A couple of years ago when I was collecting stories for the Dave Hooper anthology, I got this great little short from a guy called Jason. And then I got another one. And another one. And another. It just went on and on like the bombing of Dresden.
Except Jason’s word bombs were really good. All up he sent me seven pieces, and I’m pretty sure I used them all.
It’s been satisfying to watch him graduate to his own story worlds. His first novel, THE HARD MAN, dropped this week and he was kind enough to let me have an extract which you can read below.
In any prison population there is a hierarchy. Most of the crims inside form groups along racial lines. The Aussies all hang together so do the Asians and the Muslims. If there are bikers inside, they hang in their own groups—often with other biker groups that they have treaties with.
Normally, the biggest group runs the jail, arrangements are made to be sure that it’s not a free-for-all every day. If you’re not connected, you’re fair game. Most people decide to get connected when they realise how hard it is in here. A few over estimate their abilities and end up bleeding from one orifice or another and then they make a decision.
The management structure of these groups is pretty simple. It’s normally the craziest, the toughest or the smartest crim that ends up in charge. Mostly it’s the smartest one, and the toughest and craziest tend towards middle management which, in this case, is in charge of smacking people senseless. In here, Lepke runs the show. It’s not his real name but he couldn’t resist using Murder Incorporated as a gang name and it just went from there.
I’m not connected. I have the sort of reputation that can scare smart people off, so I have a level of respect. Before I found my true talents as an armed robber, I used to fight in the cage. Twenty-two wins, no losses, and I can still walk. It mightn’t sound like much but if you knew cage fighting, it’s fucking amazing. This isn’t that UFC stuff you see on TV, this is bare-knuckle anything goes. Two guys walk into a chain mesh enclosure and punch the crap out of each other until one stops moving. Pretty simple and pretty brutal.
The problem with prison gangs is they get too powerful. Then they can make the guards’ lives hell. The boss ends up like some sort of king. I’ve even heard of some of them getting consulted on official jail-house decisions to make sure the prisoners will all go along with them. Lepke is that kind of boss. The head guard is too scared to come on the ward anymore because Lepke’s threatened him. They tried to transfer Lepke but no one else wanted him. All they want is a quiet life—the guards, the wardens, the decision-makers. But in return for a favour, I think I can help out a little.
I finish talking to Uncle John and I get the guard to detour me before I go back to the cells. I need a favour and, in here, you only get favours when you give them. A quick chat and a handshake, and the deal is done.
Lepke keeps his ‘office’ at the end of the rec room. He’s set up the best armchair and a small desk and thinks he’s hot shit. His two bodyguards are on either side of the chair, chuckling away. It’s not like he needs bodyguards in here but he likes the affectation of it. They top out at about six foot six, and have the sort of build you only get from steroid abuse and long hours in the prison gym. The prisoners call them the Gorilla Bros; they think of it as a comment on their physique not their intellect, which makes the truth of it self-evident.
As I approach Lepke, both the Gorilla Bros stand up and block my way, trying to look as menacing as possible.
‘Can we help…?’ And that is about as far as he gets before, I hit him straight in the throat with a right hand. My fingers are open and push right into the windpipe. It’s a sucker shot and he should have been expecting it. As I mentioned before, complacency can be a killer. The other Gorilla is caught a little off guard. They don’t really expect to be attacked, which is what I was planning on. His knees are straight, all the weight forward. Idiot. He still hasn’t moved when my heel hits the side of his knee—the crack is all the confirmation I need. I pull his head forward as he falls, and drive my knee into his nose. He falls flat and doesn’t move, unlike the other one who is rolling around and would be screaming if he could get any breath. Lepke starts to run, but there is nowhere for him to go.
The other prisoners are all moving away. They know this would be trouble for anyone who doesn’t help, so they need to be anywhere else but here. The only flaw in the plan is if someone wants to score points and tries to step in and help Lepke. No one does. Dropping the Gorilla Bros like I did was meant to deter anyone who was thinking about lending a hand. It seems to work.
I grab Lepke by the hair as he tries to run past. He likes to wear it long—no idea why, it’s just an invitation to hurt him. The brief was simple. Put him off the floor for as long as possible and ruin any credibility when he gets back. I just bash his head into the doorframe until he stops moving. The final touch is when I drape him over the unconscious Gorilla Brother so it looks as if he‘s sucking his dick. It’s the little touches that mean a lot.
The screws charge in after that, and I am hard up against the wall with a face full of capsicum spray and plastic cuffs on. They are pretty rough until I get out of sight, then it was all water bottles and eyewash. The cell in solitary even has a double thickness mattress and they send in fish and chips as a thank you. It made the wait easier.
Four weeks later, the parole comes through with time off for good behaviour being recommended by a grateful friend.
The old man buys the store before I get out.
5 Responses to ‘[Extract] The Hard Man, by Jason Cox’
I usually think of fantasy novels as epic. Epic in in scope, epic in length, epic in the sheer fucking tonnages of old growth forest felled to provide their thousands of pages. I’ve got all George RR Martin’s GoT books in hard back on the shelf somewhere behind me, and on quiet nights I can hear the hardwood groaning under their weight.
I was surprised then to discover that Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint is a genuinely slim volume, in hardback running to just over two hundred pages. The hobbit’s tea party at the start of LoTR felt longer than that. (Much longer. I never actually got past it).
And yet Cole has written such a densely packed story that I can’t imagine it running longer. It would be too much to bear. Every word, every line seems honed to strike a critical blow at the reader. Nothing is wasted and there is nothing that could be reasonably added to improve this novel. Not even ‘splosions. It seemed as I read it so perfectly crafted that I had to keep stopping to breathe and control my seething jealousy. I read one chapter a day, usually at lunch time, because that was all I could handle. The characters are drawn so vividly, their concerns so intimate, and the peril into which they pass seems so dire that it would fuck with my head if I read any more than that in one day, or if I made the mistake of reading it too late in the evening.
You don’t want to lay your head down with this story playing out behind your eyes.
So what happens?
The story is told by Heloise, a village girl in a grim medieval theocracy where warrior priests violently enforce a rigid stratification of the settled order. In fact they call themselves the Order. For a backward, priest ridden primitive hellhole, there’s a lot going on here. I won’t give away any spoilers, because I’m not a monster, but I can say that the Order’s unchallenged power derives from their historic role of protecting the realm from monsters and demons.
Except nobody’s actually seen any for so long that a rational man might begin to wonder whether they ever existed, or whether its just a dodge dreamed up by these scripture addled psychopaths of the unholy Order.
I will confess myself somewhat fucking shocked to discover the truth of it. Cole has great fun misdirecting, misleading and generally fucking with his readers. The world he has created here is beautifully realised. The characters live, and you really, really, really end up invested in Heloise and her terrible dilemma.
I’m just stepping outside to buy the next novel in the series. I may be gone for some time.
Seriously thinking of getting this game simply because the open world design looks very similar to what I'll have to do with Zero Day Code (minus zombies).
For those not up with current events, ZDC is my End-of-the-World Patreon project that just got picked up by Audible. It's The Stand, without a supernatural meta story. (Or Days Gone without the running dead).
The Herald today has a fascinating obit for an old digger, "Barry Petersen was an Australian army captain who led top secret CIA operations in the highlands during the Vietnam War."
He wasn't the model for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. (That was arguably US army Colonel Davd Hackworth) but like Kurtz "he got too close to the natives and the CIA wanted him out, dead or alive."
Petersen got on well with the Montagnard, particularly the Rade tribe who lived around the highland city of Ban Me Thuot. He learnt their language, honoured their customs and traditions, including drinking the potent rice wine. He paid them well with CIA money and armed them with CIA-supplied guns.
Even though he was operating alone in the mountains, Petersen was so successful that within a year he had more than 1000 Montagnard militia fighters using the same guerrilla tactics as the Viet Cong – ambush the enemy, hit hard and disappear into the jungle.
The communists learnt to go around Petersen’s territory rather than take him on. They put a price on Petersen’s head, but his militia kept a close guard on him.
He was extremely popular with his men. They declared the Australian officer a demi-god, and showered him with honoured brass armbands denoting him a tribal chief.
At his home he kept a pet sun bear and a baby leopard he’d been given by one of his men. Petersen’s militia became known as the Tiger Men because of the striped jungle camouflage uniforms he’d obtained from the CIA warehouse. He had snarling tiger head badges made for their berets to make the various Montagnard tribes in his units feel united.
But after almost two years in the highlands with the Montagnard tribesmen, Petersen’s relations with the CIA soured. Some CIA agents thought Petersen was becoming too successful, and getting too close to the Montagnard.
After that, things did not go well. They didn't send Martin Sheen after him, but his command was terminated, with prejdice.
I took in this film on the weekend with Jane. It was good. That's really all the review you need, but this being the internet, fapping wankbadgers require I do more.
I'll fess up that I didn't know the Captain Marvel character before watching this film. I did read a long, explanatory thread on the Twitz, by the author Wesley Chu as I recall, who laid out the entire fascinating history while standing in a car park after a date.
His date abandoned him, but at least I got a great thread to read. Long story short, Captain Marvel go caught up in an IP dispute between US and UK comic publishers who finally swapped the character's gender and name to avoid a copyright suit.
Perfect. I love it.
Having no investment the canon I came at the movie without preconceptions. Honestly, I found the first Act a little confusing. But it quickly became obvious why. Brie Larson's character Carol Danvers is still discovering her own history and her imperfect memory is far from a reliable narrator. If you find yourself thinking, "What the fuck is going on here?" it's because the writers and producers WANT you to be thinking exactly that.
For fans of the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, the main narrative sequence predates the events of last year's Infinity War by about twenty years. Larson's character, who undergoes a number of name changes as she recovers her memories and personal history (but is never once called Captain Marvel) arrives on Earth in the 1990s, literally dropping into a Blockbuster Video store. Even back then, it's looking dilapidated and I did enjoy this piece of proactive retrofuturist nostalgia.
Speaking of which, Agents Coulson and Fury are much younger and largely unknown to each other. They haven't yet gone full to Men in Black mode, and Danver's arrival is a large part of the reason why they do, and why Fury eventually sets up the Avengers Initiative.
You dont need to know the plot. There's an alien war, it spill's over here. A lot of preconceptions are set up and turned over.
My bottom line is I enjoyed it hugely. Larson really makes the story and character arc work. By the end of the movie she is effectively Superman with a double X chromosome. Seriously, she would kick the Man of Steel's shiny ass. She'll be a great addition to the roster when the Avengers return.