by SARAH ZACHARY
“This is Jack. I’ve arrived at the address,” he paused, finger remaining on the trigger of the walkie, staring at the dilapidated building for a few minutes with keen eyes, “looks like no one’s home.”
“Copy that,” his walkie fizzed, “Probably some gang tagging or something. Do a quick check in and come back with the report on the condition of the premises, just to be safe.”
“Ten-four.” Jack slid the walkie back into its appointed slot and cut the engine.
If there was ever a night he wished he had a partner along for the ride, it was tonight. People, he’d noticed, were often under the wrong impression about the incessant bravery of cops. Sure, they protected the human race, hunted rapists, murderers, and all the other scum on the earth, but no one seemed to realize they could be scared, too. Jack would never admit, even to himself, that he was scared. But he was open to admit he was mighty nervous being here after so long.
Chestwood Street, you’d think by the name of it, would be a pleasant place to live. It had been part of his routine drive when he’d started on the force, a year or so ago, when there’d been the rare reason to patrol it. It was comprised of two dozen odd houses on either side of the street, a cul-de-sac which had primarily housed older, retired folks or young married couples, quiet types who’d prefer a night with cards or movies than rousing up calls for domestic disputes or noise violations. He’d never had much of a reason to explore it, much less get to know the people who lived there. Of course, that was before everything began.
He leaned over to the passenger’s side, where a thick folder was bound together, one with the word “Chestwood” on it. He unwound the string and let the contents slide out all over the seat and the floor of the police car. Lisa and Ryan Monticello, with their little boy Edward. Callista Flocks, Martha and Bill Bouregard, the names went on and on. One by one, the people had disappeared from this street. There’d been no pattern, no clues, and no evidence. No bodies. Nothing. One by one, the neighboring houses were put on surveillance, the streets shut down to traffic, the people kept on lockdown, but nothing the police did could change the series of unknown serial Chestwood disappearances from taking place. It wasn’t but a few months ago that the case had been dropped and his route, similarly, removed from his schedule. At least until the media decided to take a rest from the whole thing. Odd then, that the station had suddenly received a call from the anonymous source, a call claiming to have seen movement in one of the houses, number 1988.
He sifted through the paperwork on the missing people- check that, dead people. Or at least, they’d been declared so. He stopped on the address. 1988… Lauren Bradfort. He’d heard of her somewhere before… oh, right. She’d been that researcher with Biotech, the one in the interview talking about how insects had properties that could prove useful for increasing human life, going on about personal research she’d done on the side. Boy, had the public and their social media outputs taken a field day with her. In the days leading up to her vanishing, somewhere in the middle of the Chestwood disappearances, she’d quit her job and cut off contact with everyone she knew. It must have been hard to be a laughing stock on every type of social media. He skimmed through some of the information about her job specialty, chemistry, and some family history. He’d read it before, when he’d first been assigned to the case, so it was nothing new.
He set the folder aside and hooked his keys to his back pants, closing the car door behind him. The night was darker than usual; with spare clouds floating across the sky to block the stars every few minutes. Vein-like weeds, reminding him of dark fingers, groped for new territory through the cracks in the pavement. They grew fast when the environment was moist and murky, a typical day in this season. The grass had not been mowed by the city yet, and shot from the ground to a height close to his knees. He approached the house with a resolved sigh through his nose.
It had probably been a nice house at one point, but like the others, without proper care, in the stormy season it had been sorely ravaged. Whatever was left afterwards, the gangs had wasted, probably why they hadn’t been heard from recently. Destroying the houses must have left them feeling pretty accomplished; at least as long as the bragging lasted, before they picked a new piece of the private property to decimate. He could see the dim colors of faded spray-paint on the walls. The roof was caving in at the top left, where the shingles were sliding away, and the windows were either cracked or broken entirely. As he approached the porch with peeling paint and scratched initials in the wood, he heard an odd hissing noise, like a fast spurt of compressed air. He naturally thought of a snake, but the hiss was far too abrupt for that, too angry. A cicada? The insects were common in this part of town, since it wasn’t too far from the woods. No, it wasn’t the season, and not as drawn-out as a cicada. He followed the sound.
It led him to the left corner of the house, when the hissing abruptly stopped. Everything along the side of the dilapidated home looked normal, empty with the exception of a hose hooked on a faucet jutting out. He took a few steps closer.
“Sss!” It struck up again, and the hose spurted a quick stream of water.
He jumped, stunned, and kicked the hose aside, twisting the nozzle off. “Water pressure must be off for the house. Damn kids sneaking in… hope they didn’t leave the sinks on, too…”
He walked back to the front porch, where he lingered. The door was half off its hinges. He gave it a quick kick, poking his head in. The interior was dark, and the atmosphere sweltered in a thick scent of earth, mildew, and musk. It took a moment for him to ease his breathing to the smell. He walked inside cautiously, ignoring the sound of hissing begun anew behind him.
His face was assaulted by a series of sticky, invisible spider-web strands. He spat and wiped his cheek, holding a hand out in front of himself as he went on. “Disgusting…” he grumbled, smearing the threads on the pants of his uniform. He moved that way through the parlor, into the kitchen. Absently, he reached for his flashlight, tucked in the back of his pants, clicking it on. The beam of light swept over masses of cobwebs covering the walls, the furniture, the floor. He’d never seen so many cobwebs before, not ever. He eased himself into the kitchen. Did he hear rustling? The lines along his forehead creased as he concentrated on the sound. Where was it coming from? He followed it to one of the cabinets, swinging it open. The rustling stopped.
The inside had obviously been ravaged, to leave only wrappers of junk food, some signs of empty needles, and an open box of Cheerios. He picked the box up and inspected the cabinet, but it was completely empty. He was so sure he’d heard… his gaze shifted to the box of Cheerios. He tilted his flashlight to see inside and shook it gently. There was no response. Of course there wouldn’t be. Still…
He tilted it away from his body, and, flashlight trained on the kitchen counter, began to pour.
The cereal spilled out a little at a time, and by the time it was half-empty, he was beginning to feel foolish. He sighed through his nose, setting the cereal box down and taking another look around the room. He heard the rustling start again. Carefully, he took the Cheerios box in hand and eased it into the beam of his flashlight. The dome of illumination shone over something dark brown, fat and twice as big as his thumb, and, he realized with a start, moving.
He shook the box again and whatever it was hissed loudly. The same hiss he’d heard before. He tossed the box on the counter where it slid and thumped to the floor and the enormous thing skittered out in a way that clearly identified it as a roach.
“Damn!” He lifted his shoe and brought it down, hard, crushing the cockroach with a satisfying crunch and splatter of guts. He grimaced as he gazed at the mess on his shoe. He was readying to scrape off what he could when-
The crackling came from his walkie, tucked among his belt, close to where his flashlight had been. He reached down and lifted it to his lips.
“This is Jack. Say again.”
“Jack… can’t hear… very well. Update?” The noises were garbled and it took him a moment to process them.
He leaned against the counter and shone his flashlight as he gazed around once more. “Nothing much to see here, can you hear me? I’m coming back in now; nothing here but big damn bugs. Over.” He waited for a return message, but none came. A faint white noise hissed from his radio. Then, from somewhere above, he heard a clear creaking noise associated with floorboards squeaking. Something was moving upstairs, something big, and whatever it was, it was no bug. His hand slid for his gun on his waist, smoothing over the cold metal.
“Right, Jack? You’re coming back, over? The chief wants to brief us on the anniversary of the station and the party expectations as far as our code of conduct,” the words were whispered by his best friend, who also worked at the station, as other voices could faintly be heard, “Better get back.”
“Hold up.” Jack let the walkie-talkie go in the middle of Stephen’s rant, murmuring. “Checking out possible lead. Check in soon.” He slipped the walkie into his back pocket, and turned it down. No use in being foolish enough to leave it on high volume. The guys back at the station had a tendency to step in at the worst times. He eased his way toward the staircase, one hand resting on his weapon and the other handling his flashlight. Taking a breath, he tightened his diaphragm to make his voice strong. “This is Jack Kresuer with the police. You are trespassing. Surrender yourself or I will be coming after you. This is your only warning.”
Nothing seemed to happen, and no one answered him, but the stony silence surrounding the empty house. He knew someone was upstairs, and it was becoming apparent that whoever it was had no interest in surrendering willingly. He didn’t want a struggle, but it seemed he had no choice. Lifting his gun out of his belt, to the side of his face for easy access, he began to climb the stairs, one at a time. They shrieked with his weight and groaned under each new step. If the person upstairs had any aspirations of running, they would be able to gauge easily where he was.
“I don’t want to hurt you, but if you don’t come out where I can see you I will be forced to take precautions.” It was unusual for someone to be so desperately hiding, unless they really had something against the police or had committed some kind of irrevocable crime. Then, as rays of light shone through a window upstairs, he saw a brief glimpse of something. The light turned into a lime-like color through some kind of veil or dress, shifting like fabric blowing in the wind. A face, angled to look feminine, peered over the top of the stairway at him, blinking once. Suddenly, with an exhausted groaning, the floor and staircase gave way, taking Jack with it into a black void of darkness.
He opened his eyes to a pounding headache and the view of a gaping hole above him, large enough to fit two men, let alone himself. He must have fallen through the stairway. The wood was weaker than he had assumed. He groaned and shook his head. A faint, tickly feeing trickled up and down, from his ankle to his thigh, and he panicked for the briefest moment, wondering if he’d broken his leg. He glanced toward his ankles and saw a small swarm of spindly things wandering along his shins, showing no sign of stopping. He studied them in puzzlement. They were small, but there were a lot of them, black in color like a storm cloud roving over the land, moving efficiently. Spiders, he realized with a start. He tried to sit up, but found it strangely impossible. What was keeping him from sitting up? He struggled to lift an arm, to brush the mass of arachnids off him, but even his arms seemed to refuse to work. Then, a splash of light came from behind, in the rectangular shape of an opening doorway, and he saw a silvery thread bound around his body. It seemed to encase him; from his ankles to his thighs. He couldn’t move his lower body at all, and though he could wiggle his arms, he could not seem to tear them away from the surface he was strapped on. He was stuck, with only his head free to move.
“Who are you?” The voice was definitely a woman’s voice. He shifted his head and stretched to try and look behind him. He could just make out the same color of lime green he’d seen earlier. Had this woman been the one inside the house? What was she doing there?
“I should ask you the same question,” he replied, pulling against his restraints.
“I expected one of those juvenile delinquents, not you. I’ll ask you again. Who are you?” her voice was cold as winter, angry and stern.
“Someone reported some movement coming from this house. It’s condemned for good reason. I’m Jack Kreuser with the police force. I came to investigate the call.”
There was no immediate answer, but, almost stubbornly, she did come closer, into his line of view, where he could see her clearly for the first time. She was extremely tall, slim, and impossibly beautiful. Her face was sharp and her features angular with a kind of royal distinguishing lacing her expression. Her arms hung limp at her sides, her skin pale, lips red and full. Her black hair fell in loose waves to her back and over her shoulders, shimmering as she breathed and the light played over her. She wore a gown that seemed more appropriate for a fairy tale, utilizing numerous green shades from lime, which was used the most, to darker jungle greens which played along her corset and the back of her. The gown fit her seamlessly, almost as if it were made solely for her body.
She narrowed her eyes, bent to meet his eyes and extended a finger. Her pupils dilated, and Jack stared into her eyes with dread. They were a bright yellow color, inhuman. “You said you had a call…” He wasn’t listening. His eyes focused on the nail at the end of her finger, rather, claw. It was at least an inch long, more likely two or three, and steely sharp. A faint color of muted, stained red covered her claws, and it made his stomach churn. She seemed to notice his horrified look and grinned, revealing rows of sharpened canines, sharing similar stains with her talons.
“Why can’t I move?” His voice sounded much smaller than he remembered. “Get them off me!” He struggled again, glancing at the spiders who had now moved their webbing to his torso.
“Well, we all have to eat, don’t we?” she murmured as if she were talking to herself, turning away and bending to the floor, where something familiar, fat and brown, scurried over to her. She straightened and turned, running a finger over the roach, who hissed with each finger stroke. “My poor little baby… his remains all over your foot… I heard his scream from upstairs, clear and frightened and… and do you show any remorse at all? Well, do you?” her voice quivered, eyes flashing as she whirled to face him. “No, no, of course you don’t… well, don’t bother apologizing now. My little babies are going to wrap you up nice and tight, just like take-out… you’ve already been paralyzed with hundreds of their bites. Now we just wait until they’re ready to eat and they’ll get their nutrients by sucking up all the blood you have to offer…it should suffice for another week or so.”
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with you?” he gasped out, trying again to struggle even though it was obviously futile. “Let me go!”
“You just don’t understand… no one does,” she murmured, turning her attention back on the roach in her hand and looking back to him. The spiders’ binding now reached his chest.
As he stared at her intensely, mind working furiously for an argument to stop the spiders working at him, something clicked. He leapt to catch the last thread of hope he had. “Lauren?”
Her gasp was audible, her body stiffening. She held out a hand, and the movement of hundreds of spider legs stopped. She faced him, the cockroach running up her arm, towards her neck. “How do you know that name?”
“Lauren Bradfort?” he repeated, his face just as stunned as hers. “The scientist. You disappeared; people were looking for you everywhere… you just vanished.”
“That’s a lie.” Her face hardened and then turned frightened, hurt, shrinking away a few steps. “I didn’t leave… people just didn’t care…”
“I have a mound of paperwork in my car that says otherwise, Lauren.” Using her name seemed to keep her grounded, focused. Her yellow eyes bored into him. He chose his words carefully. “I was looking for you.” It was a white lie; he hadn’t been looking for her, but for the source of the tipoff, but how was she to know? Besides, anything had to be done to help him out of this, and it seemed to keep her attention. She looked captivated now, like a child with a new toy. “Why did you stop…” he had to choose his words carefully, “…trying?”
Her rosy lips parted, revealing the fangs beyond them. “People laughed at me… they called my research a joke, a misnomer, a laughingstock. They shut down my independent funders because they stopped believing in me.” She sank down on the floor beside him, her feet barefoot, revealed beneath her gown, which moved with her body seamlessly. “But I knew I could do good with what I learned, what I researched. I could have helped people all over the world. Insects are fascinating to me.” She let the cockroach in her hands run along her skin, winding around, underneath her arms, like a dance, but it made Jack sick to watch.
“Lauren. Let me go. You can’t do this to me. I’m the last one who knew about you, the last one who cared.” He was pushing it now.
“The last one, hm?” she mused to herself, staring at the floor absently, eyes far away.
“Yes. Let me go. Let me go and… I won’t even tell anyone you’re still here. In fact, I’ll help you. Imagine what I could do for you, someone on the outside. We could work together.”
Her gaze moved from the floor to meet his. “You don’t care… that I’m like this?”
“Did you… do something to yourself?” He hadn’t wanted to bring up the subject, but she’d been the one to stir it, so he carefully treaded the murky waters of her past.
“I had to try something on someone… before they shut down all my funding. So I did it to myself.”
She stood up and moved over next to him, bending down close enough to where he could feel the tips of her hair brush his skin. She was soft, so very soft. How would she feel to the touch? God, why was he thinking that at a time like this? She let the roach playing in her hands go, where it melted in with the darkness easily. “I fused my genes with an insect. Don’t you see? I had to do it.”
“Yeah, I see. You had to.” He was agreeing with anything she said at this point. “With both of us, and the police station involved, maybe we can get your funding back, continue your research.”
“Do you think so?” Her eyes were alight. She was listening intently to him now.
“I do.” He moved a little. “If you could just…”
“Oh.” She stared at the nearly cocooned police officer, silent and contemplating. “I don’t think I can answer this right away… I need to think about this for a little while. Can you loosen him, please?” The spiders seemed to understand her, though how, Jack had no idea, because they dutifully gave him room to breathe and move a little. “I’m going to go upstairs for a while, just until I decide what to do with you… maybe I was wrong. Maybe we can work together… I… I think we could.”
“Together we can.” He was enamored by the way she moved, the way her body looked under that dress, the way her curves were so visual, so tantalizing and tempting. “Say we can.”
She grinned a little, exposing those sharp teeth. “You and I… does this mean we’re partners?”
“Yes, yes!” he agreed, nodding. Maybe this was his chance! “Partners!”
“I see.” She began to walk to the staircase he saw in a corner of the room, no doubt leading out the basement. “I’ll be back soon, partner.” Then, without another word, she was gone.
Shit! I almost had it. She was ready to let me go! What did I do wrong? Damn it! Come on, Jack, come on, damn it! Think of something! This woman is certifiably insane! Why couldn’t I think around her? Those spiders at least are off me, but it’s not much if I’m still stuck here! He sighed deeply, resting against the surface he reclined on, and felt a lump on his lower back. It was then he realized. Walkie. If he could only wiggle the right way, hard enough, he could press it, and… He rocked from side to side, hard, moving his hand, trying to grip it, thrashing weakly, and fighting the paralysis wracking his body. It took a few heart-pounding seconds, but he managed to grip it in one hand, and squeezed the trigger tight. Got it!
“This is Jack. If anyone can hear me, respond.” There was no answer. “Hello? Hello, this is Jack. Can anyone hear me?” It hit him like a ton of bricks. He’d turned the volume down. He wouldn’t be able to hear them if he tried. No matter. He’d get through to someone, no matter what. “I’m at 1988, need backup. Repeat, need backup. Send ASAP.” He threw his head back, closing his eyes and praying the last attempt would be enough to escape. He was so exhausted he didn’t notice the roach scurrying off towards the staircase. Hard as he tried, he could not keep his eyes open, and his vision swam before him, ebbing in and out before finally dimming.
He opened his eyes to see Lauren bending over him, undoing his bonds by running a finger over them, slicing them cleanly. “The paralysis should be wearing off now,” she murmured, standing back, strangely distant from him.
He struggled, but managed to stagger to his feet, in a state, as if he’d had one too many, looking to the door at the top of the staircase with a relief so full it stole his breath. He half-ran to it, and looked back at her, giving her a vague look of thanks before turning it. He tried. It seemed to be stuck. Grunting, he tugged harder. No, he realized suddenly, not stuck. Locked.
“The insects are my friends, Jack. They tell me everything,” her tone was cool, collected. “Everything.”
“What do you mean?”
Her face grew hard as a statue, yellow eyes deadly and focused, like a predator. She sank away into the darkness. He took a step or two forward, reaching for the gun in his belt and turning off the safety with a click, aiming, chest rising and falling quickly. “I’m leaving. I don’t care what you do here, but I’m leaving, God damn it! And you can’t stop me!”
He whirled around. She was behind him. How had she moved so quickly and quietly? How had he not heard her? How did she get there? His mind fired on all cylinders and he pulled the trigger.
The gun fired, wood above them splintering, her hand forcing his upwards with incredible strength. “I thought we were partners,” she whispered coolly, leaning in towards his ear.
“We are, we are!”
She placed a sharp claw on his lips, her lips touching the nape of his neck. “Shh… I know we’re partners... that’s why I want to be completely honest with you… completely open…” She brought his hands down, squeezing his wrist until he had to release his gun, a strength beyond anything he’d ever encountered. “I never told you, Jack… what I fused my genes with. I knew you would never help me, so your message didn’t come as a surprise… but it didn’t matter at that point. You never really should have agreed to be a partner with me…”
She leaned in closer to him, resting her forehead against his, so his only view was of her yellow eyes. “Do you know what I am, Jack?”
He shook his head, and her nails drummed over his neck, on his sensitive flesh, once, twice, where his pulse bulged the flesh out rapidly.
“I’m a mantis.”
When the backup arrived, as Jack predicted it would, they arrived to an abandoned house, exploring the main floor. It was empty. They moved to the top floor, which was similarly quiet, but when they reached the bottom floor, they saw a woman slumped on the ground in a lake of red. She lifted her head as they entered, facing away from them.
“Freeze! Put your hands in the air and lie down on the ground!”
Before they could react, the door behind them swung slowly closed, shutting them in complete darkness. They paused to gain their bearings, and the last thing they heard was a whisper, in a soft singsong voice.
“Do you want to be my partners, too?”
Sarah Zachary was born in 1988, the only daughter of Stephen and Teresa Zachary. Although she always loved being read to as a child and frequent library trips, she first discovered her love of writing in early high school, when she was assigned to write a paragraph of a fictional story. She has been published in several more genres and seeks to work in the field of creative design or concept design. Her work is often in the fields of romance and fantasy, and her first young adult fantasy novel is currently in progress. She also has a professional facebook page for followers under Sarah Joyce Zachary.
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