Authors: Ryan C. Thomas
by Ryan C. Thomas
Copyright 2013 by Grand Mal Press. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written consent except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address www.grandmalpress.com
Published by: Grand Mal Press, Forestdale, MA
SALTICIDAE, Copyright 2013
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Grand Mal Press
Cover art by Grand Mal Press
Special thanks to Blake Newton, entomologist extraordinaire at the University of Kentucky, for his expert knowledge of salticids. Any mistakes are entirely mine, not his. And a tip of the hat to UHF station channel 56 out of Boston, which doesn’t exist anymore, but which gave me my first taste of g
iant spider love back in the 80s with its Creature Double Feature Saturday matinees—through them, I got my first wide-eyed gander at such classics as
Tarantula, Them, The Deadly Mantis
, and so many more.
For Ron and Marlene
Undisclosed montane rainforest l
ocation near the
Democratic Republic o
f the Congo.
There were no roads up here. Just a sea of sweating blue-green fronds and gnarled roots, drooping vines and crooked branches that wove like latticework beneath the jungle canopy, blocking out the rays of the midday sun. Clouds of insects chittered and buzzed, feeding on mounds of moist biomass, rodent carcasses and mulch, sucking nectar from a world of rainbow-colored blossoms that speckled the emergents like jewels. Ghostly patches of white fog drifted lazily along the ground, probing into burrows and swirling around tree trunks. Epiphytes clung to glistening rock and mossy bark, stretching skyward with jade fingers. The chirps of birds and croaks of tree frogs sang a backing refrain among the more distracting screams and whoops of Bonobos playing in the distance. And somewhere in the darkness of this wet, hot, expansive jungle, a large predatory cat roared in hunger.
Janet Beaudette ignored the cat’s warning; it was too far away to
be an issue. At least she chose to believe that. She checked the thermometer inside her Jeep as she wiped her brow with a hand towel, tossed it into the back seat where it fell over a backpack full of TNT blasting caps. It was ninety-one degrees in the jungle; the humidity made it feel like this world existed at the bottom of a hot tub. She unscrewed the top of her water bottle, chugged down a lukewarm mouthful, and swatted an insect away from her ear. The water may as well have been hot tea for all it cooled her down. She stepped out of the Jeep and moved toward a large rock wall overgrown with lianas; the ropy vines were an out-of-control circulatory system snaking their way over just about everything in this land of lost time.
It had taken three days of slow travel to get up here with the Jeeps.
They’d blown two tires and lost a muffler. She knew, as did everyone who ventured into these jungles, that only the local militias had the skills to drive their Jeeps up into these mountains without getting stuck in a bog or wedged between the trees. How they did it was a mystery. The untrained human eye could not discern safe ground through the lush green fronds that blanketed everything. Sink holes and poisonous snakes were just the tip of the iceberg for anyone stepping where they shouldn’t.
Three damn days.
The day laborers, cheerful Pygmies hired from local villages, had walked slowly in front of the vehicles, cutting down roots and bushes with their machetes and axes, blazing a trail for the vehicles. How they’d maintained their spirits in the stink and stick of such humid air, singing and laughing as they sliced through the flora like they were at some goddamned party, was a mystery to Janet. It had taken so damn long to get up here the fuel reserves were almost gone.
stretched now, feeling a dull ache in her lower back, the result of bouncing over rocks and felled logs in that damn vehicle. She just wanted to get the work started, get the camp set up and clear a landing circle so she could radio in for the helicopters and supplies. She wanted to take a nap.
“We’re ready to blow it.”
The deep baritone voice startled her.
She turned and found Ant
oine Gellis behind her, his rough ebony face an oil puddle of perspiration. Gellis was different from the other hired hands, a laboring miner from the Wild East, his giant stature as much a mystery to Janet as his ability to speak French, English, Bantu and a host of other Pygmy languages. The yellow scar on his chin, a common feature for many of the locals in this hell hole of a country, was as thick as a vein and as hard as a tendon. Years of civil war and rebel fighting had marred the people of the Wild East as much as the land. His elephantine muscles rolled ever so slightly beneath his button down work shirt, which was stained dark with sweat. That he was formidable made him a good choice to manage the other workers—she had watched him admonishing one just a few moments ago, and had seen fear in the man’s eyes—but Janet suspected his past may be drenched in rebel blood. He was not to be trusted.
“The charges have been checked?
” she asked. “We only brought so many. Don’t waste them.”
Gellis nodded, point
ing through the mist and trees to the cliff wall before them. Explosives had been placed strategically around a long, jagged crack that led to what was believed to be a natural mine in the belly of the mountain. The Beaudette Mining scouting team had located it two weeks ago using sonar and x-ray technology to map out the mineral veins inside. Janet’s father had hustled to get the crew out here, racing against time and rival mining companies to claim the speculative load hiding inside. Get in, suck the vein dry, get out, and celebrate at a hideaway in the Bahamas. That was his mission. A mission he’d now entrusted to Janet.
“Just awaiting your command, miss.” Gellis stared at her with a hint of defiance.
Native women did not have power in the Congo, and even though Janet was Caucasian and raised in the wealthy social circles of South Africa’s business elite, it surely was against Gellis’ upbringing to take orders from her, even if he was smart enough to understand how well he was being paid for it. He broke the tension with a smile, let out a quick laugh. “Relax, we have blown rocks in these mountains before. It will be fine.”
“I know it will,” Janet said, “I’ve done this before too. Probably more than you.”
“But you looked concerned.”
“Just annoyed. I hate this humidity
, feel like I can backstroke through the air. We’re so high up I can barely breathe. And I don’t feel like sleeping outside in this shit.” She swatted another mosquito off her neck, wiped the blood on her shorts. “If the camp isn’t finished being erected by the time that sun goes down I’m going to have you all fired.” Reiterating her position was a constant necessity. She was in charge here. They were her workers. Daddy’s goons may have hired these local beasts of burden but he wasn’t here. She was.
“I will tell my men to hurry with the
troop tents. I think they have procrastinated in case there is nothing in that crack. They do not want to set up only to break down again.”
“My scout team said the river goes through these mountains. They don’t get things wrong.” She didn’t go on to tell him about the gold deposits that had been found in the river basins some two-thousand and five hundred feet below. If the small bits of gold found down there were any indication
, there was a massive deposit up here slowly being eroded by the inner mountain falls. “Okay,” she said, absentmindedly fingering the small revolver on her hip, a precaution she’d insisted on, “let’s fucking do it already.”
Charges ready!” Antoine yelled. He raised his hands and signaled to his men. “On my command.”
The group of indigenous workers scurried to their positions.
“Mind your head,” Antoine said to Janet, tapping his hard hat to signify the potential of flying rocks.
Janet ignored him, stepped away from the rock wall to find a safe place
from which to watch. Her hard hat was in the Jeep. Screw it. She hated how it squeezed her head.
minute later there was a controlled explosion that shot rocks like bullets out over the sloping side of the mountain, and shook the surrounding trees hard enough to send leaves and bugs cascading to the ground. Birds took flight in waves of panic and several larger animals, hidden among the bushes and tree trunks, took off running through the dense foliage, cracking fallen limbs in their path.
A cloud of smoke and dust rose into the canopy above as the rock face crumbled in
to small boulders. As the dust began to settle, the workers, all of them pulled from their shanty towns with promises of wealth, began to clear the area in front of what was a newly-formed cave entrance. They sang as they worked, a creepy kind of happiness that made Janet feel uneasy. People shouldn’t be so happy to move rocks.
er eyes widened as she inspected the new fissure and noticed how the sunlight made the rock walls twinkle. The rush of new fortune rumbled deep in her belly. If there was gold in there, her father’s company would profit beyond imagination.
The workers moved quickly, sending rocks hand-over-hand to the
far side of the camp. When the path was clear, she waved the workers away. “Let me check. Move.” She yanked her floating lantern from the Jeep and entered the darkness. Water dripped off the sides of the walls; a coolness caressed her bare skin, a blissful change from the sticky humidity outside. She took another step, crunching her work boots over the broken rock and beetles too slow to get out of the way. The light revealed a long tunnel that stretched forward for many yards, running like a black underpass through the heart of the mountain.
She backed out into the jungle again and motioned for Gellis. “C’mere.”
Gellis drew up beside her with his own lantern. “Is it what you expected?”
“It’s a path
. It goes somewhere. If there are underground waterways in there then I think we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. Get some men and have them go in and mark any points that need retrofitting, and set up a feasible way to get about. Lights, rope handrails, whatever. And note that myself and Mr. Winston’s team will be watching all of you.”
the yellow scar on his chin. “So untrusting, you white women. You think we want your gold and silver. What would we do with it? Sell it? It would be taken from us the minute we show it to anyone. We’d be locked up and beaten as thieves. I am here for my meager pay, for my family, to put food on their table. As are these other men. Believe me, Madam, we don’t want what’s inside this mountain. We will get it for you, and then you pay us, and then we all go home. Everyone is happy. Status quo, yes?”
Janet noticed again how massively built Gellis was, and did not care for his tone.
She stood firm, watching his movements, knowing that to show fear would be a detriment. All of these workers knew the jungle far better than she did, better than her security team did. It would be no problem for them to snap her neck, slink away with the gold and leave her for dead.
“But now is the time to work, Madam.”
Gellis smiled once again, quelling any impositions, and called for his men to get their ropes and climbing gear. The Beaudette Mining Company had provided state of the art gear for the workers, but these locals preferred their own liana-woven ropes and harnesses. Most of it looked unstable, but apparently it worked for them.
Janet strode back to her Jeep where Marlon Winston and his four armed security men were snacking on beef jerky and petting their semi automatic rifles as if they were lap dogs.
She climbed into the front seat next to Winston.
“Look good?” he asked
, his South African accent dry and humorless. He and his men were dressed in black jungle cottons.
“Looks like Dad might be right. There’s probably a
bloody shit ton of gold in there.”
roar lifted from the low side of the mountain, closer now, deep and guttural, like icebergs rubbing together. Both Janet and Winston looked out over the nearby cliff, studied the never ending stretch of treetops and jagged rock faces for miles and miles.
.” Winston said. “Sounds hungry.” The other security men lifted their rifles in response.
I hate this jungle,” Janet said. “I feel like I’m being watched.”
“Trust me, we are.”
“I told the men to get the camp erected but these fucking lazy midgets take their sweet ass time with everything. Should have hired professionals.”
“And why didn’t you?”
“You know why, Marlon. Because this gold is ours. Because professionals means paper trails. We go through proper channels and some militant general who rapes and murders his way into office comes in and takes our find.”
Marlon laughed. “It’s the Congo, dear. Everyone just takes what they want. That is the way.”
began to enter the dark cave, tethered to a line connected to pylons outside. They moved slowly, their lanterns out in front of them, singing a soft song as they went. Janet watched until the lights disappeared in the darkness and their voices were mere whispers.
“So far so good,” she said.
Winston snatched a fly out of midair, crushed it in his fist. “They are a brave lot
, these tiny worker ants.”
grabbed the SATphone from the back of the Jeep and started to dial in her father’s number. He’d be happy to hear they’d found a viable way into the mountain. He would want to—
The jungle floor rose up and slammed back down with a protesting boom. The Jeep lurched beneath her and the phone fell from her hand. She was thrown fiercely backward into the seat, her shoulders popping as they took her weight. Marlon grabbed the rollbar to steady himself, his rifle nearly flipping up and hitting him in the face. The men standing around the vehicle fell to the ground as if their legs had been kicked out from under them. A tree came crashing down just behind the Jeep, nearly squashing a handful of workers moving gear to the half-erected troop tents. Rock and decaying leaves spit up from the ground like tiny geysers as the entire mountain shifted.