Thursday, April 30, 2020

Beau Johnson on JJ Hensley's BOLT ACTION REMEDY

This week, Beau Johnson takes a look at some thrilling J.J. Hensley, Bolt Action Remedy.

Former Pittsburgh narcotics detective Trevor Galloway has been hired to look into the year-old homicide of a prominent businessman who was gunned down on his estate in Central Pennsylvania. When Galloway arrives, he determines the murder could have only been committed by someone extremely skilled in two areas: Skiing and shooting. He believes the assailant should not be too difficult to identify given the great amount of skill and athleticism needed to pull off the attack. When he discovers the victim’s property is next door to a biathlon training camp, the situation becomes significantly more complicated.
Galloway makes plenty of enemies as he sifts through stories about lucrative land deals, possible drug connections, and uncovers evidence suggesting the homicide may have been elaborate suicide. As he attempts to navigate through an unfamiliar rural landscape, he does his best not to succumb to an old drug addiction, or become confused by one of his occasional hallucinations. Oh, and a Pittsburgh drug gang enforcer known as The Lithuanian—if he’s even real—is tracking Galloway and wants to take his eyes. Galloway would rather keep those.
In Bolt Action Remedy, the typically quiet streets of Washaway Township, Pennsylvania become the epicenter of a mystery involving elite athletes and old grudges. For Galloway, the problems keep piling up and somebody out there believes problems should be dealt with by employing the most permanent of remedies.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Pandemic Reading

What have people been reading during the pandemic lockdown?  It's a common question, because if nothing else, along with all the movie and series binge-watching, reading has been a primary way to pass the time.  I have found myself reading mainly short works that I've wanted to get to for years and that, despite their brevity, demand the kind of focus and attention that the lockdown has allowed.  During normal times, I do so much of my reading going to and from work, and just from a pure reading standpoint, I have enjoyed the chance to spend hours sinking into stuff without rattling around on a subway, pressed for time.  

A few of the standouts I've read during the lockdown:

I Am the Brother of XX

I've mentioned the Swiss writer, Fleur Jaeggy, here before when I talked about her great novel Sweet Days of Discipline.  She is a steely and forbidding author, one who somewhat proudly describes herself as "cold".  But that word belies the heat and emotion in her stories, which, yes, are icily delivered.  The stories here are often macabre and describe all sorts of familial dysfunction, and they also include portraits of writer friends of Jaeggy's, people like Ingeborg Bachman and Italo Calvino.  She's not an easy person to read, but anyone interested in seeing ways one can write with the utmost concentration, suggesting and telling an awful lot in as little as two or three pages a story, can do well by reading her.

The Transmigration of Bodies

A fixer in a Mexican city ravaged by violence has to arrange the swap of two dead bodies between two rival gangs.  All of this takes place against the background of a plague, in a terse and vernacular language that summons a mood of noir.  This book is very emotionally rich, and again, here is someone who gets so much into his characters and story in a short time. Yuri Herrera constructs an entire world in about 100 pages. This is the second of his three novels I've read (I also loved Signs Preceding the End of the World), but I'll probably put off reading the other one for a while because I want to savor the experience of anticipating my next Herrera read.

Death in Venice

All these years of reading about Thomas Mann and the works of Thomas Mann and yet I'd never read Thomas Mann.  I figured since I have the time and since it is a plague story of sorts and since anyway I love fiction set in Venice, what better time to pick up this novella of his.  Somehow, maybe, I was expecting something heavy and hard to get through.  Death in Venice is neither.  Death, love, writing, a cholera outbreak, a middle-aged author's obsession with a beautiful teenage boy (who he follows and watches but never so much as speaks to or touches) -- the book isn't exactly a lark but it's not a chore in the least.  Masterful writing, which you'd expect, makes for a very strong narrative that you can finish in a couple of sittings. And as an ironic self-portrait of a "great" writer, a writer with fame and wealth, esteemed by the reading public and who has received prizes and accolades galore -- this book is among the best I've ever read.

The Unknown Masterpiece 

I would need many months, if not a couple years, of virus lockdown (which nobody wants) to get through all of Balzac's novels and stories, but I figured this is a good as time as any to dip into the coffee-drinking twenty hours of writing a day man. I have to say if you're someone who likes stories about obsessed artists, you'll enjoy this work of his, "The Unknown Masterpiece", about a painter who may or may not be brilliant or nuts, or both. I can see why it was a favorite of Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso and a number of other painters.  Picasso was so taken with the story and the main character, the painter Frenhofer, that at one point he moved to the street in Paris where Balzac locates the studio of one of the characters. In this studio, Picasso painted Guernica. The NYRB the edition I have comes as well with a novella called "Gambara", about an instrument maker and composer with mental issues. Two entertaining and thought-provoking stories about art and how it's made, about complicated and obsessive artists whose attempts to reach perfection, while admirable, may not lead them any closer to happiness.  

Monday, April 27, 2020

What's Going On

A lot of great things happened in our community over the past few weeks. Book news, releases and events. So much to do. So much to read. Let's check out what's going on.

Out Now

BOTH SIDES: Stories from the Border, Edited by Gabino Iglesias, April 7 
A collection of original and riveting stories that tackle one of the most important and controversial issues of our time: The Border.

LITTLE SECRETS: A Novel by Jennifer Hillier, 
April 21
Overwhelmed by tragedy, a woman desperately tries to save her marriage in award-winning author Jennifer Hillier's Little Secrets, a riveting novel of psychological suspense.

THE FAKING OF THE PRESIDENT: Nineteen Stories of White House Noir, Edited by Peter Carlaftes, 
April 28
A literary coup d'etat, that ponders "What would the White House be like if U.S. Presidents of the past were not restricted by the time-honored hallmarks and traditional behavior of the office, leaving them free to do whatever they wanted, anytime and anywhere?"


Coming Soon

COLDWATER by Tom Pitts, 
May 18
After a miscarriage, a young couple move from San Francisco to the Sacramento suburbs to restart their lives. When the vacant house across the street is taken over by who they think are squatters, they're pulled into a battle neither of them bargained for.


Coming Later

THEY'RE GONE by E.A. Barres (aka E.A. Aymar),
November 2020
Two men from vastly different backgrounds are murdered one after another on the same night, in the same fashion with two bullet wounds: one in the head, another in the heart. The two slayings sends their wives on a desperate search for answers--and a desperate attempt to save their families' lives.

Noir at the Bar Virtual Events

SOUTHERN FRIED - May 1, 8:00pm – Crowdcast

DOUBLE SHOT OF QUEENS – May 8, 7:00pm - Crowdcast

D.C. NOIR - May 8, 8:30 - Crowdcast

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Friday, April 24, 2020

Beau on Hector Acosta's wrasslin book

This week, Beau Johnson checks out some Hector Acosta.
Fifteen-year old Spencer loves professional wrestling. It’s the reason why he, along with his older brother Billy, started their very own wrestling promotion in their Dallas apartment complex. The fact it puts Spencer closer to Tori, Billy’s girlfriend and the only girl either boy knows who can take a chair shot to the head, doesn’t hurt.
It isn’t long before RBWL—The Royal Brooks Wrestling League—have a rival in Woodland Terrace, a nearby apartment complex with their own wrestling promotion run by Eddie Tornado, an unhinged teenager with a connection to Tori and a hard-on to see Spencer and Billy fail.
When Spencer breaks into Eddie’s home and steals a gym bag he believes holds Woodland Terrace’s championship belt, the feud between teenagers and promotions escalates. Before long, Spencer will find the world of professional wrestling can be more real and dangerous than anything seen on television.

Learn more here.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Lockdown musings

Well this is weird, isn’t it?

For some authors, being locked at home is a thing we dream of. All that time to write and scheme. But a few weeks in a few of my mates and I started to get itchy. We wanted to meet up, laugh, tell stories, tell stories about stories. Maybe have a few drinks. But we couldn’t. So – instead – we set up a YouTube channel. A place where we can post our stories, hang out virtually. Do something creative with all this time.

 We’re all published by Fahrenheit press, and realised that the crisis was impacting us all in different ways. Personally, mentally, and creatively. And so we decided to get together and create something. Cos that’s what creatives do. On FahreNoirAtTheBar you’re going to find some amazing authors reading excerpts from their books. Or talking about the stories behind the books.

So far, we’ve readings up there from Jo Perry, Anthony Neil Smith, Cal (no relation) Smyth, Ariana Den Bleyker, Ian Ayris, Paul Heatley, Nick Quantrill, Matt Phillips and Myself. And future plans include more authors drinking cocktails, sharing drama, excitement, comedy, and maybe even sharing goodies and prizes too.

The best way to ensure you don’t miss out is to head over there now and subscribe.

Go on, I’ll wait.. Click HERE

Anyway, the ‘viewing figures’ have been really encouraging, the comments uniformly positive, and the collegiate, supportive and kind way that so many writers have come together to make it happen; the enthusiasm with which they have filmed and uploaded their clips. These things are slivers of pure, sparkling glitter in the night.

It’s early days yet. We have amazing ideas for what comes next. Of course we have: Did I mention we’re creatives? We also (luckily) have some amazingly smart experienced heads who have cautioned us against barrelling into madness, and so we’re going to slowly and steadily expand the site.

Thankfully, some of my crazier ideas have been supportively but definitively taken out the back and given one in the head by my colleagues in our loose revolutionary collective (think The Committee of Public Safety, only with fewer powdered wigs, and better personal hygiene. I think. I mean, they’re all on Zoom and YouTube, so they could be HONKING for all I know…)

But I digress.


We may all be locked inside, but our books are still out there.

They’re still for sale from Amazon or – even better – directly from, who are still delivering beautifully gift-wrapped books.

They’re in ebook if you want an immediate hit.

They’re in paperback if you like the physical <and who – in these times – doesn’t freakin’ LONG for a bit of the old physical>, with the added bonus that – if you order the paperback straight from you’ll get an email with the download link for the ebook so you can start reading while you wait.

At least one of mine is in deluxe limited edition numbered hardback (if it hasn’t sold out) which comes with a unique forward I wrote about the impact this novel had on my life.

One of my dumbest housebound purchases – after I’d gone online in the early days to discover that tinned goods were going for more, per gram, than Peruvian flake in the week before New York Fashion week – was four hundred quid’s worth of Gin. I cancelled the order, mostly cos I don’t think I have the space to store four large one’s worth of gin, but also because – really? Me and a truckful of gin? How will that end well?

But books? Oh books are still eminently purchasable, consumable. Eminently right; for where else – when you are confined to your home – can you hang out at a dive bar in Borough, or drink in the casino on a reservation, or be in the middle of the Balkans, or in the mind of a serial killer, or in a car en route to Vegas for a quickie divorce?


Read them. Buy them. Immerse yourself in them.

Stay home, stay well, stay sane, and know – always – that you are loved.




Derek Farrell is the author of ‘Death of a Diva’ ‘Death of a Nobody,’ ‘Death of a Devil’ ‘Death of an Angel,’ and the novella "Death of a Sinner," all published by Fahrenheit Press.
The books have been described as “Like The Thin Man meets Will & Grace.” “Like M.C. Beaton on MDMA,” and – by no less an expert than Eric Idle – as “Quite Fun.”

Derek’s jobs have included: Burger dresser, Bank teller, David Bowie’s paperboy, and Investment Banker, and he has lived and worked in New York, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Prague, Dublin, Johannesburg and London.

He’s married to the most English man on the planet and lives in West Sussex. They have no goats chickens children or pets, but they do have every Kylie Minogue record ever made.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Help Indie Bookstores

Nobody who loves books needs to be told that this is a perilous time for indie bookstores.  Over the past few years, despite the behemoth called Amazon (which, yes, I order books and ebooks from often enough), indie bookstores were mounting an impressive comeback, and there seemed no reason why this development would not continue -- until the pandemic hit.  Now, who knows how many of these great shops, which cater to their local reading communities, will go under?

Anyway, a friend of mine posted a link on social media the other day I thought worth sharing here.  It comes from a short article by the McSweeney's editors, and it's called "Ways to Help Independent Booksellers and Bookstores".  It's not that anything listed in the article is shockingly inventive or surprising, but it's still good to keep in mind the basic things one can do to help indie booksellers.

Here's the link, with some good suggestions and information on how to help the indie bookstores stay afloat through this hazardous period:

By the way, number eight of the nine things listed in the article -- "Take part in virtual book events to support authors and stores." -- is something the crime fiction world is already doing, with virtual Noir at the Bars having taken place.

We gotta keep these places we love alive!

Well, that's it for this week.

Back to reading, movies, writing, working on my cooking...

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Exquisite Corpse download

The Exquisite Corpse: Lockdown Noir finished up yesterday, and today we have a treat.

You can now download the entire story -- and learn who wrote which chapter -- below:

In PDF format

In MOBI format

In EPUB format

By the way, rumor has it that volume two is already in the planning.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Exquisite Corpse for Lockdown Noir: Part Six

Welcome to the next -- and final -- section of the Exquisite Corpse, continued from yesterday.

Art by Tom Leins

Special Announcement: Tomorrow, a free download of the entire story will be made available.
And now, the conclusion ->


When Brandin was about 15, he saw Apocalypse Now with his best friend. The wide angle shots of the Air Cav pushing through the sky, Hueys raining hell down on the bad guys, all while “The Ride of the Valkyries” roared. It gave him chills. Literal chills. He was 17 when he joined the military and trained to be a pilot. Two tours in Afghanistan as a co-pilot on a Chinook really wasn’t what he imagined when he was a teenager. Mostly it was boring and bureaucratic. His commanding officer, a holy roller from Alabama, prayed to his God that they would just leave and nuke the shithole country. At first, Brandin wholeheartedly agreed with his Colonel. Over time, though, he realized Afghanistan was really full of just people trying to make it through. He watched from above as people went to work, farmed, flew kites with their kids.

He began to set the bird down on the ridge as best he could, but he was having a hard time concentrating. He just watched a shitshow develop below him. It was worse than anything he saw in Afghanistan. When the dumb-ass hicks came roaring up on their bikes, a deep pit opened up in his stomach because he knew what was coming. And when the guy in the back got on his com and said “You’re a go,“ all Brandin could think about was that each of those dumb motherfuckers had a life. And at least the mercs signed up for the risk, the adrenaline, the huge salary... but the bikers, they were just stupid rubber-neckers.

Brandin stole a glance to where the woman stood, the rifle loose and comfortable in her grip, a man tied up at her feet, and thought who the fuck raised that one, that crazy bitch? He took a deep breath, levelled the bird out, and set it down easy as you please.

Once the bird settled, his boss tapped him on the shoulder and mouthed the words shut it down. Brandin did what he was told.

His boss unbuckled, stepped out. 

Brandin was alone. 

The slowing rotor noise becoming a whisper deep in his guts. It sounded like his wife’s voice: “Go home.” He spun his wedding ring on his finger. Once. Twice. He thought about the baby growing in her belly. The things he would teach his child and the things he would not. 

Then he looked up and saw everything going to hell.


No one had mentioned to the Corpse Grinders that firing on a helicopter was bad form. The sparks flickering off metal, tiny bits of shrapnel glittering. The young man stepped from the back of the helicopter onto the ground, motioned for the pilot to lift off, then walked towards Joyce.

Vivian Marchand emerged from the Himmler wreckage, steadied herself on the vehicle’s frame with one hand, then lifted a rifle with the other.

April looked at the man from the helicopter, who was walking towards her mother. “It can’t be,” she said. “It can’t.”

Will Souterrain blinked, moved his jaw about, blinked again. His head throbbed, his neck ached, and he twisted his wrists to loosen the blade in his watch.

Joyce stood still, the man from the helicopter walking towards her, the man sporting a lumberjack beard and a maroon tracksuit, but a young man she knew just the same.

Vivian rested the barrel of the rifle on the frame of the upturned Himmler and grinned, knowing that Joyce, for whatever reason, had stopped moving. She had the woman in her sights, and attempted to say “not so fast,” but it came out as “farf fo farf” through the blood and pain.

April was still watching the young man in the lumberjack beard and tracksuit walking towards her motionless mother.

Will Souterrain had the blade extended between his ring finger and pinkie, sliding the edge back and forth, nearly free of the ziptie.

Behind the Himmler, scraps of mercenaries and bikers chased after each other for no reason other than momentum.

The man in the lumberjack beard spied Vivian’s movement at the Himmler, pulled a pistol from his waistband, and sent a flurry of rounds at the vehicle. Joyce dropped to the ground. Vivian crouched behind the vehicle.

The young man covered the distance to Joyce, pushed her behind him, and handed her a pistol.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Heard it’s a nice place to get away from everything,” he said.

She smiled. “Used to be.”

Will Souterrain had gotten to his feet and stood behind April, looking for his next move.

Vivian Marchand needed a better view and rose just long enough for Joyce fire once, an incredible shot, that put her back down, this time for good.

Will Souterrain shrieked. “That woman just killed your mama, chere.”

April spun, sent a heel into his knee, and said, “That woman is my mother, dipshit.” Souterrain fell to the ground. April kicked him in the face for good measure.

The land below was littered with bodies, looking like a smaller community theater production of that Tolkein movie with the big battle where the handsome elf slides down the elephant’s trunk. In fact, April had just watched that movie with the man walking toward her with her mother.

“Ronald?” she asked.

“Hey,” he said, “about that ride back to my dorm.”


The plane had touched down at a secure facility, but Joyce had no idea what state they were in. Probably still in the U.S., though for all she knew, it could have been Canada.

“And you have no idea where Samson is now?” Joyce asked Ronald, seated across from her in a windowless conference room.

“No,” he said. “Cleaning crew accounted for everyone else. No Samson.”

“And Souterrain?”

Ronald poured himself another cup of coffee. “Should be two floors below us on the holding level.”

“Get anything out of him?”

“Just that he got a message from Vivian, calling in a favor.”

“Which was?”

“That Vivian’s daughter was in danger, to protect her from Dario and bring her to a location.”

“He thought April was Vivian’s daughter?”

“So it seems.”

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve heard all day,” Joyce said.

“That is the craziest thing all day?”

Joyce smiled. “It’s kind of dull in the country, you know.”

“So what’s next for you?”

“Next? I’m not even sure what just happened.”

Ronald shrugged. “Best we can tell, someone approached Dario about your time in Kampala.”

“My time?”

“All of you. There’s been a power shift over there and someone is attempting to clean the slate. They found Dario first, flushed him out of hiding through some online backchannels.”

“Let me guess. Someone followed his dating profile?”

“Something like that,” Ronald said. “He ran to Vivian, and Vivian thought it might be Samson pulling the strings.”

“Samson? Really?”

“There’s no figuring. And he’d have known where you were or at least knew the agent we had watching you.”

“Watching me?”

“Both of you, actually. Guy at a gas station.”


“Yeah. Benny. So Samson gets clumsy coming after you, Vivian escalates the situation by bringing in your daughter. Seems Samson had convinced Vivian that you were still communicating with Kampala.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Playing his games. Seeing what he could find out,” Ronald said.

Joyce nodded. There was a knock at the door. Joyce and Ronald looked over to see a guard standing there.

Ronald nodded to the guard, who stepped aside and allowed April to walk in, hug her mother, then sit down next to her.

“They told me you were watching over me all this time?” April said, before Ronald could manage anything.

“Just the last year or two,” Joyce said.

Ronald tilted his head. “And how did you know that?”

“I still have some contacts.”

Joyce, Ronald, and April looked back and forth to each other, as if they were watching some slowly developing tennis match, back and forth.

Finally, Joyce broke the silence. “So all this was because someone in Kampala wants to get rid of us?”

“Or find something you know or take back something you’ve removed from there. There’s no telling at this point.”

“So me, Samson, Vivian, Dario, and Souterrain,” Joyce said.

Ronald nodded. “Souterrain is downstairs, Vivian and Dario are in the morgue, and Samson is in the wind.”

Joyce put her chin in her hands. “That just leaves…”

“Yes,” Ronald said, sliding a manila folder across the table to Joyce.

April stood. “So when do we leave?”

“We?” Joyce asked.

“That’s the next step, isn’t it?” April asked. “We go from defense to offense?”

Ronald stood, managed a few words “Well, actually, the plan is…”

Joyce stood, picked up the folder. “The plans haven’t worked so far.”

“She’s got a point,” April said.

“I guess I was hoping you’d want to help,” Ronald said. “What do you need?”

Joyce smiled. “A gun and a bottle of whiskey.”

April turned to the door. “Like my mother always says, ‘Just keep moving.’”


The authors (not in order of appearance) of this grand entertainment -- which began here -- have been:

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.

Come back tomorrow for a free download of the complete story in PDF format.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Exquisite Corpse for Lockdown Noir: Part Five

Welcome to the next section of the Exquisite Corpse, continued from yesterday

Art by Tom Leins


“What gives, ma belle? You really going to shoot me with that antique?”

“Shut up,” April muttered, the hard edge in her voice silencing him, if only for a moment. She took in the scene below, waiting for her mother to acknowledge the just-sent text. She kept the gun on him, squeezing the grip of the pistol a little tighter, her palm chalk-dry and steady.

April had known, of course, from a young age that her mother wasn’t like other moms. She didn’t cut the edges off peanut butter sandwiches and she didn’t carpool her to soccer practice. Instead, her mother had taught her how to defend herself. How to pick the safest seat in any room. How to watch and listen to people when they let their guard down.

Her mom had taught her how to survive.

That made for a harsh childhood, if not entirely joyless. Still, when she was a child, she had pined for the soft touch of a TV mom, someone to stroke her hair and read her a story, to tell her the harmless lies of how little girls would always find happiness, if they only had the courage for a little dream-chasing.

By the time she turned 18, she knew she had come out ahead in the deal.

Souterrain—or whoever—had been right about one thing. The gun was old, a gift from her grandfather, FedEx’ed to her from a phony address on her ninth birthday. One of the three he had remembered. It came in a boxed frame, clearly meant to be a souvenir or some sort of investment piece. Joyce, ever practical, had insisted that it be put to use. Souvenirs are pointless, she had said. Everything should have a purpose. Otherwise it’s just taking up space, a piece of clutter, a knickknack.

Otherwise it’s just a relic.

April had taken that to heart. Her dorm room was monkishly clean and the few possessions on display were always practical and understated. Her class schedule and assignment deadlines were on a large whiteboard, carefully written in clean block letters. Always black ink. She never kept anything she could do without. What was there to put out, to show off? Her mom had put her in hiding years ago. How simple our lives become when the past is a ghost, one seeking no reckoning.

“What’s the plan?” Souterrain asked. “Maybe you got one step ahead of yourself? You’re thinking, peut être, is there a way out for me here?”

It had been senior year. High school. Early June, just ahead of prom. She was at a bookstore café, sitting outside with two friends. Time had gotten away from them. They headed home but she had lingered. It was summer and the day was finally getting dark. She wanted to feel the wind getting a little cooler as it crossed her face and her legs, lean and bare in shorts. To enjoy the last bit of her macchiato in relative peace. It didn’t seem like too much to ask.

She had been stupid to walk across the parking lot alone. She had never noticed the guy lingering by the corner, tall in a tight bomber jacket, whose pace increased as she set out towards the beat-up Jetta Joyce had managed to gift her from afar. She didn’t see him until she caught a glimpse in the driver door glass, his fingers reaching towards her...

“Cherie?” Souterrain asked. The phone buzzed in her free hand. It had only been seconds but had felt like ten goddamned years. that parking lot, the bomber jacket guy’s hand never made it any closer. She spun, her keys splayed between her fingers like claws. She raised her left hand, protecting her face, and pulled the right one back, dropping weight on her rear leg. Fist cocked. Ready to strike. He took one look at her eyes, dark and dry and without fear, without doubt. He turned and bolted across the lot. She watched him go.

She had been dealing with men like this all her life—Ronald, Souterrain, grabby assholes in that parking lot and beyond. Men who thought, to varying degrees, they could take, without consequence, what they wanted. That they were owed something.

She read the text. She fought the smile, tried to keep it in. But a little squirmed out, tugging her lips upward.

Souterrain looked up.

“Good news, ma belle?” he asked, his own smile taking shape. “Anything worth sharing?”

She shook her head. Wordlessly, she drove the butt of the gun into his left temple. His head snapped as the skin over bone split, and then he slumped back.

She grabbed zip-tie cuffs from his belt and looped them around his wrists. She would check to see if he was still alive later. But shooting him now would mean some things would go unanswered. If there was a way out of this, mom deserved all the answers she wanted.

April picked up the dropped sniper rifle and snapped the bolt. She lowered herself to the ground, peering through the scope to the loose hell below. She took aim, her finger curling around the trigger. The metal was cool on her cheek. Reassuring. She allowed herself another look at the text.

OK. I love you, was all it said.


Dario Marchand failed.

Upon emerging from the arcane procedures that repaired his pulped brain, and after the brief wonderment at finding himself alive, a kind of alive, his first thought was revenge, and that adamantine drive brought him a string of successes up to this very moment, on the precipice of victory.

From an early age he'd known he was free of what he considered the shackles of conscience. They'd found him squatting in front of the turtles' shells he'd smashed with a hammer, calmly watching their agonized death throes. He couldn't understand their horror, which he soon came to see as a weakness easily exploited, because he learned that, counterintuitively, society was constructed for people like him, not them. So he rose fast, pretending to feel if it served his purposes, until Joyce and Samson finally saw him for what he was. When he rose again, an unholy Lazarus, the only thing that mattered was erasing those who for a brief moment saw him out of his shell. And he had almost literally moved mountains to do so.

What did him in was the blind spot shared by all psychopaths: he never accounted for defeat via human bond, because while he could dazzle with an ersatz portrayal of such, he never really understood it.


Joyce failed too.

She failed to repair any bond with her father before he expired in front of her. She had not been particularly interested in doing so, and considered it largely his responsibility, so in the end her grief was for what might have been rather than the broken husk of the con man collapsed into himself.

And she had failed as a parent herself, in a thousand ways, and every one of them had hurt because of what the con man had done to her, but she succeeded in one way only, which was to preserve some shred of that bond between mother and daughter, so that the text, OK. I love you was the final catalyst for April to calm herself and squeeze the trigger.


The bullet did not fail.

The bullet, a Winchester USA .308 hollow point boat tail, is the sniper's ammunition of choice in part because its boat tail is more aerodynamic and thus potentially more accurate than your garden-variety hollow point, and April was a good enough shot to take advantage.

The military version of this bullet has a much smaller hollow than the hunting variety to conform to the Hague convention ban on expanding bullets. Will Souterrain was quite unconcerned with conforming to the Hague convention, but on a practical level wanted to avoid the trail of breadcrumbs that came with employing military-grade ammunition, and thus used the hunting variety with a larger hollow, which makes the bullet mushroom on impact, doubling the size of the wound and wreaking havoc on soft tissue.

Which is exactly what it did when it struck Dario Marchand's reconstructed skull and entered his brain, and this time there would be no abhorrent resurrection.


Joyce marveled at the acid-etched clarity adrenaline gave her. The thunderous crack of the rifle sounded like a single, deep strike on a bass drum. She watched Dario’s face change, twisting from a sneer of aggression, into a slight shock of surprise, one eye starting to clench closed as the other grew wider, wider, wider, travelling further and further beyond the confines of his skull until his head burst like a water balloon, bringing the battlefield back to full-speed clarity.

She tried not to think of him these days, but when she did, she dreamed she’d be the last thing he saw before she pulled the trigger. She wanted to watch him die.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

Part of her past lay dead before her. Part of her past was dead behind her in the van. She’d dreamed of her dad’s funeral, not so much how he would be laid to rest, but the comfort that would come from knowing he’d always be in a single spot from that day on. He probably would have wanted something better than a novelty combat van as his casket, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. His past was still coming back to haunt her, but he never would.

A strange feeling welled up in her. She felt unmoored. Lost. Tears formed in her eyes. Not for her father. Not the adrenaline dump. What was this? She slid backwards out of the van, keeping low, slithering on her back until she flipped and started belly-crawling for safety, eyes tearing the whole way. Lips trembling. She’d always been able to turn emotion into aggression on the battlefield. But she couldn’t stop this. Was it her impending death? Was it the loss of everything she’d worked so hard to build and contain in retirement?

The next thing she felt was the tip of a steel-toed boot in her ribs. Must be what the van felt like… she thought as she flipped over, hand scrabbling for her pistol. She was way too slow.

A man in black tactical gear barked into his commpiece that the target was down, checking her face to verify pre-kill, shuffle-stepping back to raise his rifle. Smart enough to keep a safe distance before he put a bullet in her head. All of this in less than a breath. Quick as a hiccup, her dad used to say. Joyce blinked away tears, determined to look her killer in the eye. His rifle leveled, he had her dead-red.

Everything happened out of sequence. She heard the shot. Then he spun, arms flailing like a modern dance. Then his rifle went off, a quick double-tap aimed at nothing in particular. His lips twisted into an almost-comical O shape, tongue lolling out. Joyce began to wonder if she was already dead. He spun a perfect pirouette on one foot, left leg going limp and wobbly, head tilting back as a geyser of blood erupted from the entrance wound above his ear and the exit on his neck simultaneously.

Joyce pushed herself up to standing, keeping low to avoid the hellstorm around her. She heard the familiar strain of a quick double bird whistle that she’d taught April years ago when they took their first hunting trip. Always know where the other one is, that’s the safest place to be.

She looked to the ridgeline and saw her, still locked in, eye in the sky, ready to clear a patch for her.

Keep moving. Heart’s pumping, keep the legs pumping.

Now she understood where the tears were flowing from. Pride. Her daughter, saving her twice now, giving life back to her mother.

Joyce had to get to the ridge. Mother and daughter would be the only two walking out of Hell today, Joyce was sure of it. Heaven help anyone who got in their way.


She hadn’t run this fast since the chaos in Kampala. Later, the press would compare that retreat out of the African hellstorm to the Saigon evacuation of 1975, and Senators at the hearings would say that it was a shameful moment in American history. All Joyce knew is that when the Inferno comes to Earth, when destruction reigns supreme and Death is having a field day, goal number one is survival. Save yourself is all that counts, and any loved ones in the vicinity, if saving those closest to you is a possibility at all.

In Kampala, in streets cluttered with the dead, collateral damage of the vaccination testing, she had let nothing stand in her path as she made her way to the fleet of the helicopters they had sent to get those involved out. She had a sweat-drenched cloth over her mouth, gloves on her hands, and nothing much else but her weapons on her. The Kampalans attacking Westerners, the outraged roving bands, had receded from view somewhat, cowed themselves perhaps by the sheer number of dead in the streets. The flies, the rot, the stench. The merciless sun. The vultures that had flown miles and miles to partake of what for them was a feast.

It was not only Africans who were dead, but mainly Africans, the unwitting guinea pigs for the pharmaceutical testing that had gone off the rails.

As always, she had been sent to help contain a mess, but this mess was beyond damage control. Deals between governments, contracts that were signed, private and public money that mixed and moved around and wound up in banks in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. What helped Big Pharma and the U.S. government enriched the African leaders who volunteered their people for human trials. It had all happened before, in years past and in different countries—Africa the drug-testing field—so no one could have anticipated the horror show that resulted, how testing for a vaccine to stop a spreading virus exacerbated the spread of that virus and in a place where the virus, unlike back at home in the States, had not yet infected a large part of the population. Uganda was decimated, and all she could do was get out. She didn’t have time or inclination to think about the greedy, incompetent assholes who’d set this disaster in motion; she concentrated on her reasons for wanting to continue to live, and foremost among them was April.

April, her rescuer, whose shooting now was keeping her alive.

Just keep fucking moving.

You can make it.

Joyce had a vague thought that in retirement she should have drunk and smoked less. She should have kept her body in better condition. But what would have been the point of retirement then? No, she could do it, she could ignore the searing pain in her chest and thighs and get herself up the incline. She had reached the point where the ground tilted up and the ridge began.

Behind her, the sounds of yelling, cursing, shooting.

That hellstorm hadn’t abatated, but a glance she took over her shoulder told her that no one had followed her into the clearing. Those who may have tried must have paid.

“Who’s at the top of that hill?”

“Kill that motherfucker!”

The fear and disorganization back there, the discipline of the rifle holder on the ridge’s peak. My girl, Joyce thought. My clear-eyed baby. Her daughter was a still and slender form against the dark night sky.

Joyce did the double bird whistle to let April know that she was good, almost there.

Then she heard the sound.

It came from above, a humming getting closer. Still running, she looked up, and she saw the massive helicopter. It had been back there far above them throughout the firefight. Joyce could feel the wind from its spinning blades. At the top of the ridge, she fell onto her chest, panting, and she extended her arm to touch her daughter’s.

April had swiveled, eye off the rifle scope, and managed a flash of a smile at her.

A man lay on his back beside her, semi-conscious, moaning. He had blood on his scalp and zip-tie cuffs around his wrists. His face looked familiar, but Joyce couldn’t quite place him at the moment.

Down below, where she’d been, the pitched battle was raging on, but none of that mattered now. The helicopter consumed her attention.

April raised her rifle to shoot, then lowered it. She knew better than to fire at the chopper and waste a bullet.

Was it going to come down?

It descended low enough so that Joyce could make out, by what light the sky gave, two figures inside, the pilot and another person.

“Shit!” Joyce said.

“What, mom?”

The person in the back was the only person it could be, Joyce thought, realizing that her whole pretense of a peaceful retirement had been a joke. What had she been thinking? That she could truly escape these people?

She waited for the helicopter to land.


The story concludes right here tomorrow.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Exquisite Corpse for Lockdown Noir: Part Four

Welcome to the next section of the Exquisite Corpse, continued from yesterday

Art by Tom Leins


April kept checking the rearview mirror as she drove. The pickup trucks had fallen in behind her. She didn’t know what the hell her mother had gotten herself into, or why the bugout message had come now, but those goons behind her made it clear that things were bad. Really fucking bad.

She wanted to run. Wanted to cry. Wanted to curl up in a ball and just cry. But she could just hear her mother. Time and place, mom would say. Take care of the job at hand, survive whatever is coming at you, and then you can have a nice long cry.

It sounded good, but she doubted Joyce had ever cried a single time in her life.

So cry later, but what now? There was no way this was a coincidence, these guys showing up right after that message. And if they knew who she was, they knew where she lived. So no point going home for the pack she kept in the closet. Guess it was a good thing Mom insisted on another bugout bag in her jeep. Smaller, but enough to get going.

The light ahead turned yellow. She looked at the mirror again. It was one thing to train for this kind of thing, and to be honest, April had always thought her mom was just paranoid—too much bad shit from her military service. Had always gone along with her, rolling her eyes all the while. But maybe the old woman wasn’t so crazy after all.

April pushed down the clutch, rolled toward the stop—and then charged through just before the light went red.

Let’s see how bad they want me, she thought.

Horns blew behind her. Brakes shrieked. Shit. The two trucks had gunned it around the car in front of them and through the intersection. And closing in.

Think, McFly, think. You’re supposed to be prepared for anything. Yeah, a disaster or something, a pandemic maybe, not the fucking goon squad coming for you. So. What would Mom do?

April dropped down a gear, braked, and swung the jeep to the left, hoping to catch the goons off-guard. Tires squealed and the jeep rocked as it dropped back to all four wheels. The grey trucks were a flash in her rearview before they slammed on the brakes, the engines whining loudly as they reversed as fast as they could. Practically in unison, in two different vehicles. These guys were good. What the hell was going on?

She spun the jeep to a stop across the road and slid across to the passenger seat. There was a thumbprint lockbox in the glovebox that held a Glock 26 and two full mags. She knew what Mom would do. Meet the motherfuckers head on and get it over with.

Her hands shook but she got the box open and the gun out. She barreled out of the vehicle, then crouched behind the passenger-side fender.

The trucks had jerked to a stop, the engines idling. There were no footsteps, no talking. Had she confused them, made them think she’d ran off somewhere?

A shadow fell over her and she jerked around, lifted the pistol, finger almost curled around the trigger.

A tall man, dark clothes, hands empty but a holstered pistol on one thigh, an MP5 hung on a sling against his chest. He reached down with one hand, pushing the barrel of her pistol toward the ground. “Easy, April, I’m here to help.”

He looked over the hood of the jeep to the two waiting trucks. “Wow. You really are just like your mother, aren’t you? Have you ever even fired that thing?”

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Will Souterrain. Been keeping an eye out, but they moved quicker then we expected. Well, shall we get this over with?”


“Everybody pile in!”

Joyce couldn't believe what she was seeing. Parked on the dirt road ahead was an up-armored Chevrolet Himmler 9000 bugout survivalist van. She knew it came with a 6.8-liter ApocalypseTek V10 engine, 355 ponies of power, lower body armor, raised suspension, and a roof larded with solar power cells. But what really blew her mind was the fact that it was painted jet black and had a distinctive red stripe running from a spoiler in the back and down across the front.

“Sam, do you not know what ‘going off the grid’ means?”

“Hide in plain sight. That’s always been my motto,” Sam said. His face was a swollen mess of wounds, pale, sweaty, and weak. She had seen that look too many times. “Besides,” he said, “it came that way. I didn’t have the heart to repaint it.”

The others hesitated. “It’s the only way out for all of us,” Joyce said. “Unless you have a helicopter packed in your Gucci bag, Viv.”

Vivian cocked an eyebrow at the Russian, who had a huge smile on his face for some reason.

Joyce’s father nodded. “Sam,” he grumbled.

“Mr. DeWitt,” said Sam, intimidated as ever by the granite slab or her dad.

But that slab looked ready to collapse now. Weak, vulnerable. Joyce found she just couldn’t hate him like she used to.

The interior of the van was lined with ammo, a military-grade first aid kit, gas masks, and MREs. Taking up the entire back seat and stacked to the roof were rolls and rolls of toilet paper.

As Joyce squeezed in next to her father, Vivian pressed next to her.

“How can your bony ass take up so much room?” Vivian said.

“Maybe because I didn’t sell out into a cushy corporate security job. Roast beef and potato chips much?”

Vivian remained silent.

The Russian was the last to get in—apparently he had been walking all around the supervan, admiring it. “This cannot be real! I fucking love this show!” said Kuznetsov, opening the driver’s door. “I am going to be fucking Mr. T!”

“No chance, Ivan Putski,” Sam said, prodding him away with his upright Weatherby 18i. “My boat, my wheel.”

“Careful,” Kuznetsov said. “Or we make your next president even worse.”

“Cool your towers, Chernobyl. Here, listen to this.” Sam pressed the horn and it played the theme from the ’80s TV show.

“I’m going to die in this thing,” said Vivian. “And I survived Kampala.”

Joyce smacked her ex in the back of the head. “Sam! Could you please? It’s not like these hills aren't lined with people trying to kill us.”

“Oh yeah. Gotcha.”

However, the Russian was giddy as he settled his large frame into the shotgun seat.

Joyce's nerves were set on a steel edge. “C’mon, Sam. We have to move. You know April’s likely on the move already. We have to get to her before anyone else does.”

The supervan’s wheels dug into the road and it took off. That was when gunfire started peppering the windows.

“Armageddon-level window armor,” bragged Sam, increasing speed. “Top of the line.”

“Oh no,” Joyce said. Her body was reacting to a sound she could barely hear, reacting before she could even articulate the danger.

A high-pierced buzzing and then a whoosh dopplering closer.

Everyone in the van said it at the same time: “Ramrod Personal Missile.”

“FML-95?” Sam said.

“FML-99!” Joyce said.

They all braced for impact.


The trees moved slowly as the forest inhaled, exhaled. The wind whistled through the pines. There was something in the air and Jimmy didn’t like it. He was eyeballing the tree line slowly, smoking slowly. Waiting. Listening.

Then the sounds came echoing through the hills.

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Just like the new kid had said on the telephone.

Jimmy scratched at his beard, inhaled his cigarette, and continued to listen.

“See? I told ya, Jimmy. Somebody be shooting in these hills and it ain’t no hunters. Besides ain’t even the season for it, I reckon.”

Jimmy just looked at the skinny kid standing there scratching his asscrack through his crusty denim dungarees and swinging the greasy gas mask to and fro.

The Corpse Grinders Motorcycle Club was scraping the bottom of the barrel with new recruits the last couple of decades. It wasn’t like back in the day. Not at all. Half of these newer members just sat around on their choppers, posing for photographs they put up on the internets, and the other half didn’t know shit from Shinola. Fucking soft idiots. That fucking beatnik Bob Dylan had been right all along: The Times They Are A Changing.

Jimmy flicked his cigarette towards the cabin, turned and glared back into the trees and over the hills towards the lake. “Sure as shit ain’t no hunters, right Jimmy? You think it’s the po-po?”

“The what you say, boy?”

“You know, the po-po? The 5-0?”

“Shut up.”

More of the sounds came through the greenery in quick succession.


High-caliber weaponry. Shit. Jimmy squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and he was eighteen years old again in A Sầu Valley. Hamburger Fucking Hill. He opened his eyes again and focused on a patch of pale-yellow light cutting through the tree branches. The scent of gunpowder twisted on the breeze. He took the pack of Camels out of his leather jacket and lit up another cigarette. His right hand was trembling, cramping up on him again, and he shook it disgustedly in front of his chest. That was the problem with surviving to the age of sixty-nine. Your body started murmuring, ‘Fuck this! I didn’t sign up for this shit, I’m outta here.’

“Nope,” he spat on the dirt, “it ain’t the cops or the pe-pe or whatever the hell you say. There’s shit going down in my backyard. Get back inside the hut and finish the batch we got brewing and then clean up, lock up and head home. I’m gonna go and have myself a mooch about.”

He walked over to his pickup truck and slid the sawed-off shotgun from under a blanket in the bed. He felt something like relief when he held the weight of it in his grasp.

Then he stopped. What the hell was that?

It was... a novelty car horn, echoing some kind of theme tune over the landscape.

He grunted and then swung himself into the driver’s seat, placing the Shorty on the seat next to him. His daughter had forced him to sell his chopper and go four-wheeled since the doctor’s diagnosis. He wasn’t happy about it, but he was never happy about much of anything.

He fumbled with the radio, gunned the engine, and pulled into the dusty lane leading towards the lake. He saw the idiot kid waving him goodbye in the rearview. FNG.


When the machine-gun fire ripped open the stillness of the air and the explosion rocked his old pickup on its axles, Jimmy swerved the truck over to the side of the dirt road and pulled the phone from the glovebox. He fingered the right digits and waited.

“Yeah, its Jimmy—I’m down at the place—there’s some kind of a clusterfuck going down in the bush, and I want you to send the boys on over—yeah—all of them—send every fucking one.”

He closed the phone and tossed it on the dashboard. He picked up the Shorty, cocked it, climbed from the truck, and started walking towards the sounds of Hamburger Hill Part Fucking Two. The Shorty trembled in his aching fists. He listened to the screams of Charlie crashing down the dusty road and smiled to himself. An uninvited guest to a regular shitshow. 


A Himmler is a fine machine with an unfortunate name, but it couldn’t withstand an FLM-99. The blast had not wrecked the vehicle, but had tilted it on two wheels in a way that even its lover, Sam, couldn’t maintain or correct back to all four.

The vehicle thudded onto its side and skidded. It cracked into rock and settled, and only then could Joyce assess the damage.

Vivian’s eyes rolled beneath her closed lids, jaw set tight in pain. Sam had a hand on the passenger seat in some attempt to pull himself into a suitable position. Meanwhile, her dad had one eye open, a weird shine from it she hadn’t seen much before. Pride in her? She couldn't tell.

The windshield, even on its side and cracked, offered them all a cinematic view of their oncoming demise. Clouds of dust twisted and reached for the stars, diffused by approaching headlights and the growl of victory.

“Sam … Sam … are you mobile?” Joyce unbuckled her seatbelt, gritting her teeth close to dust at the shot of pain in her wound as she tumbled free.

Sam didn't answer with anything but a low rumble of agony.

“Dad? Can you talk? Can you move?”

Her dad winked with his good eye, but all that told her was his eye could maneuver.

Eyes opening, Vivian shot into action, greedy for breath like she’d come up from ocean depths. The headlights, still disembodied, bobbed and weaved, an alien invasion ready to start their probe of humanity right here with them.

Viv looked for her Russian, but his glassy eyes and the angle of his neck told Joyce the man had absorbed the missile for all of them and paid the price. Viv stuck her gun in Joyce’s ribs, sniffed at the reaction.

Joyce pushed her hand away and bared her teeth. “We’ve got bigger problems. Stick that fucker where you want if and when we get out of this.”

“I will. Aim your fire through that windscreen and keep it there, bitch, and remember, I’ll always have one step ahead of you.”

“Suits me, Viv, suits me.” Where I can stab you in the back?

The van kept its armory tight to the walls, thank God. Joyce scanned the pearl necklace of grenades on one side of the truck: “You think we could take them out with these?”

Viv grabbed a grenade, weighed it against the oncoming danger.

Joyce’s dad coughed. His lungs told her he had a close eye on a long white tunnel to God, to hell, to a limbo he deserved. She fought back at the idea that April thought of her the same way. Stupid, but Joyce wondered which parent her daughter preferred.

Joyce dragged her eyes from the windscreen. Wheels rumbled the earth, so loud she thought it might crack beneath her and they’d tumble to where her dad headed.

Her dad opened his eyes and smirked, shook his head as best he could. “The biggest disappointment in my whole damn life is you. Crouched there … crouched there like a nodding dog. To who? To this bitch? To this nickel and dime so-called Special Forces piece of shit? You have the nerve …” He pulled in all the air the van contained. “You have the nerve to call me your dad? Fuck off. Fuck you with your ‘dad.’ I’m ashamed of you.” He coughed, blood snaked out of his nose. “You’ve not earned the right to call me your dad.”

Her dad, the trucks, the motorbikes, the rumble, the blinding headlights, Joyce’s hand tight on the grenade, her daughter in unimaginable danger—it all competed for her attention. If only she had kept on the move. She didn’t need a home, just a gun and a bottle of whiskey. Everything else could go to hell.

The mass of vehicles stopped and the light from all of them poured in and bleached them white as snow.


Jimmy had to use the flat of one hand to shield his eyes against the flood of light, the weight of the shotgun heavy in the other hand. The squad of black vehicles pushing off toward the left... he guessed those were government. To the right, that was the Corpse Grinders. It was a mutant mix of rides, the older guys all on Harleys, the younger ones leaning toward foreign jobs. Nonetheless, the sound of a dozen engines revving and rising and falling was music to Jimmy’s ears. It sat in sharp contrast to the stillness of the black vehicles, their motors silent in the darkness.

Jimmy stopped about a hundred feet away from the vehicle flipped over onto its side, sitting in the vortex of the headlights. He lit another cigarette and took a deep breath of appreciation for what laid in front of him. Vietnam and the guys in black pajamas, the ones D.C. called “military advisors,” those were still fresh memories to him. Those “advisors,” and the missions they sent platoons on—all off-book bullshit without paperwork or word from command—had probably killed more good men than tripwires explosives had.

It’s why, when he’d come home, Jimmy had sworn to never have a goddamn thing to do with the government again if he could help it. That’s why he rode with the Corpse Grinders. Why he pledged to live and die a free man, free from the tyranny of a system that cared little for the nameless cogs that were part of its intricate machinery.

He said it was why he hadn’t filed income taxes in thirty years, but that was really because he just hadn’t felt like doing it.

He let the cigarette hang from the corner of his mouth as he walked closer to the flipped vehicle. A door hinged open and a woman raised her head. A shot cracked from the direction of the government vehicles, and it dinged off the Himmler’s armor. The woman raised a middle finger toward the sound of the gunshot. She looked at Jimmy and rested her forearms on the edge of the vehicle entryway. Jimmy noted what looked like a grenade in the woman’s hand.

“Evening,” Jimmy said. He stopped with about thirty feet between him and the Himmler.

“Evening yourself,” she said. She gestured to the motorcycles. “Those happen to be friends of yours.”

“Happen to be my brothers in arms. The Corpse Grinders Motorcycle Club.” He pointed toward the other massing of vehicles. “Those friends of yours?”

“Fuck no. In fact, they all want to kill us.”

“‘Us?’ How many ‘us’ you got in there?”

“Enough for a squad, not enough for a battalion.” A groaning noise rose from inside, creeping out like a strangled gasp from a pit.

That earned raised eyebrows from Jimmy. “Doesn’t sound good.”

“It’s my father. I’m pretty sure he’s dying.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You know, I’m not sure how I feel about it myself. I’ll get back with you on it.”

A set of headlights separated from the grouping and snaked its way toward Jimmy and the flipped vehicle and the lady with the hand grenade. As if on cue, another light appeared, but this one from above, a spotlight so bright, it almost had physical weight, pushing him down. The light remained steady on him, and under almost any other set of circumstances he might have thought it was from an UFO, but instead he realized it had to be coming from a helicopter. One so silent he never heard it coming.

Yeah, this was a goddamn government thing. Had to be.

Jimmy threw the shotgun from one hand to another and used his entire forearm to block the light.

“Those aren’t my friends either,” the woman said.

“Good to know. I’d say you’re a shit judge of character otherwise.”

The headlights morphed into an anonymous black sedan that stopped just outside the spotlight’s edge. The man who stepped out was bald, with a magnificent mustache, wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses. As he moved into the circle of light, Jimmy noticed the clusters and clouds of puckered pink scarring around the man’s head.

The man didn’t pay any attention to Jimmy. Instead, he looked at the woman with the hand grenade.

“Joyce,” he said. “It’s been too long.”

“Not long enough, Dario.” She smiled slyly. “Have to say, though, I love what you’re not doing with your hair.”

No emotion registered on the man’s face. He just kept on peering at her through those mirrored shades.

Jimmy took a long last drag off of his cigarette and flipped the spent filter through the air. “There a reason you’re wearing sunglasses at night? That a thing you gotta do, or you do it on account you think it’s cool.”

The man—Dario—did a slow turn toward Jimmy, his first acknowledgement of anyone else being there. “You should probably go now.” He pointed to the bikers. “You and the rest of your tribe.”

“Me and my tribe ain’t going nowhere until—“

“What in the earthly fuck is going on here?” This was another woman’s voice, and she rose out of the Himmler, like a groundhog making a weather prediction, right behind the other woman. This lady had a pistol. She saw Dario, and her face went white as December snow. “Goddamn,” she muttered. “Goddamn. Goddamn. Goddamn.”

Now Dario smiled. “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here now. Now we can party, right?”

Jimmy swung the shotgun up to rest the barrel on his shoulder. “You know, you assholes are raising nine kinds of terror around here, and me and my guys, we’d like to know what the—“

Dario raised a single finger into the air, then pointed it toward Jimmy.

The red dot appeared on the back of Jimmy’s head. It moved to the center of his forehead as he turned around.

“What the—“

The gunshot echoed, drowning out the sound of Jimmy’s skull exploding. His headless body dropped to its knees, pausing a second before collapsing completely to the ground.

The motorcycles roared to life, and their furious growls grew in volume as they snaked toward the Himmler, one after another. They didn’t even wait before they started firing at the black sedan, or toward the helicopter.

“Party’s coming to you,” Joyce said. She planted her hand on top of Vivian’s head and pushed her back down into the Himmler before slamming the vehicle’s door shut again.


“If that ain’t a mess down there, it will have to do until the mess arrives.”

The body of the burly biker had yet to drop before Will Souterrain yanked the bolt on his sniper rifle and readied his next shot. His vantage atop the mesa offered a clear view of everyone and everything, and he could take his pick from a multitude of targets.

April had yet to reckon where his allegiances lay, so she was hesitant to smile. Instead, she stared hard at the tableau unfolding below them.

There were motorbikes. There were armored SUVs. There were craters in the earth from artillery and small-arms fire. There was an overturned Himmler.

Most shockingly, there was…

…her mother.

April hadn’t seen Joyce in quite some time, but nothing prepared her for what she saw then. Her mother, busted and bruised and…


“We have to help them.” She dusted her palms on the thighs of her jeans and stood. She hadn’t risen past her knees before Souterrain lowered her back to the ground.

“Not yet, chère,” he sneered. “You pop your jolie tete over top of this here mesa and somebody is going to clean blow it off. No, best you lay back and let me stir this gumbo.”

She bared teeth and watched him through narrowed eyes as he lined up his next shot.

“Where did you meet Joyce anyways?” she wanted to know.

“You mean your mama?” He followed the barrel of the rifle along with his target, then carefully squeezed the trigger. Nearly a half-mile below them, another biker’s head burst into a mist of claret. “Me and her had us a rendezvous in Africa. They were in need of a surgeon and I had the steadiest of hands.”

“Ah,” April said. “You must have been a poet.”

“If that’s what you prefer.” His next shot picked off a Corpse Grinder making a run for it.

“So you fancied yourself a Doctor Zhivago then?”

“I was never much for Tolstoy.”

April rolled her eyes. “It was Pasternak, asshole.”

“Whatever.” Souterrain squinted through the scope. He lined up Vivian Marchand in his crosshairs. Before he could squeeze the trigger, she was lowered into the safety of the Himmler. “All that Russian stuff sounded the same the way when your momma read it to me.”

April cocked her head. “She would read to you?”

“Never in English, chère.” Souterrain scoured the landscape for his next target. “And never with her clothes on, either.”

“She read to you in Russian?”

“That’s the only way to read…whoever you said.”

He held his breath. He couldn’t believe what he saw through the scope below him.

“Sacre merde,” he whispered as he lined up his shot. “If it’s not that cagy old bastard, Dario. Comment allez vous, mon ami?”

He put his finger on the trigger, but could apply no pressure. Behind him, he felt the barrel of a Luger pressing against the back of his head. He took his hands away from the rifle.

“What gives, chère?”

“My mother can’t speak Russian,” she said, through a clenched jaw. “So why don’t you tell me who the hell you really are.”


Inside the Himmler, Joyce was weighing her options while all hell raged outside the armored van.

“A fucking disappointment … “ muttered dad, his life slipping away in groans and half-sentences of disparagement. No help there, dad, thought Joyce.

“Goddamn. Goddamn, he’s here … “ muttered Vivian, as if she’d seen a ghost. Which she had – fucking Dario?! How the hell had he survived?

Vivian was in shock, her perfect hair mussed, and she wasn’t going to be much more help than Joyce’s dying conman of a father.

Joyce looked to the front seat for some assistance.

Sam was concussed at best, and kept slipping in and out of consciousness. He wobbled and tried to scramble out of the front seat, his ass pushing against the steering wheel, the distorted familiar refrains of everyone’s favorite paramilitary ‘80s sitcom eking out from beneath the van’s busted hood.

The sad notes of the theme did not fill Joyce with an abundance of hope for their situation.

“I’m Mr. T., you fucking Russian asshole … “ Sam said to the body of Kuznetsov, still strapped into the shotgun position, the Russian’s eyes staring into the great wide beyond. Her ex palmed the dead Russian’s face and pushed it aside, only for it to flop back into position, dangling lifeless.

Machine gun fire pelted the windshield. It held, but for how much longer?

Joyce’s shoulder ached. Her leg ached. But compared to the rest of the current residents of the attack van, she was practically in mint condition, if you discounted the rivulet of blood leaking down her forehead.

“This ain’t no A-Team. We’re fucked,” said Joyce to no one in particular.

She nervously fingered a hand grenade and tried to figure out what to do. She could wait it out, and let the motorcycle gang and Dario’s kill-squad waste each other until the odds were a little more even. But the pat-pat-pat of machine gun fire on the windshield didn’t exactly put her in a waiting mood.

She could make a suicide run of it. Lob a couple grenades, shock and awe. But a suicide run usually resulted in suicide. And that option wasn’t exactly appealing either.

She could send Vivian out there on her own, all glassy-eyed and mussed. She had to admit, that idea wasn’t too bad …

Sam stumbled over the sideways-turned front seat and steadied himself on the wall (roof?) of the van. She’d seen him in worse condition, but not by much.

“What do we do now, kid?” he asked, his trademark swagger still shining through a concussion.

“Don’t call me kid,” said Joyce. “I’m thinking.”

Her eyes darted around their small confines. There were the grenades, sure, but she’d have to expose herself in order to lob anything worth a damn. There were the AKs, but again, it meant popping out of the temporarily safe confines in order to try to get a bead on anyone of importance... and there was still the sniper on the ridge raining down death. She knew that as soon as her head popped up through the van door, she was as good as toast.

What the fuck to do?

Pat-pat-pat on the windshield. She could feel the gunfire reverberating throughout the van. It shook her from her head to her spine to … her back pocket?

The phone.

She grabbed for it and flipped it open. Hopefully, she could at least confirm April was safe.

The message was from her daughter, but not what she expected.

- Mom, I’m on the ledge. Get ready to move.


The story continues right here tomorrow.