A Case of Spider Justice

by Hampton Burt

   There were five of them, and Cornelius knew immediately that they were going to kill him.
   No one has ever explained how spiders form such decisions, how they communicate their ideas to one another, or, indeed, why.
   "What got me was their size," Cornelius's widow, Bertha, exclaimed. "They were big enough to ride tricycles."
   Inspector Driddly had been on the force for nine years. He believed that he had seen or heard everything. He gave a polite smile of amused tolerance. But he had not been to the scene of the killing yet. "You said there were five of them?"
   "Yes. Five exactly. And they were very big." She held out her arms and separated her hands to give him an idea of their size.
   "Hmm," Inspector Driddly said. He busied himself with his pencil and notebook. The notebook was surprisingly small. "When did you realize that something was amiss?"
   "When the window broke. I was taking my bath, so I couldn't get up and look right away. I had to wait until I dried off. Then I put on my dress and some shoes and went to see what was happening." She put her hand to her mouth, like she was going to throw up. And maybe she was going to throw up. Even she didn't know. It had been a traumatic morning, losing her husband in that way.
   "You said it was spiders."
   "Yes. Very, very big ones."
   "Did you spray them?"
   "Oh, no. I couldn't do anything to them. They might have killed me next."
   "Well, did you scream or something?"
   "I didn't dare. I sensed that something was unusual as I opened the door to the workroom. Then I saw them. They stood by Cornelius's dead body and looked up at me, like children waiting to be told they had done something wrong. But they didn't wait long. The biggest one started moving toward the window, and then they all started running. Before I realized it, they had fled through the broken window. I was so frightened I couldn't move."
   "Why didn't you just hit them with a shoe or something?"
   "A shoe? You don't understand. One of them was so big it could have thrown a chair at me!"
   Inspector Driddly looked at Mrs. Artroger intently with his beady black eyes, wondering if he had correctly gotten the gist of her meaning.
   "Are you telling me that these spiders were so big they could not be smushed by a shoe?"
   "They were as big as large dogs, bristling with hairy fur all over, dozens of hairy legs longer than your arms."
   Anton Driddly wrote something down into his tiny notebook while trying to keep up the impression that his piercing gaze was fixed on Bertha Artroger. She was an oddly attractive woman, thin, wearing a long dress patterned with flowers, and she was tall, with stringy, formerly-blond hair, soft wrinkly skin, sort of pretty. She smelled sweet. Her smell reminded Inspector Driddly of coconut nectar mingled with wildflowers, but not strong, very subtle, just a trace, with perhaps a hint of dishwater. Her deep blue eyes with sparkling whites were probably the best thing about her. Her crimson lipstick made her lips look wet. Anton Driddly frowned, with an extreme, shrewd skepticism. "When you called 911, why didn't you tell the operator these spiders were so big?"
   "They wouldn't have believed me. They'd have said, 'Crazy old woman, don't bother,' and nobody would've come. But let me show you," and she took Inspector Driddly by the left wrist and pulled him in the direction of the room where Cornelius Artroger had been killed. Driddly's wrist was unexpectedly willing and warm, and Mrs. Artroger realized that she liked pulling on him that way.
   When she opened the door, a smell of utter foulness crept out, not even remotely human.
   Driddly covered his nose and curled his eyebrows tightly into what looked like corrugated black ribbons over his sqwunched-up nose. He went in.
   Shards  of glass lay about on the floor. The window had been broken from the outside. It was a big window. The broken area was large enough for a bicycle to go through. Five thread-like lines of gooey-looking treacle lay in thin trails from Cornelius Artroger's body all the way through the jagged opening, over the mangled shrub outside, and across the lawn toward the nearby woods. "My God!" Inspector Driddly said.
   "His name is Cornelius. Or was."
   Driddly kneeled beside the body, handkerchief over his nose and mouth. With the tip of his ballpoint pen he turned over a small flap of loose skin that was dangling from the body's left cheek. There wasn't any skin at all on the other side of the skull. It appeared that the man's face had been eaten off, or dissolved in a rank acid, eyeballs lidless and shiny, misshapen like melted wax, the teeth bare, without lips.
   Mrs. Artroger asked, "Would you care for a cup of coffee?"
   "A cup of coffee. Would you like some coffee?"
   "No. Thanks. Not now."
   "Later perhaps?"
   Inspector Driddly was not entirely unattractive to women, and he knew this. But what he did not know was that he was especially attractive in the opinion of Mrs. Artroger. "I have an exotic species of what was originally Brazilian coffee, grown on a tropical plantation in the South Pacific," she said, with a lilting nuance of delight in her delicate voice. She added, "It's really good."
   "Hmm," the inspector said quietly, while grimly writing a description into his notebook. The idea of coffee was not entirely alien to his liking.
   "There's an uncommon twist of irony in all this," he said, rising from his kneeling position. "I am a spider fancier. I own several hundred different species, large and small, all alive of course. I've never heard of a spider being anywhere near as big as these. It's amazing. But you can tell from the wounds that these were spiders all right. Spiders suck their meals out of their prey after their digestive juices have dissolved the meat, or the 'flesh' I should say. The biggest spider I have ever heard of was a big hairy black one the size of a dinner plate. It walked into a British military base headquarters in the nineteenth century in South Africa. Unfortunately a low-ranking officer killed it by shooting a bullet through its cephalothorax. Still, that was Africa. This is Pennsylvania. No big hairy black spiders of that size around here, one would presume."
   "Not until this morning anyway," Bertha Artroger said. She looked at Inspector Driddly with a growing fondness. He was cute really, with his tight little ears slung close to his head, and his almost black five o'clock shadow, though it was only ten in the morning. She liked a man with black whiskers. The coarseness of its rough stubble would feel very masculine, she knew, in the dark of a romantic night, scraping against her delicate cheeks. That was her opinion of it. "I know you'll love this coffee. I bought it yesterday. It's awesomely fresh. I ground it myself."
   With one hand reaching into his pocket to obtain his measuring tape, Inspector Driddly made a small nod to indicate that coffee would be all right. Bertha Artroger immediately turned and made her way to the kitchen, where she began assembling the items needed for brewing and serving two cups of coffee.
   It wasn't long before Inspector Driddly joined her, a gentle expression on his face. He liked women of her sort, unconcerned about appearances and not obviously demanding.
   "When did you become interested in spiders?" She asked.
   "When I was a child."
   "There aren't a lot of spiders around here. But I am not a perfect homemaker, so there are lots of little bugs that get into things. I'm constantly leaving the lids off of containers, entirely irresponsibly I'm afraid. I'm famous for letting glasses of juice sit uncovered on the countertops for days. The last time I cleaned all the crumbs off the floor I can't remember. Insects love such things. Still, I haven't been able to make myself be tidier. Someday I will. Until then, insects will be everywhere. I hope you will excuse it. You don't see them because they know when I'm coming and they hide. But they're here all right."
   Inspector Driddly thought the kitchen looked clean enough, just not excessively neat. "Why are there no spiders then? For spiders, your kitchen would be paradise."
   "Cornelius killed every spider he ever saw. He hated them." She waited a moment and looked warmly into Inspector Driddly's eyes. Then she added, alluringly, "I am not afraid of them at all."
   "What a tragedy your husband didn't like them," Driddly said, a small bit of coffee mixed with spittle coming out onto his lower lip. "Spiders have wonderful souls, divine really, in their delicate bodily forms. Their spirits are of a higher class than those of humans, I believe. Spiders, you know, they really are terrific little creatures. And they are so important to the ecosystem."
   "The what system? Oh. Of course." The thought entered Mrs. Artroger's mind for a brief moment that surely the enormous spiders that killed her husband were not exactly 'terrific little creatures.' But she pushed that idea right out of her head. If Inspector Driddly was interested in her, in the same way that she was interested in him, no particular thing about spiders would be likely to matter at all.
   "This coffee is wonderful. I'm glad you asked if I wanted some." His eyes, though dark, were bright. His expression revealed a strong interest in her.
   She smiled.
   They sipped quietly for a moment, then he said, "I wonder if you might be interested in attending a local dinner with me? It's the Spider Fanciers Ball. Everyone who likes spiders will be there."
   "Me? Oh I couldn't. I mean, well, yes. I'd like to very much." She wondered if everyone would bring their favorite spider. She wondered if spiders might be the main course. But she didn't ask.
   It wasn't long before Anton and Bertha were happily married, with hundreds of maliciously unscrupluous, ravenous little spiders in one part of the house, and thousands of tiny adorable insects playing hide-and-seek in the kitchen.
   Every night thereafter, Anton and Bertha went to the spider room and inspected the spider habitats, making sure they were all happy and secure, before going to bed themselves.
   And each night the spiders all waited until Mr. and Mrs. Driddly were sound asleep, before wildly running to the kitchen as fast as they could, to dine on the insects that were there.

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