Excerpt: Flight of the Tarantula Hawk

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Flight of the Tarantula Hawk
named to IndieReader’s Best Books of 2014!



Midday, and a crisp scent of Fall fills the balmy air of late October. Sun baked terrain has cooled below oven operating temperatures for several days in a row. The first time in nearly six months. Phoenix’s last Indian Summer is finally laid to rest. Snow birds and other migratory fowl are flocking to town, clogging the freeways and surface streets, swelling the resort hotels, RV parks, and the wallets of local merchants. A veritable desert paradise—almost, except for a fleshy white underbelly that never sees the sun.

Crouched in the upscale suburb of Paradise Valley, a four bedroom, two and a half bath contemporary Ranch-Style sits vacant. Its foyer, littered with MLS flyers and Realtors’ business cards while dust bunnies breed in its corners. At the street, the For Sale sign declares it’s Bank Owned. A sign of hard times, blighting nearly fifty thousand homes in the Phoenix area alone.

Carla Simon fumbles with the lockbox’s key to open the empty house. Her hollow cheeks match the hunted look in her soft brown eyes. Nervously waiting in the foyer for her two o’clock showing, she smooths the front of her skirt with sweaty palms. It’s been a long time since she’s shown property—too long.

Carla waves vigorously, her greeting overly effusively as her prospect trudges up the walk. She asks, “Any trouble finding it?”

Her prospect seems distracted as she answers, “No. No problem.”

Carla starts in, leading the way. “You’ll notice the hardwood flooring throughout the main living areas.”

They cross through the foyer.

As they enter the living room her prospect suddenly grabs Carla from behind and pushes her face-first into the wall, pinning her before Carla realizes what’s happening.

“Oh My God! What are you doing!?!” Stunned, Carla struggles to make sense of it. This can’t be happening!

Her prospect spins Carla around to face her, leaning into her, pinning Carla to the wall with her forearm.

Carla stares at her attacker’s placid features in disbelief, frozen with terror. Her attacker’s wide eyes bore through Carla like red hot lasers tightly focused on some remote target. Confusion scrambles her thoughts as Carla watches a hand rise over her head. Too late Carla sees the big syringe loaded with clear liquid—the gleam of a large hypodermic needle as it thrusts deep into her neck, penetrating the carotid artery. Carla’s eyes roll with panic as the stab of the big-bore needle pierces her throat.  Burning fluid swells her neck as the contents are injected.

Racing into the brain like a predator possessed, the poison’s fiery tendrils sizzle neurons as it flares then extinguishes cranial, optic and facial nerves. Burning numbness spreads, robbing Carla of all muscular control—eyelids drooping as facial muscles go slack, vision doubling, then blurring, then dark. Her attacker’s retreat, the last image burned into the back of her fading retinas. Carla’s shrieks echo in empty rooms, soon to be stillborn in her useless larynx as paralysis sets in.

How is it possible? Her life had just started to turn around. The ultimate betrayal. And after all the hard work and struggle to regain her family, her career, her sanity. She needs to ask why, but deadened lips refuse to move.

Her dry mouth hangs open uselessly as her last breaths flutter from paralyzed lungs. Maybe she wasn’t meant to be happy. But why now? And why like this? Bladder and bowels let loose as arms and legs go limp. She slides down the wall to slump into a spreading puddle of her own urine. Slowly tilting over, her torso topples to the floor. Her head, bouncing off the hardwood like a ripe melon

             no, No, NO!!!

Fully conscious while trapped within, Carla screams hysterically to no avail, only silence and darkness.

Pale moonlight floods vacant rooms, streaming through bare windows. The being that was Carla Simon watches cold blue-white light creep across hardwood floors to climb bare walls, exposing a swollen flyblown corpse. She’s lost all track of time. How many nights has it been? She tries to remember—where she is, how she got there. Hollow spots, holes.  Nothing there, when she’s sure there must be something. If only she could remember. Dr. Manson said there would be some confusion and short term memory loss, common side effects of ECT. Melancholy haunts her as thoughts flit from question to question, too many loose ends. Is the car locked? Did Howard make the house payment? Did Jimmy get his dinner?

A fine layer of dust coats the smooth hardwood planking, absorbing its lustrous sheen. Dust moats gleam like tiny stars in the glowing blanket of moonlight that hugs the floor. Fragments whirl in Carla’s thoughts, fluttering like wounded birds.  A to-do list half done, the white sheen of a prom dress, a plastic wristband from the hospital—shards of a shattered past, nothing left but scraps.

It’s so still she can almost hear the thrum of the cosmos, its pulse trembling at the edge of perception. The quiet house seems on the verge of telling her something, some deep revelation, a most intimate secret.

Something’s not quite right, but she dare not think about it. She’s certain that somehow it will miraculously all come to her and she’ll be okay.

Moonlight sifts through dust streaked glass, exposing a void, an emptiness, as she absently reflects on her condition. But she’s been done with all that for months now. Dr. Manson promised, told her it would be okay.

Cold light cuts through dead air with scalpel-like precision, illuminating tiny imperfections floating aimlessly in space.  Yes, it will all be okay. Like gasping awake from a nightmare or coming-to from a deep coma or a near death experience, a grand mal seizure like after an ECT treatment. Yet it has to be okay. How else could she still be thinking, seeing, hearing? It’s all just a bad dream, she’s sure she’ll wake up soon. Still, something’s not right. If only Dr. Manson had explained it to her, maybe then she’d understand. And she really needs to understand.



Sixty miles northwest of Phoenix, just outside Wickenburg. It’s an unusually bright night for early November, the blood moon waxing full above a rugged mesa. A brisk breeze whips up to a gusty blow, kicking up dust and rolling tumbleweeds across the open desert to pile against long stretches of barb wire fencing. As a lone coyote’s yowl dies off, the cold wind moans—a bone-chilling song, eerily echoing through the dry creosote and down the rocky ravines.

Gritty gusts vibrate the metal sheeting of a an aging double wide.  Anchored against the elements, the weather-beaten trailer clings to a five acre plot of raw desert. A ten-year-old Jeep Grand Cherokee stands haphazardly parked nearby. The darkened trailer and old Jeep lie at the end of a narrow dirt track, the only evidence of civilization for miles. And that’s fine with me. Just the way I like it.

I’m snoring away in my new La-Z-Boy recliner. A half-empty longneck Bud, sweating on the side table. A new fifty-two inch flat screen flashes digital images. My new surround-sound audio system, whispering the satellite TV’s endless monologue.

Dreaming, I catch my breath as a new reality unfolds:

A bright summer’s day, clear and hot. A large jet-black wasp appears overhead before I hear the hum of its halloween-orange wings. A tarantula hawk headed straight for me. Raw panic flashes through me. It’s enormous. Big enough to carry me away.  She lands in front of me, extending her hooked claws, wings flicking in anticipation. I rear back on hairy hind legs, baring my fangs and poking segmented forelegs at her in a valiant attempt to ward her off. She lunges, grappling with wicked claws, pulling me off balance and turning me over in one lightning-quick move. I flail wildly, arching my back, legs in the air, abdomen exposed and vulnerable. Holding fast, she thrusts her long black stinger deep into my belly, releasing her potent paralyzing venom. The shock-inducing sting slowly numbs me to the core as I silently scream from within its high-voltage spell. Her vile excretion robs me of all muscular control, leaving me to crackle in a hellish limbo. I can’t quite feel her dragging me away, but I fear the worst is yet to come.

A ringing in my head distracts me, growing louder, more insistent as the nightmare fades.

My cell phone’s obnoxious chirp drags me to semi-consciousness. I flail in my recliner, disoriented, trying to get my bearings. Grabbing my cell, I try to see the caller ID but can’t—head spinning, drowning in dizziness.

The loud chirping stops and suddenly, it’s quiet. All that’s left is the ringing in my ears. And as the ringing dies down the dizziness fades. I continue to decompress as the wind’s in human wail seeps through cracks in old weather-stripping, competing with the TV’s mindless drone.

Thinking it through, the nightmare was more than just another bad dream. I know, I’m Lance Underphal and I’ve had more than my share. And “the worst is yet to come” rings prophetic.


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