Jack Becker, owner and CEO of PESTS IN PERIL, learned he was allergic to bee stings the hard way. He did an overnight hospital stay after being thrice stung at age six. Since then, his hatred wasn’t limited to flying creatures. He despised all insects, butterflies, moths, rodents, caterpillars, you name it.
Founding his own exterminating business gave him great pleasure on a professional and personal basis. He struggled in the beginning, but after five years, managed to keep the business afloat. Things went smoothly enough, until two big, national extermination companies nearly put him out of business.
That’s when Becker decided he needed to do something different.
Inspiration finally slapped his face in the form of one Mrs. Ellsworth, the elderly widow on Wilderness Circle. She came from money, old money. Becker just landed her as a customer. Her basement was huge, smelly, damp, and unused. Becker found no evidence of infestation of any kind, but Mrs. Ellsworth didn’t have to know that. He brought a dead mouse with him, came up the stairs to confront the homeowner.
“I’m afraid you have a problem, ma’am,” he said in his professional voice.
“Oh?” she responded, coughing into a frilly handkerchief.
“Mice. Plenty of them.” He produced the dead rodent.
“Oh my! Please, get that creature out of my sight. Do what you have to do, but please dispose of them. Quickly!”
That’s all Becker had to hear. He spent every week in the Wilderness Circle basement, hanging out for at least an hour, emerging with a report. Each time, he told Mrs. Ellsworth he was making progress, but the problem was a serious one, and that with continued, regular visits, he would be able to eradicate her problem. Becker billed her monthly at exorbitant rates. She didn’t seem to care as long as the mice were taken care of. Over time, Becker raised her rates, sucking more money from her.
“They’re raising the price of the really good chemicals,” he’d tell her. “I hate to pass the cost on to you, but I have no choice,” he’d say.
“That’s quite all right,” came the reply. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Becker’s only concern at this point was Mrs. Ellsworth’s health. It seemed to deteriorate each time he saw her. The coughing became worse. Week after week she looked paler.
“Maybe you should see a doctor,” Becker said, a year after first concocting the scam. Not that he had any feelings one way or the other for the old woman, but he feared if she died, that would be the end of his meal ticket. She helped keep PESTS IN PERIL in the black.
“Nonsense,” she’d snap back. “What do doctors know? They only take your money. They string you along. I don’t trust the best of them,” she said. “My money isn’t going to be spent on tomfoolery. Not at my age.”
“Still, Mrs. Ellsworth, it might be wise if you at least–”
“I’ll hear nothing more about it,” she said between hacks.
A week later, Becker’s gravy train ended. Mrs. Ellsworth died. He coughed when he heard the news.
The heavy construction equipment assembled on Wilderness Circle. Becker pulled his car over and got out.
“What’s going on?” he asked what appeared to be the crew chief.
The man pushed back his hard hat. “We’re razing the house. Place is condemned.”
“Why?” asked Becker, coughing.
“Some sort of black mold. I can’t pronounce what it is. Starts with an ess. Started in the basement and extended all over the house. Shame. It’s a beautiful place.”
Becker whipped a handkerchief out of his pocket and coughed up blood.
“Hey, you might want to see a doctor about that,” the construction worker said.
About the author:
Bruce Harris writes crime and mystery stories. He is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type (2006) and Anticipations in D. Martin Dakin's A Sherlock Holmes Commentary (2021).