We’ve written a whole heck of a lot about Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour novella series over the years, and we won’t apologize for it—a series of books about a crew of caterers who serve an elite clientele of supernatural creatures is just to irresistible to pass up.
We also won’t make you wait for one last taste of what has become one of our favorite weird genre surprises ever, like a turducken stuffed inside of a lobster, deep friend in panko,and then drizzled with honey. Sure, it sounds weird, but it tastes great.
Um, anyway: without further ado, we present an excerpt from the final Sin du Jour book Taste of Wrath, out next week. You’ll find it below the official summary. Enjoy every morsel.
With seven books for seven sins, Taste of Wrath is the adrenaline-fuelled finalé to the Sin du Jour series, which Chuck Wendig calls “a raucous, riotous tale of culinary madness”!
Bronko and his team of crack chefs and kitchen staff have been serving the New York supernatural community for decades. But all that could be about to change.
The entity formerly known as Allensworth has been manipulating Bronko and his team from Day One, and the gang at Sin du Jour have had enough.
Old debts are called in, and an alliance is formed with the unlikeliest of comrades.
Some will die. Some will descend. And some will rise.
MEET THE NEW BOSS, SAME AS THE OLD BOSS
Getting Jett Hollinshead down is no easy feat. Her enthusiasm usually has to be measured with the same technology that ranks things like tornados, hurricanes, and the toxicity of Rick and Morty fandom. Standing in Bronko’s office, however, she doesn’t just look downtrodden at the moment; she looks defeated. Jett watches Bronko as he sits behind his desk, filling out purchase orders by hand, a sight that usually calms and reassures her everything is proceeding normally, but today she knows that isn’t true, perhaps never will be again.
“What is it, Jett?” the executive chef finally asks her. “Did Chanel stop makin’ suits or something?”
“I wish that was my only issue at the moment,” she grumbles.
Bronko grunts. “This must be serious, then. You fittin’ to tell me, or are you just planning to stand there and wring your hands all afternoon?”
Jett practically comes apart at the joints. “Oh, Byron, it’s a catastrophe! All our events have been cancelled! All of them!”
Bronko’s hand finally stops moving. He sighs as if the weight of a large planet has just settled upon his shoulders. Placing his pen atop his decades-old blotter, he reclines against the towering winged back of his throne-like leather chair and regards Jett with a wearied, joyless smile.
“Well, now, that’s not altogether unexpected, is it?”
“It’s worse than that, Byron; all of our vendors, all of my venue contacts, they’re all either walking away from us or no longer returning my calls, texts, or emails. I can’t access our corporate accounts. They’ve all been frozen. Sin du Jour has effectively been rendered off-line.”
Bronko nods. “Then we may have ourselves much bigger problems a-comin’, don’t you think?”
“You think this presages an attack?” Jett asks him.
“I think whatever’s comin’ has been comin’ for a goodly while and we’re finally running outta road.”
“Then . . . is staying here the right thing, Byron? I . . . I would never consider abandoning you or the staff—“
“O’ course you wouldn’t, Jett. You’re tougher than a bullwhacker’s steak dinner. I know that.”
She seems to take genuine solace in those words, nodding along with them. “Thank you. It’s just that . . .”
“Should we all run, is what you’re puttin’ out there.”
“Jett, darlin’, there ain’t no runnin’ from this. There’s nowhere in this world any one of us could hide, maybe not even in any other world. We’ve done all we can to fortify this place in our favor. This is the best any of us is gonna do.”
“Then is it time to call everyone in? What’s the word? ‘Bunker’ and wait for whatever’s coming?”
“It may be time to give everyone the choice, or at least let ’em know where we’re at.”
Jett nods, resolutely, forcing the steel calm over her she’s spent her entire life cultivating.
“I’ll take care of it, Byron.”
“You’re a blessin’, my dear.”
She offers him the most genuine smile she can manage. Jett turns toward the door and immediately stops, nearly leaping from her heels and letting out a yelp.
“You startled the bejesus out of me! Will you kindly announce yourself before just . . . poofing like that?”
“Apologies, ma’am,” a nasal, dreary voice answers Jett.
Bronko leans over the padded arm of his chair and peers around Jett’s lithe figure. The squat, ink-animated form of Droopy Hound is standing in Bronko’s office, staring through them both into some unimpressive oblivion only the living cartoon character can see with its dour eyes. Droopy Hound has clad himself in a plain blue guard’s uniform, no doubt a mockery of his current station in life. A demon inserted into Sin du Jour by Allensworth as the building’s magical security system, Marcus mystically reprogrammed the malevolent spirit to answer only to Bronko and the staff.
“What do you want?” Bronko bluntly asks the apparition.
“You have a visitor, sir,” he informs Bronko. “He’s waiting in the lobby. I’ve taken the liberty of magically isolating the entrances and exits available to him as a precaution.”
“Who is he?”
Droopy Hound shrugs his perpetually sagging shoulders. “I can only tell you he’s human, sir.”
Bronko sighs, heavily. “Fine, then.”
“Thank you for your service, Mr. . . . Hound,” Jett offers, diplomatically.
“A deal is a deal, ma’am,” the toon replies simply before evaporating with a static-filled dissolve.
“Well, at least our efforts to secure Sin du Jour seem to be working,” Jett says.
Bronko stands, grunting as the bones in both of his knees audibly pop.
“I ever tell you about my first joint, the one I opened myself, without backers or venture capitalists and the like?”
Jett shakes her head.
“Li’l roadhouse joint about twenty miles from the border in South Texas.” Bronko opens the top righthand drawer of his desk. “It was a rough crowd, and I mean the staff, not the customers. I hadta take what I could get, for the most part. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more outstanding warrants in that kitchen than high school diplomas.”
“I can imagine.”
“So, I learned the hard way, whenever you had to fire a body from an employee pool like that, you best stick a paring knife in your apron just in case they took to the news poorly.”
Jett’s eyes narrow in confusion. “I . . . That’s a quaint anecdote, Byron, but why that? Why now?”
Bronko reaches inside the drawer. The knife he removes from it isn’t meant for peeling fruits and vegetables; it’s a hunting blade with a wicked clip point and a handle fashioned from elk bone. He reaches behind his wide body and carefully tucks the blade through his belt at the small of his back, draping the hem of his chef’s smock over it to conceal it from sight.
“No idea,” he says with a grin.
Jett shakes her head. “Byron . . .”
“Let’s go greet our guest. Hell, maybe somebody here won the damn lottery; wouldn’t that be a thing?”
Jett can’t help smiling, and this time it’s strong and clear and mirthful.
The two of them exit Bronko’s office and walk the winding corridors toward the front of the ancient brick building. There’s no visible barrier between the corridor and the lobby, but as Bronko and Jett pass through the archway, they can both feel the electric edge of magic raising the tiny hairs on their exposed flesh.
The man waiting for them defines nondescript. Despite being the lobby’s only occupant, it’s easy to look right past him, almost as if he’s a background actor in a scene from a movie, placed there to be ignored. He’s perhaps thirty-five, wearing a plain gray suit and tie and carrying a tan valise. His expression is passive but pleasant enough.
“Can I help you?” Bronko asks him.
“Good afternoon to you, Chef Luck, Miss Hollinshead,” the man they have definitely never met before greets them amiably. “I’m Sin du Jour’s new liaison. My name is Allensworth.”
“You’re too old and too slow to take me. Also—and this is unrelated—I’m better-looking than you and always have been.”
Ritter ignores the giggles Marcus’s comments elicit from the children, but his younger brother feeds on the reaction. The two men circle each other atop the interlocking foam mats assembled beneath their bare feet, both of them wearing martial arts gis. Ritter moves slowly and deliberately, stalking Marcus like a predator with his fists balled at his waist, while Marcus bounces jubilantly on his feet, hands raised and fingers practically twitching.
Beyond the mats, an assemblage of thirty children, ranging in age from five to twelve, watch them attentively. They’re all regular faces around the makeshift recreational center Hara established in a converted warehouse in Bed-Stuy for the neighborhood kids. Since Hara’s funeral, Ritter has spent as much time here as he can to ensure the place stays open.
The kids aren’t Ritter and Marcus’s only spectators. Cindy is sitting on an empty milk crate off to the side, hunched over her fatigues-clad knees, hiding a steady grin in a Styrofoam cup filled with coffee.
“You see, kids,” Ritter says to the children without shifting his focus from Marcus, “all bullies are talkers. They love to talk. They do it for a couple of reasons. One reason is to pump themselves up, to hide the fear they all feel. The other reason they talk is to distract you and intimidate you, get you to doubt yourself. The best thing to do is ignore their words. There’s no place for words in a fight. It’s their body doing the only talking you want to listen to, the way they move their feet, their shoulders, even their eyes.”
“I’m just telling truths over here,” Marcus claims, then lunges at his brother.
Ritter slaps away a series of front kicks, and then ducks a flawlessly executed spinning heel kick that sails harmlessly overhead. Marcus tries to recover from the missed strike by immediately leaping forward and driving the heel of his palm into Ritter’s face, but Ritter quickly slaps his wrist off-course before delivering the back of the same hand into the side of Marcus’s head. It isn’t a particularly painful blow, but it is delivered with enough force to knock him off-balance.
Marcus quickly turns away from Ritter and walks across the mat. There’s a grin on his face, but it’s clear he’s at least a little embarrassed by the quick exchange and its results.
“Older and slower are different than old and slow,” Ritter says to him.
Marcus nods. “Uh-huh. Hey, have you taught them about the element of surprise yet?”
With that, Marcus lets out a sudden and loud battle cry as he rushes forward, dropping his head and attempting to spear Ritter to the mat like an NFL player. Ritter leans forward and spreads his legs, digging his heels into the mat as Marcus barrels into him just above the waist. The leverage prevents Marcus from taking Ritter down and allows Ritter to encircle Marcus’s torso with his arms. Heaving his brother’s feet into the air, Ritter flips him over and drops him onto the mat.
Marcus lands hard on his back, oxygen fleeing through his mouth and nostrils like an angry stampede. A wave of oohs and ahs passes over the children watching.
Cindy, on the other hand, laughs into her cup.
“You see what just happened, kids?” Ritter asks them, ignoring his distressed sibling. “Marcus wanted to win. He wanted to beat me. That’s what he was trying to do. That’s all he cared about. I was just trying to survive. I wasn’t thinking about winning. And I never went after him. I let him come to me and I countered his attacks. That’s what self-defense is.”
Meanwhile, Marcus has turned over and crawled to the far edge of the mat in front of Cindy, slowly taking air back into his lungs.
She sips her coffee and looks down at him with a grin. “Well, that was some sad-ass shit to watch.”
“Pretty sexy, huh?” he asks with a grin, looking up at her from the mat cattishly.
Cindy shakes her head. “And I just bet more empty-headed bitches have fallen for that fake-ass Han Solo ish than have turned it down.”
“It’s working on you, just slowly.”
“You ain’t there yet, boy.”
Marcus drops his head in mock defeat, but when he lifts it again, he’s only grinning wider.
“Did I hear ‘yet’?” he asks. “Did I?”
Cindy offers no further comment.
There’s a knock on the front gate, the metal sheet ringing long after the pounding stops.
“All right,” Ritter addresses the kids. “Shoes off, on the mat, and we’ll do some sparring drills, okay? Get yourselves set up and pick a partner.”
He walks off the mat and over to the front entrance. When Ritter pulls the heavy aluminum door aside, no one is waiting for him beyond it. All he finds is a metal shopping cart loaded down with electronic equipment. He sifts through it briefly, looking for a note or some other documentation, finding none. He examines the alley outside the warehouse, but there isn’t a single soul in sight.
“What’s all that?” Cindy asks as Ritter wheels the shopping cart inside.
He shrugs. “Anonymous donation would be my best guess.”
“Dude, that’s all really high-end shit.”
Cindy smacks him on the arm. “What did I just say about watching your mouth and being among little people, boy?”
“I’m just saying, this is all the latest gaming gear. Every console on the market, looks like. And all this audio equipment is top-shelf.”
“Wait,” Cindy says, her expression darkening. “This is Moon’s. All this crap belongs to him. I recognize it from his garbage masher of an apartment.”
“I thought he preferred video games to human sexual contact,” Ritter muses.
Cindy shakes her head. “Sad little turd thinks he can buy us with some secondhand PlayStations.”
“That’s not a bad price,” Marcus comments. “Even aftermarket, this stuff is worth—”
“I don’t give a single damn!” Cindy insists. “He lied to us. Hara got fragged because he lied to us. You don’t screw your team like that. Boy never gave a damn about being part of this thing.”
“It’s a very un-Moon-like gesture,” Ritter points out.
Cindy stares at him, incredulous. “Don’t tell me you fallin’ for this shit.”
“I’m just stating a fact,” Ritter says with his usual stony neutrality.
“Is that PlayStation 4?” one of the kids shouts from across the warehouse. “And Xbox One?”
In the next moment, there are fifty kids clamoring over the new video gaming equipment as if a celebrity has stopped by the warehouse.
“I guess we’re hooking this stuff up?” Marcus asks them both.
“Dammit, Moon,” Cindy mutters to herself.
Ritter says no more, but as they begin unloaded the shopping cart and untangling the jungle of wires accompanying the many electronic pieces, there is an undeniable grin tugging at the right corner of his mouth.
RESTRUCTURING IS ANOTHER WORD FOR COLLAPSE
“You’re not Allensworth,” Bronko says. “If’n he was going to change his face, I imagine he’d go with something more ostentatious-like.”
“Byron!” Jett chastises him.
“That’s quite all right, Miss Hollinshead,” the man who introduced himself as Allensworth assures her. “I’ve been apprised of your jovial personality, Chef Luck, and I’m sure I’ll come to enjoy it immensely.”
“When’s the part where you explain why you have the same name—”
“Think of the name as an operational title, if it helps you,” their self-proclaimed new liaison offers. “I am replacing the man you knew as Allensworth in the role he filled.”
“So . . . what happened to the previous owner of your operational title?” Bronko asks, summoning his best acting chops, playing the role of man who didn’t watch the former Allensworth take an eight-inch chef’s knife through his kidney.
“That’s still being determined,” the new Allensworth says. “I’m afraid my predecessor’s behavior had become rather erratic as of late. Obviously, oversight in our department always does prove . . . challenging. . . . However, I fear his autonomy got the best of him. You needn’t concern yourselves with the matter any further. As I said, I’ll be taking up his duties henceforth.”
Bronko and Jett exchange a quick, tight glance, the kind of thing conspirators probably shouldn’t do.
If their new Allensworth takes note, it’s a deeply internal process.
“Well, then . . . good to know you, Allensworth,” Bronko says.
The nondescript man smiles without his eyes joining in on the expression. “Likewise, Chef.”
“Excuse me,” Jett interjects. “Can you tell us why our corporate accounts have been frozen and all of our upcoming events have been cancelled?”
“It’s standard procedure, Miss Hollinshead. All of the projects overseen by my predecessor are now under review. That includes this edifice and its operations. Those operations have to be suspended during that period of review. We apologize for any inconvenience this causes. I assure you it will be a noninvasive and hopefully brief inconvenience before everything returns to its usual day-to-day.”
“Some advance warnin’ would’ve been nice,” Bronko tells him.
“Byron, don’t pester the poor man,” Jett says, but her eyes are warning Bronko not to press their luck. “He’s obviously under a lot of pressure. Taking on a new high-level position is never easy.”
“That’s quite all right, Miss Hollinshead. Again, I apologize for the disruption. We are attempting to right the ship, as it were, as soon as possible. In the interim, I’d advise you all to return to your homes and wait for things to settle. As soon as we’ve performed our due diligence, you will hopefully be able to return to work.”
“So, y’all have no clue where Allensworth is?” Bronko asks. “The other one, I mean. The last one, or however you want to call it.”
“As I said, you needn’t trouble yourself with any matters involving my predecessor. It’s being handled.”
“All right, then.”
The new Allensworth offers them another joyless smile. “All right, then. It’s a pleasure finally meeting both of you. I hope you’ll enjoy your impromptu time off. I promise I’ll be in touch.”
“It was a pleasure meeting you too, Mr. Allensworth,” Jett says, slipping into her best professional demeanor.
“Charmed,” Bronko adds stiffly.
They watch Allensworth leave, neither Bronko nor Jett moving or even so much as breathing audibly for almost a full thirty seconds after the doors close behind their new liaison.
“How can they not know?” Jett whispers frantically. “How can they not know what happened at Gluttony Bay?”
“Allensworth, the real one, must’ve gone rogue even bigger’n we suspected,” Bronko whispers back. “Maybe his people never even knew he was involved with Gluttony Bay. Lord knows what else those people do with their time, what else they oversee. They trusted Allensworth to handle things with the Sceadu. Or at least they did.”
“So . . . are we . . . are we in the clear, Byron? Is it over?”
Bronko shakes his head, no relief whatsoever revealed in his expression. In fact, his brow seemed weighted more heavily than before.
“No,” he says. “I’m worried it’s worse, actually. Allensworth is totally off the reservation now.”
“But he’s gone, isn’t he? I thought—“
“I don’t believe Allensworth is dead.”
“Jett, c’mon, girl.”
“Right, right. But you said Lena stabbed Allensworth!”
“And you said that awful restaurant prison place blew up!”
“Then how can he be alive?”
“You don’t plan to overthrow the whole damn world without settin’ up contingencies, Jett. Y’all didn’t know that Allensworth like I did. Trust me. He’s capable of things you can’t even think of. He’s still out there, and I doubt his plans have changed any. And if he was pissed at us before, he’s murderous now.”
“Then shouldn’t we tell the new Allensworth? Ask for his help? We can’t face something like this alone!”
“How can we trust him any more than the last one? Besides, if they find out about Gluttony Bay or that Vargas is still with us, who’s to say they won’t lump us in with the old Allensworth? Just to be safe?”
“Then what are we going to do, Byron?”
“What we were doing already,” Bronko says with a hard edge of resolve in his voice. “We’re going to get ready. And we’re going to reach out to anyone we can afford to trust. Because you’re right: we can’t do this all on our own.”
Jett takes a deep, cleansing breath. “Very well. Who do we trust? To whom can we reach out?”
“To my mind?” Bronko muses. “Satisfied customers are worth a shot.”
Ryland Phelan only has one picture of his father. It’s a Polaroid, taken in the early 1990s, its upper right-hand corner partially melted into a multicolored oil slick. His father was in his forties at the time. He looked a lot like Ryland, except sober and well kempt. In the Polaroid, the man appears to be pouring water from a drinking glass into a wine glass half-filled with cheap red. That’s all the layperson would observe, probably barely taking note of the changing medallion hanging from a thick chain around his neck.
Growing up, Ryland hated alchemy. He watched his father eke out a meager living performing genuine miracles from which he was forbidden by some unknowable force from directly profiting. He could turn lead into gold as long as he did it for someone else, but if his father tried to spend that gold, he’d find himself holding worthless metal again. Ryland watched his dissatisfied mother run off with some Welsh warlock prick who wasn’t bound by a bullshit ethereal half-morality, half-karma net.
Ryland learned to think of alchemy as peasant magic, only good for serving the nobility. He had to be forced to learn the trade by his old man, the way some children are made to work in their parent’s shop to learn responsibility. The real problem, he later discovered, was that Ryland is a natural alchemist. Worsening that dilemma, he wasn’t good at much else. The older he got, the more Ryland resented that alchemy was his only true talent. The more resentful he grew, the more he drank, until he couldn’t remember which one filled him with that constant sense of self-loathing.
He pondered that very question as he lay on the filthy, cluttered floor of his antiquated recreational vehicle, clutching a half-empty bottle of wine in one hand and the Polaroid of his father in the other.
“You were a silly sod,” he says to the man in the photograph. “You were that. Why could you not have taught yourself pyromancy or some such shite? We could have spent the money from an insurance fire.”
A knock at his RV’s door breaks Ryland free of his drunken reveries, although it does nothing for the condition of the battered space between his temples.
“Please desist immediately!” he yells at the door. “Have you no sense of decency?”
Ryland stuffs the Polaroid into his pants pocket and drains the bottle of wine in a single prolonged swig. What feels like an eternity later, he manages to lumber to the door. Practically ripping it from its cheap hinges, he finds Moon awaiting him at the foot of the RV steps.
“What’s changed about you?” Ryland asks him. “Were you Asian before?”
“Is that somehow an offensive question?”
“I . . . don’t know, actually. I just cleaned up a little, that’s all.”
“Ah, yes, I see it now.”
Moon has actually shaved his jaw and neck smooth and combed his hair. New jeans and a clean T-shirt referencing pop culture have replaced his customary uniform of ragged pop culture–referencing T-shirt and distressed jeans.
“Have you come here strictly to flaunt your new aesthetic?” Ryland asks.
“No, I need to talk to you.”
“Very well. Come inside, have a drink or perhaps several dozen in rapid succession.”
“I’ll come in, but I’m not drinking anymore.”
“Fine, fine. We’ll have herbal refreshments, then.”
“I’m off the weed, too.”
Ryland squints at him, trying to scrutinize Moon through the drunken fog.
“You’re behaving suspiciously akin to an individual preparing to espouse some sort of newfound yet somehow deeply held religious philosophy.”
“It’s not like that, I swear.”
Ryland makes a dissatisfied sound that might have been an attempt at actual words, and steps aside to allow Moon entry into the RV.
“What’s on your mind, then?” Ryland asks, collapsing into the one seat in the space that isn’t hosting an array of litter.
Moon brushes off enough counter space in the kitchenette to lean against.
“Look, I had fun hanging out with you, drinking, smoking weed, fucking off, playing video games. But I should’ve been doing what Bronko told me to do, for my team. You were supposed to teach me this alchemy stuff.”
“Which we both concurred was an absurd notion on its absurd little face.”
“Yeah, well, then I should’ve told Bronko no, but I didn’t. I said I’d do something and I need to do it.”
Ryland fishes a crumpled packet of cigarettes and a scuffed Bic lighter from his breast pocket. He pulls a stick from the packet with his teeth and lights it, taking a long drag.
“Weren’t you fired from this establishment?” he asks in the smoky wake of exhaling.
“Not exactly, no.”
“Oh. Well, that is a shame, that. I was going to congratulate you.”
Moon sighs, exasperated. “Dude, listen, I want you to teach me. I mean, really teach me, for real.”
Ryland stares up at him as if Moon has slipped into conversational Sanskrit.
“Teach me to be an alchemist,” Moon repeats, slowly.
Ryland takes another long, deep drag and fills the cramped, stinking space with acrid smoke.
“That is a truly hideous notion,” he concludes.
“I need to learn. I could’ve helped my team if I’d learned. I could’ve . . . I could’ve saved . . . I just need to do it for real, that’s all. Look, I’m not gonna lay some bullshit on you like you owe me or anything, ’cuz you don’t, but I really need you to do this.”
“You’re asking me to relive boyhood trauma, my young friend. The instruction of alchemy is quite possibly my worst memory, save losing my virginity—a tale I’ll benevolently spare you.”
“What else have you got to do, dude?”
“That is hardly a reason, let alone reason enough.”
“I’ll buy all your booze the whole time, the good stuff, and I’ll hook you up with my weed guy. He’s Jamaican. I’m just sayin’.”
Ryland’s expression changes, becoming more quizzical than confused or irritated as he looks up at Moon.
“This is a thing you really want, isn’t it?”
“I need it,” Moon insists.
“Huh. I wish my father were still alive. I’d introduce you. He spent his whole life wishing my mother had given birth to a willing pupil for him.”
Ryland digs the Polaroid out of his pocket and rests it in his lap, staring down at the image of the old man.
Moon is silent, allowing Ryland his moment of reflection.
“Well,” he concludes, “I suppose if you’ll see me functionally impaired for the duration, I can impart a few lessons.”
Moon’s eyes widen. “Seriously?”
Ryland shrugs. “It’ll be a change of pace, at least.”
“Great. That’s great, man. Thank you. Where do we start?”
Ryland holds up the Polaroid of his father, squinting at it in the stray beams of light that have found a way through the dirty steaks on the RV’s windows.
“I suppose we’ll begin with water into wine,” he says.
Halfway up the stairs of the old building in Williamsburg, Bronko freezes as a sudden and penetrating dread fills his mind and infects the rest of his body.
“It’s all right,” Ritter assures him. “It’s a defensive enchantment, to keep people away. It’s not real.”
Bronko digs a hand into his breast over his now-pounding heart. “It damn well feels real.”
“It’s not. Think of something peaceful, something that makes you feel calm. It helps.”
His breathing has become staccato. “I never . . . been inside this building before. I always . . . leave their packages on the fire escape.”
“Think calming thoughts, boss,” Ritter bids him.
They hike the remaining steps, Ritter slowing his pace to remain close to Bronko for support. It’s slow going the rest of the way, but he makes it.
They hear a hollow plastic thunk repeating over and over as they round the corner. A little redheaded girl, perhaps six, is standing in the middle of the hallway, bouncing one of those big rubber balls they keep in perilous caged bins at big box stores. When she spots Ritter and Bronko, the girl freezes right after tossing the ball back at the floor. When it bounces up in front of her chest, her hands don’t grab it, yet the ball never returns to the floor. It remains there, hovering perfectly still in the space between her tiny, inert hands.
“I guess we’re on the right floor,” Bronko says quietly.
The little redheaded girl turns and runs away, pumping her little arms and legs as fast as she can will them to move. She beats feet for a red door several yards down the hall, sliding to a stop there and pounding on its surface until the door opens just wide enough to allow her small body to slip through. It closes quickly after her.
The rubber ball finally bounces against the floor.
“Is that the one?” Ritter asks.
“It’s hard to tell from the outside which window goes where,” Bronko says.
Every light in the hallway begins flickering. In the next moment, they begin blinking off until the entire length of the hallway is cast into pitch-darkness. It doesn’t make any sense; it’s midday and there’s a window at the end of the hall. Sunlight should illuminate most of the corridor, yet not a single sunray seems to penetrate the abject darkness that’s enveloped them.
“What was that mule shit about calming thoughts?” Bronko asks Ritter, who he can no longer see.
“Just stay where you are and wait,” Ritter instructs him.
“Don’t you have some magical doodad to deal with this like you always do?”
“I didn’t bring anything like that.”
“Why the hell not?”
“I didn’t come here for a fight,” Ritter says stonily.
The lights return in a single flash. When they do, Bronko is aware the hallway has changed without immediately seizing upon why or how. A moment later, he realizes all of the doors are now gone. The walls on both sides of them are smooth and unbroken all the way down the length of the corridor.
A tall woman with the longest hair either of them has ever seen is standing in the hallway several yards in front of Bronko and Ritter. Her mass of blond tendrils falls far past her waist, each one curling like a spring. The lines in her face speak for more of experience than age. The same is true for the weight of her gaze. She wears a simple summer dress with a pattern of bird silhouettes in flight, and leather sandals that look like something from a Roman drama.
“How do, Cassie?” Bronko greets her, trying to think of those calming things like Ritter advised.
“You’re not supposed to come here like this, Chef Luck,” she says in a deep, mellifluous voice. “While we greatly appreciate your aid, if there is a problem with our deliveries, you were given a number to call. Showing up like this endangers all of us.”
“I understand, and I do apologize, but what I have to say has to be said in person. Plus, I have an introduction to make. Ritter, this is Cassandra. She runs the place, if you couldn’t tell.”
Cassandra looks at Ritter for the first time, seeming to gaze above him more than at him. “Your aura is . . .”
As her voice trails off, Cassandra’s eyes widen and fill with storm clouds. “I know what you are,” she says.
“Pardon, ma’am?” Bronko asks.
“You’re a hunter!” she shouts accusingly. “Don’t deny it!”
“I was,” Ritter admits, calmly.
Cassandra’s gaze darts to Bronko, his perceived betrayal written clearly in her eyes.
“Why would you bring him here?” she demands.
“He’s the man floating the bill, Cassie,” Bronko informs her. “Ritter set all of this up for you, all of you. He had me be the face to avoid exactly this here exchange we’re having now, but he’s the one put up the scratch to start this safe house, and he’s been carrying you and yours every day since.”
“He hunted us!” she practically shrieks at them both. “I can see it! He wears the blood like a halo! How many did you kill? How many did you burn? How many were scarcely children?”
“Twenty-three,” Ritter answers, voice barely a whisper. “Most of them looked like children to me.”
His earnestness and obvious remorse catch Cassandra off guard, but her rage is barely dissipated by either.
“He was a hunter, Cass,” Bronko confirms once more. “He was. When he figured out he was on the wrong side, he left. He’s been making contrition ever since, and I don’t figure he’ll ever stop.”
“It’s not enough,” she insists. “He can’t buy redemption with a few sandwiches and some blankets, not for what he’s done, what his kind have done.”
“No one’s here askin’ for redemption, or even forgiveness. You can be as hateful as you want, you have the right, but I don’t see as you’ll stop being practical. How many of y’all are there livin’ here now? You gonna put ’em on the street because you don’t like where your rent money comes from?”
“No,” Cassandra relents without hesitation. “No, I won’t do that. He can assuage his guilt all he wants if it means I’m able to keep my girls safe. But he is not welcome here. Not ever. If you didn’t come for forgiveness, what did you come for?”
“We need your help,” Bronko says. “And maybe it’s an awful thing to ask after what y’all have been through, but if we don’t survive, then this place don’t survive, and that’s what on the line: survival, all of our survival. There’s somethin’ coming for us, and we need help, the kinda help only folks with powers like yours can give.”
“Asking me, or any woman here, to help protect this man is too much, Chef. It’s too much to ask at any price.”
“What’s coming for us,” Bronko continues, “they’re the same folks he used to work for, the ones who hunted you and yours. If we can stop ’em, we can maybe change things for all of you, help take y’all out of the line of fire once and for all.”
Cassandra hesitates, considering the truth in his words. Her chin tilts up slightly as she regards Bronko.
Watching her, he knows she’s trying to see the possible future he’s just described. He can see that she wants to believe it.
In the end, however, that vision crumbles for her and she lowers her chin with a sigh.
“It’s not enough,” she says. “Not to help him, and not to risk our lives. We defend ourselves when attacked, but I won’t ask my girls to go looking for a fight. I won’t. If that means leaving this place and finding another, so be it.”
Ritter steps forward. “I’ll offer more,” he practically begs her. “I’ll offer whatever it takes to make things right and to convince you to help us. We need each other, whether you want it to be that way or not. I swear to you.”
Cassandra looks at him for the second time, and for the first time, she appears to really see him and not the aura he carries with him.
“It’s a price you couldn’t possibly pay,” she assures him darkly.
Ritter looks from the witch to Bronko. When he returns his gaze to Cassandra, the darkness in his eyes matches hers.
“Try me,” he says.