Of all the barbecue joints in all the towns in all the world, she walked into mine. I mean, sure, it was more of a back-porch sort of deal than anything else—and let me tell you, this trench coat gets hot out there without air-conditioning.
So, she walks up the drive, see, and she’s got this stare that would make a cat jump sideways. I sat up straight and took notice. Blonde and commanding to be sure, but when she got up close you could see it: angry red bites up and down each arm, like she’d been attacked by a hole punch. And she’d been scratching something terrible.
She held out her right arm, and it’s all covered in bites, with fingernail marks from wrist to elbow like striped red gloves. It was terrible.
She says to me—please, find out what’s doing this. Tell me, Jack—who done it?
“All I want,” she said, “is to have a decent barbecue in the backyard without my friends and I getting eaten alive.”
Now as a rule, I’m an old washed-up desperado, and I don’t take jobs like this anymore. Not after what happened in Peru. But she was desperate, and I heard the sound of money in her voice, and I thought just maybe, this old dog could do one more trick.
So I took the gig. Help the dame, dig up who—or what—has been taking cheap shots at her arms and legs.
We went back to her place, and she showed me around her backyard. Instantly, I started to pick up clues. A pool, dirty, with floating leaves, not cleaned recently. An upside-down flowerpot, with water collecting in the brim. A pile of raked hedge clippings heaped up in the corner next to the compost heap.
The wet stench of rotting vegetation hung heavy in the air. My first thought was the obvious: do you have pets? A dog or cat that skulked around out here would be sure to come back with fleas, or at least filthy and muddy after a good rain.
“No,” she said. “And if I did, they wouldn’t have fleas.”
All right, all right. Chiggers, perhaps? If the bites had concentrated around the ankles or wrists, or anywhere that clothing pulled tight…
She curled her lip. “No, it’s only exposed skin.”
I made sure we were in the right ballpark—
“You’re sure it never happens inside?” Maybe I could fix my penetrating investigatory gaze on bedbugs instead and leave the putrid swap that was that backyard.
“No, it’s only when I come out here. Every picnic, every lunch on the porch, or Friday night festivity, that’s when the biting happens. This monster lives outside, I just know it.”
That is, assuming those were bites at all, and she didn’t have an unusual measles outbreak. Or a temperamental allergy.
She flashed me a dirty look. “I know what a bug bite looks like.”
Hmm. Brooding, I pulled my sweltering coat around myself and stalked through the humidity, pushing through the overgrown hedge with my shins. I knelt and poured the water out of the bottom of the flowerpot.
I asked her when it had last rained.
“Oh, it rains so much now. Once a week at least. Last time was… a week, ten days ago.”I thought for a long moment and took a swig of my soda. It was warm. And flat.
I stared at the birdbath in the center of the yard. It, too, was full of water. Ugly, dank, standing water, that had formed a thin film across the top.
Suddenly, I understood. I turned to her without preamble.
“Dump out all the water in your yard at once,” I said, “and get that hedge trimmed. This is a very simple case.”
I gestured at the birdbath.
“That’s a stagnant breeding haven for the little pests that are making your life hell. Get rid of all standing water, loose vegetation, and cover that pool if you’re not using it.”
She started to protest, but I looked her dead in the eye.
“And for the love of all things holy, if you ever want to go outside again, call Mosquito Squad of Victoria. Get your yard sprayed, and you’ll have it all to yourself without a single bloodsucking beastie.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Give it to me straight. What’s been biting me and my friends? Do I have an infestation?”
“My dear, you have mosquitoes.”