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A petty dispute about pest-control gets totally out of hand -- because of lazy, confused lawyers and exponential cockroach breeding.

First published in Eidolon, Spring 1992
© 1992 by Viacorp Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.

Compound Interest

(If you're looking for the formula, it's here.)

by Jim Heath

Rod Skopek, owner of Skopek Pest Sprayers, was losing his temper. His face was red, his hands had tightened into fists. On the other side of the counter was Wally Bagg, an angry customer -- so mad he'd started to shake.

A glass jar stood on the counter. In the jar were two brown cockroaches.

"Evidence!" shouted Wally Bagg.

The manager of Skopek Pest Sprayers tried to control himself. "These could have walked into your house! They're full-grown. Don't tell me about evidence! You haven't got any! When are you going to pay your bill? It's a month overdue!"

"Idiot!" yelled Wally Bagg. He grabbed the jar. The cockroaches circled nervously around the bottom. "You'll hear from my lawyer!" He stamped out.

When he got home, Wally kept his word. He dialled Veronica Rust. She'd been wonderful in his divorce case. After that, he'd relied on her for every minor legal problem (and he had many).

Veronica Rust listened to Wally Bagg's story about cockroaches. She listened with the patience of someone who charges high hourly rates. Now and then she stopped him, to explore some point. It was not always clear what he was driving at, even to a lawyer who was trying fairly hard.

"Let me make sure I've got it," she said. "Skopek Pest Sprayers did a substandard job. So you're refusing to pay. Also, you've experienced nervous shock. Is that right?"

Wally Bagg said it was. Except she'd forgotten about the evidence: he had two cockroaches under custody in a mayonnaise jar. So he had Skopek Pest Sprayers "dead to rights."

Veronica Rust wondered if "dead to rights" had any legal meaning. She would have liked to pursue the thought (and many others during the day), but she didn't: she was too busy with routine matters. If her brain was under-stimulated, well... litigation was often like that.

"Live cockroaches won't improve your evidence," she told him. "If you swear on oath that you saw two cockroaches, that would be just as good, legally speaking."

Wally Bagg didn't buy that. These legal minds! He had Rod Skopek dead to rights, and his own lawyer -- who usually seemed so smart -- couldn't see it. But he'd had disagreements with Veronica Rust before, so he knew how to handle it. He simply insisted that the cockroaches would be useful as evidence, and told her he meant to keep them.

"Well, OK. It won't do any harm," she conceded.

For the next three weeks there was a legal pause for breath. Veronica Rust did nothing. But the legal pause was balanced by lots of action in the mayonnaise jar: Wally dropped in scraps and the cockroaches thrived. The insects could also help themselves to drinks of water from an upside-down bottle top (though they never seemed interested). Air came in through holes in the lid. And the pampered insects were never too hot or cold, because the jar was right in the kitchen.

Partly because of this good treatment, Wally Bagg's legal evidence suddenly became more impressive: he found 19 tiny cockroaches exploring the bottle. Both of the original cockroaches appeared to be resting, or gloating.

This new life, the patter of tiny cockroach feet, caused a crisis. The baby cockroaches were small enough to escape through the air holes in the lid! Wally dumped the cockroaches in a much bigger jar. This time he made the air holes extremely small.

He then pondered matters. His legal case had become stronger. That was clear. If he hadn't caught those first two cockroaches, he'd now have 21 cockroaches roaming his house! No Judge would be unmoved by direct evidence like that. ("Your Honour, I ask you to examine..." )

But Wally felt the legal process needed a shove. The 19 little cockroaches wouldn't stay little. Clearly not. So he phoned Veronica Rust. He asked her to speed things up. She said OK, she'd try. But she mentioned that she'd just written to Figgis & Spooner. It was the law firm acting for Skopek Pest Sprayers -- and she had to wait for an answer. Legal courtesy demanded it. Wally squirmed and said, "OK, if you really have to..."

Figgis & Spooner had received Veronica Rust's letter. They were also being pressured by their own client, Rod Skopek. He wanted to sue Wally Bagg. But Figgis & Spooner explained they needed more time. They had to consider the letter they'd had from Veronica Rust. There was a whiff of a countersuit in the air. They had to take every precaution to make sure it wouldn't be successful. One precaution, as Figgis & Spooner knew from experience, was to do nothing. Veronica Rust's client, Mr Wally Bagg, might forget about his nervous shock -- and he might even pay his bill, or part of it. So they dragged their feet.

But they didn't know about Wally Bagg's evidence. They were allowing it to increase. A second batch of young cockroaches had brought the total to 41. The jar was crowded. And Wally was disturbed: his legal case was getting stronger (no one could look at that jar and not feel sympathetic), yet he had doubts about feeding so many cockroaches. The answer finally occurred to him as he was dropping in corn flakes: he'd note down how much it was costing him -- for cockroach food, plus some hourly rate for his time. Then he'd add those costs to his lawsuit against Rod Skopek.

Veronica Rust wasn't enthusiastic. She wanted Wally to get rid of the cockroaches. "I don't believe it will help your case," she said with a slight whine in her voice. "And it is causing you some unpleasantness."

After this conversation, all legal work stopped. Veronica Rust believed her client might come to his senses if more time went by. (She'd used this technique during his divorce case.)

She'd also had a reply from Figgis & Spooner. Their letter said exactly what she'd expected it to say: any legal action claiming Mr Wally Bagg had suffered nervous shock because of any act or omission by Skopek Pest Sprayers would be "vigorously defended."

To press things further, Veronica Rust would now have to get specific. And she didn't want to. She didn't want to do anything in a hurry. So with a small sigh, she put the file away.

Figgis & Spooner also grew quiet. They couldn't sue Wally Bagg until Veronica Rust had answered their letter. And she hadn't. So they put their file away too.

Wally Bagg thought the silence must be a good sign: well-oiled legal machinery works quietly, he reasoned. Meanwhile, he had the cockroaches to contemplate. There were now so many he'd stopped trying to count: they kept moving and it was hard to avoid counting some twice, or missing others. He guessed there were about 150. They now lived in a plastic fish tank his wife had left behind. He'd covered the top with some window screening, and weighted the edges with wooden planks. The cockroaches couldn't escape. On the other hand, they had no reason to. Life was good. An interesting variety of food arrived. Social life was stimulating. The temperature in the kitchen was pleasant. If cockroaches could picture an ideal holiday, this might have been it.

Wally no longer even minded the sight of them. They'd become an asset. It gave him a feeling of warm malice to gaze at them, as he contemptuously threw away another reminder about his overdue pest-spraying bill. The computer at Skopek Pest Sprayers was now printing out bills with a certain sting in them. But as the messages on the bills grew more menacing, the cockroach numbers in the fish tank increased -- as if to give Wally moral support. He was winning. "The idiot!" he thought. "Wait till he sees these!"

But one thing troubled Wally: the older generations of new cockroaches were getting big. How long would it be before they started to breed? (He was pretty sure -- so far -- that only the original pair had been breeding. He spent a lot of time observing the cockroaches, so he wasn't easy to fool.) He tried to remember the formula for compound interest. Compound interest had seemed a good thing, way back in high-school. Money that increased violently in a steep curve. But compound interest in cockroaches had a different feeling. Maybe he should just keep some of them? He must have plenty now to convince any Judge.

At this exact moment, as he was brooding on compound interest and legal evidence, a health officer rang the doorbell. He had come to investigate a "cockroach farm." He told Wally Bagg that he might be prosecuted under the Health Act. He said that one of Wally Bagg's neighbors had innocently peered in his kitchen window, fallen back in shock, then complained.

"Helen Root!" Wally Bagg said. His face got pink. "Fat troublemaker! She says my fence is in the wrong place... Hey, take your hands off that! That's private property!"

The health officer said he was impounding the cockroach farm. He quoted some clause. The cockroaches might be used as evidence.

"Evidence? That's my evidence!" Wally yelled. "Look, if one of those cockroaches gets hurt, you're in for it! What's your badge number? I'm calling my lawyer!"

The health officer shrugged. But he wrote down his name (Mr Morton), department number, and telephone extension. Then he picked up the fish tank and took it out. The cockroaches sensed a change in their fortunes: they raced around and tried to hide under each other.

Wally was immediately on the phone. At first Veronica Rust didn't fully understand what he was saying, but her face nevertheless fell. This disagreeable case wasn't going quiet -- it was getting noisy and hot. Yet her client was under threat of prosecution by the Health Department... well, that did put a more interesting color on things. It was her duty to advise him, when she was able to weigh up the pros and cons. Whatever they were.

"I'll phone the Health Department," she finally promised. "I'll say I'm acting for you, and the cockroaches may be evidence in another case. I'll advise them that we regard the Health Department as a bailee of the cockroaches, so they have to exercise a duty of care. If the cockroaches are damaged, then the Health Department could be considered negligent." She felt full of pep. Her client was under more interesting attack than usual. The Health Department! Well!

It took the Health Department a week to realise it had a problem. The impounded cockroaches were put on a table in a unoccupied lab, next to stack of yellowing Health Today magazines. Ten minutes after they'd arrived, Health Officer Morton had a phone call from Veronica Rust. Officer Morton winced, looked confused, and finally asked if she'd mind putting it in writing. She said she would.

Her letter came and Officer Morton did the right thing: he wrote a memo to the next level up. He attached a copy of Veronica Rust's letter, then he relaxed. It was out of his hands. Except he felt responsible for the welfare of the cockroaches. But taking care of cockroaches is an easy job for an experienced health officer. He told his assistant how to do it.

Higher up in the Health Department, where the offices had windows that looked out onto pleasant views, experienced officials began to brood on Officer Morton's memo. More often, they passed it on for someone else to brood on. That was how three weeks passed, and how the number of cockroaches in the fish tank had time to double. The officials didn't know this. They hadn't seen the cockroaches. Their outlook was high-level, legal, and geared to complex trade-offs. Veronica Rust's letter told them they were bailees. Their own lawyer said that could possibly be right, and he promised to check on it. Certainly they couldn't send the cockroaches back -- that would violate provisions in the Health Act. They couldn't destroy the cockroaches, because they were needed as evidence in an important trial (that's what the letter from Veronica Rust appeared to be saying).

A sigh passed through the upper floors of the Health Department. Experienced officers comforted themselves on one point: at least there was nothing in their own rules against keeping cockroaches. It would all blow over, they felt sure. The lawyers would sort it out. So a vague directive passed down from floor to floor, until it was a confused mutter by the time it reached Officer Morton. It seemed, from what he could tell, that he was to keep the cockroaches and look after them. He passed this message on to his young assistant, Martin.

Martin therefore continued to spend part of each day in the windowless room in the basement, catering for cockroaches in a fish tank. It was clear to him that the fish tank was now too small. The insects might suffocate each other. Or some might miss out during feeding times, because of the greed of the fatter ones. Martin worried about it. It even disturbed him at home when he was trying to relax. After a few days of thinking and looking around in the storage rooms in the Health Department, he found a good solution: a plastic isolation chamber, once used to quarantine a cow. The chamber had been sterilised, it had a nifty system for pumping in filtered air, and had heaps of space. It was ideal. So Martin dumped in the cockroaches.

For the next two months, as the cockroaches bred and flourished in their luxurious chamber, lawyers wrote complex letters to each other. The Health Department's lawyer wrote to Veronica Rusk, seeking clarification about Bills of Lading and implied waivers for dangerous goods. Meanwhile, Figgis & Spooner finally issued a summons for the money that Skopek Pest Sprayers demanded from Wally Bagg. The summons was handed to Veronica Rust. She dictated a Statement of Intention to Defend. Then she phoned Wally Bagg, to tell him everything was going well. "The cockroaches are safe," she told him. "Don't worry."

Wally didn't fully believe it. After agonising for a while, he phoned Officer Morton and demanded to inspect the cockroaches. He wanted to make sure they were being treated humanely. Officer Morton thought a visit might be all right, but said he'd have to check with his superiors. He said he'd phone back.

He didn't. A crisis had developed in the basement of the Health Department. What had happened in the fish tank had now happened in the cow chamber: it was overpopulated. Martin felt that something unorthodox was going on. What did anyone want those cockroaches for? He tried to reason it out in a simple way, but no explanation seemed right. Then he asked Officer Morton what he thought about it. When Officer Morton had a look in the cow chamber, he wasn't pleased. Yet he had many years experience in health work, and was confident it must make sense. "Just carry on," he told Martin. "But you might need to find a bigger place."

It wasn't easy. Martin prowled around in the lower rooms of the Health Department. The cow chamber had been their biggest closed container. For days, Martin pondered the problem. Then something took shape in his mind: maybe he could seal off a whole room? But how? Cockroaches ate almost anything, so he couldn't use ordinary tape. They'd chomp right through it. Also, what about access? He pictured a room with thousands, or soon, millions of cockroaches. Where would he dump in the food? (Which was now heavy work, hauling buckets of peelings and food scraps from the Health Department's cafeteria.)

Martin solved the technical problems. He used metal-backed tape and sealed the room where the cow chamber stood (now teeming with ecstatic cockroaches). He reasoned that the insects wouldn't be able to eat through the metal backing on the tape. When the doors had been sealed -- a ten-minute job -- he groped his way along a ventilation shaft in the ceiling. Then he lifted off the ventilation grille and looked down into the cockroach room. He tried out a piece of sheet metal he'd cut. It was OK. He would tape around that, then the room would be perfectly sealed. At feeding times, he could lift the metal sheet and dump the food right in. Wonderful! Martin wrote a memo about this, to cover his backside in case something went wrong.

Upstairs, there had been little progress. The correspondence with Veronica Rust had taken on a dry tone, as if both sides were getting fed up. The lawyers were quoting precedents, such as Hardwick Game Farm v. Agricultural Poultry Producers Association (1874), and Yangtze Insurance Association v. Lukmanjee (1918). Junior law clerks hadn't yet looked up the cases to see what they were about, so no one fully understood the correspondence any more. This caused the energy levels of the lawyers to droop. Their attention wandered.

Only Wally Bagg was feeling good. One reason was that he'd started a brand-new lawsuit against his neighbor Helen Root. He was also winning on the cockroach case -- that was clear to him, if to no one else. For example, Wally had refused to budge when Veronica Rust had pressured him to make some token offer to Rod Skopek. It could save legal costs, she'd counselled in a whiny tone. But Wally had said "no way." With him, it was the principle that mattered. Didn't she know that? Why had he started a new lawsuit against Helen Root, if not out of high principle? "Should I put up with her leaves blowing over the fence?" he asked.

Veronica Rust had no ready answer. So she followed legal routine and informed Figgis & Spooner that Skopek Pest Sprayers' bill for cockroach extermination was "wholly rejected" and their legal action would be "vigorously defended."

She also got a Court Order to let Wally Bagg inspect his cockroaches. "One of our clerks is taking it to the Health Department," she told Wally Bagg. "Once they've had the order --officially -- I'll let you know. Then just contact them and set a time."

But the clerk with the Court Order had trouble delivering it. It was late in the afternoon, getting dark, and for some reason there were swarms of people around the front of the Health Department. Several men in Health Department uniforms guarded the door. They wouldn't let anyone in. Yet the clerk saw people emerge from the building -- if that was the right way to describe people who were running.

"What's going on?" the clerk asked a guard.

"You from the press?" the guard demanded. When he found out it was only about a Court Order, he loosened up. "The place is full of cockroaches! Millions, coming out the ventilation grills. It's unbelievable."

A white-faced young woman ran out. "They'll eat everything!" she howled. She flew past.

At the top of the building, health officials made desperate phone calls. Cockroaches poured from the air-conditioning outlets, while minor officials tried to divert the streams to the lower floors. They brushed at the insects with computer printouts, departmental telephone books, and even plastic plants. Some of the men were hardened health officers, risen from the ranks, and looked like they were enjoying themselves.

The head of the Health Department had now bypassed the lawyers and was on the phone to Wally Bagg. "We want permission to exterminate your cockroaches!" he said.

Wally Bagg, in a state of high glory, held firm: "No, Sir. I can't do that! They're evidence."

Next the head of the Health Department phoned Rod Skopek. He begged him to drop his case against Wally Bagg. In a moment of inspiration, he told Rod Skopek that Skopek Pest Sprayers could have a contract to exterminate the cockroaches in the Health Department. There were lots of them, he confided. They wouldn't even ask Skopek Pest Sprayers for a quote. Rod Skopek could have the contract immediately, if he'd phone Wally Bagg and stop all the legal wrangles.

Rod Skopek experienced a fine feeling of clarity, and a compassion for Wally Bagg. So he told the Health Department, "Yeah, OK. Right, you got a deal."

Wally glowed when Rod Skopek spoke so humbly on the phone. "We'll just let it go, eh?" suggested the owner of Skopek Pest Sprayers. "How about it? You may have a point, those two left-over roaches. You don't owe us anything. OK?"

Wally said yes. Winning this case made him feel even better than the time he'd made Helen Root dig up some of her lawn sprinklers. It also pleased him that Veronica Rust had been wrong about the cockroaches. Saying he didn't need them! All along, he had Rod Skopek dead to rights! Evidence was so important in law.

The Health Department closed for four days. It was said that the Department had experienced an outbreak of cockroaches. It had happened because the inspectors had been so busy inspecting other buildings for the community. They had allowed insufficient time to thoroughly inspect their own building.

Wally Bagg didn't think about the cockroach problem at the Health Department. He still pictured the cockroaches as they'd been in the fish tank. And the fish tank was spotless and empty when Martin from the Health Department returned it to him.

Wally complimented the junior officer on his tidiness. Then joked: "Next time, it will be full of baby crocodiles."

Martin didn't seem to find it funny.

By the same author: The sprirt-rapping undertakers and Your dog is watching you.