Bellwether (short fiction)

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davew's picture

He was beefy and tall with a face like he'd spent a lot of time outside. Like he'd spent all his time outside. Smoking heavily. His hands looked like they could crush beer cans, or beer bottles for that matter. I extended my own hoping he wouldn't mistake it for a container.

"Hi, I'm Dave", I said.

He replied, "Don't care. You won't last. Get in the truck."

He said it in a sing-song like the way children say the Pledge of Allegiance or spell Mississippi. Like he was on autopilot. Like he had said it he had said it so many times before he didn't have to think about the words any more. He hadn't shaken my hand. I saw no sign he had even noticed it.

My last eight hours of community service were shaping up to be the worst yet and this includes the day spent picking up trash and dodging snakes in a partially flooded drainage ditch. Still if I could stick it out until sunset and get this shambling man mountain next to me to sign my sheet I'd be free and I swear officer I'll never get caught littering again.

We climbed into the truck. It listed about five degrees to port. How much did this guy weigh?

"So..." when I'm nervous I talk and this guy made me nervous. "So, what are we doing today?"

"Emptying mosquito traps." He responded.

At least he talks. "Checking for West Nile Virus then?"

"That's what they say."

What an oddly evasive answer.

"What do you say?"

"Maybe."

I was getting exasperated, "Maybe, what?!"

"Maybe I'll tell you. Maybe I won't."

Okay. Conversation was out. We rode on in silence. My partner for the day, Bubba Helsing, my sheet said, seemed very comfortable with it. I, being denied my favorite outlet for tension, wasn't. I looked in vain for a radio in the dashboard and didn't find one. Of course the city wouldn't spring for a radio in one of their work trucks. What a waste of taxpayer dollars that would have been. Fortunately it was only a ten minute's later when we pulled into a parking lot for one of the city parks. Joe grabbed a backpack that clanked ominously and hopped out of the truck. I followed.

We were standing at the start of the local bike path. It was miles long and paralleled the local river. A good place for mosquito traps I supposed. Joe set off at a pace where I nearly had to run to catch up. He stopped at a plastic contraption hanging from a tree. It looked like there was some sort of liquid in the bottom and a funnel-shaped entrance on the top. Sure enough I could see a few mosquitoes buzzing around inside. With a deftness that belied his size Joe popped the top off, grabbed one of the creatures by the wings and replaced the top. I stood in slack jawed amazement. The time I had seen similar skill was in a movie. Arguably the movie was more impressive because the hero had used chopsticks, but then again the director has probably used computer graphics. Looking at the insect intently he reached out and squeezed it flat with the thumb and index finger of his other hand. Blood and mosquito guts ran down his fingers. Joe didn't seemed to lose interest immediately. He grabbed a specimen tube out of his pocket and wiped most of the remains into it.

"What did you do that for," I asked without even thinking.

"Make sure it's dead," he replied.

I couldn't fault his logic. "But doesn't that destroy the sample?"

"Can't kill a virus by squeezin'" he said.

The logic was sound. Joe grabbed another bug. Squish.

"What do you want me to do?"

He paused in his mosquito dispatching duties. "When I say duck..." His voice trailed off and he went back to work.

I waited a good standing ten count. Apparently that sentence was down. "Yes?!"

"Duck."

Ducking duty. I think I can handle that. I said "Man those things are gross." One of these years I'd learn to not say the first thing that popped into my head. It didn't look like it would be this one, though.

"What's gross?" he asked. Squish.

"The mosquitoes."

"They ain't."

I just occurred to me this guy might actually like bugs. Best tread lightly. "But they cause disease."

"They don't create the disease. They just get it. Like you and me. Creature's gotta eat." Squish.

"I supposed that's why they pick up the West Nile."

"Yup. If that's what they ate."

Joe had an odd way of putting things what kept my ears continually off balance. "What else could they pick up?"

He paused again and looked straight at me. "Anything that happens to be around."

He had a mosquito in his fingers at that moment, but when he squeezed I saw a small cloud of vapor form around his fingers.

In the same even voice he used for everything else he said, "Duck."

"What?"

Joe reached into his pack and came out with something that resembled a large, silver fly swatter. I watched as the cloud of vapor reassembled itself, in a flash of light, into a mosquito. This new, improved model, however made a noise like a jet engine and spit fire. I kid you not. There were sparks coming trailing out behind this beast as it came... straight at my head. Joe reached out with one of his massive arms and knocked me completely off my pins. I hit the ground and skidded. Time slowed and I had a space to think. Yup, the ground was fine for now.

In a shower of sparks the mosquito did a 180 and made a line for Joe. I'm not sure I actually saw his weapon, whatever it was, move. But one second it was by his side and the next there was a small explosion and flaming mosquito bits spread out in all directions like a particularly revolting firework.

"I did say duck," he said. Evenly.

"What the heck did that thing eat?!" There was enough emotion in me that that could have been a scream, but my muscles weren't working right yet so it came out as more of a feral squeak.

"Vampire" he replied.

I managed to climb back to my feet while I let this sink in. It sounded insane.

"You monitor mosquito traps for vampire infestations?"

"Easier than looking for vampires."

Once again I couldn't poke any holes in his logic.

"What do you do now?" I asked.

"I reckon I'll have to find it and kill it."

"What do I do now?" I asked rather dreading what the answer might be.

He glanced down and my waist and I saw the barest hint of a smile cross his weathered face. "Change your trousers, I reckon."
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