Monday, June 17, 2019

Bad Luck Opal, fiction by Joelle Lambert

The trooper’s lights flickered behind our van. That was it. Curtains. Just like that, all in one instant the operation was over. All of our time, money, and effort went out the window. It was out of my control. I couldn’t breathe.

“Dava, this whole time I’ve been nothing but a getaway driver to you.” Allie said, pulling onto the shoulder of the highway. Had she been speeding? She was nervous, too. Her hands trembled where she gripped the steering wheel. We were only ten miles from the destination.

“You know that’s not true,” I put a sweaty palm on her thigh, “Play stupid. You aren’t going down with me.” My attempts to breathe felt like knives in my stomach as I watched the trooper approach the window.

“License and registration,” he demanded, taking the documents back to run the info. I looked at Allie but her gaze was elsewhere.

“How could I be so stupid?” she said, “I’ve been blinded by my feelings for you, how much fun we have, how high we always are.” Allie pushed my hand away and got out of the car.

The trooper, seeing her, demanded on his speaker, “Stop what you’re doing and put your hands up!”

“Allie, what are you doing?” She pulled open the backdoor and rummaged through our belongings. I watched the opal ring on her finger glimmer in the harsh light of the sun. She just had to have it.

Turbo had warned me about a lot but he hadn’t prepared me for this. What do you do when your partner in crime completely snaps? This wasn’t in the script. I hadn’t known Allie that long, after all.

I met Allie when she started bartending where my buddy Turbo bounces. Although I think Turbo wanted to shoot his shot, I had taken a liking to Allie and found her completely irresistible. She had pouty lips, a stern gaze and thick thighs. All of her attitude and curves were wrapped in an eclectic style of thrift-store cable-knits and harem pants. She was sassy and audacious and soon she was hanging out with me and Turbo all the time.

We liked Allie a lot. She was good company; liked to drink, smoke, and play euchre. It wasn’t a surprise that she fit in with our circle of friends.

***


It wasn’t long before Turbo and I trusted Allie enough to show her the scorpion lab. It was originally Turbo’s little hobby that I had later become part of. Turbo bred a new species of scorpion and was extracting its venom to sell on the black market.

“Scorpion venom is the most expensive liquid known to man.” Turbo said, revealing his operation to Allie for the first time. Our collection was up to 87 scorpions. Turbo had been extracting and collecting venom for years. Allie closely inspected the glass tanks, tools, beakers, and piles of paperwork.

“This is the freakiest shit I’ve ever seen.” Allie looked closely at the scorpions and back at us in disbelief.

“Want to hear something even freakier?” I said, “These little monsters are going to make us rich.” I walked her around the lab. “This machine milks the venom. It’s a very delicate process.”

She scanned the entirety of the lab in silence. Her eyes were wide like a surprised child tasting sugar for the first time. She watched the crawling scorpions in their individual tanks.

“A gallon of this stuff is going for 40 mil. Liquid gold.” Turbo said.

“I never would’ve expected this out of you two,” she said.

“I am a firm believer in throwing people off my trail.” Turbo said.

“But, poison? You’re going to sell the venom? To kill people?” Allie said. Turbo and I chuckled.

“This venom is going to Michigan to a lab where it will be used to make medicine.” I said, walking closer to Allie and offering her my hand. I looked at her and worried that this was a mistake. I hoped she wouldn’t rat us out.

“Dava and I want to know if you’re willing to help.” Turbo said.

“This is all unauthorized, unregulated?” she asked, gripping my hand. “There’s five million dollars cash in it for you if you can drive me and the venom from Albuquerque to Michigan.” I said. She held my hand but her eyes were off dreaming, calculating in the distance.

***


Turbo taught me everything I know. From selling pot and pills in high school to growing mushrooms in college, Turbo was a very thorough mentor. The name of the game was covering all your bases, preventing anything that could possibly go wrong. Have plans. Have lies. Have backup. Turbo was neck-deep in investments and these scorpions were his cash cow.

“People trust female drug dealers way more. They’re not intimidating and usually pretty reliable. There’s one downfall,” he said, “their emotions run stronger than their greed.”

Allie was resistant to get on board. She asked a lot of questions. We almost lost her participation entirely when she got mad at Turbo for ordering supplies to her house.

***
Before leaving, I went to Allie’s to beg for forgiveness.

“I told you, I’m out. Drive the venom yourself.” she said.

“You know I can’t do it alone. It’s a 24-hour drive with no stops.”

“Make Turbo go.”

“Turbo has done enough leg work and now if you want a cut, you have to help, too.” I said. I looked at her and wondered how it had come to this. Allie looked broken. She had lost the glow that attracted me to her in the first place.

“What is something you want? Anything you want? A vacation? A house? A car? Whatever you want just name it and I can make it happen.” I said.

She sat and thought for a while without saying anything.

“I’ll give you equal parts of my cut.” I offered. Still, she was quiet.

“A ring,” she said, finally.

“A ring?”

“An opal ring. With rose gold accents.”

“Okay. Yes, great! An opal ring. Rose gold accents. Whatever you want, just please, drive me to Michigan.”

“Fine.” And we shook on it.

***


Allie and Turbo packed the van together. I counted my savings to buy Allie a ring from one of Turbo’s friends. I knew after tomorrow I could buy anything I wanted.

That’s how after 24 hours of driving, we ended up in a shoddy shack on the outskirts of Flushing, Michigan. We were there to buy an opal ring from an eccentric, old man who made us put our cell phones in his turned-off oven. Booger, he called himself. Figures, Turbo only dealt with the best in the business.

“Ya just never know who ya can trust,” Booger said, scratching his patchy cheek-fuzz, “wire taps get smaller and smaller. Come on in, meet the old lady, this is Pendle.” Booger gestured to an equally scruffy looking lady-hippie sitting on the couch. She was watching Harry Potter on a tiny TV.

“Have a seat, I’ll fetch your ring.” Booger disappeared while Allie and I sat down on the opposite side of the room as the one called Pendle. I sat on a plastic lawn chair and Allie took the flattened beanbag.

“Have ya’ll ever heard of the Anunnaki?” she asked. We shook our heads, no. “Ya’ll don’t wanna know,” she whispered, clearly disturbed yet she didn’t take her attention off of the movie.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” she said, “The Anunnaki are coming.”

Allie looked frightened and I felt guilty for putting her through all of this. She deserved this piece of jewelry, a treasure of my affection. I put my hand on her thigh for reassurance.

“Here it is.” Booger said, presenting the ring to Allie. She leapt up to retrieve it.

“Oh my gosh, it is absolutely gorgeous,” she said, easing it onto her finger.

“Rose-gold ring, Australian opal. $500. That’s a family discount right there since yer a friend of Turbos.” I handed Booger the money knowing that in just a few hours, a couple hundred would seem like chump change.

“We appreciate it more than you know.” I said, standing to leave.

“Hold up, ya’ll wanna smoke some opium?” Booger asked. Pendle snapped to attention, her eyes finally left the TV with the offer of drugs.

“No, thanks, we’ve gotta get going.” Allie said, looking terrified still.

“DMT?” His eyes widened, and I suddenly thought of my grandpa. My grandpa used to offer me Doritos and Mountain Dew. I never imagined hearing someone offer me things like opium or DMT. It seemed exotic somehow.

“No, thanks, really. Just our phones out of the oven would be great.” I said.

“The ring is really lovely. You do amazing work.” Allie said.

***


We scurried excitedly out of Booger’s house and I wanted to run, laughing, straight to the van. I looked at Allie and her face looked as if she had just gotten off a rollercoaster. I grabbed her hand and kissed it.

“Hey, watch the ring,” she said, and I shoved her playfully. We weren’t done yet. It was ten miles to the address Turbo coordinated. We fired up the van and headed to the destination once again.

My emotions swirled through my stomach and shot from my lips to fingertips. It felt like a windmill in my stomach was sending electricity to my appendages. I looked at my girl. Her fingers danced on the steering wheel. Her ring glimmered in the sunlight. Allie was happy. It all felt like a success far too soon.

“Dava,” the urgency in her voice pulled me from my daydream, “That car is following us.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“110. They’ve been behind us since Booger’s place.”

“Find the nearest highway.” I said, “Drive around a little before heading to the address.”

The onramp was right down the road. I watched the car that was following and urged Allie to focus on the road. We merged on and the car didn’t follow. They kept driving. Allie picked up to the speed of the highway and I could almost catch my breath in relief.

“Don’t speed. Just drive normal until we make it there.”

When I saw the trooper pull out and catch up to us, I knew it was all too good to be true. My hands started to drip sweat. My tongue went numb.

“Dava, there’s a cop.”

“I know, I see it. Just chill.” It all happened so fast, I couldn’t think clearly. It could’ve been a routine stop. Allie snapped. She wouldn’t listen to me.

***


“Allie, get back in the car.” I said. The trooper ran toward her. Allie started throwing all of our belongings out of the car and onto the highway. Boxes, clothes, magazines, snack wrappers, make-up. “What are you DOING?” I got out of the car and tried to pull her away. She had completely lost her mind. “Allie, stop!” I charged toward her.

The trooper restrained me and called for backup while Allie kept ripping through the van. She spilled a container of hair gel, tore open a box of cereal and then she got to it, the gallon jug of venom. We had it in a milk jug, no disguise, just the groceries it was packaged with. We were just two innocent girls on a road trip.

“You don’t care about me, Dava! You’re stupid and selfish. It’s always all about you!” Allie screamed at me as she poured the jug out at our feet.

I cried as forty million dollars seeped onto the highway. The trooper restrained Allie just as backup arrived. Turbo would never let me live this down.

“Some domestic drama and littering.” he said to his partner. “We’re gonna have to take one of them in.”

“It’s my fault.” I said, “I upset her. It’s all my fault.” The troopers looked at me, Allie, and the mess on the highway. “Allie, I’m sorry I’ve been a crappy girlfriend. I don’t want to upset you ever again. This should be a lesson learned.” Allie started crying, but I couldn’t console her. They cuffed me, mumbled about paperwork, and shoved me into the car.

***


I only served seven weeks of my eighteen-month sentence for conspiracy.

Someone had posted my twenty-five-thousand-dollar bail. A plane ticket was waiting to take me from Michigan back to Albuquerque.

I looked for Turbo, who I’d assumed would be picking me up. He was nowhere to be found. Outside, Allie was there.

“Dava!” She embraced me, “I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry for everything. I never should’ve gotten you into this mess.”

“Relax,” she said, “C’mon I’ll give you a ride--

“No, wait.” I said. Taking her hand, my fingers touched the metal of the opal ring, “I never meant to make you feel like I was using you as a getaway.” I smiled. “You still wear it?”

“Of course. I’ll take you wherever you wanna go,” She said. “Milkshakes?”

“Maybe after we go see Turbo. Is he mad?” I asked. We got into her car and sped away, down the desert road.

“He’s not mad.” She said, turning on the radio. “Actually, he has a surprise for you. Check out what’s in the back.” On the floor of the backseat was a very plump duffle bag. I slowly opened it to reveal stacks of green money.

“How? Where did you get this?” I asked.

“You really don’t know?” Allie laughed.

“I watched you dump the venom.” I said.

“They never found the real jug of venom. I dumped a decoy I planted. Well, Turbo planted.” Allie’s valiant smile relieved me of the guilt I had felt.

“A decoy you planted? It was all an act?” I asked.

“Your bail money is coming out of your share. I’m just kidding, we split it into equal parts. About 12 million each, after taxes.” She winked.

“Rookie. I’m impressed. I’m speechless.” I put my hand on her thigh and watched her fearlessly drive us into the desert evening.

“I am a firm believer in throwing people off my trail,” Allie said.

“Sounds familiar.” I said, thinking of my friend who taught us everything we know. Allie was happy and we were prosperous. We sped into the Albuquerque sunset together, toward Turbo’s house. After all of this, I was relieved and excited to see my best friend.

Rainbow rays glimmered from Allie’s ring finger.

“Want to hear something funny?” she asked. “My mother never let me have opal jewelry growing up. She told me it was bad luck to wear if it’s not your birthstone. It’s intoxicatingly gorgeous, isn’t it?”

“That’s what you picked to wear on our biggest adventure yet? Something presumed bad luck?” I asked her.

“Even though people do crazy things for beauty, I think it’s all superstition. Meeting you was the best luck I ever had.” She smiled at me with glowing radiance, more beautiful than all the opals in the world.


Joelle Lambert is a certified, holistic practitioner and the founder of Dirty Girls Magazine. She is an undergraduate student at Youngstown State University where she was awarded 2018 Outstanding Creative Writing Student of the Year. Her work can be found in Volney Road Review.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Laird Barron's Black Mountain, reviewed by Paul J. Garth



Black Mountain
Laird Barron
G.P Putnam's Sons
$26.00
Reviewed by Paul J. Garth

There are several scenes in Black Mountain, Laird Barron’s second crime novel, that see the protagonist of Barron’s series, Isaiah Coleridge, reflecting on a life lived in the shadow of inescapable death. The Shade has always been waiting, Coleridge recollects deathsheads and cosmic gloom as constant parts of his life.Through the course of these recollections, peppered throughout this gloriously plotted, violent, and fascinating novel,  Isaiah reveals he’s done what most men cannot: instead of attempting to escape the shadow of death, he’s felt himself drawn to it. In Alaska, Coleridge’s former home before a mob-enforced exile, the two were joined as seamlessly as night falling over a distant, darkened peak.
When we first met Coleridge, in last year’s Blood Standard, this past before exile from the Outfit was only hinted at, shown in asides tossed between mobsters and mentors, quips made to button men, white supremacists, and mercs who had made the mistake of trying to intimidate Isaiah while his feet were still wet in a new setting, but the genuine weight of Coleridge’s past experience was mostly mentioned in asides or as window dressing to let you know how dangerous Coleridge could be. Blood Standard is a good book, a haymaker introduction to a wonderfully complex, caring, yet hostile new character operating in a non-traditional location, written by one of the last decade’s most exciting writers. Like Isaiah, however, there were times when it felt as though there was a component missing, some piece of the puzzle that had not yet been formed and placed. In short, it was very close to the book readers had imagined when they heard Laird Barron was trying his hand at writing noir novels, but not quite the whole.
Black Mountain changes that. In Black Mountain, all the pieces cohere, and Barron places each one meticulously, including some new ones, revealing something exciting, elemental, dark, and formidable. Black Mountain, in a just world, would put the rest of the crime fiction world on notice.
Set close to real time, Black Mountain sees Coleridge, still off his game by a step or two after working through the investigation in Blood Standard, hanging out a shingle as a PI. When his former associatescome to Coleridge looking for help tracking down who might be responsible for a made man ending up headless in a local lake, Coleridge takes the case.  Through his investigation, Coleridge is thrown into a shadowy world of almost mythological hit-men, sinister corporations (including one that longtime Barron fans will relish seeing again), mob politics, femme fatales, bloodthirsty mercenaries, and dysfunctional families.
In lesser hands, Black Mountain could read like something overly familiar, a mix between Red Dragon and a Quarry novel, perhaps, but Barron eschews cheap plot twists and the know structures of the genre, preferring to take the story to new, stranger territory. That Coleridge’s ensuing search for answers is expertly plotted and ultimately leads to dark truths will not be a surprise for anyone who has previously read Barron, but what may be surprising is how organic and natural the investigation is. Isaiah Coleridge is not a trained detective, and he is certainly not a detective with enough experience to find someone even the FBI has spent years looking for, but he is tenacious, and he knows how to make people talk. Add in a deep personal insight into others and a doomed sense of self, and you’re left with a fantastically unique, even more deeply fleshed out protagonist in his second outing, one more comfortable with animal cunning than any kind of traditional investigative logic to lead him to the next inevitable step. Again, in less skilled hands, this would feel like a cheat, a series character being right because the plot demands it, but Barron is better than that. On occasion, he lets Coleridge fail or be wrong (this seems to be a theme with Barron and Coleridge--the fallibility of the investigator--that some may find off putting but others will think lends a level of authenticity to the proceedings). By working the clues and relying on his confidants, including an FBI agent who passes along critical but confounding information, Coleridge soon finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy both larger than most presented in noir fiction, and also one that is much more deadly: The Croatoan, Coleridge’s quarry, is ruthless, brilliant, and, the wiseguys whisper, potentially supernatural. A serial killer created by private corporations and the alphabet soup of nameless government agencies, the Croatoan is literally pulled from the innards of the earth, and just as Coleridge is hunting him, the Croatoan hunts Coleridge.
     The plot of Black Mountain is fast-moving, intricate, expansive, and mysterious, but the major achievement of the novel is the atmosphere Barron creates, infecting the reader with some of Coleridge’s own sense of predetermined cosmic doom. The prose in Blood Standard was good, but it sometimes felt as though it had been muted or toned down, focusing more on birthing Coleridge’s voice than the prose style Barron was previously known for, but in Black Mountain, the two elements have been joined beautifully,  establishing both a mood for the novel, an outlook for Coleridge, a sense of dangerous psychogeography with the setting, and a cold and brutal sense of impending death for everyone involved. Take, for example, the following scene, in which Coleridge investigates a warehouse in which the Croatoan might have worked decades before:
Hush prevailed as I moved inward and reached a set of doors marked RECEIVING. Old, old metal doors with metal handles. The left door was painted crimson, the right black, and, to either side, brick walls pallid as a dirty eggshell. The doors had been frequently repainted; a detail that inexplicably heightened my disquiet. Whatever had transpired in this area in the ‘60s and ‘70s lingered as a dim, psychic taint.  
All the above paints a picture of Black Mountain as a grim, death-obsessed book, but though the novel is made up of those elements, and though they are thematically necessary, such a picture would not fully capture Black Mountain as it is, as, amongst all the darkness, there are moments of light, as well. The supporting cast of the Isaiah Coleridge novels was perfect from the beginning, but they take on new life here, including shading Coleridge’s sidekick, Lionel, who, though he is almost as dangerous as Coleridge frequently behaves like a funny lovelorn teen; Devlin, a precocious kid who lights up the proceedings;  Meg, Coleridge’s girlfriend, who delights in Coleridge and whose affection for him is contagious, yet she still relishes giving him a hard time;  and an ever-evolving set of mobsters and wiseguys,  all of whom seem to be as interested in throwing zingers as they are making money, committing crimes, and figuring out who killed their compatriots. In addition, there are scenes with Coleridge that move from blackly humorous to just flat out hilarious, including an encounter between Coleridge and a would be intimidation squad that somehow manages to be laugh out loud funny between all the gunshots and broken ribs.
Laird Barron has been writing professionally for almost two decades now, and his body of work is deep and full of incredible stories, but the move to crime fiction has given him a second life, stretching his skills and unique understanding of our world onto a genre that seems ready made for him. Asked a year ago what stories best showcased Barron’s talent, I may have replied with a long list of personal favorites: “Bulldozer”, “Hallucigenia”, “The Imago Sequence,” “The Broadsword”, “Occultation”, “--30--”, The Croning, “The Men from Porlock”, “The Redfield Girls”, “Hand of Glory”, “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees”, or “Frontier Death Song”.
     Now, the answer is simple: Black Mountain. In Isaiah Coleridge, Barron has perfected a series protagonist who, though their survival is (mostly) assured, still plumbs the depths of genuine noir. This is the book crime fiction, a genre sometimes known for treading water, needs right now. This is, so far anyway, the best series crime novel of the year.