Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, edited by Jonathan Maberry and Bryan Thomas Schmidt, is an original collection of stories in the Joe Ledger universe.
I’m an unabashed fangirl when it comes to Jonathan Maberry, and Joe Ledger is one of my absolute favorite characters. The Joe Ledger books (Patient Zero, The Dragon Factory, The King of Plagues, etc.) take everything that’s good about spec-fic and thrillers, throw ‘em in a blender, and spit out a concoction that is like being hit by a bolt of lightning. Joe is part of the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), a shadow agency which tackles big threats—the weirder, the better. It’s heady, exciting stuff, so when I found out there was going to be an anthology of everything Joe, with contributions by some of the best names in the biz (with a story by Maberry himself, to boot), I was there. There are 22 stories in this anthology, so I’m going to touch on a few of my favorites.
“Strange Harvest” by Jon McGoran pairs his Philly detective Doyle Carrick (another fave of mine) with Joe when two of their friends go missing. Their search leads them to a company called Xenexgen that’s headed up by a very strange guy.
Carrick parked in front of the main entrance, a curved overhang of mirrored glass sheltering a row of green glass doors. Inside, the lobby was more mirrored glass and chrome, a very modern impression that was seriously undermined by the cardboard boxes stacked two deep, at least three or four high, against the marble walls. The old guy at the desk eyed us for employee badges, then sat up straighter, surprised that we didn’t have any.
“Can I help you?”
I held up my badge. “We’re looking into a possible link between a couple of missing persons and one of your products.”
He stared at us for a second, then picked up a phone, spoke quietly into it, and told us, “Someone will be with you shortly.”
Half a minute later, a short, odd-looking man in an expensive suit appeared behind us. His face was pale and disconcertingly placid, his eyes drooped, and his skin was smooth but saggy, like bad cosmetic work.
“How may I help you gentlemen?” he said. He had an odd hitch in his voice, like a faint but unfamiliar accent. He extended his hand. Shaking it felt like grasping a wisp of smoke.
“How do you do, Mr.…?”
“Bortman,” he said. “I’m the CEO here at Xenexgen.”
I looked over Bortman’s shoulder at the security guy behind the desk. He shrugged and nodded.
“Unusual for a CEO to respond in person to a request for information,” I said.
Bortman smiled again, weirdly. “We take our support for law enforcement very seriously. So what can we do for you?”
“We’re looking into the disappearance of a young woman named Melissa Brant and a young man named Moose Scott.”
He paused, as if thinking about it, then shook his head. “I’m afraid I don’t know them. Are they employees here?”
“No, but they recently discovered a plant growing in this area that seemed to match some of the genetic characteristics of your Clean Sweep soil remediation microbes.”
Bortman let out a hiccup that was probably intended to be a laugh. “As you said, Clean Sweep is a microbe, not a plant.”
Carrick said, “So you’re not developing green plants with similar characteristics?”
Bortman shook his head.
“Any chance the gene splice could have jumped species?” Carrick said.
Bortman hiccuped again. “No, but we’d be happy to look at a sample, if you have one.”
“We don’t, unfortunately,” I said, handing him a card. “If you have any other thoughts, please let us know.”
Bortman did his smilelike thing and said, “Certainly.” He palmed the card and slipped it into his pocket, reminding me of one of those old-fashioned toy banks with the hand that comes out and swipes the coin.
As we turned to go, Carrick pointed at the stacks against the wall. “What’s with the boxes? Are you moving?”
Something isn’t right, and when Joe and Doyle storm the Xenexgen compound, they find something that may not be of this world.
“Target Acquired,” by the always potent combo of Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon brings Joe face to face with a woman named Miranda who is convinced that Joe was involved in a bombing that killed the woman she loved. The emotional and intensely personal “Black Water” by Weston Ochse takes place not too long after the event that went a long way in shaping the man Joe came to be: the rape and assault of his friend Helen when they were young and his helplessness in the face of it as Joe confronts someone who he suspects is guilty of sexual assault. There’s an otherworldly aspect to this one that really resonates and should be a gut punch for longtime Joe fans.
The very creepy “Banshee” by James A. Moore pits Joe against a very unusual assassin that seems to have the power of invisibility. “Red Dirt” by Mira Grant actually features Joe’s best friend and DMS psychologist, Rudy Sanchez, who is called to Alabama in response to a normally fatal childhood disease that seems to be spreading among adults.
Joe McKinney’s “Rookie” takes place pre-DMS when ex-Army Ranger Joe is a newly minted Baltimore cop. He’s in a convenience store when all hell breaks loose, and the man in the middle of the mayhem is a Ranger—Joe knows one when he sees one. They must work together to defeat a pack of mercenaries that are armed to the teeth. Joe McKinney knows how to write action, and it shows here.
I was downright giddy to discover “Crash Course” by Dana Fredsti is a crossover starring Joe and another one of my favorite badasses: Ashley “Ash” Parker from Fredsti’s (who also wrote the Joe Ledger Official Companion) phenomenal zombie apocalypse series (Plague Town, Plague World, Plague Nation). Joe and Ash get unceremoniously dumped into the jungles of Costa Rica. And there are zombies, thank you very much. That’s ok, though, because Ash is ready for them.
If it’s Tuesday, it must be zombies.
I opened my eyes slowly, waiting for the initial wave of dizziness to subside before checking out my surroundings.
I was sprawled over a branch, my right arm still wrapped around Joe, who dangled from the parachute canopy spread out in the tree limbs above us. My wrist was still entwined in the harness and the weight of Joe’s inert form threatened to dislocate my shoulder.
I carefully extricated myself and took stock of my situation.
Head. Aching, but no double vision or residual dizziness.
Arm. Sore, but nothing that would slow me down if I needed to use it.
Attitude. In dire need of an adjustment.
Sense of humor. MIA.
I looked toward the ground, where a half dozen extra-gooey and rapidly decaying zombies gathered beneath us, flesh oozing off the bones in the tropical heat.
One of the zoms, a tall, skinny one wearing nothing but the tattered remains of blue board shorts, kept batting at my dangling feet. Thankfully it fell short an inch or so from being able to get a good grip and pull either of us down.
“No lunch for you,” I growled, and pulled my feet up.
Sweat trickled down my forehead and in between my breasts under the Kevlar. The humidity was through the roof, and the temperature, even in the shade, had to be in the upper nineties. My ears buzzed and at first I thought it was a side effect from the fall. Then I recognized the sound of insects.
Lots of them.
“And people pay to come here on holiday?”
“Most people stay in nice villas or hotels by the beach.”
I turned back to Joe, who was now awake and evidently nonplussed at being treed above a bunch of zombies. He rubbed the back of his head.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I’ll live,” he said. “You?”
“I am profoundly grateful to not be a red smear on the ground about now,” I replied. I paused and then added, “Thank you.”
He grinned. “Thanks for not barfing on me.”
Something chirped in one of his pockets. He pulled out the little black rectangle Asshat had tossed him before we’d jumped.
“Is it a phone?” I asked hopefully.
Joe shook his head. “Looks like some kind of a GPS device. A little more high-tech than your typical geocaching gadget.”
“That’s the adult version of a treasure hunt, right?”
“Yup. And it looks like someone’s sending us on one.” He pointed to two black dots on the screen. “This is us.” His finger indicated a set of coordinates. “And that’s whatever we’re supposed to find. Looks to be in the general vicinity.
“Gotta get down from here and past this bunch first.”
I smiled and patted the tanto, still sheathed across my chest. “Allow me to show you what I learned in my two months in the field.”
The utterly fun “No Business at All” by Javier Grillo-Marxuach finds Joe as an on-set consultant for a movie called Department Zero, which has a storyline strangely similar to Joe’s life and work with the DMS:
On the surface, the screenplay for Department Zero did bear some resemblance to our august organization: telling as it did the story of the eponymous top-secret government unit. Headed by one mysterious “Mr. Chapel.” Department Zero also counted among its operatives a former Special Forces man named “Jack Counter.” A tough-as-nails-and-take-no-shit leader of the heavily armed and state-of-the-art “Mirror Team,” Counter stood at the bleeding edge of the fight against criminal abuses of science-fictional technology.
Of course, Jack Counter kept his personal demons—which were legion, by the way—at bay with the help of his long-suffering Mexican-American psychotherapist, named “Ryan Vazquez.” That she was Jack Counter’s love interest, in a breathtaking abdication of professional ethics, didn’t seem to set off Mr. Church’s bullshit meter in the least.
As you might imagine, it took all of one day undercover as “Special Covert Ops Technical Adviser” to the star of Department Zero to figure out that this was a case of “parallel development.” That’s a fancy Hollywood term for “someone had the same idea we did around the same time we did.”
While Joe isn’t worried about the movie giving away any of their secrets, he finds out that its star, hotshot action hero Cole McAdams, may be up to something very strange indeed.
Scott Sigler’s smashing “Vacation” is a crossover into the world of Sigler’s novel Nocturnal, which finds Joe and his amazing dog Ghost on vacation in San Francisco when his boss, Church, calls him for help on a case. There’s been a series of murders by a threesome called Tre Hermanos Orco, aka The Three Orc Brothers. He’s not the only one after them, though, and discovers a vigilante operating in the city who may be more than human—and also has a dog named Emma who delights in sniffing Ghost’s hindquarters. This one is a delight, and I would love to see these two get together again in the future.
Capping off this fun collection is “Atoll,” a story by Maberry himself:
Palmyra Atoll is in the middle of nowhere. Seriously. Nowhere. The whole thing was a bit over four square miles, with sand and forested land wrapped around a seawater bay. It might have once been pretty, and parts of it still were, but it was scarred by a long trench that started from the southeast tip and drove inland for half a mile. Sand had been pushed up on either side of the trench, speaking to the force of the impact, and there was evidence of a forest fire that destroyed a lot of palm trees. The trench was shaped like a big spoon, with the bowl part of the spoon being the final impact point.
In the center of the bowl was an object.
Big. Triangular. And definitely not a chunk of space rock.
I recognized that shape and it immediately turned me cold frigging sober and dropped the temperature of my blood to that of ice water.
“Holy shit,” I breathed.
“Yes,” said Church.
“It’s a T-craft.”
“Yes,” he said. “But it’s not one of ours.”
“Whose?” I demanded. “The Russians? The Chinese?”
Several of the world’s superpowers had been conducting a very quiet arms race to launch triangular-shaped craft like this, based on technologies recovered from places you might have heard of. Kecksburg, Rendlesham, Roswell. Like that.
Exactly like that.
Church said, “I don’t believe this craft is of local manufacture.”
An hour later I was on my private jet, heading to Hawaii. My two most experienced and reliable shooters, Top and Bunny, were with me. And Ghost. All of us rushing headlong to a place where no one seemed to come out.
I hate my job.
They’ve lost all contact with another DMS team, and Joe and his crew must find out what this mysterious craft is and who is behind it. This one is a chilling read and the perfect way to bookend the anthology.
This collection is great fun and offers a wonderful introduction to the world of Joe Ledger and the DMS. If you haven’t discovered this fantastic character yet, now’s the time. The series is nine books in and stronger than ever. Here’s to many more adventures with Joe.
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