Month: June 2014

The Bazaar: Chapter 14

El Jefe

“Where are we going?” Fulton asked.

“We were set up.”

“So where are we going?”

“Shut up and walk,” Emily said.

Fulton was not a military expert. Still, he got the distinct feeling this excursion was not grounded in sound military judgment. Presumably it was not best practice in the paramilitary services industry to go wandering around enemy territory with minimal armament, negligible intelligence and a bewildered civilian in tow.

He flipped on his lens.

Searching for network… materialized along his peripheral vision in smoldering orange script. Apparently they’d wandered into one of those remote corners of the world where wireless coverage never evolved beyond the most primitive 2G networks. A bit like discovering a lost jungle civilization.

Fulton switched back to Mark I eyeball.

No maps. No communication. All he had was Emily pulling him along in her wake like a bit of interstellar flotsam or jetsam caught in a black hole’s gravitational pull. “You know I understand it’s not my place to try and run things. You’re the boss and all. But I’m wondering why it is we’re moving deeper into the slum when the deal is done. Shouldn’t we go home? What more are we looking for?”

“The one who set us up,” Emily said.

“I didn’t know that was part of the job.”

“Job’s changed.”

Perfect, Fulton thought, she is a psychopath.

Everything around him seemed to be decaying. Cracked, uneven pavement turned to bald dirt in places. Sagging buildings leaned into each other like drunks struggling to support one another. Fulton always thought of slums as shantytowns dominated by huts built out of scrounged corrugated metal. Here everything was prefab concrete. The government poured the neighborhood into existence a century ago and never bothered with any upkeep.

Also missing were people. Normal people, at least.

Instead they had a handful of surly, malnourished young men lurking on corners and at the ends of alleys. Some smoked cigarettes. Others fiddled with mobile phones. All of them stared as Emily and Fulton hurtled deeper into the slum.

“Lookouts,” she explained. “You have to prove yourself before the cartels will jump you in.”

Fulton had only the vaguest idea of the cartel hierarchy. He’d spent the flight down reading everything he could find on the present state of affairs in the Free Trade Zone. All together the cartels controlled about seventy percent of the country. There were maybe a dozen of them all together. The Ninos were the most powerful of the bunch. They’d evolved as the financial arm of some generic left-wing insurgency: the something or other liberation front. As time passed and the Ninos made money they outgrew the movement that spawned them. Now no one, not even the security analysts who ostensibly made careers out of knowing such things, seemed to have any idea where the insurgency ended and the cartel began.

Fulton passed a boy younger than the others by a wide margin. No more than thirteen. He held up a mobile handset and snapped a photo. The flash lit up a broad swath of street. The boy tapped at the handset for a moment then slid the phone back in his pocket.

It was plain to Fulton that the lookouts functioned as a homegrown intelligence network. They snapped photos and sent/posted them to a central location. A cartel “analyst” could then track arrivals as they moved through the slum. A fairly elegant workaround for poor network coverage — crowd-sourced intelligence.

“These paparazzi don’t worry you?” Fulton asked.

“This whole area is a neutral zone. No one cartel can do any kind of violence without the others’ approval, unless it’s a clear case of self defense. There’s a lot of money to be made here. They don’t want it turning into a war zone.”

“That didn’t stop them earlier.”

“That wasn’t a cartel hit,” Emily said.

“Do you have any evidence for that theory or are we just, you know, going with your gut?”

“Which is more likely? That all dozen-plus cartels sanctioned a hit on short notice or that some independent operator is involved?”

The principle of Occam’s Razor in action. Always begin with the most logical explanation. Fulton gave up on talking sense. Emily’s mind was clearly made up. She was not much of a conversationalist. Also he was getting winded.

Eventually they stopped at another casino. Fulton could tell it was a casino from the pink neon sign someone hung in the window to advertise the fact. Otherwise he might have mistaken it for another crumbling, nondescript slum building.

The casino in the HO EL was a showpiece for the guests’ benefit, to make it seem as if they might plausibly have shown up for something other than sex with the hotel’s complement of used-up hookers. This, on the other hand, was little more than a concrete box with steel bars over the windows. It was the kind of place bank accounts went to die: a black hole for cash where the house edge extended well beyond the science of probability.

The place was infested with degenerate gamblers.

They sat hunched over video slot machines at the bar, huddled round banged-up table games with faded felt and scarred wood finish. They looked more like vagrants than players, as if they were stuck on the streets in the dead of winter and all they had for warmth were these brokedown table games.

Degenerate gamblers didn’t care about winning or losing. Studies showed they actually sought out worse odds, to enhance the rush when they won. Psychologically they were no different than the gaunt, drug-addled women working the HO EL, only the gambler’s high came from his own brain, watching that little white ball skitter around the track or waiting for the dealer to flip his hole card. This was their smack, their cocaine, their amphetamine.

They were so high they did not so much as look sideways at Emily. Not when she stepped through the door, not as she sauntered between the tables with Fulton in tow – not even when she removed her submachine gun from inside her coat, pointed it straight up and fired a burst into the ceiling.

Only then did they stagger for the exits, lurching like zombies.

A man emerged from a back room with a pistol.

Emily shot him through the chest.

Again time did that funny thing where it seemed to stretch out. Time stretched, bent and curved, though Fulton knew all too well this was really nothing more than elementary physiology, the physical effect of the same adrenaline rush the fleeing gamblers craved so badly.

Jefe?” Emily said. She kept her weapon trained on the door to the back room.

A male head poked out into the doorway. Immediately he took a burst to the face. Another instant and he was nothing but a sack of skin and bones with blood pooling round his head.

They found Jefe (whoever Jefe was supposed to be) in the back room. Here the walls were papered over with naked women of every race, color and creed, dominated by a life-sized Arab model wearing nothing but a headscarf. Elaborate henna tattoos ran the length of the her arms and legs.

In the center of the room Jefe cowered beneath a card table piled high with local currency.

He wasn’t much to look at. A short, simple-looking man wearing a t-shirt and jeans. If Emily hadn’t killed two people to get here Fulton would have pegged him for a backroom poker dealer skimming tips. Here, cowering before him (Emily, really), was the banality of evil. He wore a monocle over one eye – the poor man’s substitute for a proper chipset. Tiny bits of light flickered across its lens. Text and images in miniature.

“Up,” Emily said.

Jefe crawled out from beneath the table. He struggled to one knee then stood. The man was even less imposing upright. He stood maybe as tall as Emily and only slightly more built. He had dark, beady eyes that flitted all over the place, from Fulton to Emily then all around the room and back again.

Cocaine in action, Fulton thought. He recognized the twitchy eyes from Reese’s binges.

“Remember me?” Emily asked.

Jefe cracked a lopsided smile, exposing half a mouth full of stained, crooked teeth.

Perfect, Fulton thought, another crazy person. The smile, too, reminded Fulton of Reese, who was almost certainly crazy, and the thought of someone as crazy as Reese raised in a culture of institutionalized violence set his spine tingling.

“You sold us out,” Emily said.

Jefe just shrugged.

“Who put out the hit?”

Here Jefe laughed.

Fulton expected Emily to shoot him through the kneecap like she’d done to that girl Lela earlier. She traced the length of his body with the gun barrel (up, down, side to side) looking for the perfect place to strike. The barrel kept returning to Jefe‘s stomach.

It took hours to bleed out through the stomach.

Jefe clearly underestimated her. Who wouldn’t, growing up in a culture where women had all the social rights and privileges of patio furniture? So he continued grinning like a moron despite the fact Emily had just shot two of his flunkies to pieces from across the building.

Sirens kicked on in the distance.

These aren’t our cops. Emily’s earlier words echoed inside Fulton’s head.

He hadn’t the slightest idea what the cops would do if they broke down the door to find him and Emily standing over a corpse. This Jefe chap was hardly a pillar of the community, but there was a good chance he supplemented their salaries. Fulton doubted very much the MPs would let him and Emily walk with the State Department to sort out the paperwork. This was the clean solution to the problem of neutral ground. No single cartel would have to take responsibility for killing the gringos, and the whole gang would get a PR victory (“Contractors arrested after bloody shootout;” “AEGIS not above law South of the Border”).

Heavy vehicles trundled down the pavement.

Doors slammed.

Footsteps scurried, making scratch-scratch-scratch noises against the pavement.

And just as Fulton expected a platoon of half-crazed Latino marines to burst into the room with guns drawn, Emily lowered her weapon.

“Juan Rodriguez Castellano, a.k.a El Jefe, a.k.a El Fuchs, with the powers invested in me as a paramilitary contractor employed by your government, I am placing you under arrest for facilitation of black market commerce, illegal possession of firearms and profiting from unlicensed games of chance.”

Advertisements

Evil never looked so good

Black Sunday movie posterMario Bava’s Black Sunday is regarded as one of the most influential horror films of all time. It’s the H.P. Lovecraft of gothic horror movies. Its look and feel have inspired legions of imitators, derivatives and spiritual descendants.

Netflix has been recommending this movie to me for a while now, but I didn’t take the plunge until I read Dave’s review at DVD Infatuation. His view?

From the opening sequence, where we witness Asa’s execution (which also features the film’s most graphic scene: the Mask of Satan, with several long spikes attached to the back of it, being hammered onto the poor girl’s face), it’s easy to see why Black Sunday is considered a classic of the horror genre.

There is nothing complicated about this movie. It opens with an accused vampire/witch, Moldavian Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), being condemned to death by her brother. Because Asa is an eeeevil,* unrepentant harpy, she curses her brother and all her descendants before beseeching The Prince of Darkness for assistance. The Prince of Darkness answers her call with a wicked rain storm, and the peasants are unable to burn her at the stake. Why they can’t just burn her when the weather breaks is anyone’s guess.

In any event the Inquisition buries Asa in the family crypt, where she waits to exact revenge from the beyond the grave.

Sure enough, a pair of bumbling doctors on their way to a conference [INSERT JOKE] bring Asa back to life. Thirsty Asa promptly sets her sights on the lithe neck of her great-great-grandniece Katia (also played by Steele). Mayhem ensues.

Narrative complexity is not Black Sunday’s strong suit. The movie is built on strong visuals. It uses its monochrome palette to maximum effect in portraying its bleak, moody setting. Francis Ford Coppola found Black Sunday so visually striking that he recreated some of the shots in his own Dracula adaptation. This is a fantastic example of the atmosphere a skilled director can create with limited resources. I found quality even more prominent coming on the heels of the latest Godzilla movie.

In terms of acting, Barbara Steele’s dual roles steal the show. Asa is of course more fun to watch than Katia (when hasn’t pure eeeevil been more fun than naive virtue?) but Steele is convincing in both roles.

Director Mario Bava ended up as something of a one-hit wonder. Black Sunday was his directorial debut. Nothing else he made matched its critical or box office success. Black Sabbath (also available on Netflix) was probably the closest he came to recapturing the magic before his death in 1980.

* Sometimes one “e” is just not enough.

The Bazaar: Chapter 13

Bride of Frankenstein

Emily had a recurring nightmare.

‏In it she walked barefoot through an overgrown cemetery,‭ ‬wearing a silk nightgown of a style that was already out of fashion a hundred years ago.‭ ‬Some real‭ ‬Bride of Frankenstein‭ ‬shit.‭ ‬It was a moonless night. Chinese lanterns were strung all through the trees.‭ ‬They cast a soft,‭ ‬reddish glow over the graves.

‏A cabana bar stood amid the headstones.‭

The bartender grinned broadly. He offered her a martini glass full of blood.‭ ‬Instead of an olive it had a human eyeball skewered on a toothpick.

‏Emily backed away from the glass and the grinning bartender,‭ ‬further and further till she fell into an open grave,‭ ‬into the arms of‭ ‬her mother’s mummified corpse.‭ ‬The more she struggled in her dead mother’s grasp the tighter the corpse squeezed,‭ ‬all the while staring her down with empty eye sockets,‭ ‬its jaw twisted into a silent,‭ ‬never-ending scream.‭

Dead again‭ ‬Number Eleven‭! ‬the sarge intoned. The sorriest,‭ ‬most pathetic excuse for a death I’ve seen in twenty-nine years of service to Our Great Nation.‭ ‬Except maybe that bag of bones you’re too busy cuddling to keep your fucking head in the game.

‏Now,‭ ‬back in reality,‭ ‬that voice seemed to follow her through the slum streets,‭ ‬reverberating off concrete block and corrugated metal.‭

Do you plan to die a snivelling worm or a human being,‭ ‬Number Eleven‭? ‬Like a soldier or a street-walking junkie‭? ‬Have some dignity,‭ ‬Number Eleven.‭ ‬Self-re-fucking-spect.‭ ‬Or did you prefer sucking dick full-time‭?

Moment of clarity

The absolute, hands-down, best part of any writing project is the moment when everything suddenly snaps into focus and falls into place, and the piece begins to write itself. For me, the longer the piece, the longer it takes for this moment to arrive.

I am happy to report that I got there today on my latest short story project. Recently I revisited an old horror story of mine that never went anywhere, “Sweet Home.” It was a case of right character, right premise but wrong plot.  Now I’ve finally dropped this character into a worthy story and everything clicked. This afternoon I banged out 1,500 words in under 2 hours.

Incidentally, “Sweet Home” now has the new working title of “Mirror, Mirror.” Yes, I know there is a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode with that title and no, the two don’t have anything to do with one another. The title will probably change again before I’m finished.

Crash and burn!

Sad to report that “State of Grace” crashed and burned at Bewildering Stories. On the plus side it was not a form rejection. I actually got some great editorial feedback on the piece. There is also a promotional option available for “Vampire Brides from Planet Hell,” which I plan to explore in more depth later this week. So all is not lost. They did ask me if I had anything else for them to consider (which I appreciated). There’s just nothing else ready to go out the door at the moment.

I intend to go back through the story with the editor’s comments in mind. With any luck I can improve the piece and get it accepted somewhere else.

The Bazaar: Chapter 12

Dead Zone

The pair disappeared off the face of the Earth.

At first Faisal couldn’t quite believe it. He flipped from the map overlay on his lens back to the monitors and from the monitors to the three-dimensional, street-level rendering of the casino district. He swooped along the deserted streets like a wraith.

Nothing.

Not so much as a whispered hint of a signal.

Hardly anything could cause a disappearance so quickly and completely. The first and most obvious explanation on this very short list was death. If the professor got killed his chip would go dark. That would be the end of that. But Faisal was certain they had not been killed in the hotel. He watched on CCTV as one thug took a burst through the wall, then as the merc killed the lady thug, first maiming her and then finishing the job, cleanly and professionally (so cleanly and professionally Faisal found himself wishing it were her people who’d hired them and not the scruffy, smelly, hamfisted assortment of narco-terrorist-neo-Marxist-revolutionary-VIPs gathered round his workstation).

That meant the pair had slipped into a dead zone. Probably crossed into some ancient 2G network that couldn’t handle any kind of volume. Certainly not the output from a modern chipset.

The fact there could be a dead zone at all shocked him. A little signal disruption from a buried mineral deposit he could understand. But an actual data dead zone? In this day and age?

It was fucking medieval.

Behind him the VIPs got loud. Speaking turned to shouting, shouting to shoving until bodyguards stepped in to break things up. The physical scuffle stopped. The shouting continued. Faisal didn’t bother cuing up Espanol Made Easy. He could give a shit about the narcos’ bullshit macho posturing. It was Don Carlos’ job to charm clients.

There was no group on earth you couldn’t break up into a hundred or more parts, all wanting different things. The reason security analysts did a shitty job anticipating threats was they were trained to look for meaning. As if you could apply specific motives to entire groups.

Hence violence was most effective when it was brutal and senseless.

Faisal learned that as a kid being beaten senseless by a half-dozen bearded, galabiya-clad Salafist types for some imagined affront to Islam. At no point had anyone stopped to wonder whether they might be on the same, nominal “side,” how his father took a bullet from an Israeli sniper in Lebanon or that Faisal’s hobby happened to be disrupting the Israeli missile defense network.

Palestinian Brotherhood was joke.

Ditto for Arab Brotherhood.

He sincerely hoped the Mossad had popped every last one of the motherfuckers, or the IAF had dumped a whole shitload of white phosphorous on them. That was a sufficiently horrible death: chemicals melting through your flesh all the way to the bone.

Behind him Don Carlos Carlos waded into the melee. Paolo the Intrepid Translator yipped at his side, helping with the local dialect. As soon as Don Carlos opened his mouth the narcos quit shouting. He spoke at length in measured, reasonable Spanish.

The usual speech, no doubt. Faisal could recite it from memory.

Why are you so upset? Do you see me upset? Shouldn’t I be the one upset? You could kill me and bury me in the jungle/desert/snow (as applicable) and no one would ever find me. I should be the one upset. I am the one at risk. Is it the money? What money? Your ten percent deposit? What loss is that when you are out here printing money?

According to Don Carlos everyone was printing money: Hamas, Syrian ultra-fundies, the Iranians. To hear Don Carlos tell it you’d think they worked in international finance. On this job of course the money-printing was more pronounced than usual. All narcos cared about was money. It made them a hell of a lot easier to deal with than the ultra-fundies, who insisted on keeping everything halal as possible (no porn sites for smokescreens, for example, and no pork rinds for snacks at your terminal).

No, greed was easy.

What Don Carlos really ought to tell them was that if they were worried about their deposit Faisal could make it back pumping and dumping penny stocks. Simple enough with bots. Set a squad of AIs to work on the right social networks and voila: riskless profit.

In the early days it was all simple funding ops: pump and dump schemes and other market manipulations. Eventually Faisal graduated to ripping off online casinos with brute force attacks. He and Don Carlos could have made a good living that way. The problem was it was too easy, too dependable. Boring. And that was no way to live. Get stuck in a racket like that and the world would pass you by. You’d fall off the watch lists. INTERPOL would replace you with someone who’d blown up a coffee shop somewhere. Faisal found it depressing as shit, it being so easy to end up irrelevant.

Hence this latest venture.

By now the narco VIPs had quieted down, like children listening to a bedtime story.

Faisal sighed.

Nothing now but to wait for the merc and the nutty professor to pop back on the grid. He flipped on his lens and drilled down into the guts of his tracker code. There he carved out a space for an augmented physiological alarm routine. When they popped back on the grid Faisal would get a feeling like someone was standing behind him, breathing down his neck.