The Not-So-Perfect Crime
Midnight Quatermass 002
I left this a little later than intended, but also figured this would be a semi-regular project so was a little surprised, albeit delighted, that some of you have been prodding me for a second newsletter. Well here it is. Was it worth the wait? Let’s see.
I’m not interested in creating deadlines for myself, but it does seem newsletter readers expect these things weekly - ye gads - so I’ll try and ensure that no more than ten days pass between outings. The last week got away from me completely as I’m in the noodling stage on a couple of projects. This tends to be the fun/easy bit before you have to make everything start making sense plus its easy to pick up and put down when you have two kids who see you as a semi-sentient climbing frame. So while its been a busy month all I have to show for it are a couple of new folders filled with scraps that I now have to kick into shape.
Luckily the Stormking team have been cracking on regardless. Dave has finished the inks on our Weird West story for October and Janice is hard at work on the lettering, while Pete adds the colour that’ll bring the whole thing to life. I’m very happy with it. Not sure if I mentioned what it’s called last time:
Once I hit publish on this, I’ve gotta get two more comic book scripts out before I can start the puke draft on a new feature script. That’ll be the first one since lockdown kicked in. What a fucking year.
“Calling all cars, calling all cars. Be on the lookout for a stolen bank, approximately eleven feet tall, blue and white...”
Fuck, I loved George Segal. Since news of his death broke, I’ve seen a lot of folk championing THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1966) and for good reason. It’s great movie and you should definitely check it out if you haven’t seen it. But for me it was his output in the seventies that really left a mark. His better movies from say 1972 to ‘77 are THE TERMINAL MAN, CALIFORNIA SPLIT, FUN WITH DICK AND JANE and the highly underrated ROLLERCOASTER (1977). The last one features one of my favourite Segal characters and I may well circle back to talk about it in another newsletter. Instead I want to mention my very favourite movie of his even though he’s playing second fiddle to Robert Redford. THE HOT ROCK (1972). This one kinda lives in my head, but I end up watching it every 18 months or so regardless.
So a few things. No one has seen this thing or talks about it and that’s incredible to me. Peter Yates (look him up) directed it and William Goldman wrote the screenplay to what became a cool 70s caper movie that seems to be way more of an influence on Soderbergh’s OCEAN’S 11 than the Sinatra original.
See what I mean? It’s such a fun little movie. If there’s a problem with it, it’s just that Redford is playing Redford. Now that actually makes it a better movie overall, but the lead character, an eternal underdog by the name of Dortmunder, is at heart a lot more akin to Segal if you read the novels by Donald E Westlake. Westlake is a huge deal to me. Right up there with Elmore Leonard - and like Leonard, Hollywood has a hard-on for his material, but never quite pulls it off. He even tackled a few screenplays himself - love THE GRIFTERS (1990)? That’s Westlake.
He’s arguably better known under the pen-name Richard Stark and a series of books featuring his professional thief, Parker. To date, Parker has been played by Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, Peter Coyote, Mel Gibson and Jason Statham. If Jack Reacher was a bad guy, he’d be Parker. If he had incredibly bad luck and a gang of loveable but incompetent pals he’d be John Dortmunder. In fact ‘The Hot Rock’ started out as a Parker novel, but the heist kept getting away from him and a new character was born.
Redford is a little too self assured to nail him, but no one but me would complain about that. There’s a scene in the movie where Segal is trying to retrieve a priceless gem from a museum at night and accidentally gets trapped inside the display case in the process. That’s more in the spirit of Dortmunder. And while this is my favourite of the character’s onscreen outings, George C Scott, Christopher Lambert and Martin Lawrence have all taken a crack so far. He even turns up in a Gary Coleman vehicle. If this is all new to you then your life now has a cool little space that needs filling. But start with the movie from ‘72 because it’ll have you from the moment Segal picks Redford up from prison. RIP.
“I’d just got to that stage where I realised everyone around me was an idiot…”
My friends Steve and Aniko recently started a podcast and for some reason asked me to kick things off with them. I think I waffled happily for a few hours keeping them up to 2am or thereabouts, but have no fear - Steve is a genius and whittled my nonsense down to something approaching bareable. People seem to dig it. They also interviewed my collaborator Chandra Chan in the second episode - we did a fun little horror story together a few Halloweens ago about teenagers who accidentally summon a witch via their podcast. That sprung from another 2am conversation I’d had with Steve where we threw around the idea that magic has always been real but hidden all around us, because no one ever realised that spells had to be sung. Neat idea.
Steve went the extra mile on that one and wrote the song for the book and then went to the trouble of making a video for it too. Talented fucker.
“Daddy, let’s go to the stars!”
My two-year-old is skipping her naps and also not crazy about going to bed at a reasonable hour which means I generally start work around midnight. I can’t complain because having a little human running around in a constant state of wonder and excitement makes this old malcontent very happy despite undermining my usual state of pessimism regarding humanity. Recently she’s become very interested in looking up.
Watch the skies…
Before the kids arrived and pulled us even further south to the land of endless parks and playgrounds we used to live near Bermondsey Square in South London . We were lucky to be surrounded by a lot of cool places at the top of Bermondsey Street itself, but one of my favourite hangouts was a little bar and cinema combo. I miss it. So I apocalypsed it. See what you think. The bar was called:
The square is dark, apart for the bar on the corner, which is almost dark.
Faint light somewhere inside flickers against the black. The world is very, very quiet, until the door is slowly pulled open with a metallic shudder from the outside. A shape enters and then stops, waiting for the door to close again. Two deep red dots of light appear in the darkness and then blink. As if in answer, two digital green lights gently begin to glow and a beat later the lights around the bar slowly come back to life.
Samantha takes in her surroundings as the red pupils of her eyes fade in the artificial light. T-shirt and jeans, no jacket, despite the chill. She looks maybe 25. She’s not. Her head is cocked slightly to one side, cat-like, as she stares at the owner of the two green eyes stood behind the bar.
BART is of undetermined age. If he was human, he’d look thirty maybe, but he’s not. A nasty crack on one side of his head throbs with a dull blue glow. She has no idea how long this android has been stood there in the darkness waiting for someone to open the door, but she knows it’s been a long while.
Her voice is a surprise to both of them.
He blinks and smiles. “Hello.”
Samantha visibly relaxes. She’s always liked machines. Besides she wasn’t expecting conversation tonight, and finds the prospect is a pleasant surprise. She pulls a stool up to the bar and sits down. BART, for his part, has adopted the classic laid-back posture of bartender. As he speaks he begins to clean a glass.
He asks: “Can I get you a drink?” His voice sounds good to her ears, but her eyes narrow as she considers him.
“I didn’t think there were any of you left. Not active anyway.”
“I’ve been careful.”
She gestures to the side of her own head in the exact spot where his own face is cracked and bleeding light. “Not that careful.”
He blinks. “Can I get you a drink?”
“We’ll get to that. You’re not surprised to see me? It must have been a long time between customers.”
He tilts his head slightly to run the calculation.
“Four years, six months, two weeks...”
She holds up her hand.
“Stow the Star Trek crap.”
He looks back at her and something like a sigh escapes his throat.
“It’s been... a while.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” she says, leaning back and gesturing for him to continue.
“The building next door has a solar array. I charge during the day.”
Her smile is beautiful, cold.
“We have a lot in common.”
This throws him.
“You’re... solar powered as well?”
The smile lets a little laugh escape.
“Actually, just the opposite.”
From beneath her top lip two razor-sharp incisors POP into view. White switchblades against the red cut of her mouth.
BART blinks. Twice. Moves his head slightly. Running the calculation.
“Mythological revenants, who subsist by feeding on the blood of the living. In folkloric tales...”
She holds her hand up. “Enough with the Wikipedia bollocks.”
She likes the incredulous tone of his voice now he’s off script.
“You don’t exist.”
“I often think the exact same thing.” She nods to the stacked bottles behind him and the mirror that runs the length of the bar. “Take a look.”
He turns and looks at himself reflected there. Alone.
Something like genuine surprise crosses his face as he turns back to her. No, not surprise. Awe maybe.
“You do exist.”
She mimes a little ta-da!
“For now.” She runs a hand through her hair. “I’ll take that drink now.”
“The bar has no blood.”
She nods at the array of drinks in front of the mirror.
“Bourbon will do in a pinch.”
Happy to help at last, BART smiles warmly and gestures to a cluster of bottles.
She shakes her head and cuts him off.
“Doesn’t matter. I only need a shot. It’s been awhile and I have no idea what my system will make of it to be honest. It’s been a real long while.”
BART grabs a shot glass and a bottle.
“How did you survive what happened?”
“It’s what we do. Plague, war, natural disaster. We hunker down and wait it out. Eventually
humanity dusts itself off. Usually.”
He places the glass in front of her and pours the shot.
“This time they really did a number on themselves,” she continues. “I’ve been asleep mostly. Every time I wake, I expect to see a plane in the sky or to hear a car. Jesus. I really miss music. Fuck it.”
She raises the glass to him. “One for the road.”
As she moves the glass to her lips, his hand holds hers and stops her from drinking.
“Maybe you shouldn’t. If you don’t know how your body’s going to react... besides...”
She pulls her hand away and downs the shot, pulls a face and drops the empty glass to the counter.
“Damn. Turns out I still hate that shit. Besides what?”
He takes the glass and looks over her shoulder. The darkness outside is starting to fade.
“It’s almost dawn.”
She reaches out and runs her hand across the break in his skin.
“What is it with you? You’re programmed to care about your customers?”
“I’m a bartender. We’re good at reading people.”
“I’m not people, Bart.”
“I think you’re planning to kill yourself.
She’s genuinely impressed with him.
“Intuitive bastard. You’re wasted here...”
He waits. She sighs and gestures for another shot. He pours as she spills.
“Food’s gone. This is the first conversation I’ve had in three years and, more than anything, I’m fucking bored. Christ, am I bored.”
She picks up the glass and looks at it. Light glints there now. The square behind her is more discernible.
“Almost dawn. The last time I felt the sun on my skin was April 1st 1917 in New York City. Hell of a year, Bart.”
She drinks the shot in one quick movement, but this time lets the glass linger at her lips as he speaks.
“We can discuss 1917. We can discuss New York City. I am damaged, but my data files are intact. Why do you call me, Bart?”
She puts the glass down and leans forward to wipe at the dust from his chest. The single word, BART, now revealed fully: E&O BARTENDER #39.
“Ah... my mistake. Thanks for the drink, 39”.
She slides from the stool and walks slowly towards the door. Outside, the dark shapes are now revealed to be an overturned and burnt out car and the remains of a collapsed building. The sun is crawling up behind it, its rays finding gaps in the shattered brickwork.
“Wait. I can’t let you...”
She’s amused as he moves around from behind the bar.
“It’s okay, dude. You can ignore your prime directive or whatever's flashing on and off in that cracked melon of yours. I’m not human.”
He’s ignoring her, dragging his shattered left leg and placing himself between her and the door.
“Neither am I. You can’t do this. Listen...”
She’s looking at him sadly.
“Don’t do this, Bart. You’re all messed up and I’m way stronger than I look.”
An orange glow lights deep in his chest as music fills the air of the dead bar. It hits her hard. Samantha’s smile is real. Warm. Her eyes are wet.
“Scott Joplin was an African-American composer and pianist...”
She reaches out and places a finger to his lips.
“Shush, Wikipedia. Listen.”
She closes her eyes. BART looks at her as she cries.
“I can’t go on.”
“You must go on.”
She opens her eyes, half smiling. The music carries her back.
“Are you quoting fucking Beckett at me? Well here’s something you don’t know, Wikipedia. I met Beckett. And he was a...”
Something clicks inside her.
“Wait. Is that what this is about? You think because I’ve been around awhile I’m as important as that half-ass encyclopaedia you’ve got stored in your cracked melon? It’s gone, dude. It’s all gone.”
She walks past him and begins to open the door.
“I’m sorry, but playing some old recording that you...”
“It’s not a recording.”
She turns to look at him. A sliver of sunlight on the floor catches her boot and begins to climb her leg and then up her shirt.
“It’s a radio broadcast.”
Her turn to blink. Sunlight catches her face for the first time in over a century. Sizzles.
“Son of a bitch!”
She falls back onto her ass into the shade of the bar. She watches the broken down robot as he secures the door and pulls the dusty blinds down over the window. His chest beats again as the last bars of The Entertainer fade. A human voice with a broad Irish accent fills the room.
“My name is James Murphy. There are currently 557 souls here in the Foxrock shelter. We have contacted four other shelters so far. Coordinates...”
“Turn it off.” Her turn to run the numbers.
The silence returns, but something in his leg is humming irregularly.
“You hurt your leg.”
BART holds the shattered leg until the humming fades away and nods to the very corner of the bar.
“He attacked me.”
She gets up and walks to the corner and looks down at the almost mummified corpse and the broken baseball bat.
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to...”
She turns her back on it and moves towards him. He blinks. She runs a finger over his damaged face. She now has a faint red line in the same place on her own cheek.
“Fuck him. This can be fixed. The leg too. You’ll need it to keep up.”
She jumps over the bar in a single fluid movement. BART, confused, takes her seat and stretches out the broken leg.
She’s looking under the bar. suddenly excited.
“Like I said we have a lot in common. We’ll charge by day, move at night. Couple of days to the coast, a boat and then...”
“You’ll eat them?
She looks genuinely shocked as she places an empty shot glass in front of him.
“I’m not a pig. We’ll help them get on their feet. All that stuff in your head will finally come in handy. Plus I’ve learned a thing or two over the years. They’ll thrive.”
She messily pours bourbon over the two glasses, passes him one and spills even more as she clinks hers into his.
“And then I’ll eat them.”
The vampire downs her drink as the robot looks at his. They’re both smiling now.
Outside morning has found the square but with the blinds down it’s still mostly dark inside the
bar apart for four faint glows.
Two red. And two green.
I like those two. We may see them again if you dig this outing. Remember that these stories at most get a second draft out of me so please excuse that they’re a tad long and a little rough round the edges. I’m still finding my stride in this space and I’m also using you to throw work at that would normally just sit on a hard drive somewhere. I’m just glad it finds a home and a couple hundred readers or so.
I’m grateful to everyone who used this link to buy me a coffee following the last newsletter. I actually converted it into much needed midnight pizza so thank-you. In return here’s a tip for a cool little French action flick that’s about to take off. It seems to be playing on Netflix in most regions and they just green-lit a sequel. Shot in 38 days you can just tell they had fun making this one. The trailer is great, but you may wanna skip it as its designed to make you think you’re gonna get The French and The Furious which it really isn’t. It’s worth watching for the police station scene alone so go watch it before Jason Statham gets his hands on the remake.
In an early draft of this newsletter I started talking about some of my favourite police station take-down scenes. It’s one of those weird movie buttons that when pushed makes me lean forward and grin. I think its the pure audacity involved when a character or characters enter a place that is designed to mean GAME OVER and instead hit LEVEL UP. I have a bunch of these buttons, but I think I’ll talk a little more about this particular one in 003.
Seeing as we all seem to be finally sitting in line for vaccinations I thought I’d finish up with a jab of Serj straight into your punching arm.
Her name is Aleksandra Bortich.
Right. Ten days. Less even. See you then.