BY SARA WALKER
Sara Walker has written articles and reviews for business websites and newsletters. Copyright rests with the author.
“LOOK YOU’VE GOT TO believe me. I know what I saw.” The girl was bedraggled in faded jeans and a dirty t-shirt, the uniform of the kids living on the streets of Toronto. She wore a background of abuse for battle armour. And she smelled like the bottom of the Dumpster she’d probably been living in. But it was the urgency in her voice and the pleading in her brown eyes that compelled me to hear her out.
“Giant spiders in the park?” my partner scoffed. Former police officer, Michael Thatcher was used to working on ordinary human-related cases in Buffalo. He was having trouble adjusting to the existence of the fey—shapeshifting elemental creatures—and their habits of preying on mortals.
“I told you what happened, Agent Ivory,” the girl said to me, even though I’d told her to call me Julia.
The only name she would give us was Emeline. No last name, no address. I could see Thatcher was reluctant to believe her story, having previously dealt with street kids and their highs in his old profession. But this kid wasn’t high. Not now, anyway. Her fear was real, not drug-induced.
“You saw a man shift into a man-sized spider before snatching your friend and carrying her off into the park,” Thatcher said, paraphrasing with sarcasm. “Why didn’t he take you?”
“I told you. I was hiding.” She fixed him with a steady glare, almost as if daring him to challenge her. She was about ready for a fight. “Jenna was late getting back to our box. If she’d been there on time . . .” Her voice trailed off, leaving possible nightmares unspoken.
Thatcher was taking lead on this case. It wasn’t my idea. This directive had come down from the boss of our black ops agency. But I couldn’t sit there and let him bully this girl anymore.
“You said this happened near Stanley Park?” I interjected. “The same park the Romanies moved into?”
“Wait…,” my partner interjected. “Stanley Park? Isn’t that out in Vancouver?”
I gave him a look. As if there could be only one Stanley Park.
“Don’t you read the papers?” I said. “King and Bathurst area. Spitting distance from Fort York.”
Last week the newspapers were ablaze with the story of old-fashioned gypsy waggons moving in and taking over a popular park. The cops were supposed to be looking after the situation, keeping an eye on things until the caravans moved on to a new temporary home in someone else’s city.
“Yes,” Emeline said. “That’s the place.”
Thatcher and I exchanged a look. He didn’t believe her. The agency had never come across spider-fey for as long as I’d been with them, but that didn’t mean they didn’t exist. Vampires weren’t supposed to exist either, but our encounter with Colonel Gregor Renko was proof there was at least one out there.
I was sure the incident with the Colonel was also part of why Thatcher was taking lead on this one, though nothing official had been said to me.
“We’ll look into it,” I said. The girl was relieved, but Thatcher was biting his tongue, just itching to argue with me.
I advised the girl to stay away from the Stanley Park area until the Romanies had moved on. She nodded, but I sensed she wasn’t convinced we’d believed her. I couldn’t very well spend a lot of time convincing her. Humans weren’t supposed to find out about the fey, and it was our job to make sure it stayed that way.
I pulled my little spray bottle out of my pocket and squirted her in the face. I repeated my advice to her, also throwing in the suggestion she go to a shelter and go back to school, and I directed her to forget what she saw happen at Stanley Park.
She blinked a few times as my instructions sank in and the magic potion took effect. Finally she wandered away, mumbling about needing to find the nearest homeless shelter because she had school in the morning.
Thatcher was ready for me when I turned around. “I really don’t think…,” he started.
“I know what you think. And you’re wrong.”
“Look, I’m experienced in handling these kids. They come up with this stuff all the time. She was probably high on meth and has no idea what she actually saw.”
“Then where’s her friend?”
“She probably ran off with some guy. That’s what those kids do.”
“Maybe in Buffalo.”
He threw up his hands. “Are you telling me kids in Toronto always tell the truth?”
“Not all. But she was.”
“How do you know?” He narrowed his eyes. “That famous gut feeling again?”
I should have been angry with his insubordination, even if he was lead on this case. To be honest I wasn’t taking this conversation seriously. I did step on his toes in front of a victim. Even if he didn’t think she was victim.
But, yes. My instincts were saying she was telling the truth. My instincts were saying these might not be Romany people at all.
“Thatcher, you ever had any dealings with the Romany?”
“Me, neither. So who’s to say there’s not spider-fey among them?” When he didn’t respond, I added, “It’s worth checking out.”
This was one of those lessons Thatcher was going to have to learn. When came to hunting fey, he had to start trusting more than just his eyes and ears.
Stanley Park was bordered by streets on all sides and a baseball field took up most of the middle. Maple trees branched together forming a lush canopy that provided cool shade around the outer edge of the park. The shade was welcome on this unbelievably hot day in June. Thankfully, the sun would soon set, and then relief from the heat would settle in. Why was it always hottest right before sunset?
Thatcher parked the car across the street. While he drove, I’d used my phone to surf the web for any and all information I could get about the out-of-town guests.
Romany children ran laughing through the park. All dark heads, long limbs and pale skin. The caravans were parked in a ring so they blocked the prevailing winds with the horses neatly tethered to bicycle racks. A small bonfire burned in the middle of the park, serving as their cooking facility. Not a cop car in sight.
“So what’s the plan?” Thatcher asked. “We can’t just go over and ask them if they stole a kid.”
He was right, of course.
“Did you have dinner?” I asked. I stepped off the curb and crossed the street. “Because I didn’t. I’m starved,” I called over my shoulder.
“There’s that famous gut again,” he said with a laugh, falling into step beside me. He was several inches taller and longer in the legs. He caught up in only a few strides.
I headed for the bonfire, found someone who spoke English and asked to buy soup and bread. She was very much obliging, but I had to hand my cash over to one of the men. She called over a thirteen year old boy and handed over my ten dollar bill to him.
I didn’t like it. Payment should go to the one who did the work. But I was willing to respect the differences in cultures.
The adults were also dark haired, pale skinned and long limbed, just as the kids, but instead of running around, the adults were all busy working on various activities. There was a lot of bread baking and soup making, but in addition to that, glittery fabrics were being fitted and sewn. Caravans were being repaired and cleaned. Debris was being cleared from the grass. The whole scene had the feeling of preparation.
“How did you know to do that?” Thatcher asked when we were sitting on the grass with our food.
“I’ve never known a nomadic people of any culture with nothing to sell.” I tore off a chunk of bread and dipped it into the hot soup. The soup was good. The bread was grainy. I finished in a hurry.
“Let’s look around and see what else they got,” I said. We wandered around and I paused here and there to admire the glass beads being sewn into fabrics and strung into jewellery.
Thatcher grew impatient. “Exactly how is looking for baubles and trinkets going to solve this case?”
“We’re not looking for baubles and trinkets. We’re looking for information.”
He wasn’t used to thinking on the sly yet. He still wanted to barge in and arrest first, ask questions later. I couldn’t blame him for that. It was the fault of his cop training. But he was going to have to unlearn everything he’d learned before he succeeded in apprehending the fey. Sly didn’t even begin to describe the cunning ways a shape-shifting race had managed to blend in with humans for years. I was still trying to determine exactly what we were dealing with.
I waved over the thirteen year old boy again, and thanked him for the soup. I’d already expressed my appreciation to the cook, but I could see this was a male dominated culture. If we were to get anywhere, we’d have to play by their rules.
I asked him if they had anything else for sale so we could show our gratitude.
“No.” He shook his head.
“Oh, so why are you here? I thought maybe to sell things.”
“We’re just passing through.”
“So you’re leaving again?”
“Tomorrow night. After the solstice.” His expression turned suddenly to worry and I had a feeling he’d just revealed too much.
Someone called his name, Walid, and he took the opportunity to run back to a group of adult males. A dark shadow passed over one of their faces and something twisted in my gut.
I wanted to stick around and find someone else we could to talk to, but I also didn’t want to push my luck. The boy would probably tell the others what we were asking about, and I didn’t want suspicions raised.
“What? Are we leaving?” Thatcher asked as I headed for the car.
“But the girl?”
I pulled Thatcher close so he could hear me whisper. To the Romany it would look like we were embracing. “She’s here. We’ll be back for her. And these people? Are not Romany.”
They weren’t exactly people, either.
Disappointed, Thatcher shook his head. But I knew he would settle down once I filled him in on the plan.
It was close to midnight when we returned to Stanley Park. Streetlights illuminated the night, and with the hot haze, the glow over the city made it seem as though we were stuck inside a glob of sticky amber. Sulphur lights atop old-fashioned posts dotted the park with lamplight among the trees.
As I’d suspected, the park inhabitants were gearing up for a ceremony.
“Look at that,” Thatcher said as we crossed the road. “The trees are all decked out in streamers.”
Flowing white streamers that sparkled where the light hit them?
“They aren’t streamers,” I said. A bad feeling crawled down my spine.
“They’re not? Then wha…” Thatcher sucked a breath.
We backed up and crouched behind a parked car.
“They’re spider webs,” Thatcher said. He sounded as shocked as I felt. I think I the bottom fell out of my stomach in the middle of the road.
“Yeah.” A pair of giant spiders scrabbled up tree trunks, jumped from treetop to treetop, spreading their silver threads. And in the centre-—trapped in the very centre was a girl in a cocoon, held in place by the sticky fibres. “I think we found our victim.”
“Oh God,” Thatcher breathed. The reality dawned on him: it was up to us to go in there in order to get her out. He shuddered.
Several dozen people danced around the fire in long dark robes. Chanting floated over the grass, along with a faint drumming. To most people driving by, it would appear as though these people were having a Midsummer’s night party. Those who might see the spider webs would only think it a prank, dressing for a movie, street performing, or a strange ritual of the Romany people. They’d walk away and forget about it.
But we didn’t have that option.
Just then something big and black and hairy crawled out between the caravans and headed toward the girl, and I just knew whatever they were planning on doing, we had to stop it.
“Okay, you stop the spiders, I’ll grab the girl,” I said.
“No way!” His voice shot up several octaves.
“Thatcher, do you have a problem with spiders?” I couldn’t help but feel amused. The big bad cop was an arachnophobe.
He shuddered. His face contorted as if he’d just swallowed a mouthful of Buckley’s cough syrup.
I smiled. “Fine. I’ll distract the spiders, you get the girl.”
Thatcher grabbed my arm, preventing me from leaving. “How are you going to do that?”
I shrugged. “I’ll think of something.”
“But…but what if you don’t?”
“I will. That’s my job.” I left him with that. He would have to think of something. He had cop training and instincts. He would have to trust himself.
I went around the park to the side opposite the girl. Thatcher was going to need a distraction big enough to call the attention of all the spider-people. I took up a position behind the wide trunk of an established maple. I could barely see Thatcher moving around behind the caravans to get closer to the girl. I only saw him because I knew he was there. The spider-people continued with their singing and dancing. High in the treetops, on the uppermost strands of web, the giant spiders tapped a rhythm that matched the drumming. I thought I’d read something about that kind of behaviour in spiders years ago in school, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was.
A soft whinnying to my left drew my attention. Yes, that could work.
The horses had been moved from the bicycle racks. They were a lot farther away from the caravans than they had been this afternoon. I wondered if the horses were spooked by the spiders. Despite all pretences I’d put on for Thatcher’s sake, I found the mondo creepy crawlies disgusting.
As I crept through the trees and closer to the horses, I realized the spider-people hadn’t left them unguarded as I’d hoped. The horses were tethered to a bench, and a young man slouched on the bench, his attention on the ceremony proceeding without him. Scowling, he appeared to be bitter about that. I slid onto the bench next to him.
“Hi,” I said brightly. “Nice night for dancing. Why don’t we join them?”
I slid my arm across the back of the bench, leaning into him in an intimate gesture. I got a good waft of his body odor right up my nose and had to keep from grimacing.
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. No guests allowed.” He quickly glanced up at the trees.
If he recognized me from earlier today, he gave no sign.
“Oh. That’s too bad.” I resisted the urge to look up, and had to suppress a shudder. My fingers worked to loosen the knotted rope. “I was really hoping to dance with you.”
With a start, he sat up as though someone had slapped him, eyes still locked on the ceremony. Then I noticed the drums had ceased.
I followed his gaze. My stomach rolled over when I saw Thatcher surrounded by spider-people. He’d gotten himself captured.
“You must go,” the young man said. His voice was urgent and the fire reflected in his eyes was fuelled by fear.
“Okay. All right.” I made no move to leave.
The horses stamped and whinnied, picking up on the change in the emotional atmosphere. At least I hoped that’s what it was, and not that the spiders were heading this way.
“Now,” he said and grabbed my arm. I let him haul me to my feet.
“What is your problem, buddy? It’s a public park. You can’t kick me out.” I yanked my arm free and rubbed the spot where his fingers had dug into my skin. I subtly shifted my weight to my back foot.
“You must go,” he said again. “Come back tomorrow.”
“No. I want to use the park now. It’s a free country.” I had to deal with him now, before he raised an alarm and called others over. Then I had to go free Thatcher.
He glared at me, anger blushing his pale cheeks, his breath coming in short pants. Then suddenly he threw out a right hook.
“What the…?” I gasped. But I was ready for him. I ducked his punch and threw one of my own into his stomach. I followed it up with a fist to his jaw. He went down like a sack of potatoes.
But not before he hollered. Deeper into the park, others took up the alarm.
In two moves, I knocked the boy out cold. Thank heavens I had martial arts training and he didn’t.
Quickly, I untied all the horses and sent them on their merry way. At the speed by which they ran off, they were glad to get away.
With the distraction accomplished, I slipped into the shadow of a tree, just as the reinforcements arrived. They took one look at the empty bench and ran off into the street, releasing more cries to the others. Within minutes more than half the camp had fled down the street.
I had half a second to feel good and then I heard two shots from a gun.
I didn’t stop to think about the other spider-people. I ran off through the trees, weapon drawn, ready to face giant spiders or irate spider-people. Two more shots sounded as I approached the ring of caravans.
He had to be in trouble. Whatever was he thinking getting himself captured? Not that I was one to judge. I’d barely escaped such a fate, myself.
But when I rounded the corner of the wooden waggon, I was met with surprise. Thatcher not only had the girl on the ground beside him, but he’d shot two of the giant spiders dead. The third writhed on the ground. He stood with his weapon pointed at the crowd, giving the girl time to free herself from the cocoon. Giving me time to sneak up and help him out.
But Thatcher didn’t need my help.
Sirens sounded in the distance. He’d called in his own reinforcements, and was stalling to give them time to get here.
Some of the spider-people heard the sirens, too, and glanced over their shoulders as though they were going to make a break for it. So I stepped out and with my weapon pointed carefully, let them know they weren’t going anywhere.
There wasn’t much I could do about the ones who’d gone after the horses.
The crowd we were left with were mostly women and children. That was too bad. It meant we might never know which one stole the girl off the streets. Kidnapping charges wouldn’t stick to all of them. Hell, they could all shift into spiders and attack the cops for all I knew. I hoped we could contain them all until we could deal with them. In the meantime, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the men hopped on their horses and kept riding.
The spider on the ground morphed into boy we talked to earlier. He stepped forward, bleeding from the shoulder. “Don’t you want to marry me? Don’t you want to live a better life?”
He seemed to be addressing the girl. Jenna. That’s what this was? A wedding ceremony? Then I remembered about the spiders and tapping the webbing. It was part of a mating ritual.
Jenna took one look at him and sobbed, still struggling to break free from the cocoon. I couldn’t blame her. This was a lot to process. Her recovery was going to take more than my little bottle of Forget-Me spray could handle.
“But you were on the streets,” he said. He still sounded bewildered. “You had no food.”
“I had freedom,” she said. Her voice trembled, her throat raw from crying. She seemed bolstered by the proximity of the sirens and kicked off the husk of the cocoon. She got to her feet and tried to brush off the remaining sticky fibres.
“What good is freedom when the rain washes away your home? What good is freedom when you have nothing to eat?”
“Look, I liked you when you first came here, Walid. I might have even married you if you’d asked. But this is just sick,” she said. “This whole kidnapping and spider thing? Sick, Walid. Sick.”
“I had to kidnap you. Don’t you see? What if you had said no?” Walid asked. Poor kid. He was clearly crestfallen. Crushed like a spider under the girl’s boot.
“Guess you should have trusted her,” Thatcher said. Guilt creased around his eyes and I knew he was thinking about the girl’s friend, Emeline, and how he’d not believed her story.
I realized his words applied to me, too. I should have trusted him. He went in to save the girl, and he did just that. I shouldn’t have assumed he couldn’t handle it on his own.
The cops arrived. The park was surrounded by flashing red and blue lights. Blue uniforms swept in and started taking names. An alert was broadcast for the runaway men and the horses. We gave them instructions to take them all to our salt cells to hold them until we could get things sorted out, but I had a pretty good idea who the kidnapper was. The question was how many times had the spider-people done this before? Who else was in that group against their will?
It was a couple hours before Thatcher and I headed back to the car.
“Good job, Thatcher.”
“So, you’re not mad at me for calling in Metro P.D.?” He stood with the door open, waiting for my reply.
“I trust you,” I said and meant it.
He seemed satisfied with that and climbed into the car.
“How’s the arachnophobia?” I asked, as he put the car into gear and pulled out into traffic.
He shuddered. “I never want to see another spider again,” he said. “And if I do, I’m going to shoot it.”
“Remind me not to preceed down into basements. Or attics. Or gardens. Or forests.” I laughed as Thatcher shuddered and begged me to stop the list. At least we made a good team.