Bugs were my business …
Bugs were my obsession …
And now … now there’s nothing left but bugs …
Greg had spent most of the first 28 years of his life studying and earning a living from insects and other small creepy-crawlies.
Because he found bugs beautiful.
Just think of the big-eyed, fluffy cuteness of a jumping spider, he’d rave. Or the way sunlight reflects from the metallic-green shell of a jewel-wing damselfly. The elegant legs and glittering armour of a six-spotted tiger beetle. The swirling air-dance of tiny midges on a summer evening. Warm yellow flashes in the summer dark, from fireflies seeking love.
There are over 50,000,000 species of insects, most still unknown to science, he would continue. And they are mind-bogglingly numerous: for every person in the world, there are over fifteen billion individual insects. They are almost everywhere: in our homes, in the middle of oceans, in parched deserts, on tall mountains, in the Arctic, in Antarctica, even at the bottoms of the deepest caves and mines.
He had been obsessed with invertebrates since he was barely big enough to lift a rock or follow a fly around the house. As a little kid, he had daydreamed of shrinking to the size of a bug or discovering giant bugs. Greg would imagine all kinds of adventures, like exploring in an ant nest or riding on the back of a hornet. It had seemed silly to most adults back then and they had assumed he would soon grow out of it. But he never did. And never would.
Bugs paid Greg’s bills and inspired his soul; he had always thought it wrong to kill them without a good reason.
That was why he didn’t allow people to kill bugs in his house. As a landlord in West Hamilton, Ontario, renting out rooms in his house to McMaster University students, he required his tenants to sign a room-rental lease that had one unusual term – they had to agree to not kill any “insects or other invertebrates” found on the property.
If they encountered one and were not willing to ignore it or remove it from the house alive themself, they were contractually obliged to ask Greg to do the eviction. So every now and then, one of Greg’s tenants would knock on his door with a removal request.
This morning, after climbing the stairs from his basement apartment to open the door to the rest of his house, he saw that it was Julie.
Standing in the ground floor hall, with their shared kitchen behind her, Julie smiled and said, simply, “There’s a spider on my ceiling.”
He grinned back and said, “Just a second.” He went back down, got the eviction supplies and went back up the stairs to follow her to her bedroom.
Greg Weller was 28 and tall and slender, graceful. He had beige skin, curly black hair and eyes of a deep, warm brown, under very bushy eyebrows. His mom was from Trinidad and very dark; his dad’s family was from Scandiavia and blonde. His beard and hair were trimmed to the same medium-short length. He wore a blue-and-white wool sweater (knitted by his Finnish grandmother), grey Walmart track-pants and white Walmart running shoes.
He was a student again now, but had previously worked for years as a freelance entomologist and lab technician, plus done a lot of volunteering to reduce bedbug infestations in low-income housing. He had recently returned to McMaster University to get a Ph.D., which he hoped would lead to becoming a university professor and being paid to spend his life learning and teaching about creepy-crawlies.
Greg owned this modest but well-maintained split-level bungalow; it had rusty-red bricks, grey metal siding and black shingles. It was in the Ainslie Wood neighbourhood in west Hamilton, a city of just over a half million people on the western tip of Lake Ontario, a half hour’s drive south of Toronto and an hour north of New York State. The pollinator-friendly front and back yards were full of dandelions, crabgrass, clover and other native plants. Greg had grown up in this house, which had been in his family since it was built in the 1960s. After buying it from his parents a few years ago, he moved into the basement and rented a bedroom on the ground floor and two on the second to students going to nearby McMaster University. The two other tenants this year were Dave and Mohammad, both second-year engineering students.
Greg followed Julie up to the second floor, inhaling her faint, sweet scent. Her bedroom had once been his, during his childhood and adolescence.
She stood by her messy, pink-sheeted single bed, pointing up at a small, pale, motionless spider on the ceiling. She was in her early 20s, pretty, of Mohawk descent, wearing a maroon McMaster sweatshirt and black, shiny shorts with a bright red stripe around her hips. Julie looked up at him as he stood on her chair and used a Tupperware container and a sheet of paper to trap the spider.
She said, in a teasing voice, “Aren’t you going to give me a bug lecture this time?”
“Well, Julie, if you insist. This guy is a yellow sac spider. They’re common and harmless. They make those little tents of web in the corners of the ceiling. They were brought to North America by the settlers from Europe.”
“Really,” she said. “Well, I hope it has a good life, somewhere far away from me.”
As he stepped down from the chair, Julie said, “Thanks, Greg,” with a lovely smile that made the blood squirm in his arteries.
Smiling too, he left her room, holding the tiny prisoner in his brown hands. He took it out back, into his warm, rain-wet yard, dumping the pale spider on some moist clover by his gooseberry bushes. It crawled frantically away in the morning sunlight until it found a hiding spot under a fallen maple leaf.
Yellow sac spiders evolved to live in caves, then in human houses, Greg knew. They were not designed to live anywhere else. The only way this spider would survive would be by finding a way back into his house or into a neighbour’s house. Stuck outside, it might starve or be eaten by something or freeze on the first cold night.
Greg hoped the spider would find its way back into his home. One, because there it would have a better chance to survive. And two, because maybe Julie would find it again and ask him to remove it again. Lately, he had been thinking about Julie a lot.
Greg had gone through a bad break-up a couple of months ago and was slowly getting over his ex-girlfriend, Linda, a McMaster entomology graduate who now worked for a big Ontario property development corporation. Their turbulent relationship had lasted just over a year. She was unstable and angry and brought out the worst in him. Linda still texted or phoned him now and then, often when out drinking, usually to criticise him or to complain about people. Sometimes Linda would offer no-strings sex, which Greg was sometimes strong enough to refuse.
Maybe he hadn’t really moved on from her. In the past few months, Greg had chatted with quite a few attractive young women at McMaster, dance clubs and the bus stop, but nothing had clicked yet. He found Julie very cute and they got along well, but he did not let thoughts about her get very far. First of all, she was his tenant. Doesn’t a landlord have a position of authority that he shouldn’t use to get dates? He wasn’t sure about the rules there or what judgmental people on social media might say.
But what most convinced Greg to not think of Julie romantically was how she was so scared of bugs.
He was an entomologist, making a living from bugs. He had been obsessed with bugs since childhood, while she feared bugs – so how could a relationship between two such opposites ever work?
Night. The mail slot in the door lifts open, with a faint click, as something crawls in the home.
Outside, a buzzing sound dwindles away.
Two pink antennae poke inside first, waving gracefully in the air, followed by a blunt, flat, olive-green head. On the sides of the head are two clusters of black, lidless eyes. Hanging below the head are a pair of needle-sharp, brown front claws, bigger than the claws of a house-cat.
The head is followed by a long, segmented body, on dozens of short orange legs. The sinuous, olive-green body flows down the vertical inside of the door, its hard-tipped claws gripping the wood. This long, leggy bug has an oversized pair of pink legs at the very end of its sinuous body that look much like the pink antennae at the front. The tropical centipede is as long as a banana, though not as thick.
As soon as the first one is through the mail slot, the antennae and head of another appears, closely following. Then another squirms inside, following the second. And another. A procession of 12 identical tropical centipedes, crawling into the quiet, dark house in single file, close enough for the long, pink antennae of each bug to touch the long, pink back legs of the one in front.
As the last one enters, the mail slot swings shut, making another click.
They crawl single-file through a clutter of men’s shoes and then along the hardwood floor of the front hallway. They pass the entrance to a shadowy living room on the left. The sound of snoring comes through a closed door at the end of the hall. Just before this bedroom door, the lead centipede turns right, into the open door of a bathroom. A night-light is plugged in a wall-socket, giving the bathroom a faint greenish illumination.
The lead centipede crawls across the tiled floor, past the closed door of a shower stall, then up the wall behind the toilet, stopping in the space behind the toilet-tank. It clings by its claw-tipped legs to the wall, motionless except for its antennae. Soon, the other 11 big bugs are clustered there too, hidden behind the porcelain tank.
Hours pass, until – as the faint light of dawn glows through the bathroom window – an alarm clock briefly beeps in the nearby bedroom.
A few minutes later, a handsome, red-haired man wearing pajama pants turns on the main bathroom light and walks in and stands in front of the toilet. He smells of last night’s vodka. He pisses and flushes, then turns to the mirror over the sink and brushes his teeth. Afterwards, he rinses the white foam out of his mouth and off his toothbrush.
For a moment, he stares at his own reflection in the mirror, the dark crescents under bleary eyes. Then he quietly sighs, turning to open the transparent shower-stall and turn on the water. He takes off his pajama pants and puts them on the counter by the sink. He tests the shower water with his hand. It is warm. He steps into the stall and closes the clear door.
Now the tropical centipedes behind the toilet tank start to move. One olive-green bug with orange legs and pink antennae crawls up the wall, followed by all the others. The leggy procession goes up to the ceiling, then upside-down across the ceiling towards the shower stall, where steam is rising and the air smells of soap.
The first centipede stops on the ceiling directly over the man in the shower. It waits until the last one has joined it. The group of 12 tropical centipedes is motionless for a few moments over the shower stall. They watch the man below with their clusters of tiny black eyes and they smell him with chemo-receptors on their antennae and they sense vibrations in the air as he grabs a shampoo bottle and opens the lid. As he squirts lime-green shampoo into his hand, the first centipede releases itself from the moist ceiling and drops. The others follow, waving their legs and writhing in the air. They rain down into the rising steam and cling tight to wet hair and wet skin as the stall echoes with screams and struggling.
Greg went back down to his basement and sat at the computer to continue working on a grant application, for a trip to Costa Rica to study parasitic wasps.
Then he noticed a new email, with the subject: Getting in touch.
With surprise, he saw that the sender was Vinay Jain, who had been one of his professors at McMaster during Greg’s first time there, almost 10 years ago. They had not been in contact since. Professor Jain had taught Greg Biology 219 (Insect Classification) and, the year after, Biology 316 (Entomological Ethics). Vinay also taught Biology 311 (Forensic Entomology, also known as BSI: Bug Science Investigation), a popular course, but Greg had not taken it. The idea of studying bugs on dead people had seemed too gross.
Second-hand, Greg had heard the story of how Professor Jain, who started out as a butterfly expert, had moved into forensic entomology. Back at the start of his academic career, forensic entomology was a new and controversial field and only a handful of people in North America were making any money doing it. While still a Ph.D. student, Vinay got a call from a biologist at the University of Buffalo, who was working for the New York State Police regarding a dead body found in a meadow. In addition to the flies and beetles normally found on outdoor corpses, the caller had seen large, black and yellow butterflies, apparently feeding on a liquified body part. The caller said that the insect looked like a monarch butterfly, but Vinay helped to identify it as a viceroy – a butterfly species which, unlike the look-a-like monarch, will eat decaying mammal flesh. Vinay was hired by the New York police, testified in court and found himself getting calls for more forensic entomology contract work. The field of forensic entomology was new but starting to boom. The fact that Vinay had little experience at first with flies and beetles did not hold him back. He pioneered the use of bug splatters on vehicle windshields as evidence. Soon Vinay was Canada’s best-known and most successful freelance forensic entomologist, while also teaching at McMaster and publishing many papers and a textbook.
Greg remembered enjoying Vinay’s lectures and learning a lot. Vinay’s empathy and passion for all invertebrate life had been contagious. He had made entomology seem glamorous. It didn’t hurt that Vinay was a sharp dresser, wearing bespoke suits, always cleanly shaved and with every hair in place. Vinay was also known for bringing live exotic bugs to class, sometimes (with safe, slow-moving ones, like stick insects) letting them crawl over his body as he talked. He was also known for bringing in bug-based foods – cricket cookies, caterpillar-and-brie puffs, spicy ant curry, deep-fried dragonflies, etc. – to share with the braver students. His passion and dramatic flair had made him the most popular teacher in the department.
Vinay had made a strong impression on Greg, especially with a lecture in Entomological Ethics, in which Vinay had talked about his own upbringing in Jainism. “Like many families, our surname is also the name of our family’s faith,” said Professor Vinay Jain, in a mild Indian accent. This ancient religion, he explained, was based on non-violence to all life forms – even insects, even microbes. Jain monks and nuns, Vinay had said, use a soft broom to sweep the ground clear as they walk, to push away any insects that would otherwise be crushed underfoot, and hold cloths over their mouths to avoid inhaling flies. Because insects are often hurt or frightened during the harvesting of plants to make clothes, many Jain monks were naked at all times.
“The key to understanding Jainian non-violence, is to understand that Jains consider the main victim of violence to be the one who inflicts it,” Vinay had told the class.
“Jains believe that evil deeds attach to one’s soul as karma, which is a sort of metaphysical parasite that keeps souls from finding peace. Jains believe that karma caused by evil acts in life causes souls to be trapped in a cycle of birth and death. Jains believe that souls move from one body to another body with each life – sometimes being born human, but more often appearing on earth as an animal, a plant or a microbe. The founder of Jainism said, ‘We should value all creatures as we value ourselves. You are what you try to harm.’ As a child, doing my prayers at home or the temple, I would recite that thousands of times. And today – though my only faith is science, and I eat animals, including insects – still, I find those words, that approach to life, beautiful and inspiring.”
And so had Greg, taking notes as fast as he could.
To Greg, Vinay had been more than just a teacher. He had been a mentor and, during a very stressful time in Greg’s second year, he had convinced Greg not to drop out. Greg had gone on to graduate as the top biology student for his year. Vinay’s wise counsel had made a big and memorable difference in Greg’s life and career.
The body of the email read: Greg there is something important for me to discuss with you. Please send me your phone number?
The first line of the signature was Vinay’s full name and a list of academic acronyms. Under that were the words Ontario Provincial Police, Forensic Entomologist, over the O.P.P. logo.
Greg knew that Vinay had left academia for crime work a few years ago. He had been in the news a couple of times for his testimony in murder cases. In one high-profile trial, Vinay testified that an umbrella-wasp’s paper nest found in the victim’s skull proved that the body had been at a certain place for more than 14 months before discovery. Vinay’s time-line, based on the umbrella-wasp’s life-cycle and reproductive pattern, was accepted by the jury and led to the acquittal of the accused, who had been in prison on an unrelated charge when the wasps built the hive in the victim’s skull.
Another case in the media, Greg remembered, dealt with a missing person. Fly pupae in the victim’s apartment contained traces of gunshot residue and the missing person’s DNA. Vinay testified at trial that the victim had been shot dead there and left in the apartment for at least 60 hours – long enough for this species of fly to go from egg to maggot to pupae – before the body was moved elsewhere. Greg could not remember if the accused had been convicted or not, but Vinay’s testimony had been memorable.
Curious, Greg hit Reply, typed OK and his phone number, hit Send.
In the afternoon, Greg was at McMaster, working alone in his small, fourth-floor laboratory. He stood in front of a row of aquarium-like glass boxes, a digital stopwatch in one hand, looking into a microwave-oven-sized terrarium. The jewel wasp was the length of an apple stem, with delicate, transparent wings, a body of bright, metallic green, black eyes and flame-red rear legs. It darted on four flickering wings from one side of the glass cage to another, then stood on the transparent wall separating it from its prey, motionless except for rhythmically bobbing antennae. The wasp took another short, fast flight, landing on the glass by Greg and crawling sideways. Two adjacent terrariums were separated by a wall of clear plastic. The jewel wasp was the only thing on the left-side terrarium. The only things on the other side were a live cockroach and nine dead ones, all much bigger than the curious little wasp on the other side of the clear barrier. When motionless, the live cockroach (greasy oval shell, spiky legs) looked just like the nine dead ones. There was a button on the shelf near the box, connected by wires to machinery at the back of the bug cage. Greg was about to push it, to raise a divider between the jewel wasp and the roaches. With his other hand, Greg was about to push the start button on the stopwatch.
He was interrupted by his phone ringtone: a recent dance-pop hit’s chorus of singing children. Although he could be shy and socially awkward, Greg loved dance music and going to dance clubs.
He put the stopwatch down, took his Samsung phone out of his shirt pocket, not recognizing the number displayed.
“Hello, Greg,” said an older man’s voice with a faint East Indian accent. “It’s Vinay.”
“Vinay! How are you doing?”
“Good, good. And you?”
“Joyful and triumphant.”
Vinay chuckled and said, “So, Greg, you know I’ve been working for the O.P.P., right?”
“Yes. You’re with their forensic entomology department, right?”
“Actually, I am the O.P.P.’s forensic entomology department. It’s just me. I have no support staff and, until now, have been handling it all as a one man show. There isn’t usually much work. But I’m now helping out Hamilton Police with a very strange investigation, very interesting too, and I’d like to talk with you.”
“Okay. What’s up?”
“I mean, talk in person, Greg. A couple of detectives from Hamilton Police and I would like to drop by and chat, if you’re free this afternoon.”
“Um, am I in some kind of trouble?”
“No. Not at all.”
“What do you and the police officers want to talk about?”
“I shouldn’t be getting into any details without those detectives present. Are you at your lab at Mac right now?”
“So how about this? Can we drop by in an hour?”
“Okay. But can you give me a clue what this is about?”
“When we get there. See you soon, Greg.”
Greg hung up, so curious about what Vinay and the police wanted …