by Various Authors, Brett J. Talley (Ed.)
“You can probably already tell that I am simply filled to the fucking brim with a joy for life and an overwhelming love of my fellow man, so—my whimsical wit and sparkling conversation skills aside, pay attention.” (Braunbeck)
Prologue: Darknet hacker Conrad ‘Jack Rabbit’ McKay is laying low in the Czech Alps when he stumbles across a fresh page in the Dark Web that has zero views–no one has seen it but him. He treats the strange page as a riddle, attempts to solve the puzzle and is quickly successful as scrambled gibberish on the screen resolves into words and sentences. He begins to read:
“Zero at the Bone” – Harry Shannon – Mike Dolan, recovering alcoholic with traumatic flashbacks of wartime activity, tells the story of fighting and killing and booze and the wife he failed to save from her attacker and the subsequent house fire. A broken man, he stretches his government checks as far as possible but is nearly out of money when he finds the Limbus, Inc. employment card. After contact is made he’s sent on a mission through time for which the promised reward of successful completion is final, blissful forgetfulness.
(This one should likely hit us all. It’s human emotion cranked up, but we’re all familiar with despair)
Conrad finishes the story, steps away from his laptop and the bar for some fresh air. He encounters a strange, cackling man, and as his anxiety rises he feels a pull back to the laptop. Back at the bar he finds a new riddle waiting for on screen, which he quickly solves and another screen full of characters resolves into a story.
“Fishing for Dinosaurs” – Joe R. Lansdale – A homeless man wakes to find he’s naked and hungry and searches out an abandoned looking warehouse covered in dust. Inside he notices some strange, circular symbols, then the phone rings with a Limbus employee offering him an anonymous job. After accepting, training and regaining his strength, he learns his job is to capture for study two live dinosaurs that have made it from the inner world of Earth to our world.
(This is a great story, won a Stoker and seems to reach out of the box but was still missing something that’s present in the best Lansdale stories.)
Having finished the previous story Conrad gets himself another drink and returns to his room to an adventurous 16-year-old Veronica trying to seduce him. After rejecting her as gently as possible, but still feeling like an ass, he looks back to his computer to the message, “Every good deed deserves a reward. No riddle this time. Just hit enter.”
Conrad presses ‘enter’ and begins to read.
“Lost and Foundy” – Joe McKinney – Our anti-hero Alan is finished. With his wife and kids killed the year before by a hit & run he’s slid down next to nothing, is drunk beyond measure and passed out at a stoplight. He wakes to police lights and an uncompromising cop, and he unsuccessfully tries to explain to the youngster that he’s a detective and should be shown leniency. In the end he’s offered a choice: Either take an unspecified job from a company called Limbus or lose his career. He reluctantly accepts and begins his investigation in the dark as to compensation for his services.
(This one’s got a heart. And while our (anti) hero doesn’t seem very sympathetic we never really know the pain others are going through. Not well enough to judge, anyway. This is the best of all Limbus stories, regardless of what the awards say, and not to be missed.)
Conrad begins scouring the Dark Net for Limbus. He finds a few references, but whenever he finds someone who knows something they are mocked into silence by their peers. Not learning what he wants to know, he turns back to the site of the text, solves the next riddle and begins reading again.
“The Transmigration of Librarian Blaine Evans” – Gary A. Braunbeck – With the story unfolding in equal parts present-day and flashback, Blain Evan’s tragic past is catching up with him and he’s losing his family to his depression. When his wife mentions she’s going to work for a company called Limbus, words are spoken. The next day she and the kids are gone. Evans follows this up with copious amounts of liquor and in his stupor is kidnapped by Limbus and submitted into a particular program. Meanwhile, in the present, Evans is attempting to evade capture by ‘ice-diving,’ which involves walking upside down underneath the ice covering of a lake with specialized, spiked boots and an inflatable suit for buoyancy. While making his escape he realizes potential captors are immediately above him on the other side of the ice as his air and body-heat are both failing.
(A good story with some great physical action, this one didn’t contain the attachment to character of its peers–you’re never really sure if you want Blain to win.)
Conrad leaves the inn and travels to a local watering hole where he frequently plays chess with the bartender. He learns someone was there looking for him. When he asks who the bartender doesn’t know but hands him something the stranger left. On the back of the Limbus card is the riddle, “When life asks a question, three is always the perfect answer.”
He returns home, hits 3, and begins reading.
“Three Guys Walk into a Bar” – Jonathan Maberry – Limbus contacts Private Investigator Sam Hunter, pointing him in the direction of the town of Pine Deep. Deaths have been occurring disguised as brutal accidents, but Sam can smell the supernatural and knows there is more going on. Teaming up with Pine Deep’s Sheriff Crow, the local werewolf deputy Iron Mike and none other than Joe Ledger himself, Sam lends his expertise at Limbus’ urging to stem the tide of blood being spilled locally.
(As can be expected the action is heavy with this lineup–no shortage of testosterone. It’s not quite the level of Maberry’s tale in the first volume.)
There’s just a bit more, but you’ll have to read it if you want the bookends.
Limbus II takes you by surprise, if perhaps slightly less than the first, because you have some kind of idea of the level of quality you can expect from the production. As far are themed anthologies are concerned better execution is rare, though a few ideas were repeated enough they bear mentioning. A great many of the tales in both books focus on cops or private investigators, so get used to that right away. Also the heroes, and sometimes anti-heroes of these stories are often in ridiculously bad shape emotionally and could die in a few moments without really caring. But who’s to say if Limbus actually targets the downtrodden, action oriented personality for its jobs or if those just make for the most interesting stories? Who’s to say if it’s just coincidence and they’re solely in it for personal profit or if Limbus is actively trying to help people redeem themselves? At least this much is true: As far as shadowy, powerful, underground organizations are concerned, you could do a lot worse than Limbus. A little guidance and the proper motivation go a long way.
These books probably shouldn’t be as good as they are, but providence has influenced the web of creation and allowed them to be written and has willed yet another key to the universe into existence.
“How lucky do you feel?”