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.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Mark of a Good Deal, by JM Taylor

Miles felt exiled at the end of the bar. Sandy’s had become too upscale for him, but there wasn’t no place else to drink since Paddy’s shut down, turned into a fucking yogurt studio. All those housewives wearing Speedo pants and drinking five-dollar coffees.

Sandy’s used to be a decent bar with good hooch, but now it was one of those “taverns” with a fireplace, spiral-bound menu, and twenty different martinis. Bright-eyed families filled the tables and guys with lumberjack beards and form-fitting flannel congratulated each other for sipping bright green drinks. Miles couldn’t even tell if they liked women. What would happen if one of those housewives in tight pants came in? Normally, Miles’ buddy Chris would be here with him, to balance out the karma, so to speak, but Chris was doing thirty on a drunk and disorderly. Tough luck.

Putting down his bottle, he accidentally-on-purpose knocked over an empty shot glass. It rolled in an arc, threatening to bowl over a lumberfag’s glass. Sandy, quick on the uptake, caught it and slipped the shot into a rack beneath the bar. But he produced a new one, full to the brim with rye. Miles nodded his thanks, knocked it back, chased it with another mouthful of beer.

“Gettin’ late,” Sandy said. “Work night, ain’t it?”

“Fuck you,” Miles said, not without humor. “How the hell you think I stand that shithole, ’cept hungover?”

Sandy shrugged, put the second shot glass with the first. “Saw online you won’t have to worry much longer. True they’re moving the operation to New Orleans and turning the plant into luxury condos?”

Miles sneered. “Bought up a bunch of land after the damned hurricane. Putting in robots, too, so even the spades down there won’t get the jobs. Gonna have fucking drones flying through the place. Only like two goddamned human beings watching a screen in the whole plant. The accounting office they’re sending to Pakistan or Zimbabwe.”

“For that, I’ll give you a Bud on the house,” Sandy said. He took it out of the case, popped off the cap and stood it next to Miles’ empty.

It was one of those summer bottles that said “America” on the label. Miles grinned. “Least I’ll always have good ole American beer, brewed and owned in the U. S. fuckin’ A.”

Sandy looked like he was going to say something, thought better of it, and turned to ring up the tab on the register.

Miles kept talking. “Been in that plant going on eleven years now. Started when my boy was born. Should be foreman by now, except someone else went to some weak-ass community college and got his pussy degree. I learned every inch of that place the hard way, but no one gives a rat’s ass when you don’t have the paper. If I wanted to, I could steal the place blind.”

“You could fix it so they’d never even know,” Sandy said tiredly. He’d been hearing the same line for a couple of years.

“Damn right. Know where the cameras are, know how to sneak a case out off the line before inventory. Shit, I could sell them filters out of my trunk by the dozen at every garage and gas station from here to the state line. Get my boy back from his mother.”

“Might even get your car off the impound lot. You’d have have to find the scratch first.”

Miles nodded sourly and drank his beer. “Every great plan has a hitch. Need someone to stake me is all. I got the know-how, I got the skills.” He shook his head. “Someone’s letting a great opportunity go to waste.”

Sandy rolled his eyes, and moved down the bar to re-up other customers. The guy next to Miles, whose beard might have looked like an Arab’s if it weren’t for the waxed handlebar stache, turned to wave him down. Miles eyed his lime-green drink, noticed nobody was eying him back, and took a slug to find out what the commotion was about. He gagged on brine. The son of a bitch was drinking goddamn pickle juice. He slid the drink back in front of the idiot, who finished it off without noticing a thing. Miles tried to rinse his mouth with the dregs of his “America”, but the pickle taste lay on his tongue like a soiled rug.

He was about to make an escape when a hand dropped on his shoulder. He looked up to see who it was, but then a cool voice echoed in his other ear. “Sandy says you’re looking for a business partner. That right?”

Miles twisted to look the newcomer in the face, but he was pressed so close to him that he couldn’t move. “I…I might have a line on some oil filters fell off a truck.”

“Really, now. Funny how only pissants like you ever see those boxes tumble to the ground.”

“You a cop?” Miles said. “I don’t know nothin’ for sure.” He strained to get up, but the hand was heavy as death.

The voice caressed his ear. “Better than that,” it told him. “I’m your dream come true. Let me buy you a drink.”

“I think I’ve had enough,” Miles whispered. “I gotta go to work in the morning.”

“You can go to your shit job in the morning, and mark time before they steal it out from under you. Or you can listen to a proposition that will make you as rich as you deserve. You know those fuckers in the front office are jerking you around. But I think your plan to screw them over is a good one, and I want to stake you. All I ask is that you take me along for the ride.” He waved for Sandy’s attention.

“You mean you want a cut. Guys like you, I bet that means most of it.”

“You got me all wrong.” Miles still couldn’t get a good view of who was talking to him, but the voice sounded genuinely hurt. “I just want to make sure you get what you deserve. I hear you got a kid you don’t see as much as you like. Deal?”

Another Bud, one with a regular label, appeared. “Drink up, Miles,” his new best friend said. “I’ll see you at the end of your shift tomorrow. I’ve got work to do in the meantime.”

Miles took a long, shaking pull from the bottle. It must have been a bad batch, gone skunky. He pushed it away and watched the man glide toward the front of the bar. His long black coat billowed behind him as he opened the door and disappeared into the night.

“Screw it,” he said, emptying the bottle. “You don’t shit on free beer.” He threw the last of his greenbacks on the bar and followed the man outside.

The cold air braced him, and Miles felt halfway to sober. Hunched up in his thin windbreaker, he shoved his hands in his pockets and quick-marched home, avoiding some road construction. The old intersection had been named after his grandfather, but now, thanks to all the McMansions going up, it needed to expand, and the town decided to rename it after the principal investor. No one had bothered to ask Miles what he thought.

He stumbled along for two miles, past overgrown, abandoned apple orchards. A sign claimed a mall would sprout there next summer. Once he saw the glowing red eyes of something—he hoped a deer—watching him from the trees. He pulled his jacket tighter and steamed toward his room, at the top back of a converted two-family. Only when he made the turn up the wooden fire-escape to his door did he notice his car sitting in the paved backyard. He scrambled down the steps to make sure.

It was his, all right. No mistaking the old Cougar’s crumpled left fender. He fished in his pockets for the keys and let himself in. The tank was full, for Christ’s sake. Miles checked under the seat, and smiled when he found the hunting knife he kept between the springs. The guy was true to his word, and then some.

The excitement of getting his car back dissipated when he got to work on time the next morning. Now he’d have to spend the whole goddamned day on the line without an excuse. The crush of machinery deafened him as it pressed resined paper into circular accordion folds, stamped out springs, stacked them into oil filters and eventually packed them into boxes. Half a dozen workers in smocks and goggles shepherded the process. Even Miles understood there was only a short hop between them and the robots, and then what? He took his own gear from his locker and joined the breathing drones one more time.

By lunch, he had squirreled away five cases of filters in strategic points across the plant. He’d have to wait until quitting time before he could maneuver them to his car, which he’d parked ass-out at the end of the lot, so he could get it all in the trunk out of view of the exterior cameras. He got the feeling the foreman had an eye on him from the window that overlooked the operating floor, but no one said anything. Then, the prick left at the stroke of five. Miles hung back so he could slide the boxes closer to the delivery bay door.

They were stacked neatly, ready to go. Nearly three bills’ worth of uninventoried merch to unload at his leisure, now that he had wheels. He turned for the locker room, where he could hang up his filthy smock. Before he took a single step, though, the steel door echoed beneath a pounding fist. As if someone knew he would be standing there at that precise moment. Except it wasn’t just “someone.” He didn’t know why he hesitated. After all, if it weren’t for the guy’s help, Miles would be getting ready for a hour-long stroll along the highway. He punched the button and the door rattled up.

The man loomed larger than Miles had remembered him. He still wore the same flowing black coat, and from this angle, he seemed to fill the entire door. His face was warped in a permanent scowl. His eyes, yellow like an eagle’s, smoldered with hatred. “Surprised?” he asked curtly. None of last night’s friendliness.

“Of course not.” Miles stepped aside to let him pass. “Thanks for the car, by the way.”

The man brushed him aside. He strode through the plastic strips that separated the loading bay from the main area of the factory floor. “Foreman’s office?” he said, pointing to the second-floor windows.

“Yeah, right up there. I don’t have the key or nothing, though.” Miles screwed up his face. “You never said what you were going to do.”

The man in the black coat looked at him and smiled. “Didn’t think I had to. Go load up your car, then come back. Still have that knife under the seat?” Miles nodded. “We might need that, too.”

It took three trips to get the cases in his trunk, and Miles was glad to do it alone. When he was finished, he slid the knife from the driver’s seat, tucking it in his belt. It was getting dark, and orange light shone from the office window like a beacon. The shadow of his partner—or at least his benefactor—fluttered from the desk to the file cabinets. Something inside of Miles relaxed. White collar crime might bring in more dough for his partner than the scam Miles was pulling, but so what? They both got what they wanted, and Miles wouldn’t be able to spend more than a few hundred at a time anyhow. And he had his car back. The mark of a good partnership was that everyone made out.

He hopped up on the loading dock and ducked inside the door. He hovered awkwardly, unsure of his role. Should he go up and ask if the guy needed anything? Or just wait? Maybe he just needed Miles to set the alarm as they left.

The sharp smell of oily smoke burned at his nose. What Miles had thought was just the dim glow of light bulbs turned out to be a fire. The line machinery danced in the flickering light. Why hadn’t the alarms gone off, or the sprinklers? Why hadn’t the man come out of the office? He ran for the metal steps and took them two at a time. Smoke rolled out of the office now. He crouched against the heat, inching toward the door. The flames had engulfed the room, but he heard the man calling feebly for help.

Miles hesitated. The filters were in his car, and no one would know he’d been here if he just took off now. He might even be able to get another case or two on his way. If the place burned down, it wouldn’t matter, and they’d find this guy’s body and it wouldn’t have anything to do with Miles. On the other hand, the man must have friends, and what if he’d told them he was working a score with Miles? Another cry cut through the crackle of the fire. He put his hand on the door frame, but pulled it back when it burned his palm.

“Please,” the man groaned. “It hurts so bad. Help me.”

Miles steeled himself, then jumped into the burning room. He dropped to his knees. “Where are you?” he said, choking on the fumes. A flaming ceiling panel fell on his back and burned through his shirt. His hair and eyebrows were singed. “Where are you?”

Miles never felt the knife leave his belt, but he did feel it cut through his ribs, the serrated blades hacking through bone. “Right here, partner,” the man whispered in his ear. “A couple key strokes, and three bank accounts transferred to my offshore account. No one will ever find it. Instead, they’ll find you here, and your car loaded with stolen goods, and figure, ‘the lousy bastard just had to go back for one more thing, the stupid shit.’ ”

The realization hit him that the guy had never actually said Miles would make a dime out of this. Never even promised he’d get to see his son one more time. The heat and the blood loss were overcoming Miles, but he choked out, “They’ll see I was stabbed. And Sandy will remember you from the bar.”

“Doubt it,” the man said. He tore a strip of aluminum runner from the ceiling. The hot metal seared Miles’ guts as it impaled him, fixing him to the floor. He was still conscious when the factory roof caved in on him, and his last thought was that maybe he should have negotiated a better deal.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Book Review: Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals

Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals: Essays on Crime Fiction Writers from the '50s Through the '90s
Rick Ollerman
Stark House Press
Eureka CA
August 4, 2017
295 pages

I knew I was in for a good time when Ollerman described in his introductory essay how Harlan Ellison's,collection An Edge in My Voice, impacted Ollerman's life and writing career. Ellison modeled not only a way to write about important topics, but also a way to respond to the world.

[Ellison's] writing had such power and clarity, whether he was talking about his car or his dog, his early life in Ohio or his more recent time in Hollywood. And these were essays, those drab kind of things you had to write in school to try to show teachers you weren't just copying multiple choice answers from your neighbor's answer sheet from the desk next to yours.

Who knew?

Ellison never suffers fools or liars gladly. Ollerman recounts a story Ellison tells about working a single day for a company that did not treat its workers well. The young Ellison realizes this, tosses his work into the air, and leaves, never to return, The young Ollerman picked up on this. "Ellison showed me I didn't have to keep a bad taste in my mouth and work for bad people just because I was afraid not to have a job. I could always get others, and I did." One of those jobs, good for those of us who like noir and the PBO era, is writing for Stark House Press. These essays and introductions cover a great deal of territory in his felicitous prose, mentioning many authors only fellow crime writers and students of the genre remember, and brings them alive for the length of the essay, writers like Charles Williams, and in particular, Peter Rabe.

In a couple essays, Ollerman discusses Rabe's series characters, Daniel Port and Manny DeWitt, as well as his standalone books. In a ready-for-reading style, conversationally humorous and extremely well-read, the essays take on the books with no little aplomb and a great deal of insight. Like today's troubled noir protagonists, "to one degree or another [Rabe's] characters tended to have a moral ambiguity to them, conflicted and torn on the inside, not knowing what it took to get what they wanted."

Also, in a job I don't envy, Ollerman goes as far as to edit and prepare a Rabe manuscript for posthumous publication. Trying on another writer's voice outside of parody is a tough task under any circumstance, but when it's a writer with Rabe's reputation, issues arise.

The hardest part was that first chapter. I tried a number of different strategies, all trying to stay as close as possible to the actual words Rabe himself had used. First I took out all of the things from the chapter that did not have anything to do with the rest of the book, including characters, names of places, everything. Using what I had as a template, I tried to write in Rabe's voice and recreate what I'd left as the events in the first chapter.

Ultimately, Ollerman succeeds in getting together the Rabe books for publication with Stark House Press. A success story, in the end, and one I'm grateful for.

The best reason to get this book, though, is a 35-page biographical statement and evaluation of the well-known novelist Charles Williams, a writer with 22 novels and many films adapted from his work. Williams is among the very best-selling of the Gold Medal authors, yet is oddly unknown to today's reader. Ollerman does justice to the man and his stories, spending a good deal of time tracing out what little is known of the writer's life, and giving us an almost book by book accounting of exactly what it is that makes Williams' novels worth your time. Discussing his third novel, River Girl, Ollerman writes:

This is Williams' first real "crime" novel, and it retains its rural elements but moves the thrust of the action into an actual city.His archetypical male and female characters are present, as well as the PBO trope of love at first sight, but another Williams technique continues to emerge here: the perfect crime that turns out to be not quite so perfect. Oh, it seems so for much of the book but then someone yanks on a thread, and almost before the reader is aware of it, the thread begins to unravel the bigger, complicated tapestry that makes up what just a short while ago seemed like a genuinely foolproof scheme.

This is where the Ollerman collection turns, from a very good book into a great one. The Williams essay is lodged near the center of the book and provides a measure of the collection as a whole. Halfway through the essay collection, working with little background on the writer and only a bit more criticism, Ollerman creates an entertaining and succinct account that gives Williams his due without resorting to excessive claims or fashionably negative critique. He acknowledges where the novels succeed and where they fail, tracing Williams early successes like his million-selling Hill Girl through the middle ground of caper novels and nearly comedic ones, into the seagoing-centered novels that make up what most people point to as his most successful books.

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the connective tissue Ollerman provides for the collection too, mini-essays which introduce conflicting ideas or provide additional insight into the main essays. He channels Harlan Ellison again, who uses the same techniques to introduce individual pieces in collections of his own work, and adds the increased insight that distance from the subject matter often provides. In the prefatory material to the Williams essay, Ollerman sizes up his own work:

In any case, I tried to put out a piece that explained Charles Williams in a way that I hadn't seen done before, at least not in the English language. Much of it is almost an inventory of his oeuvre, pointing out a possible reason why Williams may not be as popular as many people feel he deserves--he often re-uses the same or similar elements in many of his books (not that he's alone in this; Frank Kane would famously re-use whole passages of nearly identical text from book to book).

Ollerman covers much ground in this collection. In addition to Rabe and Williams, there are essays long and short discussing the duo that comprises Wade Miller as well as Jada Davis, John Trinian, Ed Gorman, W.R. Burnett, and more. They all succeed, f only because we know so little about the PBO period. If one could quibble about anything in this fine gathering of essays, it's that it fairly begs for Ollerman, or some other like-minded soul, to do full-scale biographical/critical editions of some writers from this era. I, for one, would look forward to a book-length Ollerman take on a PBO author. I think the readership of the world is ready for it, too.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Tough Publishing Schedule

Tough Publishing Schedule 2017

New occasional reviews beginning June 5th, 2017; new fiction every Monday beginning July 3rd, 2017. Remember too, we're always looking for more submissions:


Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals by Rick Ollerman--reviewed by Rusty Barnes
The Neon Lights Are Veins by Nolan Knight--reviewed by James Pate
Shank by Roy Harper--reviewed by David Nemeth
A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps by Nick Kolakowski--reviewed by John Stickney
Bad Luck City by Matt Phillips--reviewed by Heather Luby


July 2017

7/3 JM Taylor
7/10 Preston Lang
7/17 Tony Tremblay
7/24 Michael Bracken
7/31 Jim Chandler

August 2017

8/7 Jim Valvis
8/14 Matthew Lyons
8/21 David Rachels
8/28 Morgan Boyd

September 2017

9/4 Marie Crosswell
9/11 Greg Barth
9/18 Eve Fisher
9/25 Michael Bracken

October 2017

10/2 Tom Barlow