Spider. Lady.

“Where- Ow!” Tara banged her head against something, then fell back to the cold, concrete floor. “What the hell?” she asked aloud while rubbing the ache on her forehead.

“Careful,” a soft voice said. “These cages aren’t that big.” Tara’s pain subsided and she looked around to try and get a better idea of her surroundings. She was in a cage with thick metal bars. Though it was dim, a small window with bars on it let in a sliver of moonlight. She was able to see several other cages in what appeared to be a basement or storage room. Though, only one of the other cages was occupied. A young girl that appeared to be about Tara’s age was doing her best to sit close to Tara. She sat with her arms around her knees and leaning against the side that faced Tara’s cage.

“Where are we? How’d I get here?” Tara asked.

“There were six other girls when I woke up here,” the girl replied. “Men came and took them, and the ones that arrived after me away one by one.” She spoke with the most defeated voice Tara ever heard; the girl’s tone was flat and distant.

“I’m Tara, what’s your name?” Tara asked. She guessed the situation and decided she wanted nothing to do with it. It was time to leave.

“Doesn’t matter,” the girl replied.

“That’s kind of long; I’m going to call you D.M. instead. How long have you been here, D.M.?” While Tara tried to make conversation with the girl, the locks to their cages were being dissolved by acid. Tara also managed to learn about their location and the people that put here there, from within the cage.

“Four girls showed up after me,” she said. “I think it’s about one a week; you’re the fifth.”

“Damn, well don’t sweat it, D.M. You’re out of here tonight,” Tara replied. The locks on both their cages popped off; two heavy clinks sounded on the concrete floor.

“What?” D.M. sat up on her knees and looked at Tara in surprise. “Did you do that? How?” she asked. Tara crawled out of her cage and stood to give a tall stretch.

“C’mon, I’m hungry. I’ll explain it over a pizza,” she said. D.M. timidly crawled out of her cage and enjoyed a stretch herself.

“There’s guards!” she said as Tara headed toward the door.

“Nah,” was all she said before opening the door. D.M. followed Tara out of the room and into a narrow hallway. She was glad for the dim lighting. It was brighter than the storage room, but not bright enough to blind her coming from a dark room. The moment she looked down the hall, D.M. shrieked in fear.

The two guards she expected to see were both on the ground; each one was covered with dozens of different types of spiders. The guards were already dead and the spiders were wrapping them in webbing.

“It’s cool,” Tara said. “They won’t hurt you, they’re with me.”

“…with you? What does that mean?”

“I can control them, c’mon.” Tara repeated. “I’m hungry. I’ll answer all your questions when I get some food.” 

“What about the rest of them?” D.M. asked. She pressed herself against the opposite wall to walk by the guards. Tara shrugged.

“What rest of them?” she asked with a smirk. D.M. followed Tara out of the building they were in. She spotted what looked like a main house, and two more corpses were on the ground being wrapped up by hundreds of spiders.

“Where did all these spiders come from?” D.M. asked.

“From me,” Tara replied as they kept walking.

“Okay…,” D.M. said. She didn’t know what that meant, but she knew Tara saved her life. She would get to see her family again as soon as she found out where she was. Tara seemed to know which direction to go so she continued to follow her.

“My name’s Denise,” D.M. said. “Denise Martinez.” Tara giggled as they walked through the acid-melted iron gate.

“D.M. it is,” she said. “I gotta say, you’re taking everything that’s happened pretty well. What’s your favorite number?” Tara asked.

“Three,” D.M. said. Tara nodded to herself.

“Yeah, I thought so. We’re going to have a very interesting conversation.”

Ladies’ Lunch

“A barbecue?” Shirley asked. She glared at Damian with weary, worried eyes. “D, are you on something? You couldn’t sober up for a couple of hours to have lunch with me?” Damian shook his head and smiled.

“I’m clean, Sis,” Damian was quick to protest, then gave a half shrug. “I sobered up for lunch at least. Damned if I know how, but it works. Exactly like I told you. I’m telling you, I’ll get the check this time.”

“I don’t believe you,” Shirley said and Damian nodded.

“Of course not, it’s ridiculous. That’s why we’re here,” he gestured at the diner around them. The lunch crowd filled the tables around them with suits and conversations.

“You mean in a restaurant? Like we meet every other week?” Shirley asked; her tone loaded with snark. She flashed him a grin.

“But this is our first time at this one. Trust me, you’ll get to see it for yourself. Okay, shh. Here she comes.” Damian pretended to stare at the menu for a few seconds; then he looked up when the waitress arrived to take their order.

“Hi, I’m-“

“Carla,” Damian interrupted after glancing at her nametag. “May I speak with the manager please?” The young, brunette waitress faltered for a moment, then recovered her smile.

“I’m sorry, is there something I can-” Damian interrupted her again.

“What am I supposed to do?” Have a barbecue?” he asked. Carla’s mood transitioned instantly. She went from shy and worried to eager to please with a smile.

“I’ll get the manager right away!” she chirped, then bounced away.

“Well?” Damian grinned at his sister; she shook her head.

“You obviously confused that poor girl. Probably confused and scared,” Shirley said. Then a manager in a black blazer arrived at their table. A golden nametag pinned to his coat identified him as Mundo.

“How’s everything this evening?” Mundo asked.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” Damian said. “What am I supposed to do? Have a barbecue?”  Mundo chuckled briefly, then rolled his eyes and sighed.

“Oh, alright. I’ll give you this one on the house. But you should know your trick won’t work on me; and, I’d appreciate it if you did not use it on my staff anymore.” The siblings’ jaws dropped open. Mundo reached into his blazer and pulled out a forest-green business card. “There’s a lot more you should know about yourself,” he handed the card to Damian. “Make an appointment and I’ll explain the whole thing.”

“What whole thing?” Damian asked. Mundo smiled.

“Your favorite number is three, right? You probably have it tattooed somewhere?” Damian nodded but stayed quiet. “I wouldn’t use your phrase again until I explain more about it. It’s easy to get around, and you don’t want to accidentally use it on the wrong person.”

Cactus Drop

Thorne sighed when he noticed the missing information. He looked up at his contact across the table. They met in a 24-hour diner on the 24th hour. Both men wore suits. Thorne’s bright cactus-green suit looked clownish when compared to the man’s elegant black suit. He was only a butler, but he was far more refined than Thorne could ever hope to be.

“I can’t take the job, I don’t have enough information,” Thorne said. He glanced down at the picture of a smiling, 7-year-old brunette. In the past, he would have jumped on the case for free, but one of those jobs opened him up to a much broader, more dangerous world. He would not take that chance again. The butler across the table laughed and shook his head.

“You’re really serious?” he asked. He filled in the information himself and knew what was missing. He assumed it was some sort of joke question; assassins tended to have an odd sense of humor. “You’d skip out on a payday like this just because of a little thing like that?” Thorne nodded. He knew how important it was even if his client did not. “If it’s that important to you, it’s three,” the butler said.

“Are you sure?” Thorne asked. The butler sighed and reached into his suit pocket. He pulled out his node, swiped at it a couple of times, then held it up to Thorne’s face. The 7-year-old girl was giggling at the camera.

“What’s your favorite number?” the butler’s voice asked behind the camera.

“THREE!” the girl chirped. Then the video stopped. Thorne nodded. He reached into his own green suit and pulled out a small notebook. He flipped through a couple of pages that had numbers and notes until he stopped on one page.

“#03. La Dama.” He mumbled the rest of the notes to himself. “…affects Zeros….”  He closed the book and nodded.

“I’ll do the job,” he said.

“Wonderful,” the butler said. Now that their business was done he stood from the table and left Thorne to his meal. The next day Thorne was parked in front of the girl’s school when the bell rang. After a few minutes, he spotted her come out of the front of the school and sit down on a bench to wait.

“Hi, Erica,” Thorne said as he approached the dark-haired girl with his best smile. She returned his smile with the innocence of a girl who felt completely safe. She was on school grounds in broad daylight surrounded by friends and faculty. “George couldn’t make it today, he asked me if I could pick you up.” Her eyes narrowed in an instant.

“What’s the password?” she asked.

If only all my jobs could be this easy,” Thorne chuckled internally but shook his head.

“There is no password, I asked. And he told me your favorite number is three.” Thorne stopped a couple of feet from her and waited with a patient smile. “Do I pass, or do you want to double-check with George?” he asked. Having George in on it made everything much easier. She shook her head but didn’t otherwise move from her seat.

“George sent you?” she asked suddenly. Though that was already established she sounded like she was asking an entirely different question somehow.

“Yeah,” Thorne nodded. “I said that, remember?” The girl immediately burst into a fit of giggles.

“You know what would be funny?” she asked. She gave him permission to come closer with a wave of her hand, but she didn’t move to stand.

“What?” Thorne relaxed, smiled and took a step forward.

“If you fell…,” she said. As far as Thorne knew, he planted one foot firmly on the ground and lifted the other for his next step, then he landed, forehead-first, on the ground. What everyone that was now laughing at him, students and teachers alike, saw was both of his feet trying to take a step at the same time. He did not jump exactly; somehow he just decided to lift both feet up at the same time and kissed the sidewalk. He recovered quickly, then climbed up to sit next to the little girl. The laughter faded as everyone went different ways again.

“He sent you to kill me,” the girl said. Thorne forced fake laughter out.

“That’s ridiculou-“

“It’d be funny if you fell again,” she said quickly. Thorne’s mind suddenly decided he needed to be on the ground again; he practically threw himself off the bench. In the back of his mind, Thorne decided to amend his notes for La Dama if he lived through this.

She can definitely affect Uniques,” he thought. He climbed back on the bench and sat next to her.

“It’s not his fault,” she said. Her voice dropped. She sounded sad; almost wistful. “I told him it would be funny if he hired a killer.”