Monday, April 13, 2020

The Exquisite Corpse for Lockdown Noir: Part One

So a few weeks ago, I got to thinking that -- to pass the time with something enjoyable -- someone should start up an exquisite corpse story, the kind in which someone writes for a bit, then passes it to the next person who adds a bit, and so on.

We'd done them in Andrei Codrescu's class a thousand years back and always had fun. 

I mentioned it on Twitter, and a couple dozen folks decided they'd like to join in. So they did. Over the past couple weeks, each person has been adding a chapter, with Nick Kolakowski and me (Steve Weddle) doing our best to keep the story organized. 

The amount of talent shown in each chapter has been astonishing. Whether the author tended to writer horror or thriller or noir or sestinas, each took a cue from the chapter before and ran with it. And it was glorious to watch.

Over the next week or so, we'll share the story with you in serialized form. Each author was responsible for a chapter and a six-hour turnaround time.

The topic was this: Not pandemic. The idea was to be an entertainment, a temporary escape from the daily news statistics. The authors were told "Have fun."

And they did. And we think you will, too.

The authors (not in order of appearance) of this grand entertainment are:


Nick Kolakowski, Steve Golds, Richie Narvaez, Andrew Case, Beau Johnson, R. Daniel Lester, Terri Coop, James Hannah, Dan Fiore, Scott Adlerberg, Alec Cizak, Jason Beech, Eryk Pruitt, Jason Butkowski, S.A. Cosby, Michael Paul Gonzalez, Jerry Bloomfield, Tom Leins, Steve Weddle,  E.A. Aymar, Seamus Heffernan, Matt Phillips, Ben LeRoy, Chad Rohrbacher, and Lein Shory.


So, here we go with the opening. Be sure to check back here tomorrow and the rest of the week to see what happens. Thanks for coming along, and special thanks to the authors. We've hosted writing prompts and challenges here at DSD since we started more than a decade ago, but this is something entirely new. We hope everyone has/had fun.






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CHAPTER 1

When Joyce bought her little cabin in the woods, she paid cash, which the realtor thought was unusual. When she slapped another ten thousand in hundred-dollar bills on his office desk, he cheerfully agreed to never tell another soul about the transaction.

The cabin was perfect. Its kitchen featured stunningly modern appliances, the living room was high-ceilinged (with lots of light through the two large windows on the southern wall), and the upstairs bathroom had a shower with a steam generator. When she first moved in, she would spend an hour per day in her own little sauna, letting the heat ease the aches in her oft-broken bones. After her steam, she would often retire to the spacious patio overlooking the lake, where she would grill a steak, smoke a small cigar, and stare at the water. It was hard to avoid thoughts of her past, but nicotine—along with a few shots of whiskey most afternoons—certainly helped on that front.

The cabin was perfect for other reasons. The dirt lane that connected it to the main road was almost two miles long, scything through rows of thick pines, and it was the only way in or out. The lake had wide gravel beaches framed by every window in the house. She could see anyone coming long before they reached her.

Just in case, though, she spent her first weeks deep in the woods around her property, setting up a network of heat and motion sensors. Those sensors, in turn, connected to a dashboard on her phone and laptop. If anything larger than a squirrel moved out there, her devices beeped. It was hell during deer season, but worth it.

The centerpiece of her home defense system, though, the real coup de grâce, was the line of landmines buried where the dirt road met the gravel driveway in front of her house. One button-push, and several pounds of explosives and ball-bearings would convert anyone (or anything) atop that line into a bright mist of particles. You simply can’t be too careful these days.

That was the setup. In Joyce’s mind, she had more than earned her quiet retirement. She had no intention of doing anything other than smoking, drinking, and reading books until her peaceful end came, and when it did, a document in an envelope in the dining-room cupboard told anyone who cared that she wanted her body burned and the ashes scattered over the lake.

Then everything changed.

It started when Joyce was running errands in town. The grocery store, the liquor store (the whiskey went quick), the gun store (more ammunition was always a plus), then the gas station. The lattermost was the one that gave her trouble.

The gas station, Benny’s, was a glorified shack with two pumps in front. Inside, Benny sold beef jerky, beer, and candy bars well past their expiration date. Joyce usually only paid for her ten dollars’ worth of gas, but that morning she decided that one of those dusty packs of beef jerky seemed appealing. Actually, ‘appealing’ was the wrong word: She had been seized by one of those inexplicable urges to consume something too loaded with cholesterol and salt for her own good.

“First time you’ve bought something,” said Benny as he rang her up.

You penny-pinching old fart, she thought. “Didn’t eat breakfast,” she said, which was true. Usually, she had two eggs after her morning run, but this morning something had driven her to drink coffee and eat nothing.

In the car, she devoured the jerky in three bites, wiping the drool on her chin as she did so. Her stomach demanded more, more, more. Benny was watching her through the dusty window of the station, his face twisted into something that could have been curiosity or else the beginnings of a massive fart. With Benny it was hard to tell.

She drove off, and the hunger in her belly mutated into something weirder: worry. The instincts that had fueled her survival for so many years—in so many countries around the world—were awakening again, but why? She was having a normal day.

Glancing from the road, she dug her phone out of her jeans pocket and flicked it to life. Tapped on the app that connected to her property’s sensors. No warnings, nothing amiss. Not even deer. Slotting the phone onto her console, she drove faster—but toward what? Was she losing her mind?

Down the ever-narrower roads to her cabin, then out of the SUV, across the patio and inside, all locks engaged. Gripping the kitchen shelving and pulling hard enough to activate the secret hinge, so it opened to reveal her weapons rack, loaded with two AR-15s and a 12-gauge pump and her pistols, including the ever-popular Desert Eagle…

Stop!

The old drill-sergeant voice, barreling into her head to provide a little reason. Freezing her hands before she could reach for a weapon. What was she doing? What was behind this escalating fear spiral?

Might be PTSD.

True. She had suffered various symptoms of it over the years, always refusing to see a therapist. Whiskey’s my therapist, she had joked once to an old war buddy, but it wasn’t funny: For people like her, PTSD was deadly as cancer. It could rewire your head to the point of no return.

Closing the cabinet over her hidden gun locker, she went upstairs, stripped off her clothes, and steamed for a solid forty minutes until she felt loose and calm. She exited, dressing in a new pair of jeans and a gray t-shirt. Combed her hair. There. See? Get a grip.

She went back downstairs, checking her phone as she did so. No alerts, no tripped sensors, no need to pull out the guns or consider activating those landmines that were probably a jail sentence waiting to happen, if anyone happened to notice them. It was still early in the day but she felt she could cut right to the steak-and-alcohol part of her daily agenda. Call it a late breakfast…

She opened the door to the patio—and almost rammed her toe into the large cardboard box waiting on the mat. The flaps held down with blue packing tape. There was a small white card taped to the front, which she pulled free and opened to read, in handwriting she knew only too well:

Hello Again!


CHAPTER 2

Samson’s ragged face appeared on Joyce’s laptop screen with a slight flicker, his internet connection spotty from wherever he was hiding. His mouth started moving and it was a moment before his voice followed: “—surprised to hear—thought you’d keep to yourself—these last—have been drunk as hell and thinking about you.”

Then the internet connection stabilized, his sly smile solidifying. “You look tired,” he said. “Still—really damn tired.”

“They found me,” Joyce said. “The Underground.”

A pause. Samson lifted a glass of whiskey to his lips, threw it back. He sighed and said, “You’re paranoid, Joyce. Something tripped an alarm and you’re getting ahead of yourself. You always were quick to act. Hell, that’s what made you such a good agent. But this is—”

She lifted the note to the camera. It shut his mouth.

Samson stood and walked left, disappearing from the screen. Joyce waited while he poured himself another whiskey, then checked his closed-circuit cameras or whatever sensors or trip wires he had arranged. She laid the handwritten note—Hello Again!—beside her laptop, then toggled to the window that displayed her sensor system. No movement yet, but it was coming. Today? Not likely. Tonight? Tomorrow? Maybe. Joyce couldn’t be certain, but she knew one thing: It was time to bug out.

She toggled back to the video chat in time to see Samson collapse into his chair and offer a mock salute with a full glass of whiskey.

“Here’s to us,” he said. “Cheated out of glory. And robbed of peace.”

“What are you going to do? Put a .45 to your head?” Joyce watched Samson think about it. Like her, he had passports, social security cards, numerous identities of various nationalities. But a disguise doesn’t mean shit if you can’t escape. It doesn’t mean shit if they know where you are—they’re already a step ahead of you. Hell, more than one step. No commercial air travel anymore. No extended bus lines or rail. You want to get far? Find a freighter doing dirt without sanctioned passage.

“We’re fucked, you and me.” Samson’s smile returned.

“Where are you?”

That got a maniacal laugh out of him. “You think I’m going to tell you that? Let’s just say the postman has trouble delivering my mail.”

“There’s a box,” she said.

“Ah, The Underground always was fond of joyful deliveries. I’m willing to bet you’d get a makeover if you opened the damn thing.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Don’t move it—run as far as possible and shoot it with a bazooka.”

Joyce shook her head, tasting the inside of her cheek with a dry tongue. “It’s sitting on my patio.”

“You know, we had some good times. Right, Joyce? I’m not talking about the stuff in that Senate investigation. I’m talking about before—you remember Uganda? I still think about that, just the four of us. You, me and—”

“I could give two shits about your feel-good memories, Sam.”

“The way things are now… shit, memories are about all there is.”

“I was retired. Done. I got out.”

“Hell, Joyce. Me too, dammit.” He threw back half his glass of whiskey, smacked his lips. “I was done, retired. Like we planned.”

“Tell me where you are and I’ll come to you.”

“Go fuck yourself, Joyce.”

His tone stopped her. Not the drunk, nostalgic Sam, but the brutal and merciless contract killer he used to be. That voice. The rapid-fire delivery. Like a machine gun. Joyce nodded, thought how foolish she was to use the same routine. Groceries. Liquor. Ammunition. Gas.

The gas station. Benny.

He had seemed interested in her. And that look on his face as she drove away…

Joyce said, “You’re close to me, aren’t you?”

Samson grunted, sipped some whiskey. “I always told you. Never—”

“Never do anything twice. Unless you want it to kill you.”

“You got sloppy.”

What are the chances? Joyce wondered. Two agents go into retirement. Both do it on the backside of the Sierra Nevadas. Seclusion. Secrecy. A wild paradise.

And they end up sharing the same gas station.

Samson’s expression changed as he figured out what Joyce was thinking. “Me and Benny,” he said. “We got close this past year. He’s a friend of mine, and I don’t hesitate to say it, neither. One day I come in and he says—there’s a woman. He says, she’s kind of like you. Quiet, he says. Always looking around, sizing everybody up. Never talks to nobody. And when he described you, that scar above your eye. Joyce, it was easy.”

“I should have let you die in Iraq.”

“The Underground can hold a grudge. I’ll give ‘em that.”

Joyce couldn’t believe it. “You pinned the assassination on me.”

“Better than that. They got the proof, baby. And they’re leaving me out of it.”

“You’re as guilty as I am—”

“You're the one who pulled the trigger.” He lifted a hand and mimed shooting her through the laptop screen. The internet connection wavered, lost whatever Samson said next. He was drinking his whiskey when the connection stabilized.

Joyce said, “I’ll find you.”

“Like hell you will.”

The laptop screen went dark. “Asshole,” Joyce said. She toggled to her security system. Nothing changed. Just the explosive box on her patio. That was all. Stupid. So fucking stupid, she thought. She and Samson could have retired within ten miles of each other. Maybe neither would have known. But she did get sloppy. There was a rule they taught her in The Brigade: Routine gives secrecy a bad name.

No more wasting time.

Back to the gun locker. She already had the pistols holstered on her chest. Got strapped right after the box arrived—delivered by drone, she figured—and now she needed all the firepower she could grab. Get everything into the SUV. Keep an AR at the ready, the shotgun on the dash. For quick work in close quarters.

It took two trips to the SUV to empty the gun locker. Another trip inside the cabin to rip out the wood panels in her bedroom. She double-checked the black duffel bag: Passports. Social security cards. Other documents. Whiskey. Cash, enough to last a few months. Get her passage to Europe or South America. Hell, if she could get to the coast. She grabbed her laptop, planning to remotely detonate the landmines if and when she caught somebody on camera or tripping her sensors.

In the SUV, she floored it, whipping around tight curves and powering through patches of mud from the recent rain. Her eyes flicked between windshield and rear-view mirror, tense and waiting for the ominous flicker of headlights At the main road, she rolled to a stop.

She put a hand on the shottie, bit her bottom lip.

She had a thought.

Benny.

Maybe I should have a chat with Benny.



CHAPTER 3

The thing about Benny was that he’d never once given off the impression that he even gave a shit about things that didn’t have to do with stale snacks or the rusting gas pumps out front. How in the livelong day could a guy like that undercut the life Joyce had carefully constructed with fraudulent puzzle-pieces?

She rolled to a stop in the parking lot, the front end of her car against a row of cinder blocks. There were no other vehicles except for the banged up F-150 she’d always assumed belonged to Benny. Usually she could feel him staring out the window at her, his attention having been pulled away from the black-and-white television he always kept on beside the cash register. The shouting of Perry Mason or Matlock loud enough to make even simple transactions more difficult than they should otherwise be.

But when she looked up at the window, she didn’t see anything but the neon Budweiser sign and cobwebs.

As Joyce closed the car door, she came up with a story for why she was back already. Maybe she’d give him a line about a craving for more of the beef jerky. Maybe she’d tell him that she was expecting company from Salinas and she thought it would be good and neighborly to have a few extra beers on hand for the occasion. But when she got in the door, none of that was needed.

The inside of the gas station looked like it’d been run through by a bull. Candy bars scattered on the floor. A Gatorade display knocked over. The hot dogs in front of her had been warmed to leathery death.

“Benny?” She’d seen enough of this scene in hot spots around the globe to know that she could say his name until dark and there wouldn’t be any response. Wherever he was, he’d gone in a hurry—if he still had a pulse; she gave that 50/50 odds.

She walked around to the other side of the counter. The cash register was still in one piece. Closed. The cigarettes and lottery tickets didn’t look out of place. A half-finished cup of coffee in a mug that read Freedom Ain’t Free on one side and Neither Are You on the other sat next to a crossword book.

Whatever the action had been for whatever the reason, it had all occurred on the other side of the counter. She knew she had a few minutes to look around before another car showed up, and then she’d have to explain away something she couldn’t while somebody insisted on calling the cops. The last thing she needed.

She walked the aisle, took a handful of packaged jerky from a rack, and then stooped to grab a Gatorade on the floor. It was down there, in the dust, that she saw the driver’s license. It was a face she didn’t recognize and a name she’d never seen before.

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The story continues right here tomorrow.

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