THE AMERICAN SIDE

Tell me of a lost, secret, world-changing technology hidden within mystery inside an enigma wrapped in a riddle at the center of a vast, murderous conspiracy and I’m there. Adding the name Tesla is just icing on the cake. Written by and starring Greg Stuhr (I’ve never heard of him either), it involves a sleazy PI and (you guessed it) a beautiful mystery woman who gets him involved in the conspiracy. A poorly crafted screenplay and a poor choice to play the PI who needs more than Stuhr brings to the role to carry the film. Still, it managed to engage me despite the coincidences and improbabilities. (You might not be so lucky.) The script could have cut the foot chases and spent more time tightening the plot.

THE VAST OF NIGHT

I love this kind of film. It’s a microbudget sci-fi period piece (1958 New Mexico) that breaks no new ground but the dialog and acting and camera work are topnotch. Echoes of “Twilight Zone” and Pontypool abound but not to its detriment. Not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I found this a pure pleasure to watch, to sit back and drink it in. On Prime Video. Do not miss.

UNCUT GEMS

A very unpleasant film about some very unpleasant people. Yeah, maybe Adam Sandler was effective playing against type, but I watch the closing credits asking why did I watch this? Psychopath vs psychopath. Which is okay if there’s some sense of style or humor or irony. I like noir – a lot – but I didn’t like this.

NOTORIOUS (1946)

I can’t believe it took me so long to see this. All the rear projection looks hokey to the modern eye, and Ben Hecht’s script is a bit preposterous, but the cast (Grant, Bergman, Rains) carries it off with aplomb and the lighting and camera angles are jaw-dropping. Hitch was really hitting his stride here.

JAMAICA INN (1939)

Hitch’s last film before leaving for the States. This costume thriller takes place on the Cornish coast, with a porcine Charles Laughton, a beautiful Maureen O’Hara, and Robert Newton, the guy who a decade later would totally own Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island. Not a fave, though. Never came together for me.

CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2019)

I rented this because, really, it couldn’t be as bad as they say, right? And if it is, I should see it because I liked the 2000 version and, why not? Well, it’s not good, but it’s better than Cats. The script is credited solely to Elizabeth banks (her first and only) and goes heavy on the wokeness. This is the first time I’ve ever seen Kristen Stewart. I’ve heard terrible things about her acting but I thought she was pretty good. Definitely seemed to be enjoying herself, despite having to mouth horrible dialogue. Side note: She must be amazingly strong because she can’t weight more than 98 pounds, yet she manages to toss these 200+-pound thugs all over the set. Wow.

CATS

I rented this because, really, it couldn’t be as bad as they say, right? And if it is, I should see it because, well, I like bad movies. I remember seeing the play on Broadway when it opened and found it dull and dumb. The film is duller and dumber – way dumber — and kinda creepy. I lasted 10, maybe 15 minutes. Which earns it a very high FF rating.

Fever Dream… from Hosts

Hosts was written in 2000 and pubbed in 2001.  It involves a virus that becomes sentient with a critical number of infected, forming a hive mind called the Unity that controls the infected.  Like any collective, it needs a continuous supply of converts.  Jack is infected and what follows is a fever-dream sequence triggered by the Lady to show him what the future holds if the virus isn’t stopped.

***

…Jack looks up as the girl in the middle of the store check-out line coughs.  He watches from the rear as people ahead and behind her back away.

“Just a cold,” the girl says, her voice slightly muffled by her surgical mask.

Everyone in the store, including Jack, wears a surgical mask.  Jack loves the style—not only keeps out germs but hides the face.  And the store is packed.  Rumor got out that the place managed to get in a shipment of produce and people are buying up as much as they can carry.  Jack left Gia and Vicky back at his apartment where they’re safe from infection and ventured out alone.  His cart—and it is truly his because he pushed it to the store from home—is loaded with corn and peaches and tomatoes that look like Jersey beefsteaks.  He managed to snag some canned beans and a box of fusilli from the nearly naked shelves as well.

Good haul, he thinks, happy with his finds.  Food shipments are so sporadic these days, what with survivalist groups hijacking trucks for themselves, so you take what you can find.  Looks like Italian on the menu tonight.  Gia can whip of some of her famous red gravy and—

“She’s one of them!” cries a heavy-set woman in a turquoise sari directly behind the girl with the cold, backing farther away from her.  “I saw her pull out the bottom of her mask before she coughed!”

“Just a cold.”  The girl has wide blue eyes and short black hair.  “I swear it’s just a cold.”

“I saw her too,” says the black man behind the saried woman.  “Pulled the mask half way off her face!”

Jack has a feeling he might have seen it too, but only out of the corner of his eye, so he doesn’t say anything.  The girl’s been tagged twice.  A third won’t change her fate.

Sensing where this could be going he angles his cart out of this particular line and backs it toward the rear of another.  But…he passes that and keeps on backing away, edging closer to the exit doors.

The checkout girl is signaling to the deputy but he’s heard the commotion and is already on his way over.  He’s a thin little guy, and in any other situation he might be hesitant, but he’s wearing the tan uniform of a duly deputized NYC militiaman, he’s got a testing kit, and he’s armed.  And his strut says I’m official so don’t mess with me.

“What’s up?”  His mouth is probably set in a grim line but the surgical mask hides it.

The cashier points to the girl.  “They say she coughed outside her mask.  On purpose.”

“Is that so?”  The deputy’s eyes narrow as he reaches for the serology tester clipped to his belt.  “Okay.  Gonna need some of your blood.”

“Just a cold,” the girl says, backing away.

“If that’s all it is, you can go on about your business—after the test.”

Jack, who by now has edged into a corner near the furthest checkout counter, notices how the deputy doesn’t say what happens if it’s not just a cold.

“No!”  The girl rips off her mask.  “No blood test!  We spit on your blood tests!”

Then she charges into the crowd around the cash register and starts spitting—not on the blood test but on people.  Terrified shoppers scream and try to flee but there’s no room to run.  The deputy has his pistol drawn but it’s plain if he shoots he’s going to crease a load of innocent bystanders.

Suddenly Jack sees something flash in the girl’s hand—an old-fashioned straight razor—and knows what’s coming next.  So does everybody else.

“She’s a kamikaze!” someone screams as panic takes charge.

Jack watches the girl ram the point of the blade deep into her throat and rip it sideways.  Then she throws her arms wide, tilts her head back, and begins to spin.  There’s a certain grace to her movements, and it might be a beautiful thing to watch except for the scarlet stream arcing from her throat in a spasming geyser that sprays everyone in a ten-foot circle.

It’s a brief dance.  Her legs falter, her knees buckle, and she collapses to the floor, a crumpled waxen lump centered in a crimson spin painting.

But though the dance is done, the audience is still reacting: The screamers trapped at the row of checkout counters keep pushing back, deeper into the store; those just entering do a quick about-face and rush back to the relative safety of the streets.  Jack, positioned in the no-man’s land between, opts for the street and rolls his laden cart though the swinging doors.  He’ll settle up with the store tomorrow.  Could be an hour, maybe two, before the mess is cleaned up in there.  He wants to get back home.

Six months ago a scene like that would have blown him away.  Now…he feels nothing.  Had the dubious distinction of being on hand for two other kamikaze deaths before today’s, but never this close.  The Hive’s m-o is pretty much the same all over: find a crowded place and try to spread the infection surreptitiously—the cough, the sneeze, smearing a little saliva on vegetables—but if caught, go down in a glorious spray of body fluids.  Pure pragmatism: sacrifice one of their number for the opportunity to infect dozens more.

The Hive is relentlessly pragmatic.  That’s the key to its success.

Half a block from the store he stops and unties his mask; he pulls off his wind breaker and drapes it over the cart.  The November wind slices at him but his flannel shirt blunts its edge.  He removes the Glock from the nylon small-of-the-back holster and positions it in plain sight atop the jacket.  Then he starts moving again.

This gray, sullen, blustery fall day matches the bleakness Jack feels.  He wishes the sun were out—to warm his skin, and maybe even take some of this chill off his soul.  But sunlight would bring out more people—maybe they think it’s healthier, that the extra UV will kill germs—and Jack prefers the streets damn near deserted like this, especially when he’s hauling a load of food.  Even so, his senses are on full alert.

Ahead he sees a familiar face, a nodding acquaintance coming his way.

“Hey,” the guy says with a grin, eyeing Jack’s cart.  No way he can miss the Glock.  “Leave any for me?”

“Plenty,” Jack says.  “But you might want to wait awhile.  A kamikaze did her thing in there.”

“Shit!” the guy says.  “They don’t know when to quit, do they.  They know we’ve got the vaccine.  Why do they keep trying?”

“Just because they’ve got lots of brains doesn’t mean they’re smart.”

The guy doesn’t think this is funny.  Neither does Jack, but it’s better than talking about the rumor that the vaccine isn’t what it was cracked up to be, that it’s been failing all over the country.  What’s left of the US government says these are lies spread by the infected to demoralize the uninfected, but no one knows who to believe.

“Guess I’ll just go down to the store and wait outside till they clean things up.”

Jack waves good-bye and watches him go.  Once he’s sure the guy’s not going to do a spin and jump him from behind, he resumes his walk home.  Knows he’s always been a bit paranoid, but six months ago he’d have kept the Glock holstered and wouldn’t be worried about being jumped for his food.  As the saying goes, you’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you.  And they are.  Oh yes, they are.

As Jack walks along he can feel the threads of the social fabric tearing, parting one by one.

Trust is gone, because anyone, your best and oldest friend, your dearest. closest relative, could be carrying the virus.  Bad enough they’re infected—that’s not their fault—but less than a week after their inoculation they become someone else, someone dead set on infecting you.

Compassion is a memory.  Sure, feel sorry for the victims of the virus—after they’re dead.

Jack doesn’t know about the rest of the country, but the tenuous sense of community that existed around the Upper West Side is atrophying.  You’d think it would be the other way around, a community of the uninfected linking arms and closing ranks against the contaminated.  But not when yesterday’s uninfected ally could be today’s infected enemy.

Jack figures he can extrapolate the local to the national, even to the international, and that means the whole world’s going in the toilet—old social orders fragmenting while a new world order expands, relentlessly, irresistibly, geometrically, a rolling snowball of humanity with an unquestioned singleness of purpose.

Strange mix of feelings roiling through him these days.  He’s spent most of his adult life hiding from the social order, rejecting it, damning it.  But despite its toxicity, now that it’s on the brink of ruin he finds himself rooting for it, hoping it will find a way to hang on.  Because the Hive is even more toxic than the world order it hopes to replace.

Not so much worried about himself—being a ghost in the Hive machine will be more of a challenge than his existence in the American social engine, but he’ll manage it.  His piercing concern is for Gia and Vicky and the jeopardy they face.  They’re not cut out to live in the cracks, and the Hive is too vast and pervasive for Jack ever to defeat on his own.  Hates to admit it, but he needs help to protect the two people he cherishes.  He knows he can’t expect it from Democrats and Republicans, but maybe some genius in the medical establishment will come up with a killer app.

And most daunting is that the deterioration to this state has taken a mere five months.

First the virus mutated into an airborne form, then the original tiny nucleus of the Hive fanned out to all the New York travel hubs—LaGuardia and JFK airports, Penn and Grand Central Stations—to spread the virus.  From there the bug raced across the country and around the world.  Tens of millions were incorporated into the Hive before hardly anyone even realized it existed.  Initially the two parties in congress saw the Hive as a potential constituency and vied with each other to see who could grant it more special rights and entitlements.  But after a majority of the politicians became infected, debate stopped.

By the time most people began to appreciate the enormity of the threat, it was too late.

The CDC’s initial approach to containment was an influenza model, which proved ineffective.  First off, folks with influenza know they’re sick and so do the people around them; secondly, flu victims feel lousy and just want to get better.  For Hive folk the infection’s a party and the more the merrier.

And they were everywhere, contaminating water supplies, infiltrating food processing plants and dairy farms.  People became afraid to eat anything they hadn’t heated to a boil or prepared themselves.

As he pushes along the sidewalks, Jack wonders as he often does about his sister.  Kate exited his life as quickly as she’d entered it.  He searched for her but she stayed on the move, spreading the virus with the rest of the Hive vanguard, and he never caught up with her.  But just last week he tried calling her office in Trenton and learned she was back in practice.  She’d refused to take his call and he’d hung up sick at heart.  He thinks of Kate back in practice as a pediatrician, with trusting parents, fearing their children might become infected, bringing them to her to be vaccinated against the virus.  And Kate making sure if they aren’t infected when they enter her office they damn sure are when they leave.  All it takes is plain saline in the vaccine syringes and a little of the virus on the tongue depressors…

The thought of Kate betraying those children, breaking her oath to do no harm, negating the decent caring person she once was fills Jack with impotent rage.  He wants to hurt, maim, kill, make someone pay, but how do you even a score with a virus?

He wonders if he should take a ride down to Trenton and…do something.  But what?  Put down the fouled thing that used to be his sister?  The old Kate, the real Kate would want him to do that.  Beg him to.

But can he do that?  Take a bead on his own sister—even if she’s not really his sister anymore—and pull the trigger?  Can’t imagine that.

Jack picks up his pace as he nears his block.  Two old cars are parked nose to nose, blocking the near end of the street; he knows two more junkers are similarly situated at the far end—knows because the whole setup was his idea.  Sometime last month he went door to brownstone door talking—usually at a safe distance through windows or from the sidewalk—to neighbors he’d never bothered to meet despite years on the block, planting the idea of the block sealing itself off.  Someone with better people skills picked up the ball and organized the residents, breaking the watch into shifts.  Now no outsider enters the block unless accompanied by a resident.

Jack nods to a guy he knows only as George, standing behind one of the cars with a sawed off twelve gauge resting against a thigh.  As George waves him through, an NYPD blue and white goes by, two cops in the front.  Passenger cop’s gaze lingers on Jack and George, then slides by.  Can’t miss the Glock or the sawed-off, but he doesn’t react.  The tattered remnants of officialdom are no longer worried about armed citizenry—the unseen danger of the virus is a far greater threat to the city.  And besides, not enough police to go around as it is.  They were the Hive’s first target: call the cops out to a domestic dispute, infect them, then form a fifth column within the ranks to infect the rest.  Uninfected cops stayed home until the blood tests were developed.

The vaccine and the blood tests—cheap little home kits, like pregnancy tests—are the final fingers in the dam against the rising tide of the Hive.  If they should fail…

Jack drag-bounces the cart to his third-floor apartment—his fortress islet within the atoll of his closed-off block—and knocks on the door; he has a key but Gia’s so edgy these days he figures it’ll go easier on her nerves if he doesn’t just barge in.

“Oh, Jack!” he hears her say through the door, and he knows she’s got her eye to the peep lens, but he detects a strange note in her voice.  Something’s up.

And when she opens the door and he sees her red eyes and tear-streaked face, he knows it.

“What’s wrong?”

She pulls him inside, leaving the cart in the hall, and closes the door.

“The test!” she sobs.  “Vicky and I—we’re positive!”

Jack’s heart drops.  Gia’s been obsessed with the virus, and rightly so, to the point where she’s been testing the three of them every day.  Jacks been buying kits by the gross, figuring if it gives her peace of mind, then fine, do it twice a day if you want.

But in the back of his mind he’s always dreaded the possibility of this moment: the false positive.

“No.”  His tongue is an arid plain.  “No, that can’t be.  There’s got to be a mistake!”

She’s shaking her head, fresh tears spilling onto her cheeks.  “I just repeated it.  Same result.”

“Then it’s a bad batch.”

“Same batch as yesterday.”

Jack can’t accept this.  He moved them here so he could protect them, keep them safe.  They’ve been under his wing, rarely leaving the apartment.

The sick feeling in his stomach worsens as an appalling thought hits him like a runaway train: Is it my fault?  Did I bring it home?

“Do it again,” he says.  “All three of us this time.”

Gia nods and wipes her eyes.  “Okay.”  She turns and calls, “Vicky!”

“What?” says a little girl’s voice from one of the backrooms.

“Come in here for a minute, okay?”

“But I’m watching a movie!”

“You’ve seen that movie a hundred times already.  Come here just for a second, okay?”

The Parent Trap again?” Jack says, trying to look cheerful as Vicky mopes in.

“And I was just at the good part where they find out they’re sisters!”

“That the nice thing about videos—you can stop them any time and pick up later right where you left off.”

Gia has seated herself at Jack’s rolltop.  “Let me have your finger, Vickie.”

A groan, an eye roll.  “Not again!”

“Come on.  One more time.  Jack’s doing it this time too.”

“Oh, okay.”

She walks over to Gia and presents her finger, flinches as her mother stabs the tip with a microlancet, and allows a drop of blood to be milked onto the circle of absorptive paper in the center of the test kit card.

“There,” Gia says with a smile Jack knows is forced.  “Was that so bad?”

“No.  Can I see my movie now?”

“Sure.”

As Vicky hurries off, sucking her tiny wound, Gia’s trembling fingers squeeze a drop of reagent from its bottle onto the bloodied circle.  She glances at her watch, puts the card aside, and looks up at Jack.

“Your turn.”

Jack allows his finger to be subjected to the same ritual.  Barely feels the prick.  Soon his blood sample is doused in reagent and waiting for ten minutes to pass.

And Gia’s makes three.

The wait feels interminable, with Gia pacing back and forth, rubbing her hands as if scrubbing them, a beautiful young blond Lady MacBeth working at a stubborn stain.  Jack opens his mouth twice to say something, anything to soothe her raw nerves, but can’t think of a damn thing that isn’t lame or inane.

Finally she looks at her watch and says, “Time.”  But she doesn’t move.  “Jack…will you?  I can’t…I just…”

“Sure, Gi.”

Jack steps to the desk, flips the three cards over and, carefully maintaining their sequence, lifts the rear panels.  One by one, the flip side of the absorbent paper is revealed, and around the blood spots on the first and third cards…a blue halo.  Around the second, only a ring of moisture.

Jack closes his eyes and feels the room rock around him.

Can’t be.  This isn’t happening.  Got to be a mistake.  We’ve all been vaccinated, we all eat the same, drink the same, and I’m the one who’s in and out, I’m the one with all the exposure.  It should be me, not them.

He opens his eyes and looks again, begging for a different outcome.  But nothing has changed: two positives flanking a negative.

Gia is staring at him.  “Well?”

Jack swallows.  “Positive.”  His voice is a hoarse rasp.  He quickly gathers up the cards.  “All three.”

“Oh, Jack,” Gia sobs, floating toward him.  “Not you too!”

She flings herself against him and they stand there clinging to each other, Gia weeping, Jack’s throat too tight to speak.

He crumples the test cards in his fist.  Can’t let Gia know.  If she learns he’s negative she’ll blame Vicky’s infection on the only other person the child could have caught it from: her.  She’ll never accept that she could have caught it from Vicky.  Gia will assume all the guilt, and it will crush her.

And Jack’s negative will open a gulf between them—she’ll recede from him, fearing that a kiss, a caress, even a word spoken too close will infect him, and Jack couldn’t bear that, not now, not when she needs him most.

“Christ, I’m so sorry, Gia,” he manages.  “I must have brought it home.”

“But how can that be?  We took every precaution.  And the vaccine…”

“Doesn’t work.  That’s been the word on the street lately.  Now we know it’s true.”

She buries her face against his chest and sobs again.  “Vicky…I can’t bear the thought…”

“I know,” he says, pulling her closer against him and feeling a sob building in his own throat at the thought of Gia and Vicky becoming meat puppets controlled by the Hive.  “I know.”

What now? he asks himself, trying to corral his panicked, skittering thoughts.  What can I do?

He hasn’t heard of anyone beating this infection.  But that doesn’t mean no one ever will.  There’s always a chance for a breakthrough, for a wild card.

Look at me—I should be infected but I’m not.  Maybe that means something.  But how to find out?

Abe.  Abe knows everything.

He releases Gia and looks her in the eye.  “It’s not over.”

“What do you mean?”

“When I was talking to Abe yesterday he mentioned something about a new breakthrough.”

“The days of breakthroughs are gone,” she says dully.

“Gia, if there’s anything in the pipeline, anything at all, Abe will have a line on it.  I’ll call him right now.”

He grabs the cell phone and punches in Abe’s number, something in the past he never would have considered doing, but a lot has changed in five months.  He waits through a dozen rings—Abe doesn’t believe in answering machines—then tries again.  Still no answer.  Abe’s always in this time of day.  Maybe he’s in one of his black, ignore-the-phone moods.  He’s been having more of those lately.

“Looks like I’m going to have to go see him,” Jack says.  He doesn’t want to leave Gia but time is critical.  The fact that they’ve just turned positive means she and Vicky are in the early stages.  If something can be done, the sooner the better.  “I won’t be gone long.  You’ll be okay?”

Gia nods wordlessly.

“Gia,” he says, taking her by the shoulders, “we’re going to beat this.”  And he knows he sounds like a hack actor in a bad soap opera but he can’t stand seeing her like this.  He’s got to give her some hope.  “Have I ever let you down?”

“Jack…” she says, and she sounds so tired, “this is different.  This isn’t something your methods can fix.  The best scientific minds in the world have tackled this and they’ve all come up empty.  Every time they think they have a solution, like the vaccine, the virus mutates.  So what can you do?”

And when she puts it like that, what can he say?  No reason to think he can offer Gia and Vicky a chance when the big brains can’t.  But still he’s undeterred.

“Maybe I suffer from terminal hubris.  And maybe I can’t stand by and just let this happen.  I’ve got to do something.”

He doesn’t say that guilt has pretty much taken him over.  He brought Gia and Vicky here to protect them, but the bug got to them anyway.  So even if it’s not his fault, he feels responsible.

“Then do it,” Gia says, without a hint of enthusiasm, “but don’t expect me to hope, Jack, because as much as I want to, I can’t.  I’m looking at the end of everything I am and you are and whatever we might have been, and the strangulation of everything Vicky could be.”

“We’re not through yet.”

“Yeah, we are.  Our futures end in a few days.  If it was death, I could accept that—at least for myself.  But this is a living death… and…”

Her voice trails off, and her gaze slips off Jack and settles somewhere in space.

Jack has never seen her like this.  What’s happened to her indomitable spirit?  It’s as if the virus has already changed her, reached inside her somehow and snuffed out an essential spark.

He holds her in his arms again and kisses her forehead.  “Don’t write us off.  I’m going over to Abe’s and see what he knows.”  He releases her and backs toward the door.  “I should be back in an hour or so.  I’ll call if I’m going to be any later.  Okay?”

Gia nods absently.  “I’ll be here.  Where else can I go?”

Jack turns at the door and sees her standing in the middle of his front room, looking like a lost soul.  And that’s so un-Gia he has second thoughts about leaving.  But he’s got to see Abe.  If there’s any cause for hope, Abe will know.

Free of the cart this trip, Jack makes good time through the empty streets toward Amsterdam Avenue, not sure if he is fleeing the dark reality of his apartment or running toward a ray of hope.  Soon he is standing before the Isher Sports Shop.  This lights are on inside but the front door is locked.  That’s not right.  He bangs on the glass but Abe doesn’t appear.

Worried now—for years Abe has been a heart attack waiting to happen—Jack pulls out the defunct Visa card he keeps in his wallet for moments like this.  Looks up and down the street, sees no one near enough to matter, and uses it to slip the door’s latch.  Abe’s never devoted much effort to protecting his street-level stock, but it would take a Sherman tank to get into his basement.

“Abe?” he calls as he steps inside, relocking the door behind him.  “Abe, it’s Jack.  You here?”

Silence…and then high-pitched cheeping as something pale blue flutters overhead.  Parabellum, Abe’s parakeet.  Abe always cages the bird when he leaves, so he must be here.

Jack’s apprehension intensifies as he heads for the rear, toward the counter where he and Abe have spent so many hours talking, solving the problems of the world time and again.  And then as he rounds a corner piled high with hockey sticks and the counter hoves into view he stumbles to a halt at sight of all the red—the counter puddled with it, the wall behind splattered.

“No,” Jack whispers.

Gut in a knot, he forces himself forward.  Not Abe.  Can’t be Abe.

But who else’s blood can this be?

He creeps toward the counter, edges around the side, looks behind—

It’s Abe, on his back, white shirt glistening crimson, head cocked at a crazy angle, throat a ragged hole, torn away by a blast from the sawed-off shotgun lying by his knees.

Jack spins away, doubles over, sick.  He doesn’t vomit but wishes he could.  Rage steadies him.  Who did this?  Whoever tried to make this look like a suicide didn’t know Abe, because Abe would never…

After a while Jack straightens, staggers to the back of the store, finds an old tarp, and drapes it over Abe’s body.

The blood…still so wet…couldn’t have happened more than twenty-thirty minutes ago.

If only I’d left a few minutes earlier I might have been here in time to…

And then he sees something on the far corner of the counter.  The square of a virus test kit.  He steps closer.  A used kit…and the blue halo says it’s positive.

Jack sags against the counter.  “Aw, Abe.”

And he understands: Abe saw no hope for himself.  That means Jack will have none to offer Gia and Vicky.

He sits a long while, feeling lost and paralyzed as he stares at the test card.  Finally he pushes himself into motion.  Can’t leave Abe here like this.  What’s he do?  Call the cops?  Will they even come?  And if they do, there’ll be an investigation and someone will find the armory in the basement.  And all the while Abe’s body will molder in a drawer in the morgue’s cooler.

No.  Can’t have that.  Jack knows what he has to do: come back tonight with the car and take Abe’s body to Central Park.  No cops, no inquests, just a quiet private burial for his oldest and dearest friend.

But what about Abe’s family?  The only family Jack knows of is a daughter in Queens.  Sarah.  Jack’s never met her; he hid Gia and Vicky at her place during the rakoshi mess last summer, but she was out of town then.

Jack reaches for the blood-spattered rolodex and flips through it.  Abe used a computer down in the basement but stuck to old-fashioned methods up here on the main floor.  An ache grows in his throat at the sight of Abe’s crabbed handwriting and for a moment the letters blur.  He blinks and tugs on the “S” tab, and there it is: simply “Sarah” and a number.

He calls the number and when a woman answers he asks for Sarah.

“This is she.”

“I…I’m a friend of your father’s.  I’m afraid—”

“Yes, we know,” she says.  “He’s dead.”

Jack’s alarms go off at the we.  “How can you—?”

“We were hoping to get him to the point where we could stop him from such tragic foolishness, but those damn tests are so—”

Jack slams down the receiver.  He can imagine how it went down.  Sarah stops by with a peace offering.  They’ve never gotten along, but these are extraordinary times and maybe they should bury the hatchet.  She’s brought something sweet, something her father can’t resist, something heavily spiked with the virus.

And later, when Abe’s blood turns positive, he knows he’s a goner and knows who made him that way and it’s all too much for him.  Never would have believed it of Abe, but no telling what a person will do when the whole future goes dead black without a single glint of hope—

Jack’s breath freezes in his chest as he remembers Gia’s ten-mile stare when he left her and now he’s heading for the door with his heart tearing loose.  The phone rings and he knows he should ignore it but doubles back on the slim chance it might be Gia.  She knows he’s here, maybe she’s trying to reach him.

“Jack,” Gia says in response to his barked hello.  “Thank God I caught you.”

“What’s wrong?” he says, the preternatural calm of her tone sending screams of warning through him.  “How’s Vicky?”

“Sleeping.”

“Sleeping?”  Vicky is not a napper.  “Is she sick?”

“Not anymore.  She’s at peace.”

“Christ, Gia, what are you saying?  Don’t tell me you—”

“I didn’t have enough sleeping pills for both of us, so I gave them all to her.  And soon she’ll be safe.”

“No!”

“And I’ve got one of your guns for me, but I didn’t want to use it until I called you to say good-bye—”

The phone slips from Jack’s fingers and he’s dashing for the door, bursting onto the sidewalk, and sprinting east when he glances up and skids to a halt at the sight of a giant face staring down at him.  It’s the Russian lady but she’s grown to Godzilla proportions.

“NOW DO YOU SEE?” she cries, her booming voice echoing off the buildings.  “NOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND?  THIS WILL BE IF YOU DO NOT STOP VIRUS NOW!”

What does it mean?  That this is all a dream?  No.  Much as Jack wishes it were true, he knows it’s not.  This is too real.

Averting his face from her giant, blazing eyes, he starts running again, down the center of a treadmill street with cardboard buildings sliding by on each side to give the illusion of forward progress, but he’s getting nowhere, and no matter how much speed he pumps into his legs, no matter how he cries and screams at the top of his lungs, he’s no closer to home than when he started…

READY OR NOT

I knew going in this was a black comedy, but I was expecting something a little more inventive, maybe along the lines of You’re Next. It does have a few funny moments but, unlike You’re Next, the female lead survives via a hokey family curse and the incompetence of her pursuers rather than her own agency.

CRAWL

This was intense. Hard to believe all those gators (except for an occasional animatronic head or tail) were CGI. Very realistic. Although there’s some gore, I’d classify Crawl as a terror film rather than a horror film. The predators are in their element and you’re out of yours, so the fear and suspense ratchet up again and again. Well done.
FF=1