The bell over the door of the leasing office rattled. He put down his cup o’noodles, turned down the TV, and shuffled out of the back room and up to the front desk, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Always when he was eating, he thought, never when it’s quiet, always when I’m doing something…
Then he saw the woman.
“Beautiful” didn’t really cut it, and “gorgeous” fell far short. Six feet in the sharpest heels he’d ever seen, golden skin, long flowing platinum hair, and the sort of curves that’d need new kinds of math to describe properly. She stood in the doorway, looking bored. The extent of her luggage appeared to be a purse over her shoulder and a large round object, the size of a big beachball, in a plastic bag, resting on the ground next to her. She wore a simple white trench coat. A huge pair of black sunglasses were perched on her perfect nose. He wondered what color eyes she had – ice blue, no doubt.
He ran a hand through his hair and sucked in his gut.
“Well, good afternoon, miss,” he said, trying out a long disused smile. “Welcome to Lancetilla Estates, how can I help you this afternoon?” She swept the room with her gaze, resting it eventually on the little round man behind the counter, making him feel even smaller than he usually did.
“You have a room for rent here,” she said simply, her voice deep and cool, like the echo of water in caves.
“Yes, we have nine bungalows here at the Estates, and three are currently unoccupied,” he said, pointing at the fly-spotted map of the property. A hotel until the 70s, Lancetilla had been bought up by a management company and turned into rentals, although not much else than the pricing schemes had changed since then. The stucco and adobe had had their bright pink paint redone a few times, and the palm trees had gotten a little bigger and shabbier, but that was about it. The woman scanned the map, and pointed to the farthest bungalow, near the back, overlooking the concrete-lined creek bed beyond.
“Yes, a lovely little house, shall we take a look at it?” He reached for the key and started around the desk, but the woman simply shook her head.
“I will take it,” she said.
“Oh, well, rent is $1200 a month, and there’s a security deposit of the same amount. Also,” he said, smoothing down his unruly hair. “Do you have any, ah, references?” She reached into her purse and dropped a pleasingly thick sheaf of bills on the counter – $2400 in all. His hand trembled a little as he counted it.
“Yes, Mr. Franklin, a most unimpeachable reference,” he laughed nervously. He looked at the bills, then up at his distorted reflection in the woman’s sunglasses. He coughed. “Do you, uh, plan to always pay in cash?” He tried to sound casual.
“Always in cash,” she said, the ripple in her voice sending a shiver up his spine.
“Well, in that case, we can dispense with the paperwork,” he pocketed the money and smiled. “Paperwork just makes things more complicated. We’ll keep things nice and friendly, won’t we?” He handed her the key to Number 9. She dropped it in her purse and then, delicately and with exceptional care, as if it were very precious, she gently lifted the big round plastic bag off the floor and hugged it to her chest.
“Allow me,” murmured the desk man, waddling to open the door for her. “My name is Al, and I’m here if you ever need anything.” She didn’t respond, walking up the gravel path between the Pride of Barbados plants lining the walk, red and orange flowers dipping their heads in worship. He ran inside and followed her progress towards the house from the window. He licked his lips.
“Hate to see you leave, baby,” he sighed, “but love to watch you go.”
That evening, he saw her stride down the path and out the gate, turning left, towards the big shopping center a few blocks away. About an hour later he saw her walking back, lugging a cheap, thin mattress on her back and a roll of curtains in a plastic bag around her wrist, walking easily and quickly to her bungalow. Fifteen minutes later, she repeated the brisk walk to the shopping center, returning with a folding chair under one arm and swinging a huge jug of granulated ant poison in the other.
Al waited a few minutes, then took a stroll, ostensibly making an evening check of things, but in reality heading almost directly for Number 9, way at the back. The grackles flapped and cackled overhead, winging towards their evening roosts in the knock-off zocalo of the big shopping center’s parking lot. As he approached, he saw the woman, still in her white trench coat and heels, drifting across the lawn. She was carefully and methodically going over Number 9’s patchy yard, pouring the poison on each of the little fire ant pyramids that sprouted out of the Earth.
“They’re pretty bad around here,” he said, walking up and watching her kill another pile. “Sandy soil, I guess they like it.” She walked to another heap and doled out more death. “Don’t think they get in the houses much, though. I mean, never had any complaints.” She moved again, and he followed. “All settled in, then? Need anything.” She glanced briefly in his direction, the huge black sunglasses reflecting the sodium-orange lights that burned on the front of all the bungalows. “Okay, well, welcome, and have a good first night!” he said, hurrying away, wiping the cold sweat beading on his forehead.
He didn’t see her again for three days, and he kept an eye out for her alright. He knew she was in there because the lights inside would go on, glowing redly from behind the curtains, but there was very little activity. Then, just as dusk was creeping through the palms, he saw her walking down the gravel path. She was dressed the same, white trench coat, heels, sunglasses. When she got to the gate she turned right, towards the bars and what little nightlife this far end of the city had.
He saw her come back too, not that he waited up for her or anything, he just happened to be sitting in the dark with the curtains open. She was leading a man up the gravel path, tall and handsome and wearing a very tight t-shirt. He was a little unsteady on his feet and, every now and then, he would stumble or trip and she had to help him get his bearings. In addition to being drunk, he was also preoccupied with her body, always pawing at her or reaching for her, trying to pull her in close. She was stronger than she looked though, and kept him moving towards her little house at the back of Lancetilla Estates.
“Lucky bastard,” muttered Al, watching until they vanished around the corner.
The next morning he was up, bright and early, pretending to water plants while watching the lady joggers run by, when he saw her. She was in her unchanging uniform, sunglasses flashing in the early light. She was carrying a black garbage bag, not very full but apparently heavy from the way it sagged. He watched her walk to the dumpsters on the edge of the little parking lot, but instead of dropping the trash in one of them she hopped lightly up and over the back wall, scaling its seven feet of bricks with impressive athleticism and disappearing down the other side.
He was so surprised, he forgot about the joggers and hurried over to the fence. He ran, puffing, to the old metal door and fumbled with his keys in the rusty lock, finally getting it to groan open. He stuck his head out into the scrubby wasteland behind the Estates just in time to see her white figure vanishing into the thick tamarisk that grew down near the creek. He sucked a tooth, and then closed the door and went back to watering. Ten minutes later he saw her come around through the front entrance to Lancetilla, the now empty garbage bag stuffed into one of the pockets of her trench coat.
She laid low for another three days, then reappeared as the sun went down. She brought another man back to her place before midnight, a different man, this one blond and willowy but just as eager to follow as the one before. This time Al followed them, walking in the damp buffalo grass rather than the gravel to muffle his steps. He crept up to the house from the far side, staying in the shadow of the loquat tree near the porch. The curtains were drawn tight, but he saw movement and shadows. First her figure slunk across the scene, then the man, drawing his shirt up and off over his head and tossing it aside. Then he vanished, and Al heard a deep groan, and caught fleeting glimpses of tangled, shadowy limbs.
“Must be some of that kama sutra shit,” he said to himself, wishing she hadn’t drawn the curtains so tightly.
The man was gone by the next morning, and again Al surreptitiously watched the woman in Number 9 carry a garbage bag over the back wall and return with it, empty, through the front gate. He thought about walking down to the creek to see what he could find, but decided against it. It was already hot and would only get hotter, and the mosquitos must’ve been murder down by the water.
That seemed to be her pattern; she would stay in the bungalow for days at a time, never coming out except to check for ants, poking the nests with a stick to make sure they were dead and pouring poison on any she found living. He never saw the men leave and figured that maybe they stayed over for days at a time too, because once he had gone over to snoop around and heard noises from inside the house. It had been in the day time, and he had made a big show of checking the meters on the neighboring units, looking at tree limbs, real landlord stuff so as to not draw any suspicion. When he got to Number 9 he stood under one of the back windows and lifted the circuit breaker cover, but he was really just listening. The curtains were drawn, of course, but he heard a noise from inside, the sound of many quick pounding footsteps, more than one person certainly, given the fast drumbeat that he heard thumping up to the window. It was actually a little creepy, the speed that they’d moved, and he dropped the breaker lid and circled the house, hearing the same thrumming rumble of feet charging through the house, moving to whatever window he was closest too. The curtains never moved, but Al felt like he was being watched, and the idea of unseen people skittering around inside a house to keep an eye on him gave him the shivers. He hurried back to his office.
But, regardless, she was prompt with the rent. The night of the 31st she’d brought in another twelve hundred dollars in cash, this time mostly in small bills, tens and twenties, which he actually preferred. He counted it, and smiled up at her.
“Settling in?” he asked, and she just nodded and started towards the door. It had been another three days of hiding for her, and he figured she was heading out on the prowl again. “Happy hunting!” he called to her, and the way she’d turned those big black lenses on him and smiled had given him a palpitation.
It was a week later when Al had his sudden brainstorm, the idea popping into his head in the middle of the night, fully formed and crystal clear, waking him up in a cold sweat.
Aw, shit, he thought.
She was a hooker, and she was bringing her Johns to Number 9. That’s why she paid in cash – not like you file a W-2 in a job like that. Everything’s always under the table.
And he’d taken her cash and given her a nice little landing pad, all off the books, all completely illegal. He swallowed and groaned into his hands.
That was bad, very bad, for two reasons. One: if she got busted and cops came to talk to him, they’d pretty quickly get the idea that he was in on the scheme, that he might’ve been a pimp or something even! They sent people to jail for that, serious jail, human trafficking and all.
And, B: he wasn’t even getting a cut. Rent was one thing – but if she thought she could just hunker down and turn tricks in there for free, well, the bitch had another thing coming. They’d work something out all right. Hell, he smiled to himself, he might not even need to be paid in money, when it came right down to it.
The next morning, around ten, he went on over, bringing the paperwork and a cell phone with him. He knocked on the door of Number 9, heard all the same scrambling and scratching around inside. Damn, how many people were in there? Well, they’d have to take a hike, he had business with the little lady. He hitched at his pants, and pounded on the door.
“I know you’re in there Miss!” he said, putting on his best Serious Landlord voice. The thumping quieted down, and then the door opened, just a crack. He couldn’t see anything inside; it was completely dark.
“Go away,” she said, smooth and cold as black ice. The door shut, and he pounded on it again.
“Listen up,” he said, “I know what you’re up too in there!” There was a heavy silence on the other side of the door, but he thought he could hear something. “If you don’t want to talk to me, fine, but maybe you’ll have to talk to the next round of folks who come a’ knocking!” There was a click, and the door creaked open.
“Enter,” she said. He swallowed, and pushed the door wide open.
Spartan was the word for it. There was just the mattress laying against the far wall, and the folding chair in the corner, and that was it. Blinds down, curtains drawn, the kitchen looked completely unused and empty, the cupboards all hanging open and bare, just like he’d left it when the last tenant had moved out. The door to the bedroom was shut tight.
The woman stood in the middle of the room, her hands in the pockets of her trench coat. Her heels were off, tossed against the wall, but she had her sunglasses on. She just stood there, waiting, motionless. He coughed and stepped inside, slamming the door shut behind him. He wasn’t going to be thrown, he didn’t care how tall or how hot she was.
“Bet you thought you had yourself a pretty good little scheme going, huh?” he said, sneering. She puckered her mouth a bit, and then shrugged.
“I’ll admit,” she said, “I didn’t think anyone knew about us.”
“Us?” he said.
“People,” she let the word linger, “like me.”
“Oh! Ha, well, I may look like an upstanding citizen, but I’ve been around the block a few times, lady, lemme tell ya. I know all about your kind,” Al said. “And I know why you came to Lancetilla Estates – close to the downtown, lots of bars.”
“Good hunting ground,” she smiled, and Al shivered in spite of himself. “Much better than where I came from.” She paused, and seemed to grow wistful. “Hard to live now, up there in the mountains.”
“Small town girl with big city dreams, huh?” he smirked. “Well look, I’ve been watching you. I see you bringing those men back here, and I know what you’re up to.” He waited for her to protest, make an excuse, something, but she just stood there and stared at him through those big black sunglasses. He was going to have to push her, he realized. “So I got your number, right, and I know everything that goes on here. One word from me, and you’re done, finished. So, the question for you is, what are you going to do about?” He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow at her.
“If you know so much,” she said, undoing the belt of the trench coat, “I’d have thought you’d have guessed.” She lifted a long, delicately fingered hand to her face, and removed the sunglasses.
Where he’d expected her baby blues to be, there were instead two very large sockets, twice as big as the usual sort on a normal face. In each socket there rolled three huge, round eyes, each the color of rich golden amber, their lenses catching and reflecting the light from the bulb overhead as she moved. She threw the coat off her rapidly swelling body, black hairs sprouting in furry clumps from everywhere on her skin. Her arms and legs twisted and came apart, each limb splitting into two more, the hairy jointed legs ending in two sharp claws. Her mouth split, wider and wider, and her teeth erupted outwards, her whole upper jaw pushed out and forward and cracked into two heavy pedipalps that tapped nervously in the air.
The whole transformation took less than a few seconds, and when she’d finished, Al was staring at a bear-sized spider, crouched in the middle of the room.
He stumbled backwards, reaching for the door, but she moved like lighting, the drumming beat of her eight legs as she scurried forward echoing loudly in the empty room. She was on him suddenly, and he could only whimper as she sunk her huge fangs into the side of his neck. He felt a searing pain and a burning sensation that flooded through his body, pouring through his veins. Then she withdrew her fangs and stepped back, her amber eyes glittering down at him. The fiery agony faded, replaced by a cold numbness that seeped into his joints and muscles, but didn’t seem to dull his mind or consciousness.
“Every year, in the mountains,” she said, rubbing her front legs together as she watched him, her voice hideously unchanged. “It grew leaner, harder to live. Prey was scarce, the trees were cut, we were forced higher and higher, deeper and deeper, further and further away. One by one my sisters died, one by one our tunnels grew cold and quiet, until I was the only one left. I would not die, I could not die.” She scuttled over to him, prodding him roughly with one of her long hairy legs. He whimpered and drooled and could not move. She seemed satisfied.
“I came down out of the mountain,” she said, rending his clothes from his body with her heavy claws. “I did not know what I would find. But then, in the valley, a wonder! A miracle! Lights, sparkling, thousands, millions of them, and around them swarmed so much prey, so many warm, soft bodies. I came here, and knew that I had been saved. That we had been saved!” She flipped him over onto his belly and then straddled him, her eight legs splayed wide. Delicately, she gripped him by the back of the neck with her powerful pedipalps. He felt her hot breath, and she kept talking as she dragged naked him across the floor towards the bedroom door. “We would not die! I had found food enough, not only for me,” she dropped him at the door, and used her pedipalps to manipulate the knob. She pushed it open, lifted him, and brought his limp body into the room. “But enough, also, for my children.”
She reared up, letting him see the large, beachball sized silken egg sack in the middle of the room. It was gauzy and thickly woven, but he thought he could catch glimpses of faint movement within.
“Providence that you came when you did,” she whispered, dropping him in front of the sack. She stroked the ball with her limbs lovingly, then drummed softly against its outer surface. The movement inside intensified, and he heard a rattling coming from within it. “They are hungry when they are born, ravenous. I thought I was going to have to take them out with me tonight, a hard thing, dangerous, but now?” She sliced the sack open with her claw and dodged nimbly backwards. “Now we can stay in and relax.”
The baby spiders were the size of his fists, dark and fuzzy with tiny amber eyes. Two dozen at least poured out of the egg sack and rushed hungrily over his body, sinking their fangs into his exposed flesh. Her venom meant he didn’t feel anything at all, not even when his insides started to liquify, although he was aware of it all happening, right up to the end.