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.