In the Tick of Time

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chapter-1

drop-cap-matt, wake up! Are you okay? Matt!”

Matt pried his eyes open. His head whirled in confusion. He pressed his hands over his eyes, trying to block out the bright light slicing into his brain like a knife.

“Ow. Oh… what happened?”

He felt the back of his head. He’d been hit. He remembered he’d been hit during an investigation. He’d been talking to one of the infected men, lying in a hospital bed and the other man must have gotten up behind him. Matt remembered the crushing blows. Crashing to the dingy tiled floor in a heap. There was yelling and noise and chaos around him.

But it was quiet now. They must have transferred him to the hospital. He’d been all stitched up and bandaged, loaded up with painkillers, and he was in recovery now. Waiting to go home.

Except he was pretty sure there were no painkillers. Not with the way the white light hurt his head.

There was no bandage on his head, as he explored his short brown hair with careful fingers.

“I was hit,” he mumbled. “I know where I am. I’m okay.”

“Matt,” the voice insisted again, still shaking him. The movement nauseated him. They should be more gentle. He’d just been assaulted. “Wake up, Matt.”

“I was hit,” he repeated.

“Yes, you were. But that was weeks ago.”

The words didn’t make any sense to him. Weeks ago? What was weeks ago? Matt scrubbed at his eyes, trying to clear his blurred vision to look around the hospital. What was he doing in hospital if it wasn’t because of the assault?

He must have a concussion. That’s why he was so disoriented.

“Matt. You need to wake up. Mavis is coming around and if she finds you asleep again…”

“What?”

Blinking and rubbing his eyes some more, Matt pulled his head up and sat up straight. Or mostly straight. He canted to one side and had to steady himself with his hands.

There was a pool of saliva on his desk where his head had been lying. There were papers on the floor. There was a long series of Ms across the computer screen, wrapping for several lines.

He was at work. Matt cleared his throat, frowning and looking around.

“You okay, man?” Jared asked.

Jared was boyish and slim, and his eyes protruded slightly, making him always look a little surprised and uncertain. He let go of Matt’s shoulder slowly, making sure Matt was going to stay upright.

“Yeah.” Matt rubbed the back of his head slowly. He could still feel the shorter hair, where they had shaved him. But the wound and the stitches were long gone. There was a little knot of tissue that was tender if he rubbed it too hard. He could feel a sort of a seam where they had repaired the skull fracture. “I just… I guess I fell asleep.”

Jared nodded. “Again.” He straightened his light brown uniform shirt, which all the lab techs wore.

“Again?”

How many times had he fallen asleep at work over the past few weeks? It was all a little foggy. Matt could feel it coming back if he thought about it hard enough. It was getting sharper the longer he focused on it. He plucked a tissue out of the box on his desk to mop up the spittle and wiped his cheek with the back of his hand.

“I guess I just stayed up a bit late last night. I’m fine.”

“Mavis would really give you hell.”

“Yeah.” Matt rubbed the bridge of his nose with both index fingers. He slid his hands down his face making sure everything was still in place. The assault had been so sudden and violent; everything felt knocked out of place. Nothing had been the same since.

But when he looked in the mirror, he still looked the same. As if he was still the same person he had been before being hit. Matt Malloy. Investigator for the Department of Public Health and Environment.

“Coffee,” Carol suggested with a smile, putting a large mug in front of Matt. “You’d better get down as much as you can.”

“Thanks.”

She lingered there for a moment as if she expected more. Her long, dark blond hair curled in spirals down to her shoulder. She was allowed to wear it loose, because she worked at a computer like Matt, not at a lab bench where it would be a potential contaminant. Matt’s brain was still stuttering. Still trying to warm up like a car engine on a cold morning. He didn’t know what else he should say to her. Carol walked away. Matt picked up the cup and had a drink, willing the caffeine to do its job and bring him back to life.

“What time is it?” Matt tried to squint at the corner of his screen where the system clock ticked the minutes away. But it was too small or too far away and he couldn’t sort out the shapes.

“It’s two o’clock,” Jared said, looking at his phone. “That’s quite the post-prandial crash. What exactly did you drink with your lunch?”

Matt rubbed one eye at a time, juggling the coffee cup and taking a couple more sips.

“I haven’t been drinking.”

He was pretty sure he hadn’t been drinking. He would know if he had been drinking. He was just tired.

“What day is it? How long ago…” Matt chewed on the inside of his cheek. “How long ago was I hit?”

The wound was healed. He was back at work. It was long in the past.

“That was May,” Jared said, enunciating the words like Matt was hard of hearing. “It’s the end of June now.”

“Right.” Matt looked at his desk calendar. “It’s June.” He ventured a smile. “Just testing you.”

Jared walked away without any change of expression. He didn’t roll his eyes or shake his head or grin at the joke. Just walked back to his lab bench and sat down to continue with his work.

Matt groaned and swigged down the rest of the coffee.

“Okay,” he said aloud. “Back to work.”

He deleted the lines of Ms on his screen and read back to see what he had been typing before he had nodded off.

Duane really hated his job.

If he could have done something else, he would have. But he couldn’t live on the wages he would make at a fast food joint. He had been lucky to be taken on by Bug Bee Gone. As Duncan kept reminding him. Duane had been lucky to land the job, and he shouldn’t complain about it.

The stupid truck was bad enough. Eye-catching was what management called it. Duane felt like an idiot every time he drove it. Everyone looked and pointed as he drove down the street. The brilliant orange half ton was eye-catching enough. What really clinched it was the huge dead cockroach lying on its back on the top of the cab. Duane’s face flushed warm as he looked at it, his clipboard of orders in hand.

“What are you waiting for?” Brad needled. “It’s not going to get any brighter.” He snorted. “Just like you!” He guffawed, slapping Duane on the back.

Duane jerked away from Brad, lips tightening. He tried to focus on the truck and to block Brad out of his consciousness. If there were any new scratches or dents on the truck at the end of his shift that he didn’t note on his walkaround sheet at the beginning of his shift, his pay would be docked to cover the repairs. And they never kept track of the dents and scratches on each truck and rarely actually repaired them. Duane was pretty sure the company was paid ten times over for each ding. They sucked the lifeblood out of their employees. Just like a damn tick. They were vampires, draining each of their employees until they were lifeless, soulless husks.

“What’s the matter?” Brad challenged. “I’m just playing with you, Duane.” He said Duane like it was an insult. Like the name itself was a symbol of how much he despised his coworker. “I’m just being friendly. Don’t you want a friend?”

Duane shook his head and climbed up into the cab of the truck without bothering with the walkaround.

“Duane the bathtub, he’s dwowning,” Brad mocked. “What a sniveling wuss you are, Duane. You know that, don’t you?”

“I’m not a wuss,” Duane snapped back. His face was a tight mask, and his voice shook. It was like prison all over again. All the taunting. All the stupid macho positioning. Guys like Brad trying to assert themselves as the alpha male. Humiliating the smaller, less violent cons like Duane. Short in stature and too skinny, Duane had struggled to keep his head above water. He’d constantly been pushed to the bottom. Pushed by the guards. Stomped on by the cons. And worst of all, walked all over by Menendez, the cellmate he could not escape.

“Don’t cwy, Duane!”

Duane heard a bark of laughter from one of the other exterminators. He struggled to keep his face impassive. To pretend he hadn’t heard. He was a rock. Nothing could move him. Duane didn’t need Brad’s approval.

Duane pulled the truck door shut with a slam and looked at the first address on the clipboard. He pretended he couldn’t hear the falsetto Brad adopted as he continued to mock Duane before his audience.

Matt’s eyes were blurring, and his eyelids kept fluttering shut. He looked at his empty coffee cup. If he kept drinking coffee, he was just going to have to run to the bathroom all afternoon. Mavis wouldn’t be much more impressed with that than with Matt falling asleep at his desk.

He decided to go out to the vending machines. An energy drink, or maybe a couple of them, would pack a lot more caffeine than coffee, with less excess fluid. Hopefully, it would be enough to keep him awake.

Matt pushed himself to his feet and rubbed his eyes. The closest vending machine was a couple of hallways away. He got there and felt his pockets before realizing he had no change for the machine. He kept a change tin in his drawer for just such emergencies because he didn’t like carrying it around with him.

The coins weren’t doing him much good in the drawer of his desk.

Matt turned around and traipsed back to the lab.

Carol raised an eyebrow at Matt as he poked through the change in his tin.

“You getting something?”

“Yeah. Can I pick you up something too?”

She pursed her lips, considering. “Why not? Just… one of those little bags of pretzels? Hang on, I’ll get you some money for it.”

Matt waited while she rummaged through her purse and pockets to scrape up enough change for the snack. She put it into his hand and Matt headed back over to the vending machine.

He had seen television commercials lately about not driving tired. Studies showed it was worse than driving drunk or on drugs. Matt was so tired he felt like he was already half asleep just walking to the machine. It was a good thing there was no foot traffic or he might have had a head-on collision. As it was, when he got to the vending machine, he stood there for a moment, letting his eyes close. In an instant, he could feel himself diving into sleep. He couldn’t help himself. He was that tired.

Matt leaned his head against the vending machine while he looked down at the money in his hand. Put the money into the slot. Make his selection. It was only two steps, but it wasn’t only two steps. He had to shift his weight, keep his eyes open, grasp the coins one at a time and feed them into the slot without dropping them. He had to see how much money the energy drinks were and watch for the counter on the vending machine display to get up to that amount. Then he had to note the correct letter-number code beneath the energy drink and select it on the number pad. Lastly, he had to pull the energy drink out without overbalancing and falling flat on his face. And then make it back to his desk.

His eyes closed again, and the next thing Matt knew, the money in his hand was clattering across the floor, released from his slack hand as he fell asleep on his feet. Matt swore to himself and dropped to his knees, trying to corral it before it could spread too far. He picked up the coins with clumsy fingers. Despite his efforts, they had rolled across the hallway, down the length of the hallway and under the vending machine. He was certain to have lost half of it in the process.

Eventually, Matt stood in front of the machine again. He went through the painstaking process of feeding the coins into the slot and selecting his drink. He had been planning on buying a couple of drinks, but looking down at the coins remaining in his hand, he didn’t think that he had enough left to buy another. Not if he was going to buy Carol a snack as well. She had given him money for a treat.

Matt’s brain hadn’t registered what snack she wanted him to get her. He stared at the money in his hand, calculating how much he had left. He tried to will himself to recall what she had asked for. Or at least, what her usual snack was.

What had he seen Carol eat?

They had worked side by side for a couple of years. He must have seen her eat dozens of snacks.

What did she like?

After staring through the window of the vending machine for a long time, Matt finally settled on peanuts. He was sure Carol would like peanuts. She wasn’t allergic. He’d seen her eat them before. And most of all, they were the cheapest thing in the machine and he didn’t have much money left.

With a stifled sigh, Matt fed the rest of the change into the machine and pushed the button for the peanuts. Nothing happened. He pressed again and still nothing happened. Matt rubbed his eyes, staring at the labels below the merchandise and realized he was pressing the button for the shelf above the peanuts. He tried again, and, this time was rewarded by a whir as the machine pushed the peanuts forward and dropped them into the slot for Matt to retrieve.

“About time,” Matt grumbled.

His words were soon to be repeated by Mavis, who was waiting in the lab for Matt. Matt had opened his energy drink on the way back and had already consumed half of the contents. Carol’s peanuts were all but forgotten in his pocket.

“Just going for a snack run,” Matt explained, forcing a cheerful tone. He raised the canned energy drink a little higher. “Have to stay alert. No mid-afternoon slump around here.”

He saw Jared’s head go up at this comment, and Jared grinned. No, no mid-afternoon slump. A complete mid-afternoon blackout on his desk, but no mid-afternoon slump. Jared raised his hand to his mouth to hide the smile, then went on seriously adding droplets to test tubes with his blue-gloved hands.

“No,” Mavis said dryly. “We wouldn’t want any more of that, would we?”

Matt nodded, holding his head high and confident. She wouldn’t know from his attitude that he was lying to her. He had taken care of the problem already; so it wasn’t really a lie.

“You owe me some reports, Mr. Malloy.”

“Yes, I was just proofing them before sending them to you.” Matt gestured to his computer, where he hoped they were all queued up and ready to go. “You’ll have them this afternoon.”

“Good. I look forward to seeing them. Once that is done, I need you to update the website FAQs.”

She handed him a sheaf of papers. Matt looked down at them. Questions submitted through their website ‘contact us’ form by the public.

“Sure. No problem.”

“Don’t get creative. Remember to keep them brief and clear. Don’t include anything not blessed by the CDC.”

Matt cleared his throat. “No problem,” he repeated. “I’ll see to it.”

chapter-2

drop-cap-duane scanned the vehicles parked in the lot. Most of the other workers had returned before him. Which meant he was probably late, and Steve would accuse him of trying to get paid for unauthorized overtime. He wasn’t. He was just trying to do the job he was paid to do. But it sometimes took him longer than it took the more experienced exterminators.

Brad’s usual vehicle had already been returned. Duane wondered whether he would be inside, or whether he had already left for the day. He hoped Brad had already clocked out, and Duane wouldn’t have to put up with any more torment. Duane had thought when he left school, he would be leaving all the testosterone-driven bullying behind. He had not been happy to discover adults still got bullied too. Workplace bullying was a commonplace occurrence. At least, it had been for him. Duane had not had very good luck in any of the places he had spent time the last few years. Wherever he went, there was always a bigger dog determined to force him into submission.

Duane locked up his truck and took his kit with him into the building.

“Clocking out,” he informed the gangly supervisor. Steve was a pimply youth who barely looked old enough to be out of high school. But he had earned a degree already, a prerequisite for being able to order people around at Bug Bee Gone.

“You’re late. Anything I should know about?”

Duane shook his head. “Just took longer than it should have. And traffic. You know traffic…”

Duane swiped his prox card across the sensor three times before it green-lighted and gave him the two-toned ‘dee doo,’ confirming it had recorded his time. A couple of times, Duane had made the assumption it had worked without actually seeing the green light or hearing the duplex tone.  Which meant either his clock kept running all night, tallying up unearned overtime, or his start time wasn’t entered, and he had no time booked for the day. Either way, it had to be manually overridden and the time fixed, irritating the powers-that-be.

“I’ve got samples,” Duane informed Steve.

“Everyone’s got samples,” Steve muttered.

Brad had put his kit on the floor and was wrestling with a sticky latch. Duane put his down on the counter, even though he knew Steve didn’t like it where it might scratch the finish.

As Duane took the first sample tube out of his kit, he jumped. One of the bugs was on the outside of the glass instead of the inside.

He couldn’t let Steve see he had made a mistake. Somehow a tick had fallen into his kit while he wasn’t looking, or he had managed to transfer one from the collection cloth onto the outside of the tube instead of down into the inside. Either way, Duane had made a mistake, and he didn’t want to own up to it. He gave the tube a little shake before handing it across to Steve. The tick fell off.

Duane didn’t see where it went, but he realized too late he had just shaken the tube over Brad’s head. Another mistake. He swallowed. Should he tell Brad what he had just done?

Not yet. Not in front of Steve. Duane would wait until they were both outside, going back to their own vehicles, and then he would explain to Brad what had happened.

Duane gave Steve the log sheet that went with the sample tube. Steve ran his eyes over it, squinting at Duane’s chicken scratch.

“Where did you collect it?” he asked.

“The last appointment,” Duane said and looked at his call sheet. He read out the address. Steve printed in heavy strokes over Duane’s writing, clarifying the address. Duane felt a wave of heat go over his face. He prickled over this demonstration of how useless he was.

Brad straightened up and put his samples and log sheets firmly down on the counter. He looked at Duane’s sheet and snickered.

“Better send you back to school to learn how to write. My five-year-old niece has better printing.”

Duane looked sideways at him, saying nothing.

“Maybe little Duane could retake kindergarten at night school!”

“All right, Brad. That’s enough,” Steve said.

Brad opened his mouth and didn’t say anything, choked over being told by a kid how to behave. But that kid was his boss, and he couldn’t do anything about it. He swallowed his ire, and  Duane and Brad waited, silent, side by side, as Steve examined the log sheets and copies of the invoices and receipts for the day’s work. Two school boys waiting for the approval of their teacher.

When Steve finished, they left their kits in the locker room and changed out of their uniforms in silence. Back in the parking lot, it was time for Duane to tell Brad what happened inside. He tried several times to explain, but every time he opened his mouth, the word stuck in his throat. Brad didn’t look at him. There was no small talk. The two of them never talked; they had nothing in common other than the job.

Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that the tick had fallen into Brad’s hair. Maybe Duane didn’t care if Brad had gotten himself bitten by a tick.

Duane let himself into his car. It was his last chance to tell Brad what had happened. If he didn’t say anything now, he couldn’t. He watched Brad get into his big red truck and drive away.

Duane wondered if Brad would get sick. Ticks carried a lot of diseases. Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Tularemia. Even Lyme disease.

Duane knew all about Lyme disease.

It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Brad got a tick-borne disease. Duane wouldn’t mind seeing him taken down a peg.

He wouldn’t mind at all.

Matt sat down at his computer. He leafed through the sheets of papers and sorted the questions into different piles. He stopped to chug down more of the energy drink. He blinked his eyes. He was feeling wider awake after the caffeine boost. But he was still tired. It felt like he was trying to work at midnight instead of the middle of the afternoon. At least the caffeine put legs under him for a while.

He looked through the questions, trying to figure out which ones would need updated answers on the FAQ. A lot of questions were repeated over and over. He noted there was more this time about person-to-person communication of Lyme disease. Matt started composing comprehensive questions and answers.

Question: My husband has been diagnosed with Lyme disease. Can I catch it from him?

Answer: There is no evidence Lyme disease can be transmitted from person to person. You cannot get infected from touching, kissing, or having sex with a person who has Lyme disease. You do not need to worry about getting it from your husband.

Matt knew it wasn’t a complete answer. But Mavis only wanted him to include information that would be approved by the CDC. Matt knew there was research showing live spirochetes could be found in human saliva, blood, urine, and semen. There was no proof Lyme disease could be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, but there was some evidence to suggest it was a possibility. The studies were too small and human experiments transmitting Lyme disease were unethical. There was evidence that Lyme disease could be passed from mother to child, but Matt didn’t want to open that can of worms either.

Question: Is there Lyme disease in Colorado?

Answer: You can’t get much safer than Colorado. The only state with fewer confirmed cases of Lyme disease is Hawaii. Colorado has only had three reported cases of Lyme disease in the last decade. None of those cases were proven to be contracted in Colorado, but were imported from other states.

Again, that was all Matt could safely say. There was a lot more he would have liked to put in his answer. For example, there were many Lyme-like diseases in Colorado and the other States. There was STARI in the southern states. There were other vector-borne diseases that started with a rash, fever, and achy joints. As far as the CDC was concerned, there was no Lyme disease outside of the northeast. And if the CDC said there was no Lyme disease in Colorado, Matt couldn’t say there was. He couldn’t report on the questionable cases he had seen. They had all tested negative for Lyme disease. But the testing they did wasn’t comprehensive, and Lyme was notoriously hard to get a positive result for.

Question: I have seen on the Internet you can get Lyme disease from other insects, not just from ticks.

Answer: There is no convincing evidence insects such as mosquitoes, flies, or fleas can transmit Lyme disease. In fact, you can’t even get Lyme disease from all ticks. You can only get Lyme disease from black-legged ticks. And not all black-legged ticks are infected with the bacteria that can transmit Lyme disease.

At least Matt believed this statement to be true one hundred percent. There was a lot of chatter on the Internet suggesting you might get Lyme disease from mosquitoes. But Matt believed if you could get Lyme disease from mosquitoes, Lyme disease would be a heck of a lot more common. Sure, there were a lot of cases where someone diagnosed with Lyme disease couldn’t remember ever being bitten by a tick. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t been bitten by a tick. Many people never knew they had been bitten. A tick bite didn’t hurt. It might itch a little bit at first. But if the bite was well-hidden in hair or an armpit, the person might never know they had been bitten. After the tick had fed and was engorged with blood, it would drop off. And the subject would never know it had been there in the first place. Lyme disease didn’t always start with the bull’s-eye rash around the bite. So many people didn’t even know they had been bitten.

Question: Is it true that nothing can be done about Lyme disease unless it is diagnosed right away?

Answer: No. That is false. Even months later, Lyme disease can be treated with a round of antibiotics. While Lyme disease can be devastating, it is easily treated once properly diagnosed.

Matt didn’t write there would be no after-effects. While the Lyme infection could be cured, there were a lot of cases where the patient still had ongoing symptoms years later. The longer Lyme disease went without being treated, the worse the long-term damage was. But people didn’t want to read that on the Department of Health website.

He wasn’t sure why he was spending so much time answering questions about Lyme disease when, as far as his office was concerned, it did not even exist in Colorado.

Matt rubbed his eyes and took another swallow of his drink. Carol hovered near his desk, looking at him uncertainly.

“Yes?” Matt asked.

“Uh, I was just wondering, whether you had picked up some pretzels for me,” Carol said. “From the vending machine.”

“Oh!” Matt slapped his forehead. “Yes, of course, I got you…” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the package. “Uh… a package of peanuts.”

Carol quickly masked her disappointment.

“Yes, peanuts. That’s great. I just needed something salty to munch on this afternoon. Thanks!”

“I… probably owe you some change. What’s the difference in price from the pretzels?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Carol said. “It’s nothing.”

She took the package of peanuts from him and opened it, offering him a few. Matt shook his head.

“No, that’s okay, thanks.”

Carol nodded. She looked over the papers strewn on his desk. “So how’s it going? Are you feeling better?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Matt made a motion, waving away her concern. “I don’t know what happened. I guess I just stayed up a little too late last night. You know, with Rebecca.”

“Ah.” Carol nodded. “Sure, of course. That’s great.” She turned slightly to go back to her desk. “I just worry, you know. You haven’t been quite yourself since the accident.”

“The accident?” Matt repeated. “Oh… yeah… I don’t know if I’d really call it an accident, though. It was… intentional…”

Carol shifted. “Right. Well, since… getting whacked over the head.”

Matt grinned. “Yeah. Don’t worry about it. Really. I’m fine.”

She returned to her desk. Matt saw Dewey turning back to his lab bench. He had obviously been following the conversation closely, but now he pushed up his dark-rimmed glasses and pretended he had been working all along.

“I really am fine,” Matt reiterated to him.

Dewey made a small shrug with his hands and nodded. “You’re fine,” he echoed.

Matt shuffled through the papers to see what other questions might need to be answered.

Duane looked around the locker room as he picked up his uniform, kit, and truck keys. He was running a little late, but there were still a couple of trucks left in the lot. At least if Duane were in trouble, someone else would be in more trouble.

He punched in at the front desk and picked up his work orders.

“You’re late,” Steve pointed out.

“Just by a minute. I’m not the latest.”

“Berkley called in sick. You are the latest.”

“Brad is sick?” Even if Duane was late, at least he had shown up. Did Brad have the flu, or was he hung over or had he slept in after a late night? Duane tried to hide the smile stretching at the corners of his mouth, contemplating the trouble Brad would be in. He didn’t need to worry, Steve didn’t even look at him.

“Better get on your way,” the manager growled, typing furiously on his computer.

Duane went out to the truck to do his walkaround and start the day, a spring in his step.

Duane bit his lip, thinking while he clocked out. In the days since the accidental dumping of a tick into Brad’s hair or down his neck, Duane had hoped it had just been shaken off, or Brad had found it and disposed of it before it had a chance to feed. As the days had passed, Duane had convinced himself this was the case. But now word was out that Brad was down with a rash, fever, and aching joints. His neurological symptoms were bad enough he couldn’t walk and had been admitted to the hospital to see if  he’d had a stroke. He was still there now.

“Sounds like Lyme disease,” Marg declared as they handed in their reports at the desk. “I bet he got bitten on a job.”

Steve glared at her. “There’s no Lyme disease in Colorado. He did not get it on the job.”

“It could be another tick-borne disease,” Klaus threw out as they returned to the locker room. He stripped off his uniform without regard to the fact Marg was standing right there. Duane waited. There was no way he was going to undress in front of Marg.

He hated the uniform. It reminded him too much of the coveralls he had worn for the previous two years. That uniform did not bring back fond memories.

“We’ve got Colorado Tick Fever, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever,” Klaus went on, listing them off on his fingers. “Tularemia. Could even be STARI, if it was a lone star tick.”

Duane eyed Marg, waiting for her to leave the locker room. She still needed to change herself, and she wouldn’t do it in front of the men. She’d use the private bathroom across the hall.

“How do you tell a lone star tick from a black-legged tick?” Marg asked.

Klaus rolled his eyes at this. “Because the female has a single white spot on its back, instead of black legs,” he suggested.

“That’s fine if it’s big and female,” Marg pointed out. “But some of these babies are barely the size of a speck. Until they bite you and fill up with blood. So how would you know?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Duane contributed. “We don’t get either one in Colorado.”

Everyone turned to look at him, and Duane felt his face flush red. He didn’t usually participate in the back-and-forth banter of the locker room. He barely ever opened his mouth, even to respond to Brad’s needling.

“We’ve got Rocky Mountain wood ticks and dog ticks,” Duane explained, feeling his ears flaming red, “but not lone star or black-legged.”

“How do you know that?” Marg demanded.

Duane shrugged uncomfortably. “I’ve just read it,” he lied.

Klaus gave a little snicker. “Who would have guessed beanpole could even read?”

Duane turned away to put his kit in his locker. He pretended he was getting ready to change out of his coveralls. He wasn’t about to get into the details. He wasn’t going to tell them he had learned about them the hard way. Like Brad, by experiencing tick-borne disease himself.

The researchers in other countries said other kinds of ticks could carry Lyme, but in North America, they wouldn’t admit to anything other than the black-legged tick carrying it. And then only in the northeast. Southern ticks apparently had different palates.

Whatever the illness was and whatever kind of bug carried it, Duane wouldn’t wish it on his worst enemy.

Or… maybe he would. Smiling into his locker, Duane considered this new line of thought. He couldn’t claim to be devastated Brad was now going through something similar to what Duane had suffered. Duane wouldn’t feel particularly bad if Klaus got it too. Or even Marg, for that matter. She might not torment Duane like Brad did, but it wasn’t like she ever defended him.

Duane found Marg irritating. The only female in their number, Marg got under his skin. Always in the way when he wanted to change. He felt like he had to let her go first if they arrived at the same time to clock in or out. He always felt awkward when they approached a door and he wondered if she expected him to hold it for her. And it just wasn’t normal for a woman to be so comfortable around bugs and other vermin. She didn’t squeal or shrink at the sight of creepy-crawlies. In fact, she seemed to be far less bothered by them than Duane himself was. And that just wasn’t normal.

He wouldn’t really mind if any of them got Lyme disease or any other tick-borne disease.

And that included smarmy supervisor Steve. Duane wouldn’t mind seeing him taken down a notch or two by a nasty case of bug-borne illness.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

In the Tick of Time

By P.D. Workman

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