“What are you doing now, Pop?” he said indulgently. “Is it all that hard to tell the boys from the girls?”
“Checkin’ for look-alikes,” Cromer mumbled. “Mimics, they’re called. You don’t know nothin’ about mimics, do you?”
“Can’t say I do.”
Cromer sniffed to show his contempt. “Didn’t think you would somehow. Even them so-called experts up in Jacksonville with their fancy college degrees don’t know nothin’ about mimics. Nobody knows more about mimics than I do, and one of these days…” He broke off, his narrow face taut with sudden belligerence, and took a long drink of whisky.
“You’re going to show them a thing or two, are you, Professor?” Massick prompted. “Make them all sit up and take notice?”
Cromer glanced at the bedroom door, then selected two pale blue butterflies from the table and held them out on the palm of his hand. “Whaddaya say about them? Same or different?”
Massick eyed the closed door thoughtfully before turning his attention to the insects. “They look the same to me.”
“Want to bet on it?”
“I’m not a gambling man.”
“Just as well—you’da lost your money,” Cromer said triumphantly. “This one on the left has a kinda blue glaze all over his wings and the birds leave him alone because he don’t taste good. This other feller does taste good to birds, so he fools them by copyin’ the same blue, but he does it by mixin’ in blue bits and white bits on his wings. Of course, you need one of them microscopes to see it proper. I’m goin’ to get me one of them microscopes real soon.”
“Very interesting,” Massick said, abstracted, noticing for the first time that the door to the room he had presumed to be a bedroom was secured by a farmhouse-type latch and that the latch was held down by a twist of wire. Was it possible, he wondered, that Cromer had something valuable hidden away? It was difficult to imagine what the shabby recluse might have, but it was a well-known fact that elderly people who lived in conditions of abject poverty often had large sums of money tucked into mattresses and under floorboards. In any case, there would be no harm in investigating the matter while he was actually on the premises. Deciding that no immediate action was required, he continued sipping whisky and pretending to listen to Cromer’s rambling discourse on entomology.
The little man appeared to have an extensive though informal knowledge of his subject which he dispensed in an anecdotal folksy style, with frequent references to Seminole legends, but his words were becoming so slurred that it was almost impossible to follow his meaning at times. The practice of mimicry among insects, fish and animals seemed to fascinate him and he kept returning to it obsessively, drinking all the while, his face and clamped-down ears growing progressively redder as the level in his bottle went down.
“You ought to go easy on that stuff,” Massick told him with some amusement. “I don’t want to put you to bed.”
“I can handle it.” Cromer stood up, swaying even though he was holding the edge of the table, and gazed at Massick with solemn blue eyes. “I gotta consult the head of the family.”
He lurched to the outer door and disappeared through it into the night, already fumbling with his trouser zip. Massick waited a few seconds, stood up and was surprised to discover that he too was unsteady on his feet. He had forgotten that exhaustion and hunger would enhance the effects of the liquor he had consumed. Blinking to clear his vision, he crossed the room to the locked door, pulled the wire away from the latch and dropped it on the floor. He opened the door, took one step into the room beyond and froze in mid-stride, his jaw sagging in surprise.
There was a young woman lying on the narrow bed, her body covered by a single sheet.
At the sound of Massick’s entrance she raised herself on one elbow—a strangely languid movement, as though she was weakened by illness—and he saw that she had smooth, swarthy skin and black hair. His impression that she was an Indian was strengthened by the fact that she had three dots tattooed in a triangle on her forehead, although he had never seen that particular marking before. She stared at him in silence for a moment, showing no signs of alarm, and began to smile. Her teeth were white, forming a flawless crescent.
“I’m sorry,” Massick said. “I didn’t know…” He backed out of the room, pulling the door closed, trying to understand why the sight of the woman had been so disconcerting. Was it the sheer unexpectedness of her presence in Cromer’s bedroom? Was it that the circumstances suggested she was being held captive? Massick picked up his bottle, gulped some whisky and was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand when the answer to his questions stole quietly into his mind. She had looked at him—and had smiled.
He could not remember a single occasion in the twenty-odd years of his adult life on which a woman had set eyes on him for the first time and had reacted by smiling. As a youth he had spent hours before the mirror trying to decide what it was about his appearance that made all the girls in his age group avoid his eyes and refuse point blank to date him. There had been a two year period in which he had done his best to conform to the same image as the sexually successful young men in the neighbourhood—trying to put a twinkle into the slate pellets that were his eyes, trying to smile when every muscle in his face wanted to scowl, trying to crack jokes, to be lean-hipped, to be a good dancer—but the net result had been that the girls had shunned him more assiduously than before. After that he had simply begun taking them, whether they liked it or not. And none of them had liked it.
Over the years Massick had grown accustomed to the arrangement, so much so that he found real stimulation in the sudden look of mingled terror and disgust on a woman’s face as she realised what was going to happen to her. Underneath it all, however, imprisoned far down in buried layers of his mind-body complex, there still lived a boyish Joe Massick who yearned for another kind of encounter, one in which there was gentleness in place of force, gladness in place of revulsion, in which soft arms welcomed as the world flowed out and away until there was nothing to see anywhere except eyes that shone with a special warm lustre and lips that smiled…
“That’s better,” Cromer said, coming in through the screen door. He went straight to his chair at the table, executed a lateral shuffle which showed he was quite drunk, and sat down before the assortment of insects and plastic boxes.
Massick returned to his own seat and gazed at Cromer with speculative eyes. Was it possible that the little man, in spite of his scrawny and dried-up appearance, had a taste for hot-blooded Indian girls? The notion inspired Massick with a sharp pang of jealousy. He had seen enough of the girl’s body to know that she was strong-breasted, lush, ripe—and that she would be totally wasted on a miserable old stick like Cromer. If anybody was to bed down with her that night it ought to be Joe Massick, because he was the one who had been going through hell and needed relief from the tensions that racked his body, he was the one who had the size and strength to give the chick what she deserved, and because he was in that kind of a mood. Besides, she had smiled at him…
“The Calusas was the ones who knew this swamp,” Cromer was muttering, staring down at a moth in its tiny crystal coffin. “They were here long before the Seminoles ever even seen the place, and they knew all about it, that’s for sure…knew when the nymphs was turnin’ into imagos…knew when it was time to pull up stakes and move on.”
“You’re a wily old bird, aren’t you?” Massick said. “You’ve got this place stocked up with everything you need.”
“Hear them cicadas out there?” Cromer, apparently unaware that Massick had spoken, nodded towards the black rectangle of the door. “Seventeen years they live under the ground, gettin’ ready to come up and breed. It stands to reason there must be other critturs that takes longer—maybe thirty years, maybe fifty, maybe even a …”
“I’m a bit disappointed in you, Ed. I just didn’t think you were the selfish type.”
“Selfish?” Cromer, looking puzzled and hurt, attempted to focus his gaze on Massick. “What’s this selfish?”
“You didn’t introduce me to your friend.”
“Friend? I got no…” Cromer’s flushed, narrow face stiffened with consternation as he turned to look at the bedroom door. He threw himself forward on to his hands and knees, picked up the piece of wire Massick had discarded, and wrapped it around the latch, snorting with urgency as his clumsiness protracted an operation that should have been instantaneous.
Massick watched the performance with good humour. “Do you generally keep your lady friends locked up?”
“She…She’s sick.” Cromer got to his feet, breathing audibly, his eyes nervous and pleading. “Best left alone in there.”
“She didn’t look all that sick to me. What’s her name?”
“Don’t know her name. She wandered in here a couple of days ago. I’m lookin’ after her, that’s all.”
Massick shook his head and grinned. “I don’t believe you, Ed. I think you’re a horny old goat and you’re keeping that young piece in there for your own amusement. Shame on you!”
“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. I tell you she’s sick, and I’m looking after her.”
Massick stood up, bottle in hand. “In that case we’ll give her a drink—best medicine there is.”
“No!” Cromer darted forward, grabbing for Massick’s arm. “Listen, if you want to know the…”
Massick swung at him more out of irritation than malice, intending merely to sweep the little man out of his way, but Cromer seemed to fall on to his fist, magnifying the effect of the blow. The force of the impact returning along his forearm told Massick he had done some serious damage, and he stepped back. Cromer went down into a collision with the table, his eyes reduced to blind white crescents, and dropped to the floor with a slapping thud which could have been produced by a side of bacon. The sound alone was as good as a death certificate to Massick.
“You stupid old bastard,” he whispered accusingly. He stared down at the body, adjusting to the new situation, then knelt and retrieved his money from Cromer’s shirt pocket. A search of the dead man’s personal effects yielded only a cheap wristwatch and eleven extra dollars in single bills. Massick put the watch and money away in his pocket. He took a firm grip on Cromer’s collar, dragged the body to the screen door and out into the raucous darkness of the swamp. The chorus of insect calls seemed to grow louder as he moved away from the shanty, again creating the impression of an all-pervading sentience. In spite of the stifling heat Massick felt a crawling coldness between his shoulderblades. Suddenly appreciating the futility of trying to dispose of the body before daylight, he released his burden and groped his way back towards the sallow glimmers of the hurricane lamps.
Once inside the building, he bolted the outer door and went around the main room twitching curtains into place across the windows. As soon as he felt safe from the pressures of the watchful blackness he picked up the whisky bottle and drank from it until his throat closed against the rawness of the liquor. Somewhat restored by the alcohol, he allowed his thoughts to return to the bedroom door and there was a stirring of warmth low down in his belly as he remembered what lay beyond.
It’s cosier this way, he thought. Three always was a crowd.
He put the bottle aside, went to the door and removed the wire from the latch. The door swung open easily, allowing a swath of light to fall across the bed, revealing that the black-haired girl was still lying down, apparently undisturbed by any commotion she may have heard. As before, she raised herself on one elbow to look up at him. Massick stood in the doorway and scanned her face, waiting for the change of expression to which he was so accustomed, the clouding of the eyes with fear and loathing, but—exactly as before—the girl began to smile. He bared his own teeth in a manufactured response, scarcely able to believe his luck.
“What’s your name, honey?” he said, moving closer to the bed.
She went on smiling at him, her gaze locked into his, and there was nothing anywhere in her face to show that she had heard the question.
“Don’t you have a name?” Massick persisted, a new idea beginning to form at the back of his mind. Never had a deaf-mute before!
The girl reacted by sitting up a little further, a movement which allowed the sheet to slip down from her breasts. They were the most perfectly formed that Massick had ever seen—rounded, almost pneumatic in their fullness, with upright nipples—and his mouth went dry as he advanced to the side of the bed and knelt down. The girl’s dark eyes remained fixed on his, bold and yet tender, as he put out his hand and with his fingertips gently traced a line from the three dots on her forehead, down her cheek and neck and on to the smooth curvature of her breast. His hand lingered there briefly and was moving on towards the languorous upthrust of her hip—taking the edge of the sheet with it—when she made a small, inarticulate sound of protest and caught his wrist.
Thwarted and tantalised, Massick gripped the sheet with the intention of ripping it away from the lower part of her body, then he saw that the girl was still smiling. She let go of his wrists, raised her hands to his chest and began to undo his shirt, fumbling in her eagerness.
“You raunchy little so-and-so,” Massick said in a gratified whisper. He got to his feet, tearing at his clothing and in a few seconds was standing naked beside the bed. The girl relaxed on to her pillow, waiting for him. He lowered his thick torso on to the bed beside her and brought his mouth down on hers. She returned his kiss in a curiously inexpert manner which served only to heighten his pleasure. Giving way to his impatience, he propped himself up on one elbow and used his free hand to throw back the sheet, his eyes hungering for the promised magical concourse of hip and belly and thigh unique to woman.
The ovipositor projecting from the she-creature’s groin was a tapering, horny spike. Transparent eggs were already flowing from the aperture at its tip, bubbling and winking, slimingits sides, adding to the jellied mass of spawn which had gathered on her distended abdomen.
Massick had time for a single whimper of despair, then the she-creature was on him, bearing down with an inhuman strength which was scarcely necessary. The first probing stab from the ovipositor had hurt for only an instant, then ancient and merciful chemistries had taken over, obliterating all pain, inducing a flaccid paralysis which gripped his entire frame. He lay perfectly still, hushed and bemused, as his lover worked on him, stabbing again and again, skilfully avoiding vital organs, filling body cavities with the eggs which would soon produce a thousand hungry larvae.