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By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1982 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Early June — Lapeer Parish, La.
"You ever seen anything like this?" the farmer asked his good friend and neighbor. "I haven't." He held a dead bug in his hand. The bug stretched from wrist to fingertips.
His friend shook his head. "Nope. Can't say as I have. Can't say as I ever want to see another one. That's a mean-lookin' sucker, I'll tell you that. What the hell is that thing?"
"I was hopin' you could tell me. Like to have scared the pee outta my wife this morning. She found it in the kitchen and stomped on it." He grinned. "And don't make any smart cracks about my wife's weight."
"I never once thought about it," the man chuckled. His friend's wife was indeed ample. "Was there more than one of them things?"
"Nope. And I hope I don't see another one. Sally damn near gave me a heart attack with all that whoopin' and hollerin' this morning. Her jumpin' around shook the whole house." He dropped the bug on the ground. "How's your crop comin' along?"
"Beautiful. Just beautiful. I've never seen beans this high this early. I got a hunch this is gonna be a year we'll all remember."
* * *
"I worry about you, Billy," his wife said. "You've been working long hours of late — too many hours. You need to slow down. You're not a youngster anymore, you hear?"
"I hear, but it just can't be helped, honey. When I get a call to spray a house, I gotta go." He buttered a hot biscuit and looked at the jars of home-canned preserves and jellies on the kitchen table. He selected blackberry and spread a spoonful on the biscuit. "I tell you this. I have never seen so many spooky housewives in my life. They got me and that other old boy jumpin' crazy tryin' to keep up with all the calls to spray."
"What is it this time?" she asked. "Fire ants getting in the houses?"
"No," he shook his head. "That's the funny part. It's something else, but I can't find it — never seen it. Whatever it is."
The woman stood up from the table and put her hands on her hips. "Billy, that doesn't make any sense. If you don't know what it is — if you've never seen it — how can you spray for it?"
He buttered another biscuit and frowned as his wife moved the jellies and jams and the plate of biscuits off the table, out of his reach. She'd been cautioning him lately — bitching was a better word — about his weight. "I just been mixin' the standard chemicals for sprayin' houses. Must be workin'. No one's called to complain about it."
Come to think of it, he silently pondered, that bug man up in Barnwell told me yesterday folks been disappearing. What's that got to do with bugs? he asked himself.
His wife's voice brought him back to the present. She softened her stern gaze and smiled at her husband of thirty years, "You just be careful you wash up good and leave your boots in the workshop. I sure don't want any funny bugs in this house." She laughed. "That wouldn't be very good for business, would it?"
He returned her smile and then put down his half-eaten biscuit, his expression serious.
"What's wrong, Billy?"
"I did see something up under the Garrett house day before yesterday. I think I did. Just caught a glimpse of it. But damned if I can tell you what it was."
"What do you mean, Billy?"
"I just never saw anything like it before in my life. That's what I mean. I saw it for just a second — part of a second — but God! it was ugly. And something else, too: it was mean-lookin'."
"What did it look like?"
Billy started to tell her, then changed his mind. No point in getting into a big discussion about something he wasn't even sure he'd seen, much less knew what the hell it was. He might even get her all worked up and she'd worry. But, Billy frowned, biting at his lip, he was certain he'd seen that thing, and he was sure he had never seen anything like it before. And he also knew, from years of past extermination experience, if there was one bug, there was sure to be others. And not just a few, either; nature didn't work that way. He inwardly shuddered at just the thought of thousands, millions of ... them!
He rose from the table, aware of a tightening in his belly. He had eaten too much-again. But the tightness in his belly, he knew, was not only from too much food. It also resulted from something he had never before experienced in this business: fear.
"Gotta go," he said.
She kissed him. "You take it easy, Billy," she said gently. "I'll see you later."
He returned the kiss, with more ardor than usual. His wife flushed from the sudden passion in him and pushed him away.
"Billy! It's seven o'clock in the morning. What's got in to you? Get away now, you hear?" But she was smiling and felt like giggling.
He patted his wife on the rump and she did giggle, watching him leave, the back door slamming. She would see him again, but he would be drastically changed; it would not really be the Billy she had kissed goodbye, and she would never have to fuss at him again for eating too much.
* * *
With the warm sun beating down on the land, instinct told the creatures it was time to move, to march. If they were to survive, they must find food. So from under logs and rocks and rotted places, out of old barns, tumble-down shacks and old storage areas, and from under the floors, in the walls, and out of attics they crawled, millions of them.
Almost all had survived the nesting period after the short gestation time that spring. Not that the coolness would have bothered them even had they been normal creatures. These creatures were practically indestructible, immune to the elements. But the chemical Nandy had touched the eggs, producing mutants tougher than their ancestors, stronger, much bigger, more aggressive.
For several weeks now, they had fed on their smaller cousins, and were content with that food. But now their cousins were all gone. The mutants were growing larger, and they had developed a voracious appetite.
Their metabolism had been altered due to the chemical N-AN-1-D, altered drastically, their senses sharpened to a fineness never before experienced in their species — almost a thought process. They became as one, like the much-feared army ants of South and Central America, where for years telegraph poles had to be made of iron, to keep the ants from eating them. The mutants split into armies of thousands, with leaders and soldiers and scouts, with a central point they marched from and returned to.
None of the pesticides known to man would affect them for long — could kill them. They might halt them temporarily, forcing them to regroup and wait until their bodies could produce the chemicals necessary to combat the insecticides they encountered along the way. And because they were so large, and their metabolism altered so drastically, they could produce that resistant in a matter of minutes.
Man had finally done it, had finally stepped over the line and produced, as scientists had warned for years he would, a super-strain of insect.
The leaders sent out the scouts, and the scouts sent back the message: food is near. The leaders began clicking their jaws, producing a tiny sound, and soon others did the same, thousands of jaws working in unison, signaling the march had begun.
Through eyes that could look in all directions at once, the scouts observed two men talking by the side of the Parish road, near the open doors of a pickup. The men leaned against the hood, smoking and talking.
The creatures moved closer, through the bean field. The jaw-clicking increased.
"What the hell is that noise?" one farmer asked.
"I don't know. Seems like it's comin' from out there in the field. Weird! Come on, let's go take a look."
The men walked across the ditch, up the far side, then climbed the fence, stepping into the bean field, lush with unexpected growth. The clicking grew louder as they walked deeper into the field. Then, as if on signal, the clicking stopped. The silence grew heavy around the men, almost tangible.
"Now, what the hell?"
"I don't know," his friend replied, his voice little more than a whisper. Just the faintest touch of fear crawled up his spine, moving around to tickle his belly with cold fingers. He tried to shrug off the sensation, thinking: I'm a grown man, and there isn't a damn thing out here in this bean field for me to be afraid of. But he shuddered involuntarily, the fear not quite releasing him. His friend caught the gesture.
"Nothing!" the answer was short. "Yeah," he admitted. "That sound. I never heard anything like it before. You?"
"No," he said, then slapped at his ankle. "Damn! Something just bit the hell out of me!"
"Fire ant," his friend replied. "Ever since the government banned any chemical that would do any good, they're all over the place. I lost a dog to some last year. Damn government, always sticking their noses into things don't concern 'em. They're gonna keep on protectin' little fish and bugs and the damn bugs gonna take over the world some day."
"I heard that," his buddy said, once more slapping at his ankle. He raised his hand from his boot and for one second stood staring at the ugly creature attached to the back of his hand. The creature boldly returned the stare. The man's eyes held a mixture of fear and revulsion.
The creature's eyes gleamed with maliciousness.
Then both men began slapping at themselves, screaming and running across the field.
* * *
Baronne and Lapeer Parishes are mostly good, rich farm land, timber, and bayous. Good hunting, good fishing, good logging, and none of the stresses of city living. The combined populations of the two Parishes do not exceed twenty thousand. Lapeer Parish is the larger — land-wise — of the two. There are only five incorporated towns in the combined Parishes, the largest being Bonne Terre, population 8,000. Barnwell ran a close second — population, 7,491. Most agree it is a good place to raise a family.
The racial mix, both Parishes included, is about two to one, with whites in the majority. While white and black do not embrace each other in passionate gestures of brotherly love, there have never been any really serious, violent clashes. There are hot-headed nincompoops, narrow-minded racists (on both sides of the color line), but most people in the two Parishes try to ignore the troublemakers and go their own way. There are several high schools, about a half dozen elementary schools, and one private academy in the two Parishes. There have been no riots, burning, or looting. Of course, neither Parish had ever experienced full-scale panic. Yet.
* * *
"I'm tellin' you, sheriff," the farmer said. "Carl Fowler and Dick Harris is gone. Vanished! There is not one sign of either of 'em anywhere. I looked!"
Sheriff Mike Grant of Baronne Parish looked across his desk and shook his head, thinking he really didn't need this tale this early in the morning. "Jim, come on, now — two grown men just don't suddenly disappear in the middle of a bean field."
"Mike." The farmer put his hands on the desk. "You tell me what happened to them. Now, I was there, you wasn't. I found the trucks, both of 'em, parked by the side of the road. One door was open, driver's side."
"And you waited how long before coming here?"
"Hell! Half hour. Maybe forty-five minutes. I waited there by the trucks 'cause I had some business to talk over with Dick. Then I went lookin' for them. I prowled the left side, Dick's field. Must have stomped through forty acres of beans, hollerin' for them. Then I started over to Hampton's field, on the other side of the road." The farmer shut his mouth abruptly, as if he had said too much already.
Sheriff Grant waited, looking at the man. Half a minute ticked by. "Well?" Mike urged.
"Well, what?" the farmer said defensively. He would not, for some reason, meet the sheriff's eyes.
Sheriff Grant sighed patiently as he drummed his fingertips on the desk. "What did you find in Hampton's field, Jim? Hell, what else are we talking about?"
"I didn't go in there." The man's reply was sullen. He would not meet the sheriff's eyes.
This is worse than pulling teeth from a bull 'gator, Mike thought, and wondered, for the millionth time, why he ever got into law enforcement, more than twenty years back. "Jim? Did you see anything in Hampton's field that made you suspicious?"
The farmer said nothing for a few seconds. "Nope," he finally replied. A short, sulky answer.
Sheriff Grant took a sip of lukewarm coffee, then lit a cigarette. He remembered he had promised his wife he would quit smoking. That morning he had promised her he would try to quit. He decided to put it off for another day. Tomorrow, he would try again. "Why didn't you go into Hampton's field to look for Fowler and Harris?"
The farmer shifted uncomfortably in the wooden chair. "'Cause of that damn clickin'!"
"Clicking? Clicking! Beg pardon, Jim? Did you say clicking?"
"That's what I said, Mike. You heard me right. Clicking. The damnest sound I ever heard in my life. Clicking. No other word for it."
Sheriff Grant looked at his chief deputy, sitting across the room. Walt Burns shrugged his shoulders and asked, "You been drinking, Jim?"
"Now, damnit, Walt!" The farmer shifted his gaze from the floor to the deputy. His face flushed with anger and embarrassment. "You know damn well I haven't had a drink in ten years. Not since I joined the church. You know that for a fact."
"I had to ask, Jim."
"S'okay. I understand. No hard feelings. You got a job to do."
"Did you see anything that might have caused this clicking sound?" Sheriff Grant asked.
"Nothing. That's what kinda spooked me."
"We'll check it out, Jim," Mike assured the man. "And thanks for coming in."
"Didn't mean to get all sulled up, Mike. But I got scared out there in that field. Really scared. And what bugs me is I don't know why."
Mike smiled. "Jim, you wouldn't be human if you didn't get scared time to time. I do, believe me."
The office door closed behind the farmer. Sheriff Grant leaned back in his chair. "That's three disappearances today, Walt. And it's still early."
"We going to sit on it?"
"Tight. Got to, until we find out what in the hell is goin' on."
Walt got to his feet. "I'll check this one out."
"Walt?" Sheriff Grant said. The deputy met his eyes. "You be careful."
The chief deputy nodded his understanding and left the room.
Burns headed out into the Parish, toward Hampton's place. What was happening in the Parish was a mystery to him, but he wasn't spooky about it. He didn't doubt Jim's words about hearing something, but it was something that could probably be explained away, like some damned ornery kids hiding out in the field making funny noises, getting a good laugh out of scaring the grownups.
As for where Fowler and Harris had gone off to — who the hell knew? Probably found a woman and were taking turns humping her in some hunting camp back in the timber. But why would they leave their trucks sitting by the side of the road? That part didn't make any sense.
But nothing about this really made any sense, he concluded. Any of it.
Chief Deputy Burns found the trucks and carefully looked around for any signs of violence. He found nothing out of the ordinary. There was no traffic on the Parish road. He had not seen one car or truck since turning on to Parish 119. Odd, he thought. He looked across the road to the house belonging to the Jeffersons. Grass needed mowing. Odd, 'cause Mrs. Jefferson loved to work in the yard. Her car and his truck in the drive, so both of them were home.
Walt shook his head and stepped out into the bean field, walking the rows. He heard no clicking.
* * *
The housewife swung the broom savagely, crushing the life from the ugly bug: She had never seen a bug so frightening — so ugly! And so big. And something else: it acted like it wasn't afraid of her. It stood its ground and glared at her. And it hissed and clicked and finally tried to attack her.
With the toe of her new tennis shoes, she pushed the dead thing onto a dust pan and, with a grimace, dropped the monster into the trash.
"Damn that pest control man!" she said. "He said I wouldn't be bothered with bugs this year."
The house was quiet this time of the morning. She looked around the kitchen: spotless and good-smelling, with the faint odor of hotcakes and bacon from breakfast lingering with the smell of ribbon cane syrup and the pie baking in the oven.
Excerpted from The Uninvited by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 1982 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It starts with a little spill. Just some toxic junk. No big deal. Until that stuff changes something. Creates something new and deadly. If you hear the clicking, it’s already too late. Another scary good story from this author with more creatures. I can’t tell you what they are. I can tell you they appear from out of nowhere, strip a body down to the bare bones in the time it takes to say, Oh sh#t!, and vanish just as quickly. No place is safe. As the town is slowly cut off from the rest of the world, the reports of missing animals and people rises and more dessicated bodies are discovered. Once again, this author gave me horror the way I like it. Creatures, a desperate struggle to survive, and no guarantees that your favorite characters will still be standing at the end.