Fiction: Crawley and the mysterious itch


April 5, 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. All names, places, locations and incidents are entirely fictional, and any similarity to places or people living or dead is purely coincidental.

Illustration: Leo Michael

MJ O’Donnell was baffled by the case. This was one of her regular accounts — Alex and Shea Higginbotham — and they lived in a relatively new house with no history of significant pest problems. Now all of a sudden, both of them were complaining of pests … and their story seemed so believable.

It was mid-March as MJ made her way through the upscale Wellington District neighborhood, where the willow trees and redbuds were just beginning to put on leaves, one of the first signs of spring. She pulled up to their house on Primrose Street, and gathered her things to go inside for an inspection.

Alex Higginbotham greeted her at the door. He was friendly, but the look in his eyes belied his smile. “It’s about time you got here, MJ. Come on in. Shea and I have been anxiously waiting for you.” MJ couldn’t help noticing numerous scabs and fresh bloody spots all over his hands and arms.

Oh, this is bad, she thought. “Are you still being bitten?”

“Worse than ever. Shea’s been up all night cleaning and sanitizing everything. She thinks we’re totally infested.”

MJ was at a loss for a response. “I don’t think they do that.”

Alex held out his arms. “Then what’s this?”

“I don’t know.” She paused. “But I’m here to try to find out.”

“I appreciate it.” He said flatly and opened the door wider. “Just go wherever you need to go and do whatever you need to do. But you need to put on some DEET repellent so you don’t get ’em. We’ll be in the living room eagerly waiting to hear your results.”

The DEET repellent comment unnerved MJ, but she tried to reassure herself that she could walk through the house without getting infested. She found the house spotless. In fact, it looked like a museum, with everything perfectly in place and prominently displayed. It was as if they were trying to win the “best home interior award” in Southern Living or something.

The place smelled heavily of bleach. There was barely enough dust anywhere in the house for her to even collect one dust sample. She had serviced the account on several occasions previously, and there were no pets, no mice, no bird nests in the walls, or anything else that might lead to a mite infestation.

After a half-hour of attempting to take samples from around the house, MJ joined Alex and Shea in the living room. She was uncertain about sitting on the furniture, so she stood near the door.

“Please tell me again, Shea, when this started, and why you think it’s an insect or mite problem.”

“It started in the fall, before it got cold,” Shea began, “when a bird accidentally got into the house.” She looked over at her husband. “We think it came down through the chimney.”

“A chimney swift, they call them,” Alex offered. “Maybe it had built a nest or something in the chimney last summer. Anyway, it flew down one day instead of going up.”

“We had a terrible time trying to catch that thing and get it out of here.” Shea ran a hand through her hair. “It wasn’t long after that when we started having problems. I think these bugs came off the bird and are now living in here. They’re some sort of parasites.”

“Are they just on you, Shea?” MJ asked. “Or both of you?”

“Well, on me first, I guess. Then Alex got them from me.”

MJ looked from one to the other. It must be real since both of them have it, she thought. What are the chances two people could have something like this?

“Have you ever seen the bugs?” she asked aloud. “I mean, do you think you might catch one for me? I really need to see a specimen. Our treatment program depends upon a correct identification.”

Shea shook her head. “We can’t see them. I mean, sometimes we see little black specks on our skin, but I’m not sure what they are. Could be their eggs. Can’t you just spray the house anyway?” She rubbed her arms obsessively. “We don’t mind. We’ll authorize it.”

“I wish I could, but the state regulators won’t allow us to make pesticide treatments without first identifying a target organism.”

“Then what are you going to do?” Shea insisted. “We’re being eaten alive.” Her eyes filled with tears. “You’ve got to do something!”

MJ turned to leave. She didn’t remember exactly what she said to Alex and Shea after that, but she definitely knew in her own mind what she was going to do.

This is a job for Crawley McPherson.

Keep reading… (Part 2)

Was the humble chimney swift (Chaetura pelagica) to blame for the Higginbothams’ distress?
Photo: Reeves Photography

The next morning, MJ waited for Crawley near the front entrance of the Peace-of-Mind headquarters. She was sitting in a comfortable chair in the small foyer of the building, drinking coffee and pretending to read Pest Management Professional magazine, but she was really trying to ambush the little bug nerd when he arrived. She knew he usually came by the office early to get stocked up on materials for the day and get any last-minute instructions or assignments from Margie, the office manager.

Soon, she spotted him scurrying up the sidewalk toward the building. Sure, he was socially awkward and had disabilities, but MJ admired him. He was honest, hard-working and loyal. And he would go after a bug problem like a dog after a bone.

“Hey, Crawley!” She acted surprised to see him. “How’s it going?”

His head finally came up, and he seemed to force a smile. “Okay, I guess … don’t know yet how it’s going because it isn’t going yet.”

He walked nervously past her and started down the hall toward his office. MJ followed, trying to keep her tone light. “I’ve been missing seeing you lately. Where’ve you been hiding?”

He hesitated, turning halfway back toward her, as if he didn’t know for sure what to do. “Just working, MJ. Trying to get it all done. Seems like Jack’s always giving me someone else’s account.” Then a big toothy grin spread across his face. “But I really don’t mind, it helps me be a better pest technician.”

“You ever thought about taking the license exam and starting your own business?” MJ asked.

He blushed. “I guess … I might could try for a license.” Long pause. “Maybe someday.”

“Hey, speaking of you being such an expert, can I ask you about a case I’m working on?”

“Yeah, sure.”

MJ looked up and down the hall. “C’mon, let’s go in your office.”

Inside Crawley’s office, MJ told him about Alex and Shea Higginbotham and the mysterious pests biting them. She explained how none of her samples revealed any mites or biting insects that could produce the bite marks on their bodies.

“I’m at a loss, Crawley,” she concluded. “How do we help someone with a bug problem when we can’t figure out what the bug problem is? I’m telling you, they’re desperate.”

“Sounds like you got a case of the DOP,” he said flatly. “Those kind of folks’ll drive you crazy.”

MJ shook her head. “I don’t think it’s delusions of parasitosis. They both have bites all over their arms, hands, face and neck.” She paused. “And according to them, also have bites all over their bodies under their clothing, but I didn’t want to see any of that, if you know what I mean.”

Crawley looked away. “Mmm.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“It don’t make me no nevermind.” He looked away for a long time. “Did you set out glue boards?”

“Yes, repeatedly, but there’s nothing on them but a few tiny beetles or an ant or two here and there. Mostly near the kitchen.”

Crawley’s eyebrows shot up. “Fire ants?”

“No, pharaoh ants, I think.”

“Did you refer ’em to a dermatologist for them bite marks? That’s the kind of doctor they need to see. Bites ain’t nothing we do anything about.”

“No, but that’s a great idea. I’ll call them and suggest that.” She smiled at Crawley. “You want to go out there with me and look around? I’d really appreciate your help. Just having an extra pair of eyes to help look around would make me feel better.”

“I guess I could work it in my schedule,” he said, after some hesitation.


Keep reading… (Part 3)

Illustration: Leo Michael

The next Saturday afternoon, Crawley made his way to the Higginbotham residence. Technically, he was off on Saturday afternoons, but it was the only time he had free to look at the Higginbotham case with MJ.
MJ was parked in the driveway when he arrived. He donned his technician’s toolbelt, grabbed a small notepad, and went to meet her.

MJ flashed a huge grin. “I’m so glad you could come take a look, Crawley. You don’t know how much this means to me. C’mon, they’re waiting for us.”

Alex Higginbotham met them at the door and ushered them into the living room, where Shea was sitting in a big fancy chair twice her size. She was angled to the side with her legs crossed. It reminded Crawley of Morticia of “The Addams Family,” and he almost giggled out loud thinking about it.

Shea began by retelling the experience with the bird falling out of the chimney and how she was convinced that’s how the bugs got inside the house. Then, she proceeded to describe in great detail how the mites would come and go, change in form and color, and submerge and then re-emerge in her skin on a nightly basis.

“I’ve got samples for you to look at on the dining room table,” she said. “I did my best to collect some of the mites in pill bottles. I placed them in rubbing alcohol, I hope that’s all right.”

“That’s great,” MJ said. “We can look at them first before we perform the inspection.”

Shea suddenly seemed even more grave and somber, as if some loved one had just died. “And you’re not going to believe this,” she continued, apparently not finished. “They go up inside our rectums when we’re asleep.”

“Shea!” Alex interrupted her. “They don’t need to know that.” He suddenly seemed deeply embarrassed. “Let’s save that information for the medical doctors.”

Shea fell silent, MJ’s jaw dropped, and Crawley simply sighed. He’d heard talk like this before.

“Mites don’t go up in peoples’ rectum, ma’am. They don’t do that. They’d die.”

Shea’s face reddened and the muscles in her jaw began to quiver. “Oh yes, they do!” Her voice became shrill. “You’re not a medical doctor, how would you know?”

“I’ve read lots of medical books —”

Alex stood up and interrupted Crawley. “I’ve had enough of this. You’re not going to talk to my wife like that. I think you should leave.”

MJ tried her best to soothe things over. “Please excuse us.” She shot an apologetic look toward the couple. “Crawley’s just trying to help. He’s our best technical expert.”

Alex headed toward the front door, as if he intended for Crawley and MJ to follow. “Well, if he’s all you got, we need to look somewhere else for help with our pest problem. And you call yourself Peace-of-Mind?”

“Look,” MJ pleaded, “I’m sorry, I know you’re upset. I invited Mr. McPherson to help me figure out what kind of bug problem you have. Couldn’t you at least allow him to look around? He really is an outstanding entomologist.”

Alex turned, arms tight across his chest. “Since you invited him, I’ll allow it this time, but to be totally honest, I don’t want him to ever come back.”

The scene sent Crawley back to his childhood days when his dad would scream at him for forgetting to do his chores or not cleaning his room. It was all he could do to stand there in the Higginbotham home and not run out the door. Shea huffed and shot out of the room, saying something about going out on the patio to clear her head.

“Thank you. Thank you so much,” MJ gushed. “We’ll make a quick inspection and then be on our way.”

MJ caught up with Crawley in the dining room where the Higginbothams had displayed their samples. She looked at him sympathetically. “You okay?”

“They didn’t have to act so ugly,” he mumbled, while looking through the pill bottles and resealable sandwich bags on the table. He held a few of the samples up to the light and examined them one by one with a small hand lens. “I could just leave here and never come back. It’s not my account, you know.”

“Yes, I agree it was uncalled for, but don’t you think you were a little blunt with them? These are our customers. We’ve got to treat them right.”

“I know I shouldn’t a’ said it. Something just flew all over me when she was saying all that. But I was just tellin’ the truth, MJ. There ain’t no bugs can come and go in a person’s rectum. And these here samples are just lint, debris, and skin scabs. This is clearly a case of DOP, and you know it.”

“I’m starting to see that now,” she said quietly, looking around to make sure no one was listening, “but what are we going to do?”

“You gotta walk away from it, MJ. Otherwise, it’s a time sink you’ll never get out of. I’ve seen this over and over. They’ll just keep bringing in more samples and insist you spray the house.”

“But they’re my account. Do I just quit servicing their house? They’ll go to another pest control company.”

“Let ’em,” he said. “We’re bug people, not doctors. These folks need to go see a dermatologist doctor. This ain’t no bug problem. Simple as that.”

After a long minute, MJ answered. “I guess you’re right. “Let’s go. I’ll tell them we’re going to take these samples back to the lab for closer examination and get back with them about the results.”

On the way out to their trucks, MJ stopped to face Crawley. “I really appreciate your help with this. I knew something about this case didn’t make sense, but I thought since both of them had symptoms, it had to be real. That’s why I asked you to help.”

“That’s called a folie à deux, MJ. Two crazy people, or two persons with some kind of shared delusion. One gets it first, and then somehow convinces the other one that they are also infested. Happens all the time.”

“Where in the world do you get this stuff?” MJ raised her hands. “How do you know such things?

Crawley’s eyes danced around behind his thick glasses. “Mmm.”

MJ seemed relieved. “Like I said, meet you back at the office. We can look at their samples to make sure there’s nothing in them, then I’ll call them and that’ll be the end of it. I’ll tell them this could a medical issue and they may need to see a dermatologist. If they want us to continue their general pest control services, fine. Otherwise, they can find another pest control company.”

She paused, then smiled at him. “C’mon, I’ll buy you a drink at my Uncle Kelly’s pub.”

“I’m not much of a drinker.”

“Doesn’t matter. You can get a soft drink, or even milk, if you like. We can visit a while. It’ll be fun.”

Dr. 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


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  1. Rosmarie Kelly says:

    Excellent story.