I tell ya, it’s getting so you can’t take a dame to an abandoned beach no more without some giant bug trying to crunch you between its mouth-hooks. There I was with my client, Ms. Harriet Flores, when this giant ant comes over the rise, and it looks red, mean, huge and hungry. I stand up lickety-split, pulling my bean-squirter. I look once at Flores, who’s looking right back at me, and then the ant is rushing us. But I didn’t spend six years in Uncle Sam’s shooting club for nothing, so I put a slug right in one of its ugly eyes, and down it goes, flailing its legs and stirring up a cloud of sand right in our faces.
When I’m done spitting grit, I grab Flores’s hand. “Come on, we gotta run.”
She stands, but none too quickly. “What for? It’s dead.”
“You ever see just one ant at a picnic? Come on!”
Seems like lately I been seeing ants everywhere. Must be how some hop-heads feel, always scratching imaginary bugs, only mine are real and oversized.
Last Wednesday this guy by the name of Selva comes into my office. He’s clean-cut and in a good suit, so I figure maybe he’s got some dough. Then he says he’s a civil-rights lawyer, so I reconsider. But I hear him out.
“People are dying in the fields,” he says. “Three so far. The others are terrified, but they don’t want to talk to the police.”
“Migrant workers. Fruit pickers.”
“I thought that was all done by ants these days.” You see ’em all the time, driving around California – little black knee-high buggers tending the crops. Helluva lot cheaper than paying any kind of human.
“Ants are best for low plants.” He puts his hand at his waist. “For orchards, not as good. So there are still humans. This is in the orange orchards in Riverside.”
Seems three workers are picking oranges in the sky now. He shows me pictures, and they aren’t pretty. Looks like someone went at ’em with a machete. “Hard to believe the police aren’t looking into it.”
“They think it’s maybe gangs from Mexico, drugs. But it’s not. And right next door to the orchards is a military base, and they don’t answer questions.”
I’m about to tell him if the Army’s involved, there isn’t much I can do – I’m a private dick, not a spy – but he pulls out three C-notes and I shut my yap. I promise no results, but for that many berries, I’ll give it the old college try.
The Riverside base has fences twelve feet high and electrified, miles of ’em, and some big warehouses in the distance. The guards at the gate eye me as I cruise past slow on the highway. No way am I getting in there.
But I have my own sources. Find out there’s a lot of animal feed getting shipped in there, and a lot of scientists going in and out. Word is it’s some kind of testing facility, but no one’ll say what they’re testing.
A week later Flores shows up. She’s real put together, like a Swiss watch, and about as complicated. “Are you Ray Denton?”
“What it says on the door. What can I do you for?”
She says she’s looking for her sister, who disappeared a few days prior. Probably her sis has just run off, but she insists otherwise. “We were staying at a beach house down by San Clemente. I went out for groceries, and when I came back she was gone.” I tell her my rates, and here again she pulls out two Benjamins and forks ’em over. My lucky month.
So we pile in her convertible and head south to look at the beach house. The Pacific’s blue and the breeze is fresh. Here and there are cars by the side of the road where people have pulled over to swim or to ride horses, which they do around here – just before we stop I notice two silver horse trailers.
When we’re parked, she takes a little perfume and dabs it on her wrists and neck. “Is this a date now?” I ask.
“Anything’s possible,” she says archly. And before we even get to the house, she asks if we can stop a minute. “Let’s just enjoy the view for a minute.”
I’m getting paid, so I’m perfectly amenable, and maybe she wants to tell me something. I’m about to ask her what the deal is when the ant shows up.
With the first ant dead, we run, and I swear she’s slowing me down the whole way back to the car. With twenty yards to go I spot three more of the big red suckers, and hoo boy can they move. I fire at one and hit it, judging from the squeal it makes, and tell Flores to give me the keys. “I can drive,” she protests. It is her car, after all.
I show her the business end of the revolver. “Keys now, lady!”
We burn rubber out of there, and damned if the bugs don’t keep pace for half a mile. Then we’re doing sixty-five and they’re out of sight. Fifteen minutes later I pull over. “You want to tell me what this is really about?”
She tightens her lips. “I think you’re going to have to tell me.”
“All right, I will. You don’t have a sister, never did, and there’s nothing much in that house. You drove me out here to take care of a problem, and maybe to give your damn bugs some practice. You brought the ants out here in those trailers, and put that scent on right before heading out. I’m betting it’s some kind of pheromone to let ’em know not to kill you. It stinks, by the way.
“Whoever you are, you work for someone at the base at Riverside, and you’re cooking up something nasty – for-real Army ants that will only attack the enemy. But one got out and decided to see how the locals taste. That about the size of it?”
She sneers. “What if it is? What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going to kick you out of this car, is what.” So I do. Then I keep heading north, looking for someplace scenic, cold and giant-insect-free.