“My new car,” Natalia said with anger.
There was pounding on the window beside her. It hurt her ears. She could see two men. One was hitting the window with a hammer. Then the window shattered with small pellets of glass flying everywhere. Her hands flew up to protect her face from the glass. She heard them unlock and open the door, then felt them grabbing at her to pull her out.
Natalia pushed back with both hands forcing them to step back. The door swung wide open. She stepped out with one hand out to push them away and the other reaching for her knife. Only for a moment did she think about the glove in the glove compartment, then she didn’t care. There was no time to grab it.
She found herself able to calculate their movement, knowing they wanted to grab her. When they again stepped toward her, she shoved the knife toward one man and a leg toward the other. In the background, she heard Bonnie getting out of the car.
A warm wet sensation coated her hand that held the knife, and she knew she had hit something. A glance confirmed that she had hit the man’s throat. He was now gagging and his hands were up grappling with the knife. She withdrew her knife, knowing this man was no longer a threat and spun on the one she had kicked.
He was backing up with his hands at his gut and a pained expression.
“Hey,” he said with a yell, but he wasn’t talking to her.
Two more men were running up, but Bonnie had her umbrella and she was aiming for them.
Natalia kept her focus on the man who was backing up.
“You fucking smashed my new car,” she said, lunging at him.
He dodged her, but she was able to slice his arm. Then he stumbled and she grabbed him. His coat was open and there was no obstruction for her knife when it entered his gut. She then smashed her elbow into his face.
She stepped back, holding the knife. It was dripping with blood. The man was sprawled on the ground panting. The other man who had been stabbed in the throat had bled out and was dead. Bonnie was holding one man. Her rapier was sticking out of his chest. The other man was down on the ground. He didn’t look like he was breathing.
Bonnie released the man while she pulled out her rapier. She pushed him to the ground, then did a slow spin, taking in the area. There was no one else. She ended by facing Natalia.
“What the fuck was this all about?” Natalia said.
“Kidnappers,” Bonnie said.
“In broad daylight?”
A car drove by.
“No one’s going to stop them,” Bonnie said. “No one wants to get involved.”
Bonnie looked around again.
“No one’s keeping track of you today?” Bonnie said.
“Your car should have sent an SOS when it got bashed.”
“We should have someone come. Maybe a cleanup crew.”
“This isn’t good then.”
“No. Everyone seems to be focused on other things. Usually you’re on the radar. Interesting that you’re not. Well, we can clean this up.”
“How? We have two not breathing, and two still breathing. And the two breathing are going to bleed out,” Natalia said.
“Help me,” the one by Bonnie said.
“We’ll have to move their car,” Natalia said.
“I’ll take their car. You take yours. Head for home.”
Bonnie turned to the man pleading for help.
“I’ll take you to a hospital,” Bonnie said. “Let me help you into the back seat.”
The man was able to stand with help, and Bonnie had no trouble getting him into the backseat of his car.
“Help me with this guy,” Bonnie said to Natalia.
The two of them lifted and put the other man who was alive into the backseat. They were both bleeding on the seat.
Bonnie popped the trunk of the kidnapper’s car. Natalia helped her put in the two dead bodies.
More cars passed them, but no one stopped to ask what happened. They only sped up to get out of the area.
“Your car looks drivable. Follow me,” Bonnie said.
Natalia slid into the driver’s seat of her car. There was blood on her hands, but it was already drying. The lack of a passenger window irritated her. As soon as Bonnie pulled away in the kidnapper’s car, Natalia put her car in gear.
The drive home was through back streets. Her car was unusually silent, and she wondered if the radar system was broken. When she pulled into the laneway, she hit the garage door remote. Bonnie parked behind the door with Uri’s car. Natalia pulled into her spot. Uri was there waiting.
“First the limo, now this,” he said, sounding angry. “I’m getting sick of repairing cars.”
She got out and came around to his side.
“Sorry,” she said, feeling bad, but not quite knowing how she had caused this.
“Nattie, this isn’t your fault,” he said in a gentler voice, putting his arm around her.
“Damn kidnappers,” Bonnie said, coming from the other car. “They rammed us.”
“Whose car is that?” Uri said, looking confused.
“Kidnappers. No cleanup showed up. No one is watching Nattie,” Bonnie said.
“How many bodies?”
“Four. Two are still breathing.”
“We’ll need Mag and Zena,” he said, heading into the house.
Natalia stayed where she was.
“This isn’t a hospital,” a man from the backseat called out.
“What are we doing with them?”
“Oh,” Bonnie said, staring at her. “You’ve never seen a cleanup have you?”
“I was there when I knifed that guy and a cleanup guy came.”
“You’ve never seen a cleanup,” Bonnie said with a shake of her head. “I’ll have to check with Uri on this.”
Uri came back out followed by Mag and Zena.
“Nattie’s never seen a cleanup,” Bonnie said.
“She can know what we do. She doesn’t need to watch.”
“How many?” Mag said.
“Four,” Bonnie said.
Zena pulled a tarp off a shelf in the garage.
“Let’s do this live wire first,” Bonnie said. “He’s too much of a talker.”
“We’ll get things ready,” Mag said, heading back into the house with Zena following.
Uri and Bonnie spread out the tarp by the backdoor of the car.
“We’re getting you out,” Bonnie said.
“This isn’t a hospital,” he said again.
“It’s a private hospital. The doctor’s waiting,” she said.
Uri and Bonnie strong armed him out and laid him out on the tarp.
“What’s this?” he said, struggling to sit up.
“We don’t want blood on everything, do we?” Bonnie said.
Uri and Bonnie pulled up the ends, swinging the man between them. They headed toward the house.
“Nattie, get the door,” Uri said.
She held open the garage door. Uri and Bonnie headed for the kitchen. Natalia’s stomach got queasy when she realized where they were heading. She knew she shouldn’t follow them, but she couldn’t stop herself.
Mag had pulled up three floor panels in a row and removed the cross pieces so there was a three by nine foot opening.
Uri and Bonnie set down the tarp and unceremoniously rolled the man into the opening. There was blood on the tarp, and they held it up so it could drip onto the man.
“Hey,” the man said, trying to roll himself over.
He coughed with the effort.
The ground around him bubbled up, then grubbies swarmed him, aiming for his chest wound. The blood seemed to attract them. He tried to pick and swat them off but the purple bristles seemed to cause him pain and he dropped them. He had a look of horror and shock when his abdomen swelled and undulated. Then, his eyes rolled back and he went limp.
Uri pulled Natalia away, leading her to the stairs. Natalia thought Mag and Zena looked jubilant while they watched.
“You don’t need to see this,” he said, taking her to the kitchen sink. “Here wash your hands.”
He left her at the sink, heading back out with Bonnie. Natalia stayed where she was. She watched them carry each body down stairs. She could hear Mag close up the floor sections and then open a new one for each body.
“You need to change,” Mag said, startling her.
She ushered her up the stairs.
Natalia showered and changed. When she headed down the stairs, she noted that the doors to her office and the nursery were still closed. The house was quiet. She went to the garage door to look. Her car was gone. Uri’s car was gone. The limo was gone because it was in the shop getting repaired. The garage door was closed, and she could only guess that the kidnapper’s car was gone.
Feeling unsettled, she stepped into the living room. The house was too quiet. She went into the kitchen. In the fridge was a gallon jug of sanguine tea. She filled a glass and found cookies in a jar. Even though she was still full from lunch, munching cookies and sipping tea had a calming effect.
She returned to the living room with her tablet to read. It was hard to focus. This was the first time she could remember that she was alone in the house. The house groaned, and she kept looking toward the kitchen expecting to see beetles flooding out, but there was nothing.
An hour or so later, she heard the garage door. She stretched and rose. Uri and Mag came into the house.
“How’s my car?” she said to Uri when he came over by her.
“In the shop getting fixed.”
“What about the other car?”
“Junk yard. Best to keep silent on this incident,” he said. “How was your lunch with Lisa?”
“Good. She’s managing. Her father is helping her.”
“It’s a rough start being on your own in the city,” he said. “Most of our young people stay in Viperia and commute to the city. They can live cheaper in bachelor houses.”
“Grazie mentioned a bachelor house.”
“A house shared by as many people as they have bedrooms for. Keeps costs way down. Grazie has managed to find a good job, but he’s saving up for a house. He’s saving even more by being in with Sherri. I think he totally gave up his spot where he was, but it’s always easy to find room somewhere if he needs it. I’m thinking of leasing out my Viperian house. Should Grazie need a place, he’ll always have a spot there.”
“We’ll take my car tomorrow. I’ll let you drive.”
“How bad is my car?”
“The radio was dead silent when I drove it home. Is that broken?”
“Yeah. It didn’t say system activation or anything when I started the car.”
“It’s in a Viperian garage. I’ll call them to check it out. It’s also worrisome that no one was tracking you today.”
“I could go run amok?”
“Maybe they’ve decided you’ve given so many truths that no one is concerned with you. They stopped watching you.”
Natalia looked at the diamond tennis bracelet on her left wrist.
“This isn’t broken is it?”
“No. I checked it while I followed Bonnie to the repair shop. You were right where you were supposed to be.”
“Cleanup… Is that what happens to all the dead bodies?”
“Most go to the big farms. They get fed to the larvae. After a couple of weeks, Mag and Zena will rake up what they didn’t eat. Any metal, plastic or rubber.”
“They’ll eat the bones.”
“Creepy. Do you feed the adults that way?”
“No. We don’t like them thinking we’re a food source. We keep them on a vegetarian diet although they won’t pass up meat.”
“Have they ever escaped in mass?”
That wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
“There’s a rule. If you’re going to keep beetles in your house, there must be two doors between you and the beetles. There’s an alarm system and cameras used to make sure we don’t inadvertently open doors when they are loose.”
“And if they are loose?”
“High-powered lights will make them run for cover. Cover is always back in their pen. We’ve never had one make it up the stairs, so don’t worry.”
“I at least know how to protect myself. Light.”
“Always. At least in the basement, it’s always a good idea to turn on a light when you go down.”
“That explains why Mag turned on the light when she came down.”
“Maybe you should go take a nap,” he said.
“Why? What are you up to?”
She noted the abrupt change of subject.
“We might go for a walk tonight,” he said with a smiled. “Go take a nap.”
His voice was more than just a suggestion.
“I’ll have nightmares about grubbies,” she said.
“Maybe we should have some for dinner, and you can eat your fears.”
“It’s not like eating a whole lobster, is it? With their eyes looking at you?”
He chuckled and shook his head.
“No. Hey, Mag?”
Mag stepped out of the kitchen.
“What’s for dinner?”
She glared at him.
“I mean, can we have some beetles for Nattie to try?”
“Yes, we might have a few,” she said.
“Thank you,” Uri said.
Mag disappeared into the kitchen.
“She hates it when you ask what’s for dinner.”
“I’ll go upstairs with my tablet. I don’t know if I can nap.”
He nodded and headed for his office.
Natalia took her tablet and went up to their bedroom. She bunched up a pillow and closed her eyes, listening to the house, but all she heard was Victoria’s heartbeat. Then Uri was beside her. She could feel the heat of his body.
She opened her eyes. It was dark.
“Did I sleep through dinner?”
“No. It’s six. I came up to get you.”
“Six? That’s late.”
“Catching and fixing beetle takes a little extra time,” he said.
She rose and went into the bathroom. Uri was waiting for her when she came out. He took her hand and led her down to the dining room table.
“Mag said we had enough for an appetizer. Personally, I think she hordes them for herself.”
“I do not,” Mag said with force when she came out of the kitchen with a platter.
The platter was piled high with black shells. There were sliced lemons in a bowl next to a bowl of melted butter.
“Stab, dip, eat,” Uri said, demonstrating by taking a shell. He scooped the white meat off with a fork and dipped into the butter before he ate it.
“You can squirt on lemon if that’s your thing. It’s not mine,” he said.
Natalia copied him. The flavor and texture were the same as lobster, except she thought it was more tender.
“Delicious,” she said.
She squeezed some lemon on her plate.
“At one bite a piece, you can see how it can take so many for a meal.”
She nodded while eating another. It didn’t take long until the platter was nothing but empty shells.
“Those are good,” she said. “How many did we eat?”
“Looks like twenty-five apiece.”
“Yeah, I can see where a meal might be a hundred or more. Can you buy large quantities?”
“Yes, but they’re pricey. Since they’re more nutritious as larvae, most places don’t let the larvae mature. The only adults maintained are the breeding adults. If you do buy adults, you only get the excess males. They are the ones that get eaten.”
“How do you tell the males from the females?”
“Males have pincers. They’re the dangerous ones. The ladies just want to eat and lay eggs.”
Mag brought out raw filets, steamed vegetables, and fresh bread.
“Thanks, Mag. Those were wonderful,” Natalia said.
“What’s the time from egg to larvae to adult,” she said after Mag left.
Uri ate a few cuts of his meat before he answered.
“Let’s see. The eggs are rather tiny. A female can lay hundreds of them. With the right heat and moisture, they hatch within days.”
He ate more meat.
“Now if you can feed them fast enough, they’re ready to pupate anywhere from six months to a year. A lot depends on the feeding.”
“We just fed ours four big meals.”
“That will certainly speed up their growth. After they pupate, then its another four weeks to emerge as the adult beetle. Mag has a cycle all planned on when to let some mature to replace aging beetles. An adult, living in our cushy environment can live up to eighteen months. I think she cycles them out before that.”
“How long if they are in the wild.”
“Months. I know in their natural habitat larvae can take up to two years before they pupate. Lots of food speeds things up.”
Uri focus back on his meat.
“Have any gotten loose here? Outside?”
“If they do, they won’t survive. Our winters will kill them. And if they did somehow survive, we don’t have the right temperatures and humidity for the larvae. And as you have tasted, too many critters out there would find them tasty and eat them up.”
“I now have a new favorite meal,” she said.
“Our basement isn’t big enough,” he said, “to have this too often.”
“Don’t you have a basement in Viperia?”
“It’s not big enough,” he said. “And not equipped to do what we do here. So don’t get any ideas.”
“So what are we doing later tonight?”
“Eat your dinner,” Uri said.