HIGH STRANGENESS

High Strangeness is the fourth book in the Tango Key series, but can be read as a stand alone. Check out our ebook store for links to Amazon and other bookstores for purchasing.

Chapter 1

The car whipped through the warm, oily darkness, up and down hills, around bends as sharp as broken bones. She gripped the steering wheel and leaned into it, trying to see the next twist. But the headlights were no better than candles against the blackness.

The tires shrieked. The car’s rear end fishtailed. She didn’t slow down, couldn’t. They were back there somewhere, seeking her, coming for her beneath the ebony skin of a sky where stars bulged like luminous pimples. But they wouldn’t find her, wouldn’t catch her or trick her again. She was a moon in hiding.

The humid air rushed through the open windows, mixing with the stink of blood. It was everywhere, on her hands and clothes, in her hair, seeping from the seats and the wind­shield, a stigmata. She couldn’t remember where it had come from and she couldn’t escape it. The odor clung to her, cov­ered her.

Her hands climbed around the steering wheel, twisting it as the road twisted. The headlights bounced off giant mush­rooms festooned in streamers of moss. As she neared them, she saw that they were trees, of course, trees whose name she couldn’t remember. And the moss, what was it about the moss? It speaks in tongues. . . . Who had said that to her? Who?

The road angled steeply upward again. She anxiously scanned the sky for the moon. Hidden, it was her consort, her confidant; exposed, it was her betrayer. Which would it be this time?

She glanced in the rearview mirror. Unrelieved darkness stretched behind her, a black continent. But she knew it was a trick, a mask, a lie. They were still after her, racing to claim her as if she were an invaluable heirloom or the artifact of some ancient civilization. She chewed at her lower lip, pressed the gas pedal to the floor, begged the car to move faster, faster, please.

The moon remained concealed and the growth of trees thickened, crowding the road and the sky until only a narrow band of stars was visible. A highway of stars that shimmered like Popsicles, close enough to lick. She recognized these stars, this sky, this Band-Aid of a road, but she couldn’t place the details in any context, couldn’t connect them to one an­other. They were like names of people whose faces she had forgotten.

Near the top of the hill the headlights washed across a lopsided wooden sign coming up on her right. Beyond it, nearly obscured by a web of hanging moss, yawned the mouth of a dirt road. Her hands remembered it and turned the wheel sharply, suddenly. The car bounced like a beach ball over ruts, potholes, ditches. Gravel pinged against the doors. Dust flew through the open windows and settled on the dash, the seat, her skin. She coughed, downshifted, tapped the brake. The trees closed in, the stars vanished. The road dipped down, down through the trees, spiraling, coiling, choked by underbrush until it simply ended.

It didn’t matter. She knew the way now, knew it as though a map had unfolded inside her, the place marked with a large black X that shouted: Here, this way, quick.

Branches clawed at the car as she dodged trees and bushes. Shadows congealed until they assumed shape and depth and loomed in the dark like buildings in a city that remained just out of reach. Panic seized her, turned her inside out like shirt, a sock, a ruined shoe. She wept and laughed until the sounds were identical and knew that what they said about her was true. She was deranged. There was no safe place in the woods, there was blood on her hands, she had seen lights in the sky, she had died and been reborn and didn’t know her name.

Then she saw it, a flash of glass, and laughed out loud. Since the little house was there, tucked away in the huge mushroom trees, then she wasn’t crazy, was she? The tires crunched over fallen branches, brush, weeds. She drove un­der the moss; it whispered across the roof of the car. The moss was real. The house was real.

She stopped at the side of it, left the headlights on, climbed out. What now? What was she supposed to do now? Her hands saved her. They remembered where she was, what to do. They pulled moss from the nearest trees and draped it over the hood, the roof, the trunk, rendering the car as in­visible as the moon.

When she was finished, she turned off the headlights, grabbed her bundle from the passenger seat, removed the keys, and locked the doors. She lit the candle that she’d car­ried in her bundle, held it up like a staff, a sword, and made her way toward the front door.

Weeds grew from the cracks in the sidewalk. Lizards skit­tered away through the tall grass. An owl hooted. The night was alive with noises that were, in some odd way, familiar to her.

The door was locked, but again her hands remembered what her mind did not: She reached into a flowerpot filled with weeds and dug around until she found a key. It was badly rusted, but it worked. The door creaked as it swung open and stale air washed over her, warm as the sea. She stepped inside quickly. After locking the door, she held the candle high so she could see.

A vaulted ceiling, exposed beams, a fireplace with a chim­ney. It seemed that she should remember these details, but she didn’t. The few pieces of furniture were covered with white sheets. Dead bugs littered the floor. The lights didn’t work. The air smelled of dust, secrets, regrets.

She hurried around, opening windows that still had screens, tearing the sheets from the old chairs, the couch, a rocking chair, waiting for a surge of memories that would fix this place within the context of the life she couldn’t recall. But only her hands and the motions of her body possessed any certainty at all.

In the hallway mirror, she gazed at the woman in the glass, a tall, thin stranger holding her candle like the Statue of Lib­erty held her torch. Free me, she thought at the reflection. Give me back my memories. But the stranger had nothing to say to her. The stranger had blood on her clothes. Madness shadowed the blue of her eyes.

“Get lost,” she whispered to the stranger, and the woman in the mirror turned away.

She fixed the candle in a pool of wax on the stone of the fireplace and stripped off her bloodstained clothes. She wrapped herself up in one of the dusty sheets, a Roman in a toga, an impostor at a costume ball.

She retrieved the candle, hastened to the kitchen, dropped the soiled clothes in the sink. She let the water run until the dust had cleared, then filled the sink and left the clothes to soak. Tomorrow she would find soap and wash them. She would hang them in the sun to dry. They would absorb the scent of trees and earth, water and sky, scents that would obliterate the sharp, metallic odor of the blood.

Whose blood?

Where?

I killed him.

The thought slammed into her. She grabbed on to the edge of the sink to steady herself. When her knees had hardened again, when she could feel her legs, she backed away from the clothes, the water, the sink, and tore into the front room where she had left her bundle. She cradled it like an infant in the crook of her arm and moved toward the stairs. Up there, on the second floor, she would be safe. She didn’t question how she knew this; she simply did. It was like the memory in her hands, pure, undiluted.

But as she climbed the stairs, her eyes fastened on the landing window just in front of her, a huge rectangle of glass that was uncovered, naked, pale with starlight. The sight of it terrified her. She didn’t think she could move past it. She began to tremble and tugged the sheet more tightly around her shoulders and arms. The window, something about the window. She almost seized it, an elusive memory of brilliant lights, a sea of light.

Then the memory was gone and she stumbled up the stairs, weeping, the emptiness of her womb like a terrible penance for a sin she couldn’t recall. She passed the first room, stopped in the doorway of the second. Here, the bed was made and thick curtains covered the windows. She melted wax onto an empty saucer and twisted the candle into it until it stuck. She set it on the nightstand next to a small lamp.

It was a child’s lamp, with a teddy bear sitting on a wooden base and a dusty, faded shade covering him like an umbrella. She touched the teddy’s black button eyes, his floppy ears, his funny ball of a tail. His mouth, no longer than a dash, seemed to smile at her. The pinched tightness returned to her chest. Her eyes filled with tears again. She didn’t know why she had chosen this room over the others, but what did it matter? The mattress was soft, the sheets were damp from the humidity, the pillows welcomed her.

Her head sank into a nest of feathers. She drew the sheet up over her, hugged her bundle against her. The windows were shut and covered and she couldn’t hear a sound. Not the wind, not the insects that were surely buzzing against the glass, not even the house. She felt small, compact, secure.

Then the candle hissed, a viper inches from her head, and she started to shake again, to weep again. She didn’t know how long the attack lasted—and that’s what it was, an attack, an assault, a violation—but after a while it passed.

Exhaustion settled through her and she closed her eyes. Her last thoughts were of blood and them, of windows ex­ploding with light, of deserted roads begging for dawn, of mushroom trees, and of moss that spoke in tongues when the wind swept through it.

(2)

Evan Nate stood in a corner of the greenhouse behind his home near Homestead Air Force Base. He was watching a large tropical spider put the finishing touches on a web she had spun between two of his papaya trees. This particular variety was a Nephili madagascariensis, a virtual giant that could grasp a human hand with its outstretched legs. Al­though it wasn’t native to Florida, it survived here quite well. Especially in the greenhouse, where the temperature was maintained between eighty and eighty-five degrees.

The web had been constructed with more than one kind of thread. The center, the spider’s lookout where she would sit motionless in wait of a prey, consisted of dry threads produced by a pair of bottle-shaped glands. Other dry threads radiated from this, spokes that extended to the rim of the web. Attached to the spokes were sticky threads, produced by two different pairs of glands, which filled the space be­tween hub and rim. These were known as the trapping spi­rals and were coated with a secretion from the glue glands. Once secreted, the substance contracted and formed small beads, or birdlime, in which insects got caught.

One would suppose, Nate thought, that the spider herself would become caught. But she gripped only the dry threads as she maneuvered around the web, adroitly avoiding any contact with the sticky spiral. She was a marvelously tactile creature, a fact that never ceased to fascinate him. By keep­ing one leg on a spoke or on a specially constructed telegraph wire, for instance, she could tell when a prey had flown into the web simply by the vibration of the thread.

If the prey didn’t move, she located its position by pluck­ing each thread with astonishing speed. Then she immedi­ately secured her victim in a cocoon of very fine silk threads secreted by yet another gland and bit it several times to par­alyze or kill it. Once the insect was completely helpless, she released it from the web and carried it to the lookout center, where it was hung by a short thread. There, she injected peptic juices into her victim and sucked them up later when all the nutrients were dissolved. The exterior skeletons were then tossed out of the web.

Spiders were an example of Nature at her most efficient best. And since this pretty lady had chosen his greenhouse for her web, he would reward her with a tidbit for breakfast. Something that would entice her to stick around and do what pesticides had failed to do

Nate studied the glass aquariums lined up on the counter to his left. Each contained a particular species of bug that had given him trouble here in the greenhouse. Fire ants, caterpillars with a fondness for periwinkles and orchids, roaches that feasted on anything, snails that had decimated his last crop of mangoes, bugs that flew, that crawled, that burrowed.

From time to time he tried different poisons on them—granules, pellets, sprays—and kept meticulous notes on what each experiment yielded. So far, though, he hadn’t found any single poison that was unilaterally efficient. But he would, sooner or later he would.

As Nate leaned close to the aquarium that held the ants, his reflection was trapped briefly in the glass: bald head, gray eyes as hard and round as marbles, a mouth more suited for a woman’s face, the hawk nose he had always hated, and the creases. The creases of time, of five and a half decades. You’re getting up there, he thought.

He tapped the glass wall; the fire ants swarmed through the intricate tunnels of their mounds, scurried across the in­ner walls. Busy busy busy. He’d stumbled into a fire ant nest years ago and before those nasty fuckers were finished with him, his feet had swollen to twice their normal size and he’d nearly died of anaphylactic shock.

From a drawer, he brought out a long metal instrument with a blunted end. He stuck a folded strip of very sticky tape to the end, then slipped the device through the trapdoor in the aquarium’s lid. Seconds later, he pulled it out, a fire ant squirming valiantly against the tape, and walked over to the web. With a second instrument that resembled a pair of elongated tweezers he extricated the tape with the ant still on it, then touched it to the birdlime in the web. The spider, instantly alerted by the vibrations, raced toward the fire ant.

Nate smiled as he watched, anticipating the instant when the spider would pounce. But the spectacle was spoiled by the peal of the phone, a sharp, irritating noise that seemed to echo within the walls of the greenhouse. Even if he ig­nored it, if he let his wife or daughter pick up in the house, the caller would eventually track him down.

They always did.

“Nate here.”

“Colonel, sorry to, uh, disturb you at this hour.”

“I was up.” He moved toward the web, the telephone line stretching. “What is it, Doctor?”

“We have a, uh, problem here.”

Yes, of course. His callers always had problems that he was supposed to solve. “What sort of problem?” He watched the spider wrapping the fire ant in a neat, silken cocoon.

“One of our patients has escaped and killed Vance Liscomb and an attendant in the process.

Liscomb. Christ. He squeezed the bridge of his nose, sud­denly conscious of a debilitating fatigue that nibbled at the edge of his awareness. “And just what do you expect me to do about it, Dr. Winthrop? Revive him? Bring him back from the dead?”

“Uh, no, sir, I thought you might want to know.”

“Yes, yes, of course. Thank you for telling me. I’ll take care of things from here.”

“But that isn’t all.”

Winthrop’s hesitation didn’t bode well. “Yes? Go on, what else?” He watched the spider carrying her treasure to the center of the web, watched her biting it, injecting it with peptic juices. Digested alive, he thought. “Dr. Winthrop? Are you still there?”

“Yes, sir, yes, I am. The, uh, patient was Margaret Wick­erd.”

Nate shut his eyes and dozens of details crowded his head, each one shouting, demanding his immediate attention with the crassness of shoppers at the return counter the day after Christmas. Liscomb, Margaret Wickerd, who else? Who? “Have the police been called?”

“Yes, sir.”

He was surrounded by inept fools. “You should have called me first, Dr. Winthrop.”

“I. . . I wasn’t here when it happened. Dr. Treak found the bodies and under the circumstances, well . . . I mean, there was a nurse who saw the bodies and a couple of the patients and well, what else could she do, Colonel?”

His head pounded. He stared at the spider, who had re­turned to the center of her web, waiting again. The cocoon that held the fire ant dangled nearby like some tiny, pale lantern. Such marvelous efficiency, he thought wistfully, and he was surrounded by incompetents.

“Is there anything I should do, Colonel?”

He almost laughed. “You’ve already done it, Doctor. Say as little as possible and I’ll be in touch.”

Nate disconnected, then stood there with his hand on the receiver, his eyes fixed on the web. Do nothing for now, he thought. Do nothing and wait, like the spider.

 

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