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.
Zelda Blackman heard a knock on the door. Even though she lived by herself, she wasn’t scared to answer it. After all, it was 1 p.m. and she lived in a relatively safe, middle-class neighborhood. She partially opened the door and peeped her head out. “Yes?”
“Ma’am, I’m Phillip Mabry, a pest controller, and I’m going door-to-door in this neighborhood telling people about our new and exciting spray. You’ll be amazed at the results … ”
“I’m really not interested, sorry.” She attempted to close the door.
He reached out his hand. “Do you have roaches or fleas? I guarantee you’ll never have them again if you let me use this new spray.”
She opened the door wider and eased out on the porch, looking both ways as if to make sure the man was alone. “Oh? Never again?”
“Never again. What few bugs you have now and the rest of this winter will all be killed and won’t come back next spring.”
“So, how is it that you can guarantee to rid my house of roaches and fleas when other pest control companies can’t?”
“Because I’ve got a product that nobody else can use.” He grinned widely.
She figured it was too good to be true, but now he had her attention. She wanted to know more.
“What’s the name of your company? Can I see some sort of identification?”
Mabry glanced up and down the street, pulled a small white card out of his wallet, and handed it to her. “Mabry’s Bug Stompers. There, that card is issued by the state. You can read my credentials. It says I’m certified to purchase and apply restricted-use pesticides.”
“It doesn’t say that. And it doesn’t show your company name on it anywhere, just your name, photo, and the words ‘Category A,’” Zelda look at him evenly. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t have to, ma’am. Trust me, it’s legit.”
After studying the certification card for a minute, she had questions. “OK, so how does this work? How much will it cost for you to treat my house?”
Mabry pulled a tiny spiral-topped notebook from his shirt pocket. “First, what’s your name, ma’am?”
“Zelda May Blackman.”
“You own or rent this place?
“What difference does that make?”
“It’s more complicated if you rent because we have to go through your landlord.”
“I own the place … I mean, the bank does.”
He nodded, as if pleased. “My fee is $200 cash, up front, Ms. Blackman. It’s a one-time fee. I can come back and spray again for free one more time, if needed, but I guarantee that won’t be necessary.
“To be honest, I have a terrible problem with cockroaches.” She frowned. “Little ones, mostly in the kitchen. I’ve had two other pest control companies out here over the past six months, but they can’t seem to get rid of them. Do you have any idea what those little roaches are?”
“No, it doesn’t matter what kind they are. I can guaran-damn-tee you won’t have any roaches after I make my treatment.”
Zelda was surprised at his salty language, but she figured that had no bearing on his pest controlling abilities. “Then I agree to let you spray. When can you get started?”
“My truck’s parked just down the street there. Let me get my sprayer.”
“Don’t I need to be gone from the house while you make the treatment?”
“Naw,” he said confidently. “Won’t take but a few minutes to spray around inside on the baseboards and such — ” He stopped short. “But I’ll need that payment before I begin.”
Zelda began to have second thoughts. “Two hundred dollars. You sure this stuff works?”
“Sister, this stuff would kill a horse if I sprayed him with it.”
That same day, Crawley met MJ after work for a drink at her Uncle Kelly’s pub, something they had done a few times lately. They sat in a wood-paneled booth with dark green seats. Soft yellow recessed lighting made the place feel warm and inviting. Booths lined the outer walls of the establishment, while the bar itself was located in the center of the room.
“You sure you gonna drink soda again?” Uncle Kelly asked, eyeing Crawley. “We need to work you up to something stronger to calm your nerves. You seem fidgety.”
“No, uh, this here soda is fine.” He gripped the can tightly. “Thanks.”
MJ laughed. “Like I’ve told you before, Kel. He’s new to all this.”
Crawley blushed. With the exception of being with MJ, he felt totally out of place.
After Kelly left them, MJ smiled at Crawley. “It’s December, Crawley. You and I have been through some stuff this year, haven’t we?”
He didn’t know what he was supposed to say. “Uh, yes, I ’spect so.”
“C’mon, relax, Crawley. We’re friends. Let your hair down.”
He raised his hand as if to check his hair, then caught himself. It’s just a saying, Crawley. She doesn’t really mean let your hair down.
“Tell me your most memorable case we worked this year,” she prompted.
“I guess bed bugs in the chicken house. That really freaked me out, seeing thousands of bed bugs crawling across the yard. I had no idea they could disperse like that.”
“For me, it was that Higginbotham case. When we saw Shea sitting in that big chair with bandages all over her, I almost busted out laughing. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
“Me too!” Crawley said. “I thought she looked like someone out of them old 1950s horror movies.”
“And the look on her husband’s face when you told Shea that no-see-ums don’t go into people’s rectums! I’ll never forget that.”
“I was thinking he was going to fight me.”
“And Mrs. Welch’s bird mite problem … Do you know why she was sleeping on the couch in the living room?”
“Because that’s where her husband used to sit before he died.” She paused. “Isn’t that sweet?”
Crawley absolutely had no
point of reference for that kind
of thing. His parents’ relationship had been complicated, to say
“What’re you going to do for Christmas?” MJ changed the subject.
“Might go to my aunt’s house, but just for the day. I’ve got to catch up on my reading.”
“What kind of reading?”
“Bug books, pest control magazines, and stuff like that.”
MJ threw her head back, laughing. “You’re something else, Crawley, you know that? Someone could easily write a series of articles on all of your adventures and publish them, like in a magazine.”
“I guess,” he fumbled for words. He seemed to never understand what she meant.
Keep reading… (Part 2)
A week later, Zelda Blackman began to worry about allowing Mr. Mabry to spray her house. He had done it, all right, but way too flippantly and sloppily to suit her. She was beginning to wonder if the man had even sprayed any pesticide at all. Maybe it was just water in his sprayer.
She walked over to the wall in the kitchen to examine the baseboard. Sure enough, there was a yellowish residue along the edge of the floor, and upward about 6 inches. She bent over and sniffed the area. There was a garlic-like scent associated with the residue.
“I guess he must have sprayed something,” she muttered. “Probably one of those organic products made from garlic, lemon peels or soybeans. I certainly wasted my money on that treatment.”
Just then her cat, Beetle, entered the kitchen, salivating and wobbling as she walked. Zelda had noticed this same behavior for two days now, including twitching muscles, but today it was much worse. She knelt down and stroked the cat lovingly. “Beetle, I think it’s time to take you to the doctor. Something’s going on with you.”
Dr. Altman, the veterinarian, had a serious look on his face after his physical exam of Beetle and drawing blood for a battery of tests. “Ms. Blackman, I’m afraid Beetle has been been exposed to a chemical. She certainly displays the classic signs.” He pointed to the cat’s eyes. “See how constricted the pupils are? Anyway, we’ll know more after I hear back from these blood tests.”
“Yes, it’s actually quite common among pets, resulting from either accidentally getting into something around the house, or someone purposely doing it. Does your cat go outside much?”
“Yes, I do let her outside … it’s a small town, you know.”
The veterinarian eyed her suspiciously. “Maybe you shouldn’t do that for a while.”
Zelda sniffed. “Will she die?”
“I don’t think so. I gave her a vial of atropine, the antidote for an organophosphate … which seems most likely to me to be the chemical involved.” He looked back and forth between Zelda and the cat. “I’d like to keep Beetle here overnight to keep an eye on her, if that’s all right with you.”
“Yes, Doctor, whatever you think is best.”
“And I want you to go and inspect your house, inside and out, for any potential sources.”
“Chemicals under the sink, automobile fluids such as antifreeze in the garage, cans that might be leaking, like old pesticide bottles.”
“Yes, sir. I certainly will, but I can assure you I don’t have stuff like that at my house.”
Keep reading… (Part 3)
The next afternoon, Zelda was resting in her living room after spending the entire morning scouring the house, garage and storage shed for any old chemical containers that might be lying around. As she suspected would be the case, she found nothing.
Her phone rang, the screen displaying the name Dr. Altman, Veterinarian. “Hello,” she answered eagerly.
“Ms. Blackman, this is Dr. Altman from the vet clinic. How are you today?”
“Fine, thank you. How’s Beetle? I do hope she’s feeling better.”
“Yes, very much so. Almost back to her old self. But if it’s all right with you, I’d like to keep her one more day just to make sure there’s no relapse of symptoms.”
“Sure, whatever you think is best.”
“Look, Ms. Blackman,” he said somberly, “the reason I’m calling you is because I just got back the blood test results on Beetle and wanted to discuss that with you.”
“Okay,” Zelda tensed up at the seriousness of his voice. “Is it bad?”
“Yes and no. I believe information is power.” He paused. “The test showed that Beetle was definitely exposed to an organophosphate, most likely a pesticide.”
“But I don’t have any pesticides around my house, I assure you.”
“Has your house had pest control? I mean, like 30 years ago?”
“Not that I know of. I haven’t been living here but six years. Why would you ask that?”
“A long time ago, exterminators regularly used malathion, chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and things like that for pest control. I’ve heard of people finding old bottles of the stuff in sheds or under the house. I think the pest control people sometimes gave homeowners some of the insecticide in case they needed it between sprayings.”
“Wow! I never heard of such a thing.”
“I guess things were different back then. Do you have a pest control company that services your home now?”
“Yes … well, not one company. I’ve had several out here over the last six months to spray for cockroaches. Three in all.”
“Try to find out what products the pest companies have been spraying in your house,” Dr. Altman advised. “If you have questions about the specific products, you can call me, but it would probably be better if you contact an expert, like one of those extension entomologists at the University of Tennessee. But no matter what, please try to get this sorted out before you bring Beetle back home. We don’t want her to be exposed again.”
“Yes, sir, I’ll get right on it.”
Keep reading… (Part 4)
The next day, Zelda called each of the pest control companies that had treated her house over the past six months. Each one reported that they had used cockroach baits and a variety of different pyrethroid insecticides. They all denied using an organophosphate in or around her house.
Then she attempted to call the last person she had hired to spray the house — the man from Mabry’s Bug Stompers. The one who, with each passing day, seemed more and more like a charlatan. As she had feared, the phone number yielded only a recording stating that the number was no longer in service.
She hung up the phone and shook her head in anger. She remembered the distinct smell along the baseboard. “Likely only garlic,” she said, hopefully. “What am I supposed to do now?”
She walked out on the front porch. What few leaves remained on the trees shivered in the December wind. The sky hung low and gray, even though it was only a little after lunch. Zelda drew her sweater close around her neck to block the chill. She had hit a wall with her search.
Then she recalled a woman at her church, Daisy Welch, who had talked on and on recently about a pest control technician in town who she said was the smartest pest man in the state of Tennessee, if not the world. Something about how he had single-handedly solved her mite problem.
Zelda whirled to go inside. “I’ll get the contact information from Daisy and call him.”
Keep reading… (Part 5)
A few days later, Crawley McPherson knocked on Ms. Blackman’s front door. He shook his head. What was he doing here? That had never been adequately explained to him. All he knew was something about Daisy Welch, something about pesticide exposure, and Jack insisting he go check it out. Did this woman want Peace-of-Mind’s pest service or not? Was he supposed to just look around? For what?
Ms. Blackman was a short woman in her early 60s, with reddish-blond hair and a pleasant smile. “You must be Crawley!” she gushed upon opening the door. “I’ve been eagerly awaiting your arrival.”
Crawley shook her hand and smiled weakly. “Yes’sum, but I’m not sure what you need me for. We just do pest control … we ain’t no consultants.”
“Come on in and I’ll explain everything. It’s too cold to stand around out here.”
Inside the house, Ms. Blackman told Crawley about the incident with her cat and her efforts to find the source. Crawley still couldn’t understand what it had to do with him.
“I guess I’m not understandin’ exactly what you want me to do, ma’am.” He looked around. “Your house looks clean and orderly to me. And as for the pesticide issue, you can just ask your pest control people what all they’ve been spraying.”
“I have. There’s been several different companies. I’ve got a German cockroach problem, but they all insist they don’t use organophosphates. Except I couldn’t get hold of the last one, and he only sprayed one time about three weeks ago.”
“Yes, I’m afraid he wasn’t all that reputable. I never heard from him again.”
“How did you come about
“He showed up at my door, saying he was spraying houses up and down my street. Said he had a product nobody else had, one that worked like magic.”
Crawley shook his head in disbelief. “And you fell for it. Did he say what his product was?”
“No, but I’m thinking it was one of those new ‘green’ products.”
“German cockroaches,” Crawley straightened his shoulders, ready to get to inspecting. “Show me where they’re at.”
In the kitchen, Ms. Blackman pointed out several places in the cabinets, pantry and behind appliances where she had been seeing German cockroaches over the last few months. Oddly, this time all she could find were dead ones.
Crawley carefully inspected the kitchen, puffing a flushing agent into various cracks and crevices and suspected harborages. After 30 minutes, he rose and calmly addressed Ms. Blackman.
“Best I can tell, you ain’t got German cockroaches any more. I guess those pest control companies did everything right, after all.”
“I can’t believe it. They’ve been a problem since about May. Now they’re gone.”
He turned to leave. “I don’t think you need me here any longer.”
Keep reading… (Part 6)
The next morning, Crawley spent two hours trying to identify a sample of tiny wood-boring beetles MJ had collected out of a big antebellum home just outside of town. Crawley loved helping her because it gave him opportunities to be around her, but he also knew certain wood beetles infested wood over and over, leading to severe structural damage. That could be a real problem.
MJ walked into the bug examination room. “Hey, Crawley! Any luck with the ID?”
He displayed a dead-serious look. “These are the real powderpost beetles, MJ. You’ll need to spray.”
“Ugh. I was hoping they might be false powderpost beetles, or some other, less-serious wood-infesting beetle.”
Just then, Jack Blackwell entered the room. “I’ve been looking for you, Crawley. Don’t you answer your phone?”
“It’s probably in my office. I’ve been a’ looking at these here samples.”
“I want to know whatever happened with the situation out at Ms. Blackman’s? The woman’s house I sent you to check for possible sources of pesticide exposure.”
“I went and looked. Didn’t see nothing unusual. Why in the world would you want me out there anyway? She’s not one of our customers.”
“But she could be. You’ve got to always be thinking like that, Crawley — business, or at least, potential for business.” He pulled up a chair and straddled it, arms resting on the chair back. “Something’s going on out there. I found out today that several people on that street have reported pets getting sick. Some have died.”
“That’s awful!” MJ said. “What’s causing it?”
“Best guess is some neighbor hates animals and doesn’t want cats or dogs crossing through his yard. Probably putting out tainted meat.” He paused. “It happens a lot, you know.”
Crawley face suddenly turned white, and he stood up. “Uh oh.”
“Are you OK, Crawley?” MJ asked.
The dots were beginning to connect in his mind. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it,” Crawley began speaking rapidly, more like talking to himself. “But it all makes sense. Ms. Blackman’s cat. The dead roaches. The rogue pest controller. Dead animals up and down the street — ”
“Slow down, Crawley,” Jack said. “What’re you trying to say?”
“Ms. Blackman hired a man to spray her house with what he said was a new and magic product. Said he had been hawking the product up and down that street.”
“Where’s he now? What’s the name of his company?”
“That’s just it,” Crawley shook his head. “It was a crazy name like, Mabry’s Bug Stompers, or something like that. The guy’s disappeared. I’d bet anything he wasn’t even a licensed pest management professional at all, and was using an agricultural pesticide like methyl parathion. I’ve read about it happening in other places, like Mississippi. It’s a spray for cotton and other crops. Extremely toxic, but it’ll kill the mess outta bugs. Oh, and uh, it’s an organophosphate.”
Jack pulled out his phone. “I’ve got to report this to the state pesticide regulators right now. This is serious. I bet the Environmental Protection Agency will get involved.”
“I wonder what they’ll do?” MJ mused.
“The regulators will probably take samples of residue from Ms. Blackman’s house along the baseboards where he sprayed. If it’s methyl parathion, or anything else illegal for indoor spraying, they’ll prosecute the man,” Jack said.
Crawley nodded. “Them men in Mississippi who were doing that illegal spraying ended up in prison.”
After a long silence, Jack turned toward Crawley and looked him straight in the eye. “Crawley, I don’t say this enough … well, maybe not at all. You amaze me, and I want to thank you for your expertise in these kinds of things. In spite of your unconventional way of doing things, I don’t know what we’d do without you around here.”
A huge toothy grin erupted on Crawley’s face. Finally, finally, he heard the words he needed to hear from his boss.