The Cicada Killer
John Andrew Karr
Sweat gleamed on the back of the dirty hand as it ripped down another bright yellow sign with black lettering.
A jagged row of them vanished into forested obscurity. That wise-ass Beeler woman thought little sheets of paper would spook a real man? If so, she wasn’t as smart as she pretended to be. Overkill like this reinforced what Randy Stall had already figured from their first encounter; she was scared and alone in the trailer. Even sober he wasn’t much for counting, but add all these to the ones he’d seen back at the service road and it was a ton of damn signs.
… a ton of useless damn signs.
Stall’s black t-shirt was damp in the early summer heat and clung to his lean frame. White threads dangled where he’d scissored the jeans into jorts. Sunglasses and a low-brimmed cap concealed dark intentions. The knife at his belt was sheathed, for now.
A whirring sound drew his attention. At the next tree, a thick black wasp with pale yellow stripes flew slowly back and forth, interested in something he couldn’t see. It was as long as his middle finger. Almost hornet-sized.
His lips stretched over gaps of missing teeth as he grinned and crumpled the paper into a ball. He drew back slowly, like the high school pitcher he’d once been, then threw heat. The paper ball knocked the wasp from sight, and it let out an angry buzz. Stall laughed. “Take that, bitch!”
The wasp reappeared. It circled him twice, wings scolding loudly, threatening. Then it almost seemed to glance away as a ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-CH! rose from the next tree. The cicada mantra was instantly familiar and far louder than any cricket chirp. The wasp zipped over, landed on the trunk and raced like a tiny assault vehicle toward a groove between bark nuggets. The chitter was replaced by scraping and buzzing as the two large flyers battled.
The wasp hooked its leg claws into the larger insect and hauled it from the groove, turned it so they were belly-to-belly, then arched its body to sink the curved stinger into its prey. The cicada fell silent and went rigid. Clutching it tightly, the wasp flew with it through the remaining woods to a brighter area … the front yard of Stall’s prey.
Though motionless, he knew the cicada wasn’t dead.
Female Cicada Killers were bigger and stronger than the non-venomous males. The females had the stingers and toxin — but not for killing outright. They fly to the nesting site, drag their paralyzed prey into one of several chambers and lay an egg in one of its legs. The egg hatches in a couple days. The larva feeds on the cicada, keeping it alive as long as possible, then turns into an adult wasp.
Shitty way to die, Stall thought, through a chuckle.
He was about to turn away when another wasp shot past him, then hovered back and forth a couple feet from his face. It was fast, but a couple swipes finally persuaded it to back off. It landed higher up on the pine, turned head-down and watched him with large faceted eyes.
He flipped it off and slipped through the remainder of the woods. Ankle-high work boots crunched twigs and pine cones. After a brief pause he crept into a relative clearing where crepe myrtles bordered two sandy pathways with grass in the middle.
He glanced over his shoulder for a glimpse at the intersection of the driveway and State Road 334. Didn’t see anyone turning in, or driving by. The Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River were both within pissing distance, and the seasonal swell of human flesh was strong and rising, yet very few folks deliberately trekked into this area, where the woods were thick and dark waters sloughed into brackish creeks.
“Might want to drive up or have your man get the snail mail,” Stall had said to Shannon Beeler, setting her packages on the small table of the front porch and handing her the delivery tablet. “Heard some coyotes cryin’ in the woods near your mailbox.”
And no hint of a dog anywhere, he added silently.
The dusky woman signed the form, arched a brow and handed the tablet back. “Coyotes we got, all right. And the occasional wolf.”
He was cautious enough to wait a couple weekends before returning.
Now grass blades hissed beneath his strides. Small petals drifted down from the ornamental trees, ignored. It was strangely muted here, though. Unlike the woods around his own trailer, there was no hint of cicada chanting.
Which made him wonder if a scream would carry through the surrounding woods.
Nah. Too much distance and sound-snuffing trees.
Keeping to the shade of the crepe myrtles, he strode with purpose toward the orange double-wide at the end of the drive. The bushes that had been neatly trimmed just a couple weeks back were now reaching for the top rail of the front porch. The grass was long enough to send up seed spires.
Maybe Beeler had gotten lazy. Whatever.
Buzzing cut the quiet.
Several dark specs darted from the sunshine and into his cloak of dappled shade. They hovered near the grass, then up along the tree trunks and branches. As he closed in on the trailer, he could discern the pale yellow stripes on the black bodies as long as his fingers, and the red-orange, swept-back wings as they set down. They lined up on either side until he passed, then took new positions. Maybe it was the pills, but it was weird anyway.
Too many damn wasps. No wonder there were no cicadas around.
A pickup truck with a line-crossed ant silhouette on the side was parked out front, along with a sedan that had once been silver, judging by the curling strips of paint.
More wasps flew around Stall. He cussed again and pressed forward, hand rising now and then to swat a few of the more brazen ones away. He sent a couple of them cruising to the side, where they quickly recovered. The noise was starting to freak him out.
The wasps circled him a moment more, then vanished. The noise fell to just a solitary drone. Heavier. In the area, but not too close. He almost looked around for a plane, but was too focused on his goal to get distracted now.
He was maybe a dozen feet from the porch when the front door swung wide.
What stepped out looked more like some space alien than the woman he’d encountered a couple weeks ago. She seemed tall up on the porch. Goggles jutted over dark rimmed glasses, and a surgical face mask covered the lower portion of her face. The lab coat was a little snug in the shoulders and bust line, and draped over scrub pants and an old pair of clogs.
Slowly her gloved hand moved the goggles to her broad forehead and pulled the face mask down. Her temples glistened in the sunlight. She wiped the perspiration from her mocha-toned face with a cloth, then leaned forward on the rail.
“Lose your truck somewhere, Mister Substitute Delivery Man?” she said, peering down at him. Her narrow brows arched over the straight black line of the glasses.
“And here you only saw me the one time,” Stall grinned, removed his shades and turned his hat around as a way of mocking her movements. “Must have made an impression!”
“Your pupils were dilated then, too, never mind the sunshine. I bet you’re flyin’ high for this little visit. Here’s your chance to live. Go away now and get off the drugs.”
“Go now and live.”
Stall laughed and shook his head. “But I got a special delivery!”
“Yeah, you delivered yourself just fine.” She made a crooning sound.
“Hell you say?”
Shannon Beeler smiled as the deep and angry buzzing sounded again from the woods and grew louder.
Stall’s eyes narrowed. Cocky bitch. Was there a gun in the lab coat pocket?
“Hear that?” She made a slow spherical motion with her gloved hand.
The buzzing became rapid and louder.
Stall drew his knife, took a few steps forward then paused, head cocked sideways. The buzzing was rushing toward them now. Drone? Was that why she was so confident, she had a goddamn drone filming the place? If so, he had to get her inside, quickly. “Inside the house, bitch! Move!”
She spoke over his shoulder. “Not much meat on him, but he’ll due for now.”
“No flyin’ camera is gonna save your ass!”
As the first stair squeaked under Stall’s boot, a shadow loomed in the corner of his eye. The sound that came with it rattled his eardrums and drummed in his chest. He started to look over his shoulder when thin hairy legs ensnared him. Pain flashed as his ribs snapped. Hooks at the ends of the legs punctured his body, and spun him so violently something was ejected from his pocket.
Stall gazed into the compound eyes of a monster.
Independently moving antenna as long as his arms protruded from its head. Above the black exoskeleton blurred red-orange wings that sent a horrid death wind over him. Chomping and clacking mandibles completed a tapered head larger than his own.
Shouting and cursing, he tried to strike and shove it off, but the beast held him fast. It arched its abdomen to bring a wickedly curved stinger between his legs and up into his lower back. It stabbed for his spine and split the gap between two vertebrae. Stall howled as venom spread like a liquid fire through vein and muscle. His struggles slowed. His cries became whimpers, and from there to wide-eyed silence. Satisfied, the wasp pulled him tightly to her undercarriage and lifted him into the air, arms and legs dangling listlessly.
“Thanks for the delivery,” Shannon Beeler said.
The wasp flew Stall to its underground nest where it laid an egg inside his thigh. The next day the larvae hatched and immediately began to consume its paralyzed food.
For over a week Stall remained alive, mouth agape with a silent scream.
* * *
A delivery truck turned off State Road 334 and onto the white sandy pathways of Shannon Beeler’s driveway. Grass grew high enough between the trails to brush the truck axles. Crepe myrtles passed on either side of the opened cab, and tiny white blossoms like snow flurries drifted onto the broad windshield and inside the vehicle. A moment more and dark shapes mixed with the white as Wes Cobb navigated the driveway’s familiar curves.
At first he thought they were dragonflies hunting in the summer morning, but then recognized the largest of the wasp family, the Cicada Killers. He’d been delivering a long time and wasn’t alarmed, even when they flew in and out of the cab. They were pretty much harmless, which was good because there were several with him now, and showed little inclination to leave.
The open doors also let in the humid air of the nearby ocean and river. The truck rocked and squeaked down the uneven sandy pathways. He cleared the crepe myrtles and braked to a halt in front of the orange trailer with the small sedan and exterminator truck in front.
Shannon Beeler appeared on the front porch almost as soon as the truck halted. She touched up her hair, pushed the glasses to her head, parted the lab coat and smoothed her t-shirt and shorts. More wasps buzzed back and forth around her. She almost seemed to glide down the porch steps. She halted at the driver’s side and put a hand on her hip. “Now where you been hidin’, Wesley Cobb?”
He grinned. “Seen Shannon Beeler around?”
“You hittin’ the ghange? I’m right here.”
“Well, you look a little like her, but the Beeler I knew was a bit, uh, shall we say …”
Beeler cocked her head and smiled. “Mmm?”
“… fuller!” Cobb leaned on the steering wheel and laughed, stomping the floorboards for emphasis.
She laughed, pulled back the lab coat and looked down. The t-shirt hung loosely below her bosom and the shorts didn’t pinch her skin at the waist. “Been busy. Too distracted and too tired to make big meals.”
“Shouldn’t go an’ starve, now,” Cobb warned. “And damn, girl, it’s summer break! Only got a couple weeks until Session Eight. Take a breath already!”
Her smile faded a bit as she watched the wasps, eyes growing wide as if mesmerized. Cobb was about to clap her out of it when she focused on him once more.
She took off her long latex gloves and stuffed them in her lab coat pockets. “Got time for some ice tea, Mister Delivery Man?”
He shook his head. “Nah, sorry. I’m behind as usual. But I got a delivery for ya! Hang on a sec.”
“Take your time. I ain’t on a schedule today.”
Cobb had known her long enough to recognize her common speech hid a sharp mind. He ducked back into the cargo hold, brought out two sizeable boxes marked with bio-material green crosses. She held her arms out but he stepped down from the truck and cocked his head toward the porch.
“I got ya,” Cobb said, hanging onto the boxes. “Porch good?”
The wasps accompanied them as they walked. A majority of them floated around her alone, he saw. She slowly waved her arms and the insects eased back a bit.
“What the hell,” Cobb said. “You the wasp whisperer?”
“They like my little ranch here,” she said, as they went up the steps.
He set the boxes on the small table and held the computer pad out for her to sign. He turned at a sudden deep buzzing sound, scanned the woods for the source, and when he looked back Shannon was shaking her head at something, then quickly recovered.
“You didn’t deliver last time,” she observed.
“Vacation,” he replied. “You knew, right?”
“Oh yeah. Like I said, been busy.”
“That new guy did my week and another for Williams and then went missing — believe that? Shipping crew said he was hopped up on pills half the time.”
Shannon shrugged. “Too bad. He wasn’t as nice as you anyway.”
“Who is? Nobody, that’s who! Don’t forget me at survey time, Shannon Beeler.”
“You still married?”
“Every day with my Brenda gal!” He noted the shadow that came across her face. “Hey, you’ll find yours. Just hang on a while.”
“Tools and mama’s boys. Never any middle ground.”
“Well, try the online sites. Someone’s out there for ya. They can’t all be bad, right?”
“At least one, but he’s taken.”
Wasp wings made the only sound for a moment.
“Been reading the prep chapters for Bio 310 summer class?” Cobb asked.
“Devoured them,” she said. “You?”
“Behind, as usual.” Cobb headed down the porch steps. “We gonna be lab partners again?”
“Hell yeah. I could use one now, too.”
“Take a peek at what I got out back.” She picked up the boxes, walked down the steps and headed to the side of the trailer.
Cobb paused at the front of the truck and swiped at a couple wasps that easily dodged. “Nah, I’m late already, girl. But what’s up with all the Cicada Killers?”
“Come on back and I’ll tell you. Those other deliveries can wait ten minutes, can’t they? It’s just a peek at my hobby when I’m not exterminating bugs or in the classroom.”
“Okay, Beeler. Let’s see what you got cookin’. Hopefully it ain’t meth!”
She smiled as he fell in step behind her.
Again he swung his arm slowly back and forth at the wasps. “Never seen ’em this thick! They’re supposed to be solitary. What are ya,doin’, breeding the damn things?”
She laughed over her shoulder. She seemed lighter to him somehow. And not just physically, though she almost seemed to glide before him.
They turned the corner of her trailer and the back yard opened wide. It was a grassy peninsula surrounded on three sides by woods of pine, sweet gum and live oak. At the center of the yard was a large wooden shed with double doors wide open, ceiling fans turning at moderate speed and overhead lights showering white light down upon several picnic tables. Under other circumstances, this might serve as the outdoor kitchen and eating area. Now the tables were laden with beakers, petri dishes, bubbling graduated cylinders, flames heating Erlenmeyer flasks with rubber stoppers and clear hoses snaking from them to a network of other containers.
Cobb whistled. “Wow, Beeler. Quite a set up. And you’re not cookin’ meth …?”
“Science is the drug, Wes.” Beeler smiled, set her boxes down on the closest bench seat. Straightening, she held her arms out to the side. A dozen Cicada wasps landed and milled about on her lab coat. The dark forms scurried in separate directions, black chaos on a white canvas. They did not venture inside the coat, or on her neck or head.
“Watch it, there’s females!” Cobb stepped close with his hand raised, ready to swat.
“No, no! They’re just saying hello to Momma.”
And indeed the finger-sized wasps continued to mill about on Beeler’s body. They paused, rose a few inches with a collective buzz of red-orange wings, landed again on her arms and shoulders. They did not go for her head or face or legs.
Cobb shook his head. “Some pets you got there.”
She gently shook her arms and guided them from her chest area and they flew off. Some vanished, some remained to dart back and forth around them.
From the surrounding woods came several deep droning sounds, just shy of chain saw level. Shannon sang something Cobb couldn’t discern. A dark shape broke from the woods out of the corner of his eye. The volume quickly grew. Whatever it was, it was coming fast.
Cobb leaped for a rake propped against one of the large doors. “What the hell!”
“Step inside the shed a little, Wes,” she said, calmly.
The shadow appeared on the lawn first, further knotting Cobb’s stomach. Then a creature straight out of insanity dropped down and hovered, large as a German Shepherd. Its wickedly angular head was covered in translucent hair. Long antenna moved back and forth above huge eyes and terrible jaws. Red-orange wings were swept back from the body and blurring. The wind from them stirred the dust from a bare spot, and dislodged dandelion seeds that drifted surreally away in a thin white stream as if fleeing the abomination.
A moment more and it landed. Suddenly the droning was gone. It stood on its six thin legs before Beeler and Cobb, twitching and clacking its mandibles like wooden knockers. Then its head moved, seemingly to focus its faceted eyes from Beeler to Cobb. It took a quick step forward. Cobb stiffened and jabbed the end of the rake out. Inadequate, but better than nothing.
“No, no, no,” Shannon Beeler cooed to the beast. She held her arm out and the monster wasp’s antenna reached for her hand. It’s entire body quivered, as if in ecstacy at the contact. Its mandibles knocked softly.
“Can’t be real!” Cobb said, through a constricted throat.
“Don’t worry — she still only eats tree sap and nectar from flowers.”
“Nothing gets this big on sap and nectar!”
“Well, mainly,” Beeler amended. “See the ingredient ratio on the sprayer?”
She gestured with her free hand toward an egg-shaped pressure sprayer with a black wand protruding through the handle gap. Black bold lettering stood starkly out on white paper, secured by clear packing tape.
5% Boric Acid
Shannon Beeler caressed the wasp’s forehead as if she were stroking a dog. She looked at Cobb. “A little bit of the acid helps dissolve the PTTH into their exoskeletons. Too much and they hate it, but just enough and it penetrates to trigger the hormone for molting. They get slow and docile for a while, then molt from their old shells into their new bigger ones. Do you want to pet her?”
“Hell no, I don’t!”
She watched him carefully for a moment, evaluating. She turned to the beast, as its thick exoskeleton gleamed in the sun while fine hairs were caught in translucent display. She clapped her hands and the wings sprang to life, along with the deep droning. The creature rose a few feet in front of Shannon, then drifted toward Cobb.
The droning increased to buzz-saw decibel. The thorax curled forward, and for the first time Cobb’s gaze found the wickedly curved stinger.
Beeler leaped between them, waving her arms.
The beast hovered as if uncertain. The antennae worked back and forth while the mandibles clacked a menacing tune. Finally it righted itself and vanished, droning receding behind it.
Cobb’s pulse pounded in his throat. Given the strength to size ratio of insects, the thing had to be three four times as strong as it appeared. The wind blasts had been substantial. For a long moment he could only grip the rake and stare at Beeler. Finally he found his voice.
“God! That was real? Not a drone? It was a real goddamn wasp?”
“Oh, they’re real, all right.” She laughed, but then it died down as she saw the fear on his face. “It’s okay, Wes. I’ve got ’em handled. Somehow my voice and scent become imprinted on them along with the formula … maybe because I talk and sing a lot back here by myself. Maybe next time when you visit I’ll be in one of them snooty mansions where I used to spray for bugs.”
Cobb wanted to shout in alarm but could only stare. He looked at the space her aberration had occupied, then back to its creator. Finally he swallowed and formed words.
“I don’t get how …” was all he managed.
“How trailer trash altered the growth patterns of Cicada Killers?” she said, a little breathlessly. “I’d like to say pure brilliance, but it was a lot of reading entomology journals, hunch and experimentation, mainly with Prothoracicotropic hormone (PTTH) as an internal hormone trigger and boric acid as a delivery mechanism to get the PTTH to soften and seep through the exoskeletons. They’ll drink a little from nectarized sweet water that draws them in initially, but misting with just enough acid to seep into the delicate wings is effective. At first I was so happy when the first ones grew as long as two middle fingers — ha, how precise is that?”
Cobb strained to hear the buzz of those obscene wings.
Shannon Beeler spoke a bit longer, but later he couldn’t recall what she said, exactly. He watched her wide dark eyes and moving lips and then his gaze fell upon the lab table, where his hand could wrap around the neck of an Erlenmeyer flask. Its thick base could serve as a useful blunt object. His mind went into a loop, urging him to take her out right here and now with one massive blow to the temple and then run like hell for the truck before any more of the beasts appeared.
But she hadn’t threatened him, and he wasn’t a murderer.
He strode from the shed.
“Wes, wait …”
Back in the truck, he slammed the cab doors shut and started it. He opened the driver’s side a little. “You need to stop with wasp shit, Shannon. It ain’t natural.”
“Is it natural to use growth hormones on cows, turkeys and chicken?”
“Barnyard animals don’t want to kill me. That wasp did. Stop this shit now, before it goes too far!”
In the side view mirrors she watched him leave. He gripped the wheel hard to try and stave off the shudders.
At the intersection of her pathways and the state road, a dark sedan slowed and waited for Cobb to exit. Judging by the mesh barrier between the front and back seat areas, and the laptop between the female driver and male passenger, they were police.
Cobb hesitated, hands shaking on the steering wheel. The cops observed him expectantly. The driver rolled her finger for him to get moving.
Should he tell them?
They’d think he was crazy.
He eased his truck into the road and pulled alongside their vehicle. He slid his door back. “About time,” the cop said. She shook her head and goosed the sedan to turn onto Shannon Beeler’s driveway.
Finally Cobb leaned out. “Hey! Hey, wait!”
But the cops rolled on, raising a cloud of white dust as they headed for the orange trailer.
* * *
“We’re working a missing person case.”
Sergeant Davis held up a sheet of paper with a photo on it. Officer Tindell, her male counterpart, took the opportunity to peer inside the windows of the trailer.
“Saw him a couple Wednesdays ago,” Shannon Beeler said.
This drew Tindell’s attention. He pulled out a small note pad out and started writing.
“Go on,” Davis said.
Beeler shrugged. “He delivered some lab supplies and was gone. Haven’t seen him since.”
Davis nodded. “We’re talking the last few days. His girlfriend has reported him missing.”
Beeler was silent.
“How would you describe the encounter?”
“We need you to come to the station and tell us more.”
“I suggest you leave.”
“Doesn’t work that way.”
By now the sun was high enough to illuminate the gaps between the lawn and the bushes.
Beeler uttered a high-pitched, crooning note. In the woods, a deep buzzing sound answered, followed by another. After a moment she uttered the sounds again.
The buzzing rushed toward them. Two large shapes broke from the surrounding woods and hovered behind the cops. Tindell had time to reach for his gun as leg hooks tore into him. The mega wasp held him tightly while the curved stinger thrust between his legs and penetrated his spine. His scream trailed off, lost in the fading buzzing as she bore him away.
Davis started shooting with the gun barely free of its holster. The beast hardly seemed to notice. It snatched her and arched its body to bring the stinger into play.
“No you won’t!” Davis cried, bashing at the monster’s snapping mandibles with the spent gun. A radio appeared in her other hand. “Dispatch, Four Bravo Three! Ten-double zero! Officer down! Officer dow — ugh!”
The stinger pierced her back. The wasp’s thorax undulated as it pumped venom into the detective. Davis’ movements slowed, freezing the horror on her face. The radio fell from rigid fingers.
“Four Bravo Three, Dispatch. Please respond! All units, Ten-double zero. Repeat, Ten double zero. Converge on Four Bravo Three’s last know location of — ”
The dispatcher gave Shannon Beeler’s address.
The wasp flew off with its paralyzed prey clutched to its underside. Blonde hair waved as they vanished over the forest canopy. Dozens of smaller wasps darted around now, excited by the actions of their larger aunts. Many paused and hovered around Beeler as she crooned. Gently she waved her arms back and moved her body from side to side. The insects followed her motions, like reef fish gliding back and forth with the waves.
Cross-chatter from the police radio on the ground.
Shannon Beeler picked it up and pressed the side button. “Still there, Dispatch?”
“Identify yourself! Who are you?”
The arch of her brows steepened, then lowered as part of a frown.
“Where are the detectives? Answer! Where are the detectives!”
Beeler stood frozen. The cloud of wasps drifted hypnotically around her. Many of the smaller ones landed on her, crawled a bit and then halted. By degrees her face relaxed, then sprang into crazed animation.
“Sheeeee’s watching the detectives!” Beeler laughed and sang the old Elvis Costello song into the police radio. She sang and spun slowly as she made her way to the back yard laboratory, the wasps undulating en mass around her. Finally breathless, she halted and stared at the lab, then gazed at the weathered trailer.
“Here this, people,” Beeler said, into the police radio. “You’re not welcome in the land of Sphecius speciosus. Queen Bee, out!”
She hurled the radio over the shed.
She sang even louder now. The insects flooded in and danced through the air.
They emerged from burrowed nests, the surrounding woods, and beneath Beeler’s trailer. The decibel level doubled and tripled as they closed in from the surroundings, including scores of the large ones. Gleefully Beeler sprayed them all with her formula. Then she went inside the trailer, got the keys to the exterminator truck and pulled it around back before the shed. She kicked off the reservoir containers, tainted with bug poison. She replaced them with many nests, jugs of formula, sprayers and lab equipment.
She didn’t bother packing personal items or food.
The mansion overlooking the Fear River had everything — including an underground bunker.
The current tenants would provide fine ‘rich’ dining for wasp larvae. Even now, a swarm of the insects flew around, wings collectively thudding the air like a squadron of helicopters. Some crawled over the truck as she drove off, but hundreds more — perhaps thousands — flew above and around it.
The first sirens started beyond the woods.
The dark cloud followed her three miles to the gated community.
The security guard slid open his glass door. He took a half-step out, the challenge dying on his lips as he registered the noise, then what was causing it.
Shannon Beeler sat silently in the driver’s seat. On impulse she extended her arm out the window and sliced the air. One of the large wasps suddenly hovered face-to-face with the guard. He had time enough to realize the nightmare was real, and to scream when the beast reared up, leg hooks thrusting forward. The thin legs were like iron rods. She held him in place and sank her stinger into his back, then flew off with her immobilized prize.
Beeler’s truck snapped the boom with ease.
She drove the gracefully winding avenues to the mansion she had serviced as a pest control technician, and floored it into the iron gate. The truck’s grill crumpled a couple inches, headlights shattered, the hood puckered, and a jet of hot steam erupted, but there was enough engine to make it up the driveway, where she slammed into the back of a black Mercedes. The roaring cloud passed over her as she got out and stood before a porch as broad as her entire trailer. She gazed at the alabaster columns and the massive structure that beckoned behind them.
The wasps descended upon the dwelling. They crawled over the tiered roofs, the faux parapets, thick walls. Scores of them circled around the opulent columns to greet their queen as she strode up the porch steps and stood with her hands on her hips before iron double doors. Two giant wasps wrenched them from their hinges and dropped them, clanging, at her feet.
The insects formed a black tide and flooded inside.
The owner and workers of the mansion became nest nutrition. As did the neighbors.
Soon the entire gated community was emptied of residents.
Passing motorists had their doors torn off and occupants plucked away. Often the car was still moving when the driver was ripped out, leaving the vehicle to crash.
Those of the township who could flee did so. If they didn’t leave fast enough, the wasps took them. Soon only one human could walk freely in the land of mansions on the Fear River.
The police made raid after raid.
Most of the time Beeler waited in the underground bunker’s theater for the gunfire to stop. One cop even had a chance to speak through a bullhorn before he too, was taken. Eventually they had enough firepower to bring down a few of the dog-sized wasps, but then bear-sized ones took their place and tore apart every group sent against them. Mandibles cut limbs and heads from bodies. Remains that were not consumed were dropped into the broad feeder creek, where they made an island of human flotsam.
Bull sharks, alligators and vultures feasted.
Until they, too, were plucked up.
Police snipers were snatched from the landscape, as were entire squadrons.
The Coast Guard cutter stationed in Wilmington was summoned. Shannon’s swarm rose from the forests and hillsides as a vengeful storm and intercepted the ship as it sliced the river. Booming rounds went out from the 25 mm chain gun at the bow. They ripped into the cliff face and blew holes into the sides of the mansion. Glass had no chance of remaining intact. Coasties on deck tore into the swarm with automatic rifle fire.
The insects closed on them in a thousand directions at once. Wasps perished under hails of automatic gunfire, but after fifteen minutes all gunfire had quieted, replaced by trailing shouts as Coasties were carried off or killed outright. Mammoth bugs blackened the hull and decks, and splattered them with blood and ichor. They raced in an out of the hatches. After twenty minutes they flew off. The vessel, now unmanned, ultimately rammed the sands of a nameless river beach.
Next to try were special forces. Some made it back alive, none unscathed. The more they sent, the more powerful the swarm became.
Politicians kept the larger military at bay. They cited the ancient Roman axiom that you don’t let an army operate en mass inside your borders, unless it’s a civil war.
Were it permitted to do so, the Air Force could drop a bunker buster, but there were networking tunnels now and many houses in which to evade death. The wasp swarm could darken the skies like the Persian arrows at the Battle of Thermopylae. The large ones had large offspring. Beeler did not necessarily have to create more, but she did anyway.
Small aircraft no longer flew low. Military drones fared no better.
Shannon Beeler made the FBI’s Most Wanted List. They cut her power but the bunker had its own power supply, and there were generators everywhere in this neighborhood.
Civilian activity thinned. The Fear River area in all directions became a kill zone. The wasps spread further and further out, owning the day and remaining alert but largely hidden at night. Those that succumbed to bullets and grenades were soon replaced.
Signposts went up along every road in the area. They featured a black outline of a wasp against neon yellow, over which was painted in jagged red letters:
Welcome to Shannonsland
* * *
An army colonel and police captain stood before Wes Cobb on a narrow river beach. The three were surrounded by a group of cops and soldiers who stood with rifles ready. With a few exceptions guarding the rear and flanks, they faced a broad creek stemming from the Fear River. Small waves lapped the sand and sides of Cobb’s kayak. A warm breeze diced the surface water, creating a glittering path toward the beach and pock-marked cliff at the opposite shore.
Cobb grabbed his backpack tank and electric sprayer from where they had deposited them on the sand. He hefted them into the middle of the kayak as the two commanders spoke of tides, current and wind.
The guy holding the paddle stared at its owner with contempt.
Cobb kneeled and, using the two leaders as a screen, pretended to adjust the fit of the prosthetic leg. He wasn’t all comfortable with it yet, but had already modified it a little. He pulled at the thin blade as he stood, felt the press of steel against the inside of his forearm. “The current’s still headed toward Beeler’s beach, but it won’t be if you keep my ass here much longer.”
“Our raids were done from fast-moving boats,” the colonel said, breaking off his conversation to fix Cobb with weary stare. “You putz over in that toothpick and the bugs’ll fly out and snatch you from the middle. Too easy.”
“Have you seen ’em fly at night?” Cobb replied. “… because I haven’t.”
The police captain’s face contorted in the moonlight. “Tell that to the cops and soldiers we lost on half a dozen night raids!”
“Were the boats in the water when the bugs struck, or on shore?”
Silence told Cobb he was right. “Five weeks ago they crawled into my neighborhood after dark. Busted through doors and windows like wrapping paper. One clamped onto my leg and slammed me against the wall while another … stung my wife and crawled away with her. I lost my grip on my gun. I didn’t even get a goddamn shot in.”
“Sorry,” the top cop said, her expression softening a bit.
“My neighbor showed up with his deer rifle while the goddamn bug slammed me back and forth,” Cobb said, sloshing through the shallows toward the guy with his paddle. “Howard put some rounds through its eyes and it finally went down. Used his belt as a tourniquet around my thigh. Slowed the flow just as mandibles reached from behind and took his head off. I shot his rifle a few times and blacked out. Evidently Howard had also called 911 ’cause I woke up in a hospital bed three days later. Too long for my Brenda to survive a wasp larvae.”
“You did what you could do,” the police chief said.
“No,” Cobb said. “But I am now.”
“A properly motivated fighter can rain hell on the enemy,” the colonel said. “But that acid in your tank is an inferior weapon. No range, son. Even if you did manage to drop one, it’d just fall and pin you down.”
Cobb shook his head. “They hate this concentrated shit, and I got the melted bug bodies piled up around the house to prove it. They come flying in by day, and crawling by night. Looks like she hasn’t bred them into night flyers.” The sloshing stopped as he stood before the soldier holding his paddle. “… yet.”
The colonel grunted.
The special forces soldier spun Cobb’s kayak paddle like an airplane propeller. “Might be hand paddles tonight, civilian.”
A few rough laughs came from the others.
Cobb grabbed the paddle with one hand and slid his other hand low. The propeller halted and the men eyed one another; one in camouflage shirt and pants, muscles pressing against the material, and the other in a sleeveless t-shirt, shorts and boots and looking a little frail after rapidly dropping fifteen or twenty pounds.
“One throat punch and I save the bugs the trouble of ending you, gimpy,” the dude said from behind orange-tinted sunglasses.
The moon was big and bright, but not enough for shades.
“A month ago, yeah. Not today,” Cobb said.
Cobb leaned in, and the soldier rose a bit on his toes. Cobb pressed with enough force to leave no doubt of the price of sudden movement.
“Blade’s a good idea,” the soldier said. “Might need to slit your own throat when that jacked-up water gun fails.”
Cobb stared through him with lidded eyes. For a moment he saw the horror on Brenda’s face as the stinger entered her back. He blinked the image back and jerked the paddle away. He let the knife linger, then withdrew it. “Go team.”
“I could still arrest you,” the cop said.
“For kayaking at night?” Cobb said.
“Why do it? We’ll get Beeler eventually. Yeah, the bugs are fast and strong. In the end, though, we’ll win.”
“Hasn’t happened so far. None of this shit scares her. She figures she’s due and it’s all Shannon’s land now.”
The boric acid sloshed in the tank as he pushed the kayak onto the dark waters and slid in. The others fell silently away as Cobb paddled across the broad creek. He paused beneath the overhead canopy of stars, took out a cigarette pack and tapped it against the heel of his hand. Two cancer sticks flew into the river, but he pulled a third out with his lips. He exchanged the pack for a lighter.
Tremors made the flame dance. Finally he lit the cancer stick. New, short-lived habit. Didn’t matter much without Brenda. He took several deep pulls then started again, keeping his gaze on the strip of pale beach where corpses of both human and insect had washed up.
With the red-tipped cigarette bobbing from the corner of his mouth, Cobb kept the kayak’s prow centered on the steep but not vertical cliffs, well aware that each stroke brought death that much closer. You have to know where the killers are, and where they are likely to be.
Draw them to you and you know where they are.
Buzzing started here and there from the nest holes in the cliff sides, beyond the cris-crossed trunks of Loblolly pines fractured by bombs and .50 caliber bullets. A distant voice sounded, female, crooning something unintelligible but mellifluous.
“Shut up, Shannon,” Cobb said.
He took a final drag and flicked the cigarette. The white stem and red glowing tip tumbled and then struck the shallows with a hiss. He put clear safety glasses on. Acid mist plays hell on naked eyeballs. As the prow of the kayak slid softly into the sand, he stepped out, spray rifle ready.
Only relative silence met him. No six-legged footsteps, no buzzing wings, no clicking mandibles. Just a soft breeze that whispered of Death’s arrival.
Tensed for battle and receiving none, he doused the gaps between the fallen trees for good measure. He pushed the kayak out and watched it drift away a moment. Then he started toward the cliff trail that wound up the cliff.
Sounds from above responded to his steps.
He negotiated the fallen trees, the wasp carcasses, human remains and fractured rock before arriving at the start of the trail. Moonlight gleamed off the face. In the many holes in the cliff, protruding antennae slowly moved back and forth. Mandibles knocked and clicked, along with bursts of deep buzzing and the scraping of leg hooks against stone.
A broken trail of stone steps zig-zagged upward. He sprayed every thirty feet before him and shot into the nearest holes, forcing the antennae to vanish deeper inside. He climbed up, higher and higher, boric acid sloshing in the tank on his back.
He went down a few times, but not beneath hooked legs and snapping jaws, just trips. He wasn’t all that used to the prosthetic for climbing. Gasping for breath, he finally cleared the trail and stood in the ruins of a huge flagstone patio; toppled stone walls, splintered columns of what had probably been a pergola, and what was either the remnants of a large fire pit, or the calling card of a mortar or grenade.
He glimpsed the bugs in the shadows of the trees and the ruins of the house, some half exposed in the moonlight. His streams of boric acid gave rise to a mist that lingered before slowly dissipating. He’d done this enough to know that given the numbers of bugs concentrated here, something else persuaded them to stay beyond reach.
She stepped from behind a broken column. The black sleeveless mini-dress clung to her reduced form and the high heels gleamed in the moonlight. Like himself, gone were ten or fifteen pounds of extra weight. Large dark eyes dominated her lean face. The perpetual dark rimmed glasses were gone. One arm was across her midsection, with the elbow of the other propped upon it, pistol aimed at night sky. “My swarm doesn’t like your formula! I don’t like it either.”
“To hell with you and your swarm,” Cobb snarled. He squeezed a couple bursts at her and the dark forms that inched closer from the perimeter.
Beeler ducked behind the column and the bugs scurried back.
“Stop, Wes!” she cried. “Please, I don’t want to shoot you!” Her arm and partial profile appeared with a flash and bang. The bullet tore into the stone tile at his feet, sending shards into his good leg and sparks off the steel rod of his prosthetic. He groaned a bit but did not go down.
She slowly reappeared, smoking barrel raised to the stars once again. “I didn’t want them to go after you or Brenda. I — I didn’t have to come out for this. There’s enough moonlight for normal binoculars. I see them across the river, and that it was you in the kayak. I had my swarm hold back so you could get here.”
He lowered the rifle tip and took a couple steps closer. She lowered the pistol, hammer clicking forward beneath her thumb.
“Murder agrees with you,” Cobb said, glancing at her outfit.
“Wes, don’t … I … thought you might like this.”
“Was it worth it?”
“Most of it, yes. But not this. Not with you.”
“It isn’t your world to burn, Shannon Beeler.”
“It’s take or get taken!”
“Which nest is Brenda’s body in?”
Her eyes welled with tears. “Wes, it’s been … too long.”
“Yeah, thanks for that.” He raised the rifle and squeezed the trigger.
“Wes, no ..!”
Her bullets tore through his acid stream. She screamed and her rounds dropped him. The bugs closed in, mandibles slicing into his body and taking his hands. Within the torrent of agony and fading consciousness, Cobb glimpsed a sudden light in the night sky. It grew exponentially brighter in seconds. The rush drowned out the screams and the bugs tearing him apart. There was a brief moment of realization, then the world exploded.
Back on the far shore, the colonel and police captain watched through binoculars.
“Shannon Beeler is no longer a queen bee,” said the colonel.
“We took our guy out too,” said the top cop.
“Cobb was a dead man when he left in that kayak,” the colonel said. “You saw the bugs swarm after Beeler’s rounds hit him. We did him a favor.”
A radioman stepped forward.
“Sir! Command wants to know about a second drone strike.”
“Why the hell not?” said the colonel. “Cobb was right. The bugs don’t fly at night. Let’s pound her headquarters and all those damn nests to the molecular level.”
As he uttered the words, loud buzzing started across the waters. It built exponentially as more and more joined from other directions. Dark shapes streamed forth from the cliff sides, woods, and forsaken mansions and took to the night sky.
Moonlight glowed dully upon the hard exoskeletons of thousands of monster Cicada Killers, and lit a cloud of semi-translucent wings. As Death’s shadow they raced across the waters toward them. Shouts rang out, along with the click and clatter of readying weapons and bursts of gunfire.
“Retreat!” the colonel cried, firing his .45 into the swarm.
A black shape swooped. His gun splashed into the river and he was laid out on the sand with a bleeding scalp. He started to get back up when a wasp the size of a bear clamped onto him.
The police captain drew her sidearm and fired into the beast’s eyes, then kicked it away. She stood over the fallen colonel. Flashes from her rounds lit the area.
“Looks like with proper motivation they can fly at night!” the top cop snarled, an instant before a passing hooked claw severed her arm.
The gunfire faded. Screams punctuated the bass drone of powerful wings. The others were dead or dying or becoming paralyzed provisions.
Blood spurts from the police captain splattered the water. With her remaining hand she pulled a .357 revolver from her ankle holster. She fired three shots into the eyes of the closest beasts.
Another ended colonel’s scream as a stinger sank into his back.
The final round tore through her temple.