Extension Pete in: The Case of the Hothouse Hot Seat

Open on a packed courthouse, lots of stained wood, hanging lights, public in seats, judge in the middle, bailiff standing, stenographer sitting, defendant on the stand—nervous. Defendant is an older, inoffensive gentleman, slightly greyed, putterer at heart, gardener type. The charge: Murder Most Foul.

Prosecution: You claim to have never seen Miss Susan Fade before the week of March 27th. How did you meet?

Defendant: (stammering along the way) She noticed my Welwitschia through the greenhouse glass and came over and started talking to me. I have quite a few unusual plants and she recognized several of them Entada gigas, Amorphophallus, Lithops. She said she was “informally traveling,” hitchhiking I think, across the country. She said she was headed west to see a wild Boojum.

Prosecution: Boojum, you say? [Chuckles.] So how did the young lady suddenly become your house guest for nearly a month Mr. Bloom?

Defendant: Well, first she said she wanted a place to stay for the night, and she helped out with some repotting in the greenhouse, but she turned out to be a wonderful cook, and [pause, wistful look], I have this pool you see, and, well, she didn’t have a bathing suit. So, a few nights turned into about a month. She had a magnificent imprint of a parsnip leaf on her backside, a furanocoumarin burn from having sat on one during an earlier outing.

****

            Prosecution: State your name for the record.

Witness: Mrs. Evelin Dropper. [Older lady, 60s, hair neatly placed, proper.]

Prosecution: Mrs. Dropper, can you tell the jury about your experience of May 16th.

Witness: I was checking my yard for pet waste—the neighbors across the street just let their cat go anywhere it wants, like an animal—and suddenly I smelled this horrible stench. Like death! And it was coming from Mr. Bloom’s greenhouse! [Points accusatory finger at Defendant.] I went by the next day and the smell was still there, but by the third day it was gone. That’s when he must have moved the body! [General kerfuffle in the courtroom, defense springs to feet objecting, judge banging gavel calling for an end to speculation and audience participation.]

****

Prosecution: Mr. Bloom had yellow sticky traps hanging in his greenhouse, one had fallen to the ground, and these traps collected insects. As a forensic entomologist, what did you learn from these traps Dr. Wilson?

Dr. Wilson: [Long blonde hair, very professional, but with a sense that she could drink you under the table.] The traps contained a number of common greenhouse insects: whitefly, aphids, thrips—millipedes in the case of the fallen trap. But they also contained quite a few blowflies, that’s the family Calliphoridae, the metallic green flies, and flesh flies, Sarcophagidae, these guys are grey with black stripes on their back. [Indicates each on an enlarged photograph of a sticky trap].

Prosecution: [Complete with courtroom dramatic pauses and emphasis.] Dr. Wilson, the prosecution argues that Mr. Bloom killed Miss Fade, placed her body in the greenhouse where it was left for several days, then removed the body and disposed of it. Does the evidence from the sticky traps contradict this hypothesis?

Dr. Wilson: It is unlikely there would have been that many calliphorids and sarcophagids in the greenhouse unless they were specifically attracted to rotting flesh of some kind. Absence of fly larvae on the sticky trap on the ground indicates the dead item was moved before fly larvae matured. Additionally absence of carrion beetles, family Silphidae, which show up later in the decay sequence, indicates that whatever was rotting was removed before later stages of decay set in. So, yes, the entomological evidence does not contradict the scenario put forth by the prosecution.

****

Defense: Peter —, Mr. Bloom maintains that Miss Fade went on her way, alive and well, on May 5th to continue her westward quest. A few days later he left to hike the Ozark Trail and see the spring wildflowers, and did not return until May 24th.

You’ve heard the prosecution’s argument: that Mr. Bloom befriended Miss Fade in late March, they cohabitated, she spurned his advances and sometime in mid-May he killed her, her body was left in the greenhouse for several days, then he disposed of the body on or about May 18th. The prosecution presents damning evidence: Mrs. Dropper smelled a distinct stench of rotting flesh, flies well known to be associated with murder victims were collected by the defendant’s own sticky traps, and insects associated with later stages of decay were not collected. No carcass or bones of a dead animal were found in or near the greenhouse. And yet you maintain that Mr. Bloom is innocent. How can you explain away this hard evidence?

Extension Pete: [Suppressing a huge grin.] Mr. Bloom has several automatic systems in his greenhouse, watering, temperature control, etc. Those were there to keep bad things from happening to his plants while he was gone, but Mr. Bloom hadn’t anticipated a very good thing happening. [Everyone on the edge of their seats, including Mr. Bloom.] His Amorphophallus flowered. [Mr. Bloom gasps, doubles over as if hit in the gut. General courtroom mumbling.] Amorphophallus is also known as an Arum, it’s a plant that very rarely flowers, once every five or ten years. Mr. Bloom would never have guessed it might flower while he was away. The inflorescence is huge, several feet high and smells like rotting flesh, in fact it’s commonly called a corpse flower! [Collective “Ah!”] The plants are pollinated by flesh flies and other insects associated with decay that are attracted by the smell, but the flower only lasts a day or two before wilting and withering away, so the smell doesn’t last long and it’s not suitable for fly development. A flowering corpse flower explains the evidence nicely. [Nod of agreement from Dr. Wilson.]

I also emailed a park ranger at El Vizcaino a park in Baja California, the best place to see wild Boojum trees. He emailed me this a few hours ago. [Holds up tablet computer displaying image of bikini clad backside sporting a parsnip leaf imprint.]

[Prosecution drops charges, judge dismisses case, Extension Pete saves the day, accepts no reward except that justice has been done, jubilation all around, except for poor Mr. Bloom. Sad and dejected he’s taken from the court room vowing never to leave home again for fear of missing his Arum, “I waited 20 years!”.]

The End.

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Extension Pete in: The Case of “The Title Would Give it Away”

 

Scenes from a party: an unnecessary beard; a knot of people in the kitchen; chatter; cold draft by the door; wine glasses bedazzled with baubles; cheese and crackers.

Extension Pete found himself at a departmental get together. Inane chit chat with coworkers was coupled with an inability to find a comfortable place to sit and an endless wanderlust to flit from conversation to conversation with people he normally avoided in the Ivory Tower environ.

Conversation finally exhausted, Pete turned to examination of the artifacts on display in the house-museum; priceless family kitsch, collections of items reminiscent of a lifestyle past, relics standing as silent boasts of faraway travels and grand adventures. Suddenly the universe twisted on itself and Pete was struck with a strong feeling of déjà vu. In the background of a photo on the wall—featuring happy revelers of a new year’s eve party four years past, one wearing a very encouraging dress—enclosed in a glass display case was an old fashion dry goods balance holding a giant old dictionary on one side, and a fossil ammonite on the other. A sign behind the dictionary declared “POSSUM” in tall, bold, golden letters that stood out against the earth tone surroundings.

Pete had a moment of panic, he had seen this before, the case, the balance, the ammonite. Why, how? But as suddenly as the panic came, it left. The slow gears of his genius mind (so he saw it) physically forced his confused muscles to move his head to the left where, across the room he saw that selfsame glass display case. There was the balance. There was the dictionary. There was the ammonite. “POSSUM” was completely obscured by the dictionary but when we squatted down he was able to read, “POSSUM brand U.S. NO. 2 Porto Rican Sweet Potatoes. Packed and Shipped by La Haye Bros. Leonville, LA.” Ah, the advertisements of yesteryear had flair. A portly young possum with a curly tail had placed its front foot protectively on a fat young yam.

The meat (not possum) came off the grill and into the kitchen. Suddenly people were heaping foodstuffs onto plates, moving through the line holding glasses, utensils, napkins, trying not to spill or slosh. People settled and Pete tucked into an interesting corn-based casserole. Conversation ebbed and flowed and finally hit upon the wine. Everyone agreed it was good. Where was it from? Temecula Valley, southern California. Funny story, a case had been bought years before, some drunk, then forgotten and the remaining two bottles were only rediscovered a few nights ago. Hurrah! Even stranger the crate seemed to have all but vanished, only a thin outer veneer was left, the slats could be crushed like pie crust.

At this Pete stood up, mid-bite. “Give me a second,” he said staring into nothingness. Then, a declaration: “I believe I have simultaneously discovered and solved a mystery!” Conversation stopped and all eyes focused on the buggy brainiac. “The mystery is, why is the dictionary getting lighter?” With a dramatic, sweeping motion he pointed an accusatory finger at the scale in the display case. Everyone shifted their gaze. “You can see in the picture on the wall,” shifting digit cum pointer, “that four years ago the dictionary and the ammonite were at the same level, you can read ‘POSSUM’ clearly above the dictionary. But now, the ammonite has sunk and the dictionary has risen. ‘POSSUM’ is obscured. The dictionary is lighter.”

Pete paused to let everyone work it out for themselves. The balance hadn’t broken, the stone ammonite wouldn’t have gotten heavier, so clearly this mess was all the dictionary’s fault.

“And, I have solved the mystery,” he paused, and with extreme elocution stated, “Cryptotermes brevis,” another pause, “Walker.”

Mostly puzzled looks, but at least one “Ah!” of understanding from the far right.

Cryptotermes brevis,” stated Pete as explanation, “is a drywood termite; it doesn’t require contact with moisture or the ground. Subsequently they keep to themselves and can happily exist in an isolated piece of wood for quite a long time. They can’t survive in the wild here, but sometimes get shipped in. Their schtick is to completely hollow out whatever they are living in but leave a thin outer veneer. You don’t know they are there until you grasp their abode and it crumbles…” he shifted his eyes to the host, “like pie crust. The termites were in the wine crate years ago. They exhausted their food supply and moved on, some made it to the dictionary where they have been happily censuring the English language, one word at a time. Let us away to the other room and celebrate my victory.”

A cluster or curious gathered around and after opening the case Pete gingerly lifted the dictionary’s “lid”. A network of tunnels was revealed, full of scurrying, fat, white termites. Blunt faced soldiers with dark black heads heaved onto the outer lip, antennae twirling, spoiling for a fight. Gasps, congratulations all around.

Turning to the crowd Extension Pete said, “And this shall forever be known as The Case of the Disappearing Dictionary!”

Fin.

 

Extension Pete in: The Case of the Frenzied Fleas

A knock at the door, an approaching smile, the door opens.

Says the man on the stoop: “Hello, I’m Extension Pete,” dramatic pause, “Entomologist Detective!”

“I know, I called you,” says an engaging young mother holding a wide-eyed baby on her hip.

“Good.” Not at all deflated that she wasn’t overwhelmed by his appellation, he continues, “What seems to be the problem?”

She invites him in with the wave of her hand into an empty house full of boxes. “We just closed on the house last week and started moving in. A couple days ago the baby and I moved some boxes in, and when we got back to the old house she had some fleas on her. It was weird, I caught them with tape, and then, I don’t know, there’s just so much going on, I forget about it. But then it happened again yesterday!”

The excited young man is snooping about the house, peering in corners and closets, gently probes a box marked FRAGILE! with his boot, hears some tinkling, and retreats quickly.

Eye contact: “Any pets at your other home? They might have picked something up from the neighbors.”

“No pets. No cats or dogs,” shake of the head, “We’re planning on getting some though; children that grow up with two or more pets tend to have fewer allergies,” coos at baby.

Authoritatively, “You should get a llama. They’re the Gentle Camel.” Resuming inquisition, “Are there any pets here, in the house or maybe strays that live under the house, in the neighborhood?”

“No, no pets in the house. The last owners had a cat, but they’ve been gone for months. I haven’t seen any strays in the neighborhood. But the baby hasn’t been outside. I carry her from the car to here and then put her in her chair or let her crawl around.”

Lifts gaze from a box with the overly Dickensian label “Christmas Past” and shifts attention back to mother and child. “Whereabouts has the bundle of joy been crawling?”

Mother leads the way, pointing from spot to spot in various rooms, comments on cute things child did while in each spot: had fun in Kitchen slapping linoleum and listening to resulting sound; frightened and intrigued by border between linoleum and tile of utility room; overcame previously mentioned fear of tile and entered utility room to gain safety of mother’s ankle; use of traction provided by carpet in back bedroom to produce sudden bouts of speed crawling.

The tour ends. A grandiose statement from the young man: “I believe I have solved the mystery. But first we should celebrate with some homemade root beer. I shall return.” Exit Extension Pete.

Return, doorbell, greetings, bags on counter in kitchen, root beer extract, sugar, dry ice, mother sets about finding/cleaning a pitcher. Root beer is made, chitchat, baby is entranced by vapor. After the glasses are drained, “Well, that should be enough time, let’s go check,” and our sleuth leads the way to the back bedroom, opens door, peers in.

Scattered over the floor, a few remaining chunks of dry ice sublimate away quietly. Several glue traps rest sticky side up on the floor, each bespeckled with fleas. The good mother’s expression is translated as, “What sorcery is this?!”.

The reveal: “Fleas has a life cycle similar to the butterfly. There’s an egg, then a larva—a squirmy, wormy thing like a caterpillar or grub.” Eye contact to make sure she was following, hand gestures for emphasis. “Once the larva gets big enough it spins a cocoon and becomes a pupa, just like a butterfly or moth. Eventually the pupa becomes an adult flea. But fleas are professional parasites; they aren’t at all interested in being adults unless there is something to eat. If there is no physical movement, heat, or carbon dioxide an adult flea can hang out in the cocoon for more than three months. These fleas are leftovers from the previous owner’s cat. Once everyone moved out, they just sat tight waiting for someone else to come along.

“Fleas are in carpets, rugs, or cracks against the wall, not on tile or linoleum. The baby provided all the stimuli needed to wake the fleas up, and this is the only place the baby has been where some could be hiding out. Voilà: fleas on a baby. The carbon dioxide from the dry ice woke the rest up. Mystery solved and confirmed.” Big grin.

“That’s amazing!” Retreating from room entrance, “How do we get rid of them?”.

“Well there are any number of chemicals, you could steam clean the carpet, you could pull it up and put down hardwood. Probably you don’t have to worry about immature fleas, those have either died or become adults. That should make control easier.”

“You’re amazing Extension Pete.”

“I know I am.”

“How can I ever repay you?”

“I need no payment. Just know that wherever there’s an entomological mystery I’ll be there, for I am…” dramatic pause, “Extension Pete: Entomologist Detective!”

Curtain.