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.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Exquisite Corpse for Lockdown Noir: Part Three

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

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.


Balled up in an uncomfortable motel bed, Joyce had once asked her father why they weren’t like other families. Why they never stayed in one place for very long.

Her father looked down at the medals pinned above his heart and gave a smile that even a child could tell was empty. He likened their way of life to a character from a western they’d just watched on TV.

“Remember how the man makes the cowboy stand put?” he asked. “He makes him shoot, but he’s useless. Right? Can’t hit a thing, just standing there all rigid. But when he moves, you remember what happens? How remarkable he is? He can hit anything. But only if he moves around. Well, that’s us, kiddo. You and me, we aren’t like most people. And everything special about us, it doesn’t shine if we stay put. That’s why we got to keep moving.”

Despite all her training—all the decades of focusing solely on the task at hand—it was impossible to ignore those words echoing in her head now.

Got to keep moving.

Maybe she’d stayed put too long. Maybe she’d lost her touch.

It made her blood boil to think maybe Dad had been right all along. Staying still…hell, just thinking she could live that peaceful kind of life had turned her dumb and lazy. Amateurish. And now here she was, surrounded on the side of a mountain, frozen. It was only a matter of time before more gunmen followed the two that just passed her.

Got to keep moving.

Her sudden lack of confidence felt like an ill-fitting sweater. In her old line of work, confidence was often all she had to work with. But at least Plan B still came easy to her.

She could go laterally, west around the slope until she hit the trail she’d planned on taking with the hidden dirt bike. Obnoxious engines in the middle of quiet wilderness were now a last-ditch option, at best. But even if she followed that same trail on foot, it would take about a day’s hike to reach a highway busy enough to hitch a ride to somewhere safe. East would take her toward Sam’s hideout, if her guess was correct. But going into hostile terrain blind was how she’d almost lost her dominant eye long ago.

The smartest course of action was to keep following the two gunmen, take them out quietly, and follow the intricate cave system to the other side of the mountain. She’d plotted the route before, and she could take her time in there. She might get hungry eventually, but there was at least fresh water deeper into the system.

She stepped where the gunmen stepped, closing the gap between them with a grace that most people simply don’t possess. By the time she had them within sight again, they were at the mouth of the cave, guns aimed into the darkness. The ‘roid-rippled goon Joyce first noticed trekking through the trees gestured to his long-bearded associate to head inside first.

Joyce was close enough to hear Roid Boy whisper into his radio that they’d stumbled onto a possible hiding spot. As Wizard Beard stepped toward the cave, Joyce crept up behind Roid Boy. One stride closer and she’d be able to reach for the knife sheathed at his belt. But before her foot even lifted from the ground, the air shook with a distant thunderclap.

Another landmine.

Both gunmen turned.

“Shit,” Joyce muttered.

In Joyce’s experience, knowing how to stay alive meant knowing the difference between when to fight and when to run. And in that moment, she realized that she should have known better than to abandon the cabin and try for the cave. She could have been anywhere else, in an SUV with guns and money. But she’d let cold survival mode take over.

It wasn’t just whiskey Joyce had grabbed from the kitchen cupboard.

The same document that gave instructions for her eventual ashes also listed the details about every job she’d ever done. Every deed—good or bad—and the names of everyone who handed down her orders. Twenty-six pages of a long narrative that traced the whos, whats, and wheres of her life ever since she learned her father wasn’t actually in the military like he’d told her. Ever since she figured out that he wore that uniform to swindle people, town after town after town, and that behind them was a trail of fraud, forgery, and theft.

Ever since she ran away and never stopped running.

Got to keep moving.

The document was partly a drunk Fuck You to a complex system that never appreciated the sacrifices she made to keep it functioning like the slick machine it was. But it was also, in part, a confession—an explanation to someone who deserved one.

The envelope with the document had a particular address. What made her so foolish was that, somewhere out there in the world, there was somebody that she cared about. And as the gunmen turned their barrels on her, her anger at herself gave way to relief. If she died, and these men rooted through her stuff and found all her documents, and then considered her case closed with no further fallout, the letter’s addressee would finally be safe.

Joyce closed her eyes.

She expected only one gunshot before the lights went out. But there were two. And after a moment without any pain or draining of life, she opened her eyes in time to see both Roid Boy and Wizard Beard fall to the ground. Holes in their heads, blood and brain matter on the soil beneath them.

“Not exactly evasive,” a voice said from the cave.

Out walked Vivian Marchand, de facto head of the Underground ever since Sam and Joyce took out her husband. She held only a cellphone in her hand, while the four suited men that followed her from the cave pointed their firearms at Joyce.

Joyce gawked at the dead men between them. “You just killed your own men.”

“Underground men don’t get killed.” Marchand read the confusion on Joyce’s face. “You didn’t get my care package?”

“Oh, I got it.”


“You’ll have to forgive me if I say I didn’t stick my face inside.”

Marchand laughed. “If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t have to open the flap of a package to make it happen. I just thought you could use a little warning that they were coming for you.”

The pieces weren’t fitting together. Even Sam made it sound as if the Underground was behind this. Joyce asked, “Who are they?”

Marchand shrugged as she nudged Wizard Beard’s shoulder with a boot. “Bad guys, Joyce.”

Joyce was growing impatient. Gunshots only ensured more goons would be on their way, whoever they were. “Then how about we cut to the part where you tell me why you’re so interested in helping me.”

“Because these people are after me, as well, and you have some information in that head of yours that I need to beat them.”

Joyce allowed a smile. Whatever intel the Underground was looking for was most likely somewhere in her gear at that very moment. But nothing was funnier than the leader of the Underground asking her for her help. She asked Marchand: “And why the hell would I ever work with you?”

“For one thing, self-preservation. I’d imagine one enemy on your tail is better than two.”

Joyce shook her head. “Not good enough.”

“I didn’t say that’s the only reason.”

“I’m waiting.”

Vivian Machand smiled. “Because just like whoever is after us,” she said, “we know you have a daughter.”


The rising moon framed Vivian Marchand’s head in such a way it seemed as though she didn’t have a face at all, just a black mass. Two men on either side of her, each at the ready, she awaited Joyce’s reply.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Joyce continued to think this, tried to embrace it, but her mind failed to cooperate.



And she knew she had to play this smart, that it was imperative to keep a cool head, but Vivian invoking April as she had, the daughter Joyce had spent the better part of a decade shielding, it didn’t just change the game—it blew it the fuck apart.

Left to right and make sure you cut deep.

True. So goddamn true.

“Fine,” she said, looking into where she believed Vivian’s eyes should be. Was the woman smiling? Joyce didn’t know, but felt it was a pretty safe bet. “And I’m not going to ask how you’ve come across this knowledge. I'm not going to play games. We both know you know. But I will offer caution, Vivian.”

“You never cease to amaze me, Joyce. Not even here, where neither of us should be. Go on, dazzle me.” Vivian stepped forward, and yes, Joyce saw that the dark-haired woman she had wanted to kill on more than one occasion was, in fact, smiling. It was a pretty smile, too, one many men have fallen for, by choice or otherwise.

“Women like us, Vivian, we have cheated death. We have—”

“INCOMING!” The furthest sentry from Marchand yelled, and in those precious few seconds he bought them, instinct took them by the neck and put things into gear. Endorphins rushed. Muscles surged. Movement reigned. Two of Vivian’s men returned fire as they charged toward the cave entrance.

Inside, Vivian bent down and opened a military-grade case Joyce has opened many times herself. Inside sat a weapon that had been known to level countless playing fields. Once the last of Marchand’s men made it into the cave, Vivian moved forward, past them, but not before telling Joyce to “hold that thought.”

“And don’t take this as me being rude, either,” she added. “If anything, take it for what it is: me saving your ass yet again.”

Like she had in Milan so many years ago, Vivian Marchand then went down to one knee and proceeded to do what she has always done best.

She lit the night.


The mouth of the cave turned hell-colored as the stink of burned hair and charred bone filled the air.

“Let’s go. We don’t have much time.”

Joyce nodded and fell into step with Vivian, leaving one of the hired hands to replace the weaponry in the case. Another one of Vivian’s men pulled out his phone and activated the flashlight app, lighting their way as they headed deeper into the caves. Joyce marveled at what a rocket launcher could do in Vivian’s skilled hands.

Vivian snapped her fingers. “Sokolov, Andreyev—take point. Kuznetsov, Petrov—fall in behind.”

Curious, Joyce thought. The Vivian Marchand she knew would have rather crawled over broken glass than worked with Russians.

Vivian noticed the question hovering behind Joyce’s eyes, said: “Times change, Joyce. Alliances shift. You always were slow to embrace change.”

Joyce ignored the jibe and removed the whiskey from her bag, unscrewed the cap, and drank two inches as if it were Gatorade. “Want some?”

Vivian shook her head. “I haven’t touched a drop since Kampala.”

The second time someone has mentioned Uganda today. Joyce never liked coincidences. She raised the bottle and took another glug. “We’ll always have Kampala.”

Vivian smiled—but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. Joyce replaced the bottle.

“Tell me, Joyce, how well do you know this cave system?”

“Well enough.”

“I take it there’s a way out?”

Joyce cast a withering look at her former boss. “There’s always a way out, Vivian.”

The older woman smiled that devastating smile of hers again, and this time it reached her eyes.

She looks good, Joyce thought, but then again, she always did.

The flame-grilled stench of their now-dead pursuers receded as they trudged deeper into the caves. The bodyguard’s flashlight casting malformed shadows in the subterranean gloom.

The realtor, Mr. Perez, had laughed nervously as he told Joyce that the caves were once used as a meth lab by a local biker gang called the Corpse Grinders—until five men succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning when the gas-powered generator malfunctioned.

Joyce studied Vivian’s face as they trampled dusty test tubes and bits of trash, but the older woman’s face never flickered. In their world, bikers and drugs and death barely warranted a mention.

One of the men, Sokolov or Andreyev—Joyce wasn’t sure which one was which—passed his light across the far wall. A jittery skull had been daubed on the uneven surface, with the legend ‘CG 4EVA’ painted underneath.

He grunted and said something in Russian to his buddy, who unleashed a deep, throaty cackle. Vivian joined in. Then they were all chuckling.

Joyce spoke four languages, but Russian wasn’t one of them. Her mind was awash with uncertainties, but Vivian never was much of a talker, so she needed to choose her questions carefully. She cleared her throat to regain Vivian’s attention over the laughter.

“If The Underground aren’t behind this clean-up op, then who is?”

Vivian raised a hand to silence her men, then turned to face Joyce. Up-close, in the dingy half-light, she finally looked her age. She sighed and withdrew the phone from her pocket, saying: “I imagine you will find this even harder to comprehend than I did.”

She passed Joyce the phone.

On the screen was Dario Marchand, a man she had last seen in a ditch outside Kampala with blood oozing out of a bullet-crater in his scalp. The luxuriant mustache was unchanged, but his thick black head of hair was no more—hairline replaced with a blotchy, uneven mess of scar tissue. His eyes, like his scalp, looked dead.

“No. It can’t be.”

Vivian nodded solemnly. “It can.”

“Samson shot him in the skull at point-blank range.”

Vivian shrugged. “He always was a tough bastard, Joyce. You know that.”

“It can’t be him.”

Her own scar tissue itched—the bullet-wound sewn up one-handed by Dario in Kandahar. He had been holding his own guts in at the same time. Joyce remembered her boss’s entrails pulsing like maggots on a dead dog, yet his grim smile of determination never fading.

Vivian replaced the phone without another word. “Kuznetsov. The merchandise.”

Joyce’s head spun. What fucking merchandise?

Kuznetsov, the largest of the four men, built like a pro wrestler, disappeared into the darkness. “I’m sorry I had to do this, Joyce. I really am. But I needed some insurance... in case you required any additional motivation.”

Kuznetsov reappeared, dragging the shrunken figure of an old man behind him. The man looked blurred and indistinct until he was dumped at Joyce’s feet.

She recognized the costume-store military uniform before she recognized the cadaverous features of the man wearing it. The old man dusted himself down and lowered his yellow-tinted sunglasses. They looked more absurd in here than they ever did when he was flirting with divorcees beside drained motel swimming pools.


His leathery features cracked into a gap-toothed smile.

“Hello, princess.”

Joyce was about to say something when the muted boom of a distant explosion shook the cavern.

Vivian touched her shoulder.

“So, Joyce, what were you saying about a way out?”


Joyce had been sixteen when she figured out the truth about her dad. They had taken a weekend trip from Tucson with yet another woman Joyce hoped might become her mom. Tombstone. Bisbee. The OK Corral and the abandoned silver mine. Then, at the end of the tour of Kartchner Caverns, when the guide turned off all the lights except for the spot on the 700-million-year-old pillar, she had seen her father duck his hand into the hopeful woman’s purse and slip out her wallet. The next day Joyce had gone straight to the recruiting station on Speedway and Wilson. Six months later she had fought in Iraq. She had never looked back.

After this many decades, Joyce saw the worn-out man in the cave with fresh eyes. As tough as the years of bullets and blows have been on her body, perpetual grift has been even harder on his.

But this was no time to reminisce. The clamor behind them suggested that the entrance had been breached. Joyce guessed that Vivian’s Russians could hold out against just about anyone. But Dario Marchand was not just about anyone. If Dario was leading the siege, he would break through sooner rather than later.

“The cave opens up to an underground lake, and then you can hike back up and come out on the eastern edge. But that will take almost a day,” Joyce said. She had walked this route before.

Vivian turned towards the mouth of the tunnel. It was pitch dark, but she was listening. She didn’t like what she heard. “We don’t have a day.”

“There’s another way. But it isn’t easy.”

Vivian smiled. “When have I ever asked for it to be easy?”

She said something in Russian to Kuznetsov. The big man protested, but she nodded firmly and repeated herself. He grunted and unslung his rifle. He signaled to the other muscle and they headed towards the noises at the front of the cave.

Vivian smiled at Joyce and her father, all sweat and charm. She handed the old man her own phone, switched to flashlight mode. “You lead the way. Joyce in the middle. I need my hands free for this.” She gestured to Joyce with a Sig Sauer P365.

Joyce didn’t like Vivian having the only freed weapon among them. She thought about how long it would take her to rummage through her bag and find the Desert Eagle. Too long. And slinging the rifle from her shoulder would be hopeless. Same with the shotgun. She turned to guide her father forward.

After five minutes, the tunnel started to slope downward. Joyce stopped them, saying: “That’s the river below us. The long way. We need to turn right.”

She nudged her father towards a narrow slit between the rock. Just wide enough for them to walk, so long as they went sideways, Joyce scraping on both sides of her body. Vivian kept her pistol trained on them from behind.

Joyce didn’t need to look back to know that Vivian was keeping a good six feet behind her. She could tell by the loudness of the breath, the scrape of the footfalls. If Vivian were closer, Joyce would have had a chance, even in close quarters, to spring back and grab the pistol before Vivian had a chance to fire. But Vivian knew that, too. Smart.

And even if Joyce could disarm Vivian, even if she could kill her, then what? Vivian knew about April, so Dario must have learned, too. And Dario was the one to worry about now. If Joyce took out Vivian, she would be alone in this tunnel with her useless father. Everything she had done to protect her daughter would have been for nothing.

The old man’s steps were unstable now as the path narrowed further. He held out the cell phone as the crack narrowed to almost nothing. Then he stopped.

“I can’t go any further. I can’t squeeze through that.”

Behind them, gunshots. A quick series of rat-a-tat-tats, then a long pause, then another burst. Then nothing at all. No voices. No footsteps. One side or the other had gotten the better of it. They would learn which one soon enough.

Vivian trained the gun on Joyce. “You said you could take us out of here. This is a dead end.”

“No. We’re here.” Joyce gestured upward. About twenty feet up, a sliver of light, trickling from between two overhanging rocks. “We shimmy up. You first, dad.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“Of course you can, dad.” Joyce sidled up to her father and slipped her hand into his rear pocket. His wallet was the easiest lift she had ever made. “All you have to do is believe it. Just like you always do. Convince yourself and you can convince the world.”

He handed her the phone and she heaved him up, squeezed between the walls of the cave. He caught himself with his elbows. He slipped for a moment and pebbles tumbled onto Vivian and Joyce.

“Just keep going, dad,” Joyce murmured soothingly. “Just keep going.”

As he pulled himself to the ledge, Joyce exhaled almost as deeply as he did.

Vivian propped herself expertly onto the wall and started to climb. Even with one hand still on the pistol, she scuttled easily upwards. “Don’t try anything, Joyce,” she called back.

As her old enemy scurried up the wall, Joyce took the cell phone out to send a quick message: april its happening do just as I told you no time to explain mom

As Vivian crested out of the cave, Joyce deleted the sent message and pocketed the phone. She dropped her father’s wallet into her bag. She’d have time enough to see what he had been up to—and how he had fallen into Vivian’s hands after all these years.

She pulled herself quickly up the sides of the cave, instinct and training taking over. She shimmied into a patch of mountain hemlock in time to see Vivian and her father each sitting still, holding their hands in the air. Vivian’s pistol was on the ground in front of her crossed legs.

Standing ten feet away, smoking a compact cigar, training a Weatherby 18i on them both, was a familiar face. The nose was still swollen, but a fresh bandage had stopped the bleeding over that left eyebrow.

“Hi, Joyce. Nice party you’ve got here.”

“Samson,” Joyce said, relieved despite herself. “We need your help. Otherwise they are going to kill our daughter.”


They’d lifted off not ten minutes before when her phone buzzed in her pocket. Geez. April had told anyone who needed to know that she’d gone paragliding with Ronald. Why would they bother her? She resented having to take the damn phone with her in the first place. Of course, it made surviving a crash more likely. Authorities could track her in the mountains, send the rescue helicopter to wherever her rig dropped. She’d ignore it for now, just as she’d ignore Ronald swooping by her, showing off while trying to start a shouted conversation in midair.

They’d launched from the top of Mount Sentinel, like always. She watched the school pass below her feet, pretended to kick the steeple on top of University Hall. Thought about sitting in the stands of the stadium, rooting for the Grizzlies even when they sucked. The phone vibrated again, reminded her she had a message waiting. “All right, all right,” she said. “Let me touch down.”

Ronald passed. Ronald, his goofy lumberjack beard whipping this way and that in the wind. He said, “What?”

“Wasn’t talking to you,” she said.

“What?” he said, louder, as though the change in volume would convince her she’d been addressing him after all.

She descended toward the practice football field in between rows of University Village apartments, near the golf course. Like a leaf making its journey from branch to earth in early autumn, she floated left, then right, then left, then right, over and over, and found her feet running through the grass.

The phone nagged her.

She said, “This better be good.” She rolled up her wing and watched Ronald land a few feet away from where she’d touched down. As she placed her wing in her equipment bag, she noticed two gray pickup trucks parked alongside the fence surrounding the school’s soccer field. The trucks sat on jacked up axles. Unlike most of the skipjacks cruising Missoula in similar small-penis compensators, the men in the cabs were clean-shaven. They wore mirrored-shades and stared out the windshields.

At her.


She dragged her equipment bag to her jeep. Ronald followed her, carting out his usual request to “grab some coffee,” his limp-dicked way of inquiring as to whether her libido had suddenly taken an interest in guys who engaged strangers on Twitter in political arguments. All talk, no walk. They couldn’t fuck their way out of a paper bag.

“I got to study,” she told him.

He reminded her that he needed a ride back to his dorm.

“I know,” she said.

She offered to help him throw his equipment bag into her jeep. He declined. She took the opportunity to check the message on her phone. She saw who’d sent it and groaned. “Jesus,” she said.

“What’s the deal?” said Ronald.

“Nothing. My stupid mother.” Then she clicked on the message and her throat dried up. The message she’d hoped to never receive stared back at her.

The pickup trucks rumbled to life, interrupting her thoughts. The noise reminded her of someone suffering a loud, endless bout of diarrhea.

Her face must have given away her concern. Ronald said: “Really, what’s going on?”

“Ronald…” She forced him out of her way as she removed his gear from her jeep. “Emergency situation, buddy.”

He protested.

“No time to explain,” she said, mimicking her mother’s words. She climbed into the jeep and started it up. As she pulled out, Ronald threw his hands up, donned an expression suggesting she’d run over his feet. She offered her best “I’m sorry” grimace and rolled, slowly, deliberately, toward South Avenue. Her eyes drifted to the rearview mirror. She sighed. Geez. She wished she didn’t have her mother’s instincts.

The men in the pickup trucks put their foul machines in drive and crept behind her as she tried to blend in with traffic.


The story continues right here tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Exquisite Corpse for Lockdown Noir: Part Two

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

And thanks to Tom Leins for the teaser poster:


Joyce studied the license. The face on the small plastic rectangle was remarkable in its mediocrity. Flat dead eyes, a slack slit of a mouth, an unruly mop of brown hair. The address on the license was in Salt Lake City, Utah. The name said Souterrain.

Joyce stood and took a sip of Gatorade.

Souterrain was French for Underground.

Joyce took another sip, put the license in her pocket, and got the hell out of the store. She had less time than she had figured. Whoever it was might already be at the house.

Back in the SUV, her phone vibrated. She froze. It was the vibration that signaled the alarm system had been tripped. She pulled the device out of her pocket and touched the screen.

The logo of the security app spun in lazy circles as the system came online. When it did, she saw every button for every sensor lit up like a Christmas tree. At least ten attackers moving toward the house hard and fast.

Joyce hit the buttons that armed the system, then pressed the ignition button and started the car. As she shifted into drive, the screen flashed, indicating that the landmines exploded. The red dots of the bogies blinked out of existence like dying stars as their motion stopped and their body temperatures dropped.

Her phone pinged: An alert for a Google Hangout session. Samson didn’t have her position, but he had the fake email that she routed through a server in India. Joyce weighed the risk of talking to Samson after he had put her in the crosshairs of the Underground, versus whatever intel he might be able to impart. He had told her she was slipping, but Samson hadn’t bothered to close his curtains when they last video-called. The trees in his backyard, the position of the sun, the fucking mailbox in the background that she hadn’t had a chance to magnify yet—all of it gave her more information than Samson realized.

She touched the screen.

Samson’s face popped on-screen. His left eyebrow was split down the middle by a wicked slice. Blood poured from it like a fountain. His nose was broken and swelling. He was sitting in a car or truck. She could hear the sound of a train in the background.

“How’s it going, Joyce?” Samson asked, his voice tremulous.

“You’re not looking so good, Sam.”

“Yeah, well, I’m surprised you’re still breathing.”

“What do you want Sam?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I miscalculated my association with The Underground. Seems like they want to tie up all their loose ends. What you say we rendezvous and try to get out of the Lower 48?” Samson asked. He coughed and a bubble of blood popped in his right nostril.

Joyce studied his face. The hard killer was still there, but now she saw something she had never noticed before: Fear.

“Hey, Samson. Fuck you. And whoever is holding that phone—fuck them, too.”

Joyce ended the connection.


She drove the SUV as far as she could, then left it. Time to head the rest of the way on foot.

Three klicks. Go, go, go.

Joyce ran hard, controlled. Like she’d been trained long before, in another lifetime, to do. Like she’d practiced for this very occasion. Down the mountain, yes, but also along that very fine line between reckless and careful. Between the chance of survival or revenge or maybe both, and a sure-as-shit bleed out in the dirt, a bullet lodged in her brain, the one a long time coming. A bullet earned, no doubt, by the way she’d lived her life, but damned if she was going to make it easier for anybody to cross out her name in a ledger. Twist an ankle, blow out a knee right now, and she’d be the clumsy lamb that tripped and moved itself closer to the slaughter; that laid its head in the lap of the executioner and said: “Left to right and make sure you cut deep.”

As she ran, she listened for boots on the dirt, the whir of drones overhead, the hunt, the chase. Amp her nervous system. Fight or flight. Her mind, though, knew the truth: nothing but the clink of the whiskey bottle against the guns in her bag, her body moving through the trees, her boots scrambling through scrub brush and over rocks and twisted roots, and her short, sharp exhalations. But not for long. There would be more. Boots. Exhalations. Guns. Oh yes, lots of guns. The chase would begin. They would hunt her, despite all the exploded bodies and scattered limbs back at her hideout. Because the Underground was legion, a basket of poisonous snakes. Pull one out, cut off its head, and there was always another that could flash its fangs and sink them into your flesh. Or twenty. Or fifty.

So, do not stop. Do not look back. Do not think.

Three klicks until the cave that wouldn’t show up on any satellite footage, in any drones’ surveillance feeds. An unmarked cave on unmarked land. One with perfect sightlines up the mountain, plenty of food and water and a high-powered sniper rifle with a shit-ton of ammo. Between that, the AR-15 slung over her shoulder and the handguns in the bag, enough for one last stand, surely a death sentence, but the opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory. At least a way to help as many Underground motherfuckers find the white light at the end of the tunnel before she did.

Also, just outside the cave, hidden under loose branches and a camo tarp, a dirt bike perfect for the terrain, to ride the winding, sinuous single-track trail along the ridge that they’d never find on a map. It wouldn’t get her very far, but maybe it’d be far enough to give her some breathing room, provide her options. Samson’s whereabouts could be tracked, his hideout discovered. Maybe the last thing the Underground ever expected was for her to show up there and save the asshole who’d marked her for death. Yeah, maybe. Or maybe Samson was already dead and deservedly so. She’d get drunk off his whiskey and reminisce about the good times they never had.

But that decision was later. Now it was time to keep running. Head up, scan. Don’t trip. Keep the legs moving. Do not stop. Do not look back. Do not think.

Joyce estimated two klicks to go now.

Her lungs burned.


It wasn’t just training that caused her to stop well before the entrance of the cave. The leg that had been stitched up in the grungy motel room in Kandahar had reported in for duty. The visible scars were small. But with tools less professional than what the average quilter used, stitching the muscles and tendons back together had left a knot that spasmed at inconvenient moments. Like now.

Breathing deep, Joyce emptied her mind and made herself relax. This enforced zen served two purposes. First, her fingers were able to soothe the cramp. Second, and far more important, it quieted her pounding heart and let her take in her surroundings.

Developing situational awareness had been hard for her. During the endless training, she’d taken everything from paintballs to the face to live rounds between her feet before she understood that all the information she needed was there if she was just willing to watch and listen.

There it was.

The murmuration of starlings headed to roost in the trees around the mouth of the cave split and veered off in two directions, their annoyed squawks interrupting the quiet on the mountain. She’d chosen that cave because of this built-in alarm system. Concentrating on the point of the disturbance, she couldn’t see the drone, but she could track the void in the flock.


The Underground wouldn’t be flying junk. They’d have the best government gear that could be obtained from both the front- and back-door sources. That bird would be packing a camera that could pick up the fact she was two weeks overdue in touching up her roots. Joyce gave silent thanks that she’d grabbed a dark shirt instead of the white one that’d been on the top of the laundry stack. As long as she stayed still, the drone pilot was unlikely to see her while she considered her options.

She was tracing an alternate path to the cave when she heard it. It wasn’t ominous on its face: Just a small animal scurrying through the thick ground cover. But she’d spent enough time in the woods to know that type of sound didn’t occur alone. There’d also be the sound of whatever had startled the creature.

Her stomach cratered at the soft noises. The scrape of a FastTech buckle on a tree. The faint rattle of gear not quite secured to a belt or tactical vest. They were close. There’d been a time in her life when those sounds were familiar and comforting. They meant her people were close by and had her back.

These weren’t her people. She wasn’t even sure if she had people anymore.

Their approach was to the right and below her on the steep hillside. Swiveling her head without moving her body, she evaluated her hiding place. She’d chosen it because the fallen log gave her a place to sit while she tended her leg. However, her natural caution had made sure she was hidden by a thicket of bushes.

One of her trainers had made her wear a bracelet covered in bells on her gun hand. Every tinkle earned her a hard slap on the back of her head until she mastered unholstering a pistol without making a sound. This weapon wasn’t suppressed, so using it was a nuclear option. She’d only get one chance.

There were two of them. Professionals. They alternated their approach, the one in the back on overwatch as his partner advanced to the next tree and sliced the pie before signaling them forward.

Joyce willed them past her. When engaging a superior force, the element of surprise and tactical advantage usually belonged to whoever was behind their prey. The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse got the cheese.

Her breath caught when the operative with the loose buckle looked in her direction. Her finger eased toward the trigger guard when he raised his hand. She didn’t exhale until he gestured the second man toward the next tree.

Maybe not so professional after all.

Now that she knew they were there, the team sounded like a circus as they crept toward the cave. She waited until the noise faded and she was relatively sure they didn’t have backup.

It gave her enough time to throw together Plan B. It had to work, she didn’t have anything else in reserve.


Paul Antonio Perez was having problems moving through the woods.

Those were definitely explosions, he thought. Right? He’d never heard an explosion before, outside of the movies at least, but the reverberations through the ground and temporary deafness in his ears seemed like all the logical signs of an explosion. Or was it a television? Maybe Joyce was watching some movie full of violence and had installed a kickass sound system that made the ground shake.

Paul realized he was nodding at that thought, not because it was true, but because he wanted it to be true. It was safer than real-life explosions. Better than going to the cabin and seeing it blown to bits because of some accident with a furnace or heater. The idea of finding Joyce’s body brought nausea’s sour taste high to his throat. Still, he couldn’t move.

It wasn’t that Paul was a coward. He’d just never had to be brave.

But he needed to be brave right now, because it was hard to find buyers in the Sierra Nevadas. And he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about how Joyce had given him an extra ten thousand for this cabin, as easily as tossing scraps of paper into a garbage can. Paul Antonio Perez was the best realtor for miles, after all, and not only because he was the only realtor for miles. He was a hustler, constantly keeping an eye on his clients long after they’d bought, chatting with them about their properties, making sure they told friends and families about the beauty and seclusion. Joyce hadn’t given him the impression, after he sold her the cabin and she abruptly left his office, that she had friends or family… but the stack of cash had left a different impression.

He’d been thinking about those thousands of dollars in crisp bills ever since she’d casually dropped them on the table. Ever since another property had come up that she might be interested in.

“I’m not a businessman,” Paul said, in a low voice. “I’m a business, man.” He repeated it three more times, until the nerves settled in his stomach and strength returned to his arms and legs. He couldn’t remember where he’d heard the mantra, maybe one of his kids on a Skype call after his ex-wife had taken his family somewhere “with people and things and stuff.” But he liked the saying, imagined it referred to him, repeated it like a good luck charm during negotiations.

Paul emerged into the cabin’s clearing.


The next thing he knew, his knees were on the ground, making indents in the soft dirt. His palms were next. His mouth opened and he looked down—right into a torn, bloodied face. A dead man.

He scrambled backward, landing on his butt. Frozen.

Someone said: “First time seeing something like this?”

Paul wasn’t sure where the voice was coming from. He was too distracted, his thoughts struggling like a bird trying to fly in a tornado. He remembered reading or hearing some theory about seeing God, and how the sight was so unimaginable, so grand and overwhelming, that the human mind couldn’t comprehend it at first… and when you finally reached comprehension, that was when you reached the entrance of heaven. That was when you saw the truth. When the mind cleared.

But his mind couldn’t clear. There was too much to see.

“Don’t move. There might be more.”

Paul still didn’t know where the voice was coming from.

“More what?” he asked.

“Landmines.” The voice was so calm and self-assured that Paul felt himself succumbing to it. Like a child melting into his father’s arms.

He still couldn’t look at the ravaged land, at the torn bodies and small lakes of blood, but he could look at the voice and who it belonged to. A man standing in one of the craters, blood pooled around his boots. Dark jeans. A black windbreaker. Mustache.

Gun holstered on his hip.

“Landmines?” Paul repeated the word like he’d never heard it before.

“Landmines,” the man confirmed. “So I’d advise you not to come any closer. Stay where you are. You’ll be safe.”

Those last three words thrummed into Paul like a finger plucking a soothing harp string. You’ll be safe.

And it occurred to Paul who these men must be. The police. FBI. Some type of authority brought by those landmines, here because of the explosions. Brought because something bad had happened outside of the rules of men and nature and they were going to make it right.

“Is Joyce okay?” Paul asked.

“I think so,” the man said.

It seemed like there was more to say, but the man stayed quiet. As if he was waiting for Paul to speak.

“I sold her the cabin,” Paul said. “It didn’t have any landmines.”

The man smiled, and Paul realized the ridiculousness of what he’d said. Like the time his father had taken him hunting, and he’d watched his father shoot a deer in the head and the deer had dropped and Paul had asked, Is he dead?

“No, Paul,” the man said. “I didn’t think it did.”

“You know my name? How?”

“You told us you sold her the cabin. You’re Paul Antonio Perez.” The man frowned. “I thought you’d be Spanish.”

“I’m white,” Paul clarified. “Very white.” He added that in case these men were government agents, ICE raiding homes, searching for desperate immigrants hiding out in the mountains. He’d seen those types of agents before.

The man smiled again. “Very white?”

“My dad was from Spain, but my mom was from here. But my dad was legal. I’m legal. Very legal.”

The man ignored that. “You never talked to Joyce, I take it? After you sold her this cabin?”

“I never did,” Paul said. “And I pay all my taxes.”

“She’s not in the cabin, and she’s not here…” the man spread his arms, “on the land. Do you know where she might have gone?”

Paul thought hard, wanting to give this man the correct answer. “Maybe Benny’s?”

“She’s not at Benny’s,” the man said, his voice certain. “Is there somewhere else?”

“The Roses live down the way. Maybe she went to their place?”

“Maybe,” the man agreed, and that made Paul happy. “But I’m thinking of somewhere more remote.”

Paul scrunched his face, hoping the man would see how deep in thought he was. “I’ve got it!” he cried. “The caves.”

“Anywhere else, Paul?”

“I can’t think…I can’t think of anywhere else. I’m sorry.”

The mustached man’s voice was reassuring. He was bald, Paul noticed. Bald with a mustache. Weird marks on his head, like stains, as if his hair had been burnt off. “It’s okay, Paul. You don’t have to apologize. You’ve been helpful.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Paul asked. “Can I draw you a map to the caves?”

“We have maps.”

“We?” Paul asked, and that’s when he noticed the gray shapes slipping past him, like wolves or ghosts emerging from the darkening woods. But these were men, men stepping carefully from crater to crater.

“Who are they?” Paul asked. “Who are you? You didn’t tell me your name.”

He looked hard at the man, but couldn’t get a grasp on his face. If he had to describe this man to a police artist later, Paul realized, he wouldn’t know where to start. All he could see was the man’s mustache, the discoloration on his head. The gun in his hand.

The gun that had been holstered a moment before.

“Paul,” the man said. “Please, don’t move.”

And that was the flicker, the spark that finally flared that quivering match inside Paul.

Brought him to life.

“Paul,” the man warned.

The men, so many men. Maybe dozens. All trickling in from the woods, stepping slowly, searching the ground.

“Who are you?” Paul asked. “You’re not ICE.”

Someone laughed.

“I used to be,” someone else said.

The mustached man shot a dark look in that direction.

Paul’s legs tensed. These men weren’t with the government. They weren’t authorities. They weren’t here for good. There was something wrong here. Something bad, evil. And a feeling rose in Paul that he hadn’t expected, one he’d never felt before.

A sense of bravery, almost incredulous bravery, the kind that he wished he’d had when his wife and children had left and he stood on the porch watching them leave; when he’d sold that one cabin to that young, trusting couple, and couldn’t bring himself to tell them about the faulty pipes; when he’d watched ICE agents guiding a crying child to a van while other agents took the child’s scared parents to a car; when the Skype calls ended and his son looked at him, like he wanted Paul to say something else, and Paul just logged off.

Paul turned and ran and the men shouted behind him, and Paul remembered that deer’s head right before his father had pulled the trigger, the deer turning toward them and looking as if it knew what was going to happen, as if it had seen Paul’s young face, seen Paul not stopping his father, not telling his father that he didn’t want him to shoot the deer. That he wanted him to stop.

Paul remembered the jerk of the deer’s head as he ran, as his left foot touched the soft dirt, as the men shouted, as his other foot touched something hard and his body lifted and incredible pain tore through him. He seemed to have risen in the air, so high that he was far above the cabin and the clearing, far above the mustached man and the other men and their guns, so high in the air that Paul realized, with a moment of sadness and clarity before his thoughts finally ended, that he would never again touch the ground.


The story continues right here tomorrow.