Havoc Swims Jaded? What the hell kind of title is that? What does it mean? It sounds vaguely...threatening, doesn't it?
Havoc musters another lucky 13 short stories into the seventh collection of same by David J. Schow, who has won awards for this sort of behavior.
Havoc reigns, as a Hallowe'en Horror Night goes "horribly" wrong, and its featured creatures turn out to be the real thing. Meanwhile, a slimy Lovecraftian monstrosity deals with its daily routine of punching a clock to raise, well, havoc.
Havoc ensues, as a time-displaced trio of friends find themselves lost in a trackless desert zone where there are no "signposts up ahead" at twilight. As your friendly TV remote control displays disturbing new functions. As changing your body image becomes as simple as donning a zip-up human suit.
Havoc cries forth the ghosts of the dogs of war as the Berlin Wall falls, in the novella-length "Dismantling Fortress Architecture."
These and other dark tales of modern disturbance await the pleasure of your discomfiture. You will find, as Peter Straub said, that "Here, all of Schow's glittering weapons are sharper than ever before."
But what does Havoc Swims Jaded mean, exactly?
You'll just have to read the entire book to puzzle that one out for yourself.
Sounds vaguely...threatening, doesn't it?
Limited: 150 signed numbered copies with bonus chapbook
Trade: Fully cloth-bound hardcover
Table of Contents:
- "Front Matter"
- "The Absolute Last of the Ultra-Spooky, Super-Scary Hallowe'en Horror Nights"
- "Expanding Your Capabilities Using Frame/Shift™ Mode"
- "The Five Sisters: A Fable"
- "Plot Twist"
- "Size Nothing"
- "The Thing Too Hideous to Describe"
- "Wake-Up Call"
- "Dismantling Fortress Architecture"
- "Scoop Versus Leadman"
- "The Pyre and Others"
- "What Happened with Margaret"
From Booklist (Starred Review):
"This is flat-out exhilarating reading, the kind that Robert Bloch, whom Schow admires, never wrote enough of. On the basis of these stories, if the pulps were still around, Schow would be their king."
From Publishers Weekly
"Like 'The Narrative of Dr. Shackle and Mr. Lye,' an invented tale of horror described in one of this book’s 13 stories, the contents of Schow's latest collection (after Zombie Jam) seesaw between 'elbow-jabbing one-liners and almost clinically detached slaughter and corpse disposal.' Most unfold events that are grim and ghastly, but never so bad that Schow can't tease a thread of graveyard humor out of their horrors... The darkly funny 'Obsequy' suggests that having lived a dead-end life is good preparation for returning from the grave as a zombie. In all, this is a solid and imaginatively varied outing from one of horror's most dependable writers."
Size Nothing by David J. Schow
Megan used her own key to enter the condo she and Conrad had shared for the past three years.
She adjusted her suit--needlessly--in a little wiggle-to-fit motion she never tired of seeing in the mirror. Self-reflection, for Megan, usually meant running the Checklist, and she remained unabashedly proud of the way she had invested her recent bonus, a byproduct of an overdue (to her mind) promotion. She possessed mile-high legs (in Gerbe thigh-hugging stay-ups of 100% sheer silk) and pampered feet (in Blahnik ankle-strap stilettos); the outfit was a typically cunning Ferragamo slut-cut, emphasizing her neckline (the bra was a celadon plunge demi by Chantelle) and a thoroughbred rise of throat and nape.
All the way from toes (tasteful mocha gloss) to hair (natural ash-blonde in a page-boy cut of deadly efficiency), she deemed herself impressive enough to steal Conrad’s breath today. Even better, not a mote of her was artificial. No tucks or laser tightening, no silicone, no botox, no wrinkle-frying, no ab or calf implants of gel or plastic. Urban trend wackos had been known to glop on anti-aging cream made of baby foreskins, the cells cultivated like bacteria in a petri dish. Some people would smear anything on their faces...for a hundred and twenty-five bucks a dose.
Conrad was running late thanks to Homicide. He was working a serial whose quirk was to index victims based on a specific tattoo design--a certain dermagraphic done by a certain artist during a certain timeframe--which looked like a combination of a Chinese ideogram and a flying bird. It had become popular in the way high-end labels bought importance or conferred status; other tattoo shops sometimes bootlegged it for persistent customers. It was the sort of adornment teen trend-mongers usually acquired before graduation, in a lemming-like assault on needle boutiques, most often imprinted on the small of the back or the nape of the neck. The perpetrator currently eluding Conrad’s citywide search-and-bag had started collecting originals with a scalpel; more often than not, the victims died as part of the acquisition. The playbook was the work log of the original artist. Conrad had a copy of it, and he and his crew were running all possible variants.
Megan had once borne that exact design, a Marion Kurten original, but she’d had it removed before all the media fuss. Marion Kurten (who, like John Wayne, had been male despite his name) had died seven years ago. Hence, his originals had become collector’s items...which had attracted the notice of a very dangerous collector, or so they said with much manufactured earnestness, at six and eleven.
Her skin was flawless, now. Devoid of badly deployed ink; bereft of piercings acquired in the white heat of adolescence or the rebellious stupidity of impulse. Even her eyes were clear of the mileage of the past. A trim Size Zero with catalogue model poise, high-breasted yet not overripe, a gaze that could melt the psyche of either sex to slag. She admired herself in the mirror a bit before throwing on some casual little nothings intended to help Conrad’s glands stand to attention.
She did not quite anticipate the expression on Conrad’s face, when he came through the door, late, with inarguably perfect excuses. He was his job.
His face contracted, from open and friendly to guarded and suspicious, in less time than it took her to stand up to greet him. His hand went out to distance them, open-palmed, a cautionary move calling time out. He spoke like a cop, not her lover.
“Whoa--wait--who are--are you a friend of Megan’s?” He looked around for a third party he could recognize.
“Very droll, Connie,” she said. “It’s me. Look close.”
He shook his head. “You don’t know Megan? Than it’s time for you to tell me who you are and what you’re doing here.”
He called Megan’s name and checked open doorways, all business, as though playing to an invisible camera. “How did you get in here? This is a security building.”
“I used my key. Our key.”
“Where did you get a key?” He wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t wearing the kidding face.
She huffed out a sigh. It was that way; so be it. “You gave it to me April 29th, two years ago, same day we had a late dinner after you got off work, and we were in an Italian restaurant, and when you leaned over to pick up your napkin, your gun fell out of the holster and hit the floor and scared the shit out of everybody, except Enrico the manager, who knew you were a cop. Good enough?”
“There’s no way you can know that. Did Megan tell you that whole story?”
“I am Megan, you dolt! I am her; she is me--can’t you tell from the way I’m about to start yelling?” She hoped she appeared suitably put-upon, but she was still more tickled than angry. This was kinda fun.
“Oh, pardon me,” said Conrad, indicating her with a sweep of his hand, up-down, to indicate the evidence before him. “It must be the light.” He stood and scrutinized her, using up heartbeats, mostly to level his breathing. “Nope. It’s not the light. It’s you. You are apparently a crazy person. Trespassing.”
“Don’t get mad. I just changed a few things.”
“Look, I hate to sound like a TV show, but I’m a police--”
“You want to search me?” she cut in, brightly, feeling herself up as preamble.
“Stop it. Look at me and pay attention.” He was actually--unbelievably, incredibly--flashing his shield. “I am a detective. I am a real, live, very tired detective. And you are an intruder in my house. And nothing you’re saying is making a whit of sense, and I need a few answers.”
“God, you are talking like a TV show.”
“And you’re talking detainment, if this keeps up.” He opened his jacket, left-right. “See? Gun. Cuffs. Little card with Miranda rights. Am I smiling?”
“The tattoo collector guy is getting you down, huh, babe?”
Megan always called him babe when she was trying for sympathy. For the mystery woman to use the same tone, identical voice, was just unnerving. Conrad felt like a man trying to fight off a soporific drug. “How do you know about--?” He stopped himself. “Never mind.”
“It’s me,” she said. “Me, me, me. Let me just tell you about--”
He overrode her. “No. Not interested. Can you please just get out of here? I’ll trust you didn’t steal anything.” He looked around anyway, spot-checking the contents of his abode.
She seemed to chew this notion for a bit, then shot him a coy, sidelong hypno-gaze. “Why, look--I seem to have forgotten my underwear.”
“Tell me these are just perfect.” She shrugged easily, spaghetti straps dropping, and modeled her breasts for him, her smooth, gracile hands gliding around, perfect nails leaving tiny blush wakes. “Totally real, not fake, warm and alive. Touch me.”
“I don’t know what’s going on, but--”
“Come on, Connie. You work too hard, and I’m wet. See? Let’s discuss this like madly rutting animals.”
“No. This is a trick. A setup. Megan always rags me about looking at other women, and now she’s set up some kind of stupid test.” It was their oldest argument: Did commitment preclude looking, appreciation, so long as it was not fancy? Were people supposed to pretend to deny their wiring? Would that not be a greater lie?
“I do not ‘rag’ you,” she said, firing off one of her executive expressions of disapproval--slightly pursed lips; mildly creased brow, eyes slitted with glee. “I’m kidding when I say that, most of the time. Jesus Christ, lighten up.”
Conrad still was not sure whether he was angry or scared. “Stop talking like you’re her, because you’re not, and I’m not going for this. You lighten up, lady.”
She was smiling too broadly, enjoying his confusion. “I’m not me, right? I’m not Megan? So now I get to run trivia to prove it? Okay: the last time we had sex was two and a half weeks ago. You were crisping around the edges from your investigation. I made you shower and shave and then I practically had to rape you, but once you got going, it was a gold medal event. You fell halfway off the bed as though you’d just been exorcised, then you said ‘that’s better,’ and we both nearly choked from laughing. You did the little boy voice. I did the pig noise. We played submarine in the bubble bath. Dive, dive!”
Conrad averted his eyes, fighting an incipient blush, paranoid about what ripe chat Megan might have confided to this stranger.
She shook her head. “Same deal, honey. Look at you. You’re all freaked out and you need to get laid. No lay-er and no lay-ee; I prefer to think of it as a collaboration. Two weeks plus; hell, I need to get laid. Come on, babe, test drive this chassis at no obligation! Pleeeease--I’ll give you a lolly.” She stepped toward him, out of the sheer wrap, which fell away in a diaphanous spiral.
He took a compensating step backward, and despite his denial, looked up to meet her steady, amused gaze. It was Megan talking, all right, but it wasn’t Megan walking, and it wasn’t a remote-controlled robot. Megan was a brunette, five-seven, feline cheekbones, tented upper lip, chin dimple, heavy but dramatic brows, 32-D cup size, prominent thick nipples, small hands and wide dancer feet, tiny snubbed toes, a scatter of pigment on her left shoulder, navel piercing...in a blacked-out room, he could find her by touch. Megan’s eyes were the color of strong coffee (with a slight Asian cast), and as Conrad looked into the eyes of the woman before him, the slow awe of his realization dropped his jaw and hit him like a delayed attack of shellshock.
“You went to the Rejuvenation Center, didn’t you?” His mind could not help but run deduction chains, and he sat down awkwardly on the arm of the sofa, as though pushed. “You bought it with your bonus.”
“You’re not going to ask me where my navel ring went?” she said, having expected a quiz. “You’re pulling such long hours on this murder case thing, and the opportunity presented itself. It’s my body, after all.”
She was daring him to resume their second-oldest argument--the one about what rights come with a relationship. Who orders who. When the line is crossed. How personal privacy becomes poisonous intrigue. Where the boundaries are. What the fuck it all means when you try to add two people together, instead of subtracting one from the other.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he said. “Before, I mean.”
“I don’t have to tell you everything. If I did, nothing would ever be a surprise.”
It was her; he knew it was her; he knew she had not told him because he hated the damned Rejuvenation Center--a flesh-processing fast foodery rapidly burgeoning into a nationwide franchise of in-and-out clinics that all represented another big migraine for law enforcement. People like the Tattoo Collector could remain elusive, particularly if they could slip into a whole new skin as easily as donning a glove. This was all strictly regulated, of course, in regard to fingerprints, retinal scans, and identity (after all, tax collectors were the first to demand assurances), but the popularity of the procedures involved had instantly boomed far beyond the ability of legislation to watchdog and supervise. Gray areas were inevitable, and a lot of people had advantaged good timing to slip through the cracks provided.
Basically, the Rejuvenation Center carved away what you did not like, and used the tissue as raw material to construct better bodies on a cellular level, after a lot of screening and cultivation and skin-farming. Big bones were whittled down. Your own body image problems, therefore, became some future client’s salvation. Redundant organs, such as lungs or kidneys, were “centered”--reduced to one and stuck in the middle--in order to promote thinner, more efficient bodies. Fat was redistributed; excess fat was sterilized, processed, and recycled. Conrad had read that speed healing had reduced recovery and adaptation to the equivalent of a visit to a tanning salon.
In sum, it was no more grotesque a proposition than toupees or breast augmentation had been, way back when. It was something everybody talked about, but only “other people” took the plunge. Vain people. Insecure people.
Conrad knew it was Megan talking, yet it was not Megan, not anymore.
She fired off the mommy tone, another weapon in her arsenal. “You don’t like my surprise and it’s made you all nervous. I understand, babe. But I love my new body and now I want you to love it, too.” She touched him for the first time, and he recoiled; almost a flinch.
“Prove it,” he said.
He was drawing a line and daring her to cross it, knowing that Megan never backed down from a challenge. There was proof--and then there was proof according to pragmatic, rational, logical Detective Conrad.
“Connie, you once said you’d know it was me in a dark room...so let’s kill the lights.”
“How would I know, now?” he said. “How could I know?” All the rules had morphed while he was not looking.
She humphed. “Cop first, everything else second.” She squared off in a manner almost threatening. “Okay, then--unzip me.”
“Unzip me.” She gathered up her hair and turned her back.
At the base of her skull was a tiny nylon zipper, matched to the skin hue, seamed so as not to bulge. Conrad stared at it in dread.
“Oh, for god’s sake, Connie, just get me started.”
He touched the tiny ring tab. It looked like jewelry. It had body heat. He pulled it slowly down until she could reach it. It did not make a zipper sound. A dark hole silently smiled between her Atlas and Axis vertebrae.
Megan unzipped, and husked her glorious new face. It came free...perfectly. “Only for you,” she said. “You know how I hate showing you things that will upset you.”
Her head--well, the bugeyed glob of meat on top of her neck--glistened, the bare essentials of a skull sweating crimson dew. Her bonework had been planed and trued inward, her organs downsized, her musculature selectively pared away to cuticle thickness, all to provide a custom fit. Usually, revised body measurements required the careful excision of most of the skin. What remained of the subdermal fat layer (sculpted for contour and softness) was visible. From the neck down, her new body clung with surgical glove rigor; above, the vacated masque of her new face hung toward her chest like a deflated rubber balloon, eye slits empty, the mouth a slashed hole. When she moved, the slack face seemed to assume imbecilic expressions, swimming loosely to and fro, almost as though it wanted to provide sinister clown commentary to counterpoint Conrad’s shock, suggesting brain damage, retardation, mockery.
“Air hurts, Connie.” she said. “It’s more comfortable inside. They warned me about exposure to the air. But I’ll do it to prove myself. I’ll do it because I love you and don’t want you to be upset.”
Conrad had seem too many skinned victims, lately, to interpret her revelation as a turn-on. He backed away another step, his left hand seeking his gun almost instinctively. “You’re not Megan,” he said, his voice scared and small.
Now the whole scenario was beginning to annoy her. She would have to chase him, assert herself, assume control. “I am Megan,” she said. “Now, do you want to kiss the new me, or suck face with the inner me? Pick one.” All she had to do was dog him into a corner, no escape, and lay a kiss on him, and he would see, and that would be that.
She came for him and his revulsion was palpable, separating them. When she leaned in, he caught her naked throat in his hands--what was left of her original throat, her shucked neck piling up in folds on her slim shoulders. He squeezed and whatever she had to say next withered in a croaking gargle. His grasp slithered among oily ropes of tendon and a slick sheen of blood that stank like hot iron. He clamped tighter. The esophageal muscles, still weak from stripping, gave way to his thumbs, which oozed between the macramé tangle of ligament and vascular hosing. The delicate airway was a work of precision craft, with no remaining armor that might add girth. It collapsed instantly.
It was the embrace Megan had sought, sort of. Murder, like love, was possessed of its own kind of intimacy. Red from the collarbones up, she sagged in Conrad’s grasp.
Then Conrad slumped, away from her, sitting down hard on the floor as though punched, his back against the sofa, his hands clotted. Then he saw the wine glasses she’d prepared for them, the candles, the prep for a romantic evening. He stared at her unmoving form for an unmeasurable time. What to do now?
It took him another hour to think of the scalpel in his briefcase.
It had been forgotten--or left as a taunting clue--by the Tattoo Collector amid the crime-scene bloodsplatter that had been Victim #7. Conrad carefully considered his next few actions, so that one moment of emotional haste might not eliminate the rest of the moments of his life. His new life, after tonight.
The worst part was re-sheathing her (perfect) face and closing the zipper. He had to reposition her eyes and mouth; her opaque stare accused him of being no good at cosmetology. Artifice required a fine touch, and Conrad had been dealing with murderers.
After carefully cutting a tattoo-sized patch of Megan’s new flesh from her back and consigning it to the disposal, Conrad caught sight of his own gaze, reflected in the kitchen window. People could change almost anything about themselves, these days. He stared into his own eyes and tried, unsuccessfully, to read his future.
- David J. Schow
- United States
- Out of Print