IF SHE HAD CONNECTED, she would have sunk her fangs into me and I would have died. But luck was on my side, and instead of landing on flesh, she slammed against the end of the flute and went flying off to the side.

She landed in a ball and was dazed for a couple of seconds. Reacting rapidly, aware that my life depended on speed, I stuck the flute between my lips and played like a madman. My mouth was dry but I blew regardless, not daring to lick my lips.

Madam Octa cocked her head when she heard the music. She struggled to her legs and swayed from side to side, as though drunk. I sneaked a quick breath, then started playing a slower tune, which wouldn't tire my fingers or lungs.

"Hello, Madam Octa," I said inside my head, shutting my eyes and concentrating. "My name's Darren Shan. I've told you that before but I don't know if you heard. I'm not even sure if you can hear it now.

"I'm your new owner. I'm going to treat you real good and feed you loads of insects and meat. But only if you are good and do everything I tell you and don't attack me again."

She had stopped swaying and was staring at me. I wasn't sure if she was listening to my thoughts or planning her next leap.

"I want you to stand on your back legs now," I told her. "I want you to stand on your two back legs and take a little bow."

For a few seconds she didn't respond. I went on playing and thinking, asking her to stand, then commanding her, then begging her. Finally, when I was almost out of breath, she raised herself and stood on two legs, the way I wanted. Then she took a little bow and relaxed, awaiting my next order.

She was obeying me!

The next order I gave was for her to crawl back into her cage. She did as I told, and this time I only had to think it once. As soon as she was inside, I closed the door and fell back on my butt, letting the flute fall from my mouth.

The shock I'd gotten when she jumped at me! My heart was beating so fast, I was afraid it was going to run up my neck and leap out of my mouth! I lay on the floor for a long time, staring at the spider, thinking about how close to death I had come.

That should have been warning enough. Any sensible person would have left the door shut and forgot about playing with such a deadly pet. It was too dangerous. What if she hadn't hit the flute? What if Mom had come home and found me dead on the floor? What if the spider then attacked her or Dad or Annie? Only the world's dumbest person would run a risk like that again.

Step forward Darren Shan!

It was crazy, but I couldn't stop myself. Besides, the way I saw it, there was no point having stolen her if I was going to keep her locked up in a silly old cage.

I was a little smarter this time. I unlocked the door but didn't open it. Instead I played the flute and told her to push it open. She did, and when she came out she seemed as harmless as a kitten and did everything I'd communicated.

I made her do lots of tricks. Made her hop around the room like a kangaroo. Then had her hang from the ceiling and draw pictures with her webs. Next I got her lifting weights (a pen, a box of matches, a marble). After that I told her to sit in one of my remote control cars. I turned it on and it looked like she was driving! I crashed it into a pile of books, but made her jump off at the last moment, so she wasn't hurt.

I played with her for about an hour and would have happily continued all afternoon, but I heard Mom arriving home and knew she would think it was strange if I stayed up in my room all day. The last thing I wanted was her or Dad prying into my private affairs.

So I stuck Madam Octa back in the closet and ran downstairs, trying to look as natural as possible.

"Were you playing a CD up there?" Mom asked. She had four bags full of clothes and hats, which she and Annie were unpacking on the kitchen table.

"No," I said.

"I thought I heard music," she said.

"I was playing a flute," I told her, trying to sound casual.

She stopped unpacking. "You?" she asked. "Playing a flute?"

"I do know how to play one," I said. "You taught me when I was five years old, remember?"

"I remember." She laughed. "I also remember when you were six and told me flutes were for girls. You swore you were never going to look at one again!"

I shrugged as though it was no big thing. "I changed my mind," I said. "I found a flute on the way home from school yesterday and got to wondering if I could still play."

"Where did you find it?" she asked.

"On the road."

"I hope you washed it out before you put it in your mouth. There's no telling where it might have been."

"I washed it," I lied.

"This is a wonderful surprise." She smiled, then ruffled my hair and gave my cheek a big wet kiss.

"Hey! Quit it! "I yelled.

"We'll make a Mozart out of you yet," she said. "I can see it now: you playing a piano in a huge concert hall, dressed in a beautiful white suit, your father and I in the front row..."

"Get real, Mom." I chuckled. "It's only a flute."

"From small acorns, oak trees grow," she said.

"He's as thick as an oak tree," Annie said, and giggled.

I stuck my tongue out at her in response.

The next few days were great. I played with Madam Octa whenever I could, feeding her every afternoon (she only needed one meal a day, as long as it was a large one). And I didn't have to worry about locking my bedroom door because Mom and Dad agreed not to enter when they heard me practicing the flute.

I considered telling Annie about Madam Octa but decided to wait a while longer. I was getting along well with the spider but could tell she was still uneasy around me. I wouldn't bring Annie in until I was sure it was completely safe.

My schoolwork improved during the next week, and so did my goal-scoring. I scored twenty-eight goals between Monday and Friday. Even Mr. Dalton was impressed.

"With your good grades in class and your prowess on the field," he said, "you could turn into the world's first professional soccer player-cum-university professor! A cross between Pele and Einstein!"

I knew he was only pulling my leg, but it was nice of him to say it all the same.

It took a long time to work up the nerve to let Madam Octa climb up my body and over my face, but I finally tried it on Friday afternoon. I played my best song and didn't let her start until I'd told her several times what I wanted her to do. When I thought we were ready, I gave her the nod and she began creeping up the leg of my pants.

It was fine until she reached my neck. The feel of those long thin hairy legs almost caused me to drop the flute. I would have been a dead duck if I had, because she was in the perfect place to sink her fangs. Luckily, my nerve held and I went on playing.

She crawled over my left ear and up to the top of my head, where she lay down for a rest. My scalp itched beneath her but I had enough sense not to try scratching it. I studied myself in the mirror and grinned. She looked like one of those French hats, a beret.

I made her slide down my face and dangle from my nose on one of her web-strings. I didn't let her into my mouth, but I got her to swing from side to side like she'd done with Mr. Crepsley, and had her tickle my chin with her legs.

I didn't let her tickle me too much, in case I started laughing and dropped the flute!

When I put her back in her cage that Friday night, I felt like a king, like nothing could ever go wrong, that my whole life was going to be perfect. I was doing well in school and at soccer, and had the kind of pet any boy would trade all his worldly goods for. I couldn't have been happier if I'd won the lottery or a chocolate factory.

That, of course, was when everything went wrong and the whole world crashed down around my ears.