouldn’t be the last so he paid it little mind; there was some spray back in the van and Bjart made a mental note to douse himself in it when he returned.
The humming of the flies had died down now they had settled back down on the corpses and it was then that Bjart noticed a different, electrical noise and dim light emanating from the far corner. Further investigation revealed it to be a fridge, which given the state of the rest of the building he was slightly nervous about opening, but proceeded to anyway. The interior light from the fridge bathed him and the surrounding area in light, further scattering any nearby rats. There were four shelves in the fridge and every one was filled with rows of small vials of liquid with rubber lids. Bjart checked the labels; Neomycin, Ampicillin, Doripenem, Cefotaxime, Roxithromycin, the list went on and on as he delved deeper into the fridge. Whatever was killing the rats the errant farmer was trying all kinds of things to prevent it from damaging his livelihood, but whatever he had done didn’t seem to have worked very well given the state of the cages and their occupants.
Bjart had seen enough. Scratching at his neck again he put the vials back in the fridge, closed the door and made his way quickly out of the barn into the welcoming sunshine. He half-expected the farmer to be waiting for him holding a shotgun and demanding to know why he was trespassing but again he was nowhere to be seen. The whole farm seemed wrong somehow and Bjart was very glad to get back to his van and the relief of the flea spray and a dousing of Witch Hazel on the bites. He reached for his mobile phone, rang the town health department and spoke to the same woman as before. She thanked him for his time and, in a manner that suggested that it wasn’t top of her priority list, said that would pass on the information to her superiors. His job done, Bjart headed back home and to the blinking answering machine he had left that morning with the promise of more work.
He felt fine that day, and the day after that. On the third day his armpits felt sore and slightly swollen but started to feel better by the next evening so he ignored it. On day four he developed a raspy cough that he put down to being in a dusty woodshed on a job the day before. His cough got worse and phlegmatic as the days passed but there was less than a week until his holiday and he sure as hell wasn’t going to cancel it because he was feeling a bit under the weather. Probably just a cold or a rumbling chest infection he surmised, and if he still had it when he got back in a couple of weeks then he would see the doctor.
The cough seemed to have stabilised a bit he thought as he boarded the plane, but then he had spent the previous hour in and out of the airport toilets hacking up mucous after forgetting to take the medication he’d bought from the local chemist a few days before. A double dose had brought it under control at least for now and made him drowsy enough to sleep on the flight. He dreamt of the podium again and the roar of the crowd, the mass calling his name in an increasing wave around the stadium which suddenly ceased and fell into silence. The grey-skinned audience were in freeze-frame, all staring at him in an unblinking fixed gaze as the rats swirling around their feet began to climb.
And his dream came true. Everyone would remember the name Bjart Lorentzen. The rat catcher, the Piper, patient zero of the Norwegian Death, the man who killed half the world.
Decades later, the survivors of the plague, still struggling to maintain their way of life faced a new threat to the existence of the Human race; a disease they named Infectious Embryonic Sterility. The abstruse virus made their children barren, with complex and expensive fertility treatment the only alternative. Some could pay, but most could not. Thus in Britain, vigilantly isolated from the rest of the world, the in vitro Lottery was born.