Thursday, July 18, 2013

An excerpt from BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER! (available on, nook, and kindle)

(The following excerpt involves a conversation between campus police at a small Iowa college and Gideon Marshall, interim chair of the Geology Department, regarding the former chair, Clyde Renner, now deceased.)
“I know he had three grown children,” I say, once we’re in my office with the door closed; “I believe they were all sons. His wife must have had some relatives. They were all from California, and I think the family is still back there.” I pause, acting reflective. “Wait a minute. One of the boys is on the East Coast.”
“Well,” says Branch, “we were able to locate two of them. They both asked about a will and whether they’d have to be involved in a funeral.”
“Was there a will?” I’m actually rather curious. “And will there be a memorial service of some kind?” If I had to guess, there would not be one; you don’t want people smiling at some event as supposedly somber as a “Celebration of Life” service.
“Right now the body is down at the funeral home,” answers Branch; “we’re still waiting on the permission.”
“Why would you want an autopsy?” I ask, mainly to see detective Branch’s response.
“Ever seen a bedbug, Dr. Marshall?” The question is quite unexpected.
“No.” I answer truthfully. I’ve never seen a bedbug, and hope to never see one, although we did have a problem with them in the dorms not long ago.
“His place was crawling with bedbugs, Dr. Marshall.” Leonard Branch is staring at me, almost as if I were a bedbug myself. “We looked on Google. They suck your blood. We’re suspicious that Dr. Renner might have died from some disease.” He’s serious, still staring at me. “There’s always the possibility of an epidemic on campus.”
“Now that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?” I’m sympathetic, sort of. Maybe instead of Google, later today I’ll check the real scientific literature on bedbugs, just to see if there’s any evidence that they transmit dread diseases—HIV, Ebola virus, or something else that will turn your insides into a hemorrhaging pulp.
“Did anyone ever say anything to him about bedbugs?” Another strange question from detective Branch.
“Why would anyone in a geology department say anything to anyone about bedbugs?” I pause, looking straight at Branch. “In fact, why would anyone in a geology department even know anything about bedbugs?”
“I don’t know,” replies Branch; “I really don’t know. But someone must have said something to him.” It’s his turn to pause. “You can get bedbugs anywhere. We found that out on Google.”
“Really? Why do you think somebody might have talked to him about bedbugs?” An image flashes through my mind: three officers over in Campus Security, between rounds looking for expired parking meters, hunched over their computers, deeply engaged in Facebook, Twitter, and Google, supposedly learning about bedbugs but actually learning whatever somebody somewhere in the world wants to put up on the Internet about bedbugs, disease, deadly viruses, blood pouring out of all your bodily orifices, or anything else that the average person believes might be creepy.
“Because we found this in his house.” Branch reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a thick file. I notice dark splotches on the paper, splotches I now know are dried bedbug feces containing blood. Had I known that at the time, I would never have handled it. But I laid the file on my desk and opened it. Page after page of information on bedbugs. Renner had been doing research, if you can call it that, on bedbugs, ostensibly in an effort to get rid of them without anyone knowing his place was infested.
“What happens when you find bedbugs in your house?” Now I’m actually curious. One never knows when something embarrassing will show up, such as head lice and pinworms, both of which came home from day care with our children years ago.
“You call the exterminators,” says Branch, “but they contact County Extension. Evidently it’s important to know where bedbugs occur.” And it would have been exceedingly important to Clyde Renner that nobody know he had bedbugs in his house.
“Really? Why? Can’t they just spray or something?” My solution to insect problems is to spray.
“I learned a lot about these nasty little critters,” replies detective Branch. He must have spent a lot of time on the Internet, his source of all wisdom. “There’s a global epidemic. There’s resistance to chemicals. They get in your luggage, and they survive in an airplane cargo compartment.” He looks through his notes, flipping a couple of pages on a little spiral-bound notebook. “The ones from Africa are especially bad.”
“Clyde must have picked them up on some of his travels.” I offer a scientific explanation for Renner’s bedbug problem. Make that former bedbug problem.
“Just like the fleas, maybe.” Leonard Branch is still flipping through his notebook. He gets to a certain page, stops, looks up at me. “Notice anything unusual about Dr. Renner’s behavior in the past few weeks, Dr. Marshall?”
“No,” I lie; “he seemed like the same old plate tectonics expert.”

BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER! is available as an e-book on, nook, and kindle.