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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2004

One mouse, two rats?

If you're going to find a mouse in a bowl of soup, it works out a lot better if you're a Kliban cat. Remember the song: "Love to eat them mousies/Mousies what I like to eat/Bite they little heads off/Nibble on they tiny feet."

But if you're hoping to squeeze some cash from a restaurant by pointing to a rodent doing the dead man's float among the chunky vegetables in your soup, it's best to have done your forensic homework.

A Virginia woman out celebrating Mother's Day with her son at a Cracker Barrel restaurant claimed she found a mouse in her soup. Now, they both (mother and son, not woman and mouse) face charges of attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit a felony.

The mouse, prosecutors say, was planted.

A forensic investigation - who took that assignment? - showed the little critter didn't die of drowning. Its head had been bashed in. There was no vegetable soup in its lungs, proving it didn't die in the bouillon but before it got there. It also hadn't been cooked. And, had it come from the soup plant it probably would not have emerged in a bowl intact but would instead have truly qualified as chunky soup.

The obvious conclusion? Like the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder, someone put it there. The basic question of cui bono? (who benefits?) led straight to Carla Patterson, 36, and her 20-year-old son, Ricky. They had, after all, attempted to extract a big pay day from Cracker Barrel.

Something had to be done. The late-night comics were holding the chain up to scorn and business was so slow at the Newport News outlet that Cracker Barrel gave servers temporary wage assistance. Prosecutors were called in last week; then charges were filed.

To be sure one can't prejudge any case, not even, as in this one, after mother and son were arrested in a sting while accepting a $500,000 check from the chain.

But at the very least it can be said that it takes a lot more forethought and ingenuity these days to earn a spot in the urban legends hall of fame's disgusting-critters-found-in-fast-food division.

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