“Rain. Damn. Rain!” Sir Robert’s pale face stared up, his gray mustache quivering over his thin mouth. He was sick and brittle and old. “Our picnic will be ruined!”
“Picnic?” I said. “Will our killer join us for eats?”
“I pray to God he will,” Sir Robert said. “Yes, pray to God he will.”
We walked through a land that was now mists, now dim sunlight, now forest, now open glade, until we came into a silent part of the woods, a silence made of the way the trees grew wetly together and the way the green moss lay in swards and hillocks. Spring had not yet filled the empty trees. The sun was like an arctic disk, withdrawn, cold, and almost dead.
“This is the place,” said Sir Robert at last.
“Where the children were found?” I inquired.
“Their bodies empty as empty can be.”
I looked at the glade and thought of the children and the people who had stood over them with startled faces and the police who had come to whisper and touch and go away, lost.
“The murderer was never apprehended?”
“Not this clever fellow. How observant are you?” asked Sir Robert.
“What do you want observed?”
“There’s the catch. The police slipped up. They were stupidly anthropomorphic about the whole bloody mess, seeking a killer with two arms, two legs, a suit of clothes, and a knife. So hypnotized with their human concept of the killer that they overlooked one obvious unbelievable fact about this place. So!”
He gave his cane a quick light tap on the earth.
Something happened. I stared at the ground. “Do that again,” I whispered.
“You saw it?”
“I thought I saw a small trapdoor open and shut. May I have your cane?”
He gave me the cane. I tapped the ground. It happened again.
“A spider!” I cried. “Gone! God, how quick!”
“Finnegan,” Sir Robert muttered.
“You know the old saying: in again, out again, Finnegan. Here.”
With his penknife, Sir Robert dug in the soil to lift an entire clod of earth, breaking off bits to show me the tunnel. The spider, in panic, leaped out its small wafer door and fell to the ground.
Sir Robert handed me the tunnel. “Like gray velvet. Feel. A model builder, that small chap. A tiny shelter, camouflaged, and him alert. He could hear a fly walk. Then pounce out, seize, pop back, slam the lid!”
“I didn’t know you loved Nature.”
“Loathe it. But this wee chap, there’s much we share. Doors. Hinges. Wouldn’t consider other arachnids. But my love of portals drew me to study this incredible carpenter.” Sir Robert worked the trap on its cobweb hinges. “What craftsmanship! And it all ties to the tragedies!”
“The murdered children?”
Sir Robert nodded. “Notice any special thing about this forest?”
“It’s too quiet.”
“Quiet!” Sir Robert smiled weakly. “Vast quantities of silence. No familiar birds, beetles, crickets, toads. Not a rustle or stir. The police didn’t notice. Why should they? But it was this absence of sound and motion in the glade that prompted my wild theory about the murders.”
He toyed with the amazing structure in his hands.
“What would you say if you could imagine a spider large enough, in a hideout big enough, so that a running child might hear a vacuumed sound, be seized, and vanish with a soft thud below. How say you?” Sir Robert stared at the trees. “Poppycock and bilge? Yet, why not? Evolution, selection, growth, mutations, and-pfft!”
Again he tapped with his cane. A trapdoor flew open, shut.
“Finnegan,” he said.
The sky darkened.
“Rain!” Casting a cold gray eye at the clouds, he stretched his frail hand to touch the showers. “Damn! Arachnids hate rain. And so will our huge dark Finnegan.”
“Finnegan!” I cried irritably.
“I believe in him, yes.”
“A spider larger than a child?!”
“Twice as large.”
The cold wind blew a mizzle of rain over us. “Lord, I hate to leave. Quick, before we go. Here.”
Sir Robert raked away the old leaves with his cane, revealing two globular gray-brown objects.
“What are they?” I bent. “Old cannonballs?”
“No.” He cracked the grayish globes. “Soil, through and through.”