Showing posts with label preston lang. Show all posts
Showing posts with label preston lang. Show all posts

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sarah, Sweet and Stealthy, by Preston Lang

Two years earlier, the Poet Laureate of Delaware stole a 95,000-dollar table from Jean's parents' dining room. She'd met him at a bar when she was still a year too young to drink legally. Her friend Robbie introduced him as Samson, an old pal from lacrosse camp. She danced with this Samson, a dark-eyed beauty with terrific forearms. He drove a red pickup truck and knew how to nae-nae. While he was off getting her a drink, Robbie mentioned that he was actually the Poet Laureate of Delaware, but he didn't like to tell people because it seemed like bragging and he'd feel pressure to be lyrical all the time. But Samson barely talked. He just wanted to get out on the dance floor and press her close. And when he needed her to follow him, he'd gesture sensually with his forefinger.

Jean's parents were out of town for the long weekend, so she took that laureate home to her mom's queen-sized where they went at it, on and off, for about three hours. When she woke up the next morning, he was gone, but he'd left a note: Sarah, sweet and stealthy, I will always remember you. Did he really think her name was Sarah? Or was that some literary reference? She just didn't know.

It was only after breakfast that she realized one of the dining room tables, the one they didn't eat on, was gone. It was a limited-edition Rheinspahn, and it had cost her stepfather nearly a hundred grand. When her parents got home, she pled ignorance. "Someone must have stolen it in the night—isn't that scary." It didn't seem like such a big deal to Jean. The thing was insured. And anyone who could afford to drop 95 grand on a table he didn't eat on could afford to lose it. Her stepdad accused her of being in on the crime, though he didn't bring that suspicion to the police. Her mother called Jean a spoiled, irresponsible dropout, living in unearned luxury. The fight, a long time in coming, was big and vicious. Ugly things were said that couldn't really be taken back because they were so obviously true. A lot of hair was pulled. Jean took a knee to the stomach.

She'd been on the road ever since, staying on couches when she was lucky, meeting some interesting people and some very dull people, making lots of spectacular mistakes. She lost an incisor, and in the winter she was always sick.

One January night she found herself standing outside a bookstore in Wilmington where she saw a sign in the window for a poetry reading: three local writers, including the Poet Laureate of Delaware. First the non-titled authors read. Jean didn't understand any of it. Even words she thought she knew well--gift, remains, shortchange--were used in ways she just didn't get. It all felt mean-spirited and wrong, but no one did anything to stop it.

The laureate went last. She was a wide, silver-haired lady named Elaine Lind. She read a poem about being stuck in an elevator with a spider and then one about learning to French-kiss at Dunkin' Donuts. Jean didn't really know whether she liked the poems, but there was something agreeable and perceptive in the woman's eyes, she thought.

When it was over, the two other poets had friends and relatives. The laureate had no one, but it didn't seem to bother her. She loaded her plate with cheese and slices of ham then sat in a folding chair near the back.

"In the elevator poem I'm glad that the spider didn't start to talk," Jean said to her.

Elaine Lind nodded. "Yes, a talking animal is almost always a bad idea. In a poem."

Soon after, they were drinking wine together under a poster of John Grisham, and Jean told the whole story:—the laureate, the night in mom's bed, the stolen table.

"How heavy was the table?" Elaine asked.

"How heavy?"

"Yes. An estimate."

"It wasn't huge, but it was solid. I don't know."

"Could one man carry it out by himself?"

"Maybe a really strong guy."

"You said he had nice forearms. What's the word they use? Shredded? Was he all shredded, ripped, frayed, ruptured?"

"He was a strong guy. Maybe he could've done it alone."

"I'm just wondering if he would have needed a partner."

They were able to look up the table online. It weighed 170 pounds.

"I weigh 170 pounds," Elaine said. "A strong man could easily carry me out of a dining room. The truck he drove: Delaware plates?"

"No. I remember they were Connecticut plates. Local, you know."

"Maybe they spelled something clever, like Laureate69?"

"No. Sorry. Nothing I could remember."

"That's all right. Did you tell him about the table? You know, the night before, how much it was worth?"

"I don't remember. But I might have. I thought it was so stupid: a 95,000-dollar table. And I liked to tell people about the really stupid things my parents did."

On the laureate website, there was no one named Samson, and a look through the past 15 years of pictures didn't turn up anything either.

"Why are there so many of them?" Jean asked.

"The term is only six months. Not only that, for the past eleven years there have been two laureates at a time."


"Some feud between the governor's office and the state arts council. It's not important. Did you ever ask your friend Robbie about that night?"

"What do you mean?"

"The friend who introduced you."

Jean had never thought to do that, an obvious first step. Then again she hadn't really cared about the table or finding Samson. Now she did. It wasn't hard to track down Robbie's phone number. He worked a PR job in New York, and he answered on the first ring, happy to talk to a pretty girl from the old days.

"Yeah, I'd never met the guy before. He saw me talking to you, and he said he'd buy me a drink if I'd introduce him to you as an old friend. Then he said he'd buy me two more if I told you that he was chief poet of Louisiana or something."


"Okay, Delaware. Did you go home with him?"

The poet laureate wrote on a slip of paper—Details about Samson

. "Can you tell me anything else about this guy? His real name, where he was from?"

"I don't really remember much about him. Handsome guy, though. Wouldn't think he'd have to play games to pick up girls. Hey, what's this about?"

Jean got off the phone, and for some reason she was a little embarrassed.

"I don't want you to think that I—you know—that I do that kind of thing all the time."

"What? Hook up with boys?"


"Nothing to be ashamed of. A few weeks ago, I had sex with a man who sells shrooms out of his car."

"Did you do it in the car?"

"Yes, actually. We made love in his Saab. We made love in his sob? No, that doesn't work." Elaine shook off the bad verse. "No, what matters is finding the man who stole your table. Let me think."

The bookstore was closing up, so they went to a bar down the block where they drank cheap vodka.

"I just don't think someone claims to be Poet Laureate of Delaware out of nowhere. There's something behind that," Elaine said. "Sarah, Sweet and Stealthy? Are you sure that's what he wrote?"

"Yes, I kept it for a while. The scrap of paper. I lost it somewhere."

Jean didn't retain possessions. At the moment, all she had was a small purse that she'd found--no cash, no wallet--outside a Burger King just before sunup about a week earlier.

"It must be from somewhere," Elaine said.

They did a simple search for the phrase, but nothing came up.

"I've got a friend out at UD. He might know something, and even if he doesn't, we can use his password to get into the journal database."

"What's that?"

"It's got a ton of small literary journals on it, and we can do a phrase check on Sarah, sweet and stealthy."

"It checks every little magazine?"

"Not every single one, but a lot of them."

Elaine texted Dr. Sohn. He wrote back right away. He was still awake—come on over.

"Is it close?" Jean asked.

"It's Delaware, dear. Everything is close."

Dr. Sohn was about 70, a short man in an ancient bathrobe.

"But we have to keep it down. Dahlia is asleep," he said.

They gave him as much of the story as he needed to know. Dr. Sohn looked very familiar to Jean. It was as if she'd seen his face in connection with something dishonest and ugly.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Dr. Sohn said.

"I've seen you before. I think."

Jean felt tense, a little angry. On the road, she'd started to develop a sense, a very imperfect sense, of when she needed to bolt.

"Oh, I know," Elaine said with a little laugh. "You were looking at his picture only an hour ago."

He'd been laureate twelve years earlier.

"Yeah, I did my six months," he said. If you're a published poet in the state of Delaware you've probably been laureate at some point."

"The best part is when you accidentally rhyme and someone says you're a poet and don't even know it, you can just kind of give them a look," Elaine added.

Dr. Sohn poured out coffee.

"Sarah, sweet and stealthy," he said carefully.

They searched the phrase on the database. Nothing came up.

"Any students stand out to you: good-looking, fit?" Elaine asked.

"Always a lot of handsome boys. But none of them were fit until the late 80s. 1987, a guy comes into my class with deltoids." He stirred cream into his cup. "I have to say, though, the sweet and stealthy line. It does sound familiar."

"Like something a student wrote for class?"

"No, I feel like it's something I read, not something I heard out loud, which rules out anything a student wrote."

"You don't read your student's work?"

"Not for the past eight years. If they don't read it in class, I don't know about it."

"So we should check the journals not in the database?"

"And I would start eight years ago and work back."

"You stopped reading journals too?"

"The only poetry I read now is John Donne."

"So you haven't read anything of mine in the past eight years?"

"Elaine, I love you, but I'm not going to read your words."

Just then a very tired woman came into the kitchen in a thick nightgown.

"What is all this?"

"Sorry, we'll try to be more quiet."

The woman spotted Elaine.


"Good evening, Dahlia."

"He needs sleep. It's bad when he naps in a poetry seminar. That makes all of us look bad. You wouldn't understand that, Elaine."

"Honey, honey," Dr. Sohn said. "I'm fine. We're fine."

"And who is this?" Dahlia pointed to Jean. "Some homeless girl you brought into my house?"

"Maybe we should be going," Elaine said.

"I'd say look in Sonic Review, Pulsatwaney, and Matterhorn Review," Dr. Sohn said as Elaine and Jean made their way to the door. "I used to read those, but they aren't in the database."

With a few hours to kill before the library opened, Elaine and Jean drove to the Route 40 diner and had a big breakfast. Jean poured most of a bottle of syrup on her pancakes.

"Does it pay a lot?" she asked. "Being laureate?"

"No. No. Oh, no. God. No. Are you wondering how I can afford a feast like this?"

"You don't teach, right? How do you get by?"

"I'm sort of a detective."

"And people pay you? Because I can't."

"Sometimes people pay me. Usually they don't. I'm also pretty good at betting on college basketball."

Jean had nothing to say in response to that, so she ate everything on her plate and all of Elaine's bacon.

In the library, they found the old periodicals section and worked their way back through magazines that hid inside cheap leather. They started eight years ago then headed deeper into the past. To Jean the letters were like little bits of cereal on the page. She wasn't confident that she'd catch the phrase if she saw it, but Elaine worked efficiently and finally after two hours, she found it in a ten-year-old issue of Sonic Review.

"Hello, my friend."

It was there in a poem by a woman named Ruth O'Dowd who had attended Wesley College in Dover ten years earlier. She currently worked for a medical billing company in Chicago. They called to tell her how much they loved her poem.

"Sarah, sweet and stealthy," Elaine said. "That's a really interesting line. Do you remember where it came from?"

Ruth laughed. It sounded like she was walking on a crowded street, maybe on her way to work.

"Mark, the guy I was dating when I wrote that poem, he used to say it to me."

"Even though your name wasn't Sarah?"

"Yeah. He’d just learned the word stealthy, and he really wanted to use it. Like in a sentence."

"Was he a poet?"

"He seemed to think that anyone could just pick up a pen and call himself a poet."

"He was a good-looking guy, fit?"

"Oh, yes."

"You have any pictures of him?"

"Why are you so interested?" For the first time Ruth's guard went up. It was time to level with her.

"We think he stole something from my friend."

"Yeah," Ruth said. "He stole from me also. About fifty dollars and all my olive oil."

"Just ran off?"

"I met him in a bar one night, he basically moved in for a month. Then he took off."

"What was his last name?"

"Ulanger. He didn't tell me that, but I took his license out of his pants one time. This was maybe ten years ago. Such a funny time. I wore these sweaters, and I sat out on the steps and wrote poems in a little notebook. I was kind of a wreck, but also I looked down on everyone, everyone who wasn't me."

She sent them a picture of Mark. It was a bad, one blurry side shot, but you could see the kind of charm he put out there. This was their man.

"Maybe it was worth 50 dollars," Ruth said. "The sex was all right. I don't really use olive oil. I got one line of poetry out of it."

Mark Ulanger was as an assistant manager at a store in Indianapolis called Houseware Needz. It looked like he worked until closing on a Wednesday night.

"So he's gone straight?" Jean asked.

"It would appear," Elaine said. "If we leave right now, we should be able to make it."

The ride was nearly ten hours. Along the way Jean found a newspaper article from eight years earlier about a genuine Rheinspahn table abandoned in a courtyard outside a New Haven apartment building, warped and worthless.

She also found a website where Mark Ulanger posted an ever-expanding narrative poem about a young man riding across the country on a motorcycle, bedding women, cooking meat over an open fire out in the desert, teaching children how to whittle with a Bowie knife, playing dominoes with elderly men. He liked to describe sounds in detail. Like a campfire: cruh-crack. Or a horse trotting: clip-a-clop. Or sexual penetration: squeesha-squeeesh. Jean was able to follow most of it, but she didn't think that meant it was good.

Elaine had Jean check on basketball scores of the previous night. She'd gone six-and-five.

"That barely even covers the vig."

It made Jean angry that there were so many words she didn't understand. Even a tiny word like vig was completely foreign to her. She seemed to remember a time when she was much smarter, much more alert. There was also a time when she didn't need to wipe her dripping nose constantly, and all she had was a shredded tissue dug out from deep in a jacket pocket. When they stopped for gas, Elaine bought a new box of Kleenex.

"Sometimes I think I should be grateful to him," Jean said. "In a way he liberated me."

"How do you feel now?"

"I feel like he stole a table and ruined my life."

They made it to Houseware Needz about an hour before closing. It wasn't crowded, and they spotted Mark right away, standing in an apron, helping a woman find the right ceramic pear. There seemed to be more extra chit-chat between them than necessary:we've also got some truly excellent salad bowls. He mimed the shape of a truly excellent salad bowl, and the woman nodded enthusiastically. Finally she went to checkout, and Jean moved in on Mark while Elaine hung back two steps.

"Samson," Jean said.

"Sorry, my name isn't Samson," he said with a sunny smile.

"I just want to talk."

Quick vague recognition came into his eyes.

"Do you want me to stay?" Elaine asked.

"No. I can do this."

Jean spoke with real conviction, and Elaine went back to the car. Mark didn't admit to anything, but he gestured Jean to the cutlery section that same old, lazy forefinger.

"I don't really need an apology," she said.

"So why are you here?"

"Look at my hand."

She spread her left hand on a solid metal table.

"Okay. What am I looking at?"

"Now you. Put your hand out like this."

He paused a moment, but then complied. "Why not?" His hands were large and veiny. She remembered how strong they were. When she grabbed a cleaver from the display and brought it down on his forefinger, she was surprised how neatly it severed. She put it in her purse. She was out the door before she the commotion began behind her. The car was parked around the corner.

"All right. I'm all done."

Elaine waited until they were back on the highway to speak.

"What did you do?"

"I cut off his finger."

"Is it in your purse?"

"Do you want to see it?"

"No, I don't."

"Do you think I did the right thing?"

"Well, it can't be changed now."

They drove another ten minutes.

"Where should I leave you?" Elaine asked.

"I don't see that it matters too much."

The Poet Laureate of Delaware left the girl in Cincinnati with 20 dollars, three Luna bars, and a purse that was beginning to drip. One drop just before she shut the car door: an image Elaine could use, that justified the whole night.

The Houseware Needz Slashing was well-covered in the Midwest. The prints off the knife were good, but they didn't match anyone in the system. There was no footage of the actual attack, only some blurry shots of the girl on her way in and then again on the way out. It was an eye-catching story for a few days, but it wasn't a murder or even an attempted murder. The investigation died out fairly soon. But exactly three months later, a nine-fingered man was appointed Poet Laureate of Indiana.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Switchblade III, a review by Rusty Barnes

Switchblade Issue III boasts a number of contributors familiar to anyone who follows the small press crime scene, writers like Eric Beetner, Morgan Boyd and Preston Lang. As well, there are a number of writers I know mostly from their Twitter feeds and the occasional scuttlebutt. I realize it's still early on in Switchblade's career, but it's safe to say they've become prominent in a short time. All told, editor Scotch Rutherford has put together a well-done and entertaining issue here.

Some highlights include the aforementioned Preston Lang, who gives us "Press it Down," a story about a former musician turned mayhem artist, a granny who turns out to be skilled in the use of a golf club. I've found his stories always deserve more love than they receive: he's well-published, but merits further recognition, and kudos to Rutherford for recognizing that and giving him a spot in multiple issues.

In "Burning Snow," Morgan Boyd writes about how even a simple job like shoveling snow can become a criminal web of intrigue and violence. Told by our narrator Max, who's got a secret or two himself, the story ranges across the snowy landscape, artfully and simply revealed, to an unforgettable description of a fat man in flagrante delicto. The ending is a punch in the gut that  tells us what some of us could still stand to learn: some people never have the luck.

Eric Beetner's piece, "Family Secrets," about a child who witnesses a gruesome crime and is forced into a criminal act himself, is something I've found typical of Beetner, in novel or short story mode. His work is well-paced and  deftly written, always in service to the narrative, not flashy. It's solid prose exemplified by lines like "I didn't buy the fake sincerity in Mom's voice when she told me Dad would be okay. But beyond wondering if my Dad would live or die, I tried to figure out how in the world he ever come to be shot."

Other stories are largely successful but not necessarily my bag.  I recognize the effort each of the writers here, though, and I appreciate too the effort it takes to put out a quality journal several times a year. It's an often Herculean effort sustained only by the love you get from writers and occasionally from readers, and certainly not in monetary rewards. The kinks in the production process notwithstanding, I expect Switchblade to have a long successful career highlighting the best the small press crime scene has to offer for as long as Rutherford can keep the magic going on the back end.

The stories are out there waiting, and I see the job of small press crime journals like Switchblade, Pulp Modern and Tough to bring them to the forefront and provide an alternative--however the individual journals define that-- to the larger venue/larger payday every writer generally shoots for. Our job is to get large in vision, but stay small in practice, to highlight writers before they reach mainstream success, and to bring attention to those mainstream writers who still need the boost. Their success is our success. Every Switchblade issue, every Pulp Modern issue, every story, every time we get our names out there in the small press crime scene, is a success for all of us.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Primeval Ugly, by Preston Lang

Two men in suits met Dr. Lehrer just outside the lecture hall.

“Please come with us, ma’am.”

She could have protested, called them fascist bastards, and told them she was a free woman even in Reagan’s America, but in truth she was a little intimidated and glad for any excuse to miss a faculty meeting. They drove her out to an airfield where she met a man in military uniform called Colonel Begley, who handed her the lab report. Trim with a truly massive jawline, he walked about as fast as she could run.

“A murder investigation reopened three years after a conviction. A married couple in Ohio. Someone snapped their necks, tore them apart. Tossed the limbs around the room. The man they caught swore he was innocent. Last month his lawyer heard about a technique for getting DNA samples out of the carpet fibers. You know about that?”

“Sure, and I believe there is a lot of promise in the idea of using DNA to solve crimes, but this is not really my field. Not exactly.”

“Just look at it, ma’am.”

She gave the file a quick read. Holy Christ.

“Whose DNA is this?”

“The killer.”

“Where is this—man?”

“We have every reason to believe he is currently housed in St. Olwyn’s Correctional Facility in St. Olwyn, Alabama. Another murder charge. Another set of torn-apart people. He’s called John Panin—probably not his real name. So that’s where we’re going right now.”

“To examine the prisoner?”

“We’re taking him. The warden was supposed to have sent him, but he’d dragged his feet on it—didn’t understand, didn’t want to do it. Captain Redneck running his own little kingdom down there. We’re showing up and taking this John Panin.”

And then what? What did they want her to do exactly? Colonel Begley left her alone with silent men until another scientist joined them just before they boarded the plane. Small, gentle, middle-aged, he was introduced as Dr. Duine. She’d never heard of him, which was odd considering they were in the same relatively narrow field. But he was familiar with her work, paid her insightful compliments, and made one subtle joke about military hospitality. Before she could press into his background, the colonel separated them for the flight—Lehrer in the front, Duine in the back. There was just enough time for a real examination of the DNA report—the numbers on the page conjuring hideous helixes in her mind. They flew over the dense green of Ganayagee State Park and landed at an airfield, where they were met by a huge reinforced Humvee, a small sedan, and four serious-looking men with automatic weapons.

“Kids brought their toys,” Duine said.

The warden was large and red, but not quite the crowing southern rooster that the colonel had described.

“I’ve housed the prisoner for seven months. I’ve treated him with humanity, and I’ve protected the general population from him. We reached out to you people several times, and you had nothing to give us. Now you show up and demand his immediate release into your custody?”

“That is correct,” Colonel Begley said. “This is not a negotiation.”

The warden looked at Duine and Lehrer—two soft academics.

“How many men did y’all bring?”

“We’ve got manpower capable of handling the situation,” the colonel said.

“He’s been in iron since the incident with the chaplain,” the warden said. “But that iron is attached to the wall. You brought equipment to secure him for the transfer?”

“With all due respect, warden, we know what we’re doing. Now—”

“I’m sorry,” Lehrer interrupted. “You’ve had him in iron for how long?”

“Three months. I assure you, ma’am, it was necessary.”

“Warden, if you refuse to release him to us immediately, you’ll be in violation of federal law,” the colonel said.

“You’ll get your prisoner. I just need to be certain that you have manpower capable of the transfer. That’s for the safety of my facility and for your men.”

“Warden. The agents I’ve brought have received the most advanced training available. They’ve protected heads of state, gotten hostages out of terrorist camps. You’ve got a pack of flabby crackers who couldn’t pass the GED.”

“My main concern is—”

“Warden, your main concern had better be doing exactly as you're told.”

The warden tensed. He wasn’t a man to be disobeyed, let alone ridiculed on his own grounds. But the fight in his eyes leaked away—replaced with something like relief.

“It’s your dance now, Washington,” he said. “I wish you the best.”

Lehrer and Duine waited in the CO lounge while the colonel and his men went to get the prisoner into custody. The room was crowded with guards, all wide and short-haired, looking for a little information. Duine was adept at turning it around, getting the guards to give up the inside dope. One young bull was a natural storyteller.

“For the first three days we had him, he was quiet, you know? He don’t talk. Fourth day lunch a man touches his fruit cup—he tears that man’s arm clean out the socket. Then he finishes his fruit cup.”

“Don’t mess with that fucker’s fruit. I don’t care who you are.”

“Hey, what branch are y’all with?” the lone female officer asked.

“We’re not employees of the government,” Lehrer said.

“I’ll tell you the truth, Myra,” Duine said to the female officer. “We don’t know what this is about any more than you do.”

None of the guards believed that.

“And what’s this story with the chaplain?” Duine asked. “Warden mentioned something.”

“Oh. Let’s just say that the non-denominational chaplain is now sort of a non-brain-wave-activity chaplain.”

That got a laugh. Standard rough humor of a corrections officer.

“I’ll tell you something else you might not know about him,” Myra added, eager to share. “He ain’t John Panin. We booked him in as Panin, but a sheriff I know over in Ogochigee says that Panin was a small-timer—running juice and rough-looking girls. Disappeared a few years back. When they picked up this one, he had Panin’s ID. That was good enough for our locals. The sheriff out in Ogochigee—”

“Myra, come on. That’s just loose talk,” a colleague said.

“And he understands Russian better than he understands English,” a tall guard chimed in.

“He’s spoken to you?”

“Never spoken a word in any language. But we tried hollering at him in a whole bunch of languages. Orders, curses, nursery rhymes. Reading from these phrase books. Russian is what the ugly bastard perks up for.”

“I’m beginning to sense that he’s not considered a handsome man,” Duine said.

“I seen ugly in my time. It’s not always a beauty contest in this castle. I seen pocked-up and twisted and gashed. This guy? The pictures don’t hardly do him justice—he is primeval ugly.”

Soon enough Duine and Lehrer were escorted out to the parking lot. The sedan was there, but the colonel and the transport vehicle weren’t. Duine and Lehrer stood out in late-summer Alabama—nasty and sticky. It was the first time they had a chance to talk alone.

“You saw the lab report, right?” Lehrer asked.

Duine nodded.

“So what do you think it is?”

“I think someone in the medical examiner’s office got a little sloppy maybe,” he said. “Why, what do you think?”

“I can’t really say anything until I see him. But the DNA freaked me the hell out.”

“I’ve seen people get worked up over compromised samples before.”

“You have? Where do you work?”

Lehrer realized for the first time that she’d gotten almost nothing from Duine up to this point.

“I’ve been at the Kaiser Institute for the past few years.”

“They flew you in from West Germany? Did they tell you anything before you got on the plane?”

“Just that I had a chance to go to rural Alabama on a hot day.”

“Have you ever seen that kind of abnormality in a human? Let alone a human that survived to adulthood? I mean—have you?”

“My best guess is some overworked lab crew screwed up and wrote down the wrong numbers.”

“So why are you here?”

“Or maybe it’s a new kind of abnormality—like Klinefelter or Turner.”

“It’s nothing like—”

The armored truck pulled around the corner and stopped just in front of them. The colonel got out and popped into the sedan.

“Let’s move,” he said.

“Any trouble?” Duine asked.

“They put way too much into him—they gave him a dose that would knock down a bison.”

“But he’s in the truck now?”

“He’s in the truck. Sleeping like a baby. Like the scariest fucking baby you ever saw.”

They followed the truck out of the lot. As they left the prison grounds, the colonel’s mood seemed to lift. He’d gotten what he came for. That justified his bold, confrontational tactics, and for the first time all day, he smiled.

“Are you going to tell us what this is all about?” Lehrer asked.

“Back in the thirties there was a Soviet zoologist named Grigor Iliev. You guys are scientists and you never heard of him, right? No one has. Anyway he got the okay from Stalin and went to West Africa to impregnate some chimpanzees. But it didn’t work, and all the money for the project ran out. And the locals started to look at the guy like—hey, maybe leave our chimpanzees alone for a while. So he comes back to Russia a big failure. But then he had an epiphany. He’d been doing it backward. It’s not human semen into monkey mom. It’s monkey semen into human mom. It’s been monkey semen from Day One. You understand?”

“A chimpanzee is not a monkey,” Lehrer said automatically.

“Sorry, doctor. I’ll try to be more precise. There’s an ethical dilemma here, right? You guys understand that, don’t you? You ever wished for an authoritarian government and an abundance of poor, expendable peasant women?”

“I have never wished for that, no,” Lehrer said.

“Neither have I, of course. But Iliev managed to break down whatever high-minded scruples may have existed in the old politburo, and he got the thing done.”

“I’m sorry, Colonel. This is very entertaining, but it’s just not serious,” Duine said.

“We’re taking the most dangerous prisoner in the history of Alabama on a trip to Atlanta in an armored truck. Why do you think we’re doing this?”

“I don’t know—I’m new to government work. How did you connect this John Panin with the murder in Ohio?”

“The crime is the same. Victims torn apart, faces ripped off. We also know a few other things that aren’t relevant to a couple of scientists like yourselves. We’ve got our—specimen.”

Duine looked to Lehrer.

“You believe it?”

“I’m not saying anything for sure until we do a complete examination, but I’ve had some success with surprising combinations of rodents. I know it’s easy to mock, but I don’t think a human-chimpanzee hybrid is outside the realm of possibility.”

“So you think the Russians figured it out forty years ago and kept it going ever since?”

“The theory is that they created a small breeding population,” the colonel said. “Whether they intentionally introduced one into America or whether he’s here by accident—well, that remains to be seen. But this guy popped loose. Now we’ve got him. And that’s good news for the USA.”

“What applications would it have?” Lehrer asked.

“Are you kidding me? If you could get a man like this under control, you could put together a pretty terrifying outfit. It’s not for every job, but I’ve been in a few scraps where I could’ve made some subtle changes in history with a small group of loyal ape-men.”

They drove steadily east, past the sorghum and the wooden shacks into the state park.

“You guys hear that?” Duine asked.

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Metal banging on metal.”

“From where? From the truck?”

They were silent and then they all heard it. Like someone rolling a pile of steel pipes over a concrete floor. A voice came over the radio.

“Colonel, he’s part of the way out.”

“How’d he do that?”

“He woke up, sir. He’s still strapped down inside the case, but he’s got one arm loose.”

“You’re watching him on the CC?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let’s pick up the pace. If we really move, we’ll be in Atlanta in three hours.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So we’re just going to keep pushing?” Lehrer asked.

“He can’t get all the way loose.”

The road was narrow, and on either side lay thick forest. The asphalt gave way to dirt, and when it started to rain, the dirt turned to mud. The thumping continued, and they drove on—steady rain muffling the dull sound of struggle from the truck. The colonel’s radio crackled again. The men in the truck wanted to stop and give John Panin another dose.

“All right, let’s halt this caravan and reevaluate.”

The truck slowed to a stop in front of them. The colonel got out then went in the cab to check on the CC TV. He came out with two soldiers trailing.

“He’s got enough room now to bang his head into the top of the metal case,” the colonel said.

 “So he is getting himself loose?” Lehrer asked.

“A little bit, from the restraints. It’s not like he can get out of the case, though.”

“We don’t want him to hurt himself,” Duine said.

“I agree,” Lehrer added. “Repeated brain trauma can—”

A shout came from inside the Humvee. The colonel hurried back.

Duine smiled at the soldiers standing out in the rain.

“Just another day in the service?” he called.

Nothing from the young men. Duine shrugged. The colonel came out of the truck with two more soldiers.

“No choice but to make this dose nice and fat,” he said. “Davis, you’re trigger.”

“So we’re opening up the case, sir?” Davis asked.

“Unless you can think of another way to get him sedated.”

“If we open up the case, we might have the same issues we had on the way out, sir.”

“Yes, we will. But we can’t let this go on for another three hours.”

Davis prepared the tranquilizer. The rest of the men stood, armed and ready. Duine got out of the car and Lehrer followed. She was eager to see this thing. Could it really be a creature two steps beyond anything she’d been able to achieve?

“Get back in the vehicle, now,” the colonel shouted.

“Sorry, colonel. We’ve got to see this,” Duine said.

“I don’t want either of you getting hurt. Back in now. That’s an order.”

“We’ll keep our distance,” Lehrer said.

The banging rang out again, louder now—a burst of violent crashes. The colonel turned from the scientists back to his men.

“Cruz, you go in with Davis and open the case.”

“Colonel?” Cruz answered. “What is this guy?”

“He’s just a prisoner. That’s all you have to know.”

“Because we were talking. What happened in the transfer, stories the guards were telling us. We appreciate knowing what we’re dealing with.”

“Appreciate my hairy ass. Is that clear?”

“Not completely, sir.”

“You are going to open the case. Davis is going to sedate him. We’ll wait for him to go under, then we re-secure him. Is that clear? Is it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And don’t bring that thing into the van.”

The colonel took Cruz’s rifle. Then the young soldier went inside the truck and unlocked the bars of the hard metal case around the prisoner. The colonel stepped back to Lehrer and Duine.

“You’re not going to see much. In this light, with him strapped down. So I need you to get back in the car now.”

Dr. Lehrer took one step forward as Cruz began to lift open the case and Davis edged into place—huge syringe ready to inject. She could see the hairy torso of the prisoner by the interior lighting of the truck. He was muscular but not enormous. His head popped up groggily and he looked at her. The eyes were weary, resigned, intelligent, human.

“Looks like he’s coming down on his own,” Davis said. “I’m going to set to half dose.”

Then Lehrer heard the sound of gunfire, rapid automatic rounds of an M12. Down went one of the soldiers outside of the truck, then the second.

Dr. Lehrer hit the dirt and scurried behind the car. She heard two screams from inside the truck—the first one terrified and human, the second furious, triumphant, animal.

When she poked her head over the car she saw Dr. Duine, holding a rifle on the colonel.

“Doctor, have you lost your—”

Duine shot Colonel Begley in the head. There was a crash in the truck. Out flew the severed arm of a young man. Then out came the beast itself. Dragging metal clasps and canvas restraints, the creature rocked furiously out in the open now, trying to free itself from this annoyance. Standing on its feet, blood streaming from its hands and face, the eyes were no longer human. Dr. Duine dropped his weapon and walked toward it.

“Easy, now. Ya tvoy droog.”

The creature stopped its tantrum for the moment, but it stood coiled, ready to strike. Duine loosened one of the restraints, then another. Just before he got the last one off, the creature attacked. He raked an open hand along Duine’s gut and then cuffed him in the head, sending Duine sprawling across the dirt road. Then the beast ran, dragging one of the ankle restraints into the woods.

Lehrer carefully made her way around the car. Two soldiers and the colonel lay dead in the road. Inside the truck the other two soldiers were dismembered. Only Dr. Duine was left alive. He lay sprawled on the ground. The side of his face was partially ripped open. Lehrer grabbed a fallen rifle and pointed it at him.

“What is it? Where did it come from?” she asked.

“Never trust these men. They want to rule us. They want to destroy our families.”

“Our families?

” “He didn’t know me. He didn’t remember me. If I had the time to gain his trust—”

“Was Begley’s story true? Dr. Iliev—Soviet hybrids?”

“Iliev? That man was a moron. He was spilling bonobo semen on his shoes, while I was getting it done.”

“Getting what done?”

Duine’s head sunk back into the mud and he struggled to maintain his breathing, but he spoke clearly.

“Any hominid is capable of love. And she must conceive in the act of love. Otherwise you will inevitably fail. And you will have achieved nothing.”

Duine lifted the bottom of his shirt, and Lehrer saw that he’d been torn open. He couldn’t last ten minutes with this kind of blood loss. She wasn’t going to stop it.

“What is it?” she asked. “He is my son. My boy. My humanzee.”

She prodded him with the rifle, but he didn’t speak again. Lightning flashed nearby and the rain continued to pour onto the cars, and the guns, and the corpses. Lehrer was alone on the road, while the beast roamed the jungle.