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.
It was a chilly and misty November morning, typical for Tennessee. Jack Blackwell, owner of Peace-of-Mind Pest Services, tapped Crawley McPherson’s image on his cell phone favorites menu, then marveled how often he had been calling that number lately.
“Crawley, I need you go to the Robin Hood neighborhood today and talk to a man named Aaron Moyen. I’ll text you his address. He’s been calling, saying there’s rats everywhere out there. Not just in his house — all throughout the neighborhood.”
“We don’t do whole neighborhoods. I don’t think your license allows that.”
“He’s interested in purchasing a general pest service contract for his home, now go take care of him. Need I remind you of the concept of customer service?”
“No sir. I got it.”
That afternoon, as Crawley was gathering his things to head out to the Moyen property, MJ O’Donnell popped in his office door. “Hey Crawley, how’s it going?”
“Uh, OK, I guess. Just uh, about to go see a new customer.” Talking with MJ was difficult for him.
She leaned against the door frame. “Oh? Anything interesting?”
“Rats. Supposedly everywhere in the whole neighborhood. Jack told me to go check it out. Said the man is interested in a contract for pest service.”
“Can I go with you? I’m caught up this afternoon.”
“Sure, if you want to.”
“Let me go get my stuff and I’ll meet you at your truck. We can ride together.”
On their way into the subdivision, Crawley noticed there was more than one zoning type. Commercial and residential areas were mixed — there would be a house or two, then a commercial establishment such as a restaurant, and then more houses.
“Mmm, that could be bad,” he muttered.
“What?” MJ asked.
“Whenever you see food establishments mixed in with the residential areas, there’s gonna be roach and rat problems.” He nudged his thick glasses back up his nose. “Believe you me, I’ve seen it lots of times.”
“How could that happen? Aren’t there zoning ordinances?”
Crawley shook his head. “You never know about these crazy zoning things. It’s political.”
When they arrived at the address, Mr. Moyen walked out to greet them. He was an older gentleman, wearing coveralls and with hair sticking out in all directions, as if it hadn’t been combed in a month. His eyes were strange — unusually wide open and almost bulging.
Since Jack had asked him to visit this man, Crawley eased out in front of MJ. He reached for the pesticide cans hanging on his service belt, as his way to gain confidence. “Hello, I’m Crawley and this here is MJ O’Donnell from Peace-of-Mind Pest Control. We’re here to hopefully sign you up for pest control service and try to help with your rat problem.”
“Glad you’re here,” Mr. Moyen replied. “We got us a bad rat problem around here. They’re everywhere. I definitely need pest service.”
Crawley looked around. “Inside the house or outside?”
“Oh, they’re inside the house all right. I saw two last night. But they’re also out here in the neighborhood, running around everywhere. Lots of ’em.”
Then the man displayed a twisted smile and seemed excited, like a kid about to receive a candy bar. “Y’all wanna see ’em?” He waved his arm toward the house. “C’mon with me.”
Crawley looked over at MJ. He didn’t have a good feeling about this man, and certainly didn’t know what he meant, but they followed him into the kitchen, where he retrieved a few slices of bread. “Now let’s go out in the backyard. I’ve put Felix up in the utility room, so you don’t have to worry about him.”
Outside, the layout of the Moyen house and property was typical for a middle-class Tennessee neighborhood, with rows of brick houses about 20 feet apart along both sides of a street. The backyard of each one was about a quarter of an acre in size, containing various items such as outdoor lawn furniture, clotheslines, and — in some cases, such as Mr. Moyen’s — a doghouse positioned in front of a chain-link fence. Just beyond the back fence was a small ditch running behind the houses. Even though it was November, the thick vegetation was still partially green. There hadn’t been a hard freeze yet.
MJ took a few photographs and scribbled in a notebook while Crawley strained his eyes, looking both ways and trying to study the features of the land. A little way up the street on the west side was a small restaurant. Even from where he was standing, Crawley could see what appeared to be a green dumpster at the back of the restaurant.
“That’s not good.”
“What?” MJ asked, curious.
“Watch this,” the old man interrupted Crawley and MJ. He crumbled the bread and tossed it on the ground near the doghouse, about 10 feet from the back fence line. Then he held his bony arms out to the side and eased backward. “Now y’all step back. Shh, it’ll just be a minute or two.”
Crawley didn’t know what to think. Was this man crazy? Was he calling up the rats? And worse, he seemed to be comfortable with it, as if he had done this routine many times.
Sure enough, before long, the vegetation right behind the fence began to rustle, and little noses could be seen poking out of the chain link fence. Soon, tiny creature heads and body outlines could be seen in the vegetation. Rats! Dozens of them!
“See ’em?” Mr. Moyen pointed in glee.
MJ attempted to photograph the rats with her phone.
“That’s a lot of ’em, all right.” Crawley let out a low whistle. He looked up and down the row of houses. “They’s a lot of work to be done here. First of all, let me ask: Who owns that ditch?”
“I think the city.”
“Mmm. Well, we need to first do an inspection, looking around outside, starting up there at that restaurant, and then working our way down here.”
The old man seemed surprised. “I don’t know what you’d want to be looking up there. The rats are down here.”
“We absolutely have to do an inspection first, then we can come up with a plan of action.” Crawley looked around. “We gotta know how far the infestation goes up and down this ditch and these houses. Then we can decide exactly what to do for your situation.”
“Aren’t you going to put out rat bait inside my house? That’s why I called. I don’t mind ’em being out here, but I don’t want them inside the house.”
Crawley shook his head. “It’s more complicated than that. We try not to use baits until we’ve tried other things first. Let us look around some, then we’ll come back and discuss our findings with you.”
Crawley and MJ made their way up the street to the restaurant, where they found it to be a private residence converted into a small eatery. A gravel parking lot made up what apparently once was the front yard. Two cars occupied parking spots closest to the front of the restaurant.
“Wonder how they got permission to change this residence into a restaurant?” Crawley said.
“Beats me,” MJ responded. “You want me to ask them?”
“Naw.” Crawley turned and went behind the house/restaurant, where he went straight for the garbage dumpster. It was old, rusted and unkempt — and sitting directly on the ground without a concrete pad. The dirt around the dumpster was dark and slimy, as if years of garbage had soiled it. Trash and foam containers lay all around the thing, like huge ugly snowflakes.
“This is bad, isn’t it, Crawley?” MJ marveled.
“’Bout as bad as it gets.”
Crawley inspected the outside of the dumpster, then leaned over into it, shining a flashlight along its welded seems. In plain sight were rusted-out holes in the seams at the bottom, allowing juices and greasy gunk to ooze out onto the dirt. Then he noticed what appeared to be rodent burrows in the ground next to the dumpster.
He shook his head. “Here’s a perfect set-up: Both a place to live and a place to eat within three feet of each other. That’s rat heaven.”
He walked to the ditch located further behind the restaurant and examined it for additional burrows. There, he had to move weeds back with his feet in order to see the ground. Before long, he spotted at least a half-dozen more holes in the soft dirt just above the water’s edge.
He looked down the street toward Mr. Moyen’s house, and then to MJ. “I bet them rats are living all up and down this here ditch.”
As they worked their way down the ditch toward Mr. Moyen’s house, Crawley and MJ saw fewer and fewer rodent burrows until they got to his back yard. There, they again spotted numerous burrows along the ditch bank.
Crawley looked over at the doghouse in the man’s backyard. “He’s probably throwing out food scraps for that dog. That’s one thing contributing to his rat problem.”
MJ walked over by the doghouse. There were large, shallow holes in the dirt in front and on the sides of the structure. “I guess the man’s dog digs out these holes for a place to rest.”
“Likely it’s cooler down in that dirt,” Crawley said. Then he pointed at a smaller hole —about the diameter of a golf ball — along the bottom edge of the dog house. “That ain’t from Fido, or whatever his name is.”
“I don’t care what his name is. Them holes are from rats burrowing.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Let’s look around the outside of the man’s house first for rodent entry points, then let’s try to talk to him.”
“What do you mean, try to talk to him?” MJ asked.
“I got a bad feeling about this situation.”
Later inside, they found Mr. Moyen sitting at the kitchen table. He was sharpening a butcher knife half as big as a machete. That made Crawley nervous.
“We’ve finished our inspection, Mr. Moyen,” MJ began. “We’ve got good news and bad news.”
“What’s the bad news?” he asked coolly.
“The rat infestation does indeed extend past your property all the way up there to that little restaurant.”
“I knew they were bad, but I didn’t know it went that far. What’s the good news?”
“Good news is, we think we can eliminate them from your house with good exclusion methods, traps, and maybe bait stations.”
That seemed to satisfy him.
“But you’re gonna have to deal with that dog pen back there,” Crawley popped off.
“There’s nothing wrong with Felix’s house,” he snapped.
“Oh yes there is —”
MJ intervened, “I think he means it’s unintentionally providing harborage to the rats.”
The man seemed frustrated. “What about the rest of the neighborhood? What are you gonna do about that? Many of them have dogs, too.”
MJ shook her head. “Not sure yet. We need to doublecheck with the state regulators to see how far away from the house we can treat if we need to. Also, we can try to talk to the city about rodent breeding along that ditch. Maybe they can do something.”
“I’m telling y’all,” Crawley said authoritatively, “that dumpster up at the restaurant is the main problem. A garbage dumpster is a magnet for rats and things. It’s always putting out the smell of garbage. For one thing, we found that the dumpster ain’t resting on a cement pad. Rats can make burrows all up under it. And it looks like the dumpster is rusted through in a few places along the bottom, allowing garbage to leak out and rats to go inside and feed. We need to convince them to ask for a new dumpster. Also, we might can get permission from the restaurant folks to let us install permanent bait stations on two sides of the dumpster, and we need to use both soft baits and block baits inside each bait station to match the various feeding behaviors of the individual rats.”
MJ took her turn, trying to educate Mr. Moyen. “As for your house, you need to seal up every entry point. If your doors and windows are not professionally rodent-proofed, there’s not much that traps and baits can do to protect you. You’ve got to examine every single place where a pipe enters your house. You can seal up those openings around the pipes with galvanized metal chase covers, sheet metal plates, mortar or cement. That’ll stop them from getting inside. Then, we may need to put out rodent bait stations. Are you sure you’re willing to put up with the smell from dead rodents? That might be a problem, you know.”
“And you gotta quit feeding them rats,” Crawley interrupted.
“I don’t feed them,” growled Mr. Moyen. By now, his eyes were bulging even more than usual and the veins starting to show on the sides of neck.
“You just did, when we first got here, to show me and MJ. I’m guessing you feed ’em all the time.”
When the man seemed to grow more agitated, MJ intervened again. “I think what Mr. McPherson is trying to say is that we all have a role in the pest control process. We’ll do our part, but you’ll need to help us by doing your part to keep up good sanitation around the house — especially in the backyard — around the doghouse. Also, please only feed your dog what he’ll eat. Don’t let there be any excess dog food lying around. Rats will eat it.”
Mr. Moyen huffed. “Seems awfully complicated. Can’t you just throw out some bait around the house and kill them off?”
“No, I’m sorry it doesn’t work that way,” MJ said. “Rat control involves getting rid of their food and harborage, sealing up all entry points, and then strategically placing traps or rodent bait stations.”
Mr. Moyen stood up from the table, butcher knife in hand. “Strategically placing traps or rodent bait stations,” he repeated, mocking MJ. It was as if the man was suddenly a different person. A whole different personality.
Crawley eased over between the man and MJ. “Well, uh, we’ll let you think on it. You can just let us know later if you want us to do your pest service. There’d be some paperwork you’d have to sign first.” He started for the door and nodded for MJ to follow.
“But I hired y’all to do rat control inside my house,” the man said loudly. His hand gripped the butcher knife handle even tighter. “You can’t just leave like this.”
Crawley’s heart raced. “No sir, you didn’t hire us yet.” Sheer panic began to rise inside him. We’ve got to get out of here. This man’s crazy as a loon.
“Oh yes, I did hire you to take care of these rats in my house, and by gum, that’s what you’re gonna do!”
He started toward MJ with the knife in hand. Crawley grabbed one of the wooden kitchen chairs and held it out toward the man. Crawley’s shaking hands caused the chair to wobble in large half-circles.
“MJ, get outta here! Go get in the truck!”
MJ darted toward the kitchen door, then paused as if having second thoughts. Crawley again shoved the chair toward Mr. Moyen and tried to work his way toward the door.
The old man hollered and lunged forward. Crawley threw the chair at Mr. Moyen’s feet, which tripped him. That was their chance. Crawley and MJ shot out the kitchen door into the yard and straight for their truck.
“We gotta go, quick as we can!” Crawley hollered. “He might have a gun.”
Crawley and MJ dove into the truck. Crawley quickly cranked it, threw the gearshift in reverse, and floored it. Gravel and sand flew forward in a huge cloud. Soon they were back out on the main road.
MJ reached for Crawley’s arm, asking in a shaky whisper, “What just happened back there? That scared me to death.”
“He’s a nut, I tell you. I suspected it from the beginning when he showed us how he could call the rats up.”
“Should we call the police?”
“Wouldn’t do no good. He didn’t actually do nothing.”
“But we were threatened with a knife!”
“Can’t prove it. He might say we had a disagreement about the pest control contract, but that he never actually made any threats or tried to harm us.”
“Then I’ll call Jack and explain it to him. We’re sure not going back there.”
Crawley shook his head. “I shoulda known. He kept contradicting himself, saying he wanted us to treat outside the house only, then in the next breath, saying he wanted us to only treat inside.”
MJ fell silent.
“What’s wrong?” Crawley asked.
“I’m just glad we were together today, Crawley. If it had only been one of us, things might have turned out differently.” She reached for her phone to call Jack. “We can learn from this, Crawley … ”
“Yeah,” Crawley snorted. “That some of the public is durn crazy!”