Free Reading: Catering to an Evil Supernatural Government in Greedy Pigs by Matt Wallace

We’ll keep repeating ourselves as long as it takes these books to grow as ubiquitous a chain of fast food restaurants: Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour novella series, about the mishaps befalling a New York catering company that specializes in a clientele of monsters, goblin kings, demons, and other beasties, is the best thing to happen to urban fantasy since Anita Blake lusted after her first vampire. These books are fast, funny, and highly inventive. (And by “highly inventive” we mean “frequently laden with absolutely insane plot twists.”)

Wallace is working his way through the deadly sins, and has reached number five in the latest book, Greedy Pigs, available May 16. If the cover image doesn’t give it away, we’ll tell you that it involves unscrupulous politicians, an inaguration, and a dark conspiracy to take over the government that stretches back centuries.

Read the first two chapters below, and if you have yet to get started, pick up the e-omnibus of the first three books, available now.

STOP ONE: CHINATOWN

Lena hasn’t visited Canal Street much since moving to the city. Most of her excursions outside her own neighborhood revolve around collecting ingredients and product for cooking, and she rarely attempts Chinese dishes. She hasn’t had any professional call for it, either. The mid-range kitchens in which she and Darren first worked in New York were all muddled American fare. Their brief foray into working on high-end restaurant lines at Porto Fiero largely saw them preparing Italian fusion appetizers (although you never used the word “fusion” around the executive chef).

Bronko pilots one half of Sin du Jour’s catering van fleet, such as it is, through the narrow side streets off Canal, rolling over uneven cobbling from another century. The size of the passenger’s seat in the commercial van and the chasm of space between herself and Bronko make Lena feel impossibly small.

Outside her window, Manhattan’s Chinatown is still very much what it has always been, despite being held in a vise grip by three of the most expensively and newly gentrified neighborhoods in the city: Soho to the north, the Financial District to the south, and, to the west, Tribeca. Sure, there are restaurants that have closed due to rent hikes. There are new hotels and luxury condos rising in the periphery. But between Delancey and Chambers, between East Broadway and Broadway, Chinatown remains the city within a city that was last transformed by the great deluge of Hong Kong immigrants in the sixties and seventies.

The same low-income residents still crew their small family storefronts and occupy their modest apartment buildings. The district has managed to repel the corporate hordes partly because Chinatown still feeds the rest of the city. As much new money as old is spent in its myriad century-old restaurants and on its imported cuisine. Another factor leading to its preservation is that immigrants have never stopped seeking a new life within its borders; they’re still arriving from the East every week, and still upholding the traditions and ideals of their predecessors.

But the biggest reason Chinatown has largely resisted the great injection of hipster botulism stretching and smoothing the face of the rest of the city is the same reason the neighborhood was founded in the first place. Chinatown remains Chinatown because of the people who built it and their children who saw it to fruition, because they own the place, and finally and most powerfully, because they want it that way.

Bronko explains all of this to Lena despite the fact she never asked. It’s not that she isn’t interested; it’s simply that Lena is still confused by both the reason for this outing and his half-inviting, half-ordering her to accompany him. Bronko made it clear this wasn’t related to an event Sin du Jour is catering. He simply told her to get in the van because he had “weekly rounds” to make and needed her help.

As the old van shambles through the heart of Chinatown, informed eyes can spot the dialect changes as new arrivals flood the district from the rural areas of Mandarin-speaking Fujian province in southeastern China. Lena, of course, can’t tell one from the other. The small storefront before which the van finally halts is practically barricaded with angular signs. The Cantonese characters hand-painted on each have been fading into the cheap wood for decades at least.

“First stop,” Bronko announces. “Everybody out.”

Lena looks behind them at the large cargo space of the van that is mostly bereft of equipment and completely bereft of any personnel besides her.

“Uh, sure, Chef,” she says, unbuckling her seat belt.

By the time Lena has hopped down from the passenger’s side, Bronko has already trekked around and is opening the van’s rear cargo doors. She trots to catch up, just in time to see him grunting as he removes a large cooler from the back of the van and place it as gingerly as possible on the sidewalk.

“What’s in there, Chef?” Lena asks.

“Lunch.”

Her brow furrows. “Whose?”

Bronko doesn’t answer. Instead, he instructs her to grab one end of the cooler, which she does. It’s heavy enough to be filled with several cases of beer.

The storefront’s interior seems to suck any intruding daylight into its murky, dust-filled corners. It appears to be a secondhand furnishings shop. There are rows of particleboard shelves filled with out-of-box appliances and used cookware. Chairs, not a single one matching another, are stacked awkwardly, even perilously, almost to the ceiling. Several larger pieces of furniture have large handwritten price tags tied to them. Several well-maintained layers of undisturbed dust cover everything.

The place doesn’t smell like a junk shop, however. That’s the second thing Lena picks up on. The scents that assault her nostrils, earthen and bitter and something else entirely that’s almost antiseptic. They’re not quite culinary smells, and yet they’re nothing like anything Lena’s nose has experienced in Boosha’s otherworldly apothecary back at Sin du Jour.

“What am I smelling, Chef?”

“Nothin’ anyone born on this side of the world would recognize,” Bronko informs her. “Nobody from the other side of the world born in the last thousand years would either, for that matter.”

A strong swell in Lena wants to demand what the hell that means, but she crushes it down. However frustrating she still finds the world in which they operate, Bronko is still the executive chef, and Lena is still Lena. On the line or on a battlefield, she’s a soldier. She follows the chain of command.

An elderly Chinese man, perhaps in his late seventies or early eighties, enters from whatever occupies the space beyond the back of the shop. He’s wearing a Hall & Oates concert T-shirt from 1977 that appears ready to disintegrate at will on his small frame, twill trousers that are probably from the same era, and a pair of dirty sneakers. A few wisps of steel-gray hair still cling to his spotted, wrinkled scalp. Eyes that are undeniably sharp and shine amber even in the low light stare at them with open skepticism.

“Tarr, meet Mr. Mok,” Bronko says, motioning at the small figure, “owner and proprietor of this fine establishment.”

Lena opens her mouth to greet him but is unable to get a word out before the old man shoves a finger two inches from Bronko’s bulbous nose and begins shouting at him in severe-sounding Cantonese.

Bronko responds by setting down his end of the cooler and holding up his hands in the universal gesture of placation. To Lena’s surprise, he also begins speaking what sounds to her admittedly uneducated Western ears like perfectly fluent Cantonese.

She does, however, quickly realize the conversation revolves around her, in whatever language they’re choosing to have it.

The discussion ends with Bronko breaking back into English to insist, “Dammit, Mok, I said she’s cool, all right? Let it go.”

Mr. Mok falls silent, but he’s still staring daggers up at Bronko. He’s half the head chef’s size and twice his age, yet in that moment, Lena isn’t sure who’d be left standing if they chose to go at it with fists instead of words.

Fortunately, in the end the old man just nods, once, sharp and final. He turns his fierce amber eyes on Lena.

“Welcome,” he greets her, his accent thick but the word deliberate and clear.

Lena finds she can only nod in return.

Bronko flashes her a “your eyes only” look that is drenched in exasperation for the old man, but Lena can tell the pair of them have a long-standing relationship. There’s an obvious familiarity there, even a bond. She imagines they go through a form of this exchange every time they meet.

Bronko takes up his end of the cooler and Mr. Mok leads them across the shop and through a beaded curtain separating the front of the store from a back room. It’s crammed to the gills with more secondhand junk, everything from children’s Big Wheels to home fry cookers stained with petrified grease, and none of it sorted in any particular order, at least to the casual observer.

In the corner of the small cluttered space, four other elderly Chinese people, two men and two women, are seated around a circular wooden table. As Lena enters behind Mok and Bronko, she’s immediately intrigued by two things: the first is that all four of them appear to be wearing the exact same Hall & Oates concert T-shirt that Mr. Mok wears, and the second thing is they’re all enthusiastically engaged in a board game.

More than that, it’s an English board game, something called A Touch of Evil, and judging purely at first glance, it’s more elaborate than any of the board games like Clue Lena was forced to play as a child.

There are in fact two full shelves adjoining the corner behind them that are filled with colorful boxes of all shapes and sizes, containing dozens upon dozens of board games. Many are illustrated with Cantonese and Mandarin characters, while others are English editions. Judging from the size of some of them, they’re even more elaborate than the one spilled all over the tabletop now.

The foursome doesn’t stir, doesn’t even stop play, as Bronko follows Mok into the space. As soon as they become aware of Lena’s presence, however, the game immediately ceases and the entire mood of the room changes. One of the couples stands with a spryness defying their advanced years, while the other two turn in their seats, no less at the ready.

Lena isn’t sure what she feels in the next moment. It’s as if the barometric pressure in the air abruptly shifts, and something like electricity touches the surface of her skin, raising microscopic hairs. It’s as if the actual environment in the room has turned against her.

She’ll realize later what she felt in that moment was power: power emanating from that table and those people, power attached to an intangible “ready” switch that was suddenly flipped when she walked into their space.

Lena will hope she never experiences that power’s “on” switch.

Mok holds up his withered hands, repeating the same word in Cantonese several times. Then, in a loud and careful mockery of Bronko, he gives them two thumbs-up and says, “She cooooool.”

The foursome around the table immediately relaxes, and the physical effects permeating Lena’s body recede as the air in the room returns to normal.

The Chinese contingent, including and especially Mr. Mok, all laugh, not at Lena but at Bronko.

“Assholes,” Bronko mutters under his breath.

The foursome returns to their game, and Mr. Mok apparently doesn’t feel the need to introduce any of them to Lena. Instead, he walks past their table to a dark depression amid the wall-to-wall junk. Lena realizes it’s actually a small door at the top of a staircase.

The steps are earth-covered stone, lit by work lights hung from the low ceiling and, in the absence of those, old Christmas lights strung along the wall. The stairs descend longer and farther than Lena thinks possible. There are several offshoots along the way, small nooks opening from the side of the staircase into lighted rooms. The trio never pauses long enough for Lena to register more than brief flashes of each.

In one room she glimpses several young people in flowing multicolored robes doing what Lena registers as hand-to-hand combat training. There are glints of light on the steel of weapons, broadswords and Chinese hooks. In another room, the corner of Lena’s eye catches the back of a white-haired woman or man’s head as they kneel in prayer before an altar adorned with green plants and carved stone.

By the time they reach the very bottom, Lena has counted over two hundred steps and her breathing has become labored. The air feels a lot thinner wherever in the bowels of the Earth she’s found herself.

“You okay, Tarr?” Bronko asks without looking over his shoulder at her.

“Check rog,” she answers, trying to filter out the bitterness before it bleeds into her words.

The subterranean chamber into which the staircase opens is more like an elegantly finished basement in a home from the 1970s. The walls are paneled with a dark, richly textured fake wood. Several cabinets and chests of drawers line them. A lush Oriental rug covers most of the laminate floor. It’s bare except for a small, ornate table in the center of room upon which incense is burning. Lena smells lilies and something sweet like anise.

“Over here,” Bronko instructs her, guiding the heavy cooler across the room.

They place it on the rug in front of a gargantuan, hand-carved bamboo armoire that obscures most of one of the room’s walls. Its closed doors are large enough to fit a MINI Cooper. Each side has large Cantonese characters carved upon it.

“Are we serving down here, or—” Lena begins to ask, only to have Bronko put a thick finger to his lips to silence her.

He points to the adjacent wall. Mr. Mok is rummaging through one of the room’s many chests of drawers. As they watch, the old man carefully removes and dons a pure white linen Wudang over his vintage rock T-shirt and trousers. A black-and-gold sash is then deftly slipped over that. He fits a hexagonal hat of dark silk over his small, mottled head and finishes by removing his sneakers and replacing them with soft, pure white slippers.

The last thing he removes from the drawers is a rolled-up rug, which he carries with him and unfurls between Bronko and Lena, directly in front of the armoire doors.

Lena isn’t sure whether she’s more intrigued or apprehensive as she watches Mr. Mok kneel upon the rug and raise his arms, beginning to recite a deep, almost lyric prayer to some unseen power.

She looks over at Bronko, who smiles reassuringly back at her.

It helps a little.

When Mr. Mok finishes reciting the incantation, or whatever it may be, he motions impatiently at them both.

Lena again looks to Bronko for a sign of what to do. In answer, he gestures at the doors of the armoire, grasping the handle of the one closest to him.

Lena does the same, gripping the handle of the door on her side. When he gives her the nod, she pulls it open. It’s heavier than she would’ve thought, and Lena actually has to use her other hand to help move it the rest of the way.

An inhuman squawking greets them all as she and Bronko push the doors aside, and Lena quickly realizes the armoire houses a terrarium of some kind. She also immediately sees that the armoire is just a façade, and the glassed-in enclosure it conceals recedes far back into the wall of the room, as well as high above the ceiling. It’s an entire cavernous hollow beneath the street into which someone has built a small window. The cavern is filled with cane stocks and lush green foliage, dripping with moisture from a top-of-the-line irrigation system erected throughout the habitat. Dark, flat, craggy rocks have also been planted in the soft soil that fills the bottom of the enclosure.

The creatures are the size of small ponies. They’re mostly birds, except for sections of their sleek bodies that appear armored, almost like turtle shell. Shining gold feathers with splashes of fiery red cover the majority of their bodies, including their long necks and dagger-shaped wings. Long, hooked beaks the same orange-speckled brown of their exoskeleton dominate their small skulls, each one topped with strands of flowing red plumage that fall across disturbingly human eyes.

There are two of them, grooming each other lazily there upon the rocks. One is slightly larger than the other, but beyond that small difference, Lena would be hard-pressed to tell them apart.

Upon spotting Bronko, they leap down from the rocks, squawking merrily, and press the curved tips of their beaks to milk saucer–sized holes in the glass separating them.

“Larry and Mary, my Chinese eagles,” Bronko greets them warmly, letting them nip affectionately at his fingertips through the glass.

“Not eagles!” Mr. Mok insists. “And that not their names! I tell you every time!”

“Welp, until you give ’em names, they seem to like Larry and Mary just fine,” Bronko tells him, undisturbed.

“Not the place of mortals to name them!”

Mr. Mok follows the brief tirade by launching into a stream of angry, accusing Cantonese.

Bronko ignores him, looking at Lena.

“It’s feedin’ time.”

Lena nods. She’d deduced that much by now.

“What are we feeding here, Chef?”

“Fenghuang,” Mr. Mok answers for him.

Lena just blinks at him. “Okay, but that doesn’t really help me—”

He gestures grandly to the birdlike creature on the left. “Feng!” Mok declares, enunciating slowly and exasperatedly as if to a small, slow child. Then, sweeping his arms toward its counterpart: “Huang!”

“Boy and girl,” Bronko explains. “Or, y’know, male and female, if you wanna be literal. They’re known as the Chinese phoenix. Only no fire.”

What are they, though?” Lena asks, her own patience bottoming out.

“Protectors.”

“Of what?”

Bronko takes a deep breath, then shrugs. He seems at a loss.

“Balance, I guess. I’m just a li’l ol’ hick from Beeville, Texas; the higher mysteries of Chinese spirituality and whatnot are slightly above my pay grade.”

“Right,” Lena says. “A hick who speaks fluent Chinese.”

“Spent three summers workin’ the line at the Fragrant Lotus Garden in Houston. You soak in more than that moo shu smell, y’know?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Long ago,” Mr. Mok begins, speaking more quietly and with more compassion than Lena has yet heard in the old man’s voice, “fenghuang, sacred, divine, protect my people from yaoguai.”

Lena looks at Bronko.

He waves his hand. “Like . . . evil spirits. Demons.”

“And agent of yaoguai,” Mr. Mok adds, irritated. “Fenghuang serve light, serve balance. Fenghuang keep balance here on Earth.”

“Why ‘long ago’?” Lena asks.

“They were hunted to near-extinction,” Bronko explains.

“By who? Or what?”

Bronko’s lips tighten. It’s almost as if he’s afraid to answer that question.

“Pandas, mostly.”

Lena’s eyebrows shoot up. “Pandas?”

Bronko glances uncomfortably at Mr. Mok.

“Yeah,” he says, tentative. “Pandas. Y’see—”

Lena can’t help it, nor does she even try. She bursts out laughing.

“Come on, Chef. Seriously. You’re talking about pandas? Black-and-white, nibbling bamboo—”

Mr. Mok suddenly springs to his feet. “Panda agents of pure evil! Panda most vile creature ever walk the Earth!”

“Don’t start with the panda thing,” Bronko practically pleads with him. “All right? It’s not her fault. She doesn’t know. She’s not saying—”

“None of you know!” Mr. Mok rages. “All you do, you ignorant gweilo, you go to zoo and take a picture of a panda with your phone. ‘Awwwwwww, the panda ate the bamboo! The panda make a sneeze! I post a video to YouTube! Get so many likes! Panda so cute! So sad they gon’ be extinct. Must protect the panda!’ Cannot name one Chinese province, but evvvvvvverybody in America know panda. Panda, panda, panda!”

Mr. Mok curses for thirty full seconds in Cantonese then before finally stabbing a finger of ultimate judgment at Lena.

“I tell you this!” he practically spits at her, seething. “Panda make fool of you all!”

As he continues to explode, Bronko leans in and whispers to Lena. “Apparently, pandas were engineered to kill fenghuang like our friends Larry and Mary in there. A big-ass war ensued. Most of Larry and Mary’s kind were killed. Ditto the pandas. The ones that lived are kind of like Nazi war criminals and I guess our zoos are like Argentina. They hide out there behind an impenetrable wall of public relations, and as long as they keep actin’ cute, they’re untouchable.”

Bronko turns back to Mr. Mok, speaking loudly but politely above the old man’s continued rant.

“Mr. Mok! May we please feed the sacred beings now before your admittedly justified screechin’ causes them to starve?”

That alone seems to quench the fire in the old man. He turns away from them and kneels, beginning to roll up his prayer rug.

“Panda War great and terrible,” he mutters to himself. “Panda War last centuries. Kill millions. But no Wikipedia page, no happen. Only thing worse than panda is Internet.”

Cursing quietly, he pads across the room to return the rug and his other ceremonial garb to their proper place of storage.

Now that the initial shock of the information has worn off, Lena begins to feel guilt knotting her guts. She wants to apologize to the old man, but the strictly rational part of her brain still clinging to basic truths of the “real” world before Sin du Jour simply won’t allow her to even form such an expression aloud.

Bronko hunkers down with a grimace. Lena can hear the bones in his knees pop. He opens the cooler. Half a dozen foot-long cylinders of thick stainless steel are arranged atop cold packs. There are small, clear slits running along the side of each cylinder. The tubes inside are filled with a murky liquid, and as Lena looks down at them, she can see dark shapes clearly moving through that muck.

“Dare I even ask, Chef?”

Bronko half-grunts and half-chuckles. He grasps one of the cylinders and holds it up to her.

Unafraid, Lena takes it from him and examines the small window into the tube more closely.

“Is it . . . an eel? Or a snake?”

Bronko stands, holding another one of the cylinders in his hands. He carefully fits the top of it against the hole in the glass habitat. On the other side, the fenghuang begin bobbing up and down on their thin legs and pronged feet, tittering excitedly.

“Both and neither,” he tells her. “Just like Larry and Mary here ain’t exactly birds. They’re all things from a time of legends, a time that don’t exist no more. Makes ordering takeout a helluva thing, y’know?”

He depresses a button on the side of the cylinder that pops the end cap open. A slick, dark spear of scaly flesh lances from inside the tube and goes slithering off across the rocks.

The fenghuang whip away from the glass and spring into the air, soaring low over the rocks and through the foliage, after it.

“They like to hunt,” he explains to Lena. “It’s part of the whole deal. A regular ol’ snake wouldn’t last half a tick.”

“So, where do you get . . . Chinese phoenix food?”

“I don’t,” he says, taking the cylinder in her hands and readying to release its occupant into the habitat. “Ritter and the team rack up a lotta frequent-flyer miles tracking them down.”

Inside the habitat, Larry and Mary have pulled apart their first course and Mary is hot on the tail of the one Bronko has just released through the glass.

“So . . . this is like a takeout service Sin du Jour provides?” Lena asks, watching them. “How does he afford that, selling thirty-year-old toasters and crap?”

“There’s no charge,” Bronko says, chucking an empty cylinder and readying another.

Lena looks away from the creatures inside the habitat, staring up at him, confused.

“But this has gotta cost a freakin’ fortune. Does Allensworth—”

Bronko laughs, loud and hard and sour.

“Allensworth wouldn’t piss on either one of these things if they were on fire. He ain’t exactly the conservationist type. Not to mention the Chinese he works with are probably the ones who bred the damn pandas in the first place.”

It takes Lena a moment to process it all, and she still comes up short.

“So, what? You front this? Yourself?”

Bronko nods.

“Every week?”

He nods again.

“Why?”

“Because if we don’t do it, no one will. And Larry and Mary in there’d just . . . waste away. Now, they ain’t the last of their kind, strictly speaking. I know of a few other places like this, none of ’em local. But . . . it’s gettin’ close for ’em. And there’s no place left for Larry and Mary except the ones people like Mok make. The world, our world and the one we serve crab cakes and terrines of whatever-the-fuck too, both those worlds have moved on, and they’ve left behind . . . as Mok over there’d call ’em . . . creatures of light and balance.”

Lena doesn’t know what to say, not to any of that, but the implications of his words are like a barbed weight on her chest.

Bronko just watches her, waiting.

A moment later, Lena bends down and picks up the last cylinder. She turns and angles it carefully against the hole in the glass, popping the cap and releasing Larry and Mary’s final course into the habitat for them to enjoy.

Bronko grins.

As they pack up the empty cylinders in the chest, Mr. Mok approaches them, again clad in his street clothes.

“You have many questions,” he says to Lena.

“I, uh, I guess so,” she replies, not sure what else to say.

The old man nods. “To feed fenghuang is a holy thing. A sacred thing. You take on that responsibility now.”

Lena’s eyes dart to Bronko, then back to Mr. Mok. “I’m just helping out—”

“You have questions,” Mr. Mok continues, ignoring her. “If I can answer for you, I will. You may come to me with your questions.”

“Wow. Okay. Thank you.”

Mr. Mok doesn’t respond. He merely stares at her, as if waiting for something.

Lena looks to Bronko.

He shrugs. “I think he wants you to ask him a question.”

“Oh. Okay,” Lena says, inhaling deeply. “All right. I . . . Okay, I’ve got one. What’s with the Hall & Oates shirts?”

Bronko has to stifle his laughter.

Mr. Mok squints at her very seriously. He holds up a single, withered digit of his right hand, the gesture almost reverent.

“Hall & Oates number one rock and roll forever.”

Lena nods very slowly. “I see. Got it. Thanks.”

Mr. Mok nods with a sharp grunt, moving past them to close the doors of the armoire.

Lena’s expression as she peers up at Bronko must be asking another question, something like “What the actual fuck?”

He only shrugs. “Ancient Chinese wisdom right there, man. You gonna argue with it?”

HEAD OF THE CLASS

Darren crosses the Brooklyn Bridge in the Dodge Neon he and Lena have shared for so many years, neither of them can now remember who actually owns it.

The address Ritter gave him is somewhere in Brooklyn Heights. Darren was obviously disappointed when Ritter told him he’d be too busy to continue training Darren over the next few months, but Ritter took the time and care to make Darren understand Ritter wasn’t blowing him off. He told Darren he’d found a temporary replacement instructor for him, and that training with someone new would help Darren far more than it would hurt him.

Knowing—or at least suspecting—the kinds of people (humans or otherwise) Ritter would refer him to for training actually has Darren excited.

He finds himself pulling up to the curb in front of a dilapidated brownstone. That’s not so odd, but the fact that it also seems utterly forgotten does strike Darren as just short of a miracle. There are no construction vehicles or equipment attached to the place. There’s no signage indicating it’s for sale, or has been sold, or will soon be the site of luxurious new condos. It’s sitting in the middle of a vibrant, rejuvenated street, yet the building has been left to age completely unimpeded.

There should be realtors bleeding each other in the yard for control of such a property.

Darren leaves his car parked and treks across the brief dead patches of ground just beyond the brownstone’s rust-crippled gate. He double-checks the address and finds it’s the same one Ritter jotted down for him. That old, familiar impulse to flee the uncertain before he embarrasses himself fires up inside Darren, and his conscious mind stomps on it with a soccer hooligan’s fury.

He refuses to be afraid of people anymore, let alone a spooky-ass building in Brooklyn Heights.

Finding the front door unlocked, Darren confidently lets himself in. Ritter told him he’d be expected at this time, and expected is exactly how he’s choosing to behave.

The place has been completely gutted. There aren’t even dividers between floors. At first, Darren wonders if he’s early for some sort of fight club. That’s what the space reminds him of with its bare, stained concrete floor, industrial columns and rusty steel beams standing out against the shadows of the high, dark ceiling.

“Is anyone in here?” he calls out, answered solely by the echo of his own voice. “My name is Darren Vargas. Ritter told me I’d be starting training here today. I work with him at Sin du Jour.”

No answer, not even the flutter of pigeons in the high beams or rats scurrying in the walls.

Darren takes out his phone, ready to call Ritter and at least verify the address. He’s cursing himself for not at least asking Ritter more about what the hell he was supposed to find here. Taking people he looks up to totally on faith is an old Darren move.

The mirror wasn’t there just a brief second before, and nothing Darren’s rational mind attempts to con him into believing can or will change that fact.

It is there now, a seven-foot pane of reflective glass held in a simple black iron frame.

It’s just standing there, in the middle of the ground floor, erected to perfectly face Darren as he glances up from his phone.

“Okay,” he says, just to hear something besides silence as he stares at his reflection in what he is already determined not to think of as the ghost mirror.

It’s just him looking back. He’s trimmed back his beard because James was starting to complain, and sculpted it into a slight V shape because Darren loves how it looks on Denzel Washington’s son in that HBO show Ballers.

“Is this, like, a test?” he calls out. “Is it magic? Like that Harry Potter mirror. Or is it—”

His reflection actually changed several seconds before, but it was so subtle, it took him until this moment to realize how it has changed.

Darren is no longer looking at himself as he is now; he’s looking at himself as he was several months ago. His beard is gone. His high-and-tight haircut has reverted to all those oil-slicked dark strands he used to cultivate, trying to look like a Tejano pop star. His body is just a little softer; the definition he’s earned through training practically every day is gone.

It’s more than simple grooming choices, however.

It’s that stupid, frightened look he always used to wear.

It’s all summed up in his eyes and in that placid, perpetual smile that begs to be liked, or at the very least not victimized. His eyes are desperate, cloying, even terrified.

That look is plastered on his face, and it’s all the Darren of now can see.

All he sees is the version of himself who watched helplessly while his best friend was about to be killed by a monster.

All he sees is the Darren he’s been working every day for months to kill.

“You fucking pendejo,” he says to that Darren, the one who never spoke Spanish, who didn’t want to sound “too Mexican” because he’d been hardwired to believe he’d never rise above busboy that way. “You fucking weak pendejo. Look at you. Look at you!”

His reflection doesn’t speak any of those words. Darren’s reflection, his old self, stands mute. The curses and disdain being hurled at him causes that Darren to physically crumple, just a little, but enough to make him appear exactly as weak as his new self accuses him of being.

“Stop it!” Darren orders his reflection. “Stop that crap now! Stop it, you pathetic piece of shit!”

His reflected self tries, but the tears begin to roll over his cheeks. It’s just two thin streams at first, but once the floodgate is broken, he begins crying full-on.

The disgust that churns in the pit of Darren’s stomach as he watches his former self cry is a feeling unlike anything he’s ever experienced. He feels as if he’s no longer looking at a person, a human being evoking empathy and basic decency. Darren is looking at a thing, a loathsome subhuman thing unworthy of even the simplest compassion.

“You’re nothing,” he says to his weeping reflection in a voice no one who knows Darren would recognize. “You’re less than nothing.”

That empty, bottomless disgust turns. It becomes fury. It becomes an all-consuming desire to destroy the weak, pitiful thing staring him in the face. The Darren staring into that mirror, at that abominable version of him, is shaking. He can barely control his limbs. His lips peel back over his teeth like an animal growling at prey.

In the next moment, he’s lunging, diving at the mirror, into it, through it.

The glass shatters, but Darren’s reflection is not obliterated. The shards rain down harmlessly, evaporating like raindrops on a steaming street. The black frame of the mirror simply melts into the shadows surrounding it. The mirror is gone. What’s left is that weeping Darren in the flesh, and he falls under his snarling, enraged present self with a shriek of fear and pain.

The Darren of now straddles his past self upon the dirty concrete and begins hammering fists down into his face.

___

Darren on top doesn’t realize tears are now pouring from his own eyes, angry, hot tears mixing with the spittle flying from his snarling, cursing mouth.

He beats that perfect replica of his face until it’s unrecognizable, not only as him but as something human. He pummels it until the muscles in his arms and shoulders burn from the exertion of it, until he’s gasping for breath and his knuckles are split and bleeding and throbbing with pain. He finally stops when he can’t feel anything under his fists anymore. He holds up two trembling, brutalized hands that are totally gloved in viscous red and dripping with gore.

What they’ve left on the ground beneath him barely has a head.

Shaking, Darren rolls away from the near-headless form, flopping hard onto his back. He’s sobbing uncontrollably now, holding his battered fists against his body, curling around them as he convulses and retches. The thunder in his head and the torrent in his guts are a storm that lasts for centuries, perhaps longer, wrecking him to his core.

What’s left in its wake is a shell. When the blood has finally stopped flowing, when the tears and mucus have all dried up, and when the howling ceases, the only thing Darren feels is hollow. The rest is totally numb.

He doesn’t know how long he stays curled up there on the floor, alternately staring at the grain in the concrete and the darkness inside his own eyelids.

When he thinks he’ll just stay there forever, lie there until he becomes part of the floor, petrified and beyond the veil of human feeling, in that moment, a voice finally answers him.

“That . . . was just lovely,” the voice says, made of smoke and reeds and spoken through sheer silk. “You’ve already far exceeded my expectations. Usually, it takes days to hollow out a potential sword. But you, sweet boy, are ready to begin your training right now.”

 

 

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