I might die tonight. I’m a fugitive, exhausted and hungry. The vicious winter is draining away my last, precious drop of energy. My ancestors go back 500 million years, when humanity was no more than a crazy idea, but now they are my greatest enemy. I am tired but I am proud….and I’ll never give up. I’m deep in the land of my greatest enemy, but I see a cave ahead – and it’s perfect, if only I can get there, if I can stay alive that long. I am crawling now, deep inside, into the cool darkness. I am safe at last, and it’s time to sleep.
“Put yer ‘kin hand in it. Do it now.”
The boy closes his eyes and lowers his trembling hand towards the shoe-box. He thinks he might wet himself, and grits his teeth.
“If you hurt any of em, I’ll hurt you more,” the grating voice promises, and Luke Penfold thinks there is more than a hint of anticipated pleasure in that promise.
Luke opens his eyes. On the side of the shoe-box are the words ‘Betterware. The Shoe of Choice’. The Betterware shoes are long gone and now a seething mass of spiders of all sizes and colours covers the bottom, some starting to climb up the sides. He stares at them in disbelief – how could so many be found in a prison? Some of them are inches across, and they crouch, poised to leap and bite. He sees their curved fangs and rows of beady eyes and a drop of sweat quivers on the tip of his nose.
“I can’t do it, Ken. I can’t. Please don’t make me.” He’s close to tears.
Ken Ratchett laughs. “Okay. I’m not ‘kin serious. Not this time, anyways.”
He pushes his small mean face up close to Luke and there’s no humour in it. ”As long as you do as I tell you.” The little man’s eyes remind Luke of the spiders in the box. Machine eyes.
Ratchett’s instincts tell him that the boy is innocent. He is sure that Luke will be released soon and so, for the last few months he had been softening Luke up. Ratchett needs an assistant who will obey without question and cost nothing. He prods Luke in his thin chest. “Homework time. What’s the first job when we get out?”
Luke looks at the floor. “Sorting out Inspector Worth.”
“Good boy. I’ve decided how we’re going to get that ‘kin bastard.”
Luke says nothing.
Ratchett licks his lips. “When we get out, I’ll show you something. In my house, I got lots of spiders. Lots more than these common ones. I got fucking tarantulas, black widows, funnel web…” Spit runs down his chin. “I got four types of tarantula – the biggest is like this.” He suddenly thrusts his open hand at the boy, fingers spread wide. Luke jumps back, crying out, an arm raised protectively.
Ratchett laughs. “Prat. Do you know what a wolf spider is?”
Luke shakes his head, eyes red and watery. Ratchett reckons that if a boy cries when spoken to, he is ready to learn. He bangs the table in the small prison cell and shouts in the boy’s tear-stained face. “You know eff all. Wolf spiders is from Australia. They’s about two inches long, and the colour of a wolf. They’s smarter than a prat like you, and their fangs are ‘kin massive- must be ‘kin half inch long. If they escape in your house they hide in dark places and breed like crazy and if they bite you, the flesh rots away. When a wolf spider is annoyed, he’ll chase you. Even run up ‘kin broom handles. Someone told me that they lay eggs under your skin, then all these ‘kin babies eat their way out. Do you believe that?”
Luke’s bulging eyes indicate that he does, but he keeps his mouth firmly shut. Rankin knows it’s to keep the sobs inside. He can’t stand cry-babies.
“We’re going to post a pair of wolf spiders through his letter box.” Ratchett drops his voice and Luke had to lean forward. “We’ll use a mating pair. They’ll run away to dark places, like the cupboard under the stairs, behind furniture and radiators. Maybe shoes or beds. And they’ll breed. When the central heating comes on, the spiders will be ‘kin mad and they’ll go for anyone. I seen them do that.”
I awake sick with hunger. The sunlight gives me enough energy to hunt for food most of today. By sunset I am sated, and return to the cave feeling exalted. Tomorrow, I will start to build a great citadel. I already know exactly how it will be, with its complex network of streets, depots, fortifications and buildings. It must be easy to defend and repair, and so I’ll draw upon the memories of each one of my countless ancestors. It seems right to build it here and when my army’s ready, I can avenge the deaths of my sisters. I heard their distress calls, their pain. I know everything, forget nothing. Part of my mind is a pool of white-hot anger, waiting to be released when my enemy comes. When HE comes. And when he comes, we will be many.
The weeks pass slowly for Luke, until one day the mental and physical torture breaks his will. Ratchett recognises the symptoms of drooping head and lowered eyes. He is due for release on the first day of September, and Luke will be tried the following week. If Luke is found innocent, Ken promises to wait at the gates for him. Meanwhile, he steps up the training.
“Pest control is the best game, Luke. Why?”
“Because they are a nuisance?”
Ken slaps the boy’s head. “’Kinell, Luke. Listen – old people always think they got pests. I find out where old people live, and I ring the ‘kin doorbell. They open the door. I say ‘I’m just doing a house round the corner, because they got wasps in the attic, and I noticed a lot flying around your roof.’ I don’t ‘kin swear, they don’t like ‘kin swearing. I say ‘d’you want me to check your attic?’ and they always agree because they think wasps can kill them.”
Luke sits on his steel frame bed, mouthing something to himself.
“Then it’s easy. I just have a good look around the attic, and take what I want. There’s lots of silver in old people’s attics and half the time they don’t even remember.”
“What about the wasps?”
“I get rid of them bastards. And I hate ‘kin wasps – I hate all ‘kin insects apart from spiders. But I don’t mind ‘kin flies, of course. I tell the old people that there was lots of nests up there and I stuff them for two hundred quid.”
“What if they don’t pay up, Ken?”
The little man’s face darkens. “I unleash the ‘kin plagues of Israel on the bastards. Rats, spiders, fleas, ‘kin anything I can get my hands on. I go back and ask them if they got any more trouble and they pay plenty.”
According to Ratchett Senior, insects are getting bigger and badder. Ants an inch long can destroy the foundations of a house and lay their eggs in larders. Fleas, bed bugs and cockroaches are worse still, each one providing the ideal excuse to check out every room in a house, whilst innocent old ladies make cups of tea downstairs. Unlike his son, Ratchett’s father retained some shreds of dignity, and took pride in his pesticidal skills.
By the time he was old enough to leave school, Ratchett had disposed of countless thousands of his fellow creatures. He knew almost as much about wasps as he did about spiders, but he hated wasps with a vengeance. He knew that a single queen would find somewhere to hibernate in the autumn. In the spring, a tiny nest was built, just big enough for the first few wasp grubs to be raised, fed on other insects. As soon as they turned into wasps, they started to enlarge the nest by building a new outer wall filled with yet more egg chambers. More eggs were laid by the queen, whilst the wasps spent all day catching other insects to feed the grubs. Bees, greenfly, spiders – anything they could chop up and carry.
Ratchet knew that wasps only lived for two or three weeks because they worked so hard, and during their short lives they fed on sugar made by the grubs. By the end of summer, there could be ten thousand wasps in a big nest but as soon as they are not needed any more, they all get made redundant. No more sugar. Knowing the intricacy of their lives made it even more satisfying to kill them all.
Ratchett had used the ‘wasps in the attic’ ploy on Inspector Worth. However, as soon as the old man heard the words ‘round the corner’, he knew that the game was afoot. Whilst Ratchett helped himself to the family heirlooms, Worth called the police. When they stopped Ken’s white van it was found to contain property stolen from all the houses he had visited that day and he was put away for twelve months.
It’s high summer, and the citadel fills the back of the cave. I’ve trained my commanders will skill and patience. Each one now line-manages thousands of warriors, working with tireless efficiency to build ramparts, barricades and accommodation for the ever growing population. Meanwhile, an endless stream of supplies floods in through the entrance from sunrise until sunset. I never sleep, because I have to make all the decisions, ruling over eight thousand with my iron will. Instead, I think of new ways to dispose of waste, how to find new supply routes, where and how to build, how to defend. I am an effective ruler, but I’m utterly ruthless and any sign of weakness amongst my subjects results in summary execution. It’s the way of things. It’s the Way.
Just as Ratchett predicts, Luke is released one week after him. When the boy walks into the September sunshine, Ratchett is waiting for him like a funnel spider, sitting in a white van with ‘No Pest too Small’ painted on the side in yellow and black. Luke’s heart sinks at the sight of his oppressor, but he finds himself sitting in the van, all the same. Ratchett drives to a surprisingly large house in Epsom, talking all the way about the fate that will soon overtake the Worths.
As soon as they enter the house, Ratchett opens the door to the garage and pushes Luke inside. The boy shrinks back in fear when the fluorescent light flickers on, because the room is lined with glass tanks, each one designed carefully to represent a replica of the inmates’ natural habitats. He follows Ratchett at a cautious distance as the small man feeds them all, making loving, smooching noises through the glass. He handles each of the tarantulas, holding them close to his face so he can look into their eyes.
“Hold out your ‘kin hand.”
The tarantula is surprisingly heavy. He can feel the silky hair stroke his palm, and the claws are sharp. It taps his sweating palm with its dagger-like fangs.
Ken removes it angrily. “He smells your fear. I’m very ‘kin disappointed, Luke.” He remembers something and brightens up. “These are what I wanted to show you.” He approaches the final tank reverently.
Two spiders swagger up to the glass and stare at the two men insolently. Ken looks at them admiringly with his shiny little spider-eyes but when he touches the glass, they raise long fangs threateningly. One even dashes towards him and Luke jumps back involuntarily. Ken chuckles and rubs his hands together. “You boys got a job to do for me,” he whispers to the spiders.
By eleven p.m., Ratchett and Luke have finished their fish and chips, and Ratchett heads up to his bedroom. The room is cold and damp. He notices that the window has been left open a crack the whole year and so he closes it, brushing the dead insects onto the carpet. It’s a miracle that the house had not been burgled. For a moment he wonders why there are no cobwebs in the room, but he is too tired to care.
Although he has not slept in the bed for six months, he does not bother about changing the sheets. He kicks off his clothes, washes briefly, brushes his teeth even more briefly, and climbs in. The damp bed smells curiously acrid. He feels something in the way. Probably the duvet. Irritated, he thrusts and kicks his legs into it.
The first earth tremor rocks the entire citadel and I wail with dismay. “Warriors attack,” I scream, “Attack, attack and die for me!” Even as I shout, the walls of the citadel burst asunder and fall with a mighty crash. The old enemy has returned, smashing the nursery to rubble. Hundreds of my children die in the first assault and I feel their pain within myself. A cold fury takes hold of me. “The enemy’s at the gate this very moment. Die gloriously, my warriors. Our line must prevail,” I scream as over five thousand of my guards go forth in serried ranks, singing their battle cries, each armed with a sack filled with poison and a long, curved fang, hollow like a snake’s tooth. “We are strong and we are many – die well,” I whisper as they pour out of the nest and attack.
“What the fuck?” Ratchett throws back the sheets and a vicious yellow cloud explodes into the air before descending onto his body, covering every inch of skin, and the pain is everywhere, white heat beyond imagination. But worst of all is the noise.
Next door, Luke jumps out of bed as soon as he hears the first rending cry, and runs into the corridor. He can hear Ratchett yelling and shrieking for help, fumbling desperately with the door handle – and another noise. It sounds familiar. A deep buzz-saw that fills him with dread. The handle starts to flip up and down. Quickly, before the door opens, Luke turns the key in the lock. He does not notice the solitary wasp crawl out from under the door and fly away.