Fiction: Crawley McPherson and the gnat outbreak

By |  January 23, 2018

Publisher’s Note: This series — “The Adventures of Crawley McPherson, Bug Man” — is a work of fiction. Crawley McPherson and all other characters in this series are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Also, all other names, places, locations and incidents are entirely fictional, and any similarity to places or people living or dead is purely coincidental.

Illustration: Leo Michael

It was a cool January noontime in a southern town. But the gnats were so bad, the preschoolers could barely eat their lunch. Hundreds of tiny bugs were dive-bombing their heads, darting toward their ears and eyes, and getting into their food. One of the children started crying, rubbing her eyes. “Ms. Johnson,” she whined. “I think one of the gnats went in my eye.”

“I ate one on accident,” another said. “And now my stomach hurts.”

“Okay children, even though it’s cold, let’s go outside to the playground. That should help. They seem to only be inside the building.”

Ms. Johnson fought an urge to cuss. This had to stop. It was becoming a health hazard that might cause the facility to fail an upcoming health and safety inspection. Surely, somebody could get rid of these pesky gnats.

 

Keep reading… (Part 1)

William “Crawley” McPherson, a pest management service technician for Peace-of-Mind Pest Services, got the call about the preschool building from his boss, Jackson Blackwell. Crawley was never deterred by difficult insect problems. In fact, the weirder, the better. He had been a “bug man” for 12 years now and had seen more than his share of bugs, vermin, and all manner of infestations. Sure, Jack had a fancy college degree in integrated pest management from Purdue University, but Jack didn’t know about the intimate lives of insects like Crawley did — where they breed, their secret behaviors, and other mysterious facts that only Crawley would know by his years of detective-like inspections.

Today’s situation was a strange one, all right. Jack had told him it was an old government building totally infested with tiny gnats, and he said even though it was winter, various kinds of gnats could potentially breed inside a dwelling. The building was occupied by three different agencies: a health department clinic, the local human services office, and a government-subsidized preschool program. Apparently, the gnat problem had been ongoing since last summer, and other pest management companies had tried unsuccessfully to solve the problem.

Upon arrival at the address, Crawley emerged confidently from the truck, donned his service belt containing an array of insecticidal baits and aerosol sprays, and swaggered toward the front door like John Wayne in a western movie, even though he looked nothing like the movie star. In fact, he could easily pass for Barney Fife.
That’s what he was all right, a Barney Fife pest man. A professional hitman for bugs. Not that he enjoyed killing things; he considered it an important profession. He liked to think that what he did made a difference. Helped people. Relieved suffering. Even prevented disease.

The receptionist was expecting his arrival: “Oh yes, we’re glad you’re here. I’ve been told to call Dr. Whittington immediately when you arrive.”

At that, Crawley tried to display his most professional face and knew in his heart he was the man for the job. Yeah, it’s me. I’ll get ’em.

Dr. Caroline Whittington, who was a doctor at the clinic as well as director of the building, showed up holding a clipboard tight against her chest. Her face was hard, like that of a drill sergeant. This woman was not to be trifled with.

“I’m here to take care of your gnat problem, ma’am.” He placed his right hand on one of the pesticides hanging on his belt. “Where they at?”

“I don’t know what makes you think you can do any better than the other folks,” she said dryly. “We’ve had five different exterminators out here to fog the place.” Then she paused. “But I guess it won’t hurt for you to try. We’re at our wit’s end.”

Crawley pushed his thick glasses back up his nose and smiled. “But you ain’t had me on the problem yet.”

She looked him over, raising an eyebrow. “No, we haven’t.”

“This shouldn’t take long,” he said, hoping that would indeed be the case. Crawley had to act quickly. He didn’t want Jack or Mary Jane “MJ” O’Donnell in on this case. Jack was the boss of the company, and MJ was one of the other top technicians working for Peace-of-Mind. He had to admit she was good. Her quick wit and stubborn Irish determination were hard to compete with.

“Just show me where they’re at and I’ll get rid of them,” he said.

“They’re everywhere,” Dr. Whittington said sharply. “There’s no one place where the gnats are located.”

Crawley made a face. “Mmm. Well then, where are they worser?”

“Worser?”

“Yeah, like worse than worse. Like, one room where it’s worser than the others.”

The woman blew out a long breath, then turned and started down the hall. “Come this way.”

Crawley followed her to the kitchen, but it wasn’t just any kitchen. It was the mack daddy of all kitchens.

Dr. Whittington turned and waved her arm. “This is probably where we see them more than anywhere, but like I said, they’re all over the whole building.”

Crawley’s eyes suddenly looked like large ovals, roving around behind his thick glasses. Sure enough, he spotted what appeared to be small fruit flies darting around the inside of the room. “What do you use this kitchen for? This ain’t no ordinary kitchen.”

“I don’t know what it was originally used for,” she said, swatting at one of the gnats buzzing by her face, “but now we use it to prepare food for the preschool. As I told Mr. Blackwell when I called yesterday, three different groups use this building. ”

“How old are the kids, and how many of them you got?”

“What difference does that make?” Dr. Whittington said dismissively, glancing at her watch. “Can’t you just spray or fog the place and be on your way?”

“I’ve got to do a thorough inspection first, ma’am. That’s procedure.” Crawley looked at a row of doors along the west wall of the large room. “What’s in all them rooms? Any mop closets? I’ve seen ’em come up outta drains before.”

Dr. Whittington bit her lip as if trying to keep from saying something, then turned to go. “Well, feel free to do your little investigation, treat the place, and then leave. I’ve got patients to see.”

“Inspection, ma’am,” he hollered after the good doctor. “That’s the first and most important step in the pest controlling process. After that, we’ll decide what to do.”
Crawley spent a good 45 minutes carefully inspecting the kitchen and all rooms connected to it for possible breeding sites of the gnats. In the process, he found a mop closet off to the side of the main room. He got down on his hands and knees and inspected the large drain in the floor with his flashlight.

“Mmm. I bet the trap in this thing is totally dried up.”

He stood up and grabbed a few of the tiny flies darting about, and with a hand-held magnifying lens tried his best to identify them. They clearly weren’t fruit flies. Perhaps they were scuttle flies, which some people called phorid flies. Whatever they were, there were hundreds of them everywhere.

He shook his head. This wasn’t going to be an easy come-and-go fix like he had thought. If the drain trap was dried up, the mop closet was certainly a potential entry point. But from where? Was the place on a central sewer system? He placed a few of the gnats in a vial of alcohol for microscopic identification back at the office. He knew that a correct identification could lead to critical information about where they breed and other key facts about their life history. Proper treatment would depend on the species involved.

Crawley frowned. As much as he hated to, he would need to go back to the office, identify the flies, and then devise a treatment plan for the gnat problem. And that, of course, would mean having to involve Jack and MJ.

It was almost closing time when he pulled up to the Peace-of-Mind Pest Services office. A few service vehicles dotted the parking lot, although many of the pest technicians were allowed to keep company vehicles at their private homes overnight during weekdays, leaving the work parking lot mostly empty.

MJ O’Donnell met him just outside the front door. She was smartly dressed in her khaki Peace-of-Mind uniform. The only thing amiss was her hair, being whipped around by the stiff, southern breeze.

“Did you do that stop at Linden and Eastover?” MJ asked. “That one with the preschool? I heard they’ve got a really bad gnat problem.”

Crawley wondered how she knew all that. “Yep, already been there. I’ve got this one, MJ.”

She tried unsuccessfully to swipe her hair back into position. “Did you find out what the problem is?”

“Working on it.”

“You’re being evasive. Did you find out where they’re coming from?”

“You know my little saying on that, MJ. The one I learnt from a podcast by Jeff Tucker.”

“I know, ‘When you can’t find the source of the bugs, keep looking. It’s always there.’”

“Then that’s my answer.”

“You need my help?”

“Nope. Jack asked me to do the stop.”

She smiled. “Indeed he did, but we make a pretty good team, don’t you think?”

MJ was hard to resist, and he had to admit they had worked together on several difficult pest problems over the last few years. “Mmm. Let me look at them specimens I caught today and get back up with you.”

She opened the door for him and smiled. “Sounds like a plan. I’d really love to help. I could bring you a Moon Pie as a bribe, you know.”

As Crawley made his way down the hall to the bug examination room, Jack Blackwell emerged from his office, heading straight for Crawley. He was dressed in slacks, an almond-colored button-down shirt, and a wool sport coat. He could easily pass for a U.S. Senator.

Oh brother, thought Crawley. Here we go.

“Hey Crawley. I’ve been looking for you.”

“Yes, sir. What for?”

“Did you service that government building on Linden?”

They must think that’s the most important account in the world right now. “Yes, sir. Haven’t made any treatments yet. I brought back some of the gnats for ID. Depending on that, I’ll decide on a plan of action.”

“Good. I can do the management plan, and can help with the identification if need be.” Jack patted Crawley’s shoulder. “I want to keep these people happy. It might lead to other government contracts. Be sure and keep me in the loop on this one. And I might need to meet you out there at least once, OK?”

Sure, you’ll meet me out there. “Yes, sir.”

Crawley turned to p. 333 of his Truman’s Guide, Seventh Edition, and examined Fig. 14.1 to determine exactly what kind of Diptera specimen he had at the account.
Illustration: Truman’s Scientific Guide to Pest Management Operations (North Coast Media)

The place was pretty much deserted by the time Crawley started the identification process in the bug room. He didn’t care; he loved solitude. Just him and the bugs. He had spent many a night looking at bugs in the Peace-of-Mind examination room. They had it set up like a university laboratory, with white countertops lining the walls, hosting several nice, dissecting-type microscopes. In addition, there were two stacks of Cornell cabinets in the room, containing drawers of hundreds of properly identified insects. The reference collection was indispensable to Crawley, because he could always go find a “real” specimen of whatever he thought he had identified.

He placed a couple of the gnat specimens under a microscope and opened up the Truman’s Scientific Guide to Pest Management Operations. He examined the gnats’ eyes, antennae, legs, and the size and arrangement of spines on their body parts. These tiny flies were definitely not fruit flies, but he wasn’t sure exactly what they were. He started “keying” them using the diagnostic key described in the textbook, which was essentially an algorithm designed to systematically eliminate choices until you’re left with the correct one.

Crawley studied the creatures more closely. They all had large and conspicuous femurs or “thighs,” meaning they were in the insect family Phoridae. He figured as much, based on the way he had seen them land and “skip” along the surface. He had learned that little tidbit about their behavior several years ago.

He sat back in the chair. Phorids. They’re probably breeding in organic matter somewhere in or near the kitchen. Then he recalled something else he knew about them. Phorids often are found in sewage leaking from broken pipes under buildings and situations like that.

I wonder if there’s a broken sewer pipe near that kitchen?

 

 

Keep reading… (Part 2)

Crawley was on-site at the government building by the time the first employees started arriving. He’d been sitting in his truck since 6:30 a.m., drinking coffee, eating honey buns, and listening to a pest management podcast about the life history of invasive filth flies.

He made his way to the kitchen to continue his inspection from yesterday. Crawley recalled how he had found the unused mop closet with a dried-up drain trap. Today, he intended to examine the area under the huge three-compartment sink, and especially the drain pipes coming from there. He slithered under the sink on the cold and clammy tile floor, looking for signs of leaks or build-up of scum and gunk in between the tiles. He focused his flashlight beam on the grout between tiles. I’ve seen ’em breeding in cracks like this.

Then he inspected the large pipe extending downward from the garbage disposal side of the sink. “Mmm. That could be a clue,” he said softly.

Just then, he heard familiar voices approaching the kitchen. Jack and MJ!

He slid out from under the sink and stood to meet them. They were accompanied by Dr. Whittington. He tried his best to dust himself, straighten his uniform, and look presentable.

Illustration: Leo Michael

“This is where we determined yesterday that the gnats were most prevalent,” Dr. Whittington said confidently to Jack and MJ. Crawley noticed how different the doctor was today with Jack around. She was much softer, even smiling. But one thing was the same: She looked right past Crawley, as if he didn’t exist.

Her remark irritated him. We determined?

“I would probably agree with your determination,” Jack said, smooth as any politician. “They’re small flies, so they’re most likely breeding inside the building. Doesn’t matter that it’s winter.”

MJ smiled when she met Crawley’s eyes, then nodded toward him.

At least she sees me here, working.

Jack began a circular tour of the room like a home inspector or real estate agent. “We’ve got to figure out where they’re coming from. That’s the first step in integrated pest management.” Jack finally looked at Crawley when he got near him. “Did you determine the species?”

“Yes, sir. Members of the phorid fly family.”

Jack nodded and turned back toward Dr. Whittington. “Just what I thought all along.”

Crawley tried to hide his surprise.

Jack stopped at the big sink. “One thing we could try is some of that biological drain cleaner for these drains. There could be enough scum lining the pipes to breed phorids.” He paused. “What do you think, MJ?”

“It’s worth a try.” She moved over by Crawley. “I’d like to hear what Crawley thinks about it. He’s already done the inspection.”

Both Jack and Crawley were surprised at her statement, but for different reasons.

“Yeah, uh, sure, that’s right.” Jack recovered from his gaff. “What have you determined, Crawley?”

This was his only chance. Crawley moved over by the sink and looked at Dr. Whittington. “Who uses this sink?”

“The preschool staff.”

“Do they make stuff to eat for the kids every day?”

She didn’t seem happy at the questioning. “Well yes, they do.”

Crawley turned toward the wall where the sink was attached. “What’s outside this here wall?”

“The outside, I presume. Grass?”

“Can we look and see?” He knew this might be a gamble.

“I guess.” Dr. Whittington glanced at Jack. “But I don’t see what difference it would make. Mr. Blackwell just said the gnats were most likely breeding inside.”

Jack shrugged. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take a look-see.”

Outside the building, Crawley tried to line up with the kitchen by looking at the lone small window over the sink. Once he had done that, he stepped back in the yard about 20 steps from the building and started tapping the grass with his foot and scraping dirt side to side. He couldn’t help noticing the others watching him curiously.

When he located a heavy, metal plate about the size of a large pizza in the grass, he turned to Dr. Whittington. “Can we get a maintenance person to lift up
this plate?”

“Why? What does that have to do with anything?”

Crawley saw MJ smile and wink at him. She knows.

“Trust me, this here is very important.”

After the doctor turned to go get someone, Jack lit in on him. “What are you doing, Crawley? Don’t you realize that woman is the director of this place? You can’t toy with her like that. We could lose the account.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“You better!”

Momentarily, Dr. Whittington rounded the corner with a burly man following her. After a few tries, the man was able to pry open the lid with a crow bar, revealing a pit in the ground approximately the size of a garbage can. All kinds of pipes entered and exited the hole in the ground, leaving a vat in the middle holding a dark, slimy liquid. A column of millions of tiny gnats suddenly emerged from the soup-like goo, flying up toward the sky. Dr. Whittington and the others stepped back.

“It’s a grease trap,” Crawley said, smiling. “That’s where they’re at.”

“But how are the gnats getting back into the building?” Dr. Whittington asked.

MJ beat Crawley to answer that one. “See all those open pipes?” She pointed. “Some of them probably go back into the kitchen. If there’s a dried-out drain trap somewhere inside, it’s like an interstate highway from here to there.”

“Like a mop closet drain.” Crawley displayed a big toothy grin, his eyes looming large inside his thick glasses.

“Yes, indeed, Dr. Whittington,” Jack took it from there. “That’s exactly the cause of your problem. We need to get this grease trap cleaned up and treated. Then we’ll need to check all the drains in your building.” His chest puffed out. “And then, after we do some space spraying with synergized pyrethrins, your problem will be solved.”

“Wow!” Dr. Whittington said. “I had no idea …”

“That’s why we’re the best,” Jack continued. “Come on, let’s go back inside and I’ll write up a detailed management plan.”

On his way into the building, Jack turned back to Crawley and MJ. “I can handle this now. I need y’all to get on with your regularly scheduled routes.” With that, he disappeared into the building with Dr. Whittington.

Crawley knew it would be this way. It always was. He turned to go to his truck, despondent. MJ reached out, placing her hands on his forearm. He could feel her warm hands through his long-sleeved shirt. “C’mon, Crawley. Don’t take it that way. You solved the problem, and he knows it. Everybody does.”

Crawley looked down. He desperately needed to hear her kind words. He tried his best to meet her eyes, but found it difficult. “Thanks, MJ. I appreciate it.”
An impish grin spread across her face. “Let’s go — you can help me with a fly problem at the Elmore Memorial Hospital.”

“Inside or outside flies?”

Illustration: Leo Michael

“Uh, outside I think. At least that’s what I’ve been told.”

He knew she was just trying to get his mind off of Jack’s snub. “Oh, there’s not hardly any filth flies out in the middle of winter.”

“You don’t know that. Have you been out there and looked for yourself?”

“Well, naw.”

“Then you’re coming with me. We’re not going to wallow in self-pity. Not today.”

Crawley nudged his glasses back up his nose. Maybe she was right. There were lots of other pest cases out there to be solved.

 


Contributor Dr. Jerome Goddard is an extension medical/veterinary entomologist at Mississippi State University. He is also a PMP Hall of Famer (Class of 2012). He may be reached at jgoddard@entomology.msstate.edu.

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1 Comment on "Fiction: Crawley McPherson and the gnat outbreak"

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  1. This story may be a work of fiction but I can tell you from personal experience that the gnat problem in GA is epic. But you must descend below the “Gnat Line”. This geographic anomaly is well known to Georgians. There’s even a famous pose: You’re waving your hands briskly back and forth in a futile effort to stop hordes of itchy, buzzing, thoroughly annoying gnats from landing on your face.

    I’ll bet the author has experienced this and his story will horrify some and resonate with others.