Bruce J. Berger
He stripped off his pea-green Pest-Arrest jacket and his pea-green Pest-Arrest uniform, kicked out of his brown Pest-Arrest work boots, shucked out of his underwear, and spent long minutes under the scalding shower until he thought he could no longer smell the mixture of Diazinon and Chlordane on his skin. At the end of a long week, Rusty Locke hated the idea of having nothing to do for two days. Tired of drinking with the other guys from work at the Dragon Bar and Grill, tired of hearing wisecracks about his name, tired of the inevitable game of pool, tired of forcing himself to sleep late on the weekends to use up the time. The uniform made him feel like he was part of a team, dedicated to a social good. But after more than two decades of killing termites, dismantling birds’ nests, enduring wasp stings, he was tired of all that too.
Pulling on his favorite blue jeans and Nationals sweatshirt, neither of which he’d washed in months, he turned to leave his bedroom, and the sight of a stranger standing in the doorway made him jump in shock. ‘Who the hell are you?’ The thought quickly crossed his mind that this stranger was someone he’d seen before, a man who looked to be in his early forties, like Rusty, dark-haired, a bit overweight, again like Rusty, holding an unlit cigar. The intruder’s lips curled into a half-sneer.
‘You’ll figure it out.’ That voice! Rusty had heard it before. His mind flashed to his teenage years, when he’d been making out with — Fran? — and her father had chased him the hell out of their house. Was this the same asshole?
‘What do you want?’
‘I’ve got a job for you. It’s your specialty.’ The man waved the cigar towards Rusty, who felt a warm power radiating from it. A peppery taste spread though his mouth, a tingling of anticipation.
‘Job?’ Rusty thought the man’s name, Andrew, and the man grunted in affirmation.
‘You’ll know when it’s time.’ With that, Andrew vanished.
Rusty stared at the space where, just a second before, Andrew had stood waving his cigar. A tiny buzzing sound grew in his ears, close to his head. He couldn’t see what it was, but opened his mouth, and a small gnat flew in. Rusty swallowed, smiling.
When he started work Monday, checking his emails for the addresses of his appointments and the tasks he had to complete, Rusty had no recollection of Andrew. He felt, however, that something had changed for the better. He could sense a spring to his step, an eagerness to be helpful, a satisfaction that he was good at what he did. He began to think, as he drove the Pest-Arrest truck to his appointment in College Park, that he might be the best exterminator in the DC metropolitan area.
Full of energy, he skipped lunch and finished his rounds by two. He called in for more work, not caring about the extra pay, but hoping to find someone having a real emergency. A smile crossed his face when he heard that an elderly woman in Chevy Chase had just called in a panic, having found a bevy of mice in her outdoor storage shed.
Rusty carried 5% Diphacinone, long banned by EPA because of its lethality to humans but horded by Rusty for just such situations. He met the grey-haired client, assured her everything would all right in a few days, and set to work. He cleaned the food sources out first — torn bags of dog biscuits that had been there for years — set the bait, and assured the client that he’d return when it was time to clear out the dead mice, all of which would have bled to the most painful death imaginable. On the way home he laughed as he thought about their convulsions, disappointed only that he could not see them suffer.
Rusty walked into his house to find Andrew sitting in his favorite chair, feet propped on the oak coffee table in the center of the room. When Andrew saw him, he rose, holding the same cigar.
‘Of course. Killed anything today?’ He waved the cigar in small circles, pointing its tip towards the ceiling.
Andrew had grown in the three days since Rusty had last seen him. Not quite so pudgy, his face had grown darker, with mottled brown patches on his cheeks and forehead. His hair had grown longer and lighter, the grey hairs of age challenging the darker hairs of youth, now tied in the back into a short ponytail. His voice had crept up a pitch but sounded even more menacing, almost mocking.
‘That’s what I do. I kill pests. You know that.’
‘You’re good at what you do?’
‘Do I know you? Weren’t you Fran’s father, a long time ago?’
‘Fran!’ He spit on Rusty’s coffee table. ‘That’s what I think of her!’
‘What do you want from me?’
‘Exterminate. I have a job I want you to do.’
‘Call our business office. Pest-Arrest. 1-877-GET-THEM. That’s . . . ”
‘This isn’t about an insect.’ Andrew produced a matchbook from a pocket and lit the cigar, then tossed the match onto the table, where it left a dark mark before it burned out. Cigar smoke filled the room. He waited for more information, but without warning Andrew pointed the cigar at Rusty’s head. The punch felt harder than a fist, and Rusty staggered backwards against the door and slid to a sitting position, his hands reflexively holding his head.
‘You’re going to a kill a man. I will tell you who and when.’ Andrew took long puff on his cigar, then threw it at Rusty, but it dissolved to nothing halfway through its course. Andrew faded away.
Nausea rose in Rusty, who struggled to his feet, ran for the bathroom, and made it to the toilet in time for the upheaval of vomit. Kneeling and retching, he saw a cockroach crawling on the tiles. He reached down and it hopped into his hand.
‘Sayonara, little guy.’ He crushed it easily between thumb and forefinger, wiping his palms with the juice. The nausea vanished. He rose, hiccupped, and went in search of supper. The smell of cigar smoke, almost sweet, permeated his house.
Rusty thought about calling in sick but decided not to. As he drove to his first appointment, he pondered what had happened. He had a vague memory of being told to kill a man, and wondered whether he should report Andrew’s break-in to the police. Both break-ins. But, after thinking about it, he saw that course would be unwise. Who would believe some guy — whom he hadn’t seen for decades — would magically appear and disappear twice? Who would believe the guy could hurt him badly by waving a cigar? Rusty didn’t think anyone would believe him.
His thoughts spun backwards to Fran. She’d hated her father, hated his cigar, hated his overbearing manner, hated that he’d never shown her an ounce of love. Fran. What the hell had happened to her? He’d seen her once or twice at parties in the summer before she went off to college, but they’d already drifted apart, and she was always attached to another guy. She’d been great fun when they’d been together, his first sex. Where had she gone? Why hadn’t he thought about her at all for more than twenty years? The questions stayed in Rusty’s mind as he worked his way through the day.
It was a day challenging even for someone of his prowess at killing. It started easily enough with clients who had squirrels running through their attic in Takoma Park. They hadn’t realized that branches had forced their way under the roof. He crawled through the attic until he found a nest of babies, placing them into a sack, and set a trap for the absent mother. He killed the babies by forcing the sack into a trashcan filled with water. Then the day grew more complicated: a bed bug infestation at a glitzy new hotel in downtown Silver Spring, a silverfish swarm in the basement of the Wheaton Public Library, and a restaurant in Greenbelt with a horde of beetles running rampant in its store room. By eight in the evening, when Rusty had finished, he was exhausted, looking forward to a night’s sleep.
Sleep did come easily, but Rusty awoke around midnight when he felt someone sit down heavily on the end of his bed. He knew it was Andrew. The angry red tip of the cigar gave that away.
‘Get dressed. We have work to do.’
Rusty jumped up and pulled on clothes without reserve. When Andrew stood, Rusty could see that Andrew had grown in height but had lost more weight. The ponytail had lengthened, the hair had whitened, the half-sneer had deepened.
None of this surprised Rusty, who expected Andrew to fly or explode or melt if he chose to. Rusty felt as fascinated as he did when discovering yet another hornet nest that seemed larger than life. A universe that could create a community of thousands of hornets organized into a society that built a nest that large could create Andrew and his ray-gun cigars.
‘OK, now what?’
‘Follow me.’ Andrew led Rusty out of the house, and they began to walk briskly, but in seconds Rusty no longer recognized the neighborhood. The small houses of Aspen Hill had been replaced by mansions, homes for the wealthy.
‘Where are we?’
‘Potomac.’ On one side of an exurban road a white wood fence bordered an undulating field. A golf course? Someone’s backyard? On the other side of the road stood the three-story houses with rows of pine trees shielding their fronts. He hurried to keep up with Andrew, who grew taller it seemed with each long step.
‘Why are we here?’
‘You’re stupid, aren’t you? I thought so when you fell for that tart of a daughter. You don’t know much about anything except killing, do you?’
‘What happened to Fran?’
Andrew’s laugh burst from him, loud enough to wake anyone in the nearby houses. ‘You’re kidding, right? I paid good money for her to go to UVA and she gets knocked up first semester. Can you believe that? Gets an abortion, but I only found out about that after she bled to death. Couldn’t come to me for money to do it the right way. Come on.’
‘I . . . I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be. I knew she was bad from the day she was born, but all the same, we’re going to kill — you’re going to kill — the guy that killed her. Just for fun.’
‘We’re . . . what?’
‘You heard me. See that house?’ He pointed to the mansion they were approaching, a house fronted by a low brick wall upon which sat glowing glass globes every twenty feet. ‘He lives there. Dr. Madone. G.U.R. Madone. You kill him, then I’ll leave you alone.’
‘But . . . ’ Before he could say anything else, Andrew sizzled in a dazzling white light accompanied by a loud crackling sound, like the buzz of thunder from miles away, and shrunk until he could no longer be seen. Rusty looked around and saw that he stood alone, not in Potomac, but in Aspen Hill, four blocks from his house. He shivered in the damp night air.
Once inside, he realized that he was covered entirely with a sticky slime. He rubbed some off his arm with a finger, then put it into his mouth. Odd. It tasted like milk, but had to be washed off. He showered, pulled on pajamas, and as he looked into his medicine cabinet mirror, he saw behind him, hanging on the wall where minutes before there had been nothing, a stuffed raccoon.
When had he last had to trap a raccoon? He couldn’t recall. The raccoon’s expression was one of bewilderment. Rusty brought it into his bedroom and hung it from a nail that had once held a picture of Rusty’s father.
The next morning Rusty could barely remember his encounter with Andrew. The raccoon stared at him from the wall with an angry glare. Rusty recalled that he was supposed to do something very important that day. He would have to kill someone. A pest.
But who? Someone in Potomac, but who? Some doctor? Of course, the doctor who had killed Fran.
He sat at his kitchen counter sipping black coffee, letting his thoughts drift back to Fran. He had a vision of a pretty girl with smooth skin, regular facial features, and reddish brown hair that fell below her shoulders. He could see her climbing with him into the back seat of his Ford Fairlane station wagon, inherited from his father when he died suddenly of a heart attack, with the Select Shift automatic transmission and the FM/AM radio, a cool car. He could see her unbuttoning her light green blouse. A hot dish is what his father had called her before he died. A spring night, the car parked at Cabin John park behind the baseball field, the radio playing Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ He could hear it in his head. ‘It’s only physical.’ That’s what he thought then and still thought. But she was a good kid with a mean father. And now she was dead, had been dead a long time, hadn’t she? He knew what to do.
He logged onto his computer, jumped on Google Maps, exploring street-level views of Potomac. After an hour, he found a road that looked like the one he remembered from the night before. Piney Meeting House Road. Exactly where a rich abortionist would live. He moved his view up and down the street until he spotted a house that looked like the one he’d seen, circumscribed by the low brick wall with the glass globes. He copied the address and hurried to his Pest-Arrest truck with no idea about what he’d do when he arrived.
Parking two football fields away from the house, Rusty used binoculars to observe. Long, wide driveway leading to three-car garage, standard. Kid’s tricycle on front lawn. A family guy, but maybe with a young wife.
‘What are you waiting for?’ The imperious voice startled Rusty. He turned to see Andrew sitting next to him, holding an unlit cigar. Andrew had grown taller, so big that he barely had head room. He stank of a chemical smell that Rusty could not place. ‘You think he’s just going to walk up to your truck and give himself up to you?’
‘Of course not.’
‘You ever see a rat lick the poison out of your hand?’ No answer was necessary. ‘Ever see a baby mouse that drowned itself because that’s what you wanted? You’ve got to go get him.’
‘How do I kill him?’
‘You’re the expert. Figure it out. You always do.’ With that, Andrew grabbed Rusty’s left arm and traced a line on the forearm with the unlit cigar tip. A sharp fire pierced his arm, and Rusty looked down to see a line of blood welling up.
‘You didn’t have . . . ’ Rusty cut short his complaint when he realized that he sat alone in the front of his truck. Andrew had left his cigar on the seat. Rusty reached behind him, pulled out and donned his neoprene gloves, and picked up the cigar. It weighed twice what a normal cigar of that size should have weighed, but he could find nothing else abnormal about it.
Rusty drove closer to the house, parked next to the driveway, left the motor running, and walked to the front door. He waited a minute after ringing the bell, but no one answered. He decided he would come back that evening. He had to obey Andrew. He returned to the truck, packed the cigar into a plastic container, wrapped the container in a blanket, and tucked it all behind his seat. Tonight, he told himself.
Back at his house, he unpacked the cigar and placed it on his kitchen counter. He stared at it, then checked all the doors and windows to make sure they were locked. Rusty found two bottles of Bud in his refrigerator and sat in his favorite chair in front of his television to wait. When the bottles were drained and nothing had happened, he saw that Andrew intended to give him no further instructions. Andrew had told him to ‘figure it out.’ Rusty was frustrated, wanting to do as Andrew had commanded, yet feeling that he’d not been properly advised.
Rusty was just about to head to Potomac when he heard the whimpering of a child from his bedroom. He grabbed the cigar and slowly approached. Upon entering the bedroom, he could see that the raccoon he’d hung where his father’s picture used to hang was twitching, and the unearthly noise came from the raccoon’s mouth. Rusty drew nearer, then spun to see if Andrew had snuck in behind him and had been playing a cruel trick. The room was empty, but Andrew’s words flew at him from the raccoon in the voice of a six-year old girl.
‘I told you to kill the doc.’
‘I know, but . . . ’
‘But nothing! You’re a wimp, aren’t you?’
‘No, I’ll kill him. I’ll do exactly as you say. But how?’
‘You gut him with your knife.’
‘Will you go away forever if I do it that way?’
The raccoon fell silent, its twitching stopped. It seemed as if it had never talked, yet Rusty knew what he’d heard. He reached into the drawer where he kept his Cold Steel SRK with the black blade and handle. He’d almost never used it, just had wanted it nearby. Rusty thought it odd that he’d never reached for the knife when Andrew had first confronted him. If he had, maybe Andrew would have disappeared and not taken over his life.
It took but a half-hour for Rusty to drive to Piney Meeting House Road and find the house again. It was dark, but the house and its grounds were well lit. He placed the heavy cigar into the breast pocket of his pea-green uniform shirt, stowed the sheathed knife in his pants pocket, picked up the tool kit he often brought with him on jobs, and marched to the front door. A black Porsche with Maryland ‘MD’ tags sat in the driveway. He rang the bell.
‘Yes?’ floated a weak male voice from behind the door. The pitch was higher than Andrew had expected.
‘Pest-Arrest. We’re the new pest control operators your housekeeper called.’
‘Pest . . . ? There must be some mistake.’ The door began to open.
Rusty pushed his way in and plunged the SRK into the stomach of an elderly man with long, unkempt white hair wearing blue pajamas. The shock on the man’s face as he felt his insides being torn apart by the twisting metal amused Rusty. It reminded him of convulsing squirrel babies that he had drowned. He had done well to comply so quickly and competently with Andrew’s orders.
Screaming female sounds now surrounded him. Two women rushed into the room. He brandished the knife.
‘Oh my God! What did you do to Dad?’ yelled the older of the two, a woman with reddish brown hair, vaguely familiar. The other, a college age kid, pounded the buttons on her cell phone. She was dark haired, a bit overweight.
‘He’s a murderer. He’s the doctor who killed Fran! I’m doing what I should have done years ago if I had only . . . ’
‘Doctor? He’s not a doctor! Fran? Oh my God, Mom.’ The younger woman ran off, and Rusty could hear her sobbing, gasping for police and ambulance help.
The older woman knelt by her father, trying to comfort him, then looked up at Rusty, stared him in the face, and shrieked.
He was confused. The woman reminded him of Fran, now that he’d had a chance to look more closely. The guy he’d just killed reminded him of Fran’s father, not the monster who’d been showing up claiming that identity and calling himself Andrew. Not the magician who’d been urging him to take the next step forward in his life’s calling.
Rusty convulsed with laughter. The hilarity of the situation struck him so forcefully that he could barely stand. He grabbed the doorframe for support, even as he heard the sound of approaching sirens.
He took the cigar from his pocket, lit it, and inhaled the sweet tobacco smoke.
BRUCE J. BERGER has attended the Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop and the Gettysburg Review Writer’s Conference, working on both occasions with Fred Leebron. Berger, a graduate of the University of Connecticut and Harvard Law School, has published his stories and poems in a wide variety of literary magazines. He comes originally from Jersey.