Planet of the Bed Bugs
Intro: What if insects that feed on humans couldn’t be killed?
“Screw you, Epstein!” Sidney Kitay, M.P.H., yelled at Doctor Ben Epstein, Director of the Hemiptera Vector Disease Program at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “You know I deserve to have my contribution cited in the Scientific American article!
“You’re not getting your name on my Bed Bug Transmission of Chagas Disease in Honduras paper. Your contribution to the research was squat.” The fifty-one-year-old Van-Dyke-bearded Dr. Epstein spoke with an agitated, working-class Boston accent. The short, pot-bellied man referred to drinking fountains as bubblers, rarely lost his composure even with Sidney Kitay, but now his voice was cracking.
“Almost all the ethnographic study included in your paper was my original research! Well you can go fuck yourself, asshole!” Sidney Kitay, thirty-four-years old, gave his boss the middle finger and then turned on his heel and marched out of the office.
Ritchie “Baby-Face” Nelson, M.S. Zoology, was waiting with his duffle bag at Dr. Epstein’s office doorway. He watched Sidney storm past with a bemused smile.
“Get out of here, Kitay! Take that smirking, Indiana-towhead Casanova with you. Roast to death in Phoenix, both of you, for all I care.” With a backhanded wave he dismissed the pair of young researchers.
Ritchie shrugged innocently and then followed Sidney into the elevator, down four floors, through the plush Arlen Spector Building lobby then out into the muggy, June bug heavy Georgia afternoon, and into a parked airport shuttle.
The twenty-nine-year-old Ritchie waited until they were out of sight of the CDC headquarters and then turned to Sidney. He didn’t say anything, just stared at him, his usual sarcastic half smile on his rosy-cheeked youngster face.
“What’s your fucking problem, Baby Face?” Sidney said.
“Dang, Sid. I thought I was going to witness some Jew-on-Jew violence back there.”
“What do mean Jew? Son-of-a-bitch Epstein is out to be the next Fuhrer. Why is he sending us from this hot hell-hole to this other, hotter hell-hole again?”
“You heard the boss, Sid. The cops out there claim an elderly man died from massive bed bug bites in some retirement community northwest of Phoenix.”
“Bullshit!” Sidney Kitay scowled. “Bed bug bites the primary cause of death? It’s bullshit!”
Sidney and Ritchie landed in Phoenix, Arizona on time at 9:45PM. The CDC duo picked up a rental sedan and Ritchie drove them out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. They checked into their mid-price-range, downtown hotel. Before they could unpack and then hit the hotel bar, Dr. Epstein called and ordered them to immediately go to the duplex located in the over-55 community called Youngtown, northwest of Phoenix. The body was still inside the duplex two days after its discovery.
Sidney drove them up to the duplex an hour later. The Maricopa County sheriff’s police had taken over the investigation. Floodlights surreally lit up the tiny yard; yellow crime scene tape wrapped around the drab, one-story adobe building. Sheriff’s police and firemen milled about joking, looking weary when they weren’t talking.
A slim young woman walked up to their car as the two CDC researchers were unloading their equipment from the trunk. She was in a white Tyvek jumpsuit, her hood pulled down behind her head, and her half-face respirator in her right, blue-latex-gloved hand. It was still over 100F outside.
“Jill Terashita, Maricopa Sheriff’s police forensic biologist,” she introduced herself and attempted to wipe the sweat off her forehead with the back of her blue-latex-gloved left hand. She was a true field science professional so no handshake was offered.
“Ritchie Nelson, Emergency Response Specialist from the CDC. Nice to meet you, Ms. Terashita.” Ritchie gave the angelic-faced girl one of his sincere smiles, nodded his head slightly as he glanced over at Sidney.
Sidney rolled his eyes at the inky desert sky. Ms. Terashita barely noticed the shorter, older man after he was introduced.
As she and Baby Face conversed about the situation, standing askew to each other signaling serious attraction, Sidney began bobbing his curly-haired head more and more impatiently. He finally pulled out his notepad and cleared his throat.
“We think he died four days ago. It’s really ripe in there; make sure you wear a respirator. You have a question, Mr. Kitay?” Ms. Terashita blinked as she tore her focus away from Baby Face.
“What was the man’s name? How old was he? Race? Do we know if he had any chronic health conditions?”
“Elroy Reece Willis, sixty-three-years-old white male. Don’t know his medical history yet, no serious prescriptions, but there are a lot of whisky bottles on the floor in the living room.” Her gaze went back to Baby Face.
After suiting up with full personal protective equipment, Baby Face and Sidney followed Ms. Terashita into the duplex. The stench worked its way inside Sidney’s respirator so he had to stop and adjust it.
The body of the gaunt man was still on his recliner, his mouth and eyes wide open. The temperature was a 126F inside the duplex. The cops had turned off the air conditioner on the advise of a pest control company who told them heat above 120F would make the bed bugs inactive.
That advice hadn’t worked. The flat, off-white to red bugs the size of pumpkin seeds swarmed all over the furniture and the body. Sidney shook his head. Normal adult bed bugs were way smaller, about the size and dark brown color of apple seeds. The dead man looked desiccated except for the gut, now a balloon full of bacterial gasses ready to explode. The walls and living room carpet were all soaked with human-blood-filled bed bug feces.
Sidney scanned the horror scene under the normal-looking indoor light. What he saw was the Bowling Alone American. No friends or family or any other connections. Isolation had made the late Mr. Willis easy prey for a human predator, which is what the exclusively human-blood-feeding bed bugs are.
Baby Face went to work taking photos with his cell phone and then collected some live specimens. Sidney saw his partner’s grey eyes grow more and more serious. After about forty-five minutes inside, Ritchie signaled and they exited the duplex.
“We have to be extra careful not to carry out any hitch-hikers,” Baby Face said after he pulled off his respirator and quickly triple-bagged it. “Everybody that’s been in this house needs to strip down completely right now!”
Ms. Terashita’s big brown eyes widened but she called over some firemen and they stood with their backs to them. The two CDC men carefully shop-vacuumed stray bed bugs off of Ms. Terashita and then each other’s white Tyvek jumpsuits. Then they stripped down starting with Baby Face, triple bagging every piece of clothing and marking the bags as biohazard waste. Finally they left Ms. Terashita to undress behind her wall of firemen.
“What the fuck are we dealing with here, Baby Face?” Sidney asked as the two walked back to their rental car. They were both naked except for a towel wrapped around the waist after the firemen hosed them off.
“These aren’t normal bed bugs. I don’t know what the fuck they are.”
The CDC duo obtained space for their makeshift bug lab inside the University of Arizona Agriculture Extension Building on the border of Phoenix and Tempe. For the first two weeks, Sidney traveled instate in Arizona and then to several out-of-state locales in New Mexico, Colorado, and finally Illinois to supervise the quarantining of buildings traced to people exposed to the Youngtown ground zero. Three of the sheriff’s police and two firemen had taken the new bed bugs home and each family had to abandon their house.
The morning Sidney returned to Phoenix, he and Ritchie went to the open desert next to their Ag Extension bug lab. Sidney carried a hand-made, three-feet-tall doll, the likeness of a pot-bellied man with a Van Dyke beard, “Dr. Epstein” written in black sharpie masking-taped onto the dolls’ chest. Ten, mostly female, botanists from the Ag Extension came out to watch the ritual.
Sidney hung the doll by the neck from a high branch of a thorny palo verde tree and then lit the effigy on fire. As the wads of bar napkins and masking tape burned, he and Ritchie pumped out their right fists into the air and chanted: “Death to the Bean-Town tyrant! Death to the Bean-Town tyrant! Death to the Bean-Town tyrant!”
“You won’t believe what I’ve discovered about these things, Sid,” Baby Face now sat at his desk where he fed his growing population of the new bed bugs. His right arm was inside one of his specially designed terrariums, covered with the ghastly creatures that turned from off-white to bright scarlet when they got a human blood meal. A grin grew on his face as the new bed bugs feasted.
“The genetic testing came back?” Sidney asked, grimacing at his partner’s blood sacrifice in the name of science.
“Yes it did. Based on the DNA results and my own research, you know what I’ve named the new bed bug colony?” Baby Face flashed his happy drunk smile for some reason then went back to a goofy grin.
“Give it to me,” Sidney pointed at him.
“The Immortals.” Baby Face started to carefully retract his arm from the terrarium, methodically scraping off the voracious insects clinging to his skin to keep them inside.
“You can justify that name?” Sidney noticed that Baby Face was talking with a slower drawl.
“The colony that caused Mr. Willis’s death can’t be killed by normal pest control. They go into a torpor stage when it reaches 137F. At that temperature they’re already more heat resistant than any common bed bugs we’ve ever seen. It takes a minimum 210F to kill all of them.”
“Heat was the last weapon we had to kill the bastards. That’s too fucking hot to treat buildings. Might as well burn them down! What about desiccants?” Sidney shook his head.
“Same genes we’ve been seeing in problem bed bugs in other places. There were piles of diatomaceous earth spread all over the vacant unit of the duplex and the Immortals were living in there just fine. The Immortal bugs are 4 or 5 times bigger with extra thick exoskeletons. The only drawback for them is it takes two blood meals instead of one before they can shed and move to their next instar. It slows down their reproduction. Instead of two million, a mating pair can only produce a million a year.” Baby Face rubbed his bit-up arm with antiseptic cream.
Sidney loosened his bronze tie. He started pacing with his hands on his hips and scowl on his face.
“I’m higher than a kite right now, Sid.” Baby Face gave a bigger, goofier grin as he rolled down his blue tee shirt sleeve.
“What the fuck did you just say?” Sidney stopped in his tracks.
“Their most radical adaptation is their anesthetic they inject into you when they bite. It’s a lot more than just local. Ten biting you gives you a heroin-cocaine-speedball-type high.”
“Get the fuck outta here,” Sidney softly said. “Hillbilly druggies will flush their licking-toads down the toilet and start breeding these little freaks! The fucking cartels will kill people to get a hold of the things.”
“Yup. I think what happened to the late alcoholic Mr. Willis was he stopped trying to kill them. At some point he let them feed on him. The more bugs that bit him the higher he got and the more they bred. The Immortals had him just laying there in his recliner for days while they swarmed all over him. The coroner’s report said that he finally went into a coma and they just kept feeding.”
“Fuck me! Any ideas on how we can get this under control?”
“Nothing we have now will work on the Immortals’ new suite of adaptations, Sid. Like the common bed bugs, they are already chemical pesticide-proof.” Baby Face finally dropped his grin. “I don’t think even quarantining these places is going to work. They don’t need to hitchhike; they’re big enough to just get up and walk to the next building themselves. The Immortals are a perfect example of quantum evolution, an isolated subset of an enormous population under severe selection pressure, in this case from humans, forming a new species overnight. Maybe in a couple years we can counter with a predator insect species or maybe ozone treatments.” Baby Face shook his head.
“Listen Ritchie, I don’t want you getting high with those things anymore. Have you been checking your heart rate?”
“I know what I’m doing, Sid.”
“No you fucking don’t. We don’t know what long-term effects that anesthetic crap they’re injecting into you will have. Find another way to feed them.” Sidney chided Baby Face like an older brother until the younger man agreed.
Sidney and Baby Face then sat down to work on the final draft of their preliminary report. They went back and forth on certain details but finally each signed off. Sidney pushed the button on his keyboard that delivered their top-secret missive via secure email to their Atlanta headquarters right before 5:00PM eastern standard time.
“Ms. Terashita again tonight?” Sidney gave a leer right after he sent the report.
“Yeah, we’re going to some fancy sushi restaurant in Scottsdale.” Baby Face rubbed his temples, his voice back to normal.
“What about your home town Goldilocks girlfriend back in Indiana? The one that came over for Thanksgiving two years ago.” Sidney stood up and stretched.
“Mary Jane and me are on the rocks, Sid. You know how hard it is to carry on a long-distance relationship.”
“What about Rocio, that grad student at the University of Costa Rica? She was a brilliant girl. I liked Rocio.”
“Rocio Salgado was a smart girl but she had issues. Major issues.”
“I don’t get it. What is with you fucking hillbillies? You, Brad Pitt, Billy Bob Thorton, Bill Clinton, always chasing tail. Every country in Latin America we went to, you left a girl behind.”
“When you go to a new country you have to taste the ‘Wine of the Country’; if you don’t you are insulting the country. Besides, Mr. Family Man, more than once I had to lie to Ruth to cover for you.” Baby Face crossed his arms and stared up at Sidney with one of his classic smirks.
“Unlike you, I am always discreet in my indiscretions.” Sidney waved Baby Face’s talking point away.
“Well Sid, if you are discreet, you can join us tonight. Jill invited her archeologist friend. Her name’s Beryl. I’ve met her. She’s pretty damn hot. She works out on the Indian reservation south of Phoenix. Jill met her when she gave a tour of the old Japanese internment camp out there.”
“All right. As long as I’m not the fifth wheel.”