It made a ripping good plot for the murder books. South of France river delta, missing naturalist, mystery spider, vast fortunes in play. The enchanting, rifle-toting Amalie at my side. A ripping good plot indeed, if that spider and the next Industrial Revolution she might’ve spawned weren’t clearly products of Amalie’s fevered imagination. My dear rancher’s daughter might as well have claimed Sputnik rapped at her boudoir window. Giant Nephilidae, the bird-dining variety, were confined by climate to the tropics. Still, there were worse spring afternoons than riding en plein air through the Camargue marsh preserves alone with a broad-shouldered mademoiselle.
Amalie stopped her horse and assisted in stopping mine. She pointed toward a distant brake of salt cedars alongside a canal. “We last saw him there.”
She meant Ballentine, off on another of his walkabouts. I stroked my trademark stubble, the preeminent stubble in arachnology by any independent measure. At a week’s worth, it no doubt lent me a touch of ruggedness. The move also flashed my chronograph—a thousand quid on New Bond Street, should Amalie ask—which rounded out the Nick Torthwaite-in-the-field look. Stubble, chronograph, safari vest and poplin slacks, I cut a dashing if stocky figure, the famed scientist after his quarry.
“Well, then,” I said. “Forge on.”
“It is bad, to be lost in the flats.”
The Provençal spice to her accent sent a fresh tingle over me. “Never fear. Old Ballentine reads the stars like a sailor and out-wrestles a Komodo dragon.”
Trusting Amalie seemed to accept that. We rode on, Amalie smooth in her saddle, me at something of a judder and slapping at incessant mosquitoes. It was luck beyond luck that only eldest Amalie and none among her many brothers spoke more than pidgin English. To a brother, they bristled with scowls and cattle tridents.
I’d chided Ballentine over his top-secret scramble to the badlands. Yes, panicked Amalie had mailed us blurred photographs of a beastly spider blamed for debilitating bites on the herd. In black-and-white, the great and terrible queen perched on a web high between juniper branches, light-colored bands adorning her jet-black thorax. Her spiked legs spanned ten inches, as best we judged against leaf size. Genus Nephila, Ballentine declared, as if suddenly he was the arachnologist fixture on the higher-numbered BBC channels. Species undeterminable, Ballentine persisted, possibly uncatalogued. And he maintained time was of the essence: already local cowboys gibbered to the French tabloids about golden webs and demon spiders prowling the delta.
Rubbish. I’d stayed at King’s College with my lab harem, such was the deluge of B movie hoaxes and out-of-focus imaginings that flooded our mail. In any event, the aftereffects of golden bite were no worse than too many brandies at the University Club. Only a beef-crazed asp packed the punch to rot leather, and then only just. Ballentine, though, had the fragile species bit between his teeth. Off he went, and two weeks later, off I was forced after him. Had Amalie slipped in a self-portrait or two, I might’ve shared more of his urgency.
At Ballentine’s camp, I scaled my aching bones down for an investigatory waddle. His equipment and provision crates stood neatly stacked, though sans tarpaulin. Sloppy, not at all like him. His tent was zipped tight. A peek inside found his field guides and specimen jars hopelessly jumbled. Gone-off bread sat near his field radio. A marauding beast could’ve flushed him, but when fight or flight, not even bushmaster Ballentine stopped to secure a flap.
Then again, his walking stick and prized Nikon were nowhere around, nor his journal.
“Doctor Torthwaite?” Amalie said. “Please, allow us to contact the police.”
“Let’s not be hasty,” I said. “And you must call me Nick.”
“Nick,” she said, as if sampling my name. “There is light still. We should search for him.”
I surveyed that rather deep and rather dark thicket surrounding us. In such scrub lurked those asps, and boar, hornets the size and speed of Amalie’s Berthier shells, and, if brush could hide such a thing, free-range bulls.
“We’d best not disturb his work,” I said.
“But he might have an injury.”