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He led us past the first two rows and stopped at the third. "Some sort of classification system would have been clever, but I know where everyone is and I'm the one who feeds them."
Turning left, he stopped at a dark tank. Inside was a floor of mulch and leaves, above it a tangle of bare branches. Nothing else that I could see.
He pulled something out of his pocket and held it between his fingers. A pellet, not unlike Spike's kibble.
The wire lid was clamped; he loosened it and pushed, exposing a comer. Inserting two fingers, he dangled the pellet.
At first, nothing happened. Then, quicker than I believed possible, the mulch heaved, as if in the grip of a tiny earthquake, and something shot up.
A second later, the food was gone.
Robin pressed herself against me.
Moreland hadn't moved. Whatever had taken the pellet had disappeared.
"Australian garden wolf," said Moreland, securing the top. "Cousin of your Italian friend. Like tarantula, they burrow and wait."
"Looks as if you know what it likes," said Robin. I heard the difference in her voice, but a stranger might not have.
"What she likes--this one's quite the lady--is animal protein. Preferably in liquid form. Spiders always liquefy their food. I combine insects, worms, mice, whatever, and create a broth that I freeze and defrost. This is the same stuff, compressed and freeze-dried. I did it to see if they'd adapt to solids. Luckily, many of them did."
He smiled. "Strange avocation for a vegetarian, right? But what's the choice? She's my responsibility....Come with me, perhaps we can bring back some memories."
He opened another aquarium at the end of the row, but this time he shoved his arm in, drew out something, and placed it on his forearm. One of the vertical bulbs was close enough to highlight its forrn on his pale flesh. A spider, dark, hairy, just over an inch long. It crawled slowly up toward his shoulder.
"Is that what your mother found, dear?"
Robin licked her lips. "Yes."
"Her name is Gina." To the spider, now at his collar: "Good evening, senora." Then to Robin: "Would you like to hold her, dear?"
"A new friend, Gina." As if understanding, the spider stopped. Moreland lifted it tenderly and placed it in Robin's palm.
It didn't budge, then it lifted its head and seemed to study her. Its mouth moved, an eerie lipsynch.
"You're cute, Gina."
"We can send one just like her to your mother," I said. "For old time's sake."
She laughed and the spider stopped again. Then, moving with mechanical precision, it walked to the edge of her palm- and peered over the edge.
"Nothing down there but floor," said Robin. "Guess you'd like to go back to Daddy."
Moreland removed it, stroked its belly, placed it back in its home, walked on.
Pulling out his doctors' penlight, he pointed out specimens, illuminated details.
Colorless spiders the size of ants. Spiders that looked like ants. A delicate green thing with translucent, lime-colored legs. A sticklike Australian hygropoda. ("Marvel of energy conservation. The slender build prevents it from overheating.") A huge-fanged arachnid whose brick-red carapace and lemon-yellow abdomen were so vivid they resembled costume jewelry. A Bomean jumper whose big black eyes and hairy face gave it the look of a wise old man.
"Look at this," he said. "I'm sure you've never seen a web like this."
Pointing to a zigzag construction, like crimped paper.
"Argiope, an orb spinner. Custom-tailored to attract the bee it loves to eat. That central 'X' reflects ultraviolet light in a manner that brings the bees to it. All webs are highly specific, with incredible tensile strength. Many use several types of silk; many are pigmented with an eye toward particular prey. Most are modified daily to adapt to varying circumstances. Some are used as mating beds. All in all, a beautiful deceit."
His hands flew and his head bobbed. With each sentence, he grew more animated. I knew I was anthropomorphizing, but the creatures seemed excited, too. Moving more, emerging from the shadows to show themselves, wiggling and . . . waving?
Not the panic I'd heard before. Smooth, almost leisurely motions. A dance of mutual interest?
". . . why I concentrate on predators," Moreland was saying. "Why I'm so concerned with keeping them fit and well fed."
A brilliant pink, crablike thing rested atop his bony hand. "Of course, natural predation is nothing new. Back in nineteen twenty-five, levuana moths threatened the entire coconut crop on Fiji. Tachinid parasites were brought in and they did the job beautifully. The following year, a particularly voracious destructor scale was done in by the coccinellid beetle. And I'm sure you know gardeners have used ladybugs on aphids for years. I breed them to protect my citrus trees, as a matter of fact." He pointed to an aquarium that seemed to be red carpeted. A finger against the glass made the carpet move. Thousands of miniature Volkswagens, a ladybug traffic jam. "So simple, so practical. But the key is keeping them nutritionally robust."
We moved further up the row and he stopped and breathed deeply. "If it weren't for public prejudice, this beauty and her compatriots could be trained to clear homes of rats."
Shining the penlight into a dark tank, he revealed something half covered by leaves.
It crawled out slowly and my stomach lurched.
Three inches wide and more than twice that length, legs as thick as pencils, hairs as coarse as boar bristle. It remained inert as the light washed over it. Then it opened its mouth wide--yawning?--and stroked the orifice with clawlike pincers.
As Moreland undid the mesh I found myself stepping back. In went his hand; another pellet dangled.
Unlike the Australian wolf, this one took the food lazily, almost coyly.
"This is Emma and she's spoiled." One of the spider's legs nudged his finger, rubbing it. "This is the tarantula of B-movies, but she's really a Grammostola, from the Amazon. In her natural habitat, she eats small birds, lizards, mice, even venomous snakes, which she immobilizes, then crushes. Can you see the advantages for pest control?"
"Why not use her own venom?" I said.
"Most spider venom can't do harm except to very small prey. You can be sure spoiled Madame Emma wouldn't have the patience to wait for the toxin to take effect. But despite her apparent indolence, she's quite an impatient lady when she gets hungry. All wolves are; they got their name because they chase their prey down. I must confess they're my favorite. So bright. They quickly recognize individuals. And they respond to kindness. All tarantulae do. That's why your little Lycosa made such a good pet, Robin."
Robin's eyes remained on the monster.
Moreland said, "She likes you."
"I sure hope so."
"Oh yes, she definitely does. When she doesn't care for someone, she turns her head away--quite the debutante. Not that I bring people in here very often. The residents need their peace."
He petted the huge spider, removed his hand, and covered the aquarium. "Insects and arachnids are magnificent, structurally and functionally. I'm sure you've heard all the cliches about how they're competing with us, will eventually drive us to extinction. Nonsense. Some species become quite successful but many others hover on the brink of dying out, and many are fragile and do not survive. For years entomologists have been trying to figure out what leads to success. The popular academic model is Monomorium pharaonis--the common ant. Many tenures have been granted on studies of what makes Monomorium tick. The conventional wisdom is that there are three important criteria: resistance to dehydration, cooperative colonies with multiple fertile queens, and the ability to relocate the colony quickly and efficiently. But there are insects with those exact traits who fail and others, like the carpenter ant, who've done quite well despite having none of them."
"A puzzle. Another component of their appeal."
He resumed the tour, pointing out waIking stick bugs, mantises with serrated jaws, giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches topped with chitinous armor, dung beetles rolling their fetid treasures like giant medicine balls, stout, black carrion beetles, whose special love is dead flesh ("Imagine what they could do to solve the landfill problems you've got over on the mainland"). Tank after tank of crawling, climbing, darting, crackling, slithering things.
"I stay away from butterflies and moths. Too short-lived and they need flying room to be truly happy. All my guests adapt well to close quarters and many of them achieve amazing longevity--my Lycosa's ten years old, and some spiders live double or triple that amount....Am I boring you?"
"No," said Robin. Her eyes were wide and it didn't seem like fear. "They're all impressive, but Emma...the size."
"Yes...actually--here, let me show you."
He walked quickly to a tank in the last row. Much larger than the others, at least twenty gallons. Inside, several rocks formed a cave that shadowed a wood-chip floor.
"My brontosaurus," he said. "His ancestors probably did coexist with the dinosaurs."
Pointing to what seemed to be an extension of the rock.
I stayed back, looking, steeling myself for another heartstopping movement.
Then it was there. Without moving. Taking shape before my eyes:
What I'd thought to be rock was organic. Extending out of the cave.
Flat bodied, segmented. Like a braided brown leather whip.
Seven, eight inches long.
Legs on each segment.
Antennae as thick as cello strings.
I moved further back, waiting for Moreland to play the pellet game.
He put his face up against the glass.
More slithered out of the cave.
At least a foot long. Spikes at the tail end quivered.
Moreland tapped the glass, and several pairs of the creature's front feet pawed the air.
A lunging motion, a sound like snapping fingers.
"What...is it?" said Robin.
"The giant centipede of East Asia. This one stowed away on one of the supply boats last year--Brady's as a matter of fact. I obtain a lot of my specimerls that way."
I thought of our ride on The Madeleine. Sleeping below deck, wearing only bathing trunks.
"He's significantly more venomous than most spiders," he said. "And I haven't named him yet. Haven't quite trained him to love me."
"How venomous is significant?" I said.
"There's only one recorded fatality. A seven-year-old boy in the Philippines, probably an anaphylactic reaction. The most common problem is secondary infection, gangrene. Limb loss can occur."
"Have you ever been bitten?" I asked.
"Often." He smiled. "But only by human children who didn't wish to be vaccinated."
"Very impressive," I said, hoping we were through. But another pellet was between Moreland's fingers, and before I knew it another corner of mesh had been drawn back.
No dangling this time. He dropped the food into the centipede's cage.
The animal ignored it.
Moreland said, "Have it your way," and refastened the top.
He headed up the central aisle and we were right behind him.
"That's it. I hope I haven't repulsed you."
"So your nutritional research is about them," I said.
"Primarily. They have much to teach us. I also study web patterns, various other things."
A beautiful deceit.
"Fascinating," said Robin.
I stared at her. She smiled from the corner of her mouth. Her hand had warmed. Her fingers began tickling my palm then dropped. Crawling down my inner wrist.
I tried to pull away but she held me fast. Full smile.
"I'm glad you feel that way, dear," said Moreland. "Some people are repelled. No telling."
Later, in our suite, I tried to extract revenge by coming up behind her as she removed her makeup and lightly scratching her neck.
She squealed and shot to her feet, grabbing for me, and we ended up on the floor.
I got on top and tickled her some more. "Fascinating? All of a sudden I'm living with Spiderwoman? Shall we begin a new hobby when we get back?"
She laughed. "First thing, learn the recipe for those pellets....Actually, it was fascinating, Alex. Though now that I'm out of there, it's starting to feel creepy again."
"The size of some of them," I said. "Some vacation."
"It wasn't a typical evening, that's for sure."
"What do you think of our host?"
"Mucho eccentric. But kind. Sweet."
"I don't mind that from him. He's from another generation. And despite his age, still passionate. I like passion in a man."
She freed an arm and ran it up mine. "Coochie-coo!"
I pinioned her. "Ah, my little Lycosa, I am passionate, too!"
She reached around. "So it seems."
I bared my teeth. "Hold me and crush me, Arachnodella--liquefy me."
"You scoff," she said, "but just think what I could do with six more hands."